Hey everyone, welcome back! Not much to announce this month, but lots of thanks to my patrons for their continued support, and to my new patrons for motivating me all over again to make this story the best it can be. I'm still working on the second chapter of Guardian too, and hope to finish it by next month. Thanks for reading, and all feedback appreciated as usual, either in reviews or on /r/rational!
Chapter 49: The Paradox of Choice
Red goes to meet Kanto's "Mistress of Psychic Pokemon" at a cafe in the richer western portions of the city, where the buildings are all clean and gleaming, and there are noticeably fewer construction projects going on. As Red navigates the busy streets on his bike, he calls Psychic Ayane to get some quick advice for keeping secrets hidden when meeting with a powerful psychic. Bill's human storage activity is the only real bit of information he has that he doesn't want getting out... and not just because it's not his secret to tell.
"Besides, you're a smart kid. I don't actually have to explain how hard I can make your life if you give me reason to, do I?"
Red curses as the phone goes to voicemail, and doesn't bother leaving a message, simply switching to the next best thing.
"Hello, Red! How's Vermilion City? Did your Research license arrive?"
"Hi Professor!" Red half shouts as he weaves through some pedestrian traffic and onto the bike lane in the road. "Yes, it's awesome, but sorry, no time to chat, important question!"
"One moment." There's the sound of footsteps, then a door closing. "Go ahead, Red. What's wrong?"
"I'm meeting Leader Sabrina in about ten minutes. Any advice would be highly appreciated!"
Professor Oak is silent for the time it takes for Red to ride back onto some sidewalk and cut across a shopping strip, then asks, "How much do you know about Sabrina?"
"Nothing, really. Saffron Gym Leader, powerful psychic despite her age… uh… I think that's it."
"Do you know how she became Leader?"
Red recalls something Blue said about it at some point. "She beat the last one there, right? When it was a Fighting Gym?"
"Yes. People believe it was easier for her than it might normally be, since her affinity for Psychics gave her a natural advantage against the previous Leader's Fighting pokemon. This is obviously not the whole story."
"Right," Red says as he checks the map and turning onto the road that leads to the cafe. "Otherwise someone who's good with Dark pokemon would just move in on her instead. I figured Gym Leaders would use their best pokemon, and a mix of Types, if being challenged for Leadership, wouldn't they?"
"You're right, though for most, their strongest pokemon will often be the type their Gym focuses on. However, the battle between Sabrina and Leader Kiyo had layers beneath the surface. Kiyo was an enormously skilled trainer, but not a particularly effective Leader. He was adequate at best in teaching his Gym members, and his grasp of wider strategy outside of individual pokemon battles was… lackluster. There were a number of incidents that made people question his capability to protect the city, but anyone who challenged him for Leadership was beaten. He became more and more draconian as people turned against him, and his gym lost members. In battles with challengers, his pokemon began to cripple and even kill their opponents on a somewhat regular basis, until people completely stopped attempting to supplant him, not wanting to risk their pokemon."
Red's eyes widen. A Leader may not be the best at everything, but a competent one would at least raise up other trainers who can advise them well. One that lets their ego get in the way, and then loses control of their temper like that, or worse does it intentionally... That's the kinds of things villains in shows did, almost as bad as being a Renegade. "What happened?"
"There was something of a final exodus among his gym members, and over time, Saffron city and the outlying areas were hit with a number of pokemon attacks it was unable to contain. The neighboring cities and local Rangers did their best to pick up the slack, but it got to the point that people began asking when the League would intercede: I happen to know that Elite Bruno was preparing to challenge Kiyo, and step down from the Elite Four to take over Saffron Gym, when instead Sabrina, who was well known by that point for her powerful psychic abilities and devastating psychic pokemon, stepped in."
"And beat him."
"And destroyed him. I don't use that word lightly, Red: it should not have happened. Sabrina was a powerful trainer with a handful of badges to her name, and she had type advantage for most of her team, but Leader Kiyo was a monstrous opponent. He wouldn't have kept his position for so long otherwise. His defeat was so complete that there were suspicions, even amid the relief of the city and region, that the fight was fixed, or that he or his pokemon were sabotaged in some way."
Red is so caught up in the story he forgets to check the map in time, and doesn't realize until after he passes the place. He curses under his breath and skids to a stop, then turns his bike around, breathing hard. "And what do you think?"
"My best guess? Nothing so blatant. But by the end, Kiyo was a broken man, and I believe Sabrina knew when that point came. She did not arrive in the city before her challenge: she had been there for months, meeting with gym members and ex-gym members, organizing trainers in the city during nearby incidents, even opening her own classes, both for psychics and for training pokemon, within the city."
"So she did bring about his downfall, in some purposeful way."
"I doubt she gave him the alcohol that he allegedly took to bed every night, but… yes, that's my belief. And I suspect she had advice and financial aid from some other Gym Leader, possibly multiple. Those in the nearby cities certainly had incentive to no longer carry the extra weight. Whoever was involved, it does seem that Sabrina worked purposefully to undermine Kiyo until only his most obstinate and incompetent supporters remained, his Gym all but collapsed around him. Her preliminary matches were painful to watch."
Red sees the cafe, and quickly stops and dismounts a block away. "Okay. I appreciate the history lesson, but I'm still not sure what to take away from this. I don't think I have anything she wants enough to turn my friends against me or drive me to drink, but in general, I should be aware that she's manipulative?"
"A strong word, but perhaps fair. And I don't want to give you the wrong impression: I have met her a handful of times, and believe her to be a good person, or I would suggest you not meet her at all. What she did to Kiyo, if she did it, was perhaps the best outcome for the city, and likely necessary for the region to avoid the embarrassment of requiring League intercession. I still do not know if the plan was hers, or someone else's… I was in contact with the League fairly often then, and do not believe any of them assisted her." Professor Oak sighs. "But regardless of all that, yes, most powerful psychics appear, ah, 'socially strategic' to some degree: I suppose it's inevitable when you have so much more information than most do about those you interact with. So whatever Sabrina wants from you, be aware that she can be subtle, even if she offers something that seems fair in return."
"Got it. Expect to get something out of this, but watch out for manipulation, or a long con," Red says, heart pounding both from the quick ride and anxiety over the coming meeting. He takes his helmet off, then shucks his knee and arm pads into the box with the bike.
"She probably won't try and corner you in any way, but if she makes you want to give it to her, you will be easier to deal with. As long as the exchange seems equitable, well and good. But I thought it was worth warning you, either way."
"I understand. Thanks, Professor." He checks the time and sees he has four minutes left. "I gotta go."
"Good luck, Red."
Red hangs up, and only then remembers that he didn't ask for advice on keeping her out of his head.
It's okay. I can do this. He closes his eyes, and takes a few deep breaths, ignoring the few pedestrians that pass by and letting himself calm down little by little. Eventually his pulse returns to a normal rate, thoughts clearing as he feels more centered.
So. While I now have to worry about getting manipulated, my first priority is still to avoid spilling Bill's secret. What do I know about keeping thoughts secure?
Few psychics are powerful enough to actually pick up words or full ideas from others' minds, rather than just emotional states… but Sabrina is one of them, by all accounts. Still, the target has to be thinking about whatever it is for her to pick it up, and now that Red knows how psychic powers work, he understands that she would be joining her mind with his, which he would notice.
Or at least, that's the common understanding. Red doesn't actually know what the limits of psychic powers are, the best research is spotty and inconsistent, which means he doesn't know what Sabrina's limits are. If she can pick up more than just surface thoughts without merging their minds, it's not in her interest to make that common knowledge.
Which means Red will need something to distract more than just his surface thoughts. He takes out his supply list and searches through it for anything that can help him. Whatever it is, it would preferably be something subtle, so he can't just blare music into his earphones when he wants to...
Red is scanning through the Ts and pauses when he sees thumbtacks between thermos and toiletries. He remembers looking around his room and trying to come up with some obscure use for anything he saw that didn't have too much mass, but he can't remember what he thought justified bringing thumbtacks. Putting sheets of paper up on trees to leave directions? Something like that.
Red considers taking one out and putting it in the end of his shoe, carefully angled so he can prod himself with it if needed. If the pain registers on his face or in his mind, he might be able to play it off as having an injury… but that would be a lie, and she would probably be able to detect that if nothing else…
Forget painful things, do something pleasant instead. Maybe if he buys some cookies when he goes inside...
Red's watch beeps, and he sighs. Out of time, and any benefits from further thinking would be marginal compared to potentially irritating her by arriving late. He quickly takes out some moist toilettes to wipe the dried sweat from his face and neck, then straighten his collar and puts his hat on. He stares at his reflection in a curtained window to make sure he looks presentable, then puts everything away and walks to the cafe.
The interior is bright and clean, its walls lined with colorful booths and its front counter displaying all sorts of delicious pastries. Red sees some of the booths are in alcoves with curtains over them, and wonders if anyone is in them: if not, the place is empty save for the young man working the counter, an older man in a long coat and woolen hat, and the Gym Leader sitting across from him.
Sabrina is immediately recognizable, even dressed casually in a pink tank top and white pants, her dark hair sweeping down and out above her shoulders. It feels weird seeing a Leader in a cafe, fancy as it is, and he hesitates at the entrance of the sitting area, not wanting to interrupt. She glances at him and holds a finger up, and he nods and steps back toward the front counter, scanning their menu for something to use as a distraction.
A few minutes later his chocolate milkshake is ready, and the cashier refuses any payment, gesturing to the Gym Leader. Red turns to see Sabrina's guest rising from his seat. He takes her hand and bows, muttering something, then leaves. Red waits until he's out of the shop, then approaches again, feeling nervous butterflies in his stomach. He recognizes that he's feeling a little star struck, like he was upon meeting Bill, then quickly takes a sip of his drink, letting the cold, overwhelming sweetness fill his mouth. Damn. That's good milkshake. He'll have to be careful not to finish it too quickly.
"Hello, Mr. Verres." Sabrina inclines her head, stirring tea in a porcelain cup with a lotus on it. "Please join me."
Red sits across from her and meets her gaze for the first time. Despite knowing she's somewhere in her mid-twenties, as soon as Red notices the unusual rose-quartz color of her eyes, he feels what he did with Psychic Narud: a sense of weight, of years layered on top of each other, that makes him suddenly feel like he's in the presence of someone much older. Red shifts his gaze to her nose, wondering why he never felt something similar with Ayane or Ranna.
"It's an honor to meet you, Leader. Thank you for the drink. How can I be of assistance?" He sips the milkshake again, letting the flavor fill his mouth and mind. He's tempted to bring his mental shields up too, but decides against it: even if it would work on her, it would be too distracting to maintain, and she might even consider it rude.
"First, I'd like to congratulate you on your Researcher's License," Sabrina says. "I'm curious, do you intend to continue pursuing psychic phenomena in particular?"
"Oh. Thank you. Uh, for now, yeah. I don't want to limit myself, if something else comes up I might change tracks, but I think it's worth pursuing at the moment."
"May I ask why?"
Red wonders how much detail he should go into. "That's kind of a long answer."
"You're worried I'll be bored, despite me specifically seeking you out to speak with?" Sabrina sips from her cup, smiling slightly.
Red blinks, processing this. The gym leader seems very much at ease, and her gaze stays mostly on him without feeling oppressive, occasionally letting her gaze wander to her cup, or the window behind him. Red makes himself relax, settling into his seat and going through a quick calming technique.
"Good awareness and response time," she says, taking him by surprise and causing him to become flustered. "Oh, and now I've ruined it. I apologize."
"That's okay," he says automatically, and tries to concentrate on relaxing again. It's a little harder, but as he breathes in and out, he lets his mind wander to his research until it calms. "Well, the short version is I want to discover the origin of pokemon species. Any deeper and more fundamental understanding of them will help with that, such as what makes them so different. We know that natural selection creates variation in species, but there are also pokemon that seem to spontaneously arise out of their environment. So did the pokemon we know already do the same, in ancient history? Or did they come about from biological changes over time?"
"Biological changes. You mean coming from the same ancestor, such as mew?" she muses, sipping her tea.
"I was thinking of even simpler life forms, but if mew existed, and was really the first pokemon, then yeah, learning about psychic pokemon might be important."
"Then your interest in psychics is incidental to your interest in biology."
"A little. The type system often seems incomplete or misleading, but psychic phenomena, and the related Dark type, are something we humans seem to share with pokemon, so it's probably fundamental in a way that, say, studying Fire or Plant pokemon wouldn't be." Also discovering how psychic phenomena work might help develop technology that mimics it and allow Bill to make something that spurs better machine understanding of human values mmmmm chocolate...
"Yes, I see." Sabrina's gaze is distant, and Red ignores her as best he can, gulping down his milkshake until he suddenly feels the sharp pain of brain freeze. He grimaces and stops drinking, one hand rising to rub his forehead.
Sabrina chuckles. "I apologize if that was on my account. I don't mean to make you nervous, and have no intention of trying to connect deeper with your mind. If your emotional mood itself is what you fear me sensing, then we can end the conversation. I hope you didn't feel pressured into coming."
"Oh, no," Red says as he puts his cup aside, cheeks flushed. "I'm just… still new to interacting with other psychics."
"Why do you not simply use your shield? Or was I misinformed about your having one?"
Red shifts. "Would you mind me asking first, how did you find out about that?"
She smiles. "The psychic community is rather interconnected, for all our layers and divisions. My Third asked me if I ever knew of someone who could shield their mind while sensing others probing it, and I told him I had not and asked why. He reported that someone had asked him the same question, and from there it wasn't hard to discover that Psychic Ayane's new student had apparently exhibited the ability. Am I to take the question as confirmation of it?"
Red nods. "Yeah, I can do it. Or I did with Ayane, anyway. The reason I'm not using it now is I don't know if it's rude or not." He hesitates, then says, "Or to be honest if it would do any good against a psychic of your caliber."
"An understandable fear. But such a breach should be felt even by someone with a regular shield, and if such a thing were to happen, you could simply throw your drink in my face and run."
She says it so matter-of-fact that Red grins. "I wouldn't do that."
"Oh? And what would you do, then, if a psychic were to force a merge?"
Red considers this a moment, then purposefully remembers what it felt like to be attacked by his Spinarak. But while the memory isn't pleasant, there's no sudden, sweeping reliving of it. Using that as a double edged defense wouldn't work.
But there is something that still has that power over him, however much he's gotten better at dealing with it.
"I'd probably try drowning them in grief," he says, smile fading. "Assuming I could tell they were doing it at all." It's not like she has an incentive to tell him the truth if she can breach people's shields without them knowing…
Sabrina sighs, the age behind her eyes becoming more pronounced. "I see you understand why many psychics' lives can be… difficult."
Red is lost for a moment, then realizes she probably picked up on his suspicion. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. Trust is a valuable thing, and it is completely understandable that others would withhold it from those who have power over them. But without it, true and meaningful relationships are difficult… and so the suspicion and discomfort that psychics face throughout their lives, particularly powerful ones, can often be quite isolating. Even from one another."
Sabrina's face is still calm, but there's something in her words that makes him feel how personal this topic is for her. Red wonders who she's thinking of, and feels wretched for being so suspicious of her even as he knows he shouldn't, that this too can simply be an additional manipulation. Red suddenly wonders if she's the reason the cafe is so empty. Who would want to sit for tea in the same room as the most powerful psychic in the region? "I didn't mean to…"
"I know." Right, she can probably sense his remorse too. But then she smiles, and the sense of sitting across from someone far older than she appears fades. "Believe it or not, it doesn't often bother me so much, anymore. Today was just a particularly hard day. My previous meeting dredged up some painful memories."
"Oh." Red doesn't quite know what to say to that. The Gym Leader appears to be confiding in him, which is probably as good a way as any to make him feel more at ease and trusting. He decides to reach out as well. "I know what that's like." And he explains, as briefly as he can, his partition and the difficulties it had caused him.
Sabrina's gaze is sympathetic, but also speculative. "I don't envy you the experiences, but… I can't help but wonder what role they've played in your particular expression of your powers."
Red frowns. "Because of the partition? Seems a stretch, unless you have a bigger sample size to draw from?"
"There are other psychics with unique, or at least very rare, extra abilities," she says. "Whether they had experiences similar to yours, I don't know. But this partition you describe is the root of a psychic's ability to shield their mind while still using their powers. Normally it is something a psychic develops. To have it develop on its own, before you learn to control your powers, is what intrigues me."
"What do you mean? And what sorts of extra abilities?" Red takes out his notebook, which seems to amuse Sabrina, who lifts her cup and sips as she thinks.
"Let's see. Sufficiently powerful psychics can project not just feelings, but static images and monotone words to others, but Elite Lucian of the Sinnoh region has the ability to share moving pictures and a full range of sounds, as well as physical sensations and tastes and smells, into another's mind. As far as I'm aware he is unique in this. He likes to use it to entertain his nieces and nephews, projecting mental movies of books he reads for them. An old woman I met once in a faraway region could move incredibly small objects, such as grains of sand, with a dexterity that most others cannot come close to. I watched her make beautiful mandalas in moments with her mind, and though I've practiced ever since, for all my strength I cannot emulate her. And I have a student whose psychokinesis can even reach through glass, which should be impossible. Seeing him do so broke all our previous understandings of the limit of telekinetic powers."
Red listens in rapt fascination, scribbling each down for future investigation. Psychokinesis that can go through solid objects? "Is it just glass, or can he move things through other materials too?"
"Just glass, for now," she says. "For various complicated reasons, it is difficult for him to find time to participate in experiments, but rest assured that we hope to get to the bottom of it soon."
Red feels a stab of longing, he would love to be part of that research, his mind is already racing with ideas to test such a unique power's limits... "And you? Do you have any powers like that? Unique abilities?"
Sabrina is quiet a moment, then says, "In a sense. Perhaps it is just my imagination, but… at times I can see psychic phenomena."
Red's eyes widen. "What does it look like?"
"Light," she says, voice soft. "Light in many colors, often colors I can't name, radiating off of a psychic in proportion to how much power they use. It's… beautiful."
"That's amazing! Can you look at mine, tell me how strong it is?" Hell, he's been looking for a way to measure psychic strength all this time, but if she could see it...
She shakes her head, smiling. "Unfortunately I can't do it at will. It comes and goes."
"Oh." Red can't hide his disappointment, and he puts a question mark next to that one. Still, worth looking into later. "Well, some of these abilities seem more unique than others. Like, Lucian or the woman's, they're just normal psychic powers with an unusual level of power or precision, right? But moving things from the other side of glass… that's what I'm more interested in. Finding phenomena that break 'rules' are the ones most likely to teach us something really new about the world. Do you think I can meet your student some time? Or get their name?"
Sabrina smiles. "Perhaps someday, but he's rather secluded, and quite busy."
"Ah." Someone like Bill then, who appreciates their privacy. He quickly takes another sip of the shake, careful not to drink too much. "I get it. Well, it's still good to know that sort of thing is possible at least."
"Indeed. The more psychic powers are explored, the more the 'rules' we believed inviolate, few though they were, are proving more flexible instead. It's why your research has been so interesting to many… and your power."
"Well, I think that has a lot to do with who's trying to come up with the rules, to be honest." Red shrugs. "I wouldn't put too much stock in the psychic community's ability to create meaningful beliefs about how their powers really work."
It takes two full seconds for Red to realize he just said that, out loud, to one of the leaders of that community, who no doubt contributed greatly to generating such beliefs.
The gaze the Gym Leader has fixed on him, one dark brow raised, is suddenly hard to ignore. "Oh? And you feel this way due to your few months of lessons and single experiment on psychic phenomena?"
Red swallows, trying to backtrack. "I mean… ah… it just all seems very… unscientific."
"Hmm. Granted," Sabrina says as she pours some more tea into her cup, and Red lets his breath out. "Most psychics aren't scientifically oriented in the slightest, or seem positively allergic to such ways of thinking. But I have seen more researchers than you might credit, well-funded and highly motivated, attempt to unlock its secrets, and produce few results as well."
Red thinks carefully before he responds, determined not to stick his foot back in his mouth. "Okay, I didn't know about that," he says at last. "If they're really motivated to find stuff, and aren't being held back by sacred or deeply ingrained beliefs that prevent them from thinking outside the box, then maybe making new discoveries about it will be harder than I thought. I'll update in that direction, thanks for telling me."
Sabrina looks amused. "You're quite welcome. But you still mean to pursue it?"
"Well, sure. I mean, I'm going to be trying to understand my own powers as best I can anyway, along with pokemon. Ayane was a great teacher, and she seemed impressed by my progress. Maybe I can find out something new."
"And what progress was that?" Sabrina doesn't appear skeptical, more curious, but Red still feels nervous.
"Well. My shield isn't the only thing that surprised her. Because of my partition, it's hard for me to really use my powers for a significant amount of time. Or it was, anyway, I feel like it's getting a bit easier. But still, my solution was to just try mimicking the mental state I experienced in her, then adjusting them as needed. And it seems to work pretty well."
Sabrina's curious look has sharpened into real interest now. "So in a way, it was your personal experiences and impairment that led to your unique shield."
"Maybe? Earlier you said the partition was important to making a shield…"
"Partitioning one's mind is how a psychic accomplishes many of their feats, such as selective amnesia, or shielding while still being free to project or merge with others. By arranging the 'outer' portion of your mind in the right pattern, you can keep your thoughts and feelings hidden while the rest of your mind engages in other activities."
"But… the shielded portion isn't responsive? Normally?"
"Correct. It is a separate part of your mind that remains inert so as not to reflect your hidden thoughts and feelings. To be able to sense something from it should defeat the purpose, but the way your powers developed, the partitioned mind seems particularly connected to yours regardless. My suspicion is that your partitioned mind is the conduit through which all your psychic abilities have been channeled. Your development of your powers has in truth been the development of a second partition, distinct from the one that has held in it the bulk of your grief, and so you have felt it less as that grief is shared more and more between them, and lessens on its own besides."
Red considers this new metaphor, finding it plausible even as he has a sinking feeling. "Does that mean I'll lose the ability to sense others while shielding, when the partition fades?"
Sabrina stirs sugar into her drink, face thoughtful. "Perhaps a new, intentional partition would retain the ability. If so then it should be teachable to others, and that is, in large part, why I asked to meet you." She puts her cup down, then takes a consent sheet out of the bag beside her, voice becoming formal. "May I examine your ability, Psychic Red, and try to breach it?"
Red doesn't have to consider this long: the conversation has put him much more at ease with her, as it was no doubt designed to do, and if in some way this would help contribute to the world's understanding of psychic powers… he holds a hand out for it.
Sabrina watches him sign, then inclines her head as she takes it back and tucks it away. She shakes her dark hair back, hands rising to tie it up with a band from her wrist. "By your leave."
Red turns to a fresh sheet near the back of his notebook and prepares to repeat the line-drawing he did with Ayane, wondering if Sabrina's mind would feel significantly different than his teacher's. He dutifully closes his eyes and concentrates on his breathing, slowly sinking into himself until his powers feel like a central part of him, prepared for use. He constructs his mental shield with deliberate slowness, wanting to make sure he gets it right, then says, "Okay, ready."
There's no sense of anything for a while, but eventually he recognizes the now familiar feeling of not being alone in his head, and starts drawing the line. He feels her mind slip around his, as expected, but instead of surrounding him or fading, the sensation changes. It becomes a sort of pattern imposed on his thoughts, like a drum beat that he has to tap his foot to, a rhyming couplet he keeps completing in his head.
Red's closed eyelids tighten, and he begins to jaggedly run the pencil up and down as it keeps moving from one end of the sheet to the other, not thinking much anymore, simply trying to resist the urge to give in to the pattern as it focuses more and more, like he's being swept away in some dance that he need only take the first steps to, and the rest will flow, he will flow, flow into the pattern and become it...
The careful hold he had over his shield falls apart, and Sabrina's mind is suddenly there with his. He stiffens, feeling the sudden flood of grief… but then he merely feels happy, and excited, and curious, and—
-she's Projecting these feelings to keep the sadness away-
-then he's alone in his head again, and he lifts the pencil away from the sheet and opens his eyes, staring at the Leader in wonder.
"What was that?" he asks, eyes wide.
"What did it feel like?" Sabrina asks, gaze lifting from the sheet of paper to meet his.
"Like… I was compelled into dropping my shield." A word suddenly occurs to him, and his eyes widen. "Was that hypnotism?"
"Not far off. The mental shield works by arranging your thoughts in a certain pattern that is, for reasons we don't fully understand, hard for psychic powers to recognize. By tricking the shielded mind into changing to a different pattern, particularly one I can recognize, it was made visible, and thus reachable, to my senses."
"Is that hard to do?"
"I did not find it difficult, but perhaps others would."
"Yeah, Psychic Ayane didn't try anything like that. So I just have to think about a certain pattern and it will reveal hidden minds around me?"
"Most people cannot sense psychic minds probing for theirs while shielding. But with you—"
"I can sense your mind in the first place, so I'm getting it directly." Red frowns. "Huh. My shield feels a whole lot less impressive, suddenly."
"It's a weakness, to be sure, but perhaps one you can train against. In the meantime, as long as others do not know how your shield works, it still holds an advantage."
"Right. Wait, does that mean you just came up with that attack just now?"
Sabrina nods. "It seemed an idea worth testing."
Well damn. And Red thought he came up with novel solutions quickly.
Then Red realizes that the advantage his shield possesses might vanish by the end of the day. "Er. Leader Sabrina… are you planning on telling others about my shield, or how you got through it?"
Sabrina's eyes watch his, two chips of rosequartz. "Is there any reason I shouldn't?"
Shit. "Well, it would make it a lot less useful."
She shrugs a shoulder. "Then it is up to you to learn to defend yourself against it, if you can."
Sabrina smiles, not unkindly. "You are a psychic now, Red. One of the 'gifted,' as others would say. It has ever been a race between offense and defense, among our kind, unregulated and vital to the continued development of our powers."
Red sighs, then nods. "I need to hire another teacher soon, then. And figure out how to do that hypnotism thing, in case others learn my trick." He glances at her, then away.
Sabrina's smile widens. "You can ask."
Red suddenly worries about thinking of Bill, which of course makes him think of Bill more, and quickly swallows a mouthful of his shake. "That was more than a surface impression," he says after his senses are flooded with the sweet taste, trying not to sound accusatory.
"Our abilities do not work in a vacuum. When you are more used to sensing people's moods and emotions, you will be able to guess their thoughts or desires more accurately in a way that appears to be true mind reading."
Which is exactly what she would say even if she can actually read deeper. And now he's back to being suspicious. But then why reveal the guess if she didn't want him to suspect her?
Red takes a breath, then lets it out. This train of thought isn't getting him anywhere, and he would still like to learn… "Can I inhabit your thoughts while you do it again?" Red asks.
"To be clear, you wish to merge with my mind as I repeat what I did so that you can try to mimic it, and thus become privy to my thoughts, as you were worried about me doing with you?"
Red tries not to fidget. "I know it's presumptuous—"
Sabrina laughs. "Normally it would be. But, you indulged my interest, so I am happy to trade." She closes her eyes, then says, "Begin."
Red is surprised at her acquiescence for a moment, then suddenly more nervous than he can remember being in years. He feels simultaneously like he's about to ask a girl to dance for the first time, while that girl is also a dancing master and judge and enormously important and influential figure besides.
Get a grip and just do it. It's not like you're about to pet a skarmory.
Somehow that thought is not helpful: he feels as though he'd rather be mauled by a skarmory than come off as an inept psychic to Sabrina, or worse, hurt her psychically in some way, laughable as that seems. But he notes the utter ridiculousness of that sentiment, calls himself a few pejorative names, and closes his eyes as he focuses on his breathing once again, before extending his mind outward.
He notices it immediately: the normal thrum a mind makes in the not-space between them is always distinct, once he focuses enough on how, but in this case the difference between someone walking by outside and Sabrina's are like night and day. It's not just because she's psychic, he's sure, he notices that as a separate quality: rather, the raindrops of Sabrina's mind fall in a pattern that's almost inhuman, its vibrations so distinct that as soon as he reaches out to enmesh with her and feel her thoughts and sensations, he's swept up in the pattern.
—a leaf spinning in the air, blowing in the wind, dancing gracefully from place to place, but looping in the same ways, forming a pattern of ideas—
For a while, Red simply lets himself follow it. He understands that it's Projection, a simple and blatant sending out that brings back his metaphor of being about to dance with a girl. For that's the metaphor that his mind latches onto, as his mind connects with Sabrina's and follows the movement of her thoughts through eddies and whirls: a dance, one that the Leader gives herself to completely, an unabashed series of motions that she's been immersed in since childhood.
And that thought is connected to others as her mind reflects his: a childhood that's lonely, not understanding how different one is or why everyone treats her as other, only knowing in a uniquely intimate way that they do, even her non-psychic parents, and how those years of isolation make her relate to-
—stillness so complete the ground below suddenly vanishes mid-step—
Red blinks, finding himself on the floor and staring up dizzily as he reorients to where he is.
"Mr. Verres! Are you alright?"
Red looks around, taking a moment to come back to himself. "Fine…" He rolls onto his side out of his chair and gets up, checking for bruises. Just one on his shoulder. He smiles at Sabrina, who's half out of her seat with concern. "I'm okay." He turns to the barista, seeing the concern on their face even from across the room. "I'm fine!" Red realizes with detached interest that he didn't feel the young man's mind earlier, and wonders if he's Dark, or a psychic who can shield his mind too.
He rights his chair, only noticing then that his chocolate shake fell over and is dripping off the other end of the table. Sabrina's face is tight, and suddenly a flurry of napkins rises from the tables around them, descending like a flock of birds upon the mess to soak it up, the glass righting itself on the table.
"I'm terribly sorry about that, Mr. Verres."
"What happened?" Red says as he slowly sits back down, eyes still on the moving napkins as they rise up, heavy with milkshake, to deposit themselves in his empty glass. It's his first time seeing psychokinesis used outside of the basic lifting of objects that Ayane demonstrated in lessons, and it makes him feel both awed and frustrated at his own inability with it.
"I attempted to show you what a normal mental shield looked like, to see if you could mimic it. This closed my mind quite abruptly, which I imagine was a disorienting experience."
"Yeah, it felt like… you know those dreams where you're falling and abruptly wake with a start? Like that. But before…" Red smiles. "The hypnotic pattern thing, it was really cool. Like dancing with your thoughts."
Sabrina's eyebrows rise, and her consternation appears to fade a little. "I'm glad you got something out of it, at least." She tilts her head. "Do you believe you can mimic it, now?"
"I'm not sure, but I can try if you'd like?"
"Please do, if you're feeling up for it."
So Red takes a breath and closes his eyes again, remembering what he sensed and locking down each part of it, bit by bit, until all that was left was the pattern. At first he tries mimicking the pattern she used, but it's too difficult to remember properly without breaking, like knitting with cobwebs. He's not sure if it's his state of mind that's off or if he just needs to experience it again to remember, but maybe it's easier to try something more familiar to him… what if he follows a rhyme, some poem or couplet?
For some reason, the first thing the idea of forcefully concentrating on a rhyme brings to mind is something a classmate with a stutter used to repeat that stuck in Red's head: Amidst the mists and coldest frosts, he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts.
Red frowns, eyes still closed as he tries to let his thoughts flow into a pattern, his own mental dance connecting one idea, one word, to the next to the next to the next, in effortless but repeating freeflow, the kind he experienced before. Just repeating the couplet isn't enough, it becomes too rote, his mind wanders, he has to fully commit his thoughts to the pattern it makes, remove the words and let his ideas flow in that meter, and it's hard, like lifting a door knocker that weighed a hundred pounds and trying to bang it at a particular rhythm (the metaphor coming to mind from his experience as a baby trying to lift a knocker while on his dad's shoulder, to his general encouragement and laughter)...
...he THRUSTS his FISTS agAINST the POSTS and STILL inSISTS he SEES the GHOSTS...
Red wipes at his eyes, the grief finally rising to the point of distraction and breaking his concentration. He takes a moment to collect himself, and Sabrina says nothing as she finishes cleaning the spilled milkshake.
"Would you like another drink? On me, of course."
"I'm okay, thanks." Red looks around for a dry napkin to use, and one suddenly flutters over, causing him to smile as he plucks it out of the air and wipes his face. He would actually like something to drink, both for the sensation overload and to cheer himself up. Realizing that she probably picked up on that, he smiles. "Actually, maybe some masala chai?"
By the time she returns with it, Red has enough presence of mind to feel awkward about a Gym Leader fetching him tea, even if she did inadvertently cause his first drink to spill. Just covering the milkshake that he bought wasn't the same, but at least it gave him some time alone to recover, which he suspects was the real motivation anyway. "Thank you. So, did you feel anything? Was I doing it?"
"You were certainly doing something," she says, and smiles as he snorts. "I think you managed to capture the mental state, the idea of what it means to form a mental pattern, but it will still take time and effort to replicate it, and psychic power to project it."
"Oh yeah, it usually takes a lot of practice to get these right," Red says, taking a drink and enjoying the warm mix of spices and flavors for a moment before he scalds his tongue a little, and begins to blow on it.
"It likely would from anyone else trying to learn it, so your shield still has value for a time at least. I am eager to see if it's something others can learn. Perhaps your more valuable skill is in copying of mental states. If you haven't tried teaching it to others, that must be the first thing you do."
"You don't think it's a unique ability, then?"
"I hope it is not, and you should as well," Sabrina says, sipping from her tea and watching him.
It takes Red a moment to get it. "If I can teach it, that means I have something valuable to offer other psychics."
It takes Red another moment to put together the real reason for the meeting. "So… now that you've gone to such lengths to make sure I know the value of my ability, what do you want in exchange?" What she did is the opposite of what someone wishing to barter should do, and Red feels grateful for her transparency, as he knows he's probably intended to. I guess this is what the Professor was talking about. It's hard to call something manipulation if it's just using your natural incentives and feelings… even watching for it, it can still get you.
Sabrina smiles. "Do you know why you can't move someone's arm with a mental connection? Why it would take direct psychokinesis?"
Red shakes his head, unsure of the relevance but curious.
"Because everyone's body works differently, even among the same species. The broad strokes of our brains are similar, but when it comes to individually moving a single finger, the wiring is different. The best we can do is interpret the sensations of similar appendages and movements that we've experienced. But because all mental communication is symmetrical, a mirroring of mental states and thoughts and images and feelings, it is something that can be communicated on a level beyond conscious understanding, theoretically."
Red considers the act of catching a pokeball. "Like learning something by muscle memory without really understanding the physics of it any better."
"Precisely. Our brains are constantly calculating and making predictions at a bottom level, while simultaneously our mind, our attention, what we consider us, is observing and matching experiences against what our brain generates. Psychic abilities, in a way, allow the mind to pass information down to the brain in a different way, or allow the brain's upper activities to be consciously applied to the basic, invisible level.
"But still, every mind works differently in subtle ways," Sabrina continues. "I often think that the more minds a psychic meshes with, human or pokemon, particularly those with psychic powers themselves, the more agile and versatile their ability to interface with their powers, with their own brain in general, becomes. And so I value finding promising students, not just for their sake, but also my own."
Red blinks, then blinks again. "You want me… as a student? Like, a personal student, or just a gym member?"
"I occasionally teach some of the more advanced classes at my gym, and tutor individuals, but that mostly relates to training Psychic pokemon. I mean one of my personal students, for the development of your psychic powers."
"I… don't have a lot of money," he says, still reeling from the offer. After a moment he realizes, "Wait, that's not true, I guess I have money now… sorry, I'm still getting used to that. Um. How much…?"
"We can discuss price later. And because you have a unique ability that I would like to learn as well, if it can be taught at all, I am willing to remove the fee of some lessons in exchange for what I would learn from you."
"You want me to teach you?" he asks, flustered for a whole new reason.
Sabrina's tone is patient. "Such lessons would mostly involve being able to observe your powers while you use them, and fully investigate how you use them, as I guide you through specific tasks."
"Oh. Of course." Red can feel heat in his cheeks.
"However, this is not an open offer yet. I still need to know if you understand your own powers enough to be ready for lessons as advanced as I would give."
Red's heart sinks. "I've only been really using my powers for a month, and I'm still dealing with the partition thing, and… I still can't use telekinesis at all, so... probably not," he finishes, voice quiet.
"I see." Sabrina looks thoughtful. "Perhaps a few more months would be better, then. But you are the right age for students I begin teaching, so it's not a matter of maturity or intelligence, but practice."
"I can practice a lot," Red quickly says. "I already practice once a day, at least!"
Sabrina blinks at him, then smiles. "And what else do you do once a day?"
"Well, I try to fit in some pokemon training every day, and I go over my personal notes, and keeping up with the latest research publications, and I've been trying to get some physical training in but I often forget…" Red trails off, feeling foolish. "Right."
"It's not impossible for someone to become a psychic and a trainer," Sabrina says, voice kind. "But it is difficult and demanding. To try to fully dedicate yourself to your psychic abilities, and your pokemon training, and your research, and other projects… the phrase 'fully dedicate' quickly becomes meaningless."
Red can't help but feel disappointed, but he stifles the urge to argue that he can do more, try harder. He knows she's right, but the opportunity to learn from Sabrina… he can't pass that up, can he?
This is why we talked about goals, Red remembers. Do I value my development as a psychic more than I do my journey with Blue and Leaf? Or more than my research? I finally got my license, am I just going to put it aside now for who knows how many months or years?
"Would I have to come to Saffron Gym?" Red asks, some part of him still seeking a solution.
"If you would have a predictable schedule, it isn't necessary," Sabrina says. "I've registered teleportation sites all over Kanto, certainly in every city and town. But if you're traveling, you would need to be capable of free teleportation and have a registered point in Saffron."
"I can't do free teleportation yet, but I have two abra," Red says. It would mean unregistering Bill's house though...
"And you would need to be able to commit to appointments. Some exceptions can be made if an incident occurs, of course, but if you're traveling between cities, your companions may have to wait for hours, or you would need to catch up to them another way. Generally speaking, most do choose to stay in Saffron, and if they're also trainers, often become Gym members as well."
Red gnaws his lower lip. "Is it okay if I have time to think about this?"
"Of course." Sabrina says. "You may reach out when you have an answer. But try not to take too long: I may take other students in the meanwhile, and my time would become limited."
Red spent the rest of his day in a bit of a daze, thoughts on the conversation and the choices ahead of him. He considers returning to the gym, then instead goes to the Trainer House to practice his psychic abilities, only trying his psychokinesis briefly before giving up on it again and focusing on sensing his partition. He still gets distracted occasionally by worries that he's not trying hard enough, not making fast enough progress in that area as well.
Once night falls on the city, Red gratefully leaves to meet up with the others so they can celebrate the two birthdays and his Researcher license. His brain feels bruised, and he's happy to occupy it with lighter things as the group travels to the Kalos district and checks out its various shops. They spend some time in the clothes stores to try out foreign fashions, then check out the video studio that offers them a ten second promo clip for each of them and one of their pokemon.
Red is too embarrassed at first, but after Leaf and Aiko appear to have so much fun trying out the various outfits and training their pokemon to pose properly, he and Blue decide to do one together, going completely over the top with a background animation of a fiery explosion on one side and a stormy sea on the other behind each of them, as Charmander and Maturin face off. They arrive in the lobby just in time to see Aiko's clip show up, her and her Eevee dancing in a starlit sky, and then Leaf's video of her doing a handstand with Bulbasaur holding itself up by its vines appears, which the others compliment her on until she blushes. Aiko and Leaf laugh at Red and Blue's video, mimicking their poses as they leave and walking down the street in slow motion.
Eventually it's time for Aiko to return home. She wishes them a happy birthday, congratulates Red again, and brings her abra out to teleport back to the ranch. After seeing her off, the trio continues through the district, focusing more on the restaurants now.
One of them seems to be advertising some kind of mid-meal pokemon battle entertainment. Leaf insists that they can go to it if Red and Blue want to, but Red knows it would ruin her appetite. He uses the exorbitant price as an excuse to turn it down anyway, and Blue remarks that the fights can't be that good if they're in the middle of a restaurant.
The night drags on as they pass one restaurant after another, unable to decide on anything among all the different, equally interesting choices available. Each suggests a different way to deal with it: Blue suggests just picking the next restaurant they come across, since they've all seemed pretty amazing, Leaf insists Blue or Red make the decision without consulting her, since it's their night, and Red suggests listing their preferences and finding a preference that all of them share to use as their guide to choose.
Eventually Blue throws his hands up and says they can just go to different restaurants and get what they each want, which reminds Red that something which capitalizes on not having to make just one choice called buffets exist, and after a quick search on his phone they find one that offers a wide variety of Kalos dishes for a reasonable price. As an added plus it also happens to have small pens beside each table for their pokemon to eat in, as long as they're well trained and not left unattended. After purchasing a table, the three release their starters into the pen, then take turns staying as the other two go back and forth from the buffet lines, each of them thoroughly sick of having to make choices and happy to just take everything they want.
Eventually, after multiple trips each, they're all sitting together for an extended period, feeling absolutely stuffed. Blue lets out a sigh of contentment and tosses his last piece of seared magikarp to Maturin, turns to Red and says, "Well?"
Red doesn't pretend to wonder what he's asking about. "It was… interesting."
Leaf looks between them. "What'd I miss?"
So Red launches into a brief recount of his conversation with Sabrina, including an even further summarized version of the story Professor Oak told him. By the end of it Leaf and Blue are staring at him in shock.
"You went to meet a psychic Gym Leader with a history of being manipulative? After what happened to me?" Leaf asks.
"You turned down Leader Sabrina as your psychic teacher?" Blue demands.
"I couldn't have just walked away," Red tells Leaf, then turns to Blue. "And being her student would mean giving up all this…" he trails off, doubt and uncertainty filling him again.
Blue rubs his chin. "There's got to be a way to make it work. How long did she give you to change your mind?"
"Um. No specific time frame."
"Try to figure something out before we leave Vermilion then," Leaf says. "We've got the cruise convention coming up anyway, so it's not like you could commit to anything before that."
"Right." Red didn't consider that, and feels a little relieved that he can't actually make a commitment for now.
That's not really a justified motivation for indecision, Future Red complains. The actual factors aren't likely going to change by then anyway, so you should still work on thinking of something now, even if you can't make the commitment until later.
Sounds like a whole lot of your problem, Present Red replies. Tonight I'm supposed to be celebrating. He drowns out his future self's response by having some more tasty garlic-cream potatoes. "Still," he says, "As cool as it is to be noticed by someone like her, I wish I could turn that interest into a different kind of value."
"I said something similar, earlier," Leaf says. "About taking advantage of all this influence we have, even if we're getting too many opportunities that we can't take at the same time. Aiko made a pretty great suggestion, and I checked with the Coordinator schools to see if any would let me write an article for their sites. One agreed, so I'm typing up a piece on what I did with the abra, and hopefully afterward I can pitch a second article on deeper pokemon ethics themes. You should try something similar, Red."
Red rubs his chin. "You mean, what, check if Sabrina's Gym has a blog?"
"Or start your own," Blue says.
Leaf nods. "You've got a spotlight on you: anything you put out that others can read, they will. The interest is going to fade if you let it, or if the things you write aren't interesting, but if they are you can start building an audience. Whether you commit to being one of Sabrina's students at some point or not, you could end up getting a different teacher if you become popular enough, or others find out about your unique abilities."
Red is already considering what his first post would be. Perhaps a journal of sorts on his experiences with his powers, something that could formalize the concepts that are so frustratingly vague among psychic circles…
Red is grinning, fingers itching to get to writing. "That's a great idea, Leaf, thanks!"
She smiles. "Just don't spend too much time on it that you fall even farther behind on practicing with your powers, if that was a concern with Sabrina. It might be with other teachers too."
"Right. I'll try to slot it into my usual writing and review time."
"Oh, and you should fill out your online profile," Leaf says. "Yours barely has any info about yourself, you have followers now who probably want to learn more about you. It would help people know to give you credit for the things you discover."
Red blinks. "Why would I have trouble with that?"
Leaf hesitates. "Try not to get mad, but… I mean, Blue and I were raised by Professors, from the outside a lot of people expect us to be the ones making most of the discoveries. I've been seeing people give us more credit than we deserve for the abra thing, even with the interview, and I think it's because people don't really know who you are, the way you think, how much time you spent on it."
Red is frowning as she speaks, being more bothered by that than he thought he would be. "Ugh. Okay, I'll flesh out my profile too."
"Yesss," Blue whispers, steepling his fingers together. "Join us, Red… join us… on the PR side!" Before Red can reply, Blue winces, one hand going down to rub his leg as Leaf glares at him.
"Are you trying to get him to change his mind?" she asks.
"It's not public relations," Red insists. "I'm just sharing the ideas I have and giving context for them, like how I learned things and what resources I use."
Blue smirks. "Whatever, my point is you'll be actively building a following and public image instead of just letting it develop on its own. That's all I've ever been asking you to do, and it's about time."
Red refrains from insisting again that it won't be like that. Mostly because he won't know if it's true until he has a chance to see if he actually feels some urge to shape his own narrative and persona in his public writing.
"Is it that bad, for you?" Leaf asks, clearly reading his hesitation.
"It's… it just feels…" Red tries to put it into words. "It feels insincere. I don't want to care what other people think of me."
"But don't you?" Leaf asks.
"No!" Red says reflexively, then says, "Well, a little, but only by people I respect too, like you guys, or Professor Oak, or Bill, or Sabrina…"
"So people who can do things for you," Blue says.
"You can make anything sound cynical if you put it like that."
"Well, I care what others think of me." Leaf says, voice a bit too casual. "And I care what others think of you guys. I'm always aware that the things I say online may reflect on the two of you."
That gives Red pause, and he takes a moment to find his true objection. "Doesn't that ever… feel restrictive?"
"You're not getting it," Blue says. "It's not about looking for people to like you, or even agree with you all the time. You're looking for people to respect you, and that means you'll be doing things worth respecting. Like when I started helping out at pokemon centers, was that bad?"
"Well, no, but—"
"Or when I gave more abra to the centers and rangers?"
"Of course not—"
"So what's the problem? I'm glad I started helping at pokecenters, it taught me a lot and I've been able to help a lot of people." Blue's voice is rising, face hard. "If I also got respect for it, isn't that something people should be respected for?"
Red feels himself getting on edge from Blue's tone, but… there's a note of confusion as something in him agrees with Blue. It stops him from responding to his friend's anger, and instead he frowns down at his plate for a moment. "I didn't realize it bothered you so much."
Blue huffs out a breath, hands rising to grip the back of his chair. "It doesn't bother me, it's just such a… it's such a…"
"A cliché," Leaf says, and they both turn to her. "All those shows and movies where people talk about being popular like it's a problem, like being popular isn't important, when it obviously is."
And Red remembers, somehow he forgot, he didn't really think about it: as Leaf said, both she and Blue have lived their whole lives raised by Professors. Some of the people with the highest status in their regions. They witnessed firsthand the doors that opened for them, and while they both want to step out from under those shadows and make their own marks on the world, there's no part of them that's confused about the value of being respected by others, of having people who will listen when you speak, who will go out of their way to help you.
"Just look around." Blue lets the chair go with one hand and starts raising fingers. "Gramps, Lance, Giovanni, hell, every Leader worth a damn... Doesn't matter if you want to be a politician or a famous singer or whatever, being respected by a lot of people? It makes things easier. It opens opportunities, it gives you privileges that help you gain even more power."
"Hold, please," Red says, putting a hand up. "I need to process this."
"Take your time," Blue says, getting up. "I'm grabbing ice cream."
Leaf grins. "Oo, yeah, the dessert buffet's almost as big as the other foods. Want anything Red?"
He shakes his head, then takes his notebook out and starts jotting down bullet points as he thinks...
Is it okay to be driven by a desire to have others respect you? Why does it feel so... "slimy?" Is it just because of all the stories he's absorbed over the years, all the narratives of heroes being humble and not seeking the limelight?
Or is it also because in his field, the ideal is that a person's ideas change the world not through popularity, but their own merits? That's a profession Blue didn't list, being high status or low doesn't help you discover new things about reality… a scientist can make a new discovery whether they're in the public eye or some obscure research hobbyist… but he can't deny that Blue's right in pointing out that it's easier to get the equipment, funding, and opportunities if you're already popular and respected, not to mention easier to get others to pay attention to what you discover.
Red draws a box around those thoughts, then a line down to a new bullet point. Maybe there's a deeper belief here, one that says something like "good actions are only good if they're not done for self-gain?"
But the world is objectively a better place because Blue is the kind of person that wants to be respected. If Red could learn more, teach more people, and do the right thing more often because he wants to be the kind of person others respect, what's the harm in that?
Red takes a deep breath and sinks deeper into himself as he tries to imagine the worst case outcomes.
The majority of people don't always respect positive things, he thinks, remembering how people are so afraid to test human-pokeball interactions that they made it illegal to research it further. What if I get so attached to wanting status that I become afraid of doing the right thing?
Also, respect is fickle. I might have it today and lose it tomorrow because I didn't do something people expected me to do, like condemn a politician loudly enough, even if I try to stay out of politics completely, or donate enough the next time I make a new catching technique because I need the money for something important.
Would he be worse off, in that case, than if he never gained their respect in the first place?
Possibly, he might not be expected to say anything if he's not a public figure, if he just sticks to his research… he wants to be known for that.
But if his personal experiences can help others, shouldn't he also share that too? Isn't it okay to be known for that too? And if he sticks to just stuff he's somewhat confident about, he won't have to worry about getting drawn into unrelated things…
Or will he?
Red taps the page with his pencil a few times, then puts it down. The other two are still gone, and he tears a piece of pidgey meat into bits and tosses them underhanded toward Charmander, letting them sail up first so that his pokemon jumps for them. His pokemon's growth has continued to increase his strength, allowing him to leap far higher than he used to. Once he proves he can leap as high as Red's head, Red stops tossing the meat so high as he starts to notice nearby patrons looking nervously at his pokemon's flailing, fiery tail.
Soon the two are back and begin digging into some ice cream and cake. They brought a third bowl and place it in front of him too, just a tiny scoop of ice cream and a tiny slice of cake, and he grins. "Thanks guys," he says, and enjoys the offerings.
"So?" Leaf asks.
"I think I'm mostly worried about being in the public eye," he says slowly. "I don't want to have to think about how much status something will get me, or how much I might lose if I say the wrong thing."
"If it's going to happen anyway, isn't it better to think about it?" Blue says. "Instead of blundering around?"
"If I'm worrying about that stuff it feels intrinsically like changing who I am for the worse. Or at least, being put into uncomfortable positions more and more. But maybe that's just me confusing something that is bad, as a judgement, for something that feels bad, physically. When I try to simulate myself being interviewed again, like when we got to town, I feel squeamish."
"You know, being a Professor will mean having to be interviewed now and then," Blue says in a dry voice before sucking some ice cream off his spoon.
"That's different though, I'll be talking about my research."
"So just talk about your research," Leaf says. "You can write about whatever you want: just be aware that you'll be occasionally judged for it, and sometimes attacked for it. But that's how you learn, right?" Her tone has changed, become contemplative as she gazes into the distance. "You give your perspective, and others point out why they disagree with you… and if there's merit there, you engage… and if not, you ignore it..."
"Easier said than done," Blue mutters. "Have you seen online discussion? What am I saying, of course you have."
"I… think I just thought of a new thing to write about," Leaf says, with a slow smile. "Standards of discourse. Rules to productive online conversation, or something like that. Not everyone will care obviously, but if even 5% of people start to follow it, and some sites begin adopting parts of it... Gah, there's so many things to write about!"
"Oh, speaking of!" Blue says. "You should totally come to the gym tomorrow, Leaf. Not for pokemon battling, for the other trainings! It's great, isn't it, Red?"
Red is still trying to untangle his feelings. "I didn't go to the classes yet, remember?"
"Right, shit. Well great, both of you can go to them together! It's really amazing what Surge is doing here, I think you could get a great article out of it, Leaf."
She looks surprised. "Why don't you write it then? Don't you have a bunch of ideas for how the gym system could be improved?"
"Writing's not really my thing."
"You share training tips with your followers, don't you?" Red asks.
"Well sure, but that's not formal or anything."
Red grins. "You know, being Champion might mean having to write formal stuff now and then…"
Blue frowns. "Also, I've got training to do."
"What, and we don't?" Red asks.
"That's different," Blue protests. "I'm going for a badge."
"It sounds like you don't think it's that important." Red turns to Leaf. "Does it sound like that to you?"
Leaf nods, face sad as she fends off one of Bulbasaur's vines as it tries grabbing the cake from her plate. "Too bad. All those trainers, not aware of how awesome Vermilion Gym is…"
Blue glowers at them. "I'm telling you, I'll mess it up. It would be better if one of you wrote it."
"It's okay, Blue. We'll help you," Leaf says. "Won't we Red?"
"You bet," Red says after a moment, realizing that Blue might be legitimately insecure about his writing. "It'll be good for… what's it called? Public..." He snaps his fingers and holds a finger up, frowning. "Public…"
Blue rolls his eyes, but he's smiling. "I'll think about it. But you'll come, Leaf? You guys will like the classes here, I promise."
Leaf considers a moment, then nods. "Sure, why not. I'm not against gyms overall, I would have gone to Cerulean's water classes, but I didn't have any aquatic pokemon."
"Great! And speaking of which, try to catch some Water pokemon before we leave the city and I'll train you guys with them. Who knows when we'll be near a beach again, after we leave."
"I'll check which ones are available around here." A vine reaches around her chair and tries to sneak in from below, Bulbasaur now standing at the very edge of his pen. Leaf slaps the appendage away without looking, and her pokemon starts to make pitiful sounds, causing her to turn to him. "No! It's bad for you!"
Her pokemon quiets, but somehow manages to continue to look pleading.
Leaf manages to look stern for another second, then melts. "Fine, I'll get you something you can have." She gets up. "Make sure he doesn't eat my cake."
But Bulbasaur just watches along with Red and Blue as Leaf goes back to the buffet tables and takes a small portion from a bunch of different desserts. She brings them back and holds the tray out to Bulbasaur. "Watch this, I've been trying to teach him… Bulbasaur, take one. Take one."
"Aw, Leaf," Blue says. "Why you going to go and inflict that torture on your pokemon too?"
Her pokemon reaches its vines out hesitantly, swaying it above the plate for a while as if about to sweep them all off… then one vine delicately curls around a small piece of honeycake and brings it to its mouth.
"Good boy Bulbasaur!" Leaf puts the plate aside and crouches to vigorously rub his head and ears. "Very good! Very good boy!"
Red is grinning as he watches Bulbasaur gambol about in his pen, and then grow even more excited when she takes a second treat from the plate to hand to him as a reward. "Who's my best boy? Who's the bestest-"
Her words are cut off by a burst of light that suddenly fills the restaurant. Red shields his eyes, heart leaping into his throat. Is this… did it just….
When the light clears, Leaf is staring in shock at an ivysaur that looks enormously pleased with itself.
"Bulbasaur…" she breathes, eyes filling before she grabs her pokemon in a hug, ignoring the broad new leaves from his bulb that get shoved into her face. She laughs as four vines instead of his usual two wrap around her. "I guess it's time to give you a new name."
Someone starts to clap at a nearby table, and soon the whole restaurant is applauding. Leaf looks around in surprise, then smiles and bows before she sits, cheeks flushed and her pokemon on her lap, though he doesn't quite fit.
"Congrats Leaf!" Red says. He looks at Charmander, who's roughly as big as the average charmeleon, and resolves to help his partner evolve before they leave on the cruise convention. It's going to be a busy week...
"The perfect end to the evening," Blue declares, and gets up, plates in hand as he heads for the dessert table again. "Now we all have something to celebrate."