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Like a House on Fire

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It's three o' clock on a Saturday morning when Candela's house burns down.

She sits on the lawn, holding a backpack full of textbooks and old exam papers, her phone, and a half-eaten slice of mushroom pizza—all that she managed to rescue from the flames—and thinks, what just happened?

An orange monstrous burning lizard is curled up by her knee. It nudges her thigh and makes a cooing noise, looking up at her with big, teal eyes. It's not all that comforting, considering whose fault the inferno is in the first place, but at least one of them is trying to be positive about all this.

“Don't look at me like that,” she says, grumpy and a little bit terrified, but she lets it have the last of the pizza anyway. It pounces on the food with a childish sort of glee and wolfs it down in one bite.

It's fine. It's good. She never liked mushroom all that much anyway.

(She feels like she's going to start screaming.)

When the sound of sirens starts to crest over the distant hills, Candela gathers her things up into her arms. The backpack goes on her back, the phone in one of its pockets; she tightens the drawstring on her pajama pants and wishes she'd thought to take real clothes with her when she left. (Or shoes. Shoes would be nice too.)

“You coming too?” she asks the monster at her feet.

It snarls joyfully back up at her, tail flaring brighter than ever, as if the very idea of not following her around like a lovesick puppy was completely unimaginable.

“All right, then. Let's get a move on.”

The problem is that the firefighters and the police officers are going to want answers, and she has nothing to give them. Nothing that would make sense, anyway; she's pretty sure that Hey, I think that crazy guy on TV was right and we should be prepping for a monster invasion right about now wouldn't go over too well.

(She could give them her monster as proof, but—no. The very thought of it twists her stomach, knowing what would happen to it if researchers and scientists and military got their hands on it. That's a crazy thing to think, considering—it burned her house down, jeez—but she can't stop the horror that fills her at the thought of such a betrayal.

Hopefully she's not being mind-controlled by the beast or something, because that would really suck.)

She doesn't know how to explain. She barely knows what's going on. But… she does know someone who might. It's barely a start, but she'll take it.

Candela heads off into the early-morning darkness, her monster's burning tail guiding the way through the trees.

So. Apparently pokémon are real. It doesn't quite hit her until a few hours later, when she's looking at the greyhound bus schedule and wondering about the likelihood of being able to sneak a burning lizard in her bag, but when it does it hits her hard.

“I,” she says, and then: “what the hell!

The reality of it slams into her like a truck, like a train, like a house on fire. She wobbles on her feet and barely manages to keep from falling over.

Pokémon are real. They're real and they're here. One of them just burned her house down and now she's trying to figure out how to keep it safe.

Candela bends down to look at the little monster. It's bigger than any lizard she's ever seen in real life, but still smaller than she expected. Maybe two feet or so tall when standing upright, which it rarely seems to do. It prefers to snuffle around on all fours, bounding back and forth and pawing at things like the world's most excitable flaming reptilian dog.

“You're charmander, right?” she asks. “I know… I know that much, at least.”

The beast pauses in its examination of the trash can, then turns abruptly to look at her. Its claws scrabble for purchase on the slick tile as it runs over to her and rubs its scaly head against her leg.

(Candela's three-step plan to a brilliant hiding place: jimmy open the lock of a nearby coffee shop, sneak inside, and barricade them both in the single-stall bathroom until the bus finally comes. Criminal mastermind in the making right here.)

Haaa,” it coos contentedly, smoke drifting slowly from its open mouth.

“I guess that's a yes, then, huh? I never was a Pokémon fan, you know. Not my kind of game.”

For a moment she wishes she were dealing Starcraft instead—she could name every member and city and planet of the Zerg Swarm in her sleep—but then she imagines bug aliens dropping down from the sky and devouring everything and thinks, nope.

There are fates far worse than this one. Something to keep in mind.

“Are there more of you coming?” she wonders, more to herself than the charmander next to her. “Uh… pikachu, bulbasaur, squirtle? Mewtwo?”

That's about the extent of her pokémon knowledge right there. Clearly she's going to have to do some research.

Without much else to pass the time until a bus arrives, Candela pulls out her phone. A quick couple of Google searches teach her three things: one, there are apparently eight-hundred and two species of pokémon now (God, why). Two, she's probably not the only one this is happening to—the reports are vague, insubstantial, and few of them have been picked up by serious news sites, but Candela can read between the lines. Three, the crazy scientist guy who the internet has spent the past week laughing at (and who was totally right, what even is this reality) has his phone number up and posted online.

She spends a moment wondering just how many prank calls he's gotten since that interview went viral last week. Wonders if he'll believe her even if she does call. Wonders what she has to lose.

Candela presses down on the number and lets her phone ring.

One ring, two, three, and then—

“Hello?” a bleary voice asks. It's older, male, and incredibly tired-sounding.

“Is this Doctor Willow?”

For a long moment, there's only silence. Candela's just starting to worry that she might have lost the connection when the man finally says, “Professor Willow, actually, I only have my Master's… or ex-professor now, technically, I suppose”—he stops, takes a breath—“but, yes, this is him speaking. And I'm not doing further interviews, if that's what you're calling about.”

“I'm not a reporter. I'm calling you because you're right. I found a pokémon.”

Another pause. Candela starts counting under her breath, gives him until the tail end of three before she snaps out, “Look, I didn't call you because I wanted to waste my minutes.”

“If this is a prank call…” Willow says shakily.

“You need proof? Give me fifteen seconds. Does your number get texts?”

For some reason, that makes him laugh. “Texts is the least of what it gets.”

“Great. One moment.”

Candela makes kissy noises at her charmander (and when exactly did she start thinking of it as hers?) until it blinks up at her, then snaps a quick trio of pictures. She follows it up with another from a different angle and one focused on the tail, just for good measure, then bundles all five up and sends them off.

“There,” she says, “look.”

His message alert sounds, loud enough she can hear it through the phone, and the sound of his voice through the line pulls back as he opens her message.

“Oh,” he says a moment later, “oh.”

Candela can't really argue with that. Her little monster is a pretty breathtaking beast.

“It's not trying to hurt you, right? It's friendly?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Or, well, for a while it was dicey, but—we're good now.”

“It's yours, then,” Willow tells her. “I didn't get much chance to research the possibilities before I… left”—Candela winces in sympathy at the pause—“but all the evidence I've seen agrees on that point. It will fight for you, die for you… once they bond to a person, they never falter.”

“I'm not going to let it die.” Candela grips the phone so tight the plastic nearly cracks. The mere thought of her charmander hurt, her charmander dying… completely unacceptable. She strokes the monster's scaly back just to reminder herself that it's still there.

Willow makes a non-committal noise. In the background, she hears what sounds like the scratching of pen on paper. “You feel responsible for it.”

Right, she remembers, researcher.

“I assume that's part of it too?” Candela asks.

“I… probably, yes. It fits with what I've seen from talking to the others.”

“The others? You mean I'm not the first?” Hope rises in her. She imagines an army of them, united already, bound and determined to take on whatever might be coming next—

Her dreams are just as suddenly dashed when Willow says, “Well, not quite. You're the third, not including myself.”

“The third.” That's enough for a decent round of poker; it's no kind of size for a proper resistance.

There's a sudden bump against her knee. Candela looks down to see her charmander staring up at her, eyes focused on hers. It paws at her pajamas with one scaly forelimb and makes a cooing sort of noise.

At least someone's concerned for her. Candela crosses her legs so it can climb up into her lap. The moment it's there, it curls into itself like a cat or one of those weird snakes, making sure to keep its burning tail well out of the way.

It's learning. It's trying not to hurt her. That thought shouldn't fill her with such fondness—not when she's already lost so much to it—but she can't help the smile that creeps across her face. Nothing so deadly should be allowed to be this cute.

“So.” She sounds more confident, feels more confident. “Four of us, then. What do we do? What's going to happen?”

“Four so far. Most pokémon don't seem to bond on sight; there's already reports of people being attacked. So far the media's blaming it on aggressive wildlife, but that's not going to last long.” Willow sighs. “It was—an experiment, you know. Government-backed, privately funded. Hard to explain. We were supposed to create… holes, I suppose.”

“Your secret government project was building holes?”

“Not real holes. Metaphyiscal holes, in the fabric of space itself.”

Candela swallows. “Okay, that sounds a lot more intense.”

“Yeah,” Willow says, “that's a good word for it. It was beyond even our wildest expectations. We could transport matter, create matter, shrink things down, move them and change them in ways we never imagined were possible…”

“But?” Candela asks, because the way he's talking there's no way this story is building up to anything other than a but.

“We got greedy. Egotistical. The higher-ups were tired of working with mechanical bits and bobs—they wanted to try for something bigger. Living matter.”

She frowns, working over the strangeness of this information. “So, you...created these pokémon? Or you didn't create them, just brought them over through the holes?”

“Yes,” Willow says, which is supremely unhelpful.

“Fine,” Candela sighs after another moment of lingering silence, “next question. What do I do?”

Willow laughs. “I think that's the question we're all asking ourselves right now.”

“No, I mean—there's people out there who are in danger right now. Lots of them, more than anyone but us realizes. And it sounds there's only going to be more and more and more disasters happening.”

“The holes are spreading,” he agrees glumly. “The way they're moving, they'll be across the world in a week, maybe two.”

Exactly.” Candela grips her phone tight, looks down at her charmander's curled-up scaly form. “And I know—I know it's not fate or destiny anything that I'm involved, but I am. I can't just sit back and watch as people get hurt.”

For a long, long moment, Willow says nothing at all. Candela holds her tongue, though impatience and fear burn together in her blood.

“I need some information about your phone.”

Candela's first thought is to ask what exactly he's talking about, but Willow's tone stops her. He sounds different now: his voice is firmer, more intent. She reads out her phone number, her MAC address, even—with a bit of searching—her IMEI code. Willow spends a few minutes typing out all the information on his end of the line.

“Okay. There should be a program downloading onto your phone.”

Candela looks down at the screen, knowing she didn't authorize anything like that, only to see a little notification at the top confirming he's right. It's at ten percent, but it climbs quickly: twenty, forty-five, eighty, ninety-nine… one-hundred percent. A new shortcut pops up on her home screen.

She takes a deep, steadying breath, then taps on it.

“Okay, what—whoa.”

Bright light glows and coalesces under her fingertips, filling the screen and then rising upward, hovering in the air like a living thing. Words and shapes form out of empty space and become a raised map. Candela sucks in a gasp and nearly drops her phone. She can feel the very texture of the light—the glowing ridges and whorls are like solid matter under her hand.

A program shouldn't be able to do that. Nothing should be able to do that.

Willow's voice echoes tinnily from the phone's speaker. “Pretty impressive, isn't it?” He pauses a moment, then adds, hurriedly: “And, uh, you're now in possession of top-secret government tech, so maybe try not to get stopped by anyone with a badge.”

“Thanks for the warning,” she grumbles, but Candela can't find it in her to be too angry. Just having charmander along is enough a danger that a phone app can't possibly make it worse. “So what does this thing do?”

In the center of the screen, a featureless avatar stands next to a pixelated charmander. There's a bar on the bottom right filled with shadowed icons that she thinks might represent other pokémon and a circular icon placed right at thumb level.

“You can track pokémon, capture them, store them, send them to me… there's not much it can't do, honestly. Try tapping the poké ball and then going to 'items'.”

Candela opens up the menu; she's apparently in possession of a few poké balls, a couple potions, and—of all things—a camera. She taps on the poké balls in her inventory out of sheer curiosity, then draws her hand back with a startled yelp as the light starts pulsating again in response.

“Don't panic—” Willow starts, but Candela can't hear the rest of his words over the odd humming resonating from her phone.

The light follows every movement her hand makes, pooling in her open palm like water. She's caught between amazement and fear, entranced by what's happening even as she finally starts to realize just how very in over her head she is.

The glow bubbles and swells; it builds on itself rather than spilling onto the floor even as it grows too large for her fingers to fit around. For a moment, she holds a sphere of pure light in her hands—then the bubble seems almost to pop and she's left with a poké ball.

There's no mistaking it, even with her limited knowledge. It's cool and heavy in her grasp. Feels almost like metal, she thinks as she rubs a finger over it, only it's far too smooth to be any sort of metal she knows.

Willow's saying something on the other end of the line. Candela doesn't need to listen.

She knows what comes next.

Carefully, she presses her free hand to her charmander's snout. It blinks sleepily up at her. When it notices the poké ball, its eyes open wide; it makes a soft noise of excitement and rubs itself against her like a kitten.

“Is this okay?” she asks it.

Perhaps neither of them really have a say in this. They're already in deep, caught up in something strange and frightening and wonderful that she still only barely understands. But this, at least… this should be a choice. If they're going to be a part of this—be partners, be the start of a team—they both need to want this.

Charmander responds by raising itself up and pressing its tail against the button on the center of the sphere. With a flash of red light, the poké ball pops open and charmander dissolves and disappears.

Candela flings the poké ball onto the tile in shock. It shakes once, twice, and goes perfectly still.

“Congratulations,” Willow's voice says from the other end of the line. “I see you've caught yourself a pokémon.” The program on her phone blinks out a cheery message to match his words.

“I…”

I forgot you were there, she almost says, but that seems rude. “I wasn't expecting that,” she offers up instead.

She's going to have to think up a name for her little monster, isn't she? Something better than monster or creature or just plain mine.

Candela picks the poké ball up and cradles it to her chest. Mine actually seems pretty accurate; she wants to hold her charmander and not let go of it, protect it from anything that might want to do it harm.

(Probably she'll have to work past that instinct. She doubts battles are going to be as clinical and bloodless here as they were in the old 8-bit days.)

“What next?” she asks Willow.

He's quiet for a long, long moment. “Well”—he swallows, draws in a shaky breath—“that is, if you're willing, I've added the coordinates for my current location to your app. The other two who've contacted me are already on their way over. There's no way around it: the world's about to change forever, and we're in a far better position than most to do something about it. If we want to be able to help, we should stick together.”

Candela tries to imagine what help looks like, but finds she can't even begin to picture it. It's going to be more than stopping a wild pokémon or protecting a couple of people. If they want to make any sort of difference at all, they're going to be plotting, structuring, organizing.

They're going to have to this very seriously.

Candela's not a leader. She never wanted to be any sort of guardian. But—she clutches her charmander's poké ball tight—if that's what it takes, she thinks she can become one.

“Okay,” she says. “I'll meet you there.”

When she finally makes it to the spot that marks the coordinates Willow gave her, there's a pair of people waiting for her.

(It's a good thing, too—she probably would have passed it up otherwise. The dilapidated farmhouse doesn't look like much of anything from the outside, except maybe a fire hazard. Candela's been giving a lot more thought to potential fire hazards lately.)

“Took you long enough!” one of them calls, waving at her with a cheerful grin on his face. He's wearing a bright orange hoodie under a leather jacket, paired with a set of equally bright gloves and what looks to be—dear God—black leather pants. What really catches her eye, though, once she's done taking in the horror of the rest of his outfit, is the poké ball perched hazardously in his hood. “I owe Blanch ten bucks, I was so sure you'd be here hours ago.”

“I don't even have shoes,” she says, a bit snappish. She's tired and wired on adrenaline and she's pretty sure her feet are bleeding. “I couldn't exactly sprint here.”

Her own words catch up with her a second later. I'm here, she thinks, and a wave of relief sweeps through her. It's hard to believe she's actually made it. She and her charmander fought strange wild pokémon on their way to Willow's promised land, hid from police and what looked like actual military, wandered through gulleys and alongside riverbanks when the roads got to be too dangerous.

On the bright side, she's a lot more comfortable battling now. On the not-so-great side, her supply of potions is really running low.

The second person sighs. “Don't worry about it. We're happy to have you here safely. It might not look like much just yet, but it's ours.”

The other trainer is just as much a sight as the first, though for entirely different reasons. Pale white hair, piercing eyes, a dark blue jacket… Candela's starting to wonder whether she stepped into an incredibly odd fashion shoot without realizing it. She regrets her pajamas more than ever now; striped candy print hardly seems to match the aesthetic everyone else is going with.

Hopefully she'll be able to find some new clothes soon. A jacket would be nice, at least.

“Eh, Blanche, you're just saying that because you won the bet!” The first trainer frowns, then turns his attention to Candela. His grin flickers back to life like someone flipped a light switch. “Anyway, you're Candela, right? I'm Spark, this here is Blanche, and this”—he points at his hoodie—“is Puka. He's going to have type advantage over your charmander someday, so you better be nice to him.”

“He said the same thing to me when I first arrived,” Blanche adds.

“I did not!” At Blanche's disbelieving stare, he adds: “I didn't say 'eventually', because Puka's already got the type advantage over your Aquarius.” He winks at them, ridiculous and unrepentant. “Totally different, see?”

Candela surprises herself by laughing. She's tired and hungry and her muscles are trembling with the strain of walking, but all of a sudden she just feels so good. It's the same feeling she used to get after a long day of studying, the pleasure of accomplishing something.

“Well,” she says, “my charmander's going to be stronger than any of your pokémon, type advantage or no type advantage, so you better make sure you're extra respectful.”

For a moment she's afraid she might have overstepped—they know each other already, she's just a stranger, what if she overstepped, what if she think she's threatening them—then Spark bursts out laughing and Blanche cracks a smile and her heart starts beating again.

“Come on,” Blanche says, “let's get inside. It's not safe out here.”

Spark rolls his eyes. “It's not safe anywhere, if you listen to Professor Willow. I think the poor guy's trying to work himself up to a heart attack.” He looks at Candela, waves his hands in time with his next words for emphasis. “He's got this big bank of computers, right, and he sits hunched over at them with his bulbasaur in his lap and types away and doesn't move for hours. Then he stands up and makes a cup of coffee and the whole thing starts over again. I've started counting the bales of hay, just to have something to do.”

“It won't be quiet much longer.” Blanche glances up towards the sky. Candela mimics the gesture, but she can't see anything in the dark gray clouds except the promise of rain. “So many plans are already in motion, and we're just waiting for the fallout.”

Right. That's right. She's not here just to relax or feel safe; she's here to help. “Let's start training now,” she says. “I want to be ready.”

Exactly,” Spark says, and pulls his poké ball out from his hood. “I couldn't agree more.”

The gesture is clear, and the challenge is enough to make Candela forget her hunger. She grins as she pulls out her charmander's poké ball in return.

“This is a bad idea,” Blanche says, but there's no bite to the words.

Spark shrugs. “All my ideas over the past seventy-two hours have been. It's worked for me so far.” He turns to Candela. “You ready?”

“Ready,” she says.

Right now, she feels like she's ready for anything.