You don't remember dreaming (anymore).
You're fairly sure you used to. You have vague memories of remembering, but because you never tried to remember until you realized you couldn't, you don't have anything to fall back on now.
Other people remember dreaming. You know this because you hear them talking about it - wild tales of being naked and walletless at Thrifty Megamart and having to pay for groceries by dressing up in the mascot's suit; falling from the back of a legendary bird mid-flight and floating gently to the ground; putting a shirt on Professor Kukui and having it stay there - things that would never happen in the waking world in a million years or a million realities - and that's part of what bothers you, too, is that you're no longer sure what's real on that front and what's not. Did you ever really remember, or are you just protecting that on yourself because you think that surely, you must have?
Eh, what does it matter. Your life is great even without dreaming, because you're living the dream. You've got a job at Aether Paradise - and not just any job. You're working directly under the branch chief, the man responsible for nearly all the hands-on research - all the delving into the secret lives of Pokémon, all the advances in technology putting Pokémon Centers and Pokémon Professors to shame, all the discoveries taking the Aether Foundation from one family's passion project to a worldwide phenomenon.
(You can think of a few other things you wouldn't mind him having his hands on, but that's another story for another time.)
You got lucky. Aether opened internship applications a week before you graduated the Trainers' School's advanced courses. If the timing hadn't been so right, you would have been stuck waiting like Edie, who passed every class with such flying colours that she skipped an entire grade level, then spent the summer working at Melemele Malasada because nothing else was available.
Edie's here, too, of course. You couldn't get that lucky. You would have known the red-orange-yellow ombre of that fire-type trainer's hair anywhere, let alone standing two places ahead of you in the queue, and while you weren't surprised when she was accepted immediately, you couldn't have said the same when it happened to you. The application had been odd, and so had the interview. The usual questions had been there - Please list your education and qualifications. Did you take the Island Challenge, and if so, how many trials did you complete? Where do you see yourself in five years? - but so had personality tests and self-assessments and requests for essays depicting strange scenarios, 'To be described in as much detail as possible. Do not concern yourself with realism. Let your imagination run wild.'
You and Edie hadn't been the only applicants to move on, but right away, it became clear that not all of you would be working with one another. There'd been an orientation in Conference A, during which President Lusamine had appeared to welcome you, "Not only to the Foundation, but Paradise itself! Working with us is sure to be an experience you'll never forget, and we hope you'll treasure it forever." - and then you'd been shuffled off to various clumps around the room: Some to the curvy lady with the delightful pink glasses and den-mother attitude; some to a pair of visored employees so alike in stance and demeanor you didn't think you could tell them apart even if their faces hadn't been covered; and you and Edie to the thin man with bottlefly eyes and a smile that belonged in front of a suspicious van.
"Oh, aren't you the lucky ones! I am Branch Chief Faba, the Aether Foundation's first line of intelligence and last line of defense -" (Give yourself a few more titles there, you'd thought, you're running out, but you wouldn't say that, of course; you just smiled and nodded and waited for him to go on while Edie examined her fingernails) "- and you have been specially-selected to work with me! I assume you will accept this honour, of course. Why, you have the most impressive records and intriguing interviews of any applicants in the last three rounds! Now, if you would just sign here - and initial here - we'll get to work right away - oh, there, too, don't forget that one -"
It had been pages upon pages of paperwork, and a non-disclosure agreement longer than the rest of it put together. That had been the most unnerving thing of all. It promised anything from termination to fines to lawsuits in every court of Alola and then some for leaking anything learned while in Aether's employee, and you had to wonder why, when every other Professor or Trainer or Nurse Joy you'd ever met (and you'd met quite a few, particularly of the latter) seemed more than happy to share their knowledge. Well, Aether was a private corporation, always in need of grants and donations and secret funding; maybe they needed to protect their profits to be able to keep protecting Pokémon. You set aside your unease and put your mark on every line the branch chief pointed out with his white-gloved finger, because even if you couldn't tell anyone what you did while you were here, the fact that you were here would be gold plate at the top of your resumé for the rest of your life. You could be an entry-level janitor and go on to manage city systems anywhere you wanted, purely because someone saw, Yes, I spent three years mopping up Litten puke at Aether Paradise, in there somewhere and assumed you must be the king of shovels and sawdust.
You don't even know where the stack of forms had gone once Faba tapped them into perfect order and tucked them away, but by then, he'd been leaning in between the two of you to murmur conspiratorially, one side of his mouth quirked far higher than the other, "And did I mention the other perks you may enjoy thanks to your association with me? For example - we certainly don't need to wait on them to finish up before we get started -" If you hadn't been quick, you wouldn't have noticed him glance toward the den mother (Wicke, you'd learn later) laughing with a group of lasses no closer to completing their paperwork than when she'd handed it out. "- so, if you'll simply follow me..."
And off you'd gone.
You type a string of numbers into the computer, and watch as it spits one right back. You don't understand that one, either.
This is your life now.
Edie's still ahead of you. No one's handing out letter grades and gold stars anymore (and you'd kill for a gold star, some days), but it's made obvious enough by the fact that she's the one who's working most closely with Faba, while you sit in front of a machine whose files are passworded three layers deep and liable to crash every time you don't coddle it just so, inputting endless lines of coded information you're half-convinced are just busywork to keep you out of the way while they get the real research done.
You can hear Faba around the corner, arguing - in the loosest sense of the word; he's kept his voice low and the only reason you can pick up anything at all is because the air conditioning's just clicked off - with someone on the other end of the phone. You don't know who. You missed that part, if he'd said at all. He might have looked at the incoming number and just launched straight into the tirade. He does that, sometimes, when he thinks no one is watching.
"We are not behind. You cannot rush these things. They must be allowed to develop in -" He's starting to get irritated. Whoever it is is not only not listening, but cutting him off, and that, he simply can't abide. "That is the problem. You cannot take a creature that has no knowledge, no experiences of its own, and expect it to - No! We have tried with simulations, and they are not sufficient! It must have something real - What is it you want me to do? We are working in a universe that does not simply bend to my whims on command, no matter how much I -"
The air conditioning whirs back to life, and you're almost glad of it, because it gives you an excuse to plant your attention firmly back on the screen. You are never, ever going to let Faba know you heard him admit to being anything other than omniscient and omnipotent. You'd rather die (and you're not sure he wouldn't actually make that happen. He certainly could).
You enter another equation, and then another. The computer considers the most recent, whines about it for several seconds, and finally throws an impressive tantrum that starts with regurgitating everything you've fed it in the last three hours and ends with going dark. You swear, torn between kicking the useless hunk of junk and taking the rest of the day off to just cry, but you can't, because -
Well, because it's your job and you don't get paid sobbing breaks, but also because Faba's come back into the room, wearing an expression so benign that if you hadn't heard his flusterment with your own ears, you'd never think him capable of the emotion. He's eternally the picture of professional perfection: There's never a wrinkle in his coat, or a speck on his glasses, or so much as a single hair out of place. "Oh, dear. Not again?" he inquires politely, squeezing into your workstation to tap a few keys himself, and the computer blinks back to life slowly but far more agreeably than it's ever done for you.
You don't think it's that the machines like Faba more than they do you. That's silly. You're pretty sure it's that they're afraid of him.
That's silly, too. Faba's never given you reason to think anything should be afraid of him, including you. Just as he's never the slightest bit unkempt, he's never been anything other than a strange but proper gentleman - no threats of violence, no displays of cruelty toward even the most pathetic Pokémon, no making a grab for you when you're slogging out at the end of a long day and you're too tired to fight him off. It's not his fault that the combination of white coat, oversized glasses, and all-knowing smirk come off less as mad genius and more grade-A creeper, and you learn to look past that once you've been around it long enough. If anything, in fact, you learn to appreciate it.
Sometimes you want to punch Edie right in her smug face for not appreciating it. You've seen it. Faba treats her no differently than he does you - probably better, actually, because she's the one who's getting all the real benefits of working under him - but at the end of the day, she acts like all she wants is to get away.
"Oh, now, that's not right," he remarks, his brow furrowed as he pecks out another series of commands, though you can't tell if the problem is that the computer is blooping when it should be bleeping, or if you've made a mistake somewhere. You try as hard as you can to transfer everything exactly as it's written, but it's all spaceless lines of numbers and letters and symbols that don't mean anything, and you'd be lying if you tried to say they don't swim around on the page. "No, that can't possibly be -"
This goes on for a while, and you don't say a word, because Faba hasn't asked for your input and if it is your fault, you don't want to give him any further reason to drop the facade and yell at you properly. Finally, though, he sighs and stands back, and for once, that constant smile has faltered. You can't quite interpret what's replaced it. "Well, that's going nowhere," he mutters, as much to himself as to you. "We'll be up all night trying to reconfigure -" He blinks once and turns his gaze suddenly, intensely, on you, as if he's only just now realized you're even there. "But you must be as familiar with this as we are, by now. Might I impose upon you for your assistance, as well? It will be a long one, I'm afraid, but I can have something sent down if you missed the evening meal -"
The smile comes back in full force, and though you still can't quite interpret it, no more than you ever can, well - There's your gold star.
Three months into the program, Edie leaves.
It's kind of a big thing, too, because even though no one makes a thing of it, everyone knows it's a thing. Somewhere in all that paperwork, you'd agreed not only to complete the program regardless of what occurred during your session, but that if something did result in early termination - whether at your request or the Foundation's - you could be subject to another set of repercussions, though not quite as severe as as if you'd broken the non-disclosure clause. But Edie's gone, and no one knows why, or how, or what the terms of her departure actually were.
There are rumours that she threatened the Foundation.
There are rumours that the Foundation paid her off because it would ultimately cost less to do that than to pursue her for breach of contract, once the truth came out.
There are rumours that she left because of Faba.
"All of which is patently untrue." Faba sniffs and you jump, because you hadn't realized he'd sidled up behind you while you were listening to the gossip of the company cafeteria. "That girl had personal problems, and Madame Lusamine was so concerned for her that she bought out the rest of her contract, because she didn't want the poor child to go home and have no means of caring for herself."
And you believe him. You're probably the only person who knows, in fact, about the nights Edie stumbled into the dormitory and fell face-down into her pillow, sobbing, "I can't do this, I can't, I don't want to - I want to go home." You thought about asking if she was okay, but you didn't want to embarass her, and you didn't tell anyone else, because you didn't want to embarass her.
(And, well, maybe you were enjoying finally having your own chance to be a little smug, knowing that, for all her perfect grades and early graduations, she couldn't hack it, and you can.)
"It will leave us regrettably understaffed," Faba continues, "but it's far too late to bring a new person onto this particular project, and at any rate, I'm sure we can handle it together, can't we? You've come along quite nicely - indeed, I believe you may even be better suited for it than Miss Edie was! How short-sighted of me not to recognize that sooner." He leans in, adjusting his glasses, and when that crooked curl crawls over the corners of his mouth, it's like you're holding all the gold stars in the world.
(If you were, you'd throw them like confetti and let one of the janitors clean up the mess.)
It's funny that, as soon as you achieved your waking dream, that's when you forgot the rest.
Maybe you don't have anything left to long for. Maybe you're just overworked. You hadn't appeciated the long hours Edie put in at Faba's side until she dropped them on you, and now you're doing both your work and hers.
You still don't know what it is you're even working on. Faba's always liked to flaunt that self-pinned Aether Defense badge, and from the few things he's let slip, you've gathered it has something to do with that - maybe with a new method of training Pokémon to assist with it? - but he's careful, and any time he thinks he's gone too far, he covers it up quickly, with laughter and a compliment and sometimes other means of distracting you.
Of making you forget.
It's so late. And while it's always quiet in the laboratories, two levels below reception and three from the Pokémon gardens, tonight, with most of the other staff gone home and the wandering Slowpokes rounded up and nestled down, when even the sweepers are snoozing on their brooms - This is a whole different kind of quiet. This is...advanced quiet.
And you're so tired. You were up before dawn, making a trip to the Malie City Library to pick up a foot-high stack of books and peer-unreviewed papers on loan from someplace in Unova - all relating to the use of artificial devices to guide the development of Pokémon - and Faba's had you copying from them since you got back.
"You've entered this wrong," the branch chief notes, a little crossly, as a finger jabs at the screen. You've barely begun to stammer an apology before he shakes his head and waves it off. "Nevermind, it's alright." The shift from restrained annoyance to beguiling geniality comes without missing a beat. He straightens, hand withdrawn, and steps back, the new angle of his stance as much part of the invitation as the words that follow. "We've been at this a while, haven't we? Perhaps it's time for a break."
God, yes, you want to say, but like always, you don't; you just put the computer on standby and follow Faba into one of the smaller rooms off the main laboratory. You've been here before - sometimes with Edie, but far more often on your own - into this makeshift sitting room filled with the same stark-white furniture that dots the other areas of Aether Paradise Lusamine doesn't care enough about to decorate personally. It's as almost-spotless as everything else, and the only reason there's an 'almost' to it is because you have a habit of letting your instant noodle cups fall where they may. Faba stacks his neatly and whisks them away as soon as he's done, and though he's never said anything about it (disapprovingly-lofted brow and repressed twitch aside), you're fairly certain he does the same for yours once you're gone.
His back is still turned as you enter, occupied with something on the far side of the room, and when he faces you again, it's not the glass he holds in either hand that surprises you (though you weren't expecting those, either); it's his hands themselves. He's taken his gloves off.
You've never seen the branch chief with his gloves off.
You don't know why it throws you for such a loop. He has hands. It's not like you thought there were hooks or tentacles or something even less-holy under the gloves. Maybe it's just because it's the closest he's ever come to letting the mask slip; something that shakes that contrived image of perfection. Something that makes him seem human.
He passes one of the glasses to you, and once you're both settled on the sofa (and it is not comfortable at all; it came straight out of Aether requisitions and even the cushions are trying their best to uphold Lusamine's vision of cold and unyielding beauty), waits until you've had a chance to drink before striking up fresh conversation.
"Do I recall correctly - you said during your interview that you'd done the Island Challenge, hadn't you? Would you tell me about it?" He smiles in a way that you've seen only slightly more often than his gloveless hands. It suggests something more than the empty platitudes he pulls out for the hordes of investors and board members and field-tripping trainers that filter through. It's true curiosity. "You have a Z-Crystal, really? Do you mind if I have a closer look?"
You hadn't thought about the Z-Crystal in years. You don't battle anymore. You don't have time. But you always carry it with you, a souvenir of more glorious days. You leave briefly to fetch your bag from its hook by the door, and by the time you're back, Faba's refilled both your glasses. He's lost interest in his own, though - at least for the moment - and sets it aside in favour of examining the jewel you offer him: Holding it up to the light, squinting at the type mark that signals from which Captain you'd earned it, marvelling at the glow that pulses like a heartbeat deep within.
You don't mind answering his questions. It's been a long time since anyone's bothered to ask. It's only that you're so tired, and he wants to hear about it in such intense detail. You're not even sure if you're slurring your words because you've had too much to drink or you're just falling asleep sitting up, but Faba laughs - god, it sounds like he's so far away - and reaches over to take the glass from your hands. His ungloved fingers brush yours as they withdraw, and he's still talking, but -
You wake up with a crick in your back and a worse one in your neck, because apparently you spent the night - or what was left of it - sprawled as awkwardly as possible on the hard white couch. Someone (you'll assume Faba, because who else could it have even been? He's guarded about who he lets in here, doesn't like for the staff to waltz in unannounced) has thoughtfully covered you with a lab coat. You don't remember that happening - or anything else, really, but you're quite sure nothing untoward took place, because everything else about you is exactly as you'd expect it to be: Every button buttoned, every bootlace laced; every glass rinsed out and noodle cup picked up, and Faba himself nowhere to be found.
This is your life now, and you love it. All the precisely-typed equations; all the notations copied from book to paper to passlocked file and sometimes back again; the trips to deeper laboratories where you're left to stand beside the door while Faba does - whatever it is he's doing - inside; the long nights that end with dawnglow the colour of Z-Crystals on the horizon before Faba draws you aside for a glass of laboratory moonshine and another of those winding conversations in which he's proven to be so very interested in anything - everything - you have to say. He is still a consummate gentleman at every turn, but occasionally, now, he lets his fingers linger when one of you passes something to the other, or he stands a little closer when you're parsing through code on a flickering screen, and once - just once - when you'd uncovered a piece of data in an unassuming journal that Faba himself had overlooked, he'd -
Actually, he hadn't done anything right then, but later, somewhere between the gloves coming off and the first fallen noodle cup, there'd been a moment in which his lips hovered Ghost-type close to your skin. You can't help but draw a connection between the two, and it only makes you resolve to work all the harder, as if he isn't already getting everything you have to give.
You sleep in the sitting room more often than not.
One night, you wake up with a Hypno perched on your chest. It's pitch-dark, but the thing's so close you can still make out its face purely by the gleam of its leering eyes. You panic, thrashing in a vain attempt to get it off, but it's heavier than you'd ever thought a Hypno would be and you can't breathe can't breathe -
"Go back to sleep." Faba's soft voice comes from nearby, but you can't tell where, because it's just too much Hypno why is there so much Hypno why is there any Hypno at all? "You're having a nightmare."
And it doesn't make sense, because you haven't had any dream in months, let alone a nightmare, but what else could it be? It's appropriately terrifying, and Faba's saying something else, and you grasp at the sound of his voice because it's the only thing you've got with which to try and pull yourself out -
"Ah, there you are, Houdin. Come here for a moment, dearie."
You suddenly think you won't remember this, either.
And you're right.
Three months before you would have completed the program, it all comes crashing down.
Faba's on the phone. You can hear him even over the air conditioning, because he's in that much of a tizzy.
"No. It's useless. There's no reasoning with it. It refuses to analyze the images sent to it. It rejects all forms of command or control. It will present an extreme danger to anyone who attempts to partner with it. I have sealed it for the time being, but we will need to make a decision regarding a more...permanent disposition."
You can't begin to comprehend this, and when you hear the receiver slammed into its hook, you swivel back to your workstation as if you'd never turned away, hadn't been eavesdropping in the slightest -
It doesn't matter. Faba, as dishevelled as you've ever seen him (which, frankly, isn't all that much), sighs heavily and takes off his glasses, wiping the same non-existant spot for several seconds before at last turning his attention wholly to you.
"There's no need for that now. We're shutting the project down." He grimaces, brushing your questions aside before they've even fully formed. "No. Unfortunately, it has proven to be a complete failure; however, this will not result in a negative review for you." You can't help but wonder if it's resulted in one for him. That would certainly explain his simmering rage. He's never taken even passing criticism well; the idea that there might be an official record of his mistakes must be eating him alive. "You will have the option of discontinuing your internship as if it had been completed per its original terms, with no further consequence, but if you prefer to stay on with us, it is a simple enough matter for me to arrange your transfer to another department. Wicke is always on the lookout for promising new...guardians." He forces a smile, but it's thin and tight, and you can't tell if he's having trouble feeling it because of what's going on, or because he's never actually felt it at all. "You will stay with us, won't you? You'll never have another opportunity like the Aether Foundation; I really do think it would be the best thing for you."
Of course you will.
The night you transfer to Wicke's department, surrounded by countless bouncing, half-healed Pokémon who, even in their current conditions, are overjoyed to find a new friend in you, you dream for the first time in - You don't even know how long. You can't recall all of it when you wake, but you know it was there.
You rarely see the branch chief, after that. For all of what you thought were kind parting words, a genuine interest in seeing you excel, he now seems not to notice you at all. When he must acknowledge you, it's brief and distant, no different than the way he interacts with anyone else.
You convince yourself it doesn't matter. You've got so many other things to worry about these days.
A month after you're promoted to full-time employee, the President's son runs away. It isn't long before her daughter follows in his wake. There are rumours that Pokémon have gone missing, as well - not the common monsters brought in every day for treatment and rehabilitation, but rare Pokémon, special Pokémon, valuable Pokémon. Pokémon you've never seen and could probably only ever dream of seeing.
Well. At least you've got that much.
It's late, well after midnight and almost on toward dawn, when your computer chimes to announce that You have mail! You're immediately concerned, because you can't imagine who'd be trying to contact you at this hour unless one of the patients has gone downhill, and even then, Wicke would call if she really needed you -
But the subject line is empty and the return address is email@example.com, and you've opened it before you even realize what your hands are doing.
(You can't really imagine Faba making the gestures that go along with that greeting in-person, but you want to, and you can't help but laugh.)
I am so terribly sorry we fell out of touch once the UBK Project ended. As branch chief, there are simply so many demands on my time. I am sure you understand. You've always been one of the most empathetic and intelligent members of the Foundation. Second only to myself, I'd say!
As it happens, a new opportunity has just arisen, and I find myself in need of an assistant who is truly loyal and trustworthy to accompany me. Naturally, I thought of you. We will be attempting to locate and retrieve certain misappropriated assets. Initially, we will be working from Akala Island, but that is not necessarily a permanent station.
May I assume you will join me there?
You don't need to think about that, either.
Of course you will.
You grab your coat and gloves and head out, taking only a moment to glance in the mirror and make sure the pin on your collar gleams with all the proper perfection demanded of an Aether representative. Of his representative.
This is the only dream you've had for months, after all.