Anima Ex Machina: Twenty-Three
Some days, you just don't want to wake up.

Morning crept into the trainers' dormitories of the Mauville City Pokémon Center with a cold grayness. At first, Bill, wrapped in a cocoon of thin blood-stained sheets, failed to notice or stir as the door to his room opened with a slow creak. He didn't hear the quiet breathing of the newcomer or the sound of shoes padding softly across the linoleum floor. The mumbling flowing out of a barely open mouth didn't even reach his ears, nor did he hear the sound of one of the zigzagoon's bones sliding out of the dried pile of remnants.

What woke him up at long last was the presence he felt. He felt the warmth of someone lean close, and his nose picked up an unfamiliar scent. His eyes opened at once before focusing on the tip of a zigzagoon femur. Startled, he twisted to look behind him to see who was standing right beside his bed.

And there, she stood. Her gaze was fixed on him, but her face was otherwise expressionless, with a mouth in a straight line and not a glint of emotion in her wide eyes. He sat up with a jolt, causing the girl to drop the bone and back away slowly.

"Hope," he whispered. "What are you..."

By then, she stood in the middle of the room. Her hand fell to her side, and she simply stared at the ixodida in the bed. Motionlessly. Quietly. Bill pulled the sheets off his torso as he watched his sister for a while.

"Wait. You don't recognize me, do you?" he said softly.

Her body cringed, but her face remained unchanged, almost as if she was wearing a mask. Bill felt something inside him twist, but he knew it wasn't Adam's doing. Something was terribly wrong here. He knew it. Because he was conscious of that, he slowly held out a hand to her, palm out, fingers unfolding gently as he smiled as sweetly as he could at her. Her eyes flicked to his hand and then back at his face, but otherwise, she didn't move.

"It's all right. I'm not going to hurt you. It's me."

Her eyes flitted once again to his hand and back to his face. He slid closer to the edge of the bed, still holding his hand out to her. Still, she looked at it, her feet sliding backwards with every inch he leaned towards her, and he knew from this that winning her over wasn't going to be easy, not that he was expecting it to be in the first place. He knew what he looked like, what his hand looked like, and for that, he couldn't honestly blame her for being alarmed.

Nonetheless, he still had one more trick to use. The old language. Japanese, the archaic language of their country, the language his mother taught him and he and his sisters used when they wanted to relay messages only meant for each other. Few people actually spoke it anymore thanks to the lack of language barriers granted by Common, the international tongue that had been in place for as long as anyone Bill knew could remember, and for this, he felt it was something special, something that tied him to his family and his heritage, even when he was never quick to admit he had a soft spot for either.

But most importantly, it was, in his mind, one of the few things he and his sisters shared. The one thing that would make them feel comfortable and coax them into seeing him for who he was.

"Nii-chan desu," he said. "Boku wa Nii-chan desu."

For a third time, her eyes flitted between his hand and his face. He couldn't tell if what he said to her was registering at all; all he could get from her was the same blank expression. Then, abruptly, she turned and darted for the door.

"Hey! Hope! Wait!"

He scrambled to pull himself out of bed, but in doing so, his legs tangled in the bed sheets. As his claws and joints ripped the cloth to shreds, he crashed onto the floor, scattering the last pieces of zigzagoon everywhere. He placed his palms on the linoleum and pushed himself up just in time to see the girl disappear through the doorway.

"Hope! Matte! Matte!"

In the next few seconds, he struggled to break free from the tangle of the shredded sheets, and consequently, he tore them into rags before scrambling away from the mess on his hands and knees. Partway through the room, he launched himself to his feet and scrambled for the door. By then, as he peeked out into the hallway, he knew Hope had plenty of time to escape him.

And indeed she did, as the hallway held no sign of her in the direction that she ran. Inhaling, Bill picked up on her scent (sweet, almost floral) and knew he could track her if he wanted to. However, when he emerged from his dormitory, he simply placed a hand on the wall of the corridor and breathed in the smell of hospital cleaners and layers of different people and pokémon until his heart calmed.

Rather early to be this excited, is it not?

"Rather early to be giving me trouble, isn't it, Adam?" he quipped.

Forgive me for taking a remote interest in you and the things you do with our body.

"Not a morning person, are you?"

It would be rather irrelevant to apply biological concepts to me in this state, Bill. The question is, are you a morning person?

"What? That doesn't even--" He held his head and groaned. "I don't have the patience for this right now."

Ah, so the answer is no, then.

"I said, I don't have the pa--"

"Who are you talking to?"

He stopped at the sound of Lanette's voice. Whirling around, he came face-to-face with his partner as she stood with a brown paper package tucked tightly under one arm and her red eyes staring holes into him.

"How long have you been there?" he asked.

"Right about the time you insisted that you didn't have the patience for... whatever it is. Should I even ask what you were talking about?"

"Nothing," Bill replied quickly. "I was talking about nothing."

"Nothing." She gave him an incredulous expression. "And you were talking about nothing with...?"

"No one. Just... never mind."

She raised an eyebrow. "And you insist that we shouldn't worry about you. What are you doing out here anyway? Or is that also nothing?"

For a long time, he had absolutely nothing to say. All he did was turn to face the direction down which his sister had run, and his only movement after that was the rhythmic swish of his tail back and forth behind him. When nearly a minute passed, Lanette stepped away from him, heading in the opposite direction down the hall.

"Fine. Be like that," she snapped.

His fingers ground into the wall, punching small holes into the plaster.

"Lanette. I need to know something."

She stopped. After a brief pause, she looked over her shoulder.

"Then ask."

He turned around to look her in the eye before he spoke, as if that would ensure that every word hit her hard.

"Why is Hope here?"

She hesitated for a brief moment, lifting her chin slightly as her lips pressed together. Then, she looked away.

"Lanette," Bill said sternly. "Tell me. She's my sister. I need to know."

Before she made any effort to answer, she tossed the package at him. Awkwardly, he fumbled to catch it.

"If you're demanding that I respond to a question that would require a long answer, the least you can do is multitask. Put this on."

He blinked as he stared at it.

"What does this have to--"

"It's trainer-grade clothing. I can't imagine who thought it would be a brilliant idea to give you anything less and expect it to last," Lanette interrupted. "And no, it doesn't have anything to do with the answer to your question. I just find it difficult to take you seriously while you're naked."

He shot her a glare but didn't argue. Instead, he tore open the package to find a full outfit: white shirt, gray slacks, suspenders, gloves, hat, scarf, all made with notably heavier material. The only thing that was missing was anything to cover his feet, but he honestly didn't care at that point. He dropped all of the garments to the ground except the shirt, which he worked to put on as Lanette spoke.

"Our scouts found her outside Rustboro City on our first circuit around that part of the region. All we know is she was on the Hoenn contest circuit, probably headed towards Verdanturf Town. She had two ribbons on her, and the coordinators we had helped us figure out that she probably was headed for the next contest there after trying the one held in Rustboro months ago. We have no idea what happened to her between the quarantine and when we picked her up. It's rare that she speaks to any of us, and when she does, we can't understand the things she says. Or, rather, that's what I've heard. I've never heard her speak with my own ears. She only spoke to one person in the Caravan, and that person couldn't decipher what she was talking about."

Suddenly, Bill's throat felt dry, and he stopped, his fingers frozen in the middle of buttoning his shirt. He swallowed painfully as he tried to force his tongue and mouth to operate. The rest of him felt cold and clammy, as if it already knew the answers to all of the questions rushing through his mind.

"Why not?" he finally asked.

Lanette shrugged. "Part of it is because she babbles. Sometimes speaks in riddles. Sometimes speaks in one-word sentences or non-sequiturs. And when she's not doing either, she's speaking gibberish in the old language."

His tail snaked under cloth and wound tightly around his waist as he stooped to reach for his pants. This revelation, that his sister was corrupting it, speaking nonsense with it, left an unsettling feeling in his heart. Although Hope was never an outgoing person, she wasn't necessarily shy, either. In friendly company, she would chatter away about the things that interested her. Accessories, cute pokémon, cartoons, it didn't matter.

So to hear that she had stopped speaking, stopped wanting to communicate with people, and to remember that look on her face -- the wide-eyed, empty look that she gave him -- chilled him to the core. Something was horribly, horribly wrong.

"Tell me more," he demanded after a long pause. His hand snatched the garment from the floor at the same time; he didn't want Lanette to see how much this news disturbed him.

"What would you like to know?" Lanette's tone was neutral and calm, as if she was expecting his response but wanted him to say it out loud.

"What happened when you found her? What state was she in? Did she say anything? I don't know; tell me as much as you can."

Lanette studied him for a while, but he refused to make eye contact. Instead, he kept his head down as he slipped his legs into his pants, and he kept his movements calm, refusing to betray any kind of hint that he was feeling anything else but professional detachment.

"Fair enough," she said. "I wasn't there when the scouts found her, but from what I've been told through their reports, they found her wandering around the outskirts of Rustboro City in a delirium with several lacerations to her arms and legs. It took us a week to get her to say a word, and when she did, she would only talk to our child caretaker Julie. In turn, Julie could only coax her into talking about contests, and when Julie asked her what she was doing out there and what happened to her, Hope would only respond with one-word answers. She won't tell anyone what happened to her -- or can't, anyway."

Bill listened carefully to what Lanette had to say as he finished putting each garment on. Shirt tucked into pants, suspenders clipped to waistband, gloves pulled on, scarf wound around neck, hat shoved onto head. When she finished speaking, he stared at her and fiddled with the edges of his gloves, as if expecting her to say something else.

She, luckily, got the hint. "We know one thing, though."

"What?" he asked.

"By the time we got to Rustboro, it was reduced to rubble, and there were dead bodies all over the field where the scouts picked up Hope," Lanette told him. "She was attacked by ixodida."

Bill's hands fell to his sides, and the expression on his face faltered. He wasn't sure how to respond. Lanette watched him with interest, waiting for him to say a word. When the silence lingered for nearly a minute, she placed a hand on her hip.

"Then why did you say I'm the only one who can protect her?" he asked quietly before she could interrupt. "If the ixodida attacked her..." He shook his head, remembering the look on her face -- not just that morning but also when he first saw her the day before then. "I don't understand. The ixodida attacked her, but she went looking for me! Why?"

"Who knows? Who knows what's going through her head right now? All I know is you're the one who can stand up to the ixodida, and if an ounce of you is still the Bill I remember, then she should be safe with you. The Caravan is risking quite a lot by accepting you among us. Don't prove us wrong."

"Lanette," Bill responded harshly, "if there's anything you can trust me to do, it's protect Hope. I know you think many ixodida are violent monsters, but not all of us are. I will never hurt you or anyone else on the Caravan."

Once again, he found her staring at him as if she was memorizing every inch of him at once. Although he wanted to cringe at the expression she gave him -- her cold eyes, her steady stare -- he tried his best to stand his ground and refuse to show her any sign of weakness.

"It's been months," she growled. "It's been months, and you have no idea. You weren't here, Bill. You don't know what Hoenn is like. All of the towns and cities in this region are ghost towns. It's impossible to stop entire swarms of the parasites, and whatever isn't devoured by them is either infected or insanely lucky. Whatever is infected gathers in groups and destroys everything they can find. Every last inch of this island has been leveled except for Littleroot Town and Lilycove City, and that's only because the National Defense Forces have strongholds in both places. I have seen things you can't even begin to fathom. Have you seen entire streets filled with bodies? Did you ever see children ripped apart? Were you ever forced to stand by as someone you know tried to fight off the infection? Did you ever watch someone you trust kill or maim everything it could get its hands on? I have. The parasite changes people. I don't know why yours hasn't, but I'm not going to trust it. And you can't be surprised that I won't because of all the things I have seen ixodida do -- every single ixodida I've met until you."

She paused for a moment to watch her partner's expression. At the same time, Bill remained quiet. He had plenty to say, but for the moment, he held himself back. In his heart, he knew she wasn't ready to listen to any of it -- any of the things he wanted to tell her to insist that he wasn't like that, that not all ixodida were like that, that he could figure out why this was all happening if given the time and the chance. She wasn't ready. Lanette didn't want peace and didn't want anything remotely like peace. It didn't take any special ability to tell that much.

After a few seconds, she noticed the silence and exhaled a short breath.

"So what does your parasite have to say about that?" she snarled.

"Nothing," Bill answered. "He has absolutely nothing to say."

Speaking for me, Bill? How impudent of you. I have plenty to say on the subject, actually. I find it fascinating, as an off-handed example, that you find it so shocking that my kind are murderers and torturers. Are you certain that you understand me well?

"Shut up," he whispered harshly.

Lanette narrowed her eyes. "What did you say?"

"No, nothing," he replied. "Not... nothing."

What is it, Bill? Why are you hesitating? Go on. Tell her. Tell her about me. Our last conversation was far too short to be satisfying.

He turned away from her to hide his expression. As soon as he moved away from her, he felt a hand grab his wrist. Lanette yanked his arm almost painfully as she tried to force him to turn around and face her.

"Don't you dare, you coward!" she yelled. "Say that to my face!"

She swung her hand up, intending on reaching around him to grab his shoulder and twist his body to face her, but before she could touch him, his other hand snatched her wrist. Her feet left the floor, and the two of them whirled until her back crashed into the wall. She yelped as he pinned her wrists to the plaster and leaned against her. Slowly, she forced her eyes to open, and at once, looking at the her partner's expressionless face, she knew she wasn't addressing Bill anymore.

"You are very astute to assume you cannot trust my kind," Adam told her. "I have high hopes for your kind if you are an example of its warriors."

Her lips pulled back to reveal her teeth in a sneer. "You--!"

"Ah. I have not formally introduced myself, have I? I suppose I should, considering my host has deemed it unnecessary to do so. Horribly impolite, is it not? Lanette." The parasite's voice lingered on her name, drawing out each syllable with a tone that reminded her of oil -- slick and poisonous. "You may call me Adam."

"I don't care. Let me speak with Bill again."

She tried to pull her hands off the wall, but Adam tightened its grip around her wrists. Her arms were bashed back into the wall, sending waves of throbbing pain from her wrists to her elbows.

"You will get your chance," it reassured her. "First, I wish to establish our relationship. After all, even if I plan on allowing Bill to do what he wishes with our body, I will always be present in his mind. I am, after all, just as much a part of this creature as he is."

"Let go of me!" she screamed.

"But if I let go, then my point will not be made. Do you realize that I have overpowered you so quickly and easily? I could do that at any time, but I will not because you and my host's opinion of you entertain me. You are very right to assume that you should not trust me, but this is true for everyone you meet from now onwards. Truth is so subjective, child. There are humans in your party that you should trust far less than me. At least with me, you have the guarantee that I will not kill you -- not until I am no longer amused by you or Bill, and I do not foresee that occurring until far into the future."

Adam paused. Its eyes moved away from Lanette and to a point on the wall beside her head. She kneed it as hard as she could between the legs, her thigh slamming against what she found to be only metal plating. Either because of that or because of Adam's distraction, the creature refused to react, opting instead on staring at a point on the wall.

"Bill, do you feel that?" it asked. "There is another ixodida nearby."

Swiftly, Adam dropped to all fours and ran down the hallway. Lanette pulled herself away from the wall and rubbed her wrists gingerly as she watched her partner -- or his body, anyway -- dash away from her on its hands and feet. Finally, it registered in her mind what was about to happen, and with that, her feet shoved off the ground while her body launched forward in a dash.

"Hey!" she yelled. "Stop!"

The creature ignored her, opting to dash headlong to the end of the hall, straight through the common area, and out the open door. By then, the morning sun shone brightly over the pokémon center, forcing Lanette to hesitate slightly as she approached the door, if only to wince and force her eyes to adjust. As a result, she slowed as she crossed the empty common area until she stopped completely in the doorway. She shielded her eyes with a hand and squinted into the outside world just enough to see the ixodida standing on its feet.

Lanette knew what Mauville looked like, but neither Bill nor the parasite inside him did. They only saw the outside world in darkness, and even then, their only glimpse of the city was the courtyard, a tiny oasis of peace and order.

What most of Mauville looked like was in the front of the center. All around them, charred shells of buildings stood, skeletons of what the city used to be. Lamp posts and cars were reduced to twisted, metal lumps. Blackened rubble lay strewn in the street, and melted glass glittered like patches of ice across bare patches of cracked sidewalk. Just about the only things that were left untouched were a truck and a van that Vito and Thom were loading with boxes of supplies. They looked up as soon as the creature came outside. Thom stepped forward, his mouth open in preparation for a greeting before Vito reached out to grab him by the shoulder. At that, he looked up into his companion's stern gaze, just in time to see Vito shake his head at him and then nod towards Lanette. Thom fell silent as he glanced at the quiet of the scene, watching and waiting for something to happen.

At the same time, in one of the gutted buildings, the creature could see a towering, black pile. Slowly, it walked across the street to approach its broken windows and peer inside. Only then did it realize that the pile was one of corpses, charred black with nearly all the flesh burnt off of each body until many of them weren't much more than black skeletons with scraps of muscle just barely hanging on to their bones. Every single head was covered in a melted face. Mouths hung open, eyes were melted out of sockets, noses were amorphous lumps jutting out of each skull.

The only thing worse than the sight of those faces themselves was the fact that every skeleton was a different size, and quite a number of them were too small to be adults.

Adam released its hold, and the first thing Bill did was choke on the bile filling the back of his mouth. Gagging, he doubled over and coughed it up, letting it splash onto the sidewalk. He covered his mouth with a hand as he staggered away. The smell of it all -- the burnt flesh, the blood, the melted organs, the bitterness of his own vomit -- overwhelmed him.

Breathing in deep, steady gasps, he made his way to the middle of the street, where he stood shaking. Lanette watched him from the doorway, knowing from these reactions that it had to be her partner, the man she knew nearly all her life. Her hand balled into a fist as she thought about what the parasite did just a few minutes ago, about how Bill sounded when he demanded information about Hope, about those two contradictions and all the possible ways she could reconcile them in her mind. She didn't want to believe that this was Bill, that this creature was the same one who once worked side by side with her what felt like a long time ago. She didn't want to remember the way his hands looked when he worked, how his words sounded when he was encouraging her, how he treated every test subject they had as if it was a person. Yet, when she watched him throw up and realized right then just how out-of-place he was, she remembered that part of her: the one that, a long time ago, would sigh and help him unwrap himself from a caterpie's String Shot or administer a paralyz heal after he managed to expose himself to a shroomish's Stun Spore. It was strange, how she wanted right then to swoop in and help him like some kind of mother caring for a child with a band-aid and a lecture.

After all, every interaction with him was a risk. She risked encouraging him to rely on her, to continue to be weak, to tempt death. Even more than that, she had no idea which one she was speaking to whenever she approached him. She could find herself face-to-face with the parasite, and there was a list of reasons why she couldn't trust Adam, the least of which being how easily it could overpower her and how frequently it made it clear that it could kill her on a whim if it chose. Not only that, but she also couldn't tell what the parasite did to the Bill part of him. Was this weak monster really still the Bill she knew, or is he hiding the manipulative sociopathy she knew the ixodida to have? Narrowing her eyes, she watched the creature's shoulders heave as she lingered on that last question.

Bill was vaguely aware that Lanette was staring at him, but he was too busy being preoccupied with forcing his mind to settle down to respond. He lifted his eyes, fixing them on her as he struggled to slow his breathing to a normal rate. With each quick gasp, he straightened his back and slipped his arm from where it was clamping his torso to a more relaxed hang with his hand still on his stomach. His shoulders ached, but he ignored the pain.

"Dead," he whispered. "They're all... the Caravan... Lanette, I..."

In the quiet of the street, Lanette could hear his words, and at his murmurs, she snapped out of her attempts to analyze him. The truth was the night she and the others dragged him back to Mauville, she was just as shocked as he was, but shock, for Lanette, came and went easily. People died. She knew that, and she knew that sometimes, there was nothing she could do about it. When she got right down to it, she refused to think of herself as a failure, refused to think that she had failed the Caravan by not being there to protect them. By then, she had thought that all she had felt towards the massive losses was a numbness -- an eagerness to pay respects to the dead and move on as quickly as possible. After all, mourning was weakness, a nod to human fragility. She had to be strong. The living counted on her.

And she had been certain of all of that up until the point Bill opened his mouth and let it shape the words that he wanted to say ever since he saw her current self.

"I'm so sorry."

Lanette couldn't explain it, but somehow, those three words hit her hard. The last thing she wanted was sympathy from the species that decimated the Caravan. Clenching her fists, she steadied her gaze on the monster and tried once again to reconcile her thoughts. This was not her friend. It was the enemy she happened to capture and tame. It was a tool. Not Bill. Not a person. Not something with a soul.

Her mind repeated these things over and over again. The Bill she knew, the one with the encouraging voice and the careful hands, would never pin her to a wall. He wouldn't threaten her. He wouldn't urge her to negotiate with murderers. She understood that this creature called himself Bill and tried to convince her that he was still the same inside, and on a level, she accepted that. But somewhere inside him too was the same breed of monster that burned a bus full of innocent children, and as she stood with her glare fixed on him, she decided that she wasn't about to accept his apology.

How dare he apologize for this? He had no right to make any member of his species seem remotely human. It was an insult to her kind to think that this being could apologize -- could feel remorse -- for the deaths of over twenty children. It was an insult to her that he took away the only thing she could blame for the decimation. He had no idea how she felt the night she saw them all lying in the streets. He had no idea how much she struggled to push past those emotions, to maintain her composure because the survivors needed her now more than ever.

He had no right to apologize.

And the more she realized that, the angrier she got.

She didn't get a chance to tell him any of this. Instead, a blast of water ripped him off his feet and sent him slamming into the ground. At once, Thom leapt off the back of the truck and sprinted forward, heading towards a charred pile of rubble. With some effort, Bill looked up, watching his friend stop and glare at two figures standing atop it: a man in green and a milotic beside him.

"Hey! What's the big idea?!" Thom shouted.

"Forgive me," the man responded. "Normally, I don't like surprise attacks on my own allies, but this is a special case." He raised his voice and glanced over Thom's head. "Tell me, are you Bill, or are you Adam?"

Bill shakily stood, wet and flustered. "How did you...?"

"Don't you ignore me!" Thom snapped. "I don't care if you are our allies, no one's allowed to attack Bill except Officer Jenny and me! Okay, and Lanette too! And maybe Nurse Joy's chansey, but that's only if Bill asks her to!"

Lanette rubbed the bridge of her nose at that comment but made no effort to counter it. At the same time, Wallace settled his green eyes back on the blond.

"This doesn't concern you," he replied calmly.

"Like hell it doesn't!" Thom yanked one of his poké balls out of one of his pants pockets and tossed it in the air. "Manectric! Thunder!"

The ball split open in mid-air, and from its core, white light spilled onto the ground. Manectric leapt from the flash, his body already sparking with electricity. As soon as he planted all four paws onto pavement, he roared, and all of the static arcing off his skin flared forward in a blast of yellow lightning and deafening sound. Just before it struck Wallace's milotic, golden, translucent walls appeared around him. The bolt struck it with a bang, and the walls around the milotic exploded with brilliant gold light. Thom shielded his eyes with an arm for a few seconds before, slowly, glancing over his wrist at his opponent. Wallace remained standing exactly where he was, as if nothing happened. Beside him, his pokémon righted itself and shook its head, apparently barely fazed by the attack.

"Hey! How is that fair, throwing up Light Screen before I can get in an attack like that?!" Thom snapped.

To the side, Lanette crossed her arms. "Easily fair. A well-trained milotic can execute commands in seconds, and an experienced trainer would have had it set up as soon as they took the field. Step down. You're outclassed, and this doesn't concern you."

Bill glanced at her from the corner of his eye, but he didn't say a word. He knew that, from the perspective of a researcher, she was right. Yet he had a feeling, a twinge in his mind that he best described as a feeling of dread, that there was something else at work here.

"Just whose side are you on anyway?!" Thom shouted at her.

She eyed him briefly before turning towards the interior of the pokémon center.

"Wallace. Do what you want with him if you think it will make your point clear. He's of no concern for me."

"Very well." Wallace swept a hand towards his pokémon. "Milotic, Dragon Pulse, please."

The serpent arched its head back, its body pulsing with green energy. Its mouth opened wide to make room for a jade-colored ball formed from wisps of its aura swirling between its jaws. One of Thom's feet slid back as he stood transfixed by the green light, and in front of him, his manectric bowed his head and growled.

Milotic's head snapped forward, and all of the green energy around it pooled into the ball as it left its mouth. Thom could only stand still, his mind frozen on possible commands, possible counters. At the last second, he flinched, twisting his head and torso away from the attack in preparation of the blast.

There was a bang and the wind of an aftershock, but there was no pain, no force driving him backwards. Gradually, he opened his eyes and turned back towards Milotic, only to find someone standing between Manectric and the serpent. For a few seconds, Bill stood there, arms crossed in front of his face, feet firmly planted in the cement road. Then, one of his legs bent, and his arms swung to his sides in an attempt to keep his balance.

Thom reached out for him. "Bill, are you--"

"I'm fine," he replied, grinning over his shoulder. "One of the advantages of being a steel-type. Dragon-type moves don't affect me that much. But it would be a good idea to get back, Thom. He's only here for me, but I thank you for defending me."

"You sure, buddy?"

After a second, Bill nodded. With that bit of reassurance, Thom relaxed and walked backwards, putting several feet between himself and his companion. Manectric padded at his master's toes with his mouth open in short pants. Once the two of them were far enough away, Bill glanced back at Wallace.

With a determined expression, Bill cleared his throat, and in as firm a voice as he could muster, he said, "Well? How did I do?"

Wallace immediately bowed his head in a short nod. "Your speed and defenses are better than I thought they were, but we'll need to work on your awareness. You allowed yourself to be caught off-guard."

His hand rose, holding a poké ball to his partner. The serpent twisted its head, nudging at Wallace's fingers until the ball opened and drew Milotic inside.

"Nonetheless, you finished lesson one admirably. You didn't hesitate to defend your friend, and you did so without backing down. I'd say you passed. We'll begin lesson two after we move out."

He began climbing down the pile of rubble casually, as if it was a set of stairs. Bill watched for a few seconds before narrowing his eyes.

"Wallace," he called, "there's something else I need to ask."

The champion stopped, lifting his sea-green eyes towards his student.

Bill didn't flinch from the man's expression. Instead, it made him resolve himself, stand a little straighter, tighten his hands into fists. So when the next words came out of his mouth, they weren't as loud as the ones he had been using to his teacher, but they came with a firmer, more deliberate tone.

"There's another ixodida here, isn't there?"

Wallace stood, his eyes gazing hard at the ixodida. Then, he flashed a smile at him and continued down the side of the pile without a word.


Later that night, in the heart of Hoenn, the fire-type landed. His feet scorched the grass around him as he walked towards the edge of a lake. Approaching its shore, he stood, gazing deep into its depths and the quivering reflection of the moon on its surface.

After a few moments, the air grew chill, and the water froze into a thick layer of ice. Yet the fire-type refused to move, not even to prepare to battle. Instead, he lifted his eyes to the side, just enough to watch a woman stride across the surface, her crystal-studded tail skimming the ice behind her.

"If I remember correctly," he announced, "they call you Pandora, Lady of Frost."

"And they call you Prometheus, Lord of Flames," she responded curtly.

He held his hands out to her. "Ah, why the attitude, my lady? This is the first time we have come to meet on this dismal planet."

Stopping in the middle of the lake, she looked at him up and down. "You know very well why. I come bearing a message on behalf of Her Majesty."

"Oh? And what might that be?"

Flicking a hand out to her side, Pandora churned the frigid winds into blowing across the surface of the lake. Waves rose, and water shot into the air, twisting into a spire of ice. Spikes burst from the tower's surface, glittering in the moonlight.

"She wishes to know why you have attempted to defy her," Pandora continued.

Prometheus squinted at the structure as fire circled his wrists. "Defy her? I would do no such thing."

"The rogue," she spat. "The one that the Lord of the Skies was sent to retrieve. Why have you attempted to eliminate it?"

"Temper, temper. I was following orders. Our orders are to eliminate every rogue we find within our territory, regardless of clan status. He is a rogue, and he was in my territory. Therefore--"

"You were told to eliminate rogues of any breed except the Iron Clan."

Prometheus hesitated briefly and then allowed himself to exhale a short burst of flame. "Is she worried about whether or not he fell to this planet? Surely, she should realize that--"

"It is not the general that concerns her," Pandora interrupted. "It is Ereshkigal."

"Is that so?" he replied, his voice suddenly quiet. "The likelihood of Ereshkigal landing here--"

"--Is higher than you think, considering the empress's proximity to that abomination on our home planet the moment of the Destruction. Considering Her Majesty landed here, we have reason to believe Ereshkigal is here too."

Prometheus balled his hands into fists. "If that is the case, then why does Her Majesty want every rogue alive?! We should be massacring all of them!"

"My lord, are you displaying anger?"

He had nothing to say to Pandora's words. Instead, he stood, waiting for her to respond. The flames that danced across his body died down until his red skin smoldered in the cold air.

"This rogue could be the general, Ereshkigal, or no one at all," Pandora continued, as if Prometheus had only been calm those past few minutes. "We have no way of telling until he is brought before Her Majesty. Do not question the empress's wishes. If it is indeed Ereshkigal, you have even less of a chance of surviving the confrontation than you would if it was simply the monster's general. So long as it remains a rogue, its host can be overpowered. Because you attempted to eliminate him, Her Majesty has decided that you will take on the mission originally given to the Lord of the Skies. Capture this rogue and bring him to the empress alive. She and she alone will decide what his fate will be."

"And risk the life of our empress?!"

"I said do not question Her Majesty's wishes!"

Pandora swung one of her hands towards the sky. With a loud crack, the ice tower next to her snapped off the surface of the lake and flew through the air, point first, until it drove itself into the ground next to Prometheus. As soon as it struck, it exploded, raining clods of dirt and sharp icicles down on the fire-type, whose only defense was to engulf himself in flames. The ice melted and the earth burned into dust around his head and shoulders until, at last, it stopped. Cautiously, Prometheus looked towards Pandora, who suspended herself above the lake with snow-white butterfly wings.

"You have made your point," he told her. "Consider the task accepted."

"Very good. Keep in mind that we will be watching you, Prometheus. May you be blessed."

She left him there, gliding away from him on the cold winds she drove. Prometheus watched her until he could no longer see her. Once she was out of sight, he raised a fist, allowing it to burst into a flame the size of his own head. Opening his hand, he pulled the fire into a ball of light before pitching it into the icy lake. It crashed, sending shards of ice flying into the air as he turned and walked back into the forest.

And with every step he made, the grass he touched caught ablaze.

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