The sweet, morning birdsong was the first sound that lured me away from slumber. The faint symphony of chirrups and trills were appreciated by my ears, as I had gotten far too familiar with the incessant screaming of the Wingulls that terrorized Lilycove. Images of the species capable of producing such wonderful music replaced a confusing dream of fire and chains. Probably a male Swellow who was chatting up the females in the area. Fragmented melodies continued from every direction, and it soon made me think of Eloise. She didn't sing very often, perhaps due to the lack of a teacher. Maybe I should take her back to see Esther for some singing lessons. The mundanity of the idea made me wake with a start. Usually, I could feel her cloudy wings snuggled into the nape of my neck. This time, she was notably missing. My eyes fluttered open to be met with sunlight filtering through a canvas ceiling, repeatedly blinding me as the canopy of trees swayed in the breeze. Faint tickles of the fresh, outdoor air made my bare feet retreat for warmth under the blankets. Somebody had opened the tent flap.

That's right. I had been camping with Brandon. I found myself swaddled in a thin fleece, like one you would wrap a new-born in. The old fabric had a cutesy design of Pikachus frolicking around in a meadow, and I was starting to get sick of that theme. Nearly everything that he owned had to involve the electric mouse in some way, even though he didn't even train one. Gearing myself up for a bemused sigh, his characteristic scent of mint shampoo and varnish flooded into my nostrils. One of his massive, hairy arms had been placed protectively across my chest, reminding me of the strength that he used to dominate. Even without any power put into the tanned limb, it was like getting crushed by an anvil. I shuddered and tried to wriggle free, until he eventually rolled over without a pause in his snoring. His blanket unfurled from his waist and exposed his square-shaped rear, prompting me to look away. Too early for that.

Before I propped myself against a folded pillow, I couldn't help but yawn widely in response to the hangover. Even while watered down, it still packed a punch. Well, it felt more like a Force Palm from a Hariyama. Suffering in silence, I brushed a hand against my hairless chin. There was a strange, unsettling sensation of something that wasn't skin. Looking down with so much alarm that it nearly put me back to sleep, I found that some of my fingers had been covered with baby-pink plasters. A white bandage covered one of my wrists, and from the looks of the red blotches, it had saved the Pikachu blanket from a long round of scrubbing. Crushed bottles of Gatorade were discarded next to me, clarifying the lingering taste of peach and tangerine in the back of my throat. Packets of painkillers were stacked on a tub of lotion.

The aftercare. Memories of our time after the electric trio returned to the campsite returned to me in embarrassing waves. I could vaguely remember wallowing around in the dirt, covered in copious amounts of semen, while Indra cleansed all of the gore out of his fur in the river. Once Brandon had managed to get a coherent story out of Zackary and ensured that none of us were in any danger, he scooped me up and tucked me away inside the tent. The shock of Dominic's evolution must have brought the man out of his lustful violence, since he spent the rest of the night calming me down and fixing all of his damage. There hadn't been much of a conversation, as I drifted in and out of lucidity. He gently disinfected all of my cuts and scrapes, and even applied a soothing cream onto my bruised opening, despite my reluctance. He made sure that I was hydrated, and that the overwhelming pain was lessening with each hour that passed, into the dead of night. There was a lot of cuddling and reassurance, and not all of it was from him. Indra had settled down at my side, and didn't try to bite my hand off as I played with his soggy ears. Zackary told me stories and secrets. All of it felt very… nice.

And now, it was the next morning. I looked over at Brandon's muscled back, which was partially hidden behind a rippling sea of bedsheets. Since I had retreated to another part of the tent, he had instinctively snuggled across to find the nearest warm body. Indra, softened by all of the petting, had been lying blissfully on his back. I could hardly believe that he had ripped another Pokémon's throat out only a few hours ago. Maybe Zackary had exaggerated parts of his story to make it sound more exciting. Actually, I couldn't see the little rascal, or his newly evolved steed anywhere inside the tent. Neither of them seemed like early risers. One of the Manectric's paws bounced as his trainer wrapped his naked body around him, and the corners of his silvery jowls hitched up into a smile. The two were perfect for each other.

Before going on this trip, or date, or whatever the hell this was, I had a pretty good grasp on what kind of person Brandon was. Positive, gentle, encouraging. Nobody who worked at a business that openly practiced poképhilia could be totally wholesome, but out of everyone, he seemed to be the least consumed by the lust in the air. There had been signs that a lot of his outward nature was performative, as some of his smiles seemed far less genuine than others. We all wore different masks at times, especially in front of new people, but the contrast was the most concerning thing about Brandon. There had to be some kind of reason behind it all, and I still had trouble with accepting that it was necessary for him to punish others to get off. I needed answers, and convincing ones at that. While I waited for him to wake up, a stone of disturbed tension lodged itself in my throat. Was he expecting me to question him about it?

Thankfully, I didn't have to wait very long to find out, as a hyperactive Emolga exploded out from the opened flap of the tent. I wasn't given the chance to stew in my worries, as I quickly scrambled to conceal my morning wood under the blanket. I wasn't taking any chances since the stash of ambrosia had gone unguarded during the night. Zackary stared at me curiously, as if he was surprised to see that I was awake before Brandon. Before I could say anything back to his glittering, silver eyes, his mouth swiped open in a charming smile. Shrouded in a burst of electricity, he stretched out his rubbery folds and performed a routine of acrobatics for me. His manic laughter was enough to stir a muffled groan out of his trainer, and I couldn't help but snicker at the thought of him having to wake up to this sight every day. Electric types made pretty good alarm clocks. Zackary's time in the air was fleeting, and so he eventually had to tumble over and repeatedly jump on Brandon like he was a bedspring.

"Arceus, Zack… c'mon – that's my stomach!" he cried, lurching up to imprison the electric squirrel within his gargantuan hands. His booming voice made the tent shake, and it almost looked like he was trying to crush his partner. Zackary's feigned attempts to squeal and struggle lead me to believe that it was a game of pretend they both enjoyed. Brandon scowled drowsily at the squirrel for a few seconds. It wasn't long before this scowl turned into a smirk, and then a chuckle. He pinched harshly at Zackary's dotted, chubby cheeks in revenge.

"Ouch, ouch!" the Emolga shrieked, trying to throw his voice across his own tickled laughter. All of the noise was enough to wake Indra up as well, who's angular tail started to wag at the sight of Zackary getting a taste of his own medicine. The playful scene eventually reminded me that Brandon was not some heartless brute, and my worries melted away with the sparks.

"Jumping was supposed to be off-limits, you know?" Brandon murmured, tossing Zackary high into the air, like he was an electrified frisbee. He soared ecstatically across the length of the tent, and landed in a giggling heap next to my feet. Brandon followed up his throw with a bombardment of blankets and pillows, burying the Emolga to silence his wild laughter. "I think we need just a few more minutes of peace and quiet. We'll play around later, okay?"

"Does he do that every morning?" I yawned, watching in amusement as the squirrel tried his hardest to escape from the mountain of soft cushions. I was slightly afraid he didn't have the strength to push his way out, but his circular ears soon emerged, swivelled down with fatigue. Displaying his childish attention span, he stuck his tongue out at Brandon and flipped out of the tent's entrance once again, taking one of the big blankets with him to act as a parachute.

"If I make the mistake of not waking up before him, yeah," Brandon grimaced, while patting down his adorable bedhead. His hair had nearly doubled in its curliness from last night, and along with his missing glasses, it made him look like a different person. The geeky frames hid a lot of the finer details of his face, like his crooked nose. He looked a lot older like this. "Anyway, how are you feeling? It's really important for you to let me know if things are still hurting from last night. We can always do another round of cream if your ass is sore again."

Lines of concern accentuated his cordial smile as he hunted for his glasses. It looked like they had been strung up on one of the high tentpoles, maybe so they wouldn't get crushed at night. He evidently couldn't see me blushing at the mortifying topic, since his smile didn't change. The giant stood up to retrieve them, as unconcerned about his nakedness as ever. Unlike me, he didn't have a morning erection. His wicked desire had been quenched for the time being. Once the glasses were sitting safely on his scarred bridge, he examined me with sleepy eyes. Positive, gentle, encouraging. Truthful qualities for the moment, but I was now aware of what could be lying underneath that. The contradiction was enough to cause an awkward mood to descend on the tent, like a freezing mist. My voice caught in my throat, as I resisted a shiver. Once the pangs from the hangover had disappeared, I could feel a painful, raw sensation that clung onto my back. I had expected to feel something similar down south, but aside from the usual aching and looseness, my ass wasn't bothering me. Why the hell did my back hurt…?

"One round seems like enough," I sighed, looking at the grey container of ointment instead of his nurturing smile. Despite my embarrassment about having it applied, I was pretty amazed that there wasn't much lasting discomfort from the dry penetration. Hannah had made an off-hand comment about the dangers of doing it without lube, so it seemed like I dodged a bullet. Such remedies were probably used a lot at the ranch, and it wouldn't have surprised me if she also kept a tub of it in her bedside table. "My memory of everything that happened after the Pokémon came back is still kind of wonky. Did you take a look at my back? It feels weird."

"I didn't notice anything wrong with it last night, but it was hard to see what I was doing when it was so dark," he replied, guiltily rubbing at the back of his neck. His cheerful smile grew less sure as he stepped over to join me in the hovel of crushed bottles and painkillers. Indra followed after his master, instead of joining the others outside. Wanting reassurance, I beckoned at the Manectric with my bandaged hand until he nuzzled into it with rare affection. "Shit, does that mean you don't remember me apologizing for being way too rough with you? I must have said it like a hundred times, but ambrosia can alter memories, even if its diluted. There's always a chance I messed up on the ratios, too. Ronan's the mixologist, not me…"

"Don't worry, I think a few of them made it through," I said, after a brief pause. His question had dredged up vague notions of him leaning over to whisper countless apologies in my ears. The beginnings of a smirk tugged at the right side of my mouth, but his persistence wouldn't be enough to dissipate the cold tension in the air. An apology wasn't exactly what I had been seeking from him, since the budding psychologist inside of me would only be satisfied by a proper explanation. Working at the ranch had fostered an intense curiosity, and I wanted to learn more about everyone. I needed to know their unfeigned feelings and beliefs.

"Good, that saves me doing another hundred," Brandon chuckled, as he kneeled down to gently peel off the other blanket covering my back. His warm breath tickled at my neck, and I noticed that his voice was even more throaty and hoarse this morning. Focusing on just how pleasant he sounded helped to distract me from the sharp pain that burned into me, as he had some trouble with pulling away the crusted fabric. After leaning forward and sucking air past my gritted teeth, my damaged skin was revealed. He made an odd sound, that was somewhere between a cough and a muttered swear. Then, he covered up those few seconds of hesitancy by clumsily placing a hand on my shoulder and clearing his throat. I felt his thumb and index finger twitch, which wasn't a very encouraging sign. "Damn… okay, it looks like I missed a few scrapes there. Arceus, it's breaking out into a rash. You don't have any allergies, right?"

"Uh… I don't think so," I winced, trying to ignore the tears welling up in my eyes as he gave my back an unsure poke. It nearly felt like he had ripped away the outside layer of my skin along with the blanket. Our bodies got even closer as he reached over to grab a fresh packet of disinfectant wipes. Indra gave me his paw to hold. "It's probably from when you dragged me across the grass. That's just a guess, though. Can you get like… carpet burn from grass?"

"Grass burn? No idea," Brandon responded, a light-hearted cadence returning to his voice as he laid out all sorts of medical supplies. I watched him dig further into his emergency box. Seeing this paternal side to him gave me a sense of nostalgia, and reminded me of my mum, who always coddled me whenever I grazed my knees. "It'll probably take a while for me to get you cleaned up, looking at all these dirt stains. Wanna talk about anything while I work?"

"You already know what I'm gonna ask, don't you?" I questioned, watching as goosebumps coursed their way up my slender arms, in response to the cold, stinging cloth. I could feel his muddy-brown eyes staring down at me, drilling a hole into the back of my head. My grip on Indra's paw tightened, as Brandon dabbed forcefully at the scrape furthest down on my back.

"Well, it's been written on your face for the past five minutes," he said, his tone shifting into a more serious, reluctant drawl. The birdsong above us intensified, as if the Swellow had been challenged by another male. I looked up at the conical ceiling of the tent, catching a glimpse of Brandon's eyes before the glare from the sun concealed them. Their warmth was clouded. "I'm not annoyed at having to talk more about it, or anything. I'd be more concerned if you didn't have questions for me, after what I did to you. There is a story behind it. It's just long."

"People often tell me that I'm a good listener," I encouraged, prompting a quiet snicker from the muscled worker above me. No matter how awkward things could be, we were still friends and colleagues at the ranch. That was something I couldn't forget. "Don't feel pressured into having to pour your heart out. Whatever you choose to share with me will stay totally private. How's that saying go? Whatever happens in the tent, stays in the tent? Something like that."

"Hannah mentioned that you do have a knack for cheering people up," Brandon replied, after he took a deep, slow breath for composure. I gave Indra's paw a final squeeze before letting him return back to his trainer, who needed more support. Throughout all the tension, he was still dutifully cleaning at the wounds on my back. "And you really don't have to worry about keeping any secrets. Everyone else already knows. I think that complacency is why I played around instead of telling you beforehand. Still, a late explanation is better than never giving one at all, I suppose. Please, feel free to interrupt me if the pain starts to get worse, alright?"

I simply nodded, and waited for him to begin.

Oh, jeez… Where do I even start with this? It's like opening a can of Wurmple. We probably have enough time for my life story, don't we? I'll focus mostly on why I turned out like this. None of it really justifies the things I do, but hopefully it helps you understand me a bit more.

Nowadays, everyone tells me that my sweet face and curly hair don't match my body, but I didn't always look this buff. Back in school, I was a typical, scrawny band geek. I hit my growth spurt pretty early on in highschool and being so lanky meant I sucked at most sports. There was this one time, where our class was forced into playing basketball. It was easily the biggest sport at our school, since lots of guys went on to play professionally after graduating. Our gym teacher told me that I would be really good at it since I was taller than the other kids, but I ended up just tripping over my own legs. Like an idiot, I tried to stop myself from falling with my hands and then broke my wrist in front of everybody, which meant I couldn't play violin for a while. Stupid things like that wouldn't even bother me now, but back then, it was really embarrassing. Nobody wants to cry in front of their peers. After that, I started to become more and more self-conscious. So, after my wrist healed, I mostly just focused on playing music with my friends, rather than trying to stand out to the popular people again.

For a time, things were going okay. But, that same year as my blunder at basketball, puberty really began to mess with me. Things started to get totally confusing, probably since I had been raised mostly in a naturist environment. Being naked and stuff around our property was no big deal when I was younger, but I really didn't want to do it when I became a teenager. That sorta caused some friction with my parents, but I was at that moody age anyway, where I thought all their hippy, new-age teachings were uncool. I didn't understand why I wouldn't feel anything when my friends would talk about girls they liked, but then I would get really nervous whenever we all had to change for swimming class or something. It really freaked me out, since I had never looked twice at a naked boy when we would go to naturist camps. You must have gone through something similar as well, yeah? Swimming, too? Always is!

I didn't really have anyone else to talk to, since my parents would never entertain the idea of me suddenly wanting to stop with the naturist lifestyle. Indra would sit and listen to me crying about it some nights, but he couldn't help. So, I spilled my feelings to my group of friends. They had known a little bit about what my home life was like, since my mum would always leave our lifestyle books and pamphlets lying around every time they would visit us. No answering the door naked or anything like that, but it wasn't like it was a big secret either. Obviously, at that age, they immediately jumped to the conclusion that I was gay, and that rumour eventually spread around like wildfire. My whole family being a bit eccentric became a piece of common knowledge as well. Overnight, I pretty much skyrocketed to the top of the bullying list, and in all honesty, there isn't much blame to throw around. I mean, I was a gay, naturist kid who was obsessed with the violin and could barely walk two feet without falling.

I… well, uh… I don't want to go into everything that happened. You can probably imagine some of the less criminal parts of it. Friends turning their back on me. Lies spiralling out of control until I couldn't go to school anymore. Stuff like that. Eventually, it got so bad that my parents decided to fast-track their plans to move in with our grandparents in Unova. They had been talking about it for a while, since my grandpa was poorly, but watching me get so upset that it was giving me stomach ulcers was the final reason for them. It wasn't like there was anything left for teenage me in Mauville anyway. Couldn't go to the Game Corner, because that's where the worst bullies hung out. Didn't want to go to violin lessons anymore, because I saw it as part of the reason that I was being bullied in the first place. I needed a fresh start.

Arriving in Unova was pretty fun. I had only heard stories of my mum's grandparents, and they turned out to be really awesome. Native Unovans, you know? The first meal that my grandmother cooked for me is still a super vivid memory. She was really skilled at making berries and simple herbs taste amazing. I still can't recreate her berry-mint sauce, which sucks. Anyway, witnessing their culture was the first of many experiences that made me a better person, but at that age, it still wasn't nearly enough. Outside of family matters, I was still very bitter and antisocial. Enduring a year of endless torment left me feeling spiteful, and I wouldn't really try to talk with anyone at my new school. I desperately tried to keep facts about my life from spreading around like last time, and focused more on appearing normal than I did trying to get good grades. Passed music. Passed woodworking. Through a martial arts club, I connected with a kickboxing teacher. Started to work on my body. That's about it. Mostly, I tried to keep my head down and not cause trouble for my parents, since they were so busy with caring for my grandpa. Bottled up some emotions, sure. But that was alright.

Hmm… wait a minute. I'm not being quite honest. Usually, I have to lie to people when it gets to this bit, because I'll scare them away otherwise. You're getting the rare, uncut version that everyone at the ranch deserves. Let me be more specific - I didn't cause much trouble around Nimbasa because I knew the stories would reach them easily. Actually, I took the train to Castelia a lot, using the excuse of kickboxing practice so they wouldn't freak out. See, kickboxing gave me an outlet for some intense anger issues that had been building up for a while, but it didn't satisfy my rebellious streak. Since the drinking age in Unova is twenty-one for some reason, I got a fake ID from one of my martial arts buddies and went to clubs.

I'm not sure why, but I started to flirt and hook up with men who were a lot older than me. Lost my virginity to some biker dude in a disgusting bathroom, who didn't even have enough money to buy a condom from the machine next to the stall. Holy Arceus, Alex – please don't just nod and mumble like this was a sane thing to do. It was a miracle that I didn't contract a nasty disease. You're about the same age as I was back then, so I probably should have seen your total lack of concern coming. I know, I know, you're invincible when you're eighteen. That certainly was part of it, but it mostly came from repressing my sexual side for so long, and wanting to feel like I was in control of things. Experimenting with poképhilia didn't scratch the same itch as cruising for guys did, so gloryholes and barfights were the norm. Ah… you've noticed the nose by now, haven't you? After a particularly violent brawl, it had been twisted into a ninety-degree angle. Not wanting to deal with the medical bills that came with living in Unova, I re-aligned it myself after some shots of vodka. Never healed correctly, but it was a good way to get me to stop picking fights. At least my glasses help to cover it up.

Oh yeah, my first relationship was with a guy that I met this way. He was much closer to my age and could actually be quite sweet. He introduced me to a lot of the kinky behaviour that I showed you last night, so that's where it started. After trying out every fetish under the sun with him and some other regulars, I realised that I pretty much desensitised myself to it all. There was a period of time where I couldn't even get an erection without the sex having some element of danger or risk, which was crazy. Masturbating was always a huge hassle, since I had to waste one of my mum's good candles or something for it. Sharp objects worked too. I've gotten a lot better about it over the past few years, but that element of power that I can have over men is still addictive. I don't enjoy vanilla sex anymore. Well, maybe I never have.

Most of the sex-related stuff has been covered, I think. Let's see… you probably don't want to hear much about my crappy job as a ride operator at the Nimbasa carnival. It was quite fun at first, but after a month, it just turned into cleaning up puke and dealing with lost property. Just thinking about it is enough to give me goosebumps. The smell of popcorn and hot dogs still makes me gag, even all these years later. The only good thing about that job was the day when a certain Emolga was caught stealing bags of cotton candy from the confectionary area. He probably would have escaped with them all too since he had somehow managed to coerce a frightened Blitzle into joining his heist. After chasing them through the park until midnight, I had no choice but to launch a couple of Pokéballs in their direction, and the rest is history.

After that, most of my time was devoted to working with Zack and Dom. I had no experience in training wild Pokémon, since Indra had been taught by my parents. Learning to look after a pair of disobedient electric types helped me to stop all the dangerous stuff I had been doing. Zack, especially, was a handful. Despite my efforts, he still has sticky fingers, so if you ever lose anything at the lodge, check to see if he's been sneaking around first. But, yeah, teaching him how to behave made me realise that I wasn't much different, and I started to calm down.

I moved back to Hoenn alone after both of my grandparents died, and things ended with my boyfriend not too long after that. We gave long-distance a shot, but it really wasn't our style. Mauville still left a bad taste in my mouth, so after cashing in all my earnings from Unova, I travelled down to Slateport to keep myself in high spirits. Have I told you how much I love the beach yet? There's this amazing naturist one in Slateport, so I became a beach-bum for a while, trading unprotected anal sex in a dark bathroom for naked busking in the morning sun. Even though I had stopped playing the violin more than a decade ago, my love for music had never went away, so my guitar skills were enough to keep me afloat. People who owned stalls and kiosks out on the boardwalk paid me to play sometimes, when I wasn't at the beachfront. It was decent enough money to feed four mouths, and we camped under the stars every night. I bought Zack a cheap tambourine, before he got ideas about stealing one to join in with me. You could say I reached a state of zen for a while, I guess. Grew a topknot and a huge beard, and went hiking around all of the popular Pokémon hotspots. Most people thought I was nuts.

Maybe, I would still be busking and living out of a tent if Thomas hadn't heard me playing down at the beach. He left one of his glossy business cards inside of my guitar case instead of the usual spare change. Sorry, that still makes me laugh. He didn't try to have a conversation with me or anything, and left before I had even noticed he was there. Looking back on it now, he was probably embarrassed to be at that beach. He hates to be out of a suit, so Hannah must have dragged him out there after one of their doubles tournaments. Seems like the weird type of encounter that only happens in movies, doesn't it? I have no idea what he saw in those five minutes of watching me play, but I like to think that my music connected with him somehow.

I called him a few days later from a payphone, and after scrounging up the last of my funds, I took the ferry to Lilycove. He told me that I could start working if I got a shave and a haircut.

Once Brandon had finished recounting his turbulent story, he retreated into a focused silence, and stroked much more delicately at the remaining scrapes on my back. With his other hand, he discarded another disinfectant wipe onto the sprawling pile. Most of them had been tinged brown or green, and thinking about the dirt and grass that had been festering on my skin was enough to make me feel woozy. I found it increasingly difficult to stay motionless, as a stiff, distracting ache had seeped into my shoulders. A majority of his words had morphed into an unintelligible ocean of details, especially towards the end. The thing that stuck with me the most was the hardship that he faced during his teenagerhood, since it was the catalyst for all of the shady business in Unova. I wondered how different Brandon would be if he had never experienced bullying and the subsequent home-schooling. Sure, it had caused him to follow a path of deviance for a few years, but it had been the reason for him to seek self-improvement. Like always, my stupid, overanalysing mind kept me preoccupied. My dry tongue locked in place, preventing even a sigh of acknowledgement. I should say something to him. Anything.

"I think I should take up kickboxing again," Brandon commented, after he realised that I had been paralysed by indecision. Searing guilt bubbled away in my belly, as I could tell that he was expecting something more from me. He ruffled at my overgrown hair, and then crashed down onto a pillow in front of me. I noticed that his eyes were back to their usual, tender glow, as he gave me an awkward, lopsided smile. The only opinion that made it to the surface was my desire to see his hair in a topknot. "It's been a couple years since I attended a course or any sparring matches. Talking about my past again made me realise that I've been lacking an outlet for my rage since moving back to Hoenn. That's why I've been… violent recently."

"How much has ambrosia been researched?" I asked, surprised that the question had been the only one to leap across every hurdle. Brandon seemed somewhat puzzled at the sudden non-sequitur. He scratched at his stubble, with a hand that had shrivelled from all of the moisture now daubed across my wounds. I scrambled to clarify my point. "Julian said that it was made in Sinnoh, but it's not produced commercially anywhere, is it? That means a company hasn't tested all of its effects on behaviour. I've read that aggression and sexual desire are controlled in the same area of the brain. For you, ambrosia might exacerbate those feelings even more."

"For being fresh out of highschool, you sure know a lot," he teased, leaning on one of his elbows, like he was a girl gossiping at a sleepover. "According to Ronan, there's lots of weird science in the reaction between Blissey eggs and alcohol. It does appear to bring out a more dominant side in the guys that drink it. Remember, at Katie's? You forced Britney to choke on your cock, and even flipped the tables on Maxxie. You're not normally like that, right?"

"I don't know what I'm normally like," I groaned, after leaning forwards and hugging at my knees. Indra looked over at me with bemusement. "I was a virgin before meeting all of you."

"Hmm… maybe we're more similar than I thought," he replied, gaze falling to the Pikachu blanket that was covering my torso. "Alex, I know it sounds a bit strange coming from me, but you better be careful with how you approach sex. Jumping head-first into the deep end of kinky stuff and poképhilia seems like fun at first, but it can change you. You've gotta find a balance to these things, you know? For every alcohol-fuelled orgy, there needs to be a night of cuddling and missionary. I'm broken beyond repair, but there's still hope for you, okay?"

"Arceus, this is such a heavy topic for a Sunday morning," I sighed, trying to resist the urge to awkwardly scratch at my wounded back. Brandon calling himself broken didn't sit right with me, but I didn't have the energy to call him out on it. "You're right, though. Well, right on the balance stuff, at least. Julian gave me a mini-lecture on the dangers of working at the ranch, and I can't really ignore advice from both of you. Missionary will be next on the list."

"Camping gives us the perfect excuse to talk about deep topics," he grinned, in an admirable attempt to keep the atmosphere light-hearted. He seemed to grow more restless, as he started to toss around one of the empty bottles. Carpenters probably liked to keep their hands busy. "But anyway, it sounds like you have a good head on your shoulders, so you'll be fine once things at the ranch calm down. Is there anything else you wanna ask before Zack gets back?"

"Hmm… nothing really comes to mind," I yawned, catching a glimpse of the Emolga through the opened tent flap. It looked as if he was struggling to keep up with Dominic, since his evolution had granted him an extra burst of strength and agility. Their shadows rushed across one of the gaps in the tent. Absentmindedly, my eyes settled upon a Pikachu plushie that had been propped lovingly in the corner. Brandon had it at Katie's too. "Actually, it's not that important, but something has been bugging me for a while. What's with the Pikachu stuff?"

"Do I need to have a good reason?" he chuckled, a faint blush spreading to his golden cheeks. He took to cleaning his glasses, even though I could see that they were spotless. "My parents used to breed a lot of them for clients, back in Mauville. They just make me happy. I dunno!"

"That plushie looks like he's been through quite a lot," I remarked, after curiously pointing to the toy. The thing clearly hadn't been washed in years, and one of its ears had been stitched back in place with thick, blue thread. Brandon blushed even harder, even though it shouldn't be something to be embarrassed about. "I'm not making fun of you or anything. I still keep a security blanket under my pillow, so you're in good company here. Does he have a name…?"

"I would rather talk about the bullying than this," he mumbled, after burying his red face into his hands. That was one way to smudge his glasses. I was about to get worried for a moment, before he emerged, with an uncontrollable smile. "The Pikachus that I grew up around all had names to do with spices and condiments, so he's called Pepper. He really means a lot to me."

"That's an adorable name. I'm glad that we've finally been introduced," I beamed, waving over to the dirty, motionless Pikachu. From a mixture of intuition and experience, I knew that the plushie provided him with a lot of mental comfort. From the sounds of it, his parents were still staying over in Unova, so it must be a nice reminder of them. It was easy to get attached to memories of a happier time. Memories of a whole family. Before I had even realized it, a lump had formed in my throat, and my smile faded. I managed to conceal the sudden grief by tidying away some of the emergency supplies next to me. I noticed that there was a package of dusty, unused Pokéballs at the bottom of the box. "Okay, I think that's the last question."

"Good to hear, because Zack is probably going crazy out there," he admitted, finally crushing the bottle between his muscled hands. He threw it down next to the others, and gave Indra a final scratch behind the ears. He seemed to be worried that the Emolga would get himself into danger if he was unsupervised. Given the events of last night, his restlessness was warranted. Even though he had an urgent spring in his step, he stopped to help me organise the last of the medical supplies. "Usually, I take him to an overlook in the mornings. It has a beautiful view of Route 119, and it lets him practice his gliding. Since there's a bunch of Poochyena running around, it's probably not worth the risk. We'll just play tag with him at the campsite instead."

Suddenly, the entrance to the tent wobbled. Brandon dropped a box of plasters, and whirled around to face the intruder. He was on high alert, as his body had reacted before I had the chance to blink. One second, he was squatting. The next, he was poised in a fierce stance. These were the trained reflexes of a kickboxer. My view had been obscured by his glorious, sculpted thighs, which wasn't the worst thing in the world. I stretched my neck past the man's rear end, expecting to find a disappointed Emolga standing in the tent's threshold. We would probably have to deal with a teary tantrum. However, all that I could discern was a patch of black and white stripes, which were dappled by the sunlight. Concerned eyes stared back at us both, as Dominic bowed his head. The prongs atop his head sparked with nervous energy.

"Brandon… we need your help with something," the Zebstrika began, restraining his new voice into a hoarse whisper. He glanced uneasily in the direction of the river, and reverted back to the frightened posture of a Blitzle. "There's a Deerling at the edge of the clearing. Zackary's trying to speak with him, but he won't say anything back. We think he's injured."

Seconds of silence ticked by, as we both processed his words. Dominic's tone was reluctant and honest, but he almost sounded unbelievable. My conversation with Brandon had lasted for so long that it felt like the outside world had melted away. His request was an unpleasant kick back to reality for me. We were inside a forest, that was notorious for its high number of disappearances and Pokémon attacks. In fact, this could have been the forest that Wren lived in before he found the ranch. I was reminded of the Sneasel, ravenous with hunger, standing over the Lillipup that he injured. Paralysed by the idea of another crisis, I struggled to get up. Acting quickly, Brandon reached down and offered me a reliable hand. Ignoring the pain that came with moving my back, I grasped onto it. He pulled me to my feet like I was weightless.

"Wait… a Deerling?" I repeated, as we all started to pour back out of the tent. At the mention of yet another injury, Brandon had already grabbed the first-aid kit. His expression sharpened into something far more serious, close to his detached, dominant scowl. My legs felt sluggish and unsteady from being crossed for so long, so I was the last one to fumble onto the ground. Instead of rushing to his trainer's side, Indra had stayed behind to make sure that I was okay.

"You've probably read that they're native to Unova, right?" Brandon asked, ignoring his wet, discarded clothes and striding over to the riverbank. I could see Zackary in the distance, who was enamoured with something in the treeline. Hesitantly, I trailed behind the muscled giant. Clothes were an afterthought for him, but I would have felt much safer if my cock wasn't on full display to the morning breeze. I gave a yearning glance towards my boxers and shivered. "Groups of them have been spotted in Hoenn, too. I've heard that hunters brought them over, since they were tired of shooting at Swellow every day. Let's hope it's not a bullet wound…"

"No, that's not it," Indra stated. There was a grating hint of guilt in his voice. As we started to get closer to the Emolga, his ears drooped downwards. "Last night, the Mightyena mentioned something about a Deerling. The pack must have been hunting him, before I distracted them."

We continued on in troubled silence. Brandon seemed to have a knowledge of medicines and basic first-aid, but that would only take us so far. I had seen a couple of Potions tucked away in the emergency supplies, but they were only a temporary measure. Injured Pokémon had to be treated by professionals in a Centre, but we were miles from one. Both of us broke out into a panicked jog, until we reached the Emolga at the edge of the river. I had expected him to greet us with a squeal that would startle the wounded Deerling into fleeing, but he remained surprisingly docile. He waved reassuringly at the trees on the other side of the gushing river. The water flowed with much more potency than it did yesterday, as our naked bodies were sprayed with white, freezing foam. My teeth chattered, and I carefully took a few steps back. At first, I thought nothing was over there, and Zackary had just been playing a mean-spirited prank on us. However, once my eyes adjusted to the dense covering of foliage, I realised that a slender Pokémon had been crouched in plain sight. His wet, glistening eyes gave him away.

Other than that, his camouflage was impeccable. His vibrant, green coat had been speckled with orange spots that signalled autumn's arrival. After a bluster of wind, a brownish leaf fluttered down from the trees above him, and landed on his back. I couldn't see much of a problem with the Deerling, other than his fearful gaze. His body stiffened as we came to a halt inside his field of view, and that's when I noticed his posture was crooked and unnatural. One of his rear legs was hovering off of the grass, as he refused to put weight onto it for any longer than a few seconds. However, he was facing us head-on. I couldn't get a good look at his haunches to see if they were actually damaged. We had reached a stalemate. Any sudden movements could cause him to bolt, as most prey species disliked any contact with humans.

"Here are the friends that I was telling you about!" the Emolga squeaked. His boisterous tone had been lightened, as if he was trying his hardest to whisper. It was still louder than anything that would be appropriate for the situation. The Deerling flinched, but didn't move. It seemed like he was desperately trying to seek assistance, against his instincts. However, there wasn't a safe way for him to cross the river. "Have you ever seen a human before? The one with the big willy is called Brandon! He's my trainer, and he always makes me feel better if I'm hurt!"

"Zack, we can take it from here," Brandon sighed, kneeling down and placing a finger gently onto the Emolga's mouth. He understood, and immediately fell silent again. I couldn't help but smirk, even as the nervousness had settled in to make me feel nauseous. His simple words made him more endearing, but they wouldn't help in our negotiations. Dominic should have been the one to stay with the Deerling, as even with his anxious nature, he was more sensible.

"Remember, Devon's translators don't work on wild Pokémon," I whispered, keeping my eyes locked on the cautious Deerling. I thought back to the way that Hannah acted around Pokémon that she was unfamiliar with. When dealing with Eloise's mother, she had raised her arms up to show that she wasn't a threat. However, my arms didn't move. I wasn't going to do anything until Brandon came to a decision. "We'll be counting on you guys to translate if the Deerling does say something. Indra, do you remember anything else from last night?"

"Nothing else that relates to him…" the Manectric replied. He kept himself hidden behind Brandon and Dominic, which was a clever move. He looked the most like a predator, so he would only unsettle the Deerling further with his appearance. As the electric wolf trailed off, his sensitive nose started to twitch. He seemed to become enthralled by a scent, as his eyelids fluttered in time with the sound of frantic sniffing. Quickly, Brandon clicked his fingers, and snapped his partner out of the animalistic trance. Indra cleared his throat, and the guilty frown returned on his snout. "The pack must have been successful in wounding him. He smells like sweat and blood, but it's not fresh. It's a surprise they haven't tracked him to finish the job."

"We can always count on your nose, at least…" Brandon muttered, while he slowly opened the box of medical supplies. The Deerling probably felt safe on the other side of the river, so as long as we didn't suddenly cross over, he wouldn't move. Only taking his eyes off of the Deerling for a few moments at a time, Brandon quietly sorted out everything that he needed. He handed me the items that would not be useful in treating the grass type's injuries. I missed having pockets, as I struggled to fit everything in my arms. The last thing that he gave to me was the packet of inactive Pokéballs. "Okay, here's the plan. There's no easy way around the river, so I'm going to have to jump over it. If the Deerling runs away, then we all follow him. He won't get very far on that leg, and a few minutes of fear and pain for him is much better than dying out here. Once he tires out, I'll be able to assess the damage and help him. Got it?"

"You need all of us to follow?" I clarified, looking back at Zackary, who had become rather interested in a passing kaleidoscope of Beautiflies. He seemed like more of a liability than an asset when chasing something. The swarm of bug Pokémon fluttered over to the silver bucket of berry cores that Brandon had left out. The Emolga obviously wanted to go play with them.

"The more the merrier," he replied, with a confident smile. He wrapped a never-ending roll of bandages around his brawny arm, only so he could unwrap them for later use on the Deerling. His ability to stay calm in an emergency put me at ease. "There's always a chance that I lose sight of him, which is where Indra's nose comes in. Alex, you'll be there for moral support."

Before I could give Brandon a snarky reply, a metallic noise echoed through the clearing, as loud and clear as a gunshot. I nearly jumped out of my skin and dived to take cover behind Dominic's resilient hide. The Zebstrika bravely planted his hooves into the ground to shield me, instead of galloping away like usual. We searched wildly around for the source, only to find that the Beautiflies had knocked over the bucket, trying to snack on the remnants of the Cheri berries lying at the bottom. The unnatural noise spooked them into flying away, right towards where the Deerling had been hiding. We each swore to varying degrees, as the grass type bounced in alarm, and hobbled off into the trees. I managed to catch a blurred glimpse of the injury on his left haunch. Three, deep wounds had been slashed into the flesh on his rump. Indra's senses had been accurate, as the chasmal gouges weren't actively bleeding anymore.

"Argh! You stupid fucking bugs!" Brandon exploded, shooing away the rest of the startled Beautiflies into evacuating the campsite. An avalanche of medical supplies tumbled from his arms. His earlier calmness had been another mask that he used to disguise his true emotions. His dominant outbursts from last night didn't compare to this type of anger. After scrambling to pick up most of the items that he dropped, he cleared the length of the violent river as if it had been a puddle. He motioned for us to do the same with a glare. "Indra, I need you to take the lead now! Keep tracking the Deerling's scent, and we'll have to focus on following you!"

Wordlessly, Indra jumped across the river. The muscled giant and his starter disappeared into the bushes, as they believed that the rest of us would be behind them. In his haste, Brandon had forgotten about my injuries. I could probably jump across the river without a problem if I was in peak condition. However, my muscles were still sore from the pounding they received last night. My heartbeat thundered in my ears, as I stared down at the lashes of choppy water. With my confidence rapidly dwindling, I didn't have much of a chance of joining them both, unless I took a huge risk. Potential scenarios invaded my nervous mind. If I was the only one to stay behind, then I could be savaged by the pack of Poochyena that roamed the dark forest. If I asked Zackary and Dominic to stay behind, then Brandon could be left without protection if he found himself separated from Indra. All of this stress… just to help an injured Deerling.

"Alex, hurry and climb on!" Zackary called, sitting atop a Zebstrika, who's electric-blue eyes had been sharpened with resolve and maturity. The squirrel patted urgently at the white, wiry hair that traced the length of Dominic's spine. His flanged tail whipped through the air, as he crouched down to give me easier access onto his back. For a moment, I looked at them both like they were insane. Bareback riding was dangerous, and I was worried about the precious jewels dangling between my legs. "Don't worry, Brandon's been teaching us all about safety! You'll need to sit forwards, and grab tightly onto his mane. Stay relaxed, we'll do the work!"

There was an earnest look in the Emolga's eyes that I couldn't ignore. Convinced by his rare display of wisdom, I clambered onto Dominic's back. For some reason, I was still clutching tightly onto the box of Pokéballs. I couldn't escape the thought that I would have to use them. After shamelessly swinging my legs around, I was no longer on the ground. The instant that my bare skin brushed against his leathery hide, a tingle of electricity surged into my veins. The feeling wasn't entirely unpleasant, especially once I settled into position behind his wide, muscled shoulders. The stimulating buzz didn't seem to fade, and massaged my inner thighs. In a more relaxed situation, it probably would have been enough to arouse me. There was a certain kind of pleasure that came to mounting an equine Pokémon without any clothes on. As the static energy pulled on every hair that coated my body, I leaned forwards and gripped onto the zebra's vivid mane. Zackary hugged at my reddened back with childish enthusiasm.

"Okay, full speed ahead!" the Emolga ordered, spurring his steed into a gallop with nothing but a few taps from his tiny heels. Things rapidly became more unpleasant, as the bones in my body thumped uncomfortably against the Zebstrika. "We should catch up to them soon!"

I was stunned by how much power Dominic put behind every hoofbeat. The earth tremored beneath the zebra's legs, and turned into a springy trampoline. It only took a few seconds for us to reach the edge of the river, and he didn't hesitate or slow down. Shots of adrenaline kept my eyes open, as we soared over the deadly torrent of water. My stomach felt like it had just been turned inside-out, and I was thankful that it was empty. Carousel rides made me queasy.

The wind whipped against my ears, and muffled the sound of Zackary's cheering. After what seemed to be an eternity, we finally impacted the ground. My unprotected body crashed into the Zebstrika's spine, and it felt like needles had been stabbed into my groin. Of course, the most delicate parts of a man's body took the brunt of the landing. All I could do was bite my tongue, as I sent a silent prayer up to Arceus. He had better preserve my ability to have kids. Neither of the electric types could sense my intense pain, as we continued to gallop further into the bushes. Through cloudy eyes, I had to keep my head low and weave past branches.

"I can't see them anywhere!" Dominic shouted, his voice parting the rushing winds like a fierce clap of thunder. He was right. I had been expecting to see Brandon tailing after Indra somewhere in the distance, but they had already vanished behind the layers of undergrowth. It had been foolish of us to think that we could find them again, this deep inside of the forest. The Zebstrika slowed down to a confused canter, as he examined dirty footprints and broken twigs. "My nose isn't as good as Indra's, so the only thing that I can smell is blood from the Deerling. I'll just have to follow that, and hope that we find them along the way. Hold on!"

Before he had even finished speaking, he darted back into a sprint. The knuckles on my free hand whitened, as I pulled his mane closer. Using his bristly hairs like a pair of reins, I had no choice but to force his movements away from the trees which came close to decapitating me. Dominic was stubborn about following his own path through the forest, which caused a few of the stray branches to nick away at my shoulders and elbows. He was tracking the scent as best he could, so I couldn't blame him for that. I was already covered head-to-toe in scrapes, so I didn't really care about these new ones. Slowly, the lukewarm sunlight dwindled away as we carved our way deeper into the forest. Every so often, I would catch a glimpse of a figure, only to realise that the darkness was playing tricks on my eyes. Zackary seemed to have the same issue, as he called out Brandon's name a couple of times. We still hadn't found them…

Suddenly, Dominic came screeching to a halt. We barrelled across a gap in the trees, and I was nearly sent tumbling to the ground. The Zebstrika's ears twitched, as a strange noise echoed from somewhere close by. After looking around with unsettled curiosity, I realised that he had trotted across a sticky puddle of coagulated blood. Hoofprints which must have belonged to the Deerling had been stamped through the dark area, and the surrounding leaves had been speckled a reddish-brown. This had to be the grass type's hideaway, where he came to recuperate after being wounded. A frown spread across my face. It was likely that he had tried to return here, since it was where he felt the safest. However, something stopped him. Predators from miles around would be able to sniff this place out, and the smarter ones would set an ambush for the Deerling when he returned. Dark types had that kind of tactical prowess.

The noise reverberated against the trees again. Zackary whimpered, and buried his face into the sensitive skin on my back. Since we had stopped moving, I had the freedom to reach back and tussle the squirrel's ears, to comfort him a little. It sounded like a horrific combination of growling and laughter, that repeated in a chorus. I thought back to Indra's observations as we tried to speak with the Deerling, and that was enough to allow the fragments to fit together. My shoulders sank with regret, and my heart ached. We couldn't find the Deerling, because there was no Deerling to find anymore. I mourned the loss in grave silence, as the predatory baying only grew more fevered and celebratory. But then, the bushes next to us collapsed.

A bellowing group of Poochyenas rushed out of the shrubbery, as the Deerling desperately attempted to limp away from them. Somehow, he had managed to evade their advances, and made it back to this shaded sanctuary alive. His eyes were aflame with the desire to survive. My hands fumbled with the packet of Pokéballs at my side, as the dark types surrounded us. Dominic snorted in defiance. He wasn't able to use an electrical attack, because I was still cowering on his back. During the whirlwind of chaos, I noticed that a Poochyena with a torn ear had been tangled up in thin, green vines, which were connected to undulating seedlings. They prodded into his coat, and sapped at his energy, as he struggled to direct his packmates. Denied the satisfaction of sinking their teeth into injured flesh, they were angry and ravenous.

Seeing that the frightened Deerling had fired off a Leech Seed at his pursuers was the last push that I needed. With urgent clumsiness, I ripped the box of Pokéballs apart, and clicked the button on the first one which fell into my palms. The remaining orbs rained down onto the grass, and stunned the Poochyenas into inaction. Dominic charged forwards, clearing the path until I managed to get an unobstructed view of the grass type. Trainers were meant to practice their capturing throw, but I had never expected to become one. The best I could manage was a feeble toss, which was rather embarrassing. The Pokéball soared through the air, and then bonked the Deerling on the head. Surprised, he dissolved into an implosion of crimson lights.

My eyes had adjusted to the darkness of the forest, so the intense brilliance had blinded me for a few, alarming seconds. Dominic's charge petered off, and he swerved around, so we would be facing the bloodied entrance to the hideaway. I rapidly blinked and massaged at my eyes, trying to coax my vision back. They should really change the brightness of Pokéballs. The scenery returned to me in oscillating waves, and I felt a dominant roar blast into my ears. Thunderous flashes of blue and yellow streaked across the ground, sending countless bodies fleeing back into the trees. Once I was finally able to see again, I was staring down at Indra, who snarled at a single, remaining Poochyena. The one with the torn ear gave him a violent glare, before stalking back into the shadows. Last night, they had seen the Manectric tear out the throat of their pack-leader, so they wouldn't dare to challenge him. The clearing was safe.

Following the sparks of electricity, Brandon emerged from the trees. He grasped onto a trunk for support, as he tried to find his breath. His bare feet had been scraped into messes of grime and blood, but he was unharmed. I couldn't imagine the level of pain that came with sprinting through a forest without any shoes on. The muscled giant stared at us in blatant astonishment, as he approached the Pokéball that was quivering in the grass. Seeing my nude body mounted on his Zebstrika was probably the last thing he had been expecting. A hopeful silence returned to the hideaway, as we convened around the vibrating orb. From long years of loneliness, I had grown spiteful at those who could capture their own Pokémon. However, a sensation of child-like excitement made that discomfort melt away. Sliding from Dominic's warm back, I counted the rhythm that everyone on this planet knew, even if they hated the idea of training.




The Pokéball stopped shaking.