"Little Root Town?"
After about thirty minutes of walking, the treeline had thinned until vanishing altogether, showing the ragged man and little fox on his shoulder a quaint hamlet with an ocean port to the south. The muggy forest air faded away in favor of a rolling breeze smelling of salt.
"Must be Little Root," Lee muses aloud. "That Taillow and Zigzagoon were pretty concrete evidence that this is Hoenn, and this place is much too small to be Slateport or Lilycove. We won't have to run all over hell's half-acre to find Birch then. I guess something had to go right for us, eh?"
Vulpix says nothing, but the short purr in her throat tells Lee she acknowledged his words.
"Here's hoping Birch finds us to be enough of a scientific curiosity to be worth helping," Lee says as he walks, "because if not, things could get rough for a while..." he finishes with a grimace.
Vulpix noses Lee's cheek with a demure "Pix," making the man smile and reach up to pet her. Vulpix accepts the affection with a small smile of her own, even leaning into the hand.
Lee grins. Again, a childish giddiness pushes away the day's negativity and all the buzzing questions all thanks to the fact that he has a real pokemon! He is a Pokemon Trainer!
'Or I'm one in spirit at least. I know it's not as simple as having a pokemon = trainer. Paperwork, here I come.' Lee thinks. A moment later, another thought hits him. 'Oh shit, I have no legal ID here. I seriously doubt my drivers license and zoo ID will work. It will certainly add some credibility to my story, but Jesus, having no paperwork for either myself or Vulpix is going to be a bureaucratic nightmare. I bet all the money in my wallet is useless too, and I know my credit card is trash now.'
Yet another problem on the pile fails to bring down Lee's spirits though. 'Because If I don't think positive at this point I'm going to have a fucking stroke.'
Lee and Vulpix clear the flat, grassy clearing to the east of Little Root and into town proper, where a handful of townsfolk walk here and there around the apparent shopping district they stumbled into. Several Pokemon are out with their humans too. A Machop down the street lifts up one end of a car with little strain as a man changes a flat tire. A Poochyna holds its own leash, looking bored as its teen girl owner slips inside a small shop to gawk at handbags. Down a sidestreet closer to the pier, an Alolan Marowak and a tanned, shirtless man put on a street show for a small crowd of cheering people and pokemon.
It's... Wonderful. Simply wonderful.
Lee snaps back to awareness when his own pokemon questions him. He tilts his head to meet her big brown eyes. "Ah, sorry about that, love. I guess I got caught up looking around."
Vulpix accepts the apology with a short purr in her throat, then says; "Vulpix vul?" with an inquiring tone. 'What now?' he interprets it as.
"First, we find Birch," Lee begins, holding up a finger. "Then, we give him the abridged and edited version of our story," another finger goes up. "Finally, make a case that we're interesting enough to help. If I can nab a job, we can grease the wheels of quite a few of our problems."
"Just from the look of you, you must have some story."
Lee tenses and Vulpix jumps, almost slipping off her human's shoulders. Lee turns around slowly and blinks at who he sees.
Grinning with his hands held behind his head is a young Brendan Birch, son of the man Lee is looking for.
Brendan's eyes widen when Lee turns. "Oh jeez man. You didn't look that bad from behind," the preteen winces, trying not to touch his own face when he looks at Lee's burns. "Uh, do you need a hospital visit?"
Lee waves the kid's concern away. "Don't worry about it. It can wait until later. My name is Lee, and this is Vulpix. And you?"
The boy smiles. "Brendan Birch. Nice to meet ya!" he says, thrusting a hand out for a handshake. Lee takes his hand and gives it a single firm shake. "I'm gonna guess when you say you were looking for Birch, you mean my dad, right?"
"Depends, is your dad Professor Birch?" Lee asks, playing dumb.
Brendan nods. "MmmHmm! Hoenn's own Premier Pokemon Professor!" he exclaims with obvious pride. "What do you need to meet him for? Some kinda research project?"
"Of a sort," Lee says with a nebulous wave of his hand, sidestepping the topic. "I have a proposal for him, one regarding... the raising of pokemon in a unique training environment. I'm certain the results will produce pokemon that deviate significantly from the norm and might even shift the paradigm of modern pokemon training."
'I hope he doesn't realize I'm full of shit.'
Brendan raises an eyebrow and crosses his arms. "Thats awful vague and scammy sounding. And you don't look like the professor type."
Lee shrugs. "If I just blurt out the details, what's stopping anyone from taking my idea and taking credit for it?"
And indeed, a few people have stopped to watch the professor's son and the torn-up stranger talk.
"That makes sense..." Brendan grumbles. "I don't think dad has anything scheduled for today anyway, so I don't see the harm taking you to the lab. You looked kinda lost."
"We blew into town just today," Lee replies, following once Brendan turns and starts to walk. "Vulpix and I appreciate the help, by the way."
"Vul!" Vulpix chimes in.
Brendan grins and looks back. "Hey no prob! So how long have you been a trainer anyway? You must be really traveled if you've got a Vulpix! Can I see the rest of your team?"
Lee and Vulpix share a look. The little vulpine doesn't need to say anything, as her eyes alone tell him 'consider your words.'
"Not that long, actually, and Vulpix is my only pokemon." 'At the moment.' Lee reaches up to pet Vulpix along her neck. "It all actually ties into the proposal I have for the professor. How about yourself? You must have an impressive team with a professor as a dad."
Brendan either doesn't notice the focus shift upon him or ignores it. The boy slumps and groans. "I don't have a pokemon yet. Dad won't bend the rules for me. Once the newest starter batch shows up from the breeders, then I can finally start being a trainer!" He says, perking back up and dramatically pumping a fist.
'Sunny kid,' Lee muses, still gently stroking Vulpix's plush fur and making the little fox slowly relax across his shoulders. "Any idea who you want?"
"Mudkip, no contest. Ever since I saw Wallace's Swampert one-shot the finalist Chesnaught with a single Hydro Pump in the Ace of Aces tourney last year, I've been set on Mudkip and one day Swampert," Brendan gushes with a grin, his eyes alight. "Did you see that tourney?! Chesnaught was thrown off his feet by that Hydro Pump and almost went through the arena wall!"
"I must have missed it."
The boy scoffs as the lab begins to take shape in the distance. "I've got it saved. When you're done with dad I can show you. It was insane!"
The rest of the short walk is spent with much less interesting small-talk.
Birch's lab is a modest place. It's an arched, 2-story building atop a gentle, grassy hill with a rather homey look to it. It would have been easily missed if not for the sign out front declaring "Pokemon Research Center. Head Prof: Birch." Further behind the lab, a fenced-off corral housing a breathtaking number of pokemon expands hundreds of meters back all the way into the forest. In front of the lab is a plain, parked jeep, probably Birch's
Brendan walks up to the front door and throws it open without a care, almost bowling over some poor lab aide in glasses. "Sorry, Dave! Hey dad! There's someone here to meet you! He's not in a pimp suit and actually has a Pokemon so he's probably not a scammer!" He calls, running into a side room and out of sight.
Lee coughs into his fist to hide the laugh that bubbled out of him and looks around.
The lab looks much like it is in the game. A wide space with several computers, sci-fi level machines, and bookshelves along the wall. One aide is manning one of the PCs while another is near the corner writing on a notepad as a Lotad before him picks at a bowl of food. The one named Dave grumbles at almost being run over and walks up to Lee. "Ah, sorry about Brendan. He didn't hassle you too much, did he?"
"Him? Nah. Lee, by the way. And this is Vulpix," he introduces, gesturing to both himself and his pokemon.
'My pokemon. That's not ever going to get old.'
"A pleasure. My name is Dave if Brendan didn't make it obvious," Dave says with a smile and nod. The smile morphs into a frown as he takes in Lee's form. "Ah, do you need some first aid? You're looking a little... rough?" He trails off, eyes lingering on the burns across Lee's face and shirt.
"I'm no stranger to a bit of pain," Lee waves his concern away. "I have some cuts that could use a wash if you have a restroom I could borrow for a moment, but other than that I'm fine and don't want to impose too much."
The aide frowns a little more. "If you're certain. Still, there is a first aid kit under the sink if you need it. The restroom is the first door on the left," he says, adjusting his glasses before pointing down the hallways Brendan vanished through. "I'll let the professor know where you are if you're not back by the time he arrives."
Lee offers a short thanks and turns to the bathroom
Lee finishes buttoning up his shirt, careful not to catch it on the gauze now wrapped around his middle. The makeshift bandages made from his sleeve didn't hold up well and were messily crusted with blood when he pulled them off, so he reluctantly made use of the first aid kit in the sink cupboard. A dab of stinging disinfectant and a little help in the form of Vulpix holding the gauze taut later, and his cuts were treated.
Then he looked at his face for the first time since the blast.
Three near-perfect lines the thickness of his pinky are burned into the left side of his face at an angle. The flesh is a raised, painful, angry red, practically still fresh.
'Because it is.'
The topmost burn narrowly missed his eye, carving through part of his scalp and eyebrow instead down to the base of his nose. The next one is just under his eye, the line going from his temple to his lip. The last one burned away some of his sideburns and went down to his chin. It looks like someone took red-hot claws and raked them down his face.
Not wanting to lament his ruined face all day, the burns get some ointment to ease their stinging and are promptly ignored.
Finally, he just gives his hair and face a rinse to take the most noticeable bits of grime off. Vulpix watches the entire process from the lidded toilet with her usual placid expression.
"Alrighty, girl," Lee says, glancing in the mirror one last time. "Let's head back."
Vulpix hops down and follows without a word.
"...bably the real deal. I mean he's got the whole hermit look and everything," Brendan tells the frowning, elder Birch as Lee rounds the corner into the lab's main room. Brendan looks over and smiles. "Hey Mr. Lee! Tell my dad about the training thing you were proposing!"
Professor Birch, a stout, shaggy man who looks to be in his 30s, turns away from his son to face Lee.
Despite the man's carefree, almost goofy demeanor in the anime, Birch regards Lee with a critical eye. Birch's gaze doesn't linger in any one place for too long, taking in and dissecting all of Lee with intensity, and maybe even a level of hostility.
Lee jumps a little when Vulpix slips between his legs and seats herself between himself and Birch. The little vulpine sports a cool expression, but he can see the coiled muscles in her legs and withers.
The professor eases and even smiles when he notices Vulpix. "Oh, sorry about that, little miss," he says with a sheepish laugh. "I didn't mean to come of as hostile. We just get more than a few uh, interesting proposals from all sorts of people. If you're so willing to jump to your trainer's defense, then he can't be a bad guy."
Vulpix lets the tension in her small body fade and instead looks up at Lee. Again, she jumps to his shoulders and settles herself around his neck like a warm, furry scarf. Lee can't help but smile and pet the fox, earning him a positive purr.
Professor Birch clears his throat. "Ah, sorry about the ugly look, Mr. Lee. As I said, we get some real characters showing up at the lab time from time of any number of reasons, and as the League Professor for Hoenn, I'm obligated to hear everyone out regarding anything pokemon related no matter what it is... Even if it's something as dumb as trying to pass off gold spray-painted Feebas as some new subspecies," he grumbles the last, but composes himself and holds out a hand. "Professor Nigel Birch, at your service."
Lee grasps the offered hand in a firm shake and offers the professor a smile. "Lee Henson, a pleasure to meet you, professor. And just Lee is fine."
Birch smiles back. "So, Brendan tells me you have some sort of unique training style to present? I have to admit that I'm curious. You have the look and standing of a seasoned trainer so I can only imagine that you've developed something quite special."
'Make or break time. Birch is a goodhearted man, but don't fuck this up.'
Lee slowly nods. "Unique is a good word for it. I don't mean to be rude, professor, but can we discuss the details in private?" He asks, giving the curious Brendan a sidelong look. "Some of the details are... sensitive I guess. It's nothing against you, Brendan."
The boy hums and folds his arms behind his head. "Don't worry, I getcha. You don't want your secret techniques getting out. It's a smart move, because if I got my hands on them, then it'll be too easy for me to overtake old guys like you," he says with a grin. "I want some challenge."
"I'm twenty-four you brat."
Brendan turns on his heel and walks off, arms still folded behind his head. "Okay whatever old man. That's a whole twelve years between you and me. Don't bust a hip."
"Yeah yeah, get outta here."
"I will, cuz my hip isn't busted."
"You woulda had a busted ass in my day for that lip."
Brendan snorts and laughs, grabbing a backpack by the front door and taking off back out into Little Root.
Lee turns back to Birch, who has his face held in his hands. "Sorry about him," Birch mutters, dragging his hands down his face. "He's got the same rude mouth I did at his age."
The younger man waves away the older's concern. "He's a kid. It's what they do. He was pretty mild and not really offensive compared to what I'm used to dealing with."
Birch straightens up and a smile returns to his visage. "Alright, I've got a small meeting room in the back. We can talk privately there."
The professor turns to lead Lee to the back of the lab, but Lee stops for a moment. "Professor?"
Birch stops as well, turning to Lee with a raised eyebrow. "Yes?"
"Do you have a Psychic-type on hand? Some of the things I have to say are kind of... hard to swallow I guess?" Lee looks away briefly from a sudden spike in nervousness. "Having a second listener that can't be lied to might make this easier for you to believe."
Birch's earlier caution is back as his face hardens, but he nods. "I do. My Medicham isn't a true mind reader, but he can read brainwaves and separate lies from truths. Do you really think that what you have to say is so outrageous?"
"One hundred percent."
Birch dips a hand into his lab coat and pulls out a weathered pokeball covered in nicks and scuffs. It bursts open in his hands, and in a flash of white light, a Medicham materializes by his side.
The short humanoid glances to Birch, then to Lee and Vulpix, utterly dismissing them as a threat.
'Probably for good reason,' Lee muses, looking at the whipcord muscles rippling under Medicham's scar pockmarked skin. In the corner of his eye, he can see Vulpix frown at being overlooked so easily, but she doesn't make a fuss.
"Medicham," Birch begins, making the pokemon instantly turn his attention to his trainer. "My friend here says he has some outlandish things to explain and suggested your help in verifying them. Can you passively scan and be a lie detector for us please?"
Medicham nods without a word.
The pair of men and pokemon continue on to the back, passing several aides who look at Medicham pensively. Birch stops before a door on the right and opens it, flipping on the lights to reveal a small room with several chairs and a table between them. Both men step inside and seat themselves with Vulpix still on Lee's shoulders and Medicham opting to stand by Birch with crossed arms.
"Alrighty," Birch says, folding his hands and leaning on the table. "Whenever you're ready, Lee. Medicham?"
The Fighting/Psychic's eyes glow the slightest amount.
'Don't. Fuck. Up.'
"Okay... jeez I almost don't know how to open this..." Lee says, running gentle fingers over his burn. "I don't even have all the details myself here. I'll be frank, professor. This isn't exactly regarding some super-secret training method. It could if everything goes well, but..."
Birch and Medicham exchange glances.
Lee runs his hand through his hair and sighs. Vulpix cuddles a little closer and noses his cheek, looking at him with her soulful chocolate eyes. The man tries to pull has much strength as he can from his little fox and continues. "Professor, this is going to be a leap, but what do you know about the Multiverse theory?"
Birch's hard face melts into confusion. "I've not studied it in-depth, but I'm aware of the basics. Everything that could happen is either happening, already happened, or is going to happen in another universe, right? Why bring that up?"
Lee steels himself. No going back now. "I'm not from this universe, professor. Through a method I'm still trying to puzzle out, I've been ripped away from my home dimension and brought here with nothing but what I have on me. The trip is why I look so roughed up. I came to you because I need help from someone trustworthy."
The pokemon professor goes totally still, then turns to Medicham slowly. The pokemon lets out a breath through his nose and gives one quick nod.
The whole room is silent for almost a solid, agonizing minute as Lee waits for Birch's retort. Birch just stares at the younger man with an expression that he can't place, making him squirm.
'I knew it. I knew this wasn't going to end well. I'm going to get called crazy then thats the end, game over. Life in a padded cell. I really need to learn how to think things through.'
Vulpix's cheek suddenly being nuzzled to his takes the edge off his panic, but Lee can still feel his heart hammering.
Finally, Birch lets out a sigh and breaks his intense stare. "Well, uh. That's quite... something? Medicham knows you're not lying, but please understand this still sounds crazy, and Medicham's scanning isn't perfect. If it's a delusion that is strongly believed, his scan can be fooled. Do you have anything to back this up?"
Hope begins to build in Lee's heart. Birch might believe him. He takes his wallet and phone from his pocket and hands both over. "Here. See if these seem familiar in the least bit."
Birch opens the wallet and takes a look at Lee's driver's license, inspecting it carefully. "State of Ohio?" He asks, moving the card around to see the different holographic layers embedded in it.
"My home," Lee supplies. "One of fifty individual states that makes up the collective nation of the United States of America."
Birch nods absently and looks at the money and credit card inside the wallet. "Fifty states huh? Must be a governing nightmare," he quips. "I'm assuming Chase is the bank?" he asks, holding up Lee's credit card.
"A bank, yes."
"Don't you mean the bank?" Birch asks with a raised brow.
Lee frowns. "A bank. Chase was the one to screw me over the least so I went with them. Though with how they've been wanting to nickel and dime me recently, I'm almost happy to be here just out of spite."
Birch mouths 'nickel and dime?' and replaces the license and credit card before pulling out the small handful of dollar bills in the wallet. "Physical banknotes?" he asks, sounding incredulous. "Not every day you see these. These went out of style years ago. Inf fact, the bank doesn't even print new bills anymore. And what's a dollar?"
"Well, physical currency protects against the dangers of having an account hacked or a catastrophic failure and/or attack destroying someone's account." Lee shrugs.
Birch shakes his head. "With the number of Porygon that the bank employ, any attack on the bank, physical or electronic, is doomed to fail. Physical bills are just a liability now. Does 'Chase' not use Porygon or something?" He asks with some mirth as if the notion was ridiculous.
"There were no pokemon in my dimension, so they really can't."
Birch completely freezes, his eyes widening to an almost impossible degree. Medicham mirrors his trainer, staring at Lee with shocked eyes. Birch recovers and looks over to Medicham, who can only gulp and nod.
Lee tries not to squirm as both stare him down, saying nothing. 'I guess that is kind of a big bomb to drop outta nowhere.'
Vulpix growls and slides down from Lee's shoulder, landing on the table and standing defensively in front of him, her tails flared and a growl in her throat.
"Vulpix, please, there's no need for that," Lee says gently, carefully picking up the vixen and settling her in his lap. Vulpix doesn't fight, but the growl in her throat remains.
Birch finally speaks up again. "I believe you."
Vulpix stops growling and Lee's head shoots up, elation filling him.
'No fucking way.'
The professor sighs and slumps in his seat, his face lost. He takes a moment to formulate any words. "No pokemon? I can't even... comprehend a world like that. I don't think anyone can. I have so many whys and hows I want to ask, but I don't think I'd understand. Not even the most deranged person could say "there was no pokemon in my alternate dimension" and honestly believe it, and no one sane would come up with such an unthinkable lie," Birch says, leaning back in his chair and holding a palm to his forehead. "Medicham backing you up and all the hard-to-fake bits and bobs you have make for a compelling argument too, so... Wait..."
He sits back up and stares at Lee and Vulpix. "If you are from a dimension with no pokemon, where did you get Vulpix? Or even know about pokemon? And how did you know about me for that matter?"
Lee mulls over his answer. "Can you pass me my phone?"
Birch slides the cracked phone over to Lee. "A phone huh? I guess that makes sense, though I thought it was some old pokegear or a pokedex."
"That's not inaccurate," Lee says, unlocking the phone and scrolling through his apps to his emulator. "As for how I know about pokemon, they don't truly exist back home, but were a popular media franchise that had everything from toys, games, movies, TV shows, you name it. Pokemon was a cultural phenomenon that started twenty years back and bridged the generation gap with ease. I guess I never quite outgrew pokemon..." He says quietly. "As for how I got Vulpix, I have a theory, but the exact how and why is still a mystery. Here, look at this."
Lee shows the phone screen to Birch, who leans in with open interest. "This is one of the games I mentioned. I frequent it when on break at work and whatnot. I know you since you're briefly featured at the beginning to give the player the first pokemon and the mission to complete the pokedex. I just started a new game in the Hoenn region, and with some code finagling, got a random starter in the form of Vulpix here."
"Me in a video game, huh? I hope they were flattering at least," Birch quips as Lee clicks open the menu and opens the 'Pokemon' option, showing a solitary Vulpix in the lead slot.
"This is from an older save state of the game. In the newest..."
Lee opens the save state menu and clicks on the newest one. Again, he opens the pokemon menu, showing Birch an empty menu. The game music gets stuck as the game freezes then crashes.
The professor connects the dots instantly. "No. You think that..?"
"Something took Vulpix from the game and deposited her with me?" Lee finishes, closing his phone and storing it away. "I don't have any other explanation," he says, running a hand through Vulpix's soft tuft of breast fur, the vixen rewarding him with a coo of appreciation. "A pokeball with a Vulpix that somehow knows me appearing in my pocket the exact same time that this game with a Vulpix spontaneously corrupts itself seems suspect even after all the crazy shit that's happened to me today."
Birch nods along absently before leaning back. "Medicham? Can you get me some aspirin please?"
The pokemon, who has been silent the entire time, powers down his psychic power and slips out the door without a single sound.
"Sorry for the headache, professor."
The older man waves away the sheepish apology. "It's fine, Lee. If I was in your shoes, I would do the same thing if I could stop freaking out long enough," he says, leaning back up. "How did you end up in our world anyway?" he asks, leaning forward in interest.
"Again, I have only theories, but the most likely..." Lee trails off, hesitating. "Do you know what n-nuclear fission is, professor?" He asks, resisting the urge to touch his burns.
"Like with power plants and whatnot, yes? It's not my field of study, but I've read some things and watched a few documentaries."
"Yeah, and..." Lee gulps and suppresses his shaking. "Yeah, power plants."
He can feel Vulpix's eyes and hot breath on his chin. Birch notices something out of place as well and frowns. "Lee, you're pale. If you don't want to say, that's okay."
"I was caught in a nuclear explosion, one with city-leveling yield," Lee forces out as fast as he can without the words turning to mush. "I-I can speculate all day about how physics might have broken down under that kind of strain and punched a hole in space, but I'm not an expert so..." He takes a deep breath and focuses on the soft fox in his lap, forcing the image of...of...
Forcing the imagery from his mind before the bile rolling in his stomach could rise into his mouth. Lee swallows dryly and takes great heaving breaths of blessedly cool and not superheated air. Sweat dots his brow and his burns pinch and sting. He loosely hugs Vulpix, who cuddles into his arms without any protest and watches his face with troubled eyes.
Birch gulps and looks away, his expression disturbed and his hands wringing themselves. "W-well. Maybe we should move on to more pleasant topics? Was all the information on that license correct and up to date?"
Lee blinks at the strange question. "Yeah, it was. My DL was updated just a few months back. Why?"
"We're going to need that info for me to sign as your sponsor."
Birch looks nonplussed but repeats himself. "We're going to need that info for me to sign as your sponsor."
"As my sponsor?" Lee questions, looking to Vulpix who just shakes her head. "I don't follow."
The professor groans and lightly slaps his own forehead. "Duh, Birch. Different worlds. I guess your games never went into detail about trainer sponsorships?"
"No mention at all."
Birch hums. "Okay, so being a sponsored trainer is a pretty simple thing. I give you a pokedex and the League fronts you a bi-weekly stipend to use as you see fit. In return, you're considered an active trainer who operates on my behalf and represents me in official tournaments while you conduct your own studies. Basically? You get paid to battle and bring prestige to the lab, and the better you do, the better grants I get from the League and the bigger your stipend becomes. I only have two sponsor slots since I'm the newest regional professor. One is going to Brendan, but my friend Norman decided he'd pay for his daughter's journey himself, so I have a free spot for you. Great, isn't it?!"
Lee sticks a pinky in his ear and rubs it around. When the digit comes back clean, he levels the grinning Birch with a flat look. "I'm sorry. I must have something crazy stuck in my ear. It sounds like you're just handing a coveted position to me. An interdimensional stranger."
The professor's grin falls some. "Is this... not what you wanted?"
"I expected a couch to crash on for a day or two as I got up to speed without anyone asking questions, and maybe being pointed to a job that a guy with no ID can do," Lee says with a shake of his head. "I just need something to keep Vulpix and myself fed and warm as I figure out my next steps. I dunno if you-"
Lee stops at Birch's curt reply. "You said you came here with a revolutionary training method, and I know you were fibbing to have an excuse to talk to me, but," Birch smirks, "I think you do have a revolutionary training method, even if you don't know it."
The younger man blinks. "I don't follow."
"Answer me this, Lee. How good are you are those pokemon games? How much do you know about pokemon?" He asks. After a second of inspecting Lee's clothing, he also adds; "And what did you do for a living back home? Something outdoorsy I take?"
Lee thinks to himself for a moment, rubbing a circle in Vulpix's chest tuft with a thumb. "I played competitively as a teen against other people and did fairly well with a few local tourney wins to my name. That's more being aware of the current meta and prep than actual skill. At that age, I had pretty much the entire pokedex of every available game memorized, but that's limited to types, movesets, stats, and whatnot with no actual biology or behavior factored in. And as for what I was, I was a zookeeper, one specialized to work with large carnivores, though I frequently lent a hand to other exhibits."
Now Birch seems confused. "But you said there were no pokemon?"
"There aren't," Lee replies, stopping when Medicham returns with a glass of water and several pills for the professor.
Birch accepts both the water and aspirin with a smile. "Thanks, friend."
Medicham returns the smile with a small one of his own.
The professor tosses the pills into his mouth and downs the entire glass before turning back to Lee. "Sorry about the interruption, Lee. Please keep going."
Lee does. "Like I was saying, there aren't pokemon back home, so animals filled their place. Think pokemon, only much less intelligent and lacking any special powers."
"I'm aware of what animals are," Birch says, now looking at Lee with a manic, almost unsettling gleam in his eye. "They don't exist outside special reserves and farms anymore since fighting with pokemon for territory is near impossible, but anything outside of domesticated livestock is dangerous and unpredictable. You handled carnivores of all things?"
"A handful of scars and the Zoology degree gathering dust in my closet say so," Lee quips, leaning back into his chair. "Hell, my elder lioness, Makiri, tried to kill me this morning."
Vulpix looks at him with ill-concealed alarm and Birch grimaces briefly before his face-hurting smile returns full force.
"So, let me get this straight," he begins. "You have knowledge of advanced battling strategies that had to be used with the constraints of a video game, wide-spanning knowledge of both pokemon and the world, experience handling creatures much more violent and unpredictable than pokemon, and obviously the ability to comprehend advanced biological and psychological principles based on the fact that you handled animals of all things. What part of this sounds like you'd make anything other than a stellar trainer? It even shows with miss Vulpix here. You've had her for less than a day and already she's gladly jumped to your defense several times."
Lee bites his lip and looks down at Vulpix.
The vixen in his lap looks up back at him, her eyes narrowed just the slightest amount.
"If I didn't think you were worth the investment, then I wouldn't offer," Birch keeps going, leaning forward. "This opens countless doors for you, Lee. I... don't really know where to begin on getting you back home, but this is a good stopgap for you at least?"
"Short of tracking down and beseeching Palkia to help me somehow, I don't think I'm getting back," Lee mutters, crossing his arms as he feels a headache start to form. "I need to care for Vulpix now, after all. Not that I have anything to return to anyway."
It's all gone.
It wasn't just him destroyed. The Zoo, his friends, his family, his animals.
All of them are gone. Gone without the peace ignorance of their fate could have brought.
Even if he went back there is nothing to return to.
The realization makes Lee blood run cold as his eyes sting with prickling, unshed tears. The man focuses hard on the fox on his lap and pushes the mounting breakdown away, desperate to not bawl like a child in front of his pokemon and the professor.
Vulpix shifts and noses his chin, again drawing his attention to her. She turns in his lap to face him and rears up on her hindlegs, placing her front paws on his shoulders. The vixon's eyes draw his in as she leans forward and presses her forehead to his, then the captivating eyes glow.
Companionship. Always. No matter the choice.
The raw emotions Vulpix feeds to Lee almost makes the man choke up and let out the tears he's holding back. Each one reverbs inside his mind with incredible strength, a conviction borne of being absolute. Vulpix feels all of this for him.
'What in the world have I done to have someone like you at my side?'
Vulpix's answer is swift. Visions fly through his mind with incredible speed.
He opens her ball, then takes the hard but right choice to explain things to her, even after the stress of living through the unthinkable and losing it all. How after that, he still regards her concerns on the same level as his, how he consults her rather than just choosing for her, how he saw being with her as a real, valid reason for not returning home. Goodness deserves goodness.
Again, she hammers her feelings home.
Companionship. Always. No matter the choice.
Goodness deserves goodness.
Lee sucks in a shaking breath, glad that Vulpix's gentle face blocks Birch from seeing the tear tracks running down his face. "Professor? Where do I sign?"
"And that will do it!"
Professor Birch takes the final paper from Lee eagerly, turning in his office chair to a scanner on a cluttered side desk. "I think this is the first step in something beautiful, Lee! Steven Stone's rise has done a lot for Hoenn, but we're still considered one of the weaker regions. I know you can change that when you take the world by storm! And think of all the incredible discoveries only someone with your unique talents could find!"
Lee rolls his sore wrist and looks around the professor's messy office. "I still think you're overestimating me, professor. I can certainly try, but I don't know how much I can do," he says, leaning back into his chair.
Birch curses and smacks the scanner then turns to his newest trainer when the machine finally starts accepting the forms Birch fed into it. "Well of course you can't do it all. Not alone, at least. If Vulpix is any indication, then you'll have no problem building a team."
At hearing her name, Vulpix stops pawing the oblivious Lotad that had wandered into the office and looks up. After a second, she goes back to Lotad, who finally seems to realize he's being touched with a quiet "Tad?"
"Vulpix is a sweetheart who took pity on my lost ass. She's an exception, not the norm," Lee retorts. He yelps when he feels a nip on his pinky and looks down to see Vulpix glaring up at him.
"You're not doing a great job convincing me," Birch says with mirth. "Since you're a special case, I'll need to submit your paperwork to the League to get your license set up. I marked your birthplace as a 'remote region/unnamed island' so make sure your story stays the same for anyone who asks. It'll take a week or two to be approved, but that's not a big deal. It'll give you some time for self-study and recovery, and the League year recently ended too. It'll start back up here in about a month if you want to try the gym circuit."
'Time to relax. Now that I could use. Today seems to have dragged on for fucking weeks and my smokes didn't even get ported with me. What a goddamn rip.'
"I imagine. The corner store sells cigarettes, but good luck without any ID."
Lee's face flushes. "I said that out loud, didn't I?"
Birch laughs and reaches into a drawer on his desk. "You did. I can't make the ID show up faster, but maybe this will take your mind off it," he says, placing a device on the desk that makes Lee's eyes widen.
A Pokedex. An actual Pokedex. It suddenly lights up and a synthesized voice begins to play. "I am the Pokedex of Lee Henson. I was issued by Professor Birch of Hoenn. If lost or stolen, I cannot be replaced."
"Yeah," Lee breathes, his chest tight. "I've been looking for an excuse to quit anyway. I don't know how to thank you, professor."
Birch slides the Pokedex closer with a smile. "I took the liberty of pre-installing a voice recorder in there for you. I want to pick your brain, Lee Henson, so I want you log your training, studies, and discoveries and periodically turn them into me. Even if it seems like something silly to record, please do so, and that'll be all the thanks I need. What seems simple to you could be unique or even revolutionary in reality. Now!" Birch claps his hands together. "I think you've earned some rest. There is a guest room in the back for you to use. It's a little cramped but it should fit one man and his pokemon just fine."
Lee stands and picks up the-his Pokedex before bowing his head. "Thank you for everything, Professor. It means the world to me."
"Vulpix!" Vulpix chimes in from his side.
The man smiles down at his fox. "Means the world to us, I mean."
Professor Birch waves both off with a smile. "Go rest. I'll order some takeout or something for dinner and get you both later. Lee, close your mouth. You're not imposing if I charge it as a lab expense."
Lee lets his protest die in his mouth with a sigh. "Fine. I'm too tired to argue anyway." He looks down to Vulpix. "Let's scoot, love. I need a nap."
The man and fox leave Birch to his work and head to the back of the lab like he instructed. With every step, Lee feels himself slump a little more as an all-encompassing exhaustion finally grips him. He slips his Pokedex into his pocket as to not drop it and opens the door marked "Guest" at the end of the hallway.
The door swings open with a squeak, revealing a spartan bedroom with naught but a plain bed, a nightstand with a lamp, and a door to a tiny bathroom.
Everything but the bed is ignored as Lee flops into it with zero grace. He groans in relief and lets his tired body sag into the mattress. Sleep rapidly overtakes him and he shuts his eyes, but just before he can fully pass out, something shakes the bed.
He cracks open an eye to see Vulpix settling into the crook of his arm, her head on his bicep. She smiles at him and cuddles a little closer.
With herculean effort, Lee hugs her close, almost losing himself in the delicious warmth her small body provides.
"You know, Vulpix?" he whispers, eye closing again. "I think everything is going to be okay."
Sleep takes him.