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can you hear me?

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[ Maybe in another life we were here. ]

His brother, Natsuo, once told him that their father’s laboratory was the largest building in all of Kiluode City. It stands tall against a backdrop of dense forest at the south edge of town, its concrete walls cast in hazy blue moonlight. The corporation’s A insignia hangs at the fifth floor, large and encircled and glinting against restless flood lights that highlight it against the night. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the corner offices glisten darkly against the night, not a single one occupied this late. The courtyard leading to the entrance is perfectly landscaped with clean-edged hedges and saplings tied to their own roots with orange yarn. Gray bricks align the walkway, their color perfectly matched to the washed concrete walls. The sight is altogether bland and utilitarian in the daylight, the edges all sharp and tall and gutted every other year for the sake of aesthetic, but its inherent impositions are softened slightly when darkness falls.

The alarms roar against a starless sky.

Shouto stands in the courtyard with his hands pressed against his ears. The sound still rings in his head, but the barrier helps take the edge off the horrible screech. Aether employees run in and out of the front door, none of them sparing him a second glance. Most of them are adorned in dark security uniforms; the more frantic are the few in long white lab coats. The pale beams of their flashlights flit every which way, in a symphony of chaotic light. He hears shouts for the police, sees the groups that head to the edge of the dense forest in an echo of coordination.

A shadow shifts oddly in his periphery, and his eyes are drawn to the opposite edge of the forest. His brow furrows in a soft twitch, and it pulls at the scarred skin across his cheekbone. In the next moment his face is impassive, but his hands lower back to his sides, to the Pokeballs across his belt. With tentative steps, he walks toward the forest.

He’s always heard that your trainer instincts never die.

The narrow spaces between overgrown underbrush and unruly trees remind him of his journey, and before he realizes it, he’s lost in contemplation all over again. The slowly simmering resentment returns to the forefront of his thoughts as he remembers his Pokemon Journey, things back on that feeling of adventure and exploration. Training had come naturally to him, and his team was strong and loyal. He wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world, not even for a way out of his current slump.

What was he supposed to do with his life, anyway?

He had tried a mentorship under Jeanist at the Kiluode City Gym, but the monotony had nearly put him to sleep. The Battle Manor had seemed appealing until his best friend started rising in the ranks there. Managing the Safari Zone or a Poke Center had crossed his mind only briefly-- if he couldn’t handle the monotony in a Gym, there was no way he would be personable enough to stay behind a counter all day.

It had been his father who had convinced him to intern as a Pokemon Researcher, more out of desperation than any real interest in scientific advancement. Shouto was very quickly running out of options, and although his father’s company certainly wouldn’t pay him for his time, at least the people were more interesting to watch. At least there were no customers or trainers to cater to. As a researcher, he could dwell and nap and think in peace. He could make his own hours, and he could visit Midoriya whenever he wanted.

Not as boring, but not much more exciting, either.  Was this… all he was meant for?

He catches onto the trail easily enough-- broken twigs and displaced mud adorning a path further away from the huge laboratory. The Pokemon is fast, quadrupedal, and lithe. He follows along the path, careful of making too much noise, and plans for the inevitable confrontation with this Pokemon’s trainer. This area is too close to the city for any wild Pokemon, after all.

The forest thins considerably at the edge of a cliff, where the commotion at Aether is nothing but a soft buzzing in the relentless wind. The rockface overlooks an endless sea of forest, and it’s here that Shouto loses the trail.

“Don’t move.”

Shouto stills instinctively at the command. He slowly looks over his shoulder at the forest he had just emerged from, his eyes set in a harsh glare. The voice came from the shadows, too far behind him to see clearly in the dim. All he can do is swallow, breathe.

“Are you security from Aether Corp?” Shouto hears, and the nuance in the question gives him pause. There’s a pitch of curiosity in the voice, buried between the deep whispers of control and demand. It’s not a voice that belongs to a nameless, faceless thief. The person behind him is level-headed and confident, but he’s also very human.

“I’m not,” Shouto says evenly, calmly.

“But you were at Aether Corp. Why?”

“I’m an intern in the laboratory--”

“Bullshit.”

Shouto spins back toward the voice at the incredulous interruption. He doesn’t have a chance to think better of the action, but he stills with his feet spread shoulder-length apart and his hand at his belt. His pointer finger hovers over the release of the miniaturized Pokeballs, but he hesitates when he sees an Espeon regarding him from the edge of the darkest shadows. Its amethyst eyes pierce through him, size him up, but the Pokemon doesn’t take any sort of battle-ready stance. It’s more confused than anything else, it seems.

“You can’t be an intern at Aether Corp. They don’t offer internships,” a figure leans against one of the sturdier trees at the edge of the clearing just behind the Espeon. The posture is too relaxed, but his arms are crossed across his chest to close himself off. Shouto blinks his surprise away quickly-- had he really been so startled by this unarmed presence?

“Well,” the person continues, but he steps out of the shadows as he continues, “you might know someone very high-up. And that would explain why I don’t recognize you, if you’re new.”

“W-what do you mean?” Shouto asks. The person and his Espeon step further into the bright blue moonlight, and Shouto can see his features clearly now. His hair is wild and unruly, blown away from his forehead in spikes. Dark circles adorn his narrow gaze, caressed by high cheekbones and a sharp jawline. His thin lips settle in a small smirk, as if the expression is the only one he has ever known.

“Don’t worry about it, just know that I believe you,” those dark eyes dance over Shouto’s body slowly, straying a bit at the hand against his hip.

“You don’t even know what was taken, do you?”

Shouto swallows, but he’s sure the truth is written all over his otherwise impassive expression. The smirk on the other’s expression only grows, and it makes Shouto want nothing more than to groan at how stupid he seems.

“Here,” he says suddenly, motioning toward the edge of the cliff near Shouto, “It’s late. Let’s sit. I’ll tell you what was taken. In return, you tell me who you know at Aether. By then, a thunderstorm should roll in from the south. The search will be called off for the night, and we’ll be on our separate ways, no strings attached. Sound good to you?”

Shouto watches the figure sit, watches as the Espeon curls its way comfortably onto his lap. With a soft shrug, he relaxes his stance and joins this intriguing person at the cliff’s edge.

And they talk.

-

“So he didn’t tell you what was stolen, in the end?”

Shouto takes a long sip of his boba tea, his eyes unfocused on the vast exaggerated foliage around them. The Safari Area in Kiluode City is more like a botanical garden. Somehow, every time Shouto meets his friend here, he finds some new flower to observe, some new Pokemon to watch. He hesitates against the sudden question. The boy on the cliff last night, that shadow blending and swirling into the night, those violet cat-like eyes mirroring his Espeon’s in more than just appearance.

Shouto blinks suddenly. He had been almost as mesmerized at the memory as he had been by the real thing.

“He did tell me,” Shouto nods softly, “Before he left, he said that research notes had been taken from the R&D lab.”

His attention catches to the shadow that passes between him and the path of early sunlight through the trees. With another long sip of tea, he looks at his companion expectantly. He’s not disappointed to see the boy hunched over with freckle-splattered elbows resting gently against his knees and a huge Virizion napping between his bright red sneakers.

“But he didn’t admit to taking them, right?” Izuku’s brow furrows as he rests a hand against his upper lip. Shouto’s answering hum is more an acknowledgment that Izuku can continue than anything else. It’s one in a long line of subtle communication tells he has with only Izuku, with only his best friend.

Acknowledging it makes his stomach flutter, but he ignores the feeling easily.

Izuku settles a bit in his seat before digging in, his gaze unseeing as he mumbles. “It’s almost certain that he did take them, even if he didn’t admit to it. There must be something about his Espeon. The way you described their connection… I’ve never heard if anything close to that sort of partnership. Like they were talking to each other through a glance.

“And that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface on his reasons,” Izuku moves a hand in front of his face, partially obscuring his lips, “Aether is sketchy at best to begin with, but their security is top-notch. There are even rumors that they employ government swats to keep their research secure. Nothing gets out of there easily, and yet, last night, this person and his Espeon— do you think he was working alone?”

Shouto shrugs into his drink, more intent on sucking one of the tapioca pearls up through his straw.

“Hmm, I guess the possibilities are a bit limitless if we already know he has such a unique relationship with that Espeon. It’s entirely possible that he’s working with others, but his deep involvement with the research material and the workings of Aether suggest that he’s too knowledgeable to be part of a large group delegating responsibility from the shadows. In any case, the real question is the matter of why. Why go to such great lengths? What are they developing in the R&D Department that’s worth all of this danger?”

A struggling tapioca finally hits against Shouto’s front teeth, and he chews the pearl greedily. “Maybe the Espeon and the research are connected.”

Izuku blinks thoughtfully before levelling Shouto with a raised eyebrow. One of his hands falls to brush against his Pokemon’s soft ears, and the action nearly makes Shouto laugh with how softly domestic it is.

“Maybe,” Izuku concedes after a long moment before looking down at his bright yellow backpack. “I should probably head back soon. My shift at Battle Manor starts soon, and Kacchan’s always cranky when I’m late.”

Shouto huffs a small laugh before standing and stretching his long limbs, “Yeah, I should head over to the lab.”

Izuku’s gaze is caught on a shadow when Shouto looks at him, but when he turns to look in the same direction, he doesn’t see anything out of place. Izuku makes a grand show of recovering, as if he had been lost in thought, but his rushed movements don’t deceive Shouto.

But Shouto had never been one to pry into Izuku’s little white lies, so he leaves the strange exchange be.

“Good luck, Shouto. And please be careful. This sounds like it’s big, and I really don’t want you to get hurt.”

The sincerity takes him aback, but he doesn’t let it show in his expression. Instead he turns toward the entrance of the Safari Zone’s cafe when he’s satisfied that Izuku is packing up to leave. He leaves Izuku with a soft “see ya” and a small smirk. There was nothing to be worried about, after all.

… Right?