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Lee feels a bead of sweat roll down his neck as he watches the Pokeballs fly into the arena. 'Why do we always seem to run into situations like this?'

Grovyle's ball flies a bit faster than Moore's, and pops open first with a snap-hiss. In a flash of light, Grovyle stands ready on Lee's side of the field. The gecko's legs are tense, his arms are raised, and his yellow eyes glow faintly in the old fluorescent lights of the Gym. When he sees Moore rather than Flannery, his mouth quirks into a slight smirk.

Moore's pokeball pops open next, dropping a large mass of light onto the ground. The light takes a tall shape with four legs before the white glow fades, revealing a magnificent Rapidash standing tall on the field.

Moore's Rapidash bears a resemblance to the mundane horses Lee is familiar with in shape only. The equine pokemon is covered in pale yellow hair faded with age, broken up by scars here and there, but the rolling muscle beneath is fit for a stallion in its prime. Billowing flames of orange and red form Rapidash's mane and tail, along with crests of fire just above his deep-blue colored hooves. Below the short unicorn's horn on his forehead, Rapidash's red eyes regard Grovyle inwith clear dismissal. The stallion snorts and throws his head, looking down upon the Grass-type before him.

Grovyle's smirk sours.

Off to the side, the referee overcomes his shock and clears his throat into his microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen," his voice wavers slightly. "Our challenge today has been changed by Gym Leader Moore. Challenger Lee Henson will face Gym Leader Moore three-on-three, with no substitutions for either party. The match will begin shortly." The referee sends a severe look to one of the aides to his left.

The nervous Gym Aide scarcely notices, as he pulls a pokeball from his belt and pops it open releasing a young Kadabra, who first looks at Grovyle with a raised brow, then to Rapidash—leaving the psychic type to stare with open, wide-eyed alarm. The Kadabra raises his hand, and around the arena, two barriers with several inches of air insulation between them flare to life. The pink walls fade into invisibility, but their low, ongoing hum tells everyone the barriers are still up.

'No subs? Damn.' Lee frowns. 'That might complicate things. Give it your all, Grovyle,' he silently wishes, staring into the pokemon's back.

The ref looks between Lee and Moore. "Are both sides ready?"

"Ready…" Lee reluctantly mutters.

"Ready!" Moore's grins, wide and almost maniacal. "Ready!"

The referee raises his hand and chops it down. "Begin!"

"Flame Wheel!" Moore's command is near-instant.

Rapidash rears up on his hind legs as his flaming mane and tail surge into a single mantle of bright flame, then he falls forward and rolls into a giant wheel of fire that races across the large arena. The horse pokemon crosses half the space between himself and Grovyle in a flash, leaving a trail of blackened, burnt dirt in his wake.

"Quick Attack, stay at range, and use Seed Sniper!" Lee barks. 'We can't really get close to Rapidash while he's covered in fire. We need to stall for right now.'

Grovyle's eyes narrow, and the subtle glow of Quick Attack covers his body. Then in a flash of green, he zips away off to the right side of the arena and far out of danger. He lands without so much of a skid on the ground and opens his mouth. In his throat, the bright, green-yellow light of Seed Sniper begins to build.

Rapidash rolls out of Flame Wheel, still flying at full speed towards the invisible wall of the barrier. Then in a move that would break all the limbs of a normal equine, Rapidash flips and twists around, landing hooves-first against the barrier. The stallion's legs bend to absorb the impact, then he springs off of the wall and rolls back into another Flame Wheel.

BANG-NG-NG!

The supersonic crack of Seed Sniper shakes the walls and, like a laser, the seed hurtles toward Rapidash in a streak of yellow. The intense flames of Flame Wheel set the seed alight, but before it can turn to ash, the botanical bullet clearly hits flesh with a wet 'thwack!'

"Move!" Lee calls again, looking towards the other side of the arena.

Grovyle follows Lee's eyes, and with another flare of Quick Attack, the gecko pokemon is gone, missing what would have been an incapacitating blow by half a thought.

Rapidash unrolls once more, his cloak of fire fading with an irritated snort on his part. He digs his hooves into the dirt and slows to a stop, focusing an ugly eye on Grovyle. On the Fire-type's left shoulder is a round bullet wound. Heat-dried blood stains it while fresh blood slowly dribbles down Rapidash's leg.

"Well done! First blood goes to you and Grovyle, Lee!" Moore praises, his grin not faltering at all. "We cannot let your game of keep away continue though. Rapidash! Flame Terrain!"

'Shit!' Lee's eyes bug out. "Grovyle! Make a safe spot with Rock Tomb!" He orders, not waiting to see what Flame Terrain actually does. 'If it does what it says on the tin…'

Rapidash rears up on his hind legs again, kicking out his front legs with a whinny. His hooves light up with a blinding white heat, and then he drives them into the ground like superheated hammers.

At the same time, Grovyle leaps into the air and draws back one of his two-fingered hands. Before the hand, a rock manifests from little whirls of sand, growing to Grovyle's size with the rumbling groan of stressed stone. He tosses the boulder to the ground with a crash and lands on it in a crouch. He digs his hind claws into the stone, ready to move at a moment's notice.

It quickly becomes apparent why Moore named Rapidash's attack Flame Terrain.

From around Rapidash's hooves, the ground cracks and begins to glow red-hot. The cracks, spewing out sooty embers, spread like glass spider-webbing in slow motion. The ground between the rends in the dirt steams and hisses, drying to ashen clods.

Grovyle cringes, though Lee can't feel any of the doubtlessly oppressive heat.

'The whole field is going to be a no-go zone for Grovyle if he can't touch the ground!' Lee grits his teeth as he watches Flame Terrain consume the arena floor. "Don't let him finish, Grovyle! Rock Tomb!"

Grovyle draws his hands back with a hiss rolling from his lips, as a pair of craggy boulders manifest before him. Grunting, he pushes one then the other at Rapidash.

The stones gracelessly fly through the air with a dull whoosh, one aimed at Rapidash's legs, and the other at his head.

"Defend! Flamethrower!" Moore calls with a pointed finger.

Rapidash raises his head and opens his mouth. From inside of his throat and without a single moment to charge comes a tight beam of spiraling fire, barely as big around as a bottle cap. The beam splashes across the first Rock Tomb and deflects off the rock faces, sending gouts of fire large enough to engulf a man in every direction.

The stone superheats to red-hot in less than a second, then explodes as if filled with gunpowder, throwing splatters of molten rock everywhere.

Rapidash, still powering Flame Terrain, throws his head, sweeping the impossibly concentrated Flamethrower into the second boulder still flying at him. Following in the footsteps of its short-lived brother, it explodes into red hot chunks scattering around the arena.

Grovyle weaves to and fro on his boulder, avoiding the molten bits of rock with a frown. He glances back at Lee as more and more of the ground is turned into a hellscape.

Rapidash snorts and swings his head around again, drawing his Flamethrower and sweeping the blistering beam towards Grovyle.

The gecko pokemon returns his eyes to his opponent and leaps over the Flamethrower.

Rapidash's eyes follow Grovyle, and he sweeps the attack up to follow, maintaining the slow creep of Flame Terrain the entire time. By now half of the field up to the barrier is hissing and sputtering, just short of being fully molten.

"Detect!" Lee clenches his fist as his mind frantically tries to come up with a plan to deal with this nightmare scenario.

Grovyle's eyes glow with supernatural clarity. Contorting his body to the side and charging Quick Attack, he turns and spins away in a mid-air dodge that draws gasps from the crowd.

Moore's Rapidash simply keeps his Flamethrower going and chases Grovyle through the air as if trying to swat a fly with a laser beam.

Hissing in exertion, Grovyle flares his Quick Attack and darts in another direction after another near miss from Flamethrower. He and Rapidash keep the dance going, and with each gravity-defying dodge, Grovyle is forced further and further away from Moore's side of the field.

Lee takes his eyes off the fight for a moment to look at the crowd.

Steven watches the going-ons with a pokeball held idly in his hands. His steel-blue eyes remain locked on Grovyle without a single waver, and he-

'Dolittle, use that brain and remember mine and Brendan's lessons! Focus on the battle, not the people!' A tiny voice similar to Zinnia's scolds in the back of his mind. With renewed focus, Lee pretends all the eyes on the pokemon and himself are gone.

'Grovyle can't remain in the air indefinitely with Quick Attack, and using Rock Tomb to make platforms isn't going to cut it…' Lee eyes the boulder Grovyle used as a sanctuary with a wince.

The air inside the field is growing so hot that it's beginning to shimmer. Flame Terrain has already reached Grovyle's perch and its base is melting into liquid slag. 'I can only imagine the hellish temperature Grovyle is dealing with in there.'

Grovyle dodges the latest pass of Flamethrower, this time with only an inch to spare above his back, and Lee has to stifle a wince and a curse when he sees Grovyle clench his jaw in agony.

Even with a total miss, a thick line of scales on Grovyle's back is burned nearly black from sheer radiant heat. The flesh underneath the burn is dry and cracked, and Grovyle's twisting through the air splatters the ground and barrier with droplets of blood.

'Lee, whatever you do, don't let Moore drag the fight out,' Ninetales urges from within her ball. Lee can feel her peering through his eyes and watching the fight as well. 'If you let him decide the pace, Grovyle is sure to be beaten.'

"Damn it all…" Lee mutters, wondering just how to get out of this as Ninetales' words bound around in his head. Trying to limit Grovyle's mobility is a smart play on Moore's part. 'We're getting risky then. I wanted to practice this maneuver more, but live fire it is,' Lee sighs. "Grovyle! Quick Attack directly at Rapidash, and charge Rock Tomb as you go!"

"Oh?" Moore's eyebrow rises. "Intercept, Rapidash!"

Grovyle crosses his arms in front of him as he falls, stones beginning to form before his claws. Then with a deep breath, Grovyle flies down at Rapidash in a burst of white aura.

The Flamethrower Rapidash is somehow still maintaining is swept into Grovyle's path long before he reaches his foe. With less than a foot between himself and the fire, Grovyle thrusts his hands forward and uses the rapidly coalescing Rock Tomb as a shield.

Flamethrower bites into the rock, superheating it and carving a melted trench. The second before the rock goes critical and explodes, Grovyle's aura of Quick Attack shines white, and he flips over his stone shield to rush Rapidash as a zig-zagging blur of green.

The horse's eyes narrow, and like a hose nozzle being adjusted, the Flamethrower's tight beam flares out into a wide spray of fire.

Lee's jaw drops at how such a simple maneuver turns his entire plan inside out. 'Lee, you idiot! Of course, Rapidash can control Flamethrower's spread! Any good Fire-type can! Why did I order Grovyle to rush in without expecting that?!' In the back of his mind, Lee can feel Ninetales trying to shush the self-aimed scolding.

Grovyle is consumed by the fire with barely any time to cry out. In the blaze, his silhouette writhes and loses its momentum, beginning to drop from the sky.

"Grovyle! Listen to me! Power through it! You have to go through to make it stop!" Lee's heart begins to sink.

The silhouette stiffens, then rockets forward again, curving and landing squarely on a surprised Rapidash's back.

Lee winces for what feels like the tenth time in the match.

Grovyle is panting and covered in burns. Patches of his scales, particularly on his arms, are blackened and cracked. A few smaller patches are even more macabre, with scales burned away entirely, exposing cooked red flesh beneath. His head leaf is burnt to half its usual length, and the leaves on his left arm are gone. His Miracle Seed is unharmed, but the neckerchief it's affixed to is done for, barely hanging on by an ashen thread.

Grovyle shakes constantly and looks to be barely holding on to consciousness. The flames of Rapidash's mane only make Grovyle's exhaustion more apparent, as the usually unflappable lizard shies away from the fire. Its a display of weakness he would never consider doing in his right mind.

'Don't dally, Lee!' Ninetales urges.

"Rock Tomb!" Lee orders, hoping beyond hope Grovyle isn't too exhausted.

"Pull free and buck him off!" Moore's order is just as fast, and in his helmet, Lee can see the elderly man's eyes narrow.

With a gasp, Rapidash finally lets his Flamethrower sputter to a stop and goes to pull his hooves free of the ground. With visible effort, the stallion pulls one free with a burst of ash and molten dirt… But the other remains stuck in the ground. With a snort, he tugs again, and slowly his hoof rises out of its molten bath. He shakes his body to try and dislodge Grovyle as best he can without breaking a leg, but Grovyle reflexively digs his hind claws into the equine pokemon's back, drawing bloody furrows.

Grovyle's eyes snap into clarity at the sound of Lee's voice, and with a vindictive hiss, he draws an arm back as a rock the size of a bowling ball quickly grows in his burnt and cracked claws. What's left of the leaves clinging to his head and wrist glow bright green as Grovyle's ability, Overgrow, activates in his peril.

With all the finesse of a rampaging Ursaring, Grovyle drives the Rock Tomb right into the back of Rapidash's head with every bit of force he can muster.

The rock shatters across Rapidash's skull, and blood wells up from the wound as Rapidash falters in his efforts to free himself. His eyes roll in their sockets from the stunning blow.

"Flare your mane! Get him off!" Moore's voice commands.

"Get out of there and…" An idea strikes Lee. One that some people might see as cruel, but… 'We can't stand up to Moore's pokemon in sheer power, so we will have to get technical in how we deal with his team. With Overgrow and the Seed active, Grovyle should have enough firepower to overcome a Fire-type's Grass resistance, so…' Mind made up, Lee finishes his order. "Get out of there and use Leaf Blade on Rapidash's free front leg!"

Moore's eyes shoot open. "Belay last command! Retaliate with Stomp!"

Grovyle moves first, jumping off of Rapidash and landing heavily on the cooling ground, a brilliant green blade growing from his right wrist. He draws his arm back and hacks at the bulging tendons in the back of Rapidash's free leg.

The Leaf Blade cuts deep and draws blood just as the dazed Rapidash raises his hoof to stomp on the gecko pokemon. He brings his leg back down like a hammer blow that Grovyle only barely stumbles out of the way from, cratering the ground and rumbling the whole building. As soon as the hoof punches through the dirt, though, Lee can hear the partially cut tendons snap. It's a sound that makes his stomach roll.

With a cry of pain, Rapidash's free leg gives out and refuses to support any weight, causing the equine to stumble and fall to his side with his other front leg still trapped. The sound of Rapidash's trapped fetlock breaking is as loud as thunder in Lee's ears.

Rapidash flails in both pain and anger if the hateful, wild-eyed glare that he levels towards the burnt and exhausted Grass-type before him is any proper indicator. Gritting his teeth, Rapidash slowly, painfully pulls his trapped leg free and tries to rise, but neither of his crippled front legs can support any kind of weight. He breathes raging tongues of flame impudently as he stumbles back to the ground.

Grovyle leaps to one of the corners where the horse pokemon can't angle his neck, watching and waiting as Rapidash struggles to move.

Behind Rapidash, Moore watches his pokemon struggle with a deep, melancholic frown that forces guilt to settle in Lee's gut.

After ten seconds of fruitless efforts on Rapidash's part, the stunned referee steps closer to the invisible barrier around the arena and raises his microphone to his mouth, seemingly unsure what to say. "It… It appears that Gym Leader Moore's Rapidash is unable to battle. Round one goes to Grovyle!"

Grovyle, burned and in pain, takes a deep breath, steadies himself, and crosses his arms as if he didn't just defeat a pokemon decades his senior with a type disadvantage.

Rapidash lays his head down, eyes wide and mouth open as he's declared the loser. It's as if the thought is utterly inconceivable to him.

A hole opens up on Moore's Side of the barrier, and with a reluctant sigh, Moore recalls his pokemon into the worn pokeball in his hand. "I see…" Moore begins, placing Rapidash's ball back into the woven straw holster resting against his side. "I know not if I have allowed my team to fall so far, or if the talents of the new generation outstrip me to a degree even I didn't realize. Even ten years ago, the thought of any of my team falling in combat to a Grass-type, let alone a mid-stage Grass-type, would be laughable. Now, look at where we are…" Moore isn't wearing a microphone, not that he needs one, as the Gym is stunned silent following Grovyle's win.

Lee licks his lips, feeling as if he should say something.

'Perhaps assuage his feelings,' Ninetales suggests. 'All I have on the matter is your mostly forgotten history lessons, but typically noble types will remember if you help them save face.'

'Right. This whole mess is political as well. It has to be, somehow…' Lee withholds a grimace and directs himself to the Gym Leader. "Gym Leader Moore, even if Rapidash takes the loss harshly, I didn't put Grovyle forward to be insulting, I let him lead as I have faith in his abilities as a fighter. You and Rapidash battled in a way that pushed both of us to our limits. As evidenced by Rock Tomb, I've been specifically training him to counter his weaknesses, yet Rapidash trivialized much of what I've taught. Speaking of limits…" Lee looks towards the referee. "Ref? I'm retiring Grovyle from the match. He's gone above and beyond after facing down such a powerful pokemon."

Grovyle turns to Lee, offering him the faintest of nods.

The referee accepts the concession with a nod of his own, raising his microphone once more. "Challenger Lee is retiring Grovyle from the match following his win. Grovyle may not be used for the remaining duration of the challenge. Both Gym Leader Moore and Challenger Lee have two pokemon remaining!"

'That Rapidash was a fucking monster and we won that by the skin of our teeth.' Lee gulps. 'He landed only one direct hit and it nearly took Grovyle down. Meanwhile, he kept two attacks going for minutes on end, got shot in the shoulder, took a super-effective rock to the back of the head, got hamstrung, busted an ankle, and still wasn't knocked out. We had to hit him with a TKO for a win.' Lee breathes out a sigh and raises Grovyle's pokeball in his hand. 'To think Rapidash was even better in his prime. What the hell would two elite-level pokemon clashing look like? Or even two champion pokemon?'

'Messy, I would presume,' Ninetales telepaths dryly, though she can't hide the apprehension in her voice at the thought.

'Regardless, Grovyle's ability to maneuver mid-air is the only reason we won that. If he lacked the ability to tell gravity to get bent, then we would have been sunk.' In a flash of red, Grovyle's burned and battered form is returned to his pokeball. Raising the ball to his mouth and covering his lapel mic with one hand, Lee smiles and whispers; "Damn fine job out there, Grovyle. I can't even put into words how proud I am of you. I mean it when I say you went above and beyond today."

The ball in Lee's hand shakes once, then goes still.

Putting Grovyle's ball on his belt, Lee takes Octillery's ball and raises it to his mouth. "Ready?" He murmurs.

The octopus' ball rattles eagerly.

On the other side of the field, Moore smiles thinly as he takes another pokeball from his holster. "Ready?"

Lee nods, raising Octillery's ball.

Once more, both trainers throw their pokeballs at once.

This time, Moore's throw is a hair faster, and his pokeball pops open first, dropping a simply enormous mass of light onto the scorched floor.

Octillery's ball snaps open a moment later, and due to being smaller, the octopus materializes more quickly. Already alert, Octillery doesn't even need to blink any stars from his eyes. He stands ready with a narrow-eyed glare and all of his tentacles raised, ready to strike.

The mass on Moore's side finally finishes coalescing into a pokemon, and Lee covers his mic before cursing under his breath.

Standing at least seven feet tall and utterly rippling with muscle, Moore's second pokemon is revealed to be an Arcanine, the 'cousin' of Ninetales. The humongous canine is covered in rusty orange fur crisscrossed with thick black stripes. His chest and head are covered with a thick, cream-colored mane bleached nearly white with age, and the back of each of his legs sport a tuft of the same color fur. Behind him, a dense tail sporting the same cream coloration lays limp and unamused. Like Rapidash, Arcanine's fur is marred by thin, hairless patches of scars. The pokemon cuts a majestic, regal figure, as if his very presence compels admiration and deference.

While Growlithe, Arcanine's prior form, is much more common than Vulpix, Arcanine is a different story. The books call the canine pokemon 'legendary' for a reason, and it's because Arcanine is nearly as rare as Ninetales. Though, it's less because of how uncontrollable Arcanine is, and more due to practicality. Few people have the resources needed to feed and care for a powerful, fire-breathing dog that weighs several hundred pounds and lives a hundred years on average. Factor in the cost of the Firestone needed to evolve a Growlithe, and one is looking at seven figures of investment at minimum to raise an Arcanine over the pokemon's entire life. Owning an Arcanine is a loud and proud symbol of prestige.

It doesn't hurt that they're mighty pokemon renowned for their superb speed, stamina, and physical strength. Kanto and Johto's old noble families keep Arcanine to this day for many reasons beyond saying "look at how wealthy I am."

Arcanine's hard eyes take in Octillery. He then pulls his lips back into a snarl, revealing teeth as long as a human finger that gleam a brilliant, healthy white. The canine tooth in the lower right of his jaw is missing, replaced with a titanium implant.

The holes in the barriers close up with haste as Octillery and Arcanine size each other up.

"Round two, A-Arcanine versus Octillery!" The referee stumbles over Arcanine's name as if he didn't expect the pokemon to make an appearance. "Begin!"

"Rock Blast into Octazooka!" Lee calls.

Strangely, or perhaps worryingly, Moore doesn't call an attack. He simply stands with his arms crossed.

Octillery draws back and spits a barrage of small stones from his mouth. Around each stone is an aura of red, and after several feet of flight, the aura flickers out. As soon as the red is gone, the stones expand to be the size of cannonballs as if by magic. The rocks keep all their speed despite the physics-defying trick and scream towards Arcanine's flanks, but the 'mon still hasn't moved. A second later, Octillery gurgles and swells, then with a supersonic crack, fires a bolt of ink in the middle of the rock barrage.

With grace unbefitting of a beast of his size, Arcanine swerves around the Octazooka, which outraces Rock Blast, then weaves and ducks around the stones flying at him as if he's entirely weightless on his paws. The entire time, his eyes never leave Octillery. The sound of the stones impacting the barrier behind him and shattering into thousands of pieces doesn't rattle him either.

Moore finally calls an attack, and it's the last one Lee wants to hear. "Extremespeed! Then Thunderfang!"

'Shit!'

"Wall yourself off!" Lee tries to counter.

Arcanine tenses, and before Octillery can spin around and make a wall of ice with Ice Beam just as they practiced, the Fire-type moves. There is no flicker, no flash of color, no shadow, nothing. For an instant too short for Lee to appreciate, Arcanine is standing on the other side of the field, then the dirt implodes under his dinner plate-sized paws… But Arcanine doesn't move? The great canine simply looks hazy now.

Lee blinks when he hears a squeal of pain, and as he blinks, Arcanine disappears from his sight. No, wait, what happened?!

Arcanine is already upon Octillery, mauling the octopus and shaking him around like a ragdoll. Octillery twitches and writhes under the crackling, electrified fangs digging into his flesh.

'What the fuck?! I could've sworn I saw him standing still a moment ago!' Lee's mind whirls. Arcanine didn't leave behind some kind of illusion, did he? No? 'Lord above, he moved so fast that he actually tricked my eyes. I just saw a real after image.' Lee doesn't dwell upon the revelation for long and returns his head to the fight. "Octillery! Fight it! Use Wrap around his neck and squeeze as hard as you can!"

Octillery struggles past the electrical surges running up and down his body just enough to wrap two tentacles around Arcanine's neck. Before the octopus can get a proper grip, Arcanine throws his head and releases his jaws, sending Octillery rolling across the dirt. The Water-type lets out a short squeal each time his savage, electrical burn-covered bite wound is dragged across the ground.

Moore doesn't leave his pokemon without an order for long. "Circle around and Thunder Fang again!"

Arcanine moves in a flash of rusty orange and gleaming teeth, his paws digging furrows into the dirt from the force of his legs alone.

'Fuck me! First, he tries to keep Grovyle at a distance, then he knows to stay on top of Octillery! Has Moore fought pokemon like them before, or is he reading them somehow?' Lee growls under his breath "Octillery! Use Gunk… Shot!"

'Just like we planned, Octillery. Hold steady…' Lee thinks even if only Ninetales can hear him.

Octillery rolls to a stop, his eyes taking on a knowing gleam after hearing the pause in the command.

…But Moore notices too. His eyes harden. "Arcanine, be wary!"

Arcanine bears down on Octillery twice as fast, sparking fangs poised to shred the smaller pokemon.

Octillery gurgles and sucks in a breath, making an obvious show of charging an attack and pointing his mouth directly at Arcanine.

The huge canine jukes to the side at such speed it's as if he teleports, dodging a projectile… that Octillery hasn't fired.

'And fire!'

During the split second that Arcanine's brow furrows in confusion, Octillery corrects his aim and spits a glob of viscous, fuming purple… Right into Arcanine's mouth.

The poisonous gunk splashes across Arcanine's lightning-infused fangs, his gums, his tongue, and the force of the shot sends some right down his throat. Some splatters across his nose, with a bit making its way into his nostrils.

If training with Octillery has taught Lee anything, it's just how nasty Poison is as a type. It's as if someone took a timid child's understanding of what poison is and distilled that fearful nightmare substance into something even worse. Poison TE is both caustic and toxic, existing as a general anathema to anything alive. Octillery isn't even Poison-type, yet his Gunk Shot shatters rock, eats through the shards left behind, then kills plants around the impact.

And Arcanine just took a direct hit to several mucus membranes.

Arcanine leaps back and snorts, sending purple muck and mucus to the ground. He snorts again, and this time the mucus is flecked with blood.

Then the pain sets in.

Arcanine shakes, then howls and hacks in torment, whipping his head side to side and showering the ground in bloody saliva. He stops for a moment to retch, spilling blood from his bleeding gums and nose, then he vomits a torrent of steaming fluid with a worrying red and purple tint. He coughs once more, throwing up another mouthful of red and stumbling.

"Arcanine, fight it, boy!" Moore urges. Lee can just barely make out the sight of sweat on the old man's helmet-covered brow. "Raise your temperature and burn the toxins out! Do it now!"

The Fire-type coughs, giving Octillery a woozy glare filled with seething anger. He takes a deep breath in, then out, flames exiting his mouth with the exhale.

'Of course, he has a counter for poison,' Lee clicks his tongue, feeling foolish for pausing. "Octazooka!"

Octillery sucks in a breath of his own, then blasts a tank shell's worth of ink at Arcanine.

The orange and black canine aborts the purge of poison from his body and leaps to the side, dodging the ink that hits the ground behind him and kicks up a cloud of dust.

"Again! Don't let him rest!" The zoologist orders. 'Poison… What a distasteful way to win, but I don't know what else we can do…' Lee takes the short lull to inspect his pokemon. What he finds makes him wince.

Octillery's right side is one giant, ghastly bite wound surrounded by spider-webbing electrical burns. One of Octillery's tentacles looks as if a fang went completely through it, as the limb is limp and unresponsive. Two more tentacles are being used as makeshift sutures, holding much of the bite wound closed and stemming Octillery's bleeding as much as possible. Despite the efforts, blood is still soaking the dirt next to the octopus. If not for the impromptu field treatment, he likely would have fainted from blood loss already.

The red cephalopod continuously blasts his signature attack at Arcanine, who dodges each supersonic bolt. Even if Octillery tries to fake him out or herd him into another shot, Arcanine still remains untouched even if his grace is waning with each passing second.

'Down three tentacles, tender on his entire right side, and slowly bleeding out. Even if Gunk Shot really messed up Arcanine, Octillery still got the worst of the exchange…' Lee frowns and mentally scrolls through all the maneuvers he and Octillery worked on.

"Enough of this!" Moore roars, his anger carrying throughout the entire building. "Have I allowed my team to fall so far? I cannot bear the shame! Arcanine! We're done playing Meowth and Rattata! Use Facade!"

It takes Lee a moment longer than he cares to admit to remember what Facade does. 'A Normal move that doubles in power if the user is burned, poisoned, or paralyzed. Fuck me, really?'

Arcanine dodges one final Octozooka, then sets his muzzle in grim determination. Drawing back his lips for a bloody snarl, an aura of white wisps around his body as small billows of steam escape from between his teeth. He lowers himself, then blasts forward trailing white like a missile.

Neither Lee nor Octillery can do anything as Arcanine drives his skull into Octillery like a supersonic wrecking ball. Lee is treated to the disheartening sight of his newest pokemon's entire body rippling like a water balloon ready to burst, then flying off of his tentacles and smashing into the arena barrier with a bone-rattling THUD!

Arcanine coughs once more, splattering the ground with red droplets.

Octillery falls to the ground, unmoving and barely even breathing. His whole body goes limp like a deflated ball.

Lee's shoulders slump. "Damn…"

"Octillery is unable to battle!" The referee calls the match as a hole opens up on Lee's side of the barrier. "Arcanine is the winner of round two!"

Applause and a handful of cheers come down from the crowd as Lee raises Octillery's ball and recalls the unconscious Water-type. Like with Grovyle, he raises the ball to his lips and whispers. "You did incredible out there, Octillery. We've only been working together for a week and already you're irreplaceable. Thank you," he murmurs quietly before clipping the pokeball back to his belt.

"Challenger Lee! Please select your final pokemon!" The referee calls.

The applause goes quiet at the announcement as nervous anticipation seems to fill the entire arena. All eyes are on Lee. Everyone knows who his selection is going to be.

On the other side of the room, Moore's grin finally returns.

Lee takes Ninetales' ball and enlarges it. With a deep breath, he steadies himself and readily accepts the mental embrace Ninetales pulls him into. 'Ready?'

'Always, Beloved,' she says, her voice filling him with blessed confidence.

They pull one another close, close enough that words become useless.

Lee draws his arm back and throws the ball into the arena.

The ball splits open, and out comes Ninetales.

The great fox lands in a crouch, then slowly stands, unfurling each one of her tails as she does so.

The sunlight streaming in through the window suddenly re-doubles its intensity, casting harsh rays that quickly begin to heat the room. The aging air conditioning system of the gym kicks on, but even then the large room begins to grow warm. The only one who doesn't feel the additional warmth is Lee.

Once Ninetales is at her full height, she snaps her red eyes open and stares down Arcanine with open, burning hostility.

Despite being twice Ninetales' size, the other Fire-type wheezes through his burned trachea and retreats half a step.

"Round three, Arcanine versus Ninetales, begin!" The ref chops his hand down as the Barrier in front of Lee closes again.

Before Moore's mouth can even move, a command flows from Lee to Ninetales. In the time it would have taken for a regular person to say a single word, Ninetales and Lee could have an entire discussion with how closely intertwined their minds are.

Hold. Lee's brain fills in the silent instruction with a word, just for himself.

Ninetales' eyes glow, and Arcanine is seized in a purple telekinetic aura, forcing him to stiffen against his will.

"Crunch! Break the hold and use Facade!" Moore's voice booms as his eyes take on an intense focus.

He noticed fast. Hex.

Before Arcanine can power up Crunch, wispy orbs of ghostly violet swirl into being around the immobilized Arcanine, then they all converge and sink into his skin. A half second later, Arcanine shrilly yowls as arcs of charged Ghost TE rip across his body, cruelly attacking the organs most ravaged by Octillery's poison.

"Arcanine! Focus! Break the hold!" Moore demands.

Extrasensory.

Extrasensory is an extraordinarily brutal, borderline sadistic move to Lee. Ninetales learned it upon her evolution, and when they tested it on a boulder a few days ago, they were left with a pile of gravel. Some way, somehow, the psychic field creates zones of overlapping spatial fluctuations, or at least that's what it looks like to caught inside is ripped apart. 'Nature was on its A-game when it decided only twenty or so pokemon can learn it,' Lee muses to himself.

Ninetales' eyes glow brighter, and all around Arcanine, fields of overlapping Psychic bubbles form out of thin air. The bubbles all quiver as one, then each one expands and contracts rapidly, pulling at the canine's body with rippling gravitational distortions.

Arcanine howls as his entire body bruises, with several splits opening in his skin. Blood quickly begins to soak his fur, and when Ninetales releases him from her crushing telekinetic grip, the monstrous dog pokemon sways on his paws.

With a snarl, Arcanine raises his head and reflexively fires a gout of white flame towards Ninetales.

The vixen's control of all things Fire leaps out, sinking invisible tendrils into Arcanine's nameless attack and wresting control away from him without a struggle. Just as the fire reaches Ninetales, it parts around her as if splashing against an invisible, spherical shield, missing entirely.

"Arcanine! Listen!" Moore is actually beginning to look unsure. "The poison has progressed too far! Use Facade or you'll be defeated!

Arcanine snarls, lowering himself as the same white, steamy wisps defuse from his fur and begin to surround him.

Double Team. Feint Attack. Confuse Ray. Hex. Be ready to move. Use only non-Fire attacks to remain optimal.

Ninetales narrows her eyes. Unnoticed by anyone other than Lee, a single Double Team illusion covers her form just as the cloak of Feint Attack renders her invisible. Slowly, she steps off to the side while her doppelganger remains standing in her place, powering up her Confuse Ray as she does so.

In the backseat of Ninetales' mind, Lee focuses on animating the single Double Team illusion, keeping its tails swaying and its chest rising and falling so his partner can keep concentrating on remaining unseen. He pulls the clone's muzzle back into an infuriating smirk, hoping to remain a juicy target.

Still cloaked, Ninetales lets her Confuse Ray fly.

Arcanine rushes forward, Facade turning him into a missile once more, only for him to stumble halfway through and stop as he runs face-first into an unseen Confuse Ray. With a growl, he shakes his head and clears the mental fog within only a few seconds, but a few seconds is all it takes for Hex to crackle to life again and tear into his body. Once more, he howls and seizes on his feet.

Finally, finally, Arcanine sways on his paws once more, then falls to his side with a thud, wheezing and too weak to rise. Twice he tries to get back on his paws, and twice he just falls. On his third failure, he lays down and stares at the Ninetales illusion with defeat in his eyes.

Just like in the last matches, after ten seconds the referee steps up to the side of the arena and speaks into his microphone. "Arcanine is no longer able to battle! The winner of round three is Ninetales!"

Abandoning Zinnia's advice for a moment, Lee looks into the crowd.

Behind the polite applause, a number of people seem startled by the match. In a way, Lee can understand it. To them, it must look like Ninetales won without moving a muscle. 'Something tells me it would be a different story if Arcanine was at full health.'

Steven still watches carefully with a pokeball in his hand, looking between the downed Arcanine and Ninetales' illusion… Then his eyes shift and look right at the real Ninetales, who is still invisible. 'Well, that's not creepy or concerning at all… Is Metagross telling him where Ninetales is? I guess I shouldn't be too surprised.'

Up in the stands, Brendan stands and applauds louder than anyone else, his face locked into a grin so wide it must hurt. Beside him, Zinnia is standing too, clapping her hands with a grin that rivals Brendan's. Next to her, Courtney's applause is much more reserved, though her small smile at least makes it seem genuine.

A hole opens in Moore's side of the barrier, and raising Arcanine's ball, the Gym Leader sighs and recalls his ill pokemon in a flash of light. He raises the ball and touches it to the forehead of his helmet, muttering something too quiet for Lee or Ninetales to hear. Replacing Arcanine's ball in its holster, Moore sags. "Goodness me, goodness me…" He raises a hand and clenches it over his chest. "We're in quite the mess with this one."

Once more, Lee can't help but feel compelled to say something in response. Mentally, he untangles himself from Ninetales enough that their words won't get jumbled. "Gym Leader Moore…" Lee pauses and crosses his arms, not really sure how to phrase himself. "Maybe this battle isn't the glorious thing you were hoping for, but it's certainly told me something; that your pokemon and tactics are just too much for us to handle without tricks like targeting weak points or using poison. I don't think your pokemon are weak at all, and perhaps you're being too harsh on yourself by saying they've fallen. Your pokemon have clearly been raised with love and dedication, and it's plain to see. Even a rookie trainer like myself sees it."

Moore chuckles, then it deepens into a full belly laugh. "No no, my boy! You give me too much credit and yourself not enough, and this certainly isn't a criticism of our battle here today! It would be foolish of me to expect anything but a battle of wits as well as might. No, in that regard you and your pokemon have more than lived up to my expectations! This is the most difficult battle we have faced in years!" His smile lessens. "My era was one before the information age, so I cannot show you just how mighty we stood in those days long past, but as we are today… Well, my pokemon and I are merely pale imitations. Juxtaposed against yourself, it's all the more obvious." Moore reaches into his straw holster and withdraws an old pokeball, one with nearly all of the red paint on the cap worn away. Moore rubs a thumb across the capsule lovingly. "Rapidash is far past his prime, and Arcanine's age is beginning to show. My first partner, Ty, is nearing the end of his days as a battler. Today… might even be his last battle before he's just too battered to continue. I know where we stand, Lee. Today was never truly about winning."

Moore throws the worn pokeball into the arena.

"Today!" Moore's roar echoes through his helmet as his eyes blaze. "Today is about that glorious final burn!"

The weathered pokeball snaps open and deposits a pokemon in the field. As the light of the pokeball fades, Lee feels his heart leap into his throat.

In the pokemon anime Ty, Moore's Typhlosion, is depicted as an average member of his species. No outstanding traits, no real battles shown, just a normal pokemon.

The pokemon before Lee and Ninetales is not normal.

Ty stands tall, at least six and a half feet, and like his teammates, his physique is positively olympian even with his graying coat showing off his advanced age. That's not what draws the eyes, though.

The scars do.

Ty's entire chest, his stomach, his arms, his legs, parts of his neck, parts of his face, they're all covered in overlapping scars and burns. Even the tip of his right ear is missing, and on the left side of his chest is a spiraled scar like he was shot with an artillery cannon. His entire front is a veritable tapestry of suffering, each square inch of ghastly flesh telling a story not fit for any with a weak constitution. The pokemon stands all the taller and more unbreakable for each healed wound, like a war monument brought to life.

Lee reaches up and touches the three lines burned into his face. They… feel almost like nothing in comparison.

Ty turns slowly to regard Moore, showing Lee and Ninetales his back in open dismissal.

The only scar on Ty's back is a spiraling exit wound, a mirror to the one on his chest.

Ninetales' hackles rise, and she struggles to remain invisible.

"Old friend…" Moore's visage is soft despite Ty's eyes boring into him. "Can I count on you here?"

Ty says nothing. Slowly, he turns around, facing the Ninetales illusion and lowering himself into an animalistic ready stance, one fore paw braced on the ground with the other held claws out. On his back, the iconic mantle of jet-like flames Typhlosion is known for bursts to life, burning not orange, but a pearl-white with a ghostly blue center.

"Final round…" The referee looks between the Ninetales illusion and Ty, not hiding his nervousness at all. "Begin!"

No one moves right away.

Ty stares down the illusion with smoldering eyes, silently daring Ninetales to make the first move.

After a full, nerve-racking minute passes, Lee breaks first.

Baby-Doll Eyes, Confuse Ray.

Under her cloak, Ninetales stares hard at Ty, the glow in her eyes going unseen.

The instant Baby-Doll Eyes is cast, the veteran pokemon takes off across the ground with devilish speed on all fours, moving and zig-zagging like he didn't even notice the enfeebling effect of the Fairy ray. He's on top of the illusion in an instant, his clenched fist trailing white as he swipes it through the false Ninetales' head in a brutal, unnamed attack.

The Double Team dissipates, leaving Ty alone.

"I knew there was something fishy!" Moore exclaims, eyes scanning the arena. "Ty! Burning Ash!"

Ty draws in a breath just as Ninetales' Confuse Ray strikes, but like with Baby-Doll Eyes, Ty is seemingly unaffected. He slows for perhaps half a second, then he spews a thick cloud of ember-laden ash at the ground, making a cloud that quickly scatters in every direction.

The hot ash doesn't harm Ninetales... But it does stick to her, making her outline obvious through Feint Attack's cloak.

Ty moves like lightning, zooming toward the revealed fox with his mouth open and teeth aimed squarely at Ninetales' neck.

Hold him!

A purple haze, the same color as the glow that overtakes Ninetales' eyes as Feint Attack drops, covers Ty from head to toe and stops him cold.

The Typhlosion growls, and without needing any instruction, he flexes his body against the blanket of telekinesis around him. His muscles stand up in sharp relief against his scarred skin, and to Lee's horror, Ty shatters the telekinesis around him with sheer physical strength alone. The sound of the telekinesis failing is sharp and hard on the ears, like a burst of radio static played at maximum volume.

Ninetales recoils from the backlash of having her focus broken so utterly. A headache quickly begins to bloom in her head, and Lee does his best to draw the pain off of her and into himself.

Ty lowers himself again and runs at Ninetales, his teeth seemingly gravitating towards her neck.

Quick Attack! Double Team!

Ninetales jumps to the side out of the cloud of ash and out of Ty's way, illusions trailing her and scattering as she does so. She lands on her paws some distance away with a frown.

"Combustion!" Moore is just as fast to respond to the clones as they appear.

'Combustion?' Lee wonders. 'I've never heard of that move.'

Unperturbed by the missed attack, Ty stands on his hind legs and crosses his forepaws, which take on a bright orange glow. With a growl, he thrusts his arms out, the fur of his arms rubbing together and sparking with snaps and pops.

Then a gargantuan fiery explosion, with Ty as the epicenter, rocks the entire building. Smoke fills the psychically shielded battleground, chips of rock bouncing off the transparent wall and clattering to the ground.

Any personal woes or memories of fire are skipped by Lee as Ninetales' pain tears through his body. With a gasp, Lee's legs shake as he almost falls to his knees. Already, he can tell how bad the damage is.

His ribs are on fire and the taste of blood coats his tongue, so Ninetales must have shattered a few ribs and might be bleeding internally.

His left ear is ringing, so Ninetales is probably deaf on that side until seen at a Pokemon Center.

A phantom limb he doesn't own is filled with sharp, keen pain, meaning one of her tails is broken.

The rest of his body just aches in general.

Through Ninetales' bleary eyes, Lee watches her get to her paws shakily.

Gritting his teeth, Lee urges her to rise!

Ninetales gets to her paws, ignoring the stabbing of her abused ribs. With a growl, she reaches out to Lee and pulls his mind a little closer, and to his surprise, time seems to slow as they think together.

'I don't know what happened, but I'm certain Moore has more hidden moves than he originally let on,' the vixen mentally snarls. 'Rotten bastard. I don't care how powerful Typhlosion is, we're tearing him to pieces!'

The complaint comes off as a bit hypocritical to Lee, but he doesn't voice it for now. It won't do to rile his fox up in such a critical match. 'Easy, Love…' Lee watches as a stone launched by Ty's explosion falls as if dropped into molasses. His desire to study this strange time perception alteration is pushed aside for now. It takes immense effort just to move his eyes to follow the stone, and he can feel Ninetales totally ignoring her body to communicate with him. Sadly, it looks like re-creating a 'Bullet Time' effect is off the table. 'I kind of expected that Moore was hiding something. Everyone seems to keep the best methods and discoveries to themselves to keep their competitive edge.' His neutral face falls into a frown with painstaking slowness. 'That explosion is bad news. If Ty can attack in every direction at once, that negates much of what we can do. I can feel he's already injured you.'

'...' Ninetales says nothing, still not acknowledging that she's been wounded.

'The orange glow, though… Fire TE?'

'It must have been,' Ninetales agrees. 'I felt more than a bit of heat.'

Lee would smile if he could. 'Do you think you can pull control away from him?'

Ninetales' mental smirk is almost evil.

Mentally, the man and fox pull away from each other, and sensation returns to their bodies. Time resumes its normal speed.

Double Team. Payback.

Doppelgangers once more flash into existence around Ninetales, Each one bounding away to surround Ty, who looks unimpressed with the stunt.

As one, each fox snarls as bubbling Dark seeps out of her wounds, coating her in a cloak of Dark that fills her body with spite-powered strength.

"Combustion!" Moore orders once more, his eyes narrowing in confusion as he looks at Lee.

Lee smiles back.

Ninetales and her clones rush Ty, each one opening their slender muzzles to bear sharp teeth.

With a scoff, Ty crosses his arms and thrusts them out again, sparks flying from his fur.

Now!

Before the old Typhlosion can set off another explosion, Ninetales' influence snakes its way into Combustion's orange glow, seizing the reaction before it can complete. All that comes from Ty's arms is a puff of smoke.

Ty's eyes narrow as Moore's jaw drops. "What in the blazes…?"

The half-second of surprise is just enough for Ninetales to leap up, dig her claws into Ty's chest, and snap her jaws around Ty's throat like a steel vice.

With a roar of fury more than pain, Ty drives a glowing fist right into Ninetales head, making stars explode into Lee and Ninetales' vision. The bloody split in her temple empowers Payback enough that Ninetales can bite down hard enough to cut off the veteran's windpipe, choking him with a gasp.

"Pull her off without hurting her, Ty! You'll make Payback worse!" Moore's orders quickly stop his Typhlosion from sabotaging himself.

Ty takes Ninetales' jaws in his hand-like paws, trying to pry the superpowered fox off.

The golden fox growls and whips her head side to side before her burst of physical might fades, wrenching Ty's neck and throwing his balance off, but the titan of a Fire-type simply refuses to stumble.

Finally, just as Payback begins to wane, Ty overbalances and topples over, and Ninetales refuses to let the opportunity go to waste. Snarling once more and rebuffing the pain in her ribs, she twists her whole body and throws Ty into the ground head-first.

The packed dirt of the arena caves in as Ty strikes it, making a crater several inches deep and drawing a wounded cry from the Typhlosion, the first one in the entire match.

Back away!

Ty returns to his feet with a livid roar, not letting the cut in his skull or the blood dripping into his eye stop him. He takes a wild swing at Ninetales, who ducks the blow and leaps backward.

Hold him! Extrasensory!

Ninetales' eyes glow violet, and Ty freezes in place. The head wound must be slowing him down, because the elder Fire-type doesn't escape immediately, giving Ninetales enough time to encase him in a psychic bubble.

Ty roars again as psychic power pulls at every fiber of his body, opening up rends in his skin, making ugly bruises blossom across his body, and likely hemorrhaging something inside of him. His struggles redouble, and rather than let him overpower her again, Ninetales drops him and leaps to his left, directly out of the way of Ty's retaliatory wild charge and the glowing fist that effortlessly punches nearly a foot into the ground.

'What a tough old bastard…' Lee sweats. 'Gets hit by Baby-Doll Eyes and still has enough strength to shatter Nine's telekinesis, shrugs off a Confuse Ray that sends other pokemon right into a seizure, took a Payback bite to the throat, made Payback worse and barely choked, gets choke slammed into the ground hard enough to leave a crater, eats a full-power Extrasensory, and he still fights like he's more pissed than hurt. How strong was he back in the day?'

"Heh… Hahahaha!" Moore suddenly laughs. "I haven't seen Ty this fired up in years! Hell, I haven't seen him bleed in years! This is wonderful! Extraordinary! C'mon, Ty!" He urges his pokemon. "Don't hand the youngsters a win! Show them what you can really do! Quick Attack!"

Quick Attack! Stay a step ahead!

Both Ninetales and Ty transform into blurs of gold and gray-blue respectively, crashing into each other and disengaging a moment later all across the battlefield. The only way Lee can tell what's happening is by watching through Ninetales' eyes.

One clash and Ty leaves with a new bite wound.

Another, and Ninetales has claw marks carved into her chest.

The pair stop for a second, Ty dodging around a tongue of flame that leaps from Ninetales' throat, one that chases him like a snake. Finally, he bats the fire away with a paw and launches back into Quick Attack with Ninetales following.

For all her skill and physical strength, Ninetales begins losing more and more exchanges. Ten, twenty, over thirty pass in the span of just a few seconds broken up by short furious trades of projectiles. Ninetales' injuries begin to pile up. For each new one, Lee has to bite his tongue and forcefully keep his face straight as every sensation Ninetales feels echoes through her into him. At the one-minute mark, Lee can barely stand and groans under his breath.

Disengage! Ready Payback!

Ninetales reappears on Lee's side of the field, panting and with an uncomfortable amount of her golden coat stained red. Her limbs shake, and her left hind leg struggles to hold any weight. Through her, Lee feels her determination to win is fueling her far more than anything else.

Ty, however, apparently has no plans to let her go and comes down at Ninetales like a roaring, furious comet.

With a growl, Ninetales spools up Payback and lets Dark-TE practically explode from her numerous wounds, covering her in a sinister mantle of black.

"Abort!" Moore calls, drawing a silent curse from Lee.

Ty flares his Quick Attack, halting midair and leaping back to Moore's side of the battleground with a single deft flip.

While Ty won much more of the High-speed fight than his foe, he didn't escape unscathed. A deep bite wound across his left wrist slowly drips blood on the ground, Three thin slashes run across his inner left thigh, and his right eye is bruised and blackened. Ty breathes slowly and deeply, with a nearly inaudible wheeze.

"This is almost more than I could have hoped for…" Moore smiles. "Hehe! Hahahaha!" The joy in each laugh can't be understated. "To push Ty to such lengths, I'm astounded! Lee, Madam Ninetales, this is everything I ever wanted!"

'Push him to such lengths?' Lee almost shakes his head. 'Hardly. Typhlosion looks like he can go another ten rounds!'

'Perhaps on the surface…' Ninetales pants, not taking her eyes off of Ty. 'Age… Age hasn't been kind to him, Lee. I can feel the Fire inside of him giving out.'

Lee closes his eyes and allows Ninetales to gently guide him through her extra senses. Then, he 'sees' it in a way no other person likely ever has.

If Ninetales is a deep core of paradoxically solid fire, one producing warmth without end, then Ty is a candle without any wax left. On the end of a wick long since turned to fragile ash burns a single, stubborn flame. Blinking away the imagery, Lee looks at Ty once more, noticing the mantle of jet-like flames around his neck is slowly, reluctantly changing from white to orange.

'Fighting at his maximum, even for less than fifteen minutes as we have, has pushed him beyond the brink,' Ninetales blinks, the vengeful irritation she's been nursing for Ty and Moore begins to drain, replaced with something more melancholic. 'Ty can't maintain this pace for long, not with the injuries I've inflicted upon him.'

"Which is why it's time to bring this match to an end," Moore continues, drawing Lee and Ninetales in with the ominous line. "I know Combustion failing was no fluke, and instinct tells me that trying Overheat will get us nowhere. Nevertheless, we have a second option that's just as good." The Gym Leader's grin lights up the darkness of his helmet. "Ty, it's time to finish this. Either we fall here in an exit for the ages, or we send a pair of whelps packing!"

Moore points a damning finger forward. "Ty! Hyper Beam! Give it everything you have!"

Lee's eyes bug out and Ninetales' stomach drops.

Typhlosion turns his eyes to Ninetales, his red irises softening in a split second of respect, then he raises his head, mouth open wide. Above his mouth, a globe of boiling golden energy begins to grow, going from the size of a fist, to the size of a beach ball, to the size of a man in the span of only four seconds. Then the ball begins to contract, shrinking down on itself until it's a tiny marble glowing such a bright white that no one can look at it directly.

Ty lowers his head, aiming his attack right for Ninetales, and Lee sees the sweat beginning to soak the elderly pokemon's fur.

Panicked and bereft of any plans for beating such a monster pokemon, Lee makes the fastest call he can. "Flamethrower! Match him!"

Ninetales opens her jaws wide, a light deep in her throat flickering white as she prepares to spew fire to meet the Hyper Beam head-on. Her remaining energy screams within her body and beelines towards her mouth, making the white glow utterly blinding.

In the stands, Lee sees Steven suddenly stand from the corner of his eye and throw the pokeball in his hands. "Metagross!" Steven barks. "Reinforce the shield around the arena now!"

Lee doesn't actually get to see Metagross be released, as the entire room lights up a horrific, calamitous white.

Ninetales would never hurt you.

Nausea smashes into the zoologist like a freight train, but he swallows the bile in his throat, takes a deep breath of cool air, and peers from around his arm into the arena.

Inside, Ninetales and Ty are locked in a final battle that can only be described as cataclysmic. From Ninetales comes her strongest Flamethrower, the same white-hot pillar of flames she demonstrated a few short days ago, the one with enough power to ruin entire landscapes. Ninetales stands with her legs spread and braced in the blackened, burned dirt and her tails all splayed out, the broken one included. Her head is thrust forward, her maw open and blasting fire with every ounce of power she can muster.

In the middle of the arena, her Flamethrower meets Ty's Hyper Beam in a dead-even struggle. Her fire pushes against the practically solid battering ram of energy shooting from the old Typhlosion's jaws, with smaller beams bending around the fire to smash into the cracked barrier. Ty himself is down on all fours, gripping the ground with his claws and roaring with such terrifying volume that he can actually be heard over the shrill scream of his and Ninetales' attacks meeting. Flamethrower and Hyper Beam smash into each other like opposing rivers.

Slowly, Ty's beam begins to flag, and Ninetales pushes even harder, the diameter of her Flamethrower growing and pushing Hyper Beam back.

Ty snarls, eyes wild, and with jaw-dropping effort, he somehow pushes even more strength into his beam, matching Ninetales and meeting her in a stalemate once more. Both Flamethrower and Hyper Beam glance off of each other for no longer than a second, but the errant attacks strike the shield around the battlefield.

The first barrier shatters, and the young Kadabra off the side of the arena lets out a cry lost to the din of the clash before him.

A horrid heat pours into the room, raising the temperature several degrees instantly and quickly rising. The few spectators scream until another barrier, one formed from nearly transparent, interlocking hexagons forms in place of the first one.

Lee hazards a look over to Steven's Metagross, who watches Ninetales and Ty with a shine to his red eyes.

Flamethrower and Hyper Beam both begin to sputter as both pokemon start to lose control. From Ninetales, Lee can feel her stamina being sucked down at a rate he previously thought impossible. 'Ninetales! Keep in control! You can do this!' Lee sockets himself into her attack, letting her consume his stamina. He can only let the fox drain him for a handful of seconds before his head becomes light and she forcefully disconnects him, but anything he can spare to keep her in the fight is worth it.

A second before it happens, Ninetales squeezes her side of their bond down to almost nothing, freeing Lee from her aches and pains.

Flamethrower and Hyper Beam both destabilize, detonating in an explosion that covers the entirety of the boxy shield around the pair of pokemon. Even with the explosion contained, the tremors that run through the entire building knock ceiling tiles loose, shatter windows, and burst a fire sprinkler pipe overhead, sending water raining down.

"Ninetales!" Lee cries, his stomach tying itself into a knot.

Moore remains quiet.

The fifteen seconds it takes for the smoke to clear is the longest of Lee's life, but when the dust settles, he can hardly believe his eyes.

The battleground is entirely ruined, as most of the dirt is now ash, and in the ashy field, both Ninetales and Ty are still standing.

Lee forces his telepathic connection to his pokemon open, ignoring the wracking, bone-deep weariness and the phantom pain of being more living injury than unmarred flesh. 'Ninetales?'

The fox doesn't respond. It's all she can do to stand on her shaking legs and not fall into a dead faint. Blood is pooling under her, and swaths of her fur are burned away despite how her pelt should be fire retardant. Even now, Lee can see the darkness beginning to creep in the edge of her vision, which is focused firmly on the ground.

'C'mon, Love. I'm so sorry to do this to you, but hang in there for a bit longer!' Lee opens up his stamina to her again, diverting a bit of his own essence to slow the unconsciousness creeping up on the vixen.

Even half dead and unresponsive, she weakly snorts and finds just enough willpower to feed her trainer a morsel of telepathic love.

Lee looks up at Ty.

The Typhlosion is dyed red with blood, and he stands openly panting with his head bowed. Slowly, he raises his head and aims unfocused eyes at Ninetales.

Ty takes a single, shaking step forward, dragging a lame leg behind him.

'There is no way…' Awe and a touch of fear strike somewhere deep within Lee as Ty shuffles closer, step-by-step, foot by foot. 'There is no way he's still moving after that! That explosion had to be enough to bring a skyscraper down, and he's still able to fight?!'

Moore's first pokemon makes it to the halfway point in the charred battlefield, then with a hiss, he crumples to the ground. If not for his gasping breaths, Lee would swear that the pokemon fell and died.

Silence reigns in the Gym.

Lee licks his dry lips, looking between the still-standing Ninetales and the fallen Typhlosion. 'Did… Did we win?'

Moore raises his fist to his mouth. "Norbert, the call?"

At the side of the arena, the stunned referee raises his microphone. "T-Ty is…" He stops short, blinking his eyes as if he were dreaming. "Ty is unable to battle… The winner of the final round and today's Gym match is Ninetales and her trainer, Challenger Lee Henson!"

Ninetales perks an ear, and with the very last of her strength, she rears her head back and lets out a victorious howl. Immediately after, her legs finally give out and she falls to the ground, her mind going blank with a lingering note of pride that's plain to Lee.

The barriers around the arena fall for the last time, and both Lee and Moore recall their fallen pokemon to their pokeballs. The lack of applause or really any reaction from the onlookers places an awkward feeling upon Lee's shoulders, but nonetheless, he walks out to meet Moore in the middle of the ruined field.

'Thank you, Love. You were spectacular,' Lee smiles and returns the ball to his belt.

In the center of the field, Moore removes his helmet, showing everyone his sweaty, exhausted face that nonetheless wears a small, content smile. He offers a hand for Lee to shake. "Lee," he begins. "I have nothing more to say that you and your pokemon's astonishing performance here today hasn't already said. First Roxanne, then Brawly, Liza and Tate, my dear Flannery, and now you and all of the other young men and women challenging the League this year. The future is bright, and my team and I can retire knowing the world is in good hands." He releases Lee's hand, and from a pocket in his breastplate, the Gym Leader produces a shining badge in the shape of a plume of flame.

With a wide smile, Lee reaches for the badge, but stops when Moore pulls his hand away.

"Before I give you your rightfully earned Heat Badge…" Moore smiles mischievously. "Can you make a promise for an old man?"

"That promise being?" Lee raises an eyebrow.

Moore laughs once. "Why, return to the Lavaridge Gym in a year or two! I know a battle between you and Flannery will upstage our match today countless times over!"

'Ah, so that's the political angle to this whole stunt…' Lee returns Moore's smile. "I can do that."

The badge is dropped into Lee's hand, and the silent spectators burst into deafening applause when it's raised high in triumph.


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