Rating: PG-13 Author’s Notes: I’ve been sitting on this one for a long time—I got the idea quite some time ago, but I wasn’t able to figure out how to pull it off. I haven’t actually played any of the PMD games after the red/blue generation, so I don’t know if this still applies. I just couldn’t get over how ridiculous some of the missions were; I’m pretty sure I had to go in and save a metagross from Tiny Woods at least once. I mean, metagross, really? Something about that seemed a little fishy… Escort Mission “There’s a zubat. There’s a zubat! There’s a zubat!” Nick grunted and staggered as a wall of red and black fur slammed into him from behind. Arcanine stared down into the charmander’s face, eyes wide and wild and fluffy mane bristling. “Yes, okay, okay,” Nick snapped, cutting off another frantic statement of the obvious. Now that he’d been knocked down, he had the perfect vantage to see the flittering little package of impending doom swooping down out of the murk. A concentrated stream of fire rushed within inches of Arcanine’s nose, and the charred zubat fell silently out of the air, unconscious before it hit the ground. Arcanine looked back over his shoulder as the bat landed with a pitiful thump, then turned a grin on Nick. The charmander scowled back as he levered himself up. “All right. There. Now, to the back of the group, if you don’t mind. We should get moving before more of those show up.” As Arcanine trotted away, Nick straightened his Rescue Team badge and brushed a bit of grit off his pecha scarf. A quick glance at cubone showed that the ground type shared his exasperation; the usually friendly and easygoing pokémon rolled his eyes as soon as he caught Nick’s glance. Turning away, Nick started off down the narrow corridor again, his team and their buffoon of a client trailing along behind. The charmander’s burning tail lit up a considerable stretch of the corridor, enough for him to catch sight of the whismur long before it reached him. By the time it did, it had so many gravelrock bruises that a simple scratch was more than enough to do it in. Nick sighed as he kicked the limp body out of the way. Honestly, where were all the good jobs these days? It seemed as though it had been ages since there’d been a legendary around to stir up trouble, and the only jobs he’d been able to find were along the lines of, “Baby Pichu got lost while picking flowers in Tiny Woods! Please save her!” About as exciting as watching paint dry. Behind him, Nick could hear Cubone periodically banging his club up against the wall of the corridor. Cubone was at least as restless as his team’s leader; what he’d signed up for was adventure, for daring escapades and frightful dungeons. The occasional zubat from the gloom didn’t do much to get the blood pumping. Poochyena was a little more difficult to read, but Nick doubted the playful pokémon enjoyed getting dragged along on pointless make-work missions that paid the bills but did little for the spirit. Not to mention that the jobs were often preposterous as well as inane. It was ridiculous—here his team was, guiding an Arcanine twice their collective size down into a cavern to meet up with another idiot that should by all rights be able to eat zubat for breakfast rather than cowering at the sight of them. Most of the pokémon around here hardly seemed to “enjoy fighting for sport” the way the games made things out to be. Certainly Arcanine acted as though he couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag, fire type or not. Nick’s stomach gurgled, and he put a clawed paw to it with a grimace. Long missions like these were a drag in more ways than one. It had taken a long time for Nick to adjust to his little charmander body—not that he ever hoped to grow comfortable in it—and while it was fun to be able to breathe fire and carry around his own combination flashlight/stove, there were drawbacks. The fire-lizard’s ridiculously fast metabolism was definitely one of these. Why did pokémon with no talent for battle go wandering into the depths—not just a little way in, but the depths—of untamed caverns, anyway? “Okay, food break,” Nick said, as the tunnel widened out into an underground gallery. There was nothing threatening in sight, and the charmander leaned up against the wall to one side of the passage as his team and their client filed out past him. “Poochy, let’s have it.” Poochyena, who was taking his turn carrying the team’s toolbox, trotted over and set it down at his leader’s feet, then watched, ears perked, as the charmander opened it and started rummaging. Nick came up with an apple and, for a moment appreciating his current pokémon form, sliced it into three neat pieces with his claws. Arcanine looked on hungrily as Nick passed the grub out to his partners, but the charmander ignored the stupid dog; they were taking him to rescue his friend, after all—he couldn’t expect to mooch off their food at the same time. When it became apparent that no one was going to offer him anything, Arcanine settled himself down a little ways off from the rest of the group. There he remained, silent and brooding, until a nincada came scuttling out of the darkness, and then he could not be quieted until Cubone had dispatched of the thing. ---- It was some time later that an even wearier and more impatient Nick found himself within sight of the holy grail. The font of life, the beacon of hope in a dark and airless dungeon: the last set of stairs he’d need to drag his weary little body down before he could call this dumb mission a success. Zubat and nincada had been replaced by poliwhirl and wooper in the dungeon’s deeper, wetter parts, and Nick’s little team had found them a bit more of a challenge than they’d hoped for on this mission. Aching but filled with renewed strength, Nick turned to smile over his shoulder at the ragged column of pokémon following behind. Oddly enough, it was Arcanine who caught the meaning of his glance. The only one amongst the party not sporting injuries and a sour expression, he started to wag his tail and gave Nick a maddening grin. “This is it?” he asked. “Last floor? The one where Metagross is?” “Right down those stairs, yes,” Nick said, trying not to sound too sour. “Watch your back; if you get yourself knocked out now, I swear your metal friend can rust down there for all I care.” He turned away before he could see Arcanine’s reaction, but he didn’t care what the big fire-type thought, anyway. He’d had enough of this nonsense, and the hum of the Rescue Team badge pinned to his scarf took over all the rest of his thoughts as he clambered down steps that were much more of a chore for him now than they would have been in human form. The end of the mission was near, he thought as he felt the thrum of the badge vibrating in his chest, telling him that he was close, so close, to his objective. No more escort missions for a long time after this one, Nick decided. Straight rescues, deliveries, fine. But no more blocking for some pansy who should be at the top of the food chain. From the base of the stairs, Nick did his best to make it a straight shot to Metagross. He pushed the team hard, running wherever possible, turning and turning through the maze of narrow passageways with little care for order or reason. The mounting buzz of power in his badge was all he needed to guide him, and he’d be damned if he was going to take his time about this. He’d had enough—more than enough. He was tired and bitter and wanted to go home and take a nap at Base. By now the rest of the team had caught wind of what was going on and were running along with him, despite their various injuries and the hunger that had started to nag at all of them, with the apple break seeming to be in the distant past. Even arcanine was, for once, able to keep up rather than inclined to wander off down interesting-looking passages and come running back with a bunch of angry wilds on his heels. Never again, Nick decided as he pelted across slick stones and along the fingers of an underground river, the water milky with minerals in the glow of his tail-flame. This escort mission had been bad enough, but at least they hadn’t had to redo it; Acanine wasn’t quite enough of a moron to get himself knocked out. Escorts were always way more hassle than they were worth, everybody hated doing them, and it’s not like they were going out and saving pokémon from actual disasters or anything—just saving them from their weird fascination with getting trapped in improbably remote places. The team tore through any wild pokémon hapless enough to stand in its way as it stormed the final floor, scouring every nook and cranny for some sign of Metagross. Nick was so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he almost didn’t catch what the zubat he’d been pulling apart squeaked. “Don’t go left up ahead… big metal guy… he’ll eat you up!” the pokémon wheezed, teetering on the edge of unconsciousness; Nick felt a spasm of shame for beating up what was obviously only a little kid, but then shoved the feeling aside out of irritation. Pokémon, right? This is what they were born to do. A smack with his tail laid the bat out cold. “Come on, guys!” Nick said, shaking blood from his claws. “Up ahead on the left. We’re almost there!” The group pounded on down the empty corridor and nearly piled atop one another at the sharp left turn that opened up without warning. Strange cautiousness overcame Nick as he found himself in the open chamber that opened off the tunnel. It was broad and quiet, not so much as a zubat-screech to lighten the heavy silence of the deep caverns. His flame seemed to throw more shadows than illumination, his companions turned to giants as their shades paraded across the wall beside his. At the far end of the chamber, his light glinted off metal; red eyes glowed from the dark. “Metagross!” Arcanine’s happy bark boomed out into the stillness, and the dog shouldered past Nick, making a beeline for his companion. His whole hindquarters were wagging back and forth, and he bounced higher with each step; despite himself, Nick had to grin. He was so much like a real dog… Pulling the thought back before he could follow it on to remember how far from home he really was, the charmander turned to his rescue team. “All right, guys, good work. I’ll just go over and zap those two out of here, and then we can grab our money and head home. Poochy, think you could check if there’re any orange gummis in there? I was going to take some to Meditite later today if we found any lying around.” Warm breath panted against his ear, and Nick found himself uncomfortably close to Arcanine’s face as he turned around again. “Thank you so much!” Arcanine said, offering Nick a tongue-lolling grin. “I never would have made it without you guys!” The charmander tried not to shiver—how had Arcanine crept up on him like that? “Yeah, sure, anytime.” Metal sidled into Nick’s peripheral vision; Metagross was close enough for the rescue badge to work on it now. “Here, just stand next to your friend and I’ll get you out of—“ There was a heavy slam and screech of tortured metal, and Nick’s head whipped around as his heart leapt in his chest. The team’s toolbox was a twisted hunk of scrap, an explosion of trinkets littering the floor around it. It was Poochy who had taken most of the blow, though, the blow that must have come from Metagross, who was raising a metal arm sprayed with gore away from the shattered body of the puppy. Cubone let out a howl and hurled his bone at Metagross; it clanged off the metal monster’s hide, and a jet of fire blazed past Nick’s ear to engulf the ground type. Nick turned horrified eyes on Arcanine, who seemed unconcerned as he cooked the Cubone with a flamethrower. While the ground type toppled over in a smoking heap, Nick backed up, pawing desperately for the rescue badge pinned to his scarf. It was so wrong, he had to get them out of here, maybe they would still be okay if he could just get them away from these monsters— A heavy paw slammed into his chest and crushed him to the ground; Arcanine loomed over Nick, a lazy grin across his muzzle. The charmander clawed at the toes digging into his chest and trapping the rescue badge just over his heart, where he could feel it humming with the power to take him to safety. His eyes flicked sideways at flickers of movement of movement, and he saw Cubone struggling to get up. Then the ground type was raised right off the floor in a cocoon of psychic energy, pedaling the air with his legs and flailing his arms until invisible force twisted his head sharply to the side with a brittle snap. Nick looked back up at Arcanine. The big pokémon, who had been watching cubone’s death as well, turned his attention back to the trapped charmander. He said, “Too bad you couldn’t spare any of that apple earlier. Now I’m hungry.” Charmander blew flames at the arcanine’s face and renewed trying to tear the paw off his chest. In terror, there was no thought, only the hammering of his heart and the buzzing of the rescue badge above--and the sight of that gleaming smile, growing closer. The flames he spat only raised a flickering red aura around Arcanine’s body, renewing his strength. Through the curtain of spectral fire, the teeth glistened. Then they came down. ---- By now, Arcanine was reduced to nibbling at the bones in a lazy way. A few feet away, Metagross had gone into its hibernation mode, red eyes no more than embers as it stood motionless: digesting, Arcanine guessed. He’d let it have the poochyena—a bit too much like a growlithe for his taste—and half the cubone, as per the usual agreement. It would be content to chew on that for a while. All in all, not a bad haul. Poochyena were dirt-common, you could get those anywhere, but cubone and charmander were both rare treats. After this, Arcanine thought, a nice trip to the southern ocean would be nice; it had been ages since he’d had seafood. These days, of course, a civilized pokémon was supposed to be content with berries and whatnot to get through the day. It was wrong to kill a fellow sentient, or something along those lines. Complete crock, of course; predators were predators, no matter if they moved into houses and swapped recipes with their prey-neighbors. Any pokémon that gave up his true nature for the sake of “civilization” deserved what he got, in Arcanine’s opinion. You should live life off what you could catch and kill, or not live at all. But cave living got boring; you could only eat so many zubat and poliwag before it all started to blur together. Which was why rescue teams were so convenient—like a home-delivery service. You never knew what you’d get, but it was almost always something rare, powerful, and unusual for the area; an exhilarating challenge, a special treat, and a nice surprise all in one. Arcanine gnawed on the femur. There was always the danger you’d come across something too strong, of course, but then you just let them ‘port you out and went on your way afterwards. He and Metagross were strong enough to take most teams, especially after they'd been worn down by a long dungeon-dive. It was easy to lure rescue teams into the depths, where no one would witness the act save maybe a few wilds. And who would believe some crazed wild wandering into town, shouting about how so-and-so had been murdered by the pokémon they’d been trying to save? Sometimes rescue teams just didn’t come back, after all; it was a dangerous job. You overcame it or you perished. Soon enough he and Metagross would need to move on again before someone realized that rescue teams had been disappearing much more frequently than normal. For now, though, he could relax and enjoy his satiety, and have leftovers for later. The bone shattered in his jaws and he started to lick at the marrow. Now, this charmander here, he hoped he found another like this. There was some little hint of he didn’t-know-what, some extra flavor hiding in there, he’d never tasted the like of before. This, he decided, was something he could get used to.