2018 Serebii Fanfiction Forum Awards
Most Suspenseful Fic
Most Heartbreaking Fic
Best Characterization in a Short Story
Best Non-Human Main Character - Sal the Smeargle
Most Suspenseful Fic
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.
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.
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?”
"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.