The water hybrid didn’t last the night. Fi knew it was coming. This one had been ill even before they’d stolen him away from Giovanni. But that didn’t make losing him any easier.
Pierce had been with her when it happened, stoic as usual. Mostly Fi had dragged him along to monitor the instrument readings and fetch whatever she needed for her last ditch efforts to make the little guy comfortable. But she was glad Pierce was there in the end. Having his hand on her shoulder. Hearing his steady voice. It kept her anchored.
After they put the hybrid to rest alongside the others in the secluded little cove near their camp, Fi gathered fresh flowers for the graves while Pierce packed up the medical equipment they no longer needed in a tidy case. Together they buried that case in the furthest corner, deep down with the other crate of history they hoped to never see again.
“There was nothing more we could have done,” Pierce tried to console her on the way back. “His gills never developed properly. It’s amazing he made it this long.” He went on. Fact after fact. Excuse after excuse. Fi made herself listen. Let each word sink in and willed herself to believe it. Right up until they reached the Shady House door. “This was not your fault.”
Fi turned to look at him, her hand frozen on the handle. Pierce’s expression hadn’t changed. His jaw was set. His eyes were clear. He meant what he said.
“I know., Fi said back. Calmly. Rationally. Because technically speaking Pierce wasn’t wrong. Still, somehow, those last words left a lingering pain inside. Like Beedrill venom under her skin.
The next morning Fi braced herself in front of the bathroom mirror. Today was her first official Team Skull meeting. She couldn’t afford to show weakness.
“Remember why you’re here, Fi.” she whispered as she dabbed concealer under puffy eyes. “Get your army first. Then Giovanni will pay. For everything.”
Pierce met her at the bottom of the stairs with a steaming mug and an uneasy expression.
“Are they all here?” she asked. He nodded.
“Yes. I told Rapp to keep them under control.”
From the living room voices rose. Then something shattered.
“Sounds like we’re off to a great start.” She chugged the coffee in a few gulps, shoved the mug back at Pierce, and strolled into the chaos.
Fi had never been to school. Mommy dearest had declared she was “far too fragile” to go to an actual classroom with actual kids her age and had opted for private home lessons instead. But entering the Shady House living room, crammed to the hinges with loud, poking, paper-airplane throwing, Team Skull grunts, Fi imagined this was what a detention hall must look like.
Rapp was at the head of the group, like Pierce had said, sitting crosslegged on the edge of her desk. Fi cleared her throat right as the pink-haired grunt was about to launch a rubber band at the back of Zipp’s head.
“Oh hey,” she said cheerfully, letting the rubber band fly anyway. “I told them to settle down. But they didn’t really listen.”
Yeah. No kidding.
Fi shook her head. At Team Rocket, her minions would scramble to attention as soon as she entered the room. But these grunts weren’t the same. Frightening them into submission wouldn’t work. Not for the long term. To earn their loyalty she had to do what Guzma did. She had to connect with them on their level.
So when she spotted the strategically placed whoopie cushion on the sofa, meant for an oblivious Tupp, Fi elbowed Rapp to retrieve it and gestured to Pierce’s chair instead.
“You sure?” she asked, staring at Fi like she had suddenly sprouted wings. Fi winked at her. When Pierce re-emerged from the kitchen he was none the wiser. Fi bit her tougue as he walked to his desk and sat down…
The room went still as the farty notes echoed off the walls, petered out, then finally stopped. Pierce plucked the deflated bag from under his rump and held it up, glowering. “Seriously?”
Everyone burst out laughing.
Pierce was not amused. But he eased up when he saw Fi was hiding a real laugh behind her hand.
Yep, she owed him one for this. She’d start by not letting the icebreaker he’d lost his dignity over go to waste.
“Right then, now that I’ve got everyone’s attention,” she waited until the last of the giggles died down before directing everyone’s focus to her very professional makeshift projector screen– a Masked Royal bed sheet tacked across the wall.
“For those of you who haven’t met us yet. The prank victim in the trench coat over there is my bestie Pierce eh…Doctor Pierce. Esquire.” She gave him an appeasing smile before pointing a clawed finger at herself. “And I’m Fi. But you can call me–”
Shoot! What should they call her? Guzma would never tolerate them calling her “Boss.” Probably ever. And she refused to go by “Mistress” like her mother used to. Her eyes darted, to the grunts listening, to the projector screen, to the laser pointer in her hand. “Umm… Teacher.” Yes, that would do. A respectable title that wouldn’t bother Guzma and his fragile ego. “Now I know this whole future-change-of-leadership business has been a bit rough. I also know some of you probably still hate my guts for barging in…”A spit ball flew at her. Fi stepped aside. “But I’m hoping after this meeting you’ll see that I’m serious about the position.”
She attempted to flick on the laser pointer but couldn’t with her claws. She handed it over to Rapp without pause, pushing on before the giggles could start.
“During the trials Guzma asked what changes you most wanted to see. And I was paying attention.”
She nodded at Pierce who cued up his computer and brought up the first slide, a list titled “Team Skull’s Most Wanted Things.” Rapp got the pointer on, shining the light directly in her face. She yelped and fell off the desk gasping “Ahh, my eyes!”
Pierce assured her it was “not that kind of laser,” retrieved the instrument, and tossed it back Fi’s way.
She caught it one handed and aimed it at the top of the list.
“Number 1. And I quote ‘we want respect! Yo!’ Well guys, I guarantee no one is going to do that if you can’t even respect yourselves.”
A grunt in the back stood up. “Hey! We got plenty of respect for our own. We’re the best of the worst! Right, guys?”
Other grunts agreed, some pumping fists. Others booing and making faces at her for daring to suggest otherwise. Another spitball flew. This time Fi caught it in her fist. Her arm muscles bunched. She wanted to fling it back right in that smug grunt’s face. But then she saw Pierce silently shaking his head and she let her arm drop. No more intimidation. She let out a long breath.
“Yes, you’ve found a great replacement family. I get it. But don’t you also think they deserve better than living like Grimer? No offense, Puddles.” She smiled at Tupp’s Grimer, who “grim grimed!” pleasantly back at her. “Don’t you think it’s time we make this place a home to be proud of?”
Pierce put up the next slides and the grunts instantly shut up. The sample home he’d picked wasn’t the exact build of the Shady House but the picket-fence exterior and polished to perfection interior of furnishings had them transfixed anyway. Even Rapp, who had impressively kept herself in check the entire time, stared like an excited child receiving the biggest ice cream cone in their life.
“Can…can we really have that?” she asked. Probably louder than she meant to.
“We can. If we work as a team.”
Fi pointed to the next bullet, ‘winning more Pokémon battles because losing sucks!’ and this time the grunts hung on her every word, like Magikarp hooked on a line.
They wouldn’t rebel against her now–Fi knew from personal experience. The promise of living like actual human beings with dignity and value was more addictive than any pride these poor kids had left in them. Even Team Skull Pride.
Pierce clicked on, slide after slide, showing off the plans he and Fi had hand-crafted together. First the house renovations. Then an arena in the adjacent junkyard lot. From there, a Pokémon recreation building with streaming water features and live plants. Then a greenhouse to grow their own food. Even a cozy addition for Guzma, Plum, and the baby.
As and Fi ticked off the grunts list of “most wanted things,” their gawking escalated to excited chatting. From the kitchen doorway, Fi caught a glimpse of Guzma and Plum spying.
Guzma was pissed. Maybe because his crew were voluntarily listening to her now. Or he thought she was making false promises. Either way, he’d learn soon enough just how serious she was.
She and Pierce left the grunts to clean after the pep talk. As much as she enjoyed watching them zoom around like a swarm of Combee, vigorously throwing junk out of windows, piling the dumpster they’d rented with years of hoarded clutter, and scrubbing down every long-neglected surface in that house, it was getting late in the afternoon. Fi wanted to check in at their camp. They still needed to dismantle the tank the water hybrid had been staying in. But mostly she wanted to make sure the last three remaining ones were still coping well.
Pierce stayed by her side yet again. Even though the hybrids would attack him on sight. And he was downright useless lifting that heavy tank. He came along anyway. Like he just knew she’d need him there to help keep her head clear.
The hybrids were restless when they arrived. Fi found herself smiling even as they snarled at her through their cages. She knelt by the first one, who was giving her the stink eye from the back corner. “Feeling spunky today, I see,” Fi said as their only female hybrid lashed her flame-tipped tail. “And yes, I’m still immune to your psychic attacks. Sorry, little one.” She leaned away just enough to dodge a predictable, frustrated, Ember attack to the face.
On to the next cage. This hybrid went straight for the bars, pressing his canine muzzle up close so his lips pressed back and she could see his teeth. Even in the island heat, his breath left an icy sheen on the metal. “I know. I know. You want out.”
She wanted that too. They deserved the chance to run and explore and live like any other wild Pokémon. But she had to be careful. Unlike other wild Pokémon, these three didn’t have others of their kind to depend on out there. They only had each other. And she had to make sure that bond stayed reinforced. She couldn’t let them run unless they were all ready to go. It was impossible before, when the others were so damaged and sick. But now? These three could be strong enough to make it.
On to the last cage. The most timid of the trio. He lifted his head when she approached and looked at her with large, oval eyes. They were golden with black, slitted pupils. Like Rayqueza.
“How about it, little guy? Do you think you’re ready to go exploring?”
A blue flame sparked, too fast for Fi to react this time, and the Dragon Rage hit her square on. It felt like a punch in the gut by a flaming boulder. Fi landed hard and had to take a moment to blink spots out of her eyes. When she sat up, a trickle of blood dripped from her nose.
“Ow,” she grunted. “Well, I guess that answers that question.” She wiped her nose with her hand, leaving a smear of blood down her forearm. “Though you didn’t need to be so rude about it.”
“Are you okay?” Pierce called, safe out of range, as per her instructions.
“I’m letting them out,” she answered.
“That’s great!” he called back, with an added “be careful!”
Thankfully, the hybrids’ pent up frustration was forgotten the instant the cage doors clicked open.
“Come back when you get hungry!” Fi called after them as they raced off. This part of the island wasn’t exactly brimming with berry trees. And she doubted the trio would go very far the first few weeks.
She stretched, stiff and sore. At least her nose had stopped bleeding.
Pierce came to her side with a rag and a potion. “It was nice. To see them happy.”
“As happy as can be expected, anyway.”
Pierce frowned at her. “Don’t do that to yourself, Fi. You kept them sane in that lab. Then you got them out. And now they’re free thanks to you.”
Fi dabbed her nose. “I know. You’re right,” she said and tried to mean it. “I’m going to get cleaned up. Then I’ll help you with the tank.”
She strolled to the water and crouched in the lapping waves to scrub the dried blood from her arm. What had they done, really? Help give three mutated Pokémon back their lives that they only didn’t have because Team Rocket messed them up in the first place? She cupped cold water onto her face next and winced when the salt made her eyes water. No matter how Pierce spun it, this was a bittersweet victory. That was all.
She blinked her eyes clear and was about to head back to camp when she spotted a figure out of the corner of her eye. What was that? A random dude napping on the beach?
“Tourists,” Fi sighed, tempted to leave the knucklehead lying in the sand. But, no. Better to get him back to civilization before he spotted the hybrids. She walked closer. “Hey? Fella? You okay?” She nudged him with her foot, but he didn’t respond. This guy had really taken a tumble. Fi groaned and knelt down to hoist him up, only to pause when she got a closer look.
His face was still buried in the sand, as was the lower half of his body. But the wide spikes of blue-black hair on the sides of his head looked so familiar. It couldn’t be…
Fi turned the man over onto his back and gasped when she saw his face. He was older now, much more world-worn, but she’d still recognize him anywhere.
“Grims?” How did he even get here? It didn’t matter. He was here now and clearly needed help. Fi linked her arms under his and dragged him effortlessly from the wet sand and water. Only when his body fully emerged did she she it: his legs had merged into a tail with dark blue, Sharpedo-like skin and a Carvanha tail fin.
“What the-!” Fi yelped, which of course, brought Pierce running.
“What happened?” he called out when Fi frantically signaled him over.
“Bring potions! And antidote! And don’t clean up the tank just yet!”
Whatever mess Grimsley had thrown himself into this time, he wasn’t getting out of it on his own. Fi shook her head and hauled him up over her shoulder. “You have a lot of explaining to do when you’re conscious,” she told him.