A/N: This is for an angst/tragedy contest on the Serebii forums. There's a warning for language—including several uses of the 'f-word'—and some violence.
I don't own Pokémon, but I did give Falkner his surname, and I did make up Southernwood Town and Tamarack City, as well as the few OCs who appear/are mentioned. Also, I don't own the Dragon Clan, but I did make up some of the traditions implied in the story.
This is actually the first in a trilogy of one-shots called 'Disillusions'. Game inspired, but there may be a few tinges of the anime… I can't be sure. More notes on the bottom, but I suggest reading the story first. (grins)
THE GOOD FIGHT
The irritable voice rang through the corridor, making Lance stiffen slightly with apprehensive expectation. He halted mid-stride, turning to face the black-haired operative who had just burst through the doors Lance was passing, and cursed inwardly when he saw the man's eyes were indeed on him and not one of the other grunts hurrying through the corridor. Damn. I don't have time for this.
"Yes, sir?" the Elite Trainer asked in a neutrally deferential tone, keeping his head down so the brim of his cap shaded his eyes and face. True, people usually recognised him through his hair and bearing, but there was no point in being careless and he wasn't entirely sure his annoyance wouldn't show in his eyes. He was a good actor—he had to be—but he could never get his eyes to lie.
It was bad enough being where he was; he didn't need to get picked up for being disrespectful. Not now, not with so much at stake.
The sallow-faced man thrust a sheaf of papers at him, and Lance had to restrain the instinctive twitch to go for a pokéball, instead taking the forms quietly. "Take these to Inventory," the man snarled. "And leg it, we don't have time to dawdle!"
Without further explanation the Rocket spun around and stalked with a bang back through the double doors, headlined by a sign saying 'Engineering'. With an internal sigh, forcing his taut muscles to relax—damn, but I hate it when they call me up for something inconsequential like that—Lance turned on his heel and started back way he'd come, mentally cursing the horrible timing.
If he wasn't on that chopper by the time it left…
Not gonna let that happen, the Dragon Master thought grimly, shuffling the papers into order, keeping a wary eye on the busy grunts he passed in the shiny, well-lit corridor. We've waited too long for a break like this; I can't afford to miss this opportunity.
He hadn't exactly planned on the opportunity, either, but when Koga had called it in he wasn't about to pass it up, even though he was disturbingly under-equipped. He simply hadn't had the chance to sign out on some of the gear he usually would have wanted at hand; he just had to hope that nothing went wrong and he wouldn't end up needing a wiretap or bug.
Worst comes to worst, I can call in; Will's standing by, and he should've contacted the others by now.
He mentally ran through the list of Elites who would be available for backup, jogging up a metal stairwell leading to the string of rooms housing Inventory, his boots clanging on the steps. Surge's been chomping at the bit for some action for weeks—he'll have to be teleported in, but that's not much of a loss. The Vermillion City gym was one of the few non-clan-owned facilities which actively taught combative techniques, and was a favourite of retired or discharged military and law enforcement types. The lieutenant ran the place like a boot camp, but it did mean that Lance had some trained men at his disposal in addition to the team of Enforcers he'd called in from Blackthorn City.
Falkner's on call, and Bruno would still have been at the Plateau when I left.
Blaine had been waiting for a breakthrough in the case, same as everyone else, but he wasn't exactly qualified for field operations; Will had probably contacted him and the other scientists but not much else. At the very least he'll be waiting and ready for when the raid's over. Between the five of us, my and Surge's men and the local police we should be able to handle everything.
At least that was one thing in their favour, Lance reflected as he dodged a black-uniformed grunt rushing the other way, carrying a stack of small cartons. The operation they were trying to take down was covert—it had been working under the radar for over a year since they came aware of its existence, and God-only-knew how much longer than that—which meant it was relatively small in terms of men.
Small, but frighteningly deadly.
Just thinking about it made Lance's stomach twist with anger. Sure, the Rockets hired unscrupulous scientists to work their trade all the time, but rarely was there so much collateral damage involved. This case, however…
This case involved nothing less than the endangerment of thirteen small-time towns across Tohjo, to say nothing of the pokémon populations surrounding them. In certain secluded areas the Rockets had deliberately placed foreign substances in the springs, in the groundwater, in the soil… and it was seriously affecting the health of the towns that used the resources. In one town, thirty-four percent of the population had cancer—eighty-seven percent had been at increased risk of such—and sixteen percent had been listed as fatal!
And the reason?
Controlled experimentation of the pokémon populations—just another attempt to create super-pokémon, without morals, without regard for the excess, without care for the consequences—
The rattle of a trolley brought him up short and he just managed to step out of the way of the crate-burdened vehicle and the blue-skinned machoke pushing it. Shit! The dragon tamer flattened himself against the wall as the pokémon and its trainer passed, head lowered to hide the steel in his eyes. Get a grip, this is no time to be getting distracted!
He pushed down the anger beating in his chest, forcing his previous thoughts from his mind, and made his hands unclench, smoothing out the crinkled paper. Then he took a deep, bracing breath and slipped into the broad antechamber which connected the string of supply rooms to the main section of the depot.
Almost instantly he realized he probably should have taken a moment or two longer to compose himself. The more people around, the more likely it was that someone would recognise him; his stomach was still tight with nervous tension, making his eyes flit automatically, warily, around at all the activity.
Can't help it now.
He kept his face down as he dodged agents—and some pokémon—hurrying every which way, moving crates and boxes, pushing trolleys, and generally just trying not to crash into each other in the chaos. His back prickled insecurely every time someone went out of sight-range and he had to consciously stop himself from jerking for a pokéball, swallowing his heart back down, when a stocky grunt dragging a trolley snarled at him as he darted past.
He finally reached the other side of the room where the irritable-looking officer in charge stood, her long blonde hair tucked in beneath her cap, her hand moving with ill-tempered motions as she checked off supplies on her clipboard. "What?" she snapped without looking up.
"Ma'am," he said, mercifully straight-faced and monotone, and held out the forms, eyes flickering discreetly down to her board as he banished all thoughts of what had brought him there and returned to what he was supposed to be doing. With an impatient click of her tongue the woman snatched the papers out of his hand, scanning them quickly and covering up her own pages in the process.
With a mental sigh Lance could only stand back and wait, eyeing the equipment going past him at a furious pace and wishing he could find out what to expect. Not that there's any guarantee all this stuff's going to the lab; this outlet probably helps supply a dozen different Rocket operations.
It was galling to let it continue to run, but the Rockets had no idea the Elites knew of its presence and location. They'd used it as a lead more than once, although that might have to change if the Team suspected they'd used it to get to the lab—he hadn't had time to be cautious about covering his tracks. With luck Koga would be able to lay a false trail before the ninja pulled out of his mission.
"Parker!" the woman bellowed suddenly, making Lance twitch violently in surprise, his heart striking up against his ribs and his breath catching.
Damnit, woman, give me some warning, will you?!
A mousy-looking man hurried up, struggling past a rogue cardboard box, and the woman handed him Lance's papers. "Deal with this."
Parker nodded and disappeared into the bowels of Inventory while his superior went back to muttering under her breath and checking off supplies, totally ignoring Lance and leaving the dragon tamer to back away to the wall to wait.
A discreet check of his cellphone's clock told him he had little over forty minutes to get down to the hangar and make himself useful. He took another deep, relatively calming breath, still keeping a wary eye on the bedlam in front of him in the event one of the Rockets wasn't concentrating too hard on their work to notice him. Unlikely, since they were all constrained by the clock, but Lance was feeling severely under-prepared, uneasily fingering one of his dragon's pokéballs and wishing he'd had a little more time to get ready.
Hell, he'd settle for just a little more time.
Parker slipped back into the main room with a plastic packing case in hand, looking harassed as he navigated through the pandemonium and practically shoved his burden into Lance's hands. "Sign here," the man said shortly, slapping the forms on top, and between juggling the box and handling the pen Lance managed to scrawl down one of his pseudonyms. Parker took it just as his superior hollered his name again, and with a roll of his eyes he turned around and left the Dragon Master to fend for himself.
Not that Lance was complaining. Tucking the box under his arm, the Elite turned on his heel and wove his own way out of the supply room, hurrying as much as he could while trying to control his heart-rate with deep, controlled breaths, resisting the urge to check the clock again. Instead he focussed his mind on thinking of alternatives, of shortcuts, of backup plans, in the event that he was sent on another useless errand away from the hangar bay.
S'pose I could always throw it off onto someone else… faking authority is something I'm good at. He smiled grimly. Probably because it's not usually faked.
By the time he got back to Engineering he'd lost over fifteen minutes and the senior agent in charge was practically spitting chips, snatching the box out of Lance's hands almost as soon as he came through the door and thrusting it at a hapless technician. "Get that fucking hardware fixed!" he snarled, gesturing violently at a partially disassembled computer bank before turning back to Lance. "And you—"Lance tensed—"get that down to the hangar!"—pointing at a loaded trolley in the corner.
Snapping a salute for good measure—not that the man saw it, he'd already turned away—Lance gratefully interposed himself behind the cart, manoeuvring it out of the spacious room. I might actually make my flight after all.
The hangar, when he got there, was even more of a hive than Inventory, although this time there was space enough for agents to step back and allow pokémon to do the heaviest lifting. Most of the activity was centred around the twin-rotor helicopter settled in the centre of the area, beneath a blast-door leading up and out, as agents frantically prepped the vehicle for its supply run.
Lance steered the trolley around a stack of crates still to be loaded, and then around the sleek-furred vigoroth who had just stepped in his way. His eyes found the huge clock on the opposite wall, telling him there was less than twenty minutes left before the chopper was scheduled to leave, and his stomach tightened with familiar urgency, his pace automatically quickening as he navigated the buzzing floor-space.
He came to the chopper's open hatchway, pulling into line behind a blue-haired woman and her brawny machoke, and settled down to wait until the man at the entrance had finished checking off the supplies the muscular pokémon was carrying.
Not much longer, the Elite trainer thought grimly, resisting the urge to tap his fingers, or fidget, or anything. God, he hated inaction.
You're in the middle of a Rocket base, isn't that enough for you? a mental voice which sounded remarkably like Clair said acerbically, and Lance's mouth twisted wryly. He'd specifically ordered Ephraim not to wake his cousin up when he'd called into the Blackthorn gym for reinforcements—she and her dragons had just come off an intensive training regime, he didn't want to disturb her if he could help it—but somehow that never stopped her from nagging him, even if it was only in his own mind.
At least one of us is getting a good night's rest. It was a quarter past two in the morning.
The minutes dragged past with all the ease of a kingdra on land. The blue-haired woman got into an argument with the other grunt, and their voices punctuated the general chaos with sharp words and exclamations—to say nothing of gestures. Lance watched them with one eye, keeping the other open for whoever was in charge of the hangar and who would no doubt come down on them like a flight of dragons any minute. He really didn't want to be involved in this just for being nearby.
The last thing I need right now is further complications.
He had barely completed the thought when there was a ruckus somewhere out in the corridor through the open double-doors, faint, but growing louder. Lance's brow furrowed, his gut tightening slightly as his eyes flickered once again to the clock. It's nowhere near past my call-in time yet, and besides, a raid would make a helluva lot more noise than that.
It was possible that a member of the backup team had gotten picked up on the radar, but with so much at stake Lance couldn't imagine that any one of them would be so careless.
"Let go of me!" a slightly muffled voice shouted—a young voice—and Lance's heart plummeted.
Oh God, don't tell me…
Eyes all around the hangar strayed to the exit as there was a thud and the tramp of many feet, and then a black-clad security team swept into the room, dragging three bound, struggling and shouting teens with them.
Lance stood frozen, his heart pounding in his throat and his stomach a coil of knots, all other considerations abruptly swept away by the course his sleepless night had suddenly taken.
Three kids. Here. Kids.
It seemed incomprehensible that this could be happening—there were members of the League keeping watch, for God's sake—
Members whose focus was on the base and what was coming out, not going in, and if the kids had come from a different direction or already been nearby…
One of the boys—he can't be more than twelve!—tried to bite his captor as the thickset Rocket dragged him deeper into the hangar, closer to the chopper, and in response the man belted the kid across the face with an audible smack. With a pained grunt the boy's head snapped to the side and his body followed, landing with a hard thump on the concrete floor, his backwards cap tumbling from his tousled hair.
Lance twitched violently as the other kids, a scrawny short-haired girl and a taller, stocky boy, were shoved to the ground beside their friend. He swallowed hard, fisting his white gloves and forcing himself to calm down, to breathe deeply, to think rationally. You can't afford to blow your cover—not now. You can leave with the chopper and then come back with a team to rescue the kids. It's about time we took out the trash here anyway.
The tension in his stomach didn't ease—taking out the depot was a huge task, but if it had to be done then it had to be done. It just didn't change the fact that three kids were still here and at the mercy of the Rockets, with no idea what they had gotten themselves into, no idea what they were up against… they never knew, they always thought that having pokémon made them powerful enough to take on anyone, they didn't know…
A cold voice sounded through the havoc, silencing just about everyone and halting most—if not all—activity.
"Would you care to explain what the hell's going on here, Agent?"
That was when Lance saw him, only a dozen feet away and half-hidden by the chopper's bulk: a tall blond man, striding into sight with languid steps, his black uniform straight and crisply cut as per the officers' uniform regulations, one hip adorned with a pokéball and the other a gun.
Lance's stomach turned over in dread and realisation. Oh God.
Sub-admin. Wanted in relation to six confirmed murders, who knows how many unconfirmed, several counts of fraud, blackmail, and various other crimes common to the Rockets.
And he doesn't leave witnesses.
"Caught 'em prowling around," one of the Rockets said matter-of-factly, a nondescript man in the same black uniform as almost everyone else, except he bore an eclectic trio of bags slung over his shoulder. "Behave," he admonished the girl a second later when she tried to stagger to her feet, forcing her back down again with his hand on her head. She jerked away from him, her nose wrinkled with disgust and fear.
Lance's jaw tightened at the look on her face, schooling his muscles to stillness. It was taking everything he had just to keep himself from going for one of his dragons. Closing his eyes for a moment helped, cutting off the sight of the younger boy looking oh-so-naively defiant, the girl pale but rebellious, the older, stockier teen grimly apprehensive.
"You won't get away with this!" the younger boy shouted, fighting the ropes tying his wrists, half rising up onto his knees only to be shoved roughly back down again. Lance's tingling fingers spasmed momentarily before he managed to block out the sounds of furious, childish threats, forcing himself not to act, to think, because there was far too much at stake here to just jump into the fray.
If I call in for backup it would blow my cover. I can't attack without blowing my cover. If I can't get to the lab tonight it could be another year before we get another opportunity like this.
Meanwhile, the people and pokémon of those towns would continue to suffer and die. They were trying to help, they had health experts and doctors all over the data, but it wasn't enough without knowing exactly what the Rockets used as contaminants. There was only so much they could pinpoint from blood tests and symptoms.
Help these kids and lose the chance to end this case.
Or take down the lab… and sacrifice these kids.
He couldn't make that decision. He couldn't. They were kids. He had to do something—
I have to do nothing.
Swallowing hard against the rock in his throat, the dragon tamer fought himself to continued immobility, his fists clamped at his sides and gaze locked upon the scene not more than a dozen feet in front of him.
"Was there anyone else with them?" Patterson was asking the man who led the security detail, and Lance tried to listen, tried to pay attention in case someone said something important, but it was so hard just to look and not act.
"Nada," the man answered with a shrug.
Patterson nodded without a change in expression, ignoring the younger boy's yells and threats, his indignation that the sub-admin wasn't taking them seriously. Instead the Rocket reached for the gun at his hip, drawing it, racking the slide with an intimidating clunk-snap which made the boy fall silent at long last, staring at him with too-wide eyes as all the agents nearby stepped out of firing range.
Lance went cold. No. No you don't, you bastard, don't you dare—
—do something, do something, do something—
His hands clenched, trembling slightly against the roaring in his ears which seemed to be taking over every other sound, against the beast in his chest that was ravaging him from inside out, he could swear that he was being eaten alive—
Patterson raised the gun.
—don't you dare, I'll hunt you down if you do, I'll throw you into a lake of gyarados—
—I AM GOING TO FUCKING KILL YOU YOU BASTARD—
There seemed to be a split second of utter silence as the boy's body toppled. Then there was a slight thud as it hit the ground, and the spell was broken.
With a hysterical, incoherent scream, the girl threw herself at Patterson, her voice almost drowning out the hoarse shouts of the other boy, but the Rocket just caught her roughly around the arm and threw her back down to the concrete. Without a change in expression he shifted his aim and a gunshot later there were two bodies on the blood-streaked floor.
Lance hardly heard it or saw it—the pound of his heart in his ears had taken over everything, his vision a have of smouldering red as he trembled beneath the fury consuming him from within. It took his white flashes in front of his eyes before he realized he wasn't breathing and managed to inhale shallowly, shakily, not daring to take more than that in case he drew attention to himself.
The next thing he knew he was staring at three limp corpses, spreadeagle and slumped in a pool of red.
His hand spasmed violently and he quickly turned away, clenching an iron grip around the handle of the trolley instead of a pokéball as he so desired, shaking with rage and anguish and guilt so sharp that for one irrational moment he thought Patterson had shot him as well.
And that might actually come true in a minute if you don't get a grip! rebuked some part of him that was still paying attention, and he managed to swallow once, twice, taking deep, unsteady breaths until the pounding in his head and chest eased and he could once more pay attention to what was happening around him.
The bustle of the hangar had started up again, the sounds of many echoing footsteps and the scrape of wood against concrete and metal. Yes. I am… loading the helicopter.
I am loading the helicopter to go to the lab.
He narrowed his focus on that one thing; that was his task, and it was an easy one. If he could just do that then he could handle the thing to come after, and when he'd handled the next thing then he could handle the next…
It was still a moment before he could unclench his hand from around the handle of the trolley and straighten, trembling from the massive adrenaline rush.
"Is there a problem, Agent?" an emotionless voice asked from the side.
Lance's body seized up, his heart skipping, and for a moment his vision wavered red once again as he turned his head slightly to look out beneath the brim of his cap—just enough to see Patterson beside him.
The hidden blade he wore at his back burned him through his clothes. So near—so close—
It would be so easy, he wasn't expecting it, no one was expecting it—
Lance unstuck his throat, his jaw aching from his teeth being gritted, his voice coming out hoarse as he lied, every word harsh on his lips. "My apologies, sir… I have a sister their age."
Patterson studied him for a moment longer with those sharp eyes, a moment in which Lance didn't dare breathe or move, his chest painfully tight and arms locked into place.
Then the thin Rocket seemed to shrug, accepting that some people had family, loved ones, even if he didn't. "To work, Agent."
"Yes, sir," the Elite whispered as Patterson turned away, and one hand quivered slightly as though with the lingering desire to unleash the full fury of his dragons upon the Rocket, a desire Lance bridled and pounded down until numbness was the only thing left.
Will fidgeted restlessly, fingering the edge of his mask and swivelling slightly on his revolvable chair, his brown eyes fixed to the flatscreen in front of him. On it the region's topography was laid out in bright green contours, the gridded map centred on an area in the mountains northeast of Violet City, quite close to Southernwood Town, where he was currently stationed. There were five glowing red dots strung out near the base of the map, motionless and waiting.
The monitor to his left was scrolling with numbers, but he wasn't in control of it; that computer had been routed to the technicians up at the Plateau. Thanks to some data Koga had provided, they were currently leaving the mainframe of the Rocket base where the ninja was stationed in shambles.
The psychic had his doubts they'd find anything useful, but they were leaving a discreet trail behind. After the lab was raided the Rockets would probably search their mainframes, find out it had been tampered with, and assume the Elites had managed to break their codes for the coordinates, leaving the depot open for continued surveillance.
Of course realistically it would take weeks to break any kind of code to find the lab's location—and that was assuming it was there to begin with—but if the ploy worked the Rockets wouldn't know how long they'd had the data anyway, so it really didn't matter.
Meanwhile Koga would slip out of the base with them none the wiser… too bad he wouldn't get out in time to join the rest of them.
Although we're not exactly doing much either, the purple-haired psychic sighed, sitting back in his chair and swinging idly around on the rotating chair to scan the rest of the room.
It was relatively quiet, aside from the stamp of Surge's boots as the broad-shouldered blonde paced the wooden floor restlessly and the soft click of metal as two of the gym leader's men silently checked and rechecked a set of handguns they'd brought with them over in the opposite corner. Will wrinkled his nose a little at the sight; he wasn't qualified to fire a gun and wouldn't have taken one anyway, but not everyone was equipped to defend themselves the way he was in the event pokémon weren't able to handle the danger.
Bruno was seated on the floor in the corner to Will's right, legs crossed and eyes closed, his lowered face half shadowed by his thick, shaggy hair. The psychic wasn't sure if he was meditating or just trying to snatch a few more minutes of sleep—both states of mind had some similarities, depending on their depth. This whole situation had been a rude awakening for everyone except Koga, who had, apparently, been undercover since morning.
The only other people present, seated at the long oval table in the centre of the room, were the last two of Surge's squad, both of them ruddy, muscular and grim, occupying themselves by double-checking the rest of the equipment brought from the Vermillion City gym.
Quiet, maybe, Will thought with a slight frown, rubbing his forehead as he turned back to his computers. But definitely tense.
He'd caught Surge projecting once or twice, radiating displeasure and impatience, wishing he could be out there ready to storm the depot instead of 'locked inside this prison of a meeting room waiting for thatpretentious porcupine-haired dragon tamer to drop us a nonexistent line'.
You'd think he hates Lance, the way he's been going on.
It wasn't true, of course; hostility was just the lieutenant's way of dealing with the tension. Will had taken his fair share of insults in the past, and so had just about everyone else Surge worked with.
The slender psychic fingered his earpiece glumly, wishing Lance would hurry up and call in already and not entirely sure whether the thought belonged to him or not.
Or he could at least leave the depot. The base was installed with signal-suppressing equipment, so Will couldn't lock onto the dragon tamer's cellphone until he left the facility.
He could have called Falkner for an update, but the idea that Falkner would know more about what was going on just because he was closer was a fallacy. The bird trainer was as near to the supply outlet as he dared to go without tipping the Rockets off, and the team of Dragon Clan Enforcers was waiting in the wings a little further back—most dragons didn't have particularly good night-sight compared to Falkner's noctowl and hoothoot.
Meantime, Karen had already been alerted and was taking care of things on the political and administrational end, while Blaine and the other scientists were en route to the labs at the Plateau (or already present, as was in the case of most of them). Other than that there wasn't anything any of them could do but wait.
Restlessly the psychic shifted in his seat, crossing his legs and then uncrossing them again, inwardly cursing the atmosphere of the room. It's times like this I hate being empathic. He could feel Surge's impatience like it was his own, despite his attempts to block it, and it was making him uneasy.
Abruptly Will's stomach turned over and his breath caught, making him swallow hard against an intense feeling of nausea. His skin prickled, the scars on his left cheek seeming to burn, and one hand automatically came up to rub them anxiously beneath the mask. Okay, Surge isn't causing that.
There was only one thing Will knew of which caused 'that'. He may not have visions as powerful or often as Sabrina did, but he did get premonitions, and right now one was telling him that something had just gone horribly wrong.
His fingers twitched for the earpiece to call Falkner, but he hesitated, staring at the green-lined map on the screen, at the clock down the bottom. It's only two-nineteen. Not even two hours since Lance went in.
He wasn't supposed to send in reinforcements unless an operative had missed their call-in time by more than an hour.
He didn't give me a call-in time.
But he had said to give him four hours at the outside.
What if whatever had gone wrong wasn't something that would keep Lance from completing the mission? Sending Falkner in could blow the Champion's cover.
Dissatisfied, Will forced himself to sit back in his chair and cross his legs in a parody of composure—but he wasn't able to take his hand from his still-tingling scars.
Ten minutes later, when a small red dot blipped up on the screen and flashed, his heart leapt to his throat and he almost catapulted forward for the keyboard, his fingers flying as he logged in the time and location of the signal and set the satellite to track it.
Behind him he heard Surge's footsteps halt, felt every eye on his back, and tapped his earpiece with a hand trembling with adrenaline. "Falkner, they're on the move."
"Understood. Returning to Southernwood."
Once Falkner got there—it was too dangerous to try and track the helicopter by air, the vehicle was sure to be equipped with a high-tech radar—the fliers could transport the equipment and men while Will directed them from the Southernwood Police Station. When Lance had arrived at his destination, Will would radio the nearest local police force and then teleport there to help set up a control room and meet the others.
"Let's saddle up, people!" Surge barked from somewhere behind him, and the room was abruptly filled with the sound of people moving, but Will didn't shift his focus from the monitor, automatically blocking out the veritable buzz of grim apprehension and hoping, praying, that his premonition had been wrong after all.
"—been arrested pertaining to their involvement in the lab and its research. They are currently under guard in Tamarack City, awaiting transport to Cianwood, where they will be held until—"
Falkner shut the door, momentarily blocking out the low sound of the television, and ran a hand through his already dishevelled hair with a sigh. Should've known the news would be on.
He didn't mind reporters so much, and often it was useful just to see what the media was saying—and how much they were getting wrong—but he didn't have the energy to listen to it right now, not when it was something he'd experienced himself. He'd gotten all of two hours' sleep before the raid and hadn't managed to drop off afterwards; it was now early afternoon and he'd given up on his nap after tossing and turning for half the morning.
So he'd pulled on a yukata, left his shared lodge, and made his way through the gardens to the gatehouse common room. At first glance the tastefully furnished room appeared to be empty, even despite the blare of the massive flatscreen television on the opposite wall, casting flickering light over the leather armchairs and polished, ornately carved tables. The bird trainer frowned and took a few steps in to find the remote and turn the TV off, the carpet soft under his bare feet, before he finally spotted Will sitting cross-legged and half buried within a pile of cushions, the psychic's hair blending in remarkably well with the navy-blue of the couch. Will looked as tired as Falkner felt; he wasn't even wearing his mask, the scars on the left side of his face looking pearly in the intermittent light from the television.
That doesn't bode well, Falkner thought grimly as he changed his course, shifting aside some cushions and plopping himself down on the couch next to the younger man. "Why aren't you in bed?" the bird trainer asked quietly, sinking gratefully back into the pillows—he still ached where he'd taken a glancing blow from an arbok's Poison Sting. Thank God for body armour.
"Why aren't you?" Will returned almost rhetorically, his gaze still fixed upon the television and voice strangely morbid.
"Yeah, well…" Falkner trailed off with a wry half-smile, quickly vanished. It had been a difficult night and morning. He wasn't entirely sure how or why, yet; on the outside it seemed like it had been the most successful bust in a year. The whole lab and everyone involved had gone down, and that included the suppliers, if not the depot.
It had included Jace Patterson, wanted for murder, extortion, and God only knew what else. He'd been on the Elites' watch for/wanted list for months.
Falkner looked around the empty room again, gaze drifting past the moving images on the TV which held Will spellbound. It seemed ironic that they were about the only two who got a chance to sleep and couldn't. Bruno was probably still in Tamarack City, helping out with the prisoners' transport to the Cianwood Detention Facility. Surge had received a bad raticate bite, which was luckier than one of his men, who had broken a few ribs and received several burns after being sideswiped by some pokémon's Explosion. Since he'd been pulled off duty by the bite Surge insisted on staying in Tamarack until Sergeant Murdoch was released from the hospital, which probably wouldn't be for a while.
Falkner frowned. Come to think of it, he hadn't seen Lance since the raid itself. He hadn't stayed in Tamarack to help secure the prisoners until Chuck and his people came to transport them, which in itself was uncharacteristic; but neither could Falkner recall seeing him helping a harassed-looking Karen handle the press, and while the Dragon Master harboured a strong distaste for reporters he preferred to at least be present for such high-profile releases.
And that, the blue-haired gym leader suddenly realized with a pang of realization, was why he kept on feeling that something was amiss. Lance.
He hadn't had a chance to think about it at the time, but during the raid Lance had been… unsettled.
Falkner pondered that word for a moment, then mentally slapped himself upside the head. 'Unsettled' is an understatement, Arrington, he berated himself. Try upset, agitated, discomforted, distressed…
He had to stop on that one. When was Lance ever detached? Composed, sure, he was composed all the time—it came with the territory—but if there was one distinguishing characteristic about Lance (besides his hair) it was that Lance had energy, he had focus, he had presence. Even when he was consciously keeping himself from letting it out, as he frequently did when undercover, you could always see it just by looking in his eyes.
Falkner had only spoken to Lance face-to-face once after the raid, and something had gnawed at him, something that screamed 'wrong!' during the whole conversation.
It was his eyes, the bird trainer realized with another, sharper pang, his stomach twisting. His eyes had been…
Like staring at a window while there was a storm going on outside. You knew there was motion there, but while you stared at the window all you could see was your own reflection. A barrier. Nothingness.
Except when I mentioned Jace Patterson, Falkner recalled with still more clarity. He had been the one to catch the sub-admin, attempting to escape with some of his subordinates in a Landrover. He knew that Lance would have wanted to hear that personally, to know that such a threat was off the streets.
And for a moment it seemed like the glass was breaking. A chill ran down his spine at the memory, an echo of the one he'd felt at the time, the one he'd attributed to the cold night air and the breeze. Whatever was behind it… is something I don't think I want to see. Ever.
Then the moment had passed… Lance had apparently shored up his walls without Falkner ever noticing.
Not consciously, at least.
"Have you seen Lance since the raid ended?" Falkner asked Will, breaking the silence abruptly, the bird trainer's unease settled between them like thick cotton.
The purple-haired psychic didn't bat an eyelash, but his gaze darkened and one hand came up to his face to trace the scars which crossed his eye. "Only in passing," he said quietly, but then lapsed into silence.
"And?" Falkner prompted after a moment, feeling a little more unsettled than before. Will could be frustrating to talk to, especially when he felt he was gossiping, but he didn't usually finger his scars unless something was bothering him. He doesn't usually let them show unless something's bothering him.
"He was projecting," Will answered slowly, as if half in thought, although his gaze never shifted once from the flickering television screen. "A lot." He moved for the first time, turning his head slightly to look at Falkner out of the corner of his eye. "Lance usually has more control than to project like that. It was almost painful to be near him."
Falkner stomach twisted tighter, his unfounded fears confirmed, his mind racing to put the pieces together. He was trying to shut everything out, but he was projecting strongly enough that Will couldn't block it. "Why…?"
Will shook his head, his thick hair ruffling, getting in his eyes. "I don't know. But I did have a premonition of something horrible sometime last night, while we were waiting."
"You didn't—" Falkner began, but cut himself off with a shake of his head and a mumbled 'idiot, of course he didn't'. If Will had Seen anything specific he would've said so. Unless it was something he doesn't feel he has the right to tell, a doubtful voice said inside him, but with a sidelong glance at the other Elite Falkner dismissed it. Psychics were notoriously strict about keeping oaths and secrets, but Will would have done something, even if it was just to go to Lance himself, and right now he seemed as much in the dark as Falkner was.
Ignorant of, or more likely ignoring, Falkner's inner dialogue, the slighter young man shrugged slightly, his too-big nightshirt slipping down one shoulder. "When the signal came I thought maybe I'd been wrong."
At that the gym leader could only stare at him with mixed incredulity and apprehension. "When have you ever been wrong?"
Another shrug, then nothing. This time both the Elites let the silence linger, turning back to their unwatched and unabsorbed program, the light flickering over their faces, one grim with thought and the other bleak with the knowledge of some unknown horror.
"—although the Dragon Master Lance was unavailable for comment, the significance of the bust today indicates his involvement. This makes the Dragon Master directly or indirectly responsible for almost twenty-one percent of the arrests made in the past year—"
He didn't comment at all? Not even in Tamarack? Falkner brushed his blue hair back with a frown, ignoring the wisps that fell beneath his hand and back into his eyes. That is…
"Unusual," Will murmured, and when Falkner looked over to him he found the psychic sitting ramrod-straight in his seat, one hand still tracing the scars on his cheek and his eyes glittering strangely with the light of the television. "Very, very unusual."
Chilled, Falkner made a decision. "I'm going to call Clair."
It was quiet. That was good. Quiet meant that he didn't need to focus on anything. He didn't want to focus on anything. Nothingness, right now, was… what he wanted. What he needed.
"…arrested almost three dozen men and women affiliated with Team Rocket, including the seizing of sensitive research material. Frederick Johansson, mayor of Tamarack City, has cited the raid as the most successful bust this year…"
He gazed down at the thick black overshirt in his hands, rubbing a thumb over the seam marking the edge of the glaring red 'R'. What was I doing?
I was… putting this away, wasn't I?
He couldn't remember.
"—contribute to the safety and security of our citizens, thanks to the efforts of Tohjo's Elite—"
A chime went off. One o'clock. Eight hours since the raid. How many since he'd come home?
…Two. And a half. I think.
Did it matter? He couldn't think why it did.
…except perhaps that he still hadn't put the uniform away… but what was the rush…?
He rubbed the red fabric again, thoughtfully, consideringly. It was easier to look at the red than his room.
Why is that?
"Among those arrested today includes Jace Patterson, a known Rocket operative for more than three years. He has been linked to at least six murders around Tohjo, including the assassination of Kanto's former Executive Minister of Environmental Health, Don Whitley…"
The jacket hit the carpeted floor.
Lance stared it numbly for a moment, trying to decide why he'd thrown it down in the first place. He lifted his head, his eyes trailing over the boots lying abandoned on the floorboards by the closed doors, the shirt he'd worn beneath the coat rumpled on the carpet, his belt and gloves and vacant pokéball holster beside it.
Where are my dragons?
He didn't remember coming in, but he must have met one of the Handlers on his way up and given them to him or her to heal and feed. Yes, that's right… they'll take care of them.
He considered the clothes strewn over the floor, knowing that he should pick them up to save the cleaning staff some work, but it seemed like far too much effort. Instead his gaze drifted over the carved stone walls of his suite, the colourful tapestries, the plush chairs and antique timber of the tables…
The huge window he skipped, the sky looking disturbingly blue through the glass, although he knew if he went to look out he'd be able to see the whole eastern side of the gym's grounds, and wasn't that thought almost as bad?
I think… I might prefer it…
It was high, but he had no problem with heights… and it was far, far away from everyone else, which was what he wanted…
The closed door to his study beckoned from across the carpeted floor to his right, but he just stared at it for several long moments. His computers were in there. His television. His link to the Plateau and the world outside his rooms.
He hadn't been in there yet. He hadn't needed to. There had been some Initiates watching the news in their common room as he passed, and he had heard all he needed to hear.
"—unavailable for comment, but Karen Delaney, noted member of the Elite Trainers of the Indigo Plateau, has confirmed the Champion's direct involvement in this case—"
Abruptly he wished he hadn't lost the jacket, because it was so much easier to look at that than at this…
Why is that?
…because that, at least, was truth…
So is this. Isn't it?
He knew he could have just picked it up again but that seemed like too much trouble. Instead he turned around mechanically, intending to go into his bedroom—he didn't feel like sleeping, but he thought he should probably go to bed anyway, that's what people who'd been up for a night and a day and a half usually did, right?—but then remembered that he'd been in a fight not all that long ago, so he should probably shower first. Don't want to make Clara lecture me for getting blood on the sheets again.
That brought up another thought: was he injured? He didn't think so, but then, it was hard to tell. Everything was so—
"—Rockets were killed during the course of the raid, while seven more were wounded. Members of the League suffered only minor injuries—"
He reached the en suite bathroom adjoining his bedroom, unconsciously taking in the marble surroundings: most of it white, some of it grey, with deep steps leading down into the spa-sized tub, rippled glass bordering the broad shower area, heavy opaque curtains obscuring where the staff entrance was to the left. It was all so rich, so opulent—
Why is that…?
—so fitting to someone of his status and wealth…
Movement caught his eye and he stopped, stared.
His reflection stared back at him from the mirror adorning the entirety of the opposite wall.
And yet it wasn't his at all.
Who… is that…?
That man's hair was windswept and tangled, shaggy with dust, greyed by ash and mortar. His face was caked with grime and dirt and oil, his black-rimmed eyes hollow, his shoulder and arm coloured an awful red by the heat of flames—I don't remember that happening—the blood- and sweat-stained undershirt leaving a stark pale outline over his torso.
Where was the spiky hair, gelled back into some semblance of order, where was the confident bearing, the sharp eyes, the handsome young man who appeared so often in magazines and papers—
"Oh, in case you were wondering: that ridiculous 'Star Watchers' publication voted you the most exciting Elite member of the year. Again. I believe the words 'dashing', 'heroic' and 'gorgeous' were used. Run and read by women, obviously."
"I wasn't wondering, Karen."
—where was the Dragon Master, pride of the Clan, where was the Elite Trainer, the Champion, the so-called hero—
He's just an illusion.
—replaced by this usurper, this soldier, this spy, this killer—
The reflection shattered.
There was a moment of complete stillness in which he hardly felt the mirror's shards digging into his knuckles, the tremble of his body, his breathing loud and ragged despite the fact that his throat was so tight he could hardly breathe to begin with—
Something roared in his ears, something hot and unstoppable, there was something pushing at the block in his throat, something over his eyes, he couldn't see through the red—
—someone was screaming, he could hear them through the thundering in his head, he was hitting something, and pain, there was pain, he was burning—
Sound, shouting; something wrenched him away from the hazy image of a shattered mirror, someone pulled him close, the cold unyielding wall replaced by warm skin.
Abruptly the red haze snapped. He was in someone's arms, his flushed, hot face pressed against their shoulder, his throat raw, his head still pounding with his heartbeat and the throb in his bloodied knuckles cutting away the last of his rage.
The only thing left was the fist clenched so tightly around his chest that he could hardly breathe.
He tried to take in some air and failed, shuddering with a sob, and then another, and another, until he quaked with gasps and tears, his knees buckling under their force. Whoever had him took his weight, lowering him gently to the debris-strewn floor, but he couldn't pull back to see who it was or speak to them or do anything except cling to them desperately and cry.
Stomach twisting with apprehension, Clair could only hold her shaking cousin to her more tightly, helplessly stroking his hair as they sat, collapsed, in a sea of red-stained glass.
A/N: For those wondering—a yukata is a piece of Japanese clothing, similar in cut and style to a kimono but a lot less bright and used more informally; except on certain occasions, it's the kind of thing that would be worn around the home, like after a bath or for sleepware or whatever (If I'm wrong, correct me).
No, that isn't Ash and company, but I've noticed that a lot of journeyfics seem to go with the boy/boy/girl recipe, and in the anime (to say nothing of the protagonist in the games and the many fics out there) they always seem to get into trouble with TR and deal with it on their own, even though they're only teens. TR is a feared and powerful crime syndicate, for goodness' sake, it's the adults who should be taking care of stuff like that. So I kinda wanted to make a point on that too, by making their appearances vague but similar.
Will having a scarred face isn't canon, but a lot of fans have speculated on why he wears his mask, and that's one of the theories they've come up with. I'm of that camp, obviously. Just don't ask me how it happened, I haven't figured it out yet. (grins)
I think that's it. Reviews are loved!