Ash glared at Aquafeles with a look of intense hatred. “What was the point of even bringing us altogether?” he snapped. “To gloat or something?”
Aquafeles turned up his nose. “In case you alls haven’t noticed, I’m a victim here, too. The only reason the boss was able to do mergers on you was because of all his experiments on Pokémon like me.” For a moment, his muscles locked, his feline brain remembering how much it hurt. Not just the physical pain of the transformation but how it had made him feel afterward. He was a step in the process. An experiment to be observed, documented, and filed away as science marched forward. The boss hadn’t cared how he felt, not even once. Aquafeles wished he could forget his owner just as easily. He was like some stupid Charmander waiting out in the rain for a trainer that would never come. He still wanted to make Giovanni happy, no matter how many times he got kicked down.
“But Ash hadn’t been merged with any Pokémon yet,” Brock pointed out. He looked over in Ash’s direction. “You… are dressed differently, though.”
“Ah, that’s right. You wouldn’t have heard,” Aquafeles purred, his mood lifting a bit. Knowing something others didn’t always had a way of cheering him up. “The twerp here is an official Rocket executive now. Turns out he’s got the boss’s blood in his veins.”
“Wait… you’re Giovanni’s son?” Brock asked. “You’re working for them now?”
Don’t sound so shocked, Aquafeles thought, rolling his eyes. I mean, seriously, you’ve had your DNA scrambled with a giant rock snake, and this little insight is the most shocking thing you’ve heard today?
Ash shook his head. At least he had the observational powers to notice Brock had asked him a question. “I didn’t understand you,” he said.
Brock’s eyebrows furrowed in frustration.
“He wants to know if you’re stabbing him and Misty in the back,” Aquafeles said.
Brock let out an angry roar and raised his tail. “I did not say that!”
“Okay, okay, chill!” Aquafeles said, rearing back and putting its two front paws up in defense. “I’m sorry, all right? You want to know if the twerp–”
“Ash!” all three friends corrected at once.
“–Ash, all right? You want to know if Ash is working undercover at Team Rocket. That more accurate?”
Brock’s tail rested back on the floor again, though it remaining precariously close to knocking Aquafeles back in the water at any time. He nodded his approval at the new translation.
Ash twisted his fingers. “I… guess you could say I’m working undercover…” he said slowly and carefully. “But the thing is, I’m not really sure Giovanni cares. He knows I don’t support him. But he says as long as I don’t work against him for the next three years, he’ll hand full control of Team Rocket over to me. Even if the first thing I plan to do is dismantle it.”
Misty thoughtfully rubbed her chin. “That doesn’t make any sense. What does Giovanni gain from making you a deal like that?”
“Nothing,” Aquafeles said. “And Giovanni never makes deals that get him nothing.” He narrowed his eyes at Ash… his boss’s offspring… his future boss in three years. If he was going to suffer from undying loyalty to Team Rocket no matter what, he could at least put his trust in a more hopeful place. “The boss gave you that offer because he thinks you won’t dismantle Team Rocket. Because you’ll make it better than ever.”
Ash nodded uncomfortably. “I know. He told me so himself. But… I was so sure he was wrong, I just agreed without thinking.”
“You do just about everything without thinking,” Brock grumbled. Then he quickly turned to Aquafeles and said, “Don’t translate that.”
Aquafeles frowned but respected Brock’s wishes. Misty remained silent in the pool, her gaze still locked on the tiled floor as her mind presumably worked through ideas. “So… what exactly makes Giovanni think you’ll be such a different person in three years?” she pondered aloud. “I mean, no offense, but you don’t tend to be open to new suggestions about anything–your philosophy about how to treat Pokémon least of all. You’d die before you’d change that belief.”
Ash wasn’t the least bit insulted by her assessment. Judging by the smile on his face, he took it as a compliment. “I don’t know why anything would make him think that,” he said. “If I thought he could change my mind, I never would have made the agreement in the first place.”
“But you said yourself, something’s been off with your memories lately,” Misty argued. “What if Giovanni has a way to manipulate you? Something you don’t know about yet?”
“The man does have some powerful Pokémon on his side,” Brock said.
“Present company included,” Aquafeles agreed. Brock growled at him again. This time, however, Aquafeles wasn’t intimidated. “What? It’s the truth! If you two wanna act like you’ve got another owner, be my guest. It ain’t gonna change anything.”
“Quit leaving me out of the conversation!” Ash snapped.
Misty raised herself up in the water, sending out a spray. She formed an X with her arms and stared everyone down with a death glare that could put even the scariest Seviper to shame. “Enough arguing, all of you!” she said. Her gaze focused on Ash. “Why don’t you tell us what you do remember? Everything you can up until there’s gaps. Everything you recall afterward. Maybe we can figure this out.”
Ash sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “Okay… I remember being angry at Giovanni for… something. I think this was when you were still trying to decide if you wanted a merger or not.” He nodded at Misty, and she nodded back. “I was upset, and we went into this dark room to talk. I remember I felt more calm afterwards. And then I’m pretty sure I came and talked to you, but… I’m not clear on what we said.”
“And how do you feel about Giovanni now?” Aquafeles asked.
“I think…” Ash was visibly struggling now. Not like he didn’t have words. More like he didn’t even have thoughts to put into words. “I don’t like him,” Ash finally concluded. “When I think about him, I tend to get angry. But then… some part of me feels like I shouldn’t be angry. It’s really weird. I’m sorry… I can’t explain it much better than that.”
Brock and Misty looked both concerned and lost. Not surprising. Aquafeles, much to his own distaste, had neither of those feelings. “You said you had a talk in a dark room,” he said. “Was it only you and Giovanni? Or were there some Pokémon in there as well?”
Ash furrowed his eyebrows. “Now that you mention it… I think there were Pokémon in the room. They didn’t seem too interested in Giovanni… I think, they were mostly hanging around me.”
“What type of Pokémon?” Brock asked.
Aquafeles didn’t translate–it was just as easy to answer the question. “Ghost Pokémon,” he said, then turned to Ash again. “I know the place you’re talkin’ about. It’s a room full of ghost Pokémon.”He paused and shrugged. “Well, Banettes and Shuppets, mostly. I’ve heard of it being used, but…” He looked Ash over cautiously. “But this is the first time I’ve really seen the effects for myself. The ghost Pokémon can feed on the memories and emotions of another, leaving their victims open to lies. Fake memories. If you’re not so sure what happened even a couple days ago, I’d say the boss has used it on you more than once.”
Ash began to shake again. “So… you’re saying if Giovanni does this to me enough times… I’ll be like him?”
“Hey, look on the bright side,” Aquafeles said. “You’ve got some prime Pokémon you’ll inherit. You can your friends can even go on some Pokémon journeying together again. Just, y’know, two of you enslaved to the third.”
Ash groaned but didn’t make any reply.
Brock crossed his arms. “Wow,” he growled sarcastically, “you really brighten up any room you enter, huh?”
“It’s a gift,” Aquafeles replied, then stepped closer to Ash. Maybe he had been a touch too hard on him. The kid was holding his head in his hands and sobbing way more than Misty ever had.
“I’m so sorry,” he cried. “You’d never be here if it wasn’t for me! This whole mess… everything is my fault.”
Misty flicked her tail, sending up a splash of water that doused Ash and made Brock cautiously back away. “Pull yourself together!” she snapped. “Brock and I decided for ourselves to come here with you. None of this is your fault!”
“B-but… the merger,” Ash sniffled, red-eyed. “You weren’t going to do it until I talked to you.”
Brock muttered something under his breath.
“Exactly!” Misty said, then quickly remembered she needed to translate. “Brock says to stop flattering yourself–you aren’t that convincing.”
Ash gave a weak laugh that turned into another sob. He wiped his eyes on the crisp white sleeves of uniform. Giovanni would have had a fit. Still, as pathetic as the kid looked, Aquafeles had to admit, there was something he envied here. He’d always put his own emotions to the side on just about everything. The consequences of looking weak in front of the boss weren’t worth it. But Ash was fine with letting everything out. He didn’t care if looked utterly pathetic. He just knew that he wanted to cry, so he did. There was something refreshing in that. Something Aquafeles dared to hope the boss wouldn’t be able to crush.
“I’m sorry,” Ash said again. Hiccuping, of all things. “I’m okay now. I… need to think.”
He started to pace around the tiled floor. Not exactly his brightest idea, as the tiles were still fairly slick from the water Misty had splashed out, and the soles of Ash’s boots didn’t have the best traction in the world. He almost slipped and fell on his behind twice. But whatever else it did, it seemed to get his brain working. “If only there was some way…” His voice trailed off, his eyes looking at something nonexistant off in the distance. It was very uncomfortable. Jessie and James only got that sort of look on their faces when they were about to try some big, extreme idea that could only fail epically.
“You said… the ghost Pokémon in that room… they’re Banettes and Shuppets, right?”
“So why don’t they attack each other?” he asked. “Go after each other’s memories?”
Aquafeles shrugged. “I imagine those don’t appeal to ’em. They’re after humans. Or at least other Pokémon that are different enough from them.”
“Right,” Ash said with a nod, like this was exactly the answer he’d been expected. “So, what if… let’s just say… I didn’t feel human enough? If I felt more like one of their own? You think they would leave me alone then?”
Brock and Misty’s faces both whitened with horror. Brock barked out, “Ash, are you insane?” and Misty translated.
“Don’t you get what’s happened?” she went on. “We aren’t even human enough to be trainers anymore! And I’m not saying that to make you feel bad, I’m saying it to remind what you’ve got to lose. You’re supposed to be the one who can take down Team Rocket. Officially. From the inside. What good does it do anyone if you let Giovanni turn you into some ghost Pokémon under his command?”
“He won’t do it, anyway,” Meowth said. “Giovanni doesn’t want another human-Pokémon hybrid in a Master Ball on his belt. He wants a loyal heir, someone he can count on to continue his legacy long after he’s gone.” He gave his paw a lick, then recoiled a bit at the presence of scaled skin rather than soft fur. Old habits died hard. “Besides, even if he was willing to give you a lighter merger… something that left you more human than Pokémon, don’t you think he’d have the sense to see through this little plot of yours? I promise you, there won’t be any Banettite in your list of options.”
Ash hung his head. Aquafeles really wanted to believe this would be the end of the conversation. But he wanted to believe a lot of things. He wanted to believe he could somehow be a normal-type Pokémon again. He wanted to believe the boss really did care about him, against all evidence to the contrary. Wishing a thing didn’t make the thing real. And Aquafeles had an uneasy feeling that with this new, borderline suicidal idea in Ash’s brain, there was no possible way the kid would let it go.
“Come on,” he finally said. “We better get out of here before someone sees us all together.”
Ash nodded and started in the direction of the door, but the thoughtful look on his face refused to leave, no matter what anyone said.