Want to support me? See fuggmann on the place of patrons. I do have goals on there that will hopefully allow me to cut back on work in favor of more writing. As thanks for donating, patrons get to see updates a few days early and suggest edits to the final draft before it goes live.

Big thanks to Bobbles for helping smooth this chapter out with his several editing passes.

It's frustrating sometimes, Brendan thinks to himself, the amount of politicking in the world of organized pokemon sports. Oh, he understands why, as pokemon are everything. Power, prestige, wealth? These things are ripe for the taking for any pokemon trainer willing to make pokemon training their life: their truest passion in all of Arceus' green earth. The rest of the world follows suit, as trainers simply exist above other people in society, and it's most evident with how much money and effort goes into catering to the needs of pokemon and the humans who raise them.

Shops with equipment designed for pokemon? Even in the smallest towns, they can be found on every street.

Fundraisers to sponsor trainers from less fortunate families? They almost always meet their goal.

The latest technological advancement everyone is chatting about? The first question everyone has is how can trainers use it?

The number of news outlets with a dedicated section on pokemon training? All of them.

People love strength, and to be a pokemon trainer is an open declaration that you're cultivating the greatest sort of power, one of friendship and destruction alike… But where there is power, there is politics. In the wake of Lee's match versus Mura Moore, Brendan's match against Flannery has been… well…

'I don't have anything nice to say, so I'll say nothing,' the boy thinks to himself.

Politics are afoot here too, for the only spectators of his match are Courtney, Zinnia, Lee, Moore, and a few of Moore's staff. Officially, the gym is closed for repairs. But Brendan knows the real reason why his fight with Flannery isn't being shown off.

'I'm too high-profile an opponent for Flannery.'

Brendan shakes his thoughts away and returns to the Gym match afoot. "Marshtomp, Mud Bomb! Slow, douse!"

"T-Torkoal! Deflect with Rapid Spin!" Flannery quickly counters.

Marshtomp is so much faster than Torkoal that it's almost unfair. Brendan's starter repositions just as they had planned before the fight began, leaping to the left and circling to Torkoal's flank. The Mud Fish Pokemon's mouth opens, thick, dark mud pooling inside.

Torkoal tenses his legs to spin in place, but before he can, Marshtomp's Mud Bomb screams through the air and slams into his legs, tripping the tortoise pokemon and knocking his legs out from under him. Torkoal's blazing body heat cooks the mud into a brittle ceramic in hardly a second, forcing Torkoal to waste precious moments shaking his legs free of the sharp shards of hardened earth.

A second Mud Bomb flies right into one of the holes in Torkoal's shell, hitting the coal base in his back with a hiss and the crackle of baking mud. Torkoal throws his head back with a distressed groan and shakes in pain, falling to his knees again.

Flannery's look of desperation makes Brendan's stomach twist, but he ignores it for now; he can apologize after the badge is in his hand.

Earlier in the match, Breloom secured a win against Magcargo with Brendan's preferred style of high-speed hit-n-run. Stun Spore into Mach Punch is an effective, if simple, combo. Magcargo and Flannery attempted to counter with Flame Terrain, but after watching Lee struggle against the move yesterday, Brendan brainstormed a counter.

Breloom dealt with Flame Terrain by using an unspoken Growth with a focus on the soles of his feet. Normally, Growth works by forcing the user's body to produce a bunch of fresh, healthy cells all over the body packed with TE to boost the power of energy attacks, but with a last-minute modification, Breloom could turn the soles of his feet into thick calluses, giving the Grass-type a few moments of immunity to the burning ground.

Magcargo fell after only landing a glancing Flamethrower on Breloom, and Brendan used his one substitution in the match to allow Breloom to rest, letting Marshtomp take the stage.

They played it safe for the first minute, feeling Torkoal out with a few cautious attacks while dodging the retaliation. Flannery's pokemon are powerful and have several tricks to boast; the burns littering Marshtomp are proof enough of that. Much like the elder Moore's pokemon, though, they're entirely too straightforward, with stratagems more suited to tackling multiple weaker foes than a strong opponent in single combat. A quirk of learning under a war vet, maybe?

Brendan catches Marshtomp's eyes for a split second, and the trainer sharply nods his head to the left. With a savage grin splitting his face, Marshtomp shines a bright white, then explodes towards Torkoal with a wordless Take Down.

Neither Flannery nor Torkoal react fast enough, letting Marshtomp drive his shoulder into the side of Torkoal's head with a brutal thwack!

Torkoal's head whiplashes to the side, the tortoise pokemon stumbling from the blow, one that would have thrown a car right off its tires. Bleeding profusely from the split in his skull, Torkoal shudders and lets his legs give out, falling to the ground in a heap.

"Torkoal, c'mon baby! You can do it!" Flannery calls into the arena, her hands cupped around her mouth. "Don't give up!"

Groaning, Torkoal slowly, painfully forces himself back to his feet. A second later, his head wound forces him to falter and slip, falling back down.

Flannery sighs and slumps her shoulders, signaling the referee off to the side of the arena to call the match.

The ref, a younger man in the traditional robes Moore insists on, clears his throat. "Torkoal is unable to battle! The winners of this match and the Gym Challenge are Marshtomp and Brendan Birch!"

The barriers around the arena fall as the few spectators rise to their feet and politely applaud. Despite how few people there are, Zinnia's grin, Lee's half-smile, and Courtney's tiny smile all feel wonderful to Brendan. He catches Courtney's pretty magenta eyes, and her smile deepens, making the boy's stomach grow warm and wiggle. Despite trying to play off the win coolly, he grins back and feels his face become hot.

Courtney is forgotten for a second as Marshtomp, yelling in excitement, rushes Brendan with his arms wide open. The air is driven from Brendan's lungs with an "Oof" as he gets a back-popping hug from his starter. Man oh man, Marshtomp's excitement is infectious! Brendan's grin returns as he hugs the mud-fish back. "Way to go, bud! You did amazing out there!"

Marshtomp sets Brendan down and bumps a slightly charred fist against his own chest, gurgling confidently. "Of course I did," Marshtomp practically says.

Across the field, Flannery recalls her unconscious Torkoal, sucking the pokemon back into his ball in a flash of light. She murmurs something too quiet to hear to the pokeball, then clips it to her belt where two other pokeballs hang.

Schooling his face into a polite smile, Brendan walks out to the middle of the battlefield, which still bears the marks of Ninetales' and Ty's cataclysmic duel. There, he and Marshtomp meet Flannery in the middle.

"You really are the real deal, huh?" Flannery begins, hooking her thumbs into her belt loops. She blows out an exasperated breath that makes her hanging red bangs flutter. "Gramps wasn't joking when he said the Birch family pumps out good trainers. I guess I've got a ways to go with this whole Gym Leader thing…" She sighs, but perks up and offers Brendan a closed hand with a smile. "Despite the loss, that was a fun battle! Illuminating, too. I think I now know better what I need to work on going forward."

Flannery's hand opens, and in her palm is a shiny Heat Badge.

"For your victory, I award you this Heat Badge!" Flannery smiles and offers it to Brendan, who takes the badge with a small, awed smile on his face.

Getting a new badge always feels amazing.

"Heh…" Flannery combs her fingers through her ponytatail sheepishly. "We, uh, need Ty to rest up and make us another copy of Overheat, so it might be a few days before you can get your prize TM. We'll have your prize money transferred over before long, though!"

"It's no prob." Brendan waves Flannery off and deposits his new badge in his pocket to be later added to his badge case. He grins up at the heir of the Lavaridge Gym. "We were looking to take a vacation here in Lavaridge anyway. Just gimme a ring and I'll swing by!"

Flannery smiles back. "Will do. If you're looking to vacation a bit, try out the Quilavaridge Onsen on the north end of town. They've got some of the best natural hot springs around. Book the 'special' and tell them I sent you. They cater to trainers and pokemon, so take everyone along," she says.

Brendan grins. "Will do!"

After a good-natured handshake with Flannery, the victorious trainer turns and heads back to the front of the Gym through the arena doors with Marshtomp in tow, finding that Lee, Zinnia, and Courtney are already in the lobby waiting for him.

"Not a bad match at all, kiddo." Zinnia grins and pulls Brendan into a rough, one-armed hug that feels more like a headlock. Before Brendan can complain, Zinnia releases him and plants her hands on her hips. "You guys killed it out there."

"Indeed you did," Lee agrees with Zinnia. "You aced both rounds. Well done. You'll have to tell me how Breloom got around Flame Terrain, though. I didn't see what you did."

"Growth, just localized around Breloom's feet," Brendan reveals. "Not how it was intended to be used, but after some last-minute tweaking, we managed to get a padding of dead skin he didn't have to worry about burning."

Lee blinks. "That's smart."

Brendan glances over to Marshtomp, who looks back knowingly. "I would have liked to have a showdown more like yours, though."

Lee's smile grows brittle. "You say that, but Moore is not a pushover—"

'That's exactly why I would have liked to battle him.'

"—and all of my pokemon sans Shinx are still laid up in the Pokemon Center with some of the worst injuries they've sustained yet." Lee sighs and crosses his arms. "Ninetales was not a happy camper after finding out she's going to be in the Center for another few days, and on light duty for a few more afterward."

Idly, Brendan wonders if Lee and Ninetales are talking to each other right now with telepathy. Ninetales was pretty opinionated and finicky as a Vulpix, and evolving only made her more so. Does she complain to Lee nonstop? If so, then Brendan's friend-slash-mentor is even more patient than he thought.

It does seem strange to see Lee without Ninetales, though…

As a Vulpix, she would always ride on his right shoulder, and as a Ninetales, she always walks on his right when she can. Lee, as absentminded as he is sometimes, might not have noticed, but the symbolism is not lost on Brendan.

Coming back to the present, Brendan crosses his own arms. "I think we could have managed against Mister Moore."

"I dunno, kiddo. That heroic confidence will take you far, but Mura Moore and his pokemon are a whole other gaggle of beasts." Zinnia's doubt stings. The dragon tamer looks through the still-open arena doors at the pock-marked arena inside. "You'd outbrain him maybe, but sometimes raw guff wins the day."

Courtney, surprisingly, speaks up. "I think you'd win, Brendan," she says quietly, drawing all eyes to her. If the attention spooks her, she hides it perfectly. "Gym Leader Moore… is a product of his time. He wins with power, you win with skill. Skill, when properly leveraged… wins nearly every time." She smiles, and despite how small a quirk of the lips it is, it's fantastically pretty.

Brendan can't help but turn pink under the unexpected vote of confidence. "T-Thank you, Courtney," he says with a shy smile.

Lee and Zinnia share a short, severe look that seems to convey a whole conversation. It's so brief that Brendan almost misses it.

Brendan takes a moment to clear his throat. "Since we're going to be here for a few more days—" He pauses to cross his arms behind his head and stretch, feeling his tense body loosen now that the adrenaline of a good battle has passed. "Why don't we take a real break before we hit the road? Fallarbor is easily two weeks away or more, and Flannery told me about this place called Quilavaridge on the north side of town."

"I was looking at that same place the other day," Zinnia chimes in with a smile and a nod. "A restaurant, onsen, and spa all in one." Her smile becomes sly, and she bumps shoulders with Courtney. "I bet they can be convinced to let our pair of celebs and their pretty friends in for cheap, don't you think?"

Courtney shakes her head, making her hair bounce under her hood. "That seems shameless…"

"Thrifty, you mean," Zinnia counters. She turns to Lee and clasps her hands together. "Dolittle, you won't leave your best gal pal hanging, will you?" she asks with a cringe-inducing simper and big, Rockruff eyes.

Lee smirks. "Never, but I think Ninetales will get the guest of honor treatment just for showing up."

Zinnia's expression twists like an arrow just struck her in the heart. A tanned hand flies over her chest and dramatically claws at the fabric of her shirt. "I see how it is…" she grumbles, but her lips twitch in a barely suppressed laugh. "Well, let's make tracks, people. We've got a booking to make and Brendan's pokemon are due for a Center visit." Zinnia turns and strides toward the doors.

Lee and Courtney turn to follow, leaving Brendan and Marshtomp to bring up the rear.

As they walk, Brendan locks his gaze onto Lee's back.

Pokemon training is a game of power and politics, and that realization hit Brendan at an early age. Growing up, people never talked about his father's discoveries as a professor and academic. No, for years they only ever wanted to gripe about how he could have been Champion, or how he could have been a part of the Battle Frontier, and how much of a disappointment he was when he declined both titles. Some regions might treat the title of Regional Professor differently, but in Hoenn? It's a place for figureheads.

Nigel Birch, a figurehead.

The old newspapers in the Littleroot library had told a younger Brendan everything he needed to know about how the world reacted to his father taking the regional circuit by storm, only to quit and vanish to be with his wife and newborn son. Even now, the Pokemon League barely gives his father the time of day for the 'betrayal,' and only now, years later, is his reputation recovering.

As if watching history repeat itself, Brendan can see the same thing happening to Lee.

Lee's been kind to Brendan, even during the times he's treated more like a child than a peer. There's no maliciousness, just genuine concern. Lee even gives away his methodology and secrets behind his raising of pokemon, taking the time to answer every question and teach Brendan anything he asks for, even at his own expense.

Lee… He's too gentle, too kind to want the office of Champion. Brendan knows the only reason the man is even tackling the gym circuit is because he's too polite, too… meek to protest being railroaded into it. Brendan can't help but wonder to himself if Lee's unwillingness to protest has to do with his past—the one Brendan knows so little about.

Regardless, the man lives and breathes everything pokemon, never pausing or resting in his pursuit to know and understand. If he's not giving a physical examination, measuring every facet of his pokemon, counting calories, providing physical therapy for injuries, or something else a casual or even intermediate trainer wouldn't think to do, he has his nose in a book researching something or other. Lee Henson barely has a life outside of pokemon. With his tireless methods, his pokemon are growing into monsters that will draw the eye of every dedicated battler around.

Heck, that's already happening. People online are going nuts over Lee and his pokemon, and the initial ripples are going to double back in waves soon. Were he a bit younger, Brendan might have felt upset or even jealous about playing second fiddle to his friend. Instead, he finds himself fine with it, considering his goals now.

When they first set out from Littleroot all those months ago, Brendan wasn't really sure what he wanted out of his journey. Dad said not to worry and just have fun, as a goal would come to him eventually. Traveling Hoenn, seeing new and wonderful things, meeting strange people and stranger pokemon, all of it is an inspiration of the finest sort…

…but here on the battlefield, where his adrenaline rushes and his heart thunders in his ears, here in the ring of honor where mind, body, and bonds are truly tested. This is the place Brendan found his own dream.

He will win the Ever Grande Conference, topple the Elite Four, and dethrone Steven Stone, declaring to the world that he is his father's son, here to finish what was started twelve years ago.

That's not all, though. His mission is twofold.

Before Brendan can be the Champion, he has to defeat Lee and his pokemon at the summit of the Ever Grande Conference, freeing them from the expectations of the masses. If Lee is defeated at his best, then the shackles of promises unspoken can't close around his wrists.

Brendan's eyes travel over to Zinnia. He's suddenly stricken by how little he knows of her as well. He knows Zinnia likes Dragons, is from a reclusive tribe up north, is an old movie buff, and many other surface-level things… But who is Zinnia Draconid, really? Who is the woman who broods and rolls an empty pokeball in her hand when she thinks no one is looking?

Well, maybe it doesn't matter. Like Lee, she's Brendan's friend, and he'll make sure he and his pokemon are strong enough for her, too.

Brendan looks over to Marshtomp, his best friend and partner in this journey across Hoenn. Like the brother he never had, Marshtomp is simply so in-tune with Brendan that, when they lock eyes, the boy knows they're thinking the same thing.

Dad never said it aloud, but his actions after abandoning the Ever Grande Conference are clear as day:

Friends and family are everything.

The young Birch's gaze once more finds its way to Lee.

And because of that, I will defeat you.

"Alright baby girl, hit it!"

Shinx puffs her cheeks out in concentration, her fur sparking yellow, especially around the multimeter probes touching her ears. Lee glances down at the multimeter sitting in his lap as the meter's insulated probes quickly grow warm in his hands. "Goodness. Forty thousand volts at fifteen milliamps…" He whistles. "Okay, Shinx. That's enough."

Shinx cuts off her electrical current as Lee takes the probes away, setting them down next to him in the grass before taking a moment to wipe the sweat off his brow.

"Merow?" The kitten looks up at Lee with big, sparkling eyes.

"Wonderful work, baby girl," Lee smiles and reaches a hand out, rubbing her under the chin and earning him a heart-warming purr. "You're getting so strong all of a sudden. I don't know why Brendan and Zinnia are worried about me when I have you around."

Shinx beams under the praise. Quite literally, in fact. Her luminescent yellow eyes shine with a captivating gold light that's visible even in the bright sunlight. She presses her head into Lee's hand, purring all the while.

'Forty thousand volts at fifteen milliamps. That's enough to put a burly man on his ass, or even kill someone with a weak heart.' Lee breathes out an amazed sigh. 'In just a few weeks, her electrical powers have gone from unpleasant static zap to totally incapacitating… for a human, at least.'

A week after Brendan's gym battle finds Lee and company in one of Lavaridge's parks. Other people are out and about, with kids and pokemon playing in the field while parents chatter by the picnic tables off to the side. A few other trainers are going about some light training of their own, and thankfully no one wants to bug him or Shinx.

Brendan and Marshtomp are out near the center of the field, quickly endearing themselves to the local children with Marshtomp's Water Gun playing the role of a sprinkler on this hot day. Breloom is using the distraction to leisurely dig through Brendan's bag, munching on anything that looks edible. Electrike, meanwhile, is off to the side playing with a few other younger pokemon under Mawile's watchful eye. The younger pokemon are simply awed by how large the electric pup is.

Courtney is further away, engaged in a battle with a teenage trainer. It's clear Courtney's foe didn't expect the reclusive-looking woman to be a challenge, but the young trainer's Croagunk is sweating and barely keeping out of the way of Courtney's Mightyena. Even if Courtney is being mercifully lenient, the match's outcome is already a foregone conclusion.

Zinnia is absent, waiting impatiently at the Pokemon Center for her Tyrunt, which is due to be delivered today. Upon acquiring Tyrunt, Zinnia will take the "rarest pokemon in the group" title from Lee and Ninetales.

Grovyle and Octillery were released into Lee's care just two days ago, both with light-duty advisories. Grovyle, ever dutiful, decided to rest in his ball, staying on standby with Lee when not otherwise needed. He's recovering quickly, though his appearance remains rather lop-sided with his burned wrist-leaves still regrowing.

Lee had once more offered to teach the gecko how to read alongside Octillery, but he hesitated, and then declined, much to Lee's befuddlement.

Octillery, who is driven up the wall when sitting idle, was left back at the hotel. Having tired of doing all his research and projects on his phone, Lee had splurged a little and bought a laptop for himself, which was left with Octillery today. In mere days, the octopus had grasped the basics of reading and writing enough that he began to crave something more stimulating. After a night of learning the basics of using a computer and memorizing Lee's credentials for the Rustboro Trainer School's online learning website, Octillery could safely be left to his own devices.

Poor Ninetales is set to be released today, then left on light duty for an entire week, much to her chagrin. Even if they're never truly apart, Lee had stopped in to visit her every single day. In the back of his mind, Lee can feel the great fox lightly dozing on her hospital bed.

That has left Shinx receiving nearly all of Lee's attention for a solid week, and seeing as he had nothing else to do and he couldn't put off Shinx growing up forever, they finally began some light training for the little Electric-type. To Lee's silent lamentations, her training has confirmed his worst fears.

In just a month and a half, she's left the clumsy kitten stage and is taking her first steps into the overly-curious juvenile stage. It's a part of a feline's life that Aasir back at the zoo made damn sure Lee was familiar with.

Looking down at Shinx, Lee lets his hand wander from her chin up to her cheek and short muzzle. With his thumb, he strokes one of the tufts of fur on the side of her face.

She'll be the third cub he's raised by hand.

Something in Lee's chest clenches painfully. They're gone. They're gone and they're not coming back.


Lee sucks in a sharp breath and blinks, wondering when he spaced out. Looking back down, he sees Shinx looking back up at him with worry in her big, gold eyes. With an inward sigh, Lee goes to curse at himself only to stop himself short. 'Remember what Mable said. Don't put yourself down over things you can't control, and talk with someone if you need to…' Lee composes himself and smiles back down at Shinx. "Ah, I forgot how in-tune with emotions young pokemon are. Don't mind me, Shinx. I was just thinking about some things, is all."

Shinx says nothing in reply, but she does crawl into Lee's lap and looks up at him, blinking once.

Lee snorts ruefully. "Don't worry yourself over it, baby girl. I won't mope around you anymore."

The kitten flicks her tail once, still staring up at him as if waiting for him to explain.

'Ah, to hell with it. You'll feel better by saying something, and Shinx is so young she won't remember this.'

"...You weren't my first baby, you know?" Lee strokes Shinx across her back with two fingers, talking more at her than to her. "You're the third. You would have been the fourth if… things had worked out for the best." The zoologist takes a deep breath in and out. "Zefu and Suburi were like you, these little cubs I helped raise. I loved them like nothing else, but they aren't… around anymore, making you my last."

Lee looks down at Shinx again, who is still staring at him with her wide, innocent eyes. "You look just like them, and for a while, I wondered if I made the right choice by taking you, baby girl. Was I trying to fill the hole they left behind? I don't know, but I do know I was worrying myself sick wondering if I would do a good job raising you, wondering if you'd get big and strong." Lee smiles and scratches Shinx near the base of her tail, making her arch her back and shut her eyes with a contented purr. "Well, here you are, doing fine. That's probably more you than me, but I'm thankful regardless." He scratches a little harder. "I love you, baby girl."

Shinx's purr grows, and she nuzzles her head into Lee's stomach.

'You should give yourself more credit, Beloved,' Ninetales' groggy 'voice' echoes through his head. 'Shinx went from a premature waif fated to be as fragile as spun glass to just a few pounds underweight in the span of fifty days. In another fifty, no one will be able to tell she's ever been anything but a model of picture-perfect health.'

'Perhaps, but I credit her for tolerating all my meddling and therapy,' Lee sends back. 'I'm sorry if I woke you up.'

'If you want to apologize for doing so, you can come and check me out of the Pokemon Center,' Ninetales says dryly. 'I've been ready to leave since day one.'

Lee closes his eyes and taps a little deeper into Ninetales, gauging how she's feeling.

Her broken hindleg is free of its cast. Her ribs, although tender, don't hurt. Her blown-out eardrum is as good as new, and her hearing on both sides is back to 100%. Her burns are healed, though her regrowing fur is thin in some places. Most importantly, the bone-deep weariness is gone, replaced with a pent-up energy yearning to be free of the Pokemon Center.

'We're on our way.' Lee nods and looks down at Shinx. "C'mon, girl. Let's go pick up Ninetales."

Shinx's eyes light up at Ninetales' name, and with a little wiggle, she hops up and drapes herself across Lee's shoulders like she'd seen Vulpix do a thousand times.

After packing up the multimeter, his new and marginally filled notebook, and a charred, cut-up poke-doll that Shinx was honing her Thundershock and Scratch attacks on, Lee shoulders his bag and stands. Rather than yell over the dull roar of the park, Lee quickly sends Brendan and Courtney a text message each saying he's heading to the Center and starts off.

During the walk to the Center, Lee hesitantly unlocks his phone and opens his emails.

24 New Emails.

Lee clicks his tongue. Weeks after Ninetales' evolution and eight days after their dramatic win at the Gym, Lee is still getting barraged by emails. Some are obvious spam, some seem like real offers for various sponsorships that become one-sided when scrutinized, and some are just nonsense. Easily 90% of what he was sent was either ignored or politely declined, with a decent chunk of that remaining 10% being sent off to Monty for a better response than Lee could come up with.

Monty, the Hoenn Pokemon Lab's PR manager, is an older gentleman that Nigel has been friends with for years. He was a nice enough guy during the call that the professor had arranged so they could meet each other, and has so far proven himself to be exceptionally competent at turning away pointed questions.

Lee had forwarded the man an email from a gossip rag that wanted to interview him, one heavily implying Lee was using stimulants of dubious legality on his pokemon. Monty shut down the entire conversation in a heartbeat, giving them a sterile, diplomatic denial with no room for misinterpretation. He ended with the implication that the League itself might be displeased with the accusation leveled at Lee.

No article was ever published by the newsgroup.

In light of some of the other emails he's getting, ones with business offers, Lee bit the bullet several days back and contacted a Rustboro-based lawyer to keep on retainer. Finding a lawyer had been a surprising pain, as many declined without even speaking to him. It took a while before he realized why.

To a lawyer, a client with a vengeful, mind-reading pokemon is a nightmare come to life.

Amanda Keller, a young woman only a year older than Lee, finally took up the job for a modest (or at least modest for a lawyer) monthly retainer. The law firm she works for in Rustboro has a good reputation, and although Amanda herself has only been on the job for a year and some change, she's won nearly all of her legal battles and was willing to take on a high-risk client like Lee. Keeping her on retainer is risky with his sometimes unstable income, Lee thinks, but not having a lawyer on speed dial doesn't seem like an option anymore.

'Being a trainer is expensive….'

Lee opens his emails and begins scrolling. 'Let's sort them now and be done with it for today.'

Spam, spam, invite to a spammy-looking BattleNet group that he declines, a new post in Fox Friday, spam, new posts in his BattleNet mega-thread… Really just a whole lot of nothing.

There are a few that seem interesting. One is from a company called Junesoft Entertainment, which wants to license his and his pokemon's names and images for what looks like a mobile gacha game in return for a decent monthly sum. Another from a company called HoD Group is asking for more or less the same thing, just for their brand of trading cards and figurines. More money can never hurt, so Lee forwards both to his lawyer to scan for any red flags.

'Gah. Six months ago, my biggest concern was what I was having for dinner. Now it's navigating business deals and keeping an eye out for eco-terrorists.' Lee grunts. 'When did life get so complicated?'

'Such is the burden of the extraordinary,' Ninetales chimes in, a mental giggle punctuating her words. 'If they make video game characters of us, insist on you and I being the highest rarity there is. I won't settle for less.' After a moment, Ninetales continues. 'Lee, Magma may be making a move soon. We'll be investigating Mount Chimney in accordance with 'canon', correct?'

Lee hesitates, turning his body so a Rhydon carrying a child on his shoulders can slip by on the sidewalk. 'We can look. If we don't find anything, then Ash and his friends probably will when they stop by Lavaridge, and it'll be taken care of then.'

Ninetales' reply is the curious sensation of a telepathic nod.

With the Pokemon Center in sight, Lee dismisses the rest of his junk mail and glances at BattleNet, finding little of importance. Fox Friday is once more hosting a little event, asking posters to share a little-known fox fact. 'This probably isn't well known.'

Today at 12:50 PM
L_Henson: Ninetales (Sample size of 1. Counted by touch. Unknown margin of error) have sixty (60) vertebrae per tail, checked and double-checked, for a total of five hundred and forty (540) when all the tails are added up.

Multiple people are typing…

Lee locks his phone and slips it into his pocket as he steps inside the Pokemon Center. With no line at the front desk, he's free to walk up to Nurse Joy—who is busy typing away at her computer from her place seated behind the desk. "Good afternoon, Nurse Joy. I'm here to check a patient out."

The nurse looks up, a smile on her face. "Good afternoon, Mister Henson. I'll have someone bring Miss Ninetales out. In the meantime…" She hits a button on her keyboard, and the printer under her desk spits out several forms. Taking the forms, a pen from an assortment within a mug on her desk, and a little bacon-looking treat from a jar by the mug, Joy hands the papers and pen to Lee. "Here is Miss Ninetales' release forms and her continued recovery plan," she says, offering the treat to a delighted Shinx, who gobbles it up and leaves crumbs on Lee's sleeve.

By the time Lee has signed everything and handed the papers back to Joy, a young nurse in scrubs has emerged from the doors leading deeper into the Center with a pokeball in her hands. Walking up to Lee, she presents the ball with a smile.

"Thank you." Lee smiles and takes the proffered ball.

"Take care, Mister Henson!" Nurse Joy says goodbye with a wave.

Looking around the Pokemon Center, Lee quickly finds Zinnia sitting on a couch in the corner impatiently bouncing one of her legs. The Dragon Tamer glances at the clock on the wall and sighs.

Upon making his way over, Lee sits down next to Zinnia, surprising her into looking at him. "No Tyrunt?" he asks.

"Not yet," Zinnia scowls. "I was told 'noon', and guess what happened?" she asks snarkily, pointing at the clock. "Still nothing."

Lee looks up at the clock as well. The hands tell him it's just now one o'clock in the afternoon. "Hmm. What region is your contact in?"


"Orre's timezone is three hours behind Hoenn."

Zinnia groans. "Cool…" She crosses her arms and grumbles. "So I'm here way early…" She reins in her annoyance and looks at the pokeball in Lee's hand. "How is Miss Fox?"

In response, Lee just hits the button of Ninetales' ball.

With a flash of light, Ninetales materializes, sitting regally with her tails fanned out behind her before Lee, Shinx, and Zinnia… though the effect is ruined by the places where her burned-away fur is thin and in the process of regrowing.

Ninetales looks down at the spots where Lee's eyes linger, a frown on her muzzle.

'I'll trim your coat a bit soon, Love. It'll cover the worst of it,' he silently promises. 'You're still the most beautiful pokemon around regardless.'

Ninetales' frown eases. It vanishes when Shinx leaps down from Lee's shoulders to rub herself against Ninetales' front legs lovingly.

Zinnia nods slowly, looking up and down Ninetales' form. "Well, it could've been worse. Do you think you've recovered enough to put a Dragon throwing a tantrum in his place?"

The golden fox raises an eyebrow, and Lee turns to Zinnia asking Ninetales' unspoken question. "Can we get some elaboration on that?"

"I'll be all too happy to fix your ignorance on the topic," Zinnia jabs with a smirk. "Do you know how dragons, capital 'D' Dragons, run their relationships?"

"I… can't say I do," Lee admits with a blink.

Dragons, like Fairies, aren't very well-documented. Dragon Tamers keep their secrets close to their chests to make their powerful pokemon that much harder to counter. There is more myth than fact out there.

"Dragons crave social structure, and that structure is based on a strength-driven hierarchy," Zinnia begins, tapping Shelgon's ball. "They want a pack, sometimes called a Flight — or a Thunder depending on who you ask — and a role in that Flight. Naturally, the alpha spot is the one they all want since it comes with prestige and guaranteed mating rights. A Dragon coming into a new Flight must challenge the strongest pokemon for their spot. Normally, a Dragon will fall in line after taking a harsh enough loss, but a sore loser might just try to assume control of a neighboring group as a vassal of sorts, so… Jeez, Dolittle…" Zinnia snorts and tries to hide a smirk as she peers down at Lee's hands. "You're such a nerd."

"Hmm?" Lee looks down at his notebook, unsure when he pulled it out, but Zinnia's explanation is already written word for word there. He crosses out the unconsciously written 'Jeez, Dolittle, you're such a nerd'. "Well, I'm not going to apologize. This is fascinating stuff! Please, keep going."

"Right, right." Zinnia composes herself. "Anyway, vassal groups. A sore loser Dragon who can't secure the alpha or beta spots in a Flight might take over a weaker Flight and use them as a vassal to their main Flight. A greedy alpha might even send Dragons under them to go do this on purpose. Some Dragons have made some impressive kingdoms in the past, spanning dozens of Flights and hundreds of individuals beholden to a central Emperor Flight in a big social web."

'Wouldn't that kingdom inevitably fall due to infighting?' Ninetales asks skeptically. She flicks her heart-marked ear. 'If the primary way to move up socially is with violence, it just incentivizes the hidden consolidation of personal power and a culture of backstabbing.'

When Lee repeats Ninetales' question, Zinnia shakes her head. "Not really. Most Dragons are just born with a concept of honor, understanding that before any other emotion, so they don't do backstabbing. A challenge from a Dragon is unmistakable. Besides, Dragons grow fastest when put under pressure, and the pressure of keeping your underlings in line and your crown safe is immense."

'That paints a frightful picture…' Lee can already imagine how Dragon-types have snowballed their way into being considered the most powerful type. If the strongest Dragons get stronger just by being strong, and they're almost certain to find a mate, it turns into an infinite feedback loop.

"The reason why I ask is because Tyrunts are fighty little things," Zinnia continues. "When Shelgon puts my little dino in his place, he's not going to take that sitting down and is going to pester Ninetales and Marshtomp. When he does, make it clear he's not going to get a foothold, okay?"

"We can do that," Lee agrees, closing his notebook. "That's some really interesting stuff, Zinnia. I'd like to hear more if you get time."

Zinnia raises an eyebrow. "Huh. I thought a mammal-focused trainer like you wouldn't be… Ah, what am I saying, of course you'd find Dragons cool." She shakes her head with a small smile.

"You call me a nerd and then think I wouldn't be interested in pokemon social structures?" Lee scoffs. "That'd be like a Dragon tamer not being interested in raising an ancient reptile back from the dead."

"Okay, okay, get off my back," Zinnia grumbles. Her red eyes scan around, then she levels Lee with a serious look. "Lee, I was tipped off that Magma might be operating in the area," she says, her voice quiet. "I…I'm not going to ask that you look with me, but I wanted to inform you that I'll be scouting Lavaridge and Mount Chimney for them. I have no idea why they're here, but…"

Lee and Ninetales share a look, time seemingly slowing as they converse. 'What I want to know-' begins Ninetales, '-is why Zinnia is so interested in Magma. She's never stated a reason. She's apparently been using clandestine, perhaps even illegal, sources for information and supplies. I don't see how it could be related to her stated goal of being the Draconid Lorekeeper.' Ninetales' suspicion is as plain as it is distrusting.

'Neither do I,' Lee agrees. 'There must be some reason, though. Zinnia is a hothead, but when she sits and thinks things through, she can be surprisingly shrewd. I doubt this obsession with Magma is something baseless. I mean, we know for a fact they're trying to unbalance the entire world! I think that counts towards the goal of keeping her tribe safe.'

'Yes, we know what Magma's aims are because of meta-knowledge. Zinnia already implied that she knows what they're up to, but if she knows, why wage a single-woman crusade when she has a tribe of Dragon Tamers as backup? Why not tip off League officials as you did? Something isn't adding up,' Ninetales insists. When Lee has no answer, Ninetales relents ever so slightly. 'Before we commit to anything, I have to insist we ask why she's pursuing them so dogmatically.'

The conversation passes in a tenth of a second, and Lee returns his attention to the woman next to him. "Zinnia… What's with this thing you have for Magma and Aqua? I get that they're eco-terrorists and up to no good, but why are you so personally invested in this?" Lee crosses his arms. "I appreciate the warning, and I'm not going to let you wander into danger alone, but I'd like to know why you're doing this."

Zinnia hesitates, looking away and biting her lip. "Lee… it's complicated. I don't want to say, because I don't want you to get caught up in this."

"It's a little late for that now," Lee shoots back. "We're already going to sniff around for Magma and we've got one of their admins under surveillance."

"Caught up in the deeper parts, I mean," Zinnia snaps back. She takes a deep breath and calms herself, looking around to make sure no one is looking their way. "There is a lot at play beyond Magma and Aqua. I really do not want to explain, because if I do, I know you'll get tangled up in this mess even worse, and…" She gives Lee a tired look. "I don't want to push more onto your plate, Lee. You've got your own things to worry about, and I've got mine, okay? Some things are better left unsaid."

"Deeper parts, deeper than what crackpot eco-terrorists are up to, hmm?" Lee frowns. "You're not doing anything to alleviate my concern, here."

Zinnia leans back into the couch, her face falling into something… lost? Afraid? She takes a pokeball from her belt and rolls it in her fingers. After a minute of silence, she speaks up, quiet and unsure. "You and Brendan are the first friends I've had outside of my pokemon since Aster died…" Zinnia says, voice little higher than a whisper. "I don't like keeping you in the dark, but I have to for your own good. I know your type, Lee. If I explain, you'll invite yourself along even if you don't want to. Even if you know it could kill you."

Lee's skin breaks out into goosebumps as Ninetales' hackles rise. At Ninetales' feet, Shinx stares up at Zinnia.

Zinnia stares down at the pokeball in her hand and presses the button. The ball pops open, and no pokemon comes out. She closes it again with a sigh. "If you really want to know…" Zinnia's eyes lock Lee in place. "…then think about it until we get to the Draconid stronghold outside of Fallarbor, okay?" She puts the empty ball away. "I need to work up the nerve to talk, and you need the time to consider it. If you still want to know…" Zinnia clenches her fists on her knees. "Then I'll tell you. I promise."

Silently, Lee nods. "My answer won't change, but take however much time you need."

Zinnia gives him a tired smile, then rises from her seat with a dramatic flourish of her cloak. She stretches her arms over her head. "Alrighty! Enough doom and gloom! I saw a Johto sashimi place down the road, and if my pokemon isn't going to be here for another two hours, then lunch is in order!" She grins. "For upsetting your best gal pal, you can pay for her lunch!"

"But Ninetales isn't upset."

Lee earns a slug to the arm for the comment. Apparently, Zinnia doesn't care for being hit with the same joke twice in a week.

Below are the names of some patrons who got to view this chapter early and felt like signing it. A huge thanks to them and everyone else who supports this story and everything else I write.

Tyric Gaias, WiseKitsune21, cjmRAZOR, GreenPhoenix, Spice_King, Drew6, Planetace, Spasminos, Superbuchi, Dicloniuslord, Green0Photon, Peter D., speedyzman13 That1sungod, Emeraldleafeon, Cat, ShaRose, Malecoda, Maladictus, Murtaugh, rizen, TitaniumPhoenix, OpN, Autocharth, M0och, Fabhar, Firefox, Azunth, creativityfails, Timmser, Arcaryx, Hazel Kings MephisASDF, Tzeneth, Dusks_Lantern, Zany Old Coot, Weedle, TheTankiestTrain, Moonlit Chaser, Vargos, Ash The Kitsune, Purple Floof, Paul O.K., Miho Chan,r Gey, Spencer S., Bradthebugguy, Emilowish, RaptorusMaxiumus, Rakkis157, Lucaman_P, Sean T, HGC, Derpydude9001, Ard0ur8, AMeek, Tim M., Bunny Waffles, Berusella, KingDeDeD e11, SleepyKamo, 7enebriss, Thelon, Rikky-Rolls, Moxie, Hayashi, HappyNap, Zaphir, Javidom, BrokenOlive, Casual, Majora, CMDR Dantae, Strongraider101, Cynicals, MidnightJayguar, x, Aegi , Frog, Ray, Buff Alex A