Author's Notes: Ah... Been a while, hasn't it? Apparently something happened around mid-march this year that threw my life out of whack for a while. Wonder what that could be. Things aren't exactly back to normal, but here at least is one chapter, and hopefully more will follow with a bit less of a delay.

Sorry to anyone who hasn't gotten a reply to a recent review. Apparently FFN has been weird about notifications, and I've missed some things as a result. I do always read and appreciate all reviews, even if I'm not the best at replying to all of them. Thank you to everyone who's supported this story over the years. I hope you're all safe and well out there, and as always, that you enjoy this next chapter.

Chapter 43

The child runs, but to where? Not the island—just the thought of the smoking ruins makes it queasy, and that's the first place Mewtwo would look. No pokédex and therefore no one else to be, if it could even trust the League hasn't found out about its other souls. No hotel or pokémon center, then, so the child's back to wandering the wilderness like some nameless wraith.

The child manages only this, one teleport to somewhere it vaguely knows, the mountains west of Viridian City, and a stumble westward until it finds a cleft it can wedge itself into. It's not so much a cave as a crack, but it's at least safe from sun and rain.

The child arranges the pokéballs on the rock next to it. The great Nathaniel Morgan's it will have to deal with later, if at all. Hopefully not.

Who else? It wants to check on Togetic, but if the child's unhappy it will only make her distressed. No matter how it tries, it can't be calm. Not enough to fool Togetic, at least. Duskull again? Sure.

"Are you okay, Duskull?" the child asks as soon as the ghost appears.

Duskull seems more confused by the question than anything. He mumbles noncommittally, roaming around the cramped fissure, shining red light into every cranny. "I mean, they asked you questions, didn't they? The Elite Four? You met them, right? Did they hurt you?"

Duskull mumbles in a disinterested way and continues his exploration, red light flicking on and off as he phases through solid rock and takes his eye with him.

"So they didn't ask you anything? Did you say anything to them?"

Duskull rises up until he's floating level with the child's face, peering straight at it. He mumbles something querulous.

Okay, yeah. That was a dumb question. "Never mind," the child says. "I get it. As long as you're okay."

Duskull burbles and circles the child's head slowly, still asking vague questions about something or other.

"Here. Duskull." The child still holds the master ball far out away from its body, the button rotated to point at the opposite wall. The ball's sweaty from the force of the child's grip, and the child can't feel its fingers anymore. It keeps thinking it might have dropped the ball without noticing and looking down, panicked, to check. Now it holds the ball up for Duskull to see, his red eye casting it with a roving, bloody glow. "Can you break this for me?"

The ghost's tendrils brush cold and feather-light against the child's fingers as he lifts the master ball. The child presses itself against the wall, straining to be as far from the ball as possible. It's stupid. The child knows—it knows there's no danger of Duskull accidentally hitting it with the thing, no matter how casually he may shake it around.

"Just break it, Duskull," the child says. "Make it so it doesn't work anymore."

The ghost gurgles, as if scolding the child for impatience. But he does slide his tendrils into the seam in the ball, and a second later it opens with a snap that makes the child flinch, showing mirrors and wires and plasticky bits. Metal darkens wherever Duskull's tendrils pass over it, and the ghost cracks the master ball two-tendrilled against the rocky floor. The ball gives no sign of breaking, though Duskull brings it down again, and then again.

"Okay, that's good," the child says. Duskull proudly offers the blackened master ball back, and the child cringes despite itself. "Just put it on the rock over there. Thanks, Duskull."

Duskull goes back to wandering, but the child can't ignore the master ball lying so nearby. Does it still work? No way to know without trying it. The child has to be sure.

Not now, though. Now it needs to sleep—no, eat. Something. The child rubs an eye, which is dry and gritty-feeling. "Duskull, could you..." The child picks listlessly at the rock. It's not going to be able to sleep. "Could you find me something to eat?"

Duskull waves his tendrils through the light falling in from an overhead crack, grumbling. Yes. It's bright afternoon out there.

"Please?" the child says, feeling perilously close to collapse. Duskull mutters more, but then does go. The child can wait however long for him to get back. At some point it's going to have to go back into the human world and figure things out, discover how long it's been gone, but for now it doesn't have to go anywhere or do anything.

If only it could sleep. The child rests its forehead against rock and closes its eyes, but it's nothing like true rest. It feels like all it's doing is pretending to ignore the master ball and all the while feeling it there, terribly close. Still dangerous, or if not still dangerous, at least there, almost watching. It remembers everything the child would rather forget.

No. The child needs to stop thinking about things like that. It scrapes its forehead against the rock, the gritty texture obvious and then painful as the child grinds its face down harder. Stop thinking. Stop thinking about anything and relax.

Even not thinking can't help. The child can still feel, and every tickle, every dry-skin itch announces itself as the tingle on the edge of Mewtwo's psychic field. When the child was locked up it might have been protected, a bit. Here there's nothing. Mewtwo could show up at any time. And the only thing to warn the child would be that creeping prickle before the clone shot down from an empty blue sky.

What can it do, then? The situation can't be changed, but the child can. Or could, if it could calm down. The same thoughts tumble back and forth around the child's skull: how it will be found by Mewtwo or the elites; how it will be abandoned by its own pokémon when they realize the danger they're in; how badly the child screwed up in order to get here. The more the child tries to clamp down on them, the faster the thoughts churn.

The child hasn't managed to sleep, or do anything else for that matter, by the time Duskull returns with a family of dead mice wrapped in his tendrils. Duskull's always been good at finding dead things, or soon-to-be-dead. Once upon a time he was the one to find food for a child still overwhelmed by its powers, lost and aimlessly meandering through the wild.

The mice are cold, maybe even colder than they would be otherwise, since Duskull's been carrying them. They don't make the child feel any better, sitting heavy and somehow still icy in its stomach, but it thanks Duskull anyway and feels minutely better to watch the ghost lackadaisically exploring the cave, without one thought for Mewtwo, or the elites, or anything.

It's dark by the time the child calms down enough to change, which at last brings quiet to its thoughts. It knows precisely what it needs to do. First, it needs to be sure the master ball poses no threat. Second, it needs to sleep. Third... third. Something to do with the pokémon. What and why, the child no longer understands. No. Third is to make sense of all this, as best it can, and then decide what's next.

The child chooses one of the pokéballs from its belt with casual familiarity and releases Rats beside it in the cramped fissure. This is perhaps a mistake, as the raticate twists and curses, apparently thinking herself trapped.

"Calm down, Rats. There's no danger here."

"Boss? What's going on? Where the hell are we?"

"I got away. We're safe now. I need you to break that." The child points to the master ball still lying where Duskull left it, on a rock outcrop between the two of them. Rats wriggles and wrenches and huffs until she's turned the right way. There's plenty of space for her when she isn't freaking out.

"A pokéball?" Rats scrapes forward to take it in her forepaws, sniffing at the corroded metal. "No, fancy. This... a master ball?"

"Yes. I want you to destroy it."

Rats squints at the child, though it's light enough—surely she can see fine. "You sound weird, Boss. Don't tell me you're doing the thing where you get all distant."

"I don't know what you're talking about." The child should have asked for Titan's help instead. No back-talk. The inconvenience of convincing Duskull to take the master ball outside to the charizard would have been worth it.

"Yeah, that's what I thought. Listen, Boss, what's going on? Why do you have a master ball? Why did I have some dark-type human up in my face about Mewtwo? Where even are we?"

"I'll explain later. I want to tell everyone at once." The thought of telling the story over and over is beyond exhausting. "I need you to break the master ball. It's dangerous. Then I'm going to sleep. And then we can talk."

"Geez. I love how personable you are when you're like this. I guess you're okay if you've got the energy to be a dick. Sure, I can stay in suspense for another ten hours or so while you get your beauty sleep. Why not? I only thought you might be dead or tortured or something, no big deal."

"Good. Break the master ball, then." A lot of words as usual, but at least she says she'll do it.

Rats chuckles for some reason, but with two sharp snaps of her teeth the master ball's mirrors are shattered, plastic and metal alike falling to useless shards. Rats carelessly drops the piece of junk. "Okay. Get on with your nap, then. Let's get it over with so I can get some answers, huh?"

"I need you to keep watch while I'm asleep," the child says. "If you feel any psychic pressure, even a tiny bit, you need to wake me up right away."

"Psychic pressure, huh? And who are we expecting to sneak up on us while you're asleep?"

"Mewtwo," the child says, shifting and turning and trying to get comfortable. The rocky floor is rough and uneven; about the best the child can do is to wedge itself in on its side. It doesn't even feel up to digging a bigger depression out of the rock. This will have to do.

"Oh, is that all?" Rats says for some reason. "You've been having an interesting time, haven't you, Boss?"

The child doesn't bother answering. She'll watch. But even knowing that, it can indulge only in the sleep of the hunted: tense, dreamless, ready to spring awake at any moment. But sleep it does, until weak sunlight streams down on it from above.

"Okay, Boss. I've had enough of playing twenty questions with you. Can I talk to the kid who doesn't sound like a robot now, please?"

"You're already talking to me," the child says. It's sitting out on the rocky mountain slope with ten pokéballs in front of it. Most of them it knows: Titan, Rats, Thunderstorm, War. Togetic and Duskull. And then there are four more sitting off to one side.

"Not really. You've been sitting there staring for nearly an hour now."

It's always frustrating, trying to figure out what the child was thinking when it wasn't itself. Why would it have brought these four along? The child knows it didn't have to. It asked for them specifically. And the only reason its memory can muster... doesn't make any sense. The child's first instinct is to leave them here when it goes, but if it went out of its way to get them, they must be important.

"Hello? You in there, Boss?" Rats is still talking away, same as always. "I'm just saying, I'd kind of like to know what's going on, and sitting around watching your contemplate your toes really isn't doing it for me."

"I'm thinking."

"Okay. Maybe you can think later? We're going to have plenty of time. I mean, spilling the beans now, at least that's going to shut me up for a while, right?"

It might, if the child's lucky, maybe. But it isn't getting anywhere sitting around and wracking its brain anyhow.

The child sweeps up its pokéballs with a sigh. Where's Duskull? Floating around, flitting between the shadows of boulders. Paying the child no attention, as usual. He'll come over if he wants to.

"Go." The child's pokémon appear in a great burst of light, and for a few minutes it can't even begin its story for their clamor. All of them exclaim to see the child, and each other. They want to know what happened, where they are. They ask why people were questioning them about the child, about Mewtwo. They ask and ask and never give the child time to actually answer. "If you would all be quiet, I will tell you what I know," it says, loudly, and at last they calm down.

"A lot happened since the last time we talked. I found Mewtwo, but he took you all away from me. Then I got caught by the Elite Four. They wanted me to tell them where to find Mewtwo now that he is free. I got away and took you with me. Now we are going to wait for Absol to find us, and when she does, she will tell us what we need to do next. You can do what you want until then."

What they want, apparently, is to ask more questions. "Why did Mewtwo take us away?" Titan asks. He sits with wings and tail drooping like for some reason he's sad. He should be happy to see the child, shouldn't he? And to have his freedom back. "I thought he was supposed to help us find Mew. How is that helping?"

"Don't ask me why Mewtwo does anything. I don't understand him, either."

"I think I must be missing something," Thunderstorm says. "How did you end up captured by the Elite Four? How long has it been since we've last seen you? I get the sense you haven't told us everything."

"Yeah, tell me about it," Rats says.

"Of course other things happened," the child says, exasperated. "I did not want to say all of them. We would be here all day."

"I don't want to sit and listen to this," War growls. The tentacruel is sagging and out-of-sorts on land, balancing his beak on the rocky outcrop and unsteadily propped by his tentacles. "Is there water around here somewhere? Otherwise, recall me. Send me out when the absol gets here."

"You aren't really expecting a straight answer from that one, are you?" Rats asks.

"No, but I don't feel like suffocating out here while you all go in circles," the tentacruel rasps. "When the absol gets here you can tell me everything you've figured out."

That sounds reasonable enough to the child, but Rats chatters at War like he's made some offense. The tentacruel doesn't appear to care, if he even hears before he's drawn back into his pokéball.

Rats tuts in exasperation. "Well, whatever. I know I won't be able to get the full story out of you. But what's the deal with the master ball, at least?"

"That is how the Elite Four caught me," the child says. "I did not like it. It hurt when they used it on me, and Lance did that a lot."

"I'm surprised it worked on you at all," Rats says. After a contemplative silence she adds, "I think I'm starting to get an idea of why you're being all weird about things now."

As usual acting as though the child is the weird one. Meanwhile Thunderstorm's flashing fitful on-and-off patterns, and Titan's hunched like he wants to disappear while he speaks to the magneton. Why are they acting so strange? They're safe now. There's nothing more to worry about. Well, except for one thing.

"What do you think I wanted to do with these, Rats?" the child asks, looking down at the pokéballs still lying on the ground. "I know it was something important."

"I don't know, Boss. I think you're going to have to stop with the emotionless thing and try to figure it out then. It would probably be good for you. I think there's some stuff you haven't told us that you probably need to kind of work through, you know?"

"No." The child's not going to make things better by turning into an anxious wreck. There needs to be at least one person here who can look at things reasonably. "That would only make me more confused. Can you not even guess why I would have taken these?"

Rats sighs, long and loud. "If I absolutely had to guess, you were going to release them. Since their trainer's an ass, maybe you thought you'd take the opportunity to liberate them or whatever."

"I don't think that's right," the child says slowly. It sounds logical enough, but something nags, still. The child sits quietly, paging back through memories, deciphering them like they were recorded in some strange dialect.

Its other self wanted to return the pokémon to their trainer, not release them. It was important, very important. Why? The why is what makes no sense. No matter how hard the child searches, how far it travels down the halls of memory, it can't find any explanation other than this: if the child didn't give these pokémon back to their trainer, the Rocket human would think badly of it. He already thinks badly of the child, though. And it doesn't like him, so why would it ever care about his opinion?

This is what that other child considered important. This is what it was worrying about. And all the child's friends are going on like the child is the one who's being strange.

"Take these and release them somewhere," the child says. Rats starts when it thrusts the pokéballs at her. She'd been dozing. The other pokémon have left to their own pursuits.

"Uh, sure? I can do that," Rats says. She knits her front claws together to make a basket for the pokéballs. "I mean, that would be the best thing. I'm sure they don't want to go back to Team Rocket. They can be free and all."

"Yes. Whatever they like," the child says. "Take them somewhere else and let them go."

"So you figured out why? Why you took them?"

"Yes. But it doesn't actually matter. It was a stupid reason."

"Yeah, I do think releasing them is the right way to go," Rats says. But for some reason she doesn't go do it. "If you're sure. Umm, I don't know if this would be the best place for it, though. I don't know if they're going to like being on their own in the middle of the mountains."

"I can ask Titan instead," the child says. "He could fly them far away, if they wanted."

"He's feeling a little rough right now, Boss. You should talk to him. I think the interrogations hit him pretty hard."

"I can try," the child says. It doesn't know what good that will do. It doesn't understand why Rats insists on talking about things all the time, as though words will somehow fix them. "When he gets back. You can give the pokéballs to him if you think that would be better." Titan's off flying somewhere now. Getting food, maybe.

"Do try, Boss," Rats says. The child doesn't reply. Still Rats lingers, and still, and still. But she can't wait forever, and in the end she gives up and leaves, and takes the four pokéballs with her.

The days pass quietly enough. The sun rises, the sun sets. Night falls early here, where mountains block the sun before it can reach the horizon. In the dark the child hears tyranitar calling from deeper in the mountains. Sometimes it feels pokémon moving below the earth—onix or steelix, perhaps. Maybe those are their messages it can feel shivering through the rock.

The pokémon stop bothering the child about what happened, except for Rats, but that's just how she is. Whenever she gets testy, demanding that the child change for her, saying she wants to talk to "the real you," whatever that's supposed to mean, the child reminds her that they're waiting for Absol. Absol knows what to do. She'll sort everything out.

Sometimes Titan wants to talk to the child, too. He worries a lot. But what does he expect the child to say? What happened, happened. No amount of talking about it is going to change anything now. And it wasn't all that bad, anyway.

At least Thunderstorm seems to have figured out that words are pointless. They always have been the smartest out of the child's pokémon.

Instead of talking the child trains, fighting its pokémon one on one, two on one, everyone against it. War stays in his pokéball, but Titan and Thunderstorm blacken the mountainside with their attacks, and Rats jumps nimbly from rock to rock, ready to rush in for a bite or two when the flames die back. It takes coaxing to get past Titan's unreasonable nerves, but the child starts teaching him how to swords dance, and Rats, too. It's not hard, just a lot of spinning, but it's taking both of them a long time to get good at it. For whatever reason, they have a lot of trouble copying what the child does.

Absol does find them, of course. Their Fates are intertwined; Absol's said it often enough. No way she would abandon the child. One day the child simply turns and finds her standing there, a shock of white against the stone. She'd be almost invisible up in the snowfields, will be here in a couple weeks if the gentle snow flurries that have graced the mountainside are any indication.

"Hello, Absol," the child says.

"Hello." She leans in to sniff the child, as though uncertain. The child's content to wait and see what she'll say.

"Absol!" Rats rushes over in a scramble of claws and a shower of loose pebbles. "Took you long enough, huh? Where have you been?"

"I've been looking for this one," Absol says, inclining her scythe towards the child. "The humans took it somewhere I couldn't follow." Her tail flicks, which is practically a yell of frustration. "Humans. Ever they seek to turn aside the will of Fate."

"Yeah, yeah, humans and their toys and whatever," Rats says. "Do you know what's going on? The kid says Mewtwo beat her up, what the heck is up with that?"

"Yes, I know," Absol says. She doesn't flinch when Titan touches down behind her, though the gusts from the charizard's wings set her fur blowing dramatically. "You can't stay here."

"Okay, so where are we supposed to go?" Rats asks. "What's happening? The kid here won't give me anything."

"No?" Absol stares calmly at the child. Perhaps its other self would have said something back.

"No. You know how she gets. She's been like that for days now, and the rest of us haven't been able to get any answers."

Absol settles herself next to the child, her side resting against its own. "We believe Mew may be in Orre. We'd been preparing to leave when there was a fight. You were captured by humans. Clearly you were able to get free somehow."

"Yeah, somehow." Rats is staring at the child now. Is she expecting it to respond, too? "Nobody's come after us, though, so I guess we're good and away."

"What happened before that?" Thunderstorm asks. He's come to join the group, and you suppose War said he wanted to hear from Absol, too.

"Look, let's take this inside," Rats says when she sees the child reaching for War's pokéball. "There's a cave not too far from here. It's going to get dark soon, and I bet this is going to take a while."

It does take a long time for Absol to tell the story to everyone's satisfaction, especially because they make her repeat things a lot. Absol isn't very good at saying what she means sometimes. The child doesn't bother listening, instead watching the fire that Titan starts for everyone, and the shadows on the ceiling. It's waited this long for Absol, and it's content to wait a little longer to hear her say what to do next.

By the time they reach that, the other pokémon have huddled up for some reason, Rats pressed up against the child's side, Titan close on its other. After all their complaining about not getting answers, hearing things from Absol doesn't seem to make them any happier.

At last Absol comes to the end of her story. "Mew seems to have been in Orre at some point," she says. "She may be yet. Searching there next appears to be our best option."

And, yes, the child already knew that. There's one small problem with that plan. "Does that mean I have to go back to Mewtwo?"

"Yes." Absol waits. Does she imagine the child will dare refuse? It wants to.

"Why?" the child asks. "He doesn't like me. I don't like him. I can go to Orre by myself. If Mew's there, one of us can go back and get him. Or he can come to Orre with us, but only if he stays in the master ball. He... I think he'll need to be in one anyway. To go on the boat."

This is where its other self would be useful. Trying to figure out how to get from one place to the other like a human—there are always so many rules. How the child's other self remembers all those arbitrary things, the child doesn't know, but it's the one useful quality its other self has. For now the child can draw on memories of that other child's plans, but it doesn't understand why Mewtwo would need to be in his master ball to use a boat. It simply knows it to be true.

"He's been looking for you," Absol says. "He thinks the humans have you."

"They did."

"Yes. I told him as much. There was no other way you could have been hidden from me. Mewtwo attacked the humans and demanded they release you. He'll kill them until they give him what he wants, which they can't."

"I know," the child says.

"Wait, what?" Rats raises herself so suddenly she rocks the child sideways. "Mewtwo's, what, he's just killing random people on the street? He's going after big-name trainers? What?"

"You must return," Absol says.

"Why? You still didn't say why."

"Boss, come on."

"Because if you go to Orre without him, he won't stop killing. Hundreds may die. Thousands." Absol stares at the child very pointedly.

"Go back and tell him I'm fine, then. Tell him the humans don't have me. He can stop killing them. It won't do any good because they can't give me to him anyway."

"He already knows," Absol says.

For a moment there's silence. "I don't get it," Titan says at last. He's scratching at the side of his head with one of his wing-claws, like all the talk is making it hurt. "I thought he was, um, he was going after humans because he thought they were hiding you, so if they're not, why is he still doing it?"

"He wanted the humans to return this one to him, yes. Now he wants to ensure that it will return."

"Okay, this is the part where you lose me," Rats says. "I thought we were going to all this trouble to find Mewtwo because he would help us find Mew. Or needs to be there when we do, or whatever. But everything I've heard since makes him sound like the biggest dick. Are you seriously saying he's murdering people because he's afraid that otherwise the kid won't want to hang out with him anymore?"

"Why does he think I'd care?" the child asks. "He can do what he wants. I will go to Orre without him."


Absol tenses, claws scraping against stone. "For every day that you leave Mewtwo on his own, he will kill another. Maybe many others. I understand your desire to go alone. But Mewtwo has made his intentions clear."

"I don't want to see him again. He can kill as many people as he wants, I'm not going to go back."

There's a ripple of movement through the assembled pokémon, Titan hunching and tenting his wings, Thunderstorm bobbing, eyes roaming in separate directions. Why? Mewtwo's the one killing people. All the child's doing is not bending to his demands.

Rats sucks in a hissing breath. "Look, I agree that it's way screwed up that Mewtwo is threatening to, I don't know, slaughter his way through Kanto just to get back at you," she says. "I get why you don't want to give in to that. But, Boss, you can't be serious. If Mewtwo's out murdering people because of you, you can't just ignore that. Who knows how long it'll take you to find Mew? It's been years."

"Mew is the most important thing," the child says. "Mewtwo doesn't understand that. He plays stupid games like this when he should be helping. That's why I don't want to work with him. He'll endanger everything."

"And all of this—what, why would he even think he'd need to go on a murder spree to get the kid to show up? Instead of maybe just asking like a normal person?" Rats is bristling at Absol now. "What happened? You said Mewtwo battled the kid and she lost, so what, she isn't that big of a sore loser."

Absol scrapes her claws across the rock, deliberately this time. She doesn't meet Rats' eyes. "Your trainer is not incorrect. Mewtwo is not... as he should be. But Fate ties him to your trainer. There's no escaping that."

"Okay, so maybe we could go and ask him politely to, you know, not kill people? Like talk this out or something?"

"I am not going to negotiate with Mewtwo," the child says.

"Well," Rats says after a moment of silence. "That's great. Things are going even better than I thought. Team meeting, everybody. We have a lot to talk about, don't we?" She shoos the child's other pokémon out of the cave, chattering over War's complaints, nudging Titan's tail every time he turns to look back at the child. The child can still hear them, of course, arguing out in the cold night air. Inside the cave only Absol is left, and Duskull, who will be content no matter what's decided. The ghost doesn't appear to be paying any attention, wriggling between the shadows near the ceiling, and Togetic's long gone.

"I don't want to see Mewtwo again, Absol," the child says. It doesn't really remember why it had such a strong reaction to what was after all only a battle, but the clone clearly doesn't have his priorities straight. Here at least it can come to some agreement with its other self. Joining with Mewtwo will benefit their mission not at all.

"What do you think will happen if you don't?" Absol asks. "I've seen him. He must be there when you find your mother."

"That doesn't mean we need him now," the child says. Absol doesn't reply, and for a time there's no sound but the crackling of the fire and the pokémon talking outside. The child doesn't care enough to listen in. Absol shifts and fidgets, turning her face towards the fire but then sticking out a leg to groom. The child watches.

"You're worried about Mewtwo killing humans. Is that right?"

Absol sets her leg back down and stares full into the fire. "There's a shadow on the water's face."

The child knows how powerful Mewtwo is, but power doesn't matter here. Everyone listens to Absol. "Why don't you stop him?"

Absol's quiet for a long time. Finally she says, "I cannot."

The child sleeps no better that night, even with Absol there. The pokémon are still arguing when it finally drifts off, but they've found their way inside by the gray light of dawn. Titan is still awake, watching the child around the edge of his wing, when it leaves to go hunting. The child doesn't understand what's got him so agitated he can't sleep, or why Rats is waiting for it, out on the bare mountainside, when it returns no longer hungry.

"Boss. We need to talk," she says. She always wants to talk. The child hesitates, mulling over the consequences if it ignores her and keeps going, and that hesitation is too long. "You've got to be straight with me, Boss," Rats says. "What happened between you and Mewtwo? What's all this about murdering people to get back at you or something?"

"I already told you," the child says wearily. "Absol told you. What more do you want me to say?"

Rats slaps her tail against the stone beneath her. "So what are you going to do?" she asks. "You need to find Mew, right? You said something about going to Orre?"

"Yes. I will go to Orre without Mewtwo. If I find Mew and can't save her myself, I'll send someone back to get him. There's no reason I have to see him again otherwise."

"He can't, like, sense Mew somehow? Do a psychic scan or something, figure out where she is?"

"Not unless she's close, and even then humans might block it somehow. I don't need him. I can find Mew myself."

Rats sways back and forth, considering. "I hope so. I don't like the sound of the guy, personally." After a moment she adds, "So how are you getting to Orre?"

"On a boat."

"What, like, a boat from here?" Rats turns her whole body in an exaggerated show of looking around, at the hard, arid mountainside.

"No, I would go to"—the child's memory supplies it, after a moment—"Fuchsia."

"Okay. You need a ticket to get on a boat, right? Human thing."

A pause. "Yes."

"So you need to buy a ticket. How are you going to do that?"

The child hates this. Hates having to think about that and then that and then that. It's hard to hold everything in its head, especially human stuff, opaque and convoluted and arbitrary as it is. Absol's the one who should tell the child what to do, but it can't rely on her if she wants it to join up with Mewtwo again. The child will have to plan. And to plan it needs to—no. It's not going to change again. Thinking is hard like this, but the dramatics of its other self would be even worse. It can figure this out. It can. It has to. If it changes it's going to forget everything important and go shooting off to do something stupid.

"Hey, uh. Are you okay?" Rats asks.

The child must have been thinking for a while. "You know how this works, don't you?" it snaps. "You can get whatever ticket we need. I won't have to do anything."

"Sorry, Boss. I know about money. I could buy a ticket, sure. But the right one? I can't read, Boss. How am I supposed to figure out the boat schedule? Yeah, maybe we get lucky and find some pokémon who knows when the boat goes to Orre, where we gotta go to catch it, all that. But even then you gotta go aboard and convince everyone you're a totally normal human."

Oh, after. After, yes, on the boat. What does a human do on a boat? There will be other humans, won't there? The child can feel its face pulling down into a snarl. Maybe it could find someplace to hide?

"We need you back, Boss," Rats says quietly. "Something really bad happened, I can tell. It must have been scary. I know you don't want to think about it. But you can't stay like this forever."

"I'm fine," the child says harshly. "There's nothing wrong with me."

"I know there isn't, Boss. But you can't stay like this. Please. Snap out of it."

"I'm fine!" The child shoves past her, then stands dumbly, seeing before it only the cave with its other pokémon. With Absol. They're going to want to talk. Again. Always their pointless chatter. The child's done talking.

It turns off sideways, heading upslope. Pebbles scatter, half-buried rocks tumble free and spin away below. The child scrambles up and up, until it finds a spot where it can sit and think, one where it can't see the cave below, or Rats, for that matter. It sits with knees pulled up to its chin, staring out over the trees with furious intensity. It's going to figure this out. It can. It will. Everything is going to be fine.

Again and again the child runs through the situation in its head, trying to picture what a boat looks like, how a human's supposed to act on a boat. It considers other forms of transportation: bus, plane, teleport, anything. The thoughts unwind until they tangle, becoming a snarled, scraggly mess that makes no sense to anyone.

This is wrong. The child isn't meant to have to think like this. Still it pushes on. What if it went back to Mewtwo but got him with the master ball somehow? The Champion managed that, and he's only human. Surely the child could do the same. If it grabbed the master ball from Mewtwo before he realized something was up, it could recall him and not let him back out. But Mewtwo is faster than the child, so that won't work. It could battle him and use the master ball when he fainted. But Mewtwo is stronger than the child, so that won't work, either. And there aren't any ways besides those, are there?

Think and think and think. The child growls to itself. This is getting it nowhere. It sees only two paths forward: figure something out, or go back to the cave and try once more to convince Absol to listen to reason instead of her weird visions. And no matter how hard the child tries, its plans all fall to pieces.

After so much cogitation, even considering what it needs to do right this moment makes the child's head hurt. If the only way to solve this is by thinking, then it needs to change. There's no way around it. The child growls again and rubs its face. How can it be that it needs to become some scared, excitable, reckless form of itself simply because that self knows how to interpret a boat schedule?

The child should savor this last moment of clarity, hold onto itself for as long as it can. It isn't worried about the fear it knows will come but merely tired, and bored already of the hysterics that are bound to follow. But it seems there's nothing to be done. The child grinds the heels of its palms into its closed eyelids, and changes.

For a moment the child's surprised to find itself outside on the mountain, cold in the fading rays of the sun. Understanding washes into it like a rising tide, one wave of memory after another. The child remembers Absol and what she said about Mewtwo, and a cold knot of anxiety forms in its chest. Oh. No. No, it's not going to go see Mewtwo. Not ever again. It can go to Orre by itself, sure. If it doesn't need to bring Mewtwo, it doesn't even need to take a boat. Flying would be faster, and easier, too. Has it really been sitting here all day, trying to figure out something so simple?

The child's so caught up in thoughts of Orre that the sun sinks completely before it remembers the worst thing. It starts and sucks in a terrified breath, like it's just been plunged into icy water. Then it's up and running, tripping, sliding in scree in a mad dash for the cave that glows with Titan's fire.

The child practically trips over Rats, who's headed in the same direction, no doubt with food on her mind. She yelps, "Hey, Boss! Whoah! Feeling like yourself again, huh? Hold on, hold on, you're safe now. Nobody's gonna—"

The child grabs her and hoists her into the air so the two of them are face to face. "Where are they?" the child asks in frantic alarm. "Where are the great Nathaniel Morgan's pokémon?"

"You told me to let them go," Raticate says. "They're fine, Boss. You don't need to worry about them."

"No!" That was the one thing, the one thing the child was supposed to have done right. It stares around like it might miraculously find the pokémon standing right there. Where would they have gone? Have they found their trainer already? If they did, where would they be? Where does the child need to go?

"Whoah, whoah! Hang on, Boss. What's wrong?" Rats wiggles a claw free and grabs the child's arm. "They're okay, really, I promise! Slow down, let's talk about this."

"Where did you take them? Where did you let them go?" the child demands. It should never have tried to retreat into its other self. Of course something like this would happen. Of course.

"Not far. Just, uh, far enough that it would be kind of inconvenient for them to come back and make trouble. I hate to break it to you, Boss, but they kind of, uh, don't like you very much."

Shame pricks even through the child's mounting panic, but it shoves the feeling aside. No. It can fix this. "Where? Take me there."

"Boss, I really don't think that's a good idea."

"I have to try," the child says. "I have to try. Where did you leave them?"

Rats sighs, and her grip loosens. "If I show you, will you slow down a bit and tell me what's going on?"

The child swallows against the tightness in its throat, eyes stinging. "Okay."

"Okay. Follow me, then." Rats leads the way downhill, through scree and scrubby, needle-covered bushes. She's faster than the child, scampering over rocks that would give beneath its weight, four-foot stance giving her extra stability on steep slopes. The child doesn't want to take the time to even stop and change. It bulls ahead despite the risk of slipping, here and there sliding in loose gravel, flailing through nasty desiccated bushes and focusing only on not putting its feet somewhere bad.

Rats has her nose to the ground, following her own trail, presumably—and the child could have done that if it had only stopped to think. There was no reason to involve Rats, she's only going to make things harder, but now it's too late to change things.

Rats speeds up, spurred by some invisible signal. "Through there," she says, only mildly out of breath. "That's where—that's where I let them out."

It's a cluster of what the child would call bushes, though they come up to its shoulders. From Rats' perspective they'd basically be trees. The child sees immediately that she's telling the truth; what could have made that long gouge in the rock but a steelix's tail? The child pauses, forces itself to breathe, and then takes a long, deep gulp of air. Yes, Mightyena, another raticate, the earthy smell of Graveler. They were here.

The child walks back and forth, scenting. Which way did they go?

"Boss, please. Hold on. I don't think they want to be followed. Especially not... you know. By you."

"I have to find them, Rats."

"I really, really don't think you do," Rats says. The child bends down, putting its face close to the sparse dirt, taking a handful and letting it run through its fingers. "At least tell me what's so important. I want to understand. Help me understand, Boss."

The child straightens up again. "I'm going after them, Rats," it says. "You can stay or you can come with me. I don't care."

Rats sits back on her haunches, whiskers quivering. "Well, come on, Boss," she says after a moment. "You know I'm not going to let you run off and do something stupid all by your lonesome, right?"

So the two of them charge off into lengthening shadow, downslope and following the trail of the great Nathaniel Morgan's pokémon, who were lost, and found, and lost again.

The great Nathaniel Morgan's pokémon don't have a fire. Steelix marks their campsite instead, gleaming between the trees like some strange downed spaceship, sheltering his teammates with the crescent of his body. The child hears them long before it sees them, Steelix's voice rumbling through the earth like distant construction. The child slips grimly closer, treading as lightly as it can, until it hears the other pokémon talking, too.

"Mightyena, there's no point running off by yourself. You need to take a break," Raticate says. "If you push yourself too hard, you're just going to end up in trouble and then all of us are going to have to waste more time going to get you."

"I concur," Steelix says. "You should rest, Mightyena."

"I already rested," Mightyena snaps. The child eases itself forward through the undergrowth, relieved to have found them but now, faced with having to talk to them, abruptly nervous. The last thing it wants to do is land itself in the middle of an argument.

" about what we're doing," Raticate's saying. "Where are you planning to go, Mightyena?"

"The second district," Mightyena says shortly. Her tail swishes behind her in stunted, nervous arcs. She keeps sidling away from the rest of the group, like the others won't notice she's leaving if she does it just the slightest bit at a time.

"We've already looked there," Steelix says gently. "Three times, Mightyena."

"Well, Nate could have shown up since the last time," Mightyena says. "We can't look once and pretend it's over with. We have to keep trying."

What might have been a breeze is Rats sliding up next to the child, oozing between bushes with a whisper of rubbing leaves. The child cringes, gritting its teeth while it watches the pokémon for any sign that they've heard. "Quiet," it hisses at Rats.

Steelix raises his head, turning in their direction. "There's someone there." Rats makes no attempt to stifle a sigh, with the child next to her ramrod-straight and frozen with nerves.

Mightyena spins around, paws braced wide and ears swiveled forward. "Nate?"

"No," Steelix says. He lifts himself higher, beginning to uncoil. Raticate's moving now, Graveler stumping along behind. For one panicked moment the child thinks of flight, wanting to leave, to try this all again later. But no. It's already much too late as it is.

Instead it goes forward into the ambiguous glow of an overcast night. Rats follows, slinking low to the ground. The great Nathaniel Morgan's pokémon freeze, staring.

"Uh, hi," Rats says after a moment. "We want to talk."

"Do you, now?" Steelix asks. The words are soft for him, more a gravelly growl than anything. "Who are you?"

"That's the bastard that put Nate in the hospital," Mightyena says. She takes a deliberate step forward, stiff-legged with the fur bristling all down her spine. "This is the thing that's been jerking us around for ages, the one that claimed it knew where you were."

"I know you don't like me," the child says. "But I want to help. I can help. I know you've been looking everywhere, and you haven't found... your trainer, so—"

"And whose fault is that?" Mightyena roars. "You've done more than enough. Why can't you leave us alone?"

"Hold on, hold on," Rats says, pushing past the child. "Hear the kid out, okay? I know it's weird and you don't want to see her right now, but she doesn't want trouble!"

"Uh, coming here in the first place is asking for trouble," Raticate says, filling in for Mightyena, who appears incapable of anything more than snarling and foaming at the moment."I think Mightyena made things pretty clear earlier. Leave us alone. You and your trainer." Graveler cracks rocky knuckles.

"I want to help!" the child says desperately. "Listen! Looking for your trainer isn't going to work! You need him to find you instead."

"Whatever that means!" Mightyena snarls. "You—"

"Mightyena," Steelix says in a gentle tone that easily drowns her out. "I think you should hear them out."

"What?" She rounds on Steelix, no less angry. "How can you say that? Do you know who this is?"

"I do. And I understand why you don't trust them, but—"

"What would you understand?" Mightyena snarls. "You weren't there! You have no idea what it was like!" She can't go on. Instead she stands with her head low, glaring murder at the child and rumbling like a waking volcano.

"Actually, Mightyena, uh, it might not be a bad suggestion," Raticate says. The child is impressed that he doesn't flinch when Mightyena turns her red gaze on him. "I mean, Nate is looking for us. If he knew where we were, he'd definitely show up."

"He's looking for us? Who isn't looking for us? If we attract attention, who do you think's going to find us first, Nate or the police?"

"That's where I can help! I can teleport, if the police find you I can get you away real fast."

"I can walk the shadows. I can get us away if I need to," Mightyena says.

"How? Are you going to recall everybody and carry them in your mouth? You don't have hands. How are you going to deal with three pokéballs?"

"I can manage," Mightyena says. "Whatever it takes, I can manage. We don't need you." And, true. She's presumably who got them here, almost all the way across Kanto, in the time since Rats released them. Not that the child is going to say that.

Raticate combs his claws through his whiskers, thoughtful. "How are we supposed to let Nate know where we are if we can't get in touch with him in the first place?"

"All you have to do is something that will get you on TV! Or in the newspaper. Then he can see where you are."

"Huh. I dunno. Sounds like kind of a long shot. Who knows if he's even anywhere he can catch what's on TV?"

That's a horrifying thought. "Where else would he be? What do you think happened to him?"

"I can't believe you're seriously considering this," Mightyena says.

"I mean, look, finding Nate is the most important thing, right? I don't like it any more than you do. But you've got to admit we haven't had a lot of luck. We could use some new ideas."

"New ideas," Mightyena growls to herself. She gives the child a look somehow even more venomous than before. "Why are you here?" she asks. "Why do you want to find my trainer? Going to hurt him more because he interfered with your idiotic plans?"

"No." For some reason the child struggles to continue. It actually has to think about why, at the same time it's saying it. "It's because... because it's my fault he's missing in the first place. And Mewtwo never should have taken the rest of you away. I said I would help him find Steelix, too, and I didn't yet. All of those things." And something else, something the child doesn't want to say, not even inside its own head.

"I know you're skeptical, and you've got good reason to be," Rats says. "But give the kid a chance, huh? I know she's been a jerk, but she really does want to help. And she's got me now. I won't let her hurt your trainer. I don't think you will, either. Right?"

"More than right," Mightyena snarls. "I already told you once, creature. If you even breathed in the direction of my trainer, I'd kill you. And then what did you do?" She springs, already slavering darkness, and Rats shoves the child aside. It's Steelix's tail that stops Mightyena, though, his tail swinging out to intercept her in midair.

Mightyena goes tumbling in the dirt, roaring and already twisting back to her feet. She finds herself facing both Steelix and Raticate, the normal-type on all fours, ready to lunge himself. "I can't believe you!" Mightyena spits. "You're going to defend it? That monster? After all it's done?"

"Mightyena, please," Steelix says. "Let's talk this through."

"Yeah, I mean, we can always beat it up later," Raticate says. "Let's hear what it has to say first, though. Okay?"

Mightyena leans forward, and Raticate tenses while Steelix raises his tail. For a moment they freeze on the edge of action. Then Mightyena makes a hacking noise, like a scoff and a bark combined, and whirls to flee into the trees. Raticate starts to go after her, but stops after only a few steps, staring morosely into the woods. Steelix shakes his head and thrums a low, somber note.

"Thank you for hearing me out," the child says after a long moment of quiet. "All of you."

"Yeah, sure, whatever," Raticate says, digging at an ear with a hind-claw and still watching after Mightyena. "I'm not interested in a friendly chat, here. What were you talking about, doing something to get on TV? Did you have anything in mind, or do you just think the camera loves you?"

He's not friendly, but that's all right. He's listening. For the first time in a long time, someone's actually listening to the child. It takes a deep breath. "Okay. Here's what I think we should do."