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“I know, and it’s holding your team back. If you really want to turn this bad situation into a good one you’ll need the support of all three of us, and until you make up to Spark and Willow we won’t be doing anything together.” Candela was looking at her with glints of hope clouding her eyes, something that soothed the inner cold crawling out from Blanche. Those golden eyes were directed at her and only her, carrying the adoration that she had been chasing for months. It had taken much longer than she had wanted, but finally she was here. Candela’s eyes weren’t consumed with fear and disgust, but desire for what the woman must have assumed was a solution.

 

Blanche knew that what Candela wanted she could never give. The thought of going back to Willow and trying to suck up to him was out of the question, but Candela didn’t have to know. What’s important was that she kept looking at Blanche and nothing else. If she blocked out everything it wouldn’t be as big a deal when Blanche used the full extent of the power she held.

 

From deep within her body Articuno stirred and cried out in joy. The winged mirage was attempting to burst out from the compressing skin of Blanche and overtake Candela’s warmth, but Blanche refused to relent her hard earned self control. If Articuno made any sudden moves Blanche had no guarantee the lunge for Candela would be harmless, and hurting her was out of the question. Hurt would create pain, and pain would lead to fear. Blanche wanted Candela by her side, but she wanted it to be out of her will. 

 

For now at least.

 

She knew in the long run free will would be impossible. Sooner or later Articuno’s secret would be out and Candela would be just as upset as she’d been when Blanche had tried to sway her in her favour. If Blanche had to resort to drastic measures then so be it, she had learned from her mistakes the last time Candela had found a way out. It was cruel, but it was a better fate than being subject to the true power of Mystic. Holding back was so very hard, and Blanche couldn’t let her team being only a quarter of what they could be. The only concern had ever been Candela’s alliance, and with the threat terminated she could run rings around the remaining forces.

 

Now that Candela was here, and somewhat of a believer, those fools had nothing.

 

Blanche gave off the most convincing smile she could, sliding over to Candela and locking eyes with her. The pretty eyelashes of the other slightly fluttered and it drew Blanche in. With each inch she grew closer Articuno became more and more frantic. The much too big wings of the ice titan flapped and twitched from within, begging to be set free. They were so close.

 

It had been months since the two had been near each other without some kind of excuse, and Blanche could start to understand why Candela was so desirable. That cold Articuno brought with it when they had struck the deal had only grown colder over time, and it was slowly driving her insane. Even under the many layers of winter clothing she couldn’t shake free the choking hold that was overwhelming her in frosty bitterness. But Candela - she was so warm. Her outer circle was luring her in with the promise of glaring bliss and she found she couldn’t resist.

 

She would give up everything to ensure Candela always remained by her side.

 

Blanche revealed nothing of what she was thinking to the other, and tried to put on the most convincing look she could. “I agree, and I will do something about it. Of course there will be a few controversial decisions that may take time to work through, but that doesn’t mean I won’t consider it. I’m so happy to have you back on my side, I really am.”

 

Candela looked a bit deflated at the claim, but it was enough to stall her so that Blanche could reach forward and hold her tightly in her arms, a mockery of a hug. She tightened her grip and heard Candela’s stifled breath cry out. Blanche couldn’t give her room to breath or she would run away again, and that couldn’t happen. She buried her fears in Candela’s shoulder and breathed in tune with the other, letting the warmth be sapped from her being. Her hands shook with her weapon. 

 

Articuno was finally given the opportunity to release itself, and the bird took the given chance to break free. It chirped out encouragement and its trills became an assurance to the already long lost Blanche. The temptation of finally stealing the kiss she had wanted overtook the leader, and she lifted her head up from the soft material to take the control she had wanted. Her lips met with the scorching heat of Candela’s forehead and in an instant Articuno dived forward into the pair. Blanche let the needle end touch her rivals arm with precise care.

 

Candela’s eyes snapped open and she wheezed in something that wasn’t pain, but something so much more. Those beautiful golden eyes were having trouble staying open and a glint of what Blanche could only describe as accusing daggers flashed for a brief second. Behind them burned flames, and for a moment she couldn’t recognize these eyes as Candela’s own. They were much too red.

 

But as soon as they had appeared, they vanished, and Candela wailed before falling limp in Blanche’s hold. Her full weight became apparent and Blanche leaned forward to collect her so that her neck wouldn’t fall back. That blazing warmth of hers had vanished, and in its escape it had taken Blanche’s blistering cold as well. A sigh of relief left the Mystic leader’s lips, and she clutched Candela close, afraid it would return if she let go.

 

The spectacle she had witnessed seconds ago looked as though it had never been, and for a brief moment Blanche wondered if she was just going crazy. She had known from very early on that she was gradually losing her mind to Articuno's way of thought, but it was something she allowed because it reaped mutual benefit. If she were to limit the bird’s mobility and tighten the leash of control there would be unforeseen consequences, something she could not afford. Having someone whisper what they wanted into her ear, and make her a bit cold, was a small price to pay for the guarantee of success and brilliance.

 

A small, suppressed part of her still had to weep at the fate of the people around her. Those that actively defied her and were quick to judge would have to walk on eggshells, but it also meant the more innocent were hurt as well. She never wanted to necessarily hurt anyone, just execute her plans without defiance.

 

And to be fair, Candela played just as big a part in holding her back like everyone else, though in her case Blanche found herself holding back. Unlike with Willow or even Spark, she could not imagine a reality where she wasn't chasing down Candela. It was a cruel game to play, but one she took pleasure in. She had, in the short time provided, told enough lies to her friend to practically make her a sinner, though she had been telling the honest to god truth about needing a grounding force to keep her stable. Those weeks without warmth were torture, and it took every last scrap of patience to not tear down the facilities by herself. Funny to think her composure would be defeated by loneliness of all things.

 

It was far more than simple reclamation, and she suspected foul play on Articuno's behalf. The bird damn wanted domination over Moltres' muse and it was going to get it (Not that Blanche was complaining, it gave her grounds to focus on Candela and not on what Articuno was asking of her). She knew the god was bitter over its competition and convincing it to let what is assumed was the physical embodiment of Moltres slide was already hard enough, but in the end it would be worth it. They were stronger together, not apart, and she would show her god that this was the case. 

 

The world would revel at Articuno, and fear Moltres. They would be unstoppable

 

And now, the knowledge that there was now one less of an opponent lifted her spirits. She was on her way there from that very moment. She had won back her beloved friend!

 

Though a friend only in body, not in spirit. Blanche knew when Candela woke up again she would be fists and fury. This was the ultimate betrayal of trust and one she would not recover from easily. Blanche had already been testing the limits before, and it was pure luck that the crumbling self esteem and confidence of Candela had worked together to push the woman back to her when every other person would advise otherwise. The Valor Leader would have truly believed to make something of this encounter, and so to find out that she was right all along and was now unable to fix her mistake would be devastating. As the source of her anger, Blanche would leave the next conversation with a bruise - or bruises.

 

It was as they say, break a bone on a rock once and you learn. Break it twice and you learn to stay away. "Trust" wouldn't exist between them after this.

 

That meant befriending her and working her around to her side would be hard, maybe lethal, but it was a risk she had to take. It was for the better anyways; She didn't plan to spare the teams. At this point Spark was the only obstacle standing in her path, and if Candela was any indication to go by, he wouldn’t be too hard to take out. 

 

She clutched Candela's body close, it would be easy enough. After all, she had a lure right here with her. Spark would defy even Willow to ensure her protection, and it would be his doom. 

 

Blanche began walking with her rival’s body in hand, scurrying back to the vehicle so that she could return home and start planning on what approach she would take. From where it circled the skies Articuno let out a content cry and fluttered its ice cold plumage. The skies rained glittering snowflakes which caught in Blanche's long silver hair. She had no clue of what the future would be. All she could do was protect those close to her. Unfortunately, she couldn't say the same for the rest of the world. Honestly it was something she tried to forget. If all of the power was tipped in her favour there would definitely be an issue. Would a final gambit end with Willow standing over her throne, declaring her insane? Would the world cheer for her demise?

 

Out of disgust she shook her head violently. She didn't want them to cheer. They wouldn't. They would mourn if anything so much as touched her.

 

Even if it took years she would be able to change their minds, just as she had convinced Mystics’. With the intelligence lent by Articuno she might be able to play her cards just right; Turn them against Willow and make them wait on the edge of their seats for her next move. A twisted form of harmony that they were unaware of.

 

She smiled, that was what she strived for. They relied so much on public affection that stealing it, or worse, turning it against them, would be a death sentence. There were so many things she could tell them, any of them able to changes the standings. With Team Rocket looking for a partnership, one path was already opened.

 

An old trace of her tore at her metaphorical chains in protest, but months spent harbouring the snowy demon had left the cage bars too strong to break. The only traces of her could surface under the promise of having a friend nearby. Maybe she thought Candela would be the one to open that cage and set her free.

 

Good luck, Blanche thought. She was in control and would be making sure past mistakes did not repeat themselves. Ultimately, the physical cage was for her own protection. Someone as strong willed as Candela wouldn't be able to survive the onslaught of deception from outside four walls. It would end in tragedy for everyone.

 

             And in a way it was for the better. Willow didn’t deserve Candela or Spark’s contribution to his cause when he treated them just as poorly as he had treated her. It was a terrible reality to find out their efforts were solely for his gain, and that he had pitted them against each other for his own experiments. They were no more than rats in a lab, being picked at and tormented for the sick beliefs of the one in charge. Had she known that simple friendship would be prodded at and damaged for someone else’s well being she would have never accepted the position as leader. It was too much to bear, too hard to think about.

 

Throughout her entire ride home she let the thoughts swarm her mind, the unconscious leader in her arms taking second place. The sick feeling in her stomach that always seemed to come up when Articuno stirred was back and was making it hard to think. On top of that, the exhaustion from many sleepless nights plagued with paranoia-inducing nightmares made her want to throw up. If any reminisces of the old Blanche remained, she was trying damn hard to break free.

 

She managed to conceal the worst of her inner turmoil until she was back at one of the many Mystic headquarters, still surrounded by the jeers of people and armed guards out front. With each passing day they grew farther away from the lovable team that trainers admired and towards a more sinister Team Rocket inspired collection of ideals - or so the public thought. Their feeble minds would of course look for any reason to see fault with the plans at large, so until Blanche could pull the rug out from Willow she was forced to expose herself to it.

 

Jabs and leers from men wearing white and red, former Valor trainers perhaps, were present behind the gates as she hopped out of the vehicle and hustled inside. She had no intentions of letting them see, even if the temptation of showing them what would happen if they persisted was so great. Instead, Blanche moved forth and entered the towering building, hurrying past the secretaries and unused gym spaces which had contained no challengers for some time. The odd janitor was sweeping, somewhat lonesome in the abyss of nothing. Somewhere deep down a sentimental part of Blanche stirred at the sight.

 

But as always she was quick to convince herself that soon everything would be back to normal. There would be people looking at them with smiles and bright eyes at what they had accomplished. It would be the evolution tactic that changed the world - the evolution tactic that granted trainers the power to fight against the corrupted league taking advantage of the youth. It was an ideal Blanche had been crafting for weeks now, and she couldn’t wait to try it out. All she needed was support, and it happened to be enveloped in her embrace right that second.

 

Before she could put down the weighed body she made a right turn at the second floor’s staircase to enter a high ceiling room containing several office tables illuminated by a window’s light. The blue undertones of the room were divine under the soft light, and complimenting the scene were three silhouettes idly chatting by one of the whiteboards normally used for planning battle tactics. As soon as the heavy doors shut behind Blanche, three familiar faces turned to look at her, and in an instant they zoned in on what could have been at first glance a dead body.

 

Hmp, as if.

 

Cyrus, Marius, and Giselle met her halfway, the former balancing on one of the tucked-in office chairs. Their stance was formal, but their eyes gave away the questions they wanted to ask. Out of respect they must have decided staying quiet was the better option, and Blanche couldn’t blame them. She was so tired that having a full out conversation, or argument, would only serve to make her angry.

 

Giselle was the first to step forward, her combed but lively peach coloured hair still managing to fall over her eyes. She put a hand over Candela’s forehead, and after deeming her alive, removed it just as quickly. Her confused eyes looked up at her leader. “You have her back,” Giselle breathed, “Why is that? I mean I knew you were up to something but is this really the best option?”

 

“She’s one less threat to worry about,” Blanche conveyed, “And one more potential strength for us.” At this, the pale girl stepped back, eyebrows furrowed. Sure, Blanche had left her out on her planning soon after Candela had come around, but what did she expect? It made no sense to go through all of that trouble just to kill her (Deep down Articuno smiled at the thought).

 

Her other two generals didn’t look too convinced, exchanging a puzzled look before turning back to her. “I doubt she would lend her strength to us. This would be the second time she’s been here against her will.” Cyrus pointed out, a hand resting on his hip.

 

“If it’s true we are capable of making pacts then I am taking no chances. Besides, you would want Valor on our side, not against us,” She looked up with cold, tired eyes, “And I don’t remember asking for your opinion.”

 

All three of bowed their heads in apology, even though she had only called out one of them. “We are simply concerned miss. You have been a bit impulsive lately,” Cyrus conceded. 

 

Blanched hummed, “That I have been, but it’s been for a good cause. Once again we have back a potential ally, one who’s got substantial power in persuasion. If we’re going to have the public on our side and get the last laugh we need another push.” She shifted the body in her arms, expecting it to be heavy but finding it was not the case.

 

Marius shook his head. “She’s never going to side with you after this.”

 

“I don’t have the intention of telling the truth,” Blanche paused, “At first. Once she learns of why I’m doing this I will think about it.”

 

 It was a delusion, and a bad one at that. However, the intimidated members of the team made no attempt to speak up about it - not even ambitious Cyrus (They’re afraid, Articuno was whispering).

 

With vigour, she shook her head. “I am not giving up. If I can summon a bird then so can she. We can use that power to our advantage. If Willow does know of that theory, like I suspected, then letting her roam free is a danger to us,” She tried to convince herself and silence whatever blasphemy Articuno was muttering about. Her quick speech was very much unlike her, and it showed in the reactions of the other members in the room. 

 

“I know Blanche. Just,” Giselle tested, “Be careful.”

 

“I plan to.” Blanche murmured, embarrassed at her outburst, “Now back to business. While I’m gone I want you to keep the scientists at work. Plan together the raids for tomorrow and report back to me when you’re done. Oh, and ask some of the less experienced trainers to keep an eye out for Spark and anyone they may see as a threat. I believe that will be all for tonight; dismissed.” With a nod, the three dispersed in different directions, not wasting a minute of her time. Giselle in particular looked to be heading out the doors Blanche had used to enter, but was stopped when her leader stepped in front of her. The tiny girl looked up at Blanche with obedient eyes, waiting for what she had to say.

 

“Not you. I have something else for you to do.” Giselle nodded quietly.

 

“Of course Blanche. Whatever you require.”

 

“I need to know whether or not you told Spark of your alliance yet.” At this, Giselle shook her head gently, long locks faintly brushing her cheeks.

 

“No ma’am, any conversations we have had has been casual and without reveal.” Blanche bit her lip gently, taking in the information.

 

“Hmm,” She mumbled, “Good. I want you to continue leading him on and then see what you can find out about his team. Details on Willow especially. If he is aware of what I have ascended to then I’m going to change my plan of approach immediately.”

 

“Yes Blanche, I will do that right away. Since there is news of them combining the remains of Valor and Instinct I could even try to blend in with the crowd and see where it gets me.”

 

“You won’t be anywhere high rank, that’s for sure. But, if you can manage to do it, I will appreciate that. I’ll let you know when I want you to start persuading him to come along.” After confirming what she needed to do, Giselle followed Blanche out of the room, eyes moving to glance at Candela once or twice on the route to the stairs.

 

It was there the two departed, Blanche letting her cold eyes follow the petite form of her subordinate as she descended down to the ground floor. Satisfied that she was doing as she was told, the Team Mystic leader was finally able to withdraw to her quarters and put down the much too light Candela. She was a prize Blanche owed to her newly appointed general, and if Giselle could keep up the good work then she could very well have the other one here before winter's snow hit the ground.

 

(You’re a monster darling, Articuno cackled).

 

For the first time since they had joined as one, Blanche didn’t try to deny it.