It's nearing midday when they walk into town - a small place, just like the newspaper report said. Ash adjusts his backpack and looks at his watch, while Pikachu nibbles at the hem of his jeans.
"Yeah, fine…" he says distractedly, reaching down so it can race up his arm and balance on his head. Makes him look goofy but he's never really minded – the weight is warm, comforting. It's nice to have one thing that's familiar, Ash thinks, smiling at a passerby.
Her lips twitch a little in return and she walks on, looking preoccupied. Pikachu bites his ear.
"Hey," says Ash, "just being nice, alright? Don't get nasty."
Pikachu bites him again.
"Aww, you're jealous," he says, pulling its tail. He's thinking about that girl's hair. It was this shade of red that made his insides kind of twist painfully, though whether a good or bad kind of pain he couldn't tell.
The sunlight pebbles against his vision and he narrows his eyes. Pikachu reaches its tail down and shades them for him.
As they cross over to the sidewalk looking for a place to eat, Ash gets kind of nostalgic, and misses solid human presences by his side. Jokes and laughter and companionship, actual conversations. At least he's not actually alone. That would suck, and make his job even harder. Been going on six years now and he's fine.
They stop for lunch in an affordable diner sort of place. He doesn't ever take advantage of the free food or board at pokemon centres anymore, though the pikachu on his shoulder and the pack on his back would guarantee him a meal and bed no questions asked. Those places are for trainers, and he doesn't like the guilty feeling that he's cheating them. He's had a lot of time for his guilt and for getting over it but that's something he can't stop, for some reason. It should wear off in time.
"I'm thinkin' cheeseburgers," Ash says as they sit down. Pikachu squawks indignantly, points to the image of noodles on the menu.
"Hey, take it easy," he says, grabbing it. "You're just gonna steal my fries anyway."
The waitress comes by, and he smiles when he sees it's the redhead from earlier. The name badge she's wearing says Tina.
"Oh, hey!" He grins. "I'm Ash. Nice to meet you."
Her smile is professional. "Hey there. Can I take your order?"
"Two cheeseburgers with sides of fries, hold the salad." Ash watches her as she scribbles down the order, her foot tapping restlessly.
"Got it! You know, it's Tuesday," she says, clicking her pen. "Trainer's discount today."
"No thanks, I'm good." He rummages around in his bag until he finds the newspaper, which he takes out and flips through.
"Huh," she says. "Had you pegged for a trainer. Why're you in town then?"
"Just passin' through," Ash says. "Hey, check this out." He points to a particular article and she leans down. She doesn't react for a moment but when she sees what it is she flinches back.
"Seems weird, don't you think? For a normal wild pokemon to be able to do that. Especially when she had her own pokemon in the house, pretty tough ones too. They were all found perfectly healthy, apparently. It wasn't something she thought she had to fight."
Young woman violently savaged by wild pokemon, the article reads. The funny thing is, Ash knows, the wild ones around here are piss-weak. No way are any of them breaking into a house, fighting off a fairly tough bunch of trained pokemon and ripping someone apart.
"Yeah," she says, all choked up so it's barely a hiss. She swallows and tries again. "Yeah. It was weird. It. It shouldn't've…"
He looks up, frowning. "What's…what's wrong?"
"Sorry," Tina says. She takes a shuddering breath, wipes the back of her hand over her face. "Um. The victim was my - my girlfriend."
Ash swallows, guilt drying his throat. This is always the worst part. Next to him, Pikachu kind of wilts, ears drooping and tail curling around itself.
"No, don't…I'm sorry," he says quietly. "Sorry for bringing it up. I, uh…condolences."
Condolences. God, after all this time how does he still feel like he has no idea what to say?
The waitress takes hurried steps back to the kitchen, and he watches her go. He wonders what she would say if – if she knew. He wonders this every time. Every time he is still shamefully, desperately glad he doesn't know for sure.
The burgers arrive. "Best in the region," Tina says. "Finest tauros patty you can get this side of the Safari Zone."
Pikachu starts taking the bun apart, chasing the bits of lettuce and cheese and ignoring the meat completely. Bit weird for it to be fussed about that.
Ash takes big bites of his own sandwich, feeling kind of sorry for himself. Then he feels bad about feeling sorry for himself. Then Pikachu steals his fries.
"What do you reckon," he says quietly. Pikachu sucks its paw a moment, then taps the photo of the deceased in the paper, taken the day she died. She's got a wide grin and a large mole on her cheek. There's a nidorino next to her in the picture. Ash looks closely and – there. If he's not imagining it, there's a filmy white cast over the pokemon's eyes.
"You think it turned," he says and Pikachu nods. "Yeah, me too. Story doesn't fit just any old wild pokemon, not in this place."
Pikachu eats the last fry and hops down from the bench, waiting for Ash.
"Yeah, yeah, I know. We've got work to do."
They go to the street mentioned in the article and walk up and down it for a bit, stopping locals and asking about the house where a girl died a couple nights ago. Ash puts on his best fresh-faced trainer grin and Pikachu musters up as much enthusiastic, eager energy as it can.
The locals seem tickled pink to have a complete stranger come and solve their mystery for them. Ash worked out a long time ago that people who've grown out of training pretty much consider it an obligation to humour the kids when they pass through looking for something to save heroically. He's not complaining – they are saving things, after all, just not pokemon anymore. He spent a long time doing that, come to think of it, rescuing them from the clutches of evil. Well. Everything has to end sometime.
The victim's house is a small fenced-off place with a yellow roof at the end of the street. The door's open, so they walk right in. There's a book lying open on the coffee table, a half-finished cup of green tea on the bench, and a bored-looking policewoman standing by a door. He assumes through that door will be the bloodstains.
"Hey, officer," Ash says, going up to her. "I heard about the tragedy that happened here recently..."
"You can't go through here," she says.
"Oh, that's okay," Ash says. "The girl's pokemon - do you have them?"
"You a trainer?"
"Yeah, I'm having a look around. I actually knew the victim, her girlfriend Tina's my cousin." Ash bites his lip and ducks his head, exhaling mournfully. "This…this is horrible, you know? I just…I need to know what happened."
The officer considers for a moment. "Well, they've been given to the local pokemon centre for safekeeping. We did find an empty ball near the victim's body though." She digs around in her duffle bag and retrieves it. "Have a look. We've already checked it, it's definitely hers."
Ash takes it and pokes it until the interface flickers into life with a hiss of static.
"This Poke Ball is registered with: Spike/NIDORINO," it says robotically.
He gives it back. "Sure I can't go in?"
"Yes," she says sharply. He decides not to push his luck and leaves, scooping up Pikachu in his arms.
It'll probably be back tonight, in the room with the bloodstains. They usually are. He knows how this goes. After the first kill they spend a while running around ravaged with guilt, constantly returning to the scene of the crime like it'll give them answers. Sooner or later they give up, stop fighting the infection and they kill again. One way or another, it'll happen eventually. And it won't get caught, and it'll keep doing it, until Rocket finds it. And then. Well.
Ash leaves the house. Then he hangs around the local park until dusk, idly grinding sharp the edge of a knife and playing rock-paper-scissors with Pikachu. He always loses for some reason.
This one's turning out neatly. Open-and-shut.
Ash opens the door quietly. It's dark enough outside that all the ceiling lights have been switched on. The cop seems half asleep, and doesn't look up. She's leaning on the door, reading the book from the coffee table. The mug that previously contained tea has mysteriously emptied.
Pikachu darts forward silently and leaps up onto her shoulder. She jerks in surprise, dropping the book – then a light brush of fur against her cheek, a bolt of static and she's folding onto the floor with a gasp of surprise, air whooshing out from her body in a thump. Pikachu jumps onto the doorknob and hangs there.
The officer twitches slightly, paralysed. Her eyes are glassy. Ash steps over her, opens the door and goes inside.
There's police tape everywhere, but no police. No wonder Team Rocket basically runs this whole goddamn region. He's still waiting for something to come of the last three times he was reported for petty theft.
The bloodstains have sunk into the carpet, about two days old now. The way they look now they could even be spilled coffee. Ash turns off the lights, then he goes and sits by them. He knows about waiting.
Sure enough after a while he can hear a scraping at the window, which is open, and Ash looks up to see a hulking, spiny shape clambering through. He shuffles back, taking shallow breaths.
The nidorino grunts quietly, heaving its bulk down to the floor with a thud, claws scoring the carpet. Ash watches it move through the shadows, lumbering down to the stained patches on the floor and scratching at them. Ash hesitates. It obviously hasn't turned yet, and they're inside, maybe they should – but – if he looks closely he thinks he can see its eyes already gleaming white in the gloom.
Pikachu's already darting forward, eyes glinting in the moonlight and he lets it. They know what they're doing -
"Officer? Officer Mills?"
It's a voice from the other room. Shit. Pikachu's cheeks are already sparking, and it reaches out a paw. The nidorino looks up quickly, venomous spines on its back bristling, but then - Pikachu goes shockingly bright all over and Ash catches a glimpse of that familiar jagged crackle of heat in the air, before the nidorino flashes too and howls, convulsing from the pure energy searing through every cell in its body. Ash goes to its side as its knees buckle.
He pulls back an eyelid to see it's tracking all over the place. "Pretty strong one, Pikachu," he says, stroking his fingers over the joints, looking for a weak spot in its armoured skin. "You're getting better all the time."
He fishes around in the duffle bag, keeping an eye on the downed nidorino. "Won't even need this soon." The nidorino groans and twitches as he shifts its foreleg carefully, runs a gentle finger along the crease under its shoulder, angles the knife and does a clean slide in.
It goes rigid all over and lets out a high, hoarse keen.
The light's off so he can't tell if any blood got on him, but he has a change of clothes in his backpack and they'll be gone by morning, anyway, so that's okay, perfectly okay, like it always is, and there'll be nothing left and nothing left for them here, and by morning they won't be here either, they'll be gone, having walked away and onwards like they always do.
Ash closes his hand over the nidorino's muzzle taking care to cover its nostrils, which shuts it up though it keeps trying to snap weakly, still spasming.
"What," says someone behind him. "Oh my god. Oh my god."
He turns and looks to see Tina, who has opened the door and is looking at him.
"What," she says. "Oh my god." She puts a hand on her mouth.
The nidorino's lying still, finally. The pulse in its jaw twitches weakly and then it doesn't.
Damn it. Damn it. He can't – he can't get caught, he needs to do this, this is his job, he's the only one doing it, the only one who knows it has to be done -
"You're just a kid," she says after a moment. "This – you killed a pokemon. You killed Spike –you're just a kid -"
"Hey - sixteen," Ash says reproachfully. "That's legal age in most regions."
"Officer Mills," she says. "What'd you do to her – I'm calling the cops –"
"Hey, um," Ash says. "Don't?"
Pikachu sits up and looks at her, eyes round and bright.
"You wouldn't like it," he adds. "Please don't. Thanks."
She slides her hand out of her pocket and steps forward warily. "You probably want me to leave and forget about this, right," she says.
"That'd be awesome, thank you," Ash says fervently.
"Well," Tina says, "tough. You killed - that's Spike lying there, yeah, that was his name – my girlfriend's – well. I'm not leaving." She squares her jaw and her hair gleams orange in the dim light. He might find it beautiful but he really doesn't, it makes his stomach turn, the burger from earlier churning restlessly. And for a second the only thing he can think about is them, determined faces and bright eyes and I'm not leaving and that swelling warm feeling of companionship he'd had when he was a child. And what Misty's hair had looked like when soaked with sweat and blood, nearly covering the split in her skull, the shocking white of bone-
"Wow," Ash says, vaguely awestruck, "you're…really stupid."
"Oh, really," she says, amused. "Better people than you have said that to me before."
He snorts. He was never going to kill her, of course, the idea itself is ridiculous, but he knows what this looks like. Why is she still here?
"You want to know why I did this?" he says. "No one else does."
"Yeah," Tina says. "Yeah, I think I deserve to."
Stupid or the opposite, maybe - because Ash doesn't kill people. He doesn't even kill pokemon. It's not the same thing. He goes after the ones that are dangerous, the ones that are infected, and he puts them down because that in the end is a mercy. Saving people. Hunting – hunting these things. Saving them, too. Whatever it is, it's his responsibility anyway, and it shouldn't belong to anyone else, not even a little. But he feels kind of selfish right now.
"It killed her," he says, "and I spent a lot of time saving pokemon from people, you know, but that was a long time ago. So I think I've done my share. Maybe do it the other way for a change." He realises he's still got the nidorino's jaw in a death grip, and lets it slip out of his fingers. "And you need to understand. I'm saving the pokemon too –"
"Are you?" Tina says. "Kid. Ash, right? I'm Tina. I think you need help."
"Yeah, help would be nice." But help's not something he gets to ask for. That day in Rocket's basement, on the last day of his childhood - with the pokemon and all those machines, gleaming acid and steel and infection – that was the day when for once, he made the wrong call. And everything, everything went to hell and it's because of him and he's the only one left, and he can't -
"Spike didn't kill her," Tina says quietly. "Ash. Please put down the knife. Put the pikachu away."
"Oh, it did," Ash said. "And Pikachu doesn't go away."
"Ash," she says, and licks her lips, takes another step closer.
"You don't know what you're talking about," he says quietly.
"Kid. Listen to me."
"I'm sorry, okay?" Then he sighs. "…Fine, just don't report me. Just say you found it like this, okay?"
"I can't let you go," she says. "I knew Spike."
"Spike wasn't Spike anymore," Ash says.
"Kid," she says. "Please let me help. Looks like you've got one hell of a hero complex, but seriously. You don't have to do this alone."
Armchair psychology. He just stares at her.
"You're right," Ash says.
A relieved smile spreads across her face and he cannot stand it. Nausea wells in his stomach, and he thinks if he looks at her any longer he'll just splinter and break, maybe even vomit chunks of half-digested tauros meat all over the floor. So he looks at Pikachu instead. Pikachu. All he's got. All he needs.
"Go," he says, and it twitches its ears. He knows it's going to do what he asks. It always does.
He turns back to Tina.
"You're right," he repeats, "I don't," as sparks start to fly from Pikachu's cheeks. It lopes forward and Tina backs away.
"Wait, you can't," she says, the last word cracking breathily, but Ash doesn't say anything more.
He stands up and goes to the window, intending to close it, and behind him there is a soft thud. It's nothing he hasn't heard before but it makes his throat clench up and his hands tremble. Help, he thinks, she wanted to help, and he wonders if he should look around. Maybe she'll wake up and keep talking, keep offering things he can't ever take, or maybe she'll just – just keep lying there. He doesn't know which would be worse.
Pikachu calls out softly, and for some reason he's too much of a coward – or a hypocrite – to muster up the courage to look around, but when he takes a breath he finds that something seems to have snapped in him now, because he's just looking at open window, the nidorino in the corner of his vision, and there's – there's tears streaming out of his eyes, down his face, soaking into his shirt, and he's breathing raggedly, all choked up and it just keeps getting worse, the sobs coming from somewhere deep in his gut and ripping out of him like violence, and he wails like a child, pitching forward onto the carpet as snot and salt water pour out of him and he thinks in the back of his mind what if, what if I just, just stopped, why can't I, why not, it's not fair – and that makes him cry harder and he can't breathe and he digs his fingernails into his palms, the pain like doing penance, but not enough, not quite.
Pikachu comes up from behind him and looks at him curiously. Its eyes are shining - the moonlight, of course. He looks at it with tear-blurred vision, gulping air.
"Pika," Pikachu says.
"I'm fine," Ash says, "it's okay."
Pikachu blinks twice.
Ash swallows. "Thanks," he says, but it's not enough, not at all.
Pikachu looks at him.