Chapter One: Outset

It was unnatural. Wes frowned at the low, ominous building that pierced the desert landscape. Though it wavered and shimmered in the unrelenting afternoon heat, it's identity was unmistakable. It was the Pokemon Laboratory: all that remained of the horrifying Cipher legacy. Wes tightened his hands on the handles of the hovercraft as the stark laboratory drew closer. The electric field surrounding it had long since sputtered and died, and the concrete surrounding it was cracked and worn. But not even weeds would grow here. Wes slowed the vehicle to a stop and stepped off. His loyal pokemon, Umbreon and Espeon, leapt from the sidecar. Without a sound, they kept pace with him as he examined the dilapidated building. The doors had rusted and fallen away, and whole chunks of the walls were missing, exposing rusted iron supports and empty inner chambers.

Wes ducked into one of the openings and found himself ankle-deep in sand. The partially covered roof made the sand cooler than that on the outside, save for areas where light poured in from holes in the walls and ceiling. Nature was attempting to reclaim the land the accursed building had taken. But even it's own destruction did not... could not right the wrongs the laboratory had brought about. The wrongs he had helped bring to fruition. He felt another mind touch his, a feathery tendril of thought interrupting his own. A touch that, by now, he knew well. Espeon's voice echoed in his mind, as clear as if spoken aloud.

"You are troubled." she said.It was a statement of fact, not a question. His Pokemon knew him too well to be fooled by sugarcoated lies. Wes leaned heavily against the wall as he slid to the floor, daring the building to fall on him.

"You don't know the half of it." he muttered. Espeon blinked, and guilt pricked at his skin. They knew. All three of them did. A single tear slid down his cheek. This place had been his home... the only one he had ever truly known. And this thing, this laboratory, had stolen it from him. And he had let it. The tears fell faster. Without being bidden, Espeon ducked under his arm, and Umbreon curled up on his lap. Their breathing rose and fell in time with his, the only sound apart from the eerie howl of the desert winds. Both of them enveloped him in their minds, shielding him from the tortures of his own. It had been thus two other times in his life, and all three of them had taken place here.

A young boy tottered along the busy street, the sandy path warming his bare feet. His off-white hair was hopelessly unruly, hanging nearly to his chin, and his clothes were patched and faded. His irises were a wild yellow, their feral centers gleaming with delight. His name was Wes, and today would be a wonderful day. He could feel it. People of all ages and classes bustled to and fro, in and out of the shops and brick houses crammed haphazardly along the dirt roads. Many of the women shot him dirty looks for his patched appearance and unwashed hair. Most people preferred not to look at him, and it bothered him little. What did it matter, on a day like this? The sky was a perfect crystal blue, and the sun had lessened it's relentless heat, allowing the desert-weary town a brief respite. But better than the warm sand beneath his toes and the laughing, bustling crowd around him, there was to be a huge Pokemon battle! No Colosseum existed in an oasis town, (if you could call it that) as small as Twopearls, but trainers both local and from afar gathered at the old, rock-hard stretch of packed earth between buildings that served as an arena. Shielded from the heat, it was accessible through a network of alleys and roads. Today, supposedly, a trainer from a distant corner of Orre was to compete with the local champion. Wes gave a little wriggle of excitement at the thought. Softened by the heat, the tar underneath his feet squished satisfyingly.

-Tar? There was only one paved street in Twopearls... He froze in horror.

He had run into the middle of the main road!

Two identical flashes of brown fur dashed by him, tripping him. He fell onto the hard asphalt, scraping his exposed knees. "Hey!" he cried, but his protest was drowned by the oncoming roar. Wes could only watch in wide-eyed terror as the iron behemoth rushed toward him. Every second seemed to last a lifetime as the supply truck skidded and swerved, brakes squealing. He wanted to scream, to move, to do something, but his every muscle was paralyzed in fear.

"Eee!" Shaken from his trance, Wes swung his head around. The pair of Eevees, once moving so fast, were trapped in the road's softened tar. He felt their terror magnify his own, desperately struggling to free their small paws.

"STOP!" he cried. Without thinking, he threw his body in front of them, and braced himself for the agony he was sure would follow. This had to be the end. Blackness enveloped him, and he was only conscious of the trembling bundles in his arms and roaring in his ears. An acrid stench stung his nostrils, and his scraped knees throbbed with pain. But the agony he expected did not come.

Just as suddenly as it had started, the blackness left him, and daylight broke once more onto his vision. At first, he did not dare open his eyes. He was dead. He must be dead. He tentatively opened one eye, unsure whether he still had them, and both snapped open in shock. He was alive! He was curled on his side, knees bleeding, his face and clothes blackened and smeared, but in all other ways unharmed. He gave a short laugh, weak with relief as he realized what had happened. What else was to be done? The supply truck had rolled right over his head!

"...Vee?" He gasped, glancing down at his soiled and scraped arms. He was holding a pair of wild Pokemon! And Eevees, no less. His first instinct was to drop them: wild pokemon could be extremely dangerous, but he balked at the idea. They were the two most beautiful and innocent creatures he had ever seen. Their identical tawny coats were soft and warm, and their eyes, though half closed and terrified, glimmered with a sparkling light. Their ears were the perfect long, almond shape, though they drooped and quivered. And he had saved them. He stood up, but his head throbbed in unison with his knees, and the road began to spin. He must have hit harder than he thought... A rough arm suddenly slung itself around his shoulders, guiding him off the road. Murmurs and cries rippled through the crowd of stunned people gathered around the road like chattering birds.

"Venn! Where are you taking him?"

"Is he all right?"

"What happened?"

"Ragamuffin! Could'a got yourself killed!"

"Look! Eevees!"

"Eevees? Where?!"

"Yer don' see 'em in 'Oopurls, 'ats fer sure."

The noise made his head spin. But they kept walking, Wes' feet mechanically moving in time with his savior's. He glanced up from the dusty ground, and found himself inside an air-conditioned, well lit Pokemon store. The neat shelves were lined with all manner of potions and pokeballs, but they also contained parts for bicycles, hovercraft, and machinery Wes couldn't identify. The store seemed to have more items than it could hold, as some displays towered over his head. Shelves formed mazes all throughout the little store, and more merchandise was displayed in the large front window. It all flew by his vision so fast, it seemed to be only a dream. A small glass sculpture of a Milotic stood upon one shelf. Almost without thinking, his hand darted out and snatched it. He stowed the loot in his pocket, more from habit than anything else. He was seated on a stool near a cool, polished counter, and a glass of water was placed in front of him. "Drink up now, laddie. Let me see those Pokemon of yours. " A pair of hands reached out to take them, but Wes held the trembling bundles tighter.

"Don't...no! I want to keep them..." he croaked, his voice hoarse from the truck exhaust and dust. Whoever this man was, he was going to take the Eevees away! Venn chuckled.

"Aye, you can have 'em back, " suddenly serious, he finished, "but if they don't get medical attention soon, they'll die of the shock." Wes made to protest, but he could feel the two pokemon becoming rapidly colder in his arms, and relented. Venn carefully lifted the Eeves- each only a little bigger than his rough, work-worn hands. A part of Wes was tempted to snatch them back, their presence had been so comforting, but he definitely didn't want them to die. If the man didn't give them back, he decided, he would simply return and steal them away. The thought was comforting, but he still watched carefully as Venn took his precious Pokemon to a room behind the counter. Wes hadn't gotten a good look at him before, but now he could see his face more clearly. He was well-muscled, with tanned skin, stiff, balding black hair, a beard that ran from his ears all the way to his chin, and a mustache. He had a few wrinkles around his eyes, but none anywhere else. He wore old, off-blue jeans and a lightweight plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He seemed friendly enough, but his sharp blue eyes didn't miss a thing. It gave Wes the unsettling feeling that the man, (Venn was it?) knew exactly what he was thinking.

He shuddered, and reached for the water the storekeeper had given him. It was cool, clear and soothing to his parched throat, with a slight mineral flavor. He sighed, setting the glass down. He felt a little more steady, but his limbs still shook slightly. He glanced at his knees. They were still scraped, but the bleeding had stopped. Dried trails of blood ran down his legs and splattered his feet, and blackened stains from the road and truck stained his legs, arms, and, he assumed, his face. But at least he was alive. He kept his eyes fixed upon the door. If he looked away, surely, Venn would bring the Eevees out, and he would miss them. In some inexplicable way, Wes had to be absolutely sure this was real. It was entirely too good to be true: Finally, he had pokemon of his very own without applying for a trainer's license, and without throwing a single Pokeball. And on top of all this, they happened to be two of the rarest non-legendary species in the region. He had heard this from a breeder months ago, who had been hanging around Madam Opalia's shop- or rather, more of a Pokemon daycare- complaining of their limited availability and outlandish price. The little shop sat near the center of town, a few streets behind the main road, and occupied a small patch of fertile land that young or busy trainers used to house their pokemon.

Madam Opalia was kindly enough in the way she spoke to her customers, but Wes had never seen her face-to face. He had always remained hidden in the shadows, squeezing himself under a gap in the fence to watch the pokemon and trainers that inevitably gathered. And his patience paid off. One wonderful spring day, when was completely alone in the pen, a group of baby Cyndaquil wandered over to his bush. Their mother, a Typhlosion he had christened Blaize, watched him with a wary eye, but did not object to him playing with her little ones. For a while, Wes was in heaven. He rolled and laughed with the squeaking, sparking Cyndaquil, but best of all, he could talk to them. Not in the silly, fleeting sounds people exchanged, but in his head. Wes couldn't explain how it happened, not in a thousand lifetimes, but he had always been able to hear the pokemon whisper. He had soon learned to identify each species, and then individuals, by voice. He could hear baby pokemon chittering excitedly, triumphant battle-circle winners boasting to each other, and wizened old ones humming in serene peacefulness.

And sometimes, if he concentrated hard enough, he could hear the laments of pokemon far, far away underneath the usual din of the city. They sang of deep sadness, of heartbreak and imprisonment, and yet, their keening was spellbinding. The music seemed more a part of him than simply a sound, inside or outside his head, but it broke his heart, leaving him in fits of tears. He rarely ever listened, but each time, the lamenting pokemon seemed to grow in number. He wanted to find out why they were hurting so much, but they were so far away... what could he do? He considered asking the pokemon the reason for their sorrow, but he could not work up the nerve. He feared that if he managed to contact the faraway creatures, he would be lost forever in their beautiful, terrible songs.

Wes still had to tread carefully around the pokemon he did speak to, for he was sure Madam Opalia would ship him off to some institution for orphans if she found him under her fence. Even if she was out of town, as she so often was, there was always someone out in the pen to prevent shady characters from running off with the pokemon. This was a legitimate fear, Wes reflected, for he had seen several attempted heists. In all of which, the would-be thieves forgot that pokemon, unlike ordinary objects, fought back. He couldn't suppress a grin as he remembered the look on a rather obtuse thug's face as a Machop delivered 3 successive Double-Slap attacks. The thief was not, of course, conscious to see Madam Opalia's rage upon her return, but Wes never saw any of that gang around the Daycare again.

The creak of an opening door roused Wes from his reverie. Venn held both of the Eevees in one arm (A rather difficult feat, as both of them were wriggling and pawing at each other, their shock forgotten.) Wes could scarcely contain his excitement as the shopkeeper laid them on the polished counter. Upon closer inspection, the two creatures were not quite identical: the male was more outgoing and bold, making several attempts to stalk and pounce on his counterpart. The mane of lighter fur around his neck was bushier and his form more muscular, while the female seemed more thoughtful and serene. Her build was more delicate and elegant, with longer, more tapered ears, but he did not doubt the sharpness of her claws and teeth. Or her clever mind. Wes giggled as she nimbly sidestepped the male's pounce, sending him sprawling. The storekeeper said nothing as Wes played with his new pokemon, which took to him quickly after much sniffing and pawing. But Venn studied the boy in front of him with sharp blue eyes. Wes did his best to ignore him. After a long silence broken only by the Eevees' playful squeaks, Venn spoke.

"Do you know what these are?" Wes looked up from the playfight. The older man had drawn two pokeballs from a pocket and lain them on the table. They were smooth, unscratched, and perfectly round. Venn might have just removed them from their packaging. Wes nodded. He had seen many trainers using them- some with a dozen or more pokeballs attached to a vest or belt. The storekeeper nodded curtly.

"Good. That saves me a lot of explaining. I don't know how these Eeves came to be in your possession, nor do I want to know. Aye, you might have found them, but that doesn't make them yours." Wes stiffened, opening his mouth to protest, but Venn continued, "Pokemon are not pets, or playthings, or means to an end. If you're going to keep these two, you need to learn to take care of them, to understand them, to learn from them. Most Pokemon don't get a say in what they do with their lives. It's a crying shame. If you aren't ready to treat these creatures as equals, then you can put them right back where they came from. It'll save all three of you a lot of heartbreak." The Eevees had long since abandoned their playfight, and both sets of brown eye were boring into his Topaz ones.

"Well?" With a jolt, he heard both of the Eevees' voices in unison, (For the ferocity of their stares, Wes was sure they were speaking to him.) challenging him to answer. Venn's face was expressionless, but his blue eyes were fixed on the two pokemon. For the first time, a wave of nausea overcame Wes. These two Eevees were depending on him, not just for companionship, but for care. A strange, almost tangible weight seemed to rest on his shoulders, and for several moments that could have stretched into hours, he could not place the emotion. He had never felt anything like it before. Suddenly, the word came to him.

Responsibility. The Eevees wanted him to do as Venn had said. They expected him to open up to them and be treated as equals, as friends, as partners. Forever. Could he really handle that kind of commitment? Though the "weight" on his shoulders seemed heavy and unwelcome, it also held a sense of promise, like a little light at the end of a long tunnel. Though the Eevees would rely on him, he could rely on them, too. For the first time in his life, he would have companions. Friends, even.

He would not have to journey a hostile world alone.

Could he handle the responsibility? Wes knew there could be only one answer. He met Venn's blue gaze squarely. "I'll do it." A smile split the shopkeeper's work worn face. "Good answer. You'll be needin' these, then." he slid the white and red pokeballs across the counter. Without a word, Wes lifted one in each hand, a finger over each center button. The Eevees made no move to resist, their brown eyes softening, but something stayed his hand. He was poised to capture both Eevees, as he had seen so often in glimpses of TV screens and battle corners, but somehow, he could not do it.

"Most Pokemon don't get a say in what they do with their lives. It's a crying shame..." Venn had said that. Wes lowered them slightly. He closed his eyes, and opened himself to the Whispering once more, allowing the chattering voices of the other pokemon in town to fade into the distance.

"Are you ready?" he asked the Eevees. It did not take them more than a moment to respond, eyes shining.

"Of course." He could not suppress a grin. His first pokemon! Heart beating fast, he pressed down the center buttons. With a sharp snap, both balls flew open, and a jet of red light enveloped both pokemon. Almost as quickly as it had begun, both the light and the Eevees vanished, and Wes held both occupied pokeballs in his hands.

"That was good for your first time, laddie." said Venn. "You'll make a fine trainer one day." Wes' chest swelled with pride, but his grin faded as Venn continued, "But you'll need to return that statue you stole before you leave."