The character of the tunnel changed as Darren and Heather proceeded further down it. The difference was subtle, and though it prompted Darren to move with extra caution the more certain he became that there was something different about this stretch of tunnel, he wasn’t sure whether Heather had noticed.
“Yes?” He turned towards her, but kept part of his attention on their surroundings.
“Aren’t you getting, you know… tired and hungry?”
They had been walking for quite some time, and the Rocket grunt hadn’t offered him anything to eat before sending him to spy on the Pokémon Center. The reminder made his stomach growl. “The most strenuous exercise I got today was probably running from that policewoman after Fox knocked her Growlithe out. Food on the other hand… I’ve not eaten all day.” It took him another few moments for the shoe to drop. “Did you want to rest for a while?”
The girl nodded, looking somewhat embarrassed. “I could use a break. Do you have, um — I’m sorry, I really don’t mean to be rude, but, what do you eat?”
“Human food, usually. I can eat Pokémon food if I need to, though.” He noticed a shadow in the wall a short way further ahead. “It looks like there’s a side tunnel or nook of some kind over there. I’ve not seen any rocks large enough to sit on in the main tunnel for some time, but maybe there’ll be some rubble there.”
“It is tidier than when we entered, isn’t it? I wonder why.”
Darren shrugged, choosing not to share his suspicions regarding the reason this stretch of tunnel seemed better-kept. “Let’s pause for a while there, then.”
The shadow he’d seen turned out to be little more than an uneven alcove, but a few large-ish boulders had gotten pushed into it and proved to be quite adequate seating. Darren sat down on one which had some space between it and the wall that’d be behind him — he’d learned as a child that any seat which didn’t leave room for his tail was going to be uncomfortable to stay in for long — and Heather sat down opposite him, crossing her ankles and pulling her shoulder bag up onto her lap next to the baby Aerodactyl to dig around in it. It didn’t take many seconds for her Charmander, Amber, to crowd up on one side of her, and her Pikachu, Tiger, on the other.
She produced what seemed to be collapsible plastic bowls from one pocket of the bag, and ziplock baggies from another. After pouring a quantity of the kibble from the bags into the bowls and giving them to the Pokémon crowding up to her, she motioned for Darren to cup his hands, portioning out another serving into his palm. “See if he likes it,” she suggested, nodding towards Fox who was still draped across Darren’s shoulders.
It turned out that the Eevee did like the Pokéchow, as it quite enthusiastically devoured what had been offered, while Heather handfed her newest Pokémon piece-by-piece. It wasn’t until the Pokémon had all gotten their fill that she reached into her bag again.
“I don’t really have much, but we can stock up in the next town we get to.” She pulled out a slightly mushed package wrapped in white paper, and a foil-wrapped bar, tossing the latter to Darren. “Try this. It might be a bit tough to chew, but… my mom claims they’re nutritious and keeps packing them for me.” She peeled the white paper off of her own package, revealing a sandwich that looked like someone had sat on it — quite possibly true, as for all Darren could recall the bag might’ve been between Heather and himself when she’d landed on him at the bottom of the pit.
He tore the foil off of the bar she’d passed him, revealing a dense brick of what looked to be nuts, grains and dried berries, and which smelled as though honey had also gone into making it. Taking a cautious bite off of one corner, keeping an eye on Heather as he ate mostly from force of habit, he found she had certainly not been exaggerating when she’d called the energy bar chewy. It was tough and sweet, with an interesting spicy tone — cloves and cinnamon and something more he couldn’t quite place.
“I’ve had worse,” he said, with a grin, after finally finishing chewing and swallowing that first bite. “I rather like the taste of it.”
“Glad someone does!” Heather spoke around a mouthful of her squished, somewhat soggy sandwich.
Before they left their resting spot, she had also produced a bottle of fresh water which might not have amounted to much between the two trainers and four Pokémon, but it was something. Carefully collecting all of their trash to bring with them, they broke camp and continued on their way.
Turning the next corner, they were forced to come to an abrupt stop.
It wasn’t a dead end. They could even see past the obstacle blocking the tunnel. The problem was that this wasn’t just a fallen boulder blocking the path, as had been the case earlier. This was a string of boulders larger than the one Darren had broken when they’d found Fluffy’s egg. And at the end of it — the end facing them, none the less — a very large, vaguely-serpentine head looking to be roughly chiseled from the same grey granite as the body. And in that head, bright eyes, currently narrowed in annoyance.
The Onix’s voice, when it aired that annoyance, left Darren’s ears ringing, but its message was clear enough. He put one hand calmingly on Fox’s flank as he felt the Eevee tense up, and glanced quickly at Heather, then spoke, calmly, to the wild Pokémon. “We’re very sorry; we didn’t mean to intrude on your territory.”
“What are you doing?” Heather hissed at him. “It’s a wild Onix. Just… catch it or something.”
“Shh. She’s upset because we’re trespassing. Let me handle this.”
The Onix roared again, shifting in the tunnel that suddenly seemed a lot more confined than it had a moment ago.
“We’re no threat to you. Please, if you would just let us pass—” The rest of what he was trying to say was drowned out by the Onix’s response. Quickly, he whispered something to Fox, who jumped off his shoulders and, with a flare of light, once again evolved into the winged form he’d used to bring Tiger down into the hole at the digsite. “Heather, pick up Amber and tell Tiger to get on Fox again.”
“Just do as I say!” Darren couldn’t watch her to see if she followed his instructions; he had to focus on the Onix, which was now watching his Pokémon with what appeared to be rising suspicion. “Fox isn’t a threat; none of us are. We didn’t know this tunnel would lead into your territory when we started, and it’s blocked by a rockfall behind us.”
He could, barely, see past the front of the Onix enough to see it lift its tail. If his instincts were right — and they ususally were, in his experience — that spelled bad news, especially for his companions. The Onix roared again, and a barely-perceptible shudder seemed to go through it.
Heather shrieked when he scooped her up, Charmander and Aerodactyl and all, and moments later he was, barely, airborne, his small wings flapping furiously to get any lift in the confined space. Fox fared better, with his smaller size, flying this way and that with the Pikachu on his back. It hadn’t been a moment too early; beneath them, the ground heaved like a sheet being shaken out, before settling back down in slightly worse order than before.
Darren landed, though remained ready to take off again, should he need to. “We want to get out as much as you want us out,” he said to the wild Pokémon. “I don’t want to fight you. If you force me to, I will win. All we want is to get out of here, preferably as quickly as possible.”
Maybe the fact that he’d just managed to avoid what no doubt was the Onix’s most powerful offensive ability had impressed it enough to make it believe what he was saying. Maybe it was something else. But this time, when it roared back, its voice was comparably quiet.
“That’s right. We ended up in your territory by mistake. We don’t want to steal your eggs, or take over your tunnels, or capture you. Just let us leave.”
Moments later, the Onix disappeared through the rock floor, digging down as easily as if it were loose sand. Darren waited, every fiber of his being ready to get out of the way when the Pokémon reappeared, but was still somehow surprised by a — for a thirty-foot rock snake — soft call from behind him.
Surprised, he set Heather down and started towards the Onix. “She’ll give us a ride to the nearest exit, near Mt. Moon.”
“She’ll… give us a ride?”
“That’s what she says, yes. She wants to see us out of here as quickly as possible, I suppose.” He climbed on top of the Onix’s head, sitting down next to the horn of rock protruding from on top of it, and idly stroked the surprisingly smooth surface of the Pokémon’s skin as he waited for Heather to join him. “Come on before she changes her mind.”
Hesitantly, Heather followed his example, sitting down on the other side of the Onix’s head, her Pokémon crowding to her, while Fox unbidden returned to his Pokéball. “I guess I should take back what I said earlier.”
“Having someone who can talk to Pokémon around does make things easier.”