In the dim morning light that streams in through the mostly-drawn curtain of the hotel window, Lee sits on the edge of his bed and looks down at his hands.
He slept for several hours yesterday until a hungry and annoyed Corvisquire made his displeasure known with a nip to Lee's nose. After feeding the ornery raven and still-quiet Vulpix, Lee made the trek to the Pokemon Center to pick up Grovyle, who was on a no-battle advisory for two days until his wrist finished healing. The gecko pokemon was sullen over his loss, but a good meal perked him up.
He passed Zinnia in the street on the way back, and neither of them exchanged words, or even looked at each other.
The rest of the evening was spent in an uncomfortable silence with his pokemon, then by himself when his team decided to sleep in their balls. He tried to distract himself with a video from one of the Rustboro university courses, but his troubled mind refused to focus. Sleep escaped Lee until nearly midnight as he dwelt on Zinnia's words.
He thinks back to the weeks he's spent with Brendan and Zinnia. It seems like every other day there is a spar between them all, and Lee can count his team's losses on one hand with fingers to spare.
'Style. What did she mean by style?'
Zinnia's battles all come to mind. It always seemed like she was a simple berserker, going full throttle and ruthlessly exploiting any openings. Openings that her pokemon made by using Mist, Smokescreen, Sand Attack, shooting at her foe's feet, and other ways to halt and break momentum so her pokemon can take a low-risk, advantageous position. Then when the opponent exposes any weakness, Zinnia's pokemon move in and strike like vipers, repeating attacks if needed so the moment isn't wasted.
'She does have a style!' Lee blinks as the realization hits him like a train. 'And she sticks to it. Is that how she keeps her flow in battle? What about Brendan?'
Again, he dredges up memories, this time of Brendan's battles. With how often Marshtomp is used, it always looked like Brendan's strategy was to just punch the meat off of anything in front of him, but the more battles he thinks about, the more Lee realizes just how far from the truth that is.
Brendan plays his pokemon's strengths like a master. Marshtomp always keeps a measured pace, his stamina seemingly endless with how he takes his time, giving Brendan all the time in the world to come up with a plan. Each blow is calculated, with Marshtomp taking hits so long as he can retaliate with greater force, and when physical force fails, he backs off to attack from range.
Shroomish meanwhile almost never fights head on at Brendan's order, always patiently waiting for his Poison Powder and Leech Seeds to sap his opponent dry. All his real attacks are to simply make the opposing pokemon back off or to herd them into a more advantageous position.
'Brendan battles like he's playing chess.'
Lee takes his phone off the nightstand and opens his browser. A few taps of his fingers later, and he's signed into BattleNet, looking up Brendan's battles.
The battle with Roxanne was rough, but Brendan showed his tactical prowess there in a subtle way, finishing with a genius non-verbal Bide. The bout with Brawly truly shined, as Brendan kept control of the battle from start to finish. Brawly made a mistake using his inexperienced Mienfoo, and by the time Hitmonchan took to the field, the Gym Leader played into Brendan's hands.
'I never realized that there was such a level of depth to how they battle.' Lee realizes. Then a more sobering thought hits him. 'What else have I missed? Maybe I should take Brendan out to eat or something as a late congratulations. What does he like again?'
Another unpleasant realization is thrust upon him then. He doesn't know what Brendan's favorite food is. Lee bites his lip in concentration. He doesn't know what the younger trainer enjoys eating, or his favorite color, or even his birthday... And the same can be said for his knowledge on Zinnia. The only personal things he knows about her is her love of Dragon types and first choice of drinks.
And the last one is because she explicitly said it, not because he noticed.
'...Oh my God, am I blind or something? How do I not know these things? They're my friends. I should know all of this.' Lee shakes the distressing thought away and focuses back on his earlier problem of a battle style, and what exactly Zinnia meant by it.
'Is this what I'm lacking?' Lee wonders, running his thumb over the cool glass of the cell phone in his hand. 'Would I do better if I had my own way of battling? Like a set of operating procedures?'
Not trusting his bruised ego to present his memories fairly, Lee gulps and types his own name into BattleNet's search bar, finding videos of both the Dewford Gym battle and the beach tournament.
As he watches the videos play out on his phone, Lee feels his heart sink as he picks out countless opportunities he wasted, points where he froze, so many mistakes where he just seems to give a random order. Firespin in the first round of Dewford's tournament was utter overkill, and the last match with Andre's Absol was won because Treecko took charge when Lee himself choked. His way of battling is purely reactive.
'Would I freeze up less if I had a style or procedure?' He silently asks himself again.
He sets the phone on the bed, mind whirling as he rises and gets dressed for the day. Looking at the messy state of the other bed, he concludes that Brendan must have crept in during the night, slept, then left again all before he woke up.
The last thing Lee dons is his pokeball belt, holding Grovyle, Corvisquire... and Vulpix, all of whom elected to sleep in their balls. Grovyle and Corvisquire were obvious considering their injuries, and Vulpix...
Lee gives the thin psychic thread leading to Vulpix's ball a tug with his mind, just to confirm she's there. A second later, the thread is tugged on the other end, drawing a small smile from him.
Knock knock knock!
"Eh? The maid or something?" The zoologist wonders aloud as he turns to the locked hotel door. He walks over and cracks open the door, peering through to see who knocked.
On the other side of the threshold, a disheveled Zinnia stands, nervously wringing a handful of her cloak and looking down at her feet.
Schooling his face into one of careful neutrality, Lee-
"I'm sorry!" Zinnia suddenly blurts, her eyes darting up to meet his. "Can I come in and talk to you?"
Taken aback, Lee absently opens the door the rest of the way and lets the woman in. She slowly steps past him before seating herself heavily on the edge of Lee's bed.
Lee, meanwhile, closes the door and turns to lean against it with his arms crossed, waiting.
For almost a solid minute, neither of them say anything. Lee waits, unsure what to expect while Zinnia balls her hands up in her lap, refusing to look at him.
Finally, she sighs and looks up, startling the former zookeeper with how remorseful she looks. "Lee, I uh..." She trails off and looks away once more, uncharacteristically quiet. "I want to apologize for yesterday. I'm not sorry for saying what I did, but I am sorry for how I said it, and I'm sorry for not saying something sooner. I started traveling with you and Brendan just to see what makes you tick, but..." Zinnia looks up, her shoulders slumped and ruby eyes forlorn. "You've been a nice friend to me even if you are kinda distant. You remind me so much of Aster, and after yesterday, a bit of that image kinda shattered and it made me angry like I lost her again."
She pauses to take a deep breath and seemingly gather her thoughts. "I shouldn't have blown up like that. You're not Aster, and I shouldn't take my issues out on you because you remind me of her. She had no problem sharing whatever was on her mind, and I guess it just frustrated me that you aren't the same."
It's there Lee realizes just why he never seemed to bother learning about Brendan or Zinnia, or why the revelation of their unique manners in pokemon battles surprised him.
Zinnia is more than just 'Zinnia the Lorekeeper' with some flavor text in her background. That first night in Dewford wasn't a lore dump. She can hurt just like you. She is real just like you.
You aren't the protagonist of some game. This is your life now.
The logical part of his brain already knows this, but the sudden acceptance makes Lee's stomach flip and his head light.
Zinnia's head drops into her hands and she runs a hand through her hair. "It's not fair to you, Lee, and I'm sorry. I... still want to be your friend and travel with you, if you'll let me," she says, looking up at him hopefully.
For a moment, Lee sits and debates with himself. Is it worth it to forgive her? The apologies seem genuine, and the longer he waits, the more she fidgets and the more the hope in her eyes begins to fade. Still, she called him mediocre when his win rate is something to behold and worse yet, made Vulpix doubt her relationship with him.
What he and Vulpix have is special. Maybe even unique. Zinnia has no place sticking her nose into it.
...Then he remembers the dragon tamer's words in full, proclaiming that his wins are because of his pokemon's health, not his own ability, and how she never said to totally stop speaking with Vulpix, just to make decisions on his own.
'Have I been getting full of myself without noticing?'
All the arguments Lee's still smarting pride forced into his mouth, primed and ready to tear into Zinnia like razors, crumble and vanish. The anger boiling in his chest cools, leaving him strangely empty. He sighs and rubs the back of his head. "It's... okay, Zinnia," even with his ire extinguished, the words still sting his mouth just a bit. "I don't appreciate how harsh your dressing down was, but I think it opened my eyes a little bit. It would be dumb to throw away our friendship, no matter how flimsy it is, over one fight."
She blinks in surprise and her mouth drops open before she closes her jaws with a quiet click. Then she smiles so brightly that it practically lights up the room. She stands and in one deft movement, pulls Lee into a tight hug.
The sudden hug makes Lee stiffen, but Zinnia doesn't seem to notice as she pulls away, smile still in place. "Thanks, Dolittle. I'm not good with all this emotional stuff as you probably know by now."
'Dolittle?' Is Lee's bemused thought. 'Is Dr. Dolittle even a story here?'
"And it's just Zinnia saying this, not Lorekeeper Zinnia," She continues, looking away as her smile wanes into something a bit more wistful. "If you ever want to talk about anything to someone who isn't a pokemon, I can listen if nothing else. Only when you're ready, though!" Her soft voice rises into a demand at the end, complete with a thin finger pointed at his face.
Lee's chest grows warm, and at the same time, he can't stop the amused half-laugh that escapes through his nose. "Yeah, sure thing. I don't know when I'll be ready to talk, but when I am, I'll let you know."
"Of course!" She exclaims with a grin. "Here, I got this for you, too."
Lee raises an eyebrow when the draconid tribeswoman reaches back into the Silph pouch at the small of her back and withdraws a colorful blue and red ticket. "Oh?"
"This little baby is a ticket to the Battle Tent here in Slateport!" Zinnia says, waving the bit of paper before Lee's eyes. "They've got big prizes for trainers who do well in their battles, and the gimmick in Slateport's Battle Tent is rental pokemon. It'll be good practice to battle with pokemon who aren't naturals in the field like your own."
"Battle Tent, huh?" Lee asks as he takes the offered ticket and looks it over, finding the address, a little serial number, and effective date on its redemption to be from now until next week. 'I kind of forgot about these.'
"Mmhm," Zinnia nods. "Kind of like a mini Battle Frontier with less snobs." She looks around, her smile falling somewhat. "Say, uh, where is your Vulpix?" She asks, looking somewhat nervous again. "I feel like I should apologize to her, too."
Lee's gaze drops down to the pokeballs at his waist, and slowly, he pulls Vulpix's ball free and rolls it between his fingers. "I haven't spoken to her since last night, so I'm not sure what sort of mood she's in."
The dragon tamer grimaces. "Oh."
Regardless, Lee hits the button on the pokeball, making it grow to full size with a low whine before it bursts open.
Instantly, he can feel Vulpix's mind reach out to his before she's even fully materialized, and he gladly embraces the little probe of thought. She hesitates, but then gives in and floods his psyche with rolling waves of love, instantly washing away his lingering worry.
When she fully takes form upon the bed, Vulpix blinks the stars from her eyes before turning her chilled gaze to Zinnia.
To the dragon tamer's credit, she doesn't falter at Vulpix's nearly palpable displeasure. "Hey Vulpix." Zinnia begins awkwardly. "I dunno if you bothered to listen to Lee and I talk, but I wanted to say I'm sorry to you. I shouldn't have gotten snappy with you when you're probably doing the things you do for Lee's sake, right?"
Although Lee can feel a trickle of surprise from her, the vixen's face remains impassive as she gives Zinnia a single clipped nod.
"I still stand by what I said," Zinnia frowns. "I don't think you should be making decisions for Lee when he should be the one to do it, but I could have been nicer about it, so... I'm sorry," she says, swallowing her pride and inclining her head.
Vulpix's frigid anger lessens considerably, but she still turns her nose up at Zinnia in dismissal.
"Well, I don't think she forgives you, not yet, but she's not as upset anymore," Lee supplies, looking between his two friends.
Zinnia's face scrunches up in annoyance, but rather than make a fuss, she just takes a deep breath. "I can live with that for now..." She mutters. "Anyway, enough of this gloomy shit. Shrimpy said he was going to run an errand his dad asked of him, so let's go check out the huge market in the west side of town. It's supposedly got stuff that can't be found anywhere else, and we might find supplies that could be useful in getting your style going. C'mon!"
Before Lee can get a word in, Zinnia seizes his hand with her own and pulls him along with surprising strength, barely giving him enough time to wrap his free hand around one of the straps of his backpack and drag it along.
Vulpix just shakes her head and leaps to Lee's shoulder before either trainer can get too far.
Outside the hotel, Zinnia releases her ironclad grip on Lee's hand, making him flex his slightly numb fingers until he can feel them again. "No need to break my hand. It's not like I was going anywhere," he says dryly.
Zinnia puts her hands on her hips and raises an eyebrow, the corners of her mouth perking up. "It's hard to tell with you, Dolittle," she says, starting a brisk walk down the sidewalk. Lee follows just beside her as she continues. "You've got three expressions. 'Tiny smile', 'surprised', and 'blank'. It's not often I see something else on that mug of yours."
"Really?" Lee muses aloud. "It might be because anything intensive pulls at these," he says, tapping his index and middle fingers on the left side of his face. "It's probably a subconscious thing now."
Zinnia winces. "Ah... Wow, I really need to stop putting my foot in my mouth..." She mutters.
"It's fine," Lee reassures as they come to a stop at a crosswalk with a few other people waiting to cross. He glances up and down the street, noting the amount of cars on the road and how their numbers are dwarfed by scooters, motorcycles, large delivery vans, and even a few pokemon mounts in traffic. Further down the road, Lee spies a woman astride a Sawsbuck laden with saddlebags, who is stuck trotting behind a slow, miniature car. The deer pokemon snorts and leaps right over the small, slow car with effortless grace. His hooves land on the asphalt with a staccato of cli-cli-clip, then Sawsbuck and his passenger catch up to the rest of traffic easily.
Lee almost doesn't notice the crosswalk signal change until Zinnia is already a few steps ahead of him in the street, forcing him to pick up the pace.
"So what exactly is in the Slateport market?" Lee asks as they walk away from the hotel and resort part of town into Slateport's downtown, where the city is already bustling. He recalls the market in the games sold some unique items, but in a real pokemon world? It could be anything. "Something special I'm assuming."
"More like everything special," Zinnia grins with a bounce in her step. "A big port town like this? It's got a huge market square with everything you could ever imagine. Exotic food, clothes, electronics, jewelry, you name it, and that's just for normal people. You better believe they've got tons for trainers and pokemon too. Maybe you'll even find an interesting pokemon to buy."
The same thought runs through both Lee and Vulpix's heads independently, and Lee feels his lips pull downward into a frown. "Please tell me there are licencing and proper care requirements in place for pokemon merchants..."
"Duh. The city probably wouldn't let them do business otherwise," Zinnia rolls her eyes. "You worry too much, you know that? Just live in the moment sometime!"
"I've got you and Brendan to do that for me," The zoologist smiles, making an effort to make it a little more expressive. The end result is more of a smirk when the left side of his face doesn't quite lift as much as the right. "If I don't worry, who will?"
She smiles again and shakes her head. The expression is rather pretty, now that he looks at her not as Zinnia the 2D party member, but Zinnia, his friend.
'Kinda moronic of me to accept pokemon as more real than other people, or did you help me get over that so quickly that I didn't notice?' Lee silently asks Vulpix, who makes her curious not-purr in a noncommittal reply. 'Eh. We'll make things work either way.'
"You know, now that I know it's telepathy for sure, it's real interesting to see it work, even if I can't tell what's being said." Zinnia suddenly says, pulling Lee and Vulpix from their silent conversation. Both trainer and pokemon look over at the dragon tamer. "What's it like? Er, if you feel like saying," she hastily amends.
Lee carefully thinks over the answer for a moment, remembering Professor Birch's warning. 'I should give her something, though.'
He looks around at the other people on the street, and when satisfied that all of them are too absorbed in their own business, he looks back to an openly curious Zinnia. "Well, it's kind of hard to describe," Lee begins, raising a finger and tapping his temple. "There's no words, just urges, emotions, and sensations. It took a week of constant back-and-forth before Vulpix and I got the hang of understanding each other. Even now, though, not everything is one hundred percent clear. Humans and pokemon have a radically different mental makeup and I have to put myself in Vulpix's shoes for some things to make sense."
Zinnia blinks. "Put yourself in her shoes, huh? How does that work?"
"Again, that's rather hard to put into words," Lee thinks for a moment as they walk. "I just have to stop thinking like a human, and start thinking like a pokemon. Things they see as common and logical are alien to you and I, and you really have to stretch your definition of 'logic' to come to the same conclusions that a pokemon might. You have to take into account how they see the world with their stronger senses, the tools at their disposal to deal with the problems the world throws them, how those senses and tools would be applied to different stimuli, and the knowledge and personality held by the individual pokemon." He leaves out how the intelligence of pokemon makes this much easier than with common animals.
Seeing Zinnia paying rapt attention, Lee continues. "Even then, I'm oversimplifying this by quite a bit. This is all useful not in just telepathy, but in understanding pokemon in general," he punctuates the statement by reaching a hand up and stoking Vulpix's chin, who leans into the hand with a small smile. "Knowing the hows and why of their behaviour, imagining yourself in their place, and emulating said behaviour to better connect with them and aid with communication brings you closer together. With this understanding, you can tailor-fit your care for them as well," he smiles along with Vulpix, letting his fingers trail up to her heart-marked ear.
Zinnia's hand rises to rub her chin as she looks down at the sidewalk. The two continue the walk in an easy silence as Zinnia visibly ponders. As they go, the sidewalk comes more and more packed with people as they approach a street blocked off with bright traffic cones. By the time they reach the blocked street, it's almost shoulder-to-shoulder.
Upon turning the corner, they come face-to-face with something right out of a storybook.
Stands, shops, people, and most importantly pokemon dominate the wide street with a dizzying amount of color and noise. Stands with boisterous, hollering merchants line the street and money changes hands faster than anyone can hope to keep track of. Above, bird pokemon fly to and fro, talons clutching wrapped packages coming in and out of the market. Many of the birds are Delibirds or large fliers like Pidgeots hauling whole pallets with ease. Agile pokemon like a bounding Breloom cut through the crowd without so much as a stumble, carrying their own loads to who-knows-where.
All the stands and stores are filled with everything Zinnia said and more. Jewels, textiles, food, berries, antiques, knick-knacks and other odds and ends with no name. One stand selling clothes has a Gardevoir in a flamboyant orange kimono dancing with supernatural grace to pull in a mass of captivated customers, while another just a few spaces away has a grinning, shiny Sableye coated in enough jewelry for a king holding a sign saying Olaf's Fine Jewelry.
One smaller stall in particular catches Lee's eye, where a young woman with her hair tied back is selling customized pokemon grooming kits all nicely boxed up and ready to go. The young woman has to shout over the flimsy stall next to hers, where an overweight man bellows mightily about his stacks of 'authentic' TMs, all of which have ridiculous names that he shouts without shame. The street opens up into a large plaza absolutely stuffed with people and pokemon further down, where a great Wailord balloon hovers high above, moored to the ground by long cables.
Lee can't help but blink as he takes it all in.
"Hehehehe!" Zinnia's eyes light up and a smile instantly finds its way to her face. "It's even bigger than I heard! C'mon!"
She slips into the crowd easily, and Lee has to swiftly follow, lest he lose sight of the dragon tamer.
Lee and Zinnia flit between stalls rapidly, guided only by Zinnia's whim. When the tanned woman finally seems preoccupied with some rapid-fire haggling with a vendor over a new set of boots, Lee breaks away to visit the stand selling the grooming kits.
As he walks closer, the young woman smiles brightly and beckons him closer. "Welcome! Looking for something to help you pamper your cutie there?" She asks, her loud voice cutting through the din of the market easily.
Lee smiles back, again making an effort to make it large. Again, the right side of his face lifts more, making the smile into more of a smirk. "That I am," he replies, reaching up to stroke a content Vulpix several times. "You wouldn't happen to have kits for reptiles and avians too, would you?"
"Do I?! Of course I've got what you need! Any types in particular?" She asks, her hands already pulling aside a little box labeled "Mammal - Fire".
"Grass for the reptile and Steel for the avian," Lee says. Then a thought strikes him. "Say, in the reptile and avian kits, what's the type-specific stuff you put in there?"
"The reptile kit has a natural scale-lotion that eases shedding and boosts photo receptivity in chlorophyll-rich skin, and the bird kit contains a special feather oil blend that doubles as armor polish along with a rust prevention compound," she rattles off from memory, hands flying to assemble a pair of flattened cardboard boxes that she pulls from behind the stall. "All made by Carla Cosmetics here in Slateport! We ship anywhere in Hoenn for a flat rate if you ever need more!" She swiftly fills each box with bottles, brushes, nail trimmers, and a single instruction sheet from somewhere hidden from Lee's view behind the stall then seals the boxes with colorful stickers saying "Reptile - Grass" and "Bird - Steel". She stacks them on the Mammal box and gives Lee a dazzling smile. "Your total comes to 220 credits, honey."
'Yeesh, that seems a little steep for just some grooming supplies,' Lee frowns, but nonetheless, he pulls his wallet from pocket and hands over his debit card to the eager woman, who scans it with a tablet computer she pulls from under the stand's counter. 'I'll have to learn how to make this stuff myself.'
"Thank you! Stop by again any time!" The grinning vendor hands his card back and pushes the boxes his way.
Lee nods, slipping his card back into his pocket and unshouldering his backpack to drop the boxes into the nearly bottomless bag.
"A pro trainer, eh? Take a look here, sir! I've got what you need to take your battling to the next level!"
Lee's eyes are drawn to the shabby stand next to the one he just bought from, where the overweight, middle-aged man he spied earlier stands with a multitude of CD racks filled with TMs. The man grins widely and clasps his hands together before rubbing them in a decidedly greedy manner. "Come on, friend! A new move to unleash in a battle or to dazzle in a contest will help anyone, but I think a pro like you can truly use these techniques to their maximum!"
With an amused smile, Lee can't help but step closer, sharing a short look with the vixen on his shoulder as he does so. "A new move or two sounds nice. What have you got?"
The vendor grins even wider, showing off a shiny false-tooth. He then plucks a red TM in a simple plastic CD case and holds it up gingerly, as if it's made of glass. "This right here my friend, is a TM for Flamethrower!" He exclaims with building excitement. "This TM was copied from the mightiest Charizard of the Charicific Valley, a fine pokemon belonging to Ash Ketchum, the powerful protege of the legendary Samuel Oak! With this, your Vulpix will be able to melt rock and boil lakes! It's all yours for a measly 3,000 credits!"
Lee hums and taps his foot, making a show of thinking it over. He can see that the red film-like sticker on the 'TM' has a bubble in it from being applied incorrectly, so when Vulpix noses his cheek and feeds him a devious idea, Lee has to suppress a smile. "Do you have anything stronger?"
"Stronger?" The portly merchant asks in confusion, then he recovers after nary a second. "Stronger! Yes my good man, yes! Of course, you need something better! Only the finest for experts of your caliber!" He carelessly replaces the red TM and pulls another one, this one also red, from a different rack. "Now this is something to behold!" He begins. "Fire Blast! The most powerful Fire attack there is! This one was copied from the Infernape of Flint, a member of the Sinnoh Elite Four! One attack from that Infernape can turn a city block into a pit of lava! That power can be yours for just 7000 credits!"
'So he's not heard of Blast Burn then, or he's trying real hard to dupe us...' Lee snorts. "I need something even better. Don't hold back," he forces down a giggle.
The merchant nods slowly, putting the dubious TM back. "I see. You are well learned, then. Let me show you my very best," the man mutters, theatrically pulling a briefcase from under his stand's counter and slowly opening in. He turns the case around, showing a single gold-foil wrapped TM inside resting on a pillow of foam.
"This, my friend, is the Hyper Beam of Lance Blackthorn's Dragonite," The rotund man says with the utmost seriousness. "It will teach your pokemon a terrible power, the power to crumble mountains and reshape the landscape. It's yours... for 20,000 credits."
'Are TMs actually copied from pokemon?' Lee idly wonders. 'What kind of machine does that? That'll be something to research.' Outwardly, he holds his chin and taps his finger in a thinking pose, staring down at the TM as the merchant sweats. "Nah," Lee shrugs. "Thanks for showing me, though."
The man blinks, and the woman running the pokemon grooming stall next to him openly laughs at his expression.
Before the bogus merchant can recover and complain about his time being wasted, a tanned arm wraps around Lee's and pulls him away.
Lee stumbles, nearly throwing Vulpix off, but catches himself before his pokemon can take a spill. He extracts his arm from Zinnia's and levels her with a dry look. "Can you not? I like my arm not dislocated, thanks."
She scoffs. "If a little jolt like that pulled our arm out of its socket, then I'd tell you to find another career. Now c'mon! There is way more in the plaza that we have to see!"
Lee rolls his eyes and in the back of his mind, he can feel Vulpix's lingering hostility for Zinnia flare-up before he silently shushes her. They weave through the throngs of people and out into the main plaza of the Slateport market, where the mass of people have room to thin out.
The plaza of the marketplace is enormous, dwarfing the street entrance easily. Countless stands, stalls, and even a number of parked trucks and vans acting as storefronts form lines up and down the several-block space. The range of people and pokemon is even greater than the entrance.
Zinnia, Vulpix, and Lee walk down one of the first rows of vendors, taking in all the sights and shops.
One of them with a long line is a Smeargle drawing expert caricatures of customers with just his tail and simple canvases. He takes payments on a little phone-like scanner and operates seemingly without a trainer under his simple tent.
Another is a man with a Natu on his shoulder touting the power of his special pokemon supplements into a microphone, and everyone lets out gasps when behind him on a small stage, a smiling Aipom effortlessly lifts a full anvil with just his tail and a happy chitter. Considering the psychic bird on the presenter's shoulder is glowing a faint blue, the ruse is obvious to anyone watching closely.
Just across from the scam artist, a woman with a thick set of glasses dressed in overalls works on something on a bench in the back of her stall, the drill in her hand whining as she bores into something. Her silently hovering Magneton minds customers perusing the various devices and bits of junk on display.
"Where to even begin...?" Lee wonders aloud.
Over the course of the next two hours, the group wanders around the huge market. Lee stops at a fruit stand selling the largest berries he's ever seen, and promptly blows 300 credits on berries alone. One vendor dressed like a stereotypical beatnik is selling evolution stones from the back of a colorful mini-bus, but when Lee sees the multi-thousand credit price tags on the subpar stones, he blanches and promptly turns around. Zinnia, meanwhile, aggressively haggles with all of the shopkeepers they visit, yet never buys a thing. She nearly gets into a shouting match with a burly leatherworker over a fine pokeball belt that she only has a passing interest in. Lee has to physically pull her away before it comes to blows and lead her away.
"Shitty old man," Zinnia grumbles, arms crossed and a scowl on her face. "100 credits for a single belt? That's robbery!"
Lee sighs and shakes his head. "Why even bother when you've already got a working belt?" He asks, looking at the red rope around her waist that holds her pokeballs. "Just seems silly to me."
'St**i*, y*u ***n,' Vulpix huffs from her perch, but a scratch on the chin from Lee soothes her ire.
"Can you blame a girl for being thrifty, Dolittle?" Zinnia uncrosses her arms as she weaves around a young family passing by. "I don't like asking the tribe for money, so I've got to make whatever I earn myself last. If I can get a deal though..."
She trails off and stops when they pass a simple canvas tent, where an old, weathered woman clad in a baggy robe sits cross-legged behind a tarp filled with different stones, seemingly asleep.
Zinnia walks over to the tarp with all the stones, crouching down to better look at them.
Lee follows, curiosity piqued. He stops next to the dragon tamer, who is intently scanning all the rocks.
'None of these look special or anything, though I'm no geologist,' the scarred man muses, letting his eyes roam over the collection of rocks. Most of them are common earthy brown-gray colors with lumps and dirt, looking like any old stone that anyone could find outside. None of them seem to be any special mineral or gem.
Lee starts, jostling Vulpix when the elderly shopkeeper suddenly speaks.
Zinnia looks up, grinning as she meets the now open eyes of the older woman. "I wouldn't be a good dragon tamer if I missed the dragons who came before."
'Dragons who came before?'
The old woman inclines her head, dropping a few strands of wispy white hair into her face. "Dragon tamer, hmm? Indeed. Do you know which one you want?"
Zinnia's smile becomes a touch mocking. "Really? Do you need to ask that?"
"I suppose not, but begrudge not an elder with a faltering mind," the shopkeeper clicks her tongue. "You too shall face the same problem one day."
Zinnia says nothing.
The old woman picks up one of the stones, one a bit larger than her hand with an oblong protrusion, and after producing a square of white cloth from her pocket, she wraps the stone up into a neat bundle with deftness unfitting of her age. After setting the bundle down, she reaches into another baggy pocket and produces a large, ancient-looking card scanner that could easily be mistaken for a graphing calculator. "That will be 2000 credits, my dear."
Without even trying to argue, Zinnia fishes her wallet from her back pocket and swipes it through the presented scanner, her grin only growing.
The elderly woman watches the device for a moment, then nods and drops the wrapped-up rock into Zinnia's waiting hand. "Good luck, my dear."
Practically shaking in excitement, the dragon tamer stuffs the bundle safely in her silph pouch and stands back up. "Thanks!"
As she and a bewildered Lee walk away, Lee can't help but ask; "What was that all about?"
Megawatt grin still in place, Zinnia beckons him closer with a finger, then stands on her toes to whisper in his ear. "That was a Tyrunt fossil I just scored."
"What?" Is Lee's instinctual response, and the sudden mental jolt he feels from Vulpix tells him the vixen is just as surprised. He blinks and looks back at the old woman, who looks as if she's nodded off again. No one pays her little store any mind. "She's selling fossils?" He asks, keeping his voice low enough to not carry in the noise of the busy market.
"Yep!" Zinnia replies with a giddy giggle. "I would have said something, but I have no idea what the other ones were, and I don't think you'd want to gamble on one, right?"
"Well, no..." Lee mutters. There aren't any fossil pokemon on his wanted list anyway. "Are you planning on reviving it?"
"Well informed, as usual, Dolittle," his tanned friend laughs. "Yeah, I am. I might have to call in some favors and it might take a while, but I think I can get the little guy revived. Tyrantrum, here I come!" She giggles again and holds her cheeks with a beaming grin, no doubt caught up in the destructive fantasy of having her own T-Rex.
Lee shakes his head and smiles a bit himself. "Give me more to worry about, why don't you?"
"Gladly~!" She replies.
The pair walk further into the heart of Slateport's biggest attraction, and as they do, the shops grow more and more focused on pokemon rather than trainers. Eventually, they stumble right into the corner where all the breeders have set up.
Stalls and stands are sparse, as the breeder corner is dominated by pens containing all sorts of pokemon awaiting adoption. Many of them are pokemon native to Hoenn, with the exotic pokemon in larger, more expensive set-ups complete with artificial terrains and full HVAC systems. Many of them have vehicles parked nearby, instantly giving away how lucrative pokemon breeding can be, or maybe the vehicles are an unfortunate cost of business? The few stands that are set up between the pokemon enclosures are quite...
Lee glances at a little shop between two pens. The sign says 'Dexter's Canid Specialties.', and one of the most eye-catching things is a rack of white vials in a glass-doored refrigerator behind the counter. The shopkeeper's large Mightyena, who sits nearby, looks entirely too pleased when a middle-aged well-to-do woman with a finely groomed Furfrou at her side buys one of the dubious vials.
'Yeah, staying away from that one. I had enough of that as an intern...'
Vulpix growls and wrinkles her snout, constricting her end of the psychic pathway to halt the images leaking over to her.
As they walk deeper into the little corner of the market, Zinnia lightly jabs Lee's side with her elbow and points a finger to a large pen with an old truck parked beside it. "Check it out!"
Lee follows her finger and feels his eyes widen.
Inside the pen are a number of different pokemon, all mammals. He spies a small wisp of a Shinx, several Poochyenas that lay together in a pack, a pair of playing Growlithes, a panting Rockruff that the pen owner is showing to a young blonde girl, a fox-like pokemon from Galar, the name of whom he forgets, and most importantly, two young, healthy-looking Eevees.
A grin finds its way to Lee's face. "Hot damn. Let's go take a look," he says, already in motion.
By the time they get to the gate of the small pen, the breeder running it is showing the young girl who was interested in the Rockruff out. The man smiles and waves as they approach.
The breeder is rather normal in appearance, being a tanned, brown-haired man who looks somewhere between twenty-five and thirty years old. His boots, denim overalls, and flannel shirt all sport bits of dirt and scuffs, and the front pocket of his overalls hold several packets of paper, likely transfer or adoption forms. "Hey there!" He greets with a raised hand. "Name's Leo. Something I can help you all with?" He asks with a friendly smile.
"Sure can," Lee nods his head to the pen. "I couldn't help but notice you have a fine pair of Eevees, a pokemon I've been wanting. Mind if I ask how much you're wanting out of them?"
The pair of pokemon in question sit by the fence of the enclosure, both already wearing resigned, knowing expressions with their ears low.
The breeder winces. "Ah, both are 100,000 credits each, friend."
Lee rocks back at the price while Zinnia's jaw drops. "What?!" The latter squawks. "You could get a house in some places for that money!" She almost yells.
A few of the other breeders set up around Leo don't pay the outburst any mind, Vulpix notes, then sends to Lee. 'Must be a regular occurrence...' He thinks, looking around for himself.
"Both siblings are pure stock sired and born from a pair of Eevee parents without a hint of Ditto in their lineage," Leo explains with his hands raised disarmingly. "Raised on natural diets on top of the prelim training they got when they were young. I was told by the appraiser when I got them that a hundred-and-twenty grand was the lowest I should price them. I want them to go to a loving home, but I can't just throw out an opportunity like this for my business and give them away."
"How... did they come into your possession if you don't mind me prying?" Lee asks, still taken aback by the sticker shock. He crosses his arms and frowns. 'Holy hell. I thought fifty was a lot. Just one of them is twice that.'
"Well, I'm not in the business of breeding Eevees," the breeder begins, looking back at the pokemon in question. "These two came to me when a family friend who is getting on in his years just started getting too old to breed pokemon any longer. A real pro he was, and his ranch churned out high-quality pokemon all the time. He wanted me to have a breeding pair, but I think he forgot in his old age that siblings usually aren't keen on each other like that, especially when both are male."
"That makes sense..." Lee sighs, letting his arms fall to his sides. "Still, that's a lot of money for one pokemon."
Leo mirrors Lee's frown. "Well, I could see if any banks 'round here are willing to offer a loan, but..."
"No, that's okay," Lee shakes his head. "Knowing my luck, they'd try to hit me with something insane like thirty APR for ten years."
'If there is one positive about Earth being a scorched hellhole, it's that all my student debt vanished with it,' he morbidly jokes to himself.
The mewl pulls Lee away from his thoughts. Looking down at the fence of Leo's enclosure, a pair of bright yellow eyes stares back up at him with unbridled curiosity.
"It is getting to be about your dinner time, eh, Shinx?" Leo looks down at the tiny kitten with a smile. He walks a short way to the old pick-up truck, and out of the bed, he withdraws a simple backpack, and after unzipping it, pulls a capped hand-feeding bottle.
The little Shinx's eyes quite literally light up, shining a brilliant gold. The Electric feline resists none when Leo reaches over the fence with one arm and picks...
'Her.' Vulpix silently supplies.
...her up to cradle her to his chest.
With a thumb, the breeder pops the cap off the bottle, letting the little kitten eagerly latch on to the rubber nipple and begin drinking. Shinx settles and contently closes her eyes as she eats. She's almost like a...
'Lion cub...' Lee realizes, captivated. Without even intending to, his mouth begins to move. "What's the story with this one?"
"Oh, Shinx?" Leo asks, looking away from the kitten to meet Lee's stare. "Poor girl was a live birth, but her mother was sickly and Shinx was born several weeks premature. Her mother..." The older man trails off uncomfortably, telling Lee, Zinnia, and Vulpix everything. "Shinx needs a good home, but she'll need a dedicated trainer if she's ever going to grow up healthy and strong. I've had to turn away a few trainers wanting her because I didn't think they would give her the attention she needs."
'She's just like Sefu...' Lee's throat tightens as he remembers the cub he raised by hand. His right hand rubs his left wrist, right where the little lioness would accidentally knead with her claws whenever he fed her.
After the survival of her mother's attempted infanticide, Sefu lost so much weight, looking as small as the Shinx before him. He would encourage the lion cub to eat whenever she could without overfeeding her, just so she would stop being so fragile that he feared she would break when he let her go.
A normal Shinx is usually a few ounces shy of twenty pounds. This poor girl looks like she barely breaks ten, and she looks even smaller being held in a man's arm.
Lee's mouth moves again before he can stop it. "How much are you asking for her?"
He can feel Zinnia's curious look on the side of his head and Vulpix silently asking if he's sure, but the zoologist can't bring himself to care.
Leo's eyes narrow. "550 credits."
"Sold. Where do I-"
"Hold on!" The breeder stops Lee short. His raised voice makes Shinx open her eyes and watch the proceedings with the naked curiosity only a cub could have. "I just told you that this gal needs a lot of TLC, and just looking at you, your friend, and your Vulpix, I can tell you're a battling, traveling sort of guy. Do you really think you can care for a baby like Shinx on the road?" He asks with a raised eyebrow. "You know she won't be battle-ready for weeks, maybe months, right?"
Lee scowls and crosses his arms. "If she's never battle-ready that won't bother me."
"Uh-huh. Okay then. Why do you want her?" The breeder shoots back.
"She..." Lee hesitates, acutely aware of Zinnia watching the going-ons closely. With a sigh, the scarred man makes up his mind and spills some of the truth. "She wouldn't be the first cub I've raised by hand. My other cub, she was ripped from me by circumstance, but I'm not exaggerating when I say I raised her from birth. Her mother rejected her for a reason that still escapes me, but I made damn sure she was happy and healthy. I see the same thing here with Shinx. You've got other pokemon to raise and can't give her as much attention as you'd like if Shinx is up for adoption, right?"
Leo deflates somewhat, his hostility dying as he searches Lee's face for any trace of deception. "That I do."
"This is the exact same situation. Shinx needs someone to love her and ensure she's healthy, yes?" Lee nods. "I want to be that someone. I want her to grow up strong. I make my own pokemon food, I monitor my team's health myself, I give them customized regimens, and if it helps my argument any, I am a Lab Trainer under Professor Birch." Idly, Lee feels some distaste waving around his title, but the thought of leaving without tiny Shinx makes his chest tight.
He can do it, damnit.
The breeder is silent for a moment, his eyes flicking between the Shinx in his arms and Lee. "I'm not a shrink or anything, but isn't trying to fill a hole inside you like this unhealthy?"
Vulpix openly growls at the slight, but Lee calmly shushes her with a finger held to her muzzle. "It's not about me, it's about her."
Leo looks down at Shinx again and sighs. For a moment, no one speaks. Then; "Prove it. Here," he says, gently passing Shinx into Lee's arms.
"Merrow?" Shinx mewls piteously when she's moved from one set of arms into one without her bottle, but Lee is quick to take the half-full bottle from Leo and present it to Shinx again. He lays the kitten along his right arm and holds the bottle close with his left, letting the blue and black feline latch on and begin suckling again, her fussing instantly ceasing. Her left paw reaches up absently, her claws finding purchase on the wrist holding the bottle for her
'She really is just like Sefu after all,' Lee silently smiles as Vulpix watches from her spot on his shoulder. With his right hand under Shinx's neck, Lee tenderly massages her neck with his index finger and thumb, helping the premature cub's weak throat muscles swallow.
Sefu needed the same help until she recovered.
The dull roar of the market seems to fade to nothing as Lee focuses intently on Shinx's pace and the gentle rubbing of her throat. After another fourth of the formula in the bottle vanishes into her stomach, Shinx's suckling begins to lose steam and she slowly begins to go limp. Her breathing begins to even out, and from muscle memory, Lee unhurriedly pulls the bottle away, the rubber nipple coming out of her mouth with a quiet pop. Before her head can fall, the hand that was massaging her throat reaches and props her up by her chin, then slowly lowers her head down when it's obvious she's gone to sleep.
Lee looks over to Zinnia, who is grinning like a loon with her phone held up, the camera facing him. "Now that was adorable, Dolittle!" She gushes, turning her phone around to show the bewildered Lee.
The photo, one of him feeding Shinx with a tranquil and decidedly emasculating expression, is none-too-flattering.
Lee blushes and turns away. "Fuck off," he mutters before looking at Leo, who watches with a neutral expression. "So?"
The breeder chews on his lip for a moment, then he reaches into the middle pocket on his overalls. "Well, I'll need to see your trainer ID and your credit card after that."
Lee's heart soars.