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Shatter the Dark

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

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

"Mach Punch!"

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

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

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

Jackpot.

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

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

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

She nodded in response. Professor Oak was expecting us.

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

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

"You too."

- - -

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brie muttered. "Oh really?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's okay Brie."

No it's not.

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

Not you.

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always the shiny part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

"Something's following us."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck.

"Sorry Brie!"

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

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

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

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

Okay, one down.

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

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

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

"Foul Play!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait. We?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

I shuddered thinking about it.

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

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

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

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

"Shaun, please just listen to me-"

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

"Shaun-"

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

"Shaun! Listen to me!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I don't know what to do-"

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

I sighed. "Fine."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

Wait. Shit, how could I forget that?

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

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

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

"I'll bite. What is it?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Wait, what?" I said.

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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