Ash knew of no greater pain than watching a Pokémon suffer. Watching his Pikachu suffer was the worst pain of all. Team Rocket knew this; he’d demonstrated it many times before. Only now he was unfortunate to have it used against him.
Passing through the Kanto region on a brief visit, Ash had been fortunate enough to be able to visit with Misty and Brock. Taking a stroll alongside the beautiful peaks of Mt. Moon, memories flowed back to him of the old days. He almost jokingly offered to borrow Misty’s bike, but then decided she probably wouldn’t appreciate the humor.
It was when they took a path up along one of the mountainside cliffs that Ash started to feel a little nervous. He couldn’t explain why exactly, only that he had the sense they were being watched. He almost called out to his friends that maybe they should turn back… but it wasn’t as if he could see the threat, and Misty was insistent that the view at the top of the cliff was so beautiful… he kept walking and kept quiet. And for a while, everything seemed to go great. The view at the top of the path was indeed breathtaking; the mountains that the Clefairy called home stretched on for miles. But the moment Ash started to let his guard down was the moment Team Rocket attacked.
There was no warning, no motto. A dark shape swooped out of the air and snatched up Pikachu. Ash called for his friend, and Pikachu naturally tried to defend itself, but whatever had grabbed it seemed to shrug off even Pikachu’s most powerful electric blast.
“I’m afraid that’s not going to work this time,” said a voice. Ash watched as three figures emerged from the shadows of the nearby trees — Jessie and James he knew all too well, but instead of Meowth by their side, they had another Team Rocket member with black hair and hard eyes. “Forgive the intrusion. My name is Pierce. I should warn you, my Gliscor is an extremely high level, and its ground type designation makes it immune to electric attacks. I’m afraid your Pikachu is quite at its mercy right now.”
He was right. The realization sent a knot twisting in Ash’s stomach. He vaguely caught sight of Brock and Misty stepping in alongside him, supporting him. But his mind couldn’t focus on them, only on the Rocket standing in front of the trees, his hand fingering a Pokéball, his face devoid of mercy.
“I’m warning you,” Ash said, “leave Pikachu alone and get out of here or–”
The rocket narrowed his eyes, cold as green glass. Then he motioned to his Gliscor, who kept its firm grip on Pikachu and flew out further over the cliffside.
“I’m afraid you’re not in a position to make demands.”
Seeing the immense height from which it was now suspended, Pikachu cried out in fear, making a vain attempt to cling to its captor. Gliscor, in return, gave Pikachu a nip on the paw.
“What are you doing!” Ash screamed, voicing echoing off the mountainside. His heart caught in his throat. Even Team Rocket couldn’t sink this low. They wouldn’t… they couldn’t kill a Pokémon, could they? Not even Jessie and James looked sure anymore. Jessie, though smiling smugly, had sweat dipping down her forehead and James just shuffled his feet and looked at the ground, as if he felt guilty for being there at all.
“Hang on, Pikachu!” Ash called to his friend. “I’m going to save you!”
Brock already had his hand on his Pokéball belt when the new guy held up a finger at him, making a tsk-tsk-tsk sound. “Now, now, don’t do anything rash,” he warned. “My Gliscor has orders to release Pikachu he it feels even the slightest threat from the group of you. I suggest you remain calm.”
Brock cursed under his breath, but put his hand down.
“You’ll never get away with this!” Misty growled. “You’ve tried to capture Pikachu a million times before, and a million times, you’ve failed.”
“Oh, we’re not after Pikachu,” Jessie piped up. “In fact, we’re not after a Pokémon at all.” She pointed to Ash.
“That’s right,” added James. “Our boss has asked us to deliver a personal invitation to you. How do you feel about joining Team Rocket?”
Ash’s hands tightened into fists. “You didn’t have to come all this way just to ask that. My answer is no.”
“Oh dear,” said Jessie, “I’m afraid ‘no’ is not one of the options the boss gave us. I believe we will accept ‘yes’ and ‘absolutely’, though. How about you try again?”
“Gli…” Gliscor grinned and flapped its wings harder, hovering even higher than before. Pikachu looked like it might be ready to faint. Ash himself felt faint, too. After all the times they’d fought Team Rocket off, this was how his conflict with them ended? A stupid threat and he just surrendered? But as he looked down at the trees that seemed like toys from this height, he realized he couldn’t do anything else. The thought of losing Pikachu tore through him in a way that nothing else could. If joining the ranks of Team Rocket kept Pikachu safe, it wasn’t even a question.
Ash raised his hands. “Fine. I surrender. Or whatever it is you want to hear.”
“Ash!” Brock and Misty yelled together. He didn’t turn to face them, however. No way were they talking him out of this. Jessie, James blinked in surprise, as if Ash’s surrender came more easily than even they had expected. Pierce just nodded, like he hadn’t expected anything less.
“Your Pikachu is safe when you’re in our custody,” Pierce said. “There’s a helicopter waiting to escort you to headquarters on the next ledge over.” He started walking and motioned for him to follow. “Let’s go.” Ash stepped after him. If Pikachu was safe, that was all that mattered.
“N-now hang on a second!” Misty called out. Pierce did nothing to acknowledge her, but Jessie and James stopped in their tracks and turned.
“I-I…” Misty stuttered, as if she’d been totally unprepared for any of them to actually listen to her. “The thing is… Ash, Brock, and I are a team.”
“We are?” Brock said, confused. Ash didn’t blame him. Yes, they had traveled together for a long time, but that was years ago. They’d all gone their separate ways by now. And since this fight with Team Rocket had been settled, Misty had no reason to instigate another one.
“What, you want to come too, little girl?” Jessie teased.
Misty gritted her teeth. “As a matter of fact, I do!” she announced.
“What?” Ash exclaimed, only to hear his question echoed by everyone else around him.
Misty put her hands on her hips, as if everyone’s bewilderment only emboldened her. “You’re not doing this alone, Ash,” she said. “Whatever these losers want, I’m going to be there alongside you.”
“Oh, and what about me?” Brock asked and stepped forward. “I’ve traveled with Ash even longer than you have. Shouldn’t I go on this life-risking escapade, too?”
“Sorry, but the invitation wasn’t a free-for-all,” Jessie snapped back and turned to leave. Pierce put up a hand to stop her.
“You two,” he said, nodding at Brock and Misty. “You both are gym leaders, are you not?”
“You bet we are!” Misty snapped.
“Our gyms are sufficiently staffed to accommodate our absences,” Brock added in an oh-so-professional tone.
A slight smile broke out on Pierce’s face. “I would think the boss would be more than happy to meet with the two of you. Please, step them way.” And with a casual gesture, he began to lead to group of six down the steep walkways of Mt. Moon.
Pierce had to compliment himself. The targets were secure — another job done quickly and efficiently. The truck hadn’t been particularly designed to carry human prisoners, but it did have space for Pokémon of all sizes. Recently, the team had snagged two Blastoises and an Emboar, and their cages were still in there, conveniently the perfect size for the whining brats they’d been sent to capture.
Their Pokéballs, of course, Pierce immediately threw into a lockbox and kept it as his feet in the passenger seat. He made James do the driving. The man was a moron, but he at least kept the truck on the road. That left Jessie to squish in between them.
There was one Pokémon Pierce did not have in a Pokéball. The Pikachu. He had demanded the Pokéball from its owner of course, but he had none. The little yellow rat had simply been following its trainer this whole time. Now, of course, it lay unconscious in a much smaller cage on Pierce’s lap. Jessie and James were positively beside themselves with glee. Not because they’d successfully completed a mission for once in their pathetic lives. Not even because that had managed to accomplish said mission without getting burned, nearly drowned, electrocuted or exploded in their attempts to take down the trainer Giovanni had requested.
No, it seemed the reason for their unfathomable giddiness was they had their hands on said trainer’s Pikachu. A Pikachu. One of the most common Pokémon in Viridian City. Jessie kept clapping her hands in delight every time she peeked in the cage, jabbing Pierce in the ribs with her elbow in the process, and James was humming and giggling to himself as he gripped the steering wheel.
Pierce rolled his eyes. They hadn’t had that Meowth with them lately; perhaps the catlike Pokémon had been the sane glue holding their lunacy together.
“We’ll be turning over all the Pokémon we captured to Fiora,” he told them as the truck pulled in to the Viridian Gym garage. James froze and nervously at Jessie. Jessie stopped stroking the Pikachu’s cage, a little vein bulging on her forehead.
“Wait, that little witch is still here?” she growled.
Pierce gritted his teeth. “She is a member of Team Rocket, the same as you are, and frankly, she’s more competent on her worst days that either of you have been in your pathetic lives!”
The prisoners in the truck, including the Pokémon, all jumped at the end of his sentence. Had he started yelling? What was wrong with him? When people irritated him, he would simply bribe, lie and steal until he got intel on how to make their lives utter misery. Which he would then do. Yelling was undignified.
He cleared his throat. “Get the Pokémon ready. As for our… other guests…” He turned around and narrowed his eyes at the two former gym leaders in their cages behind them. “Extra security is waiting for their arrival. They’ll be escorted to the holding cells in the basement.”
The group arrived at the Viridian City gym within a couple hours, and the transfer process began smoothly enough. James pulled the truck into its spot, and three Rocket grunts stood by to take the prisoners to their cells. Pierce unlocked their cages one by one, being especially careful with the boy Giovanni had sent them to fetch in the first place.
Ash, that was it, Pierce suddenly remembered. How very forgettable; no wonder it had slipped his mind. He stepped out of the truck and bent down to pick up the lockbox of Pokéballs and the pikachu’s cage when one of the grunts cried out, “Um, sir? We may– ouch! We may need some assistance!”
Pierce gripped the box and walked around to the back of the van.
“I’m not going anywhere without Pikachu!” Ash was yelling. The two former gym leaders, while they weren’t making any such specific demands, were nonetheless giving his staff a rather difficult time. Brock stomped on his guard’s foot, while Misty bit hers on the hand. Twice.
Pierce growled with frustration. He strode over, ready to start lecturing the minions on how absurdly stupid it was was to come to collect prisoners without any form of restraint. Then a voice rang out.
“Need a hand there?” Fiora emerged from around the corner, Absol pacing dutifully at her side. She twirled a roll of duct tape around in her hand, smiling a bit smugly as she tossed it to the nearest grunt. It thwaked the guy right in the forehead before he caught it. Then she projected her voice to attention-grabbing volume.
“Listen up! We can do this the easy way, or the really easy way. It’s your choice.”
Brock and Misty stilled, and after a sizable pause to consider, so did Ash. Jessie and James, who weren’t even the targets of Fiora’s wrath, cowered and stepped back.
Amazing. Even now, as sick as she was, Fiora still managed to surprise him.
“Wise choice,” said Pierce nodding with approval. “Take them away.” The grunts did what they were supposed to, finally. And this time both Brock and Misty went without a fuss.
“Guys!” Ash called. He would have tried to run to them too, if Pierce didn’t catch him by the shirt-back.
“No. You stay. The boss has plans for you.”
Fiora was approaching them in earnest now. Pierce could see her chest heaving from the effort of trying to push herself to walk faster.
Absol gave a happy bark of greeting when they finally drew close.
“Hello, Absol. I trust you kept everything under control while I was gone.”
“Ab-sol-ab,” the Pokémon said, sticking up its chin.
Fiora rolled her eyes. She looked Ash up and down as she slowly regained her breath. “So, this the kid?”
“Yes,” Pierce said, looking aside to the teen in question. Not at all surprisingly, he found Ash studying Fiora like she was some sort of new Pokémon species. He wasn’t even trying to be subtle about it, either. Not that Fiora would care. She preferred blunt rudeness and direct questions over stolen over-the-shoulder glances and behind-the-back whispers. Still…
Pierce cleared his throat. “This is Agent Fiora,” he told Ash. “She is head caretaker and will be tending to your Pokémon when they’re not in use.”
Ash blinked. “Wait… you’re keeping them?”
“You surrendered them willingly, if I recall.”
The color drained from the teen’s face. Like he hadn’t understood what “join Team Rocket” actually meant. Obviously he wasn’t the brightest Lanturn in the ocean. Either that or he had had been so busy trying to save Pikachu’s life, he hadn’t considered what might happen to the rest of his Pokémon. Too bad for him.
Pierce felt Fiora’s eyes on him then and looked up, startled to see a spark of outrage in them.
“Don’t talk about Pokémon like they’re tools, Pierce. It’s rude,” she snapped.
He cleared his throat, still keeping up professional appearances, even as he offered her the cage with Pikachu and the lockbox with the rest of Pokéballs in the most appeasing way possible.
“Anyway… here are your new charges.”
“Her new charges!” Jessie stormed over. “Why should she get to take Pikachu?”
“Yeah!” James chimed in. “We should be the ones to give it to the boss.”
Fiora waved them off. “Pierce finishes a mission in a few hours that the two of you have been failing at for years and you think the boss really wants to see you? Please. You’ll be lucky if you still have jobs after today.”
Pierce felt himself smirk as James’s face fell. Beside him, Jessie flushed bright red.
“Why you little–” She clenched her fists, forehead veins pulsing as Fiora reached for Pikachu’s cage.
“Pi…” protested Pikachu. It tried to stand but collapsed again, cheeks sparking weakly in anger.
Ash looked like he was going to be sick. And Fiora… she turned on Pierce fast as a Seviper.
“What the–What’s wrong with that Pikachu? Don’t tell me you went out without any potions.”
“No, I–” he faltered.
This wasn’t good.
“So you forgot to treat it or you just didn’t bother?” She punched him. Actually hit him in the shoulder with real effort and anger behind it. And she was yelling right in his face. “How could you be so careless!” She swayed in place, then started to cough.
Not good at all.
Without thinking he tossed the Pikachu’s cage to Jessie so he could catch her.
“You overdid it–”
Fiora glared at him.
“No.” cough “I didn’t–” cough “I’m fine. Need to get Pikachu to–” cough “–for treatment–”
Jessie stepped forward then, a scheming look on her face.
“We’ll take care of the twerp’s Pokémon.”
“Yes,” said James. “Just leave everything to us.”
Fiora growled. “If you two set one toe in my kennel–”
Pierce looked around, his head swimming. “Quiet!” He pointed hastily to Jessie and James. “You two, take the Pokémon down to the kennel, but don’t touch anything until Fiora gets there. Fiora, take a break. That’s an order, understand?”
She glared at him harder, her eyes turning cold and turbulent as a frozen waterfall.
“Of course, sir. Whatever you say, sir. You want me to lick your boots while I’m at it, sir?”
Pierce massaged his temples. “Just. Go.”
She tugged on Absol’s harness, directing the Pokémon away sharply. It glanced anxiously over its shoulder as they departed down a corridor. Jessie and James scampered off merrily, turning a different direction.
“Pika!” Pikachu called for Ash. It was loyal to a fault, that one. Probably wasn’t going to take the trade-over to Team Rocket custody well. If only those idiots Jessie and James could have captured it sooner…
“Hang in there, buddy! I’ll get you out somehow!” Ash called back, probably trying to reassure himself as much as his friend. Pierce gave his shoulder a nudge.
“Where are you taking me?” he demanded.
“The Boss set aside a special room for you. I hope you will find it comfortable.”
Ash grit his teeth but complied. He didn’t have much choice, really.
Pierce led him inside to an express elevator that opened with a swipe from his ID badge. After dropping a good ten floors, they emerged into a maze of hallways that always reminded him a bit of a hotel rather than a criminal organization’s headquarters: carpeted floor, fancy wallpaper, even soft music playing in the background. It was quite pleasant, actually. Not like the lower floors. They were all cold metal walls, white tile, and flickering fluorescent lights. Still it was better than the streets had been.
Before long, they arrived at their destination. The boss had gone all out for this one, giving the kid a rather spacious suite with a bedroom, a lounge area, even a little kitchen. There was already a table of food set out with a spread that could easily rival the buffet at the staff holiday party. Not that Ash would likely eat any of it. He was still rattling off questions, even as Pierce shoved him inside and was halfway through closing the door.
“Just what does your boss want from me, anyway?”
“You’ll have to ask him yourself when you meet him later.” He paused. Wasn’t he forgetting something? Oh yes… “One more thing. I’ll need your hat.”
Ash looked dumbstruck, then just plain angry.
He yanked it off and threw it into Pierce’s chest. He had to fumble to catch it, and grimaced in disgust when he finally got a hold of the sweat-stained object. He clutched the hat with two fingers, holding it some distance away.
“I’ll return to collect you when the Boss is ready. In the meantime, please make yourself comfortable. You’re going to be here for a while.”