Side note, but I'm also in the process of editing chapters one through six for errors. Just in case anyone wanted to know. Should be done by tomorrow, but check the edited by lines to see if I managed to get through it all.
In a dimly lit room in Pallet Town, Professor Oak sat with a book on his lap and his eyes half closed. Although he was normally very active for a man in his sixties, ever since he'd returned from Polaris Institute, he didn't do much except sit in thought. Occasionally, his assistant Tracey Sketchit would, after going through the daily list of chores, open the door to the researcher's study to check on him, but invariably, he'd find Professor Oak sitting alone in the wheelchair to which he'd been bound. Tracey assumed by then that the chair – or even the stump of a right leg, gained during a strange incident a week ago that even the NDF refused to talk about – was the source of the elder's strange silence. In any case, for the past week, he barely got much in the way of words out of his mentor.
Instead, he ran the household as best as he could and, when that was done, tried his best to coax Oak into his former sense of cheeriness. He'd even recruited the help of Delia Ketchum, a housewife whose company usually brightened Oak's day without fail. That particular day, however, was the first time for as long as Tracey knew the researcher that even her presence wasn't enough for Oak.
Currently, Delia sat on the arm of a couch. Her pale hands were folded neatly on her lap, and her dark eyes were fixed on the professor's haggard face. He was awake, and she knew it. Yet, even though they mutually understood they were aware of each other's presence, he pretended to nap in the wheelchair.
The long silence between them was heavy. She'd arrived there early that morning to help Tracey with the chores, and when he insisted on doing the afternoon ones himself, she wandered into the office and took a seat to perform her other duty in that lab: keep the old professor company. That was three hours ago, and her conversation was largely one-sided.
"Professor," she said at last.
Then, there was a pause. She couldn't think of what to say after that. So, instead, she said the first words that came to her mind.
"I found a new recipe for pineapple upside-down cake," she said cheerily. "It wouldn't be any trouble at all to make one for you. What do you say?"
Predictably, there was silence in response. The only thing that interrupted it was the sound of a doorbell, followed shortly by the pounding of Tracey's feet against the floor.
"I've got it! Don't worry!" Tracey announced from somewhere in the hall.
Delia paused, listening to the muffled sounds of Tracey slowing down as he reached the door. Seconds later, she heard his voice, but she couldn't make out what he said. Instead, she turned back to Oak and smiled as sweetly as she could.
"Tracey's a good boy," she said. "You're lucky to have him. He's honest and hard-working, just the kind of help anyone would love to have."
When she didn't even get a response from that, she tilted her head.
"Last week was Ash's birthday. It's hard to believe it's been so long since he left home." She sighed wistfully. "My baby is all grown up already, Professor. Just last week, he won—"
Before she could tell the professor about her son's latest exploit, there was a knock on the door. She looked up just as Tracey opened the door and peeked into the room.
"Professor, you've got a visitor," he said. "She'd like to see you right away." Then, he glanced at Delia. "Mrs. Ketchum, could you help me in the kitchen?"
Delia, of course, was no fool. Even though Tracey said it as a side comment, it was meant to tell her the visitor, whoever it was, wanted privacy. With a nod, she stood, offered Oak a sympathetic glance, and walked out of the room.
As she followed Tracey into the hall, she caught sight of the visitor. Much to her surprise, it wasn't anyone she knew. The visitor was dressed in a pantsuit that conformed to her skinny build yet made her look somewhat shorter than she must have been. Her dark, narrow eyes were cast towards the door, rather than Delia, and for that, Delia saw only the woman's profile: the slightly upturned nose, the pale skin, and the dark hair pulled into a tight bun. In some sense, the woman bore a kind of beauty, but Delia could see it was foreign – both literally and metaphorically. The woman's face simply looked expressionless. Distant.
Without a word to either Tracey or Delia, the stranger glided into the office and shut the door quietly behind her. That enough was a cue for Delia to turn and walk down the hall. There was something about that woman that didn't quite sit right with her, and she couldn't for the life of her figure out what.
Inside the office, the stranger walked to the same spot Delia had taken a moment ago and carefully perched herself on the arm with her own pale hands folded neatly on her lap. For several moments, neither the professor nor the stranger said a word.
Finally, she broke the silence.
"Hello, Professor Oak."
Oak raised his head. The voice sounded quiet, and it was tinged with an accent. Even though it had been years since he'd heard it, to his ears, that voice hadn't aged.
"Mrs. McKenzie," he rasped.
She smiled, but it wasn't the same warm, familiar smile as Delia's. "Riko."
Oak nodded slowly and moved his head to stare at the book in his lap. "How did you know I was here?"
Riko unfolded herself and stood. With slow movements, she wandered to the closest window to pull back the curtain. A beam of white light entered the room and illuminated a cloud of dust motes floating lazily in the air.
"My husband was transferred to Polaris Institute last week," she explained. "We arrived there two days ago, and when we inquired about you, we were told you had returned to Pallet Town on medical leave. Cornelius sent me here."
"You left Cornelius to come here," Oak murmured with a shake of his head.
She turned and offered a small smile. "You know me well. Do you know why I've traveled here?"
Oak fully opened his eyes. "I tried to call you."
With a nod, she moved to return to her seat. "That's right. What did you try to tell us?"
For that beat, Oak was silent. He clenched his jaw and resolved himself. Slowly, like a crab crawling out of its shell, he unfolded himself from the daze he'd been in for the past week. He stared at Riko's heart-shaped face and saw only determination – not anger, impatience, or even fear. It wasn't anything he'd expected. There was no other emotion there but pure resolve, as if it was a battle of wits on her side, and she had every intention of winning.
"Professor," she said, "when Cornelius and I arrived at Polaris, we were surprised to find that my son wasn't there. You remember him, don't you?"
Oak nodded. "Bill."
Riko's expression softened slightly. "We'd looked everywhere for him, but he was nowhere to be found. What's more, no one wanted to tell us where he was." She leaned towards Oak slightly at this point, as if to emphasize her next statement. "You were trying to tell us something about him, weren't you?"
Oak merely fixed his eyes on her. His throat felt dry, and he couldn't bring himself to tell her. Yet, he knew all too well that Riko was smart, quite possibly sharper than her husband, or at least, she knew how to coax information she wanted out of the source. Oak knew he couldn't lie to her, not that he ever really wanted to, anyway.
"Professor," she said. Her voice softened and dropped in volume. "Answer one question for me. Where is William?"
Oak didn't look away. Instead, he sought her eyes and stared deep into them.
Another silence lapsed between them. Riko leaned back, her already milky face paling even more. Yet, the rest of her face refused to change, to betray any of her emotions as she stared at the aged researcher.
"Hoenn?" she whispered.
Oak sighed in his chair and nodded. "There was an accident just before I first tried to call you. Bill was infected with the parasite XP-494, and he was taken to Hoenn to be quarantined." He paused for a beat, realizing how cold and mechanical his own words sounded. "I'm terribly sorry, Mrs. McKenzie."
The silence was so heavy it almost physically hurt Oak at that point. He struggled to find the courage to look at her. After all, he'd lost a son too, years and years ago. He knew what it felt like to stand in the cold, dark silence helplessly as the heart burst with disbelief at the thought of never seeing the same smile ever again.
It was the shuffle of Riko slipping off the arm of the chair and rising to her feet that forced him to look up, towards her face. She was faster, however, and before he could see her expression, she turned away, her arms swinging behind her to clasp neatly at the small of her back.
"I see," she said.
Her voice was contemplative, almost light – hardly what Oak expected. For that, he shivered.
"Mrs. McKenzie," he said, slightly louder than he intended.
"In that case, William is the second one I've lost to those creatures," she said. After a brief pause, she lifted her chin. "Well, then, it's of the utmost importance that we begin our own research."
"Sorry?" Oak gave her a strange look. "Our own research?"
Riko turned and smiled. Her hand motioned to his computer.
For a beat, Oak hesitated. He wasn't sure what to expect, but nonetheless, he nodded slowly. Riko's smile grew as she moved to the computer, booted it up, and quickly navigated to an inbox. Oak couldn't quite see what she was doing, but he noticed a porygon appearing on the screen in the corner of an e-mail.
"My husband is a clever man," she told him. "He never truly trusted the Committee. Not after…" She glanced over her shoulder. "You recall what my son did."
Oak nodded. It was an incident he was almost certain was kept from the Committee. Bill had never fully explained himself past mere curiosity over the levels of security on the reports from other institutes – valuable information that could have helped the rest of the network of laboratories involved with Project Stardust. Nonetheless, it was one of Bill's most serious infractions, and it was a wonder the Committee never contacted Oak about the fact that one of his own had hacked into a classified database. It took hours of work to cover it up, and ever since Bill had discovered the caches, Oak hadn't quite settled on what to make of it.
"Cornelius has not been able to trust the Committee after William told us what they were doing," Riko explained. "Since then, he had been working on this, but only now can we find a use for it. Come see."
With a blink, Oak rolled himself forward, just enough to see the screen fully. There, he realized the porygon wasn't just a graphic. It moved, producing white boxes from its beak which it placed in the inbox. Each square turned into an unread message, its title in bold. The list grew, but the titles were all similar: Committee reports, all neatly numbered from twenty-six down to one.
"Daily reports," Riko said. "Cornelius created a chain of porygon to copy and relay these messages. I can't entirely understand what they mean, but perhaps you can."
At once, Oak understood his role. He watched Riko straighten and turn to him, and with a smile, she continued.
"This is what I mean by we, Professor," she told him. "Cornelius will relay the reports to me, and you will read them and interpret them. Perhaps we can form a cure or at least find some way to rescue my children."
Oak hesitated. On the one hand, he was getting tired of being helpless in his laboratory. Yet, at the same time, Riko was no researcher, and her goals were lofty. That was, of course, beside the fact that his laboratory was ill-equipped to study the parasites, and he had no idea how long Cornelius could continue to steal reports from the Committee.
Noticing his silence, Riko walked towards him and leaned down to his level.
"Professor," she said, "both my son and my daughter are in Hoenn. They are hardly the only ones, as well. Think of all the people we can help if we work quickly. The Committee is dedicated to studying these things, but what results are they producing now?"
Oak took in her words and let a silence lapse afterwards. His fingers played across the edge of a wheel. Then, slowly, he nodded.
"Well, it's a lot better than doing nothing," Oak replied. "Let's get to work."
The man's old smile returned to his face as he pushed himself to the computer. One by one, he opened the messages and filled the screen with charts and text. Before he read a single one, he glanced at Riko.
"Mrs. McKenzie," he said, "would you mind if I asked you something?"
She moved to perch on the arm of the sofa again. "Hmm?"
"You don't seem too affected by your children being in Hoenn. Why?"
Riko offered a knowing smile. "Professor Oak, neither of them are dead yet."
About a week's journey north of Mauville, there was a place – a division between the green of the foothills, the brown of the mountains, and the vast desert that took up no more than an eighth of the region's area. Cliffs rose over grassy fields and one of Hoenn's many lakes, and the perpetual dust storm that veiled the desert valley swirled between the walls of its canyons. Yet, even then, the shadow of Mount Pyre still cast over them, imposing like a giant over the heads of children.
At the edge of one of those cliffs, not even close to the foot of the mountain but still in its shadow, Veronica Jenny sat with her coffee-colored eyes towards the city she once helped to protect. It had been a week of arduous foot travel through the fields, but it seemed like months since she left the limits of the already desolate Mauville City. In any case, she certainly didn't feel like a police officer anymore. Since then, she'd broken into at least one abandoned cabin along the way. The people were long gone (no mystery because the ixodida preyed on the people who lived in isolation), but the things they left behind were more than useful to herself and the child with her. Blankets, clothing, food, water – all the things that kept them alive. She'd long since disposed of the skimpy officer's uniform in favor of the jeans, boots, and coats that were left in the abandoned Winstrate household, and she was glad she did. Nights in that part of Hoenn were cold and unforgiving, although the sun often blazed overhead during the day.
Behind her, at the crackling fire closer to the cliff walls, the child slept. Rose curled in the salvaged blankets. She hadn't said a word for weeks, even before the group departed from Mauville. Really, Veronica wasn't surprised. The only person who got a sound from her was Ellen Joy, the local nurse and the one who took care of her after the girl was found wandering along the edge of the city. Joy was gone now, dead from the venom of one of the monsters, and unfortunately, Veronica was too slow to hide the body from the girl. Yet, she seemed to trust Veronica, possibly because she'd frequented the pokémon center enough to be considered a friend of Joy's. Hence, Rose kept mostly to Veronica (literally, as she didn't wander more than five feet away from the officer at any given time) when she was awake, although she didn't say a thing to either of her companions.
Partly, it was because of the third member of their small party. Even Veronica, despite all the bravery she gained from several years on the police force and her silent efforts to convince herself her companion was harmless, felt some sense of discomfort with the creature for a variety of reasons. First, it was the fact that he spent much of each evening after the first one away from the party. He never said what he was doing, but Veronica knew enough about his kind to figure it out. Not only that, but it seemed painfully obvious to her what he was doing. He grew violently ill from the berries and canned food they found the first night, and every night after that, he would disappear for an hour or two and return with the joints of his hands still tinted red. Veronica shuddered and tried not to think about it.
Second, it was the way he thought. Despite what Veronica had – and hadn't – seen him do, he still seemed disturbingly human in mindset. In fact, from what Veronica could tell, he seemed clever, possibly even eloquent at times, to the point where she had no doubt that he possessed a higher level of intellect than she did. That made her uncomfortable mostly in that she couldn't tell what he was thinking. He had yet to make a move that she could take to be a threat, but on the other hand, she would have preferred that he was simple, easy to read. Instead, he kept himself just out of her reach.
Even more than that, the other reason why she was unnerved by his mindset was the fact that a member of a species she took to be mindless killers could have ever been human at all. To add to the latter feeling, he insisted he was Rose's brother, a fact that added to the girl's anxiety towards being a member of the party. At the same time, his possible relationship with the girl tied him to the human race, which further forced Veronica to consider the idea that the creatures she thought were bloodthirsty monsters could possibly be of her own species.
Third, there was a combination of the first two, in which no matter how hard Veronica tried to remain wary of where he was and what he was doing, he still had a knack for catching her off-guard. Although his body was metal and his movements were clumsy when she watched him (and never mind the presence of the collar and chain from over a week ago), when she wasn't looking, he somehow moved silently around her to the point where Veronica always lost track of him. Always.
So, when she heard a voice in her ear, she of course wasn't expecting it in the least.
Involuntarily, Veronica jumped and twisted around, her wide eyes falling on the creature as he stumbled backwards. His long tail twisted around his ankles, and with a sharp cry, he lost his balance and landed with a bang on his rear. The two stared at each other in shock as nearby, Rose shifted and groaned in her sleep. Drawing her legs up from the edge of the cliff, Veronica glanced first towards Rose, then towards her third companion.
"Bill!" she hissed. "For the last time, don't do that!"
The ixodida relaxed as a weak smile crossed his lips. "Sorry. I tried not to be discreet this time."
Veronica huffed and turned back towards the city. "You make ninjask look like exploud."
For a long moment, there was silence between them. Veronica never quite knew what to say to him – or Rose, for that matter – so these silences weren't a particularly uncommon event. Usually, as if he could sense her discomfort with him, it was Bill who broke the quiet.
"It's a beautiful night, isn't it?" he asked.
He moved to sit beside her. She stiffened, listening to his joints click and the chain trailing from his collar jingle against his back. While she was relieved he was making a conscious effort to make his presence known, she still couldn't help but feel tense with him that close to her.
"Yeah," she said as she drew her knees up to her chest.
From the corner of her eye, she saw him turn his head to stare at her. The light from the campfire illuminated a crescent of his face in an orange glow, and in that crescent, she saw the corner of a small frown.
"Am I making you uncomfortable?" he asked.
He nodded and slid back onto the cliff. Veronica shifted in her seat, then turned to look over her shoulder. Behind her, Bill stood and walked the few steps to Rose's side. He glanced down at her for a few moments before lowering himself to one knee.
"How is she doing?"
Veronica frowned. "Looks like she's sleeping well. Don't bother her."
Bill didn't respond. He didn't move, save for the lazy wag of his tail. Tilting her head, Veronica pulled herself towards him, crawling across the cliff on her hands and knees until she reached the campsite. When he finally realized she was approaching him, Bill turned his head to watch her until she knelt by his side.
"So," she said.
"I thought I was making you uncomfortable," he murmured.
She scoffed. "I never said you were." Then, she glanced at him. "Do you want that thing off your neck now?"
"What?" Bill's hand rose to his neck. He paused and relaxed. "Oh. That. It's… it's not necessary."
"It's gonna rust on you," she said. "C'mon. Over here, so we won't wake up Rose."
Without thinking, she grabbed him by the wrist. At once, she hesitated slightly. The metal was cold to the touch, hardly what she'd expected. Involuntarily, she shivered.
Noticing her reaction, Bill pulled at his arm. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah," Veronica replied quickly.
Before he could protest, she stood, pulling at him as she went. He didn't resist, simply rose and followed her to the edge of the cliff. There, she placed her hands on his shoulders and pushed downward. Following her direction, he knelt in front of her, allowing her to stoop over him. One of her hands found the lock at the back of the collar, and the other reached up to pull the clip from her blue hair. Her ponytail spread at once to cover her neck as she carefully pushed the metal piece of the clip into the lock. Slowly, she moved to kneel, and sensing her shift in position, Bill slid to perch and slouch on the edge of the cliff.
For a long moment, Veronica worked quietly, trying to find the mechanism in the lock that would spring it open. Every so often, she'd sigh in frustration. The thing was already rusting.
"Aren't you uncomfortable with this on you?" she muttered.
Bill shrugged. "I don't even notice it."
"Really? I would." Veronica frowned. Then, after a short pause, she added, "What was Rose like?"
At once, Bill tried to turn to look at her. Drawing in a breath, Veronica placed both of her hands on the sides of his head to keep him straight.
"Stay still. I can't get this off if you move," she hissed.
Bill smiled. "I'm sorry. You just surprised me with that question."
Veronica found the lock and pushed the metal of the clip in again. "Really?"
"Well, yes. It seemed like a non sequitur."
Veronica paused. "A what?"
"Ah… something that one says that has nothing to do with the conversation."
Bill punctuated this definition by trying to shift his tail, but it came in contact with one of Veronica's arms. She jumped and then swatted it away.
"Stay still," she hissed. "That means this thing too. Honestly, maybe I should just tape all your joints together."
He curled his tail around his front instead. "I'm sorry."
"And—" She frowned. "—you're avoiding the question."
"I'm not entirely sure I understand it," Bill admitted. "What was she like? When?"
Veronica tilted her head. "Before she came to Hoenn. When Nurse Joy found her near Mauville, she was already traumatized. She couldn't have been like that before, but damned if I could get much out of her. The only person she talked to was Nurse Joy herself." She hesitated. "So, what was she like?"
A small period of silence lapsed between them. Bill stared at his lap as the tip of his tail swayed back and forth in front of him. His claws dug into the earth, and he swallowed slightly.
"Rosie has always been shy… and rather selective when it comes to company," Bill replied slowly.
"Oh." Veronica stopped for a moment. "So, she's always been that quiet?"
"To strangers, yes."
"But you're not a stranger, right?"
Bill shrugged. "She can't recognize me physically. As it is, I'm practically a stranger to her."
Veronica paused for a moment in thought before playing with the lock again. "Well, uh, I'm sure she'll open up to you again. It just takes time."
A long silence fell between them. At first, Veronica thought Bill simply had nothing to say, but the longer the silence drew on, the more she felt a sense of awkwardness, as if the emotion had become tangible. The air felt heavy and cold, and as if to react to the sudden change, Bill pulled his legs close to his chest and rested his chin on his knees. Veronica stopped.
"What?" she asked.
Bill lifted his head slightly.
"What?" Veronica repeated. "Is it something I said? All I said is she might be shy now, but you don't have to worry. You two are siblings, right? She'll learn to trust you ag—oh. Oh." Her hands began to work slowly. "It wouldn't be 'again,' would it?"
"No, it wouldn't." Bill's voice was softer than usual at that point.
"So, is it just age difference?"
With a slight twist, Veronica found the catch in the lock, and it sprang open without much protest. She exhaled a sigh of relief before slipping the clip out of the lock and, with her other hand, the lock out of the collar. The chain clattered against Bill's skin as the collar fell from his neck and neatly into his hands. He stared at it blankly for several moments as Veronica took a seat beside him. Her hands busied themselves with pulling her coarse, blue hair back into its usual ponytail.
"I guess I can relate," she said. "All my sisters went off to different cities before I got out of the academy, and don't get me started about family reunions. You might think we all look exactly the same, but we can't hold a conversation with each other if we tried."
A small smile crossed Bill's lips. "Thank you."
At his quiet response, Veronica smiled. For once, she felt relaxed around him, but she couldn't explain why. The question hovered in her mind for a moment. Hundreds of reasons flitted through her head as to why she should be wary, why the creature next to her should be considered dangerous. Yet, at the same time, she sat close to him without a second thought or a weapon in her hands while she chatted with him as if he was a friend.
She snapped back into attention and glanced towards Bill. He was looking outward, towards the patch of darkness that was the dead skyline of Mauville. His claws were wrapped around the collar, and the chain jingled softly.
"It's Rosie," he said.
Veronica snapped the hair clip back into place and lowered her arms. "What about her?"
Bill looked over his shoulder. The orange light played across his face as he glanced towards his sister with a solemn expression.
"I need your help," he replied. "She won't trust me, but the last thing I want for her is to become infected."
Veronica shrugged. "What do you want me to do?"
He turned his head and, in the dimness of the campfire, he looked into Veronica's eyes. She stopped, unable to look anywhere except at Bill's stare. A shiver went down her spine as she realized his eyes – the expression itself – was completely and undeniably human. He opened his mouth, and the next four words came out low.
"Help me protect her."
Getting to sleep, Bill realized, was a difficulty unto itself. He never particularly liked sleeping outdoors on the ground in the first place. Yet, it seemed that his body went out of its way to make every possible position he could have taken as a human even more uncomfortable on the ground next to the campfire, what with his metal armor making a hard bed harder and his new appendages working their way into awkward positions halfway through the night. Sleep was short and rare, and when it came, it was hardly restful.
After all, when sleep came, so did the dreams.
Bill knew about the things he did – or, rather, the things the parasite made him do. The thing was he tried not to think about it, tried to pass it all off as a bad dream, but when he slept, that was when things got bad. Over and over again, every single night, he'd see the same thing – the female, the male, all of his victims when he hunted. He smelled their blood, tasted the salty remains of the parasite on his tongue, felt bones break under his hands.
Yet, the most terrifying thing of all was the fact that when he was awake, he didn't think twice about those things anymore. For whatever reason, he couldn't. Instead, he thought about survival, about getting through the wilderness of Hoenn. But there, in the confines of his dreams, he thought about it. He thought about what was happening to him when he was awake, the people and pokémon he hurt, and most importantly, what it all meant. It was only in his dreams that he felt completely and unshakably human. And that part of him was terrified.
That night, however, after the images flashed through his mind, he found himself someplace else. In every direction, all he could see was gray. The soft, forest floor was carpeted with dead, gray leaves. Overhead, bare, gray branches laced like old fingers across the gray sky. There was nothing else there. No wind. No pokémon. Nothing.
At first, he simply walked. He had no idea what was beyond the forest – or if, in fact, the forest ever ended. The longer he spent, the more he realized the latter was a very likely option: that the forest simply stretched outward in all directions forever. After what felt like hours, he stopped. The thought of the forest being infinite was heavy on his mind, and for that moment, he felt a sudden wave of loneliness. His breathing quickened, and he turned swiftly, as if to catch a glimpse of some hope, some sign of life that proved he wasn't trapped in a cold and gray forest of nothing forever.
All he got was the voice.
Human beings, it said, are fascinating creatures.
He stopped. The voice was there, and he strained his ears to listen to it and figure out where it came from.
As if to ignore his attempts to locate it, the voice continued. There is, for one, you. Right now, you find yourself in a sea of despair. Why? Is it because you have no one here?
Bill chose not to answer, but the voice seemed to know what he was thinking.
And those other dreams. You feel agony over hurting others. Why? They are not you.
The voice, Bill realized, was coming from everywhere all at once. He closed his eyes and took a step back.
"Where are you?" he asked. "Show yourself!"
Fear. That, I believe, is the most intriguing emotion of all. You fear for that girl's safety. Why? Is it because you feel guilty, perhaps? And what of this other fear? Fear of yourself? Fear of… me?
"You," he whispered. Then, his eyes opened as it suddenly dawned on him. "How…"
We are one, are we not? Of the same body, within the same mindscape…
He felt a pair of metal arms slide around his flesh shoulders and tighten. A face leaned close to his ear, and he could feel the hot breath of the creature, the same one he'd become, caress his skin.
"One," it said.
Bill drew in a shuddering breath. He couldn't move, and his body felt stone cold. All he could do was breathe and feel his heart race as the parasite held him.
"Perhaps we should talk," it said. "I should explain what I gave you."
The arms pulled at Bill, and he found he could do nothing but follow. His bare feet stumbled backwards, slipping on the dead leaves until finally, the creature forced him to sit down at the base of the tree. Bill found himself staring into the face of the other being, and though he'd never seen himself in his new form, he was certain it would have looked exactly like his companion did now.
"No," he said. "No, this is some kind of…"
The parasite smiled. "Of trick?"
He bit his lip. "We're not the same. You…"
"Not the same?" The parasite chuckled. "Perhaps. But if not, the answer to your question is that I am inside you thoroughly and utterly. That is how I know what your reasons for protecting that little girl are. She means nothing more to you than—"
An instant after he said it, Bill realized what tone he was using. With a tired sigh, he rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands.
"Please," he said in a far gentler tone. "Please don't."
"Don't what? Read the truth in your mind? Oh, come now, child, we can never have secrets between us."
The parasite curled around Bill's feet like a cat. There, it closed its eyes and waited for a response. For a long moment, its host said nothing. Instead, a single thought floated through his mind.
What do you want from me?
A grin crossed the parasite's face as it reached into Bill's thoughts. Not a word would be spoken between them, but the messages still floated through Bill's mind clearly.
Now, you begin to understand, the parasite replied. From you, I want nothing but my survival. I would have died, had you not stopped that day. For that, I give you my thanks.
Bill couldn't help but grin. Is this how your species typically gives thanks?
Another chuckle rose from the parasite. Ah, sarcasm. You are indeed bright for your kind. Regrettably, I cannot leave you as you wish. If I were to do so, you would die. Therefore, we must make an agreement now.
An agreement? Bill furrowed his eyebrows.
It will require no further sacrifice on your part, the parasite promised. All that I ask is that we continue to live in this arrangement. You will share your body with me, and I will do what I can to keep the two of us alive.
Bill closed his eyes. I don't entirely understand. It's in your power to take full control of me. Wouldn't that make it easier, rather than try to negotiate?
The parasite sighed. I will not lie to you. If I could, I would have the moment your physical transformation was complete. However, something inside you has prevented me from doing so.
"Something inside me?" Bill opened his eyes. "What?"
The parasite opened its eyes. Slowly, it uncurled itself and crawled onto Bill, pinning him to the tree. The tail snaked its way up his body to his chest, where the tip hovered over his heart for a moment. Bill looked down with wide eyes, just before the tip thrust itself into his flesh. He felt something wrap around his heart and squeeze.
Intense pain shot through his entire body, and he doubled over as his throat strained in a silent scream. Tears ran down his cheeks as he struggled against the parasite's hold. The creature's claws pinned his wrists to the tree, leaving him unable to so much as move for those brief moments of blinding torture.
It only lasted a few seconds before the parasite finally withdrew, but for Bill, it felt like he was on the brink of death for hours.
"That," it said. "You, unfortunately, are dreadfully mortal – and a weak mortal at that. If I push myself onto you too quickly, you will die, and then you will be of no use to me at all. At most, I can only make you comfortable in our arrangement. Perhaps you have already noticed a slight change to your waking mind."
Bill stared at the parasite through bleary, tear-flooded eyes. Although he felt too weak to respond, a realization dawned on him.
"Yes," the parasite replied grimly. "That is me bleeding onto you. It is for us. If your mind remains as it is, you would have refused to hunt, is that not true? You would have refused to fight the others to protect yourself. You – the true you, before we became one – are a danger to the both of us."
Bill struggled to open his mouth and speak, but all that came out was a hoarse breath. Instead, he opted for the same mental channel he'd discovered moments ago.
The parasite grinned and pulled itself away from him. "Kill you? Were you not listening a moment ago? If you die, then I will die too. Upon the death of my host, I will need to find another within a short time frame, or else my children would hatch and devour me. And who would be a suitable host if you should die? Your sister, that trembling twig of a girl? Or perhaps that police officer, as naïve and stupid as she is. No, you are my host, and you will be my host for as long as possible. You are my best possible choice right now."
It stood, leaving Bill slumped at the base of the tree. With a smile, it tilted its head and studied him closely.
"Besides, you are a very fascinating creature," it said. "And your freedom of thought is refreshing." It turned away to stare into the endless forest. "Tomorrow, I will teach you how to fight and hunt properly. I will tell you when. Until then, carry us."
With long strides, the creature walked briskly into the forest and disappeared behind a tree. Bill lay where he was, breathing heavily as his heart beat frantically against his ribs. Above him, he heard a great crack, and looking up, he saw the branches of the tree bend downward, reaching towards him until it obscured his vision in black.
The first thing he felt when he awoke was the distinct sensation of being shaken. His limbs felt numb, and a dull ache radiated from his chest. Despite that, he could feel a pair of hands on his shoulders, moving him roughly. Slowly, he opened his eyes. His vision resolved, and in the gray of the early morning, he saw Veronica kneeling over him and Rose standing above him.
He exhaled and blinked.
"Are you okay?" she asked. "You were moaning and tossing. Are you sick? I mean, do we need to find a pokémon center? I don't think I can take care of you myself."
Bill squinted. His mind still felt muddled with a dream that was fading as quickly as it came. For a beat, he tried to make sense of Veronica's question until finally, he understood and shook his head.
"No. I'm… I'm fine," he muttered. "It was just a nightmare."
Gently, he pulled himself away from Veronica and forced himself to sit. A clawed hand reached up to rub his head. The fingers spread around the base of a horn and felt the wires – already inches in length – under the metal armor. Part of him felt disappointed that the dream wasn't real, that he was really no longer human in body.
"Are you sure?" Veronica asked as she knelt beside him. "You looked like you were in pain."
Bill smiled. "It was a rather vicious nightmare."
Veronica straightened. "Do you want to talk about it?"
The smile faded slightly. Bill contemplated telling his companions about what he saw, about the parasite's mind trying to intrude on his own. For that moment, he felt it watching him from inside, but at the same time, he felt another stare outside. Looking up, he saw Rose, her eyes wide and her feet taking small shuffles backwards. At once, the smile returned.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'd rather not."
Veronica frowned and then sighed. She stood and walked to the campfire, which, in the cold of the morning, had dwindled to only a few small embers. With a shrug, she moved around it to her pack, knelt, and began rummaging through it.
"We need to get you some clothes or something," she commented. "You're shivering. Here, I think I've got something. You want it?"
Bill glanced her way and grinned awkwardly. He opened his mouth to respond, but before he could, a howl filled the air. All three travelers stopped and looked skyward, but only Bill knew what it really meant.
"They've found us," he whispered.