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Shatter the Dark

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Three seconds. That's all she needs. I held my breath. In the clearing ahead stood an Umbreon, sleek black fur complementing the blue rings lining her body. Crouched down against the breeze, tufts of grass swayed beneath her feet as she awaited my words.

Around the edge of the battlefield stood a group of spectators; mostly school students that had gathered for the local yearly tournament. Their cheers drowned out into background noise as my eyes rested on the other side of the field. Our opponent, a Hitmonchan, wobbled with sluggish intent as his trainer stood back and shouted commands.

"Mach Punch!"

Ragged breath, muscles tensed, he brought his hands up to his face, fists clenched tight as he ran forward. Quick, but not quick enough, the damage he sustained forced a slight limp on his left leg. It took a full two seconds to close the gap, enough time to spot his weakness.

One more second. I watched as the Hitmonchan drew his right foot back, and wound up a punch. Brie, my Umbreon, saw the same thing that I did in that moment, her limbs lax as she prepared for the sidestep. "Two!" I commanded. Not that she needed me to, my thoughts rang clear through her mind. We were synchronized.

She slipped forwards and to the right, two o'clock, just as the Hitmonchan threw the jab. There was no way Brie could outspeed the blow, but her sideways positioning forced the Hitmonchan to pivot on his left foot to follow her movements, the same left foot he limped on.

Jackpot.

The Hitmonchan crumpled to the ground as the sudden shift in momentum caught him off guard. He struggled to push himself up but the toxin riddling his body was too much to handle. He collapsed again. "Hitmonchan!" His trainer ran forward and brought her pokéball out, withdrawing the pokémon in a flash of light, mumbling a few words to him. She looked up. "My Hitmonchan is unable to battle anymore." She walked forwards, her hand outstretched to shake mine in a show of sportsmanship. “That was a great battle!” She grinned. With that she turned and ran down the street, heading for the Pokémon Center.

"And the winner is Shaun!" Called the referee. The crowd whooped aloud as I knelt down to my Umbreon.

"Nice footwork! You did great out there, Brie." She nuzzled my hand, letting off a strange purring noise. "It's getting late, right? Think it’s time to go?"

She nodded in response. Professor Oak was expecting us.

We stood up. It didn’t take long to find our referee. "I need to head out," I said, "sorry I can't stay longer."

The ref, a college student slightly older than me, nodded. “Take care.”

"You too."

- - -

The buzz of insects caught my ears as we stood at the southern exit of Viridian City. A well worn path weaved through the tall grass and many trees, the road to Pallet Town. The route was no more than a forty minute walk, excluding any rests and wild pokémon battles along the way. We didn’t have long to go. The slight slope offered a pleasant view of the great green trees along Route 1. At the base of the hill sat a small peninsula, dotted with residential buildings. Our destination was a sand colored lab, it's yellow exterior a heavy contrast to the deep blue backdrop of water that shimmered behind it.

If we wanted to be back in Viridian before nightfall, we couldn't take too much time. I looked at my watch. 4:00 pm. Why the professor wanted us to leave so late, I had no clue, but I knew better than to question him.

Brie walked beside me, thankful that daytime was soon to end. The dark type preferred the dying light of evening and the darkness of night over the bright midday sun. She sniffed at the air as we walked and turned to me, cyan eyes narrowed in thought. "Something's not right," came her low, husky growl.

- - -

Now you might be asking ‘Wait, how can a pokémon talk?' As Brie likes to put it “Words are easy. Pronunciation is hard.” Every pokémon vocalizes differently. The preferred methods are growling, squealing, whining, etc. Body language is also important in conveying messages.

Some pokémon have an easier time speaking than others, the ones similar in shape to humans learn the quickest. Even then it's difficult to pronounce the words as humans do.  The most interesting thing, though, is the ability for almost all pokémon to understand the native language of their area. Due to its widespread usage, this most commonly refers to the English language. It’s theorized to be a result of pokémon developing alongside humans over many years, and is often cited as evidence for sentience.

At least, that’s what I heard. Professor Oak would know more about it.

- - -

"What do you mean 'Something's not right'?" I asked.

She continued. "There are strange smells nearby. Someone was here, and bleeding too..."

I gave her an odd look. "Are they human?"

She shook her head."No, but whoever it is, they're hurt."

"Stay alert. If they’re afraid, they might be aggressive."

Brie nodded in response. We moved along, the bushes nearby rustling as the creatures of the woods watched us. Branches overhead shook as Caterpie crawled through the canopy, off the trail a small gathering of Rattata and Raticate chattered to each other. Over thirty minutes, we made our way through the trail, chatting about nothing in particular all the while.

"-could he though? There was just no time to realize." I said.

"Well, he's dumb for not thinking about it in the first place! I mean, if your leg hurts that much, wouldn't you try to, I dunno, not put all your weight on it? If it were me..." Brie stopped, sniffing the air. She scrunched her nose. "Wait."

The surrounding area was devoid of movement. The path, about ten feet wide, was enclosed by shoulder length grass. To the right, a short open bank dipped down into a small creek. Nothing moved, the quiet bubbling of shallow water the only sound.

I looked to Brie, waiting for further instruction. Her large, pointed ears pricked up and she turned around, taking a defensive stance. I mimicked her actions.

A short distance away, the bushes rustled. A purple mouse limped out of the foliage, a trickle of blood dripping from its back leg. A rattata. Its fur bristled as it chattered its teeth at us, crossing the path with haste and disappearing into the woods. A thin trail of red drops were the only sign it had passed at all.

Brie and I relaxed, a little confused at the display. I was the first to speak. "Was that the smell you mentioned before?"

"Yes? Maybe? I'm not sure. It was definitely similar."

I scratched the back of my head, about to form a response, when the grass shuffled again. A large snake slithered out onto the path, the same place the Rattata had emerged from. Maybe a few feet shorter than I was and twice as long, gold and purple flecks lined its sleek black body. A long tongue flicked out between two large red fangs, tasting the air.

Its gaze settled on the two of us, ruby eyes that bore through us. It bared its fangs and hissed, nobody making a move. After maybe thirty seconds, it either lost interest, saw we weren't a threat, or opted to chase the weakened rodent instead, because it slithered along the trail of blood and into the tall grass, in the direction of the Rattata. It's head, body, and sharp red tail were all swallowed up by the plant life. The path was small, much more claustrophobic than before.

Bated breath clawed at my lungs, having held having held it for so long. I let out a sigh of relief. "What. The. Fuck."

Brie shared my sentiment, adding a quick "Let's move" before trotting off. I followed suit. The rest of the trip was silent save the occasional rustle of bush and snap of twig. We reached town without further incident though, and with help so close and no threat in sight, we slowed our walk to a leisurely pace.

An older man engraved letters into a wooden sign at the entrance. He scratched the greying scruff of his chin before filling the etchings with a white paintbrush. Every so often he would glance art the path to Viridian. He frowned as Brie and I approached, his eyes darting back and forth between us, as though searching for something. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, why?" I knew the answer, but asked anyway.

"Wild pokémon, of course." He paused his work to examine us. "Are you the ones Oak mentioned?"

"Yes sir. Unless the professor is expecting someone else too."

He pondered again. "You two look capable enough. Oak's in his lab, that old yellow building over there if you couldn't tell." He threw a thumb over his shoulder. "He'll explain the situation in detail." He turned back to the sign and continued his work.

Brie and I exchanged a look. "Thank you, sir." I said.

Brie chimed in with a polite nod. "Yes, thank you." The old man looked back at us, and a smile crept onto his face.

"Well I'll be damned..." He said. He shook his head. "That's something you don't see every day. Pay no mind to this old geezer. I'll see you around."

The man hummed a slow, bluesy tune as we left, resuming his work. When we were out of hearing range Brie spoke. "That was weird."

I just shrugged. "You're not a common sight." The sound of laughter carried through the air as we passed a small field of grass and flowers filled with children and their family pokémon. An Azurill bounced on its tail as a train of kids hopped after it. A young girl was teaching her Growlithe to jump through hoops (with little success). Everything about this place gave the impression of a peaceful little town.

The sun continued to set little by little, setting the scenery ablaze with an orange glow. At the lab's entrance, I pulled on the door. Brie held it held it open with her paw, gesturing for me to walk through. "Ladies first~" She snickered. I rolled my eyes, a poofy tail brushing my legs as I passed.

A dim bulb lit the interior with soft yellow lighting. White tiles coated the floor, with the occasional bookshelf or piece of machinery covering up the stark interior. In the corner of the building sat a wooden desk, the space not occupied by the clunky computer monitor was instead cluttered with paper and binders. A couple of handwritten documents littered the floor, consisting of indecipherable scribbles and figures that only the author could ever hope to read.

In the adjacent corner sat a man in brown trousers and a white lab coat. Engrossed in a book and jotting down an occasional footnote, he was oblivious to his new guests.

Brie broke the silence, clearing her throat. The scientist looked up at his present company, leaving his chair as he finished writing something in the page. When he finally put his pencil down, he beckoned us forward. "Come, come. You must be Shaun! And this lovely pokémon is yours, correct?"

Brie sat down at my side with a puffed chest. "I can speak for myself, thank you very much."

"Ah.” Oak looked back up, meeting my eyes. “I apologize, as I seem to have offended it."

I patted her on the head in an effort to shut her up, and spoke before she could. "You're good." I offered a friendly smile and waved off Brie’s piercing glare. Professor Oak, although unconvinced, humored me.

"You're probably wondering why I contacted you."

Brie muttered. "Oh really?"

If he noticed, he paid no mind. "I've reached out because I need your help." Oak paused for effect. "As you have probably noticed, the time for the annual pokémon challenge is upon us." Brie shuffled her paws in impatience. "Aspiring trainers from all across the region have begun collecting gym badges in the hopes of challenging the elite four. Just recently, three young trainers began their journey from Pallet Town. They are already well beyond-"

"Just get to the point." Brie cut him short. Professor Oak raised a hand to the restless Umbreon.

"I need you to escort a novice trainer for me. You will be compensated for your efforts of course."

There wasn’t much to think about. My original plan was to work away the next year, maybe save up enough to apply for a trade school. With this, though, my problem was solved. Throw in a chance to take on the League Challenge, an unfulfilled childhood dream of mine, and I was sold.

"All right, but why do they need an escort?" I asked.

"Before I was interrupted, I was explaining how three trainers have already left. There is a fourth, but he was delayed due to a lack of the usual starters. After a few weeks of waiting on our new order, we decided to test an experimental starter pokémon instead. For this reason, we need someone to monitor their progress.

"In normal situations, novice trainers travel in groups for their safety. It's unwise for an inexperienced trainer to travel alone, so you can watch over him through your travel and track his progress. As for expenses, money will be transferred to you periodically. It is enough to cover you and him so long as you do not spend it lavishly.

"And having seen a few of your battles myself, I have no doubt that you are capable of tackling any challenges that await you. Of course, you wouldn't be leaving here empty handed." He walked over to the desk and unlocked one of the drawers, bringing out a bulky object.

Turning back to me, he passed it into my hands. "This is a pokédex. This will be your other objective."

I examined the strange red device, turning it over. A large touchscreen sat in the center, with a few rows of buttons on either side. I'd seen them before, but never owned one myself. They're one of the fundamental tools for traveling trainers, useful for navigation, communication, and for recording data on encountered pokémon. I held it out for Brie to sniff. I looked at Oak. "A pokédex? Professor, most of the pokémon been discovered already."

Oak clapped his hands together. "Yes, but there have been strange pokémon sightings recently. We're not sure why, but pokémon from different regions have turned up all over Kanto." He spread his arms out at that. "As you and your companion travel to collect badges, I would like you to record all pokémon sightings, both new and old alike. With this information, I hope to compile information on the new pokémon and their locations and, if possible, understand where these pokémon are coming from."

Brie piped in. "We ran into a black and yellow snake on our way here."

"Ah yes, that would be Seviper. They're cold blooded creatures, certainly dangerous when provoked. You may have noticed the warning sign as you arrived to Pallet Town, as most of the townspeople are woefully unprepared to deal with such creatures."

His words clicked into place, and the gears turned in my head. "Huh... That's why you told us to head out so late..." I said. The professor smiled at my realization. Brie looked a little confused so I continued. "They're cold blooded. That means they're less active during the cooler hours of day, so it's safer to travel near sunset. Traveling at night would still be dangerous though, so we left late in the day, but early enough to travel in daylight."

"Positively correct, Shaun. Now I would like to take some time to study that Umbreon of yours.." Brie turned up her nose and stuck out her tongue. "But if you are to continue traveling today, you must leave at once. There is little time left." He motioned towards the pokédex in my hands. "You can find all of the information I've told you so far in the notes. The help button is on the main screen. It's the little circle with the question mark in it. Any questions?"

"Yes, sir." I said. "Where can we find this trainer?"

- - -

I walked alongside Shaun, finally out of that stupid lab. A whiff of the fresh spring air lifted my spirits as I pranced around my trainer. When we were about thirty feet from the lab, Shaun stopped and turned to me. His eyes shone as blue as the water behind him, highlighted by short blond hair.

"All right," he said, "What was that all about?"

"What do you mean?" My innocent smile didn’t work.

He crossed his arms as I rubbed against his leg, sitting down with those big sad eyes he hated so much. He scratched his head and sighed. "You know what I mean, Brie. Why were you so rude to the professor?"

Ugh, did we have to talk about it right then? "It's because... well... everything about him was phony. I hate it." I batted at a blade of grass, but it did little to soothe me.

"Brie, just because you don't like someone doesn't mean you can act that way to them! What if he were the champion, or one of the elite four? Would you still have treated him like that?"

My ears folded back, my eyes stuck to the ground. I didn't regret how I acted, but it wasn’t fair to Shaun. "I'm sorry. I really am. I just hate that he treats me like... Like I'm not really a person. He acted like I wasn't even there, and talked to you the whole time. What makes me so different..."

Shaun sighed again. He knelt down to pet me, stroking his fingers through my fur and massaging my ear. A content sound, somewhere between a purr and a growl, escaped my lips add I leaned into his affection. I lost myself for a few seconds.

"It's okay Brie."

No it's not.

"Some people just don't think about it too much."

Not you.

"They don't mean to write you off like that. You'll see, there are plenty of trainers out there who will treat you the same no matter who you are. Those are the kinds of people you should make friends with."

I looked up at Shaun, my heart thumping hard in my chest as he gave me a small smile. His kind words and soft demeanor offered a sense of peace. They always did. The urge to leap into his arms, to hold him close and never let go, were barely contained by the voice of reason.

I smiled and nuzzled his hand. "So let's find this guy already! I'm dying to know who we'll be stuck with for the next twenty years."

He laughed a short little scoff and ran a hand through his hair, sticking it up a little. "Right. But first-" He pulled off his red and black backpack, rummaging through it. He pulled out two plastic containers. "How about lunch?"

- - -

Shaun and I stood out front. The house was just like any other, plain with pale blue walls that looked almost purple in the evening light. A small porch surrounded the front door, with steep steps and a handrail connecting the front of the house to the soft earth beneath it.

As we approached, the door swung open and a dark haired teen in a beanie stumbled out with a backpack strapped over one shoulder. He lost his footing as he reached the steps of the porch. Muffling my laughter with no success, I watched him grab at the wooden railing and flail down the stairs. He somehow slowed his momentum just enough to not destroy his face when he crashed into the ground.

"Benjamin!" A voice screamed from inside the house. "I swear to Arceus if you fall and hurt yourself before you make it out of town I'll drag you back up those stairs and throw you down 'em myself!" A middle aged woman stepped out onto the porch, frowning at the clumsy kid who struggled to pick himself off the ground.

She noticed Shaun's shock and my snickering, and waved in greeting. "Ah, sorry about that. I was only joking of course." She peered over the side of the porch as Benjamin dusted himself off. "You must be Ben's new friends. Don't pay him any attention, it's not the first time he's done that. I'm surprised he doesn't just wear a helmet when he leaves the house, eh Benny dear?"

Ben flipped the bird as his mother walked down the steps. "Eat shit." Both Shaun and I were shocked.

"Well fuck you too, asshole!" His mother snapped. After a few tense seconds of staring, they broke into fits of laughter. I did the same as Shaun stood in awkward silence.

"Oh, man!" The mother said. "You should see your look right now! It's alright dear, we're just playing around!"

Ben smiled at his mother. She was plain, with a crooked nose and bulbous cheeks. She carried with her the scent of woody earth and dried herbs. Her pants were stained around the knees, like she’d been gardening. I already liked them, but Shaun had no clue what to make of the situation. Yeah, leave it to him to make some good fun feel awkward.

I nudged him and flashed a nice big grin. "Lighten up, Shaun!" Ben and his mother stared at me, now their turn to be shocked.

"Damn!" Ben said, eyes alight with interest. "Not only is he shiny, but he can talk too!"

Always the shiny part.

"She, Benny." The mother butted in. "And my, what a beauty you are." A warmth flushed my cheeks at the compliment, unnoticeable beneath my facial fur.

"Thank you, ma'am." I said.

"And so polite too! Call me Cathy, dear." She turned to Shaun and offered her hand. "And your name is...?" Shaun looked like a deer caught in the headlights, stumbling to form proper sentences. Arceus, do I really need to save him now ?

As much as I loved watching him flounder, it was too cruel. I grazed his shaking legs and placed a paw on his calf. "He's just nervous around strangers. Here, Shaun, look at me for a second."

He did as told, turning to me. For a few seconds he stared before closing his eyes. A deep breath. And then another. When he came to, he carried an air of confidence. He commanded the situation, relaxed, calm, and in control. He was a completely different person.

"Right. Sorry about that. I'm Shaun, and this is my Umbreon, Brie." I nodded my head. "We will be accompanying you on your journey, Benjamin."

The younger trainer adjusted his beanie and pushed the short bangs out of his eyes. "Call me Ben." He looked up at the sky in thought. "All that jazz aside, shouldn't we be going? We don't have much time."

Cathy agreed, giving her son a hug. "Be careful, call me once a week, and if you ever need to come home, tell me and I'll fly you over here myself." She looked up at the two of us. "And that goes for you too. Ben can give you my number. Now, off you go! I don't want you getting lost in the dark on my account."

- - -

"Hey Shaun?" Brie called out through the still air just a few steps ahead of us, her blue rings blinking as a dull beacon in the dark. The sun had set not too long ago, and a blanket of darkness enveloped the dirt road to Viridian.

Brie, much more comfortable with the low light, took the lead with a confident if not smug smile. Ben and I walked behind her, shining the built in flashlight of the pokédex at our feet. On the lowest setting, it offered just enough light to see the ground in front of us. With the grass so tall, we didn't bother aiming off the trail.

A stick on the path caught my attention. My absent minded kick snagged on it, nearly tripping me in the process. Just my luck. It was a root in the ground, not a stick. "Shit!" I fought to stay upright. "Yeah, Brie?"

"Something's following us."

The Fletchling perched on Ben's shoulder quieted its chirping as we all strained to hear anything, see anything, to implicate the stalker. My heart pounded heavy in my chest. The thump in my ears and the sound of my own breath threatened to drown out any noise. Against all odds, or so I thought, I could make out faint rustling ahead of us. And behind us. Or was it coming... From the side?

The rustling became louder, and louder, before it suddenly stopped. I raised the brightness on the flashlight and faced it at the grass to our right. It swayed ever so slightly... It was hard to tell whether it was from the breeze or a pokémon. Wait, breeze? There is no... A flash of red glinted in the dark. Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!

"Get back!" I grabbed Ben's arm and dragged him with me as I jumped backwards. A Seviper shot out of the grass like a spring, directly in front of us. The thing moved so fast and so far, it would have been impressive had we not been shitting ourselves in fear at the moment.

"Shaun!" I looked ahead to see Brie with her back towards us, face to face with another, larger Seviper. She slipped backwards as jaws snapped at her face, ducking and weaving to avoid the serpent's advances. "Help!?" She panted. With all of her focus in front of her, she failed to notice the second enemy she was backing into. Fuck!

I searched the ground for anything to use as a weapon. A few stones lay near my feet, small enough to throw but nowhere near large enough to do serious damage.

"Stall!" I screamed. Scooping a few of the stones up, I drew back my left arm, winding up for the pitch. I flung it straight at the Seviper in front of me as the Seviper twisted around to see Brie. Well, straight isn't quite the right word, it was more of an arc that ended in the back of its neck.

The scalie monstrosity froze when the rock hit its mark, and turned to face me. I readied the next stone. Okay, it’s facing me. I reared back, hopping off my left foot, and swinging outwards. My hand loosened, just a bit too early, and the rock flew right past my target and into the open air. For a full second it soared, before whacking Brie right in the back of the head.

Fuck.

"Sorry Brie!"

The blow caught her off guard, her paws fumbling beneath her. Her opponent took the distraction to slash its blade-like tail at Brie. Doing her best to dodge the attack in her awkward stance, the Seviper only managed to glance her left side. A small splatter of blood hit the dirt path as Brie fought to regain her balance. Shit, that one mistake might…

I failed to complete the thought. The only thing on my mind now was to distract the closest Seviper, the one quickly losing interest in me in favor of the already weakened Umbreon. I retracted my arm, readying the final stone. This was it, if I missed, there were no second chances.

In all honesty, I should have been stressed out of my fucking mind. But the adrenaline pumping through my veins forced all my doubts, all my hesitation, all my fear to come second. My first priority was to act.

I took a quick step forward, twisted my body in preparation, and threw that damn stone as hard as I could. A pain shot up my arm, but I didn't care. The stone whistled through the air in an almost straight line, the perfect shot. The Seviper that was turning away from me didn't notice the third stone rapidly approaching its face. Well, at least until the hard rock burrowed directly into its eye. It hissed in pain as it shook to dislodge the object, flicking off dripping eye fluid in the process. Thrashing, twisting, and contorting the scaly serpent slithered off into the tall grass.

Okay, one down.

Up ahead Brie was wearing down fast. My slip up earlier proved near fatal as the hulking snake refused to let up, raining down blow after blow as Brie fought to keep on her feet. Without any time to recover, she staggered backwards to avoid any further hits, escaping with little more than light scratches. But every attack threw her further off balance; it was only a matter of time before she'd be caught.

I ran forward as fast as I could, watching for any openings. The Seviper drew back its tail and slashed it to the right, then drew back and flicked it to the left. As the blade swung, it coiled its body, preparing to pounce. "Brie!" I yelled, "Twelve! Ready?" She gathered herself the best she could and prepared for my command.

I watched the Seviper. It continued to draw back for another moment, then suddenly froze. "Now!" I yelled, and just as the Seviper sprang forth, Brie ducked forward and under the arc of the snake. It overshot, expecting Brie to back up, not jump headlong into the fray.

"Foul Play!"

Brie complied instantly. The stress of battle wore us thin, but like always, it put us in sync. The feel of her breath, the beating of her heart, the fatigue in her muscles, we shared them. She bit into the Seviper, and slammed it down. The shock of impact rippled through us as she drove straight into the ground.

"Fuck yeah!" I cheered. The dazed snake flopped towards the tall grass and slipped off into the night. I didn't give a shit that it escaped, we were not going to chase that fucking thing into the dark.

Brie turned back to me and smiled, a big toothy grin that I was thankful to see again. An odd disorientation washed over me, followed by a strange fluttering in my stomach.

I blinked in confusion, but the feeling left as quickly as it came. A sharp gasp broke my train of thought. Brie! "Oh shit. Are you okay?" I ran, meeting her just as she collapsed in my arms.

"Yeah, I'm okay. Just feeling a little..." She leaned into me and shivered. "A little weak. Also dizzy, like I stood up too fast. Ugh, I hate when this happens."

I pulled off my backpack and sifted through the medicine pocket, pulling out an antidote and examining her wounds. Blood still flowed from the one large, half foot laceration. Everything else was just light cuts and scratches. "At least this next part won't hurt as bad."

Pressing it into her back leg, I clicked the button on the back end of the antidote, activating the shot. It worked fast, countering the venom that no doubt afflicted Brie. I stowed the trash in my bag and took a quick inventory. Two antidotes remained, along with a few potions, pokéballs, and basic toiletries. None of it was needed right then. "Brie, use moonlight."

Her rings glowed brighter, and a shimmering white danced off the surface of her fur in the darkness. The wound on her side closed up, nothing more than some dried blood left on her. I sighed in relief, thanking the heavens for how the night played out. It could have been worse. Much, much worse

But we were alive, that's all that mattered. We were all safe and accounted for.

Wait. We?

Back over my shoulder, Ben still sat on his ass, paralyzed by the recent events. The Fletchling was at his side, pushing with all its might to move him. I glared at him. All right, all right. Need to calm down. My body walked forwards on its own, my mind racing. That stupid fuck, I swear to Arceus I'm going to... No! Don't snap, now's not the time. With each step my mood soured. All I could think about was his dumb ass just sitting there as we were…

I stopped in front of him. My judgement clouded over. The only thing I could recall was our voices, like a piece of my memory went haywire that night. "What the fuck was that?" Ben flinched at my voice, and his fletchling cowered beside him. "You almost got us killed!"

"W-wait... That's not-"

I tried to stop myself. I did. He was just a kid, no real battle experience for him to use. But a storm of emotion overtook any rationality, pouring out my mouth. "You did nothing! We needed help and you. Did. Nothing!" The words dripped with venom, cut like a fucking knife.

He wiped at his eyes, standing upright. "What was I supposed to do, huh? You saw them..." His breath hitched, words cut short by sharp inhales and exhales.

He was such a pussy. I wanted to grab him by the shirt, shake him and scream at him. I was about to do it too…

Thank Arceus Brie was there. "Please, Shaun. Stop." She stepped between us. The mischievous smile she usually held was gone, instead pulled into a look of concern. Moments earlier, it seemed like nothing could quell my rage. But that, the sad expression she held, the light touch of her paw against my hand, the tremble in her pleads, that cut me to the core.

Shit. What is wrong with me? I placed my head in my hands for a few seconds. "I'm... I'm so sorry..." I said to Brie, to Ben, to the trembling Fletchling.

"Look, we can do this later, okay?" Brie's voice was soft and reassuring. "But right now, we really need to get out of here." She forced a sly grin. "We're not out of the woods just yet." Okay, now that was horrible. I rolled my eyes in response.

"Right." My voice still shook, but I spoke with a gentler tone. "Ben, come on up. We're going."

- - -

We walked the rest of the way in awkward silence. Ben walked in the back, the Fletchling resting on his shoulder. Shaun, lost in thought, was probably beating himself up over the night's events. He wouldn't speak despite my attempts to make conversation. With nothing better to do, I focused on our surroundings. Other than an occasional smell of Rattata and the rustle of plants, nothing happened.

The Pokémon Center was easy to spot. Its sign glowed as the neon pokéball, the outline of a small cross in its center, stood above the entrance. The doors slid open as we approached, and a single nurse greeted us as our exhausted group reached the front desk.

Shaun placed his hands on the counter. "Hello... we, uh, would like to rent a room? Oh, and I need to heal my pokémon, please." Pokémon centers were kind of a motel, hospital, and convenience store all in one. It worked well for its many customers, either healing the locals, being a resting point for the people passing through, or giving a place to stay for the ones staying in town a few days.

The nurse, wearing a typical white and red hospital outfit, smiled at us. "Of course! Now, would you prefer a double room, or two singles? Each comes with its own shower and bathroom, of course."

Shaun thought. With him talking, we'd have been there all night. I spoke instead. "How much are they?"

The nurse, surprised by a pokémon speaking, recovered quickly. "The double room is one thousand a night, two singles would total fifteen hundred a night."

Shaun thought about it, but lost focus and gave the nurse a blank stare. "Wait, what?"

I sighed. "We'll take two singles, please."

The nurse smiled. "Then that will be one thousand five hundred pokédollars. How would you like to pay?" I nudged Shaun as he stood in silence.

"Shaun, the card." More than a little flustered, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the pokédex, tapping on the screen a few times. Satisfied, he took his card and stuck it into the receiver.

The nurse handed the receipt to him. "Thank you very much. Now if you'll just place your pokémon in its ball, I can have it recovered in a few minutes."

I sighed. The pokéball wasn't bad. The strange pocket reality it held was a perfect habitat for the contained pokémon, but the confined feeling was difficult to adjust to. Only the illusion of freedom was there, after all, and if you struggled against it you'd realize just how little you had.

Shaun pulled out my pokéball, the all too familiar binding light surrounding me as I fought the urge to break free. Only faint sound and light motion made it through the pokéball, but no smells and no sights made it in. I was stuck in my private little world.

- - -

Being in a pokéball is weird. It's almost like being in a... dream? Everything takes on a strange feel; the colors seem brighter, the sounds and scents are clearer, and your body is so light it almost feels like you're floating. It's not bad or anything. It's just a little unnerving how perfect everything is, like if you poke a tree too hard the whole thing will come crashing down like a stage prop.

And as you drift in that weirdly pleasant place, you can't help but feel that something's missing. Something that you do so often, so naturally, that you can't quite figure out what it is you lost. It feels like you've spent your whole life in a 3D game, but then it switched to 2D partway through... If that makes any sense. Like you've lost the ability to move a certain way, but can't quite grasp the fact that it's missing.

The one thing I'm thankful for is how fast time goes by. Everything feels so calm, so slow, it's easy to close your eyes for a few seconds and forget yourself. Except those seconds turn to minutes, and those minutes turn to hours if you're not careful. It's a little disorienting at first, but once you get the hang of it, it's useful for skipping out on the boring stuff.

Even the healing thing is uncomfortable. It’s like when you've been in the bath for too long and your whole body feels sore under the weight of gravity. A tired feeling that starts around your heart and spreads out through the rest of your body. It wears off after a few seconds.

Through that sensation I could tell the healing process had finally finished. And then motion, the ground swaying just a little. We were moving, but where to?

"-been restored..." Snippets of a conversation. "for your patience... hope to see you again!" A muffled voice, female I think? And then a response, this time a bit deeper, resounded through my skull.

More motion. Faint ding in the background. The hum of machinery. An elevator, probably.

And then I was reforming, suddenly thrown out of the pokéball and onto my feet. Stretching as I got my bearings, the room looked pretty large. A big bed sat with a nightstand and lamp beside it. In one of the corners a door led to the bathroom. A TV was mounted on the wall opposite the bed, with a plain desk and computer a few feet over.

A simple setup, but at least it was home. The only one I could remember.

- - -

As Brie settled into our room, the bed begged for my attention. It had been a long and stressful day, something so soft and inviting was impossible to reject. Maybe tomorrow will be better. It has to be, today fucking sucked. It all played out in my mind again.

My heart was heavy. I knew I fucked up. The stone I threw proved it. Almost got her with it. If Brie hadn't avoided the Seviper's follow up attacks…

I shuddered thinking about it.

And above it all, I lost my temper. I promised I wouldn’t, and still did. Arceus fuck, I haven’t changed at all.

I dropped my head in my hands. "What the fuck is wrong with me?"

Brie curled up to my leg. "Nothing's wrong with you."

"Right, and I'm actually a ditto in disguise. All I ever do is fuck up-"

"Shaun, please just listen to me-"

"You don't understand." Defeat weighed down my words. "Tonight... When I threw that stone. I didn't mean to... It was an accident... But I almost got you killed!"

"Shaun-"

"And if I did, I don't know if I could have lived with myself if I did! Fuck, if you didn't make it, I don't think any of us would have-"

"Shaun! Listen to me!"

I paused. She wanted to help, and I loathed her for it. I sighed. "All right, Brie... I'm listening."

"Good. Shaun, what's done is done. You can keep going back and beating yourself up over it but that won't help." I opened my mouth, but she cut my words off before I could speak. "And I don't care if you think that it's all your fault, and that you somehow deserve to feel this bad. Like it's something you've earned just by being you, because you mean more to me than the world, and it sucks to see you like this."

But I do deserve it. I want to feel like shit.

"And Shaun, you think it's your fault that I got hurt tonight. Okay, yeah, you got me good with that rock, but do you know what I was doing before that? I'll give you a hint, it was me chasing my own tail. I didn't know what to do, Shaun, so I just dodged the best I could.

"And there was not just one, but two of them Shaun! Two! Do you know what happened to the one I had my back to?" She looked at me. When I didn't answer, she continued. "You scared it off. And then, after all that, you immediately ran up to help me, and told me what to do the moment you saw an opening. I couldn't have done that, Shaun. I was just going to keep dodging until I was too tired to do anything else, and then I'd be finished. But you didn't let that happen."

Brie's fierce gaze met my own, but it was too much. I focused my attention to the floor instead, tracing the interwoven patterns in my mind.

Brie would have none of it. She jumped up onto the bed and leaned against me, placing her head in my lap and looking up. "Okay, the thing with Ben was a little overboard, but remember what we just went through. It was scary and stressful, but now we know we can handle ourselves out there. We'll figure out what we're gonna do next. So let's start with a plan, and keep our cool from there. "

"I don't know what to do-"

"Start with the small steps, ‘kay? For tonight, we can first apologize to Ben, then eat, and then get some rest."

A heavy lethargy dragged me down. I wanted to lay back, close my eyes, and sleep. It would be so much easier than dealing with everything. But Brie's gentle nudging broke my train of thought. She was right, wallowing in self-pity wouldn't change anything.

Fighting the fatigue in my body, I stood up and stroked the soft fur at the base of her ear. "Okay, let's do it."

She smiled at me. "Good, I didn't want to drag you out of here myself."

- - -

The apology went well. Brie tagged along for moral support, as well as to defuse any awkward or hostile feelings we might still harbor. To my surprise, though, we cleared any ill will between us in no time. Brie sat down in Ben's room as I set down the two boxes of pizza we'd ordered. A peace offering to help with my apology, because who can say no to pizza?

Ben pulled out a small baggy, rolling it between his fingers. "You guys wanna join me?" He leaned against the wall, tossing the bag high into the air. Halfway down its descent, Ben shoved off the wall, using his back foot for balance as he snatched the object back. He shot a peace sign before standing back upright. “All part of the plan."

Beneath the allure of fresh baked pizza came an increasingly bitter smell, one of dried herbs. Pot, grass, weed. The name always changed, the smell never did. Curiosity piqued my interest, but fear of the unknown quelled it again. I’d never wanted it before so why start now, right? I’ll just decline the offer .

Of course, Brie had other plans. "Sure!" She said. I let out a quiet groan, all I wanted was a slice of pizza and a bed. Still, it wouldn’t have been fair to her. She must've heard my restlessness, because she placed a paw on my leg. "Come on, Shaun. Live a little!"

I sighed. "Fine."

Ben laughed. The Fletchling on his shoulder jostled, before flying off to the bed. "Sweet, this'll help break the ice." His hands dug through his backpack, emerging with a small pipe between his fingers. He walked over to the window and cracked it open. "If you wanna blow it out the window, the room won't reek so bad." He prepared the weed, stuffed it into the pipe, and lit it, taking a huge puff. He blew out the thick cloud of smoke and coughed a little. After one more pull he turned to me. "Your turn."

I took the pipe and lighter and stared at them for a second. "So I just... suck it in?"

"Yeah, just take the lighter, aim it into the bowl, and take a hit. Oh wait, don't forget to put your thumb over this hole first. Suck it like a straw, then inhale. It's easy."

I took the lighter, still unsure of myself, and lit the very edge of the bowl. I went to the window and blew out, faint traces of smoke on my breath.

Ben laughed again. "Here, gimme the lighter." He took it and placed the flame deep into the bowl. "Hit it."

I did as told and held the smoke in my lungs for a couple seconds before exhaling. Except the exhale turned to sputtering and coughing. A burning filled my throat as I choked down any air I could gather. Tears welled in my eyes. It sucked. "That is, ugh... shitty."

Brie laughed at my reaction, and prepared for her turn. "Light me up, Scotty!"

- - -

I didn't even notice the strange haze that clouded my mind until it was too late. Already sky high, that shit had hit me like a brick.

"All right." I said. About half of my brain cells were fried already, leaving me in a silly stupor. "I need to use the bathroom." I got up and walked to the door, heading for the hallway.

As I fumbled with the handle, Brie and Ben laughed, drawing my attention back to them. "What's so funny?"

They exchanged a look."Shaun," Brie fought back giggles, "you know there's a bathroom here, right?"

Wait. Shit, how could I forget that?

"Dude, you are so baked right now." Ben said. I ignored their comments and walked to the bathroom. Their hushed whispers muted as I closed the door behind me.

In the mirror, my reflection stared back. It seemed so surreal, it was obviously fake. I resisted the urge to fight that posing fuck behind the glass, instead mumbling a "Fuck you" before proceeding to piss.

I washed my hands, left the bathroom, and sat back down next to Brie. She looked at me as a sly grin slipped across her face. "Hey Shaun," She said. "Want to play a game?"

"I'll bite. What is it?"

"Truth or dare." She stuck her tongue out at me. "Unless you're too chicken..."

"You don't have to taunt me, I would have played either way."

Her face lit up, and she exchanged a look with Ben. "I'll start us off. Ben, truth or dare?"

We played for a bit, with silly questions and dares ranging from embarrassing stories and miming objects to deep rooted fears and acting like idiots. Ben's Fletchling jumped in halfway through, with Brie translating for him. It was a fun night, a raucous time shared between friends. By the end of it, we were all worn down and ready for bed.

For the final round, we decided on dares only, and it was pretty uneventful. At least until the last two dares rolled around. "Shaun," said Ben. "I dare you to... hmm..." He stared off at nothing for a few seconds, before a smile crept onto his face. "I dare you to seduce Brie!"

Oh. Embarrassing. How in the fuck was I supposed to do that? You can't just back out of a dare either, that shit is binding, so I played along. I cleared my throat. "Hey baby," my face was turning redder by the second, "ever been with a human before?"

She giggled, and fluttered her eyes. "Can't say I have."

"Well then I'd love to show you what these hands can do... pfft!" We all broke into laughter.

"Really?" Said Ben. "Hands? That's your idea of seduction?"

Brie held back a snicker. "Well I thought it was cute!" She laughed at my dumbfounded face. "Oh relax Shaun, I'm kidding..." She winked and stuck her tongue out. "Or am I?"

The Fletchling gave a loud chirp and motioned with its wings. Brie translated. "He says for his dare, he dares me to..." she fumbled on the next words, lowering her voice to a whisper. "to kiss Shaun."

"Wait, what?" I said.

Ben just laughed. "Oh shit man, this'll be good!"

I waited in shock, it had to be a joke right? Any second now Brie will break out in laughter, saying something like 'I'm kidding! You should have seen the look your face, I got you so good this time.'

Instead, she closed the gap between us, moving her face close to mine, and said "Close your eyes, Shaun." Without waiting she closed hers, pressing her lips to mine.

I froze, unsure how to react as the soft fur of her muzzle brushed my face. She lingered on the kiss for a few seconds before drawing back. She laughed, shoving my arm with her paw "There. That wasn't so bad after all..."

Ben clapped his hands together. "Well, I'm beat. It was fun, but it's time to hit the hay."

- - -

I laid in Shawn's arms that night, surrounded by his scent. After all that happened, we were too tired to do much beyond shower and climb into bed. My thoughts were clouded, both by weed and by the events of that night as I recalled our kiss.

It was my idea, but Ben went along with it. He was clever, too. If I hadn't been behind it all, I'd have never known it was planned. I mean, Shaun didn't really return the gesture, but he didn't pull away either so he didn’t hate it, right? I took that as a good sign and snuggled up closer, the sound of Shaun’s breathing fading away as exhaustion took hold and cast me away from the waking world.

Chapter Text

The sunlight streaming through the window roused me from my sleep, albeit a bit later than I had hoped. Sweat soaked through my pajamas. Wait, why is it so hot under the covers?

A light shuffle answered the question as Brie murmured in her sleep. She usually curled up on the foot of the bed, why was she cuddled so close? I fought to remember the events of the night.

Apologized to Ben. Smoked a little. Talked too much. And then... I looked to Brie. My mind was taunted by a memory just out of reach. Something else had happened, but what?

Oh right.

...

"Oh shit..." The realization of what we did hit like a goddamn freight train. Brie's ears perked, just a little bit, before she nestled back to sleep. Carefully removing my arms from around her, so as not to wake her, I stretched them out in front of me, wincing at the slight pain from my still sore left shoulder. Must've thrown it out yesterday.

I slipped out of bed and checked my pokédex. It was already 11:00. I really need to set an alarm. A quick scroll through my messages (mostly spam) later, I set down the pokédex and went to shower.

– – –

The warm water dripped from my body, a luxury in the air conditioned hotel room. Closing my eyes, I reflected on the events of the prior night, and the closing part of our little game. It didn't seem that bad. Shit.

But I kissed my own Pokémon, how was I supposed to feel? It was an innocent kiss, all in good fun, right? Maybe I was reading too much into it. But... people usually don't do that with their Pokémon.

Why did I go along with it? Can I not do something stupid for even a second? Foamy shampoo slid down over my face as fingers combed through my hair. I reached for the faucet handle, the cold feeling of metal a cruel reminder of the cold air awaiting me outside the warmth of the water.

I dried and dressed, catching sight of myself in the mirror. "You're a fucking idiot." I mumbled. The reflection just stared back at me with that dumb look on its face.

Brie was still asleep in the room. I dressed and began planning our day. Since we were already in Viridian, we could grab lunch at a café, do a little training, and then tackle the first gym leader. After that we could start our journey through Viridian Forest.

Brie, awakened by my low murmuring and the rhythmic tapping of my hand against the desk, stood up on the bed and stretched. Her rear raised high in the air as she reached her paws out as far as she could. An overload of cuteness seared my heart, the flick of her tail and the sleepy bliss on her face making her all the more adorable.

"Mmm... Mornin' Shaun." One of her eyes opened, noticing my stare. She flashed a cheeky grin. "Like the view? I can turn around if you want a better angle."

I ignored the comment. "Good morning Brie. Sleep well?"

"Eh, could use a few more... " She closed her eyes for a few seconds, dozing off in the process. She snapped awake, blinking a few times and grumbling. "Mornings sucks."

"Considering how long we've slept already, I think we should get a move on. We have until two to check out, but I want to be gone before one."

"'kay. What's for lunch anyways? I'm starving!"

– – –

After a quick stop at the Viridian Diner, we began our training at the western path towards the Indigo Plateau. The sun sat high in the sky, much to everyone's disdain, beating down without mercy. Even though it was one of those late spring days, dry and a little warm, the unrelenting heat of direct sunlight made it that much hotter. Save for the occasional wild Pokémon, none of them rare or unexpected, the field we stood in was empty.

Ben stood by my side while Rocco (his Fletchling) perched on his shoulder. They looked anxious to train.

"Soooooooo..." said Ben, "How do we, uh, start?"

"Right. First, we should do some warm ups. No point in hurting ourselves just by training." I rubbed and rotated my still sore shoulder. Wouldn't want that to happen again.

"Okay Rocco, stretch!" Rocco looked back at Ben like he was an idiot, paused for a few seconds, then finally obeyed. That's not a good sign...

Brie and I moved a short distance away and began our own stretches, slowly working each of our joints and muscles. A glance towards Ben showed him standing there, zoned out, watching Rocco.

"Hey Ben! You should stretch too."

Ben looked at me with a puzzled expression before giggling like an idiot. "Okay, sure." He hesitated. "But, um, how come I need to stretch?"

Right. He's clueless. I motioned him over. "In trainer regulated battles, Pokémon follow a specific battling format for safety reasons. Criminals and wild Pokémon, however, will battle with no restraints. That means anything goes."

"So I should be ready if I need to save my Pokémon?"

I sighed. I don't think he quite grasped what I meant. "Yes, but that's not the main reason for training with your Pokémon."

"Wait. I need to actually train, too?"

"You saw the Seviper yesterday, they aren't going to target just your Pokémon. Yeah, a lot of the time they will, but that doesn't mean you aren't vulnerable. And when that time comes, you need to be ready. Dangerous trainers and Pokémon won't hesitate to hurt or kill you if they get the chance, so you can't give them that chance."

Ben froze. "Oh."

"Oh come on now, Shaun!" Brie took a brief break from her stretches. "Being a trainer isn't all bad, you get to see new places, catch new Pokémon, meet new people, and you get better at battling."

Rocco chirped in his two cents while Brie translated. "And you get even closer to your Pokémon! Just because there's a few bad things doesn't make the whole thing bad."

I looked at Brie. "All right, I think we get it." I turned towards Ben. "Now let's finish stretching so we can start our training.

– – –

The hours wore on, and we found ourselves hot and tired. All of the running and mock battling were taking their toll, and it was clear neither Ben nor Rocco were prepared to work this long.

"Brie, Shadow Ball!"

"Rocco, Growl!"

Rocco opted to focus his attention on the shadow ball first, barely avoiding the attack. "Hey! How come you didn't growl!" Ben huffed. The tiny bird threw a fierce gaze in his direction, before settling down onto the grass and closing its eyes.

"No Rocco! Don't take a nap, we're in the middle of battle!" Rocco just ignored him. A bad sign. We needed to solve the problem before it got worse.

"Brie, can you speak to Rocco for me?" I said. "I need to see to Ben." Brie nodded, and casually walked to the napping Fletchling. I walked towards where Ben stood.

He sighed and shook his head. "I can't believe it, I just got my own Pokémon and already it won't listen to me."

"If you want my two cents, I think that Rocco doesn't like all the micro management, or your battling style."

"Huh?"

"You want him to sit back and weaken the opponents down, right? Then when they're low, just swoop in for the kill?"

"Yeah, that's kind of my plan."

"So maybe he'd prefer to take a direct approach instead, charging down the enemy and taking them down through sheer power. Instead of telling him what to do all the time, try giving a few commands and see what he does."

"Okay, I could try that." He sat down on the grass.

"I think you should discuss it with Rocco first, he doesn't seem to like the way you've handled things so far, and if you don't ask him it might make things worse." I snuck a peek at Brie, already finished her discussion, and saw her throwing Shadow Balls at Rocco as he did his best to dodge them.

"Yeah, I get it. But he really needs to stop ignoring me. "

I rubbed my head. "You remember when you told him to Growl through that last Shadow Ball Brie threw? Why was that?"

He smirked as though his next words would be sacred knowledge that only he knew.

"Well, Rocco is a Normal and Flying type, and Shadow Ball is a Ghost type attack. So, I figured, 'If Rocco just takes the hit, which won't affect him, he can get in a free move while staying unhurt!' Pretty smart, don'tcha think?"

I laid down next to him, onto my back. "Yeah, it would be. Except Rocco was trying to increase his evasive skills, remember? We talked about this right before the fight..."

Ben's smile faltered. I continued, "Even if the move wouldn't damage him, he was supposed to avoid every every attack, so he could get better at dodging."

"Sorry, I forgot about that..."

"It's fine, just try and pay more attention next time." Ben sulked beside me, so I did my best to comfort him. "Don't worry too much about Rocco. These things just take time, trust doesn't build instantly."

"Okay..." He didn't look reassured in the slightest, but with nothing else to say I let it go. Brie, noticing our conversation's end, trotted over.

"Hey Shaun!" She said. "Rocco's done. He says he doesn't want to take on the gym today, but he's gonna watch us instead."

Ben looked shocked. "What? But Viridian is a Ground type gym! That's like the freest win-"

"The new Viridian leader doesn't specialize in types." I interjected. "And even if he did, he would almost certainly have some sort of counter to Flying types." I nodded towards Rocco, "And if he doesn't want to battle right now, let him have a little break. Watching us will let you study the leader's Pokémon, and his strategies, for when you do take him on."

Ben offered a dramatic sigh and gave up arguing. "Okay, okay, I get it. Let's just go already! I'm tired of sitting around."

– – –

The Viridian gym was plain. I mean, I expected more from a former champion, but the place was barren. There was an arena for battling, a registration kiosk (although it looked a lot like an ATM), a few foldable chairs, and a small, closed office in the corner, but nothing else.

Having never challenged a gym before, Shaun and I had no clue what to do for a minute. Ben, unsure of what we were up to, walked over to the folding chairs. "When you guys are done meditating or stretching or whatever it is you do before a fight, I'll be over here."

Shaun stayed frozen in place. "So... Uh... I guess we just go over to the thing?" He pointed to the lone kiosk. "Isn't there supposed to be someone to guide us through this?"

He'd be lost without me. "Nothing's gonna happen by waiting around. There's probably directions on the kiosk." I started towards the plain device, but it was too big for me. The screen sat out of reach, the only thing in sight the gross underside of the machine. Wait, is that gum?

Shaun tapped a few things on the screen. "Huh. This thing's pretty straightforward."

I itched to battle, but feigned interest for him. "Hm?"

"Well, it'll save all the information to my trainer ID, so I just need to set a password to go along with it and the process will be way easier next time."

"So... is the gym leader here? Or do we need to set an appointment or something?"

Shaun smiled with that innocence of his. That delicious naivety would make corrupting him that much more enjoyable. Or at least that's how I fantasized it. "The gym is still open, so if we make a request then he should be here soon." He tapped a few things on the screen. "Now all we do is wait."

It took less than five minutes for the leader to arrive, but the whole time was spent in uncomfortable silence. Shaun hadn't said a word about the previous night. He doesn’t hate me, right? Maybe he's just avoiding it for now?

I pushed those thoughts out of my head when a kid, just a few years younger than Shaun, waltzed in. Spiky hair bobbed as he walked, and I was reminded of late autumn, when the orange leaves fall to the ground and begin to brown. He slouched as he walked, on the balls of his feet the entire time. He'd been in fights before, alright; his every step was carried with caution, as though we would jump him the moment he got too close.

I'll talk to Shaun later. For now, focus on the battle. Can't afford to make any mistakes.

The kid spoke. "You must be the challengers, eh? Welcome to Viridian city's gym! The name's Blue, I'm sure you've heard of me before. I'll be your opponent today." A cocky smile spread across his face, and he stuffed his hands into the pockets of his loose fitting kakhis. "So, this is for your eighth badge?"

Shaun shook his head."Nope, this would be our first."

Blue laughed, "Got a sense of humor! I like it." He noticed my cold glare. "Wait, seriously?"

Shaun was stunned. "Uh... Yeah. This is our first gym battle."

Blue's smile faded. "Look. I don't mean to be rude, but there's a reason people leave my gym for last. I am a former champion, after all, and I don't specialize in types. This gym isn't for your typical trainer, it's for the best to prove their worth in battle. Just because you have no badges doesn't mean I'll go easy on ya. If you wanna call off the battle, it's still an option."

Blood boilng, I spoke without thinking. "Don't think we're pushovers just 'cause we don't have any badges!" I glanced back at Shaun, smiled, then turned back to my opponent. "We'll take you on any day." Blue tilted his head, his eyes narrowed in thought.

He cracked a smile. "Heh. Feisty little one, eh? I respect that. Ready?"

"Wait, how come this gym's so empty? Isn't someone supposed to be here to guide us?" Shaun asked.

"I spend most of my time elsewhere. With my reputation, I get few challenges, so why bother changing the place up? Besides, because this is the last gym everyone knows the drill by now, no need for an assistant here." He put his hands in his pockets. "Now are ya ready? I'm sure you know the rules; withdrawing your Pokémon forfeits them from the match, use of any items other than held ones are prohibited. The battle begins the moment I throw the ball."

Shaun nodded and we walked to the opposite side of the battle arena. Blue drew two pokéballs from his belt, and pressed the button to expand one of them. "Let's see what you're made of! Go, Pidgeot!"

From the pokéball burst a large beige bird, about a foot taller than me. It charged as it was released, leaving little time to react. It flew fast!

Shaun was caught as off guard as I was. "Shit! Brie, Foul Play!" I darted forward and prepared to ram the Pidgeot, but it circled out of range of my attacks. It was hard enough just keeping an eye on it, there was no way I could catch it!

"Pidgeot, Featherdance." The Pidgeot let out a flurry of feathers as it flew, encircling me in a mist of down and destroying any hope of seeing. "Aerial Ace."

Oh no. No sounds gave away it's location, so I tried my nose instead. Unfortunately, the scent of bird surrounded me, no way to tell the Pidgeot from its own feathers. Maybe I should just run for it...

"Shit!" Shaun's muffled voice carried through the whipping of wings and feathers. I had no clue what to do. Luckily, Shaun made up for what I lacked. "Brie, Toxic eight on..." He paused. "NOW!"

I leapt to the left, slightly back, as I spewed toxin from my body. The Pidgeot flew right through the spray as it swung at me with its wing, grazing me as I backed away from it. But even with the slight hit, it felt like I took a dead on blow. Blue wasn't exaggerating. This is gonna suck.

"Nice one, Brie!" Shaun called. "Now, Foul Play six!" I turned around, expecting to be face to face with the large bird, but saw nothing beyond the veil of feathers. It didn't matter what I saw, though. If Shaun gave the command, there must have been a reason for it.

I charged at the empty space, and just then the Pidgeot flew in front of me. Through a combination of the feathers slowing my momentum and the Pidgeot's quick reflexes, I managed to graze it with pointed fangs, forcing it back and buying a couple seconds.

Knowing the space in front of me was clear, I ran as fast as I could, escaping the Featherdance. Finally, the smell of fresh air. Well, okay, the air wasn't fresh. It stunk of dirt and must and old wood, but it was way better than a nose full of bird and I was just thankful to breathe easy. I had no time to rest, though as the Pidgeot came back with a vengeance, charging straight at me.

"Aerial Ace!"

"Foul Play!"

The flow of dark energy consumed me as I channeled. Cold, dark, mischievous, it ran through my veins. A quick leap and I was in range, gripping the Pidgeot's torso in my jaws. Pidgeot swung one of its wings, firm and fast, and hit me. It hurt. Bad.

My teeth sank in even deeper, and dark energy surrounded us. Coursing through not just me, but the bird in my jaws too. Feeding off the Pidgeot's strength, I took it as my own.

And then I brought it down, the aura of mischief that held the Pidgeot, and slammed it into the ground. A crack of thunder that boomed through the gym. My jaws ached from the shock of impact, but I shook it off.

"Goddamn, Brie! That was amazing!" Shaun's next thoughts came as clearly as my own, and so I gathered as much of the dark energy as I could to prepare for the next move. "Moonlight while you have the chance."

Closed eyes. Everything was still. The sudden calm swept me away, healing most of the damage I'd taken. A soft white glow emitted from my body, the signature trait Moonlight was named after.

A sudden urge pushed me to leap to my right, Shaun calling out his command a moment later. "Brie! 3!" I opened my eyes in time to see the Pidgeot charging me down once again.

"Aerial ace."

It swung at me, barely unable to reach me. I laughed. "Hah! Can't catch me!"

With no warning, a sudden shock resonated through my body. Hurk. That... hurt...? But it missed. Unprepared for the sharp pain, my legs collapsed as a fog clouded my thoughts. Dark... Not the good kind of dark, either. A forceful, draining kind. From far away, Shaun's voice rang, muddled as though we were underwater.

"Brie? Brie! What's wrong?"

I looked around. From the sidelines, Ben sat in a folding chair. His mouth hung open, and he stared at me with wide eyes. I guess he hadn't seen many Pokémon battles before.

"Brie, Moonlight!" The command broke me out of my daze, and I the urge to pass out, forming another moonlight as fast as I could. Except when I finished, I felt a little weaker than I did before the hit.

I didn't have any time to avoid the Pidgeot's relentless attacks, as it focused me down while I healed. The next hit got me dead on.

"Aerial ace."

Shit, he hits hard. What can I do? Maybe I...

"Moonlight!"

O-okay, yeah. I can do this. Just stall until the Toxic takes him down. But... I dunno if I can...

Then Shaun's voice came to me again, clear as a full moon on a cloudless night. Except this time, the words weren't spoken. His thoughts echoed through my head. "You've got this, Brie! Show him what you can do."

Another Moonlight. Another Aerial Ace. Another Moonlight. Another Aerial Ace.

Everything hurt. Almost no energy remained. The last of my strength depleted as I one summoned one more Moonlight...

Another Aerial Ace took me to my last breath. I collapsed, for good this time, and closed my eyes, waiting for the inevitable final blow. Except it never came.

I lifted my head with a triumphant smile, seeing the beaten down avian finally lose the strength to fly. And then the strength to stand. And then it was over. A flash of light signaled the end of my fight as the Pidgeot was sucked back into its pokéball.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank Arceus...

Shaun, Ben, and Rocco's cheers brought a warmth to my heart. I'd done it. I'd won.
"Eggecutor, you're up next."

A cascade of curses poured out my mouth. How'd I forget something so obvious. But I'd won the first fight, so no matter how badly I lost the second one I'd feel accomplished.

Shaun stepped in for me. "We forfeit, Brie is unable to battle any further."

– – –

Brie struggled to get up, before deciding to just lay there. She looked back and smiled at me. I smiled back.

"You did great, Brie." Fuck, I can't believe I let her get hurt like that...

She laughed. "We did great, Shaun." Her smile curled into a mischievous grin. "But I think I deserve a treat after battling so hard. Wouldn't you agree?"

"Hah! Anything you want, Brie, you name it." Her toothy grin widened. Uh oh. I knew that look.

"Anything I want? Oh, I'm sure I can think of something. " She winked. "But we can save that for a more... private moment. For now, I just want to sleep."

"Right. Pokéball?"

She feigned offense. "You wouldn't leave your poor Umbreon to sleep in a cold metal cell, would you?" She giggled. "Pokéball, please."

As I withdrew her, Blue walked up and shook my hand. A firm grip, light smile. He looked relieved. "I have to admit, I was expecting a much easier fight. You guys did great." He glanced at my pokéball. "You guys look real close, and I'm glad to see it, too. Most people think Pokémon are tools to use or just pets to keep." He turned away, looking off towards nothing in particular.

When he did speak, it was with hushed tone and stoic expression. "I was one of those people. Back when I was young."

Wait, young? This kid's younger than me, at least by a few years!

His face brightened. "I'll be watching how far you guys go, so don't disappoint me, eh? But I shouldn't keep you long, your girlfriend is waiting on that private time." He laughed at my shock, one of those light chuckles that made it seem more like the joke was for himself.

"Uh... We're not like that."

"Make sure she knows that too, then."

"Oh, she's just joking around. She likes to tease me a lot."

"Of course. Well, I've gotta go dick around in my office for a bit. Smell ya later!" He walked towards the cramped office without another word, shutting the door behind him.

Ben called me from the sidelines. "Yo Shaun! That was really damn cool. Like, that's some next-level shit!"

Seriously? Toxic stalling is 'next-level' now? "Thanks, but Brie did all the work. I just offered her my ideas."

Rocco chirped at me in annoyance. Ben shrugged. "Man, you really can't take a compliment, can you?"

"Oh, not you too! I get enough of this from Brie."

– – –

The entrance to Viridian Forest was locked in by a border of tightly wound trees, tangled in a twisted dance for sunlight. An ominous display of domination that threatened to grab hold of any passerbys, the dense vegetation served as a warning, a precursor to the horrors that lied within. I can't say I was looking forward to it, but our next destination was beyond the forest, no easier way available to us.

Brie, however, looked unfazed. "This should be fun! I love the dark." I stared at the brick building that tore through the line of trees to form the easiest way into Viridian Forest. How the trees hadn't managed to tear apart the small building, I could not fathom, but it probably had something to do with maintenance Pokémon, maybe a psychic barrier for reinforcement.

"Only because you're a Dark type." We reached the open archway of the forest entrance, and walked up to a reception desk. An older ranger sat behind the counter, feet up and a book in hand, with the trademark ranger gear and green uniform complementing his dark, gruff face.

Without looking up, he spoke to us. "Don't stay out too long. If you've been gone three hours without returning or giving us notice, we'll notify the outpost on the other side. If you have not checked out on either side, we'll send a rescue team to search for you. Stay where you are, and we will find you. Got it?"

"You got it." It was Ben.

We scanned our trainer IDs to unlock the entrance, and stepped through the open security gate, walking across the soft earth of the Viridian main trail. Along the sides of the path a few warning signs stood, old planks of wood with directions, suggested items, and emergency contact information engraved on them.

Beyond that was acres of forest, waiting for us to explore. Minimal sunlight seeped through the thick overhang of treetops, shrouding the twisted maze of plant life that somehow managed to thrive in such a low light environment. Weeds crept along the beaten trail, strangling any of the foliage unfortunate enough to be caught in its grasp.

Patches of tall grass rustled nearby as wild Pokémon observed the unfamiliar faces that treaded through their homes. High up in the trees, Weedle and Caterpie feasted on oversized leaves.

"What's it like?" said Ben.

Brie was silent for a moment before realizing he was addressing her. "What's what like?"

"Being a Pokémon. It must be pretty weird walking like that, on all fours, and having to look up at things."

Brie looked confused. "Why would it be weird? I've been like this my whole life, so I don't know what it's like to be on two paws all the time. How do you not fall over every second?"

I tuned them out, instead focusing on the scenery around us. In the distance, by one of the side trails, a small pink Pokémon inched across the ground by the tall grass. It looked like a Weedle, except pointier, with a small yellow horn on its forehead and a couple yellow spikes at the back end of its body. It crawled around the base of a tree, disappearing out of sight.

Curious, I stopped our group and gestured towards the strange sighting. "I saw an odd looking Pokémon over there, mind if I go check it out?"

Brie sniffed at the air and peered in the target direction. "I'm going with you. Was it big?"

"No, it was a small pink bug, like a spiny Caterpie. It didn't look dangerous."

"Are you sure you saw a Pokémon? It is pretty dark in here." Said Ben. I nodded my head. Ben stretched his arms above his head, "What are we waiting for, then? Let's go already!"

We approached the tree at a cautious pace and, giving it a wide berth, examined the opposite side. The bark was peeled in a few locations, sap residue clinging to the surface. No Pokémon to be found. I looked up in time to catch a face full of sticky thread.

"The fuck?" I yelled, waving my arms to break free. The more I struggled, the more tangled it became, the string wrapping itself, sticking my limbs to my body and slowing my movements. Ben and Rocco tried to rid me of my bindings, but with little success. I sighed and pulled out a small pocket knife, cutting at any string I could. By the end of my endeavors, only mild resistance limited my motions.

Brie sniffed at the air, craning her neck to see above her. "There, in the tree. That what you're looking for?"

I glanced up at the small Pokémon clinging to a branch above our heads and pulled out my pokédex. Being in the near vicinity, the device had already picked up on the small bug and displayed its details on screen. "Wurmple, huh? I haven't seen that before... Hey Brie, want to catch it?"

"How are you gonna reach it?" Ben asked.

Good Point. Maybe we could knock it down with a rock? But it's so small, that'd be cruel. Maybe if I... I drew an unused pokéball from my bag. Clicking the button on the small ball, it expanded to about the size of a softball. I threw the pokéball at the Wurmple, intentionally missing the small bug's body and hitting the tree instead. The frightened thing lifted the front end of its body in defense, making itself as large as it could, as the pokéball opened up to suck in the Pokémon.

The ball dropped to the forest floor, bouncing off the roots of the tree. The ball shook as it rolled, gradually slowing down and shuffling less as the restraints took hold. A small click signaled a successful capture. Huh.

Ben wore an incredulous expression, seemingly surprised at how easily I captured it. "Dude, you didn't even battle it! How'd you know you could catch it?"

Brie looked unfazed. "Obviously he knows what he's doing. Remember when we fought Blue? That guy was an amazing trainer, but Shaun made the fight look easy!"

I sighed at her faith in me. When I threw the pokéball, the thought of an easy capture crossed my mind, but I didn't expect to catch the Wurmple so easily. The pokéball was supposed to bring it to ground level. "Right. Uh, we should introduce our newest member to the rest of our team." I picked up the pokéball and pressed the button, a lazy toss sending it a few feet forwards. In front of us, the small worm Pokémon materialized as the ball bounced off the ground, rolling back to me.

The tiny Pokémon blinked in surprise, eyeing the strange creatures in front of it. I stepped up first, extending the back of my hand so it could examine me. "Hey there little guy, how are you feeling?"

It... squeaked? Is that what the noise was? Either way it let out a small sound in response, and clambered up my arm. "Hey!" I giggled, "that tickles!" It scurried across, settling on top of my head as I introduced it to our little troupe.

"Wow, Shaun!" Brie said, "Your natural charm works on Pokémon too! Although I should know that from firsthand experience." She stuck her tongue out.

Ben was confused. "Hold up, didn't you say earlier that the Pokémon you saw was pink? That thing's red!"

I rolled my eyes. "It's pink. It was easier than saying 'I saw a reddish pink Pokémon'.

"No, that thing's definitely red, there's almost no pink on it."

Brie spoke. "It's red, Shaun."

Are they blind? "No, I can see it perfectly. It's a red pink, predominantly pink."

I argued as we walked, but having been outnumbered, neither of them listened to reason, insisting the Wurmple was red even when I tried comparing it to Rocco's red feathers.

Eventually the conversation steered elsewhere. "So with our new teammate" I said, "we can use String Shot and Toxic to whittle them down while staying safe. Brie, you can take hits the best, so your job is to protect the others when you're needed. Rocco, your job is to swoop in and take them down through your speed and strength."

"Hey wait a minute!" Brie said. "What if I want to fight too?"

"What? But that is fighting."

"No, I want to take things head on. I have Foul Play, right?"

"That's for defense, when they get too close! If you want to attack, stand back and use shadow ball, you're not built like a fighter."

Brie stamped her paws."Hmph."

Rocco just listened, not bothering to join our petty squabbling, and eyed the Wurmple on my head in curiosity. Wurmple squirmed under the bird Pokémon's watchful gaze, shrinking away when Rocco flew over to get a better look.

I consoled my new Pokémon as Rocco perched on my shoulder to get an even closer look at the small worm. Rocco pushed the boundary little by little, until his beak rested inches away from the Wurmple's wide eyes.

"Right. Birds. It's okay Buggsy, Rocco's your friend." Buggsy the Wurmple paid no heed, taking up the same defensive stance he showed earlier. "Rocco, you might want to back up. I think he's still scared-"

Buggsy stabbed at the air with its hind barbs, and Rocco jumped back to chirp at the tiny bug. Great. Just what we needed, more conflict in our group.

"Rocco! Are you okay? Did it hurt you?" Ben checked Rocco for any injury. "Shaun, dude, you seriously need to watch that thing!"

Sigh.

"Don't blame Shaun!" Brie fumed. "Your Pokémon scared Buggsy, he was just defending himself-"

"What? Why are you blaming me, my Pokémon didn't attack first, he didn't even hit that thing back! Rocco was just checking it out-"

"Please, just listen for a sec. Your Pokémon scared Buggsy, he was just trying to defend himself. This wouldn't have happened if-"

"Yeah, yeah. I heard you the first time, it's all my fault."

I heard a rustle and the snap of a twig. An eavesdropper, but scanning the surrounding area revealed nothing. I could've sworn...

"I'm just saying this all would have been avoided if-"

Another rustle. Are we being followed? "Hey, Brie."

"Yeah?"

"I think something's after us."

Brie sniffed at the air. Her expression told me everything, just as an ear splitting roar blasted in front of us. A hulking mass loomed out of the shadows. Golden brown fur, a heavy contrast to the lush green vegetation, somehow burned bright in the unnatural darkness. Silver horns glinted in the few specks where light filtered through, a menacing glare of sunlight that branded terror into the eyes of any observer. Three thin tails violently whipped itself as the enraged bull lowered its head at us.

It’s getting ready to charge! As if an angry Tauros wasn't bad enough, being about five feet tall and three hundred pounds of pure fucking muscle, that thing looked like a tank.

"Hey Shaun!" Brie called. "Maybe it saw the red on your head, and that's why it's so mad." She laughed at her stupid joke.

"Right. First off, that's a myth. Secondl- OH SHIT MOVE BRIE MOVE!" The Tauros launched itself straight at her. She didn't move. Instead, she smiled... and that dark aura around her... no fucking way.

"BRIE! WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?! RUN!" She ignored me. I ran to her, the distance between us stretched on indefinitely, the seconds dragged on for days.

One step.

Please...

Two steps.

If I can just...

Three steps.

No...

Four steps.

I won't make it...

Brie waited until the last moment, ducking down to strike from below. The Tauros gave zero fucks, barreling forward with the determination of a freight train, and put its head down low so as to catch Brie with its horns.

I knew what was coming next. I tried to look away, to shut my eyes. But I couldn't tear away.

The argument we had earlier popped into my head. If I'd listened to her, we could have talked it over. Figured out a different strategy, maybe. Instead, I shut her down. This was my fault.

I'd failed her.

They clashed head on. Brie's face changed, her resolve turning to shock as the Tauros picked her up, threw her into the sky. A small spray of red flew through the air.

Unaware, It was like she didn't know where she was for a moment. Even as she reached the peak of her flight, she just stared in disbelief.

It's pretty fucking funny how everything seems when you're scared. The flicker of sunlight, thin streams that slipped through the leaves overhead, offered a radiant contrast to the lush, dark green and brown forest. The light rustles, quiet chirps, and crunch of plants underfoot. It was all so... peaceful.

Did Brie see the same things in that moment?

If she did, then it was brief, because reality came crashing down on her, gravity following just behind. You know that feeling when you realize just how fucked you are? Where your stomach drops and fear's cold, clammy fingers seize hold? I imagined that's what she felt, because an ugly expression washed over her face. One I had hoped to never see again.

Pure terror.

Her eyes met mine as she began her descent, pleading for me to do something. Anything.

And then her scream.

It stopped the beating of my heart. Shrill. Desperate. The world froze over as her cry echoed through the forest.

"SHAAUUUN!"

I tried to draw Brie's pokéball as I pointed at her. "Buggsy, String Shot!" Buggsy reared back before releasing a stream of sticky string, Brie and sticking her to the tree a few feet behind her. The sticky web slowed her momentum a bit, but her weight snapped the few stands trying to hold her.

I undid the clasp that held her pokéball to my belt. But even if I had it ready in time, there was no way to stop her fall. She wouldn't be retrieved until after impact, the withdrawal process would take too long.

She hit the ground. Hard.

I ran, to her. Oh please let her be all right. Okay, okay. Still breathing. I checked her wounds. Swollen shoulder. Stabbed underside. Broken limb? Blood seeped into the forest floor, stained the earth dark, painted the grass and the weeds a dripping crimson.

"Oh Arceus. Okay... t-this sucks." She hissed through her teeth. "Like, r-really sucks."

I pulled the pokéball from my belt, glancing to the Tauros to see how long we had before its next charge, thankfully preoccupied with a tree. "It's okay, Brie. I'm here."I wiped the tears from my eyes. "Don't worry, we'll get you to a Pokémon center and healed up in no time. You'll be all right." Was I reassuring Brie or myself? I couldn't tell anymore.

Brie looked anything but comforted. "Don't say that, y-you're s-scaring me. Tell me I look bad or something." She tried to smile, but only winced instead. I rubbed the side of her muzzle with my hand, caressing her soft cheek with my thumb and stroking the underside of her chin with the other fingers.

"Right. You look like shit, Brie. But you'll walk it off. Now let's get you out of here." I took another peek at the rampaging Pokémon. The Tauros had shifted its attention to Ben, the only one of us still standing at the time, and was locked in a stare down. I took the opportunity to bring out Brie's pokéball, tapping the button to withdraw her.

On the back of her pokéball, information was displayed. Low health, nearly fainted. Critical condition. Stasis recommended. We couldn't stay here much longer.

I held the button on the pokéball for a few seconds, the details on the back screen changed, signaling the emergency stasis mode's activation.

I clipped her back to my belt, a heavy snort grabbing my attention and dragging me back to the danger at hand. Tauros was getting ready for the next charge, using its tails as a whip to further engage itself, eyeing Ben the whole time. There's no way he could handle that thing...

Right. No hesitation. No fear. No panic. Those get you killed. Just need a clear head. Even so, a hatred burned in my chest.

"Buggsy. String Shot that fucker."

The Tauros heard my command and sidestepped the String Shot, shifting its focus to me instead. Just what I was aiming for. "Right. Hold on tight Buggsy and string shot when I give the signal." The Tauros stomped it's hooves, snorted, and shot itself towards us.

Much to the bull's surprise, but not to his displeasure, I screamed out and charged toward it. Make the fucker think I'm fighting it head on.

Not much time. Have to be precise, can't miss or I lose the element of surprise. Too early and Tauros could sidestep, too late and I'd end up like...

Don't let your mind wander. Focus. If you trip, slip, misjudge, it's all over.

"Now!" At point blank, String Shot couldn't miss, and the moment I confirmed the hit I jumped to the side.

I could feel a burst of wind as he rushed past me. I looked back, expecting him to turn and continue charging, but instead he ran in a straight line. He turned, just slightly, but anything fast enough could easily avoid his attack.

It crashed into a tree, shaking it's head. It seemed satisfied for a moment, backing up before ramming the tree again.

I ran over to Ben. The slightest breeze could knock him over, he was trembling so hard. Putting on his bravest face, he asked "What can I do to help?"

"That thing runs in a straight line. You just need to move when it gets close. I'm going to keep hitting it with string shots. When it gets too slow to follow us, we run for it."

"So we don't have to fight it?"

"We have no range, we'd be dead meat trying to take it down with melee attacks. Once we flee, don't stop, listen for my commands. Listen, if we get separated-" the Tauros, with renewed vigor, stomped its feet and whipped its tails again. "Don't stop, we'll meet you at the exit."

Time after time we repeated our efforts, sidestepping when the raging bull attacked and slowing it with String Shots. With each rotation, it was struggling more and more to chase us, and eventually lost interest, occupying itself with a tree instead.

"Run! Now!"

– – –

I stared at the ceiling in the dimmed light of my hotel room. Burned out, sore bodied, I laid on the bed. Every weighty blink nudged me towards the edge of consciousness, it felt so good to leave them closed...

A jolt snapped me awake, with the realization that the cold metal pokéball was still in my hand. Brie had yet to be released, and though I dreaded facing her after our ordeal, her safety remained my priority.

The sleek black ball was broken by two horizontal stripes, one red around the top and one yellow one around the center. Brie's luxury ball.

After unlocking stasis and pressing the button, Brie emerged in the center of the room. She stretched a bit before sitting on her haunches and scratching at her chin with her back right leg.

"Hey Shaun. You make it back okay?"

"Well, we're all still here if that's what you mean. Rocco and Buggsy had to pick up the slack while you were out."

"Ouch. Taken down by an injury and still no mercy for your poor Umbreon."

The following silence snubbed out any conversion. She avoided my eyes, kneading the carpet. Quieting my breathing so as not to break the awkward interaction between us, the still air pressed in on all sides. Claustrophobia kicked in, the walls closing in around me as panic took hold. I broke the mounting tension.

"I'm glad you're okay." It came out as a whisper. Her ears pricked up at my words, and her eyes met mine for a moment, but both quickly dropped again. Maybe a joke would help? "Oh come on, Brie. I'm supposed to be the pessimist, remember?"

She shrunk at my words. Damnit, not helping. I sighed in defeat, kneeling down beside her. A stroke of her fur, the gentle massage of her ear. "What's on your mind, Brie?"

Trepidation, an uncomfortable sigh. She inched closer, burying her face in my side. "I'm sorry." Hey voice a low murmur.

Sorry?

"Wait, why are you sorry?"

She pressed deeper into my shirt, saying nothing.

"Brie?"

Still nothing. If she wanted to talk, she'd talk. With one arm under her front paws and one arm behind her back legs, I picked her up and laid down on the bed, wrapped around her in a loose hug.

She pressed her muzzle into my neck, and together we stayed. I felt disgusting, coated in dirt and sweat and grime, but a shower could wait; Brie needed a friend right then.

– – –

A paw on my chest woke me. I think. What time was it...? I didn't even remember anymore.

I opened an eye to nothing but darkness. Or maybe it was just hard to see, shapes and shadows danced before me as I struggled to make sense of my surroundings. Hitched breath, was someone crying?

On the verge of sleep, that strange state where reality and dreams merged to form a surreal memory. Whoever was crying needed help, I had to help them.

"Shaun-" The faintest sound. Did I imagine it? No, no. The breathing was heavier now, they were hurt and crying? Where was the first aid kit?

Oh right, the phone! I'll call for help.

What was the number again? Wait, how could I be on the phone? I thought I was in bed.

The breathing got heavier. A paw kneaded my chest, slightly trembling. Shit! Right, we were at a hospital. Where was the doctor?

A quick shudder, a quiet moan. "S-Shaun..."

Oh Arceus no! Don't die on me! Hang in there. Where in the fucking hell were the doctors, the nurses, any of the staff? What kind of third world hospital was it?

And then...

Silence.

Something huddled up against my side, but the sensation was miles away. I was in another world, floating off into nothingness. A black speck in an even darker vacuum. Then, a faint echo in the emptiness.

"I love you."

I tried to reciprocate, but I was already gone.

Chapter Text

"Shaun."

"-fffmore minutes..." He rolled over in his sleep.

Fighting the grogginess, I shook him with my paw. "Shaun."

No response.

Firmer this time, "Shaun, get up."

"Go away." He buried his face in the pillow. Well, if he won't get up that way... The wet tip of my nose pressed into the back of his neck with a sniffle. Jolting like he'd been shocked by a live wire, Shaun tried to cover the sensitive spot with raised shoulders. "Stop! Hey! That tickles!" A brief struggle ensued as I continued to pester him, but planted firmly on his back, there was no way he could get me off.

"Shaun! Get up, it's late."

"Alright, alright! I'm up." Finally. I climbed off as he sat up.

It was a wonder he woke at all, he looked like garbage. The sleepy eyes coupled with slow movements painted a comical picture as he struggled out of bed. It was like watching a zombie rise. "Why'd you have to do that?" He asked, "You could just ask me next time."

Rolling my eyes (the proper response to his dumb comment), I blew a raspberry. "I'll just wake you with a kiss instead, sleeping beauty." I hoped he'd agree. Instead, he stared off at nothing. Well, at least I tried. "Your alarm went off, and it was really annoying. Turn it off next time."

"Right." He paused, whipping around in confusion. "Wait, where are we? I thought we went to the hospital."

"You mean the Pokémon Center? Yeah, we're still here."

"Huh. Nevermind, guess I had a nightmare. I don't even remember it anymore, something about you being hurt, so we went to a hospital, but I couldn't find-"

"Aww, you dream about me too? That's sweet. I'm fine, though, because, you know, it was just a dream."

He stretched his arm and pet my head, giving a rush of euphoria when he massaged the soft spot behind my ear. After a minute, he ruffled the top of my head and grabbed a toothbrush from his bag. "I'm off to shower. See you in ten."

I should bathe, too. I licked my paw and began grooming.

The hum of running water carried through the air long after I finished. With nothing better for me to do, the bed would serve as a perfect resting spot.

The scent of Shaun coated the blankets, sending a shiver of lust up my spine. Filthy fantasies played out in my mind as the fur between my legs dampened.

I fought to regain composure.

I lost.

– – –

Clouds gathered overhead, a thankful refuge from the relentless heat of the early summer sun. Pewter City, the old country midpoint of Viridian City and Mt. Moon, was a rural town with bits of the modern world seeping in. Pretty little shops lined the streets, a mix between the old and the new: vintage shops and handcrafted materials next door to pokémarts and food chains. The scent of freshly baked goods made my mouth water, jewelry dazzled my eyes as it glittered through display windows, the voices of human and Pokémon alike mingled amongst the bustling market.

Shaun checked his pokédex. "Ben and Rocco should meet us in an hour. Want to take a look around?"

"Fine by me."

The enticing scent of the bakery drew us in first, a tantalizing treat to any hungry passers-by. The shop was small, made even smaller by the swell of customers within it. I didn't have to look at Shaun to know how he felt, the uncomfortable silence said it all. Well, the silence and our emotional connection.

"Hey Shaun, know what you want?"

"Um, I'm not sure. I'm not really hungry right now." An obvious lie, considering how the small pound cake caught his attention.

"Nonsense!" I grabbed his pant leg in my teeth and tugged him towards the line at the counter. "If you won't do it yourself, then I'll just make you. Now come on."

"Hey, stop! You'll rip my pants-"

The thought brought a warmth to my cheeks. "Stop fighting, then."

– – –

"I wish there was some air conditioning out here."

Sitting on the wooden bench under cover of the overhanging canopy, we sipped our drinks. The sweet aprijuice was a cool, fruity flavor as I pulled it through the straw.

"We're outdoors, Brie. We can't cool the whole world down just because it's a little hot."

"I know that! It'd just be nice if we had some sort of cooling system out here, 'cause it's so hot."

"I think that's called 'Winter'."

"Oh ha ha. Real funny, Shaun." I nipped his hand in response, not enough to break skin or anything, just enough to be startling.

He recoiled, knocking the glass of iced coffee beside him. It wobbled back and forth, before finally settling back on the table. A few drops dribbled down the side, but the drink was otherwise fine.

Seriously, the glass was the real MVP here.

Shooting me the dirtiest glare, Shaun pulled a napkin out and dabbed at the small mess on the bench. I nibbled on my poké puff and placed my head in his lap.

"Hey, Shaun?"

"Yeah?"

This is it. "About yesterday..."

He sighed, running his hand through my fur. Oh, Arceus that felt good. "Right. Brie, don't be sorry. It wasn't your fault-"

"Of course it was my fault! Even after you told me not to... I still..."

The words caught in my throat.

"Brie, It's all right."

He continued to brush through my fur, neither of us saying a word. We didn't need to, instead falling into a comfortable silence. The quiet, the gentle stroking of hands through fur, the body heat we shared, all left me feeling tired. Everything around us faded away as I drifted off in Shaun's lap.

– – –

Am uncomfortable warmth touched my leg every time Brie breathed out, a steady rhythm that suggested she was asleep. The intimate exchange increased the thumping of my heart in my chest, and I held back the awkward erection forming in my pants. She already thought I was weird enough, I didn't need her to think I was a fucking poképhile, too. She knows I'm not, right? Fuck, it's only because she's breathing on me like that...

Arceus, I wish I could choose when the hell this thing turned on.

I shifted in my seat, and checked the pokédex. Ben was still nowhere to be found, and he wasn't responding either. The fuck was holding him up so long?

– – –

A gentle pressure roused me from my sleep. Wait, is that his...? Shaun must've noticed me awake, because he unfortunately lifted me off his lap before I had a chance to do anything.

"Nice nap?" He avoided my eyes.

"Could be better. I really needed that, though." A yawn forced its way out. "How long was I asleep?"

"About half an hour, now."

It felt like hours. "So... They're still missing? Did they say anything?"

He shook his head. "Nothing. I sent them a message detailing the plan. In the meantime, want to go train?"

"What'd you have in mind?"

"There's an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town, I figured we could go exploring, maybe battle the wild Pokémon there."

"It's a date."

– – –

Musty. Rank. It felt like breathing in straight mold. "Lung cancer, here I come."

Laughter from my left. Her blue rings glowed in the darkness. "Why're you complaining?" She said, "You're not the one with the super smell. You've got it easy."

Footsteps thundered as we walked, every sound augmented in the cramped, closed off hallway. Using the low light of the flashlight, we stepped over the many objects cluttering the floor. "I like complaining, need I any other reason?"

"Nope, I love when you whine."

"Bitch, please. You love everything about me." We burst into laughter, a raucous display ill fitting to the damp atmosphere. Yeah, that wasn't that funny, but the laughter fed off itself, until we found ourselves laughing at nothing more than our own voices.

"Phew, you're killin' me, Shaun."

"Like the air here isn't already." She snickered at that.

At the end of the hall, stood a blue metal door. No windows or anything, just a hunk of metal between us and whatever lay beyond.

"You know, I was joking when I said 'It's a date'. Yet, here we are. Trespassing through a lovely, cold, dark building. You know what'd make this day perfect?"

"What?"

She nudged me toward the wall. "Cuddles."

I pulled the most unenthused face in all of history. A stone cold bitch face. But Brie either didn't see or didn't care, because she shoved me back against the wall. I slid down to a sitting position, amidst all the gross... Fine, so there wasn't much around other than one of those rolling table things, a few trays, and old office supplies. But it was still all old and dusty and probably disgusting.

A whisper broke my train of thought. "How romantic..." she purred, settling against me. Seriously? We're taking a break here?

We'd been wandering the place for around an hour by then, practicing against the many Pokémon who'd made their home in the warehouse, namely Zubat, Geodude, and the occasional Makuhita. At least the latter provided a challenge.

The only sign of other humans was the numerous bits of graffiti sprayed across the wall. Some of it random, like names and paintings and vulgar words. Some of it systemized, although what it depicted I could not fathom. Maybe the markings were a map of some sort, or a kind of guide to the regular visitors.

"What'cha thinkin' about?"

"Hm? Oh, nothing. Just wondering about all the graffiti we've passed." I rubbed my head in thought.

"Oh? Well, wanna know what I've been thinkin' about?"

"Shoot."

She climbed into my lap, turning to face me as she put a paw on my chest. "That's no fun. Come on, take a guess."

"Is it the dark?"

"Nope!"

"Uh... Training?"

"Yeesh, is that all you ever think about?" She laughed, "Guess again!"

"Is it the seclusion?"

She lifted an eyebrow."Close, I mean we are pretty alone right now. But not quite what I had in mind." A cheshire grin spread across her face. "How about I give you a hint?" She leaned in close, really really close, her face hovering inches from mine. With my back already to the wall, I couldn't pull any further away.

Oh shit...

"You're not thinking... selfish enough." A dirty paw toe tapped my nose, and she kneaded my chest. That look in her eye, Arceus she just couldn't stop fucking teasing me. Ever. She knew how uncomfortable it made me, too! "So, any idea yet?"

What the hell was I supposed to say? Luckily, I didn't need to answer, because a clang echoed from the other side of the door. We jumped, inexplicably whacking our heads together.

Fuck, that hurt!

But more pressing, either someone else was listening in on our conversation, or a wild Pokémon had taken interest in us.

"Hello?" I called. No response, just the continuous screech of scraping metal. Damn, if that ghastly wail wasn't the creepiest thing I'd eve heard, made worse by the pitch black horror film set we sat in.

"Shaun, wanna get the door? I think we've got company."

"Oh-ho-ho no. Fuck that."

"Fine, I'll do it, then."

Damnit Brie, you'll be the death of me. She pulled on the door handle. The creak of rusty metal hinges almost inaudible beneath the terrifying sound of metal on metal beyond it.

Straining to see, I caught a glimpse of something. Amber eyes peered through a heap of scrap metal, looking right at us. Whatever it was, it was small. I shined the flashlight upon the tangle of steel. Wait, that's not scrap at all...

Sure enough, the pokédex offered information on the Pokémon before us. About a foot tall, black underbelly, coated in blunt metal armor and square humps. An Aron.

It briefly watched us, before turning back to chomp on the broken metal desk beside the door. Huh, so that's what the sound was.

"Wow, Shaun. Didn't think you'd be scared off by something so cute."

"Shut up, it sounded way creepier when we couldn't see it." The Aron lifted its head again, looking at us, before setting back upon its meal.

"Hmph, sure it did..." Under her breath, "scaredy-cat." I ignored her.

"Hello there, Aron." It faced us in response, still crunching on a chunk of metal. "My name is Shaun, and this here is Brie."

"Hi!" She said at the mention of her name.

The Aron continued to crunch the metal.

"So, you seem friendly enough." I continued. It cocked its head in response. "We're currently traveling, both to help out a friend of ours and to get stronger. If you're up to it, we'd love to have you on our team! Our goal is to make it to the top, and I think you'd be perfect for the role."

The Aron still just stared, the crunch and screech of crushing metal in its jaws.

"Uhh... it's up to you. If you don't want to, you can just say no."

Still nothing. I waited in silence for a minute. The whole time it watched us, chewing all the while.

"Um... Okay. Well, it was nice meeting-"

The Aron swallowed, stepping forward to my feet. It reached its front legs out to me, as if begging to be held.

"Oh, you want me to pick you up?" It nodded. "Okay, here we-" A grunt escaped my lips as I failed to hoist it into the air. Okay, it was heavy. Maybe a hundred pounds. Which doesn't exactly sound like much, but it's a fucking lot, especially when the thing in question is so small you're expecting to only lift thirty. "-go!" I struggled to lift the damn thing, but could barely get it up to my knees before resting it against my legs for a moment. Thank Arceus for all the training I did.

I managed to raise it up to my stomach, and then eventually held it against my chest, both hands underneath to support the huge weight. Glee apparent on its face, it let out a hollow, metallic cry.

"Alright, I'm going to put you down, now. I can't carry you more than a few seconds." It didn't seem to mind, so I lowered it to the ground.

Digging through my bag, I retrieved a pokéball. "Okay, now just hold still for a minute. I'll let you back out when it's done, alright?" I brought the pokéball to Aaron's face.

I probably should have explained what I was doing first, because the Aron bit straight through the pokéball.

– – –

We trekked along, none of us saying much. Slate, our newest companion, walked right behind us, nibbling on all the jagged scrap we passed. It was hard to tell where we were, what with all the twists and turns, but luckily the pokédex came with a built in map maker. Marking the positions as we walked, the crude map served its purpose well, and with enough battery to last a few more hours we had no need to leave any signs by the paths we took, the stairwells we descended, the rubble we climbed.

And then we came to a locked door. Not like any of the others, but a heavy one, marked with that strange graffiti we'd passed by so often. A padlock held it shut, and it wasn't a rusted old one, either. Shiny, metal, heavy duty shit.

"Right, end of the line. Guess it's time to head back."

"Wait a minute, Shaun!" She said, prodding at the lock. "This thing is new, like brand new. Someone's been here, and I wanna know what's even further in."

"Damnit Brie! This isn't some little adventure we're going on, somebody doesn't want us going in here and I think we should respect that." A slight crunch as we talked, Slate must've been chewing on something, but that wasn't interesting to me. I leaned against one of the smooth concrete walls, looking back the way we came from.

"It's not like they own the place! It's been left alone for so long, anything in here's fair game." She said.

"What do you propose we do, break the lock? We're not doing that." A clang of metal brought us to attention. Turning back, the door was already ajar, Slate currently occupied with the padlock in his jaws. Guess I spoke too soon.

Brie laughed. "You did it, Slate! Good job! Now let's get to exploring." She started off, pushing the door open. "If you wanna chicken out, then I'll see ya when I get back!"

Great. Why do I let myself get dragged into this shit. "Let's go, Slate. Can't have her getting lost or some shit. Seriously, though. What a pain."

– – –

Shaun and Slate followed right behind, fumbling with the broken door before realizing it wouldn't stay closed. It didn't matter anyway, by the distinct lack of human scent nobody else had been there for a while.

So we walked. And walked.

Only a few rooms weren't bare, filled instead with boxes. Mechanical pieces, electrical parts, transaction records (none of them interesting, most of them barely legible). In one near empty room, ammunition shells littered the ground. Tranquilizer darts, bullets, cartridges, battery packs. It was like stumbling upon an old arms dealer hideout.

Empty racks once used for storing weapons were left open and unlocked. Layers of dust coated the room and everything in it. Whoever had been here was gone for good.

On a table in the corner of the room, surrounded by scratched up and shattered discs, was a box. Metal, opened, empty. At least, so we thought. Until I rooted through the inner pockets, happening upon a lone, pink disc with the number twenty-nine printed on its upside, and a strange symbol written in bold black beneath it. It looked like an 'O' with a straight line going along the bottom, like it had been underlined.

"Hey Shaun, what's this?"

Shaun was studying the different ammo on the ground, a frown on his face. "What's what?" He didn't look up, instead rolling around a few shells between his fingers.

"This disc. It says twenty-nine on it." That got his attention.

"A number? Is it a TM?" He stepped over Slate, who was content with eating all of the metal he could stuff into his mouth. Shaun picked up the disc, examining it. "Hmm... I suppose it wouldn't hurt."

He pulled out his pokédex, inserting the TM into the disc slot. An odd pressure invaded my head, right above and behind my right eye, like when you dive too deep into a pool and it hurts your head. Then a short jingle played, signifying a successful disc reading. Not even a moment later, though, an error sounded.

"Huh, it says it's corrupted, but accepted it anyway. Hey Brie, want to test it out?"

"Give me a minute, my head still hurts." The pressure continued to build, becoming more and more painful. I gasped for breath, panting at the sharp stab in my head.

"Hurts? It's not supposed to hurt! Shit, how do I cancel it!" He fumbled with the device.

But the pain subsided fast, leaving behind only an aching throb. "It's okay Shaun, it's gone now..."

Shaun shifted on his feet, stepping close to me, and ran a hand through my shoulder fur. "You sure?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. But can we hold off testing it for now?" Stars crept into vision, bright red and yellow embers that flitted across my eyes. "I don't feel so hot right now."

Arms wrapped around me in a tight hug. "Right, sure thing."

After another minute of rest, we continued onwards, navigating the narrow halls and crumbling pathways.

– – –

The most interesting thing we found was a large lift next to a tall metal staircase, leading further underground. Shaun checked if it was running, so I peered over the deep stairwell that went down and down into darkness as creeping fear sucked the life out of everything it touched. From far below, strange voices carried through the empty air. Whispers, chants, were they actual words or unintelligible nonsense? A cross between Pokémon cries, gutteral vocalizations, broken sounds and chimes and instruments so faint I wasn't sure if I was going crazy.

"Okay... That's creepy."

"What's creepy?" Shaun asked.

"You don't hear anything?" I asked. He shook his head. "Huh."

"What do you hear?"

"I dunno, it's like people talking or something, but it's so quiet I can't tell if my mind's playing tricks on me."

"Oh."

"Want to check it out? Maybe we'll find some Ghost types down there."

A hesitant yes, the only confirmation I needed. So we descended the heavy steps. One landing. Two landings. I stopped counting after six.

The thud of our feet boomed through the tall room, dying off into light claps as it echoed around the walls far below and above us. And then all the way at the bottom, a door. Not the old metal doors we'd been seeing, but a much newer, high tech door, with a large gray square beside it. Even with the power off, the door remained locked, a blinking red light served as an indicator.

A nervous shuffle beside me. "All right, we shouldn't be here. Let's go back now." What in the hell was he saying?

"Just when things get interesting, you want to cut and run? Oh no you don't! Slate, get the door."

Slate, happy to help (and snack), began his work on the door. It only took ten minutes for him to chew a hole large enough for me to fit through. The jagged edges impeded my efforts, lightly scratching me as I tried to force past.

"Brie, you all right?"

"What's it look like?"

"Sheesh, just checking."

Resuming my efforts, I squirmed the rest of the way through. Above the hole I'd crawled through was a door handle. I pushed the one-way door open with ease to see Shaun struggling with his pokédex. "We don't have any reception down here, Brie. If we run into trouble, we're on our own."

"Well, then at least you'll spend your last moments with me!" He groaned at that. "Lighten up! What could go wrong?"

Everything.

It came through my own head, the word crisp and quiet. A fuzzy sensation split my train of thought in two, a brief struggle to make sense of our thoughts.

And then, relief. A placid calm, subtle but clear, flowed as our minds made the light connection. He must have been pretty worried to trigger it outside of battle.

– – –

Brie led the way, with Slate following close behind. I took up the rear, because let's face it, I'd be first to go down, and we didn't need that kind of liability. Thankfully, the area was quiet, free of any roaming pokémon. That didn't stop the fear pounding in my heart.

It was pretty cold, and other than the light clothes on my back we had little to warm us. And the further in we traveled, the cooler it got. A shiver wracked my body. I really need a fire type.

"Shaun! You need to see this."

She sat next to a wall, peering into one of the side doors. I stopped beside her, shining my light inside. The room looked like a closet, lined with lab coats and uniforms: white and gray pants and jackets, emblazoned with a large red letter. 'R'.

I was stunned. "How old is this place? Team Rocket have been inactive for years."

"Or maybe they've just been underground!" She snickered at her joke.

"Very funny, now let's get the hell out of here."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa! You want to leave now? Shaun, this is the adventure of a lifetime! How can we pass this up?"

The light of the pokédex flickered. Strangely soothing... Strangely tiring.

"Shaun? Earth to Shaun!"

"Huh? Right, sorry. Just feeling a little drowsy."

It flickered again, shadows dancing in the inky black around the beam of light. Leaning against the wall, my legs went limp beneath me.

"Shaun?"

It was so easy to lay down, the burden of stress lifting from my weary shoulders. And then the drumming began.

Thump.

Thump.

Thump.

Was that my heart? War drums? The heavy footfall of some giant pokémon? The ground shook with each one.

It went on forever.

A pounding migraine struck me next, and the pulsing beat picked up faster and faster, and the ground and the walls and the faces melded together as I lost my bearings and all the while the sickening thud took up a rapid pace as the dusty old smell of the place assaulted my nostrils and brought forth a wave of nausea. I struggled to keep my lunch down.

It was a waking nightmare.

A sharp pain in my arm brought me back to reality. I raised the flashlight and lifted my wrist, dripping with blood, to see two puncture wounds on each side. Fuck, that hurt.

"Shaun! Please wake up!

"Buh?" The words took effort to form. "The fuck, Brie? Did you bite-"

"Oh thank Arceus, we have to go! More are coming."

From deep in the tunnels, laughter rebounded, dry and malevolent, through the halls. The only motivation we needed to get the fuck out of there. I turned around, aiming the flashlight to see. "Slate, return!"

Thankfully, he remained unhurt due to his defensive typing. Brie looked like she'd been in a fight, a few scratches here and there, a little bit of blood, but otherwise fine. Now I, on the other hand, felt like shit. Complete and utter shit. Aching body, pounding headache, shivering chill, I stumbled as fast as I could. Down the halls, past each turn the pokédex led us, and then we pushed through the metal door to the tall...

Fuck. There was no fucking way we could climb the stairwell in time.

But we tried anyway, using few words as we climbed stair after stair. No need to waste our breath yet.

Another wave of nausea forced me down; the steel staircase bit into my shins and stomach and forearms as I gagged. Brie must have heard, because she was by my side in an instant, dragging me by my shirt up each step. If for no other reason, the constant scraping of the stairs on my skin convinced me to crawl back up the staircase, no time or energy to actually stand.

And the laughter just echoed from below, closer this time. Fuck... Gotta keep moving. But it was hard enough to stay conscious, with all the pain, all the cold, the constant strain, I wouldn't last much longer.

"Brie, I'm slowing you down." I huffed between breaths. "Just run, and I'll meet you outside, right?"

"You think I'm just gonna leave you? Pick your ass up, let's go!"

"Brie, I'll be fine." I lied through my teeth. "I've gotten out of worse. Get help, I'll need it when I get out." Truth was, I didn't believe a word of it. But if Brie did, then I wouldn't have to drag her down with me.

I'm so sorry... just let me die.

"Like hell I will!"

Wait...

Wait a minute-

"I can hear you thinking, so stop playing victim and get up!"

Aaaaaand now I've got no choice. Fuck, Brie, you ruined my heroic sacrifice. Gripping the handrail, I resisted every screaming muscle in my body and clambered up those steps. Somehow we made it to the top, and somehow I managed about three more painful strides before tripping over myself and hitting the ground.

"Shaun, now's not the time!"

"I... I can't Brie."

"Then I'll make you!"

I sighed and pulled out the pokéballs clipped to my bag. "Buggsy, Slate, come on out." The small Wurmple materialized before me, glancing around in confusion. Slate stood at attention, ready for my next order. "We're being chased. Can you lay some String Shot behind us?" Buggsy nodded and got to work.

"Brie, you think you can handle this?"

She smirked. "Absolutely not, but that doesn't bug me-"

"Six out of ten, fell short on the delivery."

"I'll keep that in mind."

"Slate, use Harden. You'll be our backline, cover Buggsy and I with Headbutt and Metal Claw. You guys ready?"

They nodded. "Buggsy, string shot what you can, back off if it gets dangerous." I turned off the light and we waited. And waited. And waited.

No pokémon appeared.

After a while, I turned the light back on, nothing was there. Odd. I couldn't tell what, but the whole situation felt...

Off.

I spun around and shined the flashlight behind me. Nothing there but my shadow on the ground. We should have been attacked already, were they surrounding us? No, I didn't see anything. Then why was I so uneasy? Maybe fear got to my head, maybe the darkness stole my sanity.

I flicked left, right, up, down. It was like something was there, in the corner of my eye. But every time I turned, no pokémon were there. It felt like I was chasing my own... shadow.

It dawned on me. Even with the flashlight aimed away from my body...

"Brie, Foul Play my shadow!"

She jumped on it, gripping the shadow pokémon in her teeth, and blasted it with dark energy. A Gengar tumbled out before jumping to its feet, a nasty grin on its face.

It shot a Shadow Ball in return, before ducking back into the shadows. Brie sidestepped the shot and charged down where it stood. Except it wasn't there anymore. I aimed the light at her in time to see her shadow jab her before landing a close range Shadow Ball. She fell back a few steps, laughing at the hits she took. "Gonna need more than that to hurt me."

"Everyone, watch the shadows!" I said. A sudden blow to my stomach knocked the wind out of me, the pokédex clattering out of my hands, the light aimed down at the ground. Breath evaded me, tears smeared the dirt and dust gathered around my eyes.

"Shaun, the light!"

I couldn't speak, eyes shut and wheezing for air as I felt the ground around me for the pokédex. Fuck, what can I do?

"Shaun, I need that light!" Frenzy laced her voice. A strike to my face, unseen in the dark, knocked me backwards, and a hard hit to my upper cheek knocked me flat on my back. The taste of copper strong in my mouth. Heavy thuds. Brie audibly struggled, Buggsy squeaked in anticipation, Slate slashed at the air around him with the swish of swinging claws.

Brie... can you hear me? You need to... you need to use Psychic!

An immense pressure filled the room, the familiar touch of Psychic energy mingled with the distinct aura of my Dark type. It swirled around us, more of a mist than a tangible effect."I don't know what I'm doing!"

Right, you're doing great, Brie! Now try to form it into a ball around us, like a shield.

"Like this?" The force condensed around us, holding everything still. It barely hurt me, Buggsy and Slate probably felt nothing, so at least she had that much control, but the energy surrounding us made movement difficult.

Think can you hollow out the center?

The pressure lifted, and I retrieved the pokédex, swiveling around to catch glimpses of Gengar and Haunter in the light, at least seven in total, pounding on the barrier Brie built around us. With the momentary reprise, I checked the wound on my right arm, deep black marks. I was surprised to see any red at all, I felt like I should have been oozing black sludge instead of blood. I prayed it wouldn't get infected.

"Buggsy, return! Slate, stay close to me."

As I retrieved them, Brie planted her feet firmly on the ground. "I got this."

A sudden influx of energy overwhelmed the small sphere, channeling through Brie's focus. Whipping with the violence of a hurricane, the dust and debris thrown around by the empowered Psychic battered the walls as it swirled around the shield.

Nasty Plot? That's just downright nasty.

"You butchered it, Shaun. Now let's send these things back to the shadow realm!" She released the Psychic, forcing the barrier outwards and obliterating everything caught in the shock wave. Gengar and Haunter contorted in the bright flash of light. Releasing a shrill screech, they fell to pieces, their only remnants the shadows staining the walls where they once stood.

After the rampage of the last few minutes, everything was quiet. Everything just...

Gone.

"Go hard or go home?" She said.

"Fuck, Brie! Don't ever let me on your bad side."

– – –

"Dude, where were you? I've been waiting forever!" It had been a half hour since our fight in the cave. Ben sat on a cushioned booth in the pokémon center, frowning at me; one hand tapped his pokédex, the other played with his mobile phone.

Brie wasn't around to sling a snarky comment, currently occupied with the pokémon center's healing machine, so I ignored him and took another look at my arm.

Even cleaned, the bite wound held a deep black color, a grim reminder of the hardship we faced in the abandoned hideout. Sore body, throbbing head, the day was basically over, and all I wanted was to sleep it off.

Except we still had yet to take on the gym.

Eh, fuck it. I'll set up a time for tomorrow. Maybe the day after instead. "Once Brie gets back, we're heading to our room-"

"What?! What are we supposed to do while you're gone?"

I sighed. "Ben, you don't need me to hold your hand, alright? Find some of the weaker pokémon around the edge of town and practice against them. If you're feeling confident, go chasing after the stronger ones. Maybe add a new pokémon to your team, too."

"Broskie, whatchu think I was gonna do? I'm just fuckin' with ya. Jeez." He thought for a moment. "What kind of pokémon should I try for, though. Maybe I'll go for one of those like big-ass dragon types or some shit, think I could find myself a Charizard?"

I sighed.

Chapter Text

I wanted to sleep. Adrenaline had long since worn off, replaced with debilitating exhaustion and a longing to rest. At her insistence, Brie and I sat on the bed listening to music, taking turns choosing songs, singing to our favorites, humming along with the ones we forgot. Fortunately the room was well insulated, so we had no need to stay quiet.

"Did you know" She said, "That this part wasn't actually meant to be in the song?"

At the end of the prechorus the instrumentals died down, and in that brief intermission echoed heavy, distorted guitar strums, a sharp sting cutting the silence.

"That right there! That loud part! That wasn't gonna be in the song. You know why it is?"

"Why?"

"Because the guitarist was like 'It's too quiet here, let's throw in some noise.' The band was all like 'This guy's tryin' to ruin our song!', but they liked the way it sounded anyway so they left it in."

"Seriously?"

She laughed at my incredulity. "Yeah, seriously!"

We continued to listen and enjoy each other's company. Stretching out by my side as I brushed through her soft fur, she leaned into each stroke, scratching the air with her back leg when I hit that itchy spot of hers. "Yes! Oh Arceus yes right there!" She sighed in content.

"You know, Shaun, I always admired how quick you were."

"What? You're so much faster-"

"Not that kind of quick you idiot! I mean like, you always seem to have a plan, even when you don't."

"Brie, I never have a plan. I just wing it."

She inched closer, looking up with those sparkling cyan eyes, and stuck her tongue out. "That's what I was getting at. Not like in general, I'm pretty sure you'd get lost on a straight road if you didn't have me to guide you, but I mean when things go down I can always count on you for direction. You... uh... think on your feet I guess?"

Flattering, but untrue. "Pfft. Brie, you're a horrible liar-" She glared at me, the words catching in my throat. I tried to speak, but failed, so I dropped my gaze instead.

"Stop doing that! Why do you always shut down every nice thing I say to you?"

"It's... it's not like I'm trying to-"

"I know. You just don't have confidence in yourself. You're always like 'I mess everything up' and 'things would be better off without me'. Well, face it Shaun. I want you here, I need you here, and if you don't like it then don't do it for you. Do it for me." She finished her speech, placed a light touch on my nose, and climbed into my lap with a huff.

The music faded into the background as the next song in the queue popped up. A slow, steady beat.

"Hey Brie?"

"No."

"Aww. You look so cute when you're mad."

She squeezed her eyes shut and smacked me in the stomach with her paw. It hurt, but left no lasting pain. "Don't even try sweet talking me-"

"But it's just adorable when your cheeks puff out like-"

She hit my face this time, made even worse when her assassination attempt landed right on the big bruise I'd earned from the Gengar's Sucker Punch. She hit dead center, too. I rubbed my cheek and looked down to see guilt and shame mixed into her sad expression.

"I forgot! Oh Shaun I'm so sorry. That wasn't supposed to hurt."

"Shit, Brie, that would have hurt anyway." I wrapped my arms around her and hugged tight, leaning back with her. She yelped and squirmed as we fell back, inadvertently hitting me in the face again. "Gah! Watch it, I don't need even more bruises!"

We listened to a few more songs, just laying there with each other. Eventually, I broke the silence.

"I was always jealous of how nothing bothered you. You're always so adventurous and upbeat."

She laughed. "You've just gotta treat life like a game. That's all it is, one big game. If you're not having fun, then you're not living!"

"I wish it were that simple. It's just... so fucking hard sometimes."

A pause.

"I can help make it easier." She mumbled. "If you want..."

Help? "What do you mean?"

She pulled herself further up my body, the weight of her smaller self resting on me, rising and falling with each breath in.

"Uh... Brie?"

She hugged herself close to my chest, paws wrapped over my shoulders and face inches below mine. Heavy eyes, half closed and unsure, bore through me. Oh shit.

"Shaun..."

This is wrong.

"I..."

This is so fucking wrong.

She pulled herself closer, the steady flow of our breath connected in both timing and depth. I wanted to resist. Well, it wasn't like I was... uh... opposed to her advances or anything. It's just, it's not the most common of things. It did happen sometimes, yeah, but that didn't make it any less taboo.

A low, romantic guitar tune continued playing in the background, how fucking fitting.

"Uhhhh... Brie, I don't think-"

"Oh hush." Her lips met mine, the thump of our hearts beating in our chest. In no time the whole world melted away, leaving just us two.

Fuck...

We parted, and she opened her eyes, guaging my reaction. What the fuck came over me next, I have no clue. Maybe I was just thinking with my dick, my long held drought of romantic interaction fucking with my decision making. Maybe I just couldn't let her down, not after after all she'd done for me. Or maybe I really did love her, despite all my fear and doubt and hesitation.

Let me reiterate, I had absolutely no clue what I was thinking, but in that brief moment my hands wrapped around, sifting through the fur of her neck, and pulled her back into the kiss. Holy fuck we shouldn't be doing this. I pushed as deep as I could.

Conflicted, confused, passionate.

She purred, grinding her crotch against mine in a desperate attempt to convey her need. The warmth of her breath, her overpowering taste. A rough tongue forced its way into my mouth, grazing against my own in a dance for domination.

She pulled back, panting. "Oh Arceus that was hot." Jagged breaths, short and shallow, bathed my skin, tickled my hairs as she nestled into the crook of my neck. "I love you Shaun."

"... I love you too."

We stayed like that for a few minutes. Her on top, occasionally leaning in to nuzzle my cheek, share a short kiss. My pants suddenly felt felt way too restricting, and by her sultry expression, she could feel it too.

"Does this mean... I can call you my boyfriend, now?"

"If you'd like."

Silence.

"Shaun?"

"Hm?"

She pressed her paws to my shoulders, saddling me with her back legs. A damp spot soaked my abdomen through the shirt, an obvious indicator of her train of thought. My heart skipped, not just one, but a million beats.

"Is it okay if...?"

"That's a bit... uh... f-fast, Brie-"

"That's why I'm asking. I just... want to know if you'd be okay if we... I mean..."

The gentle caress of her cheek put her at ease. She leaned into my hand. "Mmm. So, is that a-"

I... wasn't sure what to say. My mouth ran a mile a minute, leaving behind the brain that usually dictated my decisions. I was drunk with whatever the fuck it was. Fear? Love? Lust? They say drunk words are sober thoughts... so I guess I spoke from the heart?

"Yeah."

She smiled the brightest, happiest, most embarrassed fucking smile, melted me in her paws. "Oh Arceus, this is happening..." Shaky voice, she trembled in my arms. "This is really happening." Another kiss, slow, passionate, hungry. She retreated, fumbling with the button and zipper that held the pants to my body. She looked back up, fierce and determined.

"Pants. Now."

I reached down, blushing under her watchful eyes. Fuck, why did it have to feel so embarrassing. "Sure... uh... g-give me a second." Undoing the barrier between us, never had I felt so self conscious before.

"There-"

She hooked her paws into the waistband and yanked down, snagging the underwear and pants in one swift motion, a brief pain when I got caught in the clothing.

"Brie, just... um..." Words failed me.

"Shaun, I never thought I'd get to say this. You look so much hotter than I ever imagined."

She pecked my chest with a quick kiss, before dragging a slow tongue up my neck, sending a shiver down my spine. "You do too, Brie."

She giggled, licking along my shoulder and throwing in a small, stinging bite at the end.

"You don't mind... rough, do you?"

"Not at all. Just... be careful around the sensitive parts, alright?"

She nodded. "Just sit back and enjoy." The brief warmth of her tongue across my skin, the occasional nip, bite, but nothing too deep. She inched lower and lower, until her face was level with my hips. She hesitated.

"This is my first time... I have no clue what I'm doing, so if you don't like it or anything, just tell me."

"It's okay Brie, I'm nervous too."

She flashed her teeth, not exactly the sight I wanted to see so close to my crotch, and lowered her herself, placing me in her mouth and suckling. Warm and wet and rough and loving, she bobbed her head up and down. I shuddered at the sudden pleasure, at least until her fangs scraped against the head.

"Gah! Watch the teeth! The teeth!" Shit, that hurt.

She pulled off, still connected to me by thick strands of saliva due to her rapid removal. "Sorry!"

Pressinh her face to my inner thigh, she sniffled and blew a cool gust of air, pouting. I didn't ask her to stop, her teeth were just a little painful. So I spoke up.

"Um... Could you, uh, use your tongue a little more? I really like the way it feels..."

She brightened, giggling. "Okay then, perv. More tongue coming up"

"Hey! I'm not a-" My gasp cut off the words as she resumed her work, tracing her tongue along the base before slowly dragging it back to the tip, adding a few kisses along the way.

It felt like seconds, but had been at least a minute or two before she popped back off, with one last, drawn out lick, the friction from her rough tongue dripping off the skin, mingling with the quickly cooling saliva that now coated me.

"My face is getting tired, but that's not why I stopped. I have something... fun in mind that I want to try."

"Uh oh."

Crawling up my chest to reach my lips, she wrapped her arms around my neck and forced a greedy tongue to my own. I pushed the thought of what was just in her mouth out of my mind, and instead focused on her display of enthusiasm.

Further up my body she went, still engaged in our locked lips, until she straddled my torso and I had to tilt my head back to hold the kiss. She whipped her hips forward and back as she soaked my shirt, not quite dry humping as she whined. Not loud, just a cute little hum that resonated through the two of us.

"Mmm... glad you like using tongue," she said, "'cause i want a whole lot more of it." She lifted off, moving her dripping sex inches from my face. "Is this... okay with you?"

"Y-yeah."

"I'm not gonna slow down unless you really want me too. 'kay?"

"Oh. Alr-" I didn't finish, because she ground herself down. Beneath the sweat and musk and... Wait. Is that poison? A tang filled my mouth, not horrible, but not exactly appealing, either. Tart. Salty. Buttery?

Whatever the fuck it was, the taste quickly dissipated, turning instead to a sickly sweet, candy-like flavor, sugar and caramel and cinnamon and oh fuck there just wasn't enough of it. Starting with her outer lips, licking them clean of precious honey drops, savoring each stroke of my tongue. And then a little deeper, taking one long lick from the base, up to the inner top of her vulva, and tracing light circles around the clit resting beneath the folds.

Muffled by the fur in my face and ears as her thighs wrapped around my head, her voice barely reached me. She placed a firm paw atop my head and ground her hips back and forth, grinding with increased fervor and fucking my face with all the strength she could spare.

"Not..." She panted between breaths. "struggling... enough! Fight me... huff... you pussy."

Well, if that's what she wants. Starting off slow, just gripping her legs and pushing back ever so slightly, I wiggled beneath her.

She sighed, gripping my hair with her paw and holding me down as she yanked herself away from my mouth, still coated in a thick mixture of saliva and her own natural lubricants. No, no. I need more. Please.

"Want another taste?"

"Um... yes."

"That's no way to beg!" She snapped, her tone shifting from chastising to taunting as a wicked smile stretched across her muzzle. "Are you sure you don't want more?"

Shame and self-respect took a backseat to the overpowering desire hazing my thoughts. "No, no. Please! I'll do anything... just please let me-"

"Then struggle. Like your life depends on it. Actually try to get away, you got that?"

"Of course, I'll-"

"That's not a 'Yes, madam.'"

"Yes, madam..."

She lowered back down. "Good boy." So I scrambled beneath her, pushing back with quite a bit of force as she rubbed back and forth, but to my surprise she stayed on. Just how fucking strong was she?

I tried again, harder this time, and found no success. No matter how badly I shoved and twisted and flailed beneath her, she stayed almost still as a statue atop me.

"Ooooh, that's perfect." She squealed, gripping the sheets beside my head with her claws before pulling off once again.

"Wait, but I-"

She shushed me with a paw, sitting back on my stomach while sliding a toe between my lips, against my tongue. Her other paw cupped my cheek, slow downward strokes as though she were petting a dainty flower. Cyan orbs glowed with pure emotion, shiny with... tears?

Is she crying?

"Shaun..." She blinked her tears away. "I'm not sad. I'm... I'm happier than you could ever imagine. I mean, it's like I... I've wanted this for so long. And now we're here, and this is... I'm just so glad, okay?"

"Mm."

"I'm so emotional..." She laughed. "Just a big ol' softie. But I just need you to know how I feel, okay?" She retreated to a laying position, the velvety soft fur of her muzzle pressing against my cheek as she wrapped her paws around me.

The many perked nipples hidden beneath her fur pressed against my upper body, and the most romantic idea popped into my head. Reaching around to grip her hindquarters, I rolled her to the right side so that she straddled my arm. She gasped as I played with her outer folds, and licked my left thumb, index, and middle fingers as I toyed with the closest nipple in reach. Claws dug into my shoulder as she kneaded, sandpaper tongue licking bare skin, occasionally sinking teeth deep enough to draw blood, a heavy purr reverberating through my arm.

"Damn, Brie. You're so fucking cute."

She tried to respond, but her voice melted into a whimper, somewhere between a meow and a growl. Holy fuck she's so fucking cute.

"Aww. Brie, did you just mewl at me?"

"Mmm. Can't help it..."

The minutes passed as we cuddled in each others arms, teasing and kissing and enjoying the moment.

"Hey..." she said, "I love your eyes."

"Hm?"

"They're so blue... it's like looking into the ocean."

"Thanks, Brie." I took to stroking her fur as we laid.

"Did I ever tell you how handsome you are?"

"You never needed to, it was pretty obvious."

"You're such a liar. How come I've never picked that up before, even when we were synced?"

"I meant that it's obvious now. I always thought you were just teasing me before..."

"Really? Teasing? I thought I was being pretty clear to you."

In retrospect, it had seemed stupidly obvious. "I just thought that... uh... you were joking around. Because of the... because of how forward you were."

She giggled, a sultry look on her eyes. "I'm pretty forward about things, Shaun. You should know that by now. Speaking of which... can we...?"

"Can we what?"

Annoyance crossed her face. "Oh don't make me say it." She shifted closer. "I want to make you mine."

Nervous would be an understatement. My thundering heart, paling face, and long pause gave away my feelings. "O-okay."

"Don't sound so scared. I'll be gentle~" her warm cheek pressed against mine. Soft, familiar, calming. "Promise." She winked.

Wellp, guess I'm back to bottom again.

"If you really want to be on top, we can take turns."

Wait a minute...

"We're really gonna have this talk again? You didn't forget again, did you?"

"Uh-"

"Don't answer, that was rhetorical." She laughed. "How did I even fall for you?"

"My natural charm. Duh."

She climbed on top. "Oh yeah, definitely. You're so smooth you make glass look rough. So... are we doing this?"

For some reason, the dumbest song popped into my head, and I reflexively belted out the lyrics. "My mind's telling me noooo! But my body..." Brie was glaring again. "my... body?" I was pierced by a scowl sharp enough to cut diamond. A scowl that very quickly turned to a mischievous...

Uh oh.

I didn't have time to react, and even if I did her murderous intent (not to mention her absurd strength) had me frozen in place. She positioned herself above me, lowering herself down and missing as I slipped right past her.

"Damnit, why's it so slippery..."

"That's real romantic, Brie."

"Oh hush. Let me just..." Using her front paw to hold me still beneath her, she slowly sat down with a sharp inhale. "Okay, wow. This is..." She failed to find the right word. "This feels like... it's way better than I thought it'd be."

My mind's telling me... Fucking shit now it's stuck in my head. I tried to focus on our heaving breaths, the hitching cries, hell, even the ungodly squelches our intimate experience entailed, but it just played out over and over, I couldn't stop thinking it.

"Stop... huff... singing that... stupid song."

"I can't..."

"Here, focus on me."

And so I did. The soft fur of her paws, the sharp sting of her claws as she dug into my chest. Her voice a soft yelp, a low growl, a deep purr, loud, consistent.

"Shaun..."

I don't know how long we had been at it. With every bounce, she trembled in my arms. With every kiss, with every touch, with every brush, we connected in the deepest possible way. I lost myself to her, she lost herself to me. I was hers and she was mine.

"Oh fuck, Shaun..." She collapsed, quivering and convulsing as she tightened around me. "Fuuuuuuuck~"

I continued to thrust for her. By that point, she'd given up control, her eyes squeezed shut and her tongue lolling out her mouth as she sunk her claws into soft flesh. She looked so fucking cute.

"Mmm." She purred. I slowed my movements.

"Uh... you okay there Brie?"

"Don't ruin the moment Shaun." She snuck a kiss. "I love you."

"Love you too."

So I held her to my stomach as she continued to work my chest with her claws. It wasn't until about ten minutes later that she shot upright in my arms.

"Wait, you didn't-"

"I'm tired, sweaty, sticky, and gross. I kind of want to just call it a night. Um... if you're alright with that-"

"Okay..." Her ears fell back.

"Oh, no. No, Brie, I didn't mean it like that-"

"It's okay. I know..."

I took her hands, massaging them in my own. "Brie, I had fun tonight, I really did. It's just been a long day, and I'm... Brie? Are you laughing?"

"Pfft. It's just so funny! You get all sorry and flustered when you think you hurt me-"

"Fuck, Brie! I thought you were really upset-"

"About what? You took my confession, along with a few other things..." She winked. "This is like a dream come true, I'd be a sucker to be sad now."

Ugh. I can't read your mind...

"Actually, you kind of can."

I sighed. Not what I meant, Brie.

– – –

It was black. Pitch black. Not the kind I can see in, either. I was... in a void? All around was just nothing.

"Shaun?" I called. My voice didn't reach my own ears. Thinking about it, no sounds did. A jarring lack of sensation: no sights, no sounds, no scents, no feeling... even the taste of my own mouth was gone.

Am I... am I dead?

Panic buried itself deep in my head, sanity slowly slipping as I hung in limbo and the void just continued to mock and jeer with its persistent silence. No, get ahold of yourself. Okay... okay. Let's think this through. I'm not dead. I can't be, just a few minutes ago I was...

What was I doing before I got here? My memory failed me.

Okay. So I'm breathing, I know I am. I just can't feel it right now. Is this-

I stood on the sidewalk, blinking. The street was empty, save for Shaun. It was quiet, a chilling scene devoid of life. No birds and no breeze and the trees just stood there watching everything. Even the grass looked fake, like spiky pieces of plastic stuck into the ground.

"Brie." Shaun's voice. "Brie?" He walked to me, fear and surprise on his face. "Why...? You... you killed them! Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck, you fucking killed them, Brie!"

"I-I don't know what-"

"Are you... are you going to kill me too, Brie?"

No. No. Never. I would never hurt anyone it must be a mistake

"Brie?"

Never.

"Brie... Brie? Wake up."

And suddenly everything was dark again: blurry, foggy, groggy. But... warm and cozy, too. "Wuh?"

"It's just a dream, I'm here. Alright? I'm right here."

Nestling closer, I whispered my three favorite words. "I love you."

"I love you too."

I don't know what happened next, I think I fell back asleep. All I do know is there weren't anymore nightmares that night.

Chapter Text

The shuffle of quick stride over dirt path was barely audible as two battlers launched attack after attack amidst the broken trees, scattered earth, and scorched stone. Sweat and dirt caked my vision as I sprinted to the fallen log in front of us, preparing to vault. The warmth of a burning fire tugged at my backside, the rush of air signaling an approaching Flame Charge.

Holy shit, how the fuck did they learn this already!

"Brie!"

"On it!"

She leapt over the log at the same time I did, dropping a Protect behind us. Clear, disruptive energy formed a shield against the blood red heat that set the air ablaze. The flaming bird glanced off of the slanted shield, wind whipping as it sped by us. We held onto a few seconds of rest as the Fletchinder circled out of sight to relocate its targets. For once, the only strategy we'd ever needed failed to net us a free win.

Wellp, time to make a new one.

"So now we make a new plan, only after we really fucking need it?"

"Okay, yeah I'm an idiot, but now we know to-"

"We're wasting time. If we can throw something together we can figure out how to take him down." She whirled around, but seeing no sign of our enemy, ducked into the less damaged part of the woods, trotting at a moderate pace. Weak legs and shaky balance forced me to stumble as I lurched from tree to tree, leaning against them for support. By the time I regained my footing, I'd been dragging Brie down for nearly thirty seconds; Beyond a lifetime when you assume each coming second heralds your impending death.

"Right, let's see. He's drawn out Rocco already, so we know how this is likely to play out." My plan began to form. "Unless he wants to sack his pokéball to get a quicker counter attack in, then he's only got one pokémon out right now..."

Brie thought on that. "So what should we do?"

- - -

A web of near invisible string lined the trees in a large circle around us. Buggsy, now wrapped in a white cocoon since his evolution, continued to spin his web, the threads getting thicker and more opaque closer to the center of our makeshift fort. A series of string free tunnels broke through the silky white of the coated trees and webbing woven from string to branch to ground, offering an escape route in the case that shit happened to go straight downhill.

"And this is supposed to work... how?"

What else to do but sigh at her. "Homefield advantage, Brie. Here's the thing, we won't win in a one on one. So-"

"So we're gonna hide out in the bushes until he hits our obvious hideaway trap?"

"It's not obvious, Brie! It's brilliant!"

The lack of faith in her face matched my usual level of self-confidence. "Uh... huh."

Wow, that's a lot of trust you're giving me.

"Do I have to remind you of last time?"

"Oh buzz off-"

She giggled at my word choice.

"... Right. So, as I was saying before our conversation derailed-"

"No, no. It didn't derail, we were talking about stupid plans the whole time-

"Well, at least let me go through-"

A quick squeak broke the conversation as Buggsy reported his findings. To Brie's dismay, she held the burden of sharing the bad news.

"He's broken one of the outer strings already."

Shit. "Right. Buggsy, keep us updated. If you feel him break any others, let us know. Brie, get ready."

"If this doesn't work, I'm you're mine tonight. "

Tonight!? But just this morning-

"Hey! You chose this life, now you're stuck with it."

- - -

As Rocco and Ben wandered through the maze web we built in our haste, Brie and I watched from the treetops. Broken branches stuck to the tree through the strength of Buggsy's sticky string, acting as makeshift handholds. If we really needed to ditch our lookout spot, we could at least climb down with relative ease. Well, I could. Brie would need to be carried, that's how we got her up there in the first place. With both the height advantage and the element of surprise, the battle was sure to be a cake walk.

Ready a Shadow Ball.

"Not Psychic?"

They're too close together. You might hit Ben.

"Fiiiiiine."

Ben and Rocco continued wandering along the path, passing by number of thick webs that blocked off the path. Seemingly erratically placed, the roadblocks served their purpose of directing Ben to the only actual path, and into thin pieces of String Shot to slow them down. It didn't look like much, but the amount grew over time. By that point, Rocco struggled to fly due to the buildup. Ben, noticing his companion's difficulty, sat down next to him and said a few words, muffled by both the distance and the direction Ben faced.

Glancing around for any sign of life, Ben appeared satisfied and removed one of the pokéballs clipped to his bag.

He's not really giving up his main fighter, is he?

Ben withdrew Rocco. After a few seconds Rocco re-emerged from the ball, stretching his wing with none of its prior restriction.

You fucking cheater... Change of plans, Brie. Use Psychic.

"But you said-"

I know what I said. We're not trying to hurt him bad, but he's earned this. Form it into a bunch of pellets, fire them in short bursts, got it?

"Why not all at the same time?"

Once the first attack hits, Rocco will protect Ben. You can hit them easier that way. If you shoot them all at once, you only get one shot. We already went over this.

"I got bored, so I stopped listening."

This is important stuff, Brie. We'll review energy consumption later, just focus on the battle right now.

As we talked, Ben and Rocco continued walking their predetermined path, stepping right through a choke point maybe ten yards ahead and below us. Nodding to Brie, I counted down by finger.

Three.

Two.

One.

She released a volley of shots at the two of them. A short burst, like a blast of buckshot, whipped through the air. Ben cried out in pain, knocked off his feet. His crossed arms formed a sort of shield against the sudden sneak attack.

Rocco dove to him instantly, blocking as many hits as his surprisingly large, large for a Fletchinder at least, body could cover. A stinging whizz cut through their yells as another wave of psychic bullets shot towards Rocco.

"You fucking assholes!" Ben flicked a pokéball overhead, shouting a quick "Protect!" as an Abra dropped down onto the battlefield. A wide, clear shield materialized in front of them. The Protect sparked and crackled as it ate most of Brie's bullets, forcing strain on the Abra's quickly waning strength.

Rearing back, the cold steel of the pokéball nipped my fingers as I chucked it over the shield and into the bushes behind them. "Slate, Metal Claw!"

Slate leapt forth at Rocco and Ben, a sharp swing as his reinforced steel claws cut into Rocco. "Fuck! Rocco, Flame Charge!"

The cracks notched into the protect widened, creating a beautiful spiderweb pattern before the Protect shattered to pieces, Ben's Abra blinking out of the fray with a quick Teleport. With no shield to protect them, Rocco moved back to block Ben from as many Psychic hits as he could.

It's over.

Ben drew one more pokémon from his belt, nestling it in his hand. "Take this you fucks!" he roared. He chucked it, releasing a little too early as the pokéball tumbled backwards out of his hand. From the pokéball burst a fuzzy bipedal. Orange and cream fur bristled as the Buizel dove out of the line of fire, charging straight for the treeline on all fours. It rocketed forward through a combination of incredible speed and a heavy jet of water blasting from its paws as it leapt, going airborne for seconds at a time.

"Brie, the Buizel!"

"Trying! Plan!?"

Brie's target quickly changed as she focused all her energy into shooting down the rapidly approaching threat. Ben's Buizel evaded most of Brie's shots with absurd reaction time. Grabbing the trees handholds, I clambered down as fast as possible, opting to jump off the tree when the height wasn't quite so daring. A shock jolted up to my waist as the impact threw off my balance.

"Direct Psychic!"

No need to explain, since our mental connection instantly clarified my meaning. Instead of forming it into bullets, Brie focused her psychic energy on the Buizel, or at least where she expected it to be when she finished channeling her attack. The Orange lutrine continued to weave in and out of the trees, stalling its momentum momentarily.

That's it. Cut him off!

She redirected the Psychic in front of it, forcing the Buizel to halt or sidestep as each attack came closer and closer to hitting the Otter pokémon.

But the gap between us was near nonexistent. "Brie, get down here!"

"On my way!"

As the Buizel continued running, diving between two close trees, Brie forced a Protect directly in front of it. Too quick and too close to stop, it ran face first into the shield.

"Catch me!"

Oh don't you fucking dare...

"Too late!"

Brie pounced off the tree, a sleek black missile shooting straight towards me.

"Dammit Brie!"

My open arms were anything but ready for impact. The hefty force stripped the breath from my lungs, knocking us both to the ground in a tangle of hands and paws as we struggled to our feet.

"Can't you fly using Psychic!?"

"It doesn't work like that."

Well that's something for another day then.

"It won't work, Shaun."

"Flame Charge!"

Oh fucking hell. Somehow we had managed to forget the more pressing issue.

"Brie, Protect!"

"Trying!"

Without a barrage of Psychic to pin down Rocco, he made short work of Slate, leaving behind just Buggsy, Brie, and I. And with Rocco free to manouvre, We found ourselves dealing with, or rather fleeing from, two rushdown style pokémon. A weak Protect formed around us, nowhere near enough to tank a full hit. Using it in short succession weakened it by way too much, one of the biggest downsides to our quickest defensive option.

"Run!" I screamed. Brie didn't need to hear it twice, we were off like a shot, though nowhere near as fast as one, and with much less purpose. Ben's Buizel circled around, herding us away from the silk stronghold Buggsy had built for us. Each step was a haphazard dance to delay the inevitable. Weaving between trees, fallen logs and uneven earth. A stitch in my side slowed my pace, we'd been running too much.

"Flow, use Swift!" From behind, the Buizel shot a flurry of stars.

Guess we're done. "Think you can take out some of those stars, Brie?"

"Maybe. At least it's better than just running."

Over her shoulder she threw Psychic energy, aiming at the oncoming Swift attack. In a burst of light a few stars shattered, but nowhere near enough of them. We braced ourselves.

Each star beat down with the force of a speeding football, enough to hurt and knock us off balance. I tumbled to the floor, a mess of dirt and grass and failure. Fuck. We really lost...

"Come on, Shaun! Since when'd you start giving up? We got this!"

Her determination fell on deaf ears. "It's over..."

Ben meandered into view, arms thrown out in comedic triumph. "Ooohohoho. You thought ya got me with that little cheese you pulled, didn'tcha! Well you'll need more than that to defeat the legend himself! Ladies and gentlemen, take a seat, the grand final's about to start!"

What the fuck was he getting at? "I think you mean 'grand finale'."

"Ooooh, running his mouth before the last battle. Gonna need more than that to get to me!" He stepped out towards us, a dopey grin slapped onto his big ugly face. "Say... why don't we settle this trainer to trainer. I dunno about you, but I reaaally wanna get some payback for that little sneak attack you pulled earlier."

"Ben, you cheated first."

"So? Out here anything goes, I know that. I'm just annoyed by how well it worked."

Brie's muzzle twitched. "You just suddenly learn grammar or something? I thought you'd butcher like three more sentences before you'd shut up."

Ben's lips curled, just a bit, as his face took on a foreboding snarl. "Oh you cold bitch." He stepped closer. "Just how confident are you? You really think you can win against us?" He lifted his hands, palms outward as he gestured to the pokémon standing beside him. "You think we've just been fucking around this whole month? Oh wait, you actually bmight. Cause that's all you've done!" He snapped his fingers, forming a finger gun before firing it in our direction to drive home his jeers. "Fuuuucking got 'em!"

Even without being synchronized I'd still have known: Brie's temper was boiling, her jaw clenched as she chewed at her lower lip. A small patch of soil overturned beneath her as she clawed at the dirt.

Brie, stop. Don't do anything dumb, it's what he-

"Yeah, yeah, we get it! Now you gonna finish or can we leave?"

"You always such..." Ben droned on in the background as I fought for Brie's attention.

Brie! We could've just walked away, stop playing it his way.

"Running away, Shaun? Were you just gonna let him walk all over you next time, too?"

I... He wasn't even-

"Yeah, that's what I thought.

"-dish it if you can't take it, sweetie." Brie growled at his words, but Ben appeared undeterred. "So yeah, there's no fucking way you'd beat us."

"Oh, we'd destroy you, kid. You really wanna go?"

"Pfft. You brag like you'd even have a shot at winning. We'd just be wasting time." He patted his Buizel on the head. "She'd fuck you over in no time at all." He jammed his thumb in Rocco's direction, "And he'd do another number on ya right after."

"So then prove those tough words of yours!"

Brie!

Ben yawned, scratching the back of his neck. "Nah, I'm good. Kinda wanna take a nap to be honest..." For whatever reason, Ben's face held no hatred, surprisingly calm. His mood swings made no sense.

"You think I'm just gonna let you walk away like that? We're fighting, right here, right now!" Brie shook off dirt and sticky seeds as she planted her paws in an offensive stance.

"Eh. Not worth it. Although... maybe if we made it more interesting..." He mumbled to himself for a moment. "Hey, you wanna bet?"

Brie, don't-

"Bet?" She asked.

"Yeah, bet." He smirked, stretching his arms at the same time. "If we win, you owe us a favor. One that I get to think on and choose after the match." He jammed a hand into his pocket, idly glancing around to make sure we held no more surprises.

"And what if we win?" Brie looked skeptical.

"You get the same thing. One favor. We're not gonna go super hard, like telling you to hurt anyone, or do something waaay against the law. Tell me to shut up for a week? You got it. Wanna be tucked in with a bedtime story every night? Just say the word. Sound fun?"

Brie, don't. We're cornered in an unfair fight, just walk away. If we don't play his games we don't have nothing to lose.

"But maybe I like this game." "Okay then. But if it's like almost impossible or really bad, I can choose to refuse it."

"I know already, you have the right to reserve your requests-"

I butted in. "You meant to say 'reserve the right', right?"

He readjusted his beanie in frustration. "Yeah, yeah, doesn't matter. Look, do you guys really wanna lose or not?"

The words struck a sour spot in Brie; she bristled. "One on one?"

"Meh, we rarely do doubles. I wanna practice that instead."

"Fine, but you can only use two pokémon, we're not playing a three on two."

"Deal."

Once again, I got caught up in a situation I had little control over. Brie would fight whether she had teammates or not, no way I'd just leave her all alone. A heavy sigh escaped my lips as I struggled to my feet, fighting the fatigue in my body and the temptation to give in. Brie dashed over, gently offering her back for balance as I shifted my legs beneath me. "Damn, Brie! You make me feel like an old man. But... Yeah. I appreciate it. ."

"You looked like you needed it."

Once on my feet, movement became easier. Guess I forgot how hard getting up would be when exhaustion weighs you down. As I tested my mobility, buggsy dropped down from the treeline, inching to the floor as he dangled from a thin line of shimmering thread. "Where's Slate?"

A rustle from behind Ben, Slate stepping out moments later. He trotted to us at a slow pace. "Oh yeah, he's pretty much down for the count, once he realized he was done for he gave up. Not much reason to fight after that." He plucked a pokéball from his belt, tossing it in my directing. "Your pokéball, my dude."

That was... Unexpected. I thought Ben was an irredeemable asshole, but I wasn't so sure anymore. He must've seen the confusion in my face, because he cleared his throat before continuing. "Listen, man. I'm sorry if I go overboard or say some shit that hits too hard. I'm not like trying to be a piece of shit, I'm just trying to horse around, ya know, to have a little fun. I'm too competitive, I know. Don't take it personally."

Brie appeared unconvinced. "You mean that was all like a big joke?"

"Kinda? It's the final battle, dude. I was just rolling with it to make it more dramatic. You did say some shit though, damn if I wasn't salty. Most of the shit I say, it's like half and half, but... yeah."

She muttered a few words. "Fine, we getting this over with?"

"So pushy, guess that's why you two get along so well."

Brie tested her claws on the grass beneath her paws. "What's that supposed to mean!?"

"Nothing."

"Don't 'nothing' me, you're going down in three."

Two.

One.

Ben threw a finger out. "Go!"

Rocco and the Buizel charged forward, too fast!

"Buggsy, String Shot! Brie, cover!" At my command, Buggsy leapt onto Brie, held on by a thread of string to stick them together. Brie leapt backwards as Buggsy let loose a spray of web, filling the air with slow falling string. Rocco plowed straight through, garnering the brunt of the slows. Buizel ducked beneath Rocco's left wing, flitting through nearly all of the hazards with unmatched grace. A few stands clung to her bright fur, enough to barely slow her momentum.

"Flame Charge! Aqua Jet!"

Fuck.

Brie, Toxic 10!

"On it!" She dove forwards and to the left, trying to plant the fire bird between her and the Buizel. As expected the Buizel looped around Rocco's front side to try for Brie, but the water fueled forward momentum was too much, sending her crashing into a few side bushes instead. She'd be back up in a second, but we'd bought a few precious moments of freedom.

Ben flinched at Flow's misfire. "Oof, that's gonna piss her off."

Rocco's heat seared the sticky threads, boiling the sap clinging to each thread, but unable to burn them off. Failing to remove his binds, he continued his Flame Charge forward, overshooting Brie due to immobility and misreading. Brie scattered a spray of toxin from beneath her fur, enveloping Rocco. He twisted around in confusion. Buggsy remained unaffected, maybe due to an affinity to poison?

"Buggsy, tether! Brie!"

"Going!"

Buggsy shot a series of thick string, pulling them taught into a tight cord as it stuck onto Rocco. Brie crouched down, channeling mischievous dark energy as she leapt to Rocco. The combination of her hefty jump and Buggsy's tether launched them into the fleeing bird.

Out of sight, a faint rushing sound quickly grew louder. The Buizel!

Brie failed to respond, twisting her head just in time to see a flying Buizel slam directly into her side at a frightening speed. She let loose an audible grunt as the three pokémon tumbled to the ground, Rocco getting pulled down with them right after.

"Toxic!"

From the pile of paws and wings and sticky string burst a puff of toxins, soaking the four combatants. Through the mist limbs, talons, barbs, and trails swung as the struggle continued.

"Flow, ready Whirlpool!"

This fucking idiot, Rocco's still in there! I didn't expect it, but the ensuing chaos did more than confuse me. The fuck was he doing?

"Buggsy, retu-"

"Rocco, come back!"

At the same time, we drew our pokéballs. Huh, that was his plan. If it wasn't so telegraphed, it would have worked. Guess the end result was the same, though. As the withdrawal process began, we made our next moves.

Moonlight, then Psychic!

"On it."

Just needed to tank out the Whirlpool, then force down that slippery fuck. Thankfully, Psychic's versatility proved remarkable, and Brie locked herself in a small bubble as she regained her vitality. Unfortunately still locked in the water attack, all of her energy stayed on her combination of Moonlight and Psychic, leaving no chance for her to counterattack.

"Flow, Quick Attack!"

Focus on the points where the attacks will land. Stall out the Toxic, Brie!

"Trying!" The words were as clear as my own. Good.

Five. Twelve. Three. Unfortunately, through our primitive commands, we lacked a method to judge height, forcing Brie to expend considerable energy to reinforce each general location as the attacks hit one after another. Sparks burst into dying embers, snuffed out on the cold wet earth below. The battle carried an odd beaty of blue and white and tints of purple as the fight raged on.

"Flow, switch it up!"

The orange and cream blur changed direction every few attacks, making prediction considerably more difficult. A few steps clockwise, three leaps back, another step forward. And then...

Foul Play, Four! If this worked, it'd be over.

Brie dropped her shield and jumped for the Buizel, just barely out of reach as the quick water pokémon dipped back into the fading Whirlpool.

Holy shit, my gambit failed.

"Brie!"

We were fucked.

"We got 'em, Flow! Aqua Jet!"

My inner voice nearly drowned out the my next words. A crescendo of failure and self-loathing destroyed any of my remaining self worth as Brie realized the positioning I left her in. "Psychic!"

The wet thump of damp fur slamming against thick hide hurt, both to see and to almost feel through our connection. Brie's grotesque expression surfaced another wave of guilt, but even through it she grit her teeth, channeling her Psychic attack. But for some reason...

Release it!

I can't! I'm... I'm trying! But I...

Flow slammed her to the ground, jumping back as though to dive in with another Aqua Jet. Instead she stopped, a quizzical frown pulled taught across her face. The still air looked oddly bright around them. The Whirlpool was gone, but even so the damp grass lifted almost straight up, dirt and plants and moss and web and bark hovered inches off the ground, flowing towards the center of the two pokémon.

"Brie, get back!" I lifted the pokéball, its beam of light trailing towards Brie before tapering off into nothing. No fucking way, she was easily within its range...

Ben stamped his foot. "Flow, end it!"

"Ben!" I screamed, "Something's wrong!"

"Oh stop whining, I get it, you don't want your girl getting hurt. If you-"

"This isn't a fucking game, Ben!" A hefty pain flared in my throat as I yelled. Brie's Psychic continued to grow, condensing into a bright, glowing ball around the two of them. It looked about ready to explode. Ben's demeanor changed as my bitter fear brought him back to reality.

"Okay, okay! Flow, come on back." He lifted her pokéball, as though it'd magically work for him.

"Fuck!" I jumped to them, stepping towards the glowing ball of Psychic energy. "Flow, get over here! Brie, hold it! "

"I'm trying!"

Yeah, I was worried about her, but no way in hell could a Psychic attack hurt her. That left one possible casualty, and seeing how easily Brie disposed of the fully evolved pokémon in the Team Rocket hideout...

"Yip!" Flow followed my command with no hesitation, reaching for my outstretched hand. Except she found herself pulled closer to the center of the impending Psychic. Fuck, she must've gotten too close.

"Yip!" She cried again, fighting against the current with an Aqua Jet. The sphere condensed around her. We had mere seconds, none of which to spare. The glow burned brighter than ever, near impossible to look at. I ran to the border of the attack, now sitting at a small sphere maybe five feet in diameter. I reached my hand in, gripping Flow's forepaw as I fought the intense suction threatening to pull me in with her.

"Shaun, I can't hold it much longer! Get the fuck..." She huffed, "Get away!"

Managing as much leverage as possible, I leaned back with all my weight, shifting us maybe one inch at first, then a couple more, before we both fell backwards as the Psychic grip lost its hold on Flow. She wrapped a wet arm around my waist before propelling us out of the way. Unfortunately, with my back facing the direction we flew, it became less like flying and more like me somersaulting backwards as the Buizel pulled me along.

"Abra, Protect!"

Finally, something useful. Ben's Abra formed a barrier around the incoming Psychic in an attempt to contain the blast. No telling how much damage it would do.

We fell in a pile behind one of the many trees, Flow landing atop my chest as I wheezed on impact, Ben sauntering over a second later. "Jeez, you guys look comfy. Need a room?" Flow blushed as she struggled off of me. I shot him the Bird.

"Fuck off-" A loud crack, then a sudden boom cut off all other sound, drowning out my curse, Ben's cries, Flow's embarrassed yips. I peeked around the tree to see Abra's Protect shatter and a growing explosion reach its widest point. The glow seared my vision, leaving a bright red spot across my line of sight.

"Get down!" With the deafening thunder of the Psychic, they probably didn't hear me. I grabbed Ben, forcing him down behind the tree with me. Abra and Flow followed suit, leaping into cover with us. Around us shot bits of wood and dirt, grass and bark, shattered fragments ripping holes into the surrounding trees. A stray chunk of wood broke on the ground next to us, splinters cutting into my arms as I curled up to guard myself.

The rush of air and debris died down, leaving an uncanny silence in its wake. We all just... sat. Not knowing whether it was over for good. I mean, it sure seemed that way. Sticking my hand out from behind the tree yielded nothing, so I snuck a peek.

The center of the field was decimated, nothing but a huge empty circle surrounding an unmoving black lump. Grass, rocks, even the fucking trees were just...

Gone.

"Brie?" No response. "Brie!?" Stumbling to Brie in a blind and exhausted haze, each step felt like an eternity. She stayed unmoving. Arceus please, let her be okay.

I stopped, kneeling beside her. A tentative hand on her chest, she was still beating a steady rhythm. Her side rose and fell with each deep breath. Thank fuck. I pulled out the pokéball and recalled her, successfully this time.

"Hey, Shaun." Ben stepped up beside me.

"What."

"She okay?"

"Yeah, she seems alright. Just... passed out I guess."

"Oh..." He shifted from foot to foot in an awkward dance. "So... does this mean we won?"

"You know what? Fuck it. You win. I don't care. Let's just go home, right? We're not that far from Cerulean."

"Whatever you say, Boss."

- - -

The interior light of the Pokémon Center was surprisingly calming. The homely feel of the leather booths mimicked that of a plush couch. The soothing guitar of the Pokémon Center theme playing overhead coupled with the soft booth cushion melted away any remaining stress as sleep finally clawed its way to the surface. In my lap rested a Buizel, her paw holding my hand in a loose grip, her slow breaths and the brush of her fur adding onto the many things lulling me to sleep. Each blink became heavier, longer, sounds fading from my mind as I drifted in and out of sleep. I drifted between sleep and the waking world, teetering on the verge before that falling feeling snapped me back awake. Arceus, I just want a nap.

"Sir? Sir?" A voice, feminine. So close yet so far. A dream? A light shake roused me from my sleepy stupor.

"Wuh...?"

"Sir, your pokémon is fully recovered. Would you like to see her?"

"Right, sorry. Just a little tired." My mouth curved into a friendly smile, but the soreness in my body turned it to a grimace instead.

In front of me stood a rather old woman. Wrinkles lined her mouth and eyes, a stark contrast to the vitality in her posture. "I would imagine so." She glanced down at the stretching Buizel. "I've been meaning to ask, have you three recently come from a battle?"

"Hm? Oh, right. Yeah, we did. How come?"

"Because, one, you're tired out of your mind, and two, your Umbreon had used up all of her Power Points by the time she had arrived here."

"Oh. Yeah, guess that'd make sense..." My mind struggled to piece together her words. "So I can go see her now?"

She held out a hand, helping me to my feet.

"Absolutely, I'm sure she's waiting for you by-"

"Wait, wait, wait! What'd you say?" She stopped, taken aback by my confusion.

"You're pokémon has been healed, and is currently waiting-"

"No, before that. Something about Power Points?"

"Oh, that. Power Points are an attempt to measure a pokémon's remaining energy, outside of their Health Points. It's a makeshift guage, and not very accurate, but it works. Her power points were depleted."

"Completely?"

"Yes, not a single bit remained." We walked in silence as I mulled over her words, Flow holding my hand the whole way.

- - -

Upon releasing Brie back in our room, she glanced around. "Uh... Shaun. What's she doing here?" She nodded towards Flow.

"Oh. Uh... she didn't want to leave my side, so Ben just said to bring her back when we're all set."

"Oh."

I ignored them both, opting to shower while they sorted it out among themselves. "Don't fight while I'm gone, I'm not paying for the damages. If I come back to find the room ruined..." That'd have been near impossible, of course. It's a fucking Pokémon Center, pretty much everything was pokémon proof. Still, the day had been rough enough, and petty squabbling wasn't on my to do list.

"We're not barbarians, Shaun." Flow giggled at Brie's reply. "We'll see you when you're done, 'kay?"

Rolling my eyes, I left the main room. A quick shower, shaving off the couple week stubble, and a mouthful of toothpaste later, I wandered back into the bedroom wearing nothing more than a pair of sweatpants. Brie sat on the bed, her voice dying off as both her and Flow's heads turned in my direction.

Flow blushed at the sight, turning away from my bare abdomen. It wasn't really embarrassing, but her timid nature kicked into third gear at my exposed chest. Maybe it was the lack of fur that bugged her? Weird, but whatever. I climbed into bed, Brie cuddling up by me moments later.

"Alright, I really need to sleep. Flow, will you be good getting back to Ben's room?"

Flow yipped a few times as she hopped onto the bed.

... "Brie? Translation?"

"She doesn't wanna go back in her pokéball, and wants to know if she can stay here for the night."

"Right. Look, we'll talk to Ben about it, alright? But I really need you to go back to your room."

Brie's ears perked, her tail flicking in anticipation. "Does that mean-"

"No." Her face fell. Way too cute, but I held my resolve. "I'm really tired, Brie. I just want to sleep. Some other time, okay?"

"Okay..."

"I'll make it up to you, promise. For now, let's go see Ben."

The comfort of the bed made it difficult to get up, but we did anyways. Flow, with heavy step and drooping shoulders, followed after us. Arceus, I've disappointed two girls in the same minute. Am I really that pathetic?

The thought drifted to the back of my mind as we reached Ben's door. The wood thumped under my knuckles as I knocked on the door.

Well, here's hoping for a better tomorrow.

Chapter Text

A knock on the door broke us from sleep. A few light taps echoed in the dead of night, followed by a quiet silence. After a few seconds, it began again.

"Ugh..."

The room was near black, illuminated only by the blinking blue light of the PC in standby mode. In the secluded darkness hollow raps on wood gently lulled Brie back to sleep beside me. The curtained window offered no light.

What time was it?

The knocking brought my attention back to the door.

"Coming..." Swinging my legs out from underneath the covers, I shifted out of Brie's grasp despite her sleepy complaints, grabbing a shirt as I went.

After a brief struggle in the dark, I fumbled to the door with my clothes half caught overhead, throwing it open to reveal an orange and cream Buizel standing beneath the dim hallway lights. I continued to fight the shirt. "Huh?"

She averted her eyes, chittering and pointing to Ben's room. Her unintelligible words fell on deaf ears.

Tugging the faded logo tee into place, I opened the door wider. "Uh... come inside for a minute."

She crept into the room with a grateful sigh, hopping up into the bed with minimal disturbance.

Turning on the screen of the pokédex and laying it face up lit enough of the room in a white glow. The clock read one in the morning.

"Hey Brie, wake up."

"Mmm." She curled further into the blankets. Should've known it'd take more effort than that.

"Brie."

"mwuh? I'm up, I'm up."

"Okay, you can speak now Flow."

The Buizel yipped a few times, pointing to Ben's room, then back to us with a hopeful twinkle in her big blue eyes. When she finished her speech, we both looked at Brie.

"Brie. Translation?"

"Mm. She said that... she said..."

She trailed off in thought, thinking of her next words. After a minute of silence, she snored.

"...Really?"

I shook her out of sleep.

"Brie! Wake up!"

"What! I said I'd do it... so... " She drifted off. Again.

"Yeah, but you're still asleep. I need you up."

She rubbed her eyes. "Fiiiiiiiine. Ben isn't sleeping or something and his light's keeping her up, so she wants to know if she can stay here tonight."

"Right. Thanks Brie, you're good now."

"Mm." She nestled back under the covers.

"Alright." I whispered. "Yeah, you can stay here. But we're going to bed. If you want to join us you can, there's enough room for you. You'll have to sleep on the other side, though." Brie, splayed out in her sleep, took up half the bed. To her left and right sat empty space, enough for each of us to sleep in.

Flow poked my side, face puckering into a small pout as she frowned at me.

"Okay, okay. If you need more room I can bring Brie over there with me. That whole side will be yours, that sound better?"

She shook her head, pointing at me as she wrapped her paws around my arm. Great.

"Alright, alright. I'll sleep in the center, you and Brie can both be next to me. Good?"

She nodded, cheeks puffing up into the smallest smile as her eyes squeezed shut. What a pain.

"Alright, I'll get Brie up."

- - -

Mornings suck. It's easy to see why I say that, me being the moonlight pokémon and all. It was so much more fun to stay up during the night, but sadly that didn't fit Shaun's schedule. I just had to tough it out. Being nocturnal makes the normal human sleep cycle hard to keep up with, but at least it's not impossible.

Every so often we found the time to switch it up. Shaun and I. We'd catch a nap at dawn, and a nap at dusk. Just enough sleep that we could stay up most of the day and part of the night. On those nights, when the moon looked its brightest in the sky and the stars were white drops of paint splattered across the black of night... those nights we were truly alive. And we'd sit. Sometimes talking, sometimes just being together.

I kind of miss it. Where'd those days go, honestly? It's been so long since we last did it.

I think I'll ask him to stay up tonight. For old times' sake.

- - -

A faraway voice barely reached my ears, way too sensitive for their own good. Even so, the pillow did wonders to muffle the irritating sound, offering short release from whatever vile thing threatened to ruin my morning.

"Brie, come on. You've got to get up."

"No."

The words bubbled out my throat, mumbled through sleep and the pillow clamped over my head. Through the haze my paw gripped tighter around Shaun, pulling him close. Except where Shaun's larger form usually slept struggled a much smaller, much more hairy body. By the time I'd realized Shaun was not the one squirming in my grasp, a full tuft of fur had lodged itself deep into my nostrils.

"Pft! Bleh!"

Shaun laughed at my sneezing and sniffling.

"I'd be a little more sympathetic if you weren't just trying to crush Flow in your sleep." He continued organizing containers on the desk, popping them open as the scent of cooked meat wafted through the room. "Now if you're done trying to kill her, I've got breakfast over here. You guys are hungry, right?"

Flow scowled in my direction for a few seconds with crossed arms before leaping off the bed to receive her food. "Hey, it's not my fault she was sleeping here! Besides, if you guys were up already she could've left before that happened! That's her fault, not mine. "

Shaun stirred at one of the meals, leaving it for a second as he lifted Flow up onto the chair to eat. He then sat down on the floor, peeling back the paper lid of his steaming foam cup. "First, stop deflecting blame. It makes you seem insecure. Second, she woke up after you. You crushed her awake when you didn't want to get up, so you're not getting any sympathy."

It wasn't worth disagreeing over, so the food captured my interest instead. "What is it?"

He blew into the cup as he stirred. "Steak. Rare, of course. You didn't want it seasoned, right?"

"Thanks. But... what are you eating?"

"Cup noodles."

"Why?"

Slurping from the plastic cup, he reached down and popped open the lid to my container. "They're cheap, and I like them."

A sideways glance was all I could muster. "Are you really rationing right now?"

"No, Brie. I'm trying to enjoy my food."

Ugh, why's he gotta be so difficult? "Just know that you don't have to do it all alone. We can all cut our spending with no problem."

"Right, I get it. Come on, eat."

Hoping he took my words to heart, I started on my food.

- - -

It wasn't something she should have concerned herself with. If I was content with how I'd spent my money, then there wasn't any real issue. Blowing on another fork full of noodles, I thought about the day.

One more cup for lunch. Two cups for dinner. That's easily achievable. At this rate, we'll have about three-thousand left to spend. We could save up for a TM, or nab one of the more useful held items. Maybe I could pick up one of those tray noodles, too.

My thoughts somehow had drifted back to noodles again.

Actually, maybe I'll eat two cups for lunch.

"Shaun."

And maybe another one for breakfast too.

A rough tongue dragging up the side of my neck shocked me back to Earth. "Gah!"

"I said 'What's the plan for today?' You there?"

"Oh. Right. I was thinking I'd have another cup for breakfast. Then I could just eat two for lunch and two for dinner."

She gave me a blank stare. "Uh... huh. I meant like what we were doing today, but I guess that works too."

"Wait, shit." Flow snickered in the background. "Right. So today we can probably get in a bit of warm up training before we take on Misty. I need to pick up a towel and some shampoo to bathe you with, it's been too long."

Flow barked a question.

"Yes, I'll bathe you too."

She quieted down.

"After that, we can take a break before doing some actual training. While we're at it, we can search for a new team member. Sound good?"

Brie scooched closer. "It's a date."

- - -

Green grass stretched out beneath us as we stood on the near empty hill. In the distance, a few trainers battled, a flash of fire lighting the air as a collared Arcanine chased down a circling Skarmory.

Ben and his pokémon stretched in the clearing. Magic, the Abra, hovered beside Flow and Rocco as Ben gave a rundown on their drills, bouncing in place.

"Has he slept yet?" Brie sauntered to my side, eyes glued to the young trainer.

"No idea. He doesn't seem tired, though."

Ben began with a chasing exercise, his pokémon using any moves necessary to either ensure capture as the predator, or to evade pursuit as prey.

"He's learning fast, isn't he?" She asked.

"Certainly. In no time at all he'll surpass us. Then again, we're not done growing either, are we?"

"Nope. Not even a little."

"Well then, let's get Buggsy and Slate out here. We've got a lot to prepare for."

She noticed the book in my hands. "Wait, are those strategy guides?" Her smile crumpled in disgust.

"To study during our breaks."

"Arceus, you're such a dork."

I laughed. "And you love it all the same. Now let's get moving."

So our training began. Stretching, jogging, dodging, and attacking through mock battles built up to the next part of our warm up: target practice.

"Aim for that branch this time." Over the course of half an hour we'd steadily crept to the treeline at the back of the park. The thick trunks and thin branches offered a variety of targets to practice on.

A few yards down, Brie huffed aloud. "I just can't get it! Why can't I get it?"

"Right, Buggsy. Just keep hitting those targets, focus on the center, we'll start on controlling the speed of each shot later." I turned to Brie, her head down and shoulders trembling. The short distance took a few seconds to close. She rubbed up against my leg, arching into my open hand as I massaged her back. "All right, Brie. What's wrong?"

She sniffled, sitting down. "I'm trying so hard, but I can't get it. Like it won't click. I can't hold the Psychic like before, it just... it just explodes on its own!"

I sat down too, hugging her tight. "Lie down a minute." She curled up beside me, laying her head onto my legs. "So... what did it feel like when you were maintaining that Psychic yesterday?"

"Well, at first I was just trying to hold it in until I was sure I could hit with it, then I moved it to where Flow would be when she jumped at me."

"But it didn't move. "

"I'm sure it did. I mean, it felt like it. Kind of like when I'm making it into a barrier..."

She looked off at the empty field beside us.

"Well, maybe you were moving it. Just outwards, instead of in a specific direction. If that makes sense."

She thought. "Like... how?"

"Well, when you tried using the Psychic, I noticed there were things being affected outside the sphere, getting pulled into it. Almost as though you were drawing in energy from the outside. So maybe just form the energy, but don't gather it together right away."

She hummed in thought.

"Let's try." She said.

She closed her eyes, face scrunched in concentration. A small bubble of Psychic energy formed, barely visible as it grew, before bursting.

"Damnit!"

I brushed through her fur. "Relax Brie, start off with creating it. Don't focus it anywhere yet."

"Ugh. Fine." She closed her eyes and sighed, a small ball of Psychic materializing in front of her. It frothed in the air for a few moments.

"That's it Brie, now loosen your hold on it."

After a few seconds, the Psychic expanded, crawling outwards in a slow, unsteady cloud.

"That feels weird..."

"Keep doing that, but now try condensing the loose bits after they form. Guide it, but don't force."

"Okay..."

The outer puffs of Psychic drew inwards, the energy balling up as it gathered into a current, flowing towards the center. After a second, the attack bloomed into a small shock wave, air gushing around in an explosive blast.

"You got it, Brie!"

"I did it! Arceus it's so hard to hold, though. This sucks..." She sighed.

"You've already managed to recreate the technique! All you've got to do is train the motions and you'll be able to hold it purely through muscle memory!"

"You... really think so?"

"I know so! Keep at it, you'll get it in no time." I patted her head, lifting her off my lap. "Now you keep practicing, I'm going to help Buggsy with his String Shot."

She smiled. "Thanks Pumpkin!"

"I swear, if you start calling me that..."

A pink tongue poked through her lips. "Too late! Besides, it's pretty cute."

"Yeah, but you also think rickety old buildings and pitch black alleys are cute, so-"

"Because they are!"

"My point exactly."

- - -

The scent of salt water carried through the city streets on the backs of boats (towed by trailer) , seafolk trekking through town with their fishing poles and tackle boxes, and the horde of Wingull flocking overhead. Salt filled the air, dry and humid and gross and grimy as it caked the dull buildings and the periodic street stands in a layer of crust. Cerulean carried a seasonal seaside vibe as the calm weather whispered of good fortune for many fisherman.

Ben pranced beside us on the oversized sidewalk. "Man, I gotta say: Fuck this place."

The cotton t-shirt clung to my body, dampened by spots of sweat. I tugged at the collar, finding little relief from the uncomfortable cloth."Chill out. You're running on fumes by now, and if you aren't careful you'll crash."

"I'm feeling fan-fucking-tastic! Dude, never been more alive over here!"

"You sound delusional and look half-dead, take better care of yourself."

Brie walked on my left, bristled by the dryness in her fur as little tufts of hair stayed just out of place. Flow, however, played with the natural lift in her fur, styling it into different shapes and patterns as she walked between Ben and me.

"Fuck off. I say I'm fine? That means I'm fine. No fine print, ya dig?"

Brie scoffed. "Sure thing, iron man. Whatever you say."

Of course. She just had to stoke the damned fire.

"And what's that supposed to mean, four legs?"

I sighed, cutting Brie off with a hand signal. The glare in her eye met my own resolve as we stared for a long moment. Eventually she relented.

"Fine." she muttered. With that issue resolved, we continued our walk in silence, sidestepping a particularly persistent street vendor. Just ahead loomed the Cerulean city gym, settled near the center of town.

"Right. You guys ready?" I glanced around at the others, getting affirmative nods and an excited bark in response. "Good, let's get this Cascade badge."

Through the double doors was a large lobby, surrounded by a body of water broken by a single walkway to the center of the gym, where a battlefield of earth and water waited. A few swimmers and their pokémon dotted the oversized pool, the obvious leader and lifeguard of the troupe swam around the outskirts at astounding speeds, a Golduck and Starmie on either side of her as her single orange pigtail dipped in and out of the water.

"That looks like Misty, come on. Let's hit the kiosk."

"Dude, way ahead of ya." By the time I realized he'd moved at all, he was halfway to the registration kiosk.

"Right. Well, he'll scout it out for us I guess."

Brie shook her head. "I doubt we'll see any of her strategies."

"Ben's team can definitely take her on, you know."

"Not what I meant, but sure."

Not what she meant?

Ben called out as he finished setting his appointment. "Y'all ready for a show?"

- - -

With a Light Screen to reduce Misty's special attacks and a few Calm Minds to further increase special defense and special attack, Magic swept through Misty's entire team.

Golduck?

Ate a single Shockwave, out like a light.

Starmie?

Two Shockwaves. Done for.

Vaporeon?

Shockwave. Recover. Shockwave again.

Knock knock.

Who's there?

Gyarados.

Gyarados who?

Gyarados has fainted.

Ben laughed at his easiest victory yet.

"Fuuuuucking swept!" he cheered, leaping side to side as he did a little jig. Misty, just barely tolerating Ben's victory dance, waited for his enthusiasm to die down before finally offering him the Cascade badge.

Brie and I sat on the sidelines. Scratching my head, I shrugged. "Right. So that was... pretty smart actually. Good setup, held strong with a clean sweep."

Brie chuckled. "Told you so. But... where'd he get those TMs?"

"He obviously... he used the, uh..."

Huh.

"I actually have no idea." I managed to stammer out.

"Hm. Our battle's next. Toxic?"

"Yep. I don't think we'll need the others for this one. Maybe later we can barter for that Calm Mind Ben's got."

"He might just share it?"

"Bullshit."

- - -

"Yeah, I gotchu fam. You can use it."

Shaun and I exchanged a glance, my thoughts ringing clear through my mind.

Called it. Should've backed out when you had the chance.

Our battle didn't take long and consisted of our usual strategy: Cripple the opponent with status conditions and stall until the chip damage took them down.

"Right. We can do this later, though."

"Earth to Shaun, you still there my dude?"

"Yeah, sorry. Talking with Brie."

"So do you want it or..." Ben clapped a hand over his head. "Shit, man! I forgot all about our fucking bet! "

"Congrats. You remembered. Any idea what you want or do we have to wait even longer?"

Ben just stood in silence.

After a minute of silence Shaun shifted his weight to his other foot. "Uh..."

"Wait, what was the bet again?"

Arceus, this'll take forever. "Hey Ben. " He looked over at me. "How high are you?"

He paused, a dazed expression glazed across his face. Then he giggled. Well, that answers it.

"Right." Shaun said, rubbing his brow. "We'll sort this out later, for now let's just use the TM." He picked the disc from Ben's hand, placing it into the pokédex disc reader.

A light beep played, the universal error sound.

"Incompatible? Really? But... but Brie can learn Psychic! How can she not learn Calm Mind!? "

"Maybe cause she's too hot headed!" Ben laughed.

"That's disappointing." Shaun ejected the disc. "Here. Thanks anyways. If you want, I've still got that Psychic TM on hand. You want it?"

"Shit, man, that'd be sick!"

"Quid pro quo."

"No clue what that means, but thanks. You too, fam." He snatched the disc, jamming it into his own pokédex. "And now for the magic!"

Another beep in response.

"Disc can't be read? I think your shit's broken my dude. Ah, fuck it. I'll just order one online."

"Online?"

"Yeah, you can get all kinds of shit online if you know where to find it."

"You mean like one of those seller sites?"

"No, man. Like, an online black market, ya know?"

"No. I don't."

"Jeez, man. You're behind on the times. Look, you see this?" He swung the bag off his shoulder, rooting through it before lifting a small plastic device out. "Ya know what this is?"

"Yeah, a flash drive."

A what?

Hey Shaun, what's a flash drive?

"It's like a portable memory stick. You store photos, text, and software on it. When plugged into a computer you can transfer files through it.

"-got a VPN on it to use with the app, and you've got untraceable access to the darker shit on the net. Drugs, body guards, mercenaries, all kinds of shit on there. Hell, you got enough cash on ya and you got yourself a hitman for hire."

"Sounds... sketchy."

"It is, but I mean, how else can ya get this shit so easy."

"Right. Well, if you see something you think I'd like, let me know. I'll buy it off of you."

"Yeah man, don't worry. I don't fuck over my friends. You want something? You get what I payed for it."

"I'll keep that in mind. Thanks, though. I appreciate it."

"Hey man, squid pro quote."

Shaun sighed, almost unnoticeable. "Quid pro quo. You do something for me, I do something for you."

"Aight man. I gotcha."

The grumble of my stomach changed the subject real fast. "Hey Shaun?"

"Yeah, we can get some food. You hungry, Ben?"

"Nah. Not really." Flow yipped at him. "But my pokémon sure are."

"Pokémon Center?"

"Whatever you say my dude."

- - -

All together we took up two tables, Shaun, Slate and I sitting on one side of the booth, Ben and Flow on the other. Buggsy, Rocco, and Magic chittered amongst themselves at the adjacent table. Amongst us waited plates of pokémon meal, not as tasty as steak but still good in its own way. I dug into the soft brown meal pellets, occasionally sipping some Iapapa juice through a straw.

Ben's normally obnoxious chewing was almost inaudible as he stole a few small bites of his burger before downing a large glass of water.

"Ben, you really should eat something. You're starving yourself." Shaun said.

"I'm not hungry."

The background chatter of the surprisingly packed pokémon center forced us to speak louder than usual.

"If you aren't feeling well, we can take a day or two off you know. Keep pushing yourself like this, and your body will screw you over."

"Thanks, professor, but I know my own limits."

Shaun glared at him. "Look, I'm not saying this because I'm monitoring you, I'm saying this because I'm genuinely worried. You ruin yourself, you'll become a liability. Brie, Rocco, and I. Everybody here. We're counting on you, and if you fall apart in a bad situation..." He trailed off. "You're not the only person you're affecting."

Flow looked up at Ben, nuzzling into his arm. "You're hurting yourself..." she whispered.

"Ben," I said, "We all care. Please just..."

"You're acting like I'm trying to kill myself." He lifted his beanie, scratching his scalp before settling the cloth back on his head. "If I say I'm good, then I'm good. Got it?"

"You're being weird! I don't know if something happened, but you can tell us."

"I'm not hungry, that's all it is."

This isn't working.

Shaun stepped in. "But you usually eat the-"

"Shaun." I cut him off. "Let it go."

He sighed. "Fine."

In the background, a young teen stepped up to the microphone, a Pachirisu curled on his shoulder. In his arms he carried an acoustic guitar, comically large next to the boy's small body. "Suh, dudes. My name's Chase, and I beatbox."

Beatbox? "Shaun, what's a beatbox?"

"He makes sounds with his mouth or something."

"Does it... does that even sound good?"

"I don't know. It's just something I've heard of."

Chase cleared his throat, brushing the short black hair out of his eyes. Into the mic, he clicked a few times. "Shout-out ta all my fans. If ya like what I do, you can support me on my official website, we've got all kinds a merchandise: keychains, clothes, poster prints." He pointed a finger towards the crowd. "Now without further ado, let the show..."

His voice dropped to a low, gravelly tone. "Begin."

Impressive would've been an understatement, whatever deal this kid made with Giratina transformed his voice box from a simple tool to an instrument, heavy thump of drums, gritty bass, the buzz of synth and static claps, somehow made all with his mouth. And along with it, the unsettling strum of guitar chords added an odd, dark backdrop of acoustics. I looked around for a camera, it had to be a prank. No way could he do all that alone. Yet his voice, imperfect, yeah, but still pretty good, just barely broke with each kick of the drum. Arceus, this guy was the real deal.

Shaun looked as surprised as I felt, Flow and Rocco sharing a similar expression. Ben pumped his first, he looked ready for a rave.

"Whoo!" he screamed.

The shrill sound pierced my ears. "Arceus, Ben. Sit down! Don't ruin the show."

"Dude, I am fucking jamming out right now! This shit's so sick, he needs to go to a hospital!"

"Yeah? Could've worded it better, but whatever. Like maybe a four out of ten."

"Oh shut it."

The performance came to a close as Chase finished his rendition of 'Hit the road, Jack'. The applause roared like a tram car, loud and ugly and enthusiastic as the onlookers cheered for their local talent.

"Feel free to check out my shows at-" his voice dulled to a buzz as we settled back to our original conversation. A light bark stole my attention as Flow grabbed my paw. "Brie? Can we talk?"

"Sure, what's up?"

"I don't want them to hear..." She looked around at the others.

"Is it that important?" She nodded. "Fine. Shaun!"

"Huh?"

"Card, please. Me and Flow are going back to the room for a few."

"Oh. Uh... right. Here. You going to be alright?"

"We'll be fine." I gripped the card in my teeth, handing it to Flow. "You'd think they'd make these things for pokémon too. It sucks to have no pockets."

She tilted her head. "I think they do... I've, um, I've seen other pokémon with a card around their necks. Oh, and if you, uh, need a bag they probably have those too. So you can carry things." We walked to the back of the Pokémon Center, weaving through the crowd as we reached the back hallway.

"We should check it out." I said. "What color bag would you get?"

She thought as we walked, eventually stopping near the end of the hall. In front stood two tall metal doors, a simple control panel to its right. Flow hit the elevator button with the up arrow on it.

"Um, I really like brown. Like a light brown really, like my fur."

"So you'd choose beige?"

"That's the color on my chest, right?"

I nodded.

"Then yes. Well, that or maybe even a regular brown. What color would you pick?"

"I dunno, there's too many to choose from. If I could, though... I'd pick either blue or purple. Both would go well with my fur."

She snorted, holding back a laugh. "That would look pretty cute on you."

The elevator dinged as a few trainers and one Raichu - a nylon lanyard draped around its neck and a key card dangling from the end of the cord - stepped out of the open doors. We entered and pressed the button for our floor, a few other trainers climbing into the elevator with us.

"And we need to see about those bags, too. It'd be way easier if..." I tapered off, words falling flat as the other passengers gawked at me. "What?"

A girl who looked to be about Chase's age pulled out a cell phone. "This is so awesome! Hold on, I've got to record this." She played with the screen for a few seconds before waggling a finger in my direction, kissing at the air a few times. "Come on, sweetie! Say hi to the camera."

Flow fidgeted, inching closer to me. I shook my head, "Arceus, you're a bitch." My snide grin stretched wider. "No offense, of course, sweetie!"

The shock smeared across her face was sickeningly sweet. I pushed past her, aiming for the opening doors of the elevator.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be rude like that. It's just that you don'tseetalkingpokémo-" She spoke in rapid succession as the closing doors suddenly silenced her voice.

My short lived victory suddenly felt a lot less satisfying. "...I'm the real bitch, aren't I?"

"It's okay, I think she forgives you." Flow froze. "Did you make a joke just now?"

"You'll get used to it."

She giggled, light and soft, almost dainty. "I can't wait." She jumped ahead, waving the card in front of the door. "It's... not working..."

"Try putting it in front of that metal thing."

She moved it over to the small black rectangle beside the door, it's normally red light blinking green as the lock clicked open.

"Oh." She struggled with the door before finally holding it open, gesturing for me to enter. "You first."

I stepped inside. "Thanks Flow."

She bounced with glee as she followed. "You're welcome!"

Jumping onto the bed, I patted the spot beside me. "So what's up?"

She hopped up beside me, plucking at the fur on her paws. "Um..."

"..."

"Well, um, how do I say this..."

"You just say it. Like, that's it. Don't think about it or it'll never come out."

"Oh... um, okay. You won't get mad, will you?"

"Look, I dunno. I'll try not to."

"Oh."

Quiet filled the room, Flow's breath heavy as she stumbled over her words.

"Um... I-I-" she stammered, "I really like you guys."

"Oookay...?"

"No, like... like really like y-you guys."

"... and?"

She buried her face in her paws. "You aren't getting it."

"Yeah, I get it. You've got a thing for Shaun. Like, it's really obvious."

She peeked out from between her paws. "Not just Shaun, um..."

"Okay. You've got a thing for me too. That it?"

"No, wait... For that bet, I was wondering if... um... If I could maybe...?"

Arceus it was like trying to beat words out of a mute. Basically impossible.

"You want to join us sometime?"

She nodded. Finally.

"Yeah." I said. "I don't any problem with that. Honestly, I think it'd be fun. Does Ben know you want this yet?"

She shook her head. "No... not yet."

"Great. We'll bring it up when we get back." I stood, stretching my limbs out. "That all?"

"Yeah. Um... Brie?" She grinned, a small blush forming beneath her facial fur. "Thank you."

The bed shifted beneath me as I leapt to the floor. "Don't worry about it."

- - -

"Dude, I swear it on my life, I'm like a fucking Greninja."

"Right. I call bullshit." Ben and I had been arguing ever since Brie and Flow left.

"Look, I'd do it right now but we've got no room to flip."

"You're just making excuses at this point."

An unfamiliar voice joined in on the conversation. "Ooh, I'd love ta see this."

Ben and I looked over to see Chase lean up against the booth seat, arms crossed and an eyebrow cocked in anticipation. A small Pachirisu peeked around his shoulders. "I'm Chase, by the way, if ya didn't catch it the first time."

"Right. Guess we should introduce ourselves." The plush seat creaked from below as I turned to offer him my hand. "I'm Shaun. That was a great show you put on out there. Absolutely amazing."

"Thanks, mate."

"I'm Ben!" Ben reached over to clap him on the shoulder, using just a little too much force. Chase shifted his leg, standing upright against the excessive push. His Pachirisu nearly fell off, clutching at the shirt as Chase reached over to lift his companion back up onto his shoulder. Finished helping, Chase closed his eyes and sighed. Ben payed no notice. "You smoke?" He asked.

"Ben!" I yelled.

"Yeah, I smoke sometimes."

Somehow the words dumbfounded me. This kid was younger than Ben, how could he possibly smoke!?

"Great, wanna light up? I'll smoke you out."

"Cool. Lemme grab my stuff, first." He pushed off the wall, turning to the curved desk of the pokémon center.

"Ben!" The words came out in a hushed whisper.

"What!" He imitated my tone.

"You can't just invite random people over! We don't even know him."

"Dude, he seemed pretty chill, something you wouldn't know. If we need to fight, we can take him. Easy."

"If he's planning to rob us, he's figured that out already. We'll need a plan... denying him now would be too suspicious."

"All right detective, sit the fuck down. He's a kid. If we each have one of our pokémon, then there's no problem."

"Fine. Right. Whatever. But when shit hits the fan, guess who's saying 'I told you so'?"

He shrugged. Chase returned a moment after.

"Ready?" He asked. "We gettin' fucked or nah?"

Arceus now there's two of them.

- - -

We ran into Flow and Brie halfway down the hall, briefing them on the situation as we walked. The two exchanged a glance and a few quiet mumbles. Girl gossip, I'd assumed. It didn't take long to arrive at Ben's room, a couple doors down from my own.

Ben pulled the door a bit, stepping to its inside before shoving if the rest of the way opened. He sauntered in while Chase, Flow, and Brie followed after. Last in the pack, I grabbed the heavy hotel door handle, guiding it closed with minimal impact.

"Shaun, dude. What're you even doing?" Ben's voice.

"Being quiet?"

"It's four in the afternoon."

"The doors are weighty. I'm trying not to disturb the whole floor."

"Just sit down, man. We're starting without you."

Brie looked back, patting the floor beside her.

"Right, I'm coming."

"Left, that's you." Ben said. "You're up, mate." He held out the glass bowl, passing it into my right hand. He picked up the lighter, tossing it deftly into my empty left palm. "Nice catch."

"All you." I said. "Good throw."

"Still caught it, though. Some people can't even do that."

Brie laughed. "Likely 'cause we don't have hands."

"No need, my dude. Anyone can catch if they try hard enough."

"What about a Voltorb? That seems-" they droned off in pleasant chatter as I fixed upon the little pipe in my hand. The flick of the lighter bathed the plant matter in a deep orange glow, embers from a gateway to a cozier place. Someplace warm, calm.

I lit the bowl, the crackle of firecrackers bursting bright as the bud burned. Out the corner of my eye, Chase watched Brie with odd fascination. Try anything and you're dead, kid or not.

After the heavy pull came the exhale, broken by a deep, throaty cough. Never does go away, I guessed. "Ooh. Fuck. That hurts."

Chase shifted his focus, clapping his hands together as he turned to me. "Dude, ya know that sound ya just made?"

I cleared my throat, head clouding up as the bud hit work full force. "You mean coughing?"

"No, that deep rattlin' sound ya get aff'ta coughin'."

"...Huh?"

"Just, neva'mind. It's a start to a beatboxin' sound, just somethin' I thought ya'd find neat."

"No, yeah. That's pretty cool. I didn't realize that."

His face betrayed no emotion, but he stared at me nonetheless. The Pachirisu perched on his shoulder patted at his cheeks as it chittered. The fuck did I do?

Brie climbed into my lap, pressing up under my chin and redirecting all my attention to her instead.

"Hey, Brie. You need something?"

"You," she purred, "That's what I need."

Chase chuckled. "There somethin' I should know here?"

"Yeah," Brie said, "He's mine."

Damnit, Brie! You don't need to tell everybody!

Chase paused, as though unsure as to whether or not she was joking or not. Unfortunately, Ben confirmed his suspicions.

"Yeah, they're fucking."

Steam must've been pouring out my ears by that point. "You dense asshole! You don't just tell people that!"

"Dude, if you'd just played along we could've passed it off as a joke. So... congratulations. You played yourself."

"Eat a dick."

Chase sighed, stepping in. "I dun' care what'cha do, mate. Ya live your life, I'll live mine." He then drew out a pokéball, looking around the room. "You guys care if I let out one of mine?"

Ben glanced over, raising an eyebrow.

"Yeah." I said. "Go for it." I tapped Brie, whispering the word "Care" under my breath. She nodded, nowhere near as uneasy as I felt. A two on two, eh? Well, we weren't going down without a fight.

"Aight." Chase said. In a brief flash of light he released his pokémon, a fluffy snow-white fox emerging. Curly tail wisps flicked in anticipation as the Vulpix looked around the room with a curious expression. Chase scooped it up, twirling the small white and blue fox around in his arms. "Fluffykins!"

Brie batted at my chest, snickering. "Oh, Pumpkin. That's what you were scared of?"

"Hush, Brie."

Chase set down his pokémon, reaching into his bag for a second before pulling out a square brush. He clicked his tongue. "Here Fluff." The Alolan Vulpix stretched out beside him as he began brushing, scratching under its chin at the same time.

Ben laughed. "Dude, that is so fucking gay."

"Groomin' my pokémon's gay now? Thanks for the heads up, fag." He looked over at me. "You dun' groom her?"

"I... uh..." It was hard to think. "I mean, I pet her. Like, comb with my hands."

Brie looked up in disgust. "You lying cheat! I demand groomies!" She giggled, tone shifting to a playful beg. "Please?"

"Right. Um... sure." I looked around the room. "Hey Chase. Can I borrow a brush?"

"Sure thin', mate. Lemme just grab one from my bag." He stopped his own grooming to sift through his things before lifting out a puffy, rounded brush. He pulled a few stray hairs out before handing it over. "You're cleanin' it aff'ta, though."

"Right." Brie splayed out in my lap, face down as I began, working my way from head to tail.

"Oof, you closeted or something, Shaun?" Ben asked. Flow pushed him, yipping in annoyance.

"Jesus Ben, when'd you become homophobic?"

"I mean like, not gay like that. That part was a joke. I mean like gay as in faggot kind of gay. Like 'Damn, dude, that's pretty fucking gay!' Not like 'You like dudes' kind of gay."

"You sound like an idiot."

"And you sound gay."

Chase put down his brush, reaching into his bag for a metal comb. "Ben, do ya just not care for your pokémon or somethin'?"

"Dude, I care for 'em all the time. I give them all the love they need, brushing them just seems like too much." He jammed a thumb in my direction as he packed himself a third bowl. "Besides, he doesn't do it either. Why you getting on my back about it."

"Cause you're callin' it gay like it's a bad thing. He's at least doin' somethin' now. Bett'a late then nevv'a. Look, in Alola we basically pride ourselfs on the bond with our pokémon, that's why our trials are all about Z Crystals. You haff'ta have a strong bond to use 'em."

"Wait..." Brie said. "Alola?"

"Yep. That's where I'm from. Story for anoth' a day, though. What I wanna know is where ya learned ta talk, though."

"It wasn't like easy or anything, but I just really wanted to talk to him." She reached a paw up to stroke my arm. "It just seemed stupid to not talk to your best friend. So I kept trying and trying. I mean, I already knew the language. I just had to figure out how to make the sounds."

"Cute story." Chase took the bowl from Ben as he passed it. "So how'd you meet?"

"I was the family pet, but Shaun was my favorite."

"Hm. You're staying at a Pokémon Center, though. You guys live on the road or something?"

I cleared my throat. "Yeah, we're currently traveling. Have been for a little over a month. You see, Ben here got screwed when they ran out of starter pokémon. So they decided to try something new by taking a pokémon from a different region and giving it to him as a starter. I'm tagging along to help, and to keep an eye on their progress."

Chase nodded. "Sounds legit. You guy's miss home yet?"

Ben laughed. "I dunno about them, but I don't."

Brie rolled over as I finished brushing her backside. "Belly rubs, Pumpkin."

"Please stop calling me that."

She grinned, toothy and wide. "Never!"

Ugh.

She laughed, peering over at Chase as she covered her more... revealing bits with her tail. "I mean, we don't really have much of a home to miss."

He sighed. "Yeah, I get it mate. Dun' worry about it."

"I mean, since we left home, we just stayed in a Pokémon Center. These places are basically home to us by now."

"Brie." I nudged her.

"What? It's not like saying it's gonna hurt anything, and they'll find out eventually."

"Look, just... Fine."

"You're being paranoid, Shaun."

Ben took the bowl, bringing it over to Brie. "It happens when some people smoke. Now sit up, or I can't get you lit."

"No, I meant like all the time."

"Brie." I said.

She took a rip from the pipe, blowing out a huge cloud of smoke. Somehow, she only let loose a few short coughs. "He doesn't trust anybody. Except me. Right Pumpkin?"

"Brie, I'm serious."

"Me too. It's your turn."

Picking out the hair from the brush, I handed it back to Chase before taking hold of the glass bowl once again, a soothing constant in an otherwise uncertain world. Brie sat up against me, batting her eyes. For whatever odd reason, she looked way too far away to be leaning right up against me.

"Don't give me that." I joked, flicking the lighter and starting on my next hit as I did. Whatever this stuff was, it felt stronger than I'd remembered.

"Love you too, Shaun." She waited for my coughing to die down before leaning up to plant a peck on my lips.

Chase shrugged. "You two make a cute couple, y'know?"

Brie winked at me. "Of course I know it. Now you just need to convince him-" she pawed at my chest, "of that!"

I shook my head, handing the glass pipe back to Ben. "Hey, I believe it. It's just... not everybody's going to think that too."

"A problem for another day." She smiled.

"So." Chase said. "Pokémon Centers?"

"Yeah!" Brie replied. "The manager of the Viridian Pokémon Center liked me and Shaun. In exchange for working there, we got a discount on the room."

Ben guffawed. "Shaun was a fucking nurse? Dude, that's hilarious!"

"I wasn't a nurse, dickweed. I was in charge of stocking. Resupplies, ordering products, etcetera."

"Plus," Brie continued, "People really liked seeing a talking Pokémon. We were kind of like mini celebrities there."

Chase nodded, cleaning off his comb and brush before placing them back in his bag. "So like, what happened before that?" Fluff scampered over to Brie, sniffing at her. They spoke a few quiet words.

"That's private." I said.

"No worries, mate. Sore subject, I feel ya."

Brie squinted around, fixing her eyes on Ben and the bowl in his hands. "Not sore," she said, "just not something we bother talking about. It's like an 'us' kind of thing. So, we doing another round, Ben?"

"For sure, Breebie."

"Wonderful."

The room looked particularly clouded, and almost certainly smelled. Thankfully, the heavy hotel door did a good job containing the scent. It wasn't illegal, but the Pokémon Center had a strict 'No smoking' policy, for good reason and we didn't want to get thrown out just yet.

As we talked, the bright colors of the room melded together. The increased depth and contrast of the tilting world around us offering a strange, out of body kind of feeling. Arceus, I could feel my intelligence faltering with each passing second.

Chase zipped up his bag. "I should prolly head out in a few. It's Sunday, right? The Celadon railway will stop runnin' earlier than usual."

"Dude, don't worry about it. You can stay over tonight. But... Flow doesn't really like to be in her pokéball-" she barked in confirmation. "So Shaun, could you take her tonight?"

"Right, sure. This all work for you, Chase?"

"That's cool with me. I've got nowhere to be."

Brie stifled her laughter. "That rhymed perfectly!"

As I stood up, she shuffled out of my arms, calling Ben aside for a brief moment while I gathered my things. Shouldering my bag, I pulled our Brie's luxury ball, just rolling it around my hands. "I'm gonna go put my stuff away. I'll see you guys in a a couple of minutes."

Brie looked back. "Wait in the room for me, Shaun."

"Alright, I'll leave the door open."

- - -

Buggsy squeaked beneath my touch, relishing the attention. His eyes burned particularly red that night, bright like rubies and foreboding like blood in the secluded room. Out the window, clouds gathered, dark and gray and dreary. A hushed patter of rainfall tapped the window, dripping down in a slow torrent. It looked as though the sky itself were crying, tears of heaven splattering against the hard asphalt below.

"Sorry we couldn't get more training in today. I know you were looking forward to it."

Buggsy squeaked, as if to say it was okay.

"We'll work at it again tomorrow. If the rain let's up, of course." I looked over at him, still and silent as his dark red eyes bore through me with a soft sadness. "I promise, we'll get in some more practice before we take on the Saffron City gym. You're a Bug type, so you'll be a force to reckon with."

Buggsy blinked, wobbling on the silk legs of his cocoon as he plodded across the bed to his pokéball, nudging it. I picked it up, looking back at the storm outside. It did nothing to appease my growing unease. It was probably just the high that screwed with my sanity. Nothing to worry about. But even so, the world looked cold and cruel that evening.

"Tomorrow. I promise."

- - -

Shortly after returning Buggsy back to his pokéball, Brie sauntered in, hips swaying in that telltale fashion of hers. Figured. But then... Flow stepped in a moment later, fighting with the door behind her.

"So... uh..."

"She's cashing in the bet."

"...Hm?"

"I said she's cashing in the bet."

"...Hm?"

Brie sighed, slapping a paw to her head. "She's joining us tonight."

"Right." It took a moment for my way to high mind to register what she just said. "Wait wait wait. Hold up."

"Something the matter?"

The back of my neck felt way too itchy all of a sudden. I scratched at the spot, avoiding Brie's gaze. "I'm... uh. I'm not comfortable with this."

"Shaun, look at me for a moment."

With a hesitant sigh, I looked up at her. Big wide cyan eyes begged back. Damnit, of course she would. "You trust me, right?

" Um..."

"Don't lie."

"Fine. I trust you."

"And you know if you like really, and I mean really, don't feel comfortable, we'll stop at any point, yes?"

"... Right."

"So are you willing to try it? For me?"

My mind was running too fast to form a coherent thought, so I just did what I always did. "Okay..."

I rolled with it.

She grinned wide, her muzzle pulling a little too wide in an uncanny grin. "You'll like it, I swear. Flow, come on up here-"

"Wait wait! Can we go slow... at least?"

"That'd probably be best for the both of you."

The both of us? Flow took a few short strides forward, eyes peeking over the paws she covered her face with.

Brie stepped back over to Flow, nudging her closer. "Don't be shy."

Flow blushed, trying harder to cover her embarrassment as she clambered up onto the edge of the bed. She crossed her arms, trying to smile as she stumbled forward. Her gentle demeanor, a far cry from Brie's dominant personality, pushed me to offer her my hand. "Here."

"Arceus, you're both so timid." Brie laughed. "Shaun, pants."

My eyes bulged, somehow stuck in their sockets despite all odds. "I thought you said we were going slow!"

"We are. Now, pants."

"I meant slower than this."

She rolled her eyes. "Fine, if you want to wade in first, I won't throw you off the deep end. At least take off your shirt, though."

"Okay, that I can do." Fumbling with my shirt, I pulled it over my damn head. "Is the door locked?"

"It's automatic."

Right. I forgot.

"Of course you did."

Not even safe in my own head anymore...

She laughed, the feeling echoing through my skull. "Flow, climb on his chest."

Flow looked uncertain. She reached over with a paw, but paused as she leaned against me.

"Here. " I said, guiding her until she straddled my stomach.

Brie placed a paw on the back of Flow's head, pressing her forward. "Arceus, just kiss already. You know you want it."

Flow offered little more than a yelp and a half-hearted struggle before she succumbed to the closed mouth kiss, just resting her lips against mine. Brie layed down atop my legs.

Whatever happened down there, Flow suddenly shivered, opening her mouth to pant and granting me entrance to a deeper kiss. An offer that I took with no hesitation.

"Use your hands, Shaun. Oh, and Flow?"

Flow wriggled in response.

"Close your eyes. You're in for a ride tonight."

- - -

"Chase!" Since there was no way I could open it myself, I just had to knock instead.

Ben opened the door, peering down at me. "How'd it go?"

"Oh, it was awesome. So we-"

From the room, Chase yelled out. "I dun' wanna hear this shit! Keep it in closed doors, mate."

"Okay! Arceus! Oh, can we borrow your brush, though?"

"Yeah, go for it."

"Thanks, we just need it for-"

"Dun' need ta know. Just keep it." He sighed.

"We'll get you a new one, 'kay? See you tomorrow!"

I turned back, catching a snippet of conversation as I left.

"Should I be worryin' about my pokémon too?" Chase joked. The voice was muffled, but definitely his.

"I dunno, man. You've got 'em in there, right? Ask them, not me."

Chapter Text

"Praise to the fucking gods, my dudes, fresh air!" Ben threw his arms out wide as he exaggerated a heavy inhale. Beyond his outstretched gesture waited a faraway field of trees, maybe twenty or so minutes from the spot we stood on just outside the town border. "Aight, let's do this!"

A small bark confirmed his words as Flow took up a pace to rival that of her owner's.

Brie, once by my side, had fallen back to chat up our newest, albeit temporary, companions: Chase and his Pachirisu. Chase's other pokémon stayed clipped to his belt, opting for the comfort of their pokéballs over their stay in Kanto. Or maybe their problem was with the salty air of Cerulean instead?

Chase, even after warming up to Brie continued to walk in the back, a subtle attempt to keep me in sight.

Maybe an ice breaker will work?

I cleared my throat, taking his interest. "So... Uh. How long you been in Kanto for?"

He wasn’t unfriendly, just quiet. "Couple a months."

When it was clear he'd finished speaking, I pushed the conversation forward again, gesturing to the well trodden path of Route 9. Short grass, wet and mushy from the rainfall, wrangled amongst patches of solid earth that had somehow hardened overnight. Off the trail, the ground became muddy and uneven around a handful of trees. Lush berry bushes danced along the edge of the path, reaching out to their passersby. "What do you think?"

He turned to the trees, then to the rocks, and then to the grass and the bushes and the clouds and the orange glow of afternoon. With the contemplative gaze he held and the softening expression he carried, his words felt fake and forced, almost sad. "It's pretty cool."

Another dead end. Another three word response. Great.

A buzz on my leg, not unlike that of an oversized insect, caught my attention. Flicking at the soft fabric of my pant leg, I realized the only thing bugging me was my phone. In the momentary distraction, my path had somehow shifted into a nearby tree. I corrected it, fighting the dark depths of my pants pocket for my cell phone.

I lifted the device in triumph, reading the new message as I readjusted my jacket hood. It was from a friend back home.

The text proved nothing more than pleasant conversation. "Haha lol don't want to lose that!" A response to some dumb image I'd shared a few minutes prior. Unsure of what to say, I stitched together a response, grappling with the phone's touch-screen keyboard as our group walked.

"Well said, Bridget."

"So ur going to landmark twn?"

"Lmao autocorrect? Yeah, we're going to Lavender. About ten mins out of Cerulean rn."

Turning off the screen, I jammed the phone into my jacket pocket and reached for the side-compartment of my backpack. Just at the tip of my fingers I felt it. If I twist just a little more... The pokédex barely popped into reach, and I grabbed it. With the click of the power button it blinked to life, waking from its sleep mode. A few apps flashed from the screen's edge before pausing, each pinned by a notification icon. I tapped the first.

My emails consisted of spam offers, recent strategy guide releases, newsletters, and the occasional reminder that 'an item on your wishlist is on sale'. Onto the next.

The text messages proved more interesting. One from Oak, asking for further details from our recent endeavors.

"None of the pokémon seemed dangerous," I typed, "and they've all adjusted to the ecosystem well. There was one issue with a Buizel tearing up the local pond, but it's been resolved." Message sent.

I waited.

The device pinged, Professor Oak's newest response blinking on the screen. "Good. It seems these new disruptions were caused by canids, residing just North of Lavender Town. No doubt you're capable of handling such a feat."

"We'll be fine. We've scoped out worse."

A body of fur brushed past my leg as I walked, a mess of black coat and blue rings struggling to keep up our pace after leaning so far into me. Sighing, I piloted the pokédex back into the designated pocket before reaching down to pick Brie up.

"Sweet!" She snickered. "Free ride!"

"Only for you!"

She hummed a tune as we walked, waiting for me to follow the melody. Her captivating voice was difficult to resist, but the others were close enough to hear. No way could I sing along.

"Oh Shaaaun~" She coaxed.

"I like listening."

She frowned. "That's a lie and you know it." Her paw reached out to my lower lip as she renewed her singing, opening and closing my mouth to mime her words.

Ben dropped back to our sides, pulling a small set of speakers out of his bag. "Y'all like music that much? I'll start pulling this out more often."

Brie grinned. "Sure, but only if we can share the picks. Shaun, can you copy up our playlist and share it with Ben?"

"Sure. What app?"

She tilted her head. "We use the same one?"

"As Ben?"

A paw lifted itself over her eyes as she ducked her head into her chest. "I think I'm an idiot."

"Doubt it. We just weren't on the same page."

"Right," she said, impersonating my tone.

Ben laughed. "Tell ya what, just gimme a couple now and I'll add 'em to the queue. Chase, you too."

Our walk continued with much less silence than before. Unfortunately, it took all of three songs for Brie's weight in my arms to sap all my energy. The raspy breaths of my exhaustion drowned out the music.

"Right," I said, "I didn't think this one through."

"Tired already?"

"Only a little. Not much."

She sighed. "We're gonna need to work on that stamina, what happened to all our training?"

"I mean, I wasn't carrying you the whole time."

"How 'bout a one on one lesson sometime?"

"Hilarious."

Her smile twisted wider. "You say that like I'm joking, but think about it. How long could you run for if your life depended on it?"

She made a compelling point. If the pokéball broke, her data would just get sent to the cloud in nanoseconds, and even if that failed she'd be locked in a protected black box (a misleading name, it's actually orange for visibility) as a failsafe.

But if Brie wasn't in her ball when it broke, then that option gets thrown right out. And if she was immobile in a life or death situation (an all-too-real possibility, considering all the shit we'd been through), little could help us save preemptive preparation.

"Fine." I couldn't disagree. "We'll have to work on it."

"No, we will work on it. Your first appointment is tomorrow." She saw the skeptical look in my eyes. "Yes? You over there, I know you have a question!"

I set her on the ground, kneeling down to her height. "Will this be serious training or 'for fun' training?"

She leaned in for a brief peck on the lips before turning back to the walk at hand. The sway in her hips did little to reassure me. "You'll find out!" she taunted.

Following her lead, I stood back up. My phone suddenly vibrated, having received another two messages.

"Lavender Town*" The first read.

"They got a Tauros throwingba for in Virid Forest. Was that the one u saw?" That was the second.

"Throwingba for?" I wrote, "Yeah, that's the one we mentioned. Oak dealt with it. We report that stuff to him and he takes care of the rest. Are the Seviper still blocking the path to Pallet?"

I hit send, but after thirty seconds of buffering the message failed. Bad reception, I guess. I looked around at the others. "Hey, the power plant should be up ahead, right?"

Chase shook his head, "Not for a while. We still gotta get us through the canyon before it splits off to the power plant. Aff'ta that we've got Rock Cave, then the valley to Lavender. Why?" His eyes didn't leave my direction as he took held down the the back end of our group.

Huh. "Just wondering."

The phone buzzed in my pocket, breaking my train of thought. Once more I pulled up the phone. No new messages, but a notification lit the screen. Something about no reception. Strange, I thought there was a radio tower by the Power Plant. For whatever reason, our communication with the outside world remained dead. Maybe the pokédex would have better luck?

- - -

At the mouth of the cave waited a family of pokémon: four Magnemite and one Magneton. Easy prey.

Shaun took a wide step as he looked over to Ben. "What say we get in some teamwork?"

Not a moment later Flow and Rocco charged into battle, circling the group of wild pokémon into a tightly knit pack. Ben smiled as he walked forward. "Way ahead of you, dude."

The five Steel type pokémon clung together, A single Toxic would hit all five of them. Perfect.

"It wouldn't work. Use your Psychic, Brie. He's circling them so we can test it." His command clicked into place. Poison would prove ineffective against Steel types anyways, so why not try out our new move? Plus we could handle them easily enough, if the Psychic was a bust then we'd just hunt them down a different way.

I'd of figured it out eventually! I laughed.

"I don't doubt it, Brie. Now go for it."

Okay.

Think. First, we'll pick a spot, focus. Pool the Psychic together, wind it up tight.

The strange sensation of my focused mind was distracting, but the Psychic ball of energy continued to grow, wavering in the air between two of the Magnemite.

Only a few seconds had passed, but it felt like hours instead. What an an odd blur of time, it must've come with using Psychic in such a weird way.

"Release!"

Shaking off the feeling, I guided the Psychic
pulse, wound it together like thread, pulled it taught into a tight ball. And then the energy became too much, the threads unwinding at a rapid pace. Rocco and Flow dodged out of the way just as the attack blossomed.

A crack in the air, a sonic boom. The Psychic bubble burst, blasting the wild pokémon with concentrated energy. Only half the Magnemite stayed up (though stunned) while the lone Magneton, more durable than its companions, shook off the damage. It formed a ball of electricity, turning in our direction.

"Get back!" Shaun screamed. Following his lead, I ducked back to a more manageable range.

Ben threw out a twirling hand signal, pointing it to the Magneton. "Pressure!"

Shaun's jaw dropped, matching the surprise that was slapped on Chase's face. "Ben! What are you doing!"

Ben chuckled in response, shaking his head. "You already know what move that was."

Chase was still focused on the Psychic. "We not gonna talk about what just happened?"

Completely ignoring their younger companion, Shaun rubbed his head. "Zap Cannon? What's your point!?" His impatience bore through my skull, so I forcefully separated his thoughts from mine.

Ben tapped his foot at an impossible speed. "It's a low accuracy move, my dude. But that's only because it's telegraphed."

"Whoa!" I joked, "You say that like you know what 'telegraphed' means."

He laughed, unfazed by one of the many insults we shot each other on a daily basis. He trained his eyes on the Magneton. "It's not gonna target us. We're too far away. But," he paused, pointing towards his pokémon, "they aren't. The moment that thing gets a break, it'll line up the shot."

Chase tried one more time. "So that's a no?"

Nobody responded.

Rocco and Flow danced in and out, staying point-blank as they knocked out the leftover Magnemite while keeping the Magneton in a panic. In a pinch, the Magneton fired its Zap Cannon, failing to predict the movement of its attackers. The crackling ball of electricity fizzled out as it flew through the open air.

"Brie's tough. I've seen her. She could tank two shots of that shit and still stand, and that's without Moonlight to cover the damage." Ben folded his arms, digging his heel into the ground over and over. Rocco and Flow glanced at him, reacting to his hand signals in an instant as they both retreated. Just then, the Magneton expunged a burst of electricity, launching the attack outwards in a circular explosion. Ben's frontal assault caught the edge of the blast, his pokémon suffering a mild shock from the Discharge. "Look, I know you've got a thing for defensive play, right? But we're gonna have to move quick my dudes. Time's up. You've seen its habits, so make a plan. Punish it."

And then it washed over us: an odd calm. Shaun's.

The gears in our heads ticked along as emotion took a backseat to the strategy at hand. And then his voice, a mental projection.

"Brie, ready?"

"Always."

"Good. We're going in," he said.

I ran straight at the Magneton before circling around its flank, peppering it with Shadow Balls as it began building electricity again. It's attention fixed to me, offering Flow and Rocco some much needed space. Good.

Clockwise.

Unnecessary words, I'd understood his tactic the moment he'd decided on it. Leaping clockwise, I circled in closer as the Magneton fired jolts of electricity in my direction. Left. Left. Right. Each step, nimble, deliberate. A stray shock resonated through my right shoulder, a splitting chill that fizzled out into a dull pain.

I couldn't get any closer or I'd eat a nasty shot from that Zap Cannon.

"Close enough!" I laughed, forming a barrage of Psychic bullets. In rapid fire the bullets ripped through the metal exterior of the Magneton, pissing the twisted metal clump off even further.

Rocco and Flow took a straight dive at it, Flow managing a direct hit just as the Magneton released another discharge. Her eyes rolled up as she seized, her body going limp as she hit the floor, ragdolling across the muddy ground outside the cave's entrance.

"Flow!" Ben drew out a pokéball, tossing it at his fallen companion. Rocco, having circled out a moment sooner, picked the pokéball up and fled to safety.

Fuck.

Did Shaun say that, or did I? By that point it didn't matter, the only thing I could afford to focus on was in front of me. I'd have to stall until Rocco could regain health.

A shield of light encased me, transparent with a hint of pink. And then another, this one tinted red, wrapped itself even closer. Suddenly, I felt invincible.

"Calm Mind." Ben hadn't taught Magic any of his signals, so he spoke the command instead.

The barriers solidified further, a steady wall of impenetrable defense that even a Brick Break would have trouble destroying. A sudden realization hit me, or rather Shaun: We needed Haze on our team, in case we ever fought against this tactic firsthand.

"Psychic."

The command was automatic, formed through intuition. Years of drills and exercises guided my movements as I took a wide stance, firmly planted in place as I began forming the explosive variant Psychic.

A burst of electricity crashed into the Light Screen, fizzling out to a mere tickle as it tingled across thick hide. My focus unwavered, I could feel it forming. A distortion twisted the air around the frantic Magneton, building dense and still as the space collapsed. For a brief moment it was quiet, like all the sound had been pulled into the tense ball of energy.

A sharp crack, loud and booming, cut through the silence. An explosive shockwave, fierce and unyielding, shoved me back. Sticking close to the ground, I crept forward to scout the damage. The grass, once a dull green, had wilted to an ugly brown as it got closer to the center of the blast. In the middle, a fainted Magneton lay, the ground beneath it dry and cracked and devoid of life.

Fuck, I’m good!

A pokéball flew by overhead, bouncing off the metal exterior of the fainted Magneton. In a flash of light the pokéball opened, sucking the pokémon inside.

Fainted was an understatement, the a Magneton was near obliterated. The capture happened instantly. “Sweet!” Shaun cheered, running to my side.

Chase followed beside been, taking their sweet time to reach us. Ben fixed his beanie, thinking out loud. “That counts as a crit, right?”

A crit?

“I don’t think so,” Shaun said, “it’s probably just really knocked out.”

“But dude, your ball didn’t even jiggle once.”

A snicker trickled out my mouth. Chase coughed, trying to maintain his calm demeanor while Ben guffawed aloud, proud of his dumb word choice. Shaun raised an eyebrow but otherwise ignored our antics. “Right. I think it only counts if the pokémon are up and kicking, though. If they’ve got no fight left in them then it’s just an instant capture. If the pokémon aren’t fainted, then it's only a rare chance for the pokéballs bindings to take hold instantly, so it's a crit if it shakes one time or less.”

“I don’t think that makes sense, my dude.” Ben shrugged.

Wait a minute. Before I could speak, Shaun held out a hand to cut off my argument.

”Don’t play chess with a Pidgey, Brie. They’ll knock the pieces over, shit on the board, and then strut around like they won.”

Wise. Where’d you learn that?

”An old friend of mine loved proverbs.”

“-thinking maybe Maggie or like Martin or something.” Ben was rambling on about what we should name the new Magneton.

Shaun scratched his head. “Magneton are genderless. I’m thinking maybe ‘Ion’ works better, but it isn’t even conscious right now, so we’ll have to put that off for a bit.”

“Dude, just name it already.”

Shaun shook his head, folding his arms. “This name will be permanent, I wouldn’t want to be subject to a new one without any say, so why should Magneton? Hell, I don't even know if it'll want to stick around. Remember the whole Kirlia incident?” He picked up the pokéball, clipping it to his belt band. “Thanks for that Reflect Screen combo, Ben.”

“Well,” he said, “we can’t lose the greatest wall ever just yet.” He shot me a thumbs up. "Man, that Kirlia though. It fucked you up good, Shaun, like I'm pretty sure it had you on a hit list or something. What'd it do, read your perverted ass mind or something?"

Shaun ignored him. “We're burning daylight, at least the little we have left. We ready to head in?”

“Just a minute.” Ben replied. He took out a pokéball, releasing Rocco once again. “We’re gonna Roost back to full health. Flow’s done for, though. Anyone got a revive?”

“A revive?” I chuckled. “We can barely afford an escape rope.”

"Maybe we could do stuff for money?" Ben said.

Shaun's stoic expression broke first. He shook his head, holding back a laugh.

I hissed through my teeth, some kinda pavlovian response to bad humor. Through the shape of my mouth the sound came out as a snicker.

Ben grinned at his word choice, but powered through it. "Seriously though, maybe we could enter some tournaments or something?"

That honestly didn't sound half bad. We were doing pretty well for ourselves, and even the strongest encounters we'd faced we had somehow overcome.

Shaun looked convinced. "We could start with some local tournaments. Guage the competion a bit, maybe practice with them. Seems like a good opportunity."

Ben nodded, and Shaun didn't need me to say it aloud, he could already feel it. The deal was sealed.

Chase shrugged. "I was plannin' on dippin' the moment my show's done, but if y'all wanna have me then I'll stick around for a few to train with ya."

Shaun looked relieved, surely Chase didn't hate us if he wanted to stay a bit longer. He reached into his bag, hookimg our escape rope to the surprisingly full steel rung holder beside the cliffside opening. Long rope trails of all different colors and sizes snaked into the cave entrance. It looked like a safety hazard, an easy way to get lost among a pile of intertwined rope.

Hey Shaun?

"Yeah?"

I pointed to the ropes leading into the cave entrance. Didn't you once say they remove those things daily? Why are there so many?

"Right. It's probably because we're so far out of town. What with all the recent holidays, people have been traveling through here a lot more often, in such an unpopular path there's no need to check it every day."

Why not just take Route Seven from Saffron, then?

"It's an exceptionally long path to Saffron from here, and even after that there's a horde of powerful pokémon blocking Seven right now. Oak says they've got their hands full keeping that contained. Plus, all the flying services are having trouble too, what with the recent invasion of Flying types.

Oh. Okay.

What he said made perfect sense, but it all felt wrong. I stole another glance at the rack, some looked new, a few were tattered, old, and frayed, but most were somewhere in between.

"Brie? You ready?" Shaun called out.

"Yeah, coming." I turned back to them. The open mouth of the cave stood dark and foreboding, but our high spirits lit the path in front as we pushed on into the still black depths.

- - -

"Yo guys I'm not feeling so great." Ben wiped at the sweat on his head. For the past ten minutes, he'd been complaining about a headache, his hand clutching his stomach.

Brie walked by my side, doing her best to scan the dark beyond the beam of my flashlight. If all the lights went out, it'd take her a few minutes to adjust to such a dim environment. With Ben, Chase, and me waving around our torches, however, she had no chance to do so.

"You'll be fine, I think." Words couldn't mitigate his pain, but maybe I could encourage him instead. "We're over halfway through it, now. Just hang in there for a bit more. Just an hour, right?"

Ben tried to stretch, wincing. "Yeah, yeah. I'll be fine, I know. But, uh, none of you got painkillers?" He faked a smile. "Aight then. Let's get this over with."

- - -

Chase wiped the sweat from his head, sitting down against the cave wall. "All this echo is turnin' my head."

Ben sat further down, granting safe distance between the three of us. "That's what I thought too, my dude. Now look at me." His face was pale and his body trembled. "I think I got you sick."

Chase sighed. "Hope not."

"You ...eeling ...ay?" The voice was distant and warbled, more of a vibration than an actual sound.

Brie? We beat the Magneton over an hour ago, how are we still synced?

Her distorted response came as a muffled hum, rising in pitch and frequency until I could no longer hear it. Out the corner of my eye, a small square of cave began to twist. And then another. And another. The walls were closing in as Brie's droning melody began again.

My fleeting bout of panicked claustrophobia was drowned out as space suddenly expanded, collapsed, and then...

The sight vanished before my eyes.

"-me now? Am I getting through?" The voice snapped into place, imperfect, but much easier to understand than her previous attempts.

Brie! How!?

"It worked! It worked!" Prancing up beside me, her proud strut highlighted the black fluff of chest she puffed out in triumph. It never got old.

Wait, what worked?

She tilted her head. "What do you think? I touched your mind with Psychic! It's not very good yet, I can only figured out how to talk with it. But it's something!"

That's still pretty damn amazing, Brie!

"You're hard to hear. Probably because we aren't sharing minds. Shaun, it's like we're just talking to each other. Don't think with me, think to me."

Following her advice I focused my next words, mentally throwing them in Brie's direction. "Right. So it's more of a direct connection, then."

She shook her head. "That's worse. Aim them here, like to me. Where my voice is coming from."

Her voice. It came from somewhere, right? I could hear it in my head, but it wasn't through my thoughts.

Just talking right? So maybe it came from...

I forced my thoughts inward, as though trying to push them out the back of my left eye. "You in here?"

The world froze over, cold and still, before snapping back into place. "Shaun! I can hear you perfectly!"

"This is... odd. It's like you're plugged right into my head."

"Nah, just pretend it's like a radio. If you close off the connection it's like turning it off, and if you break it then I have to make a whole new one."

"I totally get it, my dude." Ben was still chatting with Chase in the background. "Back home there were these old railroad tracks we used to hang out at. It was cool. Nobody bugged us and there was this awesome little bridge we always went to. The trains would sometimes come, but we could see 'em from a mile away and they didn't always move that fast."

The temperature of the cave dropped. It was freezing.

"Well there was this game we'd play,but it was always more fun at night. We'd wait as late as possible before running. This one time, though-" his voice slowed to a pause. It was happening again.

Everything halted.

"Shaun." And then I was back. Brie's tail flicked against my calf as she sat down at my side, looking up. Word for word, I knew what she'd say. "You okay?"

It was unreal, the feeling of deja vu that gripped me. Like I'd been here before. Did she...

"You see it too?" I asked.

Her worry became bewilderment, her head tilted as she processed the words. You already...? Her concern doubled up in an instant. "Wait, see what?"

Was it just me? A hallucination, maybe. Or even an illusion, weird things often happen around Psychic types. My connection to Brie might have caused some old memories to resurface in strange ways, which would explain the deja vu. Of course! That had to be it.

A fluffy tail wrapped itself around my ankle, Brie's nudge broke me from my musings. "Shaun, you look..."Her words were odd, unsure, and somehow familiar. "Different."

"Don't worry about it, I'm just thinking. Brie, have we been here before?"

"No? At least, I don't think so. She rubbed a paw at her eye. "I mean like you looked normal for a second, and then you stopped and turned all upset."

"-got held up in a winter storm." Chase was talking to Ben, continuing their conversation from earlier. "I'd found shelter in no more than a fuckin' rock cliff. Just enuff'ta sit in an not get snow on ya. I thought I'd been cold b'fore, but 'til then I had no idea what cold was. Thought I was gunna die. Then, outta nowhere, Fluff showed up. She curled up to me for the storm and kept me warm enuff'ta survive through-"

"We've been through everything together. You can talk to me, Shaun."

"How long have we been here?"

"Since it happened? Like a minute or two. I called you as soon as I felt it."

No, I meant... Wait, felt it? "Synchronize?"

She nodded. You were pretty upset. At first I thought you were sick, but the feeling was different. Like defeat or something, and a lot of it, but it was all over the place. It's like it wasn't you..."

"-so I think most pokémon just help people by nature." Chase concluded his anecdote.

Ben shrugged. "I totally get it, my dude."

"How long since we stopped for a break?" I asked.

"I dunno, but we've been talking the whole time." She blinked. "I can hear you perfectly. I'm surprised you got it so fast. It took me forever to figure this out."

My mind remained in the faraway clouds, autopilot taking control of the situation. "Hey, you did all the hard work." I knelt down, reaching to pet her shoulder. I'm just riding your-" Brie twisted around, grabbing my hand between her two paws and pinning it to the fur of her chest.

She sighed. "Hey."

I wasn't sure what to say so I looked to her eyes instead, meeting her gaze with my own. She purred, an innocent grin melded across her muzzle. Well, innocent save the serrated canines highlighted by both the flashlight and the contrast of her dark fur.

She lifted my hand, pressing it to her cheek and nuzzling, first the palm, then the back. The grip on my hand loosened, Brie walking closer as she arched under my wrist. With my movement unrestricted, I tried petting her again. This time, she met the fingertips with her forehead, pressing in close to bump her nose to mine.

She lingered for a moment. "I love you."

"Of course." The words were automatic.

She snickered, stepping back. "Nevermind, you're normal."

"Yeah, I'm just that type of guy."

She smacked her face with a paw, hiding her grin. "I set you up for that one."

Can't just leave it at that. "And I took it for a full sweep."

She laughed, standing up. "You're really something. Come on, let's go see how the others are doing."

Ben was now speaking to Chase, using hand gestures to relay the intensity of his story. "-almost slipped. The rain had turned the wood into fucking grease, and the train was still coming! Like holy shit, that was wild. I got out, obviously, I spent my life on those tracks no matter the weather so I had it good. My buddies, though? Oh ho, they were fucked. "

"Good timing," I joked.

"All thanks to my cool Psychic powers, of course."

"I'm sure."

"-done it before, and never in this kinda weather. The train was right there, they had to do something.

"Remember, we were like twelve at the time. Since we were short, we had to lower all the way over the side to grab those little truss things underneath with our feet. From there it was easy. But with how slippery it was, they couldn't hold onto the wood itself. So Russ grabbed the tracks, Gruff grabbed him, and together they lowered Anthony down underneath. With him to help them down, they got out way easier.

"Oh wait, I forgot! Timmy was pretty new to this stuff, so when everything happened he just kinda froze up. The whole time he just stared over the side, like a Deerling caught in the headlights. Right when we thought the train was gonna get him he tried to climb down, but slipped.

"Anthony went to grab him, but missed! Says he didn't even see Timmy move, one second he was holding onto the ledge and the next he was down in the water under."

"Was he okay?" asked Brie.

Ben shrugged. "He washed up on shore. He says a pokémon saved him, but doesn't know what. On his way home he got attacked by some wild ones, a random trainer saved him or some shit. Apparently it was bad. Pokémon can be real fucked up man."

"Right," I said, "Your moral feels way different than Chase's."

Ben spat. "Moral? Dafuq you on about?"

My arms, uncomfortable by my side, found a better fit folded across my chest instead. "The moral. As in the purpose of the story, the general meaning that it holds in relation to our lives. Like that old one about the Torkoal and the Ninjask. Slow and steady wins-"

"I know what you mean, man. But that's just it, a story. You want a moral? Fine. After all this, the dude's older brother comes over. I think he was about your age, Shaun, kinda reminds me of you. Smart as all hell, probably a genius. Though he wasn't so skinny-"

Brie snickered. "Shaun is pretty lanky."

"Hey, I thought you were on my side!"

Ben lifted an arm, rubbing his nose. "Actually, maybe he wasn't like you at all."

"Hilarious," I said, "Don't get sidetracked. We all know you've got the attention span of a Pikachu."

"Dude, just cause I'm having fun doesn't mean I'm off track. So this guy comes down to escort Timmy home, saying he's glad the kid's okay but that he's gotta make good on a promise. Says he messed with things he shouldn't have, and went missing right after they got home.

"That's not the kicker, though. He leaves, heading towards Viridian, and rumors start flying around that this guy's workin' for Team Rocket, but this guy came all the way down to personally make sure Timmy was okay. You see?"

"Hm." Had I heard this story before? "So, what, you can't judge a book by its cover?"

"No man. There is no fucking moral. No lesson, no big meaning, no fucking reason. Nothing makes sense, everything is shit, it's all a fucking lie, you see? Don't need to think, just live fast and die faster. You don't need to pick it all a-fucking-part, cause when you do all you got left is a bunch of little pieces, and you don't get to enjoy the whole thing as one big trip."

He spat again, wiping the saliva from his lips. "Because that's life. A fuckload of bullshit. You stop to think, and suddenly everything's fucked. And I'm really feeling that right now. Dude, did you poison my food or something?"

"I wish," I chuckled, "then we'd at least have a..."

Poison. The word was sour on my tongue, but I swallowed it down anyways. Maybe...?

"Poison?" Brie nudged me, her grin a wide display of white teeth glimmering in the flashlight.

She'd heard me. No reason to keep her in the dark. "What with all these unknown pokémon wandering about, anything could be poisonous. I'm not sure if that's the issue, but we might as well err on the side of caution."

"We might as well what?"

I pulled out the pokédex. "Hey Chase. Come here."

"Sure. Why?"

"Testing you guys for poison."

"You can do that?" He walked over.

"Yeah, you've just got to put your thumb on this spot and press this."

"Shouldn't we test Ben first?" Brie asked, "He's the sickest, so if it is poison it should show up easily."

Chase pressed the button, jolting as the device pricked his skin. "Fuck. Warn me next time."

"Right, sorry! Forgot you didn't know."

"It's an accurate test, Brie. Even the smallest poison will show."

"Not what I meant, but okay."

Chase pinched his thumb, peering over at the screen I held. On the display flashed a purple box. "POISON", it read. The pokédex whirred, sterilizing itself for future use.

Ben jammed his middle finger into the slot of his own pokédex, pressing the button. "You're not supposed to use your thumb, idiots." He looked down. "Ah, fuck me. I'm poisoned too."

"Right." I was sure the thumb was the right one.

"Ey Shauny boy." Chase shrugged. "You goin' chicken on us? You still gotta poke yourself too. Want me ta hold your hand for ya?"

"Do it and I will straight up deck you-" I raised the pokédex, "-with this."

Chase raised an eyebrow. "You tryna fight?"

"Only if we're talking Icons."

"Icons...?"

I pulled out my phone, opening an app for him to see. "You don't play it? You use Grit, right?"

Ben stepped in, enthralled by our current topic. "Holy shit, dude, I've been tryna find bitches to play this shit with me for ages. Like nobody has Grit. Gimme your username, there's an ass-kicking here with your name on it."

Chase sighed. "I've no clue what y'all are on about."

"You don't play games much?" I asked.

"Nah. Like sometimes those small ones where ya click 'n stuff."

"Dude." This was the most passionate I'd ever seen Ben. "I stopped asking cause everyone always says no, but this is fuckin' lit, fam." He pulled up the game on his phone, handing it to Chase. "This is Icon. A hundred fifty credits. Basically just regular money, but you can only spend it on Grit games. So in this game you have a health bar, right? But it's percent instead of a bar. You start at one hundred, and if you get hit it goes down. The lower your health, the farther you get knocked back. If it goes all the way down, you die."

Ben tapped the screen in Chase's hand, bouncing his leg as he talked. "These are your Icons. They're the characters you can choose from. Each one plays different. This guy is Zero. He's your typical fast attacker. He's got insane combo game if you can pull off his mechanics."

Brie stalked around to me, sitting down at my feet. Between her black forearms jutted a puff of fur. Her pose radiated pure sass. "Shaun, keep waiting around and I'll getcha before any poison can."

"Alright, give me a moment." Mimicking Ben, I stuck my middle finger into the slot. A sharp sting hit my finger, the pokédex pricking the skin. The test yielded the results we'd all expected.

"Poisoned." I said.

Ben looked up from his game, jabbing a finger at me. "Wait! If you're poisoned then how come you look fine?"

I shrugged. "I think it's because I'm around Brie all the time. Umbreon sweat is basically a mini Toxic, and I'm constantly touching her. So..."

Brie laughed, grazing me with her tail. "You used to get so sick when we trained, too. Guess you kinda got used to it?"

"Right. I've probably built up a resistance of some sort. Still isn't an immunity, though. I've been poisoned enough to know better. Come on, let's get the antidotes."

I slung the bag off my shoulder, digging around inside. A few bottles clattered together, but only one was an antidote. "Fuck, I forgot to pick some up before we left! Ben, Chase. You guys got any?"

Ben dropped to his knees, pulling out an old t-shirt before scratching around the bottom. His face fell. "I've got none."

"Damn. Chase?"

Chase set his guitar case down, lifting his bag out in front and turning it upside down. Nothing fell out.

Nothing was inside.

The bag clattered to the floor, his Pachirisu rummaging through it to no avail. Chase sighed. "I fucking knew it."

"Huh?" How could his bag be empty? I took a few steps closer to examine its contents, or rather the lack thereof, when Chase held out his hand.

"I'm warnin' you." Chase looked relaxed, emotionless. "Let's not make a problem here. Just gimme my stuff, we share the antidotes, get outta here, then go our separate ways."

"Chase!" Brie yelled, her tail brushing my leg. His dark face loomed into her pleading eyes. "We don't know what this is about. Just fill us in and we can talk."

I held my hands up a little, as if in surrender. "Just hear me out." I took a step forward. "Start from-" Chase shoved out with his palm. One moment I was standing, and then the next carried the slap of my head against the cave floor. A heavy thunk bounced through my skull, a sudden pain following right after. "Fuck!"

Brie jumped to the front in an instant, holding an aggressive stance. "Chase!"

Ben leapt up too, maybe ten feet from him. Everybody stood still as Chase looked us over, sighing. "I'd hoped ya guys were better. I'm proven wrong once again."

In the span of a minute, everything had gone to shit.

Somehow, my knees found footing and I sat up, a wave of nausea drowning out the world around me.

"You okay, Shaun?" Loud, pounding, it felt like she hammered the words into my head.

My scoff did little to hide my grimace. "Yeah. Just, please don't do that."

Chase rubbed his eyes, lifting a pokéball to return his Pachirisu. "Look, mate. Just give back my stuff and lemme leave. It don't haff'ta go down like this."

Standing was once so easy. Now my legs refused to work, forcing me back to the floor. "Chase, just tell us what this shit's about."

Brie backed up beside me. "You don't look okay. Like at all," she whispered.

Chase laughed. "This shit? Ya know what this shit's all about? My gear's all fuckin' gone. And ya know what I think? I think you-" He pointed at Ben. "-did it."

Ben threw his arms out, passing an expectant glance to Brie and I. "You hear this dipshit? Dude's gone mental."

Chase flipped him the finger. "I've met your type before. I know exactly what you're thinkin'."

Brie's eyes narrowed, her fur bristled. "You think you can read him cause he's a cocky asshole?"

"Wait..." Chase lit up, thumbing in our direction. "They dunno yet, do they? So Ben. You gonna fill 'em in or should I do it for ya?" He scratched his chin. "Or they could just check-"

"How about you kill yourself before I do it for you." Ben took a step, maybe two, forward, jamming the pokédex into his pocket and lifting his hands just below his eyes.

Everything was dark and blurry, their silhouettes pasting a puppet theater along the cave walls.

"Choke a dick, Tweak." Chase snarled.

Ben hopped forward, kicking out. Chase danced in and out as he tested for an opening, but Ben gave no time to think, throwing a jab before spinning around and clocking the side of Chase's head with a closed fist. Chase stumbled, clearly shaken.

Ben swung his leg, kicking Chase just above the back of the knee.

"Fuckin' shit." Chase collapsed in a heap on the floor, clutching the thigh Ben struck. "Fuck!"

"Yeah?" Ben laughed, doubled over with ragged breath. "Hammerfist. Ya like that? Just step in and spin, no one expects it. I'll have to show you it sometime."

"Ben!" Brie's shout scattered my thoughts.

Ben stood up, shrugging. "We're cool my dudes. Just some sparring practice is all." He looked at Chase. "Though you blaming me for shit when I'm innocent kinda pissed me off."

They locked eyes. Chase reached for a pokéball, scrambling back. Ben, bolstered by a month of intense training, reacted first. He chucked the ball. "Flame Charge!"

Rocco shot off in an instant, rushing down the pokéball Chase threw.

In a burst of light, Fluff materialized. Chase wasted no time. "Aurora Veil!"

Fluff blinked in surprise, the sight of a flaming Fletchinder freezing her in place. "Fuck." Chase leapt for the pokéball, aiming toward his Vulpix as a white glow signaled their recall sequence.

Ben stretched his hands behind his head, sighing. "Too late, my dude."

Rocco rammed full speed into Fluff. Her mewling cry dragged on for a full second before the pokéball drew her back in. Chase glanced at the ball, muttering curses under his breath as he reached for another.

"Dude," Ben was pissed. "I thought you cared for 'em."

Chase paused, hand clasped over the pokéball at his waist. Even in the dark, it was easy to see his trembling form.

"I'm not gonna keep pulling my punches cause I'm pretty sure you'd kill me if I gave ya the chance. You send 'em, I'll wipe 'em. That what you want?"

For a few tense moments, nothing happened. Chase sighed, clipping the ball back to his belt and sitting upright. "No."

Time slowed to a halt. My sweat, cooled by the cave air, dripped down, cold and blinding, My hand wiped at the thick stream pouring down my face.

"Man, that leg kick fucked ya good, I'll have to show you that one." Ben snapped his fingers, flicking out a hand signal.

Red. Why are they fucking red? Thin fingertips splayed apart before my eyes, a light glint visible off the dark liquid staining them. I raised them close, the usual glow of skin replaced by a shiny black instead. The outer edges appeared a bright red.

Rocco circled around Chase as Ben struck an exaggerated karate pose. "Dude, I'm like a ninja when I'm stoned!" He shivered, his breath shuddering. He reached a hand down to help Chase up. "That hammerfist would've knocked ya flat if I actually went hard on ya. And if that somehow didn't then the kick I got off was against unflexed muscle. Your leg would be destroyed for days. Though I still gotcha good. The walk to Lavender's gonna suck."

Is this Ben's blood? Wait, no, he's fine. I must've gotten cut when I fell. Right. Use reason. Don't get caught in your senses, senses can be fooled. Fuck, the poison's working faster than I expected.

Shaun!The voice felt like Brie's, but broken, shattered, echoed like the wake that follows a ship.

It wasn't hers.

A moment later another voice, shadowed by her spoken words, drilled through my mind. "Knife!"

Ben leapt, Chase jumping up with a raised front arm to shield the knife he held. Ben jammed a hand into Chase's back armpit, holding him just out of range as the metal blade sliced at his outstretched arm. Ben stood on his toes, rearing back his free hand and popping Chase in the face.

The smack of fist on flesh was punctuated by the clatter of metal against the cave floor. Rocco circled around from behind, striking Chase in the back legs with a stiff wing and dropping him to his knees.

Ben reached down, picking up the knife and waving it beneath his own flashlight. "Sick knife, dude. I think I'll borrow this." He examined it. "Good eyes Brie. Or nose, whatever the fuck I'm supposed to say. I didn't expect to get fucked tryna help this little shit back up."

Chase groaned, wiping at his face. Ben shrugged, grabbing him by the hair and tilting back his head as the blade he held pressed into Chase's throat. "So much as flinch and I'll fucking end you. Capiche?"

Chase sniffled, saying nothing.

"Good. Shaun, check him for weapons. Well, more weapons. Arceus fuck, man. I thought you were our fucking friend." He spoke with acidic inflection.

Brie pressed up beside me, aiding my struggle. "Come on. Up and at 'em." The floor wobbled, fractured and unsteady. My heart hammered hard in my chest, every tendon, every joint, every ligament within screaming for my attention. The seconds ticked along as I fought for composure. "Shaun."

"I'm trying."

Ben waited with stoned silence and a nonchalance unbeffiting of a person pressing a knife into another's jugular. My legs dragged along as if underwater, did time feel slowed or was that just a result of exhaustion?

Up close, Chase squinted against the light of my pokédex, his nose bleeding beside his now swollen eye. His gaze met mine, cold and unwavering. He looked calmer than Ben did.

Somehow, I felt nothing either. Empty. That was just as terrifying.

"He's clean."

Ben nodded. "Chase, I'm gonna ask you to sit your ass down. I'm gonna let go, back up, and we're gonna fuckin' talk. Cause listen close, my dude. We're in a fuckin' shithole right now. And if we don't work together, our asses are fuckin' done. That's like eight fucks right there, yeah? You get how fuckin' serious I'm being right now?"

"Chase." Brie, said. His eyes flicked to her pleading expression, to her sad face. "Don't."

He leveled her stare.

"Please."

His expression fell, his eyes shifting away. Almost in slow motion.

"I promise."

He caved.

Brie nodded. "Ben, he's good. You can let go."

Ben still held the knife, focused entirely on Chase. It looked like he would-

"All right. Don't try anything." Ben let go, stepping away. Chase fell back and sat down. Time was moving again.

"What'cha want, then." Chase failed to look up. Brie's words had broken him.

"Want?" Ben laughed. "Even if we wanted somethin', you already look cleaned out my dude. But I mean, I guess you owe an apology and an explanation to mister Tactician over there." He flicked a thumb in my direction. "Like, he's fuckin' harmless and you just shoved him off. That's a dick move right there, and that's exactly when you earned yourself an ass kickin'."

"Ben," I cut in, "Didn't I scare you straight the first night we met?"

"Nah, fam." He waved off my question. "I was still shakin' from those fucking snakes." He spat at the ground. "It's one thing to be in a fight, a whole fuckin' different story when it's a giant ass sword snake you're up against. Plus, the fuck were we supposed to do? Rocco was basically a baby, and I wasn't punching those things to death anytime soon."

Chase shuffled. "This isn't my first time getting robbed. First time didn't go so well."

That caught our attention. Brie squinted at him. "Robbed? Why would we rob you?"

"As I said, not the first time."

Huh. Ben ran a hand through his air, sitting down. I followed suit.

"You're fuckin' nuts, fam, but I don't blame ya." Ben was solemn. "First off, I didn't steal shit. Shaun didn't steal shit. Well, I mean maybe he stole your brush but that's like nothing right now."

Chase looked at him. "You were the one watchin' my stuff. So where the fuck'd it go?"

"Dude, I was kinda in the middle of an intense game when you left it to me. I told you I couldn't watch your shit." He sighed. "So I guess it's all gone?"

Chase was pissed. "I'm still convinced you fuckin' stole it."

Ben threw his hands up. "The fuck is wrong with you! You wanna check my bag? I got basically nothin' in there! Arceus fuck! How many times I gotta tell you, I don't have your shit."

Brie sat down, glaring at them both. "And yet you were both ready to kill each other."

"I think Chase was just trying to scare him off." I'd known them long enough, no way in hell did either have the capacity for murder.

My comment remained ignored.

"Like I said-" Chase started, but Ben cut him off.

"Yeah yeah. First time, angsty baby, blah blah blah, we know." He laughed.

"Great. Then you also know you've gotta tell 'em, right?"

Brie stood up, stretching her legs out behind her. "Tell us what?"

Ben sighed and lay back. "Fuckin' fine. If I don't say it then little bitch snitch over here will say it for me. I'm doin' Crystal."

"...What?" It came out of left field, from seemingly nowhere.

Ben shrugged, putting his hands behind his head. "You heard it here first folks. Chase thinks I'm sellin' his shit like a junkie. Fun, right?"

Chase was quiet, tentative. "Did you sell it?"

Ben just slapped his hand against his head. "Fuck, man. I'm not like cracked out or anything. Hell, I've got like nothin' left, and I wasn't plannin' on buyin' any more after this fix. I'm just usin' up the last of what I got.

"Besides," He blinked. "If I really wanted more, I had a guy hit me up the other day. Ya know what I said to that? 'Fuck no, my dude, I need a fuckin' break from this shit.' You wanna see what I got left? Check the bag."

Brie took the first move, stalking over to stick her head into Ben's bag and sniff through it. "Hm." She sat back, a small baggie sitting between her paws. "He's not lying." She slipped back to Ben, sniffing at the opening of his pants pockets.

"Jeez, girl." Ben shoved at the nose jammed in his crotch. "Privacy! Ever heard of it?"

Brie sighed. "Nothing here, either."

"Right, " I said. Her curiosity sated, our more pressing matters required attention. "Brie, Chase, Ben. What's done is done. We can't change the past." Brie's bewildered stare bore through me. "So can we just look forwards, and not backwards? If-"

Ben sputtered, a sound somewhere between a cough and a laugh, and held up a hand. "Fuckin' hell, man. You're treatin' this like a fuckin' speech. We're locked in a cave, not a goddamn pep rally."

"Fine." Fuck it. "So we've got one antidote, then?"

Ben shrugged. "Looks like it."

Brie chimed in. "Ben's still got a Pecha berry in there."

"Like, half a one I think. Never actually finished it, though. Think that's enough?"

"Well..." Maybe. "It's something. So we got one antidote, and half a Pecha. Anything else?"

"A fuckton of stress?" Ben smiled, big and goofy.

Chase shook his head. "I got my guitar, that's about it."

Well shit. "Right. Chase, you're the smallest and weigh the least, so the poison will hit you the hardest. You'll take the antidote. Ben, you've got the Pecha. We don't know what's poisoning us, so until then we'll have to return our pokémon."

Ben glanced at his pokéball, then looked to Chase. "First off, why we helping this little shit? He just pulled a fuckin' knife on me."

"Ben." He could hear the tension in my voice. "If we don't work together, we're dead. You said it yourself, our survival is a coin toss right now."

He shrugged again, as per usual. "Fine. I'll play nice. Second, Rocco's poisoned now, and he wasn't before. I think whatever's doing it is in here."

Could Brie be, too? Might as well check. At the press of the power button the pokédex came to life, revealing the status of our current team. None were poisoned.

Makes enough sense, we've got a good resistance to poison.

"Shaun." Brie's eyes met mine. A cold sweat dripped down, freezing against my skin. "What time is it?"

"About six o'clock. We've got little daylight left." The blocky pokédex bulged out my jacket pocket as I forced it back into place. "You should stick in the pokéball for now."

"No." She held a fierce gaze. "Not this time."

Goosebumps broke out across the surface of my skin. My head spun. Should've grabbed something warmer.

"Not this...? Brie, I'm serious! We can't risk you getting poisoned in here. If shit hits the fan then you'll be right back out, but until then-"

"No."

"We need you. Getting hurt or weakened could very well be a death sentence. For all of us."

Brie's composure held strong. "You need me." She looked to Chase, then Ben. "Not us, not them." She looked back to me. "You. Hiding me away?" Her steps echoed off the cave walls as she moved closer. "That's you being scared. Stop and think, Shaun. It's what you do best."

Her words hammered heavy in my head. Cold blood coursed at a steady rhythm, beating not just in my chest, but in my hands, my legs, my throat. A sensation as alien as the world around me.

"Shaun?"

Wrong. Everything was wrong. Fake. A paper mache world ready to crumble.

"Shaun!"

The floor left my feet. Were they mine anymore? I couldn't tell. I was a prisoner in somebody else's body, a trespasser. I didn't belong here.

The colors faded. A voice, faint and far away, cut through the noise, buried deep in my skull, deep in my own thoughts.

"This time will be different."

Time, huh?

What a strange thing.

In a mere second I'd left my own body, welcomed by a blackening sensation. To the surprised faces around me, I'd fallen in an instant. But...

It took nearly an hour to fall. A strong sense of vertigo tugged me along, but nowhere near the usual speed, as if gravity itself granted me a respite, weightless and weighty. Slow and heavy. It felt as though I were flying.

The cold bristled my skin, hair standing on end. The moisture hanging in the air was cold and wet. As was the sweat clinging to the dust and debris on my face. Even against the freezing atmosphere, the salty substance stayed fluid, a slow drip ran down my cheek, down my arms, down my back.

"Help!" Brie's words drawled, her stance drooped and an intense concentration locked in her eyes. She crawled forward in long drawn out strides around me.

Ben leaned onto his elbow, launching himself in a cartoony fashion. Chase flinched, as though startled out of a quiet thought, before jumping to his feet. I wanted to laugh, but my mind was beyond disconnected from my body.

Is this... Is this death? No, death happens in an instant. One second you're there, the next, you're gone. I'd been there before. At least, I think.

Brie leapt behind me, bracing for the impact. Did she learn that fast? Or maybe she'd felt me fading. Either way she managed to break my fall, when minutes before she couldn't.

Their eyes were wide, gleaming in the light of the pokédex Ben had placed on the ground. A white gleam floating around their forms in a halo of ugly white light. Fucking LEDs.

It should've been angelic; instead, it was hell. Foreign. But familiar. A thrilling fear clouded my thoughts, followed by...

Nothing.

- - -

"Run!"

A voice. Whose? I couldn't tell.

"Don't stop!"

Warbled, distant.

"Chase is gone, Shaun! I saw him!"

Chase?

"Just keep running!"

The weight of my body was indescribable in the nothingness, but my muscles burned anyways.

"Don't give up on me! We're almost there!"

My head hurt.

"Shaun? Shaun!"

- - -

"Is this normal?" Ben jammed a thumb at Shaun, who stared blankly at the ceiling. In his daze, he lay on the floor. His finger twitched.

"Nope. " I sat down at his side. Shaun scratched his chin, as if in thought.

"Hey Brie?" He spoke.

Again.

"Yeah, Shaun?"

"How long have I been here?"

"A couple seconds."

"Oh." His hand fell. "I think I'll sit a little longer."

Ben shrugged. "You fell like a rock, my dude. You okay?"

"He won't respond." I placed a paw on Shaun's shoulder. "I don't even think he knows. I can't feel him anymore."

We waited for a while.

"Shit!" Shaun yelled out, breaking the silence. He sat up, rubbing his forehead. "Wake me next time! How long have we been here?"

"Like a minute, my dude. You already-"

"Ben." He glanced over to see my tilted head. Good, he heard.

Ben sighed, ignoring what we just saw. "Aight fam, you ready? Let's get out of here."

Shaun stood. "Yeah, I'm ready."

His confidence felt like a slap in the face. He didn't know.

He never did.

- - -

The chills struck me first. An effect of the poison finally hitting my system. Then it became too hot. I struggled to decide whether the jacket should come off or stay on. I took it off, hoping the cold air would cool my head and feverish feeling a little.

It didn't take long for our party to reach the cause of my condition. Brie noticed first, a thin, purple mist swirling through the light of the pokédex. If you liked from the side, cupping the light in a small cone, it swirled like smoke in the beam.

"Well, fuck." I checked the pokédex. Brie had been poisoned sometime during my doze. No physical symptoms afflicted her; but even so, she looked drained. "You tired, Brie?"

She glanced up, smiling. "A little." She looked forward again, a dark cloud covering her expression. She didn't want to talk. Prying wouldn't help.

Another few minutes forward and the smog became thick. Through the fog a small pack of Weezing hovered in the thickest cloud along one wall of the large cavern. An indent in the path right before the exit served as their hiding place.

"Magic!" Ben raised a pokéball, releasing his Abra. "Calm Mind!"

Magic closed its eyes, focusing in on itself.

One of the Weezing emitted an icy Haze, quickly filling the field in a pale blue. The Haze dispersed, making way for the purple cloud of gaseous poison once more.

"That one." I pointed at the Weezing. "Is mine."

"Yeah, whatever." Ben shrugged. "Leave it to you to pick the ugly ones. Magic, wipe the rest out."

From the Weezing, a series of bright blue, near white, wisps flickered through the air, spreading in our direction.

Protect. A wall of energy erected before us, a shield from the Will-O-Wisps ready to burn us. Poison already screwed us over, we didn't need another status condition to fuck us.

"Ben, now." Brie spoke for me.

Ben nodded. "Calm Mind." At his words, Magic focused again, a golden glow emitting from its body.

"Guys." Brie's perception outdid our own, she motioned toward the shuffling Weezing ahead of us.

The closet one opened its mouth, gurgling up a thick ball of oozing filth. "Watch the Sludge Bombs!" I said. The first glob smacked into the shield, a small inksplat that smeared across Brie's Protect as the Sludge Bomb dripped down the sloped surface.

Like a declaration of war, the remaining Weezing launched a volley of shots, splattering across the splintering wall standing between us and the wild pokémon.

Psychic! Brie nodded, stretching a reinforced veil of Psychic around us as her Protect shattered. She shot a few Shadow Balls to keep up pressure, reserving the rest of her Psychic energy for a better time. An icy mist surrounded us again, but Brie's Psychic shield held it at bay.

Chase stood back, letting us take on the challenge. Ben just glanced at him. "Aight Magic, let's end this. Psychic!"

And at that, the battle ended.

- - -

The need need to urinate cut through the slew of shitty symptoms dragging me down. I sniffled, thankful the stomach cramps weren't coupled with the runs as I stumbled along the treeline.

"We'll wait here." Brie had said.

"You not coming along?" I asked.

"You don't need a babysitter, Shaun." She didn't meet my eyes.

That stung. I felt like shit, any company would help. But she had a point, it's not like I needed her for anything.

Even so, her words felt a little...

Jaded.

A mood she rarely gave off.

So instead I walked alone.

"Hm?" Through the light drizzle of overcast clouds a rotting stench filled my overstuffed nose, bad enough I could smell it through my sickness. I checked around, but no good reason met my eyes. A territorial marking, perhaps? It would explain the lack of a visible source.

I stopped beside a makeshift tree, taking the chance to piss in peaceful privacy.

My eyes wandered. A berry bush stood, the branches burnt in the corner. Some overturned earth, scratched up by...

Something.

The ugly tree I pissed on looked etched around the base. Right behind it was a black lump. From the angle I had, the details were indecipherable.

I stopped, peering around the big tree. The rain picked up a steady pace, heavy and wet as the evening shower shifted into an uncomfortable patter.

Black, charred flesh dangled from a torn open body, an ugly chunk of decaying skin and rotten innards spilled out across the grass.

"Oh. Oh fuck." The dogs. I forgot the fucking dogs.

I turned on my heels, lurching back to the direction of our group.

"Shaun!" Chase's voice.

"I'm here!" I pushed past the trees, following his voice. About forty feet on my left, Chase, Ben, and Brie were staring me down. No, wait, not me. I looked to the right, a pack of Houndoom growling just a bit closer than my group was. "Oh."

"Fucking hell, Shaun!" My poor positioning left me open. The pack dove forward, two of them leaping right for me as the others circled around to cut off my reinforcements.

I sidestepped the first one, reaching into my pocket for any, possible weapon. My hand curled around a dull point, lifting a thick plastic fork from my pocket. God fucking damnit.

The rain was now a downpour. Thunder cracked in the distance, deafening the shouts of Ben and Chase. A second Houndoom charged, crouching for a leap.

I slipped aside on instinct, and only after my legs were crossed did I realize that the Houndoom had stayed grounded, waiting for my mistake. It jumped, twisting in the air around my haphazard kicks. My right leg in its jaws, my balance was yanked out from under me. The backpack I wore slammed into my back, mud and rain spilling over my eyes and soaking my clothes.

A shuffle sounded by my head. With no time to think I threw my arm into the snapping mouth of another Houndoom, shielding my face from a grisly fate. I stabbed at its muzzle with the plastic fork, receivimg a growl in response.

A sharp pain split up my knee, ripping left and right as the first Houndoom shook my leg like a chew toy. "Holy fuck!" That hurt. That fucking hurt.

"Shaun!" Brie ducked between the pokémon, ramming the one latched onto my arm. The blood poured strong as its teeth sliced through my skin. I shook off the thought, rearing back my unhurt leg to defend my other one.

A crunch met my heel as it crushed down into the muzzle gripped around my calf. The Houndoom snarled, teeth tightening around my ankle as it dragged me back. A second kick stunned it for a moment. By the third, it gave up on my leg, leaping for my throat instead. In a split second, my already lacerated forearm was jammed into another mouthful of jagged canines and red soaked teeth.

Adrenaline dulled the pain, preventing my panic. I gripped the plastic fork, shoving a knee into the underbelly of the Houndoom. I kneed again, but it held strong, unfazed. The grip around my arm loosened a little as Dark energy welled up into its mouth.

Instinct drove me to tear my arm out from its teeth, a splatter of blood mixing with the rain in my eyes as bone daggers sawed through the flesh of my forearm. The Houndoom snapped out to Crunch right as my plastic fork drove deep into the underside of its mouth, pushing from under the jaw up to the roof of the dog's mouth.

It winced, stepping back with a whine before running headlong off the trail. My attacker deterred, I surveyed the surrounding fight. Rocco was locked in battle, whipping a Steel Wing into the face of a Houndoom and forcing open a path for me. One I jumped for without hesitation. "Buggsy, Slate!" I released them as I limped, looking back at Brie. "String Shot!"

Through the crisscross of sticky thread stood Brie, staring down the two Houndoom before her. The first one crouched, a trickle of embers pouring out its closed mouth. Watch the Flamethrower, Brie!

Brie ignored my comment, channeling a Psychic above and in front of the canine's head. An uncomfortable pressure filled my head.

The rain was cold. The thick air of the thunderstorm chilling worse than the cave ever felt.

The Houndoom payed no mind to Brie's attack, leaning forward and lifting its chin as it released a gust of flaming sparks. Ember, not Flamethrower. Huh.

A ball of Psychic energy formed around its head, condensing directly inside its skull. In a burst of light the Houndoom fell, collapsed into an unmoving heap.

Psychic? Against a Dark type?

Later. I'd figure it out later.

"Buggsy, use the trees. Slate, stay close!"

Buggsy hooked into the overhanging tree line, gliding up as he sprayed another web of threads, launching poisonous barbs from his body as he rained Poison Sting down on the Houndoom. His aim proved impeccable, most of his shots landing true as he turned our foes into oversized pin cushions.

Ben stood back with Magic, launching a series of Thunderbolts at the undersized Houndoom that occupied their attention. From the side, a larger Houndoom crept in close, breaking into a sprint for the takedown.

"Ben!" Chase had wrapped a coat around his arm, his other hand holding the same knife Ben once held to his throat. He jumped in, shoving Ben aside and stuffing the coat covered arm into the leaping Houndoom's mouth. He fell onto his back, straddled by the oversized dog currently biting his arm.

I ran to help, but pain finally caught up. The injured leg failed to support my weight, mushy ground serving as my final resting place. "Slate! Help him!"

Unfortunately, neither of us were in any position to.

Chase raised his knee, lifting the Houndoom off its back legs as he stuck his arm deeper into its mouth, holding it up in the air. The Houndoom bit down hard, digging deep into the coat covered arm with a nasty Crunch.

"Gah!" Chase shoved the knife into its abdomen, right before the back leg began. The Houndoom Crunched again in frenzy, biting down with increased fervor. "Fuck you!" Chase ripped the knife towards him, a mix of blood and entrails spilling out over him as the Houndoom flailed and yelped in its suspended state. A stream of blood melded into the pool of rain and mud beneath them.

The glint of Chase's knife cut through the dreary night as he pulled it out, burying the blade into the Houndoom's throat and tearing it open. He kicked out from the gurgling, twitching mess atop him, struggling to pull his shoes from the tangle of intenstines wrapped around his ankles.

I looked away, needing to see no more.

Ben had managed to strike down the Houndoom runt, forcing it to run with a tail between its legs. "Fuck yeah, my dude!" He glanced around, eyes widening in surprise. "Rocco, get Buggsy!"

I followed his eyes. There, Buggsy dangled above two more Houndoom, struggling to climb up the webbing he held as the oversized leaf he'd attached to dipped from the weight of his body. "Buggsy!" He shot a flurry of string to hoist himself up, but a direct blast of Flamethrower broke the threads, his silk covered body blackening in the flames.

"Stop!" I threw his pokéball.

A crackle like firecrackers popped from him as he dropped to the ground. The Houndoom descended upon him, Rocco rushing in from behind at full speed with a Flame Charge.

The pokéball opened.

The Houndoom ripped into Buggsy's protective shell, tearing him apart in a violent display of bug guts and singed silk shell.

The pokéball closed, doing nothing to retrieve him.

I screamed, my voice downed out by a crack of thunder and the steady downfall of heavy rain. I was kneeling. When did I start kneeling?

Rocco bashed one of the feasting dogs, sending it to the ground. The other grabbed Buggsy, running.

"No you don't!" Brie ran forward with a series of Psychic blasts, struggling to hit the evasive Houndoom. Slinging left, right, each Psychic burst failing to land.

She forfeit her attempts, the distance proved too far to accurately control her attacks. Her head hung low.

Chase walked up, checking over his shoulder to see a Houndoom dragging its eviscerated companion into a patch of tall grass off the trail. The intestines waggled behind like a long string of sausage links. Whether to feast on the dead or just retrieve its fallen companion, I didn't care: the last Houndoom was gone.

"Shit." I laid down, oblivious to the bag digging into my back. "He..." The sky was gray. Ugly, cloudy, drops of heavy rain pelting the skin of my face, marking the end to our shitfest of an ordeal.

Ben clenched his fists, stomping to a nearby tree. He reared back, crushing each knuckle into the hard bark. "Arceus fuck!" He punched again. "Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!" He swung with every frustrated shout, hitting harder each time.

"Ben!" Brie ran forth, ramming his back legs to take him down. "It's not gonna help!"

He broke his fall against the tree, swinging harder and screaming louder. Chase stepped up behind him, grabbing him by the shirt and pulling him backward. "It's fuckin' done. You can't change that."

Brie sat down, staring into Ben's eyes. For a few seconds they locked eyes. His snarl flickered, lip twitching as he twisted from Chase's grip. "Arceus fuck." He returned Rocco, wiping at the rain in his eyes. "Let's go." The skin of his knuckles were peeled, raw red blood trickling down his battered hands.

As if we didn't get enough of it already.

"Wait." Brie moved to me, leaning in close to examine my wounds. "Pull up your sleeve. And pants."

It didn't matter. "I'm fine." My eyes remained on the ground, but my mind was lost somewhere above the clouds.

"No you're not. Lift your sleeve, or I'll tear it off myself."

It wasn't a joke. She'd done it before.

"Fine."I peeled back the shredded fabric of the jacket, careful to avoid the series of long gashes and deep holes along my arm and wrist.

"Shaun, it needs to be cleaned and bandaged. Where's your spare shirt?" She looped around to open my backpack.

"Don't ruin it. That's the only spare I've got."

"No choice there. Ben, get over here. We've gotta stop the blood."

She looked up at Chase, who cradled his arm. His entire lower body was soaked in red. "Check yourself, too. We'll help after he," she nodded at me, "is done."

Chase nodded. "Hey Ben."

Ben looked up to see Chase's raised arm, dripping a washed out crimson in the rain.

Chase winced, but held it out anyways. "We're fuckin' even."

- - -

We walked without purpose.

Brie found a large stick to support my weight with. Honestly, it didn't matter. I belonged in the mud, crawling would fit the theme.

Instead, we walked.

Ben tried to help, I brushed him off.

Chase tried to talk. I brushed him off.

Brie offered her presence, no encouraging words, no coddling. She knew me better than that.

All I wanted was space.

So we walked without purpose. To get away, maybe. To escape from the fucked up reality we found ourselves trapped in.

To get somewhere, anywhere, that wasn't there.

We walked.

- - -

"Look, mate."

Brie had left after the first bowl. Said she wanted to talk to Oak. I refused to go with, no real point in tagging along.

Ben handed me the lighter, saying nothing. He'd given up talking.

"I'm not gonna tell ya what to do. You can make your own damn decisions. But I've seen this shit before." Chase sighed, looking down at the sling over his arm. "Runnin' ain't gonna do jack shit. It just gets worse. Believe me."

He knew nothing. Fake words and a mouthful of bullshit were easy enough to ignore. "Right." I took a puff, burning both the bud and the crystallized bits Ben had sprinkled on top. 'Kief', he called it, 'for those fucked up special occasions'.

A special occasion indeed. One I hoped to forget.

Was that disrespectful?

Didn't matter though. My mind finally felt as far gone as my thoughts. Normal, for the first time in forever.

Congratulations, Shaun. You've done it.

You've managed to not care.

Not an unpleasant feeling, at least. Just a kind of bitter forgetfulness. Like everything else was as distant as I was.

That's all that mattered.

I took another pull, finishing off the bowl, doing everything to avoid Chase's distasteful expression. "It's beat. We packing another one?"

Ben laughed. "Hell yeah, my dude! We ain't done 'til we can't stand straight!"

A smile cracked my face, unnatural, but real nonetheless. "Now that's what I like to hear."