Lee leans against the cold, sterile white wall and numbly watches a team of the zoo's finest veterinarians operate frantically on a small, bloodied form. Under the deep trains of red, one could make out bits of fur the same color as sun-bleached savannah dust.
Despite all the efforts and desperate measures the veterinarians try, the rise and fall of the tiny lion's chest slows just a little more with each passing second.
Lee looks down at his hands, his stomach churning at the sight of the red smudges still dotting his palms. The longer he looks, the more his nose stings with the sharp scent of copper. He barely even notices someone taking his shoulder and leading him out of the operating room.
"I hate to say it, but it looks like Miss Zanta is going to reject Zuberi and Sefu... and poor Sefu is going to need more help than her mama can provide anyway."
Lee blinks and looks around, taking in the empty breakroom of the zoo from his spot seated in a corner. At his side, waiting patiently and quietly for a reply is Aasir.
The Kenyan-born man takes the initiative again. "Lee, my friend. Talk to me. It's okay to be shaken," he says, laying a large hand on Lee's shoulder. "You are confused and scared. Your face says it all. It's not everyday dat somethin' like dis happens."
Lee looks up to his mentor briefly, then back down to his stained hand still folded in his lap.
It happened so fast. Zanta, the eldest daughter of Makiri's second litter, had just given birth a few days prior. Her litter was small, just three female cubs named Sefu, Zuberi, and Mumtaz. Of the three, none were sickly or otherwise had any redflags that might trigger Zanta. Zanta had shown no warning signs at all. She nursed, groomed, and watched over all three cubs.
Then she went berserk and attacked Mumtaz, her intent to kill practically tangible.
Lee was so stunned at first, then the agonized screeches and terrified screams of the zoo-goers snapped him out of it in an instant. He ran to the staff room behind the exhibit and almost ripped the tranq gun's case off the wall in his adrenaline-fueled haste. He ran back to the exhibit and with shaking hands, took aim at Zanta and fired.
The lioness yowled when the dart stuck her flank and she jumped, but by then, she had already moved to little Sefu. Mumtaz...
Lee sucks in a violent breath and looks up at Aasir, his bloody hands forgotten for a moment.
Aasir tightens the hand on Lee's shoulder just a bit. "My friend, do not dwell on dis," Aasir says gently. "You did everythin' right. Sometimes... Sometimes things just don't work out."
"But nothin'!" The Kenyan man interrupts. He sighs and runs a hand over his bald head. "Lee," he starts, voice quiet, "one of the hardest lessons anyone who works with animals has gotta learn is that we can't always predict things like dis. They don't think like you and I. What dey might see as common sense is alien to us. We can only try to bridge the gap and understand."
"To understand, huh?" Lee murmurs.
"Indeed," Aasir says with a small smile. "This is a dark day for de Zoo, but we're gonna look past dat. Those cubs, dey gonna need all the help dey can get. It's the perfect opportunity to learn and understand. We're gonna look at the silver lining. You still want to be with de lion exhibit?"
Lee closes one hand, feeling the phantom sensation of blood-slicked fur under his fingers. He needs to be strong. Sefu and Zuberi need him. The visage of the innocent cubs flash before his eyes. "Yes. Yes, of course, I'll stay."
Just as he rises to go... somewhere. Just anywhere else, a sudden horrid light shines in from the window.
Sirens howl a terrible song.
Animals yowl in terrible agony.
With a sudden gasp, Lee jolts awake, just barely restraining himself from shooting up and throwing Vulpix off his chest. He bites his lip and slowly brings a hand up to cover his painfully throbbing scars. He stares at the plain ceiling in the dark bedroom until the stinging and burning scars calm to a dull ache. Miraculously, Vulpix remains asleep on his covered chest.
'2nd time this month...'
The man lets out a quiet sigh and turns his head to the nightstand, where the alarm clock reads back '5:13 AM' in its baleful red numbers.
It's no use sitting and thinking about them, the cubs he raised by hand.
Lee sighs once more and shifts to try and return to sleep, only to find his pillow unpleasantly damp and sweaty. 'Fuck it. I'm not getting back to sleep after that dream anyway.'
"Psst. Vulpix," Lee whispers, making the vixen's ear twitch. "Hey, honey, rise and shine. Time to get up. Hoenn isn't going to conquer itself."
Vulpix grumbles lowly and raises her head, cracking open an unamused eye to glare at her trainer. The other eye opens shortly after as Vulpix rises to her paws, still on Lee's chest. She does a full-body stretch complete with a jaw-cracking yawn before hopping to the floor.
Lee sits up and peels the damp blanket off of himself with a grimace, noting that his sleeping attire is sweat-soaked as well. "Gross..." He murmurs, standing and walking to the small bathroom off his room. Several minutes later after a short shower in the cramped bathroom, Lee steps back out in fresh underclothes and dons his attire for the day. Vulpix watches demurely from the bedroom door.
The day he leaves the lab and actually begins a childhood dream once thought impossible. The man suppresses a shiver of nervous energy and takes a shuddering breath. He looks down to the Sliph bag at the foot of the bed, going over a mental checklist of things inside.
'Tent, sleeping bag, clothes, food for myself and 'Pix, water, cookware, meds, Potion, pokeballs, books, ax, lighter, power bank. I know I'm missing something, but for the life of me, I can't remember...' Lee scratches his head and hums under his breath before looking to Vulpix. 'Anything I'm forgetting, love?'
Vulpix says nothing either psychic or verbal but blinks and looks at the nightstand.
Lee steps over and grabs the folding beater cellphone on the stand. He takes a long look at the little hunk of plastic and glass, then to his Sliph bag with a shake of his head. "We live in a world where casual spatial distortion tech and flip-phones exist in the same era. What the fuck, man."
He flips the phone open and begins dialing...
The scarred man and the fox at his heels stop midway back to the lab guest room. With an exhausted sigh, the man turns to face the voice.
Behind him, a resolute Brendan stands with crossed arms.
"Something I can do for you, Brendan?" Lee mutters, leaning against the hallway wall. "I kinda want to get to sleep."
The boy nods. "You turned down Ash's offer to travel with him and May. Why's that?" He asks.
Lee scoffs, recalling Ash's offer over dinner just fifteen minutes prior. "Trust me on this, that kid is a trouble magnet. He's got a target painted on his back that actual terrorists are gunning for. He's a nice guy, but I'm not sticking my neck, and by extension Vulpix's neck out for a stranger. Plus, doesn't a grown-ass man traveling with a pair of kids, one a little girl, seem kinda creepy?"
Brendan mulls it over for a second. "Well, when you put it that way I get it. If you don't wanna go with them, then how about me?" He asks with a grin growing on his face.
The man across from him blinks. "Excuse me?"
"Yeah, come on! It'll be fun!" Brendan insists. "Traveling alone sucks!"
Lee and Vulpix both slowly turn their heads to meet eyes.
"Traveling without someone else to talk to about human stuff I mean!" Brendan quickly amends with a wave of his arm. "And no, you're a friend of the Birch family and a Hoenn sponsored trainer like me, so it's not weird if we hang out. Yes, I've already asked dad and he's cool with it."
Lee lets his argument die and escape his mouth as a tired hiss.
Brendan folds his arms behind his head in a forced show of aloofness, but his averted eyes give him away. "Plus I feel like I learn a lot from you, you know? Kinda like a cool teacher. Mudkip's growth is nothing short of explosive, and it's all with your help. I wanna learn to train as you do..."
The elder of the two turns away with pursed lips, trying not to let out an irritated snip. He looks back briefly to the boy, taking in his slowly falling face with a grimace. Finally, Lee sighs and caves. "Tell you what. Let me sleep on it and I'll call you in the morning. I plan on leaving then."
Brendan's grin lights up the whole hallway.
"It's like five in the morning, what do you want..?" Brendan's sleepy voice comes through the tinny cell phone speaker.
"Get up and gather your shit," Lee says, not bothering to hide the smirk in his voice. "We're leaving ASAP. I wanna put feet to dirt and get to a decent place to train before the heat of the day sets in and makes everyone miserable."
The other line is silent for a moment as Lee's words sink in, then the sound of someone frantically jumping out of bed comes over the phone. "W-We'll be at the lab soon!"
Lee closes the phone with a quiet snap and pockets it. "Easy enough, eh love?" He asks Vulpix, who just chuffs and hops up to her favorite shoulder perch as Lee dons his Sliph bag and walks past.
The pair slowly walk to the front of the lab, going over the building that had been their home for over a month. The once alien building is now as familiar as the back of a hand (or paw) for both trainer and pokemon. Leaving almost felt strange. Lee stops by Birch's office and leaves his key on the Professor's desk, confident he will need it no longer.
Man and Mon step outside the lab and close the door, already hearing the squealing of jeep tires in the distance.
"This is it, love," Lee murmurs to Vulpix, who perks her ears. "This is the first real step. The journey of a very literal thousand miles begins here. Are we ready?"
The little fox says nothing but presses her cheek to her trainer's.
Lee smiles gently.
Down the road, Birch's jeep takes form in the early morning gloom with a dust cloud behind it. The jeep's brakes squeal in protest when Birch suddenly lays into them with a lead foot, making the jeep skid to a halt before Lee and Vulpix.
A woosy Brendan steps out of the passenger side, looking decidedly green. "U-Ugh... Dad, speed limits are a thing you know."
The elder Birch steps out of the vehicle looking none the worse for wear. "I know." the professor begins cheerily. "But it's only illegal if we get caught. Don't look at me like that, this is an exciting day! It's not every day a dad can see his son off on his journey."
Brendan sighs and pulls his backpack from the jeep before shouldering it in one motion. "Yeah, I guess..."
Lee looks at the jeep, noticing no other occupants. "Just you two?"
The younger of the two nods. "Yeah, Ash and May didn't want to get up so I guess they're starting later today."
Birch looks at his son with an almost misty smile. "So I guess this is goodbye for a while, kiddo. I know you'll do me proud, so don't be afraid to stop and have fun. You'll grow more over this journey than you did your entire twelve years here in Littleroot, so call me and your mom often so we don't have heart attacks when you suddenly come back as a man."
The younger Birch looks away, blushing a little in embarrassment, but he can't stop his lips from twitching upward. "Jeez, Dad..."
The professor wraps his son in a hug, and the boy hugs his father tightly.
Lee smiles at the scene, even if it pokes his heart with a tiny spike of sharp envy. 'I hope mom and dad are doing okay...'
The father and son release each other, both grinning wide. Birch then turns to Lee. "Lee, I doubt I need to say much to you, other than remember the little guys like me when you're at the top of the world, alright?"
The scarred man barks out a short laugh. "I hope you don't really mean that, Professor. Without you, Vulpix and I would have been sunk. You've done so much for us that I'm not sure how to even begin repaying you."
"The grant increases from your tourney wins are a good start," Birch replies with a chuckle. "But what I really want are those recording logs of yours. No matter how mundane your point of view may seem to you, it could be game-changing for us. Your discovery of Vulpix's pyrokinesis just from a g- er, a legend is nothing short of incredible."
The vixen on Lee's shoulder preens under the indirect praise.
Lee rubs the back of his head. "I guess..."
"And," Birch continues, his smile falling some as his voice lowers. "It's not my place to tell you how to manage your secrets, but I'd be careful about who you reveal your past to. Not everyone is so... open-minded."
"That one I knew."
"I know, just making sure for my peace of mind," Birch says, reaching out a hand that Lee firmly grasps. "Good luck on your journey friend. Try not to do anything reality-breaking without warning me first."
Birch lets his hand go, and Lee glances down at the little card that Birch discreetly left in his palm.
Post Traumatic Stress Specialists of Hoenn.
100% Confidential. All insurance types accepted.
Just under that is Birch's chicken-scratch scrawl.
Vulpix has been tight-lipped with Medicham but I heard you during an all-nighter a week ago. Don't purposely hurt yourself or go without. -Nigel.
Lee sucks in a sharp breath and snaps his eyes to Birch, but the professor either ignores the look or doesn't notice as he turns to address Brendan as well. "Alrighty, boys! The road awaits. Try not to get in trouble and have fun!"
"Awesome!" Brendan yells, practically vibrating with excitement. "C'mon Lee! We're burning daylight!"
Lee stares are the card in his hand even as his feet move to follow.
'How the fuck does he expect me to use this? I can't just tell a stranger that I got nuked and boohoo it makes me sad. One way ticket to the nuthouse. This is something I have to face on my own.'
Despite how he intended the thought to be private, having Vulpix's head inches away from his own makes Lee's thoughts as clear as spoken words over the thin telepathic band between them. Vulpix presses her cold nose to his cheek and huffs before he even finishes.
He absently reaches up to pet her. 'Maybe not on my own, but still.'
Lee stiffens and stuffs the card in his pocket with speed borne of embarrassment. He turns to glare lightly at Brendan, who only blinks in return.
"Nothing important..." Lee says, looking away.
Brendan hums under his breath."You were staring at that card so hard I thought it was going to go up in flame. We've been walking for like ten minutes."
"In-joke, don't worry."
"Here should be good."
"Ughhhhh..." the sweat-soaked Brendan groans. "Sweet, sweet shade. I promise to never take you for granted again."
Lee blows out a breath and pulls at his own damp shirt collar. "Yeah, no joke."
The pair had been walking for almost six hours. The early morning chill was merciful, making the first several hours leading to and slightly after the sunrise little more than a pleasant stroll to the north. After the sun rose, however, Hoenn began to show it's tropical climate as the heat rose without a sea-side breeze to cool anyone unfortunate enough to venture out into the sun. Lee even had to put Vulpix in her ball because having her on his shoulders made for a nausea-inducing amount of heat, even with her using Drought to try and redirect the sun rays.
And in a horrid bout of luck for Lee and Brendan, the road north of Littleroot to Oldale is nothing but flat grasslands, and today is nothing short of scorching. Not even pokemon were out and about.
That's why a copse of large trees off the side of the road made both trainers beeline for the soothing shade they offered.
Brendan drops his backpack and collapses on his back in the cool grass below one of the trees. "Ahhhhh yeah, that's the stuff," he groans in delight.
Lee is a little more graceful, but still more or less flops down as he digs in his bag and pulls a plastic water bottle from it, still as blessedly cold as when he pulled it from the lab fridge this morning.
"Sliph tech my ass," Lee huffs as he unscrews the bottle and downs the entire thing in three huge, refreshing gulps. "Huh. More like Sliph magic," he says, wiping his mouth.
"I know, right?" Brendan laughs and opens his own bag, digging for his own water. His other hand travels to his belt and snags Mudkip's pokeball. "I think it's time for lunch. C'mon out!"
Mudkip's ball flies into the air and snaps open, dumping a pokemon-shaped mass of energy on the ground that slowly turns into Mudkip. "Mud?"
Lee follows suit, tossing his sole pokeball up and letting open with a snap-hiss. Vulpix lands gracefully before she's even fully materialized. "Vul."
The older trainer opens his bag and fishes out the bag of self-made pokemon food he had prepared the night prior, making Vulpix's tails wag. "Alrighty girl, lunch first, then some light training?"
Mudkip turns to Lee and Vulpix, his little eyes shining with an almost malicious light, only for Brendan's hand on his head to snap him out of it.
"Light training pal," Brendan says with a sheepish laugh. "If you and Vulpix burn down or knock over the trees, then we're outta luck."
Poor Mudkip slumps and Vulpix rolls her eyes.
Both trainers set out food and water for their pokemon, who dig into their meals with gusto. Brendan produces a simple sandwich from his bag and wolfs it down, totally ignoring Lee's warning to slow down before he gets sick.
Lee stares into the darkened maw of his Sliph bag, debating with himself internally. 'It's too hot to cook an actual lunch. Something light will do fine.'
So a few mouthfuls of granola became lunch, and Lee steadfastly ignores his younger companion moaning as a stomach ache hits him.
As he rests, Lee watches both Vulpix and Mudkip finish up their meals, mulling over what he's watching. 'The games never had any systems for personal care like food, hygiene, and one-on-one time in place for the pokemon, and it certainly would not have been cost-prohibitive even such systems were in place. One isn't much to care for, but six or more could add up to more time and money than I have,' Lee thinks with a sigh. 'I guess my plans for a Snorlax are shot. Damn.'
Vulpix's face scrunches up as she chews her last bite of lunch. Her distaste plain for such an... Unsightly? Unattractive? Slobbish pokemon? The feeling of what she wishes to convey is in the telepathic message she sends, but she can't tie the feeling to a human word.
'I know what you mean, love,' Lee sends back and he reclines back into the grass. 'But give credit where credit is due. Snorlax is a powerful pokemon and would be on everyone's team if they didn't have such unearthly upkeep.'
Vulpix's side of the telepathic link is silent before she concedes the point with a flicker of agreement and only a slight undertone of lingering disdain.
'Anyway, future team composition aside, let's start when you're ready, yeah?' Lee sends to her, making Vulpix perk up. Lee reaches into his bag and withdraws a stack of post-it notes. Vulpix draws closer and seats herself on her haunches as Lee pulls one note free and holds it up.
The top right corner, the same one Lee is focusing on, smolders and spontaneously combusts with a crackle after only several seconds of Vulpix's intense stare.
Lee lets the note drop and burn to ash before pulling another one. 'Now, center.'
Like the note before it, the one in Lee's fingers bursts into flame from the center
Man and fox train in silence for some time, only vaguely paying attention to Brendan's shouts and the sound of Mudkip firing off attacks.
Both Lee and Vulpix look up at Brendan's shout.
Standing before Brendan and Mudkip is a large Shroomish. The little mushroom pokemon has it's beady eyes locked with the savagely smiling Mudkip, who shifts his weight back and forth in anticipation.
"What's a Shroomish doing so far from the Petalburg woods?" Brendan wonders aloud, voicing the question on Lee's tongue. "The little guy should have dried out in this heat."
Lee stands and pulls his Pokedex from his jacket pocket, pointing it at the Shroomish.
"Shroomish: The Mushroom Pokemon," the Pokedex begins in its dull, computerized voice. "This mild-mannered pokemon inhabits thick forests and consumes dead plant matter. It grows well in dark, moist environments."
"It's neither dark nor moist out here," Lee says with a frown, watching the Shroomish begin a slow walk towards Mudkip. "What's up with this little guy?"
Vulpix noses her trainer's leg and flares her telepathic connection to him, sending an image to Lee's. An image Shroomish's little eyes darting to Brendan's bag and the empty food bowls before returning to Mudkip flies through his mind.
"He's hungry?" Lee wonders, getting a nod from Vulpix.
Shroomish grimaces and turns his walk into a run, flying at Mudkip in a textbook Tackle.
Mudkip tenses just in time for Brendan to yell; "Mudkip! Dodge!"
The mudfish braces his muscular legs against the ground and leaps out of Shroomish's way, leaving the little mushroom to stumble to a stop. Then without even needing a command, Mudkip flies back at Shroomish with his own, much faster Tackle.
Shroomish's eyes widen and he tries to move his stubby legs in time, but Mudkip crashes into him like a blue missile with a painful sounding thwack, throwing Shroomish back so hard that he bounces several times before rolling to a stop.
"Nice work Mudkip!" Brendan says with a fist pump, then stops when Shroomish slowly rolls back to his feet with great difficulty. Just one attack left a giant bruise on the little mushroom's front and makes him pant in pain.
"Half-starved and still has the energy to get up after a direct hit huh?" Lee mutters to Vulpix who winces in sympathy. She knows full well how hard Mudkip hits. "Tough, isn't he?"
Shroomish grimaces and runs forward again, albeit much slower, then he stops short and shakes a cloud of yellow pollen from his body with a grunt.
'No, not pollen. Stun Spore!' Lee realizes. "Brendan!"
"On it!" Brendan yells back. "Mudkip! Mist down the Stun Spore!"
Mudkip takes a breath and shoots a Watergun from his maw at the rapidly approaching cloud of yellow, then he partially closes his mouth so the stream deflects off his lips, making a thick wall of mist like a pinched hose.
The Stun Spore runs into the cloud of water droplets and is stopped cold, the spores instantly soaked before falling to the ground.
Mudkip never saw Shroomish charge through the mist in a desperate Tackle.
Mudkip lets out a surprised cry when Shroomish slams his skull directly into his own, sending the mudfish back into his ass and seeing stars. Shroomish almost immediately shakes another cloud of yellow Stun Spore from his little body, practically on top of Mudkip.
"Oh, man! Mudkip! Get out of there quick!" Brendan yells out in panic.
Thankfully, Mudkip isn't so concussed that he can't hear his trainer and rolls out of the way in a hurry, coming to a stop several feet away just as the cloud of Stun Spore settles where he was.
Shroomish growls in frustration, but it's immediately drowned out when Mudkip fires a retaliatory Water Gun out of pure instinct. Shroomish is so close that he has no time to dodge, so the torrent of water crashes into him in a violent surge. The water technique doesn't do much damage against the grass type Shroomish, but it's enough to throw the already battered pokémon end over end with a short cry. He comes to a stop on the ground, unmoving sans his shallow breathing.
Both Brendan and Mudkip blink. "Did... Did we win?" Brendan questions quietly, then an enormous smile breaks out on his face. "We won!" He cheers, Mudkip leaping for joy right beside his trainer.
Lee looks down to Vulpix with a small smile. "They did pretty well, eh?" Then he turns back to Brendan as the young boy rummages his through his pockets for something. Then Lee blinks as a thought strikes him. "That hungry Shroomish never intended to win, did he?"
Vulpix just shakes her head.
"All right! Here we go!" Brendan yells in excitement, pulling a pokeball from his pocket. "First catch! Go pokeball!"
The little red and white ball flies from his hand straight and true, bouncing off the unconscious Shroomosh before popping open and sucking him inside as a wave of red light. The ball falls to the ground and begins to shake, it's central button flashing red.
Both Brendon and Lee watch it with bated breath.
A nerve-racking ten seconds later, and the ball falls still with a quiet 'ping!'
Brendan can't contain his excitement. He throws his head back and laughs up to the sky, raising his shaking, adrenaline-filled arms. All the while, Mudkip beams with pride, up until Brendan snags him up in a hug. "We did it! We caught Shroomish!"
Lee can't help but find Brendon's smile infectious and looks down at Vulpix, who smiles faintly back.
'It's one thing to see it on a TV or a computer screen, but an actual catching is pretty incredible.' Lee thinks to himself. Then he clears his throat. "Hey, Brendan! I hate to rain on your parade, but your newest team member was looking pretty hungry and is no doubt tired now," the man starts, stopping Brendan and Mudkip's little victory dance. "I'm sure it'll make a good impression if you fed him and offered a spritz of Potion."
Brendan is quick to grab the now still pokeball and rush back under the shade with Mudkip at his heels. "Good thinking! He did seem a little scrawny..." He says, rolling the pokeball between his fingers as he settles next to Lee. "Say, how much further until we get to Oldale Town?"
"Hrm", Lee rubs his chin and looks up at the sun through the cool cover of leaves, estimating the time to be around 1 PM. "If we really make tracks, we could probably be there by the end of tomorrow. That means marching through the heat without any rest, however, and I don't know about you, but fuck that."
The young Birch tries to stifle a laugh at his companion's profanity. "Two days, then?"
"Two days," Lee confirms with a nod. "Fuck Hoenn and this tropical heat. After the Ever Grande conference, I'm going to Sinnoh and staying there," he says, falling back into the soft grass.
Brendan just rolls his eyes as he digs through his bag, producing a spray bottle of Potion. "Wahhh, it's hot. I'm going to Sinnoh," Brendan mocks with a smirk, lowering his voice a few octaves to try and mimic Lee. "Then I'll complain about the cold and say I'm going to Hoenn next year."
Vulpix left out a few vulpine yips that sounds similar to someone trying to cough and laugh at once while Mudkip openly chortles.
"Har har, you're a regular comedian," Lee snorts. "Sounds like someone has rested up enough to keep going. Patch up your new friend and let's get going."
Lee watches the simmering pan of meat and veggies carefully, occasionally moving it to keep it over the hotspot over the campfire and to keep the heat away from his sensitive scars. Inwardly, He curses and remembers what he forgot when the team set out from the lab. 'A flashlight. Campfire or not, it's so dark that I can't see shit.'
After traveling for several more hours and again finding few pokémon due to the sheer heat of the day, the duo came to a clearing off the road that made for a perfect campground for the night. The sun had just begun to set when they stopped, and now the entire surrounding area is covered by the gloomy dark With the silence broken by the minute noise of bug pokemon in the distance.
About twenty feet away, Brendan and Mudkip busy themselves with setting up the tent, both overcoming the exhaustion of a full day's walk with the childish enthusiasm that they throw into their work. Brendan had the foresight to bring a lamp, so their work is much more fruitful than Lee's.
Right next to Lee, Vulpix and Shroomish watch the elder human cook. The first watches with the same cool disinterest that she regards most things, and the second watches the pan and the food inside more than he does the human.
'The little guy must be absolutely starved,' Lee sends to Vulpix. 'He utterly scarfed that bland pre-mix food without a single complaint. Why was he so far from the woods, in flat grasslands of all places?'
Vulpix just looks up at him and gives him the mental equivalent of a shrug. A pair of images fly through Lee's mind. One of an oblivious Shroomish wandering until the forest around him vanished, and another of a broken pokeball.
'Got lost or abandoned, eh?' Lee sends back, glancing down at the still focused Shroomish. The little mushroom's skin is dry and taut across his form, and he seems several inches shorter than the 1'4" average that the Pokedex lists. Then he looks back to Brendan, who admires the now complete tent before a light breeze knocks it over. "Oh come on!" Brendan exclaims, pulling at his hat.
'Well, Brendan will fix both those problems.'
"Ugh...Finally," Brendan says with a slump of his shoulders
Both Lee and Brendan spy a rustic wooden sign along the road that reads the blessed words "Oldale Town 0.25 mi -"
Lee stretches his arms above his head and exhales, trying to hide his own fatigue. "Just about three days exactly. Not bad," he says with a tired huff. Lee glances up to the slowly darkening sky and stops abruptly. 'What the fuck?'
Brendan groans and stops as well. "What are we stopping for?"
Lee points towards the distant sky over Oldale, and Brendan does a double-take.
Coming from the direction of the town is an enormous pillar of acrid, black smoke, thick enough to blot out the colors of the sunset illuminated sky. The wind shifts for just a few seconds, letting both Lee and Brendan catch the scent of something burning in the air.
Brendan suddenly sprints forward with renewed energy, his hand already grasping at Mudkip's ball. "C'mon Lee!"
Lee groans and runs after his young companion, just barely keeping pace. "You know, common sense normally dictates that you don't run towards something like that!"
The younger of the two doesn't bother with a reply, he just keeps running.
They cover the last Quarter-mile in record time, cresting the hill into Oldale. The pillar of smoke grows ever larger and more imposing the closer they become, billowing and covering much of the sky. Groups of people and the occasional pokémon stand fearfully and point at the smoke as the pair of trainers cross into a small residential area, many of them with exclamations of panic.
"Okay, hold the fuck up!" Lee snarls, reaching out and grabbing Brendan by the collar of his shirt, making the young Birch gag and stop in his tracks. "Running in gung ho will just get us killed. We don't even know what's going on!"
A middle-aged man who was watching the smoke from his porch with a stricken expression overhears and turns to Lee and Brendon. "Are you two Pokémon trainers?!"
"We are!" Brendan yells back.
"The Pokemon Center is on fire!" The man exclaims. "I heard on the police scanner that some pokémon went berserk and tried to attack some younglings! It happened so fast! After that, the fire started!"
Lee freezes, his nightmare from several nights ago returning to him with cruel clarity.
Happened so fast...
Lee licks his suddenly dry lips. "W-Well the police and firefighters should be there taking care of this, right?"
The man shakes his head and looks back at the smoke with poorly concealed fear. "Officer Jenny's Azumarill is our only firefighter since old man Ogden and his Swampert retired. Please! You have to help them!"
'You going to make a difference this time? Or are you going to just stand around with a dumb look on your face?' A voice in the back of Lee mind taunts.
The scarred man freezes then grabs Vulpix's pokeball with a white-knuckle grip.
"Damn it all."