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An irritated Pokemon might tell you to stop what you're doing. An irritated animal will probably...
Act 1: Chapter 1

Fuggmann

Inventor of Sex 2
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An irritated Pokemon might tell you to stop what you're doing. An irritated animal will probably just attack you. Pokemon, for all their power, would be open books and a breeze to care for to any competent animal handler on Earth. After a fiery death, a professional zookeeper who never outgrew Pokemon games ends up in the world of Pokemon. The entire world is thrown onto it's side.



DISCLAIMER:


This will be the general disclaimer for the entire lifespan of this fanwork. Fuggmann does not own any IPs (intellectual properties) depicted in this fanwork. This fiction is a non-canon labor of love and all mentioned IPs are the sole property of their respective holders.

I am an animal lover, but not exactly an expert. Some biology and behavior referenced in the story may not be 100% accurate, or might even be outright pseudoscience. Any names and resemblances to real people are just coincidences.



"She really likes you, you know."

Lee groans, setting the bloody bucket in his gloved hand down and wiping at his sweaty forehead. Behind him, the staff door to the lion exhibit closes with a pair of clicks. "I know Makiri is pissed. Don't rub it in."

The first voice laughs, deep and hearty. "Well, can't dem to love you all da time, can you? Lovely Lady Makiri likes her routine, and you broke her big rule of not changin'. Mommy Mara's scent all over ya ain't helping either. Lady Makiri be thinkin' you're cheaten on her."

Lee looks up to the tall speaker.

Before him is a large african man with a shaved head, a beaming smile, and eyes sparkling with mirth. He's clad in the same khaki bush trekking outfit that most animal handlers in the Columbus Zoo use as a uniform, Lee included. On his belt is a radio (currently turned off as to not spook the lions) and on his right breast pocket is a nametag reading "Aasir".

Lee runs a glove-clad hand through his sweaty hair with a sigh. "I know. With how David called out so suddenly someone had to check up on the tigers, and I drew the short straw. Mara's in heat again and is real cuddly with anything even vaguely smelling male. She walked up to me without an ounce of aggression."

Aasir nods and hums, scratching his stubble-covered chin. "Yah, no wonder Lady Makiri was givin' you da stinkeye den. Smellin' anodda female, one jonesin' for cubs no less, on any of her handlers gunna make her mad."

The shorter man grimaces. He had to carefully maneuver in the enclosure as to not let Makiri, the eldest lioness, be downwind of himself. The other lions gladly approached for their admittedly late lunch with Makiri trailing behind, already knowing none of the foolish younglings would eat her share. By the time Lee realized the wind had shifted, the old lioness had already gone silent and was maneuvering into his blindspot. Lee bid a steady retreat, as running would make her chase, and it gave him enough time to see the fury in her eyes.

If she caught him, Lee would have been dead.

Harsh is the realization that any animal could turn on you.

"Think you can cover the lions alone for a few days so Makiri can cool off?"

Aasir nods with a chuckle. "Dats fine. Deh boys at deh reptile house gunna need some extra hands anyway. Dey be setting up a spider exhibit while new rattlers be shipped in. Lions, old Aasir can do. Now spiders?" He drops his grin and shudders. "Can't do spiders. No. Dem beady eyes and crawly legs and hooked fangs be hauntin' my dreams," he says, rubbing his arms as if to ward off a chill.

"Heh, suit yourself," Lee says with a shrug. "Any idea when that's going down?"

Aasir pulls his phone from his pocket and checks the time. "Threeish? Dey getting the buggers in and set up in da back while de enclosures be converted for dem."

"Enough time to catch some lunch and a nap in the supply closet. Nice." Lee thinks with a grin, turning towards the exit to the visitor area.

"And don't be sleepin' in da admin closet. Miss Jonesy knows."

Lee stops. "I said that aloud, didn't I?"

"It's a bad habit you got." Lee didn't even need to turn to know Aasir was smiling. The man just laughs when Lee keeps walking.

Lee steps out into the visitor area, barely avoiding a kid that runs by with an exhausted mom trailing behind. He looks around and takes in the throngs of people in the Zoo today.

Everyone is crowded by the fence of the lion exhibit, watching with gasps and exclamations broken up by the beeping of cellphone cams as the lions eat. Young, old, man, and woman alike watch raptly, and thankfully no one has the gall to try and throw things into the enclosure this time.

Just yesterday a pizza crust thrown by some brat managed to bean poor cub Sefu in the eye, and both himself and Aasir rushed out to the culprit. Lee isn't terribly intimidating, only being of average height and build, but even an indignant mom quickly caves to a large african man so angry that he accidentally slips back into his native Swahili. The family and bawling child left without needing an escort out.

Respecting the animals isn't that hard, is it?

Either way, today seems to be going just fine, making Lee smile as everyone points and gushes over cubs Sefu and Zuberi fighting over a rib bone.

The man continues on, gliding through the Saturday crowd with practiced ease back toward the main admin office and towards his much-needed lunch. One or twice he's stopped by a zoo guest for directions, and he gives them out almost without noticing, knowing where everything is by heart. As he walks, Lee runs a hand across his forehead and speeds up, hoping to get out of the beating late-summer sun soon.

Lee slips into the gift shop near the front of the Zoo and walks along the wall to a door marked "Employees only." With a swipe of his keycard, the door opens with a 'click!' and lets him back into the admin office.

Inside the small lounge area, a few staff, animal keepers, security, and even an on-site cop mill about, talking in small groups or seated at one of the small tables eating lunch. In the corner of the room, an old TV with the news perpetually playing fills the background. Lee promptly ignores all of that and makes a beeline for the shared fridge, snatching a tupperware container of pasta from it before finding a table for himself.

Lee pulls his phone out as he brings a forkful of food to his mouth, clicking on his GBA emulator to continue his modded Pokemon Emerald run. Not too much was added. Simply a randomized starter and all first three gens available in the wild.

Beating the first gym leader Roxanne, a Rock-type specialist, with a Vulpix as a starter was a gigantic pain though. Will-o-Wisp and Confuse Ray really earned their place in Vulpix's moveset after that. The Vulpix has stellar IVs and even has the hidden ability Drought, so it's too bad her lax nature means a special defense reduction. She would have made a good wall. 'That's alright though,' Lee thinks. 'I can still build a good team around her.' He marks the little fox with a heart in the box system.

With the first gym beaten, Lee took one last look around Rustboro and talked with every NPC before heading to the next route.

A chair across the table squeaks as someone sits down. "Still a big Pokemon fan, eh?"

Lee looks up as he finishes his last bite of lunch, seeing fellow keeper and member of the reptile house, Marcy, sit down with him.

Lee nods, pausing his game to address her. "Now and forever. The only thing I like more than Pokemon is actual animals. Broke my heart as a kid when my dick brother said they were real only for Ma to tell me they aren't."

Marcy snorts and grins. "He wouldn't be a proper brother if he didn't mess with you."

"True, and I busted his favorite GI Joe as revenge," Lee quips, making Marcy laugh. "So what brings you over to my lonely little table?"

The woman collects herself. "Aasir told me over the radio one of your lions thinks you're cheating on her, so you need a break from there for a few days. Want to help set up an arachnid exhibit in the meantime?"

"It's not my fault Mara felt like rubbing up on me..." Lee grumbles. "But yes, I was actually about to call you once I was done here to ask just that. Thanks for saving me the trouble."

"Of course."

Both zookeepers stand, Lee pocketing his phone, then stop as tornado sirens begin to sound out in the distance, their wails echoing across the whole zoo hauntingly. Under the wailing of the sirens is the audible panic of several of the louder, more skittish animals. Everyone else in the lounge likewise looks bewildered. One glance out the window shows that the sky is clear and blue, as a summer day should be. Even the fickle weather of Ohio can't shift that fast.

"The hell is going on?" Another keeper asks no one particular.

"Dunno. Some kind of malfunction?" A gift shop cashier finishing her lunch suggests.

"Someone must have broken something big then." Someone near the back of the room chimes.

More sirens echo in from the not-so-distant city of Columbus, the capital of Ohio and one of the largest cities in the United States. The extra sirens mix with the closer ones, forming an unnerving din. Then from the north even more sirens cry out from the city of Delaware.

The confusion gripping the room slowly turns to worry.

"Alright, it's one thing for our sirens to fuck up, but both Columbus and Delaware going at once?" Lee says, pulling out his phone. "What is going on?"

Then he gets an answer he didn't want.

All at once, every cellphone in the room screams out alarm tones at maximum volume. Several people flinch and a few bite back screams from the unexpected scare. The message flashing on each one is infinitely more damning than any frightening alarm tone.

PRESIDENTIAL ALERT ISSUED.

TAKE SHELTER NOW AND TUNE INTO OFFICIAL NEWS STATIONS FOR MORE DETAIL.

All eyes fly to the TV in the corner.

"-rising tension may mean disaster for negotiations. Back to you, Tom.", the anchorwoman says as the news shifts to a smiling man with a weather map behind him. Before he can get a single word in, the screen suddenly goes black.

Everyone watching waits, coiled with tension.

After several seconds, the TV screams out with the chilling screech of the E.B.S. After several screeches, a synthesized voice begins to speak with an eerie calm. "This message is transmitted by the order of the president and Department of Homeland Security. At approximately 12:37PM EST, The North American Aerospace Defense Command detected incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. These missiles are believed to be carrying nuclear warheads of unknown yield. Known targeted cities include Washington DC, New York NY, Dallas TX, San Francisco CA, Seattle WA, Pittsburgh PA, Chicago IL-"

The TV rattles off more cities in it's monotone. The longer it goes on, the more hope begins rising in the room.

"Jesus fuck this is unreal, but if there is anything good about Ohio it's how irrelevant we are. Why waste a nuke here?" Lee thinks to himself, trying vainly to steady his heart rate. "There is nothing worth nuking. Oh my fucking god I can't believe the crazies online were right."

"-Phoenix AZ, and Columbus OH."

"...What!?"

A deathly stillness grips the entire room. Just outside, screams overtake the sirens.

"If you are located within 100 to 200 miles of any of the listed locations," the TV drones on, "take shelter immediately. Warhead impact is estimated to be in the next 30 to 45 minutes. Keep a radio and tune into local emergency channels. If you do not know your local emergency channels, look them up now. Internet service cannot be guaranteed after impact. Shelter in place and do not move until an all-clear is given. A location underground is optimal. Failure to follow these instructions may lead to injury or death. This message will repeat."

Lee looks around at his thunderstruck co-workers, but can't hear a word of their frantic yelling over his heart pounding in his own ears and the growing screaming outside. He falls backward, his back hitting the wall and letting him slump to the floor. "Absolutely nowhere in the zoo can stand a nuclear blast," he whispers to himself. "We're going to die. We're actually going to die."

The man frantically takes out his phone and hits the first contact inside, his mother. He holds the phone up to his ear, but only hears "All circuits are busy. Please try again later" before it can ring out even once. With a growl, he calls again, again, and again...

"All circuits are busy. Please try again later."

"Fuck! Did EVERYONE have the same idea?!"

Lee raises his arm and almost dashes the smartphone across the ground, but controls his temper at the last moment with a deep, heaving breath. He drops the now useless device into his pocket and grips his head in his hands, tears of both fear and frustration stinging his eyes. "Fuck fuck fuck..."

He raises his head, seeing everyone else isn't coping much better. Most fill the room with screams and muttered prayers asking God to save them. One poor intern has the cashier girl in a death grip of a hug, crying large, ugly tears as the shell-shocked girl rubs his back absently. Several of the keepers slip out the door, probably to go see their animals one last time.

BANG!

Everyone jumps and screams.

Lee stares at the slumped form of the on-site police officer. He's wide-eyed and bleeding from a hole in the side of his cranium, his Glock pistol held in limp fingers. The wall to his side is painted a morbid red. The man's mouth opens and closes several times before his eyes unfocus and he goes limp.

Lee quashes the temptation to take the gun and follow the man into the afterlife.

Someone else, an older man in overalls with a tool belt picks up the gun and drops the magazine, looking at it with shaky hands. "There are sixteen more bullets if anyone wants to go on their own terms..." he says quietly, placing the gun on a table after putting the magazine back in.

'Impending death does things to people. Really reveals who they are.' Swear rolls down Lee's forehead and into his eye, stinging him.

The crying intern wipes away his tears and steps towards the gun, a sudden calmness to him.

Lee screws his eyes shut and plugs his ears.

BANG!

Red splatters across the ceiling and another one moves on.

The crying and panic calms in favor of numb shock, everyone now too overloaded to process everything at once. All the remaining people in the lounge slowly settle into a small group along the floor and the chatter dies down to silence. Everyone is content to wait, and no words are needed to communicate that. Outside, only the wails of the sirens remain. The cries of the guests are gone, and in their place is the distant beeping of car horns.

Lee looks down at his phone, now noticing it has no signal at all. With a sigh, he opens Pokemon Emerald again in a vain attempt to distract himself.

"The front gate is probably clogged to all hell..." Lee murmurs, hugging his knees to his chest with his free arm. "Glad I'm not on parking lot duty today."

A few people chuckle and the maintenance man who set the gun aside even says; "Hear hear, brother."

Quiet falls over the group again and goes unbroken for a few only sound comes from Lee's phone as he takes his character back to Littleroot Town.

"So how long until..." Someone trails off.

"That was a good 20 minutes of freakout," someone else says. "It's can't be long now, people. If you've got any regrets, out with it now."

No one speaks up and the second speaker scoffs. "Of course..."

Lee sighs and leans his head back, praying to whatever power that is listening to make sure the coming doom is quick, both for him and all the animals. The thought of Makiri, the cubs, Mara and her mate Jupiter, or ANY of the animals he'd come to love like people suffering fills him with a nameless dread. Why should they be killed for the mistakes of people?

"They shouldn't. They're the biggest victims here, being condemned to die because forces they can't comprehend or control don't even consider them in the collateral damage."

"My one regret," Lee begins, making all eyes turn to him. "Was that I could never properly tell all my charges how much I love them. I went to school and came here to learn all about animals of all sorts, and I can gauge how much they like me thanks to those lessons, but I never had a good way to tell them. The curse of a language barrier that can't be breached I guess."

"Jesus Lee, make the rest of us feel bad why don't you."

Lee turns to the speaker to retort, but stops and screams when a 2nd sun blooms in the distance. The flood of white light through the south window blinds, instantly burning lines into the left side of his face so fast he can't even scream.

The screaming begins again as everyone scrambles to cover their eyes. Hardly a second later, the shockwave hits. All the windows shatter into slivers of razor-sharp glass and shoot northward. Several lodge themselves into Lee's side or fly by and open gashes, making him cry out at the sharp agony. His own scream and the rest of the world goes silent as his ears pop from the pressure. The whole room shakes and cracks like an earthquake struck the entire zoo.

And then, FIRE

THE FIRE THE FIRE THE FIRE THE FIRE

EVERYTHING HURTS

EVERYTHING BURNS

MAKE IT STOP

MOMMY GOD JESUS ANYONE PLEASE MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT GO AWAY

MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOPSTOPSTOPSTOPSTOPSTOP

An instant later, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is no more.


Lee opens his eyes.

A second later, he shoots up into a sitting position and coughs wet, painful coughs into his hand for almost a minute, taking wheezing breaths whenever his abused lungs would allow. He looks at his hand, grimacing at the flecks of red dotting his hand and at the copper taste coating his tongue.

The man cranes his head around, confusion welling up inside him as he stands on unsteady legs. This is neither heaven, hell, or a hospital.

All around is lush greenery that one would see in a fairly tropical region. A humid wind filled with the scent of recent rain blows through the leaves of the tall trees, sending a calm rustle rolling through the forest all around.

"What the fuck..?" Lee murmurs, turning only to hiss as the movement pulls at the glass stuck into his side. He gingerly touches a large shard that shredded through his khaki shirt and stuck itself in his left side with a wince. While looking at his side, he notices the dark lines burned into the side of his shirt, probably from where the bright light shined in through the blinds. So he probably...

Lee touches a finger to the left side of his face and pulls it away, biting back a scream. A trio of lines are burned into his face, one just barely missing his eye. The flesh is cooked and bubbled in some places.

"Don't touch my face, good to know..." he says to himself, returning his attention to the glass in his side. He grits his teeth "This is gonna suck," he says, gripping the largest bit of glass. With a wet schlick! the shard slips out and Lee bites his lip to hold back a scream. He quickly yanks what shards he can out and lets the bloody glass fall to the grassy ground. Thankfully none are in so deep that he risks bleeding out.

With that out of the way, Lee reaches in his back pocket and takes out a small folding knife. With a few quick cuts, his still whole right sleeve is made into several sloppy bandages. "Thank God for small mercies," the man mutters, thankful his shirt is a button-up and not a pullover that he'd have to drag over his burns.

A moment later, his cuts are covered and his tattered shirt is buttoned back on.

"Now, where the fuck am I?" He murmurs, weary.

Lee turns around carefully, trying to make heads or tails of his location. Could he have been picked up by the blast and flung here? He shakes his head. "What kind of cartoony shit is that? And I distinctly remember being on fire."

Just the phantom sensation of being engulfed in flame paralyzes the zookeeper and makes his heart hammer. Sweat dots his brow and he struggles to breathe, his mind convinced that opening his mouth will let the nuclear flames in.

"Ta. Taillow!" A voice with a trill to it calls.

"Zag?" Another voice asks with a questioning whine.

The strange, almost child-like voices snap Lee from his vision. With a gasp and a blink, he whirls around and comes face to face with something, or a pair of somethings he instantly recognizes.

Less than ten feet away stands a living, breathing, Zigzagoon and a Taillow, both watching him carefully. A pair of fucking Pokemon.

Lee gulps and stares back. "I've lost it. This is my brain flooding with hormones for a nice vision before I'm burned to ash. There is no other explanation."

The Zigzagoon is just as he remembers them. Short and stubby with a cute face and the distinct zig-zag pattern to its fur, but there is a realness that any game or show lacks. Zigzagoon has individual strands of fur that gently flow in the breeze and its eyes gleam. It blinks and twitches its nose in little sniffs.

The Taillow is just as real, with actual feathers composing its form rather than just solid color. On its beak, Lee sees several scratches and minor discoloration telling him it's not been eating a balanced diet. Its talons knead the dirt under it anxiously.

"This can't be real."

Zigzagoon tilts its head and Taillow narrows its eyes.

'Shit, I said that aloud.'

Lee slowly dips into a crouch to make himself seem smaller and less threatening.

Taillow's form eases and Zigzagoon steps a little closer, its tail slowly wagging.

Zigzagoon's eyes scan over Lee, and he swears he sees the Pokemon's gaze become sympathetic as it looked over the wounds upon him. The little Pokemon steps even closer, coming almost to arms length. Zigzagoon finally looks over its shoulder to Taillow, letting out a; "Zagoon. Zig zigzagoon!" that sounds imploring.

Taillow looks over Lee with an appraising eye, its eyes lingering on the burns on his cheek, before it spread its wings and took off into the forest, vanishing like a specter into the branches.

The little raccoon look-alike seems elated if its body language offers any tells and fearlessly steps closer, now within arms reach.

Lee slowly, carefully reaches a hand out, pushing down the twinge of childish excitement that suddenly wants to rise out "You're a friendly one, eh? My favorite," he says, gently laying a hand on the Pokemon's head.

Zigzagoon happily preens under the compliment and accepts the gentle scratch behind its ear with a croon. Lee takes the time to marvel at the feeling of the stiff, backwards-facing fur.

Suddenly, Taillow returns and lands beside Zigzagoon. Only years of 'Don't make sudden movements' being beaten into Lee's head keep him from flinching.

Taillow carries a pair of small, blue fruits held by the stems in its beak. The small bird looks at Lee critically before dropping both fruit at his feet and hopping backward two steps. Zigzagoon likewise backs up several steps and looks up at him patiently.

"They're giving these to me?"

A second look at the fruit tells him exactly why.

At his feet is both an Oran berry and a Rawst berry. A berry that restores lost health points and a berry that cures burns.

One side of Lee knows that Pokemon are intelligent of course, but the other side is utterly blown away that a pair of animals could diagnose injuries and acquire treatment, for a stranger no less.

The man gives both Pokemon a smile, careful not to bare his teeth. "Thank you both so much."

Taillow just nods, seemingly not thinking this is a big deal, but Zigzagoon trundles up and rubs its face against Lee's knee with an affectionate bark.

With a smile, the man picks up the Rawst berry first. "Chase the bitter one with the sweet one." Then he stops. "Am I really about to accept a pair of fruits I've never seen before from a pair of anomalous creatures?"

He pops the Rawst berry into his mouth and chews quickly, trying not to cringe at the impressive bitterness that such a small fruit could pack. Both Pokemon before him watch with no small amount of amusement as he grabs the Oran immediately after swallowing the Rawst, again eating the thing quickly.

Lee almost gags when the sweet Oran doesn't wash down the Rawst flavor, but instead mingles with it into a disgusting new flavor. "Ech. Did you two know this would happen?"

Taillow actually smirks, a facial expression an avian should not be able to make while Zigzagoon replies with a "Goon!"

Once both berries are down, the pain from all of Lee's injuries fades to a dull ache and the throbbing, molten pain of his burned face eases to a much more bearable sting. He tentatively touches his face to find that action isn't pure agony any longer. He takes a deep breath, noting the wet wheeze he had was gone.

Incredible. Just incredible. His inner academic yearns to know the hows and whys of berries.

Again, Lee finds himself smiling. "Thank you both again. I won't forget you."

Both Pokemon actually smile. Taillow spreads its wings and Zigzagoon turns to leave.

"Wait!"

The Pokemon halt and look at Lee, Zigzagoon with curiosity and Taillow with suspicion.

"Can you..." he stops, almost feeling foolish. "Can you tell me where the nearest human settlement is? I'm.. not really from around here."

Taillow rolls its eyes. "Tailllllow," it says, sounding condescending. Nonetheless, the small bird flits up to a branch and points its beak to the east. It then takes flight and vanishes into the forest.

Zigzagoon is quick to follow, but not before throwing a quick "Goon!" over its shoulder.

Once again, Lee is alone.

The zookeeper pushes away the mental breakdown that desperately wants out and starts walking east at a slow pace. No matter what happened, he needs to find other people to help him and hope he doesn't stumble into a nuclear crater. As he walks, Lee takes stock of himself.

"I'm hurt, tired, lost, have zero supplies, and I'm probably hallucinating" He closes his eyes and sighs. "At least those berries worked."

Lee pats down his pockets, finding everything where it should be. His radio is still on his belt, but it only takes one look to see that it's chassis is cracked down the middle and the innards look like they've been microwaved, he observes with a groan. His folding knife and wallet are in his back pocket. His phone somehow survived, albeit with a cracked screen, but then...

As Lee was putting his phone back, his finger runs over something cool, metal, and spherical at the bottom of his pocket. Curious, he wraps his fingers around it and pulls the tiny sphere out.

In his hand is a pokeball, shrunken into it traveling form.

"No fucking way..."

He presses the button several times, watching mystified as the ball grows and shrinks over and over before his eyes. "Did Taillow or Zigzagoon sneak this onto me?" he asks no one, tossing the ball up and down, only for it to slip from his fingers and fall to the ground.

The ball bounces once and then snaps open with a flash of energy, making Lee jump back with a yelp. The energy collects to a single point and forms a small, quadrupedal figure before fading, leaving a creature behind.

Brown eyes blink and look up at the gobsmacked human. An ear with a little heart mark flicks.

Before him stands a Vulpix. His Vulpix.

"Oh. Shit."


The first thing Vulpix does once her ball opens is take a deep breath of air.

The scents of the forest, the dirt, the trees, the water, the grass and mingle in her nose, telling her countless things about her surroundings before she can even blink the stars from her vision. She remembers an incredible victory over the Rock-type gym leader, where her own trainer commanded her like a professional. He and her working in tandem led the entire other team to ruin.

A young Fire type demolishing a team of experienced Rock types. Alone. Power never mattered overly much to her, but such explosive growth appealed to a much more primal part of her Pokemon psyche. A part she could not and would not deny.

Her human was never the affectionate sort, and would keep her in her ball most of the time. With a flare of her budding psychic powers, Vulpix scans for her opponent as her vision clears, but finds naught but her trainer.

Curious.

After a few seconds that seem like an eternity, Vulpix's vision adjusts from the sudden flash of her own materialization, and before her stands... a human who isn't her trainer. He's taller different in the face, clad in unusual, tattered clothes,... and coated in injuries.

But this human's psychic signature feels just like her trainer. Exactly like him. She knows there is no such thing as a perfect psychic spoof. It can't be done. Vulpix wars with herself, fighting the desire to try and comfort her trainer(?) over his injuries and the logical side of her that says to wait and be wary of tricks.

And things... look different. Sharper. Dare she say more detailed? Strange happenings are abound.

Vulpix blinks and looks around, not recognizing anything. With a flick of her ear, she sits and waits, content with having her trainer(?) lead the conversation.


Lee blanks out.

Before him is the crux of his latest team, looking at him coolly with at least some level of recognition. Actual recognition, as in she knows who he is. Somehow. He takes out his phone and boots up his emulator for Pokemon Emerald. On starting up, he opens his pokemon menu.

And it's empty. His Vulpix, his only Pokemon, is missing.

The game promptly freezes and crashes.

He puts the phone away, thinking over the implications.

Again, he falls back into his training and crouches down slowly, Vulpix's eyes watching carefully. Lee hesitates for a minute with Vulpix just watching, before he finally takes a deep breath and begins "Vulpix? I know this is going to sound really stupid, but what is the last thing you remember?"

Vulpix tilts her head, carefully regarding him with her chocolate eyes. The little vulpine then looks around and spies a small rock sticking up from the ground. She trots to the rock, then breathes a short tongue of flame onto it before giving it a little kick, knocking it over.

This sudden appearance of the flame makes Lee go still, but he snaps himself back to reality a second later. "So our victory over Roxanne?"

Vulpix simply nods.

Again Lee stops to think. "Alrighty, girl. Lets walk-n-talk. We want to get to a town before nightfall and I've got a lot of things to cover. I urge you to listen to me until the end."

The little fox responds with a demure sigh and stands to follow.

Lee stands himself and stretches his limbs with a held-back yawn. The energy given to him by that Oran is beginning to fade. He starts his leisurely pace east again with Vulpix easily falling in step to his left. As they walk, he mulls over his explanation.

"How does one explain... well, all this shit to a superpowered animal without getting killed?" The zookeeper wonders with a sigh. "Or, do I even need to explain it?" He wonders, thinking back to some of the older Dex entries for Vulpix and Ninetails. "Ninetails is explicitly said to have mind control powers in one of the gen III Dexs. That means some way to connect minds together. Could Vulpix have a lesser form of that ability?" The man then starts second-guessing himself. "Do I really want to let her into my head? Sure, I can say I know how psychic powers work from the show, but this isn't the show. At least I don't think. If I don't though, then everything I say is going to sound crazy. 'Hey, I dunno how either of us got here, but I was in a fiery holocaust and I'm sure you were in a video game before that.' Even in a world as wack as Pokemon, that's weird."

"Vulpix?" Lee asks, looking down at her. "I'll be honest, I don't quite know how to explain what exactly happened. It's... kind of unbelievable. So much so that I almost don't believe it. I know your line has some level of psychic power. Can I possibly show you the memories?"

"Excluding some parts, of course. I can't scar my only Pokemon."

Vulpix looks up and regards Lee with some surprise in her eyes. She stops and jumps to Lee's shoulders with a deft hop, taking care to drape herself over his right shoulder and to keep her tails away from his burns. Lee and Vulpix lock eyes less than an inch away, and her large chocolate eyes begin to glow a dark red.

Lee gulps and brings his daily life in the zoo to the forefront, showing Vulpix what he did for a living, then shifted to his phone.

He can FEEL Vulpix looking over his mental shoulder into the memory of the phone screen, where a perfect digital copy of herself was. He could feel the countless questions bubbling in her, but she remained silent. He shifted his mind to his trainer avatar, then back to himself, correcting her image of him.

Finally, he shifts the memory to the very tail end of... his death?

The alarm that shoots through Vulpix nearly makes him stumble.

A flash, then pain. Unearthly pain.

Fire.

Fire.

FIRE.

SKIN BOILING

FLESH MELTING

BONES SPLINTERING.

TURN.

TO.

ASH.

"...!"

Lee snaps out of the short flashback, his chest heaving and the sensation of burning. He looks to his right shoulder, seeing the horrified face of Vulpix.

"No. She saw everything." The man feels himself go cold, like a lump of ice was dumped into his stomach. "Why the fuck did I think this was a good idea?! Jesus fuck man try to think things through!"

The fox takes shaky breaths and fights back tears in an unnervingly human display as a pitiful whine builds in her throat. She pins her ears back and looks away.

Lee keeps her pokeball pocketed. If she runs, then he has no right to pursue. He'll break the ball and free her.

For a long moment, man and fox stand there. Then Lee jumps when a cold nose nuzzles into his neck. "V-Vulpix?"

Vulpix meets his eyes with hers, but stays nuzzled to his neck.

"You're," the man stops and thinks over his words. "You're not going to run and leave? I won't stop you."

The fox bares her teeth and growls as pure offense flashes across her whole face. Merely suggesting she leave seems to make her almost enraged. Her body heats up before she suddenly stops and lets it cool down again.

Lee gulps and turns away, holding up a hand in surrender. "L-Look. I was just saying. If you don't want to, then that's fine too. I'm more than happy to have you."

With those words, Vulpix visibly calms and huffs, holding her head high as she steadily meets her trainer's gaze. A firm growl rolls in her throat, and it's easily interpreted as 'I am not leaving. Don't ask again.'

Despite all the day's great misfortunes, Lee feels a little of that childish excitement from earlier return. Here he is, with a Pokemon of his own!

The time to cry and mourn is later. For now, wonder can have the front seat.



NOTES:

You might have seen this story on other sites, and after some thought, I decided to bring it over to QQ. As I did for SB, I'll be posting an update or two once a day until we're all caught up with all the mirror sites. Why did I bring Borne of Caution to QQ? A few reasons.

1. So more people can enjoy it.
2. Depending on some feedback from a few sources, I might have a spin-off or other things to post in the NSFW writing section. The court is still out on that one, but we'll see.


Thankee much and I hope you enjoy the story.
 
Act 1: Chapter 2
Another one before bed.


"Little Root Town?"

"?"

After about thirty minutes of walking, the treeline had thinned until vanishing altogether, showing the ragged man and little fox on his shoulder a quaint hamlet with an ocean port to the south. The muggy forest air faded away in favor of a rolling breeze smelling of salt.

"Must be Little Root," Lee muses aloud. "That Taillow and Zigzagoon were pretty concrete evidence that this is Hoenn, and this place is much too small to be Slateport or Lilycove. We won't have to run all over hell's half-acre to find Birch then. I guess something had to go right for us, eh?"

Vulpix says nothing, but the short purr in her throat tells Lee she acknowledges his words.

"Here's hoping Birch finds us to be enough of a scientific curiosity to be worth helping," Lee says as he walks, "because if not, things could get rough for a while..." he finishes with a grimace.

Vulpix noses Lee's cheek with a demure murr, making the man smile and reach up to pet her. Vulpix accepts the affection with a small smile of her own, even leaning into the hand.

Lee grins. Again, a childish giddiness pushes away the day's negativity and all the buzzing questions all thanks to the fact that he has a real pokemon! He is a Pokemon Trainer!

'Or I'm one in spirit at least. I know it's not as simple as having a pokemon = trainer. Paperwork, here I come.' Lee thinks. A moment later, another thought hits him. 'Oh shit, I have no legal ID here. I seriously doubt my driver's license and zoo ID will work. It will certainly add some credibility to my story, but Jesus, having no paperwork for either myself or Vulpix is going to be a bureaucratic nightmare. I bet all the money in my wallet is useless too, and I know my credit card is trash now.'

Yet another problem on the pile fails to bring down Lee's spirits though. 'Because If I don't think positive at this point I'm going to have a fucking stroke.'

Lee and Vulpix clear the flat, grassy clearing to the east of Little Root and into the town proper, where a handful of townsfolk walk here and there around the apparent shopping district they stumbled into. Several Pokemon are out with their humans too. A Machop down the street lifts up one end of a car with little strain as a man changes a flat tire. A Poochyna holds its own leash, looking bored as its teen girl owner slips inside a small shop to gawk at handbags. Down a sidestreet closer to the pier, an Alolan Marowak and a tanned, shirtless man put on a street show for a small crowd of cheering people and pokemon.

It's... Wonderful. Simply wonderful.

"Vul?"

Lee snaps back to awareness when his own pokemon questions him. He tilts his head to meet her big brown eyes. "Ah, sorry about that, love. I guess I got caught up looking around."

Vulpix accepts the apology with a short, inquiring purr in her throat. 'What now?' he interprets it as.

"First, we find Birch," Lee begins, holding up a finger. "Then, we give him the abridged and edited version of our story," another finger goes up. "Finally, make a case that we're interesting enough to help. If I can nab a job, we can grease the wheels of quite a few of our problems."

"Just from the look of you, you must have some story."

Lee tenses and Vulpix jumps, almost slipping off her human's shoulders. Lee turns around slowly and blinks at who he sees.

Grinning with his hands held behind his head is a young Brendan Birch, the son of the man Lee is looking for.

Brendan's eyes widen when Lee turns. "Oh jeez, man. You didn't look that bad from behind," the preteen winces, trying not to touch his own face when he looks at Lee's burns. "Uh, do you need a hospital visit?"

Lee waves the kid's concern away. "Don't worry about it. It can wait until later. My name is Lee, and this is Vulpix. And you?"

The boy smiles. "Brendan Birch. Nice to meet ya!" he says, thrusting a hand out for a handshake. Lee takes his hand and gives it a single firm shake. "I'm gonna guess when you say you were looking for Birch, you mean my dad, right?"

"Depends, is your dad Professor Birch?" Lee asks, playing dumb.

Brendan nods. "MmmHmm! Hoenn's own Premier Pokemon Professor!" he exclaims with obvious pride. "What do you need to meet him for? Some kinda research project?"

"Of a sort," Lee says with a nebulous wave of his hand, sidestepping the topic. "I have a proposal for him, one regarding... the raising of pokemon in a unique training environment. I'm certain the results will produce pokemon that deviate significantly from the norm and might even shift the paradigm of modern pokemon training."

'I hope he doesn't realize I'm full of shit.'

Brendan raises an eyebrow and crosses his arms. "That's awfully vague and scammy sounding. And you don't look like the professor type."

Lee shrugs. "If I just blurt out the details, what's stopping anyone from taking my idea and taking credit for it?"

And indeed, a few people have stopped to watch the professor's son and the torn-up stranger talk.

"That makes sense..." Brendan grumbles. "I don't think dad has anything scheduled for today anyway, so I don't see the harm in taking you to the lab. You looked kinda lost."

"We blew into town just today," Lee replies, following once Brendan turns and starts to walk. "Vulpix and I appreciate the help, by the way."

"Vul!" Vulpix chimes in.

Brendan grins and looks back. "Hey no prob! So how long have you been a trainer anyway? You must be really traveled if you've got a Vulpix! Can I see the rest of your team?"

Lee and Vulpix share a look. The little vulpine doesn't need to say anything, as her eyes alone tell him 'consider your words.'

"Not that long, actually, and Vulpix is my only pokemon." 'At the moment.' Lee reaches up to pet Vulpix along her neck. "It all actually ties into the proposal I have for the professor. How about yourself? You must have an impressive team with a professor as a dad."

Brendan either doesn't notice the focus shift upon him or ignores it. The boy slumps and groans. "I don't have a pokemon yet. Dad won't bend the rules for me. Once the newest starter batch shows up from the breeders, then I can finally start being a trainer!" He says, perking back up and dramatically pumping a fist.

'Sunny kid,' Lee muses, still gently stroking Vulpix's plush fur and making the little fox slowly relax across his shoulders. "Any idea who you want?"

"Mudkip, no contest. Ever since I saw Wallace's Swampert one-shot the finalist Chesnaught with a single Hydro Pump in the Ace of Aces tourney last year, I've been set on Mudkip and one day Swampert," Brendan gushes with a grin, his eyes alight. "Did you see that tourney?! Chesnaught was thrown off his feet by that Hydro Pump and almost went through the arena wall!"

"I must have missed it."

The boy scoffs as the lab begins to take shape in the distance. "I've got it saved. When you're done with dad I can show you. It was insane!"

The rest of the short walk is spent with much less interesting small-talk.

Birch's lab is a modest place. It's an arched, 2-story building atop a gentle, grassy hill with a rather homey look to it. It would have been easily missed if not for the sign out front declaring "Pokemon Research Center. Head Prof: Birch." Further behind the lab, a fenced-off corral housing a breathtaking number of pokemon expands hundreds of meters back all the way into the forest. In front of the lab is a plain, parked jeep, probably Birch's

Brendan walks up to the front door and throws it open without a care, almost bowling over some poor lab aide in glasses. "Sorry, Dave! Hey dad! There's someone here to meet you! He's not in a pimp suit and actually has a Pokemon so he's probably not a scammer!" He calls, running into a side room and out of sight.

Lee coughs into his fist to hide the laugh that bubbled out of him and looks around.

The lab looks much like it is in the game. A wide space with several computers, sci-fi level machines, and bookshelves along the wall. One aide is manning one of the PCs while another is near the corner writing on a notepad as a Lotad before him picks at a bowl of food. The one named Dave grumbles at almost being run over and walks up to Lee. "Ah, sorry about Brendan. He didn't hassle you too much, did he?"

"Him? Nah. Lee, by the way. And this is Vulpix," he introduces, gesturing to both himself and his pokemon.

'My pokemon. That's not ever going to get old.'

"A pleasure. My name is Dave if Brendan didn't make it obvious," Dave says with a smile and nod. The smile morphs into a frown as he takes in Lee's form. "Ah, do you need some first aid? You're looking a little... rough?" He trails off, eyes lingering on the burns across Lee's face and shirt.

"I'm no stranger to a bit of pain," Lee waves his concern away. "I have some cuts that could use a wash if you have a restroom I could borrow for a moment, but other than that I'm fine and don't want to impose too much."

The aide frowns a little more. "If you're certain. Still, there is a first aid kit under the sink if you need it. The restroom is the first door on the left," he says, adjusting his glasses before pointing down the hallways Brendan vanished through. "I'll let the professor know where you are if you're not back by the time he arrives."

Lee offers a short thanks and turns to the bathroom.


Lee finishes buttoning up his shirt, careful not to catch it on the gauze now wrapped around his middle. The makeshift bandages made from his sleeve didn't hold up well and were messily crusted with blood when he pulled them off, so he reluctantly made use of the first aid kit in the sink cupboard. A dab of stinging disinfectant and a little help in the form of Vulpix holding the gauze taut later, and his cuts were treated.

Then he looks at his face for the first time since the blast.

Three near-perfect lines the thickness of his pinky are burned into the left side of his face at an angle. The flesh is a raised, painful, angry red, practically still fresh.

'Because it is.'

The topmost burn narrowly missed his eye, carving through part of his scalp and eyebrow instead down to the base of his nose. The next one is just under his eye, the line going from his temple to his lip. The last one burned away some of his sideburns and went down to his chin. It looks like someone took red-hot claws and raked them down his face.

Not wanting to lament his ruined face all day, the burns get some ointment to ease their stinging and are promptly ignored.

Finally, he gives his hair and face a rinse to take the most noticeable bits of grime off. Vulpix watches the entire process from the lidded toilet with her placid expression.

"Alrighty, girl," Lee says, glancing in the mirror one last time. "Let's head back."

Vulpix hops down and follows without a word.

"...bably the real deal. I mean he's got the whole hermit look and everything," Brendan tells the frowning, elder Birch as Lee rounds the corner into the lab's main room. Brendan looks over and smiles. "Hey, Mr. Lee! Tell my dad about the training thing you were proposing!"

Professor Birch, a stout, shaggy man who looks to be in his 30s, turns away from his son to face Lee.

Despite the man's carefree, almost goofy demeanor in the anime, Birch regards Lee with a critical eye. Birch's gaze doesn't linger in any one place for too long, taking in and dissecting all of Lee with intensity, and maybe even a level of hostility.

Lee jumps a little when Vulpix slips between his legs and seats herself between himself and Birch. The little vulpine sports a cool expression, but he can see the coiled muscles in her legs and withers.

The professor eases and even smiles when he notices Vulpix. "Oh, sorry about that, little miss," he says with a sheepish laugh. "I didn't mean to come off as hostile. We just get more than a few uh, interesting proposals from all sorts of people. If you're so willing to jump to your trainer's defense, then he can't be a bad guy."

Vulpix lets the tension in her small body fade and instead looks up at Lee. Again, she jumps to his shoulders and settles herself around his neck like a warm, furry scarf. Lee can't help but smile and pet the fox, earning him a positive purr.

Professor Birch clears his throat. "Ah, sorry about the ugly look, Mr. Lee. As I said, we get some real characters showing up at the lab time from time for any number of reasons, and as the League Professor for Hoenn, I'm obligated to hear everyone out regarding anything pokemon related no matter what it is... Even if it's something as dumb as trying to pass off gold spray-painted Feebas as some new subspecies," he grumbles the last, but composes himself and holds out a hand. "Professor Nigel Birch, at your service."

Lee grasps the offered hand in a firm shake and offers the professor a smile. "Lee Henson, a pleasure to meet you, professor. And just Lee is fine."

Birch smiles back. "So, Brendan tells me you have some sort of unique training style to present? I have to admit that I'm curious. You have the look and standing of a seasoned trainer so I can only imagine that you've developed something quite special."

'Make or break time. Birch is a goodhearted man, but don't fuck this up.'

Lee slowly nods. "Unique is a good word for it. I don't mean to be rude, professor, but can we discuss the details in private?" He asks, giving the curious Brendan a sidelong look. "Some of the details are... sensitive I guess. It's nothing against you, Brendan."

The boy hums and folds his arms behind his head. "Don't worry, I getcha. You don't want your secret techniques getting out. It's a smart move, because if I got my hands on them, then it'll be too easy for me to overtake old guys like you," he says with a grin. "I want some challenge."

"I'm twenty-four you brat."

Brendan turns on his heel and walks off, arms still folded behind his head. "Okay, whatever old man. That's a whole twelve years between you and me. Don't bust a hip."

"Yeah yeah, get outta here."

"I will, cuz my hip isn't busted."

"You woulda had a busted ass in my day for that lip."

Brendan snorts and laughs, grabbing a backpack by the front door and taking off back out into Little Root.

Lee turns back to Birch, who has his face held in his hands. "Sorry about him," Birch mutters, dragging his hands down his face. "He's got the same rude mouth I did at his age."

The younger man waves away the older's concern. "He's a kid. It's what they do. He was pretty mild and not really offensive compared to what I'm used to dealing with."

Birch straightens up and a smile returns to his visage. "Alright, I've got a small meeting room in the back. We can talk privately there."

The professor turns to lead Lee to the back of the lab, but Lee stops for a moment. "Professor?"

Birch stops as well, turning to Lee with a raised eyebrow. "Yes?"

"Do you have a Psychic-type on hand? Some of the things I have to say are kind of... hard to swallow I guess?" Lee looks away briefly from a sudden spike in nervousness. "Having a second listener that can't be lied to might make this easier for you to believe."

Birch's earlier caution is back as his face hardens, but he nods. "I do. My Medicham isn't a true mind reader, but he can read brainwaves and separate lies from truths. Do you really think that what you have to say is so outrageous?"

"One hundred percent."

Birch dips a hand into his lab coat and pulls out a weathered pokeball covered in nicks and scuffs. It bursts open in his hands, and in a flash of white light, a Medicham materializes by his side.

The short humanoid glances at Birch, then at Lee and Vulpix, utterly dismissing them as a threat.

'Probably for good reason,' Lee muses, looking at the whipcord muscles rippling under Medicham's scar-pockmarked skin. In the corner of his eye, he can see Vulpix frown at being overlooked so easily, but she doesn't make a fuss.

"Medicham," Birch begins, making the pokemon instantly turn his attention to his trainer. "My friend here says he has some outlandish things to explain and suggested your help in verifying them. Can you passively scan and be a lie detector for us please?"

Medicham nods without a word.

The pair of men and pokemon continue on to the back, passing several aides who look at Medicham pensively. Birch stops before a door on the right and opens it, flipping on the lights to reveal a small room with several chairs and a table between them. Both men step inside and seat themselves with Vulpix still on Lee's shoulders and Medicham opting to stand by Birch with crossed arms.

"Alrighty," Birch says, folding his hands and leaning on the table. "Whenever you're ready, Lee. Medicham?"

The Fighting/Psychic's eyes glow the slightest amount.

'Don't. Fuck. Up.'

"Okay... jeez I almost don't know how to open this..." Lee says, running gentle fingers over his burn. "I don't even have all the details myself here. I'll be frank, professor. This isn't exactly regarding some super-secret training method. It could if everything goes well, but..."

Birch and Medicham exchange glances.

Lee runs his hand through his hair and sighs. Vulpix cuddles a little closer and noses his cheek, looking at him with her soulful chocolate eyes. The man tries to pull as much strength as he can from his little fox and continues. "Professor, this is going to be a leap, but what do you know about the Multiverse theory?"

Birch's hard face melts into confusion. "I've not studied it in-depth, but I'm aware of the basics. Everything that could happen is either happening, already happened, or is going to happen in another universe, right? Why bring that up?"

Lee steels himself. No going back now. "I'm not from this universe, professor. Through a method I'm still trying to puzzle out, I've been ripped away from my home dimension and brought here with nothing but what I have on me. The trip is why I look so roughed up. I came to you because I need help from someone trustworthy."

The pokemon professor goes totally still, then turns to Medicham slowly. The pokemon lets out a breath through his nose and gives one quick nod.

The whole room is silent for almost a solid, agonizing minute as Lee waits for Birch's retort. Birch just stares at the younger man with an expression that he can't place, making him squirm.

'I knew it. I knew this wasn't going to end well. I'm going to get called crazy then that's the end, game over. Life in a padded cell. I really need to learn how to think things through.'

Vulpix's cheek suddenly being nuzzled to his takes the edge off his panic, but Lee can still feel his heart hammering.

Finally, Birch lets out a sigh and breaks his intense stare. "Well, uh. That's quite... something? Medicham knows you're not lying, but please understand this still sounds crazy, and Medicham's scanning isn't perfect. If it's a delusion that is strongly believed, his scan can be fooled. Do you have anything to back this up?"

Hope begins to build in Lee's heart. Birch might believe him. He takes his wallet and phone from his pocket and hands both over. "Here. See if these seem familiar in the least bit."

Birch opens the wallet and takes a look at Lee's driver's license, inspecting it carefully. "State of Ohio?" He asks, moving the card around to see the different holographic layers embedded in it.

"My home," Lee supplies. "One of fifty individual states that makes up the collective nation of the United States of America."

Birch nods absently and looks at the money and credit card inside the wallet. "Fifty states huh? Must be a governing nightmare," he quips. "I'm assuming Chase is the bank?" he asks, holding up Lee's credit card.

"A bank, yes."

"Don't you mean the bank?" Birch asks with a raised brow.

Lee frowns. "A bank. Chase was the one to screw me over the least so I went with them. Though with how they've been wanting to nickel and dime me recently, I'm almost happy to be here just out of spite."

Birch mouths 'nickel and dime?' and replaces the license and credit card before pulling out the small handful of dollar bills in the wallet. "Physical banknotes?" he asks, sounding incredulous. "Not every day you see these. These went out of style years ago. Inf fact, the bank doesn't even print new bills anymore. And what's a dollar?"

"Well, physical currency protects against the dangers of having an account hacked or a catastrophic failure and/or attack destroying someone's account." Lee shrugs.

Birch shakes his head. "With the number of Porygon that the bank employ, any attack on the bank, physical or electronic, is doomed to fail. Physical bills are just a liability now. Does 'Chase' not use Porygon or something?" He asks with some mirth as if the notion was ridiculous.

"There were no pokemon in my dimension, so they really can't."

Birch completely freezes, his eyes widening to an almost impossible degree. Medicham mirrors his trainer, staring at Lee with shocked eyes. Birch recovers and looks over to Medicham, who can only gulp and nod.

Lee tries not to squirm as both stare him down, saying nothing. 'I guess that is kind of a big bomb to drop outta nowhere.'

Vulpix growls and slides down from Lee's shoulder, landing on the table and standing defensively in front of him, her tails flared and a growl in her throat.

"Vulpix, please, there's no need for that," Lee says gently, carefully picking up the vixen and settling her in his lap. Vulpix doesn't fight, but the growl in her throat remains.

Birch finally speaks up again. "I believe you."

Vulpix stops growling and Lee's head shoots up, elation filling him.

'No way.'

The professor sighs and slumps in his seat, his face lost. He takes a moment to formulate any words. "No pokemon? I can't even... comprehend a world like that. I don't think anyone can. I have so many whys and hows I want to ask, but I don't think I'd understand. Not even the most deranged person could say "there was no pokemon in my alternate dimension" and honestly believe it, and no one sane would come up with such an unthinkable lie," Birch says, leaning back in his chair and holding a palm to his forehead. "Medicham backing you up and all the hard-to-fake bits and bobs you have make for a compelling argument too, so... Wait..."

He sits back up and stares at Lee and Vulpix. "If you are from a dimension with no pokemon, where did you get Vulpix? Or even know about pokemon? And how did you know about me for that matter?"

Lee mulls over his answer. "Can you pass me my phone?"

Birch slides the cracked phone over to Lee. "A phone huh? I guess that makes sense, though I thought it was some old pokegear or a pokedex."

"That's not inaccurate," Lee says, unlocking the phone and scrolling through his apps to his emulator. "As for how I know about pokemon, they don't truly exist back home, but were a popular media franchise that had everything from toys, games, movies, TV shows, you name it. Pokemon was a cultural phenomenon that started twenty years back and bridged the generation gap with ease. I guess I never quite outgrew pokemon..." He says quietly. "As for how I got Vulpix, I have a theory, but the exact how and why is still a mystery. Here, look at this."

Lee shows the phone screen to Birch, who leans in with open interest. "This is one of the games I mentioned. I frequent it when on break at work and whatnot. I know you since you're briefly featured at the beginning to give the player the first pokemon and the mission to complete the pokedex. I just started a new game in the Hoenn region, and with some code finagling, got a random starter in the form of Vulpix here."

"Me in a video game, huh? I hope they were flattering at least," Birch quips as Lee clicks open the menu and opens the 'Pokemon' option, showing a solitary Vulpix in the lead slot.

"This is from an older save state of the game. In the newest..."

Lee opens the save state menu and clicks on the newest one. Again, he opens the pokemon menu, showing Birch an empty menu. The game music gets stuck as the game freezes and then crashes.

The professor connects the dots instantly. "No. You think that..?"

"Something took Vulpix from the game and deposited her with me?" Lee finishes, closing his phone and storing it away. "I don't have any other explanation," he says, running a hand through Vulpix's soft tuft of breast fur, the vixen rewarding him with a coo of appreciation. "A pokeball with a Vulpix that somehow knows me appearing in my pocket the exact same time that this game with a Vulpix spontaneously corrupts itself seems suspect even after all the crazy shit that's happened to me today."

Birch nods along absently before leaning back. "Medicham? Can you get me some aspirin please?"

The pokemon, who has been silent the entire time, powers down his psychic power and slips out the door without a single sound.

"Sorry for the headache, professor."

The older man waves away the sheepish apology. "It's fine, Lee. If I was in your shoes, I would do the same thing if I could stop freaking out long enough," he says, leaning back up. "How did you end up in our world anyway?" he asks, leaning forward in interest.

"Again, I have only theories, but the most likely..." Lee trails off, hesitating. "Do you know what n-nuclear fission is, professor?" He asks, resisting the urge to touch his burns.

"Like with power plants and whatnot, yes? It's not my field of study, but I've read some things and watched a few documentaries."

"Yeah, and..." Lee gulps and suppresses his shaking. "Yeah, power plants."

He can feel Vulpix's eyes and hot breath on his chin. Birch notices something out of place as well and frowns. "Lee, you're pale. If you don't want to say, that's okay."

"I was caught in a nuclear explosion, one with city-leveling yield," Lee forces out as fast as he can without the words turning to mush. "I-I can speculate all day about how physics might have broken down under that kind of strain and punched a hole in space, but I'm not an expert so..." He takes a deep breath and focuses on the soft fox in his lap, forcing the image of...of...

Skin peeling

Flesh bubbling

Forcing the imagery from his mind before the bile rolling in his stomach could rise into his mouth. Lee swallows dryly and takes great heaving breaths of blessedly cool and not superheated air. Sweat dots his brow and his burns pinch and sting. He loosely hugs Vulpix, who cuddles into his arms without any protest and watches his face with troubled eyes.

Birch gulps and looks away, his expression disturbed and his hands wringing themselves. "W-well. Maybe we should move on to more pleasant topics? Was all the information on that license correct and up to date?"

Lee blinks at the strange question. "Yeah, it was. My DL was updated just a few months back. Why?"

"We're going to need that info for me to sign as your sponsor."

'What?'

"What?"

Birch looks nonplussed but repeats himself. "We're going to need that info for me to sign as your sponsor."

"As my sponsor?" Lee questions, looking to Vulpix who just shakes her head. "I don't follow."

The professor groans and lightly slaps his own forehead. "Duh, Birch. Different worlds. I guess your games never went into detail about trainer sponsorships?"

"No mention at all."

Birch hums. "Okay, so being a sponsored trainer is a pretty simple thing. I give you a pokedex and the League fronts you a bi-weekly stipend to use as you see fit. In return, you're considered an active trainer who operates on my behalf and represents me in official tournaments while you conduct your own studies. Basically? You get paid to battle and bring prestige to the lab, and the better you do, the better grants I get from the League and the bigger your stipend becomes. I only have two sponsor slots since I'm the newest regional professor. One is going to Brendan, but my friend Norman decided he'd pay for his daughter's journey himself, so I have a free spot for you. Great, isn't it?!"

Lee sticks a pinky in his ear and rubs it around. When the digit comes back clean, he levels the grinning Birch with a flat look. "I'm sorry. I must have something crazy stuck in my ear. It sounds like you're just handing a coveted position to me. An interdimensional stranger."

The professor's grin falls some. "Is this... not what you wanted?"

"I expected a couch to crash on for a day or two as I got up to speed without anyone asking questions, and maybe being pointed to a job that a guy with no ID can do," Lee says with a shake of his head. "I just need something to keep Vulpix and myself fed and warm as I figure out my next steps. I dunno if you-"

"I'm certain."

Lee stops at Birch's curt reply. "You said you came here with a revolutionary training method, and I know you were fibbing to have an excuse to talk to me, but," Birch smirks, "I think you do have a revolutionary training method, even if you don't know it."

The younger man blinks. "I don't follow."

"Answer me this, Lee. How good are you are those pokemon games? How much do you know about pokemon?" He asks. After a second of inspecting Lee's clothing, he also adds; "And what did you do for a living back home? Something outdoorsy I take?"

Lee thinks to himself for a moment, rubbing a circle in Vulpix's chest tuft with a thumb. "I played competitively as a teen against other people and did fairly well with a few local tourney wins to my name. That's more being aware of the current meta and prep than actual skill. At that age, I had pretty much the entire pokedex of every available game memorized, but that's limited to types, movesets, stats, and whatnot with no actual biology or behavior factored in. And as for what I was, I was a zookeeper, one specialized to work with large carnivores, though I frequently lent a hand to other exhibits."

Now Birch seems confused. "But you said there were no pokemon?"

"There aren't," Lee replies, stopping when Medicham returns with a glass of water and several pills for the professor.

Birch accepts both the water and aspirin with a smile. "Thanks, friend."

Medicham returns the smile with a small one of his own.

The professor tosses the pills into his mouth and downs the entire glass before turning back to Lee. "Sorry about the interruption, Lee. Please keep going."

Lee does. "Like I was saying, there aren't pokemon back home, so animals filled their place. Think pokemon, only much less intelligent and lacking any special powers."

"I'm aware of what animals are," Birch says, now looking at Lee with a manic, almost unsettling gleam in his eye. "They don't exist outside special reserves and farms anymore since fighting with pokemon for territory is near impossible, but anything outside of domesticated livestock is dangerous and unpredictable. You handled carnivores of all things?"

"A handful of scars and the Zoology degree gathering dust in my closet say so," Lee quips, leaning back into his chair. "Hell, my elder lioness, Makiri, tried to kill me this morning."

Vulpix looks at him with ill-concealed alarm and Birch grimaces briefly before his face-hurting smile returns full force.

"So, let me get this straight," he begins. "You have knowledge of advanced battling strategies that had to be used with the constraints of a video game, wide-spanning knowledge of both pokemon and the world, experience handling creatures much more violent and unpredictable than pokemon, and obviously the ability to comprehend advanced biological and psychological principles based on the fact that you handled animals of all things. What part of this sounds like you'd make anything other than a stellar trainer? It even shows with miss Vulpix here. You've had her for less than a day and already she's gladly jumped to your defense several times."

Lee bites his lip and looks down at Vulpix.

The vixen in his lap looks up back at him, her eyes narrowed just the slightest amount.

"If I didn't think you were worth the investment, then I wouldn't offer," Birch keeps going, leaning forward. "This opens countless doors for you, Lee. I... don't really know where to begin on getting you back home, but this is a good stopgap for you at least?"

"Short of tracking down and beseeching Palkia to help me somehow, I don't think I'm getting back," Lee mutters, crossing his arms as he feels a headache start to form. "I need to care for Vulpix now, after all. Not that I have anything to return to anyway."

Oh.

Oh no.

It's all gone.

It wasn't just him destroyed. The Zoo, his friends, his family, his animals.

All of them are gone. Gone without the peace ignorance of their fate could have brought.

Even if he went back there is nothing to return to.

The realization makes Lee's blood run cold as his eyes sting with prickling, unshed tears. The man focuses hard on the fox on his lap and pushes the mounting breakdown away, desperate to not bawl like a child in front of his pokemon and the professor.

Vulpix shifts and noses his chin, again drawing his attention to her. She turns in his lap to face him and rears up on her hind legs, placing her front paws on his shoulders. The vixen's eyes draw his in as she leans forward and presses her forehead to his, then the captivating eyes glow.

Trust.

Support.

Empathy.

Loyalty.

Companionship. Always. No matter the choice.

The raw emotions Vulpix feeds to Lee almost makes the man choke up and let out the tears he's holding back. Each one reverbs inside his mind with incredible strength, a conviction borne of being absolute. Vulpix feels all of this for him.

'What in the world have I done to have someone like you at my side?'

Vulpix's answer is swift. Visions fly through his mind with incredible speed.

He opens her ball, then takes the hard but right choice to explain things to her, even after the stress of living through the unthinkable and losing it all. How after that, he still regards her concerns on the same level as his, how he consults her rather than just choosing for her, and how he saw being with her as a real, valid reason for not returning home. Goodness deserves goodness.

Again, she hammers her feelings home.

Trust.

Support.

Empathy.

Loyalty.

Companionship. Always. No matter the choice.

Goodness deserves goodness.

Lee sucks in a shaking breath, glad that Vulpix's gentle face blocks Birch from seeing the tear tracks running down his face. "Professor? Where do I sign?"


"And that will do it!"

Professor Birch takes the final paper from Lee eagerly, turning in his office chair to a scanner on a cluttered side desk. "I think this is the first step in something beautiful, Lee! Steven Stone's rise has done a lot for Hoenn, but we're still considered one of the weaker regions. I know you can change that when you take the world by storm! And think of all the incredible discoveries only someone with your unique talents could find!"

Lee rolls his sore wrist and looks around the professor's messy office. "I still think you're overestimating me, professor. I can certainly try, but I don't know how much I can do," he says, leaning back into his chair.

Birch curses and smacks the scanner then turns to his newest trainer when the machine finally starts accepting the forms Birch fed into it. "Well of course you can't do it all. Not alone, at least. If Vulpix is any indication, then you'll have no problem building a team."

At hearing her name, Vulpix stops pawing the oblivious Lotad that had wandered into the office and looks up. After a second, she goes back to Lotad, who finally seems to realize he's being touched with a quiet "Tad?"

"Vulpix is a sweetheart who took pity on my lost ass. She's an exception, not the norm," Lee retorts. He yelps when he feels a nip on his pinky and looks down to see Vulpix glaring up at him.

"You're not doing a great job convincing me," Birch says with mirth. "Since you're a special case, I'll need to submit your paperwork to the League to get your license set up. I marked your birthplace as a 'remote region/unnamed island' so make sure your story stays the same for anyone who asks. It'll take a week or two to be approved, but that's not a big deal. It'll give you some time for self-study and recovery, and the League year recently ended too. It'll start back up here in about a month if you want to try the gym circuit."

'Time to relax. Now that I could use. Today seems to have dragged on for fucking weeks and my smokes didn't even get ported with me. What a goddamn rip.'

"I imagine. The corner store sells cigarettes, but good luck without any ID."

Lee's face flushes. "I said that out loud, didn't I?"

Birch laughs and reaches into a drawer on his desk. "You did. I can't make the ID show up faster, but maybe this will take your mind off it," he says, placing a device on the desk that makes Lee's eyes widen.

A Pokedex. An actual Pokedex. It suddenly lights up and a synthesized voice begins to play. "I am the Pokedex of Lee Henson. I was issued by Professor Birch of Hoenn. If lost or stolen, I cannot be replaced."

"Yeah," Lee breathes, his chest tight. "I've been looking for an excuse to quit anyway. I don't know how to thank you, professor."

Birch slides the Pokedex closer with a smile. "I took the liberty of pre-installing a voice recorder in there for you. I want to pick your brain, Lee Henson, so I want you to log your training, studies, and discoveries and periodically turn them in to me. Even if it seems like something silly to record, please do so, and that'll be all the thanks I need. What seems simple to you could be unique or even revolutionary in reality. Now!" Birch claps his hands together. "I think you've earned some rest. There is a guest room in the back for you to use. It's a little cramped but it should fit one man and his pokemon just fine."

Lee stands and picks up the-his Pokedex before bowing his head. "Thank you for everything, Professor. It means the world to me."

"Vulpix!" Vulpix chimes in from his side.

The man smiles down at his fox. "Means the world to us, I mean."

Professor Birch waves both off with a smile. "Go rest. I'll order some takeout or something for dinner and get you both later. Lee, close your mouth. You're not imposing if I charge it as a lab expense."

Lee lets his protest die in his mouth with a sigh. "Fine. I'm too tired to argue anyway." He looks down to Vulpix. "Let's scoot, love. I need a nap."

The man and fox leave Birch to his work and head to the back of the lab as he instructed. With every step, Lee feels himself slump a little more as an all-encompassing exhaustion finally grips him. He slips his Pokedex into his pocket so as to not drop it and opens the door marked "Guest" at the end of the hallway.

The door swings open with a squeak, revealing a spartan bedroom with naught but a plain bed, a nightstand with a lamp, and a door to a tiny bathroom.

Everything but the bed is ignored as Lee flops into it with zero grace. He groans in relief and lets his tired body sag into the mattress. Sleep rapidly overtakes him and he shuts his eyes, but just before he can fully pass out, something shakes the bed.

He cracks open an eye to see Vulpix settling into the crook of his arm, her head on his bicep. She smiles at him and cuddles a little closer.

With a herculean effort, Lee hugs her close, almost losing himself in the delicious warmth her small body provides.

"You know, Vulpix?" he whispers, eye closing again. "I think everything is going to be okay."

Sleep takes him.
 
Act 1: Chapter 3
Notes:

I am an animal lover, but not exactly an expert. Some biology and behavior referenced in the story may not be 100% accurate, or might even be stretched in creative liberty.

Want to support me? See Fuggmann on the place of patrons. I do have goals on there that will hopefully allow me to cut back on work in favor of more writing. As thanks for donating, patrons get to see updates a few days early and suggest edits to the final draft before it goes live. The outpouring of support has been nothing short of astounding, and I hope to keep this and other works coming out quickly for you all.




The thick book closes with a "whap!" and falls from limp fingers into the table just under it.

Lee groans and reclines back into the now not-very-comfortable library reading chair he's been sitting in for almost four hours. He looks back down at the 600-some page book he had just finished. The title reads Advanced Biology of Mammalian Fire Types. It was an utterly fascinating read, adding a rich depth to his understanding of the inner workings of Pokemon, but it was just as dry a read as every awful McGraw Hill textbook he had to memorize in college.

With a grumble, Lee picks the book back up and gently sets it in his meager "Complete" pile, where Nutrition and Health of Canid Pokemon, World History Abridged, Modern Move Training Guide: Special Edition, Forest Tales: To Live With Wilderness, Berry Tips for Those in a Hurry, and So You Think You Can Battle. Next to the complete pile is a much more intimidating "Unread" pile. The next one on the list is a mammoth text with the title Official Pokemon League Regulations - Complete.

"Wowie, what a fuckin' joy," Lee mutters to himself. "I'm so happy I could burst. Maybe I could use a break?"

In his pocket, Vulpix's pokeball shakes in agreement.

"That's all the encouragement I need," he grins, peeling himself from the chair and standing with a groan. The man stretches his arms over his head, relishing the feeling of his sore muscles loosening. He then shoulders the green backpack by his table and heads towards the front door of Little Root's small library, passing the absent librarian's Solrock on the way. "We'll be back in a bit, chief. Keep my pile there please?"

"Sol." the great hunk of sun-shaped rock grumbles out in a voice like cinder blocks across concrete.

Lee steps out into the balmy mid-afternoon sun of Little Root, the harsh sun rays instantly making his burn scars sting. He frowns and digs in his pocket, then pulls Vulpix's ball out. "Alrighty girl, do your thing." He throws the ball and it snaps open mid-air, a burst of white energy materializing into Vulpix by his feet.

Vulpix blinks the stars from her eyes and stretches with a little yawn.

"It's kinda bullshit I have to keep you in your ball when I know that Solrock has a Fire move stashed away somewhere," Lee grumbles, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "Who would be dumb enough to take an uncontrollable Fire type into a library anyway?"

The vixen levels her trainer with a flat look.

He sighs and runs his hand through his hair. "Yeah, I know what you're thinking. Common sense not being all that common and all. But still."

"Vul, vulpix vul, vulpix." Vulpix replies dully. "Not that I would enjoy a library more than my ball anyway," Lee interprets. Vulpix then closes her eyes and lets out a breath, focus overtaking her visage.

Slowly, the sunlight beaming down on Lee began to dim, forming a curious, circular space around him that isn't as brightly lit as his surroundings. The man grins with the stinging of his burns ease. His thoughts turn towards the last three weeks and Vulpix's incredible progress.


Day 2

"Just a few more girl, then we're good."

Vulpix makes a noise that sounds almost exactly like a sigh but dutifully remains still.

Lee glances down at the borrowed notebook in his hand and his pokedex with it's entry on Vulpix open beside his crossed legs. Before him on the guest bed they share, Vulpix stands still and submits herself to her trainer's poking and prodding.

The first thing on Lee's list once employment and shelter were secured was giving Vulpix a full physical. Or at least as full a physical as he could with just his hands and his pokedex to gauge baselines.

'All pretty in line with what I'd expect from a vulpine on the smaller side if I'm being honest.' Lee inwardly muses. 'Muscle density and high temperature notwithstanding. If her paws could get enough traction, I wouldn't be surprised if Vulpix could pull a car behind her!"

Lee finishes looking in her ears with a nod. "Ears clean and clear, though I doubt any bacteria could take hold with your temperature. Turn and face the side wall please," he says, putting a little check mark by 'ears' in his notebook.

Vulpix turns and faces the wall, presenting her side to her trainer with her bored expression still in place.

Reaching a hand under her, Lee carefully runs a hand over her sternum and feels her ribs. He pushes a little harder than normal to feel the bones under the thin layer of dense muscle on the vixen's chest. For a moment, he holds his hand still to gauge her resting breathing and heart rate, counting the breaths and heartbeats in his head. 'Again, all very normal. Ribs can be felt but not seen. Resting heart rate seems a little low for her size, but that can be chalked up to athleticism or genetics. IVs maybe? Breathing is clear and steady."

He pats lower on her belly. 'No sagging or hanging skin. Fur is even. One, two, three, four... eight nipples, evenly spaced and uniform in feel. Skin and muscle leading to her hindlegs is pliant, yet taut at rest.'

"So far so good. Not that I expected any problems from you, love," Lee murmurs, jotting down his notes. "Almost done. Turn a little more so you face away."

Vulpix gives him a long look.

Lee rolls his eyes. "Does it help if I say you're pretty and I have trouble not touching you?"

The flattery seems to work, as Vulpix complies, turning away and facing the far wall. Her flat expression remains, however.

"Alrighty, just relax for this one."

The man sets down his notebook and gently lifts her left hind paw with his right hand. His other hand gently presses against her rump as he carefully moves her leg, gauging all the muscles in her leg working in sync. 'Again, the muscle density is incredible. She should be able to leap a whole building with these legs. It violates so much of what I know about biology. And to think she can only get more powerful. Heh. I have no idea if that's frightening or wonderful.' He repeats the action with her other leg, satisfied when both are uniform and healthy. "Alrighty girl. I think I've got a working baseline for you now. I'll quit molesting you."

Vulpix flops down and rolls over onto her back with a happy snuffle, glad to finally be off her paws.

Meanwhile, Lee picks up his notes and scans them over. He looks down to his pokedex and scrolls through it to the voice recorder. Setting the notebook down, the man holds his pokedex up and hits the record button. "Day two of being a trainer. Or is it day one?" He wonders. "We'll call it two. I've finished giving Vulpix as good a physical as I can without tools or monitoring equipment. She is within the acceptable standards of a canid her size without much significant deviation, her internal temperature and muscle density being the only significant outliers. More on that later. I didn't bother with much cognitive or any intelligence testing. Vulpix was alert and aware during the physical even if she was bored to death. Any intelligence test I could have given would have been outright demeaning to her and easily solved. Suffice to say she is smarter than most of the people I know and probably smarter than myself as well."

The vixen smirks a little at hearing that, but the smirk quickly turns into a tongue-lolling smile when Lee reaches over to rub her belly.

"Let it be known that the crafty fox is still susceptible to a well-placed belly rub and her heart of gold taking pity on hopeless humans," Lee says, smirking himself as Vulpix tries not to let her leg kick in pleasure. "Vulpix's muscle density is incredible. She's like a wall when her muscles are tensed and I know for a fact she is much physically stronger than I pound for pound, and probably just outright stronger than myself or anyone of similar size despite the weight difference. I'll need actual equipment and not just hand-n-eyeball estimates to be sure. Her skin temperature seems to be around one-hundred ten Fahrenheit. Utterly feverish for a person, but very comfortable for her. I don't have an accurate gauge for internal temperature, but just from feeling her breath I can estimate somewhere close to..." Lee bites his lip and thinks. "At least one-hundred fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Again, doing this without tools so actual numbers may vary. I'll probably do another physical if Vulpix is feeling up to it in a weeks time to confirm these estimates. Lee, out."


Day 3

"I really need some new duds, love," Lee says with a grimace, looking down at his tattered Zoo uniform. "I can wash these all I like, they're still falling apart."

Vulpix inspects her trainer's clothing, not really seeing the big deal. Pokemon wear nothing and no one bats an eye. Why should humans hide themselves in clothes?

"We're still two weeks out from our first check though, and I can't ask Birch since we're already living off his generosity," Lee frowns.

Knock knock knock!

Both Lee and Vulpix turn to the bedroom door. The knob turns and the door opens just enough for a smiling Brendan to poke his head. "Heya Lee? Guess what came in super early!" He exclaims, holding up a pair of envelopes. "They're from the League and there's one for each of us. I bet they were having a slow day or dad submitted our papers right as the offices opened again for the new league year to get these here so fast. One guess on what they are!"

Lee feels his jaw drop a little. "Are those Trainer IDs?"

Brendan's grin lights up the room. "Heck yeah! Here!" He throws one envelope like a frisbee to Lee, who snatches it out of the air and looks at the envelope with naked curiosity.

"I'm going to go open mine and talk to dad. The new batch of starters should be here soon as well!" Brendan practically dances in place. "Mudkip, here I come!" Then as fast as he came, Brendan is gone, his rapid footsteps racing down the hall.

Lee shakes his head. "That boy ain't right. Anyway..." He seats himself back on the bed and opens the envelope with Vulpix watching. The first thing to come out is a short letter.

To: Lee Henson

The Pokemon League is proud to induct you into our ranks as an official Pokemon Trainer. You now have the privilege of entering all Pokemon League sanctioned events (upon meeting prerequisites) in all Pokemon League recognized regions.

'No Alola then,' Lee thinks.

The enclosed identification card will be your primary ID for Pokemon League sanctioned events and functions as a valid form of government ID. If lost, damaged, or stolen, please see your nearest Pokemon Center for a replacement. The replacement fee will depend on the Pokemon Center in question.

As a Trainer sponsored by Prof Birch - Hoenn you are entitled to several special benefits. You will receive:

One (1) Biweekly stipend totaling 2,170.57 credits (post tax) per payment

One (1) Stipend advance of 1,981.23 credits (post tax)

Discounted use of non-medical Pokemon Center services

Upon deposit of the enclosed stipend advance voucher, the Pokemon League will issue biweekly payments to the account that received the voucher for the above listed amount. Please contact the Pokemon League billing department if this information needs to be updated and/or changed.

Lee blinks and looks a little closer at the paper to make sure his eyes weren't playing tricks on him. "What the fuck? I make more just existing here than I did busting my ass in the zoo?" He slumps. "And they give kids this kind of money? Holy hell."

We at the Pokemon League wish you the best in this new and wonderful chapter in yours and your Pokemon's lives Mr Henson. Adventure and new friendships await you.

Signed,

Steven Stone, Hoenn Champion.

Lee shakes his head as he looks at the smudges the stamp used to make "Steven's" signature left. "Adventure and friendships huh? Corny, but I kinda like it in an ironic kind of way. What say you, love?"

Vulpix just snorts and cocks an eyebrow.

"Yeah, me too," the now official trainer agrees. "If this isn't some good timing then I don't know what is. Maybe this is why Birch was so frantic to get the paperwork submitted so quickly?" He shakes his head. "Either way, I think we have some shopping to do. Care to come with?"

Vulpix rolls back to her belly and visibly mulls the thought, her little brows furrowing. She then hops from the bed to Lee's shoulders, her choice made.

The trip to the bank is a short and uneventful one. One flash of Lee's trainer ID and the teller behind the counter whisked him off to make an account. Fifteen minutes later, he was the owner of an account with a new debit card in his wallet.

"They didn't even bat an eye when I said my place of residence was the lab," Lee muses, walking down to Little Root's modest shopping district with a relaxed gait. "Much less strict than Chase, who wanted my... everything really, sans the soul of my firstborn."

The vixen resting across his shoulders gives him a queer look, as if she's debating the validity of his absurd statement.

Lee glances over to her and snorts. "Not actually, love. But if they did, I really would not be surprised," he says, twisting a little to let a boy and his Lombre walk past. "Trusting a bank is a good way to end up dead and penniless back home. Like the hero Andrew Jackson once said, fuck banks... Or at least I think he said that."

The pair continue on. Even with Lee's sedate pace, the Little Root shopping district comes into view quickly. It's little more than a series of modest strip malls along the a side road to the west of town, but all the essentials are there.

Lee glances to his left toward the first store they pass, which happens to be the same clothing shop he noticed upon entering town the first time, where a girl left her Poochyena to hold his own leash as she went inside. It's easy to recall because the same Poochyena is there again, holding his own leash with an expression of pure boredom.

"Vulpix. Pix vulpix?" Vulpix ask down to Poochyena, who perks up and turns to face Lee and Vulpix.

Poochyena yaps and growls something past the leash in his mouth, to which Vulpix simply shakes her head.

"Little Root Outfitters, eh?" Lee reads the sign on the door. Right below the sign is a No non-trainer pokemon please sign. "As good as any I guess. Good luck, little guy," he tells Poochyena.

He and Vulpix step inside, finding a run-of-the-mill small town store. The woman at the check-out counter looks at Vulpix, then to Lee, not commenting on the pokemon not being in a ball.

Like with the bank, the pair are in and out in only a few minutes. The khaki safari uniform was replaced by a set of generic brand jeans, a belt with several pokeball clips, a plain black undershirt, and a dark green camo-patterned zip-up jacket made from some special breathable material called flo-fabric. "It's a staple for outerwear in hot places like Hoenn," the woman at the checkout counter commented. Lee's ankle-high hiking boots and his worn but durable black gloves didn't need replaced. He left with the new outfit on and with a bag containing several other outfits of slight variation.

"Alrighty, now the part I'm definitely more eager for," Lee grins, looking towards the Pokemart. Vulpix just rolls her eyes.

The Pokemart is one of the larger stores in the town, standing separate from the strip with its distinct white outer walls and blue roof. It doesn't look terribly special, but...

'All the things inside are,' Lee thinks to himself with a barely hidden grin. 'Just think of it! I'll actually get to look at all the crazy, impossible stuff that makes modern life with pokemon possible.'

As he and Vulpix walk up, he sees a trio of kids pointing into one of the windows of the mart, where several glittering gold things on display stands sit. "When I become a trainer these are all I wanna use!"

Curious, he and the vixen on his shoulders looks over the kid's heads.

In the window is a trio of balls on a velvet pillow. A normal Pokeball, a Great Ball, and an Ultra Ball. Simple sprites on a screen can't do them justice, as the little devices sparkle in the sunlight and almost beg to be picked up. Each one has beautiful engravings of various Pokemon on the lids done in silver, but the little label at the foot of the pillow makes him blanch.

Vanity Balls

Starting at 749.99c

See inside for details.

'Jesus fuck thats a lot of money for a pokeball,' He thinks, almost reeling. Then another thought strikes him. 'Hold on. How expensive are pokeballs anyway? A normal ball is two hundred or so poke funbucks, but I always thought that the game money has an exchange rate similar to Yen. I'm about to get fucked, aren't I?'

Vulpix seems to sense his mood and noses his cheek, even if she doesn't fully understand why her trainer suddenly slumped.

Lee grumbles but strokes Vulpix along her neck, making her purr. 'A curious sound for a fox to make,' Lee idly thinks, mentally filing it away as another oddity of Pokemon as he walks into the mart.

The inside of the Pokemart is like a petstore on steroids. Shelves and aisles filled to bursting with everything pokemon related, some of which Lee has no name for. He wanders in with naked wonder on his face, almost overwhelmed by the sheer amount of new and alien things around him. It's only a last minute thought that makes him grab a cart. There are standard things like toys, treats, grooming kits, and different blends of food. Then there are things you'd only find in a pokemart like fire retardant, hydrophobic, or slash/puncture resistant pet beds. A bookshelf on the far wall is filled with books about pokemon rearing and breeding. At the front behind the check out is a wide glass case with the really familiar things, like pokeballs, potions, and disks that can only be TMs. The various aisles are divided by Pokemon type, with Fire being one of the first, so Lee heads down that one.

"Man, look at all this stuff," he murmurs, taking in all the different things around. Vulpix likewise cranes her head around to peer at all the strange sights with a critical eye. "Well, we've got plenty to spend, so why not?"

Lee grabs a number of things that catch both his and Vulpix's eyes. A deluxe grooming kit is the first, much to Vulpix's delight. Then a pair of fire retardant gloves, a small fire extinguisher, a large stick of 'edible' charcoal, a thermometer rated for 1000°F, and a few other things that seem like they would aid in the raising of Vulpix's more supernatural side. Lee glances over the 'League recommended' Fire-type omnivore pokemon food blend with a measure of distaste, however.

"This ingredient list is a little vague," he mutters, looking at the back of a smaller bag. "The fuck is an optimum blend of meats, veggies, and berries suppose to mean to me? Is there not an actual ingredient list?" He shakes his head and looks back to his placid Vulpix. "Nah. I'll just make your food myself, love. I'll trust the stuff Birch provided, but after that, I'm taking over." And with that, a food pellet baller goes in the cart.

Vulpix's six tails wag slowly, making Lee stifle a giggle when they tickle his neck.

The last stop is the bookshelf on the far wall, where a copy of Nutrition and Health of Canid Pokemon gets picked up before the checkout becomes the final stop.

The teen girl in a blue pokeball-marked apron manning the counter glances up and quickly puts her phone away when Lee and Vulpix approach. She plasters a wide smile to her face. "Find everything okay?"

"Just fine, thanks," Lee smiles back. He glances back at the glass case where all the Pokeballs are held and suddenly understands why they're kept separate. The things are a whopping 179.99c a pop, just for a standard Pokeball. The Ultras are an unearthly 1,199.99c for a single ball. Nearly the game price.

'Suddenly the high stipend payments make sense,' Lee thinks as he unloads his cart for the cashier to scan. 'I can only imagine what sort of hell it must be to be low-income and wanting to be a trainer. I should thank Birch again.'

Luckily Potions and whatnot are more reasonable, with Potions only being 50.00c for a large spray bottle's worth. Super Potions are pricer at 149.99c, and Hyper Potions can go fuck themselves at 700.00c. Lee doesn't even bother looking at the Max Potion or the TMs.

"Can I get a basic Potion as well?"

The cashier nods and fishes some keys out of her apron pocket, then turns, opens the glass case, and takes out a Potion in one practiced movement. "Anything else today? You got quite a bit, so maybe a Sliph Co bag?"

Lee blinks. "A Sliph Co bag?"

The cashier hums as she scans and bags another item. "MmmHmm."

"I'm afraid I don't follow. I take it a Sliph bag is special or something?"

The girl raises an eyebrow at Lee.

"I already know what you're thinking, and yes, I'm from way out in the boonies," Lee sighs.

"A Silph bag uses the same stuff as pokeballs. You know? With the whole matter to energy and space expanding... thing?" She tries to explain, give her hand a vague wave. "I don't really understand it, but it's bigger on the inside than outside. Somehow."

'I can hear physics weep hideously in the distance,' Lee silently muses. 'It does neatly explain how the main character in the games carries all his junk and how everyone in the anime can carry full camping gear in a backpack though. Sounds useful too' "Sure. How much?"

She turns back to the glass case and reaches into the back, pulling out a rather standard-looking backpack seemingly made from green canvas with leather straps. "These base models are all 1,360 credits before tax. Green okay?"

Lee tries hard to not let the pain on his face show. "Ech. Yeah. Better I get this sooner rather than later."

The cashier nods and scans the Sliph backpack. "Your total is 1,598.67 credits."

Lee reluctantly hands his debit card over.


Day 7

A burst of Embers crash into an already burnt and battered log and detonate one by one with loud, jarring pops. Bits of smoldering wood are thrown across the dusty ground as new knotholes are blown into the hapless log. Nearby pokemon in the Little Root corral watch the proceedings with interest.

"That's good!"

Vulpix cuts her Ember attack and lets the last few Embers hit their mark before turning to Lee.

Lee looks down at the notebook in his hands, where a rough sketch of Vulpix faces an upright cylinder marked "log". A label line between the two is marked "35 feet". The man steps closer to the log, noting that at this range Vulpix's Ember has spread to almost the edge. "Log is about a foot and a quarter wide, and the Ember marks are hitting the edge from thirty-five feet, so..." Lee bites the end of his pen and jots some numbers down, trying to remember the formula he wants. "That means from Vulpix's mouth, Ember is spreading at about a twenty-degree angle give or take some..." He looks at the log again. "The speed looked to be a good hundred or so feet per second, and her accuracy was dead on for a static target. If we can tighten that spread, then Ember could be a force to be reckoned with."

"Vul?" Vulpix asks with a tilt of her head.

Lee blinks and glances back with a sheepish smile. "Uh, sorry girl. Just crunching numbers. Let's give that another go, but this time..." He spins the log to its unblemished back and pulls a little piece of bark in the middle away, exposing bare wood. "Try to focus on this little point as hard as you can. The more Embers hit the very middle, the better. I'll watch and give the signal."

The man retreats back to Vulpix's side and crouches to watch her, notebook and pen ready. "Alrighty girl, Ember on the log."

Vulpix takes a deep breath, her chest swelling as orange flames glow in her mouth and lick at her lips. "Vul..." She draws her head back then thrusts it forward with a cry of "Pix!"

Small orange fireballs shoot from her mouth with a sound not unlike a submachine gun rattling through it's whole magazine. The Embers scream towards the log and explode against it's bark with a staccato of Pop pop pop!, stripping a circle of charred bark around the original.

Lee watches the entire process from start to finish, ignoring the flare of unease the open flames invoke inside him. 'It's Vulpix. She would never hurt you.' He watches it all, from Vulpix's deep breath and flourish, to the first Ember loosed, to the first impact against the bark.

'Does she even need the breath and flourish? Once the attack began, she didn't empty her lungs to maintain it, and I have no idea what part thrusting her head out did.' He wonders. "Alright love, that's good."

Vulpix closes her mouth and cuts off the attack. Once the last Ember impacts and the resulting smoke clears, it reveals a smaller area of effect on the smoldering log. Not by much, as only a few inches of intact bark remain at the edge of the log, but the improvement is still noticeable.

Lee grins and strokes Vulpix gently down her back, making the vulpine smile slightly and purr under his hand. "Great work, love. Memorize the feeling of narrowing down your attacks like that. I can already imagine the faces of some flyer when they think they're safely out of range only for a rail of Embers and shoot them down. And yes I meant 'rail' and not 'hail'."

Vulpix preens under the praise and turns her nose up, a small smile on her face. Her trainer shakes his head, but he wears a smile as well.

"Heeeey Leeeee!"

Both Lee and Vulpix look up to see Brendan racing towards them from the lab with a blinding grin on his face, but he's not alone. Scampering at his heels is a large Mudkip that follows him closely.

'The starters must have come in, and Brendan got the pick of the litter. That Mudkip must be a good six inches taller than normal,' Lee thinks to himself. "Morning Brendan. I take it the starters are in?"

Brendan and Mudkip stop just short of Lee, both youngsters needing to skid to bleed off momentum. Brendan's megawatt grin is almost dazzling in its intensity. "You know it! Just look at this guy! Isn't he fantastic?" He asks, bending down to pick up and cradle the mudfish pokemon, who accepts the attention with a happy "Mudkip!"

Lee can't help but smile fondly at the scene. The sheer joy and wonder on Brendan's face reminds him of himself when he began his career in animals. "He's certainly a biggun. You two will go far together, I can already tell."

Both boy and pokemon flush under the praise, but Brendan bounces back quickly. "So dad said you and Vulpix were out here training? Pokemon grow fastest in battle, soooo how about we battle, huh?"

The question makes Lee freeze. 'I've spent the last few nights gazing up at the ceiling, dreaming up battle strats now that the game rules aren't a concern, but the prospect of actually battling... Can I actually order a pokemon to be harmed?'

'Can I stand to see Vulpix get hurt?'

The very thought makes his gut twist into a chilled knot. All he can imagine is cries of agony, cries of accusation. Why didn't you do anything Lee? Who said I wanted to fight?

"Vulpix!"

Vulpix steps up with narrowed eyes and a flick of her heart-marked ear, sliding against Lee's left as she steps forward and plants herself in front of her trainer, facing Brendan.

"She's eager," Brendan grins, looking back up to Lee. "So how about it?"

Lee gulps and does his best to keep his voice from trembling. "Y-Yeah, if Vulpix wants to, then I'm game."

The boy pumps a fist and retreats back about seventy feet before putting his Mudkip down, who steps forward with confidence.

Vulpix assumes a ready stance, her head low and tails fanned out. She glances back to Lee, her normally placid eyes filled with burning energy and such eagerness that the man is almost taken aback.

'They're much hardier than people and made for combat,' a little voice in the back of Lee's head says, condescension dripping from every word. 'A battle with a fresh starter won't hurt her. Man up and live your dream.'

Lee gulps again, his tension slowly draining in favor of a nervous energy that threatens to make his limbs shake. He quickly pulls out his Pokedex and points it at Vulpix after hitting the mute button. The Dex lights up with a picture of Vulpix, then quickly lists Vulpix's attributes. Lee skips all that and goes directly down to the movelist.

Ember, Tail Whip, Roar, Baby-Doll Eyes, Quick Attack, Confuse Ray, Fire Spin, Payback, Will-O-Wisp.

The list is still the same as it was the first time he scanned Vulpix, and he quickly dedicates it to memory before stashing away his Dex.

"So how are we doing this?" Brendan calls from across the way. "Forfeit or knockout good?"

Lee steels himself and nods. "That's fine. If either side calls a timeout or gives up then it stops immediately, okay? And are you sure Brendan? Even with a type advantage on your side, Vulpix isn't a pushover."

A small part of Lee hopes Brendan reconsiders, but he just grins and dashes those hopes. "No way. That's the whole reason we want to battle."

The older trainer sighs. "Vulpix, ready?" He asks despite knowing the answer.

The fox growls, her hackles raised and tails lashing as she and Mudkip locked eyes.

Brendan looks at his feet and picks up a rock. "When this rock hits the ground, the battle begins," and without waiting for a reply, he tosses the rock into the middle of the impromptu arena.

Time seems to slow as Lee both watches the stone and takes in the entire field from his peripherals.

'The wind is traveling southward and the arena has a slight tilt to the south,' Lee thinks silently as the stone inches closer to the ground and his nervousness transforms back into high-strung tension. 'The area is sparse grass, mostly dirt. Little danger of a wildfire. The other Pokemon in the corral have backed up, so little danger of collateral. Mudkip is about fifty feet out.' The stone is almost to the ground. 'Start strong. Debuff, stack DOT, then use Vulpix's speed to play keep away. The Mudkip line has unreal physical attack, so we'll start out with...'

Thud! The stone bounces off the ground.

"Vulpix, Baby-Doll Eyes!" Lee orders before Brendan or Mudkip can even move.

The vixen lets her hackles fall and looks intently at Mudkip with wide, sparkling eyes filled with false innocence. Her chocolate orbs faintly glow with Fairy energy.

Mudkip falters, as if suddenly having second thoughts about fighting. At the same time, the sunlight suddenly becomes sweltering as Vulpix's Drought activates, and Mudkip flinches and sways on his feet.

"W-What gives?" Brendan calls, shielding his eyes from the harsh sun with a grimace. "How did Vulpix use Sunny Day and Baby-Doll Eyes at once?"

"That wasn't Sunny Day," Lee calls back, fighting back his own grimace as the oven-like heat makes his burns throb. "Vulpix has the ability Drought," Lee debates ordering an attack immediately, but holds off, not wanting to come off as a bully in a friendly match.

"I've never heard of Drought before..." Brendan mutters, wiping at his sweaty brow. "Doesn't matter. We've got a match to win. Mudkip, Watergun!"

Lee watches carefully as Mudkip steadies himself and takes a deep breath in the same windup as Vulpix, his eyes locked onto the fox. Just as Mudkip stops the brief charging and starts moving to launch the attack, Lee reacts.

"Vulpix, dodge left now!"

The vixen darts to the left in a deft hop just as Mudkip's Watergun leaves his mouth. The water gouges into the ground with a muddy splash.

"Now, Confuse Ray!" Lee follows up.

Vulpix's eyes glow a sinister red with a growl from her.

Mudkip suddenly reels back with a cry as if struck and screws his eyes shut. The poor mudfish stumbles and opens his eyes, revealing them to be unfocused as he staggers around almost drunkenly. Mudkip then trips over his own feet and falls to his side, squirming helplessly.

"No, Mudkip!" Brendan cries, reaching out with a hand. "C'mon Mudkip! Get up! I know you can do it!" He pleads with such hurt and desperation that forfeiting instantly comes to the forefront of Lee's mind.

Mudkip grimaces and wobbles to his feet, struggling to maintain balance. It's a perfect time to attack, but Lee can't bring himself to issue an order. Vulpix looks back at him, her tails whipping impatiently as she waits for the call to strike.

"I told you, Brendan. Vulpix and I aren't good first opponents. Maybe call this off and find another trainer to challenge?" Lee asks, crossing his fingers behind his back.

"No way! No rough start can scare us!" Brendan roars. "Mudkip! Watergun the ground and cool off with some mud!"

'What?'

"Mud!" Mudkip calls in his high-pitched voice. In a lucid moment, he takes a breath and Waterguns the ground below himself, kicking up a plume of muddy water and obscuring himself.

"Now Tackle!" Brendan calls over the roar of the water.

Mudkip charges out of the mud plume in a full sprint, eyes clear and form refreshed. He locks onto Vulpix, who freezes up.

'Shit shit shit!'

"Vulpix, Quick Attack to dodge right!" Lee frantically calls.

"Dodging with an attack..?" Brendan questions with a blink.

The vixen snaps out of her shock just in time. A white energy envelopes her form as she jukes to the right as little more than a blur of red. Mudkip just barely misses her and skids to a stop, looking around.

'If I don't do something, Vulpix is going to get hurt, but if we fight back, Mudkip is going to get trashed...' Lee takes a shaky breath. The choice is neither hard or long. 'Sorry Mudkip.'

"Now, Quick Attack into Mudkip!"

Vulpix's eyes gleam at finally being on the offensive. She lands from her dodge with Quick Attack still active, then in a flicker of red, crashes into Mudkip at full speed.

The mudfish's eyes go wide and he can't even cough the air from his lungs before he's thrown a solid fifty feet across the field. He bounces once, twice, then skids to a painful stop on his side, a shallow trench in his wake.

Lee can feel his heart stop as Vulpix tips her head back and howls in victory. The sunlight fades back to normal as the battle ends.

"Mudkip!" Brendan cries, rushing towards his motionless Pokemon.

'Jesus Christ. What have I done?'

Brendan skids to a stop by Mudkip's still body with slumped shoulders. Lee numbly follows, trying to not let his rolling stomach vomit. The younger trainer picks up the limp Mudkip with a sigh. "You did great, pal," he murmurs, holding Mudkip to his chest.

Then Mudkip suddenly twitches in Brendan's arms and lets out a groggy "M-Mudkip?". The water pokemon shifts in his trainer's arms in a clear sign of life and looks around, blinking stars from his eyes.

Lee's stomach uncoils as quickly as it came and he lets out a breath he had no idea he was holding. "He's okay?"

'They aren't common animals. You know that,' the niggling voice in the back of his head says. 'You can't permanently take down a pokemon without making a deliberate effort.'

Brendan nods as he looks down at his pokemon. "Yeah," he replies in a more subdued voice. "I guess you were right. Vulpix is way too strong and you're too skilled," he says with a sigh. Brendan fishes out Mudkip's pokeball and enlarges it. He smiles down to his starter and says; "You did great Mudkip. You hung on where others would have crashed and burned. Enjoy your rest, okay?"

"Mudkip..." Mudkip murmurs, looking away with melancholy in his eyes before he's returned to his ball in a flash of red light.

Brendan clips the ball to his belt before standing and turning to Lee, then in a surprising show of maturity, holds out a hand with a smile. "Good match. Don't expect it to be that easy next time."

Lee takes the offered hand and shakes it weakly. "Yeah, sure. Anytime."

Vulpix takes time to slide up beside him, pressing herself into her trainer's leg as she looks up at him with worry.

Lee bends down and pulls her into a light hug, murmuring a congratulations for her victory.

'Am I overthinking it? Am I treating them like animals? Are pokemon just that durable?'


Day 9

'Pokemon are stupid durable.'

Mudkip catches Vulpix's Quick Attack to his side, and despite digging his feet in, is still rocketed off his feet. He twists mid-air and roughly lands on all fours almost sixty feet away from his lift-off point.

"Baby-Doll Eyes."

Mudkip tries to look away on impulse, but Vulpix's eyes light up with Fairy energy too quickly, and he lets out a frustrated cry when he feels his muscles slacken.

"Mudkip don't give up!" Brendan calls from his side. "Use Watergun! Quick!"

Mudkip takes a breath to build up Watergun, but before he can fire, Lee's voice calls out across the field with; "Confuse Ray!"

Vulpix's eyes light up again, this time an evil red, perfectly fitting the smirk on her muzzle.

The building Watergun in Mudkip's throat suddenly loses cohesion and just explodes out of his mouth as the confusion ensnares Mudkip's mind. The mudfish chokes and panics, forgetting his ilk can breathe water in his confusion.

Brendan growls and grabs at his hat in frustration. "Confuse Ray is such a bullshit move!" He yells to the heavens.

Across from him, Lee can only shrug. "Embrace the bullshit. It works."

Ever since their first match several days ago, Brendan and Mudkip would come out to challenge Lee and Vulpix whenever the younger duo would see a lull in the training of their seniors. Each day, Mudkip would be soundly defeated, and each following day, he would be right as rain. Brendan was unbothered by the losses and Mudkip, being a little glutton for punishment, gladly threw himself at Vulpix no matter how much he was brutalized the day prior. All of Lee's fears about either pokemon being hurt beyond help evaporated like a puddle on a hot day thanks to Mudkip.

The spread on Vulpix's ranged attacks closed by a fraction of a degree each day, and now her Ember could reliably hit objects her size at about fifty feet. The little fireballs race a little faster and explode a little harder with repeated practice as well. Firespin, being the signature move of Vulpix, is already powerful, more powerful than the games give it credit for. For how aloof the little vixen usually is, she's taken to Lee's training with aplomb, and the results are already beginning to show.

Back to the battle, Mudkip barely has enough time to hack the water out of his lungs before Vulpix leaps into the air, coats herself in the shimmering aura of Quick Attack, then shoots down upon him like a meteor

CRASH!


Day 12

Lee huffs and wipes the sweat from his brow as he focuses on his running pace around the corral. Vulpix has lapped him at least seven times, even with the convoluted, zig-zagging course of he's set up for her. He stops for a moment to watch his pokemon weave between spots he's marked into the ground with agility and grace that would make a mundane fox green with envy. She skids at a particularly harsh turn, but quickly corrects herself and is back in a full sprint in hardly a moment. As Vulpix runs, she pants short tongues of flame in an effort to cool off some. Then something strikes Lee as strange.

The flames aren't in sync with her breathing. The fire licking at her lips ebbs and surges independent of the movement of her chest. It's almost like it doesn't even correspond at all.

'Wait, no. No way in hell. It's such a leap, but if it's true and this works...'

"Hey love!" Lee calls, making Vulpix skid to a halt and look towards him. "Let's head inside for a short break. I've got a few things to look up, then we can keep training."

The vixen doesn't verbally reply, but walks to Lee's side as she tries to steady her breathing. Now up close, Lee can see for certain that the flames she's panting aren't matching up with her breaths at all.

Both man and vixen walk towards the lab at a sedate pace, letting Lee think. There for sure must be a high-level trainer out there somewhere that has already discovered this, but after recalling the Emerald dex entry on Vulpix, he has to try it.

...But how much can gamedex entries be trusted?

Lee lets out a relieved groan as he and Vulpix step into the air-conditioned lab. Vulpix fans her tails and does a full-body shake, airing out her orange pelt with the cool air.

"You look tired."

Professor Birch walks in to the lab's main room with a clipboard under one arm and a plastic bottle of water held in the other. The stocky man tosses the bottle to Lee, who snatches it out of the air.

"Running around during the heat of the day does that," Lee quips, unscrewing the bottle cap and kneeling so Vulpix could latch onto the bottle and greedily drink. "Mind if we use one of the PCs for a bit? We've got a bit of research to do."

"All yours," Birch smiles with a wave of his hand. "What about, may I ask?"

Vulpix chooses that time to let the bottle go, now looking very refreshed with a few water trails down her chin and into her breast tuft. "Vulpix!" she says with a smile, nuzzling Lee's hand.

Lee smiles and gently strokes his fox before tipping the bottle of water back into his own mouth, drinking the remaining half in just three mammoth gulps. "Phew. To answer you, Prof. There are some..." Lee hesitates, trying to think of a good descriptor other than 'gamedex' "...legends about pokemon from my 'home' that I wanted to fact check. If some regarding Vulpix and Ninetales are true, then Vulpix here is in for a treat, and any future battlers are in for a nasty surprise."

Birch instantly understands and smiles. "You can't just give me the bare minimum like that and not expect me to ask more," he replies, his smile widening into a grin. "What's the 'legend' say about the Vulpix line?"

"That they can freely control fire, and how that's how they control Will-o-Wisp," Lee begins. Vulpix jumps to his shoulders as he stands and turns to Birch. "I noticed when Vulpix and I were out exercising that she was panting flames."

Birch crosses his arms and nods. "Yes, that's pretty standard with a lot of Fire types."

"Here's the 'but' to that," Lee says with a smirk. "The ebb of her fire was not synced up to her breathing. It was close, but there were distinct points where she was inhaling and the flames would grow, or exhaling and the flames would shrink, usually right at the end of her breaths. That's why I think the legend holds water."

Birch's eyes widen a fraction. "Truly? Could the breathing be just a placebo for Vulpix then? If she is able to actually manifest fire regardless of body movements to control it..."

"She could cast attacks with zero warning," Lee finishes with an excited grin. "But if she really can freely control fire like described, then she can control any fire and manifest it from anywhere."

'Fire attacks against her would be worse than useless. She could shoot attacks from any direction, or even manifest it right on her target with no travel time. Hell, with skills like that, no Fire move would be outside her reach. She might even be able to make new moves.'

The professor's jaw slowly drops, the implications are not lost on him. Vulpix likewise looks at Lee with wide eyes before looking away and furrowing her brows in thought.

"So I need to look up the mechanics behind some Fire moves and see if Vulpix can remotely manifest them. Something on the simple side to start..." Lee mutters out loud.


Day 16

"Don't force it, love. Rome wasn't built in a day."

Vulpix growls and closes her eyes as yet another tiny fireball fizzles out before it can leave her mouth. She leans her head back and opens her mouth as a tiny, flickering candlelight of fire is born between her lips. The little flame wavers as it shakily tries to hover away, but it flickers and dies in a flash hardly an inch into its travel. Vulpix opens her eyes again and looks at the grassy ground with a smoldering glare that Lee didn't expect to see on her usually aloof self.

Lee sits off to her side with his notebook in hand, jotting everything he watches down. When he sees her staring a hole into the ground, he sets his notebook aside and scoots closer, tenderly placing a hand on either side of her head and lifting so their eyes meet. "Hey, no need to look so frustrated. This is a whole new thing we're trying here. Your moves seem so easy because they're instinct. This? This is totally unexplored territory that we're working with," the man quietly murmurs, petting his vixen's cheeks gently. Vulpix slowly melts into his touch as she listens. "You've already made incredible progress. Just making flames at will with no move being used first is great. Now we just have to practice. Let's take a breather to clear our heads for a moment, yeah?"

Vulpix sighs. "Vullll. Vulpix, vul." "Four days of no progress is good?" He can practically hear, but she closes her eyes in contentment and nods into his hands.

'She's so much more reasonable than a lion,' Lee thinks fondly as Vulpix crawls into his lap and nuzzles her head to his stomach with a smile. She opens her eyes to reveal them glowing. He then feels her fledgling psychic powers touch his mind for a moment, just long enough for a burst of raw gratitude. 'She lets me get away with so much.'

Lee picks his notebook back up and looks over the corral with a smile. The gentle sea breeze from the south drives away the sun's oppressive heat and makes the short grass of the corral roll in mesmerizing waves. Pokemon of all sorts lounge and play in the field, and an uncountable number more watch and rest in the shade of the forest where the corral fence vanishes into the treeline. The breeze, the rustling of the distant leaves, and the happy calls of all the pokemon mingle into a tranquil background noise There's not an ounce of conflict to be found.

'How strange it is to think any one of these adorable things could rip me in half,' Lee muses, idly stroking Vulpix's back all the way down to her tails. He notices a black spot on the edge of his vision and looks over.

In the grass just in front of the depression where Vulpix was seated previously, there's a small burnt spot. The grass is limp and blackened, but not ash, like it was only exposed to a flame for a moment.

'But Vulpix didn't let any of her flames touch the ground. Hell, she hasn't even faced the ground in the last two hours besides...' Lee furrows a brow. 'Besides when she got frustrated and glared at the ground.' He stops petting the vixen as he thinks, making her whine and paw at him.

"Are we going about this the wrong way?" the man thinks aloud, making Vulpix open her eyes and look up at him. "Vulpix, let's try something else. We might be doing this wrong."

The vixen reluctantly extracts herself from his lap with a full-body stretch and a jaw-cracking yawn. "Pix..." she murmurs, standing ready.

"Alright, let's try this," Lee begins, opening his notebook and ripping a page out. Vulpix looks on with a raised brow as he holds the paper up. "Now, no more meditation or all that jazz that Medicham suggested on this. I want you to focus on this paper as hard as you can. Focus on seeing it go up in flames. All you want in the world is for this paper to burn because it's wronged you, so you give it more focus than anything in the world has ever gotten."

Vulpix gives Lee a dubious look, but focuses on the paper intently. She narrows her chocolate eyes and flicks her tails in concentration.

Several long minutes pass with nothing happening. The only movement is from the rolling grass and the swap of the paper in the wind. Lee's arm begins to grow tired, and his cross-leg seated position makes his legs fall asleep, but he dares not move least he spoils Vulpix's concentration. Vulpix begins to grit her teeth, her frustration beginning to surface again.

Slowly, the middle of the white paper begins to darken and smoke, and the sun's rays grow a little hotter.

Lee looks between his almost-snarling pokemon and the sheet of paper in his hand. "You want the paper on fire more than anything, Vulpix," he whispers just loud enough to make her twitch an ear. "It wrongs you, mocks you by existing. Take your feelings and show it who you are. You are Vulpix, the one who will one day be the strongest Fire type-no, the one who will one day be the strongest pokemon. Take all that passion to grow and succeed, and show everyone you have what it takes to master fire!"

Vulpix growls and her eyes glow faintly. The sunlight becomes so hot that Lee's burns tingle in pain.

The paper bursts into flame, making Lee yelp and drop it.

For a moment, both trainer and Pokemon stare at the paper in open surprise. When it burns down to naught but ash and blows away in the wind, Lee can't help but grin and snatch up Vulpix in a hug.

"You did it! You actually did it!" Lee says with a joyful laugh and a beaming grin. "I know you could do it. You have no idea how proud I am of you! We've been here for like, what, two weeks and we're already pushing limits and breaking rules? You're the best, love."

Vulpix can't help but smile herself and wag her six tails as she sinks into her trainer's arms. She gives him a lick on the chin and nuzzles into the crook of his neck.

Again, Lee feels Vulpix poke his mind with hers, and this time comes a pulse of raw adoration.

He hugs her just a little tighter.


Day 18

Lee peers at the new scars on his side and drops the unwrapped gauze to the bathroom floor. The glass cuts had healed nicely and evenly courtesy of the Oran extract-infused gauze, but the largest ones still scarred over, giving him a new set of tender pink lines in his side. He touches one with a grumble, noting the lack of pain. He looks further up in the bathroom mirror to his face.

The trio of linear burns are mostly healed, again thanks to Oran-infused ointment, but they are definitely leaving scars. The skin on the left side of his face feels pinched and taut, and just smiling pulls at the lines. A childish part of him thinks the scars look fearsome, but that part is quickly beaten into submission by the more practical part of his mind. While not too painful, they're definitely uncomfortable.

Definitely not as painful as losing the Zoo and everyone there.

Vulpix suddenly appears in the mirror as she hops to her favorite perch and settles cross Lee's bare shoulders. She looks over herself only briefly in the mirror before turning her attention to Lee's visage. Her eyes wander over his front, her eyes stopping at the few scars and marks adorning his front. She then looks back up at his face.

"Ugly, aren't they?" Lee sardonically asks.

Vulpix twists her head and quickly nips Lee's ear, making the man suppress a yelp. Then she presses her cheek to his and purrs.

Lee sighs and reaches up to rub behind her ear, a half-smile that doesn't pull at the scars forming on his face. "Can't you let me have just a little self-pity?"

The vixen snaps her teeth, then goes back to purring.

Lee sighs dramatically. "Fiiiiine. Let me get breakfast for us whipped up then we can head out and get some supplies for your pyrokinesis practice."

"Vulpix!"


Now - Day 22

Lee's thoughts return to the present as he and Vulpix approach the lab... which is clear on the other side of town from the library, making Lee blink. "Oh jeez, have I been spacing out that whole time?"

"Vul," Vulpix affirms, nosing his cheek from her usual spot on his shoulder. "Vulpix vul."

He sighs. "Yeah, I know. Sorry about that, love. The last few weeks have been something else. I guess I'm still a little out of sorts."

Vulpix says nothing, but curls around his neck like a furry scarf.

"Lee!"

Lee turns with Vulpix in tow to find both Brendan walking their way with a wave. "Heading to the lab?" Brendan asks, no breaking his strike as he walks up.

"MmmHmm," Lee replies, falling into step with the boy.

"So what have you guys been up to all day? Myself and Mudkip were out in the woods doing that strength training you told us about," Brendan grins. "I never knew Mudkips could actually smash boulders! When he gets to Swampert, he's gonna be unstoppable!"

The ball on Brendan's belt shakes.

"You'll need to beat Vulpix first if you actually want to be unstoppable," Lee quips, taking the wind right out of Brendan's sails and making Mudkip's ball go still.

"Easier said than done..." the young Birch grumbles. "Vulpix is freaky strong, and how does anyone fight you without getting Confuse Ray spammed to death?"

'Vulpix just learned Feint Attack last week, so she can only be mid-20s in level. I guess that would be tough to a definitely-below level 16 pokemon. Though, Mudkip has to be on the cusp of evolution. He's grown so much since his first ass-kicking and just begs for more. Little masochist.' Lee muses. "Look on the bright side," Lee starts with a smirk. "Mudkip can snap himself out of confusion in seconds now."

"That doesn't really matter when you and Vulpix spam Confuse Ray so much."

"It'll matter against other trainers," Lee says as the pair enter the cool, air-conditioned lab and spy Professor Birch on the video phone in the corner. "Imagine the shock on some random trainer's face when Mudkip barely stumbles after being confused and knocks his pokemon into the stratosphere."

That makes Brendan grin and makes Mudkip's ball shake again.

"-tually, both just walked in now, Samuel," Birch says as Brendan and Lee approach. Birch turns and waves both over with a wide smile. "Brendan, Lee, I'd like you both to meet Professor Samuel Oak, The Pokemon Professor!"

Birch moves to the side to show both of his trainers the screen of the vid-phone, and on it is none other than the legendary Professor Oak, who peers at both of them with aged, wisdom-filled eyes.

Lee has to struggle not to smile at the man he's always wanted to meet, but Brendan has no reservations and openly grins. "Nice to meet ya, Professor! I'm Brendan Birch, and this is Lee Henson! Don't be too upset if we thrash any of your trainers in the Ever Grande Conference!"

Birch chokes and blanches. "Brendan! I-" he stops when he hears laughing from the phone.

Oak chuckles a few more times and calms, but his smile remains, showing the lines on his aged face from how often he must smile. "My oh my. It's not often I see such bold enthusiasm," he says. "Well, I'd certainly not hold a grudge over a proper victory. Tell me, young man. Who did you choose as your starter?"

"Mudkip of course!"

Oak nods with a hum. "A sturdy, powerful pokemon. As your Mudkip grows, you'll likely find him to be a pillar of strength for your whole team. An anchor that would never let you be swept away, and a frightful tsunami in battle. Swampert are revered and feared for their sheer might. An excellent choice, young Brendan," Oak says, his words carrying impeccable strength and certainty even over the phone.

Brendan flushes and mutters a quick, "Thank you, sir."

Oak then turns his attention to Lee with a raised brow. "Well well, Mr. Henson. You look quite seasoned already. Why take a sponsorship?"

"Would you believe me if I said I was born on a small island nation with no pokemon?" Lee lies through his teeth, spooling up his story. "We had legends, but I didn't know pokemon were real until about a month ago."

Oak's eyes widen a fraction and his smile dims somewhat. "Truly? What was this place called?"

"The United States, a series of small states under one controlling body. I ended up on Hoenn after... Unfortunate circumstances," Lee grimaces, his burn scars flaring with phantom pain. He tenderly rubs the raised skin and continues. "Vulpix, being a sweetheart, found me and stuck with me. We came here to Little Root and met Professor Birch, who was kind enough to stick his neck out for us. The rest is history I guess," he finishes, reaching up to stroke Vulpix's neck.

Oak peers at both Lee and Vulpix with great scrutiny, making both man and vixen tense up from the intense, almost judging stare, then Oak returns to his grandfatherly smile just as quickly. "That's quite a tale. I have to say, would your home be open to communication?"

"They're pretty militaristic and isolationist..." Lee trails off. "Now that I'm out, I can't return. Not that I know where the US is from here anyway."

The smile on Oak's face falls some. "That's a shame. I would have loved to have a trainer like yourself. A trainer with a fresh new look at pokemon? Oh yes, now that would make for a fascinating study. I assume Professor Birch added such a study as a stipulation to your sponsorship?"

Birch freezes up.

"Oh Nigel, don't look like that," Oak gently chides with a shake of his head, making Birch slump. "Any pokemon researcher worth their salt would want to secure such an opportunity. I certainly can't blame you." Oak turns back to Lee, now looking at Vulpix. "Vulpix, hmm? A rare pokemon, even in their native Kanto. Revered as tricksters and mystics, Vulpix and the venerated Ninetales are difficult to raise pokemon who thrive under skilled trainers. Her excellent health and demeanor speak volumes about your ability to raise pokemon, young man."

"That's just good genes on her part," Lee asserts with a shake of his head. Vulpix harshly jabs his cheek with her nose, but he ignores it. "I don't do much. Just what needs to be done." Vulpix jabs him again.

Oak raises a brow, his smile deepening some. "Vulpix are finicky as they are rare, so that loyalty of her does you no favors here. Just your willingness to hold a dangerous pokemon so close says a lot."

"..." Lee says nothing in reply, so Vulpix growls and paws him right in the eye. "Ow! Dammit love, don't do that!"

Oak laughs and turns back to Birch. "Anyway Nigel, one of my trainers, Ash Ketchum, just finished up his final preparations for his journey to Hoenn after the Silver Conference. Could you update his Pokedex once he arrives? He should be in Little Root in the next week."

'So it's some sort of mix between the games and anime here,' Lee thinks to himself, rubbing the smarting eye Vulpix bapped. 'Why the League website didn't have the Silver Conference results I have no idea, but at least I know now.'

"Of course Samuel," Birch says, visibly relieved his senior didn't hold tying Lee down against him.

Oak smiles at everyone. "Nigel, it was nice to speak to you again. You're doing wonderful despite your short tenure so far," he says, making his junior smile. "Brendan, Lee, I'll be looking forward to seeing you both in the Ever Grande Conference and how well you stack up against my trainer, Ash. Have a wonderful day everyone!"

And with that, Oak hangs up.

Lee hums as Vulpix settles again.

'This is where it all starts I guess.'
 
Stayed up until three in the morning finishing this. Absoloutely amazing.can't say enough how fun this was. If you do decide to write some non-canon nsfw snippets, I'd be interested to see who the partner is. Lee and his vilpix? One of the many spoiler companions? Just about the only thing I wasn't a big fan of is how long it's taking for the plot thread with Wally and spoiler pokemon to come to fruition.
 
Act 1: Chapter 4
Day 30

Lee hums a nameless tune as he gently drags a soft brush through Vulpix's pelt, and the little fox is little more than a blissful puddle under his gentle ministrations. The man stops for just a moment to pull some loose fur from the brush and place it in the small pile to his side before he gets back to brushing. Lee yawns and glances at the sun from their shady spot in the lab's shadow.

"Must be about ten AM now..." He murmurs, getting no reply from his dozing pokemon. "Were we doing something today? I forget."

Vulpix purrs a short note but otherwise doesn't answer.

As Lee holds a tail in a gentle grip to brush, his mind starts to wander.

'How are things going to play out?' He wonders with a frown. 'Will things run as they did in the anime? The games? Maybe some mishmash of both? Have I already caused irreversible harm to the timeline just by being here? Should I even rely on meta-knowledge?' He moves to another tail and starts brushing idly. 'Maybe not. That's a convenient, but dangerous route to take. The instant something plays out in a way I don't expect, or we stumble on something I forgot, things could get hairy. Plus, all of that relies on us traveling with Ash and his friends, and considering all the insane shit that follows him around, our lifespans would probably be much longer on our own.' He thinks with a grimace. 'Oak said Ash would be here in about a week. It's been eight days so far and nothing. Should we just start off on our own?'

"What do you think, love?" Lee softly asks.

The narrow psychic channel between him and Vulpix widens just enough for her to convey a sense of patience and contentment. No actual words, not yet, but her meaning is clear.

Lee hums and scratches just at the base of her middle-most tail, making Vulpix wiggle in pleasure. 'The pointers from Medicham worked well, didn't they?'

The vixen replies with a sleepy, verbal, "Vulpiiiix." She then turns over in Lee's lap, presenting her belly for brushing.

Lee just smiles and readies the soft-bristled brush in his hand. 'To think I hesitated over this and would have outright said no a month ago. I don't know why more trainers don't use psychic communication... Or maybe they do? Hrm. More things to research and consider.' He starts brushing the soft belly before him when Vulpix's impatience begins to leak over the psychic channel. 'You make things too easy for me, love. I'm going to lose my edge if you keep spoiling me.'

Vulpix just chuffs and leans her head back, eyes closed.

The man and pokemon sit together in the shade, basking in each other's company and enjoying the cool breeze carrying the smell of grass and the tang of salty sea air. The pair ignore the sound of squealing tires out front, already knowing Birch's reckless driving habits. A door slams, then it's quiet again.

Then an explosion rocks the lab with the ring of shattering glass.

Sirens are screaming.

Ground rumbling.

Stench of ash.

Flash of light.

Storm of glass.

Burning.

Burning!

BURNING!

LUNGS BLISTER.

FLESH COOKS.

PAIN!

MAKE IT STOPSTOPSTOPSTOPSTOP!

I WANT TO DIE

Stabbing pain in his hand shocks Lee back into the real world. He barely has enough to register the pain before he falls to his hands and knees, his breakfast vomiting from his rolling stomach and onto the grass with a chunk-filled splatter. The man tries to blink the tears from his eyes and stand but falls to his side and coughs weakly. The lingering acid in his throat burns, forcing him to breathe in painful sputters. Bright stars dance in his watery eyes, and his ears ring with a terrible din, but when something warm, furry, and comforting presses itself to his chest, he hugs it tightly. The feeling of someone there with him, letting him feel, confirming that he's alive, fills Lee's eyes with a fresh wave of tears.

He's not sure how long he sits there, on his side, stewing in his relief and shuttering when the scars on his face pulse with phantom pain, but he blinks when something touches his mind.

'Wait. Vulpix?'

Lee wipes his eyes and filth-smeared mouth on his sleeve with a grimace and sits up, opening his mind to the psychic poke.

All his thoughts are drowned out by a frantic wave of terror and relief, not his own so intense that Lee almost jumps. He looks down to his lap to see his shaking vixen hugged to his middle. She looks up at him and Lee's heart drops.

Her chocolate eyes are wide and filled with tears, some of them escaping and running down her cheeks to be caught and absorbed by her fur. Her teeth are gritted in a canine parody of a grimace, and a wounded whine that stabs at his heart comes from her throat. She presses her head to his stomach and her whines grow in volume.

'I had to let her back in, so I shut her out before she felt or even saw too much, right?' Lee hopes to himself as he hugs Vulpix a little tighter and curls around her. He gulps and turns his thoughts outward to her. 'Vulpix? Love? Are you okay?'

Vulpix's looks hit him, her clenched jaw slackening as her disbelief bleeds over the psychic channel. She then lets out a shaky sigh and nods her head.

"You certain?" Lee continues verbally, stroking her gently across her back. "I didn't mean for you to see any of that. I'm sorry for putting you through that," he murmurs, bowing his head enough to rest on hers.

Exasperation leaks across the link, and Vulpix nods into his chest again.

"If you're certain..." he sighs, looking at the mark on his hand where Vulpix bit him. The skin is red but not broken, despite how her teeth could have easily sheared through flesh and bone. "Now, let's go see what the fuck just happened."

Man and fox untangle themselves and stand, with Lee needing to fight off a sudden bout of exhaustion. He stands for a moment, vertigo threatening to take hold, before he takes a deep breath and forces it down. The pair circle around the front of the lab just in time to see a young brunette girl in red pedal away down the lab trail on a bike.

'May Maple?'

"Hey, wait!" one of the lab aides, a green-haired man (Joshua, Lee dully remembers), calls after the girl.

"Sorry!" she calls over her shoulder. "I've never been good at waiting!"

Joshua slumps with a sigh as the girl disappears in the distance. Then he looks up and spies Lee and Vulpix. "Oh. Lee!"

"Joshua," Lee nods back. "What happened? And what was that explosion?"

The young aide sighs again and adjusts his glasses. "Professor Birch brought this young trainer, Ash, to the lab to treat his Pikachu, who was suffering from electric overcharge-"

'Wait. This is it. This is the start of Pokemon Advanced.' Lee's sluggish brain finally connects the dots. 'The explosion was Pikachu overloading that... that... whatever that very specific electric-draining machine was.'

"-achu then ran away in his confusion," Joshua finishes. "The girl you ran off after them was May Maple, Gym Leader Norman's daughter. We need to go after her!"

"By 'we,' you mean Vulpix and me, right?" Lee asks dryly, fingering one of the shoulder straps of his bag.

Joshua has the decency to blush and look away. "My pokemon aren't the battling type... But either way, if something happens to May on our watch, the whole lab could be in hot water. Since you're one of the lab's trainers, can you..?"

Lee looks down at Vulpix, who just rolls her eyes and nods.

"Alrighty, looks like we have to play hero," Lee grumbles. "Stay put, Josh. And tell Brendan not to come running after us, okay?"

"Got it," Joshua says with a nod. "Good luck."

Both Lee and Vulpix turn and take off down the forest trail May rode down.


Lee's feet pound heavily on the ground in sharp contrast to the feather line steps of the vixen beside him. The man huffs and tries to keep his breathing steady as he runs, but he can already feel an ache forming in his legs that will only be worse tomorrow. The feeling of lead in his limbs from his earlier... vivid memory only worsens the experience.

'At least the forest trail keeps us out of the sun,' He relays to Vulpix, pulling at the collar of his shirt with a finger. 'I can still feel sweat starting to soak my shirt, though. Eck. Why couldn't we have been dropped in Sinnoh and their more agreeable temperature?'

Vulpix looks up at him and gives him the mental equivalent of a shrug, her easy stride not faltering at all. A human's pace isn't much to her.

The trees begin to thin as the pair run, and the yowls and yips of angry canines and the fearful yelling of Birch becomes audible. Lee and Vulpix lock eyes for a moment before speeding up.

"Get a pokeball from my bag and chase off the Poochyena!" Birch's faint voice yells.

"In here?!" Returns the voice of a young girl.

The man and fox burst from the trail and skid to a stop right at a short, grassy cliff. Fifteen feet below, a trio of Poochyena bark and yap up a tree where Birch fearfully clutches a high branch. Just to their right, a panicking May digs in the brown field bag that Birch dropped before presumably falling down the cliff. May looks exactly as Lee expected. Her red attire, bandanna, distinctive hairstyle, and all.

'Let's hold back and see how this plays out. We'll step in if needed.' Lee thinks to Vulpix as he catches his breath.

"Vul..." Vulpix verbalizes her affirmative.

"Which one do I pick!?" May asks, looking between the three pokeballs in her hand with growing uncertainty.

"Anyone! All of them are fine! Just throw the ball and call an attack!" Birch yells back.

"U-uh, okay," May palms one of the balls with a frown, letting the other two drop back into the bag. "Go pokeball!"

The pokeball is thrown up before splitting open with the pop! only a pokeball can make, and in a flash of light, a Mudkip materializes in a flash of white light at May's side.

"Alright, a Mudkip!" Birch says with a cheer. "Now, call out one of his attacks!"

"Uhhh..." May draws a blank and looks around unsurely.

Birch sighs and shakes his head. "Just say Use Watergun."

"Okay. Use Watergun?" May orders, her tone still uncertain.

The young Mudkip either senses her nervousness or totally misinterprets the order because he opens his mouth, takes a breath, and douses May with a blast of water. The girl can only scream under the torrent of cold water.

Birch groans before finally taking notice of Lee and Vulpix with a relieved smile. "Lee! You're just in time! Some help, please?!"

Lee steps forward as Mudkip stops blasting a now shivering May. He glances over to May, who takes one look at his face and freezes. "Hey, stand back. Get into the sun, and you'll dry out faster." He then turns inward as he glances down at the trio of angry Poochyena still circling the tree. 'Ready, love?'

Vulpix looks up at him, her eyes glinting as she settles into a low ready stance.

Lee looks down, focusing intently on several spots just at the feet of the three angry Dark types, eagerness overpowering his tired mind. 'Ember!'

Vulpix leaps into the air, her mouth open, and with hardly any charge time, shoots a barrage of tiny fireballs down at the three Poochyena.

The pups perk their ears and turn just in time for the Embers to impact the ground at their feet, the exploding fireballs throwing all three onto their backs with frightened yelps.

Lee has to fight back a giddy grin.

A number of the Embers flew wide, but quite a few landed in the places he had Vulpix focus on, right at the feet of the Poochyena. He can strategize with Vulpix at the speed of thought.

Vulpix's mind pokes at his with an inquiry as she falls back down to the ground lightly.

'You bet your cute ass we're going to abuse the fuck out of this.'

The vixen chuffs, and Lee doesn't even need to feel her mind to know she's amused.

By now, the trio of frightened Poochyena have scrambled back to their paws and look up to Vulpix with equal parts fear and anger flashing in their red eyes. The middle Poochyena growls and looks at the pulverized ground where the Embers had detonated, his hackles slowly falling as he steps backward. Vulpix growls, and all three Poochyena turn tail and run, yelping and howling like hell was on their heels. The three trundle into the bushes and take off out of sight, leaving the forest silent sans the wind through the leaves.

Birch sighs of relief, but freezes when the branch he's on creaks before snapping, sending him to the ground with a painful "Oof!"

Lee winces and looks down the short drop-off. "You alright, Professor?"

"I'm fine, just some bruised pride..." The man mutters. "What a day to leave Medicham at the lab. Thank you for the save, Lee!"

"Thank Vulpix, she did all the legwork for me," Lee says lightly before turning to May. "And you must be May Maple, right?"

The girl shrinks on herself as Lee addresses her, poking her pointer fingers together and looking at the ground. "Y-Yeah. That's me."

"Lee is the name, and my lovely friend here is Vulpix," the scarred man introduces himself, then he dryly adds, "Try not to run towards danger next time, please? If something happened to you, then Norman would come down like a ton of bricks on the lab."

May flushes red and nods.

'It's hard to believe she becomes an expert coordinator and a pretty good battler. Eh. Humble origins and all that.'

Lee turns to Birch after letting Vulpix hop to his shoulder. "So, what are we doing-!" He's cut off when a massive bolt of lightning cleaves through the sky in the distance with the sky-rocking crackle, rousing countless bird pokemon from the trees with a medley of trills and cries.

Birch and May flinch at the sound. Vulpix folds her ears, but Lee blinks and feels cold sweat slowly break out on his brow.

'The hell was that? Did a Zapdos or something wander into Hoenn?'

Another surge of unearthly electricity shoots up into the sky and lights up the forest, this time with a rumble of ominous thunder that reverberates in Lee's tightening chest. 'That's not Ash's Pikachu, is it? The electricity was red, so...' Lee's eyes widen when he remembers the details of Pokemon Advance's start. 'The red lightning. That is Ash's Pikachu! And we're going towards that?!'

He looks back towards May and Birch, and the professor clears his throat to explain. "Anyway, Lee. I was out here trying to help Ash Ketchum find his Pikachu. The Pikachu in question is suffering from electrical overload and is feverish, so he ran off. One guess where Pikachu is..." Birch trails off, looking at yet another titanic bolt of red lighting that shakes the forest with its thunder.

Lee groans. "Great, let's wander right towards an angry and confused Pikachu. This can't end badly."

Birch falls in step beside Lee as he begins running with May trailing a little behind on her bike. "No need to be so pessimistic. I'm sure we can handle Pikachu."

Another bolt cracks the sky with a tooth rattling crackboom!

"You mean Vulpix will have to handle Pikachu," Lee huffs, flinching as the lightning only gets louder the closer they get. "If Medicham is at the lab and all you have are the three starters, then Vulpix will have to fight that little monster. I'm not keen on throwing my best friend into the grinder like that."

He can see Vulpix frown from the corner of his eye as she pokes his mind with a trickle of annoyance.

"Is this Pikachu really that strong?" May asks, worry coloring her tone.

"Didn't this Ash kid do pretty well in both Indigo and Silver, professor?" Lee asks like he doesn't already know.

Birch nods. "Ash did remarkably well in both despite his young age, and his Pikachu was a key player in both."

"So pretty strong, yeah," Lee says back to May. The girl gulps and falters slightly in her pedaling.

The men, girl, and pokemon get closer to the electrical blasts cutting through the quiet of the forest, each blast more unnerving and ear-battering than the last. In the previous hundred or so feet away, the electric charge in the air makes the whole group's skin tingle and makes Vulpix's carefully groomed fur stand on end, much to her chagrin. The most enormous lightning bolt yet makes Birch and Lee shield their eyes, Vulpix turn away, and May stifle a scream.

The four cut through a final copse of trees into a small cliff-side clearing just in time to see a young boy, Ash, struggle to his feet with gritted teeth, electricity still arcing between his shaking limbs before it finally disperses. "P-Pikachu..."

Pikachu stirs from his place on the ground with a delirious "P-Pika..." and stands on all fours, his red cheeks sparking. The electric rodent then sprints full tilt away, moving like the wind despite his impairment.

And because of said impairment, Pikachu takes no notice of the cliff he's hurtling towards.

Ash's eyes widen in abject terror. "Pikachu!" He cries, sprinting towards his pokemon.

'Shit! Vulpix!'

"Vul!"

The vixen leaps high into the air from Lee's shoulder, flames licking the edges of her mouth. She takes a deep breath and fires a stream of screaming Embers right in Pikachu's path, cutting him off.

Pikachu's ears twitch, and he stops almost a dozen feet short of the Ember's impact point, cheeks sparking ominously with red electricity. "Piiiikaaaa..." He opens one blurry eye and locks into Vulpix.

'Quick Attack down now!' Lee frantically orders.

"Chuuuuu!"

Vulpix glows white and shoots down toward the ground as little more than a blur. Even with the mental order being infinitely faster for Lee to issue and for Vupix to process than a verbal one, Vulpix dodges the Thunderbolt with only inches to spare.

'Jesus fuck, there was almost no charge time to that! And while much slower than actual lightning, Pikachu's electric attacks are still stupid fast.' Lee thinks, feeling a cold bead of sweat run down his face.

Vulpix lands on the ground roughly but on her paws, taking a defensive stance before Lee, Birch, and May as Pikachu keeps sparking with a bleary-eyed glare.

"Pikachu!"

Ash rushes between them and Pikachu before snagging up the yellow mouse and hugging him tightly. "Pikachu, it's okay! It's me! No one's gonna hurt you!"

Pikachu struggles and sparks the entire time before finally biting down on Ash's forearm.

"Ahhhh!" Ash cries out, gritting his teeth as Pikachu's teeth sink into his arm, drawing several thin lines of blood.

Lee looks to Birch, who looks terse, but is content to watch for now. May, meanwhile, just watches with her hand covering her mouth and her eyes open wide.

Slowly, Pikachu blinks, and clarity seems to return to him. He releases Ash's arm and then runs his tongue over his bloody teeth with growing alarm. When he looks down at Ash's bleeding arm, Pikachu squeaks out a sorrowful. "Pika pi!"

Ash just smiles like the pain isn't bothering him. "It's alright, Pikachu. I know you didn't mean it. I'm just glad you're feeling better."

Pikachu's face is still picture-perfect remorse. "Pika..." He says, licking Ash's wound to stem the slow trickle of blood.

As do Birch and May, Lee can't help but smile at the scene. 'Say, why do I feel like I'm forgetting something?'

Thud!

Vulpix hops back up to his shoulder and paws his cheek.

'Ah, them...'

"Prepare for... Prepare for... Oh, what's the point?"

Everyone turns and steps back in shock when a twenty-five-foot tall, red-painted robot that looks like a battery on its legs stomps into the small clearing. Standing on top of it are none other than Jesse, James, and Meowth of Team Rocket, all three already in a flamboyant pose.

'And I already hate all of them,' Lee scowls, feeling his brow twitch. The instant that James opens his mouth, Lee tunes them out and turns his attention to Vulpix. 'Love, be ready to jump into action. This should play out as I expect it, but if it doesn't...'

Vulpix purrs an affirmative.

Lee turns his attention back outwards just in time to see the trio of criminals hop down the hatch to the robot's interior. A speaker on the outside crackles, then Meowth's voice comes from it to explain the ridiculous robot. "Old Meowth has whipped up a good one this time! No matter how much Pika power yous output, our battery will take it all and juice our big bad bot up!"

"Who... are these guys?" Birch asks, looking totally lost.

"Team Rocket!" Ash growls, holding his glaring Pikachu close. "They're a bunch of thieves who keep trying to steal Pikachu."

"I think the things an organization like Rocket do is more terrorism than just common theft." Lee sneers.

"Hey, scarface!" Meowth calls from the grainy speaker, prompting Lee to scowl and Vulpix growl. "We ain't that bad! We just want Pikachu! Here we go!"

A porthole opens on the front of the bot, then a thin mechanical arm tipped with a grabbing claw shoots out and snatches the shocked Pikachu right from an equally shocked Ash. The main arms of the robot pivot around to point at the struggling Pikachu, and what looks like suction cups on thin metal rods extend from the arms to latch onto Pikachu's sparking cheeks.

The three laugh over the speaker. "Draining away!" James calls with the sound of a lever being pulled.

Pikachu lets out a strangled cry when the massive robot begins draining the red-tinged electricity from him, sending crackling arcs all over the clearing and making everyone shield their eyes from the light. Team Rocket can only laugh as a charge meter on the front of the robot rises near the top. "Once you're out of Pika power, catching you will be a cinch!" Jesse laughs haughtily.

The meter on the robot hits full just as the red electricity peters out, leaving Pikachu looking much more alert and less stressed than before. The yellow rodent blinks, then smiles evilly at the Rocketbot. "Piiiiikaaa..." He clenches his tiny fists and sparks with his usual yellow lightning. "Chuuuu!"

The robot lights up like a Christmas tree hooked to a powerplant, electricity arcing everywhere as smoke starts to pour out the cracks.

"The robot must have drained Pikachu of his overcharge!" Birch says over the crackling as he shields his head with his arms. "He's back to normal!"

"Cool shit! Now let's hope he doesn't fry us!" Lee yells, grabbing his squirming vixen and turning to shield her.

One stray bolt lances right towards the tree where May's bike is leaned up, crashing into the bike with a frightful ZAP! Despite how the rubber tires should have grounded the bike against electricity, the bike is reduced to a partially slagged heap of metal.

May lets out a wounded scream and holds her head as she looks at her wrecked bike. "My bike! My dad is going to kill me!"

Ash groans and facepalms. "Not this again..." he mutters, tipping his hat down and looking away.

Pikachu lets a last powerful cry rip from his throat and totally overloads the robot, electricity dancing off every inch and finally reaching the screaming trio of criminals inside.

Even if he's expecting it, Lee still grimaces and hugs the now unmoving Vulpix tight when the robot spasms with the hollow sound of capacitors bursting inside its chassis. The impending sound and battering pressure wave makes Lee's stomach roll, but Vulpix is quick to gently grasp his mind with her own as a pleasant distraction.

Just before the robot goes critical, Jesse, James, and Meowth scramble out of a hatch in the back, each shaking and grimacing from the electricity arcing off them. Each Rocket drop to the ground in a heap, sighing in relief as they escape their stupid machine.

Then with a tooth-ratting explosion, the ridiculous mech detonates with the nauseating smell of burning chemicals and batteries, covering the swath of forest and everyone inside in acrid smoke. Beside Lee, everyone else breaks out into coughing fits.

Lee clenches his eyes shut to keep the stinging smoke out. Even with his ears ringing from the explosion, he can hear the three criminals rise to their feet and make a break for it. The wind blows the smoke away, and when the smell no longer stings his nose, Lee cracks an eye open.

Team Rocket is gone.

Pikachu stands in a defiant stance until the sound of Team Rocket sprinting through the underbrush vanishes, then the little rodent sways on his feet with an ill "Piiikaaaa..." before falling to his stomach, eyes closed.

"Pikachu!" Ash cries, running forward and gently lifting his pokemon.


Back in the lab, after a long walk and a short talk with the local Officer Jenny about Rocket, Lee leans heavily against the exam room wall Birch dragged Ash and Pikachu into as he gives the little electric mouse a short physical. Vulpix sits at Lee's feet with her eyes closed, seemingly dozing, but her twitching ears tell a different story.

"I'm no Nurse Joy, but I'd say that's a clean bill of health!"

Birch gives the sleeping Pikachu on the table a final look over with a smile of his own. "All the overcharge is good and gone. Pikachu should be right as rain tomorrow. I guess those crooks were good for something after all."

"For once," Ash adds on glibly. "Thanks for everything, professor!"

Birch waves away the thanks. "It's not a problem at all, Ash. I'm glad to help. It's what a pokemon professor is for."

Ash smiles at the man as Pikachu slowly blinks his eyes open before going back to sleep. The young trainer then turns to Lee. "Lee, right?" He asks, holding out his hand for a shake. "I'm Ash Ketchum from Pallet. Thanks for having your Vulpix head off, Pikachu. If he fell off that cliff, I have no idea what I would have done," the boy says with a shiver at the memory.

Lee steps off the wall to take Ash's hand and give it a shake. "Lee Henson, and it's not a problem," Lee says absently. 'If someone told me a month ago I'd take a nuke to the face then be shaking hands with Ash Ketchum, I would have called the nuthouse.'

"Yaahh!"

Everyone in the room turns sharply to the door, just in time to see May enter and fumble with a vase by the doorway that she almost knocks over. She catches the vase in the nick of time and puts it back. "Uhhh..." she starts with a sheepish smile. "Sorry about that. I don't think I ever introduced myself. My name is May Maple."

Ash smiles at her. "I'm Ash Ketchum."

May glances up at Lee for a scant moment before looking away and nervously swaying in place. It takes him a second to realize she wants his name as well. "Lee Henson. It's a pleasure, May."

The girl brightens up before turning to Pikachu, her smiling falling some. "Will Pikachu be okay?"

"Should be fine in the morning, according to the Professor," Ash says with a nod. "Nothing can keep Pikachu down for long."

"Pikachu certainly seems like the resilient sort," Birch quips with a smile. He then turns to May. "Sorry for all the delays, May. Are you ready to pick your first pokemon?"

Ash turns to the professor and May, a sudden gleam in his eye. "First pokemon?"

Upon returning, Birch walks over to the coat rack where he hung up his bag and pulls out three shiny, new pokeballs. He palms one while the other two stay shrunken in his other hand. "Okay, first up..."

With a pop and flash of light, a Treecko takes form in the center of the room. The little lizard opens his yellow eyes and crosses his arms, taking in everyone coolly. "Treecko?"

"Oh wow!" Ash says with a grin. He bends down to Treecko's level, and the pokemon looks him over with a raised brow. "What type is he?"

"Grass," Lee chimes in, finally fighting his exhaustion and stepping up to the group with Vulpix on his heels. He stands next to Ash and observes Treecko, who does the same to Lee in return. The Grass lizard's small scales are all uniform and shiny, like he just underwent a molt. His yellow eyes are clear and alert. Lee tries to recall other indicators of reptile health but gives up. "The Treecko line is mono Grass all through its evolutionary chain," Lee says, rubbing his burns when he sees Treecko's eyes linger on them.

Treecko finally turns his attention to May with an aloof upturn of his lips. The girl shivers and steps back. "He's kinda creepy..."

Treecko's shoulders slump just the slightest amount.

"He's not creepy. I think he's really cool!" Ash chimes in, restoring Treecko's bruised pride.

Birch rubs his chin. "If not Treecko, then how about Mudkip?"

In another burst of light, the young mudfish from earlier appears at May's feet with a blink of his beady eyes. He looks up to May and grumbles deep in his throat.

"This is the same one who wouldn't listen from earlier..." May grumbles right back.

Mudkip looks up at the girl with narrow, irritated eyes, seemingly debating with himself. Then without warning, he unleashes a short Water Gun right at May again, making the girl squeal as the cold water batters her. Both Birch and Ash cringe and step back so as to not be hit with stray drops.

Lee shakes his head. 'The little guy obviously doesn't like the disrespect. I know May becomes a great trainer later, but is this really how she starts?' He pauses. 'Ash got electrocuted by Pikachu more times than I can recall when he started, and he becomes world-class. Maybe I'm being too harsh.'

May shakes the water from her clothing as best she can with a sigh. "Not that one either..."

Picking up the final pokeball, Birch eyes May with no small amount of concern. "Okay, this is the last one. If there are no takers here, then you have to wait until the next batch, May."

May just screws her eyes shut and crosses her fingers.

The pokeball in Birch's hand snaps open and white energy surges out, coalescing into a tiny, orange chick next to Mudkip.

"This is Torchic, a fire type," Birch explains as the now named Torchic looks up at May and steps closer with the quiet tip-tap of talons on the linoleum floor. Torchic and May only hold their shared look for a moment before Torchic fluffs himself up and rubs against May's legs with a content "Torchic!"

For the first time, May's face slowly lights up. "Oh wow..." She reaches down to pet the little chick on his soft, downy head, and Torchic gladly leans into her touch. "I think I know which one I want," she says, a growing smile on her face.

Treecko turns his nose up slightly, and Mudkip sighs in relief before both are returned to their balls.

Birch replaces both pokeballs into his lab bag and wipes the sweat from his forehead. He then turns to May with a smile and hands her Torchic's ball. The girl takes the ball and looks up to the professor. "Alrighty, May. Come with me to my office. We have a few final things to fill out then I can give you your Pokedex. Lee, Ash," The man turns to the pair of trainers. "Feel free to rest up. Today has been eventful."

"Will do, Professor. Thank you!" Ash says with a grin. Lee just sighs and nods, trying hard to fight off the weariness of the day.

'And to think it's hardly even the afternoon yet,' Lee mentally grumbles to Vulpix, who presses herself to his legs.

Birch leaves the room with the still starstruck May and Torchic in tow.

Lee stumbles over to a chair by the corner of the exam room and sits heavily on it, his limbs feeling like lead. He leans his head back, just barely noticing Vulpix hopping into his lap.

'Yeah, a nap sounds nice.'

He lays a hand across Vulpix's back, and a moment later, sleep takes him.


"Hey, Lee. Lee!"

Lee cracks a bleary eye open with a growl. In his lap, Vulpix stirs. He deftly catches the hand, reaching for his face. "What do you want, Brendan?"

Brendan snatches his hand back and crosses his arms. "You've been conked out for like four hours. Dad ordered some takeout for everyone, so you better come get some before that Ash kid eats it all," he grumbles.

Lee debates just going back to sleep, not feeling particularly hungry, but a mental poke from Vulpix tells him she's not of the same opinion.

He sighs and begins to stand as the now awake vixen in his lap hops down to the floor. "Sure, thanks, Brendan." He says, taking stock of the room. Pikachu is gone from the exam table where he was rested, so he must be with Ash. Everything else is unchanged.

The boy brightens up instantly. "No problem. Also, why didn't you call me when that whole thing with the terrorists earlier went down? I could have helped!"

Lee shakes his head and follows after Brendan. "You're twelve, kiddo. You shouldn't even know what terrorism is, so there was no way in hell I was letting you get involved." Then as an afterthought, he adds, "I shouldn't have gotten involved either. Nor should have Ash, May, or the professor. That was stupid of all of us. We should have called the police and let them deal with it, as is their job."

Brendan stops mid-step and looks back to Lee, his face screwed up in disbelief like Lee had just sprouted a 2nd head. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about how trying to do the work of law enforcement is asking for trouble," Lee says with a raised eyebrow, stopping with Brendan. "Are you of another opinion?"

"Yeah..?" Brendan says slowly, an unspoken 'duh' punctuating his answer. "Lab-sponsored trainers are League first responders when the cops aren't around. Same with gym leaders, elite trainers, other League officials, the Champ, and all that. You know?"

'What?'

Brendan nods, and Lee curses inwardly when he realizes he spoke aloud again. "Yeah. Did you not go through the League guidelines and all that?"

"I'm... still slogging through it..." Lee admits with a frown. 'Love, remind me to finish that stupid book ASAP,' he sends to Vulpix, getting an affirmative feeling and nod from the little fox. "So we're obligated to run toward emergencies?"

Brendan starts walking to the lab's main room again, with Lee and Vulpix following closely. The closer they get, the more they can hear the muted chatter of people. "We're not obligated, but... You know? You have to, but no one is going to force you?"

Lee rubs his forehead with an open hand, feeling yet another headache coming on. "Fun..."

'I really need to finish that fucking book. I'm not in over my head, am I?'
 
Act 1: Chapter 5
Disclaimer: I don't own Pokemon. Any similarities between real people, living or dead, or places, standing or demolished, in this story are just coincidence.
I am an animal lover, but not exactly an expert. Some biology and behavior referenced in the story may not be 100% accurate, or might even be outright pseudoscience.


------------------------------
Lee leans against the cold, sterile white wall and numbly watches a team of the zoo's finest veterinarians operate frantically on a small, bloodied form. Under the deep trains of red, one could make out bits of fur the same color as sun-bleached savannah dust.

Despite all the efforts and desperate measures the veterinarians try, the rise and fall of the tiny lion's chest slows just a little more with each passing second.

Lee looks down at his hands, his stomach churning at the sight of the red smudges still dotting his palms. The longer he looks, the more his nose stings with the sharp scent of copper. He barely even notices someone taking his shoulder and leading him out of the operating room.

"I hate to say it, but it looks like Miss Zanta is going to reject Zuberi and Sefu... and poor Sefu is going to need more help then her mama can provide anyway."

Lee blinks and looks around, taking in the empty breakroom of the zoo from his spot seated in a corner. At his side, waiting patiently and quietly for a reply is Aasir.

The Kenyan-born man takes the initiative again. "Lee, my friend. Talk to me. It's okay to be shaken," he says, laying a large hand on Lee's shoulder. "You are confused and scared. Your face says it all. It's not everyday dat somethin' like dis happens."

Lee looks up to his mentor briefly, then back down to his stained hand still folded in his lap.

It happened so fast. Zanta, the eldest daughter of Makiri's second litter, had just given birth a few days prior. Her litter was small, just three female cubs named Sefu, Zuberi, and Mumtaz. Of the three, none were sickly or otherwise had any redflags that might trigger Zanta. Zanta had shown no warning signs at all. She nursed, groomed, and watched over all three cubs.

Then she went berserk and attacked Mumtaz, her intent to kill practically tangible.

Lee was so stunned at first, then the agonized screeches and terrified screams of the zoo-goers snapped him out of it in an instant. He ran to the staff room behind the exhibit and almost ripped the tranq gun's case off the wall in his adrenaline-fueled haste. He ran back to the exhibit and with shaking hands, took aim at Zanta and fired.

The lioness yowled when the dart stuck her flank and she jumped, but by then, she had already moved to little Sefu. Mumtaz...

"Lee!"

Lee sucks in a violent breath and looks up at Aasir, his bloody hands forgotten for a moment.

Aasir tightens the hand on Lee's shoulder just a bit. "My friend, do not dwell on dis," Aasir says gently. "You did everythin' right. Sometimes... Sometimes things just don't work out."

"But-!"

"But nothin'!" The Kenyan man interrupts. He sighs and runs a hand over his bald head. "Lee," he starts, voice quiet, "one of the hardest lessons anyone who works with animals has gotta learn is that we can't always predict things like dis. They don't think like you and I. What dey might see as common sense is alien to us. We can only try to bridge the gap and understand."

"To understand, huh?" Lee murmurs.

"Indeed," Aasir says with a small smile. "This is a dark day for de Zoo, but we're gonna look past dat. Those cubs, dey gonna need all the help dey can get. It's the perfect opportunity to learn and understand. We're gonna look at the silver lining. You still want to be with de lion exhibit?"

Lee closes one hand, feeling the phantom sensation of blood-slicked fur under his fingers. He needs to be strong. Sefu and Zuberi need him. The visage of the innocent cubs flash before his eyes. "Yes. Yes, of course, I'll stay."

Just as he rises to go... somewhere. Just anywhere else, a sudden horrid light shines in from the window.

Sirens howl a terrible song.

Animals yowl in terrible agony.

Everything BURNS

-------------------------------------
With a sudden gasp, Lee jolts awake, just barely restraining himself from shooting up and throwing Vulpix off his chest. He bites his lip and slowly brings a hand up to cover his painfully throbbing scars. He stares at the plain ceiling in the dark bedroom until the stinging and burning scars calm to a dull ache. Miraculously, Vulpix remains asleep on his covered chest.

'2nd time this month...'

The man lets out a quiet sigh and turns his head to the nightstand, where the alarm clock reads back '5:13 AM' in its baleful red numbers.

It's no use sitting and thinking about them, the cubs he raised by hand.

They're gone.

Lee sighs once more and shifts to try and return to sleep, only to find his pillow unpleasantly damp and sweaty. 'Fuck it. I'm not getting back to sleep after that dream anyway.'

"Psst. Vulpix," Lee whispers, making the vixen's ear twitch. "Hey, honey, rise and shine. Time to get up. Hoenn isn't going to conquer itself."

Vulpix grumbles lowly and raises her head, cracking open an unamused eye to glare at her trainer with. The other eye opens shortly after as Vulpix rises to her paws, still on Lee's chest. She does a full-body stretch complete with a jaw-cracking yawn before hopping to the floor.

Lee sits up and peels the damp blanket off of himself with a grimace, noting that his sleeping attire is sweat-soaked as well. "Gross..." He murmurs, standing and walking to the small bathroom off his room. Several minutes later after a short shower in the cramped bathroom, Lee steps back out in fresh underclothes and dons his attire for the day. Vulpix watches demurely from the bedroom door.

The day he leaves the lab and actually begins a childhood dream once thought impossible. The man suppresses a shiver of nervous energy and takes a shuddering breath. He looks down to the Sliph bag at the foot of the bed, going over a mental checklist of things inside.

'Tent, sleeping bag, clothes, food for myself and 'Pix, water, cookware, meds, Potion, pokeballs, books, ax, lighter, power bank. I know I'm missing something, but for the life of me, I can't remember...' Lee scratches his head and hums under his breath before looking to Vulpix. 'Anything I'm forgetting, love?'

Vulpix says nothing either psychic or verbal but blinks and looks at the nightstand.

'Ah, right.'

Lee steps over and grabs the folding beater cellphone on the stand. He takes a long look at the little hunk of plastic and glass, then to his Sliph bag with a shake of his head. "We live in a world where casual spatial distortion tech and flip-phones exist in the same era. What the fuck, man."

He flips the phone open and begins dialing...

------------------------------------------------
"Hey, Lee!"

The scarred man and the fox at his heels stop midway back to the lab guest room. With an exhausted sigh, the man turns to face the voice.

Behind him, a resolute Brendan stands with crossed arms.

"Something I can do for you, Brendan?" Lee mutters, leaning against the hallway wall. "I kinda want to get to sleep."

The boy nods. "You turned down Ash's offer to travel with him and May. Why's that?" He asks.

Lee scoffs, recalling Ash's offer over dinner just fifteen minutes prior. "Trust me on this, that kid is a trouble magnet. He's got a target painted on his back that actual terrorists are gunning for. He's a nice guy, but I'm not sticking my neck, and by extension Vulpix's neck out for a stranger. Plus, doesn't a grown-ass man traveling with a pair of kids, one a little girl, seem kinda creepy?"

Brendan mulls it over for a second. "Well, when you put it that way I get it. If you don't wanna go with them, then how about me?" He asks with a grin growing on his face.

The man across from him blinks. "Excuse me?"

"Yeah, come on! It'll be fun!" Brendan insists. "Traveling alone sucks!"

Lee and Vulpix both slowly turn their heads to meet eyes.

"Traveling without someone else to talk to about human stuff I mean!" Brendan quickly amends with a wave of his arm. "And no, you're a friend of the Birch family and a Hoenn sponsored trainer like me, so it's not weird if we hang out. Yes, I've already asked dad and he's cool with it."

Lee lets his argument die and escape his mouth as a tired hiss.

"Plus..."

Brendan folds his arms behind his head in a forced show of aloofness, but his averted eyes give him away. "Plus I feel like I learn a lot from you, you know? Kinda like a cool teacher. Mudkip's growth is nothing short of explosive, and it's all with your help. I wanna learn to train as you do..."

The elder of the two turns away with pursed lips, trying not to let out an irritated snip. He looks back briefly to the boy, taking in his slowly falling face with a grimace. Finally, Lee sighs and caves. "Tell you what. Let me sleep on it and I'll call you in the morning. I plan on leaving then."

Brendan's grin lights up the whole hallway.

------------------------------------
"It's like five in the morning, what do you want..?" Brendan's sleepy voice comes through the tinny cell phone speaker.

"Get up and gather your shit," Lee says, not bothering to hide the smirk in his voice. "We're leaving ASAP. I wanna put feet to dirt and get to a decent place to train before the heat of the day sets in and makes everyone miserable."

The other line is silent for a moment as Lee's words sink in, then the sound of someone frantically jumping out of bed comes over the phone. "W-We'll be at the lab soon!"

Click!

Lee closes the phone with a quiet snap and pockets it. "Easy enough, eh love?" He asks Vulpix, who just chuffs and hops up to her favorite shoulder perch as Lee dons his Sliph bag and walks past.

The pair slowly walk to the front of the lab, going over the building that had been their home for over a month. The once alien building is now as familiar as the back of a hand (or paw) for both trainer and pokemon. Leaving almost felt strange. Lee stops by Birch's office and leaves his key on the Professor's desk, confident he will need it no longer.

Man and Mon step outside the lab and close the door, already hearing the squealing of jeep tires in the distance.

"This is it, love," Lee murmurs to Vulpix, who perks her ears. "This is the first real step. The journey of a very literal thousand miles begins here. Are we ready?"

The little fox says nothing but presses her cheek to her trainer's.

Lee smiles gently.

Down the road, Birch's jeep takes form in the early morning gloom with a dust cloud behind it. The jeep's brakes squeal in protest when Birch suddenly lays into them with a lead foot, making the jeep skid to a halt before Lee and Vulpix.

A woosy Brendan steps out of the passenger side, looking decidedly green. "U-Ugh... Dad, speed limits are a thing you know."

The elder Birch steps out of the vehicle looking none the worse for wear. "I know." the professor begins cheerily. "But it's only illegal if we get caught. Don't look at me like that, this is an exciting day! It's not every day a dad can see his son off on his journey."

Brendan sighs and pulls his backpack from the jeep before shouldering it in one motion. "Yeah, I guess..."

Lee looks at the jeep, noticing no other occupants. "Just you two?"

The younger of the two nods. "Yeah, Ash and May didn't want to get up so I guess they're starting later today."

Birch looks at his son with an almost misty smile. "So I guess this is goodbye for a while, kiddo. I know you'll do me proud, so don't be afraid to stop and have fun. You'll grow more over this journey than you did your entire twelve years here in Littleroot, so call me and your mom often so we don't have heart attacks when you suddenly come back as a man."

The younger Birch looks away, blushing a little in embarrassment, but he can't stop his lips from twitching upward. "Jeez Dad..."

The professor wraps his son in a hug, and the boy hugs his father tightly.

Lee smiles at the scene, even if it pokes his heart with a tiny spike of sharp envy. 'I hope mom and dad are doing okay...'

The father and son release each other, both grinning wide. Birch then turns to Lee. "Lee, I doubt I need to say much to you, other than remember the little guys like me when you're at the top of the world, alright?"

The scarred man barks out a short laugh. "I hope you don't really mean that, Professor. Without you, Vulpix and I would have been sunk. You've done so much for us that I'm not sure how to even begin repaying you."

"The grant increases from your tourney wins are a good start," Birch replies with a chuckle. "But what I really want are those recording logs of yours. No matter how mundane your point of view may seem to you, it could be game-changing for us. Your discovery of Vulpix's pyrokinesis just from a g- er, a legend is nothing short of incredible."

The vixen on Lee's shoulder preens under the indirect praise.

Lee rubs the back of his head. "I guess..."

"And," Birch continues, his smile falling some as his voice lowers. "It's not my place to tell you how to manage your secrets, but I'd be careful about who you reveal your past to. Not everyone is so... open-minded."

"That one I knew."

"I know, just making sure for my peace of mind," Birch says, reaching out a hand that Lee firmly grasps. "Good luck on your journey friend. Try not to do anything reality-breaking without warning me first."

Birch lets his hand go, and Lee glances down at the little card that Birch discreetly left in his palm.

1800-2134-9891
Post Traumatic Stress Specialists of Hoenn.
100% Confidential. All insurance types accepted.


Just under that is Birch's chicken-scratch scrawl.

Vulpix has been tight-lipped with Medicham but I heard you during an all-nighter a week ago. Don't purposely hurt yourself or go without. -Nigel.

Lee sucks in a sharp breath and snaps his eyes to Birch, but the professor either ignores the look or doesn't notice as he turns to address Brendan as well. "Alrighty, boys! The road awaits. Try not to get in trouble and have fun!"

"Awesome!" Brendan yells, practically vibrating with excitement. "C'mon Lee! We're burning daylight!"

Lee stares are the card in his hand even as his feet move to follow.

'How the fuck does he expect me to use this? I can't just tell a stranger that I got nuked and boohoo it makes me sad. One way ticket to the nuthouse. This is something I have to face on my own.'

Despite how he intended the thought to be private, having Vulpix's head inches away from his own makes Lee's thoughts as clear as spoken words over the thin telepathic band between them. Vulpix presses her cold nose to his cheek and huffs before he even finishes.

He absently reaches up to pet her. 'Maybe not on my own, but still.'

"What's that?"

Lee stiffens and stuffs the card in his pocket with speed borne of embarrassment. He turns to glare lightly at Brendan, who only blinks in return.

"Nothing important..." Lee says, looking away.

Brendan hums under his breath."You were staring at that card so hard I thought it was going to go up in flame. We've been walking for like ten minutes."

"In-joke, don't worry."

-------------------------------------------
"Here should be good."

"Ughhhhh..." the sweat-soaked Brendan groans. "Sweet, sweet shade. I promise to never take you for granted again."

Lee blows out a breath and pulls at his own damp shirt collar. "Yeah, no joke."

The pair had been walking for almost six hours. The early morning chill was merciful, making the first several hours leading to and slightly after the sunrise little more than a pleasant stroll to the north. After the sun rose, however, Hoenn began to show it's tropical climate as the heat rose without a sea-side breeze to cool anyone unfortunate enough to venture out into the sun. Lee even had to put Vulpix in her ball because having her on his shoulders made for a nausea-inducing amount of heat, even with her using Drought to try and redirect the sun rays.

And in a horrid bout of luck for Lee and Brendan, the road north of Littleroot to Oldale is nothing but flat grasslands, and today is nothing short of scorching. Not even pokemon were out and about.

That's why a copse of large trees off the side of the road made both trainers beeline for the soothing shade they offered.

Brendan drops his backpack and collapses on his back in the cool grass below one of the trees. "Ahhhhh yeah, that's the stuff," he groans in delight.

Lee is a little more graceful, but still more or less flops down as he digs in his bag and pulls a plastic water bottle from it, still as blessedly cold as when he pulled it from the lab fridge this morning.

"Silph tech my ass," Lee huffs as he unscrews the bottle and downs the entire thing in three huge, refreshing gulps. "Huh. More like Silph magic," he says, wiping his mouth.

"I know, right?" Brendan laughs and opens his own bag, digging for his own water. His other hand travels to his belt and snags Mudkip's pokeball. "I think it's time for lunch. C'mon out!"

Mudkip's ball flies into the air and snaps open, dumping a pokemon-shaped mass of energy on the ground that slowly turns into Mudkip. "Mud?"

Lee follows suit, tossing his sole pokeball up and letting open with a snap-hiss. Vulpix lands gracefully before she's even fully materialized. "Vul."

The older trainer opens his bag and fishes out the bag of self-made pokemon food he had prepared the night prior, making Vulpix's tails wag. "Alrighty girl, lunch first, then some light training?"

Mudkip turns to Lee and Vulpix, his little eyes shining with an almost malicious light, only for Brendan's hand on his head to snap him out of it.

"Light training pal," Brendan says with a sheepish laugh. "If you and Vulpix burn down or knock over the trees, then we're outta luck."

Poor Mudkip slumps and Vulpix rolls her eyes.

Both trainers set out food and water for their pokemon, who dig into their meals with gusto. Brendan produces a simple sandwich from his bag and wolfs it down, totally ignoring Lee's warning to slow down before he gets sick.

Lee stares into the darkened maw of his Sliph bag, debating with himself internally. 'It's too hot to cook an actual lunch. Something light will do fine.'

So a few mouthfuls of granola became lunch, and Lee steadfastly ignores his younger companion moaning as a stomach ache hits him.

As he rests, Lee watches both Vulpix and Mudkip finish up their meals, mulling over what he's watching. 'The games never had any systems for personal care like food, hygiene and one-on-one time in place for the pokemon, and it certainly would not have been cost-prohibitive even such systems were in place. One isn't much to care for, but six or more could add up to more time and money than I have,' Lee thinks with a sigh. 'I guess my plans for a Snorlax are shot. Damn.'

Vulpix's face scrunches up as she chews her last bite of lunch. Her distaste plain for such an... Unsightly? Unattractive? Slobbish pokemon? The feeling of what she wishes to convey is in the telepathic message she sends, but she can't tie the feeling to a human word.

'I know what you mean, love,' Lee sends back and he reclines back into the grass. 'But give credit where credit is due. Snorlax is a powerful pokemon and would be on everyone's team if they didn't have such unearthly upkeep.'

Vulpix's side of the telepathic link is silent before she concedes the point with a flicker of agreement and only a slight undertone of lingering disdain.

'Anyway, future team composition aside, let's start when you're ready, yeah?' Lee sends to her, making Vulpix perk up. Lee reaches into his bag and withdraws a stack of post-it notes. Vulpix draws closer and seats herself on her haunches as Lee pulls one note free and holds it up.

'Now, corner.'

The top right corner, the same one Lee is focusing on, smolders and spontaneously combusts with a crackle after only several seconds of Vulpix's intense stare..

Lee lets the note drop and burn to ash before pulling another one. 'Now, center.'

Like the note before it, the one in Lee's fingers bursts into flame from the center

Man and fox train in silence for some time, only vaguely paying attention to Brendan's shouts and the sound of Mudkip firing off attacks.

"Uwah! Look!"

Both Lee and Vulpix look up at Brendan's shout.

Standing before Brendan and Mudkip is a large Shroomish. The little mushroom pokemon has it's beady eyes locked with the savagely smiling Mudkip, who shifts his weight back and forth in anticipation.

"What's a Shroomish doing so far from the Petalburg woods?" Brendan wonders aloud, voicing the question on Lee's tongue. "The little guy should have dried out in this heat."

Lee stands and pulls his Pokedex from his jacket pocket, pointing it at the Shroomish.

"Shroomish: The Mushroom Pokemon," the Pokedex begins in its dull, computerized voice. "This mild-mannered pokemon inhabits thick forests and consumes dead plant matter. It grows well in dark, moist environments."

"It's neither dark nor moist out here," Lee says with a frown, watching the Shroomish begin a slow walk towards Mudkip. "What's up with this little guy?"

Vulpix noses her trainer's leg and flares her telepathic connection to him, sending an image to Lee's. An image Shroomish's little eyes darting to Brendan's bag and the empty food bowls before returning to Mudkip flies through his mind.

"He's hungry?" Lee wonders, getting a nod from Vulpix.

Shroomish grimaces and turns his walk into a run, flying at Mudkip in a textbook Tackle.

Mudkip tenses just in time for Brendan to yell; "Mudkip! Dodge!"

The mudfish braces his muscular legs against the ground and leaps out of Shroomish's way, leaving the little mushroom to stumble to a stop. Then without even needing a command, Mudkip flies back at Shroomish with his own, much faster Tackle.

Shroomish's eyes widen and he tries to move his stubby legs in time, but Mudkip crashes into him like a blue missile with a painful sounding thwack, throwing Shroomish back so hard that he bounces several times before rolling to a stop.

"Nice work Mudkip!" Brendan says with a fist pump, then stops when Shroomish slowly rolls back to his feet with great difficulty. Just one attack left a giant bruise on the little mushroom's front and makes him pant in pain.

"Half-starved and still has the energy to get up after a direct hit huh?" Lee mutters to Vulpix who winces in sympathy. She knows full well how hard Mudkip hits. "Tough, isn't he?"

Shroomish grimaces and runs forward again, albeit much slower, then he stops short and shakes a cloud of yellow pollen from his body with a grunt.

'No, not pollen. Stun Spore!' Lee realizes. "Brendan!"

"On it!" Brendan yells back. "Mudkip! Mist down the Stun Spore!"

Mudkip takes a breath and shoots a Watergun from his maw at the rapidly approaching cloud of yellow, then he partially closes his mouth so the stream deflects off his lips, making a thick wall of mist like a pinched hose.

The Stun Spore runs into the cloud of water droplets and is stopped cold, the spores instantly soaked before falling to the ground.

Mudkip never saw Shroomish charge through the mist in a desperate Tackle.

Mudkip lets out a surprised cry when Shroomish slams his skull directly into his own, sending the mudfish back into his ass and seeing stars. Shroomish almost immediately shakes another cloud of yellow Stun Spore from his little body, practically on top of Mudkip.

"Oh man! Mudkip! Get out of there quick!" Brendan yells out in panic.

Thankfully, Mudkip isn't so concussed that he can't hear his trainer and rolls out of the way in a hurry, coming to a stop several feet away just as the cloud of Stun Spore settles where he was.

Shroomish growls in frustration, but it's immediately drowned out when Mudkip fires a retaliatory Water Gun out of pure instinct. Shroomish is so close that he has no time to dodge, so the torrent of water crashes into him in a violent surge. The water technique doesn't do much damage against the grass type Shroomish, but it's enough to throw the already battered pokémon end over end with a short cry. He comes to a stop on the ground, unmoving sans his shallow breathing.

Both Brendan and Mudkip blink. "Did... Did we win?" Brendan questions quietly, then an enormous smile breaks out on his face. "We won!" He cheers, Mudkip leaping for joy right beside his trainer.

Lee looks down to Vulpix with a small smile. "They did pretty well, eh?" Then he turns back to Brendan as the young boy rummages his through his pockets for something. Then Lee blinks as a thought strikes him. "That hungry Shroomish never intended to win, did he?"

Vulpix just shakes her head.

"All right! Here we go!" Brendan yells in excitement, pulling a pokeball from his pocket. "First catch! Go pokeball!"

The little red and white ball flies from his hand straight and true, bouncing off the unconscious Shroomosh before popping open and sucking him inside as a wave of red light. The ball falls to the ground and begins to shake, it's central button flashing red.

Both Brendon and Lee watch it with bated breath.

A nerve-racking ten seconds later, and the ball falls still with a quiet 'ping!'

Brendan can't contain his excitement. He throws his head back and laughs up to the sky, raising his shaking, adrenaline-filled arms. All the while, Mudkip beams with pride, up until Brendan snags him up in a hug. "We did it! We caught Shroomish!"

Lee can't help but find Brendon's smile infectious and looks down at Vulpix, who smiles faintly back.

'It's one thing to see it on a TV or a computer screen, but an actual catching is pretty incredible.' Lee thinks to himself. Then he clears his throat. "Hey, Brendan! I hate to rain on your parade, but your newest team member was looking pretty hungry and is no doubt tired now," the man starts, stopping Brendan and Mudkip's little victory dance. "I'm sure it'll make a good impression if you fed him and offered a spritz of Potion."

Brendan is quick to grab the now still pokeball and rush back under the shade with Mudkip at his heels. "Good thinking! He did seem a little scrawny..." He says, rolling the pokeball between his fingers as he settles next to Lee. "Say, how much further until we get to Oldale Town?"

"Hrm", Lee rubs his chin and looks up at the sun through the cool cover of leaves, estimating the time to be around 1 PM. "If we really make tracks, we could probably be there by the end of tomorrow. That means marching through the heat without any rest, however, and I don't know about you, but fuck that."

The young Birch tries to stifle a laugh at his companion's profanity. "Two days, then?"

"Two days," Lee confirms with a nod. "Fuck Hoenn and this tropical heat. After the Ever Grande conference, I'm going to Sinnoh and staying there," he says, falling back into the soft grass.

Brendan just rolls his eyes as he digs through his bag, producing a spray bottle of Potion. "Wahhh, it's hot. I'm going to Sinnoh," Brendan mocks with a smirk, lowering his voice a few octaves to try and mimic Lee. "Then I'll complain about the cold and say I'm going to Hoenn next year."

Vulpix left out a few vulpine yips that sounds similar to someone trying to cough and laugh at once while Mudkip openly chortles.

"Har har, you're a regular comedian," Lee snorts. "Sounds like someone has rested up enough to keep going. Patch up your new friend and let's get going."

-------------------------------------------
Lee watches the simmering pan of meat and veggies carefully, occasionally moving it to keep it over the hotspot over the campfire and to keep the heat away from his sensitive scars. Inwardly, He curses and remembers what he forgot when the team set out from the lab. 'A flashlight. Campfire or not, it's so dark that I can't see shit.'

After traveling for several more hours and again finding few pokémon due to the sheer heat of the day, the duo came to a clearing off the road that made for a perfect campground for the night. The sun had just begun to set when they stopped, and now the entire surrounding area is covered by the gloomy dark With the silence broken by the minute noise of bug pokemon in the distance.

About twenty feet away, Brendan and Mudkip busy themselves with setting up the tent, both overcoming the exhaustion of a full day's walk with the childish enthusiasm that they throw into their work. Brendan had the foresight to bring a lamp, so their work is much more fruitful than Lee's.

Right next to Lee, Vulpix and Shroomish, the newest member of the little group, watch the elder human cook. The first watches with the same cool disinterest that she regards most things and the second watches the pan and the food inside more than he does the human.

'The little guy must be absolutely starved,' Lee sends to Vulpix. 'He utterly scarfed that bland pre-mix food without a single complaint. Why was he so far from the woods, in flat grasslands of all places?'

Vulpix just looks up at him and gives him the mental equivalent of a shrug. A pair of images fly through Lee's mind. One of an oblivious Shroomish wandering until the forest around him vanished, and another of a broken pokeball.

'Got lost or abandoned, eh?' Lee sends back, glancing down at the still focused Shroomish. The little mushroom's skin is dry and taut across his form, and he seems several inches shorter than the 1'4" average that the Pokedex lists. Then he looks back to Brendan, who admires the now complete tent before a light breeze knocks it over. "Oh come on!" Brendan exclaims, pulling at his hat.

'Well, Brendan will fix both those problems.'

-----------------------------------------------------------
"Ugh...Finally," Brendan says with a slump of his shoulders

Both Lee and Brendan spy a rustic wooden sign along the road that reads the blessed words "Oldale Town 0.25 mi -"

Lee stretches his arms above his head and exhales, trying to hide his own fatigue. "Just about three days exactly. Not bad," he says with a tired huff. Lee glances up to the slowly darkening sky and stops abruptly. 'What the fuck?'

Brendan groans and stops as well. "What are we stopping for?"

Lee points towards the distant sky over Oldale, and Brendan does a double-take.

Coming from the direction of the town is an enormous pillar of acrid, black smoke, thick enough to blot out the colors of the sunset illuminated sky. The wind shifts for just a few seconds, letting both Lee and Brendan catch the scent of something burning in the air.

Brendan suddenly sprints forward with renewed energy, his hand already grasping at Mudkip's ball. "C'mon Lee!"

Lee groans and runs after his young companion, just barely keeping pace. "You know, common sense normally dictates that you don't run towards something like that!"

The younger of the two doesn't bother with a reply, he just keeps running.

They cover the last Quarter-mile in record time, cresting the hill into Oldale. The pillar of smoke grows ever larger and more imposing the closer they become, billowing and covering much of the sky. Groups of people and the occasional pokémon stand fearfully and point at the smoke as the pair of trainers cross into a small residential area, many of them with exclamations of panic.

"Okay, hold the fuck up!" Lee snarls, reaching out and grabbing Brendan by the collar of his shirt, making the young Birch gag and stop in his tracks. "Running in gung ho will just get us killed. We don't even know what's going on!"

A middle-aged man who was watching the smoke from his porch with a stricken expression overhears and turns to Lee and Brendon. "Are you two Pokémon trainers?!"

"We are!" Brendan yells back.

"The Pokemon Center is on fire!" The man exclaims. "I heard on the police scanner that some pokémon went berserk and tried to attack some younglings! It happened so fast! After that, the fire started!"

Lee freezes, his nightmare from several nights ago returning to him with cruel clarity.

Went berserk...

Happened so fast...

...Attacked younglings.

Lee licks his suddenly dry lips. "W-Well the police and firefighters should be there taking care of this, right?"

The man shakes his head and looks back at the smoke with poorly concealed fear. "Officer Jenny's Azumarill is our only Pokemon firefighter since old man Ogden and his Swampert retired. The normal fire department can't do it alone! Please! You have to help them!"

'You going to make a difference this time? Or are you going to just stand around with a dumb look on your face?' A voice in the back of Lee mind taunts.

The scarred man freezes then grabs Vulpix's pokeball with a white-knuckle grip.

"Damn it all."
 
Ooooh. One of my favourite stories getting put onto the site I prefer to use? Nice. I can't remember the early parts of the story, so tragically I'll have to reread all of it as it gets updated. How very tragic and terrible, Vanbers lied as naturally as he breathed.

Also with it here, it gives me more hope for the terribly degenerate handholding between Lee/Vulpix to be a ship, given people on SB tend to be more prudish about that by far. :V

Out of curiosity, any intention of putting the other "Borne of..." story on here? I never found that one until someone pointed it out in another completely unrelated story, and it's fantastic. I really liked how the two stories take a radically different approach to the setting, allowing a nice contrast between them, with one leaning more towards science and animal handling, and the other leaning harder into Anime Physics.

Either way, nice to see this here.
 
Fugg, good of you to add your wonderful literary talents to this site of well meaning degeneracy. Hope to see more of you and your stories on this site. :D
 
Act 1: Chapter 6
Disclaimer: I don't own Pokemon. Any similarities between real people, living or dead, or places, standing or demolished, in this story are just coincidence.
I am an animal lover, but not exactly an expert. Some biology and behavior referenced in the story may not be 100% accurate, or might even be outright pseudoscience.


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'Why am I such a fucking sap?'

With arms pumping, hearts pounding, and pokeballs held in iron-like grips, both Lee and Brendan round the final corner to the Pokemon Center.

Hell greets them.

The large center, several stories high and taking up the entire left side of the street, is engulfed in a raging inferno on the entirety of the left side of the first story where it slowly spreads. Rolling flames pour from the long since shattered windows, producing a thick, black smoke so dense it looks as if it could be cut with a knife. Embers burn away from the building and rise up into the air like literal fireflies, flying away to burn out high in the evening sky.

A small team of human firefighters armed with a loaded fire truck and a police officer with an Azumarill stand before the building, trying valiantly to battle the fire. They blast water into the flaming entrance of the center with the Azumarill doing the bulk of the work, but the fire refuses to die down. Just behind them stands a small crowd of people and pokemon being looked over by an entirely too small team of medics and a frantic Nurse Joy.

The sight of the uncontrolled flames makes Lee's stomach drop and fill with ice. His scars flare in phantom pain and he breathes slowly through his nose as if using his mouth would invite the fire to rush inside him. Brendan releases in a flash of light Mudkip and turns to say something to him, but the boy's words are lost through the dull roar of the fire.

In his hand, Vulpix's ball shakes violently before bursting open. The sudden noise and jerk of his handshakes Lee from his spiraling thoughts as Vulpix presses herself to his legs. Nary a second later, the vixen reaches out with her telepathy and gently wraps her mind around her trainer's, coaxing him back to reality.

Lee lets out a short gasp as his surroundings come back into sharp focus and clenches his hand around the now empty ball in his hand. He looks down at Vulpix, who returns his gaze with a cool expression, an expression betrayed only by the soothing warmth that flows from her mind to his.

The man takes a deep, shuddering breath. 'Love, I know I'd be lost without you.'

Vulpix just presses herself a little more to him.

"Lee!"

Lee turns to Brendan, who glares up at the man with a surprising amount of venom. "Are we going to help or what?"

Lee quashes his sudden irritation and nods with a sigh. "Yes. Let's go."

The pair of trainers rush to the front of the group, passing a few firefighters and coming to a stop behind the female police officer. "Hey! Officer!"

The woman looks over her shoulder, revealing herself to be none other than Officer Jenny. She regards the trainers with her eyebrows furrowed. "What are you two doing here?! Get back! It's dangerous!" she yells, voice barely audible over the din of the fire.

"We're professor Birch's trainers!" Brendan yells back, flashing his ID just long enough for Jenny's eyes to scan over it. "We're here to help!"

The woman's shoulders lose the slightest bit of tension. "Thank goodness! Do either of you have a water pokemon? We have a rescue team inside trying to get the stragglers. Azumarill and I need to go in and help, but a fire this size will spread without someone outside to help with containment. I hate to lay this burden and you two, but can you help?"

"Of course!" Brendan says, his serious face cracking for a small grin. At his side, Mudkip lets out a cry of agreement.

Lee and Vulpix both simply nod. 'Ready, love?' Lee asks her, only to stumble a little when Vulpix widens the channel between them. The scarred man takes a breath and looks back to the burning building. The flames seem so much sharper now, and the heat pushes against a phantom sense he never had.

Jenny turns and says something to Azumarill, but it's lost in the roar of the flame. The pair rush away and boldly dart into the burning building, leaving Brendan and Mudkip to take their place.

"Hey, Brendan!" Lee yells, making Brendan glance back at him. "Vulpix and I are going to contain the flames as best we can. Take your time, Mudkip's stamina has to last this entire crisis!"

"Hear that pal?!" the boy asks his Mudkip, who nods seriously back. Brendan points and Mudkip unleashes a torrent of water into a burning window.

'Alrighty, let's do this.'

Lee looks up to the burning pokemon center, accurately able to feel where Vulpix is looking. His eyes shoot to a burning part of the center's siding, and instantly Vulpix's focus shifts to where he's looking. The fire is slowly creeping across the building.

'Now...' Lee hesitates, suddenly unsure how to move forward. 'Starve the flames. Deprive them of oxygen.'

Vulpix's focus sharpens, and Lee tries to aid her by visualizing the flames shrinking or pulling away, but nothing happens. The pyrokinesis keeps slipping, like a hand trying to grip a fist-sized ball of marble slick with oil. Vulpix growls in frustration and Lee can feel it over the widened psychic channel. A splash of water from Mudkip puts put the on-fire section they were working on and knocks Lee and Vulpix out of sync.

'Easy love. Just take a calming breath and focus,' Lee sends to her, including a clumsy feeling of reassurance.

The vixen huffs and pulls on his mind with hers again. The pair move their focus to a blown-out window throwing flames and embers all over.

'We can't starve the flames by trying to pull away oxygen. That must be out of the realm of your pyrokinesis. At least for now, it tried to respond earlier,' Lee thinks, biting his lip. 'What if you just... I dunno, pulled the flames away from the building and let them go? Without something to burn, would it just go out?'

Vulpix closes her eyes and reaches out to the flames again, this time firmly finding purchase with her pyrokinesis. The fire roaring from the window grows magnificently as onlookers scream, almost throwing the combined focus of Lee and Vulpix out of whack. The fire wavers then grows again as the pair pull the section of fire outside of the building. A great ball of flame floats away from the now unburning window before Vulpix lets go.

The great conflagration dies without even a whimper, and the onlookers gasp. Even Brendan whips his head around to stare at them.

'Yes! Just like that!' Lee can't help but grin at the sheer elation he feels from the normally cool vixen. 'I can't believe that worked! C'mon girl, next one! We've got a Pokemon Center to save!'

"Vul!" Vulpix verbally cries in agreement.

"Brendan!" Lee calls to the still stunned boy. "Have Mudkip soak the spots Vulpix pulls the flames from so they can't reignite!"

He nods absently, still looking at Vulpix "Yeah, sure."

Lee takes a breath and syncs back up with Vulpix, focusing on a section of the wall with fire slowly creeping across it.

Over the course of about fifteen minutes, Vulpix and Mudkip do what would have taken the firefighters hours to do alone. As they work, several groups of people and pokemon escape the burning building and are quickly herded away by the EMTs, Nurse Joy, and a pair of Chanseys. With Vulpix methodically pulling away swathes of fire and Mudkip making reignition impossible, nearly the entire outside of the Pokemon Center had been put out. Smoke still pours from the inside and flickers inside could still be seen, however.

Brendan pulls a bottle of water out from his bag and offers it to his panting, dehydrated Mudkip, who snatches the bottle from his hand and sucks down the water in an impressive half-second. The boy then pulls out his PokeNav and glances at the time. "Officer Jenny has been in there for twenty minutes..."

Lee sighs and rubs his forehead with his thumb and index finger. "And you want to go in and help?"

At Brendan resolute nod, Lee groans. 'What do you think, love?'

Vulpix mulls the question over then looks up at him and nods.

'Shit. Outvoted. Of course.'

Lee crosses his arms and closes his eyes, debating his next words. "Alright, we'll help, but this is how it's going down. Vulpix and I will go in, but you and Mudkip are staying out here."

"What!?" Brendan yells in outrage, his face twisting into a scowl. "No way! We're-!"

"Going to run in and get killed?"

Brendan stops at the question, his expression frozen.

Lee opens his eyes, and although feeling bad about it, glares down at Brendan, making the boy wilt. "Look at Mudkip," Lee orders.

Brendan slowly turns to look down at his panting pokemon, who doesn't seem to be listening. Watery strands of drool hang from the edges of his mouth and there is the slightest tremor in his legs.

"Mudkip is exhausted and Shroomish will be no use in a fire," Lee states, uncrossing his arms and easing his glare. "A spent amphibian water type will dehydrate near instantly in such conditions, and that's a death sentence for both of you. Vulpix, meanwhile, is fire-retardant and has her pyrokinesis, but she can't stress herself protecting both of us and potentially helping the people trapped inside. The less she needs to spread herself out, the better."

The younger trainer's shoulders slump. "But... I..." He looks around, seemingly lost for words. "I don't want to be useless is the thing," he softly replies. "I'm a lab trainer just like you and we're supposed to be leaders and help people and all that, right?"

'Oh jeez...'

Lee's own shoulders slump. "Look," he begins, wrapping an arm around Brendan's shoulders. "You won't be useless. See all these people out here?" Lee asks, using his free arm to gesture at all the onlookers, some watching them. "This rattled them something fierce," he says a bit softer, making Brendan blink. "They would use an overbearingly cheerful brat of a hero who helped put out the Pokemon Center fire. Go reassure them, let them know we got this, because the wellbeing of the people affected by a tragic event is the most important thing here, and that includes peace of mind."

He could feel Vulpix frown without even looking at her, but his words seem to have the desired effect of perking Brendan up. He regains his usual grin. "Alright, if you say so, but if you come out covered in soot with a smoker's cough then I'm laughing. Just warning you now."

Lee snorts and lets him go. "You get to hear the cough anyway because after this shit I could really use a cig. Let's go, love."

Vulpix takes point and leads Lee right towards the entrance of the Center. He glances back to see Brendan and Mudkip take off towards the crowd of onlookers. Lee turns back just in time to see Vulpix dislodge several small, candle-like fires by the entrance and let them wink out.

The pair advance inside, carefully looking over the wet, burned lobby and ignoring the still screaming fire alarm. Other than a few smoldering spots, the fire is totally out here. The sprinkler units above are still intact for some reason, so Officer Jenny and Azumarill had to have been the ones to contain the fire.

"Remember what that guy said when we got in town?" Lee asks the vixen at his feet as they turn down a hallway to follow a thin stream of smoke, making her look back and nod. "Supposedly a berserk pokemon started the fire, but nearly half the damn building was in flames when we got here. If we have to face down something like a Charizard this early in our adventure then I quit."

Vulpix chuffs in amusement and her lips pull back into a thin vulpine smile.

Lee and Vulpix venture further on, glancing into the various exam rooms they pass to find each one already evacuated. Most are intact, with just the water-soaked doors sporting burns like the hallway, but a few of them are burned and melted beyond recognition. As they walk, the smoke becomes heavier, forcing Lee to put his arm over this mouth and nose to use his sleeve as a crude filter. Vulpix, being so low to the ground, avoids the smoke entirely.

At the end of the hallway they walk, the path splits right and left, to the left is an undamaged hallway, to the right...

Lee grimaces as his scars flare.

To the right is a flaming hellscape. The entire hallway sans a thin, damp path on the ground is coated in fire. Again, the sprinklers haven't deployed despite being partially melted slag by now. Something curious to see is the electrical outlets in the hallway are all blown out, some of them sparking. The rolling smoke, roar and crackle of the flames, and the shrill tone of the fire alarm make for a dizzying amount of sensory overload.

The scarred man closes his eyes, takes deep breaths, and reaches his mind out to Vulpix, who grasps his with her own near instantly.

With their combined focus, the little fox puts out the fire section by section, pulling the flames away from their fuel and letting them wink out of existence with a short woosh that can't be heard over the other noise. Man and fox slowly advance bit by bit, and with the fires dying, the smoke clears a little more each second, finally revealing a set of ajar double doors at the end of the short hallway. Above the doors is a sign that reads Nursery.

There is a sudden, violent crackle like a taser hooked directly to a power plant, followed by a shrill shriek of pain and the sound of a body hitting the ground right beyond the doors.

"Azumarill!" cries the hoarse voice of Jenny.

Lee and Vulpix freeze, then as one rush past the doors.

The first thing they see is the seething, almost glowing red eyes of an enormous Manectric. The pokemon's fur crackles with arcs of electricity and steel-like muscle ripples under its skin. Pearly, fanged teeth clench as the electric type glares at them with crazed anger. Its claws effortlessly dig into the tiled floor under its feet and it seems only seconds away from sprinting at them full-tilt.

Just a few feet away, Jenny's Azumarill barely stands. The poor mouse pokemon is covered in electrical burns that expose cracked, red flesh under her fur, her tail has a painful looking bend in it, and her body is stiff, her fur snapping and crackling with electricity. Just breathing seems like a horrid labor for her

'Must be paralysis,' Lee thinks with a gulp.

Behind Azumarill, Jenny stands with gritted teeth, holding her left arm which sports an already blistered burn. She looks between her Azumarill and the monster of a Manectric with the faintest flicker of fear in her eyes. Her eyes move to Lee and Vulpix, silently begging for help.

And just behind Jenny and huddled in the corner, a terrified brunette woman in a white labcoat clutches a green pokemon egg to her chest, her expression twisted in terror.

The rest of the room is bare. The destroyed egg incubators along the wall are all empty and all the small nursery beds that would hold infant pokemon are thankfully empty and corpse-free.

"Mister Henson!" Jenny cries. "This Manectric is the culprit behind the fire! It blew out the electrical systems in the Center and the overloaded outlets all over this side of the building started fires. It's trying to get the intern behind me! We need your help, Azumarill isn't going to last!"

The Manectric's glare is absolutely murderous now, and Lee doesn't need to read any of its body language to understand the unspoken "Don't interfere."

Lee gulps. 'Love, I came in here fully expecting a fight with a totally unreasonable fire type, not... this,' he sends to Vulpix, who doesn't reply, too focused with carefully watching Manectric. 'What reason would Manectric have to go apeshit? Is it wild? Owned? Too many unknowns and not enough time to puzzle them out. We don't have a good counter for an electric type. I hate to say it, but I don't think we can fight our way out of this one.'

The vixen looks back at him, not pleased with the unintentional slight on her power, but she can't hide how the constant pyrokinesis has drained her, and that Manectric does look kind of big... She sends Lee a telepathic image of the terrified intern. Or more specificity, of the egg she's holding.

The green egg with yellow stripes, the same coloring as an Electrike. Manectric's fury suddenly makes more sense.

'You have got to be joking. Could this shitty situation get any more volatile?'

Lee pushes away his fear and steadies his breathing. 'Vulpix, do you know Manectric's gender?'

Vulpix takes a few subtle sniffs of the air, then sends him a wordless feeling that he interprets as 'female'

'Angry, territorial mother. I know this song and dance. Just I get flayed alive rather than mauled with a fuck-up. No pressure.'

Lee looks over to Jenny and the petrified intern. "Both of you, stay quiet and follow my lead," he says just quiet enough to be heard over Manectric's crackling fur. Lee steps forward towards Manectric slowly, not bothering to look and see what Jenny's reaction was. The instant Manectric pulls her lips back and growls, he takes a half-step back, stops, and slowly lowers himself to his knees with his head bowed, not ever looking huge electric type in the eyes the entire time. He silently curses the adrenaline coursing through his limbs and making his movements jerky and almost too fast. When his knees finally come to rest on the ground. Lee speaks slowly and softly.

"Manectric, I understand what's going on. You're angry and want what belongs to you back, right?" He asks, taking great care to make sure his teeth don't show and hoping Manectric has a grasp on English.

Whatever deity out their answers his prayers, as the crackling in Manectric's fur drops in intensity. She tilts her head and regards him with slightly less violence in her gaze.

"You're the superior here and we don't want to fight," Lee continues, resisting the urge to wipe away the sweat on his forehead. "Everyone here has been through enough, you especially. I promise we'll return the egg to you. It's rightfully yours and whoever took it was wrong."

Manectric's crackling dies down to infrequent pops, and her snarl eases to a resting expression, but her eyes are still locked onto Lee.

Lee slowly turns to the bewildered woman behind the equally bewildered Jenny and shuffles on his knees to her, hand held out. "Give me the egg," he says, glancing at Manectric to gauge her reaction or lack thereof.

The woman suddenly snaps out of her daze. "B-but this egg was slated for donation to Professor Sycamore's lab!" she exclaims, holding the egg tighter. "The boy who donated said he went to a lot of trouble to get it. Look at the size of the mother! It could be the Giant's Gene. Can't you just beat this poke-"

Manectric's growl rattles the whole room.

Fighting down the urge to scream, Lee forces the next words out. "Unless you want to leave here in a body bag or want to give it up yourself," he slowly, as if explaining to a child. "You are going to give me that egg, and then I am going to return it to Manectric. I'm sure Sycamore will understand once he hears about Manectric being so livid as to nearly kill us all and burn down a Pokemon Center. I'm not about to throw my Vulpix into the meatgrinder of a fight Manectric will put up. Give me the egg. Now."

Hands shaking, the brunette woman drops the egg into Lee's waiting hands. The egg is warm and the smoothest thing he's ever held, and he even forgets his fear for a moment to marvel at it. He shuffles back to his original spot and gently places the egg on the cracked tile floor before moving back several feet. "All yours, as it should be."

The massive Manectric steps forward, each clack of her claws on the floor like thunder in the silent room. She leans down and sniffs the egg several times, her eyes scanning every inch for any imperfection. Then she turns her eyes to Lee.

She steps forward again, and Lee feels his heart begin to hammer so hard that it echos in his ears. He keeps his head faced downward submissively and eyes averted, avoiding anything that Manectric may take as a challenge. Vulpix's alarm flares over the telepathic tether between herself and Lee, and it's only his repeated message of 'Don't move! Stand down!' that keeps her from leaping and attacking.

The electric type lowers her head to Lee's level. She's so close that he can feel her hot breath on his cheek and his hair tries to stand up from the electric charge around her.

Lick

The man can't help but sputter when, rather than mauling him, Manectric licks him several times right over his scars, making them tingle like low voltage was run through them.

The huge pokemon pulls away and regards the tense Vulpix for a moment, then the barely conscious Azumarill and shocked Jenny, but does not deign to look at the young intern. Then in one smooth motion, she turns and leans down, taking her egg with all the care one would thin glass in her maw, before leaping through the glass window against the back of the room. In just a few lightning-fast bounds, she's gone and out of sight, vanishing to the night.

'Huh... The sun set while we were in here.'

"W-What just happened?" Officer Jenny asks, looking between Lee and the broken window, her expression lost.

The intern just slumps back into the wall, staring at nothing.

Lee falls backward, laying spread on the floor, uncaring of the broken tiles jabbing his back and waving away Vulpix's concern when she steps into his vision.

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"It's no problem at all!"

The mayor of Oldale could easily be mistaken for a professional Santa. The older, rotund man, mayor of Oldale for 24 years now, has roughly the same looks as Santa, but with a bombastic personality that almost makes his quaint office in the town hall feel too small. Both his belly and white beard shake with his exclamation. "It would shame all of us in Oldale if we let our heroes go without reward. We are a small town you know, but we are not without luxuries! In fact, I called our finest hotel and the owner insisted you boys stay a few nights free of charge in their best room!"

Brendan doesn't even try to hide his grin, and Lee smiles at the jolly man on the outside, but inwardly...

'Jesus man, I understand you're grateful and all, but c'mon. Where is the recognition of the firefighters, EMTs and all that?' Then a more cynical thought hits him. 'Is all this because we're lab trainers? Or because Brendan is Nigel's son? Would they catch a bad rap if they didn't treat us well?' Lee thinks to himself, not wanting to wake the snoozing Vupix across his shoulders. 'Too much to think about and not enough energy.' He suppresses a yawn.

Then without warning, Lee's phone begins to buzz and ring in his pocket, stopping the mayor from starting up another long-winded thanks and waking up an instantly cranky Vulpix. Pulling the phone out, the front screen reads "Prf Birch."

"Sorry, sir," Lee apologizes to the mayor. "It's from Professor Birch. I think I have to take this," he says, giving the phone a little wave.

"No harm done, my boy!" The mayor says with a laugh. "Go on, your taxi to your hotel is outside whenever you're ready. Have a wonderful night you two!"

"Thanks again!" Brendan says, following after Lee who is already out the door.

Lee flips the phone open-'Thats still novel'-as he and Brendan walk to the lobby and answers. "Evening, Professor," he says, seating himself with Brendan following suit. "I think I already know why you're calling."

"Not even out for a week and you two made the news," Birch replies, his tone almost a laugh. "Is Brendan there? Can you put me on speaker?"

Vulpix lets out a low whine and resigns herself to be awake through more human chatter.

The scarred man pulls the phone away from his head and hits the speaker button. "You're on, Professor," he says, reaching up with his free hand to pat the grumpy vixen.

"Hey, dad!" Brendan leans over the cellphone with a wide smile.

"Hey, sport." Birch greets back. "You about gave me and your mom a heart attack, you know that? Being firefighter relief on only day three? I had to wait a full three months before I got to see any action, and that was just a ranger asking for help finding a lost Furret."

The boy laughs nervously. "Hehe. Oops?"

Lee snorts. "Where do I put in my two weeks professor? I think I've had enough excitement already," he ribs.

"You act like I'd accept your resignation," Birch shoots back with a chuckle. "So what happened in there? Reports say a pokemon started the fire, but it's wild how the fire got so out of control so quickly."

Lee hums and thinks the long day over. "It wasn't a fire pokemon like everything initially thought, but a gargantuan, wild Manectric, maybe one with the Giants's Gene. She got into the Pokemon Center looking for her stolen egg and overloaded the wiring in the building so much that outlets all over exploded, starting fires. The sprinklers were electronically controlled if I recall, so that's why the fire got out of hand. Luckily no one was killed and the injured will all make recoveries, but a decent part of the center is toast."

Birch is silent for a moment. "And you battled this Manectric? Did you catch her?"

Lee shakes his head, then feels a little foolish when he realizes Birch can't see him. 'I need some sleep.' "Confronted her, yes, battled her, no. She had Officer Jenny and a center intern with the egg cornered. This really seemed like one of those 'pick your battle' moments, so I de-escalated and returned the egg to her. She left without incident after that."

"Deescalated?" Birch asks, his confusion easily apparent. Brenden turns to look at Lee curiously as well. "Lee, you were between an angry mother and her egg, a mother with the Giant's Gene if you saw correctly. Most wild pokemon refuse to listen to reason for much less than egg theft and are willing to fight much tougher odds. How...How did you escape?"

"I..." Lee falters, suddenly unsure. He glances at the still curious Brendan. "I used skills from my old occupation is all."

"Ahh..." Birch replies. "Of course. Make a log of all of that and send it to me when you can, will you please? Written or audio is good," all traces of his disbelief are gone from his voice. "And Brendan? I already know what you're going to ask. Don't pester Lee about his past. He'll tell you if he wants."

The younger trainer's jaw shuts with a click of his teeth, his question replaced with a long-suffering sigh.

"I won't keep you guys all night, but Brendan, your mom does want to yell-erm, talk to you. Lee, can you hand the phone to Brendan for a bit?"

Lee smirks and hits the speaker button again before handing the flip-phone to a now pale Brendan. "Walk and talk, champ. I need a shower and some sleep," the older trainer says, standing and making for the exit of Oldale's city hall.

Vulpix lets out a sigh and snuggles closer to her human's neck before she rests her head back down on his shoulder... Only to scrunch her muzzle when the yelling over the cellphone and Brendan's mumbled defense is still audible even with the boy dragging his feet several yards back. She lets out a sigh of relief when a thumb and middle finger close around her head and tenderly rub her aching temples.

Lee smiles when he feels contentment flow through his and Vulpix's tether. Tether. He quite likes the descriptor of their connection. 'Don't get too comfy, love. We'll have a big, soft bed we can cuddle in here in just a bit.' Lee sends as they walk up to the taxi idling under a lit streetlamp. 'Maybe call room service for a snack and we'll definitely sleep in.'

Vulpix musters the will to raise her head just long enough to lick his cheek.
 
Act 1: Chapter 7
Disclaimer: I don't own Pokemon. Any similarities between real people, living or dead, or places, standing or demolished, in this story are just coincidence.
I am an animal lover, but not exactly an expert. Some biology and behavior referenced in the story may not be 100% accurate, or might even be outright pseudoscience.



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"Finish it up! Tackle!"

"No! Aipom! Out of the way!"

The small crowd of spectators cheer as Brendan's Shroomish rushes the twitching, paralyzed Aipom across the makeshift arena. The Aipom can only grit his teeth and shut his eyes, his body not heeding his trainer's cry to dodge. The little mushroom pokemon collides head-first into Aipom with a painful Thwack!, throwing the little monkey to the ground where he lands heavily and ceases to move.

The referee by the sidelines, an older trainer in her teens, waits for several seconds then points to Shroomish. "Aipom is unable to battle! The winners are Shroomish and Brendan Birch!"

Further back behind Brendan, Lee watches his young friend cheer and rush out to the field from the shade of the Pokemon Center. Brendan scoops his pokemon up into a hug and says something that is lost over the cheering of the onlookers. Shroomish gives his trainer a dull look but does not resist the hug.

'Makes sense that the town's battling area would be right behind the Pokemon Center,' Lee looks back to the large, hospital-like building, already reopened just two days after the fire sans the damaged parts that are already being repaired. 'I've got to give credit to the Pokemon League. They really don't fuck around,' he thinks, watching a team of large bird pokemon wearing League vests fly overhead, each one carrying an entire pallet of building materials in their talons without a hint of strain. They touch down beside the Center one by one, giving their loads to human construction workers aided by a medley of bulky fighting and rock types, mostly Machop, Geodude, and the rare Machoke, but Lee swears he saw a Lucario bounding about with a tool belt on.

He turns back to the arena in time to see Brendan and his dejected opponent, a young, probably 11-year-old kid named Jason or something, shake hands.

Vulpix huffs at Lee's feet and flicks her fan of tails, her irritation beginning to bleed through the tether to him.

'Give it some time, love. One will want to battle eventually,' Lee sends to her. His own uncertainty is much harder to hide in a telepathic conversation, however, and so the vixen just huffs again.

Nearly all of the battle-hungry trainers in Oldale are young beginners that started only this year, all of whom looked at himself and Vulpix with no small amount of apprehension. The rumor mill in the small town was in full swing, and the only things that most people knew are that a trainer with scars on his face and a Vulpix went in the burning Center, a gigantic Manectric 'fled', then they came out after rescuing Jenny and the hapless Center intern.

People connected the dots and assumed Lee and Vulpix were grizzled veterans.

Ha!

Since the egos of young trainers are delicate, none wanted a bout with a 'veteran'. Instead, they all decided to challenge the other town hero, a kid like them.

Brendan is sitting at 8 wins and 0 defeats so far. Mudkip gladly demolished any pokemon before him, including an Elekid that an older boy bragged heartily about, assured of his win from the type advantage alone. The bragging stopped when Mudkip's Mud Slap lifted Elekid right off his feet and straight into dreamland.

Shroomish, the battler for the last two rounds, struggled more than his masochistic blue teammate but pulled wins under Brendan's coaching.

Vulpix looks up to her trainer, sending him a feeling of both stiffness and illness along with an image of the downed Aipom being returned to its ball.

'Yeah, poison powder and stun spore. Brendan is shaping up to be a good battler with how he plays to the strengths of his team,' Lee mentally replies, watching as yet another young trainer, so eager to prove himself, matches up to Brendan with a pokeball in hand. 'Mudkip is a full-throttle berserker, and Shroomish is a more reserved distance fighter. Definitely more in-depth than a simple turn-based game.'

"Hey, you're the guy who rushed into the Pokemon Center during the fire, right?"

Lee blinks away his thoughts and turns to address whoever spoke to him.

Just to his right is a pretty young woman several inches shorter than he, with dark, short-cropped hair that comes down to her chin in rough locks. She's clad in a form-hugging black top an equally form-fitting olive drab shorts secured with a red rope belt. Around her shoulders is a well-worn brown traveling cloak. Her eyes, a dark crimson, look down to Vulpix.

'Wait. I know who this is...'

The instant that Vulpix returns her gaze, the woman lets out a god-honest "Squeeee!"

"You are just the cutest!" cries the woman with a beaming smile and stars in her eyes. She crouches down to Vulpix's level and scratches behind her ear. From Vulpix's unique-sounding purr, the mysterious woman guessed Vulpix's sweet spot in one try. "And you're so soft that it's sinful! What's your secret, sister?"

The vixen stops pushing her head against the woman's hand and looks back up to Lee. The woman follows Vulpix's eyes up to Lee before she freezes and blushes..

She stands hastily with a nervous laugh. "Haha... Sorry about blowing you off like that," she says sheepishly. "It's not every day you get to see such a rare fire type. Anyway, my name is Zinnia, nice to meet you!"

Lee racks his brain to try and remember where he heard that name before. A moment later, it clicks

'The woman from the Alpha and Omega remakes?' He wonders, having only played the beginning of the Delta Episode of Omega Ruby. 'What's she doing in Oldale?'

Lee chuckles and takes her outstretched hand for a shake. "Lee is the name, and you've already met Vulpix." As he says that, the little fox jumps to her favorite perch on his shoulders to watch the proceedings. "She's the more interesting of the two of us, so no harm done."

Zinnia smiles as the tension leaves her shoulders. "Glad to hear it. Anyway, I wanted to know if you wanted to battle? You and this cutie here would be a great challenge!"

Everyone not watching Brendan and his latest battle turns and looks after hearing the question. Several whisper in excitement. "Yeah! Battle!" Someone cries.

"I wanna see the Vulpix fight!" a young trainer that Brendan thrashed earlier yells

"Yeah! She sent that titanic Manectric packing! She's gotta be crazy strong!" A girl in her teens joins in.

"Hey, yeah!" Someone confirms. "This'll be an awesome match!"

Lee blanches. "I dunno about that. Brendan and I were going to get on the road after lunch and... and uh...we don't want to exhaust ourselves?" A second later dread begins to pool in his stomach. 'Of fucking course, a Dragon trainer would single us out,' He sends to Vulpix as everyone groans at his words.

"C'mon, Lee. It'll be fun!" Zinnia says, taking a shrunken pokeball from her belt. All the onlookers roar in agreement.

Lee screws his eyes shut with a sigh. 'I know pokemon battles are big deals here, and rightfully so, but god damn, why does this freak me out so much?!'

The man thinks back to all his other battles, all featuring Vulpix considering she is his sole pokemon. In their repeated battles against Brendan and the occasional wild pokemon around Littleroot, one thing stood out.

Vulpix had never lost. She won every single battle handily.

'Damn it all! Why is this getting to me? We're going to have to show our hand with the pyrokinesis and telepathy if we want to level the playing field. I thought I came to terms with this a month ago,' Lee thinks to himself with gritted teeth. He looks between the smiling Zinnia, the chanting crowd including Brendan, and his now laser-focused Vulpix. 'Fuck me...'

"Alright, sure," Lee grounds out, ignoring Zinnia's smile becoming absolutely feral. "1v1? Vulpix is my only pokemon."

"Hell yeah!" She says.

The surrounding people spread out as Lee and Zinnia take their places opposite each other on one of the hard-packed dirt battlegrounds. Lee takes the time to inspect the area.

'Ground is good and even. Grass surrounding is still a bit wet with dew, so there is a minimal chance of a fire. Negligible breeze. Everyone is a fair distance away...' Lee lets out a breath. 'About as even as battlegrounds come. Alright, here we go. David versus Goliath.'

"You're up, love," Lee says a little redundantly as Vulpix leisurely strolls into position. "Get ready."

Above, the sun's rays rapidly grow to sweltering as Vulpix's Drought activates. Several of the spectators murmur about the sudden heatwave and a number of them close to the Pokémon center stepped back into the shade. Lee rubs his stinging scars with a frown and tries to ignore it.

Zinnia grins and holds up a pokeball before rearing her arm back. "C'mon out Bagon!" She cries, throwing the ball skyward.

In a flash of light, a large Bagon materializes on Zinnia's side. The tiny, iron-headed dragon slowly scans over the field before his eyes land on Vulpix. The eyes narrow and a growl builds in his throat.

Vulpix lets out a condescending yawn in return, making Bagon growl just a bit louder.

'Thank you God or Arceus or whoever the hell is out there. If Zinnia sent out a Salamence I would've had a fucking stroke.'

The same older teen that was reffing Brendan's matches comes over to the edge of the ring, glancing between the two fire pokemon with equal parts caution and excitement. "One on one match between Lee's Vulpix and Zinnia's Bagon?"

Lee glances around, fighting the urge to bite his lip. All the other battles concluded and everyone is watching them. Even a few members of the construction team stopped to watch the spectacle.

"Are both trainers ready!?"

"Ready!" Zinnia replies with a grin.

'Time to bite the bullet.'

"Ready..." Lee reluctantly confirms.

The ref chops his hand down. "Begin!"

"Bagon, Smokescreen!" Zinnia orders without wasting a second.

The tiny dragon takes a deep breath and shoots a blinding cloud of rolling, oily smoke from his mouth, instantly covering the ring with a wall of black.

Lee grimaces and withholds the Babydoll Eyes order he was about to call out. He brings a sleeved arm up to cover his mouth and nose while widening the mental tether between himself and Vulpix. 'Keep some focus on my location, love. It'll help you stay oriented in the smoke. Be ready to counter at a moment's notice.' He sends, getting a quick confirmation.

"Now! Headbutt!" Zinnia orders. Hardly a second later, there is a throaty roar and the sound of tiny feet thundering across the ground.

"Vulpix, dodge!" 'To the left.' Lee calls into the smoke. 'Not going for a projectile? Trying to play to Bagon's high Attack then'

With a loud crash, Bagon lands right where Vulpix was a second prior with the resulting shockwave blowing much of the smoke away. Just a few meters to the left, the small vixen stands awaiting an order, eyes locked onto the swiftly standing Bagon.

"Bagon, Dragon Breath!" Zinnia orders.

"Vulpix! Dodge and use Confuse Ray!"

Vulpix is in motion before Bagon can take a breath to charge Dragon Breath, swiftly leaping to the left nearly to the edge of the ring as her eyes glow with a sinister light.

"Nice try!" Zinnia calls. "You're not the first to try and play keep-away with Bagon! Hold Dragon Breath and use Protect! Then slow her down!"

A barrier of green blooms around Bagon just in time. The surface ripples slightly as the invisible Confuse Ray impacts it.

Then just as Vulpix lands from her leap, Protect drops, and Bagon stomps on the ground with a single leg.

Lee's chest suddenly clenches when the ground under Vulpix vibrates like a jackhammer was taken to it, making her yowl in pain as her bones rattle in her body. Vulpix even trips and falls to the ground, taking a shot to the skull that leaves her dazed just as the tremors end. Lee flinches when the vague phantom pains she feels reverberate through his own body.

The crowd roars at the direct hit. Faintly, Lee can hear Brendan's Mudkip let out a bellow and Brendan himself shouting; "C'mon Vulpix! You can take em!"

'What the fuck was that?! Earthquake?! No, it didn't rock the whole field, it was just under Vulpix. Shit shit shit! C'mon, girl, you can do it. Get up!'

Vulpix rises to her paws in a flash, shaking her head to clear it. She focuses on the smugly smirking Bagon with a withering gaze. The slight shake in her limbs is noticed by all who look.

'What to do, what to do? Was that Bulldoze? Whatever it was, it really hurt her' Lee grimaces. 'Love, circle to the side then hit her.' He sends, then says aloud; "Vulpix, close the distance with Quick Attack and then Payback!"

Vulpix's legs hesitate for a second before she rockets forward, wreathed in a corona of white flecked with bits of purple.

"Got ya!" Zinnia cries with a grin. "Bagon, let loose that Dragon Breath!"

Bagon blasts a writhing beam of green energy out of his mouth right at the charging vixen, who looks as if she is going to run right into it.

'Now!'

Zinnia's grin falters.

Vulpix skids to a stop and circles to Bagon's broadside a fraction of a second before the Dragon Breath can envelop her, trading her white aura for purple.

Crash!

Bagon coughs out a pained wheeze when Vulpix slams into him at full speed, Payback on full blast to repay the hit from earlier. The dragon is thrown to his side where he impacts the ground harshly, digging a short trench in his wake

"Now! Confuse Ray point blank!"

"Oh no, you don't!" Zinnia shouts. "Bagon, Protect then Bulldoze!"

Bagon grunts. A barrier of green comes down over Bagon again just as Vulpix's eyes light up, trapping Vulpix inside with Bagon.

Lee's eyes bug out of his head. 'What the fuck?! Protect can do that?! Vulpix...' Lee struggles to think of a plan. 'Damn it! How do we dodge an attack that comes from under with such limited room?' Then he blinks when a wild idea sprouts into his head. 'Bound between the walls of the Protect! Don't touch the ground!'

Vulpix drops Confuse Ray and processes the command in an instant, leaping above Bagon's head just as the reptilian pokemon raises a foot to slam on the ground. She jumps against the green barrier of Protect, her little paws making almost no sound, and jumps back and forth above Bagon.

Zinnia gasps. "Bagon wait!"

The foot slams into the ground, and Bagon tries to hit Vulpix with Bulldoze, only for the tremors to erupt from right under him instead.

Bagon cries out as the Bulldoze erupts under him rather than his opponent, The cry of surprise turns to one of pain when the harsh vibrations travel up through his body and rattle him from toe to skull. Vulpix lands from her leaps just as Bulldoze ends and leaps away when Protect drops.

Hope blooms in Lee's chest and Vulpix's own excitement feeds it over the telepathic tether. 'She's on the ropes! We can win this!'

"Oh jeez..." Zinnia's earlier confidence falters somewhat in the face of the unexpected turn. She balls her hands. "Bagon! Use Dragon Rush!"

'Use what?!'

Bagon growls and steadies himself, his hateful eyes locked on to Vulpix. A swirling corona of violent, crackly energy engulfs his form as he lowers his steel covered skull to deliver a blow that would knock over a building. His legs tense for an absolutely explosive charge

"Absolutely not!" Lee barks. "Vulpix, Confuse Ray!"

With a vulpine smirk, Vulpix's eyes shine for the third time this match.

"No no no! Bagon, stop Dragon Rush and use Protect!" Zinnia yells out.

Zinnia's order comes a second too late, as Bagon's squinting eyes shine the same violet color as Vulpix's from within his shell of draconic energy. The small dragon groans, his face screwed up in intense focus. Around him, the curtain of swirling energy flickers and begins to destabilize. Bagon tries to charge forward despite his trainer's order, but trips and crashes into the ground with a tooth rattling explosion as his Dragon Rush destabilizes totally.

When the resulting smoke clears, Bagon is collapsed and limp upon the ground. Vulpix steps closer to her fallen opponent with curiosity, reaching out a paw to prod him.

'Oh my god, we actually won...'

Then Bagon's eyes snap open.

"Nice trick, but we're not going down that easily! Bagon! Give her the Bite-n-Bash!" Zinna yells, her grin back in place.

Bagon surges to his feet in a flash and lunges towards the shocked still Vulpix, his jaws snapping shut around her extended foreleg like a steel trap.

Vulpix screams.

Then like a toy being abused by an uncaring child, Vulpix is slammed into the ground over and over by Bagon, who throws his head around as if the vixen's weight was non-existent. Every slam makes Vulpix's struggles grow weaker.

Lee bites back a cry and chomps down on his lip so hard he tastes blood when his arm is hit with stabbing phantom pain, quickly followed by a headache and the sensation of being wailed on in the ribs.

Just like what was happening to Vulpix.

"V-Vul..." His breath catches in his mouth and he can't force more out. Claws of ice dig into his stomach. 'Vulpix! Ember! Fire Spin! Anything! You have to break his hold on you!'

The vixen blearily processes Lee's command, but before she can do anything, Bagon throws his head up and opens his jaws, letting the flailing fox in his teeth fly up into the air. She flys up and hangs for just a moment, though to Lee every inch she travels through the air feels like a year.

Then she starts to fall.

With a savage cry, Bagon slams his iron-like skull into Vulpix when she falls back into his reach, making a dull crunch on impact.

Lee's suddenly two-fold headache is totally forgotten when he watches Vulpix bounce limply across the ground, coming to a stop almost at his feet a bloody and battered mess.

Bagon rears his head back and roars his victory to the heavens before he begins to glow a blinding white. The roar deepens as his body grows, morphing into a sphere upon four legs. When the light fades, a Shelgon stands in Bagon's place.

The crowd is silent for a second, then two, then three...

"Vulpix is unable to battle!" The teen acting as the ref yells. "The winners are Shelgon and Zinnia!"

The crowd cheers and a giddy Zinnia runs to hug her new Shelgon, but it's all lost to Lee as he stares at his Vulpix, his lifeline in this world, broken and limp. 'It's exactly like Mu-.' He shuts his eyes and forces the bile in the back of his throat down. 'Pokemon are tough. Supernaturally tough. She's okay. She's okay...' He thinks to himself, only half believing his own words.

Lee reaches for Vulpix's pokeball in a stiff, mechanical way. At his muttered; "Vulpix, return," his vixen is pulled into the ball as a beam of red light.

"Man oh, man! That little cutie is really tough!"

Lee turns to his left, Seeing a beaming Zinnia and the battered Shelgon at her side. "I knew Bagon was on his way to evolving, but I thought it would take weeks to get there. Vulpix was a great opponent to be able to get him there in one go."

Shelgon grumbles something behind his namesake shell that sounds like a vague agreement.

The praise given to Vulpix eases the scarred trainer's stinging pride some but does nothing for his still rolling stomach. "Thanks," Lee grounds out, crossing his arms and looking to the side. "If she were conscious I'm sure she would appreciate it." An instant later he internally kicks himself for the rude tone.

Zinnia's grin falls some. "Yeah, uh..."

Lee sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose. "Look, sorry for being kind of short. I just want to get Vulpix checked into the Pokemon Center after that last move on her. She's never been... hurt that badly before."

The dragon trainer crosses her own arms and tilts her head. "Don't tell me you've never lost before?" she asks with an amused scoff. "She'll be fine after a bit with the Pokemon Center. Don't be a baby."

Lee's hand clinches around Vulpix's ball so hard his knuckles turn white.

"Oh man Vulpix actually lost?! I never thought I'd see the day!" Brendan skids to a stop by Brendan and Zinnia. "That match was great!" He exclaims before turning to Zinnia with a raised brow. "Kind of dirty of Bagon to pretend to be down only to launch an attack, though. If he got up and was fair, Vulpix would have had that."

Zinnia scowls. "What?!"

"You heard me!"

The tanned woman scowls a little harder and butts into Brendan's personal space. Brendan simply holds his ground with his head held high. "There was no call yet so why did Vulpix step closer?"

Lee screws his eyes shut and sighs, begrudgingly admitting to himself that Zinnia has a point no matter how much he dislikes it.

"It's not sportsman-like!" Brendan shoots back, now frowning himself. "It was a cheap shot!"

Zinnia laughs and ruffles Brendan's hair through his hat, making him pull away with a; "Hey!" She smirks. "Kid, how do you think pokemon battle in the wild? They fight until someone is down and out. There are no 'cheap shots' in a no-holds-barred battle. I don't think using Confuse Ray over and over is very sportsman-like either."

Brendan takes a breath to retort but stops when Lee places a hand on his shoulder.

"Brendan, it's fine." Lee starts, making both Zinnia and Brendan look at him in surprise. Jesus, it's only midday and he's already exhausted. "She's got a point, no matter how much I don't want to agree. Vulpix and I made a mistake and paid for it. We'll not do it again." The words sting his lips like acid.

"But-!" Brendan stops short and huffs when Lee shakes his head.

"Good battle, Zinnia," Lee says with a shallow nod to the bewildered Zinnia before turning to Shelgon, who had been watching the proceedings silently. "Congrats on your evolution, Shelgon. We're out."

Lee turns, not taking his hand of Brendan's shoulder so the boy turns with him, then both start towards the rear entrance of the Pokemon Center. As they leave, Lee can feel Zinnia's ruby-colored eyes on his back.

'Fucking hell,' Lee breathes out tiredly as he and Brendan walk. By now, most of the spectators had dispersed, giving them a straight shot inside. 'Don't but such a pussy, Lee. You've seen it first hand and crunched the numbers when you didn't trust your eyes. Vulpix, no, pokemon in general are out of this world when it comes to durability. She's fine. She won't be like-' He violently cuts off the train of thought and snakes a hand down into his jacket pocket, where Vulpix's warm ball reassures him of the life inside. 'She's fine.'

"Shelgon, return! Wait up!"

They get several steps in before Zinnia calls for them and catches up with a few quick steps. The tanned woman stops in front of them with an unsure look upon her face and her fists clenched. For a few seconds, the three stand in silence.

"Yes?" Lee ventures, trying to break the oncoming awkwardness.

Zinnia tries to say something, but seconds guesses herself and closes her mouth. Then she takes a breath. "Okay, maybe that last move was a little overkill," she mutters, looking away and unclenching a hand to rub her arm. "I thought you were some stuck-up hotshot from the scars and all, and I've got this mission my tribe that I have to do no matter the cost," she says with a sigh. "I sometimes forget that most trainers train pokemon for sport and not all-out battles. I'm...sorry," she grumbles, looking down at the ground.

'Mission from her tribe?' Lee wonders with a frown, not recalling much about Zinnia other than her Dragon-based team. 'Dragon-something right? Draconids? What was their thing again?'

"Y-Yes. I'm from the Draconid Tribe. How did you know?" Zinnia asks, seemingly caught flat-footed. Her surprise swiftly turns to suspicion as her eyes narrow into ruby slits. "Our tribe isn't well known, and you don't look like you're from Hoenn..."

Brendan looks up at him with surprise as well.

Lee blinks and Brendan laughs. "You got that 'did I say that out loud' face on. You gotta work on that."

The scarred man curses inwardly, this time taking great care to not let his mouth move as he tries to come up with an explanation. "Well, uh. Dragons are pretty rare and..." he hesitates, trying to string his thoughts into something coherent. "When you said you're part of a tribe, the only Dragon trainers from a tribe I can recall are the Draconids. I found a footnote about them during some research I was doing. Um... Brendan and I work with Professor Birch, you see."

"A footnote in what book?" Zinnia presses.

"It was in...'Of Scales and Fire: Dragons and Dragon Tamers'," Lee rattles off, hoping the fake name sounds authentic.

Zinnia hums to herself and backs off. "Sounds interesting. I might have to look it up sometime. I wasn't aware anyone bothered to write about us," she says with a knowing smile, making Lee's spine stiffen.

'Not even one Gym into the circuit and my secret is almost certainly blown. I'm so fucked.'

GROWL!

Brendan yelps and leaps behind Lee, who just freezes at hearing the monstrous sound. Zinnia...

Zinnia blushes and puts a hand over her stomach. "A-Ahaha... I dunno about you two, but some lunch sounds great. Let's get Vulpix checked in and go."

------------------------------------------
"No way! That was actually your first loss ever?!" Zinnia's eyes are wide in disbelief, her meal going ignored for a moment.

After handing over Vulpix's, Mudkip's, Shroomish's, and Shelgon's pokeballs to Nurse Joy in the partially repaired Pokemon Center, the trio of trainers made a short walk to a Oldale's only bistro, a quaint place run by a family, just several minutes away from the Pokemon Center on foot. Lee would have stayed and waited for Vulpix's recovery if it didn't leave Brendan alone with Zinnia. Lee could feel Zinnia's eyes boring into him each step of the way, but she did not pursue her earlier questioning. Sitting down and ordering was a simple affair, and of course, talk turned to the battle less than an hour ago.

Lee sighs and leans back into his chair. "Yes. Yes, it was. I've been a trainer for a grand total of about a month and a half. Don't rub it in please," he mumbles, looking at his and Brendan's empty plates then back to Zinnia's 3rd which is rapidly emptying. 'Where does she put it all?'

The Dragon trainer gulps down her latest bite to answer. "I wasn't about to make fun of you. That's some crazy growth for just being a month into your career. Vulpix is as strong as a pokemon who has been active for years," she says, pausing to finish her meal of rare-almost raw steak and green beans. The food vanishes in three large, rather unladylike bites before she sighs in satisfaction. "I was given Bagon when I turned sixteen almost three years ago and he's no pushover. Both his sire and dam were top-level Dragons and he was close to evolving to boot. Shrimpy there," she points to Brendan, who looks decidedly sour at being called 'shrimpy' "wasn't wrong when he said Vulpix almost won. It's got me curious about you..." Zinnia puts her hand on her chin and leans forward. "What's your secret?"

Lee blinks. "My...secret? I don't understand."

The Draconid woman hums to herself. "Yeahhhh. Likely story," she says with a snort. "That trick Vulpix did when trapped in Bagon's Protect. Most Pokemon would panic without a trainer command, yet she got up and out of the way perfectly. That's not something a rookie pokemon does on their own."

"I've been wondering that too," Brendan chimes in, looking between Lee and Zinnia. "There have been times me and Lee would battle, and Vulpix would just jump into action sometimes. I figured she was just smart and Lee was letting her do her own thing, but the wall jump thing in Protect..." Brendan's eyes stop on Lee, asking for an answer.

'Shit, she's sharp. I guess it was too much to hope she thought my voice was lost in the commotion.'

"That's... Not something I'm willing to answer without Vulpix's input on the matter first," Lee replies carefully, testing each word in his mouth before letting it go. "What you're asking for concerns her too, and I can't give the info if she doesn't want to."

Brendan mulls it over for a moment and groans. "That means 'I'm not telling you' doesn't it?"

Zinnia's brows rise in obvious surprise before falling again. "Huh. Not what I was expecting... buuuuut it makes sense." Then she smiles. "If that's your answer, it really helps me make up my mind."

"Make up your mind on what?" Brendan asks warily, leaning back at her sudden exuberance.

"On whether or not I'm coming with you two or not, duh," she says with a bright grin.

Lee and Brendan exchange glances. "Don't we have to make that call?"

"You can," Zinnia says with a nod. "I'm following regardless," she finishes with a clear laugh. "You, Mister Lee, are too interesting," she says, standing pointing at the bewildered man. "You say you've only been a trainer for a month and some change, but you battle like a pro, you know things, and your pokemon is freaky powerful. I need to grow stronger for my mission to the Draconid Tribe, and I get the feeling hanging around you is just the way to do it!"

"Alright alright!" Lee hisses as people begin to stare at their table. One kid even points before his mother stops him. "Just sit down and stop yelling. We'll discuss everything later."

"Don't I get a say in this?" Brendan whines.

Zinnia beams.

------------------------------------
"Here you are, Mister Henson. Your Vulpix," Nurse Joy says, handing Lee a single warm pokeball with a smile. "I would recommend a day or two of only light training before returning to full activity. The bite on her leg did some considerable damage, but nothing that won't heal."

Lee throws an ugly look towards Zinnia, who is on his left. "I said I was sorry!" She squawks.

He just shakes his head. "Right, C'mon."

The pair head to the mostly restored lounge near the entrance of the Pokemon Center, where a number of trainers and pokemon gather into small groups. Overhead, a radio plays some tinny pop song through old speakers. Lee looks around, marveling over the fact that yesterday this room was a burnt husk but was now deemed safe enough for people and pokemon again. The smoke smell was even gone.

'Gotta hand it to those League workers. They don't mess around.'

Along the far wall a long padded bench runs the entire length, seating a number of people, Brendan being one of them. At the young trainer's feet, his now fresh looking Mudkip and Shroomish voraciously eat some of the Center provided chow from a pair of bowls. Brendan looks up with a smile when the older trainers come close.

Lee sinks down next to Brendan, his eyes firmly glued to Vulpix's ball. With a feather-light tap, he presses the button and the ball explodes open in a flash of light.

Vulpix materializes in his lap and blinks the stars away from her vision, looking up to Lee with soulful brown eyes. In the back of Lee's mind, he can feel Vulpix's mind prodding for access. He lets her in without a second thought.

Lee blinks away a sudden prickling of tears when he feels her sharp and aware mind again, not her pain-filled and barely conscious one. He hugs the vixen close, the feeling of her whole and unbroken body a balm to his frayed nerves.

Vulpix cuddles herself to her human, her curious vulpine purr rolling through her chest. A thin tendril of thought extends from her, letting her see exactly how he fared in her absence.

Not well.

She wraps Lee's mind in her own, and then...

I am well.

You are well.

All is well.

All the stress in Lee's body flows out like a full basin with the drain opened. The tension holding his shoulders and back rigid leaves, letting him lean back into the wall behind him with a sigh, holding Vulpix all the while.

Zinnia watches the sight with a smile. "You really were worried about her, weren't you?" She asks, sitting next to Lee and resting her elbows on her knees.

Lee nods into Vulpix's head tuft. "If something happened to her, they'd have to put me in the nuthouse," he replies, his voice muffled by the warm fox he's hugging.

The Dragon trainer's smile takes on a strained, almost bitter look. "It's crazy how that works, huh?

'...?'

Lee pulls his head up enough to see Zinnia's face before her smile returns to a genuine one. "So, intrepid leader. What next?"

The scarred trainer files Zinnia's words for later and thinks. "Wait. Intrepid leader?"

"You are kind of the leader, Lee," Brendan chimes in, Returning both his pokemon to their balls in flashes of red. "Didn't you say you had a route worked out already?"

"Well, yeah," Lee says, pulling his head up from Vulpix all the way, and the vixen looks up as well. "But that hardly makes me the leader here."

"Sounds pretty leaderly to me," Zinnia says, her smile growing.

"Same!" Says Brendan, also smiling.

Lee rolls his eyes. "Sounds like you two are lazy and just want me to do the work here." When neither denies the accusation, he shakes his head. "We're going to go into town, stock up on supplies, then we can either get on the road tonight or wait until morning considering it's..." Lee pulls his flip phone from his pocket and glances at it. "Almost 3 pm already. Up to you two. Either way, we'll head west via Route 102 to Petalburg which is several days away on foot."

Zinnia hums. "I say let's go today. How 'bout you, shrimpy?"

Brendan scowls. "I'm not shrimpy! For that, I say we stay the night!"

"What? We've got like five hours of light left, that's a good chunk of travel!" Zinnia protests.

"Well, I say we stay anyway!" Brendan says, crossing his arms and turning away.

Zinnia growls "You little..!" she flexes her hands as if about to throttle him

Lee drags a hand down his face. "Of course they'd argue...Oi!" He says, getting the attention of both Brendan and Zinnia. "Flip a coin or something. Don't act like children. I swear to god I'll turn this journey around."

Vulpix just gives a scratchy, vulpine laugh from Lee's lap at his misfortune.
------------------------------
 
Act 1: Logfiles 1
Disclaimer: I don't own Pokemon. Any similarities between real people, living or dead, or places, standing or demolished, in this story are just coincidence.
I am an animal lover, but not exactly an expert. Some biology and behavior referenced in the story may not be 100% accurate, or might even be outright pseudoscience.



--------------------------------
"Day two of being a trainer. Or is it day one? We'll call it two. I've finished giving Vulpix as good a physical as I can without tools or monitoring equipment. She is within the acceptable standards of a canid her size without much significant deviation, her internal temperature and muscle density being the only significant outliers. More on that later. I didn't bother with much cognitive or any intelligence testing. Vulpix was alert and aware during the physical even if she was bored to death. Any intelligence test I could have given would have been outright demeaning to her and easily solved. Suffice to say she is smarter than most of the people I know and probably smarter than myself as well."

The sound pauses for several seconds.

"Let it be known that the crafty fox is still susceptible to a well-placed belly rub and her heart of gold taking pity on hopeless humans. Vulpix's muscle density is incredible. She's like a wall when her muscles are tensed and I know for a fact she is much physically stronger than I pound for pound, and probably just outright stronger than myself or anyone of similar size despite the weight difference. I'll need actual equipment and not just hand-n-eyeball estimates to be sure. Her skin temperature seems to be around one-hundred ten Fahrenheit. Utterly feverish for a person, but very comfortable for her. I don't have an accurate gauge for internal temperature, but just from feeling her breath, I can estimate somewhere close to...At least one-hundred-fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Again, doing this without tools so actual numbers may vary. I'll probably do another physical if Vulpix is feeling up to it in a week's time to confirm these estimates. Lee, out."

--------------------------------
"Log two, day seven. I've finished Vulpix's second physical, this time aided by equipment I've acquired from the local Pokemart. The results of the physical are in line with my prior observations. Her average skin temperature is one-hundred-twelve point four degrees Fahrenheit, with internal temp resting at about one-hundred-eighty one point seven, both in the average range of the Vulpix line according to my research. Once I devise some tests, I'll be giving her supernatural strength a tryout to get some baselines."

"While I am satisfied with her current health, her ongoing health I am still planning for. One thing I've found lacking is store-bought pokemon food. The 'league recommended' brands all have a serious lack of nutritional information available, some only giving estimates while others use 'an optimal blend of meats, veggies, and berries' as some sort of sidestep. I don't trust like that. I would not feed any animal in my care something I myself would not eat, and I'm sure as hell not trusting Vulpix's health to something that cannot even give me an ingredient list. I've made full preparation to produce her food myself. If Vulpix is an omnivore like mundane vulpines, and I'm sure she is, then her diet plan should be an easy build."

"...Don't look at me like that, love. I mean 'diet' in a nutritionist sense, not a 'you're overweight' sense. You're as fit and beautiful as they come and I want you to stay that way."

"Anyway, we were training outside with Vulpix's moveset earlier. We've made good progress on tightening the spread of Ember, which I suspect will be Vulpix's main projectile attack until she learns Flamethrower. Even then, Ember should be a good fallback in the event that Flamethrower becomes too energy-consuming from some reason, like in a long battle. Strong foundations and all that. I have noticed something odd, however. Like most fire pokemon, Vulpix launches her attack from her mouth, taking a short time to charge before actually shooting. Although she breathes in to charge, her exhale is inconsistent with the potency of the attack, Ember, in this case."

"I've found a surprising lack of information on pokemon physical training regimens outside of the obvious 'battle a diverse range of pokemon'. Why? I have no idea. I'll have to adapt something for Vulpix. An obstacle course or something? Eh, it's a start."

"We also battled Brendan and his starter, Mudkip today. Despite his type advantage, Mudkip found himself defeated by Vulpix. I admit I was... reluctant to be aggressive during this battle to Vulpix's ire. I guess I still have a few old hangups about animals being harmed. Mudkip's swift recovery definitely sets my mind at ease. I forgot just how hardy pokemon are. Anyway, that's it for now. Lee, out.

--------------------------------
"Log three, day... Which day again?"

"Vulpix Vul!"

"Right, right, day eighteen. I meant to do this log earlier, but so much has happened recently that I sort of lost myself in the excitement. A lot is going on, so I'll try and condense this down to the main points. The main main one? Vulpix's pyrokinesis."

"I can scarcely believe it. A fluke of observation and a vaguely recalled reference from a fake Pokedex entry lead to this. I've searched far and wide, through books and the internet, but the reports of the phenomena seems limited to legends of ancient Ninetales on out-of-date occult websites. How no one has discovered this, I have no idea. I'm suddenly thinking the secondary fairy typing of the Alola Ninetales may apply to the usual Vulpix line as well, at least in part. I'll how to put in some more research in order to learn how to test this. As for practical use, it took several days of meditation and attempted practice for us to realize how much of a willpower and emotional component there is to the pyrokinesis. Vulpix can focus as hard as she likes, but if she doesn't want it, then nothing will happen. I sort of expected a more, I dunno, structured activation, but this lends some credit to my minor fairy typing theory. Vulpix, with the appropriate motivation, can induce spontaneous combustion on flammable materials. Tests with a laser thermometer find that the combustion truly is spontaneous, as there is no discernable heat source being applied to the test media, yet the temperature rapidly rises to ignition when Vulpix so wills it. Testing with her move set is still ongoing, but with the sharp improvement to Ember and Fire Spin's power and accuracy, it's obvious Vulpix is already applying what she's learned to her techniques. Proud of you, love."

"Vul!"

"Moving on. I'm still experimenting with Vulpix's diet. The first few rounds made a solid base but proved a bit lacking in calorie count. I failed to account for Vulpix's supernatural abilities, high brain activity, and training meaning a higher rate of calorie burn. My original mix consisted of a base of 85/15 ground beef and eggs for protein and fatty acids, wild rice for carbs and starches, diced carrots, broccoli, peas, and cauliflower for fiber and a medley of vitamins and minerals, a few slivers of supplements for anything I missed, and finally a few pinches of spices for taste. Certainly better than the premix garbage, right love?"

"Pix!"

"Heh. I started by giving her about one and a half cups a day divided into two meals, about six-hundred calories worth total. When she began to tire the next day during training, we went up to two cups, roughly nine-hundred calories. Again, she began to tire out about halfway through the day. Three cups was better, but Vulpix still petered out early. That's when it hit me. At first, I was worried and thought I was doing something wrong, as the helpings I was giving her were much larger than the premix servings she was eating, so I began to research berries as a potential way to overcome this. At the same time, I upped Vulpix's meals to four and a half cups a day, over two-thousand calories, doubtful she could eat it all, yet she did so without any discomfort. Shows I've still got a lot to learn about pokemon..."

"Anyway, I suspect that normal premix food is a huge helping of carbs for energy with some supplements thrown in to meet minimum nutritional requirements, as it's the only way I can explain Vulpix being able to function a full day on a smaller amount of food. Vulpix certainly hasn't protested the menu change, so we'll stick to it and see. Lee, out."

--------------------------------
"Log four, day twenty-five. It's only been a week or so since my last update. Vulpix's pyrokinesis continuously makes small but steady improvements. The newfound control of her fire means Vulpix can fire her Embers in a thin stream or a wide cone. She can even control the trajectory of the Embers after they've been fired. Actually manifesting flames still seems beyond her, but I'm certain we'll figure it out and be inventing new moves soon enough."

"Vulpix is still responding well to hand-made food. Her performance is showing noticeable improvements now, as she broke her previous best time on the rudimentary obstacle course I made for her by a full second. She's also gained about an eighth of a pound, but I could not feel any formation of fat on her body when I felt for it. I'll keep an eye on that, but I have doubts that its unhealthy fat gain considering her daily exercise. I did alter her diet a tiny bit after I made some headway on my study of berries."

"Berries must be some sort of miracle material, as their properties simply boggle my mind. If what various sources I've looked into are correct, Oran promotes bodily homeostasis with a jolt of near-instantly digested energy and acts as a mild, non-addictive pain killer on top of being naturally antibiotic, antiviral, antiseptic, and sweet on the tongue."

"Pardon my french, but that is fucking bonkers. If the Oran existed back home, it would be hailed as the end-all, be-all natural cure for everything from being ugly to stage-4 cancer."

"But the Sitrus berry makes the Oran's ability look like a common party trick. I didn't believe what I read at first and had to look around to other sources to make sure someone wasn't pranking me. One bite of Sitrus induces full-blown cellular regeneration. Not cell division, actual regeneration of dead and damaged cells and the spontaneous generation of new, healthy cells at a rate I want to call impossible. I can't even process that. That's...Look, professor, I know these logs are for you, but holy shit I need to get my thoughts down. That is so fucking insane to me, it quite literally is a miracle. I'm not a terribly religious man, but that kind of thing fucks with you... It also explains the obscene price tag on some berries. Almost ten grand for a single grade A Lum berry? Kiss my ass."

"Okay, okay, on with the relevant stuff. After making sure mixing Oran with other foods didn't cause some sort of strange reaction, I've been adding Oran slivers to Vulpix's food. They're well mixed in to promote a gradual release of the enzymes responsible for their special properties. I'm hoping the added Oran promotes muscle recovery post-training and mental acuity for her pyro powers. That's it for today. Lee, out."

--------------------------------
"Log five, day thirty. All the shit with Team Rocket and Ash has concluded and I'm sitting in bed. We got our first taste of combat with a high-leveled pokemon, no matter how brief it was. Even delirious, Pikachu proved himself to be a real danger. His Thunderbolt nearly fried Vulpix even with telepathy cutting order and reaction time to almost nothing."

"Oh yeah. Recently, Vulpix and I have been taking advantage of the Vulpix line's minor psychic abilities and have been practicing to incorporate telepathic communication into our style. Telepathy is... Strange. There are no words, just urges and feelings. After recalling yet another gamedex entry, I had Vulpix read my mind when we first met so she could verify my story. That's where her heart of gold showed and she decided to help me rather than leave the crazy human and take off. Ah, right there. Love, don't contort your pretty face with that frown, I can feel your anger just fine. I know you would never leave me. So, back to the battle. Issuing a command and strategizing via telepathy is infinitely faster than doing so verbally. Something I've found is that I can 'overshadow' Vulpix in a manner. I can plug myself into her senses in a minor way, see what she sees, hear what she hears. I can't exert any control over her, nor would I want to, but I can add my focus, my emotion to her, magnifying her powers. Some might see this as profoundly intimate, but I've already laid my soul bare to her before, and she didn't find me wanting then. If I was ever so close to anyone, I'm glad it's Vulpix."

"I'd say more, but... I'm tired. I'll try to update again soon. Lee, out."

--------------------------------
"Log six, day thirty-fi- no, thirty-six. The clock just struck midnight. I'm tired as all hell so we'll keep this short. Brendan and I had our first real crisis today. A pissed Manectric blew out the entire Oldale Pokemon Center's electrical system and triggered a huge fire. Vulpix and I ran into an unexpected weakness in her pyrokinesis while helping to put out the fire. We tried to pull the oxygen away from the flames to extinguish large areas at once. It simply kept slipping. Vulpix and I opened our telepathic channel as wide as we dared and I added all my brainpower to hers, but still manipulating the oxygen escaped us. In a desperate bid, we tried pulling the flames away from the Center and then releasing control, and to the surprise of both of us, it worked. The previously flaming area was left fire-free, so I had Brendan and Mudkip soak the spots we put out to stop re-ignition. Using that method, we helped the fire department put out the external fires, which left the still burning inside. Officer Jenny and her Azumarill were taking their sweet time, having rushed in to evacuate any people or pokemon still trapped. After mulling it over, Vulpix and I went inside.

"I gotta admit, seeing all the fire reminded me of... a less pleasant time, but Vulpix and I powered through. We found the previously mentioned Manectric cornering Jenny, Azumarill, and a Center intern in the egg nursery."

Professor, this Manectric had to have been tall enough to look me in the eye. Cracking fur, enraged eyes, the whole nine yards. This was not a fight a battered Azumarill and Vulpix could have won. I was convinced for a moment we were about to die, as Manectric clearly had no problem attacking humans considering Jenny had electrical burns. Then Vulpix noticed the intern was clutching an Electrike egg and informed me that Manectric was female."

"A pissed mom. I've unfortunately run into these before. I know this is what you're wanting most, professor, so I'll try to be detailed."

"She wasn't thinking clearly and zeroed in on me, now the largest thing in the room. I averted my eyes and slowly lowered myself in a way most canines would recognize as submissive. Being careful to not bare my teeth, lest she taking it as an act of aggression, I spoke in a soft voice, informing her that she was superior in this situation and that we acknowledged that she was wronged by the theft. Thankfully, she knew English and/or was able to read my tone and eased herself down a little more with every assurance. The intern was reluctant to give me the egg, saying it was slated to go to Professor Sycamore, but potential death via electrocution convinced her to make the smart choice. I set the egg down at a halfway point and let Manectric inspect it. She apparently found everything to her liking, as she took the egg and left without incident."

"The Mayor of Oldale was nice enough to get Brendan and myself hotel rooms for the trouble, now if you don't mind, I need some fucking sleep. Lee, out."

--------------------------------
Nigel Birch leans back into his chair in his office within the Little Root Lab, staring at the ceiling with his mind running a million miles a minute.

Less than two months. In less than two months his newest lab trainer, a man displaced through dimensions, has shed light on several mysteries and probably kickstarted new fields of research.

Why has no Vulpix before displayed these powers? Does the Vulpix line actually have some fairy in them? And using telepathy mid-battle? Sharing senses? Psychics all over said it couldn't be done by anything less than a Legendary using brute force. It was impossible. Humans and Pokemon were just too different in their mental makeup, and yet...

"All from looking at things a little differently..." Birch mumbles to himself, still lost in his own swirling thoughts. Then the final log jumps out at him again.

'Lee should be dead.' Birch can't bring himself to say it aloud. A single bead of cold sweat runs down his brow. 'Manectric are vicious, unpredictable pokemon at the best of times. A mother out to recover a stolen egg? She should have attacked. All logic says she would be on a warpath.' Birch lets out a shaking breath. 'Being submissive, is that all it takes? No. There has to be more to it. Lee took an extraordinary amount of caution, but most pokemon would just see it as a useless platitude.'

Birch looks out the window in his office, watching a small formation of Tailow fly by.

"Lee, what did you do differently?" He murmurs aloud.
 
Depending on some feedback from a few sources, I might have a spin-off or other things to post in the NSFW writing section. The court is still out on that one, but we'll see.
Uh, wow.
To be frank, didn't really expect that sort of thing after all the low-key drama over at SB whenever certain things are brought up.

Still, I'm utterly down for whatever you have.
You have kinda proven yourself as a damn good writer, so imma follow whatever, and I recon there are plenty people just in the same boat.

It ain't like most people are gunning for Lee/Vulpix NSFW action specifically, anyway.

The way you made them as characters and developed their relationship for rl years is what makes them so great to look on from the outside, and made people ask "wait, are they actually a thing?" until you have given a definitive answer in latest interlude.

All very natural in progression and believable and so damn fluffy tail.

They are a very rare case of a fictional relationship done in a way that it can work great as platonic or romantic or something in-between at authorial discretion.

Anyway, I accept this story going here on QQ as a sign. Time to give another re-read!
 
Fascinating, intriguing, I dare say this is one of the best Pokémon fics I have read. I nearly lost my interest with the abrupt introduction of Vulpix, but I held on and was greatly rewarded. I love how you cover the PTSD and you have made me verbally go "aww" at Vulpix's behavior and support. I watch this thread with great interest.
 
Act 1: Chapter 8
Disclaimer: I don't own Pokemon. Any similarities between real people, living or dead, or places, standing or demolished, in this story are just coincidence.
I am an animal lover, but not exactly an expert. Some biology and behavior referenced in the story may not be 100% accurate, or might even be outright pseudoscience.
A big thanks to Habanero as a patron.
And a HUGE thanks to a hero who wishes to go unnamed who dropped a one-time $50 for me. Like holy shit man. You are a legend and I'm a little upset I can't give you the recognition you deserve.


--------------------------------------------
"Not ringing any bells at all?"

Shroomish glances around the well-beaten path leading into the shaded Petalburg Woods, his eyes lethargic but never totally stopping. He looks up at Lee and shakes his head with a grumble, making the man's shoulders slump some. On his shoulders, Vulpix noses his cheek.

To Lee's right, Brendan shrugs in his pokemon's stead while Zinnia advances a few steps and stares into the gloom of the woods. "It was worth a shot, at least," Zinnia comments as Brendan returns Shroomish to his ball. "Petalburg woods does have a huge Shroomish population after all," she finishes.

Lee and company had briefly passed through Petalburg on their way to Rustboro, just long enough to top off their supplies but not long enough to truly see anything important. Lee himself was sorely tempted to visit Petalburg's large Pokemart, one much more impressive than Little Root or Oldale's but held off, reasoning that Rustboro's would suffice.

"Old fashioned way, then," Lee says with a sigh. He starts towards the trodden path with Zinnia falling into step with him. "Keep an eye out. Vulpix? Could you scan around with your telepathy as we walk and see what you find?"

"Vul," She confirms, her eyes already glowing dully.

"Well, how hard could a whole Treecko colony be to find?" Brendan asks, folding his arms behind his head as he follows a step behind the pair of older trainers.

Zinnia hums to herself for a moment. "Pretty hard, I'd think," she chimes, "Treecko are rare pokemon, so I'mma guess they're really good at hiding from nosy people." She's silent for a moment before asking; "Say, why are we doing the gym route this way? Wasn't there a gym in Petalburg?"

"Yeah," Brendan says with a scoff. "But the Petalburg Gym Leader is Norman Maple, one of my dad's old friends. He's a Normal-type specialist and one of the toughest gym leaders in Hoenn. It's a good call to skip him and come back later. Roxanne, meanwhile, is a newer gym leader without any evolved pokemon yet. Me, Mudkip, and Shroomish will wipe the floor with her, and I'm sure Lee can pull a win even with just Vulpix."

"Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall," Zinnia smirks. "Real confident, aren't you?"

"Roxanne has barely a fifty percent win rate. Of course, I'm confident."

The dragon tamer shakes her head, smirk still in place. "That's how you end up on the losing side of that win rate, shrimpy."

Brendan scowls, but Lee jumps in before he can start an argument with Zinnia. "She's got a point, Brendan," Lee says, looking around as the forest canopy begins to envelop them in darkness. "A fifty percent win rate means she's still regularly sending trainers packing. She might have some sort of strat or hidden gimmick to her style. Don't tempt fate because fate will fuck with you if you do."

The boy grumbles to himself but doesn't argue any further.

As the three follow the beaten dirt path deeper into the forest, the tree-cover thickens until their sole illumination is shafts of golden sunlight that shoot through the few holes in the canopy like spears. The whisper of the wind through the dense trees plays a gentle, natural melody with the sounds of the wildlife. Above, the sound of Taillow chirping and flitting through the branches contrast with the scattered cries of distant Poochyena. In the distance, a pair of Beautifly flutter soundlessly through the air, passing a patch of sunlight and vanishing behind a thicket, leaving behind tiny, glittering wing scales in the light that settle to the ground. A tree filled with nothing but Seedot watches the three trainers pass by as a pair of Nincada on the trunk scuttle away.

"It's like something right out of a fairy tale," Lee breathes quietly. He glances at both Brendan and Zinnia, neither of whom seem as impressed as he with the Petalburg Woods. 'Of course, they're not impressed. This is normal for them.'

But for all the wonderful sights the woods afforded, there is no Treecko to be found even after two, almost three hours of walking.

Finally, Zinnia calls for a timeout. "Alrighty boys, I think it's time for a break," she says, stopping the party. She glances up to one of the shafts of sunlight. "It's probably one PM or so, in other words..." She grins. "Lunchtime!"

"You've been snacking as we've been walking this whole time," Brendan deadpans. "How are you still hungry? You can try and hide that jerky under your cloak and pretend you're slick all you like, I've seen you."

Silently, Lee agrees with him. Zinnia... isn't the subtle type.

Zinnia smiles, her ruby red eyes filled with mirth. "Peeking in my cloak, eh? Why Brendan! You just need to ask if you want to see anything~!" she flares her cloak out behind her and strikes a provocative pose.

Lee can both see and feel Vulpix's frown of disapproval.

"You keep the front open all the time. That doesn't exactly hide anything, thot." Brendan rolls his eyes. He yelps when Zinnia stalks forward and pinches his cheek.

"You can at least humor me," Zinnia hisses through a tight, not-so-amused smile. "Lee? Are you teaching him words like that?"

Lee wisely looks away. "Kids these days..." He mutters, trying to hide his smile.

All the pokemon between the three trainers are released in short order as the group settles under a large tree for a short lunch. After Zinnia releases Brendan, that is.

Brendan sits and crosses his legs as he rubs his smarting cheek with a pout. Under his breath, he mutters about "stupid dragon ladies who can't take any banter." Mudkip pats his knee with a low croak, trying to offer some comfort. The boy trainer smiles down to his starter and gives him a rub on his smooth head, making the mudfish pokemon smile and lean into the touch.

"'Least you and Shroomish are on my side, pal," Brendan smiles at Mudkip and turns to look at Shroomish, only to spy a food bowl with no Shroomish.

"Oh shoot!" Brendan shoots to his feet, almost throwing Mudkip off and making the entire group jump. "Where did Shroomish go?! Hey! Shroomish!" He calls into the woods, hands cupped around his mouth. Mudkip joins a second later, bellowing out loudly into the woods.

Lee follows Brendan's eyes to the food bowl, instantly noting the food left as he stands as well, stuffing the last bite of his sandwich in his mouth and hurriedly gulping it down. "No need to freak out, Brendan. He's not a fast pokemon, he couldn't have got far," he says, throwing his trash and Vulpix's empty bowl into his bag.

"Swablu, fly up and see if you can find the little mushroom!" Zinnia orders as she gets up herself, her usual playful expression gone in favor of a more serious face. She swiftly returns her quivering Goomy to his ball, but the ever stoic Shelgon remains out.

The little bird pokemon responds with an affirmative trill and quickly rises up as high as she can without being lost to the overhanging canopy.

"Vulpix," Lee begins as the vixen takes her usual spot on his shoulders. "Can you psychically scan around and see if you can find him?"

She nods, her eyes already glowing before she closes them in concentration. A moment later, she shakes her head, feeding Lee a feeling of futility through their mental channel.

Too many. Too similar. Overlapping.

'Well shit. I hope Swablu has a sharp eye then.'

Vulpix growls lowly in her throat, some of her self-disappointment bleeding through to her trainer.

'Love, don't think like that. It's just an area to grow and improve in is all,' Lee sends back, reaching up to stroke her furry cheek. 'We'll have you baffling actual Psychic-types with your skill before you know it.'

The vixen leans into the hand, the disappointment stemming in favor of contentment.

"Shroomish already indicated that he didn't know the Petalburg Woods at all, so where could he have wandered off to?" Zinnia wonders aloud, pulling Lee and Vulpix's thoughts back to the current crisis. "I don't really see anything worth running off for around here." She states, her lips pulling down into a frown.

Brendan's hands ball up as he looks all around him, his face contorting into the beginnings of fright. "You don't think he was taken, do you?"

'Right here, in front of all of us?'

"I don't think someone snagged him right under our noses like that," Zinnia says, crossing her arms as she shakes her head. "He probably just wandered off. It's a big forest, after all."

"Wandering away from his lunch?" Brendan asks, shaking his own head. "No way. He would eat until he bursts if given the chance. I have no idea what could drag him away from his food."

"Swaaaaaaa!"

The three trainers and their pokemon look up as Swablu flys back into view, chirping incessantly as she lands on a high branch. The bluebird hops to a further branch and looks at them, seemingly waiting for them to follow.

"See shrimpy?" Zinnia says with a smile. "Swablu found him."

The trainers and pokemon follow at a brisk pace behind Swablu as she leads them down a thin path through some undergrowth. As they walk, Vulpix raises her nose and sniffs the air. After a moment, she pokes Lee's mind with her own and offers the scent she found.

'Jeez, that's almost overpoweringly sweet, even second-hand,' Lee sends back as he pushes a low branch away. His nose tingles from the phantom sensation. 'What could it be? Did Shroomish wander away for this scent?'

When the group bursts out of the thick brush, they all find themselves in another small clearing.

At the far end, a content Shroomish sits next to a bush where several Pecha berries hang. All the lower branches of the bush are devoid of any berries, making the pink stains around the little mushroom's mouth very telling.

Brendan breathes a sigh of relief at seeing his pokemon fine and in one piece. He walks ahead of the group and picks up Shroomish, who doesn't protest at all. "Did you really have to scare me like that, pal?" Brendan asks with a sigh. "I thought something happened to you..."

Shroomish seems to come out of his food-coma and blinks, grumbling something in his wet voice.

Lee glances over to the vixen on his shoulder. "Any idea what he said? I still can't read plant faces."

Vulpix yawns.

Remorse. Insincere.

"Figures..."

"I'm guessing Shroomish isn't sorry?" Zinnia guesses, glancing between Lee and Vulpix.

Vulpix answers her with a simple nod.

Zinnia and Shelgon stroll up to the bush Shroomish was feasting from. The young woman plucks one of the higher berries off and pops it into her mouth, her face lighting up. "Wow, I totally understand why he wandered away," she says through her bite of berry. "Natural Pecha is just as good as they say." She takes another one and offers it to Shelgon, who turns it down.

Lee follows shortly and grabs a pair. He bites down on one and gives the other to Vulpix, who snaps it up and gladly eats, her fan of tails wagging.

'Oh man, that's... not bad,' Lee thinks. In just a few chews the soft berry is little more than a sweet paste that goes down easily. 'I was expecting it to be disgustingly overpowering from the scent... Or does your nose make it seem overly sweet to my human senses?'

Vulpix declines to answer in favor of licking her chops to get the last bit of Pecha flavor.

"Either way, we'll save a few of these just in case something around here knows Poison Sting or something," Lee quietly finishes verbally, grabbing a few of the Pecha and tossing them into his bag.

Without warning, both Shelgon and Vulpix tense up. From Vulpix, Lee feels something he has no name for, but the feeling makes his spine tingle.

Zinnia notices Shelgon's sudden stillness. "Shelgon? What wrong?" Zinnia wonders aloud.

Above, the leaves shake and something darts into view.

All eyes turn to a tree branch above the Pecha bush, where a... a...

Lee blinks when he comes up with no answer. 'The fuck is that thing?' he wonders, reaching for his Pokedex.

On the branch sits a crow-like bird nearly three feet tall, coated in metallic blue and black feathers. Its eyes, a bright red, look between the Pecha bush and the still pink-stained Shroomish with a narrow stare. Its talons knead and tear the wood branch below it as if the wood were paper mache.

Brendan beats Lee to the punch and pulls his Pokedex out first, pointing it at the mystery bird. The Pokedex comes to life with a beep. "Corvisquire, the Raven Pokemon. Corvisquire are intelligent, Flying-type pokemon native to the Galar region. They use their impressive intellect to use tools both in battle and in everyday life. As a result of many harsh battles, Corvisquire are masters of gauging an opponent's strength."

Lee racks his brain. 'Galar? Was that the new region in the Switch games? I never got to play those! Why the fuck is this pokemon in Hoenn?' Then the last part of the dex entry hits him. 'Masters of gauging an opponent's strength?' Lee looks back up at Corvisquire, the pokemon's facial expression and ruffled feathers give away how furious the pokemon is, and the murder in it's eyes for Shroomish is all too apparent. 'Vulpix and Shelgon sense something amiss, then this pokemon comes and thinks it can take on a Shelgon, a Vulpix, and a Shroomish?'

"Oh shit."

That's all Lee can get out before Corvisquire dives down at Brendan and Shroomish, talons poised to shred both of them.

"Quick Attack!"

Corvisquire banks away just as Vulpix blasts through where he would have been, the vixen missing him by just inches. Vulpix bounds off a tree in her path and leaps back to Lee's side in a single jump. The bird pokemon circles back around in the air, malice-filled eyes now locked onto Vulpix.

Lee uses the instant to glance around. 'Cramped clearing with a ton of foliage to catch fire. Gotta be careful with Fire moves. If we try to run to a new place to fight, Corvisquire will have free rein to attack us in the back as we move through the underbrush. Corvisquire is fast and can move in three dimensions freely, making great use of the limited room. If he's as intelligent as I think he is, then we'll need to pull out all the stops. Not good...'

"Brendan, Zinnia, back up!" Lee calls to his friends, making them look at him. "It's too cramped for all three of us to fight. Let myself and Vulpix handle this."

Before either can protest, Corvisquire lets out a bone-rattling "Caw!" and charges Vulpix again, flying in tight, expert zig-zags.

"Baby-Doll Eyes!" Lee calls. He glances back at Zinnia and Brendan. "Move!"

Zinnia grabs a protesting Brendan and pulls him away, back towards the edge of the clearing. Shelgon takes a stance in front of the trainers, sparks of green trailing his form, the telltale sign of a ready Protect.

Vulpix's eyes light up pink and focus on Corvisquire, casting a gentle, eerie light in the darkened woods.

Corvisquire falters mid-air as his muscles slacken against his will, but he recovers rapidly and turns away mid-air, his wings now glowing white. With an echoing cry, the raven pokemon shoots a barrage of starry rays at Vulpix with a downward flap of his wings.

'Shit! Swift!'

"Intercept it with Ember!" Lee cries. Mentally, he reaches out to Vulpix and lands in her waiting psychic grasp. 'Ready up Quick Attack as well. We'll blitz him as soon as Swift is taken care of.'

With nary a second to charge the attack, Vulpix exhales a stream of tiny fireballs, each one screaming through the air with flyers swerving into Swift's path thanks to her pyrokinesis. The stars and fireballs explode with jarring pops and cracks when they meet, and the instant the last star is gone, Vulpix is in motion.

Corvisquire's eyes widen and he almost manages to barrel roll out of the way of the speeding vixen. Instead of the clean dodge he tried for, Corvisquire is still clipped against his side, sending him spiraling out of control toward the ground.

Vulpix lands against the side of a tree paws-first, still wreathed in her coat of Normal energy.

'Again.'

She blasts off the tree, flying towards the falling Corvisquire.

The edges of the raven's beak suddenly upturn in a parody of a smile, then he shoots his wings out and he corrects his flight as if he never lost control, shooting straight up and out of Vulpix's way.

Both Lee's and Vulpix eyes widen 'Shit! Vulpix!'

The fox twists mid-air and cancels Quick Attack, landing roughly and awkwardly on her paws, but Lee can still feel the pain that shoots up her legs. Hovering above, Corvisquire laughs mockingly in scratchy caws.

'So he wants to play like that, huh? On my mark, love.' Lee frowns. "Two can play at that game. Vulpix, Will-o-wisp!"

Vulpix opens her mouth and charges a white-hot ball of flames. It's so hot, that even from several yards away, Lee grimaces and turns his head when his scars begin to sting.

Corvisquire's mocking laughter stops as he watches Vulpix warily. When the Will-o-wisp shoots past him, missing entirely, Corvisquire just laughs harder.

He never notices the ball of fire do a perfect one-eighty turn and shoot back at him twice as fast. Both Brendan and Zinnia gasp behind Lee.

Corvisquire's laughter quickly turns to agony when Will-o-wisp crashes into his back and engulfs him in flames. The raven writhes mid-air and plummets to the ground where he bounces once and stops. As quickly as they came, the flames burn out, leaving Corvisquire with a gruesome burn across his back.

Lee's hair stands on end as his own burns flare with phantom pain. 'Were we too rough?' He wonders. Vulpix is quick to give him the psychic equivalent to a jab in the side and pull his attention back to the battle.

Corvisquire's red eyes shoot back open, now filled with utter hate.

'I guess not...'

The bird's face contorts into an absolutely nightmarish visage, his entire face filled with bloodlust as he stands.

Vulpix's frame stiffens and her mind prickles with growing fear. Unnatural fear not her own.

'Was that Scary Face?' Lee wonders. Either way, he's quick to smother Vulpix with warm waves of adoration like she often does from him, pushing the fear away. It takes only a second for the vixen to relax again and return his affection.

Corvisquire's frightful face drops into confusion at seeing Vulpix smile of all things before morphing back into anger. The bird grimaces when ruffling his feathers pulls at his burns, but he none-the-less takes to the sky again, moving and flapping his wings as if he weren't burned at all.

'What a tough son-of-a-bitch. No wonder he came in here so confident. He's definitely not normal.' Lee sends to Vulpix, who physically nods. 'Here he comes!'

Corvisquire dives like he's about to attack, but instead swoops out of reach. He calls out a long, taunting note and shakes his tail feathers as he circles around.

Again, feelings that don't belong to Vulpix invade her mind, this time a horrid rage that simmers just below her skin. She looks back at Lee with a growl, her body shaking as she almost begs for an attack to be called.

Like last time, Lee pulls on her mind. 'Vulpix, love. Snap out of it! He used Taunt on you! Don't fall for it!' He tries to soothe her as best he can, and slowly Vulpix's anger calms. Her growls quiet and her shaking stops.

Above, the raven lands on a branch and looks as flabbergasted as his bird face will let him. Taunt failing truly threw him for a loop.

'I think I get how he fights...' Lee sends to Vulpix, both of them carefully watching Corvisquire. 'He uses speed and misdirection to get his foe to make mistakes, then he jumps in and punishes said mistake. His inability to make you mess up is throwing him off. If he were against a slower opponent or one who doesn't have outside help to shake off mental effects...' Lee's mind goes to Zinnia and Brendan's pokemon. Shelgon and Mudkip might have the power and mental fortitude to go toe-to-toe with Corvisquire, but their poor speed would be their undoing. Shroomish, Goomy, and Swalbu would be outright overwhelmed. 'We're the best to fight him. We just need to run the clock on him as his burn will wear down his ability to fight the longer this goes on. Keep it up.'

Corvisquire apparently decides the lull in fighting is over and vanishes. An instant later, he's upon Vulpix with his beak glowing white. Vulpix can't even flinch before she's stabbed over and over on her face and side. She yowls in pain and breathes a tongue of flame out in an instinctual attack, but the blue and black raven blurs out of reality again, leaving her attack to miss.

"What the fuck?!" Lee cries, looking all around only to see Corvisquire coming a second too late. He swoops down as little more than a flicker and stabs Vulpix over and over once again in a near-invisible Fury Attack. The vixen tries again to attack with a short blast of fire, but Corvisquire is gone yet again.

Vulpix pants and stands on shaky legs. Her sides are a mess of lacerations and stab wounds that slowly bleed, turning her orange coat a deep red. Her eyes scan around, but her avian foe is nowhere to be found.

'Shit shit shit! He's just going all out! He must know he can't drag this out with a burn!' Lee tries to pull back his panic, but even Vulpix's slowly hazing mind can recognize her trainer's distress, making her stand taller.

Just in time for Corvisquire to divebomb her.

Coming down through the canopy, the bird pokemon lets out a terrible screech and lands on Vulpix's back, throwing her down and knocking the wind from her. His beak glows white, then he launches his Fury Attack like a jackhammer, pelting Vulpix's back, making her throw her head back and scream with each stab.

'No no no! Not again! You can't get hurt, not out here!' Lee tries to move but is frozen. He shuts his eyes and reaches for her, widening their channel more than ever before. He grits his teeth past the echos of Vulpix's pain the widened channel brings and focuses. 'Focus on my voice, love. We're forcing him off now!' Lee screws his eyes shut and pours everything he has in the next words.

"Fire Spin!"

Vulpix's eyes snap open, glowing an impossibly bright orange.

The clearing erupts into flames.

Lee opens his eyes, hearing nothing past the thunder of his own heartbeat. His mouth slowly drops open.

All-round Vulpix and Lee, a whirling twister of pure fire easily thirty feet across is borne from seemingly nowhere. Corvisquire screeches as he's dragged into the twisting, towering inferno that burns through the canopy. The fiery winds throw the bird pokemon around ruthlessly, burning him with another screech each time he bounces off the almost-solid tornado of fire. At the top of the Fire Spin, the smoking, long-since unconscious Corvisquire is carelessly flung out into the distance.

Yet, Lee's scars don't react at all to the heat. He isn't even warm. He looks down, seeing a perfect circle of grass around him untouched by the flames.

She would never hurt you.

A glow even greater than the fire draws his attention.

Just a few yards away, Vulpix, standing tall even with her wounds, looks at him with unblinking eyes the same color as Hell itself.

Slowly, the Fire Spin dies down, revealing the now burnt-out clearing. Fire Spin had turned everything it touched to ash instantly, leaving nothing in its wake.

Vulpix's eyes return to their soulful chocolate color. A second later, she sways on her feet and falls to a sitting position where she pants, total exhaustion radiating from her form.

"Holy shit..." Lee looks around at the devastation. Thankfully, it looks like the sheer intensity of the Fire Spin burned out everything without starting a wildfire. Looking up, he sees a perfect circle burnt in the trees above.

'Wait...'

"Brendan! Zinnia!" Lee whirls around, spotting the green dome of Shelgon's Protect at the edge of the once clearing. At Lee's voice, the dome drops, revealing a panting Shelgon, dumbstruck Zinnia, and ecstatic Brendan. Shroomish is nowhere to be found, but Lee spies his ball on Brendan's belt.

"That was the absolute coolest!" Brendan yells, running to Lee and kicking up soot with every step. "I've never seen a Fire Spin so powerful before! How did Vulpix do that?"

Lee lets out a relieved half-laugh and takes his backpack off, opening it to pull his Potion out. "She's just strong. Stronger than even I realized," he says, stepping closer to Vulpix. She barely seems to acknowledge him past her exhaustion but stands on shaking legs so Lee can get at all her wounds.

Zinnia and Shelgon follow shortly after. Both just watch Lee give each of Vulpix's wounds a generous spray of Potion before Zinnia finally speaks up. "You know, some warning would have been nice," she says, tone even. "If not for Shelgon, shrimpy and I would have been toast. Very burnt toast at that."

Lee can only shrug as he looks up to her unusually stoic face. "Sorry. I trusted Shelgon to pop Protect if needed. I don't think any of us expected that pokemon to be so strong as to require that. I know I didn't." He takes a moment to reach in his bag for a water bottle and a cleaning rag, then pours some water over Vulpix's now closed wounds and wipes away the blood in her coat as best he can. "I don't know if that's how all Corvisquire fight, or if he was trained. I know Corvisquire are not naturally found in Hoenn either way."

The dragon tamer doesn't reply and instead looks in the direction that the Corvisquire flew in. "Should we go check on it?"

"We probably should," Brendan says with a nod. "If he's owned, then his trainer needs to take responsibility for Corvisquire attacking us. If not... That might be an even bigger problem."

Lee puts his Potion and water away, instead drawing an Oran from his bag that he offers to Vulpix, who scarfs down the berry and quickly perks up with the burst of energy it gives. "How is that a larger problem? A potential invasive population?" Lee questions.

Brendan nods. "Yeah. If there is a population moving in, then we gotta tell the League so they can be relocated back to, where was it again? Galar?"

"Good luck," Zinnia begins, she pulls Shelgon's ball from her cloak and points it at him. "Excitement is over, rest for a bit pal," with that, she returns Shelgon back to his ball and turns back to the boys. "Galar is good and far away. They're not too open to outsiders either."

Brendan frowns and crosses his arms. "Well if they have a League presence, then they gotta respond. C'mon!" The boy turns and begins to walk.

Zinnia shakes her head and follows after.

Lee looks down at Vulpix, who looks dog-tired in her blood-stained, ruffled fur, but she still hops to Lee's shoulders and settles down for a nice nap. The man just runs a gentle hand through her head-tuft with a smile and turns to follow his friends.

After only ten minutes or so of walking, Lee smells something that immensely makes his shoulders tense up.

Smoke.

"Do you smell that?" Brendan asks, his jovial face falling into a rare serious look. He takes another deep breath and fingers Mudkip's shaking pokeball. "Smells like smoke."

"Not again," Lee groans, rousing Vulpix from her short nap.

The trio of trainers pick up the pace, running through the underbrush and bursting out into a dried out clearing. In the center of the dusty clearing.

"Wow..." Zinnia murmurs, no smart remark to make.

Brendan just nods in awe.

Lee blinks to make sure he's not seeing things and even the tired Vulpix across his shoulders opens her eyes wide.

In the center of the clearing is the largest tree any of them had ever seen. Easily hundreds of feet tall and as wide around as a house. It stands so far up in the sky that it blots out the sun for everything in its shadow and utterly towers over the other trees.

However, the tree is bare of leaves and shriveled at the roots, clearly dead to any who look upon it. It also leans to the side to a notable degree, looking precariously like it might fall over.

'This monster must have been even bigger alive,' Lee thinks to himself. 'How did we not see it from the entrance of the woods..? Wait. Have I seen this tree before?' His thoughts are cut off when the wind shifts and he once again smells smoke.

At the base of the tree, the unconscious Corvisquire from earlier lays. Above it is a smoldering indent in the wood just large enough for the Corvisquire to fit into. It's almost like...

'No way. Did Fire Spin really carry him all the way out here with enough force to damage the tree too?' Lee thinks, trying to calculate how forcefully Corvisquire was thrown to do such a thing. He comes up with a ballpark number that just seems insane.

Brendan throws Mudkip's ball. "Mudkip! Put out the smoldering spots before it can burn up the rest of the tree!"

Mudkip materializes from the pokeball with Watergun already charged. With a wet gurgle, he blasts water into the Corvisquire-shaped divot and puts out the embers there with a hiss.

Vulpix's ears twitch, making Lee look over to her.

"Ko?"

Lee looks further past Vulpix at the sound. All around are a number of Treecko watching Mudkip put out the scattered smolder bits in the tree. Some large, some small, some youthful, others not so much. That's when Lee finally realizes where he's seen this tree before.

'This is the tree that Ash's Treecko refused to give up on. He wanted to live here even after it died.'

The scarred trainer looks around among the Treecko, his eyes settling on a young, surly tree gecko holding a twig with a single leaf in his mouth. His yellow eyes rest cooly on Mudkip, but they flicker over to Corvisquire for brief moments with barely contained disdain. For a moment, Lee is tempted to challenge the little Treecko, knowing full well how powerful he would become as a Sceptile. 'That would fuck up Ash's team though. I can't do that...'

Mudkip puts out the last spot and turns to Brendan with a happy croak, making Brendan grin back. "Nice job, pal!" He reaches a hand down that Mudkip gladly hi-fives. The pair turn and finally see all the gathered Treecko. "Told ya we could find them, Lee!"

Zinnia looks at the mass of green lizards as well. "Gotta hand it to you guys. You never half-ass anything, do you?"

Grrrrooooooaaaaaannnnnnn!

Crcrcrcrcrack!

Everyone in the clearing, the Treecko included, go still at the sound.

"Was that what I think it was..?" Zinnia asks, sounding afraid for the first time since Lee has met her.

"Please no..." Lee whimpers.

Brendan hastily returns his gaping Mudkip to his ball and turns to run.

Everyone looks at the great tree. Along the divot where Corvisquire impacted, wide, arm-sized cracks run horizontally along the tree, growing larger by the second. The great tree groans and the ground shudders. Every sound makes the twig-chewing Treecko's face twist in pain.

Crrrrrrrrrrrrack!

With a crack that made all the onlookers jump, the tree begins to topple over. Right at them.

Lee stands dumbstruck as the tree grows larger and larger with its descent until a panicked Vulpix bites his ear and snaps him out of it. He turns and begins to run out of the mammoth tree's path, hot on Zinnia and Brendan's heels as the Treecko all scatter with frantic cries.

He glances back for just a moment and feels his insides twist.

Corvisquire is still knocked at the base of the tree out and about to be crushed.

Just fifty feet behind them, the twig-chewing Treecko had fallen to his knees in the panic and refused to get up, instead staring at the approaching tree with both heartbreak and acceptance.

Lee's feet stop, even as his brain screams that he can't save them.

'Or... Or can I?'

He shares his plan with Vulpix over their telepathy, but the vixen just urges him to hurry up and run!

Lee reaches to his belt where his pokeballs all hang. The first one belongs to Vulpix. The others? Empty. Grabbing two of them, he presses the buttons on both three times, feeling them both buzz afterward.

'Return function is three presses, right? Shit I hope it's three presses. I should have read the manual closer. If Corvisquire is owned then he's done for! Please work please work please work!'

Both balls are thrown from his hands, then Lee turns tail and runs, following Brendan and Zinnia to safety

The first ball flies to the distant Corvisquire, and Lee's aim is true, as the ball taps the bird and sucks him inside. The ball doesn't even wiggle before it beeps, signaling a capture. Then as if by magic, the ball leaps off the ground by itself and rockets back towards the still running Lee.

The second ball hits the almost comatose Treecko, who is sucked inside without even moving. The ball falls to the ground, wiggling back and forth as if it didn't care about the falling tree. Back and forth, back and forth, all as the tree looms closer.

Lee looks back just in time to catch Corvisquire's ball. He hisses and shakes his stinging hand from the impact, his eyes zeroing in on the ball with Treecko inside. 'Please just give in to it! I can't let you be crushed!'

Finally after a pain-staking seven seconds, Treecko's ball beeps and goes still. A second later, it lifts off and rushes to Lee, escaping the tree with inches to spare.

The enormous piece of lumber crashes into the ground with a sound like thunder and a hundred times the fury. The ground rumbles like an earthquake hit and the plume of foliage and dirt the felled tree kicks up can only be described as cataclysmic. The cloud of dirt rushes up into the sky like a biblical dust storm, blotting out the sun until it begins to settle. Countless bird pokemon all over the woods take to the sky, startled by the unearthly noise.

The three trainers and Vulpix stand for a moment, all of them covering their faces until the dirt settles. Lee feels something bounce off of him and assumes it to be Treecko's ball.

"Everyone okay?" Lee questions, blinking open his eyes.

Brendan grumbles and dust himself off. "Yeah, I'm good."

Zinnia runs a hand through her hair and dislodges as much dirt as she can. "Never a dull moment around here. I could use a shower, though."

Lee sighs. "We all could," he says.

Vulpix hops down from her shoulder perch and shakes herself out. The addition of the dirt with the dried blood in her coat makes the poor vixen look miserable. Her face is kept cool, but her displeasure is easily felt by Lee.

All three look at the devastation caused by the massive tree. It fell into the forest proper and destroyed countless smaller trees in its path, making a huge mess of broken wood and leaves. The sight makes the hairs on the back of Lee's neck stand up. A look at Brendan shows the boy is feeling the same just from his expression alone, while Zinnia seems more contemplative than anything. Her eyes scan over the devastation with a level of familiarity that is disquieting.

Lee rolls the pokeball of his new Corvisquire around in his hand and stops. 'Wait. Where is Treecko's?' He scans the ground, finding the ball under so leaves and dirt. Picking it up, he dusts it off and looks at the pair.

'From one to three in a single afternoon. I've got a lot of planning to do. I... I could release Treecko for Ash...' Lee bites his lip. 'It would make it easier for me to only have to integrate one new pokemon...' The longer he thinks on it though, the more of a non-option it seems. 'No, the timeline is already fucked beyond repair with the early destruction of the Treecko tree. Trying to fix it will just invite even worse trouble. People will ask questions, Zinnia in particular. I'm sorry, Ash, but it looks like I'm taking your Hoenn ace.' He sighs. 'My meta-knowledge is officially unreliable now.

"What's the sigh for?" Zinnia asks, look towards Lee.

The scarred man frowns. "I just dunno how Treecko is going to take this..." he says, raising his pokeball.

"You caught both Corvisquire and that Treecko?" Brendan questions, stepping closer and looking at the pokeballs in Lee's hands. "Quick thinking on that one. They could have died if that hulk of deadwood fell on them!"

"That hunk of deadwood was Treecko's home," Lee says, shrinking Corvisquire's ball and clipping it to his belt. He eyes the remaining ball in his grasp with sympathy. "He probably wishes he was dead." As he said that, Vulpix's returns to his shoulders and licks his un-scarred cheek, putting a wan smile on Lee's face.

Brendan flinches back, and Zinnia pretends she wasn't paying attention in favor of looking at the wreckage again, but her watchful eyes give her away.

"Best to do it like a bandaid, quick and painful to get it over with," Lee murmurs, tapping the button of Treecko's ball. It bursts open with the pokeball signature snap-hiss and shoots Treecko out onto the ground. When the light fades, the green lizard blinks and looks around.

Again, he drops to his knees when his eyes land on the dead tree that was once his home. The twig in his mouth falls from his open mouth onto the ground as very-human tears build in his eyes.

Lee looks back to Brendan and Zinnia, silent shooing them away with a hand. Rather than the protest he expected, they shuffle off a respectful distance back. With a mental 'you too,' to Vulpix, the vixen reluctantly vacates his shoulders and follows her trainer's friends.

For a while, Lee stands next to Treecko as he silently weeps for his lost home. As he stands, Lee thinks over what to say.

'I don't think my normal approach will work here. This isn't a primal problem. No, this is definitely the problem of a more complex being. Apes can mourn for lost homes as well, I think. Shit, I should have paid more attention to that section in college.'

"It hurts, doesn't it? To lose the place you called home."

Treecko's eyes dart to Lee, who keeps looking at the dead tree. "I know what you're going through, almost to a T. The place you love, all gone for reasons you can't control. You just want to cry, scream, rage at the world because it's not fair."

'You're one to talk,' a snide voice in the back of his mind sneers. 'Have you even come to terms with it yourself?'

Lee ignores the voice and the barrage of painful memories. He sits down, bringing himself down to Treecko's level. The lizard's eyes follow his every movement. "It's not fair, it never is. Sometimes, the world just doesn't care."

Treecko's paws clench into shaking fists as he listens.

"But..."

The shaking stops when Lee puts a gentle hand on Treecko's shoulder.

"I know your look," Lee turns for the first time and meets Treecko's eyes. When the gecko pokemon shows no hostility, he continues. "You aren't the type to stay down, are you? No, you're stronger than that. The world just took everything from you, but you're not about to admit that the world won. You'll stand up and show everyone that you can't be kept down."

Treecko's tears have long-since dried. He hangs onto Lee's every word as if entranced.

"You are a survivor, a struggler," Lee continues, keeping his unblinking gaze locked onto Treecko. "When push comes to shove, no one shoves harder than you. Soon, you'll be pushing the world around, not the reverse."

Lee looks away for a moment, then back to the still intently listening Treecko. "Have you ever had a dream, Treecko?"

"Tree..?" Treecko tilts his head with inquiry.

"I do," Lee replies. He can't help but smirk as the corny words spill from his mouth. "That dream is to be the best, like no one ever was. To stand at the top of the world with my pokemon team. To show everyone that we're the best there will ever be. It was losing everything that spurred me into doing it." The man lets the info sink into Treecko, who regards him with deep thought. "But I need the best pokemon around to help with that job. I caught you to keep you from being crushed by the tree, and you need only say the word and I'll let you go, but..."

Lee takes the hand off Treecko's shoulder and puts it before him. "...I'd feel much better about my chances with a fellow struggler on my side. What say you? Will you come with me to the top of the world?"

Treecko stares at the offered hand for a moment. He looks back to the dead tree, then to the other Treecko watching in the distance. He returns his blazing yellow eyes to again Lee.

After bending down and putting his twig back in its rightful place, Treecko's paw falls firmly into Lee's hand, and Lee can't help but grin.

'Sorry again, Ash.'

--------------------------------------------
Night had fallen. In a clearing deep in the Petalburg woods far away from where the earlier excitement of the day had occurred, Lee, Brendan, and Zinnia settle for the night. The night is dark and quiet, the tranquil of the woods is broken only by the crackle of the fire and the background noise of Bug pokemon.

"Alright, we're done."

Treecko lets his arms rest at his side as Lee stops poking and prodding him. The green lizard regards his new trainer coolly, but Lee can still see some level of annoyance to his gaze.

"I know it's irritating," Lee says, raising his hands in surrender. "But you do need a physical so I can gauge any issues you might have. Vulpix got the same thing and still gets physicals as she grows. With the info I can better help you grow."

Vulpix, now cleaned and rested, doesn't reply, too busy maintaining the glowing orb of flame giving Lee enough light to inspect Treecko with.

Treecko crosses his arms. "Treecko..." He replies with an aloof voice, but the minute drop his shoulders tells Lee he was okay with the answer.

"I am glad to say that you're as healthy as they come," Lee says, jotting down his last notes and putting his notebook away. "We'll do some more testing when I can get supplies and everyone gets some rest. Some of us definitely need it..." Lee mutters, looking down at Corvisquire's ball.

The bird had been in terrible shape when let out of his ball. Hurt and barely coherent, Lee simply treated him with the remainder of his Potion and a Rawst berry that Vulpix managed to sniff out before returning him to his ball.

'I'll get him treated at the Pokemon Center in Rustboro. With Treecko to guide us, we should be able to haul ass and get out of here by tomorrow. I need to pick up better supplies too. Common stuff Like Burn Heals and Antidotes.' Lee thinks with a shake of his head. He lays back in the cool grass as Vulpix lets her orb go out to join him. She gladly snuggles under his arm, and although he doesn't feel anything, the rustle of the grass tells Lee that Treecko is laying down near his other side.

Lee feels his eyes drift shut as he watches the scattered, unfamiliar stars through the branches overhead.

'Fuck this forest.'

He's out like a light.
 
Act 1: Chapter 9
All around one of the Rustboro training grounds, young trainers chatter and point excitedly to the whirling column of flame above their heads. Near the edge of the field, a grizzled veteran trainer clad in green with scars marring his fearsome face watches the fire with a stoic, fearless expression.

As quickly as the fire came, it dies down, revealing a little Vulpix calmly sitting in the center of the field.

Lee lets out a sigh and scratches his head. "No luck?" He asks, already knowing the answer.

The vixen looks up to her trainer and shakes her head with a sigh of her own.

For the past two days, Lee and Vulpix have been trying to replicate her burst of power during her fight with Corvisquire to no avail. Everything from shouting like a shounen power-up sequence to Lee pouring every bit of mental focus he could into helping Vulpix's pyrokinesis proved fruitless. The repeated practice certainly increased the speed and power of her Fire Spin, but it all still paled compared to the hellscape she released in the Petalburg Woods.

The scarred man looks around, feeling a bubble of nervousness as he sees all the other trainers and pokemon watching. 'The audience isn't fouling your performance, is it love?' He sends to her.

Vulpix answers with an eyeroll, not needing any vocals or telepathy to make her 'as if' reply apparent.

A shadow flies overhead before the owner of the shadow lands harshly on the ground with a plume of dust, making Lee and Vulpix flinch.

Red eyes regard them both with irritation as the dust settles, revealing Corvisquire with both a little paper card and Lee's ID held in his beak. The raven pokemon hops forward and presents Lee with the cards, somehow making the movement mocking.

Lee ignores the antics and takes the offered cards in his hands, noticing the Rustboro gym logo on the paper one. "Thank you, problem child. They didn't hassle you at all?" he asks, slipping his ID into his pocket as he looks over the card from the gym.

Corvisquire gives his trainer a queer look. As if mere humans could-would hassle him!

'I can't really blame him for the look. If a mean, huge bird barged into my business, I'd do what he wanted, too.'

On the little slip of paper given to him by his pokemon, Lee sees a date, Thursday four days from now, and a time, 2:30 PM. At the header of the card, Gym Battle Confirmation for Lee Henson is printed.

'No problems for him at all then,' Lee thinks, a bit of wonder filling him. 'Did the person at the gym who printed this just think of Corvisquire as another person, or did my ID add a level of legitimacy to Corvisquire's presence?... I should see about getting something a little more advanced than a flip phone so I can book this stuff online. A four-day wait is going to suck.'

The man is pulled from his thoughts with a painful peck to his knee.

With a hiss, he looks down to the smugly crooning raven, who stiffens and turns when he feels Vulpix's burning gaze boring into his side. The vulpine and avian silently match stares, Vulpix's hackles rising as Corvisquire's steely feathers ruffle, showing off some of the still-burned flesh underneath.

"Quit it!"

Both pokemon look up at Lee. The man looks down at both pokemon with crossed arms. "Cool it with the hostility. We're a team and need to at least act like it," he says, looking around at the other trainers. Some had left, but a few stayed to watch the spectacle. None dared actually challenge Lee and his pokemon, as much like their time in Oldale, the young trainers around Rustboro mistook the team as veterans.

Brendan dominated four battles earlier today and suffered a single, narrow defeat to an agile Spinda that sent him to the Pokemon Center before we went off to see Rustboro's Trainer School. Even Zinnia got a challenge, one from a well-off trainer that made a wager on the match. Swablu won handily and Zinnia went off to explore Rustboro's shops with her prize money.

Lee frowns and rubs his scars, silently cursing them again.

Corvisquire turns his beak up at Lee's scolding and looks away with a sneer, but Vulpix has the grace to look abashed at least somewhat. The trainer of the pokemon can only shake his head.

"Alright, no need for the look, I can sense your disdain from here," Lee mutters, pulling Corvisquire's ball from his belt and returning the bird in a flash of red. With Corvisquire back on his belt, Vulpix leaps to her favorite perch on her trainer's shoulder as he begins to walk off of the field.

"Where to, love?"

------------------------------

As the pair begin the short trek back into town, Lee's mind wanders to the night two days prior.

Treecko falls to the ground with a stifled grunt, holding the slowly darkening bruise on his side from the glancing blow.

Across the makeshift field on the edge of the Petalburg woods, Mudkip bellows louder than a creature his size should be able to as Brendan pumps a fist. "He's on the ropes, Mudkip! One more hit and we've got this!" Mudkip bellows again in agreement, almost bouncing on his feet.

Treecko grits his teeth, nearly snapping the twig in his mouth and stands again.

Just behind Treecko, Lee grimaces and glances down at his Pokedex, it's screen showing Treecko's movepool.

Leer

Pound

Absorb

Not much, but a trainer worth their salt can make it work. Lee knows that Treecko has the makings of a Legendary-level pokemon in him, but the movepool is a harsh reminder that Treecko is just starting out.

...And that Treecko is starting behind the group.

The prideful gecko may have been one of the strongest Treecko among his colony, but now he's traveling with trained pokemon... Or at least that's how Lee is rationalizing this poor battle.

Treecko stands to his full height, arms crossed and steadfastly ignoring the discolored bruises, smashed scales, and cuts littering his form. He looks around, noting Zinnia and the other pokemon sans Corvisquire watching the battle carefully. Across the field, Mudkip has barely a welt to show for his trouble.

"Treecko, hold steady," Lee instructs, trying to think of a plan, all of which die on first contact with Mudkip.

Brendan smirks. "You wanna wait around? Alright then. Mudkip! Tackle!"

The mudfish cries out and rushes forward like a runaway truck.

"Treecko! Uh..." Lee almost instinctively reaches his mind out to Vulpix, who watches by the sidelines, but stops himself short. "T-Trip him with Pound! Sidestep and aim for the legs!"

Treecko jukes to the right just in the nick of time and lashes out with his muscular tail, catching Mudkip mid-stride in the legs. The actual attack does little damage but does send a surprised Mudkip tumbling into the grass.

"Mudkip! Get up!" Brendan instantly calls, suddenly looking nervous at the unexpected turn.

"Treecko, use Absorb!" Lee orders at the same time.

Before Mudkip can get his bearings, Treecko swiftly closes the distance and stops several feet short, opening his jaw.

Mudkip cries out in pain for the first time in the match as little globes of yellow energy are ripped from his body to fly into Treecko's waiting mouth. The mudfish fights through the pain and stands up, leaping away out of Absorbs short-range, but by that time Treecko's mouth is nearly full.

The gecko pokemon tips his head back and swallows the blob of shining yellow. Almost instantly afterward, his smaller cuts knit back together, his bruises fade somewhat, and a number of damaged scales fall out to reveal healthy ones underneath. He stands with only a hint of a smirk. "Tree..."

Mudkip quickly shakes away the weariness Absorb forced upon him to scowl and growl deep his throat, visibly itching to counter-attack.

Brendan abandons his cocky attitude in favor of a more calculating one. The boy chews on his lip for a moment before calling; "Mudkip! Saturate the ground!"

Both Lee and Treecko blink as one. "What?" Lee asks aloud. "Hold on, we're not standing around to find out! Treecko, flank and use Pound!"

Treecko grunts and rushes to Mudkip's side in a sprint, but even with the boost from Absorb, Mudkip is just a little faster.

Mudkip takes a deep breath and vomits a torrent of water onto the ground, flooding the field in a few centimeters of water just a few seconds. An instant later, Lee understands why.

Treecko missteps on the now muddy ground and trips.

Without needing an order, Mudkip barrels towards Treecko, moving like the ground isn't even wet and smashes into him with a brutal, bone-rattling Tackle.

Treecko's breath is forced from his lungs in a painful burst. His eyes bulge as he's thrown end over end. After the longest two seconds of his life, he finally crashes into the cold mud where he lays and pants short, painful breaths.

Lee shakes his head. "Treecko isn't fit to fight further. You and Mudkip win, Brendan," he says, hiding how much the loss stung.

"We won?" Brendan asks with a blink, as if he didn't believe it. "Holy crap, we beat Lee, buddy!" He cries in joy, rushing in and snatching Mudkip up in a hug, not minding how muddy the pokemon is. The pair laugh and do a twirl.

"Well, congrats are in order, shrimpy," Zinnia cuts in, a lop-sided smile on her face as she walks up to the field. "You managed to beat Lee's weakest pokemon with your strongest," she finishes, clapping slowly.

From his spot on the ground, Treecko grits his teeth at the word 'weakest', turning his head to the forest.

Towards where his tree now lay.

Lee ignores Brendan's retort to Zinnia as he steps into the field and kneels down at Treecko's side. "You alright, pal? And none of that macho 'hide the pain' bullshit either, I'm being for real." he asks gently.

Treecko refuses to meet his trainer's eyes and slowly stands, limbs trembling. Lee debates helping him up and enforcing his no 'hiding the pain' statement, but decides hurting Treecko's pride further isn't worth it.

After a long half-minute, Treecko is standing on his own, revealing his entire middle to be one cringe-inducing bruise. Lee rises back to his full height and walks back to his tent in slow, measured steps with Treecko following. By the field, Vulpix catches Lee's eye and sends him a wordless, telepathic message that he vaguely interprets as 'I'll be along shortly.'

He sends her back an equally wordless pulse of understanding.

Before the tent, Lee seats himself and digs in his backpack, silently cursing himself for not getting two potions in Little Root. Instead, he produces a single wild Oran sniffed out by Vulpix and picked not even several hours prior. Treecko takes the offered berry with all the coolness his battered form can muster and takes a slow bite.

For a few moments, trainer and pokemon sit in silence. Treecko's injuries fade as he eats and Lee thinks his coming words over.

Once Treecko swallows his last bite, Lee begins. "Don't let today get to you. Mudkip is a freak of nature and punches way above his weight class. The gap will close quickly, I promise."

Treecko regards Lee silently for a moment, and Lee has to resist the urge to squirm under Treecko's yellow eyes. After a long minute, Treecko looks away with a small nod. The unspoken 'I'll hold you to that' is louder than any words could have been.

-----------------------------

Lee is pulled from the memory when he and Vulpix find themselves in Rustboro proper, more specifically, before the Pokemon Trainer School.

The building is a large, multistorey academy with a red brick exterior. White flags depicting red pokeballs decorate a number of windows and balconies along the outside. It's a rather humble appearance for what Lee knows is a high-tech establishment. The main doors of the school are wide open, with a colorful little floor sign depicting a happy Torchic welcoming any trainer inside. Another sign with an equally cheerful Geodude says Guest students and visitors please check in at the office!

"Didn't Brendan say he was going to check this place out?" Lee turns and asks Vulpix, who nods in confirmation. The pair turn back to the doors and Lee bites his lip.

'A grown man wandering into a school would raise all sorts of red flags and probably result in the cops being called back home,' Lee thinks to himself. 'This feels weird, but if they know anything useful...' Mind made, Lee walks in.

The clean, locker-flanked hallways echo faintly with the lectures of distant teachers and the shined linoleum floor shows an almost clear reflection of Lee and Vulpix when the pair look down. Doors break up the locker rows every so often, and further down the hallway splits into three more paths. The vague scent of ink and paper is everywhere, poking the scarred man with a dull spike of nostalgia. Both man and pokemon perk up when they hear the sound of a door opening and high-heels on the floor.

"Good afternoon! Are you lost?"

Lee turns around, coming face-to-face with none other than Roxanne, the Rustboro Gym Leader.

The smartly-dressed woman looks up at Lee, her eyes flicking over to Vulpix for a second before she smiles. "Two guest speakers I take it? If you're not sure which classroom you should be in, we can find that out," she says, gesturing a hand to the door she just emerged from.

One labeled "Office/Guest Check-in" that Lee somehow missed.

'Jesus H, I feel like an idiot.'

Lee pushes away his sudden nervousness at meeting the woman he's set to battle tomorrow and clears his throat. "A-Ah, no actually," he starts. "We're here because a friend came in to sit in on a few classes. He just got done with some team training and thought we'd come to see the school and maybe, uh, learn a few things?"

If Roxanne noticed how awkward Lee became the longer he spoke, she politely ignored it. She just maintains her smile and nods. "Certainly, we're glad to help any trainer who wishes to learn or refresh their skills. Which lesson plan were you interested in?"

Lee smiles but internally screams. 'Fuck. Lesson plan? Don't stutter in front of the Gym Leader, dummy.'

On his shoulder, Vulpix rolls her eyes and quickly feeds him a telepathic answer.

"Oh, just whatever was available as I walked in. I'm just killing time until my traveling companion gets out of his class, so I thought I would spend my time productively here."

'Love you,'

Vulpix chuffs.

The Gym Leader nods. "I understand. Please follow me."

She turns and leads Lee and Vulpix into the office she just emerged from. Although there isn't much to see, just a cluttered front desk and a door that probably leads further in the administrative area. Like the rest of the school, it has a modern yet cozy feel to it that evokes nostalgia in the man

Roxanne picks up a tablet computer on the desk and scrolls through it. After a second, she blinks and stops, as if suddenly realizing something. "Oh, how rude of me. I apologize for not introducing myself. It must have slipped my mind as we've been busy since the new League year you see," She smiles a practiced smile and offers a hand. "I am Roxanne, a teacher here at the Rustboro Trainer School and the Rustboro Gym Leader."

Lee takes her hand in a short shake, his nervousness fading some. "Lee is the name, and this is Vulpix," he says, reaching a hand up to pet the vixen, who leans into the touch as she regards Roxanne.

The Gym Leader's smile becomes more genuine as she watches. "Charmed to meet you both. Now, as for our visitor classes..." she looks down at the tablet in her hand. "The latest classes when into session about thirty minutes ago, so we still have another thirty minutes until they let out. A number of the upcoming ones are full, but we still have several spots. Do any of these catch your fancy?" She asks, turning the tablet around to show Lee and Vulpix.

A decent number of the classes are greyed out, some of them interesting looking like Advanced Battle Theory, Care of Common Pokemon, Berry 101, Egg Care, etc. Others were more lackluster or of material that could be found with an internet search, like Hoenn History 101, which tended to be the classes with open seats.

One jumped out with how few people took it. Psychic Type Study

'Now thats something we can use,' Lee glances to Vulpix with a smile, feeling the sudden spike of interest within her. She turns her head to meet his eyes. 'We might be able to figure out more about the abilities of your line. Hell, we might even be able to get you started on learning Psychic moves.'

Vulpix makes her distinct vulpine purr in her chest and pushes her cheek to Lee's, turning his smile into a grin.

"How fascinating. It's not often I get to see telepathy at work, much less between a human and a non-Psychic pokemon."

Both Vulpix and Lee stiffen, having forgotten Roxanne entirely. "Ha...Uh..." Lee debates lying or trying to deflect for a second, hoping to keep the advantage under wraps for the upcoming battle, but sighs when he sees Roxanne's sure expression. "Yeah. How could you tell?"

"I've only ever seen the level of non-verbal communication yourself and Vulpix displayed between trainers and pokemon with decades of partnership under their belt," the brunette begins, straightening up into a tall and authoritative posture. "Judging from the loose spirals in Vulpix's head tuft and tails," Roxanne nods towards the bewildered vixen. "She is only several years old, nowhere near long enough for such a level of learned communication. From your own posture, demeanor, and your unusual age for even a guest student in the school, you've only been Vulpix's trainer for a short time. For this reason, I can safely deduce that you must have a method of subvocal communication. Some might assume th-"

Roxanne stops then blushes and looks away. She daintily clears her throat into her hand. "I apologize. I suppose I get carried away sometimes."

"Thats fine," Lee waves it away, hiding how unnerved the accurate analysis made him. "One of my favorite teachers as a kid did the same thing."

The comparison makes Roxanne brighten up. "Of course. Now, your class?"

"Psychic Type Study please,"

The teacher turns the tablet around and types several things. "Your ID please?"

Lee digs the little card out of his pocket and wordlessly hands it over.

Roxanne takes the ID and sets the tablet down on the desk to type on it. She looks at the ID and does a double-take. "A Lab Trainer?" She asks, now regarding the man and pokemon before her with a careful eye.

'Is it really that big a deal?' Lee wonders. "Yeah, I work on behalf of Professor Birch mostly as an independent pokemon researcher."

The Gym Leader's gaze goes from cautious to searching. "Truly? May I ask what the subject of your research is?"

Lee shrugs. "At the moment, my biggest focus is on alternative training methods and pokemon technique control experimentation with a bit of nutrition study on the side."

Roxanne's expression drops further into one of hunger. "Have you published any of your findings for public reading yet? What sort of further research do you have planned? Are there any pokemon in particular you are looking to work with? Are you wanting for supplies or facilities? Or employment? The Rustboro Trainer School has some openings that I-"

Lee holds up his hands in surrender. "Ma'am, please. Slow down a little. My primary research belongs to the Lab and Professor Birch makes sure I'm equipped."

The teacher deflates somewhat. "I understand, but..." she produces a business card from her pocket. "Would you perhaps be interested in working with the Rustboro Trainer School in the future? Perhaps not on a permanent employment basis, but for projects that may arise? As the premier trainer school in Hoenn, we undertake many more academic pursuits and projects than most realize."

'Is being a Lab Trainer really that big a deal? Offering me a job based on just that? There have to be more qualified people unless the employment of a Lab Trainer is just for the prestige of having the trainer.' Lee thinks to himself. 'I guess the sponsorship is more or less an endorsement from Birch, who is... one of the highest pokemon authorities in Hoenn...Okay, now it makes more sense. I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth and say no to the chance of being buddy-buddy with a Gym Leader.'

"Ah, sure, thanks..." Lee takes the offered business card, giving it a lookover, finding Roxanne's phone number and email on it. "I can't promise I'll be available at the exact time that such a project starts, but I'll try my best."

"That's all I ask," she smiles. "Please send me an email when you can and I'll have your log-in for our learning center made as soon as possible."

"Learning center?"

"Indeed!" Roxanne nods. "Being a school affiliate grants you access to our learning center, where you can submit any findings from school-sponsored projects and view our private lessons, the ones reserved for our enrolled year-round students, which are more comprehensive than our free guest classes," she says. "We're fully accredited all the way to the university level, and that's all available to you."

'Okay, now I'm much more interested.'

Her smile grows a little. "Precisely the look I expected on a fellow academic."

Lee looks up from the business card and realizes just how hard he was focusing on it. "Erm, I don't know about the term 'academic', but I'm not adverse to learning..." He tucks the business card away in his pocket. "Anyway, the class?"

Roxanne glances down to the tablet and hums to herself. "Mister Henson, I have a proposition for you. You said you were competing in the gym circuit this year, yes?"

Vulpix and Lee share a look. "I am, yeah."

"Have you already reserved a match with me?"

The nervous pit in Lee's stomach begins to deepen. "Yeah. Thursday at 2:30pm."

She nods. "Rather than take our guest class on the subject of Psychic-types, would you assist me in my upcoming battle theory class?" She asks. "I am willing to count it as an official gym challenge, negating your wait, and I assure you our online course regarding Psychic types is very informative."

Lee groans inwardly and looks over to Vulpix. "Your opinion, love?"

The vixen flicks an ear and meets Lee's eyes.

Suspicious...

'Good point.'

"Why ask us?" Lee questions, crossing his arms. "Not to put you on the spot, but you must have a better, more qualified assistant around here. I've never taught anyone in my life, and..." Lee mulls over his next words and grimaces. "I'd rather have a real match, not a demo for students."

Roxanne digests his words for a moment, looking away for a short few seconds. "I... can see how this would seem suspect." She turns back to Lee and Vulpix. "Teaching is my passion, you see, and while observing battles in the school is a large part of our lesson plan, our rental pokemon here at the school were given to us by the Pokemon League. They don't make for the best examples."

Vulpix raises a brow as Lee asks the question on both their minds. "Not the best examples? Why is that?"

Roxanne sighs and shakes her head. "These pokemon were chosen by the Pokemon League specifically for their low potential and docile nature. Bureaucratic red-tape prohibits pokemon over a certain level of power and a number of species by name from being used in educational facilities, citing danger to the students." Her visage hardens. "It leaves some students ill-prepared for the life of a pokemon trainer. They believe that what they see here is average. Official battles they see on TV don't convey the real average as well as a live experience. I record my gym battles for the school, but that still falls flat. A gym battle between a Leader and a Lab Trainer would be perfect for them."

A flicker of pleased thought from Vulpix tells Lee that she's mollified. "And you won't be penalized by the League for hosting a gym battle here?"

The Gym Leader shakes her head. "No, as Gym Leader, I can declare anywhere in the Rustboro corporation limit to be a valid battleground. My authority as a Gym Leader supersedes nearly all others regarding this."

Lee rubs the back of his head and thinks it over.

-------------------------------

"Good afternoon class!"

"Good afternoon Miss Roxanne..." The group of teens, all dressed in school uniforms, replies in the same unenthused drone Lee remembers from his school days.

Outside behind the large school in one of the large, chalk-outlined battlefields dotting the area, Lee stands behind Roxanne as she takes roll-call of her class, who all sit bored on the steel bleachers. Several pokemon are among their number. Lee spies a dopey Whooper, a Nincada who doesn't seem to be enjoying the harsh sun, and a shy Whismer hiding behind a girl's leg. True to Roxanne's word, they aren't much to look at, but they're a little too far away to visually inspect in detail.

"Everyone please take your notebooks out and be ready to take notes!" Roxanne calls with a smile. The teens slowly dig notebooks out of their backpacks as the teacher continues. "We have a special guest assisting me today. Please welcome Pokemon Researcher Lee Henson!"

"Hello, Mister Henson..." The kids drone with the same dead enthusiasm they gave Roxanne. One or two of them eye him with something akin to interest for a second, then just as quickly dismiss him.

Lee mouths 'Pokemon Researcher' to himself in confusion before stepping forward. "Afternoon, everyone. Thank you for having me," he says, a prickle of nervousness in his stomach with Vulpix in her ball and not out with him.

Roxanne takes over again. "Today is going to be a special class, as today, you all will be observing a no-holds-barred two-on-two battle between my gym team and Mister Henson's team. This will be a sanctioned gym battle and will be much more intense than our normal showings. Please pay close attention!"

A few of the students perk up and begin to chatter at the news.

"A gym battle?"

"I've never heard of this guy..."

"More intense?"

"Look at the scars! This could be rad!"

Lee frowns and rubs the lines on his face. 'Every time...'

"Quiet down everyone! Quiet please!" Roxanne calls. "Julie? Can you come down and act as a referee for this match, please? Please bring your notebook and take notes please!"

The girl with the Whismer blinks in apparent surprise at being chosen and stands, shushing her whining Whismer and coming down to the field. She takes the ref spot as Lee and Roxanne separate to opposite sides of the field.

Lee fingers the pokeball in his hand as he takes the side of the field labeled 'visitor' in chalk, hoping that this choice doesn't come back to bite him in the ass.

On the other end of the field, Roxanne produces a shrunken pokeball from her dress pocket and expands it. "Standard gym rules. Whenever you're ready, Julie!"

The girl clears her throat. "This is a two-on-two match between Miss Roxanne and Mister Henson! The challenger, Mister Henson, may substitute, but Miss Roxanne may not! The battle will end when one side's pokemon are no longer able to battle! And... and..."

"Each round will end..." Roxanne gently reminds.

"Each round will end when the pokemon is no longer able to battle as well!" The girl hastily corrects, making a few of her classmates laugh. "D-Defender, please select your first pokemon!"

Roxanne throws the ball in her hand out. Midair, it snaps open and an immaculately polished Geodude materializes on the field. The living stone levels Lee with a steady look, calmly waiting for instruction from Roxanne.

Lee lets out a shaky breath and tries to steel his nerves, but fails to keep his hands from shaking from the sheer adrenaline.

'The battle hasn't even started yet and I'm already freaking out,' Lee gulps. He looks over Geodude, but considering his zoology knowledge is useless when sizing up a rock, he can't glean much.

"Challenger, please select your first pokemon!"

With a final deep breath, Lee throws the ball in his hand up. Like Roxanne's did, it snaps open midair with it's distinct pop sound.

Before Lee, Corvisquire takes form.

A wave of murmurs overtakes the students, some pointing at Corvisquire. Lee can't catch much, but "What pokemon is that?" seems to be a common question. At least one student jeers and says "Sending out a bird against a Geodude?"

Corvisquire catches the last one and turns his baleful red eyes to glare into the students, his feathers ruffling to make him look larger. A few of the kids hiss from sharp intakes of breath while the rest go quiet.

"Just take it easy, Corvisquire," Lee eases his nerves and puts up a confident front, schooling his face into a thin mask of cool. "This is a Gym Battle, something serious, and I need your skill and guile."

The raven pokemon gives Lee a sidelong look and calms somewhat, but still screws his avian face up into grudging acceptance. He looks to Geodude, sizing the other pokemon up, and as he does, his reluctance transforms into an arrogant sneer.

'Thank God he's not fighting me on this.'

Roxanne seems visibly confused before she recovers. "A Corvisquire! How very interesting to see a Galar native pokemon here! Type advantage isn't everything, class! I'm certain Mister Henson has an interesting strategy to use against Geodude!" She turns to the referee. "On your mark, Julie. Everyone else, notebooks at the ready!"

The girl pulls her eyes away from Corvisquire and raises a hand. Lee quickly scans the terrain as her mouth opens.

'A field of hard-packed dirt and rocks. The ground is even and a slight breeze to the north. No trees or anything that would impede Corvisquire, but that also means no cover.' Silently, he goes over Corvisquire's moveset one more time.

Power Trip

Hone Claws

Fury Attack

Pluck

Taunt

Scary Face

And the last three that tipped him off that Corvisquire almost certainly had a prior trainer.

Steel Wing, Swift, and Extremespeed.

His research at the Rustboro library the day before hinted that Steel Wing and Swift could be learned naturally by the raven pokemon, but Extremespeed? A move only the fastest pokemon can learn?

The world comes back into sharp focus and Lee's soundless monologue ends as Julie raises a hand.

"Geodude versus Corvisquire, begin!"

"Corvisquire, in the air!"

Before Roxanne can get her first order out, the raven pokemon is high up in the air with a single beat of his wings. He looks down at Geodude with a mocking caw.

"It's only natural for a flying pokemon to get up in the air where it has it's best mobility, but you aren't the first flyer we've fought," Roxanne remarks. "Geodude, scattershot Rockthrow!"

'What Rockthrow?'

Geodude digs his stony hands into the ground as easily as a man would jelly, lifting out a cannonball sized chunk of earth like it weighed nothing. With a grunt, he squeezes the earth until it cracks.

Then he throws it, and hardly a foot into its flight, the rock breaks into countless whistling, jagged shards, covering a huge area.

'Shit!'

"Corvisquire, dive!" Lee yells, clenching his fists.

The raven dives and twirls mid-air, narrowly missing the bulk of the rocky shotgun blast but is still clipped by a few fragments, drawing blood across one of his legs.

"But as shown, mobility can be countered!" Roxanne calls to the students, who are watching with wide eyes. "Again, Geodude!"

Geodude's hands dig into the ground.

"Fuck that!" Lee calls. "Corvisquire! Use Scary Face!"

The bird pokemon levels out midair and glares down at Geodude with so much hate that it can almost be tasted in the air. Even a few of the watching students gasp and lean away.

Geodude grunts and flinches, fumbling his throw and sending the spray of rocks wide, missing Corvisquire entirely.

"Now! Dive in with Steel Wing!"

Whole form radiating malice, Corvisquire jets towards Geodude as little more than a blur of blue flanked by gleaming wings that make a hideous scream through the air.

Roxanne's eyes widen. "Geodude, Defense Curl now!"

The living boulder can barely raise his arms in time before a blade-like wing crashes into him, making a terrible squeal of metal-on-rock that throws sparks all over. As Corvisquire disengages and returns to the air, Geodude groans and gingerly lowers his arms, showing two ugly gashes across his arms that would have scarred for certain if he were made of flesh. High above, Corvisquire lets out yet another mocking caw, earning a scowl from Geodude.

"Don't let up! Hone Claws, then Steel Wing again!" Lee orders, now shaking again from the adrenaline.

Corvisquire shrieks and grinds his talons together, even bringing a set of talons up to drag across his beak. Then he does a harsh downward flap, catching his primary feathers together and raking them across one another, throwing sparks. All the natural weapons across his body glitter with a sharp edge.

If Geodude was unnerved by the show, his face didn't reflect it.

Then dipping into a harsh dive, the bird pokemon screams towards his foe again, a blur of razor blades and hate.

"Wait for it, wait for it, Geodude! Sand Attack!" Roxanne orders.

A simple slap across the dusty ground is Geodude's reply to Steel Wing, sending a plume of sand up to meet Corvisquire only fifteen feet or so away.

Corvisquire squawks in pain and aborts the attack, blindly banking hard to the side and up. He shakes his head, trying to dislodge the sand in his eyes.

"Scattershot, Geodude!"

The rock pokemon smirks and pulls another clod of earth from the ground, thankfully slower than he could previously.

'Either his injuries are slowing him down or he's still recovering from Scary Face,' Lee feels sweat drip down his face. "Corvisquire, level out and clear your eyes! Focus on my voice and be ready to move!"

The bird hovers for a moment, blinking sand and tears from his irritated eyes. If he heard Lee, then he does not make it apparent.

Just as Geodude winds up, Lee cries; "Fly towards my voice!"

Corvisquire dodges the latest spray of rocks with just inches to spare, flying as quickly as he dared to his trainer. He blinks the last of the sand away and turns to Geodude with an angry hiss.

"Enough is enough, right?" Lee asks, making the bird pokemon turn and eye him with annoyance. "How about a quick finisher?"

Irritable red eyes suddenly brighten with malicious glee, as if to say 'Finally!'

Roxanne and Geodude wait on their side of the field. 'And judging from their last attack, they want to react and use Corvisquire's speed against him. Well, how about this?'

"Corvisquire, charge up Steel Wing..." Lee pauses but suddenly feels silly for trying to be dramatic. "...and move in with Extremespeed."

Roxanne's eyes shoot open wide in alarm.

Corvisquire unfurls his wings, which begin to gleam, then vanishes from sight entirely with only a whistle of displaced air.

Before Geodude can even react, a wing as hard as a steel blade rends his side, carving a trench through his rocky body and throwing him end-over-end.

Lee's entire body breaks out into goosebumps as Corvisquire rematerializes on his end of the field, throwing his head back and laughing a dry, rattling laugh.

This pokemon is just plain violent.

'I'm going to have to curb that...' He thinks, but the unsettling feeling is offset with his sheer elation at the assumed victory, leaving uncomfortable butterflies in his stomach. 'Or Butterfree. Ha.'

For a long moment, Geodude is still upon the ground and everyone stares, stunned. Then after a long ten seconds, the rock pokemon groans and tries to roll to his base, only to fail and go limp into blissful unconsciousness.

At the side of the field, Julie gulps. "G-Geodude is unable to battle. Corvisquire and Mister Henson are the winners!"

It's quiet for a beat, then two, then then students erupt into cheers.

"That was awesome!"

"I had no idea you could use Rockthrow like that!"

"That was way better than any trash teacher battles!"

"Did you see how fast the bird was!?"

"Yeah, that was nuts!"

Corvisquire casually preens a wing, poorly pretending that he doesn't hear the compliments.

Roxanne returns Geodude to his ball and murmurs something too low for Lee to hear to the ball before she turns her slightly forced smile onto the scarred man. "I certainly wasn't expecting a Corvisquire, nor that he knew Extremespeed. You certainly weren't exaggerating about your move experimentation," she says. Then she turns to her class. "I hope everyone took notes on that! That was a prime example of why type advantage isn't everything! A clever pokemon and trainer can overcome any challenge with a good plan and teamwork!"

The teens quiet down and eagerly watch the proceedings.

Roxanne shrinks Geodude's pokeball and puts it away, drawing a more worn ball and expanding it.

"Normally, Mister Henson," She begins. "I would battle with my League provided team, but I don't think that will be a challenge for you, nor would it be engaging enough for the class."

If the class was watching closely before, they're utterly rapt now.

The scrutiny makes Lee's next question feel especially foolish. "League provided team?"

The teacher nods with a smile. "Indeed, while Gym Leaders are the local pokemon authority and defender of their towns, we must also give badges to worthy trainers so they may compete in the Ever Grande Conference. However..." She looks down at the pokeball in her hand and rolls it between her fingers tenderly. "If we were to use our own personally trained pokemon, we would present too much of a challenge for new trainers, so the Pokemon League sees fit to provide us with pokemon of a more fair level of ability." She looks up at Lee, eyes hardening. "However, we may use our own pokemon upon worthy challengers, and a lower-tier team would be too easy for you, Mister Lee Henson. Geodude was my newest personal capture and was soundly beaten, but this pokemon is an old hand at battle. I am currently the weakest Gym Leader, so against a foe like you, I can't hold back."

Lee's stomach drops as he realizes where this battle is going.

The ball leaves Roxanne's hand and snaps open, dropping a Nosepass upon the ground.

The compass pokemon hovers just inches off the ground, unnervingly still and impassive. A low static charge fills the air, making Lee's skin tingle. Looking down, the zipper of his jacket stands up and gently points towards the giant magnet that is Nosepass.

Corvisquire's feathers ruffle and his eyes narrow, no doubt annoyed by the magnetic field pulling at his ferrous feathers.

"Gym Leader Roxanne calls out Nosepass!" The ref calls. "Will the challenger substitute?"

Corvisquire turns and shakes his head at Lee, his eyes warily locked on to Nosepass. Lee licks his lips. "No subs from us."

"Corvisquire versus Nosepass, begin!"

"Corvisquire, up-!"

"Thunderwave."

Before Lee can even finish his command, Corvisquire is hit with a burst of high-voltage electricity shot from the tip of the still unmoving Nosepass's nose, making Corvisquire cough out a squawk and convulse in his feet, his half-open wings frozen.

Lee can practically feel his blood pressure shoot up. "Corvisquire! Fight it! You can do it! Up in the air!"

The raven struggles and slowly extends his wings further

"Now, Spark, Nosepass." Roxanne calmly orders.

The only sound Nosepass makes is a quiet crackle before he's wreathed in a shroud of snapping and popping electricity. A second later, he shoots forward headfirst like a missile.

Corvisquire can only caw in alarm before the rock pokemon smashes into him, electrocuting and bludgeoning him in one go.

The raven pokemon troubles across the ground before coming to a stop, burnt, twitching, and unconscious.

Lee's stomach drops. 'One hit. One hit and Corvisquire is down. Holy shit.'

As Nosepass floats back to Roxanne's side of the field, Lee spies shallow gouges in his rock-like flesh right where Corvisquire's wings impacted.

'Spiteful little bastard used Steel Wing at the last second. What a guy...'

"Corvisquire is unable to battle!" The ref student calls. "Nosepass and Roxanne are the winners!"

Again, the class cheers, some standing and applauding. Even the handful of rental pokemon with the class are caught up in the energy and cheer.

"Again, I hope everyone took notes!" Roxanne calls to the class. "In a real battle, the tides can turn in an instant, and it's very important to regain lost momentum. Lets see how Mister Henson approaches this problem!"

Lee takes a deep breath and reaches for his pokeballs, hesitating before taking Vulpix's ball. With a flick of his wrist, the ball flies and releases Vulpix in a flash of light. The expected snark and giggling from the watching class about using a Fire-type against a Rock-type is ignored

The little vixen blinks the stars from her eyes and Lee feels her mind touch his. He freely lets her in, offering his memories of the last battle to her as he feels the tension in his body loosens just from feeling her again. She widens the channel for a moment, taking the trainer in the psychic equivalent of an embrace, relaxing him even further.

Vulpix sorts through the offered memories in an instant, pausing for a split second at the revelation of Gym Leaders having two teams, and looks back at him.

Plan?

'Considering Nosepass is her ace, we can't let up. We have to be dicks right out of the gate or we're dead. We're loading him up with confusion and burns, then pelting him from afar.'

She nods, looking forward again.

Across the field, Roxanne looks at Vulpix, visibly troubled. "Nosepass, be ready."

The compass pokemon hums in reply.

'Turn up the heat, love.'

Vulpix narrows her eyes, and high above, the summer sun seems to brighten and beat down even more harshly.

The ref clears her throat. "Mister Henson sends out Vulpix! Final Match! Vulpix versus Nosepass, begin!"

'Confuse Ray! And stay mobile so his Thunder Wave can't hit you!'

Vulpix is in motion the instant the ref is done speaking, her eyes lighting up a sinister violet.

The academic Gym Leader notices instantly. "Nosepass, Protect now!"

A barrier of green drops around Nosepass just in the nick of time, as it's surface ripples where the invisible Confuse Ray hit.

Lee can't help but grunt in frustration. 'Does everyone and their mom know Protect? Charge Confuse Ray again and I'll give the signal as Protect drops.'

The instant Protect begins to drop, Lee springs Vulpix. 'Now!'

Again Vulpix sends out a Confuse Ray pulse, but Roxanne cries out; "Left one meter now! Then Rock Polish!"

Nosepass quickly hovers to the left, the slow Confuse Ray missing. A second later, his rocky exterior begins to shine brightly as the rough surfaces upon him smooth out, making his aerodynamics skyrocket.

'Dodge this! Baby-Doll Eyes!'

Still bounding around the arena, Vulpix's eyes glow again, this time pink. This time the effect is instant, the eerie Fairy energy enfeebles Nosepass with almost no delay, making him wobble midair for a moment before he steadies out.

Roxanne is beginning to sweat on her side of the field. "Nosepass! Slow her down with Thun-"

'Thunderwave. Use Quick Attack to dodge, then close the distance and point blank Confuse Ray. Thank you, speed of thought.'

-derwave!"

Vulpix coats herself in white Normal energy and dodges left as a red blur. An instant later, a streak of lighting jumps off of Nosepass and misses spectacularly. Without stopping, Vulpix flanks Nosepass just feet away, eyes alight.

Roxanne gasps. "Nosepass! Pro-!"

The Rock pokemon lets out an ill grumble and sways side to side, before suddenly lashing out with an unexpected Tackle, catching Vulpix and smashing into her. He overextends the Tackle and crashes into the ground with a painful crack!

Lee winces at the crunch he hears from Vulpix and feels his nose sting with phantom pain. Vulpix jumps back and uses a paw to rub her broken and bleeding nose with tears stinging her eyes.

"Nosepass, snap out of it!" Roxanne yells. "I need you!"

Nosepass quickly begins to steady.

'Will-o-Wisp, we can't let him get any momentum.'

As ordered, Vulpix shakes away the distracting pain and shoots a slow-moving orb of white flames from her mouth, which splashes over Nosepass. For the first time, the Rock pokemon makes a sound of pain, the sound being a high-pitched keen that makes Vulpix fold her ears back.

The flames of Will-o-Wisp don't last long, but they leave Nosepass's side cracked and glowing a painful red like superheated rock. The impassive pokemon's brow furrows in what has to be agony as he lists to his injured side. If he hadn't snapped himself out of confusion by now, then the burn definitely did it for him.

"Nosepass!" Roxanne cries in near panic. "We can't let this go on! Pull through! We just need one good hit!"

Nosepass groans and floats back into a 'standing' position facing Vulpix.

"Discharge!"

'Discharge? Oh shit, out of there now!'

Even at the speed of thought, the order is just barely too late as Nosepass explodes into a nova of electricity that fills the field almost instantly. Vulpix yowls in pain and is locked in place until the wave passes. Even from the little phantom sensation he felt, Lee has to resist the urge to curl up as every nerve ending in his body stings. 'It's official, I hate Electric everything.'

He watches as Vulpix takes a deep breath and tries to shake off the weakness in her muscles from the Electric blast. Discharge damn near knocked her out from the overload, and Lee can only imagine the same move from a true Electric type pokemon would have been a one-hit incapacitation. Bits of her fur stand on end and more than a bit is singed, but she stands tall on all fours as the black in the edges of her vision recedes.

'Look, this is going to come off as a real asshole move, but fuck getting hit by that again. Ember, and curve them into his burn.'

Vulpix doesn't need much convincing. She takes a breath and fires a stream of fireballs from her mouth all around Nosepass.

Roxanne opens her mouth to issue an order when she notices all the Embers go wide by Nosepass's injured side, all of them missing.

Then they turn midair to Nosepass as if magnified.

Roxanne's face becomes one of horror. "Nosepass, Protect!"

The compass pokemon is just barely too slow as the first Ember smashes into his burn and breaks his concentration. Then the second one lands, then the third, fourth, fifth, tenth, twentieth...

Nosepass makes the same high-pitched keen as before and wobbles mid-air, coming dangerously close to hitting the ground as the last Ember splashes over his burn, making the cracked stone break even more.

'Oh c'mon! I get that Fire isn't good against Rock, but we hit a fucking burn! Just go down already!' Lee grits his teeth.

"Nosepass! Use Sandstorm!" Roxanne cries.

'Fuck. Breaking line of sight and slowing Vulpix down in one go. That's smart.'

Nosepass grunts and a whirlwind of sand blooms to life around him, rapidly expanding to cover the field in a gritty, howling wind that totally obscures Nosepass. Vulpix has to grit her teeth and squint to avoid getting the fine particulate in her eyes.

"Nosepass, use Rocktomb!"

'No! Dodge left!'

Vulpix blindly jumps several meters to the left, but Rocktomb doesn't land on the spot she vacated. Instead, a half-second after she lands, the Rocktomb falls out of the raging Sandstorm from above and smashes into her, knocking the breath from her lungs and sending her down with her legs spread.

One rock lands right on a hind leg with a sickening crack! And thus Lee knew how Rocktomb caused its slow-down effect.

Vulpix lets out a scream and her trainer can feel her white-hot pain lancing up his own leg.

The noise makes Lee's stomach churn and he's tempted to call the match right there, only for Vulpix to telepathically shout-down the idea.

She's not about to give up on such an important battle.

Gritting her teeth, the vixen pulls her broken leg out from under the boulder that trapped her, uncaring of the pain and broken bones. She stands, favoring her good hindleg, but stands nonetheless.

The Sandstorm howls again and forces her to shut her eyes.

'Shit, if she can't see, she can't aim. Even her pyrokinesis is useless without a way to accurately direct the fire.' Lee eyes the barely visible Nosepass quickly hovering side-to-side to foul any blind projectile shots, silently marveling at the pokemon's sheer willpower. 'Wait, if she can't see him, but I can...'

Lee tugs Vulpix's mind with his own, and the vixen follows along easily. Now so close mentally, the phantom sensations he gets from her seem stronger than ever, making his whole body ache and leg throb. It takes a moment and a little help from her, but he finds her sense of sight.

Then he plugs her sight into his.

Her surprise is almost tangible, and physically, she almost lets her jaw drop a little before remembering the raging sand. Inside his own head, Lee can feel Vulpix watching through his eyes.

Lee moves his gaze to Nosepass, and Vulpix smiles in understanding.

"Rocktomb, Nosepass!"

'Wait for it, then Ember.'

Eyes still closed, Vulpix waits, and when she doesn't move, Nosepass fires his attack into the Sandstorm. Waiting until she sees the rocks moving through the sandstorm with her borrowed eyes, Vulpix sidesteps out of the way with just inches to spare. Then she rears her head back and fires a barrage of fireballs into the Sandstorm.

Roxanne's voice is barely audible over the storm. "Good dodge, but I'm afraid blind fire isn't going to wo-!"

The Embers all track Nosepass through both the sand and his evasive movement, smashing into him with a staccato of explosions. He cries in his sharp keen and the Sandstorm begins to fade before dying entirely.

As the last Ember pops against Nosepass's large nose, the compass pokemon lets out a long groan before falling down to his stubby legs, falling over with a thud a second later, unmoving.

'Did we do it? Did we win?'

The entire field is silent. Lee looks up at the class and sees each and every one of their faces is stunned. Roxanne likewise looks at her fallen pokemon with disbelief. Vulpix finally breaks the quiet by panting, her whole form shaking and exhausted.

The referee finally blinks and regains her wits. "U-uh. Nosepass is unable to battle, Vulpix and Mister Lee are the winners!"

The bleachers break out into wild cheers, some of the kids accidentally throwing their notebooks out of their laps as they stand to applaud. Their words are so rapid and mixed together that Lee can't really make out what is being said.

Vulpix limps her way to her trainer's side, sitting and looking as dignified as a fox that got into a fight with a giant magnet could.

'Which is to say still pretty dignified. You're the best love,' Lee grins as the rush of a hard-fought victory hits him. 'We did it. We did it! We beat a Gym Leader who was going all-out!' If it wouldn't jostle her broken leg, Lee would have picked the vixen up and hugged her tight.

Vulpix settles with a pleased snuffle through her still-smarting nose and leans into his leg.

"I have to say, I... wasn't expecting that."

Lee looks up as Roxanne walks up. Behind her the field is empty, and he watches her deposit a shrunken pokeball into her pocket. For a moment she stares at Lee before sighing. "I suppose I set myself up for a downfall with my theatrics," she says, letting a smile form on her face. "Mister Henson, I, Roxanne of the Rusboro Gym, am happy to present the Stone Badge to you for your victory," she holds out a hand, upon which a shining Stone Badge lay.

Lee takes the badge gingerly, almost not believing it. At that moment, the events of the past two months finally come into focus for him.

He is a pokemon trainer with a whole world of opportunity before him, his childhood fantasy. He and his beloved team have defeated a Gym Leader, and his journey to be the very best is actually underway.

It almost makes him forget about —

He shakes the thought away. Now is not the time for that.

Lee offers the Gym Leader a wide smile and slips the badge in his pocket. "Thank you, Roxanne."

Her expression brightens. "Come by the gym later, and I can transfer your prize money and give you your TM."

"Now that was quite the incredible show!"

Roxanne looks behind Lee with wide eyes and the entire watching class gasps as one.

Slowly turning, Lee isn't sure if some higher power is purposely throwing curveballs at him or not.

Smiling wide with an absolutely titanic Metagross behind him, Steven Stone himself takes a step forward. "Roxanne! It's been some time since I've seen you cut loose like that. I hope you don't mind my eavesdropping, but when I saw you teaching this battle class, I thought Metagross and I would watch for a bit. I'm rather glad we did now!"

Behind him, the metal behemoth rumbles at his name, shaking Lee down to his bones

Roxanne recovers much faster than Lee does. "It's no problem, Steven. We're always glad to have you here at the school. When did you get back to Rustboro?"

"Metagross Teleported us in this morning," the man explains, running a hand through his steel-blue hair. "Just some business at Devon that needed my attention. So, who is your challenger here?" He asks, taking in Lee and Vulpix carefully.

Over his shoulder, Metagross's red, glowing eyes lock onto the man and fox as well, his stare even more penetrating than his trainer's. Under the red eyes, Lee can practically feel himself being peeled back layer by layer, exposing him to the titanic pokemon like a book. Lee gulps as he looks back at the nearly seven-foot-tall pokemon. One thing jumps out at him instantly.

All veteran pokemon have scars or marks from hard battles, Steel types included. Marks like that can be hidden or healed for vanity, but battling pokemon often wear them like badges of honor to show they fought hard and won.

Metagross's armored form is immaculate.

'Holy shit, we're going to have to fight this monster one day.'

In the back of his mind, he feels Vulpix's telepathy jump and lash outward at something with a scowl. Shortly after, Metagross's gaze shifts to Vulpix with a rumble and the horrid feeling of exposure fades.

"This is Lee Henson," Roxanne's voice pulls him from his thoughts as she gestures to him with a hand. "A researcher and Lab Trainer working under Professor Birch. He kindly agreed to help me with today's class. And speaking of..." She turns to her pointing and whispering class. "Please excuse me, I need to finish up here. Okay class! I hope everyone took notes, as we're goi-"

Steven turns to Lee, reaching a hand out. "Lee is it? A pleasure to meet you."

With an almost dry gulp, Lee take's the Champion's hand and shakes it. "Y-Yeah, same to you."

The Hoenn Champ crosses his arms and taps a foot in thought. "Ah! I do remember your name passing by my desk! A refugee from an isolated region, yes? How are you liking Hoenn?"

"It's already home," Lee replies, stuffing his hands in his jacket pockets so as to not twiddle them nervously.

Steven's smile is bright. "I'm glad to hear it. Yours and Vulpix's ending move was incredible! How did she curve those Embers? And your telepathy is very advanced for a new trainer."

"How did you know about th-" Lee stops himself and looks at Metagross. "Right, Psychic-type ace. Anyway, as I told Roxanne, one of the facets of my research is pokemon technique modification and experimentation. I was told by Birch that I have an...unusual way of looking at things, and he offered me his sponsorship on the condition I conduct research for him. Vulpix curving her Embers is one of the modified moves we've created with others in the works."

Steven nods and rubs his chin. "Interesting... I don't think I've met a researcher with a focus like that. I'll be looking forward to seeing how far you go in the gym circuit," He glances back to Roxanne with a small smile. "But considering you bested Roxanne's personal pokemon, maybe I should say I look forward to seeing you in the Ever Grande Conference."

'And now the Champion knows who I am and is watching. Shit. Goodbye any chance of surprising him.'

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Lee sighs. He looks down when he feels Vulpix lean into his leg. The poor vixen looks ready to collapse on her feet. "Shit, sorry love," He draws her ball. "We'll get to the Pokemon Center soon. Return,"

With a red flash of light, Vulpix is safely in her ball.

"Ah, how rude of me," Steven laughs nervously as Lee clips Vulpix's ball to his belt. "Your pokemon must be tired. I'll let you get to the Pokemon Center. Before you go through, take this."

He reaches into his breast pocket, drawing Lee's eyes to the gleaming pin topped with a Megastone upon the front, and withdraws a card he hands to Lee.

Looking it over, the scarred trainer finds it's a heavily personalized business card, similar to Roxanne's but much more extravagant, fitting a Champion. Upon it are an email and a phone number.

"I've got to get going, the League is a needy bunch and I'm probably late for a meeting. We'll keep in touch," Steven says, turning and waving. He and Metagross glow a brilliant corona of colors before vanishing.

--------------------------------------

"No way! You got to skip the gym line and meet Steven Stone!?"

Lee sits back against the headboard of the comfy hotel looking at the new smartphone in his hand. Roxanne's prize money wasn't a ton, but the $1500 gave him enough to get a good device with a fair amount leftover. In his lap, Vulpix dozes under gentle strokes of his free hand. Her left hind leg is tightly wrapped in white bandages, compete with a stern 'no strenuous activity for three days' order from Nurse Joy.

"I did," Lee confirms Brendan's question, looking over at Brendan and Zinnia, who are seated on opposite sides of the other bed. "I was just at the right place at the right time...Or the wrong place at the wrong time..." He grumbles. "I'm not exactly happy that the Champion has his eye on me. I was hoping to surprise him when we made it through the Ever Grande Conference, but I guess that's not happening now."

Zinnia hums and rocks back. "If you make waves, he's going to figure out something was up with you anyway. The Gym Leaders, Elite Four, and Champ have to talk to each other, right?"

Lee feels his face go white. "Oh, fun. The others will be expecting us then..."

"That's such bull that you got to skip ahead, though!" Brendan bulldozes in, unconcerned about the Gym Leaders possibly upping the challenge. "I'm not set to battle Roxanne until Thursday morning!" He claws at his hat and falls into the bed back-first. "Aarrgh!"

"Don't be so eager, if she finds out you're Birch's son and a Lab Trainer too, she's going to put you through the ringer," Lee says with a shake of his head. He looks down at the pizza place website and the little 'Confirmed!' message that popped up before navigating away to RustboroTS.edu. The newest recording is none other than this battle. "Dinner is on it's way. In the meantime, it looks like they uploaded our fight against Roxanne. Take a look at the fun you have to look forward to."

He tosses the phone to Brendan, who catches it and eagerly hits the play button as Zinnia curiously watches over his shoulder.

Lee relaxes and pulls Treecko and Corvisquire's balls from his belt, popping them open and releasing them on the bed. The pokemon materialize in flashes of white. Cool yellow and burning red eyes look at Lee, who looks back and stifles a yawn. "Normally I'd prepare something a little more healthy, but we won a gym battle and some celebration is in order. Hope you two like pizza."

Treecko raises a brow, probably unsure what pizza even is, but Corvisquire's resting murder face actually morphs into a pleased expression.

Despite the worries of the day, they came out on top in a difficult battle, have friends all around, and have a delicious dinner on the way.

'Another day in the world of pokemon I guess,' Lee smiles. 'Another day in the world of pokemon.'
 
sad to see I haven't seen much chat reaction here, I don't have much to say outside of what I already did considering i speedred up to date
 
Act 1: Chapter 10
-------------------------------
"It's all still undergoing analysis by lead experts in the area." The smartly-dressed, middle-aged man says to the camera before him. "Modern analytics technology has come a long way in the on-going pursuit of better understanding Psychic pokemon, with the acclaimed Dr. Cyan's recent advancements in EEG machine manufacturing as the spearpoint of continued research. These specialized EEGs can read a much wider range of brainwaves, peeling back some of the mystery. On this chart, you can see-"

The Rustboro school video upon Lee's phone is interrupted by a little ding! and an alert in the corner, showing a new text message.

From his shady spot in the grassy knoll he and his pokemon found at the edge of Rustboro, Lee groans and leans up, scooting his back against the tree. Opening the message, he sees it's from Brendan.

Brendan: my match is soon its almost 12 your going to be there right?

Looking up away from the phone briefly, he sees his pokemon out training. Or rather Corvisquire and Treecko are training.

Treecko glows white and dodges another set of Swift rays with his newly learned Quick Attack, moving when the rays are too close to the ground to correct their course and home back in on him, leaving divots in the grass where they explode. Treecko lands from his leap and focuses back on his aerial foe, favoring one leg over the bruised other.

Above in the sky with the sun at his back, Corvisquire cackles and swings a golden, glowing wing, sending yet another wave of starry rays down at Treecko.

Off to the side, Vulpix watches and mediates.

After days of morning training with him and Vulpix, Treecko had come to learn Quick Attack. It wasn't terribly fast, nor could he go from still to full speed like Vulpix, but it was a foundation to build upon.

And build upon it Treecko did. Quickly, at that.

Where he would be brutalized by Swift just three days ago, now he's dodging the attacks consistently, which is rather impressive considering the inbuilt homing of Swift.

Treecko expertly ducks under one incoming ray and sidesteps another, before launching himself left with Quick Attack, avoiding the main mass of Swift that would have surely tagged him otherwise.

'But he's training until he drops each day...' Lee frowns as he watches. 'The thought of stopping doesn't even cross his mind...'

High above, Corvisquire screeches, slowly becoming infuriated with the repeated misses. He winds both wings back, both of them glowing brighter than over before, then throws down a truly massive barrage of Swift.

Treecko's face hardens, the white aura of Quick Attack flaring around him again.

'Corvisquire was so eager to volunteer to help with Treecko's Quick Attack training, but now that his attacks are missing, he's getting frustrated.' Lee's frown deepens. In his head, he reaches out and taps the ever-present connection to Vulpix. 'Love, that's too much too fast, intercept with Ember.'

The vixen blasts a wide net of Ember from her mouth, covering the entire area between Treecko and Corvisquire. The tiny fireballs curve into Swift's path, some missing, but the Embers outnumber the starry Swift rays at least three to one. With a great staccato of explosions, Ember and Swift cancel each other, making a hanging screen of smoke.

Treecko looks between Vulpix and Corvisquire, brows downturned and mouth drawn into a tight line. He turns his gaze to Lee with narrowed eyes.

'...My stupid speech in the forest didn't give him some kind of complex, did it?' The more Lee thinks of the exchange between him and Treecko after the tree fell, the more he dislikes how he worded it. The more he dislikes how his greed took hold, unable to resist the allure of a pokemon with such potential. He should have let Treecko go, they weren't meant to cross paths, but Lee promised the world to the shattered young pokemon and now that promise hangs over his head. 'He worked hard and took his training seriously under Ash, but not like this.'

"Alrighty, everyone!" Lee climbs to his feet and pockets his phone after sending a short 'on the way' to Brendan. "Brendan's gym battle is coming up in a bit and we're going to go support him, so we're going to end it here for today. Treecko," The man regards the aloof green lizard, silently debating on what to say. "You're really giving it one-hundred percent every day and I'm really enjoying your progress. You got Quick Attack down at an astonishing rate, but don't overwork yourself. You don't need to go full-throttle until exhaustion."

Lee gives Treecko a wide smile, but Treecko's own lips pull down into a thin frown. Before his smile can become brittle from the silent treatment, Lee turns to Corvisquire, who lands several feet away.

"Corvisquire, your Swift was already great and is only getting better. It's a good projectile to fall back on and you use it masterfully."

The raven smugly puffs up under the ego-stroking.

"But..."

The puffed feathers quickly ruffle in agitation.

"You really need to save the brutal, all-out attacks for real matches," Lee says, slowly lowering himself to a knee and earning a glare from Corvisquire. The trainer raises his hands in a gesture of surrender and continues. "You can't blast your own teammates to smithereens," he says more gently. "All of us are in this together, and hurting a part hurts the whole here."

The bird openly sneers and turns his head away.

"You might not see it now, but you will someday," Lee finishes before standing again. 'Act up all you want, pal. I've dealt with your type before and I've yet to lose.' He takes a breath. "Alrighty, we'll have an early lunch then head over to the gym, sound good to everyone?"

Lee gets a pair of nods and one slightly eased sneer, prompting him to unshoulder his bag and open it. In short order, he has three bowls set out each with its own unique food. Vulpix gives him a gentle smile and Treecko a simple nod before they start eating. Corvisquire meanwhile digs into his bowl without any such nicety.

As he watches his pokemon tuck into their lunch, Lee pulls his pokedex from a jacket pocket and takes the device out of sleep mode, scrolling over to the voice recorder. "Day forty-six," he leans into the tree at his back as he talks. "I should probably start doing these on my phone. My Pokegear? Is Pokegear the name or the brand? Eh, it's a phone. The pokedex is fine as for its own functions, but sending huge media files through this thing takes for fucking ever and kills the battery. Anyway, as I've noted before, Treecko's growth is nothing short of explosive. He's been working hard to master Quick Attack, and now has an adequate grasp after only a few days. He's in excellent shape and health, and I have full intention of helping him stay that way, He throws himself into training with admirable aplomb, but I have fears of him burning out." The glare from Treecko as he looks up from his food is ignored. "We'll... work on that more later. Corvisquire was already powerful at his time of capture and his performance in battle speaks volumes of his abilities. He improves quickly as well, adding power and technique to each of his moves with their repeated use. Now I just wish he would curb his enthusiasm for violence..." Lee looks over to the bird in question, who ignores him in favor of his food. "Again, we're working on it."

"On to other topics, I'm glad that both Treecko and Corvisquire are responding well to their diets. Corvisquire was easy, as I just copied Vulpix's mix with more red meat and some grains substituted with nuts. To ensure healthy armor growth upon his eventual evolution to Corviknight, who I'm told is a Steel-type, I do add some iron supplements in for him. Treecko is where I ran into issues." Lee pauses to watch Treecko take another bite of his leafy-green lunch. He does so not reluctantly, but it's obvious he doesn't particularly care for what he's eating. "I was surprised to learn the Treecko line is strictly herbivorous. I guess it makes sense given the Grass typing, but it threw me off. I admit I'm... not well versed with herbivores, as I spent most of my time working with carnivores. His mix should meet all his nutritional and calorie requirements even with his instance on harsh training factored in, but it leaves taste as something to be desired. I'll wrap this up as I've got to go. Brendan's match with the Rustboro gym leader is coming up and my team is about done with lunch. Lee, out."

Treecko is the last to finish and takes his last bite right as Lee's report ends.

"Ready everyone?"

---------------------------------------
By the time Lee and Vulpix made it to the Rustboro Gym and purchased a spectator ticket, the match was set to start in only fifteen minutes. As the pair walk in, they take in the sight of the gym, having not seen much during the brief visit to Roxanne to collect their winnings and TM.

The gym is structured like a miniature arena. There are stands with padded seats along the sides of the battleground. A few areas in the stands are devoid of human seating, instead having large padded spots for pokemon. The battlefield itself is made of the same hard-packed dirt of nearly every other battlefield Lee has seen. Milling around the battleground is a few gym staff in uniforms, a referee in a black and white shirt, and a pair of camera crews, one looking official with high-end equipment and the other one staffed by teens with an older camera. 'They're probably the ones who record fights for Roxanne and the school,' Lee realizes with a blink.

There is a decently large number of people and pokemon in the audience with many of the seats already taken. A sharp whistle breaks through the dull roar of the talking audience, making both man and fox look up, seeing Zinnia waving near a set of seats with pokemon access.

"What took you so long?" The Dragon tamer asks as Lee shimmies over a few people to seat himself next to her.

"We were getting some early morning training in and grabbed an early lunch before heading over," he says, bending his shoulder so Vulpix could slide down into his lap. "Brendan has been blowing up my phone with reminders all morning, so I had plenty of warning."

Zinnia nods and looks back out to the field. "How well do you think shrimpy is going to do? You barely won against Roxanne, so..."

"We were working with a type disadvantage for both battles," Lee replies with a raised brow, wrapping his arms around the vixen in his lap. "Brendan has the opposite and is working with a type advantage today, and Roxanne may not use her personal team, either."

"I'm pretty sure she is," Zinnia says with a lopsided smile. "What Hoenn Gym Leader doesn't know the name Birch?"

'Makes sense,' Lee thinks. "True," he says, looking around at all the people.

"You seem surprised by something," the tanned girl says, following Lee's gaze all around the room.

"Just surprised. I didn't realize how... involved gym battles are."

Zinnia laughs. "Televising it probably earns the League big money, so why wouldn't they? I think the League is going to be mad they missed your match."

"Again, true," Lee says. "Just surprising to a bumpkin like me I guess."

The remaining seats begin to fill until most are taken by a medley of people and pokemon. A decent number of people are in suits and work uniforms with a few glancing at their watches.

'Did they come here on their lunch?' Lee idly wonders. 'Can it be because it's Nigel Birch's son battling?'

The ref near the edge of the arena glances at his watch adjusts a small microphone on his shirt collar. He clears his throat, the sound carrying over into the Gym speakers and quieting the crowd down. "Welcome, everyone, to another Gym Battle at the Rustboro Gym!" He says, walking to the center of the battlefield as the camera's focus on him. "Today's match is an official gym challenge between challenger Brendan Birch-"

A number of the watching people whisper excitedly.

"-and Rustboro's own Roxanne!" The ref finishes.

The crowd erupts into cheers when both Brendan and Roxanne enter the arena. Roxanne is the image of cool, unphased by the crowd, while Brendan is decidedly more nervous looking. The boy fiddles with the tiny microphone on his shirt and looks up at all the people with trepidation. His eyes finally land on Lee and Zinnia, silently begging for reassurance.

Lee pulls his lips up into a smile and Zinnia visibly debates with herself, probably wondering if she should be antagonistic, Lee thinks, before offering a short wave.

Brendan steadies himself and smiles back.

'Poor kid, this is a lot of pressure,' Lee sends to Vulpix, who flicks an ear in reply. 'I'm glad we just had some kids watching.'

"Today's bout will be a two-on-two match with standard rules! Pokemon will battle until they are unable to continue or by trainer forfeit!" The ref continues. He holds an arm up and sections of the wall above the seating open up, revealing large screens. The screens come to life and display portraits of Brendan and Roxanne, each with two empty pokeball slots below them.

"Challenger Brendan may substitute mid-battle while Gym Leader Roxanne may not! Items are forbidden for this match! Trainers!" The referee gestures for both Roxanne and Brendan to step forward. "Please meet for the pre-match!"

"I said it before, I'll say it again, this is really involved," Lee says, rubbing a thumb through Vulpix's chest tuft as he watches.

Zinnia says nothing, focused on the proceedings.

Both Brendan and Roxanne meet in the center of the arena and shake hands, exchanging words too quiet to hear before splitting off to take their sides of the field.

"Pre-Battle, set!" The ref cries, chopping a hand at Roxanne. "Gym Leader, please choose your first pokemon!"

"Gladly," the teacher says, her voice now carrying over the speaker system. "Geodude, ready!"

Roxanne throws her pokeball, and out pops a familiar Geodude. The living stone is impassive in the face of the cheers sent his way.

'The same Geodude, the one Roxanne said she recently captured for her personal team.' Lee squints and sees the healed gashes in the Rock pokemon's arms and side. The healed stone is a lighter shade of gray than the rest of Geodude.

"Challenger Brendan! Please choose your first pokemon!"

Brendan visibly gulps and palms a pokeball. "Shroomish! You're up!" He says, voice cracking a little over the speakers.

Shroomish appears in the field in a flash of light, looking just as stoic as Geodude. He looks around at all the people and moves his mouth in what is probably a grumble.

"Battle, set!" The referee cries, backing out of the arena and gesturing to a Gym assistant, who draws a pokeball and releases a Mr Mime. Mr Mime wastes no time and raises his hands, erecting shimmering walls around the arena that fade into invisibility shortly after.

"The battle between Challenger Brendan and Gym Leader Roxanne will begin..." The ref raises his hand.

Roxanne's eyes narrow.

Brendan's knuckles go white from clenching the pokemon in his hand.

The hand chops down. "Now!"

"Shroomish, Stun Spore!" Brendan calls the instant the ref falls silent.

"Blow it away, Mega Punch!" Roxanne counters.

Shroomish shakes a noxious yellow cloud of spores from his body and sends it right at Geodude, who cocks his glowing fist back. With a cry of "Dude!" Geodude throws his fist forward, generating a shockwave that scatters the paralytic spores.

"Now, Rock Throw!" Roxanne calls.

Faster than Brendan can react, Geodude plunges his hand into the earth below and slings an earthen cannonball at Shroomish.

The mushroom deftly twirls out of the way on his short legs like a ballerina, letting the Rock Throw crash and shatter on the invisible barrier behind him. He looks back to Brendan, awaiting instruction.

Brendan shakes himself from his stupor and growls. "Shroomish, just like we practiced! Close in!"

"Getting close with a status fighter like Shroomish?" Zinnia wonders aloud. "What's he doing?"

Shroomish trundles towards Geodude as quickly as his stubby legs will let him, and Geodude's face shifts into the barest hint of confusion.

Roxanne's face morphs into a frown. "Not so fast. Geodude, Magnitude!"

Geodude raises both hands and brings them down like lightning, slamming his palms into the floor.

The entire gym shakes, pulling a few screams and cheers from the onlookers as Shroomish stumbles and grimaces as the vibrations run through his body.

"Hang in there, bud!" Brendan calls. "Just remember our practice!"

'No idea what kind of practice this is, but it sounds suicidal,' Lee grimaces along with Shroomish. 'What are you up to, Brendan?'

The Mushroom pokemon keeps running, now notability slower, seemingly running right at Geodude's now glowing fist. The Rock pokemon cocks his fist back in a retaliatory strike that a disappointed-looking Roxanne doesn't stop, then unleashes his Mega Punch point-blank.

...Only for Shroomish to again twirl out of the way near-instantly, Geodude's knuckles skimming Shroomish's soft hide, all the while the mushroom spews yellow spores and engulfs both he and Geodude in a dense cloud.

The crowd roars and Lee feels his jaw drop. He doesn't even need his bond with Vulpix to feel her surprise, as her flicking fan of tails gives her away.

"Damn... That's smart." Zinnia blinks and watches as Shroomish backs away from the twitching Geodude. When she notices Lee looking at her for an explanation, she continues. "Shroomish is a squat little guy and his center of gravity is really low, so he can spin quickly and stably. It's a good sidestep maneuver that really takes advantage of his stature," the Dragon tamer says with an amused huff. "Shrimpy really thought out of the box there."

Roxanne's face is bewildered before she quickly recovers. "Geodude! Scatter the remainders!"

It takes a moment for the living rock to respond, out he throws a sluggish Mega Punch hard enough to disperse the cloud. It takes him a moment to put his arm back down and he does so with gritted teeth.

Brendan's face is beaming and his shoulders shake with so much adrenaline that Lee can almost feel it from his place in the crowd. "Now, Leech Seed!"

"Geodude, catch it!" Roxanne calls, her brows furrowed hands clenched.

Shroomish bends and shoots a single walnut-sized seed from the cap on his head. Geodude reaches up and catches it with herculean effort, crushing the seed in his hand, but Shroomosh simply fires another that hits his face. Vines sprout from the seed and wrap around Geodude, lighting up with stolen yellow energy that flies to Shroomish as yellow orbs that sink into his skin. The stone can't help but stiffen in obvious pain

"Geodude, pull it off!" Roxanne orders.

"Don't let up, Shroomish!" Brendan yells, pumping a fist. "Mega Drain next!"

Roxanne's face becomes grim.

Geodude struggles in the vines and his own paralysis then lets out a yell of pain when the mushroom pokemon points his crown-like cap at Geodude, pulling even larger globes of yellow away from the Rock-type. After several seconds of torture, Geodude rips the vines off of him and hurls himself backward, throwing himself out of Mega Drain's range. He lands several yards back and regards Shroomish warily, taking harsh, struggling breaths all the while.

"I must admit, it's rare to see such a battle capable Shroomish," Roxanne says in the lull, watching the little mushroom with the same level of caution as Geodude.

Shroomish meets the Gym Leader's gaze evenly.

"Heh, it took a while to get ready for this match, but I knew Shroomish wouldn't let me down!" Brendan says, casting a wide smile at his pokemon, who looks back at the boy with a small upturn of his lips.

The young Birch's smile is infectious, as Roxanne can't keep her severe look in place for long before it cracks. A moment later, she sighs and shakes her head. "This is going to make me feel a little guilty...But this would not be a challenge for you otherwise."

Brendan and Shroomish both tense up.

"Geodude..." Roxanne's eyes harden. "...Self-Destruct."

A gasp runs through the crowd and Zinnia swears under breath at Lee's side.

Geodude, face set in grim determination, launches himself at Shroomish with a desperate burst of speed as his whole body glows a sinister orange.

Lee's arms tighten around Vulpix as he screws his eyes shut and looks away.

Flesh Cooking

Lungs Bur-

Vulpix is quick to grasp his mind with her own, engulfing him in a comforting shell. A muted explosion rocks the Gym with sound and tremors as the audience thunders in reply, but Lee is so pulled inward that he barely notices.

When Vulpix finally lets him go, the Gym comes back into focus over a few seconds, first with his eyes opening to blurs that sharpen just as Brendan yells something that sounds as if he's speaking underwater, a pokeball leaving his hand that materializes into Mudkip who opens his maw in a soundless bellow. Across from the mudfish, Nosepass already hovers.

Between them, a blackened crater blemishes the arena, making goosebumps break out along Lee's flesh.

A second later, the muted sounds come back as if his ears were plugged and suddenly cleared. "Lee!" A hand grabs his arm.

The man almost jumps out of his skin and turns to his side.

Zinnia's ruby eyes bore into him with unusual intensity, her usually smirking mouth is pulled down into a deep frown. "What was that? Are you alright?"

It takes a moment for Lee to formulate a reply. "I'm fine," he croaks through his suddenly dry mouth. He grimaces and reaches into his bag at his feet, quickly drawing a bottle of water that he takes a sip from. "Just fine," he says after a gulp of water, voice more even.

The draconid woman looks him in the eye until he can take it no longer and looks away. "You're certain?"

Lee nods.

Zinnia holds her look for a moment before withdrawing her hand and slowly turning back to the battle. "If you say so..." she says, her expression giving away how unconvinced she is.

The scarred man just hugs the fox in his lap a little tighter and turns back to the match.

'So Shoomish and Geodude went down in a double-knockout. Brendan was probably hoping to wear down Nosepass before having to switch to Mudkip,' He thinks to himself. 'He knows that Nosepass has Electric attacks and Mudkip can't rely on his typing here. This could get messy.'

"Nosepass versus Mudkip, begin!" The ref cries.

"Nosepass, Spark." Roxanne calmly orders

"Mudkip, Mud Sport!" Brendan counters.

Nosepass rockets forward like a missile wreathed by a corona of sparking and snapping electricity, crashing into Mudkip and electrocuting the mudfish before he can even complete Mud Sport. Mudkip can only writhe and twitch in pain as Nosepass carries him and slams him into the barrier around the arena, throwing the breath out of him like a sledgehammer to the gut.

"Mudkip!" Brendan cries, his eyes wide as the onlookers explode into cheers.

"He's too slow..." Lee murmurs, drawing both Vulpix and Zinnia's attention. "Nosepass is damn fast with that magnetic levitation, and Mudkip isn't a slouch, but Nosepass could keep up with Vulpix and Corvisquire. On top of that, he knows Rock Polish and can get even faster. Brendan and Mudkip have an uphill battle even with a type advantage."

Nosepass finally backs off and lets Mudkip fall to the floor, and in his usual fashion, he gets to his feet without even acknowledging the electrical burn on his chest. He bellows out a challenge to Nosepass and the crowd cries out with him.

Brendan can't help but grin. "It'll take more than that to beat Mudkip. Now, Watergun!"

Mudkip takes a deep breath and shoots a huge torrent of water like a demented firehose at Nosepass. Then at the last second, he closes his mouth further and narrows the Watergun into an even more powerful stream.

The Rock pokemon dodges to the side without any prompting, but still gets clipped by the Watergun when it unexpectedly changes speed mid-stream. The Watergun knocks a few chips of rock loose off of Nosepass, but Roxanne's pokemon is otherwise unhurt.

"Looks like he thought of the speed gap, too," Zinnia muses.

"Now, Mud Sport! The close-in!" Brendan orders.

"Thunder Wave, Nosepass!" Roxanne says at the same time.

Mudkip fires a torrent of water at the hard-packed dirt of the ground and throws out a cloud of mud just in time, as Thunderwave strikes the mud plume instead of Mudkip, throwing smoking clods of baked mud everywhere. Mudkip rushes through the mud an instant later, charging right at Nosepass with reckless abandon.

"Rock Tomb, then Rock Polish, Nosepass!" Roxanne calls.

Nosepass raises his arms, and a number of boulders materialize from seemingly nothing around him. He throws his arms forward and the boulders rush at Mudkip.

The water pokemon weaves between the falling boulders that hit the ground with bone-rattling crashes, slowing him long enough for Nosepass to glow brilliantly as his edges all smooth out from Rock Polish.

"Now back up and Rock Tomb again!" Roxanne orders.

Where it took Nosepass a second to charge Rock Tomb before, the attack is almost instant now. A barrage of boulders screams towards Mudkip as Nosepass hovers back to Roxanne's side of the field, sliding through the air like a knife.

Mudkip dodges one boulder, but another one smashes into him with a crunch that makes the whole room wince. He rolls to his feet just long enough to duck another other boulder that scrapes one of his orange gills, leaving a bloody furrow. Then with a growl, he rears his head back and headbutts the last boulder, shattering it into hundreds of pieces and opening a gash on his forehead. He raises his bloody head and bellows.

The spectators go wild and even Lee has to resist the urge to stand up and cheer. Zinnia...

"That was badass! If Shrimpy is teaching his pokemon stuff like that, then maybe he isn't so bad after all!" She shouts, standing and joining everyone.

Roxanne doesn't seem phased. "Impressive. The Mudkip line is known for their physical abilities, and yours is going places, Mr. Birch."

Brendan can't help but grin.

"It's for that reason I need to go all out."

Brendan's grin falls.

"Nosepass, Discharge!" Roxanne cries.

The compass pokemon explodes into a dome of electricity that overtakes Mudkip in an instant, making him spasm and twitch and the volts rip through him. When the brutal attack finally ends, Mudkip keeps twitching and struggling in the tell-tale signs of paralysis. The mud that was coating him from Mud Sport chips and flakes off, baked into dirt by Discharge.

"Why doesn't Roxanne just use Electric moves?" Zinnia wonders aloud. "Why not just spam Discharge and end the match if she's going all out?"

"Nosepass is a Rock-type," Lee begins, watching Mudkip struggle to his feet. "He can use electric moves, but it takes time for him to charge back up, giving Brendan a small window to work with. For actual Electric types, they charge much faster and have a much higher capacity, or so I think..." Lee thinks back to all his cramming and research in Little Root, but it seems like a lifetime ago after just a few weeks.

Mudkip finally gets up and glares at Nosepass, who gives no indication that he saw it.

Down in the arena, Brendan bites his lip, his eyes darting between his roughed-up Mudkip and the nearly untouched Nosepass with despair. He growls and clenches his fist. "Mudkip! Close in!"

Mudkip, still sparking a little, powers through his paralysis and charges Nosepass at full speed, his little feet thudding across the ground in his wild haste.

"Nosepass, Sandstorm! Then Rock Tomb!" Roxanne orders, the same combo she used on Lee and Vulpix.

'Well shit. You had a good run, Brendan.'

A whirlwind of sand spins to life around Nosepass before expanding and engulfing a huge swath of the field in a howling, ripping desert gale.

Mudkip flinches and shuts his eyes, slowing down when the sand tears at him.

Then through the Sandstorm, a boulder falls and lands right on Mudkip with a muted crunch.

"No! Mudkip!" Brendan screams, reaching out a horrified hand but otherwise frozen.

At the sound of his trainer's voice, the Water pokemon slowly lifts the huge rock off his back and to the side with a dull thud. He stands with one of his front legs obviously broken and can't dodge the next rock that clips him and throws him end over end. For a moment, Mudkip lays on the ground and pants as best he can without his mouth filling with sand.

Brendan grits his teeth and seems perilously close to tears. "C'mon Mudkip! One last try! You can do it!"

On her side of the field, Roxanne shakes her head. "I'm sorry, Mister Birch, but I won't drag this out. Nosepass, Rock Tomb!"

Even in the whistling of the sandstorm, Rock Tomb can be heard flying through the air to finish off the mudfish pokemon.

Brendan screws his eyes shut. "Mudkip!"

Mudkip's eyes shoot open, and white light engulfs him.

'No fuckin' way,' Lee feels his eyes widening. 'This is some anime clutch bullshit. Brendan, you are one lucky kid.' He turns to Zinnia, who looks just as astonished.

Mudkip's form morphs and grows, limbs thickening, forelegs turning into forearms, hindlegs moving to stand upright, tailfin splitting into two, one-and-a-half foot form growing to just shy of three...

With a roar, the newly evolved pokemon lashes out with a forearm and turns an incoming boulder to gravel in a single punch before the light of evolution fades, revealing a snarling, unscathed Marshtomp. Three more boulders fly from the sandstorm, all of them destroyed with a single punch each, throwing rock fragments everywhere.

Brendan blinks and rubs his eyes, as if not believing what he's seeing.

Marshtomp turns and looks at Brendan, the same savage grin he had as a Mudkip etched on his face.

The boy can't help but grin back. "Hell yeah! Now thats what I'm talking about! Marshtomp! Rush him down!"

Marshtomp bellows a deep note and surges forward into the sandstorm, now totally unbothered.

Roxanne's sweating brow furrows. "Nosepass..." she hesitates. "End Sandstorm and circle around with Rock Tomb!"

'Now that Marshtomp is part Ground, all her Electric moves go out the window. What a turnabout.' Lee sends Vulpix, who is too glued to the fight to reply.

Sandstorm dies down, showing Nosepass quickly levitating away to flank Marshtomp, Rock Tomb charged and mid-firing.

"I'm sick of Rock Tomb!" Brendan yells. "Marshtomp, catch Rock Tomb and send it back!"

Roxanne's eyes shoot open in alarm.

Nosepass fires his boulders, sending them hurtling towards Marshtomp, who sidesteps one, two, three boulders. On the last, in an incredible feat of strength, he catches the boulder nearly as large as himself in both of his hands, skidding back only a few inches. With his loudest bellow to date, the mudfish raises the huge rock over his head and hurls it back at Nosepass just as fast as it came.

Nosepass moves to the side but still takes a glancing blow from the rock, shattering it and sending him spinning to the ground.

"Marshtomp. Mud Slap!"

"Nosepass, get up!"

Marshtomp rushes in just as Nosepass begins to hover back up and slaps a water-coated hand along the dirt ground, throwing up a thick wall of mud that slams into Nosepass like a run-away truck, throwing the Rock-type all the way into the barrier. The compass pokemon sinks to the ground but quickly hovers back up, though with a noticeable wobble.

"Sudden evolution or not, we're not about to give up!" Roxanne calls, "Nosepass, Double-Edge!"

Brendan's grin turns brittle. "Uh oh."

Nosepass shoots forward headfirst like a bullet, smashing into Marshtomp's stomach and knocking the wind out of him. The tackle is so fast and violent that Marshtomp is picked up off his feet and smashed into the psychic barrier again for the second time in the match.

The mudfish gets his fight back quickly and punches Nosepass several times with his powerful fists before finally blasting Nosepass with a point-blank Watergun, shaking off the compass pokemon.

Nosepass backs up, letting Roxanne order him again. "Double-Edge!"

Marshtomp crosses his arms in a block and takes the bone-rattling blow again with a wince when he's crushed into the psychic wall again.

"Marshtomp, you can pull through! They can't!" Brendan orders, smiling.

'Some kind of code phrase?' Lee wonders. 'But what move would...!'

Marshtomp falls to his knees and takes another Double-Edge with a grimace, his arms shaking. When Nosepass winds up for attack again, Marshtomp suddenly stands and cocks back a brightly glowing fist.

'Bide. Damn good move.'

Marshtomp roars and throws his fist forward like a meteor to meet Nosepass's Double-Edge. For a half-second, time seems to slow, then the point of contact between the two pokemon explodes in a dramatic plume that fills the whole arena with dust and shakes the Gym to its core.

After a long minute, the dust begins to clear, showing a bruised and panting Marshtomp...

...Standing over an unmoving Nosepass, whose rocky shell is covered in spiderweb cracks.

The referee holds up three fingers and counts them down. Three, two, one. A horn sounds over the speakers. "Nosepass is unable to battle! Marshtomp and Brendan Birch win! The challenger is the victor!"

The crowd, Lee and Zinnia included, rise and give a deafening ovation for the winners. The barriers shimmer and fall, letting Brendan race into the arena and hop the crater in the middle to pull Marshtomp in a hug. The pokemon totally ignores his bruising to hug his trainer back.

Roxanne sighs and recalls Nosepass, saying something quietly to the ball before shrinking it and putting it away. She clears her throat in her microphone and everyone quiets down. She makes her way to the center of the arena and offers Brendan and Marshtomp a smile. "Brendan, you, Shroomish, and Marshtomp battled well today, better than I could have ever hoped. With a combination of strategy, power, and close bonds, you've overcome your first Gym challenge and show everyone how bright the future is with young trainers like yourself rising to take the mantle one day. I am happy to present you with the Stone Badge."

She holds out a hand, where the glittering Stone Badge lay, letting Brendan take it gingerly. The boy can't help but grin like a loon and raise it over his head to the crowd, who cheers again.

-----------------------------------------------
"Oh jeez, I wasn't even the one battling and I'm beat..."

Lee watches Brendan lean back on the bench outside the Pokemart he, Brendan, and Zinnia visited after Brendan dropped his pokemon off at the Pokemon Center. Marshtomp just needs rest, but Shroomish needed a longer visit after taking a Self-Destruct.

"High-stress battling does that," Zinnia comments, finishing off the soda she got from the Pokemart and throwing it into a trashcan by the sidewalk. "Just your body pumping adrenaline tires you out."

"I was the same way after my battle with Roxanne," Lee says, petting the dozing vixen in his lap as he watches the people and pokemon walk by on the street. A few of them had come up earlier to ask for pictures with Brendan, who bashfully accepted. 'Being in the Gym Circuit kind of turns you into a pro athlete I guess.'

"I still can't believe that Mudk- er, Marshtomp evolved mid-battle," Brendan says, rolling Marshtomp's ball in his hand with a mystified expression. The ball shakes in reply, making him smile.

"Whatever you're doing with him, it must be working. I imagine that Shroomish and whatever pokemon you catch next will be following along shortly," Lee says, turning to Brendan with a smile.

The boy rubs the back of his head sheepishly. "Heh. I've, well, kind of been winging it and maybe copying you a little, Lee. You're the best trainer I know, after all." He steadfastly ignores Zinnia's raised brow and cleared throat. "Best I know," he says again.

Lee blinks at the unexpected admission as warmth blooms in his chest. "Well, uh. Thanks, Brendan. That means a lot to me, even if I'm pretty mediocre."

Brendan just rolls his eyes. "C'mon man, just take the compliment. I mean it."

The scarred trainer exhales a half-laugh and smiles. "Alright, don't get so huffy."

Brendan grins back and reaches into his bag to fish out a slim aluminum case, popping it open to admire the Stone Badge resting within again. Besides the badge, seven empty slots await.

'A hundred and fifty fucking credits for a League branded badge case. The League really knows how to rip that paycheck right back out of you,' Lee thinks with a scoff. His own Stone Badge simply rests in an inner pocket in his bag. 'I have to admit, it does look nice, though.'

Then with zero warning, a hand reaches out from behind them and snatches the badge case right out of Brendan's hand.

"Hey!" Brendan cries, whirling around to see a man in a red hoodie booking it down the street in a full sprint, pushing startled people out of his way.

"Oh no you don't!" Lee snarls, palming Corvisquire's ball and standing. Behind him, a grim-faced Zinnia takes a pokeball of her own. With a mighty hurl, Lee sends his pokeball high, where it pops open and lets out Corvisquire with a loud cry.

"Corvisquire! Don't lose the guy in the red!" Lee yells. Corvisquire caws in reply and zooms after the thief. "C'mon!"

Brendon is on his feet and racing towards the man in red before Lee can even finish his last word, his expression equal parts rage and terror at the sudden theft.

Lee runs after the boy, giving Vulpix just enough time to climb on his shoulder, with Zinnia trailing not far behind.

The thief is quick, jumping over benches, dodging people and pokemon, sometimes running in the road between cars, and ducking whenever Corvisquire comes down to take an angry swipe at him. He moves at full tilt, forcing his pursuers to do the same as they all run deeper into Rustboro.

"Stop! Thief!" Brendan yells, pumping his arms and legs even faster, slowly pulling away from Lee and Zinnia.

Lee feels his lungs begin to burn from the running and his limbs slowly begin to feel heavy. He dodges past several people, almost tripping and eating cement for his trouble. With a growl, he calls up to Corvisquire. "Corvisquire! Knock him down!"

The crow lets out a shrill shriek and dives again, making the thief tense and get ready to duck.

It would have worked had Corvisquire not aimed for his legs.

The man is swept off his feet by the bird, tripping and falling to the sidewalk with a pained grunt. The badge case slips from his hand and tumbles along the sidewalk to a stop. He gets up to grab at it again, but Brendan blows past him to scoop the case up off the ground. The boy, red-faced and panting, holds the case to his chest and glares at the thief with more anger than Lee has ever seen on him.

The man gets up, his hood falling to reveal a scraggly street tough just as Zinnia, Vulpix, and Lee stop before him. Corvisquire comes down and lands, flanking the man and cutting off any escape routes.

The thief in red growls and looks around at all the people stopping to watch the spectacle. He backs up into the street from his place on the sidewalk but stops when Corvisquire flutters over the sidewalk across the street to block him. "I can't leave without that badge, kid. Hand it over," he says, reaching into his hoodie pocket.

Lee freezes. 'Oh shit, he's got a gun.' When the man pulls out a pair of pokeballs, the zoologist breathes a sigh of relief. 'Thank god... Wait, pokemon are more dangerous than any gun. Shit, again.'

"Back up!" Zinnia shouts, fanning her arms out to ward away the bystanders, who all wisely comply with fearful chatter.

The thief throws the pokeballs in his hand, both bursting open midair.

One materializes into a Houndour, and the other into a Buizel.

The Houndour snarls and the Buizel gazes at everyone with a reluctant stare, not a single sign of aggression.

'Yellow teeth, patchy fur, underweight, these pokemon are not well cared for,' Lee frowns. 'I'll have to see if the League places criminal pokemon in rehab homes after this.'

"Vulpix, run damage control for Houndour's fire attacks, Corvisquire, makes sure no one runs," Lee says, reaching for his final pokeball. Vulpix slides off his shoulder and takes several steps back, watching Houndour carefully as Corvisquire's eyes narrow at being sidelined.

"If it's a fight you want, it's a fight you got, pal!" Brendan says, unclipping Marshtomp's ball. "Marshtomp! You're up!"

Marshtomp appears before the thief's pokemon, still covered in battle damage from his Gym battle against Nosepass, with a loud, echoing cry that makes both pokemon flinch.

"Treecko, get ready!" Lee throws his pokeball too.

The wood gecko takes form next to Marshtomp, regarding his opponents with dismissal. Instead, he turns his envious eyes to Marshtomp and clenches his jaw so minutely that Lee almost misses it.

Houndour's bravado lessens when faced with Treecko and Marshtomp, and Buizel just closes his eyes with a long-suffering sigh.

"Buizel, Aqua Jet! Houndour, Ember!" The thief opens up with a yell.

"Treecko, intercept Buizel!" Lee wastes no time countering.

Treecko zooms forward in a Quick Attack and meets the water-coated Buizel in the middle of the makeshift street battlefield, the pair struggling for a moment before Treecko overpowers Buizel. The water weasel is knocked aside and thrown down hard to the hot asphalt. Treecko doesn't give Buizel a moment to rest and uses Absorb without any prompting. Buizel squeals and writhes in pain as his life energy is stolen away from him.

Meanwhile, Marshtomp steps up before Houndour, taking the Ember attack meant for Treecko without even a flinch. The mudfish even has the gall to croak out a mocking laugh. Vulpix's Ember is thrice as powerful on a bad day!

"Is that your best?" Brendan taunts with a laugh of his own. "Marshtomp, Watergun!"

"Shit! Houndour, run!" The man in red yells.

The dog pokemon tenses to leap away, but Marshtomp's Watergun is far too fast. It catches Houndour just as he jumps, battering and throwing the yelping canine down the street until he rolls into a mailbox with a painful clang, leaving a body-sized dent.

Lee winces. 'Shit. I hope we don't have to pay for any damages...'

Buizel finally musters up the effort to fire a Watergun at Treecko, who cancels Absorb and ducks the attack with room to spare. He leaps back to Lee's feet, looking at his trainer and awaiting an order. Buizel, meanwhile, slowly gets to his feet.

The cocky look on the thieving trainer's face is now absent, replaced now with naked panic. "H-Houndour, get up! Buizel, uh..." He stutters. "Use Swift on both of them!"

Buizel grits his teeth and whirls around, shooting a fan of shining rays at Treecko and Marshtomp.

Treecko steps into the rays and weaves around them, doing so easily after having to face Corvisquire's much faster, deadlier version. The Swift rays can't turn fast enough and most crash into the ground with pops, kicking up loose asphalt.

With another croaking laugh, Marshtomp simply bats the Swift out of the air with barely a wince when the Swift hits his arm.

The few fliers are quickly taken care of by well-aimed fireballs from Vulpix before they can hit someone.

Buizel's furry shoulders slump in disbelief while his trainer can only gape.

Back near the mailbox where he impacted, Houndour limps to his feet, favoring one hind leg over the other. He regards Lee, Brendan, Treecko, and Marshtomp with his head low and ears laid back, all his bravado dead.

'What was this guy expecting when he stole from a kid who just beat the Gym?' Lee wonders. 'Did this guy have any idea what he was getting into? It can't be th-' Then a thought strikes him. 'Oh. Gym Leaders use underpowered teams to issue challenges. This guy didn't know we fought Roxanne for real...'

"Treecko, finish this with Quick Attack."

Before Buizel can react, Treecko blitzes him with Quick Attack, knocking the breath from his lungs and throwing the weasel end over end. He lands nearly twenty feet away, unmoving and breath coming out in sharp gasps.

Houndour needs only to look at his fallen teammate for a moment before laying down submissively and whimpering, trying to shrink under Marshtomp's savage visage.

The thief blinks, as if not understanding what just happened. He looks between his fallen Buizel and his surrendering Houndour, mouth dropping open in surprise.

Brendan grins. "Busted. Give it up, creep."

Shrill whistles cut through the air as someone pushes their way through the gathered crowd. "Everyone put your hands in the air! You're all under arrest for unlawful battling in city limits!"

Rustboro's Officer Jenny pushes her way into the circle that formed around the battle with a Growlithe hot on her heels. Her angry hazel eyes scan over the silent crowd. "Well?! Is someone going to explain or do I have to force it out of you?"

----------------------------------------------------------
"Here are your IDs back, boys."

Lee idly takes his ID back from Officer Jenny as he watches the red hoodie thief be loaded into a squad car by a regular officer. The Buizel and Houndour were easily contained by their balls thanks to their injuries, but their ultimate fate is still a mystery to him.

"We can't charge you with anything since you're League lab trainers acting as peace officers, but try to avoid damaging things next time," Jenny says dryly, glancing at the dented mailbox another officer is photographing.

Brendan has the decency to look sheepish.

"Any idea what the guy's motive was?" Zinnia asks from her place at Lee's side.

Jenny looks at Zinnia with a raised brow before turning her gaze to Lee.

"She's with us," he confirms. "It won't hurt to tell her."

The police officer nods. "He said his tomfoolery was to impress a recent radical eco group called 'Magma', as they want some sort of merit before they admit members.-"

The world slows to a stop for Lee as he focuses on four words Jenny said in particular.

"Radical eco group."

...And "Magma."

'Holy fucking shit, I totally forgot about them,' Lee feels dread pool in his stomach like ice water. 'Those maniacs Magma and Aqua are going to try and tear apart the world, and I've already fucked up the timeline just by being here. God only knows the damage I've caused by catching Ash fucking Ketchem's Hoenn ace. Jesus Christ, Lee, what is wrong with you?!' From his shoulder, Vulpix presses her face to his cheek to try and ease the turmoil, but only succeeds in taking the barest edge off.

'-We're about to upgrade them to a gang if this keeps up. My guess is he wanted to pose as a trainer who got a badge." Jenny finishes.

Lee has to bite his tongue to stop himself from insisting that Magma be sent right to the top of Hoenn's threat list as terrorists. How would he explain what he knows?

"Tch, what a loser," Brendan says, leaning back with his hands behind his head. "C'mon, did some two-bit gangster wannabe really think he could beat us?"

"One Gym win and it goes to your head," Zinnia scoffs with an unladylike snort. "Oh Shrimpy, the world is going to chew you up."

"Again with the shrimp thing!" Brendan turns to Zinnia, staring daggers at her. "You're like three inches taller than I am, thats hardly tall!"

"Taller than you," she smirks.

Brendan wrings his fingers like he wants to strangle the tanned woman while Jenny watches bewildered.

'Joy, a crisis is slowly moving it's way towards us and these two are my back-up.' The scarred man screws his eyes shut and tries to fight away his blooming headache. 'Love? I'm sorry in advance for being a needy bastard, but you're the only one I can rely on around here.'

Vulpix lets out a scratchy, vulpine chortle.
 
Act 1: Chapter 11
"...Magma and Aqua, huh?"

Lee nods, but remembers that Birch can't exactly see him on a normal phone. "Yeah," he says, glancing over to the rest of the people in the Rustboro Pokemon Center from his spot in the corner. "Sorry Professor, I just sort of... forgot in all the excitement of the last few weeks."

"It's fine, Lee." Birch says back. The professor is quiet for a moment, seemingly troubled. Then he lets out a sigh. Lee can vaguely hear the man stroke his short beard in thought. "I can't very well force this issue, law enforcement is out of my jurisdiction, but I'm going to tip off my League contact that Magma and Aqua may be a bigger threat than originally expected."

Lee blinks. "You can't take this to the Elite Four or Steven Stone?"

"I can, but its going to look very suspect if I say my newest trainer unearthed two terrorist organizations without any proof. We'll have to do this the old-fashioned way. There are a lot of channels this has to travel through before it reaches their level, and the League may start an official investigation. They'll want as much detail as possible, so review what info you can give without outing your origins beforehand."

The zoologist frowns and rubs his face when the action pulls at his scars. "Huh. Bureaucratic red tape. Guess it can't be escaped anywhere."

The professor laughs. "The only certain things in life are death and the government being filled with bureaucratic busybodies, or something like that. I'll get it sent up asap, and Lee?" Birch's tone shifts. "I don't want to put more responsibility on you, but steer Brendan away from trouble, please? He's my only child."

An anxious lump forms in Lee's throat. "Of...Of course, Professor. I'll do my best."

Birch is silent for a few seconds. "That's all I can ask, really. Thanks for letting me know about Aqua and Magma. Stay safe, Lee."

"Same to you, Professor," Lee murmurs, pulling the phone away from his ear and ending the call.

"Vul?"

Lee looks to his shoulder where Vulpix lays draped in her usual spot. "Yeah, I do believe that they're still going to be threats, even with the League aware," he murmurs, too low for anyone sans Vulpix to hear. "Trouble has a way of being persistent like that."

The little vixen frowns and flicks an ear, perfectly mirroring Lee's own expression.

"Whats with the gloomy staring contest?"

Man and fox break their eye contact to look to the side, where Zinnia strolls up. The woman stops before them and puts her hands on her hips. "Well?"

Lee grumbles and glances at the time on his phone. 4:34 pm, it reads. "Just thinking is all. I don't think the robber today is the last we'll see of Magma, so we should keep an eye out. That's what my call with Birch was about."

Zinnia scoffs and shakes her head, but stops halfway through the motion as if second-guessing herself. "Right, sure..." she replies with a slow nod, her suddenly intense eyes boring into Lee.

Lee breaks the impromptu staring contest quickly and looks away, nervousness bubbling in his stomach from Zinnia's unexpected focus. "Yeah, uh..."

'That wasn't suspect, was it? I know she's already on to me for knowing her tribe, but a warning about criminals is worthy of scrutiny?'

The dragon tamer eases off her glare and leans back some, stretching her arms up and letting out a yawn. "I dunno about you two, but I could use a nap after today."

"Hey! It's you again!"

Lee glances around Zinnia to the voice that called them and snorts past the sudden guilt he feels. "Good luck with that. Trouble just walked in," he tells Zinnia, who blinks and turns around.

Walking into the Pokemon Center and heading towards him and Zinnia is none other than Ash and his friends. Ash and Pikachu lead with May and Max on his heels. Brock brings up the rear just a few steps behind.

'Why did it take them so long? We've been in Rustboro for a week now. Does the anime meander more than I remember?' Lee idly wonders.

"It's good to see you again, Lee." Ash greets with a smile. On his shoulder, Pikachu offers his own greeting with an enthusiastic "Pika!"

"Is this the kid you didn't want to travel with? He doesn't look like much." Zinnia bluntly asks Lee, making Ash's smile falter.

Lee elbows Zinnia in the side, making her hiss. "Can you not be rude for like five minutes? I said, and mark my words, 'A grown stranger traveling with children is going to look very strange' and I stand by that. Ash and his friends are a good sort." That restores Ash's smile.

"So how was your trip through the woods?" Lee asks, then his eyes move to Brock and Max, who look back at him curiously. "And who are the new faces?"

"It went swell!" Ash replies, a beaming smile on his face. "We had a blast! We met a ton of new pokemon and people, and on the way in we passed by a huge tree that fell. I didn't find a Treecko like I wanted, but I did find this great Seedot!"

Again, Lee's guilt at taking Ash's-HIS Treecko is like a strike to the gut. "Hah... That's great."

The young Kanto trainer then turns to his friend. "Oh yeah! You've met May-"

The girl in question offers a short wave and a quiet "Hi..." to Lee and looks away, a pink blush painted across her face.

'Please don't tell me thats what I think it is...' Lee hopes to himself, feeling Vulpix's amusement bleeding over to him as May nervously twiddles her fingers. Zinnia glances at Lee with a smirk, telling him she noticed too. 'Fucking really?'

"-This is Max Maple, May's brother," Ask introduces the smaller, bespectacled boy, totally oblivious to May's fidgeting. "He wants to be a pokemon trainer one day too, so he tagged along for our journey to see what it's like."

The small boy steps forward, smile fading as he's seemingly intimidated by the scarred man and red-eyed woman before him. "U-uh. Nice to meet you..?" He mumbles, raising a trembling hand to shake.

From Lee's shoulder, Vulpix huffs, drawing eyes to her before she leaps to the ground soundlessly. Max's intimidation is quickly replaced by wonder as the vixen walks up to him, seating herself and holding up a paw in the classic 'shake' pose.

Max is quick to take the offered shake with a budding grin, and when Vulpix doesn't protest, reaches out to pet her. She even makes a show of leaning into Max's hand. Behind him, Ash, May, and Brock brighten up at the sight.

With a short laugh, Lee takes the reigns of the conversation once more. "It's nice to meet you, Max. You've obviously met Vulpix."

The young boy nods, reluctantly pulling away from Vulpix to adjust his glasses. When his hand leaves Vulpix, she leaps back to Lee's shoulder, silently grumbling about her now mussed fur.

'Love you, Vulpix.'

Her grumbling continues for a moment before she acknowledges the message with a little touch of mental affection.

"And this is Brock," Ash finishes his intros, raising a hand to the tanned teen behind him. "He's a good friend I've been traveling with since my first circuit."

Brock steps forward with a hand ready. "It's nice to meet you. I've got a Vulpix myself, and it speaks a lot about you that she's so calm around strangers."

Lee takes the offered handshake with a small grin. "I assure you, she makes it much too easy for me. A normal Vulpix probably would have torched me by now."

Brock laughs. "Well now that we've got that out of the way..." He turns his eyes to Zinnia.

"Oh no..." May mutters, turning her embarrassed visage away in advance.

'So he's already done this several times, eh?'

"Who might this lovely flower be?!" Brock exclaims, rushing up to take Zinnia's hand, drawing the eyes of the entire Pokemon Center. Lee can already feel his face heating up in second-hand embarrassment as Vulpix just stares.

"Uhh..." Like most of Brock's 'victims', Zinnia seems stunned initially and takes a hesitant step back. "Zinnia is the name."

"Zinnia..." Brock gushes with a goofy smile. "A beautiful name for a beautiful woman..."

A moment later, Zinnia's face takes on a sickly sweet, almost vile smirk, one promising mischief. "Brock, huh?" she swoons in a manner only a love-struck fool would believe. "Oh, goodness me I've needed a man like you," she slowly looks away, a dusting of red lighting her cheeks. "The boys I've been traveling with can't appreciate the company of a woman, a woman with needs like me."

Ash's crew look on, all of them visibly confused by the turn of events, and none of them getting Zinnia's undertone.

Brock, however, does. Even squinting, his eyes light up like Christmas came early. "I-I'd love to provide for you in any way I can!"

Zinnia leans in, unsubtly puffing her chest up to push out her bust against her already tight shirt. "Really?"

"Really!" Brock agrees, head little more than a blur as he nods along.

"Well," Zinnia coyly looks away with a smile. "There is this TM for Dragon Pulse in the Pokemart..."

"Begone, thot!"

Zinnia yelps when someone grabs her cloak and physically pulls her away from Brock, leaving the tanned teen dumbfounded.

Lee turns, finding a scowling Brendan with the end of Zinnia's cloak balled up in his hand. "Don't try and pull that on the poor guy! He obviously doesn't know any better!"

"You little shit!" Zinnia whirls around to pull Brendan in a headlock with an irritated growl. Brendan struggles and cries out in pain when the draconid woman drags her knuckles across his skull in a violent noogie.

"Let go of me, woman!" Brendan coughs as he tries to pry himself from her grasp. "Ever heard of deodorant? Your pits stink!"

"Fucking..." Zinnia redoubles her abuse, making the young Birch flail.

Lee turns to the now sobered Brock and the rest of the kids with a fragile smile. "This is what I travel with. Fun, right?"

May takes her hands off of an annoyed Max's ears with a frown. "Foul-mouthed, more like."

"Oh, get over yourself, girly," Zinnia says, finally letting Brendan go. The boy grumbles and takes off his hat to fix his hair as Zinnia levels May with a raised brow. "Hang out with Mister Henson here for any length of time, and you're going to hear a real potty mouth," she points a thumb at Lee.

May's ire settles in record time as she glances Lee's way. "W-Well, a little is okay I guess if it's not too much..." She murmurs, looking down at her feet and poorly hiding her pink face.

Lee stifles the instinctive response to call Zinnia something unflattering and just sighs. "So, Ash. Taking the gym challenge in Rustboro?"

"You know it!" Ash grins, Pikachu adding his own short cry to the reply. Ash's grin falls a little when he pulls a little card from his pocket, a gym acknowledgment like Lee and Brendan got. "We have to wait five days though..." He mutters.

Brendan finally finishes fixing his hair and joins the rest of the group's little circle. "Yeah, there are record numbers of trainers starting this year," he says, replacing his white beanie back onto his head. "The wait times are expected to only go up as the year goes on."

Ash groans and slumps. On his shoulder, Pikachu pats his trainer's cheek with a paw to try and console him.

"That's pretty inline with my time as a Gym Leader," Brock chimes in with a nod. "Though, I think Kanto has a larger population of trainers than Hoenn, so give or take a few days."

"But I didn't have to wait for our battle?" Ash turns to Brock, a look of confusion overtaking him. "I didn't have to wait in all of Kanto, or Johto for that matter."

Brock nods. "Professor Oak's Lab Trainers get moved to the front of the line for a lot of services in Kanto and Johto, so every time you signed up for a Gym battle, you got the next spot. Hoenn doesn't practice that."

"What?!" Brendan squawks. "Why don't we get that here?! What a jip!"

"Well, I'm rearing for a battle now!" Ash looks directly up at Lee, who feels himself shrink. "I really want to see what Seedot and Taillow can do. What do you say?" On his shoulder, Pikachu's cheeks spark in anticipation.

"Fine by me."

Everyone turns to Zinnia, who smiles and takes a single step forward. "The boys had their fun with the Gym and the crook we busted, but I haven't had a good battle since I battled Lee back in Oldale. If you want a fight, then I'll be with me. I want to see what a Lab Trainer under Professor Oak can do."

The Kanto-born trainer grins and doesn't protest the opponent change at all. "Awesome! Around the back of the Pokemon Center?"

"Ash," Brock gently starts. "We need to have our pokemon treated by Nurse Joy first, remember? We were just on the road for a week."

Ash pulls the brim of his hat down over his eyes sheepishly. "Ah, right..."

"Whats this about a busted crook?" Max asks, looking towards Zinnia, who in turn glances at Brendan.

Brendan grins, dipping a hand into his bag to pull out the now scuffed badge case to show everyone. "Some dork looking to impress a gang swiped my badge, but me and Lee ran him down and beat him in a two-on-two pokemon battle. You shoulda seen it! My Marshtomp and Lee's Treecko stomped his Houndour and Buizel easy."

"We won because he was a poor trainer with weak and malnourished pokemon," Lee dryly interjects, raining on Brendan's parade and making the boy turn to him with a betrayed look. "If he had been a bit more competent, or his pokemon in better health, we could have been in serious danger, Brendan. I want to keep my near-death scrapes as infrequent as possible, thanks."

"What's wrong with a bit of danger?" Ash asks, sounding genuinely confused. He crosses his arms with Pikachu mimicking him. "We've been in a bunch of near-death situations before and gotten out just fine."

"I'm sorry, what?" May quietly asks behind him, looking over to Brock, who just chuckles nervously and shrugs.

Lee pinches the bridge of his nose and screws his eyes shut. 'That's because you and your friends have plot armor, Ash.' Outwardly, he sighs and opens his eyes again. "We won't keep you guys all day. We've got a few things to do today before we get back on the road," Lee shoots a look to Zinnia and Brendan from the corner of his eye, and thankfully, both get the hint and nod along. "I gotta admit, I'm looking forward to Zinnia and Ash's match, so-"

"Oh shoot that's right!" Ash needs no other prompting as he rushes to get in line for the Nurse's desk.

As he sprints to the end of the line, May turns to Brock with unease plain on her face. "Brock? What was that about the near-death situations?"

The older teen sighs and shakes his head. "Don't worry about it, May," he says, walking to join Ash.

"Normally when you tell someone don't worry about it they're going to keep worrying," Max dryly comments as he and his still unsure sister follow after Brock.

Lee, Vulpix, Brendan, and Zinnia are left alone in the corner of the Pokemon Center.

"Yeah, now I know going with you was the better option, Lee," Brendan says after a long moment.

"Near-death being common for him?" Zinnia wonders aloud. "I know Oak has made some badass trainers over the years, but that seems a little..."

Lee just slowly shakes his head and reaches up to stroke Vulpix under her chin. "Now you see why I didn't want to hang out with him?" He asks, looking back to the group of kids nearing the front of the Pokemon Center line. "We're already been in a hospital fire and nearly been killed by a sky-scraper sized tree. I'm already over my quota of dumb shit for the next decade."

--------------------------
Less than an hour later, both groups of trainers were outside behind the Pokemon Center at the property's sole battlefield.

Standing across from each other, Ash and Zinnia both grin widely, Ash's an innocent expression of happiness while Zinnia's is much more savage, almost manic.

Off the side, Brendan, Lee, Vulpix, May, Pikachu, and Max stand as Brock moves to take the referee spot at the side of the arena.

"Why is this Zinnia lady so eager to battle Ash?" Max turns and asks Lee and Brendan with a raised brow. "She knows he's an expert trainer with like two leagues under his belt already, right?"

Brendan nods, focusing on the upcoming match with unusual intensity. "That's precisely why. Zinnia is a Dragon Tamer. Dragon-Types grow fastest in battle, and the more desperate the odds, the better the progress."

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but Ash just caught the pokemon he's about to use, right?" Lee asks, getting nods from May and Max. "Let's hope he's great at planning on the fly, then. If not..."

May, who is holding Pikachu, looks his way. "If not..?"

Lee grunts. "This will be a short match. Zinnia should not be taken lightly."

At the side of the arena, Brock takes his place. "This will be a standard two-on-two match between Ash Ketchum and Zinnia. Trainers may substitute. Matches will go one-on-one until one trainer is down two pokemon. Challenger chooses first."

"Alright!" Ash takes a pokeball from his belt, complete with a dramatic hat-turn, and lobs the ball into the field. "Taillow! You're up!"

The pokeball splits open with its distinctive pop, and in a flash of white, a fluttering Taillow takes form over the field with a shrill tweet. The bird looks back to Ash, who smiles in return.

"A bird, huh?" Zinnia remarks, pulling her own pokeball from her cloak. "I'll answer in kind. Swablu! Out you go!"

Zinnia's ball is thrown just as high as Ash's was, snapping open to release Swablu in a flash of light. She trills out a light note and locks eyes with Taillow, who glares back.

Back down at the sidelines, May gasps, her eyes practically shining. "It's so cute! What is that pokemon?" she gushes, freeing an arm from holding Pikachu to pull out her Pokedex.

"Swablu, the Cotton Bird Pokemon. Swablu is a cleanly pokemon that often lives in or near cities. If it's cotton-like wings become dirty, Swablu will diligently wash them in a source of clean water." The dex rattles off a little blurb and displays more details to May on the screen.

"Ready?" Brock asks both trainers, raising a hand.

"Ready!" Ask calls.

Zinnia's grin just widens.

Brock's hand chops down. "Begin!"

"Mist!" Zinnia cries.

Swablu rapidly flaps her wings, expelling a Mist so thick and opaque it looks as if it could be cut with a knife. The Mist slowly rolls over the field, more a cloud than a mist, engulfing Swablu and making its way to Taillow.

Ash doesn't sit idle for long. "Taillow! Blow it away!"

The little bird cries an aggressive chirp and flaps his wings as hard as he can, kicking up a miniature gale around himself. The supernatural Mist barely even stirs, however, instead crawling forward lethargically.

"Wha..?" Ash blinks as Taillow trills loudly and tries again, only to get the same ineffective result

"What gives? Taillow should be able to blow Mist away easily. It's just water vapor." Max exclaims.

"Yeah, what's up with that?" May chimes in, shyly looking up at Lee. In her arms, Pikachu looks just as bewildered.

When Brendan looks to him for an explanation too, Lee wracks his brain for an answer. Vulpix is quick to nose his cheek and telepathically offer what she remembers from reading over his shoulder. "Well, this is just speculation, but Swablu might be overcharging Mist with Ice or Water energy, giving it much more substance than normal. A smart move, considering Taillow is much faster than Swablu, and a beefed-up Mist is a serious speed-bump."

"But if the Mist is that thick, how is Swablu going to fight from inside it?"

Zinnia's grin takes on the same feral look it did when she and Bagon battled Vulpix. "Dragon Pulse!"

The inside of the Mist glows an ominous blue, then a second later a stream of wild, whirling blue shoots out of the cloud, engulfing Taillow with frightening accuracy. The bird screeches and flails, diving out of the Dragon Pulses way and looking painfully crispy for the effort. For a second, Swablu can be seen hovering in the cloud through the hole Dragon Pulse made before the Mist closes around her.

"What?!" Ash yells, his confusion is swiftly traded for alarm. "Taillow! Are you okay?!"

The second Taillow takes his eyes off the Mist to turn to Ash, Zinnia barks another order. "Dragon Pulse!"

The cloud glows blue, and once more a stream of spinning dragon fire shoots from it like a flamethrower, heading straight for Taillow.

"Taillow, watch out!"

Taillow spreads his wings to escape, launching up and away just in time. The Dragon Pulse hits the ground where he was a half-second later, heating it to red hot after just a few seconds. All the while, the Mist grows and eats more and more of Ash and Taillow's side of the field.

Lee watches the match closely, idly noting May and Max's wide-eyed expressions. 'I've seen Zinnia use this tactic a few times, but never with this much... hostility? She stopped using it altogether when Marshtomp learned Foresight and when you proved you could evaporate her Mist.' Vulpix silently agrees on his shoulder, pressing her warm, furry cheek to his as he thinks. 'How is she seeing in the Mist anyway? It's not Foresight, Swablu can't learn that... Or can she? Sounds would be a bit muted in the Mist as well, so it can't be pure hearing...'

Taillow flits through the air in a panicked, patternless flight-path as Dragon Pulse attacks shoot from the Mist, nearly hitting him every time.

"Taillow!" Ash cries, suddenly looking determined. "Dive into the holes that Dragon Pulse makes in the mist! Then use Wing Attack!"

The bird rolls out of the way of another Dragon Pulse and charges right for the barely visible Swablu in the mist, his wings glowing a bright white.

Zinnia's grin doesn't waver in the slightest, in fact, it grows. "Swablu! Hit and Run!"

Swablu trills and dives into the thick of the Mist, Taillow just barely missing her. Taillow halts and hovers mid-air, looking around as the Mist closes around him.

Brendan hisses and Lee frowns. 'Bad move.'

Once Taillow is obscured, there is a loud thwack and startled tweet in the cloud, rapidly followed up by another, more violent THWACK and a pained cry from Taillow.

THWACK

THWACK

THWACK

THWACK

Taillow is struck over and over again by Swablu from inside the dense wall of fog, and each time Taillow's cries sound lower and lower until the noise comes from ground level, then...

THWACK!

Battered and bleeding, a barely conscious Taillow is ejected from the fog, skipping across the ground, once, twice, then sliding to a stop on Ash's side of the field.

"Taillow!" Ash screams, his face screwed up in panic.

May and Max lean forward, their whole forms radiating anxiety. Even Brock's stoney face is creased in concern.

The bird pokemon's eyes snap open, taking on a determined glint. With sheer force of will, he rolls to his feet and stands, panting harshly as he does so.

Mist begins to fade, revealing Swablu still unharmed and hovering mid-air, but her tiny chest huffs and puffs rapidly.

'I can't imagine that Swablu has the best stamina, but does holding Mist really take that much effort?' Lee idly wonders.

Vulpix purrs in her chest. Unbidden, images of Swablu's Dragon Pulse attacks come to mind right in the mental junction between Lee and Vulpix.

'Good point.'

"Taillow, are you okay to keep going?" Ash asks uneasily, clenching a fist.

Taillow turns to his trainer, the bird's eyes saying everything.

Zinnia, surprisingly, doesn't jump on the opportunity Taillow presents by turning away. Instead, she slowly frowns, a sharp contrast to her earlier visage. "You're on the ropes. What's your plan?"

'Wrong thing to say,' Lee grimaces. 'I can feel Ash's plot armor activating now.'

"Easy," Ash smiles as his eyes glint with determination. "We can be tricky, too! Taillow! Use Double Team!"

Taillow opens his wings with a loud cry, ghostly illusions taking form around him and obscuring the real Taillow. Taillow's cries seem to come from every single copy in a calamitous din.

"Now, Quick Attack!"

Zinnia openly scoffs. "Hyper Voice," she orders.

All of the Taillows rocket at Swablu from the front, appearing as if a whole flock decided to descend on a single pokemon, and all of them stop dead when Swablu opens her mouth and screams.

Lee flinches at both the sudden, ear-splitting noise and the phantom pain he feels from his wincing Vulpix. He brings a hand up and helps her press her ears down flat.

May and Max both yelp and clasp their hands over their own ears. Pikachu can't shoot May a look for dropping him because he too is too busy covering his long ears with his face twisted in pain. Brock simply winces and powers through it despite being closer.

Ash and Taillow...

Ash grimaces, but Taillow's doppelgangers vanish as he practically seizes mid-air. The horrid sound coming from Swablu visibility distorts the air, no doubt shaking Taillow down to his bones. He falls from the sky rigid as a corpse. It's only halfway into his fall that Swablu finally abates her attack, letting Taillow go limp. With a sad thump, the bird pokemon crashes to the earth and does not rise.

One, two, three...

"Taillow is unable to battle," Brock begins, frowning as he rubs an ear. "Zinnia and Swablu are the winners."

Ash presses a hand to his forehead and gently rubs it, no doubt trying to ward away a headache. "Wow, that was some attack..." He murmurs, drawing Taillow's ball. The unconscious bird is sucked back into the pokeball as a mass of red light. "You did great, Taillow, take a long rest," Ash lets a thin smile rise to his face and he palms his next pokeball. "Seedot, you're up!"

With a throw and pop of a pokeball, a rather ordinary Seedot takes form on the field, blinking and looking back to Ash.

'This is Ash's ace replacement?' Lee wonders, feeling a bead of sweat run down his face. 'Or are things so out of wack now that he'll have some other ace?'

Zinnia stares at Seedot, then with a second's lag, pulls Swablu's ball from her belt. "I'm subbing. Swablu, return!"

As Swablu is returned, Brendan loops up to Lee with a grimace. "She's not about to use Shelgon against a Seedot, is she?"

"What's a Shelgon?" Max asks, he and May turning to Brendan and Lee.

"A powerful Dragon-Type pokemon, the second of three evolutions in the Salamence line," Lee supplies, watching Zinnia draw a new pokeball. "But Shelgon against a fresh Seedot would be laughably one-sided. So..."

Zinnia throws the ball in her hand. "Out you go, Goomy!"

In a flash, the tiny, slug-like dragon takes form out in the field. He burbles and looks around, eyes landing on Seedot. Goomy quivers and sinks in on himself.

"That pokemon looks like a booger." Max blurts. Goomy seems to hear the boy as he sinks lower into himself with a sad coo.

Zinnia scowls and shoots Max a narrow-eyed glare, making him stiffen. "Goomy, get ready."

The little slug reluctantly rises back to his full but diminutive height, looking at Seedot with open apprehension in his beady eyes.

"Second match, Goomy versus Seedot, begin!" Brock chops his hand down.

"Seedot, start us off with a Tackle!" Ash takes the initiative.

"Goomy-" Zinnia can't get her full order out as Goomy squeals and sinks in on himself, shivering as Seedot sprints forward. Seedot hits Goomy head-on, but largely slides off Goomy's slick skin. Enough force is still transferred to knock Goomy back and make his body jiggle in place.

Zinnia growls. "Goomy! Dragon Breath!"

Goomy shivers and opens his mouth, a tiny green flame forming inside. He rears his head back and throws it forward, shooting a weak plume of dragon fire.

Seedot sidesteps out of the way without prompting, letting the Dragon Breath scorch the ground where he stood.

"Looks like we're the faster ones this time!" Ash exclaims, visibly pleased by the turn of events. "Seedot! Keep the momentum going with Rollout!"

The Acorn pokemon mutely falls to his side and begins to spin laterally, becoming a brown blur and throwing up rocks and dirt in short order.

Goomy squeaks and again tries to sink into himself.

Seedot shoots forward right at his foe, and Goomy either can't or won't dodge. With an almost cartoonish splat, Seedot runs over Goomy and leaves the little dragon crushed flat on the ground. With a weary coo, Goomy slowly pulls himself up again only for Seedot to make a wide turn and run him down again with another splat. This time, Goomy refuses to get back up, staying little more than a puddle.

With a sigh, Zinnia runs her hand through her hair and looks over to Brock. "Call it, loverboy. Goomy decided that he's done."

"Uh, alright," Brock unsurely looks at Goomy, who still hasn't gotten up. "Goomy is unable to battle, Seedot is the winner."

Seedot cancels Rollout and stops on Ash's side of the field, taking a few dizzy steps before righting himself. Behind him, Ash pumps his fist with a cheer. "Way to go, Seedot!"

Zinnia returns Goomy to his ball and looks down at her hand. "C'mon, Goom. I know you can do better. Next time, okay?" She shrinks the ball and returns it to her belt, hand going back for Swablu's ball before she stops. "Hey, Ash?"

"Hmm?" The younger trainer responds, giving her his attention.

"Let's call this a draw," Zinnia closes her eyes and lets the hand hovering over Swablu's ball drop. She re-opens her eyes and levels him with an even look. "End it with a win and loss for both of us, yeah?"

"Uhh," The young Ketchum blinks, obviously caught flat-footed by the offer. "I guess that's alright..."

"Why take a draw here?" May wonders aloud. In her arms, Pikachu looks up at her with a blink.

Brendan rubs his chin with a hum. "Dunno. Swablu would have kicked Seedot's rear up and down the arena, and I know she's not doing it to be nice..."

"Alright, Seedot. You did a great job. Return," Ash holds out a pokeball and Seedot is safely stored away again. With the pokemon put away, Ash turns to Zinnia with a bright smile. "Good match," he says simply, holding out a hand for a handshake.

The tanned woman regards his hand without moving for a second, then takes the offered handshake mechanically. "Yeah, I guess."

Ash's smile falters somewhat at the answer.

The pair of trainers separate, and after a few awkward parting words, the groups split, Ash and his friends leaving to find a hotel for the night as Lee and co watch their retreating backs. Several times though, Ash looks back to Zinnia, who pretends to not notice.

Before long, it's just Zinnia, Brendan, Vulpix, and Lee behind the Pokemon Center.

"I'll go ahead and ask what's on all our minds," Brendan starts, looking towards Zinnia with a raised brow. "Why did you give up?"

"It was a draw, not a forfeit," Zinnia shoots back. She crosses her arms and frowns. "Swablu would have gained nothing from that battle. If it wasn't going to help her grow, then why bother?"

"Fun, maybe?" Brendan dryly replies. "A lot of people and pokemon battle because it's entertaining, y'know."

The draconid woman rolls her eyes. "Curbstomps aren't fun. Unlike you, I don't like my pokemon thrashing the defender in one hit. I was expecting... More."

"He did just catch those pokemon," Lee chimes in, looking between his two friends. "A fresh Taillow and Seedot aren't going to be a match for..." He pauses. "A trained Swablu," he sidesteps Goomy's embarrassing defeat at the last second. "Give it time. They'll become powerful pokemon. I doubt this is the last time we'll run into Ash and his pals."

Zinnia's un-ladylike snort tells Lee how much she believes him. "So, what's the plan from here?"

"Unless anyone else has business in Rustboro," Lee pulls his phone from his pocket and opens a map, using two fingers to zoom in on a little island. "We'll leave tomorrow for Dewford. The ferry port to Dewford Island is south back through Petalburg Woods, but Treecko will be about to cut down our travel time to just two or so days with his know-how of the forest, assuming we don't find anything interesting enough to stop for. From there, it'll be a day's ferry ride to Dewford."

The news of going to Dewford seems to pull Zinnia from her funk. She grins and her ruby-colored eyes sparkle. "Beach trip you say? Sign me right up!"

"Sounds fun!" Brendan agrees. "I bet Marshtomp would love some open ocean to explore, and the Granite Cave there is said to have Aron in it!"

Lee smiles at the enthusiasm and tilts his head to look at Vulpix, who returns his look with amusement dancing in her chocolate eyes.

"Bright and early tomorrow, then."

--------------------------------------
Consciousness comes slowly to Lee, as the first thing he notices is the smell of a spice with no name intertwined with inoffensive hotel shampoo. His eyes crack open lethargically, Vulpix's head tuft of crimson fur partially obscuring his vision of the darkened hotel room. A deeper breath through his nose tells him that the spice and shampoo smell is indeed Vulpix.

The vixen's slow breathing tickles his neck from her spot on his chest, muzzle nestled to the crook of his neck. The blanket over both he and her is overkill, as Vulpix's toasty pelt warms him better than any covering, making him almost uncomfortable with the blanket added.

Lee pans an eye around, spying Treecko laying at the foot of the bed with his arms behind his head, the slow rise and fall of his chest telling Lee that the tree gecko is in dreamland.

To the right of the bed and perched on the back of one of the hotel room chairs, Corvisquire sleeps with what has to be the most peaceful face Lee has ever seen on him. He has to blink to confirm his blurry eyes weren't just playing tricks on him.

Finally, to the left on the other bed, Brendan and Marshtomp sleep haphazardly, the boy and pokemon a sprawl of limbs and coverings. Shroomish, sitting on a claimed pillow, rests with much more dignity.

Blindly grasping for his phone on the nightstand, Lee clicks the power button, seeing '6:55AM' stare back.

"Time to get up I guess," the man grumbles. He gently strokes the back of the fox on his chest. "Hey, love. Time to get up. Long day ahead of us."

Vulpix's brown eyes blink open slowly. She stands on Lee's chest and yawns, doing a full-body stretch before pulling herself out of her trainer's grasp. She hops off of Lee as he leans up and surveys the room. The movement wakes Treecko, who goes from asleep to conscious in a heartbeat. Lee stands and regards himself in the mirror of the vanity in the corner. The scarred, wife-beater-and-shorts clad man staring back looks like he needs some caffeine, more sleep, or both.

Lee turns away pads forward as quietly as he can, silently thanking the nameless designer on this earth that made kitchenettes standard in hotel rooms. He gives Treecko a pat on the head as he passes, prompting the lizard pokemon to bat at his hand in annoyance, and hooks his fingers in the top-loop of his backpack by the bed, bringing it with him.

The kitchenette in the little hotel room is equally small, being little more than an alcove with a minifridge, a small sink, a two-burner stovetop, a coffee maker, and a toaster.

Not much, but hotels that cater to trainers know their clients need only the basics.

Lee fills the coffee maker with the crummy hotel-provided grounds and turns it on. Afterward, he digs in his bag and pulls both a small pan and a large pot out, setting them on the only two burners. It only takes a nudge to pop open the mini-fridge, as it's filled to bursting with a medley of meats, vegetables, eggs, and a container of various berries.

'Just looking at all this makes my wallet sting,' Lee muses, eyeing the berries in particular. 'Love hurts.'

The kitchen prepared, the man sets about making a week's worth of food for his pokemon and breakfast for the whole group. Vulpix and Treecko lounge on the bed and watch, speaking lowly to one another.

The smell of cooking food rouses Corvisquire and Shroomish after some time. The crow pokemon looks around, his usual scowl setting into place as merely being awake ruins his day. Shroomish, meanwhile, just watches patiently.

Brendan and Marshtomp are the last to awaken, bedraggled boy and pokemon sluggishly rolling out of bed and walking like zombies towards the smell of breakfast.

"About time you two got up," Lee says, scooping some of the scrambled eggs in the small pan out onto a pair of paper plates. Brendan and Marshtomp take the food without much of a reaction, both blinking blearily. Brendan also takes the steaming styrofoam cup offered to him and absently takes a sip, only to recoil in disgust.

"Euh! What is this, boiled dirt?!" He cringes down at the cup of coffee in his hands. It's already lightened by a considerable amount of milk and sugar.

"Free is free, kiddo," Lee says, putting the spatula in his hand down to take a sip of his own, darker brew. He forces back a grimace when it goes down like... boiled dirt.

There is a knock on the hotel room door. "I smell food! Let me in!"

Treecko rolls his eyes and hops to the floor, walking over and opening the door in his trainer's stead. Zinnia, still clad in her nightclothes of a cut-off t-shirt and shorts, glides right past Treecko with Shelgon following shortly after.

Lee mimics Treecko's eyeroll and hands her a plate of breakfast with a cup of coffee.

In nine seconds flat, the tanned woman scarfs every bit of food on her plate down and drains the whole cup in one pull. "Ahhh! That hit the spot!"

"Well, that was disgusting," Lee sighs and turns back to the stove, turning the heat on the large pot of omnivore mix off as he pulls ziplock bags from his backpack.

"Real lady-like," Brendan agrees with a snort.

Zinnia smirks and turns her nose up after tossing the cup and plate in the trash. "You two wouldn't know a real lady even if one came up and kicked your ass."

"Right..." Lee mutters. "Anyway, does everyone have everything they need? Once we're in the woods, there is no resupplying without a huge detour." Inwardly, he wonders if the Super Potion he bought the day prior is overkill.

Certainly felt like overkill on his bank account.

"We've got everything," Brendan says, forcing the last of his rancid coffee down with a shudder. Marshtomp warbles in agreement. "Gunna go get ready now!" He turns and scoops up his backpack, quickly producing bowls of food for Marshtomp and Shroomish before slipping into the bathroom. The sounds of the shower starting follow shortly afterward.

Zinnia scoffs. "Even if I didn't, I'd make do. This is a beach trip we're talking about! I'm not delaying that."

Behind her, Shelgon nudges her leg and growls.

The dragon-tamer sighs and slumps. "I'll run to the Pokemart and look to make sure I didn't miss anything." She turns back to her pokemon with the beginnings of a pout. "Happy?"

Shelgon's growl sounds particularly pleased.

"Alrighty," Lee looks to his pokemon. "Anything we're missing?"

Corvisquire clicks his beak with narrowed eyes as if saying 'I would not tell you if there was.'

Treecko simply shakes his head.

Vulpix is silent for a moment, and Lee can feel her mind churning through a checklist. As fast as she started, she makes it to the bottom of the mental list and shakes her head much like Treecko.

"Alrighty, then," The man turns to the still steaming omnivore pokemon food and bowls out two servings for Vulpix and Corvisquire as Treecko's veggie mix just comes off the stove. "Eat up and roll out."
 
Act 1: Interlude 1
Night has fallen in Rustboro city, and after the excitement of exploring a new town had died down, Ash and Co retire to their rented rooms for the night to rest up for a long day of... school tomorrow?

"I wonder what's going to be in that battling class," Ash wonders aloud, kicking his shoes off and flopping back onto the fluffy hotel bed with a relaxed sigh. Pikachu hops up to rest beside him with a content "Pika..." and a smile.

At the other bed, Brock lays out his sleeping clothes and carefully sorts through his bag. Lotad and Forretress' pokeballs sitting by his backpack. "Hard to say, Ash." The older teen mulls over his next words. "Different regions have different styles. Kanto experts have always been big on straightforward power, and Johto is much the same since they're neighbors. I have no idea how high-level Hoenn trainers like to battle."

Ash hums in thought and glances at the old CRT TV on the stand before the beds, a smile coming to him. "Hey, I bet we can find out a little of what we're in for," he says, reaching over Pikachu to the nightstand and grabbing the TV remote. A flick of the power button later, and the TV buzzes to life, opening on some cheesy soap opera.

There is a knock on the door as Ash cycles through the channels, and Brock pauses sorting his things to turn and open the door, revealing May, Torchic, and Max. The latter of the trio is closing their room door across the hallway.

"Hey guys, what are you up to?" May asks, stepping in with Torchic held in her arms. Max follows in shortly after.

"Trying to see if there is a League channel here," Ash answers, intently flipping through his hundredth channel. "Me and Brock were talking about that Trainer School and how different regions like to battle, and I figured what better way than to see what we're in for tomorrow than to watch a few Hoenn trainers duke it out."

Max hops up to sit next to Ash as the older boy groans when he passes the same grainy infomercial about evolution stone jewelry again. "Here, let me," Max says, taking the remote from Ash and looking it over, quickly finding a 'guide' button. A few presses later, and the TV is set to the local pokemon news channel, which is in the middle of an irritatingly upbeat advert about PokeChow. "Easy."

"Ah, oh. I knew that," Ash sheepishly rubs the back of his head and looks away.

"I've only watched dad battle a few times, but he liked to throw tricks into his battles to trip up challengers," May sits on Ash's other side. She strokes Torchic's head, electing a pleased coo from the chick that makes her smile. "I dunno if everyone battles like that, though."

The too-cheery commercial ends, and the screen cuts back to the news, drawing everyone's attention.

"Welcome back, I'm Katrina Ortega, and this is Rustboro Pokemon News, your source for local news and info," an attractive young anchorwoman behind a desk on the screen says with a wide smile. "Tonight, recent reports made by the Pokemon Rangers confirmed the felling of an ancient Evertree in the Petalburg woods, displacing a number of pokemon colonies, a Treecko colony included. Trainers in the area are advised to avoid any Treecko they encounter, as several have undergone stress evolution into Groviles and are acting in a hostile manner towards people and other pokemon." The young woman quickly flips to another page on her desk. "The Rangers are working to pacify the upset pokemon, and have had their eyes on this particular tree for some time, knowing it to be a falling risk. They ask for any information regarding the tree fall if there were anyone to witness it."

"That huge tree falling is what scattered the Treecko?" Ash asks no-one in particular, his shoulders slumping. "What rotten luck." Pikachu pats his trainer's arm with a tiny paw in consolidation.

"Now, onto our top story tonight," the anchorwoman shuffles the papers on her desk once more. "Gym Leader Roxanne says the new League year is off to a dynamic start, as many talented trainers have challenged her, including both of Professor Birch's new Lab Trainers. Professor Birch's own son, Brendan Birch, and the more mysterious Lee Henson, both battled Roxanne's true team and now have a Stone Badge to show for their incredible efforts."

Behind Katrina, a portrait of a grinning Brendan Birch is displayed, and beside that, a black portrait with a question mark is unhelpfully put up.

"Wow, I didn't think Brendan would come so far already," May comments with a blink. "He's way different from when we were kids."

Max snorts. "No comment on your boyfriend, Mr Lee? Owowowow!" The young boy quickly regrets the taunt when a fuming, red-faced May reaches out and yanks his ear.

"True team?" Ash questions aloud. Before anyone can answer, the anchorwoman continues.

"Mister Henson's battle was not televised, and the footage of the battle is the property of the Rustboro Trainer School, but Mister Birch's battle was, and what a spectacular battle it was. Here, we'll go over the battle one more time."

The newsroom fades out in favor of a video, showing the Gym, Brendan, and Roxanne from a number of angles. Ash, May, Brock, Max, Pikachu, and Torchic watch raptly.

------------------------------------------------
"Not so fast. Geodude, Magnitude!"

"Hang in there, bud! Just remember our practice!"

The crowd roars.

"Geodude...Self-Destruct."

An explosion and screams.

"Nosepass versus Mudkip, begin!"

A boulder is shattered by a headbutt, and everyone bellows in sync.

"I'm sorry, Mister Birch, but I won't drag this out. Nosepass, Rock Tomb!"

"Mudkip!"

"Mudkip just evolved!" A commentator gasps. "The tables have turned!"

The crowd erupts into chanting. "Marshtomp! Marshtomp! Marshtomp!"

"Hell yeah! Now thats what I'm talking about! Marshtomp! Rush him down!"

A thunderous explosion. A battered but unbowed Marshtomp stands and roars.

"Nosepass is unable to battle! Marshtomp and Brendan Birch win! The challenger is the victor!"

Cheers drown out everything else.

------------------------------------------------------
The video fades and returns back to the anchorwoman, but no one in the hotel room bothers listening to her, all of them processing the battle they just witnessed.

'What was that?' Ash wonders, blinking. An unpleasant feeling he has no name for stirs in his stomach. 'That was way more intense than any of my first Gym battles. That was like a late Gym or even a League match! And personal team? What does that mean?' He looks up at Brock for an answer, but the Rock specialist is lost in thought.

"Wow..." May murmurs after a long moment. "Is... Is that normal? How extreme that was?"

"That was like watching dad battle someone," Max says, looking dumbfounded. "But I thought Roxanne was the weakest leader..."

Brock shakes his head. "Gym Leaders, at least in Kanto and Johto, and apparently Hoenn, have two teams. One is their personal team, and if their personal pokemon are too powerful, the Pokemon League gives them a weaker team of rental pokemon so new trainers have a fair chance, but..."

The former Gym Leader looks back at his younger companions with an uncharacteristically severe face. "If a Gym Leader feels a challenger would be too strong for their League team, they can use their personal pokemon. The average Gym Leader's team is usually much more powerful, ranging from above average to Elite."

"Then... when we battled back in Pewter," Ash begins, looking to Brock with a troubled expression. "Were those your pokemon?"

Brock hesitates. "Yes, they were my pokemon..."

"But..." Max leads from the sidelines.

"...But I was by far the weakest Gym Leader in Kanto, and thus was not issued a rental team," Brock reluctantly admits.

Ash's mouth opens as if to speak, but shuts with a click of his teeth. Beside him, Pikachu wears an expression of bold-faced surprise.

May takes in Ash's visage with concern. "Ash? What's the matter? Is that a good thing that it's easier?"

"After everything we've done, I was treated with kid gloves this whole time?" The young Ketchum breathes in disbelief. He looks back to Brock, hoping for some kind of reassurance, but the tanned teen just seems confused.

"Ash...Did you not know?" Brock probes, taken aback. "I...I thought you knew? Oh shoot, Ash! I'm so sorry! I would have said something if I had known! Honest!" Brock holds his hands up in a preemptive gesture of surrender. "I thought you were okay with it!"

Ash reels back as if physically struck. "Wha...Why would I be okay with that?!" He barks back in a rare moment of anger. As quick as it came, the anger is gone, replaced with hurt. "I...I thought I was making progress, that we were making progress..." He holds his head in his hands and shakes it. "Am I doing something wrong?"

"Ash," Brock starts gently. "You just started your third year as a trainer and already you ranked high in both Indigo and Silver. Higher than some people who have been trainers for a decade. That is progress. No one becomes an expert trainer in such a short time." The instant the words left Brock's mouth, he regretted them.

The younger trainer looks up, brows furrowed. "Then how did Brendan and Lee force Roxanne to take them seriously? Both of them just became trainers a few months ago."

He gets no answer.

The boy abruptly stands, swaying a bit when the sudden action hits him with a wave of vertigo. "I need some time to think..."

No one stops him when he slowly makes his way to the door, but Pikachu does hop to his trainer's shoulder without anyone, Ash included, impeding him. He and Pikachu slip out of the room without any of Ash's usual exuberance.

Sans the low whirr of the air conditioner, the hotel room is silent.

"Do we know if that Lee guy really is a new trainer?"

Both May and Brock turn to Max, who has his wide eyes glued to his PokeNav screen.

"Why do you ask that?" May questions, but inwardly, wonders the same herself.

In her lap, Torchic looks up to his trainer with an inquisitive chirp.

"Oh! You probably only met him briefly, Torchic," May replies, looking down at the young Fire-type. "Remember the trainer with the burns and the Vulpix back in Professor Birch's lab?"

Torchic furrows his brow, then recalls the person and pokemon in question with an affirmative chirp.

"Well, do you think he's a new trainer? Or that Vulpix is new to battling?"

May gets a very swift shake of Torchic's head as an answer.

Max pauses whatever is playing on the PokeNav in his hands and turns to his sister and Brock. "The news said the footage of Lee and Roxanne fighting belonged to the Trainer School, so I went to their website and found it... If Brendan is learning from him, it explains why he got so strong so fast..."

Both Brock and May peer over his shoulder as he presses 'play'.

"Corvisquire, charge up Steel Wing...and move in with Extremespeed."

It's not long before May and Brock's eyes are as wide as Max's.

-------------------------------
Just outside in the cool Hoenn night, Ash and Pikachu peer up at the starry sky, both quiet and deep in thought.

"Have we been doing something wrong this whole time, buddy?" Ash wonders aloud, not taking his eyes off the sky.

"Pi, Ka!" Pikachu vehemently disagrees with a shake of his head.

"But all those Gym Leaders not taking us seriously, and that Zinnia lady too! She didn't think we were worth her time!" Ash grits his teeth before taking a breath and calming down. "It's just frustrating, Pikachu. I know we've gotten so far, but it still feels like we're running in place. First Gary, and now Brendan...and Lee."

Pikachu lets out a quiet whine and nuzzles his cheek to Ash's, making the boy's cheek tickle from Pikachu's resting electric current.

Ash reaches up and places a hand on Pikachu's other cheek in a facsimile of a hug. He turns his gaze down at the ground, his hat casting shadows over his eyes. "We've done so much. Two leagues, the Orange Islands, the legendary trio, Lugia, Mewtwo, Entei, Alto Mare, and everything else, but we're still no closer to the top in the long run..."

Boy and pokemon remain so for several minutes as Ash's free hand clenches tighter and tighter. Finally, Ash looks up, eyes blazing with an intensity that would make a grown Dragon-type pause. "Fine then! Challenge accepted! We'll just have to train harder and give it our all! No more second fiddle for us! I'll become a Pokemon Master no matter what!" He yells, voice echoing in the empty street.

-------------------------------------------
Lee looks up from the campfire in the middle of their clearing as something jolts him to the core, his eyes jumping to Vulpix's instantly. "Love? Did you just feel fate breathe down your neck? Because I did, and I don't fuckin' care for it."
 
I have already read through this on fanfiction buts it nice going through some of the older chapter as I forgot a little of what happened.
"True team?" Ash questions aloud. Before anyone can answer, the anchorwoman continues.
This is an interesting little interlude and makes me wonder if we will see more of ash in the newer chapters, its also interesting to see ash is still a little Naïve about the intricacies of the pokemon world.
 
I'm enjoying this immensely. Especially the way the Pokemon world along with the various rules regarding the way the League runs things have been more detailed.

It has been a long time since I last played a Pokemon game, so I don't recall how much of this is mentioned in the games or the anime.

Regardless, thanks for the work you've done on this and I'm sure a lot of us want to see more.
 

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