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Human Touch (PokeGo, Blanche (non-binary), pre-OT3) 4/4


LeapYearKisses

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Okay, this is one of the most self-indulgent things ever.  Pokemon Go has declined sharply in popularity since the summer, I know, but I LOVE BLANCHE.  (Though I'm on Team Instinct.  I love all of them.)  So I started to write a fic about Blanche, for my own enjoyment.  And now I have over 10,000 words and I'm not done.  I'm close, though.  Or trying to tell myself I am, which is partially why I'm posting this, because otherwise I could see myself writing another 10k words into a hole from whence I cannot return.  If I post it, I need to finish it.  Hopefully.

Anyway.

Notes: 

In this story, Blanche is non-binary.  I think the official stance from Niantic for Blanche's gender is "whatever you, the fan, interprets" and I'm going with NB.  Hopefully this story will be enjoyable to you anyway if you see Blanche as male or female, unless you get hung up on pronouns, and hey, to each their own.  As for the pronouns, I've chosen to use xe/xer for Blanche when it's Blanche's POV.  During other characters' POV segments, Blanche is referred to by they/them pronouns.  In the story, Blanche hasn't verbally specified what xe wants to be called by xer coworkers because xe finds the matter secondary to the work relationship.  However, Blanche is consistently referred to as non-binary throughout.  In terms of Blanche's biological sex, I have my own idea, but it's not important to the story and thus is left up to interpretation.

**There are very light allusions to dysphoria/Blanche being uncomfortable in this story, toward the end, but (this is not a spoiler; I don't get into it) Blanche has not been traumatized in the past.  This isn't an angst bucket or a trauma-as-plot-device setup (hate this trope).  So the story doesn't even go into the past, but I want to reassure anyone with squicks or triggers or preferences that nothing horrible does or has happened in this fic.

This story is pre-OT3.  Spark and Candela are in a casual relationship and they both want to date Blanche as well.  The story, if I finish it where it ought to stop, won't cover the three of them getting together fully, though there's interest/looking/thoughts about it throughout.

There is mess.

If you still want to read it after the novel of an introduction, more power to you.  Here is my very self-indulgent PoGo story.

-------

Beep.  Beep.  Beep. The monitors were functioning normally.  As usual, the steady, quiet sound of digital readouts updating pulsed like a heartbeat under the other ambient sounds in the lab.  If you worked there day by day, the sound might even become invisible to you, so familiar that you forgot it unless something went wrong and changed the pitch.  It blended seamlessly with the soft hum of the overhead lights, and, today, the incubators.  Lined up along the workbench by the wall, they glowed red from the heat lamps and cast warm shadows.

Blanche carefully turned an egg in the largest incubator with both hands.  It had been found and brought in by a member of Team Valor the day before and already weighed more than 20kg.  As of yet, Blanche hadn’t detected any signs that it was close to hatching, but the caliper measurement showed that it had grown since last night.  “Might be a Staryu,” xe muttered.  The spots on the egg were a little bluish in the normal lab lights, and the eggshell itself was smooth.  Then again, it hadn’t been found in a body of water.  Xe checked the notes on the incubator again.  Found beside a tree, a few meters from a vernal pool.  Not a Staryu then?  A lack of clear phenotypical difference between Pokémon eggs beside size often made it difficult to identify them without an x-ray, and Blanche just… didn’t want to deal with dragging in the mobile scanner today.  Xer head hurt.

There was a clattering burst of sound from the lab doors and Blanche flinched, dropping the calipers on the bench and swearing under xer breath.  The others were back, then.

“It’s not my fault that my team is strong, Spark!  That’s a good thing!  If you’re so upset, you can start asking your employees to come to my training facilities.  Simple as that!”  Candela stalked into the room, heels ringing against the tile, and over to her bank of monitors.  They were currently displaying statistics for the top Pokémon used in the latest regional tournaments.  Blanche had been pleased to see that there were quite a few Vaporeons on top of the standings this month, but now that Candela was fiddling with everything grumpily, xe was just irritated.

“I’m not going to ask Team Instinct members to train with you.  We have our own stuff.”  Spark had crossed his arms and now stood by his desk, frowning.  The expression looked out of place on him.  “I’m just saying, that every time someone from my team claims a gym, your people don’t have to rush over and take it back immediately!  It’s destroying morale!  No one wants to see the little buddies they spent all that time hatching win, just to be crushed by some insecure, red-hatted bro with a Dragonite!”

“Oh, so now we’re insecure?  Candela scowled, her generous mouth twisting unpleasantly.  “We just like to spend more time bettering ourselves than frolicking through a field of flowers!  Cry me a river!”

Spark looked stricken for a moment, then he also glared and started to march himself right over to the computers.  “Candela, I’ve had enough of you implying that my team is weak!  Just because we’re not-”

Blanche slapped xer palms on a clean workbench, bringing an end to his building rant.  “And I’ve had enough of both of you.  Can’t you see I’m trying to work?  If you’re going to fight, do it outside the lab.  Though I can’t say it looks good for anyone if you keep squabbling like children.”  Xe pointed to Candela.  “Logically, it makes sense that Team Valor’s physically-trained Pokémon can hold gyms better than Team Instinct’s.  But grabbing them back in minutes is petty.”  Xe turned xer gaze to Spark.  “But if you really cared about being competitive in the arena, you would institute classes like Candela’s instead of yet another program for teaching your Pokémon how to draw.  They’re your priorities.  Sort them out before you start complaining.”  Xe rubbed xer temples.  “And leave me in peace!”

Spark pouted, but after a moment, he shrugged.  Candela didn’t look mollified.  As usual, her temper was as fiery as her favorite type. “No one asked you to butt into our business,” she said.  Spark’s eyes widened and he tried to make mollifying gestures beside her.

Blanche took a breath to fire back something cutting, but it caught before xe could say anything.  A prickling itch blossomed in xer nasal cavity and refused to be soothed.  Xe quickly lifted a hand over xer face, ducking a little with the force of a stifled sneeze.  While it was almost silent, it burned through xer sinuses and xer eyes watered a little as xe let go, sniffling slightly.

“Bless you,” said Spark.  Candela lifted an eyebrow. 

“Well?” she snapped.

Blanche shook xer head in disgust.  Xer headache had redoubled, and with xer ears and throat now smarting as well, xe couldn’t find the energy to continue arguing.  Xe hadn’t even wanted to argue in the first place!  “I have work to do.”  Blanche snatched up the calipers and moved to the next incubator in the line.  This one had two Pikachu eggs in it, with x-ray confirmation, and they were going to hatch soon.  Xe had to take measurements for the growth chart research that Professor Willow was working on.

“That’s what I thought,” said Candela, spinning in her chair and aggressively starting to type.  Probably working on more training schedules, or reports for her employees.  She would cool off pretty soon.  It was always this way with her.  Blanche really preferred it when she was being friendly.  Candela’s boisterous laugh and frequent desire to touch everyone around her (“No, I do not want you to slap me, on the back or anywhere!”) drove Blanche crazy, but it was much, much better than fighting.  Xe sighed.  Best not to bother about it now, though.

The Pikachu eggs were warm, and Blanche could feel the flutter of a heartbeat through the thinning shell when xe picked one of them up.  Static crackled against xer gloves as xe rubbed the eggs once before applying the calipers.  Almost ready.  Xe might spend the night at the lab to see if anything happened in the next few hours.  …Then again, the thought of sleeping on a cot in the breakroom instead of going home to xer own bed was getting less appealing every hour.

“Hey little guy!  Or girl!” said Spark beside xer, and Blanche jumped again.  This was most unusual.  Xe gave Spark a sideways glance.  He had come over and picked up the other egg and was cradling it against his cheek, smiling radiantly once again.  “I love it when they’re so close,” he said.  “I feel like an expectant dad.”

“It’s just research,” said Blanche, though xe too could be overcome with an unassuming excitement when the three of them watched new Pokémon be born.  Xe tried not to get attached to the subjects, as most were released into the wild after being studied, or passed to other labs and trainers.  It didn’t do to get too emotional. 

“I guess.”  Spark nuzzled the egg, though, and squawked when it shocked him.  Then he laughed.  “This one’s feisty!  Ah, I love electric types.”  He moved the egg away from his face and weighed it in his hands.  “This is a big one.  Or maybe just fat.  …Do you think I can adopt him?”

“You’ve already taken too many,” Blanche sighed.  “Didn’t we agree that these Pikachus were going to be transferred to the University?”

“Aww, did we?”  Spark set the egg back onto its cushion.  “I don’t know why Professor Willow’s friends can’t just hatch their own.”

“His colleagues don’t have the time to tramp around like we do,” said Blanche, replacing the other egg as well.  “Besides, that’s partially why our teams were formed.  Don’t you remember that much?”  Xe put the calipers down, too.  Xer nose was itching again.

“I suppose.  I just want to keep all of them, you know?  They’re like my family!  Even the hundreds of Weedles we found that one time up that tree!  Good times.”

“That was kind of terrifying,” said Candela, not looking at them, but sounding calmer.  She’d crossed one leg over the other and was bouncing one elegantly-shaped calf to a tune in her head. 

“Nah, it was fun!” 

“Th- hh- there was a really good chance that whh- we would have been poisoned,” Blanche managed, then steepled xer hands around xer nose and pressed them together.  Xe tried to take steady breaths, but soon the sneeze insisted on being released.  Xe stifled it again, and the one the followed on its heels, viciously pinching xer nose.  Quiet again, but painful, and xe coughed a little.

“Bless you,” said Candela.

Spark touched xer shoulder, just for a moment.  “You shouldn’t cover them up like that, your head will explode.”

“It won’t,” said Blanche, and straightened, coughing again.

“Are you feeling okay?” asked Spark when he could get a better look at Blanche’s face, his brows knitting in concern.  “You look kind of pale.  And actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you sneeze before.  Is that weird?”

Blanche cleared xer throat.  “I’m fine.”  As soon as the words had left xer mouth xe wished they hadn’t.  Xe wasn’t fine.  From the moment xe had woken up this morning, xe had been feeling under the weather.  Xe had been hoping that it was just the result of another late night entering spreadsheets, but was realizing more and more that it must be a virus of some kind.  Closing off, though, that was what xe was used to.  It was easier than being the center of attention, with everyone prying into xer business.

Candela swiveled around in her chair and now she and Spark were both looking at xer.  Blanche colored slightly, cleared xer throat again, and went to put the calipers away in the storage closet.  Xe would take a break for half an hour or so, take some cold medicine, and everything would settle down…

As Blanche disappeared into the closet, Spark looked down at the Pikachu eggs and Blanche’s notes nearby.  “You only measured one,” he called.  Candela got up and grabbed his sleeve, shaking her head.

“I’ll do it in a minute,” she said, voice low.  “Can you go make sure there’s hot water in the lounge?  I’m feeling like tea.”

“Aw, Candela,” he said, smiling.  “You only drink coffee.”  She poked his side and he laughed a little, then saluted.  “I’ll go sort it out.”

Blanche stepped back into the lab after he had left, smoothing xer hands over xer jacket – like it ever looked messed up.  “I have some errands to do,” xe said, and xe wasn’t a very good liar, but Candela didn’t call it this time.

“Okay,” she said.  Reluctantly, she added, “Be back by four, though.  We’re meeting with Professor Willow and the women from that wildlife preserve today.  Remember?”

“Yes,” said Blanche, who had forgotten.  Xer stomach sank at the prospect, but xe didn’t let the dismay show on xer face.  “I’ll be back by then.  Please don’t fight with Spark again while you’re on the clock.”

Candela huffed a sigh.  “We’ll behave,” she said.  “Bye now.”  She waved a little flippantly as Blanche took xer bag and left, then sighed.  No, she wouldn’t pick on Spark again today.  The two of them apparently had a more pressing matter to take care of.

---

The lounge at Professor Willow’s lab had started out life as an empty side room, sealed against dust but definitely looking forlorn enough to gather some.  Willow did the bulk of his research outside and didn’t need the relatively small space, so it remained disused in a wing of the building that rarely saw any traffic.  By the time the Professor had instituted the Team Initiative and hired the team leaders to work with him, several boxes of unused equipment had colonized the room, but it didn’t have any other purpose.  Candela was the first to call it the lounge, and stuck a coffee pot in there for late nights, as well as a comfortable chair she’d had dragged in to nap in.  Spark soon followed her example and brought a beanbag and a toaster.  The equipment was put away in the cabinets and the room started to get used for lunch as well as late-night, caffeine-fueled conversation.

Blanche had been reluctant to join in the conversion.  Xe felt that the lab should be respected.  Like a library or a courthouse it had a secular holiness that necessitated quiet voices and careful steps, an aura of calm thoughtfulness.  The lounge was frequently noisy, especially since the addition of several different radios, and it smelled perpetually of burnt toast and peanut butter.  Xe had avoided it like the plague at first, eating in the courtyard or travelling home to cook for xerself.  It felt wrong to be laughing at work.  To hear Candela and Spark singing along (badly) to their favorite stations.  But it had been awfully lonely.

Luckily xer colleagues hadn’t made a big deal out of it when xe had started stopping by.

Xe pushed open the door now, noting with mild alarm that the lounge had been rearranged since xe had last been inside.  An overstuffed couch with a horrendous print of leaves and flowers now took up a significant space in the middle of the room, exuding the aura of an elderly woman obsessed with Meowths.  One of the others must have had it brought in when Blanche was in the field, or xe would have strenuously objected on principle.  The cot that they kept for overnights had been folded and shoved up against the wall to make room.  As it was, the path to the coffee maker and water heater was tight.

At least there was hot water.  Blanche had forgotten to fill it this morning, so one of the others must have come in recently.  Not Candela, they had just been speaking.  Spark?  Xe wasn’t sure where he had gone in the past few minutes.  It didn’t seem to be worth wondering about, though.  Xe coughed again, throat aching, and drowned xer teabag with a puff of steam.  Tea, pills, nap.  Meeting at four with the others and the professor.  Xe could handle that. 

Xe took a sip of tea, relishing how the just-too-hot liquid felt going down, burning through xer ears.  It helped a little.  The steam tickled xer nose, though, and xe caught a sneeze in xer elbow. “Ngktshh!”  It was getting to be too hard to stifle, and xe was tired.  Blanche rubbed the barest hint of moisture from xer upper lip with the back of xer glove, and, lacking choices, settled on the horrendous couch.  Xe took a few cold pills from xer inner pocket and swallowed them with tea.  When the cup was empty, xe set it on the floor and laid down across the cushions.  The couch was too short for xer to lay comfortably unless xe folded xer knees up considerably.  But it would do.

As xe closed xer eyes, Blanche wondered idly if Candela would wake xer if the Pikachus hatched.  Xe hoped so.  Xe had been the ones monitoring them, and it wouldn’t be fun to miss it… but xe couldn’t worry about it for long before xe fell into a fitful sleep.

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I've always been such a big pokemon fan so when I saw this I basically screamed. I love how you wrote it, its beautiful!! I really hope you continue this if u where thinking about it.

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@bazzpop00 - Thank you!  I hope you enjoy this next part, too.  I've been a fan since I was a kid, and I'm so happy that there are lots of others to geek out with!

@GeniusArtStuff - It's going to get worse!  (Better? >:D)

Here's part 2!  (The name of Spark's Jolteon is a reference to the absolutely amazing PoGo comic that surfacage is doing on Tumblr, but this story is not set in the same universe.)

---

Wind rustled through the trees in gentle waves, shushing Spark as he crunched down the path back toward the lab, whistling.  Damp earth was turned up by his boots every step, scenting the air under the canopy with mud, growing things, and leaf litter.  He pushed aside a low-lying branch that hung out in front of him, then carefully eased in back so it wasn’t in any danger of snapping.  Birdsong above him filtered down in muted layers through the green murk.

“I love nature,” Spark said unnecessarily, hitching his backpack higher against his shoulders.  The Jolteon padding along just in front of him didn’t bother looking up.  Spark always talked to himself or to his Pokémon when he walked.  “A day like today is really perfect for gathering samples.  Fresh air, cool breeze, what’s not to like?”  He smiled and climbed over a chunky boulder that split the path, stepping with the calm surety of an experienced trailblazer.  Once on the other side of the obstruction, he could look through the trees and see Professor Willow’s facilities through the brush, down the slope.

“I hope Blanche is feeling better,” Spark said, checking his watch and speeding up his pace a little.  “It’s almost time for that meeting.  I’ll go check on them.”  He bent and held out his hand and the Jolteon ran up to sit on his shoulder.  He started to jog a little.  “Blanche is sick today,” he said, skirting a hole where a Diglett probably had been.  “They probably don’t want us to worry, but of course I am!”

“Rrr,” replied his Jolteon, claws digging a little into the fabric of Spark’s jacket.

“I know, I know… They don’t like it when people pry into their business.  But that’s not how it’s supposed to be with friends.”  Or… more than friends?  Spark’s face heated at the thought­ and he didn’t voice it aloud, but it was one that had been dogging him lately.  Probably wasn’t a good idea to date co-workers, but he wasn’t sure what else he was supposed to do when coming to work every day made his stomach do weird flips.  He and Candela had started fooling around a little bit, here and there.  But she wasn’t the only one who threatened his professionalism.

He bit his lip.  “Hey, Donglord?”

The Jolteon licked his paw and didn’t reply.

“Blanche… sneezed today.  I’ve never heard them do it before.”  Spark’s face heated and he looked at the ground.  “It was… really cute.”  He sighed. “But, you know, I don’t even know if Blanche likes people or not.  What do you think I should do?”

Donglord bit his ear and Spark yelped in surprise.

“Ow!  Okay, okay!  I won’t go to you for relationship advice anymore!  Jeez…”  He rubbed his ear as he finally left the forest and started across the lawn to the Pokémon Research Center, past the back pen of Ponytas waiting to be microchipped and the wave pool for Pokémon rehabilitation.  One of Candela’s Team Valor employees held the side door open for him as he fumbled with his swipe card, and he thanked her cheerfully before heading to store his forest samples – mainly discarded sheds from Kakuna and Metapod, but also some feathers and a shiny rock or two.

He labeled each of his finds with descriptions and the date in sloppy handwriting before securing them in drawers in the preservation room.  Team Instinct was in charge of gathering most of the time; they brought in most of the eggs, responded to area calls about injured or troublesome Pokémon, and collected other objects of interest like Spark had found today.  Spark was sure that one of his employees would visit the preservation room to draw and catalogue the new samples later this afternoon.  They were like a well-oiled machine.  Or at least a machine that worked half the time when you massaged it and spoke to it encouragingly.

His Jolteon had jumped off his shoulder when he took off his backpack and now padded out of the room, off to do whatever it did when Spark wasn’t taking it out on field missions.  Spark took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair, trying to free it from any stray bits of leaves or Jolteon fur, and then headed to the lounge.  Blanche was probably sleeping inside, still.  At least that’s where Candela had told him Blanche was before he had left.  He made sure to open the door quietly.

As he expected, his coworker was curled up on the couch Spark had rescued, white hair messy and falling from its usual ponytail and over the edge of the cushion.  It looked like Blanche had tried to squeeze into as tight a ball as possible, and Spark wished suddenly that he had a blanket to give them.  Then again, it was only a few minutes until they both had to be presentable, so it was a tragically moot point.  He cleared his throat, walking further into the room, hoping Blanche wouldn’t be angry to be woken.

They didn’t stir at the slight noise, or when Spark called their name.  It took Spark laying a hand on Blanche’s shoulder before they opened one pale grey eye in confusion.

“Time to get up,” said Spark, trying not to bludgeon Blanche with cheerfulness.  He kept his voice low.  “Adelaide and Kristine from the Heather Ranch Pokémon Preserve are going to meet with us in a few.”  He withdrew his hand as Blanche shifted, though he didn’t want to.  Their skin was warm through their uniform.

“Already?” said Blanche, brow furrowing, though the comment did not seem to demand an answer.  They sat up slowly, stretching their legs stiffly.  Spark worried his lip a little.  “Thank you for waking me then.”  Blanche’s voice, usually clipped and calm, now sounded muzzy and blunted.  They sniffled.

Spark looked around for a tissue box and found none, though there was a roll of paper towels on the counter.  He grabbed it and offered it to Blanche.  “Feeling any better?” he asked, though he wasn’t expecting them to say yes.  They looked worse than before, wilted almost. 

“No,” said Blanche, and accepted a towel, though with distaste.  They carefully used it to dab at their nose, turning away a little from Spark.  Spark blushed inexplicably and also looked away.  “How long is the meeting supposed to be?”

Spark shrugged.  “Er, not sure.  Candela could tell you, but I don’t think it’ll be more than an hour?”  They were negotiating terms to use the preserve for data collection, he thought, and both of the owners seemed like super nice people, so he didn’t think there would be a problem, really.  “I’m sure you can leave early, too, if you’re feeling sick.”

Blanche coughed a little and stood from the couch.  They didn’t wobble, but they narrowed their eyes, staring at the wall for a moment before stepping forward.  “If the professor needs me there, then it will be fine,” they said.  They lifted a hand and fumbled to get their hair back into shape.  After a few tries, they dropped their hair tie and just… decided to leave their hair down.  Spark tried not to stare.

“I’m sure he wouldn’t mind…” he started, but gave up at Blanche’s hard look.  It was clear he wasn’t going to win this one.  “Okay.  Well.  Let me find you some tissues, at least…”  There were probably some in the bathroom.

“Don’t bother,” said Blanche, cheeks going slightly pink.  “I don’t need them.”  They then sniffed decisively and ended up pressing a hand to their face as their breath caught.  Spark watched in confused fascination as Blanche’s chest heaved once or twice before they bent with a forceful sneeze, covered by their palm.  Ehkttsch!” It wasn’t stifled like before, and this time sounded less painful but somewhat wet.  Breathing a little labored, it took Blanche a moment to straighten, not lowering their hand.  After a beat they reached for the paper towels.

“Bless you,” said Spark, feeling a little breathless himself.  “I’m going to find those tissues.  I’ll meet you at the conference room, okay?”

Wordlessly, Blanche nodded, face red.  Spark slipped out of the lounge.

---

It took a little bit of searching to find something acceptable for Blanche’s nose.  Spark hadn’t been able to find any tissues in either of the bathrooms closest to the lab, or in the one on the way to the conference room.  He would clearly have to remedy the situation.  He was sure Blanche would die before using toilet paper, though, so in the end he ended up begging a clean handkerchief from a passing lab technician and hurried to the meeting a few minutes late.  He was the last to arrive, though it looked as though everyone was just settling with coffee and he hadn’t missed anything.  He smiled sheepishly as he came into the room.

“Sorry!” he said, shrugging a little and sliding into a chair next to Blanche.  His coworker had combed their hair and tidied their uniform but looked as tired as ever.  Their nose was pink and twitched a little as Spark watched.  He looked away and passed Blanche the handkerchief under the table.  They didn’t thank him, but seemed to relax a little.  “I was caught up.  So many things to do.”

“Oh, undoubtedly,” drawled Candela, taking a sip of her coffee.  She was always early and she had no patience, even if everyone else was on time.  Today her voice was light, though.  She’d noted Blanche’s more-than-usually apathetic mien as well.  “But at least you’re here.”

“Shall we get started then?” asked Willow, in a chipper mood.  He was to Candela’s left and smiled eagerly at the two women sitting across the table from them.  Adelaide and Kristine Baker smiled and Adelaide nodded.  Though he didn’t think they were twins, the family resemblance was so strong that Spark had just been identifying her as “the one with the blonde highlight” in his head.

“First of all, I’d like to thank you for reaching out to us,” Adelaide said.  “Heather Ranch would love to be a partner in your research.  Anything we can learn to help improve the environment for the Pokémon we’re protecting would be wonderful.  Are you familiar with the extent of the property?  No?  Well, I brought some pamphlets with me so we could discuss what your plans might be.”  She pulled out a few glossy booklets that bore a map of the 63-acre plot as well as other pertinent info.  She passed a few to Candela and Spark and spread one out on the table.  Willow leaned over it with her and the two of them began to discuss the different areas of field and forest.

“It looks like here would be a great place to study Poliwags,” said Willow, pointing to a stream that ran down into a fairly large pool, sheltered by a copse of trees.

“Oh yes, we always have some there,” said Adelaide, and then pointed to a spot north of the pool and began to explain how the stream formed in the hills and then ran around the property.

Kristine nodded along to the discussion here and there, adding relevant tidbits as needed, playing with the leaves of the Oddish in her lap as she spoke.  It cooed and bounced, obviously pleased to be petted.  After a moment, it spun joyfully and a sweet scent started to permeate the room.  It was reminiscent of a warm spring day, calming and almost bewitching. Spark subtly waved a hand in front of his face to clear the air some.

Beside him, he heard Blanche’s breath stutter.

Spark looked up from the pamphlet he’d been given and over to his coworker.  Their eyes were narrowed, and they were rubbing their nose with graceful fingers.  Blanche hadn’t bothered to look at the Bakers’ material at all, and seemed to be concentrating fully on their own irritation.  Spark watched surreptitiously as Blanche hitched again… then lowered their hand cautiously.  They sniffled quietly afterward, and their nostrils flared, but the immediate urge to sneeze seemed to have faded.  Spark was a little disappointed… then felt guilty, and turned his attention back to the presentation.

“Can we take Pokémon from the preserve if we think it will benefit a study?” asked Candela.  She had leaned forward on her elbows, apparently engrossed in the conversation.  Strong Pokémon were her number one weakness; Spark remembered hearing something about Heather Ranch being home to several Golems and Rhyhorns at least.  It didn’t stretch the imagination to think that Candela might want to train one or two for the battling circuit.

“We’d probably have to talk about it on a case-by-case basis,” said Kristine a little dubiously.  “Depending on what you’re studying.”

Willow nodded.  “This partnership is largely for collecting observational data.  We don’t have a plan right now to collect Pokémon from the premises unless they’d be better served by being looked after at the lab.”

Candela clicked her nails against the table, but nodded.  Knowing her, she’d just figure out how best to be persuasive if she found a Pokémon she liked.  And that liked her.  All of the fighters of her regular team had committed to her high-level lifestyle – if they were unhappy, she brought them to Blanche or Spark – and Spark was sure she had no doubt that her training would appeal to some in the wild. 

“I’d personally like to look for egg sites,” said Spark.  “We don’t have a lot of data yet about how eggs hatch in the wild.  I mean, they do obviously, but a lot of them are too big to be sat on, you know?  So it would be interesting to see how they’re incubated.  Or walked around.  Or whatever happens to them.”  He smiled.

“We’re interested in that, too,” said Kristine, smiling back.  Her Oddish trilled.  “I’ve actually made some drawings of what I think are Pokémon nests, if you’d like to see them sometime.”

“I’d love to!”  Spark beamed.

Adelaide opened a bag that she’d leaned against the leg of her chair.  “I have some agreements for permissions to sign, and then we can talk about how the funding side will break down.”  She passed the papers to Willow to look over.  He took them and started to read.

“Hmmm, looks good, looks good…  Ah, there are some notes here about lab spaces.  Blanche, would you like to take a look at these?”  Willow held out the paper.  Silently, Blanche accepted it from him and turned their attention to the terms. 

It took them a long moment to look them over.  Spark wondered if Blanche was thinking hard or if they were just trying to focus.  They sniffed and handed back the paper.  “It should be hh fine, Professor.”  Their nose twitched and Blanche rubbed it, looking troubled.  “I don’t thhh- ink it will be a problem fhh- for Team Mystic…”

Willow blinked and scrutinized Blanche for probably the first time that day, frowning.  “Is everything all right?”

“I’m fine,” said Blanche, and then sneezed into the crook of their elbow.  Ehektsch!”  Spark was recognizing this as a pattern now.  “I’m just feeling a little under the weather,” they continued thickly, pulling out the handkerchief that Spark had provided and pressing it to their face.  “It’s just a cold.”

“Bless you,” said Willow.  “If you need to take some time off, you only need ask.  Why don’t you go home early today?”

Blanche looked annoyed at the suggestion, then shrugged.  “I’ll finish up what I was going to do, thhh—Then I’ll go.  Please don’t bother about it.”

“If you’re sure.”  After a moment, Willow went back to the documents, filling them out methodically and taking the time to read everything.  Spark nudged his chair closer to Blanche’s.

“Don’t,” said Blanche.  “It really is just a cold.  Leave me alone.”  They sniffled and then had to muffle another sneeze into the handkerchief.  Enktcch!”  It was forceful enough to bend them a little in their seat, and they coughed afterward before reluctantly blowing their nose.

“I know,” said Spark.  “Bless you again.  I just wanted to say that Candela and I don’t mind closing your lab room for you, so you don’t have to worry about putting away the equipment and stuff.  We can handle that.”  He bit his lip.  Blanche looked so tired.  He couldn’t remember where his coworker lived… did they take the bus home?  Drive?  He felt uneasy with the thought of Blanche doing a long commute alone, though he knew that he was being ridiculous.  A “mother hen” is what they always said about him.  “Also, I can give you a ride if you need one.”

“Spark, you’re being annoying,” said Blanche, who looked rather like they wanted to sink into the floor. 

Spark sighed and moved his chair back over.  “Sorry.”  He tried to disguise how much the simple rejection stung, surprising himself how much it smarted.  Even though they had been coworkers for close to a year now, it seemed that Blanche was still as frosty as ever.  Maybe that was fitting for the companion to Arcticuno, but Spark found it rather off-putting as a concerned human.  Then again, he should know better by now.  The first two months the three of them had done almost nothing but fight, over the small things just as often as the direction the lab was taking its research, and Blanche had always come off as a… well. 

He shook his head, mentally chastising himself.  Blanche was a very private person, and intensely sensitive to embarrassment or being made fun of.  This wasn’t the time to try and baby them, in front of the Professor and their guests.  Spark leaned his cheek on his hand and poked at the Heather Ranch brochure again.  Whatever.  It felt bad, no matter what the reason.

Beside him, Blanche sneezed again, and Candela blessed them.  Spark tried not to say anything for the rest of the meeting that wasn’t related directly to Pokémon or their research venture.

---------

Spark.  He has the fetish. NO REGRETS

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@GeniusArtStuff  Thank you so much!  I really like putting a lot of detail into my stories, especially lately.  I've been trying to get a sense of place as well as a sense of character.  I'm really glad you like my characterization, too. :) 

@bazzpop00  *bows* I like to stick characters with the fetish into my stories sometimes.  I feel like it can liven things up and makes describing things more fun!

@ichixshiro14 Thank you!  Hope you enjoy this next part, too.

One more part to go after this, and it's done!  And, just a note, anyone who wants to leave constructive criticism on this piece, I welcome it. :)  In the absence of any suggestions, though, it's fine if you just... don't read it.  I wrote it for myself and figured it might be of interest to some other fans here, that's all.

---

Candela leaned up to the mirror and applied another coat of lipstick, carefully smoothing it over her full lips and grinning at her reflection to make sure she hadn’t gotten any on her teeth.  The shade of red complimented her skin nicely, though she was more interested in the effect it had on her opponents.  Men she could bend to her will with a simple smile, women fell at her feet in envy. Or at least they did when she was daydreaming at her desk.  Fun little mental exercises to keep her sharp.  She liked leaving a kiss mark, too, as if claiming things as hers.  Wine glasses and coffee mugs, Pokémon eggs, Spark…

He’d been looking a little down after the meeting ended.  Candela supposed Blanche had been prickly to him.  Their often-bitchy, pale-headed coworker was a handful at the best of times, and with the unenviable cold they were sporting, Candela expected it was worse today.  Things had been better when Blanche was sleeping.  Candela had checked on them a few times, looking through the lounge door in between training sessions, and Blanche had looked peaceful then.

“Well, nothing for it, is there?” she asked her reflection.  It was almost the end of the day; in an hour or so she’d be free to move about the country and had been planning to take her Jeep out to the Point for a little fun with her Arcanine, but now she guessed her afternoon was going to be spent mediating.  It wasn’t a role she liked much, and she sighed.  She felt clunky when she had to tread lightly.

The restroom door opened to her right and she glanced over, raising an eyebrow when she saw that it was Blanche.  The leader of Team Mystic looked odd to Candela with their hair down, but it presented an interesting profile.  A thin strand of silver locks brushed over Blanche’s narrow cheekbone and Candela licked her lips. 

“Hello,” she said, putting away her lipstick in her makeup bag. 

Blanche stopped by the edge of the sinks, face warring between annoyance and exhaustion.  Eventually they settled on nodding.  “Hello,” they replied, voice cracking just a little.  The handkerchief that Candela could see clutched in one of their hands was limp, and Blanche sniffled thickly, probably hoping they were inaudible.

“How are you doing?” asked Candela, partially because she knew it would piss Blanche off, and partially because she was genuinely curious.  Blanche looked pale and clearly unwell and their obsessive focus on dignity couldn’t mask it.

They sniffled again.  “I’m…. The day’s almost over, anyway.”  Blanche turned away and coughed a little, weakly. 

“True,” said Candela, leaning her hip on the counter.  Blanche didn’t move.  Perhaps they were the type of person who couldn’t pee if someone else was in the room.  Well, she didn’t feel like leaving yet.  “Did you argue with Spark?  He’s sulking.”  After the meeting, Spark had hurried out to check on the Pikachu eggs and then had busied himself with washing up the lounge, keeping away from the lab. 

“Both of you are incredibly nosy,” said Blanche, coughing again and folding their arms.  They looked uncomfortable, sweating a little, not meeting Candela’s eyes.  “I didn’t mean to make him angry, but I don’t think it was fair that he was asking me personal questions during the meeting.”

“It’s called being nice,” said Candela, but she relented somewhat, sighing.  Blanche wasn’t the most personable of people, but neither was Candela, so she could understand that much.  “…You really don’t feel well, do you?”

Blanche took a long moment to stare at their reflection, then reluctantly shook their head.  “No.  I don’t.  I want to go home.”  It looked like it took physical effort to admit to something so dire, and Blanche’s shoulders slumped.  “I have a headache and ever since the meeting I can’t… hh… I can’t stop…”  They closed their eyes and steepled their hands, holding the handkerchief over their nose.  Ehektsch!  Hektsch!”

Candela leaned away a little.  “Bless you.  I can see that.”  She straightened up and picked up her makeup bag, looking away in mild discomfort as Blanche blew their nose.  They’d given up the pretense of being pristine and it sounded productive.  “Tell you what… you freshen up in here, then take the rest of the day off.  Spark and I will close up, and everything will be fine.  Take tomorrow off, too.”  Candela felt bad for Blanche but didn’t want to catch anything.

“…He said that, too,” mumbled Blanche, flushing a little, looking a bit guilty.

“Turns out we like you after all, huh?” said Candela, but smiled.  “Go on.  I’ll go clear the lab.”

There passed a long moment of silence, then Blanche muttered something that was probably a thank you and went into a stall.  Candela left the restroom, shaking her head.

“My friends are high-maintenance pieces of trash,” she commented to no one in particular.  Anyway.  Let’s see, she was going to need the-  Oh!  She stopped walking.  She was going to need Blanche’s notebooks, which were probably tucked away somewhere in their completely inscrutable file cabinet system.  Better ask Blanche where they were.  She leaned on the wall to wait for Blanche to come back out.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.  She scowled.  She hated waiting.  All that time when she could have been doing something productive!  She checked her watch.  Ten minutes had gone by.  Candela sneered at the digital face, ready to go with or without Blanche.  But then she felt her stomach drop.  Ten minutes?

She turned on her heel and pushed open the restroom door.  “Blanche?  Are you okay?”

At first she though the room was empty, which didn’t make any sense, but then she noticed Blanche at the farthest sink, bent over, braced on their elbows.  Their hair was in their face, but they turned in confusion when Candela burst in.  “Huh?”

“You are not looking good,” said Candela, hurrying over.  “Did you throw up?”

Blanche blinked again and then shook their head. “No.  No, I’m okay… I just felt.  Dizzy.”  Their face was wet and Candela deduced with some relief that Blanche had splashed it with some cool water from the tap.  She reached out, and ignoring Blanche’s squawk of protest, pressed the back of her hand to Blanche’s forehead.  Their skin was soft and smooth and very warm, even to Candela, who ran hot.

“You have a fever.  How are you getting home today?”

Blanche pulled away belatedly.  “I… I drove in, but… Spark said he would drive me back.  If he’s not still angry.”  They wiped some of the moisture from their face with their sleeve, then caught a sneeze in their elbow.  It was sudden and rather desperate and left Blanche out of breath.  Ehkkstcht!”

Ugh. “Bless you,” said Candela, and rubbed Blanche’s back lightly.  “I’m sure he won’t still be mad if you apologize to him.  Come with me and let’s see if we can find him.  You shouldn’t drive, obviously.”

“I’m not stupid,” muttered Blanche congestedly.  The handkerchief they had was on the counter, but Candela didn’t think it was safe to touch without a hazmat suit.  She ripped a paper towel from the dispenser instead and thrust it at her coworker.

“Just stubborn as hell,” she answered.  “Blow your nose and let’s go.  The sooner you get home, the sooner you can get better.” And the sooner I can tuck you in, the sooner I stop worrying and can take a shower, thought Candela. 

“That’s rich coming from you.”  Blanche blew their nose wetly and threw away the crumpled paper.  The effort made them pause for a moment to get their bearings, but then they straightened up, washed their hands, and took Candela’s extended arm for some support as they left the restroom together.

---

Blanche was quiet on the way to the lounge, save for their slightly labored breathing and a few aborted sniffles.  It would have gotten on Candela’s nerves except for the fact that it actually felt kind of nice to have Blanche leaning on her.  They didn’t spend that much time together outside of work, but Spark had recently been suggesting to Candela that they should, the three of them.  She supposed it would be good for their teamwork, if they could stop bickering for long enough to actually go to the pub.  Or whatever fine dining establishment Blanche would probably insist upon. 

The door opened as they approached and Spark stepped into the hallway, a cleaning rag in his hand.  He looked unsure when he saw the two of them and Candela smiled.  He was cute when he looked like that.  “Everything okay?” he asked.

“Blanche is going home early,” said Candela.  “They have a fever.”

Blanche fidgeted minutely at her side, then cleared their throat.  “I’m… sorry about earlier.  I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.  I just…”  They looked away.  “I was wondering if I could still hh take you up on your offer.  For a ride.”

Spark’s face softened into a smile.  “Of course, Blanche.  I’m sorry you’re feeling so bad.”  He shoved the rag into his back pocket.  “I can actually take you right now if you want to go.”

Blanche nodded.  “I should.  Yes,” they said, and sagged a little against Candela.  She slipped her arm around Blanche’s lower back.  “I have my bag, so… I can… hh-  Hhktsch! Ehektch!”  The first sneeze was directed to the floor, the second caught belatedly in their elbow.  Candela shivered a little but kept holding Blanche for the third and fourth sneezes as well… and it was a good thing, because when they were finished, Blanche shifted their weight and then dipped toward the floor.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” said Candela.  She hurriedly ducked to catch Blanche before they could fall, ending up on one knee with the Team Mystic leader in her arms.  Blanche’s eyes were closed and they were sweating worse now, face flushed.  “Fuck,” said Candela.  “Maybe we should take them to a hospital instead.  It must be a pretty bad fever.”  She shook Blanche a little but just got a groan in response.

Spark knelt down beside them and felt Blanche’s forehead.  “…Yeah.  But Blanche hates hospitals.”

“How do you know?  And does that even matter?”

“They told me when Professor Willow broke his ankle. Remember Blanche didn’t come to visit?  Why don’t we just take them to my place?  It’s like five minutes from here.  We can put Blanche in an ice bath or something…”  He pulled the rag from his pocket and absently dabbed Blanche’s face free of mess while he talked, working tenderly and without a hint of the disgust that churned in Candela’s stomach.  “Besides, it matters because they’ll be upset to wake up in a hospital bed.  We can always move them later if it gets bad.”

Candela sighed.  “Fine; I suppose you’re right.  Let’s take Blanche to yours, then.”  She carefully stood, cradling her coworker’s light but muscular body bridal-style.   Blanche wheezed slightly and Candela bit her lip, but the three of them managed to get to Spark’s little hybrid in the side lot.  Spark climbed into the back to clear clothes, boxes, and a pile of books from the seat – onto the floor with more of their kind.  Candela leaned down to look in the door. 

“Here, stay there and take Blanche,” she said.  “I’ll drive.”

“What? You drive like a crazy person!” Spark protested, but he held out his arms to receive their ailing friend.  He didn’t want to argue with Candela and waste time.  The two of them managed to get Blanche seated and into a seatbelt, leaning on Spark.  They murmured something querulously and Spark patted their knee.  “You know the way?” he asked Candela, who had slipped into the car and was adjusting the seat and mirrors.

“Of course,” said Candela, smiling at him in the rearview.  “I’ve been there enough times, right?”  Spark passed her the keys and she started the engine, and soon they were underway.

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Part 4!  So concludes my self-indulgence.

----

“’s not like we can just… get them naked, is it?”

“Well, you’re the one who proposed it!  Why not?  We’re not going to take advantage or anything.”

“Because Blanche’s body is Blanche’s business…. UGH, I did suggest it, didn’t I… Maybe just the top layer?  I don’t know.  They’re burning up, but…”

“Just do it.  We’re not going to be creepy.  But whatever.  Maybe this will answer the question…”

The voices sounded like they were coming from above the surface of the ocean, going in and out with the waves.  They were talking about someone.  They were talking about Blanche.  Xe frowned softly, confused.  Why were they talking about xer?  Xe was on the floor, xe thought.  Did something happen during work?

There was a soft touch on xer cheek, then on xer collar bone and then xer sternum.  Fingers undid one of the buttons on xer jacket and xe jerked a little in surprise and opened xer eyes.  Things were blurry at first, but after a moment it became clear that xe was lying down on a bed in someone’s bedroom, and Candela and Spark were sitting above xer.  There was a cold compress of some kind on xer forehead, and Candela’s hand was at xer breast.

“W…hat are you doing?” xe croaked.

“It was Spark’s idea,” said Candela, withdrawing.  She didn’t look embarrassed at all. 

Spark did.  “We weren’t going to do anything, Blanche!  I just thought we should probably get you into some ice water…”  He sighed and then half-smiled. “I’m glad you’re awake.”

Blanche considered for a minute, taking this in.  Xe felt hot, and uncomfortably damp with xer own sweat, clothed in a clinging layer of waterproof athletic wear under xer uniform.  Xer head and body ached and xe couldn’t breathe through xer nose at all.  “I fainted? How long?”

“Not that long,” said Candela.  “Maybe… a minute or two?  You were kind of with us in the car.”

“You’re in my house,” said Spark.  “And your fever’s up over 102.  You need to get cooled down.”

Xe nodded vaguely.  That made sense.  “I’ll take a bath.  Though I can undress myself.”  Xe moved to sit up and Candela assisted with a hand on xer back when xe found it too difficult to do alone.  This wasn’t an ideal situation in any way, shape, or form.  Blanche sighed.  Xer hands felt clumsy, but xe started to take off xer jacket. 

“I’ll go fill the tub, said Candela, and got up, leaving Spark and Blanche alone together.  He blushed.

“Um, I’ll go in a minute,” he said.  “But I wanted to ask first…  Well.  Someone should probably… wait outside in case you slip or fall asleep or something.  Would you be more comfortable if it was me or Candela?”

Blanche kicked off xer shoes and then xer socks.  “It doesn’t really matter to me.  I trust either of you to save me from drowning.”  Xe looked at Spark, hands on the hem of xer shirt.

Spark colored deeper.  “O-of course!  Yes, of course.  I will.  Get you a towel and a robe or something.”

“Thank you.”  Blanche watched him get up and go to the door.  “Ah.  But the other consideration…”

“Yes?” Spark squeaked.

“Have you and Candela both had your flu shots?  That’s probably what I have.”  Xe hadn’t gotten around to getting the vaccine yet since xe’d been busy at work, even though the season was starting.  And there had been plenty of possible infection points at the grocery store when xe went shopping a few days ago…

Spark cleared his throat.  “I have,” he said.  “I’ll check with Candela.  Be right back.”  He left the room, closing the door most of the way behind him.  Blanche finished undressing down to xer underwear, leaving on xer undershirt and boy shorts.  Xe tucked xer legs underneath xer, shivering with a sudden chill, and coughed lightly.  Xe should have stayed home today when xe woke with a headache.  Now xe was almost naked in xer coworker’s home, though admittedly xe felt a lot safer now than if the scenario had happened a year ago.

There was a tissue box on the bedside table.  Xe drew one out and tried to clear some of the congestion from xer sinuses, but wasn’t very successful.  It just left xer head throbbing more sharply than before.  Xe threw the used tissue into a nearby garbage can that was mostly empty and looked around the room, senses dull but lacking anything else to occupy xer time.  It was a small room, mostly full with Spark’s double bed.  There were posters all over the walls and a bulletin board that was heavily laden with photographs, keychains, and ticket stubs.  Xe couldn’t make out what they were for.  Concerts probably.  Spark’s room felt younger than he was, but it suited him, xe thought vaguely.

There was a knock on the door and then Spark stuck his hand through with a towel and a change of clothing piled on top.  Blanche immediately felt bizarre about taking it, but xe got up and carefully made xer way over. 

“Stuff for you,” said Spark.  “Um, I brought some sweats for you to change into.  Also, Candela says she got the shot, so you don’t need to worry about that.”

“Thank you,” said Blanche.  Xe tucked the pile of fabric under xer arm and opened the door.  Spark yelped and looked away, ears flaming.  Confused, Blanche blinked, and then cleared xer throat a little, suppressing a cough that followed.  “…I’m not naked yet, Spark.  Where is your bathroom?”

“Just- just down the hall, here,” he managed, very carefully turning to look at xer again.  Blanche felt his eyes linger on xer body and felt a creep of something not entirely pleasant down xer spine.  But xe wasn’t afraid of Spark, and he looked away again when he saw xer watching him.  He led xer down the hall to a small bathroom.  The room was empty; Candela was nowhere to be seen.  The bathtub had been filled about halfway full with water and there was a stool drawn up next to it.  Next to the stool on the floor was a stack of magazines that Spark kicked out of the way with a nervous laugh.

“I’m going to sit in the hall,” he said.  “Is that okay?”

Blanche nodded.  Xe knelt to touch the water and flinched a little involuntarily at the cold.  Xe spent a substantial amount of time in freezing water, but usually with the benefit of a wetsuit.  This was going to suck.  “I’ll call you if I need something.”

“Good.”  Spark hesitated, then shrugged to himself.  “I’ll check on you in a little bit.  I hope this brings down your fever some.”

“Me too,” said Blanche, and covered a sneeze.  Ngtchsh!”  It was wet and left xer palm messy.  Xe didn’t lower xer hand until Spark had hurriedly blessed xer and left the room, closing the door.  Alone now and defeated, xe used the towel Spark had given xer to clean up a little, then stripped and stepped into the bath, hissing in displeasure.  It took xer a long minute to sit down, but eventually the shivers got too much and xe had to lest xe risk falling.

It sucked.

Blanche crossed xer arms over xer chest and stared grimly at the plainly-tiled wall, teeth chattering.  Every time xe moved the water lapped at xer skin, an icy line around xer body that xe couldn’t seem to habituate to.  Xe tried counting at intervals in xer head to pass the time, but the physical discomfort and the mental exhaustion of xer illness quickly caused xer to lose track of where xe was on the number line.  Xe closed xer eyes and drew up xer knees.  It was quiet…

“Blanche?”

Xe startled, water sloshing.  “Y-y-yes?”

“Can I come in?”  It was Candela, behind the closed door.  “It’s been about ten minutes.  I have the thermometer and some medicine for you.”

Blanche took a shuddering breath and tried to calm xer shivers, drawing up xer knees.  “Y-yes.”

Candela came inside the room.  She’d changed out of her uniform sometime since arriving and was wearing a red sweater and a black skirt.  Blanche frowned at her in fuzzy confusion.  “D-do you k-keep those in your c-car?”

“What, hon?  Oh, no, we took Spark’s over here,” she said, sitting on the stool gracefully.  Candela looked completely at home, even in this unfamiliar place and Blanche envied her that.  She also seemed much less fazed by Blanche’s nudity than Spark had been.  She stuck a cup of water and some aspirin on the sink and then held out a plastic thermometer.  “Say ‘ah.’”

“I c-c-can do it myself,” Blanche began, but xer fingers felt like claws around xer arms and xer body hurt when xe thought about moving.  …Xe opened xer mouth.  Candela placed the thermometer under xer tongue.  The two of them waited in silence while it measured Blanche’s temperature.  Blanche was relieved when it finally beeped; when Candela took it out of xer mouth, xe leaned down to cough, chest aching.

“Easy,” said Candela, settling a hand on xer back.  She looked at the readout.  “It looks like you’re down to 100.9.  Decidedly not great, but better.  I think you can get out of the tub of torture.”

Don’t touch me, Blanche wanted to say.  This isn’t professional.  But Candela’s warm hand felt soothing and xe was so tired.  Xe nodded in relief.

“Sounds good,” said Candela.  She rose and put the thermometer on the sink by the cup, brushed her hands off on her skirt, then extended them to Blanche.  “Come on out, hon.”

Blanche looked at her hands – that was a nice manicure – uncomprehendingly, then bit xer lip.  “F-fine.”  With effort, xe moved xer arms away from where they were tightly curled around xer and weakly took Candela’s hands in xers.  Candela squeezed them.

“Take it easy,” she said, and patiently helped pull Blanche to xer feet.  Once Blanche had successfully been coaxed out of the tub, legs stiff and shaking, Candela tossed the towel around xer shoulders and started to rub xer arms.  “Poor thing,” she tutted, though she leaned away when Blanche sniffled. 

“I w-would ap-ppreciate it if you w-wouldn’t condescend to m-me,” Blanche snapped, or tried to.  Xe was feeling faint again.  “I’m n-n-not a child.”

Candela pursed her lips, then surprised Blanche by apologizing.  “I’m sorry.  I’m not trying to be a bitch right now, honestly.”  She pulled away.  She looked Blanche over like Spark had, but she didn’t blush like him.  Blanche really wasn’t sure what it meant and tried to pull the towel close around xer.

“I c-can get dressed on m-my own,” Xe said.

“Okay,” said Candela.  “Take the pills, too.  Spark only has the one bed here, but he changed the sheets if you want to sleep again.  Do you have anyone waiting for you at your house?”

“No,” said Blanche.  Xe lived alone in a city apartment that was fairly colorless and impersonal and felt miles and miles away right now.  Xe wobbled and took Candela’s former seat on the bath stool.

“Stay for a while.  I’ll make tea.”  Candela nudged the clothes that Spark was letting Blanche borrow into xer reach with an elegant, stocking-clad toe.  Then she left.  Blanche hurried to dry xerself off and put them on, still shivering and feeling awful.  The bottoms were just gray sweatpants with a stylized Magikarp on the side of them.  The top was a long-sleeved yellow T-shirt that had been worn down to fleecy softness.  Blanche was surprised, grateful, and weirded out at the same time to find that Spark had also loaned xer a pair of Pokéball-patterned boxer shorts… and a lacy red camisole.  Which must belong to Candela?  Candela seemed to have a lot of clothes around given that they were at Spark’s house, but Blanche couldn’t linger on it.  Xe dressed as quickly as possible, swallowed the aspirin, picked up xer underthings, and left the bathroom. 

Spark was sitting in the hall, as he said he’d be.  “All set?” he asked, getting to his feet.

“Yes.”  Blanche sniffed and inwardly cringed at the sound.  Xe didn’t want to intrude or be a burden… or the center of attention.  But xe also didn’t want to go home to an empty house right now.  “…Candela said that I could lie down?  If that’s okay?”

“A-okay,” said Spark, and accompanied Blanche back to the bedroom.  The sheets had indeed been changed and the blanket turned down.  There was an empty mug with a tea bag in it and a new tissue box on the bedside table.

“This is weird,” Blanche muttered, climbing into the bed.  The give of the mattress and the bundle of pillows Spark had pushed together felt almost too nice as xe laid down.

“It is?  I’m sorry,” said Spark, looking embarrassed again.  “We just didn’t want to leave you at the lab, you know?  Just… think of it as a one-time thing, then… Until you feel like leaving.  Candela and I won’t bother you.”

“I didn’t mean…  Okay.”  Blanche closed xer eyes.  Candela came in a moment later with a water heater or kettle and filled the mug for the tea.  Somehow a fragment of the scent of echinacea reached xer nose.  Already the rest of the world was fading into a thick and soupy morass of sinus pressure and insecurities.

“They’re going to stay for a little bit,” xe heard Spark say, and Candela made some noise of agreement.  “Is this weird?” he asked, voice soft.  Blanche wished xe hadn’t said that.  It was weird, but xe hadn’t meant to hurt Spark again… Xe wasn’t very good at being friends, xe thought.

“Do you want your tea?” Candela asked, or Blanche thought she had.  She tried to say no, but her body was heavy and talking seemed like too much effort.  The bed was so soft, but xer body ached anyway.  Xe wished it would stop.  Over and over again, weakly in xer mind, xe wished to the darkness that it would.  Eventually xe stopped caring about the pain and xe fell into a restless sleep.

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When Blanche woke again it was to warmth and dim light and the sounds of quiet conversation.  Xe didn’t know where xe was… not xer own apartment.  Xer Vaporeon wasn’t next to xer face pawing xer cheek for attention.  Xe tried to move and reawakened a legion of body aches from xer head to xer lower back and legs.  And also the memory that xe was at Spark’s house.  Someone was touching xer again and xe tried to protest weakly but had no voice beyond a cough to dislodge congestion. 

“Oh, whoa, easy, hon,” said Candela, rubbing xer back.  Blanche realized belatedly as xe opened xer eyes that Candela was in Spark’s bed next to xer, sitting over the covers but with an arm around xer shoulders.  Xe had been propped up against a pile of pillows… xer face was alarmingly close to Candela’s breasts, and, robbed of xer usual reticence, Blanche blushed. Xe couldn’t move away, though, as Candela’s arm still gently restrained xer.  “Welcome back to the world of the living,” said Candela.

“…Yes,” said Blanche, weakly, and felt xer nostrils prickle.  Xe narrowed xer eyes and pressed xer tongue behind xer two front teeth, trying to dispel the urge to sneeze… but there wasn’t much for it; the itch was deep within.  After an aborted inhale, nostrils flaring, Blanche found xerself ducking forward with a rather desperate double.  Ehnktshh! Hh- Hikhtsch!”  The sneezes brought xer some relief, when xer head stopped spinning, having shifted some of xer sinus pressure.  But they also had left Candela’s sweater somewhat… damp.

“Okay, your turn,” said Candela to Spark, mouth set grimly.  She pulled her arm away from Blanche.

“I’m sorry,” said Blanche, now even redder, mortified that xe had allowed such a thing to happen.  Xe sat up a little as Candela scooted away, sniffling shamefully.

“Bless you,” said Spark, and – what a saint – he pressed a stack of tissues into Blanche’s hand.  It looked like he’d been sitting at the foot of the bed.  Now he was standing beside xer, probably reluctant to cuddle up like Candela.

Blanche averted xer face and blew xer nose, trying to contain the mess as best xe could. 

“I’m going to clean my shirt,” said Candela. “Either of you two need anything from the kitchen?”  She paused in the doorway.  “It’s gotten late, but Blanche, I made some soup earlier.  I could heat it up for you.”

Xe wasn’t that hungry, but xe nodded.  Xe should eat, especially if it had been some time.  Xe hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast.  “Thank you, Candela,” xe managed.

“What are friends for?” she said, and went out of the room.  Spark sat back down on the bed and Blanche drew xer feet up.  Only one of the lights was on, giving the room a soft glow.  Spark looked even more gentle than usual in the low light, sitting cross-legged and fidgeting with his shirt a little.  His feet were bare.  Blanche thought she saw scratches along one of them, maybe from his Jolteon.  The window in the room was dark and reflected Blanche’s pale face back to xer.

Xe brushed xer hair behind xer ear.  “Thank you for letting me stay,” xe said, awkward.  “I’m not… I’m not sure what I would have done otherwise.”  Xer words felt thick and clumsy to xer and xe stopped talking, trailing off.

Spark smiled kindly.  “It’s really okay, Blanche.  We’re glad to have you.  We’re friends, so it’s not a bother at all.”

Blanche hesitated, and then nodded.  It was sinking in past xer defenses that this was real, not just a courtesy because they worked together.  That felt… good.  Encouraging.  Xe had never really had anyone before now, or at least no one who stayed very long.  Xer few family members were on an island hundreds of miles away… and just as stoic as xer.  “If it’s all right,” xe said, “could I… stay the night?”

Spark colored but nodded.  “Of course, Blanche.  We were debating whether we ought to bring you home, Candela and I, but your fever was so high earlier… This is a better idea.”

Blanche smiled back, relieved.

Spark bit his lip.  “Though… it is going to be hard to fit all three of us into one bed.”

Blanche nodded.  Then blinked.

“What?”

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