“Darren?” Russell muttered sleepily as he woke up the next morning. The bed his friend had slept in last night was now neatly made. Sighing, Russell massaged his throat, which was tight and sore. With a shake of his head, Russell slipped out of bed and smoothed out the sheets and blanket, tucking them back under the mattress. He took the pillow and fluffed it back up, then tossed it onto the bed. With a quick glance around, Russell saw that the room was empty. Taking the opportunity he quickly pulled a pair of shorts and a blue tee from his backpack. He pulled the new outfit on and stowed away his dirty clothes. Russell took a deep breath and slipped his backpack on. Heading out into the Pokémon Center lobby he spotted his friends sitting around a table and talking to Austin. Hannah had just opened her mouth when she looked up and spotted Russell approaching.
“Hey!” She cried happily. “You’re up! How are you doing?” His friends looked up in surprise at Hannah's exclamation.
“Alright,” Russell answered quietly, his throat still painful. “I’m ready to go whenever.”
“Great!” Jimmy said enthusiastically. Austin left the table and looked closely at Russell, who smiled awkwardly and tried not to pull at the bandages that were still around his neck.
“You sure you’re feeling well enough?” Austin questioned with a frown.
“Yeah,” Russell answered swiftly. “I’m fine.” Hannah raced Jimmy outside, Austin following, while Darren and Russell stared at each other. Russell clutched one arm behind his back and Darren cleared his throat before looking away.
“Well…let’s go,” Darren mumbled. Russell stepped aside just as his friend brushed quickly past him and out the Pokémon Center doors. Russell exhaled sharply before rushing to catch up. The group headed east from Violet City, carefully maneuvering through the tall grass, and quickly found the dirt trail that led towards New Bark Town.
“So you’re set on a Cyndaquil, Jimmy?” Hannah asked cheerfully.
“Yep,” Jimmy answered.
“Cyndaquil are cute,” Hannah remarked, grinning widely. “Not as cute as Chikorita, though!”
“You’re definitely getting a Chikorita?” Jimmy questioned, worry in his voice. “Chikorita is weak to fire. What if they can’t get along?”
“Oh, it’ll be fine!” Hannah assured Jimmy, patting his shoulder. “We can’t battle each other, anyway. We’ll only teach them to play and be friends!” Jimmy glanced backward at Russell and Darren, who had been uncomfortably silent for most of the trip. Austin glanced back as well from the front of the group. Wigglytuff and Chansey had gone back to Goldenrod City with Susan, but Austin had his Raticate, Snubbull and Sentret with him. The senior trainer was calmly glancing around as they walked, ready to call out his Pokémon if any wild Pokémon showed up. Russell bit his lip and hoped wild Pokémon were the only ones they’d encounter.
“I’m getting Totodile,” Darren spoke up loudly, his regular attitude suddenly making a reappearance. He grinned at Russell. “If Cyndaquil sets any fires, Totodile will be able to put them out.” Jimmy whirled.
“If anyone would be starting a fire, it’d be you!” He stated. Russell noticed that Jimmy was glaring in his direction, as well. “I’m glad I’m the one getting Cyndaquil.”
“I wouldn’t start a fire!” Russell protested hotly. “I’ve never even played with matches.”
“Well, you both get crazy,” Jimmy said, “so I wouldn’t trust either of you with a fire Pokémon.”
“And I think that’s the cue to take a break,” Austin said, stepping between Jimmy, Russell and Darren. “There’s a little clearing up ahead. Come on.” Jimmy turned and continued walking. Darren elbowed Russell and smirked, causing Russell to punch his shoulder lightly in return. Once the group had all taken a seat in the clearing next to the path, Austin set his brown backpack down and rifled through it. “Who wants lunch?”
“I do!” Hannah’s hand shot up, narrowly missing Russell, who flinched away. Hannah gave him a sheepish grin and put her hand slowly down. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Russell said, smiling. Hannah leapt up and approached Austin, who was holding out a bagged cheese and cucumber sandwich.
“Can I have that one?” She asked, and Austin handed the bag to her. “Thanks!”
“Cucumber, lettuce and cheese…” Austin pulled out another sandwich, and Jimmy glanced hopefully at him. “Here you go.” Jimmy nodded his thanks and moved back to sit next to Hannah. Darren and Russell crowded forward to get sandwiches. “Peanut butter and honey…and a cream cheese, lettuce and tomato sandwich.” Darren let Russell have the peanut butter and honey. Darren and Austin wound up with the cream cheese and tomato.
“Thanks, Austin!” Hannah said before taking an eager bite of her sandwich. Austin nodded and handed out small water bottles.
“No problem,” he said, starting on his own sandwich. “After we eat, we’ll probably reach Cherrygrove in half an hour, and New Bark Town won’t be too far off after that.”
“Great!” Hannah exclaimed. “I can’t wait!” Russell took a bite of his sandwich and almost choked in surprise when Darren elbowed him. Swallowing, Russell glared at his friend, who gestured with a jerk of his head towards two trainers who were walking down the trail. Darren leaned in close and whispered.
“Hey, what Pokémon do they have?” Russell stiffened, then glanced at the trainers. Only one of the trainers had a row of Pokéballs held on their belt thanks to round magnets on the Pokéballs and a magnetic strip on the belt. Two were the usual red-and-white, but one was turquoise on top ball with a red arrow pointing down towards the white section. “Neat,” Darren whispered. “A Lure Ball. They must have been to Azalea already.” As they passed, Russell felt a shiver take hold of him, and closed his eyes, trying not to look into the Pokéballs. Several images forced their way into his mind anyway: Slowpoke, Ledyba, Rattata. He came back to his senses when he felt Darren shaking his shoulder. “You alright?”
“Fine,” Russell said quietly, suppressing another shiver. “I’ll tell you later, alright? After we get going again.”
“Okay,” Darren whispered back, a small grin of excitement on his face. Russell looked away and quickly finished his sandwich, then stood and walked over to Austin. The senior trainer looked up at him questioningly.
“Could you let your Pokémon out?” He asked quietly, and Austin looked puzzled for only a moment, then nodded. “Thanks.” Austin set the remaining half of his sandwich aside and snapped his Pokéballs from his belt, then tapped the button on the front of each one in turn. Three flashes of light later, a Raticate, Snubbull and Sentret were standing there. “Hey, Miki,” Russell said, kneeling to scratch the Pokémon under her chin. “I bet you needed a break, huh?” Miki flicked her tail happily and closed her eyes as Russell began scratching behind her ears. Snubbull and Sentret moved to stand on either side of him and nudged his hands. Russell scratched behind their ears and smiled. “How’ve you been?” He sighed, a weight off his mind now that they were out of their Pokéballs. Austin rummaged in his pack and pulled out three sandwiches. The Pokémon chattered enthusiastically as he handed them out.
“We’re going to walk with them?” Jimmy asked.
"After they're finished," Austin responded with a nod.
"Aww, that'll be so fun!" Hannah cooed.
“Everyone ready?” Austin asked.
“I’m ready,” Hannah answered, and Jimmy nodded.
“Yeah,” Darren echoed.
“Ready,” Russell said.
“Alright,” Austin said. “Make sure you pick up all your trash.” He looked down at the three Pokémon, who were just scarfing down the rest of their sandwiches. "You ready?" They swished their tails eagerly in response.
"I'm ready! Come on!" Darren burst out. Austin nodded and the group promptly set off again.
“Sooooo." Darren grabbed Russell's arm and pulled him to his side, waiting until the others were far enough away. “Which Pokémon did that trainer have?” Russell stifled a groan of irritation; he’d forgotten Darren’s request already. He quickly began walking and Darren marched close beside him.
“Slowpoke, Rattata and Ledyba,” Russell answered, pulling his arm free. “That’s all.”
“Cool,” Darren said, and Russell looked away before rolling his eyes. Miki pressed up beside him briefly and then began trotting beside him, needing to move faster to keep up with his steps. Russell smiled down at her and patted her head. Snubbull and Sentret stayed up with Jimmy and Hannah, walking between them, and Austin still in the lead. Soon enough they reached Cherrygrove, took a little break, and then began the last stretch to New Bark Town. A couple thick patches of grass and ledges later they were just outside the town. Austin thanked his Pokémon before calling them back into their Pokéballs, and he gave Russell a quick apologetic glance.
“Alright, follow me.” He gestured behind and to his right. “The lab’s just up this way.” Excitedly, Jimmy, Hannah and Darren followed right at his heels, but Russell hung back slightly, letting them all go into the lab—a strangely plain-looking light brown building—first before trudging in after them. Men and women in white coats glanced up as they entered, and Russell looked at them nervously, then tried to walk ahead without making any further eye contact. He stopped when he saw three Pokéballs waiting on a table just ahead, and felt a familiar, uncomfortable sensation, and three faint images of the starter Pokémon came to his mind. Darren glanced over his shoulder and beckoned urgently. Russell clenched his jaw and walked closer, trying to ignore the images of the starters flashing in and out of his mind like pictures on a projector screen. Russell jumped when he felt an elbow in his side; Darren had nudged him and was holding up his new trainer’s license. Quickly, Russell got his out. Glancing at the table, Russell saw a brown-haired woman standing there. If not for her light skin tone, she would look especially similar to his mother. The woman smiled and pulled a pair of glasses from her front pocket, slipping them on with one hand. Russell glanced at the Pokéballs on the table.
Totodile on the left, Cyndaquil in the middle, Chikorita on the right, Russell thought, clutching his arms tightly. He was starting to get a headache.
“Nice to meet you all. My name is Professor Zelkova.” She crossed her arms in a business-like manner. “So, you’re all here for your first Pokémon?” Russell watched his friends as they nodded, then realized they were looking back at him. Face burning, Russell looked up at the professor.
“I’m not,” he said. “I’m getting mine later.”
“A few other trainers who stopped by today said the same,” Professor Zelkova remarked, nodding once. "The most important things we’re doing today are registering you into the Trainer System.” Russell smiled as his friends approached the table. “You seem ready to pick your Pokémon. Starting from the left, there’s Totodile, Cyndaquil and Chikorita.” Hannah went to the right side of the table and Jimmy stood in the middle. Darren eagerly grabbed the left Pokéball and then held it in both hands. Jimmy and Hannah picked the remaining Pokéballs up more slowly and looked back at Professor Zelkova. “I’ll register them in the database here. It’ll help if you or your Pokémon get lost." She smiled at Russell. "When you get your first Pokémon, you can come back to the lab anytime to register.” Russell nodded. "The registration process will just take a few minutes." Professor Zelkova gathered the licenses up and disappeared into a back room, but soon enough was back to return the Pokémon licenses.
“Can we let them out?” Darren asked in an excited rush, hopefully looking at Professor Zelkova. She nodded, and there were flashes as the three new trainers let their new Pokémon out. Russell slumped his shoulders and sighed quietly, glad the Pokémon had been released. Hannah knelt and held out her hands to the Chikorita, who stared at her for a moment before sniffing her hands. The leaf atop Chikorita’s head quivered as she shook herself and timidly approached Hannah, who stretched her hand out and carefully patted the Pokémon’s head. The Cyndaquil glanced around the room, long nose twitching as he sniffed the air.
“Hey,” Jimmy said, holding out a hand gingerly. “Hey, buddy,” he said with a smile, and the little fire Pokémon looked straight at him, not moving. Jimmy shuffled forward and hesitantly touched the Cyndaquil’s head, jumping a little when the Pokémon stood on tiptoe and butted his hand. “You’re really warm,” he noted, scratching Cyndaquil’s head. Jimmy smiled when the Pokémon stretched up further onto his back paws, enjoying the scratching. “Awww,” Jimmy laughed, bringing his other hand up to scratch the Cyndaquil under the chin, causing the fire Pokémon to flop over and wave his small front paws. Meanwhile, Darren was grinning as the Totodile wagged her tail eagerly. He reached out and patted her head. Abruptly the Totodile pulled back, stretched her jaws wide and clamped down on her new trainer's right hand.
“Umm....” Darren said, trying to pull his hand free.
“Come on, Totodile, let him go,” the woman urged, kneeling beside the water Pokémon. “Remember—don't bite anyone” With a reluctant murmur, Totodile released Darren’s hand. Russell saw that there were only the faintest indents in Darren’s hand. “You alright?”
“Yeah, it didn’t hurt much,” Darren said.
“She’s learning not to bite, but she’s still a young Pokémon,” Professor Zelkova explained. “Just be patient with her and she’ll understand. That goes for all of them, actually.”
“Okay!” Darren exclaimed, reaching out to pick the Totodile up. He gave a smile and hugged the Pokémon. Totodile squirmed and bit his hair, but let go when Darren patted her back. “Don’t eat all my hair,” he laughed, setting her down when she let go. Professor Zelkova cleared her throat, gaining the trainers’ attention.
“You’ll learn a lot about your new Pokémon just by spending time with them, but in the meantime, I have a Starters book for you all.” She nodded at Russell. “Even though you didn’t pick a starter, the information will still be useful.” She retrieved four medium-sized books from her desk and passed them out to the trainers. “You’ll be able to find information about your starter Pokémon, but there is lots of helpful knowledge and advice in the books as well.” Russell studied the book’s cover for a moment.
“Thank you,” he said to Professor Zelkova once he’d put it safely away.
“Yes, thank you so much!” Hannah gushed. “I’m so excited to read the book!” Jimmy was still clutching the Starters book tightly in his arms. He looked sideways at Hannah and beamed in agreement. Darren gazed at his own book with a frown. The professor laughed.
“I’m glad to hear it, because whether or not you choose to become trainers who battle, this information will help you. You can simply raise Pokémon, battle them, or just be friends. It’s up to you. The book details some of the Pokémon career choices trainers can make.” She lightly clapped her hands together. “Well, you’ve had a long journey here. Have a safe trip back. Feel free to visit anytime if you need help or just have questions.”
“Thank you,” Austin said with a grateful nod. “We’re going to head off. We’ll take a break in Cherrygrove.” Russell followed after his friends as they headed toward the lab’s exit, but stopped when he realized Austin was hanging back.
“I’ve got something to discuss with you,” he heard Professor Zelkova say quietly. “It won’t take long.” Austin made a shooing motion with his hand.
“Go on and wait by the door, alright?” He asked the group. “I’ll be along.”
“Okay,” Russell said, frowning and hesitating out of curiosity. He turned and hurried off when Austin gave him a quick, single nod. At the door, Hannah, Jimmy and Darren were chatting excitedly about their new Pokémon. Russell smiled and listened to their conversation, but his mind was on Austin and Professor Zelkova. What could she have wanted to talk about?
“Alright, ready to go?” Austin asked. Russell jumped, turning sharply. “All done.”
“Yup!” Hannah chimed in response. “I’m ready!” She pushed the door open and held it. Russell was the last to go through, and stopped to look at her.
“Thanks,” he said, and she nodded.
“No problem!” Hannah said, beaming, “Now come on! I can’t wait to get back home!”
A flash of lightning jolted Russell from his light sleep. Austin had noticed storm clouds looming over the horizon upon leaving the lab, and it was raining by the time they had finished taking a break in the Cherrygrove Pokémon Center. He’d decided they should wait until tomorrow to travel. Russell yawned, then gasped at the thunder that boomed a second later. Russell drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, wishing he was back home with Rana. Whenever there were storms at night back in Goldenrod, she’d quietly leap onto his bed and cuddle up against his back. Her purrs usually sent him back to sleep even with the thunder drowning her own every now and then. But now not even Wigglytuff was here, and the storm was making it hard to get back to sleep. A strong pang of longing made him curl up under the covers. They’d be back in Goldenrod by tomorrow afternoon. It wouldn’t take long at all, but the storm raging outside and all that had happened made it seem like tomorrow would never come. Another flash of lightning filled the room. A sudden whisper managed to beat the crack of thunder that sounded a moment later.
Russell rolled over and attempted to jump to his feet and pounce on whoever had whispered his name, but he wound up getting tangled in the sheets and thudding face-first into the floor. He lay there, groaning and dazed.
“Russell!” A voice exclaimed, sounding aghast. “Sorry!” Darren gripped Russell’s arms and helped him sit up. “I just wanted to check on you!”
“Well, I was fine,” Russell groaned, holding his forehead. “Is it bleeding?”
“No!” Darren briefly touched Russell’s forehead. “No...no. It’s dry, but there’s a bump.” Russell hefted himself back onto the bed. “You okay?”
“I'm alright.” Russell glanced towards where Darren’s voice had come from. “Seems like you didn’t wake anyone up.”
“Yeah!” Darren chuckled nervously. “Seems like. Good thing there were separate rooms.”
“How’s Totodile?” Russell asked.
“She’s right here,” Darren said, climbing up onto the bed. “Come on up, Totodile.” There was a scuffling noise and a sudden weight on the bed between Russell and Darren. Russell slowly reached to his left and lowered his hand to feel a ridge of spines. He moved his hand up towards the Pokémon’s head and lightly scratched like Rana liked to be scratched behind her ears. The Totodile made a pleased gurgling noise and Russell scratched a little harder, feeling small, cool scales. “Don’t tell Hannah I said this," Darren mumbled, "but she is pretty cute.”
“Uh-huh.” Russell smiled and patted the Totodile’s head before clasping his hands in his lap.
“How come you didn’t get a Starter?” Darren questioned, setting Totodile in his lap. “They probably had more in the lab.”
“Well….I want to raise one of the kittens,” Russell said.
“Will you battle?” Darren wondered quietly. Russell was silent. “Because…”
“No, I don’t think so,” Russell interrupted.
“Well…..” Darren sighed. “It’s not like we’re allowed to battle anyway.”
“Right,” Russell conceded. “But I don’t ever want to.”
“You could be the Goldenrod Gym leader someday, though,” Darren suggested, and Russell laughed anxiously.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Just because I like Normal types doesn’t mean I want to take the gym over. My mom will find someone else."
“It’d be cool, though,” Darren persisted. A bright flash of lightning illuminated the room once again and Totodile squeaked in fear and grabbed tightly onto Darren, her claws digging into him. “Ouch!” He hissed, trying in vain to pry her claws free. With a sigh he patted her head and put an arm around her. “It’ll stop soon, Burr. Don’t worry.”
“Burr?” Russell echoed, grinning.
“Yeah,” Darren muttered back. “I just called her that, for some reason.”
“It works,” Russell said, nodding.
“I’ll…say,” Darren said, a grimace in his voice as Burr’s claws sank deeper into his side as a crack of thunder drowned out the rain. “She hasn’t let go of me since the lightning started. She was in her Pokéball, but I woke up and she was curled up next to me. Must have broken out of her Pokéball.”
“That’s kind of sweet,” Russell noted. “She likes you already.”
“You think so?” Darren asked.
The friends fell silent. Darren calming Burr down whenever lightning and thunder scared her. Eventually, the lightning and thunder let up and the only thing to be heard from outside was the patter of rain. Burr relaxed and pulled her claws free.
"Ow," Darren whimpered. Russell closed his eyes and leaned against the wall, enjoying the sound of the rain.
“You know….” Darren spoke up suddenly, causing Russell to jolt out of his doze. “We can’t battle until we’re older, but if we’re in trouble, we can ask our Pokémon to help us.”
“Right,” Russell yawned, rubbing his eyes.
“But if…if something happened again, then…I wouldn’t use Burr.”
“I’d run.” Russell yawned again.
“But if you couldn’t run…...I’d help you.” Darren shuffled uneasily. “If that guy ever came back, I mean.” Russell pressed his lips together and tensed his shoulders.
“If you didn't run,” Russell said eventually, looking away from Darren despite the darkness hiding him, “I wouldn’t either.”
“We’d beat him together,” Darren said, emboldened. “Maybe Burr would bite him.”
“Maybe. But the police are looking for him.”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot.” Darren stretched his arms over his head. “I bet they’ll get him soon.” Russell yawned loudly and Darren scooped Burr up and stood.
“Guess we’d better get to sleep.” He turned and stared straight at Russell’s form in the darkness. “When we get back, will you come with me? I’m going to pack and then head for Azaela Town.”
“That sounds fun,” Russell answered. “Sure. Mom said I could take Wigglytuff. Hopefully she’ll still let me go.”
“It’s really safe in Johto!” Darren exclaimed. “She has to let you go! That guy was just a weirdo.”
“Yeah, she probably will,” Russell agreed. “Wigglytuff is really strong, anyway. That’s why she wanted him to go with me.”
“Awesome!” Darren burst out happily. “Well, see you in the morning.”
“Yup, see you,” Russell returned. A dim square of light flooded into the room as Darren quietly opened the door, and then the room was pitch black once again. Russell curled up under the covers and let the rain lull him to sleep.