Giovanni strode purposefully out of the elevator onto the medical floor and right up to the nurses’ station.
“Status report,” he barked. Behind the counter the Team Rocket doctor–he never did bother to learn the guy’s name–nearly leapt out of his chair. Giovanni watched with growing impatience as the man fumbled for a clipboard and began paging through notes.
“Well, things were touch and go there for a moment… probably due to her previous medical condition. But you’ll be glad to know Agent Fiora is stabilized and resting comfortably.”
Giovanni massaged his temple. This is what he got for recruiting medical-school dropouts. He began again, this time adding edge to his voice. “Was the merger successful?”
The doctor hastily flipped through more pages. “Oh. Yes, sir. Her DNA stabilized at around forty percent infusion…”
Forty percent! That was double the original estimate. Giovanni felt a grin tug at his lips. “I’d like to see her.”
The head tech stepped forward then. She actually had the nerve to try to block Giovanni’s path. As if that would stop him. “I’m sorry, sir. But we’re still performing a few coronation tests. Perhaps tomorrow…” An eyebrow twitch was all it took to change her tune. She cringed like a frightened baby Pokémon, stammering, “That is, I mean… of course, sir. Right this way.”
He followed behind her, Persian pacing at his heels, into the heart of the medical wing. The place was bustling today. He hadn’t seen this much activity since Jessie and James came back to Kanto. (How those two kept getting on the wrong end of explosions was still beyond him.)
When they arrived at the testing area, he almost collided with Agent Pierce, who was hurrying inside with a plate of sandwiches Giovanni was pretty sure weren’t hospital regulation. Pierce almost dropped them on the floor in his haste to stand at attention. “Mr. Giovanni, boss. Sir. We weren’t expecting you so soon.”
“Is there a problem?”
“No, sir.” Pierce frowned. Almost imperceptibly. But he wasn’t stupid enough to open his mouth and argue. Instead he just moved aside like a good peon and let Giovanni open the door.
Agent Fiora was in fine spirits. Her cheery voice rang out before he had even finished turning the doorknob. “Hey, boss!”
Giovanni stepped inside, his eyes taking in the modified exercise equipment alongside the computer stations before finally settling on the teenager in blue cotton medical scrubs. To say he almost didn’t recognize her was an understatement. The last time he had seen her, Fiora was sickly thin. She could hardly stand on her own, let alone run. The girl he saw now had a healthy layer of lean muscle on her bones. And she was sprinting on a wide treadmill alongside Pierce’s Absol, matching the Pokémon speed for speed. When she saw him walk in the door, she grinned manically. Then, to the shock of the medical staff, she vaulted herself up and over the front of the machine, flipping gracefully before landing before them. “Come to see how your little experiment went?” She smiled at him through sheen of sweat. Absol bounded off the treadmill and came to join her, sitting as calmly by her side as Persian did for him. Seeing the two side by side, Giovanni could see hints of the Pokémon in her. Fiora’s hair had changed, the left fall of her bangs now as white as Absol’s fur. Her complexion had paled at least three shades lighter. And her eyes, once blue, were now a deep blood red.
“Very perceptive, agent,” said Giovanni. “How did you know it was me?”
The girl shrugged as she accepted a towel from agent Pierce and dried off her face. “I had a hunch. Plus the splice job really amped up my senses. You, uh, might want to ease up on the cologne.” She waved a hand lightly in front of her face, and Giovanni startled when he saw black, hooked, Absol claws on each of her fingers. Now that is interesting.
Her smile widened when she caught him looking. “Oh, yeah. Did I forget to mention I have claws now?” She flexed one hand, then, strolling closer, raked her talons along the steel-plate wall with an ear-piercing screeeeech leaving five long grooves. There were at least a dozen other marks there. The words “Fiora was here” and “Team Rocket Forever” were etched playfully with shallow cuts. But further down, the marks grew cleaner and deeper. Was that… a slash attack?
“The doctors aren’t going to be happy if you keep marking up the walls,” Pierce spoke up, taking the towel from her.
She blew on her newly sharpened claws. “So let them try and stop me.”
Pierce rolled his eyes and presented her with the plate of homemade tamato-berry and egg sandwiches. She helped herself to one and tore off a huge bite.
“Per-rumm,” said Persian, its nose twitching. It rubbed against Fiora’s leg without invitation and was rewarded with a corner of sandwich and an affectionate scratch under the chin from Fiora’s claws.
“Ab-sol-sol,” answered Fiora.
Heightened senses. The ability to speak to Pokémon. Either one on its own was going to revolutionize the human race. But claws! Actual Pokémon claws that did actual Pokémon attacks! He stared at the marks on the wall. This went beyond anything he had ever imagined. And Agent Fiora was only forty percent Pokémon. What if someone was merged further than that? Much further. Until they were more Pokémon than human.
His thoughts raced. He wanted to test this. Now. But he knew none of the grunts would have the spine. Half his lackies couldn’t even handle their own Pokémon as it was. They probably wouldn’t know what to do with that kind of power. What he needed was a subject with actual skill. Someone like…
Nearby, Agent Fiora popped the last bite of her sandwich in her mouth. “Mmm… oo that’s spicy. So seriously, boss. When can I get back to work?”
“How about now?”
“Great.” Fiora took another sandwich from the plate as she looked over at her colleague. “Pierce, can you please go tell a certain pain-in-the-butt nurse I’m leaving whether she likes it or not because the boss himself is releasing me?” She smiled sweetly with every word.
A small sweat drop formed on Pierce’s forehead. “Sure. I’ll go tell her… some of that.” He left the room, Absol at his heels. She wolfed down the second sandwich in a few big bites then bowed thanks to him.
He cleared his throat just as she was about to turn towards the door. “Actually, Agent, I have a new assignment for you. It’s regarding my fellow gym leaders.”
“Hmm?” She swallowed. “The ones you forced here against their will but didn’t technically kidnap?”Her mouth twisted in a sly smile and she wiped it with a gowned sleeve. “Pretty gutsy move there, boss. You’ll lose your gym once that little rumor gets to the Elite Four.”
He snorted. “Which is why I want you to convince them to stay on here. As mergers. You can start with Misty.”
Her eyebrows lifted. Her head tilting just so, like she was trying to see into him. It was a little unnerving actually with those red eyes. “Well, I guess I am sort of the poster child for ‘merging is awesome.'” She drummed her claws on the wall like she was trying to think. “Granted, it’s been a while since my aspiring-young-trainer-days… but if I recall, the Cerulean sisters are all obsessed with water Pokémon, and the youngest is notoriously obsessed with proving herself. That sound accurate?”
A smile slowly formed on Fiora’s lips. “You know, there is that Meowth hybrid I’ve been working with. If you call Misty to the pool area under the pretense on getting her expert advice in water Pokémon training…”
“You can head there now.”
“Yes, sir.” She took two paces then turned about. “Oh, boss, one more thing. While we’re on the topic of hybrids. I’d like to begin drawing up plans to expand the kennel and build a socialization area for the hybrids.”
He blinked. Was he hearing things or did she just presume to start a project without his permission to his face? “Your mission is top priority, agent,” he said, glaring at her with the full weight of his authority.
The girl bowed, but her voice was smooth and un-intimidated. “Yes, of course, sir. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. But… well… I was also under the impression you wanted to actually battle with the hybrids someday, not just look at them. You won’t be able to do that until they’re tamed. And that won’t happen if they don’t get any interaction outside their cages.”
She actually made a fair point, as much as he hated to admit it. He might even have praised her for taking imitative if she hadn’t spoken out of turn. “Very well,” he said carefully, eying her like a wild Pokémon he didn’t quite trust. “I’ll make the arrangements.” He gestured to the door with a nod. “Now get to work.”
Fiora bowed again, then was out the door in the blink of an eye.
Giovanni stared after her. No doubt about it. He was going to have to keep that one on a short leash. Just until he knew her loyalty hadn’t been scrambled along with her DNA.
When Misty pictured the kind of place Team Rocket would hold their captive Pokémon, she always imagined stacks of cold metal cages. Or, in the case of the water types, cramped little aquariums stacked in rows in some badly lit room. She did not imagine Team Rocket would actually have a pool for their water types. Or that said pool room would be… not half bad. Though it lacked the fountains and waterfalls and other frills of her and her sisters’ gym, the tiled floor was clean with plenty of basking places. There were buckets of toys and floaties for playful Pokémon entertainment. And the pool itself was clear and clean.
Kneeling near the edge, Misty experimentally dipped her fingers in the water. The temperature was ideal for ocean-based Pokémon and when she brought her fingers near her lips, she could taste the salt. She wasn’t sure exactly why Team Rocket’s grunts had brought her here–the most any of them had said was that their head caretaker needed her assistance in something. And while she was glad to know that wasn’t some code phrase for attempting to drown her in the pool, she was curious as to what made them think she’d voluntarily help them with… well, anything.
“Come on now. Don’t be shy,” a voice somewhere behind her said. Misty turned around. She saw a figure entering the pool area–a young woman with wild dark hair and a familiar face. Yes, it was the Rocket who’d taken their Pokémon when they’d been brought in here. Misty’s fists tightened. As angry as she was, though, something put her off guard. The Rocket’s gait had changed. Before, she walked delicately, like every step was painful, and her body had looked so thin and frail. Now, however, her steps were strong and confident, and when she turned her head, Misty saw a chunk of her dark hair had gone stark white. A Pokémon walked behind her, hiding itself as if trying to melt into her shadow, though Misty recognized its familiar tail. A Vaporeon.
“Yo,” said the rocket once she and Misty stood only a few yards from each other.
Misty didn’t reply.
“You can relax. I won’t bite,” the young woman said with a grin. “The name’s Fiora. You might have heard it when you were first brought in here if you weren’t so occupied with your random thrashing around and incoherent yelling.” She waved her hand dismissively, and Misty startled. The hand didn’t have normal fingers but claws.
“What–” the question slipped out too quickly for her to stop it. Something in the Rocket’s red eyes glinted.
“Admiring these, are you?” Fiora asked, holding them a bit higher and letting the bright lights above to pool reflect off them. “Yes, they’re rather nice, I agree.”
“How–” Misty finally found her voice, only to clamp her mouth shut again.
“It’s Team Rocket’s latest innovation. The ability to combine human DNA with Pokémon DNA, creating an entirely new creature.” She lowered her hand, and her smug smile faded a bit. “Of course, it took a huge amount of experimenting to get these results. We have several hybrid Pokémon here at the facility that came into existence during research trials. As head caretaker, I’m charged with caring for those Pokémon, and that’s where I need your help.”
She took a sudden step to the side, leaving the Vaporeon behind her nowhere else to hide itself. Only… it wasn’t a Vaporeon. The creature had the facial features of a Meowth.
“Hey!” the Pokémon snapped at Fiora. “Warn me when you’re gonna do that!”
Misty gasped. She’d noticed Meowth was missing from Team Rocket’s usual trio before, but she never had given much thought as to why. Was this the reason? Because Giovanni had used his own Pokémon in some twisted hybrid experiments?
“Meowth? Is… is that you?” she stammered. The hybrid shrank away like her question had caused him physical pain. Misty turned a furious glare on Fiora. “How could you let this happen?” The shock and disgust in her voice actually made Fiora grimace.
“Hey now, don’t go blaming me for this,” she said with a very real edge in her voice. “I’m as angry as you are. No Pokémon should be changed against its will. The experiments should have been conducted on willing subjects.” She placed her clawed hand on her chest. “However, I don’t get to make those calls, and what’s done is done. Now it’s my job to see this Pokémon gets properly acclimated to its new form. And considering you’re a water Pokémon expert, and I can’t even swim, well, you see the problem here…”
Misty didn’t take her eyes off Fiora, but she could feel some of the anger in her muscles drifting away. Had she somehow come here against her will, like Misty had, and was now trying to make the best of the situation? Or maybe she had come specifically for this merger technology she was talking about? “You seem much… healthier than when we first got here,” Misty observed, choosing her words carefully and finally relaxing her fists.
“I am,” Fiora said. “And I have Absol’s DNA to thank for that. But we’re straying off-topic.” She nudged the Meowth hybrid with the tip of her foot, trying and failing to inch him closer to the pool. “I asked you here to help this Pokémon realize his new potential and stop feeling sorry for himself. But if you don’t think you can handle it, I’ll have the guards escort you back to your cell. I’m sure we’ll manage.” She pointed to the hybrid, then to the pool. “Come on then, in you go.”
“If you think I’m getting in there, you’ve got another thing coming!” the hybrid hissed. “I. Hate. Water. Period.” It ran over towards Misty and hid behind her (which technically put it closer to the water, not farther away, but she decided not to point that out.)
Fiora rolled her eyes. “Sorry, pal, but you’re a water type now. And who ever heard of a water type who can’t swim?”
Misty sat down on the smooth tiles, inching forward to dangle her feet into the water. The coolness settled into her skin until she barely felt it at all, and she let out a long sigh. Maybe Team Rocket had done some terrible things, not the least of which was keeping Misty herself here against her will. But as long as she was here, maybe she could do some good. At least for some Pokémon who had also suffered at Team Rocket’s hands. “She has a point,” she finally said to Meowth. “Your body is made for it. Your tail, your fins, even your skin…” She gently stroked the hybrid’s blue-scaled skin, right behind the ear where a normal Meowth would have adored it.
The hybrid shook its head and pulled away. “I don’t care! I ain’t going in there, and you can’t make me!”
Fiora blew a strand of hair out of her face, moving off to unroll a floaty platform and push it into the pool.
Misty thoughtfully put a finger to her chin and changed her tactics. “Well, I’ll tell you one thing. If I had skin like that, I don’t think you’d ever find me out of the water.”
Fiora lifted an eyebrow and a hint of a smirk cured her mouth as she remarked, “My, my. Is that a touch of envy I hear?”
Misty shot her an angry glare that she hoped properly summarized how much she was talking to Meowth and how little she cared what Fiora thought about the matter.
Fiora seemed to take no offense. She even offered a hasty bow as she continued about her work, going to one of the toy bins and tossing various floats into the pool. “Sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it.” She tilted her head slightly. “But you know… If you were open to helping out with some of our research here, you could do a lot of good.”
Misty was no idiot; she went instantly on the defensive. “Oh, really? And what exactly is your idea of ‘helping out’?”
The last of the toys landed with a sploosh, sending the Meowth hybrid scampering back a few paces to avoid the spray. He looked annoyingly at Fiora as she wiped her clawed hands on her skirt.
“Getting a merger yourself,” she said at last in an isn’t-it-so-obvious sort of tone. Misty had to admit; she was a little taken back by the bluntness. Fiora, it seemed, took a much different approach to things than Giovanni did.
“I know, I know,” Fiora went on, as if the whole situation amused her. “I’m biased here. This procedure did save my life, after all. But there are other benefits, too.”
Misty eyed her clawed hands skeptically. “Like what?”
“Like being able to speak Pokémon language.”
Misty blinked. “Really?”
“Really. Of course, it’s impossible to know what the exact effects of a merger will be. But if you were to merge with, say, a water Pokémon… no other water Pokémon trainer in the world would have the connection with them that you would.”
Misty had to admit, that idea did appeal to her. But she wasn’t going to let Fiora know that.
“Think about it,” Fiora went on. “You could make history. Not just among your fellow gym leaders, but for all of Pokémon research. Plus, you have the benefit that this procedure has already been well-tested.”
Misty shook her head, it was to much to take in right now. “We should get back to work,” she said. She turned to the Meowth hybrid who was just now tiptoeing back over, careful to avoid every stray splash on the tiles.
“Okay, we don’t have to go in the pool right away if you don’t want to. Let’s try something else first.”
Meowth looked at her skeptically. “Like what?”
“Well, um…” Misty realized she didn’t actually have any ideas for how to train a water Pokémon out of water, but then it hit her. “I know! Why don’t you think of a name for yourself? For your new species?”
“Nice idea,” Fiora agreed. “A new name for a new you.” She scratched her chin with a claw, muttering, “It’s a really good thought, actually.”
Meowth looked a little less defensive at this. “A new name… and you want me to pick it?”
“Well, of course.”
Meowth looked thoughtful for a while. Several times he looked like he was about to speak, only to shake his head and go back to thoughtfully rubbing his chin. Finally, he piped up, “I’ve got it. Aquafeles.”
Misty let the name sit in her mind for a moment. “Aqua… wait, did you just use the Latin words for ‘water cat’?”
“Yeah,” said Meowth… Aquafeles, rather, looking proud at first, then suddenly embarrassed. “It’s… it’s okay, isn’t it?”
Misty smiled and stroked the Pokémon’s back. “It’s perfect.”