Title: IronPika (3/?)

Author: Stormy1x2

Word Count: 16500-ish

Summary: The Avengers meet Ash's Pokemon team, and Tony tries to make sense of certain aspects of the Pokemon world. :) A super-long chapter for you to enjoy because Thor only knows when chapter four is going to be ready. Special thanks to Vuurvlieg once again for being my critic, my storyline checker, and a very enthusiastic cheerleader. You guys owe her for this one. :D

Chapter 3

Ash had barely been awake ten minutes before Tony was dancing around the room impatiently. Bruce had managed to secure a glass of water for the boy and had let him down it in peace while simultaneously holding Tony back. And by holding him back, he meant physically pushing the engineer to a nearby chair and telling/ordering him to stay there. Tony had responded with whines that he was not a purse-riding, ankle-biting Shih Tzu but had (miraculously) obediently stayed put. For a moment.

Apparently he had mastered the art of teleportation because the instant Bruce lifted his eyes from Tony's person for one final check of the heart monitor, Tony was back at the foot of the bed again, staring at Ash as he had once stared at Bruce, looking for the monster within – except this time, the monsters were sitting all around them. Bruce supposed Tony was looking for the secret to the control of all the boy's pets Tony had fallen in love with. "So now that you're awake and everyone in this room including the sentient animals glaring at me knows that you're going to recover and be one hundred percent fine, how about some official introductions?" Tony waved his hand at the multiple guardians spread around the room. All of them seemed relaxed but at the same time, they each had a wary eye on the engineer. Bruce didn't blame them.

Ash bit his lip, still a bit nervous-looking. Bruce leaned forward in his chair, trying to look as friendly and at ease as he could. "You should know you're safe here, Ash," he said calmly, firmly. "No one here will hurt you." A small, semi-bitter laugh escaped him, but he managed a wink anyway, earnestly projecting 'harmless' as much as possible. "I know that better than anyone."

Pale fingers twisted around the blue sheets rucked up in the boy's lap. "You said I was safe here, right? Me and my Pokemon?" Ash spoke up hesitantly. His eyes flicked from one person to the next, uncertain, but at the same time, looking so hopeful Bruce was glad he didn't have to disappoint him. For the moment. Bruce was many things but naive was not one of them, and no doubt Phil Coulson would soon be in for an interrogation session of his own. The boy was far too interesting for SHIELD to not take an interest. "I'm...well, used to the outdoors. But I've never stayed for so long in a city alone. It's harder than I ever thought it would be."

"Argh, may the Gods save me from country bumpkins," Tony complained, throwing his hands in the air. He pointed a screwdriver at Ash. "I am going to start to feel offended on behalf of the Big Apple, you know."

Steve snorted from his spot in the corner where he'd taken up residence shortly after Ash's awakening. He had his sketching materials gathered on a small table but he hadn't made use of them yet. "Tony..."

Ash looked confused. "Big Apple?" His tone was questioning.

"New York City," Bruce clarified. "The city you're currently in."

"I know the name," Ash said quietly. He gently moved Pikachu to his lap and stroked the soft-looking fur automatically. The creature 'chaaaa'd' in contentment, arching into the reassuring touch and Ash smiled down at his partner. "I was able to read the newspapers when I could find on on the ground or in the garbage. Pikachu has a better eye than me and always found something fluttering around nearby." He flicked an eye up to Bruce and then back down to the Pokemon snuggling in his arms. "I was usually too busy running, though. This world... seems more dangerous than mine." He shook his head. "I mean, it had its moments but New York reminds me a lot of Dark City."

Bruce nodded understandingly, though he didn't get the reference to the town name that obviously existed in Ash's world. "You are safe here," he reiterated, touching the boy's foot through the blanket very carefully. He was, and he wanted Ash to feel safe. There would be interrogations and questions, but within the physical confines of the Tower, even Bruce could admit to feeling safe. Between Tony acting as a deranged Mama bear (and didn't the engineer just HATE the comparison) and JARVIS monitoring all entries and exits, the Tower had become one of the very few places that Bruce felt he could actually relax in. Just a little. Ash was just a child – one who had been through a very difficult time recently and needed to recover. He deserved to know that he was safe while he did so. "And I think you're very strong to have lasted so long on your own. New York City can be a very dangerous place. But then, you have some very good guardians on your side." He nodded at the sleepy-looking rat curled up on Ash's shoulder.

Ash smiled warmly at the rat and then looked back up at Bruce. "Pikachu and I have been together for a long time. He's my best friend and partner, right Pikachu?"

"Pee-ka!" The yellow rodent nodded firmly at the boy and then shot Bruce a look he could only describe as smug.

"You're very fortunate," Bruce chuckled. Ash grinned and nodded back. "Well, back to the point - I was speaking the truth about being safe here. You haven't had a very good introduction to this world, and I don't blame you for being, well... un-trusting right now."

Ash shrugged, looking down at the bedspread. One hand automatically started to trace the faint, almost invisible patterns in the colors. Apparently when nervous, Ash Ketchum had a problem being still. On that, Tony would relate very well to him.

Bruce continued, confident in what he was about to propose. "So for now, don't trust us."

Ash blinked, raising his head again to stare at Bruce quizzically. Tony started to say something but Bruce raised his hand, stopping the billionaire. Steve smiled and nodded at the boy, trusting Bruce to say the right thing. "Why would you say that?" Ash asked, looking confused.

Bruce gestured at Pikachu, and the dragon. The electric rat twitched an ear, cocking his head at the scientist. "Your creatures – Pokémon, you said? Your Pokémon are quite different from our animals here on earth, but there are still some similarities. One thing I've always believed in was that animals can always sense a person's true intentions. Your Pokémon appear to be even smarter than our non-sentient creatures. Do you trust their judgment?"

"Of course!" The answer was quick, confident, and unhesitating.

Bruce pointed at the rat, and then at the dragon. "Ask them, or the bird, or the monkey Pokémon, if we can be trusted for now." It had paid off back in Central Park, introducing himself and gaining the animal's trust then. It would work again. "They are very intelligent creatures – that much is obvious."

"They sure are. And that's actually a good idea," Ash said, smiling. He looked with fond eyes at the dragon, and then at the rat. He scruffed the rat gently on the side of the head, one thumb massaging the soft, red cheek. A tiny, crackling spark was emitted, electric blue light dancing over Ash's fingers, and Tony chortled gleefully until Bruce put a hand over his friends mouth. Ash grinned at the action and a few more walls seemed to fall down between them. "Pikachu's usually been able to tell the good from the bad for me before. And Charizard never trusts anyone more than he has to." He stroked the back of the rat perched on his stomach. "How about it, Pikachu? Should we bring everyone out for introductions?"

Pikachu nodded eagerly, throwing its tiny hands in the air with an exclamation that sounded to Bruce like pure joy. It scrabbled to the top of Ash's head, waving its tail back and forth like a lightning-shaped flag before dropping down to his other shoulder, nuzzling the boy's cheek once more for good measure. Bruce would take that as a positive. Ash grinned and turned to look at Charizard again. "What do you say? Can we trust them?" Charizard rolled his eyes, let out a puff of smoke, and then put its head down, pretending to go to sleep. Ash laughed at out loud this time. "Guess that's a yes.'

"Shouldn't we wait for Clint and Natasha?" Steve said. "We should introduce everyone at the same time, and they'll be back from their first debrief in a few minutes."

"Not my fault the super-spies are late," Tony said.

Ash nodded eagerly. "Well, we can start with these guys, since you've already met them." Ash pointed at the dragon. "Like I said, this is Charizard. Charizard is one of my oldest friends - next to Pikachu, that is."

"So his name is Charizard," Bruce repeated, rolling the syllables over his tongue. It was an odd word, an odd name. Part of him started automatically breaking it into syllables, breaking down the etymology – 'zard' obviously came from lizard, 'char' could be a reference to fire; hence, it was a 'fire lizard', which made obvious sense due to the fact that its tail had a burning ball of flames at the tip. His brain continued along that line of thinking, possible permutations, and he let the thought drift off to the back of his head to think over in detail later. "He's a beautiful animal," was what he said out loud. Indeed he was. Now that the boy was awake and coherent, Bruce felt free to finally study the animal up close and not via scans and electronic images. He took a step closer and crouched down slowly, carefully examining the animal, letting his eyes travel over the fluidly moving muscles as it breathed in and out, completely at ease with a stranger staring at him.

"He won't bite you," Ash said, smiling at his tentative approach. "Not without a command from me." His wrinkled up. "Well... most of the time."

The dragon snorted.

"He's beautiful," Bruce said again, following the curve of the shoulder muscle with his eyes to where it met the beautiful but powerful-looking wings. "Absolutely stunning."

He truly was. The dragon – Charizard – was covered in gorgeously bright orange scales that emitted a strong warmth, even to Bruce sitting several feet away. His claws were as sharp as they'd first noticed, but they were scrupulously clean. Blue-green eyes stared back at Bruce, calm but assessing; unafraid as he had been seen from the moment of arrival in the room , and Bruce felt a faint stirring in the back of his head as the Hulk sensed another force of nature near to him. It was an instinctive response; a quiet but powerful curiosity. It only needed even the illusion of a threat to bring about a change that had once helped to devastate Harlem but Bruce knew how to rein in – at least for now - the sleeping giant within. He inhaled calmly, closing his eyes, projecting calm, and the Hulk settled back down. To his surprise, the dragon seemed to be smirking at him, like he knew exactly what Bruce had just done and why.

"How do you become friends with a dragon?" Steve asked. He had taken the small sketchbook from the table and rested it on his knee as he looked up and then back down at the paper. He was absently blocking in shapes that Bruce had no doubt would resemble Charizard in perfect detail by the time he was done.

Ash frowned. "Well, for one thing, Charizard isn't a dragon. It's a fire and flying type."

Tony scoffed. "What do you mean he's not a dragon? Of COURSE he's a dragon, look at him!" He pointed out the wings, the general shape and finally just flapped his hands at the creature. "I know my dragons. I've read the fairy tales, and that is definitely a dragon-esque shape!"

Ash blinked at the man. "Well, he's not."

Charizard snorted again, keeping his eyes closed. It sounded amazingly derisive.

Bruce raised a hand at that. "Type?" he asked, focusing in on that odd word.

"Umm, yeah." Ash bit his lip again, looking a bit lost. "Wow, this is gonna be harder than I thought. You don't even know the basics about Pokémon that every little kid knows."

"Even little kids have to start somewhere," Bruce said with a shrug. "Just keep things simple for now and we can fill in details later. To start, apparently you have different types of Pokémon. Does that mean different breeds?"


Tony stepped in for a second. "Do all Charizards have orange scales? Are there some with red? Blue? Are there Charizards that can't fly? Some that are bigger or smaller than yours?"

Ash looked completely confused. "All Charizards look like my Charizard," he said slowly, like he didn't understand what they were asking. Or maybe he thought they were particularly slow. Bruce wouldn't be surprised. "Unless they're shiny, but those are really rare. And some are bigger but they're older and stronger. My Charizard has grown a lot from training in the Chariciffic Valley."

Bruce ignored the strange name and what 'shiny' was supposed to mean, and focused on what Ash was saying about species diversity - in that there apparently wasn't much. "So there are no other kinds of Charizards?"

Ash looked at him like he should be expected to know that. "Of course not."

"So there are no breeds of Charizard. No other dragons."

Ash laughed and shook his head, and even Pikachu was giggling with amusement. "There are lots of dragon types!"

There was that word again. Bruce looked at Tony.

Tony nodded. "Jarvis, lower the screen." A large flat-screen detached from the ceiling and lowered on robotic arms. "Bring up a pic of your basic American mutt."

A moment later, a plain brown dog of average height, short floppy ears and a thin tail was captured on-screen. Bruce pointed. "This animal is called a dog. But there are hundreds of different breeds that fall under the category of dog. German shepherds, Border Collies, Pekingese, Shih Tzu's, Labradors, Huskies, Dalmations, Maltese, Rottweilers, Great Danes—" As he spoke, the picture became smaller and shifted to the upper right-hand corner. Slightly smaller boxes began to appear on the screen with each breed he mentioned, showing the different sizes, shapes, even colors the dogs came in. "The same thing goes for other basic animals here on earth. Cats, monkeys, horses – every animal has multiple sub-categories for different breeds."

"I understand... I think." Ash wrinkled his nose. "It's kinda the same but not. Ummm..." he looked around and spotted his backpack on the floor by the door. "Can you hand me my bag please? I need my Pokedex."

Footsteps sounded just outside in the hall. "Sure thing, kid." Clint picked up the bag smoothly as he moved inside the room, Natasha right behind him. The archer smiled at the boy and set the bag on the side of the bed, careful to avoid stepping on the dragon's tail. Or the not-dragon. Bruce wasn't sure at this point. "So we're having a lesson on biology?"

"So you were lurking in the hallways spying again?" Tony snarked, but he did it with a smile.

"I'm a spy, it's what I do," Clint shot back unapologetically.

Tony saluted him with a finger. "Touché." Clint knocked him lightly with a hip as he settled in next to the engineer for what apparently was to be story hour. Natasha settled in by the door, closer to Steve. Her gaze flicked from the group at the boy's bedside, and down at Steve's sketchbook. The blocky shapes were slowly being filled with detail – Steve was roughing out the curve of the folded wings, cross-hatching shadows in the wing membranes. A few tiny, lightly-sketched diamond shapes on the joints started to resemble scales as he added more and more of them, shading gently beneath each to give the illusion of overlapping and depth.

Ash rummaged through his backpack until he pulled out what Tony would have sworn was one of those first generation Game Gear-Boy things. It was thick and red, with buttons on one side, and a glass screen, about half the size of a normal tablet, Bruce surmised. The teen flipped it open, sending the front casing to rest snuggly against the back. He then said, "Charmander," and a timer appeared on the screen as it searched. A moment later, it beeped, and he looked up. "Um... anyway we can get this on the big TV? It'd be easier to show you all."

"What is it?" Tony asked, giving it a suspicious look. He did not look overly impressed.

Then again, Tony tended to be not impressed with technology that hadn't been designed by him or Stark Industries anyway. Voice recognition, Bruce realized, returning to his focus to the device. Not too different from what they had after all. "Jarvis?"

A response sounded overhead. "Scanning image." A second later, the picture reappeared on the lowered screen.

Tony frowned. "That's it?

"For now, Sir." Jarvis sounded odd. "The electronic device seems compatible with my systems and yet not. I am hesitant to link systems to fully download the data until I am sure the home network is safe from corruption. Sir?"


"If I had to hazard a guess, I would assume the device is of future origin. The similarities suggest upgrades that would be feasible in a few years in our own technological world."

Tony looked aghast. "But it's so ugly!" he protested. Bruce rolled his eyes.

"Tony!" Steve admonished sharply, jabbing a pencil in his direction. "You don't need to be rude."

Tony was about to begin a tirade that would no doubt end all tirades. Thankfully Clint intervened. "No, I see what he means," Clint broke in, nodding at the device in Ash's hands. Tony Stark's own design – the Starkphone 3.5 – looked and acted more like a miniature laptop than a phone, with four times the power and double the storage capability. The design was so simplistic and stripped down of icons and outer components that it more or less resembled a rectangular slab of highly reflective glass upon first glance. Bruce knew that Clint was in lust with his, almost as much as he was his bow. "Look – that thing's big and clunky. Compare it to Stark's phone that he controls freaking satellites with." Tony held up the slim, sleek phone. It was smaller than the device Ash was holding. "That thing the kid's got may be new tech for us, but it looks ancient."

"That's what I said," Tony scowled. "It's ugly."

"Tony!" Steve sounded appalled.

"Whatever. Scan it when you're sure your sensibilities won't be offended, Jarvis." Tony folded his arms, looking put out. Clint made an attempt at pacification by leaning his body weight against Tony. Tony grunted and pushed back as a response but his eyes remained locked on the Pokedex. Bruce was certain Tony was already redesigning the gadget in his head. He'd have to remind the engineer not to steal the teen's device without asking.

"Of course, Sir."

Ash had been watching the byplay, looking slightly offended at the 'ugly' comment until he saw Tony pull out his personal phone to show the difference. "That's a phone?" he asked, awed. The glint of the fluorescent lights caught the shiny edges of Tony's phone and beamed brightly at the boy, no matter which way the billionaire turned it.

Tony snorted and tossed the phone at Ash for him to have a look. The boy picked it up eagerly, blunt fingers poking and prodding with none of the deft expertise that Tony and even Bruce himself found themselves using. Ash may be many things, Bruce reflected, but he does not appear to be a scientist. "I'll hook you up with one later. Now, explain the dragon – and why he's rinky-dink sized in that picture." He squinted at the image. "Is that what he looked like as a baby? Cute, I'll give you, but I much prefer the adult, kick-ass version."

"He's not a dragon," Ash repeated. Almost regretfully, he returned the phone to Tony and picked up his machine. He pointed at the TV screen. "That's his pre-evolved form, Charmander. There are two evolution stages for Charmander. Charmeleon—" Jarvis scanned the second picture and placed it side-by-side with Charmander. "—and Charizard." The third picture went below it. "Charizard is the final stage."

"His final form?" Clint mock-gasped.

"It's over 9,000!" Tony breathed reverently.

"Shut up, you idiots. No one gets that reference but you two." Bruce rolled his eyes and folded his arms, focusing on the images. "So what would be an example of a dragon type?"

"You seemed to get it," Clint pouted, but he was largely ignored.

"Umm… lemme see…. Oh! Salamence." Ash tapped a few buttons and held it out.

Jarvis took the image and re-posted it instantly. A blue and red dragon with sharp-looking wings and breathing fire appeared. It had a lighter blue underbelly, and the statistics Bruce could see printed next to it showed that proportion-wise, it was slightly bigger than Charizard. Though Charizard seemed to be bipedal and this dragon – Salamence – was rather firmly planted on all four, thickly-muscled feet, much like that of a rhinoceros or an elephant. He glanced at the large, relaxed looking dragon on the floor and a soft whistle escaped him at the idea.

"Now THAT's a dragon," Tony declared, rubbing his hands together. He flicked at the image and separated it into it's own 3D one, poking the tail and sending it spinning so he could see all the sides. "I want one. Do you have one? How much would you sell it for?"

"I don't have a Salamence, but even if I did, I wouldn't sell him to you," Ash said, looking shocked at the very idea. "Pokémon aren't for sale. If you want one, you have to catch one and become its friend. Well, in this case—" he tapped the device. A small blue lizard wearing a grey, bone-like structure on its head appeared. Compared to the previous images, it seemed rather small and well... cuddly. "You'd have an easier time catching a Bagon, it's pre-evolved form."

"We need one," Clint said, nodding his head. "I am one hundred percent behind Tony on this."

"I'll be its friend," Tony grinned. "It can have all the imported dragon chow I can find, in exchange for breathing fire over the toupees of the boring old men at my next party."

"I'm in!" Clint repeated again. "If I can ride it like a pony and shoot flaming arrows off it."

"There's a surprise," Natasha muttered, finally entering the conversation. Her eyes though, were glued on the image of the Salamence with a surprising amount of interest. She had an expression on her face that Bruce would tentatively label 'amused'. "You'd forget to feed it and walk it though, and the Coulson would be stuck with it."

"We are getting way off-track here," Bruce interrupted. "Let's just stick with the – what did you call them?"

Ash blinked tiredly. "Pokémon."

"Right. Let's just stick with the Pokémon you have here right now, since they're the only ones we'll be dealing with first hand." He smiled. "We've been interacting with them a little bit, but since you've woken up, they've been like entirely new animals."

Ash nodded. He leaned back and looked up at the large avian perched on the rafters, smiling warmly at her. She chirped back in response. "This is StarRaptor. She's a second-stage evolution as well." The relevant pictures obediently popped up on his machine and Jarvis scanned them on to the screen. "I caught her as a Starly. She first evolved into Staravia and then finally to StarRaptor."

Bruce reflected that they were going to have to have a detailed discussion on the word evolution at some point. The biologist in him was cringing. Ash seemed to apply 'evolution' in ways that it did not mean for their own world. At the same time, technically, the bird should be – based on Ash's own words – a third stage evolution. He wondered again at the terminology, curious if it was Ash using it incorrectly – he was after all, just a child – or if the world from which he came simply had developed different definitions for the terms.

Meanwhile, the large bird called out a greeting and pushed herself off the interlocked crossbeams that met over Ash's bed. She did a couple of slow-soaring loops around the room, flapping her wings only twice before landing lightly on Ash's bed by his arm. Ash reached out and stroked her glossy feathers, pressing lightly. The bird was cooing and nuzzling the side of his head like she was soothing her own chick. The large ruffles on her head dipped forward, and one large feather came free to float gently to the floor. "She needs grooming," Ash admitted ruefully, eying the feather. "All my pokemon do." He looked down. "Brock would be ashamed of me – I haven't been taking very good care of them."

StarRaptor squawked at him and pushed her beak against Ash's head again, apparently unhappy with her trainer's words. Pikachu shook its tiny head and repeated its name several times, poking Ash in the chest until the boy laughed, murmured something, and hugged the mouse to him. Bruce picked the feather up and turned it over in his hands. He'd been wanting to view those feathers up close for a while now. Soft and smooth, the rich brown with a white fringe in the middle seemed to almost glow with health. He looked up from the feather to the creature itself and saw Ash, once again somewhat composed, watching him with an encouraging smile.

"May I?" Bruce asked. At Ash's enthusiastic nod, Bruce moved forward, adjusting his glasses, and then placed one hand gently on the bird's neck. He could feel the energy surging through the muscle clearly defined under his palm. The animal's pulse was faster than his own, but the animal itself was calm. The tiny feathers around her eyes were exquisitely detailed up close, and the eyes themselves were clear, bright and extremely curious. "She's beautiful."

"I know," Ash said, grinning as StarRaptor preened and plucked at his hair in a teasing manner. Bruce chuckled as she pulled a loose strand free and dropped it on the floor. "How'd you know StarRaptor's a girl?"

"She's treating you like a fledgling," Clint piped up, watching with longing. He so very badly wanted to join in. Only the presence of Natasha seemed to be holding him back. "Mother-hen tactics. We see them being used by Pepper on Tony. Often."

"I am not a child," Tony announced loudly. He winked at Clint and then at Ash, folding his arms and looking smug. "I have the documentation and YouTube videos that prove it."

"Could have fooled us," Steve said with a smile and a shrug. "Who's Brock?"

"He's one of my best friends," Ash replied. He snuck a look over at his photo album again. "He's traveled with me to almost every region I've visited. He wants to be a Pokemon Breeder, and take care of every kind of Pokemon there is." Ash smiled and Pikachu chirped again. "He's like a big brother." The smile disappeared, replaced with a woeful look. "He and Dawn must be so worried about me."

There wasn't much to say to that, Bruce understood. All the platitudes in the world were useless in that they couldn't help the team construct a working portal to get the young man back to his home dimension any time soon. And if he'd been gone from his friends side for the same length of time he'd been here – and wasn't that an interesting side tangent, differing passages of time depending on which side of the portal you stood, he'd have to speak to Tony about that - then his friends and family might have very well written him off as dead by now. At the very least a cold case – wasn't that what those were called? Bruce recalled vaguely a general rule of thumb for missing people – their odds of finding them, a safe retrieval, or a rescue diminished more and more with every passing HOUR, much less each day. Trails went cold fast, and Ash had been in New York for just over three months now. Bruce wondered absently if Ash's home police force had the equivalent of an Amber Alert set up for such disappearances.

"Would you show us another one, Ash?" Steve changed the subject gently back to what they'd been originally doing.

Ash nodded. "You guys have met Infernape so I'll bring him out." Ash thumbed the button on one of the pokeballs. It increased in size—"Okay, I want tech specs on that, J"—and then that familiar red light shot out, a shape of light forming inside it and coalescing into the familiar stance of the fire monkey. Bruce blinked. That was the light they'd seen on the video Jarvis had captured - the directional energy that had appeared and disappeared within a second. It came from the red and white balls Ash had in his backpack.

"Infernape!" The monkey growled and stretched, leaping into the air and back flipping neatly to Ash's side by the bed without a single sign of exertion on its part.

"Agile, ain't he?" Clint said, wide-eyed with fascination. The monkey hadn't shown nearly that level of agility the last few times they'd seen it. It had mostly perched sullenly on the chair by Ash's bed, glaring at everyone who dared to go near it and screeching at the poor nurse who had eventually refused to enter unless Doctor Banner was present.

Bruce saw Tony moving his eyes from the monkey to the ball. "Guess that explains the little light show from earlier, hmm?"

Tony nodded slowly, his mind obviously working through details. "Some sort of matter converter? Transporter?" His eyes clouded over as he worked through possible ideas in his head, the tip of his tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth. "Converting creatures to raw matter and storing them in portable containers... that would require..."

He was gone, mumbling theories and mathematical formulas. Bruce couldn't deny he wanted to join Tony – to ask Ash for permission to dissect one of the small red balls he'd brought (at least, as long as there were no creatures in it) and see how it worked. The idea of converting things – anything really – to matter, being able to convey it in such tiny machines and then returning it with no ill side-affects that they could see... the possibilities were astounding. Shipments of colossal sizes – the automotive industry, mineral resources, forestry, fishing – anything that cost an arm and a leg to ship, being reduced to the weight of light and transported in small containers easily managed by one person... On one hand, it would revolutionize every industry the world over. On the other hand, Bruce thought ruefully, it would also eliminate millions of jobs – entire sectors would be gone, designated as useless thanks to the technology he was looking at right that moment. Bruce shivered. He'd probably have to remind Tony not to be so eager to open Pandora's box. But a little scientific curiosity wasn't too bad...

Infernape huffed out a fiery breath in Tony's direction, glaring sullenly. He seemed to understand what Tony was thinking, and he didn't appear to be thrilled about it. Bruce shook himself and put the matter aside along with all the other mental notes he'd been making. They could discuss it later, after the introductions were over. There would be many, MANY things to discuss.

Ash put a gentle hand on Infernape's shoulder as he officially introduced him to the group. It acknowledged all of them but when it came to Bruce, Infernape blinked – and then held out its hand, looking steadily at him. Bruce's eyes widened and he shook its hand gingerly; then with more enthusiasm as the monkey gave him a brief nod and a very small smile. Ash smiled too. "Infernape likes you, Bruce."

"We got to know each other a bit while you were healing up," Bruce said, marveling at the warm heat drifting out from the flames on the monkey's head. By all rights, he should have been getting a second degree burn from close exposure to the fire blazing out but the reality felt like nothing more than a lamp aimed at one spot. "He seemed quite interested in the details of your recuperation." The fur covering its hand was thin but soft, feeling like soft leather on the palm and fingers and Bruce took in as much detail as he could. Lean but definitely strong – the muscles weren't overly developed but he could remember the easy way it had leaped through the tree branches back at the park. The eyes were focused but showed high intelligence in the way it kept scanning the room and its occupants, as though wary of some sort of threat. "Infernape, was it? Infernape is very protective of you."

"We've been through a lot together," Ash said quietly. Infernape turned to look at its master and leaned against the bed, watching him closely. Ash reached out to touch its shoulder, stroking lightly. The monkey growled softly, pushing against him lightly. "We became partners after its first trainer abandoned it, back when it was a Chimchar."

When the image appeared on Ash's device, Jarvis helpfully added it to the screen above. Bruce studied the tiny brown monkey with the large, cheeky grin and enormous eyes. The fire on its tail was tiny compared to that of Charizards, and there was only a tiny puff of swirled hair on its head in the shape of a flame, not the fiery mane it currently sported.

"Abandoned?" Steve cocked his head, catching that one word, and Bruce turned his gaze back to Ash who suddenly didn't look very happy.

Ash nodded, looking down at the blanket he was twisting between his hands. "Trainers put a lot of emphasis on strength. We all want our Pokémon to get stronger. A good trainer works to develop the natural potential of their Pokémon." His fists tightened on the blanket. "But some trainers want instant results. If a Pokémon doesn't perform a certain way, they think it's a simple matter of releasing it to the wild and finding another one that will be better." Ash's voice sounded a little choked up – sad but angry too. "They forget and ignore the bond the Pokémon developed with them, but they don't seem to realize the Pokémon can't break the bond as easily as we can."

Infernape growled and then nudged Ash's arm with its head. Ash wrapped his arm around Infernape automatically, giving the monkey a strong hug. "Fer! Fernape!" The monkey butted its forehead against Ash's and then gave him a cheeky smile.

Ash smiled back. "You're right, Infernape. As easily as OTHERS can. I can't break the bond with any of my Pokémon."

"Why would you want to?" Bruce asked rhetorically. The thought of giving up any one of these incredible animals was beyond comprehension. He could happily spend countless hours studying these creatures with just his eyes alone. "These creatures are amazing!"

StarRaptor chirped and then flew into the air, circling once and then coming to rest on the ground by Natasha. The Russian woman looked down at the bird, a faint air of puzzlement surrounding her. "What does it want?"

"She wants you to pet her," Ash told her. "I think she's acknowledging you as the only other girl in the room!"

Natasha blinked, and then gave StarRaptor a tiny look of amusement. "I see." She held out a hand for the bird to nudge with her large beak, apparently unafraid of losing it. Then she slid her hand over the large ruff, following the contours of the feathers with her fingers. Her smile grew bigger as she looked up at both Bruce and Ash. "I concur, Doctor. She is indeed beautiful."

"Girl?" Bruce adjusted his glasses again. "I've heard you refer to your Pokémon as 'it'. In fact, we've all been switching between 'it' and gender-designated pronouns. Why is she considered a female?"

"Ummm..." Ash scratched his head, looking confused. "Because she's not a boy?"

Clint guffawed. So did the dragon.

"What is Pikachu?" Bruce persisted, ignoring Clint.

"Pikachu's a boy." The animal in question chirped, waving its tail back and forth. "We get in the habit of referring to Pokémon as 'it' because sometimes there's no way of telling at first." Ash pointed at Pikachu's tail. "It's got a flat edge, see? A female Pikachu has a notch in the tail."

"I guess you just can't give it a look between the legs," Tony said bluntly, still manipulating the 3D screens he'd been setting up for Ash's Pokemon, as well as a blown up image of the pokeball. Formulas and numbers were flying all over the room, jumping from screen to screen as Tony worked his technological 'magic' as Clint sometimes referred to it. Bruce knew that the data streams were recording, dissecting, hypothesizing and saving anything and everything happening in the room for Tony to go over with a fine-toothed comb – and a sonic screwdriver - later. Tony just could not 'not understand' something. Tony continued, one eyebrow archly raised. "We had an absolutely FASCINATING discussion about the lack of genitalia and the need for litter boxes."

Clint snickered again.

Ash blushed. "Umm... that's not really how we tell," he said sheepishly. His cheeks were bright red. Bruce marveled at the idea of there being such a thing as an innocent teenage boy, as Ash seemed to be. The aura of virginity – both in body AND mind – seemed to radiate from Ash like a beacon. "There are some differences between boys and girls that are noticeable, and some that aren't. Like, um..." He jabbed away at the buttons on his pokedex. "Like here – this is a male Combee." Three yellow blocks with happy faces appeared on the screen. Jarvis switched it to the main monitor. "The female has a red mark on her." The second picture was positioned next to the first. "Only female Combee's can evolve into Vespiquin." A third picture loaded, showing a large yellow and black-striped bee-type humanoid creature with large white wings. This version had two arms, and only one face as opposed to the three-headed Combee. Her lower abdomen resembled a blocked-in dress. "And there are some Pokémon that are only boys or only girls. Like Chancey." The screen switched again and showed a pink oval with darker pink wingtips, tiny dotted eyes, and stubby little arms and feet. A small crescent pouch decorated its abdomen and contained a white oval that Bruce was pretty sure was an egg, or something of the sort. "All Chancey's are girls."

"So that makes them all lesbians? Cool." Tony wiggled his eyebrows. "That sounds like a party."

"Tony, please," Steve pleaded. His ears were red. His fingers reached for an eraser – Tony's outlandish comments had caused him to draw a line through the horn-like projections on Charizard's head.

"No, seriously – if they're all girls, how do you get more of them? Are they hermaphrodites?" Tony looked fascinated, studying the monitors intently as though they were about to provide him with the answer right then and there. The image of Chancey rotated in front of him. "That egg-thing there in the middle. Are they born pregnant like Godzilla? You know, that horrible movie with Matt Broderick and the sexy blonde?"

Clint grinned. "I love that movie."

Tony shot him a look. "No one loves that movie. You have horrible taste in movies."

"I did, and I do not!" Clint waved an arrow. "Can you imagine riding one of those baby Godzilla's like a horse? Gimme that over a horse any day!" He blinked. "Or a Salamence. Either one, I'm good."

Tony looked thoughtful. "You have a point."

"You both do. And it's on the tops of both your heads," Natasha cut them off.

"Huh?" Ash looked truly confused, eyes switching back and forth during the by-play..

Bruce calmly slapped a hand over Tony's mouth before he could fire off another retort. Natasha quelled Clint with a look. The conversation picked up again. "Before they got sidetracked, Tony was talking about reproduction. How do they reproduce if they're females?"

Ash's face cleared. "Oh. That's easy. Pokémon come from Pokémon eggs."

"...and where do the eggs come from?" Clint asked, since Tony couldn't. Bruce still hadn't moved his hand.

That produced another head scratch. "Umm... you need a boy Pokémon and a girl Pokémon. They make eggs." Ash was now giving them a look as if THEY were the crazy ones.

Clint grinned and moved in for the strike. "But HOW—"

"Moving on," Bruce cut Clint off. The archer could keep this up all day. Tony poked the hand against his mouth and grunted expectantly. Bruce sighed and removed his hand. "Behave, Tony." At least the engineer could be trusted to EVENTUALLY get back to scientific curiosity and proper questioning.


"Fine," Tony groused. "So, if there are no boy Chancy's – that is a stupid name, by the way, just sayin' – how the hell do you get a Chancy egg? Immaculate 'PokeCeption'?"

Even Natasha cracked a small smile at that but the joke flew right over Ash's head. "Some people use a Ditto," Ash replied honestly. "My friend Brock is going to be the best Breeder ever and he says a Ditto is the best help to get eggs from Pokémon who don't have a partner." A pink blob with eyes appeared on the screen. "Ditto can change themselves into any Pokémon, and they aren't boys or girls."

"...You must have very interesting gender studies programs in your world," Bruce mused thoughtfully, narrowing his eyes at the picture. "Could they be considered hermaphrodites? Do they have the reproductive organs of both males and females? Has one ever been studied in detail?"

"Professer Oak studies Pokemon," the boy said cheerfully. "He knows almost everything about them." Black brows furrowed in confusion. "I don't know what Pokemon a Hermaphro-thing is though."

Steve's shoulders were shaking. His face was carefully hidden behind his sketchbook. Bruce fought back the urge to laugh.

"It's not a Pokemon-"

"What about this?" Tony interrupted them, poking the pocket on the 3D image of the Chancey. "Is that a Pokemon egg?"

Ash shook his head. "It's an egg but not a Pokemon egg. I mean, it's used in an attack called 'Egg Bomb', but it doesn't hatch."

Tony was already bored. "Fine, let's file this under the Virgin Pokemon and move on. I want to get to the ones you have that we haven't seen yet." Tony rubbed his hands together. "I see three more of those pokeball-things there."

Ash looked confused but he shrugged and went along with it. He picked up another one of the tiny red and white balls. "Okay. Come on out, Buizel!" Ash pressed the button, the ball expanded, and as he threw it into the air, that familiar red light began to shine from it. Tony moaned at Jarvis but everyone else ignored him. When the light disappeared, a small, yellow and orange, bipedal creature stood upright in its place, cocking its head to one side as it took in all the unfamiliar faces.


"Buizel! I want you to meet some new friends of ours," Ash said, gesturing to the Avengers with his undamaged arm. Tony grinned madly, opening a new floating window in the room. The hum of Jarvis's scanners could be heard as Clint and Bruce both leaned for a better look, Bruce adjusting his glasses automatically. Steve switched to a new sheet in his sketchbook. But Buizel immediately hopped onto the bed, climbed closer and began to sniff at Ash's arm, completely ignoring the people trying to get a closer look at it. He tapped a paw lightly on the bright white linen binding the wound.

"Bui….Bui bui…" Buizel focused was only on Ash's forearm, and he finally turned a dark look up at his trainer. "Bui?" It turned and glared at the Avengers, one by one, tiny paws clenched into what amounted to fists for it. Bruce noted the tiny but sharp-looking fang poking out at the corner of its mouth.

The dragon snorted in apparent amusement though, and StarRaptor cooed soothingly. Both of them were relaxed, and that obviously enough for the weasel as it sniffed back at the dragon and then turned to face the rest of them. Its small arms folded over its chest and he stared them down, completely unafraid. Bruce was enchanted. So small and yet so willing to protect its master. Trainer, he revised mentally. Protect its trainer.

"Buizel, these guys helped save me," Ash explained. He looked up at Bruce and the others. "He's a water type, though he can do normal and ice type-attacks as well."

Bruce leaned forward and extended his hand. "It's nice to meet you Buizel," he said calmly, hoping this introduction would go as easily as the others had. Buizel took in his whole appearance, but having Charizard and StarRaptor vouch for you apparently went a long way. Buizel reluctantly held out its paw and shook hands. "He looks amazing too, Ash." The weasel smirked and resumed his stance, keeping a watchful eye on them all.

"He's much bigger than your average weasel though," Tony said. He had his sensors going a thousand miles a second and a picture of a normal Earth weasel was in the corner of one of the windows near Ash. "He's got the basic shape but that's where it ends." He grinned. "Same attitude, though."

"They've all got much more vibrant coloring than most of our planet's animals," Bruce agreed. The fur was a brilliant orange-y brown and was smooth as silk – likely water-repellant, Bruce thought, taking in the sheen. Like ducks or otters. It's eyes sparkled with health and good humor – yet wary and watchful at the same time. Bruce gently stroked a finger along the thick yellow collar framing Buizel's head and neck. The weasel preened at the touch. "What does this—"

He jerked his finger back as Buizel's collar suddenly inflated like a balloon and Buizel stood there proudly. Ash chuckled. "Buizel likes being in the spotlight," he said with a grin. "His collar inflates if he's in trouble underwater, or he needs to help lift someone or something to the surface."

"Like a life jacket," Bruce said. But inflated with what? Oxygen from its own body? The weasel didn't seem out of breath – the collar had inflated with no discernible effort from the animal itself. A conscious but unconscious reaction. Or maybe it got it from the air – but there were no gills or openings. Did it absorb air through the very cells of the skin? Was it able to redirect air from its respiratory system into the collar instead of its lungs with a single thought? There were just so many questions. No doubt Tony was racking up the same amount. "I get it. Fascinating!"

"You said he was a water type?" Natasha asked, cutting into his reverie.

Ash nodded. "He knows attacks like Aqua-Jet and Surf, which are both powerful water attacks. But he also knows Ice Punch and Sonic Boom – that's a normal-type attack." Buizel's ears twitched and he turned part-way around to view his trainer, eyes lit up. His paw was raised and there seemed to be a faint glow coming from it. Bruce blinked in surprise as he felt an icy cool breeze in a room that was completely climate-controlled. "No, Buizel, you can't show them here." Buizel's ears drooped and he deflated his collar. The glow disappeared from its fist. The breeze faded away. Ash pat its shoulder soothingly. "You can show them later, I promise."

Buizel nodded, calm and accepting. "Bui."

"You have excellent control over them," Natasha said approvingly.

Ash looked at her, that confused expression back on his face. "I don't control them," he said. Then he wrinkled his nose. "Well, okay in battle I do. I mean, I control what attacks they use. But they're my friends. We work together as a team. We're a family." He smiled lightly at the assassin. "Like you guys, I guess."

Steve smiled back at the boy. "I can definitely understand that way of thinking," he said. "We're a team, just as you are. And as much as others would like otherwise, I don't control my team. As you said, it's about working together."

Clint mimed wiping away a tear in between saving and changing scans. "Cap, you're gonna make me blush."

Bruce wondered about the word 'attacks'. It wasn't the first time Ash had mentioned them, and they'd already seen firsthand what just the dragon alone was capable of dishing out. That was yet another question they were going to have to press upon the boy. If they didn't, Phil Coulson certainly would, and there were more eyes than just the Avengers that had watched what happened in New York City. He frowned. His enthusiasm was being dampened somewhat, by the knowledge that this child and his creatures would be seen as weapons by far more dangerous people.

Bruce looked at Ash who was watching his Pokemon with such a soft and loving look, and he resolutely put that line of thought out of his head for the moment. He'd bring it up with Natasha and Phil himself, and bring Steve in if necessary. He didn't want to see the child used before he'd even adjusted to all of them. He didn't doubt that Phil would use his influence to protect him – Bruce had come to rely greatly on Phil and trusted him more than he did any other agency official – but Phil didn't rule at the top of the hill.

On the bed, Pikachu tapped Buizel's shoulder and the two of them conversed in a flurry of 'Bui's' and 'Pika's'. Bruce looked over and saw Tony focused on them, and no doubt, several of his scanners and cameras as well. He was recording again – sounds, facial expressions, hand gestures, everything. No doubt Tony would have a reasonable facsimile of a translation before too long.

"Sooo…" Clint said, looking eagerly at the young trainer and the two pokeballs still sitting beside him. "Who's next?"

"We'll need a bit of room for this next one," Ash said, fingers trailing gently over the glossy red and white ball. He stopped just short of pressing the button. "Torterra's the biggest, bulk-wise, of all my Pokémon." He looked over to the corner where Steve was sitting. "You're Steve, right?" Cap nodded. "If you move a few feet to the right, there'll be enough room for Torterra to stand comfortably."

Steve set his sketchbook down and then moved his chair with his supplies to the desired spot. He then looked at the large space left behind. "Whoa…" he said, a small frown creasing the lines of his face. "Are you sure it's big enough? If it needs that much room…"

Bruce flicked his eyes to Natasha and saw her casually check her stun gun wrist guards – also known as her Widow's Bite. Ash had no way of knowing that the small golden bands that linked together and resembled a rather expensive bracelet actually housed up to ten thousand volts each and combined, could be fired like a taser with enough power to stop a rhino in its tracks. Clint had a hand near the arrow discharger on his techno-quiver which housed everything from gas-heads to bombs as well as a variety of trick arrows provided by Tony that the archer was still testing. But if Ash didn't recognize the danger, his pets certainly did.

The effect their movements had on the Pokémon was immediate. StarRaptor flew upwards to land on the crossbeams, her wings spread. She let out a shrill shriek, like that of a hawk's hunting cry. She was followed by Infernape who had effortlessly flipped up into the air and now gripped one of the overhead posts with his left hand and his tail. In its other hand, a red glow started to form. Both of them glared down, tense and battle-ready. Charizard simply sat upright and leaned against Ash's bed. His narrowed eyes watched everyone carefully.

"They don't like it when people have weapons out," Ash said, half-apologetically, half not. He was watching Natasha and Clint both, gaze roving between them. "All of my Pokémon have had some bad… okay, a LOT of bad experiences with people attacking us. Not just here in New York." Okay then, Bruce thought. He did recognize the signs of danger. His general estimation of Ash went up a few levels.

Natasha had tensed the minute the animals had moved. Clint too. Had the animals gone towards any of the Avengers, Bruce was certain they would have had a full battle on their hands. That the moves had all been defensive had been all that had spared them. The Avengers, as far as tempers went, were a pretty docile group during downtime though no one – the World, SHIELD, NYPD – would ever confuse that with weakness. Had a threat been acknowledged, Natasha would have moved first, and not even the reflexes of Captain America would have done Ash or the creatures any good.

Tony looked skeptical - he had completely ignored the tension that had skyrocketed in the last few seconds. "You're a kid," he said bluntly, still moving and manipulating images. Bruce saw him move a recording of one of the animals speech patterns into a new folder marked 'Backtalk'. Typical. "Who'd be attacking you? Especially with these guys hanging around?"

"You'd be surprised," was Ash's vague answer. Bruce was curious to know what he meant by that. Ash looked up at the rafters. "It's okay guys, I promise. But you two stay up there if it makes you feel better."

"Doesn't seem very brave," Clint mused. His fingers were still gripping an arrow. His bow needed only three seconds for him to pull off and lock open. "Running away instead of protecting you?"

Ash didn't rise to the bait. "I'd want them to run away if there was danger," he insisted instead. His voice was passionate, filled with honesty. Bruce didn't think there was a dishonest bone in the kids entire body – he seemed to wear his feelings on his sleeve. Ash smiled at the dragon next to him. "But they'd never do that. Up there, they have a clear shot at anyone who wants to harm me or my other Pokémon. Not to mention a diving start for StarRaptor's Brave Bird, or Infernape's Inferno attack."

Attacks again. "I'm not going to ask," Bruce declared at last. "At least not yet. But if you're fine with it, I am too."

"And you're sure you have enough room?" Steve asked warily. "What if this next one attacks?"

Ask shook his head. "I know my Pokémon," he said, relaxed once again. "Torterra's also the calmest of all my Pokémon. If I'm calm, Torterra will be calm too." He looked at all his pokemon. "It's okay guys. Remember, you're as new to them as they are to you." He sent a wry look to Charizard. "I know you like being scary but it won't help us here."

Charizard grunted and lay back down. Bruce noted however, that his eyes remained slitted open a little wider then they'd been previously.

A whistle sounded throughout the room. "Alright, alright, talk is cheap, bring it out!" Tony clapped his hands, partially dispelling the tension. Clint relaxed and followed suit, somehow winding up at the foot of Ash's bed, trading high-fives with Buizel. He still had his techno-quiver though, and the arrow was within his easy reach. Bruce hoped it wouldn't be needed.

"Okay." Ash pressed the button and gave it a small toss. The red light shone out, and the ball automatically returned to Ash's hand.

"I need this technology," Tony moaned, and then that was all he had time to say before his mouth dropped open in stunned surprise. Steve jumped to his feet, taking a step back in surprise. Bruce blinked twice before reaching to his pocket for the cloth he used to clean his glasses. This was a bit different from the other animals – Pokémon – Ash had already shown them. Quite a bit different.

Torterra was big. Massively so. He was a big, brown turtle with a green and white shell and a tree growing out of his right shoulder. Was it a he? What would the female of the species look like? Bruce shook his head and leaned forward, fascinated. He almost immediately back pedaled as Torterra took a huge step forward, its paw pressing onto the floor with a hearty *thunk*. Its large, dark claws threatened to dig through the titanium flooring, scoring it with each move it made. Another step. Clint scooted over the bed to the other side, watching warily. Natasha had her Widow's Bites aimed automatically but the surprise had raised everyone's hackles. "Natasha..." Bruce really didn't want this to escalate. Natasha blinked, looked at him, and then lowered her weapon, deferring to his judgment. Bruce sent her a small smile of thanks.

The turtle ignored him. In fact, it ignored everyone, save for one. Torterra wasn't the least bit interested in them, Bruce realized. The creature was moving steadily toward its trainer, one heavy foot after another, and Ash was already leaning out, wrapping his arms around Torterra's head when it was within range. The turtle grunted contentedly, nuzzling back. "Tor…."

Buizle rolled its eyes, arms folded again. "Bui…"

"I'm okay, Torterra," Ash said soothingly. His concentration was completely and solely on his pet. "It's a broken ankle, and you know I've had worse before."

"Terra….Tor, tor terra…" The animal continued to press its muzzle against Ash's face, licking it once for good measure. That single lick covered the entire half of Ash's face and left the spiky black bangs pointing straight up on the one side. Bruce breathed a sigh of relief.

"Enough, Torterra, you know that tickles." Ash giggled before turning to face the gaping Avengers team. "This is Torterra. Torterra, these are my new friends."

Steve gave a weak, two-fingered salute. Bruce waved tentatively. Natasha blinked rapidly. Tony was already on the creature's back, abandoning his scans in order to peer at the foliage up close. "Is this biological plant life? Does it grow through the shell or over top of it? How do you maintain it? Can I have a sample?"

Ash shrugged at Tony's questions. "All Torterra have that tree. It had two smaller plants growing on it as a Grotle, and before that, a tiny leaf growing out of its head as Turtwig." As he spoke, the Pokedex showed the relevant images and Jarvis faithfully put them on display on the large monitors.

Steve had stood up and was moving towards the turtle with wide eyes. "I used to love turtles when I was growing up," he murmured. "Ever since I read about Darwin finding those turtles that had to be almost a hundred and fifty years old when I was a boy. Living fossils." He beamed at the turtle and looked at Ash. "I am sorry about Tony's rudeness." Tony stuck his tongue out but kept examining the leaves on the large tree. "May I pet him?"

"Go ahead," Ash invited. Steve gently rubbed Torterra's shell, and the large animal swung its head around, giving him a curious but warm look.

Tony jumped off the back of the turtle, allowing Clint to help catch and steady him. He gave Torterra a pat on the shell as he did so. "Thanks, Greenie." He shot a quick look to Bruce. "Now, don't get jealous. I still have lots of nicknames for you and the Jolly Green Giant."

Bruce ignored him. "Jarvis, are you able to convert the data yet?" His list of questions was steadily growing and he desperately wanted access to the information stored on the contraption to see if it answered any of them.

"I believe so, Master Bruce, but please don't take it as being one hundred percent complete."

"I'll take what I can get." Bruce watched as data specifically concerning Ash's Pokémon poured across the screens. One screen had locations that meant nothing, really, to them. A map file was there as well, and he saved it to his own server Tony had graciously set up for him back when he'd first moved in. There were lists of statistics that didn't mean much now but Bruce was certain they would as more of his questions got answered. Symbols that didn't mean anything to them yet – a shaded house, a pink circle with two white slashes - were dotted all over the place. Another screen had types and moves. Bruce pointed at it. "Ash? Can you explain this screen?"

Ash peered at it and visibly brightened. "Those are my Pokémon's attack moves. It shows the type and its limitations."

Seemed they were going to be learning attacks now after all. "What do you mean?"

"Well, take Pikachu for example." The yellow rat in the boy's lap made an adorably crooning sound as Ash stroked its ears. "Pikachu's most powerful attack is 'Thunder'. It can take on almost any Pokémon and blast them out of the battlefield!" Ash smiled proudly. "But you put a rock or ground type against it, like a Graveller, or an Onix, and his power goes right down. Electric types don't work against ground types."

"So what do you do when you face these ground types?" Natasha asked. Bruce hid a grin - trust her to ask about overcoming a weakness.

"Well, that's why I had Pikachu learn Iron Tail," Ash stated proudly. "Iron Tail works great against rock types."

Pikachu grinned and leaped into the air. It whirled around once horizontally, then went into a vertical somersault. As it did so, its tail turned a metallic gray color and stiffened, as though it had truly turned to iron instead of the organic limb it usually was. Pikachu stopped, mere inches from hitting the bed. Ash hadn't moved, trusting his Pokémon completely. Pikachu landed neatly, all four paws on the bed, his tail still that metallic color.

Bruce leaned forward and ran a finger along it. "Amazing," he breathed. "It truly feels like a piece of metal."

"Jarvis, I hope you haven't been lazy here," Tony warned, coming forward to peer at it along with Bruce.

"No sir. I promise, all relevant scans have been made and saved. I have also made and saved a video clip of the move itself. Shall I store it in the general Pokemon folder?"

"Sub folder, name it video clips, sub folder to that named Pikachu, copy to a folder under Pokemon named Pikachu Basic," Tony muttered, poking the tail gently. It was as hard as steel.

Pikachu's tail turned back to its normal yellow, and Bruce was suddenly petting the soft fur. Pikachu crooned, curling under Bruce's wrist and nudging his hand, a definite encouragement for him to continue what he was doing, and making Ash laugh at the same time. "Pikachu loves having his tail rubbed."

"Don't you say anything," Bruce warned Tony who had opened his mouth to add a comment, nipping him neatly in the bud. "He's a minor."

"You are absolutely no fun today," Tony groused but thankfully he dropped whatever filthy remark he'd been about to let loose. "Hey Cap – mind giving Metal Mouse here a target?" Bruce looked at him in alarm. "Relax, Brucie - just a little demonstration, no biggie."

Steve unshouldered the large artist bag he kept his shield in and pulled it out. "Sure," he said, smiling at the rat. He looked eager to see what it could do. "Just go easy on me, okay?"

Ash looked concerned. "Are you sure?" Pikachu cocked his head, watching them all closely.

Steve struck the center of his shield. "It's taken hits from bombs and lasers and it's still in one piece. I think it can handle a practice hit." He looked back at Pikachu. "Okay, little guy, let's do it!"

Pikachu looked at Ash for permission, who nodded warily, and then sprang to all four feet. He growled, "Pika'" at Captain America, who braced himself and held the shield up. "Pika chu… chu pi!"

As he spun around in that vertical somersault, again, his tail turned steel gray and it whistled through the air. There was a flash of light as it whipped around almost too fast to see, followed by a metallic ringing as it landed. The impact of the tail on Steve's shield pushed Steve back a few feet, boots skidding across the polished hardwood, and down to one knee. Pikachu rebounded away from the hit, flipped once in mid-air and landed on all fours, facing Steve in what looked like a battle-ready position. "Whoa!"

"Pika?" The tail turned yellow and suddenly Pikachu was crawling under the shield to look Steve Rogers in the face. "Pii Pika?" It looked worried.

A laugh came from the bed. "He wants to know if you're okay," Ash translated, looking somewhat relieved.

Natasha was suddenly there, and she helped him stand up (and stood guard, Bruce realized) as he examined his shield. A tiny dent, among all the other tiny dents he'd taken against his shield, was all that remained of the attack. Pikachu's ears flattened in annoyance, but Steve was suddenly scratching them enthusiastically, his initial shyness among the creatures gone. "That was a great hit!"

"Pi kaaa?" Pikachu gave Steve a look that even Bruce could tell was asking if he was serious.

Steve smiled. "Not many things can damage my shield, Pikachu. Or even scratch the paint. That you managed to leave even a tiny mark is proof of real power."

The yellow rat cheered up at this, scampering back to Ash's bed – with a quick rebound of Torterra's shell for added height – and stood there proudly. Ash picked him up and hugged him. "See, you are amazing, just like I keep telling you." The two looked at each other for a minute, and even Bruce could sense the deep bond between them for a minute. It was almost a tangible thing in itself. Was that because Pikachu was the first of Ash's partners? Did all of them develop that sort of bond with a trainer?

Meanwhile, Buizel looked rather affronted. "Bui bui!" It insisted, thumping its own chest. It looked insulted and Bruce remembered that Buizel had been denied a chance to show off a move of its own.

"You'll have plenty of chances to prove how tough you are, AFTER the introductions are through," Bruce said calmly, hoping to prevent more demonstrations. The last thing he needed – or wanted – was for a full-on fight to break out in the child's recovery room. "I promise – Tony and I both want to see what you can do."

Tony nodded, giving an absent wave as he continued to review the information Jarvis had managed to extract from the Pokedex. "You better believe it," he muttered, poking the digital controls like a madman, moving his fingers almost too fast for anyone else to follow.

Buizel glared, but subsided reluctantly.

Hawkeye was back at Ash's side, poking the last pokeball with his index finger. "Okay, enough stalling. Who's in here?"

"Ahh..." Ash recalled Infernape and StarRaptor from their perch on the ceiling to their with twin flashes of red light, telling them to relax and have a rest for now, and then held out the last pokeball, cradling it in his hands. "Well...this is Gible."

Buizle started – and the leaped into a defensive pose, paws out. One paw extended further than the other, reminding Bruce of a basic Karate stance, and it's forked tail was lashing back and forth. Anticipation? On the other side, thick vines immediately twisted out of Torterra's sides, also held as though ready to grab something. The two stared at the ball, seeming a bit nervous. Bruce took a second look at Buizel – the animal seemed to be sweating heavily. That did not bode well.

"If they're on the defensive, that can't be good," Natasha said flatly. There was a good deal of warning in her tone. That was never a good thing. Her hand was also back on her gun, eyes narrowed on the small ball. That was just as equally bad.

Steve gripped his shield, the team leader in him springing to the forefront. "Ash?"

"He's not dangerous," Ash said quickly, picking up instantly on the tension that sprang up amongst the Avengers. He looked pleadingly at Bruce, clutching the pokeball to his chest. "He's really not. It's just that... well, Gible's very young and he's still in training. He has a habit of eating everything in sight – food, plants, dirt, chairs, tables…" Ash looked around the room he'd been given. "In fact, he'd probably try to eat everything in here, including the walls and floors."

"Does he eat people? Animals?" Steve asked, looking very much like their Leader who was afraid for his team's safety.

"What?" Ash looked shocked and he shook his head quickly. "No, no, nothing like that." He grinned. "Just chews on my head sometimes."

"Pii ka, chu pi?" Pikachu was touching the ball gently, and looking up at all of them, moving his gaze from each Avenger to the next. "Ka chu pi pi ka chu."

"It's only fair," Ash agreed. He looked at Steve directly. "He doesn't think it's fair to keep Gible locked up when everyone else is out, but he also doesn't think it's a good idea to bring him out now. He's not dangerous. He's a baby with lots of power - young and destructive. Especially when he's nervous, or doesn't know everybody."

"Gee, that sounds familiar," Tony said with a snort and an exaggerated look at Bruce. "Where have I heard those words applied to an individual before?"

His words did a lot of break the tension that had erupted in the room. "Shut up Tony." Bruce gave Tony a light smack upside the head. Ignoring the 'Ow! Abuse! I'm calling my lawyers!', he sent a reassuring look to the young trainer who had grown paler during their talk. "We have a room just built for the nervous, destructive types. Why don't we just postpone his appearance until we can get there instead? Besides," he leaned forward and then put a hand to Ash's forehead. "You're still pale, and I think I feel that fever coming back. Too much excitement since you woke up." Bruce shook his head. "We got caught up in the excitement of meeting such extraordinary creatures and completely forgot you're still recovering from pretty extensive damage."

Pikachu 'chaa'd at Ash. Ash nodded. "That sounds good," he said, with obvious relief. He leaned back against the pillow. "I'm still a little tired."

"You should be." Bruce adjusted a few of the monitors and placed a patch on Ash's chest. "I'm just going to watching your vitals through these machines for a little while longer. Just to make sure you're okay."

Pikachu sniffed the patch curiously. Ash yawned.

"Okay, since that's decided, let's talk about these battles you mentioned." Clint was staring at a screen intently. "What's a Flamethrower as it relates to Charizard, and why does it say 140 power next to it?"

"Clint!" Bruce gripped the archer by the arm and pulled him away. "We are going to let Ash rest for a bit before we make him tell us everything about his life, okay?"

"Oh yeah, geez. Sorry Kiddo – wow, he IS still pale. Why'd you keep us talking doc? That can't be good for -OW! OWWWWWW, let go! Tasha? Partner? Best friend?"

"You're on your own, idiot."

Philip Coulson sat in his office, watching the screen. The Avengers knew he'd be watching and so he felt no guilt at all in spying. After all, he was indeed a spy. A very good one at that.

His first job was to save the world. To do that, he needed to save the Avengers. Sometimes, they could be so softhearted that they could ignore the obvious threats and focus on the one part that raised their sympathies. Tony Stark, for all his pragmatism, could be surprisingly sympathetic, particularly when children were involved. Bruce Banner had no enduring love for SHIELD. Captain America himself had a history of disobeying direct orders to protect his men from the cold rule of the army. Even Natasha and Clint, his primary assets, had begun to soften the longer they stayed immersed in Stark Tower. Phil had no problem with this, really. His loyalties to the team were not in question. But SHIELD's loyalties to them were. Phil knew very well that Fury had to keep a variety of entities happy in order to maintain his hold on SHIELD. It was why he'd cut Phil loose and set him on the Avengers. By making him the handler for the most powerful team in the world, he'd provided protection for a high-ranking SHIELD official, away from puppeteering of the World Council.

Which left him with a problem. The boy in the bed, a fourteen year old from another dimension, had all of the teams sympathies. Phil wasn't so cold-hearted that he couldn't see why – the boy had been thrown into their world and spent three months on his own on the streets of New York. That he survived as well as he did spoke volumes about the child, and more importantly, the creatures that guarded him. He'd seen part of what they were capable of at Central Park, and the reports filed by his agents had filled in the blanks.

A dragon that breathed fire and explosions. An electric rodent that could damage the shield of Captain America with a single practice blow. A bird capable of carrying grown men in her claws. A monkey that rivaled Hawkeye in athletic ability and possessed an inferno inside it. A turtle that commanded the power of nature itself.

A single creature would be enough to arouse the interests of those who held different priorities than that of SHIELD. That there were seven of them... that was a group the same size as the Avengers. And Phil, as well as the world, knew the power that could be contained within a small group. He rubbed his temples as he thought hard, organizing his thoughts.

Phil switched off the screen. Ash was sleeping now, and Bruce was in there with him. Phil would go and speak to Bruce about what he'd discovered. Part of him wanted to introduce himself to Ash that moment – he truly seemed like a good kid - but that time could wait a little longer. First he had a report to write Fury about what he'd seen on the video monitor first. How he wrote it had to be very carefully considered. Fury, he trusted. But SHIELD was not solely a dictatorship, no matter how much the younger Agents of SHIELD thought Fury was an omniscient leader. Despite SHIELD security, other eyes than Fury's would receive Phil's missives.

With those creatures at the boy's command and in the right hands, the child could be a very useful weapon. And Coulson knew exactly who would be most interested in wielding it.

Phil blew out a breath and began organizing his notes, planning in his head how exactly he was going to word his report so that Fury could read what he wanted him to. Luckily, he'd done this before, many times before. This was not, as Clint would say, his first rodeo.

Two days of down time did everyone some good and also drove a few people further up the walls than normal. Ash was given plenty of opportunities to catch up on the healing rest he desperately needed, but in between nap times, he was constantly being visited by Clint (who was infatuated with his Pokémon and wanted them out of the balls all of the time), Tony (who was desperate to acquire his 'atrociously ugly tech' and improve upon it) and Bruce (who was fascinated by both the creatures and the tech that contained them).

Natasha usually followed to ensure the child's safety from her teammates and could be found up in the rafters with StarRaptor. A strange kind of friendship had sprung up between human and bird, and the Raptor could be found nuzzling the redhead for attention, sometimes preening her hair. Clint had taken over a hundred incriminating photos that he fully planned to add to his blackmail folder.

Coulson had eventually introduced himself to Ash. The boy was nervous in his presence, but no one had been able to figure out why. Steve thought he kind of knew – Phil was an Agent and he acted like one. The Avengers were not conventional soldiers, Natasha and Clint aside, and acted on a more informal level. Ash had already spoken about being the victim of attacks before though he hadn't expanded on that much, and Coulson was a very intense man who took his job very seriously. Coulson's questioning had been much cooler than Bruce's.

Steve had to admit he liked the child. Ash Ketchum was of average intelligence, but had a very strong, intense bond with his creatures, claiming to view them as friends, but his actions towards them were more like a parent guarding his children. Which was strange, considering the animals under his control had all the power. And still, that was not the strangest part of Ash's story.

"So children can go off on their own in the world at age ten?" Steve scratched his head, unable to stop a frown from forming on his face. He sat at the end of Ash's bed, the yellow rodent – Pikachu – sitting between them. The rat liked to have its tail stroked and Steve was more than happy to pet the soft fur, marveling at the velvety texture. "Forgive me for saying so, but that doesn't sound very responsible. Or safe."

"For kids on our world, yeah," Tony piped up. He was currently dissecting an older version of Ash's pokedex – the kid had half a dozen of them in his backpack, each one apparently upgraded from the last. Tony was on the third one in, breaking it down and uploading the information into a format 'he could tolerate', as he put it. He'd had to promise on the threat of Charizard's fangs that he would return each one to its previous condition when he was finished. "Maybe Ash's world is a safe place full of wide open spaces, blue skies and no pedophiles to be found."

"Pedo-whats?" Ash asked, wrinkling his nose in confusion.

Steve flushed red and sent Tony a glare that the older man cheerfully ignored. "Never mind," he said. "But I mean, isn't your mom worried about you?"

"Of course she is," Ash said guilelessly. "But I make sure to call at least twice a week, more if there's a Pokémon Center nearby."

"And you said these Centers are like hostels," Steve continued. "You eat, sleep, wash up, basically have access to all the amenities of home in them? For free?"

Ash nodded. "Free for Pokémon trainers," he clarified. "But they also rent rooms for other purposes. I met a Pokémon archeologist who was doing field work near a Center once, and the Nurse Joy there let him keep his work in one of their rooms."

"That's the part that bugs me," Bruce joined in. "You said all the Centers are run by a 'Nurse Joy' and all of them look identical?"

"Well, I can't tell the difference between them," Ash frowned. "But my buddy Brock can, easily. Here-" he rummaged through his back pack for a moment and pulled out a small scrapbook. Opening it up, he flipped to a page of identical pink-haired women. "—Brock gave me a copy of his photo."

"If they're all related and all the females look identical to each other – including the children – is that some sort of genetic defect? I wish I had a DNA sample," Bruce said, marveling at the photo. There were at least thirty women in the photo, three rows deep, all with folded hands and gentle smiles aimed at the photographer. Even holding the picture close, Bruce could not identify a single physical characteristic that differed one from another. Even their poses, their expressions – there wasn't even a single strand of hair out of place. The only thing that changed was their nursing cap – the cross varied in shades. But that was the sole difference.

"That's nothing," Ash said, smirking. "Wait until you see the Officer Jenny's." He reached over and turned the page in the scrap book. Bruce nearly fell off the bed. A nearly identical photograph though this was in a police station of some kind. Again, thirty women with matching blue hair and uniforms stood in three lines, saluting the camera. Like the Joy's, each one stood perfectly aligned with the one next to her, hair done in identical ponytails. The single difference was the same as the Joys – a badge on the cap showing different colors. It was a genetic impossibility. Bruce's fingers itched for a DNA sample.

"Who pays for all the free Centers?" Tony looked up from the pile of parts in his lap, changing the subject. It was amazing they got anywhere at all, considering how many times all them kept switching tracks on Ash in mid-conversation. "The government? Do you have a President? A Prime Minister? A Supreme Dictator in charge?"

"Uhh…." Ash scratched his head, looking confused again. "Each city has a mayor, I think…And the Pokémon gym leaders are pretty powerful – everyone looks up to them. And then there's the Elite Four. They're in charge of the Pokemon Rangers who handle things like Pokemon Poachers."

"But who pays for all of this?" Tony pressed. "Do you have money? How do you pay for your travels?"

"I walk everywhere," Ash replied, wide-eyed. He pushed up against the back of the bed automatically. Steve could understand. Tony could be a little intense at times. "The ferries are usually free to ride as long as you have a pass."

"And how do you get a pass?" Tony all but shrieked. Any minute now, Steve was certain Tony was going to start foaming at the mouth. "What form of currency do you use to obtain train tickets, plane tickets, food in a grocery store, shampoo and conditioner, condoms?"

"Tony!" Steve fought down yet another blush, determined that just once, he would deny the man the satisfaction of seeing him turn bright red. Still examining the three closest Pokemon – Charizard, who never left the kid's room, Pikachu (seemingly a permanent attachment to Ash's left shoulder) and Buizel, who had struck up a friendship with Clint (the weasel-esque creature liked to test his paws against the Archer who apparently was happy to play punching bag), Bruce hid a snicker of his own – it simply wasn't dignified.

"We have money, if that's what you're asking," Ash said, shrinking back against the headboard. Tony groaned and threw his hands up in the air. Over in the corner, Charizard lifted its head and glared at Tony, huffing a small flame in the inventor's direction.

Bruce sent Tony another arch look, and Steve breathed a silent sigh of relief for the support. Bruce was unpredictable – sometimes portraying the straight-laced professor he'd been briefed about prior to their first meeting, and other times, capable of acting as irreverent and playful as Tony. Though Stark had him beat at sarcasm, hands down. "Calm down, Tony," he told him. "Play with your toys and let me ask the questions for now." He tossed a smaller wrench at the man who snatched it up with a chortle and immediately applied it to the motherboard in his lap.

Tony did as he was told (and Steve was certain – laugh - it had nothing to do with the deadly look Natasha was sending his way) while Steve tried another approach. "Do you have some money on you? Can I see it?" He pulled out his own wallet – worn, creased and actually purchased by him in 1932, returned to him by Tony after the engineer found it in a box of stuff marked 'Steve's' in a store room containing most of his father's personal belongings - from the back of his jeans and flipped it open. He pulled a few modern bills from the ancient pockets within and showed them to Ash who eyed them with curiosity. "I want to compare it with our money, see how different it is."

"Sure!" Ash opened his bag again. There was an internal pocket that he unzipped and he pulled out a small wad of red and blue paper. The boy had no wallet, and his currency was crushed into a bundle that hurt Steve, just a little bit, to see. The boy began unfolding it, being careful not to tear the paper. "I hadn't battled in a while before coming here, so I'm running low."

"You get money for battling?" Steve asked, laying his own money flat against Ash's. It reminded him of Canadian money, what with all the colors. There was a mountain in the middle and a strange, star-shaped creature seated at the base of it. A single curl of hair poked between two pointed ears and it looked almost like it was giving a double peace sign. Steve assumed it was another Pokemon. He wondered vaguely how many of them there were. "How does that work?"

Ash nodded. "If you win, you win some of the other person's money. The Pokedex's calculate what each battle is worth afterward and the loser pays the winner."

"Where do you get the money to start off?" Bruce asked, apparently trying again.

"From my mother," Ash said promptly, and Steve stifled an exasperated groan. This was going to take a while.

Outside of the Avengers Tower the sun had set nearly an hour ago but New York City was still wide awake. Taxi cabs clogged the streets, conveying their passengers to the nightclubs and restaurants of their choices, the cabbies slamming their fists on the horn and shouting out the windows for people to get out of their way. Neon lights sizzled up and down the boulevards, providing even more light than the city's actual streetlamps. New Yorkers strode the sidewalks purposefully, high heels clicking, sneakers slapping, work boots thumping as they made their way home before it became truly dark and the darker parts of the city more dangerous. A few courageous street vendors still had their stalls open, trying to catch the patronage of people working the late shift, though most had closed up when the sun went down. Not because they were afraid but because they didn't stand a chance against the thousands of restaurants that opened up around that time. The scents of a hundred different cuisines drifted on the night air, mingling with the sickly-sweet smell that was garbage both bagged and strewn about the numerous alley's. In the heat, it was stifling and could make you feel nauseous. In the mild temperatures - such as tonight – it was mild and easily tolerated. He was used to far worse smells, living the lifestyle he did.

Ahh, New York City. His city. He'd been born and raised there, at ten and a half pounds almost twenty-nine years ago. The darkened alley's that frightened the tourists and were home to packs of intact feral cats had been his playground in his youth. He was a child of the island and he could not feel scared of what lurked in the bowels of New York anymore than he could walk into Tiffany's to spend the equivalent of two months rent for a loft on Park Street. Jacky Six loved his city so. Almost as much as he loved the item in his hands, purchased no less than two hours ago with real money he'd earned himself.

It was beautiful. Jacky Six stroked a finger down the side of the glass bottle in his hands, tracing the raised glass that depicted an old distillery somewhere off in a place he'd never been and likely never would be, and felt all was right with the world. Earlier, when he'd picked up the bottle from the liquor store by the Mom and Pop's, he'd felt that today was going to be his lucky day. He was owed one after all – he was a man in the business, the business of information, and his resources were highly prized he reminded himself. Eventually they'd pay off – the coppers would be begging him to share his knowledge, the money would come pouring in and he would have a chance to get back to the life he'd been planning. This was just a stop-gap. A minor setback.

The man known as Jacky Six was one of the many, many vagrant, out-of-work, down-on-their-luck social miscreants that peppered New York City. Once he had been more – he'd been respected even, his street smarts and his brains taking him in the direction he'd wanted to go since he had been a little boy and watched the powerful men on TV in their black suits, making things happen, showing the world they were the ones who knew what there was to know. HE wanted to wear the black suits, have the ear piece on, command every day pedestrians to move aside for the wealthy and the powerful as he led the way into those buildings, those places of MEN. At the moment he was as far from that reality as it was possible to be. All he had was the little informational tidbits he could scrounge up from his fellow outcasts, picked up from gossip around galvanized metal trashcans glowing red and warm from the fires lit inside much like other people gathered from hanging around office water coolers. For now, that was enough.

Jacky knew about information. Information was power. Before he'd become THIS, there had been THEN, and somewhere in the addled recesses of his alcohol-soaked brain, he knew that information was the key to surviving. Jacky Six was a survivor. He just had a small problem, that was all.

But today, Jacky Six was having a great day, oh yes. Squeegee-ing car windshields on Park avenue was a tricky business – panhandlers were not liked in the posh side of town, but Jacky Six had a couple of friends on the police force who paid him for rumors about what went down on the black markets for fenced goods from high places. THAT information, he was good at finding out, like an intellectual bloodhound. He knew the wheat from the chaff, had experience at identifying the worthy bits. The small details he saw, he remembered – when he COULD remember – was what separated him from the rest of the riffraff. It tended to pay off over time, much like it did today. One of the officers he'd recently turned onto a flat screen smuggling ring in the Bronx had turned a blind eye when he'd spotted Jacky on the corner with his bottle of Windex and the tools of his trade. As a result, he'd been lucky enough to score a car manned by a little old lady – in a fuckin' beautiful red corvette, no less - who felt sorry for him. She'd rewarded his honest efforts with a ten dollar bill – the most he'd ever made from a single car before.

That ten bucks combined with the eight he'd earned the previous day meant he was drinking fancy. Instead of his usual Two-Buck Chuck, he was drinking some actual goddamned whiskey from the land of the Scotts. It had been a long time, but it tasted as good as he remembered. He giggled as he took another long pull from the bottle. The familiar burn warmed him all the way down, relaxing him to the point where he didn't actually care that he was too late to get to a shelter for a bed. All the beds were gone by seven o'clock anyway, and it was going on nine. He giggled again, holding the bottle up and tilting it to look at the designs on the glass through the glow of the streetlights. He'd slept on park benches and under bushes before, and it was no hardship to do it again. Not with this baby to keep him nice and warm. He'd dream about those tests, the ones he'd been so good at and he would be again. He just had a little problem, no big deal. Jacky patted the bottle absently.

"Thank ye, old lady from Pasadena," he hummed, and sat down with a thunk on the worn wooden bench. He almost tipped over, and a few precious drops of amber liquid escaped into the grass. He growled at himself – who knew when he'd be able to get his hands on this shit again? - and carefully replaced the screw top lid. Upon consideration, he reopened it, took another long swallow – and another, for the hell of it – before closing it back up. The heat burned on the way down, stirring that warm glow in his belly. He liked that feeling.

He heard a sniff of disgust, and he turned his head to see a young couple walk by, as far across to the edge of the path away from him as they could get. The girl, sultry in a sluttish way, long dirty blonde hair pushed behind her ears, was side-eying him with distaste, red lips puckered in a grimace to have to breathe the same air as Jackie. Her boyfriend looked like a walking stereotype with baggy jeans down to his knees and sleeveless sports jersey. He was resolutely ignoring Jacky as though he were part of the park decoration and not a fellow human being. Neither of them could have been over twenty-one.

"Fuck youuuuuu," he caroled cheerfully, waving the bottle at them. The girl glared at him, and the guy whispered something to her that made her laugh in a not-very-nice way. Jacky didn't give a damn. What did he care about the whispers of some crack-showing dick and his whore? He'd been called everything in the book at one time or another, and it didn't pierce his thick hide anymore. You had to give a shit about yourself in order for words to hurt you, and Jackie had given up on himself a long time ago.

Something snapped behind him. Probably more stupid punk college babies with their 'significant others' and their trust funds and who wouldn't know what the real world was like if it bit them on the ass. Jacky grinned and lolled his head backwards, sticking his tongue out, give 'em a shock, a sight of that real world they tried to pretend didn't exist. He rolled his neck against the top board of the back of the bench, ignoring the chance of splinters, peering wobbly into the stand of trees behind him. No one. Probably a squirrel then, or maybe a rabbit. There was something weird about the trees behind him, though. His brain, his smarts he used to have – he could feel them trying to work, like creaky wheels trying to find traction in the alcohol soaking the way. Something wasn't right about those trees. They were wrong. The shadows were wrong. Not shadows. What the hell...

His first true impression was of darkness. Tall darkness. Jacky's bleary eyes traveled up those shadows – are those fucking legs? They look like goddamned tree stumps – and saw spikes sticking out amongst the feathery boughs of the trees. Rigid and flat. There was a hint of white – a sharp gleam in that black blackness. Like teeth. Big white teeth. Jacky gasped and wrenched his head up, whipping around for a better look but a shrieking howl pierced the night, shattering his ear drums. He rolled off the bench in shock, slamming his hands to his head. The shadow was roaring. The ground was shaking, the thumps slow, inexorable. It was moving. Coming towards him. Towards him!

"Shit!" Jacky screamed, suddenly finding his voice. "Shit, shit, shit!" He threw the bottle at the shadow and tried to crawl away but he tripped over his own baggy rags and went crashing face-first into the dirt path. Someone was screaming – the slutty college girl and her boyfriend maybe, who the fuck knew – and he was sobbing into the dirt, snorting dust and choking on rocks as something crashed near his head. Weeping and rolling on the ground, he realized it was the bench he'd been laying on – now upside down a few feet in front of him. It was cut in half, crumpled and torn at the edge where it had been ripped and shredded. "Oh Jesus," he babbled, scrabbling for the remains of the bench, trying to get behind it, curl up in a ball and hide. He'd wet himself at some point, the warm stream gluing his pant legs to his skinny thighs, but he didn't care. All he could hear was the roar of the what-the-fuck-ever that thing was, and the girl screaming, a high-pitched keening sound that faded – running away, getting away like he couldn't.

This wasn't right, this wasn't supposed to happen to him. He was smart, he had a chance, he didn't deserve demons from Hell coming to grab him, and it had to be a demon stomping over flattened grass and shrieking that horrible sound. He was supposed to get over this rut, have another shot at those black suits and be on the right side of them for once.

Jackie Six saw the shadow move past his feet and he tucked them in, covering his head and sobbing like a child, babbling apologies to his mother, his teachers, for failing them, because THIS was how it would end, and this, this wasn't fair. There would be no places of power for him, no suits because the darkness was coming for him and it had teeth. The ground shook again, massive feet crunching through the path floor and he shivered, praying like he'd never had before in his life. Then something struck his head – a branch, a rock, he never knew, and then he was falling swiftly into darkness, and not for the first time, he was all to happy to meet it.

End Chapter 3

Anyone hazard a guess as to what Jackie Six wanted to be before he discovered a weakness for booze?

Feedback always greatly appreciated!