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Pokémon Ascension

Pronouns
He
Interlude 2 - Mia

Silent watchful eyes stared at the newcomer, as she stepped past the cherry blossom trees, a little blinking device in the human's hand. The intruder—a female, young by human standards —stepped into her little garden, peeping around as if trying to spot something there. She was dressed in a funny way, or at least, so it seemed.

And then their eyes met.

The watchful eyes blinked. Twice.

The human smiled.

And just like that, the spell was broken.

"Ah, a ralts. I knew I'd find one eventually."

The little ralts looked downward, not wanting to meet the human's eyes. The green bangs on her head fell over her red eyes, hiding them from the human's sight. The reddish protrusions on her head told her that the human meant no harm, but then, why didn't she leave? And why were her emotions shining so brightly?

Hot—Honey—Sunlight—Smell of—

And yet, she'd not go. She'd not leave. She kept staring at Ralts, and Ralts was confused. Ralts had no sense of identity, yet she was Ralts, and Ralts were… Ralts. She wasn't a Kirlia, not yet, and would not—not until she developed into something more than Ralts, yet being a Ralts. It was kind of confusing, but the elders had explained that it would taste of dew and wet grass and petals, but she wasn't there yet, and why was the human staring at her like that?

Ralts didn't know how to curse, so she pouted instead. Perhaps that would send the human away?

"..."

It still wasn't working. Her senses told her that the human had no negative intentions. So Ralts was safe. Provisionally, at least. She didn't know how to speed up like some of the other members of her little tribe. Something about pushing the energy in her to somehow move faster. If she were a Kirlia, she could have used it. Why there was even a Gardevoir that used Push. But Ralts was small. She had only seen three summers, and this human seemed far too complex for her to comprehend. Perhaps she could try dancing a little jig instead?

"I am not going to hurt you," the intruder female spoke again. "I just want to be your friend. Do you think I can touch you?"

Touch her? Ralts considered her situation. She was sitting on the lower branches of a cherry blossom tree. Not an ideal hiding location, but in her defense, there weren't supposed to be non-harmful intruders in the first place. Why were these humans so confusing?

Ralts pouted again.

"Hey mom, where did you go and— Whoa, what's that?"

"Shhhh!" The woman hissed agitatedly, and the second intruder stopped short.

Ralts looked up. It was a tinier humanling. A male, from the voice, or so she thought. A little kid—happy—wanting attention—surprise—wish to impress and get attention and—

And she blinked.

Red eyes met red eyes.

Ralts blinked again.

"Whoa!" The humanling with ralts-like eyes spoke out loud. Humans loved to speak out loud for some reason. Emotions were far simpler. Far less complex. Far easy to comprehend. Far less prone to being contorted. The humanling had rather complex emotions.

Ralts tilted her head.

He feels like… pollen.

"Do you want a pastry?"

Ralts blinked. A pastry? She knew of flowers and dew and sunlight, but pastry? She sniffed around. There was a strange aroma— not unlikeable, just strange and new. And delicious.

Ralts sniffed again.

Yes, the smell was still there.

"Here, try this," The humanling extended his hand, and at the very tip, was some kind of… food? Ralts did not know. It smelt good. Maybe it would taste just as good? She slowly extended her left arm outwards, and grabbed onto the circular thing— a pastry, was it?

The humanling let it go.

Ralts sniffed. Yes, the aroma had come from this… pastry. Deciding to trust in the humanling, she pushed herself forward and bit into it and—

Mmmmmmmmm…..

It was bliss.

~~X~~

Living in a lab wasn't very fun.

Ralts frowned. Not fun at all.

It had been a fortnight since she had been brought to this new place. A place, not a home. Home had a cherry blossom garden. This one had apple trees, orchards, and big forests all around, but no cherry blossoms. So no, this wasn't home.

The human female came in every day and went back every day. Ralts was allowed to stay in her tiny garden with the other ralts, but she wanted to go back to the cherry blossom tree. There were kirlia there and gardevoir too. Being near a gardevoir felt amazing, The ralts and humans around here didn't feel nearly as nice. Yesterday a man came in that smelt of fresh grass and milk and acorns, but nothing that Ralts liked.

Yes, Ralts definitely didn't like staying here.

"Hey Mom, are you here? I wanted to see if—" The intruder paused, as his red eyes met Ralts' own. This was the humanling that smelled of pollen. Why was he here? Was Ralts going to be taken to a new garden? Did the humanling bring more of those blissful, delicious, baked happiness called pastries?

Ralts felt an odd sensation inside her stomach. It wasn't happiness, but if she had to put a name to it, she'd call it a good feeling.

"Are you… Are you the ralts from the other day?"

Ralts tilted her head. Couldn't he recognize her? She was tiny, but she could tell every ralts apart. Perhaps this humanling was a little dim. She could never tell. Fascinating creatures, humans were intelligent while dim at the same time. Any ralts would have known that she wanted another pastry, but this humanling clearly had no idea.

Dim, with a little honey and pollen. Honey? Missing— Looking for his mother?

How confusing.


The boy was staring at her now, carefully. Ralts covered her eyes with her hair. She did not like being stared at. Slowly, the boy extended his hand forward. Her nose twitched excitedly. It was the same smell from the other day. The good one. The blissful one. Almost afraid he would change her mind, she quickly grabbed it before she nibbled it slowly.

Such things, she decided, must be savored.

"You are the same one," the boy declared triumphantly. "I knew it."



What was the boy talking about?

"I'm Red," he continued. "And you are… are…" The humanling seemed confused. "Ralts ummm… 01?"

Ralts tilted her head at that. Ralts ummm 01? What was that?

The boy frowned in the same way she had seen some of the other ralts frown when they couldn't reach an apple on a tree.

"You don't have a name do you?" The boy asked after a while, the amazed expression stuck on his face, "Why are pokémon named after themselves? Bit odd, don't you think?"

Named after themselves? What else should they be named after? Someone else? That didn't sound right.

"You have no idea what I'm talking about do you?"

This time, Ralts nodded her head. The humanling was not that dim after all.

"See everything's got a name," the child continued animatedly, "like that pastry—"

Ralts leaped a few steps back, as the humanling came dangerously close to her—and the pastry.

"Don't worry," the humanling went on, "I won't take that one. But that's called a pastry, so that's its name."

Ralts was having a hard time following. The pastry was baked happiness that smelt of delicious aromas she'd never smelt before but saying that was a mouthful. Was… pastry a short form for that? Was that what he meant?

"So what do you want to be called?" The child looked at her expectantly.

"..."

"..."

Did he expect her to think of that? Dealing with this humanling was hard. Well, she liked pastries. They were delicious. Though she was sure she would like other things too. How did humans decide on their names anyway? Red… was he named after Ralts's eye color? And what did Delia even mean? All humans looked so different that she had assumed that each was named after whatever variant they were.

Well, since humans were so good at making these… names, maybe she would just let the humanling— Red —pick. She looked into his wide, expectant eyes carefully. How could she tell him though? They seemed to use incredibly complicated verbal cues to communicate. Being a Ralts was much easier.

"Mmmmm," She tried, the sound all she could manage with her underdeveloped vocal cords.

"Hmmm," The boy mused. " I got it! From now on, you can be Mia"

Ralts felt an odd warmth well up inside her and smiled, the happiness wafting off the boy being almost contagious. She didn't exactly get the name, but she could deal with it if it caused this much joy.

~~X~~

The humanling… was not what she expected. He was strange, and small and ran around her so much that she was starting to feel dizzy.

But he was really happy. And joy was infectious, especially to something like her. Before she knew it, she had a smile on her face and tried to reach out to him.

After the experiment had finished, the humanling— Red, she reminded herself — had insisted that they take her home. It wasn't as good as her cherry-blossom trees, but she liked it here. Back there, she could feel others of her kin, and while the lab did have other ralts, the… kinship was somewhat less. Her primary source of excitement and joy was the humanling—Red, she corrected herself again.

Why couldn't humanlings be happy being humanlings? He didn't have red fur, or red hair. Perhaps he thought he smelled like saffron, but what part of him looked like a Red? Maybe his eyes? Ralts wanted to correct him over that misunderstanding, but she wasn't capable of expressing her thoughts and feelings in human-speech yet.

Plus he seems so happy being Red. I think I'll let him keep that title.

"Let's go play outside, Mia!"

Mia— that was what he named her, and wasn't remembering that such a chore? As if thinking of him as Red wasn't hard enough. Oh no, the humanling had a misunderstanding that she was a Mia. What even was a 'Mia' anyway? Ralts was hardly an expert on human terminology, and neither did she claim a diverse understanding of the world around her.

But still Mia?

If the humanling had to misunderstand, couldn't he at least use a term she knew?

"Come on, Mia."

—Or perhaps she was just hoping for too much. At least he seemed happy about it. Still, it was a lot harder than she thought to get used to it. She had been Ralts for as long as she remembered. Well until she evolved. Then she would be Kirlia. Maybe evolution would help her understand what a 'mia' was?

Not that she could completely blame the hum—Red. He had tried—in his own limited way—to explain the concept of names to her. Which was odd. None of the other ralts had names, and she could tell them apart just fine. Perhaps humans named things because they couldn't tell them apart? The pollen humanling— Red she mentally corrected again —had spent an awfully long time staring at her before he recognized her.

The closest thing that they had to names were titles. Her mother had told her stories of Bond, who had established a link to over five thousand of their kind and of Claw, the gallade who had slain over thirty rhydon to protect their tribes.

But this was different. From what she understood, each and every human got a title at birth, regardless of their achievements. Not only that but the title— name, she reminded herself — was completely random. Or at least she couldn't see a pattern in it.

How confusing!

"Come on".

Impatience—Eagerness— Excitement— Friend?

Red picked her up directly, causing her to squeak before he took her outside.

He was warm, she decided. Warm, soft and really happy. She felt safe, almost as if she was back in her mother's embrace.

She decided she liked the feeling.

~~X~~

Why is he so unhappy?

A single winter had passed before Ralts had become Kirlia, and yet, Red refused to see her as anything but a Mia. He was her favorite person and pastime though, so she had ended up associating herself with it.

Kirlia was now Mia, whatever that meant. Well, she was Mia before, but only recently had she come to embrace it as a connotation in relation to herself. But with evolution came an ability to sense past the superficial, into trenches buried deep within him.

She didn't like what she found there.

Invalidation— Ridicule— Underestimation— Solitude— Lonely—Left Out—alone.

It was almost like holding something all your life, only to find it slowly charring your hand. Her instincts screaming, Kirlia had escaped, not unlike a suffocating man struggling for breath, and avoided Red's presence for days. She had followed her basal instincts and wandered around the gardens of Pallet Town. Near other people who were happy. Where it felt good. Like the cake shop. There was a lot of happiness there.

And for a while, it sufficed. She left when he was unhappy and came back whenever he released joy. But it could not last. Whenever her instincts screamed at her to leave him, memories of herself playing with the humanling came to mind. Red had always taken care of her. Spent time with her. Played with her. And with that, came an earnest wish.

He should be feeling happy too. He should be feeling what I'm feeling. Then why does he look so sad?

While her instincts still instigated her to leave whenever the bouts of unhappiness crossed Red, she found that she could deal with them by actively ignoring his deeper feelings, and focusing on the superficial. But the question still remained.

Why is he so unhappy?

It took a lot of courage on her part before she had ventured into the uncharted waters of his mind. Ignoring the ever-growing feeling of wrongness, she delved deeper. It was a place that should have been full of joy. A place that provided her sustenance. A sanctuary in which she refused to allow sorrow to enter.

Slowly, cautiously, Mia grasped her own bundle of happiness. Of joy. Of the enjoyment she found in every act of her life. She grasped it as if it was tangible.

And then, she pushed it into Red.

~~X~~

Red left me.

The first time the traitorous thought had flitted through her mind, Mia had almost thrown up. How such a cruel thought filtered through her strong feelings, her unshakeable faith, and her bond, she did not know. And yet, the thought hadn't been injected into her. Mia was a creature of emotion, and while a foreign thought could incite strong, natural emotions inside her, her mind would deny it, negate it, destroy it until there wasn't a shard of the original tainted emotion remaining.

And yet, here it was— a simple yet unshakeable idea, like a tiny little pathogen that would initially lie small and low, but would grow into gigantic proportions and devour its host whole. It was a tiny, malicious little thing, but its nature was as dark as the night, and it smelt of decay and rot and charcoal.

She tried to deny it. To ignore it. Pretend it didn't exist—

But it was there. Deep within the recesses of her mind, in the depths of her ever-growing cesspool of emotions, it existed, a little fraction of an anathema, whispering sweet lies, distorting Mia's emotions into a horrid and twisted caricature of itself.

I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I hate. And yet.

Red left me.


The vicious cycle continued to deepen.

Come to think of it, it was around that time she had smelt ice and fur, back earlier when she had met the other fairy, that she had sensed something foreign in Red. Through the course of their bond, she was able to ensure that Red was never unhappy, though at times it cost her— sending her into long bouts of sleep. Mia had never shared this with anyone, not seeing how any good would come out of it.

As far as Red knew, Mia only liked to take short naps.

Now, as her precious person, her Red, kept going further and further out of her reach, those little things stood out to her more and more. Mia had been sleeping a lot lately, especially since Red's… traumatizing moment with that electric monstrosity. Mia was a good girl, but something like that was beyond any and all forgiveness. That monstrosity had hurt Red. Her Red.

Kaz may have put it through a sepulcher-lock, but Mia had made it suffer.

How Mia didn't know. But she had wished the pikachu would hurt, and hurt it did. It cried and cried for five days and six nights, throwing out random streaks of electricity all around, before the genial old man that smelt of wood had taken pity on it, and, and…

And…

Mia didn't want to think about it. Those thoughts were anathema to her kind. Some thoughts, some emotions, some truths were better left in the sweet darkness of the night.

And yet, she had been the one that had done it. And it had felt so…. Sweet.

Oh, so sweet.

Like the pastries Red always got for her.

Sweet suffering didn't taste of honey and dew, but Mia assumed it was an acquired taste. As it was, it took a strong emotion from Red's side to transmit his emotions and feelings through the bond. Before his unfortunate altercation with the pikachu, Mia had believed the bond to be one-sided. She'd pour in happiness, she'd keep Red happy, and she'd then bask in that over and over. And when the downpour became too great, Mia would rest. She hated resting when she could have danced, but downpours were difficult like that.

And a little pain, a little sweet suffering, Mia didn't mind, especially if it was for Red.

And now Red has left me.

There went that vicious cycle all over again.

Mia believed Red. When Red believed in something, she did too. It was common sense. Red was her world. If Red thought something existed,it probably did. Perhaps in some remote location far away and Red was just… psychically hypersensitive? Whether he knew of it or not was another thing altogether.

Humans were frail creatures. Best not to overwhelm their minds very much.

With her discovery of the two-way nature of her bond, Mia had waited in patience. Perhaps she'd feel something, anything, from Red. Perhaps he was confused? Excited? Proud, happy or just bored? Angry, enraged, hurt?

Hurt?

Hurt had strong connotations with powerful emotions, even if it was overwhelmingly negative. But hadn't Mia felt like she'd drown in Red's pain when the electricity had consumed him? She had hated it. Prayed for it to go away. For a miracle. She would happily bear the pain so long as he could keep smiling.

And yet, it had been a beguiling euphoria the likes of which had left Mia wanting for more. Not Red's pain, but feeling something that was Red, even if it was nothing but pain. It was wrong and alien and taboo on so many levels but Mia would be… would be…

It was just so sweet.

And now with Red gone with the other fairy, it was this sweetness that Mia craved the most. It was ironic in a way. The last thing she wanted was for Red to feel pain, but with Red away, a sufficiently powerful emotion was required to transmit through the bond. Something consuming. Something overpowering. Something that would occupy his mind to the extent that no other thought could remain. Something like… pain.

At that moment, Mia hated herself for even thinking such a thing. It was contradictory and horrible and Mia knew that she was being greedy, but she was just that…

Lonely.

Was this what Red felt like back when he was a little humanling?

This was all so strange. The spring was here. She was free to dance to the tune of the fresh green leaves. She was free to sing her heart out and perform graceful dances to please the spirits and the elements around her. The world was happy and smelt of sunshine and even the old man's unorganized herd seemed docile enough for Mia to have some fun with them and yet...

And yet, here she was, sitting alone, in front of the broken window— her broken window —waiting for a little sweet suffering to flow in. Such thoughts made her feel worse, made her feel weak, and made her suffer. But despite all this, on some level, it felt sweet.

It was strange and crazy and horrifying all at the same time. This was going to twist and turn into something alien. Those malicious little shreds of darkness were now beginning to taste like sweet suf—

"Mia?" She heard a familiar voice speak its name. Delia—Red's mother. A parent figure for her Red—an absent parent figure— loneliness— wanting acceptance— attentionresignation? The flurry of random emotions flitted across her mind as she instinctively went through what Red thought about her. It was a silly little trick she had invented to ignore Red's prolonged absence. She encountered someone close to Red, she felt what Red had felt in a previous situation. She visited the places Red used to frequent and memories of his prior emotions flooded through her psyche. The true depths of her bond with him were uncharted, and Mia had no wish to delve into their depths. She was happy to skim through the surface whenever she wanted.

"Is everything okay?"

Oh right, Delia. Mom— mother— parent…. Conflicted thoughts— hesitation….

"Li," Mia whispered, more to herself than to the intruder. As if Delia had any business asking if she was okay when she was responsible for everything. Delia was the one that had brought Mia from her cherry blossoms to survive in the lab. Still, Delia was Red's mother. She no longer smelled of honey and sunlight and instead, all she got was dried leaves, but still… She was Red's parent.

In name only, however.

And what did meaningless things like names matter in the world of emotions?

Mia knew Red's mind, his emotions better than he did. She saw the strands, she analyzed the strands, she tinkered with them from time to time. Was this not what all ralts and kirlia did? She wouldn't know. Delia did take her away when she was rather young. She had made… alterations to his psyche when forging the bond— not that there was an alternative. Red would have become a silent, unhappy individual— a dark pit as far as Mia was concerned, and such dark pits were to be avoided at all costs.

Or be altered to something more… workable.

Mia had done exactly that, and then some.

She had twisted the workings of his own psyche, his subconscious. Instead of manipulating his mind to emanate the feelings of happiness and liveliness in him, she had done something else. She had infused, morphed, amalgamated something that was once hers into his own. She had created a link, a passage-way of sorts, one through which she'd be able to channel pure, unadulterated happiness— her own sustenance —into him.

And it worked.

He felt happiness even with his mother being absent. He felt happiness even when the other humans ignored him. He felt happiness when working himself to exhaustion at the ranch. He felt happiness at everything that once made him sad. And soon, his own psyche began to mimic it all.

It hadn't been without a price.

Kirlia were creatures that feasted on positive emotions. To give up happiness was like to draw out her own breath and then hand it over to someone else. It was madness, and it hurt. It hurt and hurt and it hurt so much but hurting meant that Red was happy, and that was sweet.

Suffering was sweet.

So Mia suffered, and Red stayed happy. What did it matter if Delia wasn't present? Red was happy, and Mia had her sweet suffering. What did it matter if he had to be content with staying alone? Mia was there to suffer for him, and thus, he was happy. She'd sink and feast upon Red's own happiness, but when the hurt went beyond her control, she slept. She slept soundly.

And Red stayed happy.

But now… Red wasn't there. He was away. She didn't need to push emotions into him. He was too far away, but she did it anyway. It was second nature. She had grown to survive on her new diet, even if it might kill her in the end. Maybe there would be dew and grass and petals…

And pollen?

Kirlia were empathetic, and not very attuned to rational impulses. How could they be, when they were always swimming in an ocean of unrestrained feelings? So Mia kept sending positive vibes, hoping Red would be receiving them, and in return, feel happy, even though she'd not get anything back. It was killing her from inside, and she could feel herself growing weaker and weaker… Unless he felt great pain and sent jolts of agony through their precious bond, even if it might…

Mia blinked.

Why was Delia looking at her like she had just seen an otherworldly one? Those that hid in the darkness beyond the world were dangerous, and Kaz had warned her of them several summers ago.

Then why?



...

Well, let no one say that Mia wasn't inquisitive.

She dived into the woman's psyche.

Concern—affection—wariness—something like pity —disappointment — urgency —smell of rotten leaves? But the most surprising of all was—

She's concerned for me? But why? She should be concerned about Red. Confusing and erratic and—

Mia did not like being confused. She dug deeper, and the more she did, the more the abnormal feelings began to sicken her—

"I don't understand why he's so… obsessed with being a trainer!" Delia ranted, "he has a sharp mind, something that would serve him well as a researcher, or an analyst. I know my son, and he's damn good at that. Why can't he just do what I say for once?"

"You know you didn't tell him anything, Delia," Oak refuted softly, "You didn't even talk to him about the apprenticeship."

"I sent Kaz," Delia waved off her concern, "you know I was engaged with the Convention. Besides, I was proved right, wasn't it? My son could have been killed, professor. That pikachu—"

"Was an accident!" The old man fought back. "I have apologized for it and I can do so again, but that's not the point. If you want to ensure that your son chooses a different—"

"What good will it do to him anyway?" Delia exploded. "What did the life of a trainer give me? Running into dangerous places over and over, all for the sake of League-sponsored exploration. If not for you, I'd have been stuck there forever, maybe even dead at the hands of some monstrosity."

"Delia, I understand your father had some… strict ideologies but—"

"I don't care, Professor," Delia returned gravely. "I won't allow my son to go through all that."

"Delia, you have barely given him the attention he deserves. The boy has literally grown up in my ranch." Oak responded sadly. "You think you understand him as his mother, but I'm not sure Red thinks the same."

That cut Delia short. She turned away, a shadow falling upon her face. "I know that. I try to give him time, to know him better, but… but my work…"


"Is it really because of your work, or because you weren't ready to have that child in the first place?"

"I love my son" Delia began hotly, " How can you—"

Mia stilled, almost as if paralyzed. Whatever the old man wanted to convince the woman didn't matter. What the woman's reasons were— those were meaningless as well. Only one single thought, a single picture, a single emotion was all that mattered. An emotion that had resulted from what the man had stated.

The idea of a world without Red.

It was unfathomable, incomprehensible, alien and completely taboo to her. For Mia, whose sole existence was subjective to Red's presence, the mere thought of a world without her sustenance, without Red, felt wrong.

Mia almost staggered, as if suffocating from the lack of air, her powers going disarray. It was as if someone was actively choking her, forcing her lungs dry. This was fear, an incomprehensible horror that permeated her entire being, and she knew it'd push her past the precipice of her fraying sanity, throw her into an abyss that left nothing but darkness in its wake.

For the first time in her life, Mia did something no kirlia had ever done. She retaliated.

The concept of a struggle was alien to the Ralts line. They could not teleport, but what they could do was create an emotional outpour in the mind of the intruder, irritating them enough to leave if the ralts felt uncomfortable in their presence. This was the limit of their retaliation. To fight, to cause pain, or to revel in someone's agony— those were anathema to them.

But Mia?

Mia had stopped being a kirlia a long time ago. Now, she was just Mia. whatever that was. She was Mia—an existence that was kept manifested upon the planet because of her connection to one single human.

To Red.

And this woman dared to conceive of a world without him in it.

Mia let go. If this human could conceive the idea of such a blank world, Mia would inundate Delia's world with nothing but Red. She'd ensure that the woman understood what Red was, that she'd comprehend the utter taboo she had just committed.

The dam broke.

Him staring down the hall, waiting for his mother to see him. The woman closed the door and left— He stared at the closed door and walked away—

Parents Teachers meet— "Mom, will you be able to—?"— "Red, I'll be off for the next two weeks for a convention. Can you eat at Pineco's?"— Indifference— silence— lack of attention— "Nothing mom, I'm fine!"—


"Hey look at that! Even his mom stays away"— "Leave me alone"— "Stupid ranch boy, smell ya later"—

"Come on Mia, I promise I'll get you something tomorrow, you know I can't make pastries like mom does"— Mia dancing— A sudden burst of happiness from the sad boy— Red laughing—

"Goddammit"— a gash ran up his leg— "Stupid nidoran"— "Oh nothing, I just scraped my knee on a twig"— "a really sharp twig"—

"I'll become a trainer. Like Lance. We'd have dragons, who'd be our friends, and then you can dance in front of them"— little Mia was squirming in laughter— "When I become a trainer, I'll take you with me, then you won't be alone like me, I mean, hey what are you"—

Mia watching Red from the other side of the glass—his body blackened and burnt, blood seeping out— pain— Hands shaking— Nerves flaring— Skin burning—Mind shutting down— with pain— burning uncontrollable pain— Red screamed—


Mia broke the gaze and looked away.

The woman— Delia —Red's mother in name, seemed transfixed. Mia didn't know what to think anymore. The regurgitation of Red's emotions— even if they had been negative —acted like an aphrodisiac for her twisted core, filling her up. She hated it, hated herself with her entire being, and yet—

It had been so sweet.

Mia didn't wait a moment longer. She couldn't be bothered with the woman anymore. With a soft grunt, her powers activated. A burst of silvery winds blew all around her, and before the woman even opened her eyes, Mia vanished.

~~X~~

Drip.

The sound reverberated through Mia's mind as she started moving forward. Where to, she did not know but she knew her goal lay onward. Her little feet crushed through the foliage on the floor, the sounds of shattered glass creating a haunted feel around her. The abyss loomed around her, but all she cared for where the shifting memories filtering through her mind.

A bird melting, blood oozing out of it— Sorrow. A giant spider, vicious acid dripping down upon raw skin— Fear. Red, ralts-like eyes— Despair—Giving up — Acceptance of Death.

Burning flames— pain-filled cries—desperation — smile—


Silence?

The flames charring the flesh—


Mia tried to shut her ears to prevent the grating sounds from ripping into her head—or was that smell—no, she remembered seeing molten metal and blood—

Drip.

He
grinned. Blood trickled out of his lips, drip by drip. A tooth fell and blood poured out, gushing like a fountain as a venomous screech jarred her senses before biting into flesh—

Mia screamed. What was going on? What— Who was she? A Kirlia— No, she was a… a Mia. Her mind was being surprisingly unhelpful. The red-eyed one. He was important to her. Her entire being said so.

Her head hurt.

Something was wrong. Terribly wrong. She slowly looked around. It was dark and there were trees all around her. Even still her feet kept moving forward. Where to, she did not know.

Drip.

The forest slowly grew thicker and the path continued onward. She didn't know how she had come here. She didn't know where she was going. She didn't know why she was going. She just knew she had to. It was like the place—her destination —held a terrible secret she knew but was refusing to comprehend. Like an old wound that was beginning to squeeze out fresh, warm blood every time it—

Drip.

She didn't know how long she had been walking. All she knew was that she just had to, she had to reach there—somewhere in the middle of this ever-expansive abyss, and going there would—

Drip.

What was she thinking about again. Mia tried to stop. To look around her and try to figure out where she was. Yet her legs moved anyway.

Without her desire.

Without her control.

It was a horrible feeling. As if comprehension was just at the edge of her mind but she simply could not grasp it. It was a wonder she could even remember her name. She was—

Drip.

What was her name again? Name? Title? She was a—a—

Why is it so difficult to remember?

Drip.


And what was that sound? Slowly, almost forcefully, she turned her head to a tree in front of her. A red-drop hung off the edge almost like dew. Mia was transfixed as the translucent shard, shone a twisted crimson, as it slowly fell before splattering on the ground.

Drip.

She recognized the liquid. It was—

Her mind blanked out. Her legs led her forward, as she continued moving into the forest, a sense of foreboding rising within her. She knew that she must reach the end of the path. How she would do that, or why she should do so, did not matter. Such questions had already vanished from her mind.

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.


The pitter-patter of dewdrops— or was it rain? She didn't know, but the noises were coming faster. It was strange, for all she could see was the abyss engulfing her.

Drip.

Another translucent shard splattered in front of her. Despite the sound suggesting that countless such drops were falling, not a single one touched her.

Drip.

It shattered into sparkles of crimson, staining the grass beneath a dull crimson. She didn't know how she saw the stains when nothing was visible, but—

Drip.

Her eyes, almost forcefully, were raised upward as her legs continued to take her down the path.

The eerie feeling of wrongness was going stronger. She was forgetting something. Something important. Mia tried hard to remember.

Drip.

She needed to remember. It was important. More than anything else in her life. There was something there, deep within her. If she let it go, she would lose it forever. How she knew this, she did not know but somehow, she was sure that it was so.

Drip.

Red, crystal-like blades of light shone in the distance as the gap between the trees opened up. The forest was getting less dense and a clearing lay before her. Somehow she knew that this was her destination.

The slow-dripping had turned into a continuous pitter-patter as the red liquid fell like rain. Mia felt herself choke, an unreasonable, uncontrollable nausea rising up deep within her. She wanted to sit down and shut her eyes and ears. She wanted to run away from this all. She wanted to vanish from this horrible, horrible place with no end. She wanted to scream her lungs out. She wanted—

Drip.

Mia came to a halt. Evidently she had reached… wherever it was she was supposed to.

The tempest raging in her mind grew stronger. Feelings of hate, feelings of pain, feelings of… absence, hopelessness—the feeling that she was going to die—

Drip.

It ripped through her mind, through her body, through her soul, through everything that made her a kirlia. No, not a kirlia, she reminded herself. A Mia.

The queer little blob of darkness festering within shifted and a tendril so dark that it appeared to suck the light out of its surroundings began to rise within her. For a second, Mia thought that she'd die of suffocation. She tried to breathe, but it did not help. She tried to scream, but no sound escaped her.

A prisoner in her own body.

A prisoner in her own mind.

She wished she would die, but even death would not take her. She couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't think. There was only pain, the very suffering she had grown to relish so much.

Mia begged for it to end. For something to happen. Anything. Anything to distract her from the thing inside her.

Drip.

Nothing came.

After several painful, tense moments, another feeling encompassed her. She had thought that nothing could be worse than the pain, but the gnawing sensation had already moved from her stomach and began to encompass her mind.

I... I feel so hungry.

It felt awful— her entire mind submerged in pain. Pain, despair, and sorrow. The feeling of letting everyone around you down. Of failure. Of giving up. And yet within those feelings was familiarity.

Mia grasped it, the sole beacon of light in this endless sea of misery. And the thing retreated. Slowly sinking back into her depths.

Red, her mind supplied.

What was that?

She did not know, but she knew it was important to her. That she could not let go no matter what. Or else it would come back.

It was an instinctive feeling. A repulsive feeling. The feeling one gets when they look at everything about themselves that they cannot acknowledge. All she knew was if that thing came back… she wouldn't be Mia anymore.

The sad part was, Mia didn't— couldn't —care. A part of her wanted to bask in the darkness, wanted to absorb it, become one with it.

During all this time, the little blob— the darkness, it stayed right there, within her arm's reach. All she had to do was grab it.

Drip.

The hunger was getting worse. Much worse. And she instinctively knew, that all she needed to do… was touch the blob.

Mia couldn't help herself. She wanted it to end.

Reaching out, she grabbed it.

A flood of madness and horror and pain and raw, shrieking loneliness so intense it chilled her to her soul, all running rampant through her brain without her consent or any response to her attempts to fight it off. This thing was not merely assaulting her physical form, it was laying waste to the territory of her soul, the most hideous indignity imaginable.

And yet, that was not all. With the pain came a ravenous hunger. With the hunger, came power. Raw, untamed power. More power than Mia had ever thought could exist. Power that she instinctively knew was hers. And yet she could not touch it.

"Beautiful, isn't it?"

Mia had to physically restrain herself from jumping out in horror at the voice. A familiar voice. She looked around her. She looked above. She looked below.

No one. Nothing.

Drip.

She was standing in the middle of the clearing, shadows of tall, burnt trees all around her. There was no smoke. How she knew they were burnt, she had no idea. But what was this voice? And what was this familiar pain?

"Are you wondering why you can't remember?"

"I just…." Mia heard herself speak, "I just want to… I just want to go home."

"Home?" The voice seemed amused. "Where is your… home.?"

"It is—" Mia began, frustration and terror rising up in her, "I— I can't— I can't remember. I don't know. I don't—"

"Are you wondering why you can't remember?"

Mia almost felt her ears cringe at the sickeningly sweet tone. "I just—"

"Are you going to cry?"

Mia shook her head furiously.

"Do you want to cry?"

"No!" Mia wanted to say. Instead, she just took a step back.

"I can help you cry!"

"Please…" Mia begged, "I want to go home."

Drip.

Mia glanced down on the ground, only to find it no longer there. Instead, it was covered with a strange, sticky liquid. A layer that was slowly rising as the crimson droplets continued to fall. Slowly an image appeared in her mind. The red-eyed one along with some others.

There was a metal bird, a small lavender growlithe, a small purple shell, and a small yellow creature— Mawile, her mind supplied. Her heart throbbed. The scene was important to her. Somehow.

Drip.

A figure formed in the translucent rain. Mia raised her hand and called out to it. It was important to her. Somehow.

The human teen, he did not turn back.

"Li….." She warbled, "Kirli… lia?" Her voice distorted not even understandable to herself.

He did not notice. Instead, he glanced down at the yellowish creature beside him. "Come on Mawile, let's go. We still have to see the world!"

"You cannot speak to him," the voice said cruelly.

"...Lia?" She tried again.

"He can never understand you." A scornful laugh filled her mind.

The teen—Red, her mind supplied—did not listen. He did not care. He didn't… didn't want her.

"There is no place for you." The seductive voice whispered in her ear.

Mia shook her head valiantly. She would not listen to this… whatever it was that was speaking to her. She would not. She would—

Red continued to walk away, while the creature—Mawile, she remembered— twisted its neck and sent a sly smirk at her, before mewling in pleasure, her little steps quickly following his own.

Mia's outstretched arm, her unwavering resolve, faltered.

"Why do you accept this? Why not… take what you want?"

Her arm drooped. "I… I…" Mia mumbled, her voice once again forming distinct words. "I don't have a choice. Red left me. He—"

"You can take it back. You can—"

A shriek tore across the abyss. It was Mawile's scream, and a spray of fresh blood splattered all around her, staining her feet. Mia stumbled.

"—have everything—"

Another shriek. This time it sounded like the painful cry of a bird, then another soft squeak, and finally a—

All you have to do—"

Blood erupted like a fountain, engulfing the fresh green grass on the lawn beside the broken window. Mia momentarily wondered how the window appeared there before the voice spoke again.

"—Is ask—"

Drip.


"Of course, you can always turn him into your toy."

Mia's eyes bulged, realizing who was it that stood in front of her. It was him. Red, and yet not Red. His eyes—they had lost their light, and now seemed dull brown. His face was pale, alive and at the same time, not.

Like a puppet.

A puppet, with broken strings.

This was not Red. This was just an empty husk that was once Red. A human whose mind had been twisted and turned into a horrid caricature that would raise sympathy in the hearts of a psychopath. And within that husk, was Red's childlike mind—trapped, violated, broken.

All for her to play or discard at a whim.

"No…." Mia breathed. "No… No…. NONONONO! I don't want this… I don't want this! You are trying to make me harm Red! Let me go!"

She fell on her back, feeling the sticky, crimson blood staining her body, her skirt, splattering all over her. The red liquid started rising faster almost as if waiting for her to fall within it.

"Doesn't it hurt, to be the one that's left behind… to be cast aside… to have to drink poison when you are worthy of the sweetest nectar?"

Mia shook her head violently, pushing herself backward. The splashes only continued, and puppet-Red floated closer to her. It raised its dead hand.

Drip.

"I can help you," The voice purred, "all you have to do is go to sleep. Forget everything, forget betrayal, forget loneliness, forget hunger… forget everything. Close your eyes... and let me awaken."

A tendril rose out of the blood beneath her, and coiled itself like a snake around Mia's arms, clenching them in a deathly grip. Another tendril rose and bound her abdomen, pulling her down. Mia tried to move her legs, but they were already bound and sinking into the river of blood below her.

"Just give up. Sleep, and forget. Allow me to end it. You will only suffer for a little while. Suffering…. Suffering is sweet."

"I will never harm Red. You… You MONSTER!" Mia screamed, trying her best to free herself, as the blood rose higher and higher. It was now up to her chin, and slowly crawling into her nose, her eyes, her—

The paleness of Red's face disappeared, and his eyes lit up, only to slowly morph into large, crimson ones, the hair splitting in an extremely familiar fashion. The horned protrusions on the top screamed unnatural, as Mia found herself gazing at a spitting image of herself— only a dark violet where she had green hair and a cluster of shadows replacing what was once a skirt.

"Yes," The darkness grinned, "and you are me!"

The crimson pool started rising, a suffocating scent of iron permeating the air.

Blood, she finally realized, almost as if she was only allowed to as she was drowning in it. The figure in front of her smiled even as it loomed above her.

"Yes," she breathed. "Sleep little one. I will take care of everything."

Red….
Mia's last thought flickered. Please…

Help.

Me
 
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Pronouns
He
ACT TWO - DUST OF DREAMS

Chapter 1 - A Bunch of People Talk to Each Other


The ghastly winds passed through him, filling his bones with a morbid winter. The surrounding imagery of green leaves mixed with crimson flames painting the landscape a vivid crimson. He felt something cold and dark and painful shoot up his spine, but he ignored it and kept on running.

And then it happened.

Large metallic horns rose from the ground and impaled his chest forcing a metallic, guttural screech—


Red's eyes shot open, a horrifying scream trying to escape his throat trying to move his hand in front of him to avoid the blood dripping off the white ceiling—

He blinked.

White ceiling?

He looked up. Yes, the blank whiteness above him was still above him. He tried to move again, tentatively testing his body.

It was futile. He could not move. That was when he remembered.

That's right. I'm safe now.

He still couldn't believe it. That he had managed to survive. That he had made it out alive.

Not that this is much better. He thought pessimistically as he stared at the white ceiling above him. Can't move, can't speak and all I can see is white.

Between the whiteness above his eyes, and the oxygen mask covering his face all mobility and vision was limited. It was horrible and restrictive and made it impossible to reach the itch that had suddenly developed on the bridge of his nose.

This was probably the fifth time he had opened his eyes. A fleeting period of consciousness before the growing headache forced him back into the comforting embrace of sleep. He'd have welcomed it if not for the nightmarish dreams that were torturing his mind and soul.

I'm being moved. Again.

Blurry shapes and images filtered past him.

Another surgery?

The shape would always talk to him— surprisingly earnest given that Red gave no indication that he was even listening. They would then take him to another room, and then, another slightly bigger shape would talk.

When he woke up next, he would find himself back in the first room. Or so he assumed. After all, all the rooms had white ceilings.

How silly, he thought deliriously. How will people be able to tell one room from another?

Once again, the throbbing pain began to assault his head. Why was this happening to him? He didn't deserve this! He was actually beginning to consider the pros of resisting sleep this time. Hesitantly, he closed his eyes...



...

Blood spread all over the grass, covering it like canvas, the translucent crimson droplets falling like rain. The grotesque, marred face of Skarmory tore open, revealing the alien, monstrosity that twisted and turned— light crimson, trusting eyes fell upon him—

"Will you kill me too?"

Red screamed. It seemed that not even losing his consciousness would give him salvation. The nightmares twisted as they filtered in and out of his mind, playing with his emotions, his dreams, his fears.

At this point, death might be a relief from this endless cycle of nightmares. Or maybe he was actually dead, and this was just some kind of past-life karmic joke cast upon him by those he had failed? Come to think of it, it was almost ironic that he would end up back in a hospital bed.

I'll definitely go insane if this continues.

He tried to move his body, and felt his skin flare upon contact with… well, whatever was touching it. At the very least, he could move the fingers of his... left hand? or was that right one. It was hard to be sure. His mind was a cesspool of contradictory thought-processes and the constant battering from his nightmares didn't help either.

He let out a sigh, even as his eyelids began to close once more.





...

Mawile's jaw tore open from the inside, with Scyther's blade came out, blood-stained in its—

He screamed again, the image being far more vivid than before. Something was different though. He could hear his scream. His heart palpitated dangerously as he slowly opened his eyes. The ceiling looked the same, but then again, it always did.

The oxygen mask, however, was conspicuous by its absence.

"Hello, Red." An extremely familiar, masculine voice spoke up. Curious, Red turned his face to his right. His neck hurt, but he was past caring at this point. "So nice of you to join us.

Professor Oak was leaning across his bedside. Right beside him, sat Delia— her eyes puffed up and red.

...Crying? But she never...

"Was it too much to ask for you to go through one forest without it going up in flames?" Delia croaked.

Red just stared. This was hardly the first time his mother had been angry with him or yelled at him. But crying? Not even the incident back at Pallet had made her cry. In front of him at least.

"I…" He opened his mouth to speak. For once, his quick wit failed to generate an automatic response.

~~X~~

"Eight days? It's been eight days?"

Even to Red's exhausted mind, it sounded ridiculous. Then again, considering how many bouts of relapses and nightmares had assaulted him, it might well have been. Add that to his mother's… overly-aggressive concern and it was starting to crawl into uncharted territory. The fact that his mind still tormented itself about the fate of Mawile and the rest didn't help.

The elder man chuckled softly. "Well, eight days and… thirteen hours, if we're being specific. I've been here on an off and on basis. Delia has been here ever since.. we got the news."

She has…? But… what about work?

This was confusing. He was used to his mother's absences. Her constant presence, along with her badgering over him healing above everything else had felt a little odd. Conspicuous even.

Is this going to be a repeated thing from now on? What's wrong with her anyway? Doesn't look like she's been sleeping properly.

"Are you— are you okay, son?" Delia stammered, her words getting tangled as she tried very hard to not break down into sobs. "I thought I had lost you. I don't know what I'd have done if something—"

"Don't worry Mom," Red spoke, the steadiness in his voice surprising even himself. "I'm… still here."

"My little boy's all grown up," Delia tried to laugh softly, her eyes brimming with tears.

"I'm sorry... Mom, for all the trouble," Red answered. His head was slightly spinning even now, making it slightly difficult to concentrate. "You really didn't need to put off your work for—"

"Just— Just stop right there. Please.," Delia chastised him softly. "Now tell me, are you still in pain? Do you want to rest for a bit? Get some sleep?"

Sleep? If only…

"Nah… just a little... headache. Why does my body feel so heavy? And my legs… I can't feel them at all." Red tried to look around and noticed the apparatuses connected to his form. "What's with those? Am I… am I going to be okay? And Mawile? Is she okay? What about the others? Are they—?"

Oak raised a finger. "Yes, you're going to be okay, and no, nothing's wrong with your team. They are perfectly fine and are currently on the hospital grounds. The only person you need to worry about is yourself."

"But—"

"Trust me." The old man replied, his voice soft but stern. Somehow, Red couldn't find in himself to refute him. "Delia, we should leave. The doctor's—"

"I'm sure they can allow us a little more time." It looked like leaving Red's bedside was the last thing she wanted. "He has just woken up, and if he doesn't feel like sleeping, someone has to be here to keep him company."

"Delia," Oak requested, his voice a little firm this time, "You know the doctors only allowed us an hour after all of the—"

"But what if he needs something?" The woman countered fiercely. "This isn't Pallet town, professor. What if he needs something attended, or is in pain, or has another—"

"Delia!" Oak replied in an imperious tone.

"Mom," Red pleaded, a little befuddled from the strange back-and-forth conversation and his impending headache, "it's okay. I can just rest for a while."

Delia gazed at his face with a searching look. Even after a thorough search, she seemed not to find what she wanted. "If you're…"

"I'm sure," Red muttered, staring straight at her, his eyes meeting her gaze. "I'll be fine." He turned towards the man he trusted above everything else. "My team's okay, right?"

Oak looked at him with something akin to sympathy before his face straightened. "They are. Get some rest for now. It's quite late. I'll see if I can bring Mawile with me tomorrow."

"What about the rest of my team?"

Oak faltered momentarily. "Well, I doubt everyone will be allowed but I'll see what I can do. Even so, one at a time will probably be the most I can manage. Hospital rules, I'm afraid."

Red casually watched the door close as Oak left, before letting out a pronounced sigh, chortling mirthlessly, as he allowed himself to sag into the bed.

"Well, I guess I didn't die after all. Fancy that."

~~X~~

The moment the door closed, Oak discarded the genial smile from his lips, replacing it with the well-practiced expression he had crafted during his time as the reigning Champion. Frankly, it was surprising how easily the expression formed on his lips. Something he hadn't had to use for years but even so, the muscle was there, ready to contort at the slightest exertion.

"Professor—"

"Not now Delia," the man spoke with authority. It almost sounded like a reprimand, but Delia knew better. She nodded and quickly stepped out of the way, leaving the professor to walk out like a man possessed. Oak had barely crossed the corridor before the platoon-leader of a Ranger squad noticed his presence and saluted in earnest.

"At ease," Samuel gave them a brief nod. "My ward is to rest for the time being. I'd like to be kept in the loop when he's put through the interrogation."

The ranger, a brown, curly-haired man in his early twenties, nodded swiftly in response. "Of course. Considering Mr. Ketchum's state, we can extend his medical delay up until he is physically fit to answer our questions."

"It's fine," Oak waved, "The doctors have assured me that he'll be fine in a day or two. But I must ask, surely the other girl had been interrogated?"

The ranger nodded. "Already done, yesterday in fact."

"Was she heavily injured as well?"

"Not so much injured as traumatized." The ranger paused, "We had to... sedate her."

"I see," Oak frowned. "Well, as long as you don't cause Red any further... mental trauma, I have no problems with the interrogation."

The ranger looked up in surprise. "I must admit, this is kind of new. High-profile cases tend to not to go this smoothly. You are being awfully cooperative, considering it is your ward we are dealing with."

'My concern for my ward and my duties to Kanto are two completely different things. That being said, I'd rather not have too much public interest fall onto this issue."

The head-ranger caught Oak's eye. "Do you mean sir," he questioned, suppressing his wariness, "that you want this entire interrogation to be… hushed up?"

Even the other two rangers were looking at Oak with a surprised glance. While it was not very surprising to see the wealthy play their cards to manipulate the bureaucracy for their benefit, Samuel Oak was practically famous for his lack of political motivations. For him to actually interfere in such matters...

"Not exactly," Oak spoke up before the men could delve deeper into their personal theories. "What I want here is to solve the entire issue without any major involvement of the press. I'd like to avoid the spotlight if possible. If there is a felony, then let the transgressor be punished. If it was an accident, then let appropriate measures be taken. I won't stand in the way of justice."

The head ranger smiled. "Of course." He turned towards his squad-members. "I'll take care of it. You may leave."

Promptly, the two squad members saluted and left.

"That said," Oak went on, "I'd appreciate it if you'd give me a rundown of the transpired events. From what I understand, my ward was found with a certain Miss Waterflower at the site?"

The ranger nodded. "From Misty Waterflower's statement, she had contracted Red Ketchum to aid her in the capture of… some bugs for a school project. The amount was agreed to be eight thousand."

"Standard trainer agreements, I assume? Witnesses?" Oak inquired.

"None whatsoever. It was a vocal agreement at best. If he doesn't admit to it, it's not even legally valid."

Oak frowned. He had not expected Red to enter into contractual agreements with anyone. Usually, only trainers past the mid-intermediate stage were offered such deals. That said, he didn't think the boy was the kind to lie about his own trainer status— not that it'd stand with verification.

Still, why anyone would offer a contract to a rookie was beyond him.

He looked up. "I am assuming that the contract has more relevance to the interrogation?"

The ranger looked a little shifty. "It's just that… Gym Leader Michael Waterflower was most insistent upon transferring the amount to Mr. Ketchum's account, as payment for an official contract."

Oak arched an eyebrow. Michael Waterflower was known for many things. Magnanimity was not one of them. "Then?"

"He left for Cerulean with his daughter via teleportation."

"That quickly?"

"Mr. Waterflower was… not very cooperative towards the interrogation. Gym Leader Brock was away at Indigo Plateau, and you weren't in Pewter as well. Mr. Waterflower did seem to be in a hurry—"

"Even though this was a ranger squad investigating the issue?"

"...he was very much in a hurry."

"..."

"..."

"This is going to be one of those days, isn't it?"

"Seems so," the ranger replied with a mirthless grin.

The professor sighed. Michael Waterflower was known to be a family man through and through. But he hadn't known the man to be this rash. A little bit on the arrogant side, but not irrational, and certainly not a fool.

"His daughter explicitly stated that she was the one that offered Red the job?"

"Yes, sir."

Oak frowned. What kind of idiot offered a no-badge rookie a job like that? Between the sheer size of the forest and the large number of possible predators lying within, the idea of young, inexperienced teens walking through it was practically asking for trouble. That was why the league had spent an inordinate amount of time creating well-defined, rookie friendly paths throughout the Viridian Forest. Even so, there was a Ranger squad posted at all times on forest duty. Just in case.

"I can forward a copy of the interrogation report to you if you wish."

The older man shook his head. "That is a non-issue, unless my ward is accused of something… bad. A brief summary would do."

The ranger nodded. "They were there for no less than three weeks."

Three weeks. Of course! Three weeks in the heart of a bug-infested forest was such a great idea.

Oak schooled his expression. "Any concerns?"

"Besides several encounters with wild beedrill, and one… narrowly-avoided pinsir attack, nothing spectacular." The ranger drew a sliver of amusement from the older man's pallid expression. "You should be proud to know that your ward did a good job in evading the pinsir herd."

Oak sighed. He really should have looked at the interrogation report. Then again, it would give him an extra headache. Maybe he should just quit it all and leave for a sabbatical? Sinnoh was good this time of year.

"And a scyther." the ranger continued, as if oblivious to Oak's rising annoyance."From what I understood, it was your ward that took down the scyther as well. With bug-sprays no less."

"Of all the stupid and ridiculous—" Oak stopped himself midway, before taking a deep breath in an attempt to control his emotions. "Forgive me, the past few days have been rather… exhausting. Please go on."

"I understand, sir," The ranger replied apologetically, "It must be tiring, what with the recent events in Pallet."

Oak winced at that, but didn't say anything. Obviously the ranger had heard about that. It was the biggest tabloid material for the past week.

THE SCREAMS OF PALLET—MASSES CAUGHT IN NEGATIVE ENTHRALLMENT. A DERANGED PSYCHIC OUT OF CONTROL?

Then again, a town full of people clutching their heads with agony, while reliving their worst memories for over thirty seconds would obviously make it to the paper. He supposed his own name and association with Pallet Town didn't help matters. And just when he had been able to contain the… problem, a second tragedy had struck.

"This is the Pewter General Hospital. We have a trainer called Red Ketchum admitted here. Heavily injured and has been sent to the ICU. Our servers list you as his sponsor so—"

That was eight days ago.

"When we arrived at the site, we found Miss Waterflower unconscious and bleeding. She was close to a dead feraligatr, alongside a somewhat-disoriented starmie. My team had to subdue it before we managed to collect the girl."

"And Red?"

"He was found several hundred meters away from the girl. His situation was… rather extreme. We half-expected the boy to be dead, what with—"

Oak raised a hand, looking down, "Spare me of the details. Did the girl mention why she was found like that?"

"Miss Waterflower… was injured while fighting a criminal."

Oak did a double-take. "Criminal?"

The ranger nodded. "From her statement, both her and Mr. Ketchum were attacked by Team Rocket. So far we have established charges on illegal pokémon experimentation and trafficking, charges on murder of pokémon using weapons, and at least one attempt-to-murder charge upon the individual she named."

"Which is?"

"Travers. His full name is Travers Brooks. Son of Gregory Brooks, the former Gym Leader of Cerulean City. He was later arrested for poaching pokémon in Shoal Cave, Hoenn. Evaded prison and declared missing by Hoenn Police force. The official record on the man says he's dead."

"So a dead man, found working for Team Rocket and attacks the daughter of newer Gym Leader?" Oak asked, narrowing his eyes and rubbing the top of his nose. "How dramatic."

"Actually, there were two. While the one she fought was indeed Travers Brooks, he had another accomplice. A man she called Meyers. He was found close to Misty Waterflower, with an arm missing. The post-mortem indicates that he died from blood loss."

"Any further details?"

"I have two squads currently in the forest. I'll inform you if we get any leads into Team Rocket."

"You think there might be… a base somewhere inside the forest?" Oak leaned forward.

"We have enough reason to believe that," came the swift reply.

Interesting. Go on."

"We have no official record on him. It's possible he was from another region. We have yet to send for a query, but considering the people involved, we have put that on hold until the interrogations finish."

"I'm glad that the matter is in safe hands then," Oak replied.

"It's my job."

"And the evidence is verified correct? Standard psychic confirmation?"

"..."

"What?"

The ranger worded his next sentence carefully. "Mr. Waterflower insisted that his daughter be taken for treatment first. We're currently operating on the data we got from her… brief interrogation."

"She wasn't offered treatment?" Oak raised an eyebrow. It was standard procedure for the wounded— innocent and accused alike —to be sent for emergency healing before the interrogation began. "I thought that the hospital had a wing for that."

"Private medical treatment." The man corrected.

"Ah," Oak exclaimed softly. "Make sure to check for psychic manipulations then."

"Are you possibly suggesting—?"

"I'm merely stating that it is exceedingly natural for a victim to suffer trauma after such an episode, and to choose psychic healing as an option to cope with stress. It is quite natural that such psychic treatment might inadvertently... affect her personal memories. As such…"

"Understood sir."

"Am I to assume that the criminal in question was arrested? I'd like a copy of—"

"Travers Brooks had been found at the other site, several feet away from Mr. Ketchum. Dead."

"...Dead?"

"He had a deep, penetrating wound from the chest that cut through his heart. The weapon— some kind of blade —nearly tore him in two, bisecting him through the shoulder."

Oak felt something stir from deep within him. Mutilation and death wasn't something new to him. Finding dead bodies of trainers was quite a bit more commonplace back in his time. But after all those years of throwing that life away, it was like revisiting an old wound, a half-forgotten nightmare of a sort.

"Forensics revealed bug cells inside the man's body, providing evidence that the man was killed by the scyther."

Oak grimaced, massaging the tip of his nose. "I assume the scyther will be put up for rehabilitation?"

"That… was to be the case," The ranger replied carefully. "It is just that, the scyther is registered to the young Mr. Ketchum."

Oh lord. Oak closed his eyes. He took a moment to collect his thoughts before continuing "This means that Section 142 C Penal Code applies—"

"It would, sir, but the presence of a wanted and dead criminal has… changed things. I'm not exactly sure how much of that can be explained as self-defense, so Mr. Ketchum's statement is vital."

"You'll have it at the earliest," Oak promised.

"We appreciate your aid, sir. Shall we leave the rest for tomorrow?"

"No, I might as well just hear the end of it. Perhaps you—I'm sorry, what was your name again?"

"Tyson sir," the ranger replied, "Tyson Wells."

"Right, Tyson, please continue."

"We found several dead pokémon on the site, as well as several highly injured ones. From Mr. Ketchum's pokédex, it seems like all but two of the surviving pokémon were registered to him." Tyson paused momentarily. "A mawile, a skarmory, the scyther, and a… shellder."

"And the others?"

"A… divergent growlithe. We thought it was a Shiny, but the League database showed otherwise. It had a shock-collar on its neck, and was significantly injured. That said, its regeneration was phenomenal. It recovered from all injuries within the first day of treatment."

"... I presume that this is where the charges of illegal experimentation and cruelty come in?"

"Precisely," Tyson nodded.

"Petty crime is one thing, but an experimental hybrid? Just how low can one get?" Oak muttered under his breath.

"Actually, from Miss Waterflower's statement, it was herself and Mr. Ketchum that found the growlithe in question. She spoke about your ward's decision to help it get rid of the shock-collar from the Pewter City Pokémon Center."

Oak couldn't help but feel a surge of pride for Red at that.

"The criminal, Travers, then demanded the return of the growlithe, claiming it belonged to them. Mr. Ketchum resisted, questioning its shock collar which led to—"

"More trouble than it was worth," Oak finished for him. "I thought Red had better sense than to fight a bunch of criminals. It's the ponyta incident all over again."

"Based on his actions alone, he has the potential to be a Ranger." Tyson offered.

Oak grimaced. "I was hoping he'd take after me instead."

"You want him to dismantle two criminal-organizations?" Tyson whistled lowly, "In that case, don't let me stop you, Professor."

Oak groaned. "I was talking about being a researcher."

Of course," The ranger agreed. "In other news, Mr. Waterflower has placed a negative citation on Mr. Ketchum's official record, signed under his authority as the Cerulean City Gym Leader, citing the Trainer's..." Tyson winced, "—utter lack of regard for his charge's safety and negligence in his duty by placing her in direct danger."

"Lack of regard?" Oak was flabbergasted.

"I know," Tyson groaned. The man seemed to remember his talk with the Cerulean gym leader, and from his expression, it must have been unsavory. "He seemed to think that as a trainer, Mr. Ketchum should have shown more self-preservation and considered the life of his companion and contractor, rather than face criminals in what was clearly a suicidal attempt to save a 'common growlithe." Tyson paused, wincing at the withering glare on the former Champion's face.

"And the girl should have known better than to hire a rookie-level trainer for the job," Oak lashed out. "Surely the daughter of a reputed gym leader would have that much common sense?"

Tyson looked conflicted. "I did inform him that there were no standard contracts involved."

Oak closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then, he spoke in a calmer, softer tone. "And what are the chances that Mr. Waterflower would take your advice?"

"Not very high."

A ghost of a smile formed on Oak's lips. "That's fine by me. If Michael Waterflower wants to play hardball, I'll be happy to return the favor. You said he left a review regarding my ward's… lack of professionalism over his daughter's safety, correct?"

Tyson nodded.

"Remind me, son," Oak went on, "What is the minimum price for hiring a security escort?"

Tyson widened his eyes as if realizing where this was going. "Around— around five hundred an hour, sir. But only trainers mid-intermediate or higher can opt to be one."

"Yes, we'll return to that little detail later," Oak opened his eyes, brushing Tyson's concerns off, "my ward was there with Miss Waterflower for… three weeks. If my math is correct, and it always is, then the amount is two hundred and fifty-two thousand dollars. Considering that Mr. Waterflower has claimed a security issue, I'd like to see him send the remaining amount first. Ranger Tyson, could you perchance send an official redressal letter to Mr. Waterflower, signed by my ward, demanding the minimum payment of two hundred and fifty-two thousand dollars. In return, Red will freely accept the negative mark on his profile. After all," Oak was smiling now, "—lack of professionalism cannot be overlooked, regardless of who it might be."

Tyson was trying very hard to keep the shit-eating grin from his face. "That can be easily arranged, sir, but a negative mark this early is not exactly beneficial to Mr. Ketchum's profile, especially if he wants to become a freelancer in the future."

"Yes," The former Champion almost seemed to be at peace. A neutral observer would have described it as serene.

But the truth was quite different, and from Tyson's expression, he knew it too. This was the false calm before the arrival of a particularly vicious thunderstorm.

"Now that the matter of payment is done away with," Oak replied, the smile still floating on his face, "we need to consider the charges on Miss Waterflower for conning a rookie trainer into a job that is laughably higher than his pay grade. You said that the girl admitted that it was she who demanded Red's services, and not Red, who applied for it, correct?"

"Correct."

"Ranger Tyson," Oak drew a deep breath and stood tall, "I'd like to file an official complaint against one Misty Waterflower, daughter of Michael Waterflower, on charges of misrepresentation of the nature of aid needed, charges on usage of non-standard contractual agreements, and putting my ward in lethal danger. I'm sure a copy of Red's medical condition can be easily fetched from the hospital records."

"That can be arranged." Tyson's eyes betrayed his outer composure.

"Of course, considering that my ward is a rookie-level trainer, there are additional charges on Mr. Waterflower for trying to inflict damage on a trainer's future. I wonder what this speaks about the current Champion's regime if his gym-leaders are setting precedence for tarnishing a prospective freelancer's reputation to feed their personal ego."

Tyson chuckled openly at that.

"If Mr. Waterflower is willing to settle the argument out of court… please redirect the mail to my office. I'll make sure to have my assistant accommodate him."

"Right away, sir." The ranger stood tall and saluted.

Oak sighed. The pettiness of some individuals never ceased to amaze him. "I only hope that this matter stays within these boundaries. There's blood in the water, and sooner or later, the vultures will start circling. I'd rather not have to get involved in the squabble and power plays of gym leaders. I can only hope that the Pewter City Gym leader won't side with him out of a sense of… professional courtesy."

"Now, why would I do that?"

Oak and Tyson whirled around to face the incomer. There, standing at the doorway, was the Pewter City Gym Leader. The man was heavily-built, easily over six feet tall in height, with a square-jawed face, and a darkish complexion. The man casually allowed himself in and gave Oak a curious stare.

Oak chortled mirthlessly. "Brock Pebblemann, I believe?"

"We haven't met before, but I'm a fan." Brock nodded respectfully. "My younger brother Forrest wants to apply for an apprenticeship under you, especially for the Mt. Hideaway project."

Oak's eyes widened. "A budding archaeologist?"

"Yes," Brock shook his shoulders. "Forrest has always been an overachiever. He's currently apprenticing with Devon Corp in Mt. Moon, but he should be finishing his contract by the next five months or so."

"Then why bother with an apprenticeship? He should qualify for a full-time job."

"His work has mostly been around fossils, and he's really into… ruin exploration.."

"Ah, I see," Oak mused, "when he's done, ask him to come and see me."

"Thank you." Brock nodded gratefully, "My brother will be excited to hear that."

Tyson coughed.

"Right," Brock addressed the ranger, "Is everything under control? I heard about the forest fire, but I thought it was some minor skirmish at best." He passed a knowing gaze at Oak, "Clearly that is not the case."

"Clearly," Oak answered in an unhappy voice.

"I suppose I should just start from the beginning," Tyson mumbled.

"That will be appreciated," Brock added.

~~X~~

The next day...

"When you mentioned meeting me later, I didn't expect... well, this."

Oak chuckled at the boy's reply. The man had shown up with Ranger Tyson to the hospital ward given to his student. "Part of the legal process I'm afraid. This is Ranger Tyson Wells, Head of the Rescue Squad situated in Pewter. His team was the one that saved you. He has some questions for you."

That attracted Red's attention. The man Tyson, seemed fairly young, around his early twenties if he had to guess.

"I… thank you, Ranger Tyson."

"It was our job," Tyson waved away. "Besides, it would speak ill of our competence if some thug could get away with killing people and destroying—"

The knife speared into the Ariados, slipping through its chin bones, right through the face. Blood spurted out like a never-ending—

"—public property," The man finished. He glanced at the sudden paling of Red's features and abruptly paused. "Are you feeling alright?"

"Ye—I'm—I mean, I'm alright. Sorry," Red croaked, slowly edging towards the glass of water next to his bed. With the apparatuses removed from his body, he was feeling much lighter. The headaches were still annoying, but the intensity was less than earlier. That or he had built up endurance against them.

Neither seemed like a happy prospect.

At least I can move my arms and legs. That's four more limbs than I thought I'd move again.

Oak pushed himself off the chair and lifted the glass. "Wait, let me help," he offered, slowly holding the glass towards the boy. Red held it with his bandaged hands and took a sip.

"Sorry," Red offered, "the—the headaches come and go at the most inopportune—"

"It's alright," Tyson offered, passing a wary glance at Oak. "Well then, Mr. Ketchum. I was told that you were fit enough to go through the investigation. Professor if you want—"

"No, No it's okay," Red faltered, "please go on. You saved my life after all. The least I can do is answer some questions."

"In any case," Tyson took hold of the conversation. "We do need your cooperation. This may be hard for you, but I'm going to need you to recount your experiences in the forest. We'd like a detailed statement over what happened to you, and one Misty Waterflower, how you ended up where you were, and lastly, what caused the fire. "

"Misty…. She's alive? Is she okay?" Red interrupted with a question. To think that she was alive sent a jolt of elation through his heart. He had given up on her survival after seeing Travers and—

"Miss Waterflower suffered a minor concussion on her head, as well as severe mental trauma. Physically though, she's fine. She has given us her version of the events. However, she had no memory of the fire."

"She's here?" He asked weakly, his headache returning with a vengeance.

Tyson shook his head. "Her father has departed for Cerulean City for her treatment." The ranger replied in a strained voice. Clearly he wasn't used to continuous interruptions when he was asking the questions.

"Red," Oak advised, correctly reading the ranger's expression, "I think you should focus on answering the questions first."

"Uhhh… sorry," Red apologized, "I was just… please go on. I'll do my best to answer."

"Much appreciated," The ranger replied stiffly. "Did you offer to catch bugs for Miss Waterflower before your onset into the forest?"

Red frowned, wondering why such a question would take priority over some of the more relevant points. That being said, he determined it was safer to simply go through whatever the man wanted. Ranger Tyson didn't seem like the chatty type.

"She did. I accepted."

"What were the terms?"

"I'd help her catch four particular bugs, and in return, she'd pay me eight thousand pokédollars. She paid me three thousand in advance, and the rest would be given on completion."

"And did you? Finish the job?" Surprisingly, it was Oak that asked the question.

Red shook his head. "Barely. I got just two. Everything went downhill from there." He glanced at Tyson, "why is that important?"

"Mr. Waterflower forwarded a sum of eight thousand to your account yesterday. The transaction has been acknowledged by your pokédex."

"Uhm… that's nice of him, but I'll send the extras back when I get my Dex back, I suppose." Red muttered, more to himself than to the ranger. "But once again—"

"We were just reconfirming the situation," Oak intervened, "Tyson if you would?"

Tyson nodded. "Sure. Miss Waterflower has given us information consisting of two men, identified as Meyers, and Travers Brooks. Her statement mentions that Meyers died in front of her own eyes. It also implicates a certain growlithe and yourself for his injuries—" The man glanced at Red's wide-eyes— "She has detailed her struggle with Brooks up until she passed out after receiving a head injury. We need you to fill up the rest of the picture. Be advised that this is an official interrogation and anything you do or say can be held against you in criminal court. You have the right to remain silent during a question but the interpretation will be considered appropriately."

Red blinked.

Then blinked again.

He slowly twisted his neck towards Oak, "Uhm…. old man, am I in trouble?"

"That depends," Oak gave him a stern gaze. "Have you done anything wrong?"

"I…. I only acted in self-defense."

Oak paused for a moment, as if considering his words. "Then simply speak the truth. Your memories might be verified via a League-sanctioned psychic if they find any discrepancies in the investigation. Simply be honest and allow me to handle the rest."

Red swallowed. "...Right."

"What happened when Meyers followed you into the forest?"

Red looked away towards the wall, his eyes distant. "I… Meyers wanted the growlithe, and told us that it belonged to them. I didn't want them to capture it again."

"Why?"

Red looked at the ranger, right in the eye. "The growlithe had a shock collar on it. Are you trying to tell me that I should have given it to them so that they could torture it more?"

"Miss Waterflower has mentioned about how you talked about its shiny-ness, and its relevance as an unusual pokémon," Tyson remarked casually. "She has also stated that you brought that up when they demanded you let it go."

"And what of it?" Red shot back, his eyes glaring daggers at the man for his obvious insinuation.

"Did you choose to give priority to the capture of an uncommon pokémon, over the safety of your and your companion's life?"

Red stayed silent at that.

"Red?" Oak coaxed.

Red grunted, unhappy at the implications of the question, "I only brought up the 'shiny' issue to stall for time, hoping the dog would get the idea and run away. It was pretty useless though. I ended up flat out telling it to run." He looked up angrily, "I promised that I'd save it, and no, I had no clue that they'd be obsessed enough with the growlithe that they'd try and kill us for it."

After what seemed like an eternity, Tyson's harsh countenance shifted into a smile. "Well, that confirms it, professor."

"Yes," Oak sighed in elation, "I suppose it does. Will it be enough?" He asked the ranger.

"It should, to counter Mr. Waterflower's review, should he go ahead with his…"

Oak waved. "Go on."

A nod was the only response he got.

"What happened after you ran into the forest?"

"The reality of the situation exploded on me," Red admitted, his voice lowered. "We, that is, Mawile and I, were attacked by a… I think it was called zangoose?"

"We did not find a zangoose at either site."Tyson refuted immediately.

"It didn't happen next to the tent," Red fought back, "Next thing you're gonna say is that Meyers didn't lose an arm too, since it wasn't found on the site either." It didn't matter that this was a ranger he was giving the stink eye. The line of questioning was beginning to feel invasive, and more importantly, the disregard for what he had been through was beginning to get on his nerves.

"Red?" Oak warned imperiously.

The teen scoffed before shifting into a monotone. "There was a dead machoke as well. One that Meyers had sent to get the growlithe. We found it in pieces when we were trying to find our way out in the darkness."

"Go on," Tyson prompted calmly.

"We…." Red closed his eyes before opening them just as quickly as the horrific sight of the mutilated machoke flashed in front of his eyes, "heard a scream…. Meyers screaming, I think, and we began to run."

"To save him?" Tyson asked with an arched eyebrow.

"To save ourselves. Did you expect me to try and save the person attacking me and those I care for? What kind of idiot do you—?"

"Red—"

"—I ran hoping that I'd find growlithe and then we'd escape to the tent. The forest is a rather dangerous place." The monotone had returned.

Oak sighed. This was going to be a long day.

~~X~~

In a different building inside Pewter General Hospital

Delia strode through the near-empty corridors almost absent-mindedly. Things had been going south ever since her baby boy had left Pallet. Yes, Red was fourteen, but if she was to be honest, she had never really seen her boy grow up. She had been content for him to be at home be healthy and to be frank, given everything he needed and then some. He had wanted Mia as a pet, and she had given it to him without a thought. Sure he had put it as 'my friend Mia', but it had made no difference in her mind at the time.

And yet, she had ignored the most fundamental thing about being a parent.

I did not give him time. My little boy grew up faster all by himself because of it.



No. He grew up faster despite it. Mia and Red—two babies in my care, and I messed up with both of them. Guess I wasn't mother material after all.

Delia suppressed the sudden shudder that sent a jolt down her spine. It had been eight days since the event, but she could still remember it vividly.

The blackness engulfed her mind, thinning the lines between reality and illusion. She opened her eyes, only to find the world disappear. All there existed, was darkness, and a dreary winter creeping up her mind like frost, freezing and burning her very soul…

An undefinable sorrow gripped her, crushing any and all brightness from her mind. Thoughts that she had buried in the depths of her heart, thoughts that made her stay awake night after night, thoughts she tried to ignore by immersing herself into her work—all of them forced their way past the bottleneck that was her will, destroying it.

Obliterating it.

And then the screams began.

It was almost like rushing through her entire life in a nutshell, experiencing all those memories, those thoughts, those sick twisted experiences she'd not wish on her enemies. Delia was stuck, tears trickling down her cheek, as one nightmare after another made a constant assault on her mind. How she had disappointed her father—how she had lost those she considered her own—how she had been carried away in infatuation and lust over that man—the man she had resented every single day in her life and yet never thought about—the manner in which she had thrown up barriers between herself and her son—how Red had suffered—


Delia's head jerked, throwing her out of that twisted, wretched, hideous experience. Her face full of sweat, she pressed against a wall, trying to catch her breath. Ever since that day, her traitorous mind would keep going back to that day, that experience. Kaz had helped a lot but it still relapsed on occasion.

This served to reinforce just how dangerous mental attacks were.

She let out a sigh of frustration and looked around for her destination. Spotting the nameplate on the half-opened door, Delia let herself in.

"Has there been any developments, doctor?"

"Miss Ketchum," the man looked up in surprise, "we were just about to send a message through the reception unit. Though I must say I'm surprised to see you here. Is your son better now?"

"He's healing," Delia pursed her lips." Thank you for asking. But I'm here to ask you about Mia."

The medic stood up from his chair. "Your kirlia has been getting better. She's still unconscious, but the seizures have stopped. The frequency levels of her psionic spasms have been getting down too. It's not completely safe yet, but the worst has passed."

Delia felt a burst of elation in her chest. It seemed her hypothesis was correct. Getting her in close proximity to Red had indeed produced a positive reaction in Mia. It had been less than a day since Red had fully woken up and already Mia was already showing signs of returning to normalcy.

"Something tells me you expected this to happen, Miss Ketchum."

"I… had a few conjectures."

"Like?"

"I… really can't say. It's against my employer's policy to talk about the details of my work." Delia gave him a half-smile. "Protocols, you know?"

The medic looked slightly amused at that. "Either way, it seems that our services were unnecessary after all. Your kirlia managed to bring herself back under control."

Or proximity to Red made her do so, Delia mused.

"I'm still thankful for your aid. How long do you think she will be unconscious?"

The medic pushed his glasses back up his nose. "Our records show a steady rise in her reserves. We can attribute at least some of it to the Chansey egg serum."

Delia frowned. It was an established fact that Chansey eggs were highly nutritious, often better than chemically-prepared food supplements. They also caused a rise in endorphins and DZ, a dopamine-analog found in pokémon. Back in Pallet Town, the serum had been able to slow down Mia's motions, but just barely. But here…

"I suppose you are right, Doctor Leff," Delia spoke up after a moment. "Can I… Can I meet her?"

"You can, but I'd advise you to postpone it till her levels get normal."

"Okay. I'll do that then." Delia turned to walk out.

"Miss Ketchum."

She stopped, before turning back slightly.

"...yes?"

"I did happen to check your credentials, and I know you are a researcher on psychic-types. I also that this kirlia is one that caused a major psionic disturbance in Pallet Town."

Delia stilled.

"I'd be grateful if you exercised a little more rationality next time. You brought in a Level 4 security hazard into Pewter City without going through the proper channels. I do not know why that creature calmed down here, but were you not associated with… certain people, you'd have been reported to the Ranger Squad. "

"... I understand." Delia muttered, before leaving the room.

"You're most welcome." Doctor Leff replied to the now empty room, before allowing his eyes to move back to the newspaper.

~~X~~

"While Miss Waterflower's testimony is in line with your statement, I find it rather difficult to believe that someone could go on that long without an arm," Tyson commented impassively.

Oak lifted a finger, stopping the scathing retort that was likely about to be spat out by his ward. He recognized that look well enough. "I understand your concerns, but you probably haven't dealt with Team Rocket before."

"What are you talking about?" The ranger looked quite confused.

"We've dealt with cases like this before. It's very hard to get information on Team Rocket, but we managed to capture a few grunts, several years ago. They were... interrogated and from what we learned, all of them go through a process called the initiation."

Tyson looked surprised. "The initiation?"

"A process that every grunt goes through when he becomes an official member of Team Rocket. It makes them more… durable and from what we have seen, faster reflexes as well. "

"So what exactly happens in this initiation thing?"

"We don't know," Oak admitted.

"You don't know?" Tyson asked incredulously."How can you not know? Why wouldn't you ask such a basic question?"

"It wasn't for lack of trying, "Oak sighed. "When our interrogation didn't turn up results, we used a powerful psychic to go through their memories. Unfortunately, the memories of the whole process were… gone."

"Gone?"

"Wiped away completely. We decided to bring in even more powerful psychics to try and reconstruct the memory if possible…"

"And?" Tyson pressed.

"And nothing," Oak sighed. When we came back to continue the interrogation they were both dead. A heart attack, of cause unknown."

"Obviously a coincidence," Tyson said dryly.

"Yes, well, anyway, the point is, both in and out of the field, do not judge Team Rocket by human standards."

"..."

"The other man, Travers," Red interjected."He tried to inject something into the other guy. Seemed to think it would save him."

Oak nodded thoughtfully. Red had been so silent that he had forgotten that he was in the room.

"Team Rocket does tend to use drugs quite viciously"

"Drugs?" Tyson asked intensely.

"Mmmm." Oak nodded. "Some of them were even developed by us. For example, several years ago, they used A-22, a drug created to mitigate sensory overload by neutralizing pain receptors, and increase blood coagulation at the site of injury, specifically created for the Chiron Brigade."

"The…" Tyson nearly choked at that.

"What's the Chayron—?" Red spoke up, curious.

Oak paused for a moment. "It's a team that works alongside the Champion to help mitigate threats above Level 8."

"Which are?"

"Classified," Tyson interrupted with a half-glare, obviously unhappy that the former Champion had been so willing to talk about intelligence info and bureaucratic know-how to an apparent rookie.

Oak winced at that. Clearly, he was losing his touch. That, or he was simply used to explaining things to his student. Either way, he was in the wrong. "I suppose my age is finally getting to me." He turned to Red, "I'd advise you not to mention that little tidbit to others."

"...sure." The teen replied.

"Sir," Tyson addressed the older man, "would you be willing to vouch for the authenticity of this miraculous drug? A single signature should do."

"I cannot claim that the drug used by the criminal to be the same as the one I mentioned. But such technology did indeed exist in the past. And we have seen Team Rocket use things that are very similar." Oak sighed, "We cleaned out the entire department after the leak. Half of our security protocols started because of them. Despite our efforts, we still find traces of Team deep in our system." He momentarily remembered the fake doctor Pym, who had deceived Ritchie Kent and recruited him within Team Rocket. The Doctor Pym that didn't exist.

Just how deep does it go? First Pallet and now Viridian. Too much is happening to close to each other… something doesn't add up.

"That should do." Tyson agreed,before turning back to Red "What happened after you escaped with the growlithe?"

Red closed his eyes. "I was able to reach the tent.. Travers was sitting on the ground, and Misty was standing a little further away."

"Standing. Not fighting."

Red shook his head. "No. Travers… he wasn't trying to kill us. Or well, at least not then. I think he was waiting for his partner to return with the growlithe. I told him what happened to his partner, and he forced us to stay there until he could verify Meyers's condition."

"Miss Waterflower described a form of webbing used by the Ariados."

"Webbing," Red snorted. " He called them Toxic Threads."

"Did you try to break out?"

"The ariados was holding us hostage," Red looked at the man incredulously, " I'm very fond of living. Thank you very much. Skarmory was in the air, but she had better sense than to mindlessly charge at the ariados in such a situation."

"Your let your skarmory gauge threats and respond accordingly without orders?" Tyson asked skeptically.

"Of course she can, I trained her," Red quipped, as if that explained everything.

Oak rubbed the tip of his nose, hoping that Tyson would stop poking at Red's every sentence, and conversely, for Red to stop taking offense at every word that came out of the ranger's mouth.

It's like dealing with a bunch of children.

"Red, can you please just stick to the explanation? Ranger Tyson isn't trying to antagonize you. He is simply conducting his investigation."

"Maybe if I'd have been allowed to meet my half-dead team instead of having to go over everything I ever said, things would go differently."

Oak sighed. "Fine. Whatever. Let's just get this over with."

"Meyers came in and collapsed. He was blabbering," Red's expression sobered"and then he accused me and Growlithe for his condition and then..."

"And then what?" The ranger leaned forward.

Red looked up. "And then he died."

Tyson slowly stood up from his chair. "So the man pushed through a condition like that for a minute or so— after he crawled through the forest for god knows how long —and then the effects accelerated, causing death." He wrinkled his nose, "Do you have anything else you'd like to add to your statement?"

"He wasn't in the condition to compose his own epitaph if that's what you're concerned about," the teen replied scathingly. "Believe me, Travers didn't seem big on eulogies either."

"Red!"

"No nothing of any importance happened." Red sighed, clearly irritated, before continuing in a monotone. "I utilized the moment to solve the current problem."

Inwardly, Oak had to marvel at his ward. Despite being stuck in a situation like that, and seeing one death after another, it was a surprise Red hadn't lost his calm. Emotional testimonies were almost always overly exaggerated, but Red… he was never very emotional to begin with.

"Mawile employed Icy Wind to shatter the threads, and give us a chance to escape.."

Good thinking.

"It was a mistake."

Or not.

"What happened?" Tyson prodded.

"Travers," Red uttered the name with distaste. "Skarmory would have easily taken the ariados down, but he released a pinsir. Between the two, they managed to take Skarmory out of the field, leaving us alone to deal with." He paused for a moment. "Even so, it was still okay. I mean, we were two against one. What was the worst that could happen, right?"

Oak winced.

"And then he released it."

"Released what?"

Red swallowed. It didn't seem to help. Clearly the boy was imagining whatever had followed. Even his voice had reduced to a whisper.

"Golem!"

Oak shared a momentary glance with Tyson as the teen continued to speak, the mirthless smile on his face twisting into an expression of anguish. "It was—I was being insanely stupid. I thought it was just a rock type. Between Mawile's typing and Misty's water types, we would hold our ground. At least until Skarmory could return to us."

He looked away. "It is surprising that she managed to survive in the first place. In all honesty, I thought she was dead. Maybe that croconaw did know its stuff after all."

Oak looked bitter at that statement. Something that the boy picked up on almost immediately

"What's wrong? You did say Misty was alive and okay, so—"

"Mr. Ketchum," It was Tyson that answered in his stead. "Misty Waterflower was found, fallen on the ground, bleeding from her temples and unconscious. She was hit on the head with the gun Travers had on his person. There was a feraligatr near her with a hole bored through its head. Dead."

For once, the teen had nothing to say.

~~X~~

Sometime later…

"I might be overstepping my boundaries, sir, but I think your ward has terrible luck. People travel through Viridian forest every day and survive, and he gets nearly killed half a dozen times."

Oak chuckled mirthlessly. "Red's special that way. On that note, you really didn't have to be that difficult with him."

"Just following protocol sir," Tyson replied unapologetically. "You know as well as I do how Gym Leaders tend to be, and Mr. Waterflower's not known for his accommodating behavior."

"Or for his humility," Oak muttered under his breath. "I still cannot believe that the boy was insane enough to do what he did. Taking on a mightyena of all things with a shellder? All to save that growlithe?"

Tyson nodded agreeably. "I've been a ranger for five years, and I've yet to find myself in such a precarious situation. I'll admit that this is the first time we've heard about a trainer being ambushed by Team Rocket or any other criminal in the Viridian Forest."

"And how many of those trainers went off the beaten track into the deeper parts?"

"More than you'd believe," Tyson chuckled.

"So it's just Red's luck."

"For better or worse," Tyson quipped.

"I'm confused whether I should be thankful that Red managed to survive, or enraged that he tried those methods. Hitting a Mightyhena with a shellder? Jumping on top of an Ariados? People have died for less."

"Technically he'd be dead if we didn't reach him. Or if you hadn't coughed up the cash for extra treatment."

Oak gave him a blank stare that told Tyson everything the man thought about his contribution.

"..."

"..."

"What happens now?" Oak asked, "As I told you before, I want the matter solved with discretion."

"Well," Tyson looked like he was considering what to say, "The growlithe could technically be held accountable for Meyer's death, but the man is a criminal and from your ward's statement, he was electrocuting the beast. It can be played as an act of self-defense. The scyther though, it's more complicated."

"I thought Travers Brooks was officially dead. Can you be held guilty for killing a dead man?"

"Is this because the scyther belongs to your ward?" Tyson interjected suspiciously "For all we know, the scyther could simply have a murder-happy disposition, considering it tried to kill Mr. Ketchum—"

"Only after Red captured it with bug repels." Oak shot back.

"—and then killed Travers Brooks—"

"—after the golem attacked it on his command."

Tyson did not speak again, as he stared at the esteemed former Champion. "You are really going for your... ward. I suppose we can make it an exclusion then. Of course, Mr. Ketchum has to agree to keep it at personal risk. If the scyther is found guilty of future crimes, Mr. Ketchum will be held responsible."

"That goes without saying," Oak responded. "Are we done here?."

"Almost," Tyson leaned forward. "Gym Leader Brock asked me to inform you that he will be taking charge of the golem. Something about being the best person to deal with a rock-type that has undergone conditioning like it has."

"Conditioning?" Oak raised an eyebrow.

Tyson shrugged. "Beats me. Something about rock-types and their fickle loyalty. Apparently, the golem has been… conditioned to obey anyone that holds its pokéball, regardless of the holder."

"So it is possible that Travers did not own the golem?"

"It is a valid assumption," Tyson agreed, "The Gym Leader clarified that while the golem's strength level is barely above average for its kind terms, its mastery over Rock Polish is comparable to the Gym Leader's own golem."

"I suppose the expert has the last say on the subject," Oak quipped. "I'm in favor of that. As long as I get ownership of that growlithe."

Tyson arched an eyebrow. "Winners, keepers?"

"Not… essentially," Oak replied with slight hesitation. "My ward risked life and limb to save a creature— experimental hybrid or not. I doubt he'd take it well if the growlithe ends up in a different prison after all it has been through."

"Sir, I respectfully suggest that you not take the matter personally, but to throw away a possible scope of intelligence research to appease a young boy—"

"I'm not pleasing anyone," Oak clarified, "The growlithe is an experimental hybrid— an illegal existence, and I understand that. Analysis of its blood will give the League intelligence on what Team Rocket is working with. That said, we also need to see the true capabilities of such a creature, and that can only be achieved in the field. Not inside a laboratory."

"You mean—"

"I have some ideas. I'll need to call a few favors, but I think the situation can be turned towards everyone's benefit."

Tyson looked like he wanted to object, before his face morphed into a mask of resignation. "...Yes, sir."

~~X~~

Kellan Namba had worked as an assistant under the infamous researcher Colress, notorious as the Wickedest Man in the world, for over five years, before the centennial-genius had vanished off the surface of the planet in a cataclysmic explosion that wiped out several hectares off the north-west coast of Hoenn.

Declared fugitive by the Hoenn League, Kellan had run from place to place, working for one power-hungry businessman or another. After several years trying to keep his head off the political grid, he had been recruited by a rather surprising individual, from an even more surprising organization—one with access to one of the most upgraded lab facilities in the world, on par with what he was used to, back when he worked with Colress himself.

That was seventeen years ago.

Today, Kellan Namba was one of the chief researchers in the entire organization, or at least he'd like to think so. As per the rules, he was unaware of the identity of the other researchers, just like they were unaware of his presence in the organization. Team Rocket believed in keeping information on a need-to-know basis after all.

Not that Kellan minded. As long as he got to pursue his research, humanity could destroy itself. It was why the Growlithe was such a significant development. A Fire-type with a synthetic Acid-typing, along with the possibility of limitless regeneration. So why couldn't Proton see its relevance? Kellan had yet to construct a hypothesis on its evolution, or indeed, if it could evolve at all, but he was confident that the creature would in time, be able to face off one of Proton's hydreigon as an equal.

He'd know. He created it.

Now only if Proton stopped being… unreasonable.

"Sir Proton," He genuflected, "I understand why you might feel… unhappy about recent events, but I'm confident that you'd understand my reasons if you'd look at—"

The rest of his words died down in his throat, as Proton fixed him with a calm stare. It was one of the man's quirks. For someone so trigger-happy, Proton was a rather soft-spoken guy. In fact, people unaware of his identity could paint him as a flower-loving pacifist.

It only took a single glance at his penchant for active devastation to reassess one's opinion about the man. As it was, everyone in Team Rocket feared the mythical and non-existent wrath of Admin Proton.

At such proximity, Kellan couldn't help but stare into the man's was strangely fascinating They were heterochromatic, one blue and one white— the combination somehow raising an unexplainable uneasiness inside his gut. He couldn't put a finger on exactly what it was, he couldn't help but wonder if he had overlooked something extremely vital in his zeal.

"Namba," the Admin spoke in a dangerously calm voice, "it has been brought to my attention that you've wanted to be a part of Project Apotheosis for a long time now."

"Yes," Kellan wasn't sure where this was going, but he'd be damned if he lost a potential chance to become a part of it. He had wanted in, since the plan was launched seven years ago, but instead, he had been pushed into Project Nihilo instead. Not that he disliked where he was, but Project Apotheosis… Anyone who was anyone in Team Rocket wanted to be a part of it.

"And about the newest… venture we have going on, in Pewter?"

The Collapse protocol, sir?" Kellan offered. Truth be told, he didn't know a lot about the proceedings about this newest venture in Pewter city, save that it was an amalgamation of over a year's worth of careful planning and shaping of events. The details were not out in the open—things rarely were that way in Team Rocket—but there was no doubt it was extremely significant.

"The Collapse protocol," Proton went on agreeably, "has been running under complete confidentiality. Every step meticulously planned. Every line carefully drawn. Every bit of leaked intelligence… carefully controlled, before letting the dogs of the League sniff it out. All to throw them off on a different scent to keep the main operation running flawlessly."

Kellan nodded, unsure where the discussion was leading.

"And now, right when we are on the penultimate step, Team Rocket activity registers on the grid." Proton stood up, his hands raised animatedly as if holding a large advertisement banner in his hands. "Viridian forest in flames. Attack on children, by the big bad Team Rocket."

Kellan swallowed.

Proton turned to face the man. "I'm told that there were three successful specimens to be transported. The growlithe…." Proton seemed almost reluctant to speak of it, as if even mentioning it was causing the man endless pain, "the growlithe was deemed missing, and you sent people after it. What happened to the other two?"

Kellan gulped. "There was a gligar, and an eevee, sir. The gligar and eevee were in another room, away from the growlithe. We've managed to recover the gligar. It was heavily injured, but after healing it, I made sure to transfer it personally, through secured channels to Pewter Base."

"Not Viridian." It wasn't an accusation, just a fact.

"I… thought dealing with Brock was easier than Giovanni," the man professed, before hastily adding, "...sir."

"And the eevee?"

"The room exploded, sir. We assumed it was caught in the fire."

"And the growlithe escaped."

"Yes."

"And you… sent some of the best people Team Rocket had to offer behind it."

"Yes."

"Knowing that it was a fire-type and running amok in the middle of a forest."

"...Yes."

"With a squad of rangers on active patrol duty all around."

Kellan just swallowed this time.

"Especially," Proton's lips curled into a disarming smile, "knowing that the Collapse Protocol, centered in Pewter, is just one step away."

"...yes, sir." Kellan answered, "the growlithe was a success and I wanted to give it to you, sir. As such, it was paramount that it be caught before it was spotted by the League."

"Ah, and despite all your planning, your actions caused the death of a prominent Grunt Captain, my student—my student—" the man's voice kept getting harsher with every word, "causing a large forest fire, and now your precious growlithe is in the hands of the League."

"I... had believed that a grunt captain would have been able to handle such a simple…." The scientist paused midway, faced with an angry glare. Clearly it was the wrong thing to say.

"Travers was many things, but incompetent… he was not. What did you order him to do?"

"To… capture the specimen. Kill it in a last case resort."

"And to do that, my student attacked a ward of Samuel Oak— Samuel fucking Oak—as well as that Waterflower's daughter. And now, Samuel Oak—the bogeyman himself— is in Pewter. Do you realize how your one single action has messed up everything Team Rocket has been working on? That I have been working on?"

"I… had no idea, sir, believe me, I—"

"Where is the information about this growlithe? I assume you have its files somewhere in this… mess?"

"We have it in our servers, sir." Kellan offered hopefully.

"All of it?"

"All of it," Kellan swore, "I personally ensured we had a soft copy for every single research added to the local servers."

"Good," Proton muttered, "transfer the data to my private servers. I assume with the information you have, we can have an army of these… successful specimens?"

Kellan looked like he had seen a ghost.

"...?"

"Actually sir," Kellan considered every word, knowing he was treading on dangerous grounds, "I do have blood samples, but all three of the original specimens were infertile. We tried to recreate them, but the newer ones kept dying. The moment they tried to use an attack— hurkkkk!"

Kellan Namba felt himself lifted from the floor, and raised to the admin's level, meeting his infamous heterochromatic stare. "Go on. Please?"

The fingers constricted a little more. Kellan struggled, but somehow continued to speak. "They suffered spasms when using an attack, and then they died."

"Ah," Proton replied airily, as if talking about the weather. As if he wasn't currently strangling a man by the neck. As if said man wasn't gasping for air, coughing badly but yet, keeping himself from touching him. "A fluke then. All three were flukes. Years of resources spent on flukes, with the extra bonus of spoiling the Collapse Protocol."

Kellan coughed violently, now valiantly trying to keep Proton from crushing his windpipe.

"Sir—one last—"

"Tell me," the Admin repeated, a nonchalant expression floating on his face. "What should I do with you?"

"One last—last chance, sir—"

"Now the League will come, and they'll start an investigation. Samuel Oak's presence will draw Lance in. And just like that, the Collapse Protocol will... collapse." the man smiled bitterly. "Like a house of cards."

"—last—last—"

"Last?" Proton paused, looking at him curiously. For some reason, Kellan felt like a bug being studied by a researcher. "Last what?"

"Last chance— serum— work,"

Proton let the man fall down. Kellan dropped to the floor, coughing madly.

"Explain."

"Give me one day—twenty-four hours, sir. I'll get you a working blood serum for the successful specimens. At least the growlithe if not others." The scientist professed.

"Twenty-four hours you say?" Proton seemed to pause at that. "And a working sample?"

"Yes— yes, sir." The man rambled.

"Do it in twelve. Disappoint me and—"

"You won't, sir. You won't be—cough—disappointed."

"Good," The admin replied airily, before stepping past him. He took three steps before pausing again, "Also, I want all data transferred to my private server in an hour."

"I'll do that in thirty minutes."

"Hmmm," Proton smirked, "Godspeed then, Namba. Godspeed."

~~X~~

Several hours later…

"This should work! This has to work!" Namba muttered, his frame shaking from fear and anticipation. He had gotten twelve hours worth of borrowed time from the terrifying Admin—twelve hours to prove himself worthy and continue his research. As soon as Proton had deserted the compound, Namba had seen a squad of grunts scurry in.

Not that he could disagree with them.

With the forest fire incident, the League had dispatched two squads of Rangers into the forest, sniffing around for evidence of Team Rocket activity. The wrecked remains of the warehouse had already been located, and from what Kellan knew, there wasn't much time before the rangers would trace their way to the main base, even if the majority of it was constructed underground. Rangers weren't stupid, and any moron with a magnemite could fry the circuitry that kept up the illusion of forest cover in the area.

That was why the grunts had been busy, meticulously removing any and all necessary and expensive equipment from the base, putting them into folded-space containment units, before teleporting them away with a team of highly trained psychic pokémon. Within the first three hours, the entire base screamed empty, something that did nothing to quell the growing pit of despair within Kellan's stomach.

All of this because of that damned growlithe.

The biochemical constitution of the current sample in hand seemed remarkably similar to the growlithe's own blood serum. 99.3% similar, in fact. The point seven difference was because of an extra modification—a touch of inspiration if you will—that allowed an easier assimilation of said serum into the test-subject's genetic structure.

This should work. This has to work. This has to—

Steadying his hands, he drew the serum into an injection syringe, before reaching for the first test-subject. The growlithe was tied to the table, its mouth shut, its body injected with a drug that reduced its flight-or-fight responses.

"Now let's see…" He pushed the syringe into the pokémon, making the creature yelp in slight pain.

And he waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Nothing yet. All vitals steady. No sudden fluctuations in reserves.

The growlithe mewled in pain, and for once, Kellan felt his throat constricting. His fingers grabbed the edges of the table.

Still no fluctuations All vitals steady.

The machine behind him made a sound, making him close to jumping out of his skin.

"Subject P02 successfully assimilated. No fluctuations. Will begin processing the altered genomic sequence in 3…"

Kellan let out a sigh in elation. He had done it. The new formula had worked. Of course, the creature would need to get used to the changes of its altered constitution before he could proceed with further tests. But he knew—he knew—this had worked. This, this had really worked, and now he'd—

Wait.

Rushing to the terminal he tried to contact Proton.

He was answered after three rings.

"Yes?" The ever-calm tone did not help Kellan's nerves.

"Sir, this is Namba. I—the serum—"

"Get to the point, Namba. "

"The serum, sir— it worked."

There was a brief silence on the other side of the line. "Successfully?"

"I am certain, sir. The test subject successfully assimilated the improved serum. Physical tests will have to wait until the subject is conscious."

"I see." The Admin seemed almost… sad. "Is that all?"

"All—what—I mean, I reported the news of my success to you."

"I see," The Admin replied, "and have you relayed the new data to my servers?"

"Already done, sir." Kellan went on, trying to sound as subservient as possible. "When will I get teleported to my next base?"

"Your next base?" Proton asked airily, almost like he was confused at the question. "I thought you seemed quite at home where you are."

"Yes but—"

"Lord Proton," Kellan heard someone else speak, "the rangers are within 200 meters of the boundary."

"Wait, WHAT?" Kellan was surprised at the urgency in his own voice. "Rangers? Where?" He questioned hysterically.

A damning silence answered his query.

"Sir, Admin— Lord Proton, please forgive me for my —but rangers? Where?"

"Sir Proton?" Kellan begged.

"Yes, Namba?"

"When will—will I get—wait, you never planned on getting me out, did you? Did you?"

Kellan didn't know, but he could feel Proton smile from the other end. "Do you know the oldest lie in politics?"

"What does it matter? Just get me out of here!" Kellan was rambling, rushing to the door, only to find it—

Locked?

He wiped his card again.

Damn. Why is this not working? Another glitch? At a time like this?

He glanced at the terminal, a low static playing through the speakers. He didn't know how, but an eerie sixth sense told him that Proton had not, in fact, hung up on him.

"You cannot let them take me. I have too much information. I have so much research that Project Nihilo—"

The rest of his words died in his throat, even as Proton maintained a damning silence on the other side.

The call was still connected.

"You—you bastard! How can you spit on me and my contribution like this? How can—?"

"Namba," The airy, nonchalant voice answered. "Do you know the oldest lie in politics?"

"No and I don't fucking—" Kellan wiped the card for the seventh time.

Locked.

"WHAT IS IT?" He yelled. "What's the goddamned lie? Tell me."

He could feel the other man smile. "I'm here to help you."

Beep.

"What the—wait—hello? Hello?"

Kellan stared at the screen which was no longer responsive to his commands.

Access Denied.

His brain literally rebooted at that, before it struck him.

"You… What have you done? You… planned this? That's why all of this ain't working! Damn you Proton! You son of a—"

The sound of a miniature explosion gave him pause.

"EVERYONE! STAY CAUTIOUS!" He could hear someone bark orders, followed by several sounds of people rushing through the base. The rangers had arrived. Proton—that son of a bitch had made him take the fall— his project would be scapegoated, conveniently taking all the heat off Pewter. Only someone like Proton could cannibalize one of his projects for another.

But I just sent him all the data. Namba's eyes widened as he looked around at his lab. His empty lab. Whatever research could be found would be enough for the league to reconstruct that experimentation had gone on here, but no more. Namba fell to his knees.

"Heh! Is this all my years of effort have amounted to? Well guess what Proton, you may have my research, but I have my mind. You made a mistake here. You left me alive. I'll seize immunity from the League and bring your fucking Collapse Protocol down before your very eyes. I will—

Beep.

"What— what is that sound?

Beep.

The terminal buzzed before swapping to a video feed. It showed the area directly outside— a group of Rangers breaking open the door. There were six of them, with probably more behind, all of them with red lights attached to their helmets, and a riot shield on one arm, with pokéballs on the other. He could see several magnemites hovering, with a nidorino, an umbreon and several—

Growlithe.

How ironic. Kellan noted cynically, as the constant beeping sound kept going on and on. For some reason, the rangers didn't seem to hear anything, and the opaque glass wall kept him from being spotted as well. Kellan yelled and banged against the glass barrier, but the 10-inch thick barrier held, regardless of what he tried.

Beep.

"He's…. He's rigged the entire base. He's—"

Beep.

Kellan kept on yelling, kept on banging, kept on hoping against hope that someone—anyone would find him, get him out—someone would listen to his words and get out and save—

His terminal rang again allowing a single number to float across the screen.

05:22 PM.

"What—" He began before the truth hit him.

Twelve hours.

"Heh! Help indeed."

..

..

BOOOOM!

The world around him turned to fire and ash, and Namba knew no more.
 
Pronouns
He
ACT TWO - DUST OF DREAMS

Chapter 2 - Operation: Get to Red!

Mawile was terribly confused.

If you asked her a summer ago, this would be no problem. Who cared if some human from wherever was injured? Not even Mabel could have elicited such a response from her. Sure, her mother would have thought differently, and perhaps Mawile would have accompanied her mother out of some sense of filial piety. Though come to think of it, had such a thing indeed happened, she'd probably have tried to escape from her gilded cage that was Pomace Mountain.

Things with Red shouldn't have been any different. Mawile remembered her original dream— for which she had travelled from her lands of snow to this… a place full of roads and forests and poképuffs. She wanted to travel the world, and no, her dream hadn't changed one bit. She still wanted to achieve the same, only now, there was an extra addition.

Red.

Mawile didn't know if it was a good or bad thing. Red wasn't like Mabel, old and inflexible. Nor was he like the old man that brought her to Kanto—old and full of ridiculous sayings of which Mawile couldn't make head or tail of.

No, Red was young and silly and unreliable as far as an intelligent human was concerned, though the concept of strategy was not beyond him. Also, he gave her poképuffs and well, put up with her tantrums. Mawile could probably ignore his silly reasons for bringing in unproductive and good-for-nothing additions to the team—like that shellder.

And no, the rest of the team members didn't count. In Mawile's eyes, she had defeated that monster of an Ursaring and won Skarmory. She had kidnapped Growlithe and dragged his unconscious form across the forest. Red might have shown a modicum of ruthlessness in capturing that deviant of a scyther, but there wasn't anything special to it. Exposure to her own magnificence was sure to incite some mimicry in her trainer's psyche. It was about time, really.

At least, that would have been her thought process, around a week ago.

Now though…

"My body's… shut down. You, however, can still move."

The last words that Red had spoken to her in the midst of that burning forest still blazed in her mind. He had offered her a chance at escape, at survival, a chance to fulfil her own dreams, irrespective of the very real threat upon his own life. Sure, this wasn't the first time Red had done something stupidly noble. The episode with the Spearow flock came to mind.

Stupid Red.

It had been ten days since that ghastly incident amidst the burning trees. Ten days since she had come closest to dying. Ten days since she thought she'd die with her trainer. Ten days since she'd met Red in person.

And it was getting on her nerves.

It was not like she was dissatisfied with her current living arrangements—the humans around had allotted them a rather large grassy lawn with trees growing along the periphery, and a little fountain in the middle of it all.

The growlithe made it a point to sleep as much as he could in the shade, while Skarmory had taken to the air. The scyther seemed content at slashing at the branches and performing all sorts of acrobatics. What the mad bug was trying to achieve was anybody's guess.

As for Shellder, the water-type might as well be a rock—what with the way it stayed sunk in the fountain for most of the day. Then again, nobody ever accused Shellder of being a social butterfree in the first place.

Stupid things were stupid, after all.

The old man Oak had promised to take her to Red, but she hadn't seen him since. Not that Mawile could blame him. Red gave her poképuffs when he wanted something done. Mawile didn't know what the old man wanted, and she didn't really have poképuffs to give away in the first place.

Curse that forest fire for destroying all of Red's belongings.

Mawile considered their situation again.

Not just belongings, it seemed like nothing had made it out of the forest unscathed. Well, except for Shellder— not that the fool would realise something was wrong with it.

While she had recuperated within a single day of treatment, the same hadn't been true for the others. The scyther had suffered severe damage in its abdomen— the doctor had used the word fragmented.

Mawile was no healer, but she knew what a pain mending a broken bone could be. She had been unfortunate enough to break her ankle some two summers ago and the pain had been—

Mawile shuddered. Best not to engage in bitter memories of old.

The scyther, if the doctor's words were to be believed, had also broken one of his scythes. In fact, Mawile found the speed at which the bug-type had bounced back to health almost surreal. Bug-types were definitely good at healing.

It had taken the growlithe an extra day before it had been released. Mawile was glad to see that collar removed from the puppy's neck. Idiot or not, no creature deserved to be treated like that. The growlithe had been jumping at shadows for the next two days before it had adapted to the changing environment.

By deciding to ignore everything and doze like a slakoth.

Puppies. Mawile sniffed. They are all the same.

And finally, there was Skarmory. Even to this day, the grotesque image of the large avian— bleeding from her abdomen, her entire body burnt a dull red with liquid metal trickling down—Mawile had never thought that such a creature could make sounds like that. It had taken the bird an entire week to recuperate, and even now, she looked pale and thin.

The shiny cloak of metal that covered her from head to toe was replaced with a crude exoskeleton, spread out in places and thinned at others. Obviously, whatever the humans had done was helping Skarmory regrow her armour, but even Mawile could see that it'd be some time before Skarmory would be back in her former glory.

More importantly though—

She missed Red.

She remembered him.

She remembered being utterly terrified of dying within the flames, only for him to grab her and return her into the safety of her pokéball. Mawile remembered feeling confusion when Red had released her back into the burning forest. For one moment, she had wondered if— if, despite her weakened state, Red was going to force her to use her powers to quell the flames.

The horror of dying like that, in the middle of a burning forest, had scared her out of her fur.

But when he did speak, it couldn't have been any more different.

"You can still make it. See the world. Wasn't that what you wanted to do in the first place?"

Mawile had been shocked out of her wits. Did the fool not realize the danger he—they were in? It had taken a moment before it had hit her. Red was asking her to desert him—take advantage of the opportunity, just like a deceitful creature such as herself would have done. Should have done.

And he was literally asking her to do it. To run away, to be the uncaring and opportunistic creature Mawile had once taken pride in being.

But she hadn't. Instead, she had chastised him for his silliness. Red was silly and stupid and somewhat of a dummy, but he was her dummy. There was no way she'd ditch him like that, not after everything they had been through.

She had bit and dragged and pulled with every bit of her strength, uncaring if she drew blood. All that mattered was for Red to be safe.

As for the rest of the group...

Truth be told, she couldn't have cared less so long as Red lived. At that point, she would have done anything to get him out alive.

Instead, the dummy had spoken, once again shattering her world-view.

"At least I can die with them. Keep them company in their final moments."

And so he did.

Despite her attempts, Red had made no movement to save himself, and instead, had welcomed Skarmory's wing embracing him from behind. Mawile had never felt so helpless. She didn't want to die, but she didn't want to leave Red like that as well. She had cried and cried relentlessly but it had amounted to nothing.

Mawile sniffed. Best not to ponder over her less-than-successful efforts. Red was way too heavy for someone like herself to pull up. Difficult things were difficult, after all.

But enough nostalgia. It was time to consider her current situation.

Operation— Get to Red.

It had all started with charming the nurse. Mawile had jumped up at the opportunity and escaped the grassy lawn. A little leap here, a jump behind a pillar there, and soon enough, she had crossed the whole place. She moved from one corridor to another looking around for familiar faces. The old man was supposed to be somewhere, as well as the female that Red called Mom. If she was anything like Mawile's own mother, she'd not be a very helpful creature— erm, human to begin with.

Mawile came to halt. She was in a large room. One that looked exactly like the one she just left.

Mawile screamed.



...

Damn this place for having so many doors and corridors. What good were corridors anyway? They only made you feel like you were on the right track, only to trick you into the wrong place entirely. That and doors. Why did humans have so many doors? It was like having an opening in every wall of your cave.

It was like humans went out of their way just to make things complicated.

Mawile sighed, before pushing such thoughts out of her mind. They would not help here. No, now she had to find Red, and from what she realised, he would be behind one of the doors.

A determined expression on her face, Mawile slowly exited the room.

She would either find Red. Or tear down every door in this goddamn place.

And burn them for good measure.

Horrible things, really.

~~X~~

Delia Ketchum stepped out into the brightly lit corridors of the morning. Sleep was a luxury Delia rarely indulged in.

Her average day had her cooped up inside air-conditioned laboratories working with her fellow researchers. With the entire facility— the Parthenon —located in the outskirts of Pallet Town, it was a mere thirty-minute drive from home. And that was when Kaz was unavailable for teleportation.

I almost cannot believe it's been around two weeks that I am away from work. Feels like something out of someone else's life. Is this what it's like to be a normal parent?

One thought led to another, and Delia found herself revisiting old memories. Her initial antipathy over the way things had ended with that man, followed with her rapture upon being promoted to a full-time researcher instead of just a lab assistant.

It wasn't that she disliked having a child. She simply was not ready for one.

Still, she had thought she did an okay job. She had given him everything he asked for and more. Red had always seemed to be a happy child which made it even harder to realise that she wasn't giving him the attention he needed. The fact that he stayed around the ranch— her worksite back then —made it easier to ignore the growing estrangement with her own son.

And now it led to this.

As concerned as she had been upon Red waking up, the teen's expression at her behaviour felt strange. The repeated episodes with Mia, followed by the ripples that those incidents had created in her mind, had altered her perspective of the situation, and though she deeply felt that she had wronged her son, the rational part of her kept screaming about the oddity of the entire situation.

The fact that Red was somewhat… guarded about her attempts at being a caring parent had not been overlooked either.

Maybe… Maybe I should just take things slow? He's been without a proper parent all this time. If I force myself in, he'll only push back.



That infuriating old man was right, as always.

Oak had suggested that she take a different route. Red had grown up by himself. Even Oak, for all his closeness to the boy, had been more of a mentor and friend to the teen, and not a guiding parental figure. It was probably why Red felt so comfortable mouthing off to him, despite knowing the professor's status as a former Champion and a venerated figure in the world of research. If she wanted to get into Red's circle of trust, she'd need to be his friend.

I couldn't give him a mother. A friend then, perhaps? And if so, what would Red's friend do at this time?

The answer rang loudly in her head.

Despite the teen's requests the other day, Oak had not complied with bringing the mawile or any other of Red's team to him. Not that she could blame him—the interrogation took greater priority, and after that, it was time for his medication and sleep.

Perhaps I can bring him his starter. Mawile was it? Red would be happy to see her.

Delia wasn't surprised he hadn't named it. While Mia had grown to love her name, Kaz had been decidedly unhappy that his title— something that most psychics were obsessive about —had essentially been created because a six-year-old Red couldn't pronounce Alakazam.

Eventually, the name stuck, but Kaz had explained to Red in great detail that most pokémon neither wanted nor cared about a random name forced on them by a human. He had started to explain the concepts of titles too but that had devolved into an argument about what a pokémon could possibly do to earn a title.

Long story short, Red would likely not name any of his team unless they wanted one.

Speaking of his team, Delia couldn't help but marvel at her son's thought process. The mawile was a starter so she couldn't criticise him there. No, that was Oak's fault.

Honestly, Delia had wondered why Oak hadn't given him a psychic of some sort. For example, a meditite would have been wonderful, especially if he got one closer to evolution. Medicham was gifted at extrasensory perception and would have kept her son safe. Compared to those, a mawile was well… plain.

Delia had looked through the new additions to her son's team. A Shellder… well, she didn't know what to think of that. Sure, she could afford a Water Stone for him, but cloyster were dangerous, and she was sure that he knew that as well.

The skarmory was definitely a brilliant addition. A powerful, winged pokémon dressed in steel. Skarmory alone should be able to take care of all of his battles with ease until Red shed his Rookie status.

From what she understood, her son had personally captured the scyther by overloading its senses with repels. She didn't know whether to commend him on his ingenuity or rebuke him for trying it in the first place.

As for the growlithe… it was kind of tied in some kind of bureaucratic nonsense. Oak said that he'd take care of it, so she probably wouldn't have to worry about it too much. He always did have a way of getting things done.

She slowly moved towards the pokémon zone.

Red's team should be rehabilitating here.? Now all I have to do is— is that Mawile?

Delia stopped short, staring at the creature in front of her. The mawile was trudging down the circular corridor, dejection visibly radiating from its form. Her expression was akin to one who had suffered a great injustice.

Her behaviour was quite... peculiar. The mawile would go in front of a door and use her jaw to gently turn the doorknob. Then she would peer inside expectantly before a sorrowful look spread across her face and she returned to the circular corridor. Mawile would then continue to the next door.

Delia found herself entranced by this strange behaviour and decided to watch. What on earth had Red been teaching her? Eventually, Mawile walked to the pokémon zone set aside for Red's team. The place where she should have been all along.

Once again, she slowly, cautiously opened the door. Delia could see the expectation rising in her eyes. Expectation that soon turned into shock and then horror.

Mawile collapsed onto the ground and screamed.

~~X~~

"Really old man, are you really pulling the 'wait-till you're-older' card on me?" Red asked animatedly, using his fingers to draw quotes in the air as he went on, "I've literally grown up on your ranch."

Oak sighed. The conversation didn't seem to be going in the direction he desired if the growing frown on his face was of any indication. "That's not it. Hundreds of trainers start their journey after getting licensed. Ethan and Leaf are on their way to their fifth and third badge respectively. You on the other hand are—"

"A badge-less rookie, I know that," Red grumbled, "you don't need to point that out. I should have gotten out of Viridian right after my second day, and taken the ferry to Fuchsia. But I didn't, and spent my time at the Trainer's Square and then in making some cash at the forest. I might not have gotten badges yet, but I'm far from—"

"Weak," Oak finished for him, "I know, and I don't doubt that."

"That's surprising," Red arched his eyebrows, almost snobbishly.

"Stop it," The elder man chastised. "This isn't a laughing matter. You'd have died, Red. If not for the Rangers, you'd have— have—"

"Died, yes," Red answered, sobering up. "I know. Believe me, I was kinda surprised to find myself alive." He chuckled mirthlessly, "—almost thought that I'd—"

"This isn't a joke Red," Oak chastised. The man was clearly distressed, and it was beginning to show. "Just— hear me out. If you want to train yourself and your team that much, I can arrange something. You know Orca is always ready to entertain—"

"That's just it, old man," Red pushed himself against the bed to sit up straighter. "I don't want Orca to entertain me. "

Red paused momentarily as he remembered the great beast of fire that Oak commanded. Even as a child, Red was awed by the pulsating power within the magnificent beast.

"I want to push myself and my team to the best we can be," Red looked at the old Professor, straight in the eye. "I want us to be prepared for next time."

"Next time?" Oak asked measuringly. "Why? Because you can run head-on into another riot?"

"No," Red looked away, "so that next time if something happens, we can… survive. I just— it's kinda difficult to explain, but I—I—"

"You what?" the old man pressed.

"I gave up, all right?" Red exclaimed, his frustrations at himself seeping into his words. "I gave up. Fuckin— even Mawile was doing her best to get me out, and, and— I just gave up. I should have been the one trying to get my team out, and instead, I lay down and waited for death. I—"

"Red, you cannot—"

"I can," He looked up desperately, "It makes me feel guilty. It's like I just gave up and decided to be selfish. That it would be easier to just die instead of owning it up and getting my team out of the mess I had gotten them into. I just…. just…. Arrgh!"

He threw his hands out, shutting his eyes and screaming in frustration.

"…"

The older man didn't utter a word. If anything, it seemed like he was waiting for Red to put himself together. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, Red turned to face him.

"…sorry."

"You don't need to apologise," Oak looked at him steadily. "What are you planning to do now?"

"Do I— Are you giving me the choice?" Red asked, "Once I get out of this place, I can continue with my journey. The hospital bill—"

"Don't worry about the money."

"I cannot just let you pay my bills every time I land up in a hospital."

"You'll find that you can." Oak smiled calmly. "I am your mother's employer. Her contract covers health concerns regarding Delia Ketchum as well as members of her immediate family."

"Health concerns that include stem-cell surgery of this level?" Red asked, raising his hands. "And now this?."

"Does it matter?" Oak half-smirked, "Either way, it's not something for you to worry about. You can pay me back by being a responsible trainer. That and trying to avoid things that put you in hospitals."

"I'll try," Red returned dryly. "No promises though."

"Of course," Oak answered in an airy tone, "I never expect the impossible from my students."

"Heh!" Red chuckled, enjoying their impromptu banter. "Seriously though, you make it sound like I attract all kinds of trouble."

"Well, yes. Particularly the life-threatening kind."

"Oh, come on," the teen groaned, "other than the forest, name one life-threatening—"

"The pikachu. The pallet forest trainer. The fearow flock. A wild murderous scyther. An experimental hybrid that could very well kill you, and—"

"I said name one," Red said sullenly. "You made your point."

Oak raised his hands up in mock surrender. "All I'm saying is that you need to exercise a bit more… caution. Look at Miss Waterflower. Sure, she was stupid to hire a rookie, but at least she had enough sense to ask for help before entering the forest. You on the other hand—"

"Miss Waterflower," Red mocked, "was also the one that suggested I capture the scyther instead of binding it down."

Oak opened his mouth and then closed it. "All right, a little more… cautious than her then."

Red sighed in frustration, "What do you want from me, old man?"

"I want you to be researching in my lab, but we don't always get what we want, do we?" Oak replied sassily, "I hope you understand just how lucky you and your team were to be found by the rangers. I've been a researcher for twenty-seven years now, and a trainer for much longer than that. That skarmory? I've never seen a worse case than that, dammit. Why would you teach her to melt herself like that?"

"It wasn't my idea," Red shot back, "you think I'd want my pokémon to kill herself?"

"Are you suggesting that she did that on her own accord? The metal on her wings has melted Red. It's a miracle she's even alive."

"You can say that again," The teen murmured, "It was my fault to face Travers like that. I accept that. But believe me, my original idea was to stall them enough to allow Growlithe to escape and then to flee. I told you that. Why won't you believe me?"

"I do believe you. But either you are being too casual with your training, or something else is at play here. A skarmory glides through the air, they do not, and I repeat, they do not flap their wings. Gust is not an option for them."

"I know," Red muttered in a small voice, "that's what I told her when she used it the first time."

"The first— you mean this has happened before?" Oak asked, flabbergasted.

"Yes," Red nodded. "Though not to this degree. The first time we trained was after I won her at Viridian's Trainer Square. I told her that her species wasn't meant to use Gust. But in the forest, I didn't know what she was doing or why. I was... fighting off the ariados there."

"Figures," Oak muttered. "You realize that you jeopardised the girl's life in your decision to fight those criminals?"

"You're still going on about that growlithe?" Red asked with incredulity, "My answer hasn't changed. Sure, I screwed up, but there's no way I'd act differently if given a choice. I don't regret it."

"You don't?" Oak asked accusingly.

"I don't," came the defiant answer.

"I see" Oak looked at him calmly "So you put the growlithe's life at the same level of Miss Waterflower?"

"What.? Yes, I mean, No— I—" Red paused. Was a growlithe's life really worth more than a human? Well, he would value pokémon in his team or Kaz and Mia much higher for sure. But he didn't know the growlithe at the time. He didn't want the growlithe to die, but it wasn't like he wanted Misty to get hurt either.

"I— " He tried again. " I just wanted everyone to be okay…"

Oak sighed. " I know the feeling Red. I've… lost things too. Everyone has when they've got to my age."

The old man paused for a moment before continuing.

"But sometimes you only get two bad choices. You saved the growlithe. You made it. And Misty lost her starter. Her life will never be the same. Was it worth it?"

"..." For once Red was speechless. He couldn't imagine losing Mawile. But that didn't mean leaving growlithe to suffer was okay, was it? Should he have left it to die? Should he have—

"There is no right answer here," Oak interrupted. "Or at least not with the way you are thinking. But it's something to think about. What do you value? Why do you value it? And how much are you willing to give up to protect it. I don't expect you to come to a conclusion now. But journeying is more than just capturing pokémon. It's about personal growth. And perhaps… perhaps you will come to your own answer."

"I will?" Red asked.

"In time."

"..."

Oak sighed again. " Either way, it's not like it changed matters for the poor creature. Creation of experimental hybrids is illegal. I'm obligated to send to the League for further experimentation to find out what has been done to him. It'd help us in understanding what Team Rocket is doing."

"WHAT? NO!" Red exploded. "I won't let you do that."

Oak looked at him contemptuously. "YOU won't let me do that? Perhaps I should bring in Tyson again?"

"You know what I meant," Red went on, the desperation clear in his voice, "it has been tortured all its life. I promised I'd let it free, not to throw it into another prison."

"The League will get its data," Oak responded firmly.

"Only if you don't say anything about it." Red begged" Come on old man, can't you let it stay at your ranch and let your apprentices collect research data? Who knows what the League guys will do to it?"

"That's a fairly high amount of concern you're showing for a creature that's not even your capture. Officially at least."

"So what? I don't need to own something to care about it." Red shot back. "Come on, old man. Do this as a favour. I'll do anything you want."

"That's a dangerous word you are throwing around me."

"Anything," Red said firmly. He had made a promise to the pokémon and he would keep it. Even if… Even if Oak made him go back to the ranch for it.

Oak opened his mouth and then closed it. Then, he closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Finally, he replied, "Impulsive, as always. Then again, it was to be expected."

He opened his eyes, staring into the teen as if looking into him. "Well, there might be a way to satisfy everyone.."

Red looked up at the old man.

"Anything." He repeated again.

"And I keep telling you not to throw around promises like that. Anything is a strong word." The venerated professor shook his head at the teen's defiant mannerisms. "Your tendency of jumping in with both feet will kill me someday."

The old man paused before abruptly changing topics.

"Do you know what makes that growlithe so special? Anything at all?"

That stopped the teen short. He had certainly not seen that question coming. "It's Shiny. If growlithe were lavender-coloured with pure white manes, I'd remember," He paused, "unless there is something I'm missing."

The professor lifted up the teen's pokédex and entered certain codes into the device. Soon, new information began to flood in. "Check this out."

Turning the device around, Red looked at the image on the screen. It looked like an ordinary growlithe, only that—

"Normal manes, and yellowish fur." Red murmured, frowning as he looked up. "What's that then? Some… rare Shiny-ish thing?"

Oak laughed. "Not quite. The term you are looking for is a Variant. It refers to individuals who have expressed different genes than what is usually displayed by their species. It can be a new colour, a new ability, or a modified typing. Essentially, it is a type of mutation or divergence."

"Then… Shiny is the colour variant?"

"Close," Oak said appreciatively. " While several colour variants can be formed through random or induced mutation, it is an observed fact that most pokémon species tend to favour a specific colour variation when undergoing natural, random mutations. Shiny is just the most common colour variant.."

"Hmmmmm," The teen frowned. "Shiny is a rather odd choice for a name."

"It is, isn't it," Oak agreed. "This happened because the first official capture of this kind of divergence was a pidgeotto. It had golden fur instead of the usual pale brown. The lab that was working with it tended to call it the 'Shiny pidgeotto'. The name ended up sticking.."

Red chuckled. "Interesting anecdote."

"Then tell me, if you thought it was a Shiny, why did you want to give it to me?" Oak asked, his eyes focussed on the teen's face. It was almost as if the man was studying him.

After a few precious seconds, Red spoke up. "I don't have the kind of money needed to evolve it. Three fire-stones can cost over sixty thousand."

"I can assure you that your mother makes more than enough to afford that expense without issue."

"You know what I mean," Red whined.

"Why?" Oak pressed. "Why won't you just ask for help?"

"I— I—,"

"Red," Oak replied softly, "I understand that Delia hasn't been… well, an active part of your life. But I think she's started to realize that and is trying to make overtures."

"Is that— she was uhm— you know!"

Oak shrugged. "Why don't you ask her? She is here for you now and has been here every day since you got admitted. And yet, here you are, talking with me for the fourth time since you recovered. Have you spoken to her yet?"

"Well… not really. I wouldn't know what to talk about with her. Usually, it's— hold on a sec, where's Mia?"

Oak looked slightly conflicted, before carefully responding. "Why the sudden interest?"

"Old man? Where's Mia? Is she alright?" Red was almost panicking now. He didn't know why, but an unexplained terror was spreading through his veins.

Finally, the old man seemed to speak.

"Mia is… unwell. She's been admitted to the hospital."

"What? Why didn't anyone tell me?" Red started to freak out. Mia was sick? Mia had never been sick. Something was wrong—something was—

"You were in the forest. We got her to the hospital," Oak went on, his tone forcibly soft and controlled. "But there is no need to worry. She's safe now, and she's been brought here, to Pewter Hospital, in fact."

"Mia's here? Where? I want to see her!"

"I'm afraid not. She's been put into a medical sleep for… healing. I'll take you to her when she's awake."

"Please!" Red gasped. " Something is wrong. I can feel it. You said the same thing about my team. Why are you keeping me away from them?"

He was starting to panic again.

Oak raised his palm up to calm him down. "That's not true." He picked up the glass of water on the table. "Here, drink a little. Yes, calm down. I told you, didn't I? Your team is absolutely fine."

"Then why don't you let me see them?" Small amounts of delirium were seeping into the teen's tone as he reluctantly accepted the glass and took a sip. "Then—"

"I've asked Delia to fetch Mawile for you. She will be here soon enough."

"You— you're not lying to me, right?"

"Have I ever?"

"Yes."

"…oh well, I'm not lying right now. Is that good enough?"

Red took another sip of water. "Mom's gone to bring Mawile? No tricks?"

"None." Oak looked at him concernedly, "Do you need some rest? I can come later."

"No…" Red looked up at the man desperately. "I just want to see my team. And Mia. Please."

The older man nodded slowly.

"Alright. Delia will bring Mawile over soon. After that, we can go see the rest of your team. Mia is currently not conscious, but you can go see her if it means that much to you."

After several moments, Red spoke again. "What was your… idea about keeping the growlithe?"

"Ah, right," Oak's eyes lit up, "so the main reason to reject the growlithe is that you think you can't afford it?"

"In… a way," Red replied, feeling a bit self-conscious.

"At least it's not because of your obsession with charmander," Oak sighed. The man seemed slightly annoyed, but the little smile floating on his lips spoke otherwise. "Back to the original question, did you find anything special about the growlithe? Apart from the colour difference, of course."

Red paused at that, considering his words, "It can regenerate pretty damn fast. It was already moving by the end of it, despite being, you know, crushed by the arbok." He looked up. "Regeneration, I think? I recognized it back then, but what's so special about it? Tangela can regenerate vines, as can several grass types."

"Close, but no cigar," Oak pinched the tip of his nose. While that is a valid hypothesis, you are quite off the mark. It's not the regeneration you know. This is different. This is a synthetic ability that is similar, but more… aggressive."

"Aggressive?"

"This growlithe can… literally regenerate almost anything, be it muscle or tissues to even entire organs. I'm not sure if it could regrow lost limbs, but from what you tell us, that could be possible too. I'm certainly in no hurry to try that out though."

Red allowed himself to let out the breath he hadn't known he was holding. "So, what's going to happen to it? You said you had an idea."

"I do. You know that I'm your de-facto guardian and sponsor, right?"

Red nodded.

"And that anything you do carries over to me?"

"Me and any and all other trainers you sponsor. What is your point?" Red was starting to get frustrated by the round-about way Oak was handling the situation. A part of him couldn't help but keep worrying about Mia, and his still-absent team.

"Anyone entrusted with the growlithe will need to take care of it, at least get it to an elite standard, and keep sending periodic reports about its physiological and emotional growth as well as its skill development to the League. Or to be more precise, sent to the authority that can submit quarterly reports in his stead."

"…"

"Of course, if I am to be that authority, then said person would need to be registered as employed under me, as an… infield assistant researcher, for lack of a better word, and be able to properly take care of what is essentially a unique creature that might create an entire new divergent branch off the growlithe line."

Red stared at him, slack-jawed.

Oak blinked. "What?"

"… You'd… you'd go all the way through this, and hang Growlithe's future like a sword above my head, just to make me a researcher?"

"Perchance have you come across the phrase, two birds with one stone?"

"I have, thank you very much," Red smiled despite himself, "though this is the first time I'm seeing it in action."

Oak smiled. "I'm very pleased. I've always found that teaching through experience often triumphs over theoretical study."

Red didn't deign to acknowledge that statement. He'd be damned if he let the old man have the last word. "I can… do that, but I'll need to talk to Growlithe if he's interested in staying with me or…"

"If he refuses, he will be sent off to my ranch, as you requested, though that will mean him having to deal with my assistants back there. In the worst-case scenario, should he be uncooperative, he will be forwarded to some other researcher or directly to the League. After all, I'm not exactly known for my work in pokémon physiology, so someone like Ivy or Sanders would be a better choice."

"Or I keep him with me."

"Or you can keep him with you, and report back to me periodically. About his growth, any new changes to his external body structure, or abilities. Stuff like that."

"And his evolution? Will I have to pay for it all?" Red complained. Getting nothing but an annoying stare from the venerated professor, he continued, "Seriously, it's like I'm being punished for doing the right thing. This is just you and mom getting back at me for not choosing a research career. I just know it."

"Congratulations. You are finally learning what it means to be an adult. Your mother is going to be so proud." Oak smirked. "But no, you will be reimbursed for research costs. Which include anything the growlithe uses be it food, techniques or evolutionary requirements."

"Wow," Red breathed.

"Yup," Oak continued smugly. "Researchers are paid a lot. Why if you decide to become a full-time—"

Red rolled his eyes. "Being a field-research is fine!"

"Why Red, it's almost like you're accusing me of forcing you to do something. I'm happy to keep it at the ranch."

"Of course, you aren't," Red shot back. "But seriously, old man. Thanks a lot. It couldn't have been easy for you to get the League to give a kid the growlithe."

"You don't worry about that. Just focus on doing well."

Red's eyes softened. " First my treatment and now this. I don't know how I'd ever pay you back. I—"

The rest of his words died in his throat, as the door to his room burst open, and a very, very familiar entity stepped in. One that brought him tremendous relief.

Thank god she's okay.

Red smiled before he got up and moved towards her. "Mawile," he called out.

The moment she heard his voice, Mawile bounded forward excitedly, letting out a burst of recognition—

"MAWAWAA!"

~~X~~

Night had fallen.

The sky above was starless, almost like an ever-consuming void that threatened to consume even the slightest light.

The darkness stirred.

Red eyes looked around desperately and found nothing around her. Nothing but an endless lake shining a pale, translucent crimson.

How long had she been here?

Weeks?

Months?

The monotonous nature of the area made it hard to trace the passage of time. Slowly, she was becoming… less.

Thoughts.

Emotions.

Memories.

Desire itself began to dull.

It wasn't like she lost everything though. There were still things she managed to keep. Things that were important to her.

She was Mia.

She was Mia and she had Red.

Red was important to her.

Or was he?

The only thing allowing her to keep her sense of self was desire, and now that too was beginning to fade.

Would it be so bad… to just let go?

Mia looked up and prayed. Prayed that Red would find her and bring her to safety. Or if she… If she vanished…

At least what came out wouldn't bring harm to Red.

The lake began to stir and spear-like tentacles rose forming an image in blood. It had frightened her at first, but she had gotten used to it. Nothing frightened her very much anymore. She had already lost most of who she was.

Except for Red. And she was Mia.

That was important.

Somehow.

She didn't know how or why, but she was sure of it.

"Have you made up your mind yet?"

The voice interrupted her thoughts, harsh and sweet at the same time.

She ignored it.

Conversing with that thing did her no good.

The image shifted, before appearing in front of her. It smelt of blood and malevolence and hunger— so much hunger. A presence that would lead everything that was bright and happy to its doom, dragging it into the blackest night.

And then it smiled.

"You're rather tenacious for a frail little thing."

She wouldn't listen.

She wouldn't listen!

She couldn't afford to do so.

It wanted her to disappear. To harm Red. But she had made up her mind. She would break free. Break free or in the worst case…

In the worst case, she would take it down along with herself.

"I'm not your enemy."

She ignored it. She knew Red was there, somewhere, and he'd come for her. She could feel it. As time went by she could feel him closer. His emotions were stronger. It was something that she could almost grasp and yet slipped through her fingers.

"Clearly you do not understand your own interests.'

Here in this… nothingness, there was but a single hope she could hold on to. A single thread with one end leading into the darkness, with no promise of light and love and happiness, vanishing into the void. And on the other…

Save me.

She tried to grasp hold of it once again.

"I will show you what you are missing"

The scene changed. It was Pallet Town, only more vibrant, more lively, filled with an eternity of joy. And then, tiny rivulets of crimson began to flow out of the lanes, the forests, mixing and merging into some kind of giant chasm that led to—

Mia shook her head. Why? Why couldn't she grab it? Why wasn't it answering? The thread led to Red. She could feel it.

Help me. Please.

The voice snorted before the scene from the vision overwhelmed her. All the emotions, all the energy, flowed into her.

"This could be yours. This power could be yours."

And what a power it was. She had never experienced anything like it before. Even back then, before she had drowned in the river of blood, even that spark of light, or power— even that had been nothing compared to this.

All of these negative thoughts and emotions— all of them congregating into large rivers and merging into herself. With that kind of power, all it would take would be a twist of her fingers, and the entire world would be swept into the cries of insanity.

It was overwhelming.

"Like it should be. Like you deserve."

But she didn't want it. The entirety of her desire was concentrated on a single thing.


"You can have anything you want. I will make all of your desires come true."

Mia looked back at that single thread in the darkness.

The one that connected her to him. The one that she simply wasn't able to grasp no matter how much she tried.

She slowly gathered herself. She had enough in her for one more try. One in which she would put her everything into.

"All you have to do is give up."

Mia used all her power and latched on to it. No matter how difficult, no matter how far, this was her Red. Even now it was slipping. Almost as if she was not allowed to connect to him.

But that was irrelevant. No one had the right to stop her from feeling Red.

Not even herself.

Mia gritted her teeth and pulled.
 
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