"Sorry!" Jess backed away as Roxy flinched. She should have known the gesture wouldn't be taken well. Silent once again, she retreated to the other side of the room and sat back down, picking up the rapidly congealing sandwich. She nearly gagged at the yellow goo that dribbled like melting plastic from the edges, slimy with tomato seeds and wilted basil leaves that reminded her of pondweed. What was usually comfort food now repulsed her.
She had to eat, she told herself, but her stress-tightened stomach clenched harder at the thought. She glanced at Roxy, who struggled to force down her own sandwich. That explained part of the lost appetite. Jess took a bite of her meal, the cheese lukewarm and rubbery in her mouth, grease trickling over her fingers. Guilt made it even more difficult for her to eat. Roxy's tone, as well as that pang of anxiety, had made it clear the job she'd mentioned wasn't going to be like the work they'd done this morning, before that man had appeared.
She should have stayed, the empath thought as she tried to finish her lunch. She should have waited for another match to come along, instead of selfishly tagging along after a reluctant anchor. Now, it turned out that reluctance was even more justified than she'd thought.
Jess let her gaze drop to the table, deciding not to pry further. Roxy wasn't going to let on any more, seemingly for good reason after all. Despite the anchor's insistance she could handle it, her stress spread through the air like a winter chill, a sense of resignation hanging about her as if she'd have to do something she didn't want to do.
Without a word, Jess stood up and slowly made her way across the room. She reached out, resting a hand on Roxy's shoulder with the lightest of touches - then withdrew it. She'd meant it to be a gesture of comfort, and in a way, an apology for landing her in this mess. Now, though, the empath knew the reason for the distance the anchor put between herself and others, or at least part of the reason. And she couldn't blame Roxy for wanting to keep that distance.
A chill ran through Jess. This was exactly what she'd suspected, but that didn't make it any easier to hear it confirmed. Roxy was in danger because of her.
It all made sense. The knives. The tough attitude. The way Roxy tried to keep her distance as much as possible.
Questions raced through the empath's head, but didn't leave her mouth. There was no way Roxy would answer them, not if she thought it would make things worse... that was, if the anchor really thought it would. How would not knowing keep her any safer?
Finally, she settled on one. "Please, tell me... Is there anything I should know about this? Anything at all? I mean... You say I'll be safer this way, but will you?" She winced, knowing her words could be taken the wrong way. "Uh, I know you're not one to mess with, but even so..." She couldn't put all the responsibility on Roxy, not if there was some way she could avoid the threat herself. Even if she tried to stay out of it, as the anchor wanted, it seemed too late for that.
With a sigh of relief, Amber watched the mass of Flying types dissipate. "Everyone ok?" She glanced from side to side. It seemed the other trainers and their Pokemon were, but...
At the sound of an almighty thud, Amber stared ahead. The Kommo-o lay slumped on the ground, breath coming in rasping, agonised growls. Hatchlings lay around her, unmoving. Fainted? Amber wondered. Or...? Chilled by the thought, Amber's first instinct was to reach for her Pokegear, call the town's Pokemon centre. The Zubat line was well known for taking much more blood than they actually needed, but if the dragons got the right attention, it surely wouldn't be too late... Her heart sank as the device failed to pick up a signal.
"Can anyone do something?" Her eyes darted from Rachel, to Vivianne, who grasped what looked like a Hyper Potion from her bag. At a blur of black and white frills in the corner of her vision, the researcher whirled around. "Careful..." She gently rested a hand on Sophia's shoulder, motioning for her to slow down. The dragon, weakened as she was, might still lash out.
Hearing a scurrying sound, Amber turned her head. Her hopes lifted a little. One little dragon had escaped unharmed... at least, physically.
The moment the Kommo-o hit the ground, once more filling the cave with metallic clanging, Sophia hurried towards her. The pain that pulsed through the exhausted psychic's head at the noise almost had her sagging to the ground, but she didn't stop, not even as a hand settled on her shoulder. Shrugging away the touch, she staggered to the dragon's side, all too aware of how hopeless the extent of the damage looked.
"Hang in there," she pleaded, sinking to her knees as Lacey pattered over. "We'll get help, we'll make sure you and these little ones..." A cold, sick feeling spread through her as she glanced around the nest. The dragon's young lay still. No sign of life, except from one. In a flash of grey and gold scales, the Jangmo-o disappeared into a narrow tunnel, prompting Oscar to try and coax it out.
"Lacey... Please, check on that Jangmo-o," Sophia panted. "Just try not to scare it." As the Gothita toddled after Oscar and his Pokemon, Sophia closed her eyes and focused as deeply as she could. The haze of pain, fatigue and muddled traces of others' auras made her task nearly impossible.
What was it Oscar had said the other day? She recalled the words. Think of your powers as an extra arm. Try feeling for Pokemon. Imagining how a nurse would examine a Pokemon with a gentle touch, Sophia reached with her senses to each dragon, instead of trying to assess all at once. The hatchlings gave off no energy, confirming the psychic's fears, and only the faintest flicker of life force thrummed from the mother.
"Please, hold on, there has to be something we can do," she urged, but the Kommo-o didn't respond. Still keeping track of the dragon's life energy as best she could, Sophia glanced up at a chirping noise. "Look, your baby's coming over, it's going to be fine, you're going to be..."
Before she could finish, she felt the Kommo-o's life snuff out like a candle.
"No... Oh, no..." She searched for any remaining spark of vitality, finding none. Maybe she was simply too tired to find it, she told herself, but she couldn't deny what she knew deep down - she'd sensed it slipping away.
Looking over at Vivianne, who crouched with medical supplies, to Oscar, who slowly approached, to the hatchling, who let out heart-wrenching squeals as it nuzzled its mother's body, Sophia could barely bring herself to confirm what had happened. All she could do was give a telltale shake of her head.
Jess had assumed she might feel safer once inside, away from any watchful eyes, but for some reason she didn't. That paranoia still nagged at her. Was it her own, or Roxy's? It was most likely a mix of both, but where did her feelings end and Roxy's begin?
It didn't matter, or at least it shouldn't. They both had a reason to be afraid, after all. Something else, though, stirred through the tumult of fear and anger. Concern. As much as she worried about the other woman, Jess was sure that the feeling wasn't entirely her own, that it was mutual. She'd been able to do hardly anything for the anchor, except somehow land her in more trouble than she could begin to imagine - and yet Roxy still cared.
Taking a seat, Jess kept her eyes on Roxy even as the other woman distanced herself. "Roxy... please," she said. "What's going on? That guy, in the cafe just now... I saw how he looked at us..." Her voice wavered. "I-I felt how pleased he was about something. Like things were going to some kind of plan."
She fell silent, biting her lip. How much would the the anchor be willing to talk about? Jess didn't know, but she couldn't just pretend nothing was happening.
"I... I'm good with that," Jess replied, nodding as she held the warm paper bag. Not even having food in front of her brought her appetite back. The smell of oozing cheese and the sight of grease patches turned her stomach.
Lapsing into silence again, she followed Roxy. She wished she could be the kind of person to take initiative, to have made the suggestion for both their sakes instead of leaving it to the anchor to deal with this mess, but her confidence hadn't grown any. Maybe it was a good thing. If she'd said anything, that would almost certainly have been another hint she knew they were being watched.
Even now, she had to suppress the urge to glance about her. That scrutiny, whatever the reason for it, wasn't something they could easily escape.
In truth, Jess didn't want anything. The smells of food around her made her feel sick. It wouldn't do her good to go without lunch, though, especially if she had to keep her wits about her.
"I'll... I'll just go with a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich," she answered, hoping they could take the food to the garage instead of eating here. She took another glance around for anyone who may be watching them, like a mouse keeping alert for cats. The only person who looked their way was someone Roxy greeted a little more warmly that usual. Someone she seemed to know. Putting on a faint smile, Jess murmured her own greeting.
Did such a standoffish person as Roxy have people on her side? Could she let others in after all? But if so... Would whatever was going on affect more than just the two of them?
Five years ago, Jess hadn't imagined satisfaction could make her skin crawl. Now, though, that triumphant feeling was someone else's, and it was surely for the wrong reasons.
She glanced at the man again in time to glimpse a nod. Another telltale sign. Without a word, she disappeared after Roxy through the crowded room. Keeping a look out for any other suspicious-looking people, she drew closer to the anchor. Large groups were something she still had to get used to, and would have been unsettling enough even without the threat that shadowed her and Roxy.
On the surface, it was a perfectly normal scene. People sat gathered around tables, the smell of coffee and the buzz of chatter filling the air. Yet for the two of them, things were anything but normal. And, with a sinking feeling, Jess acknowledged that her reaction just now could have made everything a whole lot worse.