Chapter 28 - Trust Issues

"Is this one tall enough?"

"It should be. Hurry up."

Roxy nimbly hopped up the branches of the large tree, trusting Taka's word that it would be tall enough. She kept up, never more than one branch behind him, as this was something she considered herself adept at. She climbed the branches like they were simple stairs. Her tail carefully curled around each one to give her balance, making her thankful that she could still use it despite missing a quarter of it.

Her heart was pumping, but it wasn't because of the exercise she was enduring. There was a fluttery sensation in the pit of her stomach. She felt excited and eager, but also nervous and uneasy. She didn't know what they would see from the top of the tree. She was hoping to see something. In fact, she was betting that she would see it, and that was why she was so excited. There was a perfectly good chance they wouldn't see it, though, which was why she was so nervous.

Taka reached the highest sturdy branch on the tree, and Roxy joined him a moment later. True to his word, this particular tree rose a couple of metres above the ones surrounding it. This gave them a fairly unobstructed view of the forest around them, and allowed them to see the distant horizons. Roxy made sure she was safely balanced, and then looked out at the great, wide vista.

Her heart fell. Her ears and tail drooped as a heavy feeling of disappointment filled her.

It was a beautiful sight. No matter how horrible her experience in the forest had been, Roxy had never called it anything but beautiful when it came to just looking at it. The fantastic landscape of endless trees, blocking the view of even a single patch of the ground below, spread out among the mountains to the sides and to the distant horizon. The sun was setting. The glowing orb was about halfway below the horizon, casting a wondrous array of colours into the sky that painted the many clouds in an awe-inspiring kaleidoscope. It was a beautiful sight.

But that was all she could see. Nothing else.

"I was…so sure…" she murmured.

"I told you," Taka said with a shrug.

"What the hell is this forest? Have we been going in circles or something?"

"Absolutely not. We have been making a perfectly straight line towards our destination this entire time."

Roxy let out a pained whimper, feeling herself deflate. They had spent days and days traipsing through this forest, making nearly non-stop progress. However, even after all this time, they still couldn't see anything more than trees on the horizon.

Where was the city?

You're never going to make it, was the first thought in her head, compliments of her treacherous anxiety. She shook that thought away, but found it a little difficult to replace it with something positive. She had traveled much farther than she thought herself capable of, and they still had to at least reach the horizon that they could see from where they were.

Roxy was about to say something about the matter, but was interrupted when a raindrop landed right on the bridge of her muzzle.

"Great…" she deadpanned. A moment later, the rain started.

Since they were on top of a tree, the two were quite drenched within seconds. Roxy turned and gave Taka a somewhat forlorn look. She couldn't help it. The rainfall was just the cherry on top of this horrible sundae, and all it did was sap all of her motivation away.

"Consider yourself lucky this is the first big rainfall we have encountered on this journey, considering the time of year," Taka informed her as he began to carefully climb down.

Roxy followed him, taking care not to slip. She wanted to complain about the rain, but she didn't. She had gotten used to it after being forced to spend so much time in it, but she still disliked it. Roxy was thankful that it was the end of the day, meaning they wouldn't have to do any traveling in the rain.

A moment later, her heart sank yet again as she realized this meant they would have to sleep in the rain. She couldn't help but let a groan of protest escape her throat. At least back at the village she'd been able to sleep in a hut. Out here, though?

Taka climbed down until he was standing on what Roxy guessed was the fifth branch up from the ground. With such a big tree, and so many branches and leaves above them, not as much rain was getting to them. However, what did manage to reach them ended up as rather large, heavy drops due to being concentrated by the leaves on the way down.

"Here," Taka said with a motion of his paws, "Sleep right up against the tree trunk. You will be driest there."

"I hate camping…" Roxy grumbled.

"…What?"

"Nothing…"

Roxy sullenly made her way over to where Taka was indicating and snuggled herself right up against the tree's trunk. She curled up into a ball, or as much as she could while maintaining her balance, but she still didn't feel comfortable. Her fur was damp and she could feel occasional wetness dropping onto her.

"How do Pokémon do this…?" she wondered aloud.

"What? Sleeping in the rain? Just ignore it."

Roxy opened her eyes just to give him a flat look.

"Lighten up, would you?" he said, "We made excellent progress today."

"Well, how much progress do we have to make before we can see the city on the horizon?"

Taka shook his head. "I do not know. Remember, I was not traveling in a straight path when I journeyed there."

"Ugh…"

"Seriously, stop your complaining." Taka paused for a few seconds, and then added, "You should be proud of yourself."

"Why…?" she asked, though she kept her eyes closed.

"I never would have thought to use your collar like that…"

Roxy sat there silently for a moment, and thought back to earlier in the day. They had come across a Mightyena directly in their path. Though it hadn't seen them, it had been headed directly towards them. Unable to get away in time or properly hide, Taka was getting ready to fight it. Roxy, however, had come upon the idea of using the tag on her collar to reflect the sunlight. She did this, causing a point of light to appear on a tree off to the side, which caught the Mightyena's attention and made it deviate from its path. Roxy and Taka had successfully snuck away soon after.

A half-smile appeared on her lips. "Thanks…" She then giggled softly. "It's still weird hearing praise from you…"

He shook his head. "Well…" he said in a thoughtful tone, "I suppose I am just starting to realize that you…" He paused. "You are very resourceful. I am finding more and more that you are more capable than I give you credit for…"

"That might be the nicest thing you've ever said to me…Thank you, Taka."

"Mm."

Roxy chuckled to herself. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. I'd still be nowhere without you there to guide me."

"Now this, I cannot deny."

At this, Roxy blew a Razz Berry and rolled her eyes. "Goodnight, Taka," she deadpanned, but there was a little smile on her lips as she did.

A few moments of silence passed, with the only sound being the constant drone of the rain. Roxy tried to focus on it and let it lull her to sleep. She had always been a fan of the sound of rain, regardless of how she felt about the rain itself.

After quite a few minutes of just feeling plain uncomfortable, she let out a frustrated sigh.

It was going to be a long night…


It had rained all night.

Luckily, by the grace of Arceus above, Roxy had managed to get to sleep. What's more, she had somehow woken up without being completely drenched from head to tail. However, her good fortune had ended once it was time for her to wake up and stand guard while Taka slept. When she was out on the branch and not right up against the trunk, that is when the rain had truly assaulted her.

The rain had mercifully stopped once the sun had risen. The two had set off, and now it was the afternoon as they continued their seemingly-endless trek. Roxy was trying her best to keep her spirits up.

She felt her stomach growl. It wasn't loud enough to actually be heard, but she could definitely feel it. Taka had only given her a measly Cheri Berry for breakfast. They had been having a surprisingly hard time finding berry bushes bearing fruit ever since the loss of their second satchel.

Roxy glanced behind at her tail. The leaves were all gone now, all of them completely unsuitable for making a new satchel. The wound still looked fresh and tender, but it had closed up nicely. At a glance, it looked like she simply had a weirdly misshapen tail.

'You're not weird, you're unique.' That's what her master would say, and so she chose to believe it.

The point was that Taka's satchel only had a few more berries in it. Unless they found more, one at breakfast was all she was going to get. This, coupled with her 4-hour sleep schedule, was really taking a toll on her endurance. At this point, her main motivation for getting out of the forest was so she could stop this ceaseless marathon.

The ground was a little muddy, thanks to the downpour last night. The grass they ran through was covered in dew; pretty to look at, but also very slippery. Even Taka was running at a slightly slower pace so that he didn't lose traction with the ground.

The two then came across a large fallen tree that was blocking their path. Taka slowed down so he could climb over it.

"That was some heavy rain, huh?" Roxy said, in one of her usually-fruitless attempts at a passing conversation. As she scrambled up on top of the fallen tree, Taka was already on the ground on the other side.

"I am surprised it ended so quickly," he commented back, "It is spring. The forest usually gets long, extended periods of rain during this time."

"Aw sheesh, don't say that!" Roxy half-whined as she landed next to him, "You're totally gonna jinx it!"

This was met with a classic, raised eyebrow, slightly irritated and very perplexed look from Taka. "Excuse me?"

"You said it ended so quickly. That's, like, an invitation for the universe to point and laugh at you by making it rain again." Roxy then turned her gaze up to the sky, expecting it to start raining within seconds. It did not, but there were still heavy rainclouds above them.

Taka merely shook his head in exasperation and darted off, with Roxy close behind him.

Two hours later, it was raining.

It hadn't come quite as quickly as she had expected it, but there it was. It was taking all of Roxy's self-control to keep from saying "I told you so!" a thousand times a minute.

Running through the rain was quite an unpleasant experience. At this point, slipping and sliding were pretty much expected. Both of them took quite a few minor tumbles, but neither managed to hurt themselves. The grass was damp and the dirt was muddy. The good thing about the rain was that it masked the sounds they made, making it harder for foes to notice them. That paled in comparison, though, to all of the troubles and downright unpleasantness that came with the experience.

Roxy was grumpy.

It wasn't too long before Roxy found herself stuck in the mud. It wasn't a dire situation, thankfully. Simply one of her hind paws had sunk in the mud, forcing her to completely stop running so she could extract herself. Somewhat to her surprise, Taka came back to help her out.

"Ugh…" she complained, "This is why humans invented 'indoors'…"

"Be thankful it was not much worse."

"I know, Taka… I'm not gonna let it get to me, but nothing in this world's gonna stop me from complaining about this stupid, nasty, dumb rain…"

"Joy…" Taka muttered.

Once Roxy's paw was free, she took a moment to shake the excess mud off of it. Then, she got down on all fours and shook herself to rid her fur of the water that had gathered there. It didn't end up doing very much.

"Come," Taka instructed, "We should be moving."

"Huh…" Roxy said distractedly, "I never really paid attention to it before. It's crazy to see that paint stay on your fur when you're getting soaked in the rain…"

Taka gave her an odd look. "You have bathed since getting your marks."

"I know, I know…I never really noticed it though. Wild Pokémon creating waterproof paint…What a fascinating world…"

She raised her paws up and wiped away the water from her eyes, as it was starting to cloud her vision. She was prepared to continue running once she was done that, but something made her pause. When she lowered her paws, she gazed intently off into the distance.

"…Are we going?!" Taka snapped.

"Shh!"

Taka thankfully heeded her request and fell silent. Roxy tried to listen for what she had heard, but could only hear the rain. She started to wonder if she had just imagined it.

Roxy's ear twitched. There it was! She turned her head in the appropriate direction so she could hear it better. To her relief, Taka turned his head in the same direction at the same time. It looked like he had heard it as well.

"…Hello…?"

It was a female voice, though it was very faint and only barely perceptible through the sound of the rain. Roxy turned to Taka and said, "You hear that, right?"

"Mm," he said with a nod.

"You don't think that's a predator, do you? They don't usually say 'Hello'…" Roxy said. Taka didn't answer her, so she focused again on the voice. It was about twenty seconds before she heard it again.

"…Help…"

Roxy turned to look at Taka once more. "Someone's calling out for help!" she said, just in case he hadn't heard the word.

Taka gave her a quick, silent look. Then, as if it were a practised stage direction, both took off running at the same time towards the distant voice. They ran almost side by side, heading in the direction that they had been facing. Roxy's heart raced as she ran. If someone was in trouble, that could mean they were stuck under a tree or something benign like that.

Or, it could mean they were running away from a giant Lycanroc or something.

After a bit of running, Roxy realized that they wouldn't be able to hear the voice again unless they stopped running. She decided to slow down just a bit and follow Taka's lead, since he had a much better sense of direction than she did. For a couple more minutes, it was like business as usual as they ran through the forest, only in a different direction.

"Wait, Roxy! Stop!"

Roxy slammed on the brakes, and ended up slipping in some damp grass and ending up flat on her back. She groaned in pain as she stood herself back up. "Ow…What was that for?"

"Look," Taka said, pointing ahead of them, "You could have fallen right in."

Confused, Roxy followed where he was pointing. Her eyes shot open wide when she saw what the two of them had almost run straight into. It was essentially a great big hole in the ground. The opening in the forest floor did not have a very large diameter, but even from a distance Roxy could tell that it went down deep. It was a deep sinkhole in the middle of the forest, likely caused by an underground grotto having its roof fall in. It looked almost like a naturally-made well.

"Aw, yeesh…Thanks, Taka. I didn't even see it," she said to him.

"Be careful as you go around it. The mud is slippery."

"Right," she said with a nod, "Got it."

Roxy took one more moment to shake the water off of her fur, and then was ready to keep going. Before either of them could take a step, though, the voice called out again.

"Hello? Is somebody up there?"

Both of them paused and gave each other a surprised look. The voice was no longer faint, and wasn't coming from in the distance anymore. The two Pikachu slowly turned their gazes towards the hole in the ground, where the source of the voice now laid.

"I know someone is up there! I can smell you!"

Roxy turned and gave a surprised look to Taka, as if she'd been caught in the cookie jar. Taka shrugged calmly and began to make his way to the edge of the hole. Roxy followed behind, taking extra care not to slip and fall. The two of them reached the edge and carefully peered downwards.

"Ah! Hello up there! Thank heavens someone finally came!"

Sitting at the bottom of the hole, which really did look a lot like a well, was a single Vulpix. She looked to be fairly average sized, which was to say about twice their size. She was covered in mud and dirt, her fur was all messed up, and she was sitting in about a foot of muddy water. Aside from this, though, she didn't seem any worse for wear.

"Uhh…" Roxy said, not sure how to address the situation, "Hello?"

She smiled warmly. "Hello! You have no idea how happy I am to see you!" She put a paw up to her muzzle and giggled. "As you can see, I am in a bit of trouble."

Roxy had guessed that right from the start. She estimated that the hole was at least six feet deep, and probably more. The inside edges of the hole were completely vertical, offering no way to climb up or down. "What happened?" she asked.

The Vulpix glanced away somewhat bashfully. "It was raining, and I got careless. I had not even seen the hole because there were tree branches covering it. I slipped and fell down here. Luckily I am not hurt, but I cannot get out."

"You can just dig out, can't you?" Taka said in a flat tone.

She shook her head. "It has been raining all night, so the ground is all muddy. If I started digging through here, I would just end up trapped."

Roxy shook her head in disbelief. "'All night'? How long have you been down there?"

"Goodness, I suppose a full cycle of the sun at this point…"

"What?" Roxy gasped, "You must be starving."

The Vulpix nodded, and then said, "No-one else has been around. You are the first two that found me, so… I would be very, very grateful if you could help me get out."

"But, what about your tribe?" Roxy asked, "Don't they know you're missing?"

"They likely do, but I have wandered far past our borders. I am no longer on my tribe's territory, so they would have no reason to look for me here…" After a pause, she added in a sad tone, "They would have no reason to even venture out this way…"

Roxy frowned. Her heart went out to the poor thing. Falling and getting stuck down a hole wasn't one of the many nightmares she had imagined the forest could throw at her, but that didn't make it any less of an ordeal for the Vulpix. Roxy couldn't even imagine how freaked out she would be if she were trapped down in that hole.

"Well, just hang on," she called down, "We'll figure someth-"

Her words died on her tongue when she turned to look at Taka, only to find that Taka was no longer there. She quickly glanced around in all directions, feeling befuddled, until she spotted him walking away through the trees.

"Taka?" she said as she got to her paws and chased after him, "Taka! Where're you going?"

Taka paused and turned back to her. "What?" he asked with a slightly perplexed expression.

"What're you doing?"

He blinked, looking quite surprised at the question being directed at him. "…Leaving," he stated simply.

"What d'you mean? Aren't we gonna help her?"

"…No!" he replied, looking taken aback.

"What?" Roxy blurted out in disbelief, "But she's in trouble!"

Taka stared at her for a moment, then brought a paw up to his forehead and shook his head a few times. "Heavens above…" he muttered to himself before turning his stern gaze back on her. "You saw what kind of Pokémon she was, right?"

"Yeah," Roxy said while nodding, "A Vulpix."

Taka stood there with his forelimbs crossed, not saying anything.

"…What?!"

"Do I really have to spell this out for you? For heaven's sake, that is a predator down there!"

"I…I know, that…" Roxy spoke, lowering her voice. She glanced over her shoulder in the direction of the hole and said, "But still…"

"Still what?"

Roxy turned and gave him an imploring look. "We can't just leave her down there…!"

"Why not?" Taka retorted, "She is down there, away from us, so she cannot cause us trouble. Why are we even having this conversation?"

"She might starve down there…"

Taka scoffed. "She will be able to dig herself out as soon as it stops raining and the ground dries out. She will probably go hungry, but she will be fine. And if we do not get far enough away, th-"

"But what if it keeps raining?" Roxy interjected, "It's springtime, right? Didn't you tell me that the forest gets a ton of rain in the spring?"

"It does, but-"

"And what if the hole floods up? She might drown!"

Taka gave her an exasperated look. "Roxy…"

She shook her head and put on a determined expression. "Taka, I know predators are our enemies, but if we leave her here then that might be just as good as…k-killing her… She's a predator, sure, but she doesn't deserve this. No-one does."

Now Taka put his forelimbs on his hips and stared down at her, taking full advantage of his superior height over her. "Roxy," he stated firmly and crossly, "Just what exactly do you think is going to happen once we do rescue her?"

"Well, I-"

"She is going to kill us. She is going to eat us. Not only is she already hungry from being down there for so long, but we will have exhausted ourselves trying to pull her up and will have no chance of fighting back or escaping!"

"But-"

"I put so much effort into keeping you away from predators and rescuing you if they see us. I have brushed against death's door at least three times so far on this journey, just to ensure that you continue breathing and stay out of another Pokémon's stomach! And now you want to take one that cannot reach you and bring her right up next to you?"

Roxy shrunk back a little against his harsh words. "…Taka, I-"

"What would your human say if she knew you were willing to throw your life away to save a creature that wanted you dead in the first place?"

That did it. Roxy had been starting to have doubts about rescuing the Vulpix, but they all faded away once Taka brought up her master. Roxy put on a stern expression of her own and glared right back up at Taka. "My master would definitely want me to help!" she shouted, stomping her hind paw for emphasis.

The air became really tense around the two Pikachu as they each stood their ground, glaring at each other. Roxy couldn't believe Taka could be as cruel as this. He was mean, and she had seen him fight for survival, but this was a whole new level that did nothing but tick her off.

"Excuse me!"

Two sets of Pikachu ears perked up upon hearing the voice, and they both turned their gazes back towards the hole.

"Sorry, but I can kind of hear your discussion up there," the Vulpix said.

Roxy quickly made her way back to the hole's edge. Taka hesitated for a few moments, then begrudgingly joined her. They both peered down at the Vulpix below.

"I can understand your hesitation," she said to them, "That one is right; I am a predator. But, please understand that you have nothing to worry about. I am in very serious trouble down here, and I am putting my safety in your paws. I would never, never, attack someone who has just saved my life!"

Up top, Roxy listened closely to her words. She sounded very sincere, and Roxy could even hear a touch of hurt in the Vulpix's voice from the fact that they would even consider something like that would happen. There was a pleading tone to her voice; a desperation to get out. Roxy thought, perhaps, she even heard fear.

The Vulpix shook her head. "I promise you…" She put one paw over where her heart was. "I swear on the honour of my tribe, you have my solemn word. I will not harm either of you, no matter what circumstances may come to pass."

Roxy glanced over at Taka, who looked like he was losing his patience. "Well?"

He said nothing, but his eyes told a thousand exasperated words.

Turning her glance back down the hole, Roxy said, "I…believe her." It was the absolute truth. Roxy had never really considered herself an expert judge of character, but she found that she couldn't hear a single bit of dishonesty from the trapped Vulpix. She was actually a tad surprised at herself, especially considering that she was looking down at a predator. Maybe it was the fact that one of her master's neighbours owned a Vulpix, or maybe it was simply that Roxy could tell without a shadow of a doubt that the Vulpix was telling the truth.

"You cannot be serious," Taka deadpanned.

"Taka, I believe her!"

"Why?"

"…I don't really know, but my gut is telling me to believe her. She sounds really trustworthy, and I believe her when she gave us her word. Taka, she's in trouble and she's asking for help!"

Taka didn't answer. Instead, he got up and started to walk away again.

"Taka!" Roxy shouted, moving to intercept him again.

"I am not taking part in this ridiculous game, pet! If she wants to get out of that hole, then she should ask another predator! We have nothing to gain from this and everything to lose!"

Roxy frowned and crossed her forelimbs. "I can't, Taka. I can't just leave someone behind who's in trouble. I would never forgive myself… We're potentially saving her life, here. I really can't believe that she would just turn around and attack us right after… Right? She might even help us!"

Taka continued to stare at her with that same irritated expression. Roxy didn't glare back at him, but she remained firm and resolute. Her mind was set, and it was only a matter of convincing Taka at the moment. She implored him a little bit with her gaze, silently asking him to lend a paw and help her.

He spent a few minutes silently shifting his jaw, and multiple times looking like he was about to say something. At one point, he looked like he was slowly getting more and more pissed off, but then something switched in his head and he began to simmer down a little. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Taka finally threw up his paws in exasperation.

He turned around, and at first it looked like he was going to walk off again. "Fine," he grumbled in a very dark tone, and Roxy saw that he was actually moving towards some nearby thick vines. "If we get eaten, I am going to kill you…"

Roxy smiled, and then put on a determined grin as she scampered forward to help him. "Don't worry, Taka. We'll be fine. I know it."

The rain continued to drench the two of them as they worked, pulling down vines which mostly consisted of ivy plants crawling up the trunks of trees. Taka began to tie them together, while Roxy focused on grabbing more for him. She had to travel a fair distance away to find enough vines, which made her feel a little nervous. Luckily, though, she was met with no unwanted visitors.

When she returned with the last vines she could find, she took a look at what Taka was doing and was surprised by his craftsmanship. He had been wearing a sulky frown the whole time, but this hadn't impacted his work ethic it seemed. Taka had done more than just tie the vines end to end, which is what she could have done. Instead, he twisted them together and interlinked them, sort of like a metal chain. Without even testing it out, Roxy could tell that it was pretty sturdy.

"Are you still up there?" the Vulpix's voice called from the hole, "What is happening?"

Roxy went back to the edge of the hole and peered down. "We're almost done! Just hang on!"

The Vulpix smiled warmly. "Heavens be praised. Thank you so much, young one!"

"You'll be out before you know it!" Roxy found herself smiling as well. For whatever reason, Roxy had gotten a really good first impression from this Vulpix, so much so that it had circumvented the fact that she was a predator.

"Is it ready?" she asked as she returned to where Taka was working.

Taka sighed. "This is a mistake."

"That's your opinion. Now, c'mon!"

Though he continued to make grumpy faces, Taka stood up and helped Roxy drag the long vine he had created over to the hole. Roxy glanced back and noticed that Taka had already tied one end to a nearby tree.

"Wow, Taka…I'm very impressed by this," she said, giving him a bit of praise.

He didn't answer. He didn't even look at her, and simply tossed the other end of the vine down into the hole.

"Ah!" came the pleasantly surprised voice of the Vulpix, "Perfect!"

Roxy peered over the edge again. She saw the Vulpix rear up on her hind paws and grip the vine as best she could with her forepaws. Then, she bit into the vine with her jaws, allowing Roxy a brief glimpse of her sharp fangs. This did cause a little shiver of doubt in the Pikachu, but she shook it off. Finally, the Vulpix stepped into two of the 'loops' Taka had created with her hind paws.

"Okay!" Roxy called down, "You ready?"

"Irrighneerrr!" she replied, her voice muffled by the vine in her mouth.

Roxy then glanced over at Taka. "Let's do this!"

"This is your last chance to back out…To keep yourself from being eaten."

Roxy rolled her eyes. "Shut up and pull."

So, they pulled. Right away, Roxy nearly slipped and fell on her rear in the mud. She was slightly embarrassed, but found her footing soon after and actually began to pull. That was when Roxy learned how heavy a typical Vulpix was.

The two of them groaned and strained as they tried to pull. Roxy did feel the vine move, but not by very much, and the force of gravity was making itself well known. Already, she started to question if this was actually going to work or not. She tried to remember the weight listed in the encyclopaedia for Vulpix. She thought it was about seven pounds more than a Pikachu, or something like that.

Roxy shook her head and refocused. She had a job to do now. Her forelimbs were already starting to get tired, but she decided to pretend that she was playing tug-o-war. She told herself that she just had to keep pulling and pulling or the other team was going to win.

Thankfully, Taka was behind her. Roxy could feel his pull on the vine, showing just how much stronger than her he was. She figured that if her strength did give out and she let go by accident, Taka would be able to hold on and not let the Vulpix fall back down.

At least, that's what she hoped would happen. She couldn't exactly test this theory.

Minute by agonizing minute passed, and slowly but surely the two Pikachu pulled the vine back further and further. The rain did not help matters at all. It wasn't long before Roxy's vision was almost completely obscured by dewdrops all over her fur. She just kept on pulling, though. Luckily, the vine that Taka had constructed was holding together really well.

Soon enough, Roxy began to feel that she was down to the last few drops of strength in her reserve. She turned her head over her shoulder to look at Taka and tried to convey this fact without opening her mouth. Taka, for what it was worth, was putting all of his effort into this task, even though he was obviously opposed to it. In a weird way, Roxy had to admire that.

She was about to tell him that she couldn't pull anymore and had to let go, but Taka opened his mouth first. "Almost there…" he said in a strained voice.

"What? How can you tell?" she asked. Talking out loud nearly took all of the wind right out of her.

"Length."

Roxy glanced at the vine they had been pulling and saw how much had been lifted out of the hole by this point. She then understood what Taka meant, as she realized that it looked almost as long as the hole had been deep.

So, trusting Taka's word, Roxy dug deeper and found just a little more strength. She groaned out loud, but kept on pulling. She set her paws firmly in the ground, hoping to the heavens that she didn't slip. Inch by inch, more of the vine snaked its way out of the hole, getting closer and closer to the Vulpix that was on the other end.

Finally, to Roxy's immense relief, she saw a pair of muddy paws reach up over the edge and latch on to the precipice. It was still too wet and muddy for her to pull herself up, so they still had to work a little bit more. Her forelimbs burned and felt like they were going to fall off, but Roxy let out a loud cry and kept on pulling.

After a full, painful minute had passed, a pair of orange ears appeared followed by the Vulpix's face. She still had her jaws clamped tightly around the vine. Roxy was surprised that she hadn't bitten right though it at this point. Slowly, little by little, the Vulpix was lifted up. Her forelimbs were pawing at the ground, trying to find purchase.

Roxy let out a strangled cry. She couldn't keep doing this anymore!

Then, the Vulpix managed to lift one of her hind paws over the edge and that's what finally did it. The Vulpix swiftly and hurriedly scrambled up out of the hole, at which point all tension was released from the vine. As the Vulpix heaved herself away from the hole to land on her belly in the grass, Roxy and Taka fell victim to momentum and ended up tumbling into a heap on the ground. Roxy let out an 'oof!' as she ended up on her rump, her head spinning just a little.

"Ow…" she murmured as she sat up straight and rubbed her head. She shook her head to stop the world from spinning, and looked to see if the Vulpix had managed to get out okay. She started slightly when she saw that, not only was the Vulpix on her paws, but she had silently moved up quite close to her.

"Oh, hey!" she said after getting over her initial surprise, "You made it out! Great!"

The Vulpix took a few slow steps towards her, looking Roxy right in the eye. There was a weird smile on her muzzle, and she didn't say a word.

"So, uh…You okay? You're not hurt, are you?"

There was a friendly smile on Roxy's face, but it slowly began to wane as the Vulpix continued to approach her without saying anything. The larger Pokémon's eyes were narrowed, and staring directly into Roxy's own. A quiet, almost imperceptible sound could be heard, and it made Roxy frown. Was the Vulpix…growling?

"Uh…Taka?" She glanced over her shoulder, but saw that Taka was still laying face-down on the ground with a paw to his head. It looked like he had hit his head on a tree root when they had tumbled and was still trying to regain his senses.

Roxy glanced back at the Vulpix. Uncertainty began to grow within her. This didn't look like the same friendly Vulpix. There was a look in her eyes that didn't look amicable at all. The Vulpix was moving so slowly, and so deliberately. Roxy began to realize that it looked kind of like stalking.

She gulped, quickly chastising her mind for jumping to such conclusions. She tried to smile once more, but now she was getting nervous. Her smile didn't last long at all. A hundred doubtful thoughts began to bang around in her head, and she remorsefully asked herself if she had just made a horrible mistake.

The Vulpix's tongue slipped out of her mouth. She was licking her chops. Roxy recognized that look in her eyes now… Hunger.

Roxy gulped and quickly wracked her brain for what to do now, but the Vulpix was already inches from her. Their noses were almost touching, and Roxy could feel the other Pokémon's warm breath. If she so much as reached for her spear, that would give the Vulpix all the time it would need to pounce and swallow her whole.

Her only hope was lying on the ground behind her, still dazed and dizzy. A horrible shiver ran up her spine as scenes from her life played before her eyes. A tiny voice in her head told her that, believe it or not, this was it. This was where it all ended. She didn't even have the time to close her eyes before the Vulpix suddenly darted forward!

…and started licking her cheek.

It took about five seconds for Roxy's heart to restart itself. She just sat there, stunned and unable to come up with a response for this utterly bizarre turn of events. The Vulpix kept licking her, like a young Lillipup, and all Roxy could do was blink.

She heard Taka groan, which was enough to kick-start her brain. "Ah!" she muttered, moving her head back to try and avoid any more licks. This only made the Vulpix giggle and reach forward to deliver more. "What is…?" Roxy mumbled, "…What?"

A moment later, she heard the familiar sound of Taka drawing his spear. The Vulpix froze, her tongue halfway up Roxy's face. Roxy turned her head up, and saw that Taka was pointing the spear directly towards one of the Vulpix's eyes. That was all he had done, though.

"My apologies…" the Vulpix spoke in a slow, careful tone, "I did not realize you wanted to have first dibs on my gratitude so badly."

Roxy craned her neck back to look at Taka. She saw that he still seemed a little disoriented. Even though he had expertly drawn and readied his weapon, it was still taking him a few seconds to realize what was going on.

"Taka, you can put it down," Roxy spoke, "…I think."

He didn't move.

"…Taka, c'mon."

It took a few more tense seconds, but Taka eventually relented and warily lowered his spear.

The Vulpix took a few steps back so she was no longer invading their personal space and sat down, at which point she raised a paw to her mouth and giggled. "I am sorry if I frightened you. I could not resist…"

Roxy blinked. "Oh! Uh, yeah. That's fine."

"Seriously, though," she went on to say, adopting a warm smile as she did, "I am very grateful for your help. I was…It was frightening down there, to be perfectly honest. You two are both such wonderful Pokémon for what you have done for me." She placed a paw on her heart. "I humbly offer my thanks."

Roxy's own smile was starting to return. "Oh, don't worry about it. We couldn't just leave you down there, right Taka?" She glanced over her shoulder at the other Pikachu, but saw that he was just standing there with his spear half-raised and a glowering look on his face.

Turning back to the Vulpix, Roxy offered an apologetic smile for his behaviour. "We're just glad you're okay."

"My name is Vi," the Vulpix replied, "It is wonderful to make your acquaintance."

"I'm Roxy! This is my friend Taka."

Vi giggled softly again. "My, your name only serves to further show that you are not from around here."

"Ah, yeah…" Roxy said, rubbing the back of her neck, "I live with the humans."

"Yours must be a fascinating story."

Roxy shrugged. "Well, kinda. I guess…"

"Are you through?" Taka suddenly interjected, causing both of the others to turn and give him a surprised look.

"…What?" Roxy replied, befuddled.

Taka still had not fully withdrawn his weapon. "We did what you wanted to do," he said, "We rescued the predator from the hole. Now she is safe and well, so are you or are you not ready to move on?"

Roxy frowned and crossed her forelimbs, giving Taka a disapproving look. "Taka, I'm just being friendly."

"Be friendly with someone less prone to devour you."

Roxy looked at Taka aghast and then glanced over at Vi, hoping she hadn't gotten offended. To her relief, Vi seemed to find Taka's frustrations amusing.

"You have nothing to worry about, Taka," Vi said, "I gave you my solemn word that I would not harm you. Even if I had not done so, I am in deep gratitude to the two of you for rescuing me. To attack you now would be nothing short of injustice and cruelty."

Taka was unfazed, looking just as cross. "Forgive me if I do not believe you," he said in a sarcastic tone.

Vi simply shook her head, and then raised a paw up to her heart once more. "I am a member of the 'Burning Paws'," she said. The look she then gave Taka implied that this single statement would explain everything. When neither Pikachu responded, she added, "That is the name of my tribe."

"Sorry," Roxy said, "We're, ah…from really far away."

"The Burning Paws," Vi explained, "have lived in these lands for countless generations. We are a tightly-knit family of Pokémon, mostly fire-breathers but not exclusively, and we have remained strong and united for these many years because of what we share. Our tribe's entire foundation is built upon being truthful, honourable, just and trustworthy. We place so much value upon keeping our word. The singe we all share is a reflection of that."

She then held one of her paws out towards them, and Roxy was confused for a moment as to why. She gave Vi a curious look for a moment, wondering if she just wanted to shake paws, but Roxy soon enough saw what the Vulpix was indicating. Roxy had thought it was just a splotch of mud like many similar blemishes on her fur, but Vi's right forepaw was actually painted black. Her entire paw, right up to the wrist, was coloured jet black.

Roxy looked more closely to see if there were any other painted marks on Vi's fur, but she could find none. The rain was starting to wash away some of the mud, revealing that all of her orange fur was untouched save for her right forepaw.

Vi saw that Roxy was looking at her paw and chuckled softly. "This is my singe. Everyone in the tribe has one, and it is a constant reminder to uphold our values."

"Really?" Roxy said, feeling genuinely interested, "Who came up with that?"

Before Vi could answer, Roxy yelped when Taka suddenly grabbed her shoulder and wheeled her around to face him. The expression on his face was far from happy. "I fail to see how a history lesson is going to help us…" he said in a very flat tone.

"But-" Roxy started to say, but Taka cut her off.

"If you truly are refusing to attack us," Taka said to Vi, skepticism laced in his tone, "then we will depart. We have a long way to go." He paused and narrowed his gaze. "I cannot understand why you are letting us go, but know that it is a good choice. I would suggest you refrain from changing your mind." The silent threats woven into his last statement were not lost on either of them.

"Really?" Vi replied, "Where are you going?" Apparently, she had chosen to ignore all but one of Taka's sentences.

"We're headed north," Roxy spoke up before Taka could say anything else, "We're going to the forest's edge."

Vi glanced around for a moment, and then looked back at them. "North from here? Oh, I see. You will be headed directly for our territory then."

Roxy's eyebrows shot up. She wasn't sure whether to feel intrigued or nervous about that. "Really…?" she asked hesitantly.

"Yes," Vi said as she nodded, "If you continue to travel due north, you will end up right in the centre of Burning Paws territory."

"And, uh…" Roxy paused and glanced to the side for a moment, anxious about the answer to her next question. "Are they all, uh…Your tribe, I mean…Like you, are they…"

Vi nodded. "We are a tribe of predators."

"Mmm…"

"Do not concern yourself with us," Taka said, roughly pulling on Roxy's shoulder to try and pull her away from the conversation.

"I would not recommend that you brazenly enter," Vi said, "I may have given my word not to harm you, but I am just one in a tribe of many. We practice justice and honour, but the basic law of the food chain still rules."

"We have made it through countless enemy tribes. If you will not pursue us, then yours will be no different," Taka said. Roxy could hear his tone slowly getting more tense.

"Please listen to me," Vi continued, "Be reasonable. Entering our lands would be putting the both of you in grave danger."

Taka quickly rounded so that he was facing her directly. "Then we will go around your territory!" he snapped. Roxy flinched a little from his sudden outburst.

Vi wore a concerned look. "That would add days to your journey. I do not think you realize just how large our territory is. We spread from edge to edge of the valley!"

"Taka, calm down," Roxy spoke, "Maybe we should listen to her."

The incensed Pikachu looked at the both of them with a very cross expression for a few tense, silent moments. "Roxy," he spoke, finally breaking the silence, "Let's go."

When he began to march off into the trees, Roxy reached out and grabbed him by the shoulder. "Taka, wait!"

"Yes, please wait," Vi said, having stood up to follow the retreating Taka, "Listen to me for a moment."

Taka didn't stop walking, and didn't acknowledge either of them, but Vi simply kept on walking behind him.

"Listen," she continued, "I owe the both of you a debt of gratitude. Since you two are travelers, I was wondering to myself how I could possibly repay it. The answer is quite clear to me now. Taka, Roxy, please allow me to provide you safe passage through Burning Paws territory."

Roxy stopped in her tracks. Taka kept going and only stopped when he saw that she was no longer following him. He merely glanced over his shoulder and gave Vi a very skeptical look.

Vi smiled and extended her paw towards them, the one that was painted black. "I can easily carry the both of you on my back," she said, "I can take you directly through the heart of our territory all the way to the other side. I will completely ensure the safety of both of you."

"Really? You would really do that?" Roxy replied in an excited tone. She found herself smiling brightly. This seemed like a great idea. Who better to lead them through predator-infested lands than another predator? It would make this leg of their journey easy and safe. Plus, if what Vi said about the size of their territory was true, it would be a very significant leg of their journey.

She looked over at Taka excitedly. His expression hadn't changed and he scoffed derisively at Vi, which managed to erase Roxy's smile.

"Just how foolish do you think we are?" he asked her.

Vi frowned and tilted her head. "I am not sure what you mean."

Taka gave her a flat look. "This is why you are 'letting us go', is it? So that you can entice us with this little offer of yours. Then, when we think you are guiding us through your territory, you will just bring us right to your village where we will be severely outnumbered and utterly hopeless to escape."

Roxy once again wanted to retort, but she found herself struck silent. Now that she thought about it, that did sort of make sense. If Vi was lying about sparing them, then claiming to give them safe passage would be the perfect way to lead them back to her tribe. It would be walking right into the open jaws of their enemies.

"We are leaving, Roxy," Taka said, roughly.

"Ah!" Roxy was jolted out of her thoughts, "But…Taka, wait. Hold on. Can we think about this for a minute?"

"No."

She groaned softly. "I just…I think we should…" She tried to form words, but everything was coming up jumbled in her head. It was a very, very tempting offer that would cut down on travel time and danger, and it would even give her a chance to rest her tired paws if Vi was going to carry them. Taka had brought up a good point, though, and Roxy didn't want to go through the mess that would follow if he was right. Then again, even if she did want to go, she still had to actually convince the hard-headed Taka to go with her.

Vi giggled, snapping Roxy out of her reverie once more. She was giving Roxy a strange look that she couldn't quite put her paw on. "You are cute when you are flustered," Vi commented.

"What…?"

The Vulpix just smiled and shook her head. "Your friend here strikes me as one whose trust it is nearly impossible to earn. What can I say, though? Ask any Pokémon who lives nearby, and they will know about the traditions of the Burning Paws." She sighed softly. "You rescued me, both of you. You might have even saved my life. Please believe me when I tell you that I truly am grateful and would not dream of biting the paws of my saviours!"

Roxy looked at Vi, and saw that she didn't look pleading or pushy at all. Roxy figured that if they did decline her offer, it would be no skin off of her back, but she was still trying to look out for the two of them. She glanced over at Taka, but his expression and demeanour hadn't changed a bit.

Roxy decided to stop and take a moment to think. She asked herself, plainly and simply, if she believed Vi was telling the truth. Her time in the wilderness had made her skittish, nervous and untrusting, and it had taken her quite some time to get over those flaws. Even so, now that they were out in the depths of the wilderness, they were coming back.

"Vi," Roxy said as she turned to face the Vulpix directly, "I want to believe you. I really do. What you're offering to us will be so helpful." She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, and then stood up straight so she was as close as she could get to Vi's eye-level.

"Tell me again," Roxy said, "Tell me your promises and your offer, please."

To her credit, Vi didn't hesitate. She repeated almost everything she had already said, including her promise not to hurt them, her tribe's custom of upholding morals and truthfulness, and her offer to guide them safely through her territory. What was most important, though, was she did it while looking Roxy directly in the eyes the whole time.

When Vi was done, Roxy nodded resolutely. "I believe you," she said.

"Roxy…" Taka said in that tone of his that suggested he was quickly losing his patience.

She was done arguing, though. Looking Vi directly in the eyes like that was enough proof she had needed. She hadn't seen a single hint of untruthfulness, dishonesty or duplicity. So, she felt no hesitation in stepping over to the Vulpix and getting right into her personal space. Right within reach of her deadly claws and fangs, where she held out a paw.

Vi smiled and took Roxy's paw in her own, giving it a friendly shake. "That is so wonderful to hear, Roxy," Vi said in a warming voice.

Roxy glanced back at Taka, and was slightly shocked to see that he had his paw on his weapon again. It looked like he was a hair-trigger away from striking. She shook her head dismissively. "C'mon, Taka," she said, "We don't wanna add days to our journey do we?"

"We will if we must…" he grumbled.

"Ugh…!" Roxy rolled her eyes and shook her head. "You're impossible, y'know that?"

"I am not going with her," Taka said, practically spitting the last word.

"Taka, I'm being serious here. I really think this will be a good idea, and I think it's gonna be really bad if we don't take her up on this offer. She's not lying, Taka. I can feel it. I really feel like I gotta go with my gut this time."

"Come now, Taka," Vi added from behind her, "How can you say no to a cute little face like hers?"

Roxy jumped slightly when Vi punctuated her statement with a sudden and unexpected over-the-shoulders hug. She nestled herself right up close, draped her paws gently across Roxy's chest, and rested her head on top of Roxy's. Taka, meanwhile, was down on all fours in a battle-ready stance. It looked like he had just barely stopped himself from acting on his instincts.

"See? She's friendly!" Roxy said half-jokingly. She had to pause for a minute just to admire how soft this Vulpix's fur was, even though it was dirty and muddy.

"She's probably also hungry…" Taka said in a warning tone.

Roxy felt Vi shrug. "I will find some berries on the way. I see that you have some, but worry not. I can see your supply is rather short. Ah! Perhaps I could gather some berries from our village to give you as well? Perhaps as a sign of good will?"

Taka gave the two of them a dubious look, showing just how unconvinced he was. "You seem awfully eager for us to accept this offer."

Vi sighed. "As I told you, we hold our values in high regard. It is important to me that I treat you right and repay my debt to you. If any other member of my tribe were in my place, they would act the same way." Vi paused. "Well, except for hugging you like this," she added with a giggle.

"Heh. It's okay, I like hugs," Roxy replied.

"Am I keeping you warm?"

"Well, uh…You're a Fire-Type, so…" Roxy mumbled, referring to the Vulpix's higher-than-usual body temperature. She then shook her head and refocused, turning her attention back on Taka. He was standing there tensely, looking none too pleased with the way things were progressing.

"Well!" Roxy spoke up resolutely. She politely pushed her way out of Vi's hug, and then walked over behind her. Vi laid prone on the ground for her, and Roxy gave her a thankful smile before carefully climbing onto her back. She watched Taka as she did so and found his reactions humorous. He looked like a stressed-out petsitter who could only watch as a rambunctious little cub ran around on the roof where he couldn't reach her.

"Roxy…" he spoke in a low tone.

"C'mon, Taka! Let's go before anyone else falls back in that hole."

"Roxy, get down," he said through gritted teeth.

She grinned cheekily at him. "Nope!"

What followed was a rather intense staring contest between the two Pikachu. Vi remained still, politely keeping herself out of their personal conflict. Roxy wasn't backing down, and even crossed her forelimbs. She raised her eyebrow and gave him an expectant look.

The facts were clear to her. The pros outweighed the cons. She had done as much as she could to reinforce her trust in this Pokémon, who had so far been nothing but a delight to them. While she had never heard of Pokémon doing so, Roxy had read about certain human cultures who had similar values to the ones Vi described. With everything else she'd seen in this crazy forest, it didn't seem too farfetched to her. Either way, she reasoned that if things did turn sour, which she was almost certain they wouldn't, then she and Taka could easily handle Vi. Taka wanted to play it safe and take the hard way home.

When did you become so brazen? she wondered to herself, and then shrugged.

Taka stood there silently fuming for a good three to five minutes. Roxy knew he could be stubborn, and she did see where he was coming from, but she felt like she had to push for this to happen. It would be better and safer in the long run if they could get out of the forest sooner rather than later, right?

Then, at long last, Taka wordlessly approached Vi. He stopped in front of her and gave her the nastiest stink eye Roxy had ever seen. Roxy glanced down and saw that Vi didn't flinch, and simply gave a smile in response. A few moments of tense silence passed. Finally, he stepped around her and approached her hind end, after which he climbed up on her back so that he was sitting behind Roxy.

"There we go!" Vi said brightly as she stood up, "You are both actually lighter than I thought. This will be no problem."

"See Taka?" Roxy said as she reached forward and lightly grasped the fur on the back of Vi's neck so she could hold on, "Just you wait. Everything'll be fine!"

Taka just let out a low growl in response.

"Just lighten up, would ya?" she said, tossing a glance over her shoulder.

"My weapon remains drawn at all times," Taka replied in a stern voice, and Roxy could see that he was already holding his boomerang ready in one of his paws.

"Suit yourself," Vi said with a shrug.

Roxy sighed. "Sorry about him."

"No need to worry about it," Vi said, "All young couples fight from time to time."

"Ah!" Roxy sputtered for a moment. "We're not a couple. We're just traveling companions."

"Really?" Vi said as she turned in a particular direction and suddenly took off running, forcing Roxy to hold on tightly.

"Yeah. He's a friend of mine, and he's helping me escape the forest."

"Well," Vi commented, "That is quite interesting…"