Notes: More flashbacks, and more spoilers for Brine Cave.
"...Do you think... he'll hate us now?"
Startled, Ichigo whirled to face her best friend. Laramie wasn't even looking at her; the grass-type was too focused on the ground, trudging along with his gaze locked downward and his mind lost on a far nastier route.
"What? No way!"
"But this was for the Guildmaster... The Guildmaster's... mmnh." He still didn't know what Chatot had said back then, but a dismayed grunt seemed to fill the void well enough. "His very important mmnnph."
Brow and bandanna furrowing, Ichigo reminded him, "But it's not our fault! Team Skull ate all the Perfect Apples!"
...Or, at least, the ones they might have been able to reach. Despite Laramie's resignment after Skuntank and his flunkies had escaped, Ichigo had insisted they at least try and find some apples. But the poisonous trio had been very thorough; all of the lower boughs and branches had been picked clean. Though there might have been some left higher up, none of their current team were exactly built for climbing. Ichigo's build came the closest to what they needed, but there was always that flame on her tail to worry about... In the end, she'd decided not to risk it. No sense taking the chance of setting something ablaze while trying to claw her way up... The Guildmaster might be sad to hear they'd failed, but that was better than having to report they'd accidentally torched the trees.
"We'll just explain what happened. So don't worry. When he hears what those guys did, Chatot'll know what to do!"
"...Are you sure...?"
Laramie still didn't look too convinced, so Ichigo smiled brightly, giving him a playful little nudge. The poor guy was so negative sometimes...! He didn't need to be so hard on himself all the time...
But it was okay. Once Chatot heard about this, Team Skull was in for one nasty wake-up call. And it wasn't like they could just lie about it, either - for one thing, they all still reeked. One sniff and Chatot'd know they'd run into some stink-spraying pokémon, and none of Apple Woods' fauna qualified. So when he found out what happened...
"C'mon! Let's hurry!"
With that, she picked up the pace, trusting he'd follow. Sure enough, the grass-type soon matched her, and their companions hurried along after them as they made their way out of the mystery dungeon. Laramie still looked concerned, but at least he was smiling again, however wanly.
The sooner they got back, the sooner they could explain everything, and Chatot would help fix things. So they hadn't gotten any apples; that couldn't be helped. What could be helped, though, was Laramie's self-confidence. Once Chatot reassured him that the world wouldn't come to an end just because they hadn't finished a mission due to circumstances beyond their control...
But that hadn't happened, had it?
He hadn't listened. And he never would listen, because that would require him actually caring about what they had to say. Not very likely. She got that much now.
The tentacools, staryus, dragonairs and walrein around here didn't really have anything to do with them. They just made a great way to vent.
Two words. Just two words, and she'd have let it go. Heck, even just one word and she'd have been happy. But no. As much as he loved running his beak off, he couldn't manage a single 'sorry'.
And what had she gotten instead?
"I don't have anything to apologize for!"
She'd flat-out told him not to patronize her, and that was how he reacted? By being even more of a self-absorbed jerk?
"If anything, you should be apologizing - I mean, honestly!"
In other words, not only did her opinion not matter, but he expected her to beg his forgiveness just for subjecting him to it. Like she had no right to want an apology for how he'd treated her - treated them. It didn't matter that he'd screwed up; in his mind, expecting him to acknowledge his mistakes was much worse.
What a creep. What a total, unashamed jerk. No wonder he'd gotten along so well with Team Skull - and that the only thing he cared about now was how they'd - gasp! - insulted him. Everything else they'd done just couldn't compare to that crime, apparently.
A staryu spun towards her from the right; digging her feet into the dirt, she took the blow, then slammed a fist right into its blinking jewel. There was something oddly satisfying about the jagged furrow left in its wake as it skidded away.
Turning, she automatically smiled at her partner. Laramie didn't smile back. Instead, a vine slipped into their satchel and pulled out a berry, which he thrust before her nose.
"Here." Not quite a command, and the resolve in his eyes was tempered by more than a little worry. That was what made her accept the offering more than anything else.
Plus, she had to admit - privately - that she probably needed the pick-me-up. Biting the berry in half, she almost couldn't contain a slight shiver as the refreshing flavors washed over her tongue. For a second, she was more acutely aware of her wounds; each scratch and scrape seemed to tingle briefly before fading back to being less noticeable.
"Thanks..." and her smile was still automatic, but with a touch more behind it. This one he returned, though his faded quickly back into concern.
"...Hope he's doing okay..."
Ichigo knew she shouldn't feel irritated by that. Laramie was just being... well, Laramie. Always worrying about others, always second-guessing himself... wondering if he could do better... So it wasn't surprising he was worried about that stupid bird. Never mind that, if their positions were reversed, Chatot clearly wouldn't worry about them...
"He'll be fine. Don't worry so much," she soothed, clapping a hand on the back of his bulb.
"But... I don't think he has any berries or anything, and..."
"Then he'll probably pick up stuff along the way. Not like this cave's totally empty, you know."
"...I know..." Shuffling his feet, Laramie insisted, "But I still..."
"Hey, he's been here before, right? Probably knows his way around better than we do." Not that his experience had been all that helpful when they were together, but Ichigo knew better than to point that out right then. "And if he really needs help, he'll probably just track down some of the others."
"...You think so...?"
"Yup! Now, we should get moving ourselves, right?"
Once more she took the lead. From the moment Laramie had pointed out that opening on the beach and she stepped in ahead of him, they'd always traveled like this: Ichigo taking point while her partner followed right on her heels. While the bulbasaur was braver than he gave himself credit for, he was also much more comfortable with long-distance fighting; Volleys of sharp leaves and balls of verdant energy were his forte; close combat spiced with the odd flame torrent was more her style.
So it was only natural that she stick with what worked and forge ahead, heedless of whatever challenges might lie up ahead. So what if she might have a bit of a disadvantage in such wet terrain? Wasn't like Laramie couldn't just lob some shots past her if need be.
Chatot had nothing whatsoever to do with it.
She wasn't worried about him. Definitely not.
Actually, his being gone was great! Stupid bird'd thrown off their rhythm before. Bad enough they'd been stuck with a so-called 'guide'; in practice, she'd still been up in front most of the time, but their much-vaunted head of intelligence kept wedging himself between them, bubbling with unwanted advice and constant criticism.
"Careful, now! You're at a big disadvantage here! Don't get yourself soaked!"
"Ah, don't forget to pick those up!"
"I'm sure this isn't the right way. Come on! Don't waste time!"
"SQUAWK! Watch your tail, Ichigo! You almost hit me!"
Annoying bird. Hardly ever shut up, and never thought to actually listen to anyone else...
Ahead of them, the narrow pathway opened up into a wider patch of dryer ground, littered with trinkets and treasures. ...A few too many for her liking. The whole setup reeked of somebody's lair, or worse: an actual set-up.
Did wild pokémon ever intentionally try to lure travelers in? Ambush-happy outlaws didn't count, but Ichigo wasn't entirely clear on just where all the random mons they met in dungeons came from, either. Most were probably native to the general area, but did they just live here...? Or did they come in looking for a challenge, just like the explorers...?
...Either way, she didn't feel like risking it. If it was just her and Laramie, or if they had teammates she trusted, then maybe... but that was a moot point now.
"C'mon. We'll find another way."
Turning in tight spaces was tricky enough at the best of times; having wings fluttering against the side of her face wasn't helping much. Ichigo very pointedly didn't look at him while squeezing past, not wanting to deal with any feathers in her eyes.
He tensed up against her. She ignored it, focusing instead on getting to her partner. The bulbasaur was already backing up obligingly, clearing enough space.
"Honestly, we've been down all those paths already, so this is obviously our way forward..."
Suddenly, she was acutely aware of empty space behind her; glancing past her, Laramie's mouth dropped open, forming the start of a warning - too late. She didn't even have to turn to see what was happening, but whirled about anyway, furious.
No time for more than that. Already company was crawling out to greet them, growling and grumbling over the disturbance. Reaching into the satchel round her partner's neck, Ichigo rummaged without looking until her claws closed around smooth, cool glass. Thankfully, they hadn't brought many orbs, so she didn't have to waste time checking what she'd snagged before letting it fly.
Heh. Square in the back. Served him right.
One burst of light later and she had a fraction more room to work with - and immediately spent it backing up, sealing off the path back to her pals with her own body. Ideally, she would've liked a little more leeway; say, enough to put some nice, solid walls on either side of her as well. That was normally how she played crowd control.
But Chatot was right behind her, and the stupid bird wasn't budging.
Okay, then. She could do this.
Even with Laramie too far back to effectively cover her, thanks to a certain parrot blocking the way, she could do this.
Even without somebody reliable like Yuko at her back - or Marcy to go charging into the center of things and play distraction-slash-cleanup - she could do this.
Even with tentacools spitting acid, kinglers snapping their claws, and beady-eyed omanyte spitting water at all sides...
Right. Just focus on what's in front of you at any given moment, Ichi.
Of course she was outmatched; she knew it, and these wild ones clearly knew it too. She didn't need Chatot's screeching 'advice' to realize it.
'Move', he said - where to?
Despite half-expecting it, the dual blasts of disturbingly warm foam washing over from behind still made her shriek - water wasn't supposed to make cuts sting like that, wasn't supposed to hurt...
Black spots burst like bubbles before her eyes, only partly dispelled by another burst of light. Though her body was still screaming at her, Ichigo ignored it, throwing herself headlong back into battle. All those lingering aches and pains could wait until there wasn't any immediate threat of more coming her way.
And when it was all said and done, what did she hear?
"You should be more careful! You just can't take on the world alone, you know!"
It took almost all the self-control she had left not to snipe back that with someone like him at her back, she had to.
He wouldn't have listened, anyway.
Had he ever listened? Nothing immediately came to mind. Maybe when they'd first signed up, he might have been open to questions, but for all she knew, he just recited some bog-standard basics and expected that to be the end of it. Certainly he wasn't there to help when they needed it.
They were better off without him. The whole Guild would be better off without him. How anyone put up with him - how Wigglytuff dealt with the condescending know-it-all - was beyond her.
Caught up in her thoughts, the lizard took the steps before her two and three at a time, hardly paying them any attention. Behind her, Laramie moved more slowly, picking his way down.
"...Ack, it's so humid..." he murmured, more to himself than to her. He shook his head, then abruptly perked up. "Hey, you hear that...?"
She hadn't. Now that it'd been pointed out to her, though, the groaning was impossible to ignore. Sounded too low-pitched to be him, but...
Laramie clambered after her; dimly, she could hear him struggling to catch up, but the moaning and muttering up ahead was more important. That annoying bird; if he'd only just-!
Ichigo stopped short, giving her partner more than ample time to catch up while she drank in the tableau before them. Now the lower pitch made a bit more sense, even if the scene itself was taking its time to properly process.
"...Ah! It's Team Skull!"
Boy, was it ever. Didn't look much like themselves at the moment, though. Still, Ichigo couldn't help thinking this actually suited them better in some ways. The creeps deserved to be wallowing in the mud, bruised and bloodied with some of that hot air finally knocked out of them.
...Maybe not this much, though.
"W...what happened?" Paling, Laramie stumbled on with his own theory: "D-did you get ambushed by a bunch of mysterious pokémon? O-or maybe..."
"Whoa-ho... You knew about that?" Koffing's voice cracked, yet oddly he sounded more amused than annoyed. "Would've been good to know that..."
"Not that you'd... tell us... heh-heh."
Ichigo found herself averting her gaze from the bat - or rather, from his wing. Or what was left of it. She heard Laramie fussing over Skuntank, and the surprise beneath his sarcastic reply, but half-tuned it out in favor of scanning their surroundings. If whatever had done this to them was still around...
...If it came back, she wasn't looking forward to staging a fight here. Not with these three lying in the way. Oh, they probably wouldn't be stupid enough to try anything - then again, this was Team Skull they were dealing with. A wounded, beaten Team Skull, but still the same monsters who got a kick out of kicking them around. She couldn't completely write off their chances of a backstab.
Movement caught her eye, and she saw the relic fragment roll back to rest by their feet.
"Whoops. It slipped."
Funny how Skuntank was normally better at faking than that.
Still, that was one last thing to worry about. Better than having to pry it out of his paws while Laramie looked on and fretted about hurting him. Not exactly the sort of grand confrontation she'd been expecting, but...
"...should be worried about Chatot instead."
"...!" Involuntarily, she snapped around to stare at the skunk. "What?"
"He went deeper... He's going after those enemies..." Meeting her gaze with a lopsided leer, he prompted, "You two should get going, too."
Like she needed him to tell her what to do.
"Yeah, I know!" Scooping up his treasure, Laramie cradled it with a vine while sliding it into their knapsack. "S-Skuntank, you... you be careful, too! Be sure and get out!"
"Chaw... Don't patronize me, brat."
"Tsh." Feeling her lip curl, Ichigo sniped, "Just give us a yell if you need help getting up, 'kay? This shouldn't take long."
With that, she charged past them, knowing Laramie would be right behind her. ...And that the stupid bird was dead ahead, too. Hopefully he hadn't gotten himself killed already. She wasn't relishing the thought of having to explain that to the Guildmaster...