Reverse Mode II - Popular Monster

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Arlo sat in a plush office chair across a desk from Archer, Team Rocket's blue-haired leader of multiregional affairs, for his annual midyear performance review, fidgeting in his seat while the bored-looking admin leafed through his file. This wasn't where he wanted to be on a Monday morning and he considered the whole thing pointless corporate boilerplate, but it was required in order to set his salary for the coming year so he kind of had to show up. He didn't quite get why this couldn't have been a video call, though, and why he had to drive all the way downtown for something whose results he already knew. After all, he was doing great with the Shadow Pokemon program and was a shoo-in for a raise, so what was the point in even having it brought up?

"So, how am I doing? Am I getting that raise?"

"Well...the higher-ups have some concerns..."


"Don't worry, your job's not in any danger. You're still doing wonderful work. We've just gotten reports from the field that it seems like your heart isn't in it. You don't seem as devoted to the Team Rocket mission as you used to be."

"I see."

"Again, your job is in no danger. The Shadow Pokemon program is a runaway success. Perhaps you should more initiative?"

Archer waved him out of his office and Arlo contemplated the situation as he walked back to his car. Sure, Archer may have masked it under corporate language, but the message was clear: his boss thought he had gone soft and wasn't as dedicated to evil as he used to be. This obviously could not stand. After all, he had an image to maintain. Evil was his job, his purpose in life, his identity. The question was when he'd gone soft and how he could stop it. On his drive back, he decided to detour in the direction of Team Instinct HQ and get a second opinion from the person who knew him best.

Once he arrived at Instinct HQ, he got greeted by a kiss on the cheek from Spark, who directed him to the common room couch, where he posed his question.

"You think I'm evil, right?"

"You're evil enough for me." Spark reached out to pat his head to emphasize the sentiment.

"No, but, like, in general, do you think I'm evil?"

"Uh...what am I supposed to answer?" Spark hesitated and blinked a couple of times, trying to judge Arlo's motivation from his expression, but not finding anything of use.

"Just be honest. Tell me how nasty I am."

"Well, when I first met you, I thought you were pretty nasty, given the whole 'fueled by hatred for Candela over her fairly getting the Valor leader position over you' thing, but I realize now that you were just being mean to get closer to your favorite music and because you didn't have any other emotional outlets. Since I met you, you've really opened up and become way less abrasive! I'm proud of you."

Spark reached out to Arlo and enclosed him in a hug, which he found quite pleasing in its own right, but wasn't the answer he wanted. He drew back from the hug and looked at his lap, muttering under his breath.

"So I've gone soft."

"It's not a bad thing! It's nice seeing you have more emotional depth. I love you as you are."

"Yeah, that's...good to hear..."

"Is something bothering you? You seem tense."

"Well, I had my performance review today and Archer says that I need to show more initiative and that I'm not as committed to the Team Rocket mission as I used to be, which is kind of messing with me."

"Isn't that a good thing? After all, working with Team Rocket is just your job. You don't really need to be personally evil to do that, do you?"

"I know, but being good at my job is one of the main things I'm proud of. I'm an evil mastermind. So, if I'm not evil enough, then what does that mean for the other things I'm proud of?"

"I wouldn't be too worried about it, but if you want to be more evil just to calm your nerves, maybe you could find some sleep learning tapes or something?"

"Tapes? What year is it?"

"Oh, you know what I mean! After all, they make those immersive hypnosis videos for just about everything. Maybe doing some of those will help you get your mojo back."

"Hmm, that's actually a good idea. I think I'll try that, thanks!"

Once Arlo returned to his building, he kept running through the idea of sleep learning audio that Spark had given him. Sure, it was simple and seemed patently absurd, and came from someone who evidently had no knowledge of true evil, but it couldn't hurt, right? After all, Arlo knew he had it in him, so perhaps the right audio mix would provide a stimulus to reawaken his true potential. First, though, he wanted to get an assessment of his state from his coworkers. After all, they were most familiar with him in his evil duties, so if anyone had an opinion on his commitment to the Team Rocket mission, it'd be them. He intercepted Cliff in the Pokemon stables, giving his Tyranitar a sponge bath.

"You think I'm evil, right, Cliff?"

"You can be anything you set your mind to because you're a wonderful little boy with limitless potential!" He turned away from the Tyranitar briefly to hug Arlo tightly, lift him up, and twirl him around, much to his discomfort as he was crushed against his chest.

"Uh...can you put me down? Also, I'm...not a little boy."

Cliff stammered out an apology after returning Arlo to the ground and he dusted himself off before approaching Sierra's room, where she was lying on her stomach on her bed watching some sort of soap opera on her phone, which she paused when she saw him approach.

"What about you, Sierra?"

"You could do better."

"So you think I've gone soft, huh?"

"Yeah. To be honest, I kind of preferred you when you were whining about Candela all the time. It wasn't so damned sweet."

"Great to know you care about my emotional health."

No one who he thought had a reasonably informed opinion on the matter had given him a satisfactory answer. Had he really lost his edge? After all, he knew he was evil. It was what he had worked for since day one. It couldn't be possible that getting with Spark and gaining an overall healthier profile of relationships led him to lose his touch, right? He pulled the plushie Cliff had made for him off his dresser and looked into its embroidered eyes. After all, it represented his original model of evil masculinity and of all of the potential success that being driven by revenge could get you. If anyone knew how evil Arlo could truly be, it was him.

"You still think I'm evil, right, Ronnie?"

The plushie, being a plushie, didn't respond, so Arlo nudged its head to give it the motion of nodding.

"Yeah, thanks, dude. Well, let's see if we can get better."

Safely putting the plushie aside on his bed and tucking it in under the quilt Cliff had also made for him, Arlo pulled up YouTube and ran a search for evil hypnosis videos. He didn't really expect to find much of anything, and what he did find looked to be more catered to the cosplaying middle schooler demographic than anyone actually working in the field, but it was better than nothing. Scanning the search results, he compiled all of the relevant videos into a playlist, figuring that he'd set them to play while he slept to allow whatever malevolent secrets they contained to sink into him subconsciously.

Of course, the playlist he set up only had about 3 hours of content, and once YouTube runs out of relevant recommendations, it has a tendency to pull up videos based on things you've previously watched, whether they related to the previous topic or not. Which, in Arlo's case, was a number of Falling In Reverse songs, reaction videos to said songs, video essays about the band's history, rebuttals to said video essays, and streams from the frontman himself with him reacting to others' reactions and video essays of him because apparently he loved hearing other people discussing him almost as much as his own voice. Arlo, being soundly asleep by the point the playback shifted, didn't notice anything, but as he had hoped, his subconscious took it in, as evidenced by the shift in his dream sequence.

Like nearly every night, wisps of pulsating darkness twirled before his vision, snippets of voices and sights from that day's events occasionally peeking out through the abyss. However, this time, the darkness gave way, with Arlo being walked down a brightly lit, barren concrete hallway, straight forward without any choice in the matter. He looked around to find that he was being escorted by several muscular guards, his hands were cuffed behind his back, and he was wearing a tacky orange jumpsuit. Upon realizing where he was going, he stopped and hesitated and presented a plea to the guards.

"I was framed! Where am I? What am I in for?"

"Do you not know, pretty boy? Don't think that just because you're part of some local band the emosexual losers like, you're immune to consequences. That high school kid's blood is on your hands."

"What? I don't -- I've never been in a fight. I don't know what you're talking about."

"How about we let the Vega City Prison decide about that?"

"I don't understand! I've never been to Vega City! It's not me you want! Let me go!"

Arlo continued to attempt to thrash around, but his movements were hopeless and the door to an equally barren and dingy cell slammed in front of him, leaving him stunned in the corner, shaking and contemplating his situation. This wasn't fair. He hadn't done anything. He knew for certain that he hadn't done anything. Someone was clearly plotting against him. After all, he'd made plenty of efforts recently to improve, and for what? What was the point of being a better person if no one believed you and those who were supposed to support you turned against you? Through the currents of rage, he curled up in a corner of his cell and started thinking about song lyrics to express his feelings. After all, he hadn't done anything wrong, but once he got out, he'd figure out who'd gotten him framed and oh, would they be in for some trouble.

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