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"Well, Mister Henson," Nurse Joy's smile instantly soothes Lee's nerves. "I'm glad to say your Octillery will make a full recovery."

Lee sighs and leans against the wall outside of the Lavaridge Pokemon Center's aquatic ward. He turns slightly as he rests on the wall so as to not accidentally pin Vulpix, who is in her usual spot upon his shoulder. "Thank goodness," he murmurs, peering through the observation window into the ward.

It truly seems like every Pokemon Center has everything needed to treat any sort of pokemon, evidenced by the multiple wards even the small Lavaridge center has. Through the glass, Lee runs his eyes over all the different tanks and enclosures. Only one is occupied right now, and it's a large, closed-top rectangular tank of glass holding Octillery.

After only several hours in the center's care, the octopus pokemon is already beginning to look more lively. The sickly pallor of his skin has receded somewhat, and his sleep isn't wracked by tremors or spasms.

"We ran an analysis of the water sample you gave us, and it did indeed have a worrying amount of metallic contaminants in it," Nurse Joy peers down at the tablet computer held in her hand. "Thank you for bringing it in. Having a sample cut down our diagnosis time quite a bit."

Lee returns his attention to the iconic nurse. "Will he have any complications while recovering? And what are you doing to treat him, if you don't mind indulging my curiosity?"

Joy smiles. "We don't expect any complications, but if he experiences any symptoms like unusual fatigue or unprompted confusion, please bring him to the nearest Pokemon Center. As for his treatment…" She glances down at her tablet and swipes the page up, reading it briefly. "The filtration system in your Octillery's tank is being treated with chelating agents that bind to the heavy metals in his body. These help him expel the contaminants through his urine. Every few hours, we're also returning him to his ball and giving him a short session in an Omnitrauma unit to repair the damage caused by his heavy metal poisoning. He's been responding to everything quite well!"

'Maybe I could intern at the Rustboro Pokemon Center when I start my classes. The fact that a tiny town like Lavaridge has a center with all of this specialized equipment and these treatment methods blows me away. What could I learn in a high-traffic center?' Lee wonders with a touch of awe.

Lee files the thought away for later and offers Nurse Joy a bright smile. "Thank you, nurse. Really. I was certain he would have some kind of chronic ailment after god-knows how long in that toxic puddle."

"It's our pleasure to help, Mister Henson." The red-headed nurse matches his smile easily. "Now, perhaps you should get some rest. You look quite exhausted."

'Do I?' Lee runs a hand down his face. After thinking about it, his eyelids are rather heavy and his legs ache a bit… 'We did kinda march through the night…'

Upon arriving in Lavaridge and regaining cell service earlier that very morning, Courtney called ahead and secured a pair of rooms in one of the modest town's small inns. While Lee went straight to the Pokemon Center, Zinnia, Brendan, and even the usually unflappable Courtney agreed that a nap was warranted and ventured to the hotel to sleep.

"Yeah, a rest sounds nice…" Lee agrees with Joy. He turns his eyes to Octillery once more. "Any idea how long until Octillery is recovered?"

"We're expecting his discharge to be in ten to fourteen days."

'Two weeks to treat heavy metal poisoning so bad that Octillery was half-dead… That's nothing short of incredible.' Lee shakes his head with a smile. "Sounds good. Please give me a call if anything comes up."

"We will, Mister Henson," Joy nods.

Nurse Joy escorts Lee and Vulpix out of the deeper part of the Pokemon Center, passing a few doctors, regular nurses, and a number of Chansey on the way back to the lobby. As they walk, Lee's tired brain flits between several subjects at once, going from how in the world Octillery can blow through steel with water and ink, to wondering how the Joy family got involved with the Pokemon Center business in the first place. Once past the doors leading to the wards in the heart of the building, Nurse Joy bids them a kind farewell and returns back to her seat behind the front desk.

As Lee and Vulpix exit the center out into the still-morning sun, Lee looks around the town while he stretches his arms over his head with a yawn. The town of Lavaridge is small, densely packed, and rife with Kanto's Japan-esque culture and architecture with almost no empty space. If space isn't used by an artistic nihon kenchiku-styled building or dense foliage grown from the fertile, volcanic-ash-strewn soil, then it's a street or walkway. The largest buildings are the Gym and the Pokemon Center, and over the rooftops, Lee spots Hoenn's fire-themed Gym sitting on a hill against the foot of the mountain. "Love," he pauses to yawn once more. "Is there anything we needed to do today? I want to get it out of the way."

Vulpix mulls the question over, flicking her tails. 'Re*ister at the g*m.'

"Ah, right," Lee frowns, annoyed. "Why the hell would a Gym website not have a check-in? That's the one thing literally every trainer uses."

'It's not st*ndardi*ed? The we*sites f*r the Gyms, I *ean.' Vulpix asks as Lee begins a slow walk towards the Gym.

"You'd think they would…" With so few people out and about in the early hour, Lee doesn't think much of verbally replying. The path leads him and his fox west down Lavaridge's main street, and looking to the north, Mt. Chimney's imposing image cuts into the blue sky like a stony, smoking knife. For a second, Lee ponders the wisdom of building a town at the foot of a volcano. "But the Gym Leaders apparently get carte blanche for everything. So long as they don't abuse their power, I think the League will let them do whatever they want."

'While not as hot a vacation spot as Dewford, Lavaridge still seems to thrive on tourism. What was the big thing here again? The hot springs and tours on the volcano, right?' Lee spies a not-inconsiderable number of novelty stores, gift shops, and themed restaurants just beginning to open on the way to the Gym. Many offer mass-produced knick-knacks like mugs, hats, and shirts bearing some sort of logo or slogan related to Lavaridge, but a few have more unique pieces on display. One such shop has a sign saying 'Volcanic Ash Glass Sculptures. No two are the same!' In the window sits a handful of pokemon statues made from glittering black glass, each one ranging from several inches large for a Spinarak to three feet tall for a boastful-looking Grumpig.

'I wonder if they do commissions…' Lee wonders, conjuring a hazy image of each of his pokemon, their details captured as shiny statues.

The path to the Gym leads them out of the business sector of the town and down a wide, tree-flanked path that snakes to the north, up a hill, and to the foot of Mt. Chimney. As the Gym comes into view, Lee can't help but whistle.

The Gym is styled after an old Kanto manor, with several levels and walls of white stone. The red, slanted roof is covered in tile, and the whole complex is surrounded by a stone wall capped by a tiled red overhang. Built into the wall is an open wooden gate, painted the same red as the roof welcoming them in. It's a far cry from the utilitarian domes used back in Rustboro, Dewford, and Mauville.

Walking past the gate and up to the glass double doors of the gym, Lee checks the posted hours from a sheet of paper taped to the inside of the glass, then he pulls his phone from his pocket, checking the time.

"Nine-o-seven," he comments more to himself than Vulpix. "They're open."

The door is pulled open, and the pair walk inside.

While the exterior of the Gym is traditional and pleasing to the eye, the lobby is somewhat uninspired by comparison. Some chairs pushed off to the side, a wooden reception desk with an ancient-looking computer sitting behind the raised edge of the desk, a water cooler in the corner, and a set of double doors on either side of the desk. It looks so much like any other generic business lobby that Lee's tired brain doesn't bother dedicating any of it to memory. Instead, he simply walks up to the empty reception desk and gives the bell sitting upon it a ring.

Ding-ding!

The noise echoes in the large room, and after a moment, footsteps can be heard beyond the right set of doors. "Coming!" Calls the voice of a young woman.

"Jeez, the Gym has only been open for ten minutes…" The unseen woman grumbles as she pushes the doors open. "Who in the world-" The doors are thrown wide, and red eyes widen as the owner sees Lee.

Standing in the doorway is the heir to the Lavaridge Gym, Flannery.

The woman is striking, to say the least. Her long, crimson hair is pulled back into a high, wild Ponyta tail with her bangs left free to hang over the side of her angular face. A tight, midriff exposing t-shirt and well-fitting jeans accentuate her attractive figure and expose a fair amount of clear, smooth skin without being risque. On her red belt, a trio of pokeballs hang. It's clear to Lee why she's enjoyed so much popularity online following the announcement of her upcoming appointment as Gym Leader.

"Good morning." Lee smiles. "I was hoping to register for the next available Gym battle. I tried to book it online, but the website…"

"...Doesn't work? Looks like it was made back when Aerodactyl were still flying around?" Flannery finishes for him with a sheepish chuckle. "We get that a lot. Here, I'll get you put in the system."

Flannery slips in behind the front desk and seats herself at the dinosaur of a computer with obvious familiarity and wiggles the mouse to wake the old machine, which it does with the whine of a spinning drive. "We've got a fifteen-day wait. Is that cool?"

"That's fine," Lee nods, withdrawing his wallet and sliding his license across the desk to the redhead. "Fifteen days, huh? Hitting peak season?"

"Something like that," Flannery gives him a small, seemingly unsure smile and taking the plastic card, glancing between it and the computer screen as she types. More than once, she slows to steal a quick look up at Lee's face or at Vulpix. It's often enough that Vulpix pokes Lee's brain over it.

"Something wrong?"

Lee's words startle the Gym heir, who jumps in her seat and almost drops Lee's license. "N-No, nothing's wrong." She says with a hasty smile. "It's just… My grandpa, the current Leader, has been having me take over more and more of the challengers lately, and he might want me to battle you. I thought I would have more time to prepare for you, is all."

"Prepare for us?" Lee shares a look with Vulpix, who stares back with the mental equivalent of a raised eyebrow.

'Gym Le*ders talk a*ongst *hemselves, rememb*r?' Vulpix supplies. 'We've d*feated three G*m Leaders *t their full *ower. Ot*ers might *e nervous.'

'Ahh…' Lee crosses his arms. "We're not that scary, are we?" He directs his spoken question to Flannery.

She shakes her head, making her Ponyta tail bounce. "Not scary, I'm excited about it… but also a teeny bit anxious, too." Flannery admits, face flushing pink as she averts her eyes. "I'm still new to this whole Gym Leader thing, you know?"

"I understand," Lee nods slowly. His memories fly back to his first days on the road as a trainer, and before that, his first days back in his Zoo. In both instances, uncertainty followed, nipping at his heels. "New job jitters and all that. It's twice as bad for an important position like a Gym Leader, yeah?"

Flannery's smile slowly returns, and she seems pleased by the sympathy. "Yeah… I've got my loaner pokemon, but I think you'll be the first trainer I'll have to go all-out on." She types a few last lines into her computer and hands Lee back his trainer license. "We've got you in for the Tuesday after the next at Five PM. Expect a two-on-two or a three-on-three."

Lee smiles back and slips his license into his pocket. "Thanks. I'll see you then." As he turns to leave, another voice comes echoing down the hallway from deeper in the Gym.

"Flannery, dear! Do you know where I left that half-used inkwell? That calligraphy set I ordered came in and I don't want to uncap any new ink if I don't have to!" The weathered voice of an older man calls. Footsteps head towards the lobby where Lee, Vulpix, and Flannery stand, then from the same set of doors Flannery used comes an elderly man. The man stops, regarding Lee and Vulpix with surprise.

In a pink, Kanto-styled robe, socks with straw sandals, and a pair of thin, wire glasses, the older gentleman could easily pass as a village elder in a less developed region. "Goodness," he begins, running a hand through his curly white hair as a smile lifts his gently aged face. "Mister Henson. I wasn't expecting you for weeks to come. You've certainly set quite a pace, haven't you?"

Lee chuckles and turns back around to face the man. "I suppose we have. My group and I debated on taking the desert route here, but ultimately we decided to cut through the Valley of Steel-"

Behind the elder, Flannery inhales sharply.

"-which probably saved a week or more."

The elderly man rubs his chin and nods. "Ah, that would explain it." Then a realization seems to strike him, as he reaches up and taps his own forehead with a sigh. "D'oh, where are my manners this morning!?" He holds a hand out with a smile. "Mura Moore, Lavaridge Gym Leader for another month or so. It's nice to meet you in person!"

Lee returns the smile and clasps Moore's hand, giving it a shake. He inwardly grumbles about how the niceties are keeping him from returning to his hotel and passing out, but pushes on. "Lee Henson. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mister Moore."

Moore releases Lee's hand. "I take it you've already met my lovely granddaughter, Flannery?" He asks, giving said granddaughter a bright grin that forces her to look away in embarrassment.

"I have. We were discussing the jitters that come with new jobs just before you arrived."

"Ha!" Moore's grin lowers into a knowing smile. "Nothing will do that quite like taking the mantle of Gym Leader. Heck, I was part of the Elite Four before taking over the Lavaridge Gym. Imagine my surprise when being a Leader turned out to be the harder job." He clears his throat. "Since you're here, Lee, could I interest you and Miss Vulpix in some tea over a conversation? I've been watching your progress and just how far you've come in only a few months is almost unbelievable."

Once more, annoyance at being denied the rest his body is aching for gnaws on Lee.

'Cons*der the off*r,' Vulpix makes her vulpine not-purr deep in her chest. As she does so, Lee feels her tug his mind to a tender embrace, siphoning away his aches and pushing away his exhaustion by pouring her own stamina into him. The sensation is like soothingly warm water running through his veins, and the odd feeling almost makes him shiver. 'Relatio*s with M*ore mi**t be v*luable.'

"I can spare some time," Lee nods after considering Vulpix's words, drawing another smile from the old man.


"Here, it's a personal blend of mine," Moore smiles and sets down two steaming cups on the low table before taking the spot opposite of Lee.

'I hope I'm not causing offense by sitting cross-legged,' Lee watches Moore seat himself seiza style, sitting on his feet with his legs folded under him. 'I don't think I can do that even with my boots off.'

After an assurance from Flannery that she would handle the morning challengers, Moore leads Lee and Vulpix deeper into the Gym to a very Japanese-looking sitting room, showing the man and fox that the Kanto styling of the building goes deeper than just surface aesthetics. The Gym Leader certainly seemed pleased when Lee took his boots off before stepping on the straw-mat floor of the rather spartan sitting room.

Lee raises the cup to his mouth and takes a short sip, finding that he doesn't particularly care for the tea inside. "It's good."

Moore smiles and raises his own cup, taking a long drink. "Ahh, like mother used to make," he sets the cup down with a clack. "So, Lee. What made you choose Vulpix as your first pokemon?"

"Hmm…" Lee gives his tea a swirl, watching his reflection ripple in the dark liquid as he thinks. 'I wonder where Moore heard that. More chatter between the Gym Leaders?' He does not dwell upon it too much. "It's more that she chose me. I used to be an animal handler, you see, and the facility I worked at… closed under less-than-ideal circumstances and sort of left me adrift…" He sighs and sets the cup down. "Vulpix happened upon me when I was hitting my lowest point, and being the sweetheart she is, decided to stick with me."

The vixen presses her head to Lee's cheek. 'Y*u're ge*ting better at *alking ab*ut it.' Her pride is as warm as the fur tickling him.

Without taking his eyes off of Moore, Lee smiles and raises a hand to scratch the fox gently along her jaw, drawing a content sigh from her. "Needless to say," the younger trainer continues, letting his hand fall again. "I'd be lost without her."

Moore's smile becomes fond as he watches. "Ah, we're not too different then," he says wistfully, crossing his arms and leaning his head back. He stares up at the ceiling, taking in something only he can see. "Ty, my Typhlosion, that is, he and I were exactly the same when we were young. This was back in the day when you didn't get a starter pokemon, the League wouldn't start doing that for another ten years, you see. I was a boy with a pokeball in hand and the determination to become a trainer. I thought I would meet a grand Fire pokemon head-on and catch him with bravery and guile, but for days I found nothing. Not a single Fire-type.I started losing heart and sat down to wallow, frustrated. Who stumbled upon me not a minute later?" He laughs, deep and hearty. "A mellow little Cyndaquil who came right up without a single fuss, all curious as to why a sad boy was grumbling up a storm just outside his den. The rest is history."

Lee smiles politely at the tale. "Sometimes that's just how the best of friendships are formed. There's no rhyme or reason to it, but it lasts."

"And how!" Moore agrees. After another chuckle, he takes another sip from his tea before setting the empty cup down. "Lee, I can see you're worn out from the road so I'll spare you the old stories. I was wondering if you'd be interested in a trade?"

Vulpix tenses up, and Moore notices instantly. "Not a pokemon trade! Don't worry your little head, Miss Vulpix!" He raises his hands, palms up in surrender. "I don't think I could get Lee here to agree anyway."

"What sort of trade?" Lee asks, confused. He combs through a mental list of the inventory in his bag, but can't think of anything Moore might want.

"I heard that you've been heavily focused on a number of research subjects in your travels, one being move creation and modification," Moore's smile takes on a more professional air, straddling the line between diplomatic and grandfatherly. "As Gym Leader, it's both my duty and pleasure to support the newest generation of trainers, and in that regard, I'd like to make use of your talents in that capacity as a Hoenn Gym Leader."

Lee struggles to keep his frown from showing, realizing he's just stepped into a political arena by total accident. 'And I did it while running on three hours of sleep, too.' Taking a sip of his tea to stall and think of an answer, he reaches out to Vulpix. 'Love, help me out here, please.'

The vixen's eyes narrow, and from her mind, a number of answers rocket to the forefront of Lee's brain. None are in true words, answers that Vulpix formulates for him never are. They're complex impressions that will pull words from his lexicon and form a sentence before leaving his mouth. How Vulpix figured out how to do this is beyond him.

Rather than take an agreeable one and essentially let Vulpix use him as a mouthpiece, Lee scans over the replies, picks one he likes, and allows the words to arrange themselves in his head… Then he edits several words and returns the answer to the fox on his shoulder for review.

Vulpix's surprise is plain to him, even if her face remains neutral. There isn't enough time to converse, so Lee just transmits his intentions.

Can't have you think for me. Team effort instead.

The fox's lips twitch in a ghost of a smile as she amends the answer with her own edits and sends it back to Lee.

Twice more the collective reply is cycled between trainer and pokemon at the speed of thought. They can't be too dismissive considering Moore's position of prestige, but neither can they seem eager to bend, as that invites the possibility of unfair compensation for whatever this trade might be. The Gym is also something to account for. No doubt Moore will observe a more traditional and respectful method of negotiation considering his adherence to Kanto culture so far. A nice middle-ground is what they find.

The whole exchange lasts just a few seconds, long enough for Lee to sip his drink and set it back down. "That's an interesting direction to take the conversation, Gym Leader Moore." Lee folds his hands in his lap, staring at Moore's faintly smiling visage with his own neutral mask. "I would be happy to assist you during my stay in Lavaridge, but opening with a trade offer has the implication that this is no small matter. May I ask what it is you require from me?"

Moore nods slowly. "Of course, forgive this old man for not starting with that. As you are no doubt aware, my granddaughter's appointment as Gym Leader is upon us, mere weeks away, in fact. Her debut will be another "changing of the guard," if you will. Roxanne and Brawly both took their places from predecessors boasting a long and rich tenure, drawing skepticism and worry about Hoenn's place in this ever-more competitive world. When the two kept their Gyms rising to reach ever greater heights, the naysayers grew quiet, and a hopeful optimism began to bloom throughout our region." Moore's smile grows just a tiny bit. "Liza and Tate took control of Mossdeep City's Gym only two years ago after soundly thrashing their former master, who was an expert trainer, albeit a rough, arrogant character of a man. The twins are true once-in-a-generation prodigies, having taken control of a Gym at the tender age of ten years, and through their stellar efforts as trainers, Mossdeep has risen to become one of the most daunting Gyms in Hoenn, perhaps even in the world. Roxanne and Brawly paved the way for Liza and Tate to transform the view of elder Leaders retiring. Now rather than lament the loss of a learned elder, the people look forward to seeing new and ever more grand talent."

Lee blinks, not expecting the sudden history lesson. "I see…"

"It's because of this…" Moore's smile falls. "Expectations weigh heavily on Flannery's shoulders. People expect her to be so many things all at the same time. Her opening day, her debut, will be critical. Gone are the days when the title of Gym Leader alone demanded respect; now we must all bow to the eternal Rattata-race that is popularity." Moore chews on the word 'popularity' bitterly. "The masses expect her to wow them out of the gate, and if she doesn't? Then the crying and complaining will start. People will feel cheated that my granddaughter isn't all they dreamed, and who is it that notices those complaints?" Moore sighs, almost aging before Lee's eyes. "The bean-counters holed up in the Pokemon League HQ, that's who. They only look at approval ratings to decide if they want to hassle you or not. Suddenly something as simple as ordering office supplies needs two weeks of waiting and ten batches of forms because some algorithm says that you, a low-ranked Gym Leader, don't need extra pens."

With a sigh, Lee closes his eyes in thought. "Roxanne said something along similar lines, that the League heavily limits the strength of pokemon used in educational settings despite her best efforts to change that." He pauses. "I didn't realize the League was so rife with bureaucratic woes."

Moore's smile returns, small and sardonic. "Some advice from one trainer to another: get used to it. Red tape is the perfect trap for ambitious men, and someone like you, Lee, will be seeing more of it before long."

'Well, that's not ominous or anything.'

"I intend to give Flannery every advantage I can," the Fire-type master continues. "This, my friend, is where you come into the equation," Moore levels Lee with an even stare. "I wish to commission a custom Fire-type TM from you."

Several things quickly jump out as wrong to Vulpix, who shifts slightly. She's quick to point them out to Lee. Once more, she shortens her telepathy back to wordless urges and sensations so Lee isn't silent for too long, and another several rounds of phrase crafting jump between her and Lee. After only three seconds, they come to an agreement on what to say.

"Am I correct to assume that the intention of this hypothetical technique is to be an edge for Flannery?" At Moore's nod, Lee continues. "While I'm not rejecting the project, I have to wonder, why ask me? Surely your pokemon have a plethora of expert Fire attacks that would benefit Flannery's team far better than anything we have to offer. It's my understanding that moves within TMs come with the knowledge of how the original owner used them, including tweaks and whatnot. Perhaps you even have a custom move of your own to offer her?" He asks, raising an eyebrow.

"You are correct on all accounts," Moore smiles and reaches for the teapot between them, filling his empty cup until white steam gently floats from the rim. He takes a drink before answering further. "But a brand new move will have a public impact that one of Ty's moves can't hope to replicate, powerful or not."

"Truly?" Lee hums. Vulpix slides from his shoulder to settle in his lap, resting her chin on the table as she does so. "If you say so…"

Moore adjusts his glasses, pushing them a little further up his nose. "Truly. I think you underestimate the ripples new techniques have on the state of the competitive battling world. If you were to engage a common pokemon, let's say a Roselia, you would know roughly what to expect, yes?"

Lee nods once.

"You formulate a plan, and decide to close the gap, owing to Roselia's poor close combat abilities. When your pokemon draws close…" Moore raises a hand and snaps his finger sharply, making Vulpix's heart-marked ear twitch. "Suddenly, the Roselia fires off a devastating close-range move that you've never seen before, and your plan has gone up in smoke as your pokemon is critically injured due to a mistake you had no idea you were making. Now you have to scrounge up a new plan, manage your injured pokemon, and while you're doing so, now you're wondering if there is another unpleasant surprise waiting for you." Moore levels Lee with a serious expression that makes the younger trainer sit straighter. "Knowing is half the battle, but what happens when you can't trust what you know?"

"I imagine that you battle with half-effectiveness…"

"Oh, it's worse than that," Moore chuckles. "Trainers, real serious ones, study their opponents for days or sometimes weeks. What do you do when you can't prepare for what your foe has? No one can account for everything that might go wrong in a battle, and one unexpected move can turn the whole tide of battle. One can certainly account for unusual tactics and novel applications of existing attacks, but facing something undocumented?" The old man crosses his arms and leans back on his heels a bit more. "Once we're done here, take a look on the confuser. Trainers competing in Hoenn are starting to get awfully nervous of you."

'Confuser?' It takes a moment for Lee to realize he means 'computer.' "I apologize for the ignorance, but are new moves really that big a deal?"

"Let me put this in perspective," Moore holds a hand up at chest height, palm up. "I've been a trainer for nearly sixty years now. I've been both an Elite Four member and a Gym Leader for much of that time, and many recognize me as a Fire-type master. Do you know how many new techniques I've created with this time and skill? And I don't mean little changes to existing attacks, but full, real attacks made from the ground up."

Lee looks down at Vulpix, who leans her head back to meet his eyes. "Twenty?"

Moore openly laughs. "Less."

"Fifteen?"

"Less."

"Erm. Ten?"

"Nope. Less."

"Five?"

"Four," Moore finally reveals. "Ty and I bashed our heads into the wall for years to make just four moves. Flame Terrain, Burning Ash, Dry Out, and Crashdown. Each one was made to cover a weakness or fill a niche he was missing. More than once, the clever use of one of our home-baked specialties snatched victory in a critical match out of the jaws of defeat. Only Ty, his offspring, and Flannery's pokemon know them. To this day, the moves keep challengers wary because there are no documents, no explanation on how they work, no nothing. I imagine a few of Ty's kiddies that were released to the wild have made families of their own by now, so the moves are out there, but it's going to be generations before they're anywhere close to common. You've made how many moves?"

Lee mentally debates revealing the info with Vulpix, and after another rapid-fire round of phrase crafting, he answers. "Four."

"It's taken you three months to do what took us six decades," Moore doesn't seem upset at the admission. No, he actually smiles. "Now do you understand why I'm asking? Flannery knows our four, but one of her own to unveil during her debut would be perfect for cementing her status as a Gym Leader."

"..." Lee mulls over Moore's words. This time, rather than ask Vulpix for a suggestion on what to say, he forms the reply in his mind and shows it to her. He feels the vixen scan the message intently, then alter several words.

"What you're asking for is a tall order, Gym Leader Moore…" The zoologist begins. "You're asking me to essentially halt my own team's training to begin the development of a move that might be used against us, and you're imposing a deadline of a month or less. With that time, we could train, conjure up something for our own roster, or just relax after the ordeal that was traversing the Valley of Steel. May I ask what you're offering to trade?" He says, reaching out to take his teacup once more. 'Better drink it before it gets cold.'

Moore smiles. "Both as payment and for ease of your commission, I have a Fire Stone I'm willing to part with."

Lee hums into his sip of tea and sets his cup down, drumming his fingers on the ceramic. Just saying Fire Stone means very little, considering the purity and concentration of Type Energy in the stones are the biggest deciding factor of their worth. The better the stone's grade and purity, the smoother the evolution would go, and the greater the ceiling for the newly evolved pokemon's power would be. 'Or so they say.'

The best ones Lee can find online semi-regularly seem to be grade-4, which is quite a lot of contained TE, and purity-3, meaning the stone only has minor blemishes that won't inhibit the energy transfer much, though the common examples seem to hover around grade-5 or 6, purity-4. Anything below a grade or purity 8 regardless of the other stat seems to only be fit to be a glowing paperweight.

He saw a grade-2, purity-2 Water Stone on an internet auction house once. There were still three days left to bid, and the highest bid was already at eighty-thousand credits.

"Vulpix and I are still discussing the merits of evolution," Lee says diplomatically, letting his free hand idly stroke the fox in his lap and soothing the creeping worry he feels inside of her. "To go from a Vulpix to a Ninetales is a huge leap. It's not like the natural evolution of other pokemon."

Moore nods, his shoulders dipping somberly. "Yes, I can understand that caution. Ninetales are some of the most venerated pokemon around, and for good reason. They're powerful, dangerous pokemon. A Vulpix will go from flesh and blood to… something not wholly mortal. Something not easily controlled."

A frown finds its way to Lee's face even if Moore's words chill him. "I'm not worried about her harming me."

"I never said it was you who would be in danger."

The conversation comes to an awkward lull, or at least it feels awkward to Lee.

"Buuut for a trainer like you, Lee, I doubt that would be an issue anyway." Moore hastily tacks on. "Ah!" Moore exclaims, reaching up to tap his forehead once more. "I almost forgot. The Fire Stone? Ty and I dug it from Mt. Chimney not a week ago. It's quite the pretty thing…" Moore smiles like a Meowth who caught a fat Pidgey. "A grade-1, purity-1. I haven't seen one in years."

The teacup in Lee's grip shatters.


The next six days are spent agonizing over Mura Moore's words. The elderly Gym Leader didn't mind them leaving to think over the offer, even going as far as to say he expected it. He told them if they want to accept, come back, as he would keep the stone until he got an answer or until Flannery's debut in one month, whichever came first.

During the day, the rest of the group is relaxing, or training, or off seeing the sights of Lavaridge. Brendan went to schedule his Gym Battle and landed a spot only a day after Lee.

Lee, however, spends every bit of his time buried in study. The subject?

Ninetales.

Of course, as a trainer to a Vulpix, Lee did some minor research on Ninetales back in the Hoenn Lab. His searching lasted only one day, as he didn't expect to have a Ninetales for years, if ever. Most of what he found were folk tales, and they were entertaining enough to occupy the day.

Now, with the best possible stone dangled in front of him and Vulpix still up in the air about evolving?

To his dismay, concrete information on the rare fox pokemon just doesn't exist. There are peripheral scientific articles mentioning Ninetales in passing, one news article of a Ninetales in Unova who apparently inherited a chateau or something, but the old fox declined to reach back out to the news channel. There is plenty of Kanto folklore almost deifying the fox pokemon, saying they can control minds, cast illusions, and are agents of trickery, purity, evil, divinity, and everything in between. One article claims that there are only around a thousand Ninetales alive at any given time, citing that there are less than two hundred registered to known trainers.

Less than two hundred. That's not just for Hoenn, but the entire world.

His pokedex proves equally useless, as the gadget barely has a page worth of info, and much of it comes with disclaimers that the data might be inaccurate or outdated. There is a list of moves that Ninetales have doubtless been seen using, a rough weight and height range, a diet that may or may not be correct, and a map of their usual nesting grounds that of course shows nothing.

'Maybe I should shoot Nigel an email asking about this.'

By comparison, Vulpix is as common as the humble Caterpie. There are thousands of registered Vulpix around the world, and there are likely just as many unregistered foxes kept as pets. Yet Vulpix is still considered to be a rare and coveted pokemon. No single study can seem to figure out the disparity. Some blame the cost of Fire Stones, which price out casual trainers, while others say evolution anxiety is common in the Vulpix population for all sorts of reasons. Every study comes to a different conclusion.

One click-bait site ranking pokemon by rarity got one thing right for certain: Ninetales is borderline legendary.

He dared not ask Vulpix a thing, however. Much like him, she's been in deep thought for days. Sometimes, when she thinks she's hiding her emotions well, Lee will feel flashes from her. Flashes of apprehension, dread, or even guilt for some unfathomable reason. Those soulful brown eyes would stare at him full of conflict, and it tears at him.

Between multi-hour bouts of study, Lee cares for his team, visits the Pokemon Center to see the nearly-comatose Octillery, and on day six, he sits outside the hotel, preparing to go and see Mable for the first time in several weeks.

Lee leans back into the beam supporting the overhang just outside his and Brendan's hotel room door, watching people and pokemon walk by. The hotel is situated on a flat stretch in the middle of a steep hill, making the road a chore to climb but a breeze to descend. More than once a kid on a bike has zipped by, barrelling downhill with a holler. A large, balloon-like pokemon called Drifblim lazily follows the girl and her bike from overhead. The same kid is then carried back to the top of the hill in the arms of her Drifblim friend, bike and all, where the cycle restarts. The antics are a pleasant distraction.

At Lee's feet, Vulpix stares up at the sky, her face blank and her mind whirling so quickly that Lee can't make heads or tails of her thoughts.

'Another ten minutes or so and we should be off.' Lee withdraws his phone and checks the time, finding it to be 9:30am. 'The Pokemon Center is roughly twenty minutes out?' He looks down at Vulpix.

The vixen doesn't acknowledge the telepathic question, still staring off into space.

Lee sighs and crosses his arms as he leans back again, following his pokemon's eyes up to the cloud she's locked onto.

It looks like a lion, so he tears his eyes away after only a second.

Behind them, a door opens and shuts quietly. During the short period it's open, Lee catches the sound of light snores.

"Still thinking about the offer the Gym Leader made?"

Looking to his side, Lee spies Courtney there, looking up at him from the shadow of her red jacket's hood.

"I am." Lee nods. He saw no harm in telling the Magma Admin, so she was included in the little huddle about Lee's day nearly a week ago. "Zinnia's snoring wake you up?"

The purple-haired woman shakes her head. "No. I'm usually up much earlier."

The two fall into a silence that isn't awkward, but neither is it comfortable. Perhaps it's only Lee who finds it unnerving, knowing Courtney's true allegiance. Either way, Lee clears his throat. "Courtney, you worked with Devon's geology labs, I recall? Do you know how much of a difference evolution stone grades and purities make?

Courtney folds her hands into her hoodie's pockets. "Big difference. The stone is the catalyst… and also the fuel. The more energy a pokemon gets from a stone, the less their body needs to provide to make up the difference. Anything left over doubles back, making the pokemon more powerful and adding more potential." She shrugs. "Simplifying things, skipping over some bits for the sake of time, but a better stone means better pokemon."

Her words seem to snap Vulpix out of her funk, as she looks up at the Magma Admin with searching eyes.

Courtney stares back, unflinching.

"If you want to do it…" The woman breaks off her staring contest with the fox at Lee's feet to look back at Lee. "Don't wait. Fire Stones degrade with time. Energy leaks out and cracks form. High-grade stones destabilize faster."

'I kinda guessed that. The glow that some stones have means there has to be some kind of radiation.' Lee nods wearily. "Thanks for indulging me, Courtney."

Another few minutes pass in silence, then Lee glances at his phone once more. "C'mon, love." He gives Vulpix a nudge with his boot, pulling her from her thoughts again. "We've got a schedule to keep." He then looks over to Courtney. "We've got a meeting to get to and we'll be back in a bit. See you then."

The hoodie-clad woman simply nods, accepting his words. "Until then."

As Lee and Vulpix slowly trod to the Pokemon Center, Lee can't help but let his mind wander. 'If a Ninetales is such a powerful pokemon, why was Courtney so candid? Surely she knows that if we get tangled up in Magma's business, that means we'll come to blows and things will just be harder for her. I thought she would have gone down the cautious or concerned route and discouraged any strength building…'

Lee ponders the question all the way to the Pokemon Center.


"Ah, there you two are!" Mable Lanes' voice is as rich and soothing as ever, and Vulpix can see the tension drain out of Lee's shoulders as they step into the rented meeting room with her.

The room is the same as it always is. The same eggshell white walls, the same cushy sofa, the same chair Mable always sits in. To herself, Vulpix can't help but wonder if all Pokemon Centers have this exact room, or if Mable and Xatu go to the trouble of hauling the same set of furniture around.

The door closes behind them as Lee seats himself, and Vulpix is quick to hop up on the sofa with him, settling into his lap. As per usual, her trainer leans forward a little bit, wrapping his arms loosely around her.

Vulpix gladly presses herself to the arms.

"It's been a while, Lee," Mable smiles. "I heard you took a daring path to Lavaridge. Why don't you tell me about that? Seems like a thrilling journey!"

"Well," Lee shifts, and Vulpix is heartened by how safe and comfortable he feels. "There were a few reasons for it. First off…"

Then on the edge of Vulpix's 6th sense, she feels it.

Xatu, Mable's Xatu, doesn't abruptly appear in her 3rd eye as if he teleported. A mind blinking into existence would draw the attention of anyone with psychic talent. No, Xatu fades into the material world like a ghost, and if she weren't already experienced in feeling him out, the wizened bird would have escaped her notice entirely.

Just outside the door leading to the room, Xatu stands and maintains a silent vigil. Then with a flicker of thought from Xatu, reality itself seems to hiccup.

All at once, everything Vulpix can hear and feel beyond the borders of the meeting room just vanishes, as if the room jumped into a dimension all its own. Her fur stands up on end.

The vixen yawns, playing off her discomfort as a stretch.

What sort of power Xatu holds, Vulpix isn't sure, and she isn't sure she even wants to know.

For some time, Vulpix sits, listening to Lee recount the last several weeks to Mable, who pauses the story for a question here and there. Then with an inward sigh, Vulpix reaches a thin tendril of isolated thought out into the ether, waiting.

Scarcely a second later, something reaches back out.

If her psychic probe is a tendril as thick as a human pinky finger, then the newcomer is barely more than a Spinarak web strand - so minuscule and thin that Vulpix's 3rd eye doesn't even see it. Yet when the strand touches her tendril, a shock runs down her spine.

'Hello, Xatu.'

'Good morn, Miss Vulpix.'

Vulpix suppresses a shiver as the elder pokemon's words run through her body and touch her core as if her mental defenses don't exist. The thin strand can snake its way through anything, it seems.

During the first session, Xatu reached out and introduced himself, saying he offered his services to her just as Mable does for Lee, but Vulpix was too concerned with comforting her trainer and ignored the Psychic bird.

The second, Vulpix tentatively reached out, then withdrew out of hesitation before Xatu could actually communicate with her.

On their third meeting, the fox and bird finally had their first true conversation. Xatu was unoffended by being spurned twice in a row, and finally having a willing ear that wouldn't be burdened by hearing her, Vulpix spilled and told him everything.

Her fears of the future.

The nightmares of Lee's final moments.

The terrible, unknowable blackness that awaits at The End.

And the maddening question of why she was born.

Xatu listened and listened well. The Psychic-type did not judge, nor did he pity or patronize her, and for that, Vulpix was grateful.

Then came his roundabout answers to her questions, and Vulpix was less grateful.

'Have your nightmares abated?' If Vulpix had to put a word to the way Xatu 'spoke,' it would have to be smoky. Each word blazed in her mind, but at the same time, they were paradoxically ephemeral.

'They have,' Vulpix answers. 'I've been meditating before bed as you instructed. I… don't believe I've found answers to my questions inside myself, but putting my thoughts in order has helped.'

'I am gladdened to hear that.' She can almost imagine Xatu bobbing his head in a nod, for his Spinarak strand conveys almost zero emotion. 'What troubles you today?'

The fox hesitates, shifting a bit in Lee's lap. As she thinks of what to say, she flicks her ear and returns her attention to Lee and Mable for a moment.

"-A little frustrated that Moore sprung this on us so suddenly…" Vulpix catches the tail end of Lee's grumbles. "Vulpix has concerns about her evolution, and it's a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing. We can't really keep it with us, because a stone that strong might trigger evolution even with no contact."

"Have you talked to Vulpix on this?" Mable asks, and Vulpix is suddenly aware that both Lee and Mable are staring at her.

"I have," Lee's words herald an outpouring of love that flows into Vulpix, who silently curses and realizes she's been letting her worry bleed over again. Nevertheless, the warm tide of her trainer's affection washes away both the worry and self-aimed frustration. "I told her it's her decision, and no matter what she picks, I'll support it," his hand combs through Vulpix's tuft of breast fur, and as always the cool fingers relax her.

'You want to accept, but you're hesitating.' Xatu's 'voice' pulls Vulpix back into their conversation.

'It's a complicated matter.'

'Then explain, and I will assist as best I can.'

Vulpix tries to be upset at how blunt Xatu is being, but the hand still stroking the cream-colored fur of her chest makes it a chore. 'I'm afraid, Xatu,' she finally admits. 'I know trouble is on the horizon, and I want to be stronger for Lee, stronger for my team, strong enough that I can shield them from everything that might hurt them, but…' She draws in a breath. 'Evolution… is going to change me. Change me in ways I don't want. I don't want to live for a thousand years, I don't want to outlive Lee, Grovyle, or Shinx. Sixty, seventy, eighty years from now, any one of them might be… The word 'gone' simply refuses to come out. Her whole being screams at the thought of being alone. She would sooner throw herself to the primordial void awaiting at The End.'Then I'll have hundreds of years to live after that. What would I do with myself? Other pokemon know what to expect when they evolve, but I don't. There are so few Ninetales that Lee can find almost nothing.' Once more, Moore's words play out in her head.

A Vulpix will go from flesh and blood to… something not wholly mortal.

'I'm scared, Xatu.'

Xatu remains silent for a second. Then; 'There is no folly in fear. It exists for a reason. There is folly, however, in letting fear paralyze you. Take care that you do not let yourself fall into that trap.' Vulpix gets the impression that he pauses to adjust his wings or somesuch. 'You wish to be strong for the ones you love, yet not to change. You'll find this to be an impossible task, Miss Vulpix, one that will drive you mad. We change every day. I am not the same Xatu from the last time we spoke, just as you are not the same Vulpix. We all change as time goes on, both in ways we can and cannot control. You will find that a force as mighty as love will often force change upon you.'

Vulpix frowns. 'You're saying I should evolve?'

'No,' Xatu's reply is curt. 'There is an expression for what is occurring here. You wish to have your cake-'

'-And eat it, too. Yes, I'm aware of common human proverbs.'

If Xatu is annoyed by the interruption, it doesn't show. 'Quite. You will find that with changes to life and person, there is rarely an event that is all positive or negative. It is up to the one facing the change to make it into what they wish as best they can…' Xatu pauses once more. 'Let me tell you of my ilk, Vulpix. The greatest of Xatu are blessed, or cursed, with an ability most terrific. One needs only to gaze into the sun, the eye of Arceus, and the secrets of the past and future will play out before them. Many are overwhelmed, frozen in place. They see the mistakes of the past and the horror of the future. Countless stand in the same place, upon the same cliffs and mountains, staring forward, motionless. They dare not move, for fear of making their visions of what is yet to come even worse.'

Vulpix swallows thickly. Lee likes to chatter idly when they're alone, and the supposed prophetic powers of Xatu came up once. She found herself skeptical, but now…

'Paralyzed by fear, these Xatu waste away and die on their feet, almost never venturing out to try and correct what they see. The fear of change roots them, and many never even think to do anything. The despair of 'what if' is their death knell, for it's only natural to stare into the dark and assume the worst.' Xatu's Spinarak strand wavers. 'They focus so intently on the negative that they never see the other side of the coin, the visions where horror is replaced by shining utopia, for the future is always in flux. The few who break the spell, the very, very strongest, leave so they might bring about their utopia. They know what might await them, but they make choices, embrace changes, and move forward fearlessly. Heed these words, Vulpix:

'Time will change you one day. Will you rage and resist, or will you step bravely forward?'

'Love will change you one day. Will you live in your own world, or will you open your eyes and see?'

'Loss will change you one day. Will you weep over gravestones, or will you live?'

'Reach for your utopia, Vulpix, or you will never have it.'

The vixen goes stiff in Lee's arms, each and every prophetic word slamming into her with the force of a hammer blow. It takes everything she has to not tremble.

'Do you…' Vulpix needs to stop to breathe and gather her thoughts. 'Do you speak from experience?'

For a second, it seems like Xatu isn't going to answer the overly-personal question. 'I do. Your path is your own, Vulpix, but never should you walk it with doubt.' Xatu's strand of thought begins to withdraw. 'We are nearing the hour mark for our visit. Remember; change is what you make of it.'

'I'll remember.'

'Good. Meditate further on your other questions. I am aware that you do not wish for Lee to be aware of your personal woes, but I think you will find him to be more capable of comforting you than I. Consider telling him what worries you.'

'I'll think about it,' she lies.

Xatu withdraws, and the minds and sounds beyond the door return.


An hour passes, and Vulpix realizes she's been inside her own head the whole time, much to her annoyance.

Xatu's words… She keeps replaying them in her head. It's the most the damn bird has ever said in a conversation with her. Normally he would keep quiet, let her vent, then make suggestions. All of her quandaries are of an introspective sort, and Xatu took that as "I'll help you but I'm not answering any direct questions."

'Reach for your utopia, Vulpix, or you will never have it.'

What does that mean? What is utopia supposed to represent? A happy life with her team and trainer? She's already reaching for that.

'Time will change you one day. Will you rage and resist, or will you step bravely forward?'

What else can she do? No one can stop time.

'Love will change you one day. Will you live in your own world, or will you open your eyes and see?'

Vulpix isn't even sure how to interpret that one.

'Loss will change you one day. Will you weep over gravestones, or will you live?'

Vulpix bites back a growl and returns her attention outward.

They're out wandering the town of Lavaridge. Vulpix is in her usual spot, draped across her trainer's shoulders whilst baby Shinx is held in his arms. At Lee's side, Grovyle walks along with his arms crossed, dutifully watching for danger as Lee peers into the window display of a storefront.

Tentatively, she reaches her thoughts out to Lee, and to her relief, he wears his high spirits on his mental sleeves. She dares not incriminate herself by asking for his memories of his session with Mable and is content with the knowledge that he left better than he went in.

Then she reaches an isolated mental probe out to Grovyle.

'Grovyle?'

The Grass-type doesn't even flinch. 'Vulpix. Are you well?'

Of course, Grovyle would notice. Nothing ever seems to escape him. 'I'm not. I have… a dilemma, I suppose, and I would like your opinion.'

'Regarding evolution?' He asks, falling back into step with Lee when the latter loses interest in the electronics in the store window.

'I thought I was the mind reader here…' Vulpix wearily jokes. She huffs out a hot breath, making Lee reach up and rub the now warm part of his neck. 'I want to evolve, Grovyle, I do, but I don't want to outlive everyone.' Her heart pangs painfully at the final thought. 'What would you do if evolution meant outliving the ones you know and love?'

Grovyle rolls his twig around in his mouth. 'I would still evolve.' Vulpix's surprise must bleed over, as he continues after a short delay. 'I've already outlived my home, but I don't let the loss itself be the focus of my memory. I remember the times spent with my colony and growing up fondly. It would feel like spitting on the Old Tree's memory if I let my spirits fall every time I thought of it. Evolution means more power, and it means I can protect what I love until things I can't fight, such as time, are the only concerns.'

Of course, Grovyle would have such a refreshingly simple yet noble view, and through his inexperience with telepathy, his honesty lights up each of his words like a beacon.

'Does that alleviate your concerns some?' Grovyle asks.

'...Earlier, Xatu said I had to 'reach for my utopia or I would never have it.' Does that make sense to you?'

'Flowery, but I understand. If you want a pleasant future, it's up to you to do what you can to create it.'

Vulpix licks her chops, trying and failing to keep the Butterfree in her stomach still. 'That was my takeaway as well. Thank you, Grovyle.'

'Anytime.'

Vulpix withdraws from Grovyle and reaches her mind back out to Lee. 'Lee?' The word comes across clearly.

Her trainer looks her way, blue eyes bright and a hint of a smile on his lips. 'Yes, love?'

Vulpix widens the psychic channel between them, both so her words are clear and to embolden herself with the everpresent undercurrent of love inside of Lee. 'I've decided. I want to evolve.' She drops the bomb on him.

His surprise is as sharp as it is sudden, and she almost flinches. 'Vulpix…' He begins seriously. 'Are you sure? That's a huge decision to make, and this isn't the only opportunity that we'll get. I'm sure we can find another stone if you have any second thoughts.' As he 'speaks', he carries both her and Shinx to a nearby bench and sits heavily.

Grovyle follows afterward and sits to Lee's right. Vulpix is acutely aware of his yellow eyes on her.

'I'm certain!' Vulpix insists. She narrows her eyes and banishes the fluttering in her stomach. 'I want to be powerful, powerful for you and everyone else. If this stone is as powerful as it's made out to be, then this is an opportunity I have to take.' She can feel several of her words garble as she forces her meaning into rigid human language, but Lee's eyes still shine with comprehension. 'I'm ready.'

Baby Shinx, so sensitive, apparently feels the shift in the atmosphere, as she squirms and whines in Lee's arms, pawing at him with distress.

Lee shifts gears in only a second and shushes the little kitten. "Don't worry, babygirl," his soft murmurs take the burgeoning tempest out of Shinx's sails, and the Electric-type slowly ceases her struggles. For a moment, the man whispers quietly to her and gently strokes her across the back. "Here, take a nap for now, okay? We'll have lunch when you wake up."

A few passers-by stop to smile or gawk at the scene of a large, scar-marked man baby-talking a tiny Shinx, but to Vulpix's pride, Lee is unbothered.

Slowly, Shinx is soothed into a drowsy bundle of blue and black fur, and after her eyes close, Lee returns her to her ball in a flash of red before giving Vulpix his undivided attention. 'Sorry, love. Anyway,' He leans back into the bench. 'Are you sure about your decision? I don't want you to feel pressured just because I researched Ninetales, either. I went into that knowing full well the call is yours and yours alone. Also, when we last talked about this…' He bites his lip. 'You were… concerned about outliving me.'

Doubt tries to bubble up in Vulpix, but she ruthlessly crushes it. 'I was…' she shakes her head. 'I still am a little afraid of that. One thing has become apparent to me, though. Changing is okay, and I should worry about the here and the now before concerning myself with what happens decades later. I'm not going to be afraid of growing, not when I have you at my side. When you…' She still can't bring herself to say it. 'I won't cry because it's over, I'll smile because it happened.' She turns her eyes to Grovyle and smiles as best as her vulpine lips allow her.

Lee sags on the bench with a sigh. After a moment of thought behind a private curtain in his mind, he smiles faintly. From him into Vulpix flows a trickle of resignation, more than a little giddiness, and a torrent of pride for her. 'You're one brave fox, you know that?'

'I learned it from you,' Vulpix presses her face into his neck, relishing in both his affection and contact. The Fire-type feels so light that if she were to leap, she fears she might not ever come down.

"Well…" Lee says aloud, standing with a smile. "Let's go to the Gym and let Moore know that we accept."

The walk to the Gym seems to pass by in a flash for Vulpix, who can't help but shiver in anticipation. So distracted is she, that she almost doesn't notice Lee pull his phone from his pocket and send a message to Zinnia, Brendan, and Courtney telling them to meet them at the Gym. One moment they're in the heart of Lavaridge, and the next, they're in the lobby of the Gym, greeting an elated Mura Moore.

"Lee, I'm so happy you decided to accept!" The human elder's smile is blinding as he shakes Lee's hand. "Come with me to the courtyard! I'll have one of my trainers fetch the stone and gather everyone else so they can witness this!"

Lee's face is much more collected than the buzzing thoughts in his head, Vulpix muses to herself. "You know this means you're making Vulpix into a giant problem for your own match against us in a week, right?" He asks with a smirk.

Moore waves him off. "Bah. Small price to pay to receive a brand new move and witness the birth of a Ninetales." After a beat, Moore adds, "In some Kanto legends, they say witnessing a Vulpix evolve into a Ninetales is said to grant a divine sort of luck upon all who watch. Did you know that?"

"I do now," Lee quips.

As they sweep through the halls of the Gym to the central courtyard, Moore stops one of his assistant trainers and hands the boy a key from his robe, telling him to get 'the box' and to spread the word to meet in the courtyard. The boy bows with a "Yes, Leader Moore!" and takes off as if a Houndoom was on his heels.

A few turns later, she, Lee, Moore, and Grovyle emerge into the courtyard behind the Gym. Vulpix hops down from her trainer's shoulder and peers around, finding the courtyard to just be packed dirt with several lanterns on posts in the corners. In the dirt are faded chalk lines outlining a battleground.

Over several minutes, a trickle of murmuring trainers all dressed in robes similar to Moore trickle in and gather off to the edge of the ground, away from the center where Vulpix, her trainer, Grovyle and Moore all stand. Some of the trainers are accompanied by Fire pokemon, and one teen trainer even has a surly-looking Combusken at his side.

The last to come through is Flannery, who runs out into the courtyard out of breath before taking a moment to compose herself. "Sorry for being late, Grandpa! I had a challenger I was finishing up with!" She peers around at everyone curiously. "I heard someone yelling that you called a meeting. What's going on?"

Moore smiles brightly. "Flannery, we're about to see something that might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We're just waiting for Kay to get back here with the stone."

Lee keeps his face carefully schooled into neutrality, but Vulpix can feel his embarrassment as the process gets turned into a big ceremony. Silently, she wraps him in a quick, mental hug.

The embarrassment transforms into a grumble.

Flannery looks at Vulpix when the stone is mentioned, then the Gym heir's eyes widen. "Whoa… I didn't think he'd accept…" Her attention turns to Lee.

Vulpix's awkward human plays off his nerves with a shrug.

As they wait, Brendan, Zinnia, and Courtney slip into the courtyard as well, apparently, led in by a straggling Gym trainer. The trio chatter quietly to themselves, going to stand in their own group a few yard away from the milling Gym trainers. Both Brendan and Zinnia's faces are locked into excited smiles, while Courtney looks on in open curiosity.

Moore hums and rubs his chin. "Friends of yours?" He asks Lee.

"I told them to come here if they wanted to watch," Lee confirms.

At long last, the Gym trainer who must be Kay returns, a lacquered wooden box held in his hands. "Leader Moore," he trots up to the human elder and hands the box off.

Moore runs a thumb across the lid of the box, maybe taking in some inscription that Vulpix can't see from her vantage point. Slowly, almost reverently, he opens the lid and pulls from the box a beautiful, shining stone.

Even in the daylight, the Fire Stone casts shifting rays of orange light that brighten the courtyard, and Vulpix struggles to not let her jaw drop at the sheer, raging hellstorm she feels contained in the fist-sized crystal. Her pyrokinetic sense is going haywire just being within twenty feet of the Fire Stone, for the extra sense tells her that the stone contains more power within it than herself several times over.

"It's a good thing you came when you did, Lee," Moore hands the stone to Lee, who takes it gingerly. "It has a day at most before it cracks."

"It's warm…" Lee's voice is too quiet for anyone but Vulpix to hear.

"Silence, silence!" Moore hushes the chattering of his trainees with a harsh wave of his arm. "Now, back away and watch. You may never get to see this again." Moore steps off to the side with his gym trainers and beckons Grovyle along.

The Grass-type and Lee share a single look, then both nod as one. In a blur of motion, Grovyle vanishes and reappears with his arms crossed between Moore and Flannery, the latter of whom jumps with a stifled yelp.

Lee smiles and then turns back to Vulpix, who feels her heart begin to race. Slowly, he kneels down to one knee, rolling the Fire Stone between his fingers.

"Has it really only been three months?" Lee wonders aloud, eyes fixed on the stone. "Three months since you came into my life and saved it, love, yet it feels like I've known you for years, or even my whole life."

Vulpix smiles, calm overtaking her. Her jitters vanish, the Butterfree in her stomach stop, and the doubts of the day seem so terribly small now. 'I have known you for my entire life, and I'm looking forward to every day, week, month, and year we have together.'

Lee huffs out a laugh. 'Don't spread that line around. People might get funny ideas.'

'Let them,' she sniffs.

Lee rolls his eyes good-naturedly, then slowly, almost hesitantly, he holds the stone out.

Vulpix pads closer, conscious of every step she takes, and how the distance shrinks. Her heart begins to thunder again.

Before her is a turning point in her life, and once she starts down that path, she can never turn back. What is done may never be undone.

She comes to a halt less than a foot away from the bared stone, the orange glow dominating her sight. So close is she, that she almost feels as if she were set aflame. The light warms her fur. It makes her head swim, and her breaths shallow.

The world is a dangerous place, and her human, her dear Lee, needs a team of pokemon who can stand against the tide. The Powers That Be, for she knows them to be out there, are not stirring yet, but it's only a matter of time. She can't hide, she can't shy away. There is time before the world begins to rumble, and she can use that time to grow.

She can be the best pokemon she can be just by touching this stone. Grander heights are all hers.

All it costs is the burden of burying the one she loves one distant day.

Vulpix gulps, but finds her mouth dry. 'Lee. He's going to die one day. He's going to go off to The End again.'

'Reach for your utopia, Vulpix, or you will never have it.'

'But he will die old and fulfilled. I will see it no other way.'

Her paw falls upon the Fire Stone.

A grand white glow blinds Vulpix, and she feels her veins filled with rushing inferno.

Power.

Unfathomable power fills her entire body and soul. The wellspring of fire deep inside of her balloons, growing twice, thrice, four times, and more until it pushes against the boundaries of her body painfully. The fire keeps spreading without end, so her body breaks and morphs before she bursts into uncontrollable flames. She feels her limbs, her neck, her muzzle, and her tails lengthen. Bones shift without pain and from her spine, three entirely new tails sprout. They bud and grow like plants between their sisters as if they were always meant to be there. The tails unravel, each one waving slowly in its own unseen and unfelt wind.

Her fur transforms in the heat, brightening to a radiant, shimmering gold. Under her pelt, she feels fire wash over her bones and muscles, burning away weakness and tempering them like steel.

But inside her head, something else takes place.

A blinder comes off.

Had her body not been engulfed in searing heat that would turn tears to steam, she might have cried.

Like a blind man suddenly shown color, she can see. Her third eye, now wide and unblinking, takes in the entire town and the surrounding landscape. Gone is her puny dozen-meter range and the strain of focus. She can see everything. Deeper in her psyche, all the difficulties she faced with her more esoteric powers seem so silly now. Her mind, now properly equipped to handle the skills she practiced before, neatly snaps everything into place.

Then there is the fire. Her fire.

Before, it required prodding and intense focus to command the flames. Moving her attacks, tracking foes, pouring more energy in, it all fought her on some level. Now? Now she feels the fire thrumming under her skin, eager and waiting for a command like a Growlithe. She dares not even errantly flick a tail lest she set some poor bystander alight.

The might that's been gifted to her… She feels as if there is nothing she cannot beat. It's euphoric. It's right. She hasn't any idea if the lightness in her limbs is from newfound strength, the relief that nothing seems to be amiss with herself, or if it's just the rapturous sensation of the sheer power she holds.

The raw, unfettered Fire rushing into her from the stone begins to abate, then drops to a trickle. After what seems like an eternity, the white aura of evolution fades and all that's left of the stone is a clear, inert crystal.

Vulpix watches the hand holding the crystal go limp, letting it drop to the ground. The same hand reaches up to her still raised, golden-furred paw and takes it in a gentle grip.

She raises her head almost shyly, taking in her trainer's face.

He stares at her, face drawn into picture-perfect awe. "Vulpix?" He breathes, little more than a whisper. In Lee's eyes, she sees something that drives a spike into her heart and kills the high of her evolution.

Doubt. Doubt about who she is.

With only a flicker of thought, she wraps her entire mind around his, weaving a psychic tapestry filled with love and reassurance.

'Ninetales is my name now, Lee.' She smiles, finding her new lips much better at the task. 'I'm going to miss riding on your shoulder.' The words are smooth and utterly clear, she knows it.

She's not sure if what comes out of Lee is a laugh or a sob, but he steps closer and drops to his knees to pull her into a tight hug, his emotions an utter mess. With her sensitive new skin and fur, Ninetales delights in the hug, but she still takes the time to wrap her psychic blanket a little tighter around her human's psyche. After a second of thought, she curls her tails forward, wrapping Lee in a physical blanket of affection too. 'Goodness,' she smiles and presses her thin muzzle into the crook of her trainer's neck. 'I was the one who had the life-changing ordeal. One would think you're the one getting used to a new body with that reaction.'

Lee chuckles into her neck. 'When I had that little thought back in Mauville's Battle Tent, about a Ninetales being beautiful enough to make a grown man cry? I didn't realize my joke wasn't a joke.'

Ninetales purrs deep in her throat at the compliment, noting with some surprise that the noise is actually rather close to what a feline would make.

There, fresh after her evolution and with her trainer in her hold, love flowing in both directions through their telepathic channel, Ninetales makes a decision.

'I must have been born for a reason, but I don't care what that reason is any longer,' She declares to herself. 'I have my own reason. I exist here…' She tightens the hug around her human ever so slightly.

'I exist here to love and be loved, and there is no better life than that.'


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