As Haruka left the gym, she flipped open her Pokédex to see what had happened while she was occupied. Phoenix had finally relaxed in Haruka's arms, while Zu perched on her shoulders, flippers resting on the teenage girl's head.
Haruka wasn't sure what to expect, though she was sure she'd see something, even if it was simply finding out that she had been banned from the blog and her post removed.
Right away, Haruka found a notice from Senri. She certainly didn't remember sending him a link to her fight and there was no way Yuki'd ever do such a thing, but somehow the gym leader found out anyway. Perhaps he had been monitoring the gym feed all day, much to the chagrin of his assistant. Haruka also couldn't rule out the possibility that someone from the Senrisational blog linked him to it, thinking he'd verify that her claims of sponsorship were a lie. The truth could have been both, somewhere in between, or anything else. Regardless of how, Senri posted the link to her match on his Pokébook profile and was raving about it.
"Did you see the Torchic? Type means very little when you have a properly trained Pokémon!"
There were a few replies, though Haruka didn't care to read them. She didn't deserve their praise, as Phoenix had been EV-trained by her previous owner. The results of that training may have been Phoenix’s strength, but it also added something that Haruka herself had begun to suspect – aggression. She saw it against Kimiko at Touka City, and again against Tsutsuji. The aggression was there, and Haruka could think of no better explanation.
Still, she had a problem on her hands. Haruka didn’t like the aggression, but it was clear that Phoenix wanted to fight. Haruka didn’t know if that was in the Torchic’s best interests, or what her options were at all. She could only imagine that Phoenix would react badly if Haruka didn’t use her, but using Phoenix would enable the Torchic to be overly aggressive.
What could she do?
"Whatever, whatever," Haruka said, with a sigh. She was going in circles, and it only served to give her a headache. "I'll ask Yuki." She'd check on her troll bait, then see if Yuki was online. Accessing the blog once again, Haruka accessed the first blog post once more.
The Senrisational Blog had exploded during the course of Haruka's battle. For a group of people who had tried to troll her and spent their time spewing venom about other people, the immature teenage girls were surprisingly thin-skinned. Once again, her post had been dog-piled by the infuriated fangirls. Haruka could actually visualize the girls watching her battle and salivating with rage like rabid animals. Many posted comments insulting her performance, including her use of a Torchic – first for being stupid enough to abandon her type advantage and then for using an 'illegal' and 'hacked' Pokémon.
"Phoenix isn't a computer, she's a Pokémon," Haruka muttered. "You can't 'hack' her." Phoenix blinked at the mention of her name and lifted her head. Haruka noticed and giggled. "Nothing, nothing~! Just silly stuff~!"
Phoenix arched an eyebrow but said nothing.
Humming, Haruka checked her messenger program. Yuki hadn't replied to Haruka's message yet, so he must have been in a contest. Haruka sent Yuki another message. "Hey, hey~! I need to talk to you so contact me, okay~~?"
Whenever Yuki got back, he'd see the messages. All Haruka had to do was wait. Snapping her Pokédex shut, Haruka headed back to where she had parked her scooter. Haruka got suited up and stared the engine of her scooter before taking off down the road. With the gym badge out of the way, Haruka had no reason to hang around. There weren't any contest halls or musical theatres in Kanazumi, and she had no interest in taking a tour of the Devon Corporation building. While most tourists wanted to tour the company owned by the Champion of Hoenn, Haruka saw no point in it. CEO or Champion, Daigo was a trainer like her. It'd be the same as someone wanting to tour her home. She spent enough time with Yuki to know how violating that was.
"Okay, okay~!" Haruka said. "Onward to Shidake Town!" Normally, Pokémon trainers would head to Muro Town, a small town on an island to the south of Kanazumi City. However, Muro Town didn't have a contest hall – that automatically made it a low priority. Shidake Town, on the other hand, did have a contest hall. It was the only thing it had going for it, and that was still enough to make it a primary target in Haruka’s journey.
As the teenage Pokémon trainer left the gym parking lot, Haruka then saw something that did catch her interest – a Pokémon League building. Once she spotted the Pokémon Center, Haruka pulled over quickly in to the parking lot.
"Right, right!" Haruka said, stopping in the parking lot. "Almost forgot! Gotta check in~!" She had checked Phoenix in at Touka Town the day before, after she was finally able to get away from Senri. The whole experience reminded her of a physical exam – inconvenient but necessary. Still, it seemed odd to need it at every town.
But then, Phoenix had been abused. Clearly the League wanted to make certain that Haruka was doing her best to take care of the Torchic. As inconvenient as the checks were, they were for Phoenix's sake. Haruka would just have to deal with it.
“Besides,” Haruka muttered. “Maybe I can ask them what to do. That’s what they’re there for, right?” After all, if the appointments weren’t to try and figure out what was best for Phoenix, then there was no point in them at all.
After finding a parking spot, Haruka headed inside the League building. It looked exactly like the other Pokémon Centers, from the facilities to even the basic structure. The teenage girl walked up to the counter, approaching a nurse with puffy pink hair and a pink nurse's outfit with a white apron.
"Hello, may I help you?" the nurse asked with a smile.
"Hi~! I'm here to check in my Phoenix~!" Haruka said, returning the smile with one of her own.
"One moment please," the nurse said as she turned to the console beside her. She typed for a moment, then glanced up. "Haruka Odamaki?"
"Yep, yep~!" Haruka said. "And Phoenix~!"
The nurse nodded, then smiled as she looked at the Torchic. Phoenix rewarded the nurse's friendliness with a harsh stare, her feathers bristled. The nurse didn't seem disturbed by the hostility, though she could have just been good at hiding it. "We'll have a doctor see you shortly. Please wait until your name is called."
Haruka didn't expect a long wait. While there were certainly a few people loitering about, the Pokémon Center wasn't very busy. There wasn't a sizable crowd, as no tournament was being held in town. It was just a regular day, and that meant a regular flow of visitation.
True to Haruka's expectations, she was only waiting for roughly ten minutes before her name was called by the nurse at the front desk. "Haruka Odamaki!"
Haruka hummed as she went to greet the nurse, who then allowed her back behind the counter. The young trainer walked in to the back room with Phoenix and Zu. The back room reminded her of a hospital, with people in scrubs and plenty of expensive equipment that she had no clue how any of it worked. It was a Pokémon hospital, for injured Pokémon. While there were a few human doctors, the majority specialized in Pokémon. The League's primary focus was tending to Pokémon, but they did keep doctors who tended to humans as well – just in case. After all, trainers were either very rich or very poor.
Haruka headed further in to the hospital area, until she came to a stop in front of a doctor with a clipboard. The doctor smiled at Haruka and ushered her inside a small room, and the teenage girl complied. It was an examination room, complete with an examination table made of metal. It gave Haruka flashbacks to her own experiences on such cold furniture, but at least Phoenix's fire would protect her from the chill.
"Hello," the doctor said. She was a woman with shoulder-length brown hair and brown eyes, and she wore a white lab coat with black pants and a red blouse. "I am Dr. Miyami, I will be examining Phoenix today."
Haruka nodded and set her Torchic down on the examination table. "Yep, yep! We're here to check in!"
Phoenix glared at Dr. Miyami, her eyes narrowing. She continued to watch the doctor like a hawk as the doctor put her latex gloves on and approached the Pokémon slowly.
"So," Dr. Miyami began as she looked at the tense Torchic. "Has Phoenix shown any hostility towards you?"
"Nope, nope," Haruka said. She had been surprised when the doctor in Touka City had asked her the question. The fact that Dr. Miyami asked it again only confirmed her suspicions – the League was worried that Phoenix would hurt her. She supposed that they had reason to, what with the Torchic attempting to catch several people on fire prior to meeting Haruka. People didn't like being caught on fire, after all. "Not at all~! She's actually calmer, since she's not trying to catch you on fire right now."
The doctor paused and looked down at Phoenix, who stared back at her with piercing eyes. "...I see."
"She's still kind of hostile to other Pokémon, though," Haruka said. "She really wants to fight."
"That could be a reflection of her circumstances," the doctor said. "Or her personality. Perhaps both."
“No, I mean,” Haruka said, her smile melting away. “She’s really hostile.”
Dr. Miyami paused and looked up at Haruka. “Hm.”
“She’s really, really hostile,” Haruka said, her voice low. “Is it because of what happened?”
Dr. Miyami was quiet for a long moment before she crossed her arms. “Yes. From what I gather about Phoenix’s particular case, she was trained using starvation tactics.”
“That’s what they said when I first got her,” Haruka said. “What does that actually mean?”
“It means that she was only given food when she performed, and was denied food when she didn’t,” the doctor said. “The individual who owned her previously used a combination of excessive amounts of EV-training equipment and excessive training exercises in order to increase her capabilities in an unsafe manner. It put an enormous amount of stress on Phoenix, both mentally and physically. She was ‘encouraged’ to tolerate her circumstances by denying her food should she fail to perform. If she didn’t succeed at the exercise, she didn’t eat. If she didn’t win a particular battle, she didn’t eat.”
“S-so, wait,” Haruka said, slowly. “Does that mean Phoenix’d associate winning with eating? Did she think that if she didn’t win the fights, she wouldn’t be fed?” The idea was absolutely ridiculous. Of course she’d feed Phoenix, she’d feed the Torchic as much as she wanted!
“Yes, and it would associate its opponent as an obstacle to being fed,” Dr. Miyami said. “If the other Pokémon won, that meant Phoenix was deprived food. That made what should have been a simple competition in to a matter of life or death.”
Haruka’s stomach clenched as she looked down at the Torchic on the examination table, who continued to glare hard at the doctor. Her eyes drifted over to Zu, who was rather obviously watching Phoenix from his position on Haruka’s shoulder. “What about Zu? She seems kind of cold to him, too.”
“They were not only competing with opposing Pokémon, but also with each other,” Dr. Miyami said, her expression grim. “While they were on the same team, they were not friends. There was only so much food, and not enough to go around.”
Haruka clenched her jaw. White hot anger bubbled up inside of her, as if she were a Torchic herself. “He should be in jail forever.”
“That’s something for the League to deal with,” Dr. Miyami said. “You simply need to focus on Phoenix, and your own Pokémon journey.”
“So what do I do?” Haruka asked, her voice quiet. “Do I let her fight, even though she’s aggressive? Won’t that just encourage the behavior?”
“You can only change things slowly, with baby steps,” the doctor said. “If Phoenix wants to fight, you should allow it. I’d recommend against using Phoenix in fights outside of gym battles or tournaments, as trainer-to-trainer fights don’t have as many precautions as official establishments. But she should be allowed to work out her aggression, while you work out her conditioning and allow her to relax and realize that she will not be deprived of anything if she can’t perform.”
“I’ll do my best,” Haruka mumbled as she reached up to touch Phoenix’s head. The Torchic turned to look at her and blinked. If Phoenix wanted to fight, then it was up to Haruka to do her best in helping Phoenix fight. Naturally, that meant training Phoenix. "How do you EV-train? The good way? I mean, if Phoenix wants to fight, that means I should probably train her. …EV-training isn’t naturally bad, right?" If anyone'd know, it'd be a League doctor.
"It's essentially an intensified training program," Dr. Miyami said. "It combines exercise with special weights and braces. If done right, it gives a Pokémon an amazing boost to their abilities. If done wrong..."
"Then you're just abusing your Pokémon," Haruka said. She'd have to check out the store and see what weights and braces she could find, and if Phoenix'd even be willing to wear them. For all Haruka knew, the Torchic might be too traumatized by her old owner to wear them.
"Phoenix seems to be in good health," the doctor said as she carefully felt the Torchic's ribs, even as Phoenix remained tense. "As are you."
Haruka nodded, with a smile. She then tilted her head. "Are we good to go?"
Dr. Miyami nodded. "Yes, I'm giving you a clean bill of health."
"Yay~!" Haruka said as she pumped her fists. She turned to Phoenix, who stared up at her in confusion. "Let's go, and keep being healthy! Okay?"
Phoenix blinked. Zu, who had been watching the Torchic closely in tense silence, turned to his trainer and chirped quizzically. Haruka paused, then giggled.
"You too, Zu!" Haruka said. "Stay healthy with us!"
Zu waved a flipper as he chirped again, while Phoenix narrowed her eyes and shot the Piplup a glare.
A quick stop at the Pokémart proved both helpful and frustrating. Thanks to the Devon Corporation building being located in town, the store was loaded with its products. It had so much to offer that Haruka had no idea where to begin.
The selection was enormous, taking up nearly a third of the store itself with its diversity of products. There were basic braces that raised individual aspects, intermediate ones that raised one at the cost of another, and expert ones that carried an enormous amount of boosts and hindrances as well as an equally hefty price tag.
"Hummmm... what do I dooooo?" Haruka mused as she crouched in front of the basic training braces. They were all she could afford at the moment, not to mention she had no idea what she was doing. "What's best for Phoenix?"
Phoenix and Zu stood at either side of the crouching teenager and watched as she browsed the training equipment intently. After a moment of watching Haruka debate with herself, Zu glanced over at Phoenix. Unfortunately, Phoenix had chosen that moment to look at the Piplup, and the two locked eyes. Zu stared at the Torchic, who returned his attention with a narrow-eyed scowl of her own. Zu couldn't maintain the stare and looked away, fidgeting as Phoenix's eyes bore holes in the side of his head.
Haruka picked up one of the braces and looked at it, feeling the fabric with her fingers. The braces all looked simple enough, basically straps that could be attached to a Pokémon. It reminded her of weight training. However, they were made out of a special material that Haruka couldn't identify. It tingled against her fingers like static electricity, though it wasn't enough to make her jump. Haruka imagined the material was what actually assisted in the EV-training, interacting with the Pokémon’s body on a chemical level. She heard about humans doing something like it, with negative and positive ions or something. Well, if it worked, who was she to complain? People didn't need to understand how something worked in order for it to work, so there was no point in worrying.
It was just a matter of what to choose.
"Well, Fire is considered a 'special attack' based move," Haruka mumbled. "But Phoenix's evolutions are Fighting too. She'll gain Fighting moves to match, and those are 'attack' based. Should I do both? Is that too much?" The teenage girl tilted her head. "I could get both and use one on Phoenix and one on Zu, then just switch them around now and then so they both get trained equally..."
"Looks like we're better off canceling our trip to Muro Town," A man behind Haruka said, talking loudly to his friend. "Team Aqua was seen in the area."
"What? Are you kidding me!?" The man's friend, another man with glasses, spat out a curse. "Why aren't the police doing anything about those pirates!?"
"Oh, it's the usual 'pending investigation' crap," the man said, dismissively. "Don't count on them to get anything done. It's better if we just avoid the area, unless you want to get robbed and held for ransom."
"If it's not Team Magma hijacking transports on the road, it's Team Aqua terrorizing people on the water!" The second man grumbled. "They're the reason our shipping costs are so damn high!"
Haruka blinked as she discreetly glanced at the two men, her expression thoughtful. She hadn't planned on going to Muro Town next anyway, even if it was generally suggested as the next gym to tackle after Kanazumi City.
Still, the conversation showed her that she made the right choice.
"What happened to all of their 'save the environment' garbage?" the second man asked, then sneered past his glasses. "Oh yes, because nothing makes a person want to protect the environment like being robbed."
"Didn't you know?" The first man said, feigning innocence as sarcasm dripped over his every word. "It costs money to blow up factories and oil rigs. It's all for a good cause, and at least this way everyone's doing their fair share in making a difference!"
Haruka hummed before she grabbed two braces – one attack and one special attack. Protecting the environment was a good cause. Both Pokémon and humans were hurt by pollution, after all. Still, it sounded to her like the two 'Teams' were just using it as an excuse to hurt people. That wasn't unusual at all – bad people would use whatever they could to justify their actions.
In the end, it had nothing to do with her. The police would take care of it, and in the meantime, she would avoid going off land and only take well-maintained roads.
It wasn't as if some teenager could make a difference.
With her errands completed, Haruka was once again on her way towards Shidake Town. Both Zu and Phoenix were wearing their new braces, Zu wearing the one for special attack while Phoenix wore the one that would increase her attack. They really looked like halters on the Pokémon, and were easy enough to put on. They didn’t seem to cause the Piplup or Torchic any discomfort, as both had seemingly forgotten about them entirely. Perhaps that was for the best, as Haruka wouldn’t have pushed the matter if either had been opposed to it.
There certainly had been a few detours and delays, far more than she would have liked, but she did her best to ignore it. Pokémon journeys were an adventure, and adventures were often filled with detours, delays, and other adventure related things. She just needed to relax and enjoy herself. It always paid to be flexible, and she had all the time in the world.
The road to Shidake Town went through a lush forest, with greenery as far as the eye could see. Haruka knew that it eventually would take her to a dense, rocky mountain range that filled up the center of the island. Going through the tunnel that pierced the mountains would be exciting, especially by herself on a scooter. She remembered fondly how she used to hold her breath through the tunnel, to see if she could hold it until the car got all the way through. By the time she got halfway through, her lungs would ache so much that the young girl would have no choice but to gulp down air. This would be the first time Haruka would make the effort not to engage in that kind of game; it was all well and good for a passenger, but she imagined it'd be far too dangerous on a scooter.
The scooter drove along the roads easily, the fresh scent of flourishing forest wafting around Haruka. It smelled like spring, though their island location didn't actually have seasons to speak of, just sun and warmth. Still, that didn't keep Haruka from enjoying herself.
A sharp twitter caught Haruka's attention. She glanced down at the Torchic in her lap, half-expecting the sound to come from her. Phoenix didn't look at Haruka, instead watching something off to the side. Even Zu was focused in the same direction, prompting Haruka to turn her head.
Flying alongside the scooter, at eye level with the teenage girl, was a Taillow. The bright blue bird with a white underside and red face mask that reached down to his throat looked right at Haruka as he flew beside her. He was so close that she could see the white star-shaped birthmark on his chest, right inside the red throat markings.
Haruka stared at the bird Pokémon, then smiled. "Hi~!"
In response, the Taillow's eyes narrowed, with a glint in his eyes. Haruka got the distinct impression that she was being challenged. The Taillow let out another sharp trill, then took off like a gunshot down the road.
Haruka blinked once, while Phoenix bristled. Zu stared after the Taillow and slowly arched an eyebrow. The teenage girl tilted her head to the side. "...Well! He's certainly–"
A sharp twitter marked the Taillow's swift return. The bird Pokémon flew around Haruka's scooter in a fast circle, moving so quickly that he appeared like a blue, red, and white blur. Only the sound of his warbling identified him, which sounded as if he were laughing at the trio. Haruka stopped her scooter so that she didn't hit the playful bird, her hair whipping around her head as the Taillow generated a gust as he swooped in repeated circles around her.
Phoenix continued to bristle as Zu attempted to keep his eyes on the Taillow, making himself dizzy with the futile effort. The Torchic's body temperature increased along with her irritation, until she finally rose up and let out a furious squawk. The Tallow answered her with more warbling – it was definitely laughter. Phoenix narrowed her eyes as smoke billowed out of her nose. The Taillow broke off his circle to swerve away, twittering as he glanced back at the fuming Torchic.
The warbling stopped instantly when the Taillow slammed in to a tree. The bird Pokémon failed to watch where he was going and hit the trunk of a rather large tree, hard enough to knock leaves off the branches as the impact rattled the stationary giant.
Haruka stared as the Taillow fell to the ground in a crumbled heap, no longer chirping his amusement. Phoenix and Zu both gawked, their expressions blank, as the Taillow's wing twitched once. The teenage stood still for several seconds, staring at the fallen Pokémon before she finally found her voice.
Back at the Kanazumi Pokémon Center, Haruka puffed her cheeks as the nurse looked over the Taillow. It had been incredibly easy to catch the injured bird Pokémon in a Pokéball, as it had knocked itself out. The sensors on the Pokéball at least confirmed that the Taillow was still alive, and the Pokéball's security measures kept the Pokémon stabilized long enough to get it help. With Haruka's concerns and fears alleviated, she felt that she could allow herself to feel irritated as the Taillow received care.
"It's going to recover just fine," the nurse said as she looked over the screen of the computer. "Still, I'm surprised you managed to catch him."
"Hm?" Haruka perked up at that, returning her attention to the nurse. "You know him?"
"He's a known troublemaker," the nurse said, with a wry grin. "He has a habit of harassing motorists along the road. Racing cars, mocking cyclists, and otherwise just making a nuisance of himself."
Haruka furrowed her eyebrows. Given what she saw, she could believe it.
"He's usually just ignored," the nurse continued. "The League tried to catch him a couple of times, but it only resulted in several hours of chasing him about only for him to take off at the end, no worse for wear. Ultimately, the League decided to leave him alone so long as no one got hurt."
"But he got hurt." Haruka said.
"Yes, he did," the nurse said. "And that's unfortunate. However, he brought his injury upon himself."
"Yeah, he did," Haruka muttered. She couldn't deny that if the Taillow hadn't been behaving like a show off and mocking them, he wouldn't have hit the tree.
"What will you do with him?" the nurse asked.
Haruka looked up at that. "Hm?"
"Now that he's been caught, the League would prefer he not be released," the nurse said. "If you don't want to keep him, we'd appreciate it if you surrendered him to the League."
"If I released him, he'd just go back to bothering people, wouldn't he?" Haruka said as she looked at the Pokéball containing the Taillow. He was lucky to have not angered anyone enough that they'd chase him down and hurt him; and if he had, he had been able to avoid the consequences. But good luck only went so far, and there was always a possibility that the next motorist would have a faster Pokémon – or a gun. He could also fly in to another tree, and there'd be no guarantee that anyone would help him like she had.
So the question became, did she want to keep him?
Haruka chewed on her lower lip thoughtfully. Honestly, she hadn't been in the market for a new Pokémon just yet. She had Zu and Phoenix, and she wanted to dedicate a lot of attention to them. However, it was also true that she'd need more Pokémon eventually. She didn't plan on being a bird-type trainer, but she couldn't deny that the Taillow offered her something that neither Zu nor Phoenix had – the ability to fly. Eventually, he could get strong enough to actually fly her around, and take her from town to town. He also had a type advantage that neither Zu nor Phoenix had.
Besides, hadn't she already taken responsibility for him by bringing him in?
"I guess I am kind of obligated now," Haruka said. "Since I brought him in."
"No, not at all," the nurse said. "You did far more than many others would have done."
"But doesn't that just mean I'm the best choice, because most people won't be patient with him?" Haruka asked.
"Perhaps, but will you resent him?" the nurse asked.
"No," Haruka said as she arched an eyebrow. "It'd be my choice, so why should I resent him?"
"It's a possibility," the nurse said.
Haruka considered that, then looked at the Pokéball. "No, I won't resent Cetan."
"Cetan?" the nurse asked.
"His name," Haruka said as she looked at the Pokéball. "I'm naming him Cetan."
The nurse smiled. "Congratulations, Cetan and Haruka."
Haruka returned the smile with one of her own. "Thank you very much~!" She turned to Phoenix and Zu. "Let's welcome Cetan, okay~?"
Zu chirped his agreement, but the Torchic simply glared at the Pokéball. She narrowed her eyes and snorted out smoke before she turned up her beak in an obvious snub. Haruka giggled. It would take time for Phoenix to warm up to Cetan, just as it was taking time for the Torchic to warm up to Zu. That was just something the teenage girl would have to deal with. But that didn't necessarily make it a bad thing. The more exposure Phoenix had to other Pokémon, the more opportunities she had to make friends.
It'd also keep things interesting, which Haruka certainly had no complaints about!
Once again, Haruka was on her way to the next town over, riding her scooter along the road. Phoenix sat in her lap while Zu clung to her back and peered over her shoulder, while the newest addition to her party sat comfortably on top of Haruka's head.
Cetan preened himself as he sat comfortably on Haruka's head, particularly on her bandanna. After being released from his Pokéball, Cetan showed no interest in trying to escape. Instead, he opted to roost on Haruka's head and enjoy the scenery as the group made its way to Shidake Town. Haruka was a bit relieved that the Taillow wasn't upset with his circumstances, and was quite content to be her newest Pokémon. It made things a while lot easier.
"Oh well," Haruka sighed. She had already filled half of her Pokémon slots. She hadn't planned on going so fast, but she couldn't deny that Cetan would be useful. Every trainer needed a flying type, and Cetan was certainly a good flyer.
So long as no trees were in the way.
"Yuki's probably left Shidake by now, if he was even there to begin with," the teenage girl mumbled. "Still, if I get there fast enough, with no more delays..."
Haruka looked up ahead to see a strange man in the middle of her lane on the road. He looked to be only a few years older than her, with slick black hair and gray eyes. He wore a silver jacket with gray sleeves and a high collar, black pants, and silver sneakers with black trim. The man looked angry as he pointed at Haruka, standing in her way.
"You!" the man barked. "You're the one from the Kanazumi gym battle feed, right? The one with–"
"No, thank you~!" Haruka said as she flew right past the man, swerving around him on her scooter.
The man stopped and gawked, as he clearly hadn't expected Haruka to just go around him. By the time he recovered, the teenage girl was already a ways off. "H-hey! Hey! Hey, wait! Stop–!"
"I'm busy~!" Haruka called as she drove away. She noticed the man in her side mirrors going to get a bicycle from the side of the road, but she knew there was no way he'd catch up to her – motors beat legs, every time. Still, she couldn't help but think that he was such a weirdo!
It was then that Haruka noticed Phoenix's trembling. Haruka blinked and looked down at the Torchic to see her wide-eyed and shaking like a leaf. The teenage girl frowned, then leaned forward so that she could increase her presence around the Torchic as best she could while still driving the scooter. Phoenix noticed and stared up at Haruka with haunted eyes, then turned and buried her face in the girl's chest.
Haruka frowned as she returned her focus on the road. She didn't understand her Pokémon’s reaction, and it bothered her. It must have had to do with the man, but what? Perhaps she should have stopped, but would that have upset Phoenix more? That thought alone kept her from stopping the scooter immediately to tend to her distressed Pokémon. She'd put distance between herself and the weirdo on the bike, and then tend to Phoenix. It was possible that distance was all the Torchic needed, so Haruka focused on just getting to Shidake Town as fast as she could. Even if he was following her, she'd get there with more than enough time to decide what to do about him should he arrive after her.
Zu looked down at the cowering Torchic, then back behind Haruka. The man was just a spot in the distance, but the Piplup still glared after him with a grim face.
Cetan was oblivious to the drama, closing his eyes as he comfortably warmed Haruka's head like a new hat.
Phoenix was doing a lot better by the time Haruka had gotten through the tunnel leading to Shidake Town. Sitting in Haruka's lap, Phoenix slouched back to rest her head against her trainer as she kept her eyes closed. The man following them was so far back that Haruka couldn't even see him anymore, and it convinced her that the man's presence was the source of her Torchic's distress. She could think of several possibilities for why, and she disliked all of them.
Shidake Town was quite green, filled with plant life of all kinds. Towering trees and lush flowers covered the landscape as the buildings embraced nature rather than dominated it. At the center of town was a massive decorative dome – the Shidake Contest Hall. People from around Hoenn came to participate in the contests with hopes of earning the Shidake Ribbon, a coordinator's version of a gym badge. Coordinators were people like Yuki, who opted to dress, decorate, and stylize their Pokémon rather than battle them. It took a lot of skill and fashion sense to win a ribbon, something Yuki had in abundance and Haruka lacked.
Still, she could fake it well enough!
"We can try the contests~!" Haruka said, and smiled as she glanced up at the roosting Cetan. "You'd like to put on a show, right~?"
Cetan warbled as he puffed up slightly, while Phoenix felt well enough to roll her eyes. Zu patted Haruka's shoulder as he chirped, causing the teenage girl to laugh.
"Right, right~!" Haruka said. "Everyone gets a chance to look pretty~!"
Haruka drove up to the contest hall and parked before heading inside. The empty hall all but confirmed her fears while the results being streamed across the massive scoreboards overhead were the nail in the coffin. The contest was over, by several hours even. Perhaps she should have headed straight to Shidake Town, rather than challenge the gym in Kanazumi. Still, it seemed silly to double back to the city when she was already passing through. If she had kept her schedule, she would've made it in time to watch Yuki win – first place, according to the scoreboard – and then catch him on his way out. As it was, Haruka didn't doubt that the boy had already skipped town. Yuki never lingered longer than he had to, so he was most likely halfway to Kinsetsu City by now. She'd just have to catch up!
"It'd be so much easier if you were big enough to carry me, Cetan," Haruka said to the bird Pokémon on her head, while holding Phoenix as Zu rode on her shoulder. "Eventually you will be, but I hope I'm not still chasing him by the time you evolve."
Cetan twittered as he watched the electronic scoreboards with vague interest. He wasn't being talked about, so the information was secondary at best.
Checking the calendar, Haruka saw that the next contest was in two weeks. There was no way she'd wait in Shidake Town for two weeks, so Haruka instead put the information in her Pokédex's calendar and proceeded back out of the contest hall. There were classes and other events going on, but she doubted any of them could teach her anything that Yuki couldn't. Besides, if she hurried, she might even catch Yuki on Route 117...
"Now I've found you, you stupid bi–"
Haruka felt someone grab her arm roughly and she heard Zu squawk in alarm and indignation. Instinctively, she whirled as she brought her fist around, clothes-lining whoever it was that had grabbed her. To her mild surprise, the crumbled heap on the floor was none other than the strange man who had been following her. She had certainly expected him to catch up with her eventually, but she hadn't expected him for a little while yet. He must have hitchhiked after it became obvious that he'd never catch up in a timely manner.
Haruka smiled as the man groaned and sat up, rubbing his throat. "Ooops~! Sorry~! But reaaaally~! You shouldn't grab girls so aggressively! It might give them the – wrong – idea~!"
"Y-you did that on purpose!" the man growled as he got to his feet, glaring at the teenage girl. Zu returned the glare with his own, his feathers bristling. Cetan regarded the man curiously as he tilted his head sideways as far as it could go.
Phoenix was frozen solid, her entire body tense in Haruka's arms. Haruka squeezed her Torchic slightly even as she continued to smile. "A-ny-ways~!"
"Don't give me that, you stupid–!" the man snapped as he loomed closer, his posture aggressive.
"Touch me again and I'll rip your balls off," Haruka said, her voice sharp as a knife. The man stopped short, startled at how quickly her tone changed from friendly to unfriendly. He paused to stare as Haruka's glaring eyes locked with his own. Haruka held his gaze for a moment before her smile returned as if the dark cloud had never been there. "Can I help you~?"
The man hesitated before he rediscovered his anger. "Yeah, you can give me back my Torchic!"
Haruka's jaw clenched, even as her smile widened. "Oh~? Your Torchic? There must be some mistake~! Phoenix is my Torchic~! The League gave – her – to – me~!"
"Bullshit, I know her anywhere! I saw your battle!" the man protested. "The only reason you won was because of me! Like hell a stupid bitch could ever understand EV-training!"
Haruka was tempted to check her Pokédex and see if the man had a license. She doubted it as she couldn't imagine it ever being reinstated, least of all so soon. She knew without a doubt that the man was Phoenix's own trainer, a fact confirmed by how paralyzed the Torchic felt in her arms. Phoenix's breathing was shallow and labored, as if she were close to hyperventilating. The fact that the man upset Phoenix just by being near her was more than enough for Haruka to despise him. "Phoenix was abused by her old trainer. Are you saying you're him~?"
"I'm saying that you better give her back before I get mad," the man said. He turned to stare at Phoenix, who flinched. "What the hell are you doing, Torchic!?"
"Her name is Phoenix," Haruka said as she held Phoenix tightly, not that she expected the Torchic to bolt or comply with the man. Phoenix was trembling too much to even stand, let alone anything else. "And she's mine."
"Last warning, girlie. You're gonna cough her up," the man sneered as he clenched a fist in Haruka's face. "Or you're gonna cough up blood–"
Haruka moved fast, slamming her knee in to the man's groin. He let out a piercing shriek before he wobbled, clutching his crotch. He snarled at Haruka, tears in his eyes, just in time to see Haruka's fist right before it impacted with his face.
"No," Haruka said as the man fell back. "And I'm going to tell the League that you came after me. I'm willing to bet that's a violation of your bond."
Zu waved his flipper scoldingly at the man as Haruka walked past him, the Piplup chattering noisily. The special attack brace around his body glowed a soft blue, signaling that he was getting worked up enough that he was gathering energy for a water attack. Cetan had already dismissed the man entirely, doing his best impersonation of a feather hat.
"H-hey, y-you–!" the man gurgled as he struggled to get up, his nose bleeding.
"I'm sure they'll revoke your bond," Haruka said, icily. "It'd be smart of you to turn yourself in to the police before they issue a warrant. That looks good to a judge – almost as good as not doing stupid shit like this in the first place."
The man grimaced before he scowled hard at Haruka. It was obvious that he was contemplating rushing the shorter teenage girl, but Zu's puffing posture told him what'd happen if he tried. "Torchic!"
Phoenix flinched again, and Haruka tightened her grip. She didn't stop as she headed to the parking lot, back to her scooter.
"Her name is Phoenix."