"Wow. That was almost romantic. I was under the impression the only romance Arlo was familiar with was the chemical kind."
Once Arlo and Spark exited their lip-lock, he pivoted in her direction and sneered. "Well, hello to you too, Candela. Speaking of chemical romances, did you ever return my Bullets CD?"
"You seriously remembered that for 6 years? Like, I get that both of our memories are kinda wack on account of the ADHD, but come on, man. Also, speaking of 6 years, what the hell are you wearing? I'm amazed those pants still fit."
"My doctor said that I should start really seeing effects in that area any time now."
"Ahem." Blanche cleared their throat before approaching Spark directly. "So, you were not at our emergency meeting this morning so I will do you the convenience of disclosing the information now. Arlo, you aren't hearing this. This is confidential team leader data. So, while you two were off cavorting and you left your phone turned off in his HQ so you could claim he 'stole' it if anyone asked, Professor Willow got sucked into an Ultra Wormhole."
"Uh...that's bad, right? What's an Ultra Wormhole?" Spark turned towards Arlo, who shrugged to show their mutual lack of knowledge.
Candela pointed towards the sky, where the hairline fracture Spark and Arlo had noticed the previous day had expanded into a full-blown rip in reality, producing mirages around it and pulsating with a blinding light. "That. How did you not notice it? Is Arlo really that good?"
"You know I'm evil, babe. And...yeah. That is a pretty big spot check to miss. How did we not notice that? You're supposed to be the one who notices their surroundings, Spark! Were you too preoccupied with how hot I am?"
Blanche cleared their throat again. "Back to the matter at hand. We have reason to believe that the Ultra Wormholes are an entrance into another world, from which Nihilego, which, might I add, appeared today after never being seen in this region before, originates. Seeing as Nihilego possesses powers equivalent to legendary Pokemon coupled with hostile behavior, if it is a common organism in the world on the other side of the wormholes or there are others like it and Willow is in that world, we need to get him back as soon as possible or there could be disastrous consequences."
"So, Willow's trapped in an alternate dimension full of nightmare Tentacruel and we have no idea how to get him out."
"Yes. But, there is some good news. Near one of the wormholes, I found this person who claims to have come from the world on the other side and be from an organization dedicated to stopping incursions between worlds if they occur. Rhi, do you want to come out and meet everyone?"
Blanche crouched down and beckoned towards a previously unassuming patch of bushes, from which a humanoid figure covered in white body armor reminiscent of a spacesuit emerged. They were extremely short, shorter even than Arlo and only going up to Blanche's shoulders. The only patch of skin uncovered by the armor was the lower half of their face, the top being covered by their helmet's visor. It may have been the cursed light of the wormhole, but their skin appeared to be a pale blue, which implied they either completely lacked blood or it was a different color from that of humans. Arlo rushed toward them, running his fingers over their armor and ignoring their expression of confusion.
"Holy shit, are you a robot? Did Blanche build you? Why? Did Candela finally break down and have Blanche make her a new partner in their basement? Are you...anatomically correct and fully functional, if you know what I mean? Shit, is that weird to ask? You're really short, and I've gotta say it's great to see someone shorter than me, so you might be a kid...but do robots really have ages?"
The figure Blanche had addressed as Rhi stood frozen. They quickly turned to Blanche and whispered something in their ear. Blanche tapped Arlo's shoulder.
"Uh, I get that we all have many questions, but Rhi would like to request that you give them some space."
Arlo backed off and stammered out an apology to the strange figure. "Uh, sorry. I didn't know you were, like, a person. So, if you're from another world, does that make you an alien? Are the wormholes actually wormholes or did you abduct Willow to probe him and disguise your ships as natural phenomena? Wait, that's probably offensive, I shouldn't...but seriously, who and/or what are you?"
Rhi stared directly forward, not looking at anything in particular, and made their announcement, in a remarkably deep voice given their size. Arlo muttered something under his breath about gender envy, to which Spark smiled in response.
"I am Rhi of the GO Ultra Recon Squad. That is how you name things in this world, yes? You add 'GO' to their names for no reason? In my home, it is just called the Ultra Recon Squad. Upon seeing a flash of energy in my readings suggesting a rift opened and an incursion may have occurred, I came through the wormhole to find the one you call Blanche frantic over the absence of your professor. The rift I came from promptly closed, leaving me stranded. I aim to work with Blanche in hopes of understanding enough about the Ultra Wormholes to retrieve your professor, get me back to my own world, and minimize danger to your world from this and any future incursions. Now, who are you? I have heard from your Trainers that those bearing that ideograph on their clothing are antagonistic to the goals they and their professor work for. You clearly mean harm to Blanche's fellow team leader. Charging plasma cannons!"
Arlo let out a squeak and ducked behind Spark, pushing his boyfriend in front of him as a meat shield, much to the latter's astonishment. Rhi made a series of sounds that could charitably be called a laugh.
"Do not worry. I do not have the plasma cannon attachment of my incursion suit equipped. This is what the humans of your world call 'humor', right, Blanche? Claiming you have capabilities you do not? But as you said, seriously, who are you? Blanche mentioned having colleagues, but did not mention you."
"Uh, okay. I am Arlo of the, uh, Spark's boyfriend. He/him pronouns. I...do research on how to enhance Pokemon's power with technology."
"So you work with Blanche's colleague Candela? Blanche said that person and the team thereof work at researching and enhancing Pokemon's strength."
Everyone present remained silent for longer than made sense during the conversation at that. Arlo and Candela glanced at each other before Arlo quickly cringed back. He gestured to put his hoodie up over his face before remembering he wasn't wearing a hoodie and attempting to salvage the awkward pulling motion by pretending to run his fingers through his hair. It wasn't very effective. Rhi, too, remained silent, but not from the awkwardness. Rather, they had their hand against their chin and their visor flashed with light. It reminded Arlo of when he looked up information on his glasses.
"Can you explain what you mean by 'pronouns'? You say it as though it is a standard feature of how the humans of your world make introductions, but I can not find anything concerning it in my files."
Spark chose to speak up in response. "Well, uh, you know how whenever you talk about Blanche or the others of our group, you just say their name or 'that person'? Pronouns are words you can use instead of someone's name or whatever to make sentences shorter. Like, instead of saying 'Candela and the team thereof', you could say 'Candela and her team', with 'her' being a pronoun. Pronouns are also related to what gender someone is...uh, do you know what genders are? Anyway, it's considered polite to tell people what pronouns you want to go by so they can address you properly and aren't making any incorrect assumptions. What do you want to go by, Rhi? I use he/him pronouns, too."
"If multiple of you use the same...pronouns, how do you tell each other apart? And yes, now that I look at them, there are files in my information about this world mentioning the sexes and sociality of humans and Pokemon alike and that there are different words associated with them, but I do not understand the concept. In my world, the words we use to refer to each other are entirely unique to the individual and not based on categories. Under your definitions, I am neither 'male' nor 'female'. What...pronouns are associated with that?"
Spark turned the conversation over to Blanche, figuring that not only was Blanche the main person Rhi trusted, they'd also have a more intimate knowledge of this sort of thing than he did.
"About your first question, that's why the humans in this world have both pronouns and names. You can switch between them to clarify who you're talking about. In reference to your second question, that matter is complicated, but many people who are neither male nor female go by 'they'. That's what I use."
Rhi made gestures in the air in front of them like they were writing on an invisible screen and similar lines appeared on their visor. Evidently they were taking notes. Arlo totally needed to talk to them about their tech. It was one of the coolest things he'd ever seen.
"But...I am only one being. I do like the idea of being referred to as neither male nor female, but what if someone is talking about me as part of a group and can't tell if 'they' refers to the whole group or me?"
Spark chimed back in. "You can always use more than one pronoun. That's what I do. I mostly use he/him, but I'm fine with being called 'they' too. There are lots of alternate singular pronouns that aren't gendered if you want to use one of them along with 'they'. Xe/xem is one of the more popular ones."
Rhi furiously scribbled in the air in front of them. "Hmm...'xe'...I do quite like how that sounds. It reminds me of what I called my first Pokemon partner. Can one of you demonstrate it in a sentence in reference to me? I am speaking through a translator so am not wholly familiar with the grammatical structures of your language."
Arlo nodded, trying to figure out what was logging Rhi's gestures to communicate with xyr tablet. Did they have tiny little Bluetooth sensors on their gloves or something? Or maybe their civilization had evolved beyond Bluetooth and used some crazy connection Arlo couldn't even conceive of. He had so many questions to ask xem; he'd have to get them alone at some point without raising too much suspicion.
"Uh, all right. I met a person who goes by Rhi today. Xyr visor is really cool. Overall, xe seems very smart and considerate and I'd love to get to know xem better."
Rhi nodded with more enthusiasm than had been previously seen on them and made more notes on xyr visor. "Yes. This is good. Thank you for demonstrating. So, yes. They and xe. Those are my...pronouns. You can also call me Rhi, because that is my name. Did I do that right?"
"Yeah. Glad I could help you figure that out." Arlo considered asking about their visor, but figured this wasn't the right time.
"That digression aside, Rhi will be staying at the mobile lab with us for the foreseeable future until I figure out working with them how to get xem home and get Willow back. I'll be at the mobile lab as well to make sure they're okay and manage communications with trainers. If you two could pick things up at Mystic along with my admins, I would really appreciate it. Now that you are all acquainted, I am going to bring Rhi back to the lab so we can get xem set up. Thank you all for being so considerate. Especially you, Arlo. I am going to be honest, I did not expect much from you, but you may well be a good match for Spark."
Blanche and Rhi made their leave down the greenway trail, Rhi engaged in what sounded like an infodump towards the Team Mystic leader, leaving Candela alone with the couple at the picnic table. She looked them both over again, lingering for a bit on either Arlo's pants or their contents, before sitting down directly on the table, using the bench as a step stool, next to them. She looked toward the ground, her voice almost under her breath, doing her best to avoid any eye contact with either of them.
"So you're really doing this, huh? No evil plans or anything? Just you and Spark being each other's boyfriends?"
After the single sharp syllable, Arlo made another gesture to raise his nonexistent hood. Spark, upon seeing this, removed the hoodie he was wearing and handed it to the Team GO Rocket leader, who promptly put it on and pulled the drawstrings to obscure his face. Spark hadn't been wearing anything underneath the hoodie, and he suspected that Arlo would have been immediately distracted by that if not for their current company.
Candela looked out toward an Ultra Wormhole that hung over the trail. "I suppose you're expecting me to go on some angsty spiel about what he has that I don't or whatever."
"Not really, no. I mean, it's pretty obvious that it was me, not you."
"I get that it's a romantic stock phrase, but you? Taking accountability? Amazing. Guess you might actually have matured underneath all the body spray."
How they were managing to have a conversation while both muttering under their breath, looking in opposite directions, and with Arlo's face and thus mouth completely obscured, Spark was unsure of. He supposed it was some sort of emo-to-emo communication thing.
"No, seriously. I was being a douche."
"You're still a douche now. It's literally on your business cards."
"Yes, but being a professional Pokemon criminal and being casually misogynistic because I wanted so badly to be accepted by dudebros as a fellow dude and/or bro are different things."
"True. So, I get that you're more confident in yourself and your gender now which is why you're capable of being less of an asshole, or at least finding a better outlet for your tendencies, but what the fuck did turning to evil have to do with feeling validated as a man? That's the one thing I still don't get. Like, you're smart. You could have gotten a legit job. Oh, and before I forget, congrats on getting on T."
"Well, I get that you offered that I could stay in the Valor dorms and get research funding through you until I found a job, but you know me. I'm an arrogant douchebag whose first response was to want to defy you with no regard for consequences."
"Pfft, that's just being a guy."
"But, anyway, number 1, Team Rocket had dorms that weren't affiliated with you or your professor, number 2, I was desperate and pissed off and wanted to fucking watch you burn, and number 3...have you seen the Team Rocket healthcare plan? Like, they'll cover everything but the hormones. Even better, because they're a criminal organization, they're used to printing near-perfect identification without having to go through bureaucracy! You have no idea how fucking great it was to be able to get a birth certificate and trainer card under my real name, whether it's 'legal' or not."
"I never thought about that before, but I guess it makes sense. You're also getting paid better than I do and for more enjoyable work. You don't need to deal with managing the grunts except during events, right? You can just do R&D. If it weren't, y'know, evil R&D, Blanche would totally kill for that opportunity. So, back to Spark. You seem happy. He does seem to really like you and vice versa."
"Yep. He sure does. So, we're cool? You're cool with that?" Spark nodded from his position between them, which if either of them were looking in his direction, would have verified that he concurred with that statement.
"I'm never cool. Like, hello? Fire motif?"
"Plus you can hide it under your jockbro posturing all you want, but we all know you're a total dork."
"I must agree. You're just like me."
"Didn't you say that Falling In Reverse was 'the most utterly assholish thing you've ever heard other than Dying Is Your Latest Fashion, which is just the same guy being barely held to some standard of decency by the others?' What are you doing here with the Caught Like A Fly reference?"
Candela approached closely enough to lightly punch Arlo in the arm in the bantering sense, which still conveyed enough force that he flinched. "Annoying you. Later, twerps." She slid back off the side of the table and began making her leave.
"Hey, that's our line!" Arlo called out in mock offense.
"Please. Only your grunts use it. You're the one calling people 'vermin'. What are you, a JRPG villain?"
"Gay emo nerd."
"Bisexual emo nerd." Arlo punctuated his statement by running one of his hands down Spark's pant leg. Above the fabric, for now.
"Hey, same! Good for you!" Candela waved back towards them before vanishing down the greenway trail.
"Well, that went better than I expected. I told you I can talk about feelings." Arlo puffed up his chest and attempted to turn up his nose at Spark. Spark responded by patting his head.
"I don't know what the fuck that was, but it wasn't talking about feelings. So, uh...want to make out? It's weird because it's not even my hoodie, Elaphe gave it to me and I almost never wear it, but seeing you in that is striking up some feelings."
"Uh, you've been shirtless for, like, 15 minutes. I was going to ask that if you didn't because hot damn, you're even better than on Instinctgram."
"Yeah, all right."
In order to avoid falling off while they were engaged in their activities, Spark and Arlo moved their position to a patch of grass behind the swing set. Spark pinned Arlo to the ground and proceeded to trust some combination of his instincts and societal convention, which his boyfriend excitedly returned, making song lyric references throughout, at least during the brief segments in which his mouth was uncovered. In the midst of their being, shall we say, embroiled in a different variation of battle than one would expect from their respective moral alignments, Spark noticed something unusual.
"Uh, I know this isn't the kind of question you're supposed to ask while making out, but does something smell weird to you? Something is different from when we started, and I'm not sure what. It's not someone grilling or anything."
Arlo rolled to the side and sniffed. "Yeah, something is definitely off. Also, uh, did you at any point stick your hand in the front pocket of this hoodie? There's something in there and I kinda lost track of where everyone's appendages were going."
"Uh, no, I was reaching underneath the hoodie. Also, whatever's in that pocket is moving."
"What the—" Arlo looked down to witness the pocket of the hoodie wiggling, a round shape enclosed within. Eventually, a white snout popped out and a small creature emerged.
"Shaymin!" The creature squeaked and blinked as it looked around at Spark and Arlo. Spark and Arlo also incredulously blinked at it.