Giovanni summoned Ash to his office a few days later. When the boy came, Giovanni noted he did not have the level of energy he had before. Oh, there was anger there, no doubt, but it was well-buried beneath a layer of hopelessness. The boy hated his situation and yet saw no way out of it. Well, that would certainly not do for Giovanni’s purposes. This boy had potential, and lots of it. It was simply up to Giovanni to mold that potential. First, he had to give him a goal.
“Please, sit,” he said, motioning to the chair in front of his desk. Ash sat, head down. He had his hat back now, although he chose to clutch it in his hands rather than wear it.
“I must confess,” Giovanni began. “You do not seem to truly appreciate this little revelation. You are, by all technical accounts, the heir of Team Rocket, its rightful next leader. Yet you seem to lack the… disposition to take on such a task.”
This seemed to bolster enough energy in the boy to at least get him to look Giovanni in the eye. “Your whole organization exists to exploit Pokémon!” he snapped. “It’s evil!”
“Ah, yes. See, that is the type of attitude I fear may hinder our progress here,” Giovanni said. “But there is time for improvement.”
“I don’t care if you keep me here for a hundred years,” Ash said (the boy had a flare for melodrama, it seemed). “No amount of time is going to change my feelings.”
“So you’re saying you have no interest in running Team Rocket someday?” Giovanni asked.
“No!” Ash said. He was started to sound exasperated, as if Giovanni was willfully misunderstanding him. He was not completely wrong.
“Really? Because you seem to feel very strongly about this organization. One would think that given the opportunity to run it in anyway you choose, that you might be more interested in taking said opportunity.”
Ash straightened a bit. “Run it… anyway I choose?” he asked cautiously. “As in, I could dismantle it?”
“If that happened to be your decision when you took charge, yes.”
“And when would you see me… um, taking charge?” Ash’s internal debate was almost amusing now. He clearly detested the idea of having anything to do with Team Rocket, and yet the image in his head of having the ability to take it down was far too great a temptation.
Giovanni leaned forward, resting his chin on his folded hands. “Three years. You work under me for three years. You do not argue with my decisions. You do not attempt to dissuade me from any course of action nor do you undermine any of my plans. I will consider you my apprentice during that time and teach you everything you need to know to lead Team Rocket.” He reached an open hand forward. The boy almost took his offer right then and there, but pulled his hand back, still locked in debate with himself. Giovanni showed no emotion either way. He would not have come as far as he had in life by letting his personal feelings on any matter get the better of him. But still he was acutely aware of his own mortality. Perhaps it was the presence of Agent Fiora and her advancing weakness that brought it out in him. But the idea of ending his days with absolutely no legacy… it terrified him, more so than any financial loss he could suffer. His father and grandfather and many generations before them had always worked the underworld to their advantage, passed their secrets onto their children. Would he be the first to fail in that line? Give the power of Team Rocket to some nobody. Some employee? No, Giovanni would not allow it. His attempts to sway Silver had failed. But this boy was different. He had a passion for Pokémon unlike any Giovanni had ever seen. Passion to the point of stupidity. If Giovanni could convert that energy into a passion for power, for control… this boy would be the spitting image of him and carry on his legacy.
“Why are you doing this?” Ash finally asked.
“Why? Because I cannot run Team Rocket on my own forever. Because I trust family above all else. Because my only other child has abandoned me.” None of them were outright lies. In fact, only the second reason had been anything resembling a lie. Giovanni was getting downright honest in his old age. “But most of all,” he continued, “because I believe that in the three years I have to train you, I can change your attitude about the organization completely. I am so confident in my skills to do this in fact, there is not a shred of doubt in my mind. In three years, my dear boy, you will be everything I am. Perhaps even more.”
“I’ll never be like you,” Ash growled. “The second you give me control of this place, I’ll tear it down.”
Here Giovanni allowed himself a bit of a smile. Determination. That was exactly what he needed. With all the resources at his disposal, he could easily redirect Ash’s energy. He couldn’t energize a person who had no ambition to begin with.
“Then you’re accepting my offer?” Giovanni asked.
Ash barely hesitated. “You bet I am.”
Giovanni revealed a full-out grin, taking Ash’s hand and shaking it vigorously. “Excellent. We’ll get the paperwork drawn up right away then.” He snapped his fingers. The Persian that had been nodding off at his feet lifted her head. Without the need for any other signal from him, she stood and walked over to the filing cabinet in the corner of Giovanni’s office. With a deep purr, it gripped the handle in its mouth, pulled the drawer open, and then pulled out a manila folder, which she walked back over to Giovanni. Giovanni took it and patted the beast on the head, afterwards she laid back down at his feet. Never trust a human to handle important paperwork, after all. There were some things that only a Pokémon could be trusted with. Giovanni opened the folder, fished out a pen from his pocket, and handed it to Ash. He then opened the folder, pulled out the single sheet of paper, and pushed it forward.
“Feel free to read over it,” he said. “Take as much time as you need.”
Ash gripped the pen in his hand. “No, thank you,” he said. Then he leaned over and signed his name on the line where Giovanni had indicated. Giovanni took the pen and paper himself and signed his own name underneath it. He then placed it back in the folder and whistled for his Persian to return the item to its place in the cabinet. The Pokémon did so without complaint.
“Well,” Giovanni began as the Persian came to rest as his feet once more, “as your paperwork states, you’ll be starting in this organization with the rank of an Executive. This means that you can command any of my grunts or scientists as you will. The exception of course being that you cannot ask them to disobey any order from me, nor would I expect you to issue any commands that undermine Team Rocket’s general objectives.”
“I don’t plan on giving commands to anybody,” Ash said firmly.
The half smile that Giovanni had been wearing this whole time faded just a bit. “I see we shall have to work on your willingness to take control. You command Pokémon all the time, boy. You will find people are not so different.” He leaned back in his chair, trying to release some of the tension in his neck. This was quite a challenge he had just undertaken. But like any challenge, he was more than prepared for it. He motioned Ash away. “Agent Pierce will get you your new uniform. And I believe Agent Fiora has a Pokémon to return to you.”
Ash looked hopeful at these words, possibility for the first time since Giovanni had seen him. “My Pikachu?” he asked.
Giovanni rubbed his chin for a moment. He had seen the evolved Pokémon that insisted on saying its old name. What was the proper term for such a creature? Mutant? Defect? Or maybe the name Fiora used. Hybrid. Yes, that sounded classier. “Ahem. Yes, your Pikachu,” he finally said. “Tell me, why did you not evolve your Pokémon? It is clearly at a high enough level that it has learned all the attacks exclusive to its Pikachu form.”
Ash looked at Giovanni, almost with an expression of confusion. “It doesn’t want to evolve,” he said, like it was the most obvious reason in the world. Giovanni nodded. This would be an interesting turn of events, then.
“I see,” he said, and waved a dismissive hand again. The door to his office opened, and at the press of a button, Agent Pierce appeared in the doorway. There was an awkward silence as he and Ash stood staring at each other, both expecting the other to move first it seemed. Giovanni rolled his eyes and coughed loudly.
“My son has accepted his role in this organization,” he said to Pierce. “He’ll need his uniform and his Pokémon. Please take care of it.”
Pierce’s eyes went wide at Giovanni’s words, but he collected himself quickly and bowed to Ash. “Of course. This way, sir.”
Giovanni got the impression that Ash had never been called “sir” a day in his life, as he followed after Pierce with none of the confidence a leader ought to have. But that would all come in time. Giovanni would make certain of it.
The Rocket leading Ash away was worried about something; it was written all over his face. Ash guessed at first that it had to do with him. Every member of Team Rocket had to think their esteemed leader was a bit nuts right now, letting someone who’d battled against their organization for years suddenly have a place in it. But the more Ash followed Pierce around, the more he suspected Pierce’s concerns had nothing to do with him. Pierce was completely distracted as he walked Ash down the hallways, taking a wrong turn more than once, and then when he went to give Ash a uniform, he first pulled out the same style that James wore, in a size that looked like it would swallow Ash whole.
“Um… I’m not sure that’s quite right,” Ash said.
Pierce looked at the uniform in his hand as if he were confused how it even got there to begin with.
“Oh. Yes. My apologies, sir,” he said, then went rummaging back through the oversized metal crate that he had pulled the uniform from to begin with. “Executive, yes?” He pulled out a uniform that didn’t look so dissimilar from the previous one, but without the black gloves and a much smaller Rocket logo up near the shoulder, rather than an oversized R written across the chest. “This should be sufficient,” Pierce said at last, closing and locking the crate with a key card on his belt. He glanced between the key and Ash for a moment.
“You’ll have to forgive me, but I’m not sure what level of permissions the boss has given you. I’ll make sure you’re issued your own badge key when I have that information confirmed.”
“Oh, um… that’s okay,” Ash said nervously, as he continued to follow Pierce down the hallway. The guy led him back to the same room Ash had as before. Only this time when he went to try the door, it was already unlocked, and he seemed to have no intention of locking Ash back in again.
Something buzzed as the door swung open. Pierce checked his belt; it looked like his cell phone had started blinking. The man checked whatever message had come up, and his face went pale. “Already? I told them to let me know before–”
He gritted his teeth, shaking his head with effort as he faced Ash once again. “I apologize, sir. Agent Fiora has taken ill, it seems, and she is the one holding your Pokémon at the moment. I’ll have to go retrieve them myself.”
“Is… she okay?” Ash asked nervously. If he remembered correctly, Fiora was that girl who had looked really sick and frail when they first saw her. And it seemed like Pierce was genuinely worried about her. As much as Ash wanted to see Pikachu again, he at least knew Pikachu was safe. It didn’t sound like the same could be said about Fiora.
“She… she will be fine,” Pierce said with effort. “It’s… nothing you need concern yourself with, sir.”
He was barely getting his words out straight. Ash might not have been very good at reading people, but he knew how it felt to be worried about someone important. He’d been feeling that way this whole time about Brock and Misty. And about Pikachu.
“Hey, um… if you need to go see her, you should go do that.”
Pierce looked at him in shock. “I… appreciate it,” he said. “But I was ordered to attend to you.”
Attend to me? What do I need attending for? Ash tightened his fists. There had to be a way around this. “I’m… um, I’m ordering you to do that?” he tried. Then he remembered what Giovanni had said about contradicting him and added on, “You can bring me my Pikachu afterwards.”
A wave of relief passed over Pierce’s face. He didn’t look grateful, per se, but he bowed deeply before he turned away from the door. “I’ll do that, then. Thank you, sir.” With that, he took off, practically running down the hall.
The equipment didn’t bother Fiora anymore. Not like it used to. Maybe because she didn’t have the strength to fight it this time. The IVs that bit under her skin were now pumping her full of wonderful painkillers. The tug of the oxygen tube taped annoyingly to her face was actually helping her breathe easier. Even the constant beeps and tones from the instruments were soothing background noise now.
She had nearly started to doze again when Pierce’s voice drifted in above her, saying her name. Fiora worked open heavy eyes and found him sitting beside her bed, gazing over her, his face full of worry. The last time he looked that awful was when he had stressed over a big project and hadn’t slept for a week straight.
I couldn’t have been out that long, could I?
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” she replied. It was hard to talk. Her throat was so dry now. But if she didn’t say something, she might not get another chance. “I’m sorry we fought.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for, it was my fault,” Pierce said. He sounded almost tender too. Or maybe that was just her wishful thinking.
Crap, am I dwelling on regrets now? The stupid drugs must have been making her loopy. Well, at least it was a short list.
Fiora regretted never having the chance to train her own Pokémon.
She regretted never letting herself know love.
But most of all she regretted every moment she had ever let herself feel weak.
She couldn’t do much about the first two, not even back when she was at full strength. Caring for a Pokémon, or a person for that matter, would have been too cruel to the others involved. But weakness… now there was something she could still fight.
“Fiora,” said Pierce, more serious now. “There’s something I need to show you–”
She held up a shaking hand, barely managing to make the “shhh” signal. “First, I need you to promise–” She licked her dry lips.
“What?” Pierce prompted.
She sucked in a breath, speaking without weakness. Without fear. “After I go, I want you to put me to rest on top of Mount Silver. I heard it’s beautiful there and I’ve always wanted to go, but never got the chance. Will you do that?”
His mouth cracked with a deep frown. “That’s just it, Fiora. I think I have a way to save you.”
Fiora sighed. He really was a sentimental fool. Any other time she would have rolled her eyes. Or whacked him upside the head. But today she let him have a rare, affectionate smile. “You already saved me, remember?”
“No, Fiora,” he shook his head, “I’m talking about a cure.”
Why was he making this so hard? After she had told him a hundred times not to get attached, he still didn’t listen. He really was a fool. A stupid, sentimental fool. Funny, in another life she might even have loved him for it, too. In another life…
“Hm?” She jerked awake. “Wh… wasn’t sleeping…”
“I need you to focus. This is important.”
He reached aside and pulled out a binder. “It’s Project Merger. The one I’ve spent the last six years supervising.”
“The one you can never talk about,” she nodded weakly. “The reason I have a bunch of hybrids in iso.”
“We’ve had a breakthrough. Only this time with human experimentation.” He flipped open a page in his binder to reveal two personal photos that looked somewhat like Jessie and James only not quite. Jessie was downright masculine with a boyish figure, muscled arms, abs, and legs. James sported a new, spiked-up hairdo of his normal electric blue tipped with bright yellow.
“Is that… Diva and Dunce…?”
“Now with twenty percent Pokémon DNA.”
Fiora blinked at him, the pieces finally coming together in her mind. “And you think if I get a merger, the Pokémon genes will cancel out my crap ones and cure me?”
“If the procedure is successful, then yes.”
“And if it isn’t?”
Pierce glanced down. “I’m not sure. All the other subjects we used were healthy…”
“In other words, it will kill me horribly.” She snorted a laugh, which turned into a coughing fit that left her dizzy and exhausted. “Drat. I knew there had to be a catch.”
Pierce didn’t look amused. “It’s up to you, Fiora. I won’t try and push you either way. I just wanted you to know all the options.” He left the binder on her bed and stood, hesitated, then started to turn towards the door. “Do you want some time alone to think?” he asked.
Fiora flipped the binder closed with a thump. “Nope. You pretty much had me at ‘cure.'”
He opened the door with a small smile, ushering in a team of nurses who had apparently been waiting on standby.
“I had a feeling you’d say that.”