A normal-height Fiona awoke with a small chunk of polyester stuffing in her mouth. The pillow serving as a surrogate hiker was now a tattered rag surrounded by a sea of fluff. Vera lifted her left wing from Theodore's shoulder and her right from Vincent's before opening her eyes. "This weavile is fully awake and in control of her claws. You do not need my assistance to speak to her, now."
Fiona did not want to look anyone in their eyes. "Another nightmare. Does that mean I--" she realized that she did, again.
Vincent walked over from his position beside Vera, crouching next to Fiona and giving her a sideways hug. "You're doing a good job of making sure I don't forget to wash my sleeping bag."
Theodore approached with a stern expression. "I think she's gonna do a good job of washing your sleeping bag, while we see what kind of breakfast we can find."
Vera proposed Vincent and Theodore walking ahead, advising that there was a small village nearby, by way of a secluded northern route.
A trainer would normally feel uncomfortable leaving his team alone, but if Vera gave no warning against it, nothing ruinous was going to happen. "Alright, we'll check it out. Hal, hold the fort for us."
The path was a beautiful, but narrow, trail through old trees and young bushes. Vincent was one-third of the way to the village that Vera suggested when he was ambushed by a trainer looking for a fight. He was an older boy, but he was clearly a bug catcher. Easy money. The stranger saw that Vincent carried only one ball on his belt, so he offered a one-on-one against his best, and Vincent felt no risk in setting the stakes at 3,165 trainer's credits, all that he had left in his account.
Timothy laughed and said, "you just bought my lunch, you know," as he released his scizor from its ball.
Vincent smiled, and with a smirk retorted, "I'm sorry, but you should be more careful on a sunny day."
Timothy knew exactly what that meant. Slice shot his inexperienced trainer a dirty look before covering his face with his claws and bracing for impact when he saw Vincent's typhlosion coalesce before him. Tio looked through the red bug as though it were not even standing there and charged forward, knocking Slice into the air to be consequentially incinerated by the typhlosion's shoulder flames as he ran beneath, stopping just short of colliding into the startled bug catcher.
With a haughty "pleasure doing business with you," Theodore plucked the trainer's card from his pocket and called out its serial number to The Boss, who keyed it into his league-supplied reporting device, and watched his account balance double. The victors helped drag Timothy's limp scizor to the edge of the trail and were generous enough to leave Slice a bottle of water to help get him moving again once he revived.
Vincent was reaching for Theodore's ball when the pokemon raised his paws and said "walk and talk." When Tio said "walk and talk," it really meant "walk and listen." The Boss obliged, expecting that there was not a whole lot that Tio would have to say that they had not already shared.
"Other than the last slice of pizza, we haven't fought over anything important in twelve years. We're like 'this' and we always will be, and I wouldn't want it any other way. However, this Fiona thing has me worried. It's not really her, although you know I don't like her at all--frankly, I see no redeeming qualities and I tolerate her because I love you--it's that you haven't made clear to her what your ambitions are and aren't."
Vincent kicked a rock and asked for clarification.
"Even a caring trainer would have just dumped me off at a center, but you took me in and took care of me when no one else wanted to. When you caught Zap, you told us both how we were going to try for the league titles, even though you were already getting ready for high school, when most have already gotten as far as they can or care to go by then, unless they've made pokemon a lifestyle. I knew you were going to take your time with it, but Zap didn't understand you like I did. When you bought Hal and put most of that summer into training him, Zap thought the next year was going to be 'it', especially after you came back from your archeology field trip with a persistent natu in your pocket. Third summer comes, Zap expects to be on the road, and instead you're at an arcade aiming for an eevee because you needed something that could hurt rock-types."
Theodore stepped ahead of Vincent to capture his attention. "Boss, you're five summers into it, you're on your fifth badge, and when this summer ends, you're going to college. I don't care about the league, I care about you. Hal and Phil don't care about the league, they care about you. Vera, well, I guess she cares about all of us, and that other guy, too. But, Zap cared about the league. You caught him and explained how it was supposed to go and he believed it. Look at where we stand; I can't blame him for leaving."
The typhlosion wrapped his arm around The Boss as they began walking forward again. "Your new girl is a fighter. Just beating up on whoever is nearby might be fine for her, but if she gets the league into her head, she might feel the same way Zap did, and I don't think you or her would handle it too well."
Phil concentrated and unleashed a blast of water that knocked Fiona onto her ass. Hal laughed heartily, "welcome to Vincent and Friends Pressure Washing Company." The dragon picked up Vincent's bedding and hung it on a thin, red line extended between two trees. "A little time to dry and it's good as n--" Hal noticed flaws that were beyond remedy, "--can be expected." Fiona tried to shake herself dry, and gave Phil a small kiss of pardon when the vaporeon approached to apologize for overwhelming her.
The weavile walked up to the drying sleeping bag and inspected it closely. In the light of the sun, rips and tears from her thrashing claws and the stain of a few droplets of her savior's blood stood out amongst its dark green camouflage pattern. "This is so embarrassing; I can't imagine what you guys think of me after all of this!" she shouted with a hint of frustrated anger directed at herself.
Hal sat down on the grass with a thud and seemed to go to sleep before responding. "Since you ask, I'll tell you that I think that you're his latest hard-luck case. Tio was his first, I was his second, you're his third. Since Tio could've died, and I would probably still be spending my hours split between a wire cage and a re-enforced glass display box at a game room, and now we aren't, I imagine you're as lucky, and are going to be as appreciative, as we are."
"Appreciative," she whispered as she took Vincent's bedding up in her left hand and gently rubbed her thumb against a crimson blotch. She looked over at the pillow, still in tatters though most of its batting she had successfully stuffed back inside the remains of its case. "I have a crummy way of showing it." Taking up the remainder of an unraveled destiny knot, Fiona picked up her ruined cushion and started to wrap it with the red thread, hoping to bind it tightly enough that it could still be serviceable.
Fiona walked over to Hal, sat against his massive left leg, and sighed while hugging the pillow to her chest. "There's no way you could have had a worse start than this. I stole, I slashed his face, I... lost control of myself, in a few ways, and the way things are going, I might again tonight, too."
Hal truly did go to sleep this time before responding a few minutes later. "Vincent's used to bad first-impressions. Someday, I'll tell you what happened when he released me from my ball after he brought me home from the game room, but not today. I'll wait until after you hear Tio's story so mine will just seem funny."
The sunlight turned harsh, and Phil took refuge in the expansive portion of Lake Myrcene East. Its water was not the most clear, but besides some loose sediment, it was clean. He swam across the bottom and investigated anything that caught his eye. A patch of familiar red called to him. He scraped away some mud and found a pokeball. He felt a jolt of excitement at the opportunity to rescue a lost soul until he turned it over and saw that its button had been removed and replaced with a black filler cap. The soul that belonged to this ball was truly lost. Phil pushed it down into the mud and covered it up again.
Relaxing upon the grass during a summer mid-day made being lazy fun, but a familiar voice broke the mood. "Yo, Half-Ton, where's the twerp? I want an easy win to start the day."
Hal muttered to Fiona, "you will want to attack this guy, but don't. The consequences would make Master very upset," before standing to face a feraligatr that cleared the way for its trainer and to exchange nasty looks. There was no actual animosity between Hal and Lucas, but Carl required that Lucas be as threatening as possible around Vincent and his team-members, and it was politically smoother for Hal to act threatening in return than to either ignore the gesture or try to be friendly in response.
Hal replied to the question without breaking eye-contact with his azure-scaled physical counterpart. "Master is on the trail with Theodore looking for something to make our breakfast. If you care to wait--"
Carl interrupted, "No, unlike that loser, I have two-time regional, one-time national semifinalist business to attend to. But, when you see him, you can tell him that--"
Vera fell out of the sky, landing directly behind Carl, and gave him a strong hug. "Carl, dear, 125.4 days. You don't visit me nearly enough!"
Carl blushed as he felt her feathers slide across his body and her firm breast press against his scapulae. "The offer is still on the table."
Vera nipped his ear. "You didn't catch me when you had the chance, and that was the only one I could give you. Here's your fortune cookie: Third slots from the left, give it thirteen pulls, then play cards until you get bored. I'll take my cut now."
Carl's expression soured as he handed the green bird a small roll of low-denomination bank notes. She hugged him again before tucking the money into her purse and taking flight, leaving him to stare into the sky as she departed.
A moment of frozen silence passed before Lucas forced a cough that snapped Carl out of whatever thought he was stuck on. "--that he can stall and try to avoid me all he likes; I'm never going to let him reach the Elites, and-- what's this?" Vincent's rival finally noticed the new member of his party, leaning in closely and staring into her bright red eyes, illuminated fully by the mid-day sun. "A weavile? I never thought I would see one of those in his group. I thought he only took in never-used weaklings."
He cracked a grin and straightened up, placing his hands on his hips, akimbo-fashion, after poking Lucas with his elbow. "Then again, this one does look kinda scrawny." He leaned over her in a motion similar to an oriental bow. "I'll bet you're the world's weakest weavile, that would explain it!" With his right index finger, Carl poked her between her collarbones as he finished his sentence to help underscore his sentiment.
Fiona was ready to pounce onto his chest and scratch out his eyes for that insult, but Hal placed his hand on her shoulder as a reminder to maintain calm. As Carl walked away, he fired one last volley, talking at Lucas but to the pokemon near the pond's edge, "hey, Lucas, don't let me forget to tell Jean he needs to keep his fork handy, because next time we fight the twerp, he's going to have weavile pie! Ha! Ha-ha-ha!"
Hal sat down again, and Fiona followed suit. The dragon snored for a short time while dreaming of the best way to frame his message. "You probably want to prove him wrong after what he said, but don't even try. Jean looks like a psychic-type, but he will knock you out cold if you let him connect a single blow."
With that, Fiona wanted to prove both Carl and Hal wrong, but she soon digested the advice and calmed herself down. Her experience at the gym showed that she was good at berserk attacking, but bad at not taking hits in return. She thought about her situation for a moment before realizing that speed was her greatest asset, and that it would be a wise investment to become more evasive. That made her wonder if there was a vitamin that could make her run faster. She picked up her pillow again, poking some of its loose polyester back inside and tightening the bindings idly. "If that guy is our enemy, why does Vera like him so much? It looks like she likes him more than Vincent."
Hal was snoring again, and groaned loudly. "All that any of us know is that Carl visited the ruins too, when he was in that same archeology course. Vera acted like she was his captured pokemon during that week, but she never let him trap her. She might like him more than Vincent, but don't base it on that hug. She gets a better read on people with physical contact, and I think she's just the kind that likes to hug the people she cares about once in a while."
Fiona leaned back, hummed in acknowledgment, and joined Hal in snoozing, letting her mind recall the myriad attacks that had been inflicted upon her as a captive and imagine methods of evading each one.
A sharp bend in the path allowed small, rustic buildings to come into view. A few homes, a carpenter's workshop, and a small school house with occupied picnic tables behind it. Mostly obscured by an overgrown bush and tendrils of ivy, an antique sign attempted to identify the town by name, but each of its letters was either eroded or hidden.
One of the school's students noticed a stranger with a powerful pokemon wandering into town. "Hey, check it out! That guy probably got his starter from a professor; let's see if he'll show us his dex!" Three pupils abandoned their lunches to sate their curiosity. Asking questions simultaneously, Vincent and Theodore were unable to reply usefully at first.
"What do you mean, 'don't have one'?" asked a girl with a spearow on her arm.
"Did you lose it?" asked another. The kids went back to their school house's lunch tables disappointed that they did not get to learn about pokemon from far-away lands, and jealous of the traveler's great fortune; getting a professor quality starter for "free" while they three had to be happy with their rats, birds, and bugs. In their defense, their rats, birds, and bugs were more than willing to be struck senseless by one swat of the typhlosion's paw if their young masters asked it of them.
The village's general store was unmarked, save for one sign reading "no pokemon allowed inside the store" in block letters, and "not even balled" in sloppy red paint across its bottom. Theodore agreed to stand outside, next to a wood-cut Indian that accented the entrance in a slightly-cliché manner. The store offered a little of everything, but its selection was tailored to the residents' needs exclusively. Its pokemon-related section was very small, and was mostly limited to toys that keep bored house-cats occupied.
The owner called out in a harsh tone, "I'm closing up for lunch in five; you and your fighter best be on your way. I don't expect to see ya' when I come back."
Vincent took the hint, a few cans of beans, ramen noodles, some boxed juice, and a bundle of assorted berries being sold by the pound. The berries were a steal, and would make returning here worthwhile, despite the atmosphere. The owner followed Vincent out, locked the door behind himself, and shooed them away with his stare.
"Bad news, Tio, it's another beans and noodles week unless you sniff out some high rollers who are weak to our elements," said Vincent, wrapping his arm around his friend's shoulders, and as a consequence, his flame vents, which is a gesture that any typhlosion takes as one of absolute trust, be it the first time from a new friend or the millionth time from a best friend.
"Let's get back to camp, Boss. Our friends are hungry and I wouldn't be surprised if the locals were getting ready to chase me out of here with a fire hose."
The shackle clamped around his leg had little metal teeth, digging into his flesh. Its chain led to a stake driven deep into the ground, straight through the cabin floor. Zap could build a little charge at his extremities, but even disregarding how weakened he was, he could not build more than a couple amperes without it being sucked into the earth through that surrogate ground-wire. The ram's eyes opened slowly, taking in a dusty cabin with a distinct odor, redolent of cheap coffee and cheaper cigars.
"You're here to do work. You'll clean, you'll cook, you'll do my dishes, and you'll behave. Anything less, and I'll hurt you. Do your job right, and it won't have to be like that."
Zap did not need to see the framed, faded photograph--featuring a smiling boy, a chubby pidgey, and a nervous, half-hidden vulpix--that was sitting on a small table beside the man in a dirty old recliner to identify him. The halves of a busted level ball on the floor that lied in the shadow of a ninetales said more than Zap wanted to hear. He decided it would be in his best interest to play the part of a fully-wild pokemon, and not reveal that he was a talker.
The ampharos slowly looked about the cabin's interior. Near the sink were a couple stacked crates, making its basin accessible to a creature of Fiona's previous stature. On the wall to Zap's left was the bookcase that she had mentioned, and ahead of that, a fireplace, a display case with pokeballs lining its shelves, and finally, above a bed that seemed to have burlap for sheets, a meticulously-cleaned case that was home to only one ball. There did not seem to be anything special about it.
A glance behind himself saw a small doorway to what appeared to be either a small room or a large closet. Its floor was scarred by blood stains, scorched patches, and wear marks cut by frenzied claws.
The hiker turned his radio on. It was tuned to an oldies station. Zap let his head lie back down and tried to stay calm. This place was foreign to him and of ill-repute, but at least the music was familiar, and he allowed it to carry away his worries for the time-being.
The sun was preparing to slide back down the sky when Vincent and Theodore returned to their campsite. "Okay guys, it's more of a lunch than a breakfast, but it will get us on the road again. Looks like we're a head short, though." According to tradition, Vincent raised his palms to his mouth and called out in the direction of the highest nearby elevations with a strained accent to his green bird.
Their sextet was soon completed with the xatu's arrival and lunch disappeared far more quickly than anyone expected. Vincent gently pinched the latest addition to his group on her cheek. "Forget about fighting, I'm going to start signing you up for eating contests. They've got Hal's number but I don't think they would see you coming."
Fiona managed to take his comment the wrong way, not considering that her master did not know the words that Carl had used to insult her that morning. "Because I'm short and weak and skinny, right?" She stood up, punched Vincent's shoulder, spouted "twerp!" as her strike connected, and, taking up her humble pillow, stomped off to hide in the tent.
Vera gave Vincent a gentle hug, pressed her cheek to his, and muttered "Carl was here" while lending him a vision of what she read from his rival after she took her leave of the guests.
Vincent reached behind himself with his left arm and gently raked his hand through the feathers that grew on the back of her neck. "Should I apologize?"
Vera stood and prepared to depart again. "No. You did nothing wrong, and she knows that. An apology would make you seem weak. She is a weavile. She needs your resilience to discover her own."
Vincent nodded and faced the tent. "Fiona! Your strength and looks are fine. Since you're over there, pull down the tent, we're about to move."
Fiona released the tattered pillow, rubbed her eyes to clear her vision, and obeyed his command. She was expecting to be punished for her outburst; had she taken a swing at the hiker like that, she would have been coughing up blood a minute later. Yet, all Vincent did to her was give her a direct command, as he had after she attacked him the previous morning. The difference in her two masters' disciplinary techniques was significant, but only led her to wonder what it would take to make Vincent resort to the corporal punishment that the hiker preferred. The way things were progressing, she feared that it would not be long before she found out.
Fiona clicked the parachute clips of Vincent's backpack and rented tent together, completing her task. Vincent began a roll-call. "Okay, Tio?"
"Ball, Boss. I stepped on something this morning and it hurts."
Phil raised his left paw and churred low.
"Z--Zap's walking. Vera is Vera. Fiona, ball or walk?"
She was still feeling rather self-conscious after her outburst and it seemed that saying "walk" would elect her as public representative for her whole team, but it would be the first time in her life that she had explored lands away from her taiga-like birthplace, except for a weekend of blind running and hiding in secluded places. "I know that's a fancy ball, but I want to walk with you."
Vincent smiled and took his pack as she offered it to him, "come on, then. You're not here to satisfy the ball."
Many of the trainers that Vincent passed along the route were familiar, and they knew that there was a six-foot column of flames behind the out-of-place, bug-weak pokemon that skipped suspiciously carelessly down the path. A few of them took it as an insult, especially bug-catcher Timothy, who was engaged in a verbal fight with an angry, disappointed scizor holding a crumpled water bottle. Fragments of their argument indicated that Timothy had only earned one badge and that Slice wanted to be traded back to Brandon. He felt that Brandon had been tricked into trading him back to Timothy with Brandon's metal coat in hand, and felt ashamed that he was fighting for someone who would treat a person he called friend in such an abusive manner.
Fiona gazed up toward the sun filtering through thick canopy leaves that sheltered the trail and walked obliviously until she heard her new name being called out.
"You know, Fiona. You're not really that short. According to the printouts from the pokecenter, you're a little taller than average."
The weavile kicked at a pine cone, before turning to point at her trainer's nose while walking backwards. "I want to be up there, like Vera!"
Vincent picked Fiona up for a few seconds, his hands beneath her arms, tickling her gently as he held her. "Up here like this?"
She squealed, then giggled, then laughed manically until her feet touched the ground again. "Yeah, like that. What did Vera eat to get up there?"
Vincent shrugged. "Beats me. When we met, I thought she had just hatched because she was so small. Then, we ran into Carl and he freaked out about how he met her three years earlier. Maybe that's just how it goes. You were a little smaller than average before you evolved, and now you're a little bigger."
A gentle female voice emerged from the woods. "Would you like to hear my thought on the matter?" Vincent and Fiona turned to see Vera, smoking a small and unique-looking pipe while leaning against a large tree that had kept her obscured from view as Vincent and Fiona approached.
"Vincent, do you remember the time you won a rare candy in the market raffle; it disappeared and you knew that I took it, so you gave me the silent treatment for three weeks? I saved it for a special occasion."
Fiona chirped with excitement, remembering her rare candy experience. "You ate it while you were evolving so you would get bigger!"
Vera walked up to Fiona and knelt beside her. "Your spirit is dark so I can only do this if you choose to open your mind to me. I would like to share a memory with you."
What exactly this meant Fiona was uncertain, but she knew of no reason to distrust the green bird. Rasping sneasel laughter filled the forest as Fiona suddenly saw a moment of chaos that ensued when Vincent and Theodore, already crowding the high-schooler's bed, awoke in the embrace of an overgrown xatu that they had never before seen. Tio responded to the intrusion by bellowing in fright, grabbing Vincent with all his strength, flaring-up defensively--scorching the wall--and rolling out of the bed, clearing a nightstand with the back of his head.
The green bird kept company, recalling other amusing incidents she had precipitated until a familiar fork in the road came into view.
Vincent started down the narrower path. "It's a little out of the way, but that's a good deal on those berries. I should stock up."
Vera suggested that Fiona return to her ball before reaching the village, and the trainer agreed.
"You're probably right. Well, Vera is always right, isn't she? That town has some weird opinions on pokemon."
The general store of Yureido Cove had re-opened, and Vincent left his balls in the care of his seer, who stood motionlessly next to a wood-cut Indian, after playfully offering him a drag on her pipe. Where Theodore had stuck out like a sore thumb, Vera seemed to almost blend in. The proprietor was not pleased with this trainer's return. His transaction was carried out hastily, but professionally.
"Alright, I got the berries, let's go," said Vincent as he exited the store, but the green bird walked slowly, before stopping to claw an "X" mark into the earth.
"We don't need to rush. In fact, I think we should stand right here on this spot for a few minutes."
Vincent remained nearby, giving Vera his faithful patience as more than a few minutes elapsed. Passers-by seemed to either scowl at the league-minded trainer, or be surprised that a xatu was meditating in the middle of the road. One traveler passing through showed particular interest and approached the pair.
"Hey kid, that's a mighty fine bird you've got there! Damn tall for that breed, too."
Vincent almost did not notice the man's approach, having grown bored with standing still and allowing his mind to wander. "Yeah, she is something special. You probably wouldn't believe she was only about five-and-a-half inches when I brought her home."
The man rubbed his stubble-shrouded chin. "I'd believe you. The littlest birds have the biggest hearts. Don't let no one tell you different. Take good care of--" he counted the golden lines near the tips of her wings and exhaled deeply as he took off his hat and looked at a feather tucked into one of its folds. "--Her. Sometimes... you only get to let 'em down once." The man continued on his way, replacing his hat and looking more downward than forward as he walked. The xatu remained motionless until the hiker had left the village along the path that she and Vincent came by.
"Continue onward, my friend. You may release Fiona once you pass the third trainer after you leave this village; she will be playing with her butterfree. I will attend supper." Vera tucked her pipe into a tiny holster that hung beneath her shoulder, spread her wings, and flew straight upward, leaving Vincent behind to follow her advice on his own.