So I've had a bunch of people ask me what my upload schedule is, and the short answer? Whenever I can. Between work, volunteer stuff for my church, helping run a camping/sport shooting group that spans the entirety of the northeast USA, and social/family obligations, I have a laughably pitiful amount of free time. I write when I can, and when I found myself with a whole two days to myself this weekend, I got this done. Enjoy.
A big thanks to NurseBold, Nicolas H, Tim M, ncskeeter56, Thomas D, Avo, S. Nutter, Lucy B, Lars H, Jesper B, Frogsamurai, Bunny Waffles, Kalafalafakah, Fabhar, Zach C, Dicky W, Sashank U, Patrick I, MidnightJayguar, Tyric Gaias, No Thanks, Michael M, Jeremiah Z, Alex G, Meadow, Spencer S, Taylor V, Jeremy H, Ethan S, Ben, Scott E, Johnathan C, Josh T, marcellis97, Powernap, rooster196, Johnathan D, Sukaleska, Ampharos3, Nick R, Tiemi, Ryan S, Irene, Sarah D, Xegzy, Leaveinlimbo, Zhanibek A, Earthpatriot117, CheesePie25, John T, Thundatwin, Deohn L, TwentyThousandCats, MooMoo195, itsawaffle, Rafael B, Esquire, Ashby T, Mitchell S, Spencer Kohlman, Siphon Rayzar, Mrbucky92, ItsCool, wishindo, Sandesh, Obsidianking, Berd, Josh D, ToolsOfTrypticon, Jorge B, Kyle P, Brett T, Cynicalto, Friendship is Carrots, Destin B, Brian T, Tayler, Eriermence, Dominic M, Adian S, C&C, Duncan K, Dylan R, Manowargs, and Steven C for being patrons.
An extra big thanks to Drekin, Teigen S, Lennert B, K, Andres, Stays Secret, Paul F, VandheerXLorde, Dusks_Lantern, xydra22, Jordan M, and Sprektomogankai for being high-level patrons.
A special thanks to Spartanstoryteller for being a mad-lad level patron.
Last but certainly not least, a very special thanks to BrokenOlive and Nekusar for being top-level patrons.
Want to support me? See fuggmann on the place of patrons
For what feels like the thousandth time in the last few weeks, Zinnia wonders just what she was thinking when she joined Brendan and Lee on their journey.
A full day's travel led the group to stop about three hours away from the intersection of route 110 and route 103, and another full day from Mist Village, the halfway point between Mauville and Slateport. Along the way, they stopped to rest several times and passed a number of other young trainers, most of whom shied away at the sight of Lee's stoic mug. Even with the adorable furball of a Shinx in his arms to break the tension, the taller trainer is just too daunting looking for kids to challenge. Not wanting to come off as a bully as he's said before, Lee never issues a challenge first.
The wandering trainers gladly challenged her and Brendan, though. She battled one while Brendan battled another. Her opponent, a flirty boy of roughly fifteen years of age, had a Lombre with a rather impressive repertoire of moves, but considering the power of all the moves were piss-poor, it instantly told Zinnia that the kid focused too much on learning new moves rather than mastering old ones. Goomy struggled in the fight, but netted a narrow win.
Brendan's Mawile fought his battle. One against a twelve-ish year old girl with a Doduo. The girl was just a budding trainer, so Brendan had Mawile bait Doduo into range, then finished Doduo with a single, merciless Crunch.
Neither Brendan nor Lee seemed interested in the pokemon in the area, but Brendan, following in Lee's thrifty footsteps, recruited his pokemon into looking for berries and wild veggies as they walked. They did find a mostly empty bush of Aspear berries, but Shroomish ate the remainder of the disgustingly sour things despite how his face puckered up like a Grumpig's rear end afterward.
The dragon tamer breaks out of her thoughts when Shelgon nudges her knee. Sitting on his shell, Swablu tilts her head and peeps out an inquisitive trill. Zinnia sits up from her spot leaned against a tree and reaches her hand out to rub across Shelgon's smooth shell. "I'm fine guys. Just pondering, is all." She grins and looks around their twilit camp.
Lee is sitting cross-legged at the foot of his and Brendan's tent. In his lap, Vulpix dozes as a lazy loaf of fox, not at all minding Lee using her back as a prop for his phone, which is playing another one of those trainer school courses.
"Pokemon evolution catalysts can be split into three primary causes," A dry voice, one that makes Zinnia sleepy just listening, drones from the Pokegear branded device. "Age, experience, and external causes. As seen here, pokemon require one or more of these factors to undergo evolution into their next stage. Several examples, such as the Charmander line of Kanto, Treecko line of Hoenn, and Totodile line of Johto, require only battle experience to evolve. These pokemon can undergo evolution at a young age should they have talent and a guiding hand. Others like..."
Ok, enough of that!
Lee's Grovyle is meditating off on his own under a tree, but Shinx and Goomy, being inquisitive little boogers, keep bothering him. More than once the exasperated lizard has tried to get them to meditate with him just so they would quit, but Shinx could barely sit still for a minute and Goomy quickly followed his new best friend's lead.
'I hope some of Shinx' confidence rubs off on Goom. The little guy could use it.' Zinnia watches the cub and tiny dragon trundle off to find something else entertaining.
Corvisquire is high up in a tree above the camp, brooding as per usual. His head slowly swivels around, keeping watch. Despite working himself to the bone for almost two hours prior practicing Swift, the crow pokemon doesn't seem winded. In the low light, his feathers shine with a faint polished-iron gleam.
In Brendan's little corner of the camp, he and his pokemon are huddled around a small dry-erase board in the boy's lap. His voice is low enough that Zinnia can't make out what he's saying, but from how engaged his pokemon look, he's probably discussing some kind of battle strategy with them.
"It won't be long before shorty catches up and surpasses Lee and myself." She muses to Shelgon and Swablu. "We're going to have to up our game..."
Oh, how she wishes that taking her pokemon to new heights meant staying competitive with her... friends.
For the thousand and first time, Zinnia wonders what she was thinking, joining Lee and Brendan.
Her plan was all laid out, and she threw it away on a hunch, a feeling in her gut. Even now as she rests, the clock ticks damningly, each second another punishment for her inaction.
In less than a year's time, Hoenn, her people, and her pokemon, will all be reduced to ruin. As surely as she draws breath, deep in space, beyond the safety of their beautiful planet, death draws closer and closer. Ancient Draconid texts all speak of this year, predicted over and over by many an oracle, who emerged from their prophetic trances from the World Between pale and ill. Without fail, their warnings matched the prophecy word for word, even if they lived their entire life without knowing the prophecy beforehand.
Beware! Beware the hateful intruder! Beware the end of our home! It comes uncomprehending of our plight, and with a shell of earth born to another sun, it will see our home gone and her inhabitants reduced to ash. Only the Almighty Who Claims The Sky and a Champion with the power of Ascension might avert disaster. Save us, Almighty. Save us, Champion.
Scholars poured over the texts for years and all came to one conclusion. A meteor sized to destroy the entire region and devastate the wider world is on a collision course with Hoenn, and only god-like power has any hope of destroying it.
The god-like power belongs to the ultimate Dragon, the one who the Draconids still speak of in hushed, revered whispers.
The almighty dragon would not be enough alone, however. He would need the power of Ascension, unlocked with a bond to a powerful human. This Rayquaza and human, working in tandem, would save Hoenn.
And who is usually the strongest trainer in the Draconid tribe? The Lorekeeper.
Then Aster, the best Lorekeeper in generations, the perfect woman to understand and empower Rayquaza, died and left the mantle to Zinnia.
Aster's very memory seems doomed to live on only within Zinnia...
Zinnia sighs and tucks a bit of her hair behind her ear. At the same time, her other hand trails down and wraps around a cold, empty pokeball at her belt. The way the ball chills her fingers makes her chest hurt. Thankfully, Neither Lee nor Brendan have noticed her moping.
Her plan was all figured out. She would infiltrate Magma or Aqua, let the jokers summon their Legendary Pokemon, then seize the opportunity when Rayquaza came down to quell Groudon and Kyogre. In the meantime, she would train and grow strong enough to impress Rayquaza, so she could power his Ascension with Mega-Evolution and save Hoenn. It was simple and effective.
Then she met Lee and Brendan and her plans went right to hell.
Brendan was just an uppity kid in her eyes only several weeks ago. Other than his family name, he wasn't anything special. Then he began to improve.
His clumsy battles swiftly formed up into a game of both brains and brawn for the boy. He learned his pokemon's strengths and learned to pace himself. His slow and methodical way of battling grows more and more advanced by the day, and it only sharpens the more she and Lee spar with him. Truely, it won't be long before she and Lee are struggling to keep up. The kid has a good head on his shoulders and faces every day with a grin even if he stumbles along the way. The more and more she thinks, the more Zinnia sees Brendan as Elite, or even Champion material.
Then there's Lee...
The man is... frustrating, for lack of a better word. A man becoming a trainer so late in life is unusual, but not unheard of. A man becoming a trainer late in life looking like he went three rounds with a pissed-off Charizard with a rare Vulpix as a starter is just bizarre.
She thought the Dewford punk Andre may have been onto something with his 'failed trainer' dig, but that doesn't make sense now. Lee has too many gaps in his knowledge, and his way of battling had little in the way of cohesiveness until recently. Even a failed trainer would have something. Then he displays so much medical and behavioral knowledge of pokemon that he could be mistaken as a professor if you slapped a white coat over his shoulders. Then the other things, like how powerful his pokemon are, yet Lee cringes if they so much as get a cut in battle, or how pokemon just seem to understand him and grow at obscene speed under his care. Only Aster could do the things he could.
It makes no sense, and damn it's frustrating. She promised not to pry if he didn't want to say, though. Just a few weeks ago, she would have never agreed to such a promise, and thus Zinnia realizes something.
She meant to only travel with them long enough to figure out the secrets Lee is hiding, but then something happened. Brendan and Lee became her friends. The first ones since Aster, and like Aster, they're changing her.
Her plan to infiltrate Magma and Aqua and let them summon their pokemon seemed so bulletproof. A few people may die in the chaos and some things may be destroyed, but it's a small price to pay... Until she wondered what Brendan and Lee would think.
The shrimp would instantly decry the idea like the little hero that he is. No amount of suffering would agree with him, and he'd loudly let her know. It might be enough to break their friendship, or even spark a battle that Zinnia isn't sure she could put 100% into. His pokemon would thrash hers in her weakness, then he'd demand that they all work together to do it the right way, by finding and calling Rayquaza themselves somehow.
Lee, ever so pragmatic... might actually agree with her. The dummy would reluctantly follow her if he could convince his pokemon. Zinnia has seen the thousand-yard stare and the guilt that chews at him when he thinks no one else is looking. She can barely stomach the thought of putting another burden like willingly sacrificing lives on him.
It may not even matter, though. Lee might already know.
For every one thing Lee is ignorant of, he seems to know something else that, by all rights, he shouldn't.
The telepathy, the wild Fire moves, modifying other moves like Swift, knowledge of legends and her tribe... It's not too far-fetched to think he could know about the secrets of Mega-Evolution, the mythical ascension of a pokemon fueled by the bond between pokemon and human, the coveted ability of the Draconids. He might even know the Draconid Prophecy.
'Or at least Mega-Evolution was coveted until that bastard Sycamore poked his nose where it didn't belong and blabbed to his buddies... Do I keep quiet and wonder if Lee, and by extension Brendan knows? Or do I tell them and deny them the chance of living without the burden?' The woman grimaces. 'Brendan would want to know, but if Lee is keeping his mouth shut because he doesn't want to be involved, then he might try to help out of a sense of duty if I say something...' Zinnia sighs and stands. 'I'll think about it.'
She stands and waltzes over to Lee with Shelgon and Swablu on her heels. Lee seems too engrossed in his video class to notice her approach.
Vulpix, however, cracks open an eye to level Zinnia with a frosty glare.
Zinnia ignores the fox in favor of flopping down next to Lee, making the man jump a little and turn to her. "Zinnia?" He asks, pausing his video. He looks away from her for just a second when Shelgon and Swablu settle by her.
"What are ya working on, Lee?" She asks, peering over at the notebook she can now see on his other side. It's filled with medical jargon that she can barely make sense of. "You're cramming like you've got a test coming up."
He shrugs. "I do, actually."
Zinnia blinks at the answer. "Huh?"
"I've started taking the courses from the Rustboro Trainer School in earnest," he smiles a smile that doesn't quite lift the mangled side of his face. "They're pretty understanding regarding work and travel and all that, so I don't plan on actually going until this League year is over. In the meantime, I'm brushing up so when I do go for a placement test, I can hopefully skip a year or two on a four-year degree in pokemon nutrition. If I'm really feeling masochistic, maybe I'll go back for another degree in pokemon medical science or psychology." He lets out a short laugh, more of an amused exhale, really.
Zinnia smiles in return. 'Too bad a giant flaming rock could put a damper on that.' She banishes the thought and continues on. "What brought this on?"
Lee's smile becomes overly polite, and instantly Zinnia can tell he's uncomfortable. "Well, after our heart to heart in Slateport..."
Vulpix's glare redoubles, but Lee cups her chin with his hand and gently strokes her cheeks without looking. The pokemon huffs and looks away.
"...I've kind of been wondering what kind of direction I want my career as a pokemon trainer to go in." He hums. "Battling is fun, and while my pokemon enjoy it... I'm not too keen on that being my main career. I've promised to make them strong and take them to the top of the world..." He glances over at Grovyle, who is meditating in peace, before turning back. "So I'll fulfill that promise, but after that dream is accomplished? I'll probably stick to academics and caring for pokemon. Professor Birch's endorsement is nice, but I can't make it into the big leagues on that alone. Hence, studying."
'He wants to be a pokemon professor or something?' Zinnia wonders to herself. 'I guess that isn't too surprising.' She nods. "Yeah, I can see it. Have fun with the tuition fees, though." She snorts.
Lee's face twists into a grimace. "I can't escape student debt, it seems..."
'He was in debt before?' The Draconid frowns and voices her thoughts. "You were in debt before?"
Lee tries to hide a wince, keyword tries. "Ah. Yeah. Did I... ever tell you about my home?"
Zinnia shakes her head, too worried that a verbal reply might spook Lee into clamming up again. Across the camp, Brendan's troupe suddenly falls silent as well, obviously listening.
"It was an isolationist region called The United States of America," he begins slowly. He doesn't glance at Vulpix, nor does she look at him. "It was a lot like Orre, where there was no wild pokemon. Instead, animals that pokemon would have otherwise driven to extinction lived in the wilds."
The dragon tamer nods again, her brain turning.
"I had a degree in zoology and frequently worked with large carnivores," Lee draws one of his sleeves up, showing his arm. With a finger, he traces a few thin scars. "That's where all of this came from, and the debt came from the degree."
Zinnia doesn't miss how Lee refers to his home in the past tense, and despite her burning curiosity, she refrains from asking. "Big carnivores? Like what?"
"Lions and other large felines," He smiles fondly, but it doesn't quite reach his eyes. "Much weaker than a pokemon, but they were majestic creatures that captivated me from a young age. If you dared not pay them the respect they were owed, they would cut you down in a heartbeat. I learned the hard way a few times." He chuckles. "My last day there, I drew the short straw and had to feed Mara, one of the tigers. They're another type of large, predatory cat. Mara was in heat, though, and was feeling extra cuddly. When I went back to my normal charges, the lions, my oldest lioness caught the scent of Mara on me. She was furious and tried to get into my blindspot so she could jump me."
Zinnia can't help but scratch her head at how casual he sounds when normally Lee is so danger-shy. "Jump you?"
"Kill me, I mean." He shifts, and without any prompting, Vulpix raises from her spot in his lap and does a stretch. "Makiri had full intention of making her anger known, so with haste borne of caution, I got out of there."
By now, the night is setting in, so as per usual, Vulpix seats herself near the center of the clearing and conjures a blazing ball of fire over her head, lighting the camp. Around her, different flaming shapes flare to life, each one morphing as they orbit her at varying speeds.
Lee snaps his fingers, and instantly Shinx turns away from pondering how to climb Corvisquire's tree to face Lee. With barely any delay, she toddles across the clearing, stumbling once and hops into Lee's lap with a mewl, leaving a frantic Goomy behind.
The man smiles down at the kitten, and this time it's a real, tender smile. "Heya, baby girl. Getting into trouble?"
Shinx blinks her big yellow eyes up at him and twists so that she's laying on her back. "Mrrreow?" She bats at the hand that comes down and rubs her belly with her tiny paws.
Lee chuckles and deflects her baps and boops with a finger. "It's getting dark and time to settle down, okay? Let's get your therapy done and then you can have dinner."
The bright yellow eyes quite literally shine at the prospect of food, so Shinx goes still, letting Lee gently take one of her hind legs and massage it in gentle, circling motions. All the while, the kitten purrs and lets her eyes drift shut.
"Where was I?" He asks, turning back to a still bewildered Zinnia. "Right, Makiri. The thing with lions and other big cats is that they don't like to come at you from the front, it's always from the side or behind. Their psychology in hunting and hostile encounters is rooted in identifying low-risk, high-reward positions, like attacking prey who aren't aware of them. If they've been seen, they'll give it their all to wait until the prey's guard is down or move to a more opportune position. With that in mind, I kept my eyes on her and backed out." His smile steadily falls. "I really loved them."
Many things suddenly make sense to Zinnia, and all at once, guilt crashes down on her as many dots connect and form the beginnings of a grim picture. The dependence on Vulpix, the burns, the odd knowledge peaks and valleys, his insistence on adopting Shinx. They make sense now. Her questions on the things he shouldn't know and the feeling that he's still holding something back are forgotten for now. Zinnia clenches a fist under her cloak and fights to keep her face neutral. She wants to ask what happened and why, but the words refuse to budge. Instead, she gulps. "Uh. Right..." She lets the conversation die and desperately tries to think of something else to talk about before the silence stretches into something awkward. "Say, what are you doing with Shinx?"
"Hmm?" He looks down at the kitten as he takes her other hind leg and stretches it out, using his other hand to rub the inside and outside of Shinx' thigh. "Ah, well, since Shinx is a premie baby, I want to be sure I can maximize her growth. Miltank milk alone is good, but I've been adding protein and small vitamin doses to her mix as well. If we're lucky, Shinx should grow to be healthy and full size considering her activity level, but to avoid any discomfort with her growth and to help her muscle weakness, some minor physical therapy is called for."
"You really think she'll be full size?" Zinnia keeps the conversation going with a smile.
Lee shrugs. "I'm hoping, yes. This is factoring in her evolution, too. If she's not fully grown as a Shinx, then as a Luxio or Luxray, the problem should be mitigated. Once she's a bit older, I'll test her for her electrical output and see about electrotherapy if she needs a boost." He lets Shinx' hind leg go and reaches for a foreleg, pulling and stretching it gently while rubbing up and down the limb. "What I'm doing here is pulling just a little beyond what she would normally do on her own to keep her muscles pliant and to promote even growth. Normally, these problems are self-correcting in an active cub, but I-"
Zinnia nods along and lets the smiling Lee talk about advanced pokemon care, asking questions here and there to keep him going. It makes him happy, so she'll tolerate the boring subject for a while longer.
'I can tell them everything later...' Zinnia lifts Goomy into her lap when the tiny dragon finally hops over and strokes him across his moist head. 'Brendan should stay a kid for as long as he can, and Lee doesn't need more heartache. Or... I'll figure something out and do it on my own. It's the Lorekeeper's job, after all...'
She looks up at the night sky, and one bright star draws her attention more than any other.
'What would you do, Aster?'