A big thanks to NurseBold, Nicolas H, Tim M, ncskeeter56, Thomas D, Avo, S. Nutter, Lucy B, Lars H, Jesper B, Frogsamurai, Ethan S, Kalafalafakah, Fabhar, Zach C, Dicky W, Sashank U, Patrick I, MidnightJayguar, Tyric Gaias, No Thanks, Alex G, Meadow, Spencer S, Taylor V, Jeremy H, Scott E, Johnathan C, Josh T, marcellis97, Powernap, rooster196, Johnathan D, Sukaleska, Ampharos3, Nick R, Tiemi, Irene, Xegzy, Earthpatriot117, CheesePie25, Thundatwin, TwentyThousandCats, itsawaffle, Esquire, Spencer K, Siphon Rayzar, Mrbucky92, wishindo, Sandesh, Obsidianking, ToolsOfTrypticon, Jorge B, Kyle P, Cynicalto, Friendship is Carrots, Tayler, Dominic M, Aidan S, Duncan K, Webmaster, Planetace, xydra22, Aros, Argent E, Orion D, Chris C, Vitruvius, Emeraldleafeon, Reviv3pls, Kiri, Michael S, Chaz, Swinter, Patroncrad, James M, Phillip N, Grant G, KessOrangesoda, Remi C, Zachary, VoidPhoenix, Kirsendarken, Brendan Mewburn, BlastwaveNorth, Faolen, Harp, Brad P, MettalicDragon, Evan F, The Last Pucci, Anemone221, GaryD12, Kris N, Weise, Duncan, Sage B, Night Drifter, killbot E, Pearly, dakota j, n angstmann, MentallySauced, Tessa, Jan Z, Peter D, Spencer S, David B, CynicalDeviant95, Miguel, Straven, Emilowish, Colby, ShaRose, V3Lithiun, Omega753, Omakehell, Anna F, Jimmie L, Adam M, Awople, Quokkamolee, Greenboy676, Krimo, Derek Q, Lennea, Evan P, Quinlan S, REPOsPuNKy, Fisch, M4kl9H7, Ultra Director, Nitrus_Hail, Harukain, t3chn0fr34q, Studmuffin, Tzeneth, Azunth, Stephen B, Chris N, WhataGreatNamelol, Decibel, Wyatt S, Nekusar, and Googy123 for being patrons.
An extra big thanks to Teigen S, K, Andres, Stays Secret, Paul F, VandheerXLorde, Dusks_Lantern, Sprektomegankai, Berd, Cristobal A, Uratan, Enderchangeling, Rincewind, Alejandro G, MrPerson0, Steven R, DukeDandelion, BunnyWaffles, and Matt for being high-level patrons.
A special thanks to Spartanstoryteller, Eriermence, Dewey08, and CMDR Dantae for being mad-lad level patrons.
Last but certainly not least, a very special thanks to BrokenOlive, Gomical, Cait R, and MajinSM for being top-level patrons, as well as a thanks to every donator who wishes to go unnamed.
Want to support me? See Fuggmann on the place of patrons. As a thanks for donating, patrons get to see updates a few days early and suggest edits to the final draft before it goes live. I did have a few people as why this took so long, so if you want updates, you can use disschord code yh8dvXJDnx
"I don't recommend it," Courtney shakes her head, her magenta locks bouncing under the red hood of her jacket. "The Valley of Steel... holds many powerful wild pokemon. Steven Stone trains there. The desert... is unpleasant, and the path is longer, but safer."
To the side, Zinnia groans. "It'll be fine. I've made it through the valley several times without anything bad happening." She waltzes up and throws an arm around Courtney's shoulders. "You're worrying too much, sister. Don't encourage Dolittle's worrywart streak. We're strong enough to fend off most anything."
Bemused, Lee raises an eyebrow as he watches the spectacle. "Didn't you say the trip to northern Hoenn would be a challenge that we should be careful of?"
Zinnia promptly ignores him.
The incognito Magma admin sighs, gently shrugging off the other woman's arm. "Keyword: 'most'. One trainer might slip by, but... a group will invite both curiosity and challenge from natives. Are you certain?"
Brendan looks between the two women, visibly biting back the retort that is undoubtedly in Courtney's favor. In his eyes, Lee can see the desire for the challenge a Champion's playground would present.
As one, all three of them look to Lee, much to his chagrin.
"Well?" Zinnia asks, an eyebrow raised. "Which way are we taking? 122 is faster and not through a miserable desert; just sayin'."
Courtney doesn't protest any further and stares at the zoologist as well.
Rather than lament the leadership position being foisted on him yet again, Lee looks down at the paper map held in his hands, then back up at the fork in the road he and his friends have come to after a three-day hike out of Mauville. The trees in the forest path have waned, revealing a flat, verdant grassland and giving everyone a breathtaking view of the ever-looming Mt. Chimney and the rocky plateaus guarding its base. Lazy wisps of smoke rise from the maw of Chimney's volcano top, mingling with the sparse clouds.
Lee lets his eyes turn to the left path. The worn, dirt road of route 122 snakes into the distant rock formations, vanishing into a narrow, shadowed valley. Over on the right path, route 111 extends far into the distance, vanishing into the horizon, but beyond that, Lee knows the grassland will eventually run out, and even further beyond that, the harsh Hoenn desert awaits. Both paths lead into Hoenn's northern regions, with the desert route of 111 being the longer, safer option that curves around the valley and its tough-as-nails pokemon.
'Where to go?' Lee mulls. 'I need to seriously look into a new teammate, preferably one who can deal with Fire-types. Trapinch would do. Sandshrew would also be nice, but the Valley isn't home to only Steel-types. There are a plethora of Rock and Ground-types too. Powerful ones." Lee frowns, making his scars tug unpleasantly. 'It's risky, but Corvi's departure really put a dent in our ability to battle. We've only just been scraping by in the battles that really matter, and with Magma and Aqua on the move, we need the firepower.'
Laying across his shoulders, a dozing Vulpix perks up an ear. 'Gro*yle and I p*ssess typ* adv**tages agai*st m*st of the denizens ** the Va*ley, it sounds like. If i* is the route you wi*h to take, th*n we will su*port you.' After a second, she opens her eyes with a huff. 'Perh*p* this hyp**hetical ne* member will k*ow what l**alty is.' Her telepathy garbles slightly from the spike of agitation.
Lee smiles and leans his cheek into hers, soaking in her warmth for a moment before returning his attention to his less-furry friends.
"We already prepared for the desert..." Lee muses aloud. He shifts his shoulders, but the water and travel cloak bought three days prior in his backpack add no noticeable weight. "But at the same time, the Valley is home to many rare and interesting pokemon..." He looks at Courtney. "Courtney? I won't force anyone into anything they don't want, but..." Lee frowns and looks at the placid vixen on his shoulder, who stares back. "Vulpix and Grovyle are my only combat-ready pokemon. I have faith in them, but it would place an unfair burden on them if the Lavaridge Gym demands a three-on-three match. Zinnia and Brendan want to traverse the valley, and I'm tentatively in agreement if only to recruit a new pokemon with enough strength to stand up to a Gym. Is route 122 a hard 'no' for you?"
Courtney's face remains frustratingly unreadable, but she shakes her head after a second. "No. I was merely advising against it. If you are confident... then I will follow."
Nodding, Lee turns to an eager Brendan and surprised Zinnia. "Anything to add?"
Both shake their heads no, so the group forms back up and begins down the road to the Valley of Steel. As they walk, Lee and Zinnia lag behind a little bit, letting Brendan excitedly chatter into Courtney's ear.
"You've been through the Valley before, Courtney?" Brendan smiles radiantly up at the disguised Magma admin like a Growlithe puppy might. "What's it like? How strong are the pokemon there?"
The magenta-haired woman breaks her stoic mask to smile faintly back. "Rocky. The valley is rich in iron ore... so the pokemon there eat it, making their steel armor strong."
Beside Lee, Zinnia snickers under her breath as she watches. "Ah, kiddo is crushing hard."
'Maybe a little too hard for my liking…' Lee inwardly frowns. 'Both because of who he's crushing on, and how he keeps getting defensive when Zinnia tries to get Courtney to talk. He and Zinnia have been at each other's throats for days now.' How to turn Brendan away from the Magma admin without hurting him, though, is a question Lee hasn't found an answer to yet.
Zinnia's giggles dry up as she sobers. "You know we'll have to tell him at some point, right?"
Lee doesn't answer for a moment, gathering many thoughts that buzz in his head like a swarm of Beedrill. 'Love? Scan her again?'
On Lee's shoulder, Vulpix shuts her eyes and pretends to doze, hiding the purple glow in her gaze.
Although invisible to the naked eye, Lee can feel the tendril of psychic energy reach out from Vulpix and snake its way to the petite woman ahead. With a feather-light touch, Vulpix makes contact.
Both man and fox focus on the faint emotions sifting by, taking each one in and carefully gauging them.
Devotion. Overwhelming devotion to a tall man in red attire, slicked crimson hair, and glasses with a curious stone sent into the frame. Devotion so powerful that his image can't be divorced from it.
'That unhealthy obsession with her leader again, but nothing malicious.' Lee breathes, shaking off the nervousness and revulsion of invading Courtney's privacy so grievously once more.
If anyone knew that Vulpix has been psychically interacting with a human beyond simple lie detecting, Lee would most assuredly have his trainer license shredded. If they knew that he purposely ordered her to do emotional scans and has been doing it for days, he would enjoy living in a prison cell for quite some time, but...
If it means keeping his friends safe, then lines will have to be crossed. Though to his concern, Vulpix had no issue with the order and skimmed Courtney's emotions without any delay the first night.
On his shoulder, Vulpix picks up on Lee's mixed feelings and pokes his cheek with her nose. 'I do*'t s*e the bi* deal. She's an e*emy in o*r midst. We sho*ld use all the a*vantages we ha*e.'
What a... human thing of Vulpix to say.
Lee bites his lip, staring into Courtney's back as he does so. 'Vulpix, I think your perspective might be a bit skewed. We've been linked together every day since this adventure began, ever since your...' He almost thinks 'creation'. 'Birth. There is a good reason the League cracks down on rogue psychics so hard. People don't want other people in their thoughts seeing their dirty or shameful moments. The mind is meant to be a sacred place.'
Vulpix mulls the explanation over. 'But I kn*w all of your sham*ful moments. A*d you kn*w all of mine. I... und*rstand, but a* the same ti*e, I don't. The M*gma admin is in*olved in a plot t*at thr*atens to reshape the w*rld...' The six-tailed fox sighs a hot breath. 'I think she forf*its a*y moral protec*ion after throwi*g in her lot with M*gma.'
'What we have isn't the norm,' He patiently responds. 'I don't think anyone has what we have. We should be careful to not overstep our bounds more than necessary. Not only is that a dangerous road of thought to tread, the League will not agree in the slightest. We're only going as far as we already have because lives might be at risk.'
"Hello? Hoenn to Dolittle?"
'We'll talk more on that later,' Lee finishes with Vulpix and returns his attention to Zinnia. "Sorry, Zinnia. I had a quick exchange with Vulpix," he clears his throat and lowers his voice a little more. "I don't think Courtney is bad per se, but maybe misguided. She hasn't given off any hostile vibes at least. I'm hoping to build some trust, maybe even a friendship, then confront her and convince her that Magma's scheme is insanity."
Zinnia's eyes narrow, and her crimson eyes almost seem alight in the shadow cast by her bangs. "That could backfire big time, Lee. Do you think Magma and Aqua can be reasoned with? They pick up crazies and people with no morals on purpose, because what sane person wants to be an eco-terrorist? I'll trust your judgment on this chick not being malicious—" she gives a pointed look at Vulpix, who bristles slightly. "—but that means she's on the other side of that spectrum; the crazy side. You can't reason with people like that. Don't do yourself dirty and get attached when we're going to come to blows with her one day, probably sooner rather than later."
'Why does she have to be so damn perceptive?' Lee breathes in and exhales. "Zinnia, I understand where you're coming from, but let's at least try the non-violent approach, okay? I think this can work."
The dragon tamer gives him a sidelong glance as they both pick up the pace to catch up with Brendan and Courtney. "That's awfully hopeful of you."
Lee lets a sardonic smirk lift the unmarred side of his face. "Hope is something I'm good at."
The walk to the valley is spent with idle chatter, a single stop for lunch and a break, and a pause to watch two wild Linoone dart at each other in a high-speed battle that forces the smaller loser to scamper away. The winner preens pridefully under the eyes of his audience, especially so with an amazed Shinx, before zooming away into the grassland.
Finally, as the sun begins to shift into the late afternoon, nearly on the cusp of the evening, Lee, Zinnia, Brendan, and Courtney reach the mouth of the valley.
Lee cranes his head nearly all the way back with Vulpix following suit, taking in the imposing rock faces above. Now on the threshold of the valley, the high, jagged cliffs are so much more imposing. The rocks are all a rusty brown in color, and the scent of iron is so thick in the air that Lee doesn't need to borrow Vulpix's nose to smell it. The path into the valley looks as if it were a tiny crack from a distance, but now that they're standing before it, Lee realizes a jumbo jet could fly through the opening without worry of clipping its wings on the towering valley walls.
'The Valley of Steel is a shortcut? This place is huge!'
"If not for all of the powerful pokemon living here..." Courtney begins suddenly. "This place would have been turned into a giant iron mine." She turns to everyone else, eyeing Zinnia first. "Zinnia. You've traversed the valley before?"
The tribeswoman nods resolutely. "Yep. More than once."
"Do you know the routes?"
Again, Zinnia nods.
Courtney then withdraws a pokeball from her hoodie pocket and leisurely taps the button, popping it open in her hand. In a flash of light, her Camerupt is beside her and the area grows several degrees warmer.
"Camerupt..." Courtney lays her hand across Camerupt's snout, making the camel grumble and focus his droopy eyes on her. "We're navigating the Valley of Steel. Please be vigilant."
Camerupt's eyes sharpen for a moment.
Courtney then turns her eyes to Brendan and Zinnia. "I recommend having a pokemon on hand. Things might go sour quickly."
Without needing another word, Brendan snags Marshtomp's ball from his belt and hits the ball's button. With another flash of light, the mudfish pokemon materializes at his trainer's side, already in a dutiful salute with a croak. Rubbing a hand across his pokemon's head, Brendan grins. "I don't even need to ask, do I? You're the best, pal."
Zinnia is last, taking Shelgon's ball and popping it open. After the light of Shelgon's materialization fades, she gives his metallic shell a poke. "Into the valley again. You know the drill, right bud?"
The encased dragon says nothing, only stepping a little closer to his trainer.
Together, the team of four trainers and four pokemon step into the maw of the valley, eyes scanning every which way. The first several hundred feet are empty, devoid of any other people or pokemon on the snaking path further into the heart of the valley. The cliff walls form a twisting corridor that they follow until the throat of the passage truly opens up, spitting them out into the valley proper.
Lee, Vulpix, Marshtomp, and Brendan all peer around at the high, flat-topped plateaus that all share a rusty red color while Courtney, Zinnia, and their pokemon only give the area a cursory once-over with their eyes. Zinnia then steps forward, Shelgon on her heels. "I'll take it from here. I know a few good stopping points for the night. Keep an eye peeled for aggressive pokemon, they really aren't fond of outsiders here." She digs out a folded-up bit of paper from her hip pouch and opens it, turning and showing everyone a hand-drawn map. "Stay close. We've got to navigate with only the basics here. The iron in everything throws off compasses and cell signals."
On a whim, Lee pulls both this phone and pokedex out, and sure enough, neither device has any service. "That's concerning... What if you run into an emergency out here?"
Zinnia snorts. "You're on your own. Don't give me that look, we'd be on our own in the desert, too. We're not going back now."
The draconid tribeswoman leads them down from the entrance of the valley and through a trodden path marked with cairns and arrows scored into the rocks of the plateaus. Along the way, they finally begin to spot pokemon.
Above, a trio of Magnemite peers down at the group curiously. In the sun, their shiny bodies cast harsh glints that make them difficult to look at. They idle high in the sky for only a moment before floating away.
Some minutes later, in the lower part of the valley where several hardy trees grow, they find a Scizor scoring the bark of a tree with his pincers and drinking the sap that flows out. The Bug and Steel-type watches them warily but doesn't attack. Inside Lee burns the boyish desire to challenge the Scizor to a battle if only for the cool factor of having a Scizor on the team, but the practical side of him shies away from the idea of a fight with a fully-evolved pokemon; type advantage be damned, the Scizor must be a monster if it's living in Hoenn's answer to Mt. Silver.
Above the tree and hanging on a rocky outcropping, a Ferrothorn glares down at the group and shivers its iron spines threateningly, so they make haste to continue on.
A screech rends the air, forcing everyone to stop. Finally, the first challenger presents himself.
Swooping dangerously close overhead, a Skarmory twists midair and pulls a high-G turn that would have knocked out any human pilot. The armored bird touches down on the rocky ground with an ungraceful slam of his feet and stands with his beak held high.
The huge bird pokemon easily stands five feet tall and is coated in silvery, metallic armor. His wings, resembling a folded fan of blades, lay tucked against his sides, and his thin neck leads to an angular head with a sharpened beak. Glaring at them for a moment, the Skarmory suddenly spreads his wings and lets out another piercing shriek, eagerly spoiling for a fight. He hops forward one step, the action making his wing blades rattle.
Camerupt snorts and steps forward, the humps on his back boiling with magma and spewing smoke. Vulpix takes that as her cue to jump from Lee's shoulder and leap into position next to Camerupt. Her stance is low with her hackles raised and flames licking the edge of her mouth.
The avian Steel-type looks between the two defenders before him, yellow eyes narrowing with the realization that he's facing not one, but two Fire-types. After a tense standoff, Skarmory scoffs and spreads his wings, rising into the air and zipping away.
Vulpix and Camerupt stand ready for another minute, then share a glance before slowly returning back to Lee and Courtney's sides.
Courtney turns her pink eyes to Vulpix appraisingly. "Perhaps this will be easier than expected. The natives... won't want to tangle with two Fire-types at once."
Lee nods, a bead of sweat unrelated to the sun rolling down his face. "Here's hoping."
Zinnia expertly leads the team through several paths crisscrossing the valley, pointing out useful landmarks along the way. Twice more they're accosted by denizens of the valley, a Mawile and several Durants, and twice more the armor-slagging danger presented by Vulpix and Camerupt drives the aggressors away.
Lee tries his hardest to pay attention to Zinnia's crash course on advanced land navigation, but he can't help but lose focus as he takes in the details of a biosphere that houses almost exclusively Steel-types. Working with pokemon and their fascinating biology in controlled environments is one thing, but never on earth has raw iron ore of all things been needed for any conventional animal's health. Seeing one such habitat with natives doing as they do is too much to pass up. His notebook quickly finds its way out of his bag and into his hands, much to Vulpix's amusement.
'Even after months here, months into a... new life, I still understand so little.' The thought is humbling, and the furious pace of Lee's pen slows a little. 'Vulpix, Grovyle, and Shinx have vast biological differences from animals, but they're still in the ballpark of what I know. Maybe... Maybe I need to step out of my comfort zone a bit more, expand my wanted list and try new stuff even if it seems dumb.' He muses to himself, finishing his rough sketch of a Lairon gnawing on a large lump of ore.
Draped across his shoulders, Vulpix raises her head and smiles. Lee almost stumbles when he feels Vulpix's pride for him piped directly into his brain.
'I'm glad you're getting better.'
The zoologist isn't stunned for long. With a small smile of his own, he leans his head into Vulpix's and returns her affection, making a telepathic loop of adoration.
"It's starting to get dark," Zinnia's announcement breaks up the man and fox's shared thoughts. With a dramatic flair of her cloak, Zinnia turns to the group and taps her map with a finger. "There is a little nook in the plateau east of us that most Steel-type pokemon avoid because of its bad habit of being damp. It should be a safe place to stay tonight."
"Aww... do we have to use a damp cave?" Brendan whines. "My sleeping bag isn't waterproof. I'll wake up soaked!"
Zinnia shrugs. "It's a cave or out in the open. Do you know what's out here, in the open? Pokemon that aren't happy that we're here." She levels Brendan with an amused smirk. "If you wanna rough it outside, be my guest." She reaches a finger out and pokes the younger trainer in the cheek. The boy glowers at her for a moment, before Courtney clears her throat
"Camerupt can dry the cave out... with Heatwave," she offers on her pokemon's behalf. She looks at Camerupt, who nods once.
Brendan grins. "You're the best, Courtney."
She smiles a tiny smile. In his peripheral vision, Lee catches Zinnia rolling her eyes.
The trip to the cave takes only a moment, and as promised, Camerupt steps in first, the volcanos on his back churning. The camel pokemon focuses, and Lee can see the air distort with heat as a warm gale blasts out of the cave, battering everyone with sticky, moist air that rapidly dries out. It takes only a few seconds, then the heat cuts out and Camerupt placidly returns himself to Courtney's side.
Lee steps in after everyone else, dragging a finger along the now warm and dry walls. "Dry as a bone but not actually hot at all. Camerupt has some expert control over his Fire powers, huh?"
Courtney takes the compliment in stride. "Yes. We've worked on being efficient," she says, setting her shoulder bag down. She pulls her bedroll from inside the non-euclidean bag that seems to be a staple of all traveling trainers and unrolls it.
'So you can use that efficiency to dry up the ocean.' The scarred man shakes away the thought as he sets his bag down as well, opening it and withdrawing a lantern before the last bit of sunlight fades. From his shoulder, Vulpix slides down to the cave floor. "Any reason why you focused on efficiency so much?"
In the corner of his eye, Lee notices Zinnia slow down the prep of her own bedroll to listen in.
Courtney shrugs. "I believe in doing the best with what you have. Improving. Not settling."
With a thoughtful hum, Lee turns back to his lantern. "What did you do before deciding to be a trainer, if you don't mind me asking?" He flicks on the gas of his lantern and clicks the igniter, only to frown when there's no spark. Two more tries, and two more ineffective clicks. 'Love? Can you help?'
At his feet, Vulpix opens her maw and lets a single flitting ember corkscrew its way to the lantern. The ember flies up into one of the small vents in the lantern, and the gas catches fire, casting a warm glow around the cave.
With a raised brow, Courtney watches Vulpix sniff and eye her handiwork. "I worked as an intern researcher for Devon. Worked with their geology labs." She withdraws her other two pokeballs and pops them open, depositing her Mightyena and Swellow down beside Camerupt. Other than their good health, Lee can't find any real difference between Mightyena and Swellow and any other member of their line. "I can talk more... once we've settled," concludes Courtney.
Lee gives her a smile and a nod.
In short order, everyone's pokemon are released for a cozy dinner. The chill of the cave is kept at bay thanks to Camerupt's toasty presence, and the floor even begins to heat up pleasantly as the giant camel pokemon settles to the ground with a weary sigh. Grovyle and Mightyena finish their dinner quickly, and in some unspoken agreement, both stoically take watch at the entrance of the cave. With the sun going down, the pair strike dramatic silhouettes.
"So, Courtney," Lee shifts on his bedroll. He, Brendan, Zinnia, and Courtney arranged their sleeping bags in a rough circle with the lantern between them. With little else to do, the four settled in to talk a bit before bed. "You were saying?"
"I worked with Devon's geology lab," Courtney states once more. "In Rustboro. Corporate life... didn't agree with me. I decided to be a trainer after that. Been a trainer since my teen years." Before any more questions can be asked of her, she pins Lee with a cutting stare. "What did you do... before being a trainer? Not often an adult decides to change lifestyles." She shakes her head. "Transition... is too harsh for most. Many quit, too discouraged by competing with children and veterans."
"Erm..." Lee flounders, not expecting the questioning to round back onto him. "I worked with carnivores in an animal sanctuary. Considering the training needed to handle and care for them safely, it wasn't too hard of a changeover." In his lap, Shinx purrs contentedly as his fingers comb through her fur. 'Should she even know when I started as a trainer? I guess it's probably on my Battlenet profile and I doubt a Magma admin would be dumb enough to pull... whatever this stunt is without researching her marks.'
Pressed against his side, Vulpix widens her side of their link, her lightning-fast mind already generating contradiction-free answers that offer little to nothing for any questions that Courtney might have.
'Love, remember what Zinnia said? I need to think for myself. I can't have you feed me everything.'
The fox is quick to reply. 'What we h*ve is uniq*e, you said so y*urself. The dr*gon *oman has no fra*e of ref*rence, and t*us no aut*ority to tell us how to do t*ings.' After a split second, she adds; 'The Mag*a admin is *n enemy... cur**ntly. You s*ould use all the r*sources y*u have to ensure this g*mbit works. I am one such re*ource.'
Before Lee can chastise Vulpix for calling herself a resource, a magenta eyebrow rises on Courtney's face. "Why quit?"
Lee takes one of Vulpix's answers. 'That's another thing we'll be talking about later.' Outwardly, he clears his throat. "The facility isn't in business anymore."
Zinnia tags herself into the conversation during the seconds long silence after Lee's answer. "What did you do with Devon?" she asks, leaning forward with her twiddling fingers in her lap. "In the geology lab, I mean."
Courtney turns her attention to Zinnia. "Energy storage. Devon was researching the use of crystalline structures as a method of energy storage and release."
"Really?" Lee doesn't need to feign his interest. "I'm aware of the natural formation of evo stones and the incredible concentration of Type Energy they hold, but no one seems to be able to artificially enrich one. Was Devon looking into artificial evo stones?"
She shakes her head. "I don't know. Was only an intern at the time. I think... they were trying to store Infinity Energy, not Type Energy."
'Infinity Energy? What could they be doing with — oh.' Lee instantly recalls the gimmick introduced in the games prior to Omega Ruby. 'Mega Stones?'
Zinnia catches on at the same time and hones in on Courtney's words, this time with an intensity that she can't hide behind a facade. Zinnia's red eyes stare into Courtney's cool pinks. "Infinity Energy storage in stones, eh?" Her tone is casual, but her face is anything but. "That's... interesting. They get anywhere? What were they trying to make after that?"
Courtney's mouth slowly dips into a frown, and behind her, Camerupt raises his head and cracks an eye, taking notice of his trainer's displeasure.
"Zinnia, can you quit being a nosy weirdo for a single day?" Brendan snaps, barging into the exchange. He actually glares at the dragon tamer, making her pull back, stricken. "You don't need to interrogate everyone about everything! I get that you're from some dumb, insular tribe and new things are scary, but cool it!"
Zinnia stares at Brendan, hurt plastered across her face. She opens and shuts her mouth, but no words come out.
All around, the pokemon watch the unfolding scene with differing, but tense expressions. Shelgon and Swablu, who is perched on Shelgon, stare daggers at Brendan. Goomy doesn't seem to believe what he heard.
Marshtomp slides in behind Brendan with a reluctant Breloom following. Both keep their eyes locked on Shelgon and Swablu, uneasy. Mawile, however, slowly creeps into Shelgon and Swablu's blindspot, letting her jaws crack open soundlessly.
A mewl from Lee's lap snaps the zoologist out of his own shock, and looking down, he takes in the frightened yellow eyes of Shinx, who tries to dig into his shirt to escape the sudden, hostile atmosphere that hangs over the cave.
Finally, Zinnia seems to come to her senses, and with her recovery comes face-reddening anger. Already Lee can see the verbal venom pooling in her mouth. "You little bastard..." she grounds out past gritted teeth. "Who do you think you are, talking to me like that!?"
"I think I'm someone talking to someone else who doesn't know when to leave well enough alone!" Brendan yells back, a scowl forming. "You have to know everything about everyone, and no one likes it! Heck, you had to force yourself into mine and Lee's group! That should tell you something!"
"I've got a mission from my tribe, you little jerk! One to improve myself anyway I can, and being around talent is how I do that!" Zinnia shoots back just as quickly. "And you act like I've never done anything or pulled my weight! I pay my share despite not getting a nice government paycheck! I clean up my part of camp! I cook when it's my turn! I book hotels and look for events we can do! I teach you guys things I know and give feedback in training! Quit with the high and mighty shit, mister Professor's kid!"
Brendan erupts. "I wish you'd get swallowed by a volcano or something!" He screams.
'Oh fuck no. We are not doing this here in the middle of nowhere,' Lee clutches his tiny Shinx and gently covers her ears. 'Especially not when I have a baby in my lap.'
"Enough!" Lee's rarely raised voice booms across the cave walls, drawing flinches from nearly everyone. He rakes his narrowed eyes over everyone, satisfied when no one challenges him. Now that he has everyone's attention, he uncovers a nervous Shinx's ears. "Zinnia," Lee locks onto the dragon tamer, making her stiffen. "Calm down. Let's not dig into anyone tonight, okay?"
She grits her teeth once and nods stiffly, obviously not trusting her mouth. She bows her head, her hair covering her eyes.
"And Brendan," Lee turns to Brendan, who looks like a Deerling in the headlights. "You're way out of line flinging personal insults like that. I had better not hear anything like that again, got it?"
White in the face and shrinking in on himself, Brendan nods rapidly. "Okay..." He agrees, his voice small.
Lee then sweeps his head around, stopping on Zinnia and Brendan's teams. "There will be no fighting in our group, understood?"
Taking an order from someone other than his trainer makes Marshtomp look as if he bit into a lemon, but he lowers his fists at a glacial pace. Breloom, on the other hand, sighs in relief and sits himself down next to Brendan. Behind Shelgon, Mawile quickly makes herself scarce.
Goomy and Swablu are both cowed by Lee's words, but Shelgon's eyes are alight with terrible wrath. It's then that Lee realizes he not only made a demand of a dragon, he made a demand of a dragon that isn't his.
A demand to not defend his trainer's honor.
'Love, you really are spoiling me. I'm looking at pokemon as if they were human more and more.' Lee tenses and prepares to spring away, shielding Shinx with his arms. 'Get Confuse Ray ready.'
Vulpix takes a stance in front of her trainer, eyes cold.
"Stand down, Shelgon."
Shelgon's eyes widen.
Zinnia raises her head, and Lee can't help but be a bit startled by just how weary she looks. She turns her gaze to her disbelieving dragon. "It's not worth it."
The Dragon-type visibly seethes for a moment before turning away and laying himself down. The action is so sudden it almost throws a flailing Swablu off of him.
"Let's get some sleep, everyone. Today has been a long day, and we've got several more ahead of us," Lee murmurs. "Cool off and all that."
Zinnia needs no more prompting, throwing her sleeping bag open and settling inside, facing away from everyone else.
Courtney catches Lee's eyes, and he's surprised to see her appear apologetic. He shrugs helplessly in return.
"Hey, uh. Lee?"
The man turns back to Brendan, who nervously twiddles his fingers. "You don't, uh... You don't want to stop those pokemon nutrition lessons you were giving me over this, do you?" He asks, giving Lee a hopeful look.
Lee shakes his head. "No. C'mon, if you're wanting to keep going, we'll head a little further back in the cave so the girls aren't disturbed by our chatter." He roots around in his bag and withdraws both his notebook and a large textbook personally recommended by Roxanne on the subject. He gently lifts the now sleepy Shinx from his lap and sets her in the warm divot he was sitting in, with Vulpix dutifully moving in and curling around the kitten.
The Birch heir smiles wanly and stands to follow, dragging his bedroll along.
In the back of the now low-hanging cave and seated on Brendan's bedroll with the boy just beside him, Lee opens the textbook and drapes it across both his and Brendan's laps. With his other hand, he withdraws a small penlight from his pocket, turning it on and reaching behind his ear to give them a reading light. "Now, where were we again?" He glances at his notebook. "Ah, amphibian pokemon metabolic rates. That'll be important as Marshtomp matures. Amphibians are marked by their different dietary needs through different stages of their life. One needs to know much to feed them, and the rates they can digest and absorb the different components in their food. For example, a Mudkip's metabolism should follow..."
Brendan listens raptly, eyes never leaving Lee.
"Hey, Lee?" Brendan asks during a lull in their lesson.
"Hmm?" Lee jots a note down in his notebook, drawing out a meal plan for Shinx and a timeline to wean her. It'll only be a few weeks.
"I'm sorry about tonight. I didn't mean to blow up," Brendan looks down at the book in his lap, shamefaced.
Lee pauses, then after a moment he clicks his pen and shuts his notebook. "It's not me you should be apologizing to." He begins. "I know Zinnia and you don't always see eye to eye, and she's a hothead who... is sometimes nosy and misguided, or how... she sometimes doesn't know what she's talking about." He recalls Vulpix's words, her critique of Zinnia's opinions on his and Vulpix's relationship. The more he thinks of the fox's take on the Draconid Lorekeeper deciding he should do everything himself, the more he wonders if maybe he was too quick to take everything she said to heart. Does Zinnia know how deep their connection goes? Maybe what works for Zinnia and her team isn't the best for him and his pokemon. He shakes the thoughts away and keeps speaking to Brendan. "But she's not malicious. Do you see her as a friend? Real talk."
Brendan looks down at his hands, folding them in the open textbook, right over a cutaway diagram of a Wooper. "Yes."
"Then I can guarantee she considers you a friend in return," he nods resolutely. "Insulting her, then her tribe hurt her something fierce, and it's made even worse coming from you. You two have some back and forth banter, but I think this was the first time it was actually angry. I get that you made fast friends with Courtney and that Zinnia overstepped herself by getting pushy, but that doesn't excuse personal attacks and yelling. You were solidly in the wrong too, Brendan."
As Lee talks, Brendan sinks lower and lower into himself, becoming more puddle than boy. He clenches his fists as his breath hitches. With his head hung, Lee can't see the young trainer's face, but the shuddering tempo of his breathing is clue enough that tears are on the way.
'Oh jeez, Brendan. So willing to rush into a burning building or fight terrorists, but a dressing down makes you teary?' Lee slides an arm over Brendan's shoulders. "I'm not trying to make you feel bad or anything, Brendan, but I think you should reflect on what you said and apologize not only to Zinnia but her pokemon too when you're ready. She's probably just as upset as you are, and her pokemon were really rankled by you insulting her."
Brendan silently nods, not lifting his head.
"C'mon, let's head to bed. We've got a long day tomorrow." Lee shuts the book in Brendan's lap and takes it under his arm.
Another three days are spent traversing the valley in tense silence. Each day ends with everyone and their respective pokemon teams by themselves, trying to relax, doing light training, or exploring the locale as best as could be done without getting lost. Brendan and Zinnia's moods are so foul the entire time that neither says a word to each other. Along the way, several pokemon approach the team each day, and without fail, their demeanor is aggressive. Most are turned away by the firepower presented by the defenders, and either through fortune or something else, none of the fully evolved natives see the group as worth their time. To Lee's consternation, he finds a grand total of zero pokemon he felt interested in trying to capture.
On the fourth day though, as they trek between a pair of low plateaus...
Brendan slows down to peer upward when a glint stabs at his eye, nearly making Lee plow into him. Shielding his eyes from the sun with his hand, Brendan blinks. "What are the Magnemite all doing?"
His statement brings the group to a halt as everyone follows his lead and looks up.
Lee blinks in confusion right along with Brendan. "Huh, what are they doing?"
High above, countless Magnemite zoom back and forth, forming long metallic chains in orderly lines. They criss-cross each other, somehow not colliding despite their speed and the fact that not all of them are facing forward. In fact, most seem to have a random orientation. Each one buzzes and crackles with an electric charge, arcs of electricity jumping between them with pops muted by the distance.
Then all at once, the horde of Magnemite begin to buzz even louder, their single-file lines breaking as they erratically fly like a swarm of Beedrill. A deafening crack of thunder rends the air, and beyond the plateau ahead of the group, the sky lights up a brilliant gold despite the sun being high in the sky.
"I'm no expert on Magnemite or anything," Zinnia grumbles, rubbing her still-smarting eyes from the flash. "But whatever the hell that was is probably bugging them."
Another crack of thunder rolls through the valley, picking up and throwing dust as another flash melts away all the shadows for a moment. Then another, and another.
"Can't be natural..." Courtney murmurs, holding up a hand to keep from being blinded by the relentless lighting. She squints into another flash, then lets her mouth drop into a tiny 'o' in surprise. "That's... not one pokemon. Two are clashing with Thunderbolt."
Lee forces himself to watch yet another flash, and sure enough, there isn't a single bolt of lightning flying into the sky or crashing down onto the earth, but two bolts meeting. For the split second they're visible, it's as if the bolts are jagged streams of liquid meeting and deflecting off of each other. As the latest flash fades, Lee can see the attacker hanging above.
Hovering menacingly above one of the plateaus is a Magnezone, the final form of the diminutive Magnemite. The Steel-type pokemon superficially resembles a UFO, with a disk-like body of shiny steel, a gold antenna with a bulbous tip jutting from its body at the top, and a trio of horseshoe magnets seemingly welded to the underside of its body. In the center of its disk-like abdomen, a large, red eye stares down at something they can't see from the angle. Even for how alien the pokemon is, the anger in its eye is perfectly recognizable.
Magnezone lights up in a crackling corona of gold once more, and a split second later, a bolt of pure electricity lances down at the plateau like a vengeful arrow of Arceus.
This time, however, there is no answer to Magnezone's attack, and the bolt strikes the rocky plate, kicking up an explosion of rock and dirt that rises into the sky like a cloud.
Lee, along with everyone else, covers their faces with raised arms as dirt and loose rocks tumble down the high cliff and pelt them. 'Good god. I haven't seen an electric attack that powerful since Ash's Pikachu went ballistic in Littleroot. What could have pissed off Magnezone so much?'
The answer comes swiftly bounding down the side of the plateau.
Hopping between outcroppings on the rockface with supernatural speed and grace is a simply gigantic Manectric, one easily standing tall enough to look a grown man in the eyes without needing to move its neck. Held limply by its neck scruff in the Manectric's jaws in an equally large Electrike. The smaller of the two must be three and a half feet tall at least, big enough to bowl over a human should it get a running start.
'Wait...' Realization strikes Lee like one of Magnezone's lighting bolts. His eyes shoot open, and beside him, he feels Vulpix's flash of recognition. 'That's the mama Manectric from Oldale! What's she doing all the way out here?' He focuses on the Electrike again. 'Is that the youngling from the egg?'
Manectric and her fragile cargo touch down on the ground, and after setting her shaking pup down and giving him a nuzzle and a once over, Manectric raises her head and locks her eyes directly onto Lee.
'She came here on purpose. For me. Why?' His attention is drawn back to the agitated Magnemite and furious Magnezone above. 'Did a powerful Electric-type invading the Valley set off the Magnemite? They're crazy sensitive to changes in atmospheric charge if I recall. Manectric probably zapped another pokemon and every Magnemite in the valley likely felt it.'
Above them all, the dust of Magnezone's attack finally clears enough that the UFO pokemon can see Manectric's new position. Magnezone lets out a seething burst of chirping and buzzing, not unlike a computer pushed to its limit, then it divebombs down right at Manectric. Its body begins to glow with the telltale signs of an attack.
Manectric retakes her pup's scruff and tenses.
Vulpix is in motion before the command is even spoken, reading Lee's intent instantly. Leaping high in the air, she sucks in a breath before loosing a stream of fire at the charging Steel-type.
Magnezone reverses its thrust near-instantly, coming to a dead halt long before Flamethrower reaches it, but when the gout of flames suddenly bends in an unnatural turn, Magnezone can only screech in distress as it almost instantly begins to glow red hot. With haste borne of agony, Magnezone strafes to the side and screeches once more.
'Love, get out of there! Quick Attack!' Lee silently urges.
Magnezone crackles gold, then another bolt of lightning shoots down right at Vulpix with terrible wrath behind it. The attack comes out so quickly that Vulpix simply can't charge Quick Attack in time. All she can do is watch with wide eyes as the lighting races towards her.
Courtney's Camerupt skids to a stop between Vulpix and the Thunderbolt, almost overshooting himself. The Electric attack hits Camerupt dead center, and the camel takes it with barely a wince, his Ground-typing negating nearly all of the electric damage.
Lee's head shoots to the side, and he finds Courtney standing there, her face a perfect visage of calm. She turns her head just enough to give him a short nod. "A friend?" She asks, tilting her head toward Manectric.
Lee nods absently.
'Okay, well, miss Magma doesn't hesitate to earn her keep.'
"Marshtomp! Mud Bomb!" / "Flamethrower, Shelgon!" Both Brendan and Zinnia order their pokemon to jump into the fray at once. For the first time in days, neither is glaring at the other.
Marshtomp's mouth swells, then out of it shoots a cannonball of mud. Beside him, Shelgon's barely visible mouth opens and fires a billowing burst of flame.
Magnezone rises out of the way of Shelgon's fiery breath, but Mashtomp's dense ball of mud strikes its flank, denting its armor and forcing the UFO pokemon to spin in a full circle. When it stops and looks back down, Magnezone's red eye narrows to a sinister, glowing slit as the magnets on his body vibrate with a bright violet haze.
Lee coughs and falls to his knees as gravity seems to increase threefold around him. He can't even keep his torso straight and is forced down onto his hands, but even then his arms begin to shake from the effort of holding his body up. 'Gravity. Magnezone used Gravity on us.' Once upon a time, Lee thought the move to be situational at best, but here, where its effects are very real? It's all he can do to keep breathing. With herculean effort, he turns his head and looks at his friends.
Vulpix stands, but her stance is wide and her teeth gritted. Her tails are pulled to the ground by gravity, and her head tuft lays flat on her skull. Her legs shake, but she's still upright.
Caught flat-footed, Marshtomp is down on his back and straining to rise. His muscles and veins rise against his skin, and slowly he turns himself over so he can push himself up, but the effort leaves him red in the face.
Poor Shelgon is in a crater, helpless with his shell bottomed out. His short legs push at the ground, but all he can do is accidentally pulverize the rock under him and growl in fury.
Manectric is standing, but her limbs are shaking. Under her, her pup lays wild-eyed and gasping for breath on his side.
Brendan and Courtney are in the same boat as Lee, on their hands and knees, stuck from the invisible hands of gravity pushing down on them relentlessly. Brendan's eyes are wide and perhaps even frightened, and Courtney's brows twitch, but she keeps her aloof mask on even as sweat drips from her brow.
"Shit!" Zinnia, the only trainer standing, slips under a patch of sandy ground and falls prone to her stomach with an explosive exhale. Winded, she wheezes and tries to stand, but she can't even get her hands underneath her.
The rocky ground under Camerupt gives way to his super-weighted bulk, and with an alarmed bellow, the camel pokemon falls to his side, making the ground shudder and sending the gallons of magma in his humps spilling out. The molten rock creeps along the ground...
...Right at Zinnia, who was standing just feet behind Camerupt as Gravity hit.
The dragon tamer's eyes bug out as the sputtering and spitting lava inches toward her, and for the first time since he's met her, Lee watches Zinnia's expression twist in terror. "No. No!" She tries to scramble away, but she's pinned to the dirt. Every second that passes, the lava crawls closer.
Shelgon roars and digs at his crater with even greater desperation, but he can't move. His rage quickly turns to open fear, his eyes trained on his prone human.
'Shit shit shit!' Lee frantically thinks. 'Vulpix, Confuse Ray on Magnezone! Get him to release Gravity!'
Vulpix huffs and raises her head, staring evilly at the Steel-type above them. Her eyes glow with sinister Ghost-energy.
After a second of travel, the invisible ray strikes home and Magnezone wavers in the air, his eye growing hazy. The Gravity lightens, slowly but surely, but...
'It's not going to be fast enough,' Lee's heart sinks. He pushes himself as hard as he can to get up but he just isn't strong enough. 'Ember! We need him to drop Gravity now!'
Tiny motes of fire manifest around Vulpix and fly at Magnezone like a swarm of insects, but even confused, the fully-evolved pokemon has enough mindfulness to twist out of the way.
Vulpix growls and redirects the Embers with her pyrokinesis, tugging each one along an invisible, mental string, but with her focus split so heavily, the turns are wide and sluggish. Many of the Embers extinguish themselves mid-flight. Many others miss, and the few that land splash across Magnezone's armor, not doing enough damage to kick him out of his attack, not even close.
Zinnia's struggles grow more frantic, but being prone on the ground makes the effort of getting back up so much more difficult. She starts to hyperventilate and screws her eyes shut, the lava hardly a foot away and crawling towards her at an agonizing pace.
"Zinnia!" Brendan, against all odds and to Lee's silent awe, slowly pushes his way to his feet. The boy huffs and forces himself to shuffle across the ground, lifting his feet less than an inch each time. "Hang on!"
Back hunched and arms like lead weights, Brendan forces himself toward the dragon tamer, his face red and the veins in his neck bulging. Sweat pours down his face in a river as he comes to a stop next to Zinnia. Arms shaking, he reaches down and takes fistfuls of her cloak before sharply tugging.
Zinnia gasps as she's yanked a single inch away from the superheated rock only seconds away from disfiguring her.
The lava grows closer another inch, so Brendan grunts with inhuman strain and yanks the cloak again, pulling Zinnia further away.
'Vulpix, we need to drive off Magnezone ASAP! I have no idea how long Brendan's going to last!' Lee takes as deep a breath as he can, and after brushing off hesitation from Vulpix, begins transferring his own stamina to her. 'Convergence!'
The fox's eyes blaze with the color of brimstone, desperation and two bodies worth of fuel empowering her.
All around Magnezone, swelling balls of deep orange flames with white cores manifest from nothing and grow rapidly. From basketballs to beach balls, to the size of grown men. Magnezone, still dazed, tries to shy away from the heat, but every direction he tries to fly backs him into another miniature sun, forcing him to recoil away in a short, endless dance.
The fireballs all bear down on Magnezone and explode with a horrible, vengeful fury. Behind the Steel-type, part of the cliff is blown away in a burst of rock and smoke, obscuring part of the sky.
All at once, gravity is returned to normal and Lee sucks in a gasping breath before shooting to his feet. He gets back up so quickly and breathes so deeply that his head swims for a moment. An instant later, Vulpix is at his side, pressed against his legs. Her brown eyes meet his, and the concern pouring from her doesn't need words.
"I'm fine, Vulpix, I'm fine," Lee kneels down and strokes the vixen across her back, hiding his wince from how his muscles everywhere sting and pinch. The encroaching exhaustion of helping Vulpix power up Convergence is ignored for now. If Lee's hurting, he doesn't even want to think about- "Shit!" He raises his head, alarmed. "Brendan!"
A ways away, Brendan stands, supported by an unusually tender Zinnia and a fretting Marshtomp. The boy hangs almost limply in Zinnia and Marshtomp's arms, panting. "Ohh..." He groans. "Everything hurts..."
"Gee, I wonder why?!" Zinnia snarks in his face, looking as if she's one word away from throttling the Birch heir. "You only stood up with several Gs trying to flatten you! What the hell were you thinking!?"
"I'm sorry for what I said."
Zinnia stops, stunned.
Brendan looks up at the dragon tamer, a regretful air hanging over him. "I didn't mean to blow up at you a few nights ago. And I didn't actually wish you'd get swallowed by a volcano." He chuckles listlessly. "Especially not since it actually almost happened today. I'm sorry."
The wind fallsout of Zinnia's sails, leaving her looking exhausted, but a smile remains on her face. "You little shit," she begins, voice warm despite her words. "I thought you hated me for the better part of a week. If you weren't so messed up right now, I'd suplex you right into the dirt. I'm…" she lets out a long-suffering sigh. "I'm sorry too. That wasn't cool of me to get angry at you and start screaming."
Brendan's lips lift into a bright smile. "Forgiven."
A buzz disrupts the moment and draws everyone's attention back skyward.
"No way..." Brendan mutters, slumping in Zinnia's arms as the smoke around Magnezone clears. "That guy took Vulpix's super move and can still fight?"
The smoke clears, revealing an ugly sight.
Magnezone hovers above them, his steel armor partially slagged and blackened. Cracks run along his magnets, and his eye is lucid again. The red eye stares down at them with utter hate. Between his front two magnets, a brightly glowing mote of white and red begins to form. The mote balloons and swirls, forming a hauntingly familiar attack. The ball before Magnezone grows larger and larger before beginning to lengthen out into the beginnings of...
"Hyper Beam!" Zinnia calls, her face pale. "Shelgon, get over here and use Pro-"
Before Zinnia can finish the order, Mama Manectric rejoins the fight, zooming in front of the group as a flicker of yellow. With a howl that echoes off of the surrounding cliffs, Manectric lights up in a corona of sparks before shooting a mammoth bolt of lighting up at Magnezone, striking not the pokemon, but its charging Hyper Beam.
With a sound like a bomb going off, the nearly complete Hyper Beam detonates in Magnazone's face, consuming him in a bright flash and an earthshaking explosion.
Lee clamps his eyes shut, breathing deeply and counting backward from ten as the unexpected noise and shock wave washes over him. The fox curling around one of his legs helps keep him grounded and remembering where he is.
Once the smoke clears, Lee's jaw drops.
Magnezone is still hovering above. Even more of its armor is warped and melted, and it shivers midair, seemingly having trouble keeping altitude, but the monster of a pokemon is still conscious. Once more the red eye is trained on them.
Then Magnezone turns and begins to slowly fly away, the cloud of Magnemite above it following suit. As they leave, the tooth-rattling buzz the horde emits vanishes with them.
The four humans and teams of pokemon, both wild and trained, stand and wait for the other shoe to drop. When nothing else comes, they hastily gather themselves and limp away, Manectric and her pup following a cautious distance behind.
"It looks like you pulled pretty much every muscle in your back and legs," Lee and Vulpix sit down next to a shirtless Brendan, who is laid out on his stomach on his bedroll. Shrugging off his backpack, Lee reaches in, pulling out his canteen and a bottle of over-the-counter pain pills. He offers both to Brendan.
After their hasty retreat, one where Camerupt had to cool his volcano humps down to carry Brendan, everyone regrouped further into the valley, in a small copse of hardy trees against a cliff. All the pokemon were released and spread out to form an impressive honor guard for the battered trainers, and so far not a single wild pokemon has approached their agitated phalanx of defenders. The only wild pokemon that even dared get close were Mama Manectric and her timid pup. Even then, they sit a respectful distance away under another tree.
In the cool shade of the valley tree, Brendan groans and opens both the canteen and the painkillers. Popping two pills in his mouth, the boy washes them down with a swig of water. "Ohh..." he groans after swallowing, of all things, pains him. "Will I have any cool scars afterward?"
Lee glances at Brendan's back, which sports a number of ugly, bruised splotches. "No. And riding out of here on Camerupt is going to suck."
The boy groans again.
"You can't get all marked up, Hero."
Zinnia and Courtney both sit a short distance away in the sparse grass on the other side of Brendan, Courtney with her legs folded under her, and Zinnia cross-legged. In the latter's lap, both Goomy and Shinx lay in a purring, cuddly pile.
Zinnia rests her chin in her propped-up palm and continues. "It'll mess up the dynamic we have going, you know?"
With a frown, Brendan asks; "Dynamic?"
"Yeah!" the tanned woman grins. "You're the young peppy Hero, Dolittle is the grizzled old guy, I'm the crouching Torracat, hidden Dragonite, and Courtney here is the love interest."
'Hidden Dragonite? Zinnia, you are the furthest thing from subtle.'
Both Lee and Courtney roll their eyes, but Brendan flushes red. "Great. A new dumb nickname..." he grumbles under his breath.
"I can go back to Shrimpy if you want."
"A new nickname is fine!" Brendan hastily amends.
Lee smiles then turns his eyes to Manectric and her pup.
Manectric apparently takes that as a signal to approach, because she stands and begins slowly walking over. As she walks, her pup is right on her heels, constantly looking up at her for reassurance.
About twenty feet away, Manectric and Electrike pause.
Lee turns to them and rises to his feet, determined to meet Manectric on equal terms this time. "You're here for a reason."
Manectric snorts. Leaning down, she nudges her pup with her snout, urging him forward. The not-so-little Elecktrike looks up at her pleadingly, but his mother's face remains stern. With a tremble, Electrike slowly pads his way to Lee.
'What is going on?' He blinks, but nonetheless, Lee lowers himself to his knees as slowly and non-threateningly as he can. He can feel everyone's curious eyes on his back, but doesn't let it bother him for now. "Hey little guy..." he murmurs as if the Electrike isn't large enough to look him in the eye while he's crouched. "You and your mom came a long way, huh?" He asks, presenting an upturned hand.
Elecktrike shivers and looks at the hand nervously, but doesn't pull away when Lee reaches out to gently scratch his chin. It's slight, but a tiny bit of tension flows out of Electrike's shoulders. Other than his nervous demeanor and large size, nothing seems out of place with Electrike. He's alert, fit, and well-groomed. 'Mama takes good care of him.'
Manectric then steps closer, coming so close that Lee could reach out and touch her if he so felt like it. She leans down with a light growl in her throat, nuzzling Electrike again. The pup whines when his mother pulls away... then doesn't follow when Manectric turns and begins to trot away. The pup's suddenly needy eyes bore into Lee.
"Hold on..." Lee's words halt Manectric, who looks back. "Are you..." The picture starts to make sense. "Are you leaving this pup with me?"
The giant Electric canine raises her head imperiously, as if daring Lee to challenge her decision.
'I didn't make that big of an impact in Oldale, did I? Tracking us down in the Valley of Steel to drop off your pup is a lot of dedication.' Lee gulps, and for just a moment, he looks away back at a surprised Zinnia, or more actually, to the tiny, purring Shinx wholly focused on cuddling her squishy friend. 'I suppose I can see Manectric's logic. With how special Electrike's Giant Gene makes him, he's going to be hunted by trainers long after his mother can't care for him anymore. Why take the risk of her son landing a bad trainer when she already knows a decent one?'
"Manectric..." Lee begins, licking his lips. "I've got a little one of my own to care for, you understand, don't you?" Then an idea suddenly strikes him. One perfect yet harebrained at the same time. "But I know someone else who would be perfect for the job."
The mother pokemon raises her head a little further, as if to say 'go on.'
"Brendan," the boy jumps a little when Lee turns to him. "What do you say to raising a Giant Gene Electrike?"
Brendan's mouth opens soundlessly, and it takes him a second to find his voice. "Wha?" He asks, slowly and carefully sitting up. "I mean, I would love to... but why me?" He asks. "Lee, you're passing off the chance to have a natural giant just like that?"
Lee turns back to Manectric. "My friend here, Brendan, is the son of a man who can go toe-to-toe with champions, and he's got one of the biggest hearts around. He's got grit, intelligence, the nerve to admit when he's wrong, and the resolve to make things right. You saw it today, didn't you?" Lee waves a hand back toward the battleground they vacated barely an hour ago. "Brendan can care for your pup just as well as I could, if not better. He's the kind of guy who goes above and beyond when everything is on the line."
Manectric stares down at Lee for a long moment, then she returns back to her pup's side.
She leans down and nudges Electrike towards Brendan.