A/N: Here we are again. I've been productive recently, haven't I? *grins*
So. Here's the long-awaited re-post for Heart of the Magma. To some old readers, welcome back and I hope to keep you as entertained as I (hopefully) did with the first version.
Firstly, let's get all those pesky disclaimers out of the way :P I don't own Pokémon (although I have claimed Lance ) and I also want to credit Coronis for some of the names in here. I use a mixture of the manga-, anime- and game-verses, and some of the manga character names in here are from Coronis' synopses as opposed to the published volumes.
Next, I should apologise for the length -_-;; somehow I managed to almost double the original word count, which means I'll have to publish it in three posts... kind of long for a one-shot, I know, but it really isn't supposed to be divided into chapters.
Umn... I think that's all, except to say that it's rated PG-13 for some violence.
~ HEART OF THE MAGMA ~
A baby’s crying, wailing and mournful, confused and frightened. It cut straight to the heart of everyone who heard it, making them pause and look uneasily towards the infirmary as though they could see through rock and steel.
But it affected none more than the red-haired man striding through the roughly-cut stone corridors of his headquarters, his thin features set in an expression of apprehension, jaw set grimly as though to spur his pace. Behind him, his constant shadow and trusted agent Harland remained calm and silent in the face of potential tragedy.
Maxie hurried his step, his shoes cracking sharply on the polished tiled floor, anxious to get to the medical ward. Courtney’s transmission had mentioned some complications, but Maxie had been in an important meeting at the time and unable to leave. Even now he hardly saw the gleaming, steel-shod walls he passed, instead seeing the pale face of his pleading wife, her huge blue eyes wide in the that expression which always broke his will.
She was like a mother to every man and woman under his command, the one who reassured them when they failed or visited them in the sick bay. More than that; she was the base psychologist, knew more about their minds than anyone else, understood them like only a parent could.
But notwithstanding the many ‘children’ she already had under her wing she wanted one of her own, even despite the danger, the warnings of their chief medical officer, and Maxie had never been able to deny her…
The crying which echoed throughout the base stopped, leaving a looming, ominous silence, and Maxie’s heart leapt to his dry mouth.
Please, let them be all right…
He was hardly aware of the prayer running through his mind or of the fact he’d begun to walk faster, his hands clenched by his sides, fingernails digging into his palms. Not far in front one of his agents rounded the corner into the main hallway, the rounded lights hanging from the stone ceiling illuminating the man’s red mantle in ripples of light and shadow as he rifled distractedly through a sheaf of papers, but upon hearing his leader’s quick step he looked up. Seeing Maxie’s expression, he stepped aside with a rustle of his grey pants, clutching the reports to his chest and grimacing in sympathy. Maxie swept by without acknowledging him – if he’d seen him at all – but Harland gave him a quick, bleak glance, enough for the agent to know that life in Team Magma was about to change – dramatically.
Absently Courtney kicked her feet against the steel base of the red-padded bench, the brilliant lights of the square room gleaming over the pink bubble she’d just blown with her gum. Her huge brown eyes were fixed worriedly on the double doors at the end of the tiled room, opposite an identical pair nearer her. The circular plexiglass was too thick to see anything from her distance and she couldn’t find it in herself to get up and look.
She almost didn’t want to know.
The silence was worse than the incessant crying of the baby, she thought unhappily, leaning forward on her tense arms, her slim fingers gripping the edge of the seat. At least then she knew someone was around, alive, but now…
Abruptly the outer doors crashed open, springing off the rock walls. Courtney’s heart leapt to her throat and she was on her feet in an instant, her hands tingling with adrenaline, her bubblegum bursting with a pop as she spun about, startled, to face the newcomer.
“Report!” Maxie barked, his thin face pale and narrow eyes piercing, and Courtney’s mouth dried. Unable to answer, she just shook her unhooded head, her short brunette hair bouncing around her heart-shaped face. Maxie’s fists clenched and he made for the operating room doors, seeming to forget about Courtney as he brushed past her. The young woman glanced anxiously around at Harland, but the Admin’s grey eyes – usually so cunning and enigmatic – were concerned, doing nothing to assuage her fears.
Maxie never reached the doors.
Three sharp gazes shot towards Bernard as the stocky, white-clad doctor came through from the next room, letting the doors swing shut behind him, his mask still tied around his neck and eyes downcast. Maxie stopped short, hands flexing tensely as the balding physician looked up with a tight, sorrowful expression and shook his head, subconsciously wiping at the powder still coating his hands from the gloves he’d worn in surgery.
No… Maxie’s chest froze, tightened to the point that he found it difficult to breathe, as though something heavy was pressing down upon him. He stood frozen, silently imploring his friend to tell him he’d been wrong, to change his verdict. Behind him Courtney turned away, one hand to her lips and shoulders shaking as she tried to suppress the tears that shone in her huge eyes.
Harland’s mouth thinned, his worried stare on the red-coated back of his stricken leader, but when he spoke his voice was low and hoarse. “What about the child?”
At that Bernard managed a faint, tired smile, eyes moving to Maxie’s grief-lined face before pushing the door open behind him and beckoning to someone inside. A moment later the head nurse emerged, eyes bright over a cradled bundle of red cloth. Instantly Maxie’s focus changed from inward anguish to the pure, pleading hope of someone who has lost something precious only to gain something else.
“She’s a strong little girl,” Bethany whispered, her caring eyes peering through wisps of white-blonde hair as she surrendered Maxie’s daughter to him, but he barely heard. Gingerly he folded the fragile child to his chest as though afraid he might break her and she met his grey eyes with bright blue ones of her own. It seemed like she recognised him, because she halted the soft whimpers which had threatened to erupt into wailing, her tiny, pudgy fingers waving.
Looking into her trusting eyes, Maxie felt the fist around his heart loosen, giving him room to breathe, and though he still ached with pain it seemed more distant and more easily borne.
With the help of his newest charge, it would soon fade entirely.
* * *
Keegan giggled to herself, clapping a small brown hand to her mouth to stifle the sound as she huddled deep into the rocky little niche. She couldn’t let Courtney find her – not yet. Not when she was having so much fun.
The little girl was nestled behind some large metal crates stacked in a corner of the spacious main hangar, her red-blonde hair tied into a messy ponytail and her jeans and T-shirt, while clean and well-kept, holding evidence of many small misadventures.
The steel-edged crates nearest to her vibrated as others were added noisily to the outer edge of the pile and Keegan automatically froze to keep anyone from seeing her. It hadn’t been there yesterday and likely wouldn’t be there tomorrow but Keegan had an incredible knack for sneaking away from her guards, eluding anyone who was likely to return her to them (read: ‘everyone’) and finding a place to hide.
That day it was Courtney’s turn. No one could say that the short-haired brunette didn’t pull her own weight, no matter how difficult Keegan got, although for some reason – far from getting the girl to behave – Courtney’s presence just seemed to encourage her.
Surveying the hangar slowly with hard, confident brown eyes, Courtney irritably fumbled with the wrapper of a piece of bubblegum. Why can’t Hank help me with this assignment? She wondered with fleeting bitterness, tossing the gum into her mouth grumpily and letting the paper drift groundward.
It was a stupid question, really. She knew why Hank didn’t help her with babysitting Keegan… but sometimes, when the little fox was being especially difficult, she didn’t think it was a good enough reason.
To his credit, though, it wasn’t from lack of offering.
Idly the voluptuous brunette walked slowly through the high room hewn out of rock, her shoes clicking on the cement floor and her long grey skirt rippling with the movement, the twin white lines on the hem marking her as an Admin. She dodged the Magma grunts unloading the broad red helicopter with the absent ease of someone who had long practice of searching busy areas, looking critically at every crate and drum she passed and wishing fervently that Tabitha, at least, was doing something useful instead of training pokémon all day.
Then she spotted a tall, familiar agent amidst the semi-ordered pathways of the supplies, his brown-haired head bowed over his papered clipboard, pen flicking absently from finger to thumb as he logged the equipment, and hope lit her chest. “Larry!” she barked, quickening her pace to reach him, hiding her glee at finding someone to suffer with her. Larry was one of the few agents in what everyone affectionately called ‘the babysitting squad’, which really just meant he was constantly on-call for babysitting duty. Most of the agents couldn’t handle kids, let alone Keegan, all the time; those that could were part of the group which frequently minded many agents’ families.
He was also one of those outside the close-knit trio of the FireHeads that Courtney called friend. Although Maxie and his Admins usually elicited a respectful – if informal – disposition from normal agents, the nature of Courtney’s task meant that her relationship with the Team was more one of camaraderie and not as a leader, since she worked so closely with them.
The thin man looked up at her call and Courtney grimaced, slowing back down as her delight faded at the lines of exhaustion on his thin face and the yawn he just managed to stifle. “Hmmm?” He blinked, rubbing his narrow eyes tiredly.
Courtney frowned. “You weren’t on duty last night,” she snapped in confusion, nettled that her plans had been thwarted. Larry was one of the most experienced in childcare – probably as a result of his days minding his nephews – so with him on her side, looking, surely they’d have been able to find Keegan in no time.
But he looked dead on his feet, which meant he’d miss things and not be much help at all.
Larry looked rueful, tapping the butt of the pen against the forms clipped to the board, covered in his scrawling handwriting. “No,” he admitted in his deep voice as the Admin crossed her arms impatiently over the grey of her dress, cinched at her waist with a leather belt, her eyes still wandering over the square shapes and busy hive that was the hangar. “But I did catch the little fox sneaking down corridor 3-02A in the dead of night and figured she’d slipped past the sentry again. Led me a merry chase; must’ve been a fair few hours before I managed to catch her.”
In her hiding place not far from where they stood, Keegan winced somewhat guiltily. How was she meant to know Larry had to get up at dawn to help bring in the morning shipment?
Courtney looked at her scrawny companion sharply, squashing a twinge of amusement. What was that saying? Misery loves company? “And you’re out here, on duty, why?” she demanded, then continued on without waiting for an answer. “Get back to your quarters and get some sleep, you idiot.”
“I will when I’ve finished this,” Larry waved a hand vaguely at the neat stacks of wooden boxes, in a square formation near the secondary doors opposite the broad helipad exit. “And I’ll tell everyone to keep an eye out for the little fox; we’ve been moving equipment in and out all morning, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s snuck in here.”
Courtney ran a frustrated hand through her thick hair. “If only it were that simple,” she muttered sourly, wishing it was. “Maxie has some spare time this afternoon and he wanted me to take her up for lunch.”
As one, the pair of them turned to look at the glowing digital clock which was inset over the main double doors across the room, perpendicular to the helipad, and Larry blanched at the time. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” Courtney snapped grumpily, turning around with a whirl of her long skirt and leaving the unhooded agent behind to return to searching the crates for their ID stamps, his red-and-grey uniform rustling as he crouched to reach the boxes at the base of the stack. A second later there was the whoosh of swinging doors as a frustrated Courtney escaped the hangar.
In her hiding place behind the gleaming heap of crates, Keegan’s blue eyes widened in horror, her small hands pressed to her mouth. I forgot about lunch!
Scrambling to her feet, forgetting all about being quiet, she darted to the edge of the pile, scraping past with ease, her shoes thudding on the cement floor. She dashed around the formation of crates that Larry had been cataloguing, but her sneakers skidded on the clean floor, making her stumble and bump against the nearest stack, slipping over to land hard on her elbows.
For a moment she gritted her teeth against the jarring blow, her head swirling dizzyingly, certain the boxes were about to come tumbling down around her.
But nothing happened; so, pushing clumps of red-blonde hair out of her eyes, heart pounding with adrenaline, Keegan looked up to find Larry righting the tower, bracing his shoulder and hip against the sturdy boxes to keep it steady. Whatever was in there was clearly heavy.
Abuzz with urgency, forgetting about the sting of her elbows and hands, Keegan leapt to her feet and flashed a cheeky, somewhat apologetic grin towards the scrawny agent. “Bye, Larry!” she called breathlessly, already running as he turned around with a tiny frown to chastise her, and moments later the doors whooshed for the second time in as many minutes.
With a sigh, Larry rubbed his forehead exasperatedly with his thumb; then his weariness caught up with him and he couldn’t help but start to laugh.
Courtney strode down the uniformly rock and metal corridors, her fine features set in a deep scowl of dissatisfaction, her skirt swirling around her knees and scarlet mantle billowing behind her. Anyone who didn’t know her would have turned and run in the opposite direction upon seeing that expression – as it was, some of the newer agents hastily changed the route they’d been planning to take to their destination.
Everyone else, however, either chuckled in amusement (albeit discreetly) or grimaced in sympathy.
The little fox was nowhere to be found and Courtney was proceeding to the centre of the base, where Maxie’s office was located, to report.
Maxie wasn’t that hard a taskmaster, really; he understood that his daughter could be a handful, not at all helped by the way he doted upon her, but Courtney had personal standards to maintain.
She hated failing with a passion.
Nevertheless, when she reached the steel door, she took only a few seconds to grimace and compose herself, rearranging the scowl into something more impassive. Then she rapped sharply on the metal with her knuckles and, without waiting for an answer, pushed the heavy door open to enter the luxuriously furnished office.
She’d already opened her mouth to explain when she stopped short at the sight before her.
“Hiya Courtney, where you been?” Keegan said cheerfully as she grinned angelically at Courtney’s surprised expression, her short legs barely scraping the ground, scuffed elbows leaning on the ornately carved table.
Courtney snapped her mouth shut, avoiding Maxie’s amused eyes from across the polished surface of the dark-toned wood, and flopped down on the well-cushioned sofa behind the door, blowing an exasperated bubble. “Elbows down, little fox,” Maxie said indulgently, lips twitching at Courtney’s aggrieved expression when Keegan did so obediently, placing her hands meticulously in her lap.
The young woman caught Harland’s gaze, standing in his customary place at Maxie’s right side with his muscular arms behind his back, and rolled her eyes skyward. The grey-haired Admin’s mouth quirked up in a rarely amused smile, quickly suppressed when the plainly framed secondary doors swung open, right on time for lunch to be served.
Some of Maxie’s peers had accused him of being conceited and self-righteous, of having his underlings merely so they could cater to his every whim, but the fact was that Team Magma was comprised of more than just field agents. Every member of the Team received the same benefits, things like quality food while on base; the difference was that Maxie had a great deal more privacy.
In Harland’s opinion, what people like that couldn’t understand was the fact that Maxie didn’t hold his agents through force or bribery. If they wanted to leave to work their skills elsewhere – and there were plenty of places they could go: the Magma’s smaller rivals, for one, the Elites, the police force – they could, and he wouldn’t stop them. They served him out of respect.
Which is why the accusations were never made from the same person twice.
As was her wont, Keegan made up for the comfortable silence of the adults by prattling on about random things she’d seen on her daily ventures throughout the base, as though her ability to be quiet when hiding was offset by constant chatter at other times.
Maxie let her, inwardly smiling with anticipation. He listened only idly, absently swirling the orange soup with his spoon and recalling the first time Keegan had seen a pokémon battle.
It had been one of the few times Maxie was able to let Keegan stay with him during the course of the day, not to mention had the time to answer her incessant questions. He knew that Courtney and her entourage were relieved at the chance to take a break (although she had sent one agent to trail them, just in case) and after Hank’s little incident… well. Maxie was the only person for whom Keegan behaved; not even the stern-looking and intimidating Harland could control her.
Keegan had eagerly asked to see the training room – a doorway that was always kept locked against the curious little fox, which she had never yet managed to sneak through. Maxie had considered this carefully, since pokémon battles could occasionally be dangerous even for onlookers, especially it if was between two of the Team’s best trainers and highest level pokémon.
Eventually, however, he had conceded.
It had been an excellent day for it; Tabitha, one of the FireHeads and the Admin in charge of pokémon training, had been battling at the time. If there was anyone who had pure talent at pokémon training, it was Tabitha.
The burly man had been testing one of the new recruits, a stocky youth with a great deal of potential but lacking in experience. After watching the battle with wide, awestruck eyes, Keegan had, surprisingly, been silent for many moments while they walked back to Maxie’s office, shadowed, as always, by Harland.
“I want to be a pokémon trainer, Papa,” Keegan had said suddenly, clasping his hand with her small one and looking up at her father with huge, pleading eyes surrounded by a tumble of half-curling gold locks, an expression to melt the hardest heart.
Maxie had exchanged a somewhat resigned glance with Harland before replying. “Perhaps one day, little fox.”
Keegan’s face had lit up with that glowing smile that reminded Maxie so much of her mother and, despite his reservations, dispelled any uncertainties.
“Are you okay, Papa?” Keegan’s youthful, anxious voice broke through his thoughts, and Maxie came back to himself to find the girl cocking her head and studying him in concern, inattentively pushing back the bunches of hair which threatened to obscure her thin features.
Feeling a little bit mischievous himself, Maxie smiled, making his face crease with a few faint, premature lines. “You were in rather a rush to get here this afternoon.” Keegan’s cheeks were slightly pink and he tapped his fingers together idly, narrow eyes amused as he continued teasingly, “One might think you’d forgotten about me.”
“Of course not, Papa!” Keegan exclaimed, but her persistent blush made it clear she had, and Courtney smothered an entertained snort.
“One might also wonder whether or not you deserve the present I got for you,” Maxie went on with almost wicked laughter faintly visible in his expression and making the brunette appreciate, ruefully, exactly where Keegan got it from.
The girl’s eyes widened and she asked eagerly, “Present? Where?” without even bothering to consider whether he was serious or not. He wasn’t; she knew he wasn’t. Maxie never got angry with her. Frustrated, resigned, amused, yes, but never angry.
Maxie raised an arched eyebrow, his gaze flickering momentarily to something in the far corner, so the little fox swivelled in her chair to see what he was gesturing to.
And let out a squeal that had Courtney wincing as the girl leapt out of her timber-backed chair with such zeal that she knocked it over, making it hit the scarlet floor with a soft thud. Keegan didn’t notice; she was too busy dashing over to the round wicker basket in the corner, dropping so quickly to her knees that she skinned them even on the soft carpet. The basket was lined with red silk and nesting comfortably in the centre, curled up with her white-tipped tail brushing her button-black nose, was an eevee.
At Keegan’s squeal she had awoken with a start, blinking sleepily as the girl rushed over. She yawned, stretching her dainty muzzle wide before clambering out of the basket and greeting Keegan with a tentative wag of her fluffy tail. Bright eyes shining with something akin to reverence, Keegan brushed the pokémon’s brown fur with her fingertips. It was soft, almost like the silk on which the pokémon had so recently be resting, and the eevee mewed happily, nudging Keegan’s hand in a bid for some more petting.
“She’s really mine?” Keegan asked in a hushed, almost disbelieving voice as the eevee looked up at her with huge, chocolate-coloured eyes, her red collar a stark contrast to the fluffy white mane that circled her neck.
Maxie allowed himself a smile, knowing she wouldn’t see it. “Of course,” he answered gently, his narrow grey eyes gleaming with pleasure at her reaction. Keegan squealed again and hugged her new companion, squashing the poor eevee into her chest to rub her cheek against the pokémon’s soft fur. “But you must promise to take care of her,” Maxie warned, seeing the breathless, pained expression the eevee was wearing. Keegan nodded eagerly and released her tight grip into a more comfortable one, allowing the pokémon to curl up in the girl’s excitedly twitching arms and smile happily, her long ears flickering with contentment. “And Tabitha will teach you to battle and train properly,” Maxie added. “So be sure to listen to him.”
“I will, Papa,” Keegan promised breathlessly, her face glowing with exhilaration, and cuddled the eevee blissfully as Maxie leaned back in his chair to watch her, his face creasing with a tiny, contented smile. Seemingly forgotten, Courtney drew her smooth legs up onto the couch, exchanging a pleased glance with Harland. Courtney’s was more than a bit relieved; if Keegan was to begin training it meant that Courtney and her entourage of agents could spent more time watching and less time searching.
And besides, I think it’s about time that Tabitha took an orientation course in the handling of the little fox… let’s see if he can keep laughing after that.
* * *
“Hazel, use Tackle!” Keegan commanded, her thin face screwed up in studied concentration. The eevee which had given her so much joy wore an identical expression, her paws digging into the dirt of the arena as she darted towards the wiry-furred dog against which she was pitted.
“Houndour, Flamethrower,” Keegan’s opponent ordered, none other than the burly Tabitha. The black-and-red dog dodged to the side, allowing Hazel to skid snout-first into the dirt with a grunt. Artificial light flashed over the bone-like armour on the houndour’s head and back as it opened its jaws wide, spilling crimson flames over its canines.
“Hazel, use – um –” Before Keegan could think of an appropriate attack, the fire swelled in a coursing stream of heat towards the little eevee, hitting her with a burst of crackling embers and sending her flying across the rocky, high-ceilinged arena. Hazel tumbled head-over-heels with a series of yelps before settling to a singed heap amidst a thinly billowing cloud of dust.
Keegan rushed anxiously over to her pokémon as the eevee shook her head groggily, ears flapping around her skull. “Are you okay?” the girl asked in a small voice, hand outstretched just inches before touching Hazel’s heated fur. The fox-like pokémon staggering to her dainty paws with apparent disregard for her possible injuries and mewed an affirmative, fading smoke still wreathing off her fur in gentle streams. Keegan smiled in relief and stood up to face an approaching Tabitha with a novice’s timidity. “Was that better, Tabby?” she requested earnestly, peeking up at the man’s rugged face through her slightly curling bangs.
Off to the side, watching from the bench, Courtney snorted in amusement at Tabitha’s new nickname, chewing contentedly on her gum as she leaned casually against the stone wall. Tabitha threw her a heavy-browed scowl, knowing perfectly well she was laughing at him, and answered Keegan’s question. “A little better, yeah. You just gotta remember your attacks in time, an’ keep in mind that pokémon can and will learn stronger attacks with time an’ practice.”
Keegan frowned, tugging thoughtfully on a sprig of blonde hair as she looked down at Hazel, but the eevee just looked back up with a puzzled expression, her ruff of fur now tinged grey by ash. “I don’t even know what attacks Haze can learn,” Keegan confessed quietly, her cheeks going slightly pink as though she thought Tabitha had expected her to know from the off.
“Hazel’s an eevee, which means she won’t learn special attacks like Flamethrower unless you go outta your way to teach her,” Tabitha explained matter-of-factly. “That’s something we’ll do a bit later. But pokémon can also change form to make themselves stronger, and eevees are special like that. There’s five pokémon they can turn into, all different, and all with their own special abilities.”
“Really?’ Keegan’s tanned face lit up as she absorbed this new information, then plonked herself down and examined Hazel critically. The pokémon mewed happily and jumped into the girl’s arms, licked her face as Keegan giggled. “Changing form sounds fun. How can I teach Haze to do that?”
“Woah, there, little fox,” Tabitha warned her off seriously, resting his fists on his hips as he looked down at the girl sitting in his shadow. “Some pokémon can change forms as an attack, but Hazel’s not one of ‘em. For her, the change will be forever. And sometimes, they’ll change personalities, too.”
Keegan looked shocked. “Oh, I don’t know if I want Haze to do that!” she exclaimed, hugging the eevee as the pokémon’s tail lashed wildly in approval. “So what do we do now, Tabby? Are we going to battle again?” Hazel mewed an agreement, jumping out of her mistress’s arms and back onto the dusty rock field, paws pattering eagerly over the ground.
“Nah, Hazel’s pretty tired,” Tabitha pointed out with a grunt, ignoring the eevee as she batted his boot reproachfully. “Remember what I told you – if you take care of you pokémon, they’ll take care of you. It’s a dangerous world out there, and a loyal pokémon –”
“– is better’n an unloyal one,” Keegan finished, sounding vaguely disappointed as Courtney approached, her shoes crunching on the rough terrain, and Hazel whipped around to look at Keegan with wide, beseeching eyes. “So maybe we better not, Haze. You’re still hot from the fire.”
Tabitha nodded in approval even as the eevee veritably wilted with dissatisfaction, opening his mouth to tell Keegan that the lesson for the day was over, when he was cut off by the sound of spiteful growling, echoed by the loud crash of a door flying open.
Keegan jumped and the other two went automatically for their pokéballs, but all they saw was a grey-and-black poochyena dashing out of the next training room – the one which dealt specifically with newly caught pokémon. The little pup’s thick fur was bristled and his black lips were rolled back over glistening canines as he snarled at the stick-thin agent who had followed him out, looking both irritated and slightly abashed.
Courtney sighed with mild exasperation, replacing the red-and-white ball to her belt, but Tabitha frowned and ran a large hand through his thick, wavy hair in annoyance, striding towards the woman. “I thought you’d tamed that one,” he snapped.
The agent shrugged and spread her hands helplessly, a pokéball caught between two of her fingers, her blue eyes both apologetic and frustrated. “We thought so too,” she admitted, shaking back her straight, lime-green hair. “But he’s got a nasty attitude, this one.”
The only ones who seemed to be paying any attention to the poochyena now were Keegan and Hazel, the former still sitting cross-legged on the ground and the latter flicking her ears back and forth, watching the other pokémon intently as he turned and began to slink away, narrow eyes still warily on the adults.
“Think you should do something about him, little fox?” Courtney said breezily through her bubblegum without even looking away from Tabitha, but somehow Keegan doubted she was talking about the dark-haired agent.
“Um, okay,” Keegan looked at Hazel, the eevee’s eyes bright with anticipation. “I think you’d better stop him, Haze.”
“Eebui!” Hazel agreed eagerly, and in a patter of paws she was gone.
The poochyena didn’t even know what happened to him, so focussed was he on Tabitha and his subordinate. One moment the pokémon was crawling along, furry belly near to the ground; the next he was tumbling nose-over-tail across the rocky landscape.
At the sound of his startled yelp, Tabitha turned around, already reaching to pluck his personal pokéball from his belt, but then he saw Hazel standing over the hapless pup, her fur bristling with enthusiasm, and hesitated. Courtney didn’t even move, her arms folded over her stomach, watching with interested eyes as the poochyena picked itself up and snarled angrily, charging at Hazel as dust coated his grey fur and his black-socked paws beat the rock.
“Tail Whip!” Keegan cried, already on her feet, her fists windmilling excitedly in the air. Hazel jumped aside and spun about, lashing her thick tail towards the poochyena. It hit him on the side and with a high yelp he was sent tumbling again, raising up small clouds of dust, his speed cut with a suddenness that made him land hard on his black nose.
“Try Quick Attack,” Courtney suggested mildly, ignoring the frown Tabitha threw her, his distant-seeming eyes having been studying the battle intently. He’d been hoping Keegan would pick it up on her own.
The girl jumped, startled, as though she’d forgotten they were there, and obediently ordered the attack. With a flurry of swift brown paws Hazel was gone, flashing across the arena, crashing squarely into the dazed poochyena in a collision that sent him flying back in a swirl of dust and fur, ending in a painful skid on his fuzzy belly.
He whined submissively, not bothering to get up, his head down sullenly between his paws and fur matted with dirt.
“Ah, nice work,” Tabitha congratulated Keegan, still looking somewhat disgruntled that Courtney had interfered.
Keegan blinked, slightly confused, before a grin spread over her face and she bounced gleefully on her toes. “You mean we won?”
“Bii?” Hazel cocked her head and purred, sprinkles of dust raining down from her coat.
“We won!” Keegan shrieked joyfully, dancing around and laughing delightedly while Hazel gambolled happily at her heels.
Tabitha rubbed his cleft chin thoughtfully. Seems to be about even in experience, an’ he could do with some breaking in. He gestured towards the red-clad agent, who was watching Keegan and shaking her head slowly with an amused expression. “I’ll take over the pup’s training,” the FireHead ordered.
“Done.” The grunt handed over the poochyena’s pokéball and retreated gratefully, closing the steel door behind her to cut off the sound of Keegan’s ecstatic shouts. The pup was watching the girl with a mixture of confusion and irritation, hunching his head into his shoulders as though hoping to muffle the sound.
“That’s enough for today,” the burly man told Keegan sternly over the sound of her elated chant as he returned the poochyena to his pokéball with the customary beam of red light, the pokémon looking almost relieved to be put back into peace and quiet.
For a moment Keegan looked disappointed, but then bounded over to him to give him a quick hug of thanks, barely reaching up to his waist. He looked startled for a moment, and Courtney stifled a laugh with one gloved hand, looking away. “When will I get to battle in double battles, Tabby?” the girl asked eagerly a moment later, tugging enthusiastically at the long red mantle which was draped over the burly man’s shoulders, back to hopping up and down.
Tabitha’s answer was cautious as he glanced sidelong towards the amused-looking Courtney, who had one eyebrow raised expectantly, and surreptitiously nudged Hazel away from him with his foot when she started to attack his black boot with a similar, fervent excitement to her mistress. “Give it time, little fox. Give it time.”
Briefly he wondered if it had been wise to agree to tutor the girl, and then – looking back at an entertained Courtney a second time – just as quickly vowed never to laugh at his friend’s duty again.
* * *