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"Doing great! Just a bit more!"
Corvisquire, too busy focusing on the slowly darkening Swift stars under his wings, doesn't bother turning and sneering at Lee's encouragement.
The walk from Mist Village to Mauville took the better part of a day thanks to rain slowing the group's progress. The march down the mountain was wet, muddy, and miserable if otherwise unremarkable. The darkened sky meant that light to travel by faded much earlier in the evening than normal, forcing Lee, Brendan, and Zinnia to halt and hastily set up camp roughly an hour outside Mauville under a copse of trees. Their little camp was shared by several Poochyena, a Mightyena, and a well-hidden Kecleon hugging a low branch of a nearby tree. Luckily, no one had to negotiate for a peaceful night with the wild pokémon, as they seemed to understand the trainers and their pokémon were just hiding from the rain as well. The downpour stopped before morning, and the tropical Hoenn sun dried the worst of it by the time the gang awoke. With clothes and bags still drying in the sunlight, the trio of trainers and their pokémon defaulted to their usual method of passing time.
Standing just a few yards away from Corvisquire, Lee watches his pokémon charge Swift with Dark-Type energy. Slowly but surely, the shining white and gold of Swift darkens to a pink, then to purple. The projectiles also begin to lose their star shape, the points blunting and drawing inwards as they become orbs.
'What causes that, I wonder?' Lee ponders as he scribbles his observations in his notebook. 'Dark-Type energy naturally gravitates towards anything 'alive', or emitting Aura if I'm understanding right. Does the energy itself also contain Aura, causing a collapsing effect as the concentration increases? Hrm...I'll have to see about experimenting with that.'
Lee spares a glance to Grovyle, who sits roughly ten yards away with his arms crossed, waiting inside a circle of dirt for Corvisquire to finish charging his new prototype move. If he can't dodge the newly dubbed 'Pursuers' move without leaving the circle or using Detect, Lee will consider the test a success.
In other parts of the woods just a short ways away, Brendan and Zinnia aren't idle.
"Shroomish, get in cover!"
With his shell coated in yellow pollen and shaking in partial paralysis, Zinnia's Shelgon opens his mouth and takes aim at the mushroom pokémon just a few yards away. Before he can fire, Shroomish hops behind a tree just as Brendan orders, safely hiding away from the attack.
Shelgon growls and aborts his attack, the whirling Dragon energy in his mouth dying.
Zinnia growls right along with her pokémon, and for good reason. Brendan and Shroomish are playing them well.
When the match started, Brendan ordered Shroomish to move in for a boneheaded Tackle attack out of the gate, bewildering Zinnia when the little mushroom trundled forward without so much as a complaint. She countered with a Headbutt to punish the mistake.
Then Shroomish twirled out of the way, spraying a cloud of Stun Spore at some sort of signal that Lee missed. Zinnia's reflexive "Flamethrower!" order burned much of the surprise attack away. Against a normal Shroomish, it would have saved them. Against Brendan's? The boy must have seen such a counter coming because Shroomish released a positively enormous cloud.
With his paralyzed foe now too slow to pursue and the field too crowded by trees for Shelgon's Rollout to be an effective gap-closer, Shroomish was free to plink away at Shelgon from the safety of all the natural cover. A genius maneuver on Brendan's part.
'Unless Zinnia decides to just bust down the trees with Dragon Rush, but that might bring a Ranger running.' Lee dryly muses. He looks over at his and Brendan's tent, finding Vulpix and Shinx laying together as they watch Zinnia and Brendan's battle along with Marshtomp, Mawile, Goomy, and Swablu. The vixen has a foreleg thrown over the wide-eyed kitten, keeping her still so she doesn't accidentally run into the crossfire of Shelgon and Shroomish's bout. 'Thanks for keeping an eye on Shinx, love.'
'Th**k *oth*ng ** it.' She sends back, watching Shroomish nail Shelgon with Mega Drain and narrowly avoid a Dragon Pulse for the trouble.
'Your telepathy is really coming along,' Lee compliments. Her words become a little more coherent by the day, and now the partially garbled telepathy doesn't cause headaches as it did just a few weeks ago if she keeps her sentences short. It won't be long until they can converse one-to-one!
Oops. He turns back to Corvisquire, who looks decidedly displeased at being ignored for so long. Under his still spread wings, the Swift stars finally turn completely into orbs and darken into a dense black. The rays of light they would otherwise emit are now replaced with dark, smoky wisps of purple.
"Hot damn we did it." Lee smiles. "Excellent work, Corvi! You've got no idea how proud I am. You've got your own custom move now!"
The crow pokémon's scowl eases somewhat as he looks at the dark Pursuer orbs now hovering under his black and blue feathers, each one the size of a tennis ball. Being so close, Lee can hear each one hum and hiss ominously. The chilled Dark energy makes a loose fog cling to the surface of each Pursuer, making them seem that much more ethereal.
"Now, do you feel like you can hold them for a while?" Lee asks, bringing his notebook to bear again.
Corvisquire just nods, no sneer or condescending caw for once.
"Great." The zoologist smiles. "Memorize the feeling of your new move. Our ultimate goal here is for you to be able to make Pursuers on their own without needing to charge Swift and convert the Normal energy to Dark. Once you feel like you've got a good grasp on the feeling, let 'er rip."
Naturally, Corvisquire smirks and throws his wings forward immediately. The dark orbs seethe to life and float forward, homing in on Grovyle with malicious intent. Much like the fictional spell that Pursuers draws its inspiration from, the orbs move with a deceptive lethargy, beelining for Grovyle's center of mass with fog and purple wisps in its wake.
The wood gecko tenses as the subtle white glow of Quick Attack diffuses through his scales. When the Pursuers are almost upon him, he hops to the side as little more than a smear of green and red. The Pursuers turn sharply to follow, barely losing any speed.
Corvisquire's eyes glow balefully and his feathers stand up.
Shakily, the Pursuers deviate and spread out, covering a wider area as they approach Grovyle.
The Grass-type narrows his eyes and grunts, leaping high up as the white aura around him flares. He shoots past above the dark orbs, but is forced to twist when they correct their course faster than expected and nearly tag him. As Grovyle lands on the opposite edge of the circle, the Pursuers don't hesitate to make u-turns and keep flying at him. Before they can make it, they begin to lose cohesion, then fizzle and explode into clouds of inky smoke.
"Wow..." Lee murmurs, his pen moving across his notebook. He pauses when he realizes his current page is completely full and flips to the next one. "A solid eighteen second operation time, that's almost double Swift's current ten. And that tracking! Oh, this'll fit perfectly into your moveset, Corvi," Lee smiles down at the bird, who looks sour at the miss. "Care to try again?"
Corvisquire huffs and raises his wings again. This time, the Swift stars manifest already purple, then darken and transform into orbs. Where it took Corvisquire almost twenty seconds to charge it last time, this time is just a little over fifteen.
"Just keep it up until you feel like you can use Pursuers without using Swift as a starting framework, alright?" Lee asks, not minding when the crow doesn't bother replying. "Once you can do that, we can work on the power and speed. Something tells me you'll really enjoy an attack as relentless as yourself."
That makes Corvisquire smirk.
"And Grovyle!" The scarred man addresses his other pokémon. "This is some prime practice for Detect and Quick Attack. When you can use Quick Attack so well that it has no aura, then that'll open a lot of doors for you."
Grovyle just nods, not taking his eyes off Corvisquire.
The bird and lizard repeat their exercise several more times, each one ending with Grovyle getting closer and closer to being hit as Lee takes notes. On the fifth repetition, all three pause when a bright light blooms from behind them followed by an excited cry from Brendan.
Turning, Lee feels a smile tug at the marks on his face.
In the impromptu battle arena, Shroomish glows a brilliant white as his body begins to metaphorize before everyone's eyes. His entire shape changes, with his legs growing from simple stubs to lean and clawed limbs built to sprint. Then his body expands out, a pair of short, clawed arms and a long, clubbed tail sprouting from nowhere. Finally, the nubby crown on his head turns into a full mushroom cap. Then the light fades, leaving a young Breloom standing three-and-a-half feet tall behind.
Now looking like a cross between a monster fungus and a raptor, Breloom is much more impressive than his prior form... but it's completely ruined by the bored, slothful look on his face.
The spar between the newly evolved Breloom and Shelgon comes to a halt when Brendan races into the field and pulls Breloom into a tight hug. "You did it! You evolved! I knew you had it in you!" The young trainer's smile is so brilliant that even Breloom's lips pull upward into a phantom of a smile. "Let's check you out and see if your evolution came with any new moves!"
Brendan pulls away from his pokémon and withdraws his pokedex from his pocket, flipping it open and pointing it forward eagerly.
"Breloom, the Mushroom Pokémon," the Pokédex's monotone voice begins. "With its springy footwork, stretching arms, and poisonous spores, this pokémon pummels paralyzed opponents with boxer-like technique." Once it rattles off its little blurb, the screen fills up with all the information Brendan is likely looking for.
"Let's see…" Brendan scrolls down. "Tackle, Stun Spore, Leech Seed, Mega Drain, Headbutt…" Brendan's eyes light up. "Mach Punch and Counter! Yes!"
"Dare I ask what you're so excited about?" Zinnia dryly asks, walking up to her trembling Shelgon. She dips her hand into her bag and withdraws a small yellow spray bottle along with a rag. She wets the rag with a spritz from the bottle and carefully starts cleaning the Stun Spore off of Shelgon. "Other than your little mushroom evolving, that is."
The young Birch heir just smirks in an expression that would not be out of place on Zinnia's own face. "Don't worry about it."
"Well, when you put it that way, you're pretty much just asking us to worry," Lee comments, raising his voice just enough to carry to the rest of the camp. "Some kind of new combo?"
'Though I wonder what kind of combo would use both Mach Punch and Counter?'
"Something like that," Brendan answers as he and Breloom walk back to the main campsite and away from his and Zinnia's makeshift battle arena.
As they approach, Marshtomp quickly rises to his feet with a happy cry and rushes Breloom with his arms held open, Mawile following more sedately behind. Marshtomp pulls the mushroom pokémon into a hug so tight that it drives the air right out of Breloom's lungs.
Breloom coughs, looking as if he wants to be anywhere else but in his teammate's arms. He grunts something that sounds vaguely condescending, making Marshtomp release him with a sheepish laugh.
The other pokémon rise as well, trotting over (Or toddling over in Shinx' case) to Breloom. Lee doesn't need Vulpix to translate to know that most of the chatter is congratulations for Breloom.
Lee returns his eyes to Grovyle and Corvisquire, who have yet to move, instead regarding him neutrally. "Dismissed for now, guys. We'll keep going later today."
Grovyle nods and strides past, walking to the throng of pokémon gathered around his fellow Grass-type. Corvi, meanwhile, just holds his beak up and flies up to a high branch with a few flaps of blue and black. Upon his perch, he simply watches from afar.
Lee resists the urge to sigh and instead walks his way over to Brendan and Zinnia, the latter of whom is returning Shelgon to his pokeball.
"I think that's good for some early morning training," Lee begins as he and the other two trainers huddle in a loose triangle. He pauses and looks behind Zinnia, where a makeshift clothesline made from paracord sits in a sunny spot stretched between two trees. On the cord is the soaked clothing everyone was wearing the night before, now looking much drier. "We've only got another hour or so until we get to Mauville. From there, we can snag a hotel room, get in line for the gym, and take the rest of the day for ourselves. Unless there is anything else that we need to do out here?"
"Nope!" Brendan grins and folds his arms behind his head. "Getting Shroomish to evolve was my big thing to do for this whole week, so I'm ready to go!"
"No complaints from me," Zinnia says, twirling Shelgon's ball on the tip of her finger. Just as she says that her stomach picks that time to rumble, making her falter and almost drop the pokeball she's spinning. "Erm, no complaints after we have some breakfast, that is." She laughs.
Lee rolls his eyes and Brendan snickers under his breath. "Well, let's try to find some firewood that isn't soaked to the core and get started." Lee sticks his thumb and middle finger in the corners of his mouth and whistles sharply.
Grovyle is by his side in a flash, arms crossed and looking unruffled by the summons.
Vulpix takes her time. The vixen coaxes Shinx closer, then takes the kitten's neck scruff in her teeth, making the smaller pokémon go limp with a confused; "Merow?" Taking care with her delicate cargo, Vulpix trots to Lee's side.
"Brendan," Lee kneels and takes Shinx with the same gentleness Vulpix used to carry her. "Why don't you take Grovyle and Vulpix with you and Breloom to find some firewood? It'll be a good exercise for Breloom to get used to his new body. Grovyle can cut larger pieces to a manageable size, and Vulpix can dry out anything that's not hopelessly soaked. Right?" He asks his pokémon, rising back to his full height with a purring Shinx nestled in his arms.
Grovyle grunts his agreement and Vulpix simply nods, already knowing his plan.
"Sure thing!" Brendan smiles. "We'll be back in no time."
"Glad to hear it," Lee replies, looking up at the sunlight poking through the leaves as he strokes Shinx' chin with his thumb. "Remember; deadwood is best. Green doesn't burn."
Needing no other encouragement, Brendan picks a direction deeper into the woods and starts walking. "C'mon guys and gals!"
His Marshtomp eagerly follows along, followed by Mawile and an exasperated Breloom. Grovyle and Vulpix bring up the rear, both slowing down long enough for Grovyle to lean down and for Vulpix to whisper in his ear. The Grass-type turns back to glance at Lee, then he and Vulpix catch-up to the rest of Brendan's merry group.
Once Brendan is out of earshot, Zinnia turns her red eyes to the zoologist. "So, what did you want to talk about?"
'She caught on quick,' Lee thinks to himself. Rather than answer right away, he slowly meanders to the tents with the Dragon Tamer following. "I'm not well, Zinnia," he blurts before his nerve leaves him. "You're observant, so I'm sure you've caught on. Maybe it's one of the questions you have that I've not answered yet. I've talked with Professor Birch, and I'm going to be talking to an expert about it." In his arms, Shinx goes still, no doubt sensing the shift in the atmosphere. Lee can feel her nervous eyes peering up at him. "I figured I should let you know so you're not wondering where I've really gone if my team and I need to separate from the group for a bit."
Zinnia's face is one of carefully schooled neutrality. "I see..." She chews on her lip. "Why send Brendan away for this?"
"I don't think a conversation about an adult in his life being mentally unwell is something he needs to be here for," Lee answers. He raises a hand away from Shinx to rub the left side of his face. Even through his glove, the three burn scars are unpleasantly warm to the touch, even if he knows the heat is just imagined. "It's something that needs to be addressed, though. Before something truly bad happens."
The tanned woman slowly nods. "Yeah, I understand." Then almost as an afterthought, she says; "Thanks for telling me, Lee. If Brendan asks, I'll keep it to myself."
"That's all I ask," Lee smiles and settles in the grass by his discarded backpack. "I'll tell him after I've made some progress. No need to worry him."
Shinx, now acutely aware that the serious moment has passed, picks that time to squirm and whine.
"Shhhh... I know you're hungry, babygirl. You get to go first..." Lee shushes the kitten as he unzips his backpack and gropes around inside. It takes a moment considering the space-bending Silph tech inside, but he grasps a bottle of Miltank milk already capped with a rubber nipple and pulls it out. He can barely get the protective cap off the nipple and get Shinx settled into his lap before she latches on.
"May not be nice to tell a girl she's gaining weight, but I'm glad I can already feel a difference in you, babygirl." Lee looks up when he hears Zinnia snort, seeing her covering her smile with a hand. "Since my hands are full, why don't you cook, Zinnia?" He asks, wiping the smirk off her face. Before she can protest, the bushes far to the west shake and out comes Brendan with an armful of wood. The pokémon follow just behind him. Breloom trudges along carrying a log in his red claws while Mawile happily skips in carrying... nothing. Marshtomp follows through the underbrush next, the huge stack of chopped wood in his arms and the blushy grin on his face explaining why Mawile is being spared of any labor.
Grovyle and Vulpix bound over Brendan's team as a pair in one mighty leap, each one landing and settling at Lee's sides.
Lee grins up at Zinnia. "Looks like they're just in time. Don't look at me like that, I'll instruct you from my spot here. I'd rather not eat char, thanks. First, grab the cookware from my backpack..."
With breakfast eaten and most of the pokémon returned to their balls to digest their meals in peace, Lee, Zinnia, Brendan, and Vulpix busy themselves with cleaning up their campsite and stacking their extra firewood nearby for the next group to happen through. Lee and Brendan are in the middle of folding up their two-man tent while Zinnia takes down the now empty clothesline and gathers it in a tight loop. By the fire pit, Vulpix is using her pyrokinesis putting out the last embers that Marshtomp's Water Gun didn't quite get to.
Beep beep beep!
Three cell phones in three pockets all chirp simultaneously. It's so unexpected that everyone jumps a little bit.
"What in the world...?" Zinnia slips the paracord in her hand into her hip bag and pulls her phone out to look it over. Lee stops folding his tent with Brendan to watch her blink her eyes. "A Pokemon Ranger alert?"
To Lee's silent chagrin, Brendan drops his half of the tent to draw his own phone. "Huh? Not just an alert, an all-points bulletin." He says, swiping a finger across the screen.
Lee folds his section of his and Brendan's tent neatly before being the last to take out his mobile phone and read the notification. "What?"
From: PKMN RANGERS
APB / Danger advisory
WARNING: Roving Zangoose pack has encroached on Seviper den located in MAUVILLE – SOUTH. All persons in locale advised to stay indoors until all-clear given. Trainers advised to be wary. Trainers with battle specialization requested to meet at below coordinates to assist Ranger Donovan in quelling Zangoose/Seviper conflict. Monetary reward to be paid out upon completion.
Below the alert is a map with a hyperlink, and when Lee taps it, it expands out to show a location less than a mile north of them.
"Monetary reward, eh?" Zinnia smirks greedily. "That's all they had to say. Pick up the pace boys! We got a paycheck to collect!" She stuffs her phone in her pocket and takes a pokeball from her belt, practically bouncing in place.
"Cool your jets," Lee objects, crossing his arms. "Should we really be getting involved with this? And do the Rangers even have the authority to request something like this?"
Brendan lets out a single nervous laugh and scratches the back of his head. "Yeah, the Rangers get to have a lot of power when there's an emergency, so it's perfectly okay for them to ask for help from any trainer in the area. It would reflect pretty bad on us as Lab Trainers if we just walked past this. Man, that suuuuucks." His hand hovers over Breloom's ball, telling Lee that the boy isn't actually nervous at all and is as raring to go as Zinnia.
Lee can feel Vulpix's flicker of amusement before she hops up to his shoulder. He turns his head and gives the fox a flat look. "Why can't I ever win any of these 'let's not throw ourselves in the mortal danger' arguments?"
She says nothing, mentally or otherwise, but her eyes sparkle with laughter.
"You don't have to go, Dolittle." Zinnia shrugs, but the mischievous expression on her face tells Lee that she already knows what his answer is. "You can keep going on ahead. Short stuff and I can go alone."
"That worries me even more than a pack of rampaging Zangoose." Lee grumbles. "Let's hurry up and get this out of the way."
The rest of the camp is cleaned up in record time, and before setting out Brendan and Zinnia release Breloom and Swablu respectively for safety. The mushroom pokémon takes his place at Brendan's side while Swablu perches herself on Zinnia's shoulder. With their direction set and pokémon ready, they set a brisk pace towards the rendezvous site given to them by the unknown Ranger.
"I wonder why a rogue pack of Zangoose are out here stirring up trouble." Lee muses aloud. His words are even and steady despite his arms pumping and legs moving at a speed just under a sprint. 'Just a few weeks ago a run like this would've left me breathless after just a few minutes. I guess this happens when your own two feet are your only way of getting around…'
"Could be anything, really." Brendan huffs. "Old habitat was disturbed? A new pack leader making a boneheaded decision? Who knows."
"Tweet! Trerereeet!" Swablu trills something, but without looking at her Lee can't exactly tell what she's trying to relay.
Vulpix twitches her nose. 'Z*ngoo*e pack m*y be di*pla*ed by sto*m las* night.' She dutifully translates. Her nose twitches again and raises her muzzle into the wind. 'H**ans an* p*kemon ah*ad.'
Lee nods, sweat beginning to dot his brow from the run in the Hoenn sun. "Let's slow down, everyone. Vulpix is picking up human scents ahead."
The running pace settles down to a speedy walk as the group comes to a bend in the road, and not a moment too soon it seems. As they clear the bend, they stumble upon several people and pokémon off to the side of the road.
The first person is the most striking. Dressed in the red and yellow short-sleeved jacket and black cargo pants of the Pokémon Rangers, a dark-haired, square-jawed man appearing several years Lee's senior stands with his arms crossed. On his back is a simple red backpack. The man's physique is chiseled, doubtless honed by years of fieldwork. At his side is a Marowak.
The Marowak, resembling a brown, bipedal lizard with its head encased in a sickly-white bone helmet, has obviously seen more than one battle. It's a bone helmet is littered with nicks and gashes, and its body is well muscled under its scales, meaning it can strike with much greater force than its three-foot-tall frame would suggest. In its right hand, a club made of bone hangs limply.
Beside the Ranger and Marowak are a pair of young trainers, if the backpacks and pokeballs at their belts are any indication.
The first is a young woman looking to be around Zinnia's age if not a bit younger. She's dressed conservatively with a loose, short-sleeved red shirt and a black skirt hanging at calf height. On her pretty face is an expression of cool disinterest, and her brown eyes contrast sharply with her mane of seafoam-green hair that reaches down to her rear. A black, cross-shoulder messenger bag sits against her hip.
'I swear I've seen her somewhere before…' Lee glances at the next trainer. 'You, however, I definitely remember.'
The other trainer, a boy roughly Brendan's age, stands cockily with his hands in his jean pockets. His ear-length, emerald-green hair draws the eye instantly, and although his eyes are closed to better pair with his smirk, Lee knows that they are the same color as his hair. The boy's top half is covered with a black long-sleeved shirt and an open purple vest. On his back is a single strap backpack a shade darker than his vest.
'Drew the Coordinator? Is he on his way down to Slateport for that contest? If I remember right, that's where he meets May and the rest of Ash's little gang.' Lee doesn't bother worrying about it for too long. "Hey!" He raises a hand to the group gathered around the Ranger, making them all look over. "Are you Donovan? The one who sent out that APB?"
Drew's eyes widen ever so slightly as they approach, and the unknown girl watches them with an eyebrow raised. Lee can feel the green-headed boy focus on his scars and silently resists the urge to rub them.
The Ranger raises a fist to his mouth and clears his throat. "Yes, that's me! I take it you read all the details?"
"We did, but you're going to give us a better briefing now that we're here, right?" Zinnia asks in Lee's place. "What do we gotta do?"
The Ranger holds up a hand. "Hold on just a moment. While I'm sure that your veteran friend here can handle himself just fine," he gestures towards Lee. "I don't know the same about you two," the same hand gestures towards Zinnia and Brendan, who both scowl. On Zinnia's shoulder, Swablu trills in anger while Breloom, still at Brendan's side, doesn't seem to care one way or the other. "We don't need anyone who might get hurt during this expedition. No offense, it's just safety protocol."
Drew turns away to hide a self-superior smirk and the unnamed girl just sighs and taps her foot impatiently.
'That's hilariously backwards.' Lee can't help but smile awkwardly. "Don't worry about my friends, Ranger Donovan. Brendan Birch here is the son of Nigel Birch and a Lab Trainer much like myself. Zinnia, meanwhile, is a Dragon-type specialist. I assure you that both are very much my equal." Vulpix's telepathic scoff is promptly ignored.
"Wha…?" Drew wonders aloud, his smirk dying.
The unknown girl's eyes sharpen and suddenly scan Lee and Co much more intently.
The older man blinks in obvious surprise, unknowingly mirroring the green-haired boy behind him. "I see… W-Well then," the Ranger clears his throat once more, trying to cover up his awkward rebound. "Now we have a nice even team of six people, let's go ahead and begin, shall we? I already have Mister Drew and Miss Katie's name here," he waved a hand at the two green-haired trainers. "Can we have yours, please?"
Lee nods. "Lee Henson." He raises his hand and strokes Vulpix under her chin, making the fox smile just a tiny bit. "And this is Vulpix."
"Brendan Birch, but Lee already told you that." Brendan grins, he and Breloom step forward and take the spot at Lee's right.
"Zinnia of the Draconid Tribe," Zinnia introduces herself with an overly dramatic flair of her cloak. She would've accidentally thrown Swablu off if the bird pokémon hadn't suddenly spread her wings for balance. "And don't forget it."
Donovan gestures for everyone to step closer as he draws a plastic PDA-like device from a holster on his belt. His thumb falls on the power button as everyone huddles around, and above the device a holographic map flashes into existence.
"Okay, everyone. Let's get to the brass tacks." Donovan presses another button on the PDA, and the map expands to show everything around them in a mile radius. "The Zangoose pack is encroaching on this area after a power structure shift in their pack. Other Rangers report that a young new alpha male has taken leadership of the pack, and they've migrated away from their usual territory west of Mauville in Route 117 down here." The map flashes once. "After an inspection of the Zangoose territory on Route 117 was completed, the Rangers determined the area was still well below its carrying capacity, so these Zangoose weren't forced to move. We have reason to believe that the alpha male knows about the Seviper nests in the area and has moved his pack here for something more personal."
Lee turns his head to look at Brendan. "Nice call on the Zangoose," he whispers, drawing a smile from the younger trainer.
Drew crosses his arms. "So what are we supposed to do? Catch them before they get to the Seviper nests?"
Katie frowns. "My team is full," she speaks for the first time.
"We won't be catching them, no." Donovan shakes his head. "All we're doing is informing them they're not welcome here. You don't even need to defeat them. Simply scare them off and drive them north. They'll loop around Mauville and return to their territory on their own once they realize being here is too much of a hassle. The pack won't follow an alpha who makes a poor decision like this if it backfires instantly."
'Now that sounds fascinating.' Lee thinks to himself. 'Once the league year is over, I need to organize a trip to observe interpersonal and familial power structures in pokémon. It must be so much more complex than that of common animals, and that's saying something considering I was already learning something new every day from the lions.'
"We've got a rough estimate that Zangoose scouting parties are moving south in a rough fork formation as seen here," The Pokemon Ranger points a finger at the holomap as red arrows flash on it, pointing south. "These pokémon have been in close enough proximity to Verdanturf and Mauville to know human speech, so everyone should clearly and concisely state that you want the Zangoose pack to return home before engaging them. We'll need to work fast, because if they get to the Seviper nests, then this entire section of the forest is going to erupt into chaos," Donovan lets his warning hang as several purple circles flash on the map, marking the snake dens. "We'll be moving in teams of two to cover as much ground as possible while still retaining safety, so pick your partners."
Katie doesn't waste time. "If it's all the same to everyone, I'll go with Ranger Donovan," she says, drawing a pokeball from her belt and tapping the button, enlarging it in her hand.
The Ranger nods. "I've no objections if no one else does."
Lee turns to Brendan and Zinnia, who both frown as a silent debate starts between them. From the corner of his eye, Lee can see Drew fidget. The green-headed boy doesn't seem comfortable as the odd man out.
After a moment of rapidfire telepathic back-and-forth with Vulpix, the scarred man makes up his mind. "Brendan, Zinnia, you two should partner up," he says, making both of them blink.
"Are you sure, Dolittle?" The tanned Dragon Tamer questions, giving Brendan a sidelong glance.
"I would worry less if you two keep an eye on each other," Lee nods. Then he turns to Drew, not giving Zinnia further time to protest. "Looks like it's you and me, kid."
The young coordinator frowns and crosses his arms. "Whatever. Try to keep up, old man."
"Two seconds and I already regret trying to be helpful. A new record." Lee wryly replies. "Anything else we need to know?" He turns back to Donovan.
"Just one thing..." The Ranger holds up his PDA and presses several buttons, dismissing the holomap and making the device play a short tune. Half a second later, and everyone's phones chime with an alert, prompting everyone to pull them out and look. "I've sent you all a copy of the map and the projected locations of the incoming scout parties. Every team take up a spot and get ready."
Lee checks his phone again, glancing nervously at both the map and the time. It's been twenty minutes since he and Drew got into position and they've yet to see anything.
The young coordinator didn't bother to make small talk, so Lee kept silent as well. Without knowing the temperament and exact number of incoming Zangoose, Zangeese? Bah. Without knowing their number and temperament, planning ahead was little use. On his belt, Grovyle and Corvisquire's pokeballs hang in their enlarged forms. From the minute shakes both make, Lee assumes their attention is pointed outward, ready to spring out of their balls if needed. On his shoulder, Vulpix lays with her eyes closed. If they were open, the purple psychic glow in her irises would be visible to all. Lee can feel her mind reaching out and sweeping like a radar, alert for any danger.
A short few yards away, Drew paces with his Roselia. The pokémon, who he released upon reaching the clearing, looks like a bipedal plant standing a delicate one-foot-tall. Two nubby, light-green roots function as her legs and her equally green body is covered by a pair of long leaves forming a 'dress' of sorts. Her 'arms' each end in a blooming rose rather than hands, one red and the other blue. Her round head is framed by three green spikes, and her gentle black eyes watch Drew with open concern.
Lee drops his phone into his pocket. "Hey, Drew? You nervous?"
The boy abruptly stops his pacing and turns to Lee. "No. Of course not." His brows furrow. "Where did you get that idea?"
"Roselia is worried about you," Lee points briefly at the Grass-type, who looks away, embarrassed. "You hide it well, but Roselia is giving your thoughts away. It speaks well of you that she'd worry on your behalf, you know that?"
Drew pauses, then turns away with a huff. His shoulders are stiff and hunched.
'Again I'm reminded this isn't some anime or game. Drew isn't some antagonist of the day, he's just a preteen kid alone in the woods with a scary looking stranger on some mission given to him by another stranger.' Lee winces a little at the revelation. 'I don't know if his family is supporting his pokémon journey or not, so he might have no choice but to take odd-jobs and spur-of-the-moment assignments like this one.' Lee clears his throat. "Drew?"
The kid doesn't turn around.
"It's okay to be nervous. I'm nervous too."
The green-headed trainer looks over his shoulder, searching Lee's face for deception. "No you aren't." He accuses. "You haven't so much as twitched this whole time."
'He didn't deny the anxiety he's feeling.'
Lee smirks. "I can't be too expressive when these have the skin of my face stretched pretty taut," he rubs the left side of his face.
Drew, to his credit, looks the slightest bit abashed and turns completely around to face the older trainer.
"Trust me, just because I'm not emoting it doesn't mean I don't have the jitters." The zoologist mutters. "I wouldn't have paired up with you if I wasn't confident in mine and my team's ability to protect you if things go wrong. Just trust in your pokémon and know you aren't being thrown to the wolves."
The coordinator takes a deep breath and nods, then stops with a frown. "What's a wolve?"
Before Lee can launch into a lecture about Canis Lupus, Vulpix's eyes shoot open. 'Th*y're here.' The vixen hops down and takes a stand in front of her trainer, tails flared and flames licking the corners of her mouth.
Roselia likewise goes still, then hops in front of Drew with her roses pointed forward. The petals open slightly, letting a green shine bleed through the red and blue.
Lee stiffins and Drew blinks. "H-Hey! What's going on?!" The boy demands, his fist clenching.
The bushes about thirty feet ahead of them rustle and out walking on all fours comes one, two, three Zangoose, all of whom look at them with angry, disgruntled expressions on their muzzles. The leader in the middle of the formation stands and brandishes his claws with a growl.
'These guys don't look happy at all. Is it because we're in the way, or because they were ordered to come out here against their will?'
Vulpix growls right back and Roselia opens her petals a little more, letting the green shine strengthen.
Drew recovers first, hiding his fright behind the cool mask of a professional stage performer. "So, you all are the ones down here causing a ruckus," he swaggers up to stand just behind Roselia and sneers. "Well, beat it! You're not wanted here! Unless you want to be beaten into the dirt where you belong, get lost!" He says with a dismissive wave of his hand.
Rather than intimidate them, all three wild pokémon scowl as one. The two flanking the leader rise to their hindlegs. The leader, meanwhile, growls once more and brings his claws together in a violent, metallic krshink! Slowly and carefully holding his natural weapons edge-to-edge, he grinds them down by pulling them apart, leaving a shiny edge behind.
'That's Hone Claws!' Lee realizes. 'Interrupt him with Baby-Doll Eyes!'
Vulpix heeds the order with no delay, her eyes narrowing and shining a sinister pink.
The lead Zangoose grunts, missigning his claws and badly chipping the last inch with an ugly scraping sound. His followers wince at both the scraping sound and the sight of their leader's muscles spasming in a sudden fit of weakness.
Drew takes the flinch as his cue to attack. "Roselia, Energy Ball!" He orders with a dramatically pointed finger.
The Rose pokémon twirls once and points her red rose forward in a flowery flourish. A bulb of sparkling green light blooms in the rose, then shoots forward with the same speed as a pro baseball pitch.
The lead Zangoose narrowly jumps to the side and out of the way, almost getting hit when his limbs, still suffused with Fairy energy, tremble and nearly don't respond. His underlings growl and leap at Roselia and Vulpix, claws poised to shred.
'Oh no you don't. Ember!'
Vulpix's mouth opens, and out pours a staccato of Embers so fast they're more akin to tracer rounds from a rifle rather than miniature fireballs. From so close, the pair of attacking Zangoose can't even attempt to dodge. The first Embers hit them like solid projectiles before exploding with brilliant orange bangs.
The pair of Zangoose actually stop in midair, their momentum halted by the sheer number and force of the streaks of fire. The left Zangoose coughs, his eyes bugging out as Embers impact his stomach and force the air from his lungs. At the same time, the fire-streaks blow away bits of his fur, leaving burns behind. Righty can only howl and shield his face with his forepaws when an Ember nails him right in the muzzle, burning his nose into a raw red. His forepaws get the same treatment and swiftly become a mess of singed fur and reddened skin. A second later, both are thrown back with a pair of identical cries, landing roughly in the grass.
Vulpix ceases her attack and holds her nose up imperiously, quite literally looking down upon the fallen team of Zangoose. The remaining Embers pull perfect turns and angle upward, flying up and burning out safely away from the forest greenery.
Lee ignores the confused and slightly stupefied look from Drew as the lead Zangoose hisses in his throat and surges to his feet.
The mongoose pokémon shakes away the weakness that gripped his body a moment ago and holds his claws up in a ready yet wary stance. He hisses again, kicking one of his fallen friends with a hindpaw and prompting the pair to slowly stumble to their feet.
The underlings share a brief, wordless conversation with just their eyes. Lefty is looking between Vulpix and his friends with uncertainty while Righty gingerly rubs his burned nose. Both settle into reluctant fighting stances.
"We don't have to fight, you know." Lee mentally applauds himself for keeping his face straight and his voice free of a stutter. "You can turn around and leave anytime. This isn't a fight that you're going to win."
The Leader doesn't reply. Instead, he races head-on towards Vulpix with the bright white aura of Quick Attack flowing through his fur. His pink eyes shine with violence and his partially chipped claws whistle through the air. Behind him, Lefty and Righty both let out hoarse cries and charge in right after their leader.
Vulpix's eyes shine once more, this time an evil red.
Leader's eyes widen as he smacks face-first into the invisible Confuse Ray. With his motor controls now scrambled, he trips and digs a furrow in the grass, crying out as his own Quick Attack forces him to tumble painfully.
"Magical Leaf!" Drew's voice cuts through Lefty and Righty's cries. "Now! Cut them off!"
Roselia's face drops into a gentle frown as she gracefully swipes her blue rose up and across her body not unlike a dancer getting ready for a twirl. From her rose, crescent leaves coated in a brilliant rainbow aura fly like shuriken right in front of Lefty and Righty, forcing both Zangoose to stop short lest they be sliced to ribbons.
"There's two of us here, you know!" Drew grits his teeth and takes a step forward, a scowl planting itself on his face. "You had best fight like it! Roselia, ready Energy Ball!"
Lee frowns but doesn't interfere.
By now, Leader is stumbling his way to his feet, rocking like a drunkard on a boat. He growls a deep, feral, and absolutely furious note. He raises a forepaw… And sinks one of his claws right into his own thigh.
Lee can help but gape slightly. Even Vulpix seems taken aback, leaning backwards slightly.
Leader roars as blood wells up and begins to dye his white fur an ugly red. The confusion in his eyes clears instantly, replaced with a razor-sharp lucidity. With that newfound focus, he sprints right at Vulpix.
The vixen yelps in surprise, quickly ducking and twisting out of the way of the pair of claws trying to impale her. The near-miss opens up a cut on her shoulder.
"Payback!" Lee orders the instant he sees Vulpix has been hit.
Dark energy bubbles around Vulpix, a deluge of it seemingly pouring from her cut like blood. Then the dark energy coalesces into a thin purple shimmer around the fox pokémon. Without needing any further instruction, Vulpix hops and slams her skull into Leader's, sending him rocking back with a cry.
Leader clutches his new head wound and jumps back to make room, but he still glares at both Lee and Vulpix with determination.
'Shit, we need to end this already. These guys don't understand that they're outclassed and are getting unnecessarily tore up for it.' Lee grunts. He looks over to Drew and Roselia, who are locked in the heat of a two-on-one battle. The younger trainer is sweating, but his cocky smirk is back in place and remains so as Roselia juggles the pair of tiring Zangoose with some effort. 'Any ideas, love?'
Vulpix doesn't answer for a moment, too caught up in her stare down with Leader. Then she sends only a mental image that he instantly understands.
'Shock and awe? I didn't know that you have a dramatic side. Have you been hanging out with Corvi too much?' Lee smiles, mentally pumping himself up. 'I'll distract him. Go ahead and charge up.'
Leader scowls, but doesn't immediately strike.
"You're hopelessly outgunned. You know that, right?" The scarred zoologist begins, not stopping when Leader snarls. "You're hurt and your teammates are slowly losing a two on one fight. There's no shame in knowing when to retreat."
Leader is so focused on Lee's words that he doesn't notice the slowly whirling ring of orange flames beginning to encircle the clearing. Or perhaps his head wound is impairing him.
"I know of the legendary dislike between your kind and Seviper, but you don't have a right to come here purposely looking for trouble. Do you understand me?" Lee asks. "So I ask you, why come down here? Are you the new alpha of the pack?"
Leader snarls something guttural out, a truly terrifying sound that raises goosebumps along Lee's skin even with the knowledge that anyone of his pokémon could deal with Leader. He doesn't need a translation from Vulpix to hear the sheer amount of spleen in Leader's voice.
'I was under the assumption that hate was something strictly human…' The last son of Earth thinks grimly. 'I guess not.'
Overhead, the sun suddenly begins beating down with fervor. Everything the light touches grows uncomfortably warm, everyone in the clearing included.
Lefty and Righty, both panting and now covered in cuts, pause their assault on Roselia to look upward in confusion, both shielding their eyes with their paws.
Drew raises an arm to cover his eyes as well as his sweating redoubles. "Gah. What's with this sunlight?"
Leader doesn't seem to notice, but he does begin to pant.
"We can choose to hurt others too, Zangoose," Lee addresses Leader again. "Yet we don't. You can make that choice too." Lee silently adjusts his stance, sucking in a deep breath and pushing his shoulders out to make himself look as large as possible. Then he glares down at Leader with all the venom he can muster, his lip rising into a sneer that exposes his teeth, an open threat display. "If we actually wanted to hurt you, this is what you'd be up against."
Vulpix's eyes flash red, and the entire perimeter of the clearing erupts into whirling, shrieking flames.
Drew screams and falls backwards, away from the wall of fire now raging just a couple yards away from him. His arms rise to cover his face and Roselia, despite shaking like a leaf, quickly rushes to her trainer's side. Drew slowly lowers his arms and stares at the inferno with his jaw dropped.
Lefty and Righty both squeak and tumble to the grass, neither daring to move an inch in the eye of the monstrous Firespin now twisting around them. Both begin to pant harshly in the oppressive heat.
Leader blinks and looks around, seemingly not comprehending the fifty-foot-tall tornado of orange flames around him. He looks up at the lip of the firestorm, seeing only the glare of the sun. His ears twitch, but Lee knows that the only thing he can hear is the overpowering roar of fire.
Lee himself takes a slow breath of the hot air and closes his eyes, knowing Vulpix would never hurt him.
As quick as the Firespin came, it vanishes, leaving only a handful of embers gently floating down. Slowly, the sunlight returns to normal as well. In the middle of the clearing, Vulpix calmly sits as if nothing had occurred
'Or at least that's what it looks like. Just keep your shakes still for another minute or two, Vulpix. I think your idea worked.'
"Go home, Zangoose." Lee finally says, letting his shoulders drop and his expression ease into something neutral.
Leader, his face still blank, turns to leave without a word. As he limps through the charred underbrush, his friends pick themselves up and race after him, giving Vulpix a wide and fearful berth as they do so.
Taking a deep breath of blessedly cool air, Lee walks over to Vulpix and picks her up gently in his arms, letting him feel her exhausted tremors. "Damn fine job, Vulpix. Damn fine job."
She snorts and stretches her neck to lick Lee across his chin. 'D*d yo* expe*t a*ything le*s?'
Lee and by proxy Vulpix turn to see a pale and wide-eyed Drew. "...Was that?" The boy asks, looking between them and the charred ring around the perimeter of the clearing. Roselia is nowhere to be found, but the pokeball clutched in Drew's white knuckle grip is a good indicator of where she is. "I've never seen something so…"
'Oops…' The zoologist wipes his sweaty forehead with the back of his gloved hand. "That was Firespin taken to its logical extreme. Vulpix here is the best at what she does. Sorry for not warning you, but I wanted to scare those Zangoose off before they were too injured to leave under their own power. If they had any idea what we were cooking up, they would have surely tried to stop us."
Drew takes a few deep breaths, his pallor beginning to return to something more healthy. "Yeah, yeah I understand that. No hard feelings…" The green-headed trainer seems to mull over something before speaking again. "You're not in the Contest circuit, are you?"
"I may try one out to see what it's like, but I don't think I'm ever going to be a dedicated coordinator." Lee stifles a laugh when Drew barely hides a relieved sigh. "With that out of the way, let's head back to the rendezvous point and report our success." Lee smiles gently. 'Shit. I'm not getting into that stupid main character mindset of not knowing what is shocking to people, am I? Hrm. I wonder how Ash and his pals are doing…'
Out on the Dewford boardwalk right on the edge of the beach, a young trainer with a Pikachu astride his shoulder is enjoying some fresh air before he goes to join his friends for dinner. Oh man, after a day like today where he skipped lunch due to jitters, the young trainer feels like he could eat an entire buffet to bankruptcy!
With a big grin on his face, Ash holds up his latest prize to the light of the Dewford sunset to admire its simple beauty. Between his fingers is a Knuckle Badge, his second Hoenn badge and the first one he's earned against a Gym Leader that he knows is going all out.
The battle earlier today was incredible! His Corphish went toe-to-toe with Brawly's personal Machop. The battle was touch and go for a little while until Corpish landed a lucky Vicegrip on the fingers of Machop's left-hand, breaking several and forcing the Fighting-type to battle with only one hand. Brawly then went for broke and had Machop use Dynamic Punch on the floor. The explosion knocked out Machop, but also softened Corphish up enough for Brawly's Hariyama to finish it off.
Man, that pokémon was brutal as a Makuhita, and after evolving during Ash's first failed challenge, he only got more powerful. It was only after recalling a few old battles with heavyweight pokémon did Ash realize the key to victory: disable Hariyama's legs.
Nuzleaf, his nimble Grass-type stole the show during the match! At Ash's direction, Nuzleaf kept maneuvering into Hariyama's blind spots and cutting away at his legs with Razor Leaf. It wasn't long before Hariyama was simply too wounded to keep up. One great, leaping Pound attack to the back of the sumo pokémon's head finally ended the bout and earned them their Knuckle Badge!
Ash clinches the badge in his hand with a laugh and turns to Pikachu, who is sitting on his favorite perch. Namely, Ash's shoulder. "Man, today was the absolute best! Don't you think, pal?"
Pikachu's smile is no less blinding. "Pika!" He agrees with just as much enthusiasm.
"I can't believe how tough Hariyama was," Ash muses aloud. "Even after we figured out how to beat him, he was still so tough! Brawly sure knows what he's doing with Fighting-types."
"You battled Brawly's Hariyama?"
Ash and Pikachu blink and turn around to face the unexpected voice.
Paused midstep and standing just a few feet away on the boardwalk, a boy several years older than Ash stares at him with disbelief. The older boy is clad entirely in black, including the black beanie on his head covering most of his maroon hair. On his left arm is a black metal vambrace with slots for shrunken pokeballs, and three of the six lots are filled. The older boy focuses his dark maroon eyes on Ash. "Are you going to answer me, kid? You're saying you battled Brawly's Hariyama and won?"
Ash bounces back from the older boy's rude tone near-instantly. "Sure did!" Ash grins and holds up the Knuckle Badge in his hand. "He was crazy tough, but Nuzleaf and I won in the end!"
The still-unnamed older boy blinks, seemingly not believing a single word that came out of Ash's mouth. "Brawly's Hariyama?"
Now little concerned, Ash nods again, Pikachu mirroring him for emphasis. "Yeah. We nearly had him as a Makuhita, but he evolved mid-battle and narrowly beat us."
The maroon-haired boy's face scrunches in confusion for a moment, then settles into amusement. "Ah, you fought his actual Hariyama's runt. Yeah, nevermind. Don't care anymore." With that, he keeps walking.
'What?' Ash looks at Pikachu, but the mouse pokémon looks just as lost. The Kanto-born trainer huffs and jumps into the path of the older boy. "Hey! Wait! What did you mean by that?"
The black-clad teen's amusement swiftly turns into annoyance. "What I mean, kid, is that Brawly gave you the kid gloves treatment. You didn't battle his actual Hariyama. I bet if you had, your journey would've ended right here. You would've thrown in the towel after seeing just how high the mountain gets." He crosses his arms and clicks his tongue. "As far as I'm concerned, that badge of yours may as well be a handout."
The words sting something fierce and Ash can instantly feel his temper begin to boil. "Oh yeah? How do you know all that? And just who are you anyway?"
"Andre is my name, and how do I know?" The now named Andre smirks nastily. He reaches into the pocket of his black jeans and pulls out a small case. He pops it open, and inside Ash sees a shiny Knuckle Badge sitting with seven empty slots. "I know because I beat that bastard Brawly just a few days ago. He used everything he had against me, Hariyama included, and he lost. I won, totally and utterly." Andre's grin is so wide that it's almost splitting his face. He puts his badge case away. "I'm the only person to completely defeat him since he became the Gym Leader. Now I can finally leave this trashy little island…" His voice trails off near the end.
Conflict whirls around in Ash's gut, filling him with the same feeling that he felt those weeks ago back in Rustboro, where he learned that... 'Almost no one was taking us seriously…' Unsure of what to think, the 12-year-old trainer defaults back to blurting the first thing on his mind. "Brawly's not a bastard! Take that back!"
Andre's face instantly twists into a hateful sneer. "Really? You're going to say that after he disrespected you by not going all out?" He makes an airy gesture with his hand. "You really don't know him at all, then."
Ash scowls back. On his shoulder, Pikachu's red cheeks spark dangerously. "He didn't disrespect me! He used his own pokémon during our Gym battle! I'm sure we can take on his other pokémon too!"
"Ha!" Andre openly laughs, throwing his head back and laughing so hard that several people walking along the boardwalk stop to see what the commotion is. A few of them see the teen with nervous recognition in their eyes and quickly keep moving.
"Oh man…" Andre chuckles. "Ah… I really hate guys like you." He shakes his head condescendingly. "Do you think you're tough? Do you think you're good? Fine then. Let's prove it right here." The teen draws a pokeball from the vambrace on his arm and enlarges it.
Ash's eyes narrow.
"One-on-one, here on the beach," Andre's smirk grows into something openly malicious. "Let's see you put your money where your mouth is, smart ass."