Arlo woke up to Spark cuddled up next to him, smiling upon seeing him, but rather than taking the time to engage, he got out of bed, picked up his glasses and headband from the nightstand, and looked into his closet with dismay. Spark glanced up at him looking through his box of old clothes from his Orre days, realized what day of the week it was, and pointed something out that he seemed to have forgotten.
"Uh, Arlo? Don't you have takeover duty today?"
Arlo muttered to himself and took his standard takeover outfit from a hanger, although he retained the headband and one choice choker. He directed Spark to come with him for breakfast, which he consumed quickly and silently, before leaving for his route and dropping Spark off at Team Instinct HQ along the way. Cliff watched the whole display, seeing Arlo's clean and direct movements to his destination and the distinct lack of his usual banter with Spark.
"Does Arlo seem...off to you? He's been kind of weird ever since he got his performance review, don't you think?"
Sierra swirled a biscotti in her coffee before pulling it out and biting it in half. "Like, weirder than usual? I don't really see it. Sure, the drawing on his face is a bit tacky, but I haven't noticed him acting that differently."
"He asked us about the meaning of evil two days ago, then yesterday he's dressing all weird. Don't you think that might be --"
"A typical Wednesday. Cliff, you're neither his boyfriend nor his mom. What he wears and how he conducts himself isn't any of your business. He can pull out his old Subject Debate gear and make a fool of himself if he wants to."
"I still don't like it. The boy ain't right, Sierra!"
"He's not a boy. He's a grown man."
Sierra scoffed in Cliff's direction before leaving for her office, leaving Cliff sitting alone with his parfait, running over all of the interactions he'd had with Arlo recently. Maybe he really was overthinking it? After all, Sierra and Arlo had both brought up how he seemed overinvested in Arlo's affairs. Wait, what if he'd done this? What if by going on for so long about Arlo being his little guy and his duty to protect him as his bro, he'd drawn him to become alienated and withdrawn? Of course, he'd never objected before, but what if he was too caught up in how adorable he was to notice? As Cliff finished his breakfast and left for his own takeovers, he continued to mull over his worries.
Arlo had just defeated a trainer and smirked at them, chuckling under his breath. His Pokemon stood behind them, Gil's pincers clacking menacingly, emphasizing their strength and capability to crush bone and Ronnie's flaming tail thrashing back and forth.
"Don't be too disappointed. It was always going to end like this."
He circled the trainer, who held their Pokeballs closer as he approached closer.
"What did you expect? Honestly, it was truly arrogant of you to think you could stand against a true Pokemon master such as myself."
The trainer attempted to stammer out a retort, but their voice cracked throughout. It looked like they were about to cry. Hilarious. "You're-you're not a master! You're just cruel! Those poor Pokemon are in pain and if you don't care about that, you can barely even call yourself a trainer!"
"Neither can you."
While they were distracted attempting to assert their morals, Arlo had reached into their backpack and pulled out their Pokeballs, nonchalantly accessing their settings from his glasses to reset them into recognizing him as the trainer. He ran his fingers over the clasp of a Premier Ball as he continued to glare down at the distraught trainer.
"Move along. There's nothing else left for you to do. Ronnie, Gil, return!"
Arlo pocketed the stolen Pokeballs and presented his own Premier Balls to withdraw his own Pokemon, both of whom looked at him with confusion briefly. Gil let out some metallic noises in protest. After all, Arlo had said before that if they did well, they got to ride in his car and Gil got to pick the CD! Arlo glared at them and held up the Pokeballs more forcefully.
"I said return. You've done your duty. Now, on to the next Pokestop and the next pathetic worm. Honestly, if Candela and her friends consider these valid team members, it's no wonder they've failed to ever meaningfully stop Giovanni."
Ronnie side-eyed him as the rest of his body condensed into red light as he returned to the Pokeball. As Arlo finished his route, he found himself enjoying the routine duty more than he ever thought he would. After all, normally he found himself spending every moment that he was doing Pokestop takeovers waiting for them to be over, but today, he felt a pleasing sense of superiority. Trainers trembled at his words and the dark auras emanating from his Pokemon and he found himself putting more investment into the battles, picking moves for the infliction of pain and fear onto his opponents versus just using the same two attacks to get the motions over with. Once his duties had concluded, he'd amassed a non-trivial arsenal of Pokeballs, Rare Candies, and other such trinkets to distribute among his grunts, from the Pokestops and trainers alike.
Unbeknownst to him, while his Pokemon stood behind him as a menacing backdrop while he threatened and extorted trainers, they'd been discussing his unusual job performance among themselves in tones he couldn't understand. After all, sure, it was fun to do more in battles, but his putting them into their Pokeballs wasn't like him at all and he seemed a lot more dismissive of his concerns. He'd promised Ronnie he'd get him cupcakes, and there was a distinct lack of cupcakes. Gil went about his contemplations of the situation more methodically and pointed a pincer at Arlo's distinctly out of place headband, noting that something seemed unusual about it. Ronnie growled reflexively once he looked at it, which the Scizor took as agreement. There was no question that whoever was commanding them, it wasn't the Trainer they'd known. If things escalated, the Pokemon would need to take matters into their own claws.
After the last battle, Arlo withdrew his Pokemon, returned to the car, and called up Spark. After all, he'd done a wonderful job for Team GO Rocket and had a wonderful time at work that day so he felt like celebrating, and wanted his adorable boyfriend by his side while he did.
"Hey, I'm off work. Want to hang out? I'm by the Gracidea Park."
"So, what were you thinking of doing?"
"Well, I was thinking we could get dinner then maybe go to the bar."
"Like, the Sleepless Bakery?"
"No, like an actual bar. I feel like getting a drink."
"Uh...okay. I'll make sure to stay sober so there's someone to drive. Your car or mine?"
"We can take my car."
"Are you sure you're okay with me driving?"
"Yeah. I trust you. Besides, you know that if you dent my paint, I'll eat your soul."
I know, honey. Love you!"
Spark ended the phone call and paused for a moment while gathering his things so he'd be ready when Arlo picked him up. He'd never really seen Arlo as the type to go for drinks for celebratory purposes. After all, the only time he'd ever seen him imbibing at all was during the Go Fest 2020 afterparty, and even then, it seemed like it was more a function of him feeling socially contracted to do it than something he'd seek out. Spark got an odd feeling in his stomach and tried his best to shrug it off. After all, sure, it may have been a bit out of character, but they were both of legal age and celebrating a good day at work was a valid reason to drink. There wasn't any reason why they couldn't have gone to a bar before; it was just that Arlo felt like other date concepts. Besides, it was good that Arlo was expanding his horizons and trying new things. Spark would be supportive no matter what. So he'd appreciate it if he could get the tension in his body to die down.
Arlo texted him once he'd pulled into the parking garage at Team Instinct HQ and Spark smiled upon seeing him in a similar condition to how he'd picked him up when he'd first spent the night with him: blasting an angsty song and singing and/or screaming along with every word. Spark could swear his voice sounded deeper and rawer, somehow, than the last time he'd heard him. Presumably he'd made some progress with his HRT. Once they arrived at a restaurant Spark hadn't been to before, Arlo scanned the menu, waved over the waiter, and confidently ordered a well-done steak, even noting the Hoenn League badge pinned to the waiter's lanyard and making small talk about his own league experience back during his childhood in Kanto. Spark smiled upon seeing this, remembering how uncomfortable he was during their first date at Plaza Favorite. Arlo had undoubtedly changed as of late, but maybe it was for the better! After all, opening up emotionally was always good. Without it, he wouldn't be dating them.
Once the couple finished their meal, Arlo directed Spark to a bar next door, a basic lighted sign reading "Dark Moon" serving as the building's only decoration. Arlo ordered a beer, consumed some pretzels from the bowl on the counter, and started bringing up miscellaneous anecdotes and small talk topics with Spark. It wasn't the usual rambling infodumps that his conversations usually resembled, but was pleasant all the same. After a while, Arlo had amassed four empty glasses next to him and upon seeing it, nonchalantly handed Spark his car keys.
"Uh, are you sure you want me to drive? I know you're really attached to your car and I've never driven it before. We could always call a taxi and have Cliff and Sierra come over to bring your car back to HQ."
"It's okay. I trust you, man." Arlo reached out and patted Spark on the back, before taking a swig from his fifth glass and starting an entirely different topic of conversation.
"You know, I've always kinda wanted a tattoo."
"Uh, really? I thought needles really freaked you out. Like, you told me how for your first couple of T injections, you actually had to go to your doctor's office to have them do it because you couldn't work up the nerve."
"Yeah, but that was the old me. Today, I'm feeling...adventurous, you know? I can take on anything; some scrawny needle doesn't scare me! You know what, Spark, give me your phone. I'm going to find whatever the nearest tattoo parlor is and we're going as soon as I finish this drink!"
Arlo ran a quick search on his phone and started it navigating after Spark spent a rather lengthy period getting the seats and mirrors adjusted to his vastly different height from Arlo and did a loop of the parking lot to verify his understanding of the black sports car's controls. The tattoo parlor was only a couple of blocks away, so if it weren't for the sign stating that anyone parked there for longer than 30 minutes who wasn't at one of the shopping center's businesses would be towed, they could have walked over. Once they arrived, Arlo sat down in the waiting room, not even flinching at the parlor's current customer, a young trainer who was getting a design on their leg and actively crying as the needle moved across their skin.
"So...what are you planning on getting?"
"I don't really have a preference. I'm thinking I'd just tell them to draw something they love, you know? After all, anything would look great on this body!"
"Yeah, you're...definitely hot."
Spark raised a hesitant glance toward his boyfriend, who was sitting next to him, absentmindedly looking towards the ceiling and fidgeting with his feet, without any care in the world, planning on getting a tattoo of unknown design. His boyfriend who he knew for a fact was terrified of needles and extremely sensitive to the sound of anyone else crying. Maybe it was silly of him to think that; after all, folks tried new things all the time, but Spark's feeling was certain at this point that even though they may have been the same height and had the same inexplicable red eyes, the man in the seat next to him was not his boyfriend. He decided he'd keep a closer eye on Arlo when they hung out from now on to try to get a clearer view of the situation.
Another patron entered and sat down on Arlo's right, outstretching their arm and knocking off his headband in the process. Rather than flinching back in his seat like Spark would have expected, Arlo picked up his headband and then spat out a litany of profanities directing the oaf to watch where they were going and pay some mind to other people's property for once in his life, to which they responded with moving to a chair on the opposite wall and raising their middle finger in Arlo's direction. Arlo was midway through matching the gesture himself before he froze, his hands went limp, and he looked around in confusion.
"Uh...Spark? How did I get here?"
"We were at the bar and you said you'd always wanted a tattoo, so you put the address for this place in my phone and I drove you here."
"You drove my car? If you dented it, I'll -- wait. A tattoo? Like, the kind with needles? That go under your skin and inject ink there?"
"That is how they work, yes. And I had to drive. You were drunk."
"I...don't get drunk. Not anymore. Like, I'll do some small amounts for special events like at the Go Fest 2020 afterparty, but I always make sure that it's spaced out. Back in Orre, Candela brought me to a lot of parties and, well, I didn't do so well. Decided to never let that happen again after the fourth or so time vomiting into a toilet."
"Well, you did, or someone did, anyway. How much do you remember?"
"Last thing I remember was asking Cliff and Sierra if I was evil enough. Speaking of which, did you get me this headband? It's kind of cute, but I've never seen it before."
"I don't know. You were wearing it yesterday, too. I know this sounds silly, but how do you feel about going to see Blanche and doing a quick animum scan? You've been acting kind of weird since yesterday so I want to make sure everything's okay."
"Yeah, all right. Are they going to be available this time of night?"
"Yes. I don't think Blanche sleeps."
Spark started on the route to Team Mystic HQ, still driving Arlo's car since he hadn't had enough time to sober up, and even if he had, was evidently confused and seemed to have some degree of physical pain, judging by the way he was gripping his head. Once he got back to his senses, though, Spark was pleased to see him going on a rambling tangent about the non-specific phrasing of a billboard they passed. That was the kind of discussion Spark expected from their boyfriend and which they loved him for, and the kind that their interactions with him over the past several days had been sorely lacking in.
Once they arrived at Mystic HQ and waited at the door to be buzzed in, Blanche glared at them as they directed the couple back into their lab. Based on their having, from the looks of it, hastily placed a pair of pants under a bathrobe, they were in the process of preparing for bed when the boys had disturbed them.
"So, what seems to be the problem?"
"Arlo's been acting weird since yesterday, and we were just out on our date when he...it was really bizarre; it was like he'd just woken up from a dream or snapped out of a trance and he said he didn't remember anything from the past couple days. Would you be willing to run an animum scan to make sure nothing's wrong there?"
"Yes, but there is likely a physical or psychological cause. Arlo, have you had any side effects from your T injections lately?"
"Nope. Everything's been fine ever since that one Shadow Pokemon incident, and even Dr. Peyton doesn't know what happened there."
"I see. Have you encountered anything that upset you or had any major life events?"
"Well, Team Rocket just did our annual performance reviews. I think I did pretty well, though, so I don't think that's especially upsetting."
"All right. Rhi, can you come in with your scanner? This shouldn't take long. I'm just going to do a baseline reading to make sure that there is not a Pokemon or other force interfering with you."
Rhi entered, directed Arlo into a chair resembling one that would be seen inside a dentist's office, and produced a device that resembled a barcode reader from the thick sleeve of their containment suit. Xe pressed several buttons on the scanner and a cyan light was emitted from its head, which they ran over Arlo's entire body. Once they concluded their scan, they brought the device back to Blanche, who produced a white USB converter cable from their bag and plugged it into their laptop. After a couple seconds, the screen displayed a wave graph. Blanche picked up the laptop and carried it over to Spark and Arlo so they could see it, directing Rhi to return to their quarters and thanking them for their service.
"It's a bit off from standard human readings, but that probably stems from his ongoing exposure to the Shadow Pokemon formula. Either way, the levels shown here would not be enough to induce any psychological effects and it definitely all stems from him. There are no signs of manipulation by any Psychic or Ghost-type Pokemon. In short, Arlo is fine. Keep me posted if anything else odd happens, though. It's entirely possible that something could be involved that my scanner didn't catch, but given how rare Pokemon possession is, I'm inclined to think that whatever is happening, if anything, is purely psychological in origin."
Spark nodded, although they didn't get much of the animum jargon, and let out an audible sigh of relief before turning to Arlo as they walked out to the car, starting their conversation as soon as they left Mystic HQ and continuing it on the drive back so Spark could drop Arlo off.
"Okay, that's good to hear. Come on, I'll bring you back to your HQ so you can get a good night's rest."
"How are you going to get back?"
"Don't worry about me; I can call a cab or ride one of my Pokemon. Anyway, are you feeling okay? You seemed really tense when you asked me if I thought you were evil enough. It's okay if your performance review upset you, and I'm sorry if I was insensitive. I didn't mean to worry you."
"No. I'm really not that concerned about it. It kinda hurt that day, but I think I've gotten over it now."
While they were at a stoplight, Spark noticed Arlo shifting the headband around in his lap, stroking the faux fur on its ears.
"You know, I didn't think of asking Blanche to scan it, but you wearing that headband has been new and you snapped out of your trance when it got knocked off. Maybe it's got something to do with how you've been acting weird?"
"What, do you think it's got a ghost in it or something? Come on, this isn't a horror movie."
"Still. You said that you'd never seen it before and it wasn't your style, right? I wouldn't mind taking it to Blanche for analysis."
Spark reached over to the headband, but Arlo's grip on it intensified and he let out a brief, low growl, his entire body vibrating as he clutched the mysterious accessory to his chest.
"No. It's...grown on me."
"Okay, whatever you say. It is pretty cute."