“Citizens of Unova!” N’s voiced reigned through Striaton’s town square. It echoed off the encirclement of buildings and into the attentive ears of the citizenry below. Many adoring eyes were captured by the monarch’s glorious image, fixed upon his figure which shone from the broadcast screen in the sky. I could feel it emanating from the crowd, a sense of overwhelming love and praise for this carved-out king. The people radiated with blind idolatry, and it left me feeling sick. It revolted me to think that the man they loved so zealously was nothing but a fake.
“A tragedy has befallen our nation this day.” Despair fell upon the king’s face as he spoke, “A terrorist has broken free of her imprisonment and wishes to abolish the wholesome kingdom which we have worked so tirelessly to create!” This second N made a gesture to a new image which had appeared on the screen, one of my very own face. The people scowled up at it, hatred rising.
The Second N continued his tirade, “Not only does this person desire to tear apart our rules and ideals that we’ve worked so hard to maintain…” his expression seemed to bitter, “she’s also accompanied by a man who has stolen my image. An imposter king who has changed his face and body with the intent of deceiving us all!”
A sudden bolt of shock struck me hard and I turned quickly to N to try and find his eyes. I came to regret this action because the N that I saw beside me looked more torn up… more ripped apart then I had ever seen him before. His mouth was held slightly agape as he watched the sight unfold with horror stricken eyes. His gaze of utter shock and disbelief then slowly turned to one of deep despair. I knew that look all too well. I had worn it many times in the past. N was on the edge of madness, and each word his duplicate spoke seemed to drive the feeling deeper and deeper. I reached over and grabbed his hand, squeezing down onto his clammy flesh with all my might. It was only a small rebuttal to keep the both of us from going mad.
“These harbingers of terror must be stopped!!” The king boomed, slamming his fist down onto his podium. Every feature of his body burned with passion and it was infectious to the crowd below, drawing forth roars of agreement. “These people must not be allowed to release the abhorrent creatures known as Pokémon back into our world!!”
I started, looking up at the monarch in shock. What did he just say!?
The king matched my gaze with his own of unsettling seriousness. “We of Team Plasma have worked tirelessly for years to confine and whittle down the numbers of said beasts. Our progress has gone well, and all of it could not have been achieved without the continued support and aid of you, the citizens.”
The crowd erupted in cheer, nearly causing me to leap from my skin.
The king smiled, as if he could hear the people’s understanding, “And with your continued support and effort, we will soon reach our ultimate goal of a perfect world!” His expression darkened, “But something now stands in our way! The terrorist Touko, her accomplice—the imposter king, and anyone else who supports their goals and ideals must be purged from this world before their corrupted way of thinking has the chance to take root!” The Second N opened his arms, “People of Unova, you are glorious and you are strong, and I know that none of you are as gullible and naïve to fall for the words that the terrorists speak. But there are some who may bite, and fall for their ploy, and those who do will be seen as enemies of the state and dealt with as such. I hope that each and every one of you, as proud people of this nation, will do your part and combat the efforts of the terrorists wherever they may rise. We are Team Plasma and we will protect you, but only if you submit and allow us to.”
I felt N’s hand begin to tremble within my own. That gentle feeling filled with fear is what pulled me from the sickening world of the king’s words. I gave his hand another reassuring clench but it didn’t come close to mending his distress. I couldn’t even glance towards him a second time; my eyes were simply locked with the massive gaze belonging to his replacement.
“Long live our glorious nation!” The sovereign spread his arms out wide as if he could embrace every adoring person who heard his words that day. As if he could cradle the whole nation in his arms. The fading of his speech was soon replaced by an eruption of cheer. I almost couldn’t believe that they were applauding this fake king and his lies, but despite my shock they continued to cheer deafeningly.
The Second N’s image was replaced in a flash by the Team Plasma coat of arms which gleamed on the screen. Another trumpet call rang out over the town, signifying that the announcement had come to an end. The people quickly dispersed back into their homes or into the streets, mumbling to each other, looking thoughtful and understanding, and slightly fearful, as if they knew the real truth.
As the bodies around me grew thin, I tried to get my legs to move but I felt glued in place. N, who was still clenching my hand tightly, also stood frozen. We probably would have caught some unnecessary attention if Fennel and Amanita hadn’t grabbed hold of us and forced us back to their home. Even without their guiding aid, walking would have been impossible. My limbs felt numb; my mouth so dry. I can imagine that the professor was saying something to us from under her breath, but my throbbing heartbeat drowned it out. I was no longer looking at the screen but I could still see its image, as if it had burned into my eyes. Even the words that had resounded out from that tower echoed faintly behind my pulse. I couldn’t believe it… but I knew it was real. We had all seen it and I couldn’t convince myself otherwise.
We were monsters in the eyes of this nation. What could we possibly do to change that fact? The Second N had pounded the words into the hearts and minds of the people. It was engraved into their very being now. We couldn’t simply pave over their thoughts without causing chaos and terror. The words of the hero had become vile. In an instant, we had become the enemies. The people didn’t want to be saved from this rotting paradise. And they never would.
As Fennel and Amanita pushed the both of us inside, locking the world out, I could only think that things would never be the same.
Streams of water ran down my body from the showerhead above, slowly erasing all the blood and grime that had been coating my body since our escape from Team Plasma’s castle. Having a shower after such a long time felt heavenly to say the least, although the mood was continually spoilt as my thoughts kept returning to the announcement the Second N had given earlier that day. The goal N and I shared for freeing both the people and Pokémon from this region had been quashed by what he had said. We were now seen as enemies of the state, and no matter where we would go that fact wouldn’t change as long as the screen continued to herald it so. Our pleas of liberation had fallen deaf in the ears of this nation.
I let out a heavy sigh which was lost in the drone of falling water.
But that wasn’t all. I had the feeling that there was something else wrong here. The people of Striaton just gobbled up the king’s words so eagerly and without doubt that it unnerved me. No one questioned the words he spoke; no one thought of whether it was truth or falsehood. Why was that? Even when I tried to start a small rebellion on Route One… they all looked at me like I was some sort of monster.
I reached for the knob, turned off the water and stepped out of the small shower. I snatched up a towel and quickly dried myself off before throwing on a pair of pajamas that Fennel had leant me. The jams were a bit baggy and the sleeves felt like flippers, but they fit well for the most part. It was a mild struggle trying to open up the bathroom door with such baggy sleeves, but I managed in good time. A cloud of steam leapt up towards the ceiling as I stepped out of the bathroom and into the dark spare room we had been leant. The lights were off. No one had bothered to turn them on, so the only illumination the room got was from the streetlamps outside.
I spotted N sitting at the only bed in the room which hugged against the far left wall. The bed was the only thing that filled this room; there was nothing else here; it was basically empty apart from a single window on the far right wall. I stared at N for a few lingering moments, but he remained motionless. With elbows on his knees, head bowed, lit eerily by the streetlights outside, he looked like some sort of statue. His hair was untied, falling across his body and over his eyes, which kept his expression hidden. But I didn’t need to see his face to know what he was feeling. It was as clear as day that N was in pain.
I walked over to him and took a seat beside him on the bed. He didn’t move, only shifted slightly as the bed dipped from my weight.
“That… person…” I tried to say as carefully as possible, “…the one who looked just like you…”
“I don’t know who he is.” N said suddenly, keeping his eyes, what I could see of them, trained on the floor.
Earlier that day when the announcement had ended and we lay safe inside Fennel’s home, N continued to assure us that he had no idea who his lookalike really was or why he possessed his face. Both Fennel and Amanita were hesitant to take his word but I assured them that N was telling the truth. I believed him. I knew just by the way he acted during that broadcast, the fear that enveloped his eyes, such raw emotion is not easily feigned. Though the professor and her sister didn’t seem entirely convinced, they let the subject drop and we did not discuss it further. Since then, N had become very distant and antisocial, even to me, and the day wore its way into night.
I knew the subject was touchy, and it was probably something that he wanted to avoid, but talking about it was something we needed to do. I needed to know if N really knew anything about his duplicate or who the man truly was.
“I don’t know what his real name is… or why he wears my face,” the torment in his voice was hard to take, and I tried to offer some comfort by placing a gentle hand over his bare shoulder. It was hard to console him since I couldn’t really say that everything was going to be fine. I imagined how I would feel if someone had stolen my face and the kingdom that I once ruled over. Betrayal would probably just be scratching the surface.
I didn’t know what I should say to lessen his sadness, so I simply told him, “I’ll be here,” and traced my fingers down the grooves in his back, along his spine soothingly.
N let out a shuddering sigh under my caress, and I felt his body become lax. “I think… since I left Team Plasma, Ghetsis has needed another person to take my place. Someone to fill the void I left…” he started. “But something worries me, Touko.”
The tone of his voice caused me to try and find his eyes, but even when I looked at him, his gaze was on the window on the opposite wall. “What is it?” I had to ask.
N paused before collecting his thoughts and speaking again, “It troubles me that Ghetsis has taken the time and effort to mold another emperor into my image…” he locked his eyes into mine, “…when he simply could have taken the throne himself.”
The sound of a car drifting by evaporated the silence of night.
I asked N what he thought Ghetsis’s machinations were, but he simply shook his head dismissively. That simply meant he was just as clueless as I was, but not knowing made it much worse. My imagination filled in the horrors for me.
Silence pervaded again as the both of us mulled over our unsettling thoughts. I tried to pursue the outcome of the Sage’s actions but my mind was sidetracked again by another thought. There was something that I needed to say…
“Um…N?” My throat was already turning dry. He turned towards me in question; something about my faltering tone must have sparked his curiosity. The inquisitive look he gave me didn’t help matters as I tried to gather my thoughts and get them out of my mind.
“I want to apologize for what happened back there on Route One…” I looked away. “It was… stupid of me to think I could convince everyone so easily… to fight against Team Plasma. I mean… I’d thought they’d want to… you know?” The guilt I was feeling made speaking sound awkward.
It was N’s turn to offer his own form of comfort by placing a steady hand over my own. I was drawn back into his eyes again to see not a look of loathing or contempt, instead he seemed understanding.
“It’s alright. Neither of us could have known how lifeless the masses have become. Even when I was the one standing on that podium… I never really thought they had become such cattle. It appears that I was wrong to think otherwise. In fact, these humans might be far more subservient than I feared.” He frowned. “I find it difficult to want to fight for such vacuous people… people who won’t even grasp at freedom when it’s thrown in their laps.”
“There’s something more than that.” I told him.
He glanced questioningly in my direction. “…What do you mean?”
“There’s a reason the people are like this, N. I’m not… really sure what it is yet but, there’s definitely a reason why they’re acting like such… like such robots.”
He looked unconvinced.
“But that’s beside the point. We worked so hard to get this far… there’s no way I’m throwing in the towel now.” I felt more determined than angry.
“Your resolve is admirable as always, Touko,” N smiled at me, clearly amused by my drive. “I will stand beside you no matter what. Although, I’d like to provide more aid to the Pokémon instead of the people…”
“I think our goals will intertwine at some point then,” I grinned before stretching my arms over my head. “Let’s just sleep on it and try to sort things out in the morning, okay?” I gave his bare back a slap. “And I think you’re in need of a shower…”
N looked ruffled by my comment for a moment there; almost as if he was saying, I don’t really stink that much do I? But he headed off to the bathroom while I buried myself beneath the blankets.
This was actually the first time I had slept in a real bed since leaving the castle, and it was heaven. I slowly faded into slumber as the patter of the shower lulled me into oblivion. Before I lost consciousness, I remembered something that Fennel had said to me. The professor had mentioned some odd term when N and I first came to her home. What was it now…? Was it something about a building…? A factory? I couldn’t put my finger on the word, and finally I drifted off as N finished his shower and crawled into the covers beside me.
When morning had arrived, I made my way downstairs. I followed the scent of cooking breakfast all the way to the kitchen where Amanita and Fennel were there to greet me.
“Morning, Touko!” Fennel said rather cheerily as she peered out from behind the morning paper. “Come have a seat! I hope you like bacon an’ eggs, cause we got plenty!” She was acting a bit too jolly considering the unsettling scene we’d all witnessed yesterday.
Her attitude seemed peculiar. “… Uh, yeah,” I tried to force out as smile as I took a seat across from the professor. Fennel brought back up her wall of newspaper and continued to read while taking occasional sips of coffee.
“Is mister N not up yet?” Amanita inquired with a glance over her shoulder. She was bent over the stove, sizzling strips of bacon on a cast-iron pan.
“Ah, no. He’s still sleeping, so I figured I should let him have his rest…” I said rather sheepishly.
“A bit of java could wake him up,” Fennel said, wiggling her coffee mug in the air with a mischievous smile. “How about you, Touko? You look like you could use a jump start!”
I put up my hands quickly, “Oh! No-no thank you. Coffee’s not… really my thing you know.” I tried to decline as politely as possible. For one thing, I really didn’t want to intrude too much on these people who had so graciously offered to conceal N and I from Team Plasma, especially since they knew about all the trouble they’d be put through if they were found out. I didn’t want to take more than I should from them. But besides that, I wasn’t lying, I can’t stand coffee. It’s far too bitter for my liking.
Fennel let the subject drop with a shrug just as Amanita brought over my meal and set my plate down before me. I stared at the steaming food for a moment in deep thought.
“Miss Fennel?” I said, grabbing my fork and poking the gooey center of my eggs.
“Yes?” The cheeriness had dropped from her voice for some reason. Maybe I was imagining it. Maybe the wall of newspaper was just muffling her tone.
“What’s happened to the Striaton gym leaders?” I tried not to sound hesitant. “Where are they now? Are they taking steps against what Team Plasma has done?”
Fennel didn’t put down her newspaper and I noticed Amanita give her older sister a nervous glance. I heard N clomp down the stairs as I tried to get the professor to talk.
The scientist didn’t need another prompt from me; she quickly slapped her newspaper down on the table and stared me down with unsettling seriousness just as N walked through the kitchen door.
“Why do you want to know that, Touko?” The professor asked me with unnerving calmness in her voice.
I was taken aback by her question. Wasn’t it obvious? “Maybe they can help us to get rid of Team Plasma,” I made a vague waving gesture, “and maybe… you know, get the people of this town to stop listening to those broadcasts and do something!”
N remained standing at the doorway, watching the conversation with interest, waiting for Fennel’s response. The scientist continued to analyze me with a dead-serious air while Amanita scraped the food around on the pan with her spatula nervously.
Fennel broke the silence with a swift sigh, “I guess there’s no use hiding it from you now.” The professor pulled herself up, leaving her morning paper and half finished breakfast aside. “You two need to come with me,” she continued, pointing at N and I.
We shared a confused glance as the professor scooched passed us and headed back towards the staircase. We figured it best not to question her, so we simply followed the scientist as she lead us up all the way to the roof of the complex.
I shuddered against the frigid air, hugging my arms around my body to try and conserve some warmth. I was still in my pajamas for Arceus sake. “Miss Fennel!” I tried to shout out against a gust of wind which rammed right into us upon exiting the building, “Why’d you bring us all the way up here? Miss Fennel?!”
The professor stood near the far end of the building, ignoring what I had said as she stared at the rising sun which had just made its way over the horizon of evergreens. Even after a few moments passed, she did not acknowledge me for some reason. Had my voice been lost in the wind?
I glanced at N to see his take on things; maybe he had some inkling to what was going on. N’s eyes were locked on the professor with suspicion. He watched her with an uneasy frown, as if she might turn on us and attack. N’s heightened guard unsettled me a little bit, but I knew it was ridiculous. Fennel wouldn’t just attack us for no reason, especially after she had done so much to help us. I was about to ask her again, why she brought us up here, but my words were cut short by her sudden movement.
The professor brought her arm up and pointed towards the horizon. She asked, “Do you see that?”
What I saw defied reality itself. Some dark monster of pipes and metal was looming over the distant wall of pine trees on the outskirts of town. The building was colossal, yet stout and wide in design. Rows upon rows of glass eyes glistened upon its surface, catching the sunlight. A quintet of black towers jut out from the structure like horns, dominating the sky, raising their blackened fists high into the air. A soft pink mist spewed from the tops of those towers and drifted out slowly into the orange sky. The building looked so sinister, so malevolent, I couldn’t find the words to ask Fennel what it was.
The professor turned towards the both of us and answered our thoughts, “Dream Factory.”
I stared at the scientist wide-eyed, “W-what is…?”
“They are factories that have been erected in many cities and towns all over Unova. They utilize the Dream Mist that is produced from both Munna and Musharna to project dreams unto the citizens of the region.” Fennel crossed her arms and leant back, “Are you familiar with how Munna’s Dream Mist works, how it affects the human mind and body?”
“I…” my breath was caught. I shook my head by lack of words.
“It has the power to bring people’s dreams to life in a sort of—” she waved her hand, “—illusory reality. The power of the Dream Smoke is miraculous on its own, and could have destructive potential if used by the wrong hands. But Team Plasma has made their own altercations to the Dream Smoke.”
“How so…?” N asked, voice on edge.
Fennel pointed to the five smokestacks which rose from the stout body of the factory. “Team Plasma has added their own compounds and chemicals to the mist, changing its properties and effects but keeping composition and structure relatively the same.” Fennel turned to us. The rising sunlight caught the lenses of her glasses, and obscured her eyes with a gleam. “They are pumping out small amounts of altered Dream Mist from that factory,” she pointed to the plumes of pink smoke which gushed from the high towers. “It’s melding into the air, as you can see. The mist is drifting over the town as we speak. It is almost invisible to the naked eye, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s being ingested by every single person in this city.”
“Then what…” I almost couldn’t finish my question, because I held dread for the inevitable answer. But I had to know. “What does the Dream Mist do… after it’s been breathed in!?”
“When ingested, the altered Dream Smoke from that factory enters the brain and implants a subconscious message inside. It tells the recipient to hate Pokémon,” Fennel tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Have you ever heard of those advertisements, usually ones which showcase food, that show a hidden message within them that makes the viewer crave their product? It’s called subliminal messaging, or subliminal stimuli. It’s sensory manipulation which is usually beyond the limits of one’s conscious perception. The altered Dream Mist works in the same way, but on a chemical level. The people don’t know it’s being done to them, but the more they breathe it in, the more the suggestion grows. They are being subconsciously told to hate and be repulsed by Pokémon, in addition, they’re also being told to fully obey and fully submit to everything Team Plasma without question.” Fennel looked out over the town, “That’s why they didn’t listen to you when you tried to rally them on Route One, Touko. They’ll only listen to what Team Plasma and N say, the eternal gods you both witnessed on that screen.”
She caught her hair in the breeze. A deep chugging travelled with the wind and carried over the rooftops of the town. Some machine inside of that building was gurgling, echoing out from where it perched over the city like some sort of sentinel. If my memory held true, then this building was located right where the Dreamyard used to be. Ruin replaced by iron bones…
It was hard to pry my eyes off of the factory, but I couldn’t stop myself from taking a glance at N. I needed to know what he was feeling. If the overwhelming terror building in my gut was a mutual feeling held between us. I’d been right. His expression was a pure manifestation of both terror and disbelief, the mirror image of my own horrified gaze. His eyes were captured, just like they had been by that screen yesterday; his sight locked onto the factory’s mammoth body. I’d seen enough. I hated seeing N look so crushed, so ripped apart, because he thought the reason the Dream Factory existed was because of him. There wasn’t only shock in his eyes… there was guilt.
“Do you understand now, Touko? Why your pleas have fallen on deaf ears?” Fennel said directly, drawing my eyes back over to her.
“But I haven’t—!” I blurted, trying to form the words through shock. “I haven’t felt this way! I haven’t felt manipulated or hypnotized into hating my Pokémon!! I still love them and want to be with them… I…”
“The effects are gradual, Touko. You’ve only been here a few days, so it’ll take some time for full effects of the mist to sink in,” her voice was grave. “But it’ll hunt you down too. Even now you’re breathing it in; it’s entering your body as you speak. With each breath you take.” She pointed at me, “Maybe you’ve noticed an increase in headaches? A slightly nauseous feeling? A faint metallic smell or taste? Those are all signs of the Dream Mist creeping into your body. The headaches are a sign of rejection, since your body isn’t used to the presence of the mist. But you’ll both grow accustomed to it, create a tolerance, just like everyone else has. Soon enough, you’ll fall victim, and you won’t be able to realize that you’ve been ensnared.”
My heart fell to the pit of my stomach. “There is… there’s… no way that’s possible…” I couldn’t believe what she was telling me; all the things she said seemed to ludicrous, so insane!
Fennel gestured towards the factory which continued with its work. “Believe it or not, Touko, this is the furthest thing from a dream.”
“But the Pokémon!” N suddenly found his voice. “What’s happening to them?”
Fennel shrugged, “The mist works a bit differently for Pokémon. Though they may not feel a strong hatred for people, they will feel depressed and lack the desire to break down the walls that encase them on the routes. Team Plasma doesn’t have to worry about manipulating the Pokémon too much. Their goal is to keep people and Pokémon separated, and as long as the Pokémon are quarantine, then they have nothing to worry about.”
“…How?” Fennel turned to me questioningly, “How could this… have happened? How could anyone let this happen!? I mean, if people know what that… thing… is for, then why don’t they go against it and try and shut it down!?”
Fennel let out a breath of air, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose, “It’s easier than you may think. You see, Team Plasma continually claim that Pokémon are wretched beasts that will do nothing but destroy and cause chaos if they’re allowed to roam free.”
“That’s ridiculous!” N barked, “Pokémon aren’t like that at all, they…”
“I know that.” Fennel cut in with enough force to shut him up. “But if you’re told it, again and again, conditioned to believe that its truth, then lies can be turned into reality.”
“That’s what Team Plasma does?” I glanced quickly to the broadcast tower in town square, which rose above the surrounding buildings, screen still glaring as if it never slept. “That’s what the screen is for?”
The professor nodded. “The people are manipulated into thinking that Pokémon only exist to destroy and kill. The people start to get scared and panic. They’re blinded by fear and made weak as a result. Team Plasma build those factories and erect those walls and claim that it’s to keep the Pokémon away and keep the citizens safe in turn. The reality of it all is much different. The Dream Mist will keep people and Pokémon eternally apart. This is good news for Team Plasma for, without weapons to fight with, Team Plasma can never be thrown from power. Especially not when the Dream Smoke tells the citizens to unconditionally love everything that Team Plasma says or does, even if it is all rubbish. But it doesn’t matter to them. The citizens won’t question what they’re being told. They’re content so why should they complain? No one here wants to be saved, but that’s because they don’t’ think they have anything to be saved from. They’re safe in their paradise as far as they’re concerned.”
I held myself even tighter against the wind as a sudden realization dawned. Back on Route One when I tore down the walls and tried to set the Pokémon free… just what exactly did I look like to them? What did I appear to be… in the eyes of those people? What would I have seen if I were in there shoes? The monster… I must have been…
I felt like I was about to vomit.
“You see, it doesn’t matter how much you try and say it, these people aren’t going to believe anything you say,” she jerked her thumb towards the factory, “and as long as that thing is around, nobody, not even the gym leaders, are going to help you.”
Reality was blurry and amorphous for long minutes after her explanation had finished. I numbed out all that was around me only to focus on what I’d been told. I no longer noticed the cold wind, the chugging of the Dream Factory; I hardly even noticed the presences of N and Fennel beside me. But even after I had numbed out the world, the reality of what I’d been told was still hard to grasp. It felt like some sort of sick dream. I even expected myself to wake up back in my bed. But of course that wasn’t going to happen. There’s no way I’m that lucky. No matter how much I wanted to deny it… I couldn’t.
I couldn’t talk or respond. I walked like a zombie back into her apartment, following Fennel blindly as she led us back to the kitchen.
Amanita smiled at us half-heartedly as we entered through the flap doors. “Mister N, your breakfast.” She made a small motion to where she had set his plate. He only responded by sitting down and staring unblinkingly at his steaming food. He was too absorbed in his thoughts to even hear what Amanita said; he might not have even realized there was food in front of him. I was in a similar state of mind. All I could do was sit back down at the table and stare as every thought wound through my head, over and over. On the other hand, Fennel strolled casually into the kitchen, took a seat and brought up her morning paper again.
She jiggled her cup in the air, “Amanita. I need another refill please.”
Amanita began to fill the professor’s cup with black liquid.
“I still want to find the gym leaders.”
Amanita and Fennel froze, looks of bewilderment etched on their faces. Even N withdrew from his stupor to give me a questioning glance. I found it rather irritating that none of them were taking me seriously.
“You still think they can help?” The professor asked, unconvinced.
“Well… it doesn’t hurt to try!”
“I think you’re crazy.” Fennel said quite bluntly, and Amanita agreed with a silent nod. “But if you still think you can change something… then I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”
My spirits brightened, “R-really?! Thank you so much, Miss Fennel!!”
“Yeah, yeah,” she waved my gratitude away humbly. “Just don’t get yourselves caught… or killed.”
“Certainly not, miss!” I grinned.
“Alright, alright, just finish your darn breakfast,” the professor sighed, then added with a mumble, “kids these days.”
“Please be still, Touko. This is very delicate work,” Amanita said, plucking another eyebrow from my head.
“This feels more like torture—ow!!” I grumbled.
“Tough!” Fennel barked as she strode through the doorway with a box in her arms. “If the two of you are going to be walking around out there then…” she let out a labored grunt, slamming the box on the living room table, “you’re going incognito.”
“So that’s why you’re tearing my eyebrows out by the roots? Ouch!” I growled as Amanita ripped another hair loose, following her action with a quick apology.
“Precisely!!” Fennel sneered as she began to dig through her mysterious box, pulling out clothes and supplies. “We don’t have much… so we’re going to have to be creative here.” She paused for a moment as she pulled out an old ripped pair of jeans, seeming to be lost in the past. “Hey, N!” she piped suddenly.
N continued to stand at the window, peering through the blinds secretively like he was doing reconnaissance or something. I don’t think he even heard a word that the professor said. It was a bit unfortunate for him, since she threw an old shoe right at his head to get him to pay attention.
Amanita got out some sort of makeup brush and started sweeping it all over my face. I had to cringe. This isn’t what I had in mind when I decided to seek out the gym leaders; the last thing I wanted was to get all gooped up. N seemed to share my mindset as Fennel ordered him to remove all his key chains and bracelets and other things that could signify his identity.
Fennel cupped her chin with her hand as she analyzed him, “You’re a tricky case…” she leant back, “since we can’t really hide your features with makeup… or could we…?”
N brought up his hands, “Actually I…” he turned his gaze to the floor, “…maybe you could cut my hair off…?”
All three of us didn’t expect him to say that and it showed.
N noticed our expressions and quickly explained, “Think about it for a second. Maybe I won’t look so much like that man on the screen if you cut this ponytail off…” his eyes were downcast again. Having N differentiate himself from his replacement was a good idea. There weren’t too many people walking around with hair colour like his. But something as simple as a hair cut seemed to mean a lot to N, and all of us knew it. This wasn’t as simple as a mere change of style.
The professor was silent for a moment as she thought the prospect over.
“Alright then!” She said suddenly. “Get the scissors, Amanita!”
Amanita hopped up and headed off somewhere to retrieve said item. She seemed to be finished with my facial disguise anyway.
I watched N as Fennel sat him down in a chair and tied a table cloth loosely around his neck.
I grabbed a nearby mirror and took a look at Amanita’s work, and honestly I was impressed. Though I was still recognizable, it took me a few seconds to actually discern that fact. My eyebrows were thinned right down; no surprise there. The makeup she placed on my face wasn’t lathered on, instead it was artfully placed to accentuate certain areas of my face, almost altering them. She even placed a fake beauty mark under my eye, which I nearly smudged with curious prodding.
I turned to N and pointed to my face, “N! Look! Check it out!!”
He looked my way and stared for a second before gasping, “Who are you and what have you done with Touko!?”
“Quit with the joking around!” Fennel barked over our laugher as Amanita walked in, staring at us curiously. “If you’re caught by Team Plasma out there then it’s game over.” Our laughter faded after that sharp reality check. Even amidst this chaos was there no room for a little lighthearted joke?
Amanita handed the small, trimming scissors to her sister and Fennel prepared for the cut.
“Ready for this?” The professor asked, spreading the blades.
“Go ahead and do it,” with that, Fennel snipped and N’s untamed ponytail fell to the ground.
N turned around and peered over the chair, staring at the clump of hair for a moment before stating, “That was quick.” He sighed, “The back of my neck feels cold now…”
Fennel cut a few snips off the back of his head, evening out the ends, erasing any trace that a ponytail used to be there, “We’re just about done then. Feeling better?”
N turned to me with a weak smile, “How do I look? Any different from that person on the television?”
Something took a stab at my heart, and I tried my hardest to suppress a frown. “Yeah. You don’t look anything like him.”
“How long are you gonna be out there for? Estimated time?” Fennel asked us as N and I slid on our boots.
I paused, thinking it over. “Five hours, tops. We’ll come right back after we figure out what’s happened to the gym leaders.”
An odd look crossed Fennel’s features. She seemed a bit uncertain… anxious? “Sorry to mention it so late, but I probably won’t be here by the time you get back.”
“How come?” I asked her.
“Well,” she pulled a half grin. “Believe it or not but I have a job to get to in a few hours. I work nights, and it’s Monday starting today so my brief vacation has regretfully come to an end.” She closed her eyes woefully.
N and I gave each other a look.
“But you don’t have to worry about it,” Fennel looked back up at us, “Amanita will be here to take care of you both. She’s a grand cook so she can make you anything you’d like for dinner.” Fennel nudged her sister good-heartedly, “Ain’t that right?”
Amanita smiled shyly, “Um. Yes. Yes, I can do that.”
I frowned, slightly disappointed, but once I realized I was making that face I quickly birthed a smile. “Alright. Well then, we’ll be seeing you both later.” I turned for the door and N made to open it.
“Take care,” Fennel said seriously. “Keep your wits about you. Don’t lower your guard even for a second, there are eyes everywhere in this city.”
“Will do.” I said, trying not to show that her last remark had me shaken.
“Come back safely,” Amanita said before both N and I exited Fennel’s house and walked out into the streets of Striaton City.
The wind made its presence clear by weaving through our clothes and pinching at our skin. As a rebuttal, I pulled my army-green trench coat up over my chin and scrunched my shoulders together against the wind. N echoed my actions, and shoved his hands deep into the gray hoodie that Fennel had lent him. We weren’t thrilled about having to walk all the way across town, on a day as cold as this, to get to the Pokémon Gym—or what was left of it, but beggars can’t be choosers and all that. Walk we must.
The people strolling through the streets seemed to feel just the same about being out here. Luckily, we hadn’t been recognized or identified by the citizenry yet. Actually, the people who walked by hardly even glanced in our direction. They only seemed concerned about where they were walking and how they were getting there, and even then they had permanent scowls on their faces. They just shuffled by, contorting their bodies against a cruel wind. The body language of these people was unfriendly, even a bit hateful to say the least, and it radiated.
I thought back to what Fennel had said about the Dream Factory’s mist. I followed the people’s actions as I thought, glaring at the sidewalk. Did the Dream Mist not only destroy these peoples’ desire to fight, but did it make them bitter and spiteful towards each other as well? I didn’t want to think of it. I simply continued to stomp over the faded Plasma emblem which was carved into each block of the sidewalk.
I removed my eyes from my feet, but looking forward wasn’t any better. No matter how far the two of us walked, the smokestacks of the Dream Factory were always visible, protruding from the tree line—belching its noxious mist into the sky. Even the mounted tower of the converted Pokémon Center was always leering down at us with its blazing white eye. I hated it and tried not to scowl, but it was hard, and not only five minutes after exiting Fennel’s house I had become akin to the angry people who walked the streets.
“Are you okay?” I heard N muffle beside me. We were heading into town square. I found it odd that he was asking me that, since I figured N would be more uneasy up about entering this place than I was. “We’ll be there soon.”
I side-glanced him, “Let’s just take a little break at that fountain over there. My legs are already frozen.”
N muffled a weak laugh before pulling his blue-plaid scarf down from his mouth, letting out a puff of steam, “Okay. My legs are cold too.”
The both of us sat down in the town square right on the bowl of a fountain as we watched the people walk by. The shining screen above observed our actions. It seemed to be showing some kind of sales figures; the rate of stocks and metals or something like that. I felt depressed looking at the thing, since it kept reminding me of yesterday, so I watched the pool of water beneath me ripple the superimposed image of the sky.
There weren’t a lot of people walking around town square, which made sense I guess considering how cold it was. In fact, the amount of traffic that drifted by on nearby streets was more numerous than that of the citizens here. I wouldn’t have paid too much attention to the traffic, since it wasn’t too out of the ordinary, if it wasn’t for the sight of these strange black trucks I saw rolling by.
They were stout, yet wide, imposing and turtle-like in appearance. They were completely black, no colours; no license plates. There wasn’t even a logo or insignia that confirmed they were under Team Plasma’s control, but I figured there was no one else those vessels could be serving. The only thing that really set them apart was a string of four or so numbers at the back of the truck where the license plate should have been. They crawled by slowly, almost as if patrolling: watching. The very sight of them made me uneasy. How vulgar they looked. How their tinted windows hid the faces of those who drove the vehicle, if there even were drivers. What were they? What were they sent out to do? The conclusion I settled upon was that these trucks must be the guards from the Dream Factory, making sure that order was kept, and no dissent would arise.
I bumped my sunglasses up the bridge of my nose which tinted the city around me and the people and vehicles that moved through it. I let out a shudder as I glared them down from behind my glasses, where they couldn’t see my eyes. It could have been the Dream Smoke, or maybe it was a normal human reaction, but I felt overwhelmingly bitter and loathful. What was it?
I couldn’t really contemplate long. N surprised me by moving closer to my body, a little too close actually. I glanced at him in question only to find him staring intently at a group of Plasma guards which had just entered the square.
I buried my face into the collar of my jacket, stifling a curse.
“Just be calm,” N whispered beside me. I could feel his breath heating the hood on my head. “Just act like you don’t have anything to hide.”
Right. Act casual. That was easier said than done.
My spirits did settle a great deal when I noticed that the group of soldiers was just making their usual run over of the square, at least that’s what it looked like. Though there was something about them that seemed off; they were acting a bit too vigilant for a regular patrol. That thought alone had my heart thumping, and I hadn’t even realized it but my breathing had become rapid. N reached over and gave my arm a squeeze in an attempt to calm me down. I slammed my lips shut and waited for the soldiers to leave. They finally took off a few minutes later, and N and I found it best not to linger and head straight to Striaton’s Gym.
Striaton City grew more run down the further we walked towards its borders. The streets grew absent of angry citizens and were replaced by shady characters that leered at us from the shadows of alleyways; drunkards walked ponderously about, rambling and raving with unintelligible slurs. There were even some people lying motionless in alleys, wearing clothes far too thin for this kind of weather. I wondered if they were even alive. I wanted to go check, to see if I could help them, but N advised against it. He said we should just head towards our destination and not bother with anything else. I didn’t like his cold attitude, but I had to admit that he was right. Figures in the alleyways could easily be more dangerous than friendly. It was best to play it safe and continue through this run down portion of the town to where the Gym was waiting.
We reached the Gym without any further disturbances, and what we saw, though expected, still came as a shock. The building was in ruin. The Striaton Pokémon Gym wasn’t as depilated as my house in Nuvema Town, no, it was still held together pretty well. But neon graffiti coated the red bricked cathedral, winding around in illegible scrawls—though I could make out a bit of colourful words placed here and there. The symbol of the once proud Pokémon League swung with a noisy creek above the doorway, ready to fall off its hinges at a moment’s notice. The building lay nestled in a row of other equally ruined homes. I figured the buildings that surrounded the Gym were empty, uninhabited, but when I glanced in some of their shattered windows, I could have sworn I’d seen people staring back at me. When I looked again they were gone.
“It’s abandoned,” N stated.
It took me a minute to respond. The building was an eyesore, and it was pretty painful to see this once grand place hunched over as if in pain. But nothing would surprise me after Nuvema, “…The Gym leaders could still be inside.” But even I wasn’t convinced by my own words. “I mean…” A frown distorted my features, “It doesn’t hurt to check, okay?”
I stomped towards the gaping front door, stepping over a snoozing drunk on my way. The guy was just sitting over the front steps, leaning on a broken handrail, snoring loud as anything and utterly reeking of alcohol. I wondered how long he’d be sitting there before he was apprehended, or simply decided to walk away on his own. Something about the guy depressed me, and made me a bit angry too. Was that all there was to his life now?
I discarded the thoughts as I walked through the Pokémon Gym’s empty front gate. N followed close behind as we proceeded into the gloom. The power seemed to be out for some reason, which only further solidified N’s thoughts about this place being empty. But I had a weird feeling that maybe we weren’t alone. Maybe there was someone still living here. I just hoped they wouldn’t want to kill us when we found them.
Striaton’s Gym was also vulgar on the inside. By lack of a front door, the elements had taken a substantial toll on the lobby of this restaurant-themed building. The rugs we walked over were soggy, and squished beneath our feet. The wallpaper had been washed of its warm colours, and was left damaged and lifeless.
I squinted hard, “Man… I can’t see a thing.” I dug into my bag and pulled out a flashlight to guide our way—another helpful thing that Miss Fennel had packed with us before we had set out.
N didn’t seem too keen on the idea of walking around with this beaming ray of light, because it was sure to be a clear announce to anyone that we were here. But we weren’t going anywhere without it, at least not without falling all over ourselves in the dark.
The floor beyond the front lobby generously turned to wood, which quelled the sickening squelching beneath our feet, instead replacing it with a soft clomp. The ground floor of this building was comprised of one large room, which stretched all the way back to the end of the building. I remembered this room being sectioned off by three large curtains in the past: one of grass, fire and water. These curtains had long ago been stolen or viciously marred after years of neglect. It left the whole area feeling so spacious and empty.
N and I proceeded forward, maneuvering around all of the upturned tables and broken chairs that scattered the Gym floor. We had to be especially careful of the broken shards of glass or tableware that lay scattered about—it was sure to be unpleasant if we stepped on one of those. But we saw no signs of life as we continued forward.
Right when we were about to reach the back of the room, which lead to the gym leader’s chamber, N grabbed my shoulder and whispered, “Touko. Turn that light off.”
I gave him a questioning look which he ignored. N stared directly ahead as if he had seen something. I listened and turned the flashlight off with a click, shrouding us in darkness. The light that poured in from the front door couldn’t reach all the way back here which added a whole new layer to the gloom. I looked forward to see if I could spot what N was looking at so intently, but saw nothing.
“N… I don’t see…” I was interrupted by a sudden gesture; N pointed out before him towards the back of the room. It took me a minute to see it, for my eyes were adjusting, but there was an unmistakable glow emanating from the back of the room, flickering from behind a musty curtain. Someone, or something, was there!
I looked at N, asking him with a gaze, friend or foe?
He shook his head, telling me that he didn’t know. And since neither of us knew, there was only one way to find out. I walked towards the light with a heart pounding in my chest. As I drew closer and closer, a gap opened up in the moth-bitten wall that had been erected. I could see a circular table… and around it were three figures.
With one swift movement, I parted the gap and entered through the curtain. The three Striaton gym leaders sat huddled at a table amidst ruin, slowly pouring each other a cup of mint scented tea. All three of their heads swiveled towards me upon my entrance and they stared us down defensively.
“Who are you then!?” The fire-type trainer, Chili, asked angrily.
“Team Plasma again?” Cilan, the grass-type trainer, questioned with a depressed moan, “I thought we already paid them rent this month?”
Cress, the water type trainer, watched the two of us as we drew closer, his eyes suddenly flashing in realization. He shot up, toppling his chair with his movements, startling his brothers. “I can’t believe it…” he gawped, sounding more angry then surprised.
Chili and Cilan turned their attention towards the two of us, curious to what had set their brother off.
“It’s Touko,” Cress practically seethed.
I hesitantly banished both my glasses, hood and scarf, revealing my features, showing them who I really am. N on the other hand just stood behind me with his hood pulled up tightly around his head: observing.
“Touko?” Chili snapped with unexpected venom. “What the hell are you doing here?!” The redhead fumed.
I put up my arms defensively, not really expecting such a violent reaction from the trinity of brothers. “Settle down! I just want to talk to you guys!”
They didn’t look too convinced, and I could see Chili preparing to launch another string of questions at me in a blind rage. Cilan could see it too and he put a hand over his brother’s chest, not breaking eye contact with me as he did so. “Let’s just hear her out.” He nodded my way, “If you will.”
I didn’t waste time with hesitation, “I wanna know... why aren’t you guys fighting against Team Plasma?”
Their expressions were of shock.
Cress scoffed, “That’s what you wanted to ask us? That’s what you came all the way out here for?” The bitterness in his voice struck a nerve.
“Well, yeah! Why not?! You three are gym leaders! You shouldn’t just sit around and let Team Plasma build those Dream Factories and do this to everyone!” Their glares seemed to intensify the more I went on until Chili finally interrupted me with a fiery outburst.
“You don’t think we know that!?” The redhead snapped, “But what do you think we can do?!”
“Fight back!” His anger was infectious and I was already getting agitated by his pigheadedness. “Get off your asses and do something!”
“It’s hopeless,” Cilan said, lowering his gaze. “We know, Touko. Trust me, we do. Team Plasma’s presence has left a very bitter taste over our town and the whole region. But to fight back is to die, you understand.”
“That’s the truth,” Cress agreed with a caress of his raindrop-like bangs. “Any act of rebellion would just be an invitation for them to kill us further.”
“That’s right.” Chili huffed, crossing his arms over his chest stubbornly and flopping back down on his rickety chair, “If we can’t win then there’s no point in fighting back. We’re alive now, we just wanna live the rest o’ our days here without bein’ bothered.” His brothers nodded in consent.
“But that’s…” My words dropped, “You’re just giving up? What the hell is wrong with you?!”
Cress regarded me with a chilling glare, “You’re one to talk about fighting back. You’re the root cause of all this.”
I was unable to form another word.
“If you hadn’t lost then Team Plasma would never have done this!” Chili growled.
Cilan avoided looking at me, almost as if out of shame, “We have no desire to help you. It would be much better if you… um, left us now.”
What they said was true. If I had never lost to Ghetsis none of this would have happened. Even so, perhaps if I had acted sooner, if I hadn’t wallowed in self pity for so long… then I could have stopped the Dream Factories from ever being built. But I hadn’t. I hadn’t done anything. The people who had become robots; the people who rotted in the alleyways; the despair that encroached this nation. All of that was my fault.
My ears rung. My head began to throb. My tongue tasted like iron; my throat felt like it was closing.
I was about to lose it then and there; the unforgiving glares that the Striaton brothers were giving me didn’t help matters any, and I was about to let the malaise get a foothold. But N suddenly stomped over, banishing his hood as he approached and shouted, “At least Touko is doing something!!”
The brothers gaped at N in shock. Whether they were surprised of his identity or of the words he spoke, I’ll never know.
“Instead of sitting here and waiting for things to change on their own, Touko is making the effort to change the world now. Things won’t change on their own, and the three of you know that!” The Striaton brothers glared daggers at N as he went on, each word seeming to make them angrier. “You’re being controlled by fear.”
“Now the king of the bloody nation is lecturing us?” Cress spat.
“You have no right to speak to us about what is right and wrong!” Cilan accused with an angry jab of his finger. “You’re as much to blame, if not even more so, than Touko is!”
Chili picked up a tea cup and whipped it at us with a curse. Luckily his aim was off, and it shattered harmlessly behind us.
“You’re wrong!” I tried to defend N as best I could, only now finding my voice again. “The N on the TV yesterday was a fake… it’s…” The former gym leaders weren’t buying a word of what I said, and I was about to continue on when N placed his arm before me: silencing me.
“You’re right,” he said to the elemental brothers. “I was the king who erected tyranny in this nation. These people and Pokémon are suffering because of me, because of my inability to decide for myself…” It sounded as if he was trying to hold back tears, but the determination in his voice drowned that out. “I will change the world that Team Plasma has formed… because no one else is brave enough to do it.” N turned his back on the scene then and raced towards the entrance as the gym leaders booed him away.
I wanted to stay longer and try to get the gym leaders to hear us out but it seemed my efforts would be futile, so I followed N quickly. I found him again at the bottom of the staircase leading up to the front gate. He was staring up at the Dream Factory’s towers with smoldering eyes; a fiery gaze that challenged death itself.
He turned to me and said, “Touko. Please help me dismantle this repugnant place.”
I need only stare in those unfaltering eyes for a moment before grinning eagerly.
“What are we waiting for then? Let’s do it!”