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Entry #10: Power of Love

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In hindsight the above is inconclusive. Redacted just in case. Also note to self; get a new pen. Scratching out that much used a lot of ink.

The feeling of someone shifting in his bed is the first thing Julian's bleary mind comprehends. The second thing is the early morning sunlight streaming in through the cracked curtains, and the third is the absence of a furry back against his.

Oh. It's morning. Lulu woke up at the crack of dawn like she usually does. Face still buried in the soft hotel pillow, Julian leisurely replays the last day in his head.

The group made it to Oreburgh yesterday, only to find that Gym Leader Roark is too busy to take any challengers for several days. With that in mind, the group checked in at their hotel, visited the Pokemon Center to see about odd-jobs in the meantime, then retired for the night after a trip to the store. The minifridge in the hotel room was stocked with their spoils, enough to feed three teens and then some for a few days.

Julian and his pokemon managed to find a decent job on the local bulletin board. A regular gymnasium chain that opened a new location in Oreburgh wants a few 'models' to come in and work out to attract new business. The gym manager only needed to see Julian, Lulu, and Aniki before he gave them the job and told them to return bright and early tomorrow.

…Though the entire day yesterday, Julian swears he was forgetting to do something.

Blinking, Julian slowly sits up and brushes the bedcovers off of himself, careful not to bump his head into the low-hanging bunk above his bed. Scanning his eyes around, he sluggishly takes in the hotel room.

Zoey proved herself a boon once more by picking out this hotel, as she found one that caters to trainers with a decent amount of luxury that didn't break the bank. The room is fairly large, with modern decor, bunk beds that sleep four, a kitchenette, a TV, a large bathroom, and a table with four chairs.

At the kitchenette, Aniki once more is working his magic. Clad in a frilly pink apron and his gloriously patriotic shorts, the Machoke minds a number of sizzling pans with a sharp eye and a spatula in hand.

Julian glances down at the end of his bed and smiles.

Aniki has laid out a bath towel and clothes for him again.

'You're spoiling me, big guy,' Julian thinks to himself, turning his head to see the rest of the room. When he lands on Lulu, he pauses to admire her for a moment.

Lulu is just standing up, raising her arms in a yawning, full-body stretch. The stretch makes her lithe muscles stand out, highlighting her cut form. She then smooths over a few spots of mussed fur with her forepaws and blinks herself awake with a smile.

Beyond Lulu, Zoey is still asleep in one of the other bunk beds with the covers up to her nose. Julian spies a leaf-like ear poking out of the blankets, telling him it was Leafeon's turn to be Zoey's night guard-slash-cuddle pillow.

From the slight sag in the bunk bed above him, Julian figures Paul is asleep as well. A quick probe of the other boy's aura confirms it.

With a grumble, Julian slides his legs out from under the covers and stands with a jaw-cracking yawn. Like Lulu, he stretches the kinks out of his body with a satisfied groan. "Mornin,' everyone," Julian mumbles. "Time to live the scream once more."

"Good morning, Julian, Aniki." Lulu greets both males on her team with her usual morning cheer.

"Boss Lady, Jules," Aniki greets back with his own smile. Something in one of his pans pops, so Aniki quickly flips it with his spatula. "You guys are just in time. Breakfast is about ready."

The smell of whatever Aniki is cooking hits Julian's nose. Still in the process of waking up, his brain can't quite parse what he's smelling, but a rumble in his stomach demands the food, whatever it is. 'As is natural. Aniki could make a killing as a chef if being a battler doesn't work out for him,' Julian muses.

The simple food of the Lucario pack was filling and nutritious, but the species-wide pragmatism of Lucario meant the food was often plain unless a foraging party happened upon herbs or spices along a regular route. Bob's farmhouse fare was good, but the rancher was no pro chef.

Aniki, on the other hand? Aniki once more lived up to his nurturing name when it came to cooking. Another growl digs at Julian's stomach.

Aniki grins at the sound. "Hungry, Jules?" He takes the handle of one of the pans in a meaty hand and flips the contents, briefly showing Julian some sort of toasted sandwich inside. "You've got enough time for a shower if you want it."

"I'll take you up on that, both the shower and breakfast." Julian grins, stepping around the bed.

Taking the clothes and towel at the foot of the bed, Julian heads to the bathroom for a shower. Stripping out of his sweatpants and underwear, turning on the shower, and stepping into the stream before the water can heat up, he's shocked into wakefulness by the feeling of icy needles in his skin.

"Ach!" Julian shivers and shakes his head. As the water begins to grow hot, the teen wipes his long hair out of his face and grabs the bar of soap hanging from a shower rack. Now lucid, his mind returns to the niggling feeling in the back of his head, like he's forgetting something. Mid-way through scrubbing himself down, it hits him.

'The Keystone and the gauntlet!' His eyes narrow, staring a hole into the frosted glass of the shower door. 'Every time I try to call that number, something keeps popping up. It totally slipped my mind twice back in Jubilife, then once as we were getting into Oreburgh, then again when Officer Jenny busted us for racing…' Despite the warm water cascading down his body, something cold slips its way into Julian's veins. 'My memory isn't that bad. I know it isn't. What the fuck is going on? It's not just hormones or something fucking with me, is it?'

Suddenly regaining fifteen years of his life has already been a wild—but far from unmanageable—ride for Julian so far. Teenage urges, frustrations, and a hot temper have been kept in line from day one by an adult mind.

After Lulu awakened his aura, he had to relearn that control some, as suddenly gaining a new sense for aura and the emotions therein meant he was keenly aware of intimacy afoot within the Lucario pack. One of the pack's many unspoken rules is to politely ignore such things, being not shameful, merely private. With that in mind, Julian stamped down his reactions, both physical and mental, in order to fit in. Tuning out something like that is quite impossible, but he learned how to keep his mind from wandering. Before long he was back in control.

Yesterday, though, he nearly slipped.

Julian had some truly vile words on his tongue ready to rip Officer Jenny's self-esteem to pieces. Disdain for authority might yet live within him, but remembering what he had lined up for Jenny makes the teen blanch.

"I didn't see any speed limit signs, you fucking cunt. Ticket me, I don't care."

"That shitty blue dye job must be soaking into your brain if you think I'm going to stand here and let you yell at me."

"Arceus, what's wrong with your Arcanine? Poor thing looks in-bred to hell. Guess I shouldn't be surprised since he's owned by a chick from a family of in-bred cops."

"You ever hear of the phrase 'suicide by cop'? Fuck off, or I'll show you the opposite: 'suicide by perp'."

Some of the things Julian was ready to spew were cartoonishly mean, and some were open threats. He might think half-hearted, poisonous thoughts at times, but those were insults he had cooked up with the intention of hurting.

That's not Heroic.

If he hadn't noticed how put-out Lulu was over being busted, he might have actually used one of those lines, and it's only now he has realized it.

"Fuck…" Julian gulps. "Is something wrong with me? Why am I suddenly so pissy? Why is my memory shot?" For the first time since he left the pack, fright begins to take root in the displaced teen. He feels out his own aura, trying to find something out of place.

As far as he can tell, he's whole.

Through the wall, he can feel Lulu's aura suddenly jumping in response to his panic, so Julian grits his teeth and clamps down on his own aura, centering himself with a slow exhale. 'Don't flip out. That helps no one. Just follow your plans, Julian. When you're done showering, talk to Lulu, then call that num-'

There is a sudden knock on the bathroom door. "Angelo!" Paul's irate voice is muffled by the wooden door. "Hurry up, and don't use all the hot water again!"

Julian bites his lip so hard that it draws blood. 'Don't get distracted! Call the fucking number, Julian! Do it as soon as you get out!' Outwardly, he growls. "Yeah, yeah, gimme a sec!"

Cleaning the suds off of his body and hair, Julian shuts the shower off and steps out, taking his towel and drying off. All the while, he repeats the mantra of 'Call the number. Call the number. Call the number' in his head. Three times he almost gets distracted and loses his mantra to a sudden brain fog, once as he's putting on his clothes, a second time when tying his hair back into its usual low ponytail, and the third when he hastily brushes his teeth.

Stepping out of the steamy bathroom, Julian steps around bed-clothes-clad Paul, past a worried-looking Lulu, and beelines for the nightstand where his phone is sitting.

"Jules, perfect timing!" Aniki grins, distracting Julian once more. "I made us something light since we're hitting the gym," the Machoke says, holding a paper plate out for Julian to take. "I left a bit for Paul and Miss Sleepyhead over there." He points to Zoey, who has the covers over her head. "Whatever is left when we get back, I'll whip into lunch!" he exclaims with a nod.

On the plate is an absolutely delicious-looking toasted sandwich. In two slices of toast glistening with butter is a small circular hole. In the hole is a sunny-side-up egg dusted with salt, pepper, and scraps of bacon. If it tastes half as good as it looks, then it must be delectable.

Julian's stomach growls again, but he shakes his head. 'Don't forget. Don't forget. Call now.' Julian clears his throat. "Looks good, broseph. Just one sec, though. Urgent call I gotta make." He slips past a confused Aniki to the nightstand. Taking his phone, unplugging the charging cable, and tapping the unlock button… nothing happens.

The blonde's eyes are instantly drawn to the wall charger, which is partially unplugged.

'What the fuck? I know I plugged this thing in last night!' Spooked, Julian instead swipes Paul's phone, finding it to be fully charged. "Paul, I'm using your phone for a sec! Emergency call!" he hollers through the bathroom door.

"It's locked, doofus!" Paul's voice is barely audible through the door and the sound of the running shower.

Ignoring the exclamation, Julian quickly shuffles over to his backpack and opens the pocket where he stashed the paper Rowan gave to him. Ripping open the zipper so violently that it pops out of its track, the teen's unease only jumps up when the paper isn't there.

"Julian?" Lulu asks, padding up to him and putting a concerned paw on his shoulder. "What's wrong?"

Oh, Arceus. It's so tempting to slow down and explain just so Lulu won't worry, but Julian blows out a breath and ignores her for a second, tearing through his backpack's pockets all the while.

There, in the last pocket, is the note. Opening it up, Julian scans the number, finding it perfectly legible and free of funny business. Standing, he jogs past Lulu, who frowns and follows him. Together, they step outside the hotel room.

The hotel is an external sort, with the doors leading outside rather than into an internal hallway. In the early morning, no one but the teen and Lucario are present.

Looking down, Julian hits the power button on the pilfered phone in his hand.

Enter Password to unlock.

'...I have no idea what Paul would use as a password.'

He enters 'power', and gets a Wrong Password! for his troubles.

"What's going on, Julian?" Lulu asks again, this time much more firm. Her ruby eyes narrow and her forepaws are braced on her hips, just like Ma's would when she's scolding a Riolu too mischievous for his own good. "I felt your fright from the bathroom. What happened? And don't pretend like it's nothing."

'Call the number. Call the number. Call the number.' Julian grimaces, splitting his thoughts into three ways to focus on the constant reminders, talk to Lulu, and guess Paul's password at once. "I… I don't know, Lu. I've forgotten to call that phone number Rowan gave us like five times now, and… I know my memory isn't that bad," he says, tapping away at Paul's phone.

'Elekid' 'Torterra' and 'AngeloIsALoser' all return Wrong Password!

"That, and…" Julian grunts in frustration. "I feel like… my temper has been way too short here recently. I'm making dumb mistakes. Shit, I was about ready to tear Officer Jenny a new one yesterday."

"The temper is easily explained by you being in your formative years," Lulu says confidently. "I might tease you on occasion for being young, but I too was an adolescent just a few short years ago."

'Veilstone' 'Pokemon' and 'AngeloIsCool' give Julian a fat Wrong Password! error, leaving him with just one more attempt before the phone in his hands locks up.

Julian sighs. "Lulu, if you knew what I was planning on saying to Jenny, you would have slapped me right across the mouth. It went beyond just losing my temper. It also doesn't explain the memory thing." He pauses entering passwords into Paul's phone to think. "I'm…" He gulps, multiple terrible possibilities playing out before him. "I'm worried there is something wrong with me. Something bad."

His partner's eyes soften, and she steps closer to wrap him in a loose hug. The soft fur tickling Julian's body is almost enough to break his concentration and give in to the brain fog.

"Don't," Lulu murmurs, her muzzle on his shoulder. "If something isn't right with you, then we'll fix it. The human world has a lot of wonders, more than I ever imagined in the short time we've lived here…" She looks up, staring into Julian's green eyes with a fiery determination. "There must be a way to help, and if not, we'll go back to the pack. I'd carry you on my back if need be so Mother can tend to you, even if it's against Father's wishes for us to return early."

Despite all his fears and doubts, a smile blooms on Julian's face. With his free arm, he returns Lulu's hug, relishing the feeling of both her body against his and the fantastically beautiful aura beneath her skin. The chest spike poking him goes ignored as he rests his chin on her head. "What did I do to deserve a friend like you, Lu?" he murmurs into her ear.

Friendship radiates through Lulu's aura, spilling out and warming Julian to the core… and below that Friendship is…

Julian blinks, but whatever extra thing he felt is already gone. It was something familiar but paradoxically unlike anything he's ever felt before. The touch of whatever it was outshined Lulu's Friendship for an instant so brief, he wonders if it was real. The phantasmal thing left a curious craving for more and the sensation of butterflies in his stomach. 'What was that?'

"The drive to make dreams into reality? The inspiring power to move past hardship?" Lulu answers his question, and the answers make Julian's face flush red from the unexpected praise. Lulu lifts her head and smirks mischievously. "Or did you want something more ego-stroking?"

"Haha, I get it," Julian grumbles, still wondering what he felt under Lulu's Friendship. The pair separate, and Julian looks back down at the phone in his hand. "For real, though. I think something weird is afoot. Several times I've forgotten to call this number—" He waves the little note in his hand, making it rustle in the wind, "—And now things seem to be conspiring against this one event for some reason. Paul knocked on the bathroom door just as I remembered that I forgot. The note was literally in the last pocket I checked. My phone was dead when I know I charged it last night. Something fucky is happening."

Lulu is silent for a moment and crosses her arms as she thinks. After a quiet minute, her eyes widen, and her aura drops into a troubled flatline. "Julian…" she begins, looking at him with nervous eyes. "Is this… a trope?"

"A trope?" Julian furrows his brows. "No. I haven't invoked any recently."

"No no, not from you. I mean…" Lulu sighs and shuts her eyes. In his sixth sense, Julian can feel her center her aura and calm herself. "Using tropes, these rules of the universe as you said, to push your will on the world… what's stopping the world from pushing back?"

Julian opens his mouth to reply, then stops dead as he replays Lulu's words in his head. The implications of such a profound, but simple question are suddenly forcing him to reevaluate what he knows. "...There isn't."

Slowly, Julian looks up into the sky, peering up at the blue expanse above. With a gulp and gut feeling, he reaches his aura out and up.

Above the buildings of Oreburgh, his aura thins and begins to grow weaker. His body begins to lose sensation.

Above the mountains, his aura is as thin as twine. It's like he's staring down a narrow tube with his third eye.

Above the clouds, his aura is just a whisper, barely perceiving anything. It takes all his focus to keep reaching, but he still feels a paw clasp his hand.

Lulu's radiant azure aura mixes with his dark cobalt, and, together, they push a little further.

Higher and higher, they reach out, blindly groping within a realm eyes can't see… Until they touch something.

Something that peers back down at them with a thousand eyes.

The teen and Lucario retreat back into their own bodies as if struck by lightning, both clamping down on their respective auras with wide eyes, white faces, and thundering hearts. Together, they wait, but nothing happens. The primal terror gripping them both lingers, however.

'What was that?' Julian sucks in a breath. He stops any further thoughts short, unwilling to put a Name to the Something even in his own mind.

Lulu finally breaks the silence. "At last, I understand why the talk of universal truths and rules unnerved me so." Lulu rubs her arms as if to ward away a chill. "I don't think either of us understands what we're meddling with. If there is an order to the world, then by playing with these tropes, it's making an imbalance. It's only natural for imbalances to be corrected, no?"

"So…" Julian gulps. All the doubts come rushing back and slam into him, leaving the teen unsteady. He leans back against the hotel room door, staring up at the sky. "You're saying that-"

Lulu holds a paw up to stop Julian from speaking further. "I can say nothing for certain," she says seriously. "Day in and day out, you've been building our plans for greatness around manipulating rules that we obviously don't understand as well as we thought." The Lucario begins carefully. "I know you've been using these tropes over and over, Julian, in every battle we've been in. I feel as if they've been overused, that… we're attracting attention that we don't want." She takes one of his hands, the one holding the note, in her paws. The warmth of both her calloused paw pads and her smile eases the doubts clawing at Julian. "Let's save such drastic powers for emergencies, okay? For now, let's simply do what's natural."

Unbidden, Julian nods along. "Y-Yeah…" He licks his lips. "Yeah, I can understand that…"

'I feel like a fucking idiot. Of course The Narrative isn't going to hyper-focus on the Protagonist. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down, after all…' Julian scowls, his fear making way for indignation. 'A Mindscape just became priority one. The universe can play its little tricks, but I am not letting it play with my head.'

Looking down at Paul's phone, Julians sniffs. 'What was the name of Paul's brother again? Reggie?' Julian enters the name as a password, and it actually unlocks the phone! 'Ha! Hardass Paul still loves his brother. Adorable.'

Julian clears his throat. "Gee!" he says aloud, startling Lulu. "I would have serious suspicions of universal fuckery if this call somehow fails! Good thing that's not real and won't happen, huh?!" he says just short of a shout, dialing the number as fast as he can. "That's right, fucker. I'm calling you out. How far are you willing to bend things?" he grumbles under his breath.

"Julian!" Lulu barks, her frustration plain as day. "That's not what I meant!"

Against all odds, the phone rings once, twice, then someone picks up!

"Kalos Regional Pokemon Laboratory, this is Professor Sycamore speaking." The french-accented voice of a man filters through the phone speakers. In the background of the call, there is the sound of shuffling papers and a few voices too unclear to understand.

'Kalos. That was the generation with the bird and the deer as the box art, right?' Julian pushes his idle musing away to clear his throat. "Good morning, Professor. My name is Julian Angelo, and I was provided your phone number by Professor Rowan regarding a matter he said you would be an expert in."

"Oh?" Sycamore asks. He sounds curious, but with no aura to read, Julian can only guess. How annoying. "It's not every day Professor Rowan does such a thing. Why, he was my mentor for a number of years in my youth! There is little I surpass him in, so why send you my way, I wonder?"

Julian goes to rub his necklace, but stops short when he realizes he left it in his backpack. "Before me and Lulu, my Lucario partner, set out on our journey, we were gifted a few things without much of an explanation as to what they do. I was given a necklace with a 'Keystone' set in it, and Lulu a gauntlet with a similar stone set in it. Whenever I think of Lulu, the Keystone glows. Any idea what these things are?"

Sycamore says nothing for nearly fifteen seconds, and once again Julian hates not having an aura in front of him to read. "A Keystone?" the professor asks quietly, his voice a harsh whisper. "No, no, actually, don't answer! Let me send this call to my cellphone so I can move somewhere private."

The phone cuts over to hold music for a moment before Julian can get a word in edgewise. A moment later, the music cuts to ringing, then picks up. "Right, right… A Keystone, you said?" Sycamore asks over the sound of shoes quickly stepping over a tiled floor. There is also the sound of a door being thrown open, then a bit of wind noise. "You're sure it's a Keystone, and it has a visible reaction when you experience emotions related to your Lucario?"

"Certain." Julian glances back at the door behind him. Inside the hotel room, he can feel Paul's aura moving around in the bathroom, Zoey beginning to stir, and Aniki still near the kitchen, a bit befuddled.

"Can you describe the gemstone in your Lucario's gauntlet?"

"Yellow and spherical, with swirls of red, blue, and a touch of pink in the center." Julian watches a man with a Spearow on his shoulder exit their room across the way and head towards town.

"Arceus above and Giratina below…" Sycamore breathes reverently. "A Lucarionite…"

"Lucarionite?" Julian parrots, an eyebrow raised. He gives Lulu an inquisitive look, silently asking her if such a name rings any bells.

Lulu shakes her head, her ears and dreadlocks bouncing with the movement.

"The name of the Megastone in your Lucario's gauntlet, it's a Lucarionite." Sycamore collects himself with a deep, audible breath. "Goodness, I understand why Professor Rowan gave you my number. How exciting!" The man's voice alone is enough to convey his smile. "Mega-Evolution is such a rare phenomenon and Lucario is one of the best pokemon suited for it! Where did you get your stones? What's your Compatibility Factor? Who gave them to you? You say you haven't used them yet? What is-"

"Whoa whoa, Professor, hold on!" Julian grimaces and throws the brakes on the conversation. "You're losing me here. I don't know what half of these terms even are."

"Ah, my apologies. I forgot that you are a novice. I don't think I've ever met a new trainer with a Keystone and compatible Megastone before." The Kalos Professor slows himself. "This is… quite something. Where are you located, Mister Angelo? I'm assuming Sinnoh, since you met Professor Rowan."

"That's right," Julian confirms.

"Hmm…I'd like to schedule a video-call sometime soon so we can get better acquainted and discuss how I can assist. For now, let me give you a summary of Mega-Evolution, the phenomenon that makes use of Keystones and Megastones."

'Mega-Evolution, that's the gimmick of the sixth generation of pokemon games, right?' Julian frowns, unsure if his lacking memory is because he never played those games… or because of outside influence.

"Mega-Evolution can be described as a sort of temporary evolution pokemon can undergo, vastly increasing their powers for a short time," Sycamore begins, his voice taking on the smooth tone of a professional lecturer. "In order to do so, the pokemon in question must be holding a Megastone, one attuned to their species. Most pokemon cannot mega-evolve on their own, as their Megastone requires a Keystone to be activated. Once the Megastone is activated, it reacts with… well, this is where things get fuzzy. As far as we can tell, the Megastone resonates with the pokemon's very lifeforce, drawing out a pokemon's energy all at once and triggering a new evolution. Once the pokemon's energy is spent, they revert back."

Julian bites his tongue and silences the thoughts that immediately jump to the surface, ones asking, 'How do I abuse this obvious trope?'

'I promised Lulu we would save reality-bending for later.' The blonde is keenly aware of Lulu's eyes on him. 'Plus, there has to be a catch. Just shut up and listen for a moment.'

Sycamore pauses to take a breath. "Things get even fuzzier from here. The Keystone? It reacts to human emotions, which is why yours glows when your Lucario is on your mind. If the bond between a pokemon and human is strong enough, the Keystone can trigger Mega-Evolution. If the bond isn't strong enough and Mega-Evolution is attempted anyway…" The Professor trails off, voice uncomfortable. "Evidence suggests it's an unpleasant experience for the pokemon."

'And there it is.'

All at once, thoughts of running off to the woods to attempt this Mega-Evo thing wither on the vine within Julian's skull, replaced with doubt.

He and Lulu are close… But are they close enough? Close like Zoey is with her pokemon? Julian knows the likely answer, and it stings too much to admit.

"It's for that reason that I'd like to ask you not to attempt Mega-Evolution until we've discussed things further." Sycamore clears his throat. "There is a lot to consider, such as the condition of the stones themselves, the relations between you and your Lucario, your Lucario's current stamina reserves… Many things, really. What's a good number I can reach you at, young man? The one you're calling from? It's mid-day in Kalos, so we'll need to plan with timezones in mind."

"I'm on my friend's phone, so not this one." Julian rattles off his phone number. "My phone is junk, so I'll have to use a video-phone from the local Pokemon Center if a video feed is necessary."

"I would like to see you and your Lucario, as well as the stones," Sycamore says. "Most Centers have a private booth for rent, so if you inquire, you can reserve one."

"Angelo! Do you have my phone?!"

Julian jumps a bit when he hears Paul's voice from within the hotel room call for him. "Fuck…" he curses. "Sorry, Professor. My friend wants his phone back. I'll have to cut this short."

"Not a problem at all, Mister Angelo. I need to return to work anyway." Sycamore doesn't seem to mind the interruption. "I'll reach out to you later. Have a nice day!"

"Same to you, Professor." Julian smiles and ends the call. Before Paul can storm out, Julian turns and opens the door, finding a scowling Paul standing in the threshold.

With a grin, Julian offers Paul his smartphone back. "Thanks for the short loan, pal. Mine was dead and that was an important call."

The younger boy swipes the phone out of Julian's hand with a grunt and steps aside, letting Julian and Lulu step back inside. As they walk past, Paul's brows furrow. "Wait. How did you unlock my phone?"

"Lucky guess," Julian tosses over his shoulder. He doesn't wait to see what Paul's reaction is and heads over to the table, where a drowsy Zoey sits with a paper cup of coffee in her hand. The girl barely stirs when Julian sits down next to her, with Lulu taking Julian's opposite side.

"Not a morning person, eh?" Julian jokes.

Zoey just blinks and takes a slow sip of her coffee.

"All done with the phone?" Aniki asks, slipping his apron off and lifting a pair of paper plates on the stove. He sets them both before Julian and Lulu. "Here you are. I already ate mine, so hurry up before it gets cold!"

Julian gives his second pokemon a grin, then lifts the toasted sandwich up and bites into it, leaning over his plate when a dribble of egg yolk runs down his chin.

The simple breakfast is made with Love, and by Arceus, it tastes like it.

Left forepaw firmly digging into a new handhold, Lulu ignores the unpleasant, exertion-made heat under her fur and looks up, weighing her options.

The next closest handhold is going to force her to twist her wrist at an odd angle and will only provide one viable place for her hindpaws. Doable, but not ideal.

A bit further is another handhold with a superb angle, and another decent gripping point nearby, but nowhere for her hindpaws. The route beyond that spot is sparse as well.

Finally, the furthest option is going to require a leap, but there is ample space for all of her limbs to find purchase on the wall. The route to the bell at the tip-top of the wall is clear as well. High risk, high reward.

She looks down.

Perhaps thirty feet down at the bottom of the gym's 'rock climbing' wall are a few people and pokemon. Some are gathered around to watch her with admiration, like a trim young woman with a star-struck Mienfoo at her side, while others are waiting their turn at the obstacle.

A forty-foot wall isn't much to a Lucario. If she really wants to, Lulu can jump straight up well beyond forty feet, but in the spirit of the job requested of her team, she puts on a show for the other gym-goers.

Honestly, the wall is a bit of a challenge using only raw muscle and no aura.

Looking back up, Lulu mulls her options over.

Then she leaps up for option three, and gasps erupt from below.

Lulu's arm snaps out, and her three fingers dig into the plastic handhold just as she begins to fall. A maneuver like this might have wrenched a human's shoulder from its socket, but for Lulu, the strain is minimal.

With so many handholds within reach, the Lucario scrambles the rest of the way up the wall like a Mankey might a tree, then she slaps the bell at the very top, producing a resounding ring through the whole gym.

The route back down is an easy one. She simply lets go and allows herself to fall, drawing another round of gasps below.

Lulu lands upon the floor in a soundless crouch, her body absorbing the shock of the fall with only a minor jolt. Standing, she smiles at the people around her.

"Holy hell, that had to be a record!" One buff gym rat of a man grins and slaps Lulu on the shoulder.

"You okay miss? That was a long fall." A nearby gym employee can't help but grimace.

"I bet I can do that too!" the young Meinfoo insists, turning to her trainer. "Beth, lemme try the wall!"

Lulu just smiles and steps out of the way, over to the wall and under a vent, closing her eyes and sighing as the cool air blows through her fur. After a minute of rest, she opens her eyes, locking onto two forms near the weight-lifting equipment.

"C'mon, Jules!" Aniki's face is picture-perfect encouragement as he spots Julian in the middle of a bench press. "One more rep! You got it in you, champ! Let's go!"

Around the pair are a number of powerlifters, both human and pokemon, watching the teen with interest, and it's plain to see why.

Face pink and hair soaked in sweat, Lulu's shirtless partner is lifting three-hundred pounds of weight. Were Julian using his aura, three-hundred pounds would be a mere inconvenience, but without it, the blonde is at his limits.

Lulu only needed the afternoon watching gym-goers to get an idea of the limits of regular humans. Most didn't even try anything above three-hundred pounds. For an adult in excellent shape, three-hundred pounds is a struggle, but not impossible. For a teenager, even one as well built as Julian? Three-hundred is so ambitious that it borders foolhardy.

Let it never be said that Julian Angelo isn't ambitious.

Lulu watches as Julian grunts. He adjusts the set of his feet and the arch of his back, then slowly lifts the barbell up and up, with Aniki's hovering hands ready to catch the weight the entire time. A growl pours from Julian's throat, and with a final, explosive effort, he lifts the bar as far as he can and racks it in one motion. With a deep breath, he sits up with a grin and is greeted by exclamations and congratulations from his onlookers. Aniki even lets out a joyful laugh and slaps Julian across the back.

Julian soaks in the attention and praise, his grin only growing wider.

Lulu smiles thinly.

After the… harrowing revelations earlier this morning, Lulu was content to put things out of her mind and return to normality for a while. After Aniki's breakfast, the team of three made their way to the chain gymnasium that hired them for the day, but not before stopping at the Oreburgh Gym. Whatever scheduling conflicts that Gym Leader Roark had had apparently been resolved, as Julian signed them up for the next available match, which is tomorrow afternoon.

Upon arriving at the chain gymnasium, Julian met the general manager once more, and the older, rotund man was easily charmed by Julian's confidence and declarations of Fighting-type expertise. He ended up offering the team free use of the gym for as long as they were in Oreburgh.

For all of Julian's cloying charisma, though, the man hesitated at some of Julian's subtle hints, ones suggesting a corporate sponsorship for the team would be a grand idea for everyone involved. Julian's face didn't reflect anything other than boundless confidence, but Lulu felt the souring of his aura at the roadblock.

Rarely does the mask around his face crack, and when it does, another one is ready in hardly a second. Julian, so confident and self-assured, doesn't realize he's not hiding himself quite as well as he thinks. No mask can cover his aura.

Lulu steps out from under the vent, still watching Julian and Aniki. On Julian's face is a smile as he talks and laughs with the gym-goers they were hired to attract and entertain.

From the early days of their friendship, Julian has proven his mastery of conventional deceit over and over. Lies flow easier than truths, schemes upon schemes upon schemes brew, and a deep thirst for power and recognition move it all forward. Although not devoid of basic decency, the blonde teen looks at the people around him like a predator, wondering how best to use them. If most knew about the conniving and selfish being below Julian's angular, inviting face, they would be disgusted.

Most people cannot use aura, however. If they did, they wouldn't even bother with what lies just below the surface. No, they would see the poorly hidden heart of glass below.

They would learn that the power to smile and say, "I'm fine," when anything but is a skill most tragic.

Julian may stomp upon his emotions and strangle his aura as much as he wishes, but doing so doesn't make the emotional perils go away.

Lulu sighs and stares up at the ceiling.

She remembers those months ago, back with the pack, when she unlocked Julian's aura. Back then, she had thought the poor human was morose and bitter all the time, though she had been mollified by him being grateful for her sponsorship within the pack. When they had been relaxing at the river, watching the Riolu play with their aura in the water, Julian had sighed and remarked upon aura, saying, "I kinda wish I could learn how to use it. It would make fitting in a bit easier." As he had spoken, there had been a pang of listless, despair-woven acceptance in his words, as if any hope for being one of the pack was stillborn.

It had hurt to listen to, driving a spike into her chest, and on pure impulse, Lulu had committed a grave taboo and unlocked his aura. Hiding such an act had been impossible, and her parents, the Alphas, had been beside themselves for countless reasons.

For giving an outsider their gift.

For forcing his third eye open without consent.

For being so damn stupid.

Then Julian, exhausted and frightened, had forced himself between Lulu and her parents, defending her when he could have remained quiet and free of their wrath. Using nothing but the raw desire to save her, he had mustered his tiny aura, saying, "Lulu's generosity is something else, because she broke this obvious taboo to make it happen. If you're going to punish anyone, punish me. Just know that no matter what you do…" He had lifted his arm, straining to such a degree that his face twisted into a rictus of bulging veins.

An ember of aura had bloomed in his hand.

"...The damage is already done."

That night, they had declared their friendship together, and Lulu had struggled not to be floored by what she felt. When hand had met paw, out of Julian had flowed a king's bounty of affection and gratitude, one that had nearly overwhelmed Lulu, as if… as if he'd never had anyone to give such emotions to before. The only thing that had spoiled it was a desperate twinge, one begging not to be hurt for daring to open up.

Lulu remembers those weeks ago, back with the pack. One sunny day, Julian awakened, stepped outside, and took in all the smiling Lucario who greeted him. On the outside, he smiled back and returned their greetings, but inside? He was content, at peace, for the first time since he had fallen into their lives. He had walked with light steps, smiled like the morning sun, and been happy.

A gut instinct whispered a terrible truth in Lulu's ear, that on that day, that was the first time Julian had ever belonged somewhere.

It was the first time in a long time that he had been happy.

He could have argued a case for staying with the pack, and Mother would have taken Julian's side in a heartbeat, pressuring Father into letting Julian stay. Father would never admit that Julian had grown on him, and the conversation simply would have never arisen again.

Julian wishes for fame, fortune, and a legacy that persists until the end of time… but when the fateful conversation came up, she had felt his aura reach out to her. Why?

Because his promise to accompany her on her own sojourn had weighed more heavily to him than his own dreams.

"Lulu is the best friend I've ever had. She's pure-hearted, just, and burns with that special drive to improve herself. She's the sort of Lucario that other Lucario aspire to be. I don't think I'm going to be that good of a trainer for her, but I'll be damned if I don't try my hardest."

Lulu's heart had fluttered, both at his words and at the raw, breathtaking power with which his aura flared up with the declaration.

Under the selfish scoundrel, the fool willing to meddle in the realm of the unknowable, there is a brave, but hurting man. A man who wishes to be good. A man who wishes to be better and reach out to others, but is unsure how. A man who needs love.

One of Lulu's forepaws rises to her chest, to the left of her spike. Under her paw, her heart is hammering, and her aura reflexively twists.

Midway to a water fountain with Aniki at his side, Julian perks up and looks her way. He gives her a smile, and under the sterile mask, she sees the genuine article that makes her stomach grow warm.

Julian Angelo is a man who needs saving.

"And I'll be the one to do it," Lulu whispers to herself. "I promise."

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