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Shades of ___

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“Mx. Noire, would you please stop stalking up and down the hall? It’s making the other patients nervous.”

Noire glared at the nurse for a minute, mildly impressed that she didn’t cower and tilted her chin up challengingly instead. They scoffed then stomped over to the sitting area and flopped down in a chair directly opposite their twin, legs sprawled and arms crossed. Blanche glanced up in acknowledgement then went back to pouring over their tablet, making notes in a separate notebook in their lap.

“Find anything?” they asked quietly, tilting their head.

Blanche’s brow twitched, though their eyes stayed glued to the screen and they continued to write. “About as much as we thought we would.” Their pen paused as they sighed. “Worse, even.”

“Worse?” Noire sat up straighter, frowning when their twin’s posture stiffened. “What do you mean ‘worse’?”

“Exactly what the word implies,” Blanche snapped, gesturing to their tablet and beginning to write again, “What we encountered and thus broke up was an outskirts lab for Team Cipher – a Phase IV location with a prerogative in human experimentation,” they paused to glance in Noire’s direction, voice lowering, “We were in Phase III.”

Noire’s upper lip curled up in distaste. “So, the bastards kept experimenting. We figured as much, right?”

Blanche nodded, their free hand swiping across their tablet screen to move to the next document. They studied their twin for a moment, taking in their tense shoulders and the way their pen seemed to move more than it should, twitching in their grasp with tremors they couldn’t seem to stop. They sighed through their nose and sat up, uncrossing their arms.

“Blanche,” Noire said, leaning across the gap between them to snatch the tablet out of their hand, “Let’s put this away for a bit.”

Their twin flinched when Noire took the tablet, glare cold as they held out their hand. “No,” they said, voice firm, “This needs to be done eventually, and I’d prefer no eyes but our own be first to review it. Not to mention any bit of information could prove vital to-”

“You’re shaking,” Noire cut them off, motioning to the way their twin’s hand wavered in the space between them. “You’ll only upset yourself more if you keep at it, mon petit chou.”

Blanche retracted their hand, curling it into a fist on their lap. “I’m fine.”

Noire raised a brow and sat back into their seat, keeping the tablet with a challenging jut of their chin. They glanced over the page Blanche had pulled up, attempting to keep their face smooth. “Phase IV, Section YD000: ‘Clones of the Beast’,” they mumbled, swallowing back a bit of bile that tried to creep up their throat, “So that’s what they are.”

“Based on the other records, I can estimate that were over one hundred clones in the beginning,” Blanche said, glancing down at their notebook, “80% of which did not mature past organogenesis and thus perished.”

There were far too many emotions that stirred within them at the thought of being cloned – rage, horror, indignation, disbelief – but Noire brushed them aside for the moment. They weren’t any different from what they already felt towards the organization that had turned them into a human weapon, after all, only geared in a new direction.

“Cipher playing with an imperfect science,” they scoffed, repressing the urge to shudder, “What else is new?”

Blanche nodded. “Precisely. It’s one of the reasons they terminated the cloning division – too many wasted resources when there was no guarantee of success for the main process.”

“The Corruption Program.” The two of them fell silent for a moment, faces equally dark.

Noire sighed, curling forward to rest their elbows on their knees, tablet hanging limply in one hand while the other rubbed at their face. “How many?” they asked, thumb and forefinger pressing against their eyes hard enough to hurt, sparks dancing in the darkness behind their eyelids, “How many were ‘successful’?”

“None.”

Noire looked up. “None?

Their twin nodded, shifting in their seat. “There were none that registered as a full transfer.”

Noire sighed in relief - bitterly glad they wouldn't have to hear of Cipher taking over cities with an army of corrupting children anytime soon. One Beast of Orre was enough, thank you very much. They shook their head then sat up and looked down at the tablet once more, not even bothering to read any of the information they’d stolen only roughly 24 hours before. “But there were a couple that had limited success, weren’t there?” they said dully, the question flat enough to be a statement, “Prismatics.”

“Yes.” Blanche reached out to take their tablet back and Noire let them. They used a finger to sweep back through a few of the documents, tapping one firmly and studying it for a moment. “Seven in total. How ironic.” The quiet laugh that followed was bitter.

“Full spectrum?” Noire asked, raising a brow.

Blanche shook their head, making a note in their notebook. “Not quite: two Rouges, three Verts, one Bleu, and one Indigo.” Their voice was soft and devoid of emotion, but Noire knew enough to peek at their eyes. They recoiled slightly from the agony that flickered through them, swallowing, words of comfort left unsaid.

Noire turned slightly in their seat, looking down the hall. “And they would be?” They let the question hang, gesturing vaguely toward one door in particular when Blanche glanced their direction.

“Difficult to know for sure.” Their twin swallowed, looking back down at their tablet briefly before meeting Noire’s eyes. “The Indigo, notably unstable, had a psychotic episode two years ago and decimated a Rouge and two Verts during a duel and suffered from multiple organ failure as a result. The three victims, unfortunately, also succumbed to their injuries. The remaining Rouge and the Bleu recently attempted to escape the facility and were killed in the process of recapture.”

Merde,” Noire breathed, “Was it a lab or a fucking slaughter house?!”

“Knowing Cipher, likely both.” Blanche paused, closing their eyes for a moment and exhaling shakily. “That leaves one Vert and a handful of... of… Clai-”

“Got it,” Noire said briskly, “So they have either moderate abilities or none at all.”

“The records indicate that the remaining... unsuccessful clone subjects as well as a few of the others were designated to be sent off to other facilities to be used in alternate experiments.” Blanche inhaled deeply, shaking their head. “The transit was to take place in stages over the last few days, so it is uncertain which they might be until we can speak with them.”

“Ugh!” Noire groaned, throwing up their hands and leaning back in aggravation, “All this waiting is really starting to piss me the hell off!”

“Well, be grateful! Your wait is finally over.”

Both twins jumped slightly at the voice, looking over to see Amelie approaching down the hall, a thick stack of papers balanced in her hand. Annie remained further down the hall, speaking quickly to a small cluster of nurses and doctors, handing over an equally padded bundle to the police officers that hovered nearby.

“Is it done?” Noire asked, leaping out of their seat. “Can we see them?”

The redhead nodded, searching through the stack and handing them each a few papers. “As soon as you sign these,” she said, sighing and rolling her shoulders and neck, “It was a trip through hell, sans handbasket, but we got it all squared away. It’s a good thing Willow stepped up to claim them. As he’s a guardian already registered in the region, it really made everything smoother - well, more legal, anyway.”

Blanche glared at Noire when they snatched their pen, studying the sheets they’d been handed. “We’re being listed as ‘next of kin’?”

Amelie nodded. “Technically, he and Executive Sabrina were your foster parents, and even though you’re not minors anymore they still can claim you two – which the good Professor did willingly.” She paused to shrug. “It was the fastest way for you to get access to them.”

“And the other children?” Noire asked, handing the pen back to their twin after signing the documents with a dramatic flourish.

“They’ll get a full diagnostic in this hospital and then be sent off to various other locations, as per your orders,” she replied, “Discreetly, of course. They’ll eventually be placed in secure foster homes, as you had been, and hopefully fade into anonymity.”

“Good,” Blanche said, “The less they appear on official records, the harder it will be for Cipher to locate them.”

“Or anybody else, for that matter,” Noire added, sharing a look with their twin. They both handed her their signed sheets, which she quickly tucked back into her stack, and then the three of them started down the hall.

Syric met them at the door, eyes brightening when he saw the stack of papers. “It’s official?” he asked, reaching for them. Amelie handed them over readily, sharing a tired smile when him as he signed off on various documents with quick, efficient strokes. He’d been acting as a bodyguard, of sorts, for the child – gently bullying the nurses and other doctors out of their room as much as possible. It helped that the hospital already knew who he was (or rather, who he worked for).

“How are they?” Noire demanded, attempting to peer into the room around his large frame.

“Sleeping, actually,” he replied, handing the completed pile back to Amelie before looking at the twins, “Can’t say I blame them though. Based on just the initial test results, they’ve been through quite the ringer.”

“We’ll discuss it in detail later. For now, we would like to see them for ourselves,” Blanche said briskly. They appeared to be trying to will him out of existence with their mind, eyes narrowed and lips pressing into a thin line to show their displeasure at his continued hindrance of their plans.

Syric sighed, then grudgingly moved out of the way. Noire elbowed him in the side for good measure, doubtlessly just to be an asshole, though he barely reacted beyond a small grunt and a glare. Amelie scoffed and patted his arm, drawing him from the doorway to give the three some privacy. Blanche entered the room right on their twin’s heels, their eyes landing on the small frame arranged on the hospital bed at the same time Noire’s did.

It had barely been a day since they’d seen the clone last, and yet it still was off-putting. Long limbs lay spread out, arms tucked against their sides as their legs were positioned straight down from their hips, awkward even in their stillness. Their face should’ve still had a soft roundness to it, the last vestiges of childhood fighting with adolescent maturity; instead, their cheeks were gaunt, dark circles blackening the skin under their eyes. Their silvery hair was clipped in a short bob, spilling out onto the pillow beneath their head.

Blanche’s hand found Noire’s, a motion borne of instinct rather than intention, but Noire laced their fingers together regardless.

“So small,” Noire breathed, throat tight, “Look at them, Blanche. They’re just… so…”

“I know, mon chou,” Blanche replied readily, voice equally weak, “I see them.”

The two moved closer, scooting the chairs right up next to the bed before sitting in them. Neither spoke for some time, too anxious as they each traced their… new little sibling’s features.

Noire glanced to the foot of the bed, clicking their tongue in annoyance. “Syric took their chart. Bastard.”

“Would it really do any good?” Blanche said, cautiously reaching out to smooth a wrinkle in the dull blue hospital blanket, “We’ll find out eventually.”

“Weren’t you the one that wanted to know everything just a few minutes ago?” Noire said, scoffing.

Blanche glared at them mildly, fingers continuing to trace the stitches in the rough linen. “I still stand by that, you know. It’s just…” Their eyes returned to the child on the bed, expression faltering. “I’m almost afraid to find out what was done to them, what scars they’ll bear.”

“What?”

“We at least had each other,” they explained, shaking their head, pained when they stared at the clone’s sleeping face, “Someone to live for, to protect. They had no one, Noire, and I can only begin to imagine what sort of despair-”

“Yeah, well, they have us now so don’t worry about it,” Noire said firmly as they slung an arm around their twin’s shoulders, fist clenching when they flinched in surprise. There was a moment of stillness, tension radiating between the two, until they both slowly relaxed into the embrace. It had once been so easy between them, and the reminder hurt worse when faced with what at first glance seemed like a mirror into the past.

They sat like that for what was likely hours, time only indicated by the sliding of the sun across the sky and the periodic checks by Syric or another member of Noire’s medical team.

There was a slight stirring, the child’s expression twisting into a small grimace before relaxing, their green eyes sliding open slowly. They blinked, hazy and disoriented for a moment as they stared at the ceiling, confusion flickering across their face as they slowly became more coherent. Noire shifted in their seat and the clone turned their head immediately in their direction, the only reaction being a slight widening of their eyes.

“Hi there,” Noire said, giving a half-wave with the hand that was draped across Blanche’s shoulders. Their clone’s eyes darted between the two of them, struggling to sit up.

“Easy,” Blanche said, reaching over to try and push them back down, Noire’s arm sliding off their shoulders from the motion, “It’s probably best that you do not move so much.” They frowned when the child’s eyes widened further, shying away from Blanche’s outstretched hand and ducking their head.

“Hey, relax,” Noire said, sitting straighter, “We’re not gonna hurt you. You’re safe here.”

Their miniature doppelganger tilted their head slowly, shoulders hunching. Blanche glanced at Noire, then looked back at them with a slow blink. Based on what they’d seen in the documents, they had a sneaking suspicion why the little one was staying so quiet.

Is this better? Can you understand me?” they asked, lips twitching when the child’s eyes lit with comprehension.

Yes,” came the reply, soft and demure. The victory of eliciting a response was a hollow one.

(‘-and thus, subjects are to learn French as their primary dialect for the sake of rendering them unable to communicate with the local population on the off chance they manage to escape the facilities. This will lessen the likelihood of them receiving outside aid and increase the rate of recapture-’)

Noire, unaware of the strategic conditioning they had witnessed, looked between the other two and smiled. “Hey, they sound like you, mon petit chou – cute and small,” they said, the smile morphing into a smirk when Blanche scowled at them and the child blinked in confusion. They looked back at them after a moment, studying their clone with carefully schooled features. “Do you have a name, kid?

A… name?

What you are called.” Blanche clarified.

Yeah, like, I’m Noire,” they said, squeezing their twin’s shoulder just to be cheeky, “And this is Blanche!

Names are not ranks,” Blanche said quickly, wincing at the disappointment the clone’s face now showed when their eyes had snapped to them in surprised awe, “But it would help if you told us yours.

The child frowned, glancing away. “I am 480227YD000. Designatio-

“Ah, this little one’s awake! And has visitors!” a nurse said brightly as she entered, a tray of food balanced in her hands. The three of them jumped at the sound of her voice as well as her sudden appearance, though she seemed oblivious to the reaction. She set the tray on a side table, turning to call over her shoulder, “Isn’t that wonderful, Callie? You’ll be able to give them your egg!”

Several things happened all at once when the Chansey entered the room, none of which were good.

The clone immediately let out a shriek, flying out of the bed in a flurry of sheets and their pillow, their IV being torn from their arm and blood beginning to trickle down their skin from the small puncture. Blanche and Noire stood and stumbled back, their chairs being knocked to the ground, instinctively trying to get out of the frenzied being’s way. The child raised their injured arm and gestured at the Pokemon, trembling, eyes tinting a tell-tale shade of poisonous magenta.

Leave!” they said, voice a soft rasp that held the same force of a shout, “Get away!

The nurse looked terrified, taking an involuntary step back (understandable, given the fact she’d just been hissed at by an incensed child in a language she likely didn’t speak) only to bump into her Chansey. She glanced down to see the pink Pokemon move back, hesitate, then set her egg on the ground, giving the shell a gentle pat with a small, slow nod. Her eyes were glazed a matching magenta as she finally turned and toddled out of the room.

The woman looked between the three in the room and the door, stammering, “I- Wha-”

“Get the fuck out of here!” Noire snarled, making a similar motion to their clone at the nurse, sans the compulsion, as Syric and Amelie burst into the room. “We’ve got this. Go!” The woman looked at Syric, who nodded, then turned tail.

“Callie!” she called, voice fading down the hallway, “Where are you going?!”

A wet, rattling cough drew everyone’s attention, and Noire turned to see their little clone had collapsed against Blanche, who was helping them remain standing by holding onto their arms just above the elbows. They covered their mouth, blood seeping between their fingers and dripping from their nose as they continued to cough.

Syric immediately strode over, militant, medical efficiency oozing from his form, barking orders over his shoulder to the small cluster of nurses that had gathered at the door as he carefully took the kid from Blanche and lay them on a gurney when it arrived. Their clone flinched when he touched them, green eyes glassy with pain flickering briefly to magenta, then went limp in his grasp.

“No,” the medic said firmly when Noire tried to follow, jerking his chin back toward the room. “Probably better if you stay here.”

They wanted to argue, but a look back in the direction he’d indicated halted them in their tracks. Blanche remained in the spot they had been before, unmoving, staring down at their hand with a pale, unreadable expression. Blood flecked their normally immaculate blue coat, reaching only about to the middle of their ribs, but they seemed totally unconcerned.

Amelie put a hand of Noire's shoulder, making them jump slightly, her face impassive save her one, glittering grey eye. They met her gaze, nodding at the unspoken question, touching her hand lightly before shrugging it off. They squared their shoulders as their assistant walked away, shaken and antsy after everything. Honestly, they'd prefer to put the adrenaline pumping through their veins to good use - but, as always, Blanche came first.

Noire moved toward their twin, glancing down to see the smear of red in their palm and swallowing harshly. “Blanche-” they began, cutting themselves off when their twin let out a weak chuckle.

“Well,” they said, lips twisting into a bitter smile when they looked up to meet Noire’s concerned eyes, “I suppose that clears up the mystery of what they are.” Blanche’s fingers curled into their palm, almost protective of the scarlet mark staining their skin, clenching a trembling fist as they sighed in what was likely equal parts resignation and relief.

“Yeah.” Noire nodded, face grim. “They’re the Vert.” They grunted when Blanche suddenly tugged them into a hug, blinking in surprise when they tucked their head under Noire’s chin. Their heart hurt when they registered the faint trembling emanating from the other.

Our Vert,” Blanche corrected them, arms tightening around their twin’s waist.

“But of course, mon petit chou,” they replied, pressing their lips to the top of Blanche’s head and running a hand between their shoulder blades in soothing circles, “They are our precious little sibling.”

Chapter Text

“I cannot believe you had your lackeys attack one of my gyms just so you could arrive first.”

“Really?” Noire said, raising a brow, “What exactly about that was out of character for me?”

Blanche’s glare was the definition of a winter’s blizzard as they came to a halt beside them. Noire met their eyes smugly and leaned against the reception desk, looking all the part of a Rocket Executive despite wearing civilian clothes. The secretary looked a little disgruntled to have them treat her workstation with so little care, but seemed to think better of scolding them for it.

It was decided that the two of them would deliver their little sibling to Willow’s home (Annie and Amelie obviously being left in charge of their respective organizations). The Professor was still busy fixing up their room and attempting to traumatized-child-proof the rest of his house in preparation for their arrival. As the press would have a field day if the child’s existence was discovered before they had released their official statement to the public, it was probably for the best.

So, in secrecy they rode. Well, in theory, at least.

Noire studied their twin, lips twitching in amusement at how uncomfortable they seemed. Blanche understandably looked a little out of their depth when not swimming in a sea of blues and violets. Even still, there was a swell of annoyance toward the Valor leader (as compared to the usual level of ire they sent in her general direction) for obviously convincing them to wear her colors. A black button-up would’ve been less flashy than a vibrant crimson, after all, and weren’t they trying to be subtle?

They blew out an impatient sigh and fiddled with the cuff of their own lavender colored top, glancing down the hall at the same time as Blanche when they heard someone approaching, only to deflate when it was just another nurse doing her rounds. Neither of them liked hospitals all that much, but at least when they were patients they had no choice in being there.

Having to wait for someone to be released was the worst sort of hell.

Speaking of hell, the past week had been filled with a mixture of horror and anger as more of the Cipher lab’s reports were analyzed and decrypted. There were several terabytes of information that still needed to be decoded, of course, but the things they had discovered had been done to the children at that location was enough to boil anyone’s blood… if it did not curdle it first.

(Syric had looked paler than they had ever seen him when he reviewed the medical documents on the children, and, in particular, the ones for their little sibling. “Christ,” he said weakly, running a hand down his face and setting the tablet on his desk in disgust, “I knew they’d be messed up, but this is some next-level bullshit. All those procedures – well, they explain the scars, the extensive bone remodeling… fuck, I feel sick just thinking about it.”

“Will you be able to help them?” Noire asked, fists clenching.

The medic gave them a dark look. “I’ll do my best, Noire,” he said grimly, “But don’t expect a miracle. Especially if they turn out to be anything like you.”

They let out a small, helpless laugh. “Do they have a choice?”)

Blanche and Noire had long described their own experience as a side-show science prison. It was awful and they had suffered, but the system at least had made sense in a weird way. There was a pattern, a method to the madness.

 But what the reports described about the Phase IV location showed it was more like a perverse, hellish concentration camp where the doctors treated the children like chattel for any experiment or test their deranged minds could come up with. The documents recorded the horrors almost gleefully – electroshock torture as penalty for speaking out of turn, whipping for underperforming on tests, solitary iceboxing for crying out during another penalty, etc – and that the scientists had chosen Pokemon as the vehicles for the punishments explained a lot.

Noire had been hit by their own Venusaur’s vine whip enough times (in training and on accident) to know that sort of attack wasn’t for the faint of heart. And they were more than a little aware of how much of a bitch electricity hurt.

Their little sibling’s dramatic reaction to the Chansey didn’t seem so unfounded now.

What made things worse was the fact the lab had been given new management a few years prior, under a doctor whose name alone made the twins’ stomachs clench. The reports of torture multiplied rapidly after his ascension, with a massive increase for those in the cloning division. He’d always been an unpleasant bastard, after all, and Noire had been his favorite plaything.

Noire snapped out of their bitter reminiscing when Blanche suddenly touched their shoulder, looking up to see them staring down the hall. They followed their twin’s gaze, heart aching as they pinned a grin to their lips when they saw Syric pushing a wheelchair toward them.

“We would’ve been here sooner,” he explained when they got close enough, “But I was graciously reminded of this hospital’s policy on patient releases.”

Their little sibling sat quietly with their eyes cast downward at where their hands rested in their lap. They were dressed simply in a pair of black pants and light grey shirt, hair still a little damp from a shower. Their cheeks were slightly fuller than they had been when they were rescued, but the dark purple bruises under their eyes had yet to fade.

Hello, again,” Blanche said, a small smile on their lips when the child inclined their head.

Hello,” came the reply, soft as air, “We apologize for the delay.

Don’t worry about it!” Noire said with a wave of their hand, “Syric would drag his ass even if it was on fire.

“Excuse you!” the medic said as he crossed his arms, slipping into French easily, “I’m not the one that can’t function properly without coffee!” He paused to send a glare in Blanche’s direction as well. “Or an energy drink.

Is that supposed to be impressive?” Blanche asked dryly.

Syric threw his hands up in the air before resting them back on the chair’s handles and leaning forward a tad to try and catch their little sibling’s eye. “I regret to inform you that your family has a medical inclination toward caffeine addiction,” he said seriously, “And chronic sass. I’m leaving it up to you to make sure neither of those things gets them killed, okay?

The child glanced up, briefly looking at the twins before lowering their gaze. “I am sorry, good doctor, but I do not believe I am qualified for such a mission.”

Noire snickered at the defeated sigh Syric made.

“Well, well, well! What do we have here?”

The four turned to stare dumfounded when a fifth member decided to make his presence known, strolling up to them with an easy gait. His eyes brightened when they landed on the child in the wheelchair, tilting his head curiously in a way that was distinctly avian.

“Spark!” Blanche hissed, eyes narrowed, “What are you doing here?”

“Yeah, dumbass, aren’t you and that Valor bitch supposed to be giving a press conference in the park or some shit?”

The Team Instinct leader shrugged, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “It got rained out,” he said simply, smile innocent despite the flash of yellow in his eyes and the fact there had been no rain in the forecast (and they all knew it). “We had to reschedule it for tomorrow. Hey, Blanche, that means you’ll be able to attend, too! Isn’t that great?”

“Wonderful,” they said dully, peering around him, “Am I to assume Candela will be joining us?”

Noire sneered. “She better fucking not!”

“Nah, she volunteered to go make sure Willow wasn’t tearing his hair out,” he replied, shaking his head, “Well, more so than usual.”

“Poor man,” Syric said, chuckling in pity, “His hair will likely turn completely white after all this is said and done.”

“Speaking of which,” Spark said, dropping to a knee beside the wheelchair and peering up at the child, his voice sweetening, “Hi there! I’m Spark. What’s your name, mini-Noire?”

Noire scoffed. “Oi, shitstain, don’t bother.”

“Huh?” Spark said, looking up.

“I told you that they do not speak English, you know,” Blanche said.

The Team Instinct leader smacked his own forehead. “Oh, right! Duh!” he replied, clearing his throat and looking back at the child, “Thankfully, I’ve been practicing my French for just such an occasion: Bone-jur! Jay maple Spark. Comet view appley view?” He smiled brightly, obviously pleased with himself.

Their little sibling turned slightly in their seat to stare at the other three, the novelty of them willingly offering eye contact tempered by the fact they looked utterly perplexed. “Is… Is he trying to speak with me?

Yes, with a distinct emphasis on ‘trying’,” Blanche replied, shooting the other two an annoyed look for their muffled snickering. Well, muffled in Syric’s case – Noire was almost cackling. They waved a hand in the direction of the man still squatting next to the chair, his blue eyes twinkling with curiosity as he looked between them. “This is Spark. I’ve told you about him, I believe.

He is your fellow assistant for the Go Program under Professor Willow,” they quoted readily, “The leader of Team Instinct.

Correct. He said hello and was asking for your name.” They paused, glancing at Noire. “Which I am just now realizing we never finished discussing.

Their little sibling looked between the two of them, their normally expressionless face twitching into something that may have once been discomfort or even shame before they lowered their eyes and ducked their head, offering meekly, “You have stated you wish to call me ‘Vert’.

Yeah, but that can be temporary,” Noire broke in, previous mirth dissipating quickly, “If you find a new name you like, just let us know. We’d be more than happy to call you whatever you want.

We almost encourage you to, in fact,” Blanche added, “Choosing your name can be very… empowering.”

The child tilted their head in consideration, glancing over at where Spark was still crouching next to them expectantly and shying away from him. “It is like pronouns, yes?” they asked, “Up to the individual? Though, neither of you liked the ones used for me previously and insisted we change them.

First of all, quit it with the formal ‘you’ business. Informal is fine. Second of all, you are not an ‘it’,” Noire said, hackles rising, “You are a person.

If you say so,” they said softly, flinching when Noire let out a growl and glancing at Blanche, “Would you mind introducing me to your fellow assistant? He has been waiting for some time.

Of course,” Blanche replied, “Though we will be discussing this further later.

Understood.”

They sighed, catching Spark’s eye at long last. “Their name is Vert for now, though that will likely not stick. I will let you know when the change occurs, of course, and request that you act accordingly.”

“Sure thing! Vert, huh?” he said slowly, tilting his head and catching their sibling’s eye, “Nice to meet you!”

The child seemed to understand the sentiment despite the language barrier because they nodded to him, which only made his smile grow as he stood. Spark paused, digging around in his pocket. “Hey, I have something for you!” he said, motioning for them to hold out a hand. Vert did so quickly, hunched shoulders the only indication of their discomfort. They flinched when he dropped the object into their palm then stared at it in consideration.

“A Rubik's Cube? Are you fucking kidding me?” Noire hissed, scoffing at the miniature puzzle.

“In all fairness, it is a pretty entertaining toy that doesn’t require a lot of explanation nor feature any Pokemon,” Blanche defended, nodding toward the receptionist when she handed them Vert’s release form. They signed it quickly then motioned for the others to move along.

Syric smiled, pushing the chair toward the entrance at a slow pace. “Nice job, Sparkles,” he said, “I think they like it.” He inclined his head to where Vert was fiddling with the toy, their eyes bright.

“Thanks, bro! I figured it would-” Spark paused, glancing down to see Vert had caught his jacket sleeve and was holding the cube out to him, “Huh? Oh, no, little one. It’s for yooouuu—holy shit!” He carefully took the toy out of their hand, tilting it from various angles and gawking at it. The puzzle had been solved, each of the six sides showing a single color.

The Team Instinct leader glanced at the others, eyebrows raised. “Are we sure they’re not Blanche’s clone? Because they are way too smart to be Noire’s.” He yelped when Noire kicked him, making Vert jump in their seat and look at him in alarm.

Did I fail?” they asked, “Is he being punished for my poor performance?

No, don’t worry about it,” Syric said quickly, “He’s just an idiot.”

Oh…

-/-

Candela met them in the driveway, hands on her hips with a large grin on her face. She’d traded her normal polished outfit for something a bit more practical, though there was no doubt the overalls and cotton top were still somehow, someway designer. “It’s about time you got here!” she said cheerfully as they piled out of the car, “I was about to murder the Professor and then we’d all be out of a job.”

“I was just trying to make sure it would be welcoming,” Willow protested, running a hand through his hair.

The stare Candela sent his way was telling. “Professor, you wanted to tear out a wall,” she said dryly, “When they were already on their way.”

“Aw, Prof! Never took you for a fussy nester!” Spark said, grinning at the older man.

Professor Willow sighed. “Spark, how many times do I have to tell you that nesting is a Pokemon behavior? People don’t really do that sort of thing-”

“Speak for yourself,” he shot back, grinning when the sibling trio finished climbing out of the back.

The car was rather tall (more an armored vehicle than anything, really), and while that proved to be no problem for the twins, the newest addition seemed to be having some difficulty. Blanche held out their hand to help Vert down, and after a brief moment of hesitance they took it and hopped out. They let go immediately after, of course, ducking their head with their eyes on the ground.

“Oh, they’re positively precious!” Candela cooed, delighted, her eyes alight with pleasure, “And tiny. Were we really ever that small?”

“Yes, Candela, and smaller still,” Willow replied, eyes distant with fond memories, “Such is the beauty of life.”

“Waxing eloquent just so you won’t have to walk over there and seal the deal, eh, old man?” Spark teased, unaffected by the baleful glare that was immediately sent in his direction, “Worried they won’t like you or something?”

“… Will you think less of me if I say yes?”

Spark patted his back cheerfully, his smile wide as he shot the Professor a cheeky thumbs up. “I wouldn’t worry about it, Professor. I’m sure they’ll love you! You got Blanche to like you, remember?”

“Perhaps even a little more than like once upon a time, if memory serves,” Candela said.

“Silence, Candela. No need to bring up the past,” Blanche said coolly, walking over to the trio with an annoyed look on their face. Syric and Noire also strolled over, the medic reaching out to shake hands with the older man while Noire just looked smugly amused. Vert stood silently between their siblings, hands clasped in front of them with their face carefully neutral. They glanced up quickly, eyes catching on something behind the group and widening slightly, before returning down – though, they did not stay there as they usually did, sneaking secret glances.

“Are you sure they were ready to come here?” Willow asked, concern pinching the skin between his brows, “We only spoke a handful of times when they were in the hospital and my French is decidedly rusty.”

“Can’t be worse than birdbrain’s,” Noire drawled, shooting him a glare, “I swear I almost suffered a fucking aneurism just hearing him speak.”

“Don’t you always?” Syric said slyly.

“Hey, I tried really hard you know!” Spark protested, “And it worked out just fine, mercy buttercup!” He sniffed dramatically and wore his most offended expression, though his lips twitching when the others groaned gave him away.

“Now you’re just doing that on purpose!” Blanche accused, scowling when he winked at them.

Noire looked down to check on Vert only to freeze when they were no longer beside them, looking around before nudging Blanche and pointing over to where their sibling had slunk off and was now blatantly staring at the lawn. They shared an equally puzzled look before moving closer to join them. “You alright there, kid?” Noire asked, tilting their head.

I am unharmed.

Yes, we can see that,” Blanche said, resisting the urge to sigh at their unintentional evasion. They understood the reason behind it, of course, but the constant back and forth was beginning to wear on them. Perhaps it was because they themselves were guilty of such tactics at times?

Is there a reason you’re inspecting the lawn?” Noire inquired, “I’m pretty sure the Professor keeps it to code.

Vert hesitated. “Permission to ask an inane question?

Granted.”

Is… Is that grass?” they asked, pointing to the small plot of greenery that sprawled between the house and the sidewalk. It was recently trimmed, and the scent of freshly cut grass wafted through the warm summer air despite the surprise shower from earlier.

Yes?” Noire said, quirking a brow.

I see,” Vert said slowly, “Permission for another inane question?

Also granted.

The look they sent the two of them was positively shy. “May I touch it?” Their voice was soft, as it normally was, but filled with a tentative, sincere hope that made both twins’ hearts clench. Their tone held the cautious reverence of someone who had only known the definition of the word but had never come into contact with the thing it described.

“Touch what now?” Willow asked, strolling over, “Sorry – like I said, my French is rusty.” Vert jumped slightly, stepping away from the lawn and looking down and away as though they had been reprimanded. They wrung their hands fretfully for a moment then stilled completely, barely daring to breathe as the other two team leaders and Syric also decided to approach.

“They are asking for permission to touch your grass, Professor,” Blanche said, voice strained.

“My… grass?” He quirked a brow, incredulous smile sliding off his face as he looked at the child in question, comprehension dawning quickly, “Oh. I see.” He moved closer to Vert, dropping down to one knee next to them. Unlike Spark, he did not try to meet their eyes and merely looked at the lawn from what was roughly their height.

Have you never seen grass before?” he asked gently.

Vert shook their head, eyes still downcast. “No, Professor Willow. I have not.” Above the two, the other adults shared a pained, horrified look – well, the ones that spoke French, anyway. Spark seemed to understand something was wrong regardless, his expression darkening as a distant roll of thunder echoed his mood.

Willow inhaled deeply, letting out a slow breath. “Would you like to feel it?” He smiled when they nodded, taking one of their hands with careful deliberation and tugging them closer to the edge of the concrete. They went willingly, shoulders still tense.

The Professor reached out to press his palm against the turf, motioning for them to do the same. Vert hesitated, as they seemed to do often, then crouched and copied the action with cautious curiosity. Their eyes widened, lips parting in a small show of wonder as they moved their hand against it, blades of grass poking between their fingers. They seemed absolutely mesmerized by the sensation.

Well?” Willow asked after a moment, “What do you think?

Vert frowned slightly, pointer finger tracing a single blade that was slightly longer than the others. “It is prickly. Good for tickling, maybe?” they said, slowly, “And very green.” They punctuated the statement with a small nod, pressing their hand fully against the turf, fingers spreading out as far as they could go.

Do you like green?” he asked, tilting his head.

They paused in their childlike exploration, fingers curling in the grass briefly as their expression turned unreadable. Vert glanced at him before looking up at the twins, saying softly, meaningfully, “For now.

Chapter Text

Willow inhaled deeply, the steam from his mug rising slowly, bringing with it the thick scent of coffee. He took a sip, as pleased by the flavor as he was the smell, warmth trickling down his throat in a soothing cascade. His companion waited silently for him to reorient himself, for which he was grateful. It had been a long couple of weeks.

He’d received a very helpful packet from the hospital upon his new charge’s release: childrearing books, parenting tips, etc. Willow had done his own research when he’d brought Blanche to live with him all those years ago, of course, and could still recall most of the information. As far as anyone could tell, their ages matched up pretty well, too.

It was a surprise to find that one of the nurses had slipped in a recommended meals plan, but upon reviewing the charts he realized the purpose behind it. The children of Cipher had been fed very specific meals (most of which were chemically formulated to meet their growing bodies’ needs and utterly unappetizing to say the least) and a sudden dietary shift into fresh foods and higher-carb and protein contents could potentially cause more harm than help.

Then there was the issue of their trauma. It was ever-present, naturally, and they both were learning to live around one another. Willow made sure to keep all his Pokemon in their balls when he came home, or at the very least when the child was out and about the house. He never forced them to look him in the eye, kept his voice low and soothing whenever he spoke to them, and never tried to touch them without asking permission.

That seemed to confuse them the most, sadly enough, that he would think to ask at all.

They were very quiet by nature, skittish when they weren’t overtly terrified, so getting them to talk was a challenge. They took to learning English readily enough, using the tablet Willow had presented them as a welcoming present to study and practice the language, though he was unsure if they genuinely wanted to learn or if they had taken it as a challenge (or, more likely, an order) when he had first suggested it. Their reading comprehension developed at a rate that was both impressive and concerning, though their speaking unsurprisingly lagged behind.

There were some highlights, though. They seemed to enjoy being outside the most out of everything, and any excuse they were given was taken with extreme enthusiasm. In fact, the moment he’d told them they didn’t have to wear shoes in the backyard, their eyes had widened and they’d hurriedly asked if they could go outside. He’d watched with amused delight as they’d tugged off their footwear – still taking the time to line them up at the entryway – and bounded out the door only to immediately flop onto the grass.

It was humbling, to say the least, to see someone take such pleasure in things one normally took for granted.

Willow sighed, done collecting himself, then smiled at his guest. “So,” he said, setting his mug down on the coffee table, “To what do I owe the pleasure, Sabrina?”

The psychic merely inclined her head, taking a sip of her own coffee before replying, “Was your offer for me to swing by any time so conditional, Willow?” Her tone was flat, as it normally was, though she hid what may very well have been a smile when she took a drink from her own cup.

He snorted, shaking his head. “That offer was made years ago, you realize,” he said wryly, unable to hide his amusement, “But, no, it still stands. You are always welcome here.” They eyed each other for a moment, a familiar, comfortable silence resonating with decades of conversations that need not be revisited. Time had been unkind to them in many regards, and each of their pasts was riddled with mistakes and losses that had helped shape them passed the youths they once were when they had first met.

At least they still could count on each other, in some form or fashion – never enough, mind you, but still all they had.

Sabrina hummed noncommittally, glancing around the room as she likely sensed his mood and waited for it to pass. It was early, weak, grey light painting his living room in dull, washed-out hues. Willow stifled a yawn with his hand as her eyes finished their circuit and landed back on him with a small smile on her lips.

“I see things are going well,” she said.

“As well as can be expected,” he replied, brushing off the intended half-compliment, “It’s been a lot of trial-by-error for the two of us.”

“Must be nice to have an excuse to leave work early, though.”

The look he sent her way was dry. “Oh, don’t even pretend to think I’ve had the chance to go in. We both know that hasn’t been the case.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Sabrina hid another smile in her cup when Willow snorted. It had been a small miracle that his three wonderful assistants hadn’t blown anything up in the time he’d taken off, of course, but perhaps they were behaving themselves so he could focus on helping his new charge settle in.

They both turned slightly when his hallway creaked, catching sight of a small figure peering around the corner, their green eyes widening before they ducked back out of sight. Willow huffed, calling out soothingly in French, “Oh, good morning. Would you like to join us?

The child slowly emerged from the hallway, head bowed with their eyes on the floor as they shuffled out. They wore simple dark green pajama pants and a cream-colored long-sleeved shirt, silvery white hair brushed but still slightly fluffier than usual from sleep. Their hands were clasped in front of them, fingers clenched, their toes digging into the carpet.

Did you sleep okay?” Willow asked, torn between going over to them (his knee-jerk reaction) and staying put. He’d learned the hard way that approaching them when they were uncomfortable was not a good plan. “We didn’t wake you, did we?

I heard voices,” they explained softly, “And it was light out.” A pause occurred when they braced themselves expectantly, almost ashamed when they asked, “Did I miss the wakeup call?

No, there was no wakeup call today,” Willow replied, inclining his head toward them slightly. Could it really still be considered a ‘wakeup call’ when they were normally already up, dressed, and sitting on the edge of their perfectly made bed when he knocked on their door in the mornings? “It’s the weekend. If we don’t have anything planned then you are free to sleep in, remember?

The child nodded, shifting slightly in their spot, glancing shyly at his companion before looking back down.

Why don’t you introduce yourself to my friend here, huh?” Willow offered, gesturing toward Sabrina, “You could practice your English!

That’s not necessary,” she said drily, “I’m perfectly capable of conversing in French.

Ah, but practice makes perfect, right?” he argued, leaning forward to smile encouragingly at the child, “If you’re feeling up to the task, we’d both love to hear it.” He ignored the look Sabrina sent his way, tilting his head. He didn’t want to force them to speak if they didn’t wish to (getting them to speak at all took persuasion) but some subjects of learning required repetition – language being the foremost example.

They let out a little sigh, barely a huff, then squared their shoulders and said softly in English with a thick accent, “Hello. My name is Grisaille.” They glanced at her, meeting her eyes briefly, then looked down. “What may I call you, madam?”

“Hello, little Grisaille. It’s very nice to meet you. My name is Sabrina,” the Rocket Executive replied, offering them a small smile when they looked up at her in surprised recognition. She sensed a quick series of thoughts flicker through their mind, basic data being pulled up from a conversation they’d had with the twins a week or so ago.

(Sabrina was going to smack Noire on the head when she saw them next. ‘Crazy old bat with spooky eyes’, was she? Oh, she’d give them a fright alright! On the other hand, Blanche describing her as a ‘powerful oracle’ was as flattering as it was suspicious. The echo in their voice gave her pause, but Grisaille’s view had been of the ground so she wasn’t able to see the younger twin’s eyes to check their color.)

“She helped raise Blanche and Noire,” Willow explained, unaware that the child had already made the connection. They nodded regardless, fingers twitching as both adults studied them.

Would you like to sit down and join us?” the professor asked after it had become apparent they had no intention of responding, slipping back into French readily, “We could tell her about the daffodils you helped me plant in the garden a few days ago.

Grisaille hesitated then nodded and made their way over to the couch, taking a seat on the opposite side so as to be as far away from the other two as possible. They sat daintily on the edge of the cushion, hands clasped on their lap with their eyes staring at the floor. Their posture was stiff, shoulders hunched, bracing for an interrogation or any other form of assessment with which they were more familiar. It didn’t take a psychic to know they were unaccustomed to speaking – generally, they had been ranted at or talked over in the past.

Daffodils?” Sabrina asked, raising a brow.

Daffodils,” Willow repeated, nodding firmly. He met her eyes and thought very slowly and clearly, ‘They represent new beginnings, right? I thought it would be fitting.

Sentimental old man,’ Sabrina replied, sending the thought his way with an appropriate amount of teasing. As per usual, Willow gave no indication he’d heard a thought other than his own, though his lips did twitch into an amused smile. His lack of response was almost disappointing – though, in all fairness, Sabrina had yet to meet anyone whose reactions to her psychic abilities were have as dramatic (or entertaining) as Lt. Surge’s.

The three of them chatted for a while about innocuous things. Willow and Sabrina led much of the discussion, naturally, as Grisaille only spoke when one of the others drew them into the conversation. They seemed to relax slightly as time went on, though, and the topic of the garden they and the professor were planting seemed to spark some genuine interest.

There will be flowers of many different types,” they informed her, something not quite pride and just shy of excitement coloring their tone, “The Professor believes they will bloom soon.” They turned slightly toward him for confirmation, tense until he smiled and nodded at them.

If the weather holds, they might even start showing in a week or so,” he said, taking a drink from his mug. He and Sabrina had refilled their coffees, though Grisaille seemed content with their glass of water.

Really?” she said, humming thoughtfully, “Then I’ll need to visit again when they do.”

Sure, feel free!” Willow said, waving a hand, “We could get all the kids together, too – well, if they agree not to wreck the place with their squabbling, that is. Noire and Blanche still owe me a vase a piece from the last time they got into it in my living room. Which reminds me-- uh, is everything alright?

The professor looked between the other two, noting how they both had shifted while he’d been rambling. Grisaille’s head was uncharacteristically lifted, blatantly staring at Sabrina, their eyes flickering magenta with a wild look of terror before they seemed to remember themselves and redirected their gaze back to the floor. Their shoulders rose up to their ears, trembling slightly as they wrung their hands fretfully. More startling, however, was the fact that Sabrina looked horribly chastened when their eyes met.

What happened?’ he thought, scowling when she shook her head.

Give them permission to go back to their room,’ Sabrina replied carefully, her words echoing in his head, disjointed fragments of emotions she would normally filter out accompanying the sentiment, ‘They’re too distraught to ask for it right now but physically can’t bring themselves leave until they receive it.

Willow did as she advised, watching as the child stood and bowed sharply to the two of them before all but sprinting from the room, footsteps light and quick as they darted back around the corner of the hallways and out of sight. He blinked, turning back to stare at his companion, frowning when he saw she’d propped up her elbows on her thighs and was pinching the bridge of her nose, eyes closed with a strained expression.

“Sabrina?” he said, switching back to English, “Seriously, what happened?”

“They sensed me.”

“They-- What?!

Sabrina sighed, sitting up to pin him with a flat stare. “They recoiled internally when you said the twins’ names. Terror, desperation, anxiety - a whole cocktail of emotions I didn’t expect them to feel about those two. I was curious as to why and followed the reaction without thinking. Stupid of me, I know. They felt me in their head and responded accordingly.”

“Grisaille felt you?” Willow echoed, eyes wide.

“Yes, and they slammed down a mental barrier hard enough to give me a migraine.” Sabrina picked up her purse and rummaged around inside it, pulling out an unmarked bottle and shaking out two pills.

He winced in sympathy, handing her his mug so she could wash the medication down. “Even still, that’s really unexpected. I mean, not many people could pick up on someone rummaging around in their mind in the first place, much less defend themselves from it. Unless...” Willow paused, brows furrowing as he leaned forward, “Wait, do they have abilities? Neither of the twins-”

“Neither of the twins were tortured by psychics, Willow.”

“Tortured by psychics?!” The professor sat back, paling as a realization dawned on him. “The other children,” he rasped, rubbing a hand down his face, “Of course. Blanche said most if not all of the non-clone children in Phase IV were recorded as kidnapped offspring from notable psychic couples.”

“It is very likely Cipher forced them to test their fledgling abilities on the non-psychic children,” Sabrina continued for him, “Grisaille and the others who did not get their brains scrambled likely were trained to defend against such attacks after a time. Or worse: left to figure it out on their own. The process would be… tricky, at best, though not entirely impossible if they’ve gone through half of what the reports detail. Trauma is the second leading cause for psychic awareness, you know, though it often doesn’t result in active abilities. Lucky for us.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Willow replied vaguely, expression grim.

She let out a bitter laugh, shaking her head. “On that note, I highly doubt Grisaille will be comfortable in my presence for some time after this. If ever.” Sabrina ran a hand through her hair, fingers pressing firmly against one temple and rubbing briefly as she sighed. “After everything they’ve been through, it is little wonder they are so damaged – perhaps even more so than the twins.”

Willow leaned toward her, alarmed and concerned, his brows drawn. “More than the twins? What do you mean?”

The psychic considered him, her expression neutral despite the way her eyes glittered in the brightening light of morning. He met her gaze earnestly, silently pleading, and she closed her eyes briefly in resignation.

“When we retrieved Blanche and Noire from Orre, I could already tell they were messed up. Cracked, if you will,” she said slowly, eyes reopening so as to make her point more poignant, “Grisaille is more than cracked, Willow. They have been shattered.” There was a moment of pause, her words almost reverberating in the shocked silence that followed.

The professor uttered a small curse, sitting back against the couch cushions and rubbing a hand down his face as the full weight of her words settled on his shoulders like a cement blanket.

“They have no concept of self,” Sabrina continued, choosing her words carefully, “Many emotional reactions have been beaten out of them, and they were taught to think for themselves only when thoughts were allowed. Every comment, every inquiry, every observation is systematic, and every day they struggle to reorient themselves. Their only solace is that they recognize you as a scientist, Willow, and believe you to be their new handler rather than a guardian and are awaiting the day you choose the next test or experiment for them.”

“What?” he said, “Surely they know that I have no intention of doing anything of the sort! My research is regional distribution, for Arceus’ sake!”

The Rocket Executive shrugged. “How could they possibly know? The fact that Blanche was partially raised by you and now works for your program has only cemented the idea in their mind that they belong to you as a project. Even their new name gives away their desperate attempt to reorient themselves in this new ‘system’, though the fact they’ve settled for one that places them directly between the twins seems a little heavy-handed.”

Willow grit his teeth, horrified, but quickly decided to jump to a slightly less nauseating subject. “Getting back to that,” he said, waving a hand, “You mentioned earlier that Grisaille had a negative reaction to the twins’ names. What did you learn from your digging? You know, before they locked you out.”

She lifted her chin challengingly. “Who says I learned anything?”

“Don’t play coy with me, Sabrina,” Willow growled, “Not when a child’s safety and wellbeing is on the line.”

“They’re no more a child than Noire was, Willow,” Sabrina reminded him, her tone flinty, “You’d best remember that. Grisaille and all the other orphans of Cipher were being trained as soldiers, as weapons.”

“That doesn’t excuse-”

“Furthermore, this only proves that I should’ve been the one to take major custody of Grisaille. I can easily read their moods and avoid their triggers, help mold them into something of a normal person in half the time it will take you.”

“Oh, yeah, that method really paid off last time, didn’t it? I mean, Noire’s the model of a totally well-adjusted citizen!”

Sabrina scowled at him, her brow twitching as she picked up on a stray thought of his she’d seen enough of in the past to irk her. She tried to ignore it, but the current topic brought it back to the forefront of both of their minds and it aggravated her enough to throw tact to the wind. “If you honestly thought you could’ve done a better job raising the twins, then you should’ve been the one to take care of them.”

“You know I couldn’t have!” Willow exploded, spine stiffening, “I was traveling all over the region for my dissertation at the time and wouldn’t have been able to stay in one place for more than a month. The road is no place to raise a child, much less twins!”

“Then why does it continue to bother you?” Sabrina spat in annoyance.

“Many reasons, really.”

“Name one.”

“Fine! I know for a fact I was only brought in for the recovery incentive because my graduate research helped us pinpoint Cipher’s headquarters. That you signed me up as your ‘husband’ when you could’ve easily used Surge or Koga for your scapegoat was only so you could get to the twins quicker.” He let out a bitter laugh. “I mean, who was least likely to cause a stir in getting legally saddled with surprise children he couldn’t even care for – the grad student with the crazy dream or either of the two new gym leaders?”

“Is that what you think? Truly?”

“You would know.”

“Would I?”

He paused at her suddenly quiet tone, glaring at her sullenly, a twinge of shame cooling his temper. An age-old hurt stood gaping between them, a painful, twisted thing that had never truly been brought out in full – for if they put it to words, if they both acknowledged its existence, then the secret unrequited regret would truly become a mutual tragedy.

There was no reclaiming lost time, and the situation was doomed to remain forever stagnant.

Sabrina sighed, looking away from him in an attempt to dispel the sudden melancholy that had settled over the room like a malcontented fog. Willow sat back and studied her profile, shoving away the ache in his chest as he let out a slow breath of his own. He almost wanted to ask if half their conversations went according to plan, if she went into them with full knowledge of how they’d turn out but pressed through it, regardless, for some sort of intense emotional masochism. Or sadism.

“Sabrina,” he said slowly, hollowly, feeling like he had aged 10 years in the span of 2 minutes, “Why is Grisaille so scared of the twins?”

“Because,” she replied just as wearily, “Among other things, every person who has shared their face has tried to kill them.”

Willow let out a soft, emotionless huff. “Well, they obviously failed.”

“Yes. Because Grisaille killed them instead.” She turned back to him, her expression grave. “Cipher duels are to the death, if you remember.”

Sabrina met his eyes, and he saw a creeping, helpless sadness he identified with on a spiritual level. Many thought the Rocket Executive to be a cold, unfeeling person. Few people had been granted the honor of knowing her long enough to discern that was the farthest from the truth. Well, for the plights of children, at least. Perhaps it was the lack of her own childhood that made her resonate so readily with the suffering of the Cipher rescues?

Willow jumped in his seat when Sabrina checked her watch and suddenly stood, grabbing her purse from the floor and looping her arm through the strap as she strode out of the room. “You’re leaving?” he asked as he followed, perturbed. She wasn’t the type to run away from a difficult discussion, but he’d always had a knack for finding just the right combination of sentiment and statements to make the psychic trip up.

“I have a flight to catch,” she replied, looking over her shoulder at him as they approached the entryway, “I told you about it when I arrived.”

“Ah, I see.” Even with all the turbulent emotions still simmering within him, he felt the pang of disappointment most keenly. “Have a nice trip, I suppose. Tell Giovanni he’s a right bastard and that I want Team Rocket out of my city as of yesterday – you know, the usual sentiments. You can kick him in the shin, too, if you’d like.”

Sabrina hummed, slipping on her shoes quickly. She paused, turning back to look at him with gleaming eyes. “Take care of them, Willow, but don’t forget to take care of yourself,” she said, “Never forget that they are dangerous, even if they don’t seem to be at first.”

“They can’t possibly be any more dangerous than a fully successful transfer or a titan bonded.”

The Rocket Executive didn’t reply, but her expression darkened briefly. She opened her mouth then seemed to think better of it, sighing and shaking her head. “You are kind and always try to see the best in everything,” she murmured, giving him an almost pitying look, “It’s going to get you killed one day.”

“You’ve been saying that since the day we met and yet I’m still here,” Willow replied, his smile wry when she scoffed, “Compassion is the only thing separating people from beasts, you know. The day we forget that is the day we are all doomed.”

Sabrina scoffed, shaking her head, then left out the door. It closed softly behind her, and Willow realized just how quiet his home was after the final click. He sighed, running a hand through his hair as he slowly walked back to the living room, ruminating briefly over the fact he may very well be in over his head… again.

“Right,” he said, glancing down the hall where his charge had disappeared, “Food generally makes a long discussion more digestible.”

Chapter Text

A bell chimed and it did not wait for the rough hands of the white-coated scientists to push it out of the holding area to take off running. It stumbled, losing its footing only briefly, but caught itself before it could faceplant into the barbed sides of the maze. The experiment had been going on for several hours now and it was beginning to feel the fatigue – starving, light-headed, and aching – yet still the scientists made it and all the others in the testing group run.

The maze was never the same, all the twists and turns recalibrated every time the test cycle began anew. If the subject slowed down even a fraction below its highest recorded speed, it received a shock from the incentive ring around its neck so strong it often left the examinee with weak knees and glazed eyes. The subjects were meant to run through the maze, avoiding the many traps and dead-ends, and find the randomly-located exit, after which they were permitted a drink of water and five to ten minutes (depending on the length of the maze) of rest before they were to warm up for the next run.

480227YD000 did not care for the maze trials. Obstacle courses were much easier by far.

It knew it was not allowed the luxury of having a preference, of course, but some things could not be helped.

It sprinted into the exit area and, after its time and various other statistics had been recorded, was allowed to collapse on the floor. Chest heaving, it stared at the ceiling as its vision flickered and swam.

This maze had been more difficult than the last, for the scientists had stocked it with Punishers to defend all the dead ends. It had heard the doctors and scientists refer to them by another title once or twice – ‘Pokemon’ – but it mattered little. What good was there in knowing the actual name of such creatures? It made no difference when they seemed to only exist in order to issue punishments and various other tortures.

Willing its heart and breath to return to somewhat normal levels, it sat up stiffly and looked around. A few of the other subjects sat against the wall, others pacing as they stretched in order to keep their limbs warm. All were flushed, sweat dripping from trembling limbs, eyes dull and expressions blank.

There had been sixteen in total at the start of the testing, though twelve currently loitered in the room. One of them ran the maze and another waited in the wings. Two had not passed the trials and were culled for their weakness, judging by the streaks of red that left the room through the true exit door.

There were a few of its same-faced subjects in the test group this time, six in total not including itself. Three were Claires and they all stalked aggressively around the area with too much energy, with too much to prove. It could not fault them for being anxious. Of all their lives, a Claire’s was the most tenuous, as failure for a one with that designation often meant harsher punishments or, more likely, death. 

The other three were like it – partial successes. One, a Vert, sat with its legs crossed and arms in its lap, palms up. It stared at the ceiling unseeingly, a calm mask on its face. The other two were one of the Rouges and the Bleu. They sat together, uncaring for the excess body heat that no doubt sweltered the air around them, pressing against one another as much as possible.

The two were cellmates. The scientists and doctors watched them closely, for they did not want a repeat of—

The Rouge caught its eye and glared at it, tugging the Bleu closer and lifting its chin in a silent challenge. 480227YD000 did not care for a battle of wills over something so trivial and dropped its gaze, tilting its head slightly in submission, though it did sneak a few quick glances at the pair. The Bleu seemed dazed, pale with skin drawn taunt over its cheeks. There was a smear of blood on the corner of its mouth, one that the Rouge seemed to notice as well and rubbed at absently.

One of the scientists approached and handed it a cup, half of the precious water sloshing to the floor from the rough hand-off. She did not seem to care, an almost cruel smile on her lips as she told it to be careful. It took a sip as she moved back to her station, relief washing over it as the cool liquid washed away the froth on its tongue and soothed the rawness of its throat.

It shuffled off to a corner of the room, watching as the next two runners came through the door and collapsed. One, an Orange, clutched a badly burned arm to its chest. The other, an Indigo, had a long gash on its leg and a bad limp, stone-faced as it requested to continue running. The cruel-smile-water-handler shook her head and barked at the guards standing by the true exit door to escort it to the medical bay.

It tried not to wince, stuffing down what little sympathy the ruling caused to swell within its chest. Still, it flinched when the door slid shut, taking another sip of its water to dispel the heavy form that had sunk into its belly at the finality of the sound. Powering through badly damaged limbs was often preferable to being sent to medical for all the pain one had to endure.

And thus their group was down to thirteen.

The announcer proclaimed the next maze ready for testing, calling out the code and designation of the new first runner. The same-face Vert shifted, eyes refocusing with what seemed like a great effort, then stood and made for the doorway.

The same-face Rouge was called immediately after as the waiting runner, and it stood with reluctance. The Bleu offered it a small nod, which its companion returned before it turned and headed for the door. It was only after the door had swung shut that it doubled over and let out a series of deep coughs, red splattering onto its hand and on the floor.

Most of the others ignored its suffering. It was to be expected – though on the higher end of the spectrum, Bleus tended to suffer more than the rest. This Bleu in particular had decently strong abilities, though its body was notoriously weak.

That it had not been culled yet was a mystery to all.

480227YD000 stared down at its cup and saw some water remained. It looked over at the wheezing subject and suddenly it was beside it, handing it what remained of its precious drink. The Bleu looked as startled as it was, glancing between it and the cup with wide eyes. Then a stranger expression took over its face, eyes soft with an up-curled lip.

Unlike the cruel smile of the scientist, this one looked nice.

Then it was dark, the sickeningly sweet smell of dead flora clogging its nose with the buzzing of helicopter blades and shouting voices in the distance— heart hammering between its lungs, rattling its ribcage as it leveled the gun at a chest, green eyes identical to its own weeping, the same pathetic smile on its lips— running out of time as the search lights grazed through the trees and filled the clearing with dappled lighting— a soft, startled gasp of ‘merci’ (or had it been ‘mercy’?) as two shots rang out, one after the other—

4802- it- They awoke with a start, swatting at the hands that touched their shoulders, kicking at the blankets that ensnared their legs. A dark ooze filled them, humming and slithering through their veins, and they belatedly realized they had reached for their abilities without thinking. They released it just as quickly, queasy just from the slightest use.

Two faces, identical, older than their own, peered down at them in concern from the lingering gloom of night. The moonlight lit their long hair, illuminating the strands so they shone like starlight, and cast strange shadows on each of their faces.

Mon chouchou,” said one, brows furrowed, “It’s alright. Take it easy.”

“You are safe here,” said the other, voice still rough from sleep, “Take a breath. You’re okay.”

Heart hammering in their chest, they reached for some sort of clarity, reviewing what their hazy, unfocused mind could pull up on the two.

Codes: 390216XD000 and 390217XD000.

Designations: … Unnecessary.

Reformatting parameters.

Names: Blanche and Noire.

Relationship: Siblings.

Threat Status: Suspended until further notice.

Memories came back in a rush as they recalled the events that had somehow led them to sharing a bed with the other two.

The gala for a charity they had been allowed to attend with the Go Program leaders.

The tux they had worn, shoes shiny and black.

(Leader Candela had been pleased.)

The lights, the sounds, the smells.

The way the others had danced and swayed to the music, dresses fluttering and shoes tapping against cold, polished marble.

The offer of a choice – which twin did they wish to go home with? – and their decision – both? – that had resulted in a hushed conversation done through hissed whispers and broad gestures until a consensus had been reached and the trio made for one of Noire’s safe houses.

Grisaille took a deep breath as they had been instructed, letting it out slowly as the twins settled back slightly.

Blanche reached over to their side table and grabbed their customary glass of water, helping them sit up and handing the glass to them. They stared down at the clear liquid dully for a moment, stomach churning from the memories that swirled years old but moments fresh in their mind, an action that prompted the younger twin to helpfully guide the glass to their lips.

Noire gently pressed their palm between their shoulder blades, rubbing their back in soothing circles.

They drank as much as they dared, a tight throat making the act alone that much more difficult. Eventually they handed the half-full glass back to their sibling, who frowned at how much water still remained. Grisaille blinked at them tiredly, weary in body with an electrified mind. Tired, but unable to find enough peace on their own to chase sleep.

Noire flopped back against the pillows and tugged the other two down soon after, pulling Grisaille against their side. They tangled their fingers in their short hair, stroking through it in a way that was distinctly soothing. Blanche settled along their back, a cool, comforting presence.

They exhaled slowly, listening to Noire’s heartbeat and feeling the echo of Blanche’s against their back. A thoughtful silence descended, each of the three content to listen to the others breathe. Then they reached back and caught one of Blanche’s hands, threading their fingers, pulling it forward to rest on Noire’s chest only to have the eldest place their own hand on top of the other two to form a stack.

Blanche let out a huff, breath tickling the back of Grisaille’s neck, but did not pull away. They felt more than saw the small, wry smirk on Noire’s lips through the gloom.

Another precious smile. Perhaps this one they could protect – they did not think they could pull the trigger a third time, no matter how much these two might beg for the release of death. Cipher always came to collect what belonged to it, always, no matter how cold the trail may be.

They must’ve reacted physically to their own thoughts for Blanche pressed closer to them, whispering some muffled, sleepy words into their shoulder. Noire also attempted to comfort them, lips pressing lightly against their bangs before they settled once more into the pillows. They began humming a soft, lilting melody, making Grisaille’s fingertips tingle where they rested against their chest.

Blanche slid back into slumber easily, though that was likely due in part to the dark circles that had smudged the skin under their eyes for many days. Noire’s song went on, uninterrupted, until it too faded.

Grisaille sighed and let sleep claim them, cocooned in the warmth of the Beast and its Claire.

Chapter Text

Team Cipher was a blight on the world.

A common sentiment, to be sure, but Syric believed he had more reason to ascribe to it than most. Especially since it had caused the people he cared about a lot of pain and anguish over the years – mentally and physically. Due to the organization’s meddling in human physiology, the twins required more monitoring than most people, and that, unfortunately, necessitated more blood work and testing than either was happy about. He tried to make the process less painful for the two, a practice he was now faced with repeating for their new little sibling.

Noire, of course, had insisted that he take them on as their physician, and Blanche had surprisingly agreed. There was a not-too-small swell of pride he felt at their trust.

Grisaille sat perfectly still on the examination table, hands folded on their lap. They didn’t seem overly terrified to be in the medical ward, as he’d been worried they would be, but there was a quiet air of expectant submission about them that he didn’t much care to see. He’d tried to soothe them by explaining exactly what he needed to do and why he needed to do it, and they had listened with picture perfect attentiveness.

Still, their eyes seemed distant as they rolled up their sleeve, the motion completely robotic and efficient. He frowned slightly, catching sight of all the scars that marred their arm, eye twitching at the overlapping set that covered the inside of their elbow.

Drawing blood would be tricky, but not impossible… he hoped.

“If you feel uncomfortable or want me to stop, just tell me, okay?” he said, speaking slowly in English at their request. Practice made perfect, after all. They’d also requested no one else be present in the room, which was a bit odd, but he was surprised to learn it was because they’d thought he would appreciate being able to work in peace. Perceptive little thing, and incredibly considerate. His affection for them grew with every passing encounter.

There was a common sentiment among the adults in their life that they were precious and had to be protected. In all honesty, he pitied any poor bastards that ever tried to hurt them – they’d be faced with the full might of four influential teams and their equally powerful leaders.

And that was only if he didn’t get to them first.

“It does not matter how I feel or what I desire,” Grisaille said softly, offering him their arm, “You will be able to take what you want regardless.”

Syric paused, frowning slightly as he carefully set the tourniquet back on the tray. “Why do you say that?”

The child shrugged. “You are a doctor,” they said as though that explained it all.

“Ah, but I’m nice!” he said, offering them a smile, “You even called me ‘good doctor’ before, remember? In the hospital?” Their silence spoke volumes. He sat back slightly, brows knitted as he studied them. A thought occurred and he continued slowly, dread making the blood in his veins chill, “Being ‘good’ doesn’t mean what it usually does, does it?”

Grisaille shook their head, arm dropping so their hands could fold over their lap once more.

Syric sighed, rubbing a hand down his face and stroking his beard, his eyes closing briefly. If ever another Cipher location was discovered in the region, he was going to throttle every operative he could get his hands on. Still, he was curious just what ‘good’ could mean, and not just so he could appreciate how they viewed him.

“If you don’t mind explaining it to me, I’d love to know what it does mean,” he said finally, tilting his head, “Will you help me understand?”

If there was anything the child shared with their siblings, it was a love of spreading knowledge. “Are you sure?” they asked politely.

“Yes,” he replied readily, “If you feel up to it?”

They nodded, but shifted uncomfortably. “May I have permission to speak in French? I am… not sure how to say some things in English.”

“Sure!”

Grisaille inhaled deeply and let the breath go slowly, eyes on the floor as they spoke. “There is a system to identify the type of scientists and doctors in the facility. It is not officially recognized, but every subject learns it from the others regardless. It is likely the true meanings have never been revealed, and that the scientists and doctors take them at face value as you do.” They paused, glancing up at him shyly. “Labels ‘good’, ‘kind’, and ‘honored’ indicate the different categories of the handlers.”

Okay,” Syric said, nodding, also using French, “I’m with you so far.”                     

The first label, ‘good’, means the handler acts according to their duty. They are efficient and take only what they need. It is rare that a ‘good’ handler doles out punishments, and when they do it is not out of malice but out of compliance with orders.” They inclined their head. “I believe the phrase is ‘nothing personal’.

Syric shifted in his seat, crossing his legs so one of his calves was balanced on the other leg’s knee. He tried to keep his face open and accepting, but it was difficult with how tonelessly they had begun to speak.

Well, there was his answer. That they had given him such a label caused him a bit of discontent, but he couldn’t exactly hold it against them. He was still something of a stranger to them, after all, and they had very little reason to trust any of the adults in their life.

At least they didn’t think he’d hurt them… without orders.

The second label, ‘kind’, means the handler displays certain weaknesses of character,” they continued, “These handlers attempt to console subjects when they are injured or have performed poorly and will be punished. Some even act beyond the limits of their station and will attempt to bond with the subjects.” Grisaille’s lips turned down slightly, eyes going dark.

You don’t like ‘kind’ people?” Syric asked, unable to stop himself.

The reply came quickly. “They make promises they cannot keep and often attempt to offer some sort of solace or ‘hope’ to the subjects they come in contact with. But what is the point of offering such things to a subject when it only exists to serve? When its purpose is to be used?” They shook their head, voice trembling but flat. “Empty words hold no value to subjects. Only orders can be counted on to give direction, to give worth.

Grisaille-” he rasped, heart in his throat. It physically pained him to hear them speak so readily, with such conviction, about a value system that disregarded human life and autonomy.

The child started at his voice, shoulders raising to their ears as they cowered instinctively, and he silently cursed himself for asking about the subject in the first place. It was obviously effecting their psyche - they hadn’t flinched that badly around him in weeks.

Doctor Syric?” they asked, unsure.

You’re fine,” he assured them quickly, “Everything’s fine, just- Do you want to stop? You can, if you want. You have my permission to do so.

Grisaille frowned again, a tiny crinkle appearing between their brows. “Am I explaining it poorly?

No, no, you’re doing great!” Syric paused to clear his throat, selfishly unwilling to admit his own unease. “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay with, you know, talking about it. It seems like a difficult topic.

They were silent for a moment, considering his words. “It is difficult to speak about it,” they admitted finally, “But, if it would please you, I believe I can fulfill the entirety of your request for clarification. Is it not better to engage a difficult task once, than to return to it at a later point?

Not necessarily,” he replied, frowning when they seemed to shrink away from him.

Oh,” they said simply, almost disheartened, and Syric resisted the urge to sigh. It was jarring to realize that someone so waifish and insecure could be connected (in the realest sense) to his bossy superior or their equally overbearing twin. One negative comment, even just a perceived one, was all it took to clam them up.

It is okay, Gris, you can continue if you think you can. I don’t mind listening,” he said, offering them an encouraging smile when they chanced a glance at him, “All that’s left is ‘honored’, right?

Yes,” they said, shifting to sit straighter on the table, “The third and final label, ‘honored’, means the handler is very…” They paused, eyes flicking magenta so quickly he almost missed it. “I do not know how to describe it. They relish the pain and suffering they create. If there is a way to keep punishing or experimenting on a subject beyond the normal limit, they will find it. They will use whatever they can – a Punisher or knife or anything in between – to get what they want.

Grisaille looked down at their hands and Syric followed their gaze, now familiar with all the small scars that littered the skin there, their knuckles pale and white from how fiercely they were clenching. They consciously relaxed their fists, the silver and pale pink marks continuing to stand out against their tan skin.

Yes,” they continued softly, “They will use any means necessary. And every time, if you come back, something is missing, something is replaced with more… cold.” They fell silent after that and it took all of Syric’s willpower not to immediately tug them against him.

Oh, little Gris,” he said, voice strained, “Can I touch you? Can I give you a hug?

They nodded once and he reached out slowly, telegraphing each movement. The child leaned forward slightly, letting him pull them against his chest. He tucked their head under his chin, wrapping only one arm around them so as to not give the impression of trapping them.

After studying their charts for what seemed like ages, he was more than aware of all their scars, the sheer number of them giving him fits. Their torso was covered in several, from both precise instruments and Pokemon attacks, but there was a small section in between their shoulder blades that was mostly untouched. He rested his palm there, fingers splayed wide but relaxed against their back, offering what he hoped was comforting warmth and support.

The two of them stayed like that for a while, quiet and attempting to find some measure of peace.

Not for the first time Syric found he was absolutely livid at the Cipher operatives, the ones that had taken on the mantle of ‘doctor’ and proceeded to run the profession through the mud. Never mind that they worked for a criminal organization – he and his staff were living proof that one could do so and still maintain the statutes of preserving human life.

(There was no doubt in his mind the other children they’d rescued from that place bore similar attitudes, and he made a mental note to get in contact with some of the medical staff in he’d placed charge of the rest.)

He was conflicted as to how to proceed, as well, in helping them become more comfortable around him. How can you assure a child, whose outlook on life fluctuated between infantile and nihilistic, that you truly cared about them and wished them no harm? That you were there to support and care for them?

The task was made even harder now that he knew saying such things aloud would earn him a ‘kind’ label.

Grisaille shifted in his arms and he took that as his sign to let them go, sitting back on his stool and studying their face. They did not meet his eye and his heart sank slightly. “Are you alright?” he asked them softly, concerned.

They turned and reached suddenly at his tray, and he almost swatted at their hand only to be saved at the last minute by his own self-control. It wouldn’t be the first time a patient tried to stab him with a needle, after all, and his reflexes remembered the lesson well. “Ah, no, no! Don’t-” he cut himself off when they simply plucked up the tourniquet and turned back toward him, holding it out expectantly.

“You are a kind man, Doctor Syric, but you are also a good one,” they said, switching back to English, “Just like Professor Willow. I am sure you will take only what you need.”

Syric took the band from them, feeling sick when they smiled at him.

Chapter Text

The meeting had started off as planned.

They and Noire both had been strictly professional, much to their assistants’ surprise and relief. Mystic Labs and Rocket Industries had signed on as sponsors for a charity and thus had to meet and agree on how the finances were to be handled. Blanche doubted heavily that the heads of Team Rocket actually cared one way or the other – it was likely just another gambit to keep up the appearances of their ‘totally legitimate’ corporation in Opal City. Though, to be fair, the charity was to find homes for disabled, homeless Pokemon and they knew their twin would have a personal investment in that regard, at least.

Regardless, somehow the conversation had turned from costs to fund a program that dealt with rehabilitating injured Pokemon and finding them homes… to their new little ‘sibling’.

“I still can’t fucking believe Willow is just taking off and leaving Grisaille behind like this,” Noire snorted, leaning back into their seat, “What a shitty-ass guardian.” They squawked when Amelie swatted their legs and halted their attempt to prop them up on the table.

Blanche’s hand tightened around the stack of papers they were sorting, their lips pressing into a thin line as they stubbornly resisted the urge to glare at their twin. “It cannot be helped. The Council of Pokemon Professors only meets once every five years, and he missed the last one due to Candela being, well, Candela.” They paused to shuffle a few pages around. “Besides, it’s not as though he’s leaving forever - the meeting will only last one weekend.”

“A long weekend,” Noire argued, “Today’s Thursday and he’ll be gone through Sunday.”

“I don’t see how that matters.”

“Of course you don’t.” They waved off Blanche’s offended huff. “Couldn’t he have taken them with him?”

The stare they gave their twin was a flat one. “You would put Grisaille, the deeply traumatized child, in a room with scientists and professors from around the world that will undoubtedly have their most rare and powerful Pokemon on display for the majority of the time? Not to mention the event is highly publicized and crawling with enough scandal-hungry journalists to make Opal City’s news team look like a flock of tame Mareeps.”

“Oh, right. Guess taking them would be kind of out of the question,” they replied, sheepish for a moment before they sat up and leaned closer, “But still – what the fuck is up with you getting to take care of them, huh? I’m the eldest! I should get custody next!”

Blanche didn’t respond right away, the corners of their mouth tilting downward. Truthfully, they’d thought the same thing, but it wasn’t like they were going to let Noire of all people know that. Besides, the Professor had been insistent they were to take care of Grisaille in his absence and they hadn’t been able to think up a good enough excuse not to.

He likely wishes for you to bond with the fledgling,’ came a cool voice in their head, their shoulders tensing instinctively. As always, the Titan’s consciousness coming to the fore brought with it a sensation not unlike sticking one’s face into a snowbank, and they had to resist the urge to shiver. It was truly not something they could ever see themselves getting used to, and that alone continued to irk them more than anything.

That is likely his reason, yes,’ they acquiesced stiffly.

And your response?’ There was a noise in their head, something shifting, feathers sliding together and chiming like ice. ‘Will you bond with your new little sibling?’ It purred the last word, amused and intrigued by the swirl of emotions it forced out of its normally placid host.

After the shock had worn down at the child’s existence, Blanche found themselves increasingly preoccupied with what Grisaille was meant to be. ‘Sibling’ was the term Noire and everyone else used, but the word and all the associations surrounding it made something dark and ugly coil up in their chest, poison sliding through their veins that made them choke, rendering them unable to use it themselves in regards to the child.

Articuno proved to be no help, either, though the relationship it had with its own kin was hardly kosher.

Well?

That is… none of your concern.

There was another sound, two icicles clacking against one another, but Articuno did not reply and simply retreated to the back of their mind. They got the distinct impression that the ice bird disagreed with their sentiment but, unlike its siblings, it didn’t find their life or the intricacies of their social circles all that intriguing. Well, that, or it genuinely didn’t care.

They shook themselves out of their reprieve, both grateful and unsurprised to find that their twin had taken their silence in stride and filled the awkward lull with their own rambling white noise.

“-I mean, of all the people that asshole could’ve picked to take care of them, he chose you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Blanche snapped, scowling.

Noire waved a hand. “It means you can barely take care of yourself, you idiot! Even that Valor bitch can-”

“I can take care of myself perfectly fine, thank you,” they snapped, bristling further when the other simply scoffed. They ignored the look Amelie sent their assistant. “I’m am fully capable of looking after a small child for a few days, in addition to keeping on top of my work schedule.”

“Wait a minute,” Noire said, brows furrowed, “You’re planning on fucking working?!” They also glanced at Annie in disbelief, who shrugged helplessly and shook her head.

“I see no reason why their presence should impede my research,” Blanche said, shifting in their seat. It irritated them that Noire’s point so perfectly mirrored the comment their assistant had tossed at them earlier when she, too, had found out they planned on coming to the labs. “If they do not wish to join me, they are free to remain in my quarters.”

“Oh, fuck that!” Everyone jerked when the Rocket Executive jumped to their feet, arms crossed as they glared down at the Mystic Leader. “Grisaille is coming home with me!

“I should think not,” Blanche replied, “The Professor planned-”

“To hell with that guy and all his fucking ‘plans’,” Noire gestured angrily, leaning forward and placing both hands on the table as though they might crawl upon it to make their case. “Why do you even care, huh? Just let them come home with me if you're going to be too busy for them!”

“No.”

“Yes, Blanche. It’s what’s best for our little sibling!”

There was that word again, used so earnestly. A shadowy, awful emotion speared their chest and they found their hands clenching on the documents they were holding.

Noire might avoid their past, glancing at the hurt that spanned between them only periodically, but Blanche stared into the rift and relived every single agonizing moment of it. There wasn’t a day that went by that their mind ceased in struggling to come to terms with the lost affection and closeness, the bond between them grown so tenuous over the years Blanche feared one day they would look and see nothing but severed strings.

They were a glutton for punishment, after all, and the pain they felt only served to remind them of the joy they had once had. The sweeter the height, the sourer the fall.

And now, there was a child between them – not able to bridge the gap, not quite, but bringing them closer than they had been in years. Yet often they were naught but an unwelcome distraction, a blight on the view that allowed Blanche to wallow in their agony. Sometimes they were grateful for them, for the reprieve, but mostly they fought not to indulge in the bitter annoyance that swelled every time Grisaille took over their thoughts of Noire. They wondered often if it was the same for their twin, one ‘sibling’ eclipsing the other, and the darkness settling between their ribs twisted every time they considered being supplanted by the child – even briefly.

“No.” The word was soft but filled with a quiet surety. “I will not suffer you to make the same mistake twice, Noire.”

“Huh? What the hell are you talking about?”

They rose to their feet, slamming their hands and the papers down on the table, expression twisting as they matched Noire’s hostile posture. “I won’t let you get close to someone only to watch you throw them away,” they spat, words harsh even to their own ears, gratified when their twin recoiled, “Nor will I allow myself to be replaced by something as cheap as a-”

“Blanche!” Annie exclaimed urgently, grabbing their arm. They jerked and glared over their shoulder at her, minutely aware that Noire’s assistant had gotten their twin’s attention in a similar manner, only to find her looking elsewhere. They followed her gaze and froze.

“Uh,” the Mystic Trainer said intelligently when he realized he’d been spotted, hovering in the doorway to the meeting room with large eyes.

“What?” Blanche snapped, “This is a private meeting.”

“Ah, right! S-Sorry. There’s, uh, a visitor for you, L-Leader Blanche.” He shifted slightly, obviously uncomfortable, and revealed the ‘visitor’ to be the child the two of them had been arguing over. They stood with their hands clasped in front of them and their head bowed, perfectly still save the slight trembling of their frame. A gray bag was slung over one shoulder, hanging awkwardly at their side.

“Grisaille,” Noire said, voice dropping into a soft, if a bit strained purr, “Hey there, kiddo.”

“Hello, Noire,” the child replied, giving a small nod. They paused, wringing their hands once or twice, before they continued uncertainly, “Hello, Blanche.”

“Hello,” Blanche replied automatically, wincing at the rigidity of their own voice. Their earlier ire had quickly fizzled out at the appearance of the child in question, though they had no doubt it would rear its ugly head again soon enough. They gestured for the young trainer to leave, fairly certain he wobbled in place before darting away.

An uncomfortable silence filled the room, spanning several seconds as everyone scrambled to find something fix the mood.

Annie, their naturally vivacious second-in-command, was predictably the first to recover. “So, Grisaille!” she said brightly, smiling at the child, her voice sounding unnaturally loud after the extended quiet. “Is that your overnight bag I see? Ready for an awesome weekend sleep-over?”

Grisaille tensed at being addressed before nodding sharply. “Yes, Assistant Annie, I am prepared.”

“Hey, Gris,” Noire said, walking over to them and dropping to a knee, their voice remaining softer than usual so as to not spook the child, a note of genuine affection slipping in, “I know you’re supposed to hang with Blanche, but do you wanna come spend the weekend with me and Amelie instead? We’ll have a hell of a lot more fun than you would here!”

“Language!” Blanche hissed reflexively.

“‘A hell of a lot more fun’?” The words were repeated slowly, confusion flickering across their face. They briefly looked up, glancing between the twins before returning their gaze to the ground. “Professor Willow said I am meant to be here.”

“Ah, but the Professor’s not in the city right now!” Noire said, grinning as they lifted a finger to tap the side of their own nose mischievously, “What that old coot doesn’t know won’t hurt him!”

Grisaille shifted again, lips pulling down slightly as they shook their head. “My orders are to spend the weekend in Blanche’s care.”

“Yeah, well, they’re stupid orders, so feel free to ignore them.”

“If you continue to pester my charge,” Blanche broke in, glaring at their twin, “I’ll have no choice but to call security on you.”

“Your ‘charge’? Don’t you mean your sibling?” Noire said incredulously, sneering when Blanche lifted their chin defiantly at them.

“I mean what I say – unlike some people.”

Disbelief flickered across Noire’s expression before they scowled. “And they call me the asshole!”

“Annie,” they snapped, not even bother to look at the woman, “Please call security to come escort Chief Noire and their assistant off the premises.”

“I can find the door on my own, thanks,” Noire replied, turning back to look at Grisaille, their voice smoothing once more as they addressed the child, “Hey. Your phone should have my number, right? Call me if you change your mind and want to come hang out. Or if you need anything. Or if you’re feeling lonely and just want to talk. Fuck it, I’ll call you periodically to make sure everything’s okay.”

“Boss,” Amelie huffed, “Please remember that you also have work to do this weekend.”

“But, Amelie!

“Understood. I shall await your correspondence,” Grisaille said, regardless, meeting Noire’s eyes for a small moment before returning their gaze to the floor. As such, they didn’t see the victorious grin that appeared on Noire’s lips, nor the pained scowl that twitched on Blanche’s.

The two Rockets left after that, footsteps fading quickly and leaving the remaining trio in yet another awkward silence.

Blanche shook themselves and brushed past the child as they, too, exited, making a beeline for the next meeting room. Annie followed quickly on their heels after gathering the documents up from the table, her cheerful commentary at Grisaille making something between their shoulder blades itch.

A cold fury banked within them, rising up from the disgust and betrayal they’d felt at Noire’s blatant assurances. How much had been for the child’s benefit? How much had been a jab at the old wound between the two of them?

Even still, they beat back their anger, remaining cool, calm, and collected enough to make it through the rest of the next meeting without any problems. Well, no problems beyond the fact Grisaille’s very presence was enough to knock them off-kilter, even though they remained out in the hallway with Annie and all the other assistants.

They knew they should feel shame for the child having heard the earlier discussion, yet, in the same breath, they rationalized that if they’d been bothered by it, surely they would’ve made it known when they were arguably safest in Noire’s presence.

After a significantly less dramatic meeting with their department heads, Blanche worked in their office the rest of the day, giving Annie strict orders to not allow anyone to intrude upon their work. They’d originally wanted to run down to the pool level for a quick swim to clear their head, but Annie had reminded them that there were many Pokemon currently being trained in the pools. That point had been made with a very meaningful glance at the child that remained in their presence, and any argument Blanche had had died on their tongue.

Regardless, Grisaille worked quietly on one of the couches in their office, their fingers tapping and swiping across the screen of their tablet with impressive speed.

Apparently their ‘homework’ from the Professor was to try out a few math and science aptitude tests. It made sense, of course, as attempting to gauge their academic level had proven difficult. It was unlikely they would ever attend a school, but getting a diploma (or the equally-prestigious equivalent) was a rite of passage in the world. Willow had already informed the twins that their little sibling seemed to excel at math and science – a point of intrigue for at least one of the two – though their grasp of literature and the arts was predictably subpar.

The two worked in complete silence the entire afternoon, to the point Blanche had almost forgotten they were there when Annie knocked on the door and brought the two of them some dinner. They glanced at the small child, watching them nibble on a few steamed carrots.

Perhaps Grisaille realized Blanche’s anger was not meant to be taken personally? Or, did they dare to dream the child could find their betrayal justified? It was only logical, after all – why on earth should they be forced to care about a person they only just recently discovered to exist at the same level as the twin they’d known their entire life? Certainly, they still felt empathy for the child and all their suffering, but the desire to take all that pain unto themselves as they did with Noire was notably absent.

Annie fluttered around the room after dinner, reminding Blanche of the various reports that needed reviewing and giving a status update on important projects that were underway in the facility, as well as periodically fussing over Grisaille. It was obvious that she remained the most torn up over the argument between the twins, perhaps even more so than the two themselves.

“Okay!” Annie said, clapping her hands loud enough to make both Blanche and Grisaille jump, “I think it’s time we call it a day and start winding down.”

Blanche squinted at the clock on their monitor and frowned. “It’s not that late and I still have-” They cut themselves off when Annie suddenly leaned into their space, her pleasant smile promising nothing but death as she shut their laptop forcefully.

You might be able to keep going,” she pointed out quietly, her voice dripping with false sweetness, “But some of us are about to drop.” She jerked her head in the direction of the couches meaningfully and Blanche reluctantly followed the motion to find the child staring at them, head drooping slightly despite their startled appearance.

“Oh,” they said simply, “I see.”

“I’m so glad you do!” she enthused, standing back at her full height, “We’ll make a proper big sibling out of you yet!”

Blanche wrinkled their nose at the title but rose from their chair regardless. They crossed the room to stand in front of the child, taking in their haggard appearance with a pang of guilt. Grisaille did not look them in the eye, having flinched when they approached and relocated their gaze to the floor, but they had no doubt they were aware of their presence.

“Let’s get ready for bed,” they said stiffly, bending to pick up their grey bag. It was lighter than they had estimated, though why they expected it to weigh more was beyond them. (No it wasn’t. They remembered how heavy their own bag used to be – stuffed with both their clothes and Noire’s.)

Annie shooed the two of them on their way, promising to check on them later.

Grisaille trotted after them, quiet even in the elevator up to Blanche’s quarters. They did look up when the elevator doors opened to reveal the large suite, lips parting and eyes widening in surprise. Blanche allowed themselves to feel a small amount of pleasure at the child’s stunned reaction. Their living quarters were nowhere near the level of opulence of Candela’s, but they were still rather impressive.

They allowed the child a few moments to gawk before gently nudging them forward. “It’s not going to swallow you, you know. All of my Pokemon know to stay in their balls, too, so you have nothing to fear in that regard.”

“Permission for an inane question?” they asked softly, eyes wide even as they stepped into the space. That quirk had yet to be smoothed out, though the Professor had apparently found it to only appear when they were confronted with particularly confounding or intriguing situations. What the child considered such things seemed random, however, so it was anyone’s guess.

“Granted,” Blanche replied.

“Why do you like blue?”

That question had not been one of the ones Blanche had prepared for. ‘Why do you have so much art of aquatic Pokemon?’ or ‘Why is there a giant beanbag in the corner covered in what looks like a mixture of scales and fur?’ or even ‘Why did you even think you could predict what I’d ask in the first place?

“Oh, um,” they said, floundering for a moment before offering hesitantly, “It’s a nice color?”

Grisaille tilted their head, considering, before they nodded. “Understood,” they said simply, and Blanche had to resist the urge to sigh in relief.

“Come, the bedroom is this way,” they said, motioning with their bag toward one of the closed doors. Without the press of deadlines or projects to distract them, or even their neurotic self-reflection, their inherent social awkwardness was finally bubbling to the surface. What was the etiquette for new guests, again? “You, ah, may bathe first. If you’d like.”

They’d barely made it three steps before Grisaille once more asked, “Permission for another inane question?”

“Granted.”

“Does… Does the water run out?”

Blanche paused and blinked down at the child. “Pardon?”

“Does the water for the shower run out?” Grisaille fiddled with their right pointer finger awkwardly, not meeting Blanche’s eyes. “If so, I shall make sure to bathe quickly so you may enjoy the-”

“Ah, no!” they broke in, wincing when the child shied away from them. “I-I mean, that water doesn’t really run out. I mean, theoretically it could, but that would take filling the tub several thousands of times and even then the pumps would—Er, what I mean is, you can take as long as you like and I’ll still have enough. I was just offering you the chance to get clean first to, um, be polite?” Their fumbling explanation seemed to soothe them somewhat because they nodded and quit fiddling with their finger.

“Understood. I… will likely still bathe quickly. Is that acceptable?” Their insecure honesty was admittedly pretty precious.

Blanche nodded. “That’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”

The two finally managed to make it to Blanche’s room without further odd questions or awkward excuses. Blanche showed the child how to use the shower and sink then returned to their room and flopped bonelessly on the bed. They rolled over after a minute to stare at the ceiling, sighing softly. “What have I gotten myself into?” they asked drily, answering themselves a beat later, “A mess, it seems.”

This is all because you cannot say ‘no’ to the old one, nor say ‘yes’ to your twin,’ Articuno supplied helpfully.

They grunted at that and pulled a pillow over their head, vainly attempting to squish the bird back into the depths of their mind. Part of being bound to an immortal elemental Legendary was expecting said Legendary to rise at any given moment and gleefully tell you some variation of ‘I told you so’.

Pointing out human flaws was apparently a favorite pastime when one lived arguably for forever.

A soft chime caught Blanche’s attention and drew from their ruminating, forcing them to lift their foam suppression and peer out into the darkness of their room. The chiming continued, now accompanied by a buzzing that reminded them of a remarkably small Beedrill they’d once encountered. Grumbling, they reached over and pawed at the sound, snatching the source from what apparently had been Grisaille’s bag.

They fumbled with what turned out to be the child’s phone and stared dumbfounded at the caller ID, old bitterness returning as they stared at their twin’s face. Were they actually keeping their promise to call? Tears stung Blanche’s eyes the longer they glared at the screen, fingers itching to deny the call. Instead, they let it continue to ring, breathing out a trembling breath when it finally stopped. They ached to hear what sort of message the other would leave for the child, but registered the water shutting off and tossed the phone back into their bag on reflex.

They checked the time. Huh, that was pretty fast.

Blanche took a long shower after Grisaille got out of the bathroom, luxuriating in the warmth. Articuno was, as always, incredibly pleased with the heat, which only intensified their own enjoyment of it. However, their thoughts tended to wander when in the shower, and that evening they chose to fixate on the child currently sitting in their bedroom – in particular, their mind struggled to comprehend the task that now lay before them for the next few days, bouncing around ways that everything could go wrong.

Perhaps they were fussier than the Professor had lead them to believe? Would the child require constant monitoring? What sort of entertainment were they meant to provide? Would Grisaille expect them to read a book for them before bed? Did they even own a book suitable for children?!

Needless to say, the shower turned out to far less soothing than they had hoped, their shoulders tense as they turned off the light and reentered their room.

Grisaille sat with their back to them, phone held up to their ear. “Mm, oui,” they murmured softly, “Bonne nuit, Noire.

The sound of their twin’s name caught their heart in a vice, making them swallow harshly. “Time for bed,” they said simply, pulling back the covers and crawling under them. They felt a small bit guilty when the child started, but they ended the call and set their phone on the bedside table. Grisaille bid them good night quietly, a sentiment they returned, then curled up into a small ball at the edge of their side of the bed. They stared at the child for a few moments, perplexed and almost concerned, then mentally shrugged and moved on.

Blanche snagged their own phone off the charger and opened their email. A few of their interns had submitted a new experiment application and they were intrigued by the premise alone. Unfortunately, the handling of the actual proposal had been sloppily done and they clicked their tongue in annoyance. Honestly, they were tempted to put all of their staff through an intensive, mandatory seminar on how to properly cite datasheets.

Then came checking some of their personal messages. A few from the Professor – things were going well at the conference, it seemed. The time difference meant the first day was already underway and they had to fight the urge to request a constant update. Not that the man would have the time to indulge their request, of course, but they couldn’t help but want to know.

A few other messages had come from Spark and Candela. Spark, naturally, offered his services if they needed a babysitter for Grisaille, which would’ve been offensive if his message hadn’t read as being completely sincere. Candela, in the same vein, all but demanded to see the child at some point that weekend. They didn’t deign either leader’s correspondence worthy of a reply.

No messages from Noire. They tried to ignore the sting by opening their internet browser.

Time passed quickly while they pursued various points of interest on the web, and it was only after they received a ‘low battery’ warning that they realized how late the night had become. At least they were finally tired, to the point their eyes felt a bit like sandpaper. They yawned, barely remembering to reach over and set their phone back on its charger.

Grisaille had remained on their side of the bed, tucked up along the edge and only noticeable by the blanket rising and falling slightly from their quiet breaths. Blanche peered at them through the darkness for a few moments, fingers itching to tug them closer. They eventually huffed and turned over, facing away from their young charge.

The two slept awkwardly – not touching and on opposite sides – though perhaps it was Blanche’s inclination for nesting that made the distinct lack of it so jarring.

-/-

Blanche awoke to Annie gently shaking them.

“Come on,” she said, tugging on their blankets, “I know cuddling’s nice and all but we have a lot to get done today!”

“Wut?” they groaned, fighting consciousness, “No.” They spit out a few strands of short hair that had somehow ended up in their mouth, attempting to shake her hand off and coil around whatever the warm thing they were currently clinging to was. It wasn’t hot enough to be Candela, nor large enough to be Spark, and it smelled distinctly of their own shampoo-

Blanche’s eyes flew open and they stared down into the quietly startled eyes of their charge. “Oh.”

“Good morning, Blanche,” they said demurely, dropping their gaze.

“Good morning,” they replied, immediately removing themselves from around the child. They frowned when they realized they had been the one to roll over in the night, tucking themselves against Grisaille like some sort of heat-leech. They felt the need to apologize, given the child’s understandable aversion to touch, but Grisaille simply sat up and ran their fingers through their short hair, attempting to smooth out the fluffiness sleeping had granted their locks.

That… was admittedly very cute and Blanche found themselves staring, face still pressed into the pillow, memories tickling the back of their mind.

“Up!” Annie said, shaking their shoulder again and disrupting their somber recollection, “Up up up! Big day! Many things to do!” She half-dragged, half-carried Blanche out of bed and shoved them into their bathroom, their uniform being tossed in almost as an afterthought.

Blanche grumbled bitterly under their breath about over-eager assistants and the unfortunate decline of respect for superiors in the modern workforce. They began their morning routine on habit alone, barely conscious and wishing they were anything but. The cold water they splashed on their face perked them up somewhat, but not so much as the cup of coffee Annie held out for them the moment they exited the bathroom.

They normally preferred an energy drink, of course, but coffee served its purpose just as well. The caffeine helped jumpstart their brain enough to catch back up with their plans for the day, a fluttery sort of can-do energy seeping into their bloodstream that gave their outlook a brighter hue than the coveted backs of their eyelids.

That didn’t mean, however, that they’d finished processing how that day would be different than their previous week until Annie held open the elevator door long enough for Grisaille to slip in with them.

“Ah, right,” Blanche managed, swallowing the last of their coffee with a suddenly tight throat, “You’ll be shadowing us today, I take it?” They sighed when the child nodded meekly, eyeing the tablet clutched against their chest with a vague sort of interest. Seems they’d need to dip into their Crimson Tauros reserves early today, with how leaden their bones suddenly felt.

The first hour of work was far from difficult, but the task of paperwork suddenly had become a momentous undertaking that had them grumbling under their breath in mere minutes. Where had their focus from the previous day gone? They would ask Annie for assistance, but she was busy overseeing some new aquatic battling platforms being constructed in the pool area so they themselves could assess them in the afternoon. Not to mention their pride would hardly allow them to pull her away for something as menial as paperwork.

After about thirty minutes of futile struggling they glanced up to discover the thing that been distracting them. Their charge sat perfectly still on the couch, staring at nothing but the wall in front of them, their tablet resting on the cushion beside them. “Grisaille?” Blanche asked, slightly concerned, a frown tugging at the corners of their mouth, “Is everything alright?”

“I am unharmed,” was the automatic reply, the child turning toward them slightly but ducking their head. They reached over to lightly tap their tablet. The motion was jittery and almost self-conscious, and only served to make Blanche’s frown deepen. “I have finished my tests.”

“Ah,” they said, brows rising in surprise, “Very good. What were your scores?”

“I do not know,” Grisaille admitted, “There was a written portion that is still being reviewed.”

Blanche hummed, fumbling for something to say. Well, at least they knew that had been distracting them. They’d never been one to handle having nothing to do, and thus could not tolerate idleness in anyone else. “Did the Professor give you anything else to work on?” they asked, their small hope dashed against the rocks when the child shook their head.

“Professor Willow assigned only the tests,” they replied, shifting slightly in their seat, “The rest of my time is meant to be spent familiarizing myself with you and your work.”

“Me and my work, huh?” Blanche murmured, glancing down at the stack of paperwork that had been foiling their productivity all morning. No, no, they would not Grisaille help them with such a thing. Despite the child’s apparently high reading level, reports on Pokemon evolution and attack strength would bore them at best and terrify them at worst.

They sighed, running a hand through their bangs and undoubtedly messing them up. In truth, they were at a loss as to what could entertain the child yet not require too much attention or focus from themselves. The work to be done this weekend was not the kind that could be shoved off on someone else. (Well, it could, but once again their pride would not allow them to even entertain the thought.)

Guilt that had been eating at them since the meeting the day before suddenly came to the fore.

Blanche tried to ignore the sickening feeling by returning to their paperwork, attempting to bury it and possibly themselves so as to not have to dwell on the unpleasant emotion. But no solace could be found in the seemingly endless contracts and project proposals, and the tedium only offered their mind the freedom to wander.

Grisaille was just a child. No matter what conflicting opinions they had toward them, that was undeniable. As such, it was reprehensible that Blanche had not sought to comfort them more after overhearing their and Noire’s argument, nor had they attempted to engage them beyond the bare minimum required by two individuals occupying the same space.

Granted, they were very busy, and the child could likely see that they were very busy – but perhaps they thought Blanche was jumping into their work to avoid them? To ignore them? That was admittedly partially true, but they didn’t want them to know that. Or maybe they did? It was obvious they wouldn’t be fawning over the child any time soon, so perhaps it would be better to be direct about their more stoic personality traits.

No, no, that wasn’t right at all.

If anything, they wanted Grisaille to respect them and possibly even come to enjoy their company, and maybe one day Blanche would be able to return the sentiment. But how did one go about getting a child to favor you?

They suddenly recalled with perfect clarity the way their twin had interacted with them – the gentler tone, the offer of comfort, the soft expression. Jealously bubbled up, as well as a surprising amount of spite. Perhaps if they got the child to like them, to prefer them over Noire, then their twin would finally understand their struggle to adjust.

At present, however, the child sitting in their office doing nothing but turning oxygen into carbon dioxide was immensely irksome. Children often had an excess of energy, right? Perhaps the offer of some exercise could prove to be sufficient. Not that they would be able to supervise them themselves, of course, but Mystic Labs was sure to hold some form of entertainment.

They found themselves halting their paperwork to ponder the question, thinking of various activities only to have to shoot them down one by one. The practice did nothing but give them a headache. Wonderful. Perhaps the child would have a better time just figuring something out themselves.

Now that was an idea.

A bad idea,’ a cold voice chimed in, one that they immediately ignored. Their headache spiked from the bird’s annoyance, the subtle thrum of Articuno’s power rushing through their veins. They barely had enough time to release the paper they were holding before their palms were coated in a thin layer of frost. They grumbled under their breath, shaking their now numb hands as the Titan retreated once more.

“Grisaille,” Blanche said, quirking a brow when they jumped in their seat, “You seem disengaged. Why don’t you go find something to do?”

“Something to do?” they asked hesitantly, tilting their head.

“Yes,” Blanche replied, already looking back at their charts with a dismissive wave of their hand, “Something you could learn from and find enjoyable doing.”

Grisaille’s lips pulled down into a small frown and they worried their bottom lip with their teeth for a moment. “What,” they asked softly, “Would you recommend?”

“Ah,” Blanche said, mentally kicking themselves for assuming their charge – who was well known for their indecision – would be in any way able to come up with something themselves. “Preferably something you can do in the facility that won’t put yourself or others in danger. Go for a walk and explore or something?”

“Understood,” the child replied immediately, standing and making for the door.

Blanche made a small noise, somewhat pleased, as they glanced up to watch Grisaille exit their office. “Have fun,” they murmured, adjusting their glasses and squinting at what could possibly be the world’s smallest and least helpful legend ever used to chart the effects of water of varied salinity for aquatic evolution.

With the child’s entertainment now fully in their own hands, Blanche found they finally had the energy and focus necessary to complete their own assignment. And people said child rearing was difficult! It wasn’t until Annie arrived with their lunches that they realized they hadn’t seen their charge in hours. Well, after some rather pointed questions, that is.

“Where’s Grisaille?” she asked, looking around the room.

“Who?” Blanche mumbled, distracted, hand reaching out to grab a handful of whatever snack their assistant had put on their desk and direct it into their mouth. It was one of their favorites, bless her.

Tomatoes had always been a weakness for them and their twin; thus, cherry tomatoes were predictably one of the few healthy snacks they regularly found themselves craving. The sharp, zesty taste was addictive, the crisp crunch indicating their freshness, and they couldn’t help the happy hum they let out as a result.

Grisaille,” she repeated impatiently, “Your little sibling? The one you’re supposed to be looking after?”

“Oh,” they said simply, waving her off dismissively before stealing another three tomatoes and popping them in their mouth, “They’re taking a walk around the facility.”

“Really? Unsupervised?” she pressed, nudging the small bowl of tomatoes away from their wandering hand and scooting their actual meal (a sandwich with a matching small bowl of soup) closer.

Blanche grunted and leaned toward her with an outstretched hand, following their treat over the sandwich and soup, eyes not even bothering to stray from the report they were reviewing. “They have plenty of supervision. Interns and trainers and such. If there was trouble, we’d know.”

Blanche,” Annie said, voice strained as she picked up the bowl fully.

They blinked and finally looked up at her, perplexed for a brief moment before their mind managed to wrangle itself away from hypothetical evolution schematics and focus fully on the current conversation.

It took them exactly two seconds to realize what was causing her distress, and half that amount for their own panic to rise.

“Annie,” they said, standing swiftly with a sudden burst of anxious energy, proud of how steady their voice sounded despite the fact they were internally screaming bloody murder, “Please locate my charge.”

“Right away, Chief,” she said briskly, dropping the bowl on the desk and bringing her phone out of her pocket. A few little tomatoes bounced out and rolled around, but they could barely bring themselves to care. Horror and concern continued to build with the belated realization that they had, in fact, let a deeply traumatized child with unmeasured corruption abilities wander around their labs.

(The irony of them having scolded Noire the day before for assuming the Professor would be so reckless with the child was not lost on them.)

Memories of Noire’s own fledgling abilities when they had first been freed from Cipher swam in their mind and they had to swallow back an undignified noise of panic. Grisaille was unlikely to be as strong as their twin, given that they were only on the prismatic spectrum, but that also meant they had less control. Factoring in their general terror when it came to Pokemon and the fact such creatures often wandered the halls of their lab freely…

After a few tense minutes of listening to Annie’s side of a conversation, she sighed and sent them a relieved look. “They’re in the temperature-controlled holding areas on the 15th floor-” She cut herself off when they immediately brushed passed her and headed for the door, their ‘Thank you’ barely audible. Despite scrambling to follow, they’d disappeared by the time she managed to make it to the door.

(It took Annie exactly 0.3 seconds to realize Blanche had escaped without eating more than a handful of tomatoes and she swore that she was going to strangle them with their own ponytail.)

The elevator ride was the longest in Blanche’s life, panicky visions of the potential chaos that awaited them dancing in their mind. When the doors finally opened, however, they found the floor to be… completely normal. No fire, no blaring alarms, no magenta-eyed Pokemon banging down doors and chasing screaming interns.

Said interns were working quietly at their stations, though a few did look up as they entered and jump in surprise. One approached them, a large smile on his face.

“Leader Blanche!” he exclaimed, “To what do we owe the honor of your visit? Come to inspect our progress?”

“No, not today,” they replied, glancing at the slightly crooked nametag pinned to his lab coat, “Senior Researcher Tim.”

The man nodded amicably, glasses nearly slipping from his nose. Now that they knew his name and title, they vaguely remembered interviewing him for the position a few months prior. A bit of a dunce when it came to interactions with people, his internationally-renown research on the Oddish evolution line made him indispensable. Though why he would be stationed in the temperature controlled area gave them reason to pause.

“What was your current project, again?” they asked, unable to help their curiosity.

“Oh! Here, lemme show you!” Tim fumbled, reaching into one of his pockets for a slim notebook. Handwritten notes in this day and age? What was he, a relic? There were hundreds of terminals on every floor and twice that amount of assigned tablets that were directly linked to Mystic’s server in order to minimalize loss and enable automatic progress reports. Even still, they found themselves peering at the lined paper curiously, humming at the diagrams with genuine consideration.

“Interesting concept,” they mumbled, reaching out to take the notebook so they could flip through the pages, “And you intend to use—Wait. You’re distracting me.” They shut the notebook quickly and shoved it back into the hands of its owner.

“I’m… sorry?” he said, pushing up his glasses nervously as he looked between them and his research.

They waved him off, looking around the space. Some of the other interns has been peering over at them curiously and immediately ducked their heads when they noticed they were being surveyed. Not that Blanche was actively seeking to call them out for snooping, of course.

“Can I help you with something, Leader?” Tim offered hesitantly.

Blanche paused in their search, weighing their options, then huffed. “I was told my charge was here,” they informed him bluntly, words clipped, “I need to retrieve them for… lunch.”

“Your charge?” he asked, brows furrowing briefly before they lifted high on his forehead as his lips split into his (presumed) usual grin, “Ah, you mean the little youngin’ that came through a while back. I thought they looked an awful lot like you! What was their name – Griselda? Grissom?”

Grisaille,” they said, irritated when the man simply snapped and pointed at them. The action reminded them of a certain blond, only it was 10x creepier when done by a man that could be twice their age.

“Yeah, that’s the one!” he said cheerfully, “Wondered in here a while ago, all shy and timid. Got spooked by Helen’s Marill throwing a fit, but not too bad. Kind of funny, though, considering they just about tried to climb the wall!” He chuckled in a good humored way that was directly opposite the spike of concern that shot them.

“Where are they now?” they pressed.

Tim shrugged, scratching at the back of his neck. “Dunno. I think the last I saw of ‘em was when Diego and Emily offered to let them help out in Tank C. That’s the one holding the Jynxes and Smoochums we got from Instinct last week- Hey, where’re you going?”

“Thank you for your assistance,” they said primly, slipping around the corner as they left the main lab, heading swiftly for the mentioned area. Part of their haste was due to finally being able to locate the child, with the rest still being for the Pokemon that might suffer from the child’s presence.

This floor was laid out in much the same manner as the others in the building – a large main lobby of workstations where researchers could work communally on projects, some of which were clustered together behind glass and steel barriers for safety. There were also smaller, individual rooms were specific experiments could take place. What made this floor different was the fact that such rooms also had advanced temperature controls to allow for maximum cold and heat conditions. It would be too dangerous (and costly) to maintain such rooms on each of the floors, but there was hope for renovations on a few of the other levels in the future.

That said, calling them ‘tanks’ was an absurd misnomer. They would need to speak with Annie on the matter to find a more proper title for them.

Blanche scanned the hall for their target, their pace increasing when they finally spotted it. A red light near the handle meant the room was in use, but a quick swipe of their identification card undid any locks and allowed them to enter. The door opened with an audible hiss, cold air making the hair on the back of their neck stand up. They once again steeled themselves for the worst, only to have their anxious expectations be for naught for a second time.

There were two researchers, a man and woman (whose names they had already forgotten), in the room, standing at a counter with three Jynxes perched atop it. Taking measurements and assessing health, not doubt. Two other Jynxes were also present, though they stood off at a distance and swayed, snow and ice fluttering from their forms in a hypnotic display. They were dancing, Blanche realized, for the entertainment of others.

They spotted their charge sitting in front of the two dancers, perfectly still and surprisingly calm. A whole cluster of Smoochums sat around them, riveted by the Jynxes’ display. Some swayed along, using their little arms to mimic the movements with minimal success. One tried to climb into the child’s lap, Grisaille’s expression twitching slightly in discomfort, but one of the other Pokemon tugged it away and chittered at it chastisingly.

The group froze, however, when Blanche spoke up. “What is going on here?”

“L-Leader Blanche!” the woman squeaked, nearly dropping her tablet, “Oh, we were, um–” She looked at her companion for assistance, but he seemed just at a loss for words as her. He did, however, manage to give them his own tablet when they held out their hand for it.

They read the data quickly, a frown forming on their lips. “These Jynxes were meant to be transferred back to the Sanctuary two days ago. Why are they still here?”

“Ah, well, that’s because,” stammered the man, “The little ones are suffering a bit from separation anxiety. They get all panicky when they can’t see their moms for even a minute so, uh, you know. We didn’t want to stress them out too bad…” He trailed off awkwardly, unable to meet their eyes.

“We got permission to extend their housing,” his partner chimed in, shrinking back slightly when they turned their gaze back to her, “Um, the paperwork’s all there. Mr. Go signed off on it himself!”

Blanche hummed, glancing back down at the tablet. They used a finger to scroll through a few of the other documents, frown deepening as they read the study proposal. “You wish to chart the effects of trainer handling on learned movesets? That would require a control batch for observation.”

“That’s right!” the woman said, gesturing excitedly, “We have one already, so these are going to be our first test group. They’re to receive minimal interaction and-”

“‘Minimal interaction’?” they said scornfully, shaking their head, “Well, you’ve already gone and ruined that, haven’t you? Congratulations on wasting precious time and resources.”

“Sorry?” the man asked.

They gestured to where the Smoochums were clustered around Grisaille, pressing up against them in a protective, possessive huddle. The child seemed uncomfortable at the attention, shifting slightly, and Blanche could only scoff when the group shifted with them. “Baby Pokemon are extremely susceptible to bonding, even just moments after meeting. Every child in the region knows that. You two interacting with this group would be easy to write off as you are heading this project and thus would be considered a constant. The child, however, is not, and thus you have ruined your chances for uniform experiences.”

The two researched gaped at them in shock for a moment, shocked and dismayed as the realization struck them. “We, uh, could have them meet all the other groups, too?” the woman offered after a moment.

“You will do no such thing,” Blanche replied, words sharp enough to make the other two flinch, “It is absurd that you would even think that was viable option.”

“Well, what would you recommend we do, Leader Blanche?” the man tried, wincing at the look they gave him.

“If I had to solve every single idiotic failure of an experiment, I would never have any time for my own research,” they said coldly, glaring at the two. Honestly, the recruitment office would be hearing of their displeasure soon enough. It seemed more and more imbeciles were getting put on their staff recently, and Blanche didn’t much care for the downward spiral. Still, it wasn’t the Smoochums’ fault they’d been placed in the care of people so grievously incompetent.

They grunted impatiently. “Speak to your floor manager and see if these Pokemon can be used for other projects. Then put in a request for another clutch with Instinct. It’s the right season for them to breed, so you might get lucky.”

“Right away, Leader,” the two chimed, looking far too hopeful.

“You will need to file a report for misuse of funding and Pokemon,” they said sharply, “And for the reckless endangerment of a child. Jynxes can be extremely volatile even at the best of times, and a group of nesting mothers is hardly the safest group to expose them to. If anything had happened, it would’ve been on you.”

(Never mind that it was the Pokemon that had been in the most danger.)

“O-Of course, Leader,” the woman stammered, she and her partner having gone pale at the implication, “We’ll file it right away!”

“See that you do,” they said briskly, turning toward the group, “As for you-” They cut themselves off, blinking down at the child that now stood nearby. When had they moved? Their hands were clasped in front of them, head bowed to the point their chin almost touched their chest with their shoulders hunched up to their ears.

“I have… ruined something?” they asked quietly.

“You have,” they replied honestly, “This experiment is nearly beyond saving due to your presence.”

“That’s-” the woman protested, cut off almost immediately by a combination of her partner putting a hand on her shoulder and Blanche sending her a glare cold enough to freeze an active volcano.

Grisaille nodded, lips pressing into a thin line. “Understood.”

Blanche opened their mouth to continue, wishing to impress upon them the fact that safety regulations were meant to keep one safe, only to pause when one of the Smoochums began chittering at them. Its voice was high and squeaky, almost annoying in pitch, but had the basic melodious quality of its species.

Though they couldn’t speak the Pokemon dialect themselves, they understood the sentiment and was almost amused by the fact that it seemed to be chewing them out. Articuno, on the other hand, was proficient in the language and was immensely annoyed. There was no doubt it was the tell-tale glint of poisonous blue that entered their eyes at the Titan’s foul mood that made the small thing squeak in fear and scramble back. One of the Jynxes danced over, cooing at the little ones and tugging them close.

That was unnecessary,’ Blanche thought, a small stab of guilt passing through them from how the mother Pokemon glared at them while her brood cowered behind her.

It was very necessary,’ the bird replied, rustling in their mind. They could sense its overall irritation running parallel to their own – this entire endeavor had done nothing but foul up their mood. Neither they nor their Titan liked having their time and energy wasted, nor did they have much patience for being lectured by their lessers.

Sniffing primly, they handed the man back his tablet. “Come, Grisaille,” they said stiffly, addressing their charge without looking at them, “It’s time for lunch.”

“Yes, Leader Blanche,” Grisaille said softly.

They frowned slightly as they turned on their heel away from the researchers, perturbed. The child had never used their title before and the sudden addition made them incredibly uneasy for some reason. They shrugged mentally and strode out of the chamber, a twinge of something running through them when they heard small footsteps trail behind them.

The elevator ride back to their office felt suffocating, but it gave them some time for their irritation to fizzle out somewhat. It also allowed for a thought to occur to them. “Grisaille,” they said, turning toward their charge, “You didn’t use your powers on those Pokemon, did you?”

“No, I did not,” they replied, staring down at the floor.

Blanche hummed, eyes narrowing as they studied them. Surely they would exhibit the same signs as Noire if they had used their abilities – and likely to a larger, more debilitating degree – but there was a niggling sense of dread that they couldn’t seem to shake. According to the Professor, the child continued to act skittish around Pokemon – to the point of terror in most cases. He’d cautioned them about not forcing them to engage with any, as they had been conditioned to respond to perceived aggression from Pokemon by using their abilities.

They actions against the Chansey in the hospital were proof enough of that. Part of their reaction could’ve been disorientation – understandable, given their situation – yet that did not explain everything and Blanche was loathe to brush aside such a detrimental question of the child’s reality.

So why hadn’t they used their abilities on the Jynxes or Smoochums? Or the Marill that had apparently spooked them to the point of trying to, as Tim had put it, ‘climb the wall’. It just wasn’t adding up. Cipher would’ve trained them to react aggressively towards ALL Pokemon, and Grisaille themselves had admitted to using their abilities almost constantly in the past. There was plenty of documentation for it, too.

The child was an interesting conundrum, to say the least, but at present they didn’t have the luxury of wondering why they acted the way they did, and could only respond based on the damage they might inflict.

Speaking of which-

“Did you use them on any Pokemon in the labs during your walk?” Blanche asked, a sharp note of worry entering their tone despite their best efforts to remain neutral.

Grisaille immediately shook their head. “I avoided the Puni- Pokemon as best I could so I would not have to,” the child responded, seeming to shrink away from them for their intense gaze.

They react like prey,’ Articuno thought, perturbed, ‘Not like the predator you’d expect.

Dangerous prey,’ Blanche reminded it irritably, bringing up all the times it had felt Noire’s abilities.

The bird hissed and recoiled, icy anger stabbing their temple and making their head throb. ‘Do not think I am unaware of their nature,’ it snapped, its fury and indignation a frozen hurricane in their mind, ‘Forgive me for attempting to go about it the human way and not let that singular flaw color my entire judgement!'

'That is foolish and pointless,' they replied, 'People are what they are and cannot change that.'

They could feel the Titan's anger ramp up even further before it spoke, its words making their very skin crawl. 'For one who is so concerned over their own individuality, you seem keen to forget it in others.

They couldn’t help but wince, lips twitching the only indication of the snarl they wanted to make. Leave it to Articuno to find their sore spot and press down. But the Titan retreated before they could respond, lessening the presence of its consciousness to the barest tendril of awareness. ‘Likely retreating to unruffle its feathers’, they thought spitefully, though the fitting imagery did nothing to soothe their aching head.

They realized, of course, that it had been wrong of them to bring up the situations at all. It was horrifyingly easy to recall just how it had felt – the terrible, oozing sort of feeling sliding through them, humming like an electric poison made of knives, each shard stabbing them and attempting to rip some piece of them out – and wondered, not for the first time and surely not the last, what it was like on the other side. Still, the realization left them feeling guilty and out of sorts.

Articuno would get an apology some time later, they supposed, if it even wanted one. They simply didn’t have time now to stew on the matter – not when the child standing next to them seemed so… fidgety. “What is it?” they asked, glancing over to them. Perhaps they needed to use the restroom?

They wrung their hands fretfully for a moment. “Was I… meant to engage them? The Pokemon?”

“No!” they replied quickly, scowling when Grisaille recoiled and attempting to continue in a softer tone, “No, that’s- You should continue to practice restraint.”

“Understood.”

Blanche was saved having to continue the painfully awkward conversation by the doors sliding open. That’s about when their luck ran out, however, as their assistant was waiting for them. One look at the expression on her face had them biting back a sigh.

“What?” they asked tonelessly.

“There’s been a last minute shift in your afternoon schedule,” she said, entering the elevator and handing them a wrapped package with what turned out to be the sandwich from their ignored lunch, “One of the shipments arrived sooner than expected and we’re meant to head to the docks to evaluate the stock.” She paused to hand another wrapped sandwich to their charge, smiling sweetly at them when they thanked her softly and took it, before pressing the button that would take them down to the garage level.

“Which shipment?” they mumbled around the bread and meat. The sandwich was delicious on its own, but it definitely would’ve tasted better with the intended soup. They fought back the urge to be annoyed at the missed opportunity. “The one from Hoenn?”

“Yup!” she chirped, “It’s surprising they got here so fast, given the recent rough seas in the region. Oh, and Professor Birch apparently sent one of his assistants to personally handle the move, so be prepared to play nice.”

“Wonderful,” they said, licking a smear of mayonnaise off their thumb glumly, “I don’t suppose Candela or Spark could be bothered to handle it?”

Annie made a face before shaking her head. “No, those two have their own problems, apparently.”

“Oh?”

“The herd of Tauros Carl’s cousin brought up from Kanto got spooked by something on the Sanctuary and it caused a stampede. They’re all working on calming down the Pokemon and doing damage control.” She waved a hand and they winced in sympathy. Stampedes were an awful mess. Dealing with another Professor’s uppity assistant was child’s play in comparison.

“I see,” Blanche said, balling up the wrapping from their finished sandwich. They paused, a phrase pinging around in their mind, and it took them a moment to identify what it was. “Wait, Carl has a cousin that works with Tauros?”

“Oh, shoot, I wasn’t supposed to say anything about that,” Annie exclaimed, looking sheepish, “Beauregard’s kind of the red-headed stepchild in their family. They don’t really like to acknowledge him all that much because, well, he’s opted to be a dusty rancher instead of falling into the family businesses. And you know how a family of old-money socialites can be.”

“Not personally, no. You seem to have me confused with Candela.”

Their assistant winced. “Right. Well, he’s a good guy, according to Carl – though, I’m pretty sure Carl’s the only one that still claims him as a relation.”

Blanche made a noise, entirely neutral on the subject, and held out their hand expectantly. Annie sighed and handed them a Crimson Tauros.

“Will the stampede interfere with my meeting this evening?” they inquired, opening the can.

“You mean your date?” she said slyly.

Meeting,” they insisted.

Annie snorted, a large grin on her lips as she rolled her eyes good naturedly. “Fine, your meeting still has the green light,” she replied, “Carl’s already called to confirm the reservation Leader Candela made – Chu Warren at 8. Semi-formal dress code, so I had your suit sent off for dry cleaning.” She paused, biting her lip. “Though, um, I should probably tell you she’s made an additional request.”

“By ‘request’ you mean ‘demand’,” they said drily, sighing and taking a sip from their drink, “What is it?”

“Them,” Annie said, gesturing to their charge. The child froze, both hands holding their half-eaten sandwich to their mouth, eyes going wide when they realized both adults were staring at them. There was a small fleck of mustard on their cheek and Blanche had to resist the urge to wipe it off.

“What about them?” Blanche asked, eyes narrowing suspiciously.

Their assistant’s eyes glittered, and they got a sinking feeling in their gut. “Leader Candela insists that you bring Grisaille along ‘as a show of good faith’ – her words, not mine.”

“Absolutely not,” they snapped, scowling when she raised a brow at them.

“And why not?” she asked, “It’ll simplify everything!” The elevator doors opened and their group shuffled out, making for the car that was already waiting for them. Blanche grunted a testy ‘Thank you’ at the attendant when he opened the door for them, ducking down and sliding in with a huff.

“How exactly does Candela making demands simplify my life, Annie?” they asked, eyeing the child as they slid in next. Grisaille gave them a wide berth, buckling their seatbelt and resting their hands on their lap. There was still a smear of mustard on their cheek and Blanche finally broke and wiped it off. They jumped at their touch, glancing over at them with wide eyes before returning their gaze to their lap.

It was such a brief encounter, so it may have just been their imagination, but it almost seemed like the child leaned into their fingers. A strange emotion welled within them but they said nothing.

“Well,” Annie said as she slid in and motioned toward the front for the driver to move out, “What exactly had you had in mind for Grisaille to eat tonight? And who was going to watch them?”

“I-” they began, frowning slightly, “I had thought you were available.”

(No, they hadn’t. They hadn’t thought anything.)

“I am decidedly not,” she replied primly, “I told you three weeks ago that Go was taking me out tonight to celebrate the end of this quarter. It’s been in the drive’s calendar for at least a week.” She exhaled noisily at their blank expression, rolling her eyes. “Honestly, why do I even bother putting things on there? Do you even check it?”

“That’s what I pay you for,” they grumbled. They vaguely remembered Spark’s babysitting offer from the night before, but immediately shook their head. Blanche barely trusted themselves to take care of the child and while the blonde was notoriously good with hatchlings, they could only imagine the trauma his natural enthusiasm and lack of tact would cause the child in question.

“Fine, I’ll take Grisaille to the meeting. Candela will be thrilled, I’m sure.”

Annie looked equally thrilled, and they tried not to let that bother them.

They took back their earlier sentiments about the ease of childrearing – there was an annoying amount of scheduling and planning involved. And compromises, apparently. They bit back a groan at the realization that they would need to make similar revisions to their schedule for at least the next two days and attempt to make some sort of effort to account for Grisaille’s attendance.

Blanche glanced at the child sitting beside them, saying drily, “I don’t suppose the Professor thought to tell you to pack a suit, did he?” The startled, Rowletish expression they received in reply spoke volumes and they finally allowed themselves the luxury to sigh.

Truly, this endeavor was looking to be more cumbersome by the minute.

-/-

Several hours, one consultation with a really, really obnoxious regional counterpart, and quick trip to the nearest fashionable boutique later saw the two of them sitting across from the vivacious Valor leader.

Candela always dressed to impress, but that evening she’d apparently gone one step further. Her hair was swept to one side, pinned with a gold rose that was covered in red stones (rubies or garnets – they could never really be sure with her and the dim lighting wasn’t helping matters) with a matching necklace and bracelet. Her dress was definitely from her own collection: a dark crimson affair with a plunging neckline with gold and orange panels sewn into the skirt that made the silk shimmer like dancing flames with every step.

Blanche and Grisaille, both wearing suits (the child’s being a slate grey with a matching bowtie while theirs was their customary blue set), seemed entirely underwhelming by comparison. Not that Blanche ever really cared to try and match her in terms of fashion. It was a silly, subjective waste of time and resources in their mind.

Even still, they didn’t enjoy the thought of being outclassed one bit.

“So,” Candela cooed, her smile showing too many teeth, one hand swirling her wine as she studied the duo, “How have things been?”

“Fine,” they replied, the word clipped.

Candela pouted at them but, when she realized her looks continued to be ineffective against them, turned her attention to their young charge. “Grisaille, you look fantastic!” she enthused, voice sweetening, “That bowtie is just adorable.”

“Thank you, Leader Candela,” they replied demurely, glancing up at her from the tablecloth in front of them as they obviously fumbled for a return compliment, “Your dress is… very shiny.” They immediately directed their gaze back down, shifting uncomfortably.

“Aw, thank you darling. It’s one of my favorites,” she replied, obviously pleased with their attempt at good manners. She leaned forward, using the fingers of one hand to lightly tap the table in the child’s direction to get their attention. “Do you enjoy wearing suits? I know a few local designers – we could see about getting a couple tailored for you, if you’d like?”

“That won’t be necessary,” Blanche replied, not even bothering to look up from the menu, “Grisaille is a growing child. Getting a suit tailored that they will grow out of in a matter of months would be foolish.”

“Yes, but they could be much more stylish now if-”

“Candela,” they said, glaring at her, “Fashion is hardly the reason why we’re meeting. Nor is my young charge. If those two things continue to distract you, I see no reason for my continued presence.” She returned their glare, and the tension of the room ranked up by several degrees. There was a brief lull in the general chatter as a few of the other patrons sitting nearby paused in their conversing, some of them glancing over at the trio’s table before returning to their own meals.

“It’s alright, Leader Candela,” Grisaille said suddenly, “Leader Blanche is just thinking logically.”

The Valor Leader studied the child for a moment, face uncharacteristically blank. “Just thinking logically, huh?” she murmured, closing her eyes briefly with a scoff before turning her gaze back to the other silver-hair person at her table, “Alright, darling. We’ll play it your way – strictly business.”

“Thank you,” they said primly.

“-to start.”

Blanche scowled at her, but just as her pouting was unsuccessful against them, their annoyance was equally useless against her. If anything, she seemed to find the expression amusing.

Regardless, they were able to get through their actual meeting without much fuss after that. They discussed recent gym takeovers and other teams’ standings, as well as dealing with the activities of certain other organizations with a penchant for stealing Pokemon and uttering annoying mottos.

In truth, this ‘meeting’ was more a chance to catch up on how the other person and their team was doing in a less formal setting. It was a ritual they’d established long ago, back when they were both simple assistants with no teams to speak of. Fashion just so happened to be one of the few topics that had been banned due to Candela’s notorious ability to chatter on about it for literal hours if given the chance – a censorship she gleefully tested whenever given the chance.

Dinner was served as they conversed, and by the time they’d taken their last bites, the official business had been taken care of and all that was left was smalltalk. Blanche disliked smalltalk on the principle that they had never been very good at it, but as with many things, Candela took that in stride.

She even went so far as to start drawing their young charge into the discussion.

Grisaille seemed startled by her attention, shy and mostly monosyllabic with their replies. Time and gentle coaxing, however, saw them answering Candela’s questions earnestly. They remained demure and only spoke when spoken to (as was their way) but there was almost a sparkle to their eyes that Blanche had not seen the entire time they had been in their presence.

Blanche watched the two interacting, Candela smiling affectionately at the child as they attempted to cut up the last of their small steak, and something in their chest twisted.

She was just practicing good etiquette, they knew, and it was a fantastic opportunity for the child to work on their socialization. But something about having the woman they grudgingly considered their best friend split her attention irked them. They hadn’t been aware how accustomed they’d become to having her full consideration until she diverted some of it away from them.

Their discomfort skyrocketed, however, at the discussion that was had over desert.

“Oh, darling,” Candela said, smiling at the child fondly, “This cake is divine. You have good taste!”

“Thank you, Leader Candela, but I just looked at the pictures,” Grisaille replied, ducking their head shyly, “And this one looked like something you would enjoy.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“Um…”

Blanche studied the thick slice in front of them, snorting derisively. “It’s a dark chocolate cake with cherry drizzle and gold flake garnish – the most extravagant and expensive desert on the menu,” they intoned drily, “Of course it looks like something you’d enjoy.” She stuck her tongue out at them for their sass, a childish reaction they refused to dignify with a response.

They nodded to the child regardless, pleased with their observational skills even if they did not admit it.

Candela huffed, taking another bite of her treat before turning her attention back to their silent charge. “Are there any deserts or treats you like, Grisaille? I know this quaint little bakery on 5th Street that makes the best macarons.”

“Macarons?” they echoed, glancing up at her, “I have heard of those. They are the, um, colorful little sweet sandwiches, yes?”

“That is the most precious way I’ve ever heard someone describe them,” she cooed, propping her chin up with a hand as she grinned at them. Blanche secretly agreed with the statement, lips twitching slightly in a half-smile that they hid behind their glass as they took a drink. “But, yes. Have you had any?”

“No, Leader Candela, I have not,” Grisaille replied, fiddling with their fork, “Noire has indicated they wish to make some when I am allowed to visit.”

“When did they tell you this?” Blanche asked, frowning as they lowered their glass. The child hadn’t been out of their sight - barring the incident this morning, of course. When could their twin have contacted them?

“This morning,” they said, shifting slightly in their seat, “It was one of the 17 text messages they sent me during the night. I did my best to respond to each before we left your living quarters, but have not had the chance to check and see if they have replied.”

“That matters little.” They huffed out a dispassionate breath, something bitter twisting in their chest. “I assume they mean for it to be a teaching moment?”

The scenario rose to their mind easily: Noire fluttering around the kitchen and barking out quick orders, hovering over the child as they attempted to meet the older twin’s expectations. There wouldn’t be any customary bickering (or burning, for that matter) and the pastries would likely come out just fine. The two would exchange a smile, Noire’s large and obnoxiously proud while Grisaille’s was small and hesitant, a bit of batter smudged on their cheek like the mustard from their lunch. They’d eat the treats together and then-

Then Noire would laugh, putting a gentle hand on the child’s head and ruffling their hair affectionately. “Wow, Grisaille!” they’d say, a fond twinkle in their eye, lips pulled back to reveal a grin that was a tad too toothy, “You’re so much better at this than-”

“I do not know,” was the actual reply, jerking Blanche from their sulking. It did nothing to loosen the knot in their throat, however.

Candela had watched the exchange with gleaming eyes, her gaze resting heavily on her friend for a moment before she turned her attention back to the child. “That’s very…” she inhaled deeply and it took all of Blanche’s willpower not to snort at the look of obvious distaste the crossed her expression, “Sweet of Noire to offer. Do you know what kind of macarons they’ll try and make? I can get you some from the bakery so you can compare the two.”

Grisaille’s brow furrowed, a tiny frown appearing on their face. “I’m sorry, Leader Candela, I do not remember the name.” They paused, obviously uneasy. “I believe it will contain a nut of some sort. A green one?”

Blanche went very still.

“A green nut? Oh, pistachio!” she said, nodding to them, “A good choice. I think that’s one of you favorites, right Blanche?”

“Yes, it is,” their words were clipped, cold, and they took a drink to try and clear the tightness that continued to persist in their throat. Betrayal made their beverage taste bitter.

“It is your favorite?” Grisaille asked, looking over at them. They bit their lip, then offered, “I could ask if Noire would let me save some for you? They would be special, I assume, coming from-” They flinched badly when Blanche suddenly set their glass down harder than necessary, the sound of china clacking on polished wood ringing out.

“That is unnecessary. I can get my own.” They stood, unable to remain seated for a moment longer. “If you’re quite finished, I believe we can consider this meeting adjourned. I have work to do and Grisaille needs to get ready for bed.”

“But you haven’t even touched your desert!” Candela protested.

The look they gave the cake still sitting on their plate should’ve spoiled it instantly. “I’m not hungry,” they replied simply, turning on their heel. They were unsurprised that the child had jumped up the moment they had stood, though Grisaille paused long enough to thank Candela for the meal before scurrying after them. Something about that irritated them, but they couldn’t be sure what.

A car was already waiting for them by the time they made it outside the restaurant, but Blanche couldn’t even bring themselves to be grateful to the Valor leader for undoubtedly calling to request it for them.

The ride home was quiet, though they hadn’t expected much else. In fact, they were almost grateful for it – the silence allowed them to stew. Their actions that evening perturbed them just as much as anyone else. They prided themselves on having a decent amount of patience and a notoriously cool head. So why had they been so tense even before the last discussion?

Blanche sucked in a quick breath and let it out slowly, glaring out the window and attempting to calm themselves. Getting distance from emotions gave clarity, gave enough space for reason to return.

Annie fussing over Grisaille was natural. She was a maternal person and often fussed over them as well, so her apparent inclination to take care of someone that was truly a child made a fair bit of sense. Their assistant had a bleeding heart, and there was no changing it.

The same could be said for Candela’s own actions. Much as the Valor strove to appear independent, there was no doubt she was painfully family-oriented. It was only a matter of time before she chose a mate and had a brood of her own, after all, given her family’s history and how her Titan preferred to pass on its mark to those within the same bloodline.

They watched the cityscape slide past them in a dark blur, struggling to return to their usual level of logical apathy that so often eluded them where their twin was concerned.

So what if Noire wanted to spend time with the child? So what if they were going to teach them to cook? So what if they planned on making the same macarons that the two of them had made when they first tried baking together, resulting in nothing but a messy kitchen and disks so blackened they were basically charcoal?

So what if the mere thought of their twin recreating such a precious memory with their clone was enough to make them want to-

They were out of the car before it had finished pulling up to the curb of the laboratories.

The elevator came so slowly they considered taking the stairs, especially once Grisaille had managed to catch up to them from the car. No words were exchanged while they waited, yet the silence was not a comfortable one. That ride was even more agonizing than the one before.

Blanche entered their quarters and immediately shrugged off their suit jacket, tossing it carelessly onto the couch. They moved toward the kitchen, opening the fridge and ignoring all the other snacks and beverages to pull out one of their energy drinks. Perhaps if they flooded their system with enough caffeine, the funk they were in would dissipate.

“Um,” said a small voice, and they turned to see the child hovering in the entryway. They looked terribly unsure and Blanche’s mood was just sour enough to find it pathetic instead of charming.

“What?” they snapped.

Grisaille jumped slightly at their sharp tone, fiddling with one of their jacket cuffs with their head bowed. “I am, um, wondering what I am supposed to do now?”

Blanche stared at them, wanting to bark out a reproach of how one could not live their life waiting on the orders of others. But, no, that would not solve anything. It was how they’d been conditioned after all. Remembering their breathing exercises, they simply bit out a gruff, “Go take your bath.”

The child nodded sharply and hurried out of the room, leaving them to stew in their irritable temper.

They took a deep breath, chugged the energy drink, got a second one from the fridge, and then finally made for their study. After all the chaos of the last 24 hours, they wanted nothing more than to change back into their lab coat and head to their office, throwing themselves in to this, that, and the other for the foreseeable future, but knew it would be futile. They’d checked the progress of each of their own experiments just that afternoon, and all of them had been doing fine. If there had been any notable change, they would’ve known it by now.

Still, an evening spent reading scientific journals and catching up on global evolution reports sounded relaxing and exactly like what they needed.

They started in on a new article from one of their correspondents in Alola. Apparently they’d managed to make some headway on their theory pertaining to the extreme local stimuli of the island region being what caused such great shifts in not only appearance and typing.

Of course, there were regional variants for just about every type of Pokemon Opal had to offer, but it was the change in typing and physiology in the Alola region that had scientists and researchers around the world stumped. While the theory itself was rather bland and had been explored before, the scientist’s new testing method was what fascinated them, and thus Blanche devoured every update that got posted.

Blanched hummed upon completing the article, sitting back and giving it a fair amount of appreciation. (That meant, of course, that they stared at their screen over steepled fingers and rocked their chair back and forth with one foot - but no one needed to know that.) They then sat forward once more and pulled their tablet out of its case, writing a few notes with one hand while the other scrolled back through the document.

There were several places they had to reread – a few more than once – but the practice was soothing and the odd tension they’d been hold onto all day slowly began to relax, relief coursing through them as an undercurrent to their scientific curiosity.

“Fascinating,” they murmured, a smile beginning to tug at the corners of their mouth, “Simply extraordinary findings! I wonder if-” They nearly jumped in their seat when they caught sight of movement out of the corner of their eye, a few vertebra cracking painfully from the speed at which they turned their head.

Their charge stood shyly in the doorway to their study, dressed for bed with their gaze to the floor. Judging from the total dryness of their short bob, it had been quite a while since their shower. Blanche glanced at their monitor and grunted, unimpressed with the hour. There was still time for more work to be done, and thanks to the two energy drinks they’d had, they weren’t in the least bit tired. Fatigued, yes, but they had yet to reach their limit.

“What do you need?” they asked, tone less sharp than it had been in the evening, and remarkably less so than it was when others had been subjected to in the past upon trying to interrupt the Mystic Leader’s research.

“I have taken my bath,” they said demurely, toes digging into the carpet uncomfortably.

“Yes, I can see that.”

The child winced, biting their bottom lip. “Um, will you be taking yours soon? I could leave the light on for you, if that is the case.”

Blanche stared at them, resisting the urge to scold them for asking such a pointless question. “No, I won’t be bathing soon. You can turn off the light.”

“Understood.” Grisaille hesitated, glancing up at them and wringing their hands.

“What is it now?” they asked impatiently.

“If you are not bathing, um, then will you be sleeping soon?” they asked.

“No.” The word was clipped. Blanche turned back to their monitor and away from the child. “I have work to do. Thanks to all the distractions of today, I have fallen behind and need this time to catch up in preparation of tomorrow’s schedule-” They groaned suddenly and ran a hand down their face before continuing, “Which I am just now remembering needs to be shifted due to your… well, everything, really.”

Annoyed as they were, they did not wish to cause such an introverted and traumatized child anymore anguish by forcing them to tag along to meet members of their PR team, and most especially didn’t want them anywhere near Pokemon that they themselves could not account for. There went the television interview and trainer consultation at the local aquarium, they supposed, though Blanche couldn’t exactly say they were sad to see it go. Such things boosted Team Mystic’s ‘public image’ but often ended up being more of a hassle than anything else. The masses would have to be satisfied with Mystic Three appearing in their stead, which was just as well.

Perks of having a charismatic extrovert with a penchant for showy ice-types on their staff.

“Oh,” the child said simply, “Understood.”

There was a lull in the conversation, the child not speaking while Blanche pretended that the atmosphere in their study hadn’t suddenly dropped from ‘relaxing’ to ‘incredibly awkward’. “Do you have any further questions or concerns?” they asked after a moment, glancing over at them.

“No, Leader Blanche.”

The Team Mystic Leader let out a small huff (almost a grunt), their lips tugging down into a slight frown. While it was certainly their right to toss the child out of their study, even their poor social awareness told them they were already reaching the threshold of poor hospitality. They had assumed that Grisaille would simply leave once their questions had been answered, yet they lingered in the doorway expectantly, almost as if they were waiting for something-

Blanche struggled not to groan again as the reason became clear.

“Grisaille,” they said, “You can go to bed without me. You have my permission.”

The relief that flickered across the child’s face was telling. Still, they hesitated, and Blanche couldn’t be sure what the emotion that flickered across their face was meant to be before it was gone. “Thank you. I hope… you are successful in completing your work, Leader Blanche,” they said softly, head bowed as they turned to leave.

“That makes two of us,” they commented, shifting focus now that their charge was on their way out, barely registering Grisaille’s polite ‘good night’ beyond a cursory grunt.

Yet even as they threw themselves into their work, there was the sense they were missing something that persisted even as the night wore on. Time and again, the day rolled through their head, instances where they had engaged the child highlighted in great relief to the over encounters. Why? What purpose did it serve to review such things?

Blanche let out a frustrated sigh at the whims of their subconscious, running a hand through their hair. Yes, they’d been a bit brisk with them a few times, but that was par the course. Grisaille wouldn’t be subject to any sort of special treatment in their care, and any guilt they felt over being a little gruff was secondary to assuring their continued survival. It’s not as though the world would be any kinder to them just because they were fragile – a lesson they’d been forced to learn on their own.

They were just trying to prepare them, to make them see the world as it was, so why did they feel so out of sorts? Honestly, this child was throwing them for a loop and they did not much care for the ride.

I could help,’ offered a cool voice, their shoulders tensing as the Ice Titan came to the fore.

How so?’ they asked, letting a pleased hum when they felt an icy coolness spread through their aching head, soothing the throbbing of their temples that they hadn’t even bothered to register. Their appreciation pleased Articuno, it seemed, and a quick, nonverbal assessment found the other to calm and collected.

It seemed they had been forgiven for their earlier slight without even having to extend an apology after all. Wonderful. That was one less thing to occupy their time.

Freezing the young one would be a sure way to make them less troublesome in the future.

No, that’s too much,’ they replied, shifting in their seat, ‘Plus, the Professor would be disappointed.’ They left out considering how their twin would feel at the disappearance of the child, but the lack of thought just made it seem to grow more weighty in the back of their mind.

Ah, but you considered it, even for just a moment,’ countered the bird. It seemed to find their indignant refusal to reply entertaining, its mirth tainting their attempt to remain stubbornly stoic to the point they felt their lips twitch and try to form a smile.

To combat the unpleasant sensation, they forced themselves to stare at their screen so intensely that their eyes began to water. Or perhaps it was the hour finally catching up with them that was making their vision blur? At any rate, it was better than acknowledging the darker sides of themselves, and far greater than letting Articuno win them over without a fight.

There was a sound in their head, ringing, and soft, icy sigh. The Ice Titan actually sounded dejected, a tiny bit of moroseness filtering into their mood despite their best efforts, though for what reason they could not say. ‘Why do you insist on playing the fool, Little Mystic?’ it offered at length, sensing their curiosity, ‘All these thoughts running around in your head, cluttering and confusing your brilliant ideas. We both know the real reason for your distress.

And that would be?

Ah, but you came up with it yourself already! And would’ve said it so prettily, too, if not for your ill-timed interruption,’ it jeered, ‘‘I will not allow myself to be replaced by something as cheap as a clone.’’

Their throat tightened at the memory, and they had to swallow back down their own bitterness. That had not been one of their best moments.

Articuno made a noise, a cross between clucking and chiming, and their furious mortification rose when they realized it was laughing at them. ‘You really do have a terrible opinion of the fledging. And all they had to do to get on your bad side was be born!’ It made the noise again, and the arm of their desk chair began to form frost from the force of their hand clenching it. ‘Truly, your pettiness knows no bounds.

You’re one to talk!’ they spat, their ire making them behave uncordially.

The words came quickly, soothing in tone but malicious in intent. ‘Have I struck a nerve, Little Mystic? You seem to forget that I see all sides of you – even the ones you like to hide, the ones you will never admit to having.

The bird went so far as to turn their own memories against them, bringing up every single moment they had shown weakness, pathetic and crying out until they learned to hold it in and let the hurt fester. Next were all the instances where their anxiety and paranoia had reared its ugly little head, thrown directly back into their face. The Titan even included some of their encounters with their young charge, colored in a way that let them see the depths of their own cruelty.

It seemed Articuno had not, in fact, forgiven them for their earlier slight.

They choked on the memories, struggling even to breathe under the enormous weight of their past mistakes. It was their body, their mind! But no matter what they tried, it was futile. They were trapped, forced to feel the Titan riffle through their past, clawing and slithering and freezing, and toss up all the instances they themselves were too ashamed to remember.

None of those were their fault! Other people needed- It was- There could only be-

As always, their thoughts turned to the only thing that had ever succeeded in offering them comfort: their twin.

Noire had always assured them they were fine, that they were safe, that they were steady and proud and perfect-

But 'perfect' people didn't take their aggression out on others, didn't lose their cool. They didn't feel a sharp sting of anguished jealousy every time someone in their social circle acted friendly with a child, and most certainly didn't blame the child of all people for the actions of well-meaning individuals.

Yet Noire was their world - the very reason they were alive! If they hadn't shielded them, hadn't passed every test and followed every order, Blanche would be dead. They owed their twin their life, had looked up to them so much. They only had each other in this huge, uncaring world, and Blanche feared that if Noire truly abandoned them, there would be nothing left to protect them. That they would be truly alone, unmatched and unwanted and unable to function - broken in the truest sense despite all their years of hard work and the monumentous effort they had made to move on.

But one question continued to persist, clawing and tearing at their insides until they bled, raw and aching, until it calcified into a wall of horrible scars around their heart that they refused to let anyone know about (never mind those who were close to them often could tell without being told): how could someone who had fought so hard to keep you alive suddenly up and toss you away? Were they truly so replaceable?

(The Ice Titan had actually stopped playing with their mind, watching them unravel with wry amusement.)

Had... Had Noire known about the clones? About Grisaille? Was that it? The timing would make sense. It had been ten years ago that they first left with the Professor. Maybe Sabrina found out? Maybe she told them they had someone else waiting for them, someone better, someone not a total failure.

Not a Clai-

No, no, that couldn't be right. Noire would've told them! Wouldn't they?

If they had planned to replace them all along, then why bother playing the part? Just take the child! Take back the life Blanche had been given! They were on borrowed time, anyway, as Cipher would put it!

Why did Cipher matter?! Because Cipher was always there, waiting, watching, preparing itself to pounce, to strike, to take back what was theirs-

Would the Titans even be strong enough to protect them? To save them? Could they save Noire?

And where would Noire's clone fall? Who truly held their allegiance?

As always, whenever their recent thoughts fell back to the child, they were filled with an unbearable, acidic rage. And they hated it!  They hated feeling this way!

Even more than that, they hated Gri-

“Stop,” they managed, breathing coming out like a ragged burst of fog as they uttered the words aloud, curling in on themselves in an attempt to find some sort of solace from the pain, “Please. Just- Be silent.” They couldn't help the way their shoulders shook, heart beating hard and fast in their chest as they struggled not to cry out.

At that moment, paralyzed by their own fear and horror, they weren't even sure they could.

Very well, I shall leave you be,’ the Ice Titan replied snidely, its smug amusement at their childish recoiling seeming to irritate even as it began to descend into slumber once more, ‘But keep my council in mind. I do not enjoy harming fledglings, but I will do what it takes to ease your suffering. Remember – you belong to me. All others, especially that blighted twin of yours, come second.

The silence after Articuno retreated seemed to ring with discordant noise, the hum just barely loud enough to hear, and was almost too much for them to bear. Blanche's entire body quivered, shivering from both the cold and emotional turmoil. The space of their study was all at once too much, too vast and perilous, and they had to swallow back a scared little whimper and fight the urge to call their twin out of instinct, knowing full-well that they would get no answer.

They were, in a word, terrified - terrified of being replaced, terrified of being left alone, and terrified of what they would do to keep the first two things from happening. 

It took several long moments for their breath to return to normal, and even longer for them to realize their tears had frozen to their cheeks. Letting out a quick, harsh breath, they scrubbed at the frosty streaks, hands shaking as they touched the too-cool skin of their face. They tried to breath out slowly, attempting to find some measure of control, and stood, their chair nearly falling over in their haste. They were out of the room before they even realized they had moved, heading straight for the kitchen.

Another energy drink would help chase away the bad memories and even worse thoughts, would keep them alert enough to avoid sinking into the depressive, downward spiral that threatened to pull them under.

They paused in the hall, staring at their own bedroom, noting how the door had been left open. Peering in, they could just make out the vague shape of some small lump curled up on the far side of their bed. It felt like this was a test, and for once they couldn't be quite sure what the right answer was.

Something in their chest ached the longer they stared at the dark form in the sea of blackness, but they blamed it on an overdose of caffeine.

Blanche huffed and moved on, closing the door and heading to the kitchen for another Crimson Tauros.

Chapter Text

Blanche shivered and held their arms closer to themselves, breath coming out in a thick fog. They looked up when they heard the whistle of icy wind on soft feathers, the secondary consciousness blossoming in their mind telling them more about the new arrival than they ever wanted to know. The gust of cold air from the large blue bird’s wings buffeted them a tad, making their long ponytail flutter and sway.

“I know you are excited to finally meet them in avatar,” they said, huffing, “but could you have at least allowed it to be slightly above freezing?”

They themselves were equally eager to see their younger sibling, but that was partially due to the fact the Professor was personally bringing them new data files from the latest conference. And hot drinks, too, if his text message was to be believed. They hoped the child would be suitably warm for the venture, given the cold snap their bonded had predictably caused by entering the city.

No,’ the Ice Titan replied primly, using its beak to rearrange some of its feathers into a more presentable arrangement, ‘I must, as you humans say, put my best feather forward.’ The statement was punctuated with a fervent full-body fluffing, followed immediately by more cosmetic fussing.

They resisted the urge to roll their eyes. “Foot.”

What?’ Articuno said, pausing in its preening to blink over at them.

“The phrase is ‘put my best FOOT forward’.”

Ah, I see,’ it said, ‘I can never seem to remember your human sayin- What. Is. That?!

“What is what?” Blanche asked, glancing off in the direction the large blue bird was now furiously staring at. They blinked, tilting their head for a moment before letting out an amused huff. “Ah, it seems the neighborhood children tried to make snow sculptures of you and the other Titans-” They didn’t get the chance to finish their statement as Articuno let out a shrill, chilling caw and swooped over to the malformed creations, where it immediately set about bouncing on top of them.

“Blanche!” said a voice, and they turned away from the carnage to see the Professor and Grisaille heading toward them. The child let go of the older man’s hand and darted forward, snow boots crunching the fresh powder lightly. They skidded to a stop a few inches from the Mystic leader.

“Hello, Blanche,” they said, and Blanche couldn’t help but smile at their flushed face and bright eyes, short hair tucked into their large, coiled scarf. It would almost be a touching moment if not for the soundtrack of Articuno enacting its revenge against children with lacking artistic abilities.

“Hello,” they replied, inclining their head.

“May I have a hug?” Grisaille asked, shifting slightly in the snow.

“You may,” Blanche said, grunting at the force of the embrace. They weren't overly affectionate by nature, but they managed to offer the child a few, awkward pats before they were released.

“Afternoon, Blanche,” Professor Willow greeted, holding up a drink carried that held three cups, “Sorry we took so long. The line was crazy thanks to our frosty friend’s appearance.” He looked over at where Articuno continued to flutter about, snow crunching under its talons. “Um, speaking of which… do I even want to know?”

“What is Titan Articuno doing?” Grisaille asked before they could reply, tilting their head as they also peered around their sibling at the blue bird, “Making a show of dominance?”

Blanche snorted at the swell of vicious affection Articuno felt toward the child, the bird letting out a coo of triumph as it continued to smash the little sculptures back into the snow from whence they came. “More like a temper tantrum, actually.”