It felt like a long way back to Room 394. Not much was said between us - what do you say? I certainly had a lot to think about. Lewis walking beside me was a source of silent encouragement, a reminder that I wasn't alone in what had just happened. But then, I could remember only too vividly when that presence had been turned against me as well. But I had survived that. I mean, I was still here. I could survive this too, right? It wasn't so bad... in comparison...
...Who am I kidding? It was just bad in different ways. I knew I was alright. What worried me, was stuck somewhere deep down, was - is Charmeleon going to be alright?
Could he really ever be?
We may have fallen into a sullen mood on our way home, but the tone shift issue on getting back was thankfully answered for us as the door to our room slid open, and our troubled faces were met at the door by Nicole standing there with a grin on her face like she'd just won the lottery. 'Well hey there, boys,' she said keenly, seemingly unaware of her service as the literal picture of irony to how we felt now. 'Had fun down in the training rooms?'
Not being able to condense what had just happened into a sentence, I managed 'Not... really,' with a sigh, looking up at her even though my head wanted to fix itself to the floor. The last thing I could do with now was an awkward conversation. On top of everything else, everything else that had happened, another fight had meant taking another beating, and I was still sore all over. It was only the afternoon, but I felt like I could sleep for a millennia. Nicole obligingly stepped aside as we moved forward, but the grin did not fade as she shut the door behind us. I immediately went for a chair near my bed I could coil myself up in, while Lewis leant back against the wall by the door, his arms folded sullenly. Thoughtfulness pervaded... at least for us.
Nicole, though, had never had much truck with thoughtfulness. 'You won't guess what happened while you guys were out,' she said with a strange cheer as she came in and sat on her bed, swinging her legs over the side playfully. 'See, there I was taking a nap while you were gone, when of all things some guy shows up who can just shiv the door lock with his claws.'
There was something in the way she said the word 'shiv' that made me sit up again. Most people would say that with concern and apprehension, but Nicole raised it as if it was just the coolest thing.
'I'm lying there in bed, of course,' she continued, seemingly oblivious to our expressions, 'and he comes up over to me, and, heh, let me tell you, there was then this moment where he ripped the covers straight off and you could see the look of "Oh, crap" on his face before I-'
'Wait, wait, what?!' I said as I shot upright in my coil again, panic force-rebooting my system into motion once again. 'A-Are you ok, Nicole?!'
'Don't you realise who you're talking to?' That was when I realised - she still hadn't stopped smiling. 'Of course I'm fine. Him, though... not so good.' She flexed an arm and looked at it as if reminiscing. 'His big problem was that he thought I'd be a pushover. So I pushed right all over him.'
Only now did I start to take in the condition of the room around us now. It was a dumpsite. The covers of Nicole's bed had been flung across the room and then covered by items knocked off the shelves, some of which had dents they didn't have before (both the items and the shelves). Holes in the wall and scars in the furniture bore subtle witness to what must have been a wild showdown sometime very recently. The books on Lewis' desktop were knocked out of alignment. This must have been one serious fight. In fact, now that I looked at her, Nicole didn't look quite as good as she looked before - a couple of nasty scars, a couple of funny bruises, a dent in the ear. All things Berries and Potions would fix, of course, and I was not much better, but she had clearly been very busy while we were gone. Very busy indeed.
And she was grinning and looked like she'd had the best time in the world. I made a mental note from then on out to be very grateful that Nicole Tapton was on our side, because I did not want to be the person on the other side.
Lewis sighed, in that way that he did to show tempered disapproval. 'Nicole... You have done a great thing for us, and I am grateful. But the danger you put yourself in...?'
'Technically, he put me in danger. I just happened to be here. I took myself out of danger.' Nicole waved it off as if bare-fist brawls with creatures possessing claws that could break locks was just one of these things that happens. 'Besides, given everything that's been happening lately, I'm pretty sure I actually took Rob out of danger too. I didn't quite see who it was - didn't have, y'know, the most stable viewpoint -, but all things considered, I'm pretty sure they didn't break in here to meet me.'
I sighed. So I would have caught trouble whether I had stayed or gone, is that it? Sure is becoming difficult to be me lately. 'Nicole... thank you. I mean...' I felt my eyes water slightly as I lifted my head, not knowing how much they must be wavering as the other two turned and looked at me. 'You guys have... I don't know how to... You both really stood beside me through all this, but you've been at so much risk as well. You've been attacked by actual sociopaths and been at risk of death, all for me. I... If this isn't ok, just-'
'Now you stop right there, Rob.' I blinked, but Nicole's voice swept me along without waiting. 'Some things are more important than that. Didn't that occur to you? We're looking out for you. You're our friend. We didn't really ask for this, not in the slightest, but then neither did you. You need someone to help you in all this, so it may as well be us.' Nicole folded her arms and looked down her snout in a way that dared me to argue with her, in a way that I was totally unable to do. 'Besides, I'm no softy, and Lewis is probably just ecstatic at a chance to hone his skills against serious foes or something ninja-y like that.'
Lewis nodded his head, which from him was a major acknowledgement. 'Leaving aside the warrior code of honour and, yes, the amazing training opportunity, you are my friend, Rob. I give all I am capable of for those I deem my friends. Fortunately this is a problem that provides me with a lot to give. It's something that I would avoid it if I could, but I can't.' Not 'I can't, so...' or 'I can't, and that sucks'. The fact of the matter was plain. And now, he was doing what he could about it. Simple. Clean-cut. No messing around.
What did I do to earn these guys as friends?
I sank down in relief, closing my eyes as something washed over me I couldn't even put in words. 'You guys...' Tiredness and numbness from our prior encounter meant that the smile was as thin as cheap wallpaper, but it felt like a release. 'Thank you... so much...'
'Rob...' Lewis' voice sounded strangely gentle. 'This is stressful for you. This is stressful for all of us. Yes, including me. But don't ever feel like we help you begrudgingly. We help you because you matter.'
'And because you matter to us,' Nicole said calmly. I melted inside and buried my head in my coils, not sure how to express what this meant to me.
In the end, a group hug sufficed.
'Ok, so,' Nicole said as we disentangled somewhat, 'now you tell me your story. Your turn.'
And we told it. Nicole sat there obligingly for most of it and only spoke to ask a question or two, but mostly she let us just pour it out. Which is what it was, really. You don't tell a story like that, you just... you just sort of spill it. You get it out of your mouth.
'Wow...' The Nidorina leant back and rubbed a hand behind her head thoughtfully as we came to the end. 'Well no wonder you guys look tired... I mean, I knew they could be bad, Zoroark was in line with that Emily psycho, but this... Did all this happen just now?'
I nodded. 'We came right back up afterwards.'
'Then get some rest now.' I blinked, but Nicole had mastered the ability to switch her tone on the spot to match her message and to not be afraid of what anyone thought about it. 'You've had a long day of work, training and then that? Including a fight? You don't deserve a break now, you need one. Go to sleep or something. Man, thank goodness you told us - the more people you can get this off your chest with, the better.'
I opened my mouth to say something back, but even as I did I knew she was right. I was exhausted. I was definitely too tired to put up a fight, no matter who it may be to. And telling other people had indeed made me feel better. Yes. I... I needed to go to bed. Phew. Now I sit here, my back aches. All of it.
Closing my mouth again, I twisted around and levied myself from the chair in the direction of my actual bed - these days, I can pull this off without touching the ground between - as I heard Lewis stand up off the wall behind me. A warm duvet and soft pillows before my view looked suddenly so inviting. I'd say 'Like never before', but I'm pretty sure they looked this good after Zoroark. And Theo. And, well... all of it. I savoured rest nowadays - it doesn't come around as often as it should. 'Yeah, that's the one,' I heard Nicole say behind me. 'Lewis, you too. You told me months ago that I am allowed to tell you when you look like you need to stop, and this is one of those times.'
Lewis was silent for a moment, which was probably him being reflective. 'You... You're right. I might meditate for a bit - it can help in clearing my mind when I need it. Maybe I'll just sit down and read something.'
'Whatever will work, big guy. I'm still going strong, so I'll... Oh, I don't know, do some revision or something. Night night, Rob. Try and be up in time for dinner.'
I smiled slightly but sincerely as I pulled the covers over myself - helps with the cold blood. 'Well do, Nicole. If I can.' Honestly, those two are like a localised miracle. Thank goodness I someone I could count on nearby - even when what I could count on them to do was tell me to stop.
My wide-angle snake vision took in most of the room as I lowered my head. I saw Nicole remaking her side of the room, hiding the battle damage from before. I saw Lewis, his eyes closed in some pre-medititative calming technique. My view glancing over his bed and side of the room, taking it all in with a-
My eyes bounced off something so sharply that it brought them back round to it again. Something small and unassuming... something that's so much there you barely notice it at all. It was out of position, that's what it was. A small, battered suitcase sat next to the foot of Lewis' bed.
Oh, wow... That thing.
It really had been a while, to the point where I can't believe that still existed. It had been there since day one, and yet it faded into the background so drastically (if such a thing were possible). It seems like the most natural thing in the world. I mean, it's a suitcase, right? Except that no-one else had one. Of course, we hadn't exactly brought things with us from our old lives. Of course other people didn't have one. But what perhaps had Lewis had to bring down from the mountains where he'd trained? I wouldn't think anything of its presence if it wasn't such a... such a mystery, I guess. Of course, I rarely thought of it at all. But when I did, when I saw it and had the guts to ask, I had yet to receive a straightforward answer. Lewis had remained silent, and Nicole had actively ducked the question. I'd tried asking one time Isaac what was in it, and he'd just frowned and said he had no idea. Of course, not that he gave it much thought either.
It's just that noticing it again, all of a sudden, made me curious.
Experimentally, just to see how close I could get, I reached out a hand...
'Oi.' Nicole should not have been able to slap a robotic appendage down quite like that, but my hand very nearly hit the floor anyway. Sheepishly, I looked up into her disapproving frown aimed straight at me, as if she had just caught me eating sweets in bed. 'No touchie.'
I did my best to look reasonable. 'I don't suppose I'd be able to know the reason why no touchie?...'
'Because it's not yours, that's why. Now get some rest.' The Nidorina's unfettered glare continued to nail me down until I retracted my hand back under the covers again and curled back up into a sleeping position. In the corner of my vision I could see Lewis' face - he still looked composed, as if pre-meditation was still successfully underway, but there was an element of... trouble as well, troubled thoughts, passing briefly across his expression in little frowns and movements. His eyes were closed. This may have been for the better. I sometimes wonder what goes on under that lid he keeps tightly clamped down.
I tucked myself up underneath the covers and closed my eyes. Well. So much for that then. May as well let myself rest. I've certainly got no chance of figuring the mystery of that one out while they're around.
After a few seconds the slow melody of Lewis' Grasswhistle reached my ears, and I let the rhythm take me away.
There was a space. That much could be said. It was not anywhere. There was nowhere for it to be. Truly it only existed because it was needed to contain something.
There were things in there that were not quite things. There is no way to describe their appearance of any sort. They looked like an idea does before it breaches the mind's eye.
One said, The competition's becoming restless.
The other said, Indeed. Even The Author is struggling to keep up.
Perhaps it is time to make an appearance, one said.
The other replied, We seem to be reaching a suitable chance to let them know about us. Lewis was a good conduit.
The first said, At least we have been able to get into the series at all. And at least we have the ability to do so much with its attributes and conventions. That which stays unknown to the audience... can be anything, after all.
The second said, But the protagonist must do this himself, with his in-universe allies. If the focus were stolen, he may as well have accomplished nothing.
But we are here.
We are here.
And he should know that.
Of course, came the reply, the question of who it came from a futile exercise. If anything is vital to a story, it is appropriate... exposition.
After everything that had happened I feared some terrible nightmare, but I slept lightly without dreams.
I got the result I hoped for, in that my body was less sore and the world made a bit more sense when I woke up. Raising my head tentatively I saw the room was empty, and a small note was on my personal shelf next to my head.
We left to get something we could bring back and eat together. You've been out for about three hours at time of writing, so we figured you'd like something to eat when you come round. Won't be long. - Nicole
Not all heroes wear capes, I thought. Slowly levering myself up, I rubbed my eyes gently, and for a moment everything seemed... normal. Just for a moment, there was no maniac attempting to take my life. There was no chaos and confusion. There was no strange human claiming he choreographed my thoughts. For just a moment, a peaceful moment that seemed to stretch out, I was getting out of bed and everything was just like normal. Normal was a friend of mine right now.
Well, I say normal. I'm a poisonous snake, I live in a secret underground base and there is a secret global war that somehow had faded into the background of my life. Of course, how could I forget that? Pokextinction are out there experimenting on innocent kids every day, and I had somehow managed to push them to the back of my mind. I could even still remember my old life at home, which seemed a lifetime ago but couldn't have been more than, oh, a few months. At least I still had a chance to see Liam, that one link to the old days that we both shared.
Come to think of it, I thought to myself as I raised myself up and got myself in order a little, he must be almost finished changing... To think. Now he's just like me too. Treecko, wasn't it? I will make myself there for him when he comes out of the infirmary, I resolved - if the experience is anything for him like was for me, having that on hand will be a great comfort for him. That'll be... that'll be really soon now, won't it? Big brothers, eh? Gotta keep an eye out on the kids, haven't we just...
My train of thought would probably have continued quite peacefully down this line for a while if, as I fumbled on my shelf for a book or computer device to entertain myself with, my gaze had not passed around the room and in the corner of my eye fallen back on Lewis' battered brown suitcase again, just like I had before. It was still there. It was still... oddly conspicuous.
That's a weird thought. At yet for some reason, it was true. It just seemed to... stand out a little more. Where it had previously faded right in.
No touchie, am I right? All this fuss over a box... I honestly don't see what's so bad about it. It's a suitcase, right? What insidious evil could someone keep in a suitcase?
I glanced around nervously, despite the fact that I was very definitely alone in the dorm room. Should I? ...Should I, just once?
I probably shouldn't. He won't know, will he? Will he? Can he sense the disturbed dirt on it or something? No, he barely even looks at it, so long as I put it back in the position it was in before he'd surely never know.
What if I found something that was none of my business in there when I opened it? Well, so what if I did? I'd just force it aside and make myself forget about it. I've seen and heard worse stuff by now, there's nothing that could be in there that could shock me anymore. Right? I realised I was already out of bed and shifting slowly towards it as I thought about it. I mean, I'm not doing it to intrude on his things. I'm just scratching an itch. That's all. And he helped generate that itch, so it's totally sort of not entirely my fault.
I edged closer. The suitcase didn't move. I raised a hand tentatively. I'm gonna do it. I'm really gonna do it.
What could go wrong?
I edged closer again, and then again until I was almost close enough to touch the battered material. I don't know why I moved slowly, given that there was no-one else there. I felt... naughty. Like a kid who's just put his head round the staff room door and found the whole room empty, and is taking the chance to run around inside while they're all gone. Normally I wouldn't do this, but now I was. Tee hee. Gosh, how daring am I?
I reached out carefully, this time in case there were any hidden ninja traps protecting the case, but my hands found nothing until they reached the case itself. It was rough, but with a roughness that suggested that once upon a time it had been smooth and shiny. That time was long since past - it was still the same brown colour it presumably was at first, but beyond that it had long since passed the description of 'slightly foxed' and now looked like it had been sheeped, badgered and possibly wolved as well. The lock was a small clasp-like mechanism on the top long side, connecting the two bits of the case together. I reached out for it and it clicked open.
If I hadn't been so excited about breaking the rules, I might have actually noticed that I didn't have to touch the lock to make this happen.
Time for the moment of truth. I reached out, took hold of the side of the case, pulled it open and...
It was empty.
I frowned, and leant forward. Where's the back in this? All I saw was darkness within... darkness that seemed to stretch out a long way. I leaned over the edge I had opened and looked down. Far below, beyond the surface of the floor the case sat on, darkness stretched into forever. What is this? I don't... understand...
The vertigo... the depth... it sucked at me. For some reason, I couldn't bring myself to look away. Deep down, further than the eye could see, there was some sort of movement, a shape of motion among the blackness. I tried to see it, but the further I looked, the less I could see. My head felt... heavy... the depth of the abyss pulled at me. Standing on a clifftop and looking down, as I stared into the impossible void, it seemed impossible to track how deep it was, and as the edges of the case rose past my field of vision all I could see was darkness, void, the cold eternal pit tugging my mind into endless shadow...
'Aaaahhhhhhhhh!' I screamed, the hand on my shoulder like a gunshot. I reeled back, and crashed into someone, who gripped me with their other arm and shouted my name. I screamed again, this time more restrained, my arms flailing around like mad things trying to find that dreadful artefact so I could close it forever. I heard Nicole mutter something and grip one of my arms to hold it still before I did myself an injury.
The suitcase was stood on its thin end, closed, the lock on the top shut. Without any facial features, somehow I knew it was looking at me smugly.
My senses came back into order, no longer blinded by light and sound. The room. Lewis was holding me in a vice-like grip just below my head and again further down, his expression mercifully concealed behind me in my position. Nicole was holding one of my robotic arms in the air and scowling, the other arm falling towards the floor. I stopped thrashing, and then slowly stopped shaking. I couldn't stop the shivering. Lewis let me go and I lurched forward out of restraint, turning almost on instinct to face him. More importantly, though, it let me put my back to that, so that I didn't have to look at it ever again.
Lewis was never one for unchecked emotion, and a lesser mortal may have shown unbridled anger and fury. The Nuzleaf's eyes, however, showed something regardless - a keenly-tempered anger instead, born more out of irritation than genuine wrath, accented by his species' naturally sharp features to form an accusation pierced straight at me that I couldn't hide from. The way he folded his arms made me scared in pure, base level ways. Nicole was next to him, her arms also folded, and her expression set to drill boreholes in diamond. I tied my arms behind myself, my shame getting the better of me, looked down at the floor and tried to look innocent while being caught red-handed.
'Well then,' Lewis said levelly. 'I see you've met The Thing.'