A gentle northward wind blowing against the saw grass and cat-tails that bordered Lake Myrcene East's shoreline kept the outcroppings swaying with faint and rhythmic motion. Hearing his partner's whistle that signaled his readiness, Zap took a few deep breaths and plunged his head into the cold lake's waters. The ampharos let his thoughts drift to favorite tunes while the gem embedded in his skull emitted a scintillating and enthralling glow that pulsated in-time with the music in his mind.
Holding perfectly still despite his lungs' demand for air, Zap watched as a fish timidly approached. The goat's long tail curled over his back and came into a triangular alignment with his horns and hooves. Sparks crawled across the water's surface as a sudden electrical discharge coursed through the fish, compelling it to jump into the air on pure reflex.
A cyan-blue flash of reflected moonlight traced an arc as a vaporeon leapt out from within the weeds and deftly snatched the fish before it fell back into its home waters. Relying on unnatural surface tension to stand upon the lake's surface, Phil's paws cast gentle ripples in his wake as he reversed and trotted back to the shore and then toward a campsite where his other friends were relaxing.
Zap withdrew his head from the pond and snorted harshly to clear water from his nasal cavity. Letting his tail's orb illuminate his immediate surroundings, he stepped back from the lake and tilted his head from side to side, encouraging his ear canals to drain, too. He did not particularly enjoy fishing, but the ampharos appreciated having an opportunity to do something productive and contribute to his team. He turned to face the campsite and wondered if that was an appropriate term.
Phil seemed to vanish when he left the radiant glow of Zap's tail, only to emerge from shadow a moment later with a smiling face broken by the fish that he was carrying in his mouth as he approached the golden light of flames rising above a prone typhlosion's shoulders.
With a two-pronged stick, thoroughly-scorched in the line of duty, their chef skewered Phil's latest delivery and flared his flame vents once again. The increasing heat radiating from Theodore's shoulders compelled Vera to re-position herself slightly to her right, letting her master's body shield her own more thoroughly. Leaning against his back with her wings folded over his shoulders, she opened her beak slightly and faintly whispered something only her own species would understand.
Most of the fish that Zap and Phil caught that night found their way inside of Hal, who was busily gnawing on the last one to finish cooking. Wild dratini eat their fish raw, but Hal was hatched inside a cage and ate nothing but generic bagged kibble until he was liberated. He was fully-evolved before his first sushi experience, and had yet to develop a taste for it. However, being on the road meant being on a budget, and free fish will silence a demanding belly as well as anything else.
Scents of frying scales and a now-emptied can of beans drifted northward, beyond the trainer's tent and into nearby bushes. An intruder wove through dense foliage and peeked around from behind the tent, finding these fragrances irresistible. It had been a long time since she used her thieving instincts to their fullest, but they were fully intact. She saw a typhlosion between her and the fish--not an option--but she was now close enough to smell some berries inside the trainer's bag. Which variety they were did not matter, anything would do. All that she needed was a few seconds without anyone looking her way.
She surveyed the rest of the scene. Evolved pokemon, all of them, but none seemed to be particularly alert. Having never seen a xatu before, she was unaware that her cover was already blown by Vera's psychic perceptions.
While the intruder planned her heist, Vera cooed gently, putting both her trainer and his typhlosion on sly alert.
A sneasel slowly crept around the tent and targeted an unguarded backpack that lied next to a loosely-scattered pile of opened pokeballs. She monitored the band as she approached, wearing the campers' long shadows as camouflage. In the distance, Phil and Zap were preparing to catch another fish. Hal's eyes were closed and he seemed to be nodding off. Vera appeared to be already asleep. The trainer was pecking at a bagged snack, and the Theodore was lying on his belly with his eyes closed, humming an unfamiliar tune while ignoring the fish that he was cooking as it burned above his shoulders.
The soon-to-be burglar's heart rate increased as she gently opened the trainer's backpack and found a fine bundle of berries. Thinking her heist was a success, she slowly and silently smuggled them beyond the tent. Theodore felt as though his body was raising itself from the ground as his flames shortened and increased in temperature. With a degree of stealth easily rivaling the intruder's, he got his feet beneath himself and began to pursue her.
Creeping along the shadows with her back to her victims, the sneasel's eyes were fixated forward as there was nothing behind her that she both needed and could take without being caught by a trainer with a fire-type again. The bushes were only a few meters away; beyond them lied escape, safety, and with stolen goods in-hand, her first complete meal that she could still remember. As those bushes began to shine with a reflected light of all-too-familiar hue, she allowed her pace to slow and closed her eyes, knowing exactly what was about to happen.
A fireball struck the ground at her feet, flipping her into the air and instantly incapacitating her. She landed on her back, vision blurred and body numb. Her only sense that still functioned properly was smell, and all it had to provide was a reminder that her fur was now singed. Soon, a puff of breath put out a tiny flame that was burning the magenta feather growing above her left ear. She felt something warm lifting her off of the ground and then heard words pounding through her head.
"Hey, Boss! We have a guest."
Theodore surrendered the dazed critter to his trainer. On a claw dangled remnants of a loosely-knitted bag. The berries within were ruined, but to Theodore, char was just another seasoning. He dumped them into his mouth while starting a campfire proper within a ring of stones used for that purpose countless times by passing trainers in the past.
Vera removed her wings from her master's shoulders and stepped away unnoticed, choosing to now stand across the fire from Hal, who--discounting occasional twitching of his antennae--had not responded to any of the recent activity, dozing peacefully in a seated position.
The young man held the intruder with his hands beneath her arms and sat her across his left thigh. "Are you okay, little thief? My name is Vincent. Do you have a name and a trainer?"
The sneasel began to regain her senses and started to thrash weakly against the grip that Vincent held her by, but seeing a fire-type looming overhead paralyzed her with fear. Its face crept closer until she flinched.
"The boss asked you a question. You should give him an answer."
She squeaked out the word "no" twice in rapid succession.
The typhlosion huffed. "Is that 'no' to both questions, or 'no' you won't answer?"
Vincent nudged his starter. "Calm down and have a seat, Tio. I don't think 'bad-cop' is the way to go, here." His attention returned to the smoldering creature. "You don't have a name or a trainer, so, you're wild? I've never heard of sneasels coming down this far from the mountains."
She could not look him in the eyes, glancing downward and away for a few moments. Hearing a low growl indicating that the fire-type was becoming agitated, she reluctantly responded.
"I was caught. I was... trained." She cringed and whimpered as she finished her sentence.
The trainer stood her before himself, knowing that she was in no condition to flee, even if Tio was not pinning her to the spot with his gaze.
Theodore sat beside Vincent and spoke with an indignant tone. "Were you trained to steal?"
"No. I was trained... to be punished." The sneasel began to tear up. Vincent looked up from her and saw Vera casting him a compassionate nod.
With a whistle, Vincent called his team to attention, attracting Zap and Phil from the shoreline, and bade the little thief to explain how she came to plunder his berries. "I would like to know your history before I make a decision about your future."
She still could not look up at him, but she knew well the penalty for disobedience.
"I'm a runt. I always was small and weak. My pack was good about weeding out the weaklings, and one day I was it. Unlike the others that they killed, I was fast. Not the fastest, but fast enough to survive and escape. I didn't know how to hunt by myself and soon I was starving. I was looking for berries and when I pushed through a bush, I saw it." The storyteller paused in thought for a moment.
"A pidgey. I knew it had to be a trainer's. The strongest sneasels would talk about finding a trainer so they could be part of a trainer's pack and get even stronger. Part of me wanted to take this fat, slow pidgey's position in its pack, but most of me just wanted to eat. It hardly fought back and when it did I already had tasted its blood. It was a small bird, but I was proud. It was my first solo kill. I thought the trainer would be impressed. I heard him walking up, shouting, and I turned to face him with a smile, but all I saw was his boot coming at me."
"When I woke up, I was sore all over. Many of my teeth were gone. He was sitting in a chair, slowly petting a ninetales. I had never been around humans before, so I didn't understand all the things he was saying at first, but over the years I pieced things together when he would yell at me or talk to his other pokemon or just to himself. He had that pidgey all his life. When he saw me killing it, he swore to make me suffer, and he did."
"Every night, he 'trained' me. He would send one of his pokemon after me to do whatever it wanted. The only rule was that it couldn't kill me and the more I was hurt, the better the reward. His ninetales would watch to make sure I never fought back. If I did, it became Ninetales' night. Sometimes when he was angry for whatever reason, it was Ninetales' night, anyway." The little thief began to sob and knelt on the grass.
"He--He would take the chain off of my ankle and throw me into a small back room. He'd say 'nighty-night, you little shit'--you asked if I had a name; that's the only name I've ever had--then his ninetales would come in and he would lock the door behind him. He didn't watch but I know he listened because his radio would be turned off and his ninetales always hurt me to make me scream and scream until I was too sore to scream anymore. Then, he would bite my neck and breathe that damn fox-fire over me to burn my lungs and choke me so I would pass out."
"In the morning, he would dump leftover coffee on me to wake me up and then he would jam a sitrus berry in my mouth. Berries were the only food I was ever given and it was just so I could get up and do his housework, starting by sponging up his coffee."
Her gaze averted from the grass she sat upon, looking straight into the human's eyes. Her voice raised to become emphatic. "Every day was like that. He would go to work and leave me with his ninetales guarding me. After he came home and had dinner and I finished the dishes, he would make me--" she gasped, paused, and continued. "Then, it was time for training." Tears welled in her eyes. She covered her face and cried again.
The team members looked at each other, each one silently asking if such a trainer could even exist. Phil and Hal thought they had it rough when they were an eevee and dratini, crammed inside tiny cages and waiting for someone to want them enough to earn sufficient tokens to barter for them. They had met some cruel trainers on routes and in gyms from time to time, but none seemed to be akin to the sadistic monster that this little thief described.
Zap broke the silence. "How did you get away?"
The little thief, for the first time that night after she saw Vincent's apparently unguarded backpack, smiled a sly smile that conveyed almost boastful pride. The emotion sneaked into her voice. "I figured it out. While he was at work, I was on the chain. His ninetales would be snoozing most of the time. If I stopped working and let the chain stop making noise he would hurt me, but I could dust his bookshelf all day without getting into trouble, and that's where he kept my ball. I got a screwdriver and bent its prongs a little to weaken it without messing it up."
"When he came back last Friday, he let his ninetales outside to use the tree before putting me in that ball and taking his team out for some fights. I had a minute alone. I ran over to his berry jar and choked down an occa. They came back in, his ninetales blasted me, I pretended to be unconscious, and he put me in my ball. It took a while, but I forced it open. I broke it and I ran as fast as I could until I couldn't run anymore."
The pride faded, and her words became monotone. "That was four days ago. I haven't found anything to eat since then. I smelled your fish, and I had to try."
Vincent reached inside his bag, withdrew an antiseptic spray, and hosed the sneasel down. It felt very cold and made the pain of her burn go away. Comforting sensations startled her, as it was the first time that a human had done something to her that made her feel much better afterwards.
"Alright, little thief, here's the deal. I've got a fish here, and I'm going to give it to you. You can take it and run, and I won't stop you. I've also got this." Vincent withdrew a luxury ball from his bag. "You can have this too, if you want it."
The sneasel picked up her fish and took a bite. For a moment, she savored the first taste of fresh meat that she had experienced in years. She looked at the ball and then at its holder as she chewed on the right side of her mouth.
His expression was light, but serious. "It's a very pretty ball, so if you choose to take it, you're going to promise to never break it."
Her freedom had not been kind to her, but she was not expecting to give it up again so quickly, and she stepped back. There was a clear path to the bushes, and she had a fish in her hands. The temptation was strong.
Zap leaned closer to Vera and muttered, "I bet she's gonna scoot."
Vera closed her eyes halfway as her pupils contracted, "he can still save her life."
Vincent overheard her, recalled the sneasel's words, and got an idea. He looked toward Vera, who was already nodding with approval.
"Let me offer you one more thing, before you go. You can keep the fish either way. You said that you've never won a fight except against a pet pidgey. Would you feel better about yourself if you knew you once knocked out a dragon?"
Hal opened his eyes and groaned. He had lost consciousness to ice attacks enough times in his life, and now he was being asked to throw a fight to improve the self-esteem of a burglar. It was not the way he wanted to end any evening, but he trusted his trainer's intentions and remembered again how his origin story compared to hers as he took a fighting stance. The sneasel stuttered when she looked up at the dragonite, standing almost four times her height but seemingly six the way he towered above her.
"You--you want me to fight him? Ten fish for losing wouldn't be worth it!"
Vincent rummaged through his bag again. "Here, try wearing this. I won it in a poker game; it looks like your style." He tossed a razor claw onto the ground near her feet.
The thief looked at the claw, at the human, at the fish, at the team, and at the bushes. She picked up the weapon and looked back to Vincent again. He was wearing a sly smile, the smile of one of her kind when knowing that a plan was about to succeed. She knew that she had to see what was behind it. Even if she took a beating, it would not be the first time she had taken a beating to entertain a cruel human. With the claw equipped, she charged towards Hal's wall of orange scales.
"Wow, she really is weak." The scratch she delivered hardly stung at all. Hal's words were intended to be matter-of-fact, but they were almost enough to make the little thief break down in despair. With a sharp breath, she managed to restrain her reaction to a soured facial expression.
She was so weak that even the phony fight that she was supposed to somehow win seemed hopeless. Grabbing the fish and fleeing seemed like her best bet, but as she turned she saw Vincent rotating the luxury ball in his left hand, staring into her eyes.
He tapped the ball twice with his index finger. "Don't give up."
The sneasel threw herself at the dragon relentlessly, while he yawned and soaked up her hits. After about three minutes he managed to begin to bleed a little. Gripping her with his heavy left hand to pause her assault, Hal rubbed the inside of his thigh with his right to verify that she had managed to wound him. He licked his blood from his finger and released the sneasel, gesturing an invitation for her to continue attacking.
The assailant was becoming exhausted. She still had not eaten anything but a couple bites of fish since escaping, and began to lose focus. Her mind struggled to remember her old life, when she was fighting alongside the pack that rejected her, and started to envision the attacks used by her leaders. An aged memory came to mind. She and her pack once fought a dragon, a disoriented garchomp that was far from its home. When they attacked, the leaders called out only one command, "use ice!"
Vincent and his team watched dejectedly as the little thief began to stagger and miss her target, muttering something indistinct in her natural tongue. Despite the pathetic display that her body was putting on, in her mind's eye, she was a leader of her pack, doing what she remembered they did. Her imagination took over. With the last of her stamina, she formed a cloud of frost around her knuckles and gave that garchomp everything she had left, falling to her knees as the swing connected.
Theodore leapt onto the battlefield and shoved the sneasel aside, just in time to save her from being crushed by the collapsing dragon and to get himself pinned beneath Hal's bulk.
The little thief managed to stand again and catch her breath. She had just knocked out a dragonite. He was not fighting back, but it felt good nonetheless. She stumbled over to Vincent, not knowing what to say.
He maintained his smirk. "That fish is still yours. You just need to tell me your decision regarding this ball."
She winced. Damn him for asking her again to surrender her freedom. And why should she? So he let her win a rigged fight, big deal. She discovered how to throw an ice punch; she could probably hunt for herself, now, as long as she got the drop on her game. She did not need a trainer. She had speed, stealth, freedom, and a headache.
It came on quickly and would not let up. It felt like it was boiling inside of her and would soon make her burst at the seams. Her hold on the razor claw faded and she staggered backwards, gripping her head as the singed feather above her left ear fell off cleanly.
Vincent's team quickly became concerned. Evolution was often traumatic, but this scene was beginning to look more like torture than transformation as she failed to show any actual signs of development. Zap spoke first and for everyone. "Vera, what's wrong with her?"
The xatu laid the little thief on the grass and placed a hand upon the writhing sneasel's forehead. "This is bad. Her body is trying to evolve but she doesn't have enough energy to grow. I think it's because of malnourishment. She needs food and water, now, or she may die, or become trapped between forms." Vera closed her eyes and concentrated for a moment that seemed much longer than it was. "He can still save her life."
Vincent thought for a second and started digging through his bag again. He threw an empty can of beans toward his vaporeon. "Phil; water, fast!"
Phil filled the can with fresh, pure water as quickly as Zap could pour it into the sneasel, although she was hardly able to swallow any of it.
The trainer ran over and slid into position like a ball-player coming home. "She would choke to death before we could get real food in her, but maybe she can swallow this."
Vincent unwrapped a rare candy and showed it to Vera, who nodded approvingly. He got it into the sneasel's mouth and clasped his hands over her face so she could not spit it out. Zap touched his head to the sneasel and gave her a tiny jolt to force her to swallow.
She shuddered, curled on her side, and lied still for a moment before bolting upright. A crown of feathers began to sprout from her brow as she scrambled to her feet and ran into the darkness towards the waterfront, tripping and shrieking in agony as her transformation continued.
The team watched a moonlight-traced form lying beside the pond as it slowly gathered itself up, jostling a few cat-tails as it rose. It looked into the pond and gasped before throwing an ice-punch that glanced the surface of the water. A moment later, a plate of ice was marching up a gentle grade toward the campsite illuminated by a small fire and a generous ampharos. The calm pond's surface, frozen in form and in time, provided the full-body mirror necessary for the little thief to take in her new appearance.
"No... Yes... It's... I'm..." As she pressed her forehead against the frozen surface, her babbling stopped suddenly, replaced by diabolical laughter that echoed through the still air, over the pond and into the forest, startling an owl into taking flight.
Theodore's shoulders ignited instinctively.
Her laughter slowly transformed back into language as she held her mirror before herself again for a second look. "It's really me. I'm bigger. I'm stronger. I--I have all my teeth again! Heh-heh, it's finally my turn. I can finally have my revenge! Trainer!" Her gaze snapped instantly from her reflection to Vincent.
Tio's flames began to climb as he dug his feet into the soil, but he performed a double-take when he saw Vera shaking her head in disapproval with such speed that she seemed to be vibrating.
The no-longer-little thief discarded her mirror before slowly turning to face the human, extending her clawed arms forward and pointing at him with her right. "You did this to me. You turned me into the killing machine that every sneasel wishes to become. And for that, you need to get what you have coming to you."
A few feet away, Theodore was gesturing at the demon with both hands and melodramatically mouthing his words of suspicion, but Vera was confident in her prediction. The xatu was never wrong, but the typhlosion could not bear the possibility of something happening to his best friend. When the demon grinned and lunged at Vincent, Tio leapt behind her, ready to unleash the fires of the sixth, seventh, and eighth circles of Hell upon her, only to stumble and pause at hearing sounds of tearful laughter.
Vincent lied knocked-over on the ground, wrapped tightly by the arms of a newly-minted weavile.
"You did it to me. The only dream I've ever had other than escaping that damn cabin and you made it happen."
Vera blew out the low flames on Tio's shoulder like birthday candles, wrapped her left wing around him, and whispered into his ear, "he has saved her life, but our family will not change in size," before stepping away, picking up a singed feather from the ground, tucking it into a small bag hung beneath her right wing, and flying off to find a suitable place to roost for the night.
"Tio, I can't tell if you are confused or upset," Vincent said as he helped himself back up.
The typhlosion began to speak, but reconsidered and found something else to say as he passed by The Boss and ducked into their tent. "A little of both. I think I'll sleep on it."
Vincent stoked the campfire, which had begun to diminish. "You wouldn't mind catching another fish, would you guys?"
Zap faked a smile. "No problem, Vince, if Philly's up to it." Phil was already exiting the light of both ampharos and campfire when Zap finished his sentence.
The weavile felt slightly embarrassed as three pairs of eyes watched her eat. She tried to divert attention by asking of Hal's condition.
"Is he going to be okay? I didn't think I hit him that hard."
Vincent glanced over at the still-collapsed lizard. "He can't handle anything ice; it's a dragon thing." He turned toward Phil and Zap. "See if you can get him into the lake so he can sleep it off comfortably."
Phil blasted Hal in the face with a stream of pure water to awaken him enough that, with Zap's help, he could drag himself across the shoreline. He enjoyed opportunities to rest comfortably with his body supported by its own buoyancy, rather than sleeping while sitting upright.
As payment for a full stomach, Hal permitted Phil to climb aboard and lie on his belly, with the vaporeon's tail drifting and swaying in the water alongside.
Zap returned from the pond and unleashed a contagious yawn that spread quickly and caused the remaining campers to unanimously agree that it was time to retire. He settled in near the flap of his trainer's tent and dimmed to night-light level while watching the campfire's embers fade away.
Theodore, Vincent, and the weavile packed tightly inside a tent hired at a reasonable rate from the last pokecenter they had visited. Tio and The Boss had been sleeping together for years, ever since the then-cyndaquil became gravely ill and his young master refused to leave his side, but accommodating a third bed-mate was quite unusual.
The weavile snuggled closely against Vincent's side, resting her head on his left shoulder. "They don't know how good this feels."
Vincent was already half-asleep and half-vocalized his response, "they don't?"
"No. To lie down and go to sleep. If I could even remember, I could count on my claws how many times I've just gone to sleep since he captured me. Every night--every single night--I was put to bed by being beaten or burned until I couldn't..." She almost teared up again. "And after tonight, when I wake up, I'm not going to be scalded with cheap coffee, and--and I'm going to eat actual food... right?" She looked at Vincent hopefully, to which he nodded approvingly. "Your pokemon don't know how good this feels." The weavile struggled to snuggle even more closely.
Vincent was now fully awake. "You know, with all that excitement you gave us when you evolved up, you didn't tell me if you want me to catch you or not. You ate your fish, but you are still free to go."
Her eyes burst open. "Yes... No. I want--" She flipped herself over to stand on all four and look him in the eyes. "Will you promise to let me fight and become someone I can be proud of? I don't want to be a trophy trapped in a ball forever like the dozens he had on his shelves."
Vincent reached up and rested his left hand on the back of her head. "I'm not that kind of trainer. I don't trap pokemon for sport or status. I don't even walk with six pokemon, yet." A gentle emphasis underscored that he expected her to choose.
She smiled faintly and settled back down. "First thing tomorrow; just wait, I'm going to make you proud of me." The weavile reached across Vincent's chest and bumped into Theodore's paw.
Tio spoke up. "She's going to need a name. I don't think what she was called in her story would be appropriate."
Vincent asked the weavile if she knew a name that she wanted, but the only names that she knew were ones she had heard coming out of her captor's radio, and she did not know which one would be fitting for herself. "I think I want you to give me one."
The trainer closed his eyes. "Okay, first thing that comes to mind. Girl's name. 'Fiona,' are you happy with that?"
Fiona hummed twice in a high tone.
Theodore groaned. "Boss, if you enter us into a double match, just promise you won't register us as Tio and Fio, okay?"