Plumeria sucked at being pregnant. That was Guzma’s thought, anyway. Oh, she did great at carrying the baby around and eating healthy and all that garbage. Guzma hadn’t had a Tapu Cocoa milkshake in six months. He’d been thinking of sending the grunts to smuggle one in.
But the part where pregnant ladies were supposed to take it easy or whatever? Nope, not for his Plum. She was all over the place, and the closer her due date came, the more active she got. Today was no different.
“Plum, what are you doing with—lemme carry the mini-fridge, yo!”
She sat the fridge down, then tried to get her foot up to lean on her knee and look intimidating. That failed and she settled for sitting on the fridge and crossing her arms. “Back off, Guzma. I said I got this.”
“Yeah, I know. You got everything. You’re amazing. Awesome. Now where’re you puttin’ this thing?” He pointed to the fridge she was sitting on. She didn’t move.
“A spot. Back. Off.”
“I’ll back off when you tell me what spot so I can put it there!”
“I don’t need you to carry crap!”
“It ain’t crap! It’s a mini-fridge!”
In the end, it was Guzma who won the mini-fridge debate but not for Plumeria’s lack of effort. Rapp had come up behind them, muttering about missing sweets from her super-secret stash and wanting to get to her room on the opposite end of the hallway, and their little standoff was blocking any and all foot traffic. Plumeria relented, promising Guzma he’d get his on another day, and he victoriously carried the mini-fridge to their bedroom. So they didn’t have to go two doors down where the fridge used to be to fetch the baby’s food, Plum explained. Guzma didn’t bother to argue with her but instead just plopped the thing down.
Plumeria leaned against the wall, still grumbling as she fingered the two necklaces she wore, intertwining one with the other. She still refused to quit wearing her Team Skull necklace. But three months ago, Guzma had gotten her a little something else. After a long excursion to Kanto, he’d come home with a brand-new Pokémon–a Bulbasaur leftover at a lab when no one picked it for their starter–and a small key stone on a silvery chain. He knew nothing about mega evolution, but if was anything like Z-moves, it had to be wicked powerful. Maybe even better than z-moves, since only certain Pokémon could do it. The Bulbasaur had since evolved into an Ivysaur, and she and Plum had become fast friends.
But when Plum told Guzma the Pokémon needed its own special stone, too, he felt pretty dumb. She’d called him cute and kept the necklace anyway. He loved when she called him cute in private. He wanted to bash his head against a wall when she did in front of their crew. And she always did it in front of their crew.
“You know,” she said as Guzma stood up from his work. “It’s the mega stones they use to do mergers. With as popular as those are getting, you might have a tough time finding them.”
Guzma gave a non-committal reply. He’d been around Alola and heard all the people chattering about this new tech from Kanto. How amazing it was to have Pokémon abilities, and how very safe the whole process was. Of course, they were talking about changing five, maybe ten, percent of their DNA at best. He wondered what all those idiots would think if they saw Sabrina. Or knew about how she had to be captured in a Master Ball by her distant cousin Gladion, just so she could be sure Giovanni wouldn’t be able to control her.
Even then, Gladion knew keeping a hold on her wouldn’t be easy. That was why he’d come to Guzma for a little extra insurance. A place for Sabrina to stay, of course. But also a trade. Team Rocket would find Gladion sooner or later. Better he didn’t have anything (or anyone) valuable he could give them.
Not that any of this affected the here and now. Guzma plugged the mini-fridge into the nearest outlet and turned to face Plumeria, who was stroking the top of her belly.
“We’ve still gotta find who’s temporarily replacing me,” she said.
He nodded. She was always careful to add the word “temporarily” when her replacement came up in conversation. Forgetting to add it was a big no-no.
“I like my idea the best,” Guzma said, grinning and punching his open palm. “See, we get all the grunts in a big arena, and they all take out one Pokémon, and then everyone starts attacking each other like crazed Beedrills until only one pair is left standing!”
Plumeria raised an eyebrow. “That is literally the dumbest layout for a competition I have ever heard.”
Guzma shrugged. “Worked for the Alola League,” he muttered.
“And it sounded dumb then, too. The finalists were all a bunch of cowards who banded together and decided they wouldn’t attack each other from the start or they hid in the corners and didn’t engage anyone. I ain’t having a loser who thinks those are good strategies take over for me.”
Guzma couldn’t argue her point there. If it came to just picking someone, he actually would have gone with Tupp. The guy was smart and cunning. Most times. Minus the times he grossly miscalculated what he was capable of. But he was ruthlessly determined, and Guzma liked that.
Plumeria preferred Zipp. Said he was more compassionate–would think about the welfare of the crew and not just building his own stupid ego. But could he handle it? Would he be the beacon of strength and pure awesomeness the others could all look up to? Guzma had his doubts.
“I like this idea of a competition,” Plumeria said, patting the fridge as it whirred and hummed in an attempt to cool itself back down. “But let’s do it the right way, y’know? One-on-one battles, maybe two-on-two, make everyone show their stuff on their own. No letting them hide behind others.”
Guzma had to admit, as much as he liked the idea of everyone attacking in a mad, adrenaline-filled frenzy, Plumeria’s idea made a lot more sense. And since she was the one who’d be in post-baby recovery, and she was the one who most needed a replacement, it seemed only right she got final call on how that replacement got picked.
It was time for a little Team Skull team meeting.
Fi breathed a long sigh as the Alolan sun’s rays crept into her tent. She’d been awake for hours already, woken by one of those unnerving, tingly, headaches she got when something bad was going to happen. It wasn’t a strong one this time. She hadn’t had any truly nightmarish headaches for a while. But she had gotten a few…uneasy feelings since she and Pierce had arrived and set up camp. She’d be a fool to pass it off as nothing, but at the same time, until she had more info, there wasn’t a whole lot she could do except stay on alert.
Next to her but pointed in the opposite direction, Pierce lay bundled up like a maki roll, oblivious to her fidiging and everything else around him. Seriously? How he managed to sleep so soundly these days never failed to amaze her. His soft but rhythmic snores paused only once, when the sunlight reached his eyelids. Then, with a muffled grumble, he moved to bury his face deeper into his pillow.
Fi knew she should try and get back to sleep too. She’d need to be at her best if she was going to make an appearance at the Shady House and finish her little chat with Guzma. Assuming he still remembered her proposition. Or that she even existed. How long had it been since New Years? It felt like ages. She watched the light stretch across the ceiling, recounting the weeks in her head.
Four months…that’s how it’s been since I’ve been back here.It boggled her mind to think about. Four months of scrounging for food and desperately trying to stay hidden. Of packing up and hauling out at the slightest sign of unwonted attention. Four months of trying so hard to keep the hybrids healthy and happy… A pang of guilt tightened the back of her throat. Yet another reason she couldn’t sleep through the night. She still saw their faces. The ones that didn’t make it. Though she and Pierce had done everything they could. The experiments had left so many of them too damaged…
Fi swallowed hard. Craving comfort, she reached for her satchel, propped by her pillow, and cracked it open. Inside, nestled in incubator blankets, was the newest addition to her family. The zig-zagged purple egg had come all the way from Galar. Against her better judgment, in fact. Between their Pokémon partners and the hybrids she and Pierce already had quite a few mouths to feed. But last week when she discovered the egg not only abandoned, but with a large crack down the center, she had to step in. For the little one’s sake. Not that Fi didn’t trust Nursery workers per se, but considering they didn’t even know where Pokémon eggs came from…
She slipped her hand in and laid her palm across the puckered shell, sealed by Pierce’s steady hands at her careful instructions. She smiled when she got a little shake in response. Not long now. Fi tenderly tucked the egg back into its nest of blankets. Her heart felt lighter again. Knowing she’d managed to save this little one. It reminded her too of all the other Pokémon she and Pierce had released along the way here. All the former team rocket hench-mon, now free to live as they chose.
Giovanni would be so pissed once he found out she’d let all his hard-stolen Pokémon go. And he’d be even more pissed once she got the hybrids fighting against him. But she was gettgng ahead of herself. To face Giovanni she still needed her army of loyal minions. And currently, said army was still in the hands of Guzma and his preggo girlfriend.
It was time she fixed that.
She rose silently, stepping feather-soft around Pierce’s sleeping bag to the various crates containing their collection of clothes and other borrowed-without-asking living essentials. To blend in at the ports (and not drop over from heatstroke) she’d adopted a more Alolan style: lightweight cargo shorts held up with her cross-belts, a sleeveless Pokémon league muscle-top, and strappy sandles for when she couldn’t just stroll around barefoot. But today? No. Casual islandar clothes wouldn’t do. If she was going to be emanating confidence to Guzma and his crew she needed look the like a badass. Not a tourist.
She pulled on dark jeans and studded crossbelts. Next, a cold-shoulder, fitted black crop-top. And finally, steel-toed boots and finger-less gloves. With Pierce still snoring away she used the chance to further experiment in front of his computer camera. A bit of eyeliner to make her stare more intimidating. Some burgundy lipstick and a hint of blush to add some color to her overly-pale complexion. She straightened the tangles from unruly black and white hair. Lastly, and most importantly, was a long overdue manicure for her claws. In case things did come to blows. She took great care buffing each nail flawless then filing them to to a razors edge.
By the time she’d finished preening and gathered up her satchel, the morning sun was glaring down with a vengeance. Two steps out of the tent and she was sweating profusely. Her badass boots immediately filled up with sand. And the sun wasn’t doing her pale skin any favors no matter what accents she tried to add. Frankly, she felt as ridiculous and out of place as Totodile at a Sandile convention. But how she felt didn’t matter. The goal of “look fierce” had been achieved.
She called Raven down from her lookout perch nearby ignoring the Pokémon’s quizzical look.
“Keep the little one safe,” she said, slipping the satchel around Raven’s neck and giving her a chin scratch. “I’ll be back before dark.”
Fi took off at a sprint, flinging up sand as she went.
She’d sent Phantom to spy on Team Skull’s hideout yesterday.
As a dark type, he appreciated the constant cloud cover of Po town, especially on days like today. With any luck he’d actually paid attention in addition to goofing off and causing mischief.
Phantom met her in a shaded ally one block down from the Shady House, looking rather pleased with himself. Apparently, aside from spying, he’d also taken it upon himself to make off with all of Team Skull’s junk food. He plucked a box of cheap malasadas from the sizable pile of discount eats and snacks and offered her the spicy one.
Fi smiled as she popped it into her mouth.
“And Guzma? What’s he up to? Please tell me you paid attention?”
“Wee wevile we.” replied Phantom, flashing her a snarky, snagletooth smile.
Seemed Guzma had his whole crew gathered out front and he was currently “walking back and forth, gesturing wildly as he gave some kind of speech or pep talk.”
“Well, then. That sounds the perfect invitation to me.”
“Okay,” Guzma began, arms crossed as he flashed everyone his signature troublemaker grin. “Lemme be clear, this ain’t gonna be easy. You lot think you’ve got what it takes to sub in for me and Plum? You’re gonna have to fight and fight hard.”
Plumeria coughed behind him. Right. They had a script. He just wasn’t great at using it.
“And smart. Hard and smart. With leadership skills and stuff. Can’t have just anyone stepping in for us. We’re looking for some top leadership skills.”
The grunts all nodded at his wise insight and tough approach. He soaked in their mutterings of approval. Then an annoyingly familiar voice echoed above the crowd.
“Oh, was that all you were looking for? Well, you could have fooled me.” A pair of figures darted from the shadows, one Pokémon, one human, though they moved faster than should have been possible. Both landed in the middle of the group.
Even though it had been a few months, Guzma recognized the woman instantly. That Absol hybrid from Team Rocket. The one who thought she could just buy his team’s loyalty. The second figure, a Weavile, sprang up and clung to her shoulder. When he caught Guzma’s eye he winked and stuck out his tongue which was stained blue.
Well guess that solved the mystery of where Rapp’s stash of Coba berry taffy had gone. Along with all the other goodies in the house. But he’d deal with that little punk later.
“What are you doing here?” Guzma growled at the woman.
“Fiora, was it?” Plumeria asked.
Absol Lady made a face. “Technically that is the name on my birth certificate.” She cleared her throat. “I’m here to conclude our unfinished business. Now that you’ve had plenty of time to consider my proposal I’ve come for an answer.”
“What proposal?” Zipp asked. Not good. The last thing he needed was his crew thinking he’d struck some deal behind their backs.
“A junk one,” Guzma answered before turning to Absol Lady or Fiora or whatever her name was. “You got your answer back then, and it ain’t changed now. Don’t you have anywhere else to be?”
She crossed her arms. “Not particularly. Kinda lost my job when after I blew up my old place of employment.”
“Aw, man, I hate when that happens!” Tupp said. Several other grunts nodded in sympathy.
Guzma knew exactly where her ‘old place of employment’ was, and she wasn’t saying it aloud. Why? “Very well,” she went on. “If you won’t accept my proposal then accept my application. I’d like to join Team Skull. And since you’re officially looking for a replacement leader, I’m throwing my name in.”
“And I’m throwin’ it out,” Guzma snapped back. “Get lost.”
She didn’t budge except to tisk and waggle a clawed finger at him. “Why Guzma. Refusing a fellow outcast who has nowhere else to go? I thought Team Skull was better then that.”
The grunts muttered. Several looked at him. Questioning. And okay, fine, maybe she’d made one tiny point. Team Skull was a place for those that didn’t have anywhere else. But he also knew when he was being played and he didn’t like it.
“Come on.” Fiora pressed. “You and I both know whatever grunt you pick isn’t going to be able lead without you there coaching them along. And if you think you’ll have time to babysit them and your own kid, well, then you’re judgment sucks even worse then I thought.”
In an instant, Tupp went from looking sympathetic to looking for a fight. “Hey! You better stop talking to Master Guzma that way!”
“Really?” Fiora turned slowly and narrowed her eyes at him. “Or what?”
“O-or…um…” Tupp looked around for support, but the nearest half dozen grunts had all backed away from him, Zipp included. “…or we’ll beat you up!” he finally said with little confidence.
“Yeah!” Rapp and Tupp called from back in the crowd.
Fiora flashed the three of them a challenging smirk. “Show me.”
Tupp, impressively, stepped forward first. He threw a Dusk Ball forward with all his might. “Go, Grimer! Acid attack.”
His colorful Alola Grimer burst forth from the ball and put up the best Acid attack it could. Pretty fast, too. Unfortunately, Fiora was faster. She dodged it easily, leaving the acid to pool in the sand.
“Hmph. Rash. But loyal,” she said as she eyed the gunts. Then she addressed Guzma directly. “You have good taste in minions, at least.”
The word ‘minions’ really hacked him off. The grunts were his family. When no one else in Alola, including the kahuna and their stupid Tapus, cared about them, Team Skull members were there for each other. Probably a concept this Rocket brat would never get.
“Hey, back off!” he called to Rapp and Zipp before they could release their own Pokémon.
“Huh? But why, boss?” Tupp asked.
Guzma grinned. “Because I can stand up against this hybrid freak myself. I don’t need you three to do it!”
The whole group of grunts, even though most of them hadn’t reached for their Pokeballs, bowed apologetically. “Sorry, Master Guzma!”
Again with the ‘Master Guzma’ nonsense. He seriously needed to work on that. But it was a tomorrow problem. He still had a today problem, and that was beating Fiora/Absol Lady to a pulp.
“Anyway, where do you get off sayin’ my judgment su–” He paused. As he turned to the spot where Fiora used to be, she was no longer there. He frantically looked around, bracing for a sneak attack. Instead he saw her bent over the sandy part of the ground, where the puddle of acid from Tupp’s Grimer still lay. She dipped a clawed finger in, rubbed her fingers together, and shook her head before shaking the flecks of toxin off. “It’s not very potent, is it? Probably a nutritional deficiency.”
Guzma didn’t know what that meant but he hid his confusion behind a frown, unlike Tupp who just stared blankly.
“A bad diet,” she clarified.
Tupp scooped his Grimer into his arms, looking horrified at the suggestion. “My Grimer never goes hungry!”
“Maybe not. But the food you’re giving him is clearly crap.” Fiora glanced at the dilappitated surroundings and quickly added on, “Not that you can help it. What with the bandits you call shopkeepers charging three times the price for premium Pokeblock around here.”
Realizing Fiora’s comment was a personal attack on the store owners and not him, Tupp relaxed a little. Guzma wasn’t there yet. He stood defensively in front of Plumeria as Fiora walked up and patted Tupp’s Grimer on the head. “There’s an easy fix. He just needs supplements to help his venom glands develop.”
“Kaaay…” Tupp said slowly. “Where do I find those?”
Fiora glanced over at Guzma. “Well, I could show you how to make your own. If I had a reason to.”
Zipp was already stepping forward. “Will they help my Salandit, too?”
“And my Zubat?” Rapp added.
Plumeria shoved Guzma aside, watching the scene with furrowed brows. She didn’t interrupt, though. Which meant she was thinking stuff. Guzma was thinking of punching stuff. He frowned and held back, waiting for Plumeria’s cue.
“Yes,” Fiora was going on. “I believe they would help all of them.”
Plumeria stepped forward. “If you want to lead, then you’ll have to earn the opportunity like everyone else.”
Guzma stared at her in shock. He figured she was planning some clever counterattack, not plotting to compromise with this crazy hybrid lady. He stepped up so his lips brushed Plum’s ear.
“Have you lost your mind?” he said in the lowest voice he could muster. “We can’t trust that freak with our crew.”
She turned her face to press her lips against his ear now. “The crew are loyal to you, Guzma. That won’t change, no matter who we put in charge. And this ‘freak’ knows things we don’t. That know-how could be real useful. Vital, even.”
Guzma growled in irritation. He hated how right she was. Po Town still had a lot of problems, problems they didn’t have the resources to fix. None of the other well-to-dos on the island had bothered to help, that was for sure. Not the kahunas or Kukui. Guzma shouldn’t have been surprised on that last one, he supposed. When you trashed a relationship as badly as he had with Kukui, you couldn’t expect it to ever really bounce back.
He turned to the hybrid lady. “Okay, freak–” he began.
“Fi,” she corrected.
“My name. It’s Fi.”
Guzma grunted. “Okay…Fi. Get in the line with the others. The trial starts now.”
Fi had to admit, for all of Guzma’s self-important, macho guy bravado, his ability to quickly and efficiently narrow the playing field was impressive. Instead of battle, he started everyone off with a round of questions. What were their goals for the team? What kind of leader would they be? And he seemed like he really listened to each of them, even though some of the answers got really redundant after a while. Fi was the only one who pushed for change. Real change. Not just “and we would like to do a team Karaoke night” or “we want Tuesday to be the official taco night” kind of change.
Fi glanced at the sun sinking slowly towards the horizon. She and Pierce pretty much gave each other space and neither felt the need to check in with the other. Even so, if it got to sunset and she didn’t show back at the tent, he’d start to worry, and she knew it.
After the seemingly endless questionnaire, Guzma asked about a third of the grunts, along with Fi, to compete in a series of Pokémon battles. Finally, some action. Phantom perked up, eager to show off. It barely broke a sweat through most of the battles, but Zipp and Rapp proved surprisingly tough. Fi even had to jump in to cover Phantom to stop a Toxic attack from draining it too much, which shocked the grunts and made Guzma raise an eyebrow. Fi seized the opportunity to impress, declaring. “I’d never ask my Pokémon or my teammates to do anything I won’t do myself.” When she finally took Rapp down, Plumeria stepped forward, giving a slow, dramatic clap.
“Not bad, not bad,” she said as she tossed a revive to Zipp and an antidote to Fi. She pointed to Zipp. “One,” she said with no context whatsoever. Her finger moved to Rapp. “Two.” And last, to Fi. “Three. Congrats. You’ll be moving onto the final round.”
Guzma grinned when she said thing, punching his open palm with his fist. “Which means…y’all get to battle me next.”