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Chapter 129: Reframe

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

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

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

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

"Yeah."

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

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

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

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

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

"Yeah, I don't think I would have summarized it that well myself if asked!"

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

"Right."

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

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

"What would you have said instead, for why it's okay to use captured pokemon to fight wilds?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Stuck." She swallows. "Lost."

"Pulled between two opposing values?"

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

"Like it would make you a bad person?"

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

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

"Yeah, basically."

"But not something like, 'what would a hero of justice do?'"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Try what?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nevertheless, do you think he'd agree with your position?"

Leaf shakes her head. "We've argued about it before, once or twice."

"And you still disagree?"

"Yeah."

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

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

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


Neutral ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"If Koga can't convince them…"

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

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

"You think it's a bad idea."

"I think that I trust Koga and Janine, but I'd rather have more than trust. You need backup."

"Anyone I bring would be putting them in danger too."

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then a few moments longer, until finally Blue says, "It's okay if you're not ready."

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

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

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

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

"Maturin, ready!"

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

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

"Gaw!'

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

—then stops, remembering—

—"Gaw!"

"Dodge!"

"Gaw!"

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

"Raz…V-Vine W…"

"Gaw!"

"Dodge!"

"Gaw!"

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

"D-Toxic!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue's lips quirk. "Does that mean you're open to some feedback?"

"Lay it on me, coach."

"You should attack more."

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

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

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

"Mmm."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She blinks. "Really?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Gaw!"

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

"Gaw!"

"Dodge!"

"Gaw!"

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

"Gaw!"

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

"Stop!"

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

But she's already fine, and Blue is walking over. "That was… oh."

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

"No, it's fine, hey. It was progress, right?"

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

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

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

"Frames, like…?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Like a pair of rampardos knocking heads."

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

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

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

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

"Yeah," Blue says, voice low. "It's not what he wanted. Not what he set out to be."

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

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

"It's fine, really, I mean it makes sense—"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He winces. "Yeah, there it is."

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

"Uh... I mean it's probably something evolutionary, right? Red was going on about—"

"It was rhetorical, shut up, I'm venting now, this is venting time."

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

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

"Likely, even," Blue mutters.

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

"I'm guessing the ninja clan stuff is the second?"

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

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

"I appreciate it, but I'm not done venting yet."

"Sorry, please continue."

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

"...Also?"

"...there are probably other things but I can't think of them right now."

Blue nods. "Stormbringers might strike at any moment?"

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

"I get it."

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

"Ugh," Blue nods. "Gr."

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

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

"Venting over?"

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

"Sorry life's been tough."

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

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

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

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

"Yeah. And I appreciate you helping with this, a lot, even if it doesn't work out."

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

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

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

"It's hard to know what someone wants after they've been so thoroughly brainwashed."

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

"—I know!—"

"—I don't know if I should call him by his current evolution or his first—"

"—so annoying!—"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep breaths... relax the muscles...

What's my strategy?

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

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

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

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

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

But.

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

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

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

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

"Gaw!"

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