Gladion gripped the Master Ball, still warm in his hands from its capture. He’d mentally prepared himself for this moment as much as he could. But the fact remained that he’d always succeeded by hiding in the shadows, taking his opponents by surprise.
They were certainly surprised now. But as for shadows, Gladion was out of luck. He had a whole room full of Rocket grunts, crazy scientists, and one dangerous-looking man in a red suit all staring at him. He pocketed the Master Ball and bolted out the door. The grunt he’d knocked aside to get in here scrambled to stop him. Silvally gave the idiot a sharp kick to the gut and sent him flying. Gladion sprinted into the hallway.
Only a few yards behind him, he could hear Giovanni screaming obscenities at the guard who had let “some snot-nosed intruder” pass. Gladion smiled a bit at that. So Giovanni seemed oblivious as to who Gladion was or why he had broken in. Exactly the way he liked it.
Of course, Giovanni was not a complete fool. Gladion had made it into the gym only because Sabrina had allowed him access hours before Giovanni and his goons arrived. Now there were Rocket guards everywhere. Getting back out of the gym wouldn’t be nearly so easy.
Gladion turned a corner, so sharply that he almost slipped and face-planted on the floor.
Sabrina had assured him that the Rockets’ line-up of Pokémon would be painfully predictable. As long as Silvaly held the Psychic Memory, it and Porygon-Z could more than handle anything the grunts through at them.
“Silvally, Multi-Attack!” he called out. “Porygon-Z, Psybeam!”
Zubats, Muks, and Arboks fell in front of him, one after another. Gladion barely let the battles end before he took off running again. His best bet was to plow through the muscle and avoid Giovanni altogether. Sabrina had mentioned that if Gladion was forced to battle the Team Rocket boss, there was a slight chance the man would use a Pokémon-human hybrid against him. Gladion had no clue how to prepare for that.
Thankfully, he had reached the main foyer, and the gym’s exit was right in front of him. Only two more grunts stood in his way. Gladion sent Silvally out first. But instead of attacking, one of the grunts just stared at him.
“Wait a second. There’s something familiar about you!” she said.
She knows me? Gladion’s blood ran cold.
The grunt pointed at him, snapping her gloved fingers in a presumably vain attempt to jog her memory. “Yeah… you’re from Alola, aren’t you?”
Gladion’s stomach sank. Of course it would only be so long before they found him out. His mother and her work with the Aether Foundation had made headlines all over the world. How could he possibly expect to execute this mission without being recognized? Did he really think Team Rocket’s henchmen wouldn’t be well-informed of all the latest–
“How the heck do you know where he’s from?” another grunt demanded.
His comrade motioned to Gladion. “See, this is why they only put you on small jobs,” she said. “Look at him! He’s got the Z-bling! That makes him an Alola kid!”
I’ve got a Z… what now? Relief began to pour into Gladion, his legs no longer frozen to the spot. Maybe he could escape from this, after all. As the two grunts stood arguing with each other on the exact name of Alola’s signature gear, Gladion and Silvally took slow, silent steps backwards. The space between them and the exit grew smaller with each tense breath.
The argument heated up quickly, the two grunts stopping their feet and throwing their arms up in dramatic fashion. Finally, the one who’d noticed Gladion’s ring to begin with pointing angrily at the spot where Gladion had been standing just a moment before.
“Look, who cares what its real name is! The point is, if we know he’s from Alola, we can figure out who…” She finally turned to look at where she was pointing and noticed Gladion wasn’t there. Eyes wide, she frantically searched the room and spotted him darting out the door, Silvally in tow.
“Get him!” she screamed. But Gladion was already sprinting out in the open. The heart of Saffron City was an easy place to get lost in. The cool evening air had brought out tourists and locals alike, and the streets were heavy with foot traffic. A quick duck around the corner, a sidestep behind a street vendor, and Team Rocket’s shouts soon became lost in the hum of passing cars, pulsing music, and lively conversation.
Once Gladion was sure the grunts weren’t tailing him, he slowed his sprint to a brisk walk, called Silvally back to its ball, and pocketed his Z-ring. No point in drawing attention to himself. But now he had a problem. His plan had been to go back to Alola. Well, he still planned to go back to Alola, but now he had to deal with some potential Team Rocket spies looking for him there. Which meant it was no good going back to the Pokémon School or anywhere else public. He needed a place close to home, but still somewhere he could disappear for a while.
Gladion groaned inwardly. He knew one place he could go. And one particular person he could talk to. But he was really, really hoping he would never have to cross paths with that man again.
His hand tightened around the Master Ball in his hand, feeling the energy emanating from inside.
Well, Guzma always said he could take any gym leader any time, Gladion thought to himself. Guess he’ll find out how true that is.
“I want to see Brock again!” Ash demanded. Pierce was much taller than him, so he had to yell up rather than forward. But at least he had Pierce’s attention now. That was the first step of his plan.
Pierce sniffed like someone had let a Trubbish loose in the room and narrowed his eyes down at Ash in disapproval. “Young man, you may be Giovanni’s son, but I have my orders on how to run this facility in his absence, and I’ll thank you not to scream at me.”
Ash tightened his fists as Pierce walked right past him. This was not how things were supposed to go. He couldn’t let himself be ignored. He followed down the hall, Aquafeles keeping pace. Ash hadn’t planned to bring the water Pokémon with him, until Jessie helpfully pointed out that if Ash was supposedly asking to see Brock, it only made sense to have a translator in tow.
Pierce glanced over his shoulder and noted that Ash was shadowing him but did not comment on it for a good two minutes of hallway-pacing and corner-turning. When none of it seemed to disorient Ash or dissuade him, Pierce stopped in front of a large set of doors with intricate carvings of Rhydon and Nidoking crafted into the wood. Ash was pretty sure this was where Giovanni took gym challengers, but since he had only actually been here once, it was hard to recall.
“You are persistent, aren’t you?” Pierce muttered to Ash.
Ash straightened with pride. “Sure am. And I’m not leaving until–”
“–until you talk with your friend. Yes, I understood you the first time.” Pierce produced a swipe card from his sleeve and unlocked the door. As it cracked open, Ash could hear the sounds of a Pokémon battle–a roar, a squeal, the shaking of the floor at his feet. Whatever was going on in there, it was intense.
“Unfortunately,” Pierce went on. “The Pokémon you are so eager to speak with is in the midst of a serious training session. But if you insist on stalking me until you are able to interact, I suggest you come in and wait until the training session is complete.”
Ash stiffened. “Brock isn’t a Pokémon. He’s a person.”
“Forgive me. I simply assumed you were identifying his species by his actual DNA and not your own sentimentality.” And with that, he pushed the door fully open.
The scene that met Ash’s eyes made him even less uneasy than he’d been before. Brock had always been one of the most peaceful people Ash knew. Yes, he could battle Pokémon, and pretty well, too, but he only did it when he had to. His passion was in breeding and raising Pokémon, caring for and nurturing them.
The way he was fighting when Ash entered was completely foreign. With every crash of his huge tail against the floor, Brock yelled with fury and frustration. It was like the actual act of battling was hurting him, and yet he had to do it anyway.
The Pokémon he was battling against looked just as agitated. It was a Noibat, and it flew about in wild circles, screeching and screaming more than making any actual attacks. It tried what looked like a Super Fang attack, which glanced off Brock. He quickly countered with a Rock Throw that made the Noibat tumble to the ground. The Noibat struggled to get up, but Ash could tell from its shaking limbs that its energy was gone.
A hint of a grimace crossed Pierce’s face, but he quickly covered it up and clapped his hands. “This battle is over. That will be enough for now.”
Brock whirled around, looking like he planned to strike Pierce next. Then, in an instant, his stone shoulders lowered, and his body relaxed, as if coming out of a trance. Ash stood nervously off to the side as Pierce reached for the door behind them. Is this what happened when a merger went too far? Would he really be able to counter Giovanni or just put himself in Giovanni’s pocket more than before?
Ash was so involved in his thoughts that he didn’t notice Pierce had paused in his door closing and was now stuttering a bunch of half-formed sentences into the hall. “Fi! I see the Boss approved your license. Congrat-ow!”
There was a loud bang as Fiora (or Fi, was it now?) slammed the door open, and Pierce fell to the floor. She surveyed the scene quickly–Brock still breathing heavily with the exertion of his attack, the Noibat quivering pitifully on the floor.
“What happened in here?” she whispered. Her voice hovered on the edge of calm, but her blood red eyes were furious. She hurried over to the cowering Noibat and scooped the little Pokémon into her arms. It tried to resist at first, frantic and flapping away and screeching all over again. Completely terrified. This hadn’t been a Pokémon battle. Not a fair one, at any rate. Giovanni had ordered Brock to use this poor Pokémon as a punching bag.
Ash’s stomach turned at the thought.
“What the HELL happened in here?!” Fiora screamed. The Noibat panicked and tumbled out of her arms. She quickly pulled an Ultra Ball from her belt and recalled it. Even once it was safely inside, the Pokémon continued to make the ball shake. Fiora said something soothing to it before placing the ball back on her belt and turning to Brock with her full wrath.
“You!” she yelled, jabbing a finger at him. “You have the gall to train against Raven? She’s hardly out of her egg! What is wrong with you?”
Brock did not defend himself against the accusations. Instead, he slunk back, hugging himself as if afraid he might fall apart. He said something in his gravely voice.
“I’m sorry,” Aquafeles translated. “I didn’t–”
“Don’t tell ME you didn’t want to!” Fi yelled.
Brock said something else, sadder this time, almost chocking on his words.
Fi had no sympathy. “I don’t CARE what Giovanni ordered you to do! You’re a monster! You hear me? Raven might never recover from this!” She stepped backward, shaking her head as if fighting some dark thoughts. A maniacal grin spread across her face. “You know what? I think you need a taste of your own medicine. Why don’t we take a trip to the pool and see how well a Steelix can float?” Her last few words came out as more a growl, something more Pokémon than human. She raised her hand and bore her dark, sharp claws, aiming right for Brock’s face. Brock held up his arms in defense, and Ash felt himself jolted into action. He ran up and grabbed her by the arm. She snarled in frenzy and flung him aside with startling force. He toppled against Brock, barely managing to right himself. Fi drew back her arm, ready to attack him too. Then Pierce’s voice called out, “Fi, enough!”
He hurried to her side she growled at him but finally stayed her hand when he touched her shoulder. Brock made no more attempt to defend himself. He almost looked like he wanted Fi to attack. To punish him for hurting the Noibat? Ash shook his head. No, none of this had been Brock’s fault. Giovanni was to blame. For everything. Ash had to stop him no matter what.
Piece was speaking calmly to Fi, reminding her that Brock had a much larger percentage of Pokémon DNA than she did, and it was impossible to know the true effect that was having on Brock’s mind. Fi shoved it all off and pushed Pierce out of her way as she headed for the door, muttering something about how healing Raven was more important than dealing with Brock right now.
Suddenly, her piercing gaze fell to Ash again, and he felt like the whole room had gone cold.
“Don’t think I’ve overlooked you,” she snarled. “You are everything that’s wrong with this place. And the moment I get the chance, I am going to rip you to pieces!”
Ash stood shaking, Aquafeles hiding behind his legs. The whole room was painfully quiet. He hadn’t expected any of this. Yet he still had an opportunity right here and now. If he didn’t take it, when would he get a better chance? “A bit of an unfair fight, don’t you think?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Excuse me?”
He coughed loudly. He was trying to sound calm, like he wasn’t shaking all over. It sounded more like he was fighting a cold. “I said, you ripping me apart wouldn’t be a fair fight. You know… you being half Pokémon, and me being… not at all Pokémon.”
She fingered the Ultra Ball on her belt, eyes darting between Ash and the door.
“You want to fight, I’m happy to fight,” Ash pressed. His eyes were also on the Ultra Ball. That Noibat needed healing. He had to make this quick. But he also had to get Fi mad. Which meant he couldn’t let slip that he was just as worried about the little Pokémon as she was.
“Giovanni says I can’t handle a merger,” Ash went on. “I say I can. You and Pierce authorize it. Then you and me… we can fight just like you want.”
Brock yelled something.
“What do you think you’re doing, you idiot?” Aquafeles exclaimed. Then, after a moment, it added, “Your friend’s question. I added the idiot part. Because you’re an idiot!”
“This is no concern of yours!” Pierce snapped. “PokéBalls. Now.”
Brock quickly complied. His head bowed and his body faded into a flash of red light as he returned to his Master Ball. Pierce retrieved the ball from the floor, stance calm, but hands shaking.
Aquafeles growled and walked towards the door. “I’m going, I’m going,” it muttered, pulling the door open a crack with its paws. “But you better know what you’re doing… idiot.” It got out that last word right before Pierce slammed the door shut once again.
“Fi,” he said solemnly. “You know the boss specifically told us not to do a merger on his son.”
Fi’s lip curled. “Yes and clearly the boss hasn’t been making very rational decisions lately, has he?”
A rare hint of emotion broke Pierce’s normally unreadable expression. “No. I suppose he hasn’t.”
“Someone needs to show him what real loyalty is. What his real family is willing to do for him. So tell me, what does it prove if I beat his little heir senseless when he’s still a helpless human? I want to beat him at full strength. Pokémon against Pokémon.”
Pierce held her eyes. “But If I go through with it–directly disobey the boss’s orders–I’ll lose everything.”
Fi gripped his shoulders. “If we let this kid take over Team Rocket, we’ll all lose everything, Pierce. Which is exactly why I have to do this.”
Fi was good. No doubt about it. Ash watched as Pierce glanced his way on last time, then sighed. “Just promise me you’ll win.”
Fi’s mouth curved into a smug smile as she leaned up to kiss Pierce on the cheek. “Of course.” Then she turned for the door. “I’m taking Raven to recovery. Then I’ll meet you two in the lab.” Her eyes fixed on Ash and her smile narrowed cruelly. “Choose wisely.”