'Why am I such a fucking sap?'
With arms pumping, hearts pounding, and pokeballs held in iron-like grips, both Lee and Brendan round the final corner to the Pokemon Center.
Hell greets them.
The large center, several stories high and taking up the entire left side of the street, is engulfed in a raging inferno on the entirety of the left side of the first story where it slowly spreads. Rolling flames pour from the long since shattered windows, producing a thick, black smoke so dense it looks as if it could be cut with a knife. Embers burn away from the building and rise up into the air like literal fireflies, flying away to burn out high in the evening sky.
A small team of human firefighters armed with a loaded fire truck and a police officer with an Azumarill stand before the building, trying valiantly to battle the fire. They blast water into the flaming entrance of the center with the Azumarill doing the bulk of the work, but the fire refuses to die down. Just behind them stands a small crowd of people and pokemon being looked over by an entirely too small team of medics and a frantic Nurse Joy.
The sight of the uncontrolled flames makes Lee's stomach drop and fill with ice. His scars flare in phantom pain and he breathes slowly through his nose as if using his mouth would invite the fire to rush inside him. Brendan releases Mudkip in a flash of light and turns to say something to him, but the boy's words are lost through the dull roar of the fire.
In his hand, Vulpix's ball shakes violently before bursting open. The sudden noise and jerk of his handshakes Lee from his spiraling thoughts as Vulpix presses herself to his legs. Nary a second later, the vixen reaches out with her telepathy and gently wraps her mind around her trainer's, coaxing him back to reality.
Lee lets out a short gasp as his surroundings come back into sharp focus and clenches his hand around the now empty ball in his hand. He looks down at Vulpix, who returns his gaze with a cool expression, an expression betrayed only by the soothing warmth that flows from her mind to his.
The man takes a deep, shuddering breath. 'Love, I know I'd be lost without you.'
Vulpix just presses herself a little more to him.
Lee turns to Brendan, who glares up at the man with a surprising amount of venom. "Are we going to help or what?"
Lee quashes his sudden irritation and nods with a sigh. "Yes. Let's go."
The pair of trainers rush to the front of the group, passing a few firefighters and coming to a stop behind the female police officer. "Hey! Officer!"
The woman looks over her shoulder, revealing herself to be none other than Officer Jenny. She regards the trainers with her eyebrows furrowed. "What are you two doing here?! Get back! It's dangerous!" she yells, voice barely audible over the din of the fire.
"We're professor Birch's trainers!" Brendan yells back, flashing his ID just long enough for Jenny's eyes to scan over it. "We're here to help!"
The woman's shoulders lose the slightest bit of tension. "Thank goodness! Do either of you have a water pokemon? We have a rescue team inside trying to get the stragglers and Azumarill and I need to go in and help, but a fire this size will spread without someone outside to help with containment. I hate to lay this burden and you two, but can you help?"
"Of course!" Brendan says, his serious face cracking for a small grin. At his side, Mudkip lets out a cry of agreement.
Lee and Vulpix both simply nod. 'Ready, love?' Lee asks her, only to stumble a little when Vulpix widens the channel between them. The scarred man takes a breath and looks back to the burning building. The flames seem so much sharper now, and the heat pushes against a phantom sense he never had.
Jenny turns and says something to Azumarill, but it's lost in the roar of the flame. The pair rush away and boldly dart into the burning building, leaving Brendan and Mudkip to take their place.
"Hey, Brendan!" Lee yells, making Brendan glance back at him. "Vulpix and I are going to contain the flames as best we can. Take your time, Mudkip's stamina has to last this entire crisis!"
"Hear that pal?!" the boy asks his Mudkip, who nods seriously back. Brendan points and Mudkip unleashes a torrent of water into a burning window.
'Alrighty, lets do this.'
Lee looks up to the burning pokemon center, accurately able to feel where Vulpix is looking. His eyes shoot to a burning part of the center's siding, and instantly Vulpix's focus shifts to where he's looking. The fire is slowly creeping across the building.
'Now...' Lee hesitates, suddenly unsure how to move forward. 'Starve the flames. Deprive them of oxygen.'
Vulpix's focus sharpens, and Lee tries to aid her by visualizing the flames shrinking or pulling away, but nothing happens. The pyrokinesis keeps slipping, like a hand trying to grip a fist-sized ball of marble slick with oil. Vulpix growls in frustration and Lee can feel it over the widened psychic channel. A splash of water from Mudkip puts put the on-fire section they were working on and knocks Lee and Vulpix out of sync.
'Easy love. Just take a calming breath and focus,' Lee sends to her, including a clumsy feeling of reassurance.
The vixen huffs and pulls on his mind with hers again. The pair move their focus to a blown-out window throwing flames and embers all over.
'We can't starve the flames by trying to pull away oxygen. That must be out of the realm of your pyrokinesis. At least for now, it tried to respond earlier,' Lee thinks, biting his lip. 'What if you just... I dunno, pulled the flames away from the building and let them go? Without something to burn, would it just go out?'
Vulpix closes her eyes and reaches out to the flames again, this time firmly finding purchase with her pyrokinesis. The fire roaring from the window grows magnificently as onlookers scream, almost throwing the combined focus of Lee and Vulpix out of whack. The fire wavers then grows again as the pair pull the section of fire outside of the building. A great ball of flame floats away from the now unburning window before Vulpix lets go.
The great conflagration dies without even a whimper, and the onlookers gasp. Even Brendan whips his head around to stare at them.
'Yes! Just like that!' Lee can't help but grin at the sheer elation he feels from the normally cool vixen. 'I can't believe that worked! C'mon girl, next one! We've got a Pokemon Center to save!'
"Vul!" Vulpix verbally cries in agreement.
"Brendan!" Lee calls to the still stunned boy. "Have Mudkip soak the spots Vulpix pulls the flames from so they can't reignite!"
He nods absently, still looking at Vulpix "Yeah, sure."
Lee takes a breath and syncs back up with Vulpix, focusing on a section of the wall with fire slowly creeping across it.
Over the course of about fifteen minutes, Vulpix and Mudkip do what would have taken the firefighters hours to do alone. As they work, several groups of people and pokemon escape the burning building and are quickly herded away by the EMTs, Nurse Joy, and a pair of Chanseys. With Vulpix methodically pulling away swathes of fire and Mudkip making reignition impossible, nearly the entire outside of the Pokemon Center had been put out. Smoke still pours from the inside and flickers inside could still be seen, however.
Brendan pulls a bottle of water out from his bag and offers it to his panting, dehydrated Mudkip, who snatches the bottle from his hand and sucks down the water in an impressive half-second. The boy then pulls out his PokeNav and glances at the time. "Officer Jenny has been in there for twenty minutes..."
Lee sighs and rubs his forehead with his thumb and index finger. "And you want to go in and help?"
At Brendan resolute nod, Lee groans. 'What do you think, love?'
Vulpix mulls the question over then looks up at him and nods.
'Shit. Outvoted. Of course.'
Lee crosses his arms and closes his eyes, debating his next words. "Alright, we'll help, but this is how it's going down. Vulpix and I will go in, but you and Mudkip are staying out here."
"What!?" Brendan yells in outrage, his face twisting into a scowl. "No way! We're-!"
"Going to run in and get killed?"
Brendan stops at the question, his expression frozen.
Lee opens his eyes, and although feeling bad about it, glares down at Brendan, making the boy wilt. "Look at Mudkip," Lee orders.
Brendan slowly turns to look down at his panting pokemon, who doesn't seem to be listening. Watery strands of drool hang from the edges of his mouth and there is the slightest tremor in his legs.
"Mudkip is exhausted and Shroomish will be no use in a fire," Lee states, uncrossing his arms and easing his glare. "A spent amphibian water type will dehydrate near instantly in such conditions, and that's a death sentence for both of you. Vulpix, meanwhile, is fire-retardant and has her pyrokinesis, but she can't stress herself protecting both of us and potentially helping the people trapped inside. The less she needs to spread herself out, the better."
The younger trainer's shoulders slump. "But... I..." He looks around, seemingly lost for words. "I don't want to be useless is the thing," he softly replies. "I'm a lab trainer just like you and we're supposed to be leaders and help people and all that, right?"
Lee's own shoulders slump. "Look," he begins, wrapping an arm around Brendan's shoulders. "You won't be useless. See all these people out here?" Lee asks, using his free arm to gesture at all the onlookers, some watching them. "This rattled them something fierce," he says a bit softer, making Brendan blink. "They would use an overbearingly cheerful brat of a hero who helped put out the Pokemon Center fire. Go reassure them, let them know we got this, because the wellbeing of the people affected by a tragic event is the most important thing here, and that includes peace of mind."
He could feel Vulpix frown without even looking at her, but his words seem to have the desired effect of perking Brendan up. He regains his usual grin. "Alright, if you say so, but if you come out covered in soot with a smoker's cough then I'm laughing. Just warning you now."
Lee snorts and lets him go. "You get to hear the cough anyway because after this shit I could really use a cig. Let's go, love."
Vulpix takes point and leads Lee right towards the entrance of the Center. He glances back to see Brendan and Mudkip take off towards the crowd of onlookers. Lee turns back just in time to see Vulpix dislodge several small, candle-like fires by the entrance and let them wink out.
The pair advance inside, carefully looking over the wet, burned lobby and ignoring the still screaming fire alarm. Other than a few smoldering spots, the fire is totally out here. The sprinkler units above are still intact for some reason, so Officer Jenny and Azumarill had to have been the ones to contain the fire.
"Remember what that guy said when we got in town?" Lee asks the vixen at his feet as they turn down a hallway to follow a thin stream of smoke, making her look back and nod. "Supposedly a berserk pokemon started the fire, but nearly half the damn building was in flames when we got here. If we have to face down something like a Charizard this early in our adventure then I quit."
Vulpix chuffs in amusement and her lips pull back into a thin vulpine smile.
Lee and Vulpix venture further on, glancing into the various exam rooms they pass to find each one already evacuated. Most are intact, with just the water-soaked doors sporting burns like the hallway, but a few of them are burned and melted beyond recognition. As they walk, the smoke becomes heavier, forcing Lee to put his arm over this mouth and nose to use his sleeve as a crude filter. Vulpix, being so low to the ground, avoids the smoke entirely.
At the end of the hallway they walk, the path splits right and left, to the left is an undamaged hallway, to the right...
Lee grimaces as his scars flare.
To the right is a flaming hellscape. The entire hallway sans a thin, damp path on the ground is coated in fire. Again, the sprinklers haven't deployed despite being partially melted slag by now. Something curious to see is the electrical outlets in the hallway are all blown out, some of them sparking. The rolling smoke, roar and crackle of the flames, and the shrill tone of the fire alarm make for a dizzying amount of sensory overload.
The scarred man closes his eyes, takes deep breaths, and reaches his mind out to Vulpix, who grasps his with her own near instantly.
With their combined focus, the little fox puts out the fire section by section, pulling the flames away from their fuel and letting them wink out of existence with a short woosh that can't be heard over the other noise. Man and fox slowly advance bit by bit, and with the fires dying, the smoke clears a little more each second, finally revealing a set of ajar double doors at the end of the short hallway. Above the doors is a sign that reads Nursery.
There is a sudden, violent crackle like a taser hooked directly to a power plant, followed by a shrill shriek of pain and the sound of a body hitting the ground right beyond the doors.
"Azumarill!" cries the hoarse voice of Jenny.
Lee and Vulpix freeze, then as one rush past the doors.
The first thing they see is the seething, almost glowing red eyes of an enormous Manectric. The pokemon's fur crackles with arcs of electricity and steel-like muscle ripples under its skin. Pearly, fanged teeth clench as the electric type glares at them with crazed anger. Its claws effortlessly dig into the tiled floor under its feet and it seems only seconds away from sprinting at them full-tilt.
Just a few feet away, Jenny's Azumarill barely stands. The poor mouse pokemon is covered in electrical burns that expose cracked, red flesh under her fur, her tail has a painful looking bend in it, and her body is stiff, her fur snapping and crackling with electricity. Just breathing seems like a horrid labor that she fights for.
'Must be paralysis,' Lee thinks with a gulp.
Behind Azumarill, Jenny stands with gritted teeth, holding her left arm which sports an already blistered burn. She looks between her Azumarill and the monster of a Manectric with the faintest flicker of fear in her eyes. Her eyes move to Lee and Vulpix, silently begging for help.
And just behind Jenny and huddled in the corner, a terrified brunette woman in a white labcoat clutches a green pokemon egg to her chest, her expression twisted in terror.
The rest of the room is bare. The destroyed egg incubators along the wall are all empty and all the small nursery beds that would hold infant pokemon are thankfully empty and corpse-free.
"Mister Henson!" Jenny cries. "This Manectric is the culprit behind the fire! It blew out the electrical systems in the Center and the overloaded outlets all over this side of the building started fires. It's trying to get the intern behind me! We need your help, Azumarill isn't going to last!"
The Manectric's glare is absolutely murderous now, and Lee doesn't need to read any of its body language to understand the unspoken "Don't interfere."
Lee gulps. 'Love, I came in here fully expecting a fight with a totally unreasonable fire type, not... this,' he sends to Vulpix, who doesn't reply, too focused with carefully watching Manectric. 'What reason would Manectric have to go apeshit? Is it wild? Owned? Too many unknowns and not enough time to puzzle them out. We don't have a good counter for an electric type. I hate to say it, but I don't think we can fight our way out of this one.'
The vixen looks back at him, not pleased with the unintentional slight on her power, but she can't hide how the constant pyrokinesis has drained her, and that Manectric does look kind of big... She sends Lee a telepathic image of the terrified intern. Or more specificity, of the egg she's holding.
The green egg with yellow stripes, the same coloring as an Electrike. Manectric's fury suddenly makes more sense.
'You have got to be joking. Could this shitty situation get any more volatile?'
Lee pushes away his fear and steadies his breathing. 'Vulpix, do you know Manectric's gender?'
Vulpix takes a few subtle sniffs of the air, then sends him a wordless feeling that he interprets as 'female'
'Angry, territorial mother. I know this song and dance. Just I get flayed alive rather than mauled with a fuck-up. No pressure.'
Lee looks over to Jenny and the petrified intern. "Both of you, stay quiet and follow my lead," he says just quiet enough to be heard over Manectric's crackling fur. Lee steps forward towards Manectric slowly, not bothering to look and see what Jenny's reaction was. The instant Manectric pulls her lips back and growls, he takes a half-step back, stops, and slowly lowers himself to his knees with his head bowed, not ever looking huge electric type in the eyes the entire time. He silently curses the adrenaline coursing through his limbs and making his movements jerky and almost too fast. When his knees finally come to rest on the ground. Lee speaks slowly and softly.
"Manectric, I understand what's going on. You're angry and want what belongs to you back, right?" He asks, taking great care to make sure his teeth don't show and hoping Manectric has a grasp on English.
Whatever deity out their answers his prayers, as the crackling in Manectric's fur drops in intensity. She tilts her head and regards him with slightly less violence in her gaze.
"You're the superior here and we don't want to fight," Lee continues, resisting the urge to wipe away the sweat on his forehead. "Everyone here has been through enough, you especially. I promise we'll return the egg to you. It's rightfully yours and whoever took it was wrong."
Manectric's crackling dies down to infrequent pops, and her snarl eases to a resting expression, but her eyes are still locked onto Lee.
Lee slowly turns to the bewildered woman behind the equally bewildered Jenny and shuffles on his knees to her, hand held out. "Give me the egg," he says, glancing at Manectric to gauge her reaction or lack thereof.
The woman suddenly snaps out of her daze. "B-but this egg was slated for donation to Professor Sycamore's lab!" she exclaims, holding the egg tighter. "The boy who donated said he went to a lot of trouble to get it. Look at the size of the mother! It could be the Giant's Gene. Can't you just beat this poke-"
Manectric's growl rattles the whole room.
Fighting down the urge to scream, Lee forces the next words out. "Unless you want to leave here in a body bag or want to give it up yourself," he slowly, as if explaining to a child. "You are going to give me that egg, and then I am going to return it to Manectric. I'm sure Sycamore will understand once he hears about Manectric being so livid as to nearly kill us all and burn down a Pokemon Center. I'm not about to throw my Vulpix into the meatgrinder of a fight Manectric will put up. Give me the egg. Now."
Hands shaking, the brunette woman drops the egg into Lee's waiting hands. The egg is warm and the smoothest thing he's ever held, and he even forgets his fear for a moment to marvel at it. He shuffles back to his original spot and gently places the egg on the cracked tile floor before moving back several feet. "All yours, as it should be."
The massive Manectric steps forward, each clack of her claws on the floor like thunder in the silent room. She leans down and sniffs the egg several times, her eyes scanning every inch for any imperfection. Then she turns her eyes to Lee.
She steps forward again, and Lee feels his heart begin to hammer so hard that it echos in his ears. He keeps his head faced downward submissively and eyes averted, avoiding anything that Manectric may take as a challenge. Vulpix's alarm flares over the telepathic tether between herself and Lee, and it's only his repeated message of 'Don't move! Stand down!' that keeps her from leaping and attacking.
The electric type lowers her head to Lee's level. She's so close that he can feel her hot breath on his cheek and his hair tries to stand up from the electric charge around her.
The man can't help but sputter when, rather than mauling him, Manectric licks him several times right over his scars, making them tingle like low voltage was run through them.
The huge pokemon pulls away and regards the tense Vulpix for a moment, then the barely conscious Azumarill and shocked Jenny, but does not deign to look at the young intern. Then in one smooth motion, she turns and leans down, taking her egg with all the care one would thin glass in her maw, before leaping through the glass window against the back of the room. In just a few lightning-fast bounds, she's gone and out of sight, vanishing to the night.
'Huh... The sun set while we were in here.'
"W-What just happened?" Officer Jenny asks, looking between Lee and the broken window, her expression lost.
The intern just slumps back into the wall, staring at nothing.
Lee falls backward, laying spread on the floor, uncaring of the broken tiles jabbing his back and waving away Vulpix's concern when she steps into his vision. "Hey, Jenny? What's the legality of sending a pokemon to pick up smokes with some money? I really just want to pass out here."
"It's no problem at all!"
The mayor of Oldale could easily be mistaken for a professional Santa. The older, rotund man, mayor of Oldale for 24 years now, has roughly the same looks as Santa, but with a bombastic personality that almost makes his quaint office in the town hall feel too small. Both his belly and white beard shake with his exclamation. "It would shame all of us in Oldale if we let our heroes go without reward. We are a small town you know, but we are not without luxuries! In fact, I called our finest hotel and the owner insisted you boys stay a few nights free of charge in their best room!"
Brendan doesn't even try to hide his grin, and Lee smiles at the jolly man on the outside, but inwardly...
'Jesus man, I understand you're grateful and all, but c'mon. Where is the recognition of the firefighters, EMTs and all that?' Then a more cynical thought hits him. 'Is all this because we're lab trainers? Or because Brendan is Nigel's son? Would they catch a bad rap if they didn't treat us well?' Lee thinks to himself, not wanting to wake the snoozing Vupix across his shoulders. 'Too much to think about and not enough energy.' He suppresses a yawn.
Then without warning, Lee's phone begins to buzz and ring in his pocket, stopping the mayor from starting up another long-winded thanks and waking up an instantly cranky Vulpix. Pulling the phone out, the front screen reads "Prf Birch."
"Sorry, sir," Lee apologizes to the mayor. "It's from Professor Birch. I think I have to take this," he says, giving the phone a little wave.
"No harm done my boy!" The mayor says with a laugh. "Go on, your taxi to your hotel is outside whenever you're ready. Have a wonderful night you two!"
"Thanks again!" Brendan says, following after Lee who is already out the door.
Lee flips the phone open-'Thats still novel'-as he and Brendan walk to the lobby and answers. "Evening, Professor," he says, seating himself with Brendan following suit. "I think I already know why you're calling."
"Not even out for a week and you two made the news," Birch replies, his tone almost a laugh. "Is Brendan there? Can you put me on speaker?"
Vulpix lets out a low whine and resigns herself to be awake through more human chatter.
The scarred man pulls the phone away from his head and hits the speaker button. "You're on, Professor," he says, reaching up with his free hand to pat the grumpy vixen.
"Hey, dad!" Brendan leans over the cellphone with a wide smile.
"Hey, sport." Birch greets back. "You about gave me and your mom a heart attack, you know that? Being firefighter relief on only day three? I had to wait a full three months before I got to see any action, and that was just a ranger asking for help finding a lost Furret."
The boy laughs nervously. "Hehe. Oops?"
Lee snorts. "Where do I put in my two weeks professor? I think I've had enough excitement already," he ribs.
"You act like I'd accept your resignation," Birch shoots back with a chuckle. "So what happened in there? Reports say a pokemon started the fire, but it's wild how the fire got so out of control so quickly."
Lee hums and thinks the long day over. "It wasn't a fire pokemon like everything initially thought, but a gargantuan, wild Manectric, maybe one with the Giants's Gene. She got into the Pokemon Center looking for her stolen egg and overloaded the wiring in the building so much that outlets all over exploded, starting fires. The sprinklers were electronically controlled if I recall, so that's why the fire got out of hand. Luckily no one was killed and the injured will all make recoveries, but a decent part of the center is toast."
Birch is silent for a moment. "And you battled this Manectric? Did you catch her?"
Lee shakes his head, then feels a little foolish when he realizes Birch can't see him. 'I need some sleep.' "Confronted her, yes, battled her, no. She had Officer Jenny and a center intern with the egg cornered. This really seemed like one of those 'pick your battle' moments, so I de-escalated and returned the egg to her. She left without incident after that."
"Deescalated?" Birch asks, his confusion easily apparent. Brenden turns to look at Lee curiously as well. "Lee, you were between an angry mother and her egg, a mother with the Giant's Gene if you saw correctly. Most wild pokemon refuse to listen to reason for much less than egg theft and are willing to fight much tougher odds. How...How did you escape?"
"I..." Lee falters, suddenly unsure. He glances at the still curious Brendan. "I used skills from my old occupation is all."
"Ahh..." Birch replies. "Of course. Make a log of all of that and send it to me when you can, will you please? Written or audio is good," all traces of his disbelief are gone from his voice. "And Brendan? I already know what you're going to ask. Don't pester Lee about his past. He'll tell you if he wants."
The younger trainer's jaw shuts with a click of his teeth, his question replaced with a long-suffering sigh.
"I won't keep you guys all night, but Brendan, your mom does want to yell-erm, talk to you. Lee, can you hand the phone to Brendan for a bit?"
Lee smirks and hits the speaker button again before handing the flip-phone to a now pale Brendan. "Walk and talk, champ. I need a shower and some sleep," the older trainer says, standing and making for the exit of Oldale's city hall.
Vulpix lets out a sigh and snuggles closer to her human's neck before she rests her head back down on his shoulder... Only to scrunch her muzzle when the yelling over the cellphone and Brendan's mumbled defense is still audible even with the boy dragging his feet several yards back. She lets out a sigh of relief when a thumb and middle finger close around her head and tenderly rub her aching temples.
Lee smiles when he feels contentment flow through his and Vulpix's tether. Tether. He quite likes the descriptor of their connection. 'Don't get too comfy, love. We'll have a big, soft bed we can cuddle in here in just a bit.' Lee sends as they walk up to the taxi idling under a lit streetlamp. 'Maybe call room service for a snack and we'll definitely sleep in.'
Vulpix musters the will to raise her head just long enough to lick his cheek.