In which I—and they— fail at romance:

Rui followed Wes blindly, stumbling after him as he gently pulled her along, too drained by all of her emotions to really care where he was taking her—she was finally back with him, at last, and this time they weren't in some sterile cell. She felt as if she were in some kind of dream.

Wes cut through an alley, winding through houses before reaching one in particular that was vaguely familiar for some reason, opening the door without a knock or any kind of hesitation and leading her inside. As soon as they crossed the threshold, Rui realized they were in Duking's house.

Marcia was by the window, looking out into the street with her brother Secc, as if in hopes of seeing some of the action taking place at the town's entrance. As soon as Wes and Rui entered, however, she turned at once and beckoned for them to follow her.

"You made it," she greeted them as she tripped the switch for the bookcase on the back wall of the house to slide aside, "I'm glad. Dad said for you to stay back here until it's over, just in case."

"Thanks." Wes answered with a nod, stepping into the secret back room that usually served as a Kids Grid hangout. Espeon and Umbreon darted in before him, disappearing inside.

"Good to see you, Marcia." Rui said faintly as she followed the Snagger, still feeling as if she was in a dream of some kind—she was almost afraid that she'd wake up soon. So much had happened in the last minute that she wasn't sure if she was being rude or not. In the very back of her mind, she wondered why it mattered, at a time like this.

Duking's daughter gave her a smile and a small wave, before tripping the switch again and allowing the bookcase to slide back into place, hiding them from view.

The Kids Grid had updated their hideout in the couple years that'd passed since Rui had last seen it, making the small room a bit more homey—the back wall still resembled a cave, with a small waterfall trickling quietly down the face of the rock, but the rusty barrels and wooden boxes of questionable content were gone, a couple more sturdy-looking tables in their place. Wes led her over to one, pulling out a chair and making her sit, looking down at her with something close to worry in his eyes, concerned.

"Rui?" He asked her, almost tentative. She wasn't acting like her normal self. "Are you okay?"

"Yes, I think so." Now that she was sitting, she felt less like she was floating, which was good. She still felt out-of-it, though.

"You're all pale." He'd pulled off a glove, pressing the back of his hand to her forehead briefly. "You feel like you're going to pass out?" Umbreon hopped up on top of the table, followed closely by Espeon.

"Wes." It was like she'd woken up again, realizing that he really was in front of her, whole and alive. She latched onto him again, burying her face in his shoulder again as she sobbed with relief.

Wes let her cry, dropping his arms down around her back so he could hold onto her. Before there'd been pressing matters, like getting off the street before Gonzap found them again, but here they would be safe. "It's alright, Rui. You're okay." He was just as relieved as she was to see that she was okay and unharmed. On the table, Espeon sank down gracefully into a crouch while Umbreon nosed his elbow gently. "I'm glad to see you guys too." he told them fondly, causing both of their ears to perk up happily. For the first time in several hours, he didn't feel angry, which only left him with exhaustion.

Rui wasn't sure how long she clung to him, sobbing her eyes out, but eventually she felt Wes shift her delicately so that he could sink down into the chair she'd initially been sitting in, before he pulled her down with him so that she was basically in his lap as he settled her into place. On any other occasion, she would have protested in embarrassment but this time she merely leaned forward against his chest, her face still buried in his shoulder with her eyes closed. Wes put one arm around her comfortingly, and she heard him talking softly to Espeon and Umbreon as he held onto her.

Eventually she sat up slightly, wiping her eyes with one last, small sniff. "I'm sorry," she said, now beginning to feel embarrassed as she began to untangle herself from him to stand, "I'm probably being really annoying—"

To her surprise, Wes stopped her, his grip on her firm. "You aren't annoying. Just…" He trailed off for a moment, as if unsure that his request would be okay. "Stay. Please."

Rui looked up at him, blinking in surprise, before she smiled happily. "Okay." Umbreon jumped off the table into her lap, taking advantage of their positions to make himself at home. Rui laughed as he curled up on her lap, a black fur ball with softly-glowing rings. "You fit perfectly, Umbreon." She scratched behind his long ears, making him give what sounded like a purr.

"Obnoxious." Wes muttered, but he sounded faintly amused despite himself. His free arm rested on the table, petting Espeon slowly. The Psychic-type looked just as content as the Dark-type.

Rui looked up at him again, studying his face. He'd acquired a few more bruises since she'd last seen him, his eyes exhausted and haunted. There was still tightness to their corners as well, small testaments to his stress, and the ever-present Shadow Aura shifted around him eerily.

"You've been turned Shadow." She noted softly, watching his aura fluctuate. It wasn't as black as it'd been back when he'd been confronting Gonzap back on the street, but it was definitely still strong.

Wes nodded wearily. "They got me." The words were spoken as heavily as they sounded.

"I'm sorry." Rui whispered.

"Don't be. It isn't your fault." He'd looked away briefly, but now his gaze was back, boring into hers intently. "You aren't though, right?" He couldn't see auras like she could, so he had no way to tell.

She shook her head. "No, I promise. They wanted to convert me, but I got away."

Wes closed his eyes briefly, and she was touched by his pure relief. "Good."

Rui suddenly remembered. "But they got May! She's been turned Shadow!"

He gritted his teeth. "Damn." He'd warned them about getting involved.

"Oh, Wes, we have to go back for her! And Brenden and Steven, they're still there too, they got captured when I led everyone back down into the lab and it's all my fault—"

"Rui." He silenced her, though his tone was gentle. "Slow down, you're babbling."

She blushed. "I'm sorry."

"They turned May into a Shadow-human." Now that Wes thought back about it, he realized that Ein had hinted as much right before he'd been turned Shadow. At the time, he hadn't known whether the scientist had been talking about Rui or May.

Rui nodded. "Yes. They must have done it in between turning Shady and turning you."

That made sense. "So she and Brenden are back in the lab."

"Yes. When Ein came and took me from the cell room, he led me down to his lab. He already had May there, and she'd been turned into a Shadow-human. Nascour must have delivered her there after he captured her and Brenden in Phenac, because he came and—oh, Wes, he shot Evice!"

Wes grimaced. "I know. Nascour has taken over Cipher. You were there?"

Rui nodded, her eyes wide. "It was horrible. Evice was a bad guy, but…but…" Her eyes were growing misty again at the horror of the memory.

Wes brought his free hand up to wipe her eyes gently for her. "Keep going."

Rui swallowed and nodded again. "After he shot Evice," she picked back up again, only a little shaky, "Nascour ordered Ein to turn me Shadow. May figured out how to use her aura as an attack, kind of like when Shady attacked you back in the cell. But she busted us out of there and we ran up to the entrance of the lab." She paused, looking at him tearfully. "They used you instead."

"Don't think like that." Wes told her firmly. "Even if they had turned you Shadow, odds are that I was next. Ein was probably planning on using me from the very beginning anyway."

"Okay." Rui agreed reluctantly.

"What happened after that?"

"As soon as we got out of the lab, we ran into Brenden and Steven."


"The former Hoenn Champion. Instead of bringing Brenden back to the lab with May, Nascour tried to ship him off with Team Magma and Team Aqua, the two criminal teams from Hoenn—Brenden's on their bad side for ruining their plans, remember? Steven rescued Brenden, and then they both rushed back to Orre. It was really perfect timing."

"Not perfect enough." Wes gave a faint grimace. "I think we just missed each other, Rui."

"I think we did too." Rui admitted. "Because I knew you were still down in the lab, so we all went back down to try and find you. We ultimately ended up being captured again, right after we learned that you and Shady had escaped."

"Damn it." Wes let out a light sigh. "I tried convincing Shady to go back for you, but he wouldn't let me, so I finally decided that my chances of rescuing you would be higher if he and I stuck together. I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry, Rui."

"Don't be!" She said at once, slightly alarmed. "I'm really glad you got away!"

Wes almost looked faintly amused by her expression, but then his face was serious again. "Bottom line is that May, Brenden, and Steven are in the lab still, and May is a Shadow."

She nodded vigorously. "Right."

"Alright." He suddenly looked a thousand times more exhausted, but his eyes were determined. "We'll get them out. I haven't been doing just nothing since I got to Pyrite."

"And I'll fix you!" Rui promised. "I'll help you reopen your heart, Wes. You and May can be Purified, I know it."

Wes actually had to try to not smile as he looked down at her fierce expression. "You've done it before once, Rui," he told her softly, "I know you can do it again."

"I—I have?" she stammered, a faint blush rising on her cheeks.

"Back when I first met you," he admitted, "and back during all of the Shadow Pokemon rescuing we did." He paused, seeming to hesitate. "You changed me. For the better."

Rui smiled, suddenly understanding. "I didn't change you," she answered softly, "I just showed you how to be your true self."

At that, Wes allowed a faint smile. "Either way…thank you."

Rui had to resist the urge not to hold her breath, suddenly hyperaware of the fact that their faces were only centimeters apart. If she were to guess, Wes too had realized the exact same thing close to the exact same time, but instead of leaning back or looking away, he held her gaze, his gold meeting her blue. Even Espeon was very still, and in Rui's lap, Umbreon lifted his head and tilted his chin to look up at them, watching as they leaned forward to—

Rui jumped when the bookcase suddenly slid back again, another blush rising on her cheeks as she and Wes pulled back from one another reflexively, and secretly she was terribly disappointed that the entire moment had been ruined. Umbreon hopped down out of her lap and stood in front of them, fur raised as he hissed at the intruder.

"Get out here." Shady stood in the doorway and ignored Umbreon, his Shadow Aura terrifyingly darker than Wes's. When he caught sight of them, he sneered. "Touching. But it's time to go."

"Team Snagem?" Wes looked annoyed by his clone's existence, for more than one reason.

At his question, Shady's sneer morphed into a smirk. "We sent them running out into the desert, every last one of them." He laughed. "Those aren't dead, that is. Duking and his men have already taken care of that."

Wes felt Rui shiver, and he gave her a tiny, reassuring squeeze. "What about Gonzap and Miror B.?"

Shady scowled. "No sign of them. But we will get them."

Wes nodded slowly, thinking. He wasn't that surprised that the Snagem Boss and the Cipher Admin had managed to escape. It would have made his life a whole lot easier if they hadn't, but for now he'd gladly settle with having Rui successfully rescued.

"Come on," Shady snapped, "it's time."

"Time for what?" Rui spoke up bravely. "Wes?"

Wes blinked as he came out of thought, looking back to her. "Like I said, we didn't just sit around while we were here. We're going to take out the Shadow Pokemon Lab."

Rui's eyes were wide. "How?"

Duking appeared behind Shady, in the process of dusting his hands off. While not as big as Dakim, the Pyrite Colosseum manager still dwarfed the clone. "Marcia said you made it back all right, Wes? Rui, I'm glad you're safe."

Rui slid down off of Wes so that he could stand, giving Duking a small smile. "Thank you very much, Mr. Duking."

"Thanks for your help." Wes added, stepping up beside her and surprising her again when he slipped his fingers through hers. Together they walked out of the Kids Grid hideout, stepping back into Duking's living room. Espeon jumped down from the table and followed them with Umbreon, the bookcase sliding back into place behind them.

"Pyrite has suffered enough at the hands of Cipher and Team Snagem," Duking acknowledged, "it was about time for a little payback." He paused. "Everyone's back, Wes. We're ready to hear the plan."

Wes took a breath, nodding once. When he and Shady had initially arrived at Duking's house, Wes had explained a little of what they had planned before asking the Pyrite Colosseum manager for help in saving Rui. Duking had offered his assistance at once, along with promising further aid at the Shadow Pokemon Lab. "Alright. I'll be out in a sec."

"I'll gather everyone up." Duking accepted his answer with a nod, turning and heading back outside.

"Make it fast, Wes." Shady hissed before stalking after Duking, slamming the door in his wake.

"His Shadow Aura is really black," Rui said softly after a moment's pause, her eyes still on the door, "it's a lot worse than any aura I've ever seen."

"He's an angry guy." Wes sounded tired. "But right now his anger is directed at something other than us, so we'll have to work with him. He wants to see the lab blown up as much as we do." He glanced sideways at her. If his damned clone hadn't walked in…

"Can we trust him, though?" Rui asked doubtfully, unaware of his gaze.

"Probably not." Wes admitted. "But we don't have any other options right now, and unfortunately, I need his help."

"Okay." Rui knew she'd just have to trust in Wes, something that she'd always found easy to do—so this time would be no different. Still holding his hand she leaned against him, resting her head against his shoulder. "I won't let your aura get that bad."

"I know." Wes answered her calmly. He trusted her just as much as she did him. "Let's go."

Rui nodded, straightening and going along with him as he led the way out of the house, stepping out into the heat again. Duking had gathered his men—mostly Trainers from the Colosseum, along with Silva and a few other Pyrite Town residents—while Shady leaned against the side of the house, arms folded and glaring. As Rui let the door shut behind them, Nett and Megg joined the small crowd, standing with Marcia and Secc—the Kids Grid ringleaders united. Rui looked around at all the faces gathered, some she recognized, like Cail, and some she didn't, feeling truly lucky to have so many friends who were willing to come together. She glanced sideways at Wes, smiling as she watched him scan the crowd, already counting and calculating—her Snagger was in business.

The crowd parted, making way for none other than Fateen as she made her way slowly up to Wes and Rui, her wizened face as serious as ever. As she came to a stop in front of them, a hush fell over the gathered crowd as one by one everyone went quiet, waiting for the fortuneteller to speak.

"Fateen." Rui said in surprise. She hadn't seen the old woman since she and Wes had Snagged the remaining Shadow Pokemon. "How—"

"I have been well, child." Fateen interrupted her, dismissive. Then she smiled, adding more wrinkles to her face. "I have missed you too."

Rui smiled, delighted. She'd always found Fateen's uncanny abilities amazing. "I'm glad."

Fateen nodded, before turning her sharp gaze to Wes, who watched the soothsayer warily—unlike Rui, he'd always been slightly unnerved by her clairvoyance, even if he'd never admit it. Rui had teased him about it once, but his tight-lipped response had been enough to make her stop.

He stiffened slightly but otherwise held dutifully still when Fateen lifted one gnarled hand to press her fingers lightly against his forehead, closing her eyes for a long moment. Then, just as abruptly as she'd touched him, she was withdrawing again, opening her eyes to smile at him.

"You walk in dark places, Snagger." In the silence, her gravelly voice carried well. "But you have a light to follow. Be sure that you don't lose it."

Rui was looking at Fateen with wide-eyed wonder, but all Wes could do was stare at her blankly, unsure what to think.

"The Golden One will come for you when the cold draws near and threatens to vanquish the heat," Fateen continued, her voice resounding with finality, "but it will be the Ageless One who will restore your path. Do not worry," she added, seeing Rui's wide eyes, "all will be clear once Orre's shadows have been purged."

Wes would have much preferred that the old fortuneteller made things clear right now instead of talking in what sounded to him like code, but he didn't say a word after glancing at the awe on Rui's face and the reverence of the gathered crowd as they listened.

Off to the side, Shady snorted. "What a load of bullshit."

Fateen turned to take him in with a measured gaze, regarding him expressionlessly. "You are lost," she told him, "but you too can still make your way. But until you let go of your burden, you will never find it."

That shut him up. With a scowl, Shady looked away.

The Mother of Pyrite Town looked back to Wes and Rui, smiling gently. "Go well. And good luck." Then, just as gracefully as she'd arrived, she left, the crowd once again parting to allow her through.

Rui looked up at Wes only to see him staring after Fateen with a strange expression on his face, almost as if he'd wanted to say something, forgotten about it, and then had suddenly remembered now that she'd gone. She blinked and the expression was gone and he was looking back at her, eyebrows slightly raised.

"What do you think she means?" Rui asked him softly as the crowd began to murmur again. Her own thoughts were already speculating wildly, trying to decipher the meaning behind the fortuneteller's words.

"I have no idea." Wes wasn't even sure if he wanted to know. When she'd spoken the last part of his fortune he'd felt like something cold had been slowly dripping down his spine, leaving him deeply unsettled.

"I guess we'll have to wait and see." Rui replied, for once unaware of his unease; as she was too busy trying to puzzle out the fortune.

Wes nodded, still unsure what to think. He looked down when Umbreon suddenly rubbed against his leg and Espeon gave him a small nudge, the two Eevee-evolutions looking up at him calmly.

"Right." He said quietly, mostly to them and himself. Umbreon gave a soft yip in answer, while Espeon waited serenely. Wes looked back up at the crowd, clearing his throat lightly to gain everyone's attention and waiting until an expectant silence had fallen before continuing. "So. Here's the plan."

Gonzap stood with his arms folded and his expression like a thundercloud as he watched the last few of his straggling Grunts drag themselves to the outcropping of boulders about five miles outside of Pyrite. Somewhere behind him Miror B. was collapsed in the shade, whimpering something under his breath, but the Team Snagem Boss ignored the Cipher Admin, resisting the strong urge to murder something.

Or someone.

He was livid. He'd been outsmarted—and blown up—by Wes again, and to add further insult to injury, it'd been because Shady, of all people, had helped. Somehow his two former Team members had formed an alliance; one that was specifically against him. They'd also managed to get a sizeable amount of Pyrite's population to chip in, resulting in he and his Grunts—those who'd survived the explosions, anyway—being chased out into the desert nearly relentlessly at first, their pursuers eventually turning back after a couple miles.

His Grunts gathered in front of him, Gonzap cracked his knuckles loudly. They looked pathetic, covered in sand and grime and smelling strongly of sweat and smoke. If he didn't need actual members in order to have a Team, Gonzap figured that he would have killed the lot of them on the spot for their complete and utter failure.

"—and I have sand in my hair and boots," Miror B. was huffing, unfurling his long, skinny body as he pushed himself back up to his feet, afro bouncing wildly, "this was not according to your plan."

"I know that." Gonzap thundered. His Grunts looked surprised and terrified all at once—they'd been expecting their boss to be shouting his head off by now, full of more rage than menace. "Give it a fucking rest."

Miror B. hmphed, but otherwise remained quiet, content with trying to fix his hair for the time being.

"What do we do now, Boss?" someone dared to ask when all Gonzap did was glare at them.

"We head back to the lab." Gonzap growled, turning around to look out across the desert. Returning to Pyrite was a lost cause—he knew when he'd been beaten. But Ein still had some of Wes's friends back at the lab, and the kid had gotten too noble to abandon them now. Wes would show. And then…

Payback, once and for all.

"Move out!"

Steven crouched in the doorway of the dark room, holding the door open a tiny fraction as he looked out into the hallway, watching and waiting for someone to pass by. "How's it coming?" he asked in a low voice, keeping his eyes on the elevator at the end of the hall. "Do they fit?"

"This helmet sucks." Brenden complained. "Why the hell do they wear all these layers out in a freaking desert, anyway?"

"Mine fits," May remarked, "but these boots are kind of uncomfortable."

Steven risked a look back at his two companions. The two Cipher Peons that had come in to investigate the loud crashing after May had shattered the glass of the holding cells now laid tied up and gagged, deeply unconscious. It had been May's idea, however, to strip the Peons down to their underclothes and steal their uniforms, mainly in the interest of making their breakout last as long as possible before they were discovered.

"How do we look?" May asked, twirling with a giggle. Her uniform was purple and pink, which had delighted the Coordinator. "Do we look like Cipher goonies?"

"I feel stupid." Brenden grumbled. His uniform was dark blue, and he fumbled with the orange cloth that was supposed to be tied around his neck. "Who the heck designed these stupid uniforms, anyway?"

"Probably Lady Venus." May said after a moment of thought. The burst of anger and power it'd taken her to bust them out of their cell had left her tired, but fortunately she seemed to be recovering quickly. "That's probably the only real thing she's actually contributed to Cipher."

"You both look passable," Steven said, steering the conversation back on track, "as long as you keep those helmets on."

"What about you, Steven?" May asked. "No one else came down here to check out what all the noise was."

"That seems to be the case." Steven agreed calmly. "You two are going to have to find somebody for me."

Brenden grinned for the first time since he'd put the Peon uniform on. "Now you're talking."

Wes made his way slowly across the old rickety bridge that crossed the chasm of the Under, one hand on the railing to guide himself. Rui hadn't liked this bridge originally, and it had required a great deal of talking—something he'd been unused to at that point—on his part to get her to even think about setting foot on the rusted metal.

He was currently alone, however, as he stepped back on solid ground. Rui was helping Duking oversee the preparations to leave, so Wes had taken the opportunity to remove himself from the spotlight—he was more comfortable battling in front of crowds, not speaking to them—and take Espeon and Umbreon for a quick visit to the PokeCenter located inside the Pyrite Colosseum across town.

Espeon and Umbreon were fully healed and their Pokeballs were back on his belt where they belonged. It was a relief to have them back again, and to know that they were safe. It'd been a brilliant move on Rui's part to steal them away from Gonzap, and Wes was proud of her—she'd handled herself well given the situation, and had made miles of improvement compared to when she'd been kidnapped and tied up in a sack by Trudly and Folly. He'd have to remember to tell her as much the next time he got a chance.

He was halfway across a surprisingly empty Duel Square when he ran into Shady. Wes came to a stop, eyeing his clone warily. "What do you want?" He felt the beginnings of pure, unrefined anger beginning to simmer inside him, and he knew that his Shadow Aura had probably grown darker at the sight of his twin.

"Just making sure you hadn't slithered away." Shady sneered at him.

"I've told you before. I'm not going anywhere." Wes answered him stiffly. He couldn't give into his anger, he had to focus. "I want the lab blown up just as much as you do."

"Good." Shady didn't move, arms folded. "Who was that old hag?"

"Fateen?" Wes asked casually, grateful for the change in subject. Thinking about Fateen made him uneasy, not angry. "What, afraid of a fortuneteller?" Shady didn't have to know that she made him just as nervous.

"You wish." Shady snapped. "Just wondering what all the hype was about. She's just an old bat."

"All of her predictions generally come true." Wes informed him mockingly. "Better let go of that burden, Shady."

"The only burden I have right now is you." Shady hissed, but then stopped, giving a smirk. "I'm not the one who should be worried, anyway. I'm not the one who has things coming for me."

Wes didn't reply, doing his best to keep a mask of indifference on his face. He still had no idea what Fateen had meant about anything.

"Everything's ready," Shady continued when Wes remained silent, giving him another knowing smirk, "so let's go." He turned and headed back towards Duking's house.

Wes remained still for a few moments longer, doing his best to quell his uneasiness and settle his nerves. Returning to the Shadow Pokemon Lab again was not going to be a walk in the park. He had plenty of people to rely on this time, but he had plenty of people to watch out for, Shady included. He had no idea if his clone would really hold up his end of the deal—sure, Shady wanted to blow up the lab, but Wes wasn't entirely sure if Shady wanted to include him in the building or not. But the plan was already set and everyone was ready to go, so it was time.

Wes headed back to Duking's, and tried not to think too much about anything else. If all went well and they were able to pull this off, Cipher would finally be finished for good.