"It was my world, Topa," I said. "My world."
Agnes had fallen asleep on the couch quickly after the therapist left, and I had extracted myself from her suffocating embrace to flee towards the bedroom where I sought the comfort of loneliness.
I was not in the mood for cuddles.
The ninetales had decided not to let me enjoy my panic on my own. Pacing rapidly around the room, tails spread and puffed like a peacock, I skimmed along my improvised circuit, vaulting over the bed and repeating a cycle of anxious treading as Topa sat by the entrance and watched me with a sorrowful frown.
"Ruby, please calm down," she said. "You are in a panic."
"I know. I know."
I momentarily stopped roaming my fretful track to peer at her, ears laid.
"It was my world."
My body shuddered, and I resumed walking, jumping on the bed to tower over Topa, standing on its foot.
"Do you not understand?" I said. "She saw my sister. My sister!" I shook my head in disbelief. "I'm in a coma. I have been for almost a year. So I'm not dead. And my sister is alone."
"Calm down," Topa repeated. "I understand how you feel, believe me, but I do not think that fretting so actively about the situation will do anything about it. You need to clear your mind. Think rationally."
My legs shook as I swooned dangerously close to the edge of the bed, then hopped down and hurried to Topa to sit by her side. She wrapped her tails around me, hiding my body entirely under her protective fluff, and I laid down in this motherly cocoon, hyperventilating and trying to get a hold of myself.
"Okay," I said. "Rationally. That means that there is a way for me to go back. There's a connection of sorts. I can turn back into a human."
"Ruby, if you do not calm down right now, I will hit you with an Ember to calm you down."
My head snapped at her. "You know what? Do it. Let's fight. I need something to… I have too much energy. Let's go to the practice room. Let's fight."
Topa stared at me, eyes wide, and shook her head.
"When you are better, if you are still willing. For now, I want you to keep yourself together. Fighting right now will not do you any good."
"Okay." I nodded – slowly at first, then with needless energy. "There is a way to go back, right? I'm not overthinking this one?"
"Ruby, again, think of this rationally. The only thing we know that your human body and Agnes have in common when they changed worlds was that you were both in comas. It is not too much of an assumption to extrapolate that, whatever causes that, you would need to enter a coma. And we know nothing of the recipients either. Does that cat Agnes turned into ring any bells to you?"
"No. I don't remember seeing any stray cats in the hospital parking lot. But I hadn't been there in a while, I could easily have missed one."
My eyes lowered themselves, involuntarily staring at Topa's tails. She was probably right – if I wanted to go back, I would probably need to get into a coma, or even risk death as Agnes had, and even then, there was no guarantee I would return to my own body and not take the body of a random animal instead. Even then, if we were drawing similarities with what had happened to me, then we would have to assume that the body I would take would have recently died.
That meant that, if I wanted to go back, I had to die.
"I will be honest with you, Ruby," Topa said.
She liberated me of the fort of her care to stand before me with an insistent gaze, her eyes unable to keep themselves on me as they incessantly lowered themselves immediately after gathering enough strength to pull themselves up.
"I do not want you to go back. I want you to stay."
My heart broke.
"Please consider the situation carefully," she continued, her voice lowering to a despondent whisper. "I understand you have a family in that other world. I understand you miss your sister, even maybe your parents despite your conflict with them. But it has been almost a year since you saw them in that other world. If you were to return after the experiences you have had here, you would certainly not be the same as before. Your relationships with them might change. You are not even sure they want you to continue fighting for your life anymore. Agnes mentioned that your doctors were not sure if they would."
I nodded, my eyes widened as I couldn't do much more than listening.
"You have a family here too. You have me. You have Agnes. We want you to stay and we will never give up on you. What happened to calling me mom?"
"Topa, it doesn't matter what I do. Whether I try to return or not, I will be hurting someone."
She nodded slowly. "Yes. I understand that. All I ask is that you consider both sides before making your choice. I want you not to pursue returning. I cannot promise I will assist you with it if you decide to."
"I won't actively pursue it," I said. "There is too much I don't know about this… process. I won't seek it out, but if the opportunity arises, I will consider it."
Topa stared at me for a second, eyes wide and wavering. Her tails fell to the ground from the arched fan behind her as she turned her head away from me, whispering an "all right" that even my sensitive hearing had trouble picking up, and I impotently watched her drag herself back to the living room, stuck in place by the weight of the dilemma I had been thrown into.
I sat in front of the pillow Topa and I used to practice telekinesis, glaring at it with fury as if my look alone would submit it into flinging itself into the air.
"Once more," the ninetales said. "You are almost there."
"I don't feel like I've made any progress," I whined. "But fine. I'll try."
Once again, my vision turned blue, and I snapped my eyes to my target. I needed to surround the object, not fling my power at it and toss it away, but how was I supposed to control the strands of psychic energy so they were slow enough to envelop my target?
I shook my head. Maybe I was going about it wrong. Maybe it wasn't about slowing the energy down. Maybe it wasn't about strands. Maybe I had everything wrong and I needed to rethink it all.
If I had to envelop the object I wanted to control, why not do it all at once?
My focus shifted to the energy that I was creating. As I allowed it to escape my body in strands through small holes in my aura, I forced myself to move them to a central point instead of flinging them at my target directly. It formed a ball of glowing azure colour like a particularly bright star, which I then carefully moved towards the pillow between the ninetales and me. Topa nodded approvingly as she watched me through her own psychic-infused eyes, and I enveloped the pillow without issues, then pulled on my power to lift it in the air.
My tails began wagging as I turned to Topa with a proud smile.
"Congratulations," she said. "You have learnt telekinesis. It will take you more practice to be able to do this faster, like it did for Ember, but it should not be too difficult for you."
I didn't smile.
I felt no pride – not even a bit of accomplishment or relief that my task was done. Watching the pillow float, surrounded by a halo of blue that was now disconnected from me, my heart empty as if all my emotions had been transferred to it through the strands of psychic energy, I mourned.
"Thanks," I whispered in a dead tone.
Topa frowned. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. I just… this is coming over a month too late. If I had this power before, could I have saved Agnes?"
"I doubt it," Topa replied. The answer made my stomach sink. "You already had this power and used it to save her life. I do not think being able to use telekinesis, even against living targets, would have been of any help. Even if you could have held one of the haunter in place, it would have taken too much of your focus and you would have been attacked by the others. You are just experiencing guilt. Remember what you taught me about it."
I considered the idea for a moment, then nodded. "You're right, but…"
"No buts. Agnes is alive and recovering, and that is thanks to you. Why does that not fill you with pride?"
"Because… because I'm focusing on the negatives again instead of seeing beyond my failure."
Topa grinned comfortingly, and nodded.
Of course, she was right. I focused so much on Agnes's wound and difficulties that I didn't allow myself to face a simple truth: she was still alive. Thanks to me.
"Let us show her your new power once her rehabilitation session is–"
Topa was interrupted by the doorbell. We peered at each other with confused frowns – her physiotherapist was already in her room with her. We weren't expecting anybody.
We rushed to the door, and Topa knocked the interphone off with a paw, then stood aside as I barked into it.
A voice I recognised resonated through the interphone, "Ruby? It's Doctor Belish, I'm with the commissioner. Can you let us in?"
Before I could reply, the door to Agnes's room opened, and she shouted across the apartment, "Ruby, if it's the commissioner, please let him in."
Topa and I exchanged looks again, and I stood on my hind legs to open the door for them. Agnes's therapist, an old woman with ridiculous physical strength, walked into the corridor, carrying her bag with her. She wore a sad frown on her tired face.
"You can go see her," she said with a smile. "I'll let the commissioner in."
Neither of us moved from our positions. Shortly after, there was a knock at the door, and Agnes's physiotherapist opened the door. The commissioner and Doctor Belish, both in full uniforms, stood together behind it, Dante and Ilma sitting behind their trainers. Although my tails began wagging as soon as I noticed the vaporeon, she didn't honour me with so much as a glance and leaned to the side, her eyes focused on the apartment behind me.
"Commissioner," the therapist said. "I will take my leave now."
"Thank you. Where is Agnes?"
"In her room, down the corridor then to the left."
The commissioner nodded with a smile, then turned his head to Topa and me. "Good afternoon," he said. "We've come to talk to Agnes. It's… fairly important. Can you come with us?"
The ninetales glanced at me with a confused frown, and I at Ilma, who simply shot a smile in my direction before returning to her attempt at scanning the room. I turned back to the policeman, nodded with a resolute bark, and hopped off to guide them to Agnes's room.
She laid on her bed in her night gown and compression stockings, panting as she idly browsed her phone. An empty bottle of water had been neglectingly tossed onto her night stand, and her sheets were bundled by the foot of her bed, raising her legs slightly while her torso laid in a perfectly horizontal position, her pillows moved onto the floor.
"Good afternoon, Commissioner, Doctor Belish," she said in a sigh without looking up. She put her phone down and glanced at her legs. "I'm sorry I am so improperly dressed, I didn't expect you so early."
Topa jumped onto the bed and dragged the sheets to cover Agnes's body, and I hopped after her to lay against my trainer. She endeavoured to scratch the top of my head, behind the swirls of fur between my ears, and I pushed myself into her hand as a response.
"Don't worry about it," the commissioner said, watching Topa work. "How are you feeling?"
Agnes lowered her head for a moment before answering, "Honestly, I'm tired. Rehab isn't progressing and I'm stuck here unable to walk. I can't wait to return to class."
"Maybe we can make arrangements," Doctor Belish said. "You wouldn't be able to join physical classes, obviously, but we can try if you're fine with your schoolmates staring at you and asking you questions. And if you're fine with a wheelchair."
My human let out a frustrated grunt, then a deep sigh. "Wheelchair will have to do until I can walk. It's less humiliating than the walker."
"I'll arrange that," Doctor Belish said. "This isn't what we wanted to see you for, though."
Agnes frowned. "No? I thought you wanted to talk to me about school."
The two policemen glanced at each other with worry in their eyes. Sitting in silence behind them, their pokemon both kept neutral stares as they watched the conversation unfold, and Topa had hopped off the bed to sit by its foot, keeping a careful eye on the vaporeon who seemed oblivious to the watch she was under.
"It's about the forest," the commissioner said.
Agnes froze for a second. Escaping my head, her hand travelled along my back to my side, and her arm wrapped itself around me as she brought me against her in a tight hold. I pushed my head into hers as a response, whimpering quietly, and she gave me a quick kiss before raising her other hand to resume petting me.
Her voice wavered. "Tell me."
"We've been conducting extensive searches of the area you were rescued in," the commissioner said. "The army's been involved. But we haven't found anything. Ruby knows something that she can't communicate to us, so we would like to ask for permission to borrow her–"
"I'm coming," Agnes interrupted.
Her brow was furrowed in an expression between fury and vexation. The commissioner blinked, then exchanged concerned gazes with Doctor Belish who shook his head.
"You're not in a state in which you can–"
"I'm coming," she repeated. "I will not let Ruby go in there alone. I will not endanger her even for the sake of the investigation. If the forest is on lockdown and the army is involved, then there is no risk to anyone anymore, and you can wait until I can walk again."
"That would give plenty of time for the killers to move away. If they're impossible to track down, they might have the means to flee without us catching them."
"I don't care. I will not risk Ruby."
Her right hand tightened her hold of me, and her left laid itself against her belly, fingers clenched into agonizing claws. Tears fell from her eyes as she challenged the gazes of her superiors who stared back in worry and confusion.
Dante took a step forward and barked. As everyone turned to him, he bent his front legs into an animal curtsey.
"Are you sure?" the commissioner asked. The absol barked again with confidence, and his trainer turned to his friend. "Would it work?"
"I think so," Doctor Belish said. "We'll need additional straps for her legs, I wager, but it should."
"What are you talking about?" Agnes asked.
"There might be a way for you to come with us without hindering progress and while keeping you relatively safe. How comfortable would you feel riding a pokemon?"
"I have no issues with that. I know how to ride, my parents have taken me to ranches quite a few times."
Dante barked again and walked forward right up to Agnes's bed. As I tensed up by her side, Agnes frowned in confusion, and the absol curtsied again.
The commissioner smiled. "Then you can ride Dante."
Agnes's brow furrowed further, and she stared at the pokemon still curtseying to her. "How? He's not–"
"I have a saddle for him," the commissioner said. "Back when I was in the army, I made a name for myself for riding him while we fought. That came in very handy during the Ruize war and I led a lot of charges" –he interrupted himself, glancing at Ilma with a sorry frown– "without ever being wounded. You will be safe on his back, especially if you have Ruby with you."
Topa stood and barked with energy.
"Can Topa also come, then?" Agnes asked.
"Absolutely," the commissioner said. "The more, the better. Plus, she might know the move that Ruby mentioned caused fire-type pokemon specifically to be targetted."
I nodded frantically.
"It is done. I'll have the saddle modified so you can be strapped to it despite your lower body being still in recovery. We will return to the forest on Monday, so you have this weekend to prepare." The commissioner turned to me. "Ruby, I would appreciate if you could start learning the move you mentioned."
I barked with confidence.
"Do you feel comfortable handling a rifle?" Doctor Belish asked.
"Shouldn't be a problem. I'm not Derek, but I can land a shot on my target if need be. I did train a lot for SWAT" –she peered at her legs hidden by the sheets of her bed and let out a weary sigh– "I just hope it won't be."
"Hopefully not. Very well, then. I suggest you and your pokemon take as much rest as you can this weekend. A live raid is very different from training. The risk is real."
"Sir, I was gutted by a pokemon. I think I have a good understanding of risk."
Doctor Belish chuckled incredulously. "Unfortunately so."
"Since you're coming with us, I think I will give you the task to co-command the unit," the commissioner said. "Given your importance and… experience with this investigation, you'll be given a temporary rank of second lieutenant. The men will have their own commanding officer, and you will be there to act as his advisor, but they will be instructed to obey you as their second-in-command. If their commanding officer is incapacitated, you will take over."
The two policemen saluted, and Agnes returned the gesture from her laying position on the bed. As Dante stood and returned to his trainer, Ilma took a step forward and smiled to Topa.
"I suppose this will be my chance to measure your strength, then. I look forward to working with you."
"I hope not," Topa replied. "I pray there will be no need for such comparisons. And I fear I may disappoint you."
"You might just surprise yourself. Once this is all over, I still insist I want to have a proper sparring duel. See you on Monday, then."
Topa lowered her head in a respectful salute. Ilma turned to me with an even brighter smile, then turned around as her trainer left the room.
When the door to her apartment closed, Agnes tightened her hold of me even further and let out a trembling sigh. I chirped at her, pushing my head into hers, and she gave me a few pets. Topa jumped on the bed, barking inquisitively, and received a few pets as well.
"I'm okay, you two," Agnes said with a broken smile. "But I can't let them take you and put you in a dangerous situation. Plus, I want to catch the people who did this to us myself. Are you two okay with my decision?"
Topa and I nodded simultaneously.
"Even though we know it's dangerous and you might get wounded?"
We both barked with confidence, tails wagging slowly. Agnes let out a deep sigh and let go of me, turning in bed to lay on her back. Her traits momentarily deformed by pain, she took a deep breath, looking up at the ceiling.
"I don't deserve to lead a unit," she whispered. "Or wield a rifle. They're putting far too much faith in me. The first time I went to the forest, I was nearly killed. I should have died, even, were it not–"
She interrupted herself, shaking her head with a distraught sigh as Topa and I exchanged concerned gazes.
"You'll be the ones doing everything again," she said, turning to us with a blank stare. "I'll be sitting on that absol, shouting at men who probably won't want to obey me, while you'll be on the front line taking risks. Your powers will make or break that mission. Oh, Topa, do you know what move Ruby was talking about?" The ninetales nodded. "Please start teaching her. We might need it for future raids if this one is unsuccessful."
Topa nodded again. I should have been excited that she was willing to finally teach me Will-O-Wisp, but I felt empty. It wasn't that she had been ordered to do so by Agnes – she had said before that she was willing to teach me – but the circumstances surrounding my learning the move were heartbreaking.
And Agnes was heartbroken.
My heart ached as she continued, her head and shoulders dropping, and her gaze never moving away from the ceiling. "I am so useless. Not a surprise the commissioner wanted to go without me, I will just be a dead weight. It's evident that if something happens, they won't let you two fight, or they wouldn't have had problems with me coming with you. They plan on sheltering you. And I'm useless. How I wish I had powers too, then maybe I could do something." She turned her head to Topa and me, tears brightening her cheeks. "You have no idea how much I envy you. I wish I were a pokemon."
As Topa whined and laid on Agnes's legs, I let out a scolding bark, extracting myself from her grip to rub my head against hers. She chuckled – then winced in pain – and raised her arms to seize me again, but didn't push me away from her. I laid on her upper torso, head between her neck and shoulder, and sighed as well.
"Don't worry," she whispered. "It's this wound starting to get to me. I'm okay. We'll go to the forest on Monday, capture the killers, and after that, I'll shift my studies to being a detective. You can still be with me – your powers would be extremely useful for a detective, even." She chuckled gently and endeavoured to scratch me behind the ear. "You two work on the move tomorrow, and I'll plan for a possible fight with haunter, okay? We can do this. I'm going to prove to them that I can be useful, even crippled."
Topa barked. She and I stood at the same time, and as I walked over my trainer to lay on her side, the ninetales walked to her to lay on her other side, our heads and one paw each on her torso. She grunted as she put her hands on our heads and petted us.
"I love you both," she whispered. "I don't think I could have kept going without you. Now let's call Rakuen, get some food, and get ready. This is going to be the last carefree weekend we get to enjoy."