Author's Note: You know, Niantic really wasted some lore and spawn potential with this year's Go Fest cities since London, Osaka, and New York City all have Pokeverse counterparts. Oh, well, I'm ignoring Castelia City canon too, so whose concern is it?
"Listen up, everybody."
Both sets of leaders were engaged in meetings pertaining to how the logistics would be managed for 2023's Go Fest events, which went remarkably similarly despite their opposite alignments. Neither of them were especially pleased with the plans.
"So, last year, we had the global kickoff and then the 3 city events. That was good news for us because it meant we could give our one required appearance at the kickoff locally and save transit. Well, the Pokémon League Authority, in their infinite wisdom, decided to move the global part to the end of the season and is now requiring us to show up in the flesh for one of the city events. We can send admins cosplaying as us for the others."
Blanche reached up a pointer to tap on the projector screen, showing that year's city tour schedule.
"The good news is that one of them is actually on the same landmass as us. The bad news is that it's on the other side of it. Castelia City, Unova. 40+ hours driving time."
All of the team leaders groaned at this notion. Candela raised the obvious question.
"Let me guess, the Pokémon League authority isn't paying for us to fly?"
"No. However, they will cover gas expenses provided we arrive early to set up the temporary Pokestops in Castelia Park."
"So we're going to be driving across the entire width of the continent with a bunch of Pokestops in the back of the trunk."
"Oh, joy. Well, at least the Team GO Rocket leaders will be just as miserable."
This led Spark to contemplate Arlo's plans, and he decided that after the meeting, he'd text his boyfriend to figure out if it would be possible for them to meet up for Go Fest, or for that matter, if Arlo could travel with them. After all, the long drive would be a lot more interesting with him there and if they were going to the same place and the League was covering expenses...
"So, Sierra, what's the status on Go Fest this year? I haven't heard anything from monitoring the team leaders in regards to big feature releases we can ruin or unusual legendary phenomena. Best I can give you is that Mega Rayquaza might turn up after Primal Groudon and Kyogre damn near destroyed the world back during Hoenn Tour."
"Thank you, Arlo. This year, Giovanni has decided to split his resources more efficiently. Rather than all 3 of us going to each of the city events, he wants each of us to attend one of the 3 city tours, and then we all, of course, keep an eye on the team leaders and grunts during the global finale here in Sanctum City. Who wants to volunteer for each occasion? I have already called I'm already calling Wyndon. Visiting Galar has been one of my dreams since I was a little girl, and I'm not letting you fuck it up for me. Cliff?"
"I don't really have a preference between Goldenrod and Castelia, so I'll let Arlo choose before me. How about it, little dude?"
"Cliff, really? During a business meeting? Anyway, uh..." Arlo got a notification popup on his glasses' AR display announcing a text from Spark, asking if he wanted to carpool with the team leaders since they were going to the Castelia City event. "Castelia. I'll ride with the team leaders. Through process of elimination, that leaves Cliff going to Goldenrod City."
"You're...carpooling with our enemies? I get that you're likely going to do the bare minimum of research and then wander off to do tourist shit with your boyfriend, but how am I supposed to explain this to Archer?"
"See, Sierra, it's all part of my grand machinations." Arlo rose from his seat and started dramatically pacing the table, delivering a classic circling villain monologue. "I've seduced Spark into trusting me, allowing me to obtain insider knowledge from the team leaders and take advantage of their resources. This way, I'm using funds from the Pokemon League Authority, which will be covering gas, for my own evil purposes."
"You've seduced him into more than just trusting you." Sierra rolled her eyes, but wrote down Arlo's assignment on her clipboard, so she evidently wasn't really objecting.
"Also, does anybody really use the word 'machinations'?" Cliff incredulously raised an eyebrow in Arlo's direction, his fellow leader still looking interminably smug.
"It's a transparent excuse for you to hang out with your boyfriend and we all know it, but if you want to subject yourself to every trainer on the continent in the busiest city in Unova, then go for it. It's not like anyone else is volunteering."
"Giovanni doesn't need to know that it's a transparent excuse."
Sierra sighed and made another few strokes on her clipboard. "I suppose you're right. If you're using the Pokemon League's resources in order to take advantage of the team leaders' generosity and save us money, I suppose I can swing that. Meeting adjourned."
Once he got out of the meeting, Arlo immediately flopped down onto his bed and used one of the shortcut buttons on his glasses to call Spark, who promptly answered.
"So, guess what?"
"You're coming with us to Castelia City?"
"Right on. So, outside of our obligatory job responsibilities, what are we planning to do? It is Unova's biggest tourist city. I'm going to say that we have to go to the Widestreet Theater museum. If I get pictures of original costumes and stuff, Cliff's going to be so jealous."
"Sounds good here! Personally, I've always wanted one of those I ♥ CC shirts. You know the ones, right?"
"Ah, yes, the cliche kind. I'm sure they sell them at every corner store in the place for unoriginal tourists like you."
"Yeah, sure, like us. This is gonna be great!"
"...well, save the 40 hours of cross-continental driving. The good news is that since we've allocated so much time before and after for transit and setup, nobody will notice or care if we return late."
"Oh, I think we can find a favorable seating arrangement to make the drive a little more interesting..." Spark couldn't see it because they were on an audio call, but Arlo wiggled his eyebrows seductively combined with a corresponding shift in his tone of voice.
"Hey, don't get too fresh. Rhi will be present, after all."
"You still have them? Hasn't there not been a new Ultra Wormhole in, like, a year?"
"We still don't know how to get them home. Besides, Blanche seems to have gotten pretty attached, as have the trainers."
The morning of their departure, all 3 team leaders, Rhi, and Arlo gathered in the Professor Willow Lab's parking lot, Blanche carrying the keys to the official lab van, its trunk loaded with temporary Pokestops and gyms along with everyone's luggage.
"All right, here's how we're going to do this. There will be a total of 40 hours of driving. The goal is to get in about 10 hours today, stop to rest overnight, and then finish off the rest in similar shifts. Before anybody else asks, I'm going to be the one driving. I have done cross-country trips before and trust myself to stay focused more than any of you."
Candela briefly glared in Blanche's direction, before Spark looked in her direction, briefly placed a hand on her shoulder, and whispered something unintelligible and she resigned. The statement wasn't really incorrect.
"In regards to the seating arrangement, Candela and I will be in the front seat. Spark, Arlo, Rhi, you can all go in the back. And yes, Arlo, you can sit next to Spark, but keep in mind you are our guest and also officially our enemy. There is nothing, legally speaking, preventing me from evicting you at a rest area and letting you walk the rest of the way there. So be on your best behavior."
"What are you, my mom?"
Blanche wordlessly stared in Arlo's direction, their expression showing no signs of any kind of humor or annoyance at the statement, but still carrying enough intimidation to factor him.
"Each of us will get to choose a playlist for a total of 2 hours on each 10-hour driving segment. While one party member's playlist is active, none of the others are permitted to complain. If you dislike their selections, then I trust you to have brought headphones on a personal device. If not, then you will accept whatever is presently playing. Keep in mind that this is a privilege, not a right, and as such can be revoked due to disagreeable behavior. Do we all agree on this contract?"
"Yes, Blanche -- oh."
All in attendance resignedly sounded out the words, before noticing Blanche passing around a clipboard holding a literal contract, a pen attached to it by chain, which they all signed, contemplating when Blanche had the time to write, let alone ratify it given their Go Fest meeting having just been the past week.
Whether due to the very clearly laid out terms of Blanche's contract, or everyone being too intimidated by them to object, the road trip went remarkably well. Despite their strict management of conduct while inside the vehicle, Blanche was willing to detour so party members could satisfy their biological needs and they passed the time in idle conversation and/or asleep, Arlo taking advantage of the opportunity to cuddle up against Spark. At roughly midnight that night, they unloaded their most essential personal belongings into a classic highway-exit motel, the kind where the doors opened straight into the outside and that could be rented either by the day or by the hour. Candela rolled her eyes, despite the question she directed towards Blanche being entirely legitimate.
"Let me guess, you also have a contract for the hotel room situation? I'm not sharing a bed with him ever again." She pointed an accusatory figure in Arlo's direction, the other leader responding with an exaggerated expression of indignation.
"You, Rhi, and I will be sharing one room. I have an air bed for Rhi in my suitcase. Spark and Arlo will get the other. We will get two rooms that connect to each other. And yes, I will be sharing a bed with you unless you prefer to sleep on the couch or floor. We can live with it for one night."
"Fine. Guess I'll have to sleep wearing pants, then."
"I do not need to know this. Miriam, are there two connected rooms available?"
After inputting some keystrokes into a blocky computer, the woman behind the front desk, whose nameplate marked her as an employee of the hotel for 20 years and whose greying-haired appearance distinctly reminded Spark and Arlo of Doris from their visit to Mote City, nodded and named a price, which Blanche charged to the lab's credit card. Spark raised an eyebrow at this and turned to them for questioning.
"Uh, Blanche, are you sure that Willow's going to be okay with us getting two rooms since Arlo's here and he isn't allowed to officially know that?"
"If the Pokémon League Authority asks, you shared a room with Rhi. What they do not know can not hurt us. Here are everyone's key cards. Do not lose them. Of course, this hotel does not provide breakfast so I am not sure what reason any of you would have to leave the room."
Blanche fanned out four white plastic-coated cards, after pocketing theirs into a compartment in their phone case, which the other party members picked up. The hotel's accommodations could be shortly described as "adequate". It certainly wasn't where any of the team leaders would have preferred to spend an extended period, but in getting all of them enough sleep that they could continue their drive the following day without Blanche passing out at the wheel or any of them killing each other, it fulfilled the intended purpose. Besides, Spark suspected that he'd be happy sleeping almost anywhere with Arlo by his side, and Arlo in turn, with the addendum of his plushie, which he'd brought and was clutching as Spark clutched him, visions of blurred scenery and the inevitable religious billboards playing through the windows of his subconscious.
The next three segments of driving passed by much like the first, although by the time they'd gotten to the third, everybody except Arlo had started repeating playlists due to insufficient depth in their libraries. He half-expected that he'd have everybody's favorite songs memorized by the time they got back, although that wasn't really a fair sample given that Candela's music taste had heavy overlap with his and Spark's he was familiar with from their own trips both within and outside of Sanctum City.
The hotel they arrived at in Castelia City was, mercifully, nicer than the highway exit ones they'd stopped at while in transit. Well, at least it was roughly 10 times the price per night, but the Pokémon League was covering it so that didn't really concern the team leaders. Despite the heftier price tag and chandelier in the lobby, the rooms were roughly the same size. The primary differences consisted of the thread count of the sheets and the direction of expansion being upward rather than outward. Spark and Arlo's first stop on their cliche tourist exploration of Castelia City was taking the elevator to the hotel's rooftop lounge, getting overpriced drinks, and taking pictures of the sky-scraping cityscape around them.
The morning of Go Fest's first day, Blanche woke up everyone in the party at roughly 5:00, much to all of their annoyance, expressed in a combination of grunts, groans, and exclamations of varying levels of acceptability among polite company.
"What the fuck? The event doesn't start until 9! Breakfast isn't even going to be up for 2 hours!"
"Protein bars are in my suitcase. If you wanted something else, you should have brought it. Besides, Candela, you know the rules. The Pokémon League only said they'd cover our travel expenses if we set up and took down the Pokestops at the park."
"Yeah, but I don't see why 'we' in that sentence can't just mean 'you'."
"I am not carrying all of them myself. Either you come with me and help me set up or I inform Professor Willow that you ditched."
"Hmm, that was actually pretty devious of you. Not bad. We're still getting coffee and donuts, though, right?"
"That can be arranged. Rhi, you can stay here and protect the room for us."
"Given that they have only appeared to trainers lately when there have been Ultra Wormhole incursions, I do not want their presence to cause any unwarranted alarm."
"You're just playing favorites with your space kid."
"Rather than directing your annoyance towards me, do you care to do the honors of waking up Arlo and Spark?"
"You know me so well. So, what song do you think I should --"
"I am going down to the van to inventory the Pokestops and review their planned locations. I am not concerned with your methods. Just get them awake."
Candela slightly creaked open the door connecting the two hotel rooms, squinting through the sliver of light it presented to see Arlo cuddled up against Spark's chest, clutching his plushie and periodically shuffling and murmuring. Evidently he was very involved in whatever sort of dream he was having and he and Spark were both thoroughly out of it. She knew exactly what to do in this situation.
"Listen up, losers!"
Despite her clear shout cracking through the room, neither Spark nor Arlo fully woke up, shuffling to hide their heads instead. Candela pressed a button on a wireless speaker, starting the opening to Escape the Fate's "The Flood" at its maximum volume, prompting both Spark and Arlo to engage in further attempts to cover themselves and several thumps against the ceiling from the tenants upstairs. Candela approached closer to Arlo.
"This next song is called 'If I Could Stay Clean, I Could Stay With My Band'! Seriously, motherfuckers, wake up. Blanche wants us at the park at this ungodly hour to set up Pokestops."
Once Arlo woke up, only demonstrated by his eyes opening while the rest of him remained under a heap of blankets, his hand briefly emerged from the covers as well to present a single-finger salute.
"So, did I mess with one of your Ronnie dreams again?"
"For your information, I actually wasn't having one. Also, this sounds like a team leader problem. The fuck are you bothering me for? Spark! Candela wants to talk to you."
"I know. Just -- can you turn the music off? Please?" Spark still had his head buried face-down in a pillow. Candela rolled her eyes and paused the speaker.
"Oh, I know you don't need to be there, Arlo, and technically you shouldn't be, but don't you think Giovanni would be so impressed if you learned of the secret Pokestop layout plans and planned your takeover route before the trainers were any the wiser?"
"I was gonna do my takeovers during the city experience."
"Blanche said we could get coffee and donuts."
"Well, why didn't you lead with that? Come on, Spark, you can get something pink with sprinkles. Oh, and seriously, what the hell? I thought we'd --"
"Buried the hatchet? Oh, I know. That's why doing this is so much fun."
Arlo had stopped responding in favor of rolling out of bed and putting his glasses and pants back on. Since he was sleeping in his hoodie, that was all the preparation he needed. Spark required a bit more time. After they'd directed their final glares at Candela, she herded them down to the car, which Blanche was leaned against, scrolling through their phone with boredom.
"Oh. I see you finally got them. Let me guess, you insisted on making a scene rather than just tapping them on the shoulders?"
"So, why is Arlo here? This is confidential information and the Pokestops will lock if handled by anyone without a ticket after 9:00 or by anyone except Pokémon League personnel before."
"Do you really think I couldn't hack through that?"
"Oh, I'm sure you can. But seriously, why are you here? You will not be able to harvest any items from the Pokestops; they will not be open until 9:00."
"I was promised donuts."
"I see. There is a place with high reviews from locals on the third street on our way to the park. We will stop there. You can all eat in the car. I will not be ordering anything because I --"
"Brought your own meal-prepped mason jar breakfast because you're so much purer than all of us."
"Candela, if you are going to be abrasive, then Spark and I can do this without you."
"Okay, guess I have reason to be all the more abrasive, then!"
"Stop or you're not getting a donut. And for your information, it was in a biodegradable resealable bag. Mason jars are inefficient for transportation."
Once the team leaders had set up all of the Pokestops, team lounge tents, and other such facilities at Castelia Park, and stopped for another round of donuts and coffee for a job well done, they had an impromptu meeting clarifying the event's logistics before the trainers arrived.
"The first section of facilities in the park will run from 9:00 to 14:00, and the next will be from 16:00 to 19:00. During that time, the Pokémon League's conditions state that at least one team leader must be available in their team lounge at all times for administrative purposes and trainer photo ops. We will be taking 1-hour shifts. I'm sending all of you links to a scheduling spreadsheet to sign yourselves up. Mine are already allocated."
"Okay, so we're going to be there so the trainers can squeal over us. Great. What are we going to do about the reports of meteorites, disappearing diamonds, and enormous fuck you dragons in the area? After all, those are why Go Fest got scheduled here in the first place."
"When you are not on a park shift, you may take the opportunity to explore the city, both in order to gain information from trainers in raids and to engage in any city-specific sightseeing that interests you. If you encounter a meteorite or signs of Mega Rayquaza and/or Diancie activity, report it on the groupchat, but do not engage unless you are sure you can do so safely. I would hate for any of you to be injured."
"Of course you would. After all, the illustrious leader of Team Mystic has better things to do with their genius than fill out paperwork."
"Candela, are you going to be able to be personable for the Trainers today or do I have to send you back to the hotel?"
"Whatever. I've already got a raid train map lined up for my research." She held up her phone to present to the other two team leaders. Spark reached forward to zoom in on the text descriptions.
"Uh, Candela, this is a pub crawl route."
"Which happens to pass by 6 whole gyms."
"Besides, I don't believe for a second that you're not going to take the first opportunity to run off with Arlo and take tourist pictures at all the cliche places."
"Remember, while we are in a fantastic city for sightseeing and education alike; in fact, I myself have a list of museums I would not mind perusing during our time here; we are still here for work. We have three days of this event so you will have plenty of time to do whatever you like while still achieving your responsibilities. If I see anyone outside of the park during their designated shift, I will not hesitate to report it to the League. Now, if you will excuse me, we have 30 minutes before the trainers will arrive, so I am going to use the restroom. I would recommend that you all do the same; facilities in the park will be under high demand."
Once Blanche left, Spark and Candela simultaneously looked back in their direction until the restroom door closed behind them and then back at each other.
"You're not going to show up for your shift either, huh?"
"I mean, Blanche can handle all the administrative stuff themself and our fans don't really care if it's really us they're taking pictures with or just cosplayers who are similarly cute. Besides, there's something big going on and it's our responsibility as trainers and as researchers to learn about it. So if anyone needs me, I'm going to be doing some fucking raids and fighting some sky snakes. Honestly, Spark, what were you even going to do for legitimate purposes? It's not like either Mega Rayquaza or Diancie hatch from eggs."
"I'll probably show up for one of the park shifts to take some pictures for the lab social media pages, at least, but you do make a compelling point."
"Like, Blanche knows things about form changes and mega evolutions, I'm down to fight anything and assess how strong they are...what do you do? Really, you're kind of irrelevant to this event."
"Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say that --"
"Dude, I'm saying that you can ditch this whole-ass thing to do cute shit with your boyfriend and I won't rat if you don't rat on me."
"Deal. I signed up for the first team lounge shift just to get it over with, but I'm probably not going to show up for my second one."
"Sounds good to me. Besides, you know damn well that Blanche is going to insist on monitoring the park the whole time, and that they know that we're probably going to ditch, so they can't tell that we're not in the park without admitting that they abandoned their shift! Really, we can get off scot-free!"
"You know, despite being the emotionally driven leader, you're really good at rationalization."
"Thanks, that's what my guidance counselor said."
"Uh, I hate to interrupt, but --" Arlo pointed in Blanche's direction, the Mystic leader on their way out of the bathroom and quickly re-approaching earshot of the table. The other two leaders silently nodded in each other's direction.
"The restroom is now open. It is one stall, so keep things efficient. The passcode is 7961."
"What kind of sick, overly gentrified place feels the need to password-protect their fucking bathrooms?"
"This one, apparently. If you don't mind, can I go first? I've consumed an unreasonable amount of coffee today."
Arlo rushed off towards the restroom, but after concluding what usually happened in there, was stricken with confusion by the sign on its door and waved Spark over.
"Hey! It's a single-stall restroom, you don't have time to fuck!"
"Candela, we are in public in a professional capacity."
"So, uh, why'd you wave me over to look at the bathroom sign?"
The door on question, rather than any kind of stick figure, was marked with images of a Cloyster, a Beldum, and a Cherubi with the caption "whatever; just wash your hands". While Arlo appreciated gender-neutral signage in all its forms, this one seemed bizarre upon him giving it thought.
"So, Spark, Beldums are animated by their psychic power and held together with magnets, right?"
"Something like that."
"Have you ever seen one eat?"
"I've got trainers who have them as buddies who give them berries, which go...somewhere, but I'm not sure where."
"So, do they...produce waste?"
"I...don't know. I've never seen it. Also, Cherubi are plants. Plants do remove waste, but not in any form that corresponds to what people use restrooms for."
"It's probably an anatomical metaphor, but none of the body parts that look like Cherubi are ones that you use for that!"
"Yes, you two, the restroom sign is fascinating. Are you going to use it?"
"Oh, hi, Blanche. Just contemplating the mysteries of life. Arlo, you did wash your hands, though, right?"
"Of course. What do you take me for?"
"Someone who admitted to me that he hasn't cleaned his carpet in 6 years."
After everybody had attended to their requisite biological needs, the team leaders set out for the park, designated a central point at which to meet once they were done with their respective research, and all 3 of them went their separate ways, Spark and Arlo remaining in the park for the former's team lounge shift.
"So, what do you actually do in the team lounge? Just hang out and have trainers take pictures with you like you're Santa at the mall?"
"Well, we also do trivia, giveaways, and help trainers coordinate trades."
"You're basically a mall Santa."
"I like to think of it more as a wandering character at a theme park. But yes. We're going to take a bit of a roundabout route to the lounge, though, since Nia wants photos for the social media pages."
As the couple rounded the park, Arlo periodically stopping to battle trainers, he examined the over-the-top displays. Not only was the park filled with temporary Pokestops, all of which had been marked with Lure Modules that fluttered down pink petals, leaves, snowflakes, and whatnot, the Pokestops all had effects at their bases corresponding to their habitat and attracting the Pokémon the League had stocked the park with and each habitat was marked with some sort of extravagant construct. Their current location in the Prehistoric Volcano habitat had rocks coming out from the bottoms of the Pokestops while Cranidos and Numel frolicked around them, the scene dominated by a giant plastic volcano spewing out "smoke" from an internal fog machine and backdrops Trainers could take pictures with of fossilized Pokémon skeletons.
"Yeah, upon second judgment, I do think you're closer to a character at a theme park."
"So, while I can't share them with the lab pages, care to take some photo-ops ourselves?"
"Eh, what the hell, why not?"
During Spark's tour of the park before the couple returned to the Instinct team lounge, they'd gotten pictures next to display constructs of some ruins, complete with a hidden "treasure chest" full of plastic gems (despite the "do not touch" sign, Arlo pocketed one while Spark wasn't looking), a giant tree stump at the center of a poisonous swamp, and a distorted image of a coliseum-style gym as opposed to the pillars that Go trainers used, complete with dramatic music, laughably inaccurate flags of gym badges, and displays that changed between each team's colors and emblems with no correlation whatsoever to the actual pillar gym to its right, which several trainers were fighting over under the impression that their actions meant something. It was the same sort of meaningless pursuit of a goal that would never actually be achieved that they did with the Team GO Rocket research lines, come to think of it.
Their final stop before the Instinct team lounge was the "Niantic Neighborhood", a glittering assortment, complete with faux wrought iron gate featuring Niantic's hot air balloon emblem, of propaganda. Their name in giant orange letters for photo taking needs, AR cameras that let trainers take pictures with their animum auras visible, and giveaways for active Ingress players all demonstrated how great and generous the Niantic Project was for their collaboration with the Pokémon League Authority to make all of this possible. Spark barely stifled a snicker. Arlo didn't make any attempt at stifling said.
Once they arrived at the Instinct team lounge, Arlo scanned the surroundings. The bright yellow tent and inflatable chairs made it quite unambiguous whose lounge it was, although the speakers blasting cheesy "adventurous" music, folding tables where Trainers discussed their achievements with varying truth values, and microphone at the front were all pretty typical. What immediately caught Arlo's eye, though, was the life-sized cutout of a cartoon version of Spark in his usual outfit, bearing a thoroughly insincere smile and cheekbones that could cut glass.
"What the fuck is this?"
"Arlo, there are children present. Anyway, well, uh...you know how the Pokémon League funds their cartoon, right? The one about that kid who's kind of like Red but younger and less competent who does heavily stylized adventures around the world to incentivize kids below journeying age to get interested in the league?"
"Oh, yeah, although I heard they're finally getting a new protagonist after 20+ years because none of the new kids know or care who Red is anymore. Ah, and so time wears down on us all. I think I've got a cousin who's on the animation team."
"Well, for some reason, even though we mostly market to post-journey trainers, the League thought it'd be fun to make promotional cartoon art of us, which they turned into these cutouts. They brought them for the first Go Fest because we were too busy managing that absolute disaster to show up for the trainers and while it was supposed to be a temporary thing, the trainers liked them so much that they've just brought them back every year. Personally, I find the whole thing...a little unnerving, not going to lie."
Spark glared at the cutout version of him, prompting a chuckle from Arlo.
"So, do they bring the same ones every year?"
"No, I'm pretty sure they print off new ones for every event."
"What do they do with them once that year's cycle's over?"
"I'm not really sure. They probably either throw them away or store them in some warehouse somewhere."
"This is the last Go Fest event with team lounges this year, right?"
"And nobody's going to be here after 19:00 on the third day, right?"
"Yeesss..." Spark was hoping that Arlo would notice that the more elongated his vocalizations got, the more concerned they were about whatever he was planning.
"And we're not going to be leaving until the morning after when we clean everything up, right?"
"You're going to sneak in late at night and steal my cutout for your room, aren't you?"
"Can I come with?"
"Did you bring something anonymous?"
"I think I've got the hoodie Elaphe gave me."
"That'll do. Honestly, this never happened?"
"Dying is your latest fashion."
"I love you so much."
Spark lifted Arlo up to tousle his hair and kiss him on the lips, prompting an array of cheers and squeals from the occupants of the folding tables behind them, which both Spark and Arlo had forgotten were there. Spark promptly put his boyfriend down.
"Uh, hi, loyal Team Instinct members. I, uh..."
"So, do you two prefer Ark or Sparlo? Personally, Sparlo's way better, although I also like Emoshipping."
"How'd you meet? Was it an enemies-to-lovers situation or did he kidnap you or what?"
"Which one of you's the top? I assume it's probably Arlo because he's shorter and face it, you're soft and weak."
The third comment prompted an abrupt silence and glares at its voicer from the rest of the lounge.
"What, it's true! But we love him anyway."
"So, nobody's shocked that I'm a traitor or planning to report me to the Pokemon League?"
"Why would we? You're happy. He's happy. You're both cute guys and now you can be cute together. This is the most interesting thing since that time you dabbed in 2019!"
Arlo snickered under his breath. "Oh, yeah, I've heard about that! I'm pretty sure that one of my grunts actually wrote the insulting tweet afterwards."
"Yes, Arlo, it was hilarious. We'll just ignore that the meme was 3 years out of date..." Spark was visibly speaking through gritted teeth as well as carefully keeping himself out of the trainers' earshot before abruptly returning to his usual cheerful persona. "So, how about some Pokemon trivia? Arlo, why don't you sit down? You can win a pin if you get enough right!"
"Ah, neat, I love pins."
By the end of Spark's shift, Arlo had answered several questions regarding his and Spark's relationship, although not the most invasive ones, had amassed keychains and pins of all 3 team emblems, and had signed several postcards from trainers in replica Team Rocket uniforms. After all, really, all he had to do was be present at Go Fest to report to Giovanni on what new findings the team leaders had, so why not have fun with it? It was honestly quite nice that most of the residents of the Instinct lounge were more interested in him as Spark's cute boyfriend than as one of the Team GO Rocket leaders, since it allowed him the rare experience of being respected as a trainer. Spark, in turn, quite appreciated Arlo's presence in what would otherwise have been a rather boring assignment. While Spark did legitimately love engaging with the trainers, the canned responses for Go Fest did become draining after a while. After a final round of trivia, which Arlo had to physically restrain himself from answering questions during given the strict instruction to let someone else have a turn if you'd already won a pin, Spark clocked out and met Arlo behind the volcano.
"So, have you figured out a route for our touristing?"
"Here. I'm texting it your way now. Basically, we take a left out of the north entrance to get to the Widestreet Theater Museum and will pass by a I ♥ CC store along the way for you. We'll also pass by some murals and stuff that might look good on your Instinctgram."
"Sounds good to me. Ooh, it looks like we're also going to be right by the Pokemon Center store!"
"Spark, you literally work for the Pokemon League; do you really need their overpriced plushies?"
"They've got a sleeping Shinx, Arlo. Look at it!"
Spark pulled up a photo on his phone showing a pillow shaped like a Shinx in a loaf-like sleeping position, continuing to rave about how cute it was as he and Arlo made their departure from the park. Arlo didn't suspect they'd actually end up visiting the Pokemon Center store, but he made a note for what he'd be getting Spark for the winter solstice.
"Huh. I never knew there was a specific brand of fake blood for bleeding out of the mouth."
"A museum full of the rich history of Castelia City's theater tradition and historical original videos, playbills, costumes, and more, and that's the most interesting thing to you?"
"Hey, I'm not a theater kid. Besides, I already know about all this stuff from Cliff. I can't wait to see his face when he finds out we went here. So, what do you think I should get him from the gift shop? I know he'd adore this, but I don't think most mainstream stores tend to sell stuff in his size."
Arlo held up a button-up shirt for Spark to examine. Its black base color was reasonable sensible, but that was about where it stopped, given its entire surface being covered in neon pink, yellow, and green caricatures of the puppet cast of some sort of subversive musical about a math bowl along with mathematical symbols. In short, it looked like a stunning demonstration of bad taste, so it fit Cliff's style perfectly.
"Why is there a musical about a math bowl, anyway?"
"Hell if I know. According to Cliff, despite it mostly being a setup for vulgar humor, it's actually groundbreaking in queer representation. Or something like that. Oh, wait, I have to get him this."
Arlo's eyes shifted from the button-up to a plushie of a stylized Croagunk wearing a backward-turned baseball cap and bearing multicolored, spiral-patterned glitter eyes and an oversized faux gold chain.
"Uh...what's this supposed to be for?"
"It's from that show about a kid who was raised by Toxicroak moving to the big city to become a successful gangster rapper that just came out last year. Honestly, still better than Ronnie's solo mixtape."
"I'm starting to think that they generate the plots for musicals by throwing darts at a list of words."
"No, they throw darts at lists of books, movies, and/or musical artists that nobody cares about, whose concepts were themselves generated by throwing darts at lists of words. Anyway, I'm buying him the weird frog."
Arlo approached the counter with the Croagunk plushie, to be interrupted by Spark, who'd found something of his own, tapping him on the shoulder. He clutched a stuffed...train with exaggerated eyelashes and a stylized lightning bolt design across its silver body.
"Oh, right, from the show about trains falling in love where all the performers are on roller skates. Yeah, it's a weird show, but I think the gangster frog's more camp."
"Uh, actually, I was thinking about getting this for myself."
"Okay? I feel like it's undressing me with its eyes, but sure, I guess. I'm not paying for it, though."
"The Pokemon League covered our hotel room..."
"Okay, fine. But you're paying for lunch."
Spark added the unreasonably sultry-looking stuffed train to his shopping bag, already filled with I ♥ CC shirts for both him and Arlo (at least he was able to find one in black with a spikier than usual font so it wouldn't totally clash with the rest of Arlo's wardrobe), pins and keychains for his various bags, and at least one snowglobe that rained glitter down on tiny replicas of Castelia City landmarks when shaken. Arlo took a deep breath and once again prepped his earbuds as they exited into the street, as intensely populated as ever. Throngs of people moved at speeds and densities not entirely unlike Arlo's previous mosh pit experience, except all the worse, because mosh pits had rules and this shitstorm didn't. Not only that, the sounds from cars, oversized advertising screens, bicycle-powered trailers that blasted obnoxious pop music, and people talking in every language known to humankind echoed off all of the oppressively tall buildings on every side. Each street corner was occupied by some sort of food stall, them selling everything from the iconic Casteliacones to bagels, dumplings, falafel, and more, all of them advertising themselves as the best in town, complete with strobing red and green illuminated signs. It was undoubtedly a vibrant city, filled with diverse people living diverse lives, in which one could find just about anything to do and interesting places to go, things to see, and people to meet no matter where they turned, fitting for what some considered the entire continent's downtown.
And all of those things to see, people to meet, smells to smell, sounds to hear, and everything else crushed down on Arlo from all sides, uncomfortably literally. He'd been bumped into with nothing save, if he were lucky, a cursory "excuse me", a double-digit number of times since they'd left the park. Save the occasional single, fenced-in, visibly struggling tree, there was no sign of greenspace or anywhere to hide anywhere around. There were people and he was being seen and there was nothing he could do about it. And he strongly suspected that if he didn't watch himself at all times, fists raised and growling at anything that got close, he'd get swept away by the flow and reduced to a reddish-brown smear on the sidewalk. He understood, rationally, that more densely packing people allowed for more egalitarian living and was more environmentally sound. After all, packing humans upwards as opposed to outward allowed for the rest of the space to be filled with...well, more humans and more stores selling items that nobody actually wanted or needed. But the principle was sound. Arlo hated Sanctum City's commercial downtown for the same reason. Even in the dead of night, the place didn't sleep, those damned giant advertising screens kept blaring, and the throngs kept coming. There was a distinct feeling of being watched and having nowhere to hide no matter where one turned, which he only barely tolerated for the thankfully rare event that he had to attend an event fully in downtown.
This experience was roughly infinitely worse, mathematically speaking. What was worse was that Spark didn't seem to mind, continuing to press on, take pictures of interesting signs, and point out shops and art pieces and such as they walked aimlessly down the street towards...Arlo didn't even remember anymore; he was just about ready to go into the first store he saw just to escape. This, of course, made the whole experience all the worse. After all, Spark could handle this. Spark was if anything, thriving on it, making Arlo the one holding him back. After all, Arlo didn't technically need to be here for Go Fest so the least he could do was tolerate this hellscape for his boyfriend, right? The duo finally reached Spark's planned destination: the Pokemon Center store, an array of bright white and pastel displays covered with figures, plushies, and other merchandise featuring unreasonably happy trainers with unreasonably happy Pokemon, both featuring distorted proportions. They stepped into the store and both finally let out a breath, then slowly turned to look at each other. Upon getting a closer look, Spark seemed just about as haggard as Arlo did. He didn't show it in the same way, but his eyes darting around the store looked less like him taking it all in and more like him, too, seeking an escape route. He still held up his phone, but it no longer felt like him embracing the chaos and photographing it all for his Instinctgram as opposed to him holding onto it for security. They both looked at each other, taking in their visible mutual discomfort and Arlo's trembling despite himself, and spoke in unison.
"Let's go get food."
They both exited the store, leaving the cheerfully bright and pastel displays and their mockingly cheerful Pokemon behind, and ducked into a reasonably clear plaza with exits to buildings on all sides. Its contents, other than a cursory minimum of greenspace with cheerfully numbered trees on its sign and several benches that were just comfortable enough for travelers, but not comfortable enough for anybody to spend too long on at risk of tampering the city's perfect image by "loitering", AKA being demographics that didn't fit the norm in public, consisted of a boba and sushi shop that looked adequate for lunch, a jewelry store, the entrance to an office building, and outside of the jewelry store, a relatively small (as in, only 5 meters long) Rayquaza sniffing around while the store's owner, a short, rounded man with medium brown skin, unsuccessfully attempted to shoo it out with a broom.
"Spark? Are you...seeing that?"
"Yeah, we should probably go check it out."
Spark and Arlo both approached, unnoticed by the store's owner, which was understandable given his being presently rather preoccupied. Spark approached him themself and introduced them both.
"Uh, hey! I see you're having a bit of a Pokemon problem. Spark, Team Instinct leader with the Professor Willow Lab and Pokemon League Authority. I can help! So, any idea why this Rayquaza's messing with your shop?"
"It's those damn meteorites."
Spark glanced behind him into the store's window, advertising recently fallen meteorites for reasonable prices...said meteorites' glittering iridescent tones and inexplicably regular helix-like notches in their centers marked them as the sort of capitalized Meteorite whose unique animum properties were believed to be the historical foundation for Mega Stones and that Hoenn folklore told of Rayquaza consuming to gain unfathomable power to becalm Primal Groudon and Kyogre.
"A whole bunch of them started falling around last week. One damn near punched a hole in my neighbor's roof. Once they stopped so I didn't have to worry about my head, I went and broke off some chunks for the shop. Didn't have time to refine 'em, but after all, they were all pretty shiny and I know there are collectors who're into that sort of space rock thing. But ever since I brought the things into my shop, this...snake thing's been trying to get at 'em and scaring off all my customers! Honestly, I'm ready to just give away the meteorites if it gets this thing out of here! Go on, git! Go find a giant heat lamp or something!"
The jewelry store's proprietor continued to thrust his broom in the Rayquaza's direction, completely unnoticed by the Dragon Pokemon, which continued to stare at the meteorites in the window.
"Uh, I might be able to take those meteorites off your hands and get rid of the...snake thing."
"Okay, if you can hold it off, I'll unlock the door and bring them out."
"Arlo? You've got more Dragon Pokemon than I do; think you can keep Mr. Snaky here busy while I handle the meteorites?"
"Yeah, I think I can manage that. Tia! Let's have some fun."
Arlo pulled a Premier Ball out of one of his pants' side pockets and pressed its button, releasing a beam of red light that rapidly enlarged and coalesced into a bright blue dragon, enveloped in a pulsating dark aura, which flew up to the Rayquaza, got its attention in flight, and started charging up a Dragon Pulse to fire in its direction. Arlo wasn't commanding Tia to do anything because he'd been interrupted by a rather unamused security guard.
"Can't you read the sign?"
The security guard tapped a line on the plaza's sign, the same one that inventoried the trees, that explicitly stated "Rule 7: No Pokemon Battles". Arlo stammered for a bit, before Spark emerged with the meteorites, carrying them in what appeared to be an appropriated metal trash can, and flashed the guard his Trainer Card.
"It's okay, officer, we're with the Pokemon League Authority. Just helping a local business owner deal with a...little Pokemon problem. Arlo, you can withdraw Tia now, I've got the meteors! So, boba?"
Arlo withdrew his Pokemon right before she would have been hit by a burst of Outrage from the Rayquaza, which after its annoyance was dealt with, immediately swooped down to investigate Spark's trash can full of meteorites, which he abruptly closed as they approached the boba shop, the legendary dragon still following them.
"So, uh, Spark, what are we gonna do with these? Eventually, that Rayquaza's going to stop being patient and just take what it wants, and once it eats those meteors, it's going to Mega Evolve. It's documented that Mega Rayquaza is both incredibly powerful and singlemindedly dedicated to defending the ecosystem, so we aren't going to be able to control that thing, let alone catch it. How are we going to get it back?"
"Trust me on this one. I've got a plan. If you wait out here with our new friend, I'll go order us some boba and lunch. You want whatever the equivalent of chicken nuggets is, right, and something sugary enough you can't taste the base material?"
"You know me so well."
Spark entered the boba joint, still carrying the trash can full of meteorites, prompting a remarkable lack of response from any of the other patrons, who were far more focused on their drinks and/or rice bowls than wondering what was going on. They approached the counter, managed by a bored-looking teenager with deep purple eyeliner and a green-dyed buzz cut, and placed their order.
"Uh, hello. I'd like to order an orange chicken bowl combo with a strawberry carbonated boba for my boyfriend, a vegetable and shrimp bowl with a pineapple milk tea for me, and an extra-extra large plain boba, on the rocks."
"This isn't a bar, boba isn't usually iced, and we don't have an 'extra-extra large' size."
"No, literally. On these rocks. And in this trash can."
Spark opened the trash can, showing the proprietor the meteorites. They raised an incredulous eyebrow, the most expression Spark had seen from any of the locals during his and Arlo's adventures in Castelia City. Spark pointed out the window, towards Arlo and the Rayquaza.
"It's for him."
"That'll be ₱9,000, and you'll have to sit outside."
"Probably for the best. He's going to get a lot bigger pretty soon."
Spark exited with the food and drinks, locating Arlo at one of the coveted umbrella tables in the plaza, and set the bag down before presenting both his and Arlo's drinks and bowls. Arlo took one sip of his carbonated concoction, got a mouthful of a tapioca ball, and immediately proceeded to use his provided plastic spoon to start fishing the rest of the offending orbs out.
"Uh, Arlo, aren't you from Kanto?"
"Number 1, this stuff being a trend is before my time. Number 2, there is exactly one circumstance where I want balls in my mouth, and this isn't it. So, uh, you might want to give Mr. Snaky his drink. He's looking kind of antsy."
"Mr. Snaky" was attempting to remove the lid from the trash can, but failing due to Rayquaza, as a species, being cursed with short and ineffective arms without opposable thumbs.
"Oh, right. Here you go! I got you some boba."
Spark opened the lid, revealing a mostly opaque white liquid with the shadows of the meteorites at its bottom, which the Rayquaza started enthusiastically lapping up. Before long, its body became covered in bright green light and it grew in size, including its horns expanding into both larger horns and axe-like projections on either side of its head and glowing streams of looping golden energy projecting out of its head and tail.
"Uh, Spark, isn't this exactly what we were trying to avoid? We can't take that."
"No, see? It's not losing control."
Despite its newly empowered state, Mr. Snaky seemed more interested in finishing the boba than defending the ecosystem at all costs.
"I don't really get how that and boba tea are connected ideas."
"When it swallows the meteorites whole, it loses control because of the surge of animum. By putting them in liquid, where they both release animum residue and some of their layers dissolve, it dilutes the dosage so it'll still Mega Evolve, but there won't be enough of a surge of animum to affect its mind. By the time it finishes its drink, it'll have absorbed and metabolized the animum and both it and the meteorites will have detoxified enough to be safely studied. Besides, if there's one thing I've learned in all my work with Pokemon, it's that everything, even legendaries, appreciates gifts of food."
"Huh. I...the whole thing sounds like a suicidally bad idea at surface level, but it does seem to be working. You're really something, Spark."
"And so are you. So, ready to head back out into the fray? We've both finished our food, we can take the drinks with us, and I don't like the way that security guard's still eyeing us. Plus Blanche said that we should meet them at the park at 14:00 since that's when the first park session ends so we can debrief and do cleanup and shift changes."
Arlo let out a low groan. "Ugh, I really don't want to go walking through there again. To be honest, the museum and the I ♥ CC store were both fine, but everything outside of them just makes me want to curl up in a fetal position in a dark corner somewhere."
"Yeah, I have to agree. As much as I like all things bright and vibrant, this is a little much even for me. At least things in this city are close enough together that we still don't have much of a walk to the park."
They both sighed in unison until Spark's gaze diverted upward toward the Mega Rayquaza, still happily sipping its boba.
"...what if we didn't have to walk?"
"What, taking the subway? I'm not sure that's a good...oh, I see what you're thinking. Are we sure we trust it enough to ride, though?"
"At least seems worth asking." Spark rotated his chair into the classic position where you sit on it backwards using the back as an armrest and addressed the Pokemon. "Hey, how do you feel about giving us a bit of a lift to the park? I know you're a great flyer, so you'll barely feel it, and it'd really help."
Mr. Snaky responded with a chirping growl.
"Yes, you can take your boba with you. You've got hands, after all."
Mr. Snaky picked up the trash can with one of its, despite its larger size, still proportionately tiny and ineffectual arms, before lowering a segment of its back to allow Spark and Arlo to board. The two humans got on and Spark pointed Mr. Snaky in the direction of the park, at which point it took to the skies, clutching its boba under its arm and moving at speeds high enough that it was only perceptible by those on the ground as a green flash of light, while Spark and Arlo desperately tried to hold on. Thankfully, as they approached the park, Mr. Snaky slowed down. Spark pointed toward the central plaza where they were supposed to meet Blanche and the Pokemon descended, dropping them both off as they slid off its coils, then immediately making their way to a park bench until the world stopped spinning.
"Wow. That's...definitely faster than walking, although I'm not sure if it's going to be my usual way to fly from now on." Spark placed a hand against his head, anchoring himself by the elbow on the bench's right armrest. "How are you holding up, Arlo?"
"I'm just glad that I didn't hurl. After all, I'm apparently 1/32 Draconid so I'm pretty sure that would be hella blasphemous."
Shortly after they landed, Candela approached, having been dropped off by one of those bicycle-powered trailer things that blasted obnoxious music, holding an Ultra Ball in one hand and a foam cup of beer in the other and wearing a cheap plastic tiara she'd gotten from somewhere.
"Oh, good, I'm not the latest one here. So, I take it your tourist trip was...eventful." Candela looked down the length of Mr. Snaky's body, including at the end where it was, having finished its boba, tipping the trash can over to get at the meteorites at the bottom.
"So, do you think you did enough raids for Blanche to be satisfied?"
"Eh, I couldn't find any Rayquazas to fight so I just took on Xerneas and Yveltal. Got kind of boring after a bit. After all, raids are raids, you know? I'm just hoping they won't be on my ass about missing my shift. After all, sounds like you went for yours, although it degenerated into Instinct yaoi headcanons, so I can't cover by saying you did it too. But I think what's in this Pokeball will compensate. Check it out. Come on, Sparkles!"
Candela clicked the button on her Ultra Ball, producing a Diancie, its entire body sparkling under the sunlight, the grey parts iridescing much like Rayquaza's meteorites and the pink diamond sections refracting the light through each facet, producing effects on the surroundings much like a disco ball. Mr. Snaky looked up from its boba to briefly glance at the Mythical Pokemon, but evidently either determined that it was at a type disadvantage or that this wasn't the edible kind of shiny rock and returned to trying to fish out the last meteorite.
"Pretty cool, right? Saw her with one of those impromptu cosplay groups getting borderline harassed. Apparently some townies mistook her for a Lesbian Gemstone Warriors character and boy, did they have opinions about the ending. I mean, I have to agree that they completely fucked up the Diamond Dictators' redemption arc and should have let them straight up die, but I figured I'd step in and rescue her. She was so relieved to not be bothered that she just let me catch her. How about you, Spark?"
"This is Mr. Snaky. He was causing problems for a jewelry store owner who was selling some meteorites, so I took them off the proprietor's hands and got him boba. He seems to have calmed down, so I'll catch him once he reverts. Course, if we were hoping to study the meteorites, we'll need to find new ones since he ate all of them."
"Huh. Guess Diancie can Mega Evolve, too. I don't know what I need to do for that, but it sounds like a problem for after we get back besides."
"Or at least a problem for one of the other event days."
Blanche marched forward into the center plaza, to be faced with the two extraordinarily powerful Pokemon they were supposed to research, their colleagues including a visibly drunk Candela, Arlo who was still hanging around for some reason, and a metal trash can that hadn't been there before. Spark, at least, had actually showed up for his shift. Candela they were absolutely certain hadn't. Evidently, a lot could happen within 3 hours.
"Okay, what did you do?"
"Oh, you know. The usual. Cliche tourist stuff. Right, Mr. Snaky?"
Spark reached out a hand to pet the Rayquaza on one of its axe-shaped head projections as well as presenting it with the Castelia City landmarks snowglobe, which it promptly ate.