Chapter 49: Stakeout the Breakout

"I cannot believe this is what you call 'strategic maneuvering.' It's utter Milktank dung," Erin hissed as we paced through Apoosh forest. She turned to the right sharply, evidently heeding a psychic warning from Griffy and moving away from the invisible boundary within which Team Glop'emm's psychic Pokemon could detect the majority of life forms.

Being darkly gifted, of course, I was excluded from the majority.

"I mean really," Erin continued, "they'll sense us whether we come from one direction or from several. And before Melanie and I even enter the 'psychic zone,' we have to trust that you are able to enter the Glop'emm base, that you are able to eliminate their ghost detectors, and that you can communicate that you've accomplished all of this. Seems to me that a lot of this plan hinges on a person who all but disappeared off the face of this planet for the past few days with absolutely no explanation."

She would not have agreed to the plan if she were even half as upset as she sounded, I thought. Melanie, Erin, and Erin's two healthy Pokemon were surrounding the psychic boundary. I would take Erin's PokeTech with me through the boundary and leave it at the hidden entrance to the Team Glop'emm base. Once preparations within the base were complete, I'd send a signal via my PokeTech to Melanie's. Griffy would inform Erin and her Pokemon, and then they would cross the psychic boundary, acting as distractions or getting into the base depending on how Team Glop'emm reacted. Likely Missy at least would enter the base—a protected entrance would not hinder her.

I glanced at Erin. She walked as if she battled her legs with every step, lifting each foot well above the brush so as to make little noise. Every few steps, however, her foot would drag across twigs and leaves on the forest floor. Startled, she would jerk her foot upwards and nearly lose balance. Clearly the lack of sleep was taking its toll.

"Griffy says this is the spot," Erin said, frowning at me. "Don't screw up. And I swear, Liam, if you disappear again before we get Anita and Tweal, I'll hunt you down, rip out your innards, stretch your skin over a dartboard, and cut your bones into darts."

I blinked at her. Shoving my hands in my pockets, I turned away and walked across the psychic boundary, deeper into Apoosh forest.

The sun was just beginning to peek through the canopy of leaves when I found the entrance. Five years ago was the last time I'd seen this particular base, and my father and I had arrived at night. The trees were unfamiliar. Finding the base, nonetheless, was a simple matter of knowing what to look for—Shiftry.

I'd find the entrance where the highest concentration of Shiftry gathered.

The entrance to the base was hidden in an alcove of a large maple tree, seemingly overrun by Shiftry. My father's predecessor as gym leader, Harvey Darcleye, had made a deal with the local Shiftry—the Shiftry would hide the entrance to the training facility he'd bought in exchange for protection of Seedots from vicious predators, like Swellow and Fearow. When my father took over, it was quietly remodeled and sold to Team Glop'emm.

The Shiftry clan had prospered, apparently. The clan was many times the size I remembered it—Seedot clustered the branches of even the far fringes of Apoosh forest. From as far as a hundred meters from the entrance, Shiftry gathered, softly murmuring amongst themselves or silently sharpening branches. They paid me no attention as I passed.

Two Shiftry stood guard before the base entry, each looking sharply away from the maple tree. A passerby might believe they were simply watching for overhead predators. Those who had studied Shiftry would know they were keenly aware of their surroundings, able to instantaneously act upon the tiniest change in wind caused by any Pokemon or human. Shiftry could, in fact, identify a person through the minute changes in air caused by the person's walk.

I was identified and ignored. I entered the Maple tree, lifted a wooden door on the floor, and descended into the Team Glop'emm base.

No alarms sounded, no underlings attacked. I left Erin's PokeTech at the top of the stairs and snatched a black cloak from a coat rack nailed into the wall, pulling the garment over my shoulders.

I strode down the hall, eyes fixed forward deliberately, confidently, and in total control—traits expected of the Team Glop'emm Master. My task, according to the plan? Eliminate the ghost detectors.

But of course, there were no ghost detectors.

Team Glop'emm, in fact, typically used ghost Pokemon to enter and leave the base; the Shiftry were very selective about who they allowed to access the base using their guarded entrance. Only the few privileged I personally provided the scent for could make it past the Shiftry – another reason I had brought Erin's PokeTech. They would recognize her scent and allow her to pass, if need be.

However, anyone could enter the base with a ghost Pokemon. Lack of knowledge of the base location was the only detail barring non-Glop'emm members from entering. Perhaps a poor design, but who would think to look for a base underneath a small expanse of the forest?

How Erin could enter the base, however, was information she did not need to know. Erin and her Pokemon could not be allowed to enter the base until the right moment. If they entered now, chaos would ensue. While Anita might be rescued, the majority, if not all, resources from the base would be lost.

I could not afford to lose resources.

I turned a corner, into a hall where several Pokemon were held as they underwent Team Glop'emm's brainwashing process or for testing purposes. Two underlings stood next to the habitat control computer, arguing.

"You sure your wife's not beating your head in for overworking again?" the taller, beefier man said to the shorter. "There's no way a Pokemon could escape. Must not've been an Eevee in there to begin with."

"I fed them a few hours ago. I'd know—" The short man nearly jumped in place, startled to see me pacing towards him. He elbowed his comrade.

The corridor echoed the soft thud of my shoes against the tile floor. I stopped in front of the men. "Gentlemen," I said, pausing to look each man in the eye. "Take me to Arkle."

"Err, the boss said… I mean, Jamie—"

"Who do you think instructed Jamie to add a few zeros to your paycheck? You're addressing the Master."

The short man turned to lead the way, tugging at his partner's elbow. "C'mon." The tall man shrugged him off.

"Look, sir, we were specifically told not to follow anyone's orders but the boss's. We can take you to a waiting chamber and see what the boss wants to do with ya."

I spun into a crouch, swiping the tall man's ankles with my foot as I turned and released Bree from her Pokeball. "Confuse ray," I ordered.

In the time it took me to straighten, the fallen man was rolling on the tile floor, scratching at his beard and muttering, "Get them out, oh, get them." His partner stared at me, eyes bulging.

I tilted my head. The short man led the way.

o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o

The strangest part of my evolution into Vaporeon was definitely the whole becoming one with the water thing. Becoming one was not at all as metaphorical as it sounded. Literally, I became the water—or in this case, Splash's pee.

I slipped through the minute crack in the seal around our cell's window and slowly trickled down the grooves along the long wall, over other Pokemon cells. Such strange sensations. I couldn't feel or see or smell; I could only move with the water. Even thinking was slow and tiring.

It was difficult to gauge how much time had passed as I dripped downwards. I returned to my more solid form when the movement stopped.

I found myself on top of a laboratory table in a spacious room with a high ceiling. Several humans in white lab coats bustled between the rows and rows of counters spread across the room. I scampered to the floor quickly, hoping nobody had noticed me or the puddle of pee I left behind. Of course, not being used to my new body, I tripped over my paws and skid into a chair, knocking it over.

A woman passing paused, frowning at the overturned chair. "Hey, who's letting their experiment subject run loose?" she hollered, glancing around. "We've got an uncollared Vaporeon over here."

Oh, crud. She'd know if I melted back into water. I could quick attack my way to the door, but that'd just draw attention to me. I inched backwards between the lab tables.

{Anita? Sunflower? Griffy?} I called. It couldn't hurt—I was trapped. Man, I so didn't want to get sent back to confinement with Splash. I'd have to sit through one of his "the art of sneaking" lectures.

{Allo?} a voice answered my call.

I didn't recognize the psychic presence. {Who are you?} I asked cautiously. Apple had once given us "youngins" a talk about brain protection. Sunflower had found the topic enthralling, but the only takeaway I got from the rant was that attacking a brain-invader was the only protection from brain invasion. And math, occasionally, according to Griffy's tail.

Abiding by advice given by Griffy's tail, incidentally, was a whole different Apple-rant. Needless to say, I crouched and prepared an iron tail.

A woman with long blonde hair in a low ponytail put a hand on hollering-lady's shoulder. Like most other humans in the room, the woman was wearing a lab coat. Somehow, though, this woman wore it differently—with a straight back and rigid shoulders. This woman was in charge—top of her pack. "My idiot colleague must not have given our test subject the right amount of propofol before heading to the bathroom. I'll take it from here."

Hollering-lady nodded and left, and the blonde woman turned to face me. I nearly jumped back when I discovered the woman was Styx—that strange human who could talk to Pokemon, that human Apple later told me was actually a Ditto. Splash had mentioned he'd seen her from our confinement.

"What are you doing here?" I asked, lowering my tail.

{I could ask the same of you,} Styx answered.

{Wait, you're the voice in my head?}

Styx sighed and leaned down to pick me up. {Pretend to be unconscious,} she ordered. {I assume that because you're still around, the gym leaders haven't rescued Anita yet.}

{I don't know anything about that, but Splash and I are going to rescue everyone.}

{They should have been able to handle everything on their own…} Styx rose and turned, walking towards the front of the laboratory.

{Who's they?} I asked.

{The gym leaders. I was captured, but I'd planned that,} Styx explained. {Dustin, Tali, and the rest should've caused a ruckus by now.}

{Well, seems to me your rescue attempt failed. Now we've got to come up with a new one.}

Styx didn't answer for a moment, observing another guy in a lab coat examine something in a test tube. She let out another sigh. {My boyfriend really is useless. Alright, fine. I'm in psychic range of the cells on this floor holding mostly electric and grass Pokemon. The emergency release is a single bar across each row of cells, easy for me to move psychically. There are psychic Pokemon on this floor as well, but they're contained with dark bands so I won't be able to do anything about them.}

{Anita'll be there. I'll get her—}

{No. I don't think there's anything you'd be able to do to free her from a psychic cell. Plus, at this point she still might be heavily guarded. Your best shot is going down three levels to where the fire and flying Pokemon are typically held. That's probably where—what's his name—Fiesty, no Fervid—the Flareon—}

{Fiery,} I supplied.

{Right. That's where Fiery will likely be held. Before this place was a Glop'emm base or training base, it was a sort of a mental hospital for people and Pokemon. It was built in Apoosh Forest so society wouldn't have to deal with the screamers. Anyway, the cells in the basement are made of solid rock, perfect for containing fire Pokemon. I read the blueprints from back in the day and the doors were programmed to automatically open in case of emergency—so none of the patients would die, you know. I'm pretty sure nobody ever bothered to reprogram those cells. All you'll have to do is short out a circuit.}

{Err, not that I don't want to help, but you kind of seem like an insanely powerful super Ditto-human-person-thing. Couldn't you just do all of this yourself?}

We'd reached the large lab entrance—a doorway several tailspans wider than usual human doors. Styx walked through the entrance, but turned abruptly in the hallway. When she headed towards a mop and bucket settled against the wall in a corner, I had an inkling as to what she was planning.

{I have other matters to attend to. If you can, avoid any psychic Pokemon—I don't want my cover blown.} Styx picked up placed me on top of the bucket. Soapy water swirled below me. {Now, in you go. I'm going to pour you down the central staircase.}

{Hold on. You told me where Anita is, but where's the rest of my family? If I get Fiery—}

{You should head straight for an exit on the top floor,} Styx said firmly. She shook her head and ran a hand through her ponytail. {I'll make sure Anita and your siblings make it out and meet you there.}

{And wait, wait, don't forget to release Splash—}

A speaker above me blared a scratchy sound. A woman with a robotic voice spoke: "Attention. All personnel are to assist with the Pokemon outbreak in sector B4, sector B5, and sector B6, the electric and grass sectors. Immediate attention necessary, code Q4. Attention. All personnel are to assist…"

{You were saying?} Styx said dryly.

{I was saying you are wise and benevolent and really ought to teach Anita a few tricks.} I grinned at Styx and she smirked back.

Then suddenly I was flung forward. The soapy bucket water splashed over my legs and tail. {I'm sure she'd love that,} was the last I heard before I transformed into water.

Falling was not at all like trickling. My body strained against the air friction, stretching and twisting like a contorted balloon. It was painful, but bearable.

Hitting the ground was not.

I felt my cells rip from each other, as if my body was shattering. I thought it was the end, that I was done for. I waited for my body to stop feeling, but it didn't.

Slowly, my cells pulled back together. I transformed.

For a moment it was all I could do to stare at my webbed paws. Toenails were missing. My skin felt rubbed bare, sunburned almost. I wondered if this was a side effect of splashing across the ground or if I was just worn from transforming twice in an hour.

"Geodude, rock throw!"

I lifted my head in time to be smacked in the face with a giant boulder. More pain, but not nearly as intense as I expected.

Right. I was a Vaporeon. I resisted rock type. The whole situation felt so absurd I nearly laughed. Instead, I spit up a water gun.

How strange, I thought. Where did the geyser spouting from my mouth come from? It's not something I'd ever contemplated before evolving.

I closed my mouth to breathe and found a knocked out Geodude in front of me and a very wet Glop'emm minion uselessly shaking a now-dead radio. The minion looked confused as I trotted up to him, unsure whether to run or tackle me, I suppose.

I nearly left him be, but a glint of resolution appeared in his eyes as I passed.

So I water gunned his face.

The minion fell, coughing, and I continued forward.

Said fallen minion had been guarding what appeared to be a large rock wall. From what Styx had said, I assumed this was where Team Glop'emm was holding Pokemon. Unsure of what to do, I sprayed the wall with water.

Nothing happened. I approached the wall, sniffing.

I could smell them – not Fiery specifically, but the Pokemon. They were here. Cracks lined the stone walls. Behind me, I could hear the minion getting on his feet.

{Allo?}

This time, although in my head, I recognized the voice. "Apple!"

{There's a panel near the Glop'emm dude,} Apple said. I scanned the wall and identified the small black control panel. {That's how you'll—}

I sprayed the panel with water. There was a crackling noise.

Nothing happened.

{Nice. Looks like you just broke our only chance out.}

{Styx said that would open all cells,} I said, taking the opportunity to water gun the approaching minion. He slipped and fell in a puddle in front of the panel, swearing.

I didn't see any other option; I lit my tail and smacked the wall where it felt like Apple's voice was loudest. Some dirt came loose. {We tried that, you won't get far,} she said.

{We'll see.} I hit the wall again.

{You should probably go fetch Anita.}

I growled and continued at the wall. This was the thanks I got for rescuing her? I was already here – I wasn't going to abandon her, she practically felt like family. Or some nutty half-cousin, anyway.

I kept one eye on the minion as I chipped away at the wall with my tail, drenching him every time he attempted to rise or yell. After the fourth or fifth attempt, he lifted his hands up in surrender as he rose — I wouldn't fall for it. I kept the minion on the ground with my water, wishing I knew how to freeze him and promising myself I'd learn if I ever got out of here.

The minion angrily gestured at the panel.

I watched impassively. The minion rolled his eyes, then darted up.

He stood longer than usual as I spat water, gripping some wall indent. There was a rumbling sound behind me, surprising me mid-water gun. The cells had been opened.

The minion threw his hands up, stomping away from a now-open panel and pulled lever. "Just get out of here," he grumbled.

Although I spotted Apple and Fiery clambering down in the midst of released Pokemon, I was distracted by a Taillow zipping around my head and flipping through the air. Tweal! "Thought I'd be stuck in there forever," he said. "Thank you, sir savior."

"You realize its me, Allo," I said, unsure if he recognized me as a Vaporeon.

"Oh, um, yeah. Of course."

{You can't blame him. He doesn't have our sense of smell,} Apple said. I turned instinctively and found Apple standing side-by-side with Fiery, their tails intertwined. I swear, Apple's luminescent eyes were twinkling more than usual.

"Allo." Fiery nuzzled my head affectionately, then took a step back. I smiled; my brother was rarely outwardly affectionate. Sunflower, Vanilla, Splash, and I could always tell he cared, though – even now, he was scanning my body for injuries.

I started to explain what Styx had told me. "The top floor—" Abruptly, I caught a whiff of something peculiar in Fiery's scent. Something almost… tangy…

"You coupled with her?"

Fiery blinked, but didn't look taken aback. Apple rolled her eyes. "What else was there to do stuck in that tiny cell?" she said. But I could hear a slight quiver in her voice.

There were too many Pokemon shuffling around me. I mean, my brother was nearly an adult, but there had never been anyone other than us younger siblings. And now that it happened, I wondered why it hadn't happened earlier, why he hadn't found someone before now—were we what stopped him? Or was he worried about our reaction? I mean, I didn't mind Apple. I liked Apple, actually, but why didn't Fiery confide or even hint that something was there?

Apple cleared her throat, eyeing me uneasily. "This isn't the time to stand around. Let's get out of here and then deal with our… issues. Allo, you mentioned something about the top floor."

She was right. "I ran into Styx. It's a long story, but she said she'd get Anita and the rest of us free. She told me to get everyone to the exit on the top floor."

Apple growled. "Not sure what that woman's doing here, but I'd trust Griffy's tail more. We should find Anita ourselves…" Apple glanced at Fiery, who looked back at her steadily. Apple's ears fell backwards. "Anita is family!" she snarled defensively.

I looked between the Fiery and Apple nervously, feeling like I missed something. Apple looked up, and I followed her gaze, only to find Tweal diving towards my head. He pulled away at the last second to land on my head fin.

"I will happily look for Anita," he said.

Apple's features softened as she turned her gaze back to Fiery. She nodded to him and then Tweal. "And we'll look for Vanilla, Sunflower, and Splash in the crowd of Pokemon heading upwards," she said.

I was about to tell them how Styx had implied Sunflower and Anita would be held together when the speaker system sounded. "Attention. Emergency code 01. This is not a drill. Evacuate the base immediately. Attention…"

Tweal took off, spiraling through the air around the staircase railings.

I decided I'd inform Apple and Fiery about Sunflower and Anita if we couldn't find them among the scramble to exit the base. Sunflower and Anita could handle themselves, and Styx had promised to ensure everyone made it out. Vanilla and Splash, however, were more worrisome. Definitely better to check that they were alright.

Fiery nudged my shoulder while Apple, still close to Fiery's side, eyed me thoughtfully. We trotted with the crowd, stepping behind a group of Tepigs.

As we followed the flood of Pokemon up the stairs, it dawned on me that I hadn't picked up on the very obvious.

{Apple, when did you learn to use telepathy?}

o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o

I was scrubbing pliers when the Master entered the laboratory. Large pliers, coated in carmine colored grime.

"Jamie Arkle, you have a lot to answer for," the Master said.

The little shit. I shut the water off, considering my options. The pliers in my hand jerked, yearning to slice off the Master's head. Eliminating the Master… I eyed the belt under his dark cloak; he wore six Pokeballs, each holding Pokemon more than capable of fending off me and my Pokemon.

"Master, what a pleasant surprise. Here, I thought you were busy batting your eyelashes at Anita Parkwood."

The Master leaned against the counter and folded his arms, unfazed that I had discovered his identity. "Your orders were very clear," he said. "Anita Parkwood was not to be captured for five weeks. You were to covertly continue Team Glop'emm operations while not obstructing my detective's work."

Perhaps my Master needed me to clarify my message. "Let's be frank. You are the detective."

"Ah, we're speaking frankly now? Then I will further clarify that your orders did not include getting thrown in jail by Acceber's most tiresome gym leader."

"As if I don't know who tipped off the bastard."

The Master smiled widely, his teeth glinting in the shadows of his hood. "Good, then we're on the same page. Down to business, I suppose. You will release Anita Parkwood."

I snorted. As if I would just hand over Mew. I rubbed a thumb over the tip of my pliers and licked my lips. Was I fast enough to kill him? No, wait. The Master wanted something I had. What could I get from him?

The Master strode past a lab counter and continued, "You will evacuate this base, you will cease your petty attempts to withhold lab device readings from me, you will not interfere with my plans to capture and destroy Mew, you and your minions will stay away from me and Anita Parkwood." The Master stood in front of the sink, his eyes cold. "And you will not contact Landon Mendol."

Still trying to pull this detective-isn't-me shit. He had to know that I'd contacted his uncle, that I knew Landon was dead. I'd obviously overestimated the maturity of this Master child-thing. He was losing his touch—forfeiting control to travel as a typical trainer.

"You're no longer in a position to make such demands," I said, smiling. "I have the loyalty of the majority of Team Glop'emm. Soon, I'll be recognized as the new Master."

For a moment, the Master was still. "You're finally on the cusp of holding power," the Master said. Slowly, he circled the sink I stood in front of, his long coat brushing my ankles as he passed behind me. "And yet, you stand precariously. One slip, and you're nobody."

One slip of my fingers, and he'd be…

I flipped my wrist, thrusting the pliers at the Master's head.

Blood spilled onto the floor. Excitement filled my stomach—I'd done it, I'd killed—

Pain seared through my left hand, like nothing I'd felt before. Shakily raising my arm, I found blood pouring from my knuckles where my ring and pointer finger had been. I shoved the hand under my right arm and forced my gaze to the Master.

He faced me, casually holding the pliers open by his side. Not a drop of blood had spilled on his cloak. "Do not mistake me for one of your tools. Team Glop'emm exists as long as it remains useful to me. The moment Team Glop'emm ceases to benefit me, I will destroy it; if I cannot use Team Glop'emm's resources, I will ensure nobody else can."

He dared threaten… The brat… The pain… I gritted my teeth, attempting to focus. The edges of my sight were darkening, and my damned knees gave way. I slumped against the counter. The Master would pay for this. I'd tear out his knuckles; I'd break his toes with a hammer one by one; I'd take a knife to his skin—

The Master leaned over me. "You'll follow my orders. You, too, Jamie Arkle are only a resource, and the moment I decide you are more of an impedance than an asset—"

The pliers snapped close.

I closed my eyes, preparing for pain, but it never came.

My eyes felt heavy. When I finally managed to open them, the Master was gone, the pliers left strewn across the floor like a broken toy.

o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o

I'd failed. It was only a matter of time before they figured out Apple was Mew. And Vanilla…

The walls of my cell were cold against my arms. I tilted my head back and turned so that my cheek rested against the stone. My face felt grimy, coated with dried tears. My shirt was still damp.

Sunflower was awake now, shackled to the wall beside me and peering at me over her shoulder. Though she stared, I couldn't bring myself to speak to her. If we hadn't been tied with dark bands, she'd surely be howling at the atrocity I'd allowed to happen. The scene that played over and over in my thoughts.

The metal door to my cell clicked. A scrawny man whose head was covered in a large grey scarf entered. There was blood on his shoes.

"What do you want?" I hissed.

The man pulled a pocketknife out of his pocket and stumbled towards me.

"Get away from me. I'll scream," I said, oddly calm. Seeing my own blood could not be as painful as seeing Vanilla's. Sunflower growled, but the man continued toward me. He grabbed my arm.

Watching the knife in the man's hand, not a foot from my face, my heart finally started to kick in. I struggled, shoving my shoulder into the man. He would have staggered back if he hadn't been gripping my arm so tightly. Instead, the rubbery dark band holding my wrist to the wall stretched to its limit, then retracted sharply, slamming my left wrist against the stone with a loud crack. I grunted as pain shot up my arm to my shoulder. "If you kill me, I'll blow this place to pieces. Being Mew and such." I kneed the man as hard as I could in the shin.

"You freak," the man rasped. "Stop flailing, I'm trying to free you. And I know you're not Mew."

That voice. "Reece?" I asked.

"What?" The man's voice cracked. Definitely Reece. "No. No, no. I'm, umm…"

"Reece, I know that's you. You're freeing me?" I twisted to the side, giving Reece room to saw at the dark bands around my wrists with his pocketknife. "I mean thanks, but I thought you…"

"That Arkle guy, he's demented. What he did to your Eevee was way messed up," Reece said. Close up I could see there were dark bags beneath his eyes. His hand shook as he sawed through the band. "I know we're not really friends, but… and… err, well I'm sorry. I didn't want any of that to happen."

"Why are you even here?"

"To free you."

"I mean in Team Glop'emm. You should leave."

The knife finally cut through the dark band. I rubbed my wrists as Reece started cutting through the dark band holding Sunflower's tail to the wall.

"It was just going along with one of Carly's plans to get back at you at first. But one thing led to the next and suddenly the stuff I was asked to do was wrong and completely illegal. And I can't leave. Arkle will kill me. I can't even trust my own Pokemon — the Gallade given to me worships Arkle like the guy created the sun. If any of them find out I'm here…"

"I won't tell."

Reece shook his head. "You don't have to. All it takes is Gallade or Hypno to flip through my memories. I'm so screwed." Reece finished with the dark band around Sunflower's tail and pulled out a set of keys, bending down to unlock the cuffs around Sunflower's paws.

My mind immediately connected with Sunflower's. I silently shared what information I knew about where we were and who had kidnapped us while she showed me what I'd missed while unconscious after all hell broke loose at the fashion show. Together, we psychically probed the base for her siblings. Allo, Fiery, and Splash were together several floors above us. Vanilla was only a few twisted halls away.

I broke off the psychic connection before Sunflower could sense more than the intense flood of emotions that came at the thought of Vanilla. Sunflower gave me a concerned look, but didn't question me.

We hadn't found Apple. I tried to repress my worry; in the form of a dark Pokemon, I wouldn't be able to sense her unless she unveiled her mind.

Reece stood up as Sunflower stretched, finally free from the cuffs. "There's a stairwell straight down the hall on the right," he said, unwrapping and rewrapping the scarf around his head. "Take it up about seven floors, and you'll find the only exit. You shouldn't have too much of an issue with other Glop'emm members. Someone released a bunch of Pokemon and the upper floors are total chaos. An evacuation's been ordered."

"Reece, come with us," I said. "Seriously, this Arkle dude is clearly already after me. We can fight him off or hide from him together."

Reece just shook his head. "You have no idea… He'd kill me, probably with my own Pokemon. He's sadistic like that."

"But—"

"Just get out of here before someone decides to check up on you. You're lucky nobody's come yet," Reece said. He swiveled around and strode out of the cell. "And if anyone asks, you didn't see me."

"Thank you. I owe you one."

Reece paused. "If you see Carly… try to play nice." He then hurried down the hall in the opposite direction of the stairwell. I nodded to Sunflower and we left the cell, jogging towards Vanilla's psychic signature.

The halls were eerily quiet and bare. We passed several empty cells and a few doors with dark windows. Although I couldn't sense any people in our path, I was jittery, expecting to find a Team Glop'emm lackey around every bend in the hallway.

When I sensed Vanilla was just a narrow strip of hall and a set of double doors away, I detoured, leading Sunflower into one of the empty rooms lining the hallway. I left the lights off, not wanting to draw attention if someone passed the room.

{There's something I need to show you,} I told Sunflower. {You should sit down.} Then the memories spilled out—the blood dripping to the ground and the glint in Arkle's eyes and the sound—that horrible, soft snipping—

{Anita, stop.}

I found myself crouching with my back against the door, hugging my knees into my chest. My face was damp again so I rubbed it on my shoulder.

Sunflower touched my mind, soothing me as she could. Although I could not see her, I could sense how she sat paws together, her head tilted in concern. She lifted her tail slowly and caught a tear rolling down my cheek. {There was nothing you could do then. But now, we need to save Vanilla.}

I shakily rose, shutting out what memories I could. It felt like I was pushing against a door with all I had, barricading the flood of emotions and images. With my hand on the door handle, I paused. Something wasn't right. No, something didn't smell right.

{No, Anita, don't—}

I flipped the light switch. We were in a small laboratory. In the center of the room atop a granite countertop laid a severely burned, dead Charmander.

For a moment, I felt like I couldn't breathe. Then a hot boiling feeling churned in my stomach, simmering. Every lightbulb, every beaker, every glass object in the room burst. We stood in darkness, but that was nothing to me. I could feel everything around me just fine.

With a thought, the door flew off of its hinges into the hallway, slamming against the wall. With another flick of my mind, I broke through the wall separating me from Vanilla. {Anita, stop!} Sunflower yelled. I vaguely comprehended her saying I would wear myself out, that I couldn't sustain the energy output. None of that mattered. Destroying everything about this horrid place, annihilating everyone who worked here—people who tortured and killed—making sure Vanilla was safe from Arkle—that's what mattered.

I easily cut apart a strewn chair blocking my path. There were rows and rows of lab tables, underneath each of which was a supply cabinet. My barriers sliced them as I passed. The tables fell apart in chunks, the contents of split supply cabinets leaked across the floor.

Vanilla lay on a lab table in the far corner of the room. She was alive. A person hovered over her. No, not a person. Styx.

Styx only had time to widen her eyes before I psychically threw her against a bookshelf. "Stay away from Vanilla," I said. "What did you do to her?"

"Anita, what are you talking about? I'm on your side—" I slammed Styx against the shelf again. Her eyes fluttered shut and she reached an arm towards me.

Suddenly, I felt drained. Styx dropped to the ground as I leaned against a broken table for support. "What… what did you do?" I asked, unable to grasp my psychic energy.

Styx blinked and examined her hand, frowning. "I don't know."

"Sunflower, restrain her," I ordered.

{I can't. She feels like a dark Pokemon now.}

"Anita, I helped Vanilla," Styx said, holding up her arms. "I was bandaging her—look at the table."

I followed Styx's gaze. Vanilla's head was bandaged. She was asleep on the lab counter, wrapped in a blanket. Before I could even think the request, Sunflower floated Vanilla into my arms. She was safe. I felt calmer… or perhaps that was just side effect of being drained.

"If you're on our side, why are you wearing their lab coat? Why aren't you caged up?" I asked.

Styx gathered a few papers and leftover bandages, stuffing them into a briefcase. "That's not important. Look, I ran into Allo an hour ago when all this craziness started. He went to free your other Pokemon on the lower floor. You guys need to get out of here—they're going to collapse the place." Styx locked the briefcase and turned away from us, walking in the direction away from the staircase. "I have to go or they'll relocate without me."

"Styx, whatever Glop'emm has on you, we can fight it," I called. "You don't need to give them whatever they want from you."

"It's not about what they want from me," Styx said, looking over her shoulder. "This is about what I want from them."

Styx raised her hand as she disappeared through the bookshelf.

I hugged Vanilla tightly into my chest. "That would've been a lot more dramatic if I had never met Mel," I murmured to Sunflower. "Come on, let's get out of here."

o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o

Melanie's Pokegear finally buzzed, with an incoming call. I swiped the "Strange Little Friend of Adorable Sweetheart Sister Dear" label to answer.

Liam appeared on the screen.

"It's done."

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These are end author notes.

First, I'd like to thank every one of you who has stuck with this story. I could list loads of reasons for why these chapters did not come a year and a half sooner, but none are acceptable. Particular thanks to my editor - as always, you're an awesome, amazing, supportive friend. Thank you also ChuckTheEon, AlexanderTheAdventurer, survive9, and OverloardofGrammaticCorrections who have recently been motivating. Thank you to those others who PMed me earlier. Thanks, all of you.

Maybe you got the vibe, but parts of these chapters from here on out will be much darker, at least for the next few chapters. I've been considering changing the story to M - let me know if you have thoughts/opinions on this via PM or review.

I've been writing more these past few weeks than I have in a long time, and it feels great. I hope to maintain that and continue outputting chapters on a monthly basis, but I'm not going to make promises I'll probably end up breaking.

Sands Buisle - I'm not from Israel, but I did grow up using the term. You've inferred the rest! Again, love the speculation.

StattStatt - Hope you're still around, your reviews always make my day. Love the speculations.

Cherrypetal - Now you know.

MikeyMcool - Thank you :)

LXie - Yup, that's why I started doing 'Previously On...' Liam's just weird... well, and maybe has a lot of other issues.

OBR - I owe you a major thank you, you've supported me a long time.

Shadow Blood Ninja - :)

I don't care - Delicious.

Meditating Espeon - Hope you're still writing!

Guest - Keep hoping.

Dr. Kitten - A wise family once told me that pizza is in the heart. Incidentally, they then opened a chain restaurant.

Kid Ape - You related to Kid Ape 2? Apologies for frustrating you.

Guest - Thank you. I don't know what to think most of the time either. Your support is very appreciated, though.

SuperSaiyinTeemo - Yeah, I've had that suggestion before. At this point, the only reasons I haven't done it is for the sake of consistency/if I changed it now, I feel like I should go back and change all the chapters... Very valid suggestion, though.

Bob - Time travel definitely a major thing in this story.

Kid Ape 2 - Glad you made it.

Again, thank you, thank you, thank you to all my readers. Wish you all the best!

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