Fiora had been tempted to stay when Misty almost coaxed Aquafeles into the pool. A protective instinct, maybe. The little Pokémon was still her charge. But Misty was a water Pokémon expert and a gym leader, and Fiora was fairly confident she wouldn’t hurt the little creature, no matter what her feelings of Team Rocket were. Besides, Fiora had other charges that needed her attention, too.
Her staff were just finishing up the afternoon meals when she arrived in the kennel and she was glad to see a majority of her Pokémon friends munching contently. She was lucky, really. Aside from the hybrids, whose erratic behavior was excusable for obvious reasons, she only had a few “problem” charges.
She greeted Raven first and frowned to see the overturned water and strewn food in the Noibat’s cage. “Well, somebody’s been naughty, haven’t they?”
Huddled in a corner, the little creature perked her ears then let out a joyous “Noi!” when she noticed Fiora outside her cage.
Fiora opened the door, unable to resist a smile when the little Pokémon clambered to her shoulder, burying her face into Fiora’s neck. She knew she shouldn’t encourage the behavior. Not if Raven was ever going to learn to respond to other Team Rocket members’ commands. But Fiora had gotten a soft spot for the little Noibat ever since Pierce had stumbled upon her abandoned egg and brought it back for Fiora to look after.
“Shall we go check on the others?” she asked, to which Raven clung tighter with its baby claws. Moving further into the kennel, she paused at several cages just inside Iso, where the kid Ash’s, along with Misty and Brock’s Pokémon were now resting.
She knelt by one cage and reached her hand in. “Hello, everyone. How are we feeling today?”
To her satisfaction, she was greeted with a chorus of cheerful Pokémon sounds. One of the Pokémon, a bold little Snivy, even came over to nuzzle Fiora’s hand. None of them seemed to be suffering any ill effects of the release and re-capture. A few more days and they would all be ready to join general population and be used for missions by her fellow Rockets. All perhaps except the Pika-Raichu. Her eyes lingered a moment on the new hybrid’s cage, her heart aching for the poor creature who was huddled down and facing away. He wasn’t going to last at this rate. She should really return him to his trainer. Even if the boss did expect all captured Pokémon to be integrated into the organization, Pika-Raichu was no longer an ordinary Pokémon. Hybrids were not a part of the main population yet. Nor were they being used in battles. In fact, she was the only one authorized to work hands on with them. Fiora scratched her chin with one claw. If she decided this hybrid was better off with its trainer, well, that was her call to make now, wasn’t it?
Yes. She knelt by the Pika-Raichu’s cage, making soft clicking noises with her tongue as she unlatched the door. “Absol-ab–” she began, relieved that the Pokémon would understand her words this time. “Come with me, and we’ll get you to your trainer.”
“Pi?” the hybrid’s ear twitched and he looked at her. “Pika?”
Fiora cocked her head at the question. “To stay?” Had someone been snooping around when they shouldn’t? Again? Not Diva and Dunce, at least. Still, that wasn’t the point.
First order of business when I get back. Change all the pass codes and locks. “Yes,” she said. “To stay this time.”
Fiora did her best not to frown as she knocked on the kid Ash’s door. Since when did new recruits get their own suite? She had to work for a year and completely re-design the kennel before the boss even considered giving her her own private rooms.
No matter, she told herself, reaching up to scratch Raven under the chin. The boss just had parent-fever at the moment. Her father, the professor, had suffered from it, too for a few months back in the day. Once Giovanni realized his precious offspring wasn’t the vessel for all his hopes and dreams, the novelty would wear off. If Ash didn’t bolt in the middle of the night after a few weeks, he’d be filed away with all the rest of the nameless peons for sure.
At last the door opened, and Ash stood before her looking drawn and drained. For a moment, one brief moment, she almost felt pity for him. Ash might not have been in the dungeon like his pals, but he still had the look of a prisoner.
“I’ve come to deliver your Pokémon back to you,” she said.
When Ash’s eyes fell on the hybrid at her side, his face instantly lit. “Pikachu!” he cried, holding open his arms.
“Pika-pi!” answered his friend as he jumped into Ash’s arms and nuzzled his face.
Fiora stepped back, relieved to see Pika-Raichu happy and full of energy again. After a long moment, Ash looked bacl to her, his happy smile fading just a bit. “Where are the others?”
“They’re still in isolation along with those of your friends Brock and Misty. Though only until they’re properly integrated with the rest of the facility’s population…” Fiora trailed. One look from Ash told her she might as well have been speaking Pokémon language. Seriously? Didn’t anyone bother to explain the rules anymore?
“I don’t understand,” Ash finally said, shades of hurt and panic in his voice.
Fiora sighed. Clearly the kid didn’t inherit his father’s smarts. She spoke slowly and carefully, enunciating each word so he’d understand. “They’re. Fine. You… are part of an org-an-i-zation now. That means… your Pokémon are free for anyone in Team Rocket to use.”
The kid’s face fell. “B-but Pikachu–”
“Is also a hybrid now. They’re unauthorized for outside use for the moment. He can stay with you until the policy changes. Which, fair warning, might be soon if your friend Misty keeps bringing us such positive results.” Fiora could practically see the smoke coming out of his ears.
“Misty’s… helping you?”
“Why, yes. She’s been quite enthusiastic about helping us train one of our new water-based hybrids.” She waited a minute longer as his young naive brain tried to process everything.
After what felt like ages, Ash finally put the pieces together. Mostly. “So, you manipulated Misty into working for you… and I can never see my Pokémon again?”
Fiora raised a clawed finger in warning. “I asked Misty to help, I didn’t force her. As for your Pokémon, when the integration process is done, you can file a request to take them into the field for missions.” She paused and added authoritatively, “But you’ll have to clear it with me first.”
Ash stepped back, shaking his head. “No. That’s not– they’re my friends! You can’t just– NO!”
Fiora’s scalp tingled as she watched the kid’s fists curl. “No!” he cried again, making Raven take to the air in alarm. His eyes set on her, burning with fury. At himself, maybe. And at her, too. Not that she gave a crap what her boss’s spawn thought of–
Movement. The swing of a fist. So fast that Fiora didn’t have time to dodge. Her nerves tingled, her eyes set on a point across the room far from the impending punch. Then suddenly she was there looking dumbfounded at Ash’s back as he stumbled forward, his fist striking nothing but air.
How the heck? Didn’t matter. That snot-faced little goody-goody had just tried to punch her! Her body was screaming to retaliate. She focused again and was there before him in a heartbeat. Her nose inches from his. He yelped and staggered back, hitting the wall. Fiora brought up a hand, digging her claws into the front of his shirt. She hoisted him up and slammed him back so hard, a framed picture fell to the floor.
“Don’t. Do that. Again.” She growled each word low and fierce as an Absol. She watched in satisfaction as a trace of fear shone in the boy’s eyes. Like he was just now realizing she was not the same person he had met when he was brought in. That was was no longer weak.
“Pi-kaaaaa!” a Pokémon’s voice sounded, and Fiora realized in all the excitement she had forgotten Ash had backup. She dropped his collar and whirled just in time to catch a bolt of electricity in her chest. The pain shot down every nerve and through every muscle. Oddly, though, it was not as debilitating as she expected. She was still standing when it ended, for one. Her heart was still thumping strong under her ribs, though her hair looked like a Skuntank’s tail.
“Ow,” she coughed, puffing out a wisp of smoke. “That was a cheap shot.”
“Pika!” snapped Pika-Raichu.
“NOI!” screeched Raven furiously, landing defensively on Fiora’s shoulder. Not that the little youngster could do much. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. A second later, reinforcements pounded through the door.
“Is everything okay in here, sir?” one guard asked, eying Fiora up and down. She blinked in surprise when she recognized Jessie and James.
“Well, if it isn’t Diva and Dunce. You two are on babysitting duty now?” she asked, prompting Jessie to step forward, muscles bulging.
“It just so happens we’ve been assigned as the twerp–I mean, Mr. Ash’s personal body guards.”
A laugh burst from her. “Yeah, good luck with that,” she said, waving a dismissive clawed hand. “I’m outta here.”
“The boss will hear of this!” James yelled after her. Fiora kept walking.
“Oh, I’m sure he will. Shame really, his kid attacking an elite agent his first day. And right under his bodyguards noses, too. So disappointing.”
She could almost feel the impact of her words, but she didn’t turn to gloat this time. She had already reached her stupidity-tolerance level cap for the day and besides, she had other things to think about. Like how she had managed to endure a thunderbolt to the face and pull off and actual feint attack.
I wonder what else I can do.
Ash did not return to his room, though Jessie and James certainly tried to coax him into it. He pushed them out of the way and stormed down the hall. James whimpered as he tailed behind. Ash felt a bit guilty. But he needed to get away from this insanity, to talk to someone who was a friend, who would reassure him that yes, he could still get his Pokémon back from Team Rocket and no, he hadn’t made the hugest mistake of his training career. Or, for that matter, his entire life. He needed to talk to Misty.
He first demanded to know where she was being kept and for Jessie and James to take him there. Unfortunately, they had been ordered by Giovanni not to disclose that information. No chance for Ash to get anything out of them from that angle. He did, however, remember something Fiora had said. Misty was helping to train some water Pokémon. So if that were the case…
“Take me to… um, the water place,” he said, trying to sound authoritative.
Jessie and James looked at each other in confusion. “The… ‘water place,’ sir?” James asked. “If you, um… need to use the facilities…”
“No, no!” Ash said. “I mean, like a pool or something. Wherever you–”
“Ah, yes!” Jessie said, clapping her hands. “The executives of Team Rocket have several luxurious hot tubs for their exclusive use. If you’ll just follow me–”
“No!” Ash snapped again, slapping his forehead. “I mean, is there a pool that you use for training water-type Pokémon?”
Jessie and James blinked. “Oh,” they both said in unison, and James bowed. “Y-yes, of course. How silly of us to not understand you the first time. Right this way, if you please.”
Ash nodded and followed the two Rockets down an endless labyrinth of hallways. He knew in all likelihood, Misty wouldn’t be there. They would have her doing training for maybe a couple hours a day at most, right? So she probably was back in her room now, nowhere near the pool. And yet, he still held onto the hope that he would hear her voice with each step they took down the hallway.
His hope, for this time at least, wasn’t misplaced.
“Come on!” she called from just beyond the pool’s entrance. “You can do it! Just jump in!”
Ash couldn’t wait another second. He burst through the door. The pool was actually closer to the door than he thought, and the floor was slippery, so he had to throw out his hands and steady himself to avoid skidding straight into the water.
“Ash!” Misty exclaimed when he came in. She was in the pool, trying to coax Meowth to join her, but she quickly climbed out and dried herself with a nearby towel. Her attire was a black wetsuit with the Team Rocket logo emblazoned on the shoulder. She came up and gave Ash a quick hug, leaving wet splotches on his own uniform, too. “I’m so glad you’re all right!”
“Y-yeah. Me, too,” Ash replied. “That is… I’m glad that you’re all right.” He rubbed his arm, keenly aware they weren’t alone, and turned to Jessie and James. “Bring us some tea. And, um… some of those tea crackers. That go with tea.”
The two looked at each other and nodded. “I’ll go,” James volunteered.
“I want both of you to go!” Ash snapped. They didn’t move. “Let me guess,” Ash sighed. “That’s against Giovanni’s orders, too.”
Jessie nodded happily. “One hundred percent correct, sir!”
Ash ran his hand through his hair. “Fine. James, stay. Jessie, go. Does that work?”
“It does indeed!” James said, equally chipper, while Jessie muttered to herself about being a body guard, not a butler and marched angrily out the door.
With only James in the room, Ash at least felt comfortable enough to sit down and talk openly with Misty about everything that had happened. James respectfully stood a good distance away and chatted with Meowth–Misty corrected Ash and said its name was Aquafeles now–and let the two friends talk more or less in private.
Ash shared everything Giovanni had told him, about the deal to lead Team Rocket one day, Ash’s plans to destroy it. There was something else nagging in his mind he thought he should tell her about, but the memory of it felt fuzzy.
Misty, in turn, told him everything she had been doing with train Aquafeles. She also mentioned how much Fiora had changed after her DNA had been merged with Absol’s… and how she’d not-so-casually suggested that Misty should consider getting a merger, too.
“It works with the mega stones,” she explained. “You can only merge with a Pokémon capable of mega evolution.”
Ash’s eyes widened. How did she know this much detail about whatever messed-up process had changed Fiora, Jessie, and James so much? Unless…
“Hold on,” he exclaimed. “You’re not seriously thinking of letting them do that to you, are you?”
“Well, actually I…” Misty twisted her fingers. She always did then when she was about to tell him something he wouldn’t like. Usually she followed it up with some talk about how he tended to see the world in black and white, and life was more complicated than that, and–
“Listen,” he said sharply. “Whatever reasons they’re giving you for why a merger might be a good idea, don’t listen! Nothing any of these people do is for good. They’re rotten to the core, every last one of them.”
Misty turned up her nose. “Oh? So… you, too, then?”
“Wha-what?” Ash said. “No, not me! I’m trying to take them down!”
“You’re wearing their uniform,” Misty pointed out. “Who’s to say you’re the only one here trying to use Team Rocket’s resources to do some actual good?”
“I-I…” Ash stuttered. He glanced over to the corner. James and Aquafeles had stopped their conversation at his little outburst and were both looking at him intently. “Forget it!” Ash growled. “Just… promise me you’ll watch your back, okay?”
Misty looked startled for a moment, then shrugged it off with a nervous giggle. “You don’t have to worry about me, Ash. I was messing with you, okay? I know to be careful.” She turned back to the pool. “Do me a favor, and don’t forget to take your own advice.”