"Finish it up! Tackle!"
"No! Aipom! Out of the way!"
The small crowd of spectators cheer as Brendan's Shroomish rushes the twitching, paralyzed Aipom across the makeshift arena. The Aipom can only grit his teeth and shut his eyes, his body not heeding his trainer's cry to dodge. The little mushroom pokemon collides head-first into Aipom with a painful Thwack!, throwing the little monkey to the ground where he lands heavily and ceases to move.
The referee by the sidelines, an older trainer in her teens, waits for several seconds then points to Shroomish. "Aipom is unable to battle! The winners are Shroomish and Brendan Birch!"
Further back behind Brendan, Lee watches his young friend cheer and rush out to the field from the shade of the Pokemon Center. Brendan scoops his pokemon up into a hug and says something that is lost over the cheering of the onlookers. Shroomish gives his trainer a dull look but does not resist the hug.
'Makes sense that the town's battling area would be right behind the Pokemon Center,' Lee looks back to the large, hospital-like building, already reopened just two days after the fire sans the damaged parts that are already being repaired. 'I've got to give credit to the Pokemon League. They really don't fuck around,' he thinks, watching a team of large bird pokemon wearing League vests fly overhead, each one carrying an entire pallet of building materials in their talons without a hint of strain. They touch down beside the Center one by one, giving their loads to human construction workers aided by a medley of bulky fighting and rock types, mostly Machop, Geodude, and the rare Machoke, but Lee swears he saw a Lucario bounding about with a tool belt on.
He turns back to the arena in time to see Brendan and his dejected opponent, a young, probably 11-year-old kid named Jason or something, shake hands.
Vulpix huffs at Lee's feet and flicks her fan of tails, her irritation beginning to bleed through the tether to him.
'Give it some time, love. One will want to battle eventually,' Lee sends to her. His own uncertainty is much harder to hide in a telepathic conversation, however, and so the vixen just huffs again.
Nearly all of the battle-hungry trainers in Oldale are young beginners that started only this year, all of whom looked at himself and Vulpix with no small amount of apprehension. The rumor mill in the small town was in full swing, and the only things that most people knew are that a trainer with scars on his face and a Vulpix went into the burning Center, a gigantic Manectric 'fled', then they came out after rescuing Jenny and the hapless Center intern.
People connected the dots and assumed Lee and Vulpix are grizzled veterans.
Since the egos of young trainers are delicate, none wanted a bout with a 'veteran'. Instead, they all decided to challenge the other town hero, a kid like them.
Brendan is sitting at 8 wins and 0 defeats so far. Mudkip gladly demolishing any pokemon before him, including an Elekid that an older boy bragged heartily about, assured of his win from the type advantage alone. The bragging stopped when Mudkip's Mud Slap lifted Elekid right off his feet and straight into dreamland.
Shroomish, the battler for the last two rounds, struggled more than his masochistic blue teammate but pulled wins under Brendan's coaching.
Vulpix looks up to her trainer, sending him a feeling of both stiffness and illness along with an image of the downed Aipom being returned to its ball.
'Yeah, poison powder and stun spore. Brendan is shaping up to be a good battler with how he plays to the strengths of his team,' Lee mentally replies, watching as yet another young trainer, so eager to prove himself, matches up to Brendan with a pokeball in hand. 'Mudkip is a full-throttle berserker, and Shroomish is a more reserved distance fighter. Definitely more in-depth than a simple turn-based game.'
"Hey, you're the guy who rushed into the Pokemon Center during the fire, right?"
Lee blinks away his thoughts and turns to address whoever spoke to him.
Just to his right is a pretty young woman several inches shorter than he, with dark, short-cropped hair that comes down to her chin in rough locks. She's clad in a form-hugging black top and equally form-fitting olive drab shorts secured with a red rope belt. Around her shoulders is a well-worn brown traveling cloak. Her eyes, a dark crimson, look down to Vulpix.
'Wait. I know who this is...'
The instant that Vulpix returns her gaze, the woman lets out a god-honest "Squeeee!"
"You are just the cutest!" cries the woman with a beaming smile and stars in her eyes. She crouches down to Vulpix's level and scratches behind her ear. From Vulpix's unique-sounding purr, the mysterious woman guessed Vulpix's sweet spot in one try. "And you're so soft that it's sinful! What's your secret, sister?"
The vixen stops pushing her head against the woman's hand and looks back up to Lee. The woman follows Vulpix's eyes up to Lee before she freezes and blushes.
She stands hastily with a nervous laugh. "Haha... Sorry about blowing you off like that," she says sheepishly. "It's not every day you get to see such a rare pokemon. Anyway, my name is Zinnia, nice to meet you!"
Lee racks his brain to try and remember where he heard that name before. A moment later, it clicks
'The woman from the Alpha and Omega remakes?' He wonders, having only played the beginning of the Delta Episode of Omega Ruby. 'What's she doing in Oldale?'
Lee chuckles and takes her outstretched hand for a shake. "Lee is the name, and you've already met Vulpix." As he says that, the little fox jumps to her favorite perch on his shoulders to watch the proceedings. "She's the more interesting of the two of us, so no harm done."
Zinnia smiles as the tension leaves her shoulders. "Glad to hear it. Anyway, I wanted to know if you wanted to battle? You and this cutie here would be a great challenge!"
Everyone not watching Brendan and his latest battle turns and looks after hearing the question. Several whisper in excitement. "Yeah! Battle!" Someone cries.
"I wanna see the Vulpix fight!" a young trainer that Brendan thrashed earlier yells
"Yeah! She sent that titanic Manectric packing! She's gotta be crazy strong!" A girl in her teens joins in.
"Hey, yeah!" Someone confirms. "This'll be an awesome match!"
Lee blanches. "I dunno about that. Brendan and I were going to get on the road after lunch and... and uh...we don't want to exhaust ourselves?" A second later dread begins to pool in his stomach. 'Of fucking course, a Dragon trainer would single us out,' He sends to Vulpix as everyone groans at his words.
"C'mon, Lee. It'll be fun!" Zinnia says, taking a shrunken pokeball from her belt. All the onlookers roar in agreement.
Lee screws his eyes shut with a sigh. 'I know pokemon battles are big deals here, and rightfully so, but god damn, why does this freak me out so much?!'
The man thinks back to all his other battles, all featuring Vulpix considering she is his sole pokemon. In their repeated battles against Brendan and the occasional wild pokemon around Littleroot, one thing stood out.
Vulpix had never lost. She won every single battle handily.
'Damn it all! Why is this getting to me? We're going to have to show our hand with pyrokinesis and telepathy if we want to level the playing field. I thought I came to terms with this a month ago,' Lee thinks to himself with gritted teeth. He looks between the smiling Zinnia, the chanting crowd including Brendan, and his now laser-focused Vulpix. 'Fuck me...'
"Alright, sure," Lee grounds out, ignoring Zinnia's smile becoming absolutely feral. "1v1? Vulpix is my only pokemon."
"Hell yeah!" She says.
The surrounding people spread out as Lee and Zinnia take their places opposite each other on one of the hard-packed dirt battlegrounds. Lee takes the time to inspect the area.
'Ground is good and even. Grass surrounding is still a bit wet with dew, so there is a minimal chance of a fire. Negligible breeze. Everyone is a fair distance away...' Lee lets out a breath. 'About as even as battlegrounds come. Alright, here we go. David versus Goliath.'
"You're up, love," Lee says a little redundantly as Vulpix leisurely strolls into position. "Get ready."
Above, the sun's rays rapidly grow to sweltering as Vulpix's Drought activates. Several of the spectators murmur about the sudden heatwave and a number of them close to the Pokémon center stepped back into the shade. Lee rubs his stinging scars with a frown and tries to ignore it.
Zinnia grins and holds up a pokeball before rearing her arm back. "C'mon out Bagon!" She cries, throwing the ball skyward.
In a flash of light, a large Bagon materializes on Zinnia's side. The tiny, iron-headed dragon slowly scans over the field before his eyes land on Vulpix. The eyes narrow and a growl builds in his throat.
Vulpix lets out a condescending yawn in return, making Bagon growl just a bit louder.
'Thank you God or Arceus or whoever the hell is out there. If Zinnia sent out a Salamence I would've had a fucking stroke.'
The same older teen that was reffing Brendan's matches comes over to the edge of the ring, glancing between the two fire pokemon with equal parts caution and excitement. "One on one match between Lee's Vulpix and Zinnia's Bagon?"
Lee glances around, fighting the urge to bite his lip. All the other battles concluded and everyone is watching them. Even a few members of the construction team stopped to watch the spectacle.
"Are both trainers ready!?"
"Ready!" Zinnia replies with a grin.
'Time to bite the bullet.'
"Ready..." Lee reluctantly confirms.
The ref chops his hand down. "Begin!"
"Bagon, Smokescreen!" Zinnia orders without wasting a second.
The tiny dragon takes a deep breath and shoots a blinding cloud of rolling, oily smoke from his mouth, instantly covering the ring with a wall of black.
Lee grimaces and withholds the Babydoll Eyes order he was about to call out. He brings a sleeved arm up to cover his mouth and nose while widening the mental tether between himself and Vulpix. 'Keep some focus on my location, love. It'll help you stay oriented in the smoke. Be ready to counter at a moment's notice.' He sends, getting a quick confirmation.
"Now! Headbutt!" Zinnia orders. Hardly a second later, there is a throaty roar and the sound of tiny feet thundering across the ground.
"Vulpix, dodge!" 'To the left.' Lee calls into the smoke. 'Not going for a projectile? Trying to play to Bagon's high Attack then'
With a loud crash, Bagon lands right where Vulpix was a second prior with the resulting shockwave blowing much of the smoke away. Just a few meters to the left, the small vixen stands awaiting an order, eyes locked onto the swiftly standing Bagon.
"Bagon, Dragon Breath!" Zinnia orders.
"Vulpix! Dodge and use Confuse Ray!"
Vulpix is in motion before Bagon can take a breath to charge Dragon Breath, swiftly leaping to the left nearly to the edge of the ring as her eyes glow with a sinister light.
"Nice try!" Zinnia calls. "You're not the first to try and play keep-away with Bagon! Hold Dragon Breath and use Protect! Then slow her down!"
A barrier of green blooms around Bagon just in time. The surface ripples slightly as the invisible Confuse Ray impacts it.
Then just as Vulpix lands from her leap, Protect drops, and Bagon stomps on the ground with a single leg.
Lee's chest suddenly clenches when the ground under Vulpix vibrates like a jackhammer was taken to it, making her yowl in pain as her bones rattle in her body. Vulpix even trips and falls to the ground, taking a shot to the skull that leaves her dazed just as the tremors end. Lee flinches when the vague phantom pains she feels reverberate through his own body.
The crowd roars at the direct hit. Faintly, Lee can hear Brendan's Mudkip let out a bellow and Brendan himself shouting; "C'mon Vulpix! You can take em!"
'What the fuck was that?! Earthquake?! No, it didn't rock the whole field, it was just under Vulpix. Shit shit shit! C'mon, girl, you can do it. Get up!'
Vulpix rises to her paws in a flash, shaking her head to clear it. She focuses on the smugly smirking Bagon with a withering gaze. The slight shake in her limbs is noticed by all who look.
'What to do, what to do? Was that Bulldoze? Whatever it was, it really hurt her' Lee grimaces. 'Love, circle to the side then hit her.' He sends, then says aloud; "Vulpix, close the distance with Quick Attack and then Payback!"
Vulpix's legs hesitate for a second before she rockets forward, wreathed in a corona of white flecked with bits of purple.
"Got ya!" Zinnia cries with a grin. "Bagon, let loose that Dragon Breath!"
Bagon blasts a writhing beam of green energy out of his mouth right at the charging vixen, who looks as if she is going to run right into it.
Zinnia's grin falters.
Vulpix skids to a stop and circles to Bagon's broadside a fraction of a second before the Dragon Breath can envelop her, trading her white aura for purple.
Bagon coughs out a pained wheeze when Vulpix slams into him at full speed, Payback on full blast to repay the hit from earlier. The dragon is thrown to his side where he impacts the ground harshly, digging a short trench in his wake
"Now! Confuse Ray point blank!"
"Oh no, you don't!" Zinnia shouts. "Bagon, Protect then Bulldoze!"
Bagon grunts. A barrier of green comes down over Bagon again just as Vulpix's eyes light up, trapping Vulpix inside with Bagon.
Lee's eyes bug out of his head. 'What the fuck?! Protect can do that?! Vulpix...' Lee struggles to think of a plan. 'Damn it! How do we dodge an attack that comes from under with such limited room?' Then he blinks when a wild idea sprouts into his head. 'Bound between the walls of the Protect! Don't touch the ground!'
Vulpix drops Confuse Ray and processes the command in an instant, leaping above Bagon's head just as the reptilian pokemon raises a foot to slam on the ground. She jumps against the green barrier of Protect, her little paws making almost no sound, and jumps back and forth above Bagon.
Zinnia gasps. "Bagon wait!"
The foot slams into the ground, and Bagon tries to hit Vulpix with Bulldoze, only for the tremors to erupt from right under him instead.
Bagon cries out as the Bulldoze erupts under him rather than his opponent, The cry of surprise turns to one of pain when the harsh vibrations travel up through his body and rattle him from toe to skull. Vulpix lands from her leaps just as Bulldoze ends and leaps away when Protect drops.
Hope blooms in Lee's chest and Vulpix's own excitement feeds it over the telepathic tether. 'She's on the ropes! We can win this!'
"Oh jeez..." Zinnia's earlier confidence falters somewhat in the face of the unexpected turn. She balls her hands. "Bagon! Use Dragon Rush!"
Bagon growls and steadies himself, his hateful eyes locked on to Vulpix. A swirling corona of violent, crackly energy engulfs his form as he lowers his steel covered skull to deliver a blow that would knock over a building. His legs tense for an absolutely explosive charge
"Absolutely not!" Lee barks. "Vulpix, Confuse Ray!"
With a vulpine smirk, Vulpix's eyes shine for the third time this match.
"No no no! Bagon, stop Dragon Rush and use Protect!" Zinnia yells out.
Zinnia's order comes a second too late, as Bagon's squinting eyes shine the same violet color as Vulpix's from within his shell of draconic energy. The small dragon groans, his face screwed up in intense focus. Around him, the curtain of swirling energy flickers and begins to destabilize. Bagon tries to charge forward despite his trainer's order, but trips and crashes into the ground with a tooth rattling explosion as his Dragon Rush destabilizes totally.
When the resulting smoke clears, Bagon is collapsed and limp upon the ground. Vulpix steps closer to her fallen opponent with curiosity, reaching out a paw to prod him.
'Oh my god, we actually won...'
Then Bagon's eyes snap open.
"Nice trick, but we're not going down that easily! Bagon! Give her the Bite-n-Bash!" Zinna yells, her grin back in place.
Bagon surges to his feet in a flash and lunges towards the shocked still Vulpix, his jaws snapping shut around her extended foreleg like a steel trap.
Vulpix screams and claws of ice dig into her trainer's stomach.
Then like a toy being abused by an uncaring child, Vulpix is slammed into the ground over and over by Bagon, who throws his head around as if the vixen's weight is non-existent. Every slam makes Vulpix's struggles grow weaker.
Lee bites back a cry and chomps down on his lip so hard he tastes blood when his arm is hit with stabbing phantom pain, quickly followed by a headache and the sensation of being wailed on in the ribs.
Just like what was happening to Vulpix.
"V-Vul..." His breath catches in his mouth and he can't force more out. 'Vulpix! Ember! Fire Spin! Anything! You have to break his hold on you!'
The vixen blearily processes Lee's command, but before she can do anything, Bagon throws his head up and opens his jaws, letting the flailing fox in his teeth fly up into the air. She flys up and hangs for just a moment, though to Lee every inch she travels through the air feels like a year.
Then she starts to fall.
With a savage cry, Bagon slams his iron-like skull into Vulpix when she falls back into his reach, making a dull crunch on impact.
Lee's suddenly two-fold headache is totally forgotten when he watches Vulpix bounce limply across the ground, coming to a stop almost at his feet a bloody and battered mess.
Bagon rears his head back and roars his victory to the heavens before he begins to glow a blinding white. The roar deepens as his body grows, morphing into a sphere upon four legs. When the light fades, a Shelgon stands in Bagon's place.
The crowd is silent for a second, then two, then three...
"Vulpix is unable to battle!" The teen acting as the ref yells. "The winners are Shelgon and Zinnia!"
The crowd cheers and a giddy Zinnia runs to hug her new Shelgon, but it's all lost to Lee as he stares at his Vulpix, his lifeline in this world, broken and limp. 'It's exactly like Mu-.' He shuts his eyes and forces the bile in the back of his throat down. 'Pokemon are tough. Supernaturally tough. She's okay. She's okay...' He thinks to himself, only half believing his own words.
Lee reaches for Vulpix's pokeball in a stiff, mechanical way. At his muttered; "Vulpix, return," his vixen is pulled into the ball as a beam of red light.
"Man oh, man! That little cutie is really tough!"
Lee turns to his left, Seeing a beaming Zinnia and the battered Shelgon at her side. "I knew Bagon was on his way to evolving, but I thought it would take weeks to get there. Vulpix was a great opponent to be able to get him there in one go."
Shelgon grumbles something behind his namesake shell that sounds like a vague agreement.
The praise given to Vulpix eases the scarred trainer's stinging pride some but does nothing for his still rolling stomach. "Thanks," Lee grounds out, crossing his arms and looking to the side. "If she were conscious I'm sure she would appreciate it." An instant later he internally kicks himself for the rude tone.
Zinnia's grin falls some. "Yeah, uh..."
Lee sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose. "Look, sorry for being kind of short. I just want to get Vulpix checked into the Pokemon Center after that last move on her. She's never been... hurt that badly before."
The dragon trainer crosses her own arms and tilts her head. "Don't tell me you've never lost before?" she asks with an amused scoff. "She'll be fine after a bit with the Pokemon Center. Don't be a baby."
Lee's hand clinches around Vulpix's ball so hard his knuckles turn white.
"Oh, man Vulpix actually lost?! I never thought I'd see the day!" Brendan skids to a stop by Brendan and Zinnia. "That match was great!" He exclaims before turning to Zinnia with a raised brow. "Kind of dirty of Bagon to pretend to be down only to launch an attack, though. If he got up and was fair, Vulpix would have had that."
Zinnia scowls. "What?!"
"You heard me!"
The tanned woman scowls a little harder and butts into Brendan's personal space. Brendan simply holds his ground with his head held high. "There was no call yet so why did Vulpix step closer?"
Lee screws his eyes shut and sighs, begrudgingly admitting to himself that Zinnia has a point no matter how much he dislikes it.
"It's not sportsman-like!" Brendan shoots back, now frowning himself. "It was a cheap shot!"
Zinnia laughs and ruffles Brendan's hair through his hat, making him pull away with a; "Hey!" She smirks. "Kid, how do you think pokemon battle in the wild? They fight until someone is down and out. There are no 'cheap shots' in a no-holds-barred battle. I don't think using Confuse Ray over and over is very sportsman-like either."
Brendan takes a breath to retort but stops when Lee places a hand on his shoulder.
"Brendan, it's fine." Lee starts, making both Zinnia and Brendan look at him in surprise. Jesus, it's only midday and he's already exhausted. "She's got a point, no matter how much I don't want to agree. Vulpix and I made a mistake and paid for it. We'll not do it again." The words sting his lips like acid.
"But-!" Brendan stops short and huffs when Lee shakes his head.
"Good battle, Zinnia," Lee says with a shallow nod to the bewildered Zinnia before turning to Shelgon, who had been watching the proceedings silently. "Congrats on your evolution, Shelgon. We're out."
Lee turns, not taking his hand off Brendan's shoulder so the boy turns with him, then both start towards the rear entrance of the Pokemon Center. As they leave, Lee can feel Zinnia's ruby-colored eyes on his back.
'Fucking hell,' Lee breathes out tiredly as he and Brendan walk. By now, most of the spectators had dispersed, giving them a straight shot inside. 'Don't but such a pussy, Lee. You've seen it first hand and crunched the numbers when you didn't trust your eyes. Vulpix, no, pokemon in general are out of this world when it comes to durability. She's fine. She won't be like-' He violently cuts off the train of thought and snakes a hand down into his jacket pocket, where Vulpix's warm ball reassures him of the life inside. 'She's fine.'
"Shelgon, return! Wait up!"
They get several steps in before Zinnia calls for them and catches up with a few quick steps. The tanned woman stops in front of them with an unsure look upon her face and her fists clenched. For a few seconds, the three stand in silence.
"Yes?" Lee ventures, trying to break the oncoming awkwardness.
Zinnia tries to say something, but seconds guesses herself and closes her mouth. Then she takes a breath. "Okay, maybe that last move was a little overkill," she mutters, looking away and unclenching a hand to rub her arm. "I thought you were some stuck-up hotshot from the scars and all, and I've got this mission my tribe that I have to do no matter the cost," she says with a sigh. "I sometimes forget that most trainers train pokemon for sport and not all-out battles. I'm...sorry," she grumbles, looking down at the ground.
'Mission from her tribe?' Lee wonders with a frown, not recalling much about Zinnia other than her Dragon-based team. 'Dragon-something right? Draconids? What was their thing again?'
"Y-Yes. I'm from the Draconid Tribe. How did you know?" Zinnia asks, seemingly caught flat-footed. Her surprise swiftly turns to suspicion as her eyes narrow into ruby slits. "Our tribe isn't well known, and you don't look like you're from Hoenn..."
Brendan looks up at him with surprise as well.
Lee blinks and Brendan laughs. "You got that 'did I say that out loud' face on. You gotta work on that."
The scarred man curses inwardly, this time taking great care to not let his mouth move as he tries to come up with an explanation. "Well, uh. Dragons are pretty rare and..." he hesitates, trying to string his thoughts into something coherent. "When you said you're part of a tribe, the only Dragon trainers from a tribe I can recall are the Draconids. I found a footnote about them during some research I was doing. Um... Brendan and I work with Professor Birch, you see."
"A footnote in what book?" Zinnia presses.
"It was in...'Of Scales and Fire: Dragons and Dragon Tamers'," Lee rattles off, hoping the fake name sounds authentic.
Zinnia hums to herself and backs off. "Sounds interesting. I might have to look it up sometime. I wasn't aware anyone bothered to write about us," she says with a knowing smile, making Lee's spine stiffen.
'Not even one Gym into the circuit and my secret is almost certainly blown. I'm so fucked.'
Brendan yelps and leaps behind Lee, who just freezes at hearing the monstrous sound. Zinnia...
Zinnia blushes and puts a hand over her stomach. "A-Ahaha... I dunno about you two, but some lunch sounds great. Let's get Vulpix checked in and go."
"No way! That was actually your first loss ever?!" Zinnia's eyes are wide in disbelief, her meal going ignored for a moment.
After handing over Vulpix's, Mudkip's, Shroomish's, and Shelgon's pokeballs to Nurse Joy in the partially repaired Pokemon Center, the trio of trainers made a short walk to a Oldale's only bistro, a quaint place run by a family, just several minutes away from the Pokemon Center on foot. Lee would have stayed and waited for Vulpix's recovery if it didn't leave Brendan alone with Zinnia. Lee could feel Zinnia's eyes boring into him each step of the way, but she did not pursue her earlier questioning. Sitting down and ordering was a simple affair, and of course, talk turned to the battle less than an hour ago.
Lee sighs and leans back into his chair. "Yes. Yes, it was. I've been a trainer for a grand total of about a month and a half. Don't rub it in please," he mumbles, looking at his and Brendan's empty plates then back to Zinnia's 3rd which is rapidly emptying. 'Where does she put it all?'
The Dragon trainer gulps down her latest bite to answer. "I wasn't about to make fun of you. That's some crazy growth for just being a month into your career. You and Vulpix battle like you've been doing it for years," she says, pausing to finish her meal of rare-almost raw steak and green beans. The food vanishes in three large, rather unladylike bites before she sighs in satisfaction. "I was given Bagon when I turned sixteen almost three years ago and he's no pushover. Both his sire and dam were top-level Dragons and he was close to evolving to boot. Shrimpy there," she points to Brendan, who looks decidedly sour at being called 'shrimpy' "wasn't wrong when he said Vulpix almost won. It's got me curious about you..." Zinnia puts her hand on her chin and leans forward. "What's your secret?"
Lee blinks. "My...secret? I don't understand."
The Draconid woman hums to herself. "Yeahhhh. Likely story," she says with a snort. "That trick Vulpix did when trapped in Bagon's Protect. Most Pokemon would panic without a trainer command, yet she got up and out of the way perfectly. That's not something a rookie pokemon does on their own."
"I've been wondering that too," Brendan chimes in, looking between Lee and Zinnia. "There have been times me and Lee would battle, and Vulpix would just jump into action sometimes. I figured she was just smart and Lee was letting her do her own thing, but the wall jump thing in Protect..." Brendan's eyes stop on Lee, asking for an answer.
'Shit, she's sharp. I guess it was too much to hope she thought my voice was lost in the commotion.'
"That's... Not something I'm willing to answer without Vulpix's input on the matter first," Lee replies carefully, testing each word in his mouth before letting it go. "What you're asking for concerns her too, and I can't give the info if she doesn't want to."
Brendan mulls it over for a moment and groans. "That means 'I'm not telling you' doesn't it?"
Zinnia's brows rise in obvious surprise before falling again. "Huh. Not what I was expecting... buuuuut it makes sense." Then she smiles. "If that's your answer, it really helps me make up my mind."
"Make up your mind on what?" Brendan asks warily, leaning back at her sudden exuberance.
"On whether or not I'm coming with you two or not, duh," she says with a bright grin.
Lee and Brendan exchange glances. "Don't we have to make that call?"
"You can," Zinnia says with a nod. "I'm following regardless," she finishes with a clear laugh. "You, Mister Lee, are too interesting," she says, standing pointing at the bewildered man. "You say you've only been a trainer for a month and some change, but you battle like a pro, you know things, and your pokemon is freaky powerful. I need to grow stronger for my mission to the Draconid Tribe, and I get the feeling hanging around you is just the way to do it!"
"Alright alright!" Lee hisses as people begin to stare at their table. One kid even points before his mother stops him. "Just sit down and stop yelling. We'll discuss everything later."
"Don't I get a say in this?" Brendan whines.
"Here you are, Mister Henson. Your Vulpix," Nurse Joy says, handing Lee a single warm pokeball with a smile. "I would recommend a day or two of only light training before returning to full activity. The bite on her leg did some considerable damage, but nothing that won't heal."
Lee throws an ugly look towards Zinnia, who is on his left. "I said I was sorry!" She squawks.
He just shakes his head. "Right, C'mon."
The pair head to the mostly restored lounge near the entrance of the Pokemon Center, where a number of trainers and pokemon gather into small groups. Overhead, a radio plays some tinny pop song through old speakers. Lee looks around, marveling over the fact that yesterday this room was a burnt husk but was now deemed safe enough for people and pokemon again. The smoke smell is even gone.
'Gotta hand it to those League workers. They don't mess around.'
Along the far wall a long padded bench runs the entire length, seating a number of people, Brendan being one of them. At the young trainer's feet, his now fresh looking Mudkip and Shroomish voraciously eat some of the Center provided chow from a pair of bowls. Brendan looks up with a smile when the older trainers come close.
Lee sinks down next to Brendan, his eyes firmly glued to Vulpix's ball. With a feather-light tap, he presses the button and the ball explodes open in a flash of light.
Vulpix materializes in his lap and blinks the stars away from her vision, looking up to Lee with soulful brown eyes. In the back of Lee's mind, he can feel Vulpix's mind prodding for access. He lets her in without a second thought.
Lee blinks away a sudden prickling of tears when he feels her sharp and aware mind again, not her pain-filled and barely conscious one. He hugs the vixen close, the feeling of her whole and unbroken body a balm to his frayed nerves.
Vulpix cuddles herself to her human, her curious vulpine purr rolling through her chest. A thin tendril of thought extends from her, letting her see exactly how he fared in her absence.
She wraps Lee's mind in her own, and then...
I am well.
You are well.
All is well.
All the stress in Lee's body flows out like a full basin with the drain opened. The tension holding his shoulders and back rigid leaves, letting him lean back into the wall behind him with a sigh, holding Vulpix all the while.
Zinnia watches the sight with a smile. "You really were worried about her, weren't you?" She asks, sitting next to Lee and resting her elbows on her knees.
Lee nods into Vulpix's head tuft. "If something happened to her, they'd have to put me in the nuthouse," he replies, his voice muffled by the warm fox he's hugging.
The Dragon trainer's smile takes on a strained, almost bitter look. "It's crazy how that works, huh?
Lee pulls his head up enough to see Zinnia's face before her smile returns to a genuine one. "So, intrepid leader. What next?"
The scarred trainer files Zinnia's words for later and thinks. "Wait. Intrepid leader?"
"You are kind of the leader, Lee," Brendan chimes in, Returning both his pokemon to their balls in flashes of red. "Didn't you say you had a route worked out already?"
"Well, yeah," Lee says, pulling his head up from Vulpix all the way, and the vixen looks up as well. "But that hardly makes me the leader here."
"Sounds pretty leaderly to me," Zinnia says, her smile growing.
"Same!" Says Brendan, also smiling.
Lee rolls his eyes. "Sounds like you two are lazy and just want me to do the work here." When neither denies the accusation, he shakes his head. "We're going to go into town, stock up on supplies, then we can either get on the road tonight or wait until morning considering it's..." Lee pulls his flip phone from his pocket and glances at it. "Almost 3 pm already. Up to you two. Either way, we'll head west via Route 102 to Petalburg which is several days away on foot."
Zinnia hums. "I say let's go today. How 'bout you, shrimpy?"
Brendan scowls. "I'm not shrimpy! For that, I say we stay the night!"
"What? We've got like five hours of light left, that's a good chunk of travel!" Zinnia protests.
"Well, I say we stay anyway!" Brendan says, crossing his arms and turning away.
Zinnia growls "You little..!" she flexes her hands as if about to throttle him
Lee drags a hand down his face. "Of course they'd argue...Oi!" He says, getting the attention of both Brendan and Zinnia. "Flip a coin or something. Don't act like children. I swear to god I'll turn this journey around."
Vulpix just gives a scratchy, vulpine laugh from Lee's lap at his misfortune.