A/N: I'm gonna start adding single quotation marks ('these things') to distinguish telepathic messages exchanged between Sage and Espurr. That way they don't get confused with Sage's personal thought bubbles.

There's a bigger author's note at the end of the chapter where I go over a couple things. But for now, enjoy!


Chapter 37 - The Vice Closes

We couldn't possibly grab everything. Nevermind that there were only four of us—we simply didn't have the time.

Instead, I took the gadget and photographed every angle of the room I could. Zooming in extra close on the map, I took a few more decisive snaps.

Okay. Okay… We've got what we need.

I scanned the room one more time. Yes, we had what we needed, and yet there was so much more to look at. Stacks of paper—documents, articles, and so on—littered the room. Piled in the corner were tiny gray rocks that looked like they'd been chipped off of something bigger. And these were just things visible to the naked eye; we'd have to tear the room apart to truly be thorough.

Before we could dive into any more of it, Espurr spoke up. "—We need to leave. In approximately ten seconds, someone will turn the corner and notice the busted lock."

Krokorok, who had been standing still with his jaw down the whole time, came to life again by clutching his head with his claws. "Wha—no, no, that's not enough time!"

"Let's go then!" Leah said, grabbing a few of the chipped rocks in her haste. She shouldered her bag of evidence and bounded for the door, but Espurr stopped her before she could get there.

"Wait, wait—" Espurr closed her eyes and concentrated. "He's alone. We can ambush once he's right outside."

Conflicted by the mountain of evidence behind me, I was forced to compromise by randomly grabbing a handful of papers and stuffing it into my bag. Then I made my way over to the door where the others, including a pale-faced Krokorok, were getting into position.

Espurr stood before the door, looked back at me, and whispered. "I'll blow open the door, then you strike high. He's a levitating Pokemon." Turning back to the door, she raised her paws out in front of her and steadied her legs. "Three seconds."

Two.

One.

The door blew open with the force of a hurricane, and I wasn't far behind it. A blurry figure slid back to avoid the swinging door, leaving them backpedaling and vulnerable. I slashed across their body with both vines.

The Pokemon and I locked eyes, and a warm smile crossed his central head.

"Hello Sage!" Hydreigon said. The direct hit he'd taken had bounced off of him harmlessly, without even a flinch to show for it. The grins stretching across his three heads loomed over us, making me feel relieved and intimidated at the same time. "How've you been, old friend?"

"I've been, uh…" I responded on impulse alone, vines still extended halfway. "…fine?"

"As have I!"

After several seconds passed, Espurr was the first to speak. A dazzling gleam was sparkling in her paws, ready to be launched. "Who… are you?"

"He's one of them!" Leah answered for him before giving me a quizzical look. "Um, right?"

Krokorok shrugged. "I sure ain't seen him before. If you're here for the poker game, buddy, then I dunno how you wandered all the way back here."

Hydreigon stared at Krokorok, then nodded at nothing in particular. "Ah. So that's what those folks were playing back there. I didn't disturb them, and I don't think any of them saw me, but I must admit I was rather curious."

"Right, uh…" I nodded hesitantly. No matter how weird this was, we had a new goal to remain focused on: escape, fast. Even if Hydreigon wasn't here to stop us, this conversation certainly wasn't helping.

His smile evaporated before anyone could speak up. "You all look like you need to pee," he said. "It's because you're in a hurry to leave, right?"

"Yes!" I said. "Er, it's nice seeing you, but we really—"

"Perfect!" Hydreigon's triage of smiles reappeared. "I'd be happy to help in whatever way possible!"

So many questions popped into my head, and honestly, none of them would help me right now. This guy knew something—probably something about me, and there was no way in hell I would let that slip through my grasp. But…

Nope, nope. Fuck it. A floating dragon was offering escape from a dangerous situation. A floating dragon that I'd apparently had friendly encounters with in the past, no less. I could worry about the why later. We were in hostile territory and time was ticking.

"Yep. Sounds good to me," I said, tracing the ceiling with a wary gaze. There was an air vent on the ceiling a few meters away that I locked onto. We could go back the route we came with Hydreigon's help boosting us up so we could crawl inside. Alternatively, we could go on foot and probably have to fight our way out. Hydreigon could help out with the latter, but we'd have to contend with vastly greater numbers and the heavy bags on our backs now. That wasn't an option.

"Ah, the air vent?" He, too, had traced his eyes over to it. "Clever! I can give you all a boost up. That can be my way of helping."

"So… we'd just be leaving you behind?" Leah interrupted.

His main and right heads managed to stifle their laughter. His left head failed to do the same, letting out a deep-pitched giggle and earning it a disciplinary slap from one of his wings.

"Leave me behind?" he chortled. "No, no, my friends. You mustn't worry about me. It's been quite easy to get around this place, let me tell you!"

I stepped forward. "But—"

"And," Hydreigon continued. "We will meet again soon. Perhaps sooner than you realize. I can promise you that."

Everything about this was so off. The timing of his arrival couldn't have been better, nor could it have been worse. It certainly couldn't have been weirder. And now we were separating again?

No. Now wasn't the time to be selfish. We needed to leave now, which meant I needed to trust this guy.

"…If you're sure," I said.

First he lifted up Leah on his back, who got to work unhinging the vent and crawling inside. Espurr was second. I was third, though it mattered little to me; I was just relieved not to be using my vines as ropes again. Finally, Krokorok took up the rear, latching the vent in place once he'd been lifted above.

Hydreigon and I exchanged a parting glance. "I don't know who you are or why you're helping us," I said, "but thank you."

"You're quite welcome!" he beamed from below. "Be safe. I shall as well."

With that, he disappeared from view.

Leah was in front this time around, and she wasted no time making progress through the vent, with the rest of us right behind her. At one point, she was moving too quickly (as per her exploration habits) and I had to whisper for her to slow down—Krokorok would surely give us away if he kept scraping against the vent in an effort to keep up with her. She sheepishly obliged, but the sense of urgency in her movement was still clear as day. It was no different for the rest of us, and the balance between moving quickly and moving quietly remained the focus of attention.

Preoccupied by keeping my now-heavier bag from making noise against the walls, I almost missed Espurr's mental poking.

'Who was he?'

As if I had the slightest clue. Clicking my tongue, I answered, 'I'll tell you later.'

Only a faint static remained on her end—she hadn't cut the connection, but it took her a minute or so to speak.

'It's nice to get help from strangers, even in a place like this, I suppose. It's just…' Another long pause followed as we rounded a corner. '…Sage, I could sense him. Just like with most Pokemon, I felt him coming. Hydreigon is a dark-type species, so why…?'

I crawled forward in silence, more and more conscious of the lack of free space around me. The mental pressure from all these loose ends really wasn't helping. She could sense him? A dark-type? What? The hell?

'Heads up.'

I glanced up, looking past Espurr's ears at the splotch of orange fur ahead. Leah had briefly stopped.

"We're approaching the main room," she whispered back to us. "There's light coming through the vents ahead."

"Everyone don't make a peep from here on out," Krokorok whispered ahead. "Y'hear?"

Silence and patient progress followed for several minutes of crawling in the dark. That silence was quickly broken, however, by the distant sounds of bickering and chitter-chatter below. The same gruff, hardy voices reached my ears from when we'd passed over the first time, and yet something was different now. I could only hear it clearly once we were nearly directly overhead, about to cross the dreaded stretch where we would be somewhat-exposed to anyone who happened to peer straight up into the orifice.

"—oss! Boss!"

As I slunk forward, I pressed my ear as close to the bottom as I could. I could hear their voices, but hardly any words…

Another voice, high-pitched and unfamiliar, echoed off the massive columns in the room below and up into the air duct—much clearer this time.

"What?"

"Th-the room you told us not to go inside. The—it's… it's been broken into!"

The resulting silence was so long that by the time a response was given, I was directly above the room, staring down at the group of Pokemon below. All of them were at attention, frozen in place.

Then the high-pitched voice returned, though I couldn't see where it was coming from. With how violent its tone had become, it might as well have come from everywhere at once.

"Excuse the fuck out of me?!" The sound of shuffling chairs followed, then the voice again. "How? How did anyone get that far? You, you—and you four over there, go sweep the back end of the premises!"

I didn't intend to stick around and watch. Their game had stopped, but they were all preoccupied with something else. As I crossed the last part of the vent that left me exposed, my heart leaped in relief.

When the vent began to collapse behind me, my heart fell right back down to earth.

Espurr locked in place right as it happened, having sensed it far too late to give a warning. Her mental outcry—likely not intended for anyone in particular—rang in my ears nevertheless. 'Oh no!'

The screeching metal drowned out Krokorok's cry. As if that hadn't told the whole story, I dared to look back anyway. My tail had just barely crossed the threshold by the time Krokorok's weight had collapsed the grated part of the vent. He was gone. The bottom of the vent was gone.

Then, yelling from below. I fought as quickly as I could to spin around in the cramped space and poked the edge of my nose over the top, though I already knew it was hopeless. Even if I could reach him with a vine, I'd just get pulled down myself.

In spite of the unanimous alarm from the Pokemon below, the chaotic scene had already been subdued by the time I got a good look. Two burly Pokemon—a Machoke and a Rhydon—had taken Krokorok by the arms and stood him up in front of the person screaming commands before. The rest of the room watched eagerly.

"…Well, look who it is," the same voice said. "I've gotta admit, I never thought I'd see your ugly snout around here again."

As Krokorok gave a muffled, incoherent response, I adjusted my angle for a better view of the Pokemon talking. Still, it was no use. None of them were the burly Krookodile I'd been expecting. He was standing out of the way in the circle of onlookers with his arms crossed. I squinted harder at where the high-pitched voice was coming from. Just how tiny was this guy?

"Whether you sleep in a cell or a bag tonight will depend on what you know. But, eh, first…"

"Sage—!" Leah whispered from behind.

I looked past Espurr and met her gaze as she completed her own spin in the air vent. As the resolution in her eyes met the conflict in mine, she took a deep, deep breath. "…We need to help him."

"Do we?" I huffed.

We should just leave. We should just leave. I wanted to say it out loud, but I couldn't. Not under the heat of Leah's stone-cold stare.

"I hate it too," she urged. "But—"

The voices from below had grown harsher, and I knew it was time to act the moment blows started being thrown. Everyone below—easily thirty Pokemon total—was crowded around the circle, kicking at what I could only assume was Krokorok hidden underneath the mob.

Leah had made herself clear; had she not been up front away from the collapse, I knew she might've already thrown herself down there.

Espurr, on the other hand, stared into my eyes with her own. Neutral, and deep. Waiting for me to act, or to not act.

"…Well, shit." With a final acquiescent sigh, I pushed myself up to where my upper body hung over the whole room. 'Espurr, you're about to see what we do for a living.'

The air was sucked out of my lungs the moment gravity took over. Diving nose first, my plan to flip forward using my tail and fire off an attack almost didn't work, and I just narrowly avoided crashing headfirst into the table directly below.

I found compromise in landing feet-first, but without the element of surprise; half the room heard me land, and the shortest staring contest ever was what followed before I had to leap away from the oncoming mob.

Leah was a different story. Distracted by me, the mass of Pokemon were not ready for her blazing descent from the rafters. Her flamethrower painted their heads and shoulders, mixing new shouts of pain with the already-present battlecries. Espurr wasn't far behind, tossing a blast seed between where I'd landed and where most of the enemies were and buying me a few extra seconds.

It was all we needed. The pair of them landed on either side of me. As we stood firm on top of the poker table, we faced the slew of angry Pokemon below.

"Hold it—hold on! Fuck outta my way!"

Before any one of them could escalate the inevitable brawl, the same voice from before sliced through the room like butter. A few of them shuffled and squirmed as someone too short to see forced their way to the front. Finally, he emerged from the crowd, stepped forward, and glared up at us. Way up at us.

A Cleffa—barely half the size of Espurr—stomped the ground below him. "I take it you're the three who broke into my back room?"

"I take it you're the one committing all these crimes?" Leah spat back.

Cleffa guffawed at her. "You're gonna have to be specific, kid." At the click of his tongue, the entire room shifted. He waved behind him and then pointed straight at us. "…But don't waste your breath now. You can do that once we've had our fun. Let's get this money, boys!"

A resounding shout echoed across the room, followed by an advance from nearly all sides. Leah planted her feet and sprayed fire across the front line, but in mere seconds she was forced to leap back off the table and retreat further into a corner with Espurr and I.

We fired off attacks of our own as a foul-tasting hopelessness had already begun to settle in. There were far too many of them for the three of us to handle, and it really wasn't close. My energy balls were hitting every time strictly because missing one enemy meant hitting another behind them, as if that helped much anyway. The ground I could gain was never a concern—only the ground I had left to lose.

With Leah's blanket of fire covering only one side, an Absol leapt across a table and aimed straight for me with the tip of his horn. I abandoned the energy ball I was charging and rolled to the side moments before he swung. But I wasn't quite fast enough, as he slammed his paw down on my tail to prevent an escape.

As I fought for balance, my vines shot outward towards the first thing I saw—a wooden chair—and gripped it tight. I swung it up and straight behind me at the Absol. The chair shattered in my grip, followed by a cry of confused pain that somehow sounded above the rest. The weight on my tail let up just enough for me to carve a finishing leaf blade across his already-bleeding forehead.

I landed back on the table, my heart throbbing, before a psybeam flew inches behind me and knocked out an incoming Primeape.

"Sage!" Espurr fell by my side at once as our ranged attacks created enough space to gain some ground back. "Leah's—!"

The Fennekin was masked behind the bodies surrounding her, but the fire erupting from her side of the room made it obvious where she was at. Cornered. Backpedaling.

Her side of the room. My eyes widened

After punctuating with a leaf tornado that cleared the immediate area, we dashed towards the crowd that had coalesced around Leah. How had she gotten so far away so quickly?

"We can't get split up!" I yelled above the chaos, bringing my tail down on the first Pokemon focused on her.

Espurr never got the chance to jump in. Struck from behind, she was forced to hold off the rest of the group. "Ngh—! I-I'll cover you! Keep going!"

We only had a few seconds to spare either way. I heard Leah cry out in pain from behind the wall of Pokemon—still at least a dozen left on her side—and the flames suddenly increased in ferocity. Various cries of pain matched her own as I fought harder to get to her.

"Sage, she's in Blaze!" A heavily-breathing Espurr ducked under a devastating swipe from a Scyther before blasting him in the midsection. "We can't—" But she had to dodge again, and again.

It didn't last. A well-placed hammer arm sent Espurr tumbling across the room, and although an energy ball made quick work of the Graveler that threw it, I knew it was already over. I'd left myself vulnerable, and that was all it took for an attack to slam into me and send me sprawling as well. The room flipped upside down. I landed right on top of Espurr, then tumbled a few extra meters before coming to a stop.

My first impulse was to flip around and jump back up, but a sharp pressure on my neck made any attempts to escape futile. My vines had no room to unsheathe, and panic began to set in as I understood how vulnerable I was. It would not take much to break my neck in this position. There was nothing I could do.

In spite of that, I held out hope—only to blink the last of it away. Through the pain, I forced my eyes up just in time to look past the Machoke above me and see Leah get dumped on the ground as well.

Whether she was conscious or not, I couldn't tell. Fur was missing from her chest and blood trickled from there and from her forehead. A lot of it. Her ankle was twisted at a harrowing angle that drove the final nail home: even if we managed to slip away through some miracle, she wouldn't be able to run out of here.

I rasped in a breath, trying to crawl towards her. "Leah…" I coughed out.

Besides briefly stirring, she gave no response.

"Please shut that plant up if he talks again," the Cleffa hissed. "Remove their scarves and bring them to me."

A pause. Then, "…and kill the other one. No witnesses."

I'd heard enough. As a pair of hands began fingering at the cloth around my neck, I struggled with everything I had. It didn't get me far; I only came out of it with another ringing blow to the head.

"Quit struggling, runt!" the Machoke growled.

Through my blurred, unfocused vision, I witnessed the room explode into a flash of blue. A vicious roar echoed off the walls. Heads turned and eyes glued to a single Pokemon hovering by the far doorway. Still fighting for consciousness amidst my lungs being pressed against the floor, I fought to understand the words being exchanged.

"E-excuse me!" Hydreigon said, sheepishly rubbing the back of his head with one of his arm-faces, which chirped in turn. "My biggest, biggest apologies if I'm interrupting peaceful negotiations of any kind. I was looking for a bathroom with a stall large enough to accommodate me, and during my futile quest I may have caused an unfortunate amount of structural damage to the toilet just down the hall…"

Heavy silence filled the room. A few Pokemon began to whisper to one another, but a punctuating snap of Krookodile's jaws put a quick end to it.

"And who the hell're you?" he snarled.

"Ah! Me? I'm just passing through, don't mind me." The Hydreigon approached passively, with his arms down and his fangs hidden. "I hope whatever quarrel you all found yourselves in won't rest heavy on your minds. I trust that we all can—"

I gasped for air as the Machoke holding me down shoved Hydreigon back. He slapped a fist into his other open palm and pressed down harder, compressing my lungs with an unbearable amount of force. "Back off, poser. You're not gonna pull any tricks on us."

Hydreigon levitated backwards, unharmed. "Tricks? I'm quite transparent, I'll have you know. Usually."

Among their sneers and their laughter, the crooks in the room who were still standing begun to crowd around Hydreigon, eliminating any avenue of escape. He looked around, and some sort of realization seemed to dawn on his face as well.

Cleffa hopped onto a table and made no effort to hide his amusement. "I wasn't told to watch out for the likes of a dragon, but…" Cleffa looked around at his men. They all stared up at Hydreigon with star-crossed eyes, and soon, he was doing the same, rolling his shoulders back and preparing to attack. "Whatever. You're gonna wish you'd stayed in the egg, pal."

"I'm sorry," Hydreigon sighed. "But Sage and his friends are very important to me. I must tend to their dire situation at once." The longer he spoke, the more he was drowned out by the crackling blue energy that had built up in each set of jaws.

Zooming straight upwards—the only direction he could go—he began to strafe left and right. A thunderbolt missed him, then a fire blast, and then several dark pulses. It was difficult to watch with my face planted into the dirty carpet, but I got my first good glimpse when Hydreigon swooped down and dropped six quick bursts of fire on the crooks' heads.

He's… fast, I thought as blue light scattered everywhere, reflecting off the walls and floor.

The Machoke holding me down nervously shifted his stance. Caught between waving to his allies for help and standing helplessly, he had no chance to dodge a follow-up dragon pulse that sent him airborne. My ears rung from the explosion, though I hardly had time to worry about that.

Release. Sweet release. And… oxygen. Fighting to stand up, I nearly choked on the delicious air I sucked in the moment I could breathe again.

Amidst all the smoke and moving bodies, I couldn't locate Leah or Espurr, and right away I had to duck under cover from an oncoming flamethrower.

Then, somehow, amidst the chaos, I saw them. A Fraxure had managed to drag them both off to the side, but her cohorts had scattered across the room in a frenzy to avoid Hydreigon's assault. She had no backup.

I was only beginning to regain my breath as I lurched my vines forward, aiming for her tusks. Late on the draw, she tried reaching out to grab them, but her hand missed on the right side and my vine spun right around her left tusk. Flames erupted on her fangs as she immediately bit down where the vine was. Yet, she only bit air. Her left side yanked forward as I snapped his vine back as hard as I could a millisecond sooner, sending her sprawling across the ground. Her face was introduced to a nearby table's pointed corner, making an unpleasant crunch that I didn't stick around to witness.

Espurr was sitting against an overturned table, having watched the display from partially behind cover. She waved me off before I could approach, her voice echoing in my head.

'I-I'm alright. Leah first.'

'Right.'

Leah was lying on her side, thankfully hidden behind whatever was left of an exploded couch. I gagged when I got close enough; looking at her injuries for too long would be a huge mistake. I already had an oran berry in hand that I wasted no time placing in her mouth, but I had to turn away after that. An entire section of her fur had been partially ripped out of her muzzle. And her ankle…

"Leah!" I piped up suddenly. She coughed and sputtered, conscious again, and swallowed the berry whole. I kneeled down further so that she could hear above all the shouting. "Hey! Hey, hey. You're gonna be just fine, okay?"

"I—" she wheezed, which seemed to cause her more pain. Through it, she powered forward a pleading paw that only made it as far as my leg. "H-help… stand…"

"Leah." I shook my head. Holy shit, her ankle was in bad shape. "Leah, I don't think that's an option."

Her eyes blinked hazily at me, then past me as though I were no longer visible. There was more blood than there had been only seconds before. I needed to—

The scarf! With shaking hands, I fumbled with the back of my scarf, yanking on it several times and cursing each time it held fast. When it finally came undone, I began wrapping it around her chest area, where blood immediately began to soak into the supernatural fabric. Since when has there been so much blood? One more knot and it was done. It would hold for now. She would be fine. Just fine.

The table behind me exploded into tiny splinters, many of which I could not dodge in time as I fell on top of Leah for cover. She grunted, then coughed, and I realized how hard she'd been breathing.

"Sorry! I—" I pushed myself off of her and sobered up. "I have to lift you. Okay?"

I wasn't sure if she heard me, but there wasn't time to wait anyway. My vines snaked their way under her arms, lifting her up. I placed her on my back just like I had the day before on Showdown Mountain, then shivered when her muzzle rubbed against the back of my neck. The scarf held against her wound, but the chill of liquid pressed against the back of my neck was unmistakable.

The battle had briefly stopped, but my heart hit the floor when I realized why. The remaining thugs had been reduced to a dozen, but they had coalesced into one group that quickly spotted us. Spearheaded by Krookodile, he jabbed a claw in our direction and commanded them all.

"They're right there! Attack!"

Turning to face him, I prepared to set down Leah again. "Espurr!" I called. "We have to go, now!"

A psybeam smacked into an approaching Hitmontop, and seconds later Espurr emerged off to the side, ready to assist further. "On it!"

Because of Hydreigon, however, it all hardly mattered. The enemies weren't bothering to flank us, or form up; they only rushed forward with their teeth bared, as they'd done moments ago. It was just in time for the three-headed dragon to complete a conclusive bombing run straight down the middle of the room.

Right towards us.

"Watch out!" Espurr held her paws out towards Leah and I, grabbing hold of us with her telekinesis. Out of strength, she only managed to pull us a meter or so before she lost her grip. "No—Sage!"

The onslaught of flames painted a streak across the ground, raining down on the remaining crooks' heads and blasting aside any who tried to dodge. The flames approached faster than I thought imaginable. They filled my vision, and despite knowing it wouldn't help much, I braced myself for the worst.

Then, the last of the flames dispersed across the carpet, leaving nothing but scorch marks and heavy smoke lingering in front of me.

For at least a few moments—however long, I wasn't quite sure—Espurr and I stood in place, occasionally swaying side to side from the receding adrenaline. We looked at each other at some point, first as a passing glance, then a longer one a few seconds later.

"Leah—" Espurr started.

"On it."

Hydreigon had already begun to inspect the room, blasting a couple of crooks that hadn't been totally knocked unconscious. As I ran by, I muttered a "thanks" in his direction. I wasn't sure he heard me.

Espurr walked over to a knocked out Grovyle, one that was alive but coated with burn marks and unpleasant bruises. "You just defeated an entire legion of Pokémon," she said between breaths. "Who… are you?"

"I'm Hydreigon," the dragon said as he buried himself deeper into inspecting everything. When flying near the ceiling was no longer satisfactory, he began to descend and check under every table and behind every obstacle. After a few moments, he looked up suddenly. "Cleffa has vanished. So has your Krokorok friend."

"He's gone?" Espurr said. "Just… gone?"

Hydreigon stared at the doorway. "…Yes."

I barely heard them, stumbling over to the carry bags that had been filled to the brim with evidence. I almost stopped, too; I'd very nearly forgotten about those. All of them were still intact, it looked like—jostled by explosions and mayhem, but intact.

"Oh, allow me," Hydreigon offered. He lowered one of his arms under the straps, carrying all three bags no differently than one might carry groceries.

As he busied himself adjusting the item bags and evidence bags on his arm-necks, I searched his body for scratches or wounds. And this time, however briefly, I did come to a stop. At first I thought it was just the residual smoke hindering my vision, but no, I wasn't imagining it. Hydreigon was not injured in the slightest. Not a single scratch. Not a burn mark, nor a bite, nor a drop of blood.

"Honestly," I echoed, moving back over to Leah. "Who are you?"

"Well, to some, I'm a friend. To others, I'm just a dragon. But to you, I suppose I'm a friendly dragon!" he tittered. He made his way over to the exit, seemingly done with his inspection. He waved us towards him. "Ah, there could be more. Shall we leave now?"

A couple of Pokemon around us were already beginning to stir, though they posed no threat. Not yet, at least.

And Krokorok…

Turning in a circle, I swept the room with my eyes one more time, as if it would reveal something from below that Hydreigon couldn't see from above. Of course, Krokorok was still nowhere to be found. It couldn't be helped, and eventually, I voiced as much.

"…We should go, yes," I said. "Right now."

I hoisted Leah back up to where I could carry her. She mewled incoherently and turned slightly, then rested her full weight against me.

Espurr, who previously had her paws placed to her temples, nodded her head and grabbed her bag. "Okay. Nobody is nearby, but I'll keep alert."

Hydreigon was all but nudging us forward, though it was him who ended up taking the lead once we entered the narrower hallways.

"I'll protect you from the front," he said, glancing around as if suddenly conscious of the fact that he couldn't simply fly out of here. "Oh, hm. I wasn't supposed to be gone this long…"

Espurr did the best she could to direct us, but with no guide and no idea where we were, it was little better than wandering through a maze. Hydreigon mentioned using the same entrance we had, but didn't remember the way back. It was no help at all.

Turn after wrong turn, whether we made significant progress or not was never clear. No matter how many turns we made, there seemed to be more, and no matter how many enemies we faced, more would come. Hydreigon always had dragon pulses prepared to fire on a moment's notice, and had to do so on more than one occasion—always a flash of blue light, followed by a scream replacing what would've been a battle cry. We'd advanced past the unconscious bodies one by one and moved forward just as before, only for it to happen again within minutes.

At first, I was actually relieved. If nothing else, it was a period of respite after nearly getting mobbed to death, though exhausting at best considering how we never once stopped to take a break. Hydreigon taking care of any opposition probably saved our lives, but without any progress to show for it…

The longer we spent running the halls, my chest began to tighten. Corridor after corridor. More wrong turns after more wrong turns. Were they wrong turns?

"I don't know where we are," Hydreigon confirmed after a few minutes, slowing down.

My legs were beginning to burn, but I tried not to think about that. A nudge from behind got him going again. "Doesn't matter," I panted. "We have… to keep going."

"Right," Hydreigon mumbled, pausing again at an intersection before continuing forward.

In spite of the weight he already carried, I was almost tempted to set Leah on his back anyway and pray she didn't slide off. Espurr tried to come over and help at one point, but there was little she could do except place a comforting paw on Leah's shoulder before resuming the jog. She was too tiny to reach up and help carry the Fennekin, else she'd risk making her own limp worse.

Leah's head hung over my shoulder. She breathed hot air onto my neck, growing marginally heavier every minute.

"You should really lose some weight," I whispered between breaths. My heart sunk a bit when she coughed twice in response. I hadn't thought she was awake to hear that. "Er, sorry. Bad time for jokes."

She hummed, swallowing any residue from the pasty oran berry I'd given her. Even after grabbing her canteen and drinking the rest of the water, her hoarse voice would only carry her so far. "I think I lost some fur, s-so… that's something."

I chuckled and tried not to think about how weak her voice sounded.

"Th… they overran me."

"They focused you," I corrected. "I think they were trying to separate us."

"Sage, I had th-this stupid plan—" she kept going, stopping only to take a prolonged sip out of my canteen, "—where I'd use Blaze to defeat them. Back in Serene Village, I-I used to…"

Another right turn. She was even heavier in my grip now.

"…used to imagine myself backed up against a cliffside. I'd go into Blaze and I'd defeat a band of…" One more long sip followed, and she'd drank the last of my water. That seemed to satisfy her for the time being, because she didn't say another word.

'We need to get her help,' Espurr projected. Her next words reverberated in my head several extra times: 'She's in shock.'

Right on cue, Hydreigon slowed to a standstill. We'd stopped in the middle of yet another intersection, but this time, all three of his heads craned to the left. I followed them with my eyes.

Down the hall, the crystals on the wall became less and less numerous. At the very end I could barely make out a faint rectangular shape, barely illuminated by the light filtering mostly from where we stood.

"Aha, See? There it is. I was never lost."

For no reason other than good measure, Hydreigon sent a weak dragon pulse blazing down the corridor. It cast a bright blue light as it passed, confirming no enemies hid in the shadows. Then it burst into flames, which dispersed across the metal door harmlessly.

As we made our way down the hallway, I rested a leafy hand on top of Leah's limp paw. "Hey," I whispered. "We're almost out."

She was practically a ragdoll at this point—nothing at all like the toned, strong fox that had ridden on my back only the day prior. I needed that strength now just to keep her held her up. And then carry her through the sewers. And then across Lively Town…

Seemingly out of the blue, the weight was reduced to half. I knew finding strength deep inside myself wasn't supposed to be that simple, but my body was rejoicing for a reason, and for a split second, I believed that I had done just that.

'You're welcome.' I glanced over at Espurr and noticed a particular strain on her face that had not been there moments ago. 'I-I can't help hold her up forever, but I hope this helps. Living Pokemon are difficult to carry.'

I forced a smile, hoping it would carry over into my readable thoughts. 'You wouldn't miss a chance to flex your psychic powers, would you?'

'If I wanted to flex, I'd simply let go.' Espurr was far better at projecting a smile through her messages, even in a dire time like this. 'I think, for her sake, I'll remain humble this time.'

'I appreciate that.'

"Move, door!" Hydreigon commanded.

His next dragon pulse carried a far greater punch than the last, blowing the door right open and exposing the vile sewers beyond.

We ran and ran and ran, this time relying on Hydreigon's endless supply of dragonic flames to light the way. If my legs burned before, they were on fire now—running through the poorly-filtered water supply, however shallow it may have been, was a nightmare. It sloshed everywhere as Espurr and I drove ourselves forward. Small strides for short legs.

But as Krokorok had said hours earlier, it wasn't all that far, and before long I could make out the faint outline of the entrance. Sunlight poured through in greater amounts as we approached, and finally, we were close enough for Hydreigon to send one last dragon pulse forward to remove it from our path.

The sun was posted high in the afternoon sky in all its blazing glory, directly overhead, casting almost no shadows. At most, it had been a couple hours since we were last here.

Espurr grabbed my hand and pulled me up out of the ditch, briefly abandoning her psychic grip on Leah to do so. Hydreigon merely levitated up, though even he seemed to be slowing down from the various bags he carried.

"We need to hurry," he said, glancing everywhere except up. "Hmm. Would you like a ride?"

He wants to fly us? I looked up, and remembered how I felt about heights, and thought about what it would feel like to splatter against the pavement after falling for however long.

Then I thought about how I'd feel if Leah didn't get medical attention in time.

"…Okay." I took a deep breath. "Let's do this."


Hydreigon, to nobody's surprise, moved even faster out in the open than he did in the mafia base, however big that room may have been. Zooming through the sky would have been nothing short of terrifying had my mind not been so scrambled. If one good thing came out of the escape, it was that my fear of heights went on hiatus for the totally-unexpected flight back to the Society.

I'd given everything I had. Like pulling string after string from a sweater until there's no sweater left to pull from—that was my brain. It was barely the afternoon and we'd already almost died. We should've died. Yet another ballsy mission that had ended in near-disaster. Revelation Mountain. The silver scarf. Even when we got back…

We were getting closer, yet more and more questions were popping up. Enough to leave the fate of my night's sleep up in the air, notwithstanding my own scrapes and bruises. At this point, I was far too drained and exhausted to think about anything other than Leah's soft, raspy breaths.

Unfortunately, Hydreigon was not large enough to safely set Leah down on his back. Espurr and I took up the entire space, forcing me to remain holding onto her myself. And as the flight continued and the wind beat against us and the merciless summer heat started to sap my energy even further, I realized that wasn't going to work either.

With Espurr's help, I was able to roll her off my back and lay her down between us. Espurr placed a paw on her forehead while I put pressure on the scarves.

'She'll be okay, Sage,' Espurr sent. 'She's strong.'

A tiny nod. 'I know.'

The wind beat against me as we shifted directions suddenly, then began to plummet seconds later. Hydreigon's chipper cry announced our arrival. He touched down right behind the Society headquarters, where we hopped off for the final time.

"Thank you," I grunted, grabbing Leah and shouldering her onto my back once more.

Just a few more steps...

"I'm happy to help! Though…" He looked up. "I really, really need to go."

There was a pull towards Hydreigon that, in spite of the situation, I couldn't resist. As he prepared to take off, I took a step towards him and raised my hand.

He hesitated and looked back. "Hm?"

"It's…" I shrunk back. "…nothing. Another time."

Levitating upward, his secondary faces stuck out their tongues at us. "I urge you three to be more careful from now on!"

With little need for a runway, he instantly accelerated to an incredible speed and disappeared into the clouds high above, then towards the mountains to the west. In seconds, the answers to who-knew-how-many of my questions were little more than a speck on the horizon.

"…Come on." I urged Espurr forward, and she fell in line right behind me, once again helping share the load with her telekinesis. That gave me the final push I needed to carry her around the building and to the front doors. Espurr flicked her paw forward. The front doors opened on command, and we rushed inside.

Buizel and Archen were playing cards in the lobby when we came through. Archen craned his neck over the back of his chair, while Buizel poked his head out to the side.

"Where have you three—?" Buizel started. His eyes fell on Leah, and he immediately stood up from his chair. "Uh-oh."

At once, they rushed our side. Buizel got on one end and Archen on the other, and together we moved towards the infirmary.

"What happened?" Archen pressed.

"I'll explain later—Comfey, over here!" I called out.

Sitting on a table outside her office was a full-course lunch that appeared to still be untouched. Right before she went to take her first bite, she heard me calling and turned her attention towards the hallway. Her eyes locked onto Leah and the subtle droplets of blood that dripped onto the floor.

"Oh." She shoved as many berries as she could into her mouth before speeding over to the door and opening it for us.

Just a few more steps…

Together, we rested the Fennekin on the table. She absent-mindedly held a paw to her forehead, where a gash had revealed itself underneath her red-stained yellow fur.

Comfey swallowed the berries she'd stuffed into her mouth and got right to work. Brionne was at her side with bandages and some sort of syringe, the latter of which she sat down on the table for now.

"She's stable, I can say that much. She'll probably be fine, but we can't muck about in the meantime," the multitasking Comfey chirped.

Brionne moved over to the opposite side of the table, hastily preparing some sort of gauze. "I'll check her extremities first, and, and I'll—oh, ehm…" She paused, turned towards us, and sheepishly pointed her flipper at the door. "Sage, Espurr, y-you're gonna have to leave the medical room while this is going on. Sorry about that."

Oh.

Without a word or a nod, I turned around. At first, my feet reacted independent from the rest of my body, refusing to budge. But eventually, they caved, and I started putting one in front of the other. With the understanding that I may not be able to leave if I dared to look back, I opened the door and half-nodded at Espurr to follow.

With one last glance back, she pursed her lips in silent respect and complied. Soon, her soft footsteps echoed down the hall behind me, alternating and then syncing with my own. I located the nearest bench—halfway occupied by Buizel and Archen—and slumped down.

Espurr touched my leg with her paw as she walked by.'I'm gonna go grab the evidence bags and put them in our room. You dropped them in the lobby.'

As soon as Espurr disappeared, Archen raised an eyebrow. "What was that?"

I'd barely heard him. "…What?"

"That."

I followed where he was pointing: down the hall, where Espurr had disappeared.

I swallowed. "Oh. We, uh, talk to each other sometimes. In our heads. It's a thing that… it's psychic-type stuff. Hard to explain," I mumbled, tapping the yellow highlights above my eyes with my hands.

They didn't seem sure how to respond to that right away—perhaps caught up on the fact that I was obviously not a psychic-type. So, for a few minutes, we lingered in a silence only occasionally broken by muffled sounds coming from the infirmary.

I shivered. A light draft carried through the hallway, brushing up against my neck and reminding me how naked it was. Nevermind the Machoke that practically stood on top of me—my scarf was still wrapped around Leah's wound, likely tossed aside by one of the medics for me to pick up later when I could actually go in there. It felt wrong. The longer I sat there, the more wrong it all felt.

After sharing another glance with Archen, Buizel adjusted uncomfortably in his seat. "…So, uh, where've you been, Sage? Mawile told us you were on an important personal mission before she left to go exploring for the day, but—uh, y'know, you look exhausted. We can talk about this later if you want."

I lifted my head from my hands—at some point, it had fallen into them—and let it hang. "A lot happened," I rasped. "I don't know where to start, but we'll go over everything later."

I left it at that, and thankfully, they respected the silence.

Not that I could blame them for being curious. The injuries and the bags were enough to draw attention on their own, but on top of that, we were absolutely filthy. In the rush, I'd hardly noticed. A trail of soot and grime, plus the occasional drop of blood or sewage water, led all the way down the hall and into the lobby.

Just like that, it was over, leaving me to contend with the aftershock. Every second felt longer than necessary, like a cruel gesture from time itself. And… had my legs not stopped shaking yet? Sitting still seemed to only make the fight or flight response worse.

After mere minutes that felt like hours, Brionne emerged from the infirmary. She approached the bench, extra careful not to slide across anything we'd tracked in.

"H-hey, um, Sage?" She bowed her head. "Doctor Comfey wanted me to tell you that Leah will likely make a full recovery. She needs to stay with us for tonight, and we're gonna be doing all we can for her foot, but… she's stable. You can visit her tomorrow. I-I hope that's alright."

Stable. Full recovery. Just another fatal situation so, so narrowly dodged. It didn't help that our lone saving grace was whoever (or whatever) that shifty Hydreigon was. But, it was just another day in the Expedition Society, I supposed. Even then, the price paid…

Without looking up, I muttered, "Thank you."

"Also, um, here." I looked up this time to notice a neatly-folded towel in her outstretched flipper. "You don't have to worry about the floor o-or anything. I'll clean it."

I gripped the towel and held it against my face. The fresh, cool water glancing against my scales, plus the general feeling of having something to press into, sent a shiver of pleasure through my body that conflicted with the tightness in my chest—bittersweet.

A little looser this time, I smiled through the fatigue. "Thank you. Really."

With a hesitant smile and nod of her own, she was gone. After half-heartedly bidding farewell to Buizel and Archen, I got up to leave as well.


I parted the curtains to the room and aimed straight for my bed. Lunchtime or not, I decided right then and there, for myself and my team, that the day was over. No more exploring for Team Prism until dawn. Or what was left of it.

Espurr was sitting upright on her own bed, repeatedly sliding her paw across the screen of my gadget. I tossed my treasure bag towards the foot of the desk, where it fell near the other treasure bags and the larger, more valuable evidence bags. Then I began to wipe myself down with Brionne's towel.

The empty bed near the far wall stuck out like a thorn, and, still lingering by the doorway, I couldn't help but pause and stare. Swallowing, I turned to Espurr. "Where's Nuzleaf?"

Espurr's ears immediately perked up. She raised her head and wore a tiny frown. "I didn't see him when we came in. He could be in town, maybe?"

One short nod. "Probably, yeah."

She set the gadget down and faced me with her legs crossed and her head tilted a few degrees. "Are you okay?"

There would, hopefully, be plenty of time to think about everything I'd seen in the hideout. I simply did not have it in me to dwell on it now. It was just one stupid, silver scarf. For God's sake, I didn't even have my own at the moment to compare it with.

"…Yeah," I said.

"Hey. Come over here." Espurr's offhanded frown had deepened into a look of genuine concern. "You know, you've been really stressed out ever since I arrived. More than you ever were back at the village."

Complying wasn't a hard decision. My bed and Leah's bed made up a triangle with Espurr's, so all I had to do was collapse into my own to place myself about a meter away.

She wasn't wrong, and I knew that. It was no wonder Espurr picked up on the sleepless nights and whatever else I did that made me come off exactly as stressed as I was. I had addressed her out loud, which, at this point, might as well be a red flag in its own right.

"Yeah. Yeah…" Acting as a broken record wasn't helping, so I changed tune. "I've got a lot on my mind. I don't really know where to start." I laid on my back and absent-mindlessly traced my eyes across the ceiling. "If only the three of us could have some time away from all this. Nothing crazy, maybe just… like, a week or two. At this rate, it seems like we'll never win this conflict."

Espurr scooted a little closer. "Don't say that."

For a while afterwards, I didn't say anything, if nothing else then for a lack of better things to say.

Maybe she had a point. In theory, we were getting closer and closer to the truth. Now was not the time to lose hope. It sure didn't feel that way the more we got beaten in the dirt, pursuing lead after lead after lead, but I couldn't bring myself to put my bad spirits into words. Instead I just laid there, laid there, until an interruption wormed its way into my head.

'Would you like a massage?'

"—Huh?"

Still lying on my front, I turned my head towards her again. She regarded me seriously and with a tentative smile.

"Since when could—" Readjusting in my bed, I cleared my throat continued, 'Since when could you give massages?'

'It's not hard,' she replied, transmitting a giggle. 'When I was little, my mother used to massage my back with her psychic powers. Once I developed my own, I picked it up.'

I blinked. A massage? In recent days, I was just happy to get cleaned off and maybe a shot at a good night's sleep. Massages fell into the category of vacations on the beach and smoothies under the sun—all fantasy luxuries. Those things belonged to a time when I could walk outside and feel safe, somewhere at the end of this adventure. Someday.

But…

Espurr sat cross-legged, facing perpendicular to me, giving me the same neutral-yet-hopeful expression I'd grown used to at this point. I was here with her, after all.

I rested my head sideways towards her and murmured, "A massage would be… heavenly right now."

She only hummed in response, rubbing her paws together and proceeding to not use them.

Instead, she moved them back and forth in front of her, generating small particles of energy that ebbed and flowed with her every movement, creating a wave. A few seconds in, and she'd shut her eyes to concentrate.

The moment I closed my own, I felt something tingle. It started with an ethereal warmth that spawned on the back of my neck, then spread across the rest of my body like wildfire. A calming hum permeated the room, and soon replaced the ambient noise outside. I'd never realized how prominent it was until it was no longer there, and without it, the room felt so much more isolated from the rest of the world. Maybe this, I thought, could be a slice of the vacation I'd spoken of.

The wave rolling across my back soon found a happy medium. Pressure intensified in the places I needed it the most. Somehow, Espurr knew exactly which nerves to roll over with my tiny, wordless reactions as her only input.

Minutes of this passed without pause. To me, there seemed hardly a difference now between the calloused scales and mass of cotton and blankets that pressed against them. I'd melted so far into the bed that I knew getting up again would be an unspeakable challenge. A challenge for later. Likely one bridged by a nap, and the sunlight streaking across the wall, perhaps the dinner bell ringing hours from now forcing me to make a decision. But, a challenge for later nonetheless.

It was almost too much. Twice I had to catch myself from dozing off, and when the third time came, I opted for passive conversation to stay awake just a little longer. I sighed. '…For what it's worth, I'm glad you're here now. We'd already been through a lot before then, so when you showed up, you were a sight for sore eyes.' I cracked an eye halfway open—she was still in the same position as before, drawing psychic energy from the air in one gentle, fluid motion after another. 'I… never thanked you for coming all this way, Espurr.'

As I laid my head back down, I caught the creases of a smile form on her face.

'Well,' she hummed, brushing her fur back out of her eyes with one paw while maintaining the massage with the other. 'It's hard to explain. I guess, at the end of the day, I followed my heart. Same as you.' I heard her set something down—the gadget, from the sound of it—and scoot even closer.

That decision had loomed over me for months. For a brief moment, those familiar nerves tried to return, only to be dispelled by the waves still coursing across my back. In spite of it all, it didn't seem to matter anymore.

I shut my eyes again and smiled back. 'You… yeah, you really did.'

We shared a long-overdue chuckle. It was all so fake, really: a secluded village left behind on a gut feeling, just to get wrapped into whatever any of this was. Never mind finding out about my past; we were too busy sneaking into the bad guys' hideout and escaping by the skin of our teeth. It was our new lifestyle at this point. And the way she spoke, the way she laughed—it was as if she already understood what she'd gotten herself into.


A/N: Hey, howdy. Normally I wouldn't have a whole lot to say here, but there's a couple things that I should bring up before I go.

Firstly, Gravity of Perspective has a discord server! I placed the join link at the end of the last chapter, but I did it a few days after the chapter was published, so most of you likely didn't see it. I'm placing it again here, and I'll drop it somewhere in the revised author's note at the beginning too:

Kxbr88m

Feel free to hop in the server and say hello. It's still pretty small from the time I'm publishing this, but it's growing into what I'd hoped it would be, which is a place where readers can kick back and chill, get updates on my writing progress, and so on.

And ssssecondly… something has been on my mind for a little bit that I wanted to get out in the air. You see, Gravity of Perspective is the first dedicated fanfiction project I've ever attempted, and as a result, many of the earlier parts suffer from my lack of experience at the time. Part of that was choosing to write in first-person POV, which, in my opinion, was a bad move. Due to how I'm a lot more comfortable writing in third-person-limited POV, I figured I'd propose the idea of switching GoP to it sometime here pretty soon.

It's weird, I know. Most stories don't just switch POVs like that. And I'm not totally sure how well-liked or disliked my decision to write in first person has been… so, I'm basically just looking for honest feedback on the idea. Would y'all like to see me switch to third within the next couple of chapters, or would that simply be too jarring? I'm still on the fence about it, so feedback on this is critical. I want to make the right decision for my story, and this is the kind of thing that I feel like I should ask y'all about.

If anyone wants an idea of how I write in third person, I published a parody oneshot called Cotangent that should serve as an example. As for GoP… if I do make the switch, I'd keep the narrative structure the same (including Sage's inner thoughts and whatnot), but Sage himself would no longer be the narrator.

What do y'all think? For those who would rather not leave a review, I've created a poll on my profile page where you can vote.