(Epilogue of Episode XII)
Night had fallen. Amidst a torrent of loud snoring and mild wheezes laid a bothered Lucario, completely sleepless. Having difficulties in finding peace while on an uncomfortable bed of rocks, he stared as a pair of purple balloons snorted in their sleep, each exhale filling the air with a foul-smelling fog. Not much further away was what Lucario could most accurately describe as a pile of brown hair with tusks sticking out of it, tainting the room with yet another rancid odor while also sawing wood like a thunderstorm. He had never been around this many Pokémon before, always finding sleep out in the open wilderness. Realizing he would never, ever get any rest in this kind of atmosphere, he muttered as he got up and walked away, hoping to find a better place to spend the night.
After a short walk to a place where his only companions were rock and stone, he found a decent enough spot where he sat down and leaned up against a wall. However, even though he was quite tired he was still having trouble falling asleep. There was an unfamiliar sensation all over his body, and unlike the rowdy Pokémon in the other room, this he knew he would not be escaping from.
Examining his body he was pleased to see that his fur was coming back rather quickly. Only problem was that for some reason, different patches of hair were growing back at different speeds. Celebi suggested it was because of the massive beatings he had taken over the past few years, damaging the hair cells and shunting their growth. As a result, the hair that had grown back was relentlessly tickling the parts with naked skin as if mocking them for being so weak, and he constantly felt both hot and cold in different areas of his body. Despite all of this he struggled as hard as he could to fall asleep, but to no avail.
As he desperately tried to still his thoughts, he was suddenly made aware of a faint noise. A small, yet largely annoying scratching sound was emanating from somewhere deep inside the cavern. Eager for yet another excuse to not have to lie still and wait for sleep that would not come, Lucario got up and followed the sound. Despite the labyrinth-like structure of the cave's passages, with his acute hearing he had no trouble detecting the origin of the noise, finally finding himself inside a small and surprisingly well-lit room.
At the source of the scratching he saw Zoroark sitting on a soft cushion in front of a desk-like rock, slightly hunching over something. Although he sure she should have noticed his arrival, she seemed to be too absorbed into what she was doing as Lucario moved nearer to get a closer look. On the sleet stone she sat next to laid an open notebook, a bottle of ink and a couple of feathers, some of them worn out at the tip. Lucario marveled at the sight of a creature with claws writing at an unexpectedly quick pace, keeping a steady grip around the pen-like feather with her spiky fingers. An expression of disdain crossed Zoroark's face as she stopped writing and held the vellum in front of her, finally noticing that he was standing there.
"Lucario?" Zoroark whispered as she looked up from the parchment with a frown, "Shouldn't you be sleeping?"
"Shouldn't you?" Lucario responded quickly, and Zoroark sighed audibly as she put down her work.
"I am a Dark-type. We are active during the night," she tried to explain.
"… And during the day too, if I'm not mistaken?" Lucario continued, having seen both Zerobi and Zoroark alert during daytime. Only difference was, one of them was sleeping tight while the other one was currently looking at him with a very bothered expression, obviously wishing he would just go away.
"What do you want? There is work to be done," Zoroark muttered with an annoyed tone as she shooed him with her hand, "Consider me permanently busy. As such, stop bugging me."
"Just curious. Do you sleep, like, ever?" Lucario asked with an inquisitive look and a short snicker, "I bet you're hiding fifty million bags under your eyes with some kind of illusion."
Zoroark groaned to herself, well aware she should not have underestimated Lucario's persistence. Short on lies and quite worn out from the seemingly endless work, she realized that Lucario already knew a whole lot of secrets about her, assuming one more wouldn't hurt.
"… Fine. I suffer from insomnia," Zoroark admitted as she leaned back in her chair with a tired expression, "Can't be helped. It lets me stay alert and get an awful lot of work done, so it's not all bad."
Lucario titled his head slightly, surprised to hear her admitting something like that out of nowhere. He wondered if it was him or rather her lack of sleep responsible for breaking her down.
"So… You're just never going to sleep again?" Lucario asked as he crossed his arms, not really sure about what to say. Of course, he was having trouble sleeping too… But that was mostly a side effect caused by his irregular hair growth and irregular bedroom partners.
"Oh, no… I should be collapsing from exhaustion in two or three days," Zoroark explained as she looked up and stared longingly at the ceiling, "Hopefully. My performance plummets after too long, and I begin to hallucinate. I have to figure out a strategy for our assault before then."
"… You have two legendaries on your side, as well as a whole battalion of strong Pokémon," Lucario said while thinking of Mew's and Celebi's overwhelming power, "Do you REALLY need a strategy?"
Zoroark decided not to give a response this time. Although her own morale was steadily waning, she knew there was no point in telling Lucario of the ruthless opposition they were facing. She wondered how he would react if she were to say that despite having come up with nearly a hundred different strategies involving the nearly limitless potential of both the overly powerful legendaries, they all ended up with everyone being defeated, captured and the virus being deployed.
"Why don't we take a walk?" Lucario suggested as he saw a concerned expression form over Zoroark's face, "Might help you relax."
Zoroark continued looking up at the ceiling a few more moments before turning her gaze towards Lucario, a sneer across her face.
"A walk," Zoroark repeated mockingly, "And to think, all this time… After millions of various attempts and thousands of medicines… The cure for the greatest issue in my life was but a simple walk. How come I never thought of that before?"
"Hey, don't knock it 'til you've tried it," Lucario pointed out confidently, "I was able to cure Celebi of insomnia in one night."
The sneer quickly vanished from Zoroark's face, replaced with one of surprise.
"… Really? How?" Zoroark asked with a newborn voice of sheer curiosity. Lucario imagined himself squeezing her tight while convincing her that it was part of the technique only moments before getting a knee to the groin, deciding against even trying.
"I, uh…" Lucario muttered while involuntarily wincing, "… Don't think that particular method's going to work with you. Let's start with a walk."
Although she looked disappointed at first, Zoroark eventually gave off another sigh and got up from her cushion. The two of them left the workroom with Zoroark taking the lead, explaining that the cave system they were currently in was like a maze that went on for miles. It kept them from being detected as an organized group of Pokémon, but getting lost in the frozen wastes was just as easy. After her explanation, Zoroark fell quiet with a sudden display of awareness.
"… Did you just coerce me into giving you a guided tour?" Zoroark muttered accusingly while giving a sideways glance towards Lucario.
"Maybe," he replied with a shrug, "This place is a lot cozier than I had expected."
Compared to the dank underground near Saffron City and the busy streets of No Man's Land, Lucario could not deny the charm of the area he was currently in. The caves were faintly formed out as houses with rooms, the passages between them giving way to the outside and letting fresh air seep through the otherwise stale atmosphere. Sensing several strong auras in the vicinity, the whole thing felt a little like a fortress, well defended and safe.
"Hmm… It just occurred to me that we have yet to do this formally…" Zoroark suddenly said, breaking him out of his chain of thoughts, "Lucario, will you help us claim and destroy the virus before it comes to fruition?"
"Uh… Sure, but…" Lucario replied as he scratched the back of his head, "I'm sensing quite a few strong auras all around. You sure you need another brawler like me?"
"Do not worry, I have a more important role in mind for you," Zoroark said with a sinister smile showing itself. Lucario tried to ignore it, but felt a little worried as to what the future held in store for him. Focusing more carefully on the auras, he was disappointed that there weren't anything familiar about them. There were actually two revolutionaries he had hoped to meet up with.
"Oh yeah… Where's Connor and Astrid?" Lucario asked curiously. The smile on Zoroark's face faded almost instantly, realizing she had yet to break the news to him. She felt reluctant in doing so, rather enjoying the quiet and peaceful walk they were having, wondering if maybe her duties as a leader could come in second for once. However, it was not her duties as a leader, but her duties to her dead comrade that finally convinced her to go through with it.
"Connor has trouble traveling long distances, and is staying behind to fortify our defenses back home…" Zoroark whispered, deciding to get the lighter side of things out of the way first, "… Astrid… Perished during a raid of No Man's Land…"
It took Lucario a few moments to stop, his steps growing continuously heavier and slower until he was barely moving at all. The so-called frightening vision of the extremely cute eeveelution crossed his mind for a moment, Astrid's worried yet very talkative demeanor bringing about a sense of nostalgia. Even though it had annoyed him in the past, Lucario now wished he had gotten to hear the small thing speak some more.
"Raid…?" Lucario repeated as his mouth dried up, "How many…?"
"Very few have died since the creation of No Man's Land," Zoroark explained while lowering her head, "Astrid… He chose to bravely face the enemy head on. I doubt they intended to kill him, they just wanted to move him aside… And it went too far…"
Hearing the words "brave" and "Astrid" in the same sentence sounded wrong to Lucario. A bitter sensation crawled up on him, remembering how he had instructed the small Rock-type to be manlier and face adversities without backing down.
"… Damn it…!" Lucario growled as he clenched his fists, suddenly feeling guilty. Astrid had followed his advice and gotten himself killed as a result. Zoroark looked at Lucario, surprised that he even knew about Astrid. Wondering if Zerobi maybe had told Lucario everything about Evolution's Gate after all, she suddenly remembered having seen both him and Astrid talking about something in the underground base beneath Saffron City. Seeing the devastation apparent on Lucario's face, she decided to drop her inquisition and instead gave him a pat on the back in comfort.
"Wh-What the…!?" Lucario burst out in shock as he took a step back, Zoroark slowly realizing that his devastation was caused by neither her touch nor the memory of Astrid. Looking down at the ground, she saw a purple mist leaking out of the rocky floor. Her fears of the cavern filling up with poison gas faded quickly as she noticed a familiar set of red eyes suddenly rising out of the floor.
"Good evening," Zoroark said quietly, welcoming the end of all privacy with a faint smile. Following the eyes, the rest of the creature's body rose up from its tomb of stones, gracefully and without leaving any sign of its passage through solid rock.
"Good evening," a deep, disembodied voice replied as the apparition's mouth came into view. Lucario watched as the purple haze grew until he could make out the monster's feet hovering out of the soil, before silently setting down on the same area they had just effortlessly gone through. Although the scene was bizarre, something about this creature was urgently tugging at his mind.
"Ah! You!" Lucario suddenly exclaimed, recognizing the Gengar he had found drinking back in No Man's Land. The terrifying being's eyes had gone back to being icy cool, but Lucario remembered his outburst all too well and no longer wondered as to why he had been so frightened only moments earlier. The Gengar stared at him silently before looking at Zoroark with a not-so interested expression.
"The reputation of your hauntings is so severe that people are too afraid to partake in the stash of booze we found," Zoroark told the Gengar with a calm voice before nodding in appreciation, "Keep up the good work."
The Ghost-type nodded back, suddenly beginning to sink back into the ground. Lucario was surprised by the unexpected guest leaving as quickly as he had appeared. Taking the moment into action, Lucario knew that while he had many things to ask, most of them could be summarized into a single question
"What are you?" Lucario asked with a bewildered expression. Expecting the Gengar to continue sinking out of view and out of his life forever, the Ghost-type instead brought himself to a stop. His torso was halfway submerged in the cavern's floor as he looked up at Lucario.
"See for yourself, kid," he spoke quietly, before suddenly lounging up at Lucario from the ground. Lucario staggered backwards and held his hands in front in an attempt to defend as the Ghost-type came upon him. Expecting a collision, all he saw was the Gengar continuing his approach as he continued moving unhindered, Lucario's arms sinking into the purple haze surrounding his body. A stifled gasp sounded as Lucario felt his arms caressed by a thick, formless gas and he was met with the Gengar's eyes at point blank range, only moments before those very eyes melted straight through his own. Something like millions upon millions of tiny fleas crawling over his body shook Lucario as he froze up, feeling his body invaded from every direction and through every pore.
Zoroark watched as the Gengar walked through Lucario, somewhat glad to not be in his position. Her body possessed secrets, most of which could only properly defend against the naked eye. The Gengar reformed behind Lucario, the normally grumpy old bastard seemingly pleased with himself as he continued his trek downwards, disappearing into the ground and away from sight. Zoroark felt a bit annoyed by the ghost's hasty leave, realizing that she would have to be the one to explain everything once Lucario came back to his senses.
"S-Spectre…!" Lucario stammered with vocal cords that just moments ago had been touched by an unearthly force, "H-He ran r-right through me!"
A sigh escaped Zoroark's lips, amazed by her own precognitive abilities. She was at least glad Lucario's curiosities were directed at the Ghost-type and not their stash of alcohol, because the last thing she needed was for him to be drunk when he had so much learning to do.
"Ghost-types have a very strange ability, which is why we do not simply refer to them as Gas-types," Zoroark said, knowing that if Lucario had no idea what a Fighting-type was he definitively did not know about something as advanced as this, "Due to their… Non-solid body structure, they can break and scatter their bodies into very small components without dying."
"Of course!" Lucario replied loudly as his body was beginning to return to normal, pushing away the feelings left behind by the unwelcome visitor, "… Ghosts can't die!"
"I believe that you are missing the point," Zoroark explained slowly in an attempt to calm him down, "What they do is break up their bodies to such an extent that only microscopical particles remain. Such miniscule pieces can easily slip through seemingly solid matter, which is why they can move through walls and other objects low in atomic density. Because of this, I hear they dislike Platinum."
"Ah," Lucario exclaimed in realization, saddened by getting a logical explanation instead of a creepy ghost story, "It's… A bit boring when you explain it like that."
"Just be glad you have yet to fight a Ghost-type," Zoroark said bluntly as she watched Lucario, glad to see that he had settled down so quickly, "Punches, kicks, slashes and anything done by solid matter will have no effect. I have a natural advantage, but as they hardly have any weaknesses they would be quite troublesome for someone like you…"
She was then made aware that Lucario was no longer listening, instead looking over his body with a concerned expression, obviously trying to distinguish if the Gengar's harmless attack had affected him in any way. Sighing for what seemed like her fiftieth time this night, Zoroark began walking again as Lucario followed. She was beginning to realize how difficult it would have to be to re-learn everything about Pokémon. For someone as clueless about the dangers of the world as Lucario to be wandering around, she knew it was nothing short of a miracle that he still had both his life and freedom in possession.
A quiet smile suddenly formed over Zoroark's face. Having read the reports on each of Lucario's battles, she knew there was neither luck nor miracles involved. Lucario was strong, persistent and most importantly, had very powerful friends who cared about him. For a fighter like him to be taken down for good, luck and miracles would have to be with his opponent. Admiring his beneficial position in life, she wondered if Lucario even realized this. Did he know that even if he were to lose and get captured, someone like herself or one of the legendaries would come to rescue him? Could that be the reason for him constantly sticking his neck out, because he knew himself to ultimately be untouchable?
Zoroark felt her line of thinking get out of hand. Lucario was facing mortal danger just as often as capture, and no helpful urges on anyone's part would change the outcome of death. Again she could not help but wonder why Lucario bothered doing anything. He had told her that his reason to keep on living was simply because he disliked dying… But if that truly was the case, why did he constantly set himself down the path of danger? For a man concerned with only survival, it would be far safer to hide oneself as his companion Zerobi had done for so long. Perhaps he was incapable of sitting still? If so, what did he have in mind for when the battle was over? Bothered by how much she was thinking of Lucario when she could be thinking of more important things, she decided to ask him straight out.
"Say, Lucario… What are your plans for when this is all over?" Zoroark asked curiously, "As to say… When you are no longer needed?"
Lucario shrugged as he kept on walking.
"I don't have any plans…" Lucario answered earnestly, wondering what was really expected of a human-made-Pokémon like himself, "… But I wasn't really doing anything before this all went down, so I'll think of something. You?"
"Well… I still have No Man's Land to take care of," Zoroark replied quickly as if having anticipated the question, "But soon enough, it will be able to sustain itself whether I am there or not. At that time, I shall retire."
"… You mean, permanent vacation? Go relax on a beach somewhere?" Lucario asked as he thought of what would qualify as retirement for a being with neither job nor home, "… Get a family and settle down?"
Giving off a quick chortle, Zoroark imagined herself in the many unlikely scenarios. It suddenly occurred to her that despite having figured out a lot of her personal secrets, Lucario really knew very little about her. As tempting as it was to reveal everything, she knew there was still one secret about her that she could absolutely not let anyone know of.
Agonizing memories began to crawl up on her and wipe away her cheerful expression as she was suddenly reminded as to why she was here, or rather why she even existed at this moment. She sternly told herself that if she had time for leisure, then she had time to bring prosperity to her goals. Converting her peace of mind into determination, she hastily regained her will to keep on working.
"I need to get back to work," Zoroark said as she stopped and turned around, signaling her departure to Lucario. He looked disappointed but eventually nodded, completely unaware of her reasoning.
"Alright, keep working for that retirement!" Lucario said in an attempt to understand her motives. Again, Zoroark smiled. If only he knew the truth.
"Haha, Lucario… We are rather similar, you and I…" Zoroark snickered while shaking her head, "… But it seems that there is one major difference that will always separate us."
"Oh? What's that?" Lucario asked and wondered if she was referring to her gender again. Instead, Zoroark fully turned her back away from him and spoke with total clarity.
"Trauma," she said before walking forward, soon disappearing within the darkness of the cave. Lucario stood and wondered what she had meant, but was beginning to feel drowsiness come over him and affecting his reasoning. Yawning loudly while realizing this was as good a place to sleep as any, he lay down on the rocky ground and closed his eyes.
"That looks really uncomfortable," a familiar voice sounded, Lucario wondering why Zoroark had returned after such a cool departure. Opening his eyes, he suddenly realized that it was not her at all, but another very familiar aura-less being.
"You don't HAVE to sleep on rocks, you know," Zerobi said as she looked down at him, one of her fangs poking through her smile and gleaming slightly in the moonlight, "I'm pretty sure even the soil outside would make a better bed."
"… Too cold…" Lucario muttered, too tired to explain their difference in body temperatures again. Even so, he could not help but notice that something was different about Zerobi, and before he even had time to ask she held up one of her claws in a stopping gesture.
"I tried mixing one of those weird plants you like with some berries," Zerobi muttered while making an odd sound in her voice, "Didn't, uh, go down too well."
"Heh. Told you berries are bad," Lucario chuckled, diverting the blame of his precious mint towards the loathsome berries. Zerobi snickered for a moment before her face suddenly became serious.
"I heard you talking to Zoroark," she said with a stern tone.
"Yeah," Lucario replied and felt a bit annoyed over the fact that he was unable to sense her aura. Between her and Zoroark's ability to become invisible, he was pretty much guaranteed to never be sure that he was actually having privacy. Zerobi looked behind, making sure no one was listening in on their conversation before leaning in closer to Lucario's ear.
"… You honestly think we can trust him?" she whispered with a concerned expression. Not sure on how to answer, Lucario simply sighed and thought to himself for a while.
"Listen… Once you've shared a cage with a guy, you get to know a few things about him," Lucario started, aware that one of those things was that the guy was never a guy to begin with, "Don't worry, I understand the way he thinks. He's cool."
"But… Do you think Zoroark will trust us?" Zerobi continued nervously. She obviously had some beef with Zoroark, but he could not think of what it was.
"Sure," Lucario replied bluntly, swallowing before lowering his voice to a whisper, "Mostly just guessing here, but… I think I'm the closest thing he has to a friend."
This brought a reaction out of Zerobi, the Dark-type flinching with a flustered expression.
"A-A friend?" she stammered before scrounging her face into one of complete confusion, "What… Makes you think that?"
"Uh…" Lucario muttered as he thought of what to say, "Well, every time we meet it's like he starts gushing out all he's been thinking about, all his secrets and everything. I don't think he does that with anyone else… I don't think he has anyone else he can talk to openly…"
Finding it difficult to explain things without revealing too much about Zoroark's true nature, Lucario tried to feign a yawn. He did not have to work hard, the yawn becoming progressively more natural as it slipped out of him. He really wanted to go to sleep.
"Can we do this tomorrow?" Lucario groaned as he laid his head back again and closed his eyes, "I'm… Really tired…"
"… Of course," Zerobi replied in an unusually calm manner, suddenly sounding a little unsure of herself, "Um… Good night?"
She looked down as Lucario gave no reply, obviously halfway on the road to dreamland already. Feeling jealousy creep up on her once more, she began to walk away while thinking of what he had just said. As she continued down the passage and out of his sight, her body began to change. Her chest shrunk back as the rest of her upper body elongated, claws transforming from scythes to spikes as her red hair grew longer. Where Zerobi had stood now was Zoroark, releasing her illusion and ending her impersonation with a quiet sigh.
"… Friend, huh…?" Zoroark whispered to herself. She felt people were throwing that particular word around an awful lot lately. Knowing she was not about to get any sleep anyway, she headed back to her workplace with somewhat lighter steps than before.