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Borne of Caution (Pokemon Isekai)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Fuggmann, Nov 24, 2022 at 6:04 AM.

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  1. Threadmarks: Act 1: Chapter 1
    Fuggmann

    Fuggmann Getting some practice in, huh?

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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.
     
  2. Aureus

    Aureus What's around the bend?

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    Welcome.
     
    Fuggmann likes this.
  3. Threadmarks: Act 1: Chapter 2
    Fuggmann

    Fuggmann Getting some practice in, huh?

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    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.
     
  4. insertname099

    insertname099 Not too sore, are you?

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    Hehe, seeing this story on this site really makes me wanna touch some fluffy tails... welcome, Fuggman!
     
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  5. Rodvek97

    Rodvek97 Dont wanna bored anymore

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    Kek, u upload here too.
    Noice
     
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  6. DragooKnight11

    DragooKnight11 [INAUDABLE ANXIETY]

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    You got your Threadmarks reversed somehow, reader mode currently starts with chapter 2.
     
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  7. Fuggmann

    Fuggmann Getting some practice in, huh?

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    Oops. Not sure how I managed that. Fix'd. Thankee for the catch.
     
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  8. Threadmarks: Act 1: Chapter 3
    Fuggmann

    Fuggmann Getting some practice in, huh?

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    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.'
     
  9. NuclearBirb

    NuclearBirb A mysterious birb.

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    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.
     
    Aureus and Fuggmann like this.
  10. Threadmarks: Act 1: Chapter 4
    Fuggmann

    Fuggmann Getting some practice in, huh?

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    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?'
     
  11. Threadmarks: Act 1: Chapter 5
    Fuggmann

    Fuggmann Getting some practice in, huh?

    Joined:
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    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."
     
  12. Vanbers

    Vanbers Experienced.

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    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.
     
    Fijili, Fuggmann and doomqwer like this.
  13. TriedgeThePK

    TriedgeThePK My arm is tired.

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    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
     
    Fuggmann likes this.
  14. Fuggmann

    Fuggmann Getting some practice in, huh?

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    I probably will at some point. I want to get BoC uploaded first, then BoD will be next.
     
  15. Threadmarks: Act 1: Chapter 6
    Fuggmann

    Fuggmann Getting some practice in, huh?

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    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.


    ----------------------------------------------------------
    '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.

    --------------------------------------
    "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.
     
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