"Wait, wait! Are you sure this isn't going to scramble my brains?"
Fiona noticed the graffiti that was written all over a plain-looking machine embedded inside an alcove wall's face at Linalool's pokecenter. The comment that she was referring to read "press 8 to scramble brains," but she had not overlooked "catch wild rattata, set power to HI, press 1, serves six."
Button number two featured the words "it worked too well!" and a grotesque cartoon of a mew clawing holes into its flesh to help make openings for the plurality of wings that were bursting out of random places on his body. An improvised legend for button number five read "doesn't do anything, I want a refund," and in a different pen, "it reminds your pokemon to flush the john 2/3 the time."
Vincent adjusted the machine's sensor band around Fiona's head, slipped his hands into the straps of a pair of refitted headphones speakers, and prepared to place them over her ears after pressing "3" and "play" on the jukebox's control panel, which started a thirty-second countdown.
"Yes, I'm sure. Trust me, it'll be useful, and when we get into league competitions, you're only allowed to use four moves and they have to be documented techniques. I can't put down 'Fiona Improvisation #'s 1 through 4' on your registration sheets, and it will be a while before we can barter for moves that you really need. The best deals come at season's end when other trainers are unloading leftover T.M. discs." In honesty, Vincent had no clue what a good move-set for a weavile would look like, but he did know that water could counter a couple elements that would harm her.
Fiona crossed her arms. "I like using Fiona Improvisation Numb--AHHHH!"
After three seconds of bone-rattling squeals passed through the headphones, Fiona had been injected with the ability to cross water gracefully and to force atmospheric humidity to suddenly condense into a crashing wave. Vincent's account was charged for his use of the H.M. programming device and for a couple headache tablets to give to his surf-enabled weavile.
"Take these. I don't think special maneuvers are supposed to be your strong suit, but this will cover two and a half of your weaknesses for now. Fire and rock will be hurt as long as you make the first move, plus you'll at least be able to fight back against steel."
Fiona inhaled the painkillers. "Fire, huh?" She leaned toward the vacant friend ball on her trainer's belt. "Hey, Tio! Guess wh--"
Vincent put his hand on her shoulder, and she snapped to attention. "Phil may be Tio's best back-up, but you'll be his support if Phil gets taken out; do you understand what I'm telling you?"
Fiona wrung her hands together as she exited the jukebox alcove with Vincent behind her and spoke low, the playful sarcasm gone from her voice. "You taught me this surf thing so I can support Tio, not beat him up with it."
Vincent ruffled her crown, "so you can compete from a disadvantageous position, and so you can contribute more to this team."
The trainer looked around the center, hoping to find a computer terminal that was not in use so he could at least get a list of T.M.'s that a weavile can learn in case he met someone willing to barter. He found a technician trying to fix three computers at once, and a queue forming before the cluster of terminals that were still operational, with comments such as "great, this one's dead, too, now!" being overheard at a regular interval. Vincent chose to complete his task the old fashioned way and pulled a dusty book labeled "W-Z" from a shelf in the children's corner that housed volumes for letters A through V and other titles such as "My First Pokemon Friend" and "See Crobat Run."
Jackie rushed through the pokecenter door before checking-up and returning to a normal gait. She was once assaulted by an automatic door when she was a toddler, and had not trusted the wily machinations ever since.
"O'mi'god! You're so cute!" Fiona became the center of the young woman's attention; she was hoping for "cool" or "intimidating," but "cute" was better than "little" or "precious," as the elderly woman at the store called her earlier that morning. Jackie's tone was slightly patronizing. "I haven't seen a weavile outside of the circle before. You're just wandering around? Where's your trainer at, cutie?"
There it is.
Fiona pointed toward the lobby benches. "That's him ov--"
Jacqueline called out at the top of her lungs while practically dragging Fiona by the arm as she ran to him. "Vincent! I knew I'd catch up to you sooner or later!"
They talked non-stop for over twenty minutes before her cellular telephone rang. "Bah--that's Caz. He's probably wanting to whine that I'm taking a half-hour to get Jean healed up." Jackie opened her device to confirm her suspicion, pressed its "ignore" button, and explained the cause of Jean's incapacitation.
"Caz agreed to battle against a kid wearing a geodude shirt who wagered a couple clams that he could beat last year's semifinalist. Everyone around was using fresh-caught bug and rock, and Caz is a cocky bastard, so he offered to pay out one-hundred times and play the kid one-on-six. Jean knocked the kid's kakuna down in a heartbeat, and then it went downhill. That kid must live in a haunted house or something because that kakuna was just a pet or a decoy. Ghost team wins, and Caz hasn't stopped grousing since." Jackie hopped off of the bench and gave Vincent a hug. "I'll get going so he doesn't start re-dialing every thirty seconds. Don't forget, I owe you lunch, call me for anything!"
Vincent knew how she handled phone calls. "Actually, I would like a little help. I wanted to research moves for Fiona, but there's something wrong with the net service here and their kiosks are all screwed up. I know you have one of those fancy pokedex pads, could I borrow it for a little while?"
Jacqueline thought aloud. "Hmmmmm, no! You have to keep it!" She handed him a palm-sized computer.
"Huh, Jackie, I know your family is loaded but--"
She faked a scowl that would last for one sentence before turning into a smug grin and cut him short. "Don't be rude! Daddy brought home a test-run unit of the super-small ones they're going to be selling next month after finals, so this old thing needed a new home anyway. Catch."
Jackie tossed her old unit to Vincent with a giggle and walked away briskly to deny him the opportunity to thank her. Entering the pokecenter's deeper corridors, she swiped her ID at a security door to use one of the private rejuvenation machines that was reserved for elite trainers, gym leaders, and girls whose daddies worked at a pokemon-related technology firm.
Fiona elbowed Vincent, but he was too distracted by all the features that her portable pokedex offered.
"This thing knows everything."
Fiona shifted her attention to a row of computers along a distant wall. The brewing commotion was beginning to boil over, as the last working bank of computers began showing symptoms of impending break-down.
Carl was still upset that he lost to a kid who was not even old enough to register for league, and could not focus on anything beyond his bowl of cereal until he heard something tapping rhythmically against the sliding glass door of the balcony to his fifth-floor suite. He invited his guest to enter; she immediately flopped down on his bed and spread herself fully across it, mimicking the Vitruvian Man. A moment later she groaned and sighed as though she were releasing a thousand-pound weight from her shoulders.
Her host returned to his cereal. "Do you want me to buy some more slot machine tips so you can go to a dollar store and feed your destitute trainer and his clumsy pets?"
Vera replied with a warning while wiggling her toes, "stay off of the slots, the only winners will be people sitting next to you. Play card games if you wish to earn tokens."
Carl's bowl ran out of flakes. "Well, what do you want, then?"
The green bird chirped, slightly insulted. "I wanted to enjoy a social visit with a friend. Also, this bed is nice and soft and comfortable; the ones in budget motel rooms are lumpy on their own, and lumpier when there are two frat boys in it."
Carl entered the suite's kitchenette where a brief blast of water rinsed his bowl clean. He then put two slices of bread into the toaster. "That bed would be all yours if you wanted it to be. The offer is still on the table." Silence stood like a wall until it was broken by the sound of toast being mechanically ejected. Carl withdrew the toast, applied a thin layer of butter, and sat on the bed's edge. Vera quickly wrapped him in a hug and took a bite of a toast slice as he lifted a piece towards her beak.
"Why did you go with him and not with me?"
Vera withheld her reply until he yielded the rest of her slice. "Because he said 'please'."
Carl was soon back in the chair at his breakfast table, and Vera was sitting upright on the bed, leaning against its headboard. "Don't pout. I formed with him the same friendship I formed with you. In your youth, you were more like he was and is. On the last day of your field trips, both of you said that you would miss me and wanted me to come home with you. But, while you said 'I want to take you home with me,' he said 'please, come home and stay with me.' When I stood fast, you threw a ball at me and I teleported away. When I fluttered forward, he held a ball out to me and let me peck the activation button."
Her host was turning red in the face at this point, resting his chin between his left hand's thumb and forefinger, the weight pressing his elbow into the table.
Vera let him stew for a moment before she continued. "I've told you many times that you didn't catch me when you had your chance. It wasn't because you thew your ball with poor aim. It was because when you looked into my eyes, you didn't see a friend first and a pokemon second. Vincent did; that's why Vincent asked me to follow him, when in the same situation, you ordered me to." Vera repositioned herself and spread out across his bed again, idly listening to the machinations of Carl's mind as he digested the revelation, and continued once he was no longer wrestling with his emotions.
"A long time ago, when they first designed a T.M. that could teach almost any pokemon with a mouth to communicate with humans, trainers who could afford it were lining up to enter raffles to have a chance at getting one. After applying it, many of those trainers discovered that they didn't like what their pokemon had to say. It wasn't a month later before smug trainers were releasing their 'talkers' back into the wild or trading them to breeders for replacements of the same species, trying to roll back the clock and get mutes that would just do what they were told in silent acquiescence like it had always been. I overheard recently that about 24% of the pokemon population has the ability, since so many went back to breeders and it often passes into offspring like it were a natural skill."
Vera rose and picked up a three-leaf hinged photograph frame that was standing on a table beside Carl's comfortable bed. Its three images were of Carl with his family, including his two starting pokemon; of his first semifinalist award reception, shaking hands with the still-champion; and of a young man with a tiny green bird perched on two fingers.
"Maybe if I had revealed to you that I could talk, that I could express my emotions and thoughts to you, you would have viewed me as a friend first and a pokemon second like I hope you truly do today." She looked away from the photograph and toward Carl with a sorrowful and disappointed gaze. "But, I needed to see how your heart, in the dark, would choose to act."
Vera placed the photograph frame back on his bed-stand, garnished it with a sigh, and walked to the table to give Carl one final hug. "It's okay. I love all my boys despite their imperfections." She broke the embrace and advanced toward the sliding glass door. "Say 'hello' to your sister for me in three minutes. Oh, and call your father and tell him that your xatu friend advises him to keep his shoes on and to prepare a thermos of coffee; he won't have a chance to relax after work, tonight." The green bird showed herself out via the balcony though which she had entered.
Carl watched her fly away and stared into the sky until the door behind him opened and he heard Jackie announce her delayed return with Jean's ball. He said nothing to his sister, even after she noticed a green feather tucked within a gap between the photograph frame's hinges and brought it to his attention.
The sky had been overcast all day, and for a summer afternoon, the air was rather cool. Phil was serving as Fiona's sparring partner, letting her practice using her new surf skill as an attack without doing any damage.
Vincent sat on a park bench and played with the present Jackie gave him that morning. The device was incredible. Because she was on the inside, so to speak, hers had access to information that many trainers would almost kill for. Any pokedex would reveal that the official average height for a weavile was three-foot-seven, but this one could search through the physical stats of every registered weavile in the region and report that Fiona's four-foot-one stature put her in the 95th percentile. After explaining to her what a percentile was, she simply asked what they could buy to help her get those last five percentiles that she needed to become the tallest.
Theodore suggested platform shoes.
With a little trial and error, Vincent successfully associated the device to his league registration, and it automatically set an alarm for later that afternoon. When it chimed, Vincent's suspension had officially elapsed.
He and his team crossed town to visit the gym, intending to get in a few one-on-one sparring matches and to see if Fiona's new attack was worthwhile, but this afternoon, no one was competing. A mute nidoqueen was in tears and her bellowing was being translated by a ninjask teammate to a live reporter who was covering the scoop.
Bill's P.C., as the massive networking and data center was still called, had gone down suddenly. The nidoqueen was in pieces because her mate was being withdrawn when the system collapsed. His ball came out empty and she feared the worst. Both gym and pokecenter staff members were addressing the crowd, trying to maintain calm, but no one knew what the situation truly was. All that was certain was that if the nidoqueen's fears were true, every pokemon that was in the system may be gone. Trainers who were in the fields catching pokemon were seeing their accounts being temporarily flagged as ineligible for battle due to having more than six active pokemon on-hand since their mobile devices could not connect to the league account servers and register new captures as being not on the trainers' active rosters.
"I bet you feel really lucky, don't you, twerp?" Carl had arrived for his match-up, but could not withdraw his team, leaving him with only Jean on-hand. "Little mister never-going-to-have-more-than-six-anyway still has his rabble of a team with him, while the pros are having to sweat it out." Carl smirked with his eyes closed as he raised his palms and shoulders. "Life's not fair."
The twerp was surprised by Carl's calm demeanor, contrasted against the panic that a majority of nearby trainers shared. "Aren't you worried you might have lost--really lost--your pokemon?"
Carl scoffed. "Private storage, scumbag. My pokemon are safe, and my team is chilling out at Dad's place, I just need the service running to pass them through to a ball dock."
Vincent exited the gym and released the balled member of his team. Vera touched down just as Hal reconstituted. "Alright, new plan, guys. I'm thinking: we hit the mall, grab a bite, and pick up a movie disc to watch at the motel. Sound good?" Fiona did not really know what a movie was, but she was interested in finding out, judging by the upward change in vocal pitch when Vincent ended the sentence.
The number of walking pokemon rose steadily as Vincent and Friends wandered through Linalool City on their way to the mall. People had begun to worry that pokeballs might stop working, too, and soon pokemon that were not at all accustomed to causal life were on the streets, some trying to figure out why they were not being ordered to battle while others were being pulled apart having assumed they were expected to fight all the pokemon that they made eye contact with. Police officers took to the street with grass-types, using their sleep-inducing attacks to pacify confused pokemon brawling in defiance their trainers' commands.
Vincent's group started to spread out as they toured the mall. Hal's skull pointed like a compass toward the food court, Theodore broke stride at a jewelry shop when he noticed a display case of gold chains, and Phil sneaked a lap around the water fountain.
Fiona was thoroughly overwhelmed by the spectacle of such a large facility, and stayed close to Vincent as he located a media shop. The trainer sighed heavily as he entered; it was the first time in years that he had been to a store that sold music without having an excited ampharos walking beside him. The classic comedy section seemed well-stocked, but Vincent rummaged through the N's fruitlessly for some time before finding the film he was looking for in a bargain bucket.
Vera had flown to the second level as soon as they passed through the front doors and entertained one of her few vices, slowly passing by the women's clothing stores, admiring the front-window mannequins adorned in luxurious dresses and fine gloves. Despite becoming dexterous enough to handle basic tasks such as using doors, writing, and grasping cooperatively shaped items, and despite the immense usefulness of being able to fly freely, a part of Vera always envied humans and certain species of pokemon for having been gifted with useful hands and flesh that was not burdened with a layer of high-maintenance feathers, always so picky about which way they are brushed and revolting against any attempt to apply wardrobe.
The very thought of having hands and wearing an attractive dress brought her to shiver, which in turn stood her feathers on-end, as though they were insulted by her imagination. She took the sensation as a cue to return to the life that Nature permitted her to live.
Vincent emerged from the media store with hastening stride, having noticed that Fiona disappeared while he was sifting through mostly-forgotten films. Scanning the surrounding stores, he caught a glimpse of lamp-black-tipped magenta feathers bobbing behind a shelf inside a nutrition store. He found Fiona wandering in awe at all the bottles filled with magical pills and powders, each of which promised to enhance strength, beauty, endurance, stamina, or potency, whatever that meant.
"Hey, Vinny, help me find cargo! I talked to that guy over there and he said that I need cargo if I want to be faster."
Vincent corrected her misunderstanding. "I'm pretty sure the vitamin is called carbo, and it's outside of our budget. You'll just have to run around a lot if you want to be more athletic."
Fiona accepted Vincent's refusal to buy her more vitamins in stride. Running around a lot took more time than swallowing a pill, but running had also been her one talent that carried her to safety from her pack and from the cabin.
Vincent offered her his hand. Together, they exited the nutrition store to seek out their friends and join Hal in the food court. Walking alongside Vincent, Fiona realized that her meeting him was the only time in her life that choosing to run would have been a terrible mistake.
Shade was no longer kept on guard duty during the day, and Zap had even gotten away with turning on the radio while his new master was out. It quickly become a best friend. The ampharos was a music junkie, having memorized every album Vincent owned, and he had a voice to go with his addiction. He had even been on local television once for winning a regional karaoke contest, becoming the first pokemon who was not a jynx to honestly out-perform all the human contestants by a margin wide enough to escape the reach of judges biased against "unnatural" competitors.
Listening quit being enough, and soon Zap sung himself into a corner. He was in the back room at the end of his chain, having just finished hanging the hiker's laundry to dry when he realized that the radio quit playing several lines of lyrics ago; the music he was accompanying was a memory. He sheepishly leaned his head into the opened doorway.
The hiker was in his filthy chair, smoking a cigar, and his ninetales was posed like a king attending the royal opera. "I'm back again. Is my laundry done?"
Zap nodded as he had been doing since he first arrived. That gesture was no longer sufficient.
"I asked you a question. You will answer me immediately when I ask you questions."
"Yes, Sir. It is drying now."
"How long did you plan to keep your secret?"
"As long as I felt like it was not my place to talk, Sir."
"Good answer. I can respect that. Wild pokemon don't normally know the words to golden oldies or how to get chili stains out of my delicates, so am I right in assuming you have a trainer."
"You captured me in the wild. You are--"
"How long ago did he throw you away?"
"My previous master didn't throw me away. I... threw him away. I was not wild again for very long."
"While you were loose, or before then for that matter, did you happen to see a sneasel running around out here? Skinny little shit, looked like the kind that would be the bottom of the totem pole and beg for scraps after her pack finished a kill. The kind that needed a victim that wouldn't fight back."
Zap hesitated for a heartbeat; too long.
"You have. I said you will answer me immediately. Why did you freeze on me? Can't be stage fright, the way you were belting it out when I came in."
"We did meet a sneasel, and she told us her side of the story."
"Really. Do you believe what that little shit told you?"
"I do not know if it is true or not."
"Never lie to me. You're wearing a chain staked to my floorboards. You know."
"I do, sir."
"Want to know why? The little shit, not you."
"I think you want to tell me."
"Good answer. When I found Feathers, she was looking at herself, already halfway ripped open by that little shit, and in her eyes I saw something I will never forget. Absolute, complete, perfect horror. Then she looked up at me and she tried to--" the hiker choked, "--I like to think she tried to say goodbye, but all that happened was her throat twitched and a little blood trickled from her beak, and she died."
He turned his antique radio on again, at a very low volume. "Besides, I know that look. She was begging me to save her, somehow. I always wanted to see it again, in that little shit's eyes. Absolute, complete, perfect horror. But, no matter what I did to that monster, she always had a little fight left in her. Physical pain, psychological pain, it didn't matter." He leaned forward and gestured with a nod toward Zap's cushion. "I could make her wad herself into a ball in that corner just by reaching toward my belt buckle, but whenever I stopped whipping her for a few seconds, she would look up at me and in those damned red eyes, a spark of life. I was never able to break her."
A favorite tune began, and his recollection waited for the song to complete. The hiker puffed on his cigar with a crooked expression. "It was obvious, really. I needed to do to her what she did to Feathers. I needed to eviscerate her before her very own eyes, but--" the hiker twisted in his chair to look at Zap and point at him with his cigar.
"I knew I would only get one chance and I was afraid. What if I turned her inside-out only to see that damned half-toothless grin underlining those red eyes, still burning with the last of her life's spirit--" the hiker rose from his chair and walked to the sports memorabilia display case. "Laughing at me, laughing at us, right to the very fucking end." The hiker flung his cigar into the fireplace before flopping back into his chair, causing it to creak loudly, protesting the abuse.
"I did not ask you a question, did I?"
"You asked if I had seen a sneasel, and I still need to finish answering that question: I have, but she is not a sneasel anymore."
"You would not know that unless--unless she was caught by a trainer who gives a damn, and by someone you know. Do you have a name?"
"That's a shit name, but I have no right to change it. Take a berry and go to sleep, Zap."
The ampharos drug the chain behind himself and curled into his bedding, an old comforter folded over itself a couple times. It was in better condition than the rags that the hiker made his bed with, which seemed to be as old as the man himself. As much as Zap enjoyed singing, it was not worth betraying his original trainer, even if Vincent had failed to fulfill his promises. However, Zap had nothing to gain and everything to lose should he fail to comply.
Live television caused a crowd to congregate near an appliance store. They became relieved and satisfied after watching an announcement from Bill Sr. that no pokemon had been lost in the incident and that an investigation was underway to identify the saboteurs. However, there was no word on when public service would be re-established.
With a sack of carry-out to top off Fiona and Hal before bed, Vincent's team headed out of town to their bargain motel. After two weeks in Room 8, a rental tent was becoming an ever-fainter memory. Besides, camping was not the same without the comfort of their night-light.
Fiona managed to sit through an entire comedy film without once laughing. Even Phil seemed to understand most of its humor, but human culture was largely foreign to the weavile, and this film was from both a different region and a long-past era, presenting a world much different from her own and leaving her thoroughly confused afterward. "So why aren't they allowed in the house?"
Theodore gave her an indignant look. "Would you want slimy things like them in your home? They'd make a mess in minutes. You would be replacing the carpet--" Tio stopped, knowing that one cannot tell the difference between Hal asleep and Hal awake, even if his eyes are closed and rumbling snores are flowing from his nostrils, and that Hal is not someone to insult under any circumstance. "Anyway, you'll get it someday, maybe." Theodore began to hum one of the songs performed during the film while slipping into bed. Phil picked up the tune and continued it until Vincent was ready to run the shower for his bedding.
Jackie finally decided to answer her telephone, understanding that stubbornness is often stronger than patience, and that her phone would ring every thirty seconds until the sun rose again or the caller nodded off.
"Jack, am I rude?" Carl asked in a slightly mumbled voice.
His sister became immediately irritated. "You're calling me at almost midnight, what do you think?"
Carl repeated himself.
"Yes, Caz, you are rude. You're rude to everyone you meet and you're double-rude to everyone you feel intimidated by. Did you not notice that last time you looked in a mirror?"
Carl paused for a moment to reflect. "It's just, Vera said something to me today and it stuck with me. She basically said that I would have her if I had said 'please'."
Jackie pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. "You wouldn't have her any more than Vincent has her. She may be registered to a ball that he owns but she comes and goes and does whatever she wants. She's as free now as she was at the ruins, so who cares? Go to bed, Caz, I'm hanging up now."
As the glow of his telephone faded, Carl sat in darkness at his small table, staring out through a window overlooking the rooftops of Linalool City. Even if he had been momentarily polite and captured that natu, he would have eventually acted to limit her freedom, and in doing so, he would have treated her as a pokemon first, and a friend not at all. Vera's uniquely-acute perception must have warned her about that danger. What the green bird meant by "your heart, in the dark" finally became clear to him. He did not not-say "please" because he was rude to people, but because he did not, at the time, value her as a person to even be rude to.