“What are you waiting for?” Cerise asked, bouncing on her heels and clutching her purse in both hands. “Open it!”

“This isn’t just another birthday present,” scolded Rowan, standing beside her with his hands crossed behind him, looking for all the world like a serious businessman in his thirties instead of a boy of sixteen. “He’s taking it seriously. Like it deserves. Let him be.” But he, too, was leaning forward a little, watching the third member of their little group – and the brightly-wrapped box on the table in front of him – with dark, intense eyes.

Drake hadn’t taken his eyes off the box since they’d come upstairs and seen it. Oh, his mother had told them Professor Juniper had dropped by, had told them what the Professor was giving them. But to come up here and see it waiting for them, bright green with an equally-bright red ribbon wrapped around it… to read the note and learn that, yes, the Professor trusted the three of them to each take charge of one of the lives waiting within, to go out and see the world and learn more about the creatures that dwelt in it…

Rowan was right, and Drake knew it. It was a big thing.

But Cerise was right, too. Staring at the box wasn’t going to see them off on their journeys.

Drake lifted off his cap long enough to comb his unruly brown hair back with his fingers, settled the cap again, and took a step forward. He seized the loose ends of the ribbon, one in each hand. The bow unravelled and shrank as he pulled, and then the ribbon fell slack. A bit of tugging later, and it was out of the way entirely.

With some trepidation, he flipped the top off of the box.

There were no explosions, no bright flares of light, no sounds beyond the box lid clattering onto the table. Feeling a little silly, Drake leaned over to look in.

Three smaller packages rested inside – three wooden cases, each bigger across than a spread hand. One by one he lifted them out and set them on the table beside the box. His friends came up beside him, and together they regarded the three cases – brass-trimmed wood, each with a brass plaque on top: one was engraved with leaping flames, another with waves, and the third with a tree.

Fire, water, plants. Anyone who knew anything about the creatures inhabiting their world knew about that circle. None of them knew, yet, just what they’d find when they opened those boxes, but they could tell what would be represented.

“Well, let’s get a real look at them,” Cerise suggested. “We can’t tell anything about them just by looking at a box.

Again, she had a point. Nodding absently, Drake reached forward, his hand wavering between the boxes, uncertain. Which one to choose? Fire, water, grass… Without knowing quite why, water seemed the best fit. He reached for the one marked with waves, and each of his friends took another – Cerise the one with flames, and Rowan the one with the tree. As one, they opened the clasps and flipped the tops open. In each one, nestled in black velvet, was a ball as big as a fist, red on top, white underneath, black around the seam and with a grey button opposite the hinge. Each one lifted the ball from his or her respective box, and took a step back from the table.

Heart pounding, Drake tapped the button on his ball. It popped open, and with a flare of light, something came into being. It was blue and white, with a squat body and stocky limbs and dark eyes, and something like a scallop shell on its chest. It peered up at him past a blunt, whiskery muzzle, and it chirped at him, inquisitive.

Feeling a smile spread over his face, Drake knelt down, extending a hand. The little otter-beast sniffed at his fingers, then pounced them, clutching at his hand with all four limbs, tail wiggling in excitement. Laughing, Drake lifted the beast up toward himself, stroking its back with his other hands; its fur was thick and a little coarse, but slippery. It kept clinging to his hand with a playful little growl.

Drake laughed. “I think this little fellow and I will get along just fine,” he said.

“Yeah!” exclaimed Cerise, hugging up against her chest a black-and-orange creature about the size and shape of a small pig, its curled tail tipped by a bright red bob; it wriggled in her grip with a pleased-sounding squeal.

“Oh, well, so glad you both get a say in it,” Rowan drawled. “But I wanted this one anyway.” His new companion was much more slender than the other two, coiled around his arm and clinging to it with short little legs; it was bright green, and its tail tipped with a leaf-like fan. As he gazed down at it, stroking its long body, it was easy to believe that he meant that second remark, that he wasn’t just settling.

The Oshawott – for so the engraving on the ball named it – stretched out along Drake’s arm, yawned briefly, and then flipped over, peering up at him upside-down; he scrambled to get a hand under it before it went tumbling. “Careful, little guy,” he chuckled.

Cerise looked down at her companion, then at the ball it had come out of, then, finally, up at her friends. “So… this means we’re trainers now, doesn’t it?”

“Of course it does,” Rowan stated. “We have ‘mon, so we’re trainers.”

“And when trainers meet, they test each other, right?”

Drake blinked. “Wait, you aren’t suggesting…”

“Yeah!” she cut in. “Let’s have a duel! Just a little one, a friendly one, nothing serious.”

“What, right here?” Drake glanced around his bedroom. It was spacious, since Mom had happened to get a big house for just her and her only son, but that spacious?

“Sure, why not? They’re little, they wouldn’t do that much harm.”

“They’re little, yes,” Rowan cut in, “but they are ‘mon. Appearances aren’t always…”

“It’ll be quick,” Cerise said, interrupting again. “And they’ll get to play with each other after being cooped up in those balls all morning, right?”

Well, Drake had to admit that the Oshawott did seem to be in a playful mood. “What do you think, little guy?” Drake asked it. “Want to play?”

In answer, the beast righted itself and hopped off his arm, landing solidly on all fours and staring at Cerise’s own companion, as she more gently set it down. “Well,” she said as she stood, “let’s do this right, huh?” She reached into her purse. “I’ve got a two-hundred-fifty mark that says the Tepig will come out on top!”

Oh, time for a friendly little bet, was it? Looking down at the Oshawott, leaning forward as though straining at an invisible leash, Drake grinned. “You’re on,” he declared, taking a step back. Once Cerise, too, was out of the way, he said, “All right, little otter guy – pounce!”

And pounce the Oshawott did – with a speed that took Drake’s breath away. It didn’t seem remotely possible that something so small, with such short legs, could move that fast – but there it was, suddenly streaking across the room. The Tepig, for all it looked squat and even more awkward, was a blur as it tumbled away – not quite avoiding the blitz attack, but tumbling with it, coming back up on its feet, turning to charge its new opponent. It crashed into the Oshawott, sending it flying so hard that Drake winced – but the little thing bounced off the wall, putting all four paws against it and springing off in an instant, diving down.

Back and forth they went, careening off the walls, upsetting the table and sending the boxes tumbling, knocking his bed this way and that. Again and again they slammed into each other with impossible force, and each time they missed each other, something else went tumbling.

By the time the Oshawott finally pinned its foe, standing atop the sprawled Tepig and uttering a growl like an excited terrier, the place was a mess, though at least nothing fragile had been upset.

“I think,” said Rowan as the two beasts returned to their new owners, “we should go outside before doing any more of this.”

“Wow,” Cerise breathed, staring around at the chaos. “No kidding. Um, sorry about your room, Drake…”

“It’s okay,” Drake replied, feeling a little odd as he picked the Oshawott back up. “It’s just stuff…”

“No,” said a new voice, a mature voice filled with icy chill, “it is not okay.”

Uh-oh. Drake swallowed, turning slowly. “Um. S-sorry, Mom…”

His mother glared at him, arms crossed. “What in blazes did you three think you were doing? This is a bedroom, not a gymnasium!”

“I’m sorry, it’s my fault,” Cerise blurted. “We’ll go outside before we do any more…”

“Outside?” she snapped, and all three of the teens quailed. “Outside? Leaving this behind you? You can go, Rowan,” she added in a gentler tone, setting a reassuring hand on the black-haired boy’s shoulder. “You weren’t a part of this. But do you two think, after causing this much of a mess, you can just leave it and go outside?

Again, Drake swallowed. “Let’s… start cleaning this up, Cerise,” he suggested. Better to be a good boy about it than to wait for her to be even more clear about what they needed to do.

“I’ll help,” Rowan declared. He held up his ball, and his Snivy disappeared in a sparkle of light. “I knew what they could do, I should have said something.”

Drake’s mom arched an eyebrow. “If I see any of you, especially you two, downstairs for anything but the cleaning closet, this place had better be spotless, do you hear me?”

“Yes, Mom,” Drake insisted, and the other two echoed him. Satisfied, at least for the moment, the woman turned and left them to it.

“Wow,” Cerise murmured, gathering up the boxes and putting them into a neater pile. “Not the most glamorous start to our adventures, huh?”

“Not really, no,” Drake admitted with a laugh. “But it was fun!”

Scampering about, tugging strewn clothing into at least somewhat-cohesive piles, his Oshawott chirped up at them. Apparently he agreed.

And that made it all worthwhile.