Tag Archives: pokemon

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.

119: Coverup

Even at first glance, with no new information to make her think her discovery meaningful, Leaf feels a touch of surreality upon looking at the mansion, and glances around for any ghost pokemon before staring back at it. It doesn’t match the one from her imagination, of course, but certain features, like the lack of road to it and the ocean surrounding most of the cliff, makes it feel that strange mix of real and unreal, like she did just stumble onto a replica from out of a daydream she had.

It’s also less overgrown than she’d have expected. The pit of rubble has grass growing in from the edges, and some vines wrapped around the walls have curled inward where half the structure collapsed to expose the rooms inside, but that’s it. The roof and walls of the uncollapsed side look almost entirely undamaged; even the windows are mostly whole. And while there’s some wind and rain damage to beds and carpets she can make out, the exposed wood doesn’t appear rotten or moldy.

“How long ago did you say this was built?” she asks Ranger Neasman.

“Records say nearly twenty years. It had a caretaker that was supposed to come to the island now and then, and he reported that it was destroyed during the Hoenn Incident.”

Blue, Ira, and Wendy are clearly being cautious as they sweep the perimeter for any sign of wild pokemon nesting nearby, while Red and his guards stay near her, idly investigating what they can from outside the building. They avoid stepping too close to the sloping, earth and rubble filled pit beside the mansion in case it’s prone to further collapse.

She explained her suspicions before they left, both to justify why this was so urgent and so they’d know what to look for. None of them read her story except Wendy and Red, but it was one of his guard who asked outright where the information for it came from, which she said she couldn’t answer. They seemed unhappy with that, but with Blue and Red backing her up, and Wendy showing clear urgency too, no one argued against going.

Red’s expression of engaged curiosity is nostalgic, and makes her apprehension about spilling part of her secret feel more worthwhile. She flags her location to Laura specifying the location just in case something happens to them, then after a moment’s thought does the same for Janine as well.

“Everyone unsummon your pokemon,” Ranger Neasman says, then pauses as he remembers Red’s abra hanging off his back. “That one’s fine.” Once the rest are withdrawn, he brings out a zubat.

His pokemon flaps around at random for a moment, then begins to fly in a clear pattern. “There are definitely pokemon inside,” Neasman says as his zubat flies in a specific pattern. “At least four different species, and at least six of them in total.”

“Doesn’t seem so bad,” Blue notes.

“The at least is important.” The ranger shrugs. “She can’t count too high.”

“He can,” Blue says, sticking a thumb at Red.

“At least a dozen,” Red says, smiling slightly. “But some might be dark, obviously. And bugs are hard to sense, particularly if they’re not active.”

Ranger Neasman looks a little embarrassed, but nods. “Right. Thanks.” He reaches up to his earpiece. “I’m calling for sup—”

“Wait.”

Everyone turns to Leaf, and her mind races to come up with something she can say that would make sense. “Do we… need to involve others if we don’t even know there are ditto here?”

“True, it could be a waste of time. But we’re not a proper scouting party, we’re just trying to get eyes on nests and take easy wins. A place like this, we should at least get one of the local outposts to send some people.”

“What’s wrong, Leaf?” Red asks.

Leaf eyes the rangers. The cadet is from another region, but… “How long have you guys been stationed here at Cinnabar, Ranger Neasman?”

“‘Bout six years. Brought my family over after two.” His posture and voice are relaxed as he looks over the manor, not turning to her as he casually asks, “You about to accuse me of something?”

Wendy frowns and gives Leaf a hostile look, but Blue just looks intrigued, and Red thoughtful. “No. But if I’m right about this place, some local rangers must have been in on it.”

“That’s crazy,” Wendy says. “Why would rangers—”

“I didn’t say they were. Only that they would have to be, if I’m right. Which I’m probably not. But on the chance I am, it’s not worth the risk.”

“The risk of what, exactly? You think they’ll attack us?” He glances at Red’s guards. Or maybe just Red.

“No. But if they join the search, maybe they’d know where to direct it so we don’t stumble onto anything we shouldn’t. Maybe they’ll even find evidence they need to cover up.”

“If this place was part of some conspiracy, surely they would have cleaned the evidence up before they abandoned it.”

Leaf had considered that, of course. “I know it’s not a lot to go on, but—”

“But you’ve had experience with secret conspiracies before, I don’t,” the ranger says, and smiles as Leaf doesn’t hide her surprise. “What? When you’re right, you’re right. I can’t guarantee that local rangers wouldn’t have been in on some shit, much as I’d like to.”

“It’s an unnecessary risk,” one of Red’s guards says. “Looker—”

“Isn’t my boss. Technically, neither is Director Tsunemori.” Red crosses his arms. “Feel free to call them, but it’s not a discussion. If they go in, I go in.”

Despite his words it’s clear to Leaf at least that Red isn’t as sure as he sounds, and Leaf suddenly realizes that she’s been thinking of them as guards to keep Red safe. But they’re likely to also be guards here to keep others safe from Red, or report if he misuses his powers. Which means Red is testing them, in a way that he might not have had the chance to before.

Would they try to stop him? And what should Leaf do, if they do?

Eventually the tall one sighs. “Of course. Just try to keep in mind what could happen if something happens to you, and remember that the rest of us are here to keep you safe. We’re not going to just stand around and watch if you’re taking risks, which means you decide what risks we take.”

Red’s expression softens as he absorbs this, then nods. “Understood. But really, you guys just continuing to watch our perimeter as you normally would is probably for the best in any case, since we still want to minimize surprises of any kind. What we do here probably isn’t going to be much of a risk at all.” He turns to smile at her and Blue. “Not if we do it right.”

Blue grins. “Just like old times, huh?”

“Better,” Leaf says as she smiles back at them, fingers tracing over Raff’s ball. “Because now we can do so much more.”


“Check check, final position check.” Ranger Neasman’s voice is a smooth drawl in Leaf’s earpiece, and she looks up to see him circling overhead on his pidgeot. “Ready up here.”

“Ready,” Leaf says, standing on a container box in front of the manor and ensuring the straps around her facemask are tight for the fifth time.

“Ready,” Blue says from her left side, followed by Wendy’s “Ready” on her right.

“Ready,” Red says from beside his alakazam on a stable spot on the roof above them. He’d grumbled a little about being the one that’s going on a high place again, but it seemed mostly performative. He’s holding a fishing rod, its fake lumineon bait staring at her with wide eyes from the grass in front of her. He apologized about it, which she thought was unnecessary but sweet, but her gaze does keep going back to it more than she’d like.

“Ready,” echo Red’s guards from their patrolling perimeter.

“That’s full ready. Alright folks, we’re good to go. On you, Juniper.”

Leaf carefully opens her jar of combee honey. Despite the busy year, each drop is so effective that it’s still half full; she carefully crouches to take the lure and dip it into the jar, then back out without letting the honey smear anywhere else. Once it’s clear she flashes a thumbs up, and Red starts reeling it up.

Leaf quickly tucks the rest of the bottle back into its container, then says, “Ready for wind, going mute.”

Above her Red feeds his Alakazam some chesto berries while Leaf swaps her headset to produce white noise, then braces herself just as the wind from the ranger’s flier starts gusting past them.

It’s from far enough behind that they’re in no danger of being knocked over, but the plastic lumineon bobs wildly as it’s whipped toward the half-exposed mansion. It only lasts for a few moments, and then the wind fades and the lure swings back and forth above the grass… just as the first pokemon come darting out at it.

Leaf knows Red is holding the fishing rod loose, ready to let go if it gets grabbed, but meanwhile he does his best to reel and swing it up and out of reach of the leaping growlithe that runs out first. It’s big, definitely big enough to evolve if it gets enough exposure to firestones, and its teeth snap just shy of the lure as Red frantically yanks it up. It tries again, then tracks the aromatic fish for a moment, causing Red to jerk the fishing rod to the side a moment before it spits out a stream of fire.

Leaf’s whole body is tense, ready for the growlithe to notice her at any moment, but Red keeps its attention on the fish while predicting it long enough for the rest of its pack to arrive, as well as a family of raticate/rattata and some vulpix.

As soon as the pokemon start attacking each other in their struggle for the lure, Leaf summons Joy and commands her to sing.

The wild rattata and raticate are the first to drop, followed a few seconds later by some of the growlithe. The biggest one and the vulpix hold out long enough to turn toward Joy.

The growlithe stumbles as it charges forward, either from the song or from a mental attack by Red’s alakazam, whose berries helped it resist the effects of Joy’s song, but the vulpix sends out a gout of flame. Leaf’s chest burns in empathy as the faint warble of Joy’s voice that she can barely make out through the whitenoise cuts off.

She swaps her wigglytuff out for Hops, which signals everyone to go audial again and frees them to bring out their own pokemon.

Blue sends Rive and Maturin out against the growlithe and two vulpix while Wendy starts throwing balls to capture the sleeping mon. Leaf commands her nidorino to stay and guard her, then brings Joy back out, potions in hand to start spraying over the harsh burns along her quivering flesh.

“More coming,” Red says, and Leaf turns to see a cloud of purple smog emerging from the manor’s shadowed innards.

“Coming around for another gust!”

“Almost got them all!” Wendy locks another pair of balls on a raticate and a growlithe, then throwing, capturing them just as they stir awake. “Three more… one…”

The last growlithe regains its senses in time to dodge her throw, but gets blasted by a jet of water from Maturin before it can attack. “Do it!” Blue calls just as Wendy catches it.

The smog is just starting to reach Red and his alakazam when the burst of air blows it back into the mansion to reveal a small swarm of muk, grimer, weezing, and koffing. Three of them aren’t moving, probably thanks to Red, but the rest start shooting jets of acid and globs of gunk at them, causing them to scatter.

“Horn Attack!” Leaf yells as she leaps back onto her container box, withdrawing Joy along the way. When she turns around, Wendy has summoned a ponyta, who attacks alongside Blue’s rhydon. They can’t be sure how many ditto are in the mansion, so made sure to pick melee pokemon that can be easily taken down by their ranged ones.

Thankfully none of those they battle do transform, and with Ranger Neasman’s continued gusts to disrupt the poisonous attacks, the four of their pokemon are able to defeat and capture the wilds. Leaf’s heart is racing as she scans the area a few times over, but no new pokemon come out from the mansion, nor do any dig out of the ground beneath them.

After another few breaths, Red says, “None incoming.”

“Anything still inside?” Ranger Neasman asks.

“Nothing new.”

Tension starts to ease out of Leaf, but back down to combat readiness as she calls Hops back and brings Joy back out to fully heal both. Her mind does the usual thing of replaying over the battle, but she also finds her attention circling the way Red responded to the ranger’s question. In the old days, being asked a question like that might have gotten a response like “Not that I can sense, but there might be dark pokemon” or “not in my range, but remember that there might be more deeper down.”

Instead he concisely and clearly communicated what he sensed and what he didn’t. The benefit of all his training, no doubt, and a good one. But it also makes her feel a pang of distance, of him pulling away from them.

“Ready for second lure,” she says once her pokemon are healed and she’s back on the container box.

“Almost,” Blue says as he finishes putting the new captures in a spare bag, then gets on his container box and summons a set of speakers. He tips them down to face the ground with a heavy whump, then flashes a thumbs up. “Ready.”

Leaf looks up to see Red carefully lowering the fishing rod and honeyed bait into a container box, which he withdraws before saying, “Ready.”

“Go, Raff!” Leaf’s ivysaur’s bud is nearly as tall as she is, and his body is as wide around as her bed. When she unclips her laser pointer and starts dragging it around with a command of “Sleep Powder,” the plants on his back start to jet out plumes of shimmering blue pollen, more emerging in seconds than he was able to produce in one sitting when she first got him.

“Go, Shimmer!”

“Go, Butterfree!”

“Go, Lady!”

The venomoth, butterfree, and tangela all appear, then get commands to join Raff in coating the ground around them with various powders and spores. Soon it looks like the whole area around them has been covered in pastel snow, and Leaf kicks a small pile off the edge of her box, covering a bit more of the green around her. “I think we’re good.”

“Starting.” Blue taps at his phone screen a few times, looks around once more to ensure everyone is prepared, then taps once more.

The vibrations are muffled, but strong enough that even through the grass some of the pollen immediately around the speakers kicks up in a faint haze. The noise isn’t quite music, instead being a rhythmic pattern that isn’t created by the throat of any pokemon, but rather the vibrations they make as they dig.

Most burrowing pokemon communicate through sounds of claws against earth, though it’s usually pretty low range. While there’s no guarantee that a mix of mating rhythms and food signals from sandshrew, diglett, rattata, and other digging pokemon on the island will bring them all to the surface, it’ll probably bring the most adventurous ones.

This might be overkill,” Ranger Neasman said with a frown as he studied the list. “That mansion, or whatever it is, looks unstable, and a dozen or more pokemon digging around beneath us all at once might destabilize something.”

Plus,” Wendy added, “This one might actually disrupt the local ecosystem. The mansion is a new biome that’s at least somewhat isolated, but if we remove all the burrowing pokemon around…”

I’ll be sure to place it far from the base,” Blue says. “And better we know now rather than later if some digging will cause more to collapse. If the house starts to break down Red can just port away.”

And don’t worry about the biome,” Leaf said, and smiled at the ranger cadet. “I think I’ve got something for that.”

Leaf counts a rapid thirty-seven heartbeats before the first sandslash pops up in a shower of dirt and cloud of spores. Leaf thinks it looks very cute covered in colorful powder as it looks curiously around, but a moment later it sniffs, then slumps unconscious and slides halfway back into its hole.

Another pops up to their left, followed by a raticate just in front of Leaf. Each burrowing pokemon is quickly knocked out by the carpet of sleep powder all over the grass, then captured by one of the safari balls that Leaf handed out earlier. Leaf catches five herself, staying vigilant for any pokemon that might be resistant to the powder or dig their way out in the wrong place.

None reach come up under any of their container boxes, thankfully, but after the fourteenth pokemon appears there’s a series of crunching, cracking sounds as a sandslash tears its way through the speakers. Sparks fly, but it merely looks around in confusion before being tagged by Blue. It’s hard to make out his expression from this distance and the facemask, but she can imagine his scowl.

Leaf starts to worry they’ll run out of safari balls, but the time between each new pokemon appearing gets longer and longer until nearly a full minute passes without any new one appearing. “I think that’s it?” Wendy finally says.

“Yeah, nothing in range.” Red and Alakazam were their first line of defense against any pokemon that didn’t fall asleep, and now Red swaps him for a machamp (that he apparently now has), whose back he climbs onto so he can hang from its neck as it quickly climbs down. The rest of them withdraw their container boxes, then she and Blue collect the safari balls and clear the area so Red, Wendy, and Joey can use their fire pokemon to burn the carpet of spores away.

Maturin sprays a fine shower over the area after to dampen the embers, and then they regather as the smoke rises in a fine haze. “Smooth,” Ranger Neasman says as he lands beside them. “Very smooth. Nice job, everyone.”

“That was textbook!” Wendy is grinning at the three of them. “I didn’t think the stories about you were fake or anything, but it’s different seeing it in person. You could nearly be full rangers!”

“Yeah, we’ve still got it.” Blue holds out a pair of fists, and Leaf shares a smile with Red before, holding out her own so that she can form a triangle with the boys.

Wendy hefts one of the safari balls, examining its beige and green lid. “I still can’t believe they let you travel with these. They’re that confident they’ll work?”

“They have to test them on pokemon outside the Zone somehow. But yeah, the early results have been good.”

The latest fruit of the project she started, these new balls are specially programmed to have just one training outcome: total paralysis. It’s illegal for any pokeball to not condition the pokemon they catch to be safe upon release, but with just one condition imposed, they’ve been able to come up with a (hopefully universal) deconditioning program so that anything caught in them can be re-released into the wild. Useless for most trainers, but a great boon to rangers, and it’s one step closer to the more selective re-conditioning.

And of course she was cleared by a psychic for intent, but that part probably goes without saying.

“So, we’re clear to go in?” Leaf asks the rangers.

“For now. First sign of a ditto nest, we call in support.” Neasman finishes caring for his pidgeot, then withdraws it and switches in a wartortle to counter Wendy’s geodude in case a ditto copies it.

Instead of climbing over the rubble the way the pokemon did, they strap on their headlamps and walk around the building until they reach the main doors on the mostly undamaged side. From up close she can see more cracks, but nothing looks broken but a few windows that litter the grass with twinkling glass.

Leaf can’t help but think of Aiko as she looks at the damaged building, and a glance at Red and Blue makes it clear she’s not alone. Anxiety, grief, empathy, and simple fear well up inside her, and she almost calls it all off; they could get demolition experts here, have them make sure the building is safe to explore… but once they involve outsiders the chance of a leak skyrockets, and Leaf can’t risk that.

“Be careful,” is all she says, and turns on her headlamp before carefully opening the front doors to illuminate an entrance hall of white and pink marble. Blue walks over to a light switch and flips it a few times, then Ranger Neasman cracks some glowsticks and tosses them around before they spread out through the open space with their pokemon. Her raticate Sticks scampers forward, while Red steps steadily behind his bold ivysaur and Blue walks beside his shiny umbreon (after it evolved, it stopped feeling to Leaf like Aiko’s eevee).

There are fewer signs of damage inside, but still some. Fallen plaster speckles the black and white tiles on the floor, but it’s the signs of pokemon habitation that has Leaf stepping cautiously through the entrance hall. She looks up, light reflecting off a chandelier hanging above the second floor, then traces a path down one of the curving stairs and toward a hallway that leads through the building.

“Halls are too cramped for us all to move through them,” Ranger Neasman says as he summons a container box full of glowsticks tied together in long chains they can loop over their necks. “Use one of these to mark each room you’ve explored. I’ll take Wendy upstairs, we can check-in every five minutes.”

“So we’re looking for the elevator, right?” Wendy asks Leaf. “Or stairs, maybe, leading down to the lower labs?”

“That would be ideal, though obviously we shouldn’t go down without more precautions. Still, if it was all destroyed then there might not be an obvious way down, so… just look for any evidence that this place isn’t what it seems.”

“Right. See you soon.”

Leaf, Red, and Blue watch the rangers climb up to the second floor, then make their way from room to room, checking for pokemon and taking pictures of all the abandoned luxury. Fully furnished bedrooms, lounges, and kitchenettes sit gathering dust, mattresses bare and fridges empty. The end of the initial hall has a large picture window set in it, and Leaf peers through the spiderweb of cracks to see an overgrown garden in the manor’s central courtyard before turning left to pass through a dining hall, where long mahogany tables still stand sturdy, though the china cabinet doors hang off their hinges, glassware shattered across the floor.

“Brings back memories, huh?” Blue mutters, and Leaf nods. Many houses and apartments had damage like this after the Hoenn Incident, and this place feels frozen in time to just after it happened.

After ten minutes without any pokemon appearing and all-clear check-ins from the rangers, it’s hard to maintain vigilance, and soon the exploration starts to feel more… fun. Red calls them over when he ducks his head through a door and finds a massive library, books strewn across the floor and some shelves collapsed. Blue lets out a low whistle as he looks up, and when they follow suit three cones of light illuminate an intricate fresco that spans the domed ceiling. They find game rooms with ping pong and pool tables, as well as board games and a big open space with some simulation equipment nearby. Blue gets diverted for a few minutes by some pokemon training rooms, and checks if there’s backup power to the PC.

“Think there’s anything in it?” he asks once it fails to boot up. “Maybe we should take it with us.”

“If there was some conspiracy here, it would count as evidence, and we shouldn’t tamper with it,” Leaf says as she heads back toward the hall. “And if it wasn’t, we’d just be stealing.”

Red is waiting outside the room, and his expression immediately puts her on high alert. “What’s up?”

“Got a sleeping mind nearby,” Red mutters. “Three or four bedrooms down.”

They follow his gaze and see a slight glow coming out of the room. “Can you keep it asleep?” Blue whispers.

“No. Calm, maybe, if it wakes.”

“Fingers crossed.” Blue eases by, Xenon’s rings shimmering a faint blue in the dark at his side, then Leaf turns to watch their back, trusting Red to ensure he’s safe as he looks into one door after another.

Until she hears the ping, after which she can’t help but turn and watch him chuck a ball into one. He goes in after it, then returns with a greatball bouncing in his hand. “Magmar. Any others? And anyone want it?”

“Not that I can sense, and no, I’m good,” Red says. “New pokemon isn’t really a bottleneck for me anymore.”

“I’ll take it,” Leaf says on sudden impulse, before she can talk herself out of it.

Both of them turn to Leaf in surprise, but Blue tosses the ball over without a word. Leaf catches it reflexively. She knows they know she’s not a huge fan of fire types, since it’s so hard to fight nonlethally with them… but that hole in her teams feels less and less excusable, particularly if she faces renegades.

Part of her wants them to ask about it, but neither does, and she decides she’ll bring it up later, when they’re in less perilous circumstances. “Let them know what we found?” she asks as she brings her pokedex out to register her new pokemon.

“Sure.”

Once Blue relays their encounter, they keep moving, occasionally checking in with the rangers as they explore for nearly half an hour, looking for any hint of secrets in the mansion’s past. Leaf’s not exactly sure what that would look like, but she trusts she’d know it if she sees it as they pass from room to room, still finding new ones between the endless bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens.

One for music, its piano and drum sets covered in sheets but various other instruments scattered across the floor, some in cases and others bare. Another gaming room, a sauna, a massage parlor, even a miniature barbershop. It’s like the manor was a whole town in miniature, every need predicted and taken care of.

“There’s a lot of stuff,” Red muses as they look over the equipment in a fitness center. “I’m trying to imagine this place as a kind of… stationary version of the cruise convention, but there’s still more than I’d expect. Why not clear it out after the quakes?

“Been wondering the same thing,” Leaf says. “But I’m not sure if it’s a clue, or just… I don’t know. A mix of laziness and wealth?”.

“If it was properly cleaned out we’d probably be wondering why there’s not more stuff around,” Blue says. “It takes time and effort to gather up and transfer stuff, even with teleportation. Add in the chance of wild pokemon sneaking in and the owner probably decided it’s not worth the effort.” He shrugs. “Some rich people are careful with their money, but others are just as wasteful as everyone else, and it’s just more noticeable cuz they have so much stuff.”

As they finally reach the exposed rooms they start to step more carefully, and Leaf’s confidence that she’d be able to tell if she saw something is starting to wane. She pokes her head through each door just to be thorough, but some of the passages are blocked by rubble here, and eventually they double back to meet the rangers at the entrance hall for a debrief.

“Pretty sure we hit everything on the second floor,” Ranger Neasman says as he feeds his wartortle some berries. “Mostly bedrooms and offices, a few places for socializing and entertainment. Nothing that stood out.”

“Same for us,” Blue says as he opens one of Glen’s energy drinks and takes a swallow. “I mean it’s a little weird, but not suspicious, I think?”

As the others go over what they found and their theories, Leaf walks a slow circle through the lobby, brow furrowed. She can recognize the pit of stubbornness at the center of her confusion, the feeling of not wanting to admit that she was wrong… but she should be relieved, right? Why was she so sure in the first place that she’d spot something, if there was something to spot?

“I’m approaching this wrong,” Leaf says after a minute. She turns to the others, who are listening attentively. “If I really take this seriously… if it was actually covering up a secret lab… the people in charge wouldn’t have just left it as it is after the earthquake, or the pokemon attack, or whatever happened here.”

“You’re saying we missed the signs of whatever they changed?” Red asks. “Or that you think this wasn’t the lab after all?”

“I’m not sure. But if the lab mansion exists, wherever it is, if it’s still standing then we have to assume something was changed after it was abandoned. They could have taken out all the lab equipment and filled this place with beds and pianos and anyone who comes by would just conclude there’s nothing special here.”

“Why not just raze the building entirely, then?” Ranger Neasman asks. “The owner for this one could have just written it off as a total loss, which it looks like it is, and demolished all that’s left here. They’re probably still planning to do it, but if so I wouldn’t even say they’re dragging their feet a suspicious amount of time. Sometimes these things go slow.”

It’s a good question, and it stymies Leaf for a moment. She was assuming the quakes led to the lab’s shutdown because that’s how Fuji’s notes had it, but what if he just added that after to make it resonate better with what people have gone through? But if she starts doubting the outline she has no reason to believe there was any secret lab at all…

“Maybe they didn’t want the attention,” Wendy says. “There have been rangers scouting all over the island since the ditto appeared. Even if the people who come to bring the building down have the right paperwork, they’d probably need to have rangers on site to make sure no ditto were nesting here, just like we’re doing.”

“It’s possible…” Leaf runs a hand over a crack in the wall. “I think we have to assume these people in charge of this hypothetical lab include people at least as smart as us, and that they had plenty of opportunity to cover their tracks in a way that’s most beneficial to their goals, even if we don’t know exactly what those are.”

“We’re pretty sunk if that’s true,” Red says, looking around. “If we assign them an arbitrary amount of intelligence and resources, then there would be no way to distinguish the reality they’re creating from the actual one.”

“Not arbitrary, just… enough to fool anyone with a reasonable chance of piercing the illusion.” Leaf thought back to conversations she had with Laura about her training in investigating coverups. “Every change they make leaves some irregularity, if we just know enough to find it. With enough knowledge and resources of our own we could, I don’t know, study the patterns of destruction and see if any of it doesn’t fit the rest… an expert on earthquakes would be helpful.”

Wendy sits up. “Oo, we can find purchasing patterns for furniture like these and see if there was a recent spike!”

“Or carbon date the furniture to see if a batch of it is all much newer than others,” Blue suggests.

“Or something like it,” Red adds, “Since actual carbon dating wouldn’t help with things younger than 500 years.”

Ranger Neasman nods. “So that’s it, right? Do some research and ask around, quietly, for some experts to quietly consult.”

“Yeah, and I think Mom or the Professor or Looker can recommend some we can trust.”

Leaf bites her lower lip. It does seem like the most sensible plan, now that she’s confronted the scope of the problem. What would it take to see through an illusion by someone equally smart (if not smarter) and able to set the stage to their liking? A dedicated team here to find a lab if there is one would break through the facade no matter how hard they tried covering it up.

But she still worries about information slipping out. The more time passes before she figures things out, the more likely those who built the lab catch wind of them poking around. Hell, a single hidden camera here with a battery would be enough to let them know… why hadn’t she thought of that earlier? Not that there’s anything she could do about it…

Frustration sits like a heavy stone in Leaf’s gut, and goes to one of the broken windows to take a deep breath, centering herself in the scent of ocean and grass, and the sensations of warm sunlight and cool wind. Over the past few months her confusion, fear, and helplessness have threatened to overwhelm her as she tried to walk the balance between doing something about the secrets she knew and not making things worse. Dr. Fuji’s cryptic thank you/goodbye card only made things worse, but this is her chance to actually make progress in some way, and she can’t let negativity keep her from acting.

So, a reverse premortem: start from the assumption that she figures things out. If she does, what would cause that to happen?

When she puts it like that, it feels more obvious. If a well-made illusion was constructed here, and she pierced it, it would be because she had an edge, something the crafters wouldn’t expect a random curious passerby to have.

Maybe a kind of expertise like the others mentioned. Maybe familiarity with the location, or those who came here. Or maybe…

…maybe a thing like what brought her here in the first place.

The thought feels like a spark at the base of her skull, spreading energy through her body, and she quickly takes out her phone. “New plan. I’m going to share the notes of the person whose story I’m helping write. It’s pretty long, but we can at least all skim it, look for something that gives us some clue we’re on the right track.”

She’s speaking quickly, feeling energized, and after she sends the document out to them she finally looks up to see them watching her. “I mean… assuming that’s okay with you guys? I know this has already taken a lot of time, but…”

Wendy bites her lip and looks at Ranger Neasman, who rubs his chin. “Alright, but if we’re going to be doing some reading, let’s do it outside. We can make a picnic out of it.”

They do so, bringing more pokemon out so some can stand guard while those that went through the building with them can relax. As they summon containers of food, Red calls his escort to invite them to eat together, but they decline, sounding to Leaf’s ear professionally displeased by the longer time this would all take.

Still, Red doesn’t give them an opportunity to argue, which shifts Leaf’s perspective a bit more about what their relationship is, exactly, and makes her feel a little better about the whole thing.

Leaf breaks the outline up into five sections and assigns each one to read over, and soon they’re digging into various salads and sandwiches while scrolling on their phones. It’s the most silent picnic she’s ever been on, just the sounds of their eating mixing with the occasional whipping gust of wind.

The outline was a mix of bullet points and brief bits of prose, and occasionally she’d come across something that felt so poignant or vivid that she thought Fuji sold his writing ability short. Leaf gets distracted, now and then, by taking in their surroundings, usually after reading some segment of prose describing (always in passing) some detail of the lab or island.

She can still faintly smell the burnt grass on the other side of the mansion where they fought the wilds, but around her it’s grown tall from months without upkeep. Wind and rain did their part to erode the exposed side, but from here she can ignore the broken windows and cracks, almost picture what it would have looked like, felt like, to stand here on a lonely cliff on an island, and feel like it was the whole of it…

“Teleported in supplies,” Wendy notes, eyes on her screen. “Probably nothing, and the fridges I checked were all empty, but did anyone check the spare toilet paper? Probably not traceable, but…”

“It’s something,” Leaf says. “Make a shared doc, start a list?”

“On it.”

“Something I don’t get,” Red says, words slow and thoughtful. “If this story was meant to help people uncover the plot, what stopped the writer from just revealing it?”

Leaf keeps her gaze on her screen to hide her internal battle. Does Fuji’s disappearance mean she should be more free to share his secrets? But no, Red’s point still holds, if he thought that was the best thing to do he wouldn’t need her at all. Still, what if his abrupt disappearance was in anticipation of the secret getting out? He’d definitely want to avoid punishment if so.

“I’m not sure, but… I think the goal of the story isn’t to reveal the lab. It’s to prepare society for what was in it.”

“A human pokemon hybrid.” Ranger Neasman’s tone isn’t skepticism so much as that of a man trying to ensure he understands something properly. “One powerful enough to take down legendaries.”

“Yes,” Leaf says with more confidence than she feels, and adds, “Probably. It’s why they wouldn’t just share their work in a lab like this; they care about its wellbeing. Alerting the world to its existence before it’s ready would be a betrayal. Maybe they guessed that sooner or later someone would stumble onto the mansion and ask questions, but they also probably trust their former employers to cover things up.”

“Then…” Red shifts his weight as he takes another bite of his carrot and holds the remaining nub over his shoulder for his abra to eat. “Maybe this is a silly question, but… do we want to actually find this thing? I mean, speaking as someone who’s had to hold a pretty big secret for a while, I’d like to think I had good reason to—”

“If you hadn’t, Rocket wouldn’t have underestimated you, and they’d have the Master Ball now,” Blue says. “Or, more realistically, everyone in Silph that day would have been killed by the hunters.”

Red holds a hand up to forestall any more argument, though Leaf thinks he looks secretly pleased. “I’m glad it worked out. But in this case we’d have to tell someone right away, right?”

He doesn’t look at the rangers, but he doesn’t have to. “I would be obligated to report any sign of… this… to my superiors,” Ranger Neasman confirms, frowning at his phone. “I just got to the part where it has three times the range of an alakazam. A psychic with that kind of power would be nearly impossible to catch by surprise.”

“Wait till you reach the part where it flies,” Wendy murmurs.

“Where it what?

“I’m with him, this can’t be kept secret,” Blue says. “If it’s real, if they actually created this thing… it’s as bad as the Hoenn Incident. Maybe worse.”

Leaf opens her mouth, but Red beats her to it. “That’s completely different. This hybrid is intelligent, can be reasoned with. Groudon and Kyogre weren’t people.”

He gives Leaf a guilty glance a moment later, but she smiles and waves it off, still mulling over the original question. She saw it coming a moment before he asked it, as she was still speaking, and it formed a pit in her stomach. “I don’t know,” she admits. Maybe all this was a mistake… if Fuji is the unnamed doctor in the story, maybe she should respect his decision…

Then she remembers what Ranger Neasman said, and realizes the decision isn’t up to her anymore. Not unless she calls it off here, declares it all a mistake, hopes he doesn’t follow up, and maybe comes back on her own. Or Red could come with her, try tunneling under the manor with his ground pokemon from a safe distance to see if they could find the lab… but if that causes a full collapse, would the rangers guess what they’d done? They have legal cover for poking around the ruined manor while ostensibly looking for ditto, but deliberately damaging the property while looking for what might just turn out to be a regular basement could be trouble, and she doesn’t need Laura to warn her about getting on the bad side of someone rich enough to own this place. Not to mention, tipping them off if they did build a secret lab here…

“I see the similarities,” Wendy says as Leaf is battling her indecision. The young ranger hasn’t stopped reading as she slurps up noodles, looking fascinated at what to her must be a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a story she’s been enjoying for months now. “But there are some major differences too, ones that would be a hassle to add after, like the pool.”

“It specifies that there’s no pool?” Red asks, leaning over to look. Wendy tilts her phone in his direction. “Huh. That’s… conspicuous, right? Why go out of his way to mention that?””

“His style is—” Leaf almost said was— “to just write out any thoughts he has, at different levels of detail. It’s not clear he wanted to include everything in the final story, and…” And maybe they changed since he left, Leaf muses. But that might be revealing too much. “The story spans ten years, not all the differences need to have been from a cover-up.”

“The way the teams of people are described here and in your story, they had a wide mix of specialists,” Red says, then looks around at them. “Did any of you guys find any computers? We found just a few, like in the training room.”

There’s a momentary silence, then some head shakes. “They would definitely take any with anything damning on them,” Blue says.

“But is there a suspicious lack of any?”

“Not… really?” Wendy frowns.

Ranger Neasman nods. “People wouldn’t need PCs in their rooms if they bring laptops, and they can use the communal ones for storage and pokemon needs.”

Leaf nods, then ducks her head back to look over the story outline again. Something they wouldn’t expect others to know… something that gives me unfair help in pinpointing things…

She starts to pay extra attention to the details about the narrator’s daily life, scant though they are, his routine, his observations about the things around him. She didn’t include all of the details from the outline, which Dr. Fuji seemed fine with, but she remembers the choice for each, how some seemed to flow naturally into the chapters she felt an urge to write and some would have felt tacked on, out of place, or like they slowed things down too much…

Something itches at her as she reads a description of the doctor’s commute to the basement lab, and before she realizes it she’s on her feet.

“I have to check something,” she says, and makes her way back toward the manor, calling for her pokemon to come with her. She hears the others scramble to follow, and distantly wonders how she looked and sounded, but most of her focus is on what’s ahead, on what feels like half a memory and half a fiction…

Through the hall, then following it around the central garden, to the broken side of the manor, and all the while her head is tilted up, her eyes watching the ceiling, until she slows as her feet start to kick pieces of rubble.

“Leaf?”

She turns her head as if to look at him, but doesn’t take her eyes off the ceiling. There’s a crack running through it, but here it shines a burnished gold, a crystal chandelier hanging below it, and words float through her mind, words she read long ago and just reread now…

each day I would walk that hall of white and gold, a gilded cage for wealthy jailors who were themselves jailed, to take the elevator down to our captive…

“What do you see?”

“Maybe nothing,” she says, but she’s walking now, walking the path described in Dr. Fuji’s notes.

She’s vaguely aware of Red in particular following her beneath the chandelier, of his curious gaze watching her take in the room, each hall, trying to navigate by a map made through some unknown blend of memory and imagination. Could it just be a coincidence? Perhaps there was some conference here that Fuji attended while younger, which acted as inspiration…

Each path leads too far, and she circles back to the chandelier room again and again until she starts to despair the hall he described was in the collapsed side of the manor, chunks of concrete and marble and earth sloping into the crushed pit… but there’s one left…

…one blocked entirely by rubble.

She quietly stares at it, and Red stands quietly beside her. Part of her wants to feel frustrated, another relieved, but she ignores both because they’re not done yet. She has to be sure.

No words pass between them, and then Red summons his machamp and mentally sends him forward to start moving the stones.

First a big slate from the top is dexterously passed between the machamp’s four hands to be set against the wall beside them, then a smaller, thicker piece of ceiling is placed on the other side. The others gather quickly when they hear the sound of heavy stone shifting and cracking against the ground, and soon smaller pieces of both wall and ceiling start to get lifted out in each hand, and they shift to give the pokemon space to move it all. Ranger Neasman summons an electabuzz who, with a point and a command, starts to carry the broken pieces away toward the pit.

Leaf stands silent and wary, gaze on the ceiling for any fresh cracks or signs of shifting walls. When Red makes a noise beside her, she finally looks down again, and she’s not sure what she was expecting, exactly, but the sight of the elevator doors still her breath.

Got you, she thinks, though she’s still not sure to who.

118: Responsibility

Chapter 118: Responsibility

When the invitation to meet at Cinnabar came, Leaf almost took a ferry from Pallet Town before deciding it’s been too long since she had an adventure with her pokemon. Crimson and Wiseguy could use the stamina training, and she’d get to explore some of the less tamed parts of the region as they made rest stops on the tiny islands along the way.

That, and it would mean a smaller chance of being attacked by ninja renegades. Or at least, a smaller chance of endangering others if she is.

There are other benefits too, like time to herself to just let her mind wander and process stuff. Stuff like the existence of said ninja renegades and the implications on the history of the regions. Stuff like the Thank You card she got from Dr. Fuji before he apparently packed his things and just vanished. Stuff like the related stories she’s been writing, from broad strokes to the way to frame certain scenes. There’s no shortage of things to think about, and tempting as it is to call a friend or listen to a podcast to make the time pass more quickly, she’s found the occasional long stretches of time with her thoughts to be surprisingly helpful.

In retrospect it’s a bit predictable that, even without being on a boat, the experience of spending hours surrounded by the ocean and stopping to explore small islands sends her thoughts in the direction of the cruise convention, and how much things have changed since then. How much she has changed, from worrying about conspiracies to being in one, and from dreaming of a world without trainer battles to… well, still dreaming of a world without them. But she had her first last week, after two months of desensitization therapy. It wasn’t long, just a few exchanged status effects between her pokemon and the therapist’s, but it still left her a little shaken up.

Her therapist is a specialist for people who were in traumatic battles, recommended by one of the RAWP volunteers working with the kids at the ranch. Leaf told Dr. Yamada up-front that her “condition” wasn’t like that, that she remembered feeling averse to trainer battles from a young age, without any traumatic experiences. He seemed to think desensitization was worth trying anyway, though he was interested first in exploring why she felt the need to at all, and checking if it was something she really wanted.

That was a harder question to explore than she expected, given she’d already put in the effort of finding a therapist and going. She even agreed to some tests to see if she has latent, low level psychic powers that might be triggering strong empathy at the sight of pokemon getting hurt. No such luck.

But her resolve from that day in Fuchsia Gym only grew stronger after the continued attacks by Rocket, as well as lots of soul searching conversations with Natural and, of all people, Mr. Sakai. After living with him for months, talking mostly about the proper care and treatment of pokemon and only rarely discussing things happening in the wider world, or related to Leaf’s other projects, it’s become easier to predict what he can and can’t have deeper, more meaningful conversations over. It’s hard to predict what will remind him of Aiko, sometimes, but in this case she knew it would, and mustered her courage to do it anyway.

It seemed worthwhile, for its own sake, particularly since she knew Aiko’s deathday was coming up. And it was hard. But it helped that she was often talking about herself, and her own struggles, which seemed to let Mr. Sakai have a… helpfulness channel to talk about Aiko through. She also learned a lot about him, his own journey as a young trainer, and how it fit in with his philosophy of providing better care for those whose violent use they relied on for safety.

And he’d made her tear up near the end, when he looked her in the eyes, smiling that sad smile until he couldn’t hold it anymore. I’m not worried for you. You’re… like her. You can’t help but care. No shadow you walk through will cover… that light…

Which brings her thoughts back to the whole “conspiracy” thing.

A flock of wingull wheel up and toward her, and she sends Crimson into a dive, heart in her throat and wind whistling in her ears as jets of water disperse into harmless rain far short of their targets. Meanwhile she pulls one of the tabs on her saddle, triggering some aerosolized repellant to start streaming from its canister in a broad cloud behind them.

Leaf’s eyes stay all the while on the ocean as it leaps up to meet them, and she spots the gleam of twin red orbs bobbing to the surface just as she squeezes Crimson’s sides and sends him gliding back up and away from a the tentacruel’s lobbed acid. Only then does she check behind to confirm that the wingull are leaving them be, and lets her breath out.

She strokes Crimson’s neck before checking her wrist compass and reorienting their flightpath slightly more southward. It takes another minute before her thoughts reorient to the path they were on too.

She consoles herself, sometimes, by remembering that it’s probably the least secretive one in history. So far no one has approached her for an interview, or even just a “quiet conversation,” about whether her story (either story) is inspired by something true. But also, no ninja renegades have shown up to try and kill her, which is nice.

Or at least, none that she knows of. Once she decided to start writing about the hidden underworld Leader Koga told her and Blue about, she finally spent some time returning to Unova to see her mom and grandpa… and to register a teleportation point at a random apartment in Anville Town, so she could port back to Unova each night to sleep. It’s a bit jarring each time, going from night to day and back again, but some blackout curtains help ensure she can get a full night’s rest, as does the peace of mind of knowing that she’s got half a planet between her and the people whose secret crimes she’s revealing, not to mention avoiding putting Mr. Sakai at further risk.

Leaf feels like the stories she heard growing up mostly prepared her for how many strange places going on her journey could take her, but despite the rest of the crazy things that have happened over the past year, “worried about ninja renegades” definitely wasn’t one of them.

Red hasn’t asked about her new story either, despite his… excitability… about the potential secret behind her last one. But then, he’s been so busy lately that she’d be surprised if he had the chance to read any of it. She’s already thought of what she’d say if he asks, not intending to hide anything but also not volunteering the information; if he reads her mind it would be obvious, of course, but she doesn’t expect him to.

Koga does predict someone will read her mind sooner or later, of course, and has already written to his old clan to explain how his daughter discovered their existence and began sharing information about them before he learned of it. He said his family, and clan, had contingencies for what to do if they were discovered, though he’s unsure what they were, and how adaptable they would be to a world with Miracle Eye. He had considered going to visit, for the first time in decades, but apparently Janine convinced him it wasn’t worth the risk.

In any case, if she’d just told Red or Laura, and they tell Interpol or the police, there’s no guarantee the person they talk to would know about any secret deals being made with criminal organizations, and they would have no control over when it was kicked up the chain to someone who did and might try to silence them. Koga’s hope is to be able to observe how various people and organizations react to the information being shared so publicly, particularly now that it’s beyond recall or anyone’s ability to stop; she’s published it not just on her blog, but also various sites for sharing both fiction and conspiracy theories.

Which is probably why no one’s really questioned her about it yet. Her readers tend to be Coordinators, or those into pokemon welfare, or just general fans of the “Pallet Three” despite her not being involved in their most recent major discoveries or incidents. Many were surprised but supportive, and eventually big fans, of her story about “Roshan,” the psychic human/pokemon hybrid trapped in a lab. She even got some offers for traditional publishing. But she can tell from the feedback that the story about the hidden clans of renegade ninja confuses her followers; it’s got nothing tying it to her focus on pokemon welfare, and some have speculated that she’s just trying to stay topical.

A year ago, that sort of talk would have bothered her. But then, a year ago, crossing this ocean made her feel like the world was open and full of endless possibilities. Now the endless expanse of blue above and below makes her feel small enough to get swallowed up by it all. Given everything going on, words by strangers don’t hurt her the way they used to; what matters now is if they’re going to put her or something she cares about at risk. To some degree that’s always been true, but the scope changes everything. And if the world does keep going the way it does, and she is swallowed… with another passing year, there’d likely be few who remember her anyway.

Or maybe she’s just feeling maudlin over Aiko’s deathday.

The final island before Cinnabar appears in the distance, a spit of land barely big enough to fit the Ranger outpost and a landing zone beside it. She touches down and gives Crimson a handful of berries while stroking his beak, then summons Wiseguy so her noctowl can get some more rest from his previous flight too. One of the rangers steps out to check in with her, and does a visible double take when recognition hits. She just smiles and says she’s fine, then summons a water trough for her pokemon and brings Joy and Raff out before heading down to sit on the beach.

Raff stays where it’s grassy, wandering over to sniff at some island flowers, while Joy joins her on the warm sand, burrowing half her body down into it with a contented warble. One of the things Leaf regrets is how silent the otherwise musical creatures have to be when tamed, and she sits behind her wigglytuff to give her a full-body hug as they stare out over the ocean together.

The anniversary didn’t require much planning. Growing up in Unova, she got used to the region-wide day of mourning each year for all who were lost. When she was young she thought it meant anyone who died of anything, but as she got older it became clear that while that’s not explicitly denied anywhere, the real focus for most cities and towns are those lost in pokemon attacks, particularly big ones.

But Kanto’s cities do a sort of “rolling anniversary” of their last major tragedy. Leaf skipped the one in Viridian for the fire, but when Vermilion’s came around, she went to meet up with Blue, Elaine, Glen, Lizzy, Maria, Bretta, Taro, Chie and even Slava and Sumi, who hadn’t been in Vermilion that day but knew Aiko from the Diglett tunnels. They joined one of the city’s solemn public ceremonies honoring everyone that died in Zapdos’s attack, and in the various incidents throughout the year since. Aiko even got a brief mention, when Leader Surge spoke about the loss of his previous Second.

Red sent a message ahead of time, apologizing for not being able to make it. Too big a security risk, according to Agent Looker. Blue didn’t seem happy, but he didn’t comment on it directly, and it wasn’t exactly a happy occasion.

Though once the speeches were done, and the hour of silence observed, many people in the city held quiet celebrations of life over death, such as recent births and bonds formed. Blue and Leaf led the group to one of the city’s parks, its fields and tables covered with picnic blankets, and they toasted their survival, sharing stories about their near misses and remarking on all the unprecedented craziness of the year.

And of course they talked about grief. Leaf never appreciated how many of them felt as close to Aiko as she from their time at the Vermilion Gym together, and listening to their stories made part of her regret, again, her avoidance of gyms. They also talked about other friends or journeymates that weren’t lucky enough to make it through the year.

When it was Leaf’s turn, she talked about how her grief rarely feels “sharp” anymore. Aiko’s room feels like her room, the memory of her voice faded and soft, her unfulfilled dreams as distant as the stars; sad to look upon and know she’ll never live to see them, but in a more melancholy way than depressing.

But right now, sitting in the middle of the ocean and thinking of the year between her last crossing, the jagged rocks emerge, revealed by the ebbing tide. And she doesn’t need to talk to her therapist to know why.

She feels like she’s losing Red. No, more than that. It feels like she’s already lost him.

It’s silly to put them in the same category. She’s on her way to see Red right now, in one of the rare circumstances where he’s got some free time from his training, and permission to be in a relatively public (though mostly unpredictable) place. She can still talk to him about her struggles, the way she wishes she could Aiko. She could hug him and listen to him talk about his goals and watch him whip out his notebook mid conversation to jot down something he wants to remember.

But during his and Blue’s birthday, he’d done none of that. They met at a randomly selected Ranger outpost, and when he arrived he was clearly happy to see them, but also distant and subdued. When she brought it up, he just gave her a small smile and said he was tired, and had a lot on his mind that was hard to talk about. When he talked about what he’s been up to, none of his dreams or goals from before the Silph incident came up.

She understood, of course. But it felt like a death, figuratively and more. It felt like a sign that, sooner or later, Red would lose the rest of himself, either becoming someone else or literally gone, killed fighting Rocket.

And sure, that was true of Blue and Laura and her mother and grandpa and everyone else as well, but the attack on Vermilion and the Hoenn incident had accustomed her somewhat to sudden loss, like a lightning bolt from the blue. She doesn’t know how to deal with this gnawing, piecemeal loss, happening in slow motion in front of her, yet completely beyond her power to stop.

When she spoke with Laura about it, Red’s mother began to cry, and then Leaf cried, and they held each other for a while, and it was better than hurting alone. But it was also frightening, to see Laura’s tears, to know viscerally that she felt just as powerless.

I think about telling him all the time, to let it go,” Laura said as she wiped at her eyes. “To just… let others deal with Rocket. But he’s his father’s son, no matter how much he’ll deny it. And the scariest thing is, I don’t know what would happen to him if he does just walk away.”

Leaf doesn’t either. And though she hasn’t talked to Red about it yet, she knows it must be on his mind.

At least last year, when Red and Blue weren’t speaking, she had some hope that things might get better, sooner or later. That something might change for one or both of them, and things could go back to the way things were before. And really, she should be more optimistic today rather than less, considering what they’re meeting up for. It feels like the old days, a peek of the old Red.

But whether it’s the contrast of how things have been lately, or the surroundings, or the timing, or hormones, or everything all at once, she can’t help but feel, a year after the Zapdos attack, like she’s back in mourning again.

She wipes a tear away and gives Joy one more squeeze, then stands and withdraws everyone but Wiseguy, who she saddles up to finish her flight. Cinnabar is a vague shape in the distance before long, and by noon she can make out the colorful spread of the city as it sprawls between the volcano’s base and the eastern shore of the island.

Before she reaches it, however, she spots her destination. The Cinnabar Laboratory for the Study of Ancient Pokemon is smaller than Pallet Labs, though larger than most research centers she visited with her mother and grandfather, a compound rather than a single building. Each of the buildings, wide enough to form a triangle around a central field, is dedicated to either Fossilization, Paleontology or Restoration… though that one has expanded to a fourth, radically different building some distance away from the rest.

From what she read upon first coming to Kanto, the Restoration branch has focused on using genetic engineering to try to recreate fossil pokemon more reliably than the occasional random spontaneous genesis. Since unown research got unrestricted, however, they started hiring new staff and constructing a new type of research environment.

From above it looks like a shimmering globe of light ensconced in a crater too perfectly round to have naturally formed. As she descends for a landing, she can make out the criss-crossing metal that holds each rounded panel of glass in place… along with the swarm of black figures moving around inside.

A shiver works its way up her spine despite the warmth of the day. She can’t hear them, but just imagining what it would be like inside the dome with the sounds from that many unown sets her teeth on edge. But more than that, the sight of them makes her uneasy in ways she can’t put into words. She normally thinks unown are kind of cute, but seeing them like this, moving in an endlessly shifting cloud, activates some sense of looking upon a truly alien being. Unfeeling, but thinking alien thoughts. Erratic, but enacting hidden purpose…

It almost makes her reconsider her decision to come by, but she doesn’t really know what to believe about the unown, and reminds herself (with a small smile) that fear of the unknown, though sensible, can be limiting. If they’re heralds of some apocalyptic threat, then understanding them better does seem like a good idea. And if they are the source of pokemon genesis, then Leaf figures it’s better for the professors and rangers to learn that sooner rather than later.

Plus, it’s hard to turn a friend down when they ask for your help.

“Hello, Leaf! Welcome to Cinnabar!”

“Hey, Artem, thanks!” It’s been a while since she saw Red’s old research partner, but after what they went through in Lavender together she feels some of her sadness lifting to see him walk toward her with a spring in his step, proud in his emblem embossed Cinnabar Lab coat.

Leaf finishes unsaddling Wiseguy, then summons Crimson and the water trough again for them both, setting a reminder to herself to get it refilled before she leaves the island. “Am I terribly late?”

“Nah, Blue already dropped his fossil off and went back to the gym for a quick battle or something, but Red just got here a few minutes ago. Hence the extra security.” He nods over to the dome’s entrance, where she sees a handful of figures in a mix of security and police uniforms.

“How many are there usually?”

“Well, before the Rocket attack in Azure Town, just a few at a time. It got doubled when they showed their interest in unown research, but Red’s, uh, escort? Bodyguards? They still came to sweep the campus before he was cleared to land.” He looks like he’s about to say something else, brow furrowed, then shakes his head and sighs. “Strange times, huh?”

“Yeah.” Leaf finishes tucking her goggles and flight jacket into her travel container, then puts on her hat, an extra wide and floppy one that’s perfect for the strong summer sun. “Strange times.”

Once she’s withdrawn everything except her pokemon and the water trough, Artem leads her toward the dome, explaining how it was constructed in just a week. “I wasn’t here for that, of course, but I had been hired on by the time they started bringing in the unown.”

They climb some stairs up to the lip of the crater, where a metal walkway starts. She looks down and sees the dome extends down a bit further than the ground level beyond the crater. “They’re all wild, right? How did they catch them? Or, uh, ‘confine’ them.”

“Have you seen the tracking network What Comes Next formed? By July it was extensive enough that Cinnabar was able to camp out a number of nearby spawning sites and flight paths. Mounted trainers were able to herd them this way with non-deadly attacks, and there’s a vestibule above that only opens one hatch at a time to get new ones in without letting any inside out. Like this one.”

He flashes his badge to the security guards, even though they surely just saw him leave to greet her, and Leaf shows them her own Trainer ID despite them surely knowing who she is, and a moment later they are indeed standing in a small room and waiting for the door behind them to finish sealing shut. It feels a little claustrophobic even after the door in front of them finally starts to open, though once she steps through and up some more stairs…

The sound is in fact the first thing that catches her attention and holds it, like slipping into an aural bath. It’s not as bad as she feared, however, and she wonders if they built the facility out of some sort of sound dampening materials, or if the distance between her and the cloud of unown is helping, given how quiet the unown are. The mix of chirping twitters and tinkling woops and popping static is chaotic, but it’s less like standing in a chattering crowd and more like hearing the mixed murmurs of a full stadium. Still, she has to stifle an urge to raise her voice. “How many are there?” she asks as she watches them swirl and shift against the slice of silver-veined sky they’re confined to.

“Fifty-seven,” he says with pride, then grimaces. “Still missing a few letters though. And we’ve got eleven F’s, the lab is considering telling people to just ignore any new ones they spot, though the betting pool is having fun with it. Want to join in? I’ve got fifty bucks on W being the last one we get, though the odds won’t be as generous at this point.”

“I’m good, thanks.” She finally manages to bring her attention to the curving walkway they’re on, tracing the full circumference of the dome, then the floor below them. Their level seems to be where most of the researchers and techs work, desks set up in observation cells and single-wall cubicles. The ground floor is segmented into transparent rooms, many of which have some form of miniature biome inside.

She spots Red almost immediately, his red and black outfit making him stand out among the various researchers (another stab goes through her—they were always his colors, but without his blue jeans or some white to soften them, they make him look like someone he’s not. Someone dangerous, in a way that feels unfair to him… and possibly other Hunters).

Artem leads the way down to them, and when she gets closer she notices Red’s backpack, which is different from the usual one he traveled with during his journey. For one thing it’s much thinner and wider, various zippered compartments spread over its surface. For another there’s an abra sitting in it.

It takes a moment to confirm that the abra is in fact inside the bag, or at least, in a sort of sling that lets it rest against Red’s back, tail swinging below. “Please tell me you named this one,” she says once the door is open, and Red turns with a smile that eases something in her chest.

“You’re here!”

“I’m here,” she confirms, and returns his hug as Artem starts inspecting the various water tanks around them. She squeezes Red tight, as if to convince herself of his solidity. It keeps surprising her how tall he’s getting; Blue is growing a little faster, but she can nearly rest her chin on his shoulder now.

The abra sniffs at her hand where it rests on his bag, and she smiles and tentatively gives its snout a stroke. “So? Going to introduce me?”

“Well.” She can hear his sheepishness, and when the hug ends she can see it in his face. “I wanted to run them by you, first.”

She raises a brow. “Go on.”

“…Backra.”

Artem snorts, and Leaf grins. “And? Wait, let me guess. Abag?”

Red grins back. “Puns aren’t disrespectful, right?”

“‘Course not.” She’s feeling ten pounds lighter. Maybe she over updated on how he seemed during his birthday… he might have just been having a bad week…

“Glad to hear it.” Red looks over his shoulder, then reaches back to gently squeeze one of the abra’s feet. “She’s got a stressful enough job without adding mockery.”

“Oh.” Her smile fades. “She’s there so you can…”

“Teleport at a moment’s notice.” Red doesn’t meet her eyes, and she wonders what he’s afraid of. That she’d judge him for being a coward? Or that she’d consider it a disrespectful way to treat his pokemon?

“It’s smart,” is all she says, then looks around at the fossils. “So, which is yours?”

“That one.” He points to one of the helix fossils in a water tank filled with algae and rocks. “They said it’s one of the most complete specimens they’ve seen.”

“And that’s supposed to have helped?”

“That’s the hope,” Artem says. “If the few wild ancient pokemon we’ve found are just the result of unown reviving fossils, there has to be something that makes it so rare given how many broken and scattered pieces of fossilized pokemon there are everywhere.”

Leaf looks at a terrarium that doesn’t have water in it, where a few, less complete helix fossils lie on patches of grass, dirt, and stone. “Pewter Museum would need to rewrite a lot of exhibits if that’s true.”

“Not necessarily,” Red says. “It could be that a handful of ancient pokemon survived to the modern day, and that some have been revived by the unown.”

“Sure,” Leaf says. “Though it’s also possible that, if any pokemon do generate here, they won’t be like any of the ones that survived to this day.”

“You’re thinking of the marowak ghost in Lavender,” Artem says, voice somber. “Believe me, we’ve considered it. Frankly I was surprised that the Leader and Mayor here were willing to take the risk of another major incident taking place on the island, but-”

“The same thing that made the ditto easier to contain would make a new species easier to contain,” Leaf guesses, then looks around. “In theory. I mean, these are aquatic and flying pokemon.”

“Proximity to the Gym and so many rangers would also bring a pretty rapid and overwhelming response,” Artem says. “Still, it’s obviously not without risks. But such is the life of a pokemon researcher, right?”

“Right,” Red says. Leaf’s gaze darts to his face, but while he’s lost some of his cheer, he doesn’t look particularly sad. “Any word from Hoenn?”

“From what I heard, Wally is interested in coming by to see what we’ve got going on, at least. But he’s got plenty of options for excitement, if the rumors are true.”

“What happened now?” Leaf asks, stomach sinking.

“Oh, nothing bad. What’s the last you heard about Champion Steven?”

“He stepped down, didn’t he? Started devoting himself more to researching the whole ‘Mega Evolution’ thing.” She keeps forgetting the scientific name, and she expects most people will given how quickly this one spread online.

“Yeah, he’s been traveling the world to find some other region with the special stones he has, or another power source beyond the orb that summoned Groudon. There’s speculation that Wally might go join him, now that he got knocked out of their Victory Road and the Lati twins have been away for so long.” His phone chirps, and he takes it out, then says, “Back in a bit. Blue might get here first, Leaf, so I’ll say bye now, and thanks for bringing your fossil. Maybe chat later?”

“Sounds good, later!” Once the door closes behind him, Leaf looks back at the fossils around them, then glances at Red. “So, how’s everything?” The last time she’d asked, during a quiet moment at his and Blue’s party, he’d said he wasn’t sure he was in the right headspace to talk about it. “Or, I mean, how’s anything.” She knows he’ll understand. Anything you’re okay to chat about.

“Anything’s okay,” Red says after a moment. “Want to take a walk?”

Right, everything here would be constantly monitored. “Sure. I think I need to drop my fossil off?”

“Right, for yours I think we’d go over there…”

They pass between the various mini-biomes, and Leaf can’t help but think of how much of a long shot this is. After all her time speaking with residents of Pewter, she knows certain people would claim that it’s absurd to think that a bit of dirt and some plants would fool whatever intelligence is behind pokemon genesis into thinking a fossil here is the same as one in the wild.

But if the intelligence is unfriendly to humans, or just totally alien in morals or preferences, then it probably doesn’t mind being “tricked,” if it would even register that. She looks up at the cloud of unown and feels another shiver work its way through her as she imagines what kind of frenetic, kaleidoscope vision such an intelligence might have of them.

“I remember you were trying to find a way to fly alongside wild unown for a while…”

“Charizard might be able to do it now, but having all these here makes it less necessary.”

“So?” Leaf wants to murmur, but she knows it would be lost in the noise. “Have you merged with them at all?”

“Yeah. It’s weird… they’re so simple that it’s really hard to tell if they’re any different from a captured unown. It’s also really hard to track one mind at a time in that cloud, though, so I can’t focus on just one enough to do a deep merge… whatever that would mean given how basic their ‘minds’ are.”

“Is that something you’re working on?” she asks as they climb to the floor above.

He’s quiet for a moment. “Not at the moment. No time.”

Leaf doesn’t say anything further as they make their way to a portion of the lab that analyzes non-bone fossils, then they make their way toward the exit. A couple hunters notice and start tailing them, then join them in the security chamber. It’s an awkward wait, but Leaf gives them a smile, and one of them nods back.

Once they’re outside another two detach from the building to follow them, and after a moment Red says, “You guys mind if we get a bit of privacy?”

“Of course. We’ll set up a perimeter.”

“Thanks. We’ll just be over by her pokemon,” he says, gesturing to Crimson and Wiseguy. Once they get there, Red brings out Charizard.

“Hey there, boy,” she says, reaching out a cautious hand for him to sniff, then stroking up his snout as he closes his eyes, warm breath washing over her. “Getting bigger each time I see you.”

“He started eating a ton once he evolved. Do you mind if I…”

“Go ahead.” Red had sent her a picture of him grinning beside his starter after he evolved. The freshly evolved charizard was about as tall as his trainer, which made the dragon look more cute, even comedic, rather than fierce.

That certainly changed by the time he showed up at Red’s party, and even more so now. Charizard’s snout and horns are leaner, sharper, his belly less round as his body stretched and grew muscle. Despite his acceptance of her strokes, when his eyes open again they have the intensity of a hungry predator, and there’s some primal tension in her spine that only relaxes when his gaze shifts to Crimson and Wiseguy.

Both go still with the start of fight-or-flight, until Red summons a long container box and lifts the lid to reveal a steel trough full of meat to divert his pokemon’s attention. Leaf gives Charizard’s snout one more stroke before going over to give her birds some soothing pets along their wings. They still shift and tense as Red gives the command, and his pokemon starts to blow a long gout of flame over the meat.

She’s grateful he’d put it downwind of them, and doesn’t watch as Charizard starts to feast on the seared steaks. When Red approaches with some grooming tools for Crimson, she takes out her own set for Wiseguy.

They work in relative silence for a moment, until he finally says, “Weird.”

“Weird?”

“Anything. Everything.”

She nods. “Still?”

“Still. It feels sometimes like… like I’ve been transported into someone else’s life. It’s weird enough that I spend most of my time thinking about ways to fight renegades, but… I’m not just doing it alone. I’ve got a team of hunters and interpol agents teaching and training me, and it’s more than that too! Any pokemon I can think of, any pokemon they think might be of any help in even a weird edge case, and Looker puts in a request so someone at Interpol can scour the market for a strong one. If it’s not there they look at the expensive markets for a pretrained one, and if they can’t find a good one for me there they dig into Interpol’s own collection to transfer ownership! I just turned thirteen, I was only on a proper journey for half a year, and yet I’ve got pokemon now that are Elite level, and I don’t even have a badge!”

Leaf listens in silence, beak-shaped comb moving in gentle probes through her noctowl’s down. She’s not introspecting on how she feels about what she’s hearing, yet. She’s just filing the words away, grateful to be hearing them at all.

“It feels so long ago, but once in a while I remember how before the attack on Silph, I was wondering what would be the best use of all the money I made off the Miracle Eye market bump… I actually got some ideas from President Silph that I haven’t had a chance to follow up on. But remember how long I agonized over which pokemon to buy, before getting Ivysaur and Wartortle? And now people are spending absurd amounts on top-of-the-line training equipment, supplements, TMs… I’ve got a suit Bill developed, I mean it wasn’t for me, they’ve been making it for fighting the Stormbringers, but Interpol commissioned one to fit me, and now they’re getting another because I’m outgrowing it, and I don’t know how I got here, Leaf!”

Leaf finishes the stroke she’s on, then turns and hugs Red from behind. He’s so tense he’s practically vibrating with it, but after a few moments his arms settle over hers, and she feels his body still. “Blue must be incredibly jealous.”

That makes him laugh, though it’s a brief, dry huff. “The helmet does make me look pretty cool.”

“More than your hat?”

“Do you… like my hat?”

“It’s weird seeing you without it.”

“The colors don’t match.”

“Yeah.”

Charizard has stopped eating, and for a while there’s just the sound of the wind rustling the grass. Leaf almost pulls away, but then Red speaks again.

“Last week, when I went to see Dr. Seward… I ran into Felix—”

“Who?”

“Oh, one of Pallet’s pokedex engineers. He dropped hints about how they’ve nearly finished developing a new version, and… Leaf, I could barely keep myself from sobbing until I was in Dr. Seward’s office.”

Leaf feels a hand clenching around her heart, and she squeezes him tighter. “Oh, Red…”

“Dr. Seward said I should… well, she didn’t put it like this, but her questions made it really clear she thinks… no, my answers made it clear to me how unhappy I’ve been.”

“So… are you going to…?”

This time his laugh is hollow, like a sob wrung dry. “I can’t.”

“You can, Red!” At this moment, she believes it. She wants to believe it, and figure out the complications later, rather than just accept that this is the way the world has to be. “Rocket isn’t your responsibility alone!”

“It’s not just Rocket. Did I ever tell you about the psychic network I formed?”

She hesitated, searching her memory. “Maybe… in passing, a few months ago? Something about how you started reaching out to psychics in the region, then around the world, right?”

“Yeah. Started after I realized what I could do. Most of it didn’t lead to much, a few acquaintances and penpals here and there. But they knew me, by the time the press meeting about sakki and everything hit. And I started getting… messages.”

Her hands grip his tight, feeling a ball of hot lead in her stomach. “What kind of—”

“Not bad ones. Well, a couple, but most are just sharing what they’ve been going through. Suspicion, doubt, even from friends and family sometimes. Most thank me for the good I’ve been doing, even say how I must be getting it even worse than them. But I haven’t, really. I mean yeah, I know there’s talk online. But I’m lucky enough to have so many great friends, and I’ve got the highest levels of official support… while they’re mostly dealing with the suspicion.”

The lead has cooled, turned heavier. “So you feel responsible for them.”

“Yeah. And apparently that’s part of the problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“Dr. Seward asked me what I thought burnout was. I said it’s when people are overworked, and I admitted that I could use a break. But she said, no, overworking is just a warning sign. She said real burnout is from a… a ‘prolonged imbalance between responsibility and power.'”

“Meaning, what, if you just get powerful enough you’ll be fine?” She doesn’t try to hide her indignation. If Red’s therapist is making him feel more guilty or driven—

“No, no… I mean, maybe yeah, but not… I’m explaining this badly. Look, back when we were in Pewter, remember how long it took for me to get my grant?”

“Yeah.” She remembers him putting ice on his off-hand while eating, swapping between them every so often. She remembers how hopeless he started to sound, before he finally got it.

“Looking back on it, I was reaching the end of something, there. Not a breaking point, exactly, not giving up on my dream… I wouldn’t have given up on being a professor after my first real challenge. But it wasn’t the hours I was putting in, it was the feeling of futility. Failing again and again, and no sign that what I was doing was making any difference. When I imagine what that might have been like if I felt responsible for getting a grant, like if someone’s life was on the line… or if I imagine being told which grants I could and couldn’t apply to, or if I couldn’t alter each grant application to try to increase the odds, if I just had to fill in forms instead of being able to try my own things, mix things up…”

“I think I get it,” Leaf says, thinking of the feeling she had near the end of her involvement in the Safari Zone. “Feeling powerless can be soul crushing.”

“Yeah. She said that there are two major predictors of burnout, and the first is if someone works somewhere that makes them responsible for failures, without giving them authority or autonomy to do things their own way.”

“Ugh. Yeah. Bad enough to fail, but blamed for it when it’s not your fault…” She closes her eyes as the rest of it clicks into place. “And if the responsibility isn’t from someone else… if it’s something you feel, so you blame yourself…”

She feels him nod, his voice going quiet. “That’s the second predictor. Jobs that attract people who… care a lot, about saving people, and have to see the results. People who take responsibility for every failure… blame themselves for not being perfect.” He lets out a long, slow breath. “My dad talked about this, once, when a friend of his around Celadon quit the rangers during a particularly bad year. I asked him what happened, and… he looked so sad.” There’s a hitch in Red’s voice, there and gone. “He said she just… cared too much to work less, until she couldn’t do it anymore at all. And rangers have rules they have to follow, sometimes, things that they’re ordered to do that they might disagree with. If they follow one and someone dies that think they could have saved, that’s the worst of both worlds.”

Leaf’s heart is pounding, and she wonders if he can feel it. “You’ve been winning so far, against Rocket. I mean, not just surviving, but mostly stopping them. What happens if you can’t, next time? What if they finally do start killing people again?”

Red sighs. “Yeah. I think Dr. Seward was… trying to bring that up, without saying it outright.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know how to square Heroic Responsibility with this. I want to talk to Blue about it, but I’m worried he’ll think I’m… weak.”

“He won’t, Red, you know he thinks the world of what you’re doing…” She trails off, suddenly realizing why that would make Red even more worried. She feels ashamed of her own doubt, Blue deserves better, but… if he says something the wrong way, even without meaning to…

She tries to think of someone else, someone who won’t just tell Red to do what’s best for him out of personal concern. She knows he needs more than just permission to rest or be more selfish, he needs understanding, some new knowledge or frame that would help him balance competing values.

There’s only one person that comes to mind, loathe as she is to say it.

“What about… Giovanni?”

Red snorts. “Yeah. Dr. Seward asked if there’s someone I knew who’s gone through something similar… if Agent Looker or Professor Oak seem like the kind of people who are living the right balance in ways I could learn from. But Giovanni is the person I thought of, too, and… yeah, I think I will.”

Leaf nods, then says, “I’ve been seeing a therapist too.”

She feels his surprise, a subtle twitch through his body, and then he’s pulling away to turn and look at her. “When…?”

So she tells him. About her realization, after the Silph attack. About how useless she would be against organized and prepared renegades.

And about her new goal.

“Leaf… you don’t—”

“Swords of Justice, Red, if you say I don’t have to do this, or it’s not my fight, I’ll…”

He holds up a conciliatory hand. “You’re right. Sorry. I just…” He shakes his head, and gives that hollow laugh again. “I guess this is what it’s like, from the outside.”

She almost apologizes, then gives a wry smile instead. “At least Blue will be happy.”

Red is silent for a beat, then shakes his head. “I’m not so sure.”

“No,” she agrees after considering it further. “I guess not. Relieved, maybe, but not happy.”

The silence returns, and this time it’s Red’s turn to break it. “To be fair… most people don’t do trainer battles to be prepared to fight renegades.”

Something in his tone makes her smile. “True.”

“So in a way… you could still feel morally superior. If you wanted to, I mean.”

“I could,” she agrees, smile widening. “If I wanted to.”

“Verres,” one of the hunters yells. “Incoming flier.”

Red’s head snaps around, but then he relaxes. “It’s fine, that’s Blue!”

Leaf barely had time to register her emotional reaction, but still feels a surge of relief as she watches Zephyr swoop down and land beside their pokemon. She goes to hug him as soon as he slides down, then watches him fist-bump Red.

“Good to see you, man. Looking fierce as your boy over there.”

“Thanks,” Red says, tone neutral, but then he smiles. “Saw a lot of chatter in What Comes Next about your island plans. You gonna join the gym here after all?”

“Don’t think I need to, Blaine doesn’t care if I wear the uniform so long as I pull my weight… but yeah, I think it’ll help, since I’m pulling more than that, these days.”

“As usual. Speaking of which, I should say bye to Artem and head back.”

“Right. Good seeing you.”

“You too.”

Leaf gives him a hug. “Message me, when you talk to him?”

“I will.” Red holds her a bit longer than she expected, but finally pulls back, then withdraws Charizard and his container before heading back toward the lab with one last wave.

His guards follow him, and Blue tips them a salute before turning back to Leaf with a smile. “You ready to get flying?”

“I think so, yeah. What’s got you so excited?”

“Scouts sent back a bunch of new spots that need a closer look. Going clockwise from here, there’s a series of grottos along some cliffs that no one’s searched yet, a small canyon full of trees, a volcanic cave, an abandoned mansion that was destroyed in the quakes, some reef—”

“Wait, what was that last one?”

“The mansion? It’s on some cliff opposite the city, way up near the top of the volcano. No roads or anything near it. Ranger said it’s registered to some rich foreigner who rarely comes to visit.”

Leaf’s heart is pounding, and she tries to convince herself she’s overreacting. In Dr. Fuji’s story notes, the mansion built above the secret lab for its employees was on an island, yes, but it was an uninhabited island, a random tiny one like those she passed over on the way here. Surely no one would build a secret research lab on Cinnabar…

“How deep is it?”

“What do you mean?”

“The mansion. How far into the basement did it go?”

Blue frowns. “What basement?”

Leaf starts to relax. “Sorry, I thought… you said it was destroyed in the quake, I thought it collapsed down into sublevels.”

“Nah, there’s a huge sinkhole to the side. Half the mansion did collapse, but the rest is still standing.”

“Got it.” In the notes for the ending of the story, which she hasn’t written yet, the hybrid escapes because an earthquake collapses the mansion into the basement and kills most of the researchers and guards, letting them use their powers to escape the rubble.

She almost lets it go, but she knows it’s going to nag at her attention until she sees it for herself. “Can we check that one first?”

“Why? It’s the furthest away.”

“Mostly across the island, though, right? It can’t be that much further.”

“Sure, maybe twenty minutes instead of ten to the grottos.” Blue frowns at her. “Is it another…?”

“No, it’s not a secret. Or… maybe it is, but…” Laura said she’d put feelers out to see if Dr. Fuji pops up anywhere, but there was no sign of a struggle at his place, and if they made noise about his disappearance they might actually be tipping the wrong people off. “We should bring Red, if he can spare an hour. If I’m right about what it is, we’re going to want to know that as soon as possible.”

She hopes she’s not, for many reasons, not least of which is that she might have more than ninja renegades after her.

Chapter 117: Interlude XXIV – Equilibrium

Chapter 117: Interlude XXIV – Equilibrium

When the extra support came pouring into Cinnabar after the ditto first appeared, Ira knew it would be temporary, and started counting down the days when they’d be on their own again. It worried him, imagining the island facing the continued threat without the rest of Indigo’s help… but it also excited him.

There are plenty of good reasons for the withdrawal, of course. Most crises aren’t permanent, so once the issue is resolved or down to a manageable level, withdrawing resources to help elsewhere makes sense. Plus, they’re not some minor town. They have a gym, and not just any gym: since taking over, Blaine has integrated his people into the local rangers more than any Indigo Leader has. Ira’s orientation months at the island involved the usual tour with all of the nearby ranger outposts, but unlike other places he’s served, these were all staffed with a mix of rangers and gym trainers.

All of which is just a part of why he knew Cinnabar would lose the support of the rest of Indigo far faster than they should. The main reason, simply put, is that they’re distant from the rest of the world.

It’s not just that it’s harder than usual for people to travel to the island, and hard for them to live here, so far from amenities the island lacks. Things that happen here don’t matter as much to the mainland. There’s less risk of an emergency spilling over onto routes that travelers might take, barely any farmland at risk, less chance of cascading ecological disruption, and no other towns or cities who would be in danger.

It helps, of course, that anyone doing the gym circuit has to come sooner or later… but only if they stick with it most of the way. Blaine gets very few challengers who aren’t at least halfway to Victory Road, and locals make up virtually all of Cinnabar’s first-badge challengers. After that there are barely any until people get through the cluster around Saffron.

Which does mean that most of the trainers at the gym have at least four or five badges. And it’s not just members doing stints at the outposts; Blaine makes public service a requirement for a badge challenge, which is how he ends up eventually seeing—

“That’s him!” Wendy whispers, pointing across the meeting room. “Blue Oak!”

“I noticed.” Ira takes his seat in the meeting room and tugs her wrist down. “He all you dreamed he’d be?”

“Hmm, hard to tell from this far. Think we can meet him after?”

“Sure, he’ll probably sign a pokeball for you too.” Ira’s attention is already on the rest of the room, noting the missing faces. Ranger Malcolm is heading back to Viridian next week, but Huan is already back in the Safari Zone, Mei and Shin are gone to Cerulean, Liu is leading the surveys of the outlying islands… to his surprise, he’s now one of the most senior rangers in the room.

It fits the trend of the past few post-crisis months. He thought he handled his moment in the limelight pretty well that first day, talking about the ditto he caught on stage beside General Taira, Leader Blaine, and Professor Oak, but he expected it would be a one-off.

Instead all the senior local rangers, including he and Rashard, each got handed a set of volunteers to search the island for more ditto nests. It became something of a competition between them, one he won more weeks than not.

Facing ditto nests is dangerous, even compared to regular ranger work, and it’s given him an opportunity to show what he’s capable of. He thought, after he ended his journey to start a family, that he put his ambition behind him… but when his wife wanted to join many others in leaving the island, he told her to take the kids somewhere safe, while he’d stay behind to make sure they could eventually return. Someone had to, after all, and he and his wife had come to love Cinnabar after moving here, watching their children grow proud to be part of the island’s culture. His oldest is already excited to start his journey, though he’s still a few years away. Ira wants it to be a safe place for them again.

He started taking more dangerous assignments, support and leadership roles, anything that would challenge him and let him do more for the reclamation efforts…

…and before long he was getting pulled into all the high level meetings where the island’s broader strategy would get hashed out. Everyone praised his dedication, and he didn’t demur. He is dedicated.

But as he told Rashard one night, a few bottles in… he also wants to feel the way he did that day, when the danger was unknowable, the stakes high, and he could feel like he was doing something meaningful, something no one else had done before.

His ambition hadn’t been behind him after all. It had just been sleeping, waiting for another opportunity to come out.

And now he’s regularly in the same room as Leader Blaine and Ranger General Taira. When things started out, the gym would send its Second or Third as often as Blaine, along with a group of lower ranked members. But now they’ve been filling empty seats the rangers leave behind, and the full suite of the gym’s leadership is spread around the table, along with a wider range of lower ranked members. In fact, Blue Oak is the first trainer he’s seen here who isn’t in the Cinnabar Gym uniform, but he expects there will be more eventually.

Ira’s heard about Blue, not just from the news but from some rangers that are part of What Comes Next. If he were younger he’d probably be swept up in his journey, might even have rushed off to join his crew, getting into unlikely adventures and revolutionizing gyms… though Ira can’t imagine Blaine would let him do much of that here. Still, he would have said the same for Surge before that gym got flipped on its head.

“Weird that all three are here,” Wendy murmurs, voice barely audible over the low hum of conversation as she looks between the Leader, Second, and Third. “New priority?”

“Yeah, maybe. Or the gym’s got a new system they want to run.” It would fit with Oak being here.

“Haven’t heard anything while I’ve been there.”

He raises a brow. “Thinking of joining up?”

“Ha, no. Just like to train there once in a while. I never really wanted to do the standard journey, but gym cultures are interesting. And it’s nice to be somewhere outside the Ranger hierarchy, once in a while.” Her cadet uniform stands out almost as much as Blue’s civilian clothing, but there are another four, also in the middle of their regional exchange programs. Most came after the ditto appeared, for the same reason Wendy requested an extension on her stay: because Cinnabar is one of the places around the islands where interesting things are happening.

The quiet conversations all fade as the Ranger General stands. “Thank you for coming, everyone. Before we go around for updates, there’s a priority announcement that might affect your plans.”

Taira uses a clicker to get the screen on the wall to display the island, with each sector highlighted in slightly different colors to indicate threat range… all of them much lower than the last time Ira saw the map. “I don’t expect this to come as a major shock to anyone, but after over a month without a new risk of outbreak, the Rangers have decided to officially end the strange limbo that Cinnabar has been in, and downgrade it from the unclassified, but undoubtedly high, risk profiles it’s improvisationally slid between, to the equivalent of an ongoing Tier 2 event. It’s going to be staffed accordingly, though with six squads on standby to teleport in as needed.”

Ira hears Wendy take a breath, and feels his own pulse quicken. Six squads is more than most locations would get, but Tier-2 would take away half their forces. He glances at Blaine, whose expression is set in its usual subtle frown, emphasized by the downturned ends of his white mustache.

“Anyone who has already specifically requested to stay won’t be relocated, but for most of you this will probably result in some reshuffling of bodies to be able to cover your sectors. Still, you won’t have to make do with less overall trainers; part of this decision was influenced by an initiative by Cinnabar Gym.”

Ira looks at Leader Blaine again, but it’s Blue Oak that stands up. “I put out a call to trainers at other gyms, and through the What Comes Next network. Only been here a couple months, but I’ve spent some time in each sector, and fought ditto a handful of times. The way I see it, since we’re forced to use weaker pokemon anyway, newer trainers can get a lot of valuable experience on the island right now.” He shrugs. “The main thing keeping people away is not knowing if they’d be welcome, or if they’re prepared enough. Seems like a wasted opportunity if we don’t let them, with some oversight to make sure it’s safe enough.”

“Cinnabar Gym agrees with this assessment, and will provide oversight.” Sydney is Blaine’s second, but Ira hasn’t worked with her yet. “It’s been discussed before, but with the large ranger presence, we decided against calling for more trainers, knowing the rest of the region has been hard pressed to deal with their own incidents lately. This will also give new local trainers an opportunity to begin their journeys on the island again, with an unusual amount of oversight, but not one that should be detrimental to their learning and growth.”

“With those things in mind,” Taira says. “I’ll also be reducing my active involvement on Cinnabar, and leaving it in Captain Uhura’s capable hands.”

“Which,” Uhura adds, “Given the loss of personnel, means I’ll need to issue some promotions to fill some new officer roles.” Ira’s sure he doesn’t imagine the way her gaze lingers on him. “That means a lot of changes all at once, but I expect everyone to adapt quickly.”

Ira tilts his head to Wendy and murmurs, “This may be our chance.”

“You think so? Should I…?”

“Yeah, I’ll set you up.”

“Alright, let’s go to the room,” Blaine says. Surprisingly, he manages not to sound impatient about it. “Starting with you.”

He points to one of the researchers, who stands and gives a brief presentation on their recent discoveries of ditto behavioral habits. He also has a request: that at least one group of identified ditto be tagged instead of captured, so they could track their migration habits in case they have any.

“No,” Blaine says at the same time Uhura says, “Possibly.” They give each other a look, and Taira adds, “We’ll discuss it.”

“Of course, General. Oh, one more thing… I’m aware that a number of rangers have caught ditto by now, in the line of duty, and if any are being transferred off the island, we’d appreciate the opportunity to purchase them for further study.”

“That seems reasonable.” She looks to Uhura, who nods.

“I’ll spread the word. Next?”

Next is Ranger Dai, who discusses the progress being made at balancing the local ecology and suggests some new bounties get announced to manage a few of the predator species before they get restless and widen their hunting grounds. After him is a representative from the Cinnabar mayor’s office, who brings up relocation efforts and asks some questions of Taira about expected shifts in supplies to adjust to the expected drawdown.

Once that’s done, a few people shake their heads when offered the chance to speak until it’s Ira’s turn. He stands, and Wendy does too. The researcher’s proposal getting mostly shot down doesn’t bode well for them, but maybe they can be more convincing…

“Cadet Wendy has a proposal. I’m volunteering myself to lead it, with permission.” He glances at his captain, who looks to General Taira, who raises a brow and turns to Wendy.

“Alright, Cadet, let’s hear it.”

“Thank you, General.” Her demeanor changes in front of an audience, back stiff and arms behind her, like she’s giving a presentation at the academy. “I believe it’s time to start testing the ditto’s potential for integration in the local ecology.”

There’s a snort in the ensuing silence, though Ira can’t tell where it’s from. Blaine’s reaction is more legible: “Absolutely not. My island isn’t the Safari Zone.”

“With respect, Leader,” Wendy says, and Ira can see the way her hands grip each other white behind her back. “If we could ship a dozen live, uncaptured specimen to the Safari Zone I would agree that it’s a better environment for it… assuming it wouldn’t interfere with their current experiments. But given the complications involved in transfer, and risk of breaking containment, Cinnabar is the only realistic place to try.”

“And,” Ira adds. “We might not have an actual choice. We’re keeping a lid on things, and sightings are slowly going down… but there’s still one at least weekly. They’re arguably already entrenched, something that some natives may be learning to adapt to. If we continue to treat them as an invasive species, and don’t take at least some time to see what the balance ends up looking like, we could be playing whack-a-diglett forever.”

“That assumes there is a balance,” Captain Imbra says. “If no equilibrium exists, we risk re-escalating just as we start to move to a more sustainable shift.”

“That’s why this is the best time, Captain. If we wait until later, we may have even less resources to spare.”

The room is silent for a moment. “What would this involve, exactly?” Taira finally asks.

Ira shrugs. “I’m happy to take advisement, but our current plan is textbook, with a couple modifications for severity of threat. I’d travel with Wendy and at least two others to find and observe a wild ditto nest. We’d call in a crew if we find one, to help document the nearby ecology and effects. If found, someone would be on standby at all times to ensure the nest is captured or destroyed at any given time.”

“That sounds like work for at least two squads.”

“Yes, General. Three to be comfortable.” Part of him wants to settle on two, because it would make it more exciting, but he doesn’t want to jeopardize Wendy’s idea over unnecessary risks. “I believe it’s worth it, and most would not have to be experienced trainers.”

“If I may, General, Leader,” Blue Oak says, standing again. “This sounds like exactly the sort of thing our new arrivals could help with, particularly as a way to learn about the island. I’d be happy to help with a thing like this too.”

Wendy somehow manages to stand a bit straighter, and Ira wonders if she’s aware of her slight smile. Blaine by contrast looks like he’s bitten into a lemon, but whatever else he could say about the Leader, he always seems willing to consider things…

“I believe I’m in favor,” General Taira says. “But I’ll leave the final decision to you and the Captain, Leader.”

It takes another few tense heartbeats before Blaine abruptly says, “Fine. Provisional on discussing details after the meeting. Who’s next?”

Wendy bows and sits, practically vibrating with glee, or maybe shaking with nerves. Ira, meanwhile, is watching Blue, who catches his look and gives a nod. He nods back, though inwardly he’s still not sure what to make of the young Oak. This can’t have been part of his original plan, whatever it was… can it? Or is he just hopping on something that sounds interesting in case it ends up being a prestigious project?

His attention is drawn to the local police commissioner, who doesn’t usually come to these meetings. He’s an older man, one of Blaine’s cousins if Ira remembers right.

“I’ve already been in contact with the Director General, and had a chat with some Interpol agents. Thought it would make sense to bring it up here as well: I think we should consider Cinnabar a prime Rocket target.”

He now has everyone’s full attention. The attack on Silph two months ago, and the declaration from “Team Rocket,” was big news even in Cinnabar, distant as they are. There’s no Silph research on the island, and the only other Rocket attack since then has been against a power plant east of Cerulean, which Cinnabar also doesn’t need thanks to all its geothermal energy.

But people have speculated that they might target the local fossil lab, if they’re generally looking to steal more research or technology. Ira knows they drastically increased security within a few days of Rocket’s broadcast, which would make it a pretty risky target…

“Has the lab made some new discovery?” Blaine asks.

“Not that I’m aware. What I’m worried might attract them are the ditto.”

It takes a moment for Ira to get it. “As an equalizer?”

“Precisely. The fact that we can’t condition ditto yet wouldn’t matter as much to them, and it gives them an easy way to match whatever forces we bring to a fight. Even if they fail to create the first Masterball before others, they’ll have an answer ready if someone else catches a legendary to use against them.”

“It’s a justified concern,” Taira says, brow furrowed. “But I’m unsure what you propose we do. The ditto aren’t all stored in one place, and we wouldn’t have the manpower to guard the whole island against poachers unless we strip half the mainland.”

“I understand, General. But people should be aware, if there are renegades combing the island for a nest… and it’s not impossible that the Rockets might decide to try targeting trainers who’ve caught one already, in order to steal theirs.”

Ira feels his stomach twist as he imagines it. Some ranger, out drinking one night after shift, getting knocked over the head and pushed into a van… taken to some warehouse and tortured until they get access to his PC, just in case they get lucky…

“Thank you, Commissioner. We appreciate the warning, and will assist in spreading it among our people so that everyone refrains from advertising their captures.”

The commissioner nods and sits, and after that there’s just another couple minor points before the meeting breaks up. Ira’s thoughts are still on Rocket as he stands and starts shuffling toward the exit with most of the others… until Blue Oak sidles up next to him.

“Hey. Ranger Neasman, right?” He sticks out his hand. “Good to meet you.”

Ira takes it automatically, feeling the young man’s strong grip. “Same, and I appreciated the support.”

“Oh, I’m happy for the chance to work together, assuming they give the okay. I’ve heard good things.”

“Likewise.” Ira almost asks from whom, given that he hasn’t been in the media much… then realizes that the same rangers in What Comes Next that he’s heard talk about Blue probably talk about him, too. “Have you enjoyed the island so far?”

“Yeah, actually. I planned to get my badge as soon as I could, at first, but you guys are doing important work here, and as usual I couldn’t keep myself from getting involved.”

“I know the feeling,” Wendy says from Ira’s other side, and sticks her hand out. “I’m Wendy.”

“Blue. Do you follow my friend Leaf, by chance? I think you’d get along with her.”

“I do, actually! How’s she been?”

“Good. Busy. Haven’t had time to see her since I got here, except for my birthday last week. But she’s said she might want to come visit the island at some point.”

“That would be great! We could use all the help we can get.”

They’ve emerged into the sunlight by now, and Ira takes a moment to appreciate the view of the city below, and the ocean spread out every direction beyond it. “Assuming she’d be coming to help?”

“I think she wants to visit the lab, but yeah, I’m sure she’d be down to assist at least a little. Do you guys have a location in mind to search first?”

“I’ve been looking over the patrol maps,” Wendy says. “And there are some areas that have gotten less thorough searches than others, particularly up high on the uninhabited parts of the mountain.” She pulls up a map on her phone and circles a few locations. “I think if we do enough flyovers in these areas, we’ll find a ditto nest sooner or later… maybe even one that’s had a chance to reach some local equilibrium.”

Or some renegades, Ira thinks, but doesn’t say. The odds are pretty low, but if they’re anywhere on the island, they’d be in the less inhabited areas.

Blue Oak seems sober enough as he looks over the map that he might be having the same thought. “I’ll see if I can get another couple extra friends to join us. Might even be able to pull in a favor or two.”

“Are you, uh, talking about Red Verres?” Wendy asks. “I heard he also stopped the attack at the power plant, all by himself!”

“Nah, he had help. But Red’s even busier than Leaf these days, he probably can’t be spared to fly around the island randomly.” Blue is smiling, clearly proud of his friend, though there’s something else beneath it that Ira can’t quite place. “If we need him, I’ll give him a call, and he’ll come. But meanwhile, he’s got more important things to deal with.”


Thirty-five years on the force, and Manni can say that there’s never been a tougher time to be a cop, even in a small town like Azure.

After Team Rocket revealed itself, Manni reassured his wife that he wasn’t likely to face them. Sure, it could happen. He’s a cop, and facing renegades now and then is part of the job. But he’s not a hunter, and Azure Town is far from any of the big cities, devoid of anything unique or interesting.

Sure, everyone in Kanto is on edge, wondering when Rocket would strike next, looking to the police to protect them—police who are now expected to be halfway to hunters themselves, suddenly—but he’s old, already had his years of excitement and danger, spends most of his time behind a desk these days. He has eleven months until retirement, they weren’t sending him out for anything that needed less than the entire department. He’d be fine. Well, as fine as anyone could expect, in a world gone so utterly sideways in the space of a year.

Then Silph finished reinforcing its headquarters security, decentralized its storage and R&D departments, and Rocket hit the power plant, leading to some bigwigs re-analyzing all the most likely targets that Rocket might try for next, and somehow Azure Town ended up 9th on the list of most probable targets.

Manni did request a meeting to ask, when the updated report got sent out, what the reasoning was. He wanted to be able to reassure Elise that it was just some egghead throwing numbers around to soothe the public. No one could really know a thing like that.

He wasn’t quite prepared to be put on the line with an Interpol agent, who started explaining a bunch of things he couldn’t really follow about base rates and tradeoffs of risk to civilian life compared to potential sources of value for a terrorist cell. He nodded along to it all, made the appropriate noises, thanked the agent for her time… then opened a new document and started drafting his request for permanent transfer to Lavender Town. Property prices went down ever since that new pokemon showed up at the tower, but it’s been safe and quiet since that incident, and it was listed as one of the least likely places for Rocket to hit.

The renegade alarm triggered two days before his transfer, after Elise already went ahead with most of their things to prepare the new house. It took him a second to recognize what was happening, another to realize what it likely meant, and a third to fight down the urge to find a place to hide until the danger was past.

But in the end, even as his bowels felt loose enough that an emergency trip to the bathroom could be justified, he couldn’t watch his friends and coworkers scramble to mobilize around him, and just let them face whatever this was alone. And, he thought with distant hope as he buckled on his pokebelt, maybe it would just be regular renegade activity.

It is not.

“Left building, three on top!”

“Shellshock, HP!”

“Arcanine, return! Go, Jolteon!”

“We need AoE over here!”

“Raton, Bolt!” Manni yells, laser pointer guiding his raichu to shock an Alolan persian that’s already put two of their pokemon to sleep… but it doesn’t go down, and a moment later his pokemon is frantically dodging away as the ground beneath him explodes upward to reveal a krookodile.

He wants to switch a Fighting pokemon in, the enemies are all Dark, but the streets are torn up in concentric circles, each trench wide and deep enough that it would be hard to leap or climb them mid combat. “Return! Go, Beut! Sleep!”

His butterfree begins to waft powder down over the renegade pokemon, but a moment later a honchkrow hits Beut from the side. He tries to withdraw her as well, but dark, wet things start to splat on the street around him, each trailing smog that quickly spreads.

He looks up to see more renegades on the rooftops, skunktank and Alolan muk launching more and more globs of poison at them. They managed to catch the renegades as they were finishing the third, inner trench… but the enemy was more than prepared, all the same.

“Back!” he hears Captain Ida yell over the sounds of battle. “One block perimeter! Fa—”

TSE—TSEEE—TSEEEEEEEEEEWWwww

Manni covers his eyes, ears ringing from the three Hyper Beams that blasted three of their lead pokemon. He blinks the spots from his eyes and tries to return his butterfree even as he backsteps, but he can’t see through the spreading smog.

“FALL BACK!”

His knuckles pop around her great ball, and then he’s turning and running with the others, heart hammering as he expects their flight to turn into a fighting retreat at any moment.

But the renegades don’t press the attack, and soon he’s panting against the wall a block over, feeling a wave of surreality as he realizes they’re just two streets away from where his kids went to school. It’s one of the few parts of town that’s mostly small apartment buildings, with some offices and houses spread between them, half surrounding a park that’s on the far side.

“We can’t stay here long,” Paula says, then coughs through her breathing mask, which has a crack along the edge. “They’re digging in for a siege.”

Captain Ida shakes his head. “They’re already entrenched enough to take us out as we approach. I’ve called for air support.”

“That’s a residential block,” Kenji says, voice dull. No one responds. No one needs to; it’s not an objection, and they all already know renegade procedures. “What are they even…?”

“It’s an unown research center,” Manni says, remembering a snippet of the report. “They just opened up last month.” A number of them did around Indigo, to much controversy, though nothing that required police presence in sleepy little Azure Town.

“They may not be taking hostages this time, if they’re just there for the pokemon or research.” Ida pokes his head around the corner. “If they let people go again, they’ll have time to get clear before reinforcements arrive.”

Good. Let them. He doesn’t say it. If Rocket is allowed to get away with what it wants anywhere, it’ll embolden more people to try things like what they’re doing everywhere. He knows that, but… he’s already lost two pokemon, and he doesn’t want to rush back into that meat grinder. They haven’t lost any officers yet, but with their enemy using Hyper Beams, that’s down to luck more than anything; no sane person actually believes Rocket’s claims that they don’t plan on killing humans.

“Hunters from Celadon should be here in a few minutes—”

The sound of flapping wings makes them all look up just as a charizard comes in for a landing. Many scramble to defend themselves until the captain barks, “Stand down!”

Manni stares as a short figure slides off the charizard’s back, pats its side, then walks toward them. He’s wearing the red-on-black combat vest of a hunter, one that must have been custom made for his size, as well as something that looks like a mix between an aviation helmet, a gas mask, and a transparent, tinted monitor that mostly obscures his features, though Manni can make out pale skin against the glow of the writing on the glass.

One hand stays on the newcomer’s pokebelt as the other reaches up to tap the side of his helmet, clearing the glass to reveal red eyes set in a young face below a mess of black hair. “Which of you is Captain Ida?”

Ida steps forward, looking only half as confused as Manni feels. “I am.”

“Red Verres. Sitrep?”

Half a dozen thoughts are running through Manni’s head, from Wait, the Red Verres? to Thank Arceus, we’re saved. But… he’s just a kid, even younger than he looked on TV. And he’s by himself…

Ida recovers quickly, having probably gotten a heads up just before Verres landed. “At least a dozen renegades, entrenched positions around the office building one block over. They seem ready to defend against attacks above and below the ground.”

“Any non-dark pokemon?”

“Not that I saw.” He looks around, and the rest of them shake their heads.

Verres nods, then takes out his phone and walks to the edge of the building, angling the screen so he can look around the corner with its camera. “They’re learning,” Verres says, voice distant. “Lots of smog, much wider perimeter. Definitely out of range…” For a moment Manni thinks he’s talking to them, or himself, but then he realizes there’s probably an earpiece under that helmet. Where did he even get that thing…? “Yeah, I think so. Depends… one sec.”

He turns back toward them. “I have a favor to ask. If you’ve lived in this area at all, if you’ve ever been to this block, in any of these buildings, then step toward me, and concentrate as hard as you can on those memories. I won’t ask you to share private or embarrassing ones if you don’t want to, but the strongest memories are likely to have some deep emotion attached, so those might be particularly useful. I give you my word that I will lock them behind an amnesia partition after today until the memory fades.”

The officers around him are silent. One shifts his weight, but doesn’t move forward. Manni’s own thoughts are on all the things he’s heard about Verres. That he’s a double agent for/against either Interpol or Indigo. That he’s an even stronger psychic than Sabrina. That he can learn all about you in a moment, then perfectly re-experience your memories and teleport anywhere you’ve been in your life. That he can turn pokemon wild or docile with just his powers. That he can make you believe whatever he wants…

But if that were true, why would he even be asking permission?

A distant explosion rattles the windows around them, and Captain Ida looks frustrated. “I haven’t… been to this side of town much…”

“It’s alright,” Verres says, though his brow is slightly furrowed as he looks around the corner with his phone again. “I’ll figure something out…”

He sounds totally calm, but once again Manni is struck by how young he is, voice clearly still a kid’s even through the muffle of the mask. Manni’s never seen someone this short wearing a Hunter uniform, and though it makes him look no less dangerous than them… after a moment something flips in Manni’s mind, and it’s like one of those visual illusions.

Gods, he’s just a kid… younger than my Miguel when he set out on his journey…

In front of him may be the most powerful Hunter in history, but at the same time, he’s a child dressed up as an adult, whose job is to single-handedly take care of something that a dozen grown men and women aren’t able to face.

Manni’s feet suddenly move him forward, and without really thinking about it he says, “I’ve got some.”

Verres’s red gaze meet his with something like gratitude, and then he nods and closes his eyes. “Ready when you are. Just focus on the memories as best you can.”

So Manni closes his eyes too, and does his best to dig through his memories of the area. He remembers idling on the street corner nearby, having a long conversation with one of the rookies about the job. He watched a meteor shower from one of the rooftops near here, though it was actually in the wrong direction… there was that domestic abuse call, inside the apartment building near the lab… and now that he thinks deeper, other memories are surfacing. That one phone call with his son about his journey… was that on this block, or the next one over? He barely remembers the details, but the sun was hot against his skin… he also took a report about a stolen bike from a house on the far side of the where the renegades are camped out…

He’s occasionally conscious of the fact that Verres is observing his memories, probably feeling whatever he is. Once in a while his thoughts stray to other things, things he’s embarrassed about or that are private, but he forces himself to refocus on what’s important, until finally he lets out a harsh breath and realizes he’s been holding it in. “I think that’s… that’s all I’ve got.”

“I…” Paula steps forward. “I’ve got some, I think. If more would be useful?”

“I might, too,” Ollie adds.

In the end four more officers step forward, and Verres moves in front of them one at a time so they know when to focus on their memories. Manni still feels strange, knowing that the boy now has some of his own memories. He hasn’t interacted with psychics much before, at least as far as he knows… he’s of course been vaguely aware that anyone he meets might be one, but they usually dress the part if they’re a professional, and from what he learned at the academy, few people strong enough to do a “deep merge” don’t end up becoming professional psychics of one kind or another.

But there’s nothing he can do about it now, and he can’t bring himself to regret it, if it gets Verres what he needs to stop all this.

The seconds tick by as the boy—no, the young man—steps in front of the last officer who offered their memories. Another explosion shakes the windows, but he doesn’t react, though his charizard raises its snout to sniff the air and growls. After nearly a minute, Verres opens his eyes, letting out a long breath. “Okay, that should do it.”

He steps away and taps his earpiece as he unclips an ultraball from his belt. “I’m ready, give me a widespread Hurricane, then Xatu can have the whole block in sight for a Miracle Eye. Yeah. At least ten, probably thirty seconds total? No, I’ll signal for that. Alright, going now.”

And then he swaps his charizard for an alakazam, puts a hand on its arm, then turns back to them to say “Thanks” before he disappears.

Silence descends. Manni has a moment of regret, for not thinking to say something back, though he’s not sure what he would have. Good luck? Be careful? None of them feel adequate, given how useless he feels just standing here and waiting to be saved. He looks around to see confusion or uncertainty on the others’ faces as well, and imagines them wondering if there’s something else they should be doing…

And then Captain Ida twitches, says, “Yes, sir,” and taps his earpiece before yelling, “Everyone, brace for high winds!”

Manni just manages to press his back against the wall before the first gust hits them, moving from northeast to southwest to press him against the wall. A garbage bin upends a street over as the second gust hits, even stronger than the first, and as his gaze traces the trash that swirls up into the air he sees the distant silhouettes of some bird pokemon, all flapping their wings as they bob in midair.

He can imagine it, the winds clearing all the smog away. And then Verres, standing… at a window, maybe, or on a roof if someone has a memory on one that works, maybe even his own? Summoning a xatu to fly above and take in the whole battlefield so he can use that Miracle Eye on all the renegades at once…

There’s a distant roar, and Manni pokes his head around the corner, and sees a charizard fighting off some honchkrow and mandibuzz as they try to reach a distant xatu. Electricity also arcs up, helping the charizard hold them off, but there’s a flash of light and a distant TSEEEEEW as more Hyper Beams are fired.

He’s crazy, he can’t fight them alone—! “Hey!” he yells over the roar of the wind as he turns back to the others. “We’ve got to help—”

Three pokemon zip by overhead toward the battle, and he looks back to see them join the charizard in fighting the renegade pokemon off.

“Orders are to stand by!” Ida yells back, though the wind is dying, now. “We’ll take our shot soon!”

Manni shifts from foot to foot as he watches the battle, knuckles white around his pokebelt… and then, as the wind finally stops blowing, he starts to hear screams and yells coming from the direction of the renegades.

It’s too far to make out details, but from what he remembers of the attack on Silph, it’s not hard to imagine what’s happening over there. He swallows, feeling suddenly less ready to rush in… would they be going to fight the renegades, at this point, or save them?

“Now!” Ida yells, making him jump. “Air support has the rooftops, we’re headed to the building! Go, go, go!”

Manni goes, adrenaline washing his thoughts clean as they cross the block in a rush, passing their vehicles and reaching the dug up trenches in seconds. Smog is just starting to turn the air hazy again… but not before they can make out the bodies strewn around, burned and shocked, stung and bitten.

Captain Ida has pulled ahead, and leaps across the first trench, catching himself on the far side before scrambling up and toward the next, summoning his machamp as he goes. Manni hears battles on the rooftops above, but not as many as he’d expected, and on the ground, the renegade’s pokemon don’t attack them as they approach. Rather than giving a battle command, Ida just takes out a ball and captures the closest one, leaving the ball on the ground as he leaps over the next trench.

Manni does the same to the nearby krookodile, struggling a bit more to make it up the rough wall of the dug up street. The renegade pokemon would have to be put down regardless, but something about the casual way they’re able to just neutralize them feels surreal. There are only a few around, and he guesses half of the renegades ran as soon as their pokemon started turning on them, or maybe as soon as the smog started clearing.

Eventually they clear the trenches to find Verres standing beside the building, hand on his alakazam’s arm, visor darkened again, with text glowing on the sides. “There are five left that I can sense,” he says as they approach. “All the hostages were blindfolded, so I can’t see what’s happening around them. The renegades will become dark again soon, though.” He shakes his head. “I can’t do much more. I’d go in with you, but Agent Looker says all this might be a trap for me.”

“It’s alright,” Captain Ida says. “We’ll wait for the hunters, and—”

“Wait!” Red suddenly says, looking up. “They’re… heading for the roof! They released some pokemon to cover their retreat, but—”

“Flyers, now!” Ida barks as he summons his fearow. “Manni, Jen, check the hostages!”

Manni summons his raichu as they mount up to chase the renegades, then follows Jen in, each checking a room and calling it clear before the other rushes past to the next doorway.

They find the first hostages on the second floor, cowering and blindfolded in a corner.

“Everyone, listen close! I’m Officer Manni, this is Officer Jenny! You’re safe now, you can take the blindfolds off. Are any of you injured? No? Everyone’s okay? Alright, head down, the renegades are gone.”

“They took the computers,” one of them says blinking against the light. “And our storage bank…”

“We’ll try and get it back.” Storage banks can’t be stored in balls, it would be hard for them to get away with it while being pursued… unless they have some really powerful fliers. “Head down, while we clear the rest of the building, paramedics should be here soon.”

It takes another three minutes to reach the roof, which was guarded by a mightyena and an Alolan persian, neither of which attacked them as they got close enough to capture both. A few more things were stolen, but no one was injured, other than a few bruises from being manhandled.

By the time he reaches the ground floor again, Verres is gone. They secure the scene for future investigation, then collect the renegade pokemon for disposal before they head back to the precinct, where some Interpol agents are already waiting for a debrief. These get interrupted by a call from Captain Ida, who reports how they and the hunters only managed to take down one of the renegades before more flew up from nowhere to run interference and allow the rest to escape, after which they broke off in every direction, forcing them to retreat rather than risk flying into more ambushes.

It’s near midnight before he makes it home, has a long and soothing call with a tearful Elise, then drags himself into the shower before bed, where he can finally feel the muscles in his neck and shoulders.

It isn’t until he starts to finally shampoo himself that he has the chance to reflect on how he started the day not wanting to have to fight the renegades, of wanting to (much to his shame, now) hide away… until he met Red Verres. After which it felt like he couldn’t just stand back…

He can make you believe whatever he wants…

Manni feels a chill spread through him beneath the hot jet of the shower. Did he get mentally influenced to help Red Verres? Maybe not his beliefs, but had his fear removed, his courage propped up? Or did he just… feel protective of a young trainer doing something brave, and hopeful that with his help they could actually win the fight?

The more he thinks it over, the more sure he is that, despite his worry, he feels proud of what he did today, little though it was. But the question keeps him tossing and turning for an hour, after which he finally gets redressed and orders a car to take him to Lavender.

He’ll have to drive all the way back tomorrow, but for tonight he wants to be with his wife.


Fuji would not describe himself as a brave man.

He can recount his brave choices, when he needs to console himself over decisions made and not made, paths taken rather than avoided, that have led him, eyes open, to where he’s ended up.

But on net, the choices he’s made were those of someone willing to take some risks, but not the ultimate ones. He’s a cautious man more than a brave one, a man of long plans with uncertain endings, nudging others to make decisions that will force his hand as much as others’.

His bravest moment, all things considered, was on the day he went into Giovanni’s office and told him he’d resign if Mazda wasn’t set free, knowing full well what “retirement” would mean.

Giovanni didn’t shout or threaten him. He just watched him with those dark eyes, asked him some questions about his decision, and made a counteroffer. There was no attempt to change his beliefs, which Fuji found perversely infuriating, at the time. He wanted to be debated, not because he thought he was wrong, but because it would show that Giovanni was at least open to being convinced.

Instead he simply laid out what would happen in various cases, and, seeing the outcome of one decision compared to another, Fuji agreed to being “sold” to Silph, to work on projects mutually beneficial to both of them, as well as Mewtwo.

It was not a cowardly decision, no. But it wasn’t a courageous one either. It was a decision made around the seed of a scheme, and a sense that as long as he was free, to some degree, he could try to make things better.

So he traded one prison for another, one set of projects for another, and began to, carefully, plant his seeds. Not many, and not right away. He knew he’d be watched, and carefully, for years.

But enough, over time, that he could feel some hope that he could introduce a new variable into Giovanni’s careful schemes, and ultimately bring Mazda safely out of their own prison.

When the day comes that there’s an unexpected knock at his door, and he opens it to see Sabrina standing there, he knows his game is over.

“Good evening, Doctor.” Whether as a mild disguise or simple effort to appear unthreatening, she’s in a sundress, her hair tied up, with a light shawl around her shoulders. It’s very becoming.

“Hello, Sabrina.” His throat is dry, thoughts skittering from simple observations to cached thoughts, just like he’s practiced for nearly a decade, preparing for a moment like this. Years, months, weeks, and days, focusing on his work and living an otherwise simple, boring, repetitive, cloistered experience… letting himself become the hermit inside and out, so that he doesn’t think of his plans, doesn’t think of his goals— “You’ve grown.”

“In many ways. May I come in?”

And if I say no? A braver man might ask. If I call the police? Instead he simply smiles and nods, shuffling back so she can pass through the doorway before he closes it behind her. “Tea?”

“Please.”

His occasional visits with Miss Juniper and Mrs. Verres have not much affected his habits, and his house looks exactly as it has for most of his life here; the windows all have their curtains drawn, tablets and charging ports make the space around his couch a maze, his table is covered by diagrams and notebooks, some piled up on two of the four chairs around the table so that the only free ones have their backs to the kitchen and pokemon pens. His tea pot is slightly cleaner than it used to be, and his hand only shakes a little as he pours a fresh cup, then brings it back to the living room, where Sabrina is observing the pokemon.

Pal went to sleep as soon as the sun went down, but Custard and Bubble are as interested in this stranger as they were the last two. He focuses his attention on them, on his memories of Miss Juniper so unabashedly happy to meet them, offering as much as he can for the inevitable mind-reading…

“Thank you,” Sabrina says as he places her cup and saucer on the table, then sits with his back to the kitchen. She takes the remaining seat and takes a sip, watching him. “You know why I was sent here…”

He doesn’t resist letting his thoughts go where they’re led. The story Miss Juniper’s been writing, which she could only write with knowledge someone on the team had. He wonders if they knew it was him right away, but it’s an irrelevant thought; he knew they’d check his involvement sooner or later, has prepared for it ever since.

“…but you’re wrong about why I came.”

Hope can be a dangerous thing, especially to someone who lacks bravery. “Are you saying you don’t have one of Giovanni’s balls on your belt?” It was one of the options, of course. The default one, given his ultimatum. He’s sure most at the lab believed he took it… the chance to live for decades in stasis, maybe centuries, until they found a way to bring him out safely past the point where the secrets he knew would be relevant. It’s the only retirement plan people who worked at the lab were allowed.

But he knew the work would continue without him, and someone else might have gotten things wrong.

“I do.” She’s calm, though not projecting that calm onto him; his pulse is racing, despite the way he’s mostly kept his thoughts going in a resigned circle. “But I wasn’t ordered to use it. It’s just an option. I’m not here to threaten you. You’ve always had the option to reveal everything, just like many others. I’ve never seen any intention in you to do that, in part because you were worried about Mazda. I didn’t think that would change.”

“It hasn’t,” he whispers, staring down at his teacup.

“Even though they left the lab?”

He looks up at her, meets her gaze, wonders—

It’s just a moment, that his mental attention slips. Just a moment before he redirects his thoughts, but he manages to keep them from cascading into different secrets, more details.

Still, it was enough for the region’s strongest psychic.

“Ah,” she breathes. “They did come, then.”

It’s like watching a puppet whose strings were cut. Her head leans back, eyes closing, body relaxed. She’s completely defenseless, if he were to—

No, he won’t hurt her. It would accomplish nothing, he wouldn’t do something like that, of course, never. Besides… he’s curious.

She smiles, slightly, at that thought, but only for a moment, muscles of her face twisting through various emotions. It takes him a moment to realize…

“You didn’t know,” he says, voice gentle. “Not for sure.”

“No.” Her eyes are still closed, her voice just as soft. “Not for sure.” She takes a breath, sits up. Opens her eyes, sips some tea. Continues to stare into it, even as she asks… “Tell me?”

And he thinks he understands. Although Mazda didn’t mention her—a wince, she’s hurt by that, a sign that he’s on the right track—he guessed that she continued to be their teacher long after he left. She probably still considers herself a friend, despite everything.

He remembers the conversation they had, when he first tried to fight for Mazda’s freedom. They were friends, or close enough, and before he went to Giovanni he thought her affection for them, enough to have led her to give them a nickname, would make her an ally in wanting their wishes to be respected.

But she couldn’t turn against Giovanni. Or else her concern for Mazda’s safety, her appeals to patience, were genuine… either way, she made Mewtwo out to be a child, mature and yet still just a few years old, rebelling against a confinement they didn’t understand.

But they did understand it. Fuji would not have let a human child take such a risk, but Mazda was more than a child.

“First, you tell me. What you’re really here for, and how it’s in Mazda’s interests.”

Her fingers tighten around her mug. “It’s so strange,” she murmurs. “Hearing someone else say their name again, after all these years.”

“You never…?”

“No. And they didn’t either, as far as I know. Besides you.”

“Because it would look bad. Having a pet name, for the pet.”

Sabrina lifts her gaze to his, but he didn’t speak with any malice, and she just sighs. “Yes. Shaw was suspicious enough of me, even Dr. Light worried about attachment—”

“Ivy? Did she—”

“Became Site Director, a couple years after you were gone. She grew close with Mazda too, I think. Well, close enough to let her guard down, and let them escape.”

There’s so much he wants to ask, so much he didn’t have time to ask Mazda, when they came… “You first. Tell me what it was like, after I… ‘left.'”

Sabrina watches him, a moment, and he doesn’t bother trying to redirect his thoughts away from his sincerity. Eventually she nods, and begins to speak.

He listens hungrily to the aftermath of his ejection from the lab. How they told Mazda he’d resigned in protest over them not being released… which was fairly close to what happened, to be fair. How they introduced Mazda to as much media as they could, found ways to give them as much freedom in entertainment and education as possible, and yet still struggled to keep them happy enough. Her voice lowers as she recounts the threats they made, out of desperation… and depression, so far had their hopes fallen that being destroyed in fear seemed preferable. Their regret afterward was real, Sabrina insists, and things got better after.

Fuji doesn’t do much to hide his frustration and anger, pity welling in him at what Mazda endured in the years after he left. It wasn’t as bad as he feared, not nearly so, but still his heart aches for his friend, and again he wishes he’d been braver in his efforts to free them… though he knows that bravery would likely have resulted in failure.

If Sabrina is affected by his internal state she doesn’t show it, though she does start to describe how things got better afterward, when the first suit was finally ready.

“You should have been there,” she says, voice low. “Mazda is so large, but their first steps were so careful… and their first time outside was…” She swallows, and he sees a tear slip from one eye. “I can share it with you, if you’d like.”

He only considers it for a moment. “Yes.”

And then he’s there, not quite in her memory but awash in the feelings of it. Sunlight on her/his skin, and the grip of strong, alien fingers around her/his hand, and the taste of salt as Mazda breathed their first fresh breaths, cried their first tears.

Eventually the feelings withdraw, and he wipes his face. “It should have happened sooner.”

“From what I understand, your breakthroughs helped make it possible. Finding a potion formula dynamic enough to combat the disease—”

“It was a lie.” Anger is dangerous, it doesn’t fit the hermit life he’s chosen, it could lead to—but it’s fine, he’s not brave, he wouldn’t do anything. “Mazda told me. Their helmet, it had a message from Giovanni. The dark scientists were using our research to adapt the immune disorder, keep it carefully ahead of our every breakthrough—”

And then it isn’t his own anger he feels anymore, but a flood of hers. Sabrina’s eyes are closed tight, her lips pressed into a hard line as two spots of color appear on her cheeks, and he watches her breathe deep, watches her relax her grip on his mug as her shock fades and her anger starts to give way to resignation.

“I wondered, if you knew,” is all he says. “You clearly think him capable of it.” There was no doubt in the emotions she projected at him.

“Yes.” The word is heavy, bitter. “And more. Rocket is him as well.”

Now it’s his turn to be shocked. Not that Giovanni could pull off a second such conspiracy, nor that he was capable of running a secret renegade organization. It’s the outright betrayal of Silph that seems out of character, and self-defeating. Silph knows enough, after all, to sink Giovanni as well…

He’s missing something. Or she’s wrong, or lying…

“I can lie pretty well, now,” Sabrina admits. “Even to other psychics. I could shift my partitions, project sincerity to you. But why would I lie about a thing like that?”

He has no answer to that. “You’re sure it’s his decision that led to it? It’s not some… rogue faction?”

“No. It’s him. Miracle Eye changed everything, and now… he believes it’s time to do what he can, with what he’s amassed, before it all collapses.”

A chill creeps over him at her words, and he swallows more tea. “But you’re not breaking with him.”

“That depends on what you mean by it. All I’ll say is that I’ve hedged my bets… and that, even before what you told me about… Mazda’s ‘illness’… I’ve regretted much of what we chose, even though I thought…” She sighs. “I thought they would see that it was for the best, in the end.”

He meets her gaze, wishing he had some way to know… admitting she could project something false could be seen as an extension of trust, but the Sabrina he knew wasn’t very trusting.

Something softens in her expression, and she looks away. “People change.”

“Yes. Young people, in particular.” It’s the most he’ll be able to concede, for now. “Coercion can never be part of a caring relationship, a relationship of friends or peers. It’s only ever for enemies. For control.”

“I… believe I see that, now, yes.”

“Now. When it’s too late to do Mazda any good.”

“At least they’re alive—”

“We do not know they would have died! Even were it not a lie, they could have survived at any time!”

Anger and grief boil up in him, as they so often do, and he fights them down, drowns the bitterness in resignation before it drives him to do something he’ll regret. Sabrina simply watches, and finally he sighs.

“They came to me in the middle of the night, just as I was dozing to sleep. Just a voice in my head, from where they flew over the house… I thought I was dreaming. It took a minute to convince me I was not.” He lets himself linger on the feelings that welled up in him, fear and doubt and hope. “They told me that they escaped. Shared all they’d done since. What they learned…”

He doesn’t share the private things they spoke of, the more personal things, the rekindling, however brief and tentative, of their old friendship. He doesn’t remark on their shared tears, though she can probably read them in him. “In the end, they needed help. Giovanni had told them that I was alive as part of his final confession, perhaps as an attempt to soothe some sliver of his soul, and that Mazda could find me if they tried. So they flew over every town in Kanto, ever-wary of a trap, sensed every mind they came across, until they found mine.”

“When was this?”

“You should know. It isn’t a difficult puzzle.”

Her eyes widen. “The dreams.”

Fuji nods. “Mazda didn’t know what to do. How to best warn humanity, given how they would fear the messenger. They didn’t trust Giovanni, of course, even if they could send a message safely. And they didn’t know whom else to ask for advice.” He shrugs. “I gave the best I could. I thought that maybe, if enough psychics got the warning, something would be done.” He doesn’t bother keeping the bitterness from his voice. So far as he could tell, only a minority of people still think it was important enough to be worth discussing. Elite Agatha is chief among them, but her prestige can’t make up for the sheer numbers focused on other, more clear and current dangers.

“It was… a good plan,” Sabrina says after a moment. “Just poorly timed, for reasons you could not predict. As for your other plan…”

“You don’t understand it?”

“I believe I do.” She turns her tea mug in her hands. “Giovanni does as well. To build sympathy, shift the Overton window… for a grand reveal? Or in case it happens naturally?”

“That was not shared with me.” Fuji didn’t need to tell Mazda not to trust him entirely. Mazda understood.

Sabrina sighs, and nods. She’s silent for nearly a minute, and he doesn’t rush her, keeping his thoughts simple as he enjoys his tea.

“Were you the reason… they avoided Saffron?”

He raises a brow, caught off guard by the pettiness of the question. “You think I sought to punish you?”

“No, no. I just… wasn’t sure if it was on purpose.”

“Of course it was, though not mine.”

She swallows, and nods, and he does his best not to let pity move him. “If it matters in either case, I gave them no such advice. I did, of course, warn them about the Masterball, and whom it might have been designed for in particular.”

Sabrina’s eyes widen. “You think… it was made for them? Did Giovanni—”

“No, that wasn’t part of the message. But it seems clear, given the severity of the mental crippling it imposes.” He frowns at her. “To the general public it might seem like an obvious safety measure for such powerful and mysterious beings, but once you know of the existence of a sapient pokemon, surely its true value is more direct?”

“I didn’t consider it,” she says, voice low. “And I’m not yet sure I believe it. Why would you have helped build such a thing, if you suspected that was its use?”

“I didn’t learn of that piece of functionality until recently.” He planted the seeds he did years ago because he suspected he might need them someday, not because he had a particular whistle to blow.

“Of course. And as for why you did not reveal Giovanni and Silph’s crimes, once you knew Mazda was safe?”

“Because I knew it would inevitably drag Mazda into the public eye before anyone is ready. That is a decision I won’t take from them. It is the last decision about their ‘upbringing’ that they have control over, and if Giovanni does it first—”

“He won’t. I know this will not seem credible, given… well, everything, especially the lies… and yes, I am now aware that I should probably be less confident about this given time to update my models of him… but in any case, currently I believe his deepest hopes are that Mazda either decides to fight and defeat some Legendaries on their own, or that they otherwise just… go off, and enjoy their freedom as they see fit.”

“Mmhm. Not that Mazda returns to him?”

Sabrina gives a wry smile. “I said deepest hopes. Giovanni is not really someone who engages in wishes.”

Despite himself, he smiles wryly back. “I notice integration also isn’t mentioned.”

“Your path is admittedly not one either of us considered. Giovanni believed that… said he believed that the only realistic path toward that would be through the timelines where Mazda defeats at least one legendary first. I… believe I agree with him, though.”

“As usual.” He says it practically by reflex, without any intended malice, knowing it won’t matter much. Sabrina would either change her mind, or she wouldn’t. “What is the plan, with Rocket?”

“I have not been informed. I believe even Giovanni does not fully know, anymore; in a sense the guess that it was a rogue faction isn’t far off. Of his other plans and projects I know about, he seems to be divesting himself, one by one, handing them off to their own leaders. Making them even more silo’d, preparing them, in a sense, to operate without him. Without the organization.”

It’s a large claim, and not one he’s prepared to deeply consider at this point, let alone accept. “And this is why you claim to be… hedging your bets?”

“Only a part. In my own way, I’ve also been preparing the world for a possible confrontation with Mazda.”

It’s obvious who she means. “Red Verres. One of his?”

“What? No.” She seems to catch herself. “Not knowingly. And not for anything illegal.”

So far as she knows, which she admits isn’t much. “I suppose that would be too convoluted a game even for him, given what the boy has been doing lately.”

“What of Miss Juniper? How much does she really know?”

“Nothing. It’s just a story, to her, one that speaks to things dear to her heart. Now that the Masterball is public knowledge, she knows nothing unique to what I’ve told her.” He’s glad he can say that with full honesty. It’s something he tried quite hard to ensure.

“She’s writing more stories, these days. About ninja clans, and other organizations that operate from the shadows.” Her eyes are on his. “You know nothing about that?”

“No,” he says, again with complete honesty. “She’s a good writer. Perhaps she just became inspired.” Not all of his questions are answered, but all the important ones, maybe. “So, what happens now?”

“That’s a question I planned for you. I want to offer my help. I want to make sure they’re okay, make sure they know… that I’m on their side.”

“And what happens to me?”

“As I said, I’m not here to retaliate against you, or punish you in any way. I plan to leave here tonight, alone, without harming you. I hope to be able to come again, some day… perhaps even at your invitation.”

It’s a pretty picture she paints, and not an unappealing one. They were friends, for a time. She was nearly the same age as his daughter would have been…

The grief has dulled, over the past decade, but it’s still capable of filling him on occasion, of grabbing him from head to toe and dragging him deep beneath its dark currents. Mazda always did their best to keep him afloat, when it came, but most psychics would reflexively withdraw, rather than share that deep and endless pit of pain and regret.

It’s from that darkness that he says, “Namero.”

Sabrina doesn’t even have time to frown. Bubble’s tongue stretches out and wraps around her neck from behind, squeezing as she’s pulled violently to the floor, chair clattering against the ground.

“Yamero,” he says, knees weak as he pushes himself to his feet, one hand holding him up against the table. Sabrina’s face is a deep red by the time his lickitung’s makeshift scarf has unwound from her throat, and her whole body lies rigid on the floor, hands up in claws that never made it to her neck.

He lowers himself, shaking, to the ground, placing his ear against her lips… and hears a thin, reedy breath. His fingers gently probe the bruise that’s already forming around her neck… no broken bones, no crushed throat. He finally presses his ear to her chest, and hears a steady heartbeat. The paralysis from Bubble’s saliva will keep her muscles locked for a time, but she’ll recover eventually.

Only once he’s sure does he sag back, breathing hard as the adrenaline leaves him trembling.

He is not a courageous man.

But he is a patient one, willing to plant seeds whose leaves he may never need to sit beneath.

After a minute to recover, he pushes himself to his feet, and goes to retrieve the bag he keeps beneath his bed. A few mementos go into it, as well as most of his notebooks, though no electronics. Lots of cash, and ten fully charged storage balls that hold the rest of his things. Once that’s done, he takes his pokebelt from the wall and attaches it around his waist, then retrieves the three balls for his lickitung, pikachu, and cubone. For the first time in years, he returns each pokemon to their ball.

Finally, he takes a potion from the first aid kit on the wall, and sprays it on Sabrina’s neck. Her arms are already starting to droop back toward the floor, and her breathing is more audible. He guesses she has another ten minutes before she’s able to move again… which should be enough time, assuming his house isn’t surrounded by Giovanni’s men.

“Goodbye, Sabrina,” he whispers. “Perhaps in another life.”

Fuji goes to the door, listens for a moment, then breathes deep and opens it. When no one approaches, he steps out into the fresh night air.

He wishes he could write a note for Leaf and Laura, but it’s too risky. Instead he just sticks a pair of thank you cards in his mail box, addressed to both, then walks out into the field behind his house, still half-expecting to be surrounded at any moment.

But no one stops him from summoning his pidgeot, or from mounting him, and then he’s up and in the sky, among the stars and headed for the coast. He’ll fly around a few days, make sure no one is following him before he heads for the location he agreed to wait for Mazda to check, someday, if ever they couldn’t find him at home.

He doesn’t look back at the house he lived in for nearly a decade. It was just his latest prison, and now he’s free.

116: Conspiracies

Chapter 116: Conspiracies

For all her time in Fuchsia, Leaf has never been to its gym before today, and is surprised how much she regrets that.

She doesn’t tend to have much business in them, of course, which is usually reason enough to not stop by on a week to week basis. But Fuchsia has also been relatively lucky with incidents in the past few hectic months. Most have been on the outskirts of the city, and with the Safari Zone’s high concentration of rangers, most meeting points have defaulted to their outposts.

But she was invited explicitly at least twice: once when Elaine asked if she wanted to see the scenarios that the gang set up here, and second when Blue’s usual emailed ticket offer to his Challenge match (something that might have felt pushy from someone who tried to get her to change her eating or battling habits, but from Blue just felt like him leaving open doors in their friendship). She declined both, despite being more tempted than she’s ever been before.

It’s been bouncing around in her head for months, the thought that being so squeamish about trainer battles made her less able to help others in a crisis, not to mention put her pokemon at higher risk of dying. She still remembers her argument with Aiko about it, an argument that’s tinged with some regret and embarrassment at her own self-righteous confidence.

She’s a good trainer, and knows it. She’s been proud of the way her pokemon can keep up with battle trainers’ during incidents against wilds, and Daisy has even urged her to apply for the next coordinator competition even without formal training as one.

But some part of her expected that, if she somehow ended up in yet another situation like the ones at Mount Moon and the Rocket Casino, if renegade activity was on the rise and she should expect to encounter one again someday, her ability to get through those was a sign that she could make it through others.

And maybe, in a world without Team Rocket, that might have actually been true. But it’s definitely not the one she lives in anymore, and she can’t afford to pretend it is. Viridian, Mount Moon, Vermilion, Celadon, Lavender… all the worst moments of her life, the times she felt the most powerless, none prepared her for what it meant to feel actually powerless as that day in Saffron, when Agent Looker directly told her she’d be a liability in battles against the renegades fighting her friends…

…and she’d known he was right. She had no delusions about her ability to beat someone who trained to battle trainers, and the renegades would be prepared for them. She wouldn’t be able to take them by surprise like she did in Mt. Moon and Celadon, and from what Blue told her about his battles afterward, she would have not just lost, but died.

She spoke with Natural about it, afterward. He was the only one she thought would understand… and he did. He admitted that he was as shaken by Rocket as anyone, and that while he didn’t plan to stop fighting for pokemon rights, he saw his father preparing for a world where renegade’s place in society changed, where they were more organized and active, and he knew he had to do the same.

Leaf suspects that most people will still never end up facing a renegade, the same way most don’t end up directly facing a wild pokemon unless they’re a trainer. Even trainers will more than likely just stay back and let the police handle it if a renegade attacks the city they’re in.

But she knows Red will end up facing them again, and she can’t properly face how scared that makes her… or how sad.

It makes her feel the urge to prepare too, even if she also doesn’t expect to face one herself. Not doing so would feel like… abandoning him to his fate, saying that it’s okay for him to shoulder the burden alone.

She knows by the way he’s back to racing through the badges that Blue feels the same way. Last she spoke to him he said he would be heading to Cinnabar today, before his friends all complete their own Saffron Badge challenge. Her Safari Zone project has come under scrutiny, but she’s not really that involved in it anymore, and it’s her other projects that she has to weigh against how far she should take this new desire.

Still, none of that is the primary reason she regrets not having come to Fuchsia Gym earlier. Right now, as she walks along the paper walls around the courtyard, what’s on her mind is just how pretty the gym’s unique aesthetic is, and how peaceful she finds it.

She takes her time to enjoy the carefully maintained landscaping that’s so different from Celadon’s lush grounds, pausing by each small pond and sand garden, admiring the splashes of greenery that stand out like islands throughout the gym. Now and then she sees a class of trainers attending a lecture, or a pair doing battle over one of the sand arenas, or a small group practicing some scenario that Blue and his gang popularized here, but so far she hasn’t seen anyone she recognized, which is fair given she didn’t tell anyone she was coming.

The invitation by Leader Koga took her by surprise. She couldn’t imagine what led to it until she realized he’s probably as aware of the vigilante running around in his city as anyone, and finally decided to speak with her about her investigations (which she continued, now and then, to make it seem like she still hasn’t been in contact with the informant). When she asked he only said it was a private matter that he’d prefer to speak about in person, so she agreed, and came a little early rather than arrive late.

Leaf eventually comes across a pair of trainers dueling on a sandy arena, and, still feeling the sting of Looker’s comment, pauses to watch the battle. A beedrill stinger clicks against a sandshrew’s shell, who swipes a claw back across its abdomen, only to then be pierced in the chest by the twin needles of its forearms, causing her to wince and look away.

She tries to shift her perspective, looking back and imagining she has Red’s powers to just… rearrange her frame of what’s happening in front of her. It’s a wild battle, they’re getting hurt because it’s the only way they can survive…

“Scratch!’

“Bug Bite!”

“Sandshrew, return! Go, Vulpix!”

She moves on before the inevitable fire attacks start getting used, heart pounding as her mind keeps flashing back to images of pokemon she’s seen being burnt to death.

It’s painful, painful and jittery in some way that makes it hard to hold onto, hard to sit with, and all at once Leaf is angry with herself.

What’s wrong with me? All around her there are trainers doing something for hours at a time that she couldn’t stand for more than a few moments, and it would be tempting to believe this is a choice on her part, some matter of taste or morality, but it would be a lie. She’s not choosing not to engage in trainer battles or watch them, she can’t, not if someone’s life isn’t at stake, no more than she can hold her hand in a fire, and normally she’d say that’s good, that people shouldn’t do something that’s painful for them, but it doesn’t answer why everyone else is able to.

She waits a few minutes for her pulse to slow, watching some goldeen get fed until her body feels mostly back to normal before she wanders close to another arena. A weezing is getting battered around by a kadabra’s mental attacks, and Leaf’s gut churns as she watches its body vibrate with each hit, knowing that the psychic attacks are upsetting its internal chemistry and causing it to feel more pain than the attacks imply. She focuses on how it’s pushing on despite that, tries convincing herself that the pokemon is learning to better fight through pain by experiencing it now, that it will be more ready in the wild… but when the weezing’s whole body undulates with a psychic strike and it falls to the ground like a half deflated balloon, she’s forced to look away again, staying just long enough to ensure that the trainer swaps it out rather than keep fighting before she hurries away.

She had this thought back in Pewter after watching Blue’s first badge challenge, and then just… never thought about it seriously again, not until she spoke with Aiko and noticed that despite also not eating pokemon her friend was able to enjoy trainer battles. That should have confused her more, it felt so clear to her that caring more about pokemon is right that she just wrote off trainers who didn’t mind seeing their pokemon hurt as not caring enough, and for Aiko… she just thought the same, really, that she cared but not as much.

It’s too easy, she knows, to do that with any difference between people. Just decide that caring more would lead to more ethical actions. And maybe it’s even true; if others don’t actually feel this level of pain and discomfort from watching pokemon get hurt, it’s probably accurate to describe that as “caring less” when they get hurt.

But if she lets go of the idea that this is the only reason for the difference… if she admits to herself that it might be a necessary part of the answer, but not a sufficient one…

She can feel it, some part of her wanting to reject the idea out of hand. It’s like a pressure, or a… slipperiness in her mind, a way in which the thoughts don’t chain as smoothly from one to the next.

Red taught her about the “focusing” thing his therapist taught him not long after he learned it, and she tried it a few times herself after. She’s not sure if she’s ever done it quite right, but even the process of paying more attention to how she feels, trying to put it into words, has been helpful for introspecting on things.

She pulls out her phone and sits on a bench in a stone garden, but doesn’t start writing yet. Instead she just watches the way a gardener creates swirling patterns in the sand with rakes, thinking around the slippery part of her mind, deciding on whether that word is actually correct. After a moment she decides it is, but there’s something more. There’s a… pulling, or like… a fear of being pulled, a sort of faint gravity in there somewhere.

She writes a few things out, testing different thoughts and frames before it becomes more clear. There’s a feeling of imminent slippage, of being on the edge of a slope and knowing that an extra step could send her careening down.

Once that’s recognized, finding the right words is easy.

I’m worried that if I’m able to watch battles, it’ll be because I care about pokemon less.

I’m worried that watching battles enough will make me care about pokemon less.

I’m worried that caring about pokemon less would make me…

She trails off there, staring at the screen as her thumbs twitch to start new words a handful of times. What is her care of pokemon, to her? Is she afraid she’ll start mistreating pokemon, even beyond trainer battles? Would start eating them? It didn’t happen to Aiko.

make me less special.

That resonates more than the other two did, and she tucks her phone away, feeling vaguely embarrassed and guilty. She doesn’t remember what’s supposed to come next; thanking the part of her that she was focusing on? If so, she’s not sure it would feel genuine.

She does like being special. She can admit that there’s a part of her that’s proud of the way, after years of being treated like a weird extremist for her views, her connection with pokemon has turned out to have actual effects on the world, a tangible benefit that others have to pay attention to. It makes more people read her articles, even if some are just looking for a practical advantage. It gives her words some weight.

She doesn’t actually understand why she’s so different, though, and maybe that’s why the feeling of losing something that makes her special feels scary.

But maybe the two things aren’t related at all. Maybe there’s something that causes her to care about pokemon so much that it keeps abra from teleporting away, and maybe it’s different than the part of her that feels incredibly stressed by watching pokemon get hurt.

She just doesn’t have enough information to know, and she wants to know. Maybe it’s the sort of thing she should talk to someone about… a therapist doesn’t sound like the right choice, exactly, but it’s probably not a bad place to start, assuming she finds one that understands her values and doesn’t just assume there’s something wrong with her that she has to “fix.”

One thing that immediately springs to mind is to check whether there are studies of this sort of thing, or online groups for people who struggle with it too. She hasn’t heard anyone talk about it before, but if it’s rare enough, maybe they wouldn’t… particularly if there’s a stigma attached.

She’s in the middle of searching for that when she notices there’s just a couple minutes until her meeting, and hurries toward the Leader’s office, which is situated in one of the miniature houses near the center of the gym. There’s no one to talk to at the doors, not even a secretary, and she cautiously makes her way through a couple inner doors until she reaches a room that looks like it’s at the center. When the door slides opens, the first thing she notices is—

“Blue?” She closes the door behind her, then steps over for an automatic hug as he rises from the cushion on the floor he was seated on. “I thought you were on your way to Cinnabar!”

“I am on my way to Cinnabar. Got an invitation to stop by along the way.” He looks at Leader Koga, who’s sitting on the other end of the table in the middle of the room. There’s a tea set placed there, with four cups.

“Thank you for coming, Miss Juniper. I hoped to speak with you both without giving an opportunity to discuss this meeting with others, for reasons that will soon be clear.” Leaf isn’t sure if it’s meant as an apology, but she takes it for one, and approaches to sit beside Blue at the table. She’s just wondering who the fourth cup is for, and whether Red is coming too, when the back wall’s door slides open and Leaf’s informant steps into the room.

The shock of it dumps adrenaline through Leaf’s body, and she’s on her feet before she even realizes it, blood rushing through her ears. It only takes a moment for her brain to catch up enough to feel ridiculous; she’s hardly less safe meeting here than she is alone on a dark rooftop. But she normally has hours to mentally prepare for those meetings, and something about the masked figure in dark leather feels more obviously… aberrant, and potentially unsafe, when seen so clearly. It would look more comical if it weren’t so real, and instead comes off as more unhinged.

Blue is frowning as he looks between them, clearly tense but also confused, and Leaf realizes that of course he’s never seen her informant before. Koga isn’t reacting at all other than to patiently watch her, and Leaf’s shock starts to fade as it finishes sinking in how unlikely this situation is to be actually dangerous.

“Oh,” Blue says after what feels like a minute but was probably just a few seconds. “You’re her. And…” He looks at Koga. “You know her? Wait… Oh. Oooh…”

The informant sighs, then reaches up to pull down her mask, and Blue curses. It takes Leaf a moment to search her memory before recognition hits, and a mix of indignation, nervousness, and excitement blooms through her stomach. Leaf doesn’t know much about Janine Koga that she hasn’t heard secondhand from conversations between Blue or Elaine and the others who were here, mostly conversations that talked about how to attract more of the gym members she was giving lessons to, and that mostly concerned her general competence and severity (or outright unfriendliness, from Elaine’s perspective, though Lizzie disagreed).

“So,” Leaf says as casually as she can manage. “I guess I know why you’ve mostly stayed in Fuchsia.”

“My father hasn’t helped me at all,” her informant—Janine—says, sounding affronted by the implication. “He found me out, eventually, and told me to stop before he’d be forced to report me. He also told me some stuff that, combined with… recent events… convinced me that my approach has to change.”

A part of Leaf that wants to reach for her notebook marks the way Janine didn’t say when Leader Koga found out, but all she says is, “Rocket.”

“That is not their name,” Koga says, voice quiet but firm. “It is one they are using to connect them to recent events, to mask their long history in an illusion of recency. I am confident that the organization behind it is older than the Rocket Casino, and invited you here because the way they operate from the shadows is one I’m familiar with.”

Leaf takes a moment to absorb this before asking the obvious question. “Why me? Why not the police? Or Interpol, if you don’t trust them?”

“I distrust both. They may already know what I plan to reveal, and are unable to act, which makes them useless at best. If they are complicit, I would be risking much by revealing what I know.” Koga holds her gaze for a moment. “Janine told me how you refused to steal from Silph during the renegade attack. She may have had good intentions, but I disagree with her methods. I would equip you to be an ally of equal footing, such that the goal may be achieved through better means.”

Leaf has noticed how most of the Leaders in this region talk in a certain way, more formal, almost like Unown was a second language to them and they were compensating for it by speaking like a textbook, or like they were giving a lecture. Misty and Surge (obviously) were the least like this, and Giovanni stood out the most compared to Brock or Sabrina, until now. Koga speaks like he’s in some historical drama, though that might just be due to his accent, which is much stronger than most Kantonians; for him she could believe Unown really was his second language, which would mean an unusually old-fashioned upbringing.

All of this distracts her a bit from the substance of what the Leader was saying, which she doesn’t really know how to respond to given she doesn’t know the full extent of what Janine has actually been up to. She’s spared the need by Blue, who’s frowning slightly as he rests his weight on his ankles, hands on his knees.

“And me? If this is the thing you almost told me after my Challenge, what’s changed? I want to take Rocket down as much as anyone, but I’m focusing on becoming a different kind of tool.”

Leaf wonders at that phrasing as Leader Koga pours some tea for them, which she supposes is a polite way to invite her to sit back down. She does so, gaze on Janine, who’s watching Blue in turn.

“As you say, I had some thought to share this with you after your last battle with Janine. Your meta-honesty policy made me less certain you would keep the secret, given your relationship with your friends. But it is exactly because of what you hope to become that I wanted to include you in this conversation.”

Blue picks up his tea, brow raised. “Have you been speaking to Sabrina, by chance?”

“No more than is usual, given our roles.” Koga finishes pouring into his own cup last, and sets the kettle aside. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, not sure if you watched our match—”

“I did.”

“—but I asked her, after, if she let me win. There was a moment where it felt like she could turn the tables if she wanted to, but didn’t.”

“Hm. The Barrier?”

“Right, exactly. She said no, that I’d exhausted her pokemon enough by then. Anyway, she said she was treating the battle as a test of something rather than a normal Challenge, but she did nothing to make it easy.” He stares into his teacup. “I’m not sure how much I believe her, particularly since she made it seem like there was something she was looking forward to, about me being Champion.”

“Meaning she believes you’ll do it,” Janine says, and Leaf can’t quite interpret her tone. Irritated? Skeptical? “You don’t sound happy about it.”

“Oh, I was proud enough at the time. But if you’re basically saying the same thing… I don’t like it. If I’m about to learn some deep dark secret of the League, like that you all choose who’s going to be Champion… well, I won’t say I don’t want to know something like that, but I’ll be pretty pissed.”

Leader Koga smiles, and the expression is unexpectedly warm on his stern face. “No, nothing like that. But I admit that I hope, if you do become Champion, that you will reject a conspiracy that does exist among the regional powers.”

“Including the Champion?”

“That, I don’t know. Some previous Champions, almost certainly.”

“What you’re talking about is bigger than us,” Leaf says, hands warmed by her own teacup as steam rises from it, the scent bracing. “Way bigger. I’m not saying I don’t want the information, though I am getting a little… full up, on conspiracies. But I don’t get why, even if you don’t trust the police, Laura at least is not here, let alone Red, who can’t possibly be involved with the people he’s been fighting. Was it because of the differences in his meta-honesty policy?”

“In part, but not entirely. In truth, were it not for his current enmeshment with Interpol, the roots of which I have no knowledge of, I might have included him as well.”

Blue laughs, suddenly, and shakes his head.

“Something funny?” Janine asks.

“Nah. I mean, yeah, sort of. You’re trusting Leaf with a secret despite her not being psychic or dark, you’re trusting me with a secret that I can’t guarantee I’ll keep anymore because of Miracle Eye… but you’re not trusting the one person who is probably best in the world, now, at actually keeping secrets.”

Koga sips his tea, gaze flicking between them. “You trust him so much, even after what he revealed?”

“Yes,” Leaf says, somewhat surprised by the surety in her own voice. It’s not something anyone has explicitly asked her since the news conference, but she could see it in a lot of their eyes, the wonder about how different her relationship with Red might be now. She was nearly as surprised as anyone by the revelations Red made, but they didn’t really change anything. Their talk on the SS Anne seems so long ago, but the idea that Red could perfectly deceive other psychics doesn’t feel scary to her, since she doesn’t think he could perfectly deceive her. It’s always been the other psychics she’s worried about, and that’s all the more true now.

Maybe that’s stupid of her. Naive and childish, to believe that someone who can perfectly mirror others’ mental states and alter his own personality couldn’t conceal things from her if he wanted to, even things that were the result of a mental merge.

A flash of heat, a rosy glow…

Her cheeks are growing warmer, and she forces herself to push on. “More than ever, actually. He could have kept this to himself indefinitely. I get why people who don’t know him don’t want to trust anyone with the powers he has, but they don’t get how lucky we are that he’s the one that has them. Any other psychics who could do what he can have clearly kept it to themselves, people should be throwing him a gods damned parade.

Everyone is staring at her, and Leaf realizes she’s raised her voice despite the paper walls. She picks up her teacup and sips it, wondering if she came off too strong… but after a moment Blue nods.

“She’s right. After what he did at Silph, if you trust us but not Red—”

Koga holds up a palm. “As I said, I’ve read both of your meta-honesty declarations, as well as Red’s. The reason I’ve invited you both, but not Red Verres, is that I do not know how to judge his candor and character. But I have judged yours, and Janine agrees. I share my secrets knowing that you will determine for yourselves what information you should or should not pass along, and to whom.”

“Same goes for Laura,” Janine says, looking at Leaf. “I trust her a fair bit, obviously, so I’ll get it if you want to tell her, but I don’t know how biased she’d be toward her son, and if she tells him for the wrong reasons it might get him killed, or it might get a whole lot of others killed.”

Leaf’s pulse quickens again at the idea that they might learn something that dangerous. She can’t seem to stop frowning, maybe because she can’t seem to stop feeling like she’s missing something. “So to be clear… you’re not asking us to agree to anything? You’re just… sharing information with us, and hoping we agree not to tell anyone else?” It sounds too good to be true, especially after all the careful maneuvering her informant has done with her and Laura.

“Correct.” Koga’s gaze is distant. “We are past the point where the secrets can be reliably kept anymore. I realized this as soon as the Miracle Eye was revealed, though it took me some additional time to emotionally accept it. Sooner or later, someone with the secret I’ve been holding my whole life will have their mind read, and the veil will fall.”

“A renegade conspiracy among dark people,” Blue muses, eyes narrowed. “And you want to fight it with a new conspiracy of just us four?” He turns to Janine. “I thought you were investigating Silph. Not you, I mean what I heard about the vigilante. For what it’s worth, I get why this distracted you from the gym stuff, now that I know, but if you knew about this your whole life—”

“I didn’t. I stumbled onto it recently, though I didn’t realize what exactly I’d found until Father told me.” Janine looks at Leaf. “You were the one that did it, actually, though you also didn’t realize how big it was.”

“Mount Moon?” Leaf’s stomach tightens as Janine nods. “You know for sure, now, who killed Yuuta? Who sent him?”

“It is a long story.” Leader Koga breathes in, sips his tea, then sets it down. “And it began, for me, in my home village…”


Red watches the countryside flow by the window, enjoying the freedom of being out in the world again… even if it’s in an air-conditioned car, going toward a set destination, rather than riding a bike beneath the warm blue sky.

Between his ability to free teleport and how busy he was even before the attack on Silph, he can’t actually remember the last time he was out in the semi-wilderness between towns and cities. Some incident after the ditto emerged, probably, but they’ve begun to blur together in his mind, and visiting Leaf at the ranch is the clearest he can recall.

Agent Looker—now a Special Administrator, technically—sits in silence beside him, gazing at his phone and quietly muttering the occasional voice-to-text responses to things. Red doesn’t see him as much as he expected at the start of all this, but they do usually meet on a daily basis so Red can answer some questions about how things are going… questions that seem as much a matter of checking whether Red is okay with his sudden workload as it is whether he can handle even more training more quickly.

He started training the day after his questioning and press conference, then got to take a day off when it was clear he was still in need of rest. He spent it sleeping for about twelve hours, waking up for a quick brunch, then sleeping for another four and spending his evening with his mom, eating dinner and telling her what he’s been up to and reassuring her that he’s alive and well, and that he’s doing what he thinks is right, even though it’s dangerous.

His second break was a week after that, and by then they’d set up a secure apartment building for the Interpol agents that had been arriving throughout the week. It was sad saying goodbye to his room at Sabrina’s school; he hadn’t expected to be there forever, but he’d been there far longer than he expected. It felt like his second home in many ways, and he wondered if he’d ever return to it.

Red got two days off, the first of which he spent sleeping for ten hours, then lying in bed for two more and checking the internet for the first time since his public announcement. He managed to keep himself from commenting on any of the posts, but only by writing all his thoughts up in a draft post giving his side of things “for later” that he knew he would probably never finish. The rest of his day was spent apologizing to various people he had planned to meet up with or have a call with before the recent events totally upended his life, and then a long session with Dr. Seward that he spent much of crying for reasons he couldn’t really put into words, though she didn’t push him too hard to try in the moment, which he appreciated.

He also got to watch Blue’s battle with Sabrina a week later, admiring the complete unity and sense of control she had with her alakazam and wondering how long it would take for him to get that synchronized with his own pokemon. Afterward it became unclear to him whether asking for the time was necessary; it’s strange to be doing something as structured as his current training regime, and he’s not quite sure how to relate to it yet.

School wasn’t this regimented, nor was interning at the lab, but it’s a strange mix of interesting and uninteresting. So far the majority of what he’s learned have been laws; specifically, a crash course on all the laws concerning the interregional police, what their mandate is (focused on the particulars of Kanto and Johto), as well as policies and protocols for how they interface with regional authorities, rangers, and common citizens.

Most of it would be pretty dry and uninteresting if it wasn’t so immediately relevant to what Red’s going to be expected to act on soon, but it’s all interspersed with the basics of Renegade hunting, and that he’s definitely not getting a short version of. There was some debate over Red attending the standard training until the security risk was brought up, and for now he just cycles through tutors every few days.

Security risk is a phrase that made Red’s stomach twist the first time he heard it in reference to himself, and that hasn’t really stopped. Thinking about all the people who might want to kill him is anxiety inducing enough, but the idea that he’s actually a danger to those around him, not because of anything he might do but just as a result of being who he is, sent him into a depressive spiral for a few days once it really sank in.

His mom didn’t bring it up when they talked, but he knows it’s been on her mind. Not the risk to herself, but the effect it would have on his relationships and dreams. Red would like to believe that dismantling Rocket would change that, but he knows better. No foreign regions have officially commented on him yet, but he knows, and Looker confirmed in the blunt way that he has, that they’re thinking about him, and worrying about him.

First we figure out how to keep you alive against Rocket,” Looker said. “Then we’ll talk about how to keep you alive against foreign governments. If we handle this right I’ll have a lot of clout to try and work something out.”

Work something out wasn’t the most reassuring thing to hear, but Red appreciated the honesty. He looks over at Looker now, and the Special Administrator glances back, then tucks his phone away with a sigh.

“Everything alright?”

“Fine. A few of my peers have been working in the region for years, some for decades. Given the varying ranks and priorities, developing more robust coordination and cooperation between us all is more difficult than I expected.”

“Don’t you have… uh, ‘full administrative power,’ or whatever it was called in the charter?” Red was given a look at that on his second day, something that he suspects Director Tsunemori pushed for him to have access to now that he has a better sense of the political tensions between them. Still, they seem mostly on the same page, so far as he’s directly observed their interactions.

“Only so far as I can make a reasonable case that it’s relevant in stopping Rocket.” He adjusts his tie, looking suspiciously out the window as if a renegade will ambush them in the middle of the bright day. Or maybe just watching for wild pokemon. “Most of the agents here before were part of their own projects, and most of those are need-to-know, which I don’t even with my new position. But one’s been working with Bill for nearly a decade, and he’s been passing along a bit of help recently.”

“You… don’t seem happy about it?”

“I trust Bill about as much as anyone outside of Interpol,” Looker says, which Red already understands to mean not very much at all. “It would be hypocritical to fault him for his paranoia but he’s the anarchic type, and it’s always hard to predict how much of that bottoms out to being against conspiracies on principle, or just against those by the government.”

“You think, what, that he might be helping Rocket?”

“I think relying on one person who’s accountable to no one to give us information on them is a bigger gamble than I usually like to take. But we don’t have the luxury of turning down his info either, so by accepting it I’m on net willing to bet his information will be more helpful than harmful, particularly if we can cross-verify.”

Red isn’t surprised to learn that Bill has a working relationship with Interpol—given all the stuff he’s been working on, Red would be surprised if he didn’t—and can’t help but wonder if the secret human storage project is part of it. After reflecting back over all the things Bill talked to them about, he thinks it more likely it involves his efforts to keep artificial intelligence from growing past a certain point, but the resources to do that probably extend to things like monitoring for activity by secret organizations.

It’s nice to have all of his partitions down, to be able to remember all the secrets he’s been keeping. It’s a perk of being in a car with a non-psychic as the only person around, their escort ahead and behind far enough that any psychics in them are out of range. He’s been able to keep more of them down than usual given his recent disclosures, but it was sobering to realize how many secrets he still holds for others.

The high concentration of partitions he created in Silph also took some time and effort to work through, relaxing each a little at a time until those few seconds of wildly different and totally nonsensical beliefs were integrated. He wished he had time to talk to Sabrina or Rowan about them, or even see Dr. Zhang, but he also hasn’t been sure what he should say about his capabilities and what made them possible. Something Looker emphasized to him is that they have to be careful not to give the impression that he’s teaching others how he does the things he does; he’s much less of a threat to people if they think he’s unique, strange as that might sometimes seem.

He knows he’ll have to bring some of the partitions back up soon, to allow him to perfectly conceal others’ secrets if he’s asked to merge with anyone at the meeting. But meanwhile, he has one thing that he wants to know without any division between his selves, so he can integrate it as fully as possible first.

“What drives you, so hard, Agent Looker?” he asks after a moment of thought. “What keeps your courage up, when you’re facing danger, or just feel exhausted by a rough week?”

Looker glances at him, as if trying to judge how serious the question is, or maybe worried it’s a sign of Red being at the edge. The silence goes on long enough that Red starts to think he won’t answer, and then:

“I have people counting on me.” The Interpol agent shrugs a shoulder. “That’s all it boils down to, really. When I think of the renegades getting their way, or the world thrown into chaos by some rampaging myths… I think of them. Not going to say who, it doesn’t matter. They’re enough, on their own, to make me know it’s all worth it. That giving up just isn’t an option. And if I can save the world, hey, that’s nice. But the world’s too big for me. I’m just one guy. It’s the few that are close that matter most.” He shrugs again and looks out the window. “We’re all in this together, in the end.”

It’s the least cynical thing he’s heard the Interpol agent ever say, and Red has to wonder how much he might be getting manipulated. Probably at least a little. But all he does is nod, say “Thanks,” and start putting his partitions up…

“Looks like we’re here,” Looker says, and Red snaps out of his random daydream to look through the front windshield.

Giovanni’s mansion has extra security compared to Red’s first visit, police interspersed with his private guards, but looks otherwise the same. Their forward escort has already stepped out of their vehicle to speak with some of the police at the perimeter, and Red sees Rei waiting at the door. She gives a small wave as they step out of the car before leading the way inside.

“The meeting room is this way,” she tells Agent Looker as she gestures down a side hall at the grand staircase. “Leader Giovanni would like to speak with Red alone for a moment before he joins the rest of you.”

“Leader Giovanni will learn to live with disappointment.”

She turns to Red. “He specifically asked that I put the request to you, if need be, since you’re a free citizen who can in fact make your own decisions about who keeps you company when in a safe location.”

“Who are you, exactly?”

“Rei. I work here.” She says this without turning away from Red.

“It’s okay,” Red says to Looker. “She’s an old friend. And I don’t think Giovanni is going to kill or kidnap me, or else we’re all kind of screwed, aren’t we?”

Looker’s gaze seems to be trying to bore a hole through Rei’s skull, but she’s studiously ignoring him, and eventually he turns on his heel and walks away, coat flapping slightly behind him.

“Charming,” Rei says once he’s gone, then leads on toward Giovanni’s office. “Nice to see you again, Red.”

“And you. Been okay?”

“The usual. No new dreams since the Rocket attack, have you heard?”

“I… didn’t, no.” Red wondered what to make of that. Probably a coincidence? It wouldn’t quite make for the longest gap between them just yet. “What have you been up to instead?”

“Trying to learn Miracle Eye, of course. I’ve nearly got it.”

Red musters a smile. “Congratulations.”

“So tell me, did you figure out how to lie to psychics before our experiments, during, or after?”

His smile fades. “After.” He doesn’t feel any guilt, which mildly surprises him. Maybe it’s because she might not actually be bothered. “It was the exeggcute experiment, actually, that did it.”

“Huh. Ironic. And you’re welcome.”

Red snorts, feeling relieved, on reflection, that Rei is being her usual self. If she’s experiencing any public backlash, she apparently doesn’t blame him for it. Which, to be fair, would be pretty hypocritical of her. “Want credit?”

“I’ll pass for now, but maybe once public opinion settles.” They reach Giovanni’s office doors, and she opens the door for him without entering herself. “Take care, Red.”

“You too.” Viridian City’s Leader is sitting behind the same desk as before, though he stands as Red enters, and steps around his desk to offer Red his hand.

“Good to see you again, Mr. Verres.” Giovanni says as Red takes it. “And good to know how right I was about you, last we met.”

Red knows immediately what Giovanni means. The thought of just standing aside… it is not in me. Nor is it, I think, in you.

“Thank you.” He’s not sure if it makes sense, as a response, but he’s not sure what else to say, and casts about for a moment before releasing Giovanni’s hand and asking, “Did it come out okay? With whatever you had in mind, or were doing to set things up… I wish I could have given some warning, but—”

“I understand completely. And it was sooner than we’d hoped, but far better than we could have expected, given the otherwise unfortunate circumstances.” Giovanni’s smile has faded, though there’s a thread of dry amusement in his words. “I’m optimistic, though. Rocket is a unique threat, but it’s one I have more confidence we can defeat than, say, a new legendary, and in the meantime they’ve created an atmosphere that will let us review how our society treats all sorts of things.”

“Like how we treat renegades?”

“Exactly. And how much cooperation the regions are willing to engage in to face common threats.”

It takes Red a minute to notice, but Giovanni looks… different, than last time they met. Lighter, somehow, more… relaxed.

“You wanted to speak in private before the meeting?” Red prompts, unsure how long Agent Looker would wait before getting suspicious.

“Just to get a quick sense of how you’re doing without the Special Administrator breathing down your neck. You look well enough.”

“It’s a lot,” Red admits. “But I think I’m handling it okay.” He doesn’t really have a choice but to.

“I’m glad to hear it. Relatedly, I also wanted to make an offer that, if all this is ever too much, if you ever feel unsafe in any way, uncertain of what will happen to you… I know there are some you might reach out to for aid, and I’m offering to be one of them. Particularly if the situation seems hopeless, if you feel your situation is beyond anyone else’s power to solve. Do you understand?”

Red looks up at Leader Giovanni and wonders whether he actually does or not. “It sounds like… you’re telling me you’d be willing or able to do something extreme, if needed, to keep me from being arrested?” Or worse.

“Or even just trapped by some sense of duty or obligation.” Giovanni gives a gentle shrug. “It would not be a mild thing. It could cause scandal and worry for you. But in such a situation that warrants it, it’s a thing that I can offer in friendship, and that I trust you won’t share without good reason.”

“I… thank you, Leader.” Red feels touched, and grateful…

…and suspicious?

Red has a moment to wonder where the emotion is coming from, and whether it’s coming from his partition. But, well, he has noticed how spending enough time with someone who’s being blunt about their thoughts and perspectives tends to make him able to think like them. Considering the Leader’s offer further, he doesn’t even need to imagine what Looker would say to see his frown in his head.

Whatever allows Giovanni to make an offer like that, Red isn’t sure it’s entirely legal. And putting himself in the Leader’s power like that, even if in an extreme circumstance, would be putting a lot of trust in him not putting Red in a position just as bad as the one he was trying to escape.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” is all he says, and smiles. It’s a genuine smile, for what that’s worth; the offer itself is a sign of support, even if he doesn’t end up taking it.

“Please do. Now, let’s not keep them waiting any longer.”

The meeting room is like the inverse of the rented conference room in Lavender, a circle table instead of a square one, walls of dark wood instead of white, a colorful woven rug instead of gray carpeting. Sabrina is sitting beside Leader Surge and Erika, while Agent Notebook, as well as Director Tsunemori, are at their own side of the table.

Other notable attendees include a holographic Bill, who waves at Red as he walks in, Champion Lance and Elite Bruno, who are watching a tense-looking conversation between Tsunemori and Sabrina, and Ranger General Taira, who’s quietly discussing something with Agent Looker. For each name Red knows, there’s two or three more that he doesn’t, and for a moment he’s unsure which empty seat to head toward while Giovanni makes his way to one of the closest.

It’s the kind of gathering that Red is used to seeing Professor Oak at. But there are no Professors here, and Red feels so out of place that for a moment it’s dizzying. It makes the past few weeks feel more real, suddenly, and the months before that feel more distant.

After a moment he realizes he’s drawing stares, and moves blindly to sit at the nearest empty seat, which puts him next to someone that looks like a high ranking police officer on one side and Agent Notebook on the other. “Good morning,” he says to Red.

“Morning.” Notebook has been one of his teachers, now and then, tutoring him in some of the ways psychics are employed by Interpol, and he finds himself getting along well with the relatively young agent. Notebook is looking around the room, but not at the people. “First time here?”

“Yeah. Didn’t realize Giovanni had such a fancy place.”

“He barely stays here,” Red says. “At least, that’s what my friend Rei says. She works here, says it hosts a lot of meetings and conferences from groups in Viridian looking for a cheap venue. Did I miss anything, uh, important?”

“Nah, they’re just relitigating the ‘who told whom what and when’ thing. Felt kind of pointless without Giovanni in the room, but now that he’s here maybe things will—”

“The League is not meant to keep secrets like this from governance,” Tsunemori says.

“The ‘League’ did not,” Lance says, voice patient, but with a pointed look at Sabrina. “But the dates on the files seem to match.”

“The idea that these reports sat unread for months on end—”

“Seems like an inner departmental issue,” Sabrina says, looking almost bored by the discussion. “I shared what seemed relevant with my contacts, after due consideration for the nature of the disclosure and consultation with a peer.”

“And as one of the peers in question, I’m happy to speak to why I thought my contacts in your department would be sufficient,” Giovanni says. “But while it’s clear our system has some bugs that need fixing, for now the most relevant issue is how we’ll proceed with Operation Rocketfall. My resources have been consolidated, and are ready to be deployed.”

“As are mine,” Bill says. “The raw data is already coming in, it shouldn’t take more than a few days to get automated analysis, and then it’ll be up to you folk to do the final review.”

Director Tsunemori nods. “We’ll be running our own search, and with the Rangers and Interpol’s help that will allow us to split the region up into quadrants—”

“No,” Looker says. “Everyone reviews everything. It’ll take longer, but it’ll be more thorough. Once we’ve identified enough locations for a decapitating strike, we go in after calling for enough support to hit every single one.”

“That could take months,” Giovanni notes. “And we don’t know how close they are to completing their Master Ball.”

“That has a secondary effect, even if they don’t ever complete it,” Lance adds, leaning forward onto his forearms. “The threat of a renegade region with legendary pokemon at hand has resurrected the unown research issue. Many have pointed out, both within our region and outside of it, that renegades would have no such compunctions about developing pokemon generation. Kanto will have to begin our own if others on the island do.”

Giovanni rubs his face. “You know my position on this, I won’t recount it again.”

“And mine,” the Ranger General adds with a frown.

“I cannot change reality,” Lance says, hands folded in front of him. “I’d hoped that Master Balls would serve as sufficient deterrent, but this is where we’re at. If we can crush Rocket quickly, then—”

“No,” Surge says. “A battle like the one you’re envisioning, against massed and organized renegades fighting for survival, has never been seen before. Even in warfare, there are boundaries, limits, tested though they may often be. You are not prepared. Kanto is not prepared.”

“He’s right,” Looker says. “We do this methodically, and we do it right, or we’ll face the consequences for years.”

“And if they attack more of the region meanwhile?” someone Red doesn’t recognize asks. “How many are you willing to sacrifice for a flawless victory?”

“That is exactly what our defensive contingencies will be for,” Tsunemori says, and looks at Red. Heads turn with hers, until Red is the focus of the entire room. “With the proper training, Red Verres will become a Hunter like no other. A garrison stationed in every city and town, and multiple teleportation points for him to use in each, will ensure a swift response to anything they attempt.”

Red’s heart is pounding as he tries to sit tall and straight, to look more reliable than he feels. He wonders if they’re expecting him to say anything, until Lance stirs, golden eyes on his.

“I don’t mean to detract from your achievements, Verres. You did Kanto proud that day, as you have before.” It’s the first time he’s been addressed directly by the Champion, and Red has no idea how to feel about it. “But they’ll be ready for you next time. Will you be ready for them?”

Red instinctively wants to hedge, to qualify, to warn them not to put too much confidence in him. But before he can, a trickle of confidence seems to seep through his mind, relaxing his rigid muscles until he’s more confidently straight in his seat. Flashes of Leaf and Blue, of his mother and the Professor, of Jason and Maria and all the psychics whose fates may be tied to his go through his mind, and with the whole room watching and a warm desire to protect them in his stomach, only one answer seems right:

“I will.”

End of Part II

115: Limelight

“She finally set a date?”

“Next week.” Blue feels a knot of tension release in his chest as he puts his phone away, then watches Glen’s kadabra as it attacks one target at a time. The field they’re in is dark, but without clouds the moon and stars are enough to mostly make out the pokedolls. Still, the kadabra isn’t aiming by sight: it’s following Glen’s mental prompting, and each time it hits the right one, he tosses it a bit of poffin. “I know she’s been busy with all the Silph stuff, but I wasn’t sure how much longer I could sit around on my hands, here.”

“Really seemed like you were cursed to never get this badge. Maybe if you stop going for it weird shit will stop happening that overturns all of society and makes Sabrina build another backlog.”

“Hey, I was in Celadon when the Hoenn incident happened.” Blue summons Ion, who finally evolved into a luxray last night. Its new form is barely visible in the moonlit field, but Eevee bounds over to play with it, a streak of cheerful silver fuzz that gets gently batted aside each time she tries to headbutt the large black and blue feline. “I was starting to consider heading to Cinnabar while I waited, though.”

“You back to racing for badges?” Glen’s voice is only partially teasing. “Trying to get your last before you turn 13?”

“It crossed my mind.” His younger self definitely set 12 as the latest it would still be impressive to get his final badge, though his actual goal for the circuit had been within a year of setting out. Even having decided against speeding through all the gyms after Pewter, Blue still feels the want of somehow managing to pull it off anyway.

Before Silph got hit his plan was to stop by in Saffron just long enough to get the badge, maybe drop by the dojo and say hi, before taking a flight to Cinnabar. But it’s been nearly a week since he arrived in town, and July is nearly gone. If he beats Sabrina next week, he can be in Cinnabar by August, which would give him almost six weeks to get the last two badges before his birthday… plenty of time, if he doesn’t spend any more trying to reform gym cultures.

And he’s pretty sure he’s done with all that, now. It’s frustrating because, if he’s being honest with himself, reforming gym cultures and exploring alternative models has been some of the most enjoyable and meaningful parts of his journey. He wants to dig into the divide between Saffron’s gym and its “dojo,” wants to explore Cinnabar’s gym and see what Blaine’s infamous leadership style has made of it, see if he can make something better, is sure he’ll have many questions about how Giovanni runs his while being so busy doing other things…

But the world keeps changing nearly as fast as he can make new plans, and he has to keep changing with it.

“Sure, it crossed your mind.” Glen feeds his kadabra another bit of poffin, voice casual. “But that’s not the main reason, is it?”

“No,” Blue admits as he watches Eevee try leaping on Ion, who steps to the side to let her soar past him.

“And you’re not just trying to be the first to face her once she’s learned Miracle Eye?”

“That’s crossed my mind too.” He knows Satori was teaching Sabrina and the rest of her students how to use it even before the Silph attack, and had it on good authority that the Saffron Leader was prioritizing training her strongest pokemon with it first.

It would have normally taken a while before she reached her six badge teams, but Blue reached out before he arrived in town to see if he could trade the previous “favor” she owed him (he didn’t exactly need her confirmation that Koichi’s methods work anymore, though he was curious what she’d say about it) for the privilege of being the first trainer she challenged with Miracle Eye. It would make for good symmetry for his journey, and he didn’t want anyone to think he was getting an easier challenge just because he fought her before she prepared her full roster with it.

Plus, a part of him has been itching to face a psychic that had it in a real battle. He smiles as Eevee nudges his leg with a headbutt, and reaches down to ruffle her fur. “I’ve got plans for it, either way.”

He didn’t expect Sabrina to say no, since most trainers don’t ask for a harder badge challenge, but she didn’t respond at all. Then Silph was attacked, and he’s assumed she’s been busy dealing with the aftermath of that. He did try scheduling an appointment, which was declined with a message thanking him for his help in keeping her city safe while reassuring him she’d prioritize his challenge match once she resumed them.

It felt like a brush off, especially given their last meeting, but he can’t fault her priorities. So he’s spent what time he could preparing, sleeping during the day so he could train through the nights, away from any prying eyes in the city.

“Alright, so a lot of things have crossed your mind. What’s the actual reason?”

Blue takes out his laser pointer and starts flashing an erratic pattern on the ground. Ion takes off, barely visible except quick gleams of blue and yellow that do more to distract than help his eyes track it. Eevee runs around to follow the pointer too, but she can barely cover half the distance to each new spot before the luxray has already pounced and bounded off after the new one. “I want to be there for Red.”

For days on end, much of Indigo has been busy running around in panicked circles, engaged in competing hysterics over more dark people turning out to be renegades, or more psychics turning out to have the power to turn their pokemon renegade. After that first night to (Blue presumes) get their story straight, Red was paraded in front of a camera the day after the Silph attack, with Director Tsunemori, Agent Looker, President Silph, and Champion Lance standing by as he revealed his ability to project sakki at pokemon, and explain how he would be helping local police and interpol fight Team Rocket.

Having just found out about it himself the day before, Blue didn’t have much time to imagine how the public would react. But he brought the gang over to watch the broadcast with Gramps and Aunt Laura in a condo Red’s mom rented to stay the night in Saffron, and then they all sat together looking over the various discussions and reactions taking place on forums and news sites until Red was finally released. They all gave him a hug, then let him sleep for twelve hours while they stayed mostly glued to the regional (and then international) conversation until well past midnight.

Blue had never seen Red’s mother so stressed, not even when he was knocked out in Lavender. Granted, there were people calling for her son to be branded a renegade on the net, but they were usually shouted down, and Leaf said most of the discussion seemed anchored in a stable enough place by ways he and other psychics could help combat Team Rocket, and any similar organizations like the groups responsible for the Hoenn incident.

By the time Red woke up the next morning, it was still chaos, but plans were already being acted out by Indigo’s leaders, which helped focus people’s time and energy preparing for the next Rocket attack and left few people seeming seriously worried about some anti-dark or anti-psychic uprising. Red was clearly taking it hard, though, and had to report back to the police the same day to begin his “training” after reassuring Laura a hundred times that it’s what he wanted to do.

Blue was just glad he got to leave the police station at all. He wasn’t sure what he’d do in the case where Red was arrested besides burn all his political capital alongside Gramps’s trying to convince everyone that they need Red… and much as he believes it, he’s not sure that would have been enough. Not when the alternative is everyone looking over their shoulder whenever he’s around, ready to blame him if anyone gets killed by a pokemon.

And underneath all that is the worry that people will learn he had some part in the development of sakki, or look suspiciously on how he didn’t say anything about it. He can only imagine how Leaf feels, now that her project is under intense scrutiny; she’s not in charge of it anymore, hasn’t been for months, and it helps that the rangers have been so clearly okay with the program they’ve been developing. But if people decide Leaf should have said something earlier, blame her for not divulging where the program originated… They could drag Aiko’s name into the mud too, which they’re all hoping to avoid.

All things considered, the Pallet Three no longer have a sterling reputation. As far as Blue can tell, the fact that Red and Blue helped save everyone at Silph and prevented the Master Ball from getting fully stolen are the only thing that’s kept a sizeable portion of public opinion from turning entirely against them. In some sense they have more fans than ever, but they also have anti-fans now, and that feels… different.

The movie was the first sign of how. It hasn’t been canceled, but a message from the studio said they were holding off on further development “until current events have settled.” Blue complained that the opportunity to document their journeys would be even more profitable to them now, but knew even before Leaf reminded him that the tone of the film would likely be drastically altered if the controversy shifts public opinion.

Red tried apologizing to them both, and both told him to shut up. Well, Blue did, Leaf just hugged him and said he was being stupid in a watery voice that made Red look properly ashamed.

Later, when Blue was finally alone and lying down to sleep, he had the long, hard look at his own thoughts and feelings about what Red could do, and what it meant for the world if all psychics could learn to do it. He could admit, to himself at least, that if it wasn’t Red of all people, he’d be much more… wary. It’s not the best word, but it’s the closest he could grasp.

But Red gave as much of himself as anyone could at Silph, almost too much, to stop the renegades. And he’s his best friend. If even he won’t believe in him, who will?

“You think things will get bad for him after Rocket’s defeated?” Glen asks. It’s what Elaine voiced worry about on the night of the reveal, though thankfully once Laura was out of the room talking with Red. Not that he thinks she hasn’t thought of it herself. “Once people think they don’t need him anymore…”

“Yeah, that’s part of it. But I also don’t trust anyone in charge of Indigo enough to look out for his best interests.” Blue feeds his pokemon some poffins, giving Eevee a smaller piece before realizing her head is nearly level with his belt and giving her another. She should be evolving any night, now… “At least when I’m Champion I’ll have some leverage, if they try to push him too far or make a move after Rocket is taken down.”

“Right.” Glen is quiet a moment, and Blue has a painful moment to wonder if Glen regrets joining up with him—he knows that’s just his guilt talking, even seeing his friend mostly recovered hasn’t undone that—and then his friend abruptly says, “So, sixth badge challenge. Sabrina usually plays them straight, from what I’ve seen? Standard 4v4, covers Psychic’s weaknesses with her first three, then adds an alakazam as a general purpose sweeper?”

“Yeah, but she switches things up sometimes, especially against dark trainers.” Blue withdraws Ion, then sends out Maturin. His starter has been growing rapidly since evolving into a blastoise, and Blue takes out a container full of food for his pokemon to chow on even before they start their training. “Which means it’ll mostly come down to how well I can predict her picks, and whether she counterpicks right, and so on.”

If he expects her to bring a Psychic/Fighting, Psychic/Flying, and Psychic/Normal type, then Bug, Electric, and Steel types would counter them pretty handily. But if she brings a Psychic/Fire instead of Psychic/Flying, it would counter two of his would-be counters, so she’d probably do that, and he’ll do better with a Water type instead… which of course she could bring a Psychic/Grass or Psychic/Electric type to counter, if she predicts that far.

The safest thing to do would be to bank on multiple Dark types, but of course she knows that and even without Miracle Eye helping could use multiple Psychic/Bug and Psychic/Fighting pokemon to even the playing field. He’d have loved to bring Sunny and Aegis, but using the houndoom and forretress against Erika and Koga meant Sabrina would almost certainly be prepared for both. This also means she likely wouldn’t bring any Psychic/Bugs of her own, but that doesn’t work to his advantage as much given that Zephyr would have been a useful addition to his team regardless.

He considered buying a honchkrow or some other Dark/Flying type to better counter Psychic/Bug or Fighting pokemon, but he feels the scrutiny of the world more than ever on him. He’s been spending the money he’s made from recent rounds of abra and natu sales on top end training equipment and supplements, but buying a pokemon would be different. He already did it once, and Rive was pretty early on in his journey, and plenty of people saw him training with the rhyhorn for weeks before he used it in a gym challenge. Even if it’s not a dragonite or tyranitar, a second bought pokemon would set a pattern of buying his way to victory unless he gets a hatchling and raises it himself, and he doesn’t have time for that.

It’s times like this he particularly misses Kemuri, and bitterly wishes again that he could go back in time to those caves, move just a little faster, been just a little smarter…

But what’s really galled Blue is his lack of other options most trainers would have. He already proved he could train a Psychic pokemon despite being dark, and doing the same with a Ghost type would be not just similarly impressive but extra useful. But it was difficult, time consuming work with Tops, and a gastly or misdreavus would only be a little easier considering he also wouldn’t have as much help from Red.

Maturin has finished eating, and Blue strokes the pebbly skin of her snout before he takes out another container full of water for her to drink during target practice. It’s only been a couple weeks since they prepped for Koga together, but he misses Red. It’s nice to bounce ideas off of experienced trainers like Glen, but there was something about the way Red asked questions that made it clear he saw the matches the same way Blue does, even if he didn’t know what he was talking about half the time. Teaching him helped focus Blue’s own understanding of the fundamentals.

But Red’s busy training to take out renegades, and Blue, for all that he’d like to help, knows his limits. One renegade nearly took him down, and he was lucky to only lose one of his pokemon. He can’t keep that up and go for gym badges at the same time. There’s been a recruitment surge in various city police departments, and more volunteers for Hunter training. Part of Blue wanted it, but he can’t stop his journey, not even just for long enough to help take Rocket down. He’s so close to Victory Road, and the stormbringers are still out there.

But once he becomes Champion, if there’s still a fight left to be had, he can make sure Rocket is taken down first.

He hears a distant jingling over the steady sound of the wind, and turns to see a group of trainers approaching on bikes and pokemon, framed by the glow of the city behind them. The others have finally arrived, Duncan leading some dojo members while Elaine approaches with the rest of the gang.

“Maturin, stop. Break.” He gives her a poffin, then lets her drink her fill while Glen goes to hug Elaine and Lizzy and greet the new faces, while Blue shakes Duncan’s hand.

“Hey man, welcome back. I was waiting to see if you’d come to the dojo again, but I guess you’ve been busy.”

Blue snorts. “Just a little.” The mayor gave him, Red, and all the people who fought at Silph a medal yesterday, a ten minute ceremony that somehow took four hours. “Thanks for coming out here.”

“No worries, I get wanting to keep a low profile for a bit. Everyone I brought does too. You said you just plan to do some matches with anyone who has psychic types?”

“Yeah, we’re still missing—wait, there they are.”

Maria arrives a moment later, followed by Jason, Satori, and her sister Koishi. “Hail fellows, well met,” Maria says as she dismounts. “Is this the first gathering of our secret society, or did we miss one?”

“The first, but probably not the last.” Blue thinks of all the friends he’s made along his journey, and how many might be among those suspicious of Red, or even all psychics, now. Maybe everything will blow over eventually, but if not, they’re going to need to maintain their social ties, build them up as strong as they can get them. “Not while there’s still work to do.”


Blue steps out onto the floor of the Saffron Gym stadium to a roar of sound so loud it’s nearly a physical assault. He smiles through it and walks with his head held high as the applause, cheers, and stamping feet echo around the completely packed stadium, continuing long after he’s taken his place at his platform opposite Sabrina.

It’s a nice show of support, but he knows his popularity wasn’t the only thing that got everyone here today. It’s the first challenge match Sabrina has accepted in the two weeks since the Rocket attack, and the locals aren’t just happy to cheer for one of their heroes; they’re also just happy for the sign of society trying to return to normal.

Sabrina stands across from him, smiling gently as she waits for the crowd to settle down on its own. He appreciates it for the status effect, but also because it gives him another few moments to think over his options, fingers trailing idly over the cool spheres at his waist as his gaze is drawn to her own belt. They’re all ultraballs, giving no sign away as to what pokemon might be inside them.

After another week of training, discussion, and planning, he settled on his types: Water, Electric, Electric/Steel, Normal, Flying/Normal, and just one Dark. Nothing she can sweep with a single Psychic type combination, and enough redundancy that he can adapt as needed. Now he just has to see how many layers of counterpicks she decided to go with.

The applause finally begin to die down, and Sabrina’s voice elegantly covers the transition to full silence. “Saffron Gym welcomes Blue Oak, who trained with us months ago before leaving to claim the Fuchsia badge, and returned just in time to fight in defense of our city. You have demonstrated time and again the refusal to acknowledge limitations when pursuing your ambitions, and with the help of my students, not only trained your own psychic pokemon, but were the first battle trainer to use Miracle Eye. For this discovery, Saffron Gym and psychics everywhere owe you, Satori Komeiji, and Red Verres our thanks… and for the pivotal role it played in disrupting the conspiracy and assault on Silph Headquarters, the world does as well.”

She begins applauding herself, now, and the stadium renews its cheers. Blue lets it wash over him, not even having to pretend at modesty as he bows his head in appreciation for her words. He waits until she stops clapping, and the sound begins to die down, before he raises his head. “Thank you, Leader, for your guidance in these changing times.” No need to be petty, it’s an easy enough bit of reciprocal gratitude even if he didn’t receive any personally. “I haven’t spent much time with your gym compared to the others, but those you’ve taught here have shaped my journey no less than theirs. I look forward to seeing what new heights you and your gym can bring Psychic pokemon to, with the Miracle Eye added to your arsenal.”

“As do I. What is your challenge, Trainer?”

“I challenge for Mastery.”

“Saffron Gym accepts. You may use all the pokemon on your belt, against just one of mine. Cause it to faint, or force me to withdraw it, and the badge will be yours. Only one of your pokemon may be summoned at a time, but there are no time limits on swaps.”

The murmurs begin before she even finishes speaking, and Blue just stares at her as all his plans break and scatter around him.

Six against one.

Six against one, and she still expects to win? Or is this some elaborate forfeit? But why not coordinate with him ahead of t—

“Go, Alakazam!”

It appears in a flash, and Blue almost sends a pokemon out reflexively. No timer. Breathe. His battle calm hasn’t shown up yet, thoughts still circling the question of what’s happening and how he should respond.

Right. No timer, but it’s still not a good look to just stand here staring. He almost keys his mic to the private channel, but it would probably look bad if he had a private conversation right now. Instead his voice echoes from the speakers around the stadium as he casually says, “If the plan is to show off your mastery of Miracle Eye, then I’m afraid I may end up disappointing you.”

“Are you claiming you came to challenge me without a Dark type on your belt?”

“I’m saying I’d be disappointed in myself if I can’t beat you without one, now.” It’s hard to tell where she anchored everyone’s expectations on this; people tend to trust that a Leader is balancing their team properly, and even a 6 on 3 match would have those 3 be strong enough that it would still be hard for the challenger, without being impossible. To do a 6 on 1, however, is declaring this Alakazam to be either so individually strong that his entire team is needed to take it down, or to have some strategy so brilliant she has no need of a backup.

He’s never heard of a gym leader doing this. It would be too pointlessly humiliating if they intended to crush a challenge, and too obviously a dive if they want to award someone a badge. Either way, he needed to reset expectations a little so that if it does take his whole team… no, he shouldn’t be thinking of that now. He needs to understand what her actual combat strategy is.

The obvious one would be to set up Barriers to cover alakazam’s physical frailty, maybe a Reflect, then just stay mobile and heal up in the time it takes for him to swap pokemon. Left on its own, the alakazam could fully heal itself in about twelve seconds, and it’s almost certainly one with the ability to heal damage passively, so poisons, burns, even leech seeds wouldn’t help wear it down over time.

His fingers glide over each ball at his belt one at a time, and a stab of regret goes through him when he touches Bob’s ball. Blue brought him in case he needed a special counter-wall, but that thing definitely would know Psyshock, and snorlax aren’t nearly as tanky against piercing kinetics. Still, it might be an option if he just needs to wear her alakazam down… they can heal damage to wounds they take, but they still get tired eventually.

His fingers keep drifting, until they reach Ion and Pals. The main thing psychics have trouble healing is damage to their nervous system. If he can disrupt the alakazam’s movement enough with some paralysis, then hit it hard and fast, a few strikes could be enough to take it down before it has a chance to heal.

Assuming it doesn’t just Safeguard itself from effects like Thunder Wave, of course. Or just one-shot his pokemon altogether. He takes for granted that this thing will have full coverage with Psychic, Shadow Ball, and Focus Blast, probably also Energy Ball and Charge Beam, because why not?

But would she bring a pokemon that powerful to this match? She may not be able to read his mind, but she knows her own gym’s counters inside and out, and if she cuts off every possible strategy and just sweeps him… he’s not sure how he’s actually supposed to have a chance of winning.

Which puts him back to wondering whether she’s actually setting out to crush him. Would she have some reason to want to keep him in Saffron longer? Something that she couldn’t just talk to him about?

He discards that thought for later, trying to refocus on her battle strategy. It doesn’t help him now to wonder if this battle is winnable at all; he has to assume it is, and do his best to play to his outs. That’s how he’s faced every challenge so far, gym and otherwise, and it’s gotten him this far.

Blue takes a breath, feeling the calm descending as his plan takes shape, rehearsing the pokemon and attacks he’d need to send out in what order. Alakazam is powerful, and a very strong one would be hard to take down if he’s not careful… but it has weaknesses. It can’t protect against every status effect, so he can surprise her with those. It has frail physical defenses if it hasn’t set Barriers or a Reflect up, which means he has to hit it hard from the beginning so it has no time to do so. And of course, it has trouble with Dark pokemon… and that will still be true for at least a few seconds while it uses Miracle Eye.

And he may not know how that feels as a psychic, but as a trainer he knows what it takes to use it in combat.

The arena is silent enough that all he can hear are his breaths, and he takes an extra moment to savor the crystalline calm without something immediate he has to do or be vigilant against… and then unclips the first two balls from his belt.

“Go, Pals!”

The alakazam starts moving as soon as his magneton is summoned and the order for Thunder Wave sticks in Blue’s throat as the crystalline shimmer of a Safeguard appears around the alakazam. So much for paralysis. “Pals, return! Go, Maturin!”

Maturin’s debut as a blastoise sends a ripple through the crowd even as Blue yells “Ca!” through the sound of some of his fans cheering his starter’s final evolution. Blue mentioned in interviews that he nearly lost her when facing the renegade in the basement, but not that she evolved from the fight. Another benefit of avoiding training with her in public is that the dramatic reveals are just as much a surprise for his opponent as they are an audience pleaser, and now he finally gets to show off what she can do.

(Most people expect blastoise to be utilized as a way to dispense Hydro Pumps and Flash Cannons and Ice Beams and so on. And Blue certainly made sure Maturin had all the TMs he could buy for her to cover a wide range of special attacks. But at the end of the day, raising a blastoise to be a special attacker is both predictable, and missing the forest for the trees.)

She’s still small enough to be nimble, but few blastoise can match an alakazam in speed, let alone one reacting at the speed of thought. By the time she’s crossed half the arena, a ball of green energy has already formed between her opponent’s hands—

(Blastoise aren’t extraordinary special attackers, in truth. They’re too slow, and their cannons are far from weak, but not high enough pressure to do as much damage as, say, an inteleon, which is faster and more accurate. Hell, even a samurott hits harder than blastoise, and it’s in the same speed tier.)

—which splashes against the charging blastoise, causing her to stagger—

(What blastoise have that they don’t is the shell and stamina to take almost anything you throw at them, and keep slugging. And one thing Maturin made clear to him early on is that she’s got jaws…)

—then dart forward to clamp her teeth around its arm with a crack.

(…and likes to use them.)

Sabrina physically twitches and clutches her arm, but Blue doesn’t hesitate: Maturin’s body is angled such that one cannon is aimed directly at the alakazam’s face, and now he shouts the “Puh!” that sends a point-blank gallon of water out to snap its head back.

Only after does he realize he might have killed it, which aside from everything else would be pretty traumatic to Sabrina if they’re still merged. She doesn’t react further, however, and instead of collapsing, her alakazam’s eyes glow… and whatever attack it uses causes Maturin to slump to the ground.

Strong. As expected, far stronger than a 6th badge pokemon would normally be, to make up for being alone… but surely not unbeatable?

The alakazam’s arm dislocates as Maturin falls with her teeth still clamped tight, but a moment later her mouth opens enough that it manages to pull free, and is already healing itself by the time Blue has returned Maturin and sent out Ion, who crackles with electricity before bolting forward at another “Ca!”

Once again an invisible attack hits his pokemon, this time knocking him to one side as the alakazam steps to the other to dodge his bite. Ion leaps at his foe, and again Sabrina’s pokemon nudges him to the side and moves out of the way, so fast and fluid it looks choreographed.

But it’s not. Sabrina’s using her usual tricks of mindreading and kinesis to throw off his pokemon’s attacks at just the right moments. Ion finally gets a hit in, but her alakazam heals the damage just as quickly between the next two misses, and if he doesn’t land a few consecutive bites soon it’ll be fully recovered.

What’s worse, Blue can’t even tell how many of these attacks are damaging Ion and how many are merely tripping it up and making it clumsy. It’s definitely weakening, however, and Blue’s hand twitches to swap Pals back in, but hesitates. He swapped the magneton out in the first place because alakazam has such strong defenses against non-physical attacks, and while Pals can take more hits than Ion, it’s not going to bring this alakazam down. It might even give the alakazam time to put up Barriers or a Reflect…

But if he times it just… right…

“Ion, return!” Blue yells. “Go, Pals!” The crystalline shimmer around the alakazam fades just as the magneton appears. “Af!”

Sabrina is already reapplying the Safeguard, and if he’d gone for another Thunder Wave he’d have fallen even further behind.

But there are some things Safeguard doesn’t guard against.

Blue buries his eyes in his elbow just as his pokemon sends a burst of light out, then withdraws it and throws a new ball as Sabrina clutches the railing of her platform, eyes squeezed shut. It would debilitate her and her pokemon less than most Leaders, given their ability to sense minds…

“Go, Xenon!”

Most minds, that is.

His umbreon appears on the field to a collective “ooo” from the audience, neon blue rings shining against its dark fur. He’s never trained with Aiko’s eevee in public, but he did blog about training the eevee she gifted him now and then, without mentioning that it was shiny.

Sabrina can’t see what’s happening, nor can she or her pokemon sense his, but she does the obvious play and finally sets up her first Barrier as Blue shouts “Paf!” and Xenon rushes forward to trip the alakazam, biting its leg and tugging until it topples over.

Without being able to strike back, all the alakazam can do is set up more barriers and heal as Xenon tears into it as best she can through the layers of kinetic armor. As soon as the alakazam’s eyes open and seem to focus, Blue shouts “Rac!” and Xenon’s rings flare as it darts in a circle around its foe.

Confused and still partially blind, the alakazam topples to the ground again as it tries, Blue assumes, to use Miracle Eye on Xenon, who jumps in for another bite as Blue watches the shimmer start to fade again. He can see it coming, the pivot… either he goes for the faint, or tries to paralyze it again…

He almost misses it. The alakazam seemed entirely befuddled as it was harassed, bowled over, and bitten repeatedly, healing and guarding and healing… until it suddenly cups its hands together and sends Xenon tumbling past it in a limp heap.

Blue feels a stab of irritation, then discards it, already swapping. Without Miracle Eye, an alakazam’s best shot against Dark pokemon is Focus Blast, which tend to be inaccurate. Blue used the Flash and Confuse Ray in part to lower its odds of landing a hit even further, but… trust Sabrina to be so in-sync with her pokemon that they could connect one even in a situation like this. Xenon might be okay for one more hit, but it would be risking her life, so he’s down to just Pals, who can’t outdamage the alakazam’s healing, Bob, who could get maybe one hit in, and “Go, Zephyr! Bab!”

His pidgeot screeches as it loops up, around, and dives straight at the alakazam, wind blowing hats off the audience members as it zips from one side of the stadium to the other. Her pokemon is visibly weak, that wasn’t all a feint, and if this lands it’s over. Which means Blue knows Sabrina will go for another Kinesis to get Zephyr to miss, and he’s ready for it, returning the deflected bird with a snap of his wrist as his pokemon soars past him and throwing out Bob’s ball at the same time. “Sab!”

His snorlax leaps forward for a body slam, no finesse, just hundreds of pounds of fat and muscle moving on momentum through the attack that Blue can’t see through his pokemon’s wide body. The alakazam might normally be nimble enough to just stay ahead of its lumbering attacker, but it’s hurt and confused, and it goes down beneath Bob like a marionette with its strings cut.

Blue doesn’t celebrate yet: he swaps Pals in without waiting to see if his pokemon is okay, and shouts “Wat!” as the safeguard fades again.

A wave of electricity washes over the alakazam as it finishes healing half the damage it was dealt, but Blue switches Zephyr back in and calls out another “Bab!” just as Sabrina abruptly withdraws her pokemon.

“Enough. Well played, Trainer. Saffron Gym’s badge is yours.”

Zephyr screeches again, this time in victory as its foe disappears, and Blue grips the railing as the cheers erupt for a third time around him, heart pounding even through his fading battle calm.

Her alakazam had one, maybe two Barriers up. It’s possible Zephyr could have taken it out with a Brave Bird… but it’s also possible it could heal through that damage, and the recoil alone wouldn’t let Blue do more than a couple. Even paralyzed, he would call it a coin flip.

But she awarded him the match, and he feels more grateful than cheated. He takes a moment to gather himself, then says, “It was a thrilling battle, Leader. I seem to have ended up needing my Dark pokemon after all.”

“It was a beautiful specimen… what little I saw of it, at least.”

A ripple of laughter intermingles with the ongoing applause, and Blue smiles. “I look forward to whatever new strategy you devise to counter that one.”

“And I the one that follows that.” The applause are starting to fade, and as Sabrina approaches with his new badge, she switches to the private channel to say, “And I’ll meet you in my office, if you have a spare moment.”

Did you let me win? Blue thinks. “Gladly, Leader,” he says as he takes the badge, and pins it to his jacket. Whether she did or not… Two more to go.

114: Interlude XXIII – Law

Masaki enters the Saffron Police Department’s monitoring station, then steps in front of the main screen to observe the boy a few rooms over. He looks younger than 12, today, small in some hunched-in way that goes beyond his posture. Masaki can make out some resemblance to his mother, mostly the hair and shape of the chin, and wonders if Laura knew all along what her son was. “How’s he doing?”

“Same as before. Determined, but also miserable and scared, but trying to hide it. Doing a better job with the second.”

“Any use of his powers?”

“Not that I can tell, but I wouldn’t trust my assessment.”

“Don’t worry, I don’t.”

Touta rolls his eyes, but Masaki just sips from his coffee, gaze still on the boy. Red Verres’s file, insofar as he has one, was not enlightening. Barely anything of note until he started his journey, then it was one major thing after another, with occasional months-long quiet. Supposedly unlocked his powers just a year ago, and now there’s no one they can trust to evaluate him. Maybe Sabrina, if they could trust Sabrina to not be part of all this somehow, which Masaki also doesn’t.

He might get overruled on that, if the local League doesn’t see that Sabrina is the obvious person to have taught him how to do all these unique things. But that is, ostensibly, what she gathers students for in the first place, and so she has a convenient cover if any of them suddenly “develop” unusual powers.

“You’re being paranoid again.”

Masaki glances at Touta. “Lucky guess.” He wouldn’t have agreed to a psychic partner if he himself wasn’t dark, but Miracle Eye has changed things. Hard not to hold that against Verres, but he has to admit that possibility of teleporting someday does help… particularly given the ways the world is changing.

A “new age,” the Rocket leader said. As if he had the right to single-handedly declare that, and as if others hadn’t been saying the same for months now. But it was true, nonetheless, and in ways Masaki had been preparing for longer than anyone.

“With you it doesn’t take much luck, it’s practically the default. But no.” Touta taps the corner of his eye with his pen before bringing it back down to his notebook, his own gaze staying on Verres. “Slight squint. And you press your lips together, a little.”

Masaki considers, then grudgingly nods. “Thanks.”

“Anytime, Boss.”

“How much sleep did he get?”

“Was escorted to one of the Silph nap rooms about an hour after the broadcast, woke up thirty minutes ago, so… seven hours and change, assuming he slept the whole time in there.”

“Mm. Oversight, or deliberate?”

“Maybe confusion. If they’re still hoping to use him as an asset, they’ll treat him carefully so he doesn’t turn against them.”

His tone is pointed, and Masaki smiles. “And you think we should do the same?”

“You saying you don’t want him, if he’s legit?”

Masaki doesn’t answer. Just tends to the burning in his chest as the fire in him waxes brighter and hotter. Yes, he’d want Verres. Might even need him.

But he doesn’t trust him, and accepting his help without that could be more dangerous than going alone.

For over two decades of service, Masaki has been warning people about a possibility like Team Rocket. His superiors listened, gave him resources, connected him with potential allies. They did good work nibbling at the edges of such possible conspiracies, but the broader focus of Interpol was still on the day to day, the mundane, and his division was just two percent of their total resources.

In Masaki’s line of work, as often as not, being proven right feels worse than being wrong. He was, in fact, feeling sick to his stomach in the hours after the Rocket broadcast… until the call from his superiors, who informed him that the project’s budget and manpower were being increased tenfold, and that he was being given full authority in the Indigo regions to pursue and take down Rocket by any means necessary.

A mandate Indigo’s political powers may not particularly appreciate… which puts him in a position he dislikes being on the other side of.

His local informant hinted that Verres might be able to tell true lies to other psychics, and yet he has to act as though he doesn’t know that in case the regional police are in on whatever conspiracy produced Verres. In principle he doesn’t object to regions having their own secret methods of fighting crime, and would normally admire the security mindset that would keep them from sharing it with Interpol. But at a time like this, they should be laying their cards on the table… and no one’s mentioned anything to him yet.

Which means he has to assume he’s in hostile territory, and play things even closer to the chest than usual. Maybe whatever conspiracy birthed Verres was hiding him from the police because it knows they’re in league with the Rockets.

“When is everyone gathering?” he asks.

“Midnight. A couple of their dark leaders have to finish local meetings before they fly ov—”

The door opens, and Masaki turns to see the head of all Indigo police, Director General Akane Tsunemori. She’s a slight woman, rising only to Masaki’s chest, with short brown hair and a plain, calm face. “Good evening Agent Looker, and… Notebook, was it?”

“Yes, Ma’am. Pleasure to meet you.”

“Any update on identification?” Masaki asks before they can get derailed with small talk. The sooner they can question Verres the less time the potential conspiracy has to clean up their tracks.

Tsunemori raises a brow at him, but says, “Nothing we can match to a record yet, but we’ve got a name, ‘Archer,’ and a sketch.”

Touta looks between them. “The Rocket leader?”

“Supposedly,” Masaki mutters. “I’ll believe it when we interrogate someone who wasn’t at risk of being caught.”

The Director General ignores him, addressing Touta directly. “The young Oak helped Miracle Eye the renegades we caught. Most weren’t high ranked enough to know anything important, but our psychics confirmed that two of them had contact with a man they believed, at least, to be their leader. Supposedly everyone around them also acted like this ‘Archer’ was the boss of all their fellow renegades, and the two facial sketches match each other. We’ll be putting a generated image up with a bounty soon, regardless.” She steps closer so she can view the monitor. “How’s Verres doing?”

“He’s fine,” Masaki says. “I’d like to request—”

“Denied.” Her voice is calm, gaze taking the boy in without any obvious emotion. “You don’t trust me, I don’t trust you, and we still need to work together, so let’s just get to it, shall we?”

Fair enough. Masaki enters the interrogation room first, and watches as Red Verres’s gaze jumps to his, searching for something, then moves to the Director General and widens. The boy rises to his feet, and for an absurd moment Masaki thinks they’re about to get rushed… but no, Verres clearly recognizes her, and is reacting with respect.

It makes sense; while a Director General isn’t on the same level as a region’s Champion or Chairman, it’s not far below them in political power, above Leaders and on par with the Ranger General, if in a different hierarchy.

Still, the boy’s apparent surprise is itself surprising. It would be absurd to think he didn’t predict this level of response, so what is he trying to signal by pretending…

Not everything that’s surprising is suspicious, as Touta often says. It makes him a valuable partner, that he understands Masaki enough to work with him, while still balancing his perspective. If Red Verres is an operative for some secret organization, this is an act, but he should remain open to the possibility that he’s just a young psychic who stumbled onto some unique powers.

And in either case, from all accounts what he did earlier today was quite draining for him, which may explain why Verres is staring at Director Tsunemori’s hand, which is extended for him to shake. This surprise is more likely to be genuine, in any case, and the Director smiles. It makes her already young-looking face even softer. “I wanted to thank you in person. You and Oak saved a lot of lives today, not to mention keeping the renegades from getting all of Silph’s research.”

The boy tentatively reaches out a hand to take hers, which she squeezes and pumps once while Masaki takes his seat. “Sorry to keep you waiting, in any case,” Tsunemori continues as she takes her own seat. “Can we get you anything? Have you eaten?”

Verres slowly shakes his head, then seems to realize this is ambiguous and says, “I’m okay.” His gaze jumps to Masaki, clearly curious but unsure if he should ask.

“Agent Looker,” he says, letting his impatience color his tone more than it normally might. “Interpol. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Who trained you to do what you did today?”

It’s obvious, of course, that the international police would be the Bad Cop to the local leader’s Good, but it also naturally fits his personality better. He can do empathizing and understanding, any cop worth their badge can, but there’s something more… clean, about being able to freely let his suspicions out.

Verres blinks at him, then visibly steels himself. “No one. I figured it out myself, at the Casino.”

“It’s okay, Red.” Tsunemori’s voice is gentle. “You can tell him. You’re not in any trouble, and we’re all on the same side here.”

Verres’s eyes widen as he stares at her. “I… tell him what? I did, I…”

“You’re not in any trouble yet,” Masaki says, frowning at Tsunemori as if annoyed by her false promise. “The main reason you’re not under arrest, in case you’re wondering, is that no one’s quite clear what you did, so it’s a little hard to determine what laws, if any, you broke. Burrell and the others say you saved a lot of lives, but you clearly violated the spirit of Article 2 to do it. It wasn’t written with psychic powers in mind, but turning mon against their trainers certainly qualifies under ‘in any way intends to bring a human to lasting harm through use of living pokemon,’ by my reckoning.”

If Verres was pale before, he’s absolutely bloodless now. “I—”

“But,” Director Tsunemori says, jerking Red’s gaze to her own. “You did it against renegades. The reason we don’t deputize just anyone to use their pokemon to kill humans in a crisis is that it’s not something that can be restricted to just those moments. So maybe it’s fine. Or even better, maybe it only works on pokemon already trained to kill humans?”

Verres swallows, breaths audible in the quiet room as he wrenches his gaze from theirs and stares at the table. When he finally speaks, it’s in a whisper. “No.”

“No what?” Masaki asks, letting some of his buried tension out. “Speak clearly.”

“No, it… would work on any pokemon. Even if not trained by a renegade.”

The confirmation sends a chill down his spine, and Masaki doesn’t try to hide his emotions: awe, fear, anger, it’s all appropriate for this sort of revelation. But he keeps his suspicion to himself. He wasn’t sure Verres’s powers would turn out to be this maximally dangerous, but either way he didn’t expect the boy to just come out and say it if it was. “That’s it, then. The Director says you haven’t done enough to warrant a renegade investigation, so we can’t use a psychic to read your thoughts, but Interpol has different standards, and we will extradite you if you don’t cooperate.”

The boy’s breaths are coming faster now, and he swallows hard. “I… I don’t… th-that wouldn’t…”

Skillful interrogation is a fine art, despite the fact that it often looks indistinguishable from bullying. You have to know when to push, and when to ease off to get more information, or let the target hang themselves. Contrary to popular belief, even, depressingly, among fellow officers, getting angry or crying isn’t particularly correlated with guilt. Lack of sleep, traumatic experiences, shock, righteous indignation… there are plenty of reasons for any particular emotional response someone might have in a high stress situation.

The most interesting question is whether what he’s seeing is genuine or not, and he has to admit it’s hard to imagine it being a ruse at this point. Verres hasn’t even asked about whether he can have a lawyer, and Touta’s best guess from ‘surface readings’ was that Red is determined in some direction, beneath all his anxiety…

“…that wouldn’t help, because I can… hide my thoughts. From other psychics. And hide that I’m hiding them.”

Masaki can only stare as his plans unravel, hypotheses all fading. He should be reacting, should be more obviously skeptical of a lie so bold… maybe call him out for being desperate as to think they wouldn’t check anyway? But he knows it’s not a lie, or at least strongly suspected…

He can’t help but glance at Director Tsunemori, who… is leaning back in her chair, brow raised.

Surprise, not skepticism… and not sufficient surprise.

“You can’t be serious,” he says, finally managing to catch the thread of how his alternate ignorant self would react, upon seeing The Director General’s own reaction.

“Sabrina told us.”

“Of fucking course she did.” He lets his real frustration fuel the dynamic they’re playing at, but Tsunemori is still looking at Verres, and it takes him a moment to realize she was talking to the boy.

“You could think of it as a betrayal,” she continues, tone consolatory. “But in fact she seemed confident you’d admit it yourself.”

Like one of those visual illusions, where it’s both the selfish move on her part, and the one that shows great loyalty to Verres at once. There’s something fascinating in it, but he can consider it later. “And you weren’t going to tell me because you thought, what, that I’d have kept it from you, if I knew?”

“Not in this case, but it occurred to me that Interpol might already know this sort of thing is possible, and have kept it to itself for reasons I’m sure would seem very reasonable to you.”

He doesn’t act offended or angry, because the counterfactual him wouldn’t be even if she was wrong. But they are still in front of a suspect, and he has no intention of giving away his own source. “We’ll talk about this more later. Meanwhile, we still have to test it, to be sure.”

“Of course. Though I have to ask, Mr. Verres: why admit it?”

Because he expected Sabrina to talk, Masaki thinks… then realizes that if that’s true, it doesn’t hold up the theory that she taught him how to do it, nor does it serve whatever secret project he was suspecting them to be part of.

The boy takes a deep breath, then slowly lets it out. “Because there’s too much at stake. I always knew it would get out, eventually… and my mom would say not to, uh, to talk to you without a lawyer, but the announcement, earlier today… there’s no time for any of that. I’m scared… no, I’m terrified of what will happen to psychics when all this gets out. But we’re… just a small portion of the population. And if Team Rocket is lying about their ambitions, if they actually try to take over the region instead of making their own… I have to help stop that, however I can. Which… I think, means I have to help both of you.”

Despite himself, despite the cynical voice inside that says Verres only told them because he’d already told Sabrina and couldn’t trust she’d keep his secret, Masaki feels himself believing the boy. And that’s a dangerous thing to be feeling right now. “Alright, nevermind, we’re talking about it now. If you really want to cooperate, my partner will come in and ask you some questions during a meld.”

Red swallows, but meets his gaze. “I’m, uh… getting a sense, from my… hidden thoughts… that I have a few secrets that aren’t mine to share. I want to flag them, for, um, meta-honesty norms, and let you know about them ahead of time, so that, even though your partner won’t always sense that they’re there… you won’t have to worry about whether I’m hiding things, because I am, just… nothing related to my powers.”

Once again, Masaki feels disquieted by the mixed signals he’s getting off of Verres. If he hadn’t heard about how the boy seemed to veer between total calm and losing his shit throughout the attack on Silph, he’d be wondering what Verres is playing at. As it is, he decides it’s probably just stress, and grudgingly allows for some admiration.

“Bullshit,” is all he says. The last thing he wants right now is for Verres to realize he has some leverage. “You don’t get to say you’re cooperating then pull that. We have more information than you do, and we know how to keep unrelated information we gain in pursuit of an investigation to ourselves. You’ll tell us everything, and we’ll decide if it’s relevant.”

He leaves before Verres can respond, and goes directly back to the monitoring room to watch as Director Tsunemori puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“He can be an asshole, but only because he cares a lot about stopping Rocket. It’s fine with me if you have some private memories, and I appreciate you sharing what you did about your powers. I’ll buy you some time to recover before his partner comes.”

Masaki can’t tell if she’s still playing Good Cop, is feeling genuine trust, or is just treating Verres like the prized asset he is. Either way, the boy seems close to tears again as he gives her a grateful look, then rests his forehead on the table and lets out a long breath once she leaves.

“Give him ten minutes,” Masaki says, only a little begrudgingly, as he puts on his coat. “And bring him some snacks and a soda. Get on his good side if you can, in case I burned a bridge.”

“You got it. What if he asks about his mother?”

“Tell him I’m speaking with her.” Which he is, if responding with one message for every dozen increasingly angry ones counts as “speaking,” which in Masaki’s opinion it does. Much as he’s come to respect her, she’s clearly a mom first in this circumstance, as she should be, and it would be an injustice to allow the extra power that her profession gives her to sway him from treating her son like any other suspect. Not to mention dangerous, if he has good reason not to trust either of them.

Tsunemori knocks, and Masaki leaves to join her in the hall, then follows toward the elevators. Once they’re on the roof (and reasonably sure they’re out of the boy’s range), he walks a circle around it to make double sure there’s no one else here, then rejoins her at the entrance, which she leans against with her arms folded, eyes watching him beneath shadows cast from the lights above the doorway.

Masaki sticks his hands in the pockets of his coat and meets her gaze, wondering if she’s expecting him to break the silence first. She probably expects him to lay down some heavy-handed ultimatum, or declare that he’s recruiting Verres, which he would if he had any sense that they could trust him—

“Does it bother you at all, that it took a scared young boy’s honest desire to help others to get the two of us to cooperate?” Her voice is soft. “Do you ever wish things could be different?”

Aha. So she wasn’t just playing Good Cop down there. Unless of course all this is a ruse. “What are you—”

“I won’t ask you to reveal your source, but you didn’t react well enough to hide your lack of surprise.”

He could play the game further, point out that she doesn’t know him well enough to judge that, even add that she’d say the same thing in a world where he did react differently just to judge his reaction to that or see if she could fool him into revealing it…

…but she’s right. It does bother him. He does find it sad, deep down, that he can’t trust the police of any given region he goes to work in. He does wish things could be different.

And yet now might be the worst time to trust a local cop not to be corrupt, even the head of the local cops (maybe especially the head of the local cops), given that her region was revealed to have the first confirmed secret organization of renegades in it. His paranoia is screaming at him not to trust her, to keep treating her as a potential renegade collaborator, or at best a source of leaks.

He could also admit that they’re in a strange ‘new world,’ admit that his way of doing things didn’t in fact lead to the revelation of the renegades, accept that she’s going to expect him to have an inside source regardless of what he says, and… actually openly collaborate with her fully, the way Red Verres is appearing to.

Or he could try going one level higher.

Masaki looks away first, and takes a few moments to draw the new identity, the new reality, around himself. “Of course it bothers me. But I can’t…”

“I know. You’d be more than justified in wondering if Rocket sprang up and maintained its presence here because I’m incompetent or complicit. I’m sure many others are as well, which is why I turned in my resignation papers.”

He turns back to her in genuine surprise, knocked out of his frame once again. “Your chairman refused?”

“She did, though she added that if I want to resign again in a month, she’ll accept it if there’s been no progress. Said it’s my mess, not something I can hand off to someone else.”

Masaki snorts. He doesn’t know how predictable that sort of thing was, but he agrees with the chairman’s attitude. Besides, while it’s dangerous to have a corrupt or incompetent person heading the investigation into Rocket, someone paying attention could get information about which category Tsunemori is in over the next month. If it was his call, Masaki would have a separate subdivision that tries to do the opposite of whatever directives she gives, just in case… but that might lead to more chaos if the different investigations get in each other’s way…

Something to think on, later. “So, what does trust look like, here?”

“It looks like me giving you some extra power, extra decision-making ability, over the Indigo police. And in return, you give fair and due consideration to the advice of me and my subordinates, who know this region best, and don’t take actions that will cause irrevocable harm or ill will toward us from the citizenry without damn good reason to believe it will stop Rocket.”

It’s a better offer than he expected. Almost too much so. “I want Verres, too.”

“Absolutely not.”

His smile is wry. “Power is clearly overrated.”

“Think, Agent Looker. If he hadn’t admitted that he can’t be mindread, we’d both still be assuming the other had secretly trained him. But if he’s not actually some secret operative, if he really is just a young prodigy who’s doing his best to help, we’re not going to pressure him into doing anything he doesn’t want to while we’re fighting each other, and I don’t trust Interpol not to do that to him enough not to try myself. He’s an Indigo citizen, and unless he decides to join you on his own, you can’t have him.”

Masaki turns to take in the city again, watching lights move along the streets between mostly dark buildings. There aren’t as many as there should be, even this close to midnight. Saffron is still spooked by what happened today, likely the whole region is, and he can practically smell that fear on the wind, feel it himself in the tension around his shoulders, the tightness in his stomach. The Rocket renegades are out there, planning their next move, maybe even swelling their ranks, while the rest of them argue over how to stop them. “My special project is about to have more funding and personnel than any other in the entire history of the international police. The nightmare scenario is real—

“Yes, and you’ve been telling people for years about it, but it’s real in my regions. If it’s just in Kanto, then Johto might break off if it decides we’re botching the investigation, or if we wreck too many civil liberties along the way. Plus, the world is watching. We’re setting an example here, with every move we make.”

“The fact that they’re operating here doesn’t mean they’re native or rooted here. If they all decide to leave tomorrow, how would you even know? That boy needs to be trained and integrated as soon as possible if we’re going to have any chance at stopping them.”

“Training he can receive here, by both of us. He’s offering to cooperate.”

Masaki frowns as some stubborn shard of skepticism rises back up in him. There’s a way in which they’re being played, he can feel it, he just can’t think of what it might be. It gains their trust if Red knew they’d find out in other ways, but is a horrible gamble to take otherwise, since if they hadn’t, he’d have been able to clear his name entirely. And the alternative…

Regardless of how he and Tsunemori react, society as a whole is going to be freaked out enough by what Verres can do, even without knowing that they can’t check whether he’s used his powers to kill someone that isn’t a renegade. He must know that, given how dangerous his powers make him, he could face lifelong imprisonment or exile at best. If they are getting played, what possible plan would being trusted less be the first step of…? Outrage over mistreatment to a hero? He is connected, Oak and his mother would raise hell… plus…

“There was a part of the broadcast I keep thinking of,” he muses. “Overall the thing was pretty standard manifesto, but… ‘So long as psychics are trusted in society, it is no longer safe for us.’ What did you make of that?”

Tsunemori is frowning now too, gaze distant. “I thought it stuck out too, at the time. A personal vendetta, maybe, mixed into the overarching philosophy. It’s not untrue, just…”

“Odd to call attention to.” Masaki runs a hand through his hair as the warm summer breeze brings the scents of the countryside beyond the city to him. “It makes people trust psychics more, makes the public believe they should have more power, if it’s what renegades are afraid of. I don’t like it, and I like it even less that Verres confessed what he could do to Sabrina and she just sat on the information. Did she even have a justification for that?”

“She said it was told to her in confidence, and that she only reported it to those she was required to. In other words—”

“League business.” Masaki makes a disgusted sound. “That can’t possibly hold for a thing like this, and just sounds like psychics covering for each other, as usual.”

She gives him a look. “Isn’t your partner—”

“I’m not a bigot, it’s the timing that bothers me.” And if he’s not exactly excited by the prospect of psychics having even more power in society, he hardly thinks that’s bigotry. “I don’t trust how self-defeating it was, saying that, and whoever Archer is, if he’s really leading Rocket, he shouldn’t have been able to do that all these years making mistakes like that.”

“Or he’s a true believer. If he can really finish the Master Ball… then it’s not just a fantasy. They really could carve out their own region, or take over one, and enforce a policy against psychics reading criminal minds.”

“Right.” It’s not hard to hide his skepticism. The character he’s playing, of someone who’s suspicious of Tsunemori but ultimately trusts her, wouldn’t necessarily reveal it, if he’s worried about being dismissed as paranoid.

If everything that happened today was a ruse, and Verres is secretly working with the Renegades to… give psychics more power in the world… no, it doesn’t quite fit. All those dark renegades were willing to sacrifice themselves for something they thought was real, which would be easy to set up even in a world where their minds wouldn’t be expected to be read, but Miracle Eye alone was good enough for that. The ability to make pokemon attack their trainers is too toxic to gamble with.

He’s still missing something. But he can figure it out later, when he has more time to observe Verres, and do some poking around of his own.

The Director General considers him for another moment, then goes back to staring at the lights of the city around them. Finally she says, “We have to decide, before we go back down, how much we’re trusting him.”

“No more than we have to, obviously.”

“And does that mean not sharing what we’ve learned in the investigation? If he’s working with us, there’ll be no keeping it from him. And if we don’t want the public panicking in one direction or the other, he needs to be working with us, or at least appearing to.”

Masaki wastes a few seconds wishing they had the option to keep Verres’s capabilities secret. But even if the officers who were there kept it to themselves, too many hostages witnessed renegades being attacked by their own pokemon, rumors would spread, and even if the public bought some other story, Rocket could figure it out.

Red Verres is going to have multiple targets on his back, after tonight. Masaki wastes another few seconds feeling sorry for the kid, in worlds where he’s innocent, then says, “Alright, let’s give him what we’ve got so far and see what, exactly, he’s willing to offer.”

They go back down to find Touta and one of the local police psychics in the room with Verres, who’s sitting with his eyes closed. An empty sandwich wrapper sits in front of him, along with a can of soda, and Masaki remembers to check his phone to see if Mrs. Verres has said anything useful lately… nope, mostly just more demands for proof her son is okay, along with veiled threats. He snaps a picture to at least show they’re feeding him, and sends it, along with a comment about how he’s now speaking with the Director General about recruitment possibilities.

“Alright, that’s good enough,” Touta says to Verres. “Now, please think about the first time you used your powers like this again, this time while focusing on the possibilities that ran through your mind…”

His partner’s voice is friendly and soothing as he walks the boy through memories that they can verify, repeating half a dozen prompts with different emphasis each time to ensure all the relevant aspects of the experiences rise enough in his thoughts to be legible. Though there are similarities to non-psychic interrogation, Touta once described it to him as being only somewhat easier with a resistant target, particularly one that has trained themselves to mix their memories and focus on different things than what they’re prompted to.

Masaki can tell just from listening to the prompts that Red isn’t resisting, and spends another few minutes responding to various messages until the psychics are done. Touta thanks Verres, then asks if he needs anything else, and the officer beside him escorts the boy to a nearby washroom while Touta returns to the monitoring room.

“So far as I can tell, he’s being completely honest,” Agent Touta says, and you’d need to know him to hear the thread of pensiveness in his words.

“But you think he’s hiding something, still?”

“No, it’s not that. I mean, I have no idea if he is… there’s some sign, at least, that something weird is going on, but namely it was the way we’d get the occasional thought from his partitioned self. That was noticeable, but only because it was noticeable to him as it happened too, and… I think if it decided to stay silent, he wouldn’t notice, so to us it would just seem like his normal self.”

Tsunemori raises her brow. “‘It?’ That makes it sound like there’s a second person in his head.”

“That’s not entirely inaccurate, or at least it didn’t used to be. That’s what’s on my mind, really… his brain has been a strange place, over the past year. But he definitely didn’t design this sakki to be a weapon against trainers, the name wasn’t even his idea. And so far as I can tell, he’s being honest that the idea to use it against renegades came to him in a burst of desperation while he was trapped under the casino.”

“What was Sabrina’s reaction when he told her he could lie to psychics?” Masaki asks.

“From what he could tell, she seemed genuinely shocked… despite the fact that it was, apparently, her directive to her students to figure it out.”

“I knew it—”

“Let him finish,” Tsunemori says.

Touta shrugs. “Like I said, genuine-seeming shock. Apparently she meant it as a theoretical exercise, to see if it was even feasible, and to train them in various other ways in the process of trying for the impossible. They spent months at it without any sign of progress beyond those other benefits, until Red merged with an exeggcute, which gave his specially partitioned brain what he needed. He’s been giving regular reports to a ‘Dr. Zhang’ at the gym in case there are side effects of what it did to his mind, but he didn’t reveal that it also allowed him to hide lying, not even to his therapist.”

“Satisfied?” Tsunemori asks. “Or are you going to demand that he reveal every secret he’s keeping for anyone? And what are you prepared to do to him if he refuses, given we can’t even check, and he can apparently set it up so that he doesn’t even know he’s doing it?”

Masaki scowls. “I need to know who Sabrina reported it to—”

“Yes, and I’m sure the League will be happy to cooperate, but why don’t you send Agent Notebook to make that request, while we talk with Verres?”

Masaki feels antsy not having better answers, about them knowing there are secrets Verres isn’t sharing… but she’s right to say there isn’t much they can do about it in the moment. He looks at Touta, who nods, and sighs. “Alright, go. Message me with any updates.”

“You got it.” Touta collects his coat and gives Tsunemori a half-salute, half-wave as he heads for the door.

Once he’s gone, Masaki turns back to the monitor showing Verres, who’s resting his forehead on his arms this time. “Got a more comfortable room?”

Ten minutes later they’re in the station’s staff office, each with a cup of coffee or tea and a box of various pastries on the table. Verres still looks a little shocky around the edges, and a little wary, like he’s still waiting to be thrown in a cell somewhere. Masaki lets him finish his first cookie before breaking the silence.

“I still don’t trust you.” Tsunemori sighs, but Masaki ignores her. “Still, the Director General has made a compelling case to try and acquire your collaboration, and I’m willing to see what happens, because our circumstances are desperate. I’m not promising sanctuary, even if nothing you’ve said to us so far turns out to have been false.”

Verres just meets his gaze and nods. “I understand.”

He doesn’t, though. Masaki has exactly one lifeline to offer Verres if the people of Indigo decide, upon finding out what exactly he did to become the hero of Silph and the casino, that they don’t actually want a psychic-who-can-turn-any-pokemon-lethal-without-others-knowing walking their streets, and he’s going to only offer it once the boy has no other options.

Because whether Verres has co-conspirators or not, whether Verres is secretly coordinating toward some end with Rocket or not, he’s not going to be able to remain an independent entity forever. He’s become too powerful for that, and he may not have realized that his days as a simple researcher are over, but telling him now won’t make it sink in the way it will over the next few weeks.

In a Prisoner’s Dilemma, most people, criminal and innocent, believe that cooperation is by default the correct choice. But in a proper dilemma, defecting is the most rewarding option for the individual, so long as they believe their peers will cooperate. There are, of course, external complications that can be brought up to determine whether the reward is “actually” the best decision, like if a criminal is part of an organization that will punish them for speaking to the police, or if a negative reputation will make someone regret a decision that’s beneficial to them in the short term.

Which is why a real evaluation of any payoff matrix should incorporate things like that in the final scores. If an outcome is scored higher without taking all the factors into account, it’s a bad measure… which means influencing what someone decides to do in a dilemma requires figuring out as many of their considerations as possible, then making sure you can promise things that accurately tip the numbers in the directions you want them to go.

He doesn’t trust that Sabrina really revealed everything she knows about Verres, and Verres admitted that he’s hiding other people’s secrets. He can claim it’s unrelated, but he wouldn’t necessarily know that for a fact. If he really is as innocent as he appears, then Masaki would bet his badge that someone’s manipulated him… even if it’s the ‘partitioned self’ Touta mentioned.

And since the most reliable way to get people to cooperate in a Prisoner’s Dilemma is if both participants know that it is going to be repeated multiple times, or that others they could end up interacting with will know what they chose, Masaki needs to shut off any avenues of transparency or memory between Verres and anyone he might have collaborated with. Which means he first has to figure out who they are… and if that doesn’t shake the whole conspiracy down, then he’ll make his offer and promise Red a defection he won’t be able to refuse.

“Then first things first. Do you know this man?”

He opens the folder beside him and slides over the AI generated images built off the video clips and the profile sketches the psychics got out of the captured renegades. It’s a man in his early or mid thirties, with the pale skin of someone who spends most of his time indoors, an angular face, short teal hair, and pale blue eyes like chips of ice.

There are a dozen of them with slight variations, and Verres studies them all with a slight frown. “No. I’ve never seen someone like this, that I can remember at least. Who is it?”

“The renegades supposedly just called him ‘Boss,’ but a couple knew him as ‘Archer.'”

The boy’s crimson eyes snap up to his. “This is… the Rocket leader? How—”

“Oak helped us Miracle a few of the renegades we captured. We also have reason to believe that Archer probably wasn’t bluffing when he said he got the two Master Ball parts, given their plan… apparently the reason they let the hostages on the first few floors go was so a non-dark collaborator could rush in during the confusion, without anyone noticing, and teleport out with it. We’re still doing a thorough search, just in case, but we’re not hopeful about it. With pokemon unable to teleport with items on their own, it fits as the only remaining explanation for how they got it out.”

Verres leans back in his seat, eyes closed. “So there’s a chance it was all for nothing.”

“Nothing?” Tsunemori asks. “Far from it. You saved many lives, and if Rocket had the complete prototype now, our timeline for catching them would be much shorter. Victory isn’t guaranteed, of course, but—”

The boy shakes his head. “I didn’t… I know it wasn’t literally for nothing, I just meant…” He bites his lower lip.

“Ah,” Masaki says, and sips his coffee as he watches Verres. His face is so expressive, it’s hard to imagine he’s not playing things up just to appear more open. “You mean revealing your secret.”

The boy nods, plainly miserable. “I thought… even if every psychic in the region, in the world, gets exiled or… at least it would be worth it, compared to…”

“Have some faith, Mr. Verres,” Tsunemori says. “In people, and in the rule of law.”

Verres looks at her with eyes that want to believe. “You think…?”

“Like Agent Looker, I can’t promise anything, either for you or psychics as a whole. Perhaps society’s reaction will be… less than measured. But that’s why we must believe in the system we’ve created, and its ability to change to match the new worlds we keep finding ourselves in.”

Once again, Masaki finds himself surprised by the Director General. He wonders how genuine she’s being, while Verres listens with rapt attention. “Change how?”

“That’s what we all need to figure out, together. While the League struggles against pokemon never seen before, and to prepare for alien pokemon far more powerful than any we’ve seen so far, this is our challenge, as a society. What it means to be a renegade has changed, from both your discoveries and from the advances of technology.”

Verres is nodding, gaze back on the pictures of the Rocket leader. “I was thinking about that. Earlier today, someone mentioned that because of Miracle Eye, people have been… disappearing. Slipping away from their lives, probably, afraid of what might happen to them. And now, with that message… what’s going to stop every renegade from joining him? Or… people worried about being branded one… I think there might be more of those than most would expect.”

“It’s true that the law doesn’t always protect the people it should,” Tsunemori says, voice soft, gaze on her tea. “But people must protect the law, and not give up on it. Or else Archer is right, and renegades are right to flee to the sanctuary he provides. And if people don’t just turn against psychics, but turn the law against them as well… then they would be right to flee too.”

Masaki isn’t sure he should interrupt whatever she’s trying to do here, but he has to ask… “If they would be right to flee, then why not just say the laws are wrong? What does ‘protecting the law’ mean, to you?”

Her plain face is solemn as she turns it to him, but her eyes burn with conviction. “The law isn’t a set of rules, but the accumulation of a region’s desires for a better world. Fragile, irreplaceable hope, to live in safety and peace with those around them, that such a thing is even possible. All throughout time, people have dreamed of a better world, one less built on fear of those stronger than them. We’ve come a long way from the days of warlords, but in order for that dream to continue to hold meaning, we have to try our best to protect the law to the very end, even from people who would change it to promote injustice, or people who would break it to accomplish some ‘greater good.’ We can’t just give up on it, or else we give up on those fragile hopes, that precious dream.”

Before he can answer, she turns back to Verres. “Will you help us, Red? I know you have other aspirations, that this isn’t your fight. You’ve done more than we could ask of you already, and almost lost your life for it. But we’ll give you training, and some amount of authority, what protection we can, while in this twilight zone between the old world and the new. I wish I could tell you your work will be well rewarded, in the end, will be justly rewarded… but all I can say is we need your help, if we’re going to stop Rocket. And in return, I promise to do my best to protect anyone innocent of any crime… whether psychic or suspected renegade.”

The boy meets her gaze with something, for the first time all night, like hope. He sits a little different, his shoulders and neck a little straighter, as he says, “I’ll do everything I can.”

Masaki sips his coffee again, feeling both relief and suspicion. There’s plenty he needs to do beyond this, but through it all, he’ll have to watch Verres closely, to make sure their “miracle” isn’t worse than the problem they need his help to solve.

113: A New Age

The first thing Leaf hears upon teleporting to Saffron is the emergency announcement blaring from the speakers on every street corner:

“—ade activity is ongoing at Silph Headquarters. Please evacuate from all surrounding blocks and seek shelter. Repeat, renegade activity…”

The air is full of pokemon carrying people above congested streets, while police guide crowds toward the city’s emergency bunkers. She scans the city skyline until she spots the silhouette of Silph HQ that stands tall against the cheerful blue horizon, then withdraws her abra and rushes down to the street level so she can bring out her bike.

Once she’s riding she taps her earphone to resume her call with Laura and Professor Oak.

“—when he arrived… Leaf?” Laura sounds calm, but Leaf knows her well enough to hear the tightly controlled fear under her words. “Have you arrived?”

“Yeah, I’m just a few blocks from the building, should be there soon.”

“Assess before rushing in,” Professor Oak says. “If the renegades are there for the master ball, the hunters might bring the whole building down.”

Leaf’s heart stutters. “Would the boys know that?”

“I hope so. But even if they do—”

“Right.” Even without the message that got passed along to the Professor, Blue isn’t the type to leave a situation like this once he’s in it. And so long as calls to both are still going undelivered, it seems likely Red is either trapped or fighting too.

Now Laura’s voice holds more than a fraction of the strain she must be feeling. “Sam, can’t you…?”

“No. I could run into the building myself and they’d still bring it down if they believed it necessary.”

Hearing the stark helplessness in his voice makes Leaf pedal harder. “How far are you now, Professor?”

“Just passing the western outpost, should be there in about nine minutes.”

“I’ll wait for you unless I—” Leaf’s earpod chirps, and hope shoots through her. “Hang on, getting a call.”

“Go. I’ll see you soon.”

“Be careful, Leaf.”

“I will, and I’ll let you know if it’s one of them.” She swaps. “Red? Blue?”

“It’s me.”

It takes Leaf a moment to recognize the voice of her and Laura’s informant over the blaring announcements. “Did you—do you know what’s happening?”

“Only what’s on the news. Are you there?”

“Almost. You coming?”

“No. I can’t.”

Leaf almost asks why not, then remembers that she’s dark. No way she’d make it here on time. “Then call me in an hour, one way or another it should be over by then—”

“Wait. I called because whatever’s happening there might be a smokescreen for something else. I wanted to make sure you go in there with your eyes open.”

Leaf tries to imagine what a public attack of multiple renegades on Silph Headquarters could be a smokescreen for, and fails. “You don’t think they’re there for the Master Ball?”

“I’ll decide after they succeed or fail. My guess is whatever happens, this benefits Silph in some way.”

…evacuate from all surrounding blocks and seek shelter…”

Leaf wants to say she’s crazy, too tunnel visioned on her vendetta to accept a scenario where Silph may not be the bad guys. But whether that’s true or not…”So what do you want?”

“If you get the opportunity to grab a computer, they’ll think one of the renegades took it. Any of the executive’s computers would likely have valuable info, but the President’s own PC would be best.”

“You are crazy,” Leaf says this time. “Or you think I am, to agree to something like that.”

“The Rocket Casino—”

“—had a secret lab full of renegades, it’s totally different!”

“Leaf, we won’t get another opportunity like this.” Her frustration is clear even through the voice filter. “Silph can be the victim today, but they’ll still need to be taken down tomorrow.”

Leaf turns a corner and ends up behind a group of police riding toward the Silph building. The streets here are virtually empty, and she pedals harder to try and catch up to them. “Have to go, almost there.”

“Just think about it.”

Leaf hangs up, heart pounding in her ears as she slowly closes the gap between her and an officer in the rear riding a rapidash. She takes deep breaths so as not to arrive totally winded, and tries to focus on what she’ll say to the police if they try to stop her from helping.

But the informant’s words planted a seed of doubt, and more keep sprouting. Is all this some trick? Red’s description of what Silph wanted him to do was only surprising because it’s never been done before, but it wasn’t confusing, and opposed as she was to Red helping him, the fact that Silph turned out to be right about renegades in his company set her suspicions entirely aside.

What level of paranoid is the right level, when real conspiracies are afoot?

Maybe the more important question is, should she act just on the suspicion? She’s spent weeks working on a story with Fuji that she hopes will affect public sentiment about things like the Master Ball. If she finds hard proof of the skeletons Laura and their informant have been working to uncover, it could be much more effective…

…renegade activity is ongoing at Silph Headquarters. Please evacuate…”

They reach the perimeter, where dozens of police and rangers prepare to face an unknown amount of pokemon, each trained to kill humans by people no doubt expecting exactly this response. She slows to a stop as the police in front of her approach someone that looks like they’re coordinating things. Nearby a pair of drones lift into the sky to join a dozen others that hover around the building, probably trying to get a clear view of what’s going on inside.

So many people, all working together to save the hostages inside, to save her friends, to stop the madmen trying to take power that would be even scarier in their hands.

No. She can’t do it, can’t enter this thinking of how to steal from Silph. It would make her like Yuuta, taking advantage of a crisis… not for personal gain, maybe, but still. Civilization has to pull together for pokemon attacks, and that goes double for renegades. Going against that would chip away at something precious, even if no one else found out about it.

Once the group of newcomers is dispatched elsewhere, Leaf walks her bike over. “Hi, I’m Leaf Juniper. My friends, Red and Blue… has anyone heard from them?”

The man shakes his head, and Leaf is about to ask if she can go in—

“Hello again, Miss Juniper.”

She turns toward the familiar voice and sees a tall man in a brown trench coat. “Agent Looker? I thought you were working in Celadon.”

“Got here about ten minutes before things went to hell. You could say I had a hunch.”

“Ah.” Laura. “Does this mean interpol is—”

“My partner is coordinating with them now, but this will likely be over before anyone else arrives.” He studies her for a moment. “Were you planning on going in?”

“Are you going to stop me?”

“If it was just your life at risk, maybe not. But there are civilians in there, and hunters that may be engaging the renegades as we speak. I know you’ve fought some before, but only in the loosest sense. Your wigglytuff isn’t going to catch these by surprise, and from what I remember you’re not a competitive trainer. Have you ever actually fought against a human trained pokemon?”

Leaf feels her heart sinking. “No. But…” She tries to find an argument, something that justifies the burning need to get inside, to at least make sure Red and Blue are okay… “Professor Oak didn’t say not to.”

It’s a weak defense and she knows it. Agent Looker just raises a brow at her. “Well he’s probably not thinking straight either. There’s a chance the police have a plan, and untrained outsiders are more likely to accidentally mess those up. Oak at least can hold his own and won’t become a liability.”

Leaf’s heart feels like a rock in her stomach, and she can’t keep the bitterness out of her voice. “So I’m supposed to just sit out here and… do nothing?” She never expected to regret her decision to not battle other trainers, but if it keeps her from helping Blue and Red now…

“If it makes you feel better, the Professor doesn’t actually have authority here, and might get stuck outside too.” Looker turns to the coordinating officer. “What do you think, Jiang?”

“Wouldn’t want to be the one to try to get between him and his grandson, but orders to bring the building down if there’s no opening to save the hostages in the next…” He checks his watch. “Eleven minutes.”

“He’s arriving in about eight,” Leaf says, feeling numb. She wonders a moment later if she should have kept that to herself…

Jiang sighs. “We’re trying to counteract the jammer to figure out if the commissioner can give us a sitrep, maybe change our game plan. But at this rate… well, let’s just say there are a number of people here who are probably willing to tackle Professor Oak to save his life. Guess I’m one of them.”

Leaf’s rising sense of horror and helplessness make it hard to think, and she wanders off without saying anything, trying to block out the sounds of the blaring city message.

…Please evacuate from all surrounding blocks and seek shelter. Repeat…”

She should call the Professor, warn him… maybe he can land on the roof, if it’s got a flat one… does it? Or fly straight through a window, if it doesn’t… Gods, this is just like what Red faced in Vermilion, but I don’t even have a choice… Or does she? She could probably make it through the perimeter without being stopped, but.. Looker is right, she’s fooling herself if she thinks she stands a chance in a fair fight against a renegade. Laura and the professor would say the same if they weren’t so desperately worried for Red and Blue… she would say the same if it was almost anyone else in there…

If I can’t win a fair fight, I should cheat. Good idea, but how? None of her pokemon are as good of an equalizer as Joy, and even if they strap her to another pokemon and fly her around the windows to sing through, there’s no guarantee that the renegades will be more disabled than those they’re fighting, even assuming they don’t have protection against sound attacks…

“Miss Juniper.”

She turns to find Agent Looker has followed her. “Believe it or not, we’re mostly in the same boat, and I don’t like feeling helpless any more than you do. But there’s something else we can do to help besides rush in and hope for the best. It may not help save whoever’s inside, but it could stop the renegades regardless.”

“I’m listening.” She’d sound more eager if she wasn’t sick with fear.

“Something has been bothering me about all of this. A bunch of renegades attack in the middle of the day, hold hostages, but only above a certain floor, all to, presumably, steal the Master Ball. It looks coordinated, maybe a panic response to Silph bringing Verres in, but my question is, then what?”

“Then… what?”

“Right. They get the Master Ball, or the blueprints for it, or whatever. Then what? The whole city knows they’re here, they’re surrounded.”

“Maybe they use a hardwired PC to transfer it?”

“First thing we did was cut off the building’s power and internet. It’s running on local power but we’ve got our own jammer up to keep them from using wireless.”

“Then they just…” No, Silph wouldn’t have had to do this special screening to find them if they weren’t dark, so they can’t teleport out unless they learned how to use Miracle Eye in the past few days… or…

Leaf’s eyes widen. Is it possible?

“You see it too, huh?”

“I thought… I thought Red had… caused this, by being here… Silph told him he suspected something already, but—”

“Right. What if Red didn’t just trigger them to attack instead of stealing it? What if him being here was part of the plan?

Leaf covers her face with her hands. She should have argued harder, should have told Red to leave…

“Hey. Deep breaths. If they’re going to force him to use Miracle Eye so they can teleport, they have to keep him alive, right?”

She tries to nod, head jerking too quickly. “What… what can we do?”

“Nothing for now. This is just a theory, and we can’t act on it right now anyway.” He studies her a moment, as if checking to see if she can remain calm. She does her best. “Miss Juniper, we’re some of the few people here who know everything that’s happening, and aren’t busy preparing for a raid or to stop an escape. More importantly, we’re not part of the local police network. Do you get me?”

It’s not hard, once you’ve spent enough time talking to Laura. “You think there’s an informant.”

“I think trust is a dangerous thing when facing an organization this secretive and well prepared. The renegades know they’re on a clock, regardless, but yes, they might have someone in the police to feed them info. I doubt they’re going to still be in there if the building gets brought down, so we need to figure out what their plan is before they execute on it. And it has to be people like us, to make sure they don’t hear about it if we figure out their plan. So I need you to poke holes in this theory. Maybe Verres has nothing to do with their escape plan. Then what? How else might they get out?”

Leaf keeps taking deep breaths, trying to think through the new fears being piled onto the old ones. “Roof? Fly away?”

“The hunters are setting up a perimeter of fliers for both speed and endurance. They won’t get away by air.”

“Digging?”

“They have to know that we’d use Earthquake if we had to. Same with any answer that involves hostages, it wouldn’t stop the hunters.”

Leaf tries to think of what else they might do. What would she do, if she had to escape a situation like this… “Maybe they… blanket the city with sleep powder, or…”

“Maybe. Start a list, alright? Anything you can think of, no matter how unlikely. We don’t have much time, but whatever they can think of, so can we.”


Once Lin and the CHRO have teleported to safety, the rest of those stuck in the security room line up in the order Burrell instructs. He checks to make sure everyone is ready, then nods to Jenson, who summons a machamp.

Its head nearly brushes the ceiling, and it looks around before zeroing in on the red pointer dot that Jenson is aiming at the wall beside the door.

“Three,” he murmurs. “Two… one… Cha!”

The machamp slams against the wall beside the door with all of its strength, body moving through the drywall in a single burst of raw strength. Jenson shoves himself through first, followed by Stocky (Red still hasn’t learned her name), Burrell, the young female cop (whose name he did learn, Mia), and Sicong. Valentin and Red listen to the sounds of battle through the hole, and only go through once it ends and Burrell calls “All clear.”

Red follows Sicong and Valentin out, stepping carefully around Jenson’s badly wounded machamp and the three dark pokemon around it. Nearly a dozen other pokemon are scattered around the hallway, broken and bleeding, but there are no renegades in sight. “They ran as soon as we came out,” Burrell says as they attempt to heal and revive their pokemon. The machamp is one of three that doesn’t respond to treatment, and each gets replaced with fresh Fighting and Bug types. “Not sure if they’re escaping or falling back to regroup, but we can’t give them time. Let’s move out.”

The hunters lead the way through the corridors at a jog, and for the first few moments Red is too busy trying to keep up to think of anything else. It’s hard to resist sending psydar pulses out, but he knows it’s not going to give him much info, and he needs to stay sharp, not risk destabilizing his thoughts any further. They pass the frightened faces of various office workers, and nearly make it to the stairs before more renegades find them.

Red has seen hunters battle renegades in movies. It’s usually depicted as being much quicker than normal trainer battles, each pokemon using their most lethal moves, and Red has occasionally thought about how he’d almost rather fight through a Tier 3 incident than get caught in the crossfire between a renegade and hunter.

Thankfully their environment limits what that means, on both sides, though it’s hard to tell if they’re holding back at all. He’s not sure how far a Hyper Beam would penetrate the walls and ceiling of this place, maybe the renegades are worried about bringing the building down themselves, but they’re doing enough destruction without it.

Acid splashes, fire bursts, and electricity arcs out as roars of pain and challenge by half a dozen pokemon drown out the commands of their trainers. Red pulls his gaze away from the sight of a pinsir using its horns to pin a mightyena to a wall as a weavile tears into its side, keeping his head on a swivel so he can watch their backs. That’s all he has to do, and so even when the renegades start to use non-dark pokemon, he doesn’t try to use sakki. He was given a task to do, and he’s going to let the professionals handle everything else rather than risk doing something that takes them by surprise and complicates their plans.

Which doesn’t mean it’s easy to turn his back on a lethal battle, even just for a few moments at a time, but he has to trust them, and his jangling nerves will just have to be endured.

No one attempts to flank them, however, and within a minute the battle is over. Red spares a glance back, dreading what he might see… but while there are once again numerous dead pokemon throughout the hallway, all the humans seem unhurt, and the renegades appear to have fled again.

“Something’s weird,” Jenson says as he heals his pokemon. “They’re not targeting us.”

“‘Us’ as in you and Hitomi?” Mia asks between checking the nearby offices with Sicong to ensure no one hiding in them got injured.

Oh that’s her name. Red stares blankly at the carnage for another few moments before he realizes he could be helping, and takes out some potions to heal their pokemon faster.

“Not just that,” Hitomi says as she aims her laser pointer at one of the downed renegade pokemon. Red looks away as the hunter’s pinsir braces its horns around the mightyena, but he still hears the crunch and wet sound of spraying blood. “They’re not targeting any of you, either. Our pokemon, yes, but not us.”

Red tries to recall the battles he had as best he can through the memories flooding him from multiple broken partitions. Did any pokemon directly attack him instead of his pokemon…?

“You think they’re trying to avoid killing?” Sicong asks, skepticism interwoven with hope. “That would make their threat against the hostages a bluff…”

“The hostages don’t know that.” Burrell says as he finishes healing his hitmonlee. “And it doesn’t make sense. They’d be branded regardless.”

“Still, if we reach them—”

“Hostages might get killed in crossfire,” Jenson says. He checks them over, then starts for the stairs again. “Power first.”

Red follows into the lingering smog of the stairway, and this time he does send out psydar pulses to make up for the lack of visibility. It makes it hard to focus, but this would be the perfect spot for an ambush…

“Couldn’t just exit here, hit it from below?” Valentin asks.

“We’d have to bring the whole ceiling down to be sure,” Hitomi replies, voice barely audible to Red over the sound of their feet. “They’d be able to collapse down on us before we do.”

One more flight of stairs without incident, and then they’re rushing through more hallways until they leave the offices behind and approach a door warning off any unauthorized access. Jenson holds up a fist and presses himself to the opposite wall, and they all quickly follow suit.

“Step light,” Jenson whispers between hard breaths. “They’ve had time to prepare a trap.”

Hitomi nods. “Two people could stay out, guard against being surrounded.”

“No, maximum push,” Burrell says. “Top priority is taking the power out.”

“They might take us all out in one blast if we go in together.”

“She’s right, Sir. It’s what I would do.”

Burrell frowns, and then they hear a “Hey!” that makes Red’s pulse spike before he recognizes the voice and turns with the others to see…

…Blue, shoeless and breathing hard as he jogs over from the direction of the stairs.

Nearly boneless with relief, Red reflexively steps forward to catch his friend in a hug. He belatedly realizes how unprofessional this looks, but Blue hugs him briefly back, and Red releases him at the same time. “Glad you’re…” He almost says ‘okay,’ but there’s something in Blue’s expression that Red can’t interpret, and he instinctively sends a psydar pulse out before remembering how dumb that is. “Alive.”

“Same to you,” Blue turns to the others and salutes the commissioner. “Blue Oak, reporting for duty, Sir.”

“At ease, Oak. You the one that turned off the lower backup generators?”

“Destroyed them. There was a renegade guarding. Came to take out these too.”

“Good man.” The commissioner glances down at Blue’s feet, seems about to say something, then turns back toward the others. “Alright Jenson, it’s your play. Who goes in first?”

“With Oak here, we’ve got more options. Mia and you will breach with me. Hitomi comes in with Sicong and Valentin a ten count later. The kids can make sure no one flanks us, or come in if it sounds like we just got blasted.” He turns to Hitomi. “Left or right?”

“I’ll go right.”

“Hold until I make the hole.” Jenson summons a rhydon and pulls a flashbang off his belt.

“Hey, I think this is yours?” Blue asks Mia as he unbuckles the police belt. “Thanks for it, saved my ass.”

“Keep it for now,” she says with a brief smile. “You might need it more.”

“Going in three,” Jenson says. “Two. One.”

He rushes forward, opens the door, and throws the flashbang in before using his laser pointer to indicate the wall between the group and it. “Cha!”

There’s a muffled bang just as his pokemon dashes headfirst into the wall and crashes through. Jenson is right behind it, followed by Mia, Burrell, and their pokemon. The sounds of battle are immediate, but continue for long enough that it’s clear they didn’t get blown away completely.

“Watch from the T-section,” Hitomi says to Red and Blue as she goes to the opposite side of the door with her poliwrath, who smashes another hole through the wall on her command and leads the way in. Once she and the other two are inside, Red moves to cover the hall opposite the way they came, while Blue steps beside him facing the opposite direction, then summons Soul.

“Shit,” Red says as he sees the state of Blue’s arcanine. His friend immediately starts spraying the patches of acid-burned flesh with potions, then sprays some antidote into his pokemon’s nose. “What happened?”

“Renegade filled the room with smog, then sent a muk at us.” Soul’s breaths are no longer rasping, and after another few moments it opens its eyes and carefully gets to its feet, though there’s hardly room for it to stand. Blue finishes healing his pokemon, then sprays some ether into its mouth and rubs his neck. “Maturin is down too, but she evolved, so… I think she’s alive. Gon didn’t make it.”

The pain and anger in his voice makes Red’s eyes water, and he almost goes to hug him again. “Damn. I’m sorry, Blue. I lost—”

A vibration runs through the walls and floor as something explodes in the room beside them. “Are they—”

Get a hold of yourself. Red sends out a pulse of psydar. “Everyone’s still alive.” Though two of their pokemon are dead or withdrawn, and one is in immense pain.

He takes deep breaths, trying to keep from feeling overwhelmed by the pull of different urges. Seeing Blue has quieted a lot of his anxious thoughts, but he still feels raw in some strange way, still feels like his thoughts are slipping against each other, or like he’s losing seconds of awareness. How long has it been since they left the security room? A minute, two? Are the hostages already dead?

He wants to bring Kadabra out to merge and check, but reminds himself again that he needs to conserve his power use—

Red only freezes for a second when the man rushes around the corner ahead of him, spots Red, and skids to a halt. Then his arm snaps up to summon his new lapras as the renegade brings out a cacturne.

“Icy Wind!”

His lapras is small enough that her shell stops just below his eye level, which means he has to rise onto his tip toes to see past where her body fills the hallway. The burst of freezing air slowed the attacking cacturne down, but eventually it manages to spit a Bullet Seed back, and Red drops to his knees behind his pokemon.

The lapras’s melodic cry is heartbreaking in pain, and Red claps his hands over his ears. “Icy Wind!” he yells, unsure whether his lent pokemon could even survive the next attack, and then—

“Red, swap!”

It takes him a moment to process the words—is Blue telling him to switch to his forretress?—and then he gets it and withdraws his lapras before pressing against the wall so Blue can send Soul barreling at their attacker. He resists the urge to watch how the battle goes, instead moving to where Blue was to watch that side as his whole body shivers with adrenaline and something else, something taut and strained near to the breaking point. He feels like he’s acting entirely by reflex and instinct, and while that might work for short periods he dreads the moment a difficult or complex choice is in front of him. He wishes he could use the battle calm, but it will take too much juggling if there’s an emergency and he has to use sakki… assuming he could still use it, in this state…

One more, he thinks as the sounds of battle behind him end. I’ve got at least one more in me, if I have to… He doesn’t know if it’s true, but when he glances over his shoulder at the sound of rapid footsteps, he sees Blue and Soul are the only ones in the hall, along with the bodies of the cacturne and an arbok. “He’s gone?”

“Yeah, but stay sharp. Might be back with help. When did you get a lapras?”

“It’s a borrow. Lost most of my team.”

“Damn.” Blue lets out a long breath, and Red can practically see the battle calm leaving him, now that he knows what it feels like. “I don’t get it, some of these guys fight till the bitter end, others scamper as soon as… wait, you hear that?”

Red focuses, but doesn’t hear anything… Oh. “The battle’s stopped.” He sends another psydar pulse out. “They’re alive.”

“Did they wi—”

There’s a crashing sound, and they’re abruptly plunged into darkness as the lights go out. “Guess so.” Red turns on his belt light a moment after Blue snaps his on, and they rotate to watch the halls. Any relief he might feel is overwhelmed by the creeping fear of an attacker making their way toward them in the dark. Come on, come on…

It feels like minutes later, but is probably less than one, when the door opens and everyone files out. “Everything quiet out here?”

“One came, we chased them off.”

Sicong is striding toward the stairs without slowing, and Red reflexively follows, only checking after a few steps whether the others are coming too.

They are, and the hunters quickly catch up to Sicong. “Careful. If they have nothing else to lose—”

“Wait,” Red says as he sends another psydar pulse out, then another. “Someone’s… going up the stairs…”

“Who?!”

Red takes a deep breath, focusing as hard as he can as he sends his senses out to their limits, merging with the mind for a brief moment-tension-fear-burninglegs-RENEGADES[?!]-dark-smog-before it goes out of his range—

“It’s the president!” he gasps just as his knees buckle. Blue and Mia catch his arms. “There are renegades with him!”

Sicong is already running, as are the hunters. “Go,” Blue says to Mia, and she releases him to follow the bobbing lights of the others. “Red, what’s going on? Are you hurt?”

“It’s… I’m fine…” The hallway is spinning, though he can distantly feel that he’s sitting with his back against the wall.

“He exhausted himself,” Valentin says. Red didn’t even realize he’s still with them. “Used his powers to take out a bunch of renegades before we went for the generators.”

“Oh. Right.”

Red remembers that there’s a conversation or ten that he’s dreading, but it’s hard to focus on anything right now besides Silph. “We have to go up…” He tries to push himself to his feet, only to be pushed back down.

“It’s fine, Red. There’s nothing more we can do now that they won’t, and it’s even more dangerous for us to battle around them in the dark.”

“I don’t get it, though,” Valentin says. “Why take the president up instead of down? Are they going to try to fly away with him?”

“They wouldn’t make it three minutes. I looked out the window on the way up, the place is surrounded. Actually, we should probably head down, tell them what’s going on so they don’t bring down the building…”

“They’ll know the power is out, but good call.”

“Oh, are our phones working now?”

“Already checked, mine’s not. Jammer must still be active, somewhere… I’ll go down, you stay with him until he’s more rested.”

Red tries to say he’s fine again, but the hallway is still spinning, so he just rests his forehead against his knees as they continue to talk briefly, then Valentin’s footsteps recede. He’s thinking of what the tech lead said, about why they might bring Silph up. It doesn’t make sense, they’re missing something… missing multiple somethings. Why did they let some hostages go but not others? Why didn’t they try to kill any of us?

“Something’s wrong, Blue,” he mutters. “We’re missing something…” Or at least, he tries to say it, but the words come out backward and echoey as he feels his back sliding against the wall, and then the darkness becomes absolute.


The thought hits her like the pichu’s thundershock in Viridian Forest, sending tingles through her body and tightening all her muscles as she sucks in a breath.

And then she’s up and dashing toward Agent Looker, who’s arguing with Professor Oak and a couple officers in fancy uniforms.

“The hostages!” Leaf shouts as she runs. “Looker! It’s the hostages!”

The group turns to look at her, their anger shifting to confusion… all except for Agent Looker, who looks like she just punched him between the eyes.

She had to go back to basics, think of everything the renegades had at their disposal, every resource and limitation. What do they have? Pokemon, office supplies, hostages. What can’t they do? Use internet, fly out, travel…

Could they have discovered a way for pokemon to teleport with objects? No, if she imagines that they learned how to do something completely new, the possibilities are endless. She has to stick to what she understands or else she has no chance of guessing something probable on time.

What doesn’t make sense? Letting some hostages go…

At first she thought they would just leave it somewhere in the building and recover it later, but no, it’s much easier than that. They let everyone below certain floors go, but kept them where they were operating. All they have to do is hand the data or Master Ball parts to one of them, and then it doesn’t matter if they escape or not.

So long as no one saw them acting as a renegade, any one of them could just walk out with it once the dust has settled.

Agent Looker turns to the man beside him. “Deputy Commissioner, I’m requesting a holding area within the jammed zone. Everyone who leaves the building gets a full search, understand? All of them.”

Professor Oak, meanwhile, has taken the opportunity to start walking toward the building. The cop from before who was organizing the response steps in front of him.

“Get out of my way, Son,” Oak says, voice low and calm.

“Can’t do that, Professor. This is an active—”

“The power’s out!”

Everyone turns as one toward the voice that shouted. It’s one of the drone operators, who’s staring at a tablet. He fiddles with some controls, and Leaf looks up to see one of the drones swooping around the building. “I’m seeing dark on every floor—”

“Me too—”

“I’ve got eyes on a stairwell, emergency lights have turned on—”

The organizing officer has a pair of fingers on his headset, looking distracted. Professor Oak steps around him and strides toward the building, but he doesn’t go after him, instead lifting the bullhorn from his belt and switching it on.

“Power is down, confirmed! Units one through four, breach!”

Everything happens very quickly after that.

Leaf wants to help, but Looker’s remark from earlier still holds true. Instead she watches for a few moments as police and hunters flood the building, some riding on pokemon that climb quickly to higher floors and break through windows. Her restless energy shifts her from foot to foot until she forces herself to go over to where Looker and someone she hasn’t seen before are speaking to a growing group of high ranked officers.

“No, this is an interpol operation now. My partner and I are going to oversee this. All you people need to do is ensure no one leaves without being screened, understand?”

Less than five minutes later some pokemon fly away from the building at high speeds in every direction. More rise to intercept them, and Leaf almost believes she was wrong for a moment, but no, she’s sure… almost sure, that those are decoys.

Fifteen minutes later the hostages are starting to trickle out, but by then there’s a cordon line set up and officers at every building entrance, watching to ensure no one leaves the area until their belongings are thoroughly checked.

“Building is clear,” one of the drone operators says soon after. “We’ve got multiple confirmations from unit leaders, all hostiles are down.”

“Understood. Requesting the city to bring the power back online.”

“Keep the internet connection severed,” Looker says, and the officer nods and repeats that to whomever is on the headset with him.

And five minutes after that Professor Oak re-emerges, spots her, and gestures.

He’s smiling.

Leaf’s feet feel like they barely touch the ground as she runs toward him, whole body light and tears leaking down her cheeks. She follows him through the halls, barely registering the signs of battle in one of the big office spaces they pass through.

Red and Blue have been given their own room to recuperate in, with police stationed outside. They’re half draped over a couch big enough for four, both looking like they’re ready to sleep for hours. Both have water bottles and snacks from the vending machine scattered around them, and Blue is flipping through channels on the wall monitor, each showing news coverage of the event.

Leaf doesn’t spare it a glance before rushing over to pull the boys into a massive hug. One of them smells like they walked through a burning chemical plant, which is as good a reason as any for the prickling in her eyes.

…word from the commissioner, who was also on site during the attack. Casualties are still unreported, but…”

“On reconsideration, Red,” Leaf says, and clears her throat. “I think you should charge Silph. Lots.”

Blue laughs, though Red only gives a weak chuckle. “It might be hard to put a market price on… everything that happened today.”

“Just means any number you give can’t be unreasonable.”

Professor Oak clears his throat. “We’re still not getting signal in here, and probably won’t for a while. I’m going to go call Laura, tell her you’re alright.”

“Thanks, Professor.”

Leaf pulls back as he leaves and takes in the sight of them both, gaze lingering on the strain around Red’s eyes. “You exhausted your psychic powers again, didn’t you?”

Red’s surprised and guilty look is answer enough. “How did you…?”

“Seen it too many times not to recognize it, I guess. Though I can’t tell if this is as bad as Celadon, or Vermilion? Or… Lavender?” He looks somehow more tired than he did at the tower, not that that means much, considering he looked well enough then until he suddenly wasn’t.

“He already passed out,” Blue helpfully says. “But he was fine after ten minutes or so. Well. Awake again, at least. That’s not what’s eating him, though.”

“What is eating you, then?” she asks. “Your pokemon…?”

“We both lost some, but it’s not that.” Red glances behind her, and she turns to see what he was looking at. The police standing by the door? But then he says, “I think we lost.”

Leaf looks between them, some of her joy fading. “Did they kill—”

“The President is okay, they got him away from the renegades. They didn’t kill anyone, actually, as far as we can tell all of the hostages are fine. But they managed to get two-thirds of the Master Ball, apparently, and a bunch of the renegades flew off.”

“I keep telling him they won’t get far, but he insists we missed something, and they got away with the info. I think he’s just paranoid.”

Leaf lets out a breath. “Oh, is that all. Well, I’m pretty sure I actually figured that out.” They stare at her for a moment, and she smiles. “See, I think one of them disguised themself as a hostage, or maybe got it handed off to them. They set up a checkpoint outside, all the hostages are being searched before they’re allowed out of the area. We’re jamming any signals, so they can’t transfer anything.”

Red is still staring at her, but some new life is in his eyes. “Leaf, you’re a genius.”

“Nah, I just thought about it for a bit. Everyone else was too busy, you know, actually trying to solve the crisis. It was Agent Looker who made me, he deserves a lot of thanks—”

…sorry, I’ve just received word that… a group of renegades has claimed credit for the attack.”

Leaf turns to the television in surprise. The news anchor is holding a hand to his earpiece. “What the hell?” Blue mutters, and lifts the remote to turn the volume up.

“A video was uploaded to the net just minutes ago, and appears to be… a manifesto of some kind…”

All three of them are staring at the screen, and one of the police officers has even stepped in to frown at the monitor.

“We’re going to play the video now, but be advised that we have not verified the authenticity of any claims within it.”

And then the news anchor at his desk is replaced by…

—Leaf’s breath catches at the wash of unreality, of this all being a bizarre dream—

…another desk, black marble, with a man in a white suit sitting in a chair. His face is cast in shadow, and on the wall behind him is…

A big red R, in the same style as the Rocket Casino’s sign.

“Greetings, people of the world. Greetings, people of Indigo.” The words aren’t distorted, but hold the artificial intonations of a text-to-voice program. “Months ago, a mystery was uncovered in your City of Rainbow Dreams, uncovered by chance… or if you’d like, by an act of gods. Renegades, beneath your very homes, working in secret for ends unknown.

“Police both local and international attempted to learn all they could. The public demanded answers. Where did they come from? What were their goals? Were they part of some broader conspiracy?

“I am here to give you all those answers and more, starting with the last: Yes. My conspiracy.”

“What the fuck,” the cop mutters, voice low.

“Our goal is also simple to answer: power, and survival. The Rocket Casino was among the smallest of our operations. It was a source of revenue, and a secret place to study stolen technology. We have many more like it, and will continue to use whatever means necessary to carve out a place for ourselves in a world that has rejected us.

“As for where they came from…” The man spreads his hands. “Everywhere. Nearly every region on the planet treats renegades the same, and so I have gathered them into one organization, and put them to useful purposes.

“Though renegades were employed at the Rocket Casino, none had orders to harm anyone unless threatened first. At least one disobeyed those orders, or perhaps believed the Casino to be under attack. It was an error that cost people lives, and we do not celebrate that. Our goal, as I said, is enough power to survive, not mayhem or destruction.

“And while many have wondered what other evils the Rocket renegades did in their time there, I can answer truthfully that up until the earthquakes, they did nothing. They acted as simple citizens, no different than any other criminal enterprise that keeps to lawful pursuits for most of their days.

“You see, renegades are not mindless killers, striking without reason. Celadon suffered not a single renegade attack in the five years it had my people there, up until the day of the incident, and while I regret the loss of life that occurred, I cannot fault my people for acting from a place of fear.”

“Bullshit,” Red whispers… but he looks uneasy.

“Your culture has lied to you. It has convinced you that renegades are not people, and deserve to be treated as less than people. And so people will continue to feel they need an alternative.”

The man opens his arms wide. “We are that alternative. We’ve operated in secret until now, but that time has passed. Psychics have had too much power throughout history, and with Miracle Eye they will only have more. So long as psychics are trusted in society, it is no longer safe for us.”

Red makes a sound Leaf can’t interpret, and she turns to see him staring with wide eyes. The next words pull her gaze back to the screen.

“Today we attacked Silph Corporation to steal the Master Ball. We did it because we know it marks a new age. An age where the regions have trainers, League or otherwise, who wield legendary pokemon. In this new age, any without one will be incapable of defending themselves. Having this technology was a necessary step for our fledgling region to defend itself, and so we took steps to secure it. I can say now that we mostly succeeded. I now possess two-thirds of the completed prototype, and my engineers will work tirelessly to recreate the rest.”

No. Leaf can’t tell if she says the word out loud or not, her whole body feels cold. She solved it, she stopped them, how did they…?

“And just as importantly, we accomplished this without harming anyone, at the cost of our own lives, to prove that renegades are no worse than ordinary criminals. Criminals that deserve arrest, if caught, and trial. Nothing more, nothing less.

“But we know that is unlikely. And so I say to you today, those of you who fear being branded a renegade, even if you have not committed any crimes… those who have been branded, and don’t wish to live your life as a monster on the run… those who believe it is wrong that your friends and family and neighbors will condemn you without proper trial or proportion… do not despair, for we are here.

“Join us, and together we will have enough power to fight for our own safety. And those of you who have used pokemon against others… we will hear you out, judge your character, and perhaps give you a second chance at life. You may not have freedom, but neither will you be discarded inhumanely.

“This past year has seen many changes in our world. For many, it seems clear we are entering a new age. And I declare this as true for renegades as anyone else.

“We are Team Rocket. We are everywhere. And we will defend ourselves from any attempt at annihilation.”

112: Hunted

The third time Blue thinks of the perfect attack to use, then has to revise to something far less effective due to environmental constraints, a calm and distant part of him swears that he’s going to make teams of pokemon built entirely for fighting indoors and keep half of his belt full of them at all times.

“TB! Hyp!”

“Ah! Ca! Bab!”

The renegade’s pokemon are outnumbered and at a type disadvantage, but they’re also smaller and more nimble than his: Rive’s Hammer Arm is easily dodged by the magneton, and while Soul gets a Crunch off on the hypno, it manages to stay conscious long enough to put the scarred arcanine to sleep.

Thankfully Rive blocked the thunderbolt from hitting Maturin, whose bubblebeam disorients the magneton and keeps it from getting its next attack off before Blue can yell “Sab!” The Body Slam connects and sends it reeling, and Blue has another moment to spare a mental grouse for the fact that his most effective tactic at the moment is to tell a Ground pokemon to use a Normal attack against a goddamn Electric/Steel type before that Electric/Steel type sends a Mirror Shot out to burrow three holes in his pokemon’s rocky hide.

Blue swaps the Awakening he pulled out of his bag to his other hand to spray it on Soul while he withdraws Rive—if that was a Flash Cannon he would be dead, he’s okay unless it hit a critical organ—then leaps behind one of the generators to avoid the next thunderbolt, which he only assumed would go for him instead of Maturin because he was closer. “Bab!” he yells again, and “Ca!” for good measure in case Soul has woken up to finish off the hypno. He might be dead right now if he wasn’t immune to psychic attacks, and has a brief moment to be glad that he didn’t stay Miracle Eyed through all this.

“Go, Gon!” His breloom appears beside him, then dashes toward the fight once he says “Pam!” He’s spent a lot of time tweaking the simulations to reinforce targeting priorities of certain moves against certain pokemon, so he’s fairly sure that Mach-Punch will get aimed at the magneton, but he knows he’ll have to risk a look at the battle soon to get a renewed sense of what’s happening…

Or the sound of another pokemon being sent out could force him to do it now.

Blue does his best to peek around the corner without exposing much of himself, and feels his heart sink at the sight of the magmar.

Three different commands burst out of his throat in a rush, “GonbackMaturinbabSoulsae!” but the renegade just has to give one, and does so while running: “Overheat.”

The magmar’s body begins to glow, turning Maturin’s Bubble Beam to hissing steam as soon as it hits. Soul slams into the renegade pokemon a moment later, but the magmar just keeps glowing brighter—

—Blue sends Maturin into her shell with a “Wa!” as he stretches Gon’s greatball out in one hand as far as it will go—

—until a torrent of flame bursts out of the magmar in every direction.

Blue toggles the return beam at the last possible moment, but his breloom is still too far when the fire washes over it, and he snatches his arm back to avoid the searing heat that radiates out.

The air goes from air conditioned cold to sweltering in a flash, but Blue barely feels it, anger burning white-hot in his core as flashbacks of catching Gon in Viridian Forest and training with him throughout his journey run through his mind. The shroomish was with him nearly as long as his starter, through every gym badge he’s earned, he’s always prepared to lose his pokemon defending people from wild pokemon but he just lost Gon to this nobody, this cowardly murderer

“I’m going to fucking kill you!” Blue yells over the roar of the flames, and knows that the sound swallowed his oath. He seethes fruitlessly as he cowers, sweat beading his face as he waits for the heat to fade…

…and when it finally does, quickly pulls out a burn heal and sprays it all over his prickling face and hands. The very air itself smells burnt to a kind of weird, empty scent-that’s-not-a-scent, but beneath that there’s a whiff of something else that makes his stomach turn. He knows what he’ll see before he even looks, but he has to confirm…

The magmar is on all fours, trembling with exertion, its colors dull. “Ca,” Blue reflexively says, and Soul stumbles to his feet, smoke rising from his fur, and pounces to sinks his fangs into the back of the pokemon’s neck. Maturin is okay, coming out of her shell and sniffing cautiously at the air. While Gon…

Gon is just a smoldering pile of brown fungal flesh. The magneton is a melted triple smear of strange mechanical innards, and the hypno is barely identifiable, making Blue wonder why the renegade didn’t withdraw his pokemon before realizing the underlying mistaken assumption that led to losing his own.

The renegade he fought upstairs ran for it as soon as it seemed like he might lose, and made sure to take his pokemon with him on the way out. This one is willing to sacrifice all his pokemon, maybe even himself.

It looked like he ran and used the magmar to cover his escape. But what if—

Blue whips his head around, hands dropping to his pokebelt… but nothing attacks him. Was he wrong? Did the Renegade actually run?

Well, he’ll just have to find the bastard, wherever he’s hiding. The room seems about as big as the large, open office he fought in upstairs, but much more cluttered, a virtual maze of equipment that is mostly large enough for a man to hide behind. But there’s just one entrance, if he goes there and waits, he’ll catch the renegade eventually if he hasn’t already left, and if he has left he can’t have gone far—

In the corner of his eye Blue sees Maturin suddenly pop back into her shell, and reflexively crouches as he quickly scans the area again, pulse racing. He waits for his battle calm, but…

Nothing. There’s nothing around them, and so he continues just being on edge. What was she reacting to…?

And then he remembers Red’s signal.

Shit. Something’s about to happen, and Blue isn’t in place to take advantage of it or help in any way… he hasn’t even accomplished what he came here for, and the clock is ticking.

He takes one last look around, then rushes to the generators, setting aside the need for revenge. Later he promises his anger, but the burning beast just paces more restlessly, knowing full well that if he doesn’t catch the fucker now, he probably never will.

Focus.

The metal is hot to the touch, but not damaged in any obvious way. It makes sense that they’d ensure it can’t overheat if something goes wrong, but Rive should be able to break it down… assuming his rhydon is still alive.

“Soul, Maturin, guard.” There are corpses taking up too much space now, so he backs up a little to summon his injured pokemon, two hyper potions at the ready. The rocky rhino’s hide has three holes in it, but the dark blood welling out of them makes it hard to see how deep they go. Blue quickly empties his potions into his pokemon, then grabs its lower jaw and pries it open to drop a revive down its throat for good measure.

He keeps his head on a swivel throughout, though his pokemon aren’t reacting to anything nearby. Rive’s blood has formed two small puddles around him, but hope stirs in Blue’s chest as he notices that they don’t seem to be growing.

The rhydon shifts, then opens its eyes as it takes a deeper breath in. “Good job, buddy. You did great.” Blue strokes Rive’s snout a couple times, careful of the spiral horn as his pokemon continues to shift, then steps back as his pokemon pushes himself to his feet. “Now, I need you to wreck some shit.”

Lizzy explained how building generators like this have pokeballs with electrodes in them, ready to release automatically if any fluctuation in the power goes below a certain point. He debates taking the time to remove the electrode greatballs from the generators, but he wouldn’t be able to command them, and they’re the least expensive part of what he’s about to wreck, so he just points to the container that houses them and says, “Rive, Ah.”

Rive moves gingerly to brace on his feet, and Blue almost tells him to stop so he can check for deeper injuries before his pokemon surges forward and slams his forearm down onto the generator.

“Ah,” he says again, and the next Hammer Arm dents the container enough to expose the inside. He’s pretty sure that’s enough to keep the generator from functioning, so he moves on to the next one, heart still racing as he looks around, expecting another attack just when he drops his guard.

It doesn’t come until the second generator is destroyed and he’s led his pokemon to the third. A series of flashes have Blue throwing his back against one of the damaged generator for cover as Soul growls and Maturin’s ears flare out.

Two commands get stuck competing in Blue’s throat. Should he tell Rive to destroy the third generator, or be prepared for battle? There would still be another one after, and even if he destroys all four none of this will matter if he can’t get to the second set of backup generators…

When he hears the thick hisss, it’s immediately obvious what’s coming next, and at last the battle calm descends as one hand flies to his mask straps to ensure they’re tight while the other points to the generator again. “Rive, Ah!”

THUD

“Ah!”

THUD

“Ah!”

CRACK

The smog is visible now, which means he only has a few moments… “Ah!”

There’s rending sound of metal tearing, and then Blue rushes to the last generator, points, and yells “Ah!” again.

Rive hesitates.

“Ah!’

Another hesitation, and Blue grits his teeth as Rive cocks his head from side to side. Blue can barely make out the generator himself, and rhydon have worse eyesight than humans.

Soul coughs, and Blue rushes over to spray an Antidote onto both him and Maturin to buy some time, then rushes back to Rive, unclips his pidgeot’s ball and braces his arm to aim it back the way he came. “Go, Zephyr!” There’s no guarantee that the smog will have somewhere permanent to go, but he just needs a few seconds.

His pokemon appears, but it’s a tight fit. “Gust!” Blue commands, and as soon as the pidgeot starts flapping, screeching in pain as it’s launched up and smacks its head against the ceiling, Blue points to the generator again as the smog thins for a moment. “Rive, Ah!’

THUD

“Ah!”

CRACK

Zephyr has stopped flapping, instead hopping awkwardly on one foot in a daze as he continually tries to keep his balance. Blue returns him to his ball before he hurts himself or anyone else, which is why he spots the muk that’s silently oozing its way toward his pokemon from behind, invisible to Soul’s nose in the smog.

“Soul, alert, Mat—”

“Sludge Wave!”

His pokemon haven’t managed to fully turn before the renegade’s command rings out, and Blue sees Soul’s silhouette get buried in a wave of gunk as the arcanine roars in pain.

He has to stop himself from rushing over, instead yelling “Chaf!” for Soul, “Bab!” for Maturin, and then, hoping Rive can still see enough: “AH!”

CRUNCH

It’ll have to do.

Three pokemon being poisoned at once is too much to manage, so he withdraws Rive rather than risk having him attack blind, then stops himself from rushing to where his other two pokemon are for a second time. Even against a wild pokemon that would be risky, in a situation like this it’s suicidal. The renegade took time to plan this out, if he just blindly reacts (literally) he’ll just get himself killed… plus, he’s pretty sure there were three flashes earlier, which means there’s still a third pokemon lying in wait, maybe creeping up on him right now…

The calm helps him think even through the sounds of a battle he can’t see, but no path to victory appears in his mind. Options. He has tools on his belt for disabling the renegade, but he has to get closer than this to use them…

…which may be the last thing the renegade expects him to do.

If it means letting his pokemon fend for themselves, it’s also the last thing he wants to do. But his opponent already took the strategy he thought of earlier, and with a better twist; he can’t just wait around or else his pokemon are going to succumb to poison. And still, it would be dangerous to assume the renegade will just wait, instead of having a next step that he’s carrying out even now…

Next step. That’s the key, always. Anticipating what the opponent would do with what resources he has.

Blue closes his eyes, which are mostly just showing various shades of light at this point, and breathes deep of the filtered air. What are his opponent’s goals and resources?

He’s here to protect the building’s power sources. So his goals will be to kill me or my pokemon or to stop me from destroying the generators…

which I just destroyed.

What’s he going to do when he realizes that?

He feels his battle calm slipping as he tries to think of what in the room might shield him from a Self Destruct explosion from a weezing, then realizes nothing can. He has to get out of this room, maybe get Rive to break through a wall, even if he can’t see…

No, that wouldn’t put him in a better position. He has to take the renegade out. And that’s probably not just a desire for revenge talking, though if he loses Soul or Maturin too…

Blue crouch-runs to the edge of the room, hands held out to push himself off things he runs into until he finds the wall. It feels a little like being back in Viridian, where the smoke was so thick he could barely see his hand in front of him, and the memory of the shiftry ambush makes him extra cautious as he moves toward the entrance.

The sounds of his pokemon battling continue all the while, and hopes they mask any noise he makes to whatever third pokemon the renegade surely has out, waiting for him to approach…

Blue slows, heart pounding as he imagines the possibilities and realizes he needs another edge. Something to take his opponent off guard…

He takes his shoes off, then brushes his fingers over Ion’s ball. The smog is too thick for it to detect any empty space to summon into, even if there is some. So he walks a blind circle, arms out, then unclips Ion’s ball, hefts it for a moment as he aims… then triggers the manual release.

As soon as his pokemon is out, Blue rushes for the opposite side of the room and yells “Fa!” along the way.

The flash of light isn’t particularly bright through the haze, but he hopes it’s enough to draw attention, while the memory of where his voice was draws them to a second false-location. Meanwhile…

He finds the wall again and sprints with one hand on it and the other ahead of him. His socks make each step practically soundless, and while part of him worries about stepping on something sharp (like a trap set by the renegade, if he has a pokemon to litter spikes at the entrance with), the main thing he’s thinking is that his ability to kick just got a lot less damaging.

He’s about to find out if his lessons at the dojo paid off. It wasn’t all parkour and trampolines and trainer battles, after all.

There are more flashes of light in the smog now, or rather one long illumination that he hopes isn’t Soul burning the last of his life away, and then his outstretched palm hits a body. He immediately grips and tugs as he ducks and steps past and to the side, one leg out to trip the renegade in the direction he just came.

He catches the man totally off guard, sending him down in a sprawl that nearly knocks Blue down with him, and his other hand grabs the man’s mask to tug up. The renegade grips his arm and pulls down to stop him, kicking against the floor to try to regain his feet, and Blue’s other hand brings the stun gun from his belt and presses it against the man’s stomach.

I really hope this doesn’t shock me too is his last thought before he pulls the trigger. The renegade begins to convulse, nearly yanking Blue’s arm out of his socket, but he doesn’t feel anything else, and after counting out ten seconds he releases the trigger.

The man’s grip goes slack, and Blue yanks his mask off, then stumbles to his feet and throws it randomly deeper into the room. A second later he’s taking the cuffs from his belt and yanking the renegade’s arms behind his back to cuff them together.

Finally he unclasps the man’s belt, which he takes with him as he finds the door, opens it, then closes it behind him, leaning against the cool metal and panting to catch his breath.

He feels like shit, but damn is it good to be alive.

The inner counter in his head hits sixty seconds, and now he has a choice to make. If he keeps the door closed, the renegade will die from the poison… but so will his pokemon, who are likely all injured by now. Much as he wants the renegade dead, and much as this would be a justified way to get there, he can’t lose Soul and Ion here too, and Maturin…

Blue takes one last deep breath, then summons Rive. “Guard,” he says, then opens the door and yells, “Soul, back! Maturin, back! Ion, back!”

And waits, as the smog spreads outward into the rest of the hall, to see if his pokemon are well enough to comply and follow the sound of his voice. He doesn’t hear any more sounds of battle, and after counting thirty seconds repeats, “Soul, back! Maturin, back! Ion, ba—”

Ion is the first to arrive, limping and covered in acid burns. Blue gives him a few quick sprays of potion and antidote, then says, “Guard,” and calls out again: “Soul, back! Maturin, back!” He hopes whatever Ion was fighting isn’t still conscious, let alone the muk… but they’re not wild pokemon, they won’t just attack randomly without the renegade’s commands, right? Unless the bastard was crazy enough to order that sort of thing…

He can hear the renegade start coughing, and the smog is thin enough now that he can make out his form on the ground. Blue steps forward and finds the stun gun handle, then presses the trigger again, this time until it auto-stops, which he counts at thirty seconds. He clicks the trigger again a few times, but it probably has some recharge period or safety feature, so he drops it and says, “Ion, come.”

Blue leads quickly through the thinning smog until they find the site of the battle. Soul is lying on his side beside a scorched and smoldering muk, and beside them looms a shape that Blue almost orders Ion to attack…

Until he makes out the two cannons poking up from the round shell, and realizes Maturin has finally evolved.

Blue’s hands don’t shake as they move to return his pokemon, but he does run back to the entrance once they’re back on his belt. The air is mostly clear now, at the cost of the air quality on the rest of the floor, and he hopes whoever else might be here has access to first aid kits.

Still, he doesn’t pause to find his shoes. There’s still the second power room, and unless Red has pulled off another miracle, they’re almost out of time.


Red only has a few moments to decide whether to try to keep picking the searching renegades off, or teleport back to the safety of the security room before the situation changes again: almost all at once, the renegade pokemon vanish from Kadabra’s psychic senses.

Did I win? The hopeful thought is mixed with confusion, but it doesn’t seem impossible that they’d decide to suddenly retreat in the face of the unknown. He should check with the president and see if those renegades with him are gone too…

He hears a crash somewhere on his floor.

Red pulls his mind away from Kadabra’s and settles into his own body again—

—and half-collapses against the office desk he was leaning on as the room wobbles around him.

It takes a moment to realize it’s not literally spinning, then another to recognize the vague ache in his head. Overdid it. It’s been months since he taxed himself beyond his psychic limits, he practically forgot that he could. His thoughts feel sluggish, so it takes him what feels like a minute (but is hopefully just a few seconds) to realize that what’s disorienting him is the lack of extrasensory perceptions. His own body feels strange to him.

Not a great sign. But he hears another crash, and so pushes the concern aside, almost reflexively using amnesia before catching himself and realizing that might actually be a bad idea.

Still, it might not be safe to stay here. The crashing sound is repeating, and seems to be getting closer. Is there a battle happening? And now there’s the unmistakable tone of a command, and—

BANG

Out the door and to his left. He braces himself as best he can, then sends out a psydar pulse, then another, then another. It’s less disorienting than he expected, if anything it makes him feel better, and he has to remind himself of his exhaustion to keep from the sweet surrender of immersing himself back into mergers.

He breathes in deep, grounding himself in the feel of the air in his nose and lungs. He also sends part of his attention down into his feet, to the press of the floor against him, and tightens his hands against the edge of the desks, feeling it bite into his skin as he sends another few pulses out, trying to make sense of the brief glimpses into the constellation of minds around him.

There’s an obvious cluster of sharper “excitation” down the hall compared to elsewhere. It’s hard to tell what emotions are dominant there but fear feels closest to correct… but he doesn’t sense any pokemon…

Another BANG, closer this time, makes him realize he has to risk it. Red takes one more deep breath, then merges with one of the buzzing/fearful minds on his floor…

fear[pokemon(RENEGADE)]pleasenodon’thurt[stay]smallquiethide[body]legsache[RENEGADES(how?!)]pleasesomeonecomesoon

He pulls back into himself and lets his breath out as pieces of the sensorium settle into a snapshot of what the woman was seeing/hearing…

…and abruptly merges with Kadabra to jump to another office as he finishes processing it.

There’s a renegade with a pokemon going from room to room, smashing through doors, clearly looking for something. The woman didn’t get a good look at the pokemon, didn’t recognize what she did see, so he has no idea what it was…

…but it was clearly a dark pokemon, if he can’t sense it. Which doesn’t seem coincidental.

CRASH

Red twitches, then sends his psydar out to scan the new floor he’s on (fifth? sixth?). Once again some minds are more scared than others, and again a quick and disorienting merger with one of them gives him a composite impression of a [RENEGADE] pokemon… no, he knows this one, it’s a scrafty.

He wishes he could delve into the person’s memories, but the woman he merged with isn’t actively thinking about the past—not important, he can extrapolate. The renegades have all switched to dark pokemon, which means some order went out to coordinate them in a way that feels not just deliberate, but prepared.

How did they arrive at this hypothesis so quickly? There should have been other explanations they assumed before jumping to this one, right?

A shiver of disquiet goes through him, and his heart rate redoubles as he realizes there could be a dark renegade with a dark pokemon outside his door right now. He wonders fleetingly if this is how abra feel all the time, then decides their strategy is a good one, and prepares to teleport to another office…

…to his room…

danger(?!)

Red’s breath stutters, and he frowns as he tries to concentrate. Yes, there’s danger here, that’s why he has to go home, where it’s safe…

danger!

room

silph

room

SILPH DANGER

It’s like bouncing off an invisible wall in his mind, and Red reels for a moment until…

…the partitions fall, and he’s back as his full self.

His full self is whimpering.

“Oh shit. Oh shit, oh shit oh shitohshit—”

He can’t teleport. He’s not sure why actually, are his partitions leaking, or has Kadabra just been exposed to his fear too much to trust the—FOCUS, he has to get out of here, he’ll figure out why it’s not working later—no, it IS important now, he has to know if Silph’s office still counts as safe enough to retreat to, or the security room…

Red feels his mind tipping in multiple directions at once, and one of them is the alarmed (and alarming) thought that he might have broken his partitions somehow…

Red you moron, your partitions don’t work if you’re psychically exhausted!

The inner voice sounds remarkably like Blue’s, despite the fact that he’s never really talked about psychic stuff much with Blue. Inner Blue is right, though, and in any other circumstance it would be funny that he forgot about this (and a bit nice, a sign that he’s come so far and it’s been so long since his early days of dealing with depression every night after training, forgetting about that would normally feel like a victory)—

CRASH

Okay that was definitely closer, he needs to focus, and also panic a little, because without his partitions he can’t teleport, and also lots of memories of the past ten minutes(?)twenty(?) are crowding at the same time, and also he can’t shield his secret memories from anyone who might merge with him, but then again he’s kind of revealing most of those right now anyway so he should probably be panicking more about the lack of teleporting.

Well, he should still be able to teleport outside normally, right? But that means running away, and if he does that Blue will get mad at him… well, not necessarily, not if Blue’s dead, like Aiko and his dad…

Tears prickle at Red’s eyes, and it’s a reminder from months ago to center and ground himself. Focus. Breathe. It’s hard to think clearly, and his emotions are now wildly swinging between sadness and panic, but if the renegade going door to door is about to find him, that means he’s about to be in a pokemon battle.

And now, thanks to Blue, he has an app for that.

It takes more time and effort than it should, but once he has each mental anchor in place the next gets easier.

I have a goal.

—a sense of something bright/shining/pulling/crystalline—

I have options.

—an endlessly outward branching—

The enemy has a goal.

—darkness/emptiness/contempt—

Predict their options.

—hemming of branches, cutting and winnowing down until—

Find the path.

—a bright line among the branches, a series of steps up toward the light—

Know victory.

The sense of anticipated completion/satisfaction/glory is fleeting, an echo, but its promise is enough to send calm through Red’s system. He still feels urgency, still feels a tremor of leashed energy in his limbs calling him to fight or flight, but there’s a clarity to the next steps, a sense of flow between what’s happening now and what will happen, and that flow becomes a current that pulls his limbs into movement as soon as he thinks of what he should do, what the right next move is…

holy shit Blue you battle like this all the time?—

But no, Blue’s version of this must be faster, or more efficient. Maybe it’s the mental overexertion, or the leaking partitions, or maybe it’s just because he’s new to this way of thinking, but it feels like he’s taking too long to reach each decision.

Still, it’s useful for not getting stuck on thoughts like that. What he needs to focus on now is the scrafty that’s about to smash open the door at any moment, and how Kadabra won’t be able to hit him, nor sakki affect him, without Miracle Eye, which means Kadabra needs something to buy time.

So Red will buy him time. Simple, right?

His unclips Forretress’s ball and almost summons the Bug/Steel pokemon, but stops himself. The sound would alert the Renegade, who might call for backup. He needs to surprise him.

Also, Forretress would block the doorway, which would get him stuck here, so the Renegade could just bring out a ranged attacker… if he has one that’s dark…

Magneton could Light Screen-electric attacks risky to use-fire pokemon?-kingler could block, but not much reach —

Possibilities spin out before him, but in this state of mind there’s a clarity to them, they don’t overwhelm him, they’re just a series of ideas/obstacles/problems that he checks solutions against. Snorlax and Nidoqueen were far too big for the offices, so other than Kadabra, he decided to focus largely on Bug pokemon that could beat Dark types, which meant bringing Aiko’s venomoth Winter, Ariados, and Forretress, as well as Magneton and Nidorino for wider coverage. His additional resources include his stun gun, flash bomb, sakki…

could flash bomb a ranged pokemon, buy time for Kingler to block until Miracle Eye, then use sakki…

…wait…. Can he project sakki while in this state?

The question feels like it tugs all the possibility strands into a loop. Every strategy he has relies on the ability to defeat a renegade with sakki by turning their pokemon against them, that’s the Path to Victory every tactic aims for, his only other options like the stun gun are temporary. If he can’t reach it without giving up this mental clarity…

The calm starts to fade as unease spreads through his stomach, thoughts still looping on the uncertainty until he hears footsteps approach the door. Red is still holding one arm outstretched, Forretress’s ball aimed forward, and it snaps up as he reflexively summons his pokemon just after the door is smashed open, while the other hand fires his stun gun at the renegade—

—who dodges to the side immediately upon seeing Red, but that buys time for Red to duck away from his own returning shot.

No fair! The fired darts embed in the desk, and Red scrambles away from the crackling wires that connect to them even as he feels the battle calm resettle, focus narrowing to the immediate next steps. The bulky pokemon will buy him some time, and the scary open loop in his victory path is unimportant if he just defeats his opponent’s dark pokemon he can use sakki on their non-dark ones, it won’t matter if he loses this clarity then.

“I found him, fifth floor!” the renegade yells just as Red’s “Bug Bite” sends his Bug/Steel pokemon rolling forward. It opens its metallic shell just enough to clamp hungry fangs on its stout Dark/Fighting opponent, while Red mentally commands Kadabra to use Miracle Eye—

“Fire Punch!”

Shit.

The scrafty rears back a fist that was TM modified to leak combustible fluid, and when it strikes Forretress it sends the otherwise steadfast pokemon rolling away, twitching in pain.

Red swaps Forretress out for Nidorino, but a “Zen Headbutt!” makes it clear that his responding “Double Kick” won’t even the playing field. Meanwhile the renegade is unclipping something from his belt, but it doesn’t look like a pokeball—

Red dodges behind the desk just as the second stun gun whips up and fires, and dips back into Kadabra’s mind just enough to tell that his pokemon can now see the Scrafty. He has to either use Psychic on it now and take it down, or…

He closes his eyes, merges with the scrafty, and projects the pure freedom-from-constraints that makes up sakki toward it, along with his focus on the renegade as dangerous enemy…

And then the renegade is screaming in pain as his own pokemon launches at him and shatters his pelvis with a headbutt.

Red withdraws his mind rather than stick around for the killing blow, breaths stuttering as the calm finishes leaving him entirely. “Psych-psychic,” he stammers, and the sounds of the scrafty pummeling the renegade abruptly stop.

Sweat breaks out all over Red’s body as he realizes how close he just came to dying, how much danger he’s still in, he has to get back to the security room, he has to get out of here… but he’s so tired

Nidorino…!

He forces himself to get up and look at his pokemon, who’s lying on his side without moving. Red quickly crawls over and sprays a potion onto him, hand shaking, then realizes he doesn’t have time to wait and withdraws him. More renegades are coming, he has to move…

But he feels the decision paralysis setting in again. Should he try to teleport back to the others, in case it’s “safe” enough? If that fails, would he have time to get there on his own? The renegade said this is the fifth floor, which means he just has to go down one set of stairs to reach the security room. Most of the renegades guarding the stairs and elevators are dead or crippled, so if he moves quickly…

No, if there’s even one person on the fifth or third floor that responded to the warning, Red will either have to fight them in the stairway or on the way there. He has to try teleporting.

Wait, first he should withdraw Kadabra, go to another room, buy himself a bit more time in case a searching renegade sees the body outside…

…unless taking the time to do that is what makes him lose his window of opportunity—

Battle calm, now.

He breathes in deep, head throbbing as he finds the anchors. Goal. Options. Predict enemies. Path to victory.

Okay. Better. He can recognize now that he’s not going to get any new information, and while there’s a sinking feeling in his stomach that he’s missing something, that there are options he’s not thinking of, clever paths to victory he’s not seeing… it doesn’t matter, time is the main limiter, so it’s probably better to just roll the dice with the odds he has rather than wait any longer and have them get any slimmer.

He forces himself to his feet, walks to Kadabra to put a hand on his pokemon’s shoulder, then closes his eyes and starts focusing on the security room, anchoring the experience of being there in his memory and projecting that to Kadabra…

Rapid footsteps in the hall goddammit I was so close—!

“Peter’s down!” someone yells, and Red’s hands fly to return Kadabra and unclip a flashbang from his belt even as he thinks what kind of a renegade is named “Peter?”

A moment later the newcomer runs over to the body in the hall and crouches to check Peter’s pulse, then turns to look inside the room and spots Red just as he throws his flashbang at the renegade’s face.

He has two seconds to turn and cover his eyes with the arm holding Kadabra’s ball, while his now-free hand unclips Ariados and aims it behind him, using his armpit as a brace and waiting until the BANG to trigger the manual release. “Fell Stinger!” he yells through ringing ears.

If the renegade gives a command to his own pokemon Red doesn’t hear it as he crouches and crab-walks behind the desk. Reclip Ariados ball, spray potion in ears, brace arm to resummon Kadabra—

When he peeks over the desk he sees Ariados fighting a mightyena with fire dripping from its fangs as it lunges forward and bites off one of his pokemon’s legs. It takes another jab doing it, but it’s not a lethal wound, and the next bite takes off his Ariados’s head.

Losing the spinarak he caught in Viridian at the start of his journey will probably hurt more, at some point. For now Red is too focused on making sure Kadabra’s Miracle Eye is working so he can turn the mightyena against its master—

—who withdraws it and swaps for a cacturne.

Oh come on Red yells in frustration… except he doesn’t, he didn’t drop the battle calm yet, so he just feels it in some part of him as the rest stays focused on the next step: sending Winter out and trying to predict what TM might give the cacturne coverage against a venomoth. He doesn’t think cacturne can learn any fire or psychic moves, and either way he should be able to take it out quickly with a Signal Beam which he does—

—just as the renegade also summons a golbat, which starts tearing into Winter before Red can switch mental modes and turn it back against its trainer.

Red tries to return the disemboweled venomoth to its ball, arm shaking, but the cacturne is just barely still alive, and hits it with a Dark Pulse first. Red doesn’t have time to check if Winter survived, too busy getting Kadabra to use Miracle Eye on the Cacturne so he can finish it off, then kill the golbat that’s feasting on the renegade.

His memory feels like it’s dropping seconds between events, things are happening too fast for him to track, and on top of everything the mixed smell of various kinds of blood makes Red’s stomach churn. He stays alert for another few moments, body buzzing with adrenaline even while his thoughts feel scattered and slow, but even without the battle calm he knows what his next step has to be.

If he’s right, this won’t take partitions, all he has to do is focus on the fact that it is, in fact, safe at the security room, which isn’t hard because it is safe, it’s in fact the safest he can be while still in this building—

—he could be leaving though, he could go to the top floor and teleport out—

—he can teleport out from the security room too if he needs to, but there are allies there that will keep them safe, now let’s go—

That last burst of projection makes the world twist, and Red is abruptly aware that the smells are different. He opens his eyes to see the others have their pokemon out, no doubt ready for to spring into action at his signal.

They don’t look particularly happy to see him, though maybe that’s more about how he looks. “Shit, kid, you alright?” Valentin asks.

“Fine,” Red says, nearly lightheaded with relief as his whole body seems to unclench. It worked. He’s safe.

“Did something happen?” Sicong asks. “Is the president—”

Like last time, Burrel holds a hand up to quiet the others before simply saying, “Report.”

Red just wants to curl up on the floor and rest for a bit, but he’s not safe yet, not really, no one here is. “The beedrill nest is officially kicked, Sir.” Not what he intended to say, it’s a line from a movie that he barely remembers, but he feels like he’s thinking through molasses and it’s just what came out, so he decides to just roll with it rather than clarify. He spots a cup on the desk and steps over to take a long swallow of whatever is in it… ah right, coffee, that’s what he was smelling, that makes sense. “Sorry,” he says to Valentin, guessing it was his, but a moment later the CHRO is handing him a fresh cup. “Thanks. What did I roll with?”

“What?”

“Sorry.” He takes another deep swallow of his new cup, not even minding that it’s too hot, and way too bitter. Caffeine might help him think more clearly, and sugar, maybe that would help too…

“Verres?”

“Right, yeah.” Focus. Breathe. Keep things simple. “Um. I can’t teleport anymore. Inside the building, I mean.” That’s not relevant. “I’m lucky this worked, I’m just… I mean what I’m trying to say is I think I’ve reached my limits, psychically.” Not untrue, and also less complicated than the full explanation. He’s probably leaking all over Lin, but if so the other psychic is being polite about it. So long as he doesn’t think about secrets, like… He quickly drinks more too-hot-too-bitter coffee. “But I think I got… maybe ten of them?”

“Ten,” Jenson repeats, voice flat. “Arceus wept. And there’s still more?”

“Uh, maybe? Sorry, I kind of lost count. Probably still the ones in the storage room, at least. I can’t tell because they all switched to dark pokemon.” All at once. Red feels another twist of disquiet, but he’ll think about it later, if there is a later. “Also two found me, and I’m down to just two healthy pokemon.”

“You beat two renegades in a pokemon battle?” Stocky asks, and she sounds more incredulous than impressed.

“I cheated. But… I think that’s all I can do on my own. Sorry.” Is he apologizing too much? He drinks more coffee, wishing his stomach would stop churning. He should check if Winter survived, and Nidorino…

“You’ve done more than we could have hoped,” Burrell says. “It’s now or never, but we’ve got a new target.”

“What do you mean?”

“Someone deactivated one of the building’s backup power rooms,” Valentin says. “I doubt it was the renegades. If you guys take out the second one, I can take us off the grid and they won’t be able to turn on a light, let alone get anything out of storage.”

“We were just debating whether to send everyone, or split up to rescue the hostages,” Sicong says.

Even with his fuzzy/scattered thoughts it’s not hard to guess who was on what side of that debate. He drains his cup and puts it down. “What should I do?”

“Nap,” the CHRO says.

“She’s right, Verres, you look on the edge and sound over it,” Stocky says.

“My friend, Blue, he’s probably the one that took the power station out. I have to make sure he’s okay.”

Burrell studies him a moment, then nods. “Won’t say no to the extra help. What pokemon do you have left?”

“Kadabra and… magneton, my others might… hang on.” He takes his pokedex out and checks, heart sinking as Winter’s ball registers no life signs. Sorry, Aiko. His nidorino is dead too. He leaves both balls on the desk, then checks Forretress and feels some tension ease. “Forretress, with some healing.”

Sicong unclips a ball from his belt and says “Catch” as he tosses it to Red.

Red’s hand moves automatically to reclip Forretress and track the ball, which lands solidly in his palm. It’s a diveball, and he looks curiously at the head of security, who has his pokedex out.

“Your reflexes seem fine. Keep out your dex, I’m transferring that lapras to you. Just stay behind us and use Icy Wind on anyone that tries to take us by surprise. Understand? If you see an opportunity to use your powers on the renegades, do it, but other than that just play it safe.”

“Yes, Sir.” Red’s gaze lingers on the ball as he takes his pokedex out and waits for Sicong to transfer ownership. Lapras are rare, and pretty powerful. “Will it, uh, fit? In the halls?”

“It’s young, meant for personal ferry.” Sicong’s smile is wry. “I brought it specifically for indoor battles, in case… well, this.”

“Get your last preparations in order,” Burrell is telling the others. “The renegades said that if we bust that door they’ll kill the hostages, so we’d better hope they were bluffing, or that they’re too distracted by what’s been happening to follow through, because one way or another, we’re ending this now.” The police commissioner glances at Red. “Anything else you want to tell us about your powers, Verres?”

“Uh, I think you have the gist. But I might not be able to use them any more.” Especially since they might endanger the hostages, which is the last thing he wants them to be thinking he might do.

Still, he recognizes the calculating speculation in the two hunters’ gazes, and tries his best to ignore them. The pokedex chimes as it finishes registering the lapras, and Red clips the ball to his belt as it starts the basic training sims. He still feels like he’s thinking through quicksand, but he needs to see this through before he can rest.

And then he’s probably going to have to have a very long talk with the police.

111: Shell Game

Blue is just arriving at the elevator when Red and his kadabra pop into existence in front of him.

The utter weirdness of seeing someone do that indoors is buried by a wave of relief, and Blue’s steps only falter for a moment before he strides forward to pull his friend into a hug.

“Holy shit am I glad to see you.” He pulls back to look Red over. “You’re okay? What happened to Silph? Are there other hostages?”

Blue registers a moment later that Red didn’t hug him back, and there’s a disturbing moment where he meets his friend’s gaze and Red just stares back at him in blank incomprehension. Then his crimson eyes clear and he smiles and he’s the one hugging Blue, hard.

“Good to see you too. I’m fine, and I don’t know yet. I came to check on you first.”

The words send a wash of warmth through Blue’s chest, but… “What do you mean, first? Weren’t you with him?”

“Yeah, in the security office. But he left once all the major people here were vetted. Everything started a few minutes later.”

“How did you—”

“Hang on, sorry, there isn’t really time for questions, I only have ten minutes before the police chief tells the hunters to break out, which will kill the hostages. Which won’t matter since they’ll be breaking out to bring the whole building down.”

Blue boggles at him for a moment before he gets it. Hunters wouldn’t allow renegades to escape, with or without their prize. “Unless we can stop them. Where are they?”

“We’re not sure, but probably the lab on the fifth floor.”

“Alright, I was heading there anyway.”

“Blue, you should—”

“I’m staying, Red, don’t waste time—”

“I’m not, I know I can’t talk you out of it, but bring out Tops so I can tell him to Miracle Eye you.”

What for? Blue almost asks, but realizes that a moment later too. Red wants to make sure Blue can teleport away if needed.

Blue almost starts a different argument about how he wouldn’t use it even if he had the option; being willing to give up on everyone here is bad enough, but it would also be the end of his aspirations. No one’s going to follow him as Champion against the stormbirds knowing he’s the sort of person who will just teleport away and leave others behind if things get bad.

But if he says that, Red might not teleport out himself, and Blue’s not sure that would actually be the right choice for him. This is different than Vermilion, if the building is being brought down it would be an order by the commissioner to stop the renegades, and he wouldn’t be able to save anyone else anyway…

But none of that matters right now anyway. “I don’t have him on me, and I’m not leaving to get him either. Especially not if we only have ten minutes. Now what’s the plan?”

Red still looks like he wants to argue, but after a moment just shakes his head. “I don’t really have one yet. They’re probably in the labs, or storage if they’re trying to get the raw materials and blueprints separately.”

“Do they need Silph for that, or is he just a big hostage to keep security away?”

“Sicong—the head of security—said the Master Ball is in multiple parts that are each independently secured by lab workers, and each requires Silph.”

Blue runs a hand through his hair, staring at the ceiling. “So they need multiple hostages to get everything, but Silph is the only one they need for all of them. We either get him away from them, or save enough other hostages that they can’t get every part… but they still might get some parts.” Blue’s not sure how hard it would be for others to create the rest of the technology with a sample, but it makes his stomach clench just thinking about renegades trying.

“Less hostages also means less dead people if they bring the building down,” Red reminds him. “Or if the renegades clean their tracks.”

“Right. Either way, best strat may be to go up the floors taking out any renegades we find.”

Red hesitates. “That… may be right. But maybe we should split up first.”

“Ha, right…” His smile fades as he takes in Red’s expression. “Wait, you’re serious? What kind of shitty horror movie did you step out of? Just because you can teleport—”

“That too, but also because I can… uh, maybe turn renegade pokemon against them.”

Blue stares at him a moment, unsure of what to say. He’s aware that time is ticking by but can’t think of how to react to that besides “Red, what the fuck are you talking about?”

And it’s like the words had to be said before his brain caught up with things, and Blue holds a hand up while the other covers his eyes. It’s so obvious now, and he can’t believe he didn’t think of it, or put the pieces together after the casino…

“In Celadon,” he says, each word coming out slowly. “You used sakki on them. Who else knows?”

Red doesn’t respond right away, and Blue uncovers his eyes to see his friend’s naked fear. “I don’t know if now is the time—”

“Right, fucking meta-honesty, I know, it’s not. But we’re going to talk about this.” Blue realizes that the words are coming out too hard, and he takes a breath. “I’m not mad or anything, Red, I just… it’s a lot.” If the others in his group knew… if people assumed he knew…

Still. Not the time. And he can’t deny it changes things.

“What if you face a dark pokemon?” he asks, thoughts jumping ahead to re-analyze their situation with the new resource at their disposal. “Miracle Eye takes a moment, and if there’s more than one pokemon out you’re screwed. Hell, so is your Kadabra if you can’t get them to turn on their trainer first.”

“I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but I need to check the top floors, and I can’t take you with me. So the alternative is that you wait for me to find out where Silph is, and if he’s easier to reach from the bottom with two of us, I’ll come back.”

Now it’s Blue’s turn to hesitate, and it bothers him how much relief he feels. He’s not suicidal, he doesn’t want to face danger for nothing, but he resents the idea of just standing here and not helping as minute after critical minute passes by. Speaking of which…

“Look, there could be someone getting killed a floor above us—”

“There isn’t, unless they’re dark.”

“—two floors, then, or three, or whatever. See, this is useful, we know to skip a few now. Why don’t we at least start looking?”

“Because there’s no way we’ll make it to the top floor, and if the president is there, or the ones just below it—”

“I know, I know. Fucking… fine, just go. But I can’t just stay here, not if he might be a few floors up!”

Red rubs his face, then sighs. “I know. But even if you find him, won’t be able to find you, or find out. You might save him just in time for the renegades to run outside and blow the building up.”

Blue feels the bitter frustration over being dark rise up in him again for the first time in what feels like months. “You can find my pokemon, though, right? I’ll keep Maturin out as much as possible. If I find him and have a minute to spare, I’ll bring all my pokemon out. Then you can tell them to wait, and find a way to me.”

“Right, but I won’t be able to signal you if… okay, how about I project fear into Maturin to make her go into her shell? If I do that, if she’s not in a fight and suddenly goes into her shell I mean, that’s a signal.”

“Of what?”

“I don’t know, I can’t make her pop in and out precisely enough to do any sort of complex message, I’m just thinking out loud because we don’t have time!”

“Alright, fuck, just… use it if you’re about to do something big that might be a distraction?”

“Yeah, alright. No wait, what if I use it to signal you to get out of the building?”

“I’d rather plan for success, now come on, let’s get moving!”

“Oh! Wait, hold on, one minute, okay? Don’t leave yet, I just realized when you said… you being here might change things!” Red steps back and puts a hand on Kadabra’s shoulder.

“Change things for what? Where are you—”

“Just hang on, I’ll be right back.” His friend’s gaze goes distant, and then he closes his eyes.

“Red don’t you da—”

Red and his kadabra vanish.

“—re fucking dammit!” Blue stomps in a brief circle, venting his frustration in a prolonged, low yell, then starts to count down from sixty.

Once he finishes he takes two steps toward the elevator before groaning and walking back to where he was to start counting down again from 30 while cursing Red throughout.

“…fourteen idiot thirteen moronic bidoof twel—”

And then Red is back. Once again he stares at Blue with a blank look on his face for a moment, then grins and hugs him, unperturbed by Blue’s scowl.

“Thanks for waiting. We now have fifteen minutes, and… here.”

Red pulls back and hands him a container ball. Blue raises a brow, then releases it behind him and opens the box to reveal a keycard, a datapad, and…

“Woah.” He picks up the police belt, slots between each pokeball slot filled with a stun gun, sleep spray, flash bomb… the good stuff, too, not what’s been sold to civilians. “You got this from—”

“One of the cops offered hers. Commissioner Burrell said to consider yourself deputized ‘for the duration of the incident.’ The pad has the building’s blueprints on it.”

“Right.” Blue feels the weight of the belt in his hands. It’s… heavier than he expected, even without pokeballs on it. He’d have to be careful it doesn’t throw off his movements. “Thanks.”

“Yeah. I’ve got some of my own stuff that I bought months ago, if you want extras?”

“No, you might need them. Even with sakki.” He still doesn’t know how to feel about that, but puts it out of his mind until later. Right now he just raises a fist, and Red bumps it, then pulls him into a third hug. Blue’s happy to squeeze briefly back before pulling away. “Be careful.”

“You too.” Red puts a hand on his kadabra’s shoulder, the second trainer-owned pokemon in the world to learn Miracle Eye, and the whole reason they’re here in the first place—

“Wait!”

—Red jerks his hand back as if stung. “What?”

“Copy my battle calm.” Blue’s heart is beating hard in his chest at how close he came to letting his friend leave without it, not out of a choice on his part, but just from forgetting that he’d asked and could copy it at all.

From Red’s expression, it takes him a moment to remember too, and then his eyes widen. “Are you sure? You said you wanted time—”

“I said I’d think about it, actually. And yeah, I meant over a few days or something, but I also meant what I said about not being able to live with myself if something happens to you and I didn’t give you every bit of help I could.” Blue shrugs. “Plus, something happens to you today in particular, I might not be able to live at all. So stop wasting time and do it.”

“It might not work, you’re not actually in a battle—”

“What, you think you’re the only one who can practice entering different mental states? Just do it, see for yourself.”

Red bites his lip, then nods, and Blue closes his eyes and thinks of the moments when his battle calm was the most clear: in the stadiums, facing down Brock and Misty and Surge and Erika and Koga. The eye of the world on him, no need to worry about unseen wild pokemon joining the fight, no need to worry about anyone else around him.

Just the purity of the fight. The purity of seeking victory, and the paths open for him to take.

It’s harder doing it deliberately, compared to the natural transition that happens as soon as he’s in a battle. He feels it settle around him, little by little, slowing his pulse and collapsing his awareness to just those things that matter right now; finding the renegades, and stopping them by any means necessary.

The paths immediately span out around him, leading outdoors where he could use Rive to try to bring the building down himself, or deactivate its sprinkler systems and use Soul to start an inferno. But those paths fade a moment later as new constraints are added. No renegade acts, nothing that causes casualties, strict time limit…

“I got it, Blue. You can stop.”

He blinks, then takes a breath as he lets his awareness spread back out again. Red’s tone was odd: calm and intense at once, focused and detached, and after a moment Blue realizes it’s what he must sound like, when he talks during battles.

Something feels hollow in his chest, hearing it coming from someone else. But at the same time… he feels less alone, too.

Red smiles, and Blue realizes he must still be feeling what he is, after which Red withdraws his kadabra. “Okay, you should be dark again in a few moments.”

Blue wants to ask how the battle calm feels to him, but there’s no time. He also wants to ask if Red picked up anything else when he was in his mind, or whatever he was doing, but just the thought of that makes him feel anxious and angry, so he just says, “Good.”

“Thank you, Blue. I feel like… I can do this, now, maybe.”

“You’d better.”

“I set an alarm to give me reminders. You should do the same.” Red resummons his kadabra, then checks his phone. “We’ve got thirteen minutes left.”

For a moment the sheer absurdity of trying to do this in that short a time sends a wave of hopelessness through him, making his knees suddenly weak. It’s not a feeling Blue is used to, and he forces it away to take out his own phone, setting alarms for the ten, seven, five, two, and one minute marks. “Set. See you soon.”

Red opens his mouth, closes it, then just nods and puts his hand on Kadabra’s shoulder. “You too.”

Blue waits until Red disappears, then rushes past him to press the elevator button…

…only to get an error message about damage to the machinery.

Because of course they’d do that. He just took for granted that if the power is on…

Blue groans and spins on his heel before he runs for the nearest stairwell, but sees the smoke before he even reaches them and wonders why the fire alarm hasn’t gone off, until he realizes what it must be.

It’s just a faint haze at first, but quickly thickens as he runs down the hallway until he can barely make out the smoke coming out the bottom of the door leading into the stairwell. He trusts his mask to filter it, but when he throws the door open there’s nothing but a wall of smog, and he finds himself suddenly wondering just what the limits on the filters are. Is there even enough oxygen in the air in front of him to breathe if filtered?

He closes the door before the whole hall gets filled, relying on his battle calm to keep him focused through the rising desperation. He summons Maturin, as he promised Red, but there definitely isn’t space here to summon Zephyr and blow the smoke back up the stairs. He could order Rive to break down the wall opposite the door, start venting the smog elsewhere, but if more keeps pouring down from above then it wouldn’t matter much once he starts climbing.

What are his other options? He could try to light it, but he’s pretty sure it’s the type that’s not flammable, and he’s not sure how to test that safely. He can’t take a slow and steady approach, he needs to get up the stairs quick. He can’t damage the building and risk hurting people, he could… fly through a window? Zephyr wouldn’t fit through them but he could get him to hover and try to climb through… But if they caught him as he was trying to get in he wouldn’t stand a chance.

He takes his phone out to look at the blueprints Red gave him, tapping the icons along the side of the digital model until he finds the one that highlights power flow. It looks like the backup power can come from generators in the basement or the sixth floor… so even if he takes out the basement one, they’ll still have the one on six, which he can’t reach.

As his eyes roam the blueprints, most of which are marked up in ways he can’t understand, he starts tapping the icons along the side at random, highlighting a different variety of objects and subsystems. Knock down a few pillars to cause the building to tilt…? Send powder through the air systems? No, they probably have masks…

His phone buzzes to warn him of the ten minute mark, and Blue feels his teeth gritting before he forces himself to take a deep breath. There has to be something he can do from here to disrupt them… Glen would likely be fighting his way up the stairs by now. What would Elaine do? Maybe find a way to bring the renegades to him… yeah, that’s probably right, though it would be hard given they’re here for something specific. He’d have to threaten their ability to get it, which would require reaching them…

…or maybe not. Lizzy made sure everyone on the team knew how to identify and operate them after the Rocket Casino. If he can cut power to the building, they’d rely on the backup generators. If he can knock those out… maybe use Ion to overload the internal grid?

For lack of any better ideas, he withdraws Maturin and carefully searches for the handrail, then moves down along it, counting out four flights before he starts groping for the door.

There’s just one more floor below where he is now, and it seems much of the smog is actually diffused before it gets here. Blue walks through empty halls featuring more office space, some labs, a workout gym, and… then there it is.

He summons Maturin, checks to see if she has an urge to hide yet, then walks into the building’s backup power room.

“Excuse me!” calls a voice from deep in the humming machinery. “Whoever you are, you’re not supposed to be in here!”

“How do you know that if you don’t know who I am?” Blue shouts back, walking around the room to mark each of the four generators that hold the voltorbs. Now he just needs to check if they’re hooked to automatic backups…

There’s no response right away, and Blue wonders if he’s stumped the inquirer. Then he hears rapidly approaching footsteps, until a thin, tall man in a white coat spots him and scowls. “You’re Blue Oak.”

“That’s right. Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

“Me? I work here. Or nearby, in the labs.” The man looks nervous. “I heard there were renegades upstairs, and I, well, I thought I should just… hide. You can… join me if you’d like?”

Blue takes out Rive’s ball as his phone buzzes another time warning. “Nah, I think I’ll just wreck this stuff. You should leave the building, some hunters might bring it down if we can’t stop the renegades.”

“Oh.”

It’s just one word. One syllable. But the tone is enough to get Blue to turn to the scientist, which is why he catches him nudging aside his lab coat to pick two greatballs from his belt.

Blue has summoned Soul and Rive by the time the other man has brought out a magneton and hypno, and his last thought before the battle calm takes over is Not again…


Red appears facing the window, Saffron City spread out below him, and his first thought is Wait, this isn’t my bedroom.

The dissonance that spreads outward from the thought hitting another (of course not, it’s Silph’s private office) is almost painfully intense, and then his partitions all drop, leaving him his full self again.

He spins in place, hand dropping from Kadabra’s shoulder to his belt, but there’s no one else here, dark or otherwise, and the relief makes him brace against his pokemon.

Kadabra reflects his feelings with a mix of confused alarm, and Red quickly sends reassurance back as the pokemon strokes his whiskers. The motion would look thoughtful on a human, but Red knows it’s a sign of nervousness, a way to self-regulate back down from the triggered state of being prepared for battle.

He’s relieved this worked at all. The first floor hallway seemed like a more sure bet, given how unlikely it was for any renegades to be there. It was still a relief that he was right, and Red isn’t sure how many times his pokemon is going to keep trusting the fake feelings of safety he projects onto these teleport locations if this is how he keeps reacting afterward. It helped that Blue was the first thing he saw when he got downstairs, but for all he knows the trick won’t work after this, or after the first time a renegade or pokemon is around where he teleports to.

Speaking of which…

Red extends his senses past the walls around him. There’s one mind about where he estimates the front reception area to be, and a couple more on the opposite side of the floor. Even without a merger he can recognize the pulses of alarm and fear radiating from them all, and dipping in quickly confirms that they’re the receptionist and a couple other administrative assistants.

Barring potential dark minds or shielded psychics, there are no renegades on this floor.

Red pulls his senses back and takes a moment to look around before he starts searching the floors below. The room is as he remembers it, which is good considering how easy it is to disrupt a teleportation site. The most clear emotional memory Red has that’s rooted to a location was standing by the window, and if someone had moved the small desk beside the nearby armchair it would have invalidated it.

(Now that he knows that teleporting indoors isn’t a hard limit he can’t help but wonder how absolute the “unoccupied space” one is, but he’s also decided to never try it given the imagined risks.)

Whatever happened once Silph left the security room, it didn’t take place here, and he doubts anyone else will come in here during the crisis. Meaning if Red needs to teleport back here it’ll probably stay a valid destination.

So he reaches down to unlatch then open the window, stomach a painful knot. If he needs to teleport here again, it will probably be because they’re about to bring the building down. Which would mean abandoning everyone here, including Blue.

It’s hard to think about it without mentally flinching, so he doesn’t let himself dwell on the chasm of horror and pain and guilt lying on the other side of the thought. Instead he invokes Blue’s battle calm, and immediately feels the tension in his shoulders relax as his attention shifts with the change in his mood to one that better recognizes why he did what he did: namely, that not taking a few seconds to give himself the option to leave would have been more distracting. With the escape plan in mind, he feels like he can think a little more clearly.

Red takes a breath to center himself, then sends his mind down and outward through the 10th and 9th floors.

The most obvious draws on his attention are the handful of other psychic minds that are desperately reaching out to those around them, trying to communicate with someone or understand what’s happening. Red does his best to query them for information, but most psychics aren’t good at explicitly talking through their mental senses, particularly with strangers. When he sends them an impression of President Silph with the feeling of searching for, all he gets back is uncertainty and worry.

He also checks if Renegades are around them, but each denies that as well. One sends back the impression of elevators, and Red does his best to search in that direction without feeling anything.

He wonders if he should take it as a clue to get in an elevator and go lower, until he realizes he should be looking for the weaker signals of pokemon, the same way he plans to locate Blue, and a moment later he has them.

The 9th floor has a raticate and arbok radiating readied-alertness by where he guesses the elevators are, and there’s a distinct sharpness in the fear of the minds in the adjacent rooms. From what Blue explained happened downstairs, it’s easy to guess that a renegade is standing guard at the elevator.

Which confirms that they’re trying to restrict movement within the building. But then why not be posted on every floor?

Maybe because there aren’t enough of them, and they only need to stop people from getting on certain floors. It makes sense that there wouldn’t be enough to cover everything that matters, but does that mean they can’t cover the stairs? Or are there just dark pokemon there?

If so, his powers won’t do much for him unless he can hit them with Miracle Eye first, which means he’ll need interference. A flashbang might buy him some time, but it would blind Kadabra too. He’d have to run interference with his other pokemon in those cases.

Which means the first thing he has to do is get better pokemon on his belt.

Red enters the rest of the office space and goes straight to the PC, thankful for the opportunity to bring his strongest pokemon… particularly since the ones he has on him are also some he’d be particularly sad to lose.

He knows it’s a cold way to think about his pokemon, but he knows even Leaf would admit to favoritism like that, even as she pushes for people to treat all their pokemon as valued friends. It’s not like he planned it this way; if anything it’s more of a natural consequence of spending less time with pokemon he has that are already strong, which leads to less of a bond with them.

His fingers fly over the keys, hands swapping the balls in the slot again and again to trade each pokemon on his belt until…

Magneton, Nidoqueen, Kingler, Forretress… Hypno…?

His phone vibrates four times. Eleven minutes left. He skips Hypno and brings Dodrio instead, clips it to his belt, then takes a deep breath and merges with Kadabra fully to check the 8th floor…

Interpreting through Kadabra’s psychic senses, stronger though they are, comes with the downside of not being able to communicate in nearly as nuanced a way. The psychics can tell they’re being probed by a kadabra that’s merged with its trainer, and he can tell that they can tell that, but it’s much harder for them to know whether it’s friend or foe, and most minds immediately close up.

The non-psychics (and a few sensitives) don’t give him much info, so he searches for pokemon again and finds more by the elevator. Same with the 7th and 6th, and that’s where his pokemon’s psychic range ends.

Why all these floors? he wonders again. Is there really something they need on all of them? Or is it just misdirection?

No, that’s not likely. If he wants to get what they’re doing, he needs to think like the renegades.

They have a goal. They have a plan to achieve that goal. And they have expectations of what others might do to stop them. They may not be able to predict someone like him would be here, but if he imagines what others could try…

He closes his eyes and thinks. I’m a renegade leader who just successfully took hostages, including President Silph, and need to get something on a few floors. I have a bit of time before a big response comes, and I need that time to convince the hostages to give me access to the Master Ball, or maybe just hack it. What could stop me, after I trapped the hunters in a specific room?

Someone like Blue, coming in from outside maybe, riding up the elevator shaft or going up the stairs. Or someone they missed on a higher floor making their way down.

What would he be worried about, once the elevator shaft and staircases are covered…?

What Red thinks of is what happened in the Casino. Glen and Elaine couldn’t find a way down to the secret lowest level, so they created a way down.

He’s not sure how tough these floors are, but he doubts they’re harder to get through than those were.

And these renegades, whether they’re part of the same group or not, are clearly worried about the same thing. If they just defend the floor they’re on, they risk being dropped in on or attacked from below.

Which isn’t too different from wild pokemon safety precautions, now that he thinks about it. If the renegades are smart…

He sends his senses out through kadabra again, and tries his best to recognize the species through their sensorium, comparing each to his experiences merging with various pokemon.

Golbat… raticate… arbok… sandslash?…

Red’s heart sinks as he recognizes the pattern; pokemon that have particularly sharp senses for detecting sound and vibrations, the latter of which are unlikely to be put to sleep by sound attacks. The renegades themselves probably have earplugs, so using a wigglytuff is out. And now he recognizes the weezings in the stairwells, which are likely filling them with smog…

Something else stirs inside him beside the growing dread, however. As he finds more and more evidence for how well prepared these renegades are, there’s a sensation similar to the one he feels when figuring out how to win in a trainer match, but even more so. Not just competitiveness, not just the interest in how to solve the puzzle being presented to him, but something more.

They can’t get away with this.

And then—

I can’t let them get away with this.

These people came here with a plan for all this, preparing for people to try to stop them. But not for him.

Indoor teleporting and sakki are the two largest things they can’t account for. Sakki works through physical barriers, but he can’t use it through Kadabra. Which means his first step, to be able to do anything, is go to a lower floor.

If he assumes they’re all on the 4th-9th floors, whatever they need is probably on the 6th or 7th. He doesn’t have long to plan, but a quick premortem makes it obvious what would go wrong if he starts fighting renegades before he gets to where they are; those in charge notice their allies are being taken out, and kill the hostages before they escape.

No, that doesn’t make sense. They’re not just there to act as an early warning, they’re there to slow would-be heroes down.

But if he takes out the ones on one floor, then the next, then the next… at some point they’d probably run for it, right? Maybe?

His phone vibrates again, five quick pulses this time, and he forces himself to ignore that worry. There’s no sense trying to avoid any plan where they find out something is happening, he doesn’t have the luxury to think through a stealthy approach.

Which means he has to hit them fast and hard, and hope he can get where he needs to go faster than they can stop him.

Less than ten minutes. He can’t delay any more.

Red runs to the elevator, ignoring the surprised gasp from the receptionist as he runs through the entrance hall, then skids to a stop as he sees the Out of Order message above the elevator (Of course…!) and rushes for the stairwell… which is absolutely full of smoke so thick he can barely see anything through it.

Damn it, he can’t just rush down there blind, not if there might be some dark pokemon hiding in the smoke and ready to attack anything that comes near. Worse, Blue wouldn’t even have psychic senses to tell if non-dark pokemon are waiting for him…

“Graaah!” The sound pushes its way out of his chest as the frustration inside builds to a painful boil. He doesn’t have time for this, he needs a way down, now. If only he had another teleport point besides the security room and lobby…

Think. List your resources. Pokemon, survival gear… climbing gear? Projection/sakki, reception… mirroring…

mirroring…

The idea stills his breath, and he wastes a few precious moments vacillating between feeling like an absolute idiot for not thinking of it months ago and telling himself it’s too absurd to actually work before he finally convinces himself that the idea isn’t so absurd that he can’t try it.

By the time his phone vibrates again nine minutes he’s already merged with one of the office workers two floors down, taking in every part of their sensorium and emotional state he can and locks it into a distinct mental state even as he builds a partition around it all.

Now the tricky part: getting the office worker to move, without putting him in danger. Red could at least tell he wasn’t in the room with a dark renegade, but the man is lying on the ground as instructed, understandably scared of doing anything that might draw attention to himself.

Luckily it’s not hard to project a sense of urgency and restlessness. Combined with a bit of the man’s own natural urge to stay hidden, he decides after a few moments to find another hiding spot, after which Red puts his hand on Kadabra’s shoulder and focuses… first on the saved mental state, then on putting up the partitions to feel completely safe as he returns home…

…Red blinks as he looks around the strange room. Warm brown and tan rug, clean white walls, a fancy desk with some pictures of children beside the monitor… this is an office, not his bedroom…

…right. It worked.

It worked.

In any other circumstance he would be ecstatic. Forget “free teleportation,” he’s just discovered the next best thing to “perfect” teleportation. Being able to teleport to any point anyone he can make psychic contact with feels like it opens an endless sea of possibilities, like the world just became much smaller…

…but he has to survive today for any of that to matter, and so he sends his senses down through the floor and finds the highest weezing at the stairwell that he first detected after merging with Kadabra.

It’s still being commanded to keep spewing smog downward, but Red can tell it’s feeling the strain of keeping it going for so long. He can predict what would happen once sakki is projected well enough, but first…

He spreads his awareness down to the next floors to find more employees that seem safe to nudge into moving (reminding the anxious voice inside that insists he’s going to get someone killed that everyone here might die if he doesn’t do something so maybe we should put a hold on debating the morality of this and ignoring the protests from that part that ‘worry about morality later’ isn’t a good sign for whatever we’re doing), then copies their mental states too, creating partition after partition to set a number of teleport points that he can use to go between the floors.

Three more precious minutes pass five before he’s ready, and…

…a couple…

…hops later…

…Red comes back to himself in yet another individual office, and this time when he spreads his awareness out he finds President Silph almost immediately.

The older man’s mind radiates some mix of worry and outrage and helplessness, as well as something that feels like… guilt, and nervousness…

Red sinks deeper into the merger, throwing the usual confidentiality worries aside as he tries to process the president’s sensorium. It’s hard to get an accurate mirror of what a pokemon sees and hears and feels because of their different biology, but with humans the difficulty comes from not getting distracted by the richness of their thoughts and experience.

On one level, what Red perceives through President Silph’s mind is a room with about a dozen people in it, half of which have pokemon out. But it takes him nearly a minute to process all that, because what he actually experiences is—

room(storage), people-enemies-traitors(OUTRAGE)-renegades(?)-pokemon(DANGER)-actors(?)—

confidentmustbeconfidentdon’tshowfear—

legdiscomfort, painful, desire-to-sit—

—before he has to pull away from the merger and try to focus on the details of the room and its inhabitants. Three hostages besides Silph… three renegades, with… a crobat, a mightyena, an arbok, and a sandslash… lots of big containers and tanks around, along with a few PCs… the lab’s storage room, if he’s understanding the blueprints correctly.

The tightness in Red’s chest has eased considerably. Silph is alive, and hasn’t given in yet. He almost sends the president some psychic reassurance, but if Silph reacts in the wrong way that might tip the renegades off that something is up.

So instead he takes one…

…more…

…hop…

“I found him,” Red says to the room of startled police and Silph employees as soon as his partitions fall and he remembers what he’s doing here. “They’re in the lab storage, and I think I have a plan, if you guys are willing to risk fighting instead of bringing the building down.”

Commissioner Burrell is the first to recover, which is lucky since half a dozen people start asking questions, all of whom stop as soon as he holds a hand up toward them. “Tell us.”

Red turns on his blueprint and starts to point. “So far I can move here… here… here… uh, somewhere here. And I can use my powers to reach most of the renegades blocking the stairs and elevators.”

“All at once?” Jenson asks, and when Red shakes his head, looks more relieved than disappointed. Red supposes it might be more obviously worse for the world if all psychics could do something like what he can, but that’s a problem for future Red to deal with. “Then they’ll go for help and alert the others. They could kill the hostages right away.”

“I think I might be able to pick them off, actually. I can let you know through Lin when the rest of them notice, and I can alert Blue so he moves in at the right moment.” Assuming he hasn’t already started, which is another time pressure weighing on the back of Red’s mind. “I just need a little more time.”

The Commissioner has his hat again, and creases it between his hands as he stares at the clock for a few breaths, then turns back to Red. “This is the last extension. If President Silph isn’t safe in the next ten minutes, the hunters will have full permission to either join the fight, or do what they need to ensure they fail their mission.”

“Got it. Thank you.” He turns to Valentin, then the two hunters, battle calm helping him stay confident and steady as he says, “I might signal something like ‘open skies’ to Lin. If I do, it’s because I cleared a path for you to go straight for storage. The pokemon they had there were sandslash, arbok, crobat, and mightyena.”

“Why not just use your power to knock the non-dark ones out?” Stocky asks.

“It’s too dangerous to use it with civilians nearby, since it makes renegade pokemon hard to control.” Not a lie, but a more convenient answer given their time constraints. “I’m going to go start.”

A few murmur variations of “Good luck,” and then Red is back in one of the offices, recovering from the disorientation again. He can’t tell if he’s actually doing harm to his partitioned self or not, but either way that’s all also future Red’s problem.

He takes a breath as he closes his eyes and reaches down through the building for Maturin, whom he sends a burst of fear through. Then, once she reacts by hiding in her shell, he withdraws his mind and reaches out to the first weezing nearby, on the lowest floor they’re on…

And just lets it go.

The results are quick. Smoke can’t go through the mask, but acid can.

He doesn’t let his mind linger, instead finding another pair of renegade pokemon and projecting sakki at one of them so that it attacks the other.

That one might get messy, but he’s already on to another, then another. By the time his phone buzzes again, half of the renegades in his range have been killed, the other half injured or lost some strong pokemon.

And when he reaches everyone that he can from here, he teleports to another office and begins to do it again, despite the sickness churning through his stomach that not even the battle calm could alleviate.

That’s also future Red’s problem. Present Red’s problem…

…”Intruder!” he hears through a pokemon’s ears, shouted from one renegade to another…

…is what to do about that.

They’re confused, alert that something is happening to their people but not sure what. He can sense them coming through the hall, looking for him, and so he teleports to another floor so he can keep killing as many of them as possible before they find him.