Anima Ex Machina: Sixteen
Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

"You're kidding, right?" Veronica deadpanned.

In the examination room of the pokémon center, the police officer observed one of the sights she hoped she wouldn't have to see. It wasn't death, destruction, or mayhem. It was Ellen Joy helping an ixodida get dressed. In human clothing.

Bill wasn't exactly comfortable with the whole idea himself. For one, it made him realize, much to his embarrassment, that he had been completely naked since he first awoke as an ixodida. While he couldn't argue with covering himself up in light of that fact, the fact that the idea never dawned on him until now served as a not-too-kind reminder that his body was far from what he would call human.

For another, clothing felt strange against his skin -- almost unpleasant. He felt too warm, and although he could no longer feel the texture and softness of fabric, the way it brushed against his armor felt like it was touching a numb limb. His nerves prickled uncomfortably, perhaps because his nervous system knew it should be feeling something but simply couldn't.

For a third, he couldn't get Adam to shut up about it.

Clothing. Is that what you humans call it? Adam muttered bitterly. Your species must be incredibly vain. Why would you need to cover your bodies? Is there something you all consider repulsive about your form? It is a wonder that any of you breed.

He kept silent, even fixing his jaw to avoid speaking. Craning his neck, he tried to focus on the ceiling while Ellen worked on tightening the leather belt around his waist. The loose material of the gray slacks and the white shirt he wore did wonders to hide his form, but because of his claws, he couldn't do much to put on the disguise himself. He wished he could, not only because he felt embarrassed about having another person dress him but also because it would have given him something else to focus on besides Adam.

Is it an adaptation technique? Adam continued. I noticed that your human form lacked a pelt. All of your skin was thin and flimsy before I changed it. It may be a wonder that you evolved at all. One would think that your kind would die from something as humiliating as exposure shortly after it decided a pelt was unnecessary for survival. It amuses me that your kind could be so fragile and survive. You would hardly be considered the most intelligent species on this planet alone if you must know, and the more intelligent species are far better equipped to handle this planet's environment.

Just ignore him, Bill chanted in his own mind, but he couldn't help but feel as if something was smiling at him with just a little too much teeth.

Luckily, Ellen, having finished with the belt, looked around her companion and proceeded to give him just the distraction he needed.

"We should do something about your tail," she said.

"Hmm?" Bill looked over his shoulder and lifted his tail. "That shouldn't be too difficult. What if I tried this?"

He wormed his tail under his shirt and, while taking care to not let the tip shred the material over his torso, wound it around his midsection in tight circles. Eventually, the last segment disappeared under cotton.

"How does that look?" he asked.

"Well..." Ellen smoothed the fabric over his torso. "It's a little bulky, but if we let your shirt hang the way it is, I don't think anyone would notice."

Veronica crossed her arms and sighed. "This is not going to work."

Ellen sent a glare towards her partner. "What makes you so sure? He looks all right to me."

"So, you plan to have him just pretend to be human for Jirachi knows how long?" Veronica moved her hands to her hips. "How is he supposed to hide the fact that he's an ixodida when we feed him raw meat? And what about all the fighting? He can't exactly keep pretending to be a human when he's using his hands to slice up another ixodida."

She is right, you know.

Bill recoiled, not so much at Veronica's words but more because of Adam's tone. The parasite was practically purring inside his head.

You see, Bill, Adam said, while you can hide as much of our form as you would like, there are things you cannot conceal. Our instincts, for example.

He felt something tingle in his head. His mouth filled with a coppery taste, and he shivered with a sudden pang of hunger. All around him, the air smelled sweet. He knew it was Chansey's scent, but right then, he felt like he wanted to follow it, rip her throat out, and taste the soft flesh beneath her pink fur. A second later, he realized how easily that thought floated into his mind, and clearing his throat, he tried his best to dispel it.

With a quick sweep of his hands, Bill grabbed a pair of leather boots that sat waiting for him beside the examination table. He jammed his feet into them, piercing the paper stuffed into their toes with his claws. The brown leather would have gone up to mid-calf on his human self; now, it braced his heel.

Above him, he listened to Ellen and Veronica's argument continue.

"It's not going to be forever," Ellen replied. "Once we can convince the Caravan that Bill has a good heart and wouldn't hurt anyone traveling with us, he won't have to hide anymore."

"And what about that girl? The one you said recognized him?"

Bill stopped where he was, his fingers halfway done with tying his boots. Lanette. He couldn't begin to imagine what might have happened to her. In his mind, he could envision the way she was before the quarantine. She wasn't exactly what he would call happy-go-lucky, but it was very rare for him to see her without some kind of expression on her face. A smile. A shadow of nervousness. A glint of determination. Something that made her look human.

The Lanette he met recently was cold. Expressionless. Robotic. He could recognize the face anywhere, but the spark that had been there -- the part of her that he considered his best friend -- was nowhere to be seen. Yet he wanted so much to believe she would help him.

"Well, Nurse Joy?" Veronica asked.

"Okay, I don't know," Ellen replied, "but we'll figure something out. Bill, isn't she a friend of yours?"

Finishing with the boots, Bill kept his eyes on the floor. "Yes."

"Then, what's there to worry about? I'm sure she'll be happy to help us," Ellen told Veronica. "So long as Bill is covered up and isn't causing any trouble, why should any of us worry?"

"Because it's a stupid idea," Veronica snapped. "Look at him! No one's going to believe that!"

Although I would hate to admit to agreeing with a human, she has a point, Adam drawled. Bill, I feel ridiculous wearing human clothing. Take it off.

Doing his best to ignore the parasite, Bill stood. He was just in time for Thom to burst into the room with a bundle in his arms.

"Sorry I'm late!" the boy chirped. "Is he ready yet? Lemme see!"

Veronica rolled her eyes and leaned against the examination table. At the same time, Thom leaned forward and squinted, prompting Bill to reel back slightly.

"Hey!" Thom said. "Not too shabby! This'll work! Here, I've even got a few things to finish it off!"

Before Bill could protest, Thom pulled a puffy, gray hat out of the bundle and jammed it on top of the ixodida's head to cover his horns. The second thing that went on was a red scarf flung around his neck. Finally, Thom shoved a pair of black leather gloves into Bill's hands.

"Here, put these on, and we'll see how it looks!"

Bill blinked in response. Then, carefully, he slipped his hands into the gloves and let his arms fall at his sides. Ellen stepped beside Thom and gazed at the finished outfit as Thom tapped his chin with a finger.

"Y'know, I think everyone out there's a genius. They really outdid themselves this time, didn't they?" Thom said.

Ellen smiled. "It's for a good cause. But they did a great job finding all of this. Bill, you should see yourself before we leave. It's amazing how a few pieces of clothing can make you look so human!"

Bill adjusted his scarf and replied softly, "Do you really think so?"

"Oh yeah. We're not just saying that to be nice. You'll be fine," Thom said. "What d'you think, Officer Jenny?"

For a few moments, she was silent. Then, she huffed and snapped a glare at all three of them.

"And what will the Caravan say when they find out we've been harboring an ixodida?" she snapped.

Right away, Bill felt awkward as Lanette's words echoed through his mind. The ixodida could hunt him down wherever he was. That he understood. What he never thought about was the idea that he would make things even more complicated for the survivors. Would anyone try to help the people of Mauville if anyone found out they were trying to protect him?

"Oh!" Thom suddenly quipped. "That reminds me. The Caravan's already outside."

Veronica turned her full attention to Thom. "What?!"

He pointed a thumb towards the door. "Oh yeah. Arrived here about ten minutes ago. That red-headed girl we told you about said she's looking for the authorities here."

"Why didn't you tell me this first?!"

"I forgot."

"Shit!"

Veronica balled her hands into fists and gritted her teeth. Then, she exhaled and relaxed her shoulders.

"Y'know," Thom said, "you've gotta relax now and then, officer. Too much stress'll cause a heart attack."

"If assault wasn't a crime, I'd punch you in the face right now, Wattson."

Without another word, Veronica stormed out of the room. Thom stammered out the beginning of a question before quickly following her. All that was left was Ellen and Bill. The nurse turned to her charge and rested a hand on his shoulder.

"Don't let her get to you," she said. "Everything will be fine. We'll make sure of it. You saved us, after all. We can't leave you behind."

He looked into her eyes and nodded. "Thank you, Nurse Joy. This means a lot to me."

Her smile returned as she pulled away and started for the door. "Coming?"

"No, not yet. If it's all right, I'd like to make sure I'm ready to go out there."

Looking over her shoulder at him, she replied, "Of course. Take your time, Bill. The Caravan shouldn't be leaving today."

With that, she glided through the doorway, leaving Bill in a completely empty room. As soon as she was gone, Bill raised his hands and stared at the gloves. He flexed the fingers experimentally and listened to the creak of the hide.

Then, he lost feeling in his left hand.

Grabbing his wrist with his free hand, he tried to keep his arm from moving as it strained to rise on its own.

"Adam!" Bill hissed. "What are you doing?"

You were ignoring me, it answered. Therefore, I will take action myself.

The left hand yanked the glove off the right and started tugging on the scarf. Bill gagged and grabbed for the red material around his neck.

"Isn't this a little petty?" he coughed.

In a flash, he felt numb all over as his body acted on its own. It took off the scarf and gradually slipped its hand out of the other glove.

"Not at all," Adam said with his mouth. "Listen, Bill, we need to talk about this Caravan. About that girl, Lanette."

Shuddering, Bill felt his consciousness slip forward, and his body once again started responding to his own will.

"I'd listen to you, even if you didn't take such drastic measures!" Bill objected.

"Somehow, I doubt that. You seem distracted."

Bill shook his head. "Will you stop that?! I thought the whole point of making me the dominant mind was because you didn't want to have control over this body!"

"Oh, Bill, you can be entirely too naÏve sometimes. I am what you would call a parasite. Of course I would want control over your body. The problem is I lack the ability to do so for extended periods of time." Adam paused. "Does this disturb you that much?"

Grimacing, Bill responded, "Of course it does! Why wouldn't I be disturbed by the fact that I don't even have the free will to move on my own all the time?!"

It got your attention, did it not?

Sighing, Bill turned and placed his hands on the examination table. He closed his eyes and bowed his head.

"All right, Adam," he murmured. "I'll listen to you. Just... don't do that anymore, okay?"

Very well.

Bill snatched the gloves and scarf again. He leaned against the examination table and began to slip the gloves on. Suddenly, his tail unwound from his waist and yanked itself from between the rest of his body and the table behind him. Before Bill could correct his balance, he smacked his back against padding and stumbled to the floor. The arrowhead tip flashed beside him, and he glared at it.

"What did I just say?!" he snapped.

I find you amusing. Besides, you should learn to stop thinking of this as your body when it is ours. After all, you did not have a tail. This is completely mine.

Bill growled and looked away. He didn't want to watch something he knew was attached to him act on its own, let alone think about Adam's point with any depth.

"You were saying something about the Caravan and Lanette?" he asked.

Adam hesitated, and the arrowhead tip of the tail tipped downward. Bill, I realize this may be difficult for you, but if we are to succeed in our mission, then we must learn to work together. You must trust my judgment and listen to me when I have something important to say.

"What is this all ab--"

Bill turned his head sharply, only to come face to face with the point of his tail. He stopped short, watching the tip carefully as it came close to his face. There, it hovered, tilting and bobbing with Adam's every word.

I sense that you care deeply about this Lanette, Adam said.

"She... she's my colleague," Bill answered quietly. "That's all."

Is it? Bill... I have studied you closely since I chose to accept you as my host. I have given you incredible power. That combined with your intelligence should make you unstoppable. But do you know what your weakness is? What keeps you from becoming a true warrior? Your emotions. You let your heart judge for you. You hesitate to hurt others because you think too much about the consequences. You avoid trusting those who may be your greatest allies, and you trust those who may be your greatest enemies.

Bill tensed. "What are you saying?"

I am saying that I do not trust Lanette, and neither should you.

At once, Bill scrambled to his feet. His tail lashed upwards, wrapping it around his arms and torso tightly. Trapped, he stared downward at the arrowhead.

"Are you saying I shouldn't trust my closest friend?" he demanded. "She hasn't lied to me before!"

She is not the same as she was before my kind came. Neither are you. You cannot deny that.

Bill squirmed his arms out of Adam's grip and yanked his shirt up and over his tail.

"I appreciate your concern, Adam, but I'll be fine. I can at least tell when I'm being tricked."

He felt his tail tighten around his torso, but as he strode forward, he did his best to ignore it.

As your partner, I cannot force you to change your mind, Adam replied, but I do hope for our sake that you are right about her.

His tail went lax, and for the first time in the past several minutes, Bill could feel it again. Stopping at the door, he adjusted his scarf while he wound his tail around his waist himself. He paused, taking a deep breath to calm himself.

"We'll be fine," he whispered. "There's nothing to worry about."

Then, he stepped out into the hallway and walked down the short corridor to the common area. It struck him as odd that even then, he couldn't hear any voices. Normally, there would be people talking in the pokémon center's common area, and he expected there to be even more activity with the added population of the Caravan. While he heard the muffled sounds of something outside, the common room itself was quiet.

As soon as he arrived, it didn't take him long to discover why. The entire place was empty. No one was at the green videophones lining the wall. All of the tables were bare and the seats unoccupied in the dining area. In the lounge clustered in the opposite corner of the room, the plush couches that normally were crowded with people were almost empty.

Almost.

Veronica leaned against one of the chairs with a glass of amber liquid in her hand. Even from several feet away, Bill caught the bitter scent of alcohol, and this was part of the reason why he instinctively bristled. The other reason was sitting on the couch Veronica leaned against. Lanette took one last sip of her own beverage -- coffee, if Bill's nose was correct for a second time -- before she placed her cup on the table. At first, she didn't say a word, opting instead on fixing her ruby-red eyes on her colleague.

"Lanette," Bill murmured. "I..."

He stopped, remembering the point of his disguise. Pressing his lips together, he pulled down on the hat's brim to hide his eyes. Lanette narrowed hers at him.

"The Caravan reached a decision," she said.

Bill looked up. "What... what did they decide?"

Lanette stood. She brushed past Veronica and started for the door. The officer downed the rest of the contents in her glass before placing it on the table. Immediately afterwards, she fell into step behind the red-head.

"A test," Lanette said. "Follow us, if you please. We don't have much time to administer it."

Bill took a step forward and froze where he was. It wasn't his doing.

I sense something wrong here, Bill. Be on guard.

"I know," Bill whispered harshly.

"What was that?" Veronica asked.

Shaking his head, Bill smiled and walked after them. "Nothing."

Lanette gave the ixodida a strange look before turning back to the door. Inside his head, Bill could hear Adam's growl; once again, he tried to ignore it.

Later on, he would wish he hadn't.

---

Adam was right about one thing: Bill's main weakness was the fact that he was afraid of hurting anyone. But Bill already knew this. He knew before he was a researcher, back when he was still training pokémon. To be specific, he was terrible at battling even then. At first, it was just inexperience, a lack of understanding as to how battles worked combined with a stubborn refusal to trust his pokémon. After awhile, inexperience turned into compassion. As soon as he began seeing his pokémon as friends, he became reluctant to exert real effort into winning a battle. Of course, he knew pokémon were never seriously injured by matches, but every time he walked onto a battlefield and tried to order his pokémon to do something, he would hesitate, thinking about all the things that could go wrong and land a pokémon in Nurse Joy's hands for more than just a band-aid and a potion.

As a result, Bill never earned a single badge. In fact, after he realized what his problem was, he avoided gyms as a general rule. They made him uneasy with their wide, open battlefields that invariably struck him as being suspiciously pristine and well-kept for sites of long, arduous matches. Whenever he looked at one, he didn't see a smooth surface with neatly painted white lines, and he didn't imagine one flashy attack after another in an epic struggle between two equal forces. He saw the craters, trenches, and burn marks with his pokémon in the center of each one, just as they were at the end of the last few gym battles he ever bothered to fight. He saw the thousands of ways a pokémon could be left with broken bones, psychological trauma, and the gods knew what else.

Naturally, Bill was fully aware that it was ironic that he supported trainers, despite what he thought of gyms. It's just that the thought of going back to being a trainer left an unpleasant feeling in his chest.

In short, when Lanette and Veronica led him into Mauville Gym, he was wary, not because of what Adam had told him about Lanette but instead because he just didn't like gyms.

At the edge of the battlefield, Lanette started up a metal ladder leading to a catwalk. Veronica stepped beside it and motioned for Bill to follow the Caravan's leader. He hesitated, waiting for Lanette to reach the top before climbing up himself. Inside, he felt Adam stir, and he sensed that the ixodida was watching every move he was making. When he reached the top, he shut his eyes briefly, as if to drive the parasite away. In the darkness, he heard Lanette's footsteps across the steel walkway. They stopped after a few seconds.

"Come," she said.

Opening his eyes, he turned and followed her in a trot until he stood behind her. Keeping her back towards him, she pulled a poké ball from one of the pouches on her belt and released a pokémon in front of her. The gloom trilled and skirted around his master until he stood, squinted eyes staring up at the other pokémon. Bill shifted uncomfortably on his feet, staring first at it and then at Lanette. Behind him, he could hear Veronica coming up the ladder.

"Er... Lanette?" he asked softly. "What... what kind of test are we performing?"

There was a cold look in her eyes, and finally, Bill realized something was terribly wrong.

"Lanette," he muttered. "You know it's me, right? You know me. I'm not a threat to you. I'm... we're friends, aren't we? We... we designed the system together."

She blinked and shifted her gaze to a point behind him. "The Caravan has reached a decision. Officer. Now."

Veronica grabbed Bill's wrist. He gasped and tried to turn to face her, and in the quick second of distraction, she snapped a set of handcuffs around his arm and part of the rail along the catwalk. Instinctively, Bill grasped his bound wrist and tried to wrench it away from the metal bar, but the handcuffs held fast. Lanette took the time to skirt past him, her gloom trotting behind her. Veronica, her job complete, turned and walked towards the ladder silently.

"Wait!" Bill said. "Wait! What's going on?"

After putting several feet between herself and Bill, Lanette turned and continued, "Ixodida, on behalf of the Caravan, I hereby sentence you to exile for the crimes your species have committed against humanity."

"Exile? Crimes? Lanette, you can't mean that you think I had anything to--"

"The Caravan will be leaving Mauville City this afternoon."

"Lanette, please, just listen to me!"

"You are forbidden to leave this gym until we've departed, and if you attempt to follow us, we will terminate you on sight."

Bill hesitated, his body trembling. Terminated? Exiled? He kept his eyes on his partner, his mouth slightly open. Right then, he began to realize just how different this woman was from the Lanette he knew.

"Lanette," he murmured. "I..." His wrist shook, rattling the handcuffs against the rail. Glancing down at them, he let his next few words tumble from his lips. "I understand. May I at least have the key to set myself free once you're gone?"

She turned away from him. He watched her from the corner of his eye, and in his chest, a stabbing pain hit his heart.

"No," she replied. "Gloom, Sleep Powder."

The weed pokémon tilted his head towards Bill, and from the bulbous flower on his head, a cloud of blue spores burst and swirled towards the ixodida. Bill made no effort to dodge, instead inhaling the powder as it engulfed him. At once, his vision began to get hazy, and his body felt weak. He dropped to one knee with a bang while he turned his head at last to watch Lanette recall her gloom and move towards him again. Surprised by this action, Bill struggled to keep his eyes open as she knelt in front of him and placed a hand on the side of his face. Her skin felt inordinately cold.

"Your face still looks the same as it did the last time we saw each other," she said tonelessly. "I wish I could help you, Bill, but I can't give you a merciful death. Please forgive me."

"Lanette..." Bill whispered. His voice was getting fainter and fainter as his head began to drop. "Aren't we friends?"

The expression on her face darkened, and she let him go. "All ixodida are monsters. If you aren't one now, you will be one soon. I can only hope that parasite has enough sense to die with you."

Bill tried to shake his head, but by then, his body could only manage slight motions. "No. Don't be... don't be confused. Cover... book... not the same... I..."

The last thing he saw was Lanette standing and the blurry, brown blobs that were her boots moving away from him. After that, Bill crumpled to the floor of the catwalk, his eyes shutting at last.

In the darkness of his mind, he heard Adam's voice.

What did I tell you, Bill?

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