"We know that birth takes a woman from one place in her life to another. The birth of a child certainly does change her viewpoint of herself and I believe her viewpoint of the world."

- Sameerah Shareef.

"With what price we pay for the glory of motherhood."

- Isadora Duncan.

Later, they would realize the months that followed were the calm before the storm. As winter melted away, Team Rocket's grip on Viridian and Cerulean did not loosen, and Celadon was slowly infiltrated. By the time the cherry tree groves in the capital came into bloom, the City of Rainbows was no longer in the League's hands.

But though those cities had been taken, hope for the north was not lost – not yet. The citizens of Pewter, led by their gym's ruling family, were actively resisting the agents in black. It was said that not a week went by without some terrible rockslide entombing their foes. The Indigo Plateau, for its part, offered them aid when they could, while the Mt. Moon Range guarded their backs. To the east, the denizens of Cerulean - rallied by a redheaded spitfire - were taking advantage of the cave systems, riverlands, and frozen lakes of their region, teaching the invaders to beware the elements of water and ice. Finally, the flower maidens of Celadon were, suffice to say, not as gentle as they appeared. The Rockets soon learned that the most beautiful blooms were the ones with the deadliest poisons.

The Kantonians weren't winning all their battles, though. The Rockets were using firearms that few elemental shields could deflect, and trainers were beginning to discover that psychic attacks – usually devastatingly strong in a land where dark-types were exotic, and ghosts were jailed in the Tower of the Dead – weren't nearly as effective as they'd once been. This greatly concerned Sabrina Sheehy and her "Greys," but there were other worries that took precedence. Orre, for one, had shocked the Japanese Isles by launching an attack on Hoenn, determined to reap the resources they'd long been without. Johto, which now had conflicts on both sides, was attempting to aid Kanto and Hoenn, but defending its borders was its first priority.

In contrast, Sinnoh and several of the smaller regions were attempting to remain neutral. The southern isles, for their part, had troubles of their own to deal with. On some of the smaller islands, a mutated strain of rabies had broken out in the wild pokémon populations. They were struggling to subdue it with little success. In some cases, that meant leaving crops to ripen and rot, costing the islanders more than just their profit margins. Still, other islands – yet untouched by the disease - were giving Kanto their full support. They'd frequently been subjected to "Rocket Raids" in the past, and were more than willing to lend a hand against the agents.

These decisions wouldn't be without their price. Yet for the time being, the resistance measures were successful in their objective: they halted the spread of Giovanni's territory and power. For that, Saffron City was grateful. They'd been given the gift of time, and they used that time to plan and act. Radio broadcasts were made, instructing civilians on how to stay safe and, if they wished, on how to get to the countries that were accepting refugees. It spoke well of the Kantonians' bravery that most scoffed at the thought of leaving; though some, to be sure, took the Magnet Train to Goldenrod, or boarded ships to the eastern lands or southern isles. Others strengthened their homes and their pokémon, stocking up on food, water, and other resources while they were still available. This wasn't the first time Kanto had experienced civil strife, and the over-forty crowd remembered the procedures.

Yet even in this tense atmosphere, life went on, and not all of its pleasantries were lost. Michael and Aurora, though stressed from arranging their moves, nonetheless managed to enjoy themselves. Sometimes that enjoyment meant pitting Alexius' fire against Joey's brawn and Primrose's charm. Neither Michael nor Aurora might have the stuff of masters, but they could be formidable in their own ways. Other times they enjoyed simpler things: like delivering a bag of her favorite coffee beans, which bore the insignia of a grinning, green lizard; or handing him a doughnut "with sprinkles 'pon it, and frosting of white," because hearing her say that in a Shakespearean accent never stopped cracking him up (they loved the series that had come from. They'd listened to the audiobooks together in the car that one time, on that one weekend with the machoke, the crazy ditto, and the jello). It kept them from getting too ornery, in any case.

Sabrina and Rose, for their parts, had even more on their plates. They were responsible for the education and sanity of dozens of psychics, whose ages ranged from four to twenty-something. Their empaths were having the roughest go of it, with soothing teas and meditative sessions only just taking the edges off. Each woman had her own concerns as well. Sabrina was selecting which of the "Greys" would be traveling with Cassandra and her children, as well as meeting with the woman to discuss training options and "tracing back the thread." Cassandra still hadn't been told about that last part. Their meetings tended to vary between tense and hostile, but the mother-to-be was, at least, beginning to accept some tentative plans.

Rose was also meeting with Cassandra at least once a week, which Cassandra did not appreciate. So used to keeping secrets and reluctant to forfeit them, their first few sessions passed in silence. She was unwilling to open up. Yet as spring turned to summer, as the heat and green deepened, Cassandra began to talk. They weren't progressing as much as Rose would have liked – Cassandra tended to skirt around or only allude to the subjects they were meeting to deal with. But it was a start, and Rose was willing to be patient with her. They would get there eventually. It would just take time and effort, and Cassandra was willing to move forward. That was the important part.

True, there were some backslides in that tentative progress: Cassandra hadn't responded well to learning about Rose's relationship with Sabrina, and Rose had needed to be rather stern with her. "I assure you, nothing you say leaves this room. You have my word on that." When that hadn't appeased her, Rose had added, "Would it really matter if it did, Cassandra? She already knows all of your secrets. You know that. So what are you really upset about?" Cassandra had quickly learned that their confidences went one way, and that Rose was neither her friend nor her enemy. She was a neutral party, and she pried and it wasn't comfortable and she forced Cassandra to analyze herself. But that was precisely what would make it effective: speaking and sorting through it all and moving forward.

When the stress of that process – for it would undoubtedly be a long-term arrangement – and the pressures of daily life became too much for Rose, she…well, she indulged in certain joys with Sabrina (good wine, bitter chocolate, and summer berries made life much sweeter), and Sabrina, in turn, savoring the many uses of rose oil, which Rose was an expert in ("Sooth the body and the mind follows…").

Without her partner, Cassandra couldn't share similar pleasures, but others were hers for the taking. While the cherry blossoms were falling in Saffron, she and Father Shannon walked beneath them. They talked about a number of things, while a pair of Greys followed them from a distance. One of them was the man who'd talked with Michael on her birthday, who went by the name of Florian and might just be gay. Cassandra couldn't quite tell, and didn't know if it was polite or not to ask. The other was a woman named Anastasia, who was rather stern, but she seemed to have a soft spot for puppies. Cassandra wondered sometimes if she was the only cat person in the capital, but soon learned that Sabrina and Rose had two. That was not comforting to her.

Throughout all of this, the council planned for the move and Cassandra's body continued to swell. It was not merely her belly that did so, though it now looked like a white-streaked melon. Her chest was also aching and growing heavy with milk, and her feet were doing horrifying imitations of brown building bricks. The woman had never felt so hideous in her entire life. Well, maybe she had emotionally, but certainly not physically.

It was to the point where trying to get comfortable in any position, whether seated or lying down, was a losing battle. She was ungainly and her spine was constantly sore, and the muscles of her back were pinched and knotting. It made attempting to sleep difficult at best, and when she did manage to drift into dreams, what she saw terrified her. Nightmares were nothing new to her, but these…these ones made her afraid to go back to sleep.

The others took note of the dark circles under her eyes and gave her recommendations, though Aurora's simple remedy helped her the most: warm milk sweetened with mint or honey. Eventually, Rose managed to get her to talk about the dreams…though if Cassandra hadn't had a perpetual headache from sleep-deprivation, or felt the urge to cry constantly, she would've liked to think she wouldn't have cracked.

"They…in them, the same thing happens. I lose the babies. Sometimes some monster rips me open and tears them apart. Sometimes something heavy hits me, though I don't know what. Sometimes they're cut out of me and taken. Sometimes they…it's like that African wasp that lays its eggs in those caterpillars, but with more fire involved. But mostly there's just pain. I'm bleeding out, and afterwards I learn that all there was inside if me was a gallon of blood. They were never there, not really. I'm not sure which dream scares me the most." Her vision was hazy with tears and she was sniffling when she finished. Stupid hormones. It was all their fault.

They talked about those dreams for a time – psychics tended to believe that dreams had kernels of truth in them – and Rose surmised what Cassandra already knew about herself: that she had a hard time believing that things could go her way for once (when had they ever?), that things weren't out to get her (well weren't they?), that she was scared of something happening to her children ("It's a natural worry."), and that she didn't think the people around her would keep her safe (she'd just given Rose a look at that, and Rose had the grace to look abashed).

Then Rose threw her one of those curveballs she was coming to loathe, and asked her who had cut the children from her womb. Was it Aurora, who kept suggesting she have a cesarean section? Was it Michael, whose relationship with her was tense but mellowing as the months went by? Or was it someone else? Perhaps one of her enemies?

It was the last one. "Giovanni orders his people to. He says it's what a traitor deserves. I can't get away, and then there's just…pain."

That seemed to interest Rose. "And why do you think he says that to you? Is it possible you feel some guilt over deserting him? He did raise you, after all."

That seemed like a trap, so Cassandra didn't answer. Yet afterwards, she wondered: did she feel guilty? If she did, her guilt wasn't enough to make her regret her choice. It might still be enough to haunt her, though, like the many paths she hadn't taken in her life. Yes, she considered Giovanni a monster, and yes, she resented him for what he'd done to those she'd loved. But he'd been the closest thing she'd had to a father, hadn't he? The ridiculousness and perversion of that feeling wasn't lost on her.

So the dreams persisted into the depths of summer, when the skies were clear and blue as a robin's egg, when the air was thick and sultry with the scents of honeysuckle and apples, and the cicadas screamed as they crawled among the leaves. The Festival of Stars, honoring Orihime and Vega, passed with fireworks and sweets, and students began preparing for school or returning to the Routes. On the evening of August the first, a couple weeks before her due date, a sweating and aching Cassandra twisted in the sheets of her bed, having kicked off the blankets earlier. As she felt one of her children kicking, she winced and pressed a hand to her belly, whispering for him or her to settle down. They'd be born soon enough (too soon, it seemed).

For a few minutes, she regarded herself in the closet mirror: she looked so misshapen. As she turned over, the muscles of her back contracted in a painful spasm. She cursed, squirmed against the pillows, and again tried to urge herself to sleep. She focused on the smell of cocoa butter and the chirps of the crickets, and began reciting the pokémon species of Kanto under her breath. Her last memory before she slept was to wonder, vaguely, if mew or Mewtwo should be considered number 150, and if mew should even be counted, considering it was supposed to be native to South America. She mumbled something, and then slid sideways into sleep….

There was a sense of déjà vu when she found herself in different room, with no memory of how she'd gotten there. She was lying in a hospital bed with a white sheet tucked over her shoulders. The ceiling and curtains around her were red, while the floor was made of porphyry marble tiles. The curtains shielded her from whatever was beyond, but she could hear indistinct voices and see silhouettes against the cloth. She tried to sit up, but found her arms and legs shackled to the railings of the bed. The stainless steel glinted as she shook them, but it wouldn't yield. As quiet as she tried to be, the noise she made was enough to draw the attention of the people beyond. The curtain was pushed inwards by a hand, and a tall, burly man followed it.

Giovanni was wearing a suit as black as his eyes, and when he stepped next to the bed, he frowned down at her.

Her blood ran cold. Some small part of her realized that this was a dream; that it had to be a dream, because she was sleeping safe and sound in the Saffron Center. But unlike those dreams where knowing the truth would allow her to control and unravel it, this one wouldn't release her. She could order herself to wake up all she liked, but she couldn't open her eyes until he was finished with her. And when he began to talk to her in that low, authoritative voice, she began to doubt. What if he'd taken her while she'd slept? What if this was real? The doubt bound her better than the shackles ever could. She looked up and met his dark eyes, and cringed as he brushed a strand of her hair from her face.

"I take what's mine, my dear. He was mine and you were mine. That makes them mine by right." He almost seemed concerned when he added, "If you yield them willingly, then perhaps-."

"No!" She struggled against her bonds harder, feeling sick and cold. "You won't get them! You won't…you can't…!" Her voice cracked as she sobbed. She couldn't let him take them. She couldn't bear the thought of them going through what she and Mewtwo had at this man's hands. There was no worse nightmare to her.

He wasn't impressed. "You'll find that I can." He turned to the silhouettes and gave the order: "Doctors, bring them to me."

They came in, masked and rolling a table of surgical tools between them. She shook her shackles, the skin of her wrists and ankles tearing and slickening from blood. Her heart raced rabbit-fast, she couldn't breathe properly, her body soaked in sweat and went cold with terror. As four of the faceless doctors held her down, a fifth pushed the sheet away and her nightgown up. It drew a line across her stomach with a marker and then reached for the scalpel on the table. Giovanni's face floated over hers, her tears making his features seem to melt like wax, his eyes caving in to empty pits. But his words were clear in her ears: "Let this be your punishment for betraying me."

Somehow, she knew the doctors wouldn't be drugging her or sewing her back up again. Her children would be taken and she would die on this table, unable to do anything to change their fates. As the scalpel slashed through skin, muscles, organs, she screamed and begged, but none of them listened. Let this be your punishment. The white sheet turned red, the hands plunged in, her body seized, and then, and then-.

She jerked awake. Her hair was plastered against her face and neck, her nightgown was soaked through, and she was trembling all over. The pain from the nightmare lingered, and as Cassandra tried to get up, she fell back into the bed with a strangled gasp. Her guts felt as if they were filled with white-hot knives, her abdominal muscles were tight to the point of spasms, and her thighs were slick. Cassandra glanced down the bed: the sheet between her legs was wet with something. For a confused second, she thought she'd pissed herself. But no, she thought, it couldn't be urine, the smell and color was wrong for that. Yet whatever it was, it had traces of blood in it. That's not good. As her abdominal muscles clenched and the pain followed, she finally realized.

Oh god, she thought. Oh god, it's happening. Oh god.

She hadn't realized her fear could reach new levels, but somehow it did.

For a moment, she laid there, frozen from it, but then she reached out to the nightstand. She fumbled for the phone, knocking it off its cradle as she grabbed at it, but eventually she drew it to her. She pressed the four-digit code for Aurora's room, and after a couple rings, she heard the line pick up. A groggy voice answered, "Hell…hello?"

"Aurora, it's…it's Cassandra. I'm in labor." Breathe, she told herself, keep breathing.

There was a pause, a shifting of bedcovers, a click. The doctor's voice was clearer when she asked, "Are you sure? You're still two weeks out. It could be false labor."

"Unless false labor includes my water breaking, I'm pretty sure it's the real-," another contraction tore through her, "-oh fuck on a fuck sandwich! Just get over here!" Christ, this was like the worst abdominal cramps she'd ever had times about a thousand.

In contrast, Aurora seemed quite calm as she said, "I do hope your explicative wasn't referring to that unfortunate fraternity game involving toast and-."

"Aurora! Faster on your part would be better." Now really wasn't the time for the doctor to dissect her curses. Now was the time for her to curse wildly and not be questioned about it!

"Relax, I'm getting dressed and alerting my assistants. I'll be there in two minutes. Do you think you can manage to walk to my office, or will you need a wheelchair?"

"Walking" sounded a lot like to "torture" to Cassandra right then. "A wheelchair. Bring me a fucking wheelchair."

"Right. Be there shortly."

They hung up, and Cassandra found that "two minutes" could last an eternity under certain circumstances. Eventually though, her door was unlocked and the doctor rolled the wheelchair to her. As Aurora helped her into it, there was a lot of snarling, hissing, and spitting, but once it was done, they moved quickly enough. Aurora pushed her along at a brisk pace, doing her best not to jostle her as they swept down the halls. She instructed Cassandra to concentrate on breathing – two quick breaths in, one long breath out. Cassandra tried, clutching the armrests hard and squeezing her eyes shut. Inhale, inhale, exhale. Inhale, inhale, exhale. She didn't even notice when they arrived in the birthing room that Aurora had set up.

It wasn't until Joey tapped her shoulder, knelt, and offered to help her onto the birthing bed that Cassandra cracked an eye open. As the kangaskan lifted and laid her down in a smooth, practiced motion, the room seemed to spin, and when it settled, she saw the preparations the doctor had made. To her left was a table filled with birthing tools, including the one that was supposed to break open the amniotic sac (one down, one to go, she thought) and the scalpel for a cesarean section. She forced herself to look away from it. To her right were monitoring devices and, she saw with some unease, a stand with bags of her blood type, B+, hanging from it. This pregnancy is going to be hard, she remembered Aurora saying, and the birth itself will be worse. It seemed her doctor had prepared for the worst.

Aurora moved in her peripheral vision, catching her attention. "Alright, now try to relax. I need you to tell me how you're feeling. How bad would you say the pain is on a scale of one to ten, with one being mildly annoying and ten being 'I'm ready to faint'?"

"Um…somewhere around an eight?" Quantifying pain seemed rather absurd to her just then. It hurt and it hurt badly, so who cared what it was on the scale?

"Alright. Now does this hurt?" The redhead pressed a couple gloved fingers into her lower left side. When Cassandra yelped, Aurora took that as a "yes" and kept her expression carefully neutral. As she began unbuttoning and tugging off Cassandra's nightgown, Cassandra protested - mostly on the principle of the thing, really - but the doctor had seen her naked before, so it hardly mattered.

The chansey, Primrose, then sponged her clean with warm water (it smelled like oranges) and dried her with towels. Both of them helped her into a dry medical gown. "We don't want you catching a chill." Cassandra was grateful, but her thanks strangled itself on her lips as another contraction tore through her. Tears sprung to her eyes, but she blinked them away. It's going to be okay, she reassured herself. They know what they're doing, so it's going to be okay.

But she felt so scared...!

Minutes passed, then an hour, then two. As Aurora, Joey, and Primrose fretted over her, she sipped on ice chips and tried to keep her breathing steady. She was given an epidural to help with the pain, and the relief of it almost made her giddy. She could still feel how tight her muscles were and she supposed she'd be ready to kill someone when the meds wore off. Yet for now, waiting for her cervix to dilate those precious ten centimeters (oh the body horror of this event!) didn't seem all that bad.

True, her feet and legs were numb, which might not be normal. And Aurora, who was making some phone calls, had said things were going "as well as they could," which didn't strike Cassandra as very reassuring. Still, she wasn't in pain and she didn't seem to be bleeding, so those were points in her favor. Finally, at thirty minutes to midnight, it seemed as if they could begin. "You're ready, so let's get started. The sooner this is over, the better." Well that had a distinct air of not-comfort to it. So much for Aurora's bedside manner.

As the next contraction hit, Aurora ordered her to push…and as she did, she felt fear sweep through her. She didn't feel ready for this. She may have been waiting for this for months, but suddenly she didn't feel ready. She wanted to stop, and she must have muttered something to that effect, because Aurora tried to scold her and encourage her at the same time, which really didn't work too well. Yet though Cassandra wanted to run away, to find some nice dark place to hide in until it was over, she obeyed the doctor's orders like a rower on a longboat. Though the command she heard was always "again" instead of "row."

A delirious little giggle escaped her at the thought, but then she pushing again. As she strained, feeling pressure building in her uterus, mounting into steady pain (the epidural was wearing off, and it was too late to increase the dosage), she clutched the railings of the bed and bit her lip. She couldn't seem to breathe right, but even so, a moan of effort rose from her throat. She didn't scream or shriek, though passing something the size of a melon through such a tiny orifice would have invoked that reaction from most sane people. Instead, she whimpered as she pushed something round out of her with agonizing slowness (a head, she thought dazedly), and she found herself wishing desperately that someone, anyone, was there to hold her hand through this.

Mewtwo…damn it, I want you here…!

Then the child's head was out, followed by its shoulders, its arms, with the rest of it slipping from her in a mess of amniotic fluid, blood, and bits of gore. It coughed, sucked in a huge breath, and then started wailing like some unholy banshee.

The beauty of the sound left her breathless. From the end of the bed, Aurora smiled and called over the noise, "Your son sounds quite healthy!"

Her son! Her stomach jerked from some unnamable emotion, and her heart seemed to skip a beat. She watched intently as her baby boy was passed to Primrose, who took him to a nearby table, tied and cut his umbilical cord, and wiped him clean. She never noticed the grim look that flashed over Aurora's face. Cassandra might be in pain – the doctor could see that she was, despite the brave face she wore - but it wasn't enough pain to reveal the extent of the damage she was doing to herself. There was blood, so much blood, too much blood, coating the table and dripping down onto the floor. Damn it, Aurora thought as Cassandra shuddered with another contraction, the red surging fresh, Damn it all, she's hemorrhaging! Not now, she can't do this now!

From down the hall, there was the chiming of a clock. As Primrose took the nameless boy from the room, Aurora took the amnihook from the table, deftly using it to break the other amniotic sac. Red-tinged water spilled over her gloved hands, and as Cassandra shuddered, Aurora ordered her to push. Cassandra barely heard the doctor over the ringing in her ears, but still, she obeyed. The pain intensified as she strained, making her feel feverish and lightheaded, making her breathing shallow out into pants. But she continued, clutching the railings until her knuckles went white, until she tasted blood on her lip, until her vision began to swim and dim. Then, finally, she felt the tips of the girl's ears, which were soft and strangely flexible as they pressed against the feline-shaped skull. It took several more pushes, but then the head and upper body were out.

The pelvis, wide with its tail, was harder for her to force out. She struggled for several minutes, gasping and wishing she could just stop – but then there was a tearing sound and the girl slid into Aurora's waiting hands, the umbilical cord trailing after her. Cassandra had the vague impression of her child being colored strangely; almost like Christmas, she mused, feeling a bit delirious. As hot and cold flashed over her, she listened to the girl's mewling and blinked at Aurora's concerned expression. She worried for a second that something might be wrong with her daughter…her daughter…but then realized Aurora was looking at her.

The pain was melting away, though. Cassandra gave the doctor a weak, exhausted smile and rasped, "I'm fine. Just tired. If it's all the same to you, I think I'll pass out for a while." Sleep sounded better than sex right now. Before she closed her eyes, she saw Aurora pass her child to Joey. Her eyes were wide behind her glasses, and her mouth was moving, but Cassandra couldn't hear what she was saying.

It'll be okay, she thought to the doctor. It's going to be okay. She would've liked to ask for a blanket, though. Suddenly she felt so cold.

She was still thinking about how strange that was when she passed out.

"Shit! Bring the…help me!"

The words floated down to her from the ceiling of the night. As she was carried on, Cassandra thought that she should be more concerned about what she was managing to hear. It certainly didn't sound good, but…well, she just couldn't bring herself to care. She knew Aurora would patch her up, so why be worried? She wouldn't die here; she had too much she was looking forward to, and certainly had too much left to do. She refused to believe that childbirth would kill her when her foes had failed. As ironic as that death would be, it wouldn't be hers. It just didn't fit. She wished she could tell the doctor that, but her mouth wasn't working and Aurora wasn't a telepath. So that was a lost cause.

Not that it mattered, really. Cassandra felt like she'd earned a break from the chaos, so she was going to enjoy her nap. Let the others fret over her; for now, she was done with fighting. Instead she drifted through her mindscapes, traveling over seas of grasses and rolling hills, where the ghosts of children played. She wandered through vineyards and forests, avoiding the briars and tasting the fruits. They were sweet and bitter and ripe with memories. Finally, she climbed the cliffs that overlooked her lands on one side, while a crimson sea stretched on the other. On the horizon, its waters deepened into darkness…an encroaching darkness, she realized, staring at it. It's coming for me. Yet she wasn't afraid. No, as weary and sore as she was, as hollow as she felt, she was content to let it come. So she waited. For what, she wasn't sure.

As the darkness crept closer, she heard snatches of Aurora's voice, "…where…bleeding…where?" Her voice was cracking from frustration and, quite possibly, desperation. Cassandra still didn't worry. Instead, she reclined on the edge of the cliff. The ground hard beneath her, but damp too, as if there had just been a summer rain. Her abdominal muscles also burned and ached, the way they did on the first day of her period. It had been months since she'd felt that, but she told herself the same thing she always did. The pain will pass. She just needed to outlast it….

When the darkness seeped into the shore below, she felt a warmth – a familiar warmth – settle himself down next to her. She turned onto her side to face him, and smiled as he wove an arm around her and breathed into her hair. Here in her dreams, he was so alive, so vital. When she met his eyes, his gaze was strangely clear and contemplative. He brushed her hair back from her sweaty face, and that felt nice, so nice. She cuddled against him, ignoring the protests of her now flatter stomach at the pressure.

Their children were no longer inside her, she remembered. With the help of Aurora and her assistants, she'd brought them into the world. But after nine months, it was a little surreal to have her body back – to not be sharing it with two other souls (or even one, she thought, looking at him), even though she'd spent nineteen years alone in her own skin. She frowned at the thought, and frowned deeper when she heard Aurora's voice again: "…There! Michael, come…give me…!"

But she'd done it. Despite hurting herself in the process, she'd given birth to the twins, all natural (well, except for the epidural, but whatever, that shouldn't count). Maybe it had been stupid to do it that way, but now no one could say to them, "You're unnatural. You were cut out of your mother's womb, not born!"

Truthfully, most people would probably overlook that distinction – women had cesarean sections all the time - but her children would already have enough to deal with. At least she could tell them that she'd carried them, given birth to them, and raised them. She could reassure them that there hadn't been anything unusual about how they'd come into this world. They wouldn't have to shoulder their father's burden or his doubts…and to her, that made the pain she'd had to go through worthwhile. She may have beaten herself bloody, but she'd spared them that uncertainty. She was proud of herself for that.

"I did it, Mewtwo. I did it." She kissed him then, high on her success. She relished the feeling of his arms encircling her, of his tongue gliding over her lips. She opened her mouth and moaned as the kiss deepened, as his fingers felt her through the wet shift she was wearing, as his body pressed against hers and thrummed as he purred. She'd thought she was too tired to crave anything but sleep, but oh, this was good too, and she was in the mood to celebrate. She felt his hand tease between her thighs, against her clit, but then he dipped a finger inside and – oh, ow. Ow! She gasped at the pain, at the reminder that she was scorched and raw and weeping inside. She shoved his hand away and cursed, "Fuck…oh fuck, I can't, I…."

He drew back from her, his brow knitting with confusion (she'd never learned to tell him no, but then, she'd never wanted to), but he kept his promise and didn't force her. Instead he held her like she wanted, while she gave him what he wanted in a different way. She used her hands, her breasts, her mouth – they'd shared the sweetest of kisses before – and listened to him as he growled and groaned. She supposed that under the circumstances, this was a strange dream of her to have. But giving him pleasure and hearing him beg her for more (only she could make him beg)…well, illusion though it might be, it made her feel desirable again. She hadn't felt that in quite some time, so she gave him what he wanted and savored the taste of it.

Afterwards, he trailed a paw over her arm and murmured, "Will you stay with me, my dove?"

She smiled. It was tempting thought, but…, "No. Not yet. Someday, but not yet. I have too much to go back to, Mewtwo."

"I see…." He nuzzled at her ear, nipping at the lobe. Then he asked, "Do you remember what I promised you?"

She found herself feeling more amused than sad at the thought of his promises. "Which promise? You made so many of them - I can hardly remember them all. That's like asking me to remember all the lectures Giovanni gave me." She kissed his muzzle, letting him know she was only teasing. "Though I have got to admit, your vows were always more interesting." Especially when they'd been a prelude to pillow talk. Damn her body for hurting so much!

He sighed, his breath hot against her cheek. "I will find you again, Cassandra. I will."

From the distance, Aurora's voice carried over the copper-scented breeze: "…closed…I need…point five liters…."

Cassandra thought of the crimson sea and the darkness beyond, which had halted at her shores. "I know you'll find me one day. Just not today."

"No. Not today," he agreed, his voice sounding sad…and regretful.

She twined her fingers with his and gave them a squeeze. "But someday."

Aurora's voice came again, clearer this time: "…stable. If…through the night…be okay."

Stars began to speckle the night above them, while the moon peeked out from behind thick clouds. For a moment she thought she glimpsed something across the sea, but it vanished as the dream began to grow pale and translucent. She felt a mattress beneath her instead of stone, and felt a blanket against her skin instead of fur. Very soon she'd be awake, it seemed.

"Looks like it's time to go back," she told him as she got up. He reached out as if to grab her arm, as if to ask her to stay…but then he nodded, reluctantly rising to his feet. When she stepped towards her lands, he turned away, taking the path down to the shore.

If he looked back at her, she didn't see it. She headed back the way she'd come, weaving through the forests and vineyards, crossing over the hills and plains. As she walked, the eastern sky grew lighter and pinker. When the dawn burst and the sunlight touched her, her wings unfolded from her back. She ran, jumped, flew towards the sun, mindless of its heat (her feathers weren't bound in wax). She soared higher and higher, soared until she was surrounded by rosy light, until the chirps of songbirds filled her ears….

She could almost still taste him when she opened her eyes.

There was sunshine pouring in through rose-colored curtains. The window had been thrown open to let the August warmth and the smells of summer in. Honeysuckle, wet leaves, grass cuttings – their scents all filled her nose. The breeze itself was moist; there must have been rain sometime in the night. The room she was in was smaller and cozier than the birthing room: the wallpaper was covered with roses, there was a water bottle on the bedside table, and she was resting in a featherbed. The blanket had been tucked up to her neck, but even so, she still felt cold.

Her mouth felt parched, too. She needed some of that water. Her body felt heavy and unresponsive, but if Cassandra knew nothing else, she knew how to force herself forward. Weak as she was, she braced herself and began to push herself up into seating position. The attempt didn't last long. Pain flared through her core like fire, like razor blades, and she sank back into the bed with a strangled curse.

"Careful there. Patching you up wasn't easy, and I don't want you re-tearing anything," Aurora said off to her left. Cassandra turned her head: the doctor was getting up from a chair and placing a book aside. The cover had a detective on it – though, weirdly, he was holding a wizard's staff. Must be one of those paranormal mysteries.

Her doctor, she saw, had dark circles under her eyes. Had she stayed up most of the night? She must have showered not long ago: her hair was wet and held back in a ponytail, and she was wearing a fresh set of clothes. As she crossed the room to her, her glasses glinted from the sunlight. She took the water bottle from the bedside table, twisted the cap off, and offered it to Cassandra.

Cassandra took it and sipped. The water was sweet and soothing to her throat. When her thirst was quenched, she handed the bottle back and asked, "'Re-tearing'? What happened?"

Aurora scowled down at her. Her voice was crisper and wearier than usual when she said, "As I'd warned you might happen, the internal scars lining your uterus ruptured during childbirth. You began hemorrhaging after your son was born, with the damage only worsening when you were giving birth to your daughter. Her body wasn't suited for a human birth. I had to make an incision to widen your cervix to get her out."

She sighed. "You really should have consented to a cesarean section. If they hadn't been smaller than normal, you probably wouldn't have made it. As it was, we had to operate on you to save you. You lost over a liter of blood and might have done irreparable damage to your womb. It's going to take at least two months before you're fully healed - and even then, I wouldn't recommend having any more children."

Cassandra processed that information slowly, realizing, with some horror, what had happened andalmost happened to her. She shivered and nodded. "You don't have to worry. The only one I'd be willing to have more children with is gone. The twins…they're enough for me."

The doctor looked skeptical. "You don't know what the future will bring. You might meet someone who will make you feel-."

"No. We both know I won't."

There was a note of finality in Cassandra's voice as she said that, and Aurora's retort died on her lips. It wasn't that Cassandra felt like she could never love again, or that she had some unspoken duty to remain loyal to Mewtwo's memory. There had been moments in the past few months when she had, largely at Rose's prompting, considered what it would be like for her children to grow up without their father – without a father figure, even. True, she'd never known her own father, and Giovanni's attempts to fill that role hadn't been very successful. She knew it wasn't essential for children to have both parents or even one. As long as they had someone to care for them and teach them, they could grow up happy and healthy; perhaps even happier than most, since parents could cause as much pain to children as strangers, but be harder to escape. Still, not having a family – and indeed, a whole family - could be damaging in its own way.

So, reluctantly and with a slightly sick feeling, Cassandra had considered the possibility of finding someone to fill the void Mewtwo had left. She'd considered finding someone to help her raise the twins and share her bed. After some examination, though, she'd realized that finding someone like that was improbable at best. There were just too many counts "against" them. Cassandra had done monstrous things for Team Rocket, and even her acts of love – such as accepting a beast's embrace – could be counted among her crimes.

Then there was the complication of having two children to raise - both of whom would assuredly have powerful psychic abilities, and one of whom didn't even look human. And say someone could overlook these things: then there were the facts that, A.) Team Rocket was still after them, B.) They were going to be guarded by a grouchy detective and a passel of psychics, and C.) There was a war stirring that could well kill them all. Who'd be willing to put up with all of that? Moreover, who could she trust to be gentle to her children and with her?

She knew only one person who would've been willing, who wouldn't have made some pitiful excuse and run away, shrieking about the madness that was her life. She only knew one person who might have smiled and said, "Yes." But he was gone, and they'd have to live with the reality that no one could take his place.

Cassandra could accept that. She hoped her children could too, even though their hearts were still soft and innocent, and it really didn't seem fair to have to put them through that pain. Yet there was nothing she could do about that, except hold them and whisper that it would be okay. She might not be able to raise the dead, but she would try her best to raise the living, because that was what…that was what mothers did, wasn't it?

Her heart trembled. Looking back up at Aurora, she whispered, "I…I want my children. Please, bring them to me. Please."

Suddenly she needed them, more than she'd ever needed anything in her life (save for those fleeting moments when she'd clung to their father, yearning to melt against and around him). She felt empty without them inside her, heavy, shifting. She ached to hold them in her arms. It was instinctual and emotional and almost frightening in its intensity, and Aurora - who simply said "Of course" with a little smile – couldn't move fast enough to satisfy her.

Cassandra watched the door close behind the doctor and, ignoring the pain, carefully pushed herself up. For an instant she absurdly tried to smooth her hair and brush it back from her face, though she knew the twins would be practically blind at this early stage. Even if they could see her clearly, it wouldn't make any difference to them how she looked. Maybe she wanted to make sure her vision was clear, though. She wanted to see them. She shifted uncomfortably as she waited, but after a couple minutes, Aurora returned with two wrapped bundles in her arms. Cassandra's her heart lurched and her arms reached out on their own accord. Slowly, carefully, and one-by-one, Aurora set the twins into their mother's waiting arms.

She balanced them against her knees, her arms at their sides, their faces mere centimeters away from hers. She couldn't help but stare. They were so very small and fragile-looking to her – to her, whose hands had killed men and women and even children. The thought unsettled her. For a moment she wondered if she should even be holding them like this. She wondered if someone like her had any place cradling such babes against herself. Yet they were her children, her baby boy and baby girl, and she knew she could never raise a hand against them. As awed as she was, it would be difficult to even raise her voice.

She spent what seemed like an eternity studying them: they were both wrapped in white baby blankets, with only their faces exposed. Her son had wisps of dark hair – her hair, she realized – and was ruddy-faced, which she'd read most light-skinned newborns had when they were born. He'd probably be several shades lighter than her, thanks to his father. She touched his head gently, unable to breath as she did. She'd never felt any skin more smooth and tender!

At her touch, he began to squirm and opened his eyes slightly. She saw a flash of blue and wondered whether his eyes would pale to match hers or would darken to match Mewtwo's. She hoped it would be the latter. Stroking his hair, she turned her eyes to her daughter and blinked in surprise. The girl had Mewtwo's shape, of course, though her paws were disproportionately large and she was pudgy with baby fat. Her face shimmered in the sunlight and she, too, had those baby blues. Her fur felt like velvet beneath Cassandra's fingers.

Yet that same fur…. "Oh no." She wasn't certain whether to laugh or cry!

Aurora gave her a reproving look. "Well that's a fine way to greet your daughter! You knew she took after her father, or did you think-?"

"That's not it!" As far as Cassandra was concerned, both the babes in her arms were perfect. It was just that her daughter's coloring was…well…. "It's just…there's two of them. It's going to be hard enough keeping track of them both without one of them blending into the shrubbery!"

Maybe it was the strange combination of genes that had gone into making her, or maybe it was that rare, one-in-roughly-eight-thousand chance. Either way, the girl didn't take after Mewtwo where her fur was concerned. Instead she was the color of white jade, with a midriff and tail being an emerald green (she checked to be sure). Cassandra's daughter, it seemed, was a shiny.

"Oh." Aurora looked slightly abashed. "Well, I wasn't certain what she was supposed to look like. What was her father's coloring, if I may ask?"

Cassandra continued to stare. "Pale and dark purple. His eyes were the same color as amethysts." They'd laughed, joking that his eyes, not his type, had given him his resistance to poisons….

"I see. He must have stood out from a crowd, then. Your daughter should have better luck staying hidden." Seeing the sour look Cassandra gave her, the woman rolled her eyes and said, "If it worries you so much, just put a big, sparkly bow on her! You could make it some obnoxious shade of green. Then she'll be easy to spot and even more adorable."

Cassandra bristled at that, even though she knew Aurora was only teasing. "She doesn't need a bow to look adorable. She already is. They both are."

"Hence why I said 'even more,'" Aurora replied dryly. She grabbed a clipboard from the table and sat down. "So, do you have any other comments to make before we fill out the paperwork?"

Right. There were birth certificates to fill out. She did have something more to say, though. "They're so tiny. Are they healthy?"

Aurora nodded. "They're perfectly fine. Clean bills of health for both of them, unlike you." She wasn't going to let that go, was she? "The only reason they're so small is because they had less room to grow. Don't worry; they'll be twice this size before you know it."

Cassandra wasn't sure how she felt about that. It was a relief to hear, but the idea of them growing so quickly was an uncomfortable one. She drew them closer and felt them move against in short, little jerks. As if sensing her unease, they began to fuss, and Cassandra found herself panicking slightly. She wasn't certain why they were crying and how to fix it. What should she do? Did they not like her holding them like this? Did they need a diaper change? Or were they-?

"Hungry, no doubt. I fed them some formula a few hours ago, but the real thing would do them good. How about it?" Aurora asked. There was a soft smile on her face, which reassured Cassandra somewhat. She still felt uncertain and definitely nervous at the prospect of feeding them…but she hadn't put up with tender breasts for months to not feed them properly. With some trepidation, she leaned them against her knees again and fumbled at the buttons of her gown. Aurora helped her and folded the fabric away, exposing her breasts. Cassandra shivered and, with a little more assistance from the doctor, she guided the newborns to her breasts. They continued to fuss, neither seeming to want her nipples, but then they each latched on and began to nurse greedily, their tiny hands kneading into her.

She made some sound then, some noise of surprise and pleasure, of relief and a bit of pain. She wondered at the strange sensation of the milk being suckled from her, which was so unlike anything she'd ever felt before. But those feelings were nothing, nothing at all compared to the contentment that filled her as they breastfed. These are my children, she thought. These were the creatures she'd felt moving in her womb, whose heartbeats she'd heard and who she'd dreamed of holding. They were in the world at last, safe and sound and warm. And while she found herself worrying – it would be harder to protect them now – she was also happy. For the first time in so long, too long, she believed that the world was beautiful. Now that they were here, the pain of the past appeared a dream.

A lot of what she was feeling was hormones, she knew. But knowing that didn't make her feelings any less true. With a light heart, she gazed down at them and thought, The last person who mouthed me there was your father, when we were making you. I'm sure there's a joke in there, somewhere, but…god, I don't even care.

It took a while, but when the twins satiated themselves and nestled against her chest, Aurora helped her button up. Then she took a pen from her clipboard and asked, "So what have you decided to name them?"

Cassandra lifted her eyes to the doctor. She'd gone through several baby name books over the last few months, but hadn't shared her ideas with anyone else. Now she would. She kissed her son's forehead and said, "This little guy's name will be Christopher Mewtwo Brennan."

Aurora's pen paused in the middle. "Mewtwo?"

"Yes, his father's name. Do you need me to spell it?" The question was crisp and rhetorical. Aurora knew how to spell Mewtwo's name, though the curve of her eyebrow suggested that she didn't think it was the kindest of middle names.

Well that was too damn bad. There wasn't any reason for her son to feel ashamed of it, and if he did…well, he'd just have to avoid giving her cause to shout his full name. To be honest, though, she hoped Christopher would take pride in it. His father had made plenty of mistakes, even hurtful ones - but even so, his memory deserved respect. He'd earned that much from them.

Next, of course, was her daughter. "And this little beauty," she murmured, kissing the crown of the girl's head, "will be Maya Amber Brennan." If Mewtwo had merited a namesake, then so did Amber. The girl had taught her how to smile again, and Cassandra liked to think that her friend would've smiled at this. She simply hoped that Maya wouldn't be quite as…adventurous as Amber had been.She'd probably have a panic attack if Maya decided "street-skiing" sounded like fun!

Aurora, for her part, had no objections to this name. She jotted it down without a word, which Cassandra was thankful for. Breathing in the smells of milk and baby powder, Cassandra whispered her children's names to them. "Christopher. Maya." Mewtwo's children. My children.

As they dozed, they would sometimes squirm against her and curl their hands into fists, or make what she could only describe as "little baby noises." Doing her best not to jostle them, Cassandra took the clipboard from Aurora and set it beside her, signing her name on both certificates. Her children had different birthdays, she saw: August 1st and August 2nd. She wasn't certain whether that would make celebrating their birthdays easier or harder, but…well, that was still awhile away, wasn't it?

After she handed the clipboard back to the doctor, though, Cassandra wondered what she'd give them. What were you supposed to give one-year-olds…? She'd already bought them a couple of stuffed animals; she hoped they'd like them. For a time she lost herself in her thoughts – there was so much to do, so much to plan for – but as her son gurgled and drooled against her gown, her thoughts boiled down into one. There was something she wanted to say to Christopher and Maya, and she wanted to be alone with them when she said it.

When she told Aurora that, the doctor gave her a thoughtful look, but then stood up and said, "Alright. I'll be back in fifteen minutes to check up on you three."

Then she left, shutting the door behind her.

Cassandra looked back down at her children, who occasionally blinked up at her with their blue, blue eyes. It took her a moment to gather herself, but when she did, she took in a deep, quavering breath and whispered, "Hi. Hi, Christopher. Hi, Maya. I'm…I'm your mother. I'm the one you've been growing in for the past nine months and…god, I've been waiting to meet you for just about that long. I hope you'll like me because I…I love you already."

Nervousness, ridiculous as it was, made her heart beat wildly in her chest, her palms sweat, her stomach churn. But she kept talking. "I love you so much, and that's the first thing you need to know. I love you and want you, and no matter what anyone else tells you someday, that's never going to change. I promise."

She took in another breath. Saying this was easier now that she'd started. "The second thing is that it's going to be just us. Your father…he isn't here anymore. And it's not because he didn't love me, and I know, I know he would've loved you. He would've loved being your father and…well, as much as he would've hovered over you, and been stern with you sometimes, I'm betting you would've loved him too. So don't ever think he abandoned you. If anything, he's not here because he cared too much. He died fighting to keep me – to keep us safe, so that's why it'll only be us three."

"But if you…if you ever want to know anything about him, just ask. Since you can't meet him, it's only fair I tell you everything I know about him. It won't make up for him not being here, but I hope it'll be something, at least."

Her throat was starting to hurt, but she rasped through it. "And I…I loved him. I still do. You were made with so much love, sweethearts, and I carried you and gave birth to you, just like any other woman does. So there's nothing unnatural about you, and if…well, if someone says something differently, you just punch right them in the nose!" She gave each of them an Eskimo kiss to make her point. Maya squeaked rather cutely at that, which made her smile. "And don't you believe a word they say, because they sure as hell don't know what they're talking about. I do."

Then her smile faded. "As for the third thing - and this is really a mix of the other two - just…know that I'm going to do my best to take care of you. To make sure you're happy and healthy, and that you don't have to go through what your father or I went through. I'm going to do my best to raise you right, and sometimes…I'm sure at some point I'll mess up or end up making you cry, and you'll do the same for me. But know that I never, never mean to hurt either or you. You mean the world to me and…I'll die before I let anything bad happen to you! You're my children…my family…and I'll do everything I can to keep you safe."

She pressed her forehead against theirs, her eyes blinded by tears. She took their tiny hands in hers, gently, so gently, and whispered, "Us three - we're a family. We'll stick together and take care of each other and come out of this okay. We might not have your father, and it might be us against the world, but…we'll be okay. Everything will be okay, I promise. I promise…."

Her voice broke with a sob, and as if in response to her tears (which could very well be the case), Christopher and Maya also began to cry. For a few minutes she just cried along with them. She ached through her entire body, ached because Mewtwo wasn't here with them, ached from her fear for them, and ached because she didn't know if she could keep that promise. She knew how hard the world could be, and she had no delusions about the dangers they were facing. But all she could do was try her best not to fail them (she'd failed so many others) and pray that her best would be enough.

As she rocked and shushed them, slowly soothing them into sleep, it suddenly hit her just how difficult her new responsibility would be. For the next twenty years (and beyond, if she was honest with herself), she'd have to clean up all their messes. She'd have to care for them when they were sick or in perfect health. She'd have to endure every foul mood they had or mischief they might cause. She wouldn't be free or even able to do whatever she pleased. She couldn't afford to lose her temper or behave improperly or swear like she always did, at least not when they were around.

No, now she would have to put them first in all things, because she was no longer just "Cassandra" anymore. She was also "Mama." She was a mother, and for several long minutes, she sat stiff with terror at the thought. She wondered why she hadn't opted out of this (she'd had the chance!), she wondered when she'd fuck it all up, she wondered if she was even the right kind of person for this job. She could've gone a different way so many times, but she'd chosen this path. She'd chosen to become a mother. And it scared the shit out of her.

But she couldn't go back, not now, not after carrying them and birthing them and holding them in her arms! She couldn't go back, and despite how frightened she was, she knew she didn't really want to. As her heart-rate and panicked breathing began to slow, she wondered if her own mother had felt this way. Had Selena wondered what she'd gotten herself into when she'd first laid eyes on her daughter, or…or when she'd seen the wings sprouting from her baby's back?

Cassandra wished she could ask her. She wished she had someone who knew what the hell they were doing to give her some signposts or guidelines or something. But Selena Brennan was dust and bones, and Cassandra knew she'd just have to make her own way and hope she got it right. Hugging Christopher and Maya closely (they kicked in their sleep), she whispered, "Shhh, sweethearts. I've got you…Mama's got you…."

And as they drifted into deeper dreams, she thought, Welcome to the world, my dears. It's not the best world, but…we'll make the most of it.

She was ready to lean back and doze too, balancing the twins on her chest, when the door opened. That was good, it might be better if Aurora took them to where they'd…been…. The request died on her lips when she saw who was there.

It wasn't the doctor. It wasn't Michael either, or any of the faces she'd come to recognize over the last several months. In the doorway were two strangers dressed in monochrome gray uniforms, their eyes flat and their expressions as bland as their clothes. She instinctively clutched Christopher and Maya closer to her, dread frosting its way through her.

One of the two – the taller one with close-cropped, copper hair – stepped forward, fumbling at the badge on his belt and taking his wallet from his pocket. He glanced back at his partner, a dirty blonde with brown eyes, and nodded to him. Then he turned and looked at her. There was something cold in his gaze, and he seemed detached from what he was doing – but also determined. He showed her his badge and his identification, letting her read the words imprinted on them both: the Department of Child Welfare.

He then began what sounded like a well-rehearsed speech. "Miss Cassandra Brennan, by the order of the Child Welfare Department, we-."

The door opened again, the edge of it clipping the thus-far-silent stranger. As he stepped away with a grunt, rubbing his shoulder and glaring out the gap, Michael stepped in. His cobalt blue eyes darted around the room, sweeping over the men and settling on their badges.

Cocking an eyebrow, he said, "Huh. Now isn't that strange? I don't remember reading anything about Child Welfare getting involved in this case." He purposefully cut between them to stand at Cassandra's bedside, turning around to pin them with a level stare. "Well, I'm certain our superiors will get everything straightened out. For now, though, I'm afraid I'll have to ask you two to leave."

Near the door, the blond crossed his arms, his features once again smooth and unruffled. In contrast, the redhead's lip curled, and he opened his mouth as if to argue – but his words withered as a rumbling sound rose behind him. Cassandra watched the quiet man take a nervous step back as Michael's houndour, Alexius, prowled in. His soot-blackened fangs were bared, with threads of smoke escaping between them. The other one turned and grimaced, his fingers twitching and then plunging into his jacket. Michael moved in front of her, his hand reaching for the holster at his waist. His grip relaxed when the man drew out some papers and passed them to him. The detective scanned them quickly, his mouth thinning as he read.

He heaved a sigh. "How inconvenient. Alexius, come here, boy."

The devil-dog did. When he was sitting at his master's feet, Michael held out the papers to him and asked, "What do you think of these?"

Alexius snorted and spat an ember into the papers, which caught fire readily. Both the strangers made noises of protest, but as he tossed the burning papers into the waste bin, Michael silenced them with a glare. "Next time, make sure your orders have been signed off by everyone on board. I won't accept them otherwise." Scratching his partner behind the ears, he added, "Now for a second time, please leave. I won't ask a third time."

The blond stared at them for a moment, but then shrugged and headed out, giving his partner a backwards glance. The redhead seemed more reluctant to go, but go he did, brushing by a surprised Aurora as he went. Stepping through the door with a curious look on her face, she met Michael's eye and lifted an eyebrow. Gesturing for Alexius to stay, Michael crossed the distance between them, his hand coming to rest on her arm. He nodded to the retreating figures down the hall and murmured something to the doctor. Behind her glasses, Aurora's eyes widened, then narrowed. Their words grew more heated, but Cassandra only caught a few of them: "call," "check," "more," "alright," and a question, "when?" At times they glanced at her, at times down the hall, but in under a minute it was over. Aurora looked her way and said she'd be back in a few minutes, and then quickly walked from the room. Michael's eyes followed her, before he turned back to Cassandra and went to her bedside.

Looking down at them, he seemed to struggle with something for a moment, before he asked, "Do you understand what nearly just happened?"

Cassandra shivered, her fingers digging into the blankets that swaddled the twins. She nodded.

"In all probability, there will be more like them." He glanced at the ashes in the bin, his frown deepening. "I'll do what I can to keep you three safe. We all will. With any luck, we'll even be enough. But if not, you'll have to be ready. Can you do that?"

As if the nightmares she'd been through hadn't taught her anything. "Of course I can. What do you take me for? A civvy?"

That seemed to amuse him. "Technically, that's what you are now. And we're the good guys, making sure civvies like you stay safe and innocent."

She sunk back into the bed, suddenly feeling drained. "I'm hardly innocent, Mr. Po-po."

"True. You aren't." He leaned forward and touched the twins on the crowns of their heads. He didn't hesitate with Maya, though his eyes were thoughtful as he looked between her and her brother. "But they are."

Yes. Yes they are, she thought. A quiet moment passed between them, before Michael drew back and looked down at Alexius. "Stay here and keep them safe. I won't be long."

The dark hound gave a huff at that. A spark flared from his maw, but he didn't whine in protest. Instead, he reared up on his hind legs, placing his front paws on the mattress and shoving his muzzle at them. He sniffed at the twins, his nose wrinkling and his stubby tail jerking as if in agitation. He gave his master a look, but then jumped onto the bed and settled himself down at Cassandra's feet. The dog's body felt like a giant heating pad through the blanket, and while Cassandra wasn't much of a dog fan, she didn't mind this at all. Looks like we'll be nice and toasty. After making sure Christopher and Maya wouldn't tumble off her, she turned her head to watch Michael leave.

Before he closed the door, though, she called out to him. "Michael?"

He paused, seeming surprised that she'd used his first name. He looked back at her. "Yeah?"

"…Thank you." For helping us, for helping me, for everything…well, everything except arresting me that one time. That was kind of a dick move.

She was lucky he wasn't a telepath. But even if he'd heard her thoughts, he probably would have understood. He seemed like that kind of guy.

He stared at her for a second, and then said, "Of course, Cassandra."

She thought she saw him smile as he left. She grinned.

In the month that followed, Aurora ordered Cassandra to remain on bed rest. The doctor could tell Cassandra didn't like being confined for so long – not after her stint in the basement – but she wasn't as rebellious as she could have been. She hadn't tried to make a break for it with crutches or a wheelchair, at least. In truth, caring for her children and sleeping seemed to be keeping her busy. Now that she'd gotten some rest and plenty of iron, she didn't look like death warmed over. That was progress, however small. Even so, Aurora told everyone who asked that no, moving Cassandra was not a good idea. Not yet. The woman could get up and walk around a little – enough to shower and use the bathroom – but doing more than that wasn't wise. This had led to a great deal of sighing and muttering, before Sabrina had looked up from her tea, almost seeming bored, and had given them a solution.

"Why not simply teleport her and the children? The journey would be smooth, instantaneous, and nearly untraceable. There would be no drawbacks to it."

Aurora had wanted to disagree. Deconstructing people into molecules, flinging them though space, and then reconstructing them somewhere else – all in a second, too – didn't seem very safe to her! But few of the others seemed to share her opinion. Cassandra, for one, had no problem with it. She'd just shrugged, said she'd done it before, and laughed at the nauseated look on Aurora's face. The doctor didn't think it was very funny. What it - what if - the Grey Guards put them back together wrong? What if they ended up swapping parts? What if a part of them was left behind? If even one bit of their brains went missing, the effects could be catastrophic - and Aurora enjoyed her brain the way it was!

She would have taken any other kind of transport – really, she would have - but she was outvoted. Michael's superiors didn't want the psychics "spiriting" the family away ("Who knows where they'll end up!"), so they'd decided that Aurora would be taken along for the ride. Not that she could do much if, say, they teleported her and not her pokémon. She was a doctor, not a fighter! She was the white mage to Michael's knight! But the higher-ups seemed to have overlooked that little detail. Despite her protests (her many, many protests), it seemed she was going to have to experience teleportation.

On the day of the move, she tried to rationalize her fear away. As she sent the last of her boxes through the PC Transporter, she told herself that all of her (inanimate and not living) things had made it through intact. So had her cousin's stuff from out east. True, everything was a little cold coming out, but it was otherwise unchanged. Maybe if she just kept telling herself that, she wouldn't have a nervous breakdown….

She wasn't just nervous, though. Looking around her apartment, Aurora couldn't help but feel sad. She was capitol-born and raised, and had spent much of her adult life in these halls. Ten years ago she'd begun working here as an intern, taking the Center over when her mother retired. She knew the city, knew its people, knew its politics. She knew this place, and the thought of leaving it drained her. She wouldn't be here to enjoy the Frost Festival and Christmas celebrations. She wouldn't be here to admire the botanical gardens come spring. She wouldn't be here to have summer barbecues with the trainers, nor candied apples with them in the fall.

Those weren't traditions where they were going. There would be other wonders to replace the ones she loved. There would be spectacular mountain views, expansive fields of flowers, archaeological marvels, pilgrimage sights. There would be a school of Shinto priestesses, their practices unchanged from ancient times. There would be sweets made from purple honey – a rare treat, from what she'd read. And there would be quiet – which, really, she'd been craving for a long time.

It was a big change, though, and she wasn't keen on it. Oh, she trusted her cousin would run the Center well, and no one would even notice they'd traded places. People rarely did (except for that overly-zealous young man from Pewter City). But even so…even so, she'd miss it here. This place had been her home for so long, and even though her new home wouldn't look any different, it would feel different. And that was the main thing, really.

The strap of her overnight bag was also abrasive. She shifted it on her shoulder, trying to place it where it wouldn't rasp against her skin. As she did, she heard familiar footsteps behind her. "Is that everything, 'Rora?"

She turned around and gave Michael a nod. "I sent the last of my boxes over just now. She finished hours ago." She gestured to the boxes in the room around her, which were far fewer than the ones she'd sent. Of course, she'd also sent over a bunch of equipment from her lab, so she felt her amount of stuff was justified. It wasn't as if the lab over there would be up to date, after all.

She hoped her cousin appreciated the upgrade. "How about you? Are you ready to go?"

He tilted his head toward the duffel bag at the door, where Alexius was sitting and scratching his ear. "Pretty much. Everything's been sent on ahead, except my couch. Apparently Sabrina thought it 'clashed with the décor,' so it was put on the curb. Ronnie took it – said something about sentimental value…." He saw her arched brow and grimaced. "She slept on it a lot in our academy days. Just slept, I swear."

Somehow, that still rubbed her slightly the wrong way. Which was odd, because she knew Michael and Ronnie were close, so what did it matter if Ronnie crashed on his couch? They were partners, so what did she expect? Brushing those thoughts aside, she gave her place another glance around. It was naked and filled with another person's crap. It felt violated, and that filled her with regret. "I'm going to miss this place. I hope she appreciates it," she said, trying to keep her voice steady.

"I'm sure she will," Michael said, taking her pack from her and swinging it over his shoulder. "Shall we go?"

She nodded, reluctantly following him out the door, switching off the lights and locking it up. If she'd been told a year ago how quickly her life would change, all due to a teenager who'd stumbled out of the woods, she wouldn't have believed it. She wouldn't have wanted to believe it. She hoped this wouldn't turn out to be a big mistake.

Walking with Michael and Alexius to the garage, where the Center's monthly supplies were dropped off, she felt her stomach clench with unease and a bit of nausea. What if something went wrong…? She glanced at Michael and the duffel bag he was carrying.

"I don't like it," she admitted to him.

"Which part? The teleportation?" He shifted the bags to balance better on his shoulders.

"That and your part of the plan. I don't like it."

"Well, someone has to do it, 'Rora. And I'm the best one for it." He gave her his brightest and most confident smile. "We'll be fine. Try not to worry so much."

Easier said than done, she thought. She pushed open the door to the room where the others were waiting. The crates had been pushed up against the walls, while an armored caravan squatted near the garage door. As they entered, the group standing next to it turned towards them: Sabrina and Rose, the Grey Guards Anastasia and Florian, the caravan team (the driver, the caravan guards, the young specialist) and their pokémon, and, of course, Cassandra and the twins. The babes, she was pleased to see, appeared to be sleeping soundly in their mother's arms.

Their mother, on the other hand, kept glancing at her guards and squirming in her seat. Aurora supposed she could understand. She knew Florian was an outgoing man, flamboyant and full of laughter, while Anastasia was comparatively reserved and seemingly emotionless. That they worked so well together was a miracle, and she had to wonder why they'd been selected for this job. Did Sabrina think that the sometimes-overly-serious Cassandra would find a kindred soul in Anastasia, or find refuge in Florian's sense of humor? Were they selected on the basis of getting along well with Michael (not that that was hard), or because they were child-friendly? At her side, Alexius growled somewhat, but quieted as Michael set a hand on his head. There was little love between shadows and psychics, but they would work together if they must.

Of course, psychics couldn't teleport dark-types, and Michael wouldn't go anywhere without his faithful hound. That had, in part, been the reason behind their current plan, though there had been other arguments for it. Trying not to think about the possible dangers ahead of him, Aurora greeted the others and went to her charges. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Michael set down his pack and unzip it, taking out his Kevlar armor piece by piece. As Cassandra brushed off her questions with a quick, "Fine, we're just fine," the doctor turned her attention to her friend fully. As Michael suited up, he bantered with the caravan team and occasionally laughed at some quip they made. Alexius and the other pokémon, meanwhile, sniffed at each other in greeting. After a few minutes, Sabrina cleaned her throat and spoke up.

"Now that everyone is here and properly attired, we should get started."

The others nodded, with the specialist coming forward and releasing three identical pokémon from their pokéballs. The white light materialized into three pink, amorphous blobs: a trio of ditto trained for decoy assignments. One by one, the specialist held the ditto up to Cassandra and the twins, the former of which rather reluctantly let the pink tendrils touch them. Soon there was a second family in the room, complete with the clothes the originals were wearing.

Ditto genetics were, suffice to say, rather bewildering. Aurora figured the dittos might have spun the cotton fibers like a spider did its silk. How they managed that was something a specialist like their trainer knew better than she. She watched the woman hand each of the replicas an everstone ring, which would help them maintain their transformations under duress. Cassandra, for her part, looked nauseated at the sight. Aurora wasn't quite sure why that was, but she supposed seeing mirror images of her children and herself wasn't very comfortable.

It wasn't a perfect illusion, though. Ditto could imitate human bodies and even a few words of human speech – but actual conversation was beyond them. If the caravan was captured, the ruse would be discovered and their cover story dismissed. Therein lay the danger for Michael and Alexius, who were going in order to add some truth to the lie. If they made it to the Vermillion docks intact, the Rockets might believe that the young family had fled to the Southern Islands – a reasonable story, given Michael's connections to them. From there some of their other contacts would teleport Michael to the actual site, the caravan team would be transferred to Fuchsia (their hometown), and Alexius would be moved via PC Transfer to join his master. It was rather more straightforward than it sounded, and safer than transporting the lot of them manually. It was dangerous for Alexius and Michael, though, hence her concern.

As the caravan team withdrew their pokémon and boarded the vehicle, she felt Michael rest a hand on her shoulder. "You ready?"

Her stomach clenched. Right – she was going to be teleported east. A plague on all their freaking houses. "Not one bit. You?"

He laughed. "Ready as I can be."

He didn't seem to be nervous in the least. She admired his bravery. "I hope you're right."

He gave her a half smile and, to her surprise, kissed her on the forehead. "I'll see you on the other side, Aurora."

Please let him be right. "See you there." Don't get killed, Michael.

They turned away from each other. A moment later Aurora heard the truck start up and its doors slam shut. When the guards outside confirmed the area was clear, Florian walked up to her and playfully hooked her arm with his. Anastasia placed her hands on Cassandra's shoulders, and soon the four of them were bathed in blue light. The cold energy rushed through her, raising the little hairs on her arms and shining off her glasses. Yet through the glare, she could see Sabrina glowing even more brightly. After they were gone, the gym leader would release a burst of psychic energy – a harmless one, she assured them – which would drown out the trails their transfer left behind.

Just before the Guards teleported them away, though, she saw Rose – also luminous - give Sabrina a kiss on the mouth. She wondered why she'd felt as if she'd forgotten something.

Then the cool energy flushed through her veins like ice-water. There was a flash of azure light, and then they were gone, swept away into the east.

Through the glass, Michael watched the group disappear in a bright, blue flash, their images burning themselves into his retinas. As he blinked, they hovered in splotches of yellow-green-blue ahead of him. But as his eyes adjusted, he felt the knots in his stomach loosen. Unlike his superiors, he trusted Sabrina and her colleagues. As far as he was concerned, Aurora, Cassandra, and the children were now safe in their new homes, guarded by friends far more gifted than him. Leaning back in his seat as the garage door opened, he felt Alexius butt his head against his hand comfortingly. He rested his palm on the skull-like crest on the dog's forehead. He could feel the warmth of the fire-type through his glove, like sunbaked stone against his skin. It was a steadying sensation, a reassuring gesture…or maybe the pup just wanted attention. "I'll give you your treats later, Alexius," he promised. I might even give you the special one.

He hoped it wouldn't come to that, though. They were saving it for a rainy day. Well, a day when it was raining enemies, but knowing their luck…yeah, like hell if this would go nice and smoothly. Nothing ever seemed to when the Rockets were involved.

As the caravan rolled forward, a charge began building in the air, with the scent of ozone soon stinging in his nose. Here it comes, he thought, covering Alexius' glowing red eyes. Someone was calling out a countdown, ten, nine, eight, seven (the hairs on his arms and neck stood up), six, five, four, three (he ducked his head and covered his eyes), two, on-.

Sabrina unleashed the psycho-electrical pulse. The energy flooded the room in a tsunami of blue light, passing through them, through the caravan, through the walls of the Center and out into the night. Lights flickered and the radio spewed static, while car alarms started to wail along the streets. He heard flocks of birds taking flight, a cat yowling, a couple screams and the sound of breaking glass. Despite putting his hand over his eyes, he was still momentarily blinded – he'd been able to glimpse the bones in his fingers – and he heard the driver cursing. Alexius, for his part, sneezed from the light, but otherwise didn't seem fazed. His stump of a tail continued to wiggle, thumping against the seat.Lucky pup.

"I thought you said it wouldn't damage anything!" Michael called out the window, thinking of the screams and the sounds of breaking glass. He blinked and tried to get his eyes to readjust to the dark. He should've worn a visor or something. Veronica liked welding things; she probably would have had something.

He heard a laugh, and then a voice blossomed in his head, the words buoyed by amusement, "I did not lie. If I startled a few into dropping their dinner plates, well…I cannot say it wasn't my fault, but nothing was harmed save a bit of china."

"Uh-huh. Sure." He'd see what the news report said tomorrow, just to be sure. For now they had to move. The pulse might have helped cover the others' trail, but it would doubtlessly draw the attention of the Rockets too. The faster they left the city, the safer the civilians would be. "Alright, Remy. Take us away!"

The driver gave him a dangerous grin, his teeth white and gleaming in the gloom. "Sure thing, Micky."

Everyone in the truck snickered at that – the specialist, the guards, even the freaking decoys. And nothing was creepier than babies smirking at you. It just didn't look right!

Oh hell no. "You take that back, Remy! I will not be associated with the Disney mouse!" He leaned forward in his seat, taking the safety off his gun.

Remy turned onto the southward road, which was dirt-packed, lined with trees, and thankfully empty of trainers at this hour. He glanced in the mirror, saw what Michael was doing, and gave a bark of laughter. "Whoa, man, calm down. If you shoot me, how will you ever get your ass to port?"

"I could always drive the truck myself, you think of that? Or get Buster or A. J. to do it," the detective replied, referring to the Hulk and the auburn-haired, lady knight sitting across from him. "Hell, even Imite here could probably manage it just fine!" The ivy-haired woman rolled her eyes, but seemed amused nonetheless.

Then Remy opened his big, whisker-lined mouth. "Well, Buster needs to be ready to 'bust in' some faces, A. J. will be blasting Rockets off sky-high, and Imite…well, Imite can't see over the dashboard, so she doesn't count."


Remy went on quickly. "Besides, can any of you pop a wheelie with a tank?" Oh, like hell he'd done that. Regardless of the picture on the dashboard. It was probably Photo-shopped, Michael thought. Everything from mountains to boobs were these days. "Is that a no?" Remy asked in a sing-song voice. He flashed another grin, twisting the wheel to turn into the border gates. As he got his identification out, he glanced back and said, "Yeah, that's what I thought…Micky."

"Keep this up and you'll be 'Baldy' for the next two hours." While they bickered, the gate guards glanced at their pass and stamped it. Remy gave them a bottle of lemonade for their trouble. As the bars lifted, he drove on through, taking them down the hill to the fields. On the stepped ridges on either side of them, flowers waved in the night breeze, their petals closed up for the night. He saw a campfire near the exit of the Underground Tunnel, and heard trainers laughing as they roasted hot dogs and marshmallows. Everything seemed pretty peaceful. He hoped it would stay that way.

"I ain't bald," Remy said after he finished navigating them down onto the gravel road. The pebbles crunched beneath the wheels and dust billowed up behind them. "Don't you see all this hair I've got on my head?"

Michael scanned the trees. There were forests surrounding this whole route, sheltering the tall grasses and soupy ponds of the marsh. They should have plenty of warning before a foe was on them…unless of course there were foes hiding in the weeds and in the water. That was always a possibility. Beware the tall grass, his parents had once said.

But that had been before he'd gotten Alexius. The tall grass didn't pose much of a threat anymore. "Having that bushy beard and mustache doesn't count, Remy."

"I don't see why not. It's above my neck, isn't it? So long as it's on my head, it should count." Remy turned onto the drier portion of the marsh, where the road weaved like an ekans. "Now you, you've got those big mouse ears and that pointy nose. So Micky fits you."

Michael felt his neck and face go hot as he blushed. "I do not! I have the nose of freaking Adonis, and my ears just look big ever since 'Rora gave me this haircut."

"What, she doesn't like you looking all scruffy? What a shame. That bad-boy look was all you had going for you." That was A. J., the bi – witch. Witch. He must not use gender-insensitive expletives, no matter how accurate they might be.

"Haha, very funny. How about keeping a lookout like a dutiful watchdog, A. J.?"

The woman pressed a gloved hand to her chest, miming her hurt, but she donned her infrared goggles anyway. Buster, for his part, looked relieved as he turned to peer out the window. Knowing him, the banter had probably been driving him crazy. While his physique suggested he thrived on violence and loud noises, the man liked his peace and quiet - which was ironic, considering his career of choice.

Five minutes later, they'd settled into their positions. Remy navigated and minded the bellsprout crossings, A. J. and Buster watched their flanks and rear, and Imite and not-Cassandra made faces at each other (as disturbing as it was, he couldn't look away, because he'd never seen Cassandra make a ditzy face before). Michael kept his gun across his lap and a hand at Alexius' collar, which jingled when they hit a bump or pit in the road, thanks to the identification tags and the training stone.

The night deepened as they continued on: stars peeked out, clouds drifted across the moon, crickets chirped and owls hooted. The truck carried them through the marsh, to the east, to the west, the road winding ever southward. In the distance, the grasses opened up to a large lake, its waters black and shimmering in the moonlight. Ducks glided among the reeds, while fish surfaced to eat drowning insects. There were tents along the shore – fishermen, probably, hoping to catch something besides magikarp, which were all scales and bones. Of course, there was always a chance that the Rockets could be lying in wait in those tents…but as they passed them by, reaching the halfway point to Vermillion, no one stirred.

Leaving the lake behind, Michael began to wonder if they'd actually get away with it. Sure, they'd started some rumors about heading – well, just about anywhere but their real destinations - but he'd been certain someone would've seen through the lie. As he thought about it more, he felt dread coil in his gut. What if they'd seen through the lie completely? What if the Rockets were waiting in the mountains rather than on the coast? What if Aurora, Cassandra, and the twins had been captured, and he was sitting here, useless to them?

But no. No, they had to be safe. If the Rockets had been lying in wait there, they would've received word by now. Moreover, Florian and Anastasia were highly trained defense specialists, and without dark-types on their side, the Rockets wouldn't be able to accomplish much. No, Aurora and his charges would be alright. He needed to focus on the team around him right now – and himself, for that matter. Just because the trip had been quiet so far didn't mean it would stay that way.

Beside him, Alexius began to growl low in his throat, his eyes glowing red as he glared out the west-facing window.

Ah, see. There I go, jinxing things.

"We've got movement in the trees to our right. Three figures, possibly more deeper in," A. J. said as she unclipped a pokéball from her belt. She rolled the window down, pressed the button to expand the containment sphere, and released a golbat into night. "Batty, why don't you go check out friends out? Stay out of range and get a headcount."

The golbat wheeled into the night, the chirps of its echolocation grating in Michael's ears. As the pokémon ducked into the trees, he saw a flicker of light as a Rocket released his or her pokémon. Most trainers wouldn't have bothered. For one thing, there would've been other places to catch the bat pokémon if they were collectors. For another, their teams should have been established at this point in their journeys. Besides, the golbat wasn't attacking the group. It was just looking, which made the thunderbolt they hurled its way completely unnecessary! Michael sighed as the golbat winged its way back to them, a little frazzled but otherwise unharmed. Electrical attacks were, luckily, not the most accurate ones in the book.

Of course, the fact that the Rockets had an electric-type pokémon was an ominous sign. The grunts, after all, tended to favor poison- and normal-types. That predictability made them easier to deal with, but to have a variation from the norm suggested they were A.) Higher in rank, B.) Stronger, and C.)Smarter.

Not smart enough to avoid giving themselves away, though, Michael thought ruefully as he removed Alexius' collar. The canine gave him a look, wagging his tail and huffing in pleasure, his breath growing hearth-hot in his arm. "Burn them, please, not me."

The dog snorted flame and, when A. J. opened the door, leapt out and was swallowed by the tall grass. Seconds later, A. J. and Buster released their own teams into the fields. Buster took inspiration from his idol, Bruno, favoring ground- and fighting-types. A. J., for her part, was a little more versatile, preferring a mix of flying-, water-, and grass-types. Between the two of them, most of the type advantages against everyday foes were covered, especially when the dual-types and unusual move-sets were taken into consideration. Having Alexius, a dark- and fire-type, on their side only rounded out their defense. Really, unless they had a dragon in their arsenal, Michael didn't think they'd pose too much of a challenge.

He made the mistake of saying that when their teams charged the trees, with Alexius taking point.

In that same moment, a giant, sinewy shape twisted out of the trees to meet them. It opened its maw and bellowed an earsplitting roar: "GYAAAAARRRRR!"

And then it unleashed indigo flames over the fields, setting the horizon on fire.

Dragon Rage!

"Shit!" Remy jerked the truck hard to the left, nearly rolling them over, but he managed to keep them upright. When the truck slammed back onto its wheels, Buster and A. J. were quick to act, opening the skylight and climbing to the "cage" up top. As their boots, heavy with magnetic soles, thunk-thunked onto the roof, Michael made sure Imite and the decoys were secure, and then clambered up as well. There wasn't a lot of room, and his feet certainly weren't as stable, but he tied himself to the railing like the others had and hoped it would be enough. Together they looked out onto the burning field, the lake to the north glistening red and gold, the smoke swallowing the stars and smothering the moon. They tucked their shirts over their mouths to help with the smoke, and searched for the thirteen who'd gone in.

Two shadows plunged down, swooping back up with comrades clutched in their claws: A. J.'s golbat rescued her tangela, who was looking a little singed on some of its vines, while her pidgeot caught her ivysaur in midair. The latter had propelled itself upwards with its vines, and for that quick thinking, its leaves were only a little curled around the edges. Her vaporeon and golduck, in distinct contrast, were whirling in place, sending spouts of water to extinguish the flames around them. Of Buster's teams, his hitmonlee, hitmonchan, and machamp were all dancing around patches of flames, none looking particularly pleased – but they were alive, which was the important thing. His rhyhorn and onix, both heavy-hitters, seemed more annoyed than anything else, while his sandslash had curled into a ball, defending itself with its pointed scales. All had survived the blaze, if a little worse for wear. But where was Alexius? Where was-?

With a great howl, the dog erupted from the ashes, leaping through the sparks and smoke at the gyarados. Golden energy surrounded him as he hurled himself at the leviathan, and when he was a meter from his foe, he let the attack surge forward. The energy burst from him, condensing into rings that encircled the gyarados…and then the rings constricted, slicing into its torso. They seared wherever they touched its scales, turning the gyarados' indigo flames back on it. For monsters as strong as the leviathan, the move Alexius had just used was a treacherous one…but what was that saying people were always quoting? "All is fair in love and war"? Well, Michael considered this a war, and he'd instructed the houndour to use Foul Play whenever he saw fit. After all, few expected such an advanced move out of a "puppy."

He supposed that was one of the advantages of having a Level 43 houndour: everyone thought they were a pair of pushovers.

And soon enough, everyone found out how very wrong they were.

The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Or in this case, the stronger they are….

As the false dragon collapsed, its wounds cauterized by the flames (it should consider itself lucky – it would be bleeding out if not for the fire), the houndour turned around and crossed the fiery field. As he came back to them, his eyes glowed with hellfire, sparks flew wherever he set his paws, and the air around him shimmered and burned. A light was gathering around him, turning from scarlet to gold to white. When he stepped forward, his torso and legs elongated, his sturdy bulk shifted into wiry strength. His claws became pronounced; the boney bands around his ankles doubled; he gained a third, white ridge on his back, and a collar with a skull-pendant around his neck. The crest on his forehead shifted up, forming two long, curling horns that melded with his ears. His tail lengthened into an arrowhead-tipped whip, and his snout grew long and pointed. When the light faded, the hound of the inferno stood before them.

Alexius the Houndoom threw back his head and howled.

When the long, undulating cry ended, Michael, grinning from ear to ear, thought to himself, Well, it looks like that Rare Candy won't be necessary.

I'm proud of you, buddy.

When he looked up, he saw seven Rockets emerging from the edge of the trees. One of them returned the fallen gyarados to its pokéball, replacing it with the other members of his team – among them a steelix, an electrode, a magneton, a tentacruel, and a seadra. His companions released their pokémon as well, the numbers setting the trees awash in red light. There were fearows and golbats, weezings and arboks, ratticates and persians, weepingbells and vileplumes. Michael glimpsed others through the smoke, including a pair of beedrill, a nidorina and nidorino, and quite possibly a golem. So if one of them had released five pokémon, and the rest had released six, that made the count…what, forty-one? And that was if they had the maximum legal amount on them, which wasn't always the case.

"So what have we got? Roughly 3-to-1 odds?" A. J. asked, leaning against the railing of the cage.

Beside her, Buster grunted an affirmative.

"Eh. That's going to be a pain in the ass. It'd be easier if we could just shoot the Rockets."

Remy leaned out the window. "You'd better not! I don't wanna be sticking any corpses in my trunk. Besides, their teams could get ass-ugly if we take out their trainers."

A.J. made a frustrated noise. "Fuck. This sucks. I fucking hate melees. Whatever happened to good-old-fashioned single combat?"

"Folks grew out of it," Remy said, and passed around lemonades. "Just divvy them up by type advantage and get on with it. None of us are getting any younger."

"Easy for you to say, Mr. I'm-A-Driver-Not-A-Fighter." A. J. opened the lemonade and dropped it down to her grass-types, who caught the bottle with their vines and made appreciative sounds as they drank.

Remy rolled his eyes. "Someone has to get us out of here fast if things go sour. Can't do that if I'm distracted by a battle."

"Yeah, yeah…."

The long grasses had finished burning, leaving cinders and charcoal in their place. The Rockets directed their hoard to cross the field, their pokémon calling out their challenges as they swooped, leapt, and slithered forward. Alexius ran out to meet them, his head lifted high, his teeth bared and his claws primed. The twelve others followed him. They were all that stood between their humans and their enemies, between the decoys and discovery. If they fell here, it would be a set-back for their side, but it wouldn't be a total failure. The Rockets wouldn't be any closer to figuring out the truth, and they would've wasted a nice portion of their strength in their attempt.

…But what was he thinking? He was making it sound as if their group was going to meet some overly dramatic and tragic end. Michael scoffed and reminded himself that this was what they'd been trained for, and Alexius had already shown his mettle by KO'ing a freaking gyarados. The others doubtlessly had their own aces up their sleeves.

"Have any of you ever wondered why cops usually work with fire-type dogs?" Michael asked suddenly.

The others looked at each other, obviously wondering why he was bringing this up now. It was Imite who answered him. "Well, aren't there a lot of reasons? Fire-types are rare, so people don't get to train against them very much. They're also good at working in burning buildings and firefights, and…well, they're dogs. They're obedient, loyal, and easier to train than most animals."

"You're right. There is that." And then, surprising them all, Michael's mouth curled into a rather wicked smirk. "But there's also another reason. You see, someone, somewhere, once looked over a battlefield and thought, 'You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I'm just not close enough to do it.' Well, what move can all growlithe and houndour learn at some point in their training?"

In the center of the ashen field, Alexius opened his maw, tongues of fire licking at his fangs and snout.

And Michael answered the question as the devil-dog breathed out.


The Center they appeared in didn't look much different from the one in Saffron. Sure, there'd been more space in the capitol Center and it had been better stocked. But like all League buildings, this one had the same barrel-vaulted roof and red-and-white coloration, the same "P" insignia popping up everywhere, and the same counters, computers, and visitors' dorms. The doctor's office and apartment, Aurora mentioned over tea and coffee, were smaller than her rooms had been, and the same could be said for the patient rooms. She seemed to think that was a little ridiculous, given the influx of trainers coming through the mountains and the area's tourist industry.

But it was what it was. Cassandra ultimately ended up tuning her out when she started talking about the town, because really, she'd heard all of it before in school, so she didn't really need the primer. She leaned into the wheelchair, her back still sore and her breasts aching as Maya and Christopher nursed. In a month, they seemed to have grown twice the size they'd been when they were born. So quickly, she thought. They're already growing so quickly.

After her children finished nursing, Florian and Anastasia – who'd teleported the Lavender nurse to Saffron earlier - offered to hold them so she could button up and give her arms a rest. Cassandra hesitated, not certain if she trusted them to not to take her children and vanish…but she quashed that worry ruthlessly, telling herself they'd already had numerous chances to do just that. So she let Florian take Maya and Anastasia take Chris (they squirmed and gurgled a little, but didn't start crying – score one for the Greys), watching them closely despite her drooping eyelids.

Florian was a tall man, with limbs that seemed too long and hands that seemed too big. His hair, which she could only describe as "ash blond," complemented his blue-gray eyes. He was always smiling and joking too: he'd once bombarded Michael with water balloons full of green dye, just to "Give him a bit of color." Michael had taken it rather well. He'd just had Alexius set the man's pants on fire and called it even.

Anastasia, in contrast, was a complete stoic. Like Florian, she dressed all in grey, though she tended towards a darker shade of it. She had hair the color of dark chocolate, which she kept tied back in a single braid; her eyes, very close to the hue of her hair, were often flat, but occasionally they seemed to light up…around Alexius, oddly enough. Psychics may not be fond of dark-types, but Anastasia seemed to have a soft spot for dogs. She liked cats just as well, she'd mentioned once, but dogs were loyal, obedient, and lovable. Cats had minds of their own, and sometimes that could get them into trouble (she'd said that while glancing sideways at Florian). After all, there wasn't the saying, "Curiosity killed the dog," was there?

Aurora broke into her reverie, gathering the paper cups to stuff into the trash bin. "Well, Rose has probably prepared everything by now. How about we head over to see what your accommodations are?"

As exhausted as Cassandra was, that sounded like a good plan to her. She clutched the arms of the wheelchair as Aurora guided her from the table and out the room. She twisted her head to watch the guards following along behind them – Florian with a little bounce in her step, and Anastasia with steps so smooth she appeared to be floating (Cassandra checked to make sure she wasn't). Soon enough they were out the front doors and walking into the night.

Lavender Town, she thought, reminded her a bit of the suburbs of Viridian, except there weren't as many trees. Instead there were misty fields of soybeans, cotton, and, of course, lavender and other purple flowers, which the town had been named for. There were also kudzu vines everywhere, crawling up the sides of buildings and light-poles. When in bloom, they would turn the entire town violet. As for the roads, they were vacant at this hour and dimly lit. The glass of the light-posts had a faintly purple sheen to them, which made the emptiness even more eerie.

As they went, they passed by clusters of small shops, most of them selling bath-and-body works, reams of books, and supernatural trinkets ("Silph Scopes, bargain-priced at ¥50,000.00!"). There were restaurants and confectionaries, many of which prided themselves for their desserts: "Made with REAL Lavender Honey!" There was a spa-and-hotel for particularly wealthy visitors to stay at, and, on the other end of that scale, a volunteer center which took care of orphaned pokémon. A cubone was part of the insignia. Well, they do wear their mothers' skulls, she thought.

There was also a school and a market, she knew, but they were at the southern end of the town, and their group was heading east. As they went, the shops gave way to neighborhoods of small houses, which were very near a park. This one, she saw, had a number of trees and flower plots. They went through it, listening to the chirps of crickets and watching huge moths flutter around the lamps. In the distance, she could see the famous Pokémon Tower – the Tower of the Dead - looming higher and higher. It seemed determined to touch the moon. There were orbs of light flickering by its windows, too. Whether they were will-o-wisps or candles, she couldn't say.

Finally, they turned out of the park and onto another street. There were only a few houses here, but the ones that were there were huge. Well, not quite mansion or manor huge, but still sizable. One of the porches was lit, and there, sitting in the swing, was Rose. She got up when she saw them, giving them a smile. "Dinner's ready!" she called out. "It's nothing fancy, I'm afraid, but it should be enough to fill our stomachs. Please, come in."

The gate - made of heavy iron and fashioned into lavender flowers - glowed blue as it swung open. Like the rest of the fence surrounding the property, it had kudzu vines crawling through its bars, if not quite as thickly. As they went through it onto the cobblestone pathway, they passed a black mailbox with a sign hanging beneath it, which read: "Haunt Hartell." It had apparently once been known as "Haunt Hargrave" – the Lavenderites were fond of their little puns – but from what she'd been told, Sabrina had changed it to reflect Cassandra and her children's "new" last name. "Hartell" meant "little tough, hardy one" or "little buck," and it punned – of course it punned - on "heart." Oh, she knew what Sabrina was referring to with that, and she wasn't sure whether she should be appreciative or annoyed by it. In the end, though, the surname was better than "Gutermuth," which had also been suggested ("What? You don't like it? It means 'optimistic.'" "It sounds like 'gutter-mouth,' you bitch." "Which makes it perfect for you." "No! I said no!").

So now they were Cassandra Hartell, Christopher Hartell, Maya Hartell…and Michael Hartell. The detective would be posing as her cousin, who'd generously offered to have her and her children move in with him after her "husband's" death. Of course, Saffron City was no place to raise children - not these days, anyway - so he'd been looking for a house in the nearby towns. A close friend of his, Sabrina Sheehy, just so happened to have some property in Lavender Town, including a vacation home she was willing to part with.

In truth, the Sheehy clan had property all over Kanto, including two vacation homes in Lavender: one being Haunt Hartell, which was smaller and in town, and Haunt Haggard, which was near the Tower and surrounded by gardens. Cassandra had the sneaking suspicion she'd be living in the "home away from the summer home," since Sabrina had purchased it rather recently…but even so, it looked like a nice house.

It was a two-story home, built from bricks and painted lilac. Ivy crawled up its western wall and around the corners, being cut back where it encroached on the windows and porch. In each of the side yards were tall lilac bushes, three to each side. What was in the backyard was a mystery. The front, though, had flower plots that followed along the walkway: she recognized lavender and lupin, violets and verbenas, clematis and chrysanthemums, bee balms, pansies, and heliotropes. She wasn't sure which of those were children-friendly, so she made a mental note to keep the twins away from them until she knew. At that point they stopped at the front steps and Aurora helped her up. A pang went through her abdomen as she stood, but Cassandra gritted her teeth and made her way up the stairs. There were wind chimes hanging from the porch roof and music was coming from inside. There was also the smell of roasted meat. It was enough to make her stomach growl and her mouth water.

Before she went in, she glanced over her shoulder, making sure the others were there (Christopher, Maya). They were. With Aurora at her side, Cassandra made her way into the house, slipping off her shoes as she went. She glanced around quickly as the others did the same, the door shutting itself behind them. There was a banner stretched above the entryway, decorated with birds and flowers: "Welcome to Your New Home!" it said in florid letters. Florian had probably done that. He seemed the most affectionate of the bunch, and had mentioned he was a decent painter. Beyond it and to her left was the dining room, the table laden with a vegetable and a fruit salad, a platter of chicken and potatoes, a loaf of bread, and a pitcher of some sort of iced juice. It took her a moment to force her eyes away.

Behind the dining room was the kitchen, which had quite a bit more cupboards and counter-space than Cassandra was used to. Hopefully she wouldn't set them on fire at some point. To her right was a living room, furnished with a couch and a pair of armchairs – they looked sinfully cushy – and a flat-screen T.V. on the wall. Huh. There's something I'm not used to having. Doubtlessly Michael would use it the most. To the right of that was a staircase that led up to the second story, presumably to the bedrooms. She took a couple steps out of the entryway and looked down the hall. There might have been a bathroom down there and another room – maybe a study, a guest bedroom, or a closed-in porch. She'd have to check at some point.

So this is going to be our home, she thought.

And honestly, it was a nice enough to make her wonder why Sabrina was letting them use it. After all, there were going to be two kids living here. That was bound to make a mess of it – dents in the walls, carpet stains, maybe even gnawed furniture. Maybe Sabrina was just so rich that she could afford to have the place ruined. But Cassandra never got the sense that Sabrina was wasteful. No, this seemed to be an investment of some sort.

Oh, it was convenient in all sorts of ways for them: the government – and the tenants, for that matter – didn't have to pay for the place, and they hadn't needed to contact outsiders to make the arrangements. The place was fully furnished, had plenty of space, and was apparently "cozy and perfectly safe." Its windows and walls were deceptively thick, and if those failed, there were friends nearby to help. Aurora and Rose would be short drives away, Florian and Anastasia would take shifts guarding the house, and Michael and Alexius would scarcely leave their sides.

But Cassandra couldn't shake the feeling that there was a catch to this somewhere. Maybe some would call her paranoid, but she'd never been given something for nothing. Not even in love - not really. Sure, Sabrina had said they'd have to pay the bills and buy their own food, supplies, and so forth…but that didn't feel like the catch. Where the Witch was concerned, Cassandra was certain it would be something subtle yet significant. And it frustrated her that she couldn't see what it might be.

Sabrina is going to want something in return for this. I know it. But what is it…?

If she turned this down, she wouldn't have to find out. But that would be insane. Her children needed this place, and she had to put their needs ahead of her doubts.

She sighed, hoping that if there was a catch coming, Sabrina would be willing to wait awhile to reveal it. She was too tired to deal with it right now.

She turned back to the others. Aurora and Rose were discussing something, while Florian and Anastasia both stood with her children in their arms. Christopher and Maya were beginning to squirm and cry. They'd already eaten, and their diapers hadn't been changed all that long ago. That left sleep. "I need to put them down to bed," she said, going up to them and making soothing sounds. "Is there someplace in here where-?"

"There's a crib upstairs for them. I'll take them up and keep an eye on them." Anastasia balanced Christopher carefully and took Maya from Florian. "You should get something to eat, Ms. Hartell."

Cassandra was a bit nervous about that idea, but she had to admit, it was a good one. She did have to eat. "Alright. You…don't have to call me that, you know."

"The sooner you get used to it, the easier it will be for you to slip into. I'm sure you know that." Well, that was true. But it didn't mean Cassandra had to like it. She'd just reclaimed her real surname, and now she had to adopt this new one. It would take a while to get used to….

As Anastasia went to the stairs, Florian called out, "Do you want me to bring you something to eat?"

"A bowl of fruit salad would be fine, Florian. Make sure Ms. Hartell enjoys her homecoming."

Florian saluted his partner and gave her a winning grin. "Will do!"

Oh, goodie.

Yet despite her apprehension, Cassandra ended up enjoying herself. The dinner was a nice one: the greens had been tossed in some sort of tangy oil; the fruit salad had fresh raspberries in it; the chicken and potatoes had been spiced with rosemary and lemon juice; and the punch was surprisingly good. Maybe that was just because it wasn't spiked, though. The punch at Rocket parties had always turned into rocket fuel before the night was over. And the company here was also better – much, much better. She couldn't really associate with Rose on a casual level, but she could watch with amusement as Florian pulled roses out of the woman's ear ("You'd best not have taken those from Haunt Haggard, Florian."). He also made a bowl of fruit "disappear" at one point, but being able to feel the surge of psychic energy somewhat spoiled the trick.

Aurora, for her part, took out a pack of cards and suggested they play a few rounds of poker ("You psychics better not cheat"), using some Ghastly Grape candies as the chips. It didn't go so well. Florian won on account of everyone "thinking too loudly" - "I can't help but overhear you!" As the night went on, the games dwindled into quiet conversations, most of which Cassandra only listened to. She noticed that Aurora was becoming rather fidgety, checking her phone every few minutes and sighing. She must be worried about Michael…and Alexius, of course.

But Cassandra hadn't missed that kiss the man had given Aurora before they'd parted ways. She wondered if that would go anywhere. On the one hand, she hated it when people paraded their affections publicly, but on the other hand, it might be good for them. Whether it went anywhere or not, though…well, it wasn't really her concern. Unless they brought it back here and scarred her children. Then there would be words and maybe some punching.

The lull was interrupted when Aurora's phone jingled with a text message. She checked it, paled, and quickly got up from her seat. "I'll be back later. Michael just arrived and…."

Where that "and" might have led they never learned. When Aurora grabbed her jacket and started out, Rose caught her wrist and stopped her. "It'll be quicker if we go my way, Aurora."

Distracted as she was, the doctor forgot her fear of teleportation and nodded. In a flicker of light, they were gone. Cassandra looked at Florian, who, for once, seemed less than jolly. "I certainly hope it's not serious. I've been growing rather fond of that man, his devil-dog included. It'd be a pity if something happened to them."

Cassandra had to agree. While Michael wasn't particularly fond of her, she had nothing against him, not really. He'd been doing his best to keep her children and her safe, and she hadn't forgotten how he'd defended them the morning after the twins had been born. He was also Aurora's best friend, and Cassandra wouldn't wish the loss of a best friend on anyone. She'd lost two herself, after all.

The two of them waited impatiently for the others to return, watching the pitcher as it wept and hearing the sound of singing from upstairs. That observation distracted her for a moment. Anastasia was singing? The idea clashed with Cassandra's expectations. Even though it was muffled, her voice seemed pretty enough, and soothing. Florian was also looking up, and he had a soft smile on his face as he listened. Somehow, it looked more genuine than the others she'd seen.

"Ana takes lessons from Madam Sheehy." Huh. So Sabrina taught voice lessons? Weird. "She's a low alto, which isn't really everyone's cup of tea, but…it's nice, isn't it?"

Cassandra nodded. She couldn't sing – humming was her limit – but she had a strong appreciation for music nonetheless. Suddenly she thought of her viola, which had disappeared during her month in America (along with so much else – along with Shadow). Suddenly her fingers ached to run a bow along its strings. Perhaps she could find a replacement and pick up playing again. Maya and Christopher would doubtlessly consume much of her time and energy, but there would be moments, surely, where she could indulge in music.

Perhaps she could even look into jobs around town. She'd read once that Lavender Town had festivals where participants played flutes of bone and shamisens. There might be a demand for people who could teach kids other instruments. After all, if you knew one string instrument well, the others would probably be easy to learn. They were just variations of each other, really. And this was a small town – someone with her experience could be an asset. Though a small town could also mean fewer job opportunities, she reminded herself.

But she had to find something. She couldn't expect the government and Michael to support her children and her. That was asking for too much. As it was, she already felt indebted to them. That wasn't a feeling she liked, and she didn't like where it tended to lead. No, she needed to be able to earn her own bread. And she needed to have something in her life that was her own, didn't she? There might not be anything available, but…well, if there was, working in music could be a nice change. She could enjoy that. It couldn't hurt to check, at least….

At some point, she heard footsteps on the porch and raised voices. Aurora and Michael were back, and Aurora didn't seem too happy. Well, at least the detective seemed healthy enough to walk – that was a good sign, even with Aurora's anger. The front door opened and their words became clearer: "-I wouldn't be surprised if you have a concussion! You should have stayed in the Center overnight."

"And leave the house without its watchdogs? That's not my style, 'Rora."

"No, your style is apparently taking on an army with a baker's dozen." They came out of the entryway into the dining room. Michael sported a bandage around his head, a wrist brace, and was leaning heavily on a very peeved Aurora. His ankle seemed to have swollen three sizes. Alexius – now a houndoom, she saw with considerable surprise - was limping at his side, and wore a thick wrap of gauze around his left foreleg. That wasn't counting the numerous cuts and scrapes both seemed to have. Aurora led Michael over to the table, and when he was sitting with his foot propped up on another chair, she ordered him to "Eat, rest, and pass me that last chicken. Alexius is probably famished."

"I'm starving too, you know." But Michael passed the chicken anyway, dishing himself up some potatoes and salad.

"Yeah, well, you weren't poisoned by an arbok, were you?" Aurora gave the dog the chicken, bones and all. Alexius tore into it happily.

"I had a pecha berry on me. It worked better than a bezoar!"

"Alas, if only we had the goat a bezoar could be found in. Alexius deserves a feast for his valor." She scratched the houndoom behind his horns, which he seemed to like.

Michael pouted at her. "I feel so underappreciated sometimes."

Florian smirked at him, reaching out a hand to touch his arm, "Oh, good sir, you know I appreciate you!"

As Michael nearly choked on his potatoes, Cassandra cleared her throat and asked, "So you were attacked, then?"

Michael seemed grateful for the question, if a bit surprised that it was coming from her. "We were. Route 6 is toast, but we got out alright. A few close calls and some broken bones, but we won. Our friends in Fuchsia will be questioning the Rockets we managed to catch. The rest of them ran, of course."

Giovanni won't like that very much. She didn't say that, though. "So did Ms. Gallagher crash for the night?" she asked instead. She was wondering where her therapist had wandered off to.

"Something like that. Either she's with Sabrina or in Haunt Haggard – or maybe both, come to think of it."

Cassandra nodded. Perhaps she didn't really want to know. In any case, crashing sounded good to her. Her eyes were beginning to burn and her headache was coming back. Sleep would do her some good. She'd ask them to tell her more about what had happened tonight tomorrow. She got up out of her chair, grimacing at the ache in her guts. It was like a period that would never end, the cramps and bloody muck and all. She couldn't wait until it was over. "I'm going to head to bed then." She glanced at the banner, at the remains of the dinner, and at them. "Thanks for…all of this. It's more than I expected." Ever, really.

They nodded and gave her tired smiles. Florian offered to help her up the stairs. They made their way slowly, going one step at a time, and then turned left down the hall. They passed by two doors on their right – "Michael's room is the first one. They'd have to go through him before getting to you three." Then there was the nursery – or what would become the nursery, since it suspiciously lacked a crib. There were also two doors on the left, which apparently led to a study and a bathroom. At the end of the hall was her room.

She was surprised to see that it was the master bedroom. The bed - draped in red lilac covers - and the nightstand were at the northern wall, with the closet built into the eastern one. A dresser stood next to a door to the bathroom; the small bag of her things had been placed on it. Christopher and Maya's crib was near the west-facing window, which Anastasia stood next to, her eyes darting between them and the babes. She gave Florian a nod, took the bowl from the floor, and began to walk away.

Cassandra stopped her on impulse. "Thank you for watching them for me," she said. Then, remembering the singing, she added, "You have a nice voice, by the way."

Anastasia, to her surprise, blushed but said nothing. She nodded again and left, with Florian following in her wake. As he shut the door behind them and wished her a restful night, she sighed and turned to the crib. She went over to it, trailing her hand along its side and looking in. Christopher and Maya were sleeping side-by-side, both of them clutching the gifts she'd managed to get them. They were a pair of stuffed animals which differed only in their color. Christopher, much to her amusement, had favored the pink mew, while Maya had preferred the blue one (maybe because it was shiny like her, she'd joked).

She reached inside, tucking their little blankets around them tighter, brushing her fingers over their hands and faces. Her son kicked once, while her daughter squeezed her mew harder. My sweethearts, she thought, "We're home now." It might not be a familiar place, and it might not be comfortable for a while, but it was home. And then, thinking of their protectors below, she added, "We're safe now." As safe as we can be.

Her children slept on, oblivious to the fact that there'd been any danger at all. All they knew was that they were warm and loved. She drank in the sight of them, their faces glowing in the moonlight, which didn't seem to bother them at all. Feeling her exhaustion deepening, she drew away from them, going to the window to close the curtains. She pressed her hand to the cool glass, just for a moment, and looked out at the lilac bushes, at the houses of their neighbors, at the sprawling fields and the mountains. We'll be alright, she thought. She prayed. Then she drew the curtains together, went to the bed, and slipped under the covers.

The moon hung high in the sky as she closed her eyes.

The moon hung high in the sky as he opened his eyes.

He'd dreamed of her again. She'd been sleeping in a bed with red-violet covers, her hair spilling across the pillows, her arms curled near her face. He wondered how he'd imagined that sight: maybe her pose had been from that night, her clothes from sometime when they'd been younger, though if so the blankets should have been darker, much darker. Yet even so, she'd seemed peaceful. In a bit of pain, he'd sensed, but peaceful. He supposed seeing her like that had made for a quiet, restful dream, unlike some of the others he'd had lately.

As Citlali whirled into the cave, a bundle of fruits, nuts, and berries in his arms, he turned over, feeling uncharacteristically self-conscious as the mew greeted him. Since that night a month before, when he'd dreamed of her loving him with all the parts of her body save the nook between her thighs, the mew had been giving him endless grief. When Mewtwo had drifted awake, hard and aching with need, Citlali had glanced down at him, rolled his eyes, and mewled, "Either tuck little Mewtwo into bed, or go play with him somewhere until he's all tucked out. Either way, I'd prefer not to see him."

He'd never been so mortified and agitated before. It wasn't often he responded to such dreams so strongly. He was a creature of stern self-discipline (except when it came to her), so he usually avoided such embarrassing situations. There was a time and place for arousal, and being stuck in a cave with one's brother wasn't one of them. But for once, he'd scarcely been able to help it. He'd tried thinking of anything but her, of anything that would kill his libido, including-but-not-limited-to Citlali being strung up by his intestines. It didn't work. So he'd grimaced, walked out of the cave and into the bushes, and made as quick an end to it as he could. He didn't feel very gratified afterward. The need was gone, but it hadn't been as satisfying as being with her. He'd scowled at himself then and thought,Perhaps you might have considered that before leaving her in the snow.

She'd begged him. She'd begged him to stay with her, and what had he done? Among other things, nearly burned himself to ashes physically and psychically. Even now, months after his wounds had knitted into scars, using his psychic powers left him with crippling migraines. Citlali had assured him that he would regain his strength in time. The spring waters of Mt. Quena were already quickening the process considerably. Yet even so, it still might take months - or even years - before he could wield his powers as he saw fit.

And that was very frustrating, since he wanted nothing more than to teleport back to Kanto and find his mate.

When he'd returned to his brother that morning, burning with shame, Citlali had given him a sly grin and said, "My, my, what was she doing to you to get you all riled up?"

He'd bristled at that. "That is none of your concern."

"Maybe you're right. But I've heard that humans have invented many variations to their love-play." He'd floated above him, his tail curling into a heart. "Was she on her knees this time? Begging?"

That had hit too close to home – and to the mark, really – for Mewtwo to react with anything but fury. More on impulse than anything else, he'd gathered psychic energy into a paw and hurled it at the immortal kitten. The psycho-electricity had felt like shards of glass tearing through his veins, his muscle fibers, his very skin. He didn't see Citlali dodge, because in the next second, blinding pain had burst in his skull. He'd fallen to his knees, clenching his eyes shut and snarling, hissing, spitting. It had seemed like hours before the pain began to ebb, and when it did, he'd growled out, "You will not speak of her again. Do you understand me? You will keep your mouth closed where she is concerned."

The mew had pressed a paw to his forehead, and the ache had melted away like ice next to a hearth-fire. "Such pain…." Mewtwo doubted he'd been talking about the headache. "Fine then. I won't mention her again."

In the past month, he'd kept his word. He hadn't brought Cassandra up, and Mewtwo hadn't volunteered the subject. Instead they'd talked about when his powers might return (he practiced every day, forming blue sparks and moving bigger and bigger targets), about the state of Kanto, and sometimes about what Citlali did when he wasn't here with him. Of course, Citlali remained very closed-lipped about his comings and goings. He would drop a cryptic remark or generality like, "I'm just checking up on my charges. I'm keeping an eye on more people than you, you know."Mewtwo had been tempted to ask if Citlali was keeping an eye on his mate as well, but that would breach their silence on the matter.

Besides, she was a sore subject for both of them: Citlali, for all his teasing, wasn't fond of the thought that Mewtwo had been "boinking" a human, and Mewtwo was sick of being judged for it. He'd chosen Cassandra and she him, and if his brother and everyone else had a problem with it, they should simply deafen their ears and put out their eyes. If they'd just left them alone (he might be sleeping in that bed with her. He might be holding her, kissing her, beseeching her forgiveness as his stroked her between her thighs. She might smile and tell him it was all okay, that they were home now, safe now)….

But the world did not work that way. Mewtwo knew that well enough. And even if they'd left Cassandra and him alone, it wouldn't have stopped him from making that foolish, damnable mistake.

I should never have left her there. Why did I leave her behind…? Sometimes he thought he'd been struck by a bout of insanity. Sometimes….

The mew interrupted his musings by plopping down in front of him, shoving an apple the size of a softball at his muzzle. "Get up, Sourpuss, and eat some breakfast! I had to forage all morning for this."

Somehow, the clone doubted that. Purity Canyon was a place of plenty, after all. Even so, he sat up and took the apple. As he bit into it and the juices leaked down his chin, he realized it was a Fuji Apple. Citlali must be mocking him.

"You feeling up for a little trip, Mewtwo?"

Was the pest asking that in jest? Mewtwo had been ready to leave this place since he'd arrived here, blinded and howling from the pain of his burns! Certainly, he couldn't move anything heavier than his scrawny arms could lift, and he could only sparkle his foes to death, but he was weary of the same caverns, day after day after day. "Quite." He would have to rely on the mew for protection – and how he loathed that fact – but he wanted to move. He wanted to feel as if he was doing something. He wanted to believe he was getting closer to wherever she was, if only he could take a few steps forward….

"Alrighty then. We're going to be heading north first. Well, northeast. But we still have some island-hopping to do."

Mewtwo, who'd stood and was making his way to the cave entrance, froze. He drew a mental map of the Union of Japanese Isles and realized where Citlali would be taking them. "Sinnoh? My mate-."Ah, there he was, breaching the subject for the first time in a month. "Cassandra will not be in Sinnoh."

"You don't know that. She could very well be in Sinnoh. It's been ten months," the mew reminded him, as if Mewtwo needed reminding. "Do you really think she can't tell which way the wind is blowing? Do you think she hasn't realized that Kanto is going to war? She has no friends on either side of this fight, Mewtwo. If I were her, I'd run as far and fast as I could towards Sinnoh. They've declared themselves neutral, from what I've heard. And Hoenn and Orre are involved in their own squabble. Sinnoh would be the safest place for her."

Citlali's argument was logical enough. Cassandra couldn't outright leave the Union, not without a passport or funds, and trying to access either one would alert Giovanni to her plans. Theoretically, she could smuggle aboard a ship to the mainland, or find some powerful psychic to take her there. But then what would she do? She still wouldn't have any resources or friends to help her, and she wouldn't know the language on top of that. His mate was resourceful, yes, but finding her way to Sinnoh would be far easier and safer.

So why did Mewtwo feel as if his brother had been lying through his teeth when he'd said that…?

The clone had no choice but to trust him, though. Months ago he might have scoured Kanto and the rest of the Japanese nations, taking out any who dared stand in his way. Months ago he could have crushed mountains, boiled oceans, and blown away armies with a sweep of his arm. Now he could barely nudge a boulder, heat up tea, or knock one foe out, let alone thousands. But Citlali still had power and the incentive to help him. They were "brothers," after all, and while Citlali didn't like his choice in lover, Mewtwo didn't think he'd purposefully misdirect him. Not if Cassandra was in any danger, at least. He didn't think the mew's disapproval would run that deep. He wouldn't want to cause Mewtwo any pain, and if anything happened to Cassandra….

No. He'd dreamed of her sleeping soundly. He would know if something had happened to her. For now, she had to be alright.

He had to keep telling himself that, or else he'd go mad.

He took the cloak and walking stick near the mouth of the cave - gifts from his brother to replace the cloak he'd lost and to keep his feet steady. The cloak was burnt umber in color, while the branch had grooves in it from woodworms. It wasn't the same as having his powers at his fingertips, but the wood could crack a skull if swung just right, so it would have to do for now.

The dusk was hot when he stepped out of the cave, but he threw the cloak over himself anyway, knowing the northern isle would be far chillier than Johto. Above him the leaves of the trees were just turning golden, their boughs bending under the weight of acorns and pine-nuts. They cracked under his paws and got between his toes, but he hardly cared. The sky was clear and shining with stars, and somewhere, surely, Cassandra was looking up at the same bright moon.

I will find you, my dove. Someday, I will find you.

But that day wouldn't be today, or tomorrow, or even the next, he knew. But someday. Yes, someday.

"Are you ready?" Citlali asked, his white fur shining silver in the moonlight.


Citlali spun, his tail falling across Mewtwo's shoulders, his whole body glowing bright blue. The light spread until it encompassed the clone as well, raising the fur of his arms and neck, thrumming through his veins like cool water instead of splinters of ice. It was such a welcome sensation that he might have wept, save for the fact he didn't weep (except for once, for Amber). Then he heard his brother's voice blossoming in his thoughts, and he thought he heard a hint of smug triumph in his voice as he said, "Good. Because we have a long way to go, and I have much to teach you."

And then the world warped into shades of blue, and they were elsewhere, having left Mt. Quena behind to the birds, bees, and beasts, to its natural springs and arbors.

Someday, I will find you.

The moon hung high in the sky.

Thank You: Larka and Indigo Shade for being my beta-readers for this chapter. I can't thank you enough for your hard work! Also, thank you Meneldur, Kokinatsyosa no Kage, Leone the Infernal, CrossroadxOFxVesper, nobodyreallyimportant, Renn Ireigh, Phantom SWH, blackwater2, and Silvar Sunstrider for reading and reviewing the previous chapter. I hope you and my other readers will do the same for this one!

Author's Note: For those of you who are curious, Michael was quoting George Carlin on the subject of flamethrowers. There will also be a time skip between this chapter and the next.