A resounding crash filled the cramped, overflowing supply closet, followed by a solid thump and muffled, pained cursing. The lab assistant winced as his massive boss teetered out of the closet hunched over, rubbing at his head and gritting his teeth.
“Yes? What is it?”
“The, uh...the trainer who contacted you from Kanto, sir, she...she’s supposed to be arriving in the next hour. She sent a message to let you know.”
The man lit up instantly, a complete one-eighty typical of his boisterous and capricious (if not sometimes overwhelming) personality. “Ah! Great - I’ve been looking forward to meeting her! She’s a very talented trainer, you know - Norman’s met her, before he and his family moved here. He said she has a lot of promise.”
“Yes, sir,” the lab assistant said, still adjusting to the other man’s rapid change in attitude. “Shall I prepare the starters for her arrival?”
“Yes, do that!” Birch said, beaming brightly. “But before she gets here, I’d like to conduct a bit of fieldwork, so I’ll take them with me. Never know when I’ll get a Poochyena after me again!”
He laughed loudly and turned back into the closet, resuming his search for whatever he’d been looking for. The lab assistant chuckled bemusedly, letting out a winded sigh and moving over to the table where they kept the starters’ Pokeballs. He’d have to fetch them from the playpen outside, and he was not looking forward to it - they were all a rowdy bunch, and they thought it great fun to see who could trample him the quickest…
“Thanks for the ride, Norman, it really means a lot.”
“It was no trouble, Gemma, I was planning on having lunch with May and the wife anyway. You’re more than welcome to join us, if you’d like - I know it took a long time to get here from Slateport.”
“Really, I appreciate it, but I’m fine for right now. I had a bite to eat before I took the ferry.”
The new gym leader hesitated, eyeing the young woman in his passenger seat, then sighed bemusedly and offered her a thin smile. “Very well then. Would you like me to give you directions to Professor Birch’s lab?”
“No, sir, I’m sure I’ll be able to find it on my own,” she said, trying to give him a smile in return. “I’d like to explore a little bit anyway. Hoenn’s a lot different than Kanto and Johto.”
“That’s for sure,” he said with a chuckle. He unlocked the door and rolled the window as she stepped out. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call - I know how it is when you’re trying to figure out a brand new place. It can get overwhelming.”
“I’m used to it,” she assured him, and waved as he dipped his head and began to pull onto the road. She watched him until he pulled around a corner, likely headed towards his home in the suburbs of Littleroot.
She let out a breath of relief, rubbing at her neck. Her backpack rustled insistently and she slipped it off her shoulder, unzipping it quickly. A furry brown head popped out and her Eevee let out a happy yip. Her tail wagged as her trainer smiled softly and picked her up, easily raising her to her shoulders. The brown and cream Pokemon quickly dropped into her hoodie, curling up with a contented purr. The trainer carefully slipped her backpack over her shoulders again, pulling out the information she’d scribbled down when calling Professor Birch’s assistant a mere hour prior. The address was nearly illegible, but she’d make due.
She pulled out the PokeNav Norman had passed on to her from Professor Birch, keying it on and studying the screen. There were multiple features on it, ranging from a party list to item inventory and other little things like her trainer card. The map tab already had the lab’s coordinates put in, and it gave her the quickest route there.
Pushing her jacket’s sleeves up her arms and tugging her hair into a ponytail against the heat, she started off.
She should’ve taken up Norman on his offer. She really should’ve.
When he’d said Hoenn was a mostly tropical region, he hadn’t been kidding. She’d started out fine in the car with air conditioning, but wandering down a thin forest trail that supposedly led to the lab had worked up a rather impressive sweat all over her. She’d shed her jacket, much to her Eevee’s dismay, and she was debating whether or not she could get away with taking off her shirt (only until she got there, of course - she wasn’t an indecent person - but it was so fricken hot).
With a soft groan, she tilted her head back and swiped her arm over her forehead. Sweat was starting to drip into her eyes and she hated it. “It’s never this hot back home,” she mumbled, and the Eevee lagging by her feet let out a whine of agreement. “Jeez, how do they live here?”
“Lots of repellent and sweat rags.”
She jumped and whirled around, wondering how two kids, probably close to twelve, stared up at her with incredulity and curiosity, respectively. The young girl had been the one who’d spoken, and she was dressed smartly in shorts and a tank top. A bright red headband kept her hair out of her face, barely sweating at all.
“Um, hi,” said the boy tentatively, staring at her as though she’d just walked out of thin air. He looked as though he’d been in the sun a while, skin dark and hair hidden by a white toboggan. “Are...are you looking for, uh...for something?”
“You wouldn’t happen to know where Professor Birch’s lab is, would you?” she asked, spying the Pokeballs mounted on their belts. “I just got here.”
The girl gave a smile, not smug but not exactly sympathetic either. Mischievous, maybe. “You’re lost.”
The young woman pursed her lips indignantly. “No, I’m...I’m not, I’ve got a PokeNav, it’s just…” She glanced around the trees looming over them, the foliage making it extremely difficult to tell where exactly she was. She sighed. “Fine. Yes.”
“This way,” she said, slipping past her and beckoning over her shoulder. “It’s only a little further.”
Relief washed over her, almost tangible, and the trainer stumbled after her, scooping up her Eevee to give her a break. The boy followed closely, quiet. She wondered if he was shy.
It only took a couple of minutes before the treeline broke and opened up to reveal a rather large meadow lined by fences and filled with different sorts of healthy-looking local Pokemon. In the center stood a lab not unlike the ones she’d visited in Johto and Kanto.
“I think the Prof might still be out and about bothering the local Pokémon,” said the girl wryly as she led the way along the better worn path. The Pokémon in the pens looked up at them as they passed, and some came eagerly to the fence demanding attention. Both kids gave it to them readily, cooing and rubbing their heads affectionately.
When they reached the lab and entered, it was quiet and cool inside. She let out a breath of relief, but the kids didn’t seem so pleased.
“Wait...where’s Pete?” the boy asked the girl. She shrugged, brows furrowed in confusion.
The trainer studied them as they proceeded to explore the lab quickly, obviously looking for the man in question.
“Lose somebody?” she asked when they returned to the lobby.
“Pete is Dad’s lab assistant,” the boy said tentatively. “He’s usually here when Dad isn’t.”
“This can only mean one thing,” the girl grumbled, dragging an exasperated palm down her face.
The trainer was about to ask what she meant exactly when a piercing shriek rang out through the meadow. They ran outside just in time to see two men of strikingly different heights and widths spring out of the woods, a horde of gray and black canine Pokémon hot on their heels, howling and barking and nipping with dangerous looking teeth.
“Dad,” the boy groaned, long and low.
“This is normal, I take it?” the trainer asked wryly, and she waited until they nodded with deadpan expressions before looking down to the Eevee in her arms. “You know what to do.”
The brown and cream Pokémon nodded, then leapt down and dashed towards the stampede drawing ever closer, standing her ground with a bristling tail and raised hackles. Both men seemed to have sense enough to get out of her way, dashing safely past, and the Eevee generated a massive Shadow Ball before launching it at the incoming wild Pokémon. It didn’t hit them directly but the ground instead, sending dirt and dust everywhere. It made them recoil immediately, skidding to a stop, and the Eevee sent out a spray of stars that had little effect but certainly got her point across. They let out little yips of agitation but turned anyway, retreating back into the woods from whence they’d come.
The Eevee turned back to her trainer expectantly, her protective visage disappearing as her tail wagged and she bounded back to her trainer and leapt into her awaiting arms.
Both men, having witnessed the interaction, shuffled wearily to the trio.
“I thought you were going to stop observing the Poochyena until they settle down in the autumn?” the girl pressed, raising a single brow and looking hilariously disdainful for a twelve year-old.
The larger of the two men, absolutely an Ursaring in size, sighed and dropped his sweaty head. “This time it was an accident.”
“Just like last time?” asked the boy.
“Alright, alright, maybe I went to take a peek at the pack,” the larger man admitted, but was quick to add, “but it was only because the alpha female Mightyena just had her first litter! I wanted to see if they were doing well!”
Both kids gave him a flat look. “You intruded. On a newborn litter. Of Poochyena,” they reiterated in unison.
He flushed in shame and seemed to give in. “...Yes. But! There were two shinies out of the five of them - two! That’s nearly unheard of!”
“I went to bring him back because he was taking too long and I feared he would miss the new trainer’s arrival,” the lab assistant (Pete, her mind supplied), “but I accidentally tripped into the ravine where they live.” He gulped and tugged at the neckline of his nearly soaked shirt. “I’m lucky I made it out alive.”
“I managed to pull him back up just in time,” the larger said with a breathless chuckle. “Otherwise I’d have to put out another ad for an assistant.”
“Again,” the girl muttered.
The trainer looked up from having given her Eevee an Oran berry for her efforts, glancing between the four strangers. “Excuse me, I hate to interrupt, but, um...I think you’ve been waiting for me?”
The larger man brightened instantly, rising to his full height and positively beaming. “Oh! Gemma, is it?” At her slow, hesitant nod he let out a hearty laugh and grasped her shoulder with a gentle, calloused, scarred hand. “I’m glad you made it here safely! Say, why don’t we go back to the lab and I’ll make myself more presentable?”
About twenty minutes later, Gemma found herself sitting in the lounge connected to the main research room drinking a blissfully cold bottle of lemonade and nibbling on a few cookies May had apparently baked earlier that morning. Her Eevee was chowing down on the special kibble the Ursaring for a man - Professor Birch himself, she’d come to find out - had offered her. May and Brendan (Norman’s daughter and Birch’s son, respectively) were running around the lab finishing up their chores for the day in anticipation of going out and exploring whenever the sun would begin to descend and the air would cool. Pete, the rather frazzled lab assistant, had disappeared, though Gemma couldn’t quite blame him if he was taking a minute to recover from the fright he’d endured.
Soon enough, Professor Birch emerged from the living quarters tucked into the side of the building dressed in fresh clothes and toweling off his wet hair. He lucked much more collected, and he joined Gemma in the lounge by sinking into the loveseat opposite her and grabbing a few cookies from the plate.
“I am sorry about the trouble,” he apologized straight away, laughing nervously. “I have a tendency to get caught up in my fieldwork, and even when I wear a watch I lose track of time.”
“It’s alright, I wasn’t in a hurry,” she said, straightening on the cushion and hoping she looked halfway presentable. “I’d just got here when all that happened.”
“Lucky for me then,” he chuckled, looking down to her furry companion. “Your Eevee handled that hoard of Poochyena mighty well! She seems remarkably experienced!” He gave Gemma an appraising grin. “I think it’s a testament to Norman’s boast of your abilities as a trainer!”
Gemma flushed, wondering what the new gym leader must’ve said about her. “Oh, um...I’m nothing special, really. I’ve had her for a long time, and we just...click.”
The Eevee, seeming to notice that she was currently the topic of conversation, flicked her ears and raised her head to look at her trainer, bright eyes inquisitive. She quickly finished off the few crumbs that were lingering in the bowl before jumping up on the couch and curling up in Gemma’s lap with a contented purr.
“She seems very fond of you, either way,” Professor Birch observed. “Do you plan to have her evolve?”
“When she’s ready,” was her almost immediate response. She’d gotten that same question time and again, and she wasn’t looking to broach the topic again. “She gets to choose.”
“That proves that you care for her much more than a lot of trainers do their Pokemon,” he said, scratching at the coarse hair on his chin. It was less purposefully shaped and more likely the result of being left to its own devices. He seemed like the kind of man that would forget to shave on a regular basis. “Anyway, I suppose I needn’t dilly-dally. What brings you to Hoenn? Norman said you explored both Johto and Kanto, which is mighty impressive!”
“I’m just, um...exploring,” she said hesitantly. “I’m looking to see what I can find. Usually I take the League challenge to give me a direction.”
“And a good direction it usually is!” Birch agreed. “Though I think you’ll find there are more areas to explore here in Hoenn than in other regions.”
“So I’ve heard,” she murmured, sipping the last dregs of her drink and lamenting to see it disappear.
The Professor, too, finished his snack and clapped his massive hands together excitedly. “So! To the most important part!” His dark eyes sparkled with glee much younger than the face in which they resided. “Let’s show you the options you have for your starters!”
The kids seemed to have been eavesdropping (at least to some degree), because May appeared almost out of nowhere with a ragged, worn satchel Gemma remembered Professor Birch had been clutching onto for dear life when fleeing from the herd of Poochyena. She set it on the table and fished out a trio of plain Pokeballs, glancing towards the Professor and waiting for his nod before throwing them and releasing the Pokemon inside. Gemma watched with curiosity as the dazzling light faded and they took shape. She’d read somewhere that a region’s starters indicated much about the ‘personality’ or the ‘flavor’ of that region.
“These are Treecko, Torchic, and Mudkip,” May explained with a smile as they began to tussle on the floor immediately. They were certainly energetic and familiar with one another, if how they interacted was any indication.
“They all hold much promise, especially when raised to their full potential,” Birch said, laughing as the Treecko leapt up onto the table to avoid getting bowled over by the Mudkip, who seemed hell-bent on pinning the Torchic down in good fun. Its big yellow eyes focused intently on Gemma’s Eevee, who’d perked up upon the arrival of new Pokemon. With a wordless exchange, she jumped from Gemma’s lap and began to dash after the green and red Pokemon with playful yips as it dodged and darted out of range.
“They’re all very cute,” Gemma said, smiling despite herself. This part of what every region’s journey entailed had grown to be one of her favorites. “It’s a bit hard to choose.”
“I’m sure whatever choice you make will be the right one,” Birch assured her sagely.
She glanced to the kids, who had both settled on the floor and were playing with the Fire and Water types. “What about you two? Do you plan on going on entering the League?”
“We’re helping Dad conduct field research and complete his Pokedex,” Brendan said, rubbing at his neck with a small smile. “He said we could have whatever you left behind.”
Well. That didn’t put pressure on her or anything.
“Well, who are your favorites?” she asked, but Birch tutted scoldingly.
“Don’t let them influence your decision!” he scolded good-naturedly. “They’re remarkably close to all three of them - they raised them from eggs, after all!”
“And you don’t mind me separating them?” she inquired tentatively.
“They won’t be separated forever!” May reassured her with a brilliant smile. “I’m sure we’ll run into each other plenty of times, so they’ll get to see each other more than you think!”
With no room left to beat around the bush, Gemma sighed and moved to crouch among the trio. They seemed to sense the rising tension and lined up before her, clustered together and seeming excited. Supposedly, Pokemon could sense people’s inner intentions - she supposed that should be an indirect compliment.
Treecko was obviously a grass type, and to be honest it was her first gut choice. She’d had excellent experience with Grass type starters in both her previous League challenges, and it seemed - even in its first stage - very promising. Torchic was cute, and was obviously feisty and likely packed a punch. She suspected that it would grow to be a very strong Pokemon if treated right. Lastly, there was Mudkip. It seemed the most friendly out of the three, and was the stoutest as well. It tilted its head at her curiously, mouth opening slightly.
Gemma exhaled softly. “I...I think...I think I’ll take Mudkip, Professor.”
The blue and orange Pokemon perked up visibly and reared up on her knee, letting out a throaty sound of contentment. She hesitantly rubbed its head, carefully avoiding its fin, and its tail wiggled a little.
“A good choice,” praised Birch warmly. “Mudkip is very sturdy, and its evolutions give it a major advantage over one of its most common weaknesses.”
The kids looked at each other, seeming to have a conversation without words. After a moment, Brendan sighed exasperatedly before rubbing Torchic’s head affectionately. “I’ll take this little guy.”
“And Treecko’s left to me,” May beamed, straightening as the Grass type easily climbed up her body and settled around her shoulders with a chirp.
“Excellent!” Birch remarked, clapping his hands again as he stood. “Allow me to grab a couple more things for your journeys and you can be on your way!”
He and Brendan retreated over to a cluttered desk in the corner of the lab, and May lingered by Gemma as the trainer stood and watched as Eevee introduced herself to the newest member of her trainer’s team. “Dad insisted that you stay the night tonight and start fresh in the morning. You’ve spent a lot of time on your feet today, and he thought you should rest before travelling again.”
“I appreciate it,” Gemma started, mildly taken aback by the man’s generosity, “but-”
“He also said you’d argue,” May interrupted bluntly. She offered her a wry grin. “Just accept it, you won’t win. I’m more stubborn than a Growlithe defending its trainer.”
Gemma blinked at her. Then she sighed and smiled softly, chuckling under her breath. “You’re right. Thank you, May.”
“No problem,” the girl said easily as the father-son duo started towards them again with various trainer-necessary ephemera like Pokeballs and a transfer device piled high in their hands. “It’s what fellow girls are for. Even the older ones who obviously don’t have a problem with walking themselves into an early grave.”
Gemma chuckled again to indulge her, but inwardly she puzzled over the question of how a girl she hadn’t met before could read into her so accurately. May seemed wise beyond her years, but Gemma found that she could relate, and it didn’t trouble her too deeply. She accepted Professor Birch’s proffered items and slipped them all into her backpack with the rest of her supplies. She sighed softly and looked down to the Mudkip and Eevee at her feet, tussling playfully. She smiled.
Here we go again.