18 Chapter 18

Hands in his pockets, Spike followed behind Mara and Carrie with Flannery and Ares walking side-by-side with him. The group meandered along a well-traveled path that cut through the forest like an Ekans slithering through tall grass. Strong smells of flowers and underbrush tickled their nostrils, quickly erasing the salty scent of the sea breeze. The two human youths observed the forest with curious gazes since they were never allowed to roam this far into the Petalburg Woods until now. Ares and Aria didn't show much interest in the woods aside from keeping an eye out for aggressive wild Pokemon, though Mara's Swellow Kiwi was doing a perfectly fine job of scouting the surroundings by flying in circles around them.

Numerous Shroomish milled about grazing on berry bushes while chasing away Wurmples from their meal. Large numbers of Seedots hung from tree branches like acorns, but most went unnoticed to the unobservant eye. Spike only noticed some thanks to the dull green auras hovering around them. At one point, he saw a Pidgey swoop down and knock one of the Seedots from the branches before flying down to peck at it. In response, the Seedot hardened its outer shell with a dull sheen of energy. A Nuzleaf scared off the Pidgey moments later before carrying the Seedot back into the branches. Thanks to his senses that were slowly outgrowing what humans could achieve, Spike observed the entire encounter from a distance too far for the others to see.

'Do some Pokemon eat other Pokemon?' Spike speculated. He had yet to see such a thing happen even when sneaking out to visit the woods with Ares for training, but he couldn't entirely dismiss the idea after witnessing a few similar squabbles between wild Pokemon.

Eventually, Flannery tuckered out, forcing the group to take a break. They stopped at an obviously manmade clearing just off the beaten path that contained log benches and fire pits. There were also patches of dead grass indicating places where people set up tents in the past. While the group settled down by one of the fire pits, Kiwi perched on a nearby tree and kept an eye on the local wildlife. Spike noticed a small worm hanging from the Swellow's mouth, but she quickly slurped it up before anybody else could see it.

Once everyone settled down on the log benches, Mara pulled out some egg sandwiches and distributed them to the humans in the party. She also gave some cornn berries to Aria, which she happily accepted. Ares received jerky instead of sandwiches.

"Those are your favorite, huh?" Spike muttered while petting Aria's head. She nodded in response before nibbling into them.

Next to him, Flannery pulled out both her Pokeballs, released them, and said, "Time to eat, Mag and Cam."

The Slugma and Numel appeared in front of her in a flash of light. Both looked up at their trainer with expectant looks. Flannery smiled and tossed them some charcoal-like rocks. Spike widened his eyes upon seeing the two Pokemon dig into those rocks like they were slabs of A5 beef at a five star restaurant. The startling sight caused him to miss Numel's new nickname.

At the same time, Carrie also pulled out a Pokeball and released a Pokemon.

"Come on out, Arky."

Spike almost facepalmed upon hearing the name of Carrie's Pokemon.

'This mother and daughter pair are creatively bankrupt,' Spike thought.

A moment later, he blinked his eyes wondering if he was seeing things, but no, the flash of light from Carrie's Pokeball revealed a Pokemon taller than most humans he had met. Its quadrupedal body was covered in a mix of reddish-orange fur with black markings and tan colored manes covering its neck and limbs. It looked like a perfect combination of lion and dog. Spike never expected to see one in the Hoenn region.

"Arcanine," The Pokemon happily barked while watching Carrie pour out a large bowl of brown food pellets from an orange bag.

'Is nobody around me an average Joe?' Spike couldn't help wondering as he absentmindedly bit into his egg sandwich.

After finishing his food, Spike looked at Mara and asked, "Mom, is it cool if Ares and I train nearby for a bit?"

"Yes. Just don't go too far, okay?"

Spike nodded, asked Aria to stay with Mara, and walked a little ways into the woods with Ares. Along the way, he heard Flannery call out, "Wait for me, Spike!"

Despite rolling his eyes, Spike smiled and waited for her. With her and her Pokemon joining them, they walked a little further into the woods without leaving the sight of their mothers. Like usual, Spike and Ares started working out together, drawing an exasperated sigh from Flannery.

"You two are super dedicated, aren't you?"

"Well, when you have something you want to do, it's easier to work hard for it," Spike effortlessly replied while speedrunning one hundred push-ups. Ares barked in agreement.

"Something you want to do?" Flannery mumbled while scratching her head. "I don't think I have something like that aside from wanting to be a good trainer."

"That's a worthwhile goal," Spike grunted in between sets. "Honestly, any goal can inspire you, whether that's being a trainer, ranger, professor, or, hell, even a good romantic partner. Everything takes effort if you want to be good at it."

"R-r-romantic partner?!" Flannery stammered with reddened cheeks.

"You're focusing on the wrong thing here," Spike retorted, rolling his eyes at her before starting on his sit-ups.

Flannery stared at him with a gaze so focused he could almost imagine her burning holes through his clothes. He chuckled at the innocent girl.

Suddenly, Ares hopped to his feet and twitched his ears.

"What's up, Ares?" Spike asked.

[Noi-] "-olu" Ares answered, staring into the woods.

Whipping his head in Ares' direction, Spike furrowed his brows and asked, "Mind repeating that?"

Shooting him a confused look with a raised brow, Ares said, "Ri- [-oisy Pokem-] "-io-" [-ing]

Lips curling into a frown, Spike scratched his ears. The strange mixture of Pokespeech and what he understood as human language caught him off guard. He didn't understand what was happening, and the strange no man's land between understanding and not understanding his partner's words made it harder for him to decipher his partner's intentions than normal. Focusing on Ares' slightly turbulent aura helped him decipher some mild anxiousness and alertness, though.

"Is something coming toward us?"

"Ri," Ares grunted with a nod, still looking at him with a confused expression.

Spike pet reached over and petted his partner's head, causing the little guy to tap his foot, though he retained his stoic expression.

"What's wrong?" Flannery asked.

"Seems some wild Pokemon are approaching us for some reason. Not sure if they're aggressive or not, but prepare yourself."

Flannery widened her eyes and nodded before stammering, "G- got it."

While the redhead attempted to prepare her admittedly dumb Pokemon, Spike tilted his head upon hearing distant hollers. Seconds later, the noises sounded like baboons yelling at each other.

Grimacing at what might be approaching, Spike scratched his head and prepared himself for a potential confrontation.

Before long, three blurs rushed toward them, swinging from branch to branch. Three figures landed on the grass in front of Spike and Flannery due to a larger gap between trees. Each of the three Pokemon looked like white-furred mixtures of monkey and sloth. They had red tufts of fur standing straight up off their head as though announcing their vigor, though each tuft varied in length and density.

"Vigor, Vigoroth!" The tallest one in the middle yelled at them. It stuck out its chest and swung its arms wildly as though attempting to threaten them. The other two Vigoroths also hooted angrily and danced around behind their apparent leader. They stared past the two humans and focused a hungry gaze on the campsite.

"Ri! Riolu!" Ares barked in retaliation, dashing forward in front of Spike and Flannery.

"Vigoro-" [-ood!]

[Bac-] "-iol-" [-ff!] "-iolu!"

The frontmost of the Vigoroth trio angrily waved its arms and charged.

"Lovely," Spike groaned while stepping up to assist his partner.

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