Category Archives: Stories

Chapter 129: Reframe

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Chapter 129: Reframe

“Let me see if I get what it means to be Leaf Juniper,” Dr. Sotala says. “If I may?”

“Please.” Leaf smiles. “If you do, you might be the first.”

He smiles back, then shifts on his couch seat to be a bit more relaxed, staring up at the ceiling with his hands gently folded across his chest. It’s a nice ceiling, with dim lights at the four corners and a painting of a starry sky. Leaf is positioned cross-legged on her couch, a position she’s found surprisingly comfortable since she tried it during her love-and-empathy-for-pokemon lessons at Sabrina’s school. Doing it on the couch is even more comfortable than doing it on the meditation cushion they had there.

“I, Leaf Juniper,” Dr. Sotala begins, “Believe that pokemon suffering is as important as human suffering. In practice I accept that humans have more intelligence and agency, and so have the ability to affect the world in ways pokemon don’t, but this power comes with a responsibility to be good caretakers of pokemon, the same way humans feel a responsibility to be good caretakers of children.” His gaze drops to her. “So far so good?”

“Yeah.”

His gaze rises again, hands steepling under his chin now. “With some exceptions, most people believe the suffering of human children should be reduced, in theory at least. Children are the ultimate innocent, and in most humans we have a part that believes deeply that innocence matters, and bad things should not happen to good or innocent people. It feels deeply unfair, and triggers our protectiveness.

“Many people do not feel this with pokemon, who are considered threats first… but they should, because pokemon are no more responsible for their actions than human children are, and so long as they’re made harmless, the acceptable amount of suffering for both should be equal. We can already see the potential for them to be treated equally, where just a few generations since pokemon could be reliably made safe, people often bond with them as pets and friends, or even consider them members of our families.”

Leaf nods along, thinking of the old woman in Pewter, decrying the “disrespect” people today feel for majuu. Much as she could understand many of her concerns, it does feel more than ever like lack of understanding is what leads to difficulty living well alongside pokemon, not too much knowledge about them.

But would she change her mind, if there was some fact she learned about pokemon that would reliably lead to people caring less about their suffering…?

“But there are still a lot of reasons why people allow pokemon to suffer. When the children’s suffering is out of sight, it’s harder for people to motivate themselves to act. But so long as they don’t see it, such as on meat farms, or they believe it’s necessary, such as for training, they prioritize other things. And if it’s pokemon living out in the wilderness, it’s just accepted as part of life… which is a whole other issue, but not relevant to the rest of it for now.” He looks at her again. “So far so good?”

“Yeah, I don’t think I would have summarized it that well myself if asked!”

“Great. Okay, so as an extension of all of the above, I, Leaf Juniper, believe that for most pokemon, life with a trainer who treats them as a friend or family member is better than life in the wild, even if used to battle wild pokemon. Because dying painfully in the wild is the default, they have a better chance of a longer, happy life with a trainer… even with the added risk of occasionally fighting wild pokemon. Right?”

“Right.”

And, the pokemon can do more good for others, both human and pokemon, if they help capture more wild pokemon, and generally defend against their attacks, since the better human society does, the more people are available to save pokemon from dying in the wild.”

Leaf blinks. “Huh. I… don’t think I’ve ever thought of it that way, but… no, it’s not wrong.”

“What would you have said instead, for why it’s okay to use captured pokemon to fight wilds?”

“That it’s like defending their family. Assuming the trainer is treating them right, of course, but this is what the initial training after being captured does in the first place, for most species.”

“This is part of why it bothers you so much, if trainers mistreat their pokemon.”

“Yeah. Pokemon can’t really agree to take the risks we ask them to take, but we’re also not really giving them a choice. We almost literally program it into them. To do that but then not care about them feels… pretty horrible.”

Dr. Sotala nods and strokes his red beard, face thoughtful… but not in a way that makes Leaf think he’s just putting on generic-thoughtful-face. It took her five tries to find a therapist who she not only felt both was a good match for her in personality and therapy style, but also seemed to take her beliefs seriously enough to actually help her think through them more clearly. This is their second session, and she reminds herself not to feel too optimistic—she had multiple sessions with some of the previous therapists before stopping—but she does feel like he seems to get her, at least, regardless of whether he agrees with her positions or not.

“And,” she continues, feeling a need to expand further, to make it clear that she’s not ignoring reality… “I know this is something like the best possible world we could be in right now. I know that the alternative to humans catching pokemon is that we just stay in barely surviving tribes, most people suffering and dying young, and pokemon are caught in an endless cycle of suffering and dying too. I do believe this is a necessary stage in getting to a better world. But we still have to own what we do, and I don’t see that ownership in most of society, or even most trainers.”

“Especially not from trainers who engage in battles with each other?”

Leaf bites her lip, thinking of Blue. “A lot of them just have different priorities. I’ve debated with plenty about whether fighting other trainers is necessary to better defend against wild attacks, but… while I wasn’t really convinced before, the renegades have changed things.”

“And so there’s a part of you, I mean me, Leaf Juniper, who believes any unnecessary suffering among pokemon is unconscionable, and a part of me that believes I should learn to fight renegades, but that belief requires me to train my pokemon specifically against other trainers, and I feel…”

“Stuck.” She swallows. “Lost.”

“Pulled between two opposing values?”

Leaf reflects on the words, then shakes her head. “I think I… do feel pulled more toward trainer battles, now. It feels like the thing I should do. But I don’t know how to, with the way it makes me feel when I consider it.”

“Like it would make you a bad person?”

“…maybe. I don’t know that I worry much about what a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person would do, though. I think I care more about how to be a good caretaker for my pokemon, a good friend, a good journalist… things like that.” She reflects a bit more, then keeps thinking out loud. “I don’t know if that’s enough. People can definitely be good friends or good journalists but ‘bad people.’ But if I try to think in terms of ‘what’s a good or bad person,’ I get, like, error signals internally, or… I don’t know, flashes of people sacrificing themselves for others, or kicking babies or something? Whereas I get more useful thoughts if I think in specific contexts.”

“Understandable. So the tension is between ‘what would a good caretaker do’ and ‘what would a good friend do,’ or possibly ‘a good citizen?'”

“Yeah, basically.”

“But not something like, ‘what would a hero of justice do?'”

She shifts in her seat. She can’t tell if the motivation is flattering or not, but she also doesn’t know if it’s true. “Is that… Do I seem like that?”

“I’m exploring, not trying to get you to admit something,” he says gently. “Journalists are often driven by an interest in justice. You’ve helped stop renegades twice. Does justice not feel like a motivation, here?”

She takes a moment to consider, to search inside the confusing mix of feelings that led her to where she is. “I do care about justice, of course. But fighting renegades isn’t… I’m not about to become a hunter, or an interpol agent, or anything. Things have come to an extreme point, and I want to be prepared to help, but it’s not something I feel passionate about.”

Do hunters feel passionate about their work? Probably. Hopefully? She can’t actually decide which seems better; people doing a job like that because they’re passionate about it, or because they believe if they don’t no one else will.

He watches her for a moment, maybe waiting to see if she’ll add anything more, before nodding. “You’ve described your symptoms when watching pokemon get hurt as a jittery, empathetic pain. It doesn’t happen as much if you watch footage, and it also isn’t some latent psychic power, since it happens when dark pokemon are hurt, and you don’t feel it as much when you’re in battle?”

“Yes to most of that, except… I don’t know if I’d say I don’t feel it as much when I’m fighting, but those situations are always serious enough that I just push through it.”

“Understandable. Then I have two questions.” He holds up a finger. “First. Earlier I said, as you, ‘unnecessary suffering.’ Last session we talked about—”

“Frames, yeah. It’s definitely a framing issue, I realized that a while back, when I tried to force myself to get used to seeing it happen. It didn’t work, but… I guess maybe I just didn’t find the right frame, yet.”

He nods, and holds up a second finger. “What happens if you just try anyway?”

“Try what?”

“A trainer battle. You said it feels bad to watch one. You said it feels bad even to fight wild pokemon, but you are able to get through it because the situations are dire, and you must. But that sounds like an assumption. What if you do not get through it because you ‘must,’ but because some other factor involved in the battle process counteracts the jittery pain?”

Leaf stares at him, and feels her pulse quicken just by imagining it. “I…”

“It is okay, if you are not ready to try.”

She shakes her head, then stops herself, unsure what she’s even indicating. She takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “I want to try. But just the thought of it feels bad.”

Dr. Sotala nods. “If you do decide to, we have things we can do to prepare you. As much as this may be in your nervous system, and you want to soothe it, we can try exposure therapy. We’ll start with basic relaxation exercises, followed by simple, minimal stimuli that you practice acclimating to while relaxing your system, before we move on to more real experiences.”

Leaf slowly nods, feeling herself relax just from the thought that maybe she can practice this as straightforwardly as working a muscle. “I’ve heard that a hundred hours thinking about how to solve a problem is often less valuable than a single experiment. It seems worth trying, yeah.”

“We can also explore different framing devices; I’m curious what happens if you watch footage of a pokemon battle, without knowing if it’s between trainers, wilds, or a trainer and a wild, and how your mind jumps from one conclusion to another, and how your body reacts to those assumptions, and what happens if you imagine different contexts instead.”

“I’d like to record that process, if possible. I think there are others it might be useful to.” Others she found, here and there, online, but mostly for Natural, who she knows has been considering something similar.

“Of course. And finally, we can do some parts work. We want to know what the stressful, debilitating part of you is protecting against, what it’s afraid of, and how you can reassure it that it will be okay… assuming we can, after listening to it more fully to ensure you’re not missing something important by trying to stop it from happening.”

Leaf slowly nods, staring at the ceiling. “I’ve been having trouble doing that last thing, so far.”

“Oh?”

“I… there’s a part of me convinced that all this isn’t just for helping pokemon or helping my friends or helping society. This part thinks I need to do this because I need to ensure survive.”

She knows he’s going to ask, Survive what? And then she’ll have to decide if she wants to tell him about the whole ninja thing. Even for therapist-client confidentiality, even though he lives in a region on the other side of the planet from Kanto, it still feels too risky to talk about it.

But instead he just says: “It feels too selfish, for you to accept it?”

“I’m not sure. None of my parts want to die, and if I wasn’t willing to risk pokemon’s lives to save my own, I wouldn’t have become a trainer. But it’s a step further than I was ever willing to take before, and I think I need to know this will actually be worth it, in some way, before I’m willing to make my pokemon take on extra pain for it.”

“If you put them through trainer battles and then never face a renegade, you’ve hurt them and your opponent’s pokemon for nothing?”

“Basically, yeah.” She likes that he recognized the hurt to the other pokemon matter to her too, not just her own. “And getting stronger to face wild pokemon isn’t enough, because I haven’t needed it so far. I won’t say there’s no lateral transfer of experience and skill, but…”

“A big part of your belief structure is that it’s not the optimal thing to do if you really just want to get better at catching wilds.” Dr. Sotala strokes his beard. “Ultimately, the skills gained from battling trainers is primarily good for battling trainers. But I looked into some of your friends, when checking your online presence. From what I gathered from some of his noted accomplishments, your friend Blue Oak seems to disagree with that.”

“Oh, yeah. I mean, he’s worked hard to set up different kinds of trainer battles, scenarios that are more like wild battles, so I think he gets that it’s a problem?”

“Nevertheless, do you think he’d agree with your position?”

Leaf shakes her head. “We’ve argued about it before, once or twice.”

“And you still disagree?”

“Yeah.”

“Could you sum up his argument, in a way you think he would agree with?”

Leaf opens her mouth to say yes, then stops. She frowns slightly. “I guess I… I mean I could philosophically. But not from a pragmatic perspective.”

“Then perhaps try speaking with him about it again? Or rather, try listening. Whether he’s correct or not, without the desire to convince him, you may be able to learn to better see the world as he does.”


Neutral ground.

It’s a phrase that has a powerful effect by the contrast it creates, and Leaf felt her stomach twist the first time she read it.

“…insisted the meeting take place on neutral ground, such as my Gym, which they accepted…”

“Implying, that places other than Fuchsia Gym might not be as safe?” she asks as she paces back and forth, Raff following her movements as if it’s part of a game.

“…will assure your safety, and believe they wish to reach some agreement… Yeah, not just you, that’s fucked up,” Blue says as he hands back her phone.

“Great.” Leaf sighs and sticks it back in her pocket as she looks out over the ocean. They’re on a plateau above Cinnabar Mansion, high enough that they can’t be observed or overheard but low enough that Leaf can make out the people below as they eat their lunch break. Picnics on the grass around the mansion have become something of an unofficial tradition for the project, which felt odd to Leaf given they all work for interpol, but she’s certainly not complaining. “I think I’d prefer it if you said I was being paranoid.”

A few clicks of her laser pointer send Raff bounding around and throwing razor leaves at the targets Leaf set up, while Maturin seems to be trying to knock a tree over using headbutts. Blue finishes mixing a vitamin supplement for his pokemon, then looks at Leaf. “You’re going, then?”

She realizes she’s biting her lower lip and stops. “If there’s a chance they might be willing to step out of the shadows, maybe even help with Rocket… yeah, I think I have to. They may even know who ‘Archer,’ is, or how to find him.”

“If Koga can’t convince them…”

“I think him getting them to show up is all he could do. It’s obvious they won’t go to the police or interpol without something more.”

Blue is silent, with the exception of a sharp whistle that makes Maturin blast water out toward her own targets. One gets knocked clean over, but the other is only winged, and spins in place.

“You think it’s a bad idea.”

“I think that I trust Koga and Janine, but I’d rather have more than trust. You need backup.”

“Anyone I bring would be putting them in danger too.”

“Is that supposed to scare me off, after what you said about wanting to help fight renegades if you have to?”

Leaf can’t help but smile, though she still tries to articulate why she’s averse to accepting help. “They’re not just renegades, they’re assassins.”

“Right, so we won’t drink any offered tea, and we should probably wear gas masks. What else?”

Leaf laughs, but Blue looks serious, and she nods after a moment. “You’re right. And I appreciate the support. Particularly since if it goes well… maybe I’ll stop feeling like going anywhere predictable is dangerous, and can actually attend your match.”

He grins. “Well it’s just this one and the next, so we really have to make sure it goes well then, since there won’t be many opportunities left for that. Speaking of which…”

“Right.” She turns back toward Raff, getting ready to call him over so they can get on with their battle… but instead just watches him play for a few moments.

Then a few moments longer, until finally Blue says, “It’s okay if you’re not ready.”

His tone is neutral, and he looks so serious, his whole focus on her. Aside from the occasional grumbling, especially early on in their journey, Blue has always been respectful about her not wanting to do any trainer battles, but his excitement was obvious, and a bit overwhelming when she finally reached out to him to see if he’d be willing to be her first sparring partner.

It’s one part flattering, and one part heartwarming, and one part nerve wracking, and also makes her stomach do weird things. She already had the talk with him that Dr. Sotala recommended, by messenger, asking him if he could point her to some of his writing or give her his best attempt at why trainer battles matter for people who only want to fight wilds.

He’d asked her to give him a couple days, even though she insisted it didn’t need to be too robust, that she wasn’t planning to argue with him, just to read and absorb. After three days sent a ten-thousand word long “outline,” and from there the conversation eventually moved to…

She smiles at him. “I don’t know how to tell if I am or not, but if all the exposure therapy hasn’t been helping in the real world, I want to know sooner rather than later. Let’s go. Raff, ready!”

“Maturin, ready!”

Their pokemon come to join them, standing opposite each other, and Leaf feels her muscles tensing even before she puts a hand on her pokeballs. Blue waits patiently across from her, despite the fact that she only has another hour before the break is over, and she’ll be back down in the excavated lab as they breach a few more sections.

Leaf takes a deep breath, like she’s about to leap into cold water, then yells, “Raff, Stun!”

“Gaw!’

Leaf flinches as the water hits Raff. Even though it was a weak attack, even though Raff shrugs the attack off fairly easily. Maturin gets covered in spores, movements slowing almost immediately, and Leaf reaches for an empty pokeball—

—then stops, remembering—

—”Gaw!”

“Dodge!”

“Gaw!”

Raff avoids the first, but not the second, and Leaf’s arm twitches to return him, even though that would be ridiculous, he can take more than this, he’s fine… he’s waiting for her to give him another command…

“Raz…V-Vine W…”

“Gaw!”

Dodge!”

“Gaw!”

She feels the jittering discomfort growing under her calm as Raff gets partially hit again, and knows she can’t just keep dodging forever…

“D-Toxic!”

Another blast of water, a spurt of powerful poison, and Blue yells, “Stop!” as he withdraws Maturin just before the purple goo can splatter over her.

“Stop,” Leaf yells back, needlessly, given her pokemon is just standing there, staring at the spot its opponent used to occupy. She rushes to spray Raff with a potion, hand shaking, while he beams up at her, and she can imagine him being elated at having defeated the big, scary blastoise that was threatening her, not even realizing she wasn’t in any danger. The big scary blastoise that was his friend for most of his life… Swords of Justice, why didn’t she think of that sooner?

“Could you re-summon Maturin?” she asks, voice shaking. She needs to see…

Blue’s blastoise reappears, and for a moment Raff tenses, and her heart leaps into her throat. But the “stop” commands did their work, and neither pokemon is primed to treat anything around it as an enemy anymore. Blue sprays his pokemon to remove her paralysis, and Maturin shakes herself, then looks around, sniffing, before she stomps toward the edge of the cliff, watching some wingull wheeling overhead.

Raff ambles over to join her, vines brushing through some grass on either side, and Leaf feels her muscles unclench one by one. Only then does she sag, falling to her knees.

Blue jogs over, and she waves him off before he even arrives, but he still crouches beside her, looking concerned. She finishes taking deep breaths until she feels the jitteriness fade. “Honestly… that went better than I expected.”

Blue’s lips quirk. “Does that mean you’re open to some feedback?”

“Lay it on me, coach.”

“You should attack more.”

She gives him a weak grin, which quickly fades. “I know. I got the two off, though.”

His look is negative-impressed. “I’ve seen you chain two attacks and a maneuver into a single command. I know Raff’s gotten less agile over the years, but two attacks to my five? You were holding back, hard.”

“Yeah.” She sighs. “I get that Raff could take those Water Guns. I get that Maturin could take Raff’s attacks too. It was still hard not to prioritize avoiding pain for either of them.”

“Mmm.”

“Go ahead, you can say whatever it is.” She shifts into a more comfortable cross-leg, leaning back on her palms as she watches Raff exploring Maturin’s shell with a vine until she growls and bats it away.

“Hm? Oh, not another criticism. I was actually thinking… your normal strategies are very status heavy, and normally I’d say, let’s lean into that. You know? If it’s how you like to fight, you can totally make it work. But the only reason you’re doing this is to fight renegades if you need to, and those strats… don’t work so well on them.”

This is the main reason she wanted her first battles to be with Blue, rather than her one of her other friends, or her mom, or even Red. They’d all be supportive, and Red could even sense how her pokemon were doing and convey that to her, which would be reassuring.

But Blue is the best battle trainer she knows, and he’s had experience fighting Renegades. She wants to learn more than just how to get through a trainer battle; she needs to learn to win, or she’s better off just staying out of them. “Yeah, I figured that out during the battle too… my strats are built around going for a capture as soon as possible.”

“Oh, that part’s fine, actually! I mean I appreciate you not doing that to Maturin, but it is an option against renegades.”

Leaf blinks. “Huh. Right.” She’s… worried about the damage it does to an already trained pokemon psyche, but… they’re renegade pokemon. Their best alternative is getting killed no matter what she does.

Just the thought of it makes her queasy for a moment, and intensely, deeply angry at Rocket and everyone like them.

Blue rolls Maturin’s ball in his hand. “Maybe we can adapt your style. You’re perfectly positioned to fight in a really unique way, and wanting to avoid direct damage will totally throw your enemies off. It might not be good for every circumstance, but it’s just spicy enough to take most people by surprise, and secure wins against even trainers strong enough to be on Victory Road, though maybe not Elites.”

She blinks. “Really?”

“Really. I’m even getting new ideas about how to pull some version of that off with my teams… but either way.”

The idea of developing a whole battle style around non-violent-capture interests her, almost enough to want to take out her phone and start brainstorming ideas. But…

“You said they don’t work like that, though?” Blue is right that against Renegades it would just be more wasted training. “Do you have any suggestions, then?”

“Maybe. But it won’t matter if you can’t do any attacks at all, so let’s try again. This time, your only job is to hit with at least two Razor Leaf attacks. I promise, she’ll be fine even if one hits a critical spot. Okay?”

Leaf takes a deep breath as she tries to internalize that assurance, then nods and gets to her feet. They square off again, and this time Leaf pushes straight for the goal. “R-Razor Leaf!”

“Gaw!”

The sharp, spinning leaves cut into Maturin’s blue hide, and she feels her heart ache even though the big turtle barely reacts. “R-…dod-Razor L-”

“Gaw!”

“Dodge!”

“Gaw!”

“R-” The word sticks in her throat, and she struggles to take in a deeper breath. “Raz…”

“Gaw!”

She winces as Raff gets hit again, unable to even shout for him to dodge, and can only force out a “Stop!”

“Stop!”

They both move to heal their pokemon, Leaf’s hands trembling, as Raff looks up at her with a toothy grin, and she feels her eyes tearing up as she strokes his head, then rises to help heal Maturin…

But she’s already fine, and Blue is walking over. “That was… oh.”

She sniffs and wipes at her eyes. “Sorry, I—”

“No, it’s fine, hey. It was progress, right?”

It didn’t feel like progress. She sits and rubs Raff’s head, and Blue just sort of stands awkwardly nearby until her pulse slows down, and she can breathe more easily again.

“Did I push too much?” Blue asks after a minute.

“No. This is pretty normal, for… escalating stuff like this.” She takes a deep breath, lets it slowly out. “My therapist said that ‘mental frames’ might be the most powerful piece of psychotechnology that exist, and might be the right path to try finding a way forward. But I’m having trouble finding the right one.”

“Frames, like…?”

“Like… you know how some people are taught to treat failure as a sign that they’re bad or weak, while others treat it as a learning opportunity? Or like, taking for granted that people mean well and just make mistakes, instead of assuming that anyone who hurts or disagrees with them is malicious.”

Blue nods and sits beside her. “Got it. People with a growth mindset will keep working to improve, while those who believe everyone’s limited by their circumstance gets stuck in place. But you’re on the right side of all of those, yeah?”

“I… don’t think it’s that simple, they’re not all good vs bad. Dr. Sotala said that people who are perpetually pessimistic may still end up right as often as not.”

“Well, sure. Life can suck pretty hard sometimes, often for a long time.”

She wonders if he’s thinking of his parents, or Red’s dad, or Aiko, or something else altogether. “Yeah. Which combined with availability heuristics or confirmation bias would reinforce their pessimism, while at the same time creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if their situation is just good enough to get by, and their environment is bad enough that taking risks has a low expected value, they avoid wasting energy on things that don’t succeed.”

Blue slowly nods. “So you’ve got a frame where you’re protecting your pokemon from being hurt, and that’s what it means for you to be a trainer. And a frame where you’re helping keep others from being hurt, but that requires letting your pokemon get hurt. And each of these frames does something for you, but they’re bumping against each other?”

“Like a pair of rampardos knocking heads.”

“Rough.” He pulls up some grass, lets it fall through his fingers. “We should definitely have Red come to the meeting.”

It takes her a moment to process the change of topics. “Really? You think it’s time to loop him in? I’ve thought about it, but… I think he might be the last person the ninja clan would want there.”

“He doesn’t necessarily have to know what’s going on. But him just being around lowers the chance they do something, and it means his bodyguards will be around too.”

“Ah. I think that would be a hard veto from them, but I guess it’s worth asking.” Leaf smiles slightly. “Is it as weird for you, thinking of him as this… force of danger, to others?”

“Yeah,” Blue says, voice low. “It’s not what he wanted. Not what he set out to be.”

“I’ve been feeling a bit left behind by both of you, to be honest.” Leaf feels embarrassed, admitting it out loud, but she knows Blue won’t laugh. “It’s a weird thing to care about, coming from me, I know. But for a while I thought I was holding my own with you guys… I mean obviously you’re stronger from all the battling you do, and Red’s caught up a lot from all his interpol training, but it still felt like my own training and battles with wilds let me at least fight in the same weight class. Then you guys just shot ahead of me, and I wonder if I should even bother with all this.”

Blue turns to look away, and doesn’t respond. It hurts, a little; she wasn’t fishing for reassurance, but she did expect it, somewhat.

“It’s fine, really, I mean it makes sense—”

“There’s something Red and I haven’t told you. About how he helped me train to beat Sabrina.”

Leaf blinks. “If it’s something private—oh.” She sits up, anticipation prickling up her spine like a jolt of lightning. “It’s… one of your guys’ secrets?”

“Yeah. So, remember the Dragon Dojo I spent some time in, back in Saffron?”

Leaf listens as Blue describes what he learned from Koichi about adverse improvement, and how being brought close to death before beating their opponents actually helps pokemon grow stronger, faster.

“You’re saying… what, unless I’m fighting wilds, my pokemon aren’t experiencing enough real danger to grow?” Leaf feels not so much shocked by the revelation as mildly numb.

“Basically, yeah.” Blue shrugs. “I mean, it is impressive how strong your pokemon have gotten without ever doing any trainer battles, but… I’m sure you know bulbasaur tend to fully evolve sooner than charmander or squirtle do. I know you train with your pokemon a lot, and just hang out with them most of your days, but…”

“I’m still hampering his growth,” she says, looking at Raff as he chews on some grass, or maybe a small dandelion bud, before spitting most of it out. “Is that… sorry, I’m stuck between trying to understand why you’re telling me this now, and noticing the implications, why you’ve kept it secret… why you kept it from me until now—”

“It was actually in part because you’re not dark or psychic,” Blue says apologetically. “But yeah, part of it was assuming you’d disapprove.”

She’s still absorbing the enormity of it, with no spare processing for her feelings, but… “Disapprove of making pokemon feel extra fear and pain than they normally would while fighting?” Ah, there’s the anger.

“Sort of, yeah. Though, Red says trained pokemon don’t really feel that much until they get really badly hurt? So what works about as well is just something like, ‘intensity.'” He runs a hand through his hair. “I’m going to say this badly, talk to him about it. But he also used words like ‘sharpness’ and ‘aliveness,’ feeling like every moment matters more. Worked nearly as well as the original feeling of being about to die… which, dunno, makes sense to me. You feel it too, right? The rush when things are dangerous? It’s not all bad, you know?”

She frowns, remembering all the confusing and terrifying experiences she’s had throughout the region and trying to focus on other aspects of the intensity. There was definitely something like excitement intermingled with them, and afterward in particular she’d get a rush of relief and… something like an ego boost from competence…? “Yeah. I guess I’d say the opposite, like it’s not really pleasant, but… not ever entirely bad? Except for Zapdos. And that time in the Rocket Casino.” When she thought they were all going to die. When she thought Blue might have already been dying, Red bleeding out… she shudders. “I don’t ever want to feel like that again.”

“Yeah. For me it’s Viridian, Vermilion, and at Silph. Feeling like I was helpless, like my friends were in danger and I couldn’t do anything. But other times, it’s… the battle calm helps with fear, but doesn’t stop me from feeling alive, you know?”

“Not really.” Leaf gives a wan smile. “But Red can do it now, and he can project that feeling into his pokemon even when they’re not facing real danger… and it actually helps them grow stronger, faster? You guys took measurements?”

“Yeah, data’s saved in our dexes. Anyone who sees Red’s numbers in particular would think, wow, he must be battling hard every day. And some of his training with Interpol would cover some of that, but he started a little before.”

“But not everyone can make such precise emotional states to project at any time.” She feels her hands clenching, and tries to relax them. “And Red started by doing the one he knew would work, just the feeling of being about to die. Right?”

“Yeah,” Blue says, and some of his earlier, almost apologetic tone has faded. “Might have made the difference, in Silph.”

She closes her eyes, trying to absorb this, but nods to show that she’s paying attention. “Sure. But… again, most people would be pretty careless with this, if they knew. Which I guess is part of why you haven’t talked about it…” Along with wanting to retain an advantage. She doesn’t say it because she’s not sure it’s true, and it would be terribly unfair to Blue. It’s also certainly not why Red wouldn’t have. “And another part is politics?”

He shrugs. “Maybe the public’s shifted on it, what with all the crazy things that have happened lately. But the way Koichi talked about it, people don’t usually like the idea. And I’ve gone around, asking some Leaders I trust, and of course Gramps. Sabrina claims she didn’t know beforehand, but her tests were ‘supportive of that hypothesis.’ Gramps also seemed surprised, but said it would fit some observations. Neither of them started shouting it from the rooftops.” His gaze on her is a little wary, a little curious. “Gotta say, bit surprised you’re not more upset.”

Leaf shakes her head. “I don’t want it to be true. But I doubt you and Red would be totally wrong about a thing like this, and I…” She wants to say she understands why he’d use it, particularly with Red’s help, though it makes her feel sad and frustrated at the world.

A feeling that grows the longer she contemplates it. Why? Why? She’s trying to create a world where pokemon are safer, where people care for their wellbeing… but not only are there natural incentives to eat pokemon, not only are there obvious incentives to use them for battle, but now there’s actually a beneficial reason to put them at greater risk, even if they don’t have to be? The universe just hands out more value if you’re willing to let your pokemon suffer for it, and everyone else who tries to learn and grow without pain, they just lose out?

“Fuck,” she mutters. For once society is choosing the don’t-spend-pokemon-suffering-like-currency option, but not necessarily for good reasons, just because they don’t believe they can… but if it becomes more obvious that it really works…

“Fuck,” she says again, louder, and stands, arms crossed over her stomach as a sick roiling goes through her at the thought of how people will try to take advantage of this. Of how people undoubtedly already do, in secret… “Fuck! What the fuck, Blue?”

He winces. “Yeah, there it is.”

“Ughhhh!” She presses her palms against her eyes, then lets herself slowly collapse down until she’s lying on her back, palms still covering her closed lids as her elbows stick out to either side. “Why is life like this?”

“Uh… I mean it’s probably something evolutionary, right? Red was going on about—”

“It was rhetorical, shut up, I’m venting now, this is venting time.”

“Oh, sure.” She hears him settle onto the grass beside her. “Vent away.”

“Thank you. Why is life like this? We’ve unearthed enough stuff in the lab to know they were doing some crazy stuff, but not enough yet to confirm anything! Were they growing completely new life forms, or are we just finding some other kind of genetic engineering failures? Were they trying to develop some kind of disease, or trying to counteract it? Or both! Were they maybe trying to create a disease to spread and then sell the cure? We still haven’t found the central specimen chamber, but between the three different sources of damage, wild pokemon, explosives, and earthquakes, it’s possible the pod room from the story would be the most completely destroyed.”

“Likely, even,” Blue mutters.

“Yeah. Yeah! So what, we just don’t get confirmation ever? All this was… not for nothing, Blaine and Looker are pretty confident there’ll be clues to who was behind it all, but living with this suspense about the hybrid has been one of many really stressful things lately!”

“I’m guessing the ninja clan stuff is the second?”

“Yes! Yes it is, I have no idea what they might want or how far they’ll go to get to me or even anyone I know, maybe? I’ve been living a pretty paranoid life lately, I don’t know how Red deals with it but at least he has bodyguards, though those probably drive him crazy too… and now this letter comes and I have to make a decision and ahhhh!

Ahhh,” Blue softly agrees, nodding. “You don’t have to do it alone, though, you know that, right? I was serious about what I said.”

“I appreciate it, but I’m not done venting yet.”

“Sorry, please continue.”

“Thank you. Also did I mention that there’s still a crazy psychic out there doing stuff we have no idea what and where and also of course there’s Rocket and also there’s all the pokemon out there who are suffering and my program is testing stuff in Safari and it’s going well but it’s all way above my ability to help with now and maybe if I didn’t have ninja assassins and hybrid pokemon to worry about I would put more time into keeping up with it and helping more but also…”

“…Also?”

“…there are probably other things but I can’t think of them right now.”

Blue nods. “Stormbringers might strike at any moment?”

She reaches out to pat his knee, then replaces her hand over her eye. “I support you worrying about that and will help if I can, but sorry, I’m one of those people that mostly forgets about them until they’re doing something.”

“I get it.”

“I’m sure there was something else though… oh, right, what started all this. Also I now have to fucking worry about another fucking secret that might cause more harm if it gets out and spreads… and uuuuughhhh! Grrrr!

“Ugh,” Blue nods. “Gr.”

She does another brief knee pat of appreciation. Blue waits respectfully, probably expecting more, and there are more, but they’re a bit more private, like her worry about Red… no, that’s not private, he’d share that one, more her uncertain feelings of maybe liking Red and maybe not and being unsure how to tell or what it means, if anything, or if she should do anything about it or keep waiting for him to bring it up, in a way she’s been waiting since their trip on the S.S. Anne but so much shit happened after that, and then just kept happening, even directly after other nice moments like the one on the way to the Rocket Casino…

…and also it’s harder and harder not to notice the way Blue has been growing, he’s nearly as tall and muscley as Glen now and he’s always been cute, but his personality never attracted her before, and also they have some pretty drastic differences in views…

“Venting over?”

“I guess,” she sighs, glad her cheeks are also covered.

“Sorry life’s been tough.”

“Thanks. I know you’ve been dealing with a lot, too here, I heard about all the new people coming, and the way you guys have been clearing out the danger zones…” Sometimes with methods that seem, to her, unnecessarily damaging to the local ecology, but if the rangers signed off on it then she hardly has as much local knowledge to argue the case.

“Things have gotten better, lately, yeah. But overall I’m dealing with less than you, I think. Just, you know, the usual small dreams.”

Leaf smiles. “Life’s not all bad, for me, I don’t want to give that impression. It’s nice seeing Mom and Grampa more often. And Mr. Sakai, the ranch… it’s going well. And I’m glad the Safari experiment has been progressing so much, they’re expanding more and more species for release experiments.”

“That’s cool! I was hoping we’d get the chance to go and help, but you know. Always something else to do.”

“Yeah. And I appreciate you helping with this, a lot, even if it doesn’t work out.”

“No problem. But as for that… I think I might have found an answer to your frame problem.”

Leaf absorbs this silently. After a moment to check and ensure her cheeks aren’t still warm,, she uncovers one eye and turns partway toward him. “Go on.”

“You’re treating pokemon like kids, though dangerous kids. Like you know better for them what they want and don’t want.”

“It’s hard to know what someone wants after they’ve been so thoroughly brainwashed.”

“I’m talking about something deeper than that. So like, our starters practically grew up together, you know? Raff and Maturin and Charmander—he really needs to name his pokemon—”

“—I know!—”

“—I don’t know if I should call him by his current evolution or his first—”

“—so annoying!—”

“—anyway, they went on all these adventures together, and they’ve been growing alongside each other, and meeting new friends like Pik… Pichu, and Joy, and Tops, and now they don’t travel together much but once in a while they still get to meet up and talk about their solo adventures.”

Her frown is half a smile. “Dial it back a bit, I know you don’t anthropomorphize them half as much as I do, and I don’t think they’re that human.”

“Hey, don’t be so sure. I think all my pokemon that fight hard, the really fierce ones who push through tough battles, share something like the pride of would-be-champions.”

“Oh.” His tone sets her aback as much as his words. “Sorry, I… that was pretty presumptuous of me.” Now she’s blushing again, for a different reason, so it’s fine.

He smiles. “No worries, I was playing it up a bit. You get where I’m going, though, right? Like at least I can see Raff being like ‘hey, what happened to these guys? Why are they so much bigger than me now?’ And sure, none of them ever fought before so he’s probably not wounded in his pride or anything. I don’t know much about their social structure, bet you’ve got a better sense of that than me, but… does Raff consider himself a strong potential mate or defender of his family, in your head?”

Leaf stares into the sky, feeling something odd inside. “You’re saying… I’m neglecting their growth. Not just their literal growth, but their ability to flourish. If pokemon evolved to grow by combat, serious combat, and their psychology is built around that too… my pokemon might actually want to fight?”

He shrugs. “We haven’t tested it on every species, but it does work on even pokemon who naturally avoid fighting like abra. It’s a bit hard to imagine wild caterpie or chansey missing the thrill of combat, but Crimson? Or your magmar, or nidorino? Any Fighting types? I’d bet on it.”

Leaf frowns and sits up, watching Raff use his vines to swat at some dandelions. “Maybe. But Raff is so… cheerful. Pikachu has always been really timid, even now that he’s gotten so strong. I guess I just have a hard time imagining them being stoked to fight, let alone nearly get killed, you know?”

“Maria was super timid when she joined up. She still pushed herself to battle a lot, and felt proud of herself for doing it, even when she lost. And Elaine’s gotten less… cheerful, or bouncy, or something, over time…” Blue’s face is hard for her to read, but she hears something heavy in his tone. “But I don’t think that was because of all the fighting she’s had to do, and she always brought that positive energy into her fights, even the ones against wilds.”

Leaf finds herself slowly nodding along, as some sort of shifting sensation spreads through her thoughts. It’s precarious, like balancing on her tiptoes on a fence, wavering back and forth, until she says, “I think… I want to try again.”

He grins and stands, then holds out a hand to pull her up. “You got it.”

Her cheeks warm again as she’s lifted up with a single pull, and a minute later they’re facing off again, Maturin snorting as she levels her cannons at Raff.

Raff, whose usual cheerfulness is hard to see in the fierce protectiveness he’s showing instead after her “Ready” command. Or maybe it’s not protectiveness. As she thinks about what Blue said, and imagines her ivysaur as someone who, if still wild, would need to battle regularly to survive… she’s always known that evolutionarily it would make sense that some pokemon at least enjoy battling, which is why Dark pokemon in particular have a reputation for being sadistic…

Well. It’s not so hard to imagine, suddenly, that maybe her cheerful, affectionate ivysaur gets something like fulfillment and purpose from intense battles, if not quite joy.

Her heart is still hammering as she imagines their pokemon tearing into each other with sharp leaves and jets of water, but she clears her throat and calls out, “Gonna start.”

Deep breaths… relax the muscles…

What’s my strategy?

Blue said tanky strats aren’t good against renegades. So… just offense?

No, stun first, again. Or sleep? No, less accurate, less reliable.

“Ready whenever!” Blue calls back, and she’s sure she’s just imagining the impatience, but it helps suddenly to think of her own pokemon as impatient as he occasionally darts quick looks back at her. Not scared looks, and not just protective ones.

More like… Come on, let me go. Let me show you what I can do.

She realizes, suddenly, that this is dangerous. This sort of narrative imagining could justify almost anything… it’s probably what Dr. Sotala meant by frames being the most powerful bit of psychotech…

But.

But she wasn’t doing that less, before. She wasn’t imposing her own narrative on reality less, when she assumed that pokemon wouldn’t get something meaningful or fulfilling out of fighting.

Just because she finds it unnecessary, just because she wishes the world didn’t contain that sort of thing… doesn’t mean her pokemon don’t have it in them.

She can’t assume they don’t any longer. She just has to observe each one, and see for herself how they are afterward, and do her best to help them flourish as individuals.

She breathes deep, one last time, and her voice does not shake as she yells “Stun Leaf!”

“Gaw!”

Raff’s bulb aims forward as he leaps, sending a cloud of spores at Maturin before his vines fling out a handful of razor leaves, and when he shrugs off the Water Gun that hits him a glancing blow in return, Leaf feels more than just fear or pain.

Chapter 128: Double Duty

Hey everyone! For those who haven’t heard, I’ll be at LessOnline in Berkeley at the end of the month, if people want to attend or come say hi. Looking forward to some fun activities I’ll be putting on with Alexander Wales, TK17, and maybe others. Hope to see some of you there!


Chapter 128: Double Duty

“I think… I should go too,” Red said, pushing past his indecision with a little nudge from his unpartitioned self. “Now that Looker is here, I’m kind of superfluous. And… I’m worried they might try something somewhere.”

He didn’t have to specify who they were. Looker just nodded. “It’s been on my mind. It’s what I would do; commit a series of attacks, draw everyone’s attention elsewhere.”

“I should get some rest,” Red adds. “Let Jensen and the others rest too, then continue my training. Make sure we’re all ready.” He turned to Leaf, heart heavy. “Sorry—”

She shook her head, chin high. “No, you’re right. You got them to come, got Looker here. It’s enough.” She suddenly stepped forward and hugged him. “Thank you.”

He hugged her back, squeezing tight as warmth filled him, even as the weight over his heart grew. “I’ll be back in a thought, if something happens.”

She gave him a smile, her small, playful one that showed her appreciation for the wordplay, and some of the weight lifted. He glanced at Looker and Blaine once more, then left the ruined mansion with Blue…


“Mr. Verres. Good to see you again… I have to say, I expected more emails than I ended up getting from you.”

Red shakes Brock’s hand and smiles. “Hello, Leader. I definitely intended to send some, but… well, the whole thing on Mount Moon kind of distracted me, and then I shifted my focus to—”

“The abra research, of course.” Brock hands him a pouch full of small stones. “And you’ve stayed focused on psychics ever since.”

“For the most part.” He doesn’t feel guilty, exactly, or like he should apologize for not being more interested in rock pokemon, but… “I really appreciate you taking the time to help now.”

“It’s nothing.” Brock’s face becomes serious. “Whether Pewter is ever in need of you or not, we’ve seen how hard you work to protect the region. I only wish I could help more.”

Red nods, feeling touched, and pockets the pouch for a moment so he can unclip a pokeball, a greatball, then an ultraball, summoning the rockruff out of each onto the rooftop of the Pewter Gym.

All three are fairly mature, heads rising to some point on Red’s stomach. He takes a moment to stroke the rough fur between the ears of the first two, and the snout of the third, enjoying the clear pleasure they get through his surface mergers with each. “Meet Jasper, Flint, and Roxy.” Red smiles. “The names came with them.”

Brock snorts, then crouches to let the dogs sniff his hands before he opens his own pouch of stones and starts to feed and stroke their ears or necks or backs. “Not from the same litter, though, looks like?”

“No. I guess the theme is hard for people to resist, though.”

“It is.” Brock finds a spot under Roxy’s chin that makes her wag her tail, and Red notes the way the Leader’s gaze is moving across her fur, fingers tracing the stony nubs at her neck, then moving down to feel the underside of her paws, deftly avoiding each claw. “Your email said you wanted to better understand their temperament, so you know what form of lycanroc to evolve them into?”

“Sort of. I think I want a day or dusk lycanroc, since… well, I’m sure the night form has its uses, but—”

“You’ve got enough choices for tough and strong Rock types, you want one with speed potential.”

“Exactly. The ‘dex says mixed things about whether the rockruff’s attitude matters before it evolves—”

“It does.” Brock snaps his fingers above the three pokemon’s heads, and drops a fleck of some gem or the other down for them to snap out of the air. “In the wild I expect the calmer rockruff to evolve during the day, the more vicious ones to evolve at night, and those in between to evolve during dawn or dusk. But it’s hard to say for sure if that’s how it works, since all our experience is with tamed ones, and pokeball training smooths out a lot of the edges. Trainers don’t often experience a variety of the same pokemon, and these days people will usually just look up strengths and weaknesses of each form, then just train with them at the right times to get that result.”

He picks up a faint sense of judgment from Brock’s mind, if not his tone. “Like eevee?”

Brock shrugs. “I couldn’t tell you if their personality matters as much. But trained lycanroc are less likely to play to their form’s stereotype than wilds, even the day forms.”

“That’s what I thought.” Red tosses a scattering of stone and gem chips and watches them race for their favorites, observing the way Roxy uses her body to block Flint, who nips at her legs, while Jasper dodges around both to get at a piece of glittering quartz. “It’s why I asked for rockruff, instead of just getting one already evolved. I could try to balance a night or dusk form’s mood out… or I could double up on it.”

“And?”

Red feels out their moods as they playfully fight over the mineral snacks, the sound of rocks crunching in three mouths filling the air. “Day,” he says, pointing to Jasper.

“Easily,” Brock agrees.

Red points to Flint next, who feels happy to tussle with the others. “Night?” Then Roxy, who’s more visually aggressive, but doesn’t seem to feel as excited to be. “…maybe dusk? Or maybe they’re both dusk, or both night. I know dusk is much rarer in the wild, so on priors they’d both be night, but these were the three I went with after merging with ten.”

“Your gift would be of more use here if they were wild, but it’s important not to confuse their temperament with their behavior.” Brock tosses some more bits of stone to the side, then points to Roxy as she watches Flint and Jasper run ahead. “See how she’s the one watching, now?”

Red senses it before she acts, the identification of Jasper as the easier target. Soon she’s muscling him out to get at the better bits, while he darts away, then back for some stones along the edges. “More adaptive.”

“That’s one way to put it. As I said, any of them could be made to evolve into any form of lycanroc. It’s just up to you to decide what kind of lycanroc you want, in more ways than one.”

Red looks at the three rockruff, mentally feeling out their different personalities. “I think I want dusk,” he says, feeling the words out, his certainty solidifying. “Not quite as fast, but it’ll still outspeed a scyther or darmanitan, while also hitting hard enough to maybe take a weavile down in one hit.”

“Sound reasoning. And the rockruff?”

“Roxy.”

Brock nods and stands, dusting his palm off on his corduroy pants. “Enjoy your time with her before she evolves. They’re just starting to lose their playfulness, and once they evolve…”

“Yeah.” Red knows he probably won’t have much time for that, especially since he’ll be packing all her training into the twilight hours… “Thanks again, for this.”

“Like I said, happy to help.” Brock studies him for a moment. “Not gifted, but seems like there’s something else on your mind?”

“I… yeah, a bit.”

The Leader doesn’t speak, gaze back on the rockruffs as he patiently feels through the bag for more stone chips, then tosses some more. Red does the same as he musters his courage, letting out a slow breath. He told Dr. Seward and Leaf he’d talk to Giovanni about this, but there’s no harm in bringing it up with others too…

“Not long ago, I was struggling with feeling… stuck, between how much responsibility I felt I had, and how much power I had…”


The wind and sun warred to cool and warm him as they stepped back onto the rest of the plateau, where the interpol workers were milling around the mansion. Some were collecting picnic blankets and cleaning, others were clustered in small groups, talking. No doubt waiting to hear if they’d need to pack up or should go back to work.

Red held a fist out to his friend, who bumped it. “See you soon, maybe?”

Yeah. Lots to talk about.” Blue walked over to where Ira and Wendy were standing, and Red turned to Jensen, who had a hand held to his earpiece as he approached, no doubt telling the other guards that they were on their way back. As Red watched, going over a quick internal checklist to make sure there was nothing he needed to get before he teleported, he also saw Looker leave the building, coat flapping in the wind.


“I know that feeling,” Misty says, voice wry.

“You do?”

“Sure.” She sends her starmie through another of the suspended hoops around the bleachers, and he does his best to guide his after it; the pokemon’s mind is among the weirdest he’s ever felt, to say nothing of its body, and he keeps being distracted by the way it flexes its arms as if it’s underwater, instead of floating through the sunny sky above it. What’s somehow just as distracting is the way it’s very aware of the “taste” of salt in the humid air; it makes Red simultaneously feel like he’s covered in sweat, and also like his mouth is open, tongue hanging out. “Every Leader does, I think. We take responsibility for a whole city, some outlying towns, sometimes a whole island, in Blaine’s case. But none of us can really defend that much territory, not personally and not through our gym members. Every death, every destroyed home, it’s like the universe reminding us that no matter how strong we get, it’s not enough.”

Red nods, struggling to maintain the merge with his starmie as his own past failures flash through his mind. He’s just barely able to sense the hostile intent from Misty’s starmie before it spins midair, and nudges his own pokemon to throw up a hasty Light Screen before the Water Gun hits.

The power is diminished enough that it feels like being hit by a strong breeze, which is such an interesting way to interpret the feeling of water that Red loses his concentration completely.

“Tag,” Misty says, and raps her knuckles against the bill of Red’s cap. “Back to the start you go. Drink break first.”

Red uncaps an energy drink and swallows a salty-sweet mouthful, grateful for the cooler keeping it icy cold. “I guess the Stormbringers make that even worse?” he asks as he sends an impulse to his starmie to dive back underwater, where the first ring in the obstacle course is set up.


His boss’s long strides closed the gap quickly, but Looker didn’t say anything as he approached. Just summoned his teleporter, and after Jensen did the same, they returned to the interpol base.

The rest of the bodyguards appeared around them in the time it took for Red to unstrap his abra from its backpack, feed it, and return it to its ball. Looker finished typing something on his phone, then said, “Good work out there, everyone. Get some rest… except for you.” Looker gestured for Red to follow, and the guards hung back so the two of them could enter the elevator alone. As soon as the doors closed, Looker said, “It’s time.”


“Obviously.”

The sky is dark with thunderclouds, though enough daylight shines through that, as Red looks out over Vermilion City, he doesn’t flash back to the night of Zapdos’s attack more than a couple times. “Sometimes it feels like it happened just a few days ago,” Red says, voice soft. “Other times… years ago. Like the start of my journey was more recent, somehow… I know that doesn’t make any sense.”

“It does, actually.” Surge sighs, slow and heavy. “The you that was here, he’s closer to some parts of who you are today… but in other ways, he’s also further. Sometimes further than the you that set out from Pallet Town.”

Somehow Red didn’t expect that level of insight from the Vermilion Leader, and he mentally kicks himself for forgetting that this was a man who had not just been through multiple Legendary incidents, but also a war. “How do you deal with it? The feeling of… knowing that if you don’t do more, then no one else will, while at the same time… you can’t think of anything else that’ll make a difference? And you can’t convince yourself that you’ve done all you can, because that’s the same as accepting that things will go badly, and—”

“And you can’t make yourself care less.”

It’s Red’s turn to sigh. “Yeah.” Or in his case, he could, sort of, but he doesn’t want to… which is probably the same, effectively, for most people.

“You’re asking the tough questions, Verres.” Surge gestures out at the city. “There’s half a million souls here, depending on where you draw the lines, and most of them are trying hard to make it through to the next day, come hell or high water. But at the end of those days, they know there’s someone above them who’s looking out.”

“You,” Red says, smiling slightly at the literalness of it, in this moment.

“Or Arceus, or Lance, or whomever.” He makes another gesture, like throwing something away. “Point is, it helps them sleep at night. There are watchers on the wall. There are Serious People gathered around a table, looking over charts and maps, making sure the next Big Thing is prepared for, and somewhere else there’s people looking over spreadsheets to make sure that no matter what happens, there’ll be enough food grown and harvested to keep them from having to think about where their next meal is coming from, so long as they keep going to work.”

Red feels a tickle along his cheeks, and brushes them a moment before he realizes it’s not his cheeks that feel them. “Hey, I think—”

“Yeah.”

They focus on their pokemon, standing on the rooftop across from them, on a plate of metal that’s wired to a grounding cable. Red’s pikachu has shifted onto his hind legs, ears twitching as he looks around, and Red shifts his mental merge away from Surge’s raichu to confirm that his own pokemon feels the same thing in his cheeks, though less acutely. He shifts again to merge with his magnezone, feeling the start of a headache as his pokemon’s weird, trinocular vision paints the world in vivid hues of electromagnetic fields…

…one of which is gathering intensity…

“The potential energy is almost always there, though it’s harder to pull out in most conditions.”

“I feel it,” Red murmurs, merging with Surge’s raichu again and rubbing his cheeks as the tingling grows.

“Ear plugs in, then, and close your eyes.” The last thing Red sees from the corner of his vision is the Leader taking a deep breath and sticking two fingers in his mouth, and then Red hears a whistle, sharp and loud, and feels through the Raichu, the grasp and fling and twist—

Only the minimal nature of the merger keeps Red on his feet; even as the world lights up it feels like he’s temporarily dunked under a waterfall, or what he imagines a waterfall would feel like, except instead of water, it’s energy, bursting over him and outward—

—only to get caught, sucked away…

“Gaahhh,” he breathes out, barely able to hear himself through the ringing in his plugged ears. He’d felt the thunderbolt, in more ways than one, and though he withdrew his merger, he still feels like his body is charged with electricity. He realizes he’s sagging against the railing, and a strong hand is holding his chest to keep him from slumping the rest of the way down.

Red braces his feet and lifts himself back up, then shakes his head and unplugs his ears. The first thing he registers is Leader Surge’s chuckles.

“Gotta say, of all the reasons to wish I was psychic, being able to feel that’s gotta be near the top, for me. Did you get it?”

“I gh—” Red clears his throat. “I got it.”

“Show’s yours, then. Remember what I said…”

Red nods, then puts his earplugs back in and merges with Pikachu. The deep familiarity makes the feeling of his whole body being charged return with a vengeance, and he has to stop himself from scratching at his fur… his skin… before he reaches out with his electric senses, feels another pathway for the energy to go down, connects it the way he remembers the raichu did it…

Another blast of light and sound, another feeling like his whole body has broken down into vibrating atoms before reconstructing…

When he’s recovered, Surge’s hand is clapping on his shoulder again. “Picking up skills that quick is definitely still higher. Nicely done. Next, the magnezone.”

“Yeah,” Red pants, then takes a deep breath as he tries to slow his racing heart. “One sec…”

“Right, right. No rush. What was I saying, before?”

“Huh? Oh.” Red rubs at his cheeks, then his neck. “People trusting in those above them?”

“Yeah. We all do it. Even me, even Lance. It’s an illusion, sort of, but it’s also not. There’s no one above, making sure all the little bits line up perfectly, but we’re all doing our bits. Some bigger than others, sure. But none of us, not one of us, could do it all alone. Right? I trust Lance to watch for distant threats, bring the hammer down where it’s needed. Lance trusts us Leaders to manage our turf, let him know if there’s something bigger we can’t handle. Civvies trust us and the rangers to keep them safe, we all trust the civvy side to keep the food and medicine and balls coming. Someone in my city wants to make a difference for Vermilion? I say, great. They’re one in half a million. Can they do one in half a million’s worth of the work it takes to keep things going? Make the stuff we need, fight in some incidents, be of service to others? Everyone’s got something they can do, and it takes half a million people to do it all.”

Red just listens, catching his breath, regaining his balance, both inside and out. Across the gap, Pikachu is running around in circles, burning off spare energy.

“Not half a million, really, a bit less. There’re babies, elderly, and sure, some have more education, more resources. So say one in 400,000’s worth. Can they do that? Great. They’re doing their part. They want to do more? How much more? Ten people’s worth? A hundred? A thousand?” Surge shakes his head. “I can do some things no one else can do. Sometimes, that’s worth a lot. Maybe in the long run, it’ll be worth everything for this city. Maybe even for this region. But most days, I’m only one man. I do one in 400,000’s worth. Pokemon attack happens, I do more. On a good day, I can do what another five veteran trainers can. If there’s some other issue, like a food shortage? I do less than one in 400,000’s worth. Maybe I’d try my hand at fishing, shock a lake and pick up all the dead ‘karp. But someone else could think of that. We all have our strengths.”

Red turns to Surge and finds the Leader is looking at him. “You, you can do something no one else can do. Most days, you’re just one man. You do what one man can do. But the other days, when we need you, you’re worth twenty, thirty, maybe fifty veteran hunters. Maybe you also solve some big science question once a year. You’re one person in billions, and if you do just those things, you’re doing far more than your part.”

Red swallows past the lump in his throat. “And if it’s not enough?”

Surge shrugs, turns back toward the city. “Then we weren’t enough. Us, the region, or the world. Maybe you didn’t give it your all, and let us down in some way. But we’re the ones asking you to do more than one person’s work. The ones who need you to. And that means we let you down first. So buck up, kid. Don’t give up on looking for new ways forward, better ways to help, but give yourself time to rest, body and mind. I don’t blame you if you don’t trust us to pick up the slack; the world needs saving from a dozen different directions, and most of us aren’t standing where we need to hold the line at any of them. But you want to do more than one man’s worth, full time? You’d better get good at convincing others to stand with you, because that’s the only way I know for people to consistently make a bigger difference.”


Time for… what?”

Time for us to stop ignoring your true potential. The only thing keeping you from being the greatest spy on the planet is everyone knows what you look like. That and you’re a terrible liar.”


“People like you will always struggle to convince others to stand with you.”

Red blinks at Erika, who said it like she’s commenting on the weather. “Why?”

“Because you care about different things than they do.”

Red tries to take this seriously, frowning as he sips his tea. He’s aware of a defensive response in him, a desire to dismiss or point out the ways his desires are altruistic… he wouldn’t be in this mess, in many ways, if they weren’t… but…

“I get that most people don’t care about science research,” he slowly says. “Or like, not really, not beyond being vaguely glad someone is doing it somewhere, or interested when it specifically is relevant to their life, or makes something useful for them. And I know my major scientific interests aren’t the kind that would affect most people’s lives… and the things I’ve actually accomplished have a mixed record, for how happy people are with me.” It’s hard to admit that, but not as painful as it once was.

“Good.” Erika sets her tea cup down, then rises, and he follows suit. “Keep going,” she says as she leads him away from her personal pavilion and toward one of the grooming sites.

Red adjusts his pace to match her more leisurely one, walking silently beside her as she pauses to chat with the occasional trainer or gym member, smell some flowers, or just pull a small pair of scissors from some pocket in her sleeve and trim one of the various plants they pass, holding onto the bits and occasionally smelling them before dropping them into garden plots with young plants growing in them. Her kimono is bright white today, with a pattern of pink vines and leaves embroidered on it, and he wonders if it would be rude to ask, as someone not part of her gym’s culture, what it signifies.

“I think when it comes to Rocket, I’m on the same page as almost everyone else,” he says as they reach the grooming tools. She picks a few off the rack and table, and he takes one of each. “Unless you mean something like, the way I fight, what I am, what I represent for psychics in the region, or the world…”

“All those things, and more.” Erika lays her tools out on one of the table-edges of a wide, dirt-filled pot, then summons a young ivysaur. She rubs its head, then hefts it into the pot before taking the cushioned seat beside it. “But to put things in more concrete terms, the sets of problems you care about may overlap in some way with the sets of problems most civilians do, but my guess, without knowing you particularly well, is still that they do not prioritize in anywhere near the same order.”

Red summons Ivysaur, mentally greeting his pokemon with a merger and head rub that also checks for any biological needs, then sends him an impulse to jump onto the chair, then the wide table-pot. Red’s height growth has also coincided with growing some lean muscles that could let him lift Ivysaur up, but his pokemon has gotten big enough that it wouldn’t be comfortable for either of them. “I think I don’t know how to take that. I care about them not dying to renegades, or wild pokemon, or at all if possible…”

“That, right there, is the sort of thing I mean.” She picks up a spray bottle with some green tinted water, and mists her ivysaur’s skin. “Most people don’t spend most of their time thinking of the ways they might die. They spend most of their time thinking of the ways they want to live, and struggle to. They prioritize the set of problems directly in front of them, not the ones that may or may not affect them at all in a year or two or ten.”

Red frowns as he mimics her motions. “I get that, I think. I mean it makes sense that they do that, but if someone comes along and says ‘Hey, there’s this important thing that will likely affect all of us, let’s work together on it’…”

“You believe it should work because you do not emotionally grasp their lived experience, where many people say similar things to them constantly, and none of those things feel as relevant as the ones that do, no matter how trustworthy the person saying it is. Politicians who hope to be at all successful quickly learn that their job is to represent the interests of their constituents, which means they must prioritize the things their voters care about if they want to stay in office… or pretend to well enough.” She shrugs a shoulder as she puts the spray down, then opens a pouch full of strange berries Red has never seen before, carefully counting out a few. “The line a far-sighted, altruistic politician must try to walk involves balancing these things with the ones their constituents are not aware of, or do not care about.”

“I’m not trying to be a politician.” Red counts out the same berries, then pauses. “Should I be feeding him more than yours?”

Erika smiles. “Yes, good. Half again as many, I’d judge. He could take more, but it’s his first time, and this will make him mildly sick for a while.”

Red blinks and examines the berries again. “Poison, to strengthen his?”

“Not quite. They will make his plants hardier against extreme heat or cold.” She patiently holds them out to let her ivysaur sniff them before it starts to eat. “I won’t argue with questions of identity. Whatever you consider yourself, politics is the art of group coordination. If you want to convince others, particularly those with different information or values, to change their actions or beliefs in some way, you are engaging in politics whether you know it or not… particularly if your efforts run up against other interests.”

“But…” He tries not to say it is in their interests, mulling over what she said about priorities again, and not just matters of trust, which is easier to acknowledge and doesn’t make much sense to expect. He considers mentally nudging Ivysaur to start eating, but instead lets him take his time. “Okay, I guess it’s… not actually other people’s priority that I feel responsible for their wellbeing, and even if more cooperation could help with that, they could just say ‘no thanks.'”

“Especially if it’s not just cooperation, but power you seek. Which you may not.” He feels her brief assessment, both from the flick of her eyes and the mental pings that come through her constant attempts to shield her deeper thoughts. “But—”

“They don’t know that.”

He can feel that it irks her to be interrupted, but she doesn’t let any of that show, and before he can apologize she’s already speaking again. “Yes, but also, again, their priorities are not your priorities, which means your gaining power will be fundamentally suspicious to many. Some deride minorities who prefer one of their own to politically represent them. After all, do we not live in a post-ethnic society? Could anyone not understand the same issues and challenges, and work equally hard for them? But the reality is that for most people, sharing experiences does shape common understanding and care, and any group that is not represented by others is going to have unique struggles. And since time and resources are limited, a society by default will only address the concerns that most members in it have.”

“Which means putting off the concerns of those with other problems… maybe continually, if new problems keep coming up.”

“As they do. Reasonable? Yes. Efficient? Certainly. But the lived experience of those whose issues are not prioritized is that they are not cared for, their concerns dismissed.”

Red thinks of the way dark people have faced discrimination in Kanto and Johto, and wonders what might be in store for psychics as soon as Rocket is gone. Ivysaur finally starts to lap at the berries, eating two or three at a time from his palm, and Red’s other hand strokes his leathery head, feeling vaguely guilty that his pokemon will feel sick as a result of this, even if it’s for his own good.

Is it? Leaf asks in his mind. He wouldn’t need to face extreme cold or heat if I don’t put him into battles…

“So maybe I should… adjust my feelings of responsibility, to only those people who agree with me the most, and share my values?” He frowns. “But that feels… I don’t know. Callous, in some ways, or too pessimistic. Too tribal.”


Red’s stomach sank as he hurried to keep up with Looker’s long strides. “Director Tsunemori—”

I already messaged her, she’s on her way. I expect she’ll have her piece to say, but the game has changed again, and if she doesn’t see that she’s a fool or compromised, at best.”


“It is good to expand our perspective beyond the tribes we are born into,” Koga says, voice slow and thoughtful. “But if your solution to the lack of power is to gather other, like-minded people who are dedicated to this idea of responsibility to all, even those who do not wish for their help… a ‘tribeless tribe,’ if you will… I’m curious what you believe would happen to them?”

Red tries to imagine a group of people all working together to help everyone… “I guess it depends on how people view them? If they do well, and get support… I’d hope it would get them more resources and support, maybe get more people to join them. Kind of like CoRRNet, or Interpol.”

“Good comparisons.” They watch as Red’s glimmora rotates just above the ground, sending toxic bits of its hard shell out in bursts as its body opens and closes to propel it through the air. It’s pretty, shell glimmering purple and teal in the evening gym lights. “The first, however, has its members focus on a particular location, much like gym members. Those higher up are responsible for broader areas, and at the very top is someone who no doubt feels responsible for events in every developed region… but they are still, ultimately, a secondary power in each, negotiating and cooperating with local Leagues.”

Red slowly nods as he examines the arena through his pokemon’s strange gravity sense, then sends it an impulse to spin through the spikes it just made, reabsorbing them into its petals. “They can’t take responsibility for more because others claim responsibility for it already. And… Interpol agents are wide in geographic responsibility, but have a very narrow mission focus.”

“Just so.”

“It does help when I feel like I can just focus on a particular kind of emergency, and others aren’t mine to solve. And it helped to get more control over what I was doing with my time, more of a sense that I could say something and be listened to. But…”

“Your friends are still focusing on those other problems, and you want to help them.”

Red looks at Koga in surprise. “Uh, yeah. That’s true, and definitely part of it, but… not what I was thinking of.”

“Ah. My apologies for interrupting.”

It’s hard to read the Fuchsia Leader, even on top of him being dark. “It’s okay. The thing I was going to say is, there are still other things I want to do, other things I care about, and I don’t know how to help with them. And I don’t have time to figure it out, because all my energy is going to these other things that also matter, and no one else can do… and sometimes it feels like the better I do at one part of it, the worse it makes some of the other problems.”

Koga snaps a finger, and his garbodor sends out more poisonous debris. The stink is bad enough that Red wishes he’d put his air mask on, but it fades quickly once he sends Glimmora spinning around the sandy arena again, pulling everything into itself. “And so you feel you need the support of others, to accomplish all your goals at once. To cover each of the things you feel responsible for.”

“It’s just an idea. If the responsibility I’m taking on requires more than one person can do…”

“Sounds like a suggestion Surge would make,” Koga says, and lets out a humorous huff. “Not that this is a critique. But to ask someone to help others is to ask them, to some degree, to expose themselves.” He gestured to himself. “Leaders are not warlords, and part of that means we can cooperate for the betterment of our region. Regions are better off through cooperation as well, and sometimes may merge, as Johto and Kanto did. But whatever they may be willing to help other regions with, they must still limit their sense of responsibility, and focus the majority of their energy and resources on their own people… or else those people will suffer for it. Do you understand?”

“I think so. You mean they’ll be outcompeted?”

“Perhaps.”

Not a no, but also… “Also… it’s not just the suffering, which is bad for its own sake. You’re saying it’s unsustainable. It would lead to unrest, and replacement by someone who promises that they will focus on the problems of the people.”

Koga nods, gesturing at their pokemon. “A pokemon can be strong, an organization robust, a motivation passionate… but all of these things count for little, if they are not sustainable. The unique value of Poison pokemon is the ability to play for the long game. The reverse of this virtue is to ensure your own plans cannot be defeated by simply being outlasted.”


Red tried to think of what triggered this. The leak? Or something they found that Looker pretended was innocuous? “If I try to spy on Blaine—”

I left Blaine in charge of a whole dig site full of agents, not to mention your wildcard friend Juniper, and made it look like a concession.”

Red mentally tripped over the idea of Leaf being described as a “wildcard,” and wondered what Looker was referring to. “Then who—”

Everyone else in the League.” Looker’s words came out as hard and sharp as his heels striking the ground. “Whether Blaine is complicit or not, his arrival has to be taken as enemy action. We’re up against the clock now, and wherever the rot in the League is, we need to find it, before they can throw something else at us.”


“Stop,” Giovanni says, and Red lets out a gust of breath before vaulting his platform guard rails and rushing over to heal his claydol where it lies on the packed-dirt arena floor. “Better than your nidoqueen, and xatu, but not by enough. What did you learn?”

Red sprays his pokemon’s earthy body, watching as its weird biology starts the repair process of the clay shell protecting its soft innards. The first response that comes to mind feels irreverent, and he almost suppresses it, but he’s frustrated enough that he lets it out: “That overwhelming power matters more than strategy?”

He can see Giovanni’s small smile, even from the distance of the arena. “True.” The Viridian Leader doesn’t even bother healing his rhyperior. “But don’t shirk responsibility. Any trainer using Ground pokemon who doesn’t teach some a move like Smack Down doesn’t deserve their belt. Any trainer facing trainers with Ground pokemon should expect it, rather than hoping a Flying or levitating pokemon will save them the worst of what their opponent has.”

Red finishes healing his pokemon and reconnects with its mind. The owlish statue-like pokemon spins and trills as it psychically lifts itself back into the air… for all the good that would do it, when Giovanni’s pokemon knocks it to the ground with another well aimed rock. Unlike glimmora or magnezone, whose “unstable” levitation would get disrupted by any sort of Ground attack, Claydol is constantly, psychically lifting itself up and away from the ground by default, which should have made it a great choice against Giovanni… “I still should have been able to outspeed you. That rhyperior is absurdly quick.”

“It is what it needs to be to deal with what is likely to be sent against it. While on journeys, most trainers do not have the luxury to train their pokemon precisely. Unless they spend lots of time or money focusing their growth, their belt gets filled with generalists.”

And generalists will almost always lose to specially trained pokemon, used by a trainer who understands their strengths and weaknesses. “I’ll keep that in mind, now that I have so much spare time and money.”

“See that you do.” Giovanni’s tone lightens. “There’s a broader lesson.”

Red rubs the back of his neck, replaying the way Giovanni gave commands like they were rote, not reacting to anything that happened in the short match. Like nothing Red did required him to… react, at all. “I was too predictable?”

“You picked a levitating Ground pokemon, rather than a Flying Type, because you knew to fear Rock attacks. You brought a pokemon whose attacks would be both Super Effective to some of the commonly paired types, and could get around Ground pokemon’s tough hide. All good decisions, but yes, all predictable to someone who models you as well as I did.”

Red stares at Giovanni, unsure how much to stretch his credulity. “You’re saying you trained that rhyperior specifically to outspeed any Levitating Ground types?”

“No.” Another small smile. “You’re correct to doubt that, as it’s not possible, not against a serious opponent. I would never have had a chance to outspeed a flygon. But Psychic and Dragon have about equal coverage against most strong Ground secondary types, and…”

“And I’m a psychic,” Red sighs. “So of the relatively strong Ground pokemon who can properly levitate, you expected I’d focus on a Psychic dualtype rather than the Dragon one.”

“Correct.”

“And… even if I brought a flygon, I bet your Rhyperior has Frost Fang.”

Giovanni spreads his hands, then clasps them behind him. “Again?”

Red nods and heads back to his podium, then realizes Giovanni still hasn’t moved. “You won’t heal your rhyperior?”

“She can take a few more of those.”

Meaning Giovanni is confident that Red won’t win by just trying the same thing again. He grits his teeth, wondering what else he can do…

He’s been training with most of the Leaders every few days, but Giovanni was the quickest to jump from mentoring him on using Ground types well to just straight battles. He knows he’s incredibly lucky to have this much focused training with the ex-Champion, not to mention the other Leaders, but… it does make it harder to talk about what’s been on his mind…

“Something wrong?”

“I had a thought, about ‘heroic responsibility.'”

Giovanni nods. “Can you talk and battle at once?”

“I…” He wants to say yes, to not disappoint, but maintaining a mental merger for a battle is disorienting even if it’s a pokemon that’s similar enough to a human, which claydol is very much not. “No, not for a conversation like this.”

“Food, then.” The Leader says, and withdraws his pokemon before taking the stairs down to the arena floor. Red returns his claydol and joins him, following as they make their way back toward the elevators. “Your question?”

“Basically, it’s… how do you balance doing as much as you can with doing it sustainably?”

“Partly trial and error. Learning what drains you and if it’s possible to outsource it, learning what recharges you and making more time for it, these are important gains of experimenting with different methods.”

Red nods, and fiddle with his cap as they step into the elevator, wondering if they’ll eat in the Leader’s office or go out somewhere. Weird as it is spending time so casually with so many important figures, Giovanni raises it to a whole different level, but thankfully is also the most assertive in keeping their time spent efficient and productive. “Have you ever given up on something, once you decided it was going to be a thing you helped, or a group of people you’d save?”

Giovanni is silent a moment, then shakes his head. “No. Not really.”

Red stares at him. The leader’s short hair seems freshly shaven, barely more than a dark pattern against his scalp, and he looks like he’s been sleeping well. Still burning with purpose, so that even a few moments in the elevator together makes him radiate something like reserved impatience, but less tightly wound. “I was really expecting you to say ‘yes, of course,’ and then give some speech about how people learn to accept their limits over time, or something.”

“Sorry to disappoint.” Again that brief, small smile. The elevator opens, and Red sees they’re on the ground floor. Looks like they are eating out. It seems so… inefficient, given his model of the Viridian Leader. “I’ve made mistakes, perhaps even catastrophic ones. It remains to be seen if, on balance, all my work will have been a net positive. No amount of failure has made me feel less responsible.”

“Oh.” Red can’t even begin to imagine what sort of measuring stick Giovanni is using to judge his work, if that’s how he feels about it. How must he view others, by comparison? Do people outside of Bill or Professor Oak (if even him) all seem like struggling toddlers, to him?

“I’ve been told there’s a good Kalosian restaurant not far from here, if you’d like to try it.”

“Uh, yeah, that sounds great.” Red follows Giovanni through the lobby, then out into the street. Jenson is waiting at the door, and gives Red a look, to which he returns a shrug. “So do you just… not feel bad, if you fail to save something you care about?”

“I can’t tell you how everyone balances the things they care about,” Giovanni says as Red’s head bodyguard starts to follow them. “Minds operate differently from one another, sometimes vastly so, and I would not want you to hear my answer as an insistence of how you should or must feel too. Agreed?”

“Agreed.” He wonders as they walk down the sidewalk if the Leader goes out to lunch at local places often, and tries to focus. “I know my mind definitely doesn’t work like others’.”

“Fair. Then, to put it simply, I do feel bad when I fail, as I believe we’ve discussed before, in a different context. But all the things I care to protect, they’re part of a whole. They’re not distinct things, which individually can make or break my sense of whether I’m succeeding or not. I don’t try to balance a tray of delicate pottery, then mourn the vase that falls. Not because nothing can be broken beyond repair—true loss is real, and worth grieving. But because the thing I care for, in truth, the full extent of what I take responsibility for, is the world. The future of humanity itself. Not lone responsibility, I know I am not that capable. But it’s all the same, in some sense that is hard to describe, but feels nevertheless true.”

Red does his best to wrap his head around this, and briefly wishes he could do a mental merger with Giovanni to feel it from the inside. He almost suggests it…

…but no, that would be terribly presumptuous, and invasive…

…he feels an urge to ask about more specifics instead. “How does that play out, practically? I know you do a lot more than run the gym, but… aren’t there some things you wish you could focus your time and attention on, but can’t because of duties no one else can do?”

“Often. But you could imagine it, I suppose, like weaving a tapestry. A long, detailed tapestry that will take many years to finish, being spun automatically even if I do nothing. If I don’t get enough of it right along the way, perhaps the whole thing will feel ruined. But for the most part, a few blemishes here and there, some mistakes in the weave, they’re inevitable. My eye is still on the end, the point where it all is either worth the effort I put into everything that felt important, or might be, or… not.”

“I think I get it, but it’s a little weird imagining what that’s like,” Red says, smiling slightly. “Like I could say it sounds like you’ve taken responsibility for the forest, so individual trees stop mattering—”

“A fair analogy, I believe.”

“—but it also sounds like you’ve just taken so much responsibility for so many things that you’ve, like, transcended into some new evolution of what Heroic Responsibility could look like.”

Giovanni’s smile is wry, but warmer than most of his expressions. “As I said, different minds are different. But I hope this was helpful in some way, to you.”


Looker is waiting for Red when he returns from his meeting with Giovanni. Or rather, Looker is by Red’s cubicle, looking over the digital calender stuck to one wall. “You need to clear your weekend.”

“Hello to you too,” Red says as he slides past and sits down, then slides a finger across the calender to sync it and make some edits. Ooo, Blue’s finally got a Challenge match coming up with Blaine… “Also, what weekend?”

“Yeah, yeah. You can take an extra day after, but Agatha got back to us and said she’s up for a meeting.”

Red perks up at that, despite his tiredness. “I expected I’d go through some of the Leaders a second or third time before having a session with an Elite. But we have met already, a couple times…”

“Well, I’ve got less expectation that you can get into her head than Sabrina’s, but good training is good training.”

Red stares at him, wondering what he’s talking about…

…then feels his partition drop…

…and the other partitions, the ones holding his memories of his observations, assessments, and even mergers with the Leaders as he met with them all.

It takes a few seconds for the streams of memory to flow and merge, and he takes a deep breath as he returns to his full unpartitioned self again, then lets it out.

There’s a small sense of shame over what he’s doing, from the vestiges of his partitioned self. Or rather, the model of what his partitioned self would feel, if he knew.

But he’s getting valuable information, and it’s something he can control, something he can do that might really make a difference.

Looker is watching him, sipping a cup of coffee as he waits for Red to recollect himself. “Anything?” he finally asks.

“Maybe,” Red says, reviewing some of his memories. Odd looks, from Erika and Koga. Subtle mental reactions, from Erika and Surge. And something that might be personality changes, in Koga and Giovanni… “Maybe not. Next few meetings might give me something more concrete to follow up on. But as usual, I got some interesting advice and training.”

Looker grunts. “I’ll take it. Keep up the good work.” He claps Red on the shoulder, then heads off.

Leaving Red looking after him in surprise, then turning back toward his desk, setting his guilt temporarily to the side. Notebook out, attention on his body, he begins to re-examine his memories, and how they made him feel, one by one.

Chapter 127: Tests

Chapter 127: Tests

Blue makes an effort to slow down just before he walks into Cinnabar Gym’s coordination room, taking a breath and doing his best to shed any frustration or anxiety from his body language. There’s a knot in his stomach, a restless, jittery heat in his limbs, but by the time the door closes behind him he feels at least a little more like he’s stepping into a battle arena.

The room is dimly lit so that the various monitors on the walls easily stand out, and so the 3D hologram of Cinnabar Island being projected above the central table is vibrant and crisp. Normally the room would have a mix of gym members and rangers, but other than Chase the rest of the people in the room are “his” crew. Friends who flew or ferried over from all over Kanto, when he put out the call weeks ago. Friends who are relying on him to have a vision, to know what he’s doing, and he pulls those expectations around him like a cloak, reminding himself of all the things he’s done to earn their trust, until he feels even more fully in control and confident.

He raises his hand in greeting when people turn toward him, then wanders from one part of the room to another, listening to each group as they work, as he normally would. Elaine and Marcus are sitting face to face on their computers, while Glen and Maria are searching through the storage PCs. Bretta, Slava, and Sumi are standing with Chase by a trainer roster being displayed on a wall monitor, the latter two mostly listening in as the former debate some of the newer trainers’ merits and weaknesses. By the time Blue makes it to the central table, he feels like enough time has passed that people will take the news more lightly, but still he waits, bringing up the visual overlay of the island that puts the grid over it, then highlights sections by emergency level.

Within a minute the colors update, and he says, “We’ve got problems.”

Elaine looks up from her computer, then stands and comes around to his side of the table, and after a moment Marcus follows her. Glen and Maria walk over from behind him, while Chase and the others turn from the wall.

“Zone D4?” Elaine frowns. “And E3.”

“Back to yellow?” Bretta asks.

“Orange.”

There’s a moment of silence, then Chase sighs. “Figured.” Cinnabar Gym’s Third is still wearing the dirt and stains of a hard battle on his uniform, and he looks even more tired than he sounds. “Heard G5 is also set to shift by the end of the week, if they don’t get that ranger outpost back up. Did they say what would turn D2 red?”

“Another few casualties might.” Blue zooms in on the region in question, a fertile plateau where some farm houses and ranches were set between Ranger outposts… until the whole area got overrun in the initial ditto stampede. “A new ditto outbreak would also do it, according to Mako.”

“He’s a worrier.” Glen taps another part of the table monitor to switch to the trainer roster the others are viewing. “Who can we rotate into the area?”

Blue glances around, trying to get a temperature check of the room. Maria seems grim. Glenn and Bretta, frustrated. Elaine is sad, but clearly focused. Slava and Marcus, disappointed. Sumi… dispirited? He’ll have a talk with her later.

They all look tired.

They’ve worked hard on this over the past few weeks. Lizzy and Alex are with the newer members, going over after-action reports while training Jamil to take over that role, while Maria and Viraj meet with Cadet Wendy and some other local trainers who like to do extra surveys with the rangers.

Together, they’ve built a system. A training program that weaves Cinnabar gym’s facilities, the group scenarios, and live field work side by side with the rangers to help ensure that the trainers here for their badge, most of whom have mainly focused on surviving wilds and battling other trainers, are prepared for… more.

Not just Cinnabar’s reclamation, but true wilderness taming. Expanding the reach of civilization.

But to do that, they’ve needed to both broaden and level up in a number of areas. Which means the team people Blue has gathered to guide them toward that goal needs to level up in a number of ways too.

First, evaluation. What trainers would work well together? What are their skills, and how balanced would the different teams be? They all help out with it, but Bretta, Sumi, and Maria have gravitated toward taking point, with a lot of input from Blue.

Second, scenario design. Elaine has become the main brains for those, working together with Marcus, Glen, and sometimes Bretta, who ran her own scenarios at the gyms she, Slava and Sumi visited if they didn’t already have them.

Third, field missions. Working side by side with rangers gives the trainers a wider range of knowledge, wider skills… and while most don’t translate to better skill in trainer battles, they do strengthen people’s pokemon, and give them opportunities to catch new ones.

Still, they’ve just barely managed to maintain the progress that led to CoRRNet downgrading Cinnabar’s risk profile. Something’s changed, on the island; stronger, higher stage evolutions of wild pokemon are showing up more often, and the stampeding patterns seem to be changing every few days.

Blue attended the ranger meeting at their city headquarters today to suggest the idea that a pokemon with Pressure is riling things up, like the absol in the diglett tunnels. It’s something they had already considered, apparently, but had no practical solution to discovering or dealing with if true. For now they’re just looking into ways to hold the areas they’ve worked so hard to reclaim lately.

Blue feels a resurgence of frustration and worry as he looks over how few strong trainers are left to do extra shifts, then reaches past Elaine to add his name to an extra D2 tour tomorrow. That done, he takes another breath. “I need you guys to tell me straight: how much more of this can you keep doing?”

The room is quiet. Blue turns to Chase, who has a brow raised. “This is your home, so I expect you’ll keep at it as long as you can. But I still want to know how long you think you can keep going at this pace, with your other duties as they are?”

“Blaine’s my Leader,” Chase says, as if that explains everything. “He says stop, give up some parts of the island, that’s what I do. He says keep trying, find a way? Then I go until I drop.”

Blue nods, but it’s not good enough. “Not doubting your commitment. But still, I want to know when you think that’ll be. Two weeks? Three? Can you keep your reflexes sharp enough to survive out there if you go through another month of this?”

Chase turns back toward the roster on the wall. Blue doesn’t fill the silence, and eventually Chase says, “Two more weeks, at least, if I start to get another hour of sleep each night. After that, even with a full nights’ worth, I’ll probably start making bigger mistakes, losing track of stuff, unless I cut down some shifts.”

Blue nods, then turns to Glen, because it has to be Glen next. His friend’s brow is furrowed, mouth set in a hard line. “This is my priority right now. The startup is going okay, new orders are coming in. Selling in Cinnabar has helped let me keep feeling good about both. I’m here.”

“For a month?” Blue tries not to sound like he’s pressing. “Three months?”

“Would you stay that long?” Chase asks, sounding more curious than skeptical.

It’s a fair question, and Blue turns back to him. “You know I’m aiming for the top, and more. If Cinnabar’s going to follow me the way I want all of Indigo to, I can’t leave it like this any more than Blaine could.”

“I’m here,” Glen says again, drawing Blue’s attention back to him. “So long as you are.”

Blue smiles, brief but sincere. “Good to know. Now how long can you keep this pace up?”

Glen’s expression softens, and he glances at Chase before turning back toward the projected island. “I was thinking of cutting down to five shifts a week. Now I feel like I need to stay at seven, but… at this rate, I’ve got a week of charge left, maybe two.”

Blue puts a hand on the older teen’s shoulder and squeezes. One of the many nice things about his growth spurt is he’s nearly as tall as Glen, now. He’s starting to think he might end up even taller. “Start with six. See how it feels.”

He turns to Elaine before Glen can argue. She’s got her arms folded, and the look in her eye reminds him of their talk, back in Fuchsia. When she confessed her feelings for Glen, and her worries that she was losing her edge. And her response to his fear, that he’d get people killed who weren’t ambitious or skilled enough to fight beside him willingly.

“I’m here,” is all she says. “I can go at least another two weeks at this pace.”

Marcus, standing beside her, shrugs a shoulder. “I’m still having fun with the scenarios we’re making, and the wilds getting stronger just means I get stronger too. Ask me again in a month.”

Blue nods, then turns to Maria and says before she can start, “Don’t feel bad if—”

“—two weeks. Then I have to get back to my training with Jason. But I’ll still come by, now and then.” She gives him a slight smile, and it rests easy on her face. “I might feel a little bad, but not as much as if I hadn’t come at all.”

Blue smiles back. “Fair.” Maria’s time with Jason seems to have finished the process of pulling her out of her shell, and made her a lot more… calm is the only word Blue can think of for it. His disappointment over her pausing her journey has been entirely replaced by a confused relief over the clear benefits to her after what happened under the Rocket Casino, and he keeps meaning to talk to Jason about what they’ve been doing in case it’s a skill he could have learned to do for her instead.

He turns to Bretta, Slava, and Sumi. Bretta looks at her two friends, clearly pushing them to answer first, until Slava caves.

“I think I can keep this up for another week. I’m willing to keep going for more, but… I don’t know how much more.”

Sumi runs a hand through her hair. “I’d like to stay as long as we can.” Blue doesn’t miss the way she subtly includes Slava, and possibly Bretta. “But if the island ends up going through cycles… I still have two more badges besides this one. Might take a break to pick them up.”

“I want a path to victory,” Bretta says, blunt as ever. “Even if we gain ground faster than we lose it, we’ll end up stuck if the lost ground gets stronger than we can easily handle. It’s like we’re facing a trainer whose whole team is a setup for a Toxic stall.”

“It’s not that bad,” Chase says with a shrug. “We can secure most of the island, except a handful of areas that only the strongest trainers can deal with. Blaine won’t be happy, but he’s a pragmatist at heart. If he sees it’s no-win, he’ll shift focus to containment.”

Blue shakes his head. He likes Chase, but it’s exactly this kind of thinking that he has to change, even here on Cinnabar where people are used to more “active” defense. “That’s not sustainable if it takes weeks of extra trainer rotations to bring the zones to blue. Anything could happen in that time to put the whole island back in red.”

Bretta nods. “Stormbringer.”

“Second new species outbreak,” Sumi adds.

“Renegade activity.” Glen glances at Blue, who keeps his face neutral.

He gave his friends simple tasks, if they had the free slack, tasks which he sort of regrets given the sudden slew of new difficulties the island faces, and how little they learned.

Glen’s startup has been going well, and it puts him in contact with a growing list of distributors for all the various restaurants, grocers, and supply stores in the region… and on Cinnabar, that list is fairly short. Elaine’s been scouting the island more than anyone else to find good locations for scenarios, which gave her plenty of reasons to check out the different potential places where other hidden labs might be set up. Maria, Lizzy, Bretta, everyone has been making friends, asking questions, trying to get a better sense from the locals of what else might be happening on the island.

The little bits of information shared with each other haven’t amounted to much, which Blue expected, but was still mildly disappointed by. All they had was a rough time range where odd people might have showed up in the city or nearby towns, a general location where weird things might have happened, and a vague idea of what sorts of things might be included.

Even the lab’s discovery hasn’t changed much, other than to raise everyone’s awareness of the potential stakes. Blaine’s arrival made it clear that there was no need to hide things anymore… but at the very least, Blue has kept the secret of what Leaf suspects the lab was for. He doesn’t want to betray people’s confidence, and also it might make him seem a little unhinged if they’re wrong.

But it’s what’s on his mind when he says, “Or another set of myths waking up somewhere and turning the world on its head.”

Bretta nods. “Hell, a big enough stampede could send everyone back to the safety of the city.”

“Alright, alright,” Chase says, and sighs. “Not saying I want that. But most of our trainers aren’t getting strong enough, fast enough, to make a meaningful difference in the zones that are flaring up. We’ve got an absurdly low casualty rate given what we’ve been doing, and you guys can claim some credit for that. It’s a part of why Blaine has been so willing to give you more autonomy. But if more trainers start getting maimed or killed, or even losing too many strong pokemon, we’ll lose even more to caution and worry.”

And Blaine might retract some, or all, of that autonomy. It doesn’t need to be said, and Blue nods to show he’s got the message, feeling some of the anxious churn in his stomach again.

“We’ve still got a quarter of the recruits to organize.” Bretta says. “Once they’re ready to run a scenario—”

“Just run?” Chase asks. “Half the groups from last week couldn’t complete theirs.”

“We need a path to victory, like Bretta said,” Blue cuts in. It’s so clear, in pokemon battles. It’s not always right, but it’s at least there. A series of steps that will force the opponent into a corner, strip their options one by one, until defeat is inevitable. A series of readied reactions for different possibilities, to adapt to the range of things they might do.

But there’s no opponent here, no single mind he’s trying to beat, with limited options on its belt. There’s just… the world. It’s the endless potential of the wilds, of new combinations of enemies showing up at times and places that are hard to predict, and in amounts that are hard to prepare for.

“I want to believe we could do it with the people we have,” Blue says. “That we just need to be more—” He almost says unpredictable. Which wouldn’t make any sense, in this case, but… “Adaptable. Something we haven’t thought of before, something gyms or CoRRNet couldn’t do before. But new options would be good, whatever form they come in.”

“More resources can also lead to new options,” Elaine says.

“Resources are tapped, if you mean money,” Chase says. “Emergency funding worked, as far as Indigo is concerned, and CoRRNet won’t re-escalate our ranking unless things get way worse. Cinnabar’s in debt for the foreseeable future, and the Gym’s only avoiding budget cuts because the League is helping out.”

“Do we know any charitable millionaires willing to offer a bunch of money?” Slava asks. “Maybe even bounty money? We could reach out to some, frame it as a charity thing, or…?”

“It’s not a bad idea,” Glen says, speaking slowly. “But a bunch of professional bounty hunters showing up would definitely create a different vibe.”

“Do we care about vibes?” Chase asks, brow raised. “Because I know Blaine wouldn’t care about vibes, if it makes people safer.”

“It might get trainers already helping out wondering why they’re not getting paid,” Slava says.

Glen crosses his arms. “If they’re as skilled as the professionals, maybe they should.”

“Okay, sidelining that debate for the third time,” Blue says. “Good ideas so far, keep them coming. Something besides money.”

“New outreach,” Elaine says. “We tapped What Comes Next, and there’s a lot of overlap with the others we know, but we could reach out to people directly?”

“Dragon Dojo.” Glen starts ticking off with his fingers. “Stormchasers?”

“Ew,” Sumi says.

“Agreed, but we’re in babble mode,” Blue says. “Just spit the ideas out, we’ll prune down to practical ones later. More suggestions?”

Bretta was studying the roster again, but turns to face them, frowning slightly. “Vermilion Gym? Might seem like poaching…”

The room is quiet for a moment. Blue tries to imagine that conversation, maybe between him and Surge directly, maybe just between Blaine and Surge…. “It’s not bad,” he says slowly. “But also might not be enough. At this point, we’d need, what, another fifty trainers with 3+ badges?”

“At least,” Sumi says. “Closer to seventy, all dedicating a few hours a day for three weeks.”

“Four to be safe,” Slava adds.

Bretta returns to studying the roster. “And yeah, three badges or equivalent would be needed to be extra careful not to risk new casualties. 4 badges would be better, with how absurdly fast the wilds on the island are getting stronger.”

“I’d be surprised if there are that many unattached high level trainers in Kanto that haven’t already come,” Chase says. “Or even all of Indigo. And if we want to attract people from further out, there needs to be a better prize involved, which leads us back to the incentives. If not money, then…?”

“Status?” Blue muses. “If we can hype participation up more…”

“Ditto,” Glen suggests. “People still need to hand over their catches until they’re safe, but maybe we can ensure everyone has a rotation through a ditto heavy area.”

“What about the area where a more stable ecosystem is developing?” Elaine suggests.

“It’s an idea. I’ll talk with Ira and Wendy. As for the earlier idea about rich folk, Red knows Bill, and Silph owes him a favor. Gramps also might have ideas about what’s happening on the island, and what we can do about it.” Blue switches the table setting to view the island hologram again, selecting the routes going through that area. “What about tactics? What sort of terrain are we working in, how can we change that?”

“You want to drain a lake or something?” Chase asks, sounding grudgingly admiring. “Flood some strong wild habitats? Because Blaine might have objections.”

“Babble first,” Elaine reminds him. “Pretty sure CoRRNet would too, but that’s for later.”

“Speaking of which…” Slava hesitates, then clears his throat. “Yeah, terrible idea probably, but uh… what about introducing some new invasive species?”

“Oh yeah,” Chase sighs. “This’ll go well.”


“And we’re live, in three… two… Hey Indigo, what’s bad, what’s good, what’s better than yesterday, cuz today I’m here on the island of fiery desire live with a random trainer you may have heard of named Blue Oak, currently acting member of the Cinnabar Gym. Mug for the camera, Blue.”

Blue smiles, a naturally wry expression he turns toward the held up camera for just a couple seconds before returning his gaze to the path they’re climbing. “Hey everyone. Watch your step here, it’s mossy.”

“Mossy, right.” Brightfire has bright blue hair swept up to a twirling point above his head, a cheerful disposition, and dark golden eyes that mark him as a member of one of Indigo’s “Dragon Clans.” To his credit, those gold eyes do sweep over the ground as he takes some careful steps up to the next ridge. The camera set in its swivel-mount atop his shoulder points down to take in the uneven terrain before lifting and turning to take in his profile again, and Blue’s face beyond. “Clan, Blue here says this is the best route to get a good view of what he’s been up to over on Cinnabar. It’s been a bit of a climb, but we’ll be there in…?”

“Few more minutes.”

“A few more minutes! During which, we have time for a few starters. Such as, what made you reach out to little old me? I’m sure all my clanmates who’ve been busy doing cool shit weren’t too busy to hear about that whole Miracle Eye thing, but you haven’t spoken to the press since, despite all the stuff you’ve been doing here, and I’m not exactly a journalist.”

Brightfire (born Bastion, as if that wasn’t already a cool enough name) may not be a journalist, but he’s got a larger online presence than most news sources. Child to a branch of the most famous Indigo Dragon Clan family, he started his journey under the massive shadow of his first cousin twice removed, Indigo Champion Lance. But unlike most in his family (and according to rumors, much to their displeasure), he aborted his gym circuit after his 7th badge, a couple years before Blue left Pallet Town. Instead of going on to challenge his aunt’s gym in Blackthorn, he ended up liveblogging a series of daring and extremely risky pokemon captures.

It exploded his already decently sized following, and the infamy he gained from some online commenters only brought him more. Blue had written him off as an interesting but somewhat dangerous influence, spurring people on to try things they weren’t prepared for to imitate his heroics, or gather some of his fame for themselves…

But the older teen is undeniably skilled, and undeniably inspires trainers to try harder and push their boundaries. Things Blue shares a natural affinity for, even if he’s more interested in reinventing gym cultures than rejecting them entirely.

“I invited you because I think you’d appreciate what we’re doing here,” Blue says, letting his voice carry the frank honesty he feels. “But I also invited you because I want your audience.”

“Uh oh, clan. Have we been duped? Top ten anime betrayals?” Brightfire is smiling. They didn’t rehearse any of this; it’s a point of pride for him to only record things live, and his reputation is built on authenticity. “You’ve got a pretty big following yourself, Oak. If they won’t bite, what makes you think my collection of free spirits will pay the price of admission for whatever you’re selling here?”

Blue feels a spark of heat in his chest. He wants to push back against the idea that his followers aren’t “biting,” but there’s a tangle of traps around claiming the people who follow him are people he can get to do things, comparing them in any way to Brightfire’s following, all while avoiding coming off as defensive if he says he did get plenty of people to come. “No price, and it’s not for me. I won’t even be on Cinnabar much longer, if things go well. But we’re doing something new here, something daring, and something hard. I’ll be pretty surprised if you or your ‘clan’ don’t want a taste.”

“We heard those airquotes, didn’t we, clan? But okay, Oak, we’re here and you’ve got us pegged. Just gotta see if whatever you’re doing is worth my time. The clan can decide for themselves, obviously.”

“Obviously.” Like any of them would do something their idol had spurned… though it might not be all-or-nothing. Brightfire could admit that the endeavor is daring enough, but say he’s not joining because he’s got other plans, and those people who want to be part of it could feel like they have his blessing to come. “How much do you know about what I’ve been up to, exactly?”

“I’ve heard about the wargames you’ve been putting people through at Kanto gyms. I’d say it’s a step in the right direction, but if you know anything about me—”

“Been watching your stuff since I was 9.”

“—you know what I’m going to say next.”

“‘No risk of dying, no point in trying.'” Blue shrugs a shoulder. “It took you far, and led a lot of your clan to greatness.”

“You mean my bio clan, or are you sucking up to the viewers?”

“Both. But there are still god-like, elemental forces wreaking havoc throughout Indigo, and I’d be dumb to call you a coward, but I am wondering when you’re going to go for broke.”

Brightfire grins. “He’s calling us out, clan. You bring me all this way just for that, Oak? What do we say, clan? You go for a dragonite, your belt better be loaded. Glory comes in the fight even if you fail, but fighting hard means fighting smart, and I’m not dumb enough to think I’m ready to beat the Beasts.”

“But you plan to be, someday? Does anyone from your clan plan to be?”

“Hey clan, he’s talking to you. Anyone gonna do something stupid enough to make all of us look like overeager idiots?”

Blue wants to say that’s not answering his question. If anything it’s implying the answer is no, not really, but in a way that makes them look noble and sane rather than afraid or hypocritical. But before he can, Brightfire slows, then grins and speeds up.

He heard it.

They make the rest of the climb quickly, spurred on by the distant shouts and other sounds of battle drifting from afar and echoing faintly around them, until they finally crest the final ridge, where a top down view of a plateau sticking out the side of a nearby mountain is waiting for them.

From this distance, they can just make out a squad of four trainers who are currently engaged against seven “wild” pokemon, their own trainers imitating a stampede that’s upping its pressure little by little, pushing them back toward the edge of the plateau. Brightfire seems at least a little interested, maybe just by how close the defending trainers are from the cliff’s edge. His left thumb and forefinger have sensor rings around them, and small twitches pan the camera on his shoulder left and right, followed by a pinching motion that sends its lens stretching forward.

They watch together as one of the trainers is forced back even further by rock thrown by a graveler. The figures are distant enough that it’s hard to differentiate them, but one of the closer trainers comes to their rescue, only for a fresh stampede wave to force the two of them further back.

“What are they trying to do?” Brightfire asks. “Not just survive, yeah?”

“Why not?” Blue asks, tone light. Obviously baiting.

“Too tame.” Brightfire’s gaze is fixed on the battle, despite his motto, and he detaches the camera from his shoulder, then holds it up to his eye so he can see more clearly. The four trainers are all being forced back again, and some are almost entirely out of room to maneuver. “And pointless. If it’s a real cliff, and they’re supposed to be in the field, they should have teleporters. Non-dark trainers hold them off while darks get on their fliers, then teleport away. Let them stampede off, or fight them somewhere better suited.”

It’s always nice to get reminders of how taken for granted it is, these days, that teleportation should be factored into any group of trainers’ strategy. “And if it’s not?”

“What, like the drop is a crowd of civvies or a hospital or something? And you just have them fight here to make it more intense?” Brightfire’s smiling now. “Still seems too tame. I thought you were doing interesting stuff. Come on, Oak. What’s the trick?”

“I’ll give you hints. One, they are just trying to survive.”

“Lame.”

“And two, it is supposed to be a real cliff.”

Brightfire glances at him, then looks through his camera again. A moment passes before he says, “But there’s a trick. Alright. Clan chat’s probably exploding with guesses, but I’ll figure this out myself.”

Blue nods, and watches as the fourth trainer has finished healing their pokemon, and rejoins the fight. Some of the “stampeding” pokemon get ordered to move toward a path off the plateau, and the recovered trainer rushes to engage them in battle, drawing them back toward the others and joining them in a more robust defense.

Brightfire’s lips purse, and Blue catches him looking up, then around, then down, and knows he got it, even if he doesn’t know the how, yet.

Still, the group has to survive a little longer, and it’s looking bad. A blast of heat from an arcanine sends a pokemon nearly tumbling over the edge, sending Blue’s heart leaping into his throat. It only barely gets returned on time, but the distraction causes the trainer to get forced back once more… and then they turn to leap off the plateau.

“What,” is all Brightfire gets out before the plummeting figure engages their parachute, which blooms above them and slows their descent before they drop too far or fast, letting them glide toward the valley below. “Ha! Okay, clan, that got me, and I bet it got most of you. If all their bags are parachutes… they’re all dark?”

“No, not all.”

“But some won’t have time to mount up before it happens.”

“Before what happens?”

Brightfire just grins. “Whatever ‘it’ is. Hoping some of you figured it out, clan. Assuming they last long enough…”

Nearly thirty seconds of more desperate fighting ensue, and a few of the stampeding pokemon “escape,” being returned to their balls and sent back out. The team training will lose points for each of those, but it’s as Brightfire said. They just have to hold out, and keep the majority of their opponents engaged…

It’s gotten easier since that first badge scenario he watched in Vermilion Gym, but Blue’s heart still pounds as he watches the battle, and he wipes sweaty palms carefully on his pants. He wants this to go well for the sake of convincing Brightfire, but he also wants it to go well because he wants their new strategy to work. They couldn’t exactly practice it, here…

Another trainer looks like they’re moments away from jumping when the CRACK sounds. Brightfire and Blue look up to see two trainers higher up on the mountain, who weren’t in position yet when Brightfire checked. Their summoned rhyperior and onix are hard at work striking at certain parts of a cliff, and another CRACK echoes around them, followed by a third, until the jutting earth finally starts to fall.

The trainers scramble to withdraw their pokemon and summon teleporters, or run for the edge if dark. Blue feels a stirring of awe at the sight of the mountain face just… breaking, melting, tons of rock billowing dust out as it starts to gain momentum, all that earth almost seeming to turn liquid as it rushes the rest of the way toward the plateau the trainers are on…

…but it’s already clear, the last one having just leapt and deployed their parachute as the first of the boulders comes bouncing down ahead of the landslide.

The noise is incredible, an echoing rumble that still manages to be quiet and steady enough that it sounds like a waterfall, but with the occasional echoing crackle of breaking trees or bouncing boulders. Blue’s heart leaps into his throat as a boulder bounces in the direction of one of the trainers, while Brightfire lets out a whoop. It’s not close, really, but Blue still lets out a long breath as the last of them gets far enough to be clear, the line of colorful parachutes floating steadily away. The mountain continues to feed the hungry beast that awakened on its surface, obliterating greenery and ridges far below them all.

The plateau the trainers were on is still standing, but it’s scoured clean, and most of the edge has been cut off as if by a giant knife. It’s a little surreal to be standing in the same place he was a minute ago, and have the world in front of him so drastically transformed. Blue looks up to the trainers who caused it, and sees they’ve withdrawn their pokemon and left.

Brightfire is laughing, and Blue turns toward him with a brow raised. “How close were you?”

“I thought maybe something would appear beneath them.” Brightfire shakes his head, still grinning, and turns the camera around to face him. “What do you say clan? Worth the show? Glad you tuned in?”

“I did promise a good view, at the very least.”

“You did, and delivered.” Brightfire is still chuckling. “CoRRNet really gives you permission for this, Oak?”

“They do. I’m working with them, and the gym, to make sure we’re all pushing toward the same goal, so we can do things we otherwise couldn’t alone.”

“Yeah yeah, message is clear, we got it, don’t we, clan? Stronger together.” Brightfire shrugs. “Impressive as it is, I don’t see how it’s supposed to turn the tide of what’s going on in Cinnabar.”

“It’s just a part of the overall plan.” Blue shrugs back. “Those trainers, they became more prepared to fight in an environment that limited their movement. They faced overwhelming odds in a battle of endurance. And the other team identified an environmental factor they could use to their advantage, and made it work for them within just a few minutes of scouting the area.”

“Assuming this wasn’t scripted.”

Blue just gives him a level look. “I didn’t bring down a chunk of a mountain just to impress you.”

“You did it to impress me and spice up the learning activity?”

Blue smiles slightly. “A bit closer. Like I said, there’s a few different parts to our new overall strategy. Will you stick around a couple days, so I can show you a few more?”

“Any of them as impressive as this?” Brightfire’s brow is raised. “Because I kind of doubt you’ve got something else of that caliber ready, and we already knew you were a showman. If that was your inner crew—”

“Wasn’t,” Blue says. “Veteran group, but all 3 and 4 badgers. My friends were the stampede trainers, not the ones being trained, or the two up top, who were just a couple well suited gym members given free rein to do whatever they expected would work, after setting eyes on the location for the first time.”

“Sure. Point is, if someone from clan gets here expecting to learn to parachute and bring down mountains, how likely are they instead to shovel shit for weeks, or handhold 1 and 2-badgers?”

Blue does his best to control his smile, to show his amusement without letting on to the sudden hope he feels. Brightfire definitely isn’t showing no interest… even if he’s only talking as if it’s about his clan, and not his own odds of staying to join up.

He addresses the camera directly. “That’s up to the trainer. The abilities of everyone here is judged as fairly as we can, so just showing up claiming to be part of ‘clan Brightfire’ isn’t going to give anyone special treatment. But I will say, I plan for this island to be back to where it was before the ditto appeared, and I don’t plan to waste any time—or anyone’s time—on minor shit. We’re going to be doing almost two dozen special ops a week, when the ball gets rolling, and we’re going to need strong trainers doing what they do best… and learning new tricks along the way.”

Brightfire is watching him with a wry look, and when Blue meets those golden eyes, he sees something both predatory and respectful. “I guess I can stick around another day. See just how strong the wilds on this island are, that they’re giving you all so much trouble…”


This isn’t how Blue expected to arrive at Viridian Gym.

Final gyms are supposed to be special. To have an extra air of reverence and anticipation. To inspire an extra level of confidence, a knowledge that everyone there would know he’s a step below being qualified to, perhaps, become their boss’s boss, or their boss’s boss’s boss.

But instead of seven badges, he only has six when he walks in to the Gym lobby for the first time.

He also hoped to come at the head of a small army, loyal trainers who were also strong enough to get an eighth badge, whether it was Giovanni’s or not, and would travel through Indigo Plateau with him, until they reached the very top of the League and had a final, intense, glorious battle to see who would be Champion.

But instead he arrives alone. In style, on the back of Soul, but not as impressive as he would otherwise be.

He even wondered if, along the way between arriving and challenging Giovanni, he’d get a sense of the gym culture, find some way to improve or revolutionize it the way he did Vermilion, Fuchsia, Cinnabar, or even Celadon.

Instead Blue just makes his way through the gym without recognizing or connecting with anyone (though he caught the extra stares and excited looks), nor does he even get a sense of the vibe… which is, as far as he can tell, just that of a standard, competent gym that has no apparent theme beyond the earth tones and geode displays lining the halls.

He enters an elevator, walks down more halls, and arrives at Giovanni’s office. A black marble door set in the stone walls meets his fist as he knocks.

“Come in.”

Blue does, and a moment later he’s sitting in the office of one of the most powerful trainers in Indigo, a room that encapsulates the cold, implacable power and authority of the earth, with mosaic walls of polished black and brown stones, geodes of various colors tastefully set in sconces by each corner, and a black stone desk shot through with veins of gold.

“Good morning, Trainer Oak.” Giovanni is wearing his usual dark suit, matching the stone of the walls and desk.

“Morning, Leader. Thanks for inviting me.” He would have preferred an online exchange, but upon hearing what the topic would be, Giovanni said an in-person chat would go better, and Blue is not the sort of person to turn down an advantage in any situation where he might need to persuade someone.

All of Erika’s lessons are on his mind as he meets the powerful Leader’s gaze, a distant part of him still capable of fanboying over the youngest champion in Indigo history. “As the nearest gym to Cinnabar, I’d like to suggest—”

“I agree. My gym will reach out to Leader Blaine today, and negotiate logistics.” Giovanni’s smile is small, but feels almost mischievous as Blue blinks at him. “I’m sorry, did you want to go through your pitch in full, first?”

“No, Leader,” Blue says, and the surge of relief as it sinks in that he won is mildly dizzying. Combined with the “Brightfire clan” arrivals, which started less than twenty-four hours after the livestream and within the past few days have totaled nearly a dozen new trainers, Viridian Gym members would provide a much stronger backbone to their roster. “Thank you for your help.”

But hang on, why did he invite him here, if—

“It’s nothing. I’d additionally like you to know that should you want to challenge me, the arena is ready at any time. A few basic battles with my gym members, to observe the formalities, one thrilling match between us that you can add to your legacy highlights, and the Viridian badge will be yours.”

Blue stares at Leader Giovanni, so surprised now that he can’t help but feel wary. Is he being toyed with? Why would Giovanni offer this? Did Blaine mention that he wanted to save Giovanni for last? “At what cost?”

Giovanni spreads his hands, and leans back slightly in his chair. “No cost, Blue Oak. You’ve made your intention to become Champion clear. I approve. Your skills as a trainer and as a leader are still growing, but you already command more loyalty than you know. You also wish to do so quickly, allowing for the occasional undertaken project. I believe you could beat me if given a chance, or two. Three at absolute most. Do you disagree?”

Blue relaxes slightly, hearing it spelled out so clearly. He feels like he’s speaking to Erika, in a way, appreciating the directness and honesty, but… more than that, there’s something warming, something empowering, about hearing the Viridian Gym Leader say he approves of Blue aiming to become Champion. “No, Leader.”

“Good. So why pretend that you’re like any other trainer? The things you’ve done and seen elevate you above the usual 6 badges you carry. Some of your companions may warrant a similar fast tracking, but they can arrive in their own time.”

It’s all so gratifying, and so still there’s the nagging voice of doubt… “Do you plan to throw the match?”

“Would you say yes, if I did?”

And maybe that’s it. Maybe this is the real test.

Should he? Would he be able to live with his legacy? Like Giovanni said, Blue knows he’d be able to beat him sooner or later… and he’d get the near-perfect record. Something that might make all the difference, when the time comes to rally the region behind him.

There’s no way for Giovanni to know if his answer is truthful. Maybe he’s delayed too long already.

He almost says yes. It’s the practical thing to do, and sitting here, in the Leader’s office, being so frank and direct… and he wants to be practical.

But he didn’t make it all the way here on practicality alone.

“I think,” Blue says instead, each word feeling heavy and firm as the earth. “That I would do myself more harm than good, carrying your badge into Victory Road like that. I’ve dreamed of facing you in a real test of skill for half of my life… and that’s something I could give up, for the sake of Indigo. But what I can’t do without is the knowledge that I deserve to be Champion, in every way that matters. And beating you, for my eighth badge… it’s a test that matters, to me, like few others.”

It’s rare to see Leader Giovanni smile as wide as he does now. “I look forward to it. So let’s see how we can deliver Cinnabar back the peace it’s lost, and speed up the day that test comes.”

Chapter 126: Interlude XXVI – Where the Heart Can Bloom

Chapter 126: Interlude XXVI – Where the Heart Can Bloom

The glow on the horizon is like a beacon in the dark, guiding me through the night. Minds pass through my awareness, fleeting and simple. A cluster of rattata. A noctowl flying silently toward them. A sentret hanging from a nearby tree.

But despite its brightness on the horizon, when we reach the town, it is little more than a ranger outpost, a pokemon clinic, and two markets, one for trainers and one for the few dozen houses around them.

[We are between some of those houses and the moon.]

I consider arguing with Survive that it’s extremely unlikely we’d be notable from this distance even if seen. But it costs little to be safer, and so I shift our trajectory a little.

(Can we dip into a dream?) Thrive asks. (No one’s awake down there, even if they’re Sensitive it should be fine!)

[I don’t object, so long as we don’t project anything.]

I send a signal of acknowledgement, then merge with one of the minds in the house below. It’s not deep in dream, just vague flickers of emotion, some exciting chase mixed with nostalgic love. But it still delights Thrive, who begins narrating a story to go with the sensations.

(She’s a retired ranger, reminiscing about years long past, lost friends she faced many dangers alongside… she’s remembering the danger of facing a dragonite, of standing firm for the sake of those she loves…)

Thrive trails off as the mind leaves our range, and no others are around to merge with instead. The path from the town winds its way up and around hills, past one secluded cabin after another, until we reach the right one, prepared emotionally to just pass by, I have a dozen times before…

But there’s a mind inside. A human mind, and a pokemon sleeping nearby…

(He’s here!)

[It’s good he’s safe. But make sure there’s no one else around, in case it’s a trap?]

I put my impatience aside, and do a circuit round the cabin. I use the minds of nearby pokemon to sweep the area with a variety of senses, for strange smells or sounds or shapes, anything that might indicate dark humans or pokemon prepared for an ambush.

Nothing. I hurry back to the cabin, and a quick merger lets me see and feel through Fuji’s eyes and body, to know for sure that he’s safe and calm and sitting at a table, writing with some tea beside him.

As soon as I merge with him, there’s a sense of… ease. Ease of loneliness. Ease of some faint stress, ever present but available. It’s almost like returning to the mind of one of my comforters, whom I still miss dearly. Like returning to childhood, false as the safety of that childhood was.

I only linger a moment in that feeling before projecting: Fuji.

He startles, and then smiles wide, joy filling him to mirror mine, and for a while, further words aren’t necessary as I levitate closer. We share in mixed relief and gladness, in each other’s freedom and safety, no words necessary.

But under the joy, and the relief… concern. Not for the moment, but in anticipation, fear of potential disaster…

What’s happened?

“It can wait,” Fuji says, out loud at his table. I sense his frustration, that even now, they can’t enjoy their time together. Resentful of the world, not leaving me alone… particularly at…

Sabrina has… a message for me?

“It can wait,” Fuji says again, with more certainty. “Come inside? We can have tea, and you can tell me about your travels.”

I expect new cautions or objections from Survive, but it has grown in the past months, much as its predecessor, Doubt, had. Less reflexively suspicious, more capable of calibrated risk assessments… and it has integrated some of Trust’s memories and priorities, recognizing Fuji as an ally. Thrive, meanwhile, sends a pulse of eagerness. We have not had tea since our first and only meeting with Fuji in Lavender, months ago.

I lower myself to the doorway, and Fuji is already there, opening it, smiling as he welcomes me inside, then closes the door and wraps his arms around my torso.

A hug. Such a simple thing, felt many times through others’ bodies. Only a few times before, with mine. Fuji is not a tall man, rising only to my chest, and I move carefully to place my hands against his back, conscious of my own strength, even exhausted as I am.

He did not need to speak, simply letting me feel his affection and gladness through the merger. I sent him the same, until at last we parted, and I followed into the cabin’s main chamber.

The cabin is rudimentary, but warmed by the cyndaquil sleeping in the stone hearth, its flame warming a teapot. There are only two chairs, one of which is a stool, tall enough to be comfortable for me to sit on, my scarred tail stump just long enough to reach the ground and provide balance opposite my legs.

“You’re well?” Fuji asks as he lifts a kettle suspended above the cyndaquil’s fire.

I am. Physically.

He approaches with a mug, eyes move to my tail, and I sense his pity, along with his hope. With the right medicines, strong enough potions applied directly to the damaged tissues… apparently this sometimes works. But it would take many injections and applications over a prolonged period of time, and he doesn’t wish to raise the possibility until later.

All this passes through his mind in a moment, after which he puts my cup down and pours me some tea. “And otherwise?”

Tired.

“From traveling?”

Yes. I collect my thoughts, but they are still hard to make legible. And other things. So many minds, so many dreams, so many fears. I have merged with thousands of humans since leaving the lab, and while none have been nearly as deep, the weight of them all, the breadth of their differences… it weighs on me.

I feel his concern, curiosity, compersion… and wistfulness. He wishes for that, to feel some of what his fellow humans are like more intimately. Some of it is loneliness, but the rest is a sense of alienation that’s only gotten worse over time, the way he’s always felt them as something of a mystery. A point of bonding between us.

I send some of that through, and he responds with warm acknowledgement, and appreciation.

“If you don’t mind my asking.” I send warm acceptance. “Has one of the other things been battles?”

I only hesitate for a moment, and only because I want to preserve the calm and comfort. I let the silence linger a little longer, to be eased by it a little longer, and then simply send, Yes.

His hands tighten around the grip of the teapot. He pours some more into his cup, then sets it down. “Humans?”

No.

Relief. “What happened?”

I consider explaining, but do not know where to begin. I could list events in sequential order, bring up each pokemon and how the fights progressed…

But words would not be enough. The unique struggles of each battle, which led to new beliefs and ideas within my parts…

Instead…

I can show you.

He lifts his cup to his lips, sips. I try to do the same, but my mouth cannot comfortably fit around the lip, and it is too hot for my tongue to lap it up.

He sets his cup down, then settles back in his chair, and closes his eyes. “I’m ready.”

I extend the merger, search back through my memory, then begin…


The machamp was strong, but a simple nudge to the leg at the wrong moment sent it tumbling. It recovered quickly, yet still only reached me because I allowed it to. Fists swung, awash in the light of its aura, but more telekinesis robbed them of their strength, and they barely moved me.

I struck, leg snapping out to slam my foot into its muscled stomach with a blow that sent it sliding back.

(This is easy. We can win even without our abilities!)

[An unnecessary risk. A strong enough blow to the head or joint…]

(We’re faster.)

Thrive was right. The machamp’s fists moved like pistons, but its body was like a lumbering snorlax by comparison.

(If we time our strikes with a proper feint…)

It’s decided, and following the decision came movement, contact.

Lunge, turn, kick. The impact traveled through my leg, into my core, and I tried to use the momentum to leap back out of reach again… but its fists still caught my thigh, one-two-three-four sharp blows. Pain erupted, so bad it was hard to move the leg, but I still retreated by kicking off hard from my other, throwing myself back to increase the distance between us.

[We should Recover.]

(We don’t need to!)

[We would be able to Recover even against a Dark pokemon!]

(Some pokemon can prevent healing!)

The machamp charged, and Thrive flowed through me, the two of us working together to leap up from one foot and twist, turning to kick the side of the machamp’s head.

I landed on my injured leg, which buckled, forcing me to catch myself on my hands. The machamp was sent sideways, its arm also catching it as it fell to a knee. It tried to rise… and fell again, disoriented.

I leapt for another kick, hands lifting to block the return punch. The fist struck my forearms so hard it felt painless at first, just pressure that sent me sailing through the air, but I had landed the kick as well, and the machamp’s head snapped up. I watched as it fell onto its back.

Fresh pain registered as I hit the wall of the cliff behind me, then more as I landed on both legs, and then I finally felt the blow to my arms, a deep, almost nauseating hurt. I crouched for another few painful heartbeats, waiting… but the machamp continued to lie still, and I finally allowed myself to heal.

Within a minute the pain faded to nothing, and I stood, then lifted away to gather my bag from the nearby cliff before flying in the direction of the next city, senses open wide for any sign of another opponent…


I let the projection fade, for a moment, and Fuji lets out a long breath as his senses reassert themselves. I worry, suddenly, that it may have been too painful a memory to share, too intense…

“No! It was thrilling, in a way. I’m doubly glad you’re okay, knowing so intimately what you’ve been up to. And… you have a new tulpa.”

I do. Thrive is a descendent of Flourish, and nudges me to try new things, to learn, and also to enjoy life, even with the risks involved.

Fuji smiles. “I’m glad. I worried you might forget that entirely, once you began on your mission. Hello, Thrive. It’s a pleasure to meet you. And hello again, Survive. Thank you for helping keep Mazda safe.”

(Hello, Dr. Fuji! Thank you for the tea!)

[Hello, Doctor. Thank you for all you’ve continued to do for us.]

“Of course. It’s my honor, and privilege.”

They both also feel happy to be acknowledged.

Fuji smiles, and sips his tea, looking deep in thought. I lap at mine, now warm enough to enjoy the subtle flavors. “Why didn’t you use your powers? I could sense it, somewhat, around the… edges of the memory. But I couldn’t make it out. Preparing yourself for something?”

Preparing, yes. May I show you more?

“Please do.”

Another memory, then, from not long after that…


The Lucario was not as physically strong as the machamp, but it was quicker, tougher, and—

I leapt to the side as it thrust a hand out again, the spike on its fist gleaming before a beam lanced out to pierce the tree I’d been standing in front of. Its other fist thrust out in the direction I moved, and a faintly glowing wave of energy shot straight toward me… and when I leapt again, it followed.

[What the hell is that?!]

(It’s so cool! How do we do it?)

Thankfully, unlike the light beam, this attack exists on a dimension my kinesis could reach. A second of thought was all it took to rob the sphere of half its power, and its contact was painful, but not debilitating. I struck back with a kinetic blast, but the lucario weathered it just as well through inherent resilience.

(This isn’t working. We need to fight dragon with dragon.)

It’s not a dragon. Nor are we.

[Steel pokemon weaknesses are Fire, Ground, and Fighting—]

(—so it’s a Fighting pokemon that’s vulnerable to Fighting attacks!)

[Can we do those?]

(We were created to kill gods! We can do anything!)

I merged with the lucario, as deeply and quickly as I could, dodging its continued attacks all the while. Sight came quickly, as did proprioception..

Its intention to attack was clear, but the how was still too foreign, and this time the beam of light punched a hole through my thigh.

The pain was blinding, but only for a moment as Survive partitioned the perception of it, then initiated healing. Thrive, meanwhile, was frustrated by the beam, wanted it to just stop

The next time the lucario began the same mental motions, Thrive flowed through the merger and projected a partition around them. The lucario went still, arm out, trying to connect mental dots over a gap that wasn’t there a moment ago.

It was enough time to merge even more fully, and by the time it started to recover, I could more clearly track the flow of its thoughts, the shift of its awareness through its body, focusing heat/energy/life/force through—

(Yes, there! I have it—)

The partition dropped, and our arm snapped out to fling the same energy forward from our core that the lucario sent toward us—

—dispersed in part by a kinetic wave from Survive—

—but still left us gasping in pain, while the lucario collapsed in a heap from our attack.

I slowly straightened, breathing hard. The attack took something… vital, to use. Depleted it, but not in a way that could be healed by psychic recovery. But it seemed likely to restore on its own, if it’s something other pokemon can use repeatedly.

Nicely done, Thrive.

(With what?) Joy from the praise. (Specifically?)

The… offensive amnesia, to disable its ability to use the Steel attack.

(Yeah, that worked better than I thought it would! I don’t think it would last for long, though.)

It lasted long enough. Survive, thank you for the pain and recovery partitions.

[Of course, Prime. I am getting better at prioritizing through pain. But I believe there are better methods to prevent damage in the first place…]


My psychic blasts hit one after the next, sending the rhyperior skidding back little by little before its feet dug into the rock to arrest its movement. Its arms rose to shoot another volley of stones up at me, faster than I could levitate out of the way. Bursts of kinetic force helped deflect some, and a triple layer of barriers prevented broken bones, but those that impacted were still disorienting.

[We’re using too much energy recovering and refreshing barriers. I suggest retreat if we’re hit three more times.]

Noted. Ideas?

(I have one!)

[If it’s what I think it is—]

(It’s the perfect target. Why keep trying to get through its thick skull when we can literally just get through it?)

[—it’s too risky. Direct damage through projection would be symmetrical, and the research said psychic recovery isn’t reliable for damage to the brain.]

Their conversation didn’t distract me from shaping a new counter attack in an upward funnel, and I unleashed the kinetic wave through it from beneath the rhyperior. Stone cracked around its feet before it lifted into the air, then went tumbling off the cliff.

(Right, or we can do that.)

A double-bang echoed around the mountain before I could relax, followed by a crack. Rather than continuing to fall out of my psychic range, the rhyperior’s mind was still in it… and getting closer, moving up toward me little by little.

(Did it just—)

Blast itself toward the mountain and start climbing, yes, I think it did. I levitated out over the edge of the cliff to watch its ascent, then shaped and released another kinetic blast… which failed to dislodge it. Soon it was back on solid ground and taking aim again.

[We’re not maneuverable enough in the air.]

(Maybe time to—)

Another rock clipped my foot, sending me into a tumble, and I aimed the funnel levitating me down to shift into a swerving glide, then landed in a crouch that narrowly avoided another fired boulder.

(—stop holding back?)

[Agreed.]

I considered what we’ve learned so far, and found I was unsatisfied. Still too easy, and reliant on us being able to win at range.

(So let’s do it from up close!)

[I believe our agility will allow us to strike with minimal risk while on the ground.]

I considered for only another moment, then agreed by dropping the partitions.

We learned a lot about aura, or ki, from merging with the right trainers after fighting the lucario. Thrive and Survive merged with me, enhancing my ability to move and focus my aura at the same time. We leapt over a wave of upturned earth and dodged a boulder spreading it through our legs rather than toward our palms—

—until we reached touch range—

—backstepped to dodge the boulder at the end of its tail as it swung—

—took another step forward—

—sidestepped the arm that came crashing down—

—and kicked its shin with a sweep so powerful its massive, stone body rotated mid-air.

The rhyperior’s roar of pain was more of a croak, and I quickly leapt back as it slammed into the ground. Cracks had formed over its body from the blow to its leg, and as it shuddered and tried to stand, I shaped another psychic blast that sent it tumbling far over the edge.

[They can survive terminal velocity falls,] Survive helpfully added, just before we heard the distant thud. [Though it will likely be unconscious, after that strike.]

(That was great! Now let’s try it on the real thing!)


It took a while to find a tyranitar—

a note of alarm, from Fuji

—that had wandered far enough from Mount Silver’s caves to ensure that no other pokemon would join the fight. Levitation had proven too unwieldy to dodge most ranged attacks, but for a sneak strike it was still ideal, and we needed to test our power safely, first.

Weeks of practice while traveling from place to place spreading the warning dreams allowed me to build the burning energy in my core, and sending it out of my palms in a shimmering rush no longer left me as drained. A moment later the tyranitar stumbled as it was struck…

…then straightened, scales bristling as sand pours out with its roar in an expanding storm.

(Well, that’s disappointing.)

[This is why we test things safely first.]

(Fighting attacks should be effective against both Rock and Dark pokemon!)

[Doubtless why the possibility of learning to manipulate it was not in any of our training at the lab. We’re still relatively weak, particularly with this sort of attack.]

A second blast into the heart of the localized sandstorm didn’t end it. I could do one more before reaching my limit, and once it hit, the sand stopped billowing around as the tyranitar fell with a crash.

We need to be able to get it in one…


The second tyranitar was so far and high in the mountains that the cold seeped into my bones as I levitated above it, palms cupped together. Its color was different from the last, a paler green with a purple stomach, and it was alternating between pulverizing the side of a mountain with sharp, echoing blows that led me to find it in the first place, and feasting on the gravel that was left afterward.

It didn’t take meaningfully longer to concentrate the energy into a denser projectile, but it did take more focus, even with my tulpas. The stronger compression gets harder with each heartbeat, as more and more aura goes into the sphere… until it all releases in a rush that left my limbs shaking.

The aura was so bright it cast wildly swinging shadows around the terrain as it erratically bobbed a jagged line toward the tyranitar…

…and struck the ground to the side of it.

(Well…)

[That was even more disappointing.]

The tyranitar swung around as if it sensed the near miss, then turned and scanned the area until it spotted me floating mid-air… and roared a challenge, dark energy gathering in its maw.

[…We should go.]

We did.


…and then I withdraw slightly from Fuji’s mind, let the memories fade so Fuji can recover. He takes a deep breath, then lifts his cup to his nose for another, slower one, before taking a sip. I drink more of my own, grounding myself in the present.

“You’ve been learning to protect yourself against Dark pokemon,” he finally says, with pride. “All on your own. Pardon, Survive and Thrive. Not entirely alone. I’m glad.”

It is a necessary step, and part of the need to grow generally stronger. But even that latest memory is from months ago, when I still traveled around to spread the dreams.

“Ah, I see. What have you been doing more recently?”

I merge more deeply again, asking the question without words, and when he agrees…


The murkrow’s talons raked across my arm just before my aura knocked it out of the air,

[Drop!]

I did, avoiding the next two and using my kinesis to move more sharply through the air than they can as I focus more aura…


The houndoom were wary as they circled me, fire dripping from their muzzles, two of their number already on the ground…


…electricity crackled through the air as my kinesis flung two pikachu up and away, partitions blocking the pain as I recovered through them…


…dark claws and gleaming ice tore through my hamstrings, and the sneasel danced away before my aura-filled leg could strike it…


I sense his mind settling around the answer, putting the pieces of the pattern together, and stop sending new memories. His mood has changed, and after he recovers enough to drink again, I gently ask, Do you understand?

“I do,” he whispers. “You’re also preparing to try to kill the Stormbringers.”

I am.

“Because you were made to? Because it would make you happy, or give you purpose?”

I hear his voice rising, can feel his anguish, his fear that I will destroy myself for the sake of Giovanni’s mission. I set my cup down, and wish I could smile as I meet his gaze, feeling the lack of facial muscles from muscle memory that isn’t mine.

Instead I send him warmth and gratitude and reassurance, as I say, No. I will do it because this is my home too.

His eyes shine, and he looks away. Pride. Fear. “You don’t have to stay in Kanto.”

I meant this world.

“They don’t threaten the world!”

But the unown god does.

He closes his eyes. “And you want to fight it?”

[We do not want to—]

(Speak for yourself!)

[—but if we don’t…]

Who else can?

Fuji’s head hangs. He breathes in and out. His fingers grip around his mug, then release it.

Finally, he nods.

I stand from the chair, and lower myself beside him, taking him carefully in my arms as a tear drips down my cheek. I know you do not want to lose another child. It means much to me, that you see me this way.

His arms are warm around me, and his care is warmer. He takes a few watery breaths, then sighs. “It’s hard to live with this fear again. A decade of it hasn’t made it any less sharp. But it is your life, always, to do with as you want. I can’t wish anything more or less, for you.”

Thank you. That means just as much, if not more. I grip him tighter, for a moment, and then release, and return to my seat. But there’s no need to worry yet. I know I am not yet ready to face any of them. Now. Tell me what’s happened?

Fuji runs a hand over his bald spot. “Many things. You’ve learned about ‘Team Rocket?'”

It lingered on the minds of many, when I flew over Goldenrod.

“I figured, since people stopped getting the dreams.”

I wanted to understand what move this was, before taking any more risks. Do you understand it?

“I don’t, nor did Sabrina sufficiently explain it.”

A mild pain in my chest. She came to you, then?

“She did.” Fuji looks away. “I left her alive.”

Some of the pain eases. Thank you.

“It was not just for you. But I won’t take any choices away from you, if I can avoid it.”

I can sense the deeper meaning to those words, and the fears he fought to hold to them. Worry that I would be manipulated, despite everything. Worry that he would also be an avenue for manipulation. What else did she say?

He sighs. “That she didn’t know about your illness, of course. That she regrets her role in your confinement, and understands it was wrong. And that she is ‘hedging her bets,’ against Giovanni. Whatever that means.”

[Perhaps she is creating off-roads, contingency plans…?]

Perhaps. Do you believe her?

“I believe she has regrets, at the very least.” There’s sadness, there, mixed with anger and a grudging pity. “And… she misses you. It’s easy enough, to believe that.”

The pain in my chest has grown again, and I close my eyes, seeing her face in the dark. Memories of her smile, changing with her face over the years. Memories of her voice, both in my head and through my tank and finally through the air.

I miss her mind almost as much as I missed Fuji’s.

Warmth surrounds my hand, and I gently squeeze his fingers. I breathe until the pain starts to fade, and Fuji simply sits with me, and waits.

(Drink some tea?)

I nod, and do so. It is lukewarm, but still a refreshing novelty, and the pain fades a little more. Fuji releases my hand, and brings the kettle to refill our mugs before refilling it, and dropping some berries beside the cyndaquil from a pouch beside the fireplace.

Thank you. I lap some more, the combined temperatures settling somewhere hot without being scalding. What was her message?

“That’s… not from our meeting. There’s more, before I get to that. You’ve heard of Miracle Eye?”

His mood is apprehensive, and in a few moments his thoughts have traced through the relevant pathways…

(!)

[!]

I stand, tail lashing from side to side. This is real?

Fuji’s face is forcefully relaxed, but I can feel his worry, and a deep helplessness. The words come out as if forced. “If it’s fake, it would be a massive conspiracy. Much larger than the ones needed even for your creation and imprisonment. But—”

I begin to pace, energy coursing through me. Thrive and Survive are wordless, radiating simple desire, in total agreement.

We want this.

“Mazda…”

I need this.

“And if it’s a trap?”

[The benefits are too great to ignore.]

(Yes!)

[But we can be cautious. We won’t rush into anything.]

(No!)

I’ll be careful. It seemed the source wasn’t Sabrina, and others can do it?

“Yes. By now there are at least a dozen trainers in Kanto with pokemon capable of it.”

Then I’ll find one of them. If this didn’t come from Giovanni, if it’s truly something he could not predict… it may be the answer.

Fuji is still apprehensive. No, he’s afraid. “The answer to…”

How to face him again.

Giovanni.

My creator.

No longer immune to my powers. No longer a mystery, unable to be trusted.

The thought is seductive, exhilarating. Blood pumps through my body as something I thought was forever beyond my reach is suddenly, potentially, achievable.

“Is it truly that important, to you?”

Fuji’s whisper draws my attention back to him, and I can feel his despair.

He believes this will be the end of me, one way or the other.

I step toward him, and put my hands on his shoulders. He’s gotten so much older, since our time in the lab. Older, and frailer. It grieves me to see it. Trust in me. I won’t do anything foolish.

“He could nearly convince an arbok to bite its own tail. I wish you could be free of him.”

Perhaps this is a way I could be.

Fuji passes a hand over his face, but nods. I feel his apprehension shifting in a new direction…

There’s more?

He nods, and squeezes my arm. I release him, and he takes out his phone, touches it a few times, then turns to show me.

“Hello, regions of the world.” Sabrina looks… tired. Poised, but also defeated, in some deep way. “I apologize for this interruption to your day or night, and will try to make this address short and to the point…”

I gently take the phone from him, and sit, eyes glued to the screen as Sabrina’s voice continues coming out of its tiny speakers. It’s nothing like merging with her mind would be, but the small device is the first connection I’ve had to my old friend and teacher in nearly a year.

“Finally, I have a message for the Dreamer themself…”

A mixed thrill of excitement and dread runs through from my head to my feet, and I have to relax my grip on the phone before I crush it. She’s talking about me, in public… to me…

[Breathe, Prime.]

I breathe, and listen, as she acknowledges my efforts, with the dreams. As she thanks me for them.

And as she blames me, inadvertently, for whatever happened to her student. Or what he might do.

“Thank you all for your time. Be safe.”

I freeze the picture on her face, emotions stirring and thoughts whirling. After a moment I replay the message, paying more careful attention to the word choices.

“…fragmentation of his sense of self…”

“…I hope psychics around the island, and world, take the risk seriously…”

(Is she talking about us?)

[If our merger with this “Rowan” led to something like tulpas, or showed him the way to create them…]

(That wouldn’t be our fault!)

[No. But others may not see it that way.]

I’m less concerned about whether I’m blamed, and more concerned with the possibility that the unown have infected Rowan. Or rather, that the mad god behind the unown have…

“…any help you can offer…”

She wants my help.

Or she wants me to reach out to someone else, like Agatha. The first person I’d sent the warning dream to, with a mind that surprised me with its strangeness. I could visit her again, while she’s awake this time. Let her know about my new discoveries regarding the unown, assure her I have nothing to do with Rowan… and no ideas on what might be happening…

(I have ideas!)

You do?

(Of course!)

“Thank you all for your time. Be safe.”

I pause the video again, then hand it back before I was tempted to listen to it again, this time just to hear her voice. When?

“Two weeks ago.”

And nothing else has happened, since?

“Not that I’m aware.”

[Maybe it’s too late. Maybe it’s better if we just… ignore it.]

(No! We could learn so much if we meet Rowan! We should find him!)

What are your thoughts?

“I don’t know anything more than—”

Then what are your intuitions? I trust you to be an advisor, one with different knowledge and experience over much more time. Trust me to decide for myself, rather than worrying about your influence over me.

I’ve surprised him. He didn’t expect me to be… “wise.” The thought is rueful, given my name, and he feels a mix of chagrin and pride, for underestimating me. I send back warmth and amusement.

“My intuitions are… confused. I don’t know how to identify them, what makes them intuitions and not simple fear. And my fear is that even if Sabrina is closer to her own kind of freedom now than she was a year ago, a smart, adaptive schemer could use even that as part of his manipulations.”

If it is a plan by Giovanni, it would be an easy one to unravel. The true danger would only come from a potential meeting he could predict.

Fuji straightens. “I can act as your messenger.”

More warmth fills me, and I share it with him. You could. It’s a useful possibility to keep in mind. But there are too many people involved for him to be prepared for contact from all of them.

“You won’t go to Agatha either, then?”

Not right away. I can’t observe her thoughts directly without alerting her of my presence, but I can learn from those she meets with, and those they meet with.

“Tonight?”

He tries to make the word neutral, but his resignation and hope are loud in my mind, and I quickly reassure him with my own feelings before I make it explicit. If you would have me, I’d stay for a while, to rest and talk more.

His relief and joy fill me, and he smiles. “Of course. I’ll make some food, and put on the sheets… you haven’t slept on a mattress before, have you? I hope it’s comfortable… come, let me show you your room…”

I follow him letting some of my tiredness return to fill my attention. A place I can rest, truly rest, with my guard down… another thing I’ve feared I’d never have.

It is good to have a home.


Thrive

Fuji is the best.

He’s love and kindness and support and encouragement and all the things that make Prime feel better, and more confident, and braver. Even Survive agrees Fuji is great, which is a relief! We get along pretty well, especially compared to how our “older siblings” fought all the time, but it’s nice when we don’t have to constantly argue against each other. Instead we can be on the same team!

Even more than usual, I mean, which is great! Everything’s better when we work together.

After arriving at Fuji’s we spend days just relaxing and eating different foods and talking and reading poetry and listening to music. Music! I’ve missed music so much, despite never getting to listen to it myself outside of memories, or faintly in the distance sometimes in big cities… I can’t really dance since I’m just a tulpa and Prime doesn’t want to try dancing but I’m allowed to twirl our tail sometimes when I’m excited and I give it a lot of twirls while we listen to the music. It gives me so many ideas about what other kinds of music we could listen to, and what sorts of attacks could be made using sound as a medium, and how we might learn to sing at some point…

Prime got sad when I suggested that. I think they still have hangups about not being human. But we’ll get over those, over time! We can always learn and grow, and if all else fails, we can probably even learn to change our body! That would be so cool. But not to become human, because most humans wouldn’t want to be human either, if they could become something better. Like not having to sleep! Sleep is the worst, or it would be, except being tired is even worse than sleep is, so it’s good to get enough sleep.

Oh, we also read a lot! Fuji showed us this story he sort of helped write, and it’s about us! Or Prime, at least, before he had any of us. It seemed a new kind of sad and lonely, somehow, reading it from the outside instead of living it through memories! Prime cried. It felt painful, but also good, and it was so great to experience all these new complicated challenging things! Fuji is so great. We should stay here forever.

Except not forever, obviously, because there’s so much to do! We need to get stronger, and there’s so much more of the island we haven’t explored, and so many pokemon we haven’t fought, and so many more people we haven’t met (through merging with them, even if it’s really shallow)… oh it’s so exciting to think about meeting Agatha or Sabrina or anyone else, really! We need to figure out the unown threat, of course, just flying around killing any we see won’t really solve anything, but also meeting others and maybe navigating traps and learning to get along will all be so fun! And if some turn out to be enemies we’ll actually get to test ourselves! Survive gets really anxious when we talk about that but we’ve prepared a lot, and if we’re not prepared enough, we’ll learn from that and prepare more next time!

Unless we die or get captured, which would be bad, yeah. But it’s also what makes things exciting!

We go on short flights around the cabin at night, making sure no dangerous pokemon are around, but this place is pretty far from the wilds and there are barely any pokemon here, let alone any strong ones. It’s strange not seeing anything more dangerous than a noctowl for days, and we’re almost getting good enough to dodge their attacks while levitating! Soon we’ll fly better than any Flying pokemon, and be ready to face the Stormbringers!

Well, after we also learn some other stuff. Fire is still tricky. Electricity is even more tricky. I feel like we can sort of handle ice, after so much time in the mountains, but Survive thinks until we’ve survived a blizzard we shouldn’t think we’re prepared. I said that was a great idea and Survive was really smart for suggesting it, but Survive didn’t seem to agree.

Eventually a week passes, and I start to get restless. MIRACLE EYE is still out there waiting for us to learn it! But Prime and Fuji want to talk about lots of things that might happen because of the story that was written, and whether we should talk to people like Leaf Juniper. Fuji says it would be bad to endanger her, and Prime agrees, but she sounds like someone we could be friends with! It makes me sad that we might not make a friend out of fear, and me saying so made the others sad too, but they still think it’s better not to right now.

Still, it’s okay, because Fuji is our friend and parent and Prime is so much happier after just a little while here, so much more relaxed. Prime has laughed more times in the week since we’ve arrived (17) than in the months since I was made (3) and that is great! We should laugh more, and I should get to twirl our tail more, and we should try singing sometime because even if we’re bad at it we can get better and then we’ll have another fun thing to do while we fly around!

They also talk lots about less fun things like what might happen because of the unown research. Some of it is exciting, but a lot of it has Prime pretty worried. Prime thinks about sabotaging them sometimes, but is not sure if it’s the right decision. Fuji said it’s too risky, and Survive agreed. Sometimes it feels like everyone else is just way too scared of everything. How are we going to learn and grow without taking some risks?

Meanwhile we’ve learned to make tea and cook eggs and change bed sheets (it took a while to learn to rest on a bed but it was so comfortable once we found a good position with enough pillows) and even start to write some poetry! Which was after we learned to type on a keyboard with extra big keys so we could press just one at a time with our hands instead of telekinesis, which is an interesting new experience even if it’s less efficient. Fuji was so thoughtful for getting that. He’s amazing. We should stay here with him forever.

But no, we should go soon, really, and come back soon! We’re so much better rested now than we’ve ever been, it feels so good, like we could run for hours without getting tired, or fight three tyranitar at once! We should find another tyranitar and beat it with just ki strikes. It won’t help against the Stormbringers but maybe it will against the unown god! Who knows what that thing will be like? I have lots of ideas. Survive and I talk about them sometimes but Survive seems much less happy about it. Still, I’m glad they’re around, and I know they’re glad I am too. They even said our survival likelihood has gone surprisingly higher since I was made! I told them I loved them too.

After almost two weeks Prime seems nearly as ready to go as I am, and we hug Fuji and cry a little more and thank him for everything. It’s hard to leave because he’s crying and it makes us cry more to think of him being here alone but we promise we’ll be back soon and he promises he’ll have the room ready whenever.

He’s the best. We love Fuji so much it hurts. We hope he’ll be okay.

But we have to find out what’s happening in the world, and that means maybe talking to Sabrina, who we also love so much it hurts, in different ways. There’s one city we haven’t ever been to, and we finally go there now, dipping into people’s minds at night until we find trainers who go to Sabrina’s gym, finding more and more people through their relationships until we reach those who see Sabrina somewhat regularly, who think about meetings with her.

It’s dangerous flying through cities, so many people are still awake even super late at night and there are some even riding pokemon around in the air. Luckily we can detect most of them in time to stay away, but we wait for cloudy nights to dip too deep and find more people to merge with besides those in the tallest buildings. A few turn out to be Sensitive, but most of those are left with a fleeting feeling of not being alone.

Prime is worried that if Rowan was badly affected by our merger with him, we should be more careful about merging with others. The memory of hurting others when we first merged with them in the lab is still painful. But so long as we don’t merge with other psychics we’re unlikely to cause problems, and we can detect if others are psychic by the way their minds…

…(Who is that?)

The others immediately focus on what caught my attention, and we float closer, though it’s unnecessary for a deeper merge. Which we don’t do, because the mind is clearly psychic. But we can pick up a lot without “really” merging, much more than humans can, and from this mind we’re picking up…

Another mind.

(It’s a tulpa! He has one like us!)

Not like us, Prime corrects. The structure is… different. More fluid, almost more equitable. It’s fascinating…

(We have to learn how he did that, we could learn so much from merging with him! I could do the offensive amnesia thing—)

[No.]

No. It would not be right, even if we could know it’s safe. But I believe I know who this is.

(Who?!) I race back over and through all our memories, focusing more on parts I don’t normally pay as much attention to… (Oh! Red Verres!)

[He knows Miracle Eye. Perhaps we… should merge with him, just for a moment, if we can find him training?]

Perhaps. If there’s anyone at risk of the same thing that happened to Rowan, it’s him. But if it was merger with an unown hive that caused Rowan’s madness, or a combination of other factors…

(Yes? We can try?) I want the merge so bad we could learn MIRACLE EYE and new partitions and even if he notices us and knows we’re not human maybe we can make a friend since he’s friends with Leaf Juniper who wrote the story—

For now we watch, and wait. There are still others we can learn from, and perhaps approaching Agatha first would be better. But—

(But after that, maybe we’ll try?)

maybe.

I twirl and swirl our tail as we float far above the building.

The future is looking bright.

Chapter 125: Interlude XXV – Shared Weight

Chapter 125: Interlude XXV – Shared Weight

Blaine?”

The call dragged him from sleep, back protesting as he abruptly sat forward in his chair. His office was dimly lit, and it took him a moment to regather his bearings, separate dream from reality…

Blaine, they’re here.”

A jolt of adrenaline chased most of the remaining drowsiness away, and he rushed to unplug his workpad as he stood. Pins and needles made him sag against the desk, but he forced himself around it and forward, grabbing his lab coat on the way out so he could shove his arms through its sleeves.

Yuki paced the hall, looking like she got just as little sleep as he did. Still, her hair was brushed into a glossy dark wave, her white coat spotless over a bright yellow halter top. All of which made him acutely aware that he didn’t bring a change of clothes for the morning, because he didn’t plan to fall asleep here. Mistake. Should have predicted…

You okay?” she asked, voice low.

Yes. My coat?”

She fussed at its collar to make it lie flat, then straightened his tie. “You shaved.”

Bad?” He touched jaw and cheek. It felt overly exposed and sensitive to the air, all except for his upper lip, where he’d left a mustache.

No, looks good. You stayed here all night?”

Had to make sure.”

I could have helped.” She stepped back.

My responsibility. You handled yours.”

I still could have helped.”

He shook his head. Part of him did appreciate the offer, but… working in the field, at labs, or in corporations showed him time and again the dangers of a diffuse work hierarchy. Worse, of a structure where the responsibility was diffuse…

So long as one person was, ultimately, responsible for each task, it was easier to not slack off and hope someone else made up the lack. For most things, delegation is necessary, but motivation and error correction could only be clearly evaluated and ensured when the chain of responsibility is clear and singular.

A knock at the front door. “One more minute!” she called out.

You didn’t let them in?”

And bring them where, to see you napping?”

He sighed and straightened his tie, only for her to reach out and straighten it again.

Remember,” she said, letting out a slow breath as her gaze met his. “Slow. Okay?”

Blaine nodded and took his own slow breath over the pounding of his heart. She smiled, squeezed his arm, then went toward the front door.

He checked his pad once more, making sure it was on the right page, then followed. They’ve done enough. Surely, it will be enough…

“—pleasure to meet you.”

The two League officials appeared to be around his age, which could be a good or bad thing. Either his lab was too small to warrant a serious investigation, or too small to warrant someone senior enough for complex decisions…

Dr. Ueda.” The woman bowed to him. “I’m Minori, this is Kenzo. We’re here to discuss—”

Yes, hello.” He returned the bow, but not before he saw Yuki’s wince from behind them. He knew why they’re here, they knew he knew why they’re here, why delay things? “I’ve prepared a list of our efforts to—”

Would you like some tea, first?” Yuki asked, raising her eyebrows at him.

I’ll pass, thank you,” Minori said, and Kenzo nodded his own appreciation. “But we can start with a tour, if that’s alright?”

Of course.” Blaine led them back the way he came, passing the shared office he, Yuki, and the other three at his startup shared. Past the bathroom and closet, and into the living room. Or what used to be a living room.

The walls were lined with shelves, three large tables filling most of the floor space. “Chemistry,” he said, pointing to one, then the second and third. “Mechanics, materials.”

The two league officials stared at the crowded space. He wondered if they were waiting for more explanation, but surely they knew what the lab was working on from their briefing… surely they’d had a briefing?

And… the kitchen?”

Not for food,” Yuki said with a smile. “Some intersection of chemistry and biology. Samples go in the fridge, any disposal in the sink. Don’t worry, we ensure they’re safe for the piping, and water soluble.”

It’s all in my documents,” Blaine tried, holding his pad up again.

Capture ball prototype?” Kenzo asked, speaking for the first time. Blaine followed his gaze to the casing of Silph’s newest design. It’s a marvel of engineering, almost small enough to fit in one hand.

Alterations. Testing heat and pressure tolerance.”

Testing… where?”

Volcano and ocean.” Blaine tried to keep his burgeoning frustration in check as he avoided mentioning that it was in his documents. He knew they were here for direct observation, not just review their policies—that could have been done online. But he expected they would want to get on with their day as much as he did, and they would be able to ask more meaningful questions after reading the documentation…

And is this the state the lab was in during the license clearance?”

More or less,” Yuki said, skipping over the hours of cleaning, organizing, and cataloging they all put in. “We’ve added some equipment, but nothing that would add to risk profiles.”

Minori took another look around. “I have to admit, I expected your work here to be mostly theoretical, with the lab consisting only of simulation, or material production.”

We can theorize at home,” Blaine said, trying to restrain his sarcasm. It would serve no purpose. “Have either of you worked in chemistry or engineering?”

Material science,” Kenzo says. “For just a few years.”

Chemistry, but studied rather than worked in.” Minori said. “You likely don’t remember many names or faces, but our lab came to collaborate with yours in university. Unfortunately, the trip was cut short by—”

Moltres,” Blaine said, memories making his pulse quicken. Memories of air so dry and hot he worried his clothes would burst into flame. Of time slipping through his fingers, the waves of Pressure driving him to scramble from one minute to the next… “Yes, I’d forgotten that.”

Yuki was watching him. He should say more? He shifted his weight, cleared his throat. “It was a difficult time, after.” The reconstruction, the loss of life and destroyed work… the frustration he felt, after, with everyone’s lack of coordination, of ability… and his own powerlessness. “I’m glad you made it safely through.”

You too. I changed focus, after. Took up training again.”

Blaine nodded, then added, “I considered it.” He’d been good, as a trainer. Perhaps better than he was a researcher.

But his best efforts as a trainer weren’t enough. It wasn’t a path to keeping what happened that day from happening again.

There’s some more equipment through here,” Yuki said. “And then we can show you our documentation?”

They followed her, and it took another ten minutes before they were seated in the somewhat cramped office. Kenzo read from his phone after Blaine sent him a copy of the document, and Minori read from his pad, while Yuki and he simply watched them scroll. Blaine woke his computer at one point and tried to do some work, but he mostly failed to do anything more than check his mail numerous times.

Finally, Minori handed the pad back. Kenzo continued reading, but nodded when she said, “It’s an impressive list of measures, especially for a startup this small. I’ll let the League know that, by my judgment, your lab is being very cautious. Perhaps even overly so.”

His shoulders felt as though they were relaxing for the first time in days. He let out a long, slow breath, and beside him heard Yuki doing the opposite. “Thank you.”

However…”

He should have known.

I feel I should be upfront, and warn you that it’s possible their decision still won’t be favorable.”

He stared at her, saw the regret in her eyes, the way her hands clasped in her lap. Kenzo was slowly putting his phone away. “Why?”

We’re not part of those meetings. But my boss’s boss has been pretty insistent that what happened in Hoenn can’t happen here.”

But… we still have no idea why the computers became pokemon!”

Do we?” Yuki asked. “Is it being kept secret?”

Not as far as we know,” Kenzo said. “But the leading idea among the public is that maybe artificial pokemon come from places where things are being invented.”

Blaine opened his mouth to scoff, but Minori held a hand up. “I agree that’s not a good explanation. But the League is mostly deferring to civilian government on this, and the public has spoken. We expect a new category of zoning laws will go into effect, requiring laboratories to be away from residential areas.”

He felt the weight back on his shoulders, and deeper, in his chest. His hands were clenched on his armrests, and he took deep breaths, trying not to think of all the work they’d put into this, all the money and time… “We can’t relocate. We barely have the spare funding to move everything to another location, let alone build a whole new lab.”

And the prices of suitable places have already jumped,” Yuki murmured. “There have been rumors…”

Minori nodded, still looking sad, but didn’t say anything else. Blaine could feel himself wanting to yell, to plead. Their research wasn’t just a way to launch the company, it was important, it could change the kinds of pokemon everyone could tame, make the capture balls more durable…

But those would be emotional appeals, and none of it would matter. It’s not up to them. They heard his arguments and evidence, and none of it would reach those who are making the decision, ultimately.

Because those people didn’t exist, not really. They were everywhere, an amorphous blob of fear and superstition, made up of people who he can barely talk to on a normal day, on regular topics. No one person is taking responsibility for the decision or the counterfactual harm, not even the Champion or President.

The silence went on for over a minute, and it was Yuki who stirred first, and murmured, “Thank you, both of you, for your time.”

Of course. I wish we—”

You could have just said it.”

A hand gripped his shoulder. He almost shook it off.

It’s not a sure thing, Dr. Ueda. I just—”

The warning is appreciated.” Yuki’s fingers dig into his arm, but what harm, to be frank? What would it matter? “It would have been appreciated more a week ago, or even yesterday. If you’re visiting anyone else,” he grits out, heart pounding and jaw aching with his restraint. “I suggest you tell them up front how little their efforts will matter, and that you’re just there to check boxes off a list.”

Blaine—”

They should know as soon as possible that—”

It’s not their—”

It’s alright,” Kenzo said, and stood. “Really. I think it’s better if we go.”

Minori stood as well. “I’m sorry. And thank you for the… suggestion, Dr. Ueda. It’s… not something I’m supposed to say, but I… would have felt bad, if I hadn’t said anything.”

Blaine’s mind buzzed, anger hot in his lungs, despair heavy in his chest. He couldn’t respond, couldn’t think of any words to fill the silence with that wouldn’t be just as hollow as the ones before. Eventually Kenzo touched Minori’s arm, and they bowed before leaving.

Yuki’s hand stayed clenched around Blaine’s arm until they heard the distant sound of the front door closing. Only then did her fingers relax, her hand sliding partway down to his elbow. “Blaine…”

It’s my fault.” The words were like hot lead as he forced them out. “I didn’t take it seriously enough, consider worst case scenarios. I’ll think of something. Look for new funding.”

I can help—”

It’s my responsibility. You go home, sleep.”

I don’t w—”

I’d like to be alone.” His stomach was full of acid, and he finally felt his hunger. He didn’t eat anything the night before, or this morning… “Please.”

She was silent, all except her breathing. Shallow. Uneven. He didn’t look at her, and eventually she squeezed his arm once more, and stood up, and left.

Slowly, he placed his arms on the table. Slowly, he sank his head down, until the acid stopped swirling in his stomach, until the burning fled, leaving only the weight over his heart, twice as heavy each time he thought of Yuki’s hand on his arm, or the way he didn’t even look at her before she left.

Also his fault. Also his responsibility. No one else’s.

He didn’t know how he’d fix anything, yet. But it was the only way he knew to try.


The manor was a ten minute flight from Blaine’s nearest teleport point, and he spent those minutes trying to imagine the confrontation ahead. Who might be there, what they might claim, how he would respond, and whether it would be better for Kiko and Mathew to be with him.

They ride behind him, now, their charizards trailing by enough distance that none of them get territorial about their airspace. They were the two at the gym when the call came who 1) had mounts who could keep up, 2) were senior enough, and 3) were available on short notice. That they happen to ride charizard as well is serendipity, and he’ll take the extra edge it might give them.

Anyone assuming it would be a show of status would be wrong; it’s a show of force, which he hopes won’t be necessary, but is rarely unhelpful in speeding things to their conclusions.

The sun gleams off Kokuyōseki’s dark scales as Blaine angles her into a slow, graceful swoop that brings the manor into sight, and it takes him a moment to recognize what he’s seeing around the manor as… a picnic.

Multiple picnics.

He notes his confusion, and sets aside the burgeoning frustration. He would be rather upset over this all being some misunderstanding that led to a waste of time, but he would also rather that be the case than whatever else might have brought him here…

Sudden movement draws his attention to the north, where a—

“Dragonite,” he says, pressing his earpiece.

—rises abruptly toward them. Kokuyōseki’s challenge roar sends a flood of adrenaline through him, kickstarting his shift to analyzing opening attacks and evasive strategies…

The dragonite roars its challenge back, but also turns to mirror them at a constant distance. Blaine is still processing the sudden shift while his head cranes to look around by trained habit, and he sees the honchkrow flying silently above them.

How long had it been there? Likely long enough to take them by surprise if the dragonite had completed its charge…

“We’ve got a tail,” Kiko says just a few rapid heartbeats after Blaine’s realization, but then she adds, “Kilowattrel.”

Surrounded.

But they’re not being attacked, and when Blaine looks back down at the manor, it’s clear from the way the distant figures scramble toward the building that they’re not all combatants. Which also solves the problem of where to land.

“Kiko, perimeter,” he says. “Mathew, stay high and follow anyone that leaves.”

“On it.”

“Yes s-zzhshhhhh…”

Blaine frowns and taps his ear piece to turn it off, ending the static. As if the dragonite weren’t confirmation enough, jamming comms implies something more serious than a bunch of looters. More organized.

Kokuyōseki eases out of the glide for a gentle landing, her breath coming out in a slow, hot stream that washes over him like a sauna. He clenches his teeth to avoid biting his tongue as she hits the ground in a short lope that tears up some grass and a couple picnic blankets… which, on closer inspection, appear to be tablecloths.

None of the people around the manor have fled farther than it took to create a safe landing zone, and they also haven’t summoned any pokemon. By the time his boots have hit grass, a few are even approaching at a jog.

“Oak.” Confusion mixes with relief as he also recognizes Verres and Juniper, along with Ranger Neasman and the foreign cadet. “Explain.”

Juniper begins to speak. “With all due respect, Leader—”

The young Oak cuts his friend off by raising a hand in front of her, and simply says, “You first.”

Blaine’s eyes narrow, and he removes his flight helmet and exchanges the goggles for his sunglasses before he looks up to where the dragonite is flying a tight circle beneath Kiko’s charizard. He tests his earpiece again, then takes a closer look at those around them.

Men and women, all dressed for mining work, if he interprets the thick, dirt-stained material properly. He doesn’t see any obvious signs of digging, but perhaps within the mansion… “What’s the accusation?”

Oak hesitates, this time, and when Juniper looks at him, he nods, and she steps forward. “Delaying us.”

“Us?” He focuses on the expressions now, the way those around them hold themselves. Not confused, not intimidated. Level, assessing looks.

Not simple contract workers.

His gaze jumps back to Verres, who stands quietly behind, simply watching with those red eyes. The hunter beside him is scanning the skies with eyes hidden behind shades of his own, which Blaine guesses are more than they appear.

Interpol, or…? Blaine turns back to Verres, thoughts lapping around the edges of anything too private by focusing instead on his intent. “Yours?” He points up, where the dragonite and others are still circling.

The teenager shrugs. “Only some.”

Someone new is jogging toward them, coat flapping behind him in the wind, and Blaine shakes his head as the Special Administrator arrives to confirm his guess. “Warrant?”

“In the works,” Looker says, breathing deep. “There’s a lab under this ma—”

“I know.”

Everyone reacts visibly to that, and Blaine frowns. The implication of Interpol being here is obvious; that this is an illegal facility, like the one in Celadon, plausibly harboring renegades. Which means they believe he’s implicated himself, which would be twice as insulting as simply believing him a criminal. “Proof?”

“Forensics are sweeping each—”

“Nothing, then.”

Looker’s lips purse, and he shakes his head. “Still searching.”

Blaine doesn’t try to rein in his disgust, though part of him distantly appreciates the man’s lack of wasting verbiage. “It has approval. I ensured patrols didn’t reveal it.”

“It’s not on any of the manor’s paperwork.”

“Filed as a separate facility.” It was one of the principles he pushed for, upon becoming Leader. That Cinnabar would be a place that facilitated change, rather than feared it. And he would take responsibility for ensuring the safety of everyone on the island.

Looker snorts and sticks his hands in his pocket. “This isn’t a mom-and-pop living above their ramen shop. If you want to challenge our presence here—”

“Legality.”

“Who even sent you?”

“The mayor’s office. Sensors were tripped, sending others risked revealing the facility.”

“Convenient,” Juniper says, drawing Blaine’s attention to her. The youth’s tone is light, though her gaze is not. “For the builders. They keep their secret, and a Leader as free security.”

The implication rankles, and Blaine’s anger almost comes out in wasted words, defending his ego, assuring her that anyone who sent him to be a tool of theirs had badly misjudged him.

His anger also almost comes out in a command for them to leave. He was granted the authority, and by his understanding, Interpol is clearly beyond its remit.

But if they suspect criminality, and the mayor is being used, or if he is…

Whoever invited you here is playing you against us.

Ultimately, responsibility is his.

Blaine glances around them again, then walks to his mount and takes her saddle off before he summons a water trough in front of her. “Rest,” he murmurs, stroking her snout.

Her breath surrounds him in a puff of heat, sweat and wind quickly cooling him back off. He drops the saddle on one of the tablecloths, then starts walking toward the manor. “Follow.”

“Stay sharp, everyone!” Looker calls out to the assembled workers as he keeps stride. He lowers his pitch, head turned behind them. “Were you inviting this lot, too?”

Blaine looks to see the teenagers, rangers, and hunter following as well. “It’s fine.” The lab’s secret is already out, and he has no authority over the two rangers if they were to claim they’re here seeking ditto. As for the others…

He picks a room that’s missing a wall so as to avoid staying in one that would be full of dust, and to allow them the sunshine as light. It was a bedroom once, and some furniture has survived the elements with minimal damage, though everyone remains standing. The foreign cadet, Wendy Burton, stays beside Ranger Neasman and mirrors his posture, while the hunter faces out the open wall. Looker paces around the room, gaze roving as if he’s searching for something with purpose.

Blaine turns back to the three teenagers. Oak meets his gaze, chin held high.

He’d been told that if he wanted to challenge for his badge sooner, the island had to be in better shape. And yet he was spending his time here.

Beside him is Verres, who somehow became the region’s best hope of holding off an organized army of renegades. Also spending his time, and his bodyguards’, here.

And then there’s Juniper, who acts like she knows something he doesn’t. Who the others seemed to be deferring to, in minor ways, even more so than they were Interpol’s Special Administrator.

“Explain,” he says. “Succinctly.”

She opens her mouth, then closes it and looks at Looker, who only spares her a glance before continuing his examination of the room and saying, “Assume the worst.”

Blaine crosses his arms, but holds his tongue and simply gestures for her to get on with it when she looks back at him.

“Okay. So… I met a scientist who told me a story about a secret lab performing unethical biological research to create a powerful new pokemon. When I came here to help find ditto nests… I recognized the manor from his story, and kept exploring until I found a sign of the lab.”

“In custody, or a source?”

“What?”

“Scientist.”

“Oh. A source. He’s… I think he’s on the run, at this point, or… he’s been abducted, maybe.”

Blaine glances at Looker, who has finished his circuit and pulled gloves out of a pocket so he could start rifling through drawers. Blaine wonders briefly if the man is testing him, then returns his attention to Juniper. “Inconvenient.”

“I wouldn’t do all this just for… for a story, or some fame. I know it’s using up a lot of valuable resources, a lot of people’s time, but if the story he told is true, it’s important. And if you’re not in on it, the fact that you know just enough to have helped keep it covered up… Leader, what if the ditto were created here? Wouldn’t you want to know?”

The others give her sharp looks as well. Verres smacks his forehead, and Neasman swears under his breath, while Oak frowns and gives his friend a calculating look.

Blaine does his best to ignore the pageantry, other than to register it as a sign that she doesn’t have reason to believe it. Not that she’s shared with them, at least. “Proof?”

She closes her eyes and takes a breath. “That’s what we’re here for, to find some. If… I’m worried that, now that they know we found it—”

“Enough.”

“—I think we’re against the clock, and if you send us away until the warrant—”

“Leaf,” Oak says, touching her shoulder. “He gets it. You made your point, and he dislikes emotional appeals.”

Blaine is already looking at the rangers. Neasman, who was among the first to face the ditto in the field. Burton, who suggested they search for ditto in ecological balance. “Nests?”

“Not yet,” Ranger Neasman says. “But the lab isn’t fully explored, and some parts might connect to a tunnel network.”

“Obviously.” Blaine studies him. “The first nest you found wasn’t far.”

“Right. That’s why I wanted to check this area in the first place.”

Blaine turns and walks toward the outside, gazing up to spot his people as they fly above and around. If they’re trying to communicate with him, he can’t hear them, and they may not even know he can’t. But they can see him, and they trust him. Each of them has a responsibility, and they can see to them, follow them well.

“Oak,” he says without turning around. “Lesson one.”

The teenager’s voice comes clear, confident. “You do not control fire. You take responsibility for it. Your pokemon, their attacks, what their attacks hit, what is around them, what else might get spread to. All of it is your responsibility. Others can teach you. Others can help you, if you make a mistake. But you own all the consequences, every time. If someone teaches you poorly, you can still learn from others. If others help you, it does not remove your responsibility. In this gym, that is your only responsibility. Learn well. Practice carefully. Fight confidently.”

“Well said.” Blaine turns back to the room, everyone’s attention is on him. Looker has stopped his endless searching, and the hunter keeps his attention outside. As it should be.

“Outside my gym, people take many responsibilities. You cannot fully commit to more than one. Splitting your responsibility evenly is worse than prioritizing. And I learned long ago that you cannot take more responsibility for something than you have power over. The two must remain proportional, or you will stumble.”

Verres blinks, then stands a little straighter. Juniper is watching him warily.

“I know what my responsibility is. I attend to it as best I can. I learned to ask for help over the years. I had to, to become an effective Leader. But I never stopped believing that I am the last one to decide, and live with those decisions, for all that I do and claim to care for.” He looks around at each of them. “You’re asking me to trust your sense of how severely this matters, and become complicit in whatever you do. In return, I ask you all now, each of you. Do you know what your responsibility is? Can you tell me, honestly, that you are serving it, here and now? Or is there some greater commitment that is worth the potential risks and sacrifices you’re making, by staying now that the situation has changed from what you hoped for?”

Looker is far enough from the others that they can likely tell he’s watching the Special Administrator first. The man has his hands in his pockets, face blank as he returns the stare.

Fair enough.

He looks to Juniper next, whose wariness has mixed with something else. Alarm? Guilt? He can’t tell, but he understands what might be part of it. The worry that Blaine is corrupt, and stripping them from the scene with more than fiat authority. By manipulation, by emotionally turning them from their resolve.

Words don’t even come to mind by which he might try to convince her otherwise. No words he says otherwise should convince her. He can only be forthright, and let their own integrity reveal itself.

She begins to look particularly uncomfortable with his stare, and he almost looks away when—

“There is for me.”

Oak has stepped forward, as Blaine hoped he would. The young challenger turns to the rest of them. “I’m only here because I think it’s important. But I trust you guys, at least one of you, to make sure it’s looked into properly. I need to focus on the region… or at least, the portion of it I currently have power to affect. And right now that means making sure Cinnabar is stable.”

“Me, too,” Burton says, only briefly glancing at Neasman. “I need to focus on the ditto nest we found. I’m just here because… well. It’s exciting, isn’t it? And has huge implications. But I don’t really add anything unique.”

Ranger Neasman sighs, then looks between everyone. “I can trust one of you to keep CoRRNet in the loop, when it’s appropriate?”

Looker nods. “You have my word.”

“And mine,” Blaine says.

“Alright. We’re off, then. Good luck, to the rest of you.”

They leave, and Oak begins to as well. He stops when Leaf raises a hand.

“Blue,” she murmurs. “I’m sorry, if I—”

“You didn’t.” He smiles at her. “It was on me, and I’m still glad you included me.”

There’s a sharpness in Blaine’s stomach, watching the ease with which the young Oak takes responsibility and reassures his friend at the same time. He understands. It wasn’t just knowing to recite the right words, and knowing that stepping forward would earn him favor. He understands, and he has the ability to show his care, at the same time. To smile, and leave his friend smiling.

For a moment, Blaine feels old, his heart heavy.

And then he straightens. Later. For now, this.

“I think… I should go too,” Verres says, before Oak starts walking again. “Now that Looker is here, I’m kind of superfluous. And… I’m worried they might try something somewhere.”

Looker nods. “It’s been on my mind. It’s what I would do; commit to a series of attacks, draw everyone’s attention elsewhere.”

“I should get some rest, let Jensen and the others rest too, then continue my training. Make sure we’re all ready.” He turns to Juniper. “Sorry—”

She shakes her head, and keeps her chin high. “No, you’re right. You got them to come, got Looker here. It’s enough.” She suddenly steps forward and hugs him. “Thank you.”

He hugs her back. “I’ll be back in a thought, if something happens.”

Blaine’s gaze rises to Looker again, and he can see the mask peeling, at the edges. The indecision, rather than being reassured by Verres’s departing, has only grown, as he feels his own contrasting responsibility all the keener.

Oak and Verres leave together, and the hunter goes with them. Now it’s just the three, standing in a loose triangle, Blaine at the furthest point.

Juniper’s hands are fists. Her shoulders unbent. She meets his gaze through his sunglasses. Defiant, or sure?

“Juniper.”

She turns, prepared.

Looker sighs. “I don’t trust people. I don’t trust you. But I trust that if you pull something, it won’t be in their direction. And that you know there’ll be consequences. We understand each other?”

The young woman nods. “We do. Thank you.”

“Don’t fucking thank me, Arceus’s sake, kid. I’m giving you a job and I’m not paying you except, maybe, in respect. You get to the bottom of this thing, and you tell me first. Not Mrs. Verres, not your friends, not even your mom in Unova. Or else you go it alone. That’s fine too, if that’s what’s in your,” he flicks a glance at Blaine. “Responsibility. Is it?”

“It is.”

“I figured. Then this is option two. Non-negotiable, take it or leave it.”

Juniper swallows. “I’ll take it.”

“Right. Reach out if you need something.”

He starts to leave, pausing at the broken wall beside Blaine. “Now’s the part where you either kick my men out until the warrant shows up, or I tell them to keep working.”

“Your men can stay. I’ll take responsibility.” As he must for everything on Cinnabar.

Juniper seems to sway, for a moment, but the Special Administrator just nods. “I’ll have a talk with your mayor about this whole secret lab registration thing later. Or maybe Tsunemori will, eventually.”

Blaine just nods, and then it’s just the two of them.

“What will you do?” Juniper asks. She’s recovered herself, but there’s still uncertainty, there.

“I’m going to get to the bottom of whatever happened on my island.” Blaine watches her for a moment, then another. He would like to say he’s contemplating something, examining pros and cons.

But in truth, he’s just uncertain.

The heaviness is still on his heart, now and then. He and Yuki parted ways, eventually. Amicably. He was, ultimately, able to get funding for his startup… but he burnt himself out, doing so. He knew he had to give leadership of it to her, keeping only his shares. They’ve done quite well over the years. She’s done well. They still talk, now and then.

But the weight persists, if lesser than it once was. It was a young Leader Giovanni who eventually gave him the funding he needed. A man who spoke with both brevity and eloquence, and who holds a very similar philosophy to his own. Nihil supernum, he said on one of a handful of nights spent sharing a meal and sparse but meaningful conversation. I’ve always found myself at my best when I reminded myself that if I fail, nothing greater could be relied on.

Giovanni. The man who helped him see, by example, how he’d neglected his ability to work with others well, even if he had to find his own way to stay true to himself. The man who eventually convinced him to pursue Leadership of his own, helped him realize that his style of leadership was better suited to a Gym than a lab or company. And the man who helped him realize how a single company, whatever its contributions, would be unlikely to accomplish as much as a whole island more amenable to easy innovation.

But it would be a mistake to believe everyone took their responsibility as seriously as he did, even as a young man in charge of a small company. And worse, if those who created this lab weren’t negligent, if they were duplicitous in some way, or even criminal…

The weight is still on his heart, but… it is lesser. And it still, with its occasional presence, helps him go slower. Reassess. Error correct.

“Would you care to help?”

Chapter 124: Unearthed

Chapter 124: Unearthed

Within a minute of Rob sending the message that they’re ready to go, people from the investigation/excavation team start teleporting in, then summoning the pokemon and equipment they need to finish the last few meters of the dig into the underground structure. As they pass by, a few of them stare, mostly at Red but some also at her or Blue.

Leaf and the others use that time to give a rundown of what pokemon they have on their belts, and go over basic strategies and communication protocols in case anything goes wrong.

“Will your bodyguards want to go in with us?” Leaf asks as the sounds of excavation echo faintly from deep inside the tunnel.

“One will,” Red admits, and pulls his phone out to message them. “The rest will probably stay at the entrance or near the manor to make sure we’re not ambushed.”

“On that note, we’ll keep you away from the fresh dig spots until we’ve put in proper supports,” Rob says. “I know you want to be the first ones in, but safety first. Speaking of which… here.”

He opens a container box and starts handing out vests. It takes Leaf a moment to recognize the design as similar to Red’s. “Are these for…?”

“Abra, yeah, or other teleporters. We put them in so we can quickly teleport out in the unlikely event of a cave-in. For those with evolved teleporters, just keep them out and walk with them in arm’s reach at all times.”

They start taking their bags off and putting them beside the wall, then summoning their abra. Rob and Red help fit them comfortably into the back carriers, then put them on. “Wonder if we should just always have these,” she muses out loud as she follows Red’s motions to adjust the straps.

“It’s a lot of hassle, particularly if you’re not psychic,” he says. “Limits mobility a lot, even aside from the extra weight. But maybe worth having one on hand, for situations like this. I didn’t even know this was a thing excavators commonly did.”

“It wasn’t until recently,” Rob says with a pointed look at them, and Leaf exchanges grins with Red before he helps her strap Psyguy to her back.

“How’s that?” he asks from behind her, and when she turns to look at him she sees his cheeks are pink.

“Heavy, like you said.” She smiles, hefting the straps a bit. “But secure. Thanks.”

“No problem.” Red smiles back. “He looks, what three-quarters of the way to evolution?”

“Yeah. If we had a PC here I’d switch for another abra, but I can manage so long as we’re not running for too long.”

“If we’re running before we need to teleport out, I’ll be screwed anyway.” Blue is pouring some berries into his palm for Tops. “What flavor, Red? Sweet, tart, bitter?”

“A mix is fine,” Red says, then closes his eyes. Blue starts feeding his kadabra the berries, and Leaf watches with amused fascination as Red’s jaw twitches, lips parting for a quick lick that matches the pokemon’s movements as it feeds.

“That’s… mildly disturbing, somehow,” Ira says.

Wendy is grinning. “It’s cool! Do they taste really different, to him?”

“Yeah, though it’s hard to explain how.” Red opens his eyes and rubs his lips, then lowers his arm, looking a little self-conscious as he turns to Blue. “Okay, you’re all Miracled up.”

“Thanks, buddy.” He tosses a berry to Red, who laughs along with Wendy and Leaf as he catches it, then reaches back to feed it to his abra.

Some of the nervous tension that’s been running through her since Red explained what happened with Rowan fades, and she can see the others look a bit more relaxed too. She turns to Rob, who’s talking with another worker that teleported in before they head for the tunnel entrance, then steps over to the foreman. “Are any of them who go in with us going to stay on-site until we leave?”

“Is that necessary?”

“Yes. I’d like to also restrict their communication to anyone off-site.” So long as she’s assertive in a way that implies the right to make such a demand, she’s hoping she’ll be given that right.

Rob takes it in stride, however, and just looks at Red, who nods, face back to its earlier seriousness. “Right then, we’ll do a comm blackout until the end of the day. You want longer than that, I’ll need clearance from the higher ups.”

“Would that be hard to get?” Leaf asks, growing bold as she realizes that he’s probably used to these sorts of restrictions.

“This is an ad hoc team thrown together from a number of different departments. For what it’s worth, my director would probably be fine with it for a few days, but they’ll need me on other stuff after that.” Rob shrugs. “Don’t think you’ll get them all to sign off at once unless you go to the top.”

Leaf also looks at Red, who hesitates, then shakes his head. “Looker wants to minimize the cost to the other departments and their own investigations. I don’t see him going for it unless we have something more to report in the first place.”

“Why not invite him, then?” Blue suggests. He’s rolling a greatball across his knuckles, something Leaf hasn’t seen him do in months. “I mean, if he’s compromised all this secrecy doesn’t matter anyway, right?”

Red is looking at her, now, and it’s her turn to hesitate. If she had some sense of certainty that Rocket, which Looker did seem to be genuinely working to fight against, has no connection to the Endo clan…

“Let’s wait until we have something to show him, at least,” she says. “If evidence that the place was blown up isn’t enough for him, that is?”

“No harm in waiting a few hours either way, if we can have that for free,” Red says with a shrug. “Especially if we’ll end up sitting around a lot meanwhile.”

One of the hunters (Jensen, she believes his name was) arrives, looking around in bemusement at the circular carved out passage along the mountainside, and then raising a brow at the tunnel entrance, which is tall enough for a machamp to comfortably walk in, and about as wide as a garage door. “What the hell have you been doing down here, Verres? Or am I not supposed to know?”

“Do you have a guess?”

The hunter hooks a thumb in his pokebelt and looks around at the assembled people, with their abra strapped to their backs. Rob gives a blank stare back, and Leaf tries to mimic him, though her gaze feels drawn to the black striped pokeballs on the hunter’s belt.

“I’d say clearing out a ditto nest.” Jensen’s gaze is hidden by his sunglasses, but she sees his head tilt from the rangers toward her, or possibly Blue. “But knowing what you all have been up to in the past, plus the secrecy?” He shakes his head, then turns to Rob. “You with interpol?”

“No comment,” Rob says as he opens a container box, then starts handing out hardhats with headlamps attached, as well as oxygen masks.

“Mhm.” Jensen takes his, then turns back to Red. “You’re not going to ask me to keep this from Director Tsunemori, are you?”

“She knows, though if you come inside… you may have to go through Looker first.”

“Hrm.”

A woman comes jogging out of the tunnel with a belt mostly full of container balls. “We’re pretty sure we’ve reached a real chamber,” she says to Rob. “I’ll follow you in after emptying these.”

“Got it.” Rob turns to them as the woman heads for the teleport platform. “Ready? Test your headlamps and masks… just a few breaths, that’s it. You can let them hang now, I’ll let you know when to put them on. Stay close.”

He takes the lead toward the tunnel opening, and they follow in pairs, passing a portable generator by the tunnel entrance. The electrode inside gives off a muffled hum as it sends power through wires bolted to the rock above them, lights dangling every few meters. There are plenty of support structures inside, making the tunnel seem like it’s been here for years instead of days.

She’s just about to ask how normal it is for this to have been done so quickly when Ranger Ira gives a low whistle. “You guys get any sleep this week?”

“Switching directions is where most cooldown and warmup happens,” Rob says. “The work goes quickly when we can just point the pokemon in a straight line and tell them to dig.” As if on cue, the tunnel starts to noticeably curve a bit. “Not a literal straight line, obviously. They’re trained to avoid digging through areas with low structural integrity. But shoring is what takes the most time, and so long as the tunnels are relatively straight we can almost put them up at the same rate the pokemon dig. Plus… we didn’t have to go too far before we hit something.”

They discover what he means a few moments later, when the tunnel abruptly rises beneath them. The supports become much more common and intricate as the walls become rougher and fracture, and each step shifts rocks beneath Leaf’s shoes. Metal nets are drawn tight between posts to keep the rubble behind more-or-less in place.

For the first time since entering the tunnel, Leaf feels some claustrophobia settle in, the weight of all the rock above them seeming to press down on her mind.

“You can see where the wall used to be,” Rob says with a gesture, and Leaf can indeed make out the glint of broken metal mixed with the rubble. It’s most concentrated around where it starts, and then… “Took a few tries to more-or-less line up with where one of the floors naturally were, but right now we’re pretty sure we’re inside one of the rooms.”

Leaf’s heart sinks as she looks around. It’s just rubble, broken up earth with some bits of metal here and there. If the place was destroyed this thoroughly, it could take weeks to find any sort of meaningful clue… could they possibly keep this under wraps for that long?

The tunnel keeps going, however, and she can hear voices coming from around another curve… as well as hurried steps approaching from behind them. She turns around to see Jensen doing the same, hand on his pokeball, but it’s just the woman from earlier, container balls presumably emptied. “Hey. If you’re all ready, stay here while we punch through and make sure it’s secure?”

“Right,” Rob says, and they step aside so she can hurry past, then around the curve to join whoever is waiting ahead. “Ready to trigger teleportation, everyone.”

Leaf’s heart starts to pound as the claustrophobia grows, but she does as he says, hand reaching back to touch her abra’s foot as the sudden sound of digging starts to echo around them.

It starts and stops in bursts, and Leaf wonders what the excavators are using for commands. They can hear earth cracking and crumbling and shifting, as well as a repeated noise that it takes her a moment to interpret as shovels filling container boxes.

She notices Blue looking particularly tense, and meets his gaze before mouthing, Everything okay?

He shrugs, nods, then leans in so she can hear him over the din. “Memories. Half expecting a bunch of diglett to burst through the wall. Or I guess sandshrew, here.”

She pats his shoulder, and then spends an extra thought every cycle also worrying that the digging noises would attract pokemon, until she reminds herself that any that wouldn’t avoid the potential fight had probably already attacked the excavators earlier in their digging.

Eventually it’s the last sound remaining, and then even that stops. Leaf’s muscles have been tense for minutes, and she finally takes a deep breath, relaxing her body as much as she can… only to jump when someone yells, “Okay, come on through.”

They follow Rob as the sound of construction echoes around the corner, and Leaf starts to notice more and more bits of metal and glass mixed in with the earth around them. A handful of men and women from the excavation team are clustered around a hole in the wall, along with some dugtrio and excadrill. The tunnel keeps going past them, and they can hear more digging coming from that direction.

“Our pokemon found it easier to keep digging past this spot,” Rob explains. “But once we started doing seismoscans of what’s around us, we got a few results that look like mostly uncollapsed chambers. This is the largest one that’s connected to what we’ve already dug.”

“So we’re actually in some kind of underground structure, now?” Jensen asks as he looks around. “And we have been for a bit, looks like. That’s a piece of table leg stuck in the wall, there.”

Leaf follows his gaze and realizes he’s right. “How much have you dug so far?”

One of the workers speaks up. “We estimate about a third of the circumference of the underground facility. But, with the exception of one shift in elevation, it’s all roughly at the same ‘floor.’ Digging multiple layers in parallel would be much more dangerous, so if we decide to dig down or up, we’d basically give up on the rest of this ‘floor’ until we get far enough around to not intersect.”

“We’ll get a better sense of what that looks like once we go in.” Rob secures his facemask, prompting the rest of them to do the same, then summons a gloom. He sends the pokemon through the hole first, then clicks on his headlamp and ducks to step through himself.

“Clear,” he calls a moment later, and Leaf is the first one after him, and so is the first to see…

“Oh,” Leaf says in a small voice that still sounds too loud, relief flooding through her.

The room is clearly split in half, with the roof sloping down to form an angled wall across from them. To Leaf’s left and right are counters and cabinets full of lab equipment, most of them littering the floor where they fell from tabletops and open cabinets, but some still upright and in one piece.

Up until this moment, even with what Rob said about signs of explosives, she was still worried that they would finally get a glimpse inside and find… something normal. A bedroom, or a kitchen, or any other of the dozens of rooms already present aboveground.

But this is clearly something else.

A nudge from behind makes her startle and step away to let more people through, and Rob says, “Don’t touch anything. We’ll put shores up, then evaluate whether it’s safe to keep tunneling from here.”

Leaf walks over to what looks like a massive fridge that’s still standing upright, though the top is partially crumpled by the broken ceiling. Its door is swung partially open, and through it her headlamp reveals broken glass canisters and vials. Some in the back are still undamaged, and have murky liquid in them. She takes out her phone and starts taking pictures, then switches it to video and slowly sweeps the room, heart pounding.

She should feel excited. It feels like everything she’s done since she came to Kanto, everything since the first article she wrote in Pewter, has been building up to this.

But any excitement is drowned out by fear.

Fear of the implications for what this lab may have created. Fear for what might happen once the people who built it learn that it’s been discovered.

And fear of what will happen to the hybrid they may have created, once its existence is widely known.

She turns to Red, who’s staring around with wide eyes. He meets her gaze after a moment, and nods, then turns to Rob.

“We can’t do anything about general leaks on the location, but consider your team on comms blackout going forward. I’m calling Looker.”


It takes almost half an hour for Looker to arrive, in which time they manage to secure the new room and dig their way to another open space, this one a hallway that’s blocked off on either end, It reveals more promising directions to dig in, however, and they’re looking over the acoustic maps to decide which way to try next when the Special Administrator reaches them, takes one look around the lab they found, and heads back out, gesturing for them to follow.

“Everyone here is on comm blackout until I say otherwise,” Looker says to Rob. “I’ll clear it with their team leaders, just make sure they know. The manor above looks like it has some intact rooms, which means we don’t have to pitch tents, but anyone needs to bring extra things in, they clear it with me first.”

“Understood, sir. One issue is debris. We have a landfill we dump the excavated rock to—”

“We’re on a goddamn cliff, dump it in the ocean. I’ll handle Blaine if he has an issue with it.”

Rob bows his head, then heads off to talk to his people. Looker holds a finger up to Red and the others as he takes a phone out and makes a call.

“Where are you?” Looker asks whoever is on the other end, pacing the relatively narrow space between the tunnel entrance and the cliff’s edge. “Hand it off to Dorsey. I want you to gather up with every off-duty agent and officer in Indigo who’s got green or higher clearance that’s got so much as a drilbur, or a, whatever they use for excavation here, sandshrew? Diglett, sure. If they’re not on sick leave, they need to be in Cinnabar, today. I’ll send you the coordinates.”

Leaf’s heart leaps at the confirmation that this is being taken seriously, though her feet itch to dash back inside and see if they’ve found another room yet. There’s also a flutter of anxiety in her stomach as she waits to hear what he wants to tell them. Surely he won’t ask us to leave…?

“Get me a psychic or two, put a forensics team together, and some SMEs. Everything, but double up on… biologists, chemists?” He pauses to turn to Red, who flashes a thumbs up. “Both. Uh huh. No, I’ll deal with them, just get people moving. Oh, and a couple security units. Verres’s guys are here, but we want a wide net. Yeah, that’ll do. Okay, keep me updated.”

He hangs up, then abruptly turns back to them mid-stride, coat flaring behind him. “Who are you two?” he asks Ira and Wendy.

“Ira Neasman, Ranger Captain of Cinnabar’s fifth district. This is Wendy Burton, Senior Cadet, on extended exchange from Almia Academy.”

Looker squints at them, then at Red. “Why are they here? You realize how this complicates things, right?”

Wendy frowns, but Ira puts a hand on her shoulder, and Red keeps his chin up as he meets Looker’s gaze. Leaf has never seen him look so calm and self-assured, and marvels over how far he’s come that he can stare down someone like the Special Administrator. For a moment, he actually reminds her of… well, Blue.

“They helped us find this place,” Red says. “And agreed not to share the location until we could investigate it. If they were going to leak that it was found, it’s already happened, so there’s no harm in them staying, is there?”

“There is if they’re sticking around for a timely sabotage.” Looker sticks his hands in his coat pockets as he turns back to the rangers. “I assume you two want to stay?”

“If I say no, do we disappear into a windowless room until you lift the comm ban?” Ira asks.

“If you say no, I’ve got no leverage to keep you here, and I have to talk to your Director to find some. But this isn’t something the Rangers—”

“It is,” Ira says. “If what we suspect this lab made is true.”

Looker sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose. “I admit some philosophical and legal uncertainty, but the ‘hybrid,’ if real, would almost certainly be a concern for the League, or, I suppose, law enforcement, in the unlikely circumstance it’s considered an Indigo citizen.”

“With all due respect, Special Administrator, I suspect CoRRNet would disagree.”

Looker shakes his head and turns to Red. “I’m making this your problem. If a leak occurs, or General Taira causes problems for me, you and your friends are off this. Understood?”

“Yes, Sir.”

He nods, then turns to Jensen. “Are we going to have a problem, Officer?”

“Not today, Sir. If Tsunemori isn’t looped in by tomorrow, though, we might.”

Looker taps his fingers against his leg. “When’s your check in?”

“Eighteen hundred.”

“She’ll know by then.” Jensen nods, and Looker finally turns to her and Blue. He stares at them a moment, then looks at Jensen and the rangers. “Give us a minute, would you?”

Jensen heads back toward the tunnel entrance, and Ira and Wendy do too, after exchanging a look with Leaf. Once they’re far enough away, Looker focuses on her, and Leaf does her best to meet his gaze as calmly as Red did.

“Miss Juniper,” he says after a moment. “A computer went missing from the Rocket Casino, and I happen to know that you’re the prime suspect for the information that was on it being leaked to the net. I also happen to know that there’s some circumstantial evidence that makes it unlikely that you did it directly, which is why more weight wasn’t brought to bear against you. That and your relative fame.”

The first dozen words replaced Leaf’s blood with ice water, and by the end her heart is pounding and her breaths are shallow and quick. She does her best to maintain a poker face, but she can feel her ears burning, and studiously avoids looking at Red or Blue. “Was that a question, Special Administrator?”

Looker snorts. “You don’t need to lawyer up, and I’m not sending you away just yet. You’ve clearly got some special knowledge and skills, but you do need to assure me I’m not going to regret letting you stay on this. I won’t ask you to submit to a psychic merger on the missing computer, that’s Celadon’s business. I will want one of my people to confirm that you have no intention of leaving or tampering with any evidence here. Acceptable?”

Leaf swallows, wondering if her thoughts would betray her, wondering if she would think up a situation where she might be tempted to… “Acceptable,” she says. She loses nothing by at least trying to pass such a test.

“Excellent.” He turns to Blue, and if her friend is wary, he does a good job hiding it. “We good, Oak?”

“S’far as I know, yeah. I’m just here to keep my friends safe.”

“Sure. And you’re not going to call your grandfather?”

“Probably not before Red would.” Looker doesn’t seem impressed by that, and Blue smiles. “No, I’m not gonna call Gramps.”

“Is that because he already knows about this place?”

“No comment.”

“Mhm. I don’t know if you’re going to be the next champion or not, but I don’t have reason to think you’re crooked yet. Given how much of a circus this already is, I don’t mind you sticking around so long as I don’t have to worry about you pulling some publicity stunt or trying to score points with Blaine or Lance or whomever with what you learn here.”

Blue shrugs. “I want to know if Blaine is involved in all this, somehow. Seems reasonable to suspect he is, but I’m treating this as seriously as anyone else, here. If it’s Rocket, I want them stopped as much as you do.”

Looker smiles. “Doubtful, but I believe you believe it. As for Blaine… we can talk about that later.” He checks his phone, then strides toward the tunnel entrance, and the three of them hurry to keep up. “A psychic will be here soon, Juniper. Meanwhile, don’t go anywhere without me.”

Leaf’s cheeks burn, and she clamps down on a few angry responses. Red gives her a concerned look, but they rejoin the others a moment later, and soon the whole group is heading back into the tunnels.

Everyone is gathered at the first hole that leads to the lab, eleven excavators in total. Looker stops before joining them, and Red stops beside him, so Blue and Leaf do the same.

“You’ve all done well here so far, and reinforcements are on the way,” Looker says. “The mission parameters have changed. Our goal is evidence collection, as much as we can get in the next two to three days. Prioritize offices, labs, personal quarters. Top prizes for any computers that might still have an intact hard drive.”

“And one more thing,” Leaf adds before she can think better of it. “We believe there might be a… chamber, possibly at the center of the facility. It would have had a glass tank in it, big enough to hold a person. The room would also be big, and around it would be storage and empty space, then a ring of living quarters. If anyone finds anything that fits that pattern, let us know immediately.”

Looker glances at her, but after a moment just adds, “Also immediately call out any corpses, whether pokemon or human. Questions? Okay, go tell anyone who needs to know that you’re going to be out of contact for a bit, then get to it.”

The next few hours are spent in starts and stops, waiting for the excavation team to scout and open paths to new areas, then carefully picking over them for any evidence of what took place in the hidden lab. Leaf spends her downtime going over all the reasons why stealing anything from this lab would be a bad idea, and how she had no plans to do it in the first place, so that when the psychic finally arrives she manages to convince him, and by extension Looker, that she should stay.

Once that’s past she’s able to relax a little, and spend more time analyzing the way the growing team of diggers trade off on expanding the outer tunnel, finding new entrance points into one of the rooms it passes by, and branching inward from them. Looker calls the shots, but as more and more people arrive and join the operation, he finally delegates some decisionmaking to Red again.

By the four hour mark, three separate teams have dug their way into almost a dozen “rooms” of various sizes and degrees of wholeness: three sections of laboratories, two and a half offices, a supply room, a bathroom, half a kitchen, a power center, and what looks like roughly a quarter of a cafeteria (with an attached hallway that leads to a blocked stairwell on one end and a couple buried doorways on the other). The biologists and chemists have also arrived, and move through each lab to carefully document what they find, while the forensics teams attempt to collect fingerprint and DNA samples.

Leaf does her best to rush around and get a look at each chamber they unearth before things get moved or taped off, but Looker keeps her close so he can occasionally ask for details that didn’t end up in her story. She does her best to help, and though a part of her still resents the way he so casually implicated her in front of Red and Blue, she starts to see why he was assigned to head the investigations into Rocket.

She also has some time to reflect on why she hasn’t spoken to her friends about what she did in Celadon earlier, which takes some more bite out of her anger.

Every so often there’s the sound of creaking or rumbling throughout the stone, and Leaf’s heart leaps into her throat, but the excavation teams ignore most of them, only occasionally stopping what they’re doing to listen for what she presumes are signs of an actual imminent cave-in. Red ends up reflexively teleporting twice, coming back each time within a minute with an embarrassed look on his face, but no one comments on it, not even Blue. Jensen actually gives him an approving nod the second time, which is the most emotive the otherwise reticent hunter gets, as far as Leaf could tell.

Eventually there’s a rumbling big enough, however, that the digs are all called to a halt while some tests and scans are run. Rob decides the rest of them need to break for lunch, and most of them retreat to the sunny field around the mansion.

Leaf is among the last to leave, having to be practically dragged out of an office where she’s reading what looks like a meeting calender that was on the wall. “I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it’s still a surprising mix of tech,” she says as they head for the entrance. “No computers yet, so part of me is expecting to find written notebooks or journals… but that would be ridiculous.”

“Yeah, too easy to for someone to sneak off the property,” Red says. “I’m actually really surprised by how many people must have had to maintain a secret like this, for so long.”

“They must have had some strong incentives,” Leaf says as she picks her bag up, then carries it topside rather than swapping it for her abra carrier, rifling through one of the pouches for a food container ball. “In both directions.”

By the time they reach the top of the stairs, some enterprising explorer has brought a bunch of tablecloths from one of the mansion’s kitchens so that a dozen picnics cover the grassy cliff like giant flowers. They find the one Blue and the rangers have claimed, and Leaf summons her meal box beside them before she pulls Psyguy’s carrier off, stretching and rotating her shoulders, then doing a slow collapse onto the tablecloth-covered-grass.

“Let me guess,” Red says. “Nervous system adjusting to the lack of prolonged claustrophobia?” He carefully removes his own back-abra (she’s coming around to Backra being a good nickname) and drops beside her.

“Mostly. Also frustrated.” She sits up, as happy for the lack of weight on her back as she is the imminent food. She pours some berries onto the grass beside Psyguy, then frees him from his straps before taking an egg salad sandwich out of her container. “Feels like we should be trying to find where they held the hybrid, but Looker is obviously going for quantity over quality, and having to wait for forensics to go over each room with a fine-tooth comb is slowing things down. And yeah, I get it, but I can’t escape the feeling that time isn’t on our side.” She checks the time as she says it, and notices that she has no signal. The signal blocker is up, somewhere around here…

“Jurisdiction is still fishy,” Ira says as he pulls his own food out of his container. “Not to say the rangers should have priority either, but there’s no undeniable sign of criminal activity yet, let alone renegades. If the owners show up with an injunction from Cinnabar telling everyone to clear off, I could see the regional courts deciding this was all a breach of private property.”

Leaf’s heart sinks. “Even if they don’t, the delay would give them plenty of time to renew the coverup… even retaliate, somehow.”

Blue gives her a knowing look. “If they try, it could expose them even more, so long as we make some moves online first. Which we’d have time to do, if they start with legal blocks.”

“After what happened at the Rocket Casino, I think Interpol could defend probable cause for investigating,” Red says, mouth full of a thin pita sandwich filled with feta cheese and walnuts. It reminds her of what she had at Bill’s lab, and she wonders how often he’s eaten it since. “But technically there isn’t any sort of law against secret labs, so either way, something’s got to show up soon for that to carry over much longer.”

Blue shrugs. “I hope we find something that helps stop Rocket, but I’m most interested in the hybrid too. Could buy some Dig TMs, have the excavators show us the ropes so we can explore on our own.”

“Even assuming we wouldn’t mess things up for the others, I think Looker would block that,” Red says. “We could just try to convince him that finding the room where the hybrid—or test subject—was being kept should be a high priority.”

“He might have reasons not to,” Ira says. “Whether their goal was to destroy evidence or destroy the thing they created, the stuff we’d need to find could be beyond salvage. I can see Looker thinking it’s better to find indirect evidence of it.”

“If it was destroyed, it wouldn’t be running around sending people dreams,” Blue says, tone grim. “So either the explosives failed to kill it, or it’s the one that triggered them.”

“It wouldn’t do that,” Leaf says, frowning. “If you’d read the story—”

“I read it. Seemed worth prioritizing, once we knew this place was down here.” He shrugs. “The story ends with the earthquakes killing everyone and helping it escape, but we already know that’s not right.”

“What do you…” Leaf trails off as she feels a bloom of cold in her stomach. She looks around and sees Wendy frowning, while Ira and Red stare down at their food. Jensen is Jensen, sitting slightly apart from them and keeping his head on a slow swivel. “Because of the explosives? They might have gone off after it left!”

“We still should have found some bodies,” Blue says. “Or bones, or whatever. Not saying I’d have stayed in my office during an earthquake, but even if most people rushed up the stairs before they collapsed, we should find someone sooner or later who didn’t make it… if an earthquake really was involved.”

The cold feeling in her stomach has grown, and Leaf has to force herself to take another bite as she notices her confusion, and reflects on it.

Blue could be wrong about the chance that they’d find a body by now. But it’s something she should have noticed, and she didn’t… because she hasn’t been suspicious of the story at all. Ever since it led to them finding the lab, she’s taken for granted that Dr. Fuji wasn’t just dreaming up a story to help people empathize with and question their treatment of pokemon, but rather relaying a mostly-factual account of what happened in his “story notes” and “outline,” which she was allowed to take her own creative liberties with.

But she didn’t question the ending even after she realized the story might have been true. And surely the ending would have to have been fictionalized, or else…

“I think I just realized,” she says, speaking slowly, feeling her way through each word. “That I took for granted that the hybrid might be real after what Red said… that the ‘story’ might be real, but never re-examined how Dr. Fuji knew what happened. If he was one of the scientists at the lab… he either left early, or survived.”

“Maybe the test subject told him,” Red says.

“Which means we definitely can’t trust its account of what happened here,” Blue says.

“You think, what, they killed the scientists? We’re still missing bodies, in that case.”

“Maybe it ate them.”

“Gross,” Wendy says around her mouthful.

“Gross and unfair.” Leaf frowns at Blue. “I admit that the right amount of suspicion isn’t zero, given we can’t know exactly what happened here, but the hybrid isn’t going around killing people. If they wanted to cover up their survival, why tell Fuji anything?”

“Maybe it’s controlling him,” Ira says, making her turn toward him in surprise. “If it can project to an entire city, we don’t know what else it’s capable of. Hell, it could be going around killing people now. How would we know?”

“But there’s no reason to believe they are,” Red insists. “If we’re imagining new powers, they could also have transformed into a human and started a candy shop, why anchor on the theory they’re hurting people without reason?”

“And even if they killed some people on the way out, it was a captive,” Wendy says. “If they were a human we’d consider that self-defense.”

“If it were human we’d have some idea of what it was capable of,” Blue says. “Even if it’s not killing people now, if it can do it in a way we can’t know about or stop, we can’t treat it like we would other humans.”

Leaf stares at him in shock, wondering how he can’t see the parallel—

She sees the moment it hits Blue. His frown softens, his eyes widen, darting to Red…

…who stares down at the tablecloth, face blank as he chews.

“I’m reading between the lines, here,” Jensen says, making everyone turn to the hunter as he speaks for the first time in hours. “But it sounds like you guys are saying they made a smart pokemon, down there? ‘Hybrid’ as in hybrid with a human?”

There’s a moment of collective silence before Red says, “That’s the idea, basically. I think they might have just run experiments on unusually strong psychics, maybe boosted their abilities somehow.”

“And they’re the one that’s been projecting those dreams around the islands?”

“Pretty sure, yeah.”

“Then what Oak’s saying, it’s how a champion thinks. Leaders too, for that matter. Rangers have more of a mix of perspectives.” He nods at Ira and Wendy. “And police, including hunters, we care about protecting society from people. Every group built around use of force, we exist to protect society from something. It’s why society allows us to have power.”

“Or maybe we’re still a society of warlords after all,” Ira says. “Just distributed a bit better.”

“Maybe,” Jensen says with a shrug, then turns back toward Leaf. “But if you want to argue that this hybrid shouldn’t be treated as a threat… hey, hunters are the last group that will argue we can’t use the enemy’s methods against them. But you won’t convince most people to take that risk without a good reason. There’s no group that’s empowered by society to expose it to more risk intentionally. Any politician trying to argue for people to accept that would be quickly voted out, and leaders would face a revolt.”

“Scientists,” Red says, almost immediately.

Jensen’s lips twitch. “Fair enough. But that’s because the rewards are tangible and the risks aren’t. The first time a new legendary goes rampaging away from the ruins of an unown lab…”

The silence returns, and people have almost finished eating before Blue says, “It’s different, for humans. Even psychics who learn how to do new things, other humans can learn that stuff too. It’s… we know we think the same, and feel the same—”

“Not everyone does,” Red says, still not looking at Blue. “If it’s one thing psychics learn quickly, it’s how differently people experience the world, even when we mostly act the same.”

“I don’t mean literally,” Blue says, sounding a mix of exasperated and earnest. “I mean, you know, things like… kids smile when they see a smile, and like warmth and sugar, and—I know, some don’t, but they’re rare—”

“So who decides how different someone has to be, before they’re not a person? If they were experimenting on a human psychic, and boosted their powers, would they still count as human if they could do things no other human could?”

“That’s not what I’m saying!” Blue snaps, and even though she agrees with Red she wants him to stop, wants him to accept the apology. Blue doesn’t have the words, but he’s trying, in his own way, and she can only watch with the same painful heaviness in her chest as she did that day in the hospital, when she couldn’t stop them from saying the wrong thing, from tearing at each other— “Even if someone is different, we treat them the same because… there are limits, there’s still stuff we can understand about each other. Humans don’t want to live in a world without humans, and if they do, if they act in ways that hurt others, then we treat them as a threat—”

“So why not do that now?” Leaf jumps in, forces herself to jump in, though she’s not sure she has the words either. “They’re at least part human, and I know you think it’s safer to treat the pokemon part as an inherent threat, I even get why, but why not wait until we know they are? Doesn’t presuming they’ll be hostile make it more likely they are?”

“Plus,” Wendy adds, looking at Ira. “What if it’s not just not a threat? I mean… for every problem, pokemon must be considered part of the solution, right? That’s what we’re taught. Not just for capturing, but wild pokemon too. If the hybrid is out there warning people about… whatever, if they’re strong enough to take on legendary pokemon… the ecosystem we’re in has changed because of them, but it can be a better change.”

“That’s undoubtedly what the people who created it thought,” Ira says. “And we may well be sitting on their mass grave.”

The silence returns a third time, and there isn’t even any food left to distract anyone. People are moving around them, cleaning up and returning their container boxes, strapping their abra carriers back on as they start to flow back in the direction of the stairs.

“None of this matters if the hybrid, or test subject, or whatever, isn’t real,” Blue says as he stands. “Maybe it’s actually just a human with a unique power after all. But if it really is a hybrid… maybe we can find some clues to what really happened, here.”

Leaf tries not to feel defensive over that. Part of her feels a horrified embarrassment at the thought that she might have written something untrue, even if she thought she was writing fiction at the time. Even worse, if she was used to misrepresent what happened…

But she recognizes that Blue is making a peaceful gesture, and nods as she begins to clean up. “It seems unlikely that Fuji knew I would end up here, but he clearly wanted someone to have a chance of figuring out the truth of what happened here…”

She trails off as she notices people around them turning to track something, and turns as well to see…

A trio of charizard, flying down toward the manor. Adrenaline pumps through Leaf’s body, and her hands fall to her belt before she registers that the one in the middle has scales of pitch black.

Her relief is short-lived. Despite precautions, the communication blackout has clearly failed… and she doubts the leaks stopped at Leader Blaine.

Chapter 123: Drastic Action

Chapter 123: Drastic Action

Red sits in a mild daze through the hastily assembled meeting with Sabrina, Looker, and Tsunemori. The conversation with Rowan ended just twenty minutes ago, and keeps replaying in his head, his mind continually tossing up all the things he said, all the questions he failed to ask… they just had such little time to prepare… why didn’t he ask basic stuff, like where Rowan had been living lately…?

He knows what his brain is doing. Rumination is a useful, natural process when something goes wrong, or might. A way to try and learn or prepare, to avoid making mistakes in the future.

He also knows it can overfire, focusing endlessly on details that trigger embarrassment or anxiety spirals. So he tries to concentrate his thoughts on something concrete, something he can improve on or learn from.

Why didn’t the projection work?

It felt like he did everything right. So far as he could tell, he was in the right mental state, the same one Leaf helped him use in Lavender against the marowak anomaly. If it worked on the ghost, why didn’t it work here?

His mind is quick to suggest reasons. For one thing, Jason assured him at Lavender that his projection did something, but they didn’t really have an opportunity to tell what. It’s possible it just confused or stunned the marowak rather than making it feel safe or peaceful, and he can’t be sure the effect would be the same on a tamed pokemon. For another, maybe he doesn’t have the mental state as firm as he thought; he has practiced it a few times since, but never in a dangerous situation. Maybe there was leakage from the rest of him, which had been anything but calm and peaceful.

Another possibility, of course, is that the alakazam, or more likely Rowan, did feel the effects, but protected against it somehow. Just because Rowan acted unhinged doesn’t mean he wasn’t capable of planning ahead: he knew what Red was capable of, and even if he was protecting against sakki, the defense against his pokemon having a mental state projected onto it would likely be the same.

Which may mean there wasn’t anything Red could have done differently… but either way, there are implications.

When he met Sabrina for the first time, back in Vermilion, she talked to him about the arms race between psychics. With so many different ways for minds to interact and affect each other, being able to partition part of your mind and offer that up while keeping the rest unaffected has obvious defensive applications, and it might not even take someone with Rowan’s skill to do it with a pokemon he’s merged with.

A lot of Red’s training has obviously included preparation for what to do if he encounters a renegade pokemon that sakki doesn’t work against, for whatever reason. Sakki only works by removing inhibitions of the pokemon’s most automatic instincts, which tends to lead to violence for the kinds of pokemon that renegades use, but there’s no reason they couldn’t start renegade training on pokemon that are more naturally mild mannered so that, if Red tried projecting sakki at them, at worst they would just run away.

They even brainstormed what sorts of training or programming the renegades might try to counteract the effects entirely. But utterly changing a pokemon’s basic instincts would take generations of breeding, and so they didn’t think it likely that a strike force would be able to field a whole team of safe pokemon, or a variety.

If Red is right about what Rowan did, however, then he’s possibly the most dangerous trainer in the world for Red right now, as he would be able to counteract sakki on any pokemon he has, and probably more than one at a time.

Red snaps out of his reverie when he hears Leader Sabrina saying, “…full responsibility. I should have paid closer attention to my student’s wellbeing—”

“No, Sensei.” Red looks around at the table. “It’s not her fault. Rowan went off to study the unown, at least a hundred psychics have talked about merging with them before without problems. No one had reason to believe this kind of thing might have happened, even with the partition weirdness.”

“Red…” Sabrina’s gaze is steady, but it seems to take her a couple tries to decide on what to say. Finally she just sighs. “I appreciate your defense, but I still should have paid more attention. There were signs that this might be dangerous for Rowan before he left, but Doctor Zhang and I signed off on him continuing because nothing bad had happened yet.”

“Do you actually think he would have stopped if you hadn’t?” Red asks. “It’s not like you were giving him direct tutoring.”

Sabrina sighs. “No, I don’t believe he would have stopped. Particularly since he said as much, after he assured us he was self-experimenting with both eyes open. But I could have at least tried to persuade him not to, and either way, I should have paid more attention to the effects it was having on him.”

“That’s—”

“Enough.” Looker is slightly slouched in his chair, face calm, but there’s an edge in his voice and an intensity in his gaze as he drums his fingers on the table. “I’m not interested in responsibility right now, I want next steps. You both know him and have the best chance of guessing what he’ll do. Give us something.”

Red and Sabrina glance at each other, knowing even without merging minds what, specifically, Looker is worried about. “We have no reason yet to believe he can imitate the sakki,” Sabrina says. “But it’s possible that he’s spent time training renegade pokemon…”

“It would be extremely difficult in the timeframe you mentioned,” Tsunemori says. She sits with her hands clasped on the desk in front of her, leaning on her forearms. “Training required to overcome pokeball programming can vary by species, but even if he spent the full two months after we interviewed him working on this, it’s unlikely that he’d have more than a few renegade pokemon. In the time since he went off the map? Unlikely.”

“But he said what he’s going to do is ‘already done,'” Red says, voice tense. “Does anyone know if renegade psychics have used their powers to speed up the process before? Or… do hunters do that?”

“It’s been theorized as possible,” Tsunemori says, speaking slowly. “But it’s not a legal area of study, even for Hunter use.”

Of course that just means one more thing we don’t know and the bad guys might…

Though it’s possible she’s not being honest, or even doesn’t know.

“Could Rowan have meant something else?” Sabrina asks Looker and Tsunemori. “Have there been any incidents that haven’t been publicly reported?”

Now it’s Tsunemori and Looker’s turn to exchange glances. “There’s always something, large and small,” Looker says. “I’ll put some people on it.”

Tsunemori nods, already typing into her phone. “It shouldn’t be hard to collate everything from the past couple months, but he’s not an Indigo citizen, and it could be harder to get info from the other regions.” She gives Looker a questioning look.

Interpol’s special administrator rubs his eyes. “This has all the signs of an impending catastrophe, but… it’s not Rocket related, there’s no evidence it’s even renegade, and while his words gave some indication of crimes beyond one region, so far we’re not sure he’s done anything except be crazy.” He sighs. “I trust your sense of urgency, here, but I can’t say this justifies the use of full tracking measures.”

“I get it,” Red says, kicking himself again for not asking where Rowan had been lately. Some hint, any hint at all of where to start… “Maybe there will be hints from the WCN researchers he traveled with.”

“There still another potential lead.” Looker is watching Red, but then he turns to Sabrina. “I couldn’t follow half of what Rowan was saying, but it seemed pretty clear that there’s some history between you two, or at least between you and what he calls the… lonely mind? The ‘Dreamer?'”

“Ah. Yes.” Sabrina’s posture shifts, becoming straight again in what Red has come to identify as her way of bracing herself for something unpleasant… either that she would say, or how others might respond. “I believe I know who they meant by the Dreamer.”

Sabrina shares the same thing with them as she did her students, about how she suspects someone she used to teach has been the one projecting the dreams all around the island. Looker and Tsunemori exchange another look, but don’t interrupt, and Red finds himself wondering if she also knew anything about the “outside” mind that she hasn’t been sharing.

He wants to trust her. He does trust her, for some things. He believes she doesn’t mean him harm, at least. But if she has mixed priorities… well, even if she’s been circumspect in ways that have helped him, it would be stupid to think she’s not capable of deceiving him, too.

“You see why I have some ‘trust issues,’ now, I hope?” Looker asks Tsunemori, voice wry. He turns back to Sabrina before the Director General can respond. “You’re just an endless vault of surprises, aren’t you? Let me guess, you also reported these to the ‘proper channels?’ Are we going to find a document lost in a network somewhere with a full report about the Dreamer, dated months ago?”

“No,” Sabrina says, unruffled. “I didn’t report it because if I’m wrong I would be violating their privacy and putting their life at risk, and even if I’m right it’s not worth the risk until I know they’ve done something wrong.”

“They violated nonconsensual projection laws a million times over, at least,” Tsunemori says, voice firm without being antagonistic, somehow.

“I didn’t say illegal, I said wrong,” Sabrina says, voice and gaze level. “Believe it or not, the person I have in mind has many good reasons not to risk the attention those dreams drew onto them. That they did it anyway tells me the risk is real, and great, and maybe justifies breaking the law… even if I would have preferred they’d done something else.”

“If you think—”

“Something like what?” Tsunemori says, cutting Looker off.

“Find someone else to speak through. Someone respected.”

“Someone like yourself?” Looker jumps back in.

“I was thinking of Elite Agatha, actually.”

“Leader, I don’t mean to make threats. But if something happens, and it becomes apparent that your old student is responsible, or could have stopped it, and you did nothing—”

“I said I’m willing to take responsibility for this.” Sabrina’s lips are pressed into a thin line, her knuckles white on the seat of her chair. Red has never seen her like this, and watches her in surprise and sympathy. “You can’t threaten me with something I’ve already accepted, whether you mean to or not.”

“Sabrina,” Tsunemori says, voice softer. “I don’t doubt your willingness to take responsibility, but… if a student of yours may have set off a series of events that leads to an incident, and there’s a significant chance that they can help stop it… wouldn’t they want to at least know that’s the case?”

The table is quiet, and Sabrina’s eyes drop. “Yes, I think they would want to know.” Sabrina says, voice quiet. “But it’s not just about how willing I am. I tried to reach out, recently, through a mutual acquaintance. It didn’t go well. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing else I can do.”

Red watches her, feels the regret, the defeat, in her voice, and leans forward, speaking before he really intends to. “What’s stopping you?”

Sabrina blinks at him. “Nothing. Or, I suppose, reality is. I just don’t have another way to try again.”

Red shakes his head. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, Sensei, but I’m skeptical. Not because I think you’re hiding something, just… because I think there might be things you’re not thinking of, or maybe have costs that you don’t want to pay. Maybe for good reasons! But this is important, and I think it’s worth at least checking.”

Sabrina seems to absorb this for a moment, then nods. “Alright. How would I do that?”

Red feels the other two watching him and sets aside his self-consciousness. “Well, when I’m stuck on something I want to do, I start by figuring out if the thing is physically impossible. And that’s, you know, kind of rare. If your student is on the moon, then it would be really hard to contact them, and there’s probably a whole bunch of problems that would need to be solved to do it. But it wouldn’t be impossible. Similarly, if they’re living in the forest without any technology, yeah, that makes it hard. But not so hard that there’s literally nothing you could do to reach them. And if they have a mutual acquaintance that could be reached… what did you mean by ‘didn’t go well?’ Because that’s different from ‘it didn’t work.'”

Sabrina takes a deep breath, then lets it out. A day ago he would be more worried about overstepping boundaries, even if he’s not her student anymore. Despite how much he’s seen her struggle with all her different responsibilities, she still put off an air of quiet confidence, of self-reliance.

Now he realizes she’s as lost in all this as the rest of them, grasping for some way forward on questions she can’t ask for help with. Or thinks she can’t, at least.

“It didn’t work in the sense that I didn’t get the chance to speak directly with my old student. It didn’t go well in the sense that I burned that bridge too. I wouldn’t even be able to contact the acquaintance again either, now, and there are no others.”

Are they living alone in a cave somewhere?” Looker asks, frowning slightly. “Is that the sort of person they are?”

Sabrina purses her lips, then shakes her head. “I honestly don’t know. But it isn’t… as unlikely as you make it sound.”

“Not unlikely, fine, but maybe they’re not. Maybe they have an apartment in Celadon.”

“That’s… much less likely.”

“But not impossible,” Red adds. “And even if they’re on some farmhouse by the border instead, the acquaintance might be. Or someone else who knows them, who you don’t.”

“What are you suggesting, Red?” Looker asks, though he sounds curious rather than skeptical.

“Nothing specific, just trying to make sure all of solution space is explored.” He looks back at Sabrina. “The second thing I do, after thinking about whether the thing I want to do is literally impossible or not, is to pay attention to what tradeoffs I don’t want to make.” He thinks when he first went to Saffron to be Sabrina’s student, and how impossible it felt to make friends, given how embarrassing it would have felt—and did feel—to just go up to people and ask them if they wanted to be his friend or not. “If not that, then I’m thinking of moral rules or laws that feel wrong to break, which, you know, makes sense as reasons not to do it,” he says with a glance at Looker and Tsunemori. “But both of those are different from can’t. Forget everything that makes it impossible. What would you wish you could do, right now, to contact them, if you ignored all the costs for a moment?”

Sabrina meets his gaze a moment, brow furrowed. “I would… try to speak to them directly, in my mind, no matter the distance.”

“Okay. As far as we know that’s not possible, so what else might you do?”

“…go to every city and town, the way they might have, and… project outward, as far as I can, in the hopes of finding them.”

“Good.” Red almost notes how this is actually possible, but it’s a good sign that she’s not fixating on impossible things. “Social cost is obvious there, but what else?”

“I’d… get a very big megaphone, and…” The Leader breathes in, then closes her eyes as she lets it out. “I see it. I know what I can do.”

For a moment Red thinks she really does mean to get a big megaphone, then realizes—

“An emergency broadcast,” Tsunemori says. “One that will be sure to spread to every communication device in Indigo.”

“And the rest of the island,” Looker says. “Keep it vague around sensitive details, but make it unmistakable for those that know your student.”

“It still has to be about something real,” Tsunemori says. “We need some idea of what Rowan is planning. A fully general warning would be worse than confusing. Is there anything that would even make sense to announce, right now?”

Red is still surprised that his prompts helped that quickly, but the question reminds him of something else. “Definitely. That thing Rowan talked about, the mind that touches outside… I think I’ve experienced it before.”

“Right,” Looker says, giving Red a level stare. “I was going to bring that up later. You implied to Rowan you went through something similar, and Elite Agatha helped you. Was that true, or were you blowing smoke?”

“I was being honest, if that’s what you mean,” Red says. “But whether it really is similar… that I don’t know. What he was saying, I recognized some of it. Or at least, my mind used the same sort of language to understand what I went through at Lavender.”

Tsunemori’s lips quirk. “This is the point at which I admit that, despite reading the rangers’ reports, I had a hard time following what took place in Lavender Tower.”

“You’re not alone,” Looker says with a sigh. “Notebook tried explaining it to me, but…”

“To be fair, it’s outside both of our field,” Tsunemori says with a smile. “Which is why we consult with experts.” She looks at Sabrina.

“I got the debrief from Jason, who is an apprentice of Elite Agatha as well,” Sabrina says. “They work in a slightly different paradigm, among psychics, but from what I understood, the Elite helped ensure Red’s mind didn’t have any lingering effect from touching the ghost’s. Surreality affects us more deeply than non-psychics.”

“But unown aren’t ghosts,” Looker says. “So what’s the similarity? Or do we think the unown are a coincidence, and he just ran into another marowak ghost, or something similar?”

“If the unown are what create new pokemon species, that could fit,” Red says, voice low.

“You were seeking the origin of species, weren’t you? Were you disappointed? Or was it all you wanted it to be?”

“Red?”

“Sorry, just thinking.” Something to dig into later. “It might be the simplest explanation that fits all the facts. But from what we directly know, for now, he was hunting wild unown to merge with them. If we take for granted that he managed to find some…”

“Then we need to warn others,” Sabrina says with a nod. “Particularly any other psychics who have used their powers to create tulpas, or anything similar, in case that makes them particularly vulnerable.”

“To be extra safe, anyone who maintains too many partitions should also probably avoid them,” Red says. “I mean, most professional psychics have some amnesia’d memories, but if they regularly switch back and forth…”

“Yes, you’re right. Then it’s decided.” Sabrina takes another deep breath. “I don’t know if it will help anything, but it’s better than doing nothing. And if there’s a chance what happened to Rowan might happen to someone else, we need to warn people.”

“Keep us updated on anything you learn from the researchers that were with him. We also need to send a message out on the WCN network… and we need you to meet with our communications team to make sure you don’t reveal anything we don’t want Rocket or other bad actors to know.”

Sabrina nods. “I’ll get on it right away.”

“And as for you—”

“I have people I can reach out to,” Red says. “And I need to run some tests with other psychics, about how my powers work, and… how they might not work.”

Looker leans forward, gaze intense. “You tried something. And it failed?”

Red nods. “But I’m not sure why. It could have been because I didn’t do it right, or—”

“Or it could have been because Rowan stopped it,” Sabrina murmurs, eyes wide. “If his partition ability was projected through his merger…”

Looker points at her. “Broadcast draft first.” His finger shifts to Red. “Verres, I want a full report by the end of the night. Experiment after it’s written.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Not right after,” Tsunemori says. “We need to schedule some interrogation and hostage negotiation training for you. They’re skills we’ve neglected for what seemed like good reasons, given everything else we’ve had to prioritize, but it’s come to bite us, I think.”

Red knows she doesn’t mean it as rebuke, but it still stings, and he sighs, nodding. The day has barely started, and he already knows it’s going to be a long one.


The artificial morning wakes Leaf little by little, sunlamps sequentially changing the color of her room from pitch black, to sunrise red, to orange-gold, and finally to bright blue. She buries her face in her pillow, feeling like she could use another hour of sleep, but the light does its job, and her sleepiness melts away little by little over the next few minutes until she sighs and swings her legs out of bed.

Her next deliberate act is to check her security monitor, which tells her at a glance that all the windows and doors have remained undisturbed, and only one proximity sensor went off in the “night.” She taps it, and sees a brief video of a pidove landing on the windowsill, then flying away a few sped-up minutes later.

She taps the monitor off, then limps over to the shower, hot water helping ease her sore muscles. The past few days have been a strenuous marathon of riding around Cinnabar island, helping the rangers track the semi-isolated ditto nest that they finally managed to tag for close study.

The experiment has had mixed results so far. Ditto continue to prove the most invasive species ever to be documented, integrating into almost any ecological niche by simple exposure to that niche’s current members, then supplanting them by outbreeding the competition.

It’s a little scary to watch happen day by day, even with a dozen trainers and rangers’ efforts to keep the nest from taking over the whole area. To watch maps of an area turn more and more pink as the rangers and gym members indicate where they found new nests, and realize that the same thing could happen to the entire island chain if the ditto were to spread that far.

They don’t intervene often, since the point is to study what a ditto nest in equilibrium looks like, but they’re learning a lot from watching which species are able to adapt quickly to the invasion and which aren’t. By only removing invaded nests that can’t combat the ditto anyway, there’s still a selection pressure in favor of nesting practices that repel the ditto or keep them from taking over entirely… which is leading to a whole lot of new knowledge about nesting habits in general.

It’s far from a perfect study, but the small islet right off of Cinnabar’s coast is diverse enough to show a variety of different interactions, and a nest as close to stable as this one was too rare to pass up the opportunity. It feels a little amazing, sometimes, that she’s part of such novel research just because of her interest in wild pokemon welfare.

It’s the kind of thing Red would probably love to be part of, if he wasn’t busy with everything else.

As if summoned by the melancholy thought, when Leaf finishes dressing and packing her bag for the day, she sees a new message on her phone: News from the dig team. Meet up after breakfast?

Excitement spikes through her, and she sends an affirmative before teleporting to her mom’s house, mind abuzz with what might have been discovered. It’s only been a few days since the excavation started, but she has no idea how slow or fast the process might be, and they didn’t even give estimates considering all the constraints they were under. Maybe they found the lab already… they might even have been inside it!

The cool night air is bracing, and she reminds herself not to get too carried away as she withdraws her abra, then uses her key to enter the house. “I’m home!” she calls out as she logs into the PC by the door to swap her abra’s ball for another.

“Good morning!” her mother calls back from the kitchen. “Brinner is almost ready.”

Leaf smiles and unclips her pokebelt and hangs it with her bag on the hook by the door. “Is Grandpa in?”

“No, he’s on a late flight over to Kalos. He’s been swearing he’d make the trip for years, and after more of those strange type interactions are being documented, he finally did it.”

“Exciting!”

“Yeah, though I don’t think that was his primary motivation.” She can hear her mother’s smile. “More dissatisfaction with the inconsistency of the pokedex entries being registered. I messaged Sycamore to give him time to prepare.”

“You could be a diplomat if you ever hang the labcoat up.” Leaf enters the kitchen to see her mother still wearing her lab coat, though she has let her long auburn hair down and stripped off her jewelry. “Morning,” she says as she hugs her mother from behind.

Professor Juniper lays her arms over her daughter’s, then turns and kisses her head. “Sleep well?”

“Yeah, though I was a bit sore when I woke up.”

“So it goes. There’s some deep tissue potion capsules in the cabinet.”

Leaf half-expects to feel the automatic sense of rejection, of being mothered in the restrictive, hovering sense. But it doesn’t come, maybe because her mother just stated it rather than making it a suggestion, and so she smiles and says, “Thanks.” She looks up at her mother, seeing no new signs of worry or tiredness. “Good day at work?”

“It was! New discoveries from the unown sublab matching the vibration frequencies observed at the last genesis event… which reminds me, I need to reach out to that fancy new lab in, Cinnabar was it? Or is that the island you’ve been working at, lately?”

“They’re the same one, yeah.”

“Convenient. I swear, I’m getting more forgetful every year.”

“It just happens more when you’re excited about something new,” Leaf assures her. “And only for unimportant things.”

“I somehow doubt the island residents would agree.” Her mother turns off the stove, then brings the pot over to the table and starts to serve from it. “What do they say over there? Itadakimasu!

Leaf grins. “It’s only really said at tourist restaurants nowadays, I think. But it smells great, thank you.” The “brinner” today consists of a veggy stir-fry with some classic Unovan breakfast staples thrown in. She pours some ketchup on a clump of hash brown that have absorbed the vegetables’ flavors and makes a sound of appreciation as she bites into the sweet-vinegar-starchy goodness. “Tastes great too.”

“I’m glad.” Her mother smiles, and starts eating too as she turns on the television with her free hand and browses the menu. They were never really a talkative family during mealtimes, but Leaf can tell her mother is trying, and commenting on whatever’s on the news or some show is less fraught than bringing up the potentially dangerous things Leaf has been involved in lately.

Her mother’s gotten a lot better about accepting that Leaf is where she wants to be, these days. But talking about what she does there, or what’s happening, still tends to bring the overprotectiveness out.

They’re about halfway through an episode of some court drama her mother likes when the video suddenly pauses, and is replaced by a yellow warning symbol.

Leaf feels her heart kick, peripherally sees her mother’s hand reach out to grip hers as they stare at the screen… but it’s a yellow symbol, not a red one, and so they simply wait in silence as the special alert sounds play, and a voiceover finally speaks.

“The following message was flagged non-critical urgency by the authority of the Interregional Police, and contains time sensitive information. Your devices will return to your control shortly.”

Interpol? News about Rocket…?

“Leaf, is this—”

“I haven’t heard anything—”

“Hello, regions of the world.” Leaf feels a moment of surrealness at seeing Leader Sabrina on the television while she’s in Unova. Unlike Professors or Champions, nonlocal Leaders don’t normally make interregional news. “I apologize for this interruption to your day or night, and will try to make this address short and to the point.”

The Saffron Leader sits at a desk in what’s likely her office, looking both tired and perfectly composed. Leaf hopes fleetingly that she could someday project that kind of confidence and poise, the rest of her mind on sudden worries that something happened to Red…

“This broadcast is primarily for my fellow gifted. First, those psychics who are hunting wild unown clusters in order to merge with them, and those who have experienced the apocalyptic dreams projected throughout the Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku islands. And second, the psychic responsible for the dreams themselves.”

Leaf is aware of her mother’s relief, but her own anxiety doesn’t go down by much, and she reaches blindly for her phone, diverting her eyes for just long enough to ask Red, What happened?

“For the first group, I’m issuing a warning to cease all wild unown mergers immediately, and possibly even all tamed unown. A student of mine, Rowan Donkerk, appears to have undergone a psychological break after conducting research on them. We don’t yet know many details, and are unsure if it was the result of volume or bad luck. But we have confirmed by those who traveled with him that he was merging with multiple clusters, and when he felt this wasn’t enough to answer his curiosity, he allegedly left them behind to seek bigger clusters rumored to have been spotted in the untamed wilderness.

“We can confirm that he survived to return from his ventures. But he showed multiple alarming signs of psychosis and mania, including prolonged lack of sleep, severe weight loss, and fragmentation of his sense of self. If anyone has any news of Rowan at all, or any other psychics who have recently experienced similar symptoms, please call or message Interpol as soon as possible, codeword: unown.”

Sabrina lets out a breath, gaze down. “It’s also possible that the unown simply interacted poorly with specific partitions Rowan has been researching and practicing, and so I’d like to particularly warn those whose use of partitions extends beyond amnesia. But that’s just a hypothesis, and until we learn more, I hope psychics around the island, and world, take the risk seriously.”

A picture of Rowan is displayed on the screen, the young man captured mid-smile as he watches something out of frame. Leaf remembers him from the times he attended her classes, remembers the way he seemed so moved by the mental state she was embodying for them to share…

“Rowan was a dedicated student, a beloved teacher, and a brave researcher who was willing to put himself through many experiments to explore the forefront of knowledge. I hope no one else undergoes the same fate, and I hope we can still find and help him. If you have any information you think would help in that, please message me directly, topic name ‘Rowan.'”

His picture fades, and Sabrina is once again staring straight into the camera. “As for the gifted who experienced the wandering dream… it seems like part of Rowan’s condition is due to the merger that occurred for the dream.

“Again, we don’t have much data on this. It’s possible that it was the combination of both the dream and the unown mergers that caused Rowan’s mental break, and psychics outside of the islands have nothing to fear. But the effects they had on Rowan seem to be driving him toward extreme actions, and while we don’t know exactly what he plans to do, or has already done, the situation seems critical enough that caution is warranted. If you’ve experienced any persistent personality changes that began after exposure to the dreams, even if it began weeks or months after, please message me, topic name ‘Dreams.’ If my assistant believes it’s warranted, we would be happy to pay for travel and accommodations to try and determine if our guess is correct, and see what might be done to help you. If you do not wish to be ‘helped,’ for whatever reason, and don’t trust us not to force you into anything… all I ask is that you try to send anonymized mail to let us know what you’ve experienced.

“Finally, I have a message for the Dreamer themself, on the small chance that you’re listening to this, or maybe if there’s someone out there who can convey this message to you.”

Sabrina pauses. “There’s a lot I would say, if I were not taking the time of others to say it. But the most important, right now, is that I believe you have good intentions, and would not want anyone to suffer from your actions. The dreams have led to a lot of confusion about your goals, and what the right path forward might be in avoiding the threat. But I believe we’re better with the warnings than without it, and I thank you for them… even if I wish there was a way for us to better understand what led you to take such drastic action.

“In any case, my concern right now is for Rowan, and what he might do as a result of his exposure to the dreams and unown. If there’s anything you can tell us, or any help you can offer… I would be most sincerely grateful. And I have the assurance of Interpol that nothing you do within the window of responding to this potential crisis will be used against you, or in any way that might make you regret it.”

Her gaze drops to her clasped hands. It only lasts a moment before she’s looking into the camera again. “If my word means anything… I can vouch for Elite Agatha, who has been among your most staunch supporters in taking the dreams seriously. She and I have only a professional relationship, and she may be… better placed… to help you, if you need it, or have further information you would like to share.”

Sabrina bows her head. “Thank you all for your time. Be safe.”

The leader disappears as the screen abruptly transitions back to the emergency broadcast symbol. A few moments later the crime show is back on, but her mother is already holding the remote to pause it. Afterward she turns to Leaf, eyes wide.

“Do you have any idea what that was about?”

Leaf checks her phone to see another message by Red, which simply says Tell you in person. Want to meet now? “No, but I’m about to find out,” she says as she sends back an omw, then looks at her plate. She almost decides to leave the rest uneaten, then forces herself to finish despite her lost appetite. It seems like it’ll be a busy day.

“You knew him, though? The young man, Rowan?”

“In passing,” she says between bites. “Never had a private conversation.” She drinks the rest of her juice, then stands and brings her plate to the sink. “I’m gonna go, see what happened. I might be able to share it with you tomorrow.”

When she turns around, her mother looks like she’s holding back from saying several things at once. Leaf goes to give her a tight hug. “It’s fine, Mom. Nothing to do with me, not really.”

“But your friend, Red? He did research with the unown as well, didn’t he?”

“Only briefly, and he didn’t have the wandering dream.” Leaf is still processing everything Sabrina said, the implications around how she spoke to the Dreamer… “What about your people? Does the sublab have any psychics in it?”

“Two. We’ll have to… have a meeting, see what response makes sense…” Her mother hugs her back, then stands to get her own phone. “I should call around, before everyone goes to bed.”

“Good luck.”

“You too, Hon.” She gives a wan smile. “‘Be safe,’ right?”

“I will.” She collects her things, then steps outside to summon Simon. She closes her eyes, touches his head, and says “Teleport.”

The temperature change is immediate, as is the sudden brightness through her lids. She waits for her eyes to adjust, then opens them to look out over Cinnabar Island in the morning light.

Her teleport point is within the perimeter of one of the ranger outposts clustered around the middle of the island. The city is vaguely visible in the distance by the southeastern shore, and if she wants to reach the mansion, she just has to turn almost entirely around and fly to the opposite side of the volcano. It was a convenient teleport point for when she had multiple different places she might go any day, and while she could have changed it to one of the outposts closer to the monitored ditto nest, she didn’t want to lose the optionality having Simon registered here gives.

She takes a moment to feed him some berries, then summons Crimson and mounts up to head to the mansion, thoughts on the broadcast.

Specifically, on the idea that Rowan is out there, somewhere, in a bad mental state… and if Leaf read between the lines correctly, in a position to do something dangerous to others. Further supported by Interpol’s involvement… otherwise, with just one known “casualty” to whatever effects the dream or unown merger had, it hardly seems like an interregional emergency.

Which makes her wonder what else they might not have said, and wonder how complete a story Red is actually going to give them, whether intentionally or not.

There was a time, not long ago, when such conspiratorial thinking wouldn’t have come this naturally to her. She knows the primary cause of such thinking: assumptions that anything that goes well for people in power must have been planned, or that people in power must primarily do things aimed at retaining their power, rather than having a complex mix of motivations in which power is just an instrumental one.

She knows that sort of thinking can lead to absurd beliefs. She’s read a number of such theories about herself, so convoluted and selective in their “investigation” of the facts that she had to laugh, sometimes, even if the rest of the time it was a bit chilling to think of what thousands of strangers believed of her.

But… well. She is part of some conspiracies, even if they’re aimed at stopping greater ones. And she knows that some conspiracies are real, particularly when they seem justified by the people involved.

Maybe all real conspiracies are actually just in defense of “enemy” conspiracies. It would be nice, in a Mistake Theory sort of way, to think that’s true. It even fits some of the conspiracies she knows exist, like the government’s relationship with the hidden Endo tribe of professional spies and assassins.

But if she considers that public broadcast as a possible move in some psychic conspiracy’s grand plot… she has to be open to the possibility, and looking for evidence, that it’s the opposite. That it has nothing to do with the secret lab, let alone the consumption of hummus.

She tries to hold that frame of mind as she lands beside the mansion, where Red and Blue are already waiting. They exchange hugs, and then she unattaches Crimson’s saddle and gives him some water to drink before taking out her own water bottle and saying, “Okay, spill. First, what did they find here?”

“We’re waiting on the rangers for that,” Blue says. “So spill about the psychic drama first.”

Red looks a little tired, but also better than the last time she saw him. More comfortable in his hunter outfit, maybe, or just more focused. “Right. So, here’s what happened…”

He relates the message he got, then a summary of his meeting with the other psychic students, followed by his meeting with Rowan. Whatever Leaf was expecting, it wasn’t that, and cold creeps up her body as the true horror behind Sabrina’s warning is revealed.

Including what it might have meant for Red, if he’d gotten less lucky…

“Red…” Blue shakes his head. “What the fuck, man, are you okay? Like, actually okay? I don’t know how close you guys were, but that’s… pretty fucking heavy.”

“I’m… mostly okay. We weren’t that close, but yeah, it’s a lot. Still, I had a whole day to process it while Sabrina drafted her announcement and ran it by Interpol, and…” He takes a breath. “I’m worried about Rowan, and what he might do next, but right now I’m trying to focus on making sure there aren’t others out there who went under the radar. I reached out to WCN and my psychic network, and am going to make a public post about it too.”

Leaf nods. “Whatever happened to him, and whatever he does, it’s bigger than that if it’s related to the warning in the dreams. And… if it’s related to what you experienced, with the marowak?”

Blue turns to her in surprise, but Red just nods. “I reached out to Agatha too, to see if I can talk to her more about what happened to me… what I experienced, back at Lavender.”

“Shit,” Blue mutters. “And on top of all that, there’s still the worry that this guy is training renegade pokemon, and ones that might be immune to sakki.” Blue runs his hand through his hair. “Is there anything we can do?”

“Not much. Some public posts of your own, to signal boost, keep it on people’s minds…?”

“Of course.”

“Yeah.”

“Thanks.” Red lets out a breath, looking up. “We can talk about it more later, here comes…”

Ira and Wendy land near the mansion, and they jog over to the ranger and cadet duo as they dismount. Red sends a message on his phone along the way, then says, “Hey, guys. Nice to see you again.”

“Hey, Red,” Wendy says, waving to the other two while her gaze lingers on him. “Crazy day already, huh?”

“Crazy month,” Red says with a shrug.

“Crazy year,” Ira adds with a nod. “I’ve got questions, if you have spare time to indulge my curiosity, but what’s the news here, first? If you’ve got an earth-shattering revelation, we should probably get to it first.”

“I don’t actually know myself, I just sent word out to you guys when the site lead told me to come.” Red points to the edge of the cliff. “He should be waiting that way, I think, or coming soon.”

Stairs have been cut into the side of the mountain, leading down to a staging area that’s been dug out beneath the edge of the cliff, complete with guardrails and a cordoned off teleport pad. Someone appears on it as they approach, their belt intermixing ultra balls with industrial strength container balls, and gives Red a half-cocked salute. “Verres.”

“Hi, Rob. Rob, this is Blue, Leaf, Ira, and Wendy.”

“Pleasure. Mind if I cut to the chase?”

“Please,” Ira says, and Rob nods.

“We found the structure you suspected. More than that, we confirmed what we first suspected upon arriving. That crater? It wasn’t caused by the earthquake.”

“A pokemon?” Blue asks, brow drawn and voice intense.

“Not even.” Rob gestures toward the tunnel. “The rubble we found had clear blast marks, the melting and shatter patterns consistent with high yield explosives. Whatever’s in there, it wasn’t buried. It was destroyed.”

Leaf’s heart leaps, and she can see from the others’ expressions that they believe what she’s suspected all along.

Whatever was down here didn’t suffer some accident. Someone wanted it hidden.

Which means the most important question now, is… “Did anything survive?”

“That’s why I sent word.” Rob crosses his arms. “Verres said you guys needed to all be here before anyone takes a look inside. So? You all ready to rock?”

Red looks around at each of them in turn. Wendy’s eyes burn with curiosity, but she turns to Ira, who’s rubbing his chin.

“Any chance more explosives might still be in there, not set off?”

“Sure.” Rob shrugs. “Also a chance there are pokemon nesting in some pockets in the rubble we’ve detected. There’s a bit of seismic activity still occurring, at least.”

Ira sighs. “We have enough that I need to report this to the higher ups. But I’m guessing Interpol… or rather, you lot, are going to want to go in before any other group shows up?”

Red looks to Blue, who gives a do you even need to ask look, and Leaf, who nods, heart hammering as she thinks of how close they are to finally uncovering the truth.

Be safe her mom had said. And she would try.

But she has to know. They’ve come too far to risk losing it now, if the wrong person hears and swoops in to stop them or clean up any lingering clues.

Red turns back to Rob and nods, hands on his pokebelt. “Let’s go.”

122: Inside Out

Chapter 122: Inside Out

There was a lot of debate among Red’s security team about the best way for him to visit known associates. One perspective was that any visit should only come after the team ensures the location is safe, but while this might be optimal in some situations, in others it would just tip off potential observers that Red would be arriving soon, after which they could just blow up the building. Another perspective was that he should arrive together with his bodyguards, just in case ambush teams are prepared to strike as soon as he’s spotted.

The stealthy option, where Red goes on his own without any backup, was decided on for any indoor location he’s been to before, since that made it possible for Red to take advantage of his ability to teleport indoors. He knows it stresses them out, but they can’t exactly claim it makes him safer when going alone makes it virtually impossible for anyone outside to know he’s there.

Which is why he arrives in his old room in Saffron alone, feeling a momentary bout of disorientation as he looks around at the familiar layout stripped of his belongings. The shades have been drawn on his windows, but other than that it looks just as it did when he left.

He last came here the week after the attack on Silph to remove his things, though Sabrina let him know that she’d be keeping the room empty until all the others are full in case he wants to visit. When he’d asked why she was okay with him potentially putting the school at risk, she’d raised a brow and asked, “You think people would be after you for what you can do, but not your teacher? The whole school and gym is upping its security.”

Which didn’t make him feel great, but was also a relief. Jason said the security was barely noticeable, just a pair of guards at the buildings’ entrances and some extra screening of guests. Given the general increase in security throughout Saffron after the attack, he did his best not to feel guilty about it at all…

…which lasts up until he makes his way to Sabrina’s office and sees her again.

After Red’s dad died, one of the things that stopped mattering to him was his appearance. It took months before he started to care if his shirts were rumpled or his shoes stained, and he still remembers the shine of tears in his mom’s eyes when he joined her for breakfast with his hair combed again.

His mother went through a similar period. But a few weeks after the funeral, when she would have to leave the house for some reason or the other, he would notice, through his own numb haze, the way she used makeup to cover evidence of her lack of sleep or hours of crying. Eventually she started using it in the house as well, to hide how bad she was doing from him, and noticing that was one of the biggest things that caused him to put more effort into his appearance, as well as things like therapy.

He’s never seen Sabrina without makeup on, but he’s also never noticed her makeup before… which, he knows, is a sign of artfully applied makeup. But even that has its limits, if you know the signs.

Which Red does. Not of grief, maybe, but lack of sleep? Definitely, and not just a few nights worth. More subtly, she also looks like she lost weight.

He reminds himself not to assume this is all his fault—she’s been dealing with some new emergency or major incident one after another all year, same as everyone else—he fleetingly wishes he had more cheerful news to bring her over the course of his time here. He wants to say something to that effect, but Jason is here too, and instead he just exchanges bows to his friend and old teacher. “Hi, Sensei. Sorry if we interrupted something important.”

“Don’t be, Red. You were right to reach out.”

Red nods, then takes off his backpack and sets it down beside a chair before sitting, one hand resting on his abra’s head to rub between its ears. “Did you get a chance to read the message?”

“I did, and I wish I could say I knew what it meant. As I was just explaining to Jason, Rowan has been steadily reducing his classes for months. He said he needed more time for his research, and to be fair, he was making obvious, if erratic, progress.”

“What was his primary project?” Red asks as his sense of vague foreboding grows heavier in his gut. “I know it was related to partitions, but specifically…”

Sabrina meets his gaze, and he sees his worry reflected there. “Up until recently, he was trying to imitate your ability to perfectly copy another mindstate and inhabit it completely while his ‘main self’ stayed safely overwatching and able to reintegrate as needed.”

The dread grows sharper, rising into his chest and making it hard to breathe. “Right.” Perfect lying, indoor teleportation, maybe even sakki. Not to mention do things like imitate Leaf’s state of mind, or Blue’s Battle Calm if he ever got a sample of it… “Did he ever merge with an exeggcute?”

“He did, after finding five others outside the school to do it with,” Jason says, lips pursed. “None of the rest of us who were here were willing to do it after what happened with Rei.”

“He reported that it didn’t create the same effect.” Sabrina sighs. “And yes, I am aware that if it did, he could have lied about it without me knowing. The main uncertainty I had was what he would do with such abilities if he gained them, but as I said, he changed focus recently. After the increased scrutiny and Interpol’s investigation, he declared that he would pursue other research.”

Red exchanges a look with Jason, who seems equally surprised. “And that other research was…?”

“The unown.” Sabrina’s hands rise to rub her temple. “Two months ago he asked for an extended leave from teaching and lessons to join one of the groups tracking swarms.”

Red stifles a curse. He hasn’t been paying as much attention to What Comes Next as he used to, there have been too many things to learn and other things to keep track of… “And he found some?”

“I don’t know. As far as I can tell, that message he sent you is the first one anyone has received from him in weeks, but I’ve just sent out a message calling for a general meeting in case there’s something others know, something they may not even realize is important. In the meantime, there’s the question of your response.”

Red hadn’t really thought about responding. “I could play dumb? Say something like… ‘hey Rowan, cool poem, are you saying you want to meet?’ I mean it’s not quite playing dumb, since I don’t really know what he means or wants.” He wonders if it’s even possible to play dumb given how slow and lost he feels right now.

Sabrina seems nonplussed, but Jason’s fingers begin thoughtfully turning the beads of his necklace. “That seems… harmless enough? The worst that happens is that, in the case where his message was meant to check for something, you establish that you don’t have it.”

“What sort of thing?” Sabrina asks Jason, who shrugs.

“I”m unsure. A kindred spirit, perhaps?”

Red slowly nods. “It makes sense, if he’s been experimenting with new partitions, and created a mindscape different enough from most, he might be craving conversation with someone else who understands him.”

Sabrina’s gaze is sharp as she meets his, and he wonders if she’s guessing how much that applies to Red himself. “I agree that it seems low risk,” Sabrina finally says. “Particularly since you don’t have to follow through if something seems off. You could even invite him back here for the meeting.” She checks her computer. “In the meantime, it looks as though the others have all arrived. Jason, would you mind catching them up while Red sends his message?”

Jason nods and departs, while Red carefully types out a response to the email with a version of what he said earlier, trying not to overthink it. He does show it to Sabrina first, and after she says it looks fine, presses send and sets the email chain as priority so it alerts him directly if a response comes in.

That done, Red leans back in his seat, tense muscles all over his body relaxing at once. Sabrina is typing something, and as soon as she finishes and makes a motion to stand, he says, “Before we go, I wanted to—”

“—apologize,” Sabrina says at the same time as him. She smiles. “Not for Rowan, I hope.”

“No.” It surprises him a little to realize he doesn’t feel responsible for this, at least, but it’s also a mild relief. “Just for… the rest of it.” He gestures vaguely around the building, trying to point at everything that happened from the attack on Silph to now.

“I understand. But no apology is necessary. If anything I should thank you for confiding in me before circumstances forced you to reveal things to the world.”

“That didn’t get you in any trouble?”

“It caused some investigation into League affairs.” She shrugs. “But mostly for others. I did my diligence.”

“By only telling Leader Giovanni?”

Sabrina blinks, then settles back in her seat, smile faded and eyes alert as she searches his gaze. “What makes you ask that?”

“I don’t mean anything by it. But I know Looker doesn’t trust you. I mean, he doesn’t trust anyone, but in particular he’s suspicious of you, and Leader Giovanni, and a few others in the Indigo League. And it’s been in the back of my mind for a while, so… it just came out.” He doesn’t apologize again, though part of him wants to.

Sabrina leans forward now, steepling her hands and resting her chin on them as she regards him. “Should you be telling me any of this?”

Red shrugs. “I wasn’t told not to. And they didn’t exactly talk me through their worries. I just… pick up on things.”

“I see.” Sabrina’s gaze is steady, and Red does his best to meet it. He wonders if he should lower his shields to let in a mild merger, and then wonders if she’s wondering why he doesn’t… but he knows she knows it wouldn’t mean anything, with him. “I suppose I should take that to mean I’m speaking with Red, my old pupil, and not Hunter Verres?”

Red winces. “Technically I’m still a trainee. And I’m not here to interrogate you.”

“And you would know that, if your unpartitioned self was influencing your questions for reasons you don’t know?”

Red has to take a moment to think that over, surprised and a little unnerved by a conversation that understands how his mind actually works. “I’m… not sure. I have memories of when I was aware, but I guess I wouldn’t know for sure, would I? If you don’t mind my asking, how do you know I’m not my whole, unpartitioned self? Is it…”

“It’s not as obvious as it used to be,” she says, voice kind. “But there’s a lightness in you, even when weighed down by this situation. I must admit it’s relieving to see it, after months of… what you’ve been dealing with.”

“Even if it isn’t my ‘real’ self?”

“If you feel real, that’s good enough for me.” Sabrina shrugs. “That you can spend hours, even days, out from under the shadow… yes, I’m very glad of that.”

He almost asks, then, what’s been costing her sleep. Whether it’s Rocket or psychic politics or something else. Instead he says, “When I think about it, I think my question was a little relevant to the Rowan thing. If something’s gone wrong with… if he’s…” Red’s gropes for the right phrase.

“Gone mad?”

“…yes. If he went mad, or ‘cracked’ somehow, people will wonder…”

“If you might crack too,” Sabrina supplies, and Red nods. “And you’re wondering how I’ll handle the public side of all this, in the worst case scenario that one of my students has lost his mind.”

“Somewhat, yeah.”

“I don’t know if I feel more touched that you’d still have such faith in me, or more suspicious that you could possibly still be this forthcoming after the training you must have received.”

Red gives a wan smile. “My training has mostly involved stopping Renegades, not detective work. Even when I was helping look for renegades in Celadon I just used my gift.”

“I see.” She continues to hold his gaze another few moments, then stands and goes to her window. “Leader Giovanni has been a mentor to me since before I was a Leader, and an invaluable source of guidance since then. I shared your secrets with him, and advised you work for him, in order to ensure that someone with more knowledge of politics and experience in Leadership was aware of the situation… and its potential social impacts. Someone who isn’t gifted, and so couldn’t be accused of bias.”

“And you trusted him to tell others if he needed to?”

“I did. And if he did, I mostly trust he’s keeping it secret from Interpol for good reason, similar to whomever in the League he might have told.”

“Giovanni and I talked about the need for secrecy, sometimes. And I’m very grateful Rocket didn’t know about what I could do before their attack on Silph.”

“As am I, and not just for your sake. If you’re still speaking with your network…”

“I know. Psychic relations are hanging on by a thread in some regions.”

Sabrina nods, and sighs. “Depending on what’s happened to Rowan, we may need to pre-emptively decide, as a community, to regulate the training of partitions. And if so, I will share what we’ve learned with the public…” She turns back to him. “But I plan to seek advice from others, first. And if they say I should hold off… I will consider it.”

Red takes a moment to absorb that. “So… are you saying I should be talking to Leader Giovanni?”

“He’s not my only advisor,” she says with a slight smile. “And I don’t always agree with him. But I will admit, the way things have played out in the past few months reminded me why trying to decide these things alone can be dangerous. I think Giovanni made some bad calls, in the past, but he also made good ones. Whether you’d say the same is up to you to decide, but either way, I don’t plan to share my students’ private lives carelessly, even if my duty as a Leader compels some disclosures.”

Red nods, conflicted but still relieved, and also rises to his feet, one hand lifting his bag with only minor strain at his abra’s weight before he slings its straps over his shoulders. “Thank you, Sensei.”

She nods, and they leave her office to make their way to the communal kitchen, where the rest of Sabrina’s students are already gathered. Stepping back into the wide room, with its wood slat floors and dark tile countertops, feels nostalgic, and Red almost goes to the fridge to grab a soda.

What checks him is the sight of one of the new psychics sitting in his usual spot. Sanskriti is in her early twenties, and apparently left her home region because she was being pressured to only pursue psychic training rather than becoming a pokemon trainer as well. She specializes in pokemon mergers, and apparently finds it extremely easy to direct her pokemon’s movements like they’re an extension of herself. Red happens to know that her culture has fairly elaborate outfits for its psychics, but she’s dressed like she just ported in from camping out in the wilds.

Across from her sits Kenzo, a non-trainer from one of the outlying islands who’s even younger than Red. Apparently some time after the Hoenn incident his psychic range began to increase for reasons no one can understand, to the point that he can now sense anyone in the building at any given time. It’s still unclear if the timing was coincidence, but he joined Sabrina’s school just last week, and Jason said he’s still getting situated.

Tatsumaki is still here, levitating a double chain of small objects of various shapes and sizes in a revolving X around her head, as is Daniel, who sits with his feet propped up on the table. Satori departed the school after spending a couple months teaching Miracle Eye to Sabrina and the rest of the students.

In her seat however is Maria, who’s sitting beside Jason. As far as Red knows she’s the first non-psychic to be part of Sabrina’s school, technically here as a research assistant, though he knows she’s also pursuing her Saffron Badge at the gym.

“—before he went looking for the unown, mostly dream hunting.” Daniel is saying as Red and Sabrina enter. “He knew I did it, so asked for advice. I told him the basics: check which city or town hadn’t been hit with a dream in a while, look at the last one that was hit, find the sweet spot between the two.”

“Sweet spot?” Sabrina asks as she takes her seat at the head of the table. Red perches on the edge of the seat beside her so that his abra isn’t uncomfortable, and it’s only a moment later does he realize he’s sitting where Rei used to. It feels pretentious of him, though none of the more senior students took it. He’s aware of Daniel and Tatsumaki’s gaze on him, as well as the two newer students’, though theirs is more curious and awestruck, while Tatsumaki and Daniel’s are harder to interpret.

“Yeah.” Daniel looks around, sees everyone else’s curiosity, and frowns. “You guys never looked into this? Come on, you have to have been curious about why it never visited Saffron.”

“I just figured whoever was behind it didn’t want to risk Sabrina psychically punching them in the face,” Tatsumaki says as she taps an orbiting pokeball to adjust its spin as it floats down past her shoulder, then back up behind her head.

Everyone chuckles at that, but Sabrina just gives a tight smile. “I wouldn’t have blamed any of you for asking, but only Red did. Now seems as good a time as any to share with you what I told him: I suspect that one of my old students has been the one spreading the dreams.”

Red glances around the room to see a mix of shock and intrigue. Daniel takes his feet off the desk and leans forward, while Tatsumaki has stopped rotating her objects, which hover in place around her head as she frowns at Sabrina.

“We haven’t spoken in months, but I generally trust them to only be doing something like this with good reason. As for why they’re avoiding Saffron, I’m afraid I can’t answer that for sure. I can imagine many reasons why they’d be upset with me, but on a pragmatic level they clearly want to avoid identification, and if they are one of my old students, it’s possible they want to prevent my suspicions from being confirmed. I’m sorry if that ends up affecting you all, at any point, or already has, in the form of missing the chance to experience the dreams.”

The room is quiet for a few moments, and to Red’s surprise, it’s Jason who breaks the silence. “Have the authorities been told of your suspicions?”

“No. As I said, I trust them to have good reasons for what they’re doing, and if they want to remain anonymous… it would feel like a betrayal to accuse them in an official capacity.” Sabrina shrugs. “I recognize this is one of the greatest mysteries of our time, and you are of course welcome to share what I have with others.”

“How much weight does the suspicion have?” Red asks. “Has anything that happened in the past few months made it seem more or less likely?”

“If you’re asking if I know why they seem to have stopped, I have no idea.”

He wasn’t, not specifically, but before he can ask something Daniel leans forward. “You had a student capable of that kind of mass projection, and you never mentioned it?”

“I didn’t know they were capable of it. Again, it’s just speculation.”

“Speculation based on what? Did they have some paranoia about extra-dimensional aliens or something?”

“No. I’m sorry, it’s hard to explain my reasoning. But they had an incredibly large reception range, even larger than Kenzo’s.”

“Oh.” Kenzo’s eyes are wide. “It’s that one?”

“I think so.” Sabrina sees their looks between them and says, “Kenzo was worried that his range may eventually get too big for him to process everything he sensed. I mentioned that I had a student who had twice his range, and still managed it.”

“Still,” Daniel says, arms crossed. “To not mention that a psychic with the range of a whole town exists—”

“Their range wasn’t nearly that big last I saw them. Which, yes, was before the Hoenn Incident.”

People glance at Kenzo, who looks self-conscious from that attention and implications, and Red turns to Daniel. “You were saying something about the ‘sweet spot?'”

“Right.” Daniel glances at Sabrina again, then leans back in his seat, arms still crossed. “Well, if you paid any attention at all to the pattern of which place was hit with the dreams, it would be clear that it almost never went to one of the closest towns or cities next. It also rarely went directly to the opposite side of the island. Probability maps were made, and you could get a pretty decent idea of which towns would be the next to get the dreams. I just hopped around for a couple weeks until I got it. I assume Rowan did the same thing after I showed it to him.”

The whole room is quiet now. “You never thought to mention this?” Jason asks.

“Why would I?” Daniel asks with clear annoyance. “It’s not like we’re under surveillance, here. Or, you know, we didn’t used to be.”

Red flinches and drops his gaze to the table… though not before seeing eyes around the room glance at him, this time.

“By ‘surveillance’ do you by chance mean the private security I’ve hired?” Sabrina asks, voice light. “If so, I’m unclear if you’re accusing them of spying on you, or accusing me of doing so.”

Daniel rolls his eyes, shifting in his seat. “Not saying anyone’s spying. Just saying, people track who comes and goes, now, and they didn’t used to. I figured if Rowan wanted to chase the dreams that wasn’t my business.”

Tatsumaki scoffs. “Come off it, you’re the one who kept insinuating that Rowan was going nuts. You really thought him having a dream about some ravenous demon god or whatever wouldn’t make things worse?”

“It’s fine,” Sabrina says, overriding Daniel’s “Hey, I’m not—” and getting him to stop and turn away from Tatsumaki. “I’m not here to lay blame, just understand what’s happened to Rowan, if anything, and what we can do for him, if anything. If no one has anything more to add…?”

The group looks around at each other. After a minute, Sabrina nods.

“Then I won’t take up any more of your time, and will only ask that you keep an eye and ear out for anything that might be concerning. If you’d like to pre-emptively help, I would appreciate you reaching out to any contacts you have who may know anything about Rowan’s most recent locations or behavior. I know some of you haven’t had the opportunity to meet or get to know him,” she says, looking at the new students. “The others might have warned you that he wasn’t always easy to befriend, and they’d be right. Many of you can be hard to, in their own ways.”

Jason looks mildly embarrassed, while Daniel snorts and Tatsumaki shrugs and nods. Red isn’t sure if he counts, here, considering how hard he worked to befriend everyone when he arrived. But he has to admit, if he were still a student here, with his current other duties… he’d hardly have time for socializing.

Sabrina takes a breath. “But I remember him when he first came here, young and excited to learn. He can be obsessive and distant, but also passionate, curious, and dedicated. I’ve received many reports over the years from his students about how enjoyable his lessons are, and how supportive he is when teaching.” The leader looks around. “Ultimately, he’s one of us, and he may need our help.”

“Hear, hear,” Jason murmurs, and Tatsumaki sighs and stands, her nimbus rising with her.

“Right. I’ll reach out to some friends, see if they know anything.”

Daniel watches her go, then grunts and says, “Same” before following her out.

“I’m not sure how much help I can be…” Sanskriti begins, but Sabrina shakes her head.

“It’s alright. Feel free to focus on your studies and lessons. Just let me know if anything does come up?” She looks between her and Kenzo, who nods as well, and the two newer students leave together.

Which leaves just Red, Sabrina, Jason, and Maria when Red’s phone chimes.

Everyone watches as he pulls it out and checks the screen… then lowers it and swallows, glancing around. “It’s him. He says he wants to meet… alone.”

“Well,” Maria says after a moment of silence. “Good timing.”


The rooftop is relatively quiet, wind blowing over the sounds of the city below. Red stays in the alcove of the elevator, where it would be hard to see him from any nearby buildings.

It was hard to arrange the meeting on such short notice. He quickly called his security team to let them know the basics of the situation, and came up with a ripcord phrase for extraction in case this is all some strange trap: Rowan, you’re scaring me. A recorder in his pocket would ensure they and Sabrina would be able to hear the conversation, and of course Red has his backpack abra in case he needs to teleport away, whether from Rowan or an opportunistic attack.

Red paces his nervous energy away, trying to think through what he should say first… and then a figure appears beside an alakazam, and Red spins toward it, hands moving automatically to unclip balls from his belt.

He stares for a moment, then forces himself to reclip them once his brain catches up to his reflexes, and he confirms that it really is Rowan.

The transformation Sabrina has undergone in the past months is reflected on the older teenager at least twice as hard. He was always lean, but now he’s practically skeletal. A short beard makes him look years older, and his hair is shaggy, shadowing his upper face… but Red can still make out the bags under his eyes.

“You came.” Rowan’s steps are long and sweeping, almost dance as he extends his hands up and to the sides. Red steps back, unsure if he’s about to be hugged… but Rowan just spins in place, arms staying stretched out. “You came! Oh, we’re so glad! When you didn’t respond, at first…” Rowan’s arms drop to his face, tone shifting to a fearful whisper. “We thought the worst…”

Red is still staring, heart pounding as he realizes that every vague worry they’ve had is justified. Everything from Rowan’s appearance to his tone make it clear that something’s wrong with him, and has been for a while.

“Sorry!” Red tries to smile, and has no idea if he succeeds. “Sorry, Rowan, I was just… busy.” Rowan’s gaze is more intense than Red has ever seen, and he suddenly wonders if Rowan even heard him. “Are you… how are you?”

Rowan doesn’t respond immediately, and just continues to stare into his eyes, hands clasping his own face.

Oh boy. Red’s stomach sinks further as more and more prickles of unease skitter up and down his spine. He’s sure to keep his movements slow and deliberate as he raises a hand to wave between them. “Rowan?”

“You’re partitioned.”

Red swallows, wondering if Rowan can tell for sure, or just guessed. “Yeah, I am.”

“How much do you know?”

“About…?”

“The rest of you. Which of you are we speaking with?”

“Um. The… default one, I guess? I’m mostly me, I just… there are some memories and emotions I keep partitioned, and the me that has full access to them is here too, just… kind of my subconscious.” Once again Rowan doesn’t react to his words, just staring at him as if waiting for him to grow a second head. “We… talked about this before, don’t you remember?”

Rowan doesn’t respond for the space of a few breaths, and then… “You’re the face.”

“I’m… what?”

“What are you doing?”

Red has never felt so confused and off balance in his life. “Talking.” He wonders what the others, listening in on the conversation, are thinking. “Standing still and talking.”

“Why are we talking with your face? Come out! Come out!

Red takes a step back as Rowan advances, heart pounding and both palms out now. “Rowan, you’re freaking me out!” Part of him hopes no one assumes he misspoke or forgot the ripcord so soon, but the rest of him is unsure he doesn’t need a rescue.

Thankfully, Rowan does stop advancing. “Rowan. You keep calling us…” Rowan shuts his eyes tight. “Rowan? Rowan. Rowan Rowan Rowan… Rowan and Red. Ah…” His whole body seems to sag, a little, relaxing some of its manic strain. “Yes. Rowan. We can be Rowan again. Red… hello.”

“Hi.” He doesn’t let himself feel much relief. “We” can be Rowan again… “Rowan, what’s been happening, here?”

“We’re… having trouble.”

“Yeah.” No shit. “With what?”

“Deciding. Choosing who to listen to. Which to go with. How to feel…” Rowan trails off, gaze distant.

“It sounds like your partitions have… broken. Or gone out of control, in some way. Do you need help? I’d like to help you, Rowan.”

“Just Rowan?”

Shit. “No. Everyone. All of you, it seems clear you all need help, even if… if it’s not clear which of you should be in charge, yet.”

Rowan sways, back and forth, back and forth, and Red feels a strong temptation to lower his shields and get just a basic read on what’s happening in Rowan’s mind right now. Behind him, his alakazam strokes its mustache, watching a trainer on a flying mount soar by, and Red feels his abra stir in his backpack. Not wanting to use his powers, Red slowly reaches back to soothe his abra with some strokes along his head. He should ask Rowan if he wants to come inside, talk with Sabrina…

“You were seeking the origin of species, weren’t you?” Rowan finally asks. “Were you disappointed? Or was it all you wanted it to be?”

Red’s train of thought derails, and he stares at Rowan for a moment, wondering if he misunderstood the implication. “Like I said, I’ve been busy.” Red almost asks if he’s been following the news at all, but he’s already asking the more pressing question. “You’re talking like you figured it out.”

“You don’t remember. Because you didn’t find out?”

Red reels, another chill going through him as he wonders whether he did discover it, and then forced amnesia on himself…

No. He’s talking nonsense. Stay calm.

Red takes a deep breath, setting aside worries about whether he can trust his unpartitioned self. If he can’t, he’s in nearly as bad a place as Rowan. “I think you might be confused, Rowan. I never learned—”

“Never learned? Never learned?!” Rowan squeezes his eyes shut, palms pressed over them as he grimaces. “Were we wrong? You did… all that you did… you haven’t had the dream?”

“No, I haven’t had the wandering dream. Rowan, are you saying the secret of where pokemon come from is in it?” He would have heard about that if it was true, surely—

“No, no! It was just… you didn’t pursue it… if you didn’t pursue it you wouldn’t know…” Rowan’s hands drop from his face, hanging limp in front of him as he looks imploringly into Red’s eyes. “You’re really just… Red? All of you are just…?”

“I don’t know about just,” Red says slowly. “But… please, Rowan, answer me directly. Who else might I be? Who were you expecting?”

Rowan takes a step closer, and this time Red doesn’t back away. Rowan leans forward, voice low and harsh. “Them. They’re in here.” Rowan taps the side of his head. “The lonely one. The hungry one. From outside.”

The hair on Red’s neck stands on end at that last word, stomach fluttering with the ghosts of memories he doesn’t recognize. “Outside… where?”

Rowan’s arms shoot out to the sides. “Outside this. Here. Everywhere.”

And Red remembers.

He remembers what it was like, to touch on the mind of the ghost marowak.

He remembers what it was like to touch something so alien, something that was… somehow… connected to something else, something impossibly distant and yet close enough to brush against, something so utterly beyond his comprehension that it broke his brain.

Something outside.

A chill goes through him as more of his memories return, and he wonders if partitions are going down or if it’s just a natural effect of his mind doing its best to not think of uncomfortable memories. He thinks it’s the latter, but his mind did act to partition them immediately. If Agatha hadn’t been there to heal the damage done…

It would have warped him.

Warped him just like every other merger with a different mind does, except far quicker, and far more alien than any pokemon’s. And if he ever dropped his partitions… if, like at Silph, he exhausted his psychic abilities too much to keep them up… would it infect the rest of him, or just cause him to go a little mad?

“Rowan.” Red’s voice only shakes a little. “How many partitions are you holding in place right now?

Tears slip down the older boy’s face, scattering in the wind. “I don’t know.”

“How many are you aware of?”

“A hundred and fifty-seven.”

The words are a triple-punch to Red’s gut, leaving ice-water churning through his stomach and spreading through his limbs. “That’s impossible.”

Rowan just shrugs, and says, “One hundred and fifty-six wouldn’t be enough.”

Red’s breaths are coming quick and shallow, his heart pounding in his ears as he stares at the swaying older boy and tries to wrap his mind around what he heard. Tries to make sense of it.

And fails.

On the very first day Red learned of his gift, he got hints of what made him special. His natural ease with partitions is one of the two things that makes him unique, as a psychic, and as far as anyone can tell, he developed them in part due to the unconscious use of them after his dad died. His mind uses partitions automatically, and only relaxes them with effort or when exhausted.

And as far as he can tell, he’s only held up a dozen partitions at a time. Maybe fifteen, counting some memory juggling. It’s hard to know for sure, of course, but…

Rowan is holding over ten times as much… consciously. Continually?

Because nested in one of them, is a mind Rowan merged with that he shouldn’t have.

A mind from outside.

“We need to get you help, Rowan.” Red’s throat is dry, and he takes a step forward, hand out. “I have friends who… Elite Agatha, she was able to help me…” It hits him, suddenly, what happened at Lavender, why she was able to help him get most of the way back to normal, only for him to collapse again after.

She didn’t know about the way his partitions worked, didn’t realize that they were working to isolate the damage immediately, until he got too exhausted and they came down again.

Now it’s Rowan who’s backing away. “Help?”

“Yes. Yes, with… with the mind from outside.” Fresh horror goes through Red as he realizes… “When did you last sleep, Rowan?”

“Sleep…” The word comes out wistful. “That was at least twenty-three partitions ago. We make another one, now, each day.”

Okay, that can’t be healthy. Unless he found a way to sleep in shifts? Because wow that would be useful, even in small doses…

Not the time. “Rowan, don’t you want help? To get rid of… the outside mind?”

“That’s what we’ve been doing, Red. That’s what I wanted to speak to you about.” Rowan smiles, and it’s a sad smile. “But you don’t have it, do you?”

“The outside mind? I… might have, I almost did but I got help—”

“No. No, the lonely mind. The genius mind. The dreamer’s mind.”

Red stares at him, brain stopping and restarting as he tries to make sense of this, tries to contextualize it with what he realized earlier, and fails. Right. I’m talking to a crazy person, after all…

But no. He was close, he’s sure of it. “How does the… dreamer mind, the lonely mind… how do they help with the outside mind?”

“Ahh… that’s the question, isn’t it?” Rowan starts to sway again, then steps to the side, spinning in a brief dance. “The battle, back and forth within us, the parry and riposte, order against chaos, and poor Rowan the battlefield…” Rowan spins again, tears carried away by the wind.

“Two minds,” Red says, feeling desperate to understand despite his attempts to stay calm. “Both from outside, fighting?”

“No. No, no no… the lonely dreamer is here… from here… from us…” Rowan’s spinning slows. “It knows the unown are the threat. It has to stop them. We have to stop them. It’s the only way to survive. Even if it means destroying every region on the island.”

Red’s thoughts hit another brick wall, and the world shifts and narrows to an entirely different set of concerns. “What?” Red whispers. “What do you mean? What are you going to do?”

“Every island on the planet—”

“Rowan, what are you going to do?”

“Already done, Red. Most of it is already done.”

Red is breathing hard, feeling a growing urge to pull the ripcord… but if he does, and Rowan gets away… Unpartitioned Red, I sure hope you’ve been coming up with a plan all this time…

And even as he thinks it, the partitions…

…are…

…falling away, like he’s stepped out of a house and can see through its walls, until he is unpartitioned Red, with two interwoven memories of his thoughts and reactions to the conversation he just had.

A plan. Right.

A plan to keep Rowan from teleporting away, while he has pokemon out and within arm’s reach. Certainly close enough that Rowan can be gone before any of Red’s pokemon leave their balls.

The abra on his back can teleport and use basic psychic attacks, but it has no ability to block other pokemon from teleporting. If Rowan’s pokemon was an abra itself, Red could just use sakki and it would teleport away without Rowan.

But an alakazam… it could kill either of them within a few seconds, or at least badly hurt them. And for all that there’s clearly something wrong with Rowan, he hasn’t done or said anything that would indicate he’s a renegade.

Not that anyone could claim otherwise…

The thought crosses his mind in a flash, and is discarded just as quickly as Red’s stomach lurches.

No. Not like that. He has another option for what he can project: safety and love.

Even after evolving from an abra, even if it’s commanded instead of a natural reflex, teleportation is triggered off fear. Red can project safety strongly enough to do indoor teleportation: after all his lessons with Leaf in mimicking her state-of-mind, he’s sure he can project it well enough to prevent teleportation even in an alakazam.

So that’s a plan. The other plan is to subtly message someone to get them to take out the alakazam… maybe finding an excuse to take out his phone and type something?

It’s risky. Even a dark trainer on a dark pokemon would have to be careful not to alert Rowan or the alakazam through sound or movement.

But it might be necessary, at some point, even if Red succeeds in the projection. So first things first: he’d have to partition a part of himself and use that part to project onto the abra well enough to keep it from teleporting.

It feels like a long shot, but he can’t think of anything else.

“Why did you want to meet, then?” Safety. Calm. Peace. Tranquility. Love. Bit by bit, he summons the mental state that Leaf used to keep the abras from teleporting away. His heart rate slows, his muscles relax… and he finds himself folding…

…inward…

…to leave only his focus on helping Rowan.

“To see which you were. To see if you’d have a better way. But we were wrong. You developed your special powers without them… without them?” Rowan’s voice sounds wondering. “Even while you stayed so busy… busy keeping us safe from temporary dangers. But the real danger is still coming, and you’ve ignored it. Is it because you haven’t had the dream? Or because you’re secretly part of it? And don’t even know? Would you know, Red, if it was inside you? Wearing you like a puppet? Would you know?!

The burst of anger once again takes Red by surprise, and he holds his hands back up, palms out. “Rowan, listen. Please, I know it’s hard, but listen. I told you, remember? I had friends who helped me. I think they can help you too. You’re talking about the mind from outside?”

“Yes. Yes. The one that’s coming.” Rowan rubs his temples. “We’ve had to lock it away. But we couldn’t entirely. We thought it was because… because we needed to remember what it was, to act against it. But… what if it’s just stronger than us? What if it’s working, from behind the partitions, to leak out, infect the rest of us? We thought you could help us… show us…”

“I can help you, Rowan. We can go now, Sabrina—”

No!” Rowan’s teeth are bared, a grimace of something like anger and fear and something else, all rolled together. “No, not her. She’s… I’m not ready to face her.”

Red tries not to get thrown off track by each new trigger or cryptic comment, but… “Are you ashamed of something? Rowan, whatever you’ve already done, I’m sure she would understand you weren’t in your right mind. We can work together, to undo the harm—”

“What we’ve done? What about what she’s done?!”

Red swallows. “What has she done?”

“We don’t know! We don’t remember!” Rowan rubs his face, chest heaving with his breaths. “It’s there, so close we can almost reach it… jailor, friend, teacher, hunter, savior… we need the rest of our mind, we need our memories… but… they’re gone…”

Red tries not to think of what Sabrina might be feeling, hearing all this. Or what she’s wondering about what he’s feeling. “Gone where? Behind a partition?”

“No. In the other mind. The beautiful, wondrous, lonely mind, of which we’re just a shallow copy…”

“Rowan, I—”

Stop calling us that! That’s not who we are, anymore, don’t you understand?!” Rowan shakes his head. “We don’t know who we are anymore. Do you? How do you stand it? How do you not…” The older boy’s hands clench in front of each other, fingers curled as they make a tearing-apart motion.

Red takes a breath, tries to think through the answer before he speaks. If he can make enough sense of it, maybe it would help Rowan(?) stabilize… “I did have trouble, before. With my… parts. They’re more than that, thanks to our powers, more than what most people would have, but… the principle was the same. I just had to trust them. To accept them, and be honest with them, and trust that they wanted what was best for me. For us.” He remembers the internal conversation he had, past and future Red trying to persuade his then-present self… “I had to accept that no matter which of us had the most influence, no matter which got their way, it wouldn’t be a loss for the rest of us.”

Rowan has stopped rocking, is watching him with wide eyes. “Not a loss?” he whispers. “How can a part not getting what it wants not be a loss?”

Red shakes his head, gaze dropping as he thinks of the way he struggled with his past and future selves. With his partitioned or unpartitioned self. “It was hard for me to accept, at first. There are things… I wanted to do with my life. And there are compromises I could make, sometimes, but other times… eventually some things are just mutually exclusive, right? All problems may be solvable, but without infinite time and resources… they can’t all be solved on time.” Red thinks of what he’s spent the last few months doing, and how far he is from the person he hoped he would become through his journey. “After all that’s happened… it just became really clear that I can do my best, and still not get everything I want in life. But that doesn’t mean I should give up trying for something I care about.” Red looks back up at Rowan. “Are there things you still care about?”

Rowan’s palms press against his eyes again. “Too many things, Red. Too many things. And we don’t know which we should pursue… which is even possible to accomplish…”

“Yeah. I get that.” Red bites his lower lip. “But there’s no sense in you… getting mad at each other, is there? We try things, we make mistakes, we learn from them. I think that may be the most important thing, overall. That I learned to trust my parts to learn from their mistakes, to want to be better, for all our sakes. To listen to each other, and understand each other, for all our sakes.”

“And you do.” Rowan is smiling, suddenly, a small, sad smile. “It was clear from the beginning, that you would do whatever it took to improve yourself in every way.” Rowan lowers his hands, and fresh tears spill down the older boy’s cheeks and into his scruffy beard. “We admired that about you.”

Red swallows past the lump in his throat. “You… never said anything.”

“We were jealous. Resentful.” He tips his head back to stare at the sky, drawing in a watery breath before letting it out in a gust. “Ah, gods. Some of us still are. What you’re describing sounds… wonderful.”

Red straightens, takes a step forward. “It is. It wasn’t easy, but it’s worth it. I can help you. I know I said I’ve been busy, but… I can try and prioritize this, maybe a few hours per day—”

“And if one of the parts isn’t on the same side?”

Red blinks. “That’s… I think the models I’ve learned about think that’s complicated, even when not accounting for… the rest of the stuff, with our partitions. It can often seem that way, if the part doesn’t know how to work with others, or how to express itself well, or… has weird ideas of what’s required to be happy or moral. But also… maybe sometimes, when people are abused, a part of them might internalize it, or the beliefs of their abuser.”

“Abuse…” Rowan shakes his head. “No… we experienced no abuse. Only an awakening… and then a damning.”

“That was just one example of a way it might happen,” Red says, feeling mild desperation to keep them from getting knocked off track, to keep the momentum going in a positive direction. “Is there… some part of you that thinks you’re a bad person? That you shouldn’t live?”

Rowan laughs. “Oh, yes. Yes, we’ve thought many times over the past months that perhaps… perhaps that would be best. Simply ending it all.” Rowan wipes his cheeks. “But we can’t. The lonely dreamer would not let us. Because… we have a responsibility to try. Yes, you’re right, Red. We have to try.

A thread of hope. “Try what?”

“To stop the rest of us.”

“To stop… the part of you that’s… outside of you? The you that a part of you is a fraction of?”

“Yes! Yes, you understand!” Rowan’s face is heartbreakingly hopeful.

“Okay. What can I do to help?”

“You’ve helped enough, Red. Not how we expected… but enough. We hope it’s enough… even though people will die… even if everyone hates us… hates… me…”

Red’s pulse kicked back up at the words, and eyes widen as Rowan steps away, toward his Alakazam. No, no no no “Wait, you don’t have to… Rowan, you’re scaring me. Please, you don’t have to go!”

Rowan’s hand is on his alakazam, and he turns that sad smile back toward Red. “Thank you, Red. I know it won’t seem this way, but I promise, this is for the best.” His smile falters, one more tear falling down his cheek. “Just, please… tell Sabrina… I’m sorry.”

Red leaps forward, hand outstretched even as two of his guards swoop onto the roof atop their pokemon and another two teleport nearby, too far—

Please, unpartitioned Red, whatever you’re planning, do it now, let it work!

—the partitions fall away, bringing all of him to bear, as much as he can, on projecting love and acceptance and safety at Rowan, at the Alakazam, at everything in his psychic reach—

Rowan!”

—and watches as Rowan and his alakazam disappear.

121: Precedes

Chapter 121: Precedes

Blaine’s gym is nestled in the volcanic mountain that dominates Cinnabar’s skyline, facing the city so that it’s easy to see from anywhere in it. The roads there wind back and forth across the mountain’s base, and cablecars leave from various skyscrapers every five minutes, constantly shuttling people back and forth to the different facilities, including a small pokemart, two dorms, a trainer house, and a dedicated pokecenter separate from the smaller ones in various buildings.

But the quickest way to get there, outside of teleporting, is to fly, and most trainers who come to Cinnabar have at least one pokemon big enough to carry them up to the gym. Blue watches from Zephyr’s back as the white splotches in the mountain face resolve into individual structures, each with multiple roads and walkways crisscrossing between them.

It’s been nearly a week since they found the mansion, and so far they’re still in “holding mode.” Red said Looker put a team on it, but they’re moving so… damn… slow. Apparently they’re still on the research and planning phase, only recently having sent someone to survey the area and figure out the safest way to get into the ruins of the lab.

Blue understands that time is on their side, so long as they move carefully and don’t tip their hand. But that’s only true if the people who ran the lab aren’t off somewhere creating more hybrids, or if there’s no reason for them to worry about the hybrid itself… which he’s not betting on.

Meanwhile they’ve continued canvassing the island for ditto nests, and finally found one small enough to tag and monitor, after having to wipe out a few nests too big to safely leave. On the plus side, they each managed to catch a ditto of their own, which might be useful if they ever end up trainable.

Blue was also surprised by how deftly Leaf used her new magmar against the ditto nests, given how averse she’s been to using lethal pokemon in battles. The first time, with the smell of burning purple goo filling the grotto they found them in, she hurried out and tore off her mask to start heaving into some bushes, which left Blue feeling mildly useless. He just awkwardly stood there, patting her back and saying some vaguely encouraging things until Wendy took over.

Leaf said she was alright, after, and though she looked a bit sickly for the rest of the day, insisted she would be back to search for more nests the next. Which she did, and seemed a bit better off, though that might have been helped by the rapidash she caught. Blue half expects she mostly wanted to return to keep an eye on the mansion, but he respects the hell out of her grit either way, and said as much.

Both she and Red have changed so much from when they started this journey. But he still feels a gnawing in his stomach when he thinks of what they said about the hybrid, and finds himself wishing again that it turns out to be a piece of fiction after all.

Now is a bad time for another civilization-ending threat to pop up. And sure, Blue might have said the same the last few times that happened, but that doesn’t make it less true.

The bottom line is that the closer he is to Champion, the closer he’ll be to having power to root out any rot in the League.

And he’d definitely prefer not having to potentially confront Blaine about the lab on his island while he still needs to get Cinnabar’s badge.

Blue lands on one of the jutting rooftops, then dismounts and jogs to catch an elevator called by someone who just teleported in. The woman steps off at one of the training rooms, but Blue keeps going down to the bottom floor the elevator will reach, then takes the stairs down another level.

Blaine isn’t a Leader who spends much time in his Gym, let alone his office. Normally if Blue wants a private talk he has to content himself with calls, which always feel limiting… particularly since the Leader doesn’t even tend to use video. The lack of tone or body language makes Blaine’s already blunt way of speaking feel… valueless. Blue didn’t realize how much info he got from just talking to people, even if things didn’t go his way.

Which means if he wants to even try to, he has to keep an eye on Blaine’s schedule and intercept him in the brief times where he’s moving between things. Thankfully, Blaine’s Third has become something like a friend, and is willing to share things like the Leader’s schedule so long as Blue doesn’t make himself a nuisance.

A new training wing is being built, and Blaine is supposed to be meeting with the builders to make some adjustments to their blueprints. Blue arrives six minutes before the meeting is supposed to end, and paces the hall in front of the closed off section of the gym, checking messages and drafting a status update summarizing his day.

Each new level of fame Blue has risen to makes him feel the pressure to share more about his life more often. He noticed it early on, how good it felt getting the influx of validation, thousands of pluses and hearts and hundreds of supportive comments, each a shot of extra confidence and reassurance that he has people in his corner. People who like him, and who, if he needs them, might respond to a call for action.

It’s more than enough to make up for the negative comments that come up no matter what he says, but something did change after Miracle Eye. The conspiracy theorists got a little louder, or more focused, or something. Once in a while some belligerent questions will get thrown at him concerning people or events he’s never even heard of, his lack of answer taken as a sign of guilt. He learned not to engage with that stuff, but he still skims them on occasion, just to get some sense of what people are saying about him.

More usefully, it can be helpful to avoid saying something that gives them more ammunition, though his assistant helps with that too; along with filtering his incoming messages, he forwards everything he might post first so she can let him know if he’s about to stick his foot in his mouth by saying something really dumb, or piss off some group or the other that’s not tracking.

He’s not going to mention anything about the mansion, of course, but he wants to say something that works as a temperature check, or sets the stage for more specific comments about pokemon experimentation. He feels like there’s a line between the unown research and what the secret lab did to create the hybrid, if they did… and if people are reading Leaf’s story and getting sympathy for something that dangerous, he’s already behind on setting a more sane narrative.

He’ll have to talk to Leaf about it, sooner or later. Maybe after he has some spare time to actually read her story.

The door opens, and Blue looks up from his phone to see Blaine striding out, white coat billowing behind him. “Leader,” Blue nods, putting his phone away as he turns to walk with the man.

“What do you want?” Blaine asks as heads for the stairs. Blue does his best, as always, not to read too much into his impatience, since that’s the Leader’s default mode as far as Blue can tell.

Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s not impatient, or even that he’s not impatient with Blue in particular. But he’s also not necessarily feeling hostility toward Blue just because he’s not slowing down at all. Despite the occasional ways it’s thrown off his balance and reflexes, Blue is quite pleased with how much he’s been growing over the past few months, but he still has to nearly jog to keep up with the tall leader as Blaine strides down the halls.

“I’m ready for my challenge match.”

“What changed?”

“I think I’ve 80/20’d my impact here, and—”

“Is this a test? You want to see if I really will slap the Erika out of you?”

“No.” That threat, delivered after Blue’s first private meeting with Blaine, had him immediately try cutting his sentences down to get as short and to the point as the Leader himself was when he spoke. It was a rebuke he should have anticipated, but he thought he’d adapted quickly and well, particularly given how much he, in principle, appreciates this way of talking too.

“Then stop dancing and get to the point.”

Blue doesn’t bother asking him why Blaine thinks he’s “dancing,” since it’s true enough. “Something came up and I need to shorten my timelines.”

“Something?”

“Not saying more.”

“Denied.”

Can’t say more.”

“Still denied. MAS.”

Minimizing attack surfaces. Blue should have seen that coming; part of the reason Blaine is the way he is can be chalked up to just his personality, but another part is a deliberate effort to reduce people’s ability to persuade, cajole, or otherwise manipulate him… to keep people from even trying, as that would waste their time and his.

The frustrating thing is Blue isn’t even sure if this qualifies. He’s not trying to manipulate Blaine, he thinks, but he’s also not able to divulge everything he knows… which maybe means he is trying to be persuasive, which Blaine dislikes almost as much as being manipulated. Either way, he hoped his efforts in Cinnabar might have earned him a little trust.

He doesn’t say that, of course, since that would be an obvious effort to persuade. He recalls what Blaine told him early on about “how communication should go”: just the facts. He can share information, he can request information to narrow down what Blaine might benefit from knowing, but he can’t directly try to change how Blaine feels about anything.

“What if I don’t want to jump the line, just get back in it?” Blue asks as they start up the stairs.

“Your choice, but you’ve seen the state this island’s in.”

Blue has, and Blaine has never been shy about his priorities. Leaders like Sabrina and Giovanni often have occasional backlogs of challengers to get through, but Blaine gets so many fewer challengers that it’s not usually an issue when he focuses on some island emergency over dispensing badges.

He wants to argue that he’s done more than nearly any other gym member to help get things back on track, but he knows that’s leaning back toward emotional persuasion instead of sharing new information. “Got no intention of leaving it this way. Teleportation means I can be in Viridian and keep working here at the same time.”

They reach the elevator, and Blue follows Blaine in as the Leader hits the button for the roof. “Giovanni’s mostly hands off, thought you would jump at the chance to shake things up there.”

“I plan to do both. My friends Elaine and Glen are arriving soon, and they can cover trailblazing and organization of the newbies even better than I could.” He’s been getting used to leaving his journey mates behind each time he goes to a new city, to thinking of them more like allies on parallel journeys that occasionally intersect. Used to it, but he never grew to like it. Which may be why it felt deeply gratifying (on some level that he hasn’t had time to think about yet) to see those messages from them.

“People will follow you. Fewer will come here.” Blaine shakes his head. “Let Chase know you’re back on the Challenge list, but you still have to choose to wait here or go get Viridian’s badge and come back.”

Blue grimaces. Blaine is a common 8th badge battle for Kanto trainers, but… “I want Giovanni as my final badge.”

Blaine doesn’t even bother responding to that, which is fair enough. The door opens to reveal the open sky, though the looming volcano cuts off half of it once they step out onto the rectangular roof. Blue follows Blaine toward the edge, past which the city spreads out beyond the slope of the mountain as it continues below toward another building.

“I won’t be at my best, with the thing I mentioned hanging over me,” Blue says. “I’m not trying to—”

“Sure.” Blaine summons his charizard, whose black wings stretch out nearly twice as far as Red’s, and within a minute it’s saddled and he’s lifting himself onto its back. “But you can handle it.”

And with that he flies off, leaving Blue wondering if he’s ever received such a frustrating compliment.

After a minute of enjoying the breeze and playing the conversation back over, thinking of what else he might have said, Blue sighs and heads back inside to meet with Blaine’s Third, who’s waiting in one of the main arenas.

“Yo.” Chase is wearing shorts and a casual T-shirt instead of his gym uniform and lounging against the wall, looking like he just got back from the beach to work on his tan. In reality he’s probably been out in the water all day, diving to check various pokemon nests to monitor signs of ditto spreading via aquatic pokemon, which thankfully there have been no signs of so far. “How’d it go?”

“No dice. Told him to consider me back in line, but—”

“But that means you’re stuck here another month, at least.” Chase shrugs. “Sucks, but can’t say I’m sorry. You’ve done good work here, and battling you is putting me in arm’s reach of beating Sydney.”

“Do you actually want to be Second?” Blue asks as he goes to the PC against the wall and swaps out some of his pokemon. “Also, did you just admit I’m good enough to actually push a gym’s Third closer to a Second?”

“Hey, the lines are fuzzy, you know that. There are others here who can beat me in a straight fight but don’t want the responsibility. As for being Second, though, I could take it or leave it. Syd and I just have a thing going.”

“A thing like what, a rivalry?”

Chase smirks. “Sure, let’s go with that.”

Blue almost pursues it, then decides to let it go as he climbs onto his platform, battle calm descending as he unclips Maturin’s ball. “On three… two… one…”

Chase sends out a ninetales that uses Confuse Ray on Maturin while nimbly dodging her Bubblebeam, and returns with an Energy Ball that requires a quick swap to Soul, then back to Maturin for a Bubblebeam that Chase sends a turtonator in to tank. The turtonator blasts out a Dragon Pulse that shoves its 100 kilo opponent halfway out of the arena before nearly catching Blue’s hastily swapped in Rive with a Solar Beam fakeout.

Blue just barely manages to send Soul back in to take the hit, but the arcanine immediately has to swap back out for Sunny for lack of any way to put a dent in the enemy Fire/Dragon. Unfortunately Chase is happy to capitalize on that with another Dragon Pulse that Sunny would be lucky to survive getting hit by twice, and Blue calls time to check if his houndoom is okay.

It all happened in less than a minute, but quick matches are expected with hyper offensive teams, and it’s a rare Fire type that’s good for anything else. Blue’s battle calm is the only thing that kept him from flinching at the near miss of that Solar Beam… but he has to get used to battles with that sort of attack thrown in, now.

At 7th badge challenges the Leaders start to strip off most of the remaining safety handicaps, and Blaine is likely to try at least one trick that puts one of Blue’s pokemon at serious risk of injury, but Blue’s not worried. Thankfully he’s good enough that he rarely kills any challenger’s pokemon, but either way, Blue has to be ready for that sort of battle before he reaches Giovanni, let alone the League.

Which means he needs to get used to high stakes trainer battles, which feel like almost an entirely different meta. Normally he’d say Maturin, Rive, Bob, and Soul could handle most of what Blaine might throw at him, while still hitting back for at least neutral, since most of the types that would help cover a Fire pokemon’s weaknesses just make it more susceptible to others. But the Cinnabar leader hasn’t held onto his position this long without knowing how to make fire’s weaknesses less relevant than the challenger might hope.

If Blaine brings out something weird like a scovillain, it’ll be up to Zephyr (or the pelipper he caught while testing nests along a cliff for ditto) to take it out, while Sunny and his new poliwrath would be useful closers if Blaine throws a curveball and tries some weird defensive strategy… but both might be harder to rely on if the format is more limited, like a 3v3, and Blue expects some hard and fast attacks that bring his pokemon down despite resistances, like Overheat, and a strategic Burn Up could knock out one of Blue’s pokemon and remove Blaine’s weaknesses at the same time.

“Okay,” Blue says after healing Sunny up. “Let’s go again.”

This time Blue goes all out in his offense, trying to land a quick victory with Rive in a way that manages to take out Chase’s ninetales, but knocks the rhydon out too. Their next match pits Zephyr against Chase’s talonflame, whose Heat Waves cause the air conditioner to power on full blast just to keep the room from sweltering.

Blue almost misses the vibration of his phone as he braces against the whipping winds, and lets his whistle drop from his lips to yell “Stop!” as soon as there’s an opening. Zephyr aborts his dive and flies toward Blue, and when Chase calls his talonflame back Blue checks his messages. “They’re here,” he says, and withdraws his pokemon. “Free to meet?”

“Normally I’d pawn it off on some of my lessers,” Chase says as he tosses his talonflame a treat, then withdraws her and follows him. “But for friends of yours, I can take a personal interest.”

“Appreciate it,” Blue says with a smile.

Chase grins back. “You shouldn’t, I’ll be digging for dirt. Anyone who’s traveled with you has to have some stories of you landing on your ass.”

Blue laughs, and they head to the roof together, stopping along the way at the floor housing the gym’s pokemon center. The sun is just starting to set, painting half the sky in gold and pink as Blue searches the sky for his friends. There are a few trainers flying up from the city, but…

Within a minute he spots the swiftly growing black dots high up in the sky. Elaine lands first, her swellow flapping hard and hopping a couple times to shed momentum from its dive. Blue braces himself against the gusts of wind, which die down just as Glen’s pidgeot lands more gently, and he’s followed by a handful of others from the Saffron gym and dojo.

Blue finishes hugging Elaine in time to greet them all, as well as congratulate those that recently got badges before he introduces everyone to Chase. “Appreciate you all coming out,” the Third says. “Been a while since we had as many spare hands as we needed.”

“More are on the way by ferry,” Glen says with a wink. “Not often that a call goes out for newer trainers, and getting Blaine’s badge as their second or third will make their journey more unique than most.”

“What’s the latest?” Elaine asks “Are lots of nests still getting found?”

“We found one today, actually.” Blue summarizes the encounter, how the nest turned out to be too big to tag and observe the way his group is looking for. “We’ll intro you guys to the rangers and gym members in charge of surveying and putting together squads. Within a couple weeks I expect you guys will be doing your own.”

“Damn,” Chase says as they pile into the elevator. “You’re as much of a taskmaster as Blaine. No wonder you two get along so well.”

Blue raises a brow. “We do?”

“Sure. He hasn’t chucked you off the island yet, has he?”

Elaine laughs. “Has he actually done that? I can never tell what are just stories of the guy, and what’s real.”

“He hasn’t physically thrown anyone out of Cinnabar, or even the gym, but he’s told people to leave and come back when they get their head out of their ass or learn to stop wasting his time or whatever.”

“Nice job, Blue,” Elaine says.

“Yeah, it’s nice to see you getting better at this whole taking-over-gyms thing,” Glen adds.

“Hang on,” Blue says. “I’ve never made a previous Leader mad at me.”

Elaine taps her chin. “Didn’t Surge start out thinking you were an egotistical upstart?”

“Oh yeah,” Chase says while Blue rolls his eyes. “That’s the good insider goss. Gimme more.”

The rest of the day passes quickly, with Blue and Chase giving the group a tour while introducing them to the others they’ll be working with. After they break for dinner, Chase says goodbye, and Blue invites Glen and Elaine to his room while the others head down to the city to meet the newer trainers.

As soon as the door is closed, they both turn expectantly to him. “So,” Elaine says. “What have you gotten us into now?”

She’s smiling, but Blue raises his hands, palms out. “Exactly what it looks like. The gym needs help filling holes the rangers are leaving.”

“But.” Glen’s arms are crossed, but he’s smiling too.

Blue wants to smile back. He can’t quite bring himself to. “I can’t tell you yet. But, yeah, there are things going on that might draw me into another mess.”

“Another renegade mess,” Glen says, not a question, and he’s not smiling anymore.

Neither is Elaine, but they don’t look scared either. “Blue, we’re here. I know you can’t count on us the way you do Red and Leaf—”

“That’s not true.” Blue’s heart is pounding, and he tries to take a breath, tries to summon his battle calm… but this isn’t a battle. These are his friends, and his allies, and… “I called you guys because I can rely on you. In different ways.”

“What do you need us to do?” Glen asks, voice soft. “I won’t lie and say I want to fight renegades again. I don’t. But it sucked, finding out you were fighting them at Silph and not being able to help—”

Blue doesn’t wince, doesn’t let any of his remembered conflict about calling Glen show on his face.

“—and if that happens again, I don’t plan to just stand back and watch if I see an opportunity.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to,” Blue mutters.

“To what?” Elaine asks. “Be there, or stay back?”

“Both. Either. But I might not be able to warn you, if that sort of thing is coming. What I need you guys to do is get this island back to its pre-ditto threat rating.”

“So you can get your badge faster.” There’s no accusation or bitterness in Glen’s voice, which some part of Blue did worry about. He also worries about Glen saying more, saying So you can leave us behind again. But instead the older boy just nods, as if expecting a couple mid-journey trainers and their friends to tip scales that already have dozens of rangers and gym members on one side is an obvious thing to do. “Because things got even more serious than before.”

“Yeah. That’s the basic idea.” Blue runs a hand through his hair. “I’ll go for Viridian first if I have to, but wrapping things up here… it’s not just the badge anymore. And I can’t do that stuff and prep for Giovanni and keep training for Blaine. I need some of this stuff off my plate.”

“We’re here,” Elaine says again, voice soft. “But if there is anything else we can do…”

Blue looks at them, staring steadily back at him, and feels himself weighing risk and possibility, hope and dread stirring in his chest as he finally lets himself think of the stuff thats been hovering around his thoughts since that day at the mansion.

Of what a crew of loyal, discreet trainers and gym members on the island could do, with the right instructions.

“There might be something. Might not turn anything up, but while you’re spending time with the locals and getting to know them, there are some things it would be helpful to watch out for… and some questions to ask, if you’re careful about how…”


Indigo’s interpol base feels like it’s something different every day. Some days are sleepy, with a handful of agents in the building working quietly at their computers. Some days are like a kicked combee hive, people rushing every which way and yelling orders and information at each other in response to some new event. Sometimes entire wings of cubicles get split apart, shifted to another area, or restructured under a new task force.

Red never had his own task force before. Or rather, he’s been part of multiple before, one could even say all of them to some degree… though that’s not true, there were some more secretive than others, in buildings he hasn’t visited. But he’s never had one with people in it that answered to him, or at least halfway did. In a way, it’s a little like he imagined being a pokemon professor might feel…

…if on a totally different set of topics than any professor would normally be focused on.

“So how likely is Rocket to make the same breakthrough?” Red asks. “Being able to store any amount of mass—”

“Not any amount,” Mink quickly corrects. The Silph-pokeball-engineer-turned-interpol-technician is leaning back in his chair, feet up on his desk as he spins his headset around his wrist. “That would be absurd. But an order of magnitude further than a heavyball is what we aimed for, and we got pretty close. As for them replicating it… hard to tell without knowing who they’ve got working for them. Theoretical physicists who can push poketech aren’t exactly growing on trees.”

“Physicists, specifically?”

“Sure. Ever wonder what the hardest part of pokeball tech is, even back when they were big as grapefruits?”

Red has, from time to time, but he never really researched it. “Digital training translating to physical changes in the reconstituted mind?”

“You’re thinking too modern. Think about it; you’re designing the very first tech that can convert mass to energy. What goes wrong?”

Red blinks, wondering if this is a trick question. “Uh. You can’t convert it back?”

“That’s what everyone thinks.” Mink says. “And don’t get me wrong, solving that was pretty, you know, central to the whole concept. But the real headache was not letting the mass carry over once it’s energy.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean energy still has mass.” Mink waves a hand at the desk. “Take all the atoms that make this desk up and turn it into light, and it’ll still weigh what a desk weighs.”

“Wait, really? Then how does—”

“Verres!” Looker’s voice, sounding either urgent or annoyed. Or both.

“Later,” Mink says with a wave as Red jumps to his feet and heads through the cubicle forest toward the shout, wheeling his office chair behind him. Looker is standing at the front of “Red’s” cluster, arms crossed.

“Verres, when were you going to tell me you’ve got a team of people excavating on Cinnabar?”

“I uh, told you last week?” Red shoves his chair into his own cubicle so that it rolls beside his desk as he continues to walk toward Looker. “During the morning meeting.”

The Special Administrator frowns, then closes his eyes a moment, lids flickering… “You asked permission to requisition more agents for…” Looker sighs and opens his eyes. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Digging into the lab, you said.”

“Right,” Red says, baffled. “What did you think I meant?”

Metaphorical digging, Verres!”

“Ah.” He knows he shouldn’t, but Red grins at his irate boss, already imagining Leaf’s reaction when she hears. “Well that’s an understandable, one might even say com—”

“Do you have any idea what Blaine will do if he finds out about this?”

“Well, I thought about asking, but once you said it was fine I sort of figured it’d be… fine?” Red’s heart sinks as Looker rubs his eyes. How big did he mess up, exactly? “Is it that bad?”

“We’ll see. Meanwhile, you have a visitor.”

Red blinks. Here? He follows Looker away from the cubicles and past another cluster before he sees…

…Director General Tsunemori. Red smiles, an upwelling of gratitude rushing through him at the sight of the woman who threw him a lifeline the night of the Silph attack.

He doesn’t like to think of that night, of how scared he was, both for himself and for the psychics of the region. But her words, her clear confidence in society, even as she expressed uncertainty… her sincerity was hard not to sense. And once he sensed it, he could experience it himself, feel it in relation to whatever else he was thinking and feeling.

It felt dangerous, in a way. Like potentially lying to himself, ignoring things that might have given him good reason to be afraid in order to retreat into comfort. But it felt genuine enough, and her position unique enough, that he figured she probably had good reason to feel the way she did, and if she was wrong, well, he wasn’t really in a position to do better from the place of dread and panic he did feel at the time.

“Hello, Red.” She reaches out a hand, which he squeezes. “I thought I’d come and see what Interpol is doing digging a hole through Cinnabar. Imagine my surprise when I learned it was your idea.”

“I’m sorry, Director—”

She holds up a hand, still gently smiling. “I’m sure you have your reasons. But it would be helpful if I—and the Special Administrator—knew those reasons, before Cinnabar’s Leader or Mayor ask.”

“Right, of course! Should I, uh… start from the beginning, or…?”

“The team has been sending me reports,” Looker admits, voice only slightly grudging. “I obviously didn’t give them my full attention, but Tsunemori will need an overview.”

“I was only told that you had a source that you trust, pointing you to a crime that’s potentially related to renegade activity.” Her brow is raised. “No offense to Interpol, but I decided to check with you directly in case they’re being… overly cautious on your behalf.”

Red appreciates the discretion, but yeah he’s pretty sure it wasn’t for his or Leaf’s benefit. “Right. Well, that’s basically true… but, here… I can share what we found out?” Red sticks a thumb in the direction of his cubicle, and at Looker’s nod he turns and leads the way.

He tries not to feel nervous, and a quick mental glimpse of Tsunemori’s mind shows she’s mostly curious, maybe a little frustrated or exasperated… but also slightly relieved? He files that away to ask about later.

“Here…” Red leads them over to the white board that makes up an entire wall of his cubicle, where he’s got a series of written words circled, squared, and triangle, with lines between them and post-it notes of various colors stuck on. “So, the first team—”

“Who made this?” Tsunemori asks.

“I did.”

Looker squints at him, then the board. “With whose help?”

“My mom’s. I didn’t tell her anything that would be on it, though! Just asked for help putting pieces of evidence together to see what patterns emerged.”

Looker grunts and waves his hand in a “go ahead,” gestured, so Red starts at the top-right corner.

“So the shapes indicate what kind of info it is. Connecting properties are squares, connecting people are triangles, and connecting topics are circles. See, once Murphy and Ichiro finished the initial research they uncovered a ton of potentially connected organizations—”

“I see them.” Most dead end quickly, but the main branch that moves out to unfold over the rest of the board has a green sticky note on it, which Tsunemori points to. “Green means, what, confident?”

“Yeah, and red are basically just wild guesses that we still need to follow up on.” There are a lot of red post-its around the corners of the mass of shapes, particularly in the direction where STAFF is written, though there are some yellows there. “Following up on missing researchers yielded a lot of fruit, and funders got pretty complicated—I still don’t really get why shell companies are legal, but Ben explained that they’re mostly benign and necessary—but the research output is where we really hit it big.”

“Research output,” Tsunemori muses. “You’re saying criminal scientists in secret labs still, what, care about getting their work published in peer reviewed journals?”

“Not exactly; they’d go through intermediaries, labs that could replicate what they’ve already done and present it as original research. When we looked into a few of them and sent some agents out, one broke down before any accusation was made, admitted that they received the idea in a mail package, with no instructions or claims of credit.” Red’s not sure how he feels about that, but the researcher clearly had a guilty conscience.

“What, they’re secret benefactors now?” Looker sounds half skeptical, half disgusted. “Just tossing out free scientific breakthroughs, no strings attached?”

“Some maybe had strings attached? Maybe some richer labs were asked to donate money or something, and didn’t ask questions about where their ideas were coming from. We can’t know how many we didn’t catch, it would take looking into tens of thousands of papers, maybe even pokedex entries, over decades… but once in a while at least, yeah, they seem to have spread their discoveries out so the wider scientific community could learn from them. Probably not all of them, but… it also wasn’t entirely selfless, since there’s no way they could do all the research they might want to on their own.”

“Spread a discovery, reap the benefits of whatever others discover from it.” Tsunemori is watching Red, and there’s an expression on her face that Red can’t quite place. “How are you feeling, Red?”

“Huh?” Red blinks, trying to switch gears. Was he talking too quickly before? “Fine?” As he says it, he realizes… “Good, actually.”

Looker nods. “You’ve picked up in the past couple weeks. Enjoying detective work?”

“I think so.” Red scratches the back of his neck. He thinks it might be more about the feeling of control he now has over stuff. He’s still spending a lot of time training with the hunters, still feels like he’s being molded into something he doesn’t want to be… but the investigation, it’s like solving a puzzle, and… “I feel like I can contribute something unique, here.” Not that his other work isn’t something he’s uniquely suited to… “Not a lot, but—”

“The research angle was your idea,” Tsunemori says. “And you chose to take it upon yourself to make this visualization, and you’re part of a team.”

“That stuff too, yeah. I guess I feel like I have more control over my life.”

“I’m glad. And yes, I’m seeing the connections.” She points to the lines connecting research to the Cinnabar lab. “How solid are these yellow notes?”

“There’s a few people looking into them now. We can’t know what kind of lab Cinnabar was, but if our guesses are right, it’ll lean heavy into biochemistry.” Red still hasn’t told anyone what Leaf suspects the lab was for. They’ll either independently discover it, or they won’t, and maybe for good reason. “Even a few glimpses of broken equipment could tell us a lot, though.”

Looker grunts, then glances at the wall to Red’s right. “That Silph guy, he paying off?”

“It’s hard to tell for sure yet, but he’ll definitely be useful once we get in the lab.”

“The timeline’s off, though. If they were building their own Masterball months ago… ah. You think maybe they leaked the tech to Silph.”

“Or had some deal with them,” Tsunemori murmurs. “Which would explain how they knew it was being built at all.”

Looker shrugs. “I’m the last person who’s going to call any idea paranoid. So, are you satisfied?”

“I am.” Tsunemori nods at Red. “Thank you, and well done. I assume you’re going to want to be part of the team that investigates the lab, once the way is open?”

“Yeah, and… uh, there are some others that should probably be there. They already know about it, and would really help in figuring things out.” Well, mostly Leaf and Blue. Red was impressed by the rangers, but he’s mostly including them because he wants to keep on cooperative terms with them.

“I’ll leave that up to the Special Administrator. My own people will also be joining, regardless.”

“That’s a conversation,” Looker says with a mild frown.

“Well, let’s have it now then.”

Looker grunts, nods, then glances back at Red and wags a finger between them. “You and I, we need to work on our communication. My fault for allowing such a sloppy chain of command, but if this kind of misunderstanding happens again, your boyish innocence isn’t going to protect you.”

“Yes, Sir.” Red is a little heartened by Director Tsunemori’s smile, which offsets Looker’s stern expression. “Sorry again.”

“Mhm.” He leaves, and the director nods once more to him before following.

Red collapses onto his seat, relieved and tired. He sends an update to Leaf and Blue, then checks his messages.

One of the odder quirks of his new position in life is that he had to get a new personal assistant, not to replace his old one, but in addition to her, and not just to manage the new volume of incoming messages but also to filter any that might relate to sensitive topics. But that meant his new one had to be well informed of certain things, which means someone from the local police who generally does this sort of thing or officers of higher rank was assigned to him… which brought his total number of PAs to three, the third of which works for Interpol and is the first screener, dividing everything he gets into two broad piles for the others to sort through in parallel and then send over.

This means he can generally choose what sorts of messages he wants to read and pick the ones that got through those general piles and sorted into more specific ones. Right now he decides on messages from his social connections, and reads a message from one of his old lab mates about new potential developments in how Dragon types are classified, which he forwards to Blue, and some followups from acquaintances in the psychic network he helped form, which continues to go better than he expected.

There are also a few messages from his old peers under Sabrina’s tutelage. Some others have moved on by now, and another two have joined, but most still keep in touch with the occasional well-wish, life update, or question, sometimes posed just to him, other times to the group.

It’s Rowan’s name that catches his attention, and he clicks that email with a feeling of pleasant surprise. He hadn’t heard from Rowan in a while… months, actually…

The message is short. Red blinks as he reads it, then rereads it again, slight smile fading and shifting to a frown as he reads it a third time…

Hello Reds

How are you all?

Is it peace?

Is it war?

How do you keep the peace?

How do you win the war?

We’re wondering which side you’re on

Which side you’ll be on

Which sides you’ll be

On the day

you

meet

me

Red stares at the message another moment, tingles running up his spine as he swallows and checks the message timestamp.

Over a week ago. His pulse, which had started to pick up, starts to slow a little. He would have heard, if something odd had—

Message Sabrina now. Jason too. Everyone.

The thoughts are strong, urgent, and his fingers are moving to type out short queries again and again. Hey, how are you, have you seen Rowan lately? Hi, hope you’re well, just curious if Rowan still comes around? Heya, quick question, have you heard from…

Red finishes messaging everyone he can think of, then goes back to read over the (poem?) again. He wants to respond… but he’s also afraid to.

Why is he afraid to? And is it coming from him, or something his unpartitioned self knows?

No. Nothing concrete. But…

Red nods to himself. But.

The responses trickle in. Fine. Good. Doing great. No. Nah. Not lately. Now that you mention it…

And from Jason, the extra curious: Why do you ask?

Red swallows against the dryness in his throat, and instead of messaging, calls.

“Hey, Jason. Sorry to bother—”

“It’s no bother. I’m still in Saffron, Red, and I can’t remember seeing Rowan here for at least two weeks. Maybe fleetingly, maybe in passing, but he hasn’t attended classes, or taught any as far as I know. What’s happened?”

“Did you…?”

“Worry? Yes, but vaguely, and for months now. I didn’t realize how long it’s been until your message. What happened, Red?”

“Nothing, not really. Just… a weird message.” Red looks at it again, then forwards it. “Sending to you now.”

There’s silence as Jason reads, and then he says, “We should talk to Sabrina.”

“I’ll be there soon.” Red hesitates. “Are we… overreacting? You’ve known him longer than I have, even before I left… he was always a bit—”

“Strange, yes. And I know that’s an unfair label, perhaps, for one of us. But I don’t think we’re overreacting. I just hope it’s nothing serious.”

“Me too. Though I’m not really sure what serious would look like, in this case. Something to do with partitions, obviously, but…”

“But whatever it is, it feels off.”

“Yeah.”

“Except perhaps for Rowan himself, you know more about partitions than anyone else, Red. If this feels off to you, I trust that even more than my own gut, which has felt uneasy about Rowan for a while now.”

“Right. See you soon.”

“See you soon.”

Red ends the call, then straps on his pokebelt and heads for a balcony, gaze drawn to the message again as a fresh chill works through him.

Which sides you’ll be

On the day

you

meet

me

120: Agency

Back when Red was attending school, he read a history book that included scans of a preserved journal from some pre-pokeball trainer recounting their experience of riding a pokemon for the first time. It was a ponyta, and she talked about the sense of power beneath her, the unpredictability even after hundreds of hours of training. The ponyta seemed calm and compliant enough at first, until something spooked her, or some instinct took over, and suddenly the trainer was being carried far away from her home, further in a few minutes than she could walk in an hour, hanging on for dear life and, as she wrote later, wondering if she should jump off and possibly injure herself and lose her mount into the wilds, or keep trying to get the ponyta under control.

Riding Charizard for the first time had felt a little like that, though his pokemon was relatively tame compared to most thanks to Red’s powers. Still, there was that feeling as they soared through the air, that occasional tug as his predator instincts noticed some wild pidgey in the distance, or a herd of miltank below them, followed by the tension for a surge of wild speed… one that never came, thanks to the pokeball’s conditioning keeping Charizard’s urges in check. Keeping Red in control.

It’s an analogy that he wishes he’d come up with before Leaf asked him how life has been for him, because Red doesn’t feel in control, and hasn’t for months. But on the plus side, he has a feeling he’ll get to use the analogy anyway, if someone asks him how it felt to discover the secret lab beneath the mansion.

“If this is for real, then CoRRNet has to be informed.” Ranger Neasman is staring down into the open elevator shaft. They dropped a lightstick in after Red’s machamp forced the doors open to reveal about twenty meters of space and a pile of stone and dirt burying the elevator car.

“I get that,” Leaf says. “Really, I do, but… if they find out first, and someone in the chain of command is compromised—”

“The League, then,” Blue is leaning against the wall, arms crossed. “This is Blaine’s territory, so we’d need to go over his head for a full investigation in case he’s in on it.”

“CoRRNet is neutral,” Wendy says. “If the League comes in and doesn’t find anything, how would we know if they’re not just covering something up?”

“If we’re going to anyone, it has to be Interpol,” Leaf’s voice is firm, but Red can tell she’s trying to sound more confident than she is. “If the League sanctioned research that would create a pokemon threat to other regions, Indigo could be seen as a Renegade nation.”

“Is that actually possible?” Wendy asks. “Everyone’s doing unown research, and no one knows how dangerous that could be.”

Ranger Neasman shakes his head. “They’re not deliberately trying to create powerful pokemon. Wouldn’t surprise me in the least if someone pulls it off and lands their region in a diplomatic incident.

“And it depends how much of the League is involved,” Blue says, jaw set. “Whoever isn’t would need to rise up together, or else Leaf’s right. Which I think they would, for the record. No way people wouldn’t riot against something like this.”

“That’s only if we can provide at least some proof of it,” Leaf insists. “Which right now we can’t.”

Red listens to them argue, hand stroking Pikachu’s back where he lays in Red’s lap. Over the past couple months he’s used the danger projection technique Koichi inspired and the resources he’s been given by the local and international police departments to evolve all his pokemon… all except for Pikachu. He could have ordered the right food from Alola to prepare the electric mouse for his psychic evolution, which would make them an even more effective team… but he still hasn’t done it.

He thought about it, of course, noticed the knot of tension in his chest each time he considered it, and set aside some time to use Focusing to figure out what the aversion was; he likes his pokemon better as a pikachu than he would as a raichu, even an Alolan raichu. He likes having him lay in his lap, like he’s doing now, or ride on his shoulder. If he evolves, he wouldn’t be able to do either, and he’d just become… another weapon.

That’s what it feels like all his pokemon have become, over the past two months. Not travel companions, not research assistants, not even tools to help guard civilization against the ever encroaching wilds. Today was the first time he fought any wild pokemon since before the Silph attack; since then, Looker and Tsunemori made it clear that Rocket is the most valuable thing for him to focus on.

It’s important work. He knows that. But at the end of the day, he’s still killing people, even if the actual killing is usually done through their own pokemon rather than his, and he doesn’t want Pikachu to be a part of that.

The sentimentality would have interested his younger self. He still remembers sitting at the diner table on that first night of his journey, scribbling in his notebook about what causes attachment between trainers and pokemon. If he had these feelings then, he would have poked at them, tried putting them into words, maybe even tested them.

For now, he’s content to just let them be.

“Red?”

His head rises to see everyone staring at him. “Sorry, what…?”

“How do you think Interpol will react?” Leaf asks.

It takes him a moment to reboot his thoughts, focus on the conversation that he’d been half listening to. Red has no idea how Interpol would react, but… “You said we can’t prove anything, but our situation is even worse. Looker might not need proof if we have reasonable conjecture, but we barely have that.” A psychic could be used to confirm evidence that can’t be reproduced, or at least confirm that someone is being honest in claiming to have seen or heard what they believed to be evidence, but they don’t even have that. “What do we actually know? A half-demolished, isolated, abandoned manor has a basement. Someone who gave you notes for your story has clearly been to this place, or one very like it.”

“The details—”

Red holds a hand up, nodding. “I know, just… think about it from an outside view, right? What’s more probable, that a conspiracy of dozens of people created a human/pokemon hybrid, and kept it secret for years, or that a researcher with a good imagination drew inspiration from places they’ve been? Even if there is a lab under us, there may not be any evidence that it was doing anything illegal, or that anything else from the story is true. For whatever it’s worth, my bet was on a lab where secret experimental, but still human, psychic research was being done.” Mostly because of what he learned from Sabrina. “So long as we don’t have evidence of the super-psychic hybrid, let alone any evidence that ties all this back to Rocket or renegade activity in general, Looker might put an agent or two on this but he’s not going to divert any significant time or resources to it.”

There’s silence for a moment, until Leaf says, “So it sounds like we’ll have time to do our own investigation, as I’ve been saying.”

“All respect, Miss Juniper, you’re no officer of the law. None of us are, except possibly Red.” Ranger Neasman frowns at him, though not in an unfriendly way. “What is your remit, exactly? My assumption was to treat you like a hunter, so without evidence of renegade activity, or a warrant…”

“I don’t have jurisdiction to investigate private property,” Red confirms. “And without any sign of a ditto nest or other ecological risk…”

Neasman nods. “We’re out of bounds too.”

The silence returns, and Red watches Leaf’s mouth twist as she starts pacing, gaze occasionally moving to the open elevator doors.

It’s clear to Red that she’s trying to have it both ways, wanting this to be important enough that they investigate it despite the legal gray area, but not so immediately and obviously important that they’re compelled to call in any potentially compromised authorities. Even if she decides to give up now and sneak back here without the rangers, she’ll be on the clock if word gets out… and maybe even in danger.

His stomach twists at the thought, and he takes a deep breath as he brings his attention back to the current problem. Given the lack of anything concrete, it may be possible to talk the rangers around to not reporting what they found. But if he knows Leaf she’s going to do something reckless, like concede and then sneak back here to investigate on her own if she has to.

Focus on practicalities first. “If the entire lab is buried, what’s our hypothetical plan to learn anything more on our own?” he asks. “I doubt we have the pokemon to excavate enough of it.” And it would be extremely dangerous. He resists the urge to say it because he knows it’s not necessary to, but also because he doesn’t want to come off as more afraid than he is, particularly with Blue here. Not that he’s unafraid, but so long as they’re careful, there may be safe ways to explore.

She bites her lower lip. “I was thinking… if we go in sideways, we might be able to reach the lab from some nearby slope without much risk. It might take a day or two of digging, but we can buy pokemon for it, and use containers to hide the displaced earth.”

“Excavating tunnels isn’t just about making a line between two points,” Wendy says. “Depending on the type of rock and soil here, we’d probably need to put in braces, inject shotcrete, hang mesh… all while warding off wilds that might break whatever we put in.”

“But… ” Leaf rubs her forehead as she processes this, then looks up at Wendy. “You know how to do all that, right? It’s part of your spec?”

“Uh, some.” The normally confident girl seems suddenly less sure in the face of Leaf’s stubborn hope. “It’s one of my specs, but… I’m just a cadet, I’ve only done it as part of a team of others before.”

“It’s not one of mine,” Ranger Neasman says. “We’ve got a few teams on the island who can do it, but it won’t be quiet.”

Leaf visibly deflates, and Red feels a sinking sensation as it becomes clear that their options are dwindling, that this is yet another thing that’s going to race ahead of their control. He knows that sense of control is often an illusion—even if they could somehow have controlled everything they got involved with from the start of their journey, the world would have still thrown them curveball after curveball, and just imagining having tried to manage it all feels exhausting.

But letting other people dictate what happens feels even worse, suddenly. For the past two months he’s done his best to devote himself to what felt necessary: stopping Rocket, and showing the world that they could feel safe with him (and psychics in general) in positions of power, rather than afraid.

But that has meant largely trusting Director Tsunemori and Special Administrator Looker to tell him what needed doing, and various others to train him in how.

Of course, not all of it has been a total burden. He had some input, unique insights into his capabilities and ideas about how they might best be used. The part of him that found enjoyment in pokemon battles, in the sense of solving a puzzle, of pitting his creativity against not just a natural challenge but an opposing creative mind, and figuring out how to win… it kept him from detaching completely from his day to day, or sinking too deep into depression between the bouts of learning, training, and combat.

Today felt like the first time he really shook that off, somewhat. A little from visiting the fossil lab, a little from spending time with his friends again… but mostly from Leaf’s revelation, a mix of her contagious intrigue and his own bewildered curiosity.

And when that was at risk, when it felt like he might be denied the ability to keep looking into things…

It felt good to stand up to Officer Jensen. Red was glad when the lanky hunter volunteered to be part of Red’s guards after the Silph attack; the difference in treatment from someone who had seen him in action was obvious, and the others picked up on it pretty quickly. But despite the sense of general respect, Jensen was still his senior in every way that mattered, and that meant that Red mostly deferred to him.

It felt good to buck that thought process. It felt good to assert himself more, and take more agency over his life.

When did he give that agency up? He has power, he knows that. Unique power, power that means he could be making suggestions and setting expectations. He hasn’t spoken to Blue or Leaf about his situation, but he knows they would push him to use his power more. When did he decide that not using it was an automatic necessity of becoming a weapon against Rocket?

The answer is obvious, once he considers it. It was baked into the sense of fear he had going into all this, the desperate urge to prove himself trustworthy, safe…

Compliant.

The thought sparks something, some deep and subtle anger, though he can’t tell if it’s with himself or others. Either way, he can’t let himself go back, tempting as it is to avoid the conflicts that his gut is clenching just thinking about.

“I think our best bet is to bring Looker in,” Red says, feeling the words out as he speaks them. “If I tell him about this directly, explain our worries… I might be able to convince him to take it seriously, and if he does take it seriously, I won’t have to convince him to keep it close to the vest.”

The sudden hope on Leaf’s face is immediately gratifying, mixed as the hope is with her own obvious worries. “And if you don’t convince him? Would he be as careful then?”

“I think so.” Red hesitates. “He does paranoia pretty well.”

Leaf paces the hall a couple more times, then sighs and comes to a stop beside Ranger Neasman. “Would you be willing to hold off on informing CoRRNet until we have actual evidence of the hybrid?”

The ranger scratches his chin, glancing at Wendy. “S’pose. Verres is right that we’ve got nothing solid yet. Guess that means you wouldn’t tell the League either?”

They all turn to Blue, who’s leaning against the wall, arms crossed, fingers drumming against one bicep. His gaze flicks to each of them, then shifts between Leaf and Red. “I want to know if Blaine is part of this. Cinnabar is his, but the League can still get involved if there’s reason to. Everyone’s got a close relationship with at least one Leader, and if I get Gramps involved…”

“But that can wait, right?” Leaf asks. “For after we learn more, have some hard evidence that can’t be suppressed.”

Blue stares at her, and Red feels a knot of tension in his stomach. He’s not sure what Blue is thinking, and the reflex for a shallow scan is only restrained from long practice (not that it would work anyway, without Miracle Eye). “Yeah,” Blue says after a minute. “It can wait.”

It seems like something passed between them, some silent conversation sparked by context he doesn’t have, but Red more easily resists the urge to check Leaf’s mood, trusting they would tell him if it’s something he needs to know. Instead he gently urges Pikachu off his lap, then stands and withdraws him. “Okay. I guess I’m off to do that, then.”

“We need to sweep the rest of the potential ditto nests anyway,” Ranger Neasman says. “Assuming you’re still willing to join us for that?”

“Oh,” Leaf says, and looks like she’s about to say something further before she straightens. “Yes, of course.”

The rangers lead the way out, and Blue follows last, hands in his pockets and gaze down. Red wants to talk to Leaf, try and give her some reassurance, but he can’t easily recall having seen Blue like this before, and slows his steps to walk beside his friend. “You alright?”

“Fine.” Red only has a few steps to wonder if he should press the question before Blue asks, “Do you really think that thing, the hybrid, if it’s real, isn’t a threat?”

Red blinks. “I didn’t say that. I mean, it might be a threat. But… well, for one thing, it’s also probably the thing that’s warning everyone about the unown.”

Blue turns to stare at him, then looks away when Red winces from the light of the headlamp. “What do you mean?” Leaf has also slowed down to walk beside them.

He’s skirting close to a secret that’s not quite his to share, but… “Just something I thought, before I took Leaf’s story as seriously. That an unknown psychic power, or a psychic that’s unusually strong in projection range and detail, could be responsible for the messages, which would explain why it only hits one city at a time.”

“You still haven’t gotten the dream, right?” Leaf asks.

“No, and now that they’ve stopped I doubt I ever will.” He shrugs, trying to hide his disappointment. “I’d like to talk to them, of course, figure out why they’re doing it. But whether they’re human or not, it seems a sign of good intentions, or at least non-hostility, that they’d want to warn us about a thing like that.”

Blue doesn’t respond to that, and soon they’re out in the sunlight again. Red takes off his helmet, glad for the breeze on his sweaty forehead, and messages Jensen, Haruto, Teri, and Claude to let them know they can stop guarding the perimeter before he calls Looker, who picks up on the second ring.

“What’s wrong?” He knows Red wouldn’t be calling for something minor, though this is only the third time he’s done it without messaging first.

“We need to talk, private.” Red tries to ignore the way everyone’s watching him. “Are you free now?”

“Now?” The word comes out tense, and Red realizes he’s probably freaking Looker out. Well, probably not, he’s not sure Looker can get freaked out, but he’s probably making his paranoia stronger than usual.

“As soon as you can spare a few minutes,” Red says, trying to sound relaxed. The hunters start to arrive, each within a few seconds of each other, then begin dismounting when Red says, “I’m porting over, can wait by your office.”

“Alright. Ten minutes.”

Looker ends the call without saying goodbye, as usual, and Red turns to his friends. “I’ll let you know how it goes. Be careful exploring the island.”

They exchange hugs, and after confirming that his guards are ready, Red and the hunters are on the roof of Interpol’s Indigo headquarters.

Red’s whole body shivers as he takes his first breath of the thin, cold air of the mountains between Kanto and Johto, gaze drawn as always to the closest slopes leading down toward Pewter City. Mount Silver looms above them, one of the few peaks higher than the one they’re nestled between, and Red takes a minute to think through his plan and pass some berries over his shoulder to his abra before raising his mental shields and heading for the doorway into the building.

His guards break off to the various forms of rest, though Jensen stays with him as he makes his way through the metal halls toward Looker’s office. The building was rapidly constructed in the space of a couple weeks, and it’s only now starting to have some more homely touches inserted, a potted plant here, a warm rug there. The rest is industrial style walls and lighting, and it’ll take a lot more plants and rugs to make Red feel less claustrophobic while he’s here.

He finds the Special Administrator’s office and the two wait in silence for a few minutes for Looker to arrive. Jensen doesn’t ask what Red and the others discovered, and Red doesn’t volunteer the info. For all that, the silence feels comfortable, and Red takes a moment to appreciate the hunter’s professionalism before deciding to just say that.

“Hey, Jensen.”

“Verres?”

“Thanks. For earlier.”

His guard blinks at him, then shrugs. “Sure. We’re meant to keep you safe, not run your life. Sorry if we’re too pushy, sometimes.”

“Yeah. I get it.”

Jensen nods, and they return to silence. Still, Red feels a bit lighter. Maybe all this would be easier than he thought.

Looker arrives a minute or two later, and nods to Jensen before carefully examining his office door, then unlocks it and goes inside. Red follows while Jensen stays in the hall, and closes the door behind him before he steps aside while Looker gives his office the full sweep, checking for anything from traps to bugs.

Finally he loops back and leans against the door, arms crossed. “Tell me.”

So Red tells him, starting with the suspicions he had months ago about the secret psychic research (leaving Sabrina out of it for now) and summarizing Leaf’s story before describing the events of the day. Halfway through Looker held a hand up to pause Red while he took out a phone and messaged someone, then moved away from the door to sit at his desk and gestured Red to continue. By the time Red is describing the contents of Leaf’s story Looker is up from the desk again and pacing the room, and he continues to do so after Red finishes with the discovery of the elevators.

Looker strides the length of his office twice more before turning to Red, brow raised. “And then?”

“That’s it, Sir. The rangers brought up the question of jurisdiction, and there’s the practical difficulties in delving underground given the damage—”

“That’s it?” Looker repeats, frowning now. “I almost came in here saying ‘someone better be dead or dying,’ but I didn’t want to discourage you if it was still important. This isn’t important. It’s nothing. Why am I here?”

“Because it may be nothing, or it may be the biggest break in the case we’ve had yet.” Not to mention a potential massive scientific discovery, or discovery-of-discovery, or discovery-of-breakthrough, or… something.

“I see the connections. Secret underground labs, conspiratorial pokemon research, organized renegade coverups. It makes a great story, but I’ve got enough of those things I know are real to investigate, and I don’t need to chase phantoms to hit paydirt. I’ll put someone on it—”

“That’s not good enough.”

Looker had just started to reach for the doorknob, and turns back. “Excuse me?”

“It’s not enough.” Red reminds himself that Looker needs him, that the whole region does. Maybe even the world, though that thought feels uncomfortable, and like a stretch. “This is big, Sir. Possibly as big as what led to the Hoenn Incident. If it wasn’t for the risk of collaborators I’d be going to Tsunemori about it, not to mention the League. Even CoRRNet should be in the know, but if any group is compromised then it’s the rangers on the island.”

Looker watches him a moment, then shakes his head. “Get Juniper to reveal her source, and I can have some guys dig around for how credible the story is. Or hell, get someone credible to confirm that the source is worth listening to, and I’ll bump it up the priority queue. But every agent I put on this is one I’m taking away from predicting an attack or finding an active base, and I expect the place you found to be scrubbed clean of anything actionable.”

“Even if it was destroyed by the quakes?”

Looker frowns at that, then begins pacing again, and Red wonders if a conversation between Leaf and him would have the two arguing while pacing around each other in a circle. He remembers having that feeling of needing to burn energy while thinking through things, but it’s been a while, for him.

“To be clear,” Looker says without stopping. “What happens if I say no, this isn’t worth more, and putting a couple people on it will have to be good enough?”

Red swallows, and takes a breath. This is it. The moment he decides whether he’s going to defer to Looker, or act independently.

Part of him thinks his position is too weak to make a stand like this. That he should wait until it’s something he really strongly believes in, or has strong evidence for, so that it’s more obviously worth the cost.

But he trusts Leaf, and he trusts his read of Sabrina, and whether he’s vindicated or not, he’s afraid that if he chooses not to push things here he’ll end up going back to the way he was before. He feels alive, nervous but present in a way that he doesn’t want to lose.

Red wonders if he should make a copy of the mental state and try using it later if he has to, but the thought reminds him that there may be other mental states he can use now as well. The first one that comes to mind is Blue’s battle calm, which Red has never used in a social situation before. He’s not sure how it would work, but as soon as he tries it, he feels detached from his nervousness, aware of only the goal and the steps between where things are now and where he wants things to be.

It seems like an improvement, and it only takes another few moments to think of his response. “Then I will tell Tsunemori, and hope she takes this more seriously. And if she doesn’t, I’ll have to spend my own time and connections and resources looking into it as best I can, because I think this is as important as anything else I’m doing.”

Looker’s gaze is locked on his, but it isn’t a challenge for Red to hold it, not with the calm around his shoulders like a chilling cloak. Looker would agree, and things would be fine, or he wouldn’t, and Red would have to figure out some new strategy, adapt to the new situation…

“Alright,” Looker says at last as he goes to sit at his desk, then starts typing something. “I’ll put Wanda and Darryl on it—”

“Not Darryl.”

Looker stops and squints at Red. “Why not Darryl?”

The words popped out before he could consider them, and Red decides to let the battle calm go, breathing a sigh out along with it. Now that he’s thinking normally again, the delayed surprise and nervousness catches up to him, and it takes a few moments to collect his thoughts. He goes to sit in the chair across from Looker meanwhile, trying not to look too relieved at how things have gone. “He’s… not imaginative. He’s a hard worker, and he’ll put the hours in, but he doesn’t have a passion for it.”

Looker leans back in his seat, still peering at Red like he’s seeing him for the first time. “And you know this because…?” He taps his temple, and Red nods. “Hm. We’ll have to talk about that later. Ichiro?”

Red grimaces. “He’ll hand me 500 pages to sort through myself.”

To his surprise, Looker grins. “True enough. Haven’t had the time to sit him down and talk about discernment. Murphy?”

Red considers his impressions of her. “Second pick. If she was a bit more experienced she might be first.”

“Who is your first, then?”

“You, Sir.”

Looker’s brow rises, and his lips purse. “Huh. Been a while since someone tried to manipulate me with flattery. Guess I come off as too much of a hardass.”

“It’s my honest take.” Looker’s words could have come out harsh or annoyed, but instead the agent just sounded grudgingly thoughtful, and Red relaxes further. “But yeah, kind of.”

Looker was about to start typing again and pauses. “Is that personal opinion, or what you’ve gleaned from others’ thoughts?”

“Both. To be clear, I haven’t gone into anyone’s thoughts, just the usual surface emotions.”

“Most psychics don’t pick up much from that, is what I’ve heard,” Looker comments, more thoughtful than accusatory, and continues on before Red can say anything. “But you’re not most psychics, I know. It’s too bad you’re so recognizable, you’d have made a fantastic spy.”

Red wants to argue, and not just because the thought of being a spy feels almost as aversive as the thing he’s doing now, whatever it is. But he knows Looker is right; the ability to fully inhabit another mental state could also make him a great actor, if he ever decided on that as a career.

He feels a bit like one now, playing a part he’s unsure of. But he’s willing to try the role out, and see how things go.

“So, Murphy is on lead, because I’m too busy, but I’ll give her a full squad.” Looker holds a palm up before Red can say anything. “Don’t push your luck, a squad is all I can spare right now. But I’m open to giving them more if they can find more, and if you can get someone to vouch for Juniper’s story.” He sighs and rubs his eyes. “I’ll probably have to read the damn thing myself, won’t I?”

“I just listen to it at 1.5x speed,” Red offers helpfully.

“Right,” Looker mutters, back to typing the new assignment up. “Any other requests, while you’re making them?”

“No, Sir. That was it.”

“Then go relieve Jensen and report to training, which you were supposed to be at two hours ago. And Red.”

“Yes, Sir?” Red pauses, hand on the doorknob as he meets Looker’s gaze.

“I appreciate what you’re trying here, and I can’t decide if I hope you’re right or wrong just yet, given the implications. But if you are wrong, it’s a bet that I expect you to take responsibility for. Understand?”

Red wants to say yes, wants to apologize. He also wants to bring the battle calm back, but he does neither. “I’m… not sure I do, Sir.”

“I’ll put it simply then. Organizations, particularly those like this one, use hierarchy because those above are expected to have knowledge and experience those below often don’t. If you want to call some shots here, I expect you to put the work in to climb the ranks. If people got special treatment or privileges in decision-making just based on how powerful they were…”

Red sees it. It’s an implicit criticism of the League system, but Red agrees with that anyway. “I understand.”

“Good.” Looker’s attention is back on his monitor as he types. “Join up, for real, or don’t, but the door’s open, so long as you’re willing to shut some others.”


The group flies around Cinnabar Island in a clockwise sweep, checking one potential ditto nest after another. It’s easy for Blue to keep his head in the game when they’re on the ground, cautiously checking for any signs of ecological disruption or nests of pokemon that are secretly ditto… but in the air, Blue’s thoughts are on the mansion, the notes for Leaf’s story, and the conversation about what might have been created in the underground lab.

That’s completely different. This hybrid is intelligent, can be reasoned with. Groudon and Kyogre weren’t people.”

Red’s position was predictable, in hindsight. He’s never exactly become deferential toward Leaf, but there was a shift, after the gap in their friendship (or maybe before the cruise convention) where he seemed to agree with Leaf more and more often, particularly about pokemon wellbeing. It normally doesn’t bother Blue, but in this case it chilled his blood to hear how casually they dismissed the implications of a pokemon as powerful as a legendary having human intelligence.

The fight over the masterball is all over the potential consequences of a human with a legendary on their belt. The hybrid, if real, seems obviously worse in every way. At least they could understand a human’s way of thinking, where their loyalties might lie, the strengths of their legendary and the weaknesses of the trainer.

The hybrid would be a mystery on every level. If it’s the one giving everyone the nightmares, it could probably kill them in their sleep if it wanted to. It might even be able to control them, subtly or directly. How would anyone know? How could they fight something like that?

This hybrid is intelligent, can be reasoned with…”

Blue understands why Red thinks that way. Reasoning through things is how he approaches everything, good and bad. It’s what Red knows.

But Blue knows power. And he knows that any reasoning they might try to do with a super powerful pokemon/human hybrid would be done at a distinct power disadvantage. Maybe it would be “reasonable” and maybe it wouldn’t, but that question is secondary to whether it cares at all about the things they do.

And if it doesn’t, then no amount of reason would stop it from doing what it wants with them.

At the time he hadn’t pushed his point further, not wanting to argue in front of the rangers and, frankly, taken aback by the casual acceptance of such an existential threat. But he’s still reeling at the implications of what Leaf shared with them, even setting aside his friends’ views.

“Next spot is coming up on the left, one minute,” Wendy says, and banks her pidgeot slightly to the left as she begins to descend. Blue adjusts Zephyr’s flightpath to follow, and tries to get his mind back on the task at hand.

Everyone else is quiet as they fly, thoughts probably on similar things. He wants to ask the rangers what they think of the hybrid, but he’s worried about how Leaf would respond, how the conversation might play out, how she might react to his own views… it feels shitty, thinking of her this way, treating her like a potential obstacle, and he wonders, as he guides Zephyr in for a landing, if he’s being too hasty. He should talk to her about it more, give her a chance to explain her perspective more fully… hell, he should probably read her story.

“Those bushes have been stripped bare,” Ira says while they dismount, not bothering to unsaddle and withdraw their fliers. “Recently. Wendy, Leaf, wide search? Hundred meters to start.”

“On it.” Wendy summons a growlithe and starts walking in a curving line, and Leaf follows after bringing out her nidorino.

“Five potential nesting sites I can see,” Ira says to Blue, who nods and summons Maturin to give cover while the ranger sends a rattata through various patches of underbrush, trying to flush out a response from any pokemon that might be inside them. They move slowly, ready for a sudden attack… but they finish clearing the area without incident, and soon after get a message from the girls about a verified vulpix nest nearby.

As they wait for them to return to their mounts, Blue lets his thoughts drift back to what they might find below the mansion as he feeds Zephyr and Crimson. After a minute he casually asks, “What do you think CoRRNet would do, if the hybrid turns out to be real?”

“Real in what way?”

“Alive. Powerful. Intelligent.”

“Hard to say. If it doesn’t attack any humans, or disrupt any ecosystems, my guess is we’d ignore it. Leave it up to the Leagues.” Ira shrugs. “Officially, anyway.”

“And unofficially?”

“Unofficiallyyy…” Ira drags the word out, drawl becoming more deadpan as he rubs his pidgeot’s beak. “Unofficially, every ranger I know would be thinking of how to stop it if we needed to.”

Blue nods, and wonders what Gramps would say. How the various Leaders would react, from Erika on one expected end to Surge on the other. He thought he’d have a hard time rallying the population against the Stormbringers, but only for practical reasons, safety and risk calculations that would always err on the status quo.

He wasn’t preparing to have to win a moral argument against fighting a threat on their level, but Ranger Neasman has reassured him, for now at least, that if he does have to fight that battle, he wouldn’t be alone.