Chapter 1: Transient
Jessie and Meowth,
I'm sorry not to have made contact sooner. I didn't know where you were, or if I'd put you in danger by looking.
I was thinking about everything last night- about what happened all those years ago when we were still tailing that kid, and everything since. It seems strange, knowing that those people used to be us, that we were so set on such a goal.
The main reason I'm sitting at this desk at four in the morning writing this drivel is that I owe you an explanation for everything that happened. No doubt you've worked most of it out yourselves, but I don't want to leave you wondering.
I'm going to end this letter now, but I won't make you wait for me to write the next one. In fact, by the time you've read this, I'll have finished writing everything. I'll send these all at the same time. Hopefully, I'll be able to explain it properly.
See you next letter,
5 years earlier
Giovanni stifled a yawn as the car he was sitting in pulled over to the pavement, gently coming to a halt. The door to his left was opened by the driver; Giovanni stepped out into the open air, the cold sting of winter morning immediately against his skin as his surroundings came into focus.
He'd barely gotten any sleep the night before, and was feeling the lack of rest take its toll: his eyes constantly stung, however much he blinked, and his limbs felt heavy. Despite this, he strode purposefully towards the double doors of the towering building ahead of him, determined not to let his subordinates see him acting weaker than he deemed acceptable. The subordinates in question were two grunts, who he'd brought with him to serve as bodyguards during the meeting in case anything got out of hand. However, they were unrecognisable as part of his syndicate, dressed in black suits and dress shoes so as not to arouse suspicion, or give off the impression of a lack of trust on Giovanni's part. One of them held a briefcase containing stacks of money- pocket change for the Team Rocket boss, but enough to buy him the information he needed.
The grunt without the briefcase quickened his pace so as to reach the glass door before Giovanni, and hastily held it open for his boss. As the three had entered the room, the receptionist stood up, smiling, and walked over to meet them.
"I take it you're here to see Mr Smith?" the receptionist asked, extending a hand to Giovanni who shook it firmly.
"Yes," Giovanni confirmed, resisting the urge to roll his eyes at the obviously fake name. He'd heard a lot of bad aliases in his profession, but 'Mr Smith' was particularly uncreative. If people were going to give false names, he thought, they might as well be a bit more imaginative about it.
Smiling again, the receptionist extended an arm to a flight of stairs on the right. "He's just up there- it's the first door you'll reach," he said.
Giovanni nodded. "Thank you."
The two grunts walked on either side of him as they climbed the stairs, looking nervous in the presence of their boss. Giovanni didn't notice their unease, however- he was too busy thinking about what this meeting could mean if the offer was accepted, how much he would gain. His lip curled upwards involuntarily at the idea of the power he'd have.
He quickly made his expression neutral as a door came into view, and, after glancing down to make sure his tie was still in place, pushed it open.
A man was sitting behind a desk at the end of the room, shuffling papers around and murmuring something to himself. Behind him were a three other people in suits- two men and a woman- with sunglasses covering their eyes. "Looks like he doesn't trust me, either," Giovanni mused with a smirk.
"Ah- Giovanni!" the man greeted, standing up. "I'm very glad you were able to come on such short notice."
Giovanni said nothing, and shook the man's hand with a nod. "Mr Smith, I presume?" he asked, holding back sarcasm.
"Correct," the man said, smiling broadly to show unnaturally whitened teeth. "Well then, let's get to business, I suppose."
"Mm," Giovanni said, keen to see the offer through as quickly as possible. He looked over his shoulder to the grunt, who practically jumped and rushed over to the desk, placing the briefcase on the wooden surface. He undid the metal latches and carefully opened the lid to reveal the numerous wads of cash.
"That's the amount you proposed to my employee over the phone," Giovanni stated, saving 'Mr Smith' asking the awkward question. Smith beckoned the woman behind him over, who proceeded to thumb through the cash, checking that it was genuine. She nodded slightly, and moved back to her original position.
"Well," Smith began, letting his arms drop to his sides, "I expect you're eager to see my part of the bargain fulfilled."
"Very," Giovanni thought, but settled on a forced smile instead.
Smith walked back behind his desk, and made his way into the small office behind it. Drumming his fingers against his thigh impatiently, Giovanni watched Smith's employees, and saw that one of them was focused on the large window to the side of the room. Frowning, Giovanni moved his gaze to the spot they were watching, and then narrowed his eyes as he saw a flash of red for a split second. His eyes widened as he realised what it was.
"Sniper!" he yelled to the grunts, ducking quickly and barely avoiding the bullet that smashed through the window over his head, sprinkling glass onto the carpet. The two grunts quickly reacted, removing the guns on their belts from their holsters and running over to their boss. As Giovanni quickly got to his feet again, the two men and the woman in sunglasses started to fire at him; he fell backwards again as he felt a bullet hit him in the chest, stopped by the bulletproof fabric beneath his shirt but still hitting him with enough force to break his ribs.
He fumbled for his own gun, gritting his teeth in pain and scrambling to his feet; one of the grunts was groaning on the floor, clutching his leg and looking pale at the amount of blood seeping from the wound beneath his fingers. Giovanni was about to grab his subordinate off the ground when he spotted the red dot jiggling on the grunt's forehead; he cried out in warning just as a bullet pierced the man between the eyes, instantly rendering him lifeless.
"Move!" Giovanni told the other grunt, doing his best to ignore the pain in his chest and firing a couple of shots back at his attackers. He heard one of them scream and the thud of a body hitting the ground, but didn't look back to see who his victim was.
His remaining bodyguard looked terrified, desperately trying to reload his gun as they sprinted back through the door they'd come through and began to run back down the stairs. Giovanni's hand moved to his belt, and he pressed the button on the side of it twice- an action which would call backup from HQ to his location. He only hoped that the call would connect in time.
"Sir- they're following us," the grunt panted as they kept going two steps at a time, pushed onwards by adrenaline and the knowledge that stopping would mean certain death. Giovanni risked a glance behind him; they weren't within view, but he could hear their footsteps not far behind and had no doubt that they wouldn't be the only people armed in the building.
"Keep going," Giovanni ordered between breaths. "Don't stop, even once we're outside- that sniper could follow us for a long time."
The two charged through the doors back into the reception, Giovanni swiftly shooting the receptionist before he had a chance to fire at either of them, and the grunt doing the same to their other two assailants, who slumped to the ground. They ran outside towards the car only to see the driver slumped forwards on the steering wheel, cracks bordering the bullethole in the windscreen.
"Shit," Giovanni cursed, realising that the front wheels were flat. "They've shot the tyres." He kept sprinting, the grunt following close behind, and stopped at the first vehicle he came to; a red, expensive-looking car that probably belonged to one of the employees at the neighbouring bank. Wincing at the growing pain from where the bullet had hit his ribs, Giovanni smashed the window of the front door of the car with the butt of his gun, ignoring the alarm that promptly began to shriek and reaching inside. He unlocked the door expertly, and dived in, hurriedly shifting over to the passenger's seat. "Drive," he said to the grunt, who nodded quickly and climbed in after him.
The engine rumbled to life after the grunt managed to turn it on, using an advanced lockpick each agent carried for emergencies; he slammed his foot on the accelerator, letting out a terrified yelp as the side window shattered from another gunshot. Shreds of glass skimmed across his lap and onto the floor. He was certain he could feel the blood pulsing from his heart as he waited for the shock of pain, for his mind to shut down altogether. Relief took hold as he realised that he hadn't been hit, still driving the car as fast as he could down the road.
After turning a corner sharply and moving away from the block of buildings, the grunt relaxed a little, though didn't stop driving.
"Should I return to HQ, sir?" he asked, unable to hide the tremor in his voice. He'd just watched his colleague get shot through the head, and had by no means recovered from the experience. Looking over at his boss, the grunt cried out in shock and abruptly stopped the car.
Blood was trickling steadily from a hole in Giovanni's neck, the skin around the wound torn and ruptured to show the sickening sight of pale pink flesh. His eyes were staring ahead of him, his face neutral of any kind of emotion.
Moving away instinctively from the corpse, the grunt got out of the car, running a hand through his brown hair and then clutching his head with his hands. Luckily, the road was clear of any other vehicles so early in the morning, but that did little to make the Rocket feel better.
"Oh god..." he muttered, the weight of the situation becoming clearer the more he thought about it. The leader of Team Rocket- the man respected by every member of the organisation and known throughout the regions- was dead. And- even worse than that- the grunt was the one who had to explain it to everyone. It had happened so suddenly and without any kind of prolonged drama that it almost didn't seem real. Somehow, it was hard to believe that Giovanni wasn't immortal.
Five minutes passed, during which the man sat on the edge of the pavement and tried to control his breathing. The thought that he could have easily been dead by now with no chance to prevent it filled him with a different kind of terror, one that closed his throat with thick sobs every few seconds. He exhaled deeply, staring at the unfamiliar polished black shoes he was wearing, and got up again, knowing that the longer he stayed, the more likely it was that he'd be followed. Grimacing at the sight of the body, he looked around to check that he was still alone, and then lifted the corpse out of the vehicle, straining at the effort of the task and forcing his hand not to recoil when he felt the warmth of blood. He then opened the back door of the car, and pulled Giovanni's body across the rear seats so that it wasn't so obvious that his passenger was a dead man (he'd considered putting him in the trunk, but that somehow seemed insulting to a man he had always held in such high esteem, even if he was dead). After a moment's though, he then took off his jacket, and spread it over Giovanni's chest, pulling it up to his chin so that the wound on his neck was hidden. To anyone looking in, it'd look like he was sleeping.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck," the grunt cursed repeatedly, wishing that he could turn back time and prevent it all from happening, furious at himself for failing to save his boss. He was supposed to be willing to take a bullet for the man, but, unintentionally, the opposite had happened, even if Giovanni hadn't exactly been trying to save the grunt's life when the bullet had torn through his windpipe.
He wondered how the hell he was going to tell the people back at headquarters; he couldn't even begin to imagine their reaction when he pulled up to the building in a different car than the one he'd arrived in, riddled with bullet holes and containing the dead leader of their syndicate in the back. "It wasn't my fault," he told himself, getting back into the driver's seat and pushing back the impulse to yell out. "I did everything I could. It's not like I went against any orders." A little calmer, he turned back onto the freeway, ignoring the speed limit completely as he watched the red needle on the speedometer move clockwise.
Somewhere in the near distance, police sirens began to sound, wailing in altering tones in unconscious acknowledgement of the damage caused. The sun began to stain the clouds orange in the brightening sky as the car moved onwards, crimson against the stretch of endless grey.
The canteen was nearly empty. A couple of cleaners walked between tables, and an agent stood in one corner stabbing at the keys on her phone, but otherwise the room was vacant, almost eerily so.
"What time is it?" Jessie asked, frowning at the slim pickings leftover for them to choose from.
"Um..." James replied, glancing around. "Three," he finished as he located the clock hanging on the wall.
"Ugh," Jessie groaned, letting out a sigh. "The one day we actually get to stay at headquarters, we miss lunch. Of course."
"Eh, it ain't dat bad," Meowth said, struggling to get a look at the food left on offer. "I mean, dere's... Carrot sticks. Or water- dat's always good..."
The three had spent the whole morning- and the first part of the afternoon- trying (unsuccessfully) to spy on Team Flare. They'd had to abort the mission, however, when a grunt overheard one of them whispering into an earpiece whilst still in disguise, and sounded the alarm. It had been an uncomfortable exit, to say the least: James still felt the odd jolt of static from the fence he hadn't realised was electric until he was halfway done escaping over it.
"Well, I suppose we could stay for a little longer," Jessie pondered aloud. "I mean, as long as we don't stop working... The boss probably won't notice, anyway."
"We'd probably be doin' Team Rocket a favour if we DID stop workin' for a while," Meowth smirked. "It'd be less expensive, anyway."
"Don't say that," James mumbled, furrowing his brow. "We came really close this morning!"
"What, like every other mission we've ever been on?" Meowth retorted, but shook his head a little. "Nah- we're not failures. Not completely, anyway. We got rid of Team Plasma back in Unova- dat's gotta count for somethin'."
Concluding that there was no point in choosing from the meagre amount of food in front of them, the three Rockets instead made their way to the vending machine in the coridoor. When James pointed out that they didn't have any money, Jessie kicked the machine until a couple of sandwiches and a bag of crisps came loose from their stands, and fell to the hatch at the base.
"Jessie!" James hissed nervously, glancing around and expecting to see some high-ranking executive glaring in their direction. To his relief, there were only a few grunts gathered around someone's phone and laughing simultaneously every ten seconds or so at some picture on the screen, clearly oblivious to the thuds of Jessie's boot hitting the machine.
"Relax," Jessie said, rolling her eyes and handing James and Meowth a sandwich each. "No one's looking at us- besides, we should get bonus points for stealing in an organisation like this."
"I'm not sure Giovanni would see it that way," James said weakly, but smiled and took a hungry bite out of the sandwich. "Thanks."
"Uh, ya got any strength left you'd like to take out on da machine?" Meowth questioned Jessie hopefully, having already eaten his sandwich. James bit his tongue to stop himself yelping as Jessie charged into the vending machine side on, triggering an almighty 'bang' that echoed around the hallway.
"Careful!" he whispered, his voice escalating far above its normal pitch as a couple of the grunts glanced over at them.
"Oops," Jessie remarked as half the machine's contents fell to the bottom. "Oh well. Take your pick."
Meowth quickly grabbed at least five sandwiches and a few chocolate bars, instinctively trying to gather the food whilst it was available as he was so used to doing without it. Jessie and James more modestly took a bag of chips each and some sweets, not wanting to draw attention to themselves by ambling around with armfuls of food.
They walked back to their dormitory slowly, enjoying the novelty of not having to rush for a change; Meowth had eaten half of the food he'd taken by the time they reached their door.
"I seriously don't know how you're not overweight," Jessie told the cat as she nudged the door open with her hip.
"Hey! I need my food! Besides, when we're on da field, we don't get to eat for days at a time. Dis is compensation for all dat," Meowth said defensively.
The three ate their rather unhealthy lunches in silence, not due to a lack of conversation to be had but rather caused by their realisation at how hungry they were; none of them had eaten breakfast due to the mission.
"What should we do now?" James asked when they had finished eating and discarded all the wrappers.
"Dunno," Meowth shrugged. "We could take it easy for once, or-"
"Or what about getting some supplies for a new mech?" Jessie butted in excitedly. "We could make a blueprint and build it for tomorrow's plan!"
"Or that," the cat Pokemon grumbled, his hopes of a relaxing afternoon dashed.
"Great," James agreed, standing up. "It'll be nice to work with more than scrap metal."
On their way back through headquarters towards the supply rooms, Meowth stopped in his tracks, his ear twitching.
"What?" Jessie prompted, looking back at him.
"Sounds like there's a lot of people just outside," Meowth told her. They peered outside of the window: sure enough, a crowd of Rockets stood just outside of the building, constantly growing in numbers as more people joined.
"It looks important," James noted. "Maybe we should see what's going on."
Jessie and Meowth nodded their agreement, and the trio made their way through the doors into the cold open air, the murmuring clearer.
A car was parked in the middle of the concrete patch before them, away from the carpark in an unusual manner. It appeared to have just come to a halt; a man in a suit stepped out of the front, and was immediately greeted with several guns pointed at his head.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" one agent demanded as the man was roughly grabbed by two other Rockets, assumed to be a spy.
"No- I work here!" the man protested, struggling to free his arms from the two agents holding him. "My ID's in my trouser pocket. Get off me!"
The agent who'd questioned him verified the claim as he pulled the ID out of the grunt's pocket, but didn't soften his expression. "Why are you dressed like that?"
Before the grunt could answer, a scream sounded to his left as a Rocket opened the back door of the car, and then stumbled backwards, his face drained of colour.
"What is it?" Jessie asked, craning her neck to try and get a better look at the scene.
"I don't know," James muttered back.
"Oh my god," someone else gasped as they reached the car. The agent interrogating the grunt moved around to get a better view, and knelt down, pulling a jacket out of the vehicle. His eyes were wide as he turned back to the grunt in the suit.
"What did you do?" he screeched, trembling slightly.
"I didn't kill him!" the grunt insisted, casting petrified glances at the people around him. "You can check my log- I was assigned to go with him this morning! Please, let me go!"
"Kill who?" someone else asked aloud, causing the crowd to ring with chatter again, people pushing forwards to try and see what was happening.
"Don't shoot me," the grunt begged, tears forming in his eyes. "I tried to stop it, I swear!"
"Take him inside for questioning later," an executive ordered. "Don't hurt him- we have no evidence that he's done anything wrong."
Shouts were erupting from the crowd by this point, people frustrated at the lack of information.
"Who is it? Who's dead?"
"Come on, let us see!"
"Oh shit, there's blood on that guy's suit..."
The crowd was plunged into an unsettling silence at the executive's two words.
"W-what?" someone stuttered after a few seconds, unable to believe such a statement.
"What happened?" the executive asked the grunt softly, gesturing for the two agents to release him. The grunt caught his balance, and cleared his throat slightly.
"I was with Giovanni and Charlie- uh, another agent- this morning- we were going to a meeting," the grunt began nervously. "We brought the money- it all seemed to be normal- but then, a sniper started to shoot at us, and..."
He trailed off momentarily, exhaling. "Charl- the other grunt got shot, so we ran back down out of the building and killed the people following us. The driver who'd taken us there was dead when we got outside, and the tyres were flat, so we had to find another car; we managed to get in, but after I'd driven away, I realised that the boss had been hit in the neck." The man looked down, lowering his voice. "It's true. Giovanni's dead."
The three Rockets sat in shocked silence in the lobby, none of them sure of what to say. After the news had been announced to the crowd, they'd all been told to return inside as the body was carefully removed from the car. Even so, people still gathered at windows to watch it happen; the body's face had been covered with a cloth so as not to cause any unnecessary distress, but it was clear who it was laid out on the ground nonetheless. Despite the evidence, the fact hadn't really sunk in with anyone yet.
"It can't really be true," Jessie said after a long while. "Giovanni wouldn't let himself get killed."
"But you heard them say it," James mumbled back, not looking up. "I suppose he was so in control all the time that we all sort of forgot that he was human."
"Apparently he called for back up," an agent sitting in the corner chimed in. "They only got the message like, an hour ago- something about the signal being disrupted in the building."
"Do we know anything about who ordered the attack yet?" a grunt asked, fiddling distractedly with her hair.
"Don't think so," the agent replied. "It might have been another organisation, or someone after the money he took, or even the cops."
"I feel sick," Meowth said quietly. He seemed to be handling it the worst of the three, which was natural, considering the way he'd always idolised Giovanni, desperate to win his respect. Although the leader of the syndicate had done his fair bit of shouting at the trio, he'd always given them a second chance, and had trusted them to accompany him on more than one occasion. All that considered, none of them were taking the news lightly.
Jessie reached over and put a hand on Meowth's paw, trying her best to comfort the Pokemon but unsure of what to offer verbally.
"What's going to happen now?" James whispered. "How are they meant to know what to do when there's no one here to take orders from?"
"An executive or someone will fill in for the moment," Jessie responded softly. "I don't think that's what we should be worrying about at the moment. They could be planning another attack."
James shuddered. He didn't want to think about the possibility that the ordeal wasn't yet over- it sounded like enough people had died already.
Everyone in the room looked up as the grunt- still wearing the black suit- entered the lobby, looking utterly miserable. Avoiding eye contact, he trudged over to the corner of the room and sat down on one of the chairs, resting his head in his hands.
"What did they ask you?" one agent inquired interestedly, ignoring the grunt's obvious exhaustion.
Wearily, the grunt looked up at the speaker, his eyes heavy. "They wanted to know if I shot him. Half of them are still convinced I did it."
"Well, did you?" the agent said.
"No! Of course not! Why would I drive back here with his body in the car if I had killed him?" the grunt snapped. "I watched my partner die, and risked my life helping the boss- and when I get back, everyone accuses me of murder. They won't even let me leave this floor until they're certain I didn't do it."
The grunt slumped back in his seat dejectedly, deciding not to say any more on the subject. He was too tired to argue.
"Can we go upstairs?" Meowth asked quietly. James realised that the cat was still staring at the car through the window, his expression unreadable. Nodding, Jessie pushed herself up, waiting for her two team mates to do the same before leading the way to their room.
None of them had ever disliked Giovanni, but they hadn't realised that they cared quite so much about him either.
Chapter 2: Faded Whitewash
Uncertain murmuring rang throughout the room as the last few people assembled, struggling to find empty seats and some having to settle on standing at the back. A week had passed since the news of Giovanni's death, and not much more had been revealed. Whilst it was clear that whoever did kill him had been after more than the small briefcase of money he'd been carrying, the person behind the attack had fled the scene, and the fact that the police had inevitably begun an investigation on the multiple bodies in the building made it impossible for Team Rocket to return to the location. The lack of any leader meant that so far little had happened; most of the agents had returned to the closest headquarters since missions had been suspended.
"What do you think they're going to tell us?" Jessie asked, lowering her voice. A meeting had been called for everyone present in the building that morning, though little detail had been given. All they knew was that it concerned everyone, and would be broadcast to the other headquarters as it took place. Needless to say, it sounded important.
"I don't know," James replied. "Probably just an update on the current situation. Your guess is as good as mine."
"Maybe dey're gonna tell us who da new boss is," Meowth speculated softly, not looking up. The shock of the news had worn off, but none of the trio had gotten used to the fact that their boss wouldn't be around anymore. It was just too strange and sad a thought to dwell on.
Before either of the humans had a chance to respond to the Pokemon's conjecture, a figure stepped up onto the elevated platform at the front of the hall, triggering the quick descent of silence in the crowd as agents hurriedly ended conversations mid-sentence and hushed those who hadn't yet realised the need to do so.
The person on the stage made their way forwards to a small podium, stepping away from the shaded portion of the room as they did so to reveal their face. James immediately recognised the man as Pierce, someone who'd helped Jessie, Meowth and him over the course of their time in Unova. He was wearing his usual grey uniform, without the collar he sometimes used to cover the lower part of his face. It was clear from his expression that he didn't want to be addressing the crowd; James guessed that his status as an elite agent meant that he was a good candidate for a speaker, and therefore had been elected to do it.
Adjusting the microphone in front of him so that it was positioned in front of his mouth, Pierce swallowed, and briefly studied the group of Rockets below him before speaking.
"It will have undoubtedly come to the attention of every single one of you that Giovanni has been killed," he began, moving his look periodically between the people present in the room and the camera at the back, aware that the majority of his audience would be watching his speech on a screen. "What was expected to be a low-security meeting last week turned out to be a planned assassination. One of our members successfully made it back alive, and is currently being questioned on the exact events that took place. Although we know the location of the attack, police interference has so far kept us from examining the building."
Pierce drew in a breath, his usual confidence slightly impaired by the weight of the speech he was making. He frowned and cleared his throat, his olive green eyes as sharp as his name suggested as they flickered between spots in the room, and then settled back on the lens of the camera.
"Giovanni was a great leader- one who led this organisation to heights unachieved by any other syndicate on this planet," Pierce continued, the microphone projecting his voice so it echoed around the room. "His outstanding judgement and ability to use reason in even the most dire of situations made him a truly remarkable commander."
There were a few mutters of agreement within the crowd as Pierce paused to collect his thoughts, brow furrowed. "However," he said, again meeting the camera with an unwavering and attentive gaze, "the loss of such a leader does not by any means render us broken. An army without a general is still as strong as its number, still capable of success. It has come to our attention that some of you believe that this is the end of our institution. What we want to illustrate today is that this is not the case- far from it.
"We will not be disbanded by such an event; Giovanni did not take his mother's passing as a reason to give up, and I am sure he would hate to think that his goals would die with him. We are currently in the process of establishing his replacement, which is a challenging task, due to the fact that he had no direct heir. In the meantime, field missions will be indefinitely suspended. Nevertheless, we will be working towards finding the people behind this attack, and eliminating any threat towards our organisation. We cannot afford to let our enemies think our guard is down because of this tragedy."
Pierce stopped speaking for a couple of seconds to let the information he had just given his subordinates sink in, and brushed a strand of his long, navy hair behind his ear. "It is undeniable that there is a distinct possibility that the car that made it back to our headquarters was followed. As a result, we will be taking every action to tighten security for the next few weeks. Any suspicious behaviour should immediately be reported to a senior member of staff. We will make sure to broadcast all important information." He leant forwards slightly, hands pressed against either side of the wooden podium for support so his fingernails dug into the oak.
"This death marks the end of an era, one which will not be forgotten," Pierce stated, his voice still and objective as it was thrown forwards in the hall. "It marks the fragility of even the most powerful of us, and carries the reminder that there is no such thing as invincibility." His eyes were unblinking and determined as he said the next sentence. "It does not, in any way, mark the end of Team Rocket."
James heard a faint click behind him as the camera at the back of the room was switched off; Pierce relaxed visibly, his shoulders slumping slightly as he looked downwards and stepped away from the podium. There was an uneasy silence before applause broke out, the sound of clapping ringing around the room as Pierce scowled at his feet, not acknowledging the acclamation for his talk but rather swiftly making his way off the stage, avoiding eye contact.
"That was a bit shorter than I thought it would be," Jessie noted, using the volume in the room to her advantage, since she could speak without everyone hearing her. "I mean, he only spoke for a couple of minutes."
"They probably just want to make sure that people know what the situation is, as far as Team Rocket as a whole is concerned," another agent said, joining the conversation out of interest, "which must mean that a lot of people are leaving- or planning to. Otherwise they wouldn't be so eager to spout all that stuff about this not being the end of it all."
"Wait- so you think some people are giving up already?" James asked worriedly.
"Not after that speech," the agent replied. "Besides, even if people are talking about leaving, only a fraction of them will have the guts to actually do it. If you leave with a lot of information about Team Rocket, you're essentially just becoming a civilian who knows too much. Loose ends and all that, you know? And god knows what'd happen if people started joining other syndicates!" The agent smirked, shaking his head a little. "No, they won't let that happen. I reckon they'd either blackmail you into staying or bump you off if you still were adamant about going."
"Team Rocket doesn't just kill people like that," Jessie argued, but she sounded wavering in her assertion.
"The boss might've avoided it, but sometimes there's not any room left to be kind," the agent responded, folding his arms so that the red 'R' on his shirt crumpled, disfiguring the letter. "If someone's a serious hazard to security, they're not going to let them run around just because killing isn't our style. I mean, even the government does it when they have to." He chuckled, and then added in a cynical manner: "And sometimes when they don't."
"So, dat speech was designed to avoid dem havin' to kill off half deir agents," Meowth concluded darkly. "So much for all dat team spirit crap."
"It might not be that," James protested, frowning. "It's just a theory- none of us know enough about what's going on to..." (he paused, trying to think of the appropriate word to use) "... analyse the whole thing."
"Did ya see Pierce up there, Jim?" Meowth asked, raising his eyebrows slightly. "He was terrified of messin' up! Dat amount a' pressure must mean dat somethin's goin' badly wrong."
"Yeah, but... They're making sure it's fixed," James said. He nodded to himself as if to back up his point, since no one else seemed to.
"I hope so," Jessie sighed, and bit her lip anxiously. "Either way, there's no point worrying about it, since there's not really anything we can do. I guess we'll just have to wait until the next announcement."
Heads turned towards the door of the hall as a couple of agents burst through it, breathing heavily with flushed cheeks.
"Where's Pierce?" one of them questioned, sounding a little desperate and looking around for his superior.
"Here," Pierce replied, raising an arm to make himself more visible and abandoning the path he'd been taking towards the exit at the back of the room. He looked concerned at the urgency in the agent's voice, and briskly made his way over to the pair. "What's wrong?" he prompted when he'd reached them.
"It's Andreas, sir," the agent said, catching his breath. When Pierce looked unsure of the name, the agent explained: "The agent we have posing as a cop and gathering intel."
"Go on," Pierce nodded, the people around him listening with interest.
"He's just radioed in to us for an update- apparently the police have become aware that we're in a vulnerable state. He's not sure how much they know, or how they know it, but he says they're preparing to make a move," the agent told him.
Pierce mouthed something that was probably a swear word, and then looked intently at the two agents. "What kind of move?" he pressed.
"By the sounds of it, they're planning to make a bust here very soon," the female agent said. "We don't know much more than that- we can get you on the line with Andreas if you want, and give you all the details, sir," she suggested, jerking her thumb towards the corridor behind her.
When Pierce signalled for them to lead the way, the two agents quickly walked back through the door, holding it open for him before the three moved out of sight.
"How the hell did the cops find out about all this?" Jessie asked as the door shut, her eyes wide.
"Maybe we're not the only ones with spies," the other agent suggested, rubbing his head with worry. "There could be a cop in disguise anywhere in this building, or the other HQs."
"Dis is bad..." Meowth muttered. "So what, Andrew or Andreas- whatever his name is- is a Team Rocket agent pretending to be a cop?" he asked.
"Yeah, that's what they said," James agreed. "It must be terrifying, being in disguise all the time and working so close to the enemy..."
"Let's follow Pierce," Jessie said softly, grabbing James' arm and nudging Meowth with the toe of her boot.
"What?" James yelped as he was dragged towards the door by his sleeve, trying in vain to regain control of the direction in which he was going. "Jessie, he's not going to let us go with him! This sounds like classified information!"
Jessie rolled her eyes, and sighed impatiently. "That's what eavesdropping is for, idiot," she told him, her tone sharp. "Hurry up- we'll lose them if we don't get a move on."
"What if dey see us?" Meowth objected.
"I think they'll be too preoccupied worrying about what this Andreas guy said to notice a couple of agents behind them," Jessie answered, pushing the door open with her free hand. "Besides, we'll be sneaky."
"This doesn't seem like a good idea," James said apprehensively as they entered the hallway. Jessie looked down either end of the corridor, ignoring him, and then- spotting Pierce as he hastily climbed a set of stairs- moved forwards briskly, gesturing to her team mates.
"Come on," she instructed quietly, and let go of James' arm. He stood still for a few moments, watching Jessie and a reluctant Meowth progress down the hall in a manner that he supposed was meant to look natural, and glanced around, trying to think of something, anything, that would persuade his resolute partner not to go ahead with the half-baked and rash course of action. But of course, no such thought sprang to mind, and so, unwillingly, he jogged for a few steps to catch up to his two comrades, and then assumed a normal pace beside them.
"Wait for a few seconds," Jessie whispered, stretching an arm out to her side in front of James and Meowth as a signal to stop walking. She eyed Pierce as he rushed up the last few stairs after the agents in front of him, his back to the trio, and vanished into the next passageway. "Okay," she said with a nod, moving to the staircase and ascending it as quickly as she dared, gloved fingertips brushing the banister as her shoes clicked rhythmically against the wooden steps.
James nearly tripped twice in his attempt to match Jessie's speed, only just saving himself from the painful descent backwards by grabbing onto the railing to his right the second time he stumbled. Jessie either didn't notice her partner's difficulty in keeping up with her pace or didn't care, her attention focused on Pierce.
"He went in that room at the end," Jessie murmured, peeking through the small, rectangular frame in the opening they'd reached. She pushed the metal handle down, leaning the rest of her weight against the heavy door so it swung slowly open, the well-maintained and oiled hinges silent as they moved. Jessie kept going until she was outside the office that Pierce had gone into, and leant casually against the wall neighbouring the entrance, waving James and Meowth over. A faint smile flickered on her lips. "Now we wait," she said, pressing her ear against the door.
"What if there are cameras here?" James hissed, scanning the ceiling for any signs of the dreaded machinery. "Someone could walk in- or what if they open the door again and see us here?" he asked, his fear apparent in both his voice and expression.
"Jeez, James, relax," Jessie replied, and raised a finger to her mouth. "And shut up. I'm trying to listen."
Grudgingly, James crouched down on the other side of the door, catching Meowth's eye with a wary expression and getting a sympathetic shrug in return. He shifted so he could hear better, paranoid that someone would see them at any second. For a fleeting moment, knelt down on the grubby tiled floor with his head resting against the entrance of the room, James wondered how his life had got to this point. His past self, rich and spoiled in his childhood estate, would surely not have believed it if he was told that before the time he was twenty-five he would be a notorious member of a criminal organisation, wanted by the authorities and set on goals he never would have cared about previously. James shrugged the thought off with a small smirk.
"Can we call Andreas, then?" came Pierce's voice from inside the office, full of an urgency James hadn't heard in his tone before. He cursed something incomprehensible, and then said, "Do the other headquarters know about this?"
"We sent a message to each of our bases as soon as we received the news, sir," one of the agents replied. No one said anything for a few seconds. "I can't connect the call, sir," the agent said eventually.
"What do you mean, 'can't connect'?" Pierce demanded. "There's a signal, isn't there?"
"I- he's not picking up, sir," the Rocket stuttered, intimidated by the higher-up's forceful attitude (albeit out of character).
"For fuck's sake!" Pierce growled loudly, this time fully audible even through the layer of wall; James thought he heard the sound of a chair being kicked over, though he wasn't sure.
"Should I try again, sir?" the female agent inquired meekly, after giving Pierce some time to vent.
"No," Pierce exhaled, sounding frustrated but calmer. "He might not be answering because he's in danger of being compromised. We shouldn't do anything that might worsen the situation- wait for him to call back." He discontinued his speech again, and then asked: "Do we have any other agents with information on police activity that we could contact?"
"Not ones who are either trusted enough by the police to know what's going on, or in the right area, since they're only targeting this building at present," the male Rocket said. "We checked the database, and there's no one else."
"Okay. Tell me everything Andreas said to you," Pierce ordered.
"He called about half an hour ago- he sounded like he was in a hurry, probably because he couldn't get away from the other officers for very long without being overheard- and said that he'd heard some cops talking about a mission involving launching a surprise attack on this base. They said that they're putting all their manpower into it- more than a hundred officers on foot, helicopters, cars- everything they've got.
"He asked them why they were suddenly going back to targeting Team Rocket, and someone told him that Giovanni had been killed. Said he didn't ask how they knew, 'cause he didn't want to seem overly-interested about the whole thing to avoid suspicion, but one of them said that it was soon, either tonight or early tomorrow morning.
"Apparently, these were only low-ranking officers talking, so he's not sure how accurate all the facts are, but it's obvious that they are planning something in the near future," the agent said. "After that, I could hear a door opening, and Andreas hung up."
"Shit," Pierce swore. "I just hope that his cover wasn't blown." He hesitated before speaking again. "We can't combat a force that big," he said. "If we tried to take them on directly, we'd only be able to slow them down for a little while, and we'd risk a large number of agents being taken into custody. Even if we were victorious, they'd still know the location of this base. They could easily call backup. It'd be foolish to even try fighting them."
"What do you suggest as a course of action, sir?" James heard the female Rocket ask.
"We don't have time to try and form a plan to distract or trick them," Pierce mused out loud. "There's not really much choice- we're going to have to desert this base before they get here."
Neither of the agents responded to this statement.
"Whoa," Jessie whispered, looking over at James. "This sounds really serious."
"We're abandoning this HQ?" James repeated incredulously in a lowered voice. He felt the build up of adrenaline at the very notion of such a plan.
"Betta dan gettin' busted by da cops," Meowth reminded him.
Their conversation was cut short by the trill of a ringtone from inside the room- the three quickly turned their attention back to listening in on Pierce and the other two people.
"It's Andreas, sir," the woman said after answering the call.
"Let me talk to him," Pierce said. "Hello? Andreas- thank god."
James realised that eavesdropping would be a lot harder when they could only hear Pierce's side of the verbal exchange over the phone: he looked over at Jessie, but she only motioned to stay.
"Yes, so I've been told," Pierce replied to whatever Andreas had said on the other side of the connection. "What else is going on? We need to know everything as soon as possible." About twenty seconds passed. "Oh, I see," Pierce said. "Crap. Two AM? That doesn't give us much time... Keep trying to find out what you can. Yeah. Oh, well, the plan is just to hold our ground and wait for them to make their move, and then pretend to surrender. When they think they've won, we'll start fighting back. It's going to be dicey, but it's all we've got so far. Yeah, thanks. I'll be in touch."
There was a faint beep as Pierce ended the call.
"...Sir?" the male agent said, sounding utterly confused. "Is there a change of plan?"
"The cops know Andreas is a Rocket," Pierce told him sternly, much to James' surprise. "He used the code sentence we prepared for such a situation when talking to me. Most likely, they overheard him when he was calling you earlier, and then, knowing his real identity, forced him to call us a second time just now and pretend that everything was fine, to try and find out what we're planning to do. They must have been listening in on that entire conversation."
"So... His cover's blown?" the woman concluded.
"Yes, as if enough hadn't already gone wrong," Pierce said angrily. "So everything Andreas just told me was a load of bullshit that the police made him say to try and throw us off. Which means that they're planning to move in much earlier than two AM, so we'd be unprepared. I just made up a fake plan so that they're expecting us to fight. In their eyes, I just filled Andreas in on what's going on, and told him the truth. At least they're clueless that we know he's been found out. It won't resolve the problem completely, but this way they won't be anticipating us to go anywhere."
"The police made him lie to you?" the male Rocket parroted. "Would he really do what they said?"
Pierce sighed. "A Team Rocket member who can retrieve information from us is of huge value to the cops," he explained wearily. "They'll have blackmailed and threatened him until he had little choice but to obey them. To his credit, he did think to use the code."
"Wow, quick thinking," Jessie said, sounding impressed with Pierce for coming up with such a ruse on his feet the way he had.
"That's not what you should be focusin' on!" Meowth replied. "Da cops just got onto us, and den Pierce realised what da cops were doin'- a lot just happened!"
James groaned. "I'm so confused..."
"The bottom line is, Pierce just tricked the police," Jessie responded tersely.
"We're wasting time here," Pierce announced from inside the room. "We have a few hours at best to prepare. Wipe the computers, and destroy anything else that the cops might want to get their hands on. Load anything important or valuable into the cargo trucks- get the grunts to do that. Make sure everyone knows what's going on. We'll move to the headquarters in Unova- this isn't a huge base, so there should be enough space on the aircraft we have available. Be ready to leave at five PM."
"Yes sir," the two agents chorused. James panicked as he realised that they were walking towards the door, their footsteps growing steadily louder.
"Move!" Jessie said, springing to her feet and quickly pulling Meowth away from the office. James got up with as much speed as was possible, and started to walk with Jessie down the hallway, trying to look normal as the two agents appeared behind him. He braved a quick look over his shoulder: the female Rocket glared suspiciously at him for a moment, but didn't stick around, clearly keen to get on with her assigned task.
"So we're really packin' up and leavin' dis base?" Meowth said.
"Seems so," Jessie breathed. "I suppose it's not the worst thing to happen..."
"That's if we manage to leave in time," James said under his breath. "We don't even know when the police are really getting here."
"Oh, stop being so negative," Jessie tutted.
"Yeah, please," Meowth concurred. "I tink my blood pressure's high enough."
It took three minutes to reach the main reception, where the woman behind the desk informed them as they passed by that the building was being evacuated, and that they should help carry supplies.
"I just got a message about it," she said, almost chattily. "They should be reporting it over the intercom soon. Anyway, you'll want to head to the garages outside."
"Thanks," Jessie smiled.
As they reached the large slab of a door, ridges pressed into the rusted metal, the speakers- as predicted- crackled to life, and a man made the announcement, twice to ensure that everyone heard it. Agents had already started to congregate outside, many of them asking questions that were replied to by their peers with uninformed and largely made-up answers.
James couldn't help but think, as he watched the people in front of him start to carry crates in preparation to leave, that Giovanni was spinning in his newly-dug grave.
Chapter 3: Sweet Monotony
For how long they'd been flying, James didn't know. He didn't have a means of telling the time on his person, and was too preoccupied listening to the other agents in hope of a good piece of news- and indeed in fear of a bad one- to ask anyone else.
The windows lining each side of the aircraft did little to make the situation clearer; there was no visible police presence in the sky, but the thick clouds engulfing them stopped such a fact from offering any comfort. James knew that anything more than twenty five metres away would be impossible to see, and although the pilot must have had a radar, he was clueless as to whether it was picking up more than the Team Rocket planes flying next to them.
"Good timing, all dis," Meowth said, turning his head to the window beside him. He realised that his team mates were confused, and waved a paw. "I mean, right after dat speech."
Jessie let out a ragged laugh, leaning further back in her chair with crossed arms. "Yeah, well, that's just our luck, isn't it?"
She sighed, pushing her hands against the seat so she was more upright again.
"Dis isn't our style, dough," Meowth went on, frowning. "Da boss'd always stand his ground and find some loophole to make da cops look like idiots. He was right in deir faces with it all- even ran a public gym!" His smile faded quickly. "And now we're just runnin' away."
"That was when Giovanni was still running things," Jessie reminded him. "Besides, you should be used to it by now. Running away I mean."
Meowth smirked, almost bitterly. "Ya gotta point dere."
James shifted in his seat, struggling to get comfortable with the two seatbelts forming an 'X' across his chest, biting the skin under his shirt. He considered just undoing them, but didn't want to risk getting thrown around should there be turbulence, or any kind of circumstance that might make the pilot resort to reckless flying.
"Do you think we left in time?" he asked, after a few minutes of no one saying anything.
"I reckon so," Jessie answered with a shrug, "but it's difficult to say for certain. We've got no way of telling whether the police bought Pierce's fake plan, or when they were planning to actually raid the base." She paused in thought. "I guess they could have got there just after we left, but at the same time, they could still be preparing for the attack."
"Ugh- I don't want ta tink about da foist possibility," Meowth grimaced.
"Well, we must nearly be there by now anyway," Jessie said. It was harder to tell with only the odd patch of visible sky, but it was evidently much darker than it was when they'd left the Team Rocket base, after checking as scrutinously as time allowed that they'd taken all the precautions necessary.
"Yeah, seems like it," James agreed.
"I dunno," Meowth replied, a worried expression creeping onto his face again. "Didn't dey say dat we were gonna go all da way back to Unova, since da cops'll be expectin' us to head to the nearest base?" he pointed out.
"Oh yeah," Jessie said, before nodding again. "But it shouldn't take that long, even so. We must be going pretty damn fast."
"Do you really think there's a spy in Team Rocket?" James blurted, getting their attention. "It would explain how the police caught on to our situation so quickly," he explained, more softly this time.
Jessie sighed. "I honestly don't know, James," she told him. "I doubt it, considering how careful they are before trusting agents with information."
"But, that was before everything started going wrong," James countered. He glanced around to check no one was within earshot before continuing. "And if we managed to eavesdrop on them, how hard could it be for someone else to?"
He waited for Jessie to roll her eyes, to tell him he was stupid and argue back. When she just stared ahead, he scanned her expression for any kind of indication that she thought he was wrong, looking for the familiar crease that formed in her brow before she voiced her disagreement to something. When he saw nothing, he wished he'd kept the query to himself, lest she should confirm his fear.
"Not very," Jessie finally said, not turning her head to face him. "You're right- there's no real structure. I guess that now that Giovanni's gone, everyone's too busy just trying to keep things running at all to bother keeping an eye out for people skulking around."
Against the denying sentences he kept chanting over and over in his mind, James found himself agreeing with her; Pierce had taken very minimal measures in making sure that he wasn't followed, leaving himself open for just about anybody with a basic level of expertise in sneaking to tail- and in Team Rocket, that meant everyone.
Hours passed. All three of them remained unusually quiet, concentrating on their surroundings, the smudge of blue and grey through the window. The only interesting thing that really happened in the duration of the time they spent there was when the pilot instructed everyone to get to their seats, and rumour quickly formed that the police had finally caught up; the suspicions were dismissed when it turned out that the blip on the radar had only been an airline plane.
The vehicle dipped down in the sky, and in just fleeting moments, there it was: Unova, like a neatly-drawn map with its carefully divided sections, forests of trees and buildings neighbouring each other in attractive contrast, never quite managing to touch. James mused that, although pretty, he'd never like to permanently reside in such a place; his time there, much like a lot of the region itself, had been notably serious, organised to the point where he'd felt a lack of character. It seemed that that was the price for success, to feel like more than a walking joke.
He expected either Jessie or Meowth (or both of them) to make some comment, but neither did, just rose their eyes to the seatbelt icon as it flashed green with an artificial 'ding'. Perhaps they too were thinking back on their short-lived careers in the place- with positive or negative feelings, James had no clue. His own were too much of a tangled blur to begin to unpick.
After arriving at a makeshift runway that was really little more than a large car park next to the base (cleared of other vehicles in preparation for the oncoming planes), with what the pilot had described as "generous application of the brakes" and Jessie had as "a shitty landing", a flock of grunts rushed out to meet the aircraft. They were so eager in approaching the plane that James was terrified one of them would get pulled into the still rotating blades of the propeller; to his relief, the grunts all managed to avoid such a gruesome end, and instead began helping with the wearing task of unloading the seemingly endless crates the agents on board had worn themselves out packing into the cargo section only a few hours ago.
James raised a hand to his face, squinting in preparation for a sudden change in brightness as he, Jessie and Meowth stepped onto the metal stairs that sloped to the ground. Whilst the lighting did diverge greatly from inside the aircraft, it was not in the way he'd anticipated; rather, it was considerably darker outside, the sky overcast and much greyer than James remembered it being through the window. Dropping his arm, he contemplated that perhaps clouds looked darker underneath than they did overhead.
"Let's get inside," Meowth piped up, nudging James uncomfortably in the small of his back to try to get the human to move. The cat's teeth chattered audibly, almost obnoxiously loudly to the point where James suspected the Pokemon was purposely exaggerating the noise to inflate their sympathy for him.
"We get it, you're cold," Jessie said flatly, as if reading his mind. James noticed the goosebumps that had crawled up his flesh for the first time; it was bitter- maybe not to the point that Meowth was making it out to be, but the temperature was still low enough for the cold to bleed through the fabric of James' uniform and brush across his skin.
"I'm f-freezin'!" Meowth elaborated. He rubbed his shoulders, shivering violently- maybe it wasn't an act after all, James thought, though with Meowth's constant trickery it was impossible to be sure.
"At least you've got fur," he said, starting to climb down the stairs, wary of the frost that clung to each step.
"Ya got clothes!" Meowth retorted ("Thank god," Jessie mumbled with a smirk). "Hurry it up Jim, my paws are gettin' numb."
James did his best to oblige, managing to walk a little more quickly with a hand pressed against each railing. Most of the other agents who'd been on board were either helping to carry the cargo, or just making their way over to the base, which was easily visible from where they were. It loomed above the trees either side of it with impressive height, an imperfect copy of the sky reflected on its largely glass surface. As was the norm with any Team Rocket building, a red 'R' was displayed very conspicuously at the top (though James supposed the area was remote enough to get away with advertising criminal presence).
They crossed the wide spread of concrete, behind the others who'd opted out of any further heavy lifting, and filed into the building. The rise in temperature embraced James abruptly: he took a moment to appreciate the perfectly air-conditioned room.
"Ah, dat's betta," Meowth breathed, immediately finding the nearest radiator and pushing his back against the ribbed metal.
"You'd have thought that he'd be used to the cold, after all that time we spend roughing it," Jessie mumbled to James. He smiled feebly.
"Well, however many times we get blasted into the air, it never seems to get less painful," he said. "And however many times we put on a half-baked disguise and tell the twerp to give us Pikachu for some made-up reason, he never seems to get any more suspicious."
Jessie laughed- a real laugh, not the forced one he'd heard her put on so many times since Giovanni had died. The sound had become so rare that hearing it flooded James with relief, and a strange reassurance, if only for an evanescent moment.
"That's true," Jessie said eventually, and took her chin in her hand, looking pensive. "Maybe it's better that things don't change too much." Her eyes flickered sideways, and met his, a brilliant azure under the artificial lights. "At least that way, everything's predictable."
And in that moment, James had no idea how much he would grow to long for that very thing; for routine, a repetitive sequence of events: for nothing to change.
And certainly not in the way it would come to.
The hallway was crowded, to say the least. Agents ranking from grunts to senior staff crammed into the narrow space, shoes scraping against the rough carpet as they moved forward to try and make their questions heard.
"Did anyone die?"
"Was there a chase? Did the cops really show up?"
"What about all the data in the base? You guys made sure to wipe it all, right?"
"Come on," Jessie told James and Meowth as another agent who'd been on board with them started filling in the details, relishing the attention. "Let's find our room before even more people get here."
The suggestion was fairly out of character for her: usually, Jessie would be more than happy to re-tell the events to her fellow members, twisting the story so it painted the three of them in a better light than they'd ever stood in, and James and Meowth would have joined in with zeal. But, James thought, if she'd reacted in such a way at that point, it would have seemed strange. The events that had passed had lessened her usual appetite for fame, her enthusiasm for respect and reputation. She was just... tired, all of a sudden. They all were.
Ignoring the flight of stairs, the three lazily opted for the elevator, and waited longer than it would have taken to just walk for the lift to descend to the floor they were on. Thankfully, it was vacant, and they rode it up, cruelly reminded of their bedraggled appearance by the mirror that took up an entire wall.
Jessie located the correct room after refreshing her memory of the number on the key they'd been given at the reception, and opened the door by slotting the plastic card into the digital lock embedded into the wall, which beeped with an emerald flash.
"Thank god that's all over," she remarked, sinking onto the lower bunk of one of the beds.
"Yeah," Meowth agreed. "It felt too close for comfort at times."
James noticed a mini fridge tucked in one corner of the room, and couldn't help but feel a little hopeful at the prospect of imminent food. "Looks like they've updated the place a bit since we were last here," he said, pulling the door open and grinning despite it all at the sight of three fully stocked shelves. His eyes were drawn in particular to the branded sodas Team Rocket supplied, and he took one, along with a sandwich.
"Well, dat solves da issue of havin' ta get past dat crowd to da cafeteria," Meowth said, helping himself to a packet of dumplings.
When they'd eaten (and James had slipped the recently removed bottle cap into his pocket), Jessie announced to the others that she was taking a shower, and monopolised the bathroom for the next half-hour whilst Meowth and James alternated between doing nothing in particular and speculating on whether they'd really gotten away with ditching the base or not. A few minutes after Jessie re-emerged, wearing a clean change of uniform with her hair cascading down her back in its undried state, an agent knocked on their door and told them to turn on the news.
"Apparently there's gonna be coverage of what happened back in Kalos this morning," he explained. "Might wanna check it out."
"What channel is it on?" Jessie asked as he began to walk away.
"Two," his voice called back, and James quickly snatched the remote from the table, turning the small flat screen television on and switching channels until he found the right one.
They sat through two minutes of terrible commercials before the vaguely familiar jingle to the news played, and a smartly dressed man and woman appeared on the screen. After a tedious story about some pop star that none of them cared about having an affair, the footage changed to show the base they'd abandoned, surrounded by stationary police cars. All three of them were mildly amused by the introduction to the story, which described Team Rocket as "a highly-dangerous crime syndicate known for its ruthless approach to outsiders."
"They flatter us," Jessie cooed approvingly. Meowth held up a paw, leaning in closer to the screen.
"Shh Jess, I'm tryin' ta listen!"
"... failed police raid early this morning that has raised questions as to whether the law enforcement is taking the right approach into disbanding illegal organisations," the male reporter said, taking slow strides to the right. "Just hours ago, a confirmed twenty police cars, as well as air re-enforcement and nearly a hundred armed officers, moved into the Team Rocket territory with the plan of a surprise attack that would result in the arrest of all agents present. However, by the time police officials arrived at the headquarters, it had already been evacuated." The camera panned sideways to show an Officer Jenny, looking uncomfortable. "Officer Jenny," the reporter went on, looking slightly pleased with himself. "Exactly what went wrong with today's operation?"
"There was no error on the behalf of the squad sent in," Jenny replied, trying (a little unsuccessfully) to keep a poker face. "A piece of misleading information triggered the failure, and we are doing everything within our power to track down the perpetrators."
"I've been told that emergency response time in the police department was extremely slow in the area for several hours, due to all the manpower invested in the mission," the man informed her gravely. "I'm sure the people in Kalos affected by this will be concerned that their safety is being compromised for what seems to be a wild goose chase."
"I can assure you that every emergency call was answered, and that no one came to harm as a result," Jenny said, sounding more and more nervous. "The safety of the public remains our first priority."
"And what can you say to the many people still worried that the likes of Team Rocket could strike at any time? Is there an end in sight to this terrible organisation?"
"Turn it off," Jessie said as Officer Jenny began to spout promises that all Rockets would be brought to justice. James looked at her quizzically. "She's not going to tell us anything else useful, you can tell," Jessie explained. "Shame the cops are smart enough to know that what they reveal to the public, they reveal to us as well."
"At least we know that they didn't show up straight after we moved out," James said as Meowth hit the red button on the remote and the screen buzzed back to black. "That must have bought us some time, right?"
"Depends if Jenny's bluffing," Jessie shrugged, "but I'd bet that she wasn't. The cops would probably want to say anything reassuring they could afford to, just to calm the public down and stop the media from making them look as hopeless."
"Seemed like we're betta informed dan da repoita was," Meowth noted. "Didn't sound like he'd even been told 'bout da phone call."
"Or he was holding back," Jessie said. "Not that I'm complaining, but that channel's biased as hell."
The next week was surprisingly pleasant. Jessie, James and Meowth spent their spare time (which, at that point, was pretty much all of their time) playing cards, helping out with odd jobs in the once familiar building or training their Pokemon. James found himself in better spirits than he had since Giovanni's murder; dare he admit it, in better spirits than he had in a long time before that. In the rare moments he'd only have his thoughts for company, they'd no longer torture him over the death of his boss, or flood his mind with the still fresh memories of helping the criminal mastermind hobble away from Meloetta and all the damage they'd caused, of the rare praise he'd given them. And when he did think of such things, James no longer felt a pang of grief in his stomach. It was as if the problem didn't exist anymore, and- frustrated at his sudden emotional barrier- he tried to convince himself it was just as real, that nothing had changed. But something inside him refused to accept it, even on the occasions he'd hear Meowth sobbing quietly into his pillow at night when the cat Pokemon thought his partners were asleep.
Denial, James told himself. That was one stage of grief, and he was sure that his strangely placid mood was a result of it. Being self-aware did nothing to change the effect it had on him, but, remembering the initial turmoil he'd felt following Giovanni's death, he grew grateful for the lack of feeling. If this was denial, James decided it was preferable by a long shot to the alternatives.
Desperate to keep themselves busy, the three of them wandered outside, and resumed the task they'd started earlier that day: packing boxes of Gym badges into a delivery truck. None of them knew if they were actually being helpful or not, seeing as how there was no current Gym Leader to challenge, but they were more interested in a distraction than creating profit for someone who no longer existed.
"Dat's box twenty," Meowth said, not strong enough to lift the cargo himself so narrating the situation instead.
"You'd have thought this would be more badges than anyone could ever give out," Jessie panted.
"Yeah," James agreed. "Even if we gave the twerps one of these for every time they've beaten us, I think we'd still have some to spare."
Jessie smiled. "Maybe someone messed up on manufacture," she said. "You know, added an extra zero or four to the quantity. Or forgot the decimal place."
Dusk was steadily approaching, the horizon a blur of bright colours and the sun no longer visible. Realising that the work would be horrendously difficult without the usual glare of streetlights to show the way, Jessie suggested that they retreat back to the building for the meantime, and find something else to do there.
"Don't they usually have lights on outside at night time?" James asked, thinking it odd that a base with such advanced technology would have its activity restricted by the cycle of the sun.
"I think they're trying not to make our presence any more obvious than they have to, with all the heat the cops are giving us at the moment," Jessie conjectured. "It might be a desolate area, but if they fly in helicopters overhead and see a bunch of lights coming from an unmapped spot in the middle of nowhere, they're bound to get suspicious and check it out."
"Identification?" a grunt standing outside the door asked, holding out her hand. Since security had increased, it was required of all agents to prove their membership before entering the building, whether they'd been away for several months or five minutes. Jessie and James dug out the acrylic cards from their pockets, and handed them to the woman.
"Who's checking that she's a genuine Rocket?" James thought, but not with any real concern. He knew how keen his superiors were to remedy the situation, and that they wouldn't let such a stupid oversight slip by unnoticed.
The grunt gave their IDs back, nodding. They were about to move past her when James heard the sound of approaching footsteps behind him, and noticed the woman's frown.
Stopping mere inches from the backs of the trio, the man nodded at the grunt, who looked very concerned at his presence, eyeing his navy suit and bowler hat. James watched her discreetly push an almost invisible button on the wall.
"I was told this was the best base to go to," the man said, his tone almost a drawl, but with no defining accent to it. Jessie took a step back to let him forwards, and motioned for the others to do the same. "Given the situation, it's impressive anything's running at all."
"I think you have the wrong building, sir," the grunt replied, her voice firm. A few other Rockets appeared behind her, visibly armed. The man appeared unruffled by her statement. In fact, he smiled, though not in a disagreeable way. If anything, it came across as friendly.
"I don't think I do," he chuckled, and pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his jacket pocket, holding it out to the Rockets before him, who looked at it as if it were laced with poison. The grunt hesitantly took it, and James saw her eyes skim across the words, widening slightly as they did so. Smile unmoving and just as warm, the man stepped further into the pool of light by the door, revealing light brown hair and a fairly young complexion. James estimated that he was about thirty five.
"Who are you?" one of the other agents asked sharply, motioning for the woman to pass the piece of paper to him.
"My name is Carter," the man answered, his voice calm, and showing no signs of veering from that emotion. "I'm Giovanni's cousin."
Chapter 4: Genesis
"What do you think he's here for?"
James was halfway through a somewhat overly ambitious mouthful of pancakes when Jessie posed the question, his response consequently hindered by coughs and a temporary fight for breath.
"Who, Carter?" he finally asked, when he'd successfully washed the food down with some orange juice.
"No, Professor Oak," Jessie quipped, throwing him a friendly smirk. "Yes, Carter. Who else?"
Meowth rubbed his neck in thought, and tapped the cafeteria table with the handle of his knife. "Maybe da boss left him somethin' fancy in his will," he suggested. "If he's his cousin, he must a' had a decent share of da inheritance, 'specially since it sounded like Giovanni didn't have dat many leaves on his family tree."
"Well, it seems like it's the talk of the building," Jessie said. "His entrance wasn't exactly low profile."
James moved his attention away from his plate at this. "Other people are talking about him?" he asked, a little startled at this new piece of information.
"Uh huh," Jessie replied flatly. "It's hardly surprising. The guy was the boss' cousin, after all. That makes him something of a V.I.P." She let the steel spoon she'd been holding drop back into her bowl, and watched the cereal quake. "Wonder how he found this base in the first place."
They finished breakfast with little haste (seeing as they didn't really have anything to do), and repeated the order of events they'd rehearsed so well over the last few days: steal from the vending machine when no one was watching, pace around the halls with no purpose, and then sign out at reception to sit outside. The woman behind the desk smiled sympathetically as she gave them the piece of paper to sign, as if silently acknowledging that she thought the formality of a signature every time someone left the building was unnecessary, that it wasn't her idea.
"Have you three been assigned a new task yet?" she asked them, catching their attention just before they left the building.
"A new task?" James parroted, confused.
"Didn't dey stop missions until everything's less... Chaotic?" Meowth expanded.
The receptionist frowned. "The suspension was lifted this morning," she said. "They announced it through the speakers. Didn't you hear it?"
James grinned sheepishly under the glares of his partners, who he'd told the night before that sleeping in for once wouldn't hurt.
"I told ya we should a' set da alarm clock," Meowth grumbled.
Jessie settled on rolling her eyes, and looked back to the woman. "No, we haven't been given a task," she said. "Should we have?"
The woman tapped a few keys on her laptop, her face bathed in the pale glow of the screen as her eyes flickered over the text. "Ah- you're field agents," she muttered, seemingly more to herself than to the trio in front of her. "In that case, you can resume whatever you were doing before."
A strange mixture of emotions stirred within James as he took in this news; he was being given back the life he'd so badly missed, and yet something nagged at the back of his mind that all was not right. Even if they went back to their old routine, he knew that it could never be truly the same. James couldn't imagine pursuing the twerps with any of the hope or ambition he had previously held, not when his world had been twisted to the extent that everything he'd considered important now looked petty. A part of his conscious insisted that reverting to that state of bliss was impossible. He did his best to ignore it.
"Give me a hand with dis, would ya Jimmy?"
James turned at Meowth's question, and nodded his head, moving over to the balloon.
"I can't get da fire ta work properly," the cat Pokémon elaborated, tugging the rope above him in demonstration. A plume of flames reached upwards, but only for a couple of seconds: not for long enough to raise the aircraft. James huffed a sigh, and knelt down.
"Let me take a look," he offered. Meowth shifted over without comment to give him space.
"Any luck?" Jessie asked after a couple of minutes, having watched James fiddle with the controls with no articulated progress.
"Not so far," James said. His hand fumbled behind him briefly in search of a discarded screwdriver. "I don't see any obvious problems..."
"Budge," Jessie said curtly, swinging over the side of the basket with the ease of someone who'd performed such an action countless times. She barely had time to frown at the machinery before a grunt appeared behind them.
"Jessie and James?" he asked, his face slightly flushed (presumably from the jog he'd just broken out of).
"An' Meowth!" Meowth protested as his companions nodded.
"You've been removed from field work," the grunt told them.
"Wh-What?" Jessie choked, her skin paling visibly. The agent waved his hands.
"Nothing to worry about- your rank will remain the same," he clarified. "The same order goes for all field agents in this half Unova. No discrimination." James' stomach ceased to twist as the news sunk in; they weren't being fired or demoted. Better yet, they weren't being singled out for something.
"You're sending us mixed messages here," Jessie said. "We were told just yesterday that field work had been unsuspended."
The grunt pursed his lips. "I'm sorry, I don't know anything else about it."
"Wait- so dere are no field agents at all in dis area now?" Meowth questioned. "Ya sure 'bout dat?"
"That's what I was told to inform you," the grunt confirmed.
As James' thoughts settled enough for him to think about the matter, it dawned on him that it was a strange order. Field work had always been Team Rocket's main method of profit- to call it off in such a large zone seemed illogical.
"Never mind that," Jessie chimed in. "What are we meant to do? We've been field agents ever since we passed training!"
"I haven't been given any further details," the grunt replied, shrugging his shoulders. He turned to leave, but paused after a couple of steps. "You could try asking Pierce or someone," he suggested before continuing to walk away. They followed his advice, heading back towards headquarters and ditching the balloon in the process.
"Hey!" Meowth complained as a couple of agents pushed past them hurriedly. They glanced back at him momentarily, and one of them gestured to the lecture hall ahead.
"You're going to want to see this," the girl told them, then turned away and resumed her prior pace.
"See what?" Jessie asked, but only after the pair had jogged out of earshot.
"Shall we find out?" James proposed. Meowth and Jessie didn't have to reply: their expressions alone screamed 'yes'. Their gazes met briefly, and in unprepared unison, they strode forwards to the double doors.
The room was in chaos.
Agents bellowed overlapping questions to the person behind the podium, fury and bemusement all too clear in their shouts. The woman they were addressing looked overwhelmed.
"Calm down!" she ordered, with little compliance on behalf of her audience.
"Who the hell is deciding this crap?" James picked out amongst the tangle of words. He couldn't tell where the voice was coming from exactly, but it was female and vaguely familiar. "You can't just tell us that we're off the field, with no explanation, and expect us to go along with it!"
"That's all I've been told!" the woman defended. "I don't know what you want me to tell you!"
"Maybe start with who's suddenly calling shots around here?" a male grunt yelled back.
The woman sighed in frustration. "I can't-"
"It's okay," someone interrupted, their voice loud but steady. James didn't have to look at them to know who it was.
Carter moved through the crowd, and up onto the stage, where he smiled in sympathy to the woman. His royal blue suit caught in the light as he gestured for her to pass him the microphone.
"I'm sorry for all the confusion," he apologised when it was quiet enough for him to do so. All of a sudden, no one else was speaking. The attention of the room was was solely his. Carter flashed a sheepish smile. "It was by my decision that field missions in this area were terminated," he admitted. He allowed a few moments for the news to settle before going on: "My name is Carter. I arrived here the day before last in order to revise the will of my cousin, Giovanni- your former employer." No one else dared break the silence, so he continued. "It is with the highest admiration for my predecessor that I find myself taking over his role."
James' mind buzzed with unfiltered information. Once again, the hall broke out into a din of conversation as he tried to organise his thoughts. It was Meowth who was the first of the three to speak.
"Well," the cat said, looking up at Carter with tired eyes, "I guess we know why he's here now."
After the initial shock of Giovanni's replacement announcing himself, the agents in the room seemed to take more care in the liberty of their complaints. It seemed the realisation that it wouldn't be wise to argue about changes made by their new boss in front of him had hit them. It took little further encouragement for them to disperse, leaving the room as quickly as they'd entered. James, Jessie and Meowth were no exceptions to this pattern of behaviour.
"I suppose someone had to take over," Jessie said later on in one of the lobbies. "Why not him? He must have known Giovanni well enough."
"Oh, please," someone to their left scoffed. "It should have been one of the executives- not just his closest relative."
Jessie glared over her shoulder to retort to the speaker, but quickly balked when she saw who it was. "C-Cassidy?" she remarked. James turned at this to confirm the presence of their nemeses.
"Don't even think about it," Butch snapped before James could get his name wrong.
"What are youse two doin' here?" Meowth asked, raising an eyebrow. "I t'ought you had woik in Sinnoh!"
"I t'ought so too," Butch smirked, "but what can I say? It seems like everything's going down here. It was too much to resist, especially since things in Sinnoh are... Disorganised, to put it mildly."
"You flew all the way over here just to see the drama?" Jessie questioned, unbelieving. Cassidy laughed bitterly.
"I wish that was it," she snarled. "You idiots clearly don't know how screwed up things are in some of the other regions. The cops are on all our asses 24/7, and so far, it's been every person for themselves. We flew over here because we heard that things are somewhat together in Unova. Or at least that there wasn't as huge a risk of getting mobbed by the police every time we turned a corner."
For the first time since the beginning of their exchange, James noticed that Butch and Cassidy's uniform was looking worse for wear. "When did you arrive?" he asked them.
"About an hour ago," Butch replied, and then noticed that James was looking at the state of his clothes. "Oh, yeah." He turned his shoulder to examine a rip in his sleeve, exposing a thin cut that ran down his arm. "A pack of Growlithe will do that to you. Stupid Officer Jenny."
Jessie had moved her attention back to arguing with Cassidy, who sported the same bruises as her partner. "What makes you think that an executive will do any better than this guy?" she asked.
"Oh, come on. If Giovanni's cousin had anything to do with Team Rocket, don't you think we would have seen him by now? Or at least have heard of him?" Cassidy countered. "Anonymity says nothing for one's reputation. He's just some inexperienced guy in a business suit who happens to be the only living relative of a dead criminal mastermind."
Butch shrugged. "Maybe. I don't know." He pushed himself up from his chair, wincing as his weight pressed down on his injured ankle. "I'm going to try and find a new uniform to change into," he muttered. Cassidy stood to join him.
"We should clean up the cuts first, before they get infected," she said quietly. Butch nodded.
"Typical of you losers to get pummelled," Jessie snorted. "Can you ever keep out of trouble for more than five minutes?"
Cassidy gritted her teeth, looking unusually fragile despite her display of anger, as though she was about to collapse. "Jessie," she said softly, almost too calm. "I know that for the last couple of weeks you've had the good luck to have been babied by the agents who know what they're doing, but we haven't." Her purple eyes glinted with both fury and terror. "It's hell in the other regions. I thought-"
She bit back a sob as her voice cracked, and then recomposed her glare. "I thought we were going to die."
"Cass-" Butch started, frowning with worry, but was cut off by Cassidy's response:
"Someone has to tell them what it's like," she growled. "They've got no fucking clue." A brief silence passed before she continued, barely pausing between her flurry of words. "The cops must have doubled their efforts in bringing in Rockets, because suddenly they were everywhere. We had a couple of close calls, but we managed to throw a disguise together and spent a week in some shitty motel. But then the police tracked us down, and a guy mugged us as we were walking out of the city, and Butch got stabbed, and we had to sneak into a hospital just to get him treated without getting arrested." Cassidy drew in a long breath that left her shuddering. "It's not what it was like before. No one's there to bail you out, and god knows how many years on a sentence our criminal records have clocked up. Long story short, Jessie, I'm exhausted, and a lot of people I care about are either missing or in jail. I'm not in the mood for some stupid argument."
For once, Jessie said nothing in response to her rival. She simply watched, dumbstruck, as Cassidy trudged out of the room, Butch limping a few steps behind her.
A few days later, a note came through the door of Jessie, James and Meowth's room. It was printed, and told them to go up to Giovanni's old office. The request more than slightly unsettled them; not only was it strange thinking of returning to that room and knowing that the man who'd always been there wouldn't, but the message didn't tell them why. In their unfortunate experience, a meeting with the boss was rarely a good thing. But, not having much other choice, they went.
Already waiting outside were about twenty other agents, a revelation that somewhat quelled James' anxiety. Butch and Cassidy were among those present. James wondered, examining their stony expressions, if they knew something that he didn't, but the double doors opened before he could reach any unfounded conclusion.
"Carter will see you all now," Matori- Giovanni's former secretary- told them, leaning out of the doorway momentarily.
Carter was standing behind the mahogany desk when they walked in, a silhouette against the large window behind him. He smiled at the group.
"Good morning," he greeted. A couple of people mumbled a shy response. "I'm sorry for the short notice- I've been in Kalos for the last thirty six hours, but I wanted to get this done as soon as I could." Carter rose an eyebrow at his subordinates' nervous faces, and chuckled. "I'm not firing you if that's what you're worrying about," he assured them.
Upon Carter's gesture, two grunts that had been standing quietly, awaiting his order, moved forwards with stacks of folders in their arms. "As you've probably noticed," Carter said, addressing the agents before him, "everyone here is a field agent." James glanced around, surprised that he'd let this fact slip his attention; then again, there was barely anyone else there with whom he was familiar with. "The reason I called off your usual line of work is because I want to make some changes in the way missions are handled." The grunts had started to hand each agent one of the folders. James took his with a small nod, and examined the envelope. It was blank other than a sticker with his name and membership number printed on it.
"These folders are yours and yours alone," Carter continued. "Read them carefully, and make sure you know all of the details. Don't worry about anyone else's task, and don't share them with each other. All that matters is that you fulfil your part of the mission. We will leave at noon tomorrow."
As Meowth was given his folder, Carter looked at him strangely, and turned to Matori for an explanation.
"This is Meowth, the Pokémon I mentioned before, sir," she explained. "Whilst he is still a Pokémon by definition, he has the same capabilities of a human, and is a fully fledged member of Team Rocket."
"Is that right?" Carter murmured, staring at the cat with obvious interest.
"Yes sir," Meowth responded quietly, not sure whether the question was rhetorical. Carter blinked in mild disbelief.
"Incredible." He looked back at the rest of the agents. "You may go. Be there on time tomorrow at the parking lot."
The group turned to leave, but Butch and Cassidy hesitated.
"Uh, sir?" Butch piped up uneasily.
Carter studied the younger, teal-haired man. "Yes?"
"Um, we, er, don't have folders, sir," Butch stated. A look of realisation came over Carter's face.
"Ah- you're the two who travelled from Sinnoh, aren't you?" he asked.
"Yes sir," Cassidy answered, avoiding his eyes. Carter reached under his desk, and produced two more envelopes.
"Here," he said. Butch and Cassidy took the folders silently. They turned to leave, but Carter called them back.
"Wait," he commanded. James saw his two rivals tense up. "I want to ask you two some questions about the situation in Sinnoh," Carter said. "The rest of you can go."
James swiftly walked back to the exit of the room along with the others, not needing any further encouragement. His shoulders relaxed as soon as he was back in the corridor. He began to realise just how intimidated he'd been by Giovanni's successor. Carter had the same authoritative air about him; he wasn't totally similar to Giovanni, but the resemblance was clear.
He glanced back at the office, watching Butch and Cassidy as they stood obediently in front of Carter's desk. James and Butch's lines of sight met briefly; Butch hastily looked away, but not before James had seen the dread written on his face. Then the door swung shut, and Butch was out of view, cut off by the layer of knotted oak.
"What does yours say?" Jessie inquired as soon as she'd finished reading through her mission briefing. James balked slightly.
"I thought we weren't meant to tell each other," he said.
"Phh- since when do we keep to the rules?" Jessie replied. "C'mon," she said, lowering her voice. "No one can hear us- and it's not like it'll make any difference if we know what the other person is doing."
Skimming over the words one last time, James sighed in submission. "Fine. It just says to distract the two guards at the side entrance of the bank, and lead them into the alleyway on-" (he looked back at the papers) "-Rooster Street," he disclosed.
Meowth looked up from his own briefing. "It's a bit back ta basics, ain't it?" he asked with a small smile. "Robbin' a bank. Real old school."
"I wouldn't call it 'basic'," Jessie replied under her breath. "But yes, it's a bit old-fashioned. Still, it's always quick profit."
"If it don't all get screwed up," Meowth said. James' thoughts suddenly concerned themselves with Carter's policies on bail. He hoped they were generous.
"What's your job, Meowth?" Jessie went on.
"Uh..." Meowth studied the sheets of paper. "I'm meant ta help da agents load da money into da van once dey've pulled off da heist," he revealed. "An' you, Jess?"
"I think I'm with you," she said. "I'm driving one of the getaway vehicles."
"Den I'll make sure I'm not in da van you're drivin'," Meowth snickered. "Don't wanna be dere when ya crash it." His teasing was short-lived as Jessie whacked him over the back of his head, making him yelp in pain.
"I'm an excellent driver!" she snapped. As usual, her anger quickly dissipated. "It's odd, having individual tasks, and not knowing what everyone else is doing," she noted. "I mean, as long as it works..."
"If it doesn't, just floor it," James suggested. Jessie grinned.
"Okay," she agreed. "But if it all goes wrong, I won't wait for you two sorry mugs. Soon as anything goes to hell, I'm out of there," she joked.
"I don't doubt it for a second," Meowth told her. He groaned as he took a second blow to the head.
The weather had taken a rare turn for the better, the sun free to warm the earth with only a few clouds to obstruct it.
"Lovely day to rob a bank," Jessie said. Despite her usual witty attitude, James could tell that she was nervous. Little things gave it away, like the way she fidgeted with her hair every couple of minutes. James was doing his best to cover up his own feelings of foreboding, but he knew that the attempt was probably a pointless one. They all knew each other well enough to pick up on the signs that meant nothing to anyone else.
Their disguises were simple, as they had been told simply to dress as civilians. Some of the agents who'd be pulling off the robbery itself were holding balaclavas to mask their faces from the security cameras.
The drive to the bank was a long one, consisting of three changes in vehicle along the way. When they finally reached the city, half the agents were in a minibus, whilst the others purposely lagged a few minutes behind in a large truck. They pulled into a car park about half a mile away from the location they were targeting, and grouped up briefly.
"Make this quick and clean," the woman who'd been driving the bus James was in said softly. "Stick to your briefings. Two vans will pull up outside the bank when we've got the money. Be there quickly. We can't risk losing everything by waiting for anyone. If something goes wrong and it's impossible to recover the situation, we'll call off the mission. It shouldn't come to that, but if it does, surrender if you can't get to the van in time. It's better than getting shot by security." A few people laughed nervously. "Okay, let's go. Don't approach the building in groups- walk around a bit by yourselves first. Make it look like you're normal citizens. Just be there at the time specified on your briefing."
"Well, see you in twenty," Jessie said to Meowth and James as the group started to break up. Meowth nodded.
"Good luck," he replied, smiling, and then tagged along beside another agent, walking on all fours like an ordinary Pokémon.
James looked at Jessie, wishing he didn't have to go off by himself. He wasn't used to doing anything like this without her and Meowth by his side.
"See you," he said simply. Jessie laughed at his expression.
"You look like you're about to be sick," she informed him. "Sheesh, relax, James. We do this stuff all the time. You'll be fine."
"Okay," he breathed. Jessie turned on her heel, and raised her arm in a subtle wave as she walked down the street.
Sliding his hands into the pockets of his jeans, James took a few moments to work out which way he was going, and then started off down the pavement. He looked at the sunlight that drowned his surroundings as he walked. Pathetic fallacy seemed to be confused.
Chapter 5: Honour Among Us
James had never checked his watch so endlessly in his life. There were still more than ten minutes before he was meant to arrive at the bank, but he was determined not to let something as preventable as timing ruin his career.
He paused by a shop window, ignoring the merchandise behind it and rather focusing on his transparent reflection. For the mission, he'd pulled his hair into a short ponytail, which was covered with a baseball cap advertising a team James had never even heard of. The rest of his clothing was equally casual. What struck him- other than the stranger he'd created with a mere change of attire- was how exhausted he looked. He didn't feel particularly tired; although sleep had been a struggle the previous night when so many worries had haunted his thoughts, for the most part, he was better rested than he had been in a very long time. Granted, he didn't feel the optimism he'd once displayed, but he wasn't in a state of melancholy either.
James smiled to himself, his hand tracing the lines under his eyes. It was odd to be reminded about the deception of looks by his own mirror image.
A jolt of panic hit him, and he swiftly rose his watch again. His heart rate was tranquilised by the fact that only another minute had passed.
Reassured that he wasn't behind schedule, he returned his attention to the direction in which he was going. Thankfully, the memorable roundabout that sat at the heart of the buildings made navigating the streets much more easy without the aid of a map- James had a familiar landmark to return to every time he was unsure of where to go. His eyes swept over each sign he passed; he was getting close. The briefing had included directions to the building, and he'd read it enough times to remember the whole thing word for word.
"A left turn here," James mumbled, his lips barely moving as he scanned the area. As predicted, the bank was visible on the other side of the road, which was almost free of cars. No doubt the location had been carefully chosen due to this trait (among others): trying to pull off a heist in a city packed with vehicles would make the following getaway near impossible.
Trying to look inconspicuous, he checked the time. His role in the mission was due to be carried out in two minutes- it struck him amazing that the timings in the briefing were all so precise. For as long as he could afford, James stayed on the edge of the pavement, pretending to text someone on a switched-off mobile, and then crossed the road without needing to check for oncoming traffic.
The two cops he was meant to distract were standing, as specified, at the side entrance of the bank, talking to each other. James examined the two men. They were both of about average build, one taller than the other, though their faces remained pale blurs from the distance at which he was standing. He just hoped he could outrun them long enough to lead them where he needed to.
A shaky breath escaped his lips as he forced himself to walk. James found himself thinking back to his training as he pondered what he was about to do.
"For whatever reason, there might come a time when you want to get an officer's attention," Viper had told them.
James met the eye of one of the guards.
"You've got to be careful. If you resort to this, you'll be getting chased for miles before they give up."
He strode up to the policemen, the encounter about as natural as two repelling magnets forcing their way into contact. James raised his hand above the head of one of the officers, moving his arm so quickly that the man didn't have time to react.
"Do NOT use this method unless you absolutely have to."
He stole the cop's hat.
The guard took a second to process what had just happened; in the time it took for him and his partner to respond, James was already bolting down the street.
"Hey!" one of them yelled as they commenced the chase after him. "Stop!"
James was in no state to reply, his efforts concentrated on three things alone: where he was going, not falling over, and keeping ahead of the two men hot on his heels. Viper's advice was working, perhaps too well, because with each step he could hear his pursuers slowly but steadily closing the gap.
Their shouts faded into background noise as James snapped his gaze between passing signs. He was relieved to recognise his current location, and sharply turned the next corner he came to. The soles of his sneakers were less than ideal for running, but he managed not to trip on the irregular heights of the paving slabs.
"You're resisting arrest!"
"Thanks for the update," James thought, but unable to voice the retort between his ragged breathing. His state of terror didn't help, either.
He could almost feel the cop's hand on his back when the sign reading "Rooster Street" came into view. The universe could be kind when it wanted to.
James sprinted into the alleyway, and stopped to catch his breath. He'd done it. He'd carried out everything his papers had told him to.
His sense of achievement was snuffed out by the two baton-wielding officers headed his way, gasping for air as they moved towards him. James froze. He had successfully distracted them, led them where he was supposed to so the mission could work properly- but what about him? He'd been so preoccupied worrying about fulfilling his role that he'd barely given a thought to what would happen afterwards. If anyone was even coming to help, James had no idea. Maybe this was Carter's way of getting rid of him.
James lamely offered the cop his hat back as the man approached him. The officer snatched it out of his hand, and pushed James against the wall. "That meant to be some kind of joke?" he demanded.
The thought of making a break for it crossed James' mind, but he knew it would be futile against two stronger, armed men who currently had him cornered. Despair taking over, he whimpered as the cop grabbed his wrist, and pulled it behind his back in a hammerlock. The abrupt pressure on his shoulder made James cry out in pain. He was screwed.
All of a sudden, a muffled crack pierced the air, echoing in the narrow space. James felt the officer's grip on his wrist relax considerably, and turned around for an explanation.
Sprawled on the ground was the other policeman, a circular hole on one side of his forehead. For a moment, James failed to realise what was going on. Then he saw the blood.
"Stan," the remaining cop said finally, his voice quiet and trembling. This man was nothing like the one he'd been just seconds before, no longer enraged and overpowering. He let go of James, and moved towards his dead colleague. The officer had taken two steps when a second crack sounded, and he too sank to the floor, his head thrown to the side in a crimson mist.
James stumbled backwards, leaning against the brick wall for support. His chest rose and fell with a succession of horrified gasps of breath that did nothing to ease his sudden lack of oxygen. His head rung as if he'd been hit, and suddenly his limbs felt too heavy, his legs too weak. He quivered, knees buckling as he willed his balance to hold, clutching the windowsill behind just to stop himself from collapsing.
There was a soft thud at the other end of the alleyway as two men dropped down from a ladder, and walked in James' direction, both holding silenced guns. He considered running, but as it was he could barely stand.
"Hey," one of them greeted, his thin lips pulling into a smile. James opened his mouth to reply, but closed it for fear of letting out a sob.
"I thought you were really going to get arrested there!" the other man remarked. "Sorry we made you sweat like that. We just had to wait for them to stop moving, so we could get a clear shot." He laughed weakly. "Didn't wanna take you out accidentally!"
His partner chuckled too, the action making his cheekbones push further against his skin. "Oh, and stealing his hat? That was brilliant, man." He turned to his slender companion. "How long left until we're meeting at the van?"
"Don't know. Depends how long the agents who are getting the money take," the man replied. Setting his gun back in its holster, he looked to James again. "I'm William, by the way," he said, and then jerked a thumb at his team mate, whose chin was covered in a rough stubble. "That's McCarty."
James nodded quickly, about to introduce himself when his stomach churned unbearably.
He darted behind a dumpster to his right and threw up.
When James re-emerged, William took a bottle of water out of his satchel. He held it out in James' direction.
"Here," he prompted, his expression suggesting either confusion or concern- perhaps a mixture of the two. Having taken the drink hesitantly, James sipped the water at a slow pace, not wanting to risk vomiting a second time.
"Thank you," he murmured. His voice was strained, and made his state of petrification obvious, but James didn't care. Nothing held his attention in that moment other than the two dead men on the ground, and the terrible, undying fear he felt.
"We should make a move," McCarty suggested, with a subtle gesture towards the bodies. "Don't want to be around when someone finds this mess."
James followed them numbly, doing his best to look away from the splatter of blood accented with chunks of grey matter that now stained the concrete below. Guilt suddenly joined the list of feelings that gripped him with clawing hands; in oblivion, he'd been leading the cops to their deaths. He had been an unknowing pawn in a far greater plan, one that worked regardless of his consent to its end goal.
"That's our cue," William said, smiling as an alarm began to sound from inside the bank. "Sounds like they're done." James didn't react; the mission suddenly seemed so irrelevant. Who cared how much money they made? Two men were dead, partially because of him. It was hard to focus on anything else when it felt as if his entire world was ending.
They walked as quickly as they could without risking drawing attention to themselves, stopping just before they met the slope of the curb. In little over ten seconds, two white vans swerved to a halt next to them, the back doors swinging open before the vehicles were fully stationary.
"Get in," a man inside instructed, his voice gruff. James waited for William and McCarty to climb up before doing the same himself, standing unsurely. Three agents hovered by the open doors, unmoving until about five people ran forwards to meet them, all clad in balaclavas. Unmarked bags heavy with notes hung from their clenched fists.
"Pass it up," an agent told them, extending his arm. The thieves did so, then jumped up into the van to join their co-workers. McCarty slammed the doors shut again with a soft grunt, and the vehicle surged forwards in a sudden jerk that was accompanied by the screeching of the tyres below.
The bank robbers sank onto the benches, and tore off their masks.
"We good?" one of them wheezed. He turned nervously in his seat, looking back at the van behind. "The- er, the alarm's meant to be ringing, right?"
"There was no way of stopping it from going off once we left," William said, nodding. "Don't worry. Far as I know, everything's going to plan."
"Holy shit!" McCarty exclaimed as he looked inside the bags. He laughed in disbelief. "How much is in here?"
"A lot," someone else replied simply.
"Yeah, you're not kidding!" McCarty breathed. His face was contorted by a mixture of shadows and his sheer joy at the money before him. "This has gotta be, like, ten lifetimes' worth of cash!"
"Don't get any ideas, mate," William said. He grinned, slapping McCarty on the back. "It's for the boss' funding. You'll get your cut."
McCarty scoffed. "Enough to buy a candy bar, if I'm lucky," he said insincerely, then saluted with an expression of mock patriotism. "But I surrender my riches for the glory of Team Rocket!"
James couldn't understand, as William snorted with amusement, how the two could be in such high spirits. They had murdered no more than minutes ago, and yet they laughed with no traces of remorse. Meanwhile, James was battling the constant threat of passing out, his head light and swimming with thoughts that left him in a state of looping despair- yet there they were, joking as if nothing was wrong. He envied them.
As the van continued to trundle forwards down the pavement, flying over speed bumps and skidding round corners, James went strangely tranquil. While the facts remained, he found that his responses were deadened, and the conversation that surrounded him slowly faded into a low hum of silence only he could hear.
"How did it go?" Jessie asked cheerily, leaning over the back of her seat to face her two partners. They'd all moved back to the same vehicle- an unbranded truck- in order to lessen their chances of being tracked. Butch and Cassidy were there too, and seemed to be back to their normal- if arrogant- selves.
"Dat was da best mission I've been on in ages!" Meowth replied, grinning widely. "You shoulda seen all da dough we got!"
"It was awesome," Jessie agreed. "Everything ran like clockwork! And for the record, contrary to your rude expectations," she said, with a glare in Meowth's direction, "I pulled off my part perfectly." She smiled, and sighed contentedly. "This is what we're really capable of."
James jerked forwards slightly as the jeep stopped. He peered out of the window, and saw that they were back in the car park of the headquarters.
"We here already?" Meowth questioned. He looked mildly confused. "Dat was quick."
"Well, time flies when you're basking in victory!" Jessie said, beaming. She wore the recently forgotten expression of confidence and hope on her face, looking as optimistic as she had in her early days as an agent, when the three were still coming down from the high of passing training as the top team. James nearly forgot about everything that he had been through in that afternoon as he watched her stride forwards; seeing her so happy was a welcome distraction. Meowth wasn't much different. While he didn't show his good cheer as obviously as Jessie did, James didn't miss the way the corners of the cat's mouth pulled upwards whenever he forgot to pretend to be indifferent. It could easily be overlooked by an outsider, but James knew Meowth was over the moon with the success.
"This calls for a celebration," Jessie said decisively when they were back in their room. She knelt down by the mini fridge, browsing its contents. "I think I saw a bottle of champagne back here somewhere... Oh, it's just fruit soda. I thought it would be odd if Team Rocket provided its own agents with booze." Jessie stood up again, pushing the fridge door shut with her foot. "Well, pineapple juice is nearly as good as alcohol," she said. She started to twist off the metal cap, but stopped, frowning. "What's up, James? You've barely said anything."
Dread settling like some looming bird of prey, James felt his muscles tense. The scrutiny resonating in Jessie's eyes scared him more than he anticipated; she was breaking down his flimsy barriers, and he could feel himself weakening.
Her voice sounded again, this time worried and so soft her question was barely audible: "James?"
He couldn't keep his composure any longer. James gripped his head with his hands and sobbed helplessly, steadily falling tears brushing his face before dripping onto the carpet. Too miserable to feel the embarrassment that he knew he would later, he forced himself back to silence, and wiped his eyes hurriedly with the back of his hand.
"At the bank," he began, his speech purposely slow, "when I was distracting th- the guards, they..."
James took a few seconds to keep his self-control from collapsing again, swallowing. "There were these agents there already, and they- they shot the cops." He watched Jessie and Meowth's eyes widen in surprise. "I didn't know- but I- Jessie, I helped them do it! It's my fault-"
The sentence was cut short by a second bout of hopelessness that rendered James speechless again, only whimpers escaping his clenched teeth. Equally wordless, Jessie set the bottle down on the counter behind her, and moved forwards to pull James into a hug. He would have been more startled at her willingness to show such compassion should his mind have been unclouded, but he merely wept with his chin resting on her shoulder, letting her hands clutch his thin frame.
"These guards- they were killed by Team Rocket agents?" Jessie asked quietly when the two had backed out of the embrace again. James tried to answer her, but could only nod. Jessie seemed to think about this for a while.
"It ain't your fault," Meowth mumbled. He raised his cerulean eyes to James, the bitterness in his irises as clear as their colour. "Dere was no way ya could've known." The Pokemon's tone took James by surprise: it had a dangerous edge to it that Meowth reserved for his rare moments of total sincerity.
"He's right," Jessie agreed, nodding at James. "You didn't kill anybody. You didn't do anything wrong."
James smiled weakly. "You mean other than the whole robbing a bank thing?" he asked.
The lines on her brow softening, Jessie snickered. "Yeah. Other than that."
Carter stood up as his employees walked into his office, having changed back into their uniforms. Jessie, James and Meowth- as usual- kept their distance at the back of the crowd.
"Well," Carter said, placing his palms on his desk and smiling boldly, "welcome back." Unsurprisingly, no one was brave enough to reply. "First of all, I want to congratulate all of you for the success of the mission. The police are showing no signs of having successfully tailed us so far, and the extraction of the money has secured us the planned amount. I'd just like to run through the events of your individual tasks." He pointed a finger at one of the agents at the front of the group. "Tell me, if you'd be so kind- were there any complications in your role?"
The woman hesitated before speaking. "No, sir," she said. "We, uh, arrived at the bank at on time, then proceeded to get the money by holding the staff and people inside at gunpoint. The security showed up, but they surrendered their weapons when they saw they were outnumbered. Then we left and got into the vans."
Carter nodded his head. "Good." He narrowed his eyes at the unfamiliar people opposite. "Who was on the team assigned to get rid of the guards at the left of the bank?"
"Ah, that's us, sir," James heard McCarty respond from somewhere in front, recognising his voice immediately. "We got a good vantage point from the rooftop. When the cops had entered the alley, we took them out with the silenced guns, and, um, yeah, we climbed down and left in the van."
"All right- that's good." Carter cleared his throat. "And the guards to the right of the building? Who was responsible for their disposal?"
A man on James' left raised his hand halfway. "Yeah, that was us, sir," he said.
The man rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, we were in position to shoot the guards, but..."
Carter looked unimpressed. "Go on?"
"Um, well, we didn't... When it said to shoot them on the briefing, I thought it was gonna be with a tranquilizer or something," the man blurted. "So... We didn't do it."
"You didn't do it?" Carter repeated, his voice too still.
"N-No, sir." A nervous smile flickered onto the agent's face, fading as quickly as it had appeared. "Um, you see, when uh, Giovanni was around, we didn't really go in for... that method, much."
"Regardless of what you may have been used to before," Carter said brusquely, "these were simple orders."
"Yeah, I- I'm sorry sir, it's just we didn't want to kill them."
Carter's expression darkened. "What's your name?" he snapped.
"Alonzo, sir," the agent replied, the tremor in his voice giving away his fear.
"And your partner in the mission?"
"That was Harry," Alonzo said, turning to the man at his side.
"And do either of you have any idea how much danger you put your colleagues in?" Carter growled. "You left the guards alive, armed, and free to take out the agents who were leaving the bank!"
The other man with a shaved head- Harry- chimed in: "The cops dropped their weapons and ran off anyway when they saw how many people they were up against, sir."
"That's besides the point," Carter snapped. "What if the guards hadn't been so cowardly? What if they'd decided to play the hero and, I don't know, shot at you all? The tasks in your briefings aren't just there for the fun of it!"
Although James felt deeply sympathetic towards the pair of agents currently under Carter's wrath, he was just glad that it wasn't him on the receiving end of the rebuke.
"Screw this," Harry muttered, glaring back at Carter. "I didn't sign up to be a murderer." To James' astonishment, Harry spun on his heel and began marching towards the door. "I quit!"
Seeing Carter's gesture, two men in suits that had been standing idly by the exit moved away from their posts, and grabbed Harry's arms. "Get off!" Harry yelled, unsuccessfully trying to shake them off.
"Cut it out," Alonzo hissed to his partner, obviously aware of the hole Harry was digging himself into. He shakily turned back to Carter. "He's just stressed out, sir- he doesn't mean it. Our loyalty will always be with Team Rocket- please, sir."
Carter stared back at the obsequious young man in front of him, unblinking. "The rest of you may leave."
The other agents exchanged glances before obliging, moving past Harry and Alonzo to the door.
"Let me go!" Harry demanded angrily as the two men holding him dragged him towards Carter's desk.
"Sir, please," Alonzo begged, watching his partner struggle. "He's not himself today. Please, just give him another chance to-"
"Silence!" Carter interrupted. He shot an impatient look at the agents waiting by the door, resulting in their hasty departure.
"Now he's in for it!" someone giggled as soon as the door closed. "The boss'll really tear into that idiot!"
"I feel sorry for the guy," another person replied. "Harry's always nice to me when we meet on the field."
"Still, he's gotta be brainless to talk to Carter like that. It's his own fault he's in trouble."
"Maybe you're right. Oh well. I'll ask him about it tomorrow. I always see him and Alonzo in the line at lunch."
Looking concerned, Jessie broke her attention away from the agents talking around them. "Let's go," she said, nudging James and Meowth. "No point in hanging around."
James murmured his agreement, and looked back at Carter's office. "He really is as scary as Giovanni was," he thought. "Maybe even more so."
"No!" Harry cried out from behind the closed doors.
They'd made it about halfway down the corridor when the gunshot boomed behind them.
Chapter 6: A Wild Bunch
The world was a haze. James heard someone cry out in shock, Jessie's gasp of breathless horror, his own involuntary yelp. But mostly there was silence as the brief echo the fired bullet had left hanging in the air dissolved.
He waited for someone to move as a dizzying lightness filled his head. The agents he looked to stared back with an equal loss of direction, their expressions holding varying levels of distress. And then the quiet subsided; Alonzo's shouts of grief filled the atmosphere, muffled by the door that barred him from view. His desolated cries soon eased into moans that uttered Harry's name.
James wasn't altogether sure how, but he found himself walking, following the blurs of Jessie and Meowth. His mind protested that he'd missed something in between; a glance over his shoulder reassured him that he'd only moved a few metres. There were his colleagues, some trying to open the door to get a look at exactly what had happened, some motionless, a select few unable to stop their faces from twisting with anguish. Perhaps they were the ones who'd known Harry for longer than the duration of the mission.
"Jessie, where are we goin'?" Meowth asked in a hoarse voice, struggling to keep up with her pace. "What about- what about dat guy?"
Jessie shot him a look, a coldness present amidst the fear in her expression. She didn't say anything, but her response was clear: there was nothing they could do.
So they kept going, walking away long after Alonzo's voice was too distant to be audible.
"We're getting out of here, now," Jessie stated firmly once she, James and Meowth had reached their room. Hands trembling, she grabbed her suitcase from the wardrobe and started filling it with various articles of clothing.
James watched her worriedly. "Jess..."
He stumbled backwards as his own suitcase was thrust into his chest. "Only pack things we'll need," Jessie told him, an unmistakable tremor in her voice.
"We can't- we can't leave!" James stammered in objection. Jessie momentarily stopped moving to look at him.
"Why not?" she asked bitterly.
James thought about this. Team Rocket was everything they had, what they'd worked for for their entire careers. It was all messed up beyond belief, he knew that. And yet...
He cleared his head. "I don't think I can do it."
Jessie's face was suddenly contorted by a mixture of fury and terror. "You don't think it's hard for me too?" she spat, her pitch rising to a shout. "This is everything I have! It's the only place where I've ever felt remotely as if I belong; I don't want to leave any more than you do!" Her fists slowly unclenched. "But there's nothing left here worth staying for. Everything's different. Either way, whether we leave or not, things won't ever go back to the way they used to be. And I'm not going to stick around and work for people who kill just because it's easier."
"But what will we do?" Meowth questioned quietly. There was no protest in his voice. He knew they had little choice left.
"We'll work something out," Jessie replied vaguely. "Maybe stay at Christopher's for a while." James doubted that a noodle restaurant would provide the cover and security they'd need, but kept silent.
"Jess, slow down!" Meowth called as Jessie made for the door, suitcase in hand. Jessie glanced back at him.
"What?" she snapped. "You want to stay and take orders from some maniac who shoots his own employees after ordering them to kill?" James felt a fresh surge of nausea at Jessie's last statement. He didn't want to believe it, even though he'd heard the deed being carried out only metres behind him.
"Course I don't," Meowth denied, shaking his head. "I'm... I'm with ya. We gotta leave." A flash of surprise crossed Jessie's face at this; the tension in her shoulders relaxed slightly. "But not like dis. Jessie, we won't even know where we're spending da night if we high tail it now! And Team Rocket- dis Team Rocket- isn't da kinda organisation we wanna be in trouble with. We gotta come up with a proper plan foist, dig?"
Jessie leant backwards on the door, clicking it shut. "Yeah," she breathed, and let the case drop from her hand. "Okay."
They were all too shaken up to sleep when night came. For the last couple of hours they'd brooded over the situation whilst trying not to let the settling memories of Harry's unwarned execution overwhelm them. James made little attempt to come to terms with what had happened in Carter's office, still absorbed in the thoughts of the dead guards he'd left in the alley. He felt suddenly selfish dwelling on his own misery; what would be the reaction of their families, if this was the impact he felt? What about the guards themselves, their previous aspirations?
And what about Harry?
Jessie's behaviour unsettled him. She didn't keep up any pretence of being unruffled, just sat with her back to the wall, biting the flesh of her thumb. Every now and then, when she caught his eye, she'd mumble some consoling words, but her voice carried none of the certainty it usually did. Meowth was better by appearance, looking pensive- still visibly upset, but not as unable to operate. By the time it had passed one in the morning it became apparent to them that this wasn't something they'd be able to shake off and further ignore. Having agreed that some form of action had to be taken, they took seats around a small table in the kitchen, hoping that between them they'd be able to come up with a plan.
"I think we should just slip out of the building tonight," Jessie said eventually, her tone hushed. "We can wear civilian clothes, then take the bus to town, catch the first ferry to Sinnoh and go to Christopher's. He'll definitely let us stay. Then we figure the long-term out from there."
"Let me get dis right," Meowth said, looking bemused. "You t'ink dat we should crash wid Chris, an ex-Rocket, in a high profile noodle joint dat's actually named after the two of youse?" He gave an airy laugh. "So much for subtle. I mean, I'm all for reverse-psychology, but dat's takin' it a little far." James silently agreed; the last thing they needed was to make it easier for anyone to track them.
Jessie leant backwards in her chair, crossing her arms. "Okay, you have a point," she admitted. "But all of this is assuming the second we leave, Team Rocket will launch a manhunt to find us," she said. "Isn't that a bit paranoid? I mean, who's to say they care that much if a couple of agents wander off? Carter seems to have everything running too securely for stuff like that to matter hugely."
"Maybe it won't be da end of da world if we leave," Meowth replied, "but it'll still be a risk. We'd still know the locations of da bases an' t'ings like dat, an' den Carter will be left with the danger that we could could blab to da police at any time. I know we barely know da guy, but I t'ink we've all got acquainted with him enough to figure he won't like dat one bit."
After spending a few seconds tiredly pondering Meowth's assertion, James shifted his chair closer to the table. "So what other options do we have?" he asked. When the others said nothing, he answered his own question: "Well, we could go to the police."
Meowth and Jessie looked at him as if he were completely mad. "Turn ourselves in?" Jessie spluttered. "Oh yeah, brilliant!" She clapped her hands sarcastically. "That solves everything! Why didn't I think of that?"
"I'm not saying we should," James countered. "I'm just listing possibilities."
"Uh, Jim? I hardly think dat letting da cops lock us up for da rest of our lives is any kinda solution," Meowth snorted.
"Well, if there's one good thing about that crazy idea it's that you'd be fine, Meowth," Jessie said. "They can't convict a Pokemon. You could just pretend that you were forced into the whole thing."
"Yeah? An' what about youse two?" Meowth asked. "Ya seriously tellin' me you're considerin' jail?"
"Course not," Jessie said in immediate response, and James sighed.
"No, I'm not," he replied to Meowth after a short while, reasoning his value of liberty had been the main motivation for just about every decision he'd made in his life. "Though, it would at least ensure that we'd stay alive, I suppose."
Jessie shook her head. "Would it? If we were in custody, Carter would have all the more reason to want us dead, what with the danger of us snitching about Team Rocket. I'm pretty sure he'd be able to take us out somehow- maybe get one of those agents posing as cops to off us-"
"Alright," Meowth interrupted, holding up his paws. "We're goin' in circles. I t'ink we can safely conclude that goin' to da police ain't gonna help. What else is dere?"
"We could stay at a hotel," Jessie replied after a few seconds' thought. "We've got some cash- we can still take the ferry to Kanto or somewhere. Then we make some calls and see about somewhere permanent."
No one objected. "Sounds like just about the best course of action we can take at this stage," James agreed eventually.
"Den you'll need fake IDs, if you're really goin' through wid it," Meowth said. "Passports and da like. An' some phony qualifications wouldn't go amiss, either..."
"And how do you propose we go about getting all that?" Jessie questioned.
James thought about this. "What about the supplies area?" he suggested. "We must have gotten our pictures taken for counterfeit ID cards there dozens of times when we were preparing disguises. If we can get into the room with the right equipment inside, it might be possible." The weight of what he was saying hit him for the first time; they were really going to leave. He didn't want to think about it in depth.
"Should we go now?" Meowth asked doubtfully.
"It won't be any easier later on," Jessie said. "We might as well give it a go, while it's still dark. With any luck, everyone'll be asleep or out at this time too."
It took little over ten minutes to pack their belongings, most of the process made up of deciding what they could afford to take, what they needed. They then left their bags by the entrance of the dormitory so that, if anyone happened to see them on their way to the supplies room, it wouldn't look as if they were planning on going anywhere; Jessie had suggested that they only take their stuff once they were sure that they could leave, which Meowth and James agreed was sensible.
The supply rooms were fairly easy to find despite the fact that they were working from memory, the halls- although empty- brightly lit with reassuring signs at each doorway. Finding the doors unsurprisingly locked, the trio peered in through the slits of glass, cupping their hands around their eyes so the light didn't obscure the view inside, and found the third room along to be set up for photography.
"Dat's gotta be da one, unless dey've changed it," Meowth whispered, standing on the tips of his hind legs so he was tall enough to peek in. He gestured to the keyhole. "Should I do da honours?"
James glanced around the surrounding walls, checking for any signs of an alarm system. "I think we're clear," he said dubiously. Jessie nodded, and Meowth extended his claws, beginning to pick the lock. After a few minutes, the door clicked open, mercifully uncoupled with the wail of an alarm.
"Should we have the lights on or off?" James asked as they stepped inside, wondering whether working in light would make the room's occupied state visible from the corridor.
"Pull down the blinds at the windows," Jessie replied. She waited for James to do so before pushing the switch on the wall.
Their surroundings flickered into harsh focus, the colours painfully bright under the glare of the bulbs above. Propped against one wall was a wooden frame that held a white sheet in place, in front of it a camera on a black tripod. To the other side of the room were the items used to counterfeit identity: delicate watermarks on sheets like stickers, rows of blank passports and document papers along with a computer for digital editing among the things visible. James grimaced as he realised that he hadn't the vaguest idea of how half the machinery worked.
"Right," Jessie breathed, stepping forwards and turning on the camera. "Meowth, you take our pictures, I'll try and get the computer up and running and James can deal with the passports."
James nodded and moved over to the shelves of documents. "Uh, won't there be a password on that?" he asked, looking over at the computer monitor.
"Yeah, probably," Jessie admitted as the computer booted up. Sure enough, a white box flashed onto the screen. "Any ideas?" she asked her male colleagues.
"Maybe try the one our old Unova laptop came wid," Meowth said.
"Okay," Jessie agreed. "Delibird with a '3', right?" She tapped at the keyboard, hit enter, and was met with a brief red flash. "Ugh, nope." After repeating this process about a dozen more times with different passwords and spellings, she gave up, slumping back in the chair. "We could hack it," she said, "but I think that'd be risky with security. We mess up and someone's gonna know about it straight away."
"Everything we're doing at the moment is a risk," James pointed out. He paused. "We need that computer if we're going to leave. If we do set off some alarm, then we can say that we lost our old IDs and didn't want to admit it to a superior, so tried to discreetly make new ones instead- or even that we were just messing around, seeing if we could hack into the system."
"An' what if dey don't buy it?" Meowth asked. "Dat sounds like a pretty dumb thing ta do."
"We'll just have to hope they believe we're stupid enough to try to pull something like that," James answered. "I don't think that's too much of a stretch..." He took a few moments to think. "We could even act drunk- go back to our room and splash a little alcohol on our clothes so it's believable. The point is that as long as they think our intentions were petty, we won't be seen as a threat to Carter, and, you know..."
"Killed," Jessie finished bluntly. James almost flinched at the term.
"Y-Yeah. If we're convincing, we'll hopefully get away with a pay cut, or a demotion at worst. It would still make it more difficult to leave, though."
"So... We hack it?" Meowth questioned slowly to break the silence.
Jessie nodded her head, fingers poised above the keys. "It's our only shot at getting out of here." She started to type, and then stopped. "The drunk thing might help, actually."
"I'll see if I can find some beer or something," James offered. He moved back towards the door, noticing for the first time how much he was trembling. What he was doing was crazy, unthinkable to his former self; maybe, he mused, if he dwelled on his actions for too long, he'd change his mind. That was partially why he didn't let his thoughts settle, looping words over in his head, simple instructions to himself. He exhaled, and opened the door.
"You guys are shit at keeping your voices down, you know that?"
A jolt of panic combed its way across James' flesh at the sight of the female agent in front of him. He froze in his tracks, unable to think of a decent response.
"Uh, we were just-"
The agent ignored him, pushing past into the supplies room. He followed her quickly, racking his brain for an excuse. Jessie and Meowth rose their gazes to the woman as she shut the door behind her. "I heard you," she told them simply. No one replied. The trio just looked at her guiltily, unmoving as they waited for her to call for someone. "If you're going to commit treason you should at least plan it out properly."
"Look," Jessie said, standing up from her seat, "we were just joking around. Nothing we said was serious." Her blue eyes met those of the woman, who looked back at Jessie almost expressionlessly. "Please. We'll go back to our room. This was all just a stupid dare."
The agent smiled. "No, it wasn't." Jessie opened her mouth to protest, and the woman raised a hand to stop her. "It's alright. Stop looking so worried- I'm not going to tell anyone, okay?"
James glanced at Jessie and Meowth, the confusion in his expression matching theirs.
"You want to get out of Team Rocket, right?" the woman asked, her voice quiet. "I'll take that as a 'yes'," she continued when no one said anything, and shifted forwards towards them. "Well, I want in."
"What?" James choked, barely able get the word out from the back of his throat.
"You want to come with us?" Jessie asked in disbelief.
"Not now," the agent said, motioning to the door. "I need some time to get ready, and my partner will want to go too. But yes. We were going to leave by ourselves, but, ah, money is sort of an issue at the moment. I know you two just pulled off a bank robbery, so you must have some pretty nice pay checks sitting around. You sort out cash for our transport, and we'll deal with your paperwork."
"And what makes you think we'll accept?" Jessie challenged.
A smirk creased the woman's lip. "Because, from what I just overheard, you have no clue how to counterfeit identity properly, and your cover story was completely half-assed. I'd be able to help keep this whole thing off the radar. That and I have the password to the computer." She fidgeted with her glove. "Give it some thought. If you want our help, meet us here tomorrow night at two AM. Don't bring anything- or anyone else- with you. Rat us out and we'll return the favour."
With that she left.
They tried to find the agent the next day, scouring the hallways, cafeteria and lobbies for any signs of the woman.
"Maybe we should have just kept goin' with da plan after she left," Meowth muttered as they gave up the search.
"We could use her help," Jessie replied in a whisper. "She was right about us not really knowing what we're doing- besides that, shouldn't we try to help her if she wants to leave? I know our morals aren't exactly rigid, but... I don't know. I just feel like we should start actually doing something."
James found himself, to his own silent protest, thinking back to the meeting with Carter after the mission at the bank, of the way everyone had watched as Alonzo pleaded for his partner, how he'd just left with Harry yelling behind him. Should he have reacted differently, intervened?
No, he told himself. The signals might have been there, but he was sure that he hadn't known at the time what was about to unfold. Not really. Even if he had, and tried to defend Harry, his achievements would probably only stretch as far as increasing the body count.
But James couldn't shake the sense that apathy was creeping up on him.
"I think an alliance would be good," he said in agreement. "That way, we have a wider range of skills between us."
"An' how do we know we can even trust dis gal?" Meowth queried. "She could be... I don't know, an undercover cop or somet'ing!"
"An undercover cop who's focusing her attention on agents who want to leave?" Jessie shot back. "That somehow sounds unlikely. If, Arceus forbid, there are any police agents snooping around in disguise, I think they'll be more interested in the plans of those staying."
"Well, what if she backstabs us later, an' snitches?" Meowth retaliated.
"She had her chance to turn us in yesterday," James interjected, and Jessie nodded.
"We're on the same page as her, Meowth," she said. "You can go it alone if you want, but at the moment, her help is our best option."
Meowth tutted, giving his head a slight shake. "Ya know I'm wid youse guys, no matter what crazy t'ings ya do," he said, smiling. "I'm just sayin' be careful."
"We will be," Jessie assured him. "Now c'mon." She breathed out a weary sigh. "We should try and catch up on some sleep before tonight."
"I hate to say I told ya so, but..."
"She'll be here," Jessie mumbled back, cutting Meowth off. They'd been waiting by the room for the last quarter of an hour, backs to the wall as they tried to look normal in case anyone else walked past.
"If she's a no show, we really should stop hangin' around dis hallway," Meowth hissed. "Who stands by a wall for fifteen minutes, doin' nothin'? It's gonna look real fishy if-"
"Sorry!" the agent exclaimed as she emerged from the end of the corridor, followed by a man who looked a little younger. He was short, about the same height as her, with dark skin and thin black hair. "We got caught up talking to someone. Didn't want to rush off, you know?" She smiled, brushing her hazel hair over her shoulder. "My name's Logan," she told them, and tilted her head at the man next to her. "This is Harvey, my partner."
Jessie and James introduced themselves, hesitating as they turned to Meowth.
"Name's Meowth," he stated before either human had a chance to explain that he could talk. "An' I ain't deir pet, dig?"
Harvey gawped at the cat Pokemon as Logan said, as calmly as she could: "I had a feeling I heard three voices yesterday."
"Oh- I thought the talking cat thing was just a rumour!" Harvey laughed. He looked at Meowth, a vague wonder glinting in his eyes. "Er, so, were you just born with it, or-"
"I taught myself," Meowth explained. "Not much more to it dan dat."
"Well," Logan began after a short silence, "I suppose we won't question it further, then." She held up a key, which she then used to unlock the door to the supply room. "Ta da," she said in a monotone.
"How did you get that?" James asked her, surprised they wouldn't have to break in again.
"Here's the deal sealer," Harvey grinned. "We work in this room."
Once everyone was inside, Logan shut the door and hit the light switch. "Here's what you tell anyone who comes in, okay?" she said. "You guys needed new Unova licences. You came to us, and that's what we're doing now. Got it?"
She waited for them to nod before sitting down by the computer. "Alright," she said after entering the password. "Jessie and James..." Logan tapped their names into the police database page, and raised her eyebrows. "Wow. Okay." She chuckled weakly. "This is going to be quite a challenge."
"What is it?" Jessie prompted worriedly.
"Let's just say you don't have to scroll very far down Unova's wanted list before your pictures show up."
Jessie, James and Meowth looked at each other, each with a countenance of concern as they realised their Unovian shenanigans were coming back to bite them. Harvey leant over Logan's shoulder to look at the monitor.
"You're not quite as wanted in the other regions, at least," he noted. "We'll just have to sneak you out of here before the authorities catch wind."
"So... Is it possible?" Meowth asked slowly.
"Oh yeah, definitely," Harvey said. "A little tricky, but possible. It'd be a whole other story if you wanted to stay in Unova, but since you're just hopping on a ferry and leaving- well."
"What about you two?" Jessie questioned. "Will you be recognised by anyone?"
"Doubt it," Logan replied. "Our work is solely in supplies, so we barely even leave headquarters."
"Are you going to Kanto too?" James asked them as Harvey started to adjust the camera.
"Nah," Logan said. "Johto. Our families are back there."
"And there's this awesome curry place," Harvey chimed in jokingly.
"Yeah," Logan laughed. "And the curry place. My soul aches for it." She hit a few keys, which brought up a complex-looking document on screen. "You guys want to choose new names, or should Harvey and I decide for you and forever butcher your futures?"
Jessie huffed a laugh. "I guess we'll choose."
Chapter 7: Rundown
James raised an eyebrow at the picture Harvey had taken of him, now printed onto a laminated card. "It still looks like me," he commented nervously. The only real difference was that, in the photo, he was wearing a blonde wig- one he now removed from his head.
"It doesn't have to be permanent ID- it's just to get you into Kanto," Harvey replied. "There's not much else we can do at this point except change your hair. You could put on some glasses too, if you want. Just make sure to wear the wigs, and that they don't fall off halfway through some security check."
"So... What now?" Jessie asked as Logan took the pictures from her partner.
"It'll probably be a few days before we'll have everything ready," Logan said. "Until then, don't lurk around this area, or do anything else that might be considered out-of-the-ordinary. We'll let you know when the preparation's done."
Meowth smiled slightly. "Ya betta. An', uh, t'anks. For da help."
"You're paying us, remember?" Logan reminded him. "You shouldn't thank the landlord for collecting rent, so to speak." She cocked her head towards the door, and returned Meowth's smile. "Now get out of here. We've got a lot of work to do, and having a talking cat around is very distracting."
Turning to leave with Meowth and James, Jessie hesitated. "How will we get the money to you?"
"We'll collect it in person when we're all done with this- I'd say at the end of the week at the latest," Harvey responded. "So don't spend it all before then."
"Right," Jessie said. She gave a slight wave goodbye to the agents before leaving the room. The corridor was dim and silent, and Jessie felt an abrupt fear stab at her gut, a sensation which somewhat surprised her. She absently wondered why she felt so suddenly scared, looking ahead at the tiled flooring that shrunk into the distance, at the darkening colours trapped between narrow walls.
James supposed that, in many ways, it was a relief to think that he'd soon be leaving, starting some other life. Certainly, the idea of staying under Carter's leadership frightened him more, but only by a limited margin. It felt to him a little like choosing between two poisons.
There had been, under Giovanni's reign, a far less perilous method of leaving the organisation. It had jestingly been dubbed "Giovanni's retirement plan" by some of the agents (not to be confused with a second fabled retirement plan, one that involved cinderblocks and a permanent visit to the Magikarp at the bottom of the nearest lake). When someone had served Team Rocket for a long enough stretch, or perhaps developed some sort of handicap that rendered them no longer able to work, Giovanni would- provided that he was satisfied with their performance- grant them the option of leaving. From there, a deal was formed. The former employee would deny any association with or knowledge of Team Rocket, and in return, Giovanni would pull a few strings to ensure that they were safe from the law. On the less comfortable side, a heavy threat rang through the offer: if the person were to give away any information about the syndicate, Giovanni would make sure that, by the end of the day, they would be the one with a looming jail sentence. And if that didn't sufficiently encourage their loyalty, their life, along with those of friends and relatives, would be made collateral.
At the time that he'd heard about such a proposition, James had thought it sounded awfully cynical- too presumptuous of betrayal. Now it seemed like a dream. He rose his head, looking at Meowth and Jessie as they counted out money onto the kitchen table. "Stop wallowing in self-pity and help them," he told himself. "At least I have some kind of a choice. There are plenty of people who don't." The thought made him feel all the more guilty: self-absorbed and pathetic. What right did he have to sympathy when others were dead?
"That's their cut," Jessie said across the room, pushing two wads of cash to one side of the wooden surface. She looked down at the money leftover. "Reckon we've got enough between us?"
"If we ain't, dere's not much we can do 'bout it," Meowth shrugged. "But dat ought to see us t'rough da first couple a' weeks."
Standing up to join them, James added: "That's a good point- what will we do about money after this runs out?"
"Yeah, there's a fun bridge to cross," Jessie said unenthusiastically. "I guess our most realistic options are either to try to get legitimate jobs, keep stealing independently of Team Rocket, or find a way to get a nice cash injection from your parents' bank account." She caught James' worried expression and smiled. "If it comes to that, it'll be by wedding-free means. Promise."
"As long as we get outta here, we'll be all right," Meowth pondered aloud. "We're used to gettin' by on nuttin'."
Jessie ended the brief pause that followed when her face flashed with realisation. "We should check on Mondo when we get there," she stated quietly. "He probably doesn't even know what's happening outside of Kanto."
Mondo... James had nearly forgotten about him. With everything that was going on, the young Rocket had barely crossed his mind in the past few weeks.
"Do you think he's okay?" James asked, looking pleadingly at Jessie, and then at Meowth, mentally begging them to give an answer that wouldn't add to his concern. He felt childish in doing so, but couldn't help the reaction.
"I'm sure he's fine," Jessie dismissed. "He's good at staying out of trouble when he needs to- hey, if only we possessed that trait, huh?"
James managed to crack a half-hearted grin. "But then we'd have to change the motto."
Two days passed with little change in their routine. They'd stored everything they needed to take with them in the bottom drawer of their cabinet, deciding that, if anyone were to stumble across the hiding place, disguises, fake identification, and hard cash would hardly look suspicious in their line of work. Halfway through the following day, the three of them were in the middle of a lunch consisting of canned soup and bread when a knock sounded at their door.
"Dat didn't sound forebodin' at all," Meowth joked, his lowered voice providing enough evidence that his quip was forced. For a moment they just waited to see if whoever it was would go away, but the knock came again, this time followed by a voice.
"Yo, open the door? I got orders to talk to you guys."
Seeing that they weren't getting away with pretending not to be in, the trio looked at each other in the same way they'd become particularly accustomed to recently: silently, they were asking one another what to do, hoping that an answer could be found between them. When no one offered one, Jessie rose from her chair, moved over to the door and ambivalently opened it. A male grunt stood before her, rocking back and forth slightly in a somewhat impatient manner.
"You're, uh, Jessie and James, right?" he asked as he peered past Jessie into the room.
"Yeah," Jessie said tightly. "What is it?"
"You're wanted in one of the offices downstairs," he answered, his expression indifferent. "I was told to come get you."
"What?" Jessie snapped at him. She started to tremble with what James hoped was rage- simply because her anger would be indicative of some normality- but knew was probably the same fear he and Meowth currently had no problems with expressing. "This is far too short-notice," Jessie continued, barely managing to get the words out clearly. "You can't expect us to clear our schedule all of a sudden!"
The grunt shrugged his shoulders, mercifully not noticing that their "schedule" seemed to be to eat soup. "I'd tell 'em you didn't wanna go, but, uh, I don't think that'd fly with the boss." He seemed to notice the anxiety of the agents he was speaking to, and added: "It didn't sound like a big deal, if that's the problem. They said it wouldn't take long."
"Who's 'they'?" Jessie interrogated.
"I don't know- some guys." The grunt huffed, glancing over his shoulder. "Look, it's just a meeting thing, okay? I don't know any more than that. But I'm gonna get an earful if I'm late, so..."
Jessie gave him a relenting nod before going back to her team mates.
"I think we're okay," she whispered. "If they'd found out that we- if it was to kill us- I don't think they'd just send one person to ask us nicely. And it wouldn't be for the sake of being subtle, because we know from experience that Carter has no problem with making a show of doing people in."
"Right," James responded hoarsely, still not entirely easy with discussing the subject. Granted, he'd never held any doubt that they would be killed à la Harry if their plans to leave were discovered, but thinking on the matter brought a fresh bout of shock each time regardless.
"All right," Jessie said, loudly enough for the grunt to hear. She stepped out of the dormitory, followed by James and Meowth, and crossed her arms, facing the grunt. "Lead the way."
As the grunt waved them through into the office and shut the door behind them, James' greatest suspicions were proven wrong: it was not Harvey and Logan sitting across the room, nor was it a collection of people training guns on their heads. In fact, it was Butch and Cassidy, both of whom looked suitably disgruntled at the appearance of their rivals.
"What?" James blurted, befuddled.
"What the hell do you two want?" Jessie elaborated. Though she appeared equally perplexed, she still managed to hold a scowl.
"Take a seat," Cassidy replied curtly. The trio grudgingly did so, sitting at the opposite end of the table. Butch, making no attempt at masking his annoyance, slid a piece of paper across the wooden surface towards them.
"We got this from Carter," he said. Jessie snatched it, and hastily began reading the print. "After the briefing for the bank robbery last week," Butch continued, "he kept us behind in his office and asked us a bunch of stuff about our time in Sinnoh. Turns out he's looking for agents who know the area to go on a mission there."
It took a considerate deal of willpower for Jessie, James and Meowth not to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Favourable was not a word any of them would use to describe the scenario, but it was infinitely better than the threat of death that had been lingering until then.
"So, unfortunately, your names came up," Cassidy grumbled. "We tried to dissuade Carter from choosing you lot, but it turns out you're just about the only ones other than us who have worked in the region before- at least, the only ones who aren't still stuck there. He wants you lot to go with us, back to Sinnoh, in a week or so."
Meowth gave the duo a suspicious glare. "What's da mission, den?" he asked cautiously.
"We haven't been told much about it yet," Butch said, pushing his weight against the back of his chair so it teetered precariously on two legs. "That piece of paper don't actually reveal anything useful. Carter just said it was concerning the situation in Sinnoh, which you'll be familiar with if you aren't completely brain-dead. Essentially, the Rockets over there are getting royally screwed by the police, and we're gonna try and do something about it."
"So you don't know," Jessie summarised, unable to resist a complacent smirk in Cassidy's direction.
"Yeah, well, that's because Carter doesn't either," Cassidy retorted sourly. "He seems to still be working on the plan. The only reason we're telling you this now is to give you fair warning: don't make any plans, 'cause you need to be on call indefinitely from now."
Long-past caring about honouring the long-held feud between the two teams, James looked with grim sincerity at Butch and Cassidy, switching his gaze between the two of them periodically.
"Did he give any indication of when this mission might be?" he asked. "Surely he has a rough idea..."
"Any time between a week or two from now would be my guess," Butch said. "Don't think it'd be before then, considering the current lack of information." James had noticed that he and Cassidy both seemed somehow less animated than usual, less bitter despite their infrequent insults. He considered that maybe their previously despondent demeanour, back when they'd first arrived at the base injured and obviously shaken up, hadn't faded as much James had first thought. Maybe the unfavourable change of rhythm was affecting them too.
"That about covers it," Cassidy interjected, and motioned to the door. "Oh, and don't go blabbing about this too much. It's not exactly classified, but I get the impression that Carter likes to keep a lid on these things. Got it?"
James expected Jessie to make some cutting remark in response, so was surprised when she only uttered: "Okay." Then, without a further word, the three of them left, dodging eye contact with Butch and Cassidy all the while, and only spoke again once safely outside.
"Appropriate this should all come about now," Jessie chuckled, her back pressed against the brick wall. "Right when we're about to go."
"Ya should be more relieved!" Meowth exclaimed. "Heck, if it'd been any earlier, our whole arrangement would be over!"
"That's what I mean," Jessie replied, staring off into the sun-brushed distance. "It's funny." Spontaneously, she swivelled to face them. "Let's do something," she said, firmly decisive.
"What do you mean?" James asked.
"I mean, let's just do something. For fun. All this... All this shit- it's getting to us. And it sort of should be, but... I don't know. I'd just like to forget about it, just for a little while. I think it'd do all of us some good."
Meowth swallowed. "Yeah. I t'ink you're right."
Not much deliberation was needed for them to decide to go to the surrounding forest. The trees were almost still, an illusion only broken by the mottled light on the ground that wobbled with every gust, mirroring the movement of the branches overhead.
"You know," James began, "I don't think we've ever actually been here before."
"No," Jessie said. "Suppose not." She picked up a leaf and rolled its stem between her thumb and forefinger so that it spun rapidly, pausing every so often to examine its crimson veins. "I always thought of Unova as too urban, but it's beautiful here." Her grip on the leaf loosened, and it spiralled back to the forest floor. "You'd never know it was cover for a crime syndicate."
Perhaps it would be an exaggeration to say that the duration of their time in the forest was truly enjoyable, but it certainly eased their tension. At first they just walked, conversation replaced with individual thoughts as they progressed further through the woods, letting the mellow sound of the wind wash over them. The routine changed, however, when Meowth spotted a patch of fruit in one of the trees, and clambered up to reach it; Jessie and James followed him after being hit on the head with a couple of berries and declared "lazy humans", grinning and muttering various threats as they did so. Upon reaching the branch that the feline was perched on, the two abandoned their teasingly aggressive behaviour and instead sat next to him, their legs hanging over the side of the knotted bough. Meowth passed them some berries which they ate in intervals, savouring the sweet flavour. An orange glow gradually enveloped the forest as time crept by, one hour bleeding into the next. They sat and talked all the while, just content to be together.
Two things were notably different when they approached the base again. It was much noisier than when they'd left, and- though it was difficult to tell through the relative darkness- there seemed to be some movement outside the building. Moving closer, James saw that a small crowd of people were stood by the front doors, several of them urging those further in front to move out of the way. Only a few were in uniform.
"What's happening?" Jessie asked when they were close enough to be heard. "Did something happen?"
One of them turned to her, apparently confused at her question. "What?" he replied. "Ain't you guys waiting too?"
"Waiting for what?" James prompted.
A resentful glare of understanding crossed the man's face. "Oh. You're one of the Unova lot," he said sullenly. "In that case, go on in. Only we have to wait."
"Wait for what?" Jessie persisted.
The agent sighed, glowering at her. "To go through all this identity bullshit," he said. "Seriously- we hang around for weeks waiting for transportation to arrive so that we can get here, and when we do, they make us stand outside in the freezing cold. I thought the Unova base was meant to have its shit together."
Jessie frowned. "Where are you all from, then?"
"Hell, I don't know," the man scoffed. "I came from Johto. Don't know about the rest of them, but I reckon either Kalos or Sinnoh. That's where it's worst."
"So, if you don't know them, how come you all arrived at once?" James asked.
"Arceus, you're really clueless, aren't you? They got some aircraft and went 'round picking up a few of the agents who'd sent for help- the ones they could find, anyhow. First useful thing that's happened, and they still only managed to get a dozen of us."
The man turned away, and after loitering briefly to check that he wasn't going to turn back, they awkwardly moved past him to go inside. Hunched over the keyboard of her computer, the receptionist was typing rapidly, trying to keep up with the information relayed to her by an evidently pissed-off agent over the counter. Her assistant looked equally flustered as he broke out into irregular bouts of stammering in an effort to calm the crowd. Subsequently, neither of them complained when Jessie reached over the desktop, took the clipboard and signed all three of them in without bothering the staff members for permission. If they even noticed was doubtful.
Rather than discuss the recent arrival of the agents, they instead retired to their room, worn-out from walking so much. James drifted into sleep more easily than he thought he would be able to, and awoke in the morning with little memory of his dreams besides a few hazy images that no longer made sense to him. Jessie was already up, and Meowth rose soon after, crawling out from a nest of blankets.
"Mornin'," he yawned, stretching his arms out in front of him. He blinked torpidly, then widened his eyes. "It's da end of da week," he said. "They- it should be ready sometime today, right?"
"Right," Jessie affirmed. "Which means we should be ready too," she said, pouring herself a bowl of the bland cereal provided. "Harvey said they'd meet us to get the money," she whispered, "which I guess means they'll come here."
"So we shouldn't really leave our room today," James concluded.
The wait that followed was near agonizing. Not only was there little in the way of entertainment to keep them busy, but every set of footsteps outside the door set them on edge. They settled on flipping between channels on the television, being sure to keep the volume down so as not to miss any potential sounds around them. One of the news stations they tuned into briefly told tale of a Team Rocket agent who'd broken into two neighbouring houses before getting caught, but apart from that, they found that there was little coverage surrounding the organisation. Such a fact was both soothing and oddly disappointing.
"Ya reckon we should go look for 'em?" Meowth finally asked, when it was nearing midnight and there was still no sign of their counterparts.
"No," Jessie said. "They could easily be later than they said they'd be, working around orders from other agents and everything. It's not a good idea for us to be brash."
There was an equal absence of communication from Harvey and Logan the next day; Jessie and James even took turns walking around the base in the hopes that they might chance to spot one of them, but to no avail.
"Well, I hope that they're ready soon," James remarked. "If they take much longer, we might get sent off on this mission before they're finished."
"I still t'ink we should visit 'em in da supply room ta see how dey're gettin' on," Meowth said. "Just, y'know, happen to walk by. Poke our heads 'round the door as we pass- nuttin' conspicuous."
"Fine," Jessie acquiesced. She took her boots in one hand and started pulling them on. "Let's just be quick about it. And discreet."
James thought that they were suitably subtle in their actions as they walked to the third floor, but it didn't stop him from worrying all the same- nor did it stop Jessie from quickening her pace whenever they passed another agent, hissing at her team mates to do the same. Nonetheless, they reached the desired hallway without anyone paying them more than a second's worth of attention.
"Right," Jessie said, nodding. "I'll just... I'll see." She briskly went to the door of the store room, and opened it as quietly as she could. James could see from where he was standing that the light inside was still on, but not much else.
"Are dey dere?" Meowth asked out of the corner of his mouth. Jessie backed away from the entrance, closing the door again. A frown had appeared on her face, and she shook her head.
"No," she answered. "It's- everything's gone."
Unsure of what she meant, James leaned forwards. "Huh?"
"Everything's gone. The equipment, the camera- the room's practically empty except for the tables and chairs."
"Maybe dey're done wid it," Meowth suggested.
"What, and they took the room apart piece by piece as they left?" Jessie derided. "No, I don't think that's it." She closed her eyes, and drew in a sharp breath. "Let's... Let's just go."
They didn't dare speak further about the topic until back in the relative safety of their room. Even then, they kept the volume to a bare minimum, paranoid of being overheard.
"So, if it wasn't dem... Oh man, do ya t'ink someone found ya pictures in dere?" Meowth asked, clearly frightened. "If someone else emptied da joint I mean- if dey knew what was goin' on, an' dey saw your mugs-"
"They wouldn't have," Jessie interrupted. "Harvey and Logan weren't stupid. The only copies of our pictures are on the IDs they gave us- all anyone would find in there is a bunch of paperwork with fake names on. It wouldn't be traceable back to us."
"What are you saying?" James asked, afraid that the focus had suddenly turned to such a scenario. He was just as afraid of the response he might get.
Jessie met him with a bleak stare. "The supply room could have been like that for days, for all we know," she said. "They'd have no reason to clear it of the equipment like that, so it must have been someone else who found out what they were doing. And we haven't heard anything from those two. Maybe they found some way to run off alone- I don't know." She looked down and swallowed. "I'm saying that, however you look at it, Harvey and Logan aren't coming back."
James couldn't really say that his hope crumbled at that moment; it seemed to have dissipated a while ago without him being aware of it. Jessie's confirmation provided clarity, but nothing more.
"What now?" Meowth questioned softly. He didn't need to affirm the fact that the ID cards alone weren't enough to leave with- they all knew it anyway.
"We stay," Jessie replied, almost in a monotone. "For now, it's all we can do."
Nearly serene- or perhaps just in denial- James noticed his attention drifting from where he stood to some imaginary and remote place. He thought of Logan and Harvey, and hoped that they got away, that they ran.
Chapter 8: Rally
Cassidy's voice rang out in the vacant room, prompting Jessie, James and Meowth to turn in her direction. Like them, she wore civilian clothing, her usual dress replaced with a pleated red skirt and a frayed jumper, hair falling down her back in a single plait. She raised her eyebrows critically at their getup. "You didn't think to cover your heads? The cops'll be on you morons the moment we set foot in Sinnoh."
"If we'd been given a little more notice you wouldn't even recognise us," Jessie rejoined sourly. It was true that their outfits had been thrown together quickly; only a few minutes ago had the young agent knocked at their door and informed them their mission was underway and that they needed to be ready. "What's with all the urgency, anyway?"
"Don't ask me. Carter sprung it on all of us. He's probably orchestrating a dozen missions at once, judging by how stressed he sounded over the phone." She flicked her hand towards the door. "Come on, let's move it."
They rode the elevator down to the ground floor and strode with haste through the building, passing clusters of agents as they moved. Cassidy led the way into one of the briefing rooms and reached for the light switch before realising the light was already on.
Crouched down at the opposite end of the room was a young woman, her face towards the floor as her hand almost robotically petted the Persian next to her. She looked up as soon as she heard them enter, and quickly stood, recalling the cat pokémon to its pokéball as if she'd been caught doing something beneath her. James recognised her in an instant.
"Domino?" he questioned, taken aback. With her hair hanging in soft strands rather than curled as it usually was, she looked significantly different- less stiff, somehow- though it was unmistakably her, the very same girl who'd taken delight in ordering himself and Jessie around way back when Giovanni had been trying to attain Mewtwo. Jessie had evidently not forgotten that fact.
"You!" she gasped, pointing an accusing finger at the younger agent. Domino's fairly blank- if slightly despondent- expression morphed into one of mild disgust.
"Oh, you two. It's a wonder you're still around."
"What's that meant to mean?" Meowth snarled back.
"Stop bitching," Cassidy deadpanned. "I'm going to get Butch." She frowned at their unchanged hairstyles again. "And some hats."
Once she'd left, Jessie snapped: "Weren't you stationed in Kanto?"
"I was," Domino replied, putting on a sarcastic simper. "They flew me out here for the mission. Someone needs to lead you idiots."
Meowth hardened his glare on Domino. "An' what's wid da Persian? Dat smug, overgrown-"
"Wait," James interrupted. "Was that the boss's Persian?"
Domino sighed. "Giovanni's. Yes. It was just sitting around in his office all day, so... It's none of your business, anyway. By all rights you should be gone by now."
"Gone?" Jessie repeated, daring her to elaborate. Domino smirked.
"Listen here you brat-"
The squeak of the opening door cut Jessie off. Butch and Cassidy walked in, the latter holding a small box in her hands.
"Here," she said, tossing a beanie to James and a packet of hairbands and a cap to Jessie. "You can change your hair on the journey, we've gotta get going."
A group of about ten other Rockets- grunts, most likely- were waiting for them on the aircraft, mostly looking as unprepared as James felt. It had been three days since they'd discovered Harvey and Logan to be missing, and the shock of it had yet to fade. All that coupled with the lack of warning for the mission's start, he felt almost as if he was dreaming, not really there but observing something unreal and distant.
The aircraft started up once everyone was seated, and Butch tossed them all headsets so he could be heard over the whir of the blades above.
"All right," he began, directing this at the grunts, "you lot don't need to know much more than you'll be following our orders when we get there. We'll split you into about three groups- you'll either go with myself and Cassidy, Domino, or-" he gestured dismissively to Jessie and James, "-them. Me and Cassidy will be working on diverting the police's attention for the foreseeable future, and Domino- as she already knows- will be going around the region posting bail for all the agents who've been caught and have since contacted us for help." He somewhat reluctantly looked to Jessie, James and Meowth. "You're responsible for rounding up the agents who haven't been captured by the police, but are still stranded in Sinnoh. Anyone out of jail who called in was given directions to one of the Team Rocket owned businesses- one of the cafés. That's where you'll be positioned."
"Why not just go the extra mile and tell 'em to meet us at the spot we're landing at?" Jessie queried. "Seems like that'd save us a lot of trouble."
"Because, genius, there's a fair chance at least one of the calls we got was being tapped or monitored by the cops," Domino said, rolling her eyes. "If we told everyone the extraction point and the police show up, we're all busted and the whole thing goes to shit."
Cassidy nodded. "The agents who meet you at the address we gave them will be given directions to the extraction point. Then they'll leave the café individually and take public transport there, to prevent them from being followed. Meowth and a couple of other agents will be positioned inside the café, in the back room, to meet the agents who show up, check that no one's bugged and give them the instructions. Jessie and James- you'll be outside the building itself, posing as employees advertising the café. Basically, your job is to yell and make it obvious where the agents are meant to go, in case anyone gets lost."
"Uh, backing up a bit here," Meowth said, his paw raised. "Ya said da cops could have tapped one of da phone calls... So what if dey do show up?"
"Honestly, there's a good chance that'll happen, between the lack of security regarding those phone calls and Jessie and James being so high-profile," Butch admitted. "But we're hoping that if it does happen, a good number of the agents will already be on their way to the extraction. Hence why you'll be sending them out in batches rather than waiting for them all to arrive. If you see the police, don't tell any more agents where they're meant to be going, and don't try to meet up with us, for Arceus' sake. If the cops know you're there they'll be sure to track anyone from that point on. Get away if you can, and then make it back to the pick up point once you're sure you're not being followed, but otherwise, we'll bail you out. The risk of arrest should be worth it, even if we only manage to get a few people back."
Jessie huffed, and crossed her arms. "Who would've guessed that you'd give us the job with the most danger of something going wrong?"
"We gave you the easiest job," Domino muttered in dismission. The trio scowled at her, but didn't argue back, considering everyone on board could hear their conversation. Better to maintain some illusion of being professional.
When the aircraft eventually landed several hours later on the large stretch of earth far enough from civilisation to be ignored, they disembarked (Jessie and James now sporting the hats Cassidy had provided) and eyed their surroundings cautiously. The rumours of the problems in Sinnoh had clearly not passed anybody by, as the group as a whole looked notably wary, even out there in the wilderness. They unloaded the boxes Butch and Cassidy had brought, walked for about half an hour to the edge of town, hailed down a few taxis, and arrived at a vacant building atop a slight hill.
"This isn't the café, is it?" a male grunt asked, frowning at the place.
"No," Cassidy confirmed. "This is our distraction." She looked over her shoulder at the building. "Team Rocket used to use this as a side business, sort of like the Game Corner in Kanto," she explained. "We stopped using it years ago, but we still own it- under an alias, of course. Neither the public nor the police have any idea it's tied to us, which makes it perfect for... Well. You'll see."
Butch scanned the group for a couple of seconds. "You and you," he said, pointing to two of the grunts. "Take those boxes inside. Be careful with them."
His subordinates swiftly did as he said, jolting into motion. Three more left with Domino, who twirled a set of car keys around her finger before setting off.
"Enough with the mystery," Jessie said impatiently. "What's in the boxes?"
"Explosives," came Cassidy's short answer. She looked suitably pleased with the surprised expressions she got from her rivals at this. "See, we want the police to be occupied with something other than tracking our operatives down- not just today, but for a while after, too. If they think some maniac is going around blowing up buildings, they'll be forced to look into it. This way, no one gets hurt, and the cops are left wondering about some imaginary threat."
James gawked at the grunts walking into the building, the boxes held to their chests. Next to him, Butch grinned, holding up his clenched fists and then splaying his fingers out.
James was very glad to be far away from the place long before it actually exploded. The location of the café proved to be wildly different, right in the middle of a bustling town, open to the world. Waiters milled about between occupied tables, oblivious customers adding to the background noise. It didn't look any less innocent than the businesses surrounding it.
They'd been told beforehand not to talk to the staff too much- only a handful of them knew who their employers were- but that, as usual, asking for anything "at rocket speed" was the coded signal of alliance. Along with the two grunts accompanying them, they soon got access to the back room of the café after a quick chat with one of the more knowledgeable waitresses.
"Right- Meowth and you two, stay here and give the aircraft's location out to the agents we send to you as soon as you're sure they're not wearing a wire or something," Jessie said. "Me and James will head outside and round up the stragglers. We'll call it a day when the place closes."
More than somewhat anxious, James walked back outside with her, getting a few odd looks from the assumedly innocent members of staff. He couldn't say he was feeling good about their role in the mission.
"Ironic, huh?" Jessie commented once they were on the street again, her voice safely washed out by the volume of the crowd of people outside. "A few days ago we were trying to get agents out of Team Rocket, and now we're trying to get them back in." She chuckled.
"Well... It's not like we have much of a choice," James said.
"Hm. I suppose it's better than leaving them for the police..." Jessie didn't sound too sure about her statement, but shook her head. "Never mind that now. Let's just get on with it." She breathed out, and added bitterly: "As long as we're not killing anyone." Her face suddenly bright with enthusiasm, she smiled at a passing couple. "Café Chrome is open for business, feel free to stop by!"
James followed her lead, putting a bit of distance between himself and his partner to cover as much ground as possible. Whilst he yelled out all the propaganda he could come up with, he observed the people around him, trying to work out who might be an agent. For the first couple of minutes, the only people he spoke to were genuinely potential customers; he waved them towards the café with all the zeal he could muster.
"Café Chrome: service at rocket speed!" he shouted for what already felt like the hundredth time. Botch really should have given them megaphones. As he was musing this, a woman approached him, eyes darting around. "Hello," James greeted inconspicuously.
"You the Team Rocket guy?" the woman blurted. James went pale.
"Shh!" he hushed, praying that no one else had heard her. "Use the code- ask for service at rocket speed," he whispered.
"Right. Okay, thanks." The woman walked off towards the café, clearly eager to get out of plain sight.
James counted four more definite agents after her who came up to him, and two people who he thought might have been Rockets, but wasn't sure about. A couple of hours had passed when Jessie tapped him on the shoulder.
"How you getting on?"
"All right," he answered. "I reckon about five so far."
"My throat kills," Jessie moaned. "Maybe we should go and ask those grunts to swap shifts for a while. They can handle a bit of shouting, right?"
"Uh, excuse me?"
They both turned to see a couple of people, a man and a woman, facing them with some apprehension.
"Yes?" Jessie replied, quickly putting on a cheery tone again.
"The café- did you say 'service at rocket speed'?"
"Certainly!" Jessie beamed. "Just ask at the till."
"Oh, thank you," the man said, breaking into a relieved smile. "Um... Do you mind showing us where it is? I'm not sure..."
"Of course, sir," Jessie said. She leaned towards James. "Let's show them the way and then get the grunts to swap places," she mumbled into his ear. He nodded his agreement.
Along with the two other people, they made their way through the herd of pedestrians back to the building.
"So we, er, go to the bar, or..." The woman trailed off, swallowing as she glanced around fearfully.
"We can show you," James offered, sympathetic to their nerves.
"Oh, thank you so much," the man said shakily. "We didn't even know if this was the right place or..." He exhaled.
"It's no problem." Jessie nodded to one of the waiters, who smiled back and let them through the 'staff only' door at the back. "Just in here," she said, holding the door open for them then closing it behind her. "Two more for you, Meowth... Hey, you two-" she looked to the grunts, "-fancy some yelling?"
"All right, stay where you are, hands on your heads!"
James felt himself tense with terror at the command, looking behind him to the voice's owner. The man and woman they'd led back had pulled out batons- as well as police badges- and held them in silent threat.
"Oh shit," Jessie murmured.
"You brought fucking cops here?!" one of the grunts shrieked.
"I said hands on your heads, now! You're under arrest!"
Acting quickly, Jessie grasped at her belt and hurled a pokéball forwards; Gourgeist quickly appeared, turning to her for instructions. In retaliation, the plainclothes officers mimicked her, sending out a Growlithe and a Luxray.
James snapped himself out of his frozen state and released Inkay, who warbled happily before it saw the situation. James felt briefly guilty for not spending more time with his pokémon before fear swamped all other emotions once more.
"Gourgeist, Shadow Ball!"
The attack grazed the Growlithe, who jumped aside but not quite in time. Snarling, the dog pokémon picked itself up and yapped in anger.
"Meowth, leave with the others!" Jessie called out. The grunts didn't need any further encouragement, dashing through the fire exit behind them- Meowth, however, stood his ground.
"I ain't just gonna-"
"Use Thunder, Luxray!"
Gourgeist took the full brunt of the attack, crying out as it fell backwards. Jessie gritted her teeth.
James forced himself into action. "Inkay, Psybeam on Luxray!" he shouted. The Luxray let out a sharp yowl as it was hit.
"Give it up- you're surrounded," the female cop said icily while her colleague babbled orders into his walkie-talkie.
"Shadow Ball on Growlithe!" Jessie bellowed, ignoring the officer.
The two attacks collided mid-air, neither making it to their targets.
"Growlithe, use Bite!"
Before Jessie could finish her sentence, the Growlithe sank its teeth into Gourgeist, rendering her unable to make the attack.
James willed some burst of inspiration to strike him, desperately trying to clear his head so he could think strategically. "Inkay-"
There was a metallic 'bang' as the fire door was kicked in behind them, slamming against the wall. Another officer stepped into the room, tazer poised. "Recall your pokémon!"
Jessie glanced at James, at Gourgeist and Inkay. Maybe they could last out a few more minutes- until more backup came and they were completely pummeled. Her instinct was to hold out as long as she could, but Gourgeist already looked to be in pretty bad shape. No point in hurting her further.
She sighed, and held out the pokéball. "Return."
Their pokémon (along with Meowth, who spat vitriol at the officers all the while) quickly taken away, Jessie and James were handcuffed, given an unenthusiastic reading of their rights, and hauled out of the café. They tried to keep their gazes down rather than meet the stares of the people who'd stopped to watch the display, but couldn't help but look up at the sound of further battling behind them. It seemed that some of the staff members had joined in the skirmish; customers fled the scene in terror as the police moved in on the building, overlapping yells accompanying the clashing attacks.
The officers holding them pushed the two into the back of a waiting police van before they could observe the fight in any more detail- the doors were shut, and Jessie laughed softly.
"That went well."
James flashed a feeble smile, sitting down on the metal bench. "At least this outcome was sort of expected, I suppose."
Ordinarily, he would have been much more panicked in such a situation, but the combination of the earlier promise of bail and the fact that reality still wasn't quite registering with him made the whole thing a lot less daunting. Unpleasant, certainly, but not unbearable. "How long do you think we'll have to wait until they come and get us?"
"Who knows," Jessie responded, shrugging her shoulders. "Sounded like it'd be today, but maybe they were just being optimistic so we wouldn't freak out."
"Let's hope not."
The doors opened again and three waiters were shoved inside the van, stumbling as they caught their balance awkwardly.
"Fuck you!" one of them yelled back as the doors slammed. They quickly turned their attention to Jessie and James. The waiter who'd given them access to the room in the first place- a man who looked to be in his early thirties with a swoop of black hair- glowered at them.
"Idiots!" he barked. "You led them right to us!"
James frowned. "I'm sorry-"
"Oh god," the youngest one sobbed, resting her head against the side of the van. "Oh shit."
"The agents who gave us this mission said they'd bail us out if something like this happened," Jessie told her gently. The girl sniffled, glaring at her.
"And you believe them?"
The van lurched forwards without warning, and Jessie pondered the statement. "More or less."
Within a minute of their arrival at the station they were whisked away to different interrogation rooms and thrown questions for the next hour and a half. It hadn't taken long for one of the cops to recognise the duo. Once they had, they seemed hell-bent on getting them to confess to various other crimes.
As a rule James wasn't very good at being uncourteous to people when it came to one on one encounters. Subsequently, it was difficult to ignore the balding detective interrogating him.
"If you give me the location that your accomplices were headed for, I could make this a whole lot better for you. It's obvious someone else orchestrated this little stunt- you could come out of this clean as anything, pal."
"I mean, your rap sheet..." The detective tutted gravely. "That's something we normally wouldn't negotiate with. But we can make exceptions. Honesty would take you a hell of a long way here. I'm optimistic you'll make the right choice."
"And the court'll love you, buddy. You're young- probably from an upper-class background too, judging by that voice, am I right? You play your cards right and you might even get down from a custodial sentence. I just need a location, names- I'd say a confession but you've all but given me one already, I mean, look at the evidence..."
The detective eventually gave up when it finally sunk in that he wasn't going to get more than two syllables at a time from James. Grudgingly, he relented and took him to a holding cell.
"You let me know if you feel like talking, okay pal?" the man asked, moving from the bars after locking the door. "Deal's still standing."
James watched him walk away with no small amount of relief.
He sat with his back against the wall, hugging his knees to his chest, and wondered if they'd given up with Jessie yet. Probably. Either that or some unfortunate soul had engaged in a battle of wills.
Not knowing what time it was troubled him. He would have liked to have had some sort of anchor, something to base how worried it was reasonable to be on, but his cell didn't even have a window to check if it was dark outside. James guessed about three hours had passed so far, though he knew that time slowed to a crawl in jail, so didn't trust his judgement.
He tried to sleep, failed, and lay on the cot fretting about whether what Butch had said was true at all, whether anyone was coming or if they'd just been the mission's collateral. Then the detective came back for round two, this time using solely scare tactics, telling James how severe some of his charges could be if he didn't give him something to work with. James found he had no problems ignoring him this time. The guy left with another "Something something blah blah pal."
James' thoughts chased themselves in circles: Harvey and Logan, getting out of here, Carter, Harry... Dejection had nearly taken over when the sound of rattling keys dragged him out of his thoughts. A cop unlocked the door to his cell and pulled it open, the metal joints creaking in complaint at their lack of maintenance.
"You're lucky, kid. Your lawyer just posted your bail."
Said lawyer turned out to be one of the grunts who'd left with Domino, now sporting a cheap pinstripe suit that appeared to be at least one size too small for him.
"What about Jessie?" James asked the grunt as they walked towards the entrance of the station.
"She's already waiting in the car outside. So's your weird cat."
Before the cop let James collect his shoelaces and pokéballs, she solemnly read him the terms of his bail- which included not leaving town- and proceeded to fit him with an ankle tag.
"Is- Is that necessary?" James stammered, asking himself how he was going to get out of this particular predicament.
"Considering your track record with escaping and not abiding by bail terms, yes," the cop told him stonily. She pushed the device shut so it pinched James' skin. "All right, you can go get your stuff."
They walked out into the bitter evening air towards the parked four by four, the streetlights fencing the darkness off into blotches. A distant rush of traffic was all that swallowed the silence. Jessie opened the car door for James as he got nearer, and he and the grunt climbed in.
Domino was in the driver's seat, sunglasses covering her eyes to hide her youth. "You know," she said tiredly, "when we said we'd bail you out, it wasn't an invitation to mess things up."
"Oh shut up," Jessie shot back. "We sent back all those agents, didn't we?" She paused, looking concerned. "They did make it back, right?"
"How do you think we knew you got arrested?"
James cleared his throat. "Um... Before you start driving, they put a tag on me," he said, hoping that Domino gave him a quick and painless death.
"Oh yeah, me too," Jessie added, much more flippantly.
Domino reached under her seat and produced a small toolkit. "Hold on, I'll come back there," she said, clambering over to the seats behind.
"You have the tools to remove these right here?" Jessie asked incredulously.
"Uh, yeah. What do you think I've been doing all day? You're not special, basically everyone had a tag."
It took her about ten minutes with each tracker: she cut halfway through the black plastic so the wires were exposed and then fitted a new, longer length of wire into the tag so the alarm wouldn't go off and notify the station when she cut through the rest of it. She then drove further away from the station before digging a couple of pokéballs out of a plastic bag and releasing the pokémon inside them. Two Bulbasaur appeared, crawling over her lap.
"Aaand voila," Domino said as she attached the removed tags to each of the pokémon with some string. She took the Bulbasaur out of the car, and placed them down in a patch of grass. They absently began trotting off in the direction of some bushes; she observed them for a few seconds before jumping back into the front seat. "Okay, let's go."
"And dat'll fool da cops?" Meowth questioned, unconvinced.
"For long enough for us to get the hell out of Sinnoh," Domino replied. "You're welcome."
She turned the key in the engine when James realised something. "Wait- what about the waiters who got caught at the café? We can't just leave them."
"Can and will," Domino answered shortly. "Look, we took into account expenses for bail money for the agents who contacted us and for you two dopes. Nothing else. So even if I wanted to, I don't have the cash to get them out." She shrugged. "They should have just kept out of it."
"Just be grateful we came back for you. Your bail wasn't exactly cheap, you know. We had to slip a bribe in as well." Domino knitted her fingers together and stretched her arms out. "Besides, they'll be out soon enough. This'll be their first offence. So stop whining."
The engine sprang to life as she twisted the key forwards. Light pollution tinted the horizon a dull orange as they drove down the empty road.
"Pity we missed Butch and Cassidy's part of the mission. Apparently that thing lit up the sky all over town when it went off." Domino's laughter rang out, hollow.
Chapter 9: Bad Karma
Adrenaline was the only thing that kept James going on the long trip back to Kalos. Despite Domino's confidence that they were well in the clear, worry remained stubbornly seated at the back of his mind. Telling himself to snap out of it, to stop being so downtrodden and enjoy this moment of relative peace, he looked to Jessie and Meowth for some kind of reassurance. Jessie seemed fixed, however, in thoughts he couldn't read from her expression alone; Meowth looked up at him and smiled lightly.
"Ya holdin' up okay dere, Jim?"
"Just about. Yes."
"You don't have to worry about the police," Butch cut in, misjudging the source of James' unease. "Any units not poking around the site of our explosion will be busy monitoring a bunch of tagged Pokemon right now." He nodded to himself. "Yep, we're in the clear."
The Rockets that Domino had bailed and bribed out of jail- along with those picked up at the now disreputable cafe- sat futher down the aircraft, a few of them glancing up at the scattered conversation. Their moods seemed to range from a mild disbelief to confident euphoria; James watched as an apparently reunited pair of agents broke out into a fit of giggles, the grins never leaving their faces as they spoke to each other.
"And after all those lectures you gave me about never getting caught- remind me, who ended up in the loving arms of Officer Jenny, hm?"
"Coming from the girl who smells like a trashcan threw up on her! You been hiding out in a dumpster this whole time?"
James wondered if they knew about Giovanni. He supposed they would have likely heard the news by now, whether it was by rumour or more formal information from headquarters, but it wasn't impossible that one or two of them had yet to discover the details of the sudden disorder. Coming back only to see Carter at the head of things would certainly be a shock to the system.
He turned to Jessie at her mumbled utterance, waiting for her to elaborate. "We should call Mondo, when we get back," she continued. "Check he's all right."
"Good idea," James replied. Then, after a few seconds: "I'm sure he's fine."
They were both silent for the remainder of the journey.
There'd been brief contemplation about getting a burner phone, but they figured that since Mondo's end of the line would almost certainly be tapped anyway, there wasn't much point. They gathered around the phone in their dormitory and waded through several minutes of answering coded questions and being redirected to half a dozen other phone lines before they were finally put through to the Kanto headquarters.
"What is the purpose of your call?"
"Um... I'd like to speak to Mondo, please," James said.
"His last name and agent ID number?"
James hesitated as he realised he had no idea. "I'm not sure- er, he's about fifteen, brown hair, works in deliveries-"
"Yeah yeah, I know the kid. Hold up."
The other end went quiet, and he gave Jessie and Meowth a thumbs up. It was a few minutes before James heard anything.
"Dat him? Put him on speaker!" Meowth urged, eyes widening in an excitement he hadn't displayed for a while. James obediently jabbed the loudspeaker button, and Mondo's voice rang through:
"How can be of assistance, sir?"
Jessie leaned in closer to the phone. "Mondo, it's us!"
"Miss Jessie? Oh, hello! I haven't heard from you in ages! How are you all? Do you need-"
"Cool it buddy," Meowth said, still smiling. "We're pretty okay, t'anks- how's it holdin' up your end?"
"Uh, yeah- fine, thank you. It was... We all took a while to, sorta, recover from the boss'... You know."
James chose his next words carefully. "But you're all right now?"
"Yeah, I guess. New boss seems nice. I'm still stuck in deliveries though- I hope I get to work with you guys sometime soon instead."
At this, the three of them flinched almost simultaneously. "No. No, you should stay where you are," Jessie said. Her voice, although calm, seemed on the edge of tipping into desperation. She quickly remedied this, forcing weak cheer into her tone. "We count on you! What would we do without our esteemed Kanto contact?"
"Oh! Oh, I hadn't thought of that- my apologies, Miss Jessie. Of course I'll stay." The sudden flattery had clearly rattled him, for his words came out in trembling spurts.
The four of them talked for another half hour or so, discussing more relaxed topics, until Mondo's colleague yelled at him to get back to work. He blurted an apologetic goodbye and the phone hung up.
Jessie broke out into a wide grin. "He's okay." She laughed, clasping her hands together. "Oh, thank goodness he's okay!"
"Shouldn't ya be thankin' badness?" Meowth quipped.
"I was wondering when your little jabs would return," James said. He breathed out, his smile mimicking Jessie's. "Mondo... He doesn't seem to know much about anything." He frowned at his own words. "Is that good or bad?"
"Good," Jessie said. "He's safe if he's just the eager delivery boy. He has nothing to be wary of. And let's keep it that way, hm? No acting funny around him during phone calls."
"Watch it, Jess," Meowth muttered. He waved his paw around, indicating to the ceiling and walls. "We shouldn't talk about... Not here."
Jessie nodded. "Let's head back to our room. I don't know about you two but I need a rest.
Once back in the dormitory, they took their usual spots on the couch and watched the TV for a while. James occasionally flicked to some game show featuring water type Pokemon and their trainers, but mostly stuck to news channels. The demolition of the vacant building, overseen by Butch and Cassidy, was solemnly outlined by various reporters.
"They got their distraction all right," Jessie said as a stuttering woman told the camera how she'd just been parking her car when it happened.
"Scarin' people like dis... It don't seem nice," Meowth noted uncomfortably.
"Come on. This is about the tamest thing Team Rocket has done recently," Jessie argued. She sighed. "Anyway, like it or not, we're guilty of very similar things." Her thoughtful expression was broken by the story that followed. "Oh!"
Her and James' mugshots had appeared on the screen, glum and nervous. It was immediately evident that the pictures were the same ones taken just a few hours ago.
Jessie whooped mockingly. "We made it, guys!"
"...an elaborate chain of escapes made earlier this evening. Jessica Musashi and James Kojiro, pictured to the left, are believed to have been amongst those leading the operation. Michael Ross reports for more details."
Strangely, James felt the nostalgic rush of exhiliration take its brief hold. Fame. Villainy. Nonsensical or not, he had missed the elation missions used to bring, and held onto the feeling until it was washed away by nerves.
"...arrested earlier today following the raid of a Team Rocket occupied establishment. They were subsequently released on bail, but left the perimeter after tampering with police-assigned tracking devices. Eleven other members of Team Rocket were also bailed prior to this, and have since been reported missing. Musashi and Kojiro have been known affiliates of Team Rocket for over five years, and this by no means marks their first crime, nor their first escape. Notable is their involvement in the major disruption of a Unova train station, the theft of restricted digital data, as well as hundreds of counts of theft and attempted theft..."
"They make us sound so dangerous," James said with a strained laugh.
Jessie shrugged. "When we want to be, we are."
Their next mission was announced a few days later. Carter was not at the meeting; instead, some other high-ranking agent James hadn't met before talked them through the role they would be playing.
"We're stealing Pokemon from a lab a few cities from here," the woman explained to them, jabbing her finger at the map spread out on the table. "You two were originally meant to be part of the ground team, but since your faces were just broadcast over every news station worth watching, we decided it's better that you keep out of sight."
"So whatta we doin'?" Meowth asked. "Hidin' behind a rock till da mission's ova?"
The agent smirked. "Almost. You're on surveillance. I assume that between the three of you, you can hack into a few cameras?"
"Of course," Jessie affirmed. "But before we agree to any of this, tell me the exact plan. Everything."
"Watch your tone," the woman warned. "Don't forget that I'm your superior. But very well.
"A group of four agents will breach the perimeter of the lab tomorrow- after nightfall, naturally- and make their way into the building. You will be monitoring the security cameras and reporting back to them. They will break into the relevant rooms, lift the Pokeballs, and get out of there."
Jessie breathed in, clearly building up the nerve to do something. "And there'll be no mass murder of the lab's population?"
Taken aback by this, the woman blinked. "What? No, of course not- the lab only has one guard on night patrol. There'll be no need for a violent approach." She waved her hand. "Go on, get out of here. I've still got five more guys to talk to."
They left quickly.
"So, we doin' this?" Meowth asked.
"I don't imagine it's up to us," Jessie said, "but yes. I'd rather take this mission than refuse it and be assigned something... less peaceful."
So they went through the motions. Read up on their mission briefs. Slept. Woke up just as the sky showed the first hints of colour: a red tinge that bled through the thick clouds. Since they would be out of sight anyway, they simply wore their uniforms with overcoats, an act reminiscent of Unova. Almost pleasantly so, James mused. There was that trace of thrill again- pulsing in his chest, raising goosebumps along his arms. He shivered.
Jessie took the driver's seat on the moderately lengthy journey there, restlessly drumming her nails against the steering wheel whenever the car was stationary. A local radio station sounded through the speakers; it was currently playing some decade-old song heavy on synth. James said he thought it was nice. Meowth told him he had crummy music taste.
"This is the place," Jessie said half an hour later as she pulled into a desolate parking lot. "Should be a van waiting for us just round the corner."
There was. They unlocked it and clambered inside, pulling the doors shut behind them with a haste befitting their current notoriety.
Television motitors- old-fashioned ones with small glossy screens that curved at the edges- lined one wall of the van, and after a few presses of the buttons below, they burst alive with grey light. Static wobbled and hissed at them.
James pulled their laptop out of the briefcase he'd been carrying, booted it up, and opened the custom browser Zager had installed for illicit activities such as this one. Before attempting anything more complex, he typed in a couple of lines of code which produced a list of active public security cameras. He scrolled past a few video feeds, mostly grocery stores and offices, and was surprised to find footage of the lab with little effort.
"Got it," he said to the others. "The security's incredibly lax."
"Good for us," Jessie replied. "Ah, there's a retirement plan- getting paid to fix people's idiotic security systems. Like those movies where the bad guy turns good at the end and all their crimes are forgiven."
"Wouldn't dat be lovely," Meowth said impassively.
Within the next couple of minutes they had successfully wired the monitors to the laptop so that they could view multiple areas of the lab at once. It was even possible to move the cameras around, which Meowth amused himself with for a time until Jessie got annoyed and told him to knock it off.
Then it was a case of waiting. They weren't exactly well equipped to combat boredom; there was an 8-bit game on the laptop- Arbok- but other than TVs were their only means of distraction.
"Time?" Jessie asked, leaning back and yawning.
James checked his pocket watch. "They should be here soon- in the next ten minutes, I think."
"Okay," Meowth said. "I'll get da scanner set up."
His human partners nodded at this, and turned on their headsets in preparation. A low hum of white noise buzzed in James' ears until, not too long after, a woman's voice came through:
"Hey- you guys there?"
"Yep," Jessie answered. "We're ready on our end."
"Right, good. We're just outside the place now. Front entrance clear?"
James cast his line of sight up to the monitors, green eyes flicking around for a short while before he found the area in question.
"Yes," he confirmed. "It's safe to go."
"Okay. Let us know if something happens."
Soon after, the group of agents- clad in black- came onto the screen that overlooked the front entrance; one person set down a bag and retrieved something from it. Though the television's quality was too grainy to tell what it was from observation alone, James guessed that the item was an electronic lock disabler.
The group made it through the first few rooms with ease, pausing at each doorway to wait for Jessie and James' assurance. When they neared the hallway where both the guard and the door to the storeroom resided, however, Jessie told them to stop.
"The guard's just up ahead," she informed them. "I'd advise that one of you go round to the other side of the lab and create a distraction- a noisy one."
There was no response, and she looked on, perplexed, as the agent who'd been replying to them turned to her accomplices.
"It's clear. Let's go."
Bemused, James babbled, "N-No, uh- the guard is ahead! Don't-"
Jessie was more succinct. "It's not clear, repeat, not clear. Do not proceed."
"What's wrong?" Meowth asked. "Are ya microphones not workin'?"
"I don't know-" Jessie's eyes widened as one of the agents made to open the door. "There's a guard- do not proceed!"
They proceeded. James could only watch, wondering how they'd managed to screw this up, as his colleagues entered the hallway, and the guard lurched forwards out of his relaxed position against the wall. No audio accompanied the grainy footage that showed him reach for his weapon, but his shock was apparent.
The agent they'd been talking to over the earpieces brandished her own gun, and James was hardly surprised when she shot the guard twice in the chest. He jumped, sure, felt the familiar wave of horror extend its way through his body, but it was slightly numbed, as if in some part of his mind- unconsciously, perhaps- James had been expecting it.
Cut it out, Carter. It's getting old now. Predictable.
When he finally made a sound, it seemed unaffected:
Jessie and Meowth remained silent, staring in apprehension at the screen.
Out of all the agents present at the scene, only one of them appeared taken aback by this turn of events- the only other female member of the group. She spoke loudly enough for Jessie and James to hear her through their headphones.
"Wh- Why did you do that? We could have just used Pokemon, or... You said it was clear!"
The woman who'd shot the guard ignored her, and walked over to the corpse. She knelt down, took the man's gun out of its holster, then moved back to the group. At the nod of her head, two agents grabbed the Rocket that had questioned the man's death. She didn't move for a moment and then struggled wildly.
"What are you doing?" she yelled. "I didn't mean-" She froze as the other woman approached her. "No, no, no... Please..."
"Stop it!" Jessie screamed suddenly, despairing, furious. "Stop!"
The shot was clean, piercing a neat hole right through the center of the Rocket's forehead, though there was little room to miss. The woman slumped immediately, dead weight. Her captors let go of her and she fell to the floor.
Only then did Jessie start to cry. She tore her microphone away from her face and sobbed openly. Ever-infectious, the sorrow hit James, fully now. A strange thing, to grieve for a stranger. He removed his headset. Tears quietly dropped to break against the metal floor. His breathing accelerated until he was nearly hyperventilating, light-headed, choking on air.
Because really, none of it was any easier.
Cut it out, Carter.
Meowth, shaking visibly but with a little remaining composure, kept looking at the monitor. "Look."
James rose his head, rubbing his eyes so his vision was less blurred.
The woman was crouched by the body now, careful to avoid the blood that spread across the screen in black pixels. She put her gun in the dead Rocket's hand, stood up again, and in similar fashion returned the guard's gun to his corpse.
"What are they doing?" Jessie asked no one in particular. "Why- Why go through the trouble of framing their own team mate for a murder that wasn't even necessary? Why?"
James had no answer. That was a mystery he had no energy to solve.
The agents were breaking into the storeroom at this point. Soon after, they were on a different screen, clearing the room of its valuable contents. None of the trio paid this much mind. Voices droned through the police scanner, too, 10-4s and copy thats, but they weren't listening.
"They're-" James shuddered. "They're not going to kill anyone else, are they?"
Meowth remained looking at the screen. "No, I don't t'ink so. Busy with grabbin' da stuff now." He sounded so distant. There was a vacant, defensive look in his eyes.
The police scanner, James realised now, was alive with more chatter than before, and he tried to make out what was being said. The garbled words overlapped, crackling with static.
"...Yeah, shots fired..."
"38th Street, down from the Pokemon centre... Lab..."
"Requesting imminent backup."
They didn't react beyond a glance in the scanner's direction. James was a little better now. His breathing was regular again, but his vision still shook at the corners, distorted and out of focus.
A little more time passed, the low voices of the police officers constantly providing indistinguishable updates, and then the sirens started to blare, first a faint wail in the distance and then growing with fluctuating howls. He thought to look up at the monitors again. The agents were hurriedly fleeing with the loot they had managed to obtain.
The police cars must have driven right past the van, they were so loud, but the trio remained unresponsive. Only five minutes later when the sirens had faded and the back doors of the vehicle were kicked open did they finally react.
James had been expecting cops- he dreaded the guns they would surely be wielding- but it was the agent who'd briefed them on the mission who stormed in, slamming the doors shut behind her.
"What are you doing?" she growled. "Did you warn them at all?"
Jessie sprang up to face the woman. "You said there would be no deaths," she shot back. "You told us there was no need to-"
"I told you exactly what I was told," the agent interrupted. "It must have been some kind of last-minute arrangement- if Carter wanted her gone, so be it. That doesn't mean you just refuse to do anything!"
Jessie glowered at her. "We-"
"Just be quiet, I don't have time for this." The woman pushed past James and started to type on the keyboard. "We haven't got long before the feds put two and two together and figure that the windowless van two blocks down from the crime scene is probably connected." She blew out a sigh. "I can't make this thing work. Hurry- one of you with the know-how delete the video feed for the last hour or so."
Despite the guilt and sickness in his chest that told him it didn't matter as long as he had no further part in this, James must have had a little room for reason left, for he acquiesced and got to work on getting rid of the video evidence. Maybe they weren't too far gone yet. Maybe, if they at least tied up these loose ends, there would be some sort of forgiveness.
Dream on, Jim.
His fingers clattered clumsily over the keys as his mind struggled to stay on task. He got there eventually, though it took twice the usual amount of effort- he was more grateful than ever for Zager's enhancers to the computer. Without them he might well have failed.
The agent nodded in approval. "I'll drive. Stay on that scanner and this time tell me if there's anything I should know about."
She began to drive, and only when they were a few minutes into the journey did it truly dawn on James that they really had their backs to the wall this time. He sat, huddled with his team mates, and prayed that the damage was somehow revocable.
The traffic was bad, and more than once James thought about simply jumping out onto the road and legging it. He reckoned he could convince Jessie and Meowth to go with him. Perhaps they would last out a few days before a Team Rocket sniper picked them off, or they were recognised and left to rot in a cell until some corrupt police official was paid to-
The van started to move again. James smothered a sob.
About an hour later, they arrived at headquarters. The agent who'd driven them back, despite the anger towards them she'd made no attempt at concealing, seemed sympathetic as they turned into the parking lot. Concerned, even- James caught a glimpse of her frown in the wing mirror. But she didn't say anything as Jessie and James were approached by two Rockets.
"Boss wants to see you two," one of them said, tilting his head towards the building. When he got no reaction, he added, "Now."
"What about Meowth?" Jessie asked plainly. The agent shrugged.
"It's a Pokemon. Boss didn't say nothing about it, just you two."
Jessie eyed the Rockets for a moment. Pokeballs on their belts. Guns at their hips. Not a fight they stood a chance of winning.
She crouched down next to Meowth. "We're not back in an hour and you get out of here," she whispered. James merely stood there, not quite registering it all. He felt a distance from the scene; his mind's last line of pointless defence, he guessed.
These thoughts were so foreign. When did he start thinking like this?
"I-" Meowth grimaced. "I ain't gonna just leave ya!"
"We're not back and you go," Jessie repeated, ignoring the pleading look she got in response. "Look after Mondo."
Meowth's face twisted with foreboding, his mouth twitching with unformed words. Before he could reply, the man next to James spoke up.
"Come on, move it."
Jessie got up. They walked to the doors, neither of them giving the agents behind them an excuse to use force. Jessie moved stiffly, her head facing straight forwards, resigned but refusing to break. She fought off the quivers that pulled at her lips and threatened to topple her composure. In contrast, James' walk was staggered and clumsy, like someone just roused from sleep.
But oh was he scared.
He turned to look at Meowth before he passed through the doorway. The two of them held that unsure and frightened gaze for all of two seconds until it was broken, and James realised that, if things went as badly as they could, that had been his goodbye to the feline. That brief, stupid glance.
Chapter 10: Kicking At The Rungs
He tried not to take anything in. The stairs they climbed, the footsteps of the agents behind them, the doors to the office that grew unrelentingly closer- he shut it all out. As they were frisked by the guard for weapons, James willed himself to disconnect from his body entirely: pass through the wall and leave his soulless form behind to deal with this mess.
Jessie looked his way and he snapped back to reality. She parted her lips for a moment as if about to say something, and then closed them again. She didn't look scared. She looked intense, more than anything else. James saw her intrepidity, her passion, her warmth and rage and love and brilliance, all contained in those two blue eyes.
Would she really die here?
For her to be gone, snuffed out so quickly, was unthinkable. Unbearable.
The pang he felt swelling in his stomach was akin to the sensation after Giovanni's death, though it was far worse this time, amplified beyond belief.
No, no, no. They wouldn't die. It was too awful.
These thoughts looped over and over in the few seconds before they were ushered forwards, through the doors and into the office.
Carter was leafing through a stack of papers at his desk. He looked up at their arrival, and nodded to the grunts.
The two men obediently left, closing the doors behind them.
There was a dreadful pause. James waited for Carter to say something, soon longed for it when he merely left them in a horrid silence. How should they respond? Should they just wait? Sink to their knees and grovel?
Finally, Carter pursed his lips, and leaned forwards in his chair.
"Tell me what happened."
Jessie seemed to draw herself up, pushing her weight forwards. "The mission was going to plan, but we failed to alert the agents of the police's arrival in time. However, they-"
"I worked that bit out for myself," Carter interrupted. He wasn't shouting, nowhere near it, but there was an edge to his tone bordering on fury. "What I want to know is exactly what possessed you two to screw up something so simple."
James drew in a deep breath. If there was a way to talk themselves out of this, it was now or never. "Sir, we-"
"No on briefed us on the part where two people are shot," Jessie cut in, maintaining a deceptively respectful stance as she bit back more explicit criticism. James winced, and mentally begged her not to say anything else unruly.
Carter didn't respond immediately, looking at the younger woman with an unchanged expression. "The agent whose death you witnessed was a traitor," he said. "If your fates were switched she wouldn't have blinked an eye." He cast a glance out of the window beside him. "Whether or not you knew the details of the mission in full, you should have continued with your task. There is no excuse in that field."
"Are you going to kill us now?" Jessie asked, blurting the question. Her voice carried a mixture of defiance and a fear that made her words audibly tremor. Daring not to speak, James stood unmoving, a terrible sickness worming its way from his chest to the back of his throat. His head was suddenly light and he worried he might collapse on the spot.
For the first time in the exchange, Carter let his brow crease into a glare.
"Despite what you seem to believe, I do not enjoy killing people," he snapped. "And to answer your question, no. I wouldn't be so wasteful as to dispose of my employees because of one stupid error. Disloyalty I cannot forgive. But I believe the pair of you to have been motivated by fear. That I can at least understand, given the recent shift in events."
He gave the two of them a pensive, measured stare in turn. "Still, it merits punishment. I'm cutting your salaries for the month. And for that disgusting display of insubordination- which I will graciously assume was born out of mindless nerves- you can both go and unload the supplies that arrived from Kanto."
James only managed to nod mutely as relief washed over him, whilst Jessie mumbled: "Yes, sir."
"Do not treat this as anything but mercy," Carter told them. "I'm only speaking to you in person because you're supposedly high-ranking agents. Let me make this perfectly clear: this is your last chance. I won't tolerate any more screw-ups." He flicked his hand at them as if shaking off something unwanted. "Now get out. And you'd better pray to Arceus that if you see the inside of this room again, it's for something good."
"Oh shit," Jessie gasped as soon as the doors to the office closed behind her. She took her head in her hands and said nothing for a short while. "James, I... I'm sorry. Shit. I don't know what I was doing..."
Willing his breathing to slow, the lingering shock that kept his heart rate uncomfortably fast to fade, James shook his head. "It's okay. We're fine."
"That's not the point," Jessie groaned. "He could have easily had us killed in there. I risked it."
"No, you... He wouldn't have killed us for that. He said it himself."
Jessie just stared at the floor, looking close to tears and more afraid than James had seen her in some time. "Come on," she said, starting to walk. He followed.
Meowth met them halfway down the hall, his eyes wide as he caught sight of them. "Oh man- you two had me really worryin'," he exclaimed, pacing over to them with a relieved smile. His expression soon grew solemn again. "How'd it go? Everythin' okay?"
"Too early to tell, but I think so," Jessie replied shakily. "I nearly messed it all up, but... He let us off lightly enough- after a pretty damn severe warning."
"Pay cut?" Meowth guessed. "Not dat it matters, as long as..." The cat pokémon wiped an arm across his eyes hastily as his shoulders hunched. "Jeez, guys."
The delivery trucks were parked a couple of hundred metres away from the building, visible from the gravel pathway on which they stood. Meowth, despite Jessie's instructions to go back to the dormitory and wait for them, refused to leave their side.
"I ain't abandonin' ya again anytime soon," he vowed as they walked. "I shouldn't have ever let you go in dat office."
"We didn't exactly have a choice in the matter," James reminded him. "You couldn't have gotten us out of it if you'd tried." He shrugged his shoulders, an act of counterfeit nonchalance. "Besides, we're fine, see? Just a little manual labour, that's all."
Neither of his team mates shared his fake optimism, and by the time they reached the trucks, James gave up the act altogether. The three vehicles were huge, and packed with countless boxes.
"Hi," an agent standing to the side greeted, vaguely suspicious. He raised his chin. "How can I help?"
"Unloading," Jessie replied brusquely. The man's face lifted.
"Pissed off the boss, huh?" He cheerily patted the side of one truck. "Well, if it's any condolence, you two just made my evening. I did not feel like heavy lifting tonight." He handed James a set of keys. "They're all yours. Remember to lock up when you're done." With that, he motioned to the other agents standing around, who followed him in high spirits.
Any illusion that they had gotten off easy vanished when they found out just how heavy the boxes were; James' arms ached after carrying just one to the cargo bay. Meowth attempted to help, but wasn't strong enough to lift the crates. Instead, he watched them and offered sporadic advice.
"Ya okay dere? Don't strain yourself- lift with ya legs, not ya back."
Twenty minutes passed and both Jessie and James were exhausted. They'd thought about getting their pokémon to help, but didn't dare risk it in such plain view of headquarters.
His throat dry and rapidly taking in air, James felt he couldn't possibly continue. The burning in his limbs refused to cease.
"How... How much left?" he panted, dragging a hand across his sweat-covered forehead.
"Not too much," Jessie replied breathlessly. "We're getting there."
"Wait," Meowth muttered. His ears perked up. "Quiet. Someone's coming."
Sure enough, three silhouettes emerged from the falling darkness, moving in their direction. As they got closer, it became apparent that they were grunts, all of them male, and no one with whom the trio was familiar.
"Maybe they got truck duty too?" James suggested, cautiously hopeful.
They fell silent as the agents approached them. The building's scattered lights provided a strange background: reassuring until James dared to dwell on the operations behind the walls. He set down the box he was holding, at least grateful for an excuse to momentarily pause. Jessie copied his actions. He thought she looked scared, and suddenly wondered if he should be too.
One of the agents raised his hand in greeting. "Hey," he called as they reached the trucks. "You're James and Jessica, right?"
"Yeah, that's them," the Rocket to his left said before they could respond. "Seen them before."
James swallowed. "What- What's-"
The first grunt who'd spoken tilted his head towards the cargo bay. "Just need to grab some food for the kitchen," he explained. "Show us where you put the boxes, you two?"
"Foodstuff is at the entrance, on the left," Jessie told him tersely.
"Yeah, just- Just show us real quick?"
"You can't miss it."
"I said show us."
The three men obstructing the path back towards headquarters, Jessie reluctantly moved around the corner to the cargo bay, James and Meowth following suit. Her hand was slid inside her skirt pocket, clutching Gourgeist's pokéball as she walked.
"Right there," she said. "Now excuse us."
As she made to walk back to the trucks, one of the Rockets reached forwards to seize her arm. She reacted swiftly, bringing her knee up into his stomach.
The other two grunts sprung into action as their counterpart recoiled from the blow. One managed to get ahold of Jessie whilst the other turned his attention to James, who barely had time to register the abrupt threat. He crossed his arms over his face reflexively as his attacker moved in to grab him.
His eyes were screwed shut, but he snapped them open at Meowth's yowl. The cat pokémon had launched himself at the grunt, his claws a blur of white as he swiped at the Rocket.
"Get off 'em!" he screeched. The man he had leapt onto yelled out in surprise and pain, then took Meowth by the scruff of his neck and flung him to the ground. Meowth bared his teeth and hissed, showing an animalistic aggression that he usually would have been desperate to conceal.
Jessie, meanwhile, was wrestling with her assailant for possession of her pokéball. She held it high above her head, fumbling for the release button whilst simultaneously fending off any further attacks.
Instinct took over, and James rushed forwards, colliding with the grunt who'd thrown Meowth. Their brief grapple was ended when something hit James on the side of his jaw with such force that he fell to his knees.
He gasped at the shock of the pain, his hand clutching the injured side of his face as his vision span and trembled. James did his best to look up, to focus.
There was a sharp yelp, and Meowth skidded across the ground before him. Before James could formulate any kind of plan to help, the grunt delivered a kick to Meowth's head. He fell limp.
"Meowth!" James exclaimed. He struggled to his feet as fear coursed through him, sharp and fresh. Jessie's hand was empty now, the pokéball on the ground and out of reach. The man tussling with her quickly kicked it away.
And suddenly, Jessie went still. Her eyes darted between Meowth, James, and something in the hand of the grunt behind him. James followed her gaze to the gun the man held and realized what had hit him.
"Don't," she whispered. James wasn't sure to whom the statement was addressed.
Hands grabbed his arms from behind. His only reaction was to stare down at Meowth, searching for some sign that he was still breathing. As they were pushed further into the seclusion of the cargo bay, the man with the gun stood at the entrance, weapon poised in quiet warning.
The first blow caught James off guard. He wrapped his arms around his stomach, doubling over as dull pain coarsed through his gut. Jessie's shout of dismay rang out, followed by a thud and her low, suppressed groan.
Pain, again- this time in his cheek. James staggered backwards and fell on his shoulder. Instinct turned his face towards the ground and curled his knees to his chest; something struck him in his ribs and he cried out. Relentless, the attack came again and again, and somewhere in the back of his mind it occurred to him that he was being kicked.
"Stop! Stop it!" he could hear Jessie screaming. Another shout rang out- not hers.
The kicking subsided, and James lay sobbing, too weak to move for a few moments. He turned his head to look up at Jessie. She seemed torn between retaliation and compliance- James saw her duck out of the grasp of her captor, then falter as her attention turned once more to the gun.
Her hesitation, however brief, gave the two unarmed grunts a window to attack. One took hold of her upper arm whilst the other swept her legs from underneath her. Jessie fell hard onto her back, spluttering as her weight hit the concrete.
"Please," James begged, willing himself to stand. "Please, don't-"
Jessie shrieked as the man yanked her arm backwards, twisting it at an unnatural angle. Eyes widening, James racked his brain for something he could do or say that wouldn't make things even worse.
But Jessie's saviour turned out to be one of the grunts themselves- the one with the gun.
"Take it easy," he said. "Nothing that stops them working, remember?"
His accomplice frowned, but relinquished his hold on Jessie. Soon after-seemingly irritated at having been held back- he threw a punch at her face. James flinched, cringing at the spurt of blood that dribbled from Jessie's nose.
He shrank away- an involuntary movement- as the grunts passed him. A final slug to his stomach and they seemed satisfied.
James whimpered in pain and nausea as they retreated into the open. In just seconds they were out of sight.
Alone again. They turned at the same time to the crumpled form of their team mate, outlined against the afterglow.
On shuddering legs, Jessie stood, and reached a hand down to James, who took it. He was surprised at the strength she mustered to heave him to his feet, even with the blood still trickling down her face and injuries that must have been equal to or greater than his own. Wordless and weak, they made the short journey together. Jessie knelt.
In a jittering motion, she eased the glove off her left arm and held it in front of his face. A moment of utter dread, and she felt the warmth of his breath against her fingertips.
"He's okay," she choked out, overwhelmed by a cocktail of immeasurable relief and the lingering terror of the alternative. She gingerly scooped him into her arms, retrieved Gourgeist's pokéball, and stood.
"We need to get him a- a potion, or something," she said. "Can you walk?"
James found that he could- it was his upper body that had sustained most of the damage. They split up once back in headquarters, throwing caution to the wind. Whilst Jessie carried Meowth to their room, James headed for the supplies area he vaguely remembered to hold medicinal supplies.
The halls, although not crowded, were far from bare, and he got more than a couple of odd stares as he rushed to his destination. He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the glass of a window, hardly taking in the mottled bruises already forming, the pink and red of raw flesh where his skin had broken.
Finding the door already open, he flipped the light switch and started frantically rummaging through the boxes. He grabbed anything he came across that he thought they might need: bandages, painkillers, antiseptic, and finally the potion he'd set out to find. As soon as it was in his possession, he departed.
When he reached the dormitory, Meowth was lying on the lower bunk bed, still unconscious. Jessie sat next to him, dabbing the blood from his fur with a damp cloth.
"Did you get it?"
James nodded, and crossed the room to her side. He uncapped the bottle, then carefully applied the spray.
Its effect was not instantaneous, but over the next few minutes Meowth's breathing grew steadily more stable, a fact that brought both his human partners great relief. It was only when they were sure that his condition was not critical that they began to tally their own injuries; Jessie had a broken nose and was showing the beginnings of a black eye; a patch of skin on the side of James' jaw had been stripped away where the gun had hit him. Lifting their shirts to examine the skin beneath revealed harsh blotches of purplish-blue, bruises they suspected to overlay at least a couple of broken ribs. With all the concern over Meowth's wellbeing, James had more or less managed to ignore the ache, but now it hit him fully. Grimacing, he sucked in air through his teeth and told himself that he'd survived worse. That particular coping mechanism had gotten him through a great deal of past misfortunes.
"Been quite a few blast-offs since we last got messed up this bad," Jessie remarked, then let out a shaky breath. "Oh Arceus, James... What the hell are we going to do?"
Meowth's groan sounded before either of them could say anything more- they both quickly turned to the feline, watching as he opened his eyes in a series of blinks and sat up on the mattress.
"How are you? Are you okay?" James babbled.
"Yeah, I- whoa." Meowth gaped as he took his first proper look at the humans. His expression morphed from shocked, to upset, and finally to sheer rage.
"Does anything hurt?" Jessie pressed. "You don't feel dizzy?"
Brushing her questions aside with a shake of his head, Meowth gestured to their wounded faces. "Dey did dat?" he growled.
"Right after they knocked you out," Jessie said. "Cowards."
When she was convinced that Meowth wasn't concussed, Jessie moved back to the door. James watched as, without a word, she double-checked the locks and bolted the latch. No clear emotions stirred within him, spare a dull and inexplicable fascination.
"We... We have to leave." Still paranoid that someone could be listening in, James kept his tone soft.
Jessie scoffed. "I seem to remember more than a couple of problems with that plan."
"I know but- even if it's a big risk, it's better than staying here!" He breathed out. "You were right before. All of this... The deaths... We can't be a part of it."
Jessie paused before responding. "What about everybody else?"
"I'm assuming you don't think we're the only ones who have a problem with Carter's methods," she elaborated. "So, what about the others? We just leave them to kill and get killed?"
In a disconcerted stupor, James stared at her. "No, but- none of this is our fault!"
"Like it or not, we're part of this organization," Jessie said. "We didn't get dragged into this as innocents."
"We didn't join when all this was going on!"
"It's a crime syndicate, Jim," Meowth interjected. "Did ya really t'ink nothin' uglier dan theft was goin' on behind the curtains? Or dat nothin' was ever gonna get worse?"
Rendered momentarily speechless at being outnumbered, James could only flit his gaze between them, hoping someone might convert to his line of reason.
"I don't know," Jessie continued, "I just... Hell, I feel like we should try to do something."
"But..." Trailing off, James extended his palm towards Jessie's bad eye, which had, by this point, swollen shut. "If this is what we get for screwing up on a mission, what do you think is going to happen if-" A quaking sigh snatched the words from his mouth. "I just don't want any of us to get hurt."
"Yeah, well, that's a danger that comes with this virtuous career." She gave a quick shake of her head. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound angry."
James met Meowth's line of sight, entreating him with a slight raise of his eyebrows.
"I'm wid Jess on dis one," the cat pokémon said. "Leavin's a death wish. I mean, maybe stayin' is too, but at least we can go down fightin'."
James didn't give voice to the response that rang through his mind.
He didn't want them to go down at all.
Sleep evaded all three of them for a while. In the black stillness, James lay, the air cold against his open eyes. All that prevented total darkness was the digital clock, which printed numbers in red light against the wall; James counted the seconds between each flash, making a game out of guessing when the next minute would roll over.
He had learned that the key to minimalising the pain in his ribs and stomach was to lie as still as possible. The pain in his jaw, however, persisted no matter what he did- a low ache sporadically punctuated with stinging stabs. It was far from intolerable, but uncomfortable enough to render slumber difficult.
Inkay's pokéball sat in his palm. He ran his fingers over the gloss of the plastic, wanting nothing more in that moment than to hit the release button but resisting the temptation. James didn't want Inkay to see them like this. No- his pokémon would remain in relative innocence for as long as it was in his power to allow.
There was comfort to be drawn, however, from the company of his partners. He could hear Jessie's wispy breathing, the deep rumble of Meowth's purr. They were here. He was not alone.
It was that thought that fended off the worst of his anxiety, and it was that thought that sent him to sleep.
Chapter 11: RSVP
Their injuries settled down in intensity over the next few days. After the initial twenty-four hours, James found that the pain ebbed to be little worse than a particularly nasty blast-off. What stuck around like an unwanted visitor, however, was the mental toll.
None of them left the dormitory if they could help it, and when they did, their movements were careful: eyes scanning each room, shoulders hunched in premature defence. The reactions they got from passing agents regarding their visible injuries varied wildly, from sympathetic frowns, to smirks, to complete indifference.
They got through most of the week without eventfulness. Their routine slowed to a monotony that almost tipped boredom into play, despite their perturbation.
Following their daily excursion for food supplies, James decided rest was just about the most productive thing he could do, and resigned himself to the couch. The closest thing to sleep he managed was slipping in and out of an uncomfortable doze for half an hour, before being pulled awake by the chime of their laptop. Groggy, he heaved himself to a sitting position on the sofa and rubbed at his eyes.
"Dat a message?" Meowth asked from somewhere behind him. Jessie knelt by the coffee table and jiggled the cursor to light up the screen. She tapped in their password, and gave an affirmative nod of her head.
"Yeah- new orders, it looks like," she said. Her eyes moved back and forth as she read. James shifted so he could see the screen over her shoulder.
Your team has been reassigned to carry out independent operations on the field. Agents must report back to headquarters after location changes or the completion of a mission. Extra operations are permitted if they do not pose risk to the security of Team Rocket or its whereabouts. Operations involving or risking a high level of destruction or violence must be pre-approved by headquarters. Finances/ equipment exceeding a team's monthly allowance may be granted upon request. Weekly reports to headquarters are mandatory. Agents must carry their communication devices at all times, and remain online.
Glory to Team Rocket
It was early evening when they left headquarters. James ached all over- a fact not helped by the backpack of supplies pressing down on his shoulders- but as they stepped out into the open air, greeted by a horizon lined with lilac clouds and the rush of a bitter wind, he felt something nearing euphoria. There was the world again, unblemished and vibrant and here.
"Ya remember where we parked da balloon?" Meowth asked. It was an old joke, but the two humans chuckled anyway.
They reached the field where they'd last landed in less than ten minutes. Around them, the grass rippled with hushed swishes, shades of gold and yellow catching in the fading sunlight.
"Back on the field in every sense," James quipped as they began to wrestle with the tarp that covered the basket. "It's- It's great, isn't it?" He sighed and broke into a smile. "I can't tell you how relieved I am."
Jessie didn't look up from the peg she was working out of the ground. "Mm."
He stopped what he was doing. "What's wrong?"
"No, no, I agree," Jessie said. "It is great. Anything that puts distance between us and that psycho is a plus in my book."
James and Meowth jolted simultaneously at her remark.
"Jessie!" James hissed. "What if-"
"What, you think Carter has us bugged? That someone's listening to us?" Jessie shook her head and scoffed. "I don't think we're that important to them. Besides- if we were bugged he would have found out about a whole load of crap that we'd have been killed for by now."
"Well, it wouldn't hurt to go easy on the boss-bashin'," Meowth muttered.
"Yeah, okay. But look- what I was saying was..." She paused to wet her lips. "We're away from those missions. Good. Fine. But all that shit's still happening." Her eyelids fell shut as her face knotted into a frown. "I've been following the news around our last mission," she said, "and it turns out the woman we watched get shot used to be a part of some cartel before her Team Rocket days. Had a name for herself back in Johto. So now all the headlines are screaming about her and her gang having shot up that guard and robbing the place."
"You think it- what we saw- was a distraction?" James stammered.
"What else could it have been?" Jessie said. "Sure, Carter told us she was a traitor or whatever- but I checked, and she was still reported to have been in that cartel until a month or so ago. She can't have been in Team Rocket for more than what- a couple of weeks? That's barely long enough to find your way around HQ, let alone figure out a plan of betrayal."
James swallowed as he took in this new information. Killing traitorous agents was one thing- of that, he was not confident that Giovanni had been innocent- but to have someone offed purely to divert attention away from Team Rocket was another matter entirely. That meant that anyone could go.
Jessie put her hands on the rim of the basket and swung her legs over. "Let's get the burners going," she said. "I want to get out of here."
When they found a suitably secluded spot to land, out in a barren forest, it was near dusk. Surrounded by deadwood, collecting kindling was easy, and within ten minutes they had the hiss and crackle of a steady fire for background noise. Jessie sat flicking twigs at the thrashing flames, stony eyes glinting orange and red.
"We need to do something," she said. Her statement caught James off guard; he looked back at her, his stomach light with building dread.
He released the air that had caught at the back of his throat and steadied his breathing. "If..." James cast a precautionary glance around, half-expecting to catch sight of a listening device poking out of the pebbled dirt, or some silent pursuer looming behind him. "If you're sure that woman's death was some sort of set-up-"
"- then there's all the more reason we should go!"
Jessie's face fell. "Oh, not this again."
"I know you don't want to just let all this happen, but there's nothing we can do about it! We might as well get out with our lives- I could talk to my parents, make a deal with them- if they knew my life's in danger-"
"You're givin' up without tryin'!" Meowth interrupted him. "I get dat you're brickin' it Jim, but don't gimme dat rubbish."
James waved his hands in exasperation. He was exhausted of those looks they kept giving him- ones of quiet superiority. As if their bravado was worth it, to hold the moral high-ground. They were thoughtless.
"What, then?" he snapped. "What do you want to do about it?"
"I want to kill him," Jessie replied.
James surprised himself by laughing. The sound was bitter, and he didn't like it. He expected Jessie to lash back, but she just regarded him with a slight frown.
"It's the only way he's going to be out of the picture for good," she continued. "I'm not pretending I know how the hell to do it yet, but at least we know it can be done."
"How so?" James asked.
"Giovanni's dead enough, isn't he?"
Meowth edged forwards, closer to her. "Are ya... Are ya serious?"
"Yeah." Jessie prodded at the fire; a few glowing twigs crumbled from the stack. "I've been thinking a lot about all of the chaos recently- I'm sure we all have- and I... I think it's our only hope of stopping all this. People are getting killed left and right for no good reason, and Carter's only been in power a little over a month." She turned to James. "Think about Mondo," she said. "You want him in an organisation like this? And before you tell me we can just scoop him up before we make a run for it, there are plenty more kids like him who won't have us to save them."
James breathed in and tried not to let her words sink in too deep. "Jessie, if there was anything we could realistically do about it-"
"There is!" Jessie scowled at the ground. "You think I don't know there's risk, is that it? I know we might very well get ourselves killed. Thinking about that... You two dead... Nothing terrifies me more. But there's a chance we won't fail. And I can't ignore that."
Silence took hold for a moment, before Meowth replied: "Okay. Yeah. I'm in."
The scene unfolded before James like a bizarre screenplay he'd missed the rehearsal for.
"Wait- Wait, stop," he spluttered. "You're talking about killing somebody! We can't-" He stopped mid-sentence, waiting for his thoughts to settle into structure. "It's crazy. I hear what you're saying about abandoning people, but it's not our responsibility. It was their choice to join."
"Arceus, James, have a backbone." Jessie spat the words with such sharp anger that James felt himself flinch. "Not everyone's as lucky as you, you know. People like me, we don't get a choice. We didn't join Team Rocket 'cause it seemed like a quirky way of livening things up. We don't have mansions to run home to when things get rough."
He could feel tears already building beneath his eyelids, and willed them not to fall. That would only drive her point home: he was weak. A rich kid who bit off more than he could chew.
"Hey, easy, Jess," Meowth cut in softly.
James gambled on a reply, not entirely sure if his voice would hold. "You know it isn't like that," he said. The words tremored, wispy.
"Oh, what- your millionaire fiancee has a screw loose and Mummy and Daddy don't win parents of the year?" Jessie's eyes were colder than he'd ever seen them trained on him. "Forgive me if I don't cry for you."
"Jessie!" Meowth hissed.
"He takes it all for granted," Jessie muttered, then planted her hands on her knees and pushed herself off the ground. "I'm going to sleep," she announced flatly, bundling up her outstretched sleeping bag and stuffing it under her arm. "See you tomorrow." The cutting edge to her voice had faded, but there was no warmth in the goodbye either. James thought it better to keep his mouth shut. As he watched her trudge away from their small clearing into the dark of the forest, Meowth sat down next to him.
"She don't mean it," the feline told him. "She's just... Passionate 'bout dese t'ings, y'know?"
"Are you really going to go along with it?" James asked without turning his head.
Meowth sighed. "I ain't condonin' Jessie sayin' all dat stuff, but I agree with her- I'm sick of bein' idle while people croak left an' right. An' I don't t'ink we should just ignore it an' run."
"But you'd kill somebody?"
"I ain't sayin' you should want to do it. Just dat... We might need to."
James spent a long time that night staring at the sky. It was an oddly pleasant sleeplessness; he was hyper-sensitive to the faint rustles caught in the breath of the wind, the tint of light pollution in the distance, the stars that seemed to multiply the longer he looked.
It was all so beautiful. Yet they wanted him to throw it away and let them do the same. Logic dictated they were either crazy or not thinking straight.
The idea of losing them- really losing them- settled in his mind for long enough to send a ripple of horror through his body. He lurched up so he was sitting and set his view on the fire, chasing the thought away with the heat of the flames.
Jessie had returned when he woke up the next morning. She and Meowth sat eating baked beans from cans, mumbling to each other sleepily. Having noticed James' movement as he got out of his sleeping bag, she rolled an unopened tin across the dirt to him.
"Look..." Jessie fidgeted with the hem of her skirt. "I'm sorry I said those things to you. It wasn't fair." Before James could reply, she cleared her throat, and continued, "I should have given you time to think about it."
He listened for any hint of disguised feeling in her words, trying to discern whether he was truly in the clear. But she sounded flat, and he couldn't tell if it was a side effect of her apology, or restrained bitterness.
"It's okay," he said. "Thanks."
James took a plastic fork out of their food basket, picked up the can, and peeled back the lid before stabbing the contents. The sauce was congealed, moulded to the shape of the metal cylinder, but as their food supplies went it was one of their better breakfasts.
"Suppose we should make a plan for today," Meowth said. "Better dat we have somethin' ta send back ta HQ."
"Ugh- in that case, let's make it as easy as possible," Jessie groaned. "Something low-risk that gets us quick money."
Meowth scratched his neck. "Well, da quickest plans would be a hold-up or gettin' ahold of someone's bank account."
"Neither one of those ideas fills me with joy," James said, smiling weakly.
"I know we're not ones to talk morals, but after everything that's happened recently I'm not sure I have the heart to take someone's last cent," Jessie agreed. "And the last thing I feel like doing is pointing a gun at a civilian."
"Okay... Den we hit a place wid lotsa dough ta lose," Meowth suggested. "Go for a subtle approach an' leave quietly widout scarin' nobody."
Jessie smirked. "That almost sounds legal," she said. "We'll be volunteering for the community before you know it."
"Ya in? We ain't too far from a city."
With the realisation that they were waiting for his verdict, James shrugged. "Sure, let's do it."
In comparison with their other plans, a heist sounded like child's play.
He rolled his shoulders back in the stiff fabric of the navy blazer Jessie had thrown his way from their mismatched stockpile of disguises. She donned a blouse and chinos, her hair tucked under a bowler hat. It was as aristocratic as they could manage to look.
They'd been scouting a jewellery store from the bench down the road for the best part of an hour, watching for security, counting staff. The street was crowded- it couldn't have been far off rush hour.
"You ready?" Jessie asked.
Adrenaline rose. He told himself that was a good thing. "Yeah. Let's go."
She left first, slotting into the human traffic. James tapped the heel of his shoe against the cobbled pavement until he felt enough time had passed to follow.
The store wasn't too busy, but enough potential customers swanned around the displays for his entrance to go unnoticed. He spotted Jessie in the corner of his eye, drumming her nails on a glass case. Swiveling on her heel, she flagged down the pacing manager.
"Excuse me- is it possible to try these on?" she asked. The manager beamed and nodded his head.
"Certainly, ma'am." He took a ring of keys from his belt, taking a few seconds to find the right one before unlocking the cabinet. "Shopping for any special occasion?"
"Oh, not really," Jessie answered. "My collection was just looking a little bare." James watched her slip a ring onto her finger and hold out her hand for inspection. Mid-preen, she caught his eye. He returned a shallow nod.
The display case he'd had pre-selected in his mind was by the wall across the room, filled with rows of earrings that winked in multicolour against the glass. He walked to it gradually, pretending to browse on the way, and when he was as sure as he could be that no one's focus was on him, he edged his fingertips under the lid.
James exerted just a little pressure at first, testing the waters, then tensed his arm as he began to pull upwards. Nothing. The beginnings of worry started to take root- what if they'd overestimated the security? He ignored the idea and checked his surroundings. Nobody looked back, so he tried again, this time with both hands. Most of his effort was mental, trying not to let the strain show on his face. The alarm began to scream a couple of seconds later.
He stumbled backwards, genuinely startled for a moment. All activity around him ground to a quick halt- the shoppers turned their heads around the store, hunting the source of the noise. It wasn't long before he was approached by the manager, who had apparently worked out the alarm's root.
"I don't know what happened," James told him. Though the man stood a mere metre away, he had to raise his voice to a shout just to be audible. "Maybe I leaned on it too hard? Sorry!"
The manager frowned, circling the cabinet before crouching down by its lock and fumbling through his keys. James risked a glance to the side and caught sight of Jessie's back as she slipped out through the entrance.
After the manager had unlocked the case, he turned another key in a slot inside, and the alarm cut out mid-screech. Murmurs of bemusement hummed through the air, vaguely disapproving.
There couldn't be much time left until someone thought to check the CCTV footage, a fact James was all too aware of. Keeping the sense of urgency from messing with his nonchalant demeanour was a challenge.
"Sorry," he said again, and flashed a smile. "I honestly don't know what happened there."
"Ah, these alarms are too sensitive," the man replied, but he didn't sound wholly convinced. He peered through the glass at the earrings- James watched him mouth numbers as he counted. When the manager looked up again, he appeared to be satisfied. "Sorry for the bother," he said. A smile about as fake as the one James had given him stretched his lips. "Is there anything we can assist you with today, sir?" James was on the verge of declining when the man's gaze moved past him. "What-"
The manager rushed over to the still-open case where Jessie had been standing. He snapped his head around, clearly hoping to see her somewhere else in the store. A grimace crossed his face soon after.
"We've got a runner," he said to the woman behind the counter. James didn't stick around to watch any further developments.
Two steps out of the door he heard shouts behind him, and he adapted his stride to a sprint, weaving past pedestrians. Jessie had covered decent ground just walking- it took him a short while to catch up to her. She turned to face him before he reached her.
"Go," he blurted, slowing momentarily so as not to overtake his partner.
They tore down the street together, their breaths short and heavy. James felt a jab of pain shoot through his ribs every time his foot hit the ground too hard, but it wasn't enough to hinder him.
"This way," Jessie puffed, tilting her head right to a gap between two buildings. He followed her lead and they carried on with the partial cover of a food stand behind them. Though the distance hadn't felt all that great earlier, James began to wonder if his stamina would hold. His concern was put to rest, however, when he saw the tips of their Meowth balloon's ears poking out over a rooftop. Soon after, the concrete beneath them turned to pale dirt.
Meowth had the burners ready for their arrival. He backed up to far corner of the basket to give them ample space to vault over; James landed first, Jessie tumbling into him as she followed.
"We're away!" Meowth declared as they ascended into the sky.
"Don't count your Torchics," Jessie said, but grinned anyway. She lifted her hands and wiggled her fingers, most of which were adorned with at least one ring. "Check out the spoils."
The two pursuing members of security had come to a halt beneath them, shrinking into blurred figures that could only crane their heads up. Their shouts soon faded as the air grew cool and wet.
"They'll have called the police," James commented.
"Ain't no cameras trackin' da sky," Meowth said. "One of da many beauties of air travel."
Eased back to normality by the safety of the clouds, James observed Jessie pull the rings off her fingers. She turned each one in her hand before putting it into her bag, inspecting the various gems inlaid in the gold and silver. He leaned against the basket wall next to her.
"You could have settled for just a couple," he chuckled.
"Pssh. Strike while the iron is hot and all that." She stretched her arms above her head. "Hopefully this'll be enough to keep the powers that be satisfied," she mumbled.
The fear that had paid him a brief visit the night before returned, no warning before its grip in the pit of his chest. Watching her eyes, he saw them blank and dead, her lipstick met with the blood that clotted Meowth's fur-
"Please don't do it." The words were out of his mouth before he could think them through. He waited for regret to sink in, but it didn't. Anything to confine his conjured image to fiction, to make their presence feel less temporary.
"I've got to," Jessie said. She looked ahead, not at him. He could feel the distance building between them again. "This organisation really means something to me. It may be pretty messed up but it saved me from just wandering the streets my whole life. And... I know it meant a lot to my mother, too." Her eyes fell shut. "You want another reason why I can't watch Team Rocket become a glorified murder factory, there it is."
James bit his lip. "I just don't want you to die," he said, letting his voice break freely.
"I don't plan on it," Jessie rejoined. She sighed. "Look, James... I can't and won't make you help us. But we could change something here. And I'd much rather do it as a team."
Her eyes met his now, imploring. He looked back, hoping that he expressed a similar desperation. Maybe she would sway.
Not much changed in her countenance, and the bits that did- the crease of her lips, the dip of her brow- only appeared for a flash. It was sort of like she'd winced.
She sat down, pulled her legs towards her. "We should get this lot to a pawn shop quick, before the authorities send the alert out to buyers," she said. "Set a course, Meowth?"
Jessie didn't say anything more, but James got the message.
Chapter 12: The Walls Have Eyes
James watched headquarters rise into view as their balloon sank. Bit by bit, he could make out details- the hair colour poking out under a grunt's hat, the plates of parked vehicles, the texture of the gravel-
The basket met the ground with enough force to throw him forwards, nearly over the edge. Jessie swayed as she caught her balance next to him.
"Arceus, Meowth- watch it!"
His head still reeling from the collision, James adjusted the satchel strap over his shoulder.
"Well, I suppose that counts as a landing," he said, shooting a small smirk at Meowth, who was currently picking himself up from a crumpled heap in the corner.
"Hey, da balloon's in one piece, an' dere are no fatalities- I call dat a resoundin' success."
Even with their well-rehearsed routine, packing up the balloon took a good half hour, towards the end of which Jessie was muttering about getting something to eat. It all felt so normal- James almost forgot that he was hovering around the birth of an assassination plot.
With the cash they'd made from selling the stolen jewellery bouncing in the bag at James' hip, they walked towards the building. What had once been a rare journey across the expanse of asphalt, mingled with ambition and the excitement of seeing the ever-elusive Giovanni, now felt both routine and grim.
"Hold up," Meowth said, bringing the trio to a stop. He cocked his head at a slick-looking black car with tinted windows that was pulling up some forty metres away from them, round the side of headquarters. "Is dat da boss' ride?"
A couple of rockets stepped out of the vehicle; one stood like a soldier at attention, arms folded behind his back, whilst the other opened the back door of the car. True to Meowth's suspicions, Carter emerged, glancing around as he straightened his grey suit jacket.
"The Carter Posse assembles," Jessie muttered, half-smirking, half-scowling. She turned her head sharply as the men started to walk parallel to them. "Don't stare, you two. Guy's got a short fuse."
So they kept going, acting as casual as was possible when the man who'd had them beaten to a pulp not long before was in the vicinity. James had resolved to heed Jessie's advice- he was really trying not to look, to keep his gaze ahead, but curiosity tugged at his strings until he allowed his eyes to veer sideways.
"Wait- is that-"
He looked properly this time, and confirmed his doubt just as Jessie hit him gently on the shoulder.
"James, stop gawking!"
"Is that Butch?"
Now all three of them were staring, and James was sure of it- there was his sworn rival, donning dark clothing not too different from his usual garb, but missing the signature 'R'. It was the hair that gave him away, the most distinguishable feature at the distance from which James was. He judged that the other agent accompanying Carter was not Cassidy, using his skills of deduction and the fact that the other Rocket was a black male.
"Yeah, that's him," Jessie agreed. Soon after she'd finished her sentence, they reached the front doors, and Carter and the others disappeared off around the back of the building.
"Since when is he a bodyguard?" Meowth asked, still staring at the spot where Butch had been.
"Who knows?" Jessie said. "It's impossible to keep up with all the change around here. Carter must get off on juggling everyone around."
James was pretty sure she was going to drop the matter then and there, but they'd barely shut the door of their room when she said:
"Do either of you know when the guards' shift finishes?"
There had been a box of cigarettes sitting in the bottom of Jessie's pack since her training days. She'd smoked the first with Cassidy, back when they were on friendlier terms. The taste wasn't awful, but it didn't do all that much for her. She later tried a second before deciding to quit before she really did get addicted.
The third now sat between her fingers.
Rain drizzled down ahead, sparkling like static against the ground, but the ledge that jutted out above her kept Jessie dry as she flipped her lighter open and closed.
This was Butch's spot, far enough away from the building's entrance so as to avoid those passing by. She'd seen him here often enough, back when her team had frequented HQ, and could only hope that he'd kept up the habit.
Doubt crept in after about twenty minutes of standing there, fiddling with the lighter, half-crushing the cigarette in her other hand. Maybe he'd stopped coming here, since everything had been turned on its head.
But another five minutes, and there he was, eyes down as he walked. He didn't appear to notice her until he got close, and stopped like a clockwork toy that needed winding up again.
"What are you doing out here?" he asked. His voice wasn't exactly warm.
Jessie held up her right hand.
"Same thing you are," she replied. He scoffed.
Nonetheless, he settled his back against the wall next to her, lighting up his cigarette with the efficiency of a veteran. He offered Jessie his still-lit flame before she had a chance to spark one herself. She accepted it and took a short drag.
"What's so great about these things?" she asked him as the smoke plumed out of her mouth.
"Keep it up for a few weeks and you'll have the answer," Butch said. He tilted his head to face her properly. "What's this about?"
"I saw you earlier, with Carter."
"Yeah, you lot weren't exactly subtle."
"I wanna know what you're doing at his hip all of a sudden."
Butch exhaled, his breath clouded and grey.
"Cassidy got sent off on a mission- undercover work, I think. Then I got called up to the boss' office, and he asked me if I'd take bodyguard work. Said he was looking for people he could trust, and that I had a good record."
Jessie thought for a few moments, then pointed her cigarette ahead of them, towards the woods.
"There's a better smoking spot up there," she said. "Nights like this, you can see tons of stars."
Butch frowned at her, and Jessie didn't blame him. If their positions had been swapped, she'd be wondering if he'd suffered some traumatic head injury.
When he still looked unconvinced, Jessie added: "Come on. It's only a five minute walk."
She started to walk, skin and hair soon slick with rain, and it wasn't too long before his footsteps echoed behind her.
It was pretty rare for Jessie to get tongue-tied, but here, facing Butch in the foggy glow of moonlight, she didn't know where to start.
"Okay, you gotta stop staring at me like that. I feel like you're about to murder me or something."
She ignored him, coming steadily to the conclusion that there was no neat way to lay things out. She might as well just say it.
"I want to take out Carter," she told him. There was none of the shock or horror James had displayed in response: Butch just smirked.
"Is that gonna be your new thing, now you're not chasing that electric rat anymore?" he quipped. "'Cause, uh, hate to tell you, but this isn't something you get to screw up as many times as you want and then try again ten minutes later."
"You see why, though, don't you?" Jessie went on. "The way he kills people off for nothing... It's not right."
Butch shrugged, but he looked uncomfortable.
"We're not working for a pizza chain," he countered. "You mess up, you get hurt. That's part of the deal. It's not like I've got a clean slate, either."
"Sure, but Carter's got something wrong with him. We watched an agent get murdered by our own people just because it provided a good cover." She felt the tendrils of guilt ease their way into her gut as she readied her next sentence. "What if one day he decides you're worth more dead? Or Cassidy?"
He didn't flinch. No stunned eyes looked back at her as she'd expected them to. Instead, Butch sighed, like he'd visited the thought countless times before, and was tired of the worry it stirred up.
"So what?" he asked. "You want me to help you? 'Cause that would put us in far more danger than the boss' mean streak ever would. I'd rather take my chances and the pay rise."
"B-" Jessie actually had to think for a moment. "Butch, I know you and Cassidy play the cold-front game, but this has got to be bothering you. I don't like you, but I don't think you're heartless." He didn't say anything, so she continued. "Trust me- you're playing with fire, being his bodyguard. It's just a matter of time before he decides you're not trustworthy."
"Yeah, well, I won't have to wait long if he knows anything about this little meeting," Butch grumbled, but his expression wasn't one of real annoyance. He turned back to face the path they'd come down. "I'm not committing to anything, but I hear what you're saying. And if I get a chance... Maybe."
He started to walk off, and Jessie decided not to take off after him. She figured that was as good a response as she was going to get.
James turned the mobile phone over in his hand. He'd been repeating the action for almost ten minutes, trying and failing to quell his nerves.
It was the morning after their return to headquarters- he'd figured he needed to wait at least that long before he made the call, since his vague plan was still barely conceived.
When he'd posed the argument that his parents might be able to help to Jessie and Meowth, they'd written it off as a selfish option that wasn't likely to work anyway- but if he got a solid response from his family to back up his claims, perhaps his partners would rethink their line of view. Maybe seeing that safety was a real possibility would sway them.
In the near-barren parking lot, he'd stopped behind the relative camouflage of a grimy van and tapped the number into the phone with no pause, but it was proving that actually making the call wasn't going to come so easily. He wasn't sure if he hated his parents, certainly not the way Jessie said she did whenever she caught sight of the faded scars on his back, but he did know that he would never rid himself of the deep-seated discomfort that manifested with the thought of them. As a child, not having a comparison to draw from, he hadn't thought of their behaviour as anything abnormal. Now it was clear to him that something was deeply wrong with both of them.
For the most part, they'd left him alone when he still lived in the estate. They would exchange conversation at meals, though these discussions were almost always a formal analysis of James' successes and shortcomings- if they involved him at all. He remembered playing a duet on the piano once with his mother, and she'd seemed so genuinely pleased to watch him. His father had often boasted (quite falsely) of his son's athletic potential, how he was sure he'd bloom and grow into a fine heir.
Memories like these were swarmed by conflicting recollections that overshadowed and confused any warmth he might have otherwise felt. His mother telling him, like it was any other fact, that he was stupid. His father's tight grip on his wrist when he lost his temper, the strike to the face that sometimes followed. Both of them just watching as Jessiebelle used him as a living punching bag.
They didn't love him, he knew that. He didn't love them, either. But he would be civil with them, hold his tongue and make false promises if he had to, if it would get rid of the peril leering over his team mates.
That was what he told himself as he finally hit the call button.
His heart squirmed in his chest as he waited for a response. James thought he'd have a short while to re-compose himself, but someone picked up after just two rings.
Relief hit him hard. It wasn't either of them, but one of the members of staff.
"Hello," he said. He was a little surprised he managed to get the word out without stuttering.
"To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?"
"I'm a relative." There was no way he was giving his name, not yet. All that would do was unleash a flurry of "Young master James!" and spur a fresh manhunt.
"May I ask for your name?"
James hesitated. "I- I'd just like to speak to one of the homeowners, please," he said.
"I'm afraid I cannot pass you on to the master or mistress without their prior agreement and knowledge of your-"
"It's urgent," James insisted. It felt unnatural, but he tried to mimic the entitled impatience he'd grown up hearing all around him: "I'm busy, and I certainly don't expect to be interrogated like this by a butler."
Now it was the man's turn to pause.
"My apologies sir. I will see what I can do."
Another wait, longer this time. Then he heard footsteps on the other end, muffled clicks against oak or marble or whatever lined the floor-
"Hello? May I ask who's speakin'?"
James opened his mouth, and stood there, mute. He licked his lips and tried again only to be met with the same block in his throat. Some part of him refused to speak.
He hung up, struggling to breathe, and tried to snap the phone in half, desperate, as if it was a threat to his life. It was a cheap burner, and he thought that the plastic would break easily, but it held strong under his fingers, even when his knuckles were white with the pressure. With a cry of frustration, James dropped the phone to the ground, and stamped on it repeatedly, grinding it under his heel. His body was moving on such intense impulse that it felt more like a long series of spasms- something utterly out of his control. The sole of his boot proved an effective weapon, and now the plastic did shatter, the screen crumbling into a spider web of cracks before the device split in half completely.
James backed up, panting. He scooped up the shards as well as he could, and dumped them in the closest bin.
It was only when he'd retreated to the deflated sanctuary of their balloon, far from anyone else, that he allowed himself to cry.
Over the following week, Butch rallied with Jessie's request. As soon as he'd convinced himself that it was an awful, rash idea coming from an idiot with no plan, he'd start to consider everything on the other side of the argument. What would he do if he woke up one day to find out Cassidy had been killed for some minor mistake- for nothing, even?
Sure, he could easily die if he went along with what she'd suggested. But if he ended up getting killed anyway, he'd kick himself in his last moments for not at least trying.
And then he'd counter that thought in turn.
At the current moment, it was the pro-assassination argument that had majority in his mind.
Butch was walking alongside Carter as he had been for most of the day- the bodyguards worked on rotation, a small handful of agents that were deemed trustworthy. They were all men- Butch didn't know if this was coincidence or because Carter took some issue with the idea of a woman protecting him. He'd learned quickly that their job was remarkably different to that of the other Rockets; they were on a different plain from the others, generally met with unease and silence. As such, the bodyguards had an odd rapport amongst themselves.
They weren't exactly friends, but they'd chat in their breaks, exchange small jokes and nod when passing by. It was a fickle but close-knit alliance, shadowed by their shared knowledge that they would kill each other on demand.
Since his encounter with Jessie, Butch had made a point of noting Carter's routine, the consistencies and less predictable factors. There were a few constants so far: he had at least two guards with him at all times; two in his office and another two outside the door; two in his car plus the driver; two, sometimes three, when he was walking from place to place.
Another thing Butch was fairly confident of was that he didn't seem to own any pokemon. He'd seen Carter in a couple of dangerous situations so far in his career as his lapdog, and not once had the man called out a pokemon, or even threatened to. He got the impression that Carter just didn't like them- but that was speculation.
He kept wrestling with the thoughts as the days went by. Kill him, don't. Risk it, risk it anyway.
At some point, the fear began to sputter out like a flame with no fuel left to feed on- he knew that what Jessie had told him was right, and he was in a rare position of opportunity.
At some point, he decided to do it.
He figured one of his evening shifts would be the best time, when there was only one other agent in the room, and Carter was usually busy with phone calls or paperwork. Rather than picking a specific day, he thought it would be better to do it by ear- wait for a chance and jump on it before he changed his mind. No pressure of one lone window of time.
One thing that did still bother him was that Cassidy wasn't around. He had no chance to see her, for what he was well aware could be the last time, though her absence also meant that he couldn't tangle her up in this mess. It was better for her that she was far away right now, even if he would have been glad of her help.
So he tried not to think about her and went with his plan: he waited for an opportunity to present itself. A couple of days later, it did.
He was stationed on the far right corner of Carter's office, another bodyguard called Reuben directly across the room. He hadn't know Reuben for long, but he was about Butch's age, and not nearly as burly as some of the others. Butch reckoned he had a chance with the guy in a fight.
The sweeping sound of paper against paper was the only noise filling the room as Carter shuffled documents on his desk. Butch watched the back of his head, the light brown hair just starting to thin in the centre. He watched it, thinking how at ease his employer was right now, so unaware of the intent his subordinate held. The realisation that he was about to take a human life reared up, but it didn't change his mind. He'd done it before for far worse reasons than this.
Reuben looked to the floor, and Butch breathed in, savouring the last of the peace. With his next breath, he drew his gun.
He had it lined up with the middle of Carter's head within the space of a second, almost without making a sound. It was in the next second that he realised that something was very wrong.
His forefinger, resting on the curve of the trigger, refused to pull it back. It wouldn't even twitch- Butch thought to move his other hand up, but his arm remained at his side, stiff. He couldn't move. Even his eyes wouldn't swivel in their sockets.
Of course, by that point Reuben had reacted, and had his own gun trained on Butch.
"Leave him," Carter said. He was turning to face Butch now, frowning. After a couple of seconds he stood. "Well, I have to admit, I wasn't expecting that."
And then Butch saw it. It had been surfacing, and was now bold enough for him to notice it against the dark wallpaper: an unown. It moved before him, from the second dimension to the third, and hovered in the air, bobbing slightly.
Butch understood. It was not that Carter trusted his bodyguards, but that he knew that his pokemon would stop them if they tried anything. The thing probably tailed him wherever he went.
Carter walked up to Butch, and regarded him for a moment before reaching up for the gun. He clicked on the safety first before taking hold of its end with both hands, and then gave a sharp yank. He had to do so several times before he was able to pry the gun out of his employee's hands. Butch, unable to loosen his grip, felt an immense surge of pain as several of his fingers snapped in front of him. Still under the psychic pokemon's hold, he stared ahead, his deformed fingers frozen in place, now holding an imaginary gun.
"I'm short on time," Carter said as he put the weapon down on his desk. "Usually I'd just kill you, but that would send the wrong message to the rest of this organisation. I can't have people under the impression that traitors are rewarded with a quick death." He looked to Reuben tiredly. "You- make him suffer."
Butch's limbs loosened up in that instant, his arms dropping back to his sides and his muscles relaxing again. The pain in his hands was crazy, but there was nothing else holding him back, and he darted for the door, figuring he might as well try. He'd sprinted a few steps when his right ankle exploded in agony.
Screaming out, Butch fell to the ground and rolled onto his side- he looked at his foot and felt a little sick when he saw that it was almost pointing backwards. He moaned, the unown gazing at him with its lone eye. He wondered why Carter didn't just get the pokemon to do his dirty work- it was obviously capable of it- before realising that he had an agenda other than mere efficiency. This was a power move. Make your other employee fuck you up to really drive the message home.
As Reuben quickly closed in on him, Butch forced himself up once more, unable to put any weight on his bad leg so forced to hop towards the door instead. It wasn't that he thought he was going to make it, more that he reasoned there was no point giving up sooner than he had to. Even if there was a one in a million chance, that was better than nothing.
His colleague stepped in front of him and threw a heavy punch that hit Butch on the cheek and slid into the side of his nose. He would have toppled at a mere shove, but this sent his head slamming against the floor.
Reuben looked back at Carter as Butch raised his hands to his face on the ground.
Butch didn't get up this time, just braced himself. He did what he could, bringing his knees close to his stomach and crossing his arms over his face, but it was a meagre defence against the onslaught of kicks that the other bodyguard sent his way. The man's boot connected mainly with his ribs, though his back and legs didn't go totally unscathed- it occurred to Butch, in the small functioning part of his mind, that Reuben was avoiding his bad ankle and hands. He wasn't exactly grateful, but it made him hate the guy a little less.
After some time- Butch had no idea how long, only that it was too long- Reuben stopped again, and this time Carter didn't tell him to resume. Butch spat out blood, his chest heaving with painful breaths. Almost every inch of him hurt, and he couldn't control the gasps and groans that sporadically left his mouth. It was with great effort that he managed to raise himself to his knees. He had one last card to play, even if its value was next to zero.
"Please," he rasped. "I wasn't thinking straight. I should never have questioned you- your position." Carter didn't reply, so he kept going. "I'll do anything you ask, and I'll never pull anything again- I could be a double agent, get intel for you, I'll work for free, I-"
"That's enough," Carter cut in. "I'm sorry this had to happen. You had potential." Butch let his mind stop running in circles. He hung his head, and focused on breathing. "Kill him somewhere else."
He felt hands slide under his arms, and yelped as he was dragged backwards. His right foot was grating against the floor, sending shockwaves through the shattered bone; he tried to lift it off the ground, with not much success. He was pulled through the door, and then Carter was out of sight.
The bodyguards at the office's entrance looked confused at the commotion, having maintained their positions without the order to intervene. Reuben tugged Butch's arms upwards.
"Come on," he prompted. Butch was puzzled for a moment before he realised that the man was trying to help him to stand. He managed to do so with the fellow Rocket's help, wavering on his left leg. Reuben positioned Butch's right arm over his shoulders. "Come on, hold onto me."
They walked and hopped respectively down the hall, passing a couple of agents who Butch was too tired to gauge the reactions of. It wasn't long before Reuben led him through a door to the side, into a tiled room with a few boxes stacked up in the corner. He held most of Butch's weight as he lowered the man down so he was sitting against the wall. Butch cried out softly at the change in position, but the pain soon settled down to a more tolerable level.
He met Reuben's gaze, and saw that he looked uncomfortable- not wavering or sympathetic, just like he'd much rather be somewhere else.
There were, as weird as it might have sounded, quite a few positives Butch could draw from his fate here in the storage room with a man about to murder him. He would never have to grow old, see his body and mind deteriorate; he would never have to worry about getting some illness that would linger for years and kill him slowly; the authorities wouldn't have the chance to lock him up for the rest of his life.
Besides that, a bullet in the head wasn't a bad way to go, even if the lead-up to it had been torturous. He'd seen people get shot in the head before, and it always looked instant. He'd heard of rare cases where people didn't die after one shot, and it took two, or even three to finish them off, but he wasn't too worried about that. The guns the guards used were fairly high calibre.
He was aware that this wave of calm didn't have any foundations, but he didn't care. He'd ride it.
Reuben crouched in front of him. He didn't need to worry. It would be instant.
And it was. Butch didn't feel anything more than the press of the gun's cold metal on his forehead.
Chapter 13: Wake
By the time two days had passed with not even a glimpse of Butch, Jessie started to get worried. Sure, they hadn't met in person since her initial proposition to him, but she'd usually see his back as he walked down the hallway, or spot him smoking outside, or something. When James and Meowth replied that they hadn't seen him, either, her worry amplified to the beginnings of panic.
On the third day, the fear was getting unbearable, and she tried to soothe herself with different scenarios that could explain his abscence. Maybe he'd simply been working in Carter's office more than usual as of late, or he'd been sent off somewhere- with Cassidy, perhaps. He'd show up, with his usual air of arrogance, and tell her he wasn't going to do it. Survival was his main concern, after all. He was a cockroach, the one to crawl out of the rubble when everyone else was dead.
Jessie was waiting for the coffee machine in the hall to fill the paper cup, going over these thoughts in her head, when she overheard a snippet of conversation that made her chest go tight and her stomach heavy.
"I don't know his name- the guy with green hair? Sounds like he eats a pack of cigarettes a day?"
She spun round, strode after the agents who were speaking and grabbed one of their arms. They met her with frowns.
"Hey, get off m-"
"What happened to the man you were talking about?" she blurted. The younger of the two men grimaced.
"The bodyguard?" he asked. Jessie nodded mutely, terrified of hearing spoken aloud what she all but knew already.
"Oh man, he was messed up," the Rocket said. "I was heading down one of the corridors on the same floor as the boss' office, and I see this guy in front of me with another bodyguard helping him walk- his foot was so fucked, it looked kinda like this." He tried to demonstrate to his audience of two, twisting his leg so his foot faced backwards. Jessie felt her breathing go funny.
"Shit- did you know him?" the other agent asked.
"What happened to him after?" Jessie implored them, ignoring the man's question. The younger Rocket's expression quickly changed from matching someone eager to share the gory details to someone realising they were in a very awkward position.
"I mean, I didn't see where they went, exactly, but... I mean, there was a gunshot, I think. Or a really loud bang, it could have been something else-"
Jessie walked past them, driven towards her room by nothing more than muscle memory. She knew she couldn't afford to lose it here, out in plain view of everybody, so she focused on everything else that she could: she counted the steps she took, started a tally in her head of grunts versus higher ranking agents she saw on her way, softly whistled the same seven notes over and over again.
She reached the door, eventually. One hundred-and-forty-two steps. Ish. She'd lost count somewhere. Eighteen grunts to three higher ranking agents.
Jessie stepped into the room, closed the door behind her, and climbed onto her bed. She buried her face into the pillow and screamed.
James and Meowth returned shortly after, and she stared at them, no longer feeling connected to reality. She was outside of herself, watching the words leave her mouth.
"He's dead," she told them. "Butch got killed."
"He got shot by another bodyguard."
Meowth opened his mouth, closed it again, his face not settling on one emotion.
"D-Do ya know why?" he asked eventually.
Jessie shrugged. "Guess he did something to piss off Carter."
The truth stabbed at her, twisting the knife, but she couldn't let it surface. Not with James here. Not when it would fuel his argument to back out of her plan. No- she would wait until he was gone, out of earshot.
That opportunity didn't arise until late that evening. They hadn't really discussed the whole morbid matter any further. What was there to say? "Shame about it, huh? Who's next, do you reckon?"
"What do you say to some food?" James proposed out of nowhere. His partners looked at him, and he went on: "I was thinking of taking a trip out to the town, picking up some pizza or something."
It was a somewhat odd suggestion- the meals provided at HQ actually weren't bad, and it was a long way to go for a takeout, but Jessie wasn't going to argue when it provided her with the window she needed.
"Sure," she answered for the both of them. She looked James up and down, frowning at his uniform. "Make sure you're disguised though. We're media stars, remember."
"Yeah- yeah, of course."
As soon as James had left, Meowth perched next to her on the couch, his eyes probing.
"I told him to do it," she whispered. "I wanted him to try, because I thought it might work, but I didn't think and now he's dead."
Meowth heaved in a sigh. "An'... He really went through wid it?"
"Evidently," Jessie scoffed. "Idiot." She groaned, taking her head in her palms. "Fuck, fuck, fuck..."
She felt Meowth's paw on her arm.
"It ain't your fault."
"Of course it is!" she snapped. "I talked him into it with no plan, no nothing! Just told him to get on with it, that he'd be doing something important- and he's dead, Meowth. I got him killed."
The cat pokemon was silent for a few moments, and she couldn't stand it, that abyss empty of noise, swarmed only by the thoughts that grew more monstrous by the second, the guilt-
"He made da right choice," Meowth said. Jessie looked at him- she would have laughed if it wasn't all so awful.
"Clearly," she replied, her voice laced with sarcasm.
"He took a risk, and it didn't pay off. But it was still a risk worth takin'."
"Nothing's worth what happened to him."
"Whatever you say, he made dat decision," Meowth continued. "He decided it was worth it, and- and dat ain't on you."
Jessie thought about what he'd said. She didn't believe it, not really, but sitting around feeling miserable wasn't helping anybody either. It was done. Butch wasn't coming back, no matter how bad she felt about it.
"We've got to do it," she said, forcing out the words. They grounded her back in the here and now. "So then- so at least his death isn't meaningless."
Meowth nodded, and she was stunned at how calm he seemed. He was putting on a much better face than she was.
"I don't t'ink we should tell Jim," Meowth said softly. "Dere ain't no convincin' him to get on board wid it, so..."
"Yeah," Jessie agreed. "He'll just put the plan and himself at risk."
The words sounded so tactical, void of feeling- but she preferred them that way. As it was, emotion was her enemy. She needed a clear head.
"Okay den," Meowth sighed. "Let's talk plannin'."
Beyond the initial line of trees that made up the forest next to headquarters, James was plunged into the evening's premature darkness. He traced his path with a flashlight that seemed to be on its last legs, for all the flickering it was doing.
Venturing into town to get food had just been an excuse- not a very good one, he knew- to get away from headquarters. There had been no let-up from the waves of death and violence surrounding them, and staying in that building only amplified the memories. It suffocated him.
Here, he could at least breathe. The crunch of twigs and dead leaves underfoot, the rustles of wind that sent shivers up his arms and back- that was enough. Here, the world was alive and untouched by evil.
Of course, no environment was potent enough to wash away the day's events- nor did James want to ignore them. What had happened deserved thinking about.
In the last year, he had discovered more breeds of grief than he ever thought he would, and now yet another one was rearing its head. Grief for a man he'd considered a foe, an annoyance- someone who'd thrown him under the bus more times than he could count. Butch had had no qualms about letting them rot in jail, or assaulting them with their own pokemon, and James was fairly sure his rival would have gone further if the situation called for it.
And it still hurt, for him to be dead all of a sudden. In that sneering massacre of the motto, he had linked hands with Cassidy; he'd laughed triumphantly at the hint of victory and snapped at the all too frequent occurance of being misnamed. He was human. James supposed that the way he'd seen Butch couldn't differ all that much from the way the twerps saw him and Jessie.
He kept his steady pace, the dirt beneath him morphing into the concrete of the road as he neared the forest's edge. Keeping that fear away, the fear of Jessie and Meowth ending up dead as well, was an increasingly challenging task. Butch's death had only strengthened it, hitting home the hard truth of consequence, should something go wrong.
Did Cassidy know?
The sudden thought floored him, stopped him in his tracks. For a moment it was as if he could feel her grief: her partner was gone. He didn't know if the two of them had been very close, but there had been something there, in all those interactions he'd had with the duo. Something more than the business-like formality that uncaring agents might have carried themselves with.
James shook the sensation off. He wasn't strong enough to keep it there, clinging to his shoulders. There was too much weight there as it was.
There was still a while to go until he reached the town- much too far to travel on foot. He hadn't taken the balloon due to the fact that it wasn't the most inconspicuous method of transport, and now his options were reduced to hitch-hiking or waiting for a night bus. The traffic was very sparce, so James opted for the latter.
He checked the timetable at the bus stop, wholly expecting to have to wait for a good hour, but surprised to see that the next bus was scheduled in just under ten minutes. He supposed that was a good thing, even if a part of him would rather have lingered for as long as possible before making the return trip.
Foggy headlights plowed through the dark, and he flagged down the vehicle. James paid his fare silently, hoping that his outfit was a far enough throw from his regular look to keep him under the radar- he'd pulled his hair back under a baseball cap and thrown on a jacket, but hadn't bothered to change his trousers or boots. It didn't hold the character of one of his typical disguises. His heart wasn't in it.
But the driver gave him the ticket without so much as a raised eyebrow, and James sank into a seat near the back. As he watched the shadows tear past through the grimy window, his mind wandered back to Jessie and Meowth, and he vowed something to himself, unsure of how he was going to do it, but knowing that failing to do so would break him.
He had to keep them alive, no matter what.
"We'll need other people."
Meowth frowned at Jessie's statement, but waited to hear her out.
"The two of us won't be enough- not at our rank, certainly," she continued. "The more people we can get on board, the better a chance we'll have."
"An' da more people we go 'round askin', da more likely we are ta get rumbled."
Jessie nodded. "Yeah, I know." She hummed a low note in thought. "We already know that we're gonna be taking risks no matter what, so I guess it's just a case of minimising those risks the best we can."
She closed her eyes. She had an idea, but to voice it terrified her. It reminded her too much of what she'd asked of Butch, so certain that she'd been right at the time. There was no way she was going to let Meowth fall to the same sticky fate.
But she'd just said it herself: there was risk no matter what. And this was one of them.
"Do..." She sighed. "Do you think you could handle the recruitment side of things? Because, because I think you'd draw less attention, if you acted like a regular pokemon."
"Yeah, o' course!" Meowth agreed. His willingness left her all the more uneasy.
"I think the best thing is if you listen out for any talk that sounds anti-Carter, then tail the agents for a while and see if they say anything more damning," she said.
"And den ask 'em if dey'll join us?" Meowth concluded.
"More or less." Jessie didn't like this, none of it. It wasn't thought-out enough. They were playing it by eye with their lives as forfeit. "I think we should take our time with this," she added. "Get every detail ironed out before we jump in the deep end."
Meowth ran his tongue over his front teeth. "I get what you're sayin', but I don't t'ink we can wait around," he said. "Ya remember how few an' far between our meetin's wid Giovanni used ta be? He could go off da radar for months at a time, an' show up somewhere across da world!"
He wrung his paws together. There was hurt in his eyes, but Jessie didn't hear it slip into his voice.
"What I'm sayin' is... Right now we know where Carter's at, cause he's here. An' he could vamoose any time, an' we might not get dis chance again."
She hated that what he said was making sense.
"Meowth, just, whatever happens, be careful," she mumbled, and her words sounded pleading. Ordinarily, that would have bothered her, but right now she couldn't care less.
He looked back at her, solemn.
"I will be. I promise ya," he said. "I ain't goin' down before we even get into da main event, I'll tell ya dat."
Jessie gave the trace of a smirk.
"Good. Me neither."
In the time it took for James to return, there were a few further developments. Jessie and Meowth decided to wait for Carter's next public appearance that they knew of- a short meeting regarding developments in Kanto. It was a scenario they could at least pinpoint to a time and a place, rather than just jumping him in the hall or something. Meowth brought up the matter of weaponry, and Jessie replied that it was all too easy to get hold of a piece if you knew where to look, who to ask.
She was actually starting to get worried about James- it had been a few hours, and was nearing midnight already. Surely he should be back by now? Had he run into trouble- gotten lost? Been recognised? Or maybe Carter knew about what they'd been discussing, and someone had tailed him from headquarters and-
The door swung open, clanging against the radiator as James half-stepped, half-stumbled into the room with three pizza boxes cradled to his chest. Jessie relaxed.
"Took ya time," Meowth said in greeting as James struggled to shut the door without the use of his hands.
"Yeah, sorry," James replied, sheepish. "Took longer than I thought."
As he put the boxes down on the coffee table, Jessie had an idea. Not the usual, conniving sort, but it still filled her with nerves.
"Hey... Do you guys feel like watching a movie or something?"
James blinked at her question. He'd expected her to retire to her bed without many words- she'd been acting strangely, distant, since the news about Butch had reached her. Not that he was unhappy at her suggestion. It was a welcome surprise.
"That sounds good," he answered, starting to pull off his boots. They were caked with a good couple of inches of dirt, and he made a mental note to clean them first thing in the morning.
Meowth was less taken aback, but a bittersweet feeling underlaid his understanding. Jessie wasn't betting that they were going to make it through this alive, and was making use of what time she knew they had left.
This was a goodbye, just in case.
They settled themselves on the couch, Jessie flipping between channels until she found a film that was only about ten minutes in. James grimaced as he picked up a slice of pizza.
"Oh- it's cold. I'm sorry, I tried to keep it warm, but-"
Jessie cut him off by reaching over him for a slice of her own.
"Cold pizza's good," she said, taking a bite. Huh. It was good. She was hungrier than she'd realised.
The movie- a spy thriller with a budget blown on car chases and explosions- was nothing award-worthy, but it was entertaining, and that was all any of them really cared about. Meowth added his own, unofficial commentary through the entire thing, complaining about continuity errors and bursts of terrible acting, but his remarks lacked any real frustration.
In the pulsing glow of the television, Jessie focused on her companions more than anything else. And when James leaned over to rest his head on her shoulder, she leaned back into him. She found his hand on the sofa cushion, and without a word, linked her fingers between his.
With equal fervour, and that same vague sense that this would all soon slip away, he squeezed back.
The next morning, Jessie made her own venture into the town, but it wasn't the pizza place she was headed for. Before her, brick and glass stretched up twenty stories high, a looming structure of cold business. People dressed mostly in suits strode in and out of the revolving door, phones pressed to their ears, briefcases at their hips, impatience on their faces.
She took yet another deep breath. Clenched her hands, unclenched them. It was clear in her mind what she was going to do: now it was just a case of doing it.
Sidling round to the side of the building so she wasn't so out in the open, Jessie's thoughts continued to churn. It wasn't pleasant, but it wasn't going to stop her from doing what she needed to, either. This was more important than her feelings.
When she was sufficiently hidden from the public eye, she stopped and felt in her coat pocket. She rolled the small plastic spheres between her fingers.
Don't dawdle. It'll make it worse.
Jessie enlarged the pokeballs and hit the release buttons before she could back out. From the flood of white light, Gourgeist and Wobbuffet materialised, staring at her from their spot on the edge of the grass.
The blue blob dove forwards with more force than Jessie was prepared for, and she almost fell backwards. Wobbuffet was buzzing with excitement, babbling his name over and over, and Jessie's heart went heavy with guilt.
Since things had changed for the worse and the missions had carried the possibility of death all the time, she had opted to keep Wobbuffet's pokeball in storage at headquarters. He wasn't one to act on instruction, and the idea of him emerging with a hearty shriek in the middle of a gunfight was enough to convince Jessie not to carry him around with her anymore.
That didn't stop her from feeling like a lousy trainer, though. Here he was, so happy to finally see her again- how many times had he come out of his pokeball, hoping to see her face only to be met with the darkness of an empty storage room? For the entire trip out to town, he hadn't come out once- and the journey had taken a good forty minutes. Which meant he'd stopped hoping that his surroundings would be different. He'd given up.
Not that there was any evidence of that now- here he was, as full of life as ever.
"Easy!" Jessie said, pushing back at him so she didn't topple over. Wobbuffet obliged for all of two seconds before hurtling towards her again, this time wrapping his arms around her waist.
"Wobbuffet!" he cried.
"Yeah, I've missed you too, you big dumb blob," Jessie chuckled. He grinned up at her without a trace of hurt.
Behind him, Gougeist loitered, less sure than her more extroverted counterpart. Jessie's eyes moved to her, and she beckoned her over.
"Both of you- I need to tell you what's happening, okay? So let me finish- and that goes double for you," she said, jabbing a finger towards Wobbuffet. "No sudden screaming, okay?"
"Yeah, exactly. Not that." Her smile faded as a sigh left her lips. She didn't want to leave this happy moment, not yet. Next came the hard bit.
"I'm sorry I haven't seen more of you- both of you," Jessie started. "Believe me, I wanted to see you all the time, but... It wasn't safe. I know you've seen glimpses of it, Gourgeist, but not everything." She watched them, trying to guage if they understood her so far. It was hard to tell, but they were at least listening.
"There have been things going on in Team Rocket- really bad things. Bad people. It's nothing like it was before. And... And I thought it would be okay if I just kept you guys from seeing it, or getting involved, and then you'd be safe."
"Wobba." He'd already broken their deal, but it was a quiet utterance, and for him that was an impressive feat.
"But now, me and Meowth are going to do something, and it's going to be dangerous. Really dangerous. I'm not sure if I'll be back or not," she said, and the words hit her, out loud in the air like that. She'd thought about it plenty, but there was something weird about actually saying it. She could die.
Ouch. That hurt, that quizzical, unknowing tone. Jessie continued anyway.
"And if I don't come back, I need to be sure that you're okay, and not just handed out to some other agent, someone who might not care about keeping you safe. I've sent a message to Christopher- do you remember him, Wobbuffet?"
"Wobbuffet!" he confirmed, but it was a little uneasy this time. He was getting the message, or at least part of it.
"Christopher is our friend from Sinnoh," Jessie explained for Gourgeist. "He's a very good person. So what's going to happen is, if I can't come back for you, Christopher's going to take care of you instead."
Why couldn't they just get it? Save her the pain of drawing this out?
"Look, I might not be coming back. Ever. So I'm going to leave you here- it's a safe place that only me and Christopher will have access to. Do you understand?"
Wobbuffet's mouth trembled, tears appearing at the corners of his eyes, whilst Gourgeist hovered closer to Jessie, nuzzling into her side. Both of them were protesting, repeating their names, and though a large part of Jessie wished she could understand what they were saying, she was pretty sure to hear it would crush her.
"I wanted to tell both of you that... I'm sorry I ever brought you into all this," Jessie choked, "and that you've been the best pokemon I could ever have asked for."
The three of them crouched in their hug, Wobbuffet blubbering loudly enough for them all. Gourgeist seemed more accepting, but the premature grief on her face was equal.
Tears flowed from Jessie's eyes and dripped from her chin; she didn't have the desire nor the energy to hold them back.
In the back of her mind, the unrelenting reminder: they couldn't stay like this forever.
She sniffled, pulled away from the embrace.
"I have to go," she whispered. "If it comes to it, you'll have a good life with Christopher. A really good life. But I'll do everything I can to come back. I promise."
Jessie took hold of their pokeballs again, held them out.
"Thank you both for everything." She tried to smile. "Be good, okay?"
Not wanting to give herself the chance to crumble, she clicked the return trigger on both pokeballs. Red swamped them, and they were gone, just like that.
She stood, stagnant as she cried, and wiped at her eyes with her sleeve. She only needed to compose herself for long enough to get into the building, find her deposit box-
White light spilled out of her pocket, and Wobbuffet came towards her, equally tearful.
"Wobbuffet! Wobbuffet!" he told her.
"Wobbuffet, please- I'm sorry, but this is best, okay?" She bent down to rest her chin on top of his round head. Now was the time to be strong, for him. "Whatever happens, you'll be okay. Be brave." And she recalled him again.
There was a slip of paper with the deposit box number in her skirt pocket- she began to reach for it, hoping-
"Wobbuffet! Wobba wob wobbuffet!"
Shit. She couldn't handle this.
"Wobbuffet, please," she implored him, more forceful now. "I'm sorry- I'm so sorry! I don't want to leave you, but I have to, okay? Return!"
He'd barely been in the ball for a second when it opened again.
"Please!" Jessie shouted. She hadn't meant to- the frustration and sadness had just swirled together too long. "Please, I can't deal with this- I can't deal with you doing this! Just stay, okay?! Stay!"
Wobbuffet was quiet. He just looked at her, tears streaming down his cheeks. "Wobbuffet," he croaked.
She waited for the inevitable. The slight shake of the pokeball before it opened once more, and she truly lost it.
It wasn't enough for her to get her hopes up, not yet- he'd come out again, any second now, an avalanche of wails and cries. But five minutes passed, and still, there was nothing.
Good, he'd gotten the message, he wasn't going to-
Jessie dissolved into sobs. Her knees buckled and the weight of it all, everything, crashed down on her. The relief of his obedience had quickly morphed into the awful realisation that he really was going to stay this time. Which meant she might never see him again.
She hugged them to her, and forced herself to breathe.
"I love you both," she whispered.
When she was calm enough to get up, Jessie pocketed the pokeballs again, and still sniffing, went to check her reflection in the nearest window. It was obvious she'd been crying, and the evidence wasn't going to fade anytime soon. She'd just have to put up with a few odd stares.
Deposit box 2031 sat, unassuming, at the lower left portion of the row. This was to be their sanctuary, for now. All her trust put in a thin layer of metal and a lock.
She pulled the door open, and placed the pokeballs inside as gently as if they were eggs. Jessie looked at them, sitting there in the dark cube. They would be safe, she reminded herself. That was what mattered.
Exhaling, she shut the door again and twisted the key in the lock.
"Goodbye," she mouthed.
Chapter 14: Revolving Door
PHEW THIS TOOK FOREVER
We're getting there- just one or two chapters left after this one!
Recruiting turned out to be much easier than Meowth had ever hoped it would be. After pretty minimal eavesdropping, it became clear that the percentage of agents who didn't care much for Carter was not insignificant. He wondered if the man in question was aware of that fact. Surely he was, at least to an extent.
There was, following each recruitment, each agreement laced with fear and frustration, a sizeable amount of guilt. Meowth knew that an outcome in which none of them got killed was more than unlikely: it was near impossible. As such, he felt the weight of responsibility at dragging others into that world of high risk- at sealing their fates in bloodshed and gunfire. All that he could conjure to ease those thoughts was the counter-argument that, if they did not take this action, far more people would end up dead. It didn't soothe him exactly- death was death, and he felt a great discomfort dealing in that business at all- but the cold logic at least made it a little easier to get on with the task at hand.
The cast so far was a range of personalities and ranks: a few grunts, a pair of field agents, a training instructor from Kanto, and even one senior agent. None of them had joined due to a respect of Jessie and Meowth (half of them didn't know who they were, and the ones that did had only heard bad things), but rather as a result of either their total disdain for the new regime, or terror at its effects. Some of them had seen their friends get killed up close, or had a partner go missing one day, whilst the senior agent seemed to harbour a more generalised disapproval of Carter. "Too young, and too impulsive," he'd told Jessie, the shake of his head like that of a disappointed teacher.
Getting the gun took a little further scouting, but as predicted, it wasn't very difficult. Of course, there was a whole arsenal of weapons at the headquarters, but obtaining one meant filling out a form, and Jessie knew that putting her name to a potential assassination weapon left more than a couple of loose ends.
So she'd gone futher afield and partaken in a back alley deal, a practice she was all too well versed in. The guy slinging the guns had fit the 'shady guy' bill just right- a grey hood casting shadows over his eyes, dirtied combat boots shifting on the concrete with the anxious turns of his head, voice low and gravelly. She tried not to think too hard about how similar Butch's tone had been, and told herself that it was just a projection of her disquiet rather than a genuine parallel.
Money was, for once, the least of Jessie's troubles in the exchange: the string of missions they'd been on had brought in pretty sizeable paychecks. Even with the distraction of circumstance, it was surreal to have plenty of cash at her disposal.
The weight of the weapon in her pocket felt strange, ugly, and when she took it in her hands back in their dormitory, the feeling of the metal warming under her grip unnerved her. She held not only the gun, but the intention to kill.
Naturally, that thought had played a prominent part in her thoughts since the birth of their plan. She had never been under the illusion that what she was setting out to do was anything less than murder; this was a matter of taking a life. No, 'take' was too soft a word- she planned to destroy it.
Ugly or not, that was something Jessie knew she had to come to terms with. It wasn't a case of killing some innocent, of course, and that was the driving force that kept her down her chosen path. If she pulled this off, Carter wouldn't be able to hurt anyone else- sometimes the ends justified the means.
Jessie put the gun away, and shut down her doubts with a counter she chanted over and over in her head: it didn't matter how she felt about it. It was simply something that needed to be done.
James had lost count of the number of times he'd been called stupid. Whether it was the boss, or twerps, or colleagues, that sentiment remained consistent.
Brainless. Idiotic. Foolish.
Most of the time, he could shake those accusations off. With Jessie's help, he'd grown assured in his talents- and he did have talents, regardless of what people said.
But he felt more than a trace of truth in the insults flung his way over the years. There was something in his brain that didn't seem to line up with most people's way of thinking, some strange barrier that too often traded logic for impulse and emotion. And these last few days especially, he found himself wondering if that was his problem now. Maybe if he was smarter, he'd have a better understanding of what Jessie and Meowth were talking about. Maybe, if he was made of harder stuff, he'd be at their side rather than cowering in the corner. What had happened to that selfless trainee, ready to plunge down to his doom in an instant for his friends?
There was no point sitting around feeling sorry for himself- that he was certain of, and he did his best to clear his mind. If his partners were really intending to go through with their plan, then he needed to come up with something himself.
Convincing them that it was a bad idea seemed off the table. Jessie had made it clear that she was willing to risk it all, so trying to communicate the danger of it to them was a lost cause. What did that leave? He couldn't force them to leave with him.
A part of him felt unjust abandonment at the resolve of his team mates; however much he pleaded, they wouldn't budge. An outsider might have thought of their reaction as cold, uncaring. Even so, he knew in his heart that that wasn't the case. Every time they debated the matter, worry and utter dismay flashed behind Jessie's eyes, just as they did behind his. It was not that she didn't care, but that she cared so deeply that she was unable to walk away from a man who put the people she loved in danger. That was such a typical Jessie paradox, James thought- to risk something for the sake of protecting it.
So maybe he wasn't so brainless. Perhaps he did understand where they were coming from, but that didn't change his unwillingless to stand by them.
Did that make him a better person, or a far worse one?
He had no clue. That was a trend that would continue into a semi-sleepless night, the dim stars that blinked through the window as sparse as the ideas in his head.
As badly as her partner might have slept, Jessie had the edge on that front. She didn't sleep at all.
The atmosphere a few days before, that hint of normality with pizza and television, had dissipated once again. It was not that the exchanges she and Meowth had with James were unfriendly, more that they felt uneasy. How much he suspected, Jessie didn't know, but James seemed to have somewhat given up his attempts at arguing against them. He'd been withdrawn, and the times he did talk felt unnatural. She could hear him force his typical inflections into his voice as he made some passing quip, or talked about what they were going to eat for lunch that day, or something equally flat.
Denial was a strong possibility. That was a habit of his, to shy away from reality and cocoon himself away in idle chatter and strained grins.
She no longer carried any resentment towards him for not getting involved. There was no room left for frustration- she was too preoccupied with the fear of losing him, whether it be by his death or her own. Those thoughts were as nasty as always, so she distracted herself by running through the plan.
Out of their makeshift rebellion, only Jessie and four other agents were actually attending the meeting. It was, after all, concerning planning and developments in Kanto, and as such only people who were familiar with the territory had been called upon. So, the group had arranged for those left spare to wait outside, waiting in the halls. When everything went down, they were the backup.
If there was one thing Jessie was grateful for regarding Carter's personality, it was his apparent refusal to see Meowth as a real agent. There had been no mention of him in their orders, which gave her a reason he couldn't argue with to keep him out of the room, at least for a bit. That was a mild comfort.
When dawn broke through the thin veil of the curtains, she forced herself from the sofa and to the kitchenette. If she wanted to be at her peak, she was going to have to eat something.
Meowth had fared a little better than her, sleep-wise. He was currently curled up on the armchair, whiskers twitching in some unknown dream.
She was still in two minds about his involvement. His help was integral, and Jessie didn't want to insult him by considering him anything less than her equal- but there was something about getting him mixed up in all this that made her feel like she was dealing in true villainy. Humanoid or not, he had been born an innocent pokemon, and dirtying his soul with human evil felt utterly despicable.
"Don't let him catch you thinking that," she thought. "He'll be offended beyond measure."
By the time she'd finished eating, he'd stirred from his slumber, and made his way over to her.
When their eyes met across the table, it hit Jessie with more force than she'd reckoned for.
This was it.
The moment they'd received the message earlier that week regarding the meeting, she'd kept it hidden from James with every ounce of trickery she possessed. The email itself was, of course, deleted, but there was more to keeping the secret than that; she'd enlisted the help of one of the recruited grunts, and he'd tailed James whenever he left the dorm. It was his job to make sure that he didn't stray over to any notices that would give the game away, and be ready to cause a distraction if he veered too close.
In normal circumstances, Jessie would have never have put James in that position. She would've been too worried about the punishment he'd likely face as a result- it was, after all, a major sign of insubordination to ignore orders without any explanation. With everything going on, however, she wasn't very concerned about that. There would be things far greater than the deemed disrespect of one agent for the boss to worry about.
Time passed too quickly, as time often does when there's something undesirable waiting at the other end of it. Much too soon, the hour was upon them, and Jessie was pulling on her boots with trembling hands that she willed to steady. She wanted beyond measure to gather her team mates into a hug, share a parting exchange of affection that she too often denied herself. But that wasn't the deal. She'd already had her moment of closure, and repeating that now would only rattle her nerve.
Subsequently, all she said to him was her scripted explanation for her parting: a walk. Over the past couple of weeks, she'd made a point of taking a stroll roughly every other evening, so that when the time came for the excuse, it wouldn't seem out of place. James, who had been asleep on his bunk, accepted her words easily, easily manipulated in his state of drowsiness. It made the ordeal a little less hard on Jessie, to have him simply close his eyes again and drift off.
She went to the door.
"You ready?" she murmured to Meowth as he eyed the clock for the umpteenth time.
"Dat's a loaded question," he replied, and neither of them were convinced by his smile.
They made their way to their destination, Jessie using every tactic she'd been taught when it came to putting on a calm face. For that short journey, she almost persuaded herself that all she was doing was attending a meeting.
Then they were there, tailing at the end of a small queue forming outside the door, and that knot of fear was back. This was really happening, with no time left to mull it over.
A bodyguard at the door was searching each person that went to go into the room, something they had anticipated. One of the first questions that had been raised was the matter of getting the weapons into the room undetected; they knew that any meeting that Carter attended himself would have amped-up security, in the way of a body check at the door.
The solution had come from the senior agent. As somebody who was trusted as a Team Rocket loyalist, he had an advantage when it came to being hounded by bodyguards- on top of their respect for him, they also were wary of harrassing their senior.
So when it was time to set up the room, he'd taken it upon himself to oversee the proceedings. The plan was as follows: one of the grunts on their side would show up to bring in the tables and chairs, with the senior agent taking the role of her supervisor so that the guards would be less likely to interact with her themselves. Taped to the base of a chair in each stack she carried in was a gun.
Each pistol was concealed by a second, false base constructed from cut-out squares of fabric that were lightly glued on, designed so that they could be easily ripped away. This was both a pro and a con, as while it made accessing the weapons simpler, it also meant that if anyone did a search, it wouldn't take much poking around to dismantle the disguise.
Before she knew it, Jessie was at the front of the line, and switched her attention to the bodyguard looking her way.
"Hold your arms out at your sides," he told her in a monotone. She complied, and even though she knew there was nothing damning on her person to find, she still felt a flutter of worry as he frisked her.
"Go on," he said as his hands fell away from her, and Jessie mutely stepped into the room, every spare ounce of her focus spent on fighting the urge to glance around manically. One glance she did allow herself was over her shoulder, to Meowth. He looked back. There was no obvious emotion on his face, but he held her gaze with fierce intensity.
She cut the cord with the turn of her head.
The room was pretty spacious, rectangular in shape with a line of tables pushed together in the middle. Already seated were about ten agents, one of which was her ally- the training instructor. He was flipping through the notes in front of him, reading, or pretending to read. Jessie was impressed and a little envious of his ability to look so carefree.
She caught sight of the grunt whose job it had been to place the chairs standing to one side of the table, her pink hair flicking out under the sides of her cap, arms folded behind her. When Jessie walked closer, the other woman pulled up a chair for her, a phony show of subservience used to mask her real objective: seating the right people in the right chairs. Jessie could only hope that the grunt had a strong memory of where the guns were.
Once she'd sat down, it was just a matter of waiting, which proved to be the most agonising part thus far. Here she was, at the cusp of a showdown, adrenaline pumping, and there was nothing more to do but wait. Her core swam with unspent energy, which she did her best to expel by rolling the provided pen between her fingers.
More agents filtered in, were ushered to their seats. To the five agents present who were in on the plot, there were about twenty-five others. Not great odds, but they never had been.
The bored chatter that had been the room's ambience was muted almost instantaneously, and Jessie knew the cause before she'd raised her head. On his way to his chair at the head of the table, Carter walked right past her, and an unfamiliar chill seeped under her skin.
He held his head with a faint air of weariness, rolled back his shoulders and flexed his neck. This was just another day of work in his mind, another task to get through. He had no idea. Jessie almost felt bad for him before she reminded herself of why he was a target in the first place.
After the grunt hurried to pull his chair out for him, he sat down, rested his forearms on the table, and cast his eyes to one of the agents nearby. The man straightened up and cleared his throat.
"Regarding the situation in Kanto, there have been a few changes in the last six months- mostly good, I should add," he started. "And, uh, everyone here has a good knowledge of the region, so the proposal is we run through our options and take some feedback from..."
His words soon thinned into background noise, and Jessie responded to the hum with feigned attention, joining in when there was a chorus of nods.
It was so close. So close, and she could barely stand the pressure that seemed to hit every nerve in her body.
"...property ownership, that's always been a key part of our-"
Movement blurred at her right along with the squeak of chair legs against the floor, and she watched as the training instructor rose his arm, gun in hand. She stared at it, silent amidst the beginnings of gasps and exclamations, braced for the bang-
And watched as he just stood there, motionless before he'd fully brought his aim up to meet its target.
At first she thought it was nerves that had stopped him, but soon saw that he wasn't just hesitating- he was frozen, as still as the furniture around. Everything was falling apart so fast that despair didn't have time to sink in, but Jessie at least registered that something was wrong, inexplicably wrong.
Carter hurried to his feet, the indifference that had plastered his expression broken by shock and concern. One of his bodyguards stepped in front of him whilst the other drew his weapon, pressed it to the training instructor's forehead-
Why wasn't he moving? Why wouldn't he just move?
- and shot him point blank. Blood and brain exploded out of the back of his head, splattering crimson onto objects and people alike, leaving a thin mist of iron in its wake- and still he didn't move. His body stood, arm still outstretched, every limb rigid as blood ran down his face and back in pulses.
Finally, he collapsed.
Perhaps Jessie was losing it. What she'd just witnessed didn't make sense, and she had nothing, no semblance of reason to grasp onto, until she caught sight of the unown materialising from the far wall.
Around her, chaos took reign.
The guards had barely begun barking orders for everyone to raise their hands and get against the wall when the field agents on Jessie's team took out their own guns, their actions followed by both the other rebels and the backup bodyguards storming in.
It was difficult to keep track of everthing going on whilst at the same time fumbling under her chair to arm herself, but she got the jist of the immediate action. The male field agent who'd turned to attack Carter was felled in a burst of psychic energy, a soft glow around the unown as the man's head spun around with awful speed, his neck crunching. Reacting swiftly, the senior Rocket on their side threw out a pokeball, releasing a haunter as gunfire broke out between the guards and would-be assassins.
Jessie forced herself into motion, backing up with her gun in both hands as she tried to formulate some kind of plan. The second field agent had managed to take out one of the bodyguards with a couple of shots to the chest before she met the same fate as her partner, caught in the grip of the unown. Knowing she couldn't affort to let the gruesome sight get to her, Jessie turned to the guard who had her in his sights, and let loose a couple of bullets. The first missed, but the second clipped his thigh, enough to make him stagger and groan.
Not wasting any time, she looked back to Carter, who was stumbling to the door with his head ducked down; his unown recoiled at the blow of a shadow ball the haunter sent its way.
"Keep at it, Haunter!" the senior agent encouraged, and closed in on his retreating boss.
At the same time that the unown broke away from combat with its rival pokemon, Jessie flinched at more cracks of gunfire, taking cover behind the table for a moment. When she stood up again, the senior agent had Carter by the back of his jacket, and Carter had drawn his own gun.
The unown was focused on its master, simultaneously taking hits from behind as the haunter kept up its attacks. Slower now, not quite as invincible, the unown emitted that faint glow once more.
Jessie expected the senior agent to drop dead right there, but he merely froze up- as did the haunter.
More shots- she heard cries and thuds to her right. Some of the agents who hadn't been in on the plot had taken it upon themselves to join in the fight, most siding with Carter, but a few siding against him. The majority, though, had either thrown themselves to the floor in an effort to preserve their lives, or rushed to the exit.
She switched her gaze back to Carter- there was too much to concentrate on, too much stimuli. With his assailant incapacitated, the crime boss only had to adjust his position to get his gun against his head, and fired without pause.
The unown's hold on him released almost instantly, and it must have made some attack, because the haunter fainted (at least, Jessie hoped that was what had happened). It hung in the air, floating limply.
Something hit her left shoulder with force like she'd never felt at the same time as the next gunshot, and even so, it took her a second to register that the agony flaring up was the work of a bullet. She clamped a hand over the wound, gasping at the shock and the pain, bracing for another hit that didn't come. Her other senses recovered just in time to see Carter flee the room, tailed by one of his surviving bodyguards.
Stumbling forward as quickly as she could, her main concern was not the loyalist Rockets, but the unown. How many people had died, she had no idea, but the numbers had been whittled down considerably, and most of those that remained were on the other side of the room. That didn't stop the threat of a bullet flying her way, but it at least eased a little of the attention on her.
The unown, however... That thing was terrifying. She didn't know much about that species- no one did- but it was obvious that it possessed overwhelming psychic power, something she had no way of combatting.
But it was acting differently, more sluggish. Its glow kept flickering as it went for the instigators across the room, and Jessie realised that the haunter had really done a number on it. This was her chance.
She did her best to block out the effects of her injury, and ran for the doorway.
Her steps were slowed by her condition, but she got there soon enough. Someone shot at her, the bullet lodging in the plaster of the wall to her side- she ignored the attempt on her life, and continued out into the hallway.
She wondered where Meowth was; since no one was there to meet her, she could only assume that he'd either gone after Carter with the rest of the backup, or found somewhere to hide. She implored it was the latter.
The warmth of her blood had soaked through the fabric of her glove and between her fingers, felt uncomfortably slick on her skin as she kept going. Working out which way Carter had gone was not going to be a straightforward task: the hall split into a small maze of corridors.
Trial and error was the only thing for it.
Her legs operated on adrenaline and determination, carried her sprinting forwards, her shoulder bursting with a new wave of pain at each step. She had to find him, had to... There were thirteen rounds left in her cartridge. That gave her plenty of chances, at least.
Left, through double doors. Were those footsteps? Maybe they were just echoes of her own- it didn't matter, either way there was a chance-
Rigidity fell over her body like a bucket of ice water.
Dread squirmed in her stomach, but what surprised her was the muted acceptance that accompanied it. She didn't want to die, certainly not before she knew Carter was out of the picture, but if that was the way it was going to be, she could at least say she'd done her damn best.
Jessie stumbled forwards as her limbs loosened again.
She snapped her head back to look behind her, and sure enough, there it was, getting closer, weakened but not defeated. Staring at it wasn't going to help her, so she kept going, heart cantering against her ribs.
Then she seized up again, paralyzed. The hold only lasted a few seconds, but she knew that the unown must have been closing in. Its speed, while compromised, had seemed steady.
Jessie broke back into a run as soon as she could move, but after a few steps, she felt weakness take hold, send tremors to her arms and legs, and suddenly she could barely hold them up. Whether it was the work of her pursuer, or the bloodloss from her gunshot wound, she couldn't tell, and try as she might, her pace slowed to a stagger. She reached out to push open the next set of doors and collapsed to the floor.
There was enough strength left in her to turn her body, and as she watched the unown approach, she strained her eyes until her vision focused. When its image was clear, she raised her gun. It flew out of her clutch and clattered to the floor.
My damn best.
A grip like a coil of rope squeezed at her neck, and any doubts that she'd be left prone dissolved. Its intent was to kill, just as hers had been.
Her breath collected at the back of her throat, no gap to escape through or let new air in. The sensation was unbearable, constantly building- her lungs tightened, heaving for oxygen as the pressure under her face grew more and more intense, head giddier by the second.
One last time, the hold on her dropped.
She heaved in air in a spluttering gasp, coughing violently as she recovered from the assault. Mercifully, it didn't take long for her head to feel more normal again, and once her thoughts were clearer, the first thing she did was hold her palm against her shoulder again. She knew she couldn't afford to lose much more blood.
The second thing she did was look for an explanation, for some saviour who'd jumped in at the last moment. No one was there, save the limp form of the unown on the ground. Jessie guessed that the strain had been too much for it; it must have taken a huge amount of energy to pull off all those stunts, after all.
Not that the whys and hows mattered, not now. There were more pressing things to attend to.
The first bang could have been an accident. Maybe someone had just dropped something heavy.
After the noise repeated again, and then again, harsh and short, James knew that wasn't the case. Those were gunshots.
He scrambled to get off the mattress, ripped the sheets away from him as trepidation settled.
"Jessie? Meowth?" he called.
Nothing. His anxiety amplified with the rate of his heart.
Having crawled onto the bed five hours ago with the intention of a mere lie-down, he was still dressed in his uniform, and only had to slide his feet into his boots before rushing out of the dormitory.
The noise- he had to place where it was coming from, and quick. On one of the floors above, for sure, but he couldn't discern anything beyond that. If he went upstairs, maybe it'd be clearer. He'd have to work from there.
James sprinted, crashing through the doors in his path as he headed for the nearest flight of stairs, and when he got there it became apparent that he was far from the only one who'd heard the commotion. A cluster of Rockets was gathering at the base of the steps, blurting questions to each other that none of them knew the answers to. The stairway was already getting conjested, shoulders and elbows shoving together as people competed to be among the first up.
He didn't stand a chance in that mass. There was another set of stairs, but it was a while away, and likely just as crowded- but there was an elevator down the next hall.
Ordinarily, that would have been anyone's last port of call in an emergency. It was too unreliable; the mechanism could get stuck between floors; it could be slowed by being stopped by others on multiple storeys; it simply wasn't as fast as using the stairs.
Unless said stairs were unaccessible.
James took off running again before he could change his mind. It was a pretty lousy plan of action, but the only one he could come up with.
Upon reaching the elevator, he was relieved to find the corridor empty, and jabbed his thumb against the button that called the lift. He only had to wait ten seconds or so for the doors to slide open, but it felt like far too long. Stepping in as soon as there was enough space between the doors to do so, he pressed the button for the next floor up.
The feeling of moving upwards added to the unpleasant mix of sensations swirling within him. They couldn't have actually gone through with it, could they? They had to be okay. Had to, had to. And if they weren't...
"Just taking a quick walk."
He should have realised. Never mind that- he should've been there with them.
The movement juddered to a stop, and the doors opened again. When he could still hear the noise above him, he reached for the panel once more, and selected the floor above. James realised that this process of elimination was too clumsy, too slow, but he didn't know what else to do.
Next floor. The sounds were still overhead- he grimaced and tried again, then again, the shots and yells getting louder each time, and when he it got to his fourth trip upwards, he was really starting to panic beyond his ability to contain. The doors pulled open-
Shots sounded, sharp enough to rattle his eardrums and reverberate in his chest. He took in the scene: a figure mere inches away, and two others in the background, one of them unmoving on the floor. In the same time that James registered that the figure in front of him was Carter, he watched as his employer shot at the other Rocket tailing him. The man yelped, hands falling to hover over his splintered kneecap before the second bullet hit the centre of his chest, and his legs buckled underneath him.
Carter limped into the elevator and stabbed at the button for the ground floor; his right trouser leg was wet with blood from the shin down. As soon as the doors had closed and the lift began its descent, his eyes flicked to James. He regarded his subordinate as if he were some rabies-ridden mutt about to pounce, and with a shaking arm, brought his gun's aim up. James could barely process the situation before Carter's finger squeezed around the trigger.
No bang, no split second of pain- there was only a faint click, and Carter cried out, a growling, frustrated sound that James never could have pictured him making.
"Don't fucking move," Carter panted as he dropped the empty weapon, then reached a hand to the inside of his jacket.
James charged at him.
He didn't know what it was that had driven the action, but be it instinct or emotion, it sent him crashing into the other man before he had a chance to aim the second gun. Nothing here felt real. It was too much, far too much to be happening.
"Get off!" Carter hissed at him as they fought for ownership of the gun, and there was more than just fear in his eyes: there was rage.
The initial element of surprise had given James a slight edge, but now that there had been time enough to adapt, it was obvious that Carter was the stronger of the two. Even with his injured leg, he managed to counter the younger man's attempts to pry the gun away, taking hold of James' arm with an iron grip. James tried to kick him, and succeeded, but it didn't have the effect he'd been hoping for, and the next second he found himself swung sideways. He hit the metal wall hip-first, and although it hurt like hell, the grasp he'd managed to get on the gun didn't break. His fingers remained wrapped around the handle, Carter's hand on the metal body in similar fashion.
James decided to try for a second kick, but this time he didn't get the chance. Carter's free hand reached up and grabbed a fistful of lavender hair before slamming James' head into the wall.
Steel met with the side of his temple, and white light flashed over his vision as his surroundings smudged. Still every part of him screamed not to let go, so he channeled his strength to his hand, lacking the energy to do more than just hold on. Force ripped at his scalp again as his head was pulled back, and then slammed forwards a second time.
His fingers twitched this time. He couldn't keep this up- the dull ache beneath his skull made him feel like he was about to vomit. His head was yanked back again, and James focused everything on his slipping hold on the gun's handle, weakened with each time Carter tried to pull it away.
Then came the bang.
The fingers clawing at his scalp went slack. James struggled not to fall backwards as Carter's weight slumped against him; he steadied himself against the metal railing, closed his eyes against the thud that followed. The gun fell with a jarring clatter.
James' breath came in spurts.
He's dead. You killed him, you killed somebody-
He whimpered, a pathetic sound in the cubic abyss.
Upon hearing footsteps, he dared to look.
Carter was dead, no question about that. His head rested in a pool of scarlet, blood staining his brown hair where it met with the floor.
In a more lucid state, James' realisation that it was not him who had killed Carter would have been born from simple reasoning. The shot was to the head, something that wouldn't have been possible with the angle of the gun as they fought; besides that, he had felt no recoil at all.
But he was not in a lucid state, and it was only when he saw the woman walking into the elevator, a gun in her own hand, that he came to the conclusion of his innocence in this particular crime.
That lightness in his head was worsening by the second, blurring his vision like a sheet of water. Soon he was too dizzy to stand, and sank to the floor with his back against the wall. As Cassidy got nearer, dizziness swamped him, and colour gave way to the dark.
Chapter 15: Swings and Roundabouts
It wasn't often that you'd catch him on all fours, but he had to admit it was faster, and the situation called for drastic measures. Although Carter was out of sight, he wasn't far ahead, and he and the few others accompanying the chase knew which way he'd gone. The Rocket boss was outnumbered.
Throughout that entire, manic journey, one thought had remained at the forefront of his mind: Jessie will be here soon.
Given the speed at which they were going combined with the headstart, and it wasn't surprising that she hadn't caught up yet. For a while, he could rest on the assumption that she was on her way. But when their progress ground to a halt as they hit the human traffic also trying to get downstairs, that line of reasoning grew less and less sound.
He kept waiting for her to show up, for her face to appear at the back of the crowd. It didn't.
That wasn't necessarily a bad sign- she could have just lost their trail, after all. Could have.
There were a lot of could haves.
He wasn't going to gamble on it; the others would just have to make do without him. Weaving through the forest of legs, he took off the way he'd came, pouring every scrap of energy he had left into keeping his legs moving. His chest was dry and heaving with gasps, but he wasn't going to let something so trivial slow him down.
Tracking was not his strongest suit, but if there was one thing he was confident in, it was recognising the scents of his teammates. In such a large building, however, picking hers out from the conglomerate of others would be tricky.
Meowth stopped, listened. There were too many sounds- his hearing wasn't going to be of much help, that was clear. And then he caught it: the slightest scent of her shampoo, sweet and tinged with berries.
Sure enough, it got stronger as he kept going- she was somewhere around here. But what if when he found her she was-
No. She couldn't be. He couldn't face it. Premature tears stung his eyes and marred his vision.
Straight ahead, left again, then-
His movements halted clumsily, and he almost fell over, but he couldn't have cared less as Jessie closed the space between them. That same relief he'd felt when she and James had come back from Carter's office unscathed filled him in an instant, spilling over with the tears in his eyes.
The sight of the blood dripping from her sleeve froze his tongue in his mouth, and he stared at her, wide-eyed and full of horror.
"Jessie! What- oh jeez, oh-"
She used the hand that wasn't pressing on her shoulder to clasp his own.
"Calm down- it's just my arm," she reassured him, but even as she did so her voice was frail and shaky.
"We gotta get ya outta here," Meowth told her, eyes still locked on the scarlet aftermath of the gunshot. "Dat needs treatin' before it gets any worse."
"No way," Jessie shot back, a little more clarity in her tone but still ultimately sounding disoriented. "We're not leaving till we've got him."
"I t'ink we have," Meowth replied. "Dere were hardly any of his bodyguards left, an' da guys dat went ahead must have caught up to him by now- come on, before someone finds us!"
Jessie glared. "I'm not-"
"Jess, listen ta me. You're in no shape to do anythin', even if we did go an' find him. If it turns out he is still alive an' kickin' after all dis, den ya need to be alive to do somethin' about it!" He implored her with a look. "Please, Jessie. We've done all we can."
A gunshot sounded not very far away.
Jessie knew he was right. It was enough of a struggle just to walk in a straight line- she was in no shape to take anyone on.
"James," she blurted. "We can't leave him."
"We ain't gonna," Meowth assured her. "We'll get ya somewhere safe, where you can hide- just in da forest or somethin'- an' den I'll go straight back ta find him."
She didn't reply, and Meowth saw that the colour had drained from her face. She was barely managing to stand. He tapped her leg desperately.
"C'mon Jess, stay awake!" he pleaded, knowing full well that he wouldn't be able to carry her by himself. She groaned, nodding her head, and let him lead her over to the nearest window.
They wouldn't make it out alive if they tried taking the stairs- of that Meowth was certain. Jumping from this height was hardly an inviting option, particularly with Jessie in her current state, but he was confident they'd come out of it relatively unhurt. If there was one thing years of blasting off had done in their favour, it was building their resistance to long falls.
He took longer than he would've liked fiddling with the lock and then prying the window up; the chanting in his head telling him to hurry only served to slow him down from the stress it induced. As soon as it was open, he beckoned Jessie over. She peered down wearily.
"Do we... Do we jump?" she slurred, and there was genuine confusion on her face. Meowth grimaced: she was getting delirious. How much blood had she lost, and how much more could she afford to?
"We jump," he affirmed, meeting her eyes to make sure his words were getting through. She nodded slowly.
Meowth pulled himself up onto the ledge, and she followed suit, dragging her weight with obvious strain.
"Keep pressin' on ya shoulder, okay Jess?"
A formidable drop down greeted them below, its end marked by solid asphalt. It was going to hurt, but there was no time for fear. If it meant that they could patch up that gunshot wound, a little pain was a small price to pay.
He readied his will. Jessie was still wearing that unsure look- at least she wouldn't be scared, he supposed.
"When we land, you need ta roll onto your good side," Meowth instructed. "Like in trainin', remember?"
Annoyance flashed across her face.
"I'm not stupid, Meowth," she told him.
Dat's it- stay here, Jess.
In near unison, they plummeted.
Before he even realised he was awake, James could feel the movement beneath him. It seeped into his half-dreams, an inexplicable sensation that only became truly real when a bump jolted him into consciousness.
Dark. The lingering ripples of pain at the side of his temple. A low hum- constant shudders of motion under him. He raised his head only to have it hit something: a ceiling of some sort. With his hands, he felt his surroundings, sick with confusion and fear. His palms traced the surface above him; it felt fuzzy, like it was lined with some kind of material. There wasn't room enough above him to sit up, so he shifted forwards on his back, reaching with his legs. They hit a wall before he could straighten them, and it dawned on James just how small the space he occupied must have been.
Panic took the reins. He moved his hands behind him, finding more wall mere inches from the back of his head. Cold air brushed his arms, and he realised that his overshirt was gone.
What was going on? He couldn't make sense of it, this situation he'd awoken at the mercy of.
Then another bump knocked him upwards, and it clicked. He was in the trunk of a car.
The realisation didn't exactly comfort him. It only rose more questions- who had put him here, and why? Where were they going? What was their intention?
He could check the police off the list, unless they'd made some weird changes to prisoner transportation. No, this felt much more sinister than the authorities.
But the whos and whys didn't matter right now. More pressing was the issue of getting out, before the question of his fate was answered by him meeting it.
He felt at the walls again, and found the one to his right curved outwards slightly. Concluding that it had to be the door of the trunk, he ran his hands over the floor around it, searching desperately for some latch or button that might pop it open from inside.
A few minutes passed, and he'd gotten nowhere. His heart shuddered under his ribs. James was painfully aware that with each minute that passed, he and his captor were covering significant ground. How long would it be before they reached their destination?
Nothing else for it.
He swiveled himself round so he was facing the door with his back against the wall, brought his knees to his chest, and launched a kick with both legs. His heels hit the door with an audible slam, the force of the attack juddering along his calves; he retracted his legs to try again.
Another slam, and still the door didn't give. He whimpered both in frustration and dread. 'Calm down,' he told himself, and began to ready the next kick when he felt the car slow.
James froze up. He attempted to ease the swarm of nerves that had been sent fluttering about his abdomen- maybe the driver had just reached a traffic light, a stop sign. This didn't necessarily mean that-
The steady purring of the engine shut off, leaving everything still, horribly still.
A car door opened, muffled through the walls, and he didn't dare move. Terror had him paralyzed, his breath trembling in the black. Footsteps, coming round, getting closer. With what remained of his instincts, James braced himself, preparing to-
The rattle of the handle, and light hit his eyes with uncomfortable intensity. He couldn't see properly, but that didn't stop him from springing up and out onto the side of the road, falling awkwardly on his stomach. He pushed himself up with his hands, still semi-blind, stumbling with pain stabbing at his head. A hand grabbed him by the arm before he could even try to run. He yelped and tried to yank himself free.
"Fuck- take it easy you moron!"
James stopped struggling against the grip, almost certain whose voice it had been but turning to check just in case. Cassidy scowled back at him, jerking her head at the parked vehicle- a maroon four-seater.
"What the hell was that about? Are you trying to destroy my car?" she snapped, punctuating her words by squeezing his arm tighter. James winced as he gaped back at her.
"What... What's going on?" he blurted. "Jessie, Meowth- are they okay?"
Cassidy let him go, practically throwing his arm back at him, and let out a loud sigh.
"I have no idea what happened to those two," she said bluntly. "And as for what's going on, I saved your ass, that's what." At his stunned silence, she groaned. "Okay. So you faint in the elevator, and I figure that if you're found like that next to Carter's corpse, they're gonna shoot you first and ask questions later. So I get my houndoom to carry you, because I'm nice like that, and he takes you with me through a back fire exit. Then I boost a car and voila, here we are, and you're returning the favour by kicking the shit out of my door."
"Wh- You put me in the trunk!" James retaliated.
"Yeah, because your face is still on Unova's Most Wanted," Cassidy said, giving him an accusatory look. "We've gotta cross a border if we're gonna get out of here, and the only way to do that is to smuggle you through."
James dropped his frown a little, but still muttered: "You could have given me some sort of warning." Then the full weight of what she'd said hit him. "Wait- cross a border?" he exclaimed. "What do you mean?"
Groaning, Cassidy rolled her eyes, teetering on the edge of the curb where concrete met with grass.
"I'm gonna spell this out for you," she said, and the patronising tone she adopted wasn't lost on him. "I just murdered the leader of Team Rocket. As far as everyone's concerned, you're an accessory. And there are going to be some agents who aren't gonna be thrilled with us, and they're gonna make it their life mission to return the favour." She gave him a sarcastic smile. "Do. You. Understand?"
He didn't respond to the taunt.
"I'm not leaving without Meowth and Jessie," he said plainly.
"Don't be stupid," Cassidy growled. Her usual contempt for him had suddenly crumbled to make way for something more dangerous; her fists were clenched tight at her sides, eyes cold and piercing. "If they're dead, they're dead. If they're not, they'll be far away from headquarters by now. Either way, you can't do shit about it until the heat dies down."
His next breath came out in a sputtering sob, and James sank to the ground, crouching with his head on his knees. He couldn't stop the cries from leaving him, could only sit there, shaking, digging his fingernails into the sides of his head.
She was right: he was powerless to help them. In his attempt to come to their aid, all he'd achieved was a head injury. Yet again, he'd failed. Only this time the consequences were uncalculable. They might be dead. Because of him, they might be-
James bit his tongue to stop himself from making more noise, and looked up at Cassidy. She looked uncertain, almost awkward at seeing him like this.
"Look..." She sighed. "If there's one thing those partners of yours are good at, it's surviving. I'd wager they're fine."
The trembles rippling down his body from his shoulders didn't cease, but his breathing lightened a little, less heavy in his throat. There was truth to her words, regardless of the doubt that surrounded them. Just that snippet of hope felt like a lifeline in that moment. He might have been clinging to little more than a splinter of wood in the midst of a hurricane, but it was better than drowning.
Cassidy averted her gaze, looking back to the car.
"I've got a friend in Johto- that's where we're heading," she murmured. "It should be far enough away to keep us safe." She saw him open his mouth to protest, and added: "You don't have to stay there, but trust me when I say that you've got to get out of Unova. At least for now."
Sniffling, James rose to his feet again. He didn't want to agree with her, but he did. It was run or die.
"Hold on." Cassidy went back round to the front of the car, and returned with a navy coat slung over her arm. She held it out to him. "I took off your overshirt when you were out cold, just in case someone found you- no sense in announcing up front we're Team Rocket," she said. "It's not much of a disguise, but put this on. Better than nothing."
He took the coat; it had more weight to it than he'd expected, and felt smooth and squishy under his fingers. As he threaded his arm through the sleeve, Cassidy went off again, this time returning with a bundle of blankets and a couple of bags of groceries that she piled into the open trunk.
"All right- we need to get going, we've lost enough time as it is," she told him. "There's food and water in there if you need it. Once we get to the border- I'll shut off the radio when we're close so you know- get under the blankets and don't move. If you get caught, you tell them you snuck in while I was getting gas, okay? I'm getting to Johto no matter what, so you'd better back me up."
Once his tired mind had processed the onslaught of instructions, the realisation struck him: she wanted him to get back in the trunk. Through the remnants of his tears, his face twisted with confusion.
"But... Can't I just sit in the back until we get close to the border?" he suggested.
"No. What if we get pulled over or something? I'm not gonna be able to flirt my way out of a ticket if there's a fugitive in the back seat. Just wait it out for a few hours, and then you can sit wherever you want." Cassidy flicked her hand, adopting something closer to her usual demeanour. "Or get lost and do your own thing. Your choice."
He didn't usually react well to that kind of harshness, but something about hearing it from her now was almost comforting. It took him back to safer days.
James gave a small nod, and stumbled back towards the trunk in acquiescence. His coordination still wasn't right- he suspected that he'd sustained more than a little damage to his head. Nothing permanent, he hoped.
He crawled in, settling on his side. Cassidy reached a hand up to the door.
"Don't eat all my food," she said, and shut him in.
After shifting the blankets around a bit, James found that it was actually quite comfortable. He was still giddy with worry for his teammates, but told himself that the most productive thing he could do right then was rest. With the added padding of the coat, he was significantly warmer, and felt the lull of sleep pull at his eyelids. He didn't put up much of a fight.
Dreams melted together into a mismatched reel of half-stories, confused scenes that would abruptly give way to a new script. In his small patches of consciousness, there was the drowned-out hum of the radio: the well-spoken voices of news reporters, advertisements, pop songs.
Until there wasn't. It was with a burst of adrenaline that James drifted awake once more to be met with the lone rumble of the engine. That near silence was the signal.
He scrambled to pull at the blankets, tugging them over his head. He wasn't sure how well-hidden he was, but tried to make himself as flat as possible under the heap.
For a few minutes, there was no notable difference, but then the steady speed at which they'd been traveling began to slow into a pattern of stopping and starting. That routine carried on for a short while, until the next start didn't come.
James held his eyes open against the dark, his senses going into overdrive as he struggled to pick out the barest of sounds.
Cassidy's voice came first. It was muffled, like he was underwater listening to her speak above the surface, but he could at least make out the mood of her tone: casual, friendly. Then a man's voice.
He both heard and felt the opening of car doors as the sporadic discussion continued. It was getting clearer, the odd word making it to his ears in one piece. Nothing he picked up sounded confrontational, which was a small mercy.
Steps crunched on gravel, circling round, closer to him. James chewed at his lip with shallow breaths.
"...oh, just food and some blankets," he heard Cassidy say. She didn't sound rattled in the least. "Figured I might have to camp out in the car for a couple of nights."
"Ouch. I could never hack camping," the man returned. "Try a few miles from the coastline, the hotels are much cheaper there." He grunted faintly, and James felt his muscles tense at the distinct sound of fingers under the door handle.
The cover of the blankets kept most of the light from his eyes, but a little still reached him, turning what had been blackness into a clouded brown. The man must have leaned his weight forward, because the car was jostled on its wheels.
Plastic rustled, and the man was right there, practically on top of him as he rooted through the bags. Each crackle of packaging was as nerve-racking as nails on a chalkboard. Every sound, every motion, threatened discovery- just a moment of suspicion, one hand in the wrong place, and the jig was up.
Don't move, don't move, don't-
The car rocked again, and the trunk door slammed closed.
"Sorry 'bout all that, we gotta check."
"Of course- no problem," Cassidy replied, and James could practically hear her simper.
They moved further away again. More muffled words, briefer now. He caught the end of the reverberations from another door being yanked closed, and they were moving once more.
James breathed. The air was stale with old fabric, and too warm, but it felt wonderful in his lungs without the stress of keeping still constricting the action. Shrugging the blankets off of him, he rolled onto his side to ease the pins and needles that had been collecting in his arm like static.
His relief was all too short-lived, swiftly knocked aside by the thoughts of Jessie and Meowth. He might have accepted that their fate was out of his hands, but that didn't make the situation any less agonising- if anything, it had the opposite effect. To be so helpless to something so potentially awful... It was an unyielding storm of foreboding.
Many of his memories before he'd been knocked out were still foggy, vague, but the details he did recall were not pleasant. There had been so many gunshots, each one of those carrying the power to kill. Though he prayed in favour of any other scenario, he knew in his gut that Jessie and Meowth had been up there.
Blunting the point of those thoughts- even if only a little- was Cassidy's earlier remark. He knew his teammates better than anyone, and she was right: they were survivalists.
What a strange reality, he thought, to be taking solace from Cassidy. She was right behind Jessiebelle on the list of the people he'd least expected such a thing from. He managed to smile a little at that.
Cassidy pulled over about half an hour later, and this time the footsteps that neared him were a welcome sound. He didn't exactly have much leg room.
She popped the trunk a final time, and he winced as he straightened his back; clearly, the cramped positions hadn't been kind to his joints. Then he clambered out, wavering a little as he found his balance.
Night had long fallen, dropping the temperature with it. The sky wasn't totally clear, but the clouds were sparse enough for sprinkles of stars to pierce through. Fresh air filled his throat, beautifully sharp as it pulled in and out of his lungs, a gentle tide.
"Well, we got a little of your team's dumb luck back there," Cassidy deadpanned. "Damn good thing that guy didn't give a shit."
Before he could formulate a response, James realised what the edge to the air was: salt. He turned his head back over his shoulder to have his suspicions confirmed- there was the sea, quiet, still. And between them and the water were the latticed silhouettes of docks, wooden walkways cheek to cheek with the ships that bobbed with the ocean's slow rhythm.
The plastic bags crinkled next to him as Cassidy hauled them out of the trunk. She swung one to him, and he opened his arms just in time to take hold of it as it hit his chest.
"All right, let's go," she told him, and began walking towards the docks. James obliged, jogging a few steps to catch up with her, but stuttered out his perplexity:
"Wait- where are we going?"
"Not entirely sure yet," Cassidy muttered. "One of these ships, I hope." She stopped as they reached a large information board, and studied it up close, straining to make out the words in the dim light from the lone street lamp adorning the shore. For an unpleasant series of moments, she wondered if their luck had run out and none of the vessels were headed the right way, until she caught sight of a ferry's timetable to the far right of the board.
"Okay, good," she breathed, turning to James. "One of the ferries has Johto as one of its drop off points- it's leaving tomorrow morning."
James looked quizically back at her. As far as he was aware, they weren't carrying much in the way of cash, and even if they were, cross-region travel ususally meant scrutiny when it came to identity.
"But... How are we going to get tickets?" he asked. "Or passports?"
"Oh, come on," she scoffed. "Don't tell me you've never played stowaway before."
It was a good thing, James thought, that Cassidy did most of the work when it came to breaking into the ferry. Right now he wasn't sure he could pick a padlock, let alone bypass an electronic security system.
No one else was on board- or at least, they didn't bump into anyone. The main lights had been shut off for the night, but the glowing exit signs and occasional safety lights saved them from navigating in pure darkness.
Cassidy led the way through the ship's veins, James trailing behind her in a clumsy half-stagger. Movement made both the pain and dizzyness in his head worse, and more than once he had to steady himself against the wall for fear of collapsing.
On the fifth door that Cassidy tried on the lowest floor, she evidently found what she'd been looking for, because James felt her tug on his sleeve.
"In here," she whispered.
Their path was illuminated by a mini flashlight she produced from her pocket. Sturdy wooden crates filled the room in thick stacks, making a sort of maze. James realised that this was probably the cargo hold.
"Won't the staff have to come in here?" he asked, not quite convinced that this was a good hiding place.
"Don't think so," Cassidy replied. "I checked a few of the crates, and it's mostly raw materials, stuff like that. The food's stored across the hall, so hopefully they won't bother us."
'Hopefully' didn't fill him with great confidence, but he decided not to argue with her. He was too tired.
They weaved around the walls of boxes, and eventually settled in a far-off corner. There was good cover, so at least if somebody did come in, they wouldn't see them immediately.
Cassidy sat with her back to the wall as she began pawing through the carrier bags. She made a pile on the floor: granola bars, tins of stew, a packet of cookies and a couple of bottles of water.
"Take your pick."
Hunger hadn't really been on his mind beforehand, but at the idea of food, it kicked in full-force. His body was desperate for energy, a fact made all the more clear by the quivers in his stomach; he ripped open a granola bar with as much speed as his fingers could muster. Cramming half of it into his mouth, he chewed so eagerly that he nearly choked on the first bite. Cassidy made no attempt to hide her disgust.
They ate in silence for a while, not due to a lack of thoughts, but rather an unwillingless to voice them. Finally, it was James who spoke up.
"I... I don't think I actually thanked you for saving me," he said. Cassidy shifted her eyes his way, expression unchanging. "So, um, thank you. I know you didn't have to do that."
She grunted. "Yeah, well, you owe me one."
He licked his lips, trying to discern whether or not she'd take kindly to further conversation. He decided to risk it.
"What do you think will happen to Team Rocket?" he asked. "I mean, now that..."
Cassidy shrugged. "Pff, who knows. Some executive will probably take over in Kanto. I guess there'll be a decrease in manpower though. Not everyone's gonna stay loyal after all this mess." She rolled her shoulders back and flexed her neck. "Plus taking into account everyone that got killed."
James tensed a little at that addition. There it was, the first hint of The Forbidden Subject, and he didn't know what the appropriate reaction was. He kept his eyes fixed on his bottle of water, and said nothing, figuring he'd let her take the lead for the time being.
She too was silent in the minute that followed, and he was starting to think that the discussion had dropped out of existence completely when she swallowed audibly.
"God, it's just so weird thinking that Butch is really dead, you know?" She posed the question so casually that she could have been commenting on a strange turn of weather.
James was utterly unprepared. For her to actually bring it up, and to him of all people, was the kind of thing that only happened in a strange dream. It belonged in fiction, in a hypothetical.
Yet here it was.
He registered that he was very likely the first person she'd spoken about this to. It wasn't like she had a great string of friends at HQ. Just as James had Jessie and Meowth, Cassidy had Butch. Except now she didn't.
James took his time forming the words in his head before he spoke them aloud.
"I'm going to miss him too," he stated softly. "I know that might sound strange, but..."
He wasn't sure how to finish that sentence, so let it trail off.
"Well, I guess in our whole team rivalry thing, you two were the least invested," Cassidy said. She chuckled, and the sound was so out of place that James felt fear knock at his chest. "You know, Butch might officially be the bigger idiot of the two of you for getting himself iced like that," she mused aloud, the smirk on her lips as unsightly as a gash.
Mercifully, James was saved the duty of formulating a response when she brushed the crumbs off her lap, and hid a muted yawn behind the back of her hand.
"I'm gonna sleep," she said. "If you need to get up for a piss, don't stomp around and wake me up."
She clicked off the flashlight, and just like that, there was nothing.
Positioning himself on his side, James hugged the coat tight around him, trying to absorb every scrap of its warmth. The ship wasn't freezing, but it certainly wasn't warm.
He lay awake for what felt like a very long while. Every now and then, either he or Cassidy would shift and the faint swish of their clothing would break the quiet.
At long last, sleep took its first hold, smudging his thoughts into one another, knitting together the incoherent narrative that so often came as a prelude to dreams. Through it all, there was a noise, a sticcato of voice, and the more he came to focus on it, the more unease it dredged up. The pictures in his head grew distressed, frightening-
James blinked his eyes open, and still the sound was there, only clearer. Judging by the muffled nature of her sobs, Cassidy was trying to suppress them, but her efforts only went so far.
Neither of them would allude to it the next morning.
Chapter 16: Jetsam
Finally, an update! I wasn't actually planning on posting this as a chapter- this was initially going to be one very long chapter as a finale, but I decided against that in favor of keeping it in readable chunks and updating sooner.
And yes, we are near the end! The next chapter will be the finale. I know I say it a lot, but thank you so much for all the amazing reviews! I treasure every one of them and can't tell you how much they motivate me to keep going. You're all awesome and I hope you enjoy!
How deep they were into the forest, Meowth couldn't tell. Ideally, they'd be at least a half mile away from the roads, but he wasn't banking on that. Every few minutes or so, they had to stop for Jessie to catch her breath, and he wasn't exactly moving fast either.
Crossing the car park had gone smoothly- with all the distraction of chaos and other Rockets fleeing the building, Meowth was fairly confident that they hadn't raised an eyebrow, let alone been followed. The terrain they now walked on was more difficult than smooth concrete, riddled with tree roots and rocks just waiting to snag any mis-timed footstep.
However far they'd made it, it would have to suffice. The fresh blood that kept the snaking rivers down Jessie's arm flowing was worrying, to say the least. It didn't seem life-threatening, but he still didn't want her to lose too much blood when professional help was so far out of reach.
So he slowed to a halt, the dappled sunlight painting polka-dots on his fur. Jessie, who'd made a stubborn point of keeping a few steps ahead of him, turned around at the sudden lack of footsteps behind her. She frowned.
"Is it... Is this far enough?" she questioned, not looking convinced by a long shot. Meowth wasn't either.
"Yeah," he said, and gestured for her to sit. "Let's fix ya up."
It was actually Jessie who did most of the work, simply because she had the most medical knowledge. Meowth was able to help, however, by slicing her discarded jacket into thick strips with which she then fashioned a tourniquet. Watching his bloodstained and half-dazed friend doctor herself was far from an easy feeling, but he was glad to have at least been of some use.
Jessie swung her arm at the elbow experimentally, eyes fixed on the makeshift bandage over her shoulder, almost daring blood to surface.
"How's it feel?" Meowth asked.
"Fine, I think," Jessie said as she braved rolling her shoulder back in its socket. "Yeah- I think that's as good as we're gonna get it."
Her eyes tore away from her arm and back to him, full of a different worry now. "Go find James," she told him. Meowth hesitated.
"Are- are ya sure dat-"
"I'm fine," she snapped, "just go! For all you know he's in far worse shape than me."
That was enough to set the urgency back into Meowth, and all his arguments slipped away.
"Stay hidden in da bushes or somethin'- I'll be back as soon as I find 'im," he blurted, and took off running the way they'd come.
Without any pit stops, it didn’t take very long at all to get back to headquarters. As he made his way to the entrance, he was both relieved and unsettled by the absence of any of the earlier commotion. The noise that had been so crushing, shouts and scuffles broken up by the staccato notes of gunshots, now gave way to near silence. There were still distant thuds of boots against the floor, panicked shouts, but it was nothing like before. This was the aftermath, the dying ripples long after the rock had been dropped into the water.
He kept close to the floor on all-fours, just in case someone happened to recognise him, heading straight for their dormitory. The journey there was a blur of worry and thundering heartbeats bouncing around his heaving chest.
The door was already open, and he raced in, head turning this way and that, both hoping to see something, and hoping desperately not to. If anything had happened to him…
“James?” he called. There was no response, and he went to check in the bathroom. “Jimmy?”
Meowth looked under every piece of furniture, turned the room upside-down in his search- but it was all empty, all dreadfully and wonderfully empty. Not knowing was torture, but it was a lesser torture than having found a corpse.
A whoosh of noise sounded behind him, and he nearly jumped out of his skin, spinning around while his mind wrestled between flight and fight. Rather than some attacker, however, all that faced him was a small, floating silhouette, emerging from a fading white light. A couple more seconds, and its identity became evident.
The psychic pokemon chirped back at the sight of Meowth, who was still recovering from the surprise of seeing it here. In hindsight, he should have been expecting it- both Jessie and James had begun the habit of leaving their pokemon in HQ rather than carry them around on their persons. Once death was on the cards, putting them at risk just wasn’t an option either were willing to consider.
“Inkay,” Meowth continued, more hurried now, “did ya see where James went?”
His skills of translation weren’t needed in this instant; the dissenting frown on Inkay’s face bore a very clear ‘no’. A familiar, sort of paternal instinct filled Meowth, one he was accustomed to feeling around young or baby pokemon.
“Okay,” he replied in the calmest voice he could summon. “Why don’tcha jump back in your pokeball for the meantime, an’ I’ll go find James?”
“Inkay.” Another ‘no’ that didn’t need translation, though this one was more argumentative.
Meowth blew out a sigh, racking his brain for a compromise that wouldn’t put the squid pokemon in jeopardy.
“I get it,” he said. “Ya want ta help. ‘Course ya do, he’s ya trainer.” He stifled a grimace. “All right, den- how’s about you fly around headquarters, get an aerial view? I can cover da buildin’, an’ you can see if he’s already left. Okay?”
This proved to be a better offer- Inkay trilled its agreement, and made a beeline for the open window.
“Whoa- hold on a sec!” Meowth called, and was relieved to see it oblige. “Where’s ya pokeball? I gotta keep it safe till I give it back to James.”
Inkay looked over to a half-open drawer, and with a burst of psychic energy, the pokeball was hovering through the air towards Meowth. He plucked it out of the air, managing a small grin at the unnecessary show of skill.
“T’anks. Uh, and Jessie’s out in da forest- if ya go straight left from the entrance, she’s not too far in. Anythin’ happens an’ ya go straight ta her, got it?”
The confusion on Inkay’s face was agonising, and Meowth could sense the question coming far before the words made it to his ears:
“Meowth, what’s happening?”
He’d seen it coming a mile off, and his heart sank anyway.
“It… It’d take me a long time to answer dat,” he answered, vowing to be truthful. Inkay deserved that much at least, after so many months of silence. “An’ I’ll tell you, when dere’s time. But we gotta hurry right now. It ain’t safe ‘round here.”
He wondered if he would have accepted that response if he’d been the one posing the question, but regardless, Inkay didn’t protest. It merely gave a sort of nod, determination and concern in its eyes as it resumed its path towards the window. Before it left, it turned to him again.
“Be careful, Meowth! We will find him.”
Inkay was gone before he could even think up the beginnings of a reply.
Tearing himself away from the nagging sadness at his fellow Pokemon’s reaction, he refocused on the task at hand. There was a lot more building to search before he was done here.
Meowth retreated back out into the hallway as he thought about where James was most likely to have gone, if he was still in the building at all. The sound of gunfire would have woken him up, for sure- perhaps they’d underestimated his capacity to take risk, and he’d gone to investigate.
The floor he was on was almost completely void of people, save for a locked storeroom he picked open to find several grunts barricaded inside. They cowered at his entrance, clearly expecting a gunman and not a cat.
Less tranquility could be credited to the floor where the assassination attempt had occurred. Bullet holes dotted the walls in short sprays, smears of blood on the waxed floor beneath. The meeting room was an eerie museum of death, bodies crumpled and stained scarlet, marionettes with cut strings.
People he’d recruited into the plan only days earlier, along with those who’d opposed them, committed to nothingness. Because of him.
The ‘greater good’ argument did nothing to soften that reality. Maybe all this destruction had opened up a better path- maybe not. Either way, none of them would get to see it.
Meowth shook himself out of that horror with the one thought currently keeping him going: he had a teammate to find. Grief could come later.
He searched room after room, and found them utterly abandoned. Even after checking all the cupboards and anything else a person could hide in, he found no one.
There were, however, a couple of stray corpses a good distance from the meeting room- he recognised one of them as a grunt who’d been in on the plan. He winced at the red slicked through the young man’s curly blonde hair, the sunken and staring eyes of the woman on her back beside him.
At first, he thought that the droplets of blood trailing towards the elevator had come from the same wounds that had killed them, but soon realised that was unlikely. This wasn’t a splatter, nor the same heavy bleeding that had accompanied their deaths. Meowth tightened his grip on Inkay’s pokeball before pacing forward and pressing the button that would call the elevator up.
He flattened his back to the wall next to its entrance as the mechanism whirred quietly, bracing himself for someone with less than good intentions to come stumbling out. When the doors opened, however, there was nothing other than the accompanying ‘ding’. He risked peering in, and was so taken aback by what he saw that no clear emotion stirred within him at first.
They’d done it.
The hole at the back of Carter’s skull peered upwards at him like a single, black eye between bone and brain. What was left of the blood in his body had already succumbed to gravity, mottling his face and hands with what looked like bruises.
It brought him no pleasure to look, but Meowth lingered there for longer than he needed to. Whether it was a weird obligation to take in the blackened fruits of his efforts, or simply morbid curiosity, he couldn’t say.
When he finally brought himself to leave the scene, he took with him a grim satisfaction.
At least it hadn’t all been for nothing.
At this point in her life, pain was something with which Jessie was intimately familiar. In a job where being the target of electricity-induced explosions was a daily routine, broken bones and fractures too became commonplace. Of course, that was only the start of it- if you counted every fight, every overzealous police growlithe with teeth to match, every scrape and cut and bruise, she had enough experience with the feeling to become a professor on the subject.
The bullet wound fucking hurt.
In sheer amount, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the beating Carter had put them through weeks earlier, but the sensation of it was so foreign to her. It was an ache and a sting and a wrench all at once.
Not that she couldn’t take it.
There was a little blood on the bandage now, but not enough to worry her. The knot under her armpit was doing its job, something she’d attest to by the slight numbness in her fingertips.
Meowth was taking his time, which she hated- not only because it meant that he hadn’t found James easily, but because it left so cruelly in the dark. Anything could be happening in there, and she’d be out here wondering, static amongst the thicket of leaves like an injured chess piece out of play.
The pokemon’s utterance made her jump so much that she felt shockwaves down her limbs, a reaction that was soon replaced with happy surprise upon the tilt of her head.
“Now where did you come from?” she asked with a disbelieving grin as Inkay floated around to face her. “And how on earth did you find me?”
The chatter of noises she got in response did little to clear the proverbial fog, but she nodded along to it anyway.
“Well, it’s good to see you.”
She pondered if she should ask it about James, but the worry in its eyes told her everything she needed to know. Inkay had no more information than she did.
They didn’t have long to enjoy their reunion before the crunching of leaves signaled Meowth’s return; the last flickers of hope she’d been battling withered and died upon seeing him alone. She had to remind herself that it could have been worse, that he might not have come back at all.
He held a cloth bag with both paws, which he dropped onto the ground before her.
His voice was tired, diluted with heavy breaths.
“I couldn’t find him,” he continued, a confirmation she didn’t require. “I checked everywhere- everywhere, I mean it. An’ Inkay looked around outside-”
“Then where is he?!” Jessie interrupted, eyes creased and frantic. “What if he’s-”
“He’s not dead,” Meowth cut in. He set a paw on her good shoulder, and tried to smile. “Jessie, I t’ink dis is a good thing. If he’s gone, dat means he’s in good shape! If he was badly hurt, or worse, we’d have found him by now.”
“So what, he took off?” Jessie scoffed. “ Why? Why would he do that if something bad hadn’t happened?”
“In case ya hadn’t noticed, somethin’ bad did happen,” Meowth countered. “He was in a buildin’ dat turned into a mini war zone- dat’s enough to spook anyone enough to get da hell outta dodge. Who knows- he could be lookin’ for us.”
As Jessie contemplated what he’d said, Meowth rummaged through the bag he’d brought with him.
“I took some medical supplies from storage- oh, an’ I got ya pokeball, Inkay! Feel free if ya wanna take a rest.”
It was beyond difficult not to let worry take the throne when her partner of so many years was missing, but Meowth had a point. The evidence pointed towards him being okay.
She hoped with everything she had that that was true, that his self-preservation was in full swing. If there was a good time for him to be a coward, it was now.
There were a few close-calls on the ferry that left James unsettled and Cassidy annoyed. Members of crew came down to the hold every now and then to retrieve supplies, and their visits spurred a scramble to hide in the broken maze of crates. James would dart between spots of cover, too tired for full fear to take effect as the oblivious staff went about their business.
The remainder of their days aboard the ship were spent doing little more than residing in their own thoughts. More of his time than he’d bargained for was spent crying- bitter, fearful tears as visual nightmares assaulted his brain. Some were flashbacks, not only to Carter’s death, but to every other he’d witnessed before that, whilst others settled on conjured images of what ifs. Try as he might, he couldn’t find a way to filter his presuming and pessimistic grief, nor pixelate the imagined crime scenes in which his partners were the main feature.
Cassidy avoided him for the most part when he got like this. She wasn’t equipped to deal with it- besides, she had her own problems. But it wasn’t for a lack of caring, and when he got particularly bad, she released her houndoom to go give him some pet therapy. Houndoom’s idea of comfort, however, was to gnaw at his shoes with intermittent yaps, something that proved oddly effective; James was so confused by the behaviour that he forgot to cry for a moment.
It was undeniably soothing to have a pokemon curled against his legs, even if said pokemon had been sicced on him more than once in the past. He felt, alongside that strange affection, a blend of guilt and concern for his own pokemon, as he had so many times in the last twenty-four hours.
The ones stored at headquarters in Kanto, he wasn’t so worried about. They were far away from the conflict, and safe behind layers of security that would make it very difficult for someone to just walk in and take them. It was Inkay’s wellbeing that was playing on his mind.
James reminded himself that Inkay wasn’t exactly a high-value pokemon in the eyes of the majority- it was young, and not even evolved. That made it unlikely that it would be a target for theft. Then again, it wasn’t out of the question that something had happened to it. He’d left it in his clothes drawer, a safety measure that had seemed perfectly adequate a few days ago, and now seemed utterly careless.
Despite all this, he knew one other thing that made it a little easier on his conscience: Inkay was much safer back there than it was with him. At least there it was anonymous, had the chance to fly off and make a life for itself.
A wince crossed his face at the thought, and the sob that made it through his teeth was so routine that neither Cassidy nor Houndoom stirred. He’d sworn he wouldn’t abandon it with the cop-out that it was better off without him- the last thing he wanted was for all this tumult to break that promise. In mouthed words through barely parted lips, James vowed to Inkay that he’d come back when he could.
He both hoped and doubted that he’d see it again.
On their fourth day aboard, the ship nestled at the northern docks of Johto, a fact they were alerted to by the captain’s faded announcement through the speaker system out in the hall.
Camouflaging themselves amongst the other passengers wasn’t difficult- the after-effects of James’ head trauma had lessened considerably, allowing him to walk without turning into a staggering mess. What remained a problem was actually leaving the ship without being ID’d.
Whilst they made their way up to the main deck, the two of them kept a lookout for any convenient side doors they might be able to slip out through, but had no such luck. As they reached open air, their gazes drifted to the railings, and they settled on the same reluctant plan. It wasn’t neat, but it would serve their needs.
Cassidy was the first to climb up, casting a glance around before she did so to check that there weren’t any staff members looking their way. James followed suit, still not entirely coordinated as he hoisted himself up the thin strips of metal.
“Hurry,” Cassidy hissed, glaring at his step-by-step approach; he looked like a toddler climbing up a bunk bed. He finally reached the top, and swung his legs over to sit atop the railing beside her.
The nearest structure in front of them was an anchored fishing boat, floating a few metres from the port. She figured they could use the boat as a stepping stone, then make a break for it before anyone had the chance to question them.
“Can you jump that far?” Cassidy asked, and then continued before he could answer, “Screw it, you’ll have to.”
She led by example, pushing her weight back on her hands and then springing off the side with impressive dexterity. Her landing wasn’t as graceful- she grunted as she hit the side of the boat, side-first with one leg hanging off the edge. She swiftly pulled herself on board, wiped her palms on her uniform, and then looked to James expectantly.
He didn’t like it up here, swaying on that arrhythmic tide that made his very core feel unbalanced. With the ache in his temple to boot, he felt almost drugged.
There was urgency to the situation, that he knew, and with the theoretical fact in mind, he mimicked Cassidy, pushing off the ferry with all the strength in his legs.
He fell, sprawling, through the air, and though it couldn’t hold a candle to the heights he’d dropped from so many times before, James still felt his stomach flutter. He reached his arms out, bracing to grab the side of the fishing boat- he hit it, and suddenly all that build-up evaporated. Sure, it knocked the air out of him a little, but it hadn’t really hurt.
Cassidy was already positioning herself to jump up to the wooden walkway, swinging her arms back for momentum. She made the leap neatly.
James planted his steps carefully on the boat, navigating the dip to wooden benches, then back up to the other side. He teetered precariously on the edge as he prepared to follow Cassidy’s path across. It wasn’t that the surface that he stood on was particularly narrow, but the choppiness of the waves rolling to shore made it tricky to stay upright.
Two waves hit the boat in quick succession, an unfair bending of the ocean’s rules, and James stumbled sideways, a drunken acrobat. Convinced he was a step away from falling, he launched off of the side in a clumsy motion, and cleared all of half a metre of air before crashing into the water.
Icy coldness enveloped him in a single rush like electricity. He kicked his legs, resurfacing with a small gasp as salt stained his tongue and stung his eyes. James shook the drenched hair from his eyes as he treaded water, and looked ahead.
Cassidy was perched on the end of the walkway not far above him, something creeping onto her expression that he couldn’t quite read. Then she burst out cackling, and that mystery was put to rest.
She was doubled over in the rather unique comedy of having witnessed James’ blunder, giggling through a grin she hadn’t shown him before. No malice, no cruelty. This was just funny.
Despite his predicament, and the fact that his clothes would take hours to dry, James found himself laughing too.
Both on land once again, they managed to sneak away before any witnesses called attention to their illegal departure. There was, although, the small detail of James dripping seawater everywhere he went, something that didn’t exactly help the effort to blend in. Cassidy told him to wait, and strode off.
From one of the shops in the harborside village, she produced a new outfit for him: a striped t-shirt and navy jeans.
“What about shoes?” he asked upon her return, still shaking the water from his boots.
“You can give it a go if you want, but shoes are a hell of a lot harder to steal,” Cassidy replied. “Just dry those as best you can and let’s go.”
James nodded. Considering the meagre amount of money they possessed, he hadn’t been expecting a legitimate purchase. He wasn’t about to protest her decision, either- his morals were no better.
He changed in a public restroom, then wrapped the sopping clothes in a plastic bag before putting them with the rest of their things. Discarding them seemed unwise, as he didn’t know how easily they’d be able to come across new attire for a while, but besides that, there was an undeniable sentimental value. Despite all the horror he’d witnessed in Team Rocket, the name still felt like home.
“My friend’s not too far from here,” Cassidy said as he came back into the open. “I say we head for the railway and ride the tracks.”
Sun still firmly overhead, there was daylight enough to walk. James was glad of the distraction of movement- after days cooped up in the ferry, his brain was running tired laps.
With sunlight and wind brushing his skin, it was a little easier to think of what he’d left behind.
Chapter 17: Hereafter and Forever
Well, here it is: the final chapter. I hope I did it justice!
Thank you so much to everyone who's followed this story, and to every reviewer- I'll say it again, I wouldn't have made it this far without you. This story has been in my head for such a long time, and I'm so glad to have seen it to the end.
I have plenty more writing projects planned for the future, so stay tuned for that! And I hope you enjoy :D
The first two trains that rattled over the tracks were write-offs- all enclosed compartments without so much as a ridge to jump onto. True to the mantra, the third was the charm.
They jogged alongside the rails, kicking up dust and gravel behind them, and hopped up into the first open trailer. The train was moving slowly enough to render the task pretty easy, something for which James was glad. It still vaguely felt like there was a rock lodged under his temple, grinding against his skull with every step that landed too heavily.
He shifted further into the compartment as the world trundled by, and leaned his back against one of the hay bales, straw prickling his neck like insect legs.
Orange and ruby bled firmly into the sky, watercolours let loose on a periwinkle canvas. The field alongside which the train currently ran was an endless stretch of lush grass, stretching, curved blades nodding to the wind's current. Soaked in the sun's sinking light, the scene was mesmerising, and that beauty inspired a passing observation: the world was incredibly deceptive. Deceptive for flaunting such prettiness when life was hacked at and snuffed out just around the corner, and deceptive for letting everything seem so rotten when so much of it wasn't.
James had given up trying to convince himself that Jessie and Meowth were either okay or weren't, and conceded that all he had was uncertainty. It left a persistent queasiness deep in his gut- not quite the full-blown despair of grief, not yet, but teasing that sensation with bursts of panic, treading the shoreline of something awful. Equally, it teased hope, and every so often a wave of calm would roll tantalisingly close before shrinking back into that icy black sea.
It wasn’t just his friends, either. While they were most certainly at the forefront of his concern, there was plenty more in the background. The newest addition to that cluster of shadows was Carter, alive and dead. James could see him, stern and composed, walking and giving orders and bursting into that elevator, and James could see him in that slumped, bloody heap, face pressed against metal as pain and guilt and sickness filled the world.
He supposed what he was experiencing was called trauma- it was an odd and unpleasant thing, to register that yet another memory was now lumped into that bracket.
Yet he wasn’t the sole witness to that brutality- nor the perpetrator. The woman who claimed that title sat across from him, and he wondered how she was faring, all things considered. Her road had been far less kind than his own.
For a while he wrestled with the idea of simply asking her. From what he’d inferred from their short-lived conversation on the ferry, she was not adverse to talking about such matters- rather, he’d sensed that a part of her wanted to. It was crucial to her character to show no weakness, especially around someone like him, a rival for whom she held not hatred, which might have accompanied a begrudging respect, but mere disdain. Perhaps, therefore, it fell on him to prompt discussion.
James mustered the courage and spoke.
“Do you… How…”
He cleared his throat sheepishly as she gave him an impatient stare. Not exactly the smooth start he’d been hoping for.
“What happened with Carter- I was just thinking that I’m finding it difficult, and was wondering how you’re-”
“If you’re asking me if I feel bad about it, I don’t,” Cassidy interrupted. “Not one bit. Bastard deserved what he got and more.”
James squirmed a little, uncomfortable with her harsh words- uncomfortable with the part of him that sympathised with them.
“No, but....” He grimaced. “I mean, killing someone- anyone - must be an awfully big thing to contend with. I only watched it happen, and I’m…” He sighed, and met her with a humourless smile. “Quite frankly, I’m horrified by the whole thing.”
“Well, it’s not like it’s my first rodeo,” she said evenly. James gawked as the words hit home.
“Wait- you mean you’ve killed someone before?” he questioned, incredulous. It wasn’t so much the action that shocked him- that brand of evil was something he’d been exposed to frequently enough in the past months to render it commonplace- but the fact that it was Cassidy attached to it. Did he think she fit the profile of someone capable of murder? In all honesty, yes. But he’d known her for so long- had that grim secret really been lurking there all that time, behind the comparative innocence of every insult match, sabotaged plan and brawl?
“Multiple someones,” she answered, and drew her knees up to her chest. “Actually, me and Butch had a stint where we were something like hitmen. We took out enemies and traitors of Team Rocket, and made extra money for the boss with the odd outsider contract. Giovanni called it off eventually- the heat got to be too much.”
She didn’t offer more than that, but it was plenty to think on. The organisation just described to him, one that dealt with lives the same way banks dealt money, was the place he’d always worked for. The nasty stuff under the rug had always been there- Jessie and Meowth had been right about that- and in truth, the one who’d swept it under in the first place had been himself.
It was terrifying in particular to think just how easily he could have had a death on his own hands, should one of their earlier schemes have gone wrong. In that not so distant past, he’d put countless people in considerable danger; the pipe bombs that had, at the time, seemed no more than flashy tools for a memorable heist and a dash of public menace, could so easily have spelt manslaughter. James could only conclude that he was not, not then and not now, a good person. Good people didn’t end up where he was.
Naturally, that observation was not a totally novel one. Of course he wasn’t good- he stole for a living and reveled in it. But he couldn’t remember a time before when he had felt so utterly despicable.
When it became apparent that Cassidy herself didn’t know exactly where they were meant to be going, James wasn’t exactly reassured. He’d already been feeling a profound lack of direction sitting on that train wagon headed Who-Knows-Where, and to discover that his supposed guide wasn’t entirely sure if they’d jumped off at the right place only threw him further into unease.
Yet once they’d set off walking and neared the edge of a vast expanse of forest, Cassidy’s uncertainty was traded in for cautious optimism. The surroundings felt familiar, she claimed.
It wasn’t exactly the perfect hiking location: branches and brambles had grown thick, waist-high and making navigation tricky (and, on occasion, painful). Still, with some careful footing it would have made a decent trek- if not for the fact that their light was fast fading away. Already they were relying on the dimmed afterglow of twilight, and it was no secret that the limbo between day and night in which they dwelled was a fleeting affair.
The crackle of twigs underfoot felt reminiscent of a spitting fire, conjuring memories of nights spent huddled in makeshift camps, joking and quarreling and sharing silences. James felt a pining nostalgia, something he wasn’t sure he could handle right now; he focused instead on keeping up with Cassidy’s brisk pace.
Darkness fell too quickly for comfort- Cassidy’s flashlight provided a lifeline in the form of a thin beam of vision, but being able to see a square inch of space at a time only helped so much. Less confident by the second that it was worth continuing blind, James was on the verge of suggesting they just call it a day and sleep rough under a tree when Cassidy stopped, tracing the torch’s beam along what remained of a fence.
“I think I know where we are,” she said.
“Yeah- yeah, it’s this way. We’re close.”
With renewed motivation, the two stumbled onwards into a clearing, and the whoosh of the night’s wind no longer felt foreboding, but a tranquil comfort. It was on their side.
And sure enough, only about a minute later did their string of light hit the wooden wall of a cabin.
“This is the place,” Cassidy whispered, pacing up to the building hesitantly. With that she rapped the back of her hand against the door- the rhythm carried a quick impatience that suited her perfectly. When there was no answer, she cupped her hands around her eyes as she peered into the glass window, hoping for a hint as to whether the cabin was occupied. Eventually she withdrew with an unsatisfied grunt. “Can’t see anything.”
“Do- Do they even know we’re coming?” James asked, mildly stunned (though, he mused, he really shouldn’t have been, given everything he knew about his traveling partner).
“Not really, no,” she responded, and then shrugged. “Guess he must be away- doesn’t matter, we’ll just have to break in.”
She withdrew her lockpicking gear from inside of her jacket, and instructed James to hold the light for her before getting to work. He watched the process, mesmerised and oddly calmed by the motions; perhaps it was the connotations of the earlier days in his career, where the biggest problems his team had faced were picking locks and making clean getaways. There was, too, an undeniable satisfaction in pushing each pin into place, listening for telltale clicks in the mechanism. Even as a mere onlooker, he still felt pleased when the lock, convinced that the pick and wrench were a key, gave way.
Cassidy flipped the switch on her way in, and a large standing lamp lit up the room in warm, yellowy-orange. It wasn’t much to write home about- a single sofa, a small bookshelf crammed with magazines and paperbacks, and a couple of counters complete with a fire stove and a mini-fridge- but it felt like a sanctuary amidst the endless tangle of trees surrounding it.
Whilst James dropped his bag on the sofa and sat next to it, Cassidy made a beeline for the fridge, surfacing triumphantly with a four-pack of beers. She ripped one from the packaging, cracked the top and guzzled the drink like it was going out of fashion.
Wiping her mouth with her sleeve, she held one out to James.
Beer definitely wasn’t his poison of choice- he favoured sweet wines, or liquor diluted with plenty of soda- but the appeal of a ightcap swayed him. He took the can, and pulled the tab with practised ease. Cola would have been better, but at least it was fizzy.
As he sipped at the bitter alcohol, a taste he couldn’t say he found pleasant, he drew lines in the precipitation on the tin’s surface, studying the logo with sleepy half-interest. Meanwhile, Cassidy roamed the cabin’s space, and marked her return half a minute later by lobbing her empty beer can across the room into the bin.
“There’s a single and a double,” she told him. “And since you owe me that favor, Jamesy, the double’s mine.”
Two days into their stay, and James was getting pretty comfortable in the new routine: wake up whenever they happened to, raid the cupboards for instant ramen and cereal, and think. Coming up with a future plan of action was easier said than done- now they were here, now what? There were no guidelines on what to do after assassinating your criminal boss and fleeing the region.
At least they were so far-flung from the world they’d left behind that it all seemed unreal, like the remnants of a dream you’d cling to upon waking, trying to decipher if those memories were fact or fiction. So welcome was that limbo that they both probably would have stayed until the food ran out.
But they didn’t get the luxury of that chance.
James was reclined on the sofa, studying the wooden ceiling and looking for shapes in the timber’s knots, when there was the unmistakable sound of a key in the lock. He jolted up as if electrocuted, not sure whether to call for Cassidy or just to hide. Before he could decide either way, the door was open, and he was face to face with a very surprised-looking man.
The guy jumped back at first, then collected himself and stormed into the cabin. “Hey! What- Who the fuck are you?!”
James blanched, stammering.
“I- I uh-”
The man’s line of sight moved to the carrier bag on the floor.
“Is that my stuff?” he demanded. Then, with sudden and almost comical urgency, he lunged across the counter and grabbed a kitchen knife from the block. “I’m calling the police!” he told James, pointing the blade at him. “Don’t- Don’t move or-”
“Fucking hell Simeon, calm down!” came Cassidy’s voice as she appeared in the bedroom doorway. She slumped against the frame, regarding both of them with a thoroughly unimpressed and very tired glare.
“Cassidy!” the man yelped, dropping his knife-wielding arm to his side immediately. “What are you doing here- how did you get in? ”
She scoffed. “How do you think I got in.”
“And who is he?” Simeon continued, giving James another accusatory glare.
Simeon sputtered out sounds of exasperation.
“I don’t want some criminal in my house!”
Cassidy raised an eyebrow. “In case you’ve forgotten, I’m a criminal too.”
He sighed, and leant over to put the knife back in its slot. “That’s different. We’re friends.”
“Well, now you get to make a brand new friend!” Cassidy chirped with mock sweetness. She nodded at them both. “Simeon, James. James, Simeon.”
For the first time in the encounter, James dared to look Simeon in the eye for more than a second. He offered his hand sheepishly.
The brown-haired man gave him the once-over, then took his hand without much enthusiasm. He shook it a single time before letting go again.
“You don’t have to worry about him,” Cassidy said, and for a moment James wasn’t sure which one of them she was talking to. “As Rockets go, he’s pretty pathetic.”
Usually he would have taken offence to her offhand jab, but in this particular context, he was glad of the insult. Anything that made him look like a more trustworthy guest was a good thing in his book.
“Okay, fine- but I need to know what’s going on here,” Simeon said. He made for the fridge, only to spot the empty beer cans by the sink; he shot Cassidy a dirty look, and then perched on one of the wooden chairs. “I’m guessing it’s got to do with all that shit going on with Team Rocket?”
“Yeah, it has,” Cassidy nodded. “What have you heard?”
“The raid in Unova has been all over the news, for starters,” Simeon replied. Both James and Cassidy were taken aback by his remark, and listened intently as he continued: “The police conducted this massive take-down on the HQ there- there’s been speculation that they have intel your boss is dead? I’m guessing that’s bullshit.”
Cassidy blew air from her lips like smoke from a cigarette. “It’s not bullshit.”
“Really? Do you know how it happened?”
“A Rocket shot him.”
“Wow. That must’ve-”
“Look, Simeon,” Cassidy cut in, “we really need your help here. We got mixed up in some bad stuff and there are a lot of people probably looking for us right now.”
He looked a little confused. “Are you asking me if you can stay here? Because it seems a little late for that.”
“Yeah, well, you weren’t here to ask.”
Simeon sighed again. “Fine, you can stay- provided no one knows you’re here. I’m not about getting gunned down in my sleep.”
“Don’t worry, we got out clean.”
There was an awkward silence- awkward in particular for James, who felt like he was intruding in a conversation he had no right to be privy to, and had no idea what to do with himself.
“You know, despite your… Unconventional entrance, it’s good to see you, Cass,” Simeon said, a subtle smile on his lips. “Say- how’s Butch doing these days?”
James winced at the question, tense and expecting Cassidy to react similarly, but she remained impassive.
First shock, then a sadness that was painful to witness crossed Simeon’s face.
“Oh shit- I’m…” He swallowed, clenching his hands in his lap. “I’m sorry to hear that.” He opened his mouth for a second, seemingly about to say more, but he apparently thought better of it.
“The new boss killed him,” Cassidy went on, sensing his unspoken curiosity.
“ Fuck .”
Simeon shook his head slightly, then blinked away his disbelief and stood up. “I only came here to drop off some stuff and spend the night- I’m staying in town on business at the moment,” he told them. “So the place is pretty much yours.”
“Are- Are you sure?” James spoke up; he felt he had to say something, and he’d take any chance to express his gratitude. The other man smirked in response.
“Think of it as, uh, whaddya-call-it… Housesitting. ‘Sides, I can always kick you out if I change my mind.”
Cassidy returned his grin.
“Just try it.”
Simeon left pretty much first thing the next morning- James woke up with his leg hanging off the sofa to the sound of him gathering his belongings.
Catching him before he could slip out unceremoniously, Cassidy greeted him by the doorway. Her face displayed a stern sincerity, almost soldier-like, and she wrapped her arms around him without warning.
“Thank you,” she mumbled into the shoulder of his coat. He returned the embrace for as long as she allowed him.
“Call me if you need anything. Stay safe,” he said, addressing both of them now. James nodded, hoping that his thankfulness came across in his expression.
Then the door closed, and Simeon was gone.
Watching the world through the cabin windows, time didn’t seem to pass at all. The weather was almost eerily constant- grey but clear, without a speck of rain to speak of. Besides wander around the woods and thumb through the sparse reading material, there wasn’t much to do but talk.
It seemed that both of them had passed the initial despair of their circumstance, and settled into a weary acceptance that the situation wasn’t changing anytime soon. Through the short-lived conversations they held, James felt the distance between him and Cassidy slowly lessening. He had no illusions that they were friends, nor anything close to that, but there was an understanding between them now that even partners of fifty years might never develop. They had seen each other at their worst, and shared an experience that no one else could hope to comprehend.
So when she announced her departure two weeks later, James dreaded the decision more than he’d anticipated.
“I just can’t hack living in a secluded shack with nothing to do,” she went on. “Besides, I can’t stay here forever.”
“Right,” James said, trying not to sound too dejected at the prospect of being left alone. “Where will you go?”
“I’m not totally sure yet- but I’ll figure it out. We’re a long way from Unova, and there’s a little room for uncertainty.”
He nodded. “When- When are you planning on leaving?”
“Now, pretty much,” she answered. “It’s not like there’s much packing to do.”
Her backpack was already over her shoulders, and James realised just how little time they had left together. Would he miss her? The company, certainly. The person, he still wasn’t sure.
“So, uh. See you,” Cassidy muttered. “I left the number to my burner phone on the table, but if anything happens I’ll have to ditch it. So don’t count on me if you burn the place down or something.”
He chuckled. “Good to know you’ve got the same unwavering faith in me.”
“What? You are flaming, after all.” James could feel the blush heat his cheeks.
“That- That was a long time ago and you have no right to-”
“Yeah yeah, okay.” She smirked and punched him on the arm on her way out, not hard enough to really hurt but not exactly lightly either. “Don’t go and get yourself killed, all right? I’ll be pretty pissed if all my efforts end up being for nothing. And, uh… Good luck finding the others.”
“Thank you, Cassidy,” he said, trying and failing to meet her gaze; she kept it stubbornly trained on the floor. “I hope things go well for you.”
She pulled the door handle, back to him. “Bye,” she said plainly, and shut the door behind her before he could respond.
With that, James found himself thrown back into their monotonous routine, only now as a one man act. It took some getting used to, not having her cross by in his peripheral vision every now and then, no occasional voice to ask him something or throw half-serious insults his way. In the first couple of days without her, he found some relief in the privacy, but that soon morphed to a loneliness that made every action seem heavier, more difficult.
Something that alleviated that sensation, if only a little, was the infrequent visits from wild furrets that resided somewhere on the brink of the clearing. Ever since he’d first caught sight of one, James had made a habit of bringing scraps of food with him on his walks so he could feed the skittish mammals- they soon discarded any distrust they had for him, and came running at the click of his tongue.
There was a spare pokeball in the supplies Cassidy had left behind, and the thought to catch one of them didn’t pass him by. He’d found little equal to the joy of a new partnership with a pokemon, the early days of learning each other’s ticks and quirks that evolved into a deep-seated trust that couldn’t be broken, and the temptation to start that process anew was palpable.
He knew that he couldn’t act on that whim, however- to do so wouldn’t be healthy for him or the pokemon he’d be enlisting. They were not, despite what he might have pledged to his organisation, creatures to be used and replaced, and if he caught one now, that’s exactly what he’d be doing. Besides which, he wasn’t ready for a new companion. Accepting that Inkay was out of his reach was hard enough.
After Cassidy left, the food only lasted for about another week, and that was stretching it. There was, thankfully, a map in one of the drawers, and James worked out that the nearest town was only about half an hour’s walk away. Within a couple of months, the path became familiar to him, and the walk was something he looked forward to.
What little money he’d been left with wasn’t nearly enough to buy what he needed, so he deployed a strategy that would have made his former self proud: buy something small on every trip so as not to arouse suspicion, and shoplift everything else. Scanning his peripheral for security cameras and shoving foodstuff up his sleeve or into his bag when no one was looking, he felt like that naive Rocket fresh from training again.
It didn’t make him feel good, robbing these shops that didn’t have a heavyweight corporation to fall back onto, but at the same time, he found it difficult to feel truly guilty for what he was doing. Petty theft seemed such a minor, and, well, petty, thing, compared to the atrocities he’d witnessed in the last year. If a couple of chocolate bars and a box of cereal went missing, so what? No one was dead.
Besides, he didn’t have any other choice. It wasn’t like he could just go and get a job with his history, not to mention the media attention on Team Rocket right now. He’d be in handcuffs faster than he could slap down a forged resume.
In his plethora of spare time, he formulated and scrapped plan after plan to find Jessie and Meowth. He couldn’t go to the police, or even try to contact Jessie by name without putting them all at risk. How did you go about finding someone without asking anyone for help, or even using their name?
Heading back to Unova didn’t seem like a good idea, either. Besides the obvious danger of running into one of the Rockets who’d been loyal to Carter, it was highly unlikely that his team mates were even still there.
He had nothing to go on, and all the time in the world to agonise over it.
Almost a year had passed when he decided to leave for Kanto. The little shack in the woods had grown on him; he looked on it fondly, but it had never quite crossed the line into feeling like home. There was nothing for him here.
In all that time, Simeon hadn’t come to visit once- James wouldn’t have minded, only he would have liked the chance to thank him properly. Figuring it was the best he could do, he penned a short note to him, and left it propped up on the table.
Then, he gathered what was worth taking in a pidgey-print backpack he’d stolen from a sports shop, and left in the early morning. He took a page from Cassidy’s book, and ended up a stowaway on another ship.
As he deboarded (more neatly this time), he took in the scenery of the region he’d set out from all those years ago. Love and fear and excitement and regret pooled together, drawing on his reserve of conflicting memories. Here he had met the best friends of his life, and joined the team that for him spelled freedom, and here he had been beaten and made to feel worthless by the woman he was supposed to love, and the parents who were supposed to love him.
His first stop was an old Team Rocket hideout not far from the shoreline, and thus began his loosely formed plan. He would travel the region, loitering by old landmarks that had significance to his team, in the slim hope that they might be waiting there. Next was Viridian Gym, then the bus stops they had used to shelter under in rougher times. That lifestyle welcomed him back with open and cold arms, and before long James was once more adjusted to mattresses made of concrete and grass.
Maybe it was the fresh hopelessness of not finding them in the most likely spots on his list, but whatever the reason, he started the letters a few weeks into his wander. Under the light of streetlamps, on crumpled paper, he would write until his wrist was sore and his brain was tired, pouring his heart out to Jessie and Meowth in pages and pages of curled handwriting. There was a certain relief in writing letters that he knew he could never send, even if he did have an address.
Over the months, it was far from smooth sailing. Every time he thought his emotions had stabilised to something predictable, he’d find himself breaking down with newfound distress. The world itself posed problems, too- he had a close call with a group of Team Rocket grunts he passed on the street, and one narrow escape from a security guard when he got too cocky and pocketed a wristwatch in plain view of a camera. Mostly, though, he was successful in staying off the radar.
Having spent the day searching, James ended up in a long-abandoned building, its roof half crumbled and sprigs of moss and ivy coiling up the walls. He sat where a window used to be, head resting against the frame as he watched the glittering city lights that punctured the darkness.
Out of chaos, he had found this relative peace. There was no soothing the reality of the carnage left behind, but everything felt so still now. Relentless in its perseverance, the world continued.
And maybe, if the aftershock of everything he’d witnessed could fade, so too could this state.
He would awaken one day like any other, only to stumble into their arms by sunset. Through tears they’d blurt their affections, wrapped in a clinging embrace from which they were reluctant to withdraw, lest the universe should seperate them again. Under the stars they’d share their stories, adventures from the last few years that would spur fits of disbelieving giggles, and stabs of heartache. They would lie side by side, and drift into sleep together knowing that everything was okay once more.
James traced his hand over the windowsill, fingertips navigating the path of moss and paint flecks. Watching his breath twirl and fold in the air, he smiled.