They all made up their minds long ago that it was impossible not to be in love with him. In their eyes, he lived without sin and flaw—a window of perfection, the panes that framed him making him even more beautiful to behold in their distorted view. Everyone in the village needed his presence—he was a talisman, sculpted from the most expensive marble and coated in the freshest human skin. To them, he was a deity. A messiah in a faultless, earthly form.

A force that they were willing to die for.

Lyra noticed it first. After he came back from the Pokemon League challenge, a championship under his belt and reflecting triumphantly in his flaxen eyes, he went to see her first. And in the seclusion of Lyra's upstairs bedroom and over steaming cups of untouched jasmine tea, Gold confessed. It was a sad and ugly confession, too—Lyra listened as Gold unleashed in a rant laced with offensive diatribes, his speech a volatile minefield. For nearly a year, he said, he had trained at the mercy of his rival, the handsome but cold Silver. He had been trying to tame his adversary's dark attitude, woo him, for his feelings for Silver flamed with a screaming intensity. As Gold explained to his childhood friend, he had advanced through the ranks and quite freely secured the championship title from the final test of the Indigo Plateau—Lance, the master of dragons, a robust whose charisma was irresistible to the lusts of young women (Lyra included).

Yet the irony was this—when Gold had stolen Lance's position, he'd hoped that was enough to convince Silver that he wasn't weak and worth his time. But Lance retaliated.

Lance stole Silver from Gold.

Tit for tat.

Gold's fist crumpled when he spoke through clenched teeth about how Silver had blushingly (and accidentally) confirmed his and Lance's relationship to Gold. How enraged he had been, picturing what they did together in isolation at night, far removed from the press. Lance's age and experience gained the upper hand against Gold as a lover, adding insult to injury. Gold realized that while one of his goals had been fulfilled, he had bitten Lance's dust. And the worse part of that was that he hadn't even known that he'd been racing Lance all along.

Yeah, we're together, Lance had said when Gold probed him about the matter, a self-righteous smirk mocking Gold's apparent distress. Silver's been mine for a while. What about it? Does that… bother you?

At first, Lyra was consumed in a myriad of emotions—sympathy for Gold (as she'd been aware of his deep adoration for Silver for months, despite the fact that Silver most likely didn't), hatred toward Lance, and disappointment in Silver. But a few seconds later, as Lyra gazed upon the face of her confidant––contorted with a mixture of bitterness and tears, she had the oddest thought. It was odd because Lyra had never conjectured such a thought about Gold, ever—they'd grown up bathing together, sleeping together, and eating together. He was a platonic friend and nothing else.

Still, she couldn't stop that errant, betraying thought from undermining her subconscious:

So this means he's still single?

The next day, Gold went to see Professor Elm on the outskirts of his already tiny hometown, New Bark, having enjoyed a delicious welcome-home breakfast from his mother. Dismally, however, he'd spent the duration of that meal attempting to delete and return the numerous missed calls from Lyra—all twenty-four of them, to be exact, but she wouldn't pick up her Pokegear. Gold was slightly worried, but decided to wash his dishes and pop in on the Professor to show him his Pokedex anyway. He'd deal with spastic Lyra later. Besides, as the notion passed through his mind ever so briefly, she'd done this kind of thing all the time when they were kids.

But when Gold crossed the threshold into Professor Elm's laboratory, he found that he had pinpointed Lyra's whereabouts—she stood before the Professor nearby the Pokemon healing machine, conversing with him in muted tones. When Gold clambered in noisily, both of their heads spun to face him, stupefied, as if he were an unwelcome intruder. Flushing furiously, Lyra hastily thanked the Professor and hurried by Gold, shouldering past him without a goodbye.

Gold was bemused. The Lyra he knew was never flustered, nor this easily embarrassed. He had the sinking feeling that they had been talking about him.

Mercifully, Gold managed to shake his discomfort and approach the Professor about his Pokedex. And, as Gold was sickened to discover, Lyra wasn't the sole person acting outside her usual behavior—the Professor spoke and moved jerkily, a placid and sociable robot, as he examined Gold's findings. As the visit wore on, Professor Elm began to touch Gold with careful intimacy—patting him on the shoulder, ruffling his hair, and running his slender, bony fingers up and down Gold's clothed arm. Elm's words melted into the backcloth, becoming a dull hum as the rubbing became swifter and more urgent. Instead of Elm's mindless drone, Gold heard a ringing in his ears, alarm bells that buzzed and vibrated beneath the surface of his skull.

When Elm gripped Gold's arm suddenly during a joking quip about a Girafarig—a met Gold's eyes with an insatiable keenness that Gold instantly identified—Gold made up an excuse and cut Elm short, wrenching his arm away from his older poacher. His mind shouted confusion as he dashed out of the lab, his pulse a one hundred-meter sprint. First Lyra, and now the distinguished Professor, of all people? What was going on? Gold broke out into a dead run, his muddle chasing him all the way home.

Gold went out with his mother to see Lyra's parents for tea that afternoon—and he was forced to go, as no amount of pleading would change his mother's mind. As he walked, clinging closely to her side like a skittish child, he was ambushed by suspiciousness lurking at every corner of the small town. Women gushed congratulations to him and embraced his petite but chubby form, pressing their breasts into his face in a motion that Gold found to be both discomfiting and purposeful. Men advanced with the same felicitations and studied Gold's body as they chatted indirectly with Gold's mother, as if sizing him up to be eaten—or for something else, Gold realized. His stomach did nauseated backflips when children tugged at the legs of his knickerboxers, staring up at him with awe—and lust. And as these horrors trudged on in an endless procession before him, Gold looked toward his mother for help—but she did not perceive a hair out of place.

He couldn't think straight. Maybe he was just imagining all of this—perhaps this was a dream, and he was asleep on his Typhlosion in a cranny somewhere by Blackthorn City. But he knew that was just wishful thinking, for each time he closed his eyes and pinched himself like being bitten by a snapping turtle, he would open his eyes and find that he was still here, in this gradually developing hell. In this, he hoped he was only going insane.

Plodding to bed that night, Gold tossed and turned as he was unable to doze off, the drips of his hair—soaked and slick from a shower—flickered about from his wet tendrils like photographs in a 9mm film. He closed his eyes and slid his hands beneath the covers, his room suddenly seeming a thousand times colder than it had been moments before. He shivered, gazing at the insides of his eyelids with dread.

It's all in my mind. It's all in your mind, Gold. Nothing is as it seems. This is all an illusion. You're just crazy. Just crazy. You have never been here before.

"Yes, we have."

The unanticipated intonation was a whisper; yet it nearly impaired Gold's hearing, he believed it to be so loud. His eyes shot open in panic. Thrashing to the other side of his bed, he scanned his room in shock, determining the identity of the speaker.

He couldn't see around all the naked bodies of the townspeople. Men, women, children, Lyra, Professor Elm, ihis own mother./i They were all there, completely nude, their eyes colorless orbs that processed Gold with the single-mindedness of the brainwashed spirit. Gold shrunk back in terror, but they only made headway from the ground lost between him and them. They were soundless, their arms reaching out to him with a dispassionate desperation, not a sound escaping their tightly puckered lips. Gold tried to make himself as small as possible, praying to become a chameleon and become an invisible mass against his drywall—but that did not happen.

The voice murmured again. This time, Gold recognized it—it was Lyra's voice, as she seemed to be the leader of this hungry, orgiastic pack. She stood before the ocean of hands, genitals and emotionless faces, just as detached as the rest of them. Her stomach was flat against a still-developing plane, her hips not quite wide enough to be considered attractive and her breasts vaguely rounded buds, far from the swollen equivalent of a grown woman.

"Yes, we have, Gold." Lyra had no lilt, no lift to her, unlike her usually cheerful and bubbly style. Instead, she was flat, a plain with no hills and a heart without a beat.

The hands reached him.

Gold's mouth was too dry to scream.

We have been here before.

You just don't remember.