Tag Archives: rationalist fiction

Chapter 95: Eliminate the Impossible

“So I think I’ve got it,” Red says to Sabrina and her students as soon as she enters the dining room where the rest of them are gathered.

Everyone’s attention sharpens on him as she smiles and takes her seat at the head of the table, but no one’s thoughts feel particularly surprised; they probably assumed as much, given this is the first time he called an “urgent meeting” and they all know what he’s been working on.

But lack of surprise isn’t the same as lack of skepticism, and he feels Daniel’s as he asks, “You’ve replicated it?”

At one point it might have irritated Red, but he understands it, and is too excited to be annoyed. He can tell that excitement is having an effect on the room overall. “No, but I have a hypothesis that fits all the facts, and I know how to test it. But I can’t do it myself, which means I need you guys.”

All of us?” Tatsumaki asks as she orbits a variety of lollipops around her head, occasionally guiding one into her mouth for a moment. “I can’t even do free teleportation.”

“We don’t know for sure that it’s necessary,” Satori comments. Her torracat has grown since he arrived in Saffron, and now that it’s unable to fit in her lap while she sits in a chair, she instead sits on the floor so it can curl around her.

Red nods. “I don’t think it is, and the more people are willing to try the higher the chance of the test working.”

“Uh… I don’t think that’s how science works,” Rowan points out, and a moment later his expression shifts from skepticism to avarice. “But if there’s a chance we can get it to work, we’re in!”

Red waits before responding, and sure enough the young man’s expression changes again, this time to an aloof disinterest. “Assuming your explanation makes any sense, of course.”

Jason gives Rowan a concerned look, but doesn’t comment. It’s become normal for the partition specialist to do this even in public now, and Jason told Red that when he expressed his concern to Sabrina, she simply shrugged and said that as long as he doesn’t become dysfunctional or dangerous in some way, it’s his mind to evolve as he sees fit. “I’m also curious by what you meant,” the medium says, attention shifting back to Red. “Why can’t you test it yourself, given that you’ve done it already?”

“Why don’t you just explain your theory?” Sabrina interjects. “In case that answers the question, and potentially others.”

Red nods and uncaps one of the markers for the whiteboard against the wall. “When I first learned about the inconsistencies in teleportation, it didn’t make any sense to me that an abra wouldn’t teleport somewhere they’d already registered and teleported to if someone built something there, even if it wasn’t an enclosed space. It felt particularly weird to me because they could teleport from spaces that are more enclosed than the places they’d teleport to. The problem was with my mindset; I was stuck on teleportation as a mechanical process that I could observe. But why think that when I can’t even observe psychic phenomena?” He’s writing as he talks, and feels the pulse of interest from Sabrina. “Noticing my confusion wasn’t enough, I had to really boggle at what I was ‘seeing’ when teleportation occurred.” This time it’s Jason whose mind touches the room with understanding. “And once I did, I wrote out every factor I could think of that might contribute to the process of teleportation.”

He finishes the last assumption, then steps back for all of them to read.

Assumption 1: Pokemon will only teleport to places they have been before, imprinted as “safe,” or that their trainer has been before.

Assumption 2: Teleportation is a single discrete action: either it works or it doesn’t.

Assumption 3: Pokemon teleport by simple memory of locations.

Assumption 4: The melded psychic experiences everything their pokemon experiences.

The room is quiet. Even those that seemed the least invested are intrigued by the puzzle he’s challenged them with, and Red feels it when Sabrina gets it. It makes sense, given their interview.

But she doesn’t say anything right away, letting the others think it through as well, and within a minute Satori speaks. “They’re checking for safety?” Her hand brushes her torracat’s back, and she nods before he can confirm it. “Yes, it makes sense. I should have thought of that.”

She says it without any particular self-recrimination, but Red feels enough for both of them. It’s so obvious in retrospect, the sort of thing he bets Leaf would have figured out right away if she was psychic, or if he’d explained the process and problem in detail to her. “Exactly. Every teleporter develops the ability as a safety response, the entire process of ‘registering’ a location is a deliberate check for safety. Of course they won’t teleport somewhere that’s significantly different from when they registered it, and we should know that from the way they won’t teleport into space that’s already occupied.”

Daniel frowns. “That’s a mechanical limitation, a physical impossibility. We don’t sense any fear when they fail… or refuse, I guess… oh. But you’re saying either way, you think there’s a sense that the abra is using to check.”

“A sense that humans can’t recognize,” Sabrina adds, smiling. “Just like the ability to see psychic light.”

“But you didn’t sense any deliberate check when you returned to your old bedroom?” Jason asks.

“No, I didn’t sense anything unusual.” He’s gone over and over that memory, those brief few seconds between recognizing something was odd, understanding what was different, hoping he could freely teleport, then attempting to… but though he spent the entire time fully merged with his abra, he just got the customary check of familiar safety for a teleportation that, this time, was coming from his own memory instead of the abra’s. “But there’s another thing that I keep thinking of. The way you described teleportation’s psychic colors, Sensei, that it shifts to galo before emitting a burst of it. If I’m right about the way the colors reflect distinct psychic abilities—”

“Then psychokinesis is involved,” Tatsumaki says. “And you believe you didn’t sense it because you’re ‘missing’ that ability.”

“Right. I think my memory of my room as a safe place was strong enough, as the only reference frame, to overcome my abra’s instinct. Once it got there, though… I mean, I probably freaked it out with my celebration, and then there was a stranger there… or maybe it’s as simple as realizing it was teleporting to an indoor space, which I didn’t focus on as part of my memory of it. Or something else I’m not thinking of, because I’m still not sure what exactly abra prioritize. But it makes sense, right?”

He looks around the room. Everyone seems thoughtful, and finally Sabrina nods. “As a hypothesis, yes. Still, as Jason said, you’re the one who did it. Why would we succeed in sensing something you haven’t?”

“For now I want to confirm this hypothesis. If I am, doing it again should be easier for everyone.”

“Should it?”

Daniel frowns at Sabrina. “What, you think only Verres can do it?”

“Why not? He has a unique psychic ability, and he has done a few things that no other psychics have. It’s reasonable to tie each of those accomplishments to that ability—not to say you haven’t worked hard, Red—and it’s highly unlikely that he would be able to do yet another seemingly impossible thing that’s unconnected to that uniqueness.” She folds her hands, gaze meeting Red’s. “Is there any reason to believe we could do this without your absolute mirroring?”

Red caps the marker and puts it away, then sits. “Well, for one thing, I think you might be putting too much weight on the ability over the mindset. I know this is an argument we’ve had before,” he says with a glance at Jason, who smiles. “But even if my quirk isn’t learnable, we shouldn’t assume that everything I can do with it is only able to be done through binary capability. I believe you, Jason, Daniel, and Satori have all become almost as good as I am at mirroring, Sensei.”

Sabrina considers this a moment, then nods, and looks to her students on either side of the table. “As of now, this is our collective priority. Whatever else you’re working on, do it in your off hours. Yes, that includes you Tatsumaki and Rowan. That you can’t do free teleportation yet is just a matter of practice. If it’s possible for a human to recognize what their pokemon is doing at the moment of teleportation, I believe it will likely require the same level of deep merge that leads to free teleportation, so just consider it a bonus benefit to work you’d have to do anyway.”

Jason rotates the beads around his neck. “We should record all our attempts, just in case each psychic can only do this once.”

“Better yet, carry one of these in a pocket.” Red takes out small tracking devices, copies of the one Professor Oak gave him after learning about Red’s feat. “It’s hard to determine pokedex location by height unless it’s extremely high or low, so unfortunately mine’s record could be explained by me teleporting onto my roof. With these there will be digital records of the exact coordinates you teleport to. Combined with video footage, it should be easy to prove that you ended up indoors at the moment of teleportation.”

Everyone takes theirs, some putting it into their pocket right away while others, like Sabrina, examines it. “Are they always on?”

“Uh, I think so, yeah.”

Tatsumaki’s orbiting candy falters for a moment, and she immediately takes hers back out of her pocket and puts it on the table with a frown. Sabrina smiles and sets hers down as well. “For the sake of privacy, then, let’s leave them in this room. Just come to pick one up if you’re going to try indoor teleportation. Any questions?”

Red looks around, but everyone seems lost in thought. Jason is the first to stir and look at him. “So we are simply going to be attempting to merge fully with our pokemon as they teleport, and search for any sense being used besides those we’re familiar with?”

“Essentially. Or maybe approach it from the other direction, and try teleporting somewhere unsafe while merged with your abra to see what it feels.” He hesitates. “I did this a lot for my other experiments, but I can’t recall feeling anything from mine. Still, replication would be good.”

Another silence descends, and after a minute Sabrina nods. “Dismissed.” People begin to leave, the last of which is Sabrina, who smiles. “Well done, Red.”

“Thank you, Sensei.” It’s a relief to finally have something to show for the days of agonizing over this, even if it’s not a full replication yet. He feels good about this hypothesis, though… “You’ve been teleporting longer than anyone else here, so if you don’t end up sensing something while deliberately looking for it, I may have to consider the idea that it’s not something they consciously do. Do you know anyone who can merge with a pokemon so deeply that even their subconscious thoughts are felt?”

“Isn’t that a contradiction? Surely it would be mirrored in the subconscious as well.”

Red sighs. “Probably. Still, maybe upon reflection someone would notice.”

“Perhaps. I’ll reach out to Elite Agatha, as well as Leader Morty.” And with that she’s gone, and he’s alone.

Red sinks his head on his arms, letting himself rest for a minute. The meeting went well, and he finds himself hungry; he hasn’t really eaten much lately, and particularly didn’t eat much during dinner at the ranch last night.

He feels a wave of sadness just remembering it, and forces himself to stand and walk to the fridge. He might as well eat now, and figure out what he should do while the others test his idea… maybe get back to finding a way to merge with wild unown…

Red barely has time to assemble his sandwich, however, before he gets a call, and smiles as he sees Leaf’s name. “Heya! How’s your—”

“Red, how soon can you come to Fuchsia?”

It takes a moment for Red to register her words, but her tone is enough to have his smile fade and his heart leap. “What’s… I’m not sure, the flights take… no, I can teleport to Vermilion and fly from there… thirty minutes?” He feels his pulse in his neck as adrenaline spreads through him, thoughts of Stormbringers or lower Tier events racing through his mind. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”

“Sorry, it’s… not that kind of emergency. But, um. There’s someone here who wants to talk to you, and it’s probably best done in person.”

The words should calm him, but his mind is already racing through all the sorts of conversations that might have her sounding like this…

He feels a moment of disorientation as the partition weakens enough for his hidden memories to surface, all the secrets he’s keeping hidden even from himself popping up alongside his fear and worry about being discovered. He ignores it as best he can and brings all of his attention to bear on figuring out how much trouble he might be in.

That Leaf is the one who called him narrows it down pretty fast; it can’t be Bill’s secret, or his ability to lie, or what happened under the Casino, and that only leaves one thing. They talked about what might happen if someone gets suspicious about the part of Aiko’s code that originated from sakki, and if Leaf is asking him to come talk then whoever brought it up must not have been satisfied…

Which means it’s time to enact some of the plans he made while pre-morteming this eventuality.

“Can you speak freely?” he asks.

“More or less.”

Meaning she’s probably not around someone right now, but she doesn’t want to trust anything to the phone. “How much do they know?”

“Nothing, just suspicious. And it’s not everyone, just one guy, David.”

“He needs an explanation?”

“Yeah. A good one.”

Meaning not just more evasions. “I’m in the middle of something,” Red says after a moment of thought. “Could it wait until tomorrow afternoon?”

“Yeah, I think so. Are you… okay?”

“Fine.” Is she picking up on the partition being down even over the phone? No, probably just predicting that he would be panicking. “Worried, but we’ve been lucky it hasn’t happened sooner, really. How about you?”

“I don’t know. Also worried, maybe more than worried. The project is showing such promise… plus I have no idea how people will react. Red, is there something I’m forgetting?”

He hesitates, realizing what she’s really asking is whether he has a plan she doesn’t know about. “No, but can you trust me to hold off on explaining for now?”

“I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.”

And that our stories match. That’s a reasonable worry that he didn’t consider, since he assumed… “You can’t avoid talking about it for a day?”

“I think it would be easier without a complete brush-off.”

“Okay.” Shit. “Alright, so… does he know you’re reaching out to me?”

“I just said I had to make a call.”

“Right. So you can confirm that he’s not the first one who knows, which is true, and he’s probably guessed, and you can let him know that he’ll get the full story tomorrow, but past that it’s probably best to just say it’s classified.”

There’s silence on the other line, for a moment too long, then another.


“Yeah, I’m here.”

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah. I mean, no, obviously, I just…guess I’m still wrapping my head around this…”

There’s something in her voice, not quite an uneasiness, but enough hesitation to make him reevaluate how his confidence and words must seem to her. Like there is a conspiracy, maybe, that she’s been kept out of. “I already got my panicking out of the way when I premortemed this. I sound more confident than I am, and if you have a better idea I’m open to it, but I’m going to talk to Sabrina.”

“Oh.” There’s a pause. “And you think she’ll…”

“I hope so.”

“Right. I don’t have a better idea, so… good luck.”

“Thanks. I’ll let you know how it goes.”

As soon as the call with Leaf is done, he calls Sabrina, hoping she hasn’t left the building.

“Yes, Red?”

“Hi, uh, I need to talk to you. It’s important.”

“Is everything alright?”

“Right this moment, yes.”

There’s a pause. “I’m on my way back down.”

“No, I’ll come to you, if that’s alright? You’re in your rooms?”

“Yes. That’s fine, come on up.”

She sounds distracted, even worried, so Red says goodbye and closes the call with one hand as the other grabs his sandwich. He eats it as he walks to the elevator, and it’s gone by the time he reaches Sabrina’s room, untasted and forgotten as soon as he’s sitting on her comfortable couch while she sits on the other end, watching him with worried, searching eyes.

“So, yeah, like I said, there’s something I need to tell you.” His heart is beating fast and hard, and he takes a calming breath. “Part of me wishes I’d told you sooner, but I was hoping it could wait until you learned how to perfectly lie.”

Before he first met Sabrina, when her amazing psychic abilities and trainer skills were just abstract things to him, what he most admired about her was how quick she is. “Like you have.”

She says the words with just a faint undercurrent of emotion, surprise without shock, curiosity without disbelief. When Red simply nods, Sabrina takes a breath, expression wavering a moment, then firming. “Show me.”

Red knew this day would come, and made the partition he needs weeks ago. He closes his eyes, dropping his shields and setting it up in just the right way as he brings all the other partitions up…

His next breath is easier, and he opens his eyes to find Sabrina watching him intently. What was she waiting for again?

Tell her to ask you where you met.

Red blinks, then frowns as the thought from his unpartitioned self automatically sends his thoughts toward his first meeting with the Gym Leader. What’s so strange about that?

Tell her.

“Uh. Ask me where we met?”

He feels her thoughts touch his, senses her curiosity and trepidation, and underneath them an even deeper worry that borders on fear, which she’s doing her best to control and doesn’t show at all in her face or tone. “Where did we meet, Red?”

He does his best to ignore her shared feelings and just focus on the truth. “Here in Saffron.”

He feels her shock, so strong that her expression actually shows it, eyes wide as she sucks in a sharp breath. The merger deepens, and he feels his hands tighten on the arms of his seat… no, her hands on her seat, even as his own confusion starts to blend with the worry he felt.

She doesn’t believe him, but why? He can clearly remember their first meeting here, the way he bowed to her and thanked her for having him as a student… wait, how did they… right, text messages. She texted him before he went on the S.S. Anne, and…

…something’s missing. He can’t remember his decision to accept. He can’t even remember their conversation, the details of the agreement… and still he can feel Sabrina’s surprise, feel it shifting to calculation and admiration and even her own worry, all combined with a deep bitterness over—

The merger ends, leaving him with vague impressions of her friend, the one she lost during the incident. He can’t make sense of them beyond the understanding that she was both afraid of and for her friend, and that she assigned them to learn how to lie to a psychic for his sake. There’s more, her friend wasn’t normal…?

Then it hits Red that he amnesia’d his memory of meeting Sabrina away, and it’s hard to think of anything but what else he’s forgetting, before suddenly the memories all flood back, each partition dropping until he’s his full, unpartitioned self again. He lets out a heavy breath as he puts his shields back up.

Sabrina just watches him for a moment longer, slowly regaining control of herself. Eventually she slumps in her seat, looking more tired than he’s seen her since just after she got back from Hoenn. “When did you learn how to do this?” she asks, voice soft, and Red suddenly gets the sense that a wrong answer here might ruin everything.

“Not until after Rowan taught me how to use my new partition to induce amnesia.”

It takes her a moment. “After the incident.”

It’s not a question, but he still says, “Yeah.” She seems relieved, but… “Though—”

“There’s no way to know that for sure, yes. But I believe you. I remember how your thoughts felt, upon my return, and if you could do this then, and only pretended to need to learn from Rowan… well, perhaps you would have in order to throw off suspicion for just this moment, but such thinking is virtually endless.”

Red swallows, then nods, deciding not to question it. Her gaze is distant, and he instinctively lowers his shield to touch her thoughts, but her own shield is firmly up.

She’s learned enough about his sensitive shield to feel it, however, and seems to shake herself as she refocuses on him. “I have many questions, of course, but this isn’t what you actually wanted to talk to me about.”

“No. But uh, it could probably be talked about first? If it needs to be?”

“Let me hear the rest first. If it’s important enough to derail this, then it should be derailed.”

“Right. So um. I can… psychically… make a pokemon lose all its conditioning.”

Sabrina stares at him a moment. She seems about to speak, pauses, then asks, “When you say all its conditioning…?”

“The actual mental state,” Red says, pulse painfully quick, “Is a total freedom to do anything. No limitations, just… acting on instinct.”

Sabrina closes her eyes, lets out a deep sigh, and covers her eyes with one hand as she rests her head against it. She doesn’t speak for nearly a minute, and Red just quietly watches her, feeling more and more like this might have been a mistake. He tries to think of what to say, but his thoughts are circling uselessly, and he has to resist the urge to take his notebook out to try and give them a direction to move in.

“Who else knows?” the Gym Leader finally asks.

“Blue, Leaf, and a handful of others who were training with him in Vermilion.” He feels a touch of unease giving up their names, but he understands why she’s asking. “I’m honestly surprised it hasn’t gotten out by now.”

“Battle trainers are almost as good at keeping secrets as psychics.” She finally lifts her head up, face weary but gaze calculating. “You used it under the casino?”

Part of him had hoped she wouldn’t guess that, and yet again he’s not surprised by the speed of it. Their survival against trained renegades must have looked miraculous by most experienced eyes. He takes a breath, then says, “Yes.”

“I appreciate your candor, especially knowing that you could convincingly lie about it if you chose.”

She doesn’t seem shocked or horrified. “And I appreciate that you asked, knowing that I could have.” He clears his throat, wishing he’d asked for some water. Well, no reason not to get it now. “Could I have something to drink, please?”

The question has some effect on Sabrina that Red can’t quite place, and she nods and goes to the fridge to fill a pair of glasses. He shifts, uncomfortable in the near-silence. It’s one thing he appreciates about these apartments, the whole building set aside just for them to ensure enough distance for both audial and psychic privacy.

He wonders if he’ll be asked to leave, like Rei, then reminds himself that he’s risking much worse than that and feels his stomach flip. He starts to second guess himself for admitting what he did to the renegades’ pokemon, but no, he can’t “come clean” now and risk it coming out later.

Sabrina returns with a glass for him, which he takes with thanks and begins to drink from. Once she’s seated and sipping from her own glass, he wonders if he should say anything else. Her expression is still deep in thought, and he decides to let her process this at her own pace.

Perhaps a minute passes before her gaze returns to him, and she simply asks, “What do you want from me?”

It’s a strange thing to ask, given what he revealed, but at the same time Red understands why she’s asking it. “I’m not sure,” Red admits. “I’m not asking for protection, exactly. I just thought… this is something that’s going to affect all of us, and I trust you to know better than me what the best way forward is. I figured you had a plan for something like this—”

“What makes you say that?”

“Well, you were asking us to figure it out, the perfect lie I mean. You must have been prepared for the knowledge to leak in case we did?” Unless she expected to compel them all to silence, somehow, which… might not have been too difficult, come to think of it.

Sabrina watches him a moment, then gives a slight smile. “Yes. But this is… rather different.”

“I know. I hope it’s not too much at once.”

“It may very well be. That psychics can lie to other psychics will destabilize a pillar of society, and turn suspicion against many powerful people who are in part where they are because of that lack of suspicion.” He almost asks if that includes her, but no, she won her position through battles. “The ability to turn pokemon against humans will turn that suspicion into fear. Given the circumstances that force this topic to come up, I believe the best option, for now, is to share the latter without the former. Is there any way to plausibly make it so that your ordeal beneath the Casino is when you first discovered the full extent of this ability?”

“I don’t think so,” Red says. “The others who saw it—”

“In Vermilion, yes. But surely they didn’t understand the full implications? Or else Blue Oak commands far more respect and loyalty than I imagined.”

“Um. Maybe it’s a bit of both? I haven’t asked about it, really, to avoid drawing people’s attention to it.”

“Understandable. But the program?”

“Yeah, that’s hard proof I’ve been doing this for a while. But… it is true that the Casino is the first time I actually used it on someone else’s pokemon in battle. I didn’t know what it would do, how guidable they would be once the sakki was on them… I was just… desperate.”

He relives those moments again, the pain and darkness, the fear, both his own and Lizzy’s and Elaine’s and Leaf’s and—

“I understand,” Sabrina says. “And it will help that you used it explicitly in self defense, against renegades.”

Hope and fear tug at opposite ends of his stomach as he imagines actually telling people what happened. “Then… you think I should go public?”

“Perhaps. This is not a decision to be made lightly, and I’ll probably spend the rest of the week speaking to some other trusted…” Sabrina trails off as he fidgets, then sighs, face resigned. “Unless you have more bad news to share first?”

“There’s… someone who might need to be talked to by tomorrow.”

“Ah. The real reason you decided to speak to me now.”

She still sounds more resigned than upset. “Yeah. One of the coders working on Leaf’s new program doesn’t buy the idea that our friend Aiko wrote it anymore, or thinks it’s potentially dangerous… I’m not sure what to do, but I figured if a Gym Leader told him it was being looked into and handled…”

“You want me to mislead him into thinking this was all sanctioned. To imply that those at the highest levels of the region know about it, and to set his worry aside.”

Red forces himself to meet her eyes as he nods, feeling cold sweat on the back of his neck. Her tone was flat, and he can’t help but think that this is it, the moment she’ll tell him no, that this isn’t right, that he’s on his own…

Instead the Gym Leader merely continues to speculatively search his gaze. “How long have you been thinking about this?”

He tries not to let her curiosity make him too hopeful. “Ever since I could do so while hiding it from my partitioned self.” For weeks he essentially rode around in his own head as a mostly-silent passenger, observing and adding the occasional thought or suggestion in reply to his partitioned self’s thoughts or concerns while the majority of his focus was on what to do about all this… not just for his own sake, but for all psychics. Part of his planning included worst case scenarios, including using all his money to flee the islands, undergo disguising surgery, and live out his life in another part of the world.

Desperate, foolish thoughts. But some were also constructive, and eventually he reached a conclusion that was difficult to accept, and frightening, but inescapable.

“First I thought of what the main problem is with us, psychics I mean, having these new powers, and the answer is it makes people feel unsafe. What makes people feel safe are governments and leagues, rangers and leaders. I think people may not be sure how to react, but will take their cue from those they already trust to keep them safe. So we mostly don’t have to worry about convincing the average person to not worry about psychics… I mean, I think they will anyway, and that will still cause problems, but… mostly we just have to convince those in charge?”

“I see. A reasonable plan, though it raises the crux of the problem. Do you know what an infohazard is?”

“Yeah, Giovanni talked about them. Something that, once you know it, causes you harm.”

“Essentially. What do you think of the concept?”

“To be honest, I didn’t really agree with him. It’s largely theoretical, right? Like, I know some argue that certain lines of thought can qualify by leading people into an existential crisis, but… there’s nothing we know of that will reliably cause people, in general, harm through simple exposure. Maybe we could call certain lies infohazards, like if people are led to believe something will heal them that ends up hurting them, but the implication, from what I remember, is that infohazards are about real knowledge, or knowledge that could be real.”

“And you don’t think real knowledge shouldn’t be known.”

Red hesitates, recognizing the trap. “I guess I haven’t acted like someone who believes all truth should be known. I… used to believe that. I think I still do, but…” Bill mentioned that he’s sabotaged other projects that he worried might create a general artificial intelligence before they figured out how to align it properly. That would make knowledge of how to build one, without the proper safeguards, an infohazard, wouldn’t it? “It’s not that I think the truth would harm people, it’s that I’m worried about how they’ll act because of it.”

“Is that terribly different?”


“Even if they’re right to act that way?”

Red’s breath hitches, and he sinks his face into his hands as he’s forced to confront the thought he’s put off again and again.

What if society would be right to fear psychics?

It was bad enough when the possibility of perfect liars was raised. At worst that would just make psychics as untrustworthy as darks; Blue told him about the ex-Fighting Gym Leader being at the dojo he’s training at, and that he felt guilty for thinking that if only the man wasn’t dark he could more easily trust him by just getting a psychic to tell Blue if Koichi is sincere.

But the sakki is different. And Leaf’s fears, about influencing people’s beliefs… he can’t just pretend to know that it’s not possible, or that everything would turn out alright.

What if psychics shouldn’t be allowed to be Leaders, or trainers, or even researchers?

And what if he’s responsible for ending all of that?

There’s a tearing sensation between his ribs, and the sob that escapes him feels like it rips a hole in his chest. He begins to block the flood of emotions, to cut himself off from them and keep himself from breaking down in front of Sabrina, but a moment later he feels her hand on his hair and he’s lost, fear and dread and grief washing through him.

“I d-didn’t… I-I didn’t m-mean to—”

“Shh, I know. I know.”

She pulls him against her side, and for a time he just cries out all the fear and loneliness and dread he’s kept behind multiple partitions since he killed the renegades.

There’s no hiding from it anymore. He may have used their pokemon to do it, they may even have deserved it, but he used pokemon to kill them, sure as if he’d given the verbal command. If he’s not branded a renegade, it would only be by technicality.

And it’s worse than that, so much worse, because he has the potential to do more harm than any renegade that ever lived. He doesn’t even need to train a pokemon to break its conditioning, doesn’t even need to leave evidence.

And if he has the ability to teach others how to do the same thing… people who might actually use it for evil purposes… hell, if just knowing it’s possible leads to a psychic renegade figuring it out themselves and using it to secretly kill people, maybe dozens of people, maybe hundreds…

Maybe he should be feared.

Maybe they all should.

Please, I’m sorry, I just wanted to do research!

What keeps coming back to him, again and again, is Yuuta’s face as the votes for his branding were voiced, his pleading as Red first hesitated, then gave in and sealed his fate.

Counting him, Red’s killed three people. He failed to save Aiko, and the people in the apartment building, and all of that pales in comparison to how many psychics he’s condemned because he didn’t stop to think about the consequences of what he was doing. Because he found something new and exciting and he experimented with it in front of others, released an infohazard into the world with no way to contain it.

I just wanted to learn!

“Shh…” Sabrina strokes his hair as he tries to apologize again, which only results in him crying harder, face buried in her shoulder as he clutches her tight. “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. I promise.”

The words are a liferaft that he clings to along with her, and for a time the fear and grief consumes him, all of him but the shard that holds onto her, feeling her hand in his hair. He wants his mother, but she’s not here, and he’d be afraid to tell her even if she was. So he accepts Sabrina’s comfort, and lets himself believe her words.

Little by little he calms enough to even his breathing, and by the time the tears have stopped he feels embarrassed. He loosens his grip, and Sabrina gently pulls away, then returns with some tissues, which he takes to wipe his face, cheeks burning.

She sits across from him again, seemingly unconcerned by the wet patch on her shoulder, and takes another sip of water as she lets him finish resettling himself. Once he drinks from his own glass he feels ready to continue.

“Thank you, Sensei. If there’s… I’ll do whatever you suggest, if…” He clears his throat and drinks again before setting his glass down. “What should I do?”

Sabrina is quiet for what feels like the longest minute of Red’s life, and when she finally speaks it’s only to say, “Nothing.”

Red raises raw eyes to stare at her. “You mean…?”

“Just that. I appreciate your trust, and am glad you came to me. There may be some hard days ahead, and some difficult choices, but… right now, anything else you do has to be incredibly, carefully, extensively calculated.”

“But… the programmer—”

“I’ll speak with them,” she says, and for the first time since he heard from Leaf, something in his chest unclenches. “Your plan, generally speaking, is a good one. I would like to make it as true as possible, however, which means we’ll be speaking with some others about this.”

Some of the tension returns as he considers what that might entail, but of course he expected it even if Sabrina agreed with his plan. “Other than you, the second safest person I considered telling was Professor Oak—”

“The Professor?” Sabrina asks, brow furrowed. “Really?”

“Uh, yeah. He’s always been very supportive of me, and I know he’d want to help.”

“Ah.” Sabrina’s face clears. “That’s understandable, but…”


“If your criteria in telling me is that I have just as much to lose and am already comfortable with keeping potential truths hidden for safety, the Professor fits the opposite profile. He’s not gifted, has no gifted family, and is dedicated to seeking and disseminating truth. Worst of all, he’s not dark, and might reveal the information at an inopportune time… to a psychic, it’s true, but we can’t assume all of them would be as careful as we need to be.”

Red bites his lower lip. He had worried about whether the Professor would feel duty-bound to spread the knowledge… and whether he would judge Red more for not sharing what he learned to do more than for what he did with it. “It’s been hard to justify not telling him already. Keeping him out of the loop while pretending it’s an official secret feels… wrong.”

“I understand. How about this; we ask another, similarly respected leader first, and see what they think?”

There’s only a couple others who Red can think of, in Kanto at least, who meet that bar. “Who…?”

“Leader Giovanni. I plan to tell him regardless, but I think you should meet with him as well. In fact, I was considering introducing you to him before the Hoenn incident derailed so many plans.”

What? Is that what Sabrina meant when she spoke about rewarding loyalty? “But… I mean, I would be honored to meet him of course, but… he doesn’t have any psychic family either, and… he also seems committed to spreading the truth.”

“He’s committed to spreading reason,” Sabrina corrects. “Which often involves spreading truth. But I’m very confident he will see the reason in withholding this particular truth, for now, and being strategic in how it’s spread.”

It takes Red a moment to realize where that confidence likely comes from, but when he does it’s enough to make him feel like he’s fully waking up, finally, from the emotions that overwhelmed him:

There are other secrets the Gym Leaders know that they keep from the general public.

Of course there are. It was the height of egotism for him to think he was the only person to ever discover something new and dangerous. Hell, he learned a dangerous truth that he kept hidden before he discovered his own, and he suddenly wonders how many others know Bill’s secrets. The most analogous one that he didn’t even consider was the existence of pokeballs that can hold humans.

But he did consider it to some degree, specifically wondering whether someone else had discovered sakki. It’s part of what made him feel so guilty, imagining that someone was out there using it for evil, and that by keeping his own discovery of it secret he was selfishly guarding his own safety rather than ensuring people could better protect themselves. He just didn’t really believe it, because…

Because it seemed so horrifying? Because it would compel him to act?

He’s not sure, but either way he feels ashamed of the thought, and all he says is, “If you think he’s the right person to tell next, then I’m ready.” Normally the thought of getting to talk with Leader Giovanni would be exciting, make him run for his old notebook to review all the questions he’d like to ask him… but right now, all he feels is a cold stone in his gut as he imagines what the man he respects so much will think of what he’s done. And what Professor Oak would, when the truth finally reaches him and he realizes Red didn’t trust him enough to tell him first.

Sabrina clearly picks up on this, and responds with a wave of reassurance as she stands. “I’ll arrange the meeting. Meanwhile, just try to relax, and let Leaf know that I’ll contact her.”

Red takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “Okay.” He knows it’s a dismissal, and so he finishes his water and stands as well.

“You have a meditation class soon, don’t you? If you need to cancel it—”

“No, I’ll be alright.” Red closes his eyes, and when he opens them again the world feels lighter, his body less tired. He smiles at Sabrina. “Thank you again, Sensei.”

She’s looking back at him with mild fascination. “What exactly are you thanking me for? What do you remember of our conversation?”

“Uh… your help? You said you’d talk to Leaf about the programmer.” He remembers crying, can still feel the rawness in his eyes… “It was a big relief, because… I’ve been worried about how people will respond to sakki.” It is scary to think that they might cancel Leaf’s program or be angry about what Red might do with it, and though his stomach clenches with worry as he imagines Professor Oak’s eventual disappointment or condemnation, he’s a little surprised by the severity of the regret and fear he remembers. Of course, that’s the point of his unpartitioned self using it to keep them productive.

He feels Sabrina probe his feelings, and allows the mild merge before she withdraws. “I see. Very well, then, you seem fit to teach. I’ll speak with you later.”

Red nods and returns to his room, where he calls Leaf. “Hey.”

“Hey, Red. Thanks for calling me back so fast.”

“Of course. How’d it go?”

“Alright. He seemed suspicious, but willing to wait. We’re… friends, or at least I hope we still are. He’s willing to extend a bit of trust.”

“Great. Sabrina says she’ll talk to you soon.”

“Oh, thank the Swords.” Leaf sounds almost faint with relief. “So… does that mean she’s going to be the one revealing the discovery?”

“I’m not sure, actually, but she’s all filled in. She’s going to talk to other people now, sort of feel them out… I have to get ready for a class, but she’ll probably be able to answer your questions better.”

“Okay, thanks for talking to her. I feel better already, though I know it was a lie at the time… ugh. We should talk more, later, I know you have to go.”


They say their goodbyes and Red hurries to shower and change for his lesson, which is an intermediate class on meditating where he teaches the psychics and non-psychics how to identify negative thoughts, particularly those with a negative emotion attached, and find related, countervailing positive thoughts and emotion. Then they learn to sit with negative emotions, examining their source and function while practicing calming techniques until, little by little, growing comfortable with them before switching to the positive, then back, and back again, until it’s easy and effortless, until they can hold both feelings together.

It’s often as useful for him to practice techniques like this as it is for his students, and never before more so than today. By the time he’s done he feels even calmer about everything than he did after his talk with Sabrina.

That calmness lasts right up until he reaches his room, and sees Rei standing outside his door.

Chapter 94: Tilt

After sharing what he learned from Sabrina with the Pallet Labs so they could explore evidence of psychic-color-cones, Red spends an afternoon reading through and typing up a copy of the notebook he’s been writing in since he began his journey, all the way from the beginning. Once he finishes, he begins a new one with a list of experiments he wants to run next.

There are a lot of old ideas that are still appealing and interesting to him, all the way back from the first night leaving Pallet Town where he wondered about the bonds that form between people and their pokemon. But ultimately he has to cut things down to what seems immediately relevant to his psychic research, which leaves him with a handful:

First, what’s up with teleportation and walls? Seriously, does it involve traveling through actual space or not? Own experience with it doesn’t shed any light on conundrum. Experiments are unusually rigorous for psychic research, likely due to practical value, but no underlying mechanism is understood.

Second, medium cleansing ritual? Jason and Agatha’s advantages with ghost may be inborn, a matter of mindset/training, or due to some seemingly random things they both do. Counterexamples are psychics with ghost affinity from cultures without medium practices, but still worth testing.

Third, if psychokinesis particles distinct from psychic ones can the difference be measured? One travels farther? One pierces walls. (Can an object be levitated over a dark pokemon?) Glass limitation mental, according to Sabrina’s report…

Those he can’t test himself, unfortunately, but he’s already enlisted Tatsumaki’s help with it. She seems less standoffish than she used to, maybe because of familiarity, or maybe because of what he’s accomplished since arriving at Saffron. In any case she’s definitely interested in developing her abilities, and seems to regard his experiments as a way to possibly do that, since it was his experiments and practice with Rei in mirroring a state of mind while projecting it at the same time that saved them in Lavender. Even if all the research fails to reveal anything new about the fundamental nature of psychic phenomena, some of it might still produce useful findings.

He knows he could blow through them in a couple days if he wants to, but instead forces himself to formally write a short paper on each, which means a preregistered methodology and hypothesis, recordings of each attempt, documenting the data, and evaluating the outcomes.

At first he’s able to find this an exciting and interesting process, one where he feels proud for embodying the virtues he (likes to think he) holds, eager curiosity coupled with methodical rigor.

By the second week he finds himself procrastinating and putting off new experiments because of the attached process, and almost anything else he can do feels more appealing than writing another damn paper.

After five days of barely getting any work done he has a therapy session, and decides to take a break from grief work to instead bring up his flagging work enthusiasm. Dr. Seward invites him to talk a bit about what motivates him to do it the hard way, and after saying a few things about demonstrating good research practices and appearing “virtuous” to Professor Oak and others, he feels an upwelling of indignation that grows every time he thinks about the body of literature that does exist, and how limited it is. It bothers him how lacking real psychic research is, and how many seem unbothered by that.

Dr. Seward listens to him rant about how few psychics document their experiments and how few scientists are psychic or approach their beliefs about psychic powers with the same attitude they treat other scientific pursuits for a while before dryly suggesting that this might be something he can lean into for motivation. This turns out to be surprisingly effective.

Also effective are more practical ways to reinforce diligent work, such as scheduling calls with other young researchers to work at the same time and then discuss what they did afterward, as well as setting pseudo-public deadlines for sharing his completed work with others. Dr. Seward warned it might backfire and just add more paralyzing pressure, but instead it turned out to be particularly motivating as each deadline approached.

Another thing that slows him down are the requests by others for help in their own research, along with the people who reach out to ask questions about his own work, or just for advice. At first he was more than happy to help share his thoughts or explain something about his experiments, but it starts to get repetitive and tedious to repeat the same things to different people, especially since the volume of them has only continued to rise. He spends some time fretting over it, then remembers the idea they had in Vermilion of hiring a secretary and decides this is another problem that money can solve for him. It takes a while to find one and come up with a system by which he wants his incoming messages filtered and grouped, but once he does it feels like he gained at least an hour a day.

Still, some of the experiments just take time, particularly the ones that can (and should) be split up into stages. Red tests the cleansing rituals by first trying to merge with gastly while in the shower, in case simple contact with running water is what matters. When this has no apparent effect on the invasive emotional spillover, he pulls his thoughts back and leaves the shower, dries, writes out his experience, then dresses in a robe and sits on the floor with a water bowl, censer, and ladle, imitating everything he saw Jason do as best he can without making any attempt to change his mental state. Once the ritual is done he tries again, with no effect, and then repeats the ritual, again to no apparent effect.

After that he tries deliberately invoking the boggling mentality that he developed while trying to mirror Jason’s, essentially emptying his mind as best he can of any preconceptions and just being as receptive as possible. This does seem to make things easier, though it’s hard to quantify, and when he tries to combine it with the ritual he doesn’t notice any difference. Still, he dutifully writes up another separate paper for all five.

The teleportation experiments are the most time consuming, as he first has to get enough large pieces of cardboard to form an enclosure, then keep trying different configurations of walls and ceilings around either himself or his teleportation point. A lot of it involves just replicating what previous experiments have done, but he also tries his own mix of adjustments, such as leaving a shape just big enough for the abra to move through, then just big enough for himself.

He also has to let his abras rest, as they can’t teleport more than a few times in a row without getting exhausted. He cycles through them, bringing everything with him to each location they’re registered at and setting things up all over again, and by the time he ends up back in Saffron he has a small audience of four abra recuperating out of their balls as he finishes up the experiments he planned.

None of it works. Whatever limitation decides that abra can’t teleport into even semi-enclosed places, it seems airtight (so to speak). He knows it’s not just a mental limitation too, there’s an experiment with someone who didn’t know that teleportation isn’t supposed to work indoors that still didn’t work when it was tried, and all this just makes him boggle all over again at how weird teleportation is, and how fundamentally unlike other “psychic powers.” He even catches himself trying to justify why it’s actually a Ghost ability before realizing that he’s just falling into the same “typing” heuristic he keeps criticizing others for; considering it a Ghost ability doesn’t actually help explain anything about how it works.

After a couple days he moves on to another aspect of teleportation that’s been thoroughly experimented on: what counts as “attached” for what gets teleported with a pokemon or person. Plenty of people have tried to break the “one person per pokemon” teleportation barrier (the monetization value of “commercial teleporting” is less now that abra are relatively cheap, but it would still be a multi-billion dollar industry), but no one’s understood yet what the pokemon itself is thinking when it distinguishes its trainer and their clothes or bags and a stranger.

Red thinks he might as well try it, and spends hours merged with his abra as they teleport, both alone and with him, then with him and various volunteers of varying psychic ability. They definitely distinguish individuals with minds; he can hold a potted plant in his free hand and get teleported with it, but not a bellsprout. The best he can put into words, as he writes his paper, is that abra distinguish their trainer as “family.” The familial bond is safe and important, what allows them to carry their children to safety until they’re old enough to teleport themselves.

When he tries it with his mother, however, she doesn’t get teleported with him, and he finally decides to throw in the towel. He’s spent nearly a week on teleportation experiments alone, and the only thing he’s gotten out of it is that full, deep merging with any of his abra now feels completely familiar and effortless.

By the second week of April he has nearly a dozen papers written that cover each of his brief exploratory experiments, all without a single real breakthrough or meaningful result. He stares at them a while, neatly listed in the pokedex under his name beside his few previous studies, and can’t help but wonder if people will think he’s just trying to pad out his list of papers. He decides to take a break from research for a few days and goes to bed early, feeling a little fried and at a loss for what to do next.

Until, that is, his following training session with Blue, when his friend brings Zephyr out to show off his new and final form.

“Congrats, Blue!” Red smiles as the pidgeot has to bend his neck a little to scoop the fruit out of Blue’s palm. The plumage on his head has grown nearly as long as Red is tall, and it’s strange to remember the way he used to fit comfortably on Blue’s shoulder. “Been battling with him a lot lately?”

“Yeah, the dojo we’ve been training at, which you still need to come check out by the way, has plenty of Fighting types. He’s just barely big enough to ride, the learner’s license guy said to make sure he keeps growing as I do since I’m just below the comfort mark.”

“Weight isn’t a problem?”

“Nah, look at those wings! He can Sky Drop a machamp. So long as he grows a few meters in the provisional period, I can get the full license.”

“Nice.” As Red gives Zephyr a pet, he remembers Leaf’s surprise way back when they started their journey that a specific gym leader was responsible for flying licenses in Kanto. That regulation was one of many that changed after the Hoenn incident; after Leader Surge said he was too busy to maintain the duty, Indigo’s interregional government decided to spread the responsibility out to the new Travel Agency it was in the process of rolling out to oversee issues arising from all the added teleportation sites people were registering. “You must be excited to start getting around faster.”

“Hell yeah. It’s no teleportation, but being able to head to Aiko’s ranch, or even swing by home for a visit any time I want, for free? Not to mention exploring new places, since Glen and Sumi already have their license, Sumi is actually an amazing flier already, she’s been teaching the rest of us how to do really tight turns and … what’s up?”

“Huh?” Red asks, torn from suddenly racing thoughts. I could reach out to the network… maybe pay some taxi pilots a retainer…

“You’ve got that look, like you just remembered something.” Blue grins. “Or just had an idea?”

“Yeah,” Red says, and grins back. “Is Sumi’s flier big enough to carry two?”

The answer is no, but it turns out not to matter. Some quick research shows that ever since the unown started randomly flying around the islands, even single riders have trouble catching them. While not particularly fast, they are maneuverable; unlimited by things like mass and wind and the safety of their rider, and able to change directions at the speed of thought, most trainers can’t keep them in range long enough to even get a lock, let alone hit them with a ball.

Which means that while Artem’s coordination of unown sightings pays off in a big way, even if one of the volunteers watching the skies in Lavender or Pallet or Cerulean or somewhere else Red has a teleport registered calls him tomorrow, the hard part would still be ahead of him.

Sending pokemon to injure them until they can’t maintain their flight is what most trainers have attempted, but it’s difficult to get pokemon to consistently target the unown, since their abstract shapes don’t register as threats and they don’t fight back. No one’s ever had to fight unown before, so it’s never been an issue, but even with new programming to train pokemon to attack them it’s hard to reinforce the behaviors in meatspace.

None of which matters for Red, since he doesn’t want to injure or capture the unown; he wants to merge with them while they do whatever it is they’re doing.

“That means no stunning, sleeping, confusing, freezing, not even a big weighted net to keep them in place,” Red says. “What do you think? Is there any flier in particular you’d recommend?”

“Hmm.” Dr. Madi sips his coffee with one hand as the other taps at his keyboard computer to bring up test data that hasn’t been entered into the pokedex yet. In the process of discovering the mechanics of pokemon flight, his old supervisor became one of the leading experts on Flying types (and other pokemon that fly without the particle). He’s continued to run experiments that broaden their understanding of them, which made him an obvious person to ask after his appointment with Dr. Seward brought him back to Pallet Town. It’s a Saturday morning, so the labs are quieter than usual, but it still feels nostalgic for Red to be here again. It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a year since he came to pick up his charmander… “Well, swellow and crobat are pretty agile, though keeping you in range of the unown for a prolonged period may be taxing. How well would you be able to guide them?”

“Honestly, not well once the merge starts,” Red admits. “Which is why I first thought of being a passenger.”

“I’m sure you’ve thought of this, but what about a helicopter?”

“I did, yeah… I could give a pilot a bunch of abra, have them register in the same places I am, have them constantly available for who knows how long so they can drop everything and teleport with me to a sighting, summon the helicopter there, and take off, but as a first option it’s— ”

“Expensive,” Madi acknowledges, voice sympathetic as he continues to scan the spreadsheets showing max speed, acceleration, turning arc, and other factors of various pokemon in various weather conditions and with different amounts of weight. “How close is your charmeleon to evolving?”

“Uh, I’m not sure. It’s nearly my height?”

“That’s a shame. Charizard are pretty fast, and they’re not as slowed by riders as bird pokemon.”

Red frowns, trying to ignore the stab of doubt over his choices. Maybe he should be training his pokemon more, or at least the ones that would be too expensive to buy evolved versions… particularly since he just spent weeks on experiments with nothing to show for them. But that’s hindsight speaking, and he’d still want to perform the experiments at some point if he hadn’t done them now, and doing them sooner means others who are curious might save time not attempting themselves (though a few others should try just in case) and—

“Hey, what about noivern?”

Red blinks. “Aren’t they super expensive?” He expects a ping of aversion from Unpartitioned Red, these days most major expenditures either get a nudge for or against, but this one seems to evoke ambivalence. The impression he gets instead is that having a super-fast flying pokemon might be worth the price, if it stands out from others…

“Yep, and not recommended for first time fliers. But they’re absurdly fast and maneuverable even with a rider, so if you can find a pilot with one—”

“—a second passenger wouldn’t affect them much. That sounds perfect.” He hesitates. “Do any trainers with noivern work for taxi companies?”

“I’ve never heard of one,” Dr. Madi admits. “They may be ideal for multiple passengers, but they don’t have the stamina for long trips, and the margins on short ones probably aren’t too high since they take a lot of upkeep. You’d probably make more as a pilot just selling it for a more common mount. There might be some with injuries that make them unsuited to battle? Best I can think of for now.”

Red nods and checks the time, then stands. “I should head out. Thanks for this.”

“Of course. If I get any other bright ideas, I’ll pass them along. Good to see you again!”

Red waves and heads out the door, then through the echoing white halls until he can take an elevator down to the rear exit. Beyond it lies rippling green fields where most of the lab’s pokemon are bred, raised, studied, and trained, and as he walks out into the crisp afternoon air he summons Pikachu and Charmeleon so his pokemon can frolic around the new environment as they walk together.

He didn’t spend much time here before his journey, instead learning to feed and care for the lab’s pokemon in more controlled settings, but he knows the general layout. It takes about ten minutes to find one of the breeders who supervised his basic care training, Sophie, who smiles as he reaches the ramada where her outdoor office is set up.

“Been a while, Verres. Didn’t expect to see you back as a buyer so soon.”

“Still wouldn’t have, but Blue twisted my arm.” He smiles to show that it didn’t take much twisting.

“Sounds like a win-win to me, keeping you in the family business while ensuring you get a good deal. Hey there little fella!” She bends to scratch pikachu’s fur, fingers gentle as they trace the scar along his back. “Not so little, really. And there’s Earnest… or whatever you’re calling him now?”

“Uh, just Charmeleon still. His nickname was Earnest?”

“That’s right, you weren’t around long enough to take care of the rarer pokemon. Yeah, he really got focused on whatever he was doing compared to his siblings.”

Red wonders if he should try the old nickname on, but it doesn’t feel right, somehow. “Is his family out today? Maybe he can visit them.”

“Oh, no, they tend to like staying in their caves during winter, so we rarely bring them out unless it’s time for mating or a new brood.” She stands, and Pikachu skips back over to Red while Charmeleon investigates the wooden pillars of the ramada. “The others are out and about, though.”

He sends a mental nudge to his pokemon to come along as he follows her to the lake first, where various water pokemon swim below and along the surface. A pair of attendants are nearby, one running tests on the water whom Red recognizes and waves to, and a new face who’s running health checks on a poliwag. Among the various pokemon around them, it’s easy to spot the three squirtle playing atop and around the floating brown shell of a blastoise, which draws his attention to the rest of the family nearby; specifically the two wartortles lazing around in the shallows.

“They’re usually more energetic, racing around the lake, but—”

“They get less active when it’s colder,” Red completes with a smile, and Sophie nods.

“It’s been nice to have a few days without groundsnow, so we’re letting them enjoy it while they can. Shelby’s on the left, Snaps on the right.”

“Thanks.” He already received a file on each of them, their history and measurements and stats, the sorts of documents he spent a lot of time writing up as an intern. “And it really doesn’t matter which one I take?”

“From what I understand, your discount agreement would give us first right on breeding and resale, yeah?”


“Then nah, either works.”

Red almost asks which of them seems more attached to their family, but that’s the sort of thing he can check himself, and is part of why he wanted to come meet the pokemon rather than just going off the data. So he sends an impulse to Pikachu and Charmeleon to stay away from the lake (not that Charmeleon needs it, but Pikachu is curious and Red doesn’t want him to alarm the Water types) and walks over to his two potential new partners as he sends his thoughts out, feeling a bit like he did last time he was at the Lab to pick his starter.

Red can tell even without merging that both pokemon are fairly relaxed, in the general mental state he’s familiar with from helping out at Aiko’s ranch. As he gets closer their attention shifts to him, but without any alarm or fear, just curiosity… and from Snaps, a touch of wariness, Red thinks.

He confirms it by doing a proper merge, first with Snaps and then Shelby. Snaps, the senior of the two, is more prepared for potential hostility. Not expecting it, just… prepared. Shelby meanwhile is already just accepting him as part of the scenery, more interested in sniffing for food. There’s none of the protective wariness in him that his brother has, and for a moment Red deliberately focuses on the feeling of family as he swaps between the two. Which is more likely to miss them? Which would enjoy the potential excitement of going off to see new places more?

There’s no clear answer. The pokemon clearly have emotional states, but that kind of abstract imagining is beyond them. There’s only the now, and in the now both are content… one slightly more so than the other, or rather he would be if he had some tasty algae to snack on.

“I’ll take Snaps,” Red says, and as Sophie goes to speak with the caretaker, thoughts of letting Snaps “say goodbye” come and go; he’s not sure even a projection would help communicate what’s about to happen properly, and might just agitate the family without purpose. He reminds himself that the pokemon will be back to visit.



The wartortle is sucked back into its dive ball, which gets handed to Sophie, and they make their way toward the small grove near the edge of the enclosed area. Red swaps Charmeleon for Butterfree before they start wandering through it to look for the saurs. The parents aren’t currently out to act as a convenient beacon, but Sophie explains that lately the family has found a patch of grass that they enjoy getting sun in and soon they reach a clearing where three ivys and four bulbas are being fed by another caretaker Red doesn’t know.

The oldest ivysaur is a female that’s even larger than Raff, her bud reaching as high as Red’s chin. She’s nearly twice the price as her siblings, not just for her age and gender but also considering her stats; higher agility and less prone to tiredness than the average at her age. Still, he doesn’t want to jump from being too tight with his money to too loose with it, so Red only gives her sleepy mind a cursory merger before focusing on the younger two.

One comes up to Red as their emotions blend, and he shares the ivysaur’s curiosity at the new smells he brings with him. Red hasn’t had enough experience with ivysaur mergers to share the smells themselves, but he can tell that’s what the ivysaur is reacting to.

He holds his hand out for it to sniff while the other ivysaur just continues munching on berries. Neither of them seem quite as playful and curious as Raff, though the one that approached him is closer… but he’s not sure that’s what he should be aiming for; it’s not like he has the time to play with them the way she does. Or rather, it’s not like he makes the time the way she does.

The two are roughly equal in combat capability and price, so he decides to go with the more stoic one, in case someone more like Leaf comes along looking for an ivysaur. Its nickname is Shade (apparently it liked to stick close to its parents when it was younger), and once the caretaker returns it to its ball and hands it to Sophie, they make their way back to her office, pausing a couple times as Butterfree or Pikachu examine some tree or flower bush.

“Do you guys plan on breeding any noivern, by any chance?” he asks. “Ones that would be for sale?”

“Ha! Oh, you’re serious.” She shakes her head with a grin. “Not on my watch. All dragons are ridiculously fickle breeders.”

Red decides not to distract himself by researching noivern more and falling into his massive knowledge hole on pokemon breeding so he can solve an indirect problem that might solve the real one. Not just yet, at least. “Crobat?”

“Already fully evolved? Would cost you quite a bit. What do you need such fast fliers for?”

His explanation carries them all the way back to her ramada, where she sets up the PC for the trades and takes his pokedex to transfer ownership after he signs the appropriate documents. “Huh. Wanting to stay in range of a flying pokemon without hampering it…” She shakes her head. “Definitely not a normal problem, though some of the field researchers might have ideas even if Madi didn’t.”

“Yeah, I made a forum post to solicit advice. When I think back to other field experiments I’ve tried, like using spinarak webs to catch pokemon while I slept in Viridian, or the sounds from Dark pokemon to scare abra into a trap, I was playing off of the natural tools and weaknesses the pokemon had. But unown don’t have any natural predators, and they don’t behave like any other pokemon.”

“Have you tried reaching out to Rangers, see if they’ve had to do things like this before while herding pokemon, maybe?”

“Herding? Huh.” He makes the payment, part of him wincing slightly at the cost, then lines the balls up to begin the new owner training programs. “That’s a good idea… ” He thinks of Blue and his friends maybe all flying together to pen the unown in… but they’d have to keep up with them too, and in the air the unown would be able to evade in three dimensions rather than two.

Still, it is a good idea. “Thanks, I’ll look into it.”

“No problem. Take care, Verres, and don’t be a stranger.”

“I’ll try. I mean, I will, and I won’t—”

She laughs and waves him off, and he clips his new pokemon to the empty spots he left on his belt then returns Pikachu and Butterfree before he waves goodbye and unclips Saffron’s ball to teleport back.

After a moment he changes his mind. He’s not in a rush, with nothing else planned for a few hours, and he should practice free teleportation again, as he usually does when he has some spare time. So he swaps Saffron for Pallet, then prepares to teleport to the roof of the town’s Pokemon Center so he can practice in relative privacy.

As soon as he merges with Pallet, however, he notices something odd.

Abra minds are fairly unique in a lot of ways, one of which is that they’re both the most and least confused upon being summoned out of their balls. Programming helps most pokemon get over the disorientation of going from one location to another in a relative instant, but abra are very used to it, only really startled by abrupt shifts in temperature and light; this in turn is exacerbated by abra’s naturally extreme awareness of what environments are new to them. Their first order of business when in a new environment is to assess for safety, then “imprint” the location in a way that allows them to teleport back to it if needed.

Pallet definitely hasn’t been to this location before, and yet he’s not treating it like a new location. Red almost dismisses this—they’re still within Pallet Town, after all, so maybe the smells and sounds are similar enough—but no, he’s spent too much time looking out for the exact note of confusion he feels to ignore it that easily.

Part of the extreme ease and depth of his merger with his various abra after his experiments came from bringing each to different locations and teleporting back to the same one over and over and over again from just a couple meters away. It made it extremely clear that even slight differences in location register as different, and how. And really, there’s virtually nothing about this place that’s similar to the roof of the Pallet Pokemon Center.

What makes sense to Red, given just how sensitive abra are to location, is that they’re not using familiar senses at all, but rather something else entirely that tracks their position in space relative to a fixed point. Hell, even a higher elevation is enough to trigger a sense of vague unease in the abra until they know it’s safe. He’s not sure what they are using, maybe they’re orienting to something like their first remembered location or the center of the earth itself, but given that teleportation somehow manages to alter not just their location but their orientation and velocity from one moment to the next (objects on the earth’s surface are rotating faster closer to the equator than the poles, and yet teleportation works across continents without negative effect (in fact some of the first experiments with teleportation involved testing farther and farther “leaps,” with synchronized timing to measure whether it took any longer based on distance crossed))…

All these thoughts flash through Red’s mind in a wordless few instants, along with the now-familiar doubled sensations of his and his abra’s bodies, summing up to a simple, clear note of unambiguous confusion.

His abra shouldn’t feel familiar in this location.

But he is.

Which means it’s not the abra’s own sense of location that’s giving it the sense of familiarity and safety.

It’s Red’s.

Which means…

Red grins, and closes his eyes, and focuses on the most clear, most definitively safe environment, the most solid spacial point in his memory.

Teleport, he commands, the thought instantly shared between him and his fully merged abra, and he feels the shift in every sense, from warm sunlight and cool wind on two sets of skin to nothing, from dim light through closed lids to relative blackness, from grass to carpet, from outdoor smells to dust and linen, from faint sounds to absolute quiet.

Even months removed, he knows these smells.

Red starts laughing before he even opens his eyes, and sees his room around him, just as he left it. He picks Pallet up and hugs him, dropping the merger as he spins them around in an excited dance.

They did it. They did it. Free teleportation!

He laughs again, dancing in a small circle as he lifts his stoic abra up and down, so excited that he doesn’t hear the rapid footsteps until his door suddenly gets yanked open and he turns to stare at the shocked and frightened face of a stranger.

Oops. Too late he remembers that his mom rented the house out, sans their bedrooms. This must be the tenant staying in the guestroom.

“You… how…?!”

“I’m so sorry!” Red is still grinning like a fool as he puts his abra down and bows. “I didn’t mean to scare you! I’ll go right away, I just got so excited and didn’t think… I just figured out I can freely teleport!”

The man is still staring at him, mouth hanging open, and Red is about to reassure him that he’ll leave right away and not do this again when the man looks at the window, then him. “But… but we’re indoors!”

Red blinks at him, then looks around, grin fading.

The door was closed. The window was closed.

He teleported into an entirely enclosed space.

Somehow he forgot that he’s not able to do that.

“Oh yes, must have been a dozen of them,” the old man says to Leaf, eyes bright. “Leaping from roof to roof so quick, I thought they were pokemon!”

“A dozen, huh?” Leaf dutifully writes this down, suppressing both her excitement and her skepticism. “You were able to count them?”

“Ah, no, I just meant there were a lot, you know, more than a few!”

“And did they move as a group, or single file?”

“Mm, single file, you know, each leaping one after the other.”

“I see. And I’ve heard they each wore long red scarves, is that true?”

“Oh yes!” The man nods confidently. “That’s why I thought they were pokemon! Scarves were red as a greninja tongue!”

“And did you call anyone?”

“Eh? Ah, no, they were gone so fast. And I thought, well, there’s no law against jumping on rooftops, is there?”

Disturbing the peace, maybe, or trespassing? “Not specifically, that I’m aware. Anyway, I should head out. Thanks for your time.”

“Oh, sure. Come on back if you have any more questions, I’m here most nights.”

David sees Leaf stand and finishes his drink, then joins her at the bar’s doorway. They summon their pokemon together, her ivysaur and his meowstic, and as they walk along the street David casually asks, “You made up the part with the scarves, I take it?”

“Yeah. Something about him made me skeptical.”

“A bit too happy to have someone to talk to, I’d say.” David’s tone is sympathetic. “Older guy like that, sitting alone in a bar, probably used to being the one who strikes up conversation until the other person leaves.”

“Probably.” Leaf sighs. “Still, it’s possible he did see something. After all this time, I was bound to find someone eventually, right?”

“Or you were bound to ask enough people that, statistically, someone’s going to lie about it.”

Leaf nods and glumly follows the middle aged man down the sidewalk toward the next bar. It’s the third week of her almost nightly “tours of the city,” and after starting from the middle and working her way south first, she’s now making her way up toward the northern district, which seems to have a more active nightlife.

Overall, it’s hard to say whether all this time has been worthwhile. As Captain Takara noted, she’s too famous these days to get away with being a “curious foreigner” the way she was in Pewter, which combined with the nature of the investigation means she’s had to bury the questions she’s really interested in among all sorts of others about the city. In the past three weeks she’s heard people grumble about how the city’s reconstruction from the Hoenn incident is taking too long, praise the mayor’s new business initiatives, and whisper all sorts of theories about why crime in the city has been so low.

Not that everyone whispers about it, plenty of people attribute it to some change in policing or random chance, but the ones that do are the most interesting. As it turns out, there are a handful of rumors about people going around chasing gangs out of the city and stopping crime through vigilantism, but no one has claimed to be a first-hand witness until the man she met tonight.

Of course, Leaf could ask the local police about it. But even assuming they’d talk to her, that might draw attention that she’s trying to avoid… and besides, she’s still wary of talking to them after what happened in Celadon.

It took about a week, four nightly trips through the city in total, for Ranger Kyra to figure out what Leaf is really interested in. They’d gotten to know each other a bit in that time, enough for Leaf to trust the older woman and confirm what she’s really looking into. The ranger seemed curious, but not especially so, which Leaf has been grateful for. Her willingness to continue to chaperone Leaf has also been appreciated, and it took another week of Leaf insisting on treating her to dinner before the ranger accepted.

Kyra’s schedule can be erratic, however, and David has come to fill in the gaps for nights when she’s not available. He’s a programmer in his early 30s that attends the daily conferences, one of the people Leaf initially met online as he began to collaborate on her project with Natural and the others. It’s been nice getting to know him in person; he’s not a trainer, is also new to Kanto, and he’s always happy to teach her about anything related to computers or programming, or what it’s like working for Devon Corp. While he hasn’t particularly seemed to enjoy himself in the group’s brief trips into the Safari Zone, he seems happy enough to walk the city with her for a few hours at a time (and plenty of opportunities to rest). He expressed an interest in seeing more of Fuchsia last week, and when she explained that she travels the city whenever Kyra is available to chaperone, he offered to accompany her on the nights when the ranger is busy.

They reach another bar and Leaf spends half an hour talking to another couple people before David suggests they call it a night, which sends a sudden stab of dread through Leaf. “Could we, uh, visit one more?” He raises a brow, and she immediately feels bad. She’s always been worried about imposing on his or Kyra’s time before. “Nevermind, you’re right.”

“What’s up?”


“Hey.” Leaf looks back at him to find his patient, kindly gaze on hers. “You were distracted at the meeting today, and looked like you didn’t sleep well. Now this. Something going on at home?”

Leaf bites her lower lip, sighs, then nods. David takes her shoulder and steers her back into the bar, and this time they sit at a table together. “What’s up, Leaf? Is Mr. Sakai having a bad day?”

She closes her eyes, feeling tears well up briefly. “You can say that. Today was Aiko’s birthday.”

“Oh.” He lets out a breath. “Shit. I’m sorry, kid.”

She nods, eyes still closed. Aiko’s aunt reached out last night to see how she and her brother were doing, and Leaf cautiously reported that he seemed to be fine; nothing unusual that morning or during dinner.

He was not fine this morning.

“His sister came to spend the day with him. She doesn’t usually spend much time at the ranch, she’s got her own life, but she said they should mourn together.” Leaf lets out a watery breath. “Anyway, she’s probably waiting for me to get back before she heads home. Maybe even expecting me for dinner, so I should go back.”

“Hold on. If she’s still with him then she probably won’t mind another few minutes. How are you doing?”

Leaf takes a moment to let the question stir her emotions up, gives them a chance to radiate out like spikes from her chest, to sink her head heavily onto her folded arms. “Not great,” she admits in a low croak. It was easy to keep the feelings away, as long as she kept focused on other things. But returning to the ranch… to that room, to the likely sounds of weeping… or somehow worse, silence…

I’m sorry, Aiko…

“That’s understandable,” David says, voice low and soothing. “I’d be surprised if—”

“It’s not that,” she forces out, his sympathy somehow making it worse. “It’s… I feel like I’ve moved on. It’s been five months, and… I can’t forget her, I’m living in her room, having meals with her dad every day, but…” Guilt twists in her, and she forces the admission out. “I forgot it was her birthday. She told us back when we were celebrating Red and Blue’s, and I remember making vague plans around then, but… until her aunt called yesterday…”

She feels hesitant fingers touch her shoulder, then squeeze. “That’s nothing to blame yourself for. Hell, even my dad doesn’t remember my birthday most years unless my mom reminds him. You didn’t even get the chance to celebrate one with her, right?”

Leaf shakes her head, feeling a sob rise in her throat before she pushes it back down.

“Have you spoken to your friends about it?”

“No. They’re busy, Blue’s got to catch up on his training after working on his flying license, and Red’s still trying to replicate the indoor teleport…” It was an amazing discovery, one that only a few people actually believe happened. There’s the one witness, of course, and she trusts Red, but to most people it’s just too unusual to be believed until he can do it again in controlled conditions, especially since the witness might have simply been tricked; she’s seen comments online about how he probably opened the window from outside, snuck in, then closed it behind him. It was his house, after all.

“Mhm. Well, I know your friends are busy guys, but I gotta think they would want to be with you if you were feeling like this. Is there something more to this?”

She shakes her head again. “I don’t want… it hasn’t been that long since…” She’s talked to David about some things, but not this. No one outside of Blue’s close friends knows how bad things got between him and Red. How fragile their rekindled friendship might be. “They haven’t said anything. I don’t want them to feel guilty too, if they forgot.” It’s not a lie, at least, just a lesser reason.

“But you miss her. And the only person you can share that grief with is her father, who didn’t know her the way you did. That’s gotta be a lonely feeling, Leaf. It’s okay not to put others first at times like this.”

Probably. But it’s not worth bringing back that distance between them, that anger and hurt. “Maybe.”

David lets out a sigh and squeezes her shoulder again before drawing his hand back. “We can stay out as long as you’d like, kid. I’m not in a rush to get home.”

“No.” She rubs her eyes and lifts her head up, sniffing. “I should go. But thank you, David. Really.”

He hesitates, gaze searching her face, then nods, and they head outside. “I’ll see you tomorrow. And… feel free to call me, if you need to chat or something.”

“I will.” Maybe. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, kid.”

She brings her abra out and teleports back to the ranch, letting the salty air of Fuchsia out in a gust before taking in a fresh breath of the open fields around her. When she turns toward the ranch, she sees lights on upstairs and wonders if Kasumi is still here. When she goes inside, however, she hears different voices upstairs, and hurries up the steps, heart leaping.

“—think I heard… yep, there she is.”

Red and Blue are setting the table, wearing simple, somber clothes; Red’s usual hat and jacket are conspicuously missing, and Blue is wearing a simple black button up shirt. Neither are wearing their pokebelts, and she remembers that bright colors, particularly red, are considered inappropriate for mourning here.

She turns to see Mr. Sakai and his sister in the kitchen. Both their eyes are puffy, and Aiko’s father is moving slowly, face drawn as he shuffles from place to place, but he looks at her as he sets the food down, and gives a watery smile. “You’re just in time. Don’t forget to wash up before it gets cold.”

Leaf’s paralysis breaks as she nods and hurries to do so, then quickly changes and takes her belt off before joining them. The meal is somber as everyone eats the bowls of simple rice with beans and chopped vegetables, and once they’re done Kasumi lifts her glass, eyes wet.

“To my niece. She always had something kind to say, and worked so hard—” Her voice breaks, and she takes a breath. “I never knew just how hard.”

They drink, Leaf through a tight throat, and then Blue goes next, voice low and intense. “To Aiko, who saved my life, and others’, when we were underground. For teaching us a new way to own our mistakes, and learn from them.”

They drink again as fresh tears line her family’s faces, and Leaf’s vision blurs. She wipes them clear, and speaks as clearly as she can, though her voice is rough, and wavers at the start. “To my friend, who made me feel less alone in what I cared about, and who shared her d-dreams with m-me.”

Leaf can barely swallow, and it’s like a dam breaks in her chest, all the grief of Aiko’s death suddenly fresh again. She can hear the others weeping too, and it takes a few minutes before quiet descends, and Red clears his throat.

“To Aiko. Whose determination moved us all. And was only matched by… by her heart.”

They sip their drinks again, and Leaf has to clear her eyes again as she thinks of the way Aiko broke down and cried when she received her refurbished pokedex, and the quiet patience in her voice when she told her father she was leaving. She knows Red must also be thinking of how she died, and wants to hug him, but holds herself back for now.

Mr. Sakai is quiet for so long that Leaf almost thinks he won’t speak, until he whispers, “To my daughter. She never complained. About the work. Or me. She just wanted. More.” His mouth works, silently, and then he repeats, “More,” and drinks, and sets his glass down, tears slipping from under closed lids.

They sit in silence for a while, and Leaf stares at the table, wishing she could hug Joy, wondering if there’s something else it would be appropriate to do. She’s bone tired, and part of her wants to go to bed, but the thought of whose bed it is causes fresh tears to flow for another indeterminate while.

Kasumi is the first to stir, and starts to clean the table. Blue stands too, and a hollowed-out looking Red, whose partition, she suddenly intuits, has likely been down all night as he lets himself fully be with his grief. Mr. Sakai stands to help, but his sister quickly ushers him to his bedroom, and they hear quiet murmurs, and some brief, joint sobbing.

The three work quietly to clear the table and wash the dishes before Kasumi returns. “I think he’s asleep,” she murmurs, and reaches out to hug Leaf, then Red, then Blue. “I’ll stay on the futon tonight, to see how he is tomorrow. If he follows the pattern of how he was after Ema… his wife… tomorrow he’ll likely be back to normal, more or less.”

There’s a heaviness in her voice, but no bitterness. “Is there anything else I can do…?”

“No, dear, you’re doing more than enough. And you two. Thank you all for coming.”

“Of course,” Blue says, and Red nods before they go to collect their things. Leaf helps her set up the futon, then follows Red and Blue downstairs to say goodbye.

By some unspoken signal, as soon as they’re outside and under the stars, they move for a group hug. For a while they just stand quietly together under the stars, as they did in this same place that night nearly half a year ago before she and Red went off to sea, and Blue and Aiko and the others went below the earth. The last time they were together, before the storm that blew them apart.

It’s Leaf that breaks the hug, not because she wants to, but because she knows the other two won’t. Not as long as they think she might still need it. She takes a few deep breaths, then clears her throat. “When did you guys…?” Another stab of guilt, that they remembered and she didn’t…

“Miss Sakai asked if we were free for dinner around noon,” Blue explains. “Got here maybe half an hour before you did.”

Red picks up on her surprise, whether psychically or just by her expression. “You didn’t know? You weren’t planning on bearing this alone, were you?”

“I didn’t…” Leaf forces the words out. “She’s the one that reminded me, yesterday. I didn’t think…”

“Idiot,” Blue says, but affectionately. She can’t tell if he guessed why she didn’t bring it up to them. “How’s everything down south? Going okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, fine. Another test tomorrow, on tauros.” They’ve been experimenting with a handful of pokemon, each one needing custom code. It still makes Leaf feel ill, sometimes, particularly when she remembers how angry she used to get at pokemon experimentation… but at least she knows this really is for the pokemon’s sake as much as humans’.

“Cool. You guys still going to need us?”

“I think so. That’s still the plan, I mean, last I heard.”

“Well, we’ll be there. Can come down anytime, now.”

“I’ll head down sometime this week,” Red says. “After that, same.”

“How’s the teleporting going?”

Red makes a face. “I know I should just be happy I can do free teleportation now—”

“Or any teleportation,” Blue mutters.

“—that too, sorry. It’s just, figuring out what I did, exactly, and failing to replicate it, has kind of sucked the fun and victory out of it. After duplicating the exact steps and conditions leading up to it failed, even I’m starting to doubt what I experienced, like maybe the window was open and me teleporting in made it fall closed or something, even though I know that shouldn’t make any difference, I tested for stuff like that, so did others.”

“It has to be something with your state of mind, right?”

“That’s what I keep thinking, but I’m having trouble figuring out what it is. My best guess is not knowing for sure it’ll work, so it can only happen the first time someone teleports, but it’s hard to find psychics who haven’t done it at least once these days, ironically, and when I tried it with a non-psychic it didn’t work. Having psychics invoke amnesia also didn’t work, maybe because they can’t do it to their pokemon and that’s important too somehow, but using a new pokemon also didn’t work.”

There’s a threadbare frustration in his voice that makes Leaf reach out a hand to squeeze his arm. “You’ll get it, sooner or later. Don’t run yourself ragged meanwhile.”

“He hasn’t been sleeping much,” Blue adds.

“Hey, that’s not…” Red trails off as they both stare at him, and he sighs, running a hand through his hair before admitting, “…entirely true. Once I fall asleep I get enough hours, as long as there’s no alarm, but I’ve had trouble with racing thoughts at night. It’s hard to move on to anything else, with this kind of discovery teasing me just out of reach. But I found a workaround yesterday, actually.”


“Yeah. I just make myself forget I did it, when I want to sleep.”

Blue shakes his head. “I don’t care if it’s sour grapes or what, that will never stop being creepy to me.”

“You should meet Rowan sometime. Speaking of which, I’ve got a meeting to get to.” He doesn’t make a move to leave, however, and neither does Blue. After a moment Red awkwardly asks Leaf, “You’ll be by tomorrow for your session with Sabrina, right?”

They’re reluctant about leaving me alone. She remembers the way she cried upstairs, and feels a prickle of embarrassment… but just a prickle. “I will. Come by again anytime. You know you’re always welcome.”

They take the dismissal, and hug her again once each before Blue summons Zephyr and mounts up, taking off with big, buffeting gusts of wind. Red summons an abra, and Leaf raises a brow. “Now that you don’t need one for each city, have you sold the others off?”

“Not yet, they might still come in handy.” For experiments, she guesses. “You’re going to ask me about the nicknames, aren’t you?”

“Just saying, doesn’t make sense to stick with the labels if you just use one to go everywhere. And don’t you dare stick the one you keep with that!”

“What, Everywhere? It’s a bit presumptuous, unless I take a year or two to travel.” His smile fades after a moment. “You’ll really be okay?”

“I will. And if I’m not, I promise to call.”

“Good. I’m just a thought away, you know?”

That makes her smile for the first time all night. “You are. Come by soon, Raff still hasn’t met your ivysaur.”

“I will. Night, Leaf.”

“Goodnight, Red.”

She watches him disappear, and hugs herself as she lets her eyes slip closed, lets the emotions sink in and fill her for a moment as the tiredness returns. Today took her by surprise, in a lot of ways. Life in the past few months got so busy, so full of new emergencies and new normals, new experiences and new routines, that things like simply mourning her lost friend felt like something that happened to a different her, in another world. Now that she’s here, she wonders how long before the grief feels distant again, and she’s back in the stream of day to day, with just the occasional sad thought or extra long night staring up at the ceiling.

Not long. Maybe it would take a couple days, but things are moving fairly quickly at the Safari Zone, and teaching Sabrina and other psychics her mental state has been challenging, and exploring Fuchsia always brings some novelty even if it doesn’t bring her any new answers. Soon this pain would scab over again, and feel like a footnote of her life again instead of tangible, immediate reality.

Maybe she would even be like Mr. Sakai, back to “normal” as soon as she wakes in the morning.

Leaf walks back to the porch, but instead of climbing the stairs simply sits, rubbing her arms against the chill as she decides to stay out a little longer.

When Leaf arrives at the meeting the next day, there’s just a couple empty seats left, and she quickly goes to the one next to David. “Morning,” she says with a tired smile as she pets the white tuft of fur between his meowstic’s ears. “Before you ask, yes, I’m okay, thanks. And thanks again for the talk last night. Didn’t get much sleep, obviously, but my friends did end up coming over.”

“That’s good,” David says, studying her face a moment before he turns back toward his screen, looking distracted.

Leaf blinks, wondering if she’s being rude. She meant to express gratitude and reassure him, but maybe he thinks she’s giving him the brush off. She really didn’t sleep much last night, and is having trouble trusting self-assessments or thoughts. “How was your night?”

“Fine. Just did some work.”

Maybe she’s misreading him too. Or maybe he really doesn’t want to talk right now. She lets it go until later, knowing he can’t complain if she pokes him to open up a bit after he did the same, and soon the meeting starts.

Warden Takara reviews the plan to cordon off an area of the Zone, release a captured and re-programmed tauros into it, observe its behavior, and slowly but surely give it more freedom as they expose it to more scenarios, including socializing with wild tauros eventually. It’s no different than what they’ve done already with rattata and nidoran and venonat, but tauros are significantly more rare, powerful, and aggressive, which makes the stakes higher and adds additional considerations. The programmers in the room, and those watching through livestream, have a few hours to do some final overview of the code while the researchers and rangers review the planned activities and safeguards.

Leaf is something of a general purpose member of the team, being only somewhat knowledgeable in each of the various fields at play. Sometimes she feels like she’s only really here because the whole thing was her idea, but no, that’s just her tiredness and negative thoughts at work. She’s made suggestions that the others have found valuable, and at the very least is the closest thing to a “manager” the project has, since she knows everyone working on it and has been following all the changes and versions from the beginning.

She decides to review the new changes pushed last night, and finds another thing to bring up to David. “Hey, nice work with this new error-control segment. Looks a lot more elegant and thorough.”

David gives an awkward laugh, “It was nothing. I just… had some free time, thought I should try to do more, you know? Feels like I haven’t been pulling my weight.”

“That’s not true at all.” Leaf hides her frown, though she can’t help but keep watching David, troubled. He’s usually somewhat overmodest, but there’s still an off note in what he said, or the way he said it.

Maybe she should poke him now rather than later. If something’s wrong, she owes it to him to help if she can.

“Hey, mind if we take a walk? I want to talk about something.”

He looks surprised, and hesitates, which only worries her more. Finally he nods, and they slip outside the conference room, taking a brief walk down the hall toward one of the sitting areas by the big windows facing the Zone. They sit in awkward silence for a minute as he strokes his pokemon’s fur before Leaf realizes she’s supposed to say something.

“Sorry. I’m only at like 70% right now, and this seemed like a better idea before I did it. If you don’t want to talk I’ll understand. I just… you helped me last night, so… if there’s anything I can do…”

David’s face is blank at first, the expression sitting oddly in his otherwise easygoing features. He scratches the stubble along his jaw, then lets out a long, slow sigh.

“Right. So. Here’s the thing, Leaf… I didn’t want to bring this up until I had something more concrete, but I noticed something odd about the pokemon you registered at the start of all this.”

It’s Leaf’s turn to force her expression blank, while inside her pulse kicks into high gear, some of the tiredness fading as adrenaline hits her system. “Odd?”

“I think some of the others have too, but no one’s really wanted to talk about it. And when I looked into their code… well, I wondered how you got it to be so similar to wild pokemon’s without the very program that the data was used to create.”

Shit. She thought they covered their tracks well, but… “As I said, Aiko was the one who was working on this before I picked up the torch. It was just an idea, when I thought of it, she’s the one that—”

“It’s a convenient excuse, and I’m not saying it’s not partially true, at least. I believe she was working on it, and somehow found a way to alter the conditioning, or rather gave the pokemon permission to ignore it. But… I’m sorry, I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead. But I don’t care how genius your friend was, a team this big is still struggling to replicate her work? We’ve made strides, done it even better in some ways, but that kind of blanket sidestepping of the conditioning is too clean.” David sets his jaw in a stubborn angle, fingers tight in his meowstic’s fur. “I don’t know who she’s acting as the cover for, if it’s Bill or one of the others on the team or someone else entirely, but what she or they were doing was dangerous. I think you’re trying to make the best of that work, but until I know who was behind it, it feels suddenly like we all might just be getting used.”

Leaf keeps her expression as neutral as she can while thinking over her contingencies. She thought it would be Bill or Natural who first noticed and asked her about this, but as David said, maybe they noticed but didn’t care. Or maybe they’re more willing to believe that a young and determined programming genius was able to pull off what the sakki did. It was always a risk, but one she knew had to be taken if this project would be possible within a decade, rather than however long it would take for her to learn to duplicate the effects on her own without asking anyone else for help. Assuming that was even possible for someone with her programming talent; she’s no Bill. She’s not even Aiko.

“Are you going to quit?” she asks, voice quiet. If he does, he might go to the media, or raise his concern with Warden Takara… or even go to the police.

He lets a breath out. “I’m not sure. But I want to know the truth, and I’m pretty sure you know it.”

Leaf keeps her gaze on the window, trying to hide her fear. Here’s the first card, tilting out of position. What Red feared might happen as soon as the full scope of what psychic abilities can do gets known to the general public, what he realized he’d inadvertently started when the others in Blue’s training group learned about sakki. She thought it might be one of the others that let it slip, or hoped they’d have more time. Time to get farther with the program, show the good it can do.

Maybe it wouldn’t change much. Psychics are already afforded a lot of trust, combined with a lot of careful litigation and oversight to prevent abuse. Maybe this would just cause more of the same.

Or maybe it would bring the whole house down.

Chapter 93: Qualitative Research

“What’s he doing here?”

The words felt hot and spiky in Blue’s head, but come out cold, a controlled burst of contempt that causes the ex-Leader to flinch. Not much, just a tightening around his eyes, a momentary deepening of the perpetual frown his lips seem set in. Or maybe that’s anger of his own, and Blue is giving himself too much credit.

Duncan doesn’t respond, nor does he seem particularly upset. He simply looks at Koichi, as if waiting for the man to answer himself.

After a moment, he does. “Same as the others. I am here to teach, and to learn.” As in recordings Blue watched long ago, Koichi’s voice is deep, coming out of his thick chest with force behind every word… but there’s something else there, too, that he never heard in the old videos. Something almost hesitant.

“There’s nothing you have to teach that anyone should learn.”

Koichi’s eyes tighten again, and this time he drops his gaze. It’s Duncan who asks, “Do you really believe that?”

Blue rounds on him, anger joined by a sense of betrayal. He was starting to like Duncan, but defending Koichi, letting him in here to begin with…

He notices that Glen is back, approaching from the side and looking at Koichi with confusion. As a non-Kanto native his friend probably doesn’t even know who he is, and it reminds Blue that maybe Duncan doesn’t fully understand either. “Of course I do. He’s everything a Leader shouldn’t be, ran Saffron like a petty warlord who conquered it for status and had no idea how to actually rule, and worse, wasn’t willing to share power when it became obvious he needed help from others. The League almost had to step in before Sabrina beat him.”

“You won’t find anyone here who disagrees that he was a terrible Leader in many ways,” Duncan says, voice calm. Of course he knows who he is, others here would have told him… “But you keep saying ‘nothing’ and ‘everything’… you really can’t think of anything of value he might have to teach? Multiple things, even?”

It feels like he’s arguing with Red, suddenly, and the thought shifts Blue from anger to suspicion. He’s set up and walked into enough verbal traps to recognize that tone, and once he’s looking for it he sees what Duncan is getting at. “What, battling? Sure, he’s a great trainer. So what? There are plenty of them.”

“And how much time do they spend training others directly? The ones in Gyms or the Rangers have a lot of other duties, and those outside of them charge quite a lot, if they’re not busy with other things themselves. Koichi has been teaching here for weeks, completely free of charge.”

“And that makes it okay? Free lessons don’t matter if what’s being taught is dangerous, if anything that makes it worse!”

“Dangerous how? You think I’m okay with the things he did while Leader? You think anyone here is?”

The words take Blue aback again, calmly stated but still with an underlying iron. Putting it that way forces him to pass judgement on the people around him, people he’s never met, and forces him to think it through. Does he think that? If not, what is he actually worried about?

“It doesn’t seem likely,” Blue admits. “So why don’t you explain what’s going on here, exactly?”

Duncan seems to relax a little, then turns his body slightly so that he’s not facing Blue as much as he is both him and Koichi. “I’ll let him speak for himself. Just wanted to make sure you were in the right mindset to listen.”

Koichi’s eyes are still tight in his otherwise impassive face, but when Duncan nods at him the older man takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “As I said before, I am here to teach and learn. Not just karate and pokemon battles. I can teach others how to avoid the mistake I made. How to avoid becoming the kind of Leader I was.”

Blue stares at him, then glances at Duncan. Multiple things to teach. Right. “You think I’m in danger of becoming this guy?”

“I didn’t say that,” Duncan says. “Few people would, and I doubt you’re one of them. But different mistakes can still benefit from the same lessons.”

“Your anger is justified,” Koichi says, drawing Blue’s attention back to him. “I do not ask you to release it. It is natural that the things we do will reflect on us, and I did those things, and I do not have… excuses. Reasons, but misguided ones. Nothing that offers mitigating circumstances. I was a flawed person who caused harm rather than accept my shortcomings, and even though I’ve been given another chance, I know I will have to face suspicion and anger like yours forever, as part of the price for what I did. I only want the chance to become someone else. To be the someone else that I have already begun to become.”

Blue studies the ex-Leader, trying to decide if the words are part of some rote apology. His expression is closed, his tone awkward, but Blue doesn’t hold that against him; a smoother speech would have been just as suspect, and Koichi always came off as a proud and confident man.

But it’s not particularly convincing, either. “So you’re telling me you’re not trying to get back into a position of authority?”

“Yes. After I was removed from the gym, I realized that I could let my anger and self-loathing keep me cut off from the world… as I did, for months afterward… or I could try to return to it. So I gathered my money and opened my own school. Even offering free classes, I had no students. I sought battles, went from incident to incident, to show that I still had value, both to others, and to myself. Despite my help, I was given no respect, no esteem. Those whose lives I saved thanked me, but hesitantly, and uncomfortably. I was tolerated at best… useful, instrumentally, but left alone at the end of each day.”

The words still came stilted, with pauses of varying length between sentences, and this one goes on for so long that Blue thinks Koichi will stop despite the way his jaw flexes. Eventually it stubbornly sets, and he continues. “When it became clear to me how far the shadow I cast had spread… to other regions, through new generations, always my past would come out sooner or later… for months, I fell into true despair. I had few family members left who would speak with me, but I was eventually convinced to seek help. I realized my belief that what happened to me was an unfairness in the world, rather than the result of my own mistakes, was keeping me from growing. From acting to atone for the harm I caused.”

“That’s what this is supposed to be? Atonement?”

“Yes,” Koichi says, gaze down. “My leadership weakened Saffron City, and cost its trainers valuable time, and effort, and pokemon. I knew the gym would not trust me, for good reason. But when I saw the call for instructors here… I had to try.”

“Being new to the region, I didn’t know who he was,” Duncan says. “It came up in seconds from a background check, of course, but the fact that he was offering to work for free, to accept any rules imposed, made me take it seriously.”

Blue looks at Koichi again, then away, unsure how to feel. This whole thing feels wrong, but… he can’t argue against the points they raise. It would be a waste for someone of Koichi’s skill as a trainer to not teach, was a waste even before he was ousted.

And if he really is trying to change, to be a better person…

Blue realizes a small crowd has joined Glen in watching from a distance. Not obviously, just a handful of people lingering within listening distance without any obvious activity to do. He wonders, suddenly, if this is a test by Duncan… but if so, is it for him, or for Koichi? Maybe both?

Either way, he said he wanted Blue to learn to lose. He’s not sure if Duncan knows what Surge’s gym is like, but it definitely taught him the value of admitting when someone makes a better argument. Still, Blue’s not sure he’s convinced.

“Maybe this isn’t the right place to have this conversation,” Blue offers.

“It’s alright,” Duncan says. “One of the conditions to his staying here is that at any time, if someone’s been here a week, takes one of his classes, and still wants him to leave, he leaves.”

Blue glances at Koichi, whose gaze is on the floor. “Just like that?”

“Just like that. There’s an exception for people who battled him as a Leader, but I’m the one that carved that out to avoid some understandable attempts to get revenge.”

It seems like a stressful condition to work under, but it does more to appease Blue’s worry than anything else, and it’s not hard to remind himself that Koichi deserves it. “Well, I guess it’s not my business unless I stay, then.”

Duncan smiles and turns to Koichi. “Thanks.”

The ex-leader nods and walks away. Blue frowns at his broad back, then looks at Duncan. “Was that me learning to lose?”

“In part, maybe. The way I see it, he teaches that just by being here, since the first lesson is learning what being humbled looks and sounds like. Not ‘humble’ in the milquetoast way we often say it, the cool humility everyone feels good about, I mean having actively been humbled, and continuing to actively be humble, as a verb.”

“Assuming he’s not just pretending.”

“That’s where split-and-commit comes in. If someone gets accused of something that they deny doing, but no evidence was gathered yet, you could find any number of reasons to either believe or doubt the accusation, and you’ll probably be influenced by things like how likeable they are, or how credible the accuser, or how much pressure you’re under to believe or doubt. I’d rather take both possibilities seriously and commit to either that turns out to be true.”

“This isn’t like that, though. He did do those things, it’s on video, he admitted it!”

Duncan’s eyes flash anger before his expression goes blank, and he lets out a slow breath. “That’s not what you said. The accusation that he’d deny is that he’s pretending about wanting to make amends for what he admitted he did. Like that didn’t occur to me. Like I just didn’t imagine that he might be faking sincerity, or decided to ignore it anyway. You see how that’s treating me like an idiot, right?”

It takes Blue a moment to beat back his defensiveness. It’s possible Duncan made a mistake, of course, but if so he didn’t do it thoughtlessly. “Yeah. Sorry. So… you’re saying that when he showed up, you decided to treat both possibilities like they were true. Maybe he’s being sincere, so you’ll give him a chance, or maybe he’s not, so you’ll watch him carefully and not give him power and put conditions on what he does?”

“Right. I get why some might not want to take the risk, but I’ve got plenty of people here who can watch him and tell me if he’s causing a problem. If I decided to just turn him away it would have been because of fear of public backlash, not because I honestly think he’s one of the actually irredeemable people. Maybe he is, but he’s at least willing to put the work in to make up for it, which is more than I can say for most people who fuck up. Either way it’s been long enough that he deserves a chance to prove himself.”

It is, Blue has to admit, a sort of courage that he’s not sure he has. One he’s not sure he can afford, if he wants to be as widely respected as he needs to be; a single wrong call, and his judgement would be questioned forever.

But if Koichi’s training turns out to save a dozen lives, and those dozen lives save a dozen more… if some of them are the sort of people who sign on to Blue’s goals, or someone with Koichi’s skills can help those goals succeed…

It’s hard to know for sure ahead of time, and he realizes how strange it is that he’s willing to risk his life repeatedly to gain people’s respect, but not his reputation if he might lose it. Dying a martyr is better than the alternative, but it would still make him a failure if he doesn’t take the birds down with him.

Glen approaches at last, looking warily between Blue and Duncan. “So, uh. Guess I missed some stuff?”

The redhead smiles. “Just some trampolining and a challenge. You came in time for the exciting part.” He starts leading them away. “Everything go okay on your end?”

“Oh, yeah, you guys are all set… wait, challenge as in a battle? Now?”

“Yep. We’ve got a second building around the block where our battle arenas are, too dangerous to have them in here.”

As they follow him toward the exit, Glen turns to Blue. “Guessing this was your idea?”

“Kind of a mix. I challenged him, he added stakes. If I win I get one of his pokemon. If he wins I stay for at most three months.” He’s less enthusiastic at the thought than he was before seeing Koichi. What if there are others like him here? Or someone even worse?

“Three months! You expect getting a Challenge match to take that long?”

“Maybe. But this place seems interesting enough to check out in any case, and training my abra will also take a while.” He’d probably lose a lot of Duncan’s respect if he backs out now, but going from “worrying what everyone thinks of me” to “worrying what one person thinks of me” only seems like a minor improvement… and assuming Duncan meant what he said before, he wouldn’t want Blue to stay if he felt he was misled anyway. Plus, if he ends up training here then he’d have the right to ask for Koichi to leave if he thinks he’s out of line.

What decides him, ultimately, is that he already shook on it. Going back on his promise to battle any Stormbringer incident was bad enough, and stepping away from this commitment wouldn’t feel nearly as justified, despite some part of him trying to find similarities in how much he knew what he was committing to beforehand. He’s received far too many trainer challenges to feel bad about not accepting them all, but he’s never backed down from one once he has.

Yes, he’d go through with the challenge, and as he said, if he loses then the dojo letting Koichi in would suddenly be more directly his concern. Duncan at least earned a bit of trust in pinpointing what Blue’s been struggling with so well, and offering good advice.

He considers his friend a moment, and what it would mean to have a more honest relationship. “Think it would be good for all of us, really.”

Glen’s back stiffens, for a moment, before relaxing. He doesn’t respond as they follow Duncan out into the brisk afternoon air, then down the sidewalk.

“They’re doing some cool stuff,” Blue continues, a little more cautiously. “And with the extra focus on physical training—”

“I know,” Glen says. Their voices are low, but not so low that Duncan probably can’t hear them from up ahead now that they’re away from the noise of the dojo. “Already thought about it. Figured, if we’d be here a while anyway… but I don’t want you to stay here just for me. If you were thinking of going on to another gym, you should.”

It feels like a fist squeezing between his ribs, but Blue forces himself to say, “I was.”

Glen lets a long breath out. “Right. I get it.”

“That doesn’t mean I—”

“Blue, you can’t stay here just for me. Let’s be honest, what we did in Vermilion was good, even great, but you didn’t need me in Celadon even before I was… hurt.” Glen swallows. “You can’t stay just for me. You’ve got too much else to do, and I need to find my own way to keep up. You can’t let pity—”

“Stop, Glen. You were a hero in Celadon, I want you with me, it’s not pity.” Blue struggles to find the words, wishing he’d taken some time to think about what he wanted to say… “And what does that even mean? I don’t know why everyone gets so hung up over pity, like who came up with a bad word for caring about each other, like people aren’t supposed to support those they care about, it’s fucking dumb. You’re a great trainer, and if you need some time to get back to a hundred percent, I’d be an idiot to go without you.”

They walk in silence for a minute, passing by more warehouses until they see another one of the dojo logos above the door of a building up ahead. “Thanks,” Glen mutters, voice rough. “But we both know that there are costs to you holding still too long, and we don’t know how long it’ll be before I’m back to normal. I know you’ve got some good reasons to stay, like training your abra, and maybe doing stuff here… but if you put managing my feelings over your goals, I don’t want that, just… don’t you dare lose this battle for an excuse to stick around for my sake.”

They reach the door, and Duncan turns to them as he opens it, smiling slightly. “Puts me in a bit of an awkward spot if I win, now.”

“It’s fine,” Blue says. “You can just say that by losing I’ve learned my lesson, and I’m free to leave whenever.”

“Right, of course. That was my plan all along.”

A gentle chime partially pulls Red out of his meditation, the alarm tone specifically chosen to avoid making the transition as jarring as his morning one. He takes in one last breath, reaches out to lift his pencil over his notebook, and begins to pull his partition down.

Strangely, the clearest mark of his growing psychic skill is that it’s no longer as easy or quick as it used to be. Before, as long as he hadn’t stretched himself too far, it would lower or snap back into place almost immediately, like clenching and relaxing a fist. Now it takes explicit effort to move it either up or down, though not much.

Doing it this slowly, there’s no clear point at which he stops being his partitioned self and starts to be his whole self. Emotions shift first, the world taking on a different “hue,” but he still feels mostly like himself, aware of the changes and confused about why they’re happening, except he knows why they’re happening, they just feel so incongruous to his thoughts that they surprise him every time. Then the new thoughts follow, memories and insights he’s blocked from his partitioned self, and it would feel okay to label this the moment of transition, except there’s still some stability left over, a protective wall that the partition gives him by keeping things at a safe, dissociative distance.

When that ends, it’s always hard to tell if it was fading little by little or abruptly or in stages. Still, he takes a moment to confirm that his thoughts and mood are “stable,” and that he’s still grounded in his breathing, before lowering the partition that holds the Lavender memories away.

Not all of them, and not all at once. Over the past few weeks he’s managed, little by little, to isolate exactly what he’s looking for, so that all he gets when he eases it down is—

twisting, inverted, chaotic swirling glimpses of

Red blows his breath out, doing his best to let the thought go.






Deep breath in…

despair, gone, lost

And out.








Pain steadily grows in Red’s temples, and he feels the world tilt under him as his thoughts are swept away in the memory. The shape in his mind is clear, but the disorientation pulls until he’s forced to partition the memory away again.

It’s not as hard as it was last time. The steady breathing continues to ground him for just long enough even as he feels his focus unravel. For a few breaths he just lets his scattered thoughts continue to roil and shiver and vibrate along every strand of thought that forms, each one dissolving a moment later, until he starts to feel himself stabilize.

He looks down at his notebook, where he’s written in an untidy scrawl,

twistyinsidesnow skysad maro?lookfade

Then checks the last page from when he tried this yesterday:

look ingfade to worldistorted seefadesad towergroundsky fade

And the one before that:

seeskyfade warpedwhitefade swarmseefade

Nothing really new, but he still takes the time to write out each individual word, then does his best to connect them where they seemed to be part of the same thought, even if they weren’t written back to back. It feels a bit wrong, like he’s trying to force random data to fit a pattern, but it’s possible that the deeper meaning was scrambled in the first place by his own imperfect experience… and it’s not like it makes any real sense as written, or like he’s taking the letters and trying to form new words with them.

Once he’s finished however he still has no idea what any of it means. Luckily, he doesn’t need to figure it out on his own.

After searching online and explicitly asking around, he was able to find other psychics who have merged with wild unown and noticed odd flashes of… something, that they normally don’t get any hint of with captured unown, and doesn’t seem present in any accounts of mergers with wild unown from before the incident. No one else has yet reported an experience quite as difficult as Red’s, but they probably didn’t merge with them through a rampaging ghost either.

Still, with enough people sharing what they glimpsed he’s hoping they can gather enough common points to find some real patterns. If he’s lucky, they might even get some clues to understanding what exactly happened at the tower, and whether it had anything to do with the unown. If it turns out to be a coincidental three-way-merger Red is going to be disappointed, but not by too much given that this seems useful enough. There’s already enough similarities in what the others have reported that they’re learning new things about the unown.

Red can’t remember the experiences himself with his partitions up, but from their collected notes, the impressions of “looking” or “seeing” definitely feel, as much as the various psychics’ human brains can understand them at least, to be purposeful. It makes sense that a pokemon existing as, essentially, a huge eye would primarily be focused on looking at things, but it isn’t as passive as how people experience “looking at the world” to be, while still not quite being the focused searching that happens when looking for something particular. It’s been a hard distinction to draw, but with enough consensus that it’s very clearly there, and all the more startling when compared to the neutrality Red gets from his own tamed unown.

This raises an old mystery: what are they doing, exactly? There’s no apparent feeling of analysis, of evaluation, of checking what’s seen against something else. As one of the psychics put it, ‘”They don’t seem to be looking for something, just actively observing what’s around them… almost like a camera programmed to constantly swivel so it’s taking in as much of its environment as possible.” It would make more sense if they were identifying food or threats, but neither seems to be the case.

And then there’s the feeling of loss, of fading… it’s no wonder they’re untrainable given they have virtually no capacity for memory, not even retention of the things they see. But still, there’s something distinct about the feeling compared to the loss of moment to moment memories his tame unown has. Almost like the memories of the things seen are constantly being lost as they’re being acquired.

It’s hard to consider all this and not want to bring his partitions down so he can re-examine his memories of his own encounter, but treating it like exposure therapy, sampling them while in a relaxed state and processing them a little at a time, seems to be helping his unpartitioned self deal with the memories more easily. Or at least that’s the impression his unpartitioned self is sending him right now… and that he’s not up for another try anytime soon.

It’s a frustrating pace to be forced to investigate something so fascinating, but luckily there’s no shortage of those. Red finishes writing up his observations until another alarm goes off, then gets dressed and returns his various pokemon to their balls except Pikachu, who walks beside him as he heads to the gym for his appointment with Sabrina.

He’s been there pretty frequently in the week since Blue and his friends came to town, but Red’s been too busy to join them as often as he did in Vermilion. They also apparently found a “dojo” in town that Blue won a hitmonlee from in a battle against its pseudo-leader, and despite Blue insisting it’s “your kind of place,” Red hasn’t found the time to check it out just yet. He still remembers his first conversation with Sabrina, and is wary of taking on too many different projects. He already has plenty, some of which are too important to drop, like teleporting to Celadon to accompany the police now and then as they search for more renegades in the city.

It’s not as stressful as he thought it would be, probably because he’s gone out a dozen times already and they still haven’t found anything. He’d feel worse about dropping his guard if he didn’t get the same impression from the officers; one even commented over lunch that after what happened at the casino, anyone else hiding labs or renegades in the city would be an idiot to keep them there, and Red doesn’t think whoever hired them was an idiot. Well, not that kind anyway.

It’s also been strange seeing the effects of that night continue to play out. Once people’s attention began to shift from rescue to recovery to prevention, there was some to spare for ‘lesser threats,’ and as it turns out secret renegade organizations are not something people feel particularly less threatened by than giant world changing legends.

Red can see their point, given his own journey. He’d read that most trainers only encounter renegades once or twice in their whole career; for his group to have had direct contact with two within their first year is a hell of a statistical anomaly, and fits in with a broader uptick in Renegade judgements across the island. Given what happened in Hoenn and Celadon, the question of whether something big is going on, something that’s causing more and more people to encounter renegades, is hard to avoid asking.

And the idea being floated as an answer, that renegades are organizing and fighting together, is almost completely novel, more familiar as the plot of some action film than reality… until now.

So there’s been a push in multiple cities within Kanto and Hoenn to relax regulations on weapons for self-defense. Red knows that Maria and Lizzy and Glen have avoided attempts to pull them into advertisements or interviews aimed at pushing certain products, but sooner or later someone’s going to offer something they can’t refuse.

No one’s calling for allowing civilian pokemon to use subduing attacks, but grey areas exist for unaimed attacks like Sing (which Red finds rather frightening given what the consequences of being judged to have misused it might have been for Leaf) and the price of jigglypuff, and others who can disable with singing, already fairly high, have skyrocketed. Red wonders if another renegade attack would tip things over the edge toward non-police pokemon having such training.

Meanwhile a revolution in self-defense weapons has accelerated; stun guns and sleep spray have new designs that give them longer effective range, with commercials explicitly billing them as a way to target a renegade from behind one’s own pokemon. The obvious question, of course, is why a renegade wouldn’t just use one themselves, but Red still bought his own pair just in case. They might even be effective against certain pokemon, though in an actual battle it’s hard to imagine something more useful for his hands to be holding than balls, either in preparation to capture or swap his own.

He’s not really expecting to face another Renegade anytime soon, but he wasn’t the first time either, and it’s a small expense compared to the stronger pokemon and items he’s been watching the auctions for.

Before long he’s back out of the cold and inside the gym lobby. As he’s about to head upstairs, he sees on one of the monitors that Sabrina is still in a Challenge match. He joins the small crowd to watch as her opponent sends a houndoom out against her exeggutor. Rather than swapping away from the double type disadvantage, she has her pokemon set up Reflect and Light Screens as it tanks a flamethrower, then sends it on a stomping tantrum that results in a dual-KO. When another Dark pokemon comes out, this time a shiftry, Sabrina meets it with an alakazam that starts to use her signature battle technique: rapid dodges that seem almost precognitive, while sending back attacks from every direction.

Focus Blast after Focus Blast is shot at the shiftry as it dances from foot to foot, trying to get an attack of its own in while avoiding defeat. It doesn’t last long, nor does the next pokemon, and within minutes Sabrina has won the match.

Red dutifully claps alongside the other onlookers, then heads for the elevator rather than sticking around for the post-match speeches; he’s heard enough of them by now. Some of the other students have speculated that she’s just trying to get through the backlog as quickly as she can by ensuring each match is over quickly, only using three pokemon at most and fighting aggressively without quite tipping over into recklessness. It’s hard for Red to blame her after seeing how tired she is all the time, but he wonders whether those at the gym who come to battle her feel cheated of a “real match,” and reminds himself to ask Blue next time he sees him.

He leans against the wall beside her office door and reviews the questions he’s prepared as he waits. Ten minutes later Sabrina arrives, and Red raises a hand in greeting. “No rush if you want some time alone first?”

“I’ll live. Come on in.” She unlocks the door and enters, and he follows her in before moving toward the more comfortable sofa chairs to the side of her office rather than her desk. After sitting he watches her unlatch and hang up her pokebelt before joining him with a slow sigh.

“Long day?” Part of him is worried about asking such a personal question, but over the past month he’s become more comfortable with Sabrina. She surprised him after the incident, and again in Lavender, with her seemingly genuine concern for him, and has treated him less like a student and more like a friend since. Actually, if he thinks further back to just before the Hoenn legends awoke, the change really started after her return from the hiatus, when he told her about Rei. “Or another long night?”

“The latter. I seem to have lost the ability to influence my dreams, which is a problem when so many are nightmares. Thankfully I can still end them quickly, but that leaves me awake more often than not.”

“I’m sorry. I wish I could help, but I rarely dream. That I remember, at least.”

She smiles. “It’s alright, I appreciate the thought. So, you said you had some questions that might help your research?”

“Yeah.” It was Dr. Madi, still mentoring him from Pallet Labs, who suggested he try some qualitative studies into his confusions and curiosities if he’s stuck on what experiment to run on next, and he has been meaning to circle back to some of the things Sabrina mentioned when they first met. Reviewing all the information available left him with a lingering dissatisfaction over the way the other psychics have studied things, and that means he needs to start at the basic observations and see if he can’t ask the right questions to point him in a new and interesting direction. “Before I try designing new studies, I figured I should make sure I understand what we know as best I can. Could you tell me more about the colors you’ve seen when observing psychic phenomena?”

Sabrina considers him a moment, then nods. “Alright. Keep in mind that the experiences are brief and inconsistent, and impossible to accurately record. I’ve tried categorizing what I see, but it’s… difficult, even after I studied some color theory while trying to make sense of it. Do you know any?”

“Uh… blue and red makes purple? That sort of thing?” An old memory hits him, suddenly, of Blue’s mom once calling that out to get them to come to dinner. “Well, what I learned in school. Pigment primaries are magenta, cyan, and yellow, and represent the colors we see when light bounces off something. Light primaries are red, blue and green, and represent colors from directly luminous sources. For light, white is the combination of all colors, while black is the absence. For pigment, it’s the opposite.”

“A good enough place to start, but as is often the case with the things we learn as children, the truth is somewhat more complicated. Ultimately, light exists as various different wavelengths, and our eyes have ‘rods’ that detect brightness of light, and ‘cones’ that detect the wavelength… or more accurately, the proportion of different wavelengths, independent of intensity.”

“Wait, explain that?”

“Intensity of light affects the signal our cone sends us when we perceive a wavelength. It’s an imprecise analogy, but think of heated metal. As you heat it, it will shift from dark, to a dull red, to a brighter red, to orange, to yellow, to white, and even to bluish white if it’s sufficiently hot. The same way heat intensity changes the color of light given off, light intensity affects the signal our eye sends us when it perceives a wavelength, and those signals are how we actually perceive color. That’s why we need two cones, at least, to have any consistent perception of color.”

Red nods, hand moving automatically to take notes. He’s not sure the relevance of this yet, but realizes that researching light should have been one of the things he did as soon as Sabrina told him how she sees psychic phenomena. “Is that why monochrome is called that, despite being black and white?”

Sabrina smiles. “Perhaps. So, to be more accurate, it’s not the signal that our cones send us that truly represents color; it’s the proportion of signals. Each cone can perceive limited, but overlapping, sections of the full light spectrum, and sends a signal for each wavelength it perceives depending on how far from its most sensitive, optimal wavelength it is. The first cone may send a strong signal when a wavelength closer to its optimal is received, while the second cone sends a faint signal, and that proportion is, ultimately, color. Most humans have three cones for red, blue and green light… that is, three cones which are optimally attuned to react to three specific wavelengths of light, and to a lesser degree will react to similar wavelengths on either side of those three. Purest red is seen when the ‘red wavelength’ is sending the ‘red cone’ the strongest signal, and the other two cones are barely responding at all to that wavelength. Colors outside those our cones are attuned for are seen as mixtures, which is why yellow can be achieved by either perfectly mixing red and green light, or by overlapping a circle of red light and a circle of green light. The same signal proportion is sent to our brain, and so the same color is seen. Where the signals are most oddly mixed, we occasionally see colors that don’t ‘exist’ as independent wavelengths, such as purple.”

“Wait, what do you mean?” Red asks. “Purple isn’t a real color?”

“As a ‘color,’ purple exists as much as any other, since all colors are just our attempt to classify perceptions of different combinations of wavelength intensity. But there is no individual wavelength of light that we perceive as purple; the closest, as seen when observing light split by a prism, is blue, followed by violet.” Sabrina holds a hand up to stall his next question. “It is easier, remember, to think of wavelengths, and wavelength combination proportions, as being perceived as colors, and not think of colors as ‘having’ wavelengths.”

Red slowly nods. “Wavelengths are the territory, colors are the map. So if we only see purple when given a signal proportion of, say, 3-0-3 from our three cones, but there’s no single wavelength that will give that signal proportion, a combination of two different signal proportions, like 0-0-3 plus 3-0-0, or 1-0-2 and 2-0-1, will turn into what we see as purple.”

“Precisely, and this is why the color spectrum is often depicted as a circle, with red and blue wrapping back toward each other to show purple between them. To us, nothing else exists past those wavelengths, but the combined wavelengths at either edge is how pure purple is achieved.”

“Huh. So does that mean you have a fourth cone? Or is that impossible?”

“Tetrachromats do exist—”

“They do?! What color is their fourth cone attuned to?”



She smiles. “Not as exciting as you expected?”

“Yeah, I mean… I can already see yellow, so… or at least I think I can? Wait, no, I get it,” he says as her smile widens. “If they have a yellow cone, that means they can see a single wavelength signal proportion as yellow, instead of only being able to see yellow as a combination of red and green? So they can better differentiate more shades of yellow than I can, and probably more combinations of colors where yellow is included.”

“Correct, though it’s worth noting that this ability is limited by technology. If you and a tetrachromat look at any image on a phone or computer monitor, you would see the same things, as they all are made to work by displaying some combination of red, blue, and green light. The test for tetrachromacy must be done in person, and the benefits are minor; ultimately they can see all the same colors we can, but some will be more ‘vibrant’ than they are for us. Only a small percent of women have the yellow cone, and of them an even smaller percent have it active. I am not one of them, nor do I have any other fourth cone myself. But my mind has learned to recognize the signal that those brains attached to the appropriate cones do receive.”

Red blinks, finishes writing, then looks up. “What do you… pokemon?”

“Yes. Many pokemon, primarily psychics, have a fourth cone that detects a wavelength of light we not only have no name for, but which exists outside the spectrum of light we can perceive.”

“Like ultraviolet?”

“Actually, humans have a lens in our eye that explicitly blocks ultraviolet light. It’s not particularly safe, but some who have had it removed due to cataracts reported seeing ultraviolet light, which they interpreted as a whitish-blue-violet color… which we might be mistaken to assume is one we can observe as well, if rarely. Again, it’s hard to really know without having the subjective experience ourselves.”

“But what they see… it’s just their blue cone lighting up?”

“More or less. An attempt to interpret a new wavelength proportion that activated on the edge of its receptive limits, such that the other two cones were not active at all. This leads me to the hard part of what I’ve tried to do, which is make up new words for the colors I’ve seen.”

“So they really are entirely new colors.”

“You’re striking at the heart of the problem already. What does that mean, a ‘new color?’ Think of the color spectrum again, as it’s often depicted. Where would you place ‘gold’ on it?”

Red stops writing for a moment, frowning. “Dark yellow? But no, that’s not really it. It’s… a ‘deep’ yellow… I mean, I’m trying to use words to describe it, but if I saw a full spectrum I could probably point to it? Somewhere in yellow-brown… but the material itself adds something that light probably can’t imitate.”

“Brown is another good example. When painting you can mix all three primary colors, but brown light is like purple in that it doesn’t exist as a single wavelength proportion cone signal. To create it you’d have to play with what colors do exist until you have something our eyes see as brown, but that still does not make brown a distinct wavelength.”

“Okay,” Red says, writing quickly. There has to be a shorter way to say single-wavelength-proportion-signal…

Non-imaginary color? Unpartitioned Red suddenly offers.

No, that would imply that purple is made up…

Numbers can be imaginary and still be ‘real’ enough to solve equations involving negative square roots, don’t see why colors can’t be “real” and “imaginary.”

Red blinks, feeling an odd mix of indignation and excitement. He’s heard the term, but doesn’t actually know what an imaginary number means… Have you been studying math without me? Are we better at math now than we used to be?

Later, focus.

Right. Sabrina is watching him patiently, but he’s aware that he’s using up her valuable time. “So the distinct wavelengths are hard to describe without using common color reference points. And you tested to ensure they weren’t ultraviolet or infrared light? Oh, this led to that research on testing psychic emissions, right?”

“Yes, other than a very slight heat change that was incredibly hard to detect from background fluctuations, we couldn’t discern psychic light at all. The closest thing I could find to try and put a name to the colors I was seeing came through studying chimerical colors. Just like our rods can get overloaded by bright lights, leaving an afterimage, our cones can become fatigued from oversaturation, leaving colored afterimages in opposing shades. In this way we can see impossibly saturated and dark colors, or add an illusive glow to colors, that don’t properly exist in any spectrum. It’s hard to describe, but if you search online you should find some images to stare at for long enough that you’ll see them yourself.”

“Got it.” Red finishes writing, then reviews what he’s written to make sure he isn’t missing anything. “So here’s the first main question I have, that I don’t think needs an answer to whether the colors are really ‘unique’ or not… did you notice any marked difference between the colors around someone when they were using telepathy, and the colors around an object being kinetically manipulated?”

Sabrina nods. “The names I’ve come up with for them, telo, galo, and kino, are as similar as, say, blue, indigo, and purple, but still distinct, and of course there are other shades between them.”

Red hurries to scribble the answer down so he can jump to his next question, excitement kicking his pulse into high gear. “And did you have any guesses for why the colors were different?”

“No, though I did notice patterns for which is produced when, if that’s what you’re asking. Kino tends to be visible around objects being manipulated by kinesis, as the name implies. Similarly, telo can be seen around creatures using projection. And galo surrounds ghosts nearly constantly, but is also sometimes emitted by other pokemon.”

“Have the number of different cones in the species you’re merged with been identified? Are we sure that psychic pokemon only have one extra cone?”

“No, even if I merge with a psychic, we don’t have a reliable way to emit single-wavelength light that matches those colors directly; we can only activate psychic phenomena and notice the blends.”

“But biologically, we could study those cones and determine how many different ones they have, right? How are different types of cones counted, there must be a way to distinguish them…”

Sabrina spreads her hands. “I’m afraid that’s outside my area of expertise. ”

Red makes a note for the Professor. It should be easy, right? Either by dissection or looking at a pokemon’s code… Based on what she explained about cones and color, his guess is that there are two “psychic” cones, and the ghost color, galo, is the combination of telo and kino, because ghosts are almost constantly using both kinesis and telepathy…

But he can’t jump to conclusions just because they fit his hypotheses. Even if he’s right, there are still other potential explanations besides the idea that the two forces are fundamentally different. “Okay, so… what would you say to the idea that you’re seeing different colors because you’re seeing entirely different phenomena?”

“It feels like a leap,” she says, seemingly unsurprised by his hypothesis. “They’re two very different types of abilities, it makes sense that they emit different energy signatures. And ghosts, of course, are a different sort of being entirely, that sometimes uses these abilities, similar to other pokemon. But no color is unique to a Type, as far as I could tell.”

“Just imagine that I’m right, for a second. Does anything you’ve seen disprove that? Do you have alternative hypotheses?”

Sabrina frowns slightly. “Every gifted can…” She trails off, gaze softening. “I’m sorry, most psychics have access to both types of abilities, and I still believe you could with more time and practice, or a new learning technique. If your model was correct, shouldn’t there be two distinct types of people, with only a few with access to both?”

It always comes back to labels, Red muses as he thinks over the conversation about Types he had with the others on their first day, and the debate online about whether “sensitives” count as psychics or not. After putting out a general question online, he’s found two other “real” psychics like himself, able to project and use partitions and everything, who don’t seem to have even a bit of telekinesis. It felt good to commiserate with them, and they were intrigued by his hypothesis of the two powers being entirely separate. When he suggested that they might find themselves having an affinity with Ghosts, one confirmed that he already works as a consultant for his region’s ghost troubles, as they don’t have a culture of “mediums” there, and the other seemed wary but willing to try interacting with them. “I’m not saying the powers are… ‘unrelated,’ exactly. But what if I just can’t use psychokinesis, at all, and never can? What else would you want to know, suddenly?”

“I would want to know if the opposite exists, people who can use only kinesis but have even less awareness than a sensitive.”

“There are pokemon like that,” Red points out as he writes. “How do you factor them in?”

“I don’t,” Sabrina says, voice frank. “Even setting aside the question of whether we should be categorizing humans together with pokemon, our strongest kinesis isn’t even a match for their weakest. Telepathically we’re a little more evenly matched with some, while still being vastly outstripped by most. That some pokemon can use kinesis but not telepathy seems more related to the fact that some pokemon can levitate without obvious methods of flight.”

“Heh. I’ve started calling that the ‘pokemon are just weird’ explanation.”

Her lips quirk. “It’s not a satisfying scientific response, I know, but there are too many mysteries remaining for the comparison you’re drawing to feel justified, to me.”

“But you think we can learn some things about ourselves from studying them, right?”

“I think you’ve proven that we can, and I don’t mean to dismiss the comparison out of hand. Obviously my own ability to see these colors came from enough mergers with psychic pokemon. But again, we understand so little about how pokemon use even their non-psychic abilities… until I observe someone with only telekinetic power and understand what the experience of using it is like, it feels premature to call it a distinct ability altogether.”

“Well, I didn’t even realize I was psychic until my journey started. I know that was due to special circumstances, but the tests are clearly fallible. Would someone with only kinesis even know they are psychic, if they were the reverse of me?”

“That… is an interesting point.” Sabrina tucks some hair behind her ear, gaze distant for a minute as she thinks. “With the standard set of tests we have now, I’m not sure. The kinesis specific tests should theoretically work for someone who hasn’t experienced any telepathy yet, but… first, they might not even be tested at all in that case, and second, it’s hard to imagine what it would feel like to manipulate things telekinetically without being familiar with telepathy already. Perhaps I shouldn’t assume that it would come instinctually to anyone without the latter. I’ll have a word with the Indigo testing organizations, make sure we’re being more deliberate. Thank you for highlighting that, Red.”

“Happy to.” He sees her check the time, and guesses, “That could be it for today?”

“If that’s all your questions on that topic, yes, I think I’d appreciate some time to rest before my next appointment.”

“Of course, though… I mean, I have a lot more questions. They can wait though! Actually… if it’s easier, I can just leave them with you to answer in your own time?”

Sabrina considers. “I think that’s doable, yes.”

Red smiles and tears a page out of his notebook before handing it to her. He watches her brow rise as she looks down the list of questions, and quickly adds, “No pressure, of course, and if any of them are too complex to write out that’s fine.”

“It’s very thorough, and some of these I don’t have an answer to, while others I might be able to check. I can answer this one now, at least: teleportation starts as telo but shifts to galo just before leaving a burst of it.”

Red blinks. “But… you said ghosts all show galo most consistently, right? But no ghosts can teleport… though that marowak ghost did shift around the room… no wait, that was just its image following the ‘bone’ body… right? I have to check with Blue again…” He sees her smiling at him and quickly bows. “Thank you for your time!”

“You’re welcome, Red. It was interesting, and I hope it leads to some new discoveries. I’ll send you my answers when I can.”

The sun is setting over Fuchsia City as Leaf flies over it, but there’s still enough light to see how different it is from the others she’s been to. Being so distant from the other major cities in the region gives it far less of a need to cater to tourists than Cerulean, and makes it less of a port city than Vermilion. There still are some docks and tourist spots, but they’re intermingled with residences, and there’s wide stretches of public access to the beach.

Perhaps that’s also because there’s so much beach. The city clings almost like an afterthought to the peninsula’s northwestern coast, sprawling densely along it in both directions while the wilderness covers the rest. Where normally the tall buildings might give way to suburbs, however, here they just stop, with perhaps a kilometer of more clear space before the massive wall begins.

Normally, fences and walls are the things Leaf expects to see in small towns. Some strategies help them work better, such as shaped funnels to guide pokemon that wander nearby into guard posts rather than resort to their claws or teeth, but with all the pokemon that can dig under or fly or climb over them it’s often considered more trouble than it’s worth to concentrate forces rather than keep them spread and react to proximity alerts from sensors.

And while she can make out the different Ranger stations here and there, colored panels arranged to form numbers on the rooftops so they can be identified from the air, even without knowing about the Safari Zone beforehand it would be clear to Leaf that she’s looking at something designed to stop people, not pokemon.

The ranger in the saddle ahead of her taps his mount, and Leaf’s stomach lurches as the pidgeot tips its wings and starts to glide down in a wide, exhilarating loop. She closes her eyes for a dozen rapid heartbeats to keep from growing dizzy, then feels the bird lurch as it hops off the ground, glides a bit more, then lands, kicking up a plume of dirt as it shakes its massive wings one last time, then folds them.

Leaf slides down the back of the bird, then waits for the pilot to join her before helping her unlatch the saddle. Ranger Kyra smiles in thanks and lets her finish, moving instead to getting the pidgeot some food and water. Once it’s back in its ball they move together toward the nearby two story border checkpoint.

The wall is even more imposing from the ground, as is the knowledge that on the other side is mostly untamed wilderness. The rare pokemon discovered here, combined with the way the peninsula is shaped, struck some Ranger General as a unique opportunity to create a piece of wilderness that can be more-or-less preserved, its population more purposefully regulated. As long as they control the relatively narrow connection to the rest of the island, the only new pokemon that enter are those that can fly, burrow, or swim.

It’s the perfect testing ground for Leaf’s program.

The inside is nicer than she expected, more like a Trainer House lobby than the Ranger outposts she’s visited, maybe because there’s less expectation that they might get destroyed. One of the rangers is even stationed at a wide reception desk, and doesn’t seem surprised to see her.

“Miss Juniper is here to see Captain Takara,” Kyra says anyway, and the man nods and picks up his phone before confirming they can go up. Two short flights of stairs later and she’s being led through some hallways and to a wide meeting room. On the other side there are glass windows (one-sided, she read) that show the open fields on the other side of the wall. A moment later another door opens and a tall woman walks in wearing the special insignia of the Safari’s chief officer.

“Good evening, Miss Juniper,” she says, and holds out a surprisingly calloused hand for Leaf to grip. “Welcome to Fuchsia, and the Safari.”

“Thank you, it’s nice to finally see it. This is where we’ll be hosting the conference?”

“Yes, it gives us a bit more control over who might try to listen in. Word got out, as it often does, and it’s starting quite a buzz. Are you staying in the city, or…?”

“No, I’ll just set up a teleportation point for tomorrow.”

“Better that way, I think. If you get recognized, expect to be hounded. In fact, I’d like you to set your teleport point on our rooftop.”

Leaf looks at the sober captain in surprise. “Is the media coverage that intense?” She thinks she can handle a few reporters, she’s been dealing with them for long enough…

“It is, but that’s not the main reason I’m being cautious. You’re a celebrity in your own right, and anything involving the Safari tends to attract extra attention from those who want to learn its secrets. I don’t exactly expect you to get kidnapped, but you’ve attracted enough trouble that I’d rather stay on the safe side. I was going to suggest, if you were to stay the night, to just use one of the rooms here.”

“Oh.” Leaf isn’t sure how seriously to take all this, but she’d appreciate the concern more if it didn’t interfere a bit with her plans. “I uh, was actually planning a trip to the city tonight before I teleported home.”

Takara’s brow furrows. “Visiting someone?”

“No, no, just… exploring.”

“Hmm. It might be better to wait until the conference and experiment to be over.”

Leaf tries not to look like a spoiled kid by insisting otherwise, and ducks her head for a moment in thought. She could wait for all this to be done, but (if things go well) that could take weeks. She’s already learned all she could remotely for Laura’s investigation, and waiting even longer would just be wasting time.

“I hate to ask this,” Leaf says, tone apologetic but firm, “But could someone accompany me to the city if it’s that big a concern? I appreciate that you want to make sure I’m okay, but I don’t intend to live in fear, and unless you’ve heard of some specific threat…?”

“No, nothing specific. But the last time some researchers visited the Zone one had his computer stolen, and the time before that a breeder had her drink at a bar spiked. She was physically fine, but couldn’t account for a few hours of time.”

“I see.” So much for the city’s lower crime rates, though for something this targeted she supposes the usual criminals and deterrents aren’t a factor. “I have to admit that’s a bit more worrying. Still, it’ll be dark soon, and no one knew I was coming tonight. I might not get another chance like this once the conference starts.”

Takara sighs, then nods and turns to Kyra. “You’re relieved for the night, other than to accompany her through the city. Ensure she teleports home by midnight.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”


Leaf smiles. “I am, thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”

The captain nods and shakes her hand again. “Tomorrow, where we’ll see if this crazy idea of yours really works.”

Leaf goes to the roof first, enjoying the sight of the Safari’s fields and forests and lakes in the golden light of sunset, then sets her teleport point and heads back down and toward the city, chaperone in tow, to see what she can learn about its potential resident ninja family from a bit of casual conversation.

Chapter 92: Authenticity

Blue hoped that riding on Soul would get less uncomfortable with practice, and while it has to some degree, his legs are still sore and his back still stiff when they arrive in Saffron.

But when he dismounts people stare, particularly nearby kids, and maybe they still would have if he’d ridden his bike once they recognized him, but it’s much easier to notice him on the arcanine in the first place compared to on a bike wearing a helmet.

So he does his best to stand straight despite the aches and pains until he finishes removing Soul’s saddle and rubbing him down, the big red mutt panting hard as he looks around, gaze sharp and nose twitching. As Blue runs the brush over Soul’s heaving sides, Bretta and Liz finish packing their bikes and gear away and enter the Trainer House first, followed by Sumi and Slava, who are arguing over when to take their day trip to Johto via the city’s magnet train station.

Elaine seems to linger, moving purposefully slowly to match Glen’s pace, and Blue tries to ignore the stab of sympathy that guts him. For as long as he’s known him, Glen could bike farther and faster than any of them, and would barely be winded by the time they arrived wherever they were going.

Now he’s moving like he has to think through every action, and there’s a slight tremor in his hands.

If Glen notices that Elaine is going slowly for his sake he doesn’t say anything, simply withdrawing his container once his bike and pads are in it and then following Slava and Sumi. Elaine gives Blue a look he can’t quite decipher, but he nods to her, recognizing the pain at least.

A young girl whispers something to her parent, who nods, and she runs over. “Excuse me, can I brush him?”

She’s staring at the arcanine with wide eyes, but she seems absolutely fearless of it, and Blue smiles. “Go ahead.” He hands her the brush, and she uses both hands to run it along his fur as he directs her. “Do you like Fire types?”

“Yeah! What’s his name?”


“Is he your sweeper?”

Blue grins, recognizing a future competitive trainer. “More of a bruiser. He helped me beat Erika.” He opens his jacket to show the four badges within.


Once Soul’s fur is gleaming, and he’s had a chance to catch his breath, Blue takes the brush and tells her she can pet him, if she wants to. She grins wide, and Blue laughs as she sinks her whole body face-first into the arcanine’s fur, seeming to enjoy the heat he gives off. Blue feeds his mount some strips of steak and lets him lap at a container filled with water until the girl’s mom recognizes that he’s done and tells her it’s time to go. They both thank him as he withdraws Soul and waves goodbye.

His legs feel like two pieces of aching rubber by now, but he manages to keep it together long enough to walk into the Trainer House and casually lean against the wall beside everyone where they’re lined up to get their room assignments.

A lot more work than riding a bike, but worth it.

As he lets his wobbly legs rest, his gaze tracks the people in the lobby, most of whom take a moment to look them over. But while a few linger on him, many of the looks are perfunctory, gazes quickly returning to the screens around the room. Blue glances at the nearest one, which shows Brendan and May helping with the resettlement and construction work that’s still ongoing in the Sevii Islands.

Blue knew they were coming to the region, showing off the speed of their legendary pokemon… no, that’s not charitable. It’s a mission of unity across the islands, a thank-you tour for the help the other regions gave to Hoenn… symbolic, mostly, but he can’t exactly judge them on that.

It still depresses him, watching them fly around on such powerful and unique pokemon, though he’s as riveted as anyone else in the room. New info about Latios and Latias is sparse, even all these weeks later. Apparently Brendan and May never caught them in balls, and claim that they’re not “tame” so much as “curious, sometimes playful, and occasionally in a helpful mood.” The psychic dragons won’t do certain things no matter how much they’re “asked,” including let anyone else approach them; the two trainers are still trying to understand what they’re willing to do and what they’re not, with the help of various researchers and professors.

Eventually the segment ends, transitioning to a review of the trainers currently making their way through Victory Road. Blue checks the names that show up, and smiles as he sees Donovan has hit third place, with Reza now in first with only a couple losses on his record. His legs feel a little more up to walking, and he steps behind Glen at the back of the line.

“Well?” his friend asks. “Meeting with Sabrina today, or tomorrow?”

“No plans yet. Haven’t even reached out.”

“You going to just say hi when we visit Red?”

It crossed his mind. “If she’s there, sure. I plan to check the gym classes and everything first, though.”

Glen snorts. “Sure, don’t want to seem too presumptuous. How’s the movie deal coming?”

“Gave my interview to the writers the day before yesterday.”

“Congrats, man. How much did you exaggerate?”

“Hey, Red and Leaf are going to give their side of the story too, remember?”

Glen nods. “So just for the parts they weren’t there for.”

Blue grins. “Those are the parts you’re there for, so we can agree to overlook each other’s exaggerations if you want. Who do you want to play you?”

“Myself, obviously. No one else is handsome enough.”

“Now who’s being presumptuous? You don’t know what kind of talent we can pull in.”

“Alright, if you can get Daniel O’Clery, he can play me.”

Blue recognizes the name from some movie Leaf and Aiko wanted to see back in Vermilion. The pain there is briefer and duller than it might have been a month ago, and doesn’t completely drain his amusement. “Isn’t he like, 25?”

“Eh.” Glen shrugs, accent growing thicker for a moment as he reaches the counter and hands over his ID. “I’m strangely fine with it.”

Once they’ve all gotten their room assignment, they make plans to meet for dinner and break toward the boy and girl dorms. Blue drops his things off in his bed, then enjoys a long shower, thoughts still on the first thing Glen asked him before they started talking about the film. Despite how lighthearted the exchange was, Blue can’t help but wonder whether his friend is jealous.

Blue remembers his justifications for Challenging Erika ahead of everyone else, and for going to Lavender while they finished getting their own badges. He still thinks they were the right call.

But then Glen failed to get his fifth badge.

For the first few days after waking from his coma, Glen was still sleeping a lot, and when he was awake he was often confused, not remembering the earthquake at all. He threw himself into physical therapy like a man possessed, and regained a lot of his coordination and stamina… but not enough to beat Erika.

His decision to move on from Celadon without trying again, even though Erika said she would allow a rematch within a week, shocked Blue. Glen insisted that he could return easily and get his badge later, and that meanwhile he didn’t want to slow everyone down. But despite his words, Blue noticed him withdrawing into himself more than he used to, not joining in with the friendly ribbing as often.

Blue tried to talk to him about it a couple times, but his friend brushed it off. It’s Elaine who helped him understand; from Glen’s perspective, he’s glad he helped save Maria and the rest of them, even if he can’t remember it, but he lost weeks of his life, weeks in which the whole world changed around him, critical decisions made and groups formed, and worst of all…

Worst of all, he fell behind. When they met, Glen had three badges to Blue’s two. They earned Surge’s more-or-less together, but when he woke, Blue was finished with Celadon Gym and Glen wasn’t. If he hadn’t stuck around, if he hadn’t gone on his trip to Lavender, if he’d just shot straight for his next badge, Blue would have overtaken him entirely by now.

Instead Glen is stuck needing to rematch Erika, and there’s a non-zero chance Blue will have beaten Sabrina by the time he gets his fifth badge. If their roles were reversed, it would be eating at Blue.

And while Glen isn’t quite as competitive as Blue is, he’s close enough that Blue can guess that he’s worried he won’t be able to keep up.

Worse than that is Blue’s hidden worry that he won’t.

Blue sighs and turns the water off, then dries himself and changes before heading back to the room. “Message came in for you,” Slava says from where he’s sitting on his bunk. Glen is lying in his bed, eyes closed, and Blue does his best to ignore the drawn look on his friend’s face.

“Thanks.” He hangs the wet towel on the bedpost, then checks his phone.


Blue turns to Glen, whose eyes are still closed. He briefly debates playing dumb, then says, “She asked if I’m free within the hour.”

Glen holds his hand up, eyes still closed, and Slava sighs and fishes some bills out of his wallet before handing them down to Glen. “Bet every gym leader has you on watch, now. Soon as someone sees you enter the city alarms start going off at the gym. Emergency meetings get called, protocols laid out…”

“Ha, ha. You make me sound like a Stormbringer.”

“About as disruptive,” Slava says. “Going from the last two gyms.”

“But less destructive,” Glen allows. “You’ve only destroyed one arena.”

“When did I… Oh. To be fair Brock did the destroying himself, I just showed him why it was necessary.”

Glen snorts. “Bet Misty feels relieved you didn’t try anything there.”

“Or left out,” Slava adds. “Could send her a shirt. ‘Blue Oak came to my gym and all I got was a lousy badge challenge.'”

Blue rolls his eyes, but he’s grinning. “I’m gonna go, hopefully I’ll be done in time to make the meetup.”

“Right, see you later.”

“Good luck.”

“Thanks.” Blue starts pulling socks and shoes on. He realizes how nice it is to get off his feet for a moment, and mutters, “Shit.”


“Nothing, just not looking forward to getting back in the saddle.”

Glen tosses him the money Slava lost. “So take a cab!”

Blue tosses it back. “I can’t take a cab the first time I show up at the gym.”

“You’re right, what will the history books say?”

Slava shifts his voice to resemble a documentary narrator. “‘The Young Oak, butt still sore from his journey—'”

“Bye guys.”

Blue takes a cab, but only until he’s a couple blocks away from the gym. Then he finds an alley to summon and saddle Soul in, puts on his riding gear, and rides the rest of the way. He arrives at the gym with a flourish, Soul skidding to a halt in a patch of snow, and Blue waits until his pokemon has melted it before he dismounts and strips them both down again as people who stopped to stare continue walking by.

Keeping his gaze straight, as if unaware of the looks he draws, Blue strides in and toward the front desk. He doesn’t even have to introduce himself before the receptionist gives him directions toward Sabrina’s office. He takes the elevator to the top, walks down a fancy hallway that reminds him of a high class hotel, and after a “Come in,” he enters to see the Gym Leader at her desk typing on her computer. It’s a fairly lavish room; nothing that can match Erika’s outdoor office, of course, but not as utilitarian as Surge’s either.

“Good to see you again, Leader,” Blue says, and represses a sigh of relief as he sinks into a very cushy chair in front of her desk.

“And you, Mr. Oak,” Sabrina says, gaze still on her monitor. “First things first; this is a courtesy meeting. What you’ve done at Vermilion and Celadon make it so that not meeting you would seem like a snub, and after how long you spent with Erika in particular, I don’t imagine that was unintentional.”

Blue isn’t quite sure how to take that; it works in his favor, obviously, but if she’s highlighting that it’s just a courtesy… “Well, I appreciate you playing along.”

“I don’t mean to imply you’re not special, this isn’t a power move,” she says, still focusing on her paperwork. “It feels strange being formal with you after everything that happened in Lavender. I’m just explaining why I’m not going to accept a Challenge from you anytime soon.”

“Ah.” Shit. “Even for membership?”

“You don’t need membership to do what I assume you’re planning to do here.” Her gaze flicks toward him. “Do you actually want it?”

“Dunno, actually.” In some ways it would be a downgrade from what he was at Celadon Gym, where he operated in a unique and unstructured unofficial capacity, but he didn’t really expect other gyms to let him have the same status. “Depends how long I’ll be here, and it might help to understand how your gym works from the inside. I figured you’d be too busy to work together more closely.” And from what he’s heard this gym is more traditional, like Brock and Misty’s; a primary focus on pokemon training, with special classes for Psychic types, and some extra unique classes for the trainers themselves based on what Sabrina and her people value or are specialists in.

Sabrina’s virtue is supposedly Discipline, but he’s always thought that felt among the more tacked-on ones… though being in her presence has him thinking twice, as she continues to work even as they converse. He remembers Leaf saying Giovanni does something similar, and wonders why Erika didn’t do it; it’s very effective at making him feel less special than he did before, despite her frank acknowledgement otherwise. Though maybe that’s just from knowing he’s not going to get an early match.

“Whatever you do, I’m afraid it won’t involve me. I still have a lot of work to catch up on, and what happened in Lavender didn’t help things. If you want to change the culture at my gym, I trust Tetsuo and Keiji enough to curtail whatever you might do that concerns them, or that they think would concern me.”

“Right.” Damn it, that means he’d have to answer to and negotiate with two people rather than one… and they would be deferring to a hypothetical Sabrina rather than asking the real one. No matter how well they could predict what she might say, they’re going to be extra conservative, and his charisma in arguing his points will be much less effective.

She’s watching him rather than her monitor, now, probably guessing at his thoughts even without her powers working on him. “Not that I’m trying to drive you away, but you still need three more badges aside from this one. You could always come back later.”

“The others I have left are all pretty far, and other than Viridian, this is the last badge that everyone in the group is missing.” And I can’t teleport. He largely feels that he’s left behind his bitterness about being dark, especially given the advantages it’s given him, but if he could just register an abra here he could pop back over whenever Sabrina might have an opening. As it is…

“Well, you’re also welcome to save me for last,” Sabrina says with a brief smile, focus back on her computer screen. “Most dark trainers do.”

“I’ve considered it,” he admits. “But—”

“That’s all the more reason not to, for you. Making your most difficult badge any easier isn’t your style, which means it’s Giovanni you’ll be challenging last, right?”

“Heh. Guess I’m not that hard to read, dark or not.”

“You’re definitely part of a type, and it’s not about being dark. I’m sorry I can’t do more for your aspirations, at the moment, but I think you’ll manage well enough.”

It sounds like a dismissal. Blue tries to think of something else he can say, then just nods, suppressing a sigh. “Thank you for the meeting.”

“You’re welcome. I look forward to our match, whether it comes sooner or later.”

The next few days pass quickly as the group attends some basic classes at the gym, along with some low level challenge matches. Red meets up with them on occasion to catch lunch and do some training, and a couple days after they arrive Jason and Maria return from Lavender. The group seems happy to see Maria again, who has changed somewhat; after the casino it was like she lost a lot of the confidence she’d gained over the months of journeying with Blue, but there’s a new serenity to her, or rather an old one gained anew.

The classes are interesting, a lot of them about how to better anticipate an opponent’s moves when they can read your pokemon’s thoughts and feelings, or even yours. The latter parts apply less to Blue, of course, but to offset that advantage, he starts attending Dark classes to train his abra and the gastly he received in thanks for his help at the tower.

It doesn’t go well.

He tried a few times on his own, following some guides online. An abra’s second strongest sense is sound, followed by smell, so he named his Tops and began taking him out of his ball to wear in a back harness when he’d walk around the Celadon gym on occasion, letting him get used to Blue’s smell, the sound of his voice, and the feel of his body as a physical thing. It worked, to some extent; Tops doesn’t startle when touched by Blue, responds to commands pretty well, and will sniff around to find him if Blue sits quietly in the same room with him… though Blue suspects that’s mostly just for food.

But he doesn’t orient to him at all. The ‘dex says that abra don’t instinctually act to protect others, and having a protective orientation—the kind of passive, automatic inclination that results in things like shifting to stand between a trainer and any sensed enemies—is difficult for them. Without that, in real combat, even the much suppressed instinct to flee simply leaves Tops paralyzed with fear no matter how gentle and encouraging Blue tries to be, or how much of his own fear he tries to inject into his voice.

“Yep,” Red confirms on Blue’s fourth day in Saffron. “To Tops’s senses, you’re not really there. You’re just a set of stimuli that sometimes gives him food… sorry, sometimes means food is going to appear.”

“Great,” Blue grumbles. They’re sitting in Red’s apartment at the building Sabrina’s students live in, both of their abra sitting on the rug using their weak kinesis to push a ball back and forth between them. Pikachu and Eevee are napping in the corner, and they can distantly hear Maturin splashing around in Red’s tub. “So what do I do?” Tops is the abra he chose to keep from the dozens he, Leaf, and Red caught north of Cerulean; in the top percent of all the pokedex metrics. He could grow into an incredibly powerful pokemon… but none of that matters if he won’t fight for Blue.

Thankfully Red knows him well enough not to suggest training a different psychic pokemon instead, one less dependent on its sixth sense. “Well, there are classes at the gym specifically for this sort of thing…”

“I know, I went to one.”

“Just one?”

“Yeah. I don’t want to show up again and still have no idea what I’m doing, you know?”

Red blinks, brow furrowed. “It’s… a class specifically for this, though. You think you’re going to look bad in front of other dark trainers struggling with the same thing?”

“I might not look bad, exactly, but I won’t look good. At least Tops will follow my voice commands; my gastly won’t even do that half the time!”

“What happened to not wanting to discourage others? I’d say seeing Blue Oak struggle a bit would be very encouraging to a lot of people with the same problem.”

Blue runs a hand through his hair. He’s right, Blue knows that, but… things have changed. “Struggling is fine. But if I try and fail…”

Red is frowning at him. “See, this is what I was worried about. You’re more worried about PR than you are the truth.”

“What? No I’m not, I’m not lying to anyone.” He remembers his trip to the gym, suddenly, but no, that’s different, all he did was show what people would have seen if the summon had just come a couple hours later… “I’m just making sure I’m prepared, so I don’t fail.”

“So you don’t fail publicly.

“What, I’m supposed to just parade around my failures?”

“That would be pretty awesome, actually. Just record the whole process, from start to finish, and show how you learn from it. It would probably help a lot of people.”

Blue watches Tops invisibly nudge the ball back toward Red, who uses his hand to roll it toward Bill, who shoves it back toward Tops. Blue is sitting in the third point of the triangle behind Tops, hoping to get him used being between Blue and danger. “I’m being stupid, aren’t I?” It feels like a tug-of-war is going on between his chest and stomach. Sabrina’s decision, understandable as it is, has been bothering him, probably more than it should have.

“Yeah, but you’re smart enough to know it, which is the first step toward wisdom. Now use your wisdom to tell me what you think of my new prospective purchases.”

“Right.” Blue takes his phone out to pull up the list of pokemon Red sent him as candidates to round out his belt. “Okay, so first off, your Grass and Water choices are obviously solid, but they’ve got to be expensive, even if Gramps is giving you a discount. Is he?”

“Didn’t ask for one.”

“Now who’s being dumb? In any case, for a lot less you could get pokemon almost as good. Gloom are going for like, a twentieth the price of ivysaur, and a poliwhirl would make a decent land Water replacement for wartortle.”

“I already have a weepinbell and kingler, so I’m not just trying to fill slots, but focusing on getting stronger additions that I’m not likely to catch myself. I’m fine with paying more for things I’m unlikely to ever replace, and as a plus to getting these in particular, I’d have you and Leaf to help give me advice on training and raising them.”

Blue nods. “Well, see if you can get a discount anyway. As additions to your team they’re definitely good ones. Can’t say I wouldn’t like having a set myself.”

“I thought you were over not buying pokemon?”

“I am, this is just a price thing as I weigh what I’ll need going forward. I’m happy enough with Soul, and don’t particularly need Fire types for anyone else coming up, nor Grass until Giovanni, and for him I’d want something that can deal with Steel too.” Giovanni would almost certainly use excadrill.

“Can’t you use some Ground TMs on venusaur?”

Blue’s brow shoots up. “You really have been looking into their battle potential, huh?”

“I mean, yeah, if I’m going to spend this much money…”

“I get it, no need to get defensive.” He grins. “Was just impressed. You’re right, you could, but torterra’s would be stronger, and it could set up more field hazards. Nothing against venusaur, it’s got its own strengths, I’m just talking about team comp… but this is off topic, the competitive scene’s a different world from what you’re prepping for.”

“Yeah. So any objections?”

“Nah, your reasons are solid.”

“Cool, because I had one more bonus reason.”

“What’s that?”

Red smiles, rolling the ball back and forth between his palms, then sending it to Blue’s abra. Tops’s ears twitch as he hears the ball approaching, and he holds his paws out to send it away with a burst of kinesis. “Long term investment. I won’t be using all my pokemon often, which means I can rent them out to breeders.”

Blue chuckles. “Putting your money to work, huh?”

“Yeah. I figure they’ll pay for themselves within a few years.”

“Clever.” Blue scrolls down the list of pokemon Red’s considering buying, as well as evolution items. He spots moonstone, probably to help Red’s nidorino evolve, but… “I don’t see thunderstones for Pikachu?” The pokemon in question twitches from where it’s napping, looks over at them, then curls up again.

“Right, I was thinking I’d keep him in this form and start ordering some food from Alola.”

“Ah.” Yeah, the islands’ psychic raichu would serve Red better, but… “It might take a while, considering he’s gone his whole life without it so far.”

“I know, but I figure it’s worth a try, and a year of it isn’t much more expensive than the thunderstone would be.”

Blue nods and keeps looking down the list. “Nothing in the real top end, that I’m seeing?”

“Yeah, goes back to the whole variety thing. Strength is nice, but I can’t get both if I blow the whole budget on a dratini or larvitar.”

“I get it. Hm. Having trouble with your tanks?”

“Yeah. Nidoqueen is bulky, and venusaur would be too, but—”

“They’re still more bruisers, yeah. Well, how about cradily?”

“I already have enough Plant types.”


Too tanky, unless you disagree?”

“Nah, you’re right, against wilds most pokemon will just ignore them once they’re in their shell… you could get a forretress, or steelix, or, of course, a chansey or snorlax, but not sure if you have the budget for one on top of the ivysaur and wartortle. Maybe if you get a bulba and squirtle and raise them yourself?”

“Maybe. I don’t do as much training these days, and part of the point of this was to spend money I have a lot of to save time that I don’t.”

Blue nods, and then there’s a knock at the door. “Come in,” Red calls, and Leaf enters with a smile.

“Hey Leaf! Shit, is it time already?” Red gets to his feet and withdraws Bill, and Blue does the same with Tops.

“No, but I figured it’s better to be early than late.”

“Right, yeah, hang on, let me go get dressed…”

He disappears into his room, and Leaf goes over to pet Pikachu, who twitches an ear. “Heya Blue.”

“Heya Leaf. Is this your first time here for the, uh reflection lessons?”

“Mirroring, yeah.” She frowns as she hears the splashing. “Is someone else here?”


Leaf grins. “Not much chance for bathing in trainer houses, huh?”

“Yeah, she enjoyed swimming at the Celadon Gym, figured she’d miss it.”

“Where’s everyone else?”

“At the gym, if you want to say hi later.”

“Maybe, depends how long this takes. I’ve got a question, by the way… any idea how long before you’ll be in Fuchsia?”

“Uhh, no. That’s… up in the air, actually. Sabrina said she won’t be taking my challenge anytime soon.”

“Oof, sorry.”


“Weeeell… there’s been a bit of a breakthrough with my program.”

She’s grinning, and Blue stares. “Wait, really? What? When?!”

“Not long ago, I wanted to tell you guys in person…” Red emerges from his room, expression making it clear he heard everything. “More and more people have been working on it, sharing code and building off each other’s work, and my friend Natural pushed an update that I tested out on Dewy a few days ago.”

“Dewy?” Blue asks. “One of the ranch pokemon?”

“Yeah, a rattata that was so strongly conditioned by its capture program that it basically stopped doing anything unless it’s ordered to. Just stands there, waiting for a command to eat or follow or fight.”

“And it worked?” Red asks, voice low with awe.

Leaf swallows, eyes misting. “It worked. Dewy started… started moving around, and sniffing… sniffing the others… and when I put food in his pen he ate it, all on his own…”

“Leaf, that’s amazing!”


Leaf waves them off, smile watery. “I hardly did anything compared to all the people who’ve been working on it lately. But, oh, it gave me so much hope…”

“So could Dewy be released, now, theoretically?”

“Theoretically, yes. There’s still a lot of testing to do, to see how much of his wild behaviors are back… and it’s not a general program, it was specifically built for Dewy. From what I understand of Natural’s code he just took what we needed from new scans of it after you used sakki, Red, and slotted them in.”

“Ah,” Blue says, and turns to Red. “So you’d need to do that with every pokemon that they want released, so they could design a new program for each one…”

“Uh, I’ve kind of already been doing that,” Red says a bit sheepishly. “But don’t downplay this, Leaf, it shows it’s possible, proves that it works, that pokemon can be not just permanently unconditioned, but quickly and cheaply!”

Leaf nods. “The Rangers are very excited, and want to try it out in the Safari Zone in a couple weeks.”

“Why the Zone?” Red asks.

“Only ‘controlled’ wild environment, I’m guessing,” Blue says, and Leaf nods. “Is that why you asked when I’ll be in Fuchsia?”

“Yes. They want to keep it an internal matter, for a while, but from the conversation I had with them, a few trusted trainers could be called in as supplemental assistance.”

Blue tries not to get too excited, but… “Protected access to Safari? Hell yeah, I’d help.”

“You’d still have to follow the rules.”

“I know, I know. Still, if it means getting a shot at the inner zone, I’d be crazy to pass up on it.” Then he remembers… “What about the others?”

Leaf looks apologetic. “I’m not sure. I asked, and they said they’d let me know later… they know who you are, obviously, but maybe if you vouch for others… I think it might depend on how many. It can’t look like we’re taking advantage.”

“Right. Of course.” A leaden ball forms in his gut as he thinks about going on yet another adventure without the others… without Glen, who might not be up for it.

In the beat of silence that follows, Red clears his throat. “We should probably head out.”

“Yeah.” Leaf smiles. “I’ll let you know when I hear more.”

“Great. Thanks, Leaf. And congrats again.”

They collect the rest of their pokemon and head out, parting ways at the elevator. Blue wraps his scarf around his neck as he walks out of the apartment building, feeling snow drift down onto his hair, and walks aimlessly down the street for a while, just letting his thoughts wander as his feet do. The sun is directly overhead, keeping Blue from getting too cold, and after a few minutes he decides he’s hungry, going to a nearby cafe and ordering a sandwich and smoothie.

As he waits for his food, a few people recognize him, and one even comes up to ask for his autograph. Blue gives it with a smile, and soon a couple more people approach. He chats with them about their day; one works at Silph and has a son who’s on his journey, another is a trainer with two badges who’s been following his journey “from the start,” and the third is an artist and avid League fan who shows him some shirts she’s designed, one depicting the entire island chain united under the words What Comes Next, another showing his win in Celadon, Soul glowing on the field as his head tips back in a roar. It’s surreal, in a way, but by the time he leaves with his food his feet feel light as air.

Once he finishes eating he decides to call Glen, who picks up after a couple rings.

“Hey, how are things at the gym?”

“Not bad when I left, but I’m not there, actually.”

“Want to head over?” Blue was thinking of taking another class for dark trainers, but despite what he said to Red the idea robs him of most of his good mood. He’d rather do a class with Glen.

“Uh, maybe a bit later? I’ve actually got a meeting first…”

“Ooo, a meeting, huh?” Is Glen being vague on purpose? He doesn’t sound embarrassed, exactly… “What kind?”

“One of the groups I met through What Comes Next. They do training, both for people and pokemon.”

“What, here in Saffron? Why aren’t they part of the gym?”

“Apparently they, uh, have a different philosophy.” Blue can hear his friend’s shrug. “Anyway, it seemed worth checking out. A big focus on self-development and supporting each other, not too different from what we do. And what we did at Vermilion.”

Blue frowns. “How did I not hear about this before?”

“Well, they only formed up after the incident. They reached out to me about my energy drinks once I linked my site to the forums, and I only got to know more about them in the past few days.”

Right, and Blue’s been busy with other things since then. He vaguely remembers Glen boasting about someone being interested in his formula, before Lavender, but he never followed up on it. “So you’re going to see them now?”

“Yeah, I figured while I was in town, why not, right?”

“Right.” He thinks about the classes he could go to, particularly the one for dark trainers, then makes his decision. “Well, want some company?”

“You sure?”

“Sure I’m sure.” He needs to reconnect with Glen, get more involved in his side projects. Blue unclips the container ball with his bike in it. “Just tell me where to meet you.”

The address Glen gives leads him to a wide, unmarked two-story building in the warehouse district that seems to take up an entire block. Or at least it appears unmarked at first; when he gets closer he sees a small banner above the door showing a vaguely draconic silhouette wrapped around a fist.

“Dragonfist?” Blue asks. “Sounds like a superhero. What did you say this place was, again?”

“A place to train. The guys in charge use a lot of Dragon and Fighting types.”

Dragon and Fighting? Weird combo, Fighting pokemon can cover Dragon’s Ice weakness while the Dragon pokemon cover everything else, but the same could be said for Rock, or even better, Fire… but this place might be important to Glen, to his continued recovery, so Blue keeps his thoughts to himself as Glen opens the wide double doors.

Blue is immediately hit with a unique combination of smells; floor polish and sweat, metal and wood and foam, and over it all the faint aroma of some lemon-scented cleaning product. Blue walks in and finds the temperature not much warmer than the outside, and looks around to see the entirety of the warehouse is open around him, with just a few sectioned off rooms at the corners and along the walls, and no second floor.

Blue feels a wave of nostalgia for Surge’s gym as he sees people moving through obstacle courses or training their pokemon. A door opens to Blue’s left as someone walks into the corner room, and through it he catches a glimpse of people deep in some discussion as a pair of them stand in front of poster boards. It really does feel like he entered a small gym.

Except there’s less pokemon training than in a gym, and more the sorts of things he’d expect to find in a fitness club. Exercise weights, for one thing, and the obstacle course isn’t being run with pokemon, just people moving in a uniquely efficient and fluid way…

“It’s called parkour.”

Blue turns to see a vaguely familiar Unovan boy approaching, not much older than himself, with bright red hair and lean, muscular build. “I think I’ve seen a few videos of it online.”

The boy grins. “Yeah? Which ones?”

It’s the grin that completes his memory. “I think I’ve seen you in one or two of them, actually.”

“If any were in Lumiose City, probably. I spent some time in Kalos before I came here.” He clasps hands with Glen. “Thanks for coming by.”

“Thanks for inviting me. Hope you don’t mind me bringing my friend.”


“Blue Oak. I’ve seen some videos of you, too, specifically Glen and your Vermilion matches, after I found his site. I’m Duncan Sabien.” He holds his hand out, and Blue grips it. “Kiyo is in that office, Glen, if you wanted to talk to him about the bulk orders before anything else.”

“Right.” Glen turns to Blue. “It’ll just be some boring stuff about ingredients and shelf life… why don’t you hang here till I’m back?”


“I’ll keep him company,” Duncan says, and Glen nods and jogs off. As Blue watches him go, his gaze once again starts to take in the sheer variety of activities being practiced.

“I’ll keep him company,” Duncan says, and Glen nods and jogs off. As Blue watches him go, his gaze once again starts to take in the sheer variety of activities being practiced. Sudden movement above cranes his neck up, and he sees people walking and climbing along the beams that crisscross beneath the roof.

The movement was someone falling until just their hands grip the suspension bar, and his heart leaps into his throat as the figure swings and releases herself forward in a somersault.

Before Blue can cry out the woman plummets… then bounces back up into the air and catches hold of another scaffold, applause breaking out as she pulls herself back up.

“Trampoline,” Duncan explains, seeming to enjoy his shock.

“That was intentional? Why?”

Duncan seems about to respond, then pauses. “That answer has layers. The surface one is that we get a lot of people here who work as stunt doubles in movies, or who want to.”

“Huh.” He watches as someone else drops down, then bounces back up. “Okay, that makes sense. What’s the second layer?”

“Some are working to get over a fear of heights.”

Blue blinks. “And that works?”

“Sometimes. The third layer is preparation. I’ve been pushing for trampolines to be included in more standard trainer kits.” He sees Blue’s raised brow. “I know, there’s already a lot of competition for what’s worth the mass to carry. But even large trampolines are relatively light, and just think of how many times you’d have benefited from having one to get somewhere higher!”

Blue purses his lips. “Honestly, can’t really think of a time.”

“Really? What about helping people get down from a high place more easily, or saving them from a bad fall?”

“Uh… my friend fell out of a tree once, but there wouldn’t have been time to take a trampoline out and set it under him.”

“Oh.” Duncan shrugs, seeming a bit disappointed. “Well, it still might come in handy someday. Plus, there’s another layer.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s sooo fun!”

Blue laughs. “I’ve actually never even been on one.”

The other boy turns to him with sudden wide-eyed intensity, and Blue abruptly knows what’s going to happen next.

A minute later they’re at a big trampoline, waiting for a couple people in line ahead of Blue to finish some impressive mid-air twists, flips, and corkscrews, sometimes multiple in the same jump. Blue starts to get excited, and once it’s his turn he slips his shoes off and braces his legs before carefully stepping out onto the taut elastic mat. It barely sags beneath him even once he reaches the center.

“Okay, so what do I do?”

“You know what to do. Don’t worry about the stuff you saw, just enjoy yourself first!”

Blue hesitates, then bounces his weight a bit, then a bit more, until his feet start to leave the mat with each movement.

Feeling a little more confident, he bounces harder, then bends his knees and leaps up, stomach lurching as he hangs in the air for a second, then drops back down and does it again, then again, until he’s purposefully trying to go higher each time.

It is fun, engaging muscles he doesn’t often use and evoking a feeling of freedom that’s hard to understand. Maybe it’s just something about being able to jump so high, higher than he ever could on his own no matter how hard he trained…

He decides to try a maneuver someone before him did, angling himself to fall onto his back so he can bounce back up onto his feet. He doesn’t bounce as high as he thought he would, however, and ends up half-falling awkwardly onto his side.

“Keep your back straight when you fall,” Duncan instructs as Blue pushes himself back up and starts bouncing again. “And lift your legs, knees slightly bent. Right, like that. Arms to the sides… there you go. You want your whole back to hit the mat at the same time.”

It takes Blue a few tries, during which he lands in awkward crouches or stumble-bounces to the sides, but ultimately this is nothing compared to the fine motor control he developed learning his pokeball tricks. Soon he shifts every muscle of his body until he gets them just right, bouncing effortlessly from back to feet, then even swapping to do it with his chest and stomach, understanding that he wants to do the opposite and spread-eagling just right to bounce his torso and hips all at once.

“Nice! Want to try a kaboom next?”

“A what?”

“Backflip from the back drop.”


“Okay, this time slap your heels down and tuck your knees to your chest just after your back lands, and use the momentum of your feet bouncing up to flip yourself over.”

Just then, however, Blue notices the small crowd that’s gathered to watch. He thinks of how he tumbled around during his mistakes and is tempted to stop instead… but no, that would look bad too.

Instead he brings all his focus into his body, feeling the way it shifts as he bounces onto his back, then again, not trying the kaboom just yet as he imagines the timing…

…then drops his heels and tucks his knees as they flip up and over, arms pinwheeling as he lands on his feet. His balance is off, and his next bounce sends him toward the edge, but he manages to catch himself and vault onto the pads around the trampoline rather than faceplant.

There’s some scattered applause, and Blue grins and bows before he goes to put his shoes back on.

“Not bad for a first try,” Duncan says.

“Thanks.” There’s something in the other boy’s gaze, though, something assessing. Blue almost asks if everything’s okay, but the redhead is already turning to take a water bottle and a towel from a cubbyhole beneath the trampoline and handing them to Blue, who thanks him again and moves to sit as he wipes his face and drinks.

His legs feel a bit rubbery, but not as bad as when he was riding on Soul. As he recovers, he looks around the warehouse again and notices large words stencil-sprayed above the entrance in block-letters. It’s written in Unown, but he doesn’t recognize the words. “What’s that?”

“Être fort pour être utile,” Duncan says in a Kalosian accent. “Be strong, to be useful.”

“Personal motto?”

“The motto of a man I admire. For us it’s more of an oath, kind of the base layer under everything here; what we do to improve ourselves is in service to society.”

Blue grins. “I like it.”

“I thought you might. Of course, there are other ways to be useful, which is why we focus on learning too, on knowledge and wisdom and reason. But if a Stormbringer hits this city, every extra person who can defend themselves is one less person that will need to be defended… and who can help defend others.”

“I couldn’t agree more. The only thing I don’t get is… why this separate club? Why not join a gym, or train as rangers?”

“Eh. Rangers serve a very specific set of roles, and gyms have their own rules and cultures. I wanted to make my own, let others experiment more, try things really outside the box if it seems like it might work. Some gyms are more open to that sort of thing, but this seemed easiest.”

Blue looks around, brow raised. “I doubt anything about setting all this up was easy. And you did it in what, two months?”

“Easiest to get what I really want, rather than a facsimile.” Duncan clarifies. “Besides, the League hierarchy has enough power as it is. You never know when parallel structures might come in handy.”

Blue grins. “So this is a gym, basically.”

“Oh, no, the League charter is very clear that there can only be one gym per city.” Duncan smiles as he looks around, then points, and Blue sees a small group of men and women practicing kicks and punches, even sparring in hand-to-hand combat. “As far as the city is concerned, this is a dojo.”

Blue laughs. “Does that mean you aren’t going to challenge Sabrina, someday?”

Duncan shrugs. “Maybe. If I prove my methods are better. She’s in charge during a major crisis, of course, but as long as we can still respond to nearby incidents on our own and she’s not making major mistakes…”

Blue nods, suddenly excited about something new. “You must be a pretty strong trainer, given your philosophy.”

“At least strong enough to pull my weight.” He smiles. “You want to battle.”

“I would love to battle.”

“One question, first.”


“Why did you freeze up, before you tried the kaboom?”

Blue turns to Duncan to find the other boy watching him with that assessing gaze again. “What do you mean? I just wanted to practice the backfall a bit more first.”

“You wanted to get it right the first try.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

Duncan nods, eyes weighing him a moment longer before he looks away. “I see.”

“See what?” Blue asks, starting to get a bit irritated.

“Before you saw the crowd you were… happy. Playing. You were focused on getting things right, too, but it was fun for you. Once you saw people watching, it was like a light went out. You did it on your first try, but not perfectly, and instead of trying again, trying until you got it right, you just stopped.”

“I was tired.” The words come out automatically, defensively, and the look Duncan gives him is so scornful that Blue’s anger flares until shame at his own evasion extinguishes the flame. “But you’re right, that’s not why I stopped.”

“The stuff you’ve done, it’s clear you’re cultivating a legend. I don’t know what for, or what the ending to the story you’re trying to tell is. Most obvious guess is being Champion, but in a way where that’s just a step rather than the goal. And you probably can become Champion. You’ve clearly got the talent.”

“Thanks,” Blue says. “Though I feel a ‘but’ coming.”

“That’s quite a gift,” Duncan says, lips quirked, then nods toward the obstacle course nearby. “See that girl there?” Blue watches the indicated young woman vaulting up and down a series of low walls. Her body seems to almost float above hands and feet that propel her up and down from one side of the wall to the other as nimbly as a mankey. “She was panting and struggling for weeks, and ended up on the ground more times than I could count. You’re a natural athlete with amazing coordination, but you’re not good enough to do what she’s doing now without kissing the mat a few times, and if that would stop you from trying then your talent isn’t as valuable as her grit.”

“You think I can’t do hard things?”

“No, but I know fear when I see it. I doubt it’s just stage fright, not with how you act on camera. So it’s got to be fear of fucking up when you haven’t had time to prepare, to practice. Or, to be more specific, to rehearse.”

Blue’s anger returns, along with a trace of bitterness. “It’s different, for her. People aren’t going to remember how much she messed up.”

“I literally just told you about it.”

Blue waves his hand. “You know what I mean. Three people came up to me for an autograph just an hour ago while I was getting lunch. This is… it’s not the same.”

“It’s not the same because you’re trying to get people to think a certain way about you. You’re cultivating an image, a pseudo-relationship with you as their future Champion.”

“Sure, I guess.”

“Just one problem: if you’re not being honest with someone to preserve a relationship, it already doesn’t exist.”

“What?” Blue looks at him, pulse speeding up. Did Glen mention something…?

“The relationship, the one you think you’re preserving with the lies or evasions, it’s already gone. Maybe it never existed at all, and all you’ve ever had was a front. You have to look for the natural overlaps between you and others, and build from there. Nothing else is sustainable. Whatever you ask has to be asked freely, openly, and whatever people give you, the same.”

Blue drops his gaze, studying the pattern on the black rubbery ground. “I know.”

“Do you?”

“Yes! I just… I can’t meet everyone, one on one. I can’t spend time with them all, show them—”

“Doesn’t matter. One person or a hundred, it’s the same thing. Was I right before? About you wanting to be Champion, not just for the title, wanting to do something with the position?”

“I… yeah.”

“Then as long as you’re afraid of the region seeing who you truly are, whatever you hope to get is already beyond your reach. If you just want fame and fortune, sure, people will throw that at you whether you wear a mask or not. But if you’re actively keeping an illusion going instead of building from what’s real…” Duncan shakes his head. “You’re rolling the dice, again and again. On a long enough timeline, they won’t come up in your favor.”

Blue’s stomach twists. “What I’m trying to do… it’s important. And hard. No one’s done it before. What if I’m not good enough?”

“Then you have to really look at whether you should be the one doing it. Or else you’re just sabotaging the thing you claim to actually be fighting for.” He nods at the people doing parkour again. “We make videos, sometimes, showing off all the cool stuff we do here to put online, like the ones you saw. But we also make videos of people messing up as they learn. It doesn’t look as cool, so they don’t get as many views. But if we don’t show both sets of videos, we’re not being honest about what we’re asking of people.”

“And you want the right sort of people to come,” Blue guesses, smiling slightly. Red would like this place.

“Right. Other places I’ve been part of would get people who just saw all the cool stuff, came to try it, got frustrated, and left. We get a lot fewer of those. And sure, maybe some people get scared off, think it’s too hard for them, when if they had come they might have stuck it out. But it’s a tradeoff either way, and I care more about not wasting the first group’s time, and ours, than scaring off the second group. If they’ve got the heart for it, they’ll come.”

The words are like a bucket of ice water on Blue’s head. If they’ve got the heart for it… Isn’t that what he tried to do when Zapdos came? He thought he’d learned this lesson, from Amy, and TaroChie, maybe Vlad and the others… But it’s not quite the same.

“Ever since the incident, everything seems… too much,” he murmurs. “My goals were big even before then, I knew people would think I was insane for what I planned to do, but I was determined to do it anyway.”

“Seems like you still are.”

“Yeah. But it doesn’t feel like enough, after what happened. don’t feel like enough.” Blue turns to Duncan, who’s still watching the people in his dojo. “Is this, for you? Enough?”

The redhead is silent for a while, scratching at a scab on his knee. When he finally answers, his voice is low too. “I wonder that myself, sometimes. I don’t have all the answers, and what you asked earlier, about challenging Sabrina… becoming a real Leader… I’m not sure if it’s what’s right, for me. I could be wrong, but I suspect it would just feel like more of the same. Quantitatively bigger but… not enough to become something fundamentally more, or meaningfully different. But if there is something bigger I should be doing, I don’t know what it is, yet. All this…” He gestures at the dojo. “Raising the competence waterline… it feels like the best I can do, for now, while I figure it out. I still mess up. Still learn from it. As long as that’s true, maybe it’s the best I can do for now.”

“It’s already more than most.”

“One person doing more than most won’t fix the world.”

“Right. For that you need others.” Blue takes a deep breath, then slowly lets it out as something eases in him. “I’m glad I came here.”

“Me too. You can buy a trampoline at the entrance on your way out.”

Blue laughs. “That’s what all this has been about, huh?”

“Trampolines won’t fix the world either, but they’re still worth carrying around.” Duncan’s smile fades to something more serious. “You’re welcome to join us here whenever. You and the rest of your people.”

“Heh. Looking to absorb us?”

“Would that be a bad thing?”

“No. It might be just what we need. Or maybe just what I need. For a little while, at least.”

Duncan is watching him. “How about this: if I win our match, you don’t leave until I say you’re ready to leave, or three months, whichever comes first.”

Three months?! Well, he might have to wait that long to face Sabrina anyway… but it would be longer than he’s stayed in any city before, and if Leaf is right about the Safari Zone… “And if I win?”

“You get one of the pokemon I fight you with, your choice which.”

Blue blinks. It’s an elegant wager, ensuring that the harder he makes it for Blue, the more he puts on the line… “One of your dragons?”

“Fuck no,” Duncan laughs. “I’m not crazy.”

Blue laughs too, and holds his hand out. “Deal.”

They shake on it, and stand to walk toward the open arena at the center of the stadium. Along the way they pass some trainers all dressed in karate gi beside their fighting pokemon, listening to a tall, muscled man instruct on something. As they get closer the students all bow, and the man bows back before everyone begins to disperse, and Blue frowns, then slows to a stop as he catches sight of the side of the man’s face. “Is that…”

“Oh, perfect timing. Let’s put our match on hold for a minute… hey, Koichi!”

Blue stares in growing anger at the man who failed utterly in his role as Saffron Gym Leader, but brutally clung to it anyway until Sabrina bled him of his supporters and dethroned him.

“Koichi, this is Blue Oak,” Duncan is saying, and despite the heat in his chest Blue has to resist the urge to step back as the man’s stony expression turns toward him. He’s in his early forties, but looks older, deep lines creasing his face and grey hair starting to lighten the black at his temples. Despite that, his body is as thickly muscled as a machamp’s, and he looms over six feet tall as he approaches. “I’d like him to learn how to lose, and I can’t think of a better teacher.”

Chapter 91: Interlude XVIII – Discoveries

The memorial service for the fallen rangers and pokemon takes about an hour. Laura sits beside Red and his friends throughout it, and waits at a respectful distance afterward as he says goodbye to Blue, Leaf, and Jean. The quiet girl, Maria, has apparently decided to stay in town for a while and learn more from Jason, who in turn is spending some time with his family. She gives Blue a hug before he climbs onto the back of his arcanine, then Leaf, who hugs her back and gives Red one last smile before teleporting away, and then it’s just her and her son, walking back to her apartment through the snow.

She’d be a lot happier about Red asking to stay with her for a while if she wasn’t involved in such a potentially dangerous investigation.

But he wants to stay close to the tower while research continues on whatever new ghost they discovered, and after yet another close call, she can’t send him away. She eventually got used to waiting for Tom to heal after he was injured in the line of duty, but she isn’t sure she’ll manage it for Red. Maybe it’s different with children, or maybe because losing Tom made it clear that she could lose her son too. But at least the physical injuries Tom and Red endured up until now were understandable.

Red’s latest injury was whole new territory for her, and for him, and for other psychics as well, according to Agatha. After they first brought him to her place, Leaf and Blue sat with Red in his room while Laura cried silent tears into her hands and the Elite made tea for her in her own kitchen (which she would have been more embarrassed about at any other time).

Thankfully the symptoms weren’t worrisome, so far at least, but the cause was mysterious even to psychic doctors, and that made it extra frightening. In the end, everyone’s made of blood and bone, tissue and ligaments, cells and atoms. According to Agatha, Red’s injury was to his “soul.”

“Or his mind, if you prefer that word. According to the brain scan his hardware’s fine, but the software’s got a bug in it,” the Elite said in her usual blunt tone, then handed Laura a tissue along with her tea before putting a hand on her shoulder. “Just keep his thoughts off it as best you can, Laura. I’ll check in on him from time to time, make sure he’s healing right.”

She didn’t have the words to express her gratitude, and still feels a mix of hope and shame that the Elite would take such a personal interest in her son’s wellbeing, old friend of Sam’s or not. They’d only met a few times over the years, and never had particularly long or intimate conversations. But selfish as it felt, she didn’t even consider turning the offer down, simply nodding and drying her tears so she could put on a brave face for the children.

Children. More than their official emancipation months ago, it’s their accomplishments that make the word feel like it no longer quite fits.

That, and other things.

“So,” she says as they walk, trying to keep her voice casual. “I’m glad you and Blue are getting along so well again.”

Red gives her a surprised look, but nods. “Yeah, since Celadon things feel mostly back to normal.” He shrugs. “We still haven’t talked about it, but I don’t feel like we need to.”

Laura shakes her head, remembering Leaf’s exasperation when they discussed it once. Boys. She might normally caution against letting things like that stay buried where they might blow up again at an unexpected moment, but she has another focus right now… Keep his thoughts off it, Agatha said. Easy enough, while they’re together at least. “You and Leaf seem to be getting along well too.”

She’s sure she kept her tone the same, and she didn’t feel him brush her thoughts with his psychic senses (though she knows that’s unreliable), but the look he gives her is still one of cautious resignation. “Mom…”

“She’s a very smart young woman.”


“You disagree?”

“Of course not.” Now he’s blushing, much to her delight.

“You should have invited her over to lunch. We can get some fishless sushi.” Laura worries sometimes about Red’s decision to follow Leaf’s diet; much as she respects Leaf’s beliefs, it’s hard to trust that supplements could really cover everything a growing body needs, so she’s happy that Red is willing to eat pokemon as long as she’s already buying it anyway. But she’s happy to cater to Leaf’s preference if it gets the two to spend more time together.

“She has stuff to do at the ranch.”

“Of course.” Laura nods approvingly. “A very hard worker, too. Why not ask her to come by for dinner then?”

She sees him hesitate, considering it, and innocently adds, “I’ll be busy after dinner anyway, if she wants to stay for longer.”

“Maybe tomorrow,” he says, cheeks still pink, and she takes it as a victory.

Once they get home she fixes some lunch for them, surprised by how much she enjoys it. She’s never been much of a homebody, and was always happy to let Red make food for himself once he resolved to learn how. Still, for an hour at least it’s like they’re back in simpler times, and she cherishes it while she can.

Then his plate is clean and he’s off to the guest room to work on his research with a quick “Thanks!” and that’s also like old times. She makes sure there’s leftover food in the fridge in case he gets hungry, then goes to put her pokebelt back on.

“I’m heading out to meet a friend, I’ll be back in a few hours!”

“Okay! Love you!”

She smiles, says, “Love you too,” and holds onto the warm feelings until she’s fairly sure she’s out of his psychic range. Only then does she let her thoughts shift to her upcoming meeting.

In the time since she arrived in Lavender, she’s only gotten one communication from the mysterious researcher. A few days after she paid a courier to slip the initial message under his door, she saw a slip of paper on his porch and waited until the dead of night to get it while wearing a mask, worried all the while that some neighbor would report her to the police for robbing him. Once she circled the town a few times to make sure she wasn’t followed, she checked the note to discover it was the same one she’d left, and turned it over to read:

Thank you for your concern, but I am fine. My only wish is to be left alone.

This was not the worst potential outcome, not even close, but it also wasn’t a great one, as it means she can’t get more information without violating his stated preference… and because it doesn’t actually distinguish his situation from one where he’s forced to live that way. Maybe he really is an extreme loner, or maybe he wants to be left alone because of some threat.

She had a courier slip one more note under his door with the contact information of a specially purchased burner phone on it, “in case you change your mind,” then went back to watching his house from afar. Maybe he would try to leave town, disappear somewhere else. That would be informative on its own; wanting to be left alone is one thing, but moving to an entirely different place just based on what Laura has done so far is not, by Laura’s estimation at least, something done by someone with nothing to hide.

But he stayed where he was, and as far as she could tell from some occasional surreptitious monitoring, made no major differences in his routine. Eventually the cost of the hotel she was staying at began to feel excessive, and she had to make the choice between going back to Celadon or finding an apartment in town.

She went with the latter. Without her job to go back to, living in the city would be expensive, and while she could try getting work at another agency, none would be more willing to fight the legal and financial pressure Silph has been focusing on her. The lawsuit she’s dealing with is bad enough that she doesn’t blame them… it’s not often that she has to do anything directly but ask for extensions and go to brief hearings, but even aside from the time and money cost it causes constant stress whenever she thinks about it.

Sure, there are some sites and organizations that have reached out in support and asked her to join them. But all of them are either too small to fund this sort of long-term investigation, or too big for her to trust with such a sensitive one. Sam’s money is helping keep her afloat, but she has to be careful how she spends it to make sure it’s not wasted.

So she left the hotel and got a short lease at an apartment. Cheaper for a long stay, and more importantly, it was a public move. If she’s being tracked, which she has no reason to think she’s not, then Silph will see she’s taken up residence in the same town the secretive researcher is living.

Silph might think that’s a coincidence, but she doubts it. Overall it’s a risky move, but she doesn’t have a lot of options, and if he or the researcher react, Laura might learn something.

And, of course, it let her continue to spend hours outside his place every day, hoping to get a picture.

Laura reaches the cafe and slips inside, wrinkling her nose as she passes under the strong smell of the ofuda hanging above the door. She looks around as she unwinds her scarf, then smiles and walks toward the familiar head of salt and pepper hair.

Sam looks as tired as she’s ever seen him, not counting the times he was recovering from Pressure. The difference is the spark in his eyes, the curve of his outer lips, even while he stares at his computer screen in concentration… like he can’t quite manage a frown while he’s so excited.

“Anything new?” she asks as she bundles her coat and scarf in her lap and sits.

“No, just reading over reports.” He picks up his coffee mug and sips from it without taking his eyes off his screen. “Did you know that proportionally, the Tower and outlying graveyard have more ghosts around them than gravesites with the same or even more buried bodies? Or had, I should say.”

“I did not,” Laura says, and waves off the waitress when she comes by with a questioning look. “Though it seems obvious now that you mention it, since cities would have much bigger graveyards but none are ‘known’ for having lots of ghosts around them. Is that helpful?”

“Probably not for this mystery, but I definitely want to get more eyes on this place to monitor how quickly the population regenerates. Maybe we can learn something about what makes it special.”

“Higher frequency of visitors, maybe? It’s both a cemetery and a tourist site.”

“Mhm. Or it could be the altitude, or something about the material used to build the tower, or maybe it’s all built on some spiritual leyline like Agatha says.” He sighs and lowers his monitor with a click. The cover has some faded stickers of pokemon on it, placed there years ago by Blue. “Still can’t tell when she’s pulling my leg. So, you said you finally got a clear shot? I thought he never leaves, keeps the curtains drawn, all that stuff?”

“Normally, yes, and I don’t mind telling you that it made for some very boring stakeouts. But a little over a week ago…” She finds the photo on her phone, then hands it to him. Sam leans forward to examine the face of the mysterious researcher. “Apparently the one thing he can’t get from home is a dentist visit.”

Laura took the photo after magnifying her camera as much as it could go, but her setup was far enough to not be seen from his house, or anyone else watching his house, so what she ended up with is a photo that still shows the researcher from a distance. The man looks to be a Kanto native in his fifties, mostly bald, with a fringe of white hair that goes around the back of his head. He’s wearing a simple blue button up shirt that outlines a skinny frame.

He has an old fashioned wide brimmed hat on, similar to the one Mr. Silph wears, and his eyes are downcast, as if deep in thought… or perhaps from being unused to the bright sky above.

For a long moment, Sam just stares at the photo. Laura watches his face, the tension in the brow, the narrowing eyes, the press of his lips. It’s a look of both intense examination and hope.

And, as Laura watches, dawning amazement.

“Sam?” she asks after a minute.

“It…” He trails off, licks his lips, takes another sip of coffee. “It could be,” he whispers. “It could be him.”

Laura blinks, then blinks again. Him. Not one of them. “Dr. Fuji?” she murmurs, unable to hide her skepticism. What would the odds be, that among all the scientists and researchers that are supposedly missing, the one that Sam knew best, the one that he specifically mentioned to her at the beginning, would be the one she found first? He’s not the only one from Kanto, and Laura didn’t even know it might be him when she came here…

“Yes. I can’t be sure, of course. If it is him, it’s been at least twenty years since I’ve seen him, and it shows. He hasn’t aged well.” Sam meets her gaze. “But… there’s something familiar about him.”

Laura’s skepticism is joined by sympathy. She understands that Sam wants it to be him. That he blames himself for not doing more to be there for his old friend, for not trying harder to find him when he fell off the radar. She takes his hand and squeezes it. “I hope it is.”

Sam returns his gaze to her phone, then slowly hands it back. “How far is he from here?”

“About a ten minute walk.” Her stomach sinks. “Why?”

“I want to go see him.”

Laura takes a moment to pick her words. “That’s a terrible idea.”

Sam’s brow rises, and then he smiles. “What was the first thing you thought to say?”

“It wasn’t coherent, just a wordless sense of panic.”

“Ah. That bad?”

“Sam, I’ve spent the past months trying to learn as much as possible without risking scaring him off or letting Silph know I’m aware of him. I don’t know if they’ve got the place under constant surveillance or not, but if you show up there…” He’s Samuel Oak, he’s probably not afraid of being targeted, and for good reason. Maybe he could get away with it where she couldn’t. But… “We just don’t know enough about the situation. You might get him killed.”

He looks away, not ashamed or upset, just thoughtful, and sips from his mug. She considers getting some coffee herself, or better yet some tea given the way her stomach is churning, and then he turns back to her.

“Alright. You’re the expert here, and if you think it’s not the right time, I trust you. But what’s your projection for when it will be the right time? Do you have a plan for how you’ll know it’s okay to take bolder action?”

“That’s what I wanted your help with. I did some basic attempts at matching the face online to an identity, but had no luck. If you think this is him, I can try to reach out to people who might have seen him more recently than you, get some extra confirmation.”

“But what does that change? Particularly if he’s there by choice, as I believe he would be. If Silph is hiring scientists to work off the record for them it makes sense to kidnap those no one would miss, or who would be written off… but they might also target those with nothing else to lose, who would welcome a sense of purpose, security, even seclusion.”

“Which includes Fuji.” Not that she blames him. If she’d lost Tom and Red… she doesn’t even want to think about it.

“That’s my guess. What do we do if it’s true? I don’t want to invade his privacy if he’s there voluntarily, but there may be others who aren’t.”

Laura nods. “The way he’s situated it would make sense if different people were siloed so they don’t know anything about each other’s situation… but they still might pass information along to each other, even innocuously. He might not even realize others need help, nor how valuable what he knows could be. But your question was what it would change, and honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe you knocking on the door, strutting the white coat and the Professor title is the safest way to learn more.” She’s smiling as she says it, and can see he’s torn between denying the characterization and feeling caught out. “But I’d like to at least see what I can find out first. Whoever he is, he’s been safe in that house until now, and there’s no reason to think that’s about to change, especially if my note didn’t scare him off.”

Sam takes in a breath, then lets it out with a nod. “Okay. I’ll be teleporting back here every few days for a while yet, so once you’ve done all you think you can, let me know.”

“I will. Just give me as much information as you can about Fuji and those who knew him, and I’ll take care of the rest.”

After Sam leaves she orders some tea to go and heads to the local library, where she spends the next few hours working. She trusts Red, but still doesn’t want to risk him picking up on what she’s working on. The less he knows the safer they’ll both be.

She spends some time refreshing herself on the public information available on Dr. Fuji, especially any personal details that might be on the net that the Professor didn’t mention. Fuji never had much of a social media presence, and if there are any obvious clues that the man in town is him, she can’t find them. She examines the old pictures available and can’t tell if she really sees the similarities or if Sam’s confidence is influencing her. Eventually she moves on to examining the pictures of other missing researchers until night falls (earlier every day, it seems) and heads home through the dark, snow-covered streets, her hands tucked into the pockets of her coat for warmth.

She arrives to find a strange black shape floating around her living room.

“Hi, Mom. I bought an unown,” Red explains. He’s sitting at the kitchen table with his eyes closed, along with the young researcher she met at the funeral, Artem.

“Hello, Mrs. Verres.”

“Hello, and I see that, Red.” Now that it has turned around, at least, its round, unblinking eye facing her for a moment before it keeps turning away. “Is that a G, or a V?” She knows those two look nothing like the written letters, for whatever reason, but she can’t recall which is which.

“G,” Red says. “I keep them straight by remembering that the one with a little sideways V on it isn’t V.”

“Sideways?” Artem asks.

“Well, there’s only one position where it’s oriented like a V, and in all the others it’s either tilted or upside down… you’re right, I should say ’tilted.'”

Laura can see why these two became friends. “So why get a G?” There’s something distinctly creepy about the way it floats aimlessly around… and she can hear it, too, a faint vibration in the air. Or is that just in her head?

“It was the cheapest one on auction at the time. About two thousand.”

Laura blinks. “That was the cheapest?

“They went up in price for a while after the Hoenn thing,” Artem explains. “But have been dropping after that as more of them have been found and caught and people get bored of them not doing anything interesting.”

She watches the expensive pokemon float around some more as a small remnant of her past self worries that she made a mistake in granting his financial independence so young… but no, she knows he can afford this, and likely had good reason to buy it. “And is yours?”

Red sighs and opens his eyes. “Not really.” He rubs his face, while Artem checks the time, then starts writing in the notebook he has in front of him. “It feels different than the ones I sensed at Lavender.”

“Maybe because they were wild,” Artem muses as Laura finally moves to hang her pokebelt by the door and take her shoes off.

“Or maybe because they were with others.” Red stands and goes to the counter to pour some tea into a cup, then brings it to her.

“Oh, thank you Hon.” Her hands are still cold from the walk, and just holding the warm cup is pleasant. “Does that mean you might buy more?”

“It would be a waste if the difference is in whether it’s wild versus captured. I’m going to try meeting up with others who have one, first, then let Artem borrow it for his experiment.”

She turns to the other researcher. “What will you be testing?”

“Whether they create pokemon. Honestly, I’d barely call it an experiment, I just plan to put a bunch of unown in a room with a pokeball, some magnets and screws, a bag of trash, you know, things that some pokemon seem to have originated from, and observe them for a few months.”

She raises a brow and sips her tea. “Months? Continuously?”

“I’ll have help, others to swap with and make sure someone’s always watching the camera feed.” He shrugs. “I know it’s really unlikely, but it seems like an obvious thing to try that no one has.”

“It’s definitely worth testing,” Red says. “I just wish I could be of more help.”

“You’ve done enough, particularly since I know you’re still skeptical of all this.” Artem pockets his notebook, then stands and moves to take his own pokebelt from the hook by the door. “See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, let’s grab lunch.”

“Alright. Goodnight, Mrs. Verres.”

“Goodnight, Artem.” She moves to the door to close it behind him, then slide the deadbolt in. When she turns back around she feels a stab of worry at the sight of Red rubbing his temples. “Another headache?”


“Maybe you should hold off on using your powers for a few days.”

He shakes his head. “It’s not that. It’s these memories… remember when I told you about the way I kept re-experiencing my spinarak’s attack, in Viridian Forest? It’s like that, and I’m able to protect myself better now, but it’s also a much stronger effect, and… I can’t keep myself totally cut off from the memories when there might be clues in them.”

“Clues about where the marowak ghost came from?”

“Right. I didn’t get the chance to really merge with the unown outside the tower, but touching them at all meant I could recognize when I merged with the marowak that… it was connected to them, somehow. I hadn’t really thought about it because I was keeping the memory away, but the more I let myself remember the more I realize Artem might be right.”

He’s watching his unown with troubled eyes, and Laura feels some apprehension. “You don’t think it’s likely to spawn a pokemon out of my table or something, do you?”

“Hm? Oh, no. Probably not. But look at it a moment… doesn’t it seem…” His voice lowers. “Almost deceptively simple? And that eye, always watching…”

Laura raises a brow, concern shifting in a different direction. “Oookay, Red, I think it’s time to take a break.” She puts her hands on his shoulders and squeezes, feeling the tension there. “Why don’t you withdraw it so we can get some dinner? Maybe watch a movie? I think we can both use a break from work.”

“Yeah, alright.”

As he does so, her phone rings, and when she checks it she sees Leaf’s number. “Hello, L—”

“Hi Laura! Um, are you home?”

“I… yes, Red and I are here.”

“Okay, I’ll teleport over!”

Laura blinks, then grins. “You’re joining us for dinner?”

“Right! Dinner!”

“Okay, see you soon!”

“See you!” The call ends.

“Was that Leaf?” Red asks, pokeball still in hand. He sounds annoyed.

“As if you don’t know,” Laura says. “Why didn’t you tell me you invited her, Red, I could have—”

“But I didn’t!”

Laura blinks. He doesn’t sound annoyed now, or even embarrassed. Just confused. “Do you know why she’s coming, then?”

“No, I haven’t spoken to her since she left. I thought you invited her without telling me.”

They share a baffled silence for a moment, and Laura feels a vaguely familiar feeling in her thoughts. “Red Verres, are you reading my mind?” It’s times like this she wishes she’d given him a middle name.

“Sorry,” he says as the feeling quickly fades. “I thought you might have been teasing me, but if you’re serious, I’m a little worried.”

“Me too.” She replays Leaf’s tone in her head. Chipper, maybe even excited. She wonders for a moment if someone tricked Leaf, impersonated Red or Laura and told her to come… but why would they?

Then Laura gets it, and sees understanding come over her son’s face a moment later. “The investigation.”

Worry is joined by excitement, suddenly, and chases away Laura’s lingering tiredness. “Has she mentioned anything lately?”

“No, but we worked on it a bit on the day before we came here. We were narrowing down lists…” He trails off, then takes out his phone and starts tapping at it. “Do you think something happened that might have given her a new clue?”

“Let me know if you find something. I guess we’re ordering food in, tonight.”

But twenty minutes later he still hasn’t found anything. Leaf arrives just after the food does, still breathing hard from biking through the snow, and starts to take off her scarf and coat before Laura hands her a hot mug of tea. Leaf stops to gratefully accept it, takes a swallow, then sets it down to keep shedding layers.

“Leaf, slow down,” Laura says as she starts opening the various containers of food and sets them on the table. “We’re not going anywhere.”

“I know, just… excited,” Leaf gasps, still breathless from her ride over. She pulls her boots off, then sits with a sigh and takes a longer swallow of the tea. “Sorry for dropping by like this, but—”

“It’s fine,” Red says before Laura can, and she turns away to hide her smile at Red’s tone, picking silverware out of the drawers. Red joins her a moment later to take them from her and to the table, and she turns to get them plates. “This is about the investigation, right?”

“Yeah! Hang on, let me…” Leaf stands again and takes out a container ball, and a minute later Laura’s old battered laptop with the original files is on the table. “Okay, so I should start at the beginning… um… right, I got to the ranch, and as I started doing some chores, I was thinking about what happened here. Eventually that included wondering about Jason and Agatha compared to Red and Sabrina, and the way we classify them ‘psychic’ or ‘medium’ based on their specialties despite not really having a strict idea of what makes one different from the other.”

“Alright,” Laura says as she sets the plates out. “With you so far.”

“And then I thought about the way we label people’s skills in general, you know? And a sort of joke I made to Red, a few days ago, about how the person who visited you was a ninja hacker spy, or a hacker ninja spy, or whatever. And a thought occurred, something small like ‘huh, what made me start calling her a ninja,’ like I get why but I never really did anything with that thought, you see?”

“I think I’m starting to,” Laura says, hope expanding in her chest.

“I’m not,” Red admits with a frown. “Unless you’re saying… there’s actual ninjas still hanging around Kanto?”

“It’s not as strange as it sounds,” Laura explains. “Once in a while over the past couple hundred years some records would surface of a ninja clan, a group of families that survived since the times of the warlords. For generations they retained secret techniques for assassination, espionage, and pokemon training, until enough descendants just walked away from that life for the clan to die out, or transition to more modern lifestyles. Inevitably someone would decide to sell their family secrets for book deals or something, but there hasn’t been a new one revealed in, oh, thirty years or so. Still, there’s always speculation about how many are still around—”

“—since obviously those that are still ‘active’ are going to keep their existence secret.”

“Exactly.” She turns back to Leaf. “Did my contact do something that matched one of those ninja records?”

“No, nothing that I could find, at least.”

Laura blinks, hope deflating for a moment. “Then you think it is a new one?”

“I’m not sure, but… I decided to narrow the search down to Fuchsia City, just based on the records of where the data first started coming from.” Leaf shows Laura the time and location stamps on the initial files, and she nods. “Could be unimportant, of course, but it seemed worth focusing on for a while at least. So once I had this thought, I started looking through forums and blogs and news aggregators that mention the city, just generally looking for anything that might stand out, you know, but also using the word ‘ninja’ in the search… and look!”

She opens her phone, now, and shows Laura a collection of screenshots. Red gets up and comes around to look as well.

First a snippet on some biker forum warning people to stay away from Fuchsia, describing a “shadowy figure” that attacked him and moved “like a ninja.” Laura swipes to the next picture to see another similar post, and another after that. She goes back to look at the details and sees these are spaced out by months, each by someone different, all light on details or agenda other than to share a general message: stay out of Fuchsia if you know what’s good for you.

A new gang, Laura thinks, until she sees the fourth screenshot, which shows a headline about crime in Fuchsia being down. One that’s keeping outsiders away…? She remembers hearing news about this here and there over the past year, but her assumption had always been that Fuchsia was having a good few months, or a good year, or that Fuchsia’s tourism was doing a PR blitz, or that the media was focusing on some stats over others to make a story. Common crime reporting was never really an interest of hers.

But as she swipes to the next picture (a breakdown of what kinds of crime were lower: theft, robbery, assault) and the next few (a series of headlines on corrupt politicians and businessmen being arrested or exposed) she recognizes this is more than just some criminals policing their own.

“And the dates for some of that stuff? It matches some of the Fuchsia data in the files, or is close to when information sources cut off.”

“How long did it take you to find all this?” Laura asks. It’s only been about ten hours since Leaf left Lavender…

“Not long, most of it is other people’s work. I’m not the first person to notice all this, there’s a conspiracy site where others were already putting it all together… and more, a lot more, but that’s the verifiable stuff once I excluded all the rumors.”


“Some of the biker gangs were saying some renegade is going around killing or kidnapping their friends, while others claimed to have been among those attacked, and had their pokemon stolen. Some even claim it’s Koga who’s doing it, though there’s little agreement on the details… each incident sounds more fanciful than the last, with just a couple common themes.”

“So maybe one group got attacked, and the others took the story and added their own details to it?”

“That’s what I thought, yeah. There are also strange stories about why some important people in business or government suddenly quit and moved to another city, but nothing substantial.”

“Wait,” Red says. “Just to be clear, combining all this with our guess that the ninja hacker started her war against Silph in Fuchsia, the new hypothesis is… she isn’t just going after Silph, she’s a general-purpose vigilante?”

“Or she’s part of a group operating in Fuchsia,” Laura says. “One that decided to chase Silph past the borders of their city, and sent her to meet me. Or maybe she’s got more autonomy than that, and decided to chase Silph herself. Leaf, this is an amazing potential story all on its own. A ninja clan living in Fuchsia and cleaning up the city… well, given everything else going on, movie studios might be more interested than news sites, but it’s a great find.”

“Thanks! Like I said though, this is mostly other people’s work, they just didn’t have the other pieces to point them in the right direction. I’m thinking of reaching out to some of the people involved, even the bikers, and see what I can learn that they didn’t put online.”

Laura feels a stab of worry, but Leaf is already raising her palm. “I know, Laura, I’ll be careful. I already bought a burner phone and downloaded a voice modulator.”

Somehow hearing about the precautions makes Laura more nervous rather than less, but… she’s the one that involved Leaf in all this to begin with, knowing that she’d be safer under guided investigation than impatiently trying to find stuff out on her own.

Besides, she’s pretty sure Leaf stole something from the Casino and then lied to the police about it. Laura shouldn’t assume Leaf can’t be cunning on her own… though that particular example makes Laura nervous for different reasons. She hasn’t confronted Leaf about it because she wants the girl to be honest with her on her own… and because if she’s wrong, she imagines it would be terribly hurtful to Leaf that Laura didn’t trust her.

“Alright. Good idea wanting to talk about this in person, and if you’re going to keep an abra registered to the town for a while then feel free to come by whenever to update me.”

Leaf smiles. “I will. You should buy an abra too, Laura. You’re carrying a pokebelt around anyway, and now that the first generation are starting to hatch at the new breeding farms the prices are going to start dropping again.”

Laura thinks about her narrow budget and nods. “I’ll think about it.”

“No, you won’t. I’ll buy you one, Mom, Leaf’s right, it would just be dumb not to get you a couple in case of emergencies. I should have done it earlier.” He looks at Leaf. “Really, we should all have been spending money more freely than we have been.”

“Why haven’t you?” Laura asks.

“I guess I didn’t really internalize how much potential to earn more I have now. Even after the abra sales, it felt like… this one big windfall that I was lucky to get, and had to save for getting rare pokemon for research, or emergencies.”

“I had a similar thought,” Leaf admits. “We were in Vermilion after we got the money, and things were fine until Zapdos attacked. Then I went to the ranch and it felt like I might need the money for my project.”

“I get why Blue tries to avoid it, he doesn’t want people to think he just bought his way through the badges, but really he should be buying more pokemon just to have for traveling safely. Maybe that’s not as big a deal for him now, with the strong pokemon he has and the size of the group he travels with, but I’m definitely going to buy some stronger pokemon to round out my belt.”

Now that’s a use for money she can approve of. She looks at Leaf, who’s packing the laptop back away and says, “You are staying for dinner, right?”

“Oh!” She seems to suddenly notice the third place set for her. “I thought it was just an obvious cover, I didn’t mean to impose on family time…”

Laura looks at Red, who clears his throat. “You’re not imposing at all.”

Leaf smiles and sits, and Laura beams at him as she starts serving food. For tonight at least, her worries about the investigation are easy to ignore.

Two weeks pass while Red stays with Laura, occasionally teleporting away to Saffron for some psychic business or Celadon to help the police there hunt Renegades. Laura wasn’t exactly thrilled with that news, but the fact that he would be constantly with police and gym members reassures her, as does the recognition that he likely wouldn’t be asked to actually help apprehend anyone if they find someone.

He also keeps meeting with Artem and Jason as the investigations into the incident at the tower continue, while Laura does her best to prepare for a confrontation with the researcher. Overall they settle into a comfortable and peaceful pattern, though there are some moments of excitement that send Red in and out of the apartment for days, such as when someone discovers the code for an artificial pokemon in the data that was recovered under the Rocket Casino. Much of it is over Laura’s head, but between Red and Artem’s excited conversation she gathers that it’s an attempt to combine and expand on the process of TM editing and reverse-pokemon-storage to code an entirely new, if incredibly simple, organism into being from scratch.

They also spend some time together doing more pleasant things, like watching movies at night and discussing current events during meals. Sometimes she has to practically drag Red away from his research to give himself a rest, and sometimes he falls asleep with his head on her shoulder halfway through the film while his pikachu curls up on his lap. She doesn’t mind.

There are less pleasant evenings as well. Cerulean City got hit by a Tier 2 incident after a snowstorm displaced a family of dragonite, who killed over a hundred people before Brock, Misty, Sabrina and Erika captured them. She and Red followed the news together, and she could tell that a part of Red wanted to go help. She asked him if he had friends in the city, and he said no, but that Blue and Leaf did. She still remembers his insistence that he’s not like his father, and his actions have shown that more than once. But, glad as she was that he didn’t rush off into danger, there was also a feeling of melancholic gladness in knowing he’s not as different as he thinks.

Her own investigations continue apace, though maybe not swiftly enough to keep Sam from getting a little antsy. And given what might be at stake, she doesn’t blame him. A few times, she almost asks Red to take a walk with her, with the plan to pass by the researcher’s house and ask him what he senses from inside.

It would be unethical. She knows that, just as she knows that involving Red that way would be twice as bad as hiring some psychic without scruples. If she’s willing to do something like that, she might as well have asked her investigator to bend some laws. Using a psychic isn’t even necessarily safer, if the researcher turns out to be a sensitive like her, and notices someone touching his thoughts.

So she keeps that thought to herself, and dismisses others like having Red around when they finally confront the researcher to do for her what Leaf suspects Giovanni had a psychic do for him. High as the stakes might be, she’d never forgive herself if something happened to Red because of her, and there’s no other psychic she trusts. She considers asking Sam if he trusts someone, maybe even someone like Leader Misty or Sabrina, but she’s worried what his reaction might be. They would have to do this the right way.

One day she finds Red just sitting at the table with a round, smooth stone in his hand. She goes about her business, taking a bottle of salsa out of the fridge and getting some chips to snack on while she works, but once she’s finished preparing some dip and he’s still sitting still she feels a bit of concern, unsure if he fell asleep in his chair.

“Taking a break?”

He opens his eyes and sighs. “Not really. I think I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough.”

“Red, that’s wonderful!” She decides to eat here instead, and offers him some chips, which he takes without any real enthusiasm. She studies him closer, concern returning stronger than before. “You’re not acting like it’s wonderful. Are you having one of your bad days?” It’s a question she used to ask him a lot, once he finally started recovering from Tom’s death. Inconsistently, but it was still a huge relief compared to the way he acted before. It feels strange asking that question again after so long, but she knows it fits with whatever he’s going through better than she realized at the time.

“No, it’s not that. I meant it when I said I think I had a breakthrough. I’m just struggling with what it means.”

“Tell me!”

He munches on a chip, then nods. “Remember that psychic particle I theorized existing, hidden in the ‘other’ classification of pokeball data?”


“Someone at Pallet recently noted that unown have a lot of it. She was right, I checked with my own, and it struck me that they’re the simplest pokemon we’ve ever encountered, so simple that they almost feel artificial, even more so than porygon—”


“That’s what people are calling the Casino’s artificial pokemon. Its body is really simple, and from some images people generated from the data to imagine what it would look like if given real form, it almost looks like a low resolution image of a creature rather than a real one.”

“Maybe because they didn’t finish it?”

“Maybe. We’ll see if it’s viable soon enough. Anyway, unown are like porygon: the bare necessities for a complex living organism. But they have tons of ‘other,’ even more than ghosts!”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Laura admits. “Unown may be biologically simple, but they’re obviously psychic, right? They move by floating around, and the way they communicate… assuming that’s what they’re doing…”

“But the same thing can be said of gastly. It’s not enough to explain the difference, or at least, not while we know so little about how their psychic abilities work and the relationship with the particle. When I merged with the unown and put it in a dangerous situation, it tried to get away, but didn’t fight back.”

Laura nods, already having learned after they started showing up randomly that unown are one of the rare few pokemon that don’t fight at all. “And?”

“And it should! It has telekinesis. I feel it using it to float around, so it’s not like it can’t, and it clearly recognizes threats… it just doesn’t care. Which struck me as weird when I considered that Charmeleon’s ‘other’ increased when I gave him the TM for Shadow Claw, and all the abra in my experiment also increased theirs when I used the Psychic TM on them.”

“So? Just because unown have the ability to fight doesn’t mean they have the instinct to.”

“Sure, maybe they evolved to use their powers just for evasion, like abra. But the thing is, all those papers that came out noting random correlations between ‘other’ and different things? They found nothing to publish on unown. Because unown are almost entirely uniform. It’s actually incredible how similar they are to each other, even the different letters… some have slightly different mass, but they’re so simple we can actually factor out the differences and compare their abilities incredibly well.”

“Alright.” She dips another chip and munches on it, watching him as he turns the rock over in his hands. “So what does this have to do with that?”

“I can’t do telekinesis. Like, at all. I’ve merged with a dozen different psychic pokemon and even a couple other people as they used their own, and I’m just not able to do it.” He sets the rock down and takes another chip. “The thing is, most ghosts can’t either unless you use a TM on them.”

“Alright. I think I follow all that, but I’m still not sure what it has to do with…”

“Jason and Agatha also aren’t particularly good at it.”

“Huh. Does that mean you’re not actually a psychic? You’re a medium, like them?”

“I don’t know. I glimpsed something fundamentally different in the way Jason and Agatha interact with ghosts, but I think it’s just about their beliefs compared to their abilities. When I met Jason and Maria, yesterday, I could tell that Maria has developed to be more than just sensitive; she has very weak psychic abilities too. Still, she was able to mimic Jason’s mental state when interacting with his ghosts as easily as I could with my mirroring ability. I might be like them, but with such a different frame of mind that I’m more like other psychics.”

“I think I get it. If ghosts and psychics are just different concentrations of a pair of phenomena… and there are some other pokemon that can naturally use Ghost type attacks but not Psychic ones, or vice versa… you’ve been measuring two different things?”

“From the very beginning. It makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean what does telekinesis really have to do with other psychic powers, other than that they’re both controlled mentally? That spinarak outlier in my first experiment must have been one that was really, really weak at kinesis but not weak at projection. So its ‘other’ looked way too small for how powerful its Night Shade was.”

“Do any TMs work on unown?”

“No.” Despite the answer, he seems pleased she asked the question. “That’s part of the problem, they’re too simple, and they have no fighting instinct anyway, so who would bother developing one? So I need to find another way to test my new theory.”

Laura nods, then realizes something. “You don’t seem to be having headaches any more.”

“Getting better. Agatha and Jason have been teaching me some stuff, and Dr. Seward helped me manage some more of my feelings so I don’t need to rely as much on the partitions.”

“That’s great.” She puts a hand on his. “I don’t know if I say this enough, Red, but when I think of all you’ve accomplished in such a short time… well, we’ve already had the conversations about your safety, and I know we still disagree over the incident with the clefairy, but I still wanted to say that I’m very proud of you. Your father would be too.”

He ducks his head. “Thanks, Mom.” His hand squeezes hers back, then he looks up. “Is there a ‘but’ coming?”

She laughs. “No. Or at least, there wasn’t, but now that you ask… how much longer do you think—”

“Oh, yeah, I’m heading back to Saffron in a couple days, I think. Blue is heading there, and—”

“No need to explain at all, I was just curious.” She smiles, relieved and saddened, and that night after they watch a movie and he goes to bed she makes her final preparations.

The day Red leaves it snows over Lavender again. Laura has finished speaking to everyone she can find who knew Dr. Fuji and showed them the picture of the researcher. About a third of them say it might be him. The other two-thirds say they think it is, but can’t be positive. One woman, his old neighbor, starts to tear up as soon as she sees it. “I’m so glad he’s okay,” she says in a watery voice. “That poor man, I thought he’d…”

“You’re sure it’s him?” Laura asked, heart hammering.

“Oh, yes. He’s changed, but those eyes… I’d recognize them anywhere.”

You could hardly make out his eyes in the photo, but Laura thanks her for her time and assures her that she’ll pass along well wishes.

She meets Sam outside the pokemon center he uses as his teleportation point, and they travel together to the researcher’s house. He’s dressed in a hat and trench coat rather than his usual white, and she in a sweater to keep off the chill. His gaze seems to note her backpack, in which she’s stored containers holding all the possessions she brought to Lavender, then snag on her pokebelt.

“New mon?”

“Red bought me an abra. Took a quick trip to Saffron to register it there.” Her feet crunch over the thin layer of ice on the sidewalk. “How’s the research coming? You look better rested, which I take to mean it’s slowing down.”

He grins. “I may have gotten a stern talking to from some of my staff. I wanted us to join the race to create the first living porygon, but was convinced we were stretching ourselves too thin already, and that the fact that I was even seriously considering it was a sign that I needed more sleep.”

“I’m glad you listened.”

“Oh, I still needed some prodding after that, but the point was well made. How about you, any progress with the lawsuit?”

“Next court date is in a week, where the judge will rule on whether I have to show a third party arbiter what I’ve been researching to determine whether it falls under the category of things that need to be turned over. I’m trying not to think about it.”

“I’m sorry. I wish I could help, but—”

“I know, it’s not really your area.”

“And President Silph isn’t my biggest fan at the moment after I built and handed out so many of his company’s goggles, though how much I’ll care about that after this visit depends on what Dr. Fuji has to say.”

Assuming it is him, Laura doesn’t respond. She doesn’t want him to get his hopes up, but it all still seems too convenient, and the thought makes her antsy. Still, they’re going to go through with it regardless, and she’s been as cautious as she could.

When they arrive at the house, Laura sees the car idling across the street. The sight of it reassures her, though she tries not to feel overconfident. If whoever’s in the house needs to be rescued, the car can help them make a getaway. If, however, they react poorly or call for help, she and Sam can teleport away.

Laura hangs back while Sam steps up to the door and knocks. The street is quiet, snow already piled up on the lawns and making an effort to cover the walkways. The sun is still up, giving the day a grey light through the clouds, and Laura’s breaths are loud in her own ears.

After a minute, Sam knocks again, louder.

“Does he ever answer?” Sam asks, not bothering to keep his voice down.

“No.” The ofuda from weeks ago is still above the door, though the ink on it has faded and the cold has sapped any scent that might have remained.

The Professor waits another minute, then knocks once more and says, “Minoru. It’s Sam.”

The world is silent. Laura glances around, heart still pounding as she continues to imagine the person inside calling someone, who sends the police or worse…

“I’m fairly sure it’s you in there,” Sam continues. “And I’m not going away until you tell me to, or prove me wrong.” There’s a beat of silence, and when he speaks again, his voice is strained. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be there when you needed me. I know it’s no excuse, but I—”

The door opens, and Laura, who has been feeling a bit like she should maybe step away and give Sam some privacy, snaps her head around in shock as the researcher stands in the doorway staring at him.

The silence returns, heavier than ever, until Sam sighs, “Minoru.”

“Sam.” The older man’s face creases, and he takes a deep, shuddering breath. “You came.”

And then he seems to notice Laura, and blinks watery eyes at her before he says, “Ah. You’re the one who left the note?”

Laura swallows, then steps forward, hand out, while the other slips into her pocket and presses the record button of her microphone. “Laura Verres. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Fuji.”

He stares at her hand, then breathes in and reaches out to take it. His grip is even weaker than Red’s, like he’s being extra careful not to exert too much force. “The pleasure is mine. With just a few minor exceptions, it’s been a long time since I met someone new… and a longer time since they knew who I was.”

“That’s why we’re here,” Sam says. “To figure out what’s happened to you and the others. Are you alright, Minoru? Is someone keeping you here?”

“Ah. That’s… no, no. I’m here of my own will.” He smiles at them, though there’s something about it that pricks at Laura’s already suspicious thoughts.

“Does that mean it’s safe to speak inside?” Laura asks, and holds up a note she’d prepared ahead of time. Surveillance? If there’s a camera in the doorframe or something they would probably see it, but there’s nothing she can do about that.

But the researcher doesn’t seem alarmed, or even to really take the precaution seriously. “Oh, yes, I’m sorry, I’ve long since lost all my manners… come in, come in out of the cold…”

Laura and Sam exchange a look, then do so. It’s strange being on this side of the door; the small house looks fairly clean, though it has a musty smell that makes Laura want to open some windows.

Well, why not? She does so, looking around for any clues, though to what she’s not sure.

“Can I get you anything?” Dr. Fuji is saying. “Tea? Coffee?”

“No, I’m alright… Minoru, how did you end up here? What happened to you, all those years ago?”

Laura has finished opening some windows a crack, which lets the icy air in but immediately helps the air feel clearer. “Sorry, I have my own question first… Dr. Fuji—”

“Ah, ‘Doctor’ sounds so formal for an old man in a house. I haven’t been a proper researcher in years. Call me Mr. Fuji.”

She’s not sure that’s how that works, and by Sam’s frown he’s unsure how to take the comment as well. “As you wish, Mr. Fuji, I have a question… are you really him? Could you say something that Sam would recognize only you would know?”

“What a strange thing to say. Who else would I be?”

“That’s what I would like to know,” she says evenly. “If you could, please?”

“Ah, very well. A question, Sam?”

“The last time we spoke, by voice, what did you say to me?”

The man frowns and scratches his neck. “You realize that was nearly ten years ago? To be honest, I haven’t the foggiest. Something about not worrying about me, I’d guess… I was in a bit of a dark place, back then.”

Sam looks at her, and she can tell the answer wasn’t quite satisfying, but also didn’t really confirm anything. “Alright, I’ll pick something more memorable. What did you tell me, when I tried to talk to you after Amber died?”

Fuji flinches back like Sam punched him, gaze dropping to the floor and lower lip trembling briefly. “I was out of line, Sam. I was hurting, too much to see that you, you were just… just trying to help…”

The Professor’s face softens, and his voice is gentle as he lays a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “It’s alright. I forgave you for it long ago. Just tell us, so she can be sure.”

Fuji nods, and turns to her, though his gaze stays elsewhere. “I couldn’t think straight, after my Amber died. Sam tried to empathize, told me about losing his own little girl… I said… I said he still had his grandkids, and he didn’t understand. Would only understand when he lost them too.”

His voice has dwindled to a whisper by the end, eyes filling with tears, and Sam grips his shoulder a bit more tightly, then guides him to the small table in the kitchen to sit, while Laura searches for some tissues, shock quickly shifting to sympathy. She makes do with a roll of paper towels, which Fuji takes with a mumble of thanks and wipes his face.

“Thank you for confirming that,” she says. There’s a chance he told someone else, of course, ideally it would have been some minor thing he’d have no reason to tell anyone rather than a big regret that he might have shared while feeling guilty, but the reaction seems genuine enough, and she hadn’t been that skeptical once she saw the way he reacted to seeing the Professor. That’s where her real curiosity, and caution, feels focused. “I have to ask, now… were you expecting us? Or at least, the Professor?”

How are you the one I found? she doesn’t ask, again thinking of the unlikely odds that led her here given the scope of what she’s been investigating.

“Oh, not exactly,” Fuji says, and folds the paper towel into neat squares. “But I hoped! I spread rumors about myself, you see, on the web. Little things, here and there, to remind people of me, to get someone to wonder if I was still alive, to wonder where I’d gone, all without saying it clearly myself. I thought, if anyone like Sam saw them, he might have the interest and the clout to dig me up.”

Sam and Laura stare at him in shock, for a moment, then each other, then back to him. Laura hadn’t even considered that, and she should have, as it’s the obvious reverse question: Why were you the one Sam brought up when he started this investigation?

“Did something happen, then?” Sam finally asks. “You needed help, but couldn’t just message me directly?”

“Yes, you see, I have a friend I’ve been worried about, and I couldn’t risk someone knowing I reached out directly. But now that you’ve found me, that’s all changed. I can tell you about the most horrible thing I’ve ever worked on, in secret, for years.”

Laura isn’t sure she understands why anything would have changed just by them finding Fuji—it sounds like he’s speaking of retaliation, but he said he’s not here under duress—but Professor Oak is already asking, “What is it?”

Fuji leans forward, mouth set in a grim line and eyes gleaming with anger. “There’s no official name yet, but for now it’s just called the ‘Master Ball.'”

Chapter 90: Coalition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Aunty,” Blue adds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Haven’t seen him, so I guess so.”

“Heh. That’ll irritate him.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Red’s hurt—?”

“What happened—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


whose open mouth scattered his awareness into



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

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

So that’s kind of terrifying.

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

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

Still, the corners look very attractive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The pokemon too?” Leaf asks.

“Yes, everything that it hit.”

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

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

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

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

But they were dead…

How long after they died did they disappear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


he’s struggling against


the memories he can’t amnesia away.

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

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

She frowns at him, but nods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Club?” Red asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

inside out

black instead of white.

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

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

Oh good, we’re awake.

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

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

Where the hell are we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you remember?” Leaf asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Laura.”

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

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

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

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

Hey genius, we’re psychic, remember?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue glances at Leaf apprehensively. “Uh…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey whose side are you on?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And inspiring,” Blue adds.

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

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

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

But it would still be a PR thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



no seriously what are you joking what the hell

are you okay?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Paralyzed?” Leader Matsuba asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Leader. I hope I’m not imposing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My time?”

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

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

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

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

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

This was a terrible idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think it’s worth investigating.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit. “We should let Agatha know.”

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

“Fragmented? What does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 89: Hearing Shouts

Leaf studies the Lavender Tower blueprints on her phone and expands the markings near the top, where the lip of the tower rooftop edges out over the tower walls. “I think it’s within range,” she says, and looks up at Sergeant Iko, who’s nodding.

“One person stationed above each window, then, to catch it if it tries to flee. No goggles on those though, I have exactly nine dark trainers here, and I’ll want each of them to use a pair—”

He’s cut off by the sound of a sob, and they all turn to the ranger that made the sound. He’s leaning over his equipment, hands over his face. One of his peers walks over to put a hand on his shoulder and he straightens, looking embarrassed as he rubs at his eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure what’s gotten into me…”

Leaf doesn’t respond, sympathizing completely. It all feels so overwhelming, suddenly, and she misses Aiko, and her—wait, what—

“Blue, Leaf, come in!”

Red’s sudden (loud) voice in her ear makes Leaf flinch, and she’s aware of Blue doing the same as he reaches up to adjust his volume. “We’re here, Red, what’s wrong?”

“The ghost at the top of the tower is sending out a… a psychic scream or something, just pouring all of what it feels out, way stronger than it should.” Red is panting between words, which combined with the rhythm of them makes her picture him running. She sees the captain frowning at them and holds a hand up. “I think they’re going to come, any ghosts that can feel it, they’ll come to feast, and they might not be picky about what they target.”

“I think we’re feeling it down here too,” Leaf says while Blue quickly summarizes for the sergeant. “What do we do, Red?”

“We have to capture it, now, before we get overwhelmed.”

“There are barely any ghosts in the area,” Sergeant Iko says, voice echoing in Leaf’s ear. Blue must have given him their channel frequency.

“We don’t know how far it’s reaching, Sergeant.” Jason’s voice sounds thick, like he’s been crying. “It may draw in ghosts from the entire town.”

“Then it’ll be a siege, while a strike team with the goggles go after the source,” Iko says, then mutes himself from the channel and turns to the rest of the room, voice cutting across the hum of voices. “Ghosts incoming, masks on, upward retreat! Move move move!”

The men and women freeze in place for a second, more than just the one who was crying looking like they’re being snapped out of an unpleasant dream, and then they all scramble to replace their supplies and put on gas masks. As they start summoning pokemon Iko goes among them, barking orders for someone to warn Oak, Agatha, and the other big names.

Leaf does her best to tune it all out as she straps her own mask on, trying to focus on what Red said. “How are you shielding it, Red? If it’s a Ghost attack—”

“I don’t think it is an attack, it’s just… communicating, loudly. Blue, are you—”

“I’m getting something.” He’s summoned Eevee again, and Leaf brings Raff out. “Not sure I’d be able to tell what it was if you hadn’t said anything, but Iko confirmed that dark rangers also couldn’t stay on the top floor anyway, so it may not be the main danger.”

“We’re heading up now,” Leaf says as they start following the flow of rangers moving for the stairs. Someone rushes past them in the other direction, probably to alert whoever is at the door, and Leaf’s heart starts pounding with a delayed burst of adrenaline. This is it. She knew it was a possibility when she left the ranch, but now she has to face wild pokemon and maybe hurt them, and against opponents she can’t incapacitate as easily as most. “Once the source of the… scream… is dealt with, the threat should be over, right?”

“No,” Jason says. “They might seek the source of it even after it ends.”

“Why are we going up at all?” Blue asks as their footfalls join the cacophony of others thundering up the stairs. “Why not just evacuate and let the ghosts come and get it?”

“We don’t know what will happen,” Leaf pants. The rangers’ pokemon are a mix of Ghost and lithe, agile Dark types like liepard and thievul, which are clearly used to indoor movement, but Raff and Eevee struggle a bit to climb the stairs quickly, and Leaf reminds herself to do more training indoors with him instead of relying on sims. “Even assuming they don’t go on a feeding frenzy throughout the town, we can’t just let it die!”

“Leaf’s right, it’s a new species!”

Not what she meant, but she’ll take it. The rangers’ job is to protect both people and pokemon, so she hopes that’s what’s on Sergeant Iko’s mind too.

The feelings of sadness and grief get worse the higher they go, but to Leaf they never become debilitating, and even the rangers that were affected more strongly seem to be coping okay. Soon they reach the second to last floor, where the others are waiting for them.

“—already pokemon arriving,” Jason is saying to Sergeant Iko as Leaf gets close enough to hear. The rangers are spreading out with their pokemon, presumably to cover the various windows and stairways. The medium definitely looks like he’s been through some ordeal, but his voice is steady. “Not ghosts yet, likely cubone and marowak from the graveyard.”

“Why would—”

“They’re attracted to grief,” Leaf says, and everyone turns to her. “Sorry, thinking out loud… they’re scavengers, right? Grief signals food, maybe they think there’s a feast waiting for them up here. But it doesn’t really fit, it’s not like a giant speaker making crying sounds, and they’re not psychic, so… they’d just be feeling sad, right?”

“I can’t tell how they feel,” Jason says. “The scream is too piercing, I could only tell they were not ghosts, and inferred the rest from what other pokemon are native to the area.”

“Even that’s impressive,” Red says. “Bringing my shields down at all feels like it would quickly overwhelm me.”

“I feel nearly the same,” Jean says, putting what seems like a consolatory hand on Red’s shoulder, probably because of the slight bitterness that he’d spoken with. “I’m afraid none of our gifts except Jason’s will be of much help going forward.”

“Then join the defense here,” Iko says, and turns to the rest of the rangers. “Need a strike team to see if the goggles protect us against whatever it’s doing up top. If not, head back down and join the rest of us in holding out as best we can until the heavy hitters get here. Hopefully they’re dropping everything and porting over, but it still might take some time for them to grab the right pokemon and then get here from wherever their teleporters are registered. Those of you that are Dark, grab a pair of goggles and head up now.”

Leaf watches Blue immediately step forward, expression determined, and remembers the first real fight she witnessed between him and Red. That Blue, not much younger than this one, would have hesitated to reveal that about himself, and she wonders what gives him the confidence to now. A change in perspective from all his new experiences? His time in a leadership role? Or maybe he’s just been in the limelight enough, gained enough prestige, that he doesn’t feel as worried about potential prejudice.

Either way, she feels proud of him, and steps forward to give him a hug. “Be careful.” She doesn’t like that they’re splitting up, but she knows it’s the right call.

“You too,” he says with a smile. “And—”

“‘Take care of Red,’ yeah, I know.” She grins at the old joke, but it quickly fades when she remembers that they were Aiko’s last words to Elaine at Leaf’s hospital bed.

“I’d like to join them,” Jason says, and Leaf turns to see him talking to Sergeant Iko. “I won’t require my own goggles.”

Iko studies Jason a moment while Red frowns at Leaf’s side, looking like he wants to object. But he keeps his silence, and eventually the sergeant nods. “Fine with me, so long as you know what you can and can’t handle.” He turns to the rest of them. “My people all have strong anti-Ghost pokemon, so I’ve prioritized putting them on the windows. Do the rest of you think you can help me cover the stairs?” Leaf nods along with the others. “Good. You two, you’re with me on the first layer. You three, second layer.” He turns back to the rangers. “Split into pairs to cover the windows, clockwise starting with you two. Move out.”

Leaf is in the second layer, so she lets Jean and Artem step forward and join Sergeant Iko before she starts following with Red and Maria. Red is craning his neck back to look at Blue and Jason as they climb toward the top floor, while Iko and Jean talk quietly among themselves. Artem is already spraying himself with repel, and offers it back to Maria when he finishes, who then hands it to Leaf.

“Thanks.” Leaf sprays her clothing and sees Raff wrinkle his nose and walk a little further from her, which makes her smile despite the tension running through her. Balls train pokemon to be desensitized to the smell, but her ivysaur has always been a creature of comfort and hedonism wherever possible. It makes her feel guilty, suddenly, for bringing him here after the life of leisure he’s had for the past few months, and she has to remind herself to get her head in the game; they’re here to help others, and he’s one of her strongest pokemon. She could keep him safe and comfortable, but then he wouldn’t be able to change anything in the world, and while he didn’t exactly volunteer for danger, neither did any of the people or wild pokemon they’re trying to save.

And if another threat like the Hoenn myths is really appearing here, a peaceful life on the ranch may not be possible anyway.

Once they reach the stairway, Iko and Jean go down to start setting traps while Artem uses another bottle of repel on the stairway. She hopes whatever is driving them to come here isn’t strong enough to get them to push past the chemicals, but somehow she knows it will be. She wishes she spent more time studying cubone psychology, wishes she could find a way to stop them… Joy won’t help here, the singing would stop them from being able to defend themselves against ghosts, who wouldn’t be affected…

“Red, could we scare them off?” she asks.

“Been thinking about predators, but none of their natural ones use sound to communicate. We could try venusaur roars?”

“Do it,” Iko says from the stairwell as he dumps water out of his canteen on the stairs below him, then carefully directs his froslass to Ice Beam it. “May not work on all of them, but if it scares off even a few it’s worth it.”

Red and Leaf move together to put their speakers at the edge of the stairs and sync them to his pokedex. Soon the venusaur cries are echoing down the stairs, making Raff go still and focus entirely on the stairwell, as if expecting one of his kind to jump into sight at any moment. Hopefully the effect is as pronounced on the approaching cubone, if that’s what they are.

Jean and Iko reach the top of the stairs, having laid all sorts of traps on the stairs below them: sleep powder and stun spores, spikes and stealth rocks, sticky webs and patches of ice. Leaf has never seen so many defensive preparations put into a single location, and for a minute she allows herself to hope it will be enough.

And then they wait.

Five breaths. Ten. Fifteen. The sound of each exhale within her mask is all she hears, along with the constant loop of the recorded venusaur roars, and Leaf wonders how the team that went upstairs is doing, wonders just how direct the compulsion is (are there cubone spread out around each floor below them, milling aimlessly around?), wonders if any of the rangers stationed at the windows are fighting off ghosts yet (would she hear them over the looped recording?)… but mostly she just stares at the stairwell and focuses on her breathing, trying to keep herself ready for the moment something happens…

…twenty breaths…


…and then she hears it.

Just a vague sound, at first, a faint, wavering tone that rises and falls even as it echoes from countless throats.

“Crying” is how the pokedex described it, and when she played the audio files she had to admit that yes, the way the cubone family communicates sounds pretty close to how humans sound when they cry. And like human crying, there’s a range; heart wrenching sobs, sad and pitiful sniffles, prolonged moans of pain, and the wails of deep and haunting grief.

What she’s hearing right now, over the roars of the venusaur recordings, is all of it. Louder by the second, the storm of “grief” echoes up the stairway from the pokemon on the floor below, getting louder by the second, and a deep and primal fear works its way up her spine even as her heart breaks at the sound of what she can only identify as pain.

And then the pitch changes, takes on notes of alarm as a clamoring is heard from the stairwell, and her stomach roils as she imagines a group of cubone and marowak struggling through the traps. Some are designed to simply knock them out or keep them stuck on the stairs, but she knows even they might get trampled by the ones running up behind them.

She only has a moment to wish she’d put earplugs in before the first two bone masks rise into view, followed by three more, and the battle begins.

Blue is at the back of the group heading to the top floor, likely because the other rangers feel they need to protect him and Jason. He doesn’t mind that so much—certainly not as much as he would have earlier in his journey—but it does mean he doesn’t get to see what’s happening when people at the front of the group start to curse or cry out in surprise, particularly since they come to an abrupt halt while doing so.

The fact that it’s rangers that are shocked to literal stillness only makes him a little less impatient to see what’s causing it himself.

“Dai?” someone just ahead of Blue asks. “Phoebe? Everything alright up there?”

“It’s… yeah,” a guy, presumably Dai, responds. “The walls are weird.”

“The… what?”

There’s the sound of steps above, and then people start moving again. Blue hurries up, practically standing on tiptoe to try and see past the rangers (he’s grown about two inches since they left Pallet Town and cannot wait to get even taller), until finally the two directly in front of him reach the top, pause for their own moment of shock, then step forward enough that he can see…

The walls are weird.

That’s one way to put it, alright. Through the tinted lenses of the goggles, Blue stares agape at the top floor of the tower. Iko described his experience as one where the walls seemed about to crush him; to Blue it’s like the walls aren’t even really walls.

It feels like he’s not in a building, but rather a cavern, the ceiling impossibly high, the boundaries distant and curved outward, as if the top of the tower was built into a massive sphere. But there are corners, his mind is insisting that he can trace the corners, and yet as soon as he looks away from them it all looks curved again…

Jason makes a sound from beside him, and Blue turns to see the medium standing with his eyes tightly closed. “You okay?”

“It’s surreality,” Jason says through gritted teeth. “The whole floor… the walls and ceiling, the pokemon is somehow… stretched over all of it… or influencing all of it…”

Blue turns back toward the bizarre sight and focuses on individual objects. A pair of benches, the handle of an individual crypt drawer, a pot of flowers… unlike the lower floors there are a lot of unmarked squares in the wall for future interment, though a few of the marble squares have nameplates already above their handles. He can see those clearly enough, in fact whatever he focuses on seems fine… but everything in his periphery gets distorted.

“Do you need to go back down?” he asks even as a small, mad part of him wants to take the goggles off and see what the room looks like without them.

“Not yet. I have an idea…” He pulls a ball from his belt and braces his arm. “Go, Lampent.” A tint of blue is added to everything as the ghostly lamp appears, and after a moment Jason nods. “I can navigate with its senses.”

“I thought you had to be shielded?”

“Red and Jean do. I’m alright as long as I don’t try to merge with the ghost causing all this.” He starts moving forward again, and Blue does too, only to jump as they hear roaring from behind them, distant but echoing up the stairwell.

The rangers react as well, swivelling to face the new potential threat (all except for the rangers furthest from the stairs, who quickly turn again to keep their eyes on what’s now everyone’s backs), and after a moment Blue realizes what he’s hearing.

“Is that… a venusaur?” Gale asks. Blue was surprised she turned out to be dark, considering she has such a strong ghost pokemon, but he supposes even with the handicap it makes sense to focus on them if you’re stationed here.

“It’s a recording,” he replies, grinning. “They’re trying to scare the cubone off.”

The sound repeats, then again, and people slowly relax and begin looking around at the various hallways branching out from their main one again. “Alright folks,” Dai says, “Search in pairs, call out if you find anything. Jabari, watch the stairs in case it tries to run down. We’ve got no one on windows, but we don’t know for sure if it can fly or not. If it can we’ll redeploy, assuming we don’t catch it right away. Questions…? Let’s move.”

They start to spread out, and Blue follows Jason, who follows his pokemon, which bobs ahead just above the ground like a child-sized lamp on invisible legs. It’s weird looking at a ghost directly without feeling surreality from it, almost like he stepped into a movie. “It’s not affected by all this?”

“Not like we are. It’s… think of it as a fish in a river. The current pulls or pushes, but it can still swim.”

“Natural environment advantage. Got it.” Blue looks at Eevee, who seems confused; she keeps taking a few tentative steps forward, then hopping to the side, then focusing on him and getting close, nose sniffing the air. At least she’s not walking into walls or anything. He focuses his attention on one floor tile at a time as they move forward, trying to ignore the way the rest of the ground seems to stretch out around him. “That mean ghosts always see things like this? With space being so… big?”

“Is that what you see? No, my lampent is experiencing something more like what Sergeant Iko described, with the walls feeling too close.” His voice sounds distant, clearly deep in concentration, but his feet move confidently, if slowly, forward. “Like space itself is unfolding around it as it moves forward… and when it looks back… it’s closed behind it again.”

Blue watches as the lampent turns in a slow circle while still moving steadily forward, its blue light stretching shadows around them. Blue has to force his attention on their surroundings again, but that’s no less distracting.

Focus up! You’ve dealt with Pressure twice, you can handle this. But in its own way this is worse: at least with Pressure he could trust his senses, and yet he still winces when he thinks of how close he was to that onix when he missed it. No matter how calm he feels now (and it’s not really that calm, all things considered), if a pokemon jumps out at them from around a corner right now, he would probably misjudge the distance for the throw.

Jason can call it surreality if he wants, but if it is, it’s on a whole different level than anything he’s heard of before. What Blue thinks of, suddenly, is the difference in Pressure intensity between the absol they cornered underground… and Zapdos.

Sweat slides down his neck, and he can hear his breathing echo louder in his mask. It should be more exciting, especially after months of wishing something important would happen to him (that he would stay conscious through), or rather that he could take part in something important (instead of missing the most important night in living memory (and not being there for his friends)) now that the scale of what “counts” as important has so drastically changed from the sorts of things that used to matter.

But if he thinks like that he’s going to do something stupid, like try to take charge in something he has no expertise in. It’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s not doing enough, and for a moment he wonders if there is Pressure at work here… but no, he remembers feeling this way in Viridian Forest too, and at Mt. Moon. Pressure only amplifies what’s naturally there.

He takes a deep breath, then lets it out. He can overcome this urge. He has to.

“Is there anything I should do?” he asks Jason as he looks down a hall to their right, gaze carefully staying on specific objects.


“Anything different, I mean, to prepare, or while searching.”

The medium is quiet for a moment. Surprised he’s asking? Or maybe just thinking it over while trying to concentrate on his merger with his pokemon. “We don’t know anything about it, really, but I’m fairly sure it’s a non-living ghost. It may be possessing some object that seems commonplace here, and because you’re wearing those goggles—”

“I might not notice,” Blue finishes, feeling a chill as he quickly scans around him again, looking for eyes on a wall mounted lamp, or a face on the pattern of a flower vase… but everything looks normal. Well, so does Jason’s lampent… if he didn’t know it’s a pokemon and it wasn’t moving, would he recognize it as one, or would his eyes just pass over it? “Your ghost-vision would notice it though, right?”

Jason smiles, but it’s probably more from nerves than humor. “Yes, unless it has the ability to hide itself from others of its own kind.”

Great. “What about your powers? I know you can’t merge with it, but—”

“I know it’s around. Past that… things like proximity and direction have been impossible to judge since we reached this floor, and previously it was just… up. Which raises a disturbing possibility.”

Blue swallows the sarcastic remarks that rise up, trying not to let his own nerves get the better of him. “Which is…?”

“What if this entire floor is it?”

Blue stops, then turns to stare at Jason. “What the hell does that mean?”

“I’ve never seen surreality affect something beyond the pokemon itself, either the body for living pokemon or the possessed body of non-living ones. We know objects can become possessed and turned to pokemon, and it’s not as though there aren’t some pokemon large enough for multiple people to fit in. What if tales of haunted houses contain some truth? What if the very stones of this tower, specifically those that make up the floor, walls, and ceiling of this level, have become possessed?”

Blue is still staring at him, trying to ignore his growing sense of horror. Inside a pokemon. We might be inside a…

He has a very stupid idea, briefly, of trying to point an ultraball at the floor, but there’s no way that would work, to catch an onix or wailmer you need to be far enough that the whole pokemon is in the light cone of the lens, and he’s not even sure what that would mean in this case if Jason is right. Try to scan it all from outside the building? What would happen to the tower if the whole top floor gets sucked away? Could even a Heavy Ball hold all this stone in it? He thinks a steelix would weigh more than all this, but he’s not sure…

“We should warn the others,” Blue says, and wets his lip. “Maybe even leave, come up with another strategy… what if it’s getting ready to, you know, digest us, or something?”

“It was just a thought… but if you think we should give up the search…?”

His uncertainty and willingness to defer make Blue simultaneously more nervous and more decisive. “No.” The others are probably already fighting to buy them time, and he needs to use it. Blue starts moving again, eyeing their surroundings with even more care. “Hypothetically what would happen if we order our pokemon to attack the floor?”

“I was wondering the same thing. Do you want to try it?”

Blue stops moving again, trying to think of some risk he hasn’t considered. “If you think it’s okay…”

“I think the sooner we find the pokemon responsible for this the better.”

“Can you tell if the others are okay?”

“Just a moment… So far, yes. But more pokemon are coming, and while the ghosts are being stopped through the windows as they try to reach this level, one or the other can’t be held off forever.”

Blue nods, unclips the laser pointer from his belt, then turns to Eevee and points it at the wall in front of her. “Bash.”

The silver fox’s body goes rigid, and it opens its mouth wide before breathing out an orb of purple mist. It sails forward in utter silence, deteriorating as it goes, and to Blue’s warped perspective, it seems like it’s stretching as it passes out of his concentrated vision and into the periphery. He starts tracking it directly with his gaze so that it stays a sphere while the rest of the world stretches out, and instead it suddenly appears to speed up to hit the “far” wall a moment later, splashing harmlessly against the stone and leaving no mark as it fades like mist under sunlight.

Blue waits for a few quick heartbeats, then lets out a breath. “Does that mean much?”

“I’m not sure. It’s hard to imagine such a lack of reaction from something living and presumably hurt, but everything about this is new, even assuming I’m wrong.”

“Yeah.” If only they had a better way to identify if there’s a pokemon around and where it is that doesn’t rely on psychic powers… is there anything that can track Dark pokemon really well? Red or Leaf might know, but they’re downstairs…

There’s a yell of surprise from somewhere to their left, followed by, “It’s here!” and Blue grabs Jason’s arm before running back the way they came so they could take the main hallway toward the shouted commands and other sounds of battle.

The medium stumbles at first, but quickly catches his balance and runs alongside him. It’s hard to judge distances while moving so quickly, and he has to abruptly stop as they exit into the main hallway. Blue hears the stomp of heavy boots as everyone else converges on where the rangers are engaging the enemy…

…only for one shout in particular to cut off mid-word, followed by silence.

There’s still the hurried sounds of a dozen footsteps echoing through the halls, but soon Blue hears rangers shouting for the names of the one who called out, then their partner.

By the time he and Jason reach the others they’re searching one crypt-lined hall after another. Blue looks at Gale just as she turns to him, and even with her mask and goggles, he can see her fear.

“They’re gone. Just… gone.”

The first wave of onrushing marowak are hit by streams of water and beams of freezing light. The moment they go down another handful take their place, which get cut down by sharp leaves and psychic attacks, but they’re followed by another handful, and then another.

They’re all marowak so far, and even as Leaf orders Raff to send out another attack some part of her wonders if only marowak got called, before remembering what happened when Zapdos flew over Vermilion: the Pressure sent the fastest pokemon into the city first. There are likely still cubone coming, and many more of them than there are of their evolution.

A Razor Leaf bounces off a Marowak’s helmet but still causes it to flinch, and it’s knocked down from behind a moment later, only to tumble out of sight. Raff’s next attack slices into its target’s arm and makes it drop the bone club it was carrying. A moment later a jet of water sends it tumbling back into the marowak behind it, who clubs it out of the way only to be hit by an Ice Beam.

The speakers and repel don’t seem to be deterring them much, and soon the top of the stairway is covered in a mix of water and blood and leaves and dropped bones. Leaf wishes Raff had an attack that was less deadly that could reach the stairs, wishes she could swap with someone in front to start using stun spores instead, but she knows this is the most effective defensive line, and even it isn’t enough: before long a marowak gets through and swings at Iko’s froslass.

She weaves to the side and blasts it with an Ice Beam, but it still manages to club her alongside the head, sending a crack through the din of battle. Iko quickly swaps her out while someone else captures the marowak in a greatball, which rolls along the floor away from them as the battle continues.

The marowak that got through was the first sign that the water pokemon are running low, and once they’re replaced the battle becomes far less one-sided. Unable to put out the damage to keep the horde of marowak in check, Leaf realizes that they need a tank… but they’re hampered by the very thing keeping them safe: the size of the chokepoint. Anything big enough to cover the whole thing would be overwhelmed by the attackers on its own.

So when Iko yells, “New chokepoint, to the right!” and summons a slaking to cover half of it at an angle, Leaf is already moving alongside Red, Jean, Maria and Artem to help protect it. The relief that they won’t be overwhelmed just yet doesn’t stop the steadily growing sick feeling in her stomach. They must have taken down dozens of them by now, the bodies on the stairs are starting to pile up, and still more are coming…

And then, abruptly, the cubone are there, climbing over the bodies of the fallen marowak that came before them. Some attack the slaking fervently while others try to climb over it, their cries competing with the pained bellow of Iko’s pokemon as it rears back for a powerful swipe of its arm. Leaf shifts her position again and yells out a command for sleep powder, knocking out two cubone who climbed over the slaking before they could go any further. She quickly catches both, then takes out two more pokeballs as another skull-helmet appears above the slaking.

The speakers have been sufficiently smashed to stop the endless loop of venusaur roars, and now the cries of the cubone are that much louder. They’re even higher pitched and more like human babies than the marowak, and they’re so small…

Her heart feels like it’s being torn in two, and her eyes burn as she continues to throw out commands and pokeballs, trying to save as many as she can.

“Need a new tank!” Iko calls out.

“I’ve got one!” Red yells.

“Ready, set, swap!”

The bruised and bloody slaking is withdrawn, and in its place appears the kingler Red caught in Vermilion. Frothy streams of water shoot out of its mouth, knocking a few cubone down the stairs and causing a few more to slip and slide back as they try to climb the bodies of the fallen, and that heavy red claw catches another as it tries to run by it on the right, blood dripping as it closes shut, and Leaf has to look away, eyes burning.

It should have gotten easier, seeing this, experiencing it. After everything she’s been through, it should hurt less. But part of her is glad it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, kingler can’t carry a lot of water, and soon the sound of bones hitting shell fills the room. Leaf quickly summons Wise and commands the noctowl to keep up a steady whirlwind aimed at the stairwell from over the tank’s wide, squat body, then uses the brief respite to feed Raff some ether and checks to see how the others are doing.

Iko’s houndoom leaps from cubone to cubone, biting and kicking, while Maria’s tangela wraps multiple of them in vines that glow, absorbing the life from the cubone even as they try to hack their way free. Jean’s exeggcute use Bullet Seeds to assist from afar, while Artem’s claydol floats above them all, psychic attacks dropping any that try to get past.

They’re still holding, and still have four or five pokemon each. Surely they can last longer than however many pokemon are coming… but through it all, cubone are dying.

Some more balls are thrown, including her own at ivysaur’s targets, saving a few. But the floor is already littered with the dead, and Leaf’s horror rises as she notices the size of some of the unmoving bodies. A cubone’s health can be partially determined by the appearance of the exoskeletal “mask” they grow around their heads; the more bones they’ve ingested, the more complete it is, until it’s smooth and unblemished, signalling that the cubone is nearly ready to evolve into a marowak.

Some of the cubone in front of her barely have any mask, just a few thin plates of bone on their angular faces. Whatever’s driving them to do this, it’s bringing them all, down to the newborns.

And that’s when she realizes that defeating them all isn’t good enough: this has to stop. Some way, somehow… she has to stop it.

It’s easy to find the general site of the battle: there’s an ultraball lying against the wall of one of the side corridors. But after Blue checks to ensure that it’s empty, he studies the ground around it, then looks around and sees that there are three different directions it could have rolled here from, and no sign of violence anywhere. He even grabs a handle from one of the nearby crypts and pulls, a morbid part of him expecting to find one of the rangers crammed into it, but instead there’s just a series of elegant urns. He quickly closes it and walks back to Jason, careful to step around his lampent as it bobs by.

“Hope your pokemon sees something I didn’t, because if not we’ve got nothing to go on.” Blue feels wired, his pulse in his throat and his foot bouncing on the tile as he keeps looking around, half expecting something to pop out at them while his back is turned. The rangers are still searching nearby, while Gale tries calling the missing rangers’ phones, then locating their positions, without any apparent luck.

He’s getting used to navigating the weird dimensions of this place by being deliberate with his gaze, but Jason is still clearly having trouble moving from one place to another while relying on his pokemon’s senses, and so stays leaning against the corridor’s wall as he tilts his head toward Blue, eyes still closed. “No. But they saw something, before whatever happened, and I heard attack commands.”

“I did too, but without blood or ectoplasm or even a scuff mark, we may not know if we’re even looking in the right place. Our sense of sight is being tricked, maybe sound is—”

“New plan,” Gale calls out as the rangers re-converge nearby. “Two pairs of two, one person from both groups focused on keeping the others in sight. Blue, Jason, you’re with Haku and I. Our people have to be around here somewhere, let’s find them or the pokemon responsible before things get worse.”

Blue isn’t sure if Gale is being optimistic or just pretending to be, but he finds himself reassured by her certainty regardless. It also helps that her voice is coming out angry rather than scared, though he can’t imagine she’s any less afraid for her people and herself than he is, and somewhere in the back of his mind he makes a mental note to always appear confident for the sake of anyone he’s leading.

The others start pairing up, and he walks over to Gale and Haku as Jason follows his lampent toward them. “He’s seeing through his pokemon,” he explains when Gale frowns at the medium.

“Right then. Blue, keep your eyes on us while Jason watches your surroundings. We’re going to sweep the northern hallways one at a time, and if we still don’t find anything we’ll start knocking walls down.”

The people of Lavender wouldn’t appreciate that much, but he understands the sentiment, since he’d do the same thing if his friends were missing. They start searching again, and this time Blue and Jason stay in the main corridor while the rangers go up and down the halls, Haku looking around corners while Gale walks sideways, keeping her head swiveling between him and Blue. Blue makes sure to check on Jason every few seconds too, while the medium just stands nearby and keeps his pokemon turning to cover Blue’s blind spots.

“At least we know we’re not inside it, right?” Blue murmurs after a minute. The silence was setting him more on edge, or maybe it’s just the waiting. He wishes there was something in front of him to fight, so the battle calm would come. “Since they saw something.”

“As Red would say, I feel less sure of what I think I know and why I think I know it with every passing minute. And I think he would be surprised that I had more room to change in that direction.” Jason shakes his head. “Most ghosts don’t consume physical bodies but I don’t know what other form of attack would wipe away their presence so completely.”

Blue gets a brief mental image of two rangers and their pokemon being eaten by a floating, ghostly gulpin, its whole body turning into a massive mouth that stretches wide to swallow them whole as it swoops down on them, and he quickly looks up to check the ceiling again. “Even if they were… eaten… their phones should be trackable.” Unless they get immediately dissolved by some ghost-digestion-system…

“I could try getting its attention,” Jason says, voice uncertain. “I don’t know if it’s worth the risk, but…”

“I think it is,” Blue quickly says, then realizes that he might have meant risk to himself. “I mean, as long as it won’t permanently hurt you?”

“No, I don’t think so. But if there’s a chance that the two rangers can still be saved…”

“Yeah, hang on. Gale, Haku!” He waves them over, feeling disoriented again as he sees Haku approaching from what looks like the other side of a stadium while Gale walks down a simple hallway, and yet both arrive around the same time. “Jason thinks he can summon it to us.”

“I don’t know if it will come to us,” Jason clarifies. “But I think I can provoke a reaction, at least.”

Gale and Haku exchange looks, and Haku nods. “Do it,” Gale says. “Let’s move into a square first, everyone watching the person to their left.”

They do so while the other six rangers continue their search. Blue keeps his eyes on Gale despite the urge to watch Jason, he knows the medium isn’t going to start glowing or anything but if the ghost’s attention is focused on him it feels negligent not to be paying attention to him…

Trust others to make calls. Be part of the team.

He barely finishes having the thought before Jason says, “Okay, let’s see if that,” and then whatever he says next doesn’t register because a spot on the wall behind Gale warps and twists, and when Blue blinks the ghost is there.

He has no doubt this is what they’re looking for. It looks like a marowak, but… wrong. Not wrong the way surreality would make a ghost look wrong, but like someone sculpted a marowak skeleton out of wax with only a vague idea of what marowak even look like, then melted the result and stretched out its limbs so that it hunches over sharp, narrow legs. Its mask of bone is more of a skull, eye sockets empty voids and teeth leering in a rictus grin.

It looks absolutely terrifying, and for the space of a heartbeat Blue just stares in shock before he points and yells “Bash!” so loud that his voice comes out shrill, barely sounding like his own.

Eevee attacks anyway, but the Shadow Ball misses, splashing harmlessly to the side of the ghost. A bone club suddenly flies to its hand from behind a nearby stack, and it rears the club back, then sends it spinning end over end at Gale.

The ranger heard Blue’s yell, however, and was already turning just in time to duck under the bone. “Shadow!” she commands, and her mismagius sends a much larger sphere of darkness at the ghost—

—”Guys, it’s here!” Blue yells, and unclips a great ball—

—who dodges. Haku’s umbreon is suddenly there, whole body emitting a dark aura that spreads toward the undead marowak… only to miss, the Dark Pulse passing dangerously close to Jason’s lampent. The bone club flies back to the marowak’s grip as it leaps forward, then cracks across the umbreon’s cheek hard enough to twist its neck completely around.

“Bash!” Blue yells even as the umbreon rolls lifelessly across the floor, but the attack misses once again, and Blue realizes—”Our pokemon can’t aim properly, except maybe the ghosts!”

His warning is punctuated by Gale’s mismagius once again sending a Shadow Ball in the right direction. It splashes over the marowak before it can completely avoid the attack, and in return it throws its bone club again, which hits the mismagius dead on, causing it to quite literally explode into scraps of purple cloth and mist.

fuck shit it’s strong

But even through his fear the battle calm is descending, his thoughts moving almost too fast to understand anything but conclusions as he watches Haku summon a haunter and Gale brings out a banette.

wasting attacks, need something widespread

no, precise

He unclips his laser pointer again, and this time when he commands Eevee to “Bash,” her aim is true to the red dot he points onto the enemy ghost’s body… though it’s less of a dot, more of a loose cloud, the high powered laser revealing the insubstantiveness of their opponent.

Jason’s lampent finally gets into position to attack, sending a splash of blue fire at the ghostly marowak at the same time as another Shadow Ball hits it from Haku’s haunter, and as Blue is about to order another attack to follow up the marowak just… melts, disappearing without a trace as the floor twists the same way the wall did when it appeared.

In the silence that follows, Blue can hear the stomp of boots as the others rush to join them. “Did we kill it?” Haku asks, and Blue turns to him just in time to see something drop from the ceiling in the corner of his eye, seemingly far away but in reality just above Gale.

“Gale duck!” Jason yells, but it was too late the moment it appeared, and the ranger drops in a heap as blood sprays from her split skull.

“Need a swap!” Red yells.


Red’s kingler gets withdrawn, revealing the marowak that had been successfully dodging its claw and hammering it hard enough to leave chips of its shell on the ground. Leaf has time to wonder if a fresh wave are arriving or if it’s one from the initial group that got lost, and then Jean summons a slowbro to take the kingler’s place. The marowak gets one hit on pink, blubbery flesh before it gets blasted back down the stairs in a burst of water.

Unfortunately the new tank is too slow to do more than soak damage. Its attacks help keep the pressure off, but it doesn’t have the reflexes to stop the numerous and nimble cubone trying to run past it.

Overall however, the flow of attackers has slowed as the bodies of the fallen have begun to create a true impediment to those still trying to reach them. Leaf has been wracking her mind for things that might stop this madness, and it’s only upon seeing the partially blocked stairway that at least one idea comes to her.

She quickly withdraws Wise, who’s tiring anyway, and sets Raff to guard while she searches through her bag for the right Container. A dozen quick breaths later she’s opening the box containing the pokedoll she travels with.

“Artem! Can your claydol send this to the stairs?”

He turns to her, eyes wide, then looks at her pokedoll, then the stairs, then back to her and nods. He steps beside Leaf as he gives a few quick commands to help the claydol coordinate exactly what to do, and soon his pokemon is floating overhead and the pokedoll slowly lifts… then launches toward the stairway as Artem holds his arms out in fists, where the foam-covered mannequin knocks a cubone down and adds to the pile of (bodies) obstacles.

Red has his own box out a moment later, and his pokedoll also gets launched into the stairs. They can hear the thuds of bone colliding with foam as the attackers turn on the dolls, for a few moments at least, before deciding they’re dead and trying to climb past them, but then Charmeleon is there, tail whipping globs of smoking pitch into the stairwell, and as the attackers struggle to make their way through the obstacles in darkness, for the first time since the initial marowak showed up there’s space to breathe.

Quite literally: the non-psychics among them are panting, herself included. She can hear the sounds of battle from elsewhere as the rangers at the windows try to keep any ghosts from reaching the floor above, and she realizes she doesn’t actually know how close they are to being overwhelmed: maybe they already have been.

She checks her watch and realizes it’s barely been five minutes since they arrived at this floor.

“Red, we need… to stop this,” Leaf pants. “The way I did… with the abra…” She takes a deep breath. “I know you said you have to keep your shield up, but… can you project for me?”

He turns wide eyes on her, and starts to speak… then closes his mouth, looking uncertain. “I… maybe. I might be able to do both. But it wouldn’t be strong compared to what the ghost is doing.”

“What if you… target the ghost? Would it work as a… a channel? Get it to stop?”

“It’s too dangerous,” Jean says from nearby. “Without your shield—”

“You can shield me,” Red says, face filling with a determination that makes her heart soar. “If you can bear it yourself.”

Jean looks torn, and to Leaf’s surprise Maria steps forward. “Please… they’re just children!”

The psychic looks from her to the cubone bodies, then away, gaze down. “I…”

“We’ve lost two rangers,” Iko suddenly says, making everyone turn to him. He’s watching the battle carefully even as he nurses his froslass back to health. “Maybe more, the others aren’t responding, probably still fighting it. If there’s a chance we can stop it even for a moment, that might be enough.”

Jean looks back and forth between them, then takes a breath and turns to Red. “Alright.”

“We’ll keep you safe,” Maria says, voice as confident as Leaf has ever heard her, and Artem nods.

Red sits down, and Leaf joins him, followed by Jean. “Just like last time,” Red says, giving her a strained smile.

Last time, on the cruise. She smiles back, and closes her eyes, pushing all the grief aside, the pain and uncertainty, the fear.

It doesn’t want to go, at first. She feels it coming back again and again as she tries to focus on the pure, unadulterated love and goodwill she’s practiced a few times since, but always in calmer, more positive surroundings…

Live, she thinks, deciding to lean into the fear rather than try to ignore it. The ghost is sending out grief; let it feel the motherly love she feels for her own pokemon, the desire to protect them no matter what. Live. That’s all that matters. Live, live, live…

“Gale!” Haku yells, and rushes toward her with a potion in hand. Blue tried to lock another attack onto the ghost after it struck, but it didn’t stop when it hit the ground, simply sinking into it again and leaving its bone club behind to clatter across the ground.

He almost steps forward to help with Gale, but instead instinctively flings himself at Jason, catching the older boy around the middle so that they both roll along the ground.

He has no idea if he was right, by the time they stop rolling the ghost might have struck at either of them and disappeared again, but as he helps Jason up he yells, “It can move in the walls and floor and ceiling, keep mobile!”

When the marowak appears again its target is the haunter, and again a single strike of its bone club is all it needs to disperse the ghost’s spikey silhouette into a cloud of poisonous gas.


One of the new arrivals throws the ball they’d locked while the haunter was killed, but the ghost is too fast. The next Shadow Ball gets closer to hitting it, but again it’s gone in a blink…

…and by sheer luck, it appears right in front of Blue, who cries out a warning even as his ball pings a lock, and throws with a surge of triumph—

—that dies as the ball goes through it—


—an attack makes the ghost disappear, and in the coldness of his calm he discards the confusion and starts looking again, taking another ball out as he waits for it to return—


Again Blue throws himself to the side, shoulder and upper back crashing into a wall as he turns to see the ghost behind where he was, bone club in hand. It raises its club to throw at him, then disappears again as blue fire from Jason’s lampent splashes over where it was standing, sending a wave of heat over Blue as he scrambles to his feet even as it reappears next to him again, and this time when it swings he leaps to the side, feeling pure terror even amid the battle calm as he lands and swivels and backsteps and aims…

It’s gone before the lock, dropping out of the wall by one of the rangers that arrived and bringing the man down with a club, but this time it takes a few hits from the others before disappearing again, throwing its boneclub at another ranger, who dodges in time.

Blue aims the ultra ball in one hand and laser pointer in the other, swiveling his torso as he keeps moving. He has to stay mobile, has to find just the right time… maybe a status effect would be helpful, but he can’t think of any he has that would be quick enough to hit it…

The other rangers have shifted into a star formation, watching each other’s backs as they keep moving as well, and this time when the ghost shows up they’re all ready, dodging its swing and attacking at the same time, and Blue feels a surge of hope. We can get it, we can catch it… The floor under it warps as it starts to disappear, and Blue almost turns away to look for where it will reappear—

But instead of sinking into the ground, it seems to stumble… no, not stumble, stutter, its position moving without its body changing posture, and Jason abruptly yells, “Now, get it now!”

Attacks begin to pour onto it from all directions, Dark Pulses and Shadow Balls, blue Flamethrowers and white Ice Beams (which may be counter productive, but who knows with this thing), and through it all Blue tries to get a lock with his ball, one more try, come on, give me one more chance… but the ping never comes, and when the attacks clear the ghost is gone.

Blue starts swiveling again, and stumbles. The walls, the ceiling, the floor… everything is crowding in on him…

No. It’s static. It’s… normal.

Breathing hard, barely willing to believe it, he carefully takes his goggles off and looks around.

Everything looks fine. The faint feeling of sadness from before is gone.

So are all the bodies.

Here’s a rare author’s post-script! I saw a lot of good guesses as to what this pokemon would be, and I can imagine some might be disappointed that it’s a pokemon that “doesn’t exist.” It’s the only time so far I’ve made up a pokemon, and will probably remain so… but keep in mind that the actual thing we encounter in the games is in some sense exactly this: a marowak ghost pokemon that completely blocks anyone from ascending the tower or detecting it without a Silph Scope, and can’t be captured! Yes it’s treated like a normal marowak in that fight once you have the scope, but that seems like a (boring) artifact of the original games not tweaking pokemon for boss battles, and I’m happy to spice it up to tie it to the wider mysteries in the world I’m building 🙂

Chapter 88: Heeding Whispers

There’s a beat of silence after Artem’s announcement, followed by Jean saying, “Well, that’s anticlimactic. Back to Celadon, then?”

Red turns to her. “Really?”

“Well, we came to investigate why there were so many of them.”

“He didn’t say they’re back to normal, he said they’re all gone.”

“Mostly,” Artem clarifies.

Mostly gone, sure.” Red steps forward and hands his trainer ID to the receptionist. “Either way, that seems just as worth investigating!”

“Agreed,” Jason says. “If anything this is even more alarming.”

Blue looks back and forth between them, then nods to Artem. “Fill us in on the way.”

They finish registering at the Trainer House (except for Jason, who says he’ll be staying with his family) then follow Jason out of the Trainer House and toward the tower, which juts up from the middle of the town like a sundial. In a city it would barely qualify as tall, but as the only building over three stories tall in Lavender it practically looms overhead as they walk down the main street toward it.

“The tower became closed to visitors a few hours ago, after they rushed everyone visiting out,” Artem explains, hands stuffed in his jacket pockets against the cold as he walks in the middle of the group so everyone can hear him. “It was really sudden, and they didn’t really explain why, just said it was some unscheduled maintenance. There are extra rangers on patrol around it, but I asked around and none of them seem to be new to town, so the tower seems to be empty. But compared to a few days ago, the graveyard around the tower is basically empty of ghosts, so the extra rangers are basically just walking in circles.”

“Visitors usually don’t encounter many ghosts as long as they stick to the public mausoleum,” Jason says from the front of the group. “If they didn’t close the tower when there were extra around, why would they close it now that there don’t seem to be any?”

“Maybe they’re not actually gone,” Jean asks. “If we assume they closed it for a good reason, that makes more sense, right? Hard to see how a lack of ghosts would be dangerous.”

“All depends what’s causing it,” Leaf says.

“She’s right.” Jason’s voice is tense. “Unless a dark pokemon got in, the biggest threat to ghosts are other ghosts. If one became strong enough to scare off its competition, it might be more dangerous than a large number of weaker pokemon.”

“Scare off,” Maria murmurs. “Or consume.”

As they walk, Red notices the way some people are hurriedly placing strips of paper over their doors and windows. He’s about to bring it up when Blue mutters, “I think the word is out.”

“What are they?” Leaf asks.

“Ofuda.” Red’s katakana is spotty, but he can recognize the five symbols spelling Arceus out on the one hanging above the door of a mixed barbershop and pokemon grooming salon.

“The people who got kicked out must have spread the word,” Artem muses. “Or someone in the rangers talked.”

“Doubt it was the rangers,” Blue says. “They wouldn’t want people panicking like this while they still don’t even know what’s going on. Assuming they still don’t, I guess.”

“I don’t see panic,” Jason says, voice mild but firm. “Just reasonable precaution.”

“Wait, sorry, still not clear on what’s happening,” Leaf says. “Those are, what, protective charms? Against ghost pokemon?”

“Against evil spirits of all kinds,” Jason says. “Though personally I do not believe such things exist. Many spirits may not be beneficial to humans, but ‘evil’ implies a malevolent will, which is much like calling a pokemon or virus evil.”

From their expressions Red can tell that wasn’t the followup sentence the rest of the group expected, but no one seems willing to challenge the idea. Blue glances at Red, as if surprised he’s not saying something in response.

The beat of awkward silence is broken by Leaf, who breaks away from the group and walks up to one of the people moving from building to building. The young woman is wearing the white and red of a shrine priestess, and as Leaf approaches she aims a can with a caterpie on it above the window of the grocery store and presses the nozzle, spraying out a brief stream of sticky thread.

“Excuse me, I was wondering… what you’re doing? Sorry, I’m not from around here.”

The priestess presses the top of the ofuda to the sticky spot, then turns to Leaf, assessing gaze taking in her pokebelt, then jumping to the rest of the group. “Trainers come to the tower?”

“Yes, to research what’s been going on recently. Have you heard something?”

“Only that the spirits have fled. We don’t know where, but…” She separates a handful of the tags and holds them out to her. “Please, be cautious.”

Leaf takes them and nods. “Thank you.” She returns to the group, looking dubiously at the paper… but then her nose wrinkles, and she brings them close to her face for a moment before holding them out far from her body. When she gets closer Jason steps forward, and she turns so he can take one, slipping it under his pokebelt.

“They’ve been soaked in repel,” she explains to the others as she peels one off and follows Jason’s example. “I thought this was… spiritual?”

“You’re like Red,” Jason says, seeming amused. “Thinking the world of spirit and matter are distinct and exclusive. The repel is for pokemon, and the prayer is to strengthen the repel against ghost types.”

“And that works?” Leaf asks, glancing at Red, who already has his pokedex out.

“Inconclusive,” he says after a moment, disappointed. “Come on, how hard can that be to test? I know repel is hard to test in general, and ghosts are fickle, but…”

“But in the meantime, it’s still free repel,” Blue says, and shrugs as he takes the last one and slips it under his own belt.

Soon after they reach the last block before the gates of the massive cemetery surrounding Lavender Tower. “This is where wild ghosts start to regularly get seen,” Jason says, and summons his gastly before taking out his goggles. “Shall we see if these work?”

“What are those?” Artem asks, and Blue explains while the others follow suit. The professor apparently made an even ten, leaving Blue with two spare after he gives Artem one.

Red has to adjust the strap on his three times, during which he hears Leaf say, “Oh, that’s bizarre.” He turns to see her already looking in the gastly’s direction with hers on.

“Yeah, but it’s working… mostly?” Artem adds. “I keep wanting to take it off to see more clearly, which is weird.”

“No, I get it,” Jean insists. “I feel the same, like part of me is convinced the goggles are the problem.”

Curiosity burning, Red finally gets the goggles mostly snug before he opens his eyes and looks around. There’s a slight loss in peripheral vision, and the glass has an odd tinting effect that simultaneously darkens whatever Red sees while sharpening the colors, but overall it’s only a little more restrictive of his vision than safety goggles used to protect against wind, smoke, and powders. He adjusts it once more to try and alleviate the weight of it on the bridge of his nose, then turns and beholds the gastly.

It looks… normal. Or rather, “normal” as he’s been taught to see it on monitors and pokedex screens. It’s not quite like a camera would capture it; the haze around the dark central sphere seems more opaque, which makes it hard to make out the large white eyes that seem to stare into his soul, or the pink tongue that flicks from its mouth.

But Red sees these things, and they don’t make him recoil. No muscles tighten along his spine, no cold sweat pops out of his forehead. Instead a tension in his stomach slowly eases as he realizes that they’re not going to come.


The others chuckle, and Red takes a step forward before remembering that he shouldn’t. He starts to walk around the gastly, and instead of its blank white eyes seeming to follow him, he quickly moves beyond its line of sight and gets to observe the others’ indistinct forms through the cloud of its body.

Leaf and Maria begin circling the gastly too, and Red only notices it turning when its eyes come back into sight, following Maria. “Do you think it realizes something’s wrong?” she asks, voice taking on a distant tone that he recognizes as her own intense curiosity. “Maybe it’s not used to people focusing so directly on it. Or so many. Or maybe it feels our lack of unnerve.”

“It’s confused,” Jason confirms. “But not wary or worried. It’s particularly interested in you, Maria. As I suspected, you may have unexplored talent as a medium.”

“Oh.” Her hands rub down the front of her coat, a gesture Red imagines she picked up from Lizzy. “I’m, um. Not sure what to do with that information?”

“Ghost pokemon sense and manipulate emotions the way psychics do thoughts. As a sensitive, your gift, faint though it is, makes your emotions easier for them to detect and respond to, though it will also make you extra susceptible to wild ghosts we might encounter. But if you’ve never tried training ghost types before, you might be surprised by how easy it is.”

“Nice,” Blue says, and smiles at her. “If you can pick one up it would help a lot against Sabrina.”

Jason frowns slightly. “If there are only a few left in the area, catching them may make some natural imbalance worse. As I said before, our main objective—”

“Is to study, sure, but if we’re attacked it’s better to catch them than kill them, right?”

Red starts to suspect, too late, why Blue was so interested in coming, and calls himself ten kinds of fool for not thinking of it right away. He must have been thrilled to hear about all the extra ghost pokemon appearing just before he would be heading to Sabrina’s gym.

“We can be careful,” Leaf says, and looks between Red, Jason and Jean. “You guys can detect them, right?”

“Yes, though it comes with a risk,” Jean says. “Any we sense will sense us back, and might attack. Still, it’s better than being taken by surprise.”

Leaf nods and taps the ofuda in her belt. “Combined with these, we might be able to avoid any fights.”

Blue (reluctantly) nods, and Maria is thoughtfully looking over the gravestone studded hills. Jason joins her, turning a slow half circle to survey the area around the tower as well. “I’d like to do a full search of the graveyard before we attempt to go in. I may be able to learn something from any that have left.”

“Let’s split up, then,” Blue says. “We can let you know if we spot one, while also looking for other clues.”

Red makes a point of turning to Jason. “Does that sound good?”

The medium sends Red a pulse of gratitude, then considers this a moment before nodding. “I’ll be safe travelling alone. For the rest…” He looks at Blue. “What would you recommend?”

Blue hooks his thumbs in his pockets. “Well, Jean and I are the strongest trainers here, so I could go with Red and Leaf while she leads Maria and Artem… but to be honest, however good you are with ghost pokemon, this is an unusual situation. I don’t think anyone should be traveling alone.”

“I’m confident that I can avoid a battle with a wild if I encounter one, but I can’t assure the same for anyone with me.”

“Should we expect observable clues?” Artem asks. “If not, the rest of us are basically just here for muscle, and to help figure out what’s happening once we start learning something. Seems silly not to make use of us at every stage.”

It’s a fair point. Red turns to Jason and shrugs. “At least take Maria with you? You can teach her more about her gift, in case it’s something she wants to pursue.”

Jason’s expression becomes thoughtful again (or at least, Red thinks it does, he’s hard to read even without the goggles), and when he turns to her Maria is already nodding. “I’d be happy to learn, if it’s not an imposition.”

“Not at all.”

“Alright, then,” Blue says, hand tracing the dive ball at the front right position on his waist. “Artem, sorry, I assumed without asking that Jean and I are the most experienced trainers here. What’s on your belt?”

“Oh, that’s fine, yeah, I only have two badges. Right now I’m carrying nosepass, trubbish, magnemite, claydol, and electrode.”

Blue blinks. “You use an electrode? In battle?”

Red can’t tell if Blue is worried or impressed (maybe both), but his own attention is elsewhere. “You only use manmade pokemon?”

“It overlaps with my research,” Artem says to Red, then turns to Blue. “I spent a few months at Vermilion Gym last year.”

“Alright, well I’m still going to pair you with Jean, since she’s our strongest. You two head right, Jason and Maria go straight, and Leaf, Red and I will go left. We’ll meet at the far side if nothing is found, then make our way back to the tower entrance. Any questions?”

No one appears to have any, and Blue looks to Jason last. The medium nods, and Blue unclips the white and blue diveball. “Go, Maturin!”

“Woah. She’s gotten big.” Standing on its hindlegs brings the wartortle’s fanlike ears past Blue’s head, and her body is as wide as his. When Red brings out Charmeleon his horn only comes up to Maturin’s neck, and when Leaf summons Raff, he feels a note of chagrin to see that even the ivysaur is bigger than Charmeleon now. Clearly he needs to spend more time with his starter.

Once the others summon their own pokemon and Blue coordinates their radio frequencies, the three groups set off, and Red starts to pulse out his psydar. He quickly filters the minds of Leaf and their three pokemon out from his attention, then focuses on any new ones that appear at the edges of his “bubble.”

Before long he senses a pokemon underground, probably a cubone looking for a meal among the dead. The scavenger goes still as their footsteps approach, then quickly flees beyond his range, and soon after they pass within range of an old couple visiting a gravestone, followed by a small funeral gathering, everyone’s minds touched with fresh grief. It’s a relatively new emotion for Red to sense through simple observation rather than merger; the only time he felt it in the past was after the storm.

Occasionally he also senses the cautious, tense, or alert minds of rangers, always in pairs as they walk patrols around the tower.

About a quarter of an hour passes without any sense of the alien minds he glimpsed when meeting Jason’s ghost pokemon… but instead of relaxing into a less vigilant state, his body remains tense, and he realizes how nervous he is about mentally contacting a ghost again.

Don’t stress about it. The others can protect us if you’re disoriented, and Jason is nearby.

Hmm. Usually unpartitioned Red isn’t the optimistic one… if he feels safe because of the partition, he definitely shouldn’t given that their Spinarak’s ghost attack weakened his partition for weeks.

Yes, I know. If we get hit by one now, we’re in danger of losing all this progress for a while…

Red’s stomach feels queasy, and he almost thinks it’s just from the idea of losing “himself” for a while if the partition stays down. But there’s something else, too, some other fear that feels hard to define, and he wishes he could stop using his psydar for a moment to try Focusing on it…

No. The rejection is strong enough to make Red stumble a step, and he quickly understands why: whatever he’d been about to poke at was hidden for a reason.

“What’s up?” Blue asks, suddenly tense. “Found something?”

“No, just, uh, tripped.” His curiosity burns to find out what he’s forgetting, what secret might be revealed if his partition goes down… but no, that would defeat the purpose. Whatever it is, his unpartitioned self is worried about being revealed, all he has to know is that it would be bad. Red forces himself to focus on his psydar again. “Still all quiet around us.” He realizes with surprise that they’ve walked halfway around the tower.

“I know we’re here for a reason, but it’s hard not to hope it stays that way,” Leaf says as she tosses a treat toward Raff. The ivysaur catches it out of the air with a vine, and she throws another at Maturin, then Charmeleon, who dashes after it once Red mentally nudges him to let him know it’s okay to eat. “This is really nice.”

“Less creepy than hunting ghosts in a graveyard should be,” Blue agrees.

“Could always come back at night,” Leaf says with a grin. “Particularly without Red to warn us if something is coming. But I meant just… the surroundings, I guess. It’s oddly peaceful. And it’s nice traveling with you two again, no offense to the others.” She nudges Blue with her elbow. “You group us three together on purpose?”

“Nah, this split made the most sense. It does let me ask, though…” He turns to Red. “Was I being overbearing?”

“A little,” he says, relieved he didn’t have to bring it up himself, and that Blue sounds curious rather than upset. “I know you’ve got the most experience doing things like this, and Jason does too. But, well, he is the one that set things off, and the expert on ghosts…”

“I get it. Been treating him like a quest giver.” Blue sighs, breath pluming out in front of him. “Still feels like a waste not to catch whatever pokemon we can find, especially if they’re suddenly becoming rare, and I know Sabrina is going to have a couple Psychic/Fighting types waiting for me. Isn’t there some way you could attract them to us, Red?”

“I thought about it,” he admits. “I don’t think any ghosts hunt by sound, though, or by smell. They like to feed on psychics or other ghosts, so Jean or Jason or I would have to just project out something that would make us seem vulnerable enough that any ghosts in the area come to feed.”

“Which would maybe get you eaten by a hungry horde.” Blue sighs. “Guess I’ll just buy a couple ghosts if we don’t find any.”

“Getting rid of another self-imposed rule?”

“Maybe, yeah. They feel more arbitrary after everything that’s happened, particularly my battle with Erika. And I did buy Rive for Surge, so it’s not unprecedented. Just wanted to keep my main fighters those I caught myself, if I could.”

They walk silently after that, and Red starts to pay more attention to their surroundings. After a minute he decides Leaf is right. There’s something calming about the rows of white and grey stone on green hills beneath the grey winter sky. The faint smells of grass and stone and soil come to him with every cold breath, and the air is still and quiet, almost like the world itself is holding its breath in respect of the dead.

He’s glad the partition is up, or he’d have a much harder time appreciating all this.

Just as he has that thought, he notices a speck of something falling slowly across his field of vision. He looks up, then to the sides, and stops to take off his goggles, blinking at the brighter world he finds himself in. He rubs the bridge of his nose where the weight of the goggles was resting, then grins as he realizes that what he’s seeing is the first snowfall of winter descending around them.

“Ooo!” Leaf sticks her tongue out and tries to catch a falling flake, and Red watches for long enough that Blue nudges him with his elbow. Red flushes and starts his psydar pulses again as he raises his collar and tugs his hat down.

“About time.” Blue opens a container ball from his bag and takes out a scarf. “Thought all that shit in Hoenn meant we weren’t getting a proper winter this year.”

“Glad we did. It’s been years since I saw snow.” Leaf ties her hair up, then pulls a wool hat out of her bag while Raff makes a plaintive sound and rubs at his nose. “Relax you big baby, it’s a snowflake, not an Ice Beam.” Still, she withdraws him, and Red replaces Charmeleon with Pikachu while Blue swaps Maturin for Aiko’s eevee.

She’s grown as well, as tall as Blue’s waist. Her black nose lifts to sniff the cold air, then she bounds toward Leaf to nuzzle her legs. “You’re really using a Normal type to hunt ghosts?” Leaf asks as she bends down to vigorously rub her fingers through its silver fur with a grin. “Or are you trying to get her to evolve into glaceon?”

“Wouldn’t mind a glaceon,” Blue admits. “But no, this pretty lady is, in fact, a ghost hunting machine. I bought a Shadow Ball TM so she and Snorlax have coverage. It’s not too strong from either of them, but combined with their defensive advantage I’m pretty confident in her ability to handle most things we might encounter.”

Red nods speculatively. The research is still spotty, but does seem to point to the Normal pokemon not being consistently “interesting” to ghosts, such that they’ll often ignore them in the wild. It’s often cited as the only attribute the Normal type can be said to directly possess, though it seems like backwards reasoning to Red. If the label gets put on any pokemon that would not otherwise be called Normal but shares the same attribute, then they’ve just come up with a “type” to explain a single trait that many, varied other pokemon share.

Still, it can’t be denied that it’s an advantage if paired with an attack that the ghost is susceptible to. “Good thinking. I actually bought Shadow Claw before I set—” His head yanks up.

The other two immediately turn to follow his gaze, but he knows they don’t see them, since Red can’t see them either, even with his goggles off; the grey sky is nearly hidden by growing flurries of falling snow. But he can still sense them, just on the edge of his awareness…


“It’s okay,” he says, and closes his eyes so he can better focus on what he’s sensing. “They’re not… I think they’re unown.” There’s five of them moving through the air in a loose ribbon. Red brushes some melted snowflakes from his eyelids, then puts his goggles back on and opens them before looking up again. He thinks he can vaguely make them out, though they keep disappearing for a while when he blinks. “They’re just flying around above us.” He’d love to catch one and try merging with it; he read online that their minds are absurdly simple, even more so than exeggcute, but it still seems like it would be a new and interesting experience.

“Better get some air support then,” Leaf says, and summons Wise, the noctowl she caught during the Vermilion storm.

“The groups seen flying around lately haven’t been reported as attacking anyone yet, as far as I’ve heard?”

“I know, but better safe than sorry, right? Plus, Wise can also protect us from any ghosts that show up from above.”

“It makes Pikachu the prime target,” Blue admits. “But also makes the ghosts more predictable. Don’t worry, we’ll keep him safe.”

Red nods, letting his worry for his pokemon go by leaning into his trust in his friends, and they set off again as Wise soars above them in a protective, near-silent circle. The crunch of their footsteps grows louder as they go from walking on grass to compacting fresh snow beneath each step, and soon snow covers the grass around them entirely, the whole graveyard transformed into something even more stark and colorless… but still beautiful in its own way.

They watch Pikachu and Eevee frolic through the snow and catch up on some of the minutiae of their recent day-to-day lives. Red gets a text from his mother expressing excitement about him being in town and asking him if he’s wearing enough layers, and Leaf sends a message to Mr. Sakai to see if he needs help due to the snow.

They’re three fourths of the way around the tower when Jean suddenly speaks into their earpieces. “Got one, about 25 degrees from the tower. It noticed me, but it’s keeping its distance. We are too.”

The three of them are already running when Blue says, “On our way,” back, which is quickly echoed by Jason.

The snow is coming down hard enough to limit visibility beyond the tower, but once they reach the top of the hill where it sits they quickly spot the others and start down towards them.

There’s two more figures than they expected with the others, however: a man and woman pair of rangers. The man is in discussion with Jean, while the woman examines one of their goggles. As they get closer Red sees that Jason isn’t wearing his; instead the medium is standing with his eyes closed, fingers turning his beads as snow collects on the handmade wool cap covering his head and ears. It looks decidedly out of place with his robes.

“…for our investigation,” Jean is saying as they get close enough to overhear. The cold air cuts Red’s lungs like knives with each breath, and he struggles to draw his next one in quieter. “We were tipped off that something unusual was happening.”

“Tipped off by whom, exactly—” The young ranger pauses, having just noticed the three of them. He’s maybe Daisy’s age, but a square jaw and crew cut make him look older. “Shit, it’s the Oaklings themselves.” Leaf discreetly elbows Red, who bites his tongue. “These five with you, Young Oak?”

Oh boy. But Blue doesn’t puff out his chest, simply nodding as he bends down to feed his panting Eevee a treat. “Is there a problem here?”

“No, I just… didn’t expect the Professor to send you kids, that’s all.” His partner, a tall woman with cornrows that end in various colorful beads, has stopped examining the goggles for a moment to also look between the three of them in surprise. Her name tag says Gale on it, and his Nathan.

“Send us? I mean, he knows we’re here, but it was our idea to come.” Blue is frowning slightly. “We made a public post about our intent to investigate the tower a few days ago?”

“A few days… Oh, because of all the ghosts that were showing up. But if the Professor didn’t send you today…” Nathan glances at his partner, but Gale is focusing on the goggles again. After adjusting the strap to fit her, she summons a mismagius. Red instinctively looks away, then remembers he’s wearing the goggles and turns curiously back. It looks like a floating puppet, some elaborately designed piece of purple and violet cloth with three red gems embroidered on the front, and painted-on yellow and crimson eyes.

“Huh,” she says as she withdraws her pokemon and takes the goggles off. “It really works.”

“Shit, how come we don’t have this stuff?” Nathan shakes his head and turns back to Blue. “Would your grandfather be willing to make a couple dozen of these for those of us stationed here?”

“Uh, maybe. I can call him…?”

“Please do. We’re happy to pay, assuming they don’t cost a fortune. In the meantime, we may have to appropriate this gear for our own investigation.”

There’s a moment of silence, and then a lot of people start speaking at once.

“Wait, but you—”

“—we’re here to—”

“—that mean you found—”

“—can help if we—”

“—guys, chill, chill!” Blue says, hands up to either side, and the rest of the group trails off. Blue nods to them (ignoring Leaf’s grin) then looks at Jason, who’s still standing silently with his eyes closed. “Everything okay, Jason?”

“Yes,” the medium replies, voice flat and distant in a way that Red recognizes from their merging practice. He realizes Jason is sweating, despite the cold, and feels guilty for not noticing before Blue did. A quick pulse of his psydar confirms that Jason is attempting to merge with a nearby gastly… and also reveals that both rangers are dark.

“Wait, what’s wrong?” Gale’s alarm turns her voice sharp, one hand dropping to her belt. “Are you being attacked?”

“Not… quite… from your perspective… perhaps… carry on, please…”

“Don’t worry,” Blue says to the rangers. “He knows what he’s doing. That’s what I meant to tell you… we would, of course, be happy to assist by lending you our equipment if needed, but I believe we could be valuable resources ourselves.”

Gale is frowning as she looks between them, still clearly concerned for Jason. “We’re still trying to determine what’s happening here, exactly. We don’t want to involve non-rangers until we know what we’re stepping into, and if the Professor didn’t send you… plus, three of you are psychics, which puts you at higher risk.”

“Not just any psychics,” Red puts in. If he’s going to learn to flex his status, might as well start now. “Jason and I are Sabrina’s students, and he’s an expert on Ghost type pokemon.” He hopes Jason doesn’t pick this moment to contest that label. “And Jean is from Celadon Gym.”

“That I guessed,” the ranger says, voice wry. “And the rest of you? Are you Ghost experts too?”

“Trainer and researcher,” Artem says, raising his hand.

“Trainer and journalist?” Leaf tries, raising her own. “Also, I might have special love-powers that help calm psychics and might work on ghosts?”

Both rangers, Artem, and Jean all stare at Leaf while Maria raises her hand. “I’m not really sure why I’m here, other than curiosity and a desire to be helpful. Oh, trainer. But also Jason says I might be a non-psychic medium, which I didn’t know existed, so I’d like to stay and learn more about that if I’m allowed?”

“Love-powers,” a bemused Jean repeats as Blue murmurs something to Maria.

“Of course, the thing with the abra.” Artem looks excited. “You think that might keep you safe from ghosts? Or is there some other experiment you’ve run that hasn’t been publicized?”

Leaf shrugs and tosses a treat up for Wise, who snaps it out of the air. “It seems to calm other psychics that I’m around, though I’ve only tested it on tame ones, and know they aren’t naturally scared of humans, so maybe it won’t be as reassuring, but—”

“Look, it’s not just about the ghosts,” Nathan interrupts. “We’re not at liberty to discuss everything, but there have also been a suspicious amount of people moving around the tower over the past few weeks.”

“Wait, what?” Blue is frowning at the rangers. “Why hasn’t that been mentioned anywhere?”

“Suspicious in retrospect,” Gale amends, shooting her partner a look. “We had no reason to suspect anything before, but they seem to have stopped showing up today, which may be related to nearly all the ghosts having vanished. We’ve reported it, of course, but there’s nothing to justify a general bulletin.”

“So you thought the Professor sent us because he was told about what’s going on,” Blue smiles. “When really, we were already on our way. I bet Grandpa won’t even read your message until sometime tonight.”

“What do you plan to do with the goggles, anyway?” Red asks. “If the ghosts are mostly gone, and the mysterious people aren’t showing up…”

The rangers share a look this time, and Gale sighs. “Alright, this is above our paygrade. Better let the sergeant know and see what he says.”

Nathan nods and steps away, presumably to make a call, while Blue gives Gale a charming smile. “So what can you tell us?”

Red lets Blue handle that, walking over to Jason with Pikachu trailing him in the snow and settling between his feet. Red drops some berries for him as he studies the medium, who’s still standing with his eyes closed, face pale but for twin red spots on his cheeks. His fingers are clutching his necklace beads rather than turning them, and Red feels worry spread through his gut.

“Hey,” Red murmurs. “Anything I can do?”

“Nh,” Jason grunts back, and swallows. “No… just need… time…”

Jean joins them, and Red turns to her. “Were the rangers here when you found it?”

“No, they saw Jason and Maria running to us and came to see what was wrong.” She’s still watching Jason, brow creased. “Amazing that he can continue to do this while being attacked.”

“While… what?” Red looks back at Jason in horror. “He said he wasn’t…” Wait, shit, it’s the usual thing he does of framing things in his own way. Red remembers being hit by the spinarak attack again, and winces as he imagines being constantly hit by something even stronger… “How is he doing it?”

“I don’t know. Some very specialized and skillful use of amnesia, perhaps, or a unique mental shield… or something in his state of mind that makes the attacks less harmful than they would otherwise be…”

Red considers it a mark of personal growth that he doesn’t immediately decide to try mirroring Jason’s mental state. Of course, that could just be his unpartitioned self sending him some restraint…

Not really. Kind of hard to stay interested in anything at the moment.

Red understands; he never did visit Dad’s grave, and being around other rangers is sometimes triggering. He’s glad the partition is there to keep him able to focus on the puzzle in front of him, but knows he should probably talk to Dr. Seward about how he can build up to visiting the Pallet graveyard.

For now, he needs to focus on the puzzle in front of him. It’s easy to think of the reasons to merge with Jason right now: they may be about to enter the tower, in which he may get attacked by a ghost, and there’s no other opportunity to try mirroring a live attack since Jason can’t exactly order his own pokemon to attack him, and Red doubts anyone else with one would unless Red sets up another research study.

For reasons not to do it now… well those are obvious too. It might go badly and mess things up for Jason, or mess up Blue’s plan to get them all involved in investigating whatever is happening. Also it might be really painful and unpleasant to have his partition get ruined for a while if something goes wrong, and that itself might cause bad stuff he can’t even think of.

Meaning there are some known unknowns, which Red should probably work to shift to knowns before he tries it—

Ask Jason. We don’t know what we might face in the tower, and we need to be prepared. It’s not pessimistic, I’m being appropriately cautious by planning for things going wrong. Things always go wrong, do you want to lose another friend? No, morbid would be—

“Red?” Jean is looking at him with concern. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, fine. Why?”

“You were muttering to yourself.”

Well that’s awkward. Better keep an eye out for that. “I was just thinking, I might be able to learn to do it if I could join the merger for a moment. I’ll only do it if Jason says it’s okay, though.”

“Do it,” Jason says, almost before Red finishes talking. It takes him by surprise, and he almost asks if the medium is sure before realizing that now probably isn’t the time to pester him with questions. Trust him to know what you can handle.

He does, when it comes to Ghost pokemon. But first he summons a container box to sit on. Pikachu jumps into his lap and curls into a warm, fuzzy ball, and Red uses the mouse’s rapid heartbeats against his thigh to ground himself before extending his senses.

The merger is difficult to focus on at first. While he expected a fierce strain of mind against mind, oddly enough the impression he gets is… calling it a dance would be aggrandizing it. It’s nothing so coordinated. Instead the ghost is keeping its distance, while Jason keeps trying to gently merge with it, only to be driven away by an attack for a few moments before trying again. Or maybe “attack” really is the wrong word… in terms of effort from the gastly, they seem like the equivalent of a meowth batting at a hand trying to pet it at the wrong moment.

Most pokemon would probably get more irritated and lash out, but he remembers Jason saying that ghost pokemon experience time, space, and the order of events in very different ways, and this is the first time he’s seeing it in action. The gastly seems locked in a loop of indifference, as if everything happening is happening for the first time. In return, the medium is only trying to share one sense at a time, and waiting patiently for more even as he’s hit by something that he quickly shuts down. Sometimes it’s a memory that gets amnesia’d, or an emotion that he partitions, but whatever the effect, he’s ready to abandon that part of himself and (humbly) try again.

Humility. It’s hard to think of how it wasn’t the first thing he noticed, the medium is radiating it, his entire being focused on a sense of unassuming deference to the ghost’s preferences and desires. Even his goal to merge is somehow expressed through humility, and once Red taps into it the analogy that immediately comes to mind is his own attitude at Pallet Lab when he had the opportunity to help one of the researchers on some project, no matter how minor his role would be.

Let me help, Jason sends without words, only to be hit by something that feels like intense disgust, evoking memories of a time Red stepped in poop barefoot as a child and started crying with the intensity of how unclean he felt, wanting to crawl out of his own skin…

Partition, reorient, extend… Let me learn…

Agony, sharp and debilitating, lying with a broken arm that sent pain lancing through him as he struggled to stay still on the forest floor…

Abruptly forgotten, to Jason if not to Red. Let me share…

Each repetition lets Red lock down another aspect of Jason’s mental state, until little by little a shape emerges, a mental mold to adjust his own thoughts to… except he can’t.

Or maybe he can… it takes effort, holding a rubber band tense instead of flipping a switch. The mold is harder to inhabit than any other he adopted, because his own thoughts, his axiomatic beliefs and perspectives, feel spiky, more firmly bolted down, unwilling or unable to fit.

He tries, a bit desperately, to ask his unpartitioned self for help, and is surprised when he gets a response.

You can do this. There’s nothing another brain can think that we can’t, and there’s always some value to being able to hold another perspective. I’ll keep us safe.

Red nods to himself, and tries again. First he revisits one axiom, then the other, then the worldview itself, then the minute to minute attitude… little by little, he feels like he can inhabit his own alternative, a mental state that feels like… like…

…like boggling-prostrate-before-the-universe. A feeling that he’s truly free, that he can understand the world’s infinite vastness, and simultaneously that he can’t, that no one can, and that’s how it would always be, and that’s okay…

Woah. That feels… wobbly. No thanks.

The mental state abruptly ends, and there’s a feeling of solidity that returns to his mind. Only now can he look back on how it was for those few moments and realize how open he was to anything that might come.

A chill goes down Red’s back that has nothing to do with the cold. That level of humility, where anything seemed possible, now feels dangerously like what he worried about before. It’s a frame of mind that lets anything in, without preconceived notions or biases… but also without any guardrails or filters. And he has no idea what might come in to stay, if he’s not careful.

But his unpartitioned self didn’t seem affected by it…

No, not at all, which from his side feels like an extra plus we learned.

Huh. Red never tried mirroring a mental state while the partition was up, but it’s good to know it works like that. He’ll have to make sure never to use that particular one while the partition is down.

Red feels it when the gastly finally lets Jason in, and quickly withdraws his own senses so as not to scare it off. When he opens his eyes the group is watching him and Jason, who’s sitting on the container box beside him. Jean has a distant look in her eyes, which clears when she meets his.

“I was worried he might get tired,” she says, and he realizes she must have led Jason to the box. “Something’s changed?”

“Yeah.” Red looks at the others again, who seem to be expecting him to say something, but when he tries to speak he finds his throat is dry, and has to drink some water first. That’s when he notices the cold sweat on his face and looks back at Jason, concerned. How the medium is able to deal with that, so much more directly and for so much longer… it’s hard to imagine that he learned to do it on his own, years ago and with only basic psychic training. He was Red’s age at the time, but even with everything Red has learned from his various teachers and tutors, not to mention Jason himself, he’s not sure he ever would have figured that out. It’s too fundamentally a different way to view the world. “He’s okay,” Red adds after a moment for extra reassurance.

“Did he learn anything?” Gale asks as she approaches, still holding Jason’s goggles.

“Uh, not yet, but I think he might now? That was all just… preparation.”

“Damn.” She sounds more impressed than disappointed. “Well, Sarge says he wants to meet you all, so we’ll head up to the tower as soon as—”

Jason takes a deep breath, eyes opening, but unfocused. He abruptly sags to the side, and Red extends an arm to brace around his shoulders, then holds up his water bottle.

The medium gives him a grateful look as he drinks, then one to Jean, who gently wipes his forehead with some cloth pulled from some hidden pocket of her kimono. When he lowers the water bottle and clears his throat, Jason looks at the gathered trainers and says, “Fear.”

The group is silent a moment. “Fear…?” Blue finally prompts.

“That’s what it felt, when it left the tower. When it left its home. That’s what it felt from the others, before they disappeared… that, and grief.”

Silence returns. No one suggests that this is very little information to have gained given what Jason went through to learn it.

Red looks up at the tower, and feels another chill skitter up his spine. Fear, and grief.

The tower entrance does indeed have a sign regretfully informing visitors of temporary maintenance, but Gale and Nathan lead the group straight in and past the entrance lobby. Red can tell by the others’ reactions that he’s not the only one here for the first time, and not the only one impressed.

“Pictures don’t really do it justice,” Leaf murmurs, and Red nods agreement as their feet echo on the clean marble. The combination of white floors, walls, and ceiling makes Red feel like he’s walking into a church. Which, he supposes, isn’t far off. Even lacking religious iconography the mausoleum has the sacred feel of a spiritual place, one that doesn’t make anyone feel excluded.

Normally he knows the halls would be filled with people come to visit the interred dead; he remembers enough history to know that it was built to house the remains of those people and pokemon lost in defense of the town during a Moltres attack decades ago. That was only part of its purpose, however, and arguably its least important one. Built entirely of stone and without windows in order to resist the might of subsequent Stormbringers, it’s the town’s primary shelter when calamity approaches, able to house its entire population when it was built.

The town has grown since then, and Red figures the pokemon center and trainer house and others help shelter any overflow for emergencies, but the extra burial space the tower started with has been subsequently given over the years to anyone else who died in attacks on the town. As Red follows the group down into the first basement level, he wonders what they’ll do when they run out of space.

The sergeant’s office looks more like a repurposed storage room, which makes it a bit crowded once they’re all inside. The man behind the desk is one of the oldest rangers Red’s ever seen; completely bald, with spotted skin, bushy eyebrows, and a thin white goatee that trails to his chest. His eyes are intense, however, and like most rangers Red’s met (like Dad) he doesn’t stand on ceremony, simply waving them all in and resting his chin on his hands before asking, “How did you all find out about what was going on here?” in a voice roughened with age.

Red gets the impression that half the group (himself included) looks at Jason while the other half looks at Artem, because when he glances back the sergeant’s piercing gaze is looking between them expectantly.

“I grew up here,” Jason starts. “My old teacher told me about the gradual abundance of ghosts. That’s what we came to investigate.”

“I came in response to the public post to investigate,” Artem says, then clears his throat. “As for the rest, I kind of just guessed? It’s not too hard, once you’ve seen enough rangers covering something up.”

Now everyone is staring at Artem, except for Blue, who smirks. The researcher does an admirable job of not wilting from the concentrated attention, until Sergeant Iko nods. “Well, I won’t turn away competent help, and Gale and Nathan say you have some skills that might be particularly useful. The question is how much value those skills bring compared to your goggles on one of my own people.”

Maria steps forward. “I’d like to volunteer my goggles.”

“I would also like to offer my goggles,” Jason says, cutting off what Red predicts would be an objection from Blue. “I don’t believe I need them to be helpful.”

Red knows he should probably offer his too, he’s not even the best trainer in the room let alone among the rangers…

“Hold on, guys.” Blue crosses his arms, staring levelly at the sergeant. “I’m happy to call Gramps and see how quickly we can get more goggles to your people, but first it would be nice to know what you need them for. There’s been no reported incident here to warrant immediate appropriation, so what’s the secret danger that you don’t want the public to know about? Artem is right, I’ve been in a situation like this before, down to the ofuda being plastered all over town because the civilians were afraid of things the rangers weren’t telling them. Unless your people are all very good at not gossiping, which I’m guessing you’re not sure of by the way you asked how we know what’s happening, this secret feels like it’s only got a couple days of life to it, max.”

Sergeant Iko meets his gaze for a few tense heartbeats, and Red imagines the rest of the group is also holding its breath to see how such a bold challenge will be taken.

Then the ranger smiles ruefully and runs a hand over his smooth head. “You have to understand, this is supposed to be the safe retreat for the town. We’ve done our best to ensure people can feel safe with ghosts randomly wandering in their midst. Luckily, though they give people a fright sometimes, they’ve only rarely gone really hostile… Until about four hours ago, when some unidentified phenomenon cleared out the top floor. Oak, Tanaka, Birch, Ikeda, Abe, Morty, Harrow, Agatha, everyone who might be interested in this has been told, but it doesn’t appear to be directly dangerous, so right now it’s mostly an intellectual curiosity. But given the previous build up of ghosts and their sudden disappearance, it’s hard not to be worried—”

“What’s the phenomenon?” Red interrupts, unable to help himself from getting excited.

“Fear,” Jason guesses, voice distant. “And grief.”

The sergeant doesn’t even look surprised that he knows. “Along with visual distortions, possibly hallucinations. In my case, it was like the walls were closing in; I couldn’t stay for more than twenty seconds before feeling like I was going to collapse into a heap and cry like a baby.” He speaks with the flat, simple tone of someone relaying what he ate for lunch. “It feels like surreality, but not focused on a particular pokemon, or not one that we’ve been able to catch sight of yet. It’s possible the goggles do nothing, but I’d like to find out as soon as we can what’s causing this.”

Even this news doesn’t keep Red from dancing his weight from foot to foot, and he sees the same excitement in Artem’s face. They share a look, and a nod that Red doesn’t even understand. What did he just instinctively agree to? Collaborating on a paper? Or maybe it was just an acknowledgement of mutual excitement—

Leaf subtly elbows Red again, and he realizes that he should probably not look too excited. Everyone else seems pretty grim, but come on, it’s not like anyone’s died.


“And the suspicious people?” Blue asks.

Iko looks from Blue to Gale and Nathan, and Red doesn’t need his powers to sense their chagrin. “Still looking into it, but so far we’ve got nothing. Cameras are hard to keep in good order inside the tower, the ghosts seem to like breaking them, but I’ve got a man looking through footage around it for the past two weeks and so far no one’s been caught doing anything suspicious.”

Blue rubs his face. “Just to check… you guys would have noticed if an absol ran upstairs somehow?”

Red remembers his story about the caves. “You think this is Pressure? I guess it does sound more like it than surreality…” He turns to Jason, who looks troubled, but nods.

“Or maybe some ghost has it, but a strong Dark pokemon would probably kill or scare everything away, right?”

“I’m not going to say ‘impossible,'” Gale says, “Because clearly something unusual is happening. But I think someone would have noticed if a dark pokemon was running around in here…” She grows thoughtful. “Unless…”

“Unless a renegade summoned it on the top floor,” Leaf says, voice grim.

“Or it flew or climbed through a hole in the roof?” Red looks around. “Has anyone flown overhead to check?”

The room is quiet a moment, and then Sergeant Iko turns subtly to Nathan, who nods before stepping outside.

“Be careful,” Blue calls after him. “It might actually be on the roof!”

“I’d like to request permission to check the top floor with your rangers,” Jason asks the sergeant. “At the very least I’d like to go to the second or third floor and see what I can sense from there.”

“I’d like to go with him,” Red says, and Jean adds, “As would I.”

“Me too.” Artem shrugs. “Not a psychic, but there’s not much else I’m here for.”

“I suppose I can join, just to listen in,” Maria says, and Blue smiles at her before turning back to Iko.

“Assuming that’s okay with you, I’ll step outside to call my grandpa and make sure he got your message.” Blue unclips a container ball. “Meanwhile, there are three spare goggles for your people to wear in here, and the rest of us can lend you ours if you want to try another check of the top floor.”

The sergeant taps his fingers on the desk, then looks at Gale. “Call everyone in. If something goes wrong, I want to make sure we’re ready to handle it.” She nods, and he turns to Blue. “Go ahead. If he can make more goggles for us I’d appreciate it, and if he can’t come himself—”

“A new phenomenon like this, possibly a new pokemon?” Red grins. “He’ll be here.”

“—well, then I want to be able to provide him with as much info as we can. Gale, tell Aimi to watch the door.”

“Yes, Sir.”

She leaves, and Iko gets to his feet, scanning the group once more before saying, “Welcome aboard.”

They go upstairs, and Red uses the downtime to visit the washroom, feeling nervous flutters in his stomach at the idea of what might be waiting for them at the top of the tower. Little by little the excitement gets dwarfed by something else: the memory of the casino, of being trapped in rubble, in pain while people died and fought around him…

He takes a deep breath, tries to ground himself in his body. Simple sensations, like the feel of his shirt and jacket and hat, the press of the ground against his shoes. What’s the worst case? Renegades with some pokemon that can use pressure, but with a small army of rangers, we’ll probably be fine.

There might be casualties. And even that’s not really the worst case, there are many others, like some new pokemon with abilities we can’t imagine, or even a new legendary, freshly born and ready to wipe out the town if bothered…

“Get a grip,” he mutters, staring at himself in the mirror. He’s overcome fear before, he can do it again…

Except for that one time…

Red shakes his head, growing angry at his unpartitioned self now. They’ve had months to look into how justified that decision was, and so far they haven’t because unpartitioned Red is still having trouble bringing himself to do so, but they made an agreement (back before they were simultaneously around and he was Sad Red or whatever) not to think that way until they do.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into you,” he says to his reflection. “But you treat being the unpartitioned one as if it automatically makes you the undisputed leader. There’s not much I can do about that, but if you’re going to act like the leader, start really acting like one rather than switching between bossy and pessimistic.”

Silence from his unpartitioned self. Which is just great, as if he needed to feel more awkward about talking to himself…


Red blinks, then nods, washing his hands one more time just to give himself time to think before he heads outside. They know what to do. Premortem, plan for failure modes, ready contingencies.

Right. And avoid direct contact with ghosts.

But… the new mental state… new species!

We don’t know it’s a new species, and we don’t know how well the new state will work for us yet. Play it safe, let someone else catch it if it exists, study it later.

Red can’t argue with that, it’s not like he’s going to be storming the top floor himself. He sighs, acknowledges the point, then leaves the washroom to rejoin the others. By the time he finds them the lobby of the tower has rows of rangers standing at attention as Sergeant Iko relays the plan. Nathan is back, still wearing his riding gear, and Blue standing by the others. He grins as Red approaches.

“Gramps is coming, along with a small team. He also said he’ll reach out to Agatha; busy or not, he said she’d be interested.”

“That’s great,” Red says, already feeling relieved. “Anything on the roof?”

“Nope. So it’s probably a ghost. Or renegades, but why they’d hole up at the top of the tower pushing out Pressure is beyond me.”

“I was thinking, we should do a premortem. Get Iko involved.”

“Already suggested that,” Leaf says with a grin. “Blue and Jean backed me up, apparently they do it all the time at her gym.”

“I’d like to claim credit, but they were doing it before I got there,” Blue says. “Iko said we’d have time while waiting anyway. Look, he’s talking about it now.”

“…planning that may be helpful to ensure we’re covering all our bases.” The sergeant gestures toward their group. “The whole thing might get tossed out once the big brains get here, but I don’t intend to be seen as sitting on my thumbs waiting to be rescued. Do any of you?”

“No sir,” the crowd chants, and Red feels a tug in his belly as he glimpses the Ranger Corps’ inner world for the first time in a while. The sense that his dad carried with him all the time, of being one who acts, who protects others, rather than being protected. He remembers his mom saying, with both exasperation and affection, that most rangers she met struggled to ever see themselves in a weak or helpless role, and that his father was no different.

“Didn’t think so. While most of us prepare, a small team will accompany the psychics up to the third floor to see what they can learn. Vera and Seto, you’re with me for planning. Hiro, Xavier, Gale, go with the psychics. Jon and Nathan, full equipment check. Hop to it everyone.”

Most of the two dozen rangers start unbuckling their belts and supply bandoliers, while six approach the group. As Iko hands the extra goggles they brought to the rangers that would be accompanying Jason, Leaf turns to Red and smiles. “Good luck.”

“See you soon.” He steps away from Leaf and Blue and makes his way toward the stairway with the others. It’s wide enough that they can walk three abreast, and Red ends up in the third row with just Artem, who turns to him as they start climbing.

“Hey, you know the Professor, right? Is he going to, uh…”

“Steal all the glory?” Red smiles. “No, he’s great about sharing. I don’t know if that’s always true, but as far as I’ve ever seen he likes to be included, but prefers watching other people learn.”

“Great, because this is awesome.” The older boy grins. “I thought there might be some interesting phenomenon here, but we might actually be among the first people to see a new species! It might even be an artificial pokemon.”

“You think?” Red considers their surroundings as they reach the second floor and walk across toward the third. “I guess there’s not a lot that’s natural for it to use.” Hallways in either direction from the main corridor are filled with cushioned benches and seats, incense burners, and small fountains, while the walls are lined with sarcophagi nameplates.

“Yeah, assuming it didn’t arise out of a pillow or something there’s nothing here but stone and bones. Let’s see, full list might be Ghost/Rock, Ghost/Ground, Ghost/Water, Ghost/Fire if we’re counting the incense… hey, we could find an Electric version of the lampent line if it comes from a light fixture. I always wondered what came first, there, the candle, the lamp, or the chandelier…”

“It could also just be another Ghost/Poison,” Red points out as they reach the stairs to the third floor (it’s strange to be in a place where the stairs only go up one floor at a time and are located so far from each other). “No reason all pokemon that come from a decomposing body have to be the same species, right?”

“Yeah, but… eh. Seems boring.” He smiles. “Not scientific, I know. We don’t even know if it’s a new species yet. Still, if it is a new species, I’d prefer some variety.”

“We’ve got enough Poison pokemon in Kanto already anyway,” one of the rangers just ahead of them grunts.

They reach the third floor, and the pace slows as Jason looks around, then finds a hallway full of cushioned chairs and benches to sit in. First he finds a small fountain, which he uses to wash his hands in the same cleansing ritual he does at home. As he does so, Red sees some tension leave his shoulders, and then he sits on one of the benches, folding his legs beneath him.

The rest of the group joins him except for the rangers, who stay standing. He looks around at all of them, seeming a bit unsure if he should say something, until Gale prompts, “Is there anything we can do for you?”

“No, thank you. Just… be ready.”

“What should we expect, as a worst case scenario?”

The medium hesitates. “There’s a very small chance that it attacks us?”

The rangers share glances, then begin summoning their pokemon: a krokorok, bisharp, and Gale’s mismagius again. It’s unusual for a dark trainer to raise psychics or ghosts, and Red reminds himself to let Blue know she is one in case he wants to ask her questions about it.

Red wonders if he should summon his own pokemon, but no, there’s limited space in the hallway and he’s not here for that. Instead he closes his eyes and breathes deep, briefly touching the minds around him.

Jason, most familiar, is preparing himself for what he expects is going to be another painful attempt to commune with a wild ghost. Red sends him a pulse of reassurance and confidence, which he responds to with gratitude.

Maria is second most familiar to him, worried and uncertain of herself, but also excited and curious. Artem is buzzing with curiosity too, and he can’t sense anything from Jean but cautious anticipation, which mirrors what the two rangers beside Gale feel as they prepare for whatever happens. Red is careful not to linger on the mismagius, but just sensing it is enough to feel uncomfortable, the psychic equivalent to a room full of overlapping voices that he can almost make sense out of.

“I’m going to begin,” Jason says, and Red focuses his attention on him. He can’t reach as high as the tower’s top floor himself, but he can watch as Jason extends his mental senses up… not literally, of course, Jason’s mind doesn’t actually go anywhere. But he can tell Jason finds something because his tranquil thoughts suddenly ripple with unease, then grief.

Red watches him attempt to do the same thing as before, to partition the emotion away. It takes him longer, and Red catches a splash of what he’s feeling, having to push down his own memories of Aiko and his dad until he can focus again…

And notice that Jason is still struggling with grief. Struggling to partition it again, and again, and again… more and more keeps building up, and Jason just keeps himself open to it, stays humble in accepting what the Ghost is pushing onto him, so much that Red has to switch to boggling-prostrate-before-the-universe himself just to keep himself from wallowing in memories of Aiko’s laugh—

—her father’s tears—

—Dad’s smile—

—Blue’s heart-wrenching sobs as a child, a memory he barely remembers—

—loss, and grief, so much grief—

Yes, Jason says, not with words but with being as he accepts the pain and extends an open hand for more, tries to form a connection. Understanding. Agreement. Shared sorrow.

But it doesn’t stop, and Red finally recognizes that something is wrong when Jean projects not just worry but alarm, and it doesn’t reach Jason. Red tries to do the same, and the openness that Jason holds forth just… doesn’t see it. Is too full of what he’s sensing from the ghost.

Red forces himself to ground and opens his eyes to see the medium’s face twisted in grief, tears pouring down his face. Maria is sitting beside him with his hand in hers, but looks unsure what to do, and Red feels dread and horror rising up in him. Trapped, Jason is trapped, there’s got to be something he can do…

“Hey,” Jean says, kneeling in front of Jason and gently shaking him. “Hey, come on, Jason, come back! Grey!”

Think. What would he do for you?

Red is frozen with indecision for a moment longer as the Rangers start to tersely discuss carrying him downstairs, then rushes up and to the fountain. He takes the ladle and fills it, then carries it back to Jason and holds up his palm. Don’t mess it up. Left hand… right hand… left hand… He lifts the hand to Jason’s lips so he can drink, come on drink…

Jason’s lips twitch, and Red lets his hand drop, then hurries to pick up one of the incense sticks, heart pounding as he moves it over Jason’s body. Placebos are real, it doesn’t matter if they make sense they’re real, they have real effects, come on Jason wake up…

Almost too late Red remembers the prayer beads, and he takes Jason’s hand and brings it up to his necklace, moving the fingers over the beads… and letting out a breath of relief as they tighten. And move.

He holds the stick where it is, just under Jason’s nose, and the rational side of him insists that that’s what makes the medium finally twitch and shudder and open his eyes, nose wrinkling. Red moves back just in time to avoid being sneezed on, and everyone lets out a breath or cry of relief as Jason blinks and wipes at his streaming eyes.

“What the hell was that?” Gale asks, looking relieved but also vibrating with adrenaline. Or maybe that’s just Red projecting; he sits back onto his bench, legs weak with relief as Artem claps him on the shoulder.

“New pokemon,” Jason coughs out. Maria hands him a water bottle, and he takes a long drink before clearing his throat and trying again. “Don’t know what it is. Strong. Angry.” He takes a shuddering breath and closes his eyes, wiping at them with his sleeve again. “Mad with grief.”

Gale stares at him, then nods. “Alright, back down we go. Can you walk?”

“Yes.” He still leans on Maria’s offered arm, looking wobbly, and turns to Red. “Thank you.” He looks at Jean. “Both of you. I could sense you, but…” He trails off, then looks up… and blood drains from his face. “Oh.”

Jean frowns, then goes stiff and breathes out, “Oh…”

Gale looks like she wants to grab and shake them. “Oh, what ‘oh?’ What’s ‘oh’ mean?”

Red was shielding as soon as he ended the link with Jason, relying on his partition to deal with the residue. Now he lowers it to send his own psydar pulse out, and what comes out instead is “Fuck” as he feels the swell of grief return before he can even do anything. He slams his shields back up and turns to Gale. “It’s projecting now, because… it might be uh, suicidal. So…” He remembers what he told Blue earlier and feels his heart kick back into high gear. “I think we’re going to have company soon.”

Chapter 87: Ghost Town

Hey everyone, welcome back! Brief comment about the last chapter’s battle: it bent a couple rules from the pokemon game in ways that feel justified, to me. The first was the whirlwind attack being able to clear field hazards the way defog does, since both are essentially the same type of attack, but divided by function. I’m not sure it makes sense for some flying pokemon to be able to create a whirlwind that can blow pokemon away, but not blow objects or fog away, so I’m ignoring the fact that the pidgey line doesn’t naturally learn defog outside of egg moves.

The second is ingrain, which normally stops a pokemon from being blown or scared away from battle, but also stops you from being able to withdraw it, which is just… strange. It’s not like it stops you from catching a pokemon in the wild, and there’s nothing about the move that to me indicates that it should make a pokemon immune to a pokeball’s effects. It seems to just be a balance decision they made, logic bedamned, and so I’m okay with putting the logic back in at the cost of game fidelity. One reader suggested that using an ultraball would overcome any possible difficulty some trainers would have in accounting for the increased mass, which is as good an explanation as any.

Enjoy the chapter, and hope everyone is staying safe this holiday. It would be a shame to get COVID just before vaccines start to roll out!

Red takes a deep breath, then knocks on Leader Sabrina’s door. Three seconds and a brief probe of his shielded mind later, he hears her say, “Come in.”

She still looks so tired, Unpartitioned Red notes as they step inside, and after a moment Red agrees. The bags under her eyes, the slight droop in her posture, the hair done up in a loose ponytail instead of her usual long, straight curtain… it’s clear Sabrina has yet to really recover from her long absence last month. Upon returning she spent nearly all her time working through the backlog of Challenge matches, and then Groudon and Kyogre awoke and she teleported to Hoenn to fight them.

It’s also clear that something changed for her when she did, though it’s hard to describe what. He could say that she’s been more reclusive than she was before she was gone, and that would be part of it. He could say that, when he does see her, she’s been distracted… but that would still only be part.

The best way he can think to put it is that she seems more like she’s doing everything by rote. Like her heart isn’t in the duties of a Gym Leader anymore, nor teaching her psychic students, nor researching and learning from them.

Whatever happened in Hoenn, it must have badly shaken her. Her psychic shields are as strong as ever, but the less tangible signs of strength, her force of personality, her aura of leadership, have faded somewhat as her clear distraction keeps her from being fully present. Even the question of whether psychics can lie just doesn’t seem to interest her the way it used to.

Of course, he knows the answer to that now. A month with Rowan taught him not just how to create partitions at will, but, finally, how to induce amnesia in himself… something he was relieved to finally be able to do.

Not that he remembers why, of course. And he doesn’t need to as long as he’s around other psychics that he might merge with; the vague sense that there are secrets hidden behind partitions is all that’s left, which is common enough among psychics as to be unremarkable. It was strange recognizing it for what it was, at first, but after some consideration it’s no different from everyone holding a sign noting that they have secrets. Unusual to be reminded of in day to day life, but completely understandable and unalarming in most contexts.

What is remarkable, as far as Red can tell, is that his current, partitioned self can be fed information as needed by his whole, unpartitioned self, which knows all the things he forgot. Re-establishing direct communication was one of the most valuable things he learned to do with Rowan, but far from the only one.

(What Rowan notably hasn’t been able to help Red do is come up with better ways to refer to himself and his unpartitioned self; apparently he sets his partitions along emotional lines, or things similar to them, and so just uses those.)

For his part, Rowan spent a lot of time recently trying to develop his own “tulpa,” and though he hasn’t quite succeeded yet as far as Red can tell, he can shift so abruptly between different mental states that even Red is worried about what the ability might do to him. The older psychic already writes intricately detailed personal contracts the way most people set alarms, and takes turns in any serious conversation letting various partitions up and down at a time to make sure he’s fully expressing the range of things he wants to, sometimes over a dozen in a row… more than once Red has simply sat by and waited for Rowan to finish arguing with his variously partitioned selves.

Not that Red is one to throw stones, but Rowan is definitely an odd one.

But none of that is why Red is here today.

“Good evening, Sensei.

“Hello, Red. Please, join me.” The Leader is seated at a wide couch, each end of which has enough pillows to allow them to comfortably face each other. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“No, I’m alright.” He steps out of his flip-flops, leaving them by the door before going to sit on the couch and crossing his legs beneath him.

“You said it was important?”

So much for small talk. Or any other kind of talk. It’s fair enough, he wouldn’t have been able to get this audience just to chat. He senses his unpartitioned self silently acknowledging that, but still feeling a bit disappointed.

“Yeah, so… a couple days ago, Leader Erika reached out to me about joining a group she would like to form to find Renegades in Celadon.” Sabrina’s attention sharpens on him, overt enough that even he can pick it up without Partitioned Red’s help. “I came to see what you think of it.”

“What I think?”

“And for approval,” Red admits, though the truth is he’s hoping for disapproval, an excuse to say no without having to say it himself.

She watches him a moment, and he makes no effort to hide his reluctance. “Do you believe it would interfere with your duties here?”

“I’m not sure,” he admits. “The message was light on details.”

“Then it’s because of what you did in the Casino.” It’s not a question, but he still nods, and Sabrina returns it, then lapses into silence, gaze distant. Red waits, wondering if he should try to get a sense of her mood, if she would reciprocate the glimpse, but before he can try she stirs, taking a deep breath. “I never spoke with you about what happened down there. I meant to, but other things kept coming up… I’m sorry I haven’t made the time.”

Red just stares in surprise for a moment. “I… that’s okay, Sensei. I know you’ve been busy.”

“It’s a minimal excuse. You and your friends nearly died, and you used your psychic abilities to save many lives. I should have let you know that I’m proud, to call you my student.”

There’s something in her tone that’s hard to interpret, and Red’s too embarrassed by the praise to really try. He bows his head in thanks as he murmurs, “I just wish I could have done more.”

“We always do. But no matter how many were lost that day, I can still be glad you weren’t among them.”

Again, there’s something in her tone…

What if it wasn’t just being busy and tiredness, these past few weeks?

It’s a good thought, and Red debates if now is the right time to dig into it…

We probably won’t get a smoother segue.

Another good point. “I appreciate that.” He looks back up at her. “Forgive me for being forward, Sensei, but… did you lose someone that day?”

Sabrina’s eyes widen for just a moment, and then she’s the one that drops her gaze. “Yes.” The word is quiet. “A very old, very dear friend.”

A stab of empathy, an echo of pain from Aiko’s loss, and his father’s before that. He sits with the feelings for a moment, acknowledging them, letting himself mourn them anew… then lets his breath out, and focuses on the sensation of it to let the thoughts go, let the emotions get taken gently back behind his partition, knowing his unpartitioned self will be able to work through the feelings, however painfully, so he doesn’t have to deal with them himself… a far more useful trick than multithreading mental math. It’s still a distraction that might lead to some missed thoughts or insights, but it’s far better than what he used to have to deal with. “I’m so sorry, Sensei.”

“I am too. The worst part is, I don’t even know if he’s dead or not.” She’s staring into the distance again. “A body was never found.”

Damn. He tries to imagine not knowing for sure if his dad or Aiko were alive or not, and even with the partition taking that pain too, it leaves an ache in his chest. “That’s horrible. It would be distracting to anyone.”

“Yes. It’s hard not to think that he’s probably dead, after all this time. And if not, that’s almost worse. The idea of him be out there somewhere, hurt… alone.” She takes a deep breath, and the next words come out in a murmur. “He always hated being alone.”

Red wonders what circumstances the person would have to be in, to be missing and lost for so long. Flying between regions? Maybe someone on the frontier? Or someone like Bill, living alone in seclusion? No, surely their place would have been checked. And if they got lost in the wilderness somewhere, and haven’t reached a town or Ranger Outpost by now, then… yeah. Probably dead.

“It’s painful,” Sabrina goes on. “Knowing that I was so busy that day that I couldn’t… I wasn’t there for him. I wasn’t there for a lot of people.”

Red doesn’t know what else to say, so he just nods, lost in his own memories and distant guilt.

“Tell me about it?”

He blinks and finds her gaze on his again. For a moment he thinks she’s talking about Aiko, what it was like for him afterward. Then he reconnects the question to what she said before, and he suddenly feels wary. But he has no reason not to talk about it other than discomfort.

“It was scary. I couldn’t tell how badly I was hurt, let alone the others, and when Blue wasn’t waking up…” He swallows. Those were a desperate couple of minutes, the most frightening in his life, even counting those moments in Viridian when they were surrounded by pikachu, or everything that happened during the storm. He thought they were all going to suffocate or bleed out, and still sometimes wakes in the middle of the night gasping for air. “I leave the light on, now, when I go to sleep. So I don’t wake in the dark.”

It makes him feel ashamed, weak, admitting that. A reminder that he’s still a kid who can’t handle the real world. But it feels only fair, after he asked her such a personal question, and Sabrina just nods, face sympathetic. “It’s amazing that you managed to keep your psychic concentration, even through that. What was your first sign that the renegades were there?”

The wariness deepens. Talking or thinking about this part in particular always makes the discomfort worse. “I didn’t. Keep my concentration, I mean. It was hard to focus on any one thing at a time, so I used my psydar instead, and only realized when the first two people… when their minds vanished at the same time, right next to the golem that I thought was summoned to save them.”

“And then you focused on it?”

“With the help of my partitioned self, yeah. I realized the next time it attacked a survivor that it was able to see humans as threats. After that it was just a matter of warning my friends.”

She studies him until eventually her lips twitch in a slight smile. “You don’t like the limelight much, do you?”

“Not… really, no.” He wonders if she’s going to try to convince him to be more public about what he did, maybe talk about how good it would look for psychics. That thought in particular makes him deeply uneasy. “Blue and Leaf have talked to me about this sort of thing a lot. I’ve been trying to lean into it more, but for something like this… it would feel wrong.”

“I suppose I can understand that. But you also don’t want your more unique psychic abilities becoming public?”

“Yeah.” He looks down. Looks like she saw right through him. “Don’t want to have to worry about what people think of me, and of psychics in general.”

Sabrina chuckles, and Red blinks at her, wondering what he said that was funny. “I used to worry about that a lot,” she explains upon noticing his confusion. “I’m not saying I don’t anymore, but… I understand. The problem is, I’ve begun to think that this house of cards will come tumbling down sooner or later. It’s just a matter of time before some psychic somewhere does something new and frightening enough that the public turns against us.”

She’s looking off into the distance again, and Red tries to think of something to say to such a bleak prediction when she suddenly asks, “You used your partition while we spoke, right?”

“Yeah.” He’s unsurprised that she can pick up on it after having merged with him while he had the partition both up and down, but the sudden change of topic takes him off guard. “Why?”

“Your control is impressive. I know I haven’t been as dedicated lately, to your education, or to pursuing the task I set for all of you. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that none of it is as important now as it was before…” Again there’s something heavy in her tone, something in the way she trails off momentarily, that makes him feel a surge of empathy, and then she rallies. “But it is still important. I’m sorry it took you coming to see me to make me confront that I’ve been shirking my duties. Since arriving here, you’ve been hardworking, shown good judgement, demonstrated initiative, and of course, loyalty. In normal times that would all be rewarded more thoroughly, but for now…”

She trails off again, this time seeming to be hard at thought over something, and Red patiently waits. Eventually she nods to herself and meets his gaze. “I’ll speak with Erika to see what she wants from you, exactly. In the meantime, you’re still trying to lie to Rowan?”

“Yeah, and I think we’re close. I can lie about things and not know that I’m lying, but as long as he can tell I have partitions up, he knows that one might be an amnesia.”

“So he can’t tell if you’re lying, but he can’t verify that you’re not, either… only use the fact that you don’t bring your partitions down as evidence that you are.”

“Exactly. If this is possible, that’s the trick right there; hiding a partition. Once you forget you have partitions—”

“There’s no way to tell that something might be missing,” Sabrina says, and suddenly she sounds so tired again. Or defeated, maybe, as he confirms what she already said about trust in psychics being a house of cards.

Red nods, then reluctantly adds, “I mean, technically that might already have happened.”

Sabrina glances at him, then nods. “Because neither you nor Rowan would be able to tell if the other had pulled it off. Not long ago I would have been ecstatic to hear about this, and terrified, of course. The age of trust may be coming to an end, and all that will be left is… a form of meta-trust, I suppose.”

Red remembers his conversation with Leaf, about the way Pressure affected her during the storm, and how she fought back against it. “Trust in the person, that if they are hiding something, it’s for good reason?”

Sabrina smiles. It’s a small smile, and a tired one, but it seems to bring some warmth back to her features. “Yes. That’s exactly it. Not something we can afford to do in every situation, of course, but… hopefully in enough, that our society can go on functioning.”

Without turning on its psychics, she doesn’t add. She doesn’t need to, for him and his unpartitioned self to both think it.

Once Red returns to his room, he takes a minute to note some thoughts and observations from the meeting, takes a shower, then lies in bed and, little by little, brings his partition down.

His breath catches as the world loses some vague shine. He stays present in his body, noticing the way it feels heavier, and the way his thoughts seem to slow and become more easily distracted.

And then the memories come.

Memories of what really happened under the Casino that night.

Fear to panic, as Glen was knocked unconscious.

Panic to desperation, as the pokemon moved in for the kill.

Desperation to determination, as he realized what he had to do.

The hardest thing he’s ever done. And the most difficult; on its own the sakki is just the removal of conditioning. If it was all he projected, the pokemon would have been as likely to kill Maria or each other as the renegade.

Instead he also had to use his partitioned self to project the feeling of the renegade as the enemy so that the vulpix would run past the two pokemon in front of it to attack him.

To murder him.

Hey, Partitioned Red says, mental voice sharp. None of that. We’re not murderers, let alone renegades. Trainers are allowed to defend themselves, we looked up the laws, remember?

He does, thanks to the reminder. He pored over them while at the hospital with Blue, waiting for him to wake up, so he knows that technically what he did shouldn’t get him branded.

And yet.

He remembers what it was like, in that trailer on Mount Moon. He remembers the fear from the others in the room, their disgust, their apparent focus on reaching a conclusion then and there, rather than taking more time to investigate the truth. And he remembers the pressure to conform. To pass judgement, to not hold things up with niggling doubts or uncertainties.

The thought of being on the receiving end of that sort of situation makes him feel sick with fear if he contemplates it too long.

What he did under the Casino has never been done before, or at least never investigated. If he’s charged, he can’t predict what attitudes would be, or even who the witnesses would be. Leaf and Maria and Lizzy? Surely none of them would vote against him, right?

But even if cleared, it would be absurdly optimistic to not expect to be constantly viewed with fear and suspicion afterward by others. And given the risks involved if some other psychic learns to do the same thing, there’s no way something like this would stay quiet; he’s pretty sure it would be the first global news to displace the cataclysm.

Everyone would know that he could turn their pokemon against them at any time. He would be a pariah… along with every other psychic in the world, probably, through no fault of their own. Which is the actual reason why joining some task force to hunt for Renegades is the last thing he wants to do, and why his partitioned self feels so uncomfortable when it, or what happened that night, comes up in discussion. He can’t do anything that might put him in a position to accidentally let the secret out.

Well. Any more out. He knew that he would be safest if he never told anyone… but he still had to tell Maria.

It was his fault, after all. Once he was determined to do whatever it took to save her and Glen, he still hadn’t been thinking straight. It’s so obvious, in retrospect, that he could have used the renegade’s own pokemon to kill him. Instead he’d been stuck thinking of the vulpix as their only available resource. The idea of using someone’s pokemon against them just feels… wrong.

It still does, even after he ended up using the other renegade’s sandslash on her, lacking another option. But if he thought of it to save Maria, she never would have known something strange had happened beyond the renegade’s pokemon turning on him.

Instead the fear that others would find out her pokemon killed someone was eating her up inside, all that night and the next day. He couldn’t just let her keep believing she might have been at fault in any way, and if she revealed what actually happened, whether out of confusion or guilt, she might have gotten herself in trouble, or even launched an investigation.

So he told her. She was shocked, but grateful, particularly when he assured her that he would come forward if any suspicion ever fell on her. She insisted in return that she would take his secret to her grave, since he saved her life.

Saved all their lives.

And maybe doomed psychics everywhere.

Catastrophic thinking, Partitioned Red insists. Focus on the positive!

Right. Positives. He takes his notebook out and starts writing:

1) All my friends are alive, and we managed to save some strangers too.

2) We helped expose whatever was going on under the Casino. If all of us died it might have been covered up.

3) If I ever face a renegade, I can probably survive as long as they don’t use Dark pokemon.

That last thought sends a chill through him, but also reveals something else; a door in his thoughts, one he dares not open for fear of what’s on the other side.

All truth is worth knowing. Or don’t we believe that anymore?

Red closes his eyes and lets himself follow the thought.

Maybe he should reveal what he can do.

Maybe the knowledge that it’s possible will be on net beneficial to the world at large.

And maybe he can do more good with it. Become a ranger, or even a renegade hunter…

The thought makes him want to turn away again. Red hasn’t watched or read a lot of fiction, relatively speaking, but from what he remembers, whether the heroes in stories even used their special powers isn’t often seriously explored in most.

What they did with them, sure. One character he particularly identified with was Dr. Banner, a scientist who, through a freak lab accident, “evolved” into a new form of human with incredible fighting potential and literal Fighting abilities. All he wanted to do was continue his research, but instead Dr. Banner repeatedly found himself in situations where he had to use his new powers (guided by his human intellect) to save others.

But while the show sometimes featured others treating the transformed scientist as a freak, and dealt with his desire to be “normal” again, he was never in danger of being hunted by society and executed just for what he could do. At worst there were a couple episodes where some immoral scientists or renegades tried to capture and study or use him. Most people in the show saw him as a hero.

Would even Red’s friends and family see him as one? Or would the danger he represents scare them, too?

Mom wouldn’t abandon us. Neither would Blue and Leaf, and Professor Oak wouldn’t let anything happen.

Red closes his eyes. The words from his partitioned self are defiant, but there’s no hiding the uncertainty under the words, particularly at the end. Maybe they would all stand by him, and maybe he wouldn’t be executed. But he would live the rest of his life under a cloud of suspicion, and if any pokemon around him ever accidentally hurt someone, he would be blamed.

He wouldn’t even be able to prove his innocence, once they knew he’s also studied how to lie to other psychics.

Despair rises like a black tide, and it’s hard to fight it down. There doesn’t seem to be a way out. Like Sabrina said about the view of psychics in general: it’s all a house of cards. Sooner or later, it will come tumbling down.

Irrationally, even feeling like it’s inevitable, what scares Red more than the actual potential outcomes is the idea that he might be the one who causes it.

A probe of his mental shield derails the forming depressive spiral, and as he quickly builds his partition back up there’s a knock at the door.

He takes a deep breath as the world lightens and grows clearer, and rubs his face. Yes, things are difficult. The worries of another cataclysm, of new legendaries appearing, of people fearing psychics that can lie… it makes sense to be afraid. But they can come together to prepare, and the real worst case scenario for psychics is they become as distrusted as dark people. He’s not the only one with doubts; Leaf is experimenting with fundamentally rewriting the brains of millions of pokemon so they can live in better harmony with humans, despite her views on their moral value. Blue gets up and does his best to become the greatest Champion in history every day while knowing that some people will always view his motives with suspicion. Red can’t do any less just because the same thing might happen to him.

“Coming,” he calls out, then walks to the door as he lowers his shield and probes back. “Hey Jason,” he says as he opens the door, and sees his peer is dressed in an informal yukata today. After spending some time at Celadon Gym, where the members used their clothing as a way to communicate everything from rank to expertise to mood, he can’t help but read into Jason’s choice of modest dark cloth. He looks like he’s in mourning, or maybe just expressing a particularly somber attitude, though the mental impression Red got was more… worried. And of course his fingers move over the beads of his necklace as he turns it around and around, a sure sign that something’s bothering him.

“Good evening, Red. I’d like to talk to you about something. May I come in?”

“Sure, I’m free.” Red steps back, curious and a little concerned. Jason is generally formal, but as they’ve gotten to know each other better he’s been a bit more relaxed in private with him. “Can I get you something?” he asks as he closes the door, echoing Sabrina.

“I’m alright, thank you.”

Red nods and leads the older boy to the beanbags he set up for himself and guests. Jason sits carefully on his, adjusts a few times to get comfortable, then continues to fidget with his necklace.

Red lowers his shield to read him again, just a brief dip that communicates Jason’s uncertainty and worry. He can’t recall ever seeing his friend like this, and the silence stretches out for what feels like a minute before Red dares to break it. “So…?”

“I’m sorry, I’m still not sure if I have the right to ask…”

Maybe he should be more trepidatious, but curiosity is stronger. “Take your time. Maybe start with what’s got you so nervous?”

Jason nods, and takes a breath. “Do you remember when I told you my upbringing, in Lavender Town?” Red nods. “My family still lives there, as does my first sensei. Over the past week, she’s been telling me that something is disturbing the Ghosts at Lavender Tower.”

Ah, there’s the trepidation. “Disturbing, how?”

“There are more of them. The rangers guarding the tower have reported no unusual activity, Ghosts haven’t attacked anyone recently so no one seems concerned. But Sensei Reigen says whatever is happening started shortly after the cataclysm, and has only been getting worse since then.”

The words spread a chill through Red’s stomach, cold fingers creeping up his torso until he can feel each heartbeat. “She told people that, and they still haven’t looked into it? The rangers haven’t looked into it?”

“They have, but apparently found no evidence of impending attack…”

“Maybe Sensei can—”

“I already asked her. She said I could investigate as long as I don’t do it alone, but is too busy to go herself.”

“Ah.” Red says, then, “Shit.”

“I’m sorry, you don’t have to—”

“No.” Red takes a breath, trying to control his fear, and the memories they invoke of standing on the roof and seeing that dark sphere, feeling that burning hunger… “But I’ll still go with you.”

Jason searches his gaze. “Really?”

“Yeah, of course. It seems important, and besides, my mother’s in Lavender Town for work. I want to make sure she’s okay. But… why me? My only experience with Ghosts was with you.”

“I am experienced enough on that front. What I lack is experience in… other things. Your journey has exposed you to many dangers, and you’ve been involved in organized groups. I was hoping…”

“Ah.” Red smiles as he gets it. “You’re hoping for Blue and his friends to get involved.”

Jason nods. “This is why I was hesitant to ask. You have a unique and analytical way of thinking that might see things I would miss, so I am happy to have you come as well. But I don’t know how dangerous the investigation will be, and I don’t know many other trainers, and it seemed like you could form a group who would be interested and competent more easily than I.” Jason pauses to breathe, and Red hides his smile at the sight of the normally stoic medium’s obvious embarrassment.

“I’m not offended, Jason.” He’s pretty sure he wouldn’t be even if he couldn’t sense his sincerity. Part of the point in getting involved with What Comes Next was to improve coordination for important tasks, and he’s used it himself to get access to unown research. He can’t resent someone seeking him out to make use of the network too. “I’ll put a general message out tonight, and talk to Blue to see if he’s got time. I wouldn’t get your hopes up, he’s pretty focused on getting badges, but he might know someone else who’s up for it.”

Jason lets out a breath. “Thank you, Red. I was going to send a message to Mistress Agatha, but… if Sensei doesn’t think it’s worth investigating herself yet, I want something more substantial before I bother an Elite about it.”

“Yeah, I get it. But you should message her anyway.” He still remembers the wild impulse he had in Viridian Forest to randomly message Giovanni, and his shock at actually getting an answer. “What’s the worst thing that happens, you waste, like, ten seconds of her time? You don’t think she’ll be mad at you, do you?”

“…I suppose not. Alright, I will.”

“Good. So when did you want to head out?”

“You are the one doing me the favor. When are you free?”

Red thinks through his schedule for the next few days. “I’ll pack tonight and reach out to Blue to see if he’s in touch with anyone that might want to come. Tomorrow I have to take care of some errands, and I’ll do some research on the issue. Let’s add a day for others to prepare, and tentatively say three days from now?”

“Wonderful.” Jason smiles, looking much more his usual self. “Thank you, Red.”

Blue, as it turns out, is more willing to come along than Red expected.

“You actually caught me at the perfect time,” Blue admits. From the background noises it sounds like he’s walking through the city. “Most of the gang is still working their way through the challenge matches here. I wasn’t planning to go to Saffron without them, but a lot of them are part of other groups now too, so it’s not as necessary for us all to move around together.”

“Makes sense,” Red says as he climbs the stairs toward the roof of his building. Everyone will want to journey with the trainers that fought in those scenarios at Vermilion, and most of them are heavily involved in What Comes Next. “How many do you think will want to come with you, then?”

“Of those not done with their challenge matches or busy with their own projects, I’d say at least three, plus anyone else here who might be interested in coming. Any guesses for what’s happening, yet?”

“Well, the data is all secondhand, but assuming it’s accurate… it’s possible that the earthquakes changed something in Lavender Tower or around it that made it easier for Ghosts to breed.”

From what Red remembers reading a while back, while the few “living” pokemon considered Ghost type, such as jellicent and decidueye, breed in recognizably biological fashion, “non-living” Ghost pokemon reproduce by spreading incorporeal “seeds” in objects that then become their offspring. Red watched, fascinated, as a sped up recording of a litwick breeding room (just a bunch of candles set out in an area where chandelure and lampent could freely roam through) eventually showed one of the candles abruptly flare to life, yellow eyes blinking into existence under its blue flame.

And so, with Lavender Tower being mostly occupied by the gastly line, that would mean…

“What, like there might just be a ton of extra dead bodies decomposing all over the place?” Blue asks. “Wouldn’t people notice that?”

Red shrugs and smiles. “That’s part of what we’ll be investigating.”

“Right. Well in any case, I’m in. I’ll ask around to see who else wants to come. What about Leaf?”

“Heading to the ranch now, I’ll ask her in person.”

“Cool. Tell her I said hi, gotta go.”

The call ends, and Red opens the door to the roof. The morning sun is bright and untouched by clouds, but can’t quite take the kiss of early winter from the air, and he zips up his jacket before bringing Ranch out.

The abra has grown to twice its size since he caught it, despite not being in any battles. Melding with its mind is as easy as adjusting his partition, and soon he’s experiencing the brisk morning air through two bodies. Ranch’s eyes stay closed, but its nostrils flare as it scents for danger, then for food… which are the only two things it’s particularly good at identifying by smell. Still, Red feels Ranch’s body relax slightly as it smells him, the scent associated with family, and he takes a moment to send reassuring feelings back while digging some berries out of the side pouch of his bag.

His own mouth waters as his pokemon smells the berries, then hungrily laps them from his palm, mouth filling with tart pulp and sweet juices. Once Ranch is fed, Red starts concentrating on his destination… Pallet Town.

Leaf isn’t expecting Red for about another ten minutes, which means Red has time to practice free teleportation. Most of the work involves merging with a pokemon so thoroughly that they can use their trainer’s senses as well as the trainer can theirs, which is necessary to reach the point that your memories are as real to them as their own. After spending every spare moment merged with his abra over the course of weeks, he believes he’s finally accomplished that.

All that’s left is concentrating so thoroughly on a location he’s been to before that, when he triggers the teleportation command, they go there instead of the registered location. And there’s nowhere he knows as well as his childhood home. His mother told him that she was renting the place out to a couple, but that they were staying in the guest bedroom, and that her room and his were left as is. If he can just focus on what it felt like to be in his room…

The smell of linen and books. Safety. Warmth blanket books smell-of-breakfast quiet-nights-screenglow

He feels the sense of familiarity projected and echoed back by Ranch. Something tickles in his brain, a sensation he’s not entirely sure is physical rather than mental (if there’s even a difference), and he almost, for a moment, understands what it is abra do when they teleport, almost understands in some wordless way how teleportation doesn’t interact with the physical world at all, but rather the one in which minds leave an impression that can be read and communicated with…

…the astral realm…

…and then the sensation starts to disperse, failing to catch onto something solid, and finally fades as his thoughts scatter.

Red opens his eyes with a sigh. He’s close, far closer than he would be at this point in his psychic career if he hadn’t practiced mirroring the mental states of others as they use free teleportation, but there’s still some final bit of familiarity or connection he’s missing, or that Ranch is. It would be so convenient to be able to just have one abra that lets him travel anywhere, rather than having to constantly swap the registered locations of the ones he has.

He checks the time to see if he can try again, but sees that as usual more time passed than it seemed, and instead just gives the mental command to teleport to Ranch’s registered spot. The world twists around him as Ranch links their minds, and pulls their bodies sideways through reality, causing him to stumble a bit as he lands on the grass outside Aiko’s home.

He reinforces his pokemon’s success, then withdraws him and looks around. Most of the damage to the ranch was repaired within a week, though the two ponds seem to just be permanently bigger and merged into one now. Mr. Sakai is in the process of building a dam (or a weir, maybe, Red isn’t sure what the right term is) between them to keep two distinct bodies of water for aquatic pokemon with different preferences. Red can see him now, wearing just a bathing suit as he wades into the shallow water connecting the two deep pools.

Red waves to him, but isn’t seen. He debates going over to say hello, maybe offer his help. He still feels a wretched guilt in his stomach every time he talks to Aiko’s father. Still fears the condemnation, the rage, the tears.

It’s getting easier. Little by little, every time it doesn’t happen, he feels safer assuring himself it won’t.

But part of him still feels like he deserves it. What helps is knowing that Leaf and even Blue feel the same, to some degree.


Leaf is jogging over to him with a smile, and he smiles back as she reaches him for a hug. With his partition up he might have frozen, blushed, stammered out a hello. Without it, he can just appreciate the friendly comfort for what it is.

Like Sabrina, Leaf is also aware of the differences in him. When she pulls away, her gaze searches his. “How are you?”

“Not bad, actually. I’ve had it down since this morning.”

“Wow. Is that a new record?”

“Yeah.” He takes a deep breath of the fresh country air. “It’s getting easier, as long as I don’t get hit with something bad.” Like whatever is behind his amnesia’d partition.

“I’m glad.” She links her arm with his and leads him back toward the bags of feed. “So what adventure have you come to sweep me off to this time?”

“Hmm. I think you’ve been the adventure sweeper up until now.”

“That can’t be right… what about the time you took me to Bill’s house?”

“Doesn’t count, we were already journeying together. You weren’t swept, more of a… tag-along.”

“Hmph. That’s far less romantic sounding. Guess you’re going to discount the cruise by that logic too?”

“Yep.” Partition down or not, his pulse quickens at the word “romantic,” but somehow it’s easy to keep the banter going. “And going to face Zapdos. In fact, you’re right, you’re not the sweeper. It’s been your whole thing from the very first day at Pallet Lab: see me about to go do something cool, tag along for the ride.”

“I’m sorry, which of us cracked open a murderous conspiracy and met Leader Giovanni? If you weren’t Laura’s son you probably wouldn’t have even been told about the hacker spy ninja… hacker ninja spy?… ninja hacker spy I’ve been investigating.”


“Mount Moon was my suggestion too, and I’m not discounting it just because we were already journeying together.”

“If we—”

“Also you’re not giving me enough credit for getting us all trapped by the worst earthquakes in Kanto history. I had to practically drag you to that near death experience, and I deserve credit for it.”

Her words are deceptively light, but Red can’t help snorting, and her responding smile brings out his own. “Okay, we’ve both swept each other into adventures. This one’s spooky though.”

“We haven’t done a spooky adventure before,” she concedes. “We going to see your mom?”

“No, though we can still say hi. Something’s up at Lavender Tower, and I want you to come investigate it with us.”

“Why me? I don’t know much about Ghosts.”

Red smiles. “That’s what said about myself, so I’ll give you the same answer I was given: you think in a different way than I do, and you’ve done things no one else has as a result. I want you on any adventures I go on.”

He’s thrilled to see a slight blush spread over her cheeks, and she looks away briefly, then back. “Well, sure. Plus, someone’s got to keep you company the next time you run at a nidoqueen by yourself.”

There’s a brief flash of fear and guilt from the sight of Leaf on the wet pavement, followed by a deeper echo as he feels Aiko’s shirt slip from his fingers. He almost brings the partition up, but takes a moment to breathe instead, to focus on the warmth of Leaf’s arm in his. “Thanks. So, uh. How is the ninja investigation going?”

“Ac-tually, I may have hit a breakthrough on that,” she says with a grin as they reach the sacks of pokeballs and food, each taking a pair. “Remember my friend Natural?”


“I might have sent him a copy of documents I found in the secret lab.”

Red stops and stares at Leaf. She seems a bit nervous, but her smile doesn’t fade, and eventually Red grins back. “Does Mom know?”

“Yeah, I told her after it became clear that someone leaked a lot of the same info. I thought it was Natural, but he swore it wasn’t, and I believe him; the info on the web is slightly different from what I got.”

“So you’ve got a source of Silph documents that could be used as a lure for someone else looking for them?”

“Oh, sure, maybe. But it also proves that whoever leaked those documents had a different but similar source, likely the files from a computer at the same lab.”

Now Red gets it. “You think they’re a police detective?”

Leaf smiles. “It would explain their skills and motive more than an ex-employee. And now that they don’t feel safe bringing the info to Laura, they’re just putting the info online to damage Silph as much as possible.”

“Huh. Makes sense… but didn’t you think the ninja is from Fuchsia?”

“We don’t know where the CPD’s information was sent and if they’re a Fuchsia officer they might have friends in other places. I know, it’s not airtight, but at this point I’ll take any narrowing parameters. I’ve been working on cross-checking Fuchsia and Celadon police, along with Saffron for good measure.”

Red nods. “No, it makes sense. Want a hand with it after the chores are done?”

“Absolutely. Maybe we’ll be able to surprise Laura with more than just our presence.”

Leaf joins Red and Jason in Saffron a couple days later, and they have lunch at a restaurant on the eastern edge of the city. The air is chilly, and Red finds himself constantly glancing at Leaf, whose cheeks are rosy above her collared coat and scarf. He feels comfortable enough with his jacket buttoned up, but he keeps his hands wrapped around his hot mug of tea as they wait for Blue and his group to arrive. When they finally do, Red sees only one other familiar face.

“So the bad news is, fewer people were free to come than I expected,” Blue explains as he hugs Leaf and knocks fists with Red, then turns to Jason. “Hi, I’m Blue. This is Maria, a journey mate of mine, and Jean, a psychic from the Celadon Gym. Jean, this is Red and Leaf, and I assume Jason.”

“It’s nice to meet you all,” Jean says with a bow. She has pale skin and dark red hair, but it’s her kimono that draws the eye, a complex swirl of patterns and colors that Red has rarely seen outside of the garden gym. “I’m looking forward to working with two of Leader Sabrina’s students.”

“Yeah, good to have you,” Red says, gaze quickly moving back to Maria and wondering why she decided to come.

“I have a ton of questions for you,” Leaf says to Jean, smiling, then turns to Maria. “Hi, Maria.”

“Hello, Leaf.” The pale girl smiles back. These days she still wears a dark cloak, but the wide black hat is gone, leaving her murkrow to perch on her shoulder, its dark feathers blending with her hair. “Red.” Her eyes meet his, and there’s something he can’t quite read in them. Then she’s looking to the third in their group.

“Thank you all for coming.” The medium bows. “I don’t see how this is bad news, as this many trainers is more than I expected.”

“Yeah, you said that like there’s good news coming?” Red asks Blue.

“Yep. The good news is, our mission got sponsored.” Blue unclips a container ball and summons a box from it. He opens the top and starts passing around the contents. “Remember that anti-surreality tech that Silph was working on?”

Red examines the goggles he’s handed. They’re surprisingly heavy, and he wonders what the lenses are made of. He remembers reading about early experiments to counter the effects of surreality, including viewing ghost pokemon through glass, thin cloth, even a recording cell phone, since they appear “normal” on camera. But something about the physical proximity combined with viewing them, even indistinctly or by digital representation, is important… as if it’s the attention that matters, the act of observing.

The strongest Ghost pokemon still only affect those within fifty meters, which means the audience in a stadium are safe, but the effects of young or weak Ghost types all extend beyond the range of even an ultra ball. With goggles like these on, catching Ghost pokemon would be much easier. “I thought they weren’t on the market yet…”

“They’re not,” Leaf says as she carefully puts hers on. “When their schematics leaked online, Silph knew that a patent lawsuit would only help stop commercial sales. Governments and organizations are just going to make their own unless Silph starts throwing its weight around… which means you got these from a gym, or the Rangers, or… Oh, duh.”

“Yep. A few engineers over at Pallet Labs built one to help study Ghost pokemon. From there it wasn’t hard to replicate the rest.”

“Nice.” Replication was always possible with pokeball tech, but only for very simple constructs. One of the side effects of the advanced replication breakthrough showcased on the SS Anne is the ability to do it with much higher fidelity, which has apparently made all sorts of technology much cheaper after shaking up the manufacturing industry. (And the world of sculptures: some guy from the pokemon cloning research team going online by ‘Froggy’ started selling anatomically perfect statues of pokemon made from various materials, instantly shaped in various poses based on what the pokemon was commanded to do at moment of capture.) The dropped price of pokedex in particular has been a huge boon to many, though all Red could think when he saw the new prices was how Aiko could probably have afforded a new pokedex of her own years before she met them if the technology had advanced earlier.

“With these we should be more prepared than a group of our size would normally be,” Blue says as he puts the box away, then takes out his box of riding gear. “I did put the news out on the net, of course, so more people might join us in Lavender.”

“To be clear, this is just for protective purposes?” Jason asks as he gives his goggles one last thoughtful look, then takes out his own box of biking gear and puts it inside in exchange for a helmet. “Our main objective is to study what may be happening at the Tower.”

“Sure, but if there’s any chance of an impending rampage, we need to be able to cut their numbers down.” Blue finishes putting his pads and helmet on, but doesn’t lift his bike out of its box. Instead he grins at Red and Leaf. “You guys want to see something cool?” Without waiting for an answer, he lifts a great ball. “Go, Soul!”

The arcanine appears in a flash, and lifts its head, sniffing as it looks around them. It’s big up close in the way that has as much to do with presence as actual size; the very air feels warm around it, and Red can smell the faint burning-charcoal scent of its fur.

“He’s beautiful, Blue,” Leaf says with a smile. “But you should have said—”

“Something hot, yeah, I know. That’s not the cool part, though Soul is pretty awesome. This is.” Instead of taking his bike out of the box, he lifts a saddle.

“You’ve been riding him?” Red asks, surprised.

“Just in training rooms. Figured this would be a good time for a—”

Field test?” Leaf grins.

Blue looks at Leaf, then the open grasslands ahead, then sighs and straps the saddle onto his pokemon one side at a time. “Live run,” he mutters. “Yours is better.”

“I know.”

Red smiles and waits until he’s finished adjusting the straps tight, then takes out his list and adds a new line. “Saddle secure?”

Blue rolls his eyes. “You’re still on that? Yes, they’re… what’s another word for secure?”

“Safe,” Jason offers.

“Stable,” Jean suggests.

Blue glares at them, then Leaf as she starts giggling. Finally his lips curl in a slight smile, and he shakes his head as he climbs up onto his saddle. “Come on, boy, let’s get away from these losers.” He squeezes his knees, and the rest of them watch as his pokemon leaps forward, causing Blue to whoop as they race ahead.

Red pulls his bike up. “Better get moving, with our luck he’s going to run right into another wigglytuff if we don’t—” There’s the distant sound of pokeball discharge, and he looks up to see Blue’s pidgeotto flying ahead of him and his arcanine. “Well, we should still hurry after them.” A rapid series of explosive discharges sound as they each summon their own pokemon; Red brings out Pikachu to ride in his basket, and Butterfree to fly above him. Once everyone’s ready he takes off after Blue, the others close behind.

It’s been nearly half a year since Red travelled in a group, and it takes a few minutes for the instincts to come back. Check the sides, check your travel mates, eyes front, repeat. Watch for tall patches or hills that might obscure pokemon near the road. He’s never been the one to set the pace before, but once they catch up to Blue he takes the lead, while Jason and Jean form the other two points of a triangle for maximum spread of psychic threat scanning. He’s nervous about the possibility of battle after so long without being in one, but he does his best to project confidence for Jason’s sake; with their senses both open to their surroundings, it’s easy to notice that the medium seems uncertain about something, almost uncomfortably so. Jean by comparison seems to be enjoying herself.

Red sends Jason a pulse of concerned curiosity, wondering if he’s just nervous about being out in the wilderness, tame as the route between Saffron and Lavender is. Jason sends back appreciation and deferral, so Red waits until their first rest stop near a ranger outpost to approach him.

“It’s nothing, really,” Jason assures him without Red even needing to say anything. The medium is lying on a small hill, and Red joins him while the others feed their pokemon and Blue drinks a whole water bottle down, body covered in sweat. “It’s been a while since I did not have the luxury of being able to ground loose thoughts, that’s all.”

“I can leave you to meditate if you’d prefer,” Red says. “But I’d like to help if I can.”

Jason hesitates. “I don’t mean to question your leadership, or that of your friend… I know you both are more experienced than I am at facing danger.”

Is that what this is about? “Jason, you’re not here as an adviser, it’s your mission. Blue may be famous, but he’s not conceited about it. He’ll listen if you have something you want to say.”

“That is… reassuring.”

“You only seem slightly reassured.” Red tries to make a joke of it, but he’s never seen his fellow psychic so unsure of himself. “I never asked, did you have journeymates before you became Sabrina’s student?”

“Briefly. Four trainers who were passing through Lavender Town accepted me as a fifth companion while they explored the outlying areas, and then let me accompany them to Saffron.”

Red tries imagining that; leaving Pallet Town with four older, more experienced trainers who he just recently met. He would have felt both eager to prove himself and worried about being a burden. “And they weren’t inclined to listen much to the new guy?”

“Well, I didn’t have any experience or insight to offer, outside of my expertise with Ghost and Psychic pokemon. But they did not include me in their discussions of strategy or planning. It made sense. They knew what they were doing, and I was the inexperienced outsider…”

“But now that we’re specifically on our way to investigate something about Ghost pokemon, it probably worries you, seeing how easily Blue takes the lead.”

Jason bows his head. “Yes. You and I are similar in that navigating social hierarchy doesn’t come naturally to us, but Blue seems very adept at it, which confers on him automatic power in such situations.”

“Well, what if I do something that makes it clear I value your expertise on Ghost pokemon? I probably should have done more when I introduced you to make that clear.”

“That… might help, yes. I trust that he is a good leader, based on his experiences and your regard for him. I only worry that, once we arrive at the Tower, the mission might not have a clear solution or direction, and if Blue naturally steps up to guide us…”

“You want to make sure he doesn’t get distracted by other priorities. I get it.” He thinks of the goggles, and his own interest in testing them. “I’ll try not to divert the mission either, and speak up if someone else does.”

“Thank you, Red.”

“No problem, thanks for filling me in.” His attention is distracted by Maria, who’s standing not too far and glancing over at the two of them as she brushes her murkrow’s feathers. Behind her, Leaf is asking Jean about her kimono, and Blue is adjusting the straps on Soul.

“That girl, Maria,” Jason murmurs. “She’s a sensitive.”

“You can tell?” Red asks, surprised.

“Yes.” The medium raises his voice. “Would you like to join us?”

She seems surprised to be addressed, then nods and approaches as her pokemon flaps to the ground and begins to search the grass. “Hello.”

“Hi, Maria. Want to join us?”

“No, thank you. Grass stains.” She pats down the edges of her short cloak. “You seemed to be curious?” She’s looking at Jason.

“Yes, I’m sorry if it was discomforting. I didn’t realize you could sense me at first.”

“That’s alright, I became used to the feeling.”

“Ah, yes, I thought I recognized you. You’re one of the girls from the Casino.”

She ducks her head. “I am. That’s actually part of why I’m here.” She glances at Red, and smiles. “Red saved my life that night. I wanted to help repay him, if possible.”

Smile back. Red does so, not sure what his unpartitioned self knows that he doesn’t but trusting there’s a good reason for it. “All I did was warn you. Capturing their pokemon and keeping Glen alive were way more impressive.”

“Well, I’m glad you are here,” Jason says. “I believe you may have some untapped talent regarding Ghost pokemon.”

Her eyes widen. “How do you know?”

“Just a feeling. Like recognizing like, shall we say? I don’t know for sure, but am happy to work with you and discover it if so. Have you ever encountered a Ghost pokemon before?”

“No. That’s the other part of why I came. I was curious to experience something new.”

“Then tonight, after we arrive, you’ll meet my Ghost pokemon in a safe setting.” He gives a wry smile. “Assuming we do not encounter any after we arrive.”

Lavender Tower appears before the town itself is visible, a distant exclamation point against the horizon that gains color and definition until Red can count each story and make out the lightning rod above the domed roof. Its color fits the name of the town, but each story above the first is a slightly lighter shade than the last, so that it appears as if the whole thing were blending into the sky. They arrive at the outskirts as the sun is starting to descend, the trip concluding uneventfully; between the three psychics searching for threats, they were able to avoid any confrontation with wild pokemon along the way.

The town’s Trainer House is small, just three stories high and sharing its block with a trainer supply market. Their group draws a lot of stares, probably because of Blue’s arcanine, which pants for breath as Blue slides out of the saddle and to the ground, clothing and hair soaked through. He groans as he puts his hands on the back of his hips and stretches.

“That can’t have been comfortable,” Leaf remarks as the rest of them take out their container boxes and begin packing away their riding gear.

“It wasn’t,” he grumbles. “He kept me warm, but riding on pokemon is overrated.”

“Depends on the terrain, I’d say,” Jean points out. “Bikes are less effective in forests, for example, while arcanine can move through them much more quickly. You’re still trading comfort, but at least it’s for a reason.” She smiles. “Other than to look impressive, of course. Which you accomplished.”

Blue grins and starts brushing his pokemon’s fur. “Guess it wasn’t that bad.”

Soon they’re inside and registering for rooms. As Red waits in line, he takes his phone out to message his mom and let her know they arrived just as a young man with short dirty blond hair approaches. He’s wearing a pokebelt, but also the white coat of a researcher.

“Hello, Blue? Red?” He smiles, clearly recognizing them. “I’m Artem. I’ve been working with—”

“The unown research team,” Red says, and smiles. “I remember you from the forum. Nice to meet you! What are you doing here?”

“You too! I was nearby when your message about Lavender Tower went out, and decided to come investigate too. It’s actually quite fascinating what’s been happening—”

“Hold that thought.” Red psychically gets Jason’s attention, then waves him over. “Artem, this is Jason. He’s a medium studying under Leader Sabrina, and is actually our team leader in the investigation. Jason, Artem got here before us and has apparently already noticed something.”

Jason smiles at Red, then bows to Artem. “Thank you for joining us. What did you find? Have the increased amount of Ghosts in the area become noticeable?”

“Ah, no, actually quite the opposite!” Artem belatedly bows back, hands fidgeting in the pockets of his coat and smiling excitedly as he looks back and forth between them. “It seems the Ghosts in Lavender Tower have largely disappeared!”

Chapter 86: Interlude XVII – The Needs of the Few

No, thank you.”

Her parents looked at her like she’d turned into a doduo, and she almost smiled at the mental image of herself with two heads. Instead she struggled to keep her face placid and calm, intuiting that anything short of utter seriousness would doom her to failure.

But Erika,” her mother started, and already the tone was wrong, wrong, WRONG, it’s not the tone she ever uses when talking to father, nor to any other adults, it’s the tone the teachers use when trying to get a crying student to calm down, but she’s NOT crying, she’s CALM, “You know how much grandma enjoys your visits. She even said she bought you some new dresses, remember?”

“I do not enjoy the visits,” she replied, still calm as she continued staring at her book. It was one of her very favorite books, as large as her torso and with each massive page containing a high definition picture of a different Grass pokemon, paragraphs of small words crammed all around the image. As she spoke she looked at a vileplume, the left half of its body overlaid on a separate half-page that, when turned, revealed under it a computer generated image of its inner structure; first the fibrous muscles under the skin, then, when she turned that page as well, the hard roots it has in the place of bones. She’d already read over the book so many times she can practically recite each paragraph by heart, but she turned the pages anyway, then turned her head to the opposite page, which showed a paras, its own hidden half-pages mirroring the vileplume’s so that the book closed perfectly evenly.

She loved the book for its craftsmanship as much as its content, and the feel of the thick, glossy pages (are they even made of paper?) under her fingers was soothing as she kept her eyes averted from her parents, who stood in the doorway of her room dressed and ready to go.

We’ve talked about this, Erika,” her father said. His voice was better than mother’s, patient without being brittle the way hers was, but if it gave way to anger it was worse, far worse. “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do.”

Yes, like chores,” she said, and turned the page to pass her eyes over the innards of the paras. It was part of the strategy she devised without words, a simple understanding that the farther she was from being ready, the more energy her parents would have to commit to getting her ready, the more likely they would be to just give up and leave without her. “I did all my chores, and my homework.” She didn’t always, but this week she did, just in case it helped. “I can do things I don’t want to if I have to. I don’t have to visit grandma.”

But Erika, she’s family,” mother said, as if that was a reason. As if that meant something. “Why don’t you want to go?”

I told you. I told both of you. You didn’t listen.” She knew she had to stay calm, but her voice wavered and her eyes burned. She raised her book to hide behind it. You never listen. She always makes me put on dresses like a doll and touches my hair even though I say to stop and says mean things about the way I act and we have to always eat the food she likes and I don’t like it, and I don’t like the way her house smells and we’re always there for hours and I can’t read or watch vids or anything because that would be rude but no one tells her that saying mean things about my friends is rude and it’s not fair that I have to go just to make her happy instead of not having to go to make me happy. I’m her family too, shouldn’t she care if I’m h-hap…

The tears overflowed, blurring the picture of the parasect. She heard her mother sigh, and she knows that sigh, knows even without looking that her mother is rubbing her forehead, eyes closed.

Erika… your grandmother is very old, and she’s not going to be around forever. When you’re older you’ll be glad that we took you to see her even when you didn’t want to.”

Her mother’s words made her stomach feel heavy, guilt and shame and anger and doubt swirling as her throat and eyes and nose burned, and she didn’t have the words, couldn’t explain that maybe her mother was right and maybe she would understand later, but her memory and her senses told her she won’t enjoy it, that she’d just make more bad memories and regret wasting another whole Saturday, and worst of all—

the tears began to spill down her cheeks, and mother and father began arguing in a low voice—

worst of all being told to ignore her memory and senses meant she couldn’t trust them at all. What if she thought hugs were good but later they were bad? What if she believed learning about plants was good but later she’d regret it, that it was dumb just like Hayate from school said…

Erika.” Her father’s voice, deep and blunt, anger at its edges. “You are being very spoiled and selfish right now. I will not drag you from your bed like a baby. Your mother and I are going to the car. If you are not there in two minutes, we will leave without you and there will be no dessert, no playtime, no internet, and no books for a month. Understand?”

Her fingers tightened around the glossy edges of her large book, and she closed her eyes, refusing to acknowledge him as the hot tears continued to stream down her face.

Two minutes,” he repeated, and then she heard their footsteps retreating, and a moment later the front door opened and closed.

She held out for a minute and a half, gripping her book tight and trying to read through her tears and trying to convince herself that she wouldn’t give in, wouldn’t wouldn’t wouldn’t, and then she dropped it and ran, heard it bounce on the floor and later would find one of its hard cardboard corners bent under the smooth outer lacquer.

She could do things she didn’t want to do, when she had to.

Leader Erika walks into the Celadon central police station and immediately heads past those working at the front with a simple nod. The officers nod back, and a couple even smile. They were all strangers, before. Now she’s been here often enough that she recognizes the faces on every shift.

Before. That the word has gained such weight in everyone’s collective thoughts and dialogue speaks volumes in itself of the times they’re living through. Within a day of the weather gods’ abrupt arrival and departure, it became clear to Erika that any major plans she had for the next few months would have to be delayed or reconsidered. By the next week she realized that her plans for the whole year might not survive the changes taking place around the island, and it only got worse from there as the consequences, both ecological and social, continued to make themselves known around the world.

Now, nearly a month later, Erika has begun to realize that rather than expecting things to go back to “normal,” she would have to make her plans around a new concept of what normal is.

Not least of which involves the region’s perception of renegades.

She passes one of the more secure checkpoints and arrives at the Chief’s office, knocking politely and waiting for the “Come in” to do so. Her bright kimono makes her stand out in the police station, where everyone else is wearing uniforms or formal suits, but one of the privileges of her position is that she gets to wear whatever she wants, whenever she wants, and has even made it a sign of status.

No one here knows what her clothing indicates, of course; they would have to be from her Gym to recognize the woven patterns signaling that she is Feeling Asexual Today but Craving Comforting Touches and Looking For Help On Various Tasks and is Not To Be Disturbed Unless For Serious Issues. She can’t recall the last time her patterns have been so consistent for so long, but it has been nice at the Gym to only have people come up to her to give a hug or offer some of their time for any menial tasks she might need done, while only her Second and Third felt willing to breach the last one.

Of course that means leaving the Gym, already an unpleasant experience most days before (before), requires her to put some extra effort into social interactions to protect against the sorts of social missteps that normal culture has never bothered trying to solve.

Such as the handsome man in the suit who appears fascinated by the detailed map of the city hanging on the police chief’s wall. He turns and beams at her as soon as she enters the door, and approaches offering his hand for a shake. “Good afternoon, Leader Erika. I’m Agent Looker with Interpol, and I’ve been sent to take over the investigation here.”

She folds her own in her sleeves and bows her head instead. She doesn’t understand why handshakes are even still a thing; unhygienic, inconvenient if your hands are full, no set protocol for grip length or strength, and downright unpleasant if either person is sweating. All the potential downsides of a hug with none of the benefits.

The foreigner blinks, then drops his arm before he bows stiffly back. Not out of disrespect, she guesses, but age and unfamiliarity. He’s still smiling, and appears to be in his mid forties, hair just starting to grey at the temples and deep lines around his eyes and mouth. She’s only ever met a couple Interregional Police agents, since most of their quarry don’t try hiding in major cities like Celadon… or rather, that’s what everyone believed. It’s a thought from before, and she expects the overturning of that particular assumption has been as shocking to those from Interpol as anyone. “Good afternoon, Agent Looker.” She turns to Chief Takahashi and Detective Hirai. “Chief, Detective.” She bows to both, who return it, then turns back to the newcomer. “Welcome to Celadon City. When do you expect to leave?”

Looker raises his brow, and Detective Hirai snorts from his seat. The agent glances at him, then turns to the police chief, who sits behind her desk with her chin in her hand as she watches. “I seem to recall you saying I should expect the Leader’s full cooperation?”

“I did say that, yes.” Chief Takahashi shrugs a shoulder. “You may have a different idea of what that entails.”

Looker’s expression says he would have preferred a more descriptive warning of some kind, and Erika hides her smile. She and Takahashi have had an understanding ever since she became Leader; on one end, Erika doesn’t throw her weight around in police affairs, either in public or private, and doesn’t expect any special treatment for her people, which is something of an unofficial norm in most cities. In exchange, Takahashi doesn’t waste Erika’s time and doesn’t keep anything from her. They are not quite social equals, but their domains of influence are disparate enough that they can mostly operate as such, and Erika appreciates the straightforward working relationship she’s formed with the older woman.

“I want the truth about who these renegades worked for to be found as much as you do,” Erika says, and the interpol agent turns back to her. “But your people have been disruptive in their investigations, and our city is having enough trouble moving forward without being paralyzed by an investigation of endless scope and duration.”

“From what I’ve been told, everything we have done has been within our regional mandate.”

“That mandate was for furreting out hidden renegades,” Erika calmly retorts. “We have no evidence there are any remaining in Celadon, unless that’s changed in the past… thirty-seven hours?” She looks at Detective Hirai, who shakes his head.

“Same as before,” Hirai says. “My people are still tangling with the corporate lawyers, but even with the renegade element helping us cut through the red tape, all we’ve got are confiscated financial holdings and more names to look into, a lot of them overseas. On the staff angle we’re looking into family and friends of the other casino workers, both in the lab and above it, but so far nothing suggests more renegade activity in the city, or even region.”

Looker begins to respond, and Erika holds a hand up. “I don’t say this as a prelude to obstruction. I suspect you will be surprised by how cooperative my Gym is prepared to be with your investigation. I simply mean to establish a boundary, and wish to know that you are aware of the need for one.”

The interpol agent meets her gaze for a moment, and Erika decides that it isn’t a hostile or challenging stare, but rather a thoughtful one. She stares calmly back, and eventually he nods.

“I don’t have a set number for you, Leader, but rest assured that I am now acutely aware of your preference, and that I’ll run into the limits of your patience sooner rather than later. Good enough, for now?”

Erika considers the reasonableness of insisting on a timeframe now, rather than later. She wants a commitment, something to anchor future considerations on, and after a moment decides that the others in the room will not judge her for a failed attempt to get it.

“I’m afraid not. I have families from all over the city, and some from outside it, still waiting for justice against the only survivor among the renegades that killed their children, siblings, and parents in that Casino. They’ve had to wait longer than any others in the history of our Region once those responsible have been apprehended. I think they’ve been patient enough.”

“With all due respect, Leader, my job is to prevent more tragedies, not appease those already unfortunate enough to be grieving.”

It takes a moment to keep herself from bristling. “‘Appease’ is your word, not mine. I am a Leader, not some mayor worrying about popularity. I don’t enjoy executions, but I take all of my duties seriously, and this is one of them. If over three weeks of interrogation have not yielded any new information, what purpose is there to the continued delay?”

“Quite a few.” Agent Looker tucks his hands into the pockets of his long tan duster. “For one thing it makes the opposition sweat.”

“And that’s preferable to making them think the investigation is closed?”

“They’ll know it’s not. An organization like this has to have sources in any major law enforcement units to operate.”

Erika glances at the Chief, who purses her lips but doesn’t gainsay him. “So you make them worry. What then?”

“We watch. We listen. We feel for…” His hands rise, fingers strumming the air. “Vibrations on the web.”

Erika crosses her arms, hands slipping through opposite sleeves. Such vague words invite further comment, but she’s learned the value of speaking with simple expressions.

Eventually he drops his arms and gives a crooked smile. “I’m afraid I can’t be more specific, Leader. Information security. But your Champion has been informed, and already approved.”

That makes her heart pound, but there’s no use making a scene about it here. “Understood. What will you be needing from me, then?”

“For now very little. Most of our work will be assisted by the police as we scan the city for any other hidden underground structures, and the mayor is already requesting cooperation from local businesses and organizations. Anything you can do on that front would be appreciated, but the main help would come from any trainers you can spare to join our search parties. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and a shortage of competent combatants in case we get lucky and things go wrong. Plus, your people are known. Reassuring. Trusted.”

A win win. It raises her esteem of him, that he’s offering such a simple goodwill gesture without attempting to dress it up. Her status in the city has already been damaged enough by this, and anything that makes her gym more present in resolving it can only help… unless it’s badly bungled.

Which puts her in an unfortunate position.

“I’ll see what I can do,” is all she says, and inclines her head to both the Agent and Chief before turning for the door.

“You don’t, by the way.” Erika pauses and looks to her side, raising a brow and resorting to silence once again until Looker clarifies. “Want the truth as much as I do. I’ve been tracking interregional renegade movement for over a decade, trying to dig deep enough to tear the whole system out by the roots. You would be satisfied with making sure your city or region is clean, and I understand why. But I won’t be. Not without hard evidence that the Casino is as far as it goes.”

Erika meets his gaze, realizing that she’s been wrong to categorize him as just another detective, interested in doing their job well at best and taking the presumption of righteousness for granted at worst. She has little patience for virtue signaling, but can at least respect someone who wants to competently get their job done.

Looker is doing neither. He’s a True Believer, doing what he believes needs to be done for the greater good.

Which makes him dangerous.

“This is my city,” she says, voice hard as she can make it. “It’s my responsibility to ensure that its people and organizations are prepared for pokemon and renegade attacks, not waste time chasing impossible-to-disprove hypothetical ones.”

“I appreciate that, Leader, and intend to fully coordinate with you,” Looker responds, and his cheerful demeanor doesn’t fade a bit as his eyes turn hard. “But if I have reason to believe there are more Renegades hiding in your city, I’ll look behind every poster on every wall to find them.”

Erika considers him for another moment, then simply nods and leaves. She could have mentioned the restrictions of the mandate, but the truth is they’re flexible enough with probable cause that he probably could barge into people’s houses and check for secret staircases. Especially if he has Lance’s approval.

Which means…

She leaves the police apartment and goes immediately to the waiting car, sitting in the backseat and directing the driver back to their gym. Along the way she puts up the privacy barrier, then calls the Champion’s direct number. He answers after just two rings with a “Yes?”

“I just spoke with Agent Looker,” she says, voice calm. The lack of niceties would normally communicate her anger clearly enough, but these were unusual times, and the no-nonsense attitude on both sides could just be the result of their endlessly busy days.

“Times are changing, Erika.” Lance’s voice is just as clear and calm, but she detects the note of tiredness beneath it. “What happened in Hoenn showed that our system isn’t working, and what it revealed in Celadon showed it could just as easily have been Kanto. There’s no argument I could imagine you making that would change my mind. I know it happened in your city, but we need to treat this as a regional threat.”

“None of which explains why you didn’t at least warn me.”

“I only spoke with him a couple hours ago, and didn’t realize you were meeting him today. I was going to reach out tonight.” His voice is stiff, which is one of the only tells the dragon master has… in this case, a tell that he’s very close to pulling rank. “I’m sorry, but it was simple bad timing. No slight was intended.”

She briefly considers pushing it, then decides to save the loss. “Understood,” she says, blowing her breath out. “Apologies if I implied bad faith.”

“Don’t worry about it. We all want what’s best for the region. We can speak more about this tonight, if you want.”

“Tonight,” she agrees, and ends the call.

After a moment she sighs and calls Giovanni. He answers after just one ring.

“Yes.” Voice flat, clearly busy, but recognizing that she wouldn’t call if it wasn’t important.

“We have a problem.”

It took three weeks for the gym to be brought back to about 70% of how it looked before the quakes and torrential rain loosened soil, flooded gardens and dislodged trees. There were far more important cleanup projects around the city that took priority, and so Erika never announced any official organized cleaning efforts, but part of what she’s instilled in the community she built here is a care in their shared spaces. She’s seen both Gym members and visiting trainers help the gardening staff clear or repair the damage in their free time, and it has filled her with both pride and a sense of peace.

These are her people. This is what she fights for.

As she walks through the gym now, her gaze is drawn not to the remaining bare patches of soil where things have yet to be replanted, nor the submerged benches at the edges of various ponds that seem to just be permanently larger now, but the bigger projects, such as a gazebo on a dock that sank when one of its supports cracked, and a tree that fell into a bush-lined walkway; someone has cut a path through the trunk, but both halves are still on either side. She briefly considers ways she might incorporate it into the design of the area; no matter how strong the sense of wanting to return to “normal” is, perhaps it would be better not to completely erase signs of the cataclysm.

It certainly left its mark on her Gym in other ways.

She passes by more and more groups of people sitting and discussing things in large groups, some in gazebos, others around benches, others just gathered on patches of grass. When she reaches the desk at her central gazebo she thinks over her mood, then selects Dew to keep her company, summoning the bellsprout from her belt.

She smiles as its vines curl and uncurl, head bobbing around in a lazy roll as it looks for something to climb. It stops as its eyes find her, and she extends a hand for it to wrap itself around. It’s hard not to giggle and squirm as it shimmies its way up her arm and onto her shoulder, and she takes a deep breath of its pleasant scent, specially cultivated to be more of an anti-smell than anything. Sometimes all the plant-life in the gym can be a bit overwhelming, and Dew lets her breathe without smelling anything but clean, slightly more humid than usual air, like the aftermath of a rainstorm.

After sitting she spends some time just observing the gym around her, observing those within sight. To maintain a relaxing atmosphere there are no arenas near her gazebo, and most of the damage to this area has been repaired, which is probably why so many people are meeting nearby. As she watches them she starts composing a list of names to put on the renegade hunting taskforce. Giovanni assured her that while there are other operations in the city which he needs to keep private (and thus uninvestigated), there are no other renegades in her city under his employ… and yet.

She allowed the ones in the casino’s subbasement because Giovanni promised that they were trained, trusted professionals, not rabid killers, and because he insisted they were needed in case Silph sent his own. Then they started killing people who fell during the earthquake, and while she understands the reasoning that likely led to that, she was still furious with Giovanni for weeks, and demanded both the promise and a weregild to help the families.

If he lied, he has no room to complain if she finds out. But she should still try to ensure that none of the other illegal activities he’s been engaged in are discovered, which makes it difficult to find the right sort of people to put on the job.

After a few minutes of work, Erika spots Blue Oak moving from one group to another, tapping into a pad as he listens to each, often saying something brief in return before he moves on to the next. It took him a week to get out of the hospital and through enough physical therapy to walk without crutches, and he spent all of it organizing things virtually, his travel companions moving to and from him like combee around a hive.

She was skeptical, at first. Giovanni’s public address wasn’t particularly surprising coming from someone so good at shaping his image and wielding his unique status in imaginative ways, and she made the mistake of seeing it as a simple way to both reassure people and elevate his social power in the uncertainty following the cataclysm. She even did something similar, if on a smaller scale, during her speech on the interregional day of mourning that was organized, where each city and town held a mass funeral for everyone lost, all on the same day.

And maybe it would have stayed that way, if not for Blue Oak, who lit his torch at the pyre Giovanni built and ran with it, spreading it far and wide. Within days the call to action had something concrete for people to think about, had infrastructure that people could tap and contribute to.

Maybe other Leaders would be upset about their gyms shifting to focus so much on something other than pokemon battles, but she’s never been afraid to let her people branch out in interests, and it seems to her a perfect opportunity for the gym to show its unique value. She didn’t even have to order anyone to do anything, just nudged the formation of a central group focused on breaking the overall issue of existential threats down into smaller, easier to understand and digest problems that the other groups could work on finding tasks the common trainer, scientist, or even citizen could contribute to. She participated directly for a week, then handed it off to others once her gym duties needed her attention again.

Blue swore that he hadn’t coordinated with Giovanni ahead of time, and Giovanni corroborated that, and Erika still isn’t sure she would believe them if the catalyst wasn’t so obviously unexpected. And of course if Blue hadn’t been unconscious at the time. Maybe Giovanni just hoped someone would do it, or knew Blue well enough to guess he would. Still, it was hard to know exactly how to step around it at first.

Giovanni Sakaki is a black hole of status. Even more than other ex-Champion leaders of the Indigo League, he doesn’t just suck respect and attention in, he wields what he has at least as well as she does. She’s avoided interacting with him as much as possible in public, not just to minimize associations that might form between them if his plans go awry, as they recently have, but also to not be dragged along in his cultural wake. Cooperation is easier than competition as long as they stay in their own domains.

But when his domain has become “leader of the fight against global existential risks,” all other domains start to feel like subdomains. Her only choice, in view of the inevitable, was to try and ride the wave and make her gym, with the unique combination of culture and minds she’s cultivated here, a major power.

And it’s working. They’re gaining traction, growing more organized, and putting out videos and articles that people are paying attention to, important people. Even if she wanted to guide or pivot things in another direction, she would fail.

Which is why, ultimately, it’s a good thing she doesn’t want to. After seeing the threat so clearly, seeing Giovanni’s worries justified, and seeing what’s being done in response, the potential good her gym can accomplish, she feels gratitude that all that she’s worked to build has found a project worthy of it. That her people can make a difference.

She wonders, sometimes, if this is how the old warlords felt when they bent the knee to a superior daimyō. The feeling is much more positive, almost freeing, than she expected, given how much she worried about it happening when they formed their partnership years before she was even Leader.

A blonde girl in a dark blue kimono arrives with a datapad in one hand and a balanced platter of tea and biscuits in the other. Her kimono patterns signal that she’s Feeling Female Today and that she’s Open to Selfish Bisexual Encounters and Looking For Help On Various Tasks and is Not To Be Disturbed Unless For Serious Issues. Those last two have been pretty common among the gym’s administration, and Erika briefly wonders if they’re getting redundant at this point, but no, they’ve been useful as separate signals in the past. This has just been an unusual situation.

“Afternoon, Leader. Allowed to murder renegade yet?”

“Not today.” Her Second was always blunt, but in the past few weeks Diana has dropped what few social pretenses she adopted for others’ sake. Lack of extra spoons, maybe. “Reports from Beta and Epsa?”

“Beta working with Pewter now,” Diana says as she puts the platter down. “Set up quadrants, organized survey teams. Beta-1, biggest subgroup, focusing on Titans. Beta-2 and 3, Beast and Bird origins.”

“Indigo specific?”

“No, new caution, every region.” She shrugs. “Low likelihood, low cost.”

Erika nods. “Epsa?”

“New partners, deusbiologists studying Groudon and Kyogre’s remains. Free labor, crowdsourced research assistance.”

Erika smiles and pours herself tea, then takes a sugar cube and holds it up to pop in Dew’s open bulb. “That was fast.” It had been her idea. She holds the pot up toward Diana, but her Second shakes her head and Erika puts it down, then selects a dark chocolate almond biscotti to dip into the steaming amber liquid. “I don’t recognize that group by the fountain.”

“New, informal. Calling it Eleven, mentally. Breaks naming pattern, but eleventh group and eleven members.” She shrugs again. “Headed by four of Sabrina’s students, rest are psychics and researchers.”

“Studying the unown?”

“And ruins. Contacting archaeologists, explorers, mythologists, searching for connections. New unown sightings, higher frequency, new locations, coincidence?” She snorts. “Sky Pillar.”

Erika nods. One of many new curiosities that she’d let mostly pass under her radar, with so much else to focus on, but even she caught a glimpse of them once while surveying the damage to the city from the Celadon department store, six unown flying across the sky in a barely visible string of random (to her, at least) characters. “Have they reached out to the boy from Hoenn?”

“No responses. Avoiding limelight.”

“Maybe I can reach out to Wallace.” She searches the group more closely for a red hat while she takes another bite of her biscotti. “Is Mr. Verres with them?”

“Not today, comes often. Why?”

“I need a group to help find any Renegades in the city.” She finally bites into the soaked biscotti, letting the hot liquid and dissolved biscuit slide down her tongue. “I want him to be on it.”

She remembers seeing him for the first time, years ago in Pallet Town during a trip to Professor Oak’s house; a boy with a mess of black hair and startling red eyes, playing with Blue and a couple other friends in the front yard. She wasn’t a Leader at the time, and he probably doesn’t remember even meeting her back then, as she spent most of the time talking with Daisy and Sam.

But she remembered those eyes, when she saw them again during the press release his group gave with the Abra sale. It was a surprise when he came into the cafe in Vermilion after the Zapdos attack and asked Sabrina to be her student. It impressed her, the way he spoke so confidently among a group of the most important people in the region, with just a brief stumble upon seeing them all so unexpectedly.

“Young.” Diana doesn’t sound skeptical so much as thoughtful. “Hero at the Casino, yes, but not a detective. Not even symbolic, like the girls.”

The ceremony honoring the heroes of that day was a spot of brightness for the city after a week of gloom. She’d been the one to suggest it to the mayor, who was happy to stand on a stage and hang medals around the necks of a couple dozen citizens and visitors to the city who’d gone above and beyond during the quakes and aftermath.

All three girls from the casino had to be convinced to be there, especially after Mr. Verres insisted that he not. They objected that if he didn’t deserve praise none of them did, but he’d pointed out that someone had to take credit for the Renegades’ defeat and plenty already know they were directly involved, while publicizing his role in the story would just tip other Renegades off to how nearby psychics might forewarn their victims.

Personally Erika believes there’s some element of self-preservation in the boy’s decision. While there’s a chance that he’s actually just that modest, his argument didn’t strike her as entirely reasonable, and her impression at the time was that he was hiding something. She certainly can’t blame something like shyness or stage fright, particularly compared to the girl with the hat who stood visibly trembling as the mayor handed her a second medal for her friend in the hospital.

“He knows what a renegade pokemon feels like, psychically. If he’s willing to at least try to teach some others, it could be helpful. Invite him to tea, won’t you?”

“Sure. First, Blue Oak.”

Erika’s brow rises as she dips her biscotti in the tea again. “Why? Do you think he’d ask his permission?”

“No, unrelated. Blue requested. Wouldn’t say why, guessing restless, got what he needs here. Challenge likely.”

The Leader blinks, biscotti soaking for longer than intended as her mind races over what she might have missed. “What do you mean? He’s helping coordinate—”

Diana shrugs, not waiting for her to finish speaking. “Ball in motion, can delegate online, still get badges.”

Erika frowns at her Second, who merely raises a challenging brow back until Erika sighs. That never worked on Diana even before she was Leader, and Erika made her Second in part because she knew the titles wouldn’t change anything between them. “When he arrived he said he didn’t want special treatment, and I said I still wouldn’t let him fight you or Mary. Maybe I can change my mind, insist on it, as part of restoring the sense of normalcy.” Not many Challenge matches have been happening lately. She expected to grow a backlog due to how busy she would be, but few people have even extended Challenge over the past few weeks, and none have reached Erika. “There would be some impact to being the first to get his badge, if that’s what he’s envisioning, but… the ‘Gym Advisor’ role is working better than he or I envisioned, given everything. How sure are you that he’s planning to leave?”

“Plans changed. Friend better, headaches, but can travel. New project good, more important than gym prestige, but badges still needed for Champion.”

All of this is true, and it takes Erika a moment to realize why she needed Diana to tell her this, why it bothers her to think about it. If Blue leaves, it would be a sign that the status he hoped to gain through staying isn’t important to him anymore… which means her status isn’t as important anymore, not just in relation to him but as part of a wider shift. The month he spent here is no different from Pewter or Cerulean, and less than Vermilion.

Combined with the way Agent Looker is undermining her role in the city, it’s a harsh sting to recognize that her influence may be shrinking faster than it’s growing.

“Can he be convinced to stay?”

“Doubtful. Strong willed, smart, knows own worth.” Another shrug. “Best bet is to beat him in the Challenge.”

Erika slowly nods, causing Dew to wobble and shift its grip around her neck. She gently adjusts a vine to be more comfortable. “Alright, I’ll speak to him first, then. Thank you, Diana.”

Diana nods, and reaches forward to give Erika’s upper body a hug. Erika smiles and returns it, appreciating the simple contact for a few brief moments, and then Diana leaves her to read through her message backlog, including one from her Third. Mary is out in the field with a small group of gym members to help some local Rangers clear out a slugma hive that randomly appeared to the west of the city after the earthquakes. Yet another fire to put out (literally in some cases), taking time away from getting things back to normal, and if they’re a permanent addition to the local ecology there will be years of adaptation ahead. Plus, an extra wild Fire type around the city will make it that much easier for challengers coming to her gym.

She takes more time than she probably should responding to Mary’s message, wanting to ensure she expresses her appreciation and offer any extra resources needed in a way that doesn’t come off as perfunctory. Of all the people she’s befriended in life, she appreciates her Third even more than Diana. Without her, there would be no way Erika could make this gym what she wanted it to be, could spend so much time doing so many different things. Too much of her time would be spent training, keeping her pokemon strong and her skills as sharp as they were when she defeated the previous Leader.

It’s easy enough to battle most Challengers, but in any true trainer battle, Mary is by far her superior. She thankfully has no interest in being Leader, and no ambition to become Champion, and so serves their Gym by defending Erika’s title and stopping anyone who might sense weakness in a Leader who spends so much time on things like gardening.

It’s a stupid system, when you boil it down, and why she was at first skeptical of Giovanni’s proposal that she take over the Celadon Gym. Being a Gym Leader was never an aspiration of hers, but she had to admit that the ability to shape her own community was attractive, particularly once Giovanni pointed out the way she could make it work for her and her friends by playing to their strengths. She wears the title of Leader because it suits her, but in truth she’s simply the first among equals, with Diana and Mary happy to handle their niche responsibilities while she handles hers.

It also helps in situations like this. If she can get Mary to beat Blue before he Challenges her…

But no. If he’s beaten by her Third, it would be a blow to his status, and without any particular upside gain if he wins. With both her status and the effectiveness of Giovanni’s plan in some measure tied to the young Oak’s successes, she has to be careful how she handles this.

After the message is sent, she takes two video calls at her desk, one mediating a conflict in scheduling between her gym members and another negotiating a bulk order purchase with Silph’s Celadon representative, and she’s on her third cup of tea before Blue approaches the gazebo. As he does so he lets out a whistle, and his pidgeotto flies down from wherever it was soaring overhead to land on the gauntlet he wears on one arm. He takes a moment to stroke his pokemon, who already looks too big for his arm to hold up comfortably, then withdraws it and joins her.

Blue seems to be going through a growth spurt, gaining an inch every time she doesn’t see him up close for longer than a week. He stopped favoring his left side shortly after he gave up the crutches, and now moves confidently up the stairs of the gazebo and into the bench as close to across from her as he can get. “Afternoon, Leader.”

She returns his respectful nod before offering him tea, which he accepts, and the sweet platter, which is accepted with a bit more interest. She studies him a moment as he looks over his options, then selects one. “Diana said you wanted to speak with me, which is perfect timing, as there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.” He gives her a curious look as he bites into a tea-soaked chocolate biscuit, and she sips her own tea, gaze on his. “Isn’t it about time you moved on?”

Blue freezes mid-chew, and she just smiles and waits for him to continue chewing, swallow, sip.

“Is it?” he eventually asks. “I know it’s not what we originally planned, before.” Before. “But I think we’re doing a lot of good, here.”

“You are, and it’s been wonderful to see it happen. But be honest: you have even less of an interest in applying for membership than you did before you arrived. Am I right?”

Blue hesitates a moment, then nods.

“And are there any further changes you want to see done? Novel changes,” she says as he starts to speak. “Not tweaks, and not things that would likely develop without you, now that you’ve gotten the stone rolling.”

“No,” he admits. “Honestly, you’re right. I’ve been thinking more and more that we should move on and start getting other gyms more directly involved in the kinds of things we’ve been doing here. I was able to loop in some of Vermilion because I still have friends there and some of Saffron thanks to Red, but being at a gym in person would make it much easier to really get them involved.”

“And now that your friend Glen is better, it’s time to start the Challenges.”

“Yeah. That’s actually what I wanted to speak to you about in the first place.” He smiles. “Guess I didn’t realize how obvious it would be, from your perspective.”

Erika smiles. “Or perhaps it’s just the position of my seat.” She gestures to encompass her view of the garden, the gym, as a whole, and watches him carefully.

“Yeah, maybe…” He trails off, then his eyes narrow.

Erika innocently sips her tea.

“I came ready to defend a Mastery Challenge. It feels like the time is right, but I figured you might need convincing. Now it’s like… even though you said the time is right, I feel like I still need to convince you. Or… I want you to convince me.” Blue shakes his head, smiling. “How did you do that? Just by making it seem like I’ve been dragging my feet? Yeah, some of that, and showing that you don’t need me here, or like, it’s totally fine for me to go… damn. I almost missed it.”

It’s nice, having such an apt student. “I’ve been too busy, unfortunately, to be able to claim full credit for seeing this coming. Diana had to point out that you would likely be moving on soon.” It was hard to admit things like that, the first few times. Hard to peel back the curtain, show vulnerability in a way that would reduce his esteem for her. It’s gotten easier as she’s seen the fruits of it, seen him learn and grow to be better at spotting it himself, and thus she gained a different sort of esteem, a more unique one that she’s had with few others, particularly outside her Gym. Which of course was the point from the beginning.

Blue bows his head, looking both proud and grateful. “Thanks. I have to admit, I don’t think it’ll be as easy, elsewhere. Your gym culture is really well suited to what we’ve been doing… I’m glad I was here to do it with the ‘training wheels’ on first. I’ll miss this place.”

“That seems rather optimistic of you.” Blue blinks, and she sips her tea. “I suppose you can leave with or without a badge.”

“But… you said—”

“I admitted you would likely benefit from moving on. Personally, I wouldn’t mind keeping you here longer.” She grins. “You don’t think I’m going to just let you win, do you? “

Blue looks surprised for another moment, then grins back. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” He eyes her over the rim of his own tea cup, swallowing it down like it’s soda. Once he’s done he sets it down and leans forward onto his crossed arms. “Does that mean you’re going to try to slow me down? Make me run the gauntlet?”

“What do you think?”

He considers the question and she lets him, finishing her biscotti and pouring herself another cup while she reads an email from a nearby Ranger outpost asking for assistance with a sweep of some fields to the southeast.

“No,” he says at last. “What you originally said when I arrived still holds. It makes us both look better, if I just fight you.”

“And what of your original concerns, about not appearing privileged? Pulling ahead of your group?”

He sighs. “Too much has changed. I’m not the brightest light around anymore, and we’ve picked up more people. I’m not sure it even makes sense to wait for everyone to get their badge now, not when it might take months for so many Challenge matches to even take place.”

Erika nods. “Then make your final preparations, and I’ll schedule our match for the day after tomorrow.”

The central stadium was a difficult decision.

All the smaller ones were easier to just make simple lines in the dirt or grass. Pokemon battles are far too destructive to the landscape (especially when expecting Flying, Fire, Ice, and Poison pokemon to feature prominently) to put too much effort into keeping the arenas aesthetically pleasing.

But for Challenge matches, which get recorded and televised, which are often all that anyone outside the Gym will see of it, the first impression is too important to ignore. Her competition isn’t stiff, since of all the Kanto leaders only Misty really leans into any form of showmanship, but even if everyone’s arena was as boring and straightforward as Surge’s, she would still want hers to stand out.

The compromise she ultimately reached was to play into the obvious, highlight it and make it part of the aesthetic. The arena itself is a bare patch of round dirt, its only artistic flourish the red and white flowers that respectively outline the top and bottom halves, easy to replant before each match. Just around it is simple grass for ten meters, cut to a precise square that starkly frames the arena, and on its edges is where the real decorations start. Chrysanthemums grow in practically every color, and so she had them planted in a cycling red, orange, yellow green, blue, violet pattern. With her rainbow badge thus represented on the field, and a reasonable distance around the arena now filled, the next layer contrasts back to a more uniform color palette as eight large topiary sawsbuck form the regal “walls” of the open air arena.

The actual “walls” are the stone tiles that surround the whole thing in three layers, creating a rather wide buffer between the arena and the rest of the gym. Beyond its aesthetic value, this is the final barrier to ensure any fires that don’t get contained at least won’t spread.

Their colors change with the seasons, naturally, but this year winter seems to be exceptionally late due to whatever the weather gods did, which is why her gym is still so colorful. As the announcer finishes introducing her and Blue, she begins walking past the border of red and orange and brown, making the arena feel as warm and cozy as a 40×40 meter outdoor space could.

It’s good weather for a battle. Brisk without being cold, with the sun unobscured to warm the skin. Much as she loves her kimonos, the sleeves are too long and voluminous for pokemon battles, and they’re not great for running. Instead she wears an emerald blouse, fitted earth-tone cargo pants, and five balls on her belt. Her fingers trail over them as she walks to her platform in the arena.

Cradily, Grass Rotom, Ludicolo, Ferrothorn, Vileplume. Pokemon that can handle all of Grass’s weaknesses, so long as they’re deployed correctly. The pre-battle speeches were rehearsed, but of the fight itself, nothing was offered nor asked. It would be a true test of will and wits and skill, and her pulse quickens as she realizes how much she wants to win.

It’s been a long time since she cared so much about a single battle.

Their audience only adds to the pressure. The stands beyond the outer edges are packed as the city turns out for its first Challenge match in weeks. She raised the prices to double what they were before and they still sold out in hours.

Part of that of course might be the identity of the challenger. Blue Oak’s following, already higher than almost any other trainer in Kanto after the experiments in Vermilion Gym, has grown to rival actual Leaders’ since he spearheaded the #WhatComesNext movement. As they both approach their platforms and she gets close enough to make out his expression, she tunes her earpiece to the private channel and says, “You look too solemn. Relax by about half.”

His expression eases into a calmer one. “Thanks.”

“Of course.” She switches to the public channel. “People of Celadon. Friends and guests. It’s been a month since our world was changed, and we are all trying, together and apart, to find our place in this new one. To resume the work we did before, or find new ways to help each other. To prepare for the challenges ahead.

“By now, the name Blue Oak should be known across the region. It is no mistake that I decided to resume Challenge matches with his, though his was one of many interrupted by the cataclysm.” An easy lie, to help unruffle any feathers by those who have been waiting all this time. “And it’s no mistake that I am the first trainer he will officially face in my Gym, though he has already battled many of them, winning against most. Blue Oak’s journey is a special one, and there is little point at this juncture to deny it. He has been privileged in many ways since he began his travels, and before, but I challenge anyone to deny that he has earned more than he was given, and given yet more to others.”

Blue stands with his hands on his belt, face calm. She studies him a moment, mostly for effect. “And so I chose, when he arrived at my Gym, to put him in a position of influence. Not unearned power, nor exclusive benefits. Simply my ear, so that I could judge for myself the value of his vision, his thoughts, his goals. And what I’ve seen, what everyone has seen, is someone who will not rest until humanity is ready for what comes next.”

He hadn’t needed to prod her to include that phrase, and even knowing it was coming, she can see the pride in his bearing, much as he tries to suppress it. “To that end, I chose to help him rather than hinder him, and now I am glad to test him. If he is worthy, he will bear my gym’s badge and its lessons into the world beyond, and like a seed on the wind, plant our values far and wide. Blue Oak, what is your Challenge?”

“I challenge for Mastery.”

“Celadon Gym accepts. I’ll use only five pokemon, but any form of incapacitation will count as a faint. So long as you have one battle capable pokemon while I do not, the Rainbow Badge will be yours.”

Erika pulls on her facemask, then rests her hands on her pokeballs. Across from her, Blue does the same. “Ready,” she intones, feeling her pulse in her throat. “Set. Go, Ferrothorn!”

“Go Shim—Go, Sunny!”


Her pokemon materializes with enough of a lead on his that the attack completes just as the houndoom appears, causing it to flinch as her ferrothorn whips shards of metal onto Blue’s side of the field.

She finds herself grinning, and not just at the early advantage. He named his houndoom Sunny? “Return!” she shouts just as Blue yells “Taf!”

“Go, Ludicolo! Water gun!”

The Grass/Water pokemon appears just in time to take the flamethrower, shaking it off with a spin of its body and returning a jet of water that the houndoom nimbly dodges… only to yelp as it steps on a shard of metal.

“Return, go Zephyr! Wawb!”

“Ice Beam!’

Blue’s command set the pidgeotto’s wings to flap hard, but not toward its opponent; instead the gust of wind scatters the metal shards away from most of the field before her beam hits, and Blue quickly swaps his pokemon out for a breloom. Erika is already impressed; the pidgeotto family don’t easily learn how to use whirlwinds to clear hazards, and it means that her usual status-heavy strategies are going to be less effective.

“Gon, Pam!” The breloom springs forward in a blur, its Mach Punch connecting just as it’s hit with Ludicolo’s second Ice Beam, and then Blue yells “Dam!” and his pokemon begins a Mega Drain to heal itself.

The first note of worry undermines Erika’s confidence. Grass has five weaknesses, and Fighting isn’t one of them; Blue brought the breloom as a pivot, something to counter whatever gives him trouble on even ground, as it would be immune to most Grass types’ nastier tricks. This is a pokemon she needs to take down, but her only pokemon that can resist its Fighting attacks is Vileplume, and breloom are infamously, almost uniquely, difficult to poison for a non-Poison or Steel type; many can even metabolize it, and use it to heal themselves.

Acid would still be effective, but he likely has his own poison pokemon to swap into. Instead she makes a snap decision in the other direction. “Return! Go, Ferrothorn!”

“Gon, pam!”

She expected him to switch to a Fire type, and stops herself from ordering it to use Spikes again. Even if he clears them, retrapping his field would be a good way to punish him for swapping, but any extra attacks could cost her this trade. The breloom’s attack clearly hurt Ferrothorn, but an “Ingrain!” causes her pokemon to send roots out and begin to heal itself.


The sound of the force palm hitting ferrothorn resounds through the air. An “Iron Head!” slams its body into the breloom as well, though the blow clearly disoriented it. Blue’s pokemon is strong, and she knows she picked right in not trying to poison it.

As the powerful blows dent her pokemon’s metallic shell, its thorns leave the breloom’s fists and feet bloody… but after half a dozen exchanged attacks it still doesn’t let up, and soon the blood of both pokemon colors the ground around them.

“Stop!” she yells, and Blue echoes her half-a-second later. Her heart is pounding, and she looks up at Blue. He’s holding two balls ready, but he doesn’t look tense. “If I call this a draw, would you agree?” she asks in the private channel.

His reply comes quickly, as if expecting it. “Sorry, Leader, it’s close but Gon will win, and can heal much easier… though Ferrothorn is still healing through its ingrain.”

“A wild ferrothorn would self-destruct at this point.”

“In the wild I would withdraw Gon and hide behind something.”

Erika can’t help but smile. Cocky little… She sets her frustration aside, considering her options. She could insist on it anyway; she doesn’t actually believe Blue would contradict her in the public channel, but he might make his disapproval known through his tone or expression, which would taint the results of the battle even if she won. And he’s right that her pokemon is unfairly recovering while she thinks.

“Return!” she says, pulling her pokemon back into its ball. The abrupt removal of its roots from the ground churns the earth around breloom, but it keep its feet by using its long tail to balance. She switches to the public channel. “The Challenger and I agree that his breloom would win this match, if narrowly and painfully. My ferrothorn is defeated, but in the wild I believe it would self-destruct in a circumstance like this. The Challenger asserts that he would withdraw his pokemon and find cover in time. I say we simulate this with a coin toss.”

Blue’s eyes widen. She hears the murmur of the crowd, and wishes she had an actual coin with her. Instead she simply puts a hand behind her back and makes a fist. “If you can guess whether I am holding one finger out or two correctly, your strategy succeeds. If you fail, you are killed, ending the match with my victory. As a third choice, if you don’t pause to return your breloom, you would surely make it on time.”

Blue’s incredulous look is a sweet thing, as is the glare it soon shifts to… but after a moment he’s grinning, and her smile has widened to match it.

She’s never heard of a Leader doing something like this before, but it’s within her technical right to declare pokemon too injured to continue, and showmanship goes a long way to making the unorthodox acceptable. Blue should know that better than anyone.

Now the question: with the eyes of the world on him, would he risk it all on a coin flip, or take the safe option?

“The choice is yours, trainer,” she says, and extends two fingers behind her back, where the cameras from that angle could see. “One, two, or sacrifice? You have ten seconds to decide.”

She decides against an out-loud countdown, letting the seconds tick by in her head as the very air itself seems to hold its breath, while Blue does an admirable job of not appearing stressed. She reaches eight when he says, “Sacrifice.”

She can almost hear the collective sigh from the audience. She isn’t sure if she’s disappointed or relieved herself, but it’s easy to be gracious as Blue withdraws his breloom. “A wise choice.” She suspects Blue found it harder than he’d ever admit on camera not to guess a number, not to show that bravery can pay off and add the “win” of the moment to his legend… but the wrong choice would have hurt him far worse than the benefits of success. “Ready to resume. Set. Go, Cradily!”

“Go, Shimmer! Dodge!”

“Rock Throw!”

The sight of his venomoth sends a satisfied thrill through her. She predicted the attempt to apply status effects to whoever she sends out next, but would have been satisfied with him sending a Fire pokemon out too. Part of why she suspects he was so adamant in keeping his breloom is that he knew she would bring a cradily, since rare as they are, he’d know she knew he has nothing else to deal with a Rock/Grass type.


“Rock Throw!”

Her pokemon’s vine flings small stones up in another spray, shredding the venomoth’s wings just as it spits a stream of purple poison all over her pokemon.

“Return! Go, Zephyr!”


As roots once again sink into the ground, Blue brings a whistle to his lips and begins to blow commands. A cloud of sand covers her pokemon, some of it rising to Erika’s position, and when she yells out “Rock Throw!” her pokemon’s attack misses. She repeats the order, but Blue sends his pidgeotto banking out of the way of the attack.

The ingrain will counteract the effects of the poison for a little while, but if it was as powerful as she thinks it was then sooner or later it would take her cradily down, and withdrawing it would only delay the inevitable. She needs to take down his fliers while she can so that Ludicolo can finish off his Fire types on its own.

But her frustration starts to grow as attack after attack misses, then transforms to worry as her pokemon’s movements begin to noticeably slow. Finally, she can feel only admiration at how deftly the pidgeotto and its trainer dance through the sky, until she must return her cradily to a well deserved rest.

It’s now three to four, and she has one more chance to clear his fliers. “Go Rotom!”

A lawnmower materializes from the ball, floating above the ground and wrapped in vines. Blue lifts his ball, and whistles for his pokemon to get closer, but the pidgeotto is tired, and a quick “Thundershock!” zaps it out of the sky just before it can be returned.

Three to three.

“Go, Sunny!”



“Go, Ludicolo!”

Instead of fire, a cloud of smog is belched from the houndoom’s mouth, and Erika swallows a curse as it envelops her pokemon. “Bubblebeam!”


Too late; the houndoom is still favoring its paw, and all the missed Rock Throws are made up for as the stream shoots out of the purple haze and nails it mid-leap, sending the black and red canine tumbling back as rapid pops fill the air.

It struggles to stand, but Blue quickly returns it. Three to two. The advantage has flipped, and now it’s just a matter of—

“Go, Nin!”

“Return!” Erika yells as the golbat appears. Her pokemon is already poisoned, and after seeing how skilled Blue is with that whistle she won’t allow a repeat of what he did with his pidgeotto. “Go, Rotom!”

As Blue blows a command, her own “Thunderbolt” is drowned out by the high pitched shriek from the golbat. It makes her flinch, for just a second, and as she wonders what that was (a normal supersonic attack can be felt but not heard, hence the name), she realizes the golbat is swooping down and biting the thrashing vines around the floating mower.

“Thunderbolt!” she shouts again, and this time her pokemon responds, electricity crackling around itself. The golbat jerks, but clings stubbornly on, and as the rotom starts to jerk and shudder midair, she yells the command again. The golbat withstands the second discharge, which means it’s healing itself, but a third should—

“Return! Go, Soul!”

She could get a free attack in, but when the arcanine appears, large and scarred and glowing in the sun, she swaps her pokemon for Ludicolo instead.

“Bubblebeam!” she commands just as Blue yells “Sae!”

And his pokemon—


Extreme Speed

—into Ludicolo, knocking it entirely around.

Most other pokemon would fall, but ludicolo are exceptionally light on their feet, and their near-constant motion from one foot to the other makes it easy for them to stay standing. She prepares to command it to attack again, but a “Faf!” from Blue has his pokemon sink flaming jaws into the back of her, and then it begins to snap its whole body violently side to side.

“Flail!” she yells, and her pokemon does exactly that; it starts to swing itself back and forth, limbs smacking the arcanine repeatedly as its whole body jerks and twists. Its pain and panic turn from a weakness to an asset, and it manages after just a few moments to slip free of the arcanine’s jaws.

As Blue’s pokemon recovers from the multiple blows its opponent landed in its mortal terror, Erika yells “Bubblebeam!” and Ludicolo spins and shoots—


—and misses as the arcanine is suddenly on the other side of the arena.


And then it’s nearly knocking Ludiculo off balance again, and the next bubblebeam has the same result, and the one after that.

It’s happening again, she realizes, noticing the way ludiculo is slowing. The houndoom’s poison has been doing its work, slowly but surely, and by the time Blue’s Soul has tired from its rapid movements and she finally manages to hit it, the stream is weaker than any that came before, and the arcanine slows further, but doesn’t stop.

She thought her pokemon would be, on average, a little more powerful than Blue’s. This arcanine is in a league of its own.

She opens her mouth to yell another attack, but her pokemon is wobbling like a spinda, and instead she yells “Return! Go, Rotom! Thunderbolt!”


The arcanine slams into Rotom just before the electricity arcs around it, and both pokemon fall to the ground together.

One to one. A golbat against a vileplume. Normally she would have no chance, but his pokemon is injured…

“Go, Nin!”

“Go, Vileplume!”


“Sleep Powder!”

The golbat dives directly into the cloud as it strikes at her pokemon, wings and claws and teeth tearing, and it’s all over in moments.

Nin’s movements slow, and then it flops to the ground, fast asleep.

And Vileplume, torn up and bleeding from half a dozen places, also falls onto its side, unmoving.

Utter silence descends, and what breaks the tension in Erika is a bubbling laugh.

A draw.

After all that… their conversation, the speech she made, the choice she gave Blue…

A draw. No badge, and shared glory.

She could live with that.



Erika reclips her ball to her belt, and smiles at Blue, a wide, genuine smile. That was more fun than she’s had in… well, at least a month.

“Well,” she says in the public channel. “For the first time in my admittedly short Leadership, a match has ended with no clear winner. Challenger, you and your pokemon fought—”

“Excuse me, Leader,” Blue interrupts in private chat, speaking so quickly that Erika nearly doesn’t understand him. “You said survive your five pokemon, in the Challenge.”

“—exceptionally well,” she finishes, editing on the fly as she considers his words. Does he mean to challenge her ruling? A case could be made, she supposes, that by the strict definition of “defeat” he has won… certainly in the wild, if he defeats his last opponent he would be considered safe to revive his pokemon. But comparison to wild battles are a rule of thumb, and the general consensus in the League is that an unconscious pokemon is a defeated one, and draws are not victories.

“Thank you, Leader,” Blue is saying to the arena at large. “I came expecting my toughest Challenge yet, and you showed me that I clearly have much more to learn.”

“Do you really want a badge on a draw?” she murmurs in private. “Not good optics, people will always question it. Lower esteem for us both.” She switches to public. “As do we all.”

Blue’s expression is impossible to read, but he seems to be struggling with something. A second passes, then two, and Erika feels the silence begin to stretch on too long. She has to say something, and disappointing as it may be to Blue, the only thing that makes sense is—

“I believe, however, that the battle may not be over yet. With your permission, Leader…” He reaches for his belt and unclips a greatball. “My Soul is stronger than it looks.”

Oh you cheeky son of a…

This would look terrible if he’s wrong, worse than accepting a draw or awarding a badge on one. But there’s only one thing she can say:

“As you will, Challenger.”

Blue nods, then takes a breath and braces his arm, pointing the ball to the ground in front of his platform. “Go, Soul.”

His arcanine materializes in a flash, lying on its side. From here Erika can just make out the rise and fall of its side, but its eyes are closed. Its fur doesn’t show the electricity burns any non-Fire pokemon would be sporting now, so there’s even less of a way to tell how much damage is below the surface.

Blue is climbing down, and she knows what he’s going to do before he does it. Ten steps with the eyes of the city on him, back and shoulders straight, and then he’s beside his pokemon, and placing a hand on its fur.

His mouth moves, but his mic is off. Later, a close-up camera and some lipreading would reveal the words, “Go on, boy. Show them who we are.”

In the now, Erika simply watches as the arcanine opens its eyes, gets slowly to its feet, looks around at the empty arena… and, without any further prompting from Blue, raises its head to the sky and roars.