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"Seviper, Poison Tail!" The red-headed Rocket, Jesse orders. Her face locks into a determined scowl. "Make it hurt!"

"Use Growth, Cacnea!" James' expression is one of caution, and maybe even worry to Brendan.

Brendan analyzes the opening moves Jessie and James use as a counter to the Camerupt charging at them like a runaway truck. It's a smart two-on-one opening, having the mightier of the pair attack while the weaker one buffs up. With his Grass-typing, Cacnea will need all the strength he can muster to face a fully-evolved Fire-type like Camerupt, and any time Seviper can buy is precious.

With a deep hiss and menacing brandish of his bladed tail, Team Rocket's Seviper coils like a spring-loaded trap and waits for the charging Camerupt to get in range. The vicious red edge on the end of his tail shivers with pent-up violence.

Cacnea, meanwhile, bounces behind his snake comrade on his short, stubby legs. Once out of harm's way, the cactus pokemon glows a faint green as he draws on the dormant Grass energy in his body to strengthen himself.

Camerupt's eyes narrow, but the huge Fire/Ground hybrid continues his charge. Just as Camerupt comes within range of Seviper, Brendan notices it.

Camerupt was already moving to dodge the instant an attack was called. The camel pokemon adjusted his steps as soon as Seviper bared his tail, now charging at the space just to the right of the snake.

Seviper hisses and brings down his tail like the hammer of a gun, going from poised to striking in nary a second.

In reply, Camerupt just leans to his right the slightest amount and the tail passes by with only an inch to spare, slamming into the ground like a guillotine. A few red hairs from Camerupt's hide flutter down to the floor, shorn off by Poison Tail. The sheer economy of movement that such a large pokemon can bring to bear leaves Brendan stunned for a moment.

Brendan isn't the only one surprised by Seviper's miss. The snake pokemon's trainer, Jesse, seems just as dumbfounded that a giant target like Camerupt dodged a point-blank strike.

On the other end of the impromptu battleground, Courtney's face remains neutral, as if the outcome of the first strike was never in doubt. "Headbutt."

Now beside the wide-eyed Seviper, Camerupt stomps to a stop and rams his head into Seviper with devilish speed, the sort a beast his size shouldn't have, making a wince-inducing crack as their skulls meet.

Seviper is thrown across the room from the force of the blow, flying through the air as limp as a wet noodle. Droplets of blood trail his new head wound, then they splatter as Seviper hits the ground and rolls, landing in a tangled, unconscious heap.

"Seviper?!" Jesse's voice is shrill in alarm. "Seviper! Get up!"

The snake lets out a low, groaning hiss, but remains down.

"Wha?" Ash blinks, drawing Brendan's attention. "Camerupt beat Seviper in just one hit?"

"Is it really that surprising?" Brendan asks, wiggling the fingers holding Mashtomp's ball under the rope binding still holding himself, Ash, and Ash's friends in place. With just one push, Marshtomp could be released to back up the mysterious woman and her Camerupt, but he holds off to see where the battle will go. "I doubt pokemon belonging to criminals are going to be in top shape."

"Jesse and James aren't the best trainers," Ash concedes, "But they and their pokemon aren't pushovers either. They've nearly had us more times than I care to count."

Beside him, May groans. "I'm starting to rethink this whole 'pokemon journey' thing."

Ash just grins sheepishly.

Back in the battle, the other Rocket, James, seems to realize how dire things are becoming. He looks at Camerupt with something akin to fear, his face paling. "Cacnea! Stay on Camerupt's side and use Poison Sting!"

Cacnea bounds into action, circling the Fire/Ground-type that just floored his ally. The cactus pokemon raises his thorny arms, the spines lining the limbs glowing brightly. Then from the spines shoots a wave of sickly purple needles, all flying at Camerupt's wide flank.

Once more, neither Courtney nor Camerupt seem concerned by the attack. The red-clad woman leans her head back slightly, almost as if she's looking down on the Rockets. "Heatwave."

Camerupt's volcano humps boil and churn with molten rock, and all at once, the entire room becomes unbearably warm, slowly drying out Brendan's eyes and throat. The air around Camerupt wavers and hisses, the pokemon within looking like a mirage to the naked eye.

As Cacnea's Poison Sting needles fly through the scorching hot air at Camerupt, they simply burst into flames and disintegrate, falling short of peppering their target by a mere foot. As the last needle turns to ash, the temperature drops back down, the room now noticeably drier.

Again, Brendan finds himself astounded. 'Camerupt didn't need any extra instructions to use Heatwave as a defensive move, and he measured the energy needed for Heatwave perfectly. How did Courtney do it? Some kind of gesture I didn't see? Did they plan a maneuver like that out in advance?'

Cacnea's brow creases in worry and he looks back to a stunned James for instructions. A fatal mistake that both Courtney and Camerupt ruthlessly jump upon.

"Flamethrower."

The camel pokemon draws in a deep breath, then from his mouth pours a tight gout of blazing orange flames.

The Flamethrower crosses the distance to Cacnea so fast the poor Grass-type has no time to even raise his arms in defense, even if such a defense would be worth nothing. The fire splashes around Cacnea's small, round form with such intensity that James hops backward with a yelp, nearly brushed by the attack.

As Flamethrower ends, Cacnea reels back, covered in blackened, savage burns. He sways and falls to the ground, unconscious and overloaded from pain.

"Both Seviper and Cacnea went down in just one attack," Brendan hears Max remark with surprise.

Looking between the downed Cacnea and Seviper, then to the shocked Jesse and James, Meowth audibly gulps. "Uh, guys?" He looks up at his human partners. "Gettin' zapped is one ting, but I don't think I wanna get char-broiled by Camerupt here…"

"Me neither…" James quietly agrees.

"Same here…" Jesse tightens her hold over the sack holding Pikachu, who has since gone still at the sound of fighting. As one, Jesse and James recall their pokemon into their pokeballs and stand tensely. Meowth turns and looks at the door they were going to use as an escape, finding Camerupt's lava has cooled into solid, smoking rock.

So now the only exit is behind the trainer of the mammoth Camerupt.

Camerupt snorts, blowing twin plumes of black smoke from his nostrils as he impatiently taps a hoof on the ground, making the Team Rocket trio cringe and take a collective step back.

Behind Camerupt, Courtney regards the trio with the same dead expression she's worn for the entire short fight. Her eyes turn to the bag over Jesse's shoulder. "Put the Pikachu down… And surrender. You can't win." She finally says, her voice halting and oddly cadenced.

Jesse's trepidation is traded for a red face of indignant anger, but her partner is quick to place a hand on her shoulder and frantically shake his head no. With a sigh, Jesse slowly begins to lower the bag holding Pikachu…

But Brendan notices James reaching into his back pocket for something, and rather than let the Rocket get away with whatever he has planned, Brendan pushes Marshtomp's ball free.

The pokeball pops out between Brendan's body and the ropes and splits open in a flash of light as it hits the ground, letting a furious Marshtomp out. The mudfish pokemon opens his mouth and unleashes an enraged bellow, one so loud that all three Rockets jump, startled. The bag holding Pikachu slips from Jesse's fingers in her surprise.

"Marshtomp!" Brendan barks. "Stop the blue-haired one! He's reaching for something!"

Marshtomp needs no other instruction and rushes forward like a wild-eyed, speeding train, his footsteps thundering on the concrete floor.

James stiffens and goes ghost-white as he yanks a small black orb from his pocket. "These Rockets aren't blasting off today, thank you!" He says, throwing the orb against the ground with a crack.

Thick black smoke erupts from the apparent smoke bomb, quickly filling the room with an acrid haze and drowning everyone's sight in darkness.

Brendan, Ash, May, Max, and Brock all break out into a coughing fit, having no way to cover their mouths and noses with their limbs still bound. After a minute of teary-eyed choking, the smoke begins to dissipate.

Blinking through his red, irritated eyes, Brendan looks around and curses under his breath when he sees no Team Rocket. 'Aw man. I can't believe I let them get away. I should have let Marshtomp out earlier…' He watches his pokemon grumble, probably thinking the same thing. Marshtomp isn't bothered for long as he walks up to the bag where Pikachu is contained. Rather than untie it, Marshtomp just rips off the knot holding the bag closed with a loud tearing sound, letting Pikachu pop his head out.

The electric mouse looks around, his ears folding back. "Pika…" Ash's pokemon says dejectedly.

Marshtomp just waves off whatever Pikachu said with an uncaring don't worry about it croak.

"Got away again…" Ash frowns slightly, unintentionally mirroring Brendan. "Team Rocket is such a pain sometimes."

Brock nods. "They've been getting craftier too."

"This ropeburn I'm getting is an even bigger pain than those clowns," May complains with a groan, theatrically struggling as she does so. "Pikachu? Marshtomp? Please let us out."

Pikachu and Marshtomp share a look, then smile. As a pair, they start towards their trainers.

"Here. Let me."

The bundle of tied-up trainers all look up as one as the mysterious woman, Courtney, leisurely walks her way up to them with her Camerupt at her side.

With the fighting now over, Camerupt's humps have stopped smoking, and his sharp, alert eyes have fallen into an aloof sort of dullness. It's the same look most people would find on a Numel or a Camerupt, but after seeing the pokemon in action, Brendan already knows it's an act.

Courtney reaches out and gives the knot holding the rope together around the group a pull, slowly shimmying one length of rope past another and loosening the binds. As she works, she turns her half-lidded eyes to Ash. "Those three…" She begins. "You've fought them before?"

Ash nods and hangs his head with obvious frustration. "Yeah, they're a bunch of pokemon thieves! Pikachu beat them once and they've been obsessed with him ever since."

From his place atop Marshtomp's head, Pikachu sighs and slumps his shoulders right along with his trainer.

"Hmm…" Courtney hums to herself, then she turns her eyes to Brendan.

Unable to squirm in discomfort with the ropes still around him, all the Birch heir can do is stare back as the woman's piercing eyes cut into him like scalpels. Thankfully, it ends as quickly as it started, as the magenta-haired woman pulls the final part of the knot free, letting the ropes around the group go limp and fall to the floor. As one, everyone steps away from each other into a loose circle, some rubbing chaffed arms.

Max fixes his lopsided glasses and looks at Courtney. "Thanks for the save, miss. Team Rocket would have gotten away with Pikachu if you didn't come in."

Courtney's stony face finally breaks and reveals a tiny, almost nonexistent smile. "No thanks needed. But…" She once more looks at Brendan. "Brendan had… his Marshtomp ready. He would have saved you if we didn't."

Camerupt snorts.

Brendan can't help but blink in surprise 'She noticed? And she knows my name?' He clears his throat. "Well, that doesn't change the fact you and your Camerupt sent those creeps packing, so thanks anyway."

Courtney's smile grows a little more. "I've actually been looking for you, Brendan Birch."

"Me?" Brendan spares a glance down at Marshtomp as the mudfish pokemon takes the spot to his trainer's right. "Why's that?"

"You're one of Hoenn's rising stars, and son of the man who could have been champion." Courtney nods. "You're going to go far in this world, Brendan, and I have something I want to ask of you…"


"The guy was a lawyer?" Zinnia smirks, weaving around a slower pedestrian in the dense foot traffic of downtown Mauville. "That makes way too much sense."

"Exactly what I was thinking," Lee nods. "After a lot of back and forth, we finally got him to agree to five percent and to file both of the patent applications as just one rather than separately, so we only have one fee."

After fearsome debate with his new account manager within Silph Co, one Alec Aarons, Lee finally compromised on a number that left neither him nor Aarons happy. The negotiations took the better part of an hour and resulted in more than one patent form crumpled up and tossed in the trash. The shell that is Aarons' pleasant demeanor was beginning to wear thin near the end, this Lee is sure of. The businessman let a single lock of his slicked blonde hair slip free, and although his smile remained nearly unflappable, Aarons' eyes would flit between something violent and a plea to give up.

Lee gave no quarter. The work of his team would be rewarded properly.

Once ink was set to paper, they went down to the lab portion of the building to copy the move and left. Grovyle returned himself to his ball shortly afterward, leaving Lee and Vulpix to wander to a street corner ice cream stand. The frozen treat did quite a bit to soothe the former zoo keeper's fouled mood. Vulpix's delight at trying and subsequently loving a peach-flavored scoop fixed his day in a hurry after that.

'Maybe Mable was onto something with this whole 'treat yourself sometimes' thing.'

The dragon tamer fixes her crimson eyes on Lee, bemused. "They can do that and just choose not to?" She asks, sounding vaguely disgusted. "That's thousands of credits out of the patent holder's pocket though."

Lee shrugs, lifting the placid fox on his shoulders up and down. "I don't know if it's somehow less work filing the patents separately or if they have to eat some kind of cost now, but it's some kind of corporate nonsense."

Zinnia rolls her eyes. "So what happened after that? How did they actually copy the moves off of lizardman?"

"In the basement of the building, they had this…" Lee pauses. 'I don't actually know how to describe it,' he thinks, recalling the wall-sized machine not unlike the vintage supercomputers of yesteryear back on earth. "Gigantic computer-looking thing taking up an entire wall. All they needed Grovyle to do was wear this headband with electrodes in it connected to the machine and just think about the moves. Five minutes later, we were on our way out."

"That's kinda boring," Zinnia muses, unknowingly using the same words Lee did as he left the Silph Co office.

"A bit, yeah…" Lee nods along. "How did your tournament go?"

Zinnia sighs. "Barely a challenge. Swablu handled the bulk of them and Goomy got a few battles in. Shelgon swept the semis and finals, netting me a neat three-thousand."

"See any interesting pokemon?"

The draconid tribeswoman taps her chin with a finger. "There were a few. The guy I fought in the semis had a Scolipede."

Lee feels his eyes widen. "A fully evolved three-stage pokemon in a small local tourney?" He tries to picture the massive centipede pokemon in its eight-foot-tall glory, but the image in his head doesn't seem to do it justice.

"Yep!" Zinnia pops the p in yep. "He was a one trick Ponyta, though, only using Poison Sting into Venoshock. He gave everyone else a one-two punch knockout, but Scolipede dropped like a sack of rocks after Shelgon hit him with Rollout and followed up with Flamethrower." Zinnia slumps. "The money is nice, but I wish someone had put up more of a fight."

"Erm…" Lee awkwardly puts a hand on her shoulder. "You always have mine and Brendan's teams to spar against."

"I guess…" She grumbles before straightening up, making Lee withdraw his hand. "So, we're heading north tomorrow, huh? Which route are we taking?"

"I wanted to discuss that with you and Brendan, actually."

Zinnia nods, her expression firming up. "The northernmost part of Hoenn is pretty treacherous. The closer you get to Mount Chimney, the harsher it is to navigate. I think we should really plan this out and prepare, maybe even stop by a store for more gear. We've had it nice and easy with the flat plains and forests so far."

Lee looks at her, and he can feel Vulpix's curiosity as well. "Is it really that bad?"

The tanned woman nods seriously. "The Draconid Tribe have strongholds throughout northern Hoenn, and that's where I grew up. Trust me when I say we need to be ready for this, because it could take weeks to get to Lavaridge Town, and both routes have their own dangers. This leg of the journey is really going to test you and Brendan, Lee."

Lee notes how Zinnia referred to him and Brendan by their real names, and not any dumb nicknames. "Right…" He hums. "We'll start planning tonight then."

Zinnia nods, sending him a sidelong glance. "You don't want to wait any longer?"

"If Corvi comes back, then he comes back and I'll be overjoyed," Lee replies, forcing his tone to be neutral. Nearly two weeks after Corvisquire ran away, it still stings. "If not, then that's his choice."

Vulpix shifts, nosing his cheek in a silent display of comfort.

Zinnia says nothing more on the topic. "When did shrimpy say he was heading this way?"

"Just a few minutes ago," Lee pulls his phone from his jacket pocket before unlocking it and taking another gander at his recent texts.

Brendan: (2:22pm) Trick house was a bust some other kid won and some cheaters threw everything out of wack. Coming back with a new friend. We're gunna stop (HERE) if you want to meet us.

"Said he's bringing a friend too."

"Does he mean a pokemon or another person?" Zinnia asks, then she smirks once more. "Oh, what if shrimpy is bringing a girl? You better hope Birch gave his kid the talk or that might fall to you~!" She giggles and pokes Lee's ribs.

"Yeah, nah. The professor will be down a lab trainer if he puts that evil on me," Lee shoots back. "Doesn't say if it's a new pokemon or not," Lee drops the phone back in his pocket. "We'll see."

The pair of trainers and single pokemon continue their walk for several minutes, slowly leaving the bustling, skyscraper-boasting downtown to a more sedate urban market area. Rounding a corner, they find a colorful corner store where Brendan asked them to meet at.

Stepping through the automatic glass doors with Zinnia only a half-step behind, Lee perks up as he hears a familiar voice.

"Man it's hot outside…" Brendan complains from two aisles over by a soda fountain. The rows of junk food obscure the boy, but the voice is unmistakable. "I think a slushie would hit the spot. Do you want one?"

Another voice replies, this one quiet and female. "No thank you," says the soft voice of a woman.

Lee can feel Zinnia's amused smile without even turning. "Not a word."

"I didn't say anything~" Zinnia almost laughs.

They circle around the aisle, both Lee and Zinnia pausing for a second to take in Brendan's new friend.

Standing a few inches taller than the young Birch is a woman in her late teens. Her large red hoodie covers much of her form, and her hands are resting in the hoodie's pockets, hiding them from view. Her hood is pulled up, but the zoologist and dragon tamer can still make out a gentle, placid face with pink hair and eyes of the same color. A red shoulder bag rests slung across her body, and her skirt and shoes are unremarkable, but…

'I'm getting the weirdest feeling I've seen this girl before…' Lee blinks. That thought is immediately followed by; 'Brendan why are you letting a strange woman follow you around? If you need either a stranger danger talk or the talk I swear to God I'm going to have a stroke.'

The unknown woman takes notice of Lee and Zinnia first, watching them with a raised brow as Brendan finishes filling a soft drink cup with his slushie.

Brendan caps his treat and sticks a straw in with a smile. His smile grows as he turns and spies Lee and Zinnia. "Hey! About time you got here." He pauses to take a sip from the cup in his hand and looks over at his new 'friend'. "Guys, meet Courtney," he says, raising a hand to the now named Courtney, who just nods politely. "I met May Maple and her friends at the Trick House, and apparently they were being stalked by a pair of Team Rocket thugs."

Lee feels his breath hitch, not questioning why the name Courtney seems familiar right now. "And you got involved?" He asks sharply.

Smile falling, Brendan laughs nervously. "Ah, maybe? It's fine, though! Courtney and her Camerupt sent them running like the babies they are!"

"Camerupt, huh?" Zinnia gives Courtney an appraising look, and Courtney returns the stare coolly. "You a trainer then?"

The red-clad woman nods. "I am."

When she doesn't elaborate further, Zinnia pushes more. "Really? What kind of pokemon have you got, and what's your motivation? Looking to hit the gyms?"

"Zinnia…" Brendan frowns. "You're being nosy again."

"It's okay Brendan…" Courtney raises a hand to halt him. She looks back to Zinnia. "I have Camerupt, Swellow, and Mightyena. My motivations?" She glances away, the barest hints of a smile on her face. "We just need to be strong for someone precious to me."

"That's a more noble reason to be a trainer than most," Lee smiles, hoping to smooth over Zinnia's less-than-stellar first impression. "Three fully evolved pokemon, huh?" Lee wonders aloud. "You must be a talented trainer."

The pink-headed woman shakes her head. "My pokemon and I are formidable to any who care to judge, but we've a lot to learn. That's actually why I am here." As she speaks at length, odd halts make themselves apparent in her speech, as if she's not used to speaking more than a few words at a time.

Yet another thing that is so strangely familiar, but Lee can't put his finger on just who this woman is.

"If you are Zinnia," Courtney glances over to the frowning draconid. "Then you must be Lee, the leader of the group," she finishes, turning to Lee.

The scarred man blinks. 'Leader?'

'Yo* fit t*e part,' Vulpix's dull amusement bleeds over to Lee.

'Hardly,' He inwardly scoffs. "I'm not really the leader, the other two are just too lazy to make decisions."

Courtney shrugs. "You're still the one in charge then." She then politely bows at the waist towards him. "I've heard of you and Brendan being expert trainers, and I would like to know if you would permit me to travel with you."

"Huh?" Is Lee's intelligent reply.

The pink-eyed woman raises her head, looking at him intensely. "I would like to travel with you as a learning experience, if you'll let me. I have the funds and skill to pull my weight, and I'm willing to see hardship through."

"C'mon Lee!" Brendan vouches with a grin. "You shoulda seen her Camerupt in action! I'm sure there's tons we can learn from each other on the road. The more the merrier, right?"

"Not necessarily…" Zinnia gives Courtney a stare that borders on accusatory. "We don't know anything about this chick. You could be anyone for all we know."

'A good point…' Lee looks at Courtney to see how she'll respond.

The woman shakes her head. "I'm not a danger to you. To another group, maybe, but I'm aware of the talent around me. I know my team and I would lose should we come to blows."

"Didn't you kinda force your way into mine and Lee's group anyway, Zinnia?" Brendan asks with a raised brow. "At least she's asking, and politely at that."

Zinnia opens her mouth to respond, a finger raised to make a point, but after several seconds, she withdraws her hand and glowers at Brendan. Then she sniffs and looks away. "Fine. Do what you want."

'She gave up rather easily.'

Brendan also seems bewildered by the dragon tamer's refusal to argue further, but he shakes it off. "So, what do you say, Lee?" He asks, smiling.

'I say. "I want to know where I've seen this woman before"…' He looks over to the vixen resting across his shoulders. 'Thoughts, love?'

Vulpix mulls to herself. 'We're m*ving into d*ngerous terr*tory come tomor*ow. More ha*ds and eyes c*uld be useful.' Then she adds; 'I w**ld not trust in*tantly, howeve*.'

'Same thing with Zinnia then. Does the protection offered justify the risk of letting a powerful unknown hang around? She did save Brendan from the Rockets, which is a talk we are definitely having later,' Lee sighs. He turns his attention to the eager grin on Brendan's face, and despite some part of him warning him this is a bad idea, Lee says; "If you would like to come, Courtney, then we'll have you as long as there's no funny business."

Courtney smiles thinly once more and inclines her head. "Thank you."

The young Birch laughs, a joyful sound. "Told ya Lee is a cool guy," he says, looking up at Courtney.

"We're starting our trek north towards Lavaridge tomorrow, though, and the road isn't a fun one," Lee begins, leveling the red-wearing woman with an even stare. "Are you prepared for that?"

She just nods. "I'm acquainted with routes 111 and 122."

"Well…" Lee scratches the back of his head. "Nothing left to do but get ready for tomorrow then."

Beside him, Zinnia nods, her temper now apparently cooled off. "Hey, shrimpy. Take your girlfriend and pay for your drink. Lee and I got something to discuss."

As Brendan blusters out a denial with his cheeks pink, Zinnia turns and heads for the front of the store, stopping only to turn her head and urge Lee to follow with her narrowed eyes.

Outside the store, the draconid tribeswoman grabs Lee's collar and drags him down roughly to whisper in his ear so no one passing by can hear. "Whatever you do, don't freak out." she begins, slow and serious. "That woman, Courtney? She's a Magma affiliate."

That's why her name and face are so familiar. The swiftly fading memories of the Pokemon Ruby remake slams back into Lee's brain like a strike from a hammer, and he just screws his eyes shut as a headache forms. Lee isn't sure if the thrill of alarm he feels is from himself or Vulpix, and frankly he doesn't care.

'I wish I was still back in the forest getting zapped by Shinx.'

"Dare I ask how you know that?" Lee grimaces, keeping his voice down.

Zinnia's face screws itself up into a snarl. "I think Magma and Aqua are up to no good, no good on a scale that might endanger my tribe, so I was going to sneak in to see what they were up to. A few payments to the right brokers, and I had dossiers on some key members. That bitch is one of Magma's admins."

With a long-suffering sigh, Lee can already guess where this is going. "You quit putting up a fight over her joining for a reason, didn't you?"

Zinnia blinks in surprise. "Er, yeah." She shakes it off. "I think this is a perfect opportunity to slowly pump one of these admins for info. I have no idea what she wants or why she decided to seek us out and play innocent, but I know an opportunity when I see one." She looks around Lee's frame back into the store, what she's looking at, he's unsure. "We could nip all this in the bud from the Magma side."

"And why, pray tell, can't we just lead her to the police?" Lee asks with a sigh. "We keep doing this shit over and over where we risk our lives when there are professionals to handle things. I'm getting tired of it."

The tanned woman shakes her head. "Lee, the police would be stupidly outgunned by an admin of a criminal syndicate smart enough to lay this low for this long. You can't just talk the talk in the criminal world, you have to be able to walk the walk too, so her pokemon have to be strong with a capital S. If she gets violent, then that's a big problem in a populated area like Mauville."

"And so the alternative here is?"

"Keep your friends close…" Zinnia's face darkens. "And keep your enemies closer. If she's here with us, then she's not helping Magma or causing trouble."

"Damn it…" Lee growls, frustration mounting. "Damn it!"

Zinnia lets go of his collar, letting Lee stand straight and cross his arms. "I know, Dolittle…" her voice is quiet in sympathy. She reaches out to pat him on the arm. "But either three capable trainers handle this…"

"...Or it gets passed off to someone else who can't…" Lee hisses through his teeth. "I don't like it."

"I don't either, Dolittle," Zinnia murmurs. "I don't either. People with power have gotta do the right thing though, and with our pokemon, we are those people."

Lee sighs once more, silently hating how much sense Zinnia is making.

On his shoulder, Vulpix finally speaks up after having been silent for the entire conversation. 'Lee,' she begins, pressing her head into the crook of his neck. The curly tuft of fur on her head tickles his cheek, and reassurance 'Do wh*t you f*el is rig*t. Grovyle and I w*ll follow.'

Lee reaches up and gently strokes Vulpix's head. "Fine. I guess we're playing babysitter for a criminal."

END ACT 1