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Pokémon Black Paint [The Manifold Curiosity]

NebulaDreams

Pokémon Trainer
Partner
luxray
2018 Serebii Fanfiction Forum Awards

Won:

Most Suspenseful Fic

Nominated:

Most Heartbreaking Fic

Best Characterization in a Short Story

Best Non-Human Main Character - Sal the Smeargle

Author’s Notes: Hey, Neb here! Here's another import from Serebii, polished a little bit before posting to this forum. This takes place in a universe of fics called The Manifold Curiosity, where there are different fics that standalone from each other in story, but overlap in some way in terms of characters and events. This five-parter can work as a standalone story, but it also features a grand overarching narrative that has consequences for my main fic, The Curious and the Shiny. The main character himself is also set to appear in another character’s backstory from that fic, but it won’t be apparent until much later when I’ve actually gotten to that point in both their narrative arcs. While this one marks a genre shift into horror, it contains the sort of themes you might have appreciated from Outside the Frame so if you enjoyed that, you might like this one too.

Summary: In dire need to pay rent, Sal the Smeargle and his trainer don't even question it when a rich mistress offers to settle their debts in return for a commissioned painting at her manor. However, all is not what it seems when Sal begins to notice something is not quite right, and that there may be something alive lurking beneath them.

Content Warning: Death and Violence. This only really shows its teeth in the last act, but for those of you who aren't very fond of that sort of thing, be forewarned going into it. With that said, I hope you enjoy this story.

8
---

Shadows around the room blanketed the girl. The stench of iron was fresh, blood pooling from the bodies of her family. She squirmed as the presence’s hot breath licked at her face, and couldn’t decide whether to cry, scream or vomit.

“W-why?” she croaked, throat dry from all the wailing before. “Why did you kill them?”

The presence’s jade eyes peered into hers, gleaming like jewels in a black ocean. It said nothing.

“Please, tell me!” She tried to scream, but it came out as a pained squawk. “I-I know you can talk, so I-I have that right, don’t I? So please!”

The presence blinked. Suddenly, the girl felt a paw caressing her cheek. She flinched at first, trying to tear herself away from its grasp, but there was no escape. She closed her eyes, preparing for the inevitable, but before that moment came, the room transformed in her mind. She was no longer in that dank basement, but in a field of roses. A breeze blew past her face, but the flowers didn’t sway. From there, she knew it was an illusion, but as far as illusions went, it was one she was the most grateful for.

Only… business,” the presence echoed.

However it ended, her body went numb, and she collapsed. With her last ounce of strength, she opened her mouth to speak.

“Pu...”

---

Chapter 1. Day Zero

It wasn’t the first time Sal had to deal with a difficult customer, nor would it be the last. He had stationed his easel in one of the bustling streets of Lower Goldenrod, a lot less glamorous than the hub in the centre with its smoggy air and loud blaring vehicles, but still an ideal place for Sal to work. After all, any street as busy as that was a great environment to do caricatures in. While he had to switch out his oils for markers in order to work quickly for his clients, he still kept his paws busy nonetheless.

Not every Smeargle had the chance to pull off such a feat. If anything, Sal often found himself out of place whenever there was a human on the opposite side of the street doing the same as he did. Still, he kept a grip on his markers anyway, offering his services to anyone that asked for it at a lower price than most. Of course, not being able to speak directly to humans had its problems, but their Pokemon kept him company, which was enough.

For the most part, the days went at a Slowpoke’s pace. On a good day, he would get a dozen commissions in, and the smiles he saw on both the trainer’s and their Pokemon’s faces stuck with him until the next request. Even so, the money-box was always light whenever he collected from it. On this day in particular, one trainer strutted to his area, looking so caked in make-up, she and the Jynx that travelled with her were nearly identical.

“Hey,” the trainer called out, noisily chewing on a wad of gum, “Do me and her one of those drawing things.”

Sal stood on his stall, putting him at an equal level to the foundation-heavy face, and held out his paw to her. A moment passed. She tilted her head before Sal realised what the problem was, and he pointed at the price board his trainer had written, visible to everyone that passed by. Although his maths and literacy skills were negligible at best, he knew the prices were 500 Pokedollars a pop with payment up front. It was customary to pay any professional before they started working on anything, after all. However, when the trainer realised the situation, she snorted.

"Um, but you're, like, a Pokemon. What do you need cash for anyways?"

Again, he pointed at the text that was clearly visible to her, indicating that he and his trainer would need emergency funds for rent. Despite this, she looked just as confused as before. Her Jynx only looked off to the side with a blank look.

"Or just, uh, you know, battle other trainers and take their stuff. You Pokemon usually do that, right?"

Even if Sal could answer, he thought it was none of her business. He still prodded at the price list, adamant to get the next commission over and done with. Her plastic face contorted with rage.

"Oh, so you think you're better than me, huh? I bet I could draw better than you anyway, stupid Smeargle. You know what?" She turned to her Jynx and patted their shoulder. "Ice this hoe."

The Jynx advanced towards him.

“Nothing personal and stuff,” Jynx said, “My trainer’s always being a dummy anyway.”

“Um,” Sal said with a nervous smile, “Could we not talk this over?”

Jynx only raised her hands, and from there, Sal knew the ship to reason had sailed. Instinctively, he grasped his tail, and concentrating his energy on its pigment, he shot a paint bomb at them, blasting the two in the face with multicoloured splotches. They fell to the floor in a blind frenzy, giving him ample time to pack up everything and run away with his equipment in tow.

Sal didn't want to risk being seen again in case the duo was chasing his tail, so he retreated back to the street where his trainer's flat was located. It had turned cloudy, casting the rubbish strewn streets in a dull light, and the wind whistled around him, slowing his pace to a crawl. Halfway through, he had to shake a plastic bag off his head when it flew into him. He had never seen a cleaner come to that address in the months he spent there.

When he came in, the house was in a state of disrepair as usual. The furniture was scratched up from the Pokemon of the other house-mates, leaving spongy clumps on the floor alongside everything else down there: dirty clothes, empty cans, scrapped parts, everything an inspector would never want to see if they ever cared about the place. Nevertheless, Sal's pulse steadied when he came in, as even the smells of ash and Meowth pee were familiar to him. He dropped his belongings and got a rag from the kitchen to rub his paint splattered face with, then climbed up the stairs to his trainer's room.

The room was similarly filled with clutter, and there was his trainer, Harvey, on his laptop while his Pokemon either crowded around the bed to watch him or occupied themselves in various different ways. There was Roy the Machoke, pumping iron as usual, Mari the Bayleef, who sat peacefully with her trainer, and then there was Anorak the Spinarak, who dangled from a web in the corner of the room. Oddly enough, Roy was the only one who insisted on wearing clothes, a pair of shorts and a tank top, if Harvey’s hand-me-downs even fitted that hunk of muscle. They all turned their attention towards Sal when he entered.

"Yo!" Harvey said as he put his device to one side, "You're a bit early. Did something happen?"

Sal climbed up his bed and stood, presenting the rag to him. Harvey frowned.

"I take it you had to run away again, huh?"

Sal nodded in reply.

"Oh well, c'mere." Harvey gestured to a pillow at his side, which Sal nestled in, and his trainer stroked at his beret-like head. "Roy, can you get his stuff up for me?"

The Machoke put aside his dumbbells and tiptoed through the mess of microwaved-meal packets to get the equipment, coming back moments later with Sal's canvas and his money-box containing that day's earnings.

"And...” Harvey said, sorting through their income, “That's 3500 Pokedollars. Nice one! That's taken a bit of a load off my mind. At least now, we can eat."

He patted Sal on the back, and the other Pokemon congratulated him on his efforts as well, even Anorak as he swung down from his stringy abode to clap his spindly legs. Sal stood up and rubbed his head.

"No, really guys, it was nothing," he said to the other Pokemon.

"That's not nothing!" Mari said, perched on the edge of the bed, "You're really talented at this!"

"Yeah," Roy said, "I was wrong 'bout you, pal. I never thoughta Pokemon would get rich off this thing, but now, I'll--" He stopped himself and stroked at his chin. "What do them humans call it, heat my curds?"

"Eat my words," Mari corrected, turning her nose up at him. "Honestly, I thought you'd know their expressions by now."

"Whatever," he said, nudging her with his elbow, "A pose by any other name, right?"

She just scoffed in reply and left it at that.

"Um," Sal started, “How did the training go?"

"Eh," Roy grunted, "Trainers are owning us left and right. Harvey still doesn't know what he's doing half the time."

"I wouldn't say that.” Mari frowned. "He's doing his best."

"If his best is shouting the same moves over and over without changing tactics, I don't wanna know what his worst is. But whatever." Roy turned away from the group and went back to his weightlifting.

Sal looked to his side and saw Harvey splitting the money up, with a quarter of the bills for food and the rest for savings. Harvey sighed, and Sal couldn't help but join him, feeling a lump in his chest.

He thought everyone else was right. The fact such a lowly Pokemon like him was able to make a small living off of art was mostly unheard of, even in the largest city in Johto, according to his trainer anyway. As far as work went, he really got the long end of the stick compared to most. Looking at his teammates, however, who were actually doing work in the field battling other trainers, he felt small compared to everybody else.

Harvey put a hand on his paw and gave him a weak smile.

"Sorry about this," he said, "I know things were probably easier when Santa was around."

By that, he meant Santiago D'Errant, Harvey's uncle that taught Sal the tools of his painting trade for years before he gave him to Harvey and passed on. Sal didn't want to show weakness in front of his other teammates, but as he remembered Santa's wrinkled face, he nodded in agreement.

"Things'll get better, I promise. We'll be out of this dump once we get our badge. Don't worry about the rest for now and get on with your sketching."

Sal nodded once more and returned to his canvas, forgetting about the heaviness of his chest as he got on with his studies. For him, guiding the pencil down the pad gave him more power than he ever had in the arena. When he truly got into the zone, as one needed to focus when drawing detailed faces from memory, it even made him feel like more of a human than a Pokemon. In that moment, he imagined having his own work in a gallery, standing next to the human professionals in the same league. Answering questions about his work if he could speak. Sampling the hors d’ouvres. Drinking from wine spritzers. If he ever managed to get to that stage, he would’ve been the happiest Pokemon, nay, person in the world.

Someone knocked at the door and Sal’s bubble burst, dropping him back into the cold, damp room, and into the body of a small, frail Pokemon again. His trainer fumbled out of his bed and opened the door.

"You might wanna put some pants on, bud," he said. "Some chick's at the door for you."

"Are they? Crap. If it's the landlord, tell her I'm not here."

"Nope, we don't have any clue who she is. Well, if she's with you, you two better not be too loud up there."

"Shut up." Harvey slammed the door on him and scrambled to put some sweatpants on. Sal stared at the blank space, wondering what the other house-mate was implying to get such a reaction from him. Harvey turned to his team.

"I'll be back in a sec." Harvey shut the door behind him, leaving the room in silence. Roy chuckled to himself, cutting the thick tension.

"You think someone would really score with that guy?"

"Ugh," Mari said, "Don't let that other human put ideas in your head!"

"Why don't we find out?" he said as he peeked out the window. The rest joined him, including Sal, and saw their trainer was talking to a hooded woman. The two talked for a while, then, Harvey disappeared into the house along with her.

"Huh," Roy said, "I'll eat my curds."

"Words," Mari corrected. The rest turned away, but Sal kept looking, staring out into the night sky. From the corner of his eye, perched by a chimney on one of the houses, he saw a shadow. It stood on two legs, much like a human would, but the rest of the features were anything but, as the legs twisted like no human’s would. What stood out to him the most were its eyes, whose green features pierced through the dark air. Sal blinked and the shadow wasn’t there anymore. He stared out for a while before the door behind him creaked open, and Harvey came in alongside the woman, who let her hood down. Her face sparkled under the ceiling lamp, her make-up accentuated her rosy features, unlike the troublesome trainer Sal met before, and the way she smiled, parting her lips slightly, made even Sal's heart melt.

"Sorry," Harvey said, clasping his hands together, "It's a huge mess at the moment. I'm sure you're not used to this where you're from."

The woman shook her head. "Oh no, it's perfectly alright. My family can be very messy when they don't have any servants looking after the mansion."

She looked down to Sal and knelt down to his eye level.

"Why hello there," she said, "You are Sal, correct?"

Sal nodded, not sure of what to say even if she understood him.

"I saw your work in town, and I must say, I'm very impressed. It was a shame that gaudy looking trainer had to ruin it all."

“What, the one with the Jynx?”

She nodded.

"Crazy bitch." His eyes widened and he covered his mouth with his hand. "Sorry, language. The amount of entitled customers Sal has to deal with is insane."

"Pity. These people take so many Pokemon for granted these days."

"So, uh," Harvey said, "What did you want from him?"

"I have a proposition, actually, but I would like to see his work before I mention it." She knelt down again as Sal approached her, maw hanging open. The woman glanced over to his canvas and smiled once more. Sal squeaked, scrambling over to his stack of paintings on the floor in the corner, showing her every single piece he’d made over the course of the last few months. One was a study of a famous oil painter. Another was a self portrait of Sal as a human. The last one he presented was of a Lickitung with their tongue stuck in a peanut butter jar, rendered in such clarity that one could see each deliberate brush stroke.

Once he gathered all the paintings in his current portfolio, he locked eyes with the mistress, who gazed intently. His heart thumped against his chest as he waited for a reply. This woman seemed to be the definition of prestige. What if his work wasn’t enough for her?

At last, she nodded, coursing a hand through the Smeargle’s rough coat, which felt as soft as grass to the touch.

"These are extraordinary," she said. "You've easily beaten all the dilettantes I've seen in most galleries."

Sal put his paw on his chest. It was common to have compliments thrown his way from customers and his own team, but none of them ever rang true for himself when he looked at his own work. To have someone who radiated class and influence praise his work, he was at a loss for himself to try and describe what he felt. Satisfaction was it? Or maybe honour? He didn't know exactly. But it easily made him forget the troubles he had earlier with that other customer.

"In that case,” the woman said, clearing her throat, “I'd like to make an offer for you both. I've been meaning to have a portrait done of my Houndoom, something I'd like to hang up on the wall back home. I haven't exactly found the right person for the task, but now I've seen your work, I'm sure you'd do an excellent job. Not only would you be paid handsomely, you would gain widespread recognition in this city, then possibly, across the region."

"How much would you be willing to offer?" Harvey said.

"One hundred thousand Pokedollars."

"Holy mother of--" Harvey cut himself short, then pumped his fist in the air. "We'll take it! When can we start?"

"As soon as you'd like," she said, handing him a card. "Our address is on there, which I'm sure you'll be able to get to easily on the Magnet Train. Until then, I must get back to my place. Would you be willing to escort me out, sir?"

Harvey's face rushed with blood as he led the mistress out of the room. The rest of his team started cheering for him, with Roy whooping in the air, Anorak chittering in the background and Mari pouncing on Sal with joy. Sal, however, internally blocked out everybody else from the room, and felt a creeping sense of dread settle in his stomach.

It sounded nice in theory, but he had never taken on a task that huge when it came to drawing for other people. They often came to other humans who had already built up a reputation rather than some unknown Pokemon, after all. Stage fright was enough to set him with all sorts of worries. What stung the most was how his trainer didn't even ask Sal what he thought before taking on the offer, which was something he always did before. While he didn’t want to call the whole thing off, he had to let his trainer know he betrayed his trust, words or no words.

Sal escaped the grasp of the prying paws behind him and exited the room, then jumped down the stairs, step by step to find Harvey. He was in the kitchen, talking to the other house-mates with an excitable look on his face. Sal climbed up to the kitchen counter and prodded his back, turning his attention towards him.

"Oh hey! Really proud of you, buddy!" He ruffled through Sal's coat, although Sal stood stiff as a statue, staring him down.

"What's wrong?" he asked, frowning. Sal crossed his arms and pointed to the back garden. In response, Harvey picked him up and brought him outside. They sat on a brick wall, watching the twilight.

"I thought you would've been proud of yourself. It's not every day you get an opportunity like that a-knocking, is it?"

Sal grumbled, which he hoped Harvey would take as a 'no'.

“Then what’s got your Gogoat?"

Sal didn't consider himself good at answering open-ended questions. Simple 'yes' or 'no' questions were easy enough to respond to, but something more complex required more nuance. In an effort to act it out, Sal stood on the bank and mimed the mistress knocking on their door, her looking at the pictures Sal drew, Harvey shaking her hand, and to top it off, Sal zipped his mouth shut. Harvey cocked his head slightly to try and understand it, then sighed and slapped his forehead.

“Shit, I didn’t ask you first, did I?”

Sal shook his head.

Harvey looked to the side, trying not to maintain eye contact with Sal, before turning back with a worried look. “I’m so sorry about that. I just got so excited, I didn’t even think about it.” He chortled and hung upside down on the wall. “Jeez, it does seem too good to be true, doesn’t it? What do you think?”

Sal garbled a response that sounded vaguely like ‘I dunno’.

“Yeah, I dunno either. But it's a helluva lot of money. If we took that on, that'd help get us out of this dump." He sat back up and patted Sal’s head. “Sorry to heap this all up on you, I guess you would be pretty nervous, huh?”

Sal nodded vigorously. He had no idea if any Pokemon was asked to do such a task before. Maybe in the news, if he ever bothered to listen to it. But certainly not where he came from.

“Look, I’ve seen all your work. Your painting skills are stunning. No matter how hard I tried to study from the greats, I could never live up to that old man's expectations. But you did, so now's your chance to prove yourself to the rest of the world, eh?"

While there was still that rift with Harvey drafting him in, Sal couldn't help but smile at the thought of it. He knew he had the skills as he didn't spend hours on end in Santa's atelier, doing still life paintings and master studies for nothing. As long as he remembered his former master's training, he was sure he could create something worthy of being hung up on a wall for generations to come.

Harvey looked to the sky again, dangling his legs over the garden as the blades of grass brushed past his bare feet. "Besides, there's plenty to look forward to besides that. Believe me when I say that lady's loaded. Elora's her name. She lives in this manor just outside Saffron City, and she's offered to let us stay there for no extra cost, so we'll get on the Magnet train tomorrow morning." Harvey pulled a huge grin. "Can't say I've ever been to a manor before! I'm sure you and the other guys will love it!"

Sal couldn't help but grin widely as well. Staying in that damp, dilapidated room all the time wasn't exactly the best environment for him to work, so he was pleased to get away from that. He had heard many things about the Magnet train and all its sights from his trainer, so that was a bonus for him. Sal looked up again. Each star glittered as white specks standing out in an inkblot sea. They looked brighter than ever to him that night.
 
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NebulaDreams

Pokémon Trainer
Partner
luxray
Chapter 2. Day One

The following morning, Harvey scrambled to pack everything in that bag of his, including his clothes, all of the equipment Sal would need to carry on the commission as well as other knick-knacks for his other Pokemon. Sal saw the easel disappear in the smaller looking bag and briefly wondered if there was a portal somewhere at the bottom of it, wherever the bottom was. Once he was done, Harvey gathered everyone in a group and put everyone in their respective Pokeballs for the journey. When it was Sal's turn, he stepped away from it, as he hadn't needed to be stored in a Pokeball for a long time. Harvey knelt down to him and smiled.

"I know it sucks, but I'll release you once we get on the train." Sal cocked his head, as he understood it cost extra for trainers to let their Pokemon out on account of saving space.

"Yeah, it's a little pricey, but we're gonna be living the boujee life for a few days anyway, so I say screw the costs."

He didn't exactly know what 'boujee' meant, but ruled it out as another form of human slang, and so, tapped the Pokeball, storing himself in there.

Time passed and didn't pass all the same. According to his trainer, each Pokemon’s experience inside the space was subjective. For Sal, it was like existing in a perpetually unfinished state, transformed into a sketch the artist of the space neglected to clean up and left on a blank page. In the real world, he felt small. In that temporal space, he felt microscopic.

So, when he and the rest of his team were released onto the train, Sal felt whole once more. Roy stretched, undoubtedly feeling stiff being stuck in a sphere for so long, and Mari went to stare outside the window behind the seats with Anorak beside her. Sal and Roy went to join them, and their jaws collectively dropped when they saw the landscapes zip past them. The forests, mountains and cities all became a blur outside, yet on the inside, everyone kept their balance. Sal clutched the seat's handle, feeling dizzy at first, but once he acclimated to the fast panning backgrounds, he could sit down and feel his sight returning to normal again.

From left to right, the carriage was lined with assortments of Pokemon and their trainers, some he had never seen before in Johto as well. He hadn't seen that many varied Pokemon crammed into one space at once. The itching sensation in his paws returned. Without asking, he reached into his trainer's bag and brought his sketchbook out alongside his materials. Being on a fast moving train didn't impede his line-work, which was as steady as ever. Before Sal knew it, he had already started sketching the crowd lined up before him on a blank page: a Feraligatr, a Wooper, a Sudowoodo, a Hitmontop, and many other different faces. It was only when he was on his second page that he noticed his team crowding around him, almost squashing him as they were that close. Sal fidgeted in his seat, clutching the sketchbook to his chest.

"Hey, uh guys," he said, "Can you give me a little space? I’m a little cramped here."

"You were fine before," Roy said.

"I didn't notice before," Sal replied. "Would you ease up a little, please?"

"Alright, mon." He backed away with the rest of his team. "Artists, amiright?"

"Ignore him, Sal," Mari said. He grunted a reply as he continued to sketch the rest of the line to his left. In the middle of the crowd, one face stood out, not a Pokemon, but rather a black-clad man with hair as white as a sheet. The rest of his features were unremarkable compared to the varied bodies of Pokemon before him, except for his green eyes, which seemed to stare into Sal's soul. Sal had to sketch him down just on that virtue. While Sal was sketching, the monochrome man gazed at him, and even when Sal moved onto the tall purple-looking Pokemon beside him (which he thought of as the result of a Mr. Mime making whoopee with a Jynx, if that was even anatomically possible), the man continued to stare. He soon blocked him out of his mind and went back to his own little world, at least until the automated voice spoke through the intercom announcing their approach to Saffron City.

Sal smiled and presented the sketches to his team, which they praised him on as usual. Then, Harvey pointed at the monochrome man.

"Who's he?"

Sal pointed at where he sat, only to find he was pointing at the thin air. He looked back at his team, slack-jawed.

"Well, I don't remember seeing him before," Harvey said, "That space has always been empty."

Sal looked back at the man in the sketch, then back to the empty seat. He definitely saw him there, otherwise he wouldn't have spent a good few minutes drawing him.

"Uh," Sal said, more for the rest of his team than his trainer, "Maybe he just went to pee."

"Whatever you say," Roy said, nudging him with his elbow. "You've got an active imagination, pal."

Sal sighed, but didn't feel the need to press on, and closed his sketchbook. The Pokemon passengers had started getting up, ready to hop onto the platform with their trainers, and Sal might as well have done the same too. He crammed the sketchbook back into the bottomless bag.

Moments later, the train stopped at the station, and with his trainer, Sal put his paw onto the dirt of Kanto for the first time. As they walked amongst the mess of trainers and their Pokemon trying to squeeze through, Sal couldn't see past the waist of a lot of the passers by, so he ended up clutching onto his trainer's leg for safety. He yelped once as a sharp pain shot up his spine, but once they were out in the clear, he let go and got back to his feet. He nursed his tail, which was scuffed with dirt.

“Oh, there she is!” Harvey said. Sal held onto his tail as he went forward with his group.

"Hello again," Elora's sultry voice called, "I hope you had a pleasant journey."

"It was alright," Harvey said. As Sal looked up, he could see he was rubbing his head with a nervous smile. "But it was worth it to see you, I mean, come here."

"I hope so," she said with a smile. Elora had still been dressed in her hoodie, which Sal noticed as odd considering her apparent wealth, but didn’t think to comment. Then, he looked to his side to see the monochrome man again, holding out a banner with his trainer's full name on it. The Smeargle felt a chill wash over his tiny body. He pointed to the man who did not seem to notice him.

"Oh, how rude of me,” Elora said, gesturing to the monochrome man, "Everyone, meet Zed, my butler."

Zed hummed to himself and bowed to the team.

"He's not much for conversation, but he will be here to take care of you if you need it. Now, let's get going, shall we?"

Elora and co. started walking towards the exit. It took a few seconds for Sal to process his team was leaving without him, so he scrambled to catch up with his friends at the back.

"Those paint fumes been getting to you, pal?" Roy said with his back to Sal.

"But, but, he's the guy I saw earlier!" Sal protested.

"Sounds like one helluva coinkidink if it was."

"Well," Mari said, "I believe him."

"You do?" Sal said.

"It sounds strange, sure, but this world's strange enough as it is, so there's probably an explanation for it."

"So it's a hunch," Roy said.

"Maybe. But it's still possible."

Sal's mind drifted off as he navigated through the maze of legs and hindpaws. He wasn't sure if he could trust himself at that point. As Mari said, there probably was something happening, supernatural, maybe, but for a person to be at two places at once, and invisible to everyone else before, no matter how hard Sal thought of a reason for it, his brain matter felt more and more overstuffed by the minute. He shook his head and continued on. He had bigger things to worry about than some sort of illusion.

Finally, the space around Sal was clear again and he exhaled. He made a mental note that next time he was to go into crowded places with his trainer, he would just climb onto Harvey's shoulder and avoid the hassle his small stature brought. When he looked up, he recognised he was in a car park where Elora was getting behind the wheel of a limo as Zed joined the passenger seat at the front. She gestured for everyone else to sit at the back. Sal was wide eyed as he entered its spacious insides. He'd always seen vehicles like these in various shows he could never remember the name of, but he never thought he'd actually see one in the flesh. The others shared his sense of wonder as well, as Mari bounced on the seat cushions and Roy lay down on the other side, taking up the entire space. Harvey and Anorak looked just as pleased, although they simply sat close to each other. Sal joined them, and gave the leather seat a few test bounces. He didn't know if his furry behind was worthy of such comfort. Harvey gave him another tap on the back.

"You like it?" he said, to which, Sal nodded. The car started, and soon enough, the team were on their way.

---

Once it stopped, Zed opened the back doors and led each member out into the front garden of their manor. When he got out, Sal stared in marvel at the sight of it. Buildings interlaced with each other. The windows were adorned with intricate frames. Not only that, the garden itself was no slouch either, the path to the manor lined with palm trees and other exotic plants. If Sal had more time on his paws, he would've loved to have drawn the whole thing, as architecture was something he hadn't studied enough. However, he saw his own team heading towards the front door, so he went to join them, putting his priorities on his current work. Zed opened the front door and led the way through the manor's interior, from its painting-laden hallways to the lavishly furnished bedrooms they would be staying in. They were given time to unpack everything, and once they made themselves at home, the team collectively sat on the four poster bed. Sal felt as if he was sinking inside the mattress; it was that comfortable. A far cry from the springy bed back home.

There was a knock at the door. Harvey went to answer it, greeted by Elora, dressed in much more formal attire, with Zed by her side.

"I hope everything is to your liking," she said.

"Is it ever!" he said, "Man, I can't tell you how glad I am to get out that shithole. Pardon my Kalosan."

"No, it's quite alright. In any case, I need you to gather Sal's equipment so he can start the painting. My Houndoom will be joining us shortly."

Harvey nodded and gathered all of Sal's paints and materials, gesturing for the rest of his team to come along with him. They left together with Elora leading in front.

"If you'd be so kind," she said, "I'd like to hear exactly why your place is such an, ahem, shithole, as you'd call it."

“Well,” Harvey said, wringing his hands together, “We did quite well up until we beat that gym leader at Azalea. Every Pokemon or trainer we butted heads with got super beefed up after that, so by the time we got to Goldenrod, we bled most of our savings out.” He grimaced. “We settled in that flat a couple of months ago, but the landlady’s been ripping me off since day one, so yeah. Changes the rent on a whim, you see.”

"Pity," she said, "I'm glad I never considered going into the league myself. I saw little point in joining such a rat race."

"But I guess you're still a trainer, since you have a Houndoom and all."

"Only so I could get the right to own one. Money was not an issue for me to buy a license, and I was willing to play with fire, so to speak."

"I see."

They stopped outside a locked room. Zed produced a key for it and Elora guided the group away from the door, looking at them with a serious expression.

"He will have to calm him down first before we can get started. Trust me, he gets in a foul mood if he hasn't had his Miltank Munchies."

The team nodded and watched with bated breath as Zed turned the key inside. Click. He took a deep breath and slowly guided his hand to the doorknob. As soon as the door was wide enough to fit himself in, he thrust himself in there and slammed the door shut. Howling could be heard from the insides, followed by random bursts of noise, with objects clattering and furniture being knocked over. The howls alone sent shivers running through Sal's spine. According to his trainer, their howls were thought to be the calls of Yveltal themself. Even without that, the thought the beast was able to produce that much noise by itself alone was enough for Sal to grasp his tail in anticipation for what was to come. While this was going on, he noticed the fuzzy coat of Anorak trailing beside his legs. He picked him up and held the poor Spinarak for comfort.

After a moment, the noises stopped. They all stared at the door to see what would happen next. The door gradually became ajar, and out came the Houndoom, chewing noisily on some Miltank jerky as if nothing happened, and Zed came out after them, his clothes in tatters and stained in patches of blood. If the Smeargle’s coat wasn't already a shade of white, it would've turned grey by now. Sal looked to Zed, who dabbed at his bloody forehead with a handkerchief, then down to the Houndoom, who was staring him down with a set of glassy eyes. He froze.

"Um, hello?" Sal said.

No reply. The Houndoom padded over to him and sniffed him down. Sal hoped fear didn't have a smell, otherwise, he was sure he'd be doomed to a fiery fate. Then, they stopped and went to Elora, where they presented their belly for her to stroke. They grunted affectionately under her grasp.

"Everyone, I'd like you to meet Puffles."

"Puffles," Harvey said in a deadpan tone.

After being groomed by his owner, Puffles started sniffing down the whole team, and sat down, panting all the while. Roy was the first to lend his hand to the horned beast. Sal covered his eyes, expecting it to bite Roy's hand off in one fell swoop. When he opened them next to see Roy petting him in all sorts of places without loss of limb, he let out a sigh of relief. Roy was chuckling like an idiot.

"Heh, look at this fella, he's loving it! How could you not like this cute little monster?"

Elora cleared her throat, diverting the group's attention to her.

"We should get started soon. I'll lead you to your studio shortly. In the meantime, Zed-" she looked off in the distance with a smirk, "-clean yourself up, and try not to get blood on my new carpets."

Zed nodded and disappeared down a diverting path of the hallway. Puffles joined Elora and the two led the team to another room, which seemed to be a study. It was filled to the brim with books, with mahogany furniture as far as the eye could see, all leading to the centre of the room where a desk sat with a leather chair. Sal thought back to Santa's atelier and how that was loaded with all sorts of books and random materials, although those were more for picture reference than for reading. He personally preferred his old master's studio to this one, but it was a close tie for the sort of room he would liked to have built if his trainer ever had the money for it. Puffles sat himself down on the desk, making himself the centre of attention in the room. Sal half expected him to dress up in a suit and start addressing them about business matters; he looked that important. Instead, Elora walked to one part of the room and pulled up a chair, facing opposite to her Houndoom.

"Now," she said, "If I can get a new canvas, would you please set up the equipment for this kind Smeargle?"

"Sure," Harvey said, propping up the easel in front of the chair with all the materials set up in a cabinet beside it. Moments later, Elora carried in a large canvas, triple the size of Sal's body, and placed it in front. Harvey picked up Sal to stand up on the chair. Sal could see nothing but the white space ahead of him. He turned to Harvey, frowning.

"Um," Harvey said, "This might be a problem. He's a bit small, you see."

Elora nodded. "That shouldn't be a problem if you tilt the easel around."

"Right," he said, and did as he was told. Although Sal had to crane his neck back and forth to navigate between his subject and the painting space, at least he was able to see what was going on. Doing the best he could with his paw, Sal gave a thumbs up to his trainer.

"Excellent," Elora said. "Now that's all settled, I'll ask all of you to leave this room. I’ll need to talk to him personally to discuss what I want from him, if you wouldn’t mind.”

"Of course," Harvey said, and gestured to the rest of his team to head towards the door. They left quietly, leaving the three to their own devices.

Elora went over the sort of things she was looking for in the portrait: giving the Houndoom a specific pose in mind with the goal of making him look intimidating, yet noble at the same time. She gave Sal free reign to do whatever he wanted as long as he painted in a classical style, which was easy enough for him to pull off. She would call them back out once it was dinner time. He gave another thumbs up to Elora and she left, and at last, the imposing Pokemon and the not-so-imposing Pokemon were left on their own. Sal stared him down.

"So, uh," he said, giving him a nervous smile, "Guess you’ve never had a Pokemon draw you before, huh?"

No response. Puffles continued to look off into the distance as instructed to, leaving Sal with an unsure expression.

"Not much of a talker, huh? Alright, I should get started then."

With that, he grabbed his pencil and visually measured out each part of Puffles, from horn to paw. It was important to be as accurate as possible when referencing from real life, after all. The moments spent drawing passed in silence. Then, Sal heard a low rumbling down below. He blinked.

“Um, did you hear that?” he said. No response. Sal shrugged and continued to draw in silence until he heard the rumbling again, this time a little louder. He carried on. Then, it rumbled for a third time, sending vibrations from the chair to the tips of his hinds. The lead of his pencil broke, leaving a large black spot on the space.

Sal sighed and sharpened away. He hummed to himself, imitating a song he heard through the radio that one time in an effort to drown out the noise below. Without changing his pose, the Houndoom leered at him, presumably to get him to stop. Sal thought back to Zed's brush with him before and continued.

It was now time to start underpainting. He mixed his paints with turpentine and dabbed his brushy tail in the pot, dragging it across the canvas. This second part was crucial to getting the tones right, as it would dictate the mood of the piece. The atmosphere around him seemed warm, so he started with the warm colours of oranges and yellows. He would block in the blues and greys for the Houndoom later. A nice contrast of warm and cool tones. The rumbling continued, although not as strong as last time, and Sal sighed. He had to find another way to block out the noise. His heart beat steadily as he opened his mouth.

"So, um, do you mind me talking?" Sal said. Puffles grunted softly.

"I'll take that as a yes. There's nothing wrong with you not talking back. It's nice to have a good listener after all."

No response. He took it as a better reply than being given the gaze of doom.

“I usually talk to my subjects, you know, since I used to do caricatures. I loved what I did, and liked the conversation, but sometimes, they’d ask questions about why I started doing this. Why I wasn’t out battling with my trainer and such. I always felt like they were judging me, you know. I could see it in their eyes, glaring at me, one way or another. So I didn’t answer.”

Puffles blinked. Sal held his tail still and glanced at his subject’s eyes. They were clear and white, like newly polished crystal orbs. They looked relaxed as well. Despite his first impressions early, his pulse steadied a little, and Sal smiled, returning to his work.

"I had to admit, I was kinda scared at you at first, but it seems like you’re a nice guy. You know, it's crazy that I'm here, painting for a human for this much money. I never would've dreamed of it even when I had my old master. There was this painter who raised me, you see. I was given to him by a good friend of his when I was in an egg. He didn't have many friends, you see, so he relied on him for a lot of things, including food.”

He frowned. “Poor Santa. Even when he was making such beautiful paintings, he was just barely scraping by. At one point, he couldn't even afford to turn the heat on. But I grew up in that environment, so I've gotten used to being poor. Then again, it's much better than being in the wild. I don't even know if I'd survive out there by myself. I don't know about you, but I'm sure you've had experience with that. Then again, you're kind of like an apex predator, so I doubt you’d have much trouble, would you?"

No answer.

"Still, I'm very lucky to have this gift. I know it's not in most Pokemon's nature. Heck, most people wouldn't even bother teaching a Pokemon to draw, or do much else. Maybe teach them the human tongue, but aside from that, nothing. But I couldn't have had a better master than Santa. I trained my paws to hold objects, then I could use a paintbrush, and then he taught me all sorts of things about art theory and all that. How to use colours correctly. How to blend in different tones. How to accurately capture your subject. If I didn't learn to do all of that, I probably wouldn't have a reason to live now."

Puffles grunted again, this time, in a low grumble. The end of the Smeargle’s tail drooped.

"I’m boring you, aren’t I? I'm sorry, I'll stop."

The Houndoom opened his mouth.

"Continue." It was the first peep he heard out of him. Only one word. However, it was said in a deep voice, like Puffles built up all his energy to express it. Sal smiled and continued painting and talking about anything under the sun, from his favourite artists to praising the interiors of the manor. Even if it was a one-sided conversation, the Smeargle enjoyed the company and had stopped hearing the rumbling underneath the floor.

Then, the door opened behind him, and the Houndoom shifted from his place. It was Elora. She walked over to Sal's work, hands behind her back, and inspected the painting with a smile.

"Excellent work so far. You can leave your equipment here. For now, I'd be delighted if you could join us for dinner."

She stroked Puffles' head as he walked beside her, with Sal following closely behind him. He flexed his paint-covered paws. After a few hours straight of painting, the handiwork wore on him, but as long as he took the time to relax afterwards, he would be ready the next day for more.

He met the rest of his team again at the dinner table, and while they waited, Sal asked what they got up to during the day. Roy did most of the talking, who said they explored the maze in the back garden on their own and got lost in there for a few hours before Zed had to wrench them out of there.

"So yeah," he said with a grin, "Not a bad day overall."

"And how is your painting coming along?" Mari said.

"Alright, I guess," Sal said with a shrug.

"Yeah, alright," Roy chimed in, "The freaking Smeargle that's painting for this rich chick is just doing alright."

"Well," Sal said, scowling, "What am I supposed to say? I've just been underpainting all this time. It's still too early to say whether it’s good or not at this stage."

"Alright, I gotcha." Roy turned to his side and started adjusting his cutlery. Zed brought in an assortment of dishes on the tray, as little as a few kibbles for the Spinarak, and as big as a whole roasted Psyduck for Zed to have on his own, with other stacks of side dishes all to himself. As for Sal, he dug into a plate of Magikarp cutlets for himself with a knife and fork, something else he learned to use with Santa. The dinner mostly passed in silence. The clatters of cutlery echoed in the spacious dining room, as the table was probably long enough to fit a huge crowd of people. When Harvey put the cutlery on his half-finished plate, he spoke at last.

"So Elora," he said, "If you don't mind me asking, where's the rest of your family?"

"Oh," she said, holding up a messy bib to her face. She hummed, deep in thought. "They're on vacation in Alola, yes, Alola. Pretty nice place."

"So I've heard. But why aren't you with them? I'm sure they would've loved to have taken someone like you along."

She smiled. "You flatter me. But, there were some matters I had to attend to back here with Zed. Business matters."

"Such as?"

Another pause. To Sal, it seemed to fill up the whole of the room. In the midst of the silence, Sal briefly looked to where Zed sat, who chewed loudly as he was halfway through his Psyduck.

"Decorating," Elora said. "The inspectors will be coming here in a few days, so we thought we'd spruce up the place as nicely as possible. As I said, my family can get pretty messy. That was sort of the reason I sought out your Smeargle, since we haven't had a nice portrait of Puffles for ages."

"Sorry you had to stay behind then."

"No," she said, shaking her head, "It's quite alright. I didn't exactly want to come for another family trip. Besides, it was just another excuse for father to schmooze with all these uptight businessmen, so I need to spend time alone sometimes, after all. But enough of that. All that matters is that we're here on this table together."

"Aw," Harvey said, smiling as he cut his steak into portions, "You're making us feel like guests of honour."

"In a manner of speaking, yes."

They continued their meals in silence until everyone was finished. All that was left of Zed's plate was a pile of bones. When Sal saw that, he gulped a little, partly at the sight of such an unassuming man consuming such a big portion so quickly, and mostly because it probably could've been any Pokemon under his knife, including Smeargle. If that was the case, Sal hoped his species tasted horrible. But he put that thought aside as Zed started collecting all the plates. Sal patted at his belly. It had been a while he had eaten something that wasn't processed in a factory somewhere.

Suddenly, Elora stood up.

"Now," she said, "Would you all like to join me in the guest room?"

Harvey nodded and led the rest of the Pokemon on the way. Like the rest of the mansion, the guest room was painstakingly decorated, from the rugs lining the floors that tickled Sal's paws, to the paintings of all sorts of different figures adorning the walls. Although Sal noticed a blank spot marked where a painting should’ve been, he shrugged it off. They sat down in a circle as Elora got out a wine bottle with a few glasses, one for herself, one for Harvey, and to everyone's surprise, Roy. The Machoke looked down at it with one eye raised, as did his trainer.

"You seem surprised," Elora said.

"Just a little," Harvey said, "I didn't know Pokemon could have alcohol."

"Well, yes, it is illegal to serve to Pokemon, and dangerous to most, after all. I certainly wouldn’t give it to something as small as a Smeargle—“ She cut herself off to look at Sal briefly. “No offense. But humans and Machoke are close as species, having evolved similarly to each other, just on different islands. A few studies point to them having a similar alcohol tolerance as humans, so he can probably take as much as you can, nix a glass or two."

"Huh," Harvey said, tilting the glass, "You seem to know a lot about this sort of stuff."

"Well," she said with a smirk, "I like to keep myself occupied with my studies. But in any case," she looked to Roy, "I hope it's to your liking, if you're up for it."

Roy nodded, and Elora poured rose wine in each of their glasses. Elora raised her glass to them and gulped from it, spilling some onto her dress. She excused herself while Roy and Harvey looked at each other for a moment, and clinked both of their glasses together, which Sal couldn't help but smile at. After Roy's complaints about Harvey's training methods, it was nice to see them getting along. While Harvey sipped his, the Machoke drank all its contents in one gulp. He hiccuped after a few seconds of taking it in.

"Hey buddy," his trainer said, patting him on the back, "You should pace yourself a little, otherwise you'll be knocked out in no time!"

Roy gave a sheepish grin and shrugged. When Elora came back wearing a cardigan, she held a board game out, one Sal had never seen before. Harvey explained the rules to both his Pokemon, as Mari and Anorak just watched them, and they played a few games. By the time they were finished, the clock in the common room struck ten times, and Zed came in, leading the team back to their bedroom. There was some difficulty getting Harvey and Roy up the stairs as they had a few glasses to drink, but otherwise, got into their room without too much trouble and collapsed on the same bed. They locked arms with each other, snoring loudly. Mari chuckled as she witnessed the scene.

"I wish someone in our group was good at taking photos," the Bayleef said. "This would be good for blackmail."

Sal cocked his head. “What do you mean by that?”

"Nothing." She yawned. "But anyway, let's call it a night. You've got a big day ahead of you tomorrow, so I would get as much sleep as possible."

She curled up in a tiny circular bed with Anorak, and Sal got up on the bed, resting by his trainer's feet. He closed his eyes, ready to turn in for the night, slowly succumbing to the fruits of his labour that day.

DOON. DOON.

He opened his eyes. The floor rumbled again. Sal shifted in his spot on the bed, readjusting himself to get in a more comfy position.

DOON. DOON.

The rumbling continued. Flakes from the ceiling fell onto Sal. He patted them off his side and leapt off the floor. He stood stationary on the balls of his feet.

DOON. DOON. DOON.

The rumbles had turned into knocks. Despite feeling the vibrations in his paws, when he turned to his team, they did not stir. Then, he looked to the door. At that point, he was convinced something was after him ever since he got on the train to Kanto, following him all the way to the manor just to interrupt him at inopportune times.

Sal looked to his team. He crept close to Mari, almost putting a paw on her side when he retracted it. It was no use waking up the rest of his team for this. He tiptoed to the door and reached for the knob. It took a few jumps before he finally touched it, where he hung onto the handle. He swung backwards, finally opening the door with a creak. Sal looked behind him once more. Everyone was still sound asleep. Exhaling, the little Smeargle crept through the opening and made his way through the corridor.

The floorboards squeaked underneath his paws. The rest of the hallway was drenched in darkness as thick as smog. Thankfully, most Pokemon had an aptitude for seeing in the dark they inherited from the genes of those that lived in the wild. According to Santa, Sal's father had lived in the wild before finding a trainer, which was another mystery to him as he knew nothing about his parents. Deep down, he wondered what his parents would think of him if they saw their son doing art. He hoped they'd be proud of him, although for most Pokemon, as he learned from looking at the world, pipe dreams like that were better as just dreams than reality.

Step by step, he climbed down the carpeted staircase. The wood felt brittle. With each descent, his paws felt as if they would break through the floor. Sal hung onto the rails for safety.

Once he reached the ground floor, he stopped to listen out for the rumbling.

DOON DOON DOON.

Sal knew in his heart he was getting closer to the source of the noise. It beeped rapidly as he walked further and further through the darkness, like a noise detecting radar. He went straight down the hallway, only to find the noise was getting quieter. He turned around and went the other way. The rumble got louder and progressively quicker, each pulse a drum beat reverberating through the floor. Eventually, he was faced with an area he hadn't seen before, another hallway with a small door at the end of it. Sal held his paw close to his chest. Something in his gut told him that was where the noise was coming from. He advanced further down the hallway, letting his mind wander into a variety of different scenarios. The noise might've been the Houndoom, who had to be kept under lock and key in a room if last time was of any indication. He could've been let out, prowling the hallways at night for any intruder that dared to disturb its domicile. If he spotted Sal, surely, he would've sunken its terrible teeth into the silly Smeargle's side, tearing him into two.

He shook his head. It was best not to be paranoid in this situation. He thought about what Roy would do, as he looked to him whenever they trained together. On one such occasion, Roy had faced a Pokemon twice his size and didn’t back away. If Roy wouldn't retreat from danger, Sal wouldn't either. Setting his eyes on the door at the end, he charged through the hallway, advancing further and further to the source of the noise and its pulsating percussion.

Then, a candle lit up on his left. Sal jumped at this, then froze when he looked down at what the light was casting itself onto. The bust of a Skarmory leered over to him with the whites of its eyes. He gasped, then let out a sigh of relief. The material was fake, he noticed. If it truly was a stuffed Skarmory, its metallic plumage would be shining in the light. Then, it shook. The bust jerked violently on the walls, as if trying to escape. Sal backed away from it, feeling his heart pound all the way up his throat. With one final motion, it fell to the floor. There was a pause. The rumbling stopped. Sal took a few steps back to where he came from, then turned, running as fast as he could from the bust. But he heard the air whistling behind him, grating on his ears like claws on a chalkboard. He tilted his head back. The bust was flying after him.

Sal let out a shrill cry, sprinting up the stairs, forcing his tiny body to get up there even if he had to climb his way to his sanctuary. In the homestretch, he continued to sprint towards his room with heavy breaths. When he made it to his team’s base, he slammed the door shut, panting as he leaned against it.

Everyone else had woken up. The only light in the room came from Harvey's phone, shining like a torch across the room. The trainer looked at his Pokemon, squinting his eyes.

"Huh? Wazzup?"

Sal let out a series of cries expressing what he saw downstairs, although to his trainer, it would’ve been little more than white noise. In Mari's groggy state, she walked up to him with a worried look.

"Don't worry about it for now. You’re tired and thinking about tomorrow, that's all."

"But, but, what I saw!" Sal said, "You believe me, don't you?"

She frowned. "It's too late for this, Sal. Get some rest, please."

Harvey fished through his belongings and found Sal's Pokeball, which he presented to him from the bed.

"Just stay in here if you’re scared, c’mon.”

Sal stared the spherical object down, and slowly nodded. As much as being in there felt like prison, he wasn't sure if his heart could take the rumbling any longer. Sal tapped the Pokeball, and soon enough, he was back in his little bubble, safe and sound.
 

NebulaDreams

Pokémon Trainer
Partner
luxray
Chapter 3: Day Two

When Sal came outside his Pokeball into the confines of his trainer’s room, all of his teammates stared at him expectantly at the edge of the bed.

"So, uh, buddy," Harvey said, "I don't know what happened last night, but are you alright?"

Memories of the levitating Skarmory rushed back to him. Despite not knowing what would've happened if that bust did catch him, Sal nodded, having calmed down in his personal bubble.

"Good. Whatever it is, just don't overwork yourself today, okay? We have more time on our hands than yesterday, so feel free to take a break whenever." Harvey turned to pick his dirty clothes off the floor and scratched his hairy behind. "I just need to get changed, then we'll head down for breakfast."

The other three still watched over him, with Mari showing the most concern on her face.

"Right," she said, "Now we're all awake, do you mind telling us what's going on?"

Sal cradled his legs, hugging himself. "I'm not sure you'd believe me if I told you."

"Like I said, this world is strange enough as it is, so whatever you tell me won't faze me."

"Either way," Roy said with a grin, "It'll be one helluva story!"

Sal obliged and retold his story, from the bumps in the night to the bust chasing him.

"Hey," Roy said, "Wasn't this on an episode of Detective Pikachu?"

"Which one?" Mari said. "There are, like, bajillions of them."

"Ugh, who knows? But anyway, there was this one bit where the bronze bust of this dead guy started floating and harassing that Pikachu and his partner, which they spent the whole episode solving the mystery of. Turns out it was possessed by a lonely Misdreavus who just wanted some company to scare, or some kiddy crap like that."

"You reckon that's what happened?" Sal said. Roy just burst out into laughter.

"You kiddin' me? Of course not! You really take things at face value, don't you, Salmonella?"

Sal would've furrowed his brows if he had any.

"Still," Mari said, "It wouldn't surprise me if something did possess that bust right here. It doesn't sound too far-fetched, after all."

"What do Leek Pokemon have to do with it?" Roy said.

"No, you dolt. I mean the, never mind." Mari groaned as she went to sit inside her bed. She twitched her head-leaf towards Sal, gesturing for him to join her, and leaned in to whisper in his ear.

"Listen," she said, "Ignore what that clod says. If you hear whatever it is by the end of tonight, come to me and we'll check it out together. If it turns out to be a monster, my leaves will tear through them like ribbons, you hear me?"

Sal nodded. As much as he wanted answers immediately, he still had work to do for the sake of his and his trainer's future, so he decided to put that aside in favour of enjoying a good breakfast.

They met in the dining room again with a massive fruits basket in the middle of the table for all the Pokemon to enjoy. The tender berries nourished Sal after last night’s scare, even spoiling him with some other exotic berries he didn't know the name of. The humans had a full plate of some other kind of breakfast, with Zed having several plates worth of food to himself. Sal watched him scarf plate after plate down, and wondered if his stomach had the same technology as his trainer's bag did. No matter how much he ate, it still looked as if a light breeze would've knocked him over.

"Well well," Elora said, slurping tea from her cup, "I heard there was a bit of commotion last night."

"Oh," Harvey said. "Sorry about that, we didn't mean to disturb you. Sal wandered off during the middle of the night and came back screaming. I don't know what he saw but something must've set him off."

"Oh really?" she said, humming to herself. "Strange. I can't say I've ever known this house to be haunted. Well, I'm sure that'll add extra points to the contest once the homeowners come here. That will make this quite the tourist attraction if it takes off." She let out a short, elegant laugh. Harvey joined her, although his laugh was more akin to a maniacal Gengar than anything belonging to a human.

Once they were done, Elora led Sal to the same study room where his equipment lay before him, untouched. The painting was as exactly as he left it. Puffles got into the same place on the desk as before. Some degree of normalcy had re-entered Sal's life at last, at least, if a Smeargle painting a realistic portrait of a mostly-mute Houndoom was considered normal.

Before Elora left, she tapped Sal on the shoulder, turning his attention towards her.

"Sal, come with me please. Puffles, you can stay there for a minute."

Sal nodded slowly, not sure where this was going, and Puffles stayed in place. The Smeargle followed the human out, and they got a few paces down the hallway before Elora suddenly picked him up by his sides, putting the two at eye level. His back was to the wall as his legs dangled in the air. Sal caught her gaze, which, for the first time, looked like it could penetrate his tiny skull.

"Don't talk to Puffles, ever. Not about what you saw, not about what he's doing here, nothing. He will attack you without warning if you do. Just do your job from now on. Is that clear?"

Sal's mouth hung ajar. He hadn't seen Elora that frazzled before.

"I repeat," she said, raising her voice, "Is that clear?"

Sal nodded his head rapidly, wanting to be free from her grasp. At last, she smiled, her lips creasing up her otherwise dainty face. Sal felt even more goosebumps prickle up than before, and she let him go back to his workspace. He stared blankly into the canvas. Why was Elora so reluctant for Sal to have a conversation with her own Houndoom if she couldn't know what the two were actually talking about? The way she picked him up as if he was her puppet made him feel small again. A few moments passed with Sal shrinking in his state before he shook his head and picked up his tail-brush. Working on the painting would take his mind off things. At this stage, he had to start working on the actual colours and refine his underpainting.

First, he blocked in the shades of the Houndoom with warmer grey tones for highlights and cooler blue tones for shadows. Getting the shapes of each of the shadow regions was important before blending. He carried on, forgetting about his previous telling-off with Elora and got into the zone again. That was, until the rumbling started once more. Not as intense as last time, as his paws didn't pick up any movement, but still listenable in the background. Sal found himself tapping his foot rapidly on the seat. With explicit instructions not to talk to his model, it was a lot harder to drown out the doom-bringing drones. As he was halfway through blending in between midtones and shadows, he sighed and tossed his equipment to one side. That drone pierced into his head all the way to his brain and festered there like some sort of disease. If he didn't find some way to drown out the noise, his head would’ve probably exploded. He climbed down the seat and looked to Puffles, who gazed at him with his head cocked.

"Sorry," Sal said, "I need something to put on in the background otherwise I'm gonna flip out. Feel free to stretch your legs if you need to."

Sal jumped to the door-handle, letting the Houndoom leave first before getting out himself. Vaguely remembering his trainer had a radio somewhere in his bag, Sal headed to where Roy was so he could fish through his belongings. He never knew where half his trainer’s possessions lurked in there, after all.

His first instinct was to look for the back garden, if there was one, as he was sure Roy had to flex his combat muscles somehow. But with the layout of the manor looking the way it did, a convoluted mess of passages and corridors, Sal couldn't trust his own intuition.

Puffles stopped in his tracks behind him. He looked to the Smeargle and tilted his head to him, then to his back. Sal stood there for a moment, then realised what the Houndoom was trying to say.

"You want me to climb on your back?"

A nod. Sad padded over to him and slowly got on his back. Before he could properly orient himself into a comfortable position, the hulking beast of a Pokemon leaned on its hindlegs. Just in time, Sal wrapped his paws around the Houndoom's horns, hanging on as if his life depended on it. Puffles was on all fours again, and with a mighty roar, he charged through the hallway with Sal in tow. The air flew by Sal's ears, whistling around him. Soon enough, they were out of the dim corridors and into the bright, sunny landscapes. The Houndoom slowed his pace down and before Sal was allowed to soak in his surroundings, Puffles shook his body, booting the tiny Smeargle off his back. Sal groaned as he got back to his feet, giving him a view of the garden before him.

True to Roy's word, there was indeed a maze over the field, made of topiary, and even with that included, there was still a huge chunk of greenery that allowed all sorts of flowers to grow in with a different variety of colours. The scent of roses wafted lightly in the air. As for his team, Roy, Mari and Anorak were having a free for all in the wide garden area, while Harvey and Elora watched in the distance, sitting next to each other on sunbeds.

Mari shot a razor leaf at Anorak, who swung out of the way using his slingshot web, when Sal walked into the fray.

"Training, are we?" he said.

"Yup," Mari said, "We've been putting this off for way too long, so I'm glad to be working up a sweat again. So what's up?"

"I need Roy to do me a favour, if he can come with me."

"Yeah?" Roy said, loosening his shoulders, "Go on, spill it."

"Can you get out the radio for me? I think it's in Harvey's bag."

"What for?"

Sal looked to his side. He didn't want to explain he heard the noises again, so he had to settle for something less crazy-sounding.

"I just need something to listen to in the background while I'm working."

Roy shrugged and walked over to where his trainer was. He gestured to the bag and his trainer gave him a thumbs up, allowing him to fish through it. He dug his whole arm into the thing. It took a minute before he found exactly what Sal was looking for: a small portable radio he could easily perch on top of his paint cabinet. Roy handed it over to Sal, who clutched it in his paws.

"Thanks." He looked down to Puffles and nodded, aware of Elora’s presence. They walked into the house again and back to the studio not long after. Puffles got back in his usual place, and Sal set up the radio on his side. It took a few knob adjustments before he found the channel he wanted, settling for classical music before continuing to paint the subject.

Something Sal didn't miss about his classes with Santa was the silence. His teacher was very strict on certain methods, like not over-blending or using more paint strokes than necessary, which was fair enough. One thing he forbade that never made sense to Sal was listening to music while he painted, as he considered it distracting and took away attention from the piece. Sal personally found he didn't listen to the music anyway and just had it on in the background, so he didn't see any harm in it. Besides, when there may or may not have been a ghost underneath the manor, the rules could've been bent a bit.

The hours flew by. At that point, Sal had finished up the main shades of the piece, giving the Houndoom in the canvas form: a tangible, living thing at last rather than just a combination of pigments on a flat surface. Any fledgling Pokemon would’ve stopped there. What separated the amateurs from the masters, though, were the details in the subject. Each whisker, each tuft of fur and each reflection in the subject's eyes had to be accounted for. For this, Sal had to look very closely to capture every detail in his head, like a photographic memory, to translate it onto the canvas. One piece of equipment he hadn't used in a while, but was nevertheless important to finalising the piece, was a magnifying glass. He fished it out of his toolbox and closely inspected the Houndoom's figure with it. Just in time as well, as the radio switched from its usual broadcast of orchestral tunes to the news.

"In recent news, two disappearance cases have popped up in two different regions. The first of which happened in Sinnoh, where seventy-three doctorate students in their fifth year are reported to be missing. Friends and family have expressed their worries, not seeing those affected in weeks. All that is known is each student underwent a program in secret, the details of which they were not allowed to disclose."

Sal paused to look at the radio, then looked back to the Houndoom. As long as he wasn't in the same region as them, it was none of his concern.

"And our top story today in Kanto, an entire family has also been reported missing after a week of silence, where an investigation will be commenced as soon as possible. William Daniels, the CEO of Pokemon Education and Welfare Fund, or PEWFund for short, has cut ties with his company unexpectedly and has not been heard from since. The rest of his family, including his wife, Vanessa, his two sons, Felix and Richard, and his daughter Elora have also not been heard from. Their manor in--"

Crash. Sal got knocked to the floor, bashing his head on the hard, wooden surface. It took a few seconds for him to register what had happened, but Puffles had leapt off the table and attacked the radio, knocking Sal's cabinet over. Paint tubes scattered all over the floor. Brushes rolled to the other side of the room. Meanwhile, the Houndoom wrestled with the radio in his maw, digging his fangs into the electronics before throwing it against the wall. Once a source of tranquillity for Sal, it was now just a mess of wires and loose plastic casing. Sal stood up in his haze in an effort to get the beast to stop, but the beast stared back at him, piercing through him with Death’s gaze. When he realised what was happening, Sal ran towards the door in an effort to get away. The beast followed. It pounced on him, pinning him against the wall with its heavy paws, snarling at him with a set of sharp teeth, so close that flecks of spit dribbled down Sal’s face. He covered his eyes, expecting the worst.

DOON. DOON. DOON.

The floor rumbled again, sending ripples through each of their bodies. The beast looming above Sal whined, releasing its grip on the tinier Pokemon. When Sal opened his eyes, he saw Puffles had tears streaming down his face. There was a hollowness to them, not blank white like before, but deep grey with a hint of red. While all of this was going on, Sal's heart pounded like a drum. He grovelled to one corner of the room, hoping Puffles had reverted back to his old self. The Houndoom padded towards the door, as each step he took echoed in the room. He stood on his hindlegs to push the door open, and gave one final look at Sal with bloodshot eyes before leaving.

DOON. DOON. DOON.

Sal groaned as he nursed his head. Not only was he reeling from the injury, the droning noise below continued, making it feel like his head had been pumped with gallons of water. He crawled to where all his equipment had scattered and picked up each piece, one by one. Sal turned to the painting, which miraculously, hadn't been overturned in the aftermath, and let out a sigh of relief.

"Bless my tail."

With all of his paints in one place again, Sal left the room. The hallway spun before his eyes, like a washing machine stuck on a full cycle. Then, the whole room tilted before him, sending him crashing towards the wall. The breakfast he ate rushed back from his stomach into his throat, and before he knew it, it spewed out his mouth. Sal collapsed, and the light left his eyes.

When he next stirred, all Sal heard were muffled voices. He guessed they belonged to his teammates as their tones of voice sounded familiar to him. His eyelids lifted up, but all he saw was black. His head pounded. The events of the spinning hallway before he fainted were all fuzzy as well.

Something gently tapped him on the cheek, and Sal's vision came back. He got up, and Sal's team stepped back, allowing him to get back to his feet and orient himself to his new surroundings. He was in the back garden again.

"Buddy," his trainer said, "I'm getting really worried about you. First, there was that incident last night, and just then, you were lying face down in a puddle of your own puke."

Sal looked down to his feet and patted all around his coat frantically. It was clean. He looked back at his trainer, who smiled weakly.

"We took care of the mess for you. But, Sal..." Harvey crawled over to the Smeargle and put his arms around him, lightly embracing him. "I’m sorry for being so selfish. I know I should’ve asked first before signing you up to this thing. None of your work is worth this much stress. If you're not feeling up to it, we can always call this deal off. Screw the money. We can find some other way to pay off the rent, I don't care how. Just tell me if you want to continue or not.”

Harvey backed off a little and put his hands on Sal's sides. The two locked eyes with each other. In a heartbeat, Sal nodded.

"Are you sure?" Harvey said, narrowing his eyes at him. Another nod. His trainer smiled and went to hug him again, along with the rest of his team, who huddled around the two.

"Just take care of yourself, buddy. We've still got plenty of time, so finish at your own pace."

"He's almost done," Elora chimed in, standing above the team. "I saw the work he did today and all he needs to do is finalise it. However, his well-being still matters so for now, we'll call it a day. We shall regroup at the dinner table."

The team dispersed, giving Sal a view of Elora as she went back in the manor. There, he had time to soak in his surroundings, as he was back at the garden, except it had turned cloudy with gradually blackening skies in the distance. Harvey sat down, watching Sal with a worried look. Mari was the first to come up to him.

"Did it happen again?"

Sal gazed at the flats of his shaking paws.

"I don't know what's going on any more."

"Well, can you try to explain anyway?"

Sal shook his head. The memories of hours past were all a blur. There was the feeling, deep in his gut, that told him he would have to do some investigating tonight, where he would get all the answers he needed.

"Do you mind if I tell you all when we're alone?"

"But we are alone," Roy said, eye cocked.

"Later tonight, I mean. I need to think on it for a bit."

His team nodded. They all headed back inside for dinner, where they stayed at the table in silence. As usual, Zed tore through portions no human would've been able to consume by themselves. The Houndoom was nowhere to be seen. Memories of their last painting session came back to him in pieces, where Sal remembered the broadcast that set him off. Before Puffles broke the radio, there was the news report that announced Elora's name. He was willing to chalk it up to coincidence if there happened to be another Elora, but the fact the report mentioned the manor as well was too specific to dismiss.

Sal stared at Elora in front of him, or at least, tried to stare through her. He kept a close eye on the way she moved and the way she ate. Her elbows were on the table. Her face was a mess from the steak she ate. At one point, she brazenly put her dirty cutlery on the table. Sal grasped at straws at that point, just so he could get even an inkling of what was going on in the manor, but something about her table manners didn't seem to fit at all. Even last night, she made a mess of herself, looking back at it.

"Hey," Harvey said, putting a hand on his paw, "I would eat if I were you. You need to keep up your strength for tomorrow."

Sal nodded and sampled his own meal. After being sick, the dinner in front of him felt like a mountain of food instead of a balanced plate, but he chewed on, piece by piece, as he knew he had to fill his belly up once more. Thinking about mountains of food, he looked at Zed's finished plates, all stacked on top of each other like a leaning tower of porcelain, then looked to one of the doors, which he thought must've led to the kitchen. As far as he knew, Elora and Zed were the only ones in the manor. Who cooked all of that in the span of one day?

"Sho," Harvey said in the eating the last morsel of his meal, "That butler eatsh like a monshter."

"Well," Elora said, dabbing at her face with a dirty handkerchief, "He has quite the healthy appetite, after all."

"Yesh." He swallowed. "But I can't even start to imagine how much time this would've taken to cook, and I don't think there's anyone else here aside from you guys, so where's all of this coming from?"

Sal gulped. Harvey must've read his mind, or had as many suspicions as he did about Elora. The mistress flashed a nervous grin and rubbed her hands together.

"Well, er, Zed was working on it all day, um, weren't you?"

Zed nodded without so much as a blink.

"The man's gotta feed his appetite, after all!" Her accent started to slip.

"Yeah, I get that," Harvey said, pointing his fork to the two, "But how can one guy do all of this, plus our meals, plus clean-up duty afterwards? You'd need a whole team to do this sort of stuff.”

Elora set her cutlery down with a clang.

"Er, well, Zed's a very dedicated butler. It doesn't matter how long it takes, he'll just do it, you know."

"All at the same time while still being good?" he said, raising an eyebrow. "I mean, I don't know much about cooking. I've lived off noodles for years now, but I've seen enough cooking shows to know you can't do both, so what gives?"

Sal noticed something flicker in Zed's form, if only for a brief second, with shades of black and red flashing by. For the first time, he thought he saw something completely different to the implacable man. Elora brought back his attention when she laughed, not the elegant, tea-drinking laugh one might've expected from her, but a kind of harsh, chain-smoking laugh. She rose to her feet, bashing her knee on the table as she nursed it, and lifted Zed by his shoulder-pads.

"Well, Zed! It looks like you've got a lot of cleaning up to do, huh?" She got behind him and pushed him towards one of the doors. "Go on, get to it! I'll bring the plates in later."

Zed made a few unintelligible noises, but before he had a chance to complain any more, Elora shoved the butler into the white void of the kitchen and shut the door, leaning against it as she sighed.

"I expect you must be done with dinner now!" she said. "How about we go continue our game? Zed will take care of the rest!"

The team collectively looked at the kitchen door, then back to the table, and reluctantly followed Elora through the corridor. Harvey and Sal exchanged glances, and both Pokemon and trainer felt like they belonged on the same wavelength. On top of his suspicions about Elora piling up, Zed's illusion started to break as well. He put that thought to one side and headed into the common room like before, waiting to see how the night would play itself out before jumping fully to conclusions. When it came time for Elora to pour the glasses for the previously-drunk duo, Sal snatched both the glasses out of their hands and returned them to the master of the house. Harvey kept his cool, although Roy looked at him, wide-eyed.

"Hey," Roy said, "What's the big idea?"

"Look," Sal said, more for the other Pokemon's sake than the human, "I'll need both of you sober tonight. I'll explain later, but trust me on this one. Besides, I think you had a bit too much last night.”

Roy stared at him for a bit with those brown eyes of his, then shrugged and patted Harvey's shoulder, who smiled to Elora.

"Sorry, miss," the trainer said, "I don't think Sal here wants me drinking tonight."

"Fair enough," she said with a smirk, pouring her own glass. "That won't stop my pursuits, however." She put her mouth close to the rim and sampled the wine, smacking her lips. "This is perfectly good wine you're missing out on, I must say."

"Uh huh," Harvey said with a leer. They continued their board game campaign throughout the night, although Sal sat out to think about the rest of the night to come. With each passing moment, Sal started to notice more details about Elora. The way she spilled the wine without much care. The way she put the bottle back in the cases, not knowing where to put them at first. If Sal's suspicions were right, he would need his team to see them first hand, as not all of them seemed clued in yet.

When they returned to their rooms and bid Elora good night, his team all looked towards Sal.

"Alright," Roy said, nostrils flared, "Tell us what the hell's going on, now. None of this mysterious crap, just the raw details."

Sal took a deep breath and closed his eyes. This would be the moment where he would reveal everything he knew about the household at once, or at least, relay his hunch. He opened his eyes and exhaled. At once, he told them everything that happened up until that point: Elora's interrogation, the news report, the attack, the whole score. Then, he said this:

"All of this leads me to believe Elora and Zed are fakes, and the answers are in the basement."

The rest of his team were gob-smacked.

"Huh?" Roy said, arms crossed. "Okay, now you're talkin' crazy. If that chick isn't a part of this house, then I'm like a Machampion or something. And besides, who do you think they're really supposed to be anyway?"

"I don't know," Sal said with a shrug.

"You don't know,” he said in a mocking tone.

"Hey, I know it's not much to go on, but if you've been through what I've put up with these past few days, you'd be thinking the same thing. For starters, why do you supposed she was wearing that hoodie before?"

"Because, uh," Roy said, scratching his chin, "She liked it that way?"

"So she'd disguise herself in public. If this was the real Elora, who is apparently missing, she wouldn't need to go into hiding, would she?"

"Yeah, but..." Roy continued to scratch, until he grunted and smacked at his own head. "I don't believe this! All of this is so whacked out!"

"Look, I find this all hard to believe too. But if I don't find out what's going on now, I'm going to lose my mind here. I know this is a long shot, but please, I need you all to come with me downstairs. If it'll stop that rumbling, if it'll give me some answers, I'd be very grateful if you'd all give me a paw in finding out."

They all stared at him, including Harvey. Even though the conversation fell on deaf ears with the human, having a different tongue and all, the sentiment was the same. He went up and patted Sal's head.

"I see you're worried," his trainer said. "And I wouldn't blame you; both of them are awfully fishy to me. If there's anything you want, I'm willing to help you out."

That was all Sal needed. He looked to his other teammates, offering a paw to them all.

"Well, are you with me?" he said. Mari and Anorak went up to him and put their paws together.

"I had a feeling it would come to this," Mari said, "Plus, I did offer to help you out, so I'm in."

Anorak chittered a response as well. Sal looked to Roy, who still had his arms crossed, and stared down at the set of paws. Finally, he sighed and put his hand with the rest of them as well.

"You're crazy, pal, you know that? But whatever floats your Gogoat."

"Boat," Mari corrected. They chuckled in unison and dispersed. Roy grabbed his trainer's phone, much to his surprise, but before he could protest, Roy turned on the flashlight feature. He took the bag with him and headed towards the door with his other teammates.

"Wait?" Harvey said, joining Roy as he had his bag in tow, "Are we all going out now?"

The team nodded. Harvey let out a sigh and nodded too. "Right. I'll come with. Just let me get changed first."

And so, the team trekked through the creaking hallways together with Roy pointing the torch at the front. This time, Sal had the added benefit of actually seeing ahead of him as opposed to letting his eyes adjust to the dark. They crept down the stairs, feeling ever more fragile under their collective weight. Sal led the way through the rest of the ground floor, up until the point where the corridor led to that room.

DOON DOON DOON. The rumbling continued. When Sal looked to his team, they all stared at the faraway door, wide-eyed.

"Can you hear it?" he asked.

"Y-yeah," Roy said, trembling, "I heard it."

Sal continued walking, stopping when they reached the Skarmory bust, which was on the wall once more. He backed away from it, expecting it to clatter onto the floor and chase after him again, but before he could ponder any more, Roy raised a fist at it. All it took was one punch for it to crumble into pieces; a cloud of dust emerging from its ruins. The team stared at him.

“Y, you know,” he said, “J-just to be on the s-s-safe s-s-side.”

Sal gestured for the rest of his team to follow, passing by the remains of the bust. Then, they stood, face to face with the door.

DOON DOON DOON. DOON DOON DOON.

The rumbling shook the foundations of the house. Sal put his paw on his chest once more, feeling the familiar burn, and took a deep breath.

"Roy, please open the door for me. I can't reach the handle that easily."

"O-okay," he said, light shaking underneath his grasp, "Sure thing."

He tiptoed to the door. The rumbles turned into tremors. Roy flung his hand away from the knob like he'd just touched a hot iron, and shuffled backwards. Harvey put his hand on the shaking Machoke's shoulder and went up to the door in his stead. He turned the handle, letting light stream into the opening, and the rumbling stopped. Mari and Sal looked to Roy, whose teeth chattered.

"I thought you were the fearless type," Mari said.

"S-shut up!" Roy said, "I'm fine with battle situations, it's crap like this I can't take, ghosts and stuff."

"Aha!" Sal said, pointing at him, "So now you believe me!"

"Whatever! Let's get goin', anyway!" They all nodded and crept down the circular stone staircase, their footsteps echoing in the narrow passage. The ground felt cold underneath Sal's feet. He couldn't see past Roy and Harvey's legs, but of what he could see, dull brown spots randomly trailed across the lower part of the walls. If he was a betting Mon, he would've guessed it was blood. There must've been a struggle.

"Pwoarr!" Roy said, pinching his nose, "What’s that smell?”

“Well it’s not me,” Mari said.

Sal held his own paw up to his nose, as the stench of decay wormed its way into his cavities, and grimaced. If there was anything Detective Pikachu taught him about basements and odd smells, that usually meant bad news. They advanced further down the stairs slowly. The further they descended, the more chilling the air felt around Sal. At one point, he swore he could see his own breath. Either that, or it was another trick his eyes were playing on him. Eventually, they reached the lower level. All it led to was another corridor with several wooden doors on each side of the wall. Alongside Roy, Harvey checked each door, but all of them were locked. Sal listened out for the knocking again in an effort to find its whereabouts, but nothing answered his wishes. The duo turned to the rest of the team.

"We can't get into any of them," Harvey said, "And to be honest, I don't want to find out what's behind there either. I--"

The duo turned white. Their eyes looked like they were about to pop out of their sockets. Harvey pointed his torch at something out of Sal's view, and everyone else turned around. A pair of horns greeted them.

"W-whaddya want?" Roy said, pushing himself in front of the rest of the team. "Look, you've been cute and all this time, but you hurt my pal here! And you're creepin' me out!"

With his fist raised, Roy focused his energy at the beast and shot a Force Palm at it. It dodged to one side, then pounced on the hulking mass. Roy struggled, bashing his fist at it to get out of its grasp. Then, the Houndoom looked towards the door at the end of the corridor and charged through the rest of the team, knocking them over. The beast threw itself at the frame, horns first. Wood chips flew from the where it struck. It bashed its head into the door, over and over, until it knocked it off its hinges, slamming it onto the stony floor. The rest of the team got to their feet, then followed slowly, bracing themselves for anything the Houndoom threw at them. Instead of being greeted with the horns once more, they were greeted with a purple, spectral light. It streamed from the room and into the hallway, making the otherwise dim grime of the walls glow pink.

“Okay,” Harvey said as the light shook from his hands, “Now what?”

The team stood silently for a moment. They were sure whatever waited for them in that room would lead to a confrontation of some sort. The rest stepped backwards, trying to get back up the passage from where they came, except for Mari and Sal. The two stood close to each other and advanced forward.

“Hey hey, wait!” Roy said, running. “You guys aren’t going on your own, I’m coming with you!”

Harvey and Anorak joined them too, and together, they padded into the room, side by side.

In front of Sal, the Houndoom sat, staring at five purple orbs, all lined in a row. The white faces etched on the black voids revealed themselves to be Gastly. They stared at each other while Sal's team looked on as spectators. One by one, the Gastly crowded around the Houndoom, enveloping it in a dark aura. One of them floated in front of the beast. It looked its usual, perpetually smiling self, then frowned, gazing at him longingly.

"Puuuuuuu. Puuuuuu-fffffff."

Its words came out in short bursts, like static repeatedly cutting out and cutting back in again.

The Houndoom looked to its side. Tears fell down and dripped onto the stony floor. Then, it tilted its head up and howled in the stagnant air. Its voice resounded throughout the room, and through each member of the team, including Sal. For a moment, he forgot about who he was, as well as his reason for coming down there in the first place, and instead, sorrow filled the void in his thoughts. He remembered a Houndoom's cries to be the cries of Yveltal themself. If what he heard upon his introduction was its death knell, then what he heard at that moment was its dirge. For the first time, in a long while, he remembered the day Santa passed on in a hospital bed from old age. The grip of his withered hands. His hoarse breaths croaking through the ventilator. His sunken, grey eyes peering at him longingly. The emotions from those memories years past trickled into his present, and Sal's face became a waterfall. His team noticed this, their eyes moist as well, and cuddled him him for comfort, although he barely noticed their presence.

"I'm sorry," a human voice said. Sal snapped himself back to reality and wiped his face to see where the voice came from. It wasn't Harvey, as he didn't sound that deep. It couldn't have been the beast in the middle of the room. Could it?

"I'm so sorry, everyone," Puffles said in the human tongue. "I couldn't protect you. I was weak." Sal's jaw dropped, as did the rest of his team. The Houndoom turned around, and when his and Sal's eyes met, he could see the soul in Puffles' eyes. They were red. Not a milky white like before, but an ember red, burning brighter than ever.

"And I'm sorry for attacking you," he continued, padding towards Sal. "It was too painful to me to listen on."

"Wait, hold on!" Harvey said, pointing at the talking Houndoom. "You just--"

"Spoke? Yes. I know it's a surprise after all this time. They, or rather, my family, taught me."

"So," Sal said, "It’s true. That lady up there..."

Puffles sniffled, wiping his wet eyes with his paw. "Whoever she is, that isn’t my owner. She must’ve ordered a hit of some sort against my family. I was too drugged to get the full details."

"Then." Sal pointed to the crowd of Gastly, who floated behind Puffles, casting him in a purple rim-light. "Who are they?"

"I was their pride and joy. They took me out of the streets when no one else came, taught me everything they knew, and would've gone on to give every Pokemon in the world the same gifts I had if it was up to them."

A moment passed. In place of the rumbling, the air around them filled with a low, droning noise, like electricity humming from a pylon. Sal stood up, noticing the floor was sticky. Underneath his paws, he noticed a blackened patch of wood that trailed to the side and stopped. Another patch lied adjacent to that in the shape of a human body. The stench of decay wafted from below the floorboards, even stronger than before.

"We need to get the hell outta here," Harvey said, "Forget the painting, forget all that business with the flat. Let's just vamoose and never look back."

"Then," Puffles said, padding over to him, "You'll need help. The imposter will come running after us. Not just that, that butler of hers too, he's not what he seems. All that work of his, looking human and all, is an illusion. But I'll be here to protect you, just run as fast as you can and never look back."

Sal looked to the Gastly group.

"But what about your family?"

“I can’t stay.” A tear streaked down Puffles' eye, which he wiped away. “If I linger on any longer, it’ll end badly for all of us.”

Puffles headed out of the room, craning his head for the rest to follow him. "Come on, we've got work to do. Human, turn your flashlight off, otherwise they'll spot you. Quickly now."

Harvey complied and they retraced their steps back up to the ground floor in silence. Sal's mind drifted somewhere else as his paws carried themselves. He played back the events in his head, a slideshow of random sketches, and pieced that together with what he found out. He solved every mystery with Puffles' confession save for one: why did the fake Elora kill his family? If her father was an important figure in a charity benefiting Pokemon, there certainly wasn't any bad blood. Who would go out of their way to harm anyone doing good in the world?

They advanced up to the ground floor. At first, the hallway seemed empty, looking pitch black. The team huddled close to Puffles, keeping in close contact with his tail for support. Sal listened out for anything that might’ve lurked around them. Nothing. Only his own breaths coming through his nostrils. Then, a heavy set of shoes pounded before them. White flashed, blinding the team as their eyes adjusted to the new light source. The light came from the impostor’s torch in one pocket, who also held a fire extinguisher in her hands.

“Going somewhere, are we?” she said, her tone of voice sounding deeper than before.

“Murderer!” Puffles roared and shot a flurry of fireballs at her. She aimed the nozzle in front of her and pressed it, cancelling out each ball of fury one by one. It filled the room with gas. The Houndoom leaned forward, keeping his battle stance. Sal scrambled backwards, as did his team. Only a second later, the fire canister came hurtling towards Puffles’ head from the cloud of smoke. His horns barely missed catching it. It smacked his face, sending him hurtling towards the team, with his face covered in blood. The imposter emerged from the gas with Zed, who, before the team’s eyes, morphed from his suited figure and transformed into a jade-eyed monster just as tall as her. Its fur was patterned red and black, with sharp claws to go along with it, just like the one he saw at the rooftop.

Mari and Roy stood in front of the rest of the team, assuming a battle position. Force Palms and Razor Leaves flew in their direction. With one swiping motion of the monster’s claw, it cancelled out each attack. Then, the two were knocked back. Before Sal could counter, something knocked the wind out of his stomach. He hurtled towards a wall and slumped to the floor. Before his vision gave out, the shadows in the hallway merged with one another. Then, total darkness followed.
 

NebulaDreams

Pokémon Trainer
Partner
luxray
Chapter 4: Day Three?

When he next awoke, Sal found himself in the studio again. He was placed on the stall, sitting up straight as if nothing happened before. But it did happen, and a chill washed through his spine as he realised what situation he was in.

“Ah, so you’re awake,” a femme voice called. He turned to see the impostor holding something behind her back. His paws were free. Sal leapt towards her, trying to claw at her when her slender hand grasped at his throat.

“Nice to see you’re putting up some sort of fight. You’d be braindead not to, after all.”

Sal struggled under her grip, flailing in an attempt to free himself, but then he saw something glinting in the lamplight above. It was a blade. He gasped as it plunged itself at his forehead, only slightly stopping short of making any contact, dangling above him, teasing him. He let his arms down. The impostor flashed a twisted grin and guided the knife to his chest.

“If you make any sudden movements, I’ll kill you here and now. And believe me, that’s not what I want right now.”

She let go of his neck and slowly turned him around to the canvas, where his unfinished painting stood. In front of him was Puffles, standing in his usual pose, however, he drooled from his maw, with his flashing white eyes transfixed to the ceiling.

“Don’t you worry about him,” she said. “The Puffles you know and love is back. Listen.”

She pressed the tip of the blade to Sal’s back, making him shudder.

“You are going to finish that portrait for me at all costs. I want every strand of fur on that beast’s coat painted as precisely as possible, like the masters would’ve done it. This has to be in perfect condition, otherwise...”

She pulled a monitor out of her pocket and held it close to Sal’s wide eyes. On the screen, Harvey was tied to a chair. There was no sign of Roy, Mari or Anorak anywhere. The jade-eyed monster prowled around the room, going off-screen and coming back again. Sal shrieked at the sight of it, calling for his team at the other side of the screen, even if they couldn’t hear. The impostor pulled away the screen, leaving the three alone in the room once more.

“Don’t look back now. Keep your eye on that mutt and start painting, or else I’ll command Zed to slaughter them all like Flaaffy.”

She took a few steps behind him, wandered to one corner of the room and laid a heavy object on a table behind him.

“If you try to communicate with that beast in any way, I’ll order him to carry out the hit regardless. Trust me, my camera will know if you do.”

A few more steps to the side. A creak from behind.

“You will not come out until I know you’re finished. Get to work.”

She slammed the door shut, clicking not long after. Sal focused on the canvas again, heart thundering in his chest, his whole body shuddering under a cold sweat. He stared at his paws, which were strangely still. The odds Sal could work under those conditions were looking slim. But he had to. His team was depending on him. But what did she have in store for him after that?

Thoughts came flooding in all at once, making him feel like his head ballooned. He nursed it in his paws, tensing his throat up in an effort to stop himself from sobbing. He wouldn’t cry. No matter what happened, there would be no tears on the battlefield. No matter how hard it was to swallow, no matter how much his eyes misted up, he wouldn’t break down. Not here, not now. For a moment, he went back to one memory with Santa, where after several consecutive days worth of studying, Santa rewarded Sal with a small cake he baked himself, even when he barely had the money to buy food at that time. They shared it between them that day, and even though Santa barely ate anything, the younger Smeargle could see the colour rush back to his master’s wrinkled face.

Several years older now, Sal smiled. Even if it was an illusion, even if reminiscing on the past didn’t change the present, he would carry that memory with him and forget about the underlying pressure, if only for a while. It could either burst a pipe or make a diamond at that point, after all.

Sal pulled out his magnifying glass and observed the Houndoom with it. Whether he truly was Puffles at that point or not, he didn’t know. However blankly the Houndoom stared, Sal continued examining every point of his body, taking note of every strand of fur he’d need to paint. Not too many strands that it overshadowed everything else, but just enough that it created the illusion it was all real. That’s what it was, in a sense, just smoke and mirrors. Sal picked up a small brush, dabbed it in his palette and marked the darkest values for the strands. He started with the face, which would have thinner strands than the rest of the body.

Sal continued to add lots of other tiny details to the rest of the face, such as adding more highlights where necessary and adding more reflections to the eyes. The Houndoom sat as still as a rock. However, some of the colour returned to his eyes, making it look like more of what they used to look like before: an intense, yet clear shade of red. He blinked, several times in succession. Sal paused, then remembered the camera behind him and continued working.

Unlike before, there was no pounding this time. In its place though, a lone drone pulsed through the floor. It could’ve been the presence of the Gastly calling out to Puffles, or it could’ve been Sal’s imagination filling in the gaps. There was no telling. But either way, the Smeargle kept his focus on the painting, not stopping to take a break until he considered himself finished.

Moments passed. Sal sat back and took a deep breath, inspecting his work. It was huge, but everything was up to scale. Not one element was out of place or disproportionate to his subject. Every detail was painstakingly carved into the work, more like a sculpture than a painting, as Santa would’ve made him strive for. Now, all there was left was the humming below him. Sal breathed in and out. In and out. Anything to delay the tension. The impostor would be coming back at some point, after all.

Heavy footsteps pounded outside the room. Sal squeaked, heart pounding as he waited for the door to unlock. The key rattled inside the lock, and with a click, it creaked open. More footsteps. The door shut behind him. Another deep breath. Footsteps became louder behind him.

“Ah,” the impostor said, “Excellent work. I knew I could count on you.”

More footsteps. Eventually, Sal saw the impostor enter his line of sight. In his calm, he noticed she wore a different outfit, in military gear fitted with thick-looking padding from head to toe. He half expected her to be wearing a badge or an insignia on her outfit, like the big ‘R’ Team Rocket wore on that show. The impostor inched close to the Houndoom, keeping an eye on him. Slowly, she guided her gloved hand towards the beast’s head and placed it down. A pulse. A deep breath. The impostor stroked behind the Houndoom’s ears.

“There, there, who’s a good little Houndoom?”

She went to Sal again, back turned to the Houndoom, holding up the knife close to his chest. He flinched.

“Remember. Our contract is still on the table. If you make any sudden movements now, it will be null and--”

In one quick motion, the Houndoom pounced on her back. The knife flung across the room, and the beast pushed the impostor to the floor and accidentally knocked Sal over in the crossfire. He watched as the Houndoom’s fangs tore into her shoulder from behind. She screamed, desperately trying to push the beast away, and managed to flip herself over before they continued their power struggle.

Sal grovelled, back towards the wall, trying to tear himself away from the scene, but couldn’t. The imposter, in her desperation, flailed one free arm around reaching out for a needle by her belt and held it close to the beast’s neck. The two were locked in a cycle of pushing and pulling away, avoiding each other’s wrath. The Smeargle wasn’t entirely sure if the beast was capable of rational thought any more. Then, the beast opened his mouth and shot a fireball at her hand, shattering the needle into a dozen shards on the floor while liquid spurted out. She squealed in pain while the beast pinned both her arms to the floor.

Listen, human!” Puffles shouted, “You’re going to tell me everything that happened! Why you killed my family, why you captured Sal, everything! I’ll spare you if you cooperate!”

The impostor smiled with an expression that didn’t entirely reach her eyes. She kept that expression until she started convulsing, a strange amber liquid spilling out of her mouth. Puffles backed away and watched the woman twitching on the floor before stopping altogether, where she gazed up at the ceiling vacantly with flecks of drool, blood, and the unknown substance dripping down her face.

The Houndoom stared at the body for a while, then turned to the Smeargle, which made him flinch at first, but when he saw the expression, a mixture of horror and sadness, Sal looked back and the two stared at each other for a while. Then, Puffles bowed to him.

“I’m terribly sorry you had to see that, but we don’t have a lot of time. Can you get up?”

“Y-yeah, I think so.” Sal used the wall as support to prop himself up. “W-what just happened?”

“Blighter must’ve killed herself. It’s a wonder I recovered so fast from that last drugging, but never mind that. I need you to search her quickly.”

Before Sal could ask why, Puffles propped himself onto the impostor’s twisted frame. Sal shook his head.

“N-no, I’m not g-going anywhere near th-that thing.”

“You’re the only one who can do it,” Puffles said with a severe look, “You can use your paws that way. I can’t. Without you, I can’t find out who’s truly responsible for this mess.”

“B-but I--”

“Do as I say!” Puffles shouted, looking more furious than ever before. Sal nodded vigorously and scrambled over to the body, wincing as the full force of that liquid’s pungent smell hit his senses, like rotting flowers and oxidation.

“Check all her pockets.”

Sal nodded and patted at the pocket slots to see if anything was there. Something thick nestled in her trousers, which he pulled out to reveal a wallet.

“O-okay.”

“Great job. You hold onto it for the moment, it might be useful later. For now, climb onto my back. Let’s go save your team.”

Sal nodded. He climbed up and grasped the Houndoom’s horns once more, storming out the door into the hallway. Sal thought back to the video feed he saw and prodded his mount’s back.

“Do you even know where they are?!” he yelled.

“Yes!” Puffles shouted, “The storage room!”

Sal didn’t pay much attention to where they were headed. His thoughts were focused on his team. If Zed was the one who carried out all those murders for the impostor, all Sal could do was hope he hadn’t gone ahead and killed his friends.

Without warning, Puffles rammed his horns through a door and charged through it, flinging Sal far away from him along with the wallet. The Smeargle rose to his feet soon after and witnessed the scene before him. In one side of the room, Harvey was stuck to his chair in the right corner with his three Pokeballs in the left. On the other, Puffles started to lunge towards Zed. He knocked the monster over. The Houndoom clawed at its body. It clawed back. The two were locked in a cycle of clawing and retreating, clawing and retreating, until Zed got back to his paws. There seemed to be a black aura floating around his head. With one sweep of his arm, Zed cast a dark wave of energy towards Puffles and struck him, toppling him over on his back. The Houndoom writhed on the ground, dazed, while the Zoroark advanced further, claws menacingly extended.

Sal's heart pounded again, head whirling with all the different outcomes. However, there was little time to think, so Sal looked to the Pokeballs at the side once more before charging up the pigment in his tail. He raised it before him, and shot a paintball straight into Zed's face. Splat. He staggered back, pawing at his face to get the substance out of his eyes, while Sal made a beeline for the Pokeballs, releasing all of his teammates, Roy, Mari and Anorak.

"Quickly!" Puffles said, getting back to his feet warily, "Free your trainer! Human, command your team to fight, and I'll help! Come--"

He dodged out the way of another swipe. Roy promptly freed Harvey from his restraints, and the trainer pointed a finger at the attacker.

"Anorak, get up close and use String Shot to bind him! Mari and Sal, get in front of me, copy her moves and both stagger him with Razor Leaf! Roy, use Close Combat to finish the job!"

Sal rushed to Mari's side and put a paw on her back as he watched Anorak spin around in the air, weaving a silky web around the Zoroark's legs, which bound him. Mari shot a flurry of sharp leaves in Zed's direction, and Sal felt the energy from her pulsing inside him. Zed guarded himself, withstanding the storm as they created little nicks all around his body. Roy sprang towards Zed's body and aimed a punch at his head as the Zoroark prepared to block again. The Machoke was faster, and socked him in the face, knocking him to the floor where Roy continued. He pounded his head over and over until Zed's arms slumped to the floor.

"Good!" Harvey said, "Now keep at it!"

Roy continued bashing his fists, until he found himself pounding at the bare ground as the image of Zed before him disappeared. Roy quickly got to his feet, and the rest stood alert, looking for any sign of the disappearing Zoroark. Sal stood in front of his trainer, grappling his tail in preparation for the next command.

"Mari, Magical Leaf!" Harvey said.

The Bayleef shot a few glowing leaves at the thin air, and they stuck to an invisible force. The image faded in to reveal Zed once more, but by the time he came into view, he was already within arms length of Harvey, claws raised. Sal's heart stopped. There was little time to think. He thrust his tail in front and commanded the powers he channelled before to come forward, like a magician pulling cards out of a hat. The same flurry of sharp leaves shot at Zed, this time, at point blank range, giving him the full brunt of a Grass Type's wrath. Zed screeched and shuffled backwards. His body was covered with leaves sticking out of him, like pins on a cork-board. Puffles came into the picture, charging a fireball in his maw, when Zed sprang towards the door, avoiding the attack. With one final look of panic on his fanged features, he vanished into the air.

The room was quiet once more, save for everybody's short breaths. Harvey collapsed to his knees, stifling laughter.

"Holy shit," he said, grasping at his chest, "You actually saved me back there, Sal. I owe you my life, literally."

"Yeah!" Roy said, loosening his shoulders, "You kicked ass there!"

"Well done," Mari said. Anorak chittered an approving response as well.

"Enough, all of you!" Puffles shouted, drawing the team's attention to him. "We need to escape now. Forget about whatever belongings you have and follow me. We can't waste and more time or else he'll come back."

They all nodded and headed towards the door, but not before Puffles grunted, stopping them in their tracks. He went to one corner of the room and came back with the wallet in his maw, handing it to Harvey who shot a confused look at it.

"Put it in your pocket," Puffles said, "I'll explain why later."

Harvey shrugged, yet complied, tucking it away in his trousers. With Puffles' approval, the team headed out all together, trailing behind Sal as he ran through the hallways.

"There's an exit through the maze in the back garden!" Puffles said, "If we mow our way through there, we can get that Zoroark off our tails. The front door is too much of a risk."

"Seriously?" Roy said, "Through the maze of all places? Why couldn't it just a normal garden instead?!"

"I have a plan, just shut up and follow me!"

Eventually, they stepped out into the thundering night, breaths heavy, where the entrance of the labyrinth laid, beckoning them in. Puffles stopped short of entering the maze when he assumed a battle stance.

"All of you, get behind me and watch my back."

The Smeargle joined his team, who formed a half circle around their guardian. The horned protector groaned, a wave of energy emanating from him, and soon after, a brilliant spear of white light emerged from his mouth. It pierced through the topiary, incinerating it until there was nothing left to burn, and formed a wide path straight to the dark part of a forest. Sal looked on with amazement. As if to punctuate his efforts, Puffles let an uncharacteristic chuckle escape his lips.

"Now the coast is clear. Come on."

Sal followed alongside his team, charging through the gale. Being the second smallest in the group, Sal was mostly protected from the rain, although the force of the wind still blew through him and chilled him to the bone. Nevertheless, he folded his arms around his body and persevered through the storm, the exit getting closer and closer to his view.

Behind him, the bushes rustled. Sal didn't stop to look back at first, but as he heard a crash, something hit him from behind, filling his ears with a high pitched cacophony. He sunk to his knees, then looked in front of him as the whole world around him melted into a puddle. The team in front of him didn't stop to check on him, in fact, they didn't look back either, even as their forms melted into the floor. Sal reached out to them, screaming for help, but he heard nothing but the sharp noises piercing into his brain. Then the bushes melted too. Then the sky. They all dripped before him, like a watercolour painting dissolving in the rain. Then the floor disappeared. Sal grasped at thin air, sinking further down into the abyss. All that surrounded him was black. Everlasting black. He let out one last silent scream before all of his senses faded entirely.

He woke up in Zed's embrace. The Zoroark's claws surrounded him, locking him in a death grip. Sal flailed in his grasp, trying to free himself, but it felt like all his limbs had turned to lead. He couldn't move. He was on one side of the maze, with the topiary regrown, while his team called out to him on the other side, visible through a small clearing in the bushy wall. Puffles shot a fireball at the hedge, only for it to disappear and dwindle into smoke. Harvey and Roy tried to reach through the clearing, only for their hands to stop, pressing flatly against something like an invisible window. They both pounded at the air, but the illusion held strong.

"Sal, don't panic!" Harvey shouted, "I'll get you out, I swear!"

"You waste breath, human," Zed said, "I have him. Do not follow. Else, all will die. My last warning.”

The team shouted one more time before the clearing closed completely, muffling their voices. It was just him, the Zoroark, and the transforming space around him. Sal screamed out for Harvey.

"Shut up, weakling," Zed said. He turned away from the wall and placed Sal on the hard ground. A dark energy surrounded his limbs, and pulled him into the dirt, like the earth's roots had a mind of their own and were trying to sink him into the earth. Sal struggled against it, but it was useless. He was paralysed.

"What are you gonna d-do to me?" he quivered. "Oh god, please don't eat me!"

A fanged grin spread across Zed's features, and he placed a single claw on Sal's chest.

"I won't kill you. You're way too valuable. Someone heard about you in Goldenrod. They put a price on you, and as soon me and that dumb human were done with Elora and the rest, we took the contract. She was greedy though and tried to make an example out of that Houndoom. She died a fool. But no matter, you’ll do.”

"C-contract?" Sal spat, and let out an exasperated laugh. "Why me? All I wanted was to paint, dammit!"

"Exactly, and you will." Zed hovered his claw up to Sal's head. "Just for us, this time, if all goes well. Now, sleep."

A blunt force struck Sal across the head, and he returned to the everlasting black void.
 

NebulaDreams

Pokémon Trainer
Partner
luxray
Chapter 5: Future Days

Puffles watched as Harvey bashed his fists against the impenetrable wall. There was nothing else that could be done. If his own fireballs were nullified and a fighting type’s strengths weren't adequate, what chance did a human have in breaking down the barrier? It was not just any common Zoroark's illusion magic at work here, this was another world entirely. Puffles nudged at Harvey's leg in an effort to get him away from the maze and continue their escape.

"No!" Harvey shouted, "I'm not leaving without him! Get the police! Anyone!”

"Listen!" Puffles shouted back. "We’ll only get into more trouble if we call them! We have to escape now. If we linger on any longer, who knows what that monster has up his sleeve?"

"I don't care! I want my friend back! I want him back!"

He continued punching at the walls, so hard that blood ran down his hands. Puffles shot Roy a glance, the Machoke grimacing as he watched his trainer.

"Roy, please knock him out. We need to run right away."

Roy sighed and put his hands on the boy's shoulders as he uselessly continued to punch.

"I'm sorry about this, pal." Roy whacked his trainer behind the head with the flat of his hand, and Harvey fell to his knees. The Machoke hoisted the boy up on his back, carrying his legs between his arms like a rucksack, and followed Puffles through the forest. There, they rushed through the hard road.

It was manmade, something William had installed as a leisurely way to get in and out of the city, and was usually maintained by groundskeeper Charles. Once clear and smooth to walk through, it was now neglected and lined with debris. The rain didn't help matters, making all the garbage look as if it had melted into the granite. He would've taken longer to walk through this path and appreciate it one last time if the threat of the Zoroark didn't loom above him. The three Pokemon towing the human followed beside him, all eerily silent. He could hardly blame them. A part of him wanted to stop and apologise for everything that happened right away, just so it would delay the tension a little, but again, they had to make haste.

The downpour beat heavily at their heads, matting Puffles' own fur with moisture and slowing his movements. At least it was downhill, he thought. But even then, his short breaths got shorter, and decided to stop for a few seconds to take a breather. While he regained his breath, he stopped to stare at himself in a puddle. His eyes were back to normal, thank the white god. They didn’t look the same, however, not after what he experienced. He remembered how the impostor and Zed would pin him down after the dosage wore off, and they'd force that small needle by the side of his neck, and how he’d go to an entirely different place, conscious, but stuck in a prison of flesh, unable to control any of his outside impulses.

"H-hey," Roy called, drawing Puffles' attention back to him. He bared his teeth, caught somewhere halfway between laughter and fear, and pointed to the thundering skies above. "D-do you reckon this is what h-happens whenever a Castform p-p-pees?"

"Really?" Mari said flatly, staring daggers at him. "It's hardly a good time to be joking."

"All the more reason to joke!" he said, almost shouting. "This whole situation is screwed up! I have to get my mind off things otherwise I'm gonna lose it!"

"Whatever, you two," Puffles said, grinding his paw into the gravel. "Let's get moving."

They advanced further through the road, getting past the trees into the views of the city, where the horizon glimmered with light. Eventually, the group came across a junction where cars passed in a cacophony of beeps during rush hour, and Puffles led the way by the side of the road as they walked through the rain. The thought of stopping in the middle of the road to get someone to take them to the inner city crossed Puffles' mind, but decided against it, as he was sure it would have little effect in all this traffic. By the time they reached Saffron, the group found themselves shivering under the roof of a closed shop, drying off as Puffles' let a Will O' Wisp hover around them, casting a small amount of warmth. When Harvey slowly blinked into consciousness, Roy was the first to tend to his side as his trainer stirred from his knockout, shaking him gently on his shoulder.

"Hey," he said, more for himself than his trainer, "I'm sorry, I hadda do that. Are you okay?"

Harvey stared into space ahead with his jaw hanging loosely.

"It's no use," Mari said. "He won't listen to us. Not that he can, or does anyway."

Anorak chittered a sad response and nuzzled close to his trainer. Puffles himself sighed. Now they were safe in the confines of the city, he had time to think, time to reflect, but what was there to reflect on? A lot of the events that swirled around him were a blur, only remembered in brief flashes through a hazy lens. One event stood out, and that was on the day when the duo came.

It started out like any other day, where the whole family sat around the table at the stroke of the morning, ready to eat whatever butler Jones had prepared for them. Puffles didn't remember exactly what each member said, as the events were still fuzzy to him, but he remembered them in broad strokes. Both William and Vanessa talked about their projects throughout the day, and briefly expressed their concerns about the status of an unlicensed educational project they helped fund in Sinnoh, something they had not heard back from in weeks. He remembered the name of that project was ‘Gestalt Learning’, but otherwise knew little about it. Felix and Richard sat next to each other, making passing comments about each other's hairstyle and whose was worse than the other's, while William occasionally chided them.

Then there was Elora. The real Elora. She was aging well like a blossoming rose, and even though her responsibilities as an assistant in Williams' operations often got in the way of spending time with Puffles, who often volunteered in other projects, they would still meet everyday as he sat on her lap. She stroked behind his ears, telling him about his plans for the day while he gave encouraging advice to her and how to deal with issues such as befriending certain Pokemon.

She had discovered him all those years back, curled up by the roadside as he strayed away from the forest in a bloodied state, certain he headed towards Yveltal’s door. She commanded chauffeur Pauls to pull over and she took him into a Pokemon centre, and from there, took him in as their own, teaching him all manners of things from tutors, such as the human tongue, arithmetic, and the way the world at large worked. He would sometimes get involved in their projects when there were no responsibilities hefted on him, where he would teach other Pokemon the same gifts they had passed on.

Elora kissed his forehead and made a teasing remark about his name, which she'd given herself. It was an inside joke of theirs, which Puffles himself always took in his stride. Then, the door crashed open. People in hooded, black suits came in with their Pokemon, including Zed, and with a single command from one of the suits, their underlings and their Pokemon started detaining all of the butlers, and then at last, the family, including Puffles himself. Try as he might have to escape from a certain Kabutops’ grasp, he couldn’t, and when he looked into its eyes, he saw no compassion or thought in them. They were completely blank, just like his were when later drugged.

One person in the suit stepped forward, asking William where all the legal documents and the treasuries for their charity were. He wouldn’t answer. Then Zed, who was the only Pokemon that appeared lucid, pressed a claw against his throat, threatening to torture him if he didn’t relent. Then, Puffles sprang forward. Elora cried out for him. Puffles started on Zed, who he swiped and dodged, and vice versa. Only one could succeed, and Puffles, unaccustomed to the Zoroark's aptitude for illusions, was overpowered. He was pinned to the floor by an Imprison spell, and one of the black suits stuck a needle by the side of his neck. The rest was a blur.

A phone rang, snapping Puffles back to reality. It came from Harvey's jacket, which he patted at frantically until he retrieved the phone from his pocket. He held it to his head, hand shaking.

"H-hello?"

A voice shouted from the other side, too noisy to fully make out, but its tone was unmistakable.

"What? No, I'm in Saffron."

More shouting. Harvey's expression dropped.

"No, I'm sorry, I don't have it on me."

Yet more shouting. At this point, Harvey's lips quivered, looking like he was on the verge of tears.

"Look, can you cut me some slack? My friend's missing and I don’t know what the hell to do!"

Harvey gripped the phone, looking as if he was about to crush it in his fist.

"Okay, okay! I can pick up my stuff tomorrow, it's only a few hours away. We're kind of stuck here for the night though, so just give us a little more time, please!"

The voice on the other end was a little softer this time. The trainer sighed and rubbed his eyes.

"Alright, thanks. I'll see you tomorrow."

He threw the device on the ground, shattering the screen into little shards like a Spinarak's web.

"Well, it looks like we're being evicted." Harvey buried his head in his lap. "Fuck."

Silence followed. Puffles had not asked what circumstances brought them to the manor, but he could probably guess they were duped into coming there by the impostor in exchange for money, somehow. However, he decided against bringing it up to Harvey again, who sobbed quietly. Puffles also heard a few stomach rumbles from the group, including his own. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time he ate a proper meal. The silence grew more disquieting by the minute, and Puffles stood on his hindquarters, facing the human.

"Excuse me," he said, "We should probably find a place to eat, or maybe rest for the night. We'll be better off inside than out here in the cold, wouldn't you agree?"

Harvey rubbed his red eyes and patted at his pockets, opening a tattered wallet and staring at its empty contents.

"Do you still have the other wallet? There could be something in there."

Harvey grew wide eyed and sunk his hand in again to retrieve the impostor's purse. There were a few Pokedollars bills in there, which Harvey counted to be around 4000. It wasn't as much as Puffles expected, but it was still enough to afford a meal between all of them. The two glanced at its other contents, which was filled to the brim with all sorts of cards from different banks. It was likely the impostor stored most of her riches in there. He wasn't hoping to grave rob someone just for a little money, however, he believed something in there would help reveal the nature of the impostor's team.

"I want you to check that again later," Puffles said, "But for now, we should take a break."

Each member slowly got to their feet with Puffles leading the way to the nearest fast food place. He was used to more refined cuisine, but he put his old creature comforts aside for the rest of the team and entered, sitting in one booth. The Houndoom sat to one side on his own with the rest of the Pokemon bunched up next to Harvey on the other, watching as their trainer silently browsed through the menu on the touchscreen in the middle of the table.

"Harvey, was it?" Puffles asked. The human just nodded in reply. "I'm not sure about everything that happened, but if you're willing to tell me about what brought you to the manor, it would help me understand things on my end."

Harvey blinked, then rested his head on the table, staring at the talking Pokemon on the other side.

"Could say the same thing about you, buddy. Mainly, what the hell did that lady even do to your family? What did your family even do to piss her off? What was that business with the Gastly earlier? And finally, why the hell did that monster take Sal?"

"Yeah," Roy said, bashing his fist on the table, "We want answers, pal."

Puffles sighed, but kept his gaze fixed on the trainer and his Machoke. "I'm afraid I don't have a good answer for the last one. But my family led the charge of the PEWFund charity. I'm sure you've heard of it, correct?"

The party shook their heads and Puffles gave them all a sour look.

"They got involved helping Pokemon like me, actually teaching them the sort of stuff you humans would get to learn, setting up community projects all across the globe, and rehabilitating Pokemon who got involved in street gangs. How could you not know about this?"

"We don't really catch up on the news that much," Harvey said. "Don't have much time for it."

"In any case, when the drugs wore off the night you discovered those Gastly, I sneaked off to the treasury room. They took everything. All the secret documents, the money stored in the safe, the will, they cleaned the lot."

Mari's head-leaf drooped, and she gave a bemused expression. "So they just wanted money all this time?"

"Not exactly. Money was part of it, but that wasn't their main goal, I don't think. In fact, my best bet is they wanted to damage the heart of our charity to cripple our efforts. If it conflicts with their goals or stops them from taking advantage of other Pokemon, then it’s plausible. We still have the main office and the subdivisions elsewhere, but without the funding, they won't function for much longer."

"Hang on," Harvey said, holding up a finger, "Wouldn't the government pay for all this?"

Puffles couldn't help but smile at that one, but it wasn't due to the humour of the situation, rather the lack of it. "They don't fund projects like that. William, our CEO, was one of a kind. He was actually willing to share his fortune, so most of it was just him. On another note, it's very lucky you had someone like Sal on your side. He was a rare breed as well. I take it he had a tutor?"

"Well," Harvey said, frowning, "He had another master, a painter by trade, so he taught Sal everything he knew. Of course, Santa's no longer with us now."

"I see. I'll just say this right now.” He made sure he got the attention of everyone around the table before continuing. "If it wasn't for a person like Santa, he never would've learnt such a skill. And, pardon my Kalosan, the government doesn't give a flaming Rattata's ass about whether Pokemon like him succeed or not. The same goes for you lot and me."

He let those words linger for a moment, and watched everybody else's reactions. The Machoke crossed his arms, looking to his side. The Bayleef looked down at her feet. The Spinarak's bulgy eyes drooped. The human, however, sniffled, and tears streamed down his face.

"Oh god," he said, "It's all my fault. I'm the one who pushed Sal into doing that painting for them. I never knew it would come to this. I just took advantage of him, all because of my sorry ass. I'm just a failure of a trainer, to him and all of you."

That brought the attention of the rest of the group to him. The trainer curled up into a ball on his seat, ignoring the onlookers around his table.

"I didn't deserve someone like him. If it wasn't for this stupid trainer business, I never would've roped him into it. Not like it matters now, I'm gonna be homeless soon. I should just disappear! I should--"

"That's enough," Puffles said, gently enough that it was sympathetic, but loud enough that his words carried weight. "There's no way you could've known about the impostor. I agree you shouldn't have used another Pokemon like that, but you shouldn't shoulder the burden for his disappearance."

"But--"

"You still have the rest of your Pokemon by your side. I see they all care for you. Keep on living for their sake, and do your best to work as a team."

"I'm their trainer though!" Harvey raised his voice. "It's my job to make sure they do the best they can, and yet, I suck at this! All I do is lose, lose, and lose some more, and I don't know how to fix it!"

"Okay, okay, let's work with that then." Puffles looked to Mari first, who tried to avoid his gaze. "Miss Bayleef, you said your trainer doesn't listen to you. Is that true?"

"Well," she grunted, then nodded. "Even though I can't speak with him directly, I try to warn him when something isn't working out, like that one time when he tried to take on a higher level Heracross, and he did it anyway."

Puffles hummed and looked to Roy next, who leaned forward.

"True that," Roy said, "I tried to face him head on, ya know, but anyway, our trainer sucks. He doesn't change plans when things get hairy, and we have to do the legwork to try and get the upper hand, which rarely works out. He's like a Rhyhorn slammin' into a wall over and over again. He pulled himself together for that Zed stuff, but still."

Puffles finally looked to Anorak, who perched himself on the edge of the table.

"Screw him!" he bleated, "If it were up to me, I'd have his guts for dinner!"

The rest of the team stared with wide-eyed amazement, especially Roy, who nearly turned white.

"Hey, uh, pal, when was the last time you talked like that, huh?"

Anorak got back to his seat and chittered once more. Laughter churned in Puffles’ belly, but he stifled it and kept a straight face to Harvey, who had been oblivious to the whole conversation. It seems the team had a lot to work on, but what could he do? He wasn't their Pokemon, so what right did he have meddling with their affairs? Unless...

"Harvey," Puffles said, "It seems like miscommunication is the biggest problem here. Listen, I know it's a long shot, and I don't mean to impose, but would you mind if I joined your team?"

Harvey grew wide eyed, and pointed at the Houndoom.

"Really? I thought you'd be a bit out of our league."

"That's no problem. It doesn't matter much to me, I just want to help out. That way, I can help you understand your team better, as well as work on your battle tactics. Even teach them your language if we have the time to."

"Hang on," he said, leaning over the table, "I really don't wanna force this on you just because I suck. And besides, what about your family?"

"Well..." His voice faltered a bit, but he cleared his throat, trying to ignore the aching sensation. "They're already dead. The way I see it, I have nowhere else to go. Besides, I'd feel a little remorseful leaving you behind after what happened."

Harvey clasped his hands, twiddling his thumbs a bit. "Only if you're really sure. I'm really sorry about what happened to them. It sounds like they treated you well. I wanna do the same for you, but I don't have a lot of money left or a fancy house, let alone a house in the first place. It'll be rough."

"I know," Puffles said with a smile, "But it can't be any harsher than what I've experienced before in the wild. I've seen cubs snatched away from their mothers by bigger predators. I've seen rivers run red with blood. As long as I have a few companions with me, I'm sure that will make up for whatever's in store for us in the future."

"So," Roy said.

"Are you coming with us?" Mari finished.

Puffles nodded, and he saw the faces of the group brighten up considerably. It was the first sign of relief from them in a while after Sal's disappearance. The Houndoom lowered his head to Harvey, gesturing him to pet his head, which he did. He growled affectionately. It was nice to feel the warmth of a human's touch who didn't plan to sell him off. He heard a sniffle from the other side, expecting it to be Harvey, but it was actually Roy. His red eyes sparkled in the light above.

"Poor fella.” He turned away from the group. "Don't look at me like this. I'm a mess."

"Oh, stop that, you big goof," Mari said, her eyes filled with concern. "You don't have to be macho all the time. It's okay to cry."

"S-shut up!" he said, stuck halfway in a fit of laughter and sobbing. "I-I'm not crying! You're crying!"

Mari smiled through her moist eyes. "So?"

"Well," Harvey said, "We should probably eat. Since you're one of us now, I'll treat you to anything you like."

The group forgot about their troubles temporarily and ordered from the tablet. Minutes later, their meals came out from under the table with different trays, without a trace of human contact. They dug in, and relaxed for a bit as they digested their food. Puffles could taste how processed the food was, but it was filling, in any case. They'd stay there for the duration of the night, undisturbed by any of the other customers or staff there, and slept in the booths until the sunrise, where they got woken up by one of the janitors.

Once they gathered themselves, they made their way to the Magnet Train station and hopped onto one of the carriages, headed straight for Goldenrod. The journey passed in silence, for the most part, as the team looked visibly tense from the events before, plus a night of rough sleeping after. Puffles sat next to Harvey, his head on his lap as the human stroked idly by his horns.

"You know," Harvey said, "The day we travelled to Saffron, Sal actually sketched all the Pokemon on the other side. He was really into it. They all looked so real as well, like you could actually pull them out of the page."

"Did he?" Puffles crooned. "He truly was talented."

"You should see his other paintings then. Before we leave that house, I'll show you all his stuff."

For the rest of the trip, they said nothing, just soaking in all the ambience around them, from the chugging of the wheels to the cries of the Pokemon, and the occasional screeching of the rails. It was their last moment of respite before they reached Johto again, where they advanced through the busy crowds of the station, then made the long trek to Harvey's place of residence in the grimy-looking streets. It was a far cry from what Puffles was used to, with Pidgey picking out bits of rotten food from split garbage bags, and the sun-bleached appearance of the brick houses there. He made no comment and followed Harvey into his place. The smell hit him as soon as he entered: an oppressive air of cigarette smoke and a faint whiff of ammonia. They went into the living room, where one housemate lounged about on a beaten-up sofa, stroking his Meowth while watching a show. He waved to Harvey.

"Yo," he said, "How did it go?"

Harvey was silent. The housemate sat up and stared down the group.

"Where's Sal?"

"He's been kidnapped," Puffles said, making his presence known to the stranger. "I'm sorry to be so blunt."

The housemate grew wide-eyed, undoubtedly surprised by the sight of a talking Pokemon before him.

"Shit, man," he said, "Well, that sucks."

"You tell me," Harvey said, "And on top of all of this as well."

"Yeah, yeah, she phoned me up to say. I mean, you're always welcome to crash by our place if you need to. All you need to do is just avoid her whenever she comes around."

"Thanks for the offer." Harvey smiled, then rubbed his arm, "But I need to get my act together first. I'm pretty sure I'd just waste away if I stayed here all day. I gotta go, I have to pack."

"Fair enough, man. Well, I'll see you around." He gave another wave before returning to his vegetative state, and Harvey led the way upstairs to his old room, where everything laid as messy as it was, but with the added smell of mould growing from the waste there. Puffles wrinkled his nose at it, but again, felt little need to comment. He looked to one corner where a stack of canvases laid, slanting on a wall.

"Alright Roy," Harvey said, gesturing to the mess on the floor, "Can you pick up all the stuff we need to take while I talk to Puffles? Don’t bother cleaning up; we’re not getting the deposit back anyway."

He nodded and plucked bits and pieces off the floor, laying them on the bed. Harvey went on one knee while he sifted through each one of the paintings. They all caught Puffles’ eyes, as each example was as masterfully crafted as the other. One in particular caught his eye: a colourful painting of a little Houndour puppy with a accessorised ribbon tied around its neck. Oddly enough, the sight of it brought a certain heaviness to his heart, but he couldn’t exactly place why.

"That's not all," Harvey said, "There's all the sketchbooks he finished, all the commissions he did, the notes he made, all the other studies he painted as well of other paintings. It would probably take all day if we went through them all." He frowned and clenched his fists. "It's not fair. He busted his ass all his life on this, and that will just disappear with him."

Puffles took a deep breath and nuzzled close to Harvey's ankle. "He won't disappear. He's still alive. If you want people to remember Sal though, do your best to honour his memory too. Show his work to anyone you can meet. Show pictures or videos of him painting. Make his story known to those that ask it. If the day comes that people start speaking the name Sal the Smeargle worldwide, I'm sure he'll be listening out for them, somewhere, wherever that might be. In the mean time, we’ll do whatever it takes to survive, and find out about this group in our own time.”

Harvey smiled again and coursed his hand through the Houndoom's back. Then, he made an 'o' shape with his mouth and dug his hand into his pocket, revealing the purse once more.

"You said for me to look through this, right? Do you think it'll help find out why they took him?"

Puffles cocked his head, attempting to shrug but not having the capacity for it. "It’s worth a try."

He inspected its contents and dug out every card the impostor had accumulated through god knows how long. They were all credit cards with not a trace of identification on them, all belonging to different names, presumably aliases. It wasn't until he had emptied all the compartments that he grew wide eyed, and felt around for something in the notes pocket, pressing it with his thumbs.

"Say, I don't suppose you could rip open this part with one of your horns?"

Puffles hummed and leaned in to point the sharp tip at a blank part of the wallet. The material ripped and Harvey dug his hand in to pry it open. Something glimmered in the lamplight. He held it up with one hand to reveal a metallic card, with an insignia of two hands wrapping around a large eye, and incomprehensible symbols at the bottom, both laser carved into the thin material.

---

Epilogue – Endless Days

Weeks passed, or was it months? Sal couldn't tell. He couldn't remember the last time he saw the sunlight either, just the lamplight of his desk, shining on the canvas, ready to start the new painting he was ordered to make: a forgery of another master painter's work. His paws had turned multicoloured with the different blotches of paint he used in every recreation. Before he started work again, he stared at the underpainting on his canvas, a void of pure black, and found himself plunging into its depths.

The names of the people he used to be close with gradually slipped out of his memory. His teammates, he could no longer remember the name of. Puffles was only a brief memory. There was Santiago, whose teachings led him through to his survival, if only subconsciously. The only two names that truly stood out to him now were Harvey and Zed. His trainer, despite all the time that passed, still remained in a piece of his heart, and always wondered how he was doing without him. And then that Zoroark, who sold Sal off to whatever group he found himself stuck in, would return in his dreams, where he would get his revenge.

Weeks or months ago, he would've wept at this predicament, but after the countless amounts of beatings he endured that turned his fur grey and whipped him into shape, almost literally, he had no more tears left to shed. Just bitter words. If Arceus was listening, if there indeed was an almighty presence in the sky looking down upon him, Sal would've cursed his name through the depths of hell and back. Nothing but hate. Hate. Hate.

There was a knock at the door. Sal immediately leapt to his feet and hobbled over to there through his chained legs. He expected it to be the cook handing him his next order of slop, and groaned, opening the door.

Instead, it was another Pokemon taller than him, perhaps double his size, with scars covering the entirety of his body to the point that they interlaced with themselves, fighting to map out the regions of his scaly frame. A crest-like mohawk adorned his head, running all the way down to his back. He held his baggy pants up with his paws and smiled through his bloody nose.

"Yo!" he said, "I heard all about ya! Ya must be that paintin' guy there were all yappin' about!"

Sal frowned at him. "Go away."

The new Pokemon chuckled and put an arm around his shoulder. "Ey, yo! That's no way to talk to a stranger! Sure, we might all be eatin’ from the cream of the crap, but we still gotta look after each other, haven't we?"

"What do you want?" he said.

"Just lookin' at your work there." The Pokemon looked all around the walls, looking at the varieties of different forgeries hanging on there, obscuring the bricks of the foundations. "D'you paint all these? Ace, mon!"

Sal took one look at them and spat on the floor. “All fake. No passion in them. Hate this work.”

"Yeah," he said with a shrug, "But ain't we all workin' for some bastard-human's dream?"

From what Sal heard, the other Pokemon in the base were forced to do a lot of illegal activities pertaining to their type. At least he wasn't some thuggish drone, like the fighting types were often conditioned to be.

"I guess."

"Look," the Pokemon said, offering a paw to him, "I’m a Scrafty, but I guess you can just call me Ess for now, kay? What's yours?"

"Sal," he said, "Smeargle." He stared at Ess’ paw, whose palm was lined with nicks and calluses.

“Ess the Scrafty and Sal the Smeargle. Kinda rolls off the tongue, don’t it? Anyway..." He took Sal's paw without asking and shook it vigorously. "I ain't supposed to be here, but I wish the best of luck to ya. It might suck now, but at least we're embracin' the suck together, huh?"

Sal couldn't help but smile, bringing the first bouts of pleasure he had aside from his revenge-fantasies. "I hear you."

Ess scrambled towards the door and went out, but before he left, he popped his head from behind the frame.

"If you're smart, you'll stick with me, 'kay?"

Sal gave him a weak nod, and with that, the door slammed shut, leaving the tiny Smeargle and his big canvas alone once more. He stared at the blank space again and picked up the paint brush to continue his work on the next forgery, but smiled, and flicked it at the work in progress, leaving lots of tiny, colourful dots onto an otherwise all-consuming void.

TO BE CONTINUED...
 

GrayGriffin

Bug Catcher
Pronouns
any
I know you said this was "pretty long," but it was a really engaging read and I barely noticed the length. You do a really good job of moving the action on and keeping things suspenseful. I really loved the part where Puffles shows the team the ghosts of his old family, and the way they still try to comfort him, as well as the fact that Sal's team doesn't laugh off his worries but actually joins him on the expedition. It always annoys me when that happens in movies, and I'm glad it didn't happen here. I was also glad to see the various signs of Harvey being concerned for Sal, even if they couldn't really communicate.

Speaking of the team, I do feel that Anorak was slightly shafted. I'm assuming that may have been to set up the surprise at the end when he actually speaks, but there were still parts of the story where I wondered if you'd forgotten about him.

Honestly, I feel Puffles is my favorite character in this work. I love stories of loyalty lasting beyond death, and the way you started out making him seem like an antagonistic force before slowly revealing more and more about him worked really well. My favorite scene with him was the part where he manages to speak out one "Continue" to Sal.

As part of a series, I feel this story worked really well in getting me interested about the rest of your 'verse. I'm definitely going to read more of your fics in the series when I have the time.

Grammar-wise, the only thing I really noticed needing fixing was this part:

Someone knocked at the door and Sal’s bubble burst, dropping him back into the cold, damp room, and into the body of a small, frail Pokemon again. His trainer fumbled out of his bed and opened the door.

"You might wanna put some pants on, bud," he said. "Some chick's at the door for you."
The bolded "he" should probably be replaced with "Harvey's housemate," or another sentence saying that it was the housemate at the door should be added. As it stands, the pronoun use is kind of confusing since it feels like it's supposed to refer to Harvey.
 
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