I'd also like to take this moment to really thank Zarrelion for his help with this chapter.
"Just three more," Dawn thought as she held up Johanna's first ribbon to the night sky. The priceless memento, its orange ribbons faded to a dusty yellow by the years, caught the dim moonlight; the still burnished medallion softly glowed in the light as if it were radiating old memories.
"I caught a Swinub a few days ago. He's always hungry, but he knows a few ice moves. I've already thought of a bunch of combinations with him and Buneary or even Piplup. Maybe I'll introduce you to him when we see each other again over videophone," she whispered into an imaginary telephone handset.
A small part of her practically heard her mother reply. Another part of her found the whole notion to be silly — childish even — but the whole rehearsal provided some comfort for Dawn
A bizarre buzzing snore briefly lifted the silence of the night before letting it rush back in like a wave upon the shore. Dawn stifled a giggle behind her hand as she stuffed the trinket into her bag with the other ribbons. She turned her gaze to the raven-haired trainer from Pallet Town, sleeping deeply beside his electric starter, Pikachu. Brock twisted and mumbled in his sleeping bag; wistful and unintelligible murmurs were all she could decipher from him.
"You're lucky to have such good friends," Johanna's phantom voice echoed in her head.
"You're right," she whispered back with a smile. Dawn never had siblings, but she couldn't help but feel that this is what it would be like to have older brothers.
Despite his quirks around other girls, Brock never ceased to impress her with his knowledge of pokémon and his skills as a cook. Ash's unyielding determination was admirable, never allowing an obstacle or setbacks to keep him down for long. It was the admiration of that persistence that kept some part of her going during the rougher patches of her own journey. That said, Ash's persistence often manifested itself in his laser-like focus on pokémon and related subjects. Talking to him about anything else was quite a difficult task.
Dawn's thoughts were broken when she noticed Pikachu's ears twitch in the stillness of the night. Normally, she'd pay no heed to it but since there was nothing else to notice, she turned her gaze towards the electric mouse's ears.
A muted groan issued from Pikachu's sleeping form. It wasn't a groan of pain — more like a groan from a bad dream or an uncomfortable sleep.
Dawn paid Pikachu no heed, until the muted crackling of electrical discharges grabbed her full attention. She noticed sparks beginning to dance across his fur as he began to twitch. Her stomach dropped as she realized that she was about to witness something horrible.
Bursts of light turned night into day. The silent night was shattered by a hellish symphony of groans and squeals. Brock and Ash woke up immediately, their grogginess rapidly traded for guarded glances.
Before the two of them could do anything more than watch, Pikachu darted away from them. He managed a few meters until he stumbled, slid across the dirt and rolled with his paws pressed against his temples as if trying to keep his head from bursting.
Piplup's cries tore Dawn's attention away from Pikachu. Whirling around, she was treated to the sight of bubbles pouring from the penguin pokémon's parted beak. But these bubbles sounded different, instead of a tiny pop, each burst bubble came with a thunderous roar. Wooden splinters and leaves flew into the air as each projectile impacted against the surrounding trees. The water starter's eyes were scrunched tight; every bubble sending his body into convulsions.
Ambipom's tails whirled around her body like whips. Each swing launched forth a salvo of stars. Some of the stars shattered against the trees leaving glittering dust hanging in the air; others sliced through thick trunks, leaving faint red embers behind.
Chimchar's convulsions finally got the better of him as he curled into a ball. With a surge of heat that charred the nearby trees, flames enveloped his body. The fireball jittered for a brief moment before it rocketed deep into the woods, leaving a trail of burning debris behind.
The crash of falling trees briefly drowned out the tortured cries of the pokémon. At some point Dawn and the others had slipped out of their sleeping bags but stood frozen as they watched the grotesque tableau unfold.
Streaks of lavender flashed around Croagunk's head as he seemingly tried to split his own head open. Turtwig and Gliscor rammed into everything and anything nearby in a desperate attempt to make their pain stop; it was to no avail, the trees splintered under the savage blow, doing nothing to assuage their pain.
Pikachu's body had begun to grow brighter — almost as if there were a light within him. At the same time, the electrical hum that emanated from him grew to an almost deafening level. Ash suppressed his rising tide of fear as he approached his starter. He took no more than two steps before a small bolt struck his shoulder. A quavering yell escaped the trainer's lips before vicious spasms silenced him.
Brock rushed to catch the convulsing trainer and not a moment too soon. His legs buckled as if from a kick. Ash's head was thrown back as if by a blow from an invisible fist; his signature hat went flying over Brock's shoulder. Ash's arms seized and trembled, muscles jittering and lips contorted into a painful rictus.
Then, as if someone had hit an invisible switch, Ash collapsed into Brock's hold. The older trainer gently lowered him to the ground. In those brief seconds, they had never seen a more unsettling sight. It appeared that incredible strength of will and tenacity that had served Ash so well over the years had finally collided with the hard limits of his body.
Pikachu lashed out with whips of lightning, scorching the dirt and crowning the blades of grass with glowing embers. Dozens of electric tendrils arced from his body, tracing an unseen pattern across the forest floor, as if goaded to dance at his cries.
"Dawn, help me with Ash!" Brock roared over the din of the chaos, backpedaling as fast as he could with Ash's body in tow. The young coordinator stood frozen, blankly staring back into the breeder's squinted eyes.
Some part of her understood the words, but how to respond or put them to action drew up nothing in her mind.
"His legs!" he barked. "Grab his legs!"
A flash and a sudden chill broke her out of her trance; the sleeping bag she had been in only seconds ago was crowned with shards of ice.
Brock's command suddenly registered and she flew to his side, reaching down to grab Ash's ankles. Lifting him wasn't hard with Brock shouldering most of the weight; the difficulty came with knowing she was leaving her pokémon behind. Pale blue bolts of ice and stars darted across the corners of her vision. A glance over Brock's shoulder revealed the terrain ahead of them as a patchwork of ice and forest.
Stones and twigs bit through the fabric of her socks and into her skin; every yelp came as a reminder that all she had were literally the clothes on her back. A hesitantly raised and still shaky arm pointed back to the carnage they were fleeing from. Dawn gazed into Ash's eyes and although she could see herself in their glossy sheen; she knew his stare went straight through her.
Night turned into day once more as her shadow stretched ahead as if to steal a few more meters of safety. Dawn dared not look back, all her mental energies focused on blocking out the noise that begged her to turn her head out of morbid curiosity. Looking back would immediately destroy her mental fortitude. With every meter they put behind, the soundtrack of madness softened ever so slightly.
As their maddened flight lengthened, their steps shortened and slowed. Lured by the illusion of safety granted by their distance, they began to relax.
Only milliseconds after they let their guard down, the air around them exploded into a deafening roar. The flash and crash of thunder were seamless; the earth beneath their feet trembled as the wall of sound hit them and knocked them to the ground.
An incessant ringing had devoured all sound. Any noise they heard came muffled, as if through a wall or under water. In the darkness behind their closed eyes their awareness shrunk inward; the entirety of their world had regressed to the surface of their bodies. They lay on the ground for some time; heartbeats and strained breathing their only link to the passage of time.
It was as if their bodies feared to move at first; afraid of having the façade of safety ripped from them once more. Subtle details once overlooked stood out like beacons. As if to compensate for her temporary deafness, Dawn had become hyperaware of the dirt beneath her fingers, the fabric of Ash's shirt against her face and the sound of his thundering heart. She slowly pushed herself off of him. Brock took the sudden lessening of weight as his cue to wriggle out from underneath them.
Dawn and Brock moved about wordlessly, leaving the distant crackle of fire to fill in the gap of conversation. Brock's hand reached down to grab Ash's own as he helped him to his feet. He slung the arm over his shoulder while Dawn took the hint and did the same for the other.
After a few tentative steps, Ash was able to support some of his own weight. They lifted their heads up slowly and gazed into the woods, a foreboding silence hanging over them like a fog. The trip back to their campsite was long and slow. Not because of the distance they had fled, but because their morbid curiosity forced them to look at the ravaged forest around them and the tortuous path they had took through the woods.
Happiny was the first to be found, surrounded by a ring of fallen trees and shredded stumps. Brock was immediately at her side and on his knees; Ash and Dawn could only watch as he held her in his arms and whispered softly to her. Dawn watched his hand tremble as it hung over her mouth to feel her breath. His attempts to put on a neutral face had already begun to crack.
"Brock…is she…" Ash's voice trailed off, his expression starting to darken at the implication.
The tension suddenly lifted from Brock's shoulders as a smile of relief softened his features. "She's okay. She's breathing. It just looks like she's unconscious." Brock returned the playhouse pokémon to her pokéball.
"Thank goodness." Dawn sighed, bringing her free hand to rest on her chest as if to still her beating heart. Ash smiled and let out a breath that he hadn't known he'd been holding.
"I think we should split up to find our pokémon," Ash said. Two sets of eyes bored into him with a gaze that was incredulous, concerned and angry.
"I dunno, Ash. I don't think you should be walking around too much; that last attack looked like—" the bluenette began.
"Guys, it's okay. I'm fine. I can walk without your help." Ash shrugged off Dawn's arm and took a few shaky steps but was able to stand without issue for a full minute.
"We should still make our way back to the campfire so we at least know where to come back to," Brock said. Ash and Dawn nodded their assent as they made their way over to his side.
Smoke wafted lazily from their belongings in the clearing, the scene eerily calm compared to what had transpired moments before. Astoundingly, none of their personal items appeared too worse for the wear, save for some minor scorching. Ash burst into a sprint at the first sight of yellow, halfway to his destination, his muscles gave out as he stumbled and fell to the ground. Dawn and Brock both cried out his name as they ran over to assist him.
But it was to no avail; Ash silenced the calls of his own name as his vision narrowed down to that yellow lump on the scorched earth. He inched his way over to Pikachu's fallen form; the electric mouse's back was to him and his tail lying flat against the ground.
He reached out but a single spark launched off the starter's fur making him unconsciously flinch away. The trainer stood frozen over Pikachu's body. Seconds ticked by until a solid minute of stillness and silence had passed.
Brock was about to warn the trainer against touching Pikachu; a single look at Dawn would have indicated that she was about to echo his message. Indeed, she was about to speak her mind until Brock placed a hand on her shoulder and shook his head. That simple action stole the words forming on her tongue.
All they needed to do was look at Ash to know that his feelings and thoughts mirrored their own. It was as if his hands had met a wall, his trembling fingers unable to close the last few inches between him and one of his oldest friends. The memory of the jolt was all too fresh in his mind; fear stayed his hands.
No further bolts leapt from his starter's fur but the initial spark and the risk of another one was all that was needed to immobilize him. Pain gradually overtook the fear that had taken residence on Ash's face. Dawn's breath hitched when Ash forced his hand onto Pikachu's body.
Nothing. There were no flashes of light or bolts of lightning. Nevertheless, Brock found that the sudden tension in his body refused to leave.
Ash turned Pikachu until the two were face-to-face; the moment for him was oddly reminiscent of the start of their journey after the Spearow attack. Except this time Pikachu's eyes were not open. In fact, if Ash didn't know any better, he could've sworn that his starter was blissfully asleep. The hand on Pikachu's body lowered and lifted slightly — a sign that he was still breathing.
"I think he's okay." Ash exhaled, the air that filled his lungs refreshing and exhilarating him. Brock moved over as he hastily checked the electric starter's vitals — not out of sloppiness but out of fear; Pikachu was a live wire that could be reenergized without warning. Satisfied that Pikachu's vitals were okay, he nodded in affirmation to the trainer.
"Ash, you should probably stay here while we get the other pokémon," Dawn suggested.
"Guys, I told you, I can walk just fine!" Ash countered as he pushed himself to his feet.
"If you're heading out, then I'd imagine you'll want to take Pikachu with you," Brock said. He then pointed to the inert form of the pokémon. "We really shouldn't move him around. Not when he's in that state."
Brock's reasoning stole some of the fire in his eyes, Ash's gaze lowered to the ground before relinquishing a nod. "Right…" Ash sighed, handing them some of his pokéballs.
"We'll bring them back as soon as we can," Dawn replied, taking two of the spheres while Brock grabbed three.
Brock had found Croagunk and Sudowoodo within the first few minutes of his search. Both of them were unconscious and surrounded by the remains of the forest. Despite the environmental havoc and a few scrapes, his remaining pokémon looked okay. A line of toppled trunks, jagged stumps and even uprooted trees ended where Ash's Turtwig and Gliscor lay still.
Finding Chimchar wasn't difficult considering the blazing trail he had left behind. The scent of burning wood and smoke filled the night air like incense and while it wasn't an awful smell, it wasn't pleasant either. Tiny embers crowned the tips of leafless branches hanging over the trail of scorched earth. Brock had found it hard to believe that the cause of the destruction was a foot tall fire chimp and not a plane crash.
As luck would have it, Brock found the fire chimp sprawled out atop a blackened section of earth. Getting closer he could see the flames around Chimchar's body sputtering like dying campfire.
As he approached, the trainer flinched backwards as waves of heat radiating off the open flames washed over him. He quickly gave up trying to find the pokémon's pulse; just placing his hands in the Chimp pokémon's vicinity was like sticking them into an active oven.
Brock aimed the pokéball at the fire starter. He watched as the energy beam connected, Chimchar dematerialized and the beam return to the sphere with its cargo.
"He'll be safer in there…but what was with that heat? Those flames were just like…" Brock paused for a moment, as if he were fiddling with the words.
"…the fires I cook with…"
Pokémon flames and the normal flames he used to cook had always been treated as something separate in his mind. It was a part of his everyday life; he just accepted it as a fact like how water was wet.
But now, he was forced to rethink his entire worldview. Brock's arm fell to his side, the pokéball still held firmly in his hands, but now shrunken to the size of a golf ball.
"Why are the flames different?" Brock thought. "Surely it's not a matter of intensity. Anything hot enough to be on fire should be hot enough to cause severe burns."
Scenes of Ash's Charizard drowning Ash and other opponents in torrents of orange flame flitted through his memory. It was certainly uncomfortable for the targets but they were never in any real danger.
"But why!? Why do pokémon flames not burn like…real flames?" Brock's brows were now furrowed in deep thought.
It was then he realized how stupid his choice of words sounded. "They're both real, but does this make one less real than the other? And it's not just fire; Pikachu's lightning was different too."
Brock had long lost count of how often Ash and Team Rocket got shocked by one of Pikachu's attacks. What he had witnessed minutes ago was nothing like the lightning Ash's starter had unleashed in all the years he'd been with them. Previously, the victims of the shock would end up covered in soot and stunned but otherwise unharmed. But now, it seemed like the lightning bolts were now capable of causing real injury.
"Team Rocket!" Brock growled. Several years' worth of experiences told him that whenever things went wrong, that persistent trio was involved, if not outright responsible. The woods around him suddenly took on a foreboding tone; every tree and path hid a potential trap.
His way back to camp was slow for he had to carefully probe the ground with a stick like a blind man with a cane. "This would be right up their alley. Knocking out our pokémon, making Pikachu and the others ripe for the picking," he thought.
With the end of that thought, the distressing realization that he and Dawn had left Ash and Pikachu vulnerable and alone came to the forefront of his mind. Brock moved briskly through the woods, not running but not walking either. Rushing straight to their camp would blind him to the signs of a pitfall trap or a snare. And Team Rocket preyed off of that kind of recklessness.
It was a surprise when he arrived not to find Team Rocket engaged in their latest plot but Ash wearing his signature hat as well as Pikachu and the camp relatively undisturbed.
"What do you think happened?" Ash asked.
"I'm not sure yet," Brock replied, between fast breaths. "Has Dawn come back yet?"
"No, not yet." Ash then noticed the pokémon breeder's tensed muscles and nervous glances. "Brock, what's wrong?"
"I can't be sure, but I think that Team Rocket might be behind what just happened. It seems like just the kind of thing they would do."
Ash nodded, casting quick glances to the forest around them.
"Dawn!" Brock yelled out, pausing for a moment before calling out again. A faint reply came carried back on the wind. Brock rushed out into the direction of the voice until he turned back and found Ash already shadowing him with Pikachu in his arms. Brock opened his mouth to say that Ash needed to stay, but the look in the young trainer's eyes brooked no argument.
Brock moved silently through the woods. To Ash's credit, he was able to keep up pace with him without too much difficulty. They found the bluenette standing over a large figure nestled into the grass.
"Dawn…are you okay?" Ash asked, squinting through the darkness to try and make out her features. Her reaction to their presence was delayed; her focus anchored onto the figure on the ground.
"I'm fine. I found my other pokémon along with your Buizel and Staravia. They all went back into their pokéballs, but when I got to Ambipom and tried returning her…" Dawn lifted and aimed the pokéball in her hand, firing a crimson beam at the purple monkey only to have it dissipate.
"I don't get it," Ash said, taking the pokéball into his hands. He felt for dents in the darkness but its smooth metal shell was unmarred. "Maybe it's broken inside?" He looked over to Brock for some support.
The breeder was already kneeling over the Long Tail pokémon, his only illumination coming from what little moonlight managed to filter through the branches overhead.
The reek of burnt hair was the first thing to reach Brock's nose as he knelt down. From what he could feel, some patches on Ambipom's body were hotter than others. He carefully rolled Ambipom onto her back and probed the skin around her neck.
Seconds painfully ticked by; Brock could feel Dawn and Ash's stares boring into his back. But no matter how deeply he pressed or how long he waited, no pressure passed beneath his fingertips. Brock's body abruptly dropped onto Ambipom, his ear pressed against her chest. Trying to hear her heartbeat became harder and harder as the sound of his own racing heart beat into his ears.
Everything he knew about pokémon anatomy seemed useless in his frantic search for something helpful. Brock lifted off her body, placing his hands onto her chest and pressing down.
"Was it ten reps or twenty?" Brock's gaze drifted over to Ambipom's mouth, knowing what he might have to do.
"Now's not the time to be grossed out…but do I even need to try? How long has it been since her heart stopped, since her brain's been without oxygen?" he thought.
"Brock," Ash began, only to flinch when the breeder's head abruptly lifted to face him. "Is…there anything we can do?"
Brock lowered his gaze to the ground; the compressions on Ambipom's chest momentarily stopped. "Uh, Y-yeah. Can Dawn and you go back to the clearing and bring back a revive from my bag? You know what it looks like, right?"
Ash nodded furiously, immediately making way towards their encampment until he noted Dawn was still standing in place. "Dawn…"
"I wanna stay." Despite the stern reply there was a fear in her voice, her gaze never leaving her pokémon.
Ash took a step towards her with his arm lifted until Brock's voice cut through the momentary quiet. "Ash, it's fine, she can stay. Just go. And bring my flashlight and a super potion as well."
The trainer nodded once more before breaking into a run. Ash's footfalls faded into the background as Brock continued his chest compressions. A heavy stillness permeated through the woods, broken only by Dawn's tremulous voice.
"Brock…what's wrong with her?" Dawn managed to choke out the words without completely falling apart as she spoke.
The breeder continued pumping on Ambipom's chest as he replied. "I…I can't say for sure, Dawn. At least not right now."
"That's a lie!" Brock's conscience lashed out at him. "That's a lie and you know it! You know exactly what's wrong! You know exactly what happened! You just don't want to believe it did. You never thought it could happen to us. It was something other people needed to worry about, never us! I wanna be wrong, but if I'm right…how am I gonna break it to them? This won't be Ash's first time facing this. But Celebi, Latios and Lucario were different. This is someone that he's known for so much longer. And Dawn…she's just started getting her confidence back. This'll—"
"I'm back!" Ash yelled. Brock immediately ceased the chest compressions as Ash handed him the diamond-shaped pill and super potion. Brock set down the super potion and pried open Ambipom's mouth. He quickly dropped the pill into her mouth and waited for it to take effect.
Revives were a potent cocktail of various stimulants that were designed to jumpstart the body and contained inside a fast-dissolving capsule. They were pricy but Brock had always made sure to keep a few handy just in case of extreme emergencies.
"Ash, did you bring the flashlight?" Brock asked.
The trainer quickly dug into his pocket and handed it to him. He looked over to Dawn who still stood rooted to the spot he'd left her at. Brock peeled Ambipom's eyelids back and shone a beam of light directly into them. Ash watched him hold the beam there, unsure of what Brock was trying to do but he knew better than to question it.
Seconds passed and the light began to shake in the breeder's hands, moving between her eye and her mouth. Brock quickly grabbed the potion and sprayed it onto Ambipom's fur, keeping the flashlight trained on her eye. A few agonizing seconds later, he clicked the flashlight off and lowered it to his side. A shuddering sigh left him when he leaned back and fell into a sitting position. "Guys," he started. Despite his attempts at keeping his voice neutral, it came out low and dark.
"No!" Dawn's gasp reached his ears through the hand over her mouth. She already knew his response.
"Ambipom is…" Brock trailed off to find a truthful, yet tactful way to break the news. "Gone." Brock stared into the darkness where Ash was standing and debated whether or not he should continue.
His conscience lashed him again. "They should know. They have a right to know! They'd want to know. They'll ask me sooner or later. Could I lie? Would they even buy it? They're smart. They can put the pieces together. They'll know that I know too, but will they know I did it to help them? They would forgive me…but could she forgive him?"
Brock lowered his gaze to the starter in Ash's arms. Feeling he should get it out of the way now, he let out a breath and spoke. "One of Pikachu's bolts must've accidentally hit her. The electricity probably stopped Ambipom's heart. By the time you found her…" Brock trailed off as he tried to keep control of his emotions. "She would've already been...it would've been painless, Dawn."
Dawn was unnaturally still as Ash got up and slowly backed away from the body. Despite his efforts to mitigate the damage, Brock couldn't help but feel he'd somehow made it worse. Ash didn't stop backing up until the fabric of his outfit pressed against the bark of a nearby tree. The coordinator slowly lowered herself to the floor, her breathing growing more and more shallow.
A pained hiss rushed through Ash's gritted teeth as he pulled his cap over his eyes with his free arm. He lifted his head, taking deep breaths through his nose.
Dawn was not so quiet with her grief; her cries grew louder with every ragged intake of breath. The sounds tore through them like knives.
In an attempt to prevent his emotions from exploding, Ash allowed himself to release a mix between a cough and cry. He slid down the tree as he desperately tried to shore up his crumbling composure.
The corners of Brock's eyes began to moisten as he pressed the butt of his palm to his forehead. Brock wept silently as he shook his head, grateful for the darkness that shrouded him and let him save face. Machismo aside; he was supposed to be the strong one of their group; the mature one. If they saw him cry it would only make the situation worse, so he had to keep calm. For their sake.
Brock moved away from Ambipom's body and made his way to Dawn, who had now fallen onto her side and curled into a sobbing ball. He placed his hand on her and felt her flinch beneath his palm.
"It's gonna be okay," said a hoarse voice he didn't recognize, until he realized it was his own. "It's gonna be okay." But those words felt hollow; simple platitudes that even he didn't believe. He pulled Dawn off the ground and into his arms, letting her unleash her muffled screams into his shoulder as she wept. She fought him at first, her tiny fists pushing and beating against his chest until they weakened and snaked along his waist as she embraced him back.
At times her cries were so loud that his ears rang; her nails dug through the fabric and into his back. But despite the insults his body had taken, he held on as tightly as he could, telling her over and over again that it would be okay, each time sounding more pathetic than the last. He could hear someone screaming how it wasn't fair, and it would be a while before he realized it wasn't coming from any of them.
"Jessie, wait!" James cried out from the cockpit of the grounded ship. Jessie stomped away quickly, her arms swinging like pendulums as she tried to put as much distance between her and the scene of the massacre. James begrudgingly left the aircraft, noting that the whine of the engines hadn't even died down. "Jessie. Stop. Where are you going?"
"I don't know and I don't care anymore!" she ground out between gritted teeth.
James grabbed her wrist only to have it wrenched out of his grip. He then wrapped his arms around her body, halting her advance. The way she thrashed against him, screeching at him to let him go, made him feel as though his touch was poisonous. When her pleas did nothing to release her, she let her volcanic temper take the place of desperate pleas. She stabbed her heel at James's feet and slammed her head back in hopes of connecting with his face.
"Jessie, we need to go back." James carefully dodged the blows. He gritted his teeth but did not slacken his grip as one of Jessie's stomps connected with his booted foot.
"Why should I!?"
"Seviper might still be alive. He's hurt but he and Meowth need help. We need to get them to a pokémon center soon."
James's words must have done the trick. Jessie's body suddenly slumped into his hold, forcing him to slowly lower her to the ground. After a few heartbeats, he removed his arms from her and backed away, the lack of moonlight making it difficult to make her out in the darkness.
"Are we cursed?" She struggled with the words.
James mentally froze. Part of him wanted to immediately tell her they weren't, that the very idea of a curse upon them was outlandish. And yet, the longer he thought about their time together in the last four years, he could see why she would think that. Doubt cradled his every potential reply, leaving him silent for far too many seconds.
"Are we not meant to be happy?" The low, dark tone of her voice was starting to scare him now.
"No, Jess," the bluenette replied weakly. "It's just—"
"—then why is it that every time we try to do something, it literally blows up in our faces? We try and catch the twerp's Pikachu for years, failing each and every time. And now when we wanna do something other than failing we still get screwed?" The redhead's voice was a faint and cold whisper. "Just as we're trying to get away from them and climb out of the hole we dug for ourselves, we just get kicked back in!
"It's not fair. It's not fair. It's not fair!" Each repeat rose in volume and pitch as it was punctuated by the sound of her fist slamming into the dirt. Eventually, the emotional dam burst and Jessie unleashed a tortured scream, the likes of which James had never heard from her before in all the years of their partnership.
James was about to move in when she stopped and lifted her hand with pained and twitching fingers. Jessie's heavy breaths drowned out the distant drone of Krickitot in the woods. A cloud shifted lazily overhead, letting the light from the moon filter in through the trees. Over the years he had seen Jessie in countless costumes and dozens of hairstyles. She'd been burnt, battered, drenched and rendered nearly bald from some of the attacks she had taken. All of those years of abuse had not prepared him for her current appearance.
Without the consistent and frequent application of her hairspray, the integrity of her coiffure had fallen apart like a house of cards. Long magenta tresses hung over her face, strips of her rosy tinged face peeked through the gaps. Whatever vestige of makeup that had survived their earlier bout was now gone, the last of her mascara staining the tears on her cheeks. But it was the look in her eyes that pierced him like an arrow.
While there was no malice in the word as it came to him, the fact that it was the first word to pop into his mind pained him. Jessie had been many things to him and while at times the things she said or wanted could be considered pitiful; never had he looked at her and associated that word with the entirety of her being.
He'd spent his own fair share with the homeless in his attempts to stay one step ahead of his parents and Jessebelle. Looking at them reminded him that they had started with less than he had, fallen farther in their failures and been on the streets longer than he had been in a home. The unforgiving trials they had gone through were practically etched into their eyes. And now, those same eyes now stared back at him from Jessie's blue pools.
Could he even blame her? If their last failure had cracked her resolve, then the recent events had now shattered it. Jessie could always pull him out of the deepest of funks; now the one who always knew what to do in the face of defeat was broken.
"I can't expect her to bounce back from this, at least not now. She's always the one pulling my butt out of the fire, so I should be able to do the same for her."
"We're not beaten yet, Jessie. We can still get the ship to the nearest pokémon center and have our pokémon healed," he said. His voice was resolute and firm with confidence. How much of it was real and how much of it was a sham for his fellow operative's sake he hoped was hard to tell.
The look she gave him — as if she didn't believe or trust a single word he had said — was painful. Rather than take it personally, he decided he would just need to convince her with more than just words. He held his hand out to her and gave her a weak smile.
"Leave me alone, James. I want to be alone right now. Just go, I'll be fine," she muttered back.
James shook his head and kept smiling, "Leaving you alone right now is the last thing that you need. You've never truly given up on me, so you can't expect me to do that. Don't make me pick you up."
Jessie gave him a look that practically said, "I'd like to see you try." Her lips gave the tiniest of movements in what James imagined could be the stirrings of a smile. It wasn't much, but he took it as the first spark; now he just needed to fan the flames.
"I'm not asking you to get back on the ship with me, I'll do that. Just stay by the ship and I'll handle the rest."
Jessie stared at his hand for a long while before tentatively reaching up to grab it. James helped her up, keeping his hand wrapped around hers as they walked back. The aircraft quickly came back into view as they neared the clearing; the sight of it invoked a slight tug of resistance on his arm. James stopped and turned, Jessie's eyes were already filled with uncertainty as a chilly breeze blew through them.
Her gaze turned quizzical as James started to remove his gloves, then incredulous when he started lifting his shirt over his head to reveal the black one underneath.
"I know you don't want to go onto the ship, so you can stay here. It looks like it's gonna be kinda chilly so you can use this if you want." James passed her the shirt he had removed.
Jessie stared down at the article of clothing in her hands for a moment before looking back to him.
"I know it's not much, but it might help a bit," James added as he put his gloves back on and made his way back towards the aircraft.
James made his way through the slaughter, bending down to pick up Mime Jr.'s unconscious form. He pressed his ear over the tiny mime's chest and rejoiced at the sound of a steady heartbeat. With a flash of light, he was returned back into his pokéball and pocketed.
He suppressed a wave of nausea as he saw the remains of Jessie's Yanmega. He quickly turned away, lest he vomit up what little was in his stomach. Seviper was quickly returned to hopefully heal in the pokeball.
James kneeled down to look over Meowth's body. He frowned; he wasn't sure if getting any closer was safe. While the Scratch Cat pokémon appeared to be in a deep slumber, James had just watched him slash through several seat cushions like the tough fabric was no more resistant than tissue paper. His green eyes lifted up to stare at the dent in the metal wall. Meowth looked fine on the outside but an impact of that magnitude could still leave internal injuries.
He inched his hand over, surprised at the way his own hand trembled as it drew closer. It dawned on him that this might be the first time that he feared for his own life because of Meowth. Some part of him kept imagining Meowth coming to and resuming his feral assault. Even as James felt for a pulse along the cat's wrist the goose bumps refused to leave.
"What happened to all of you?" James whispered, his gaze sweeping across the ship's grisly interior. A good part of him was still processing what he was seeing; the magnitude of what had just happened had yet to fully hit him. He couldn't afford to let it hit him now. Or rather, Jessie couldn't afford for him to be hit by it fully now.
Were he to lose control, he knew he would dissolve into a pathetic mess of tears and cries. It was the complete opposite of what she needed. To the best of his ability, he suppressed thoughts that might bring him over the edge. Like every negative thought he sent it to the back of his mind.
He moved from Meowth over to his decapitated Carnivine, having left him for last. In his opinion, Carnivine had been the least graphic of their party's deaths. A clear, viscous fluid dribbled out of the stalk of his neck and body.
And yet, the longer he stared down at his former pokémon, the stronger the dull ache in his chest grew. James figured he should've felt worse at Carnivine's passing but the fact remained that their time apart had created some distance. He had forgotten that Carnivine had even existed until they reached his family's summer home in the Sinnoh region. For years, Carnivine had lain inside a pokéball, buried under a collection of bottle caps within a chest.
He certainly had fond memories with Carnivine as a child, having caught him in the Great Marsh near Pastoria. Around that time, Jessebelle had been given an Oddish in an attempt to give the two of them something to talk about and hopefully bring them closer together. Wanting nothing in common with her, James had later asked to have a fire-type, which was how Growlie came into his life and why Carnivine was left in Sinnoh.
While Carnivine was one of few bright moments in his boyhood, it was still but a pinprick in the night sky of his time with Jessebelle and his parents. Having no pokémon on hand at the time, Carnivine had joined the team more out of necessity than nostalgia. There was nothing wrong with Carnivine; he was just as loyal and affectionate as Growlie, but if James were honest with himself, he'd rather not have a living reminder of the past.
"Out of sight, out of mind" was one of James's philosophies when it came to his problems.
He had so desperately wanted to bring Growlie with him — not just as a childhood companion but as a member of the team like Mime Jr. — but the Growlithe was a remnant of the old life he so desperately wanted to flee. Just looking at him would be a constant reminder that his parents and Jessebelle were still out there; still hunting him down to bring him back.
"It wasn't your fault. You did nothing wrong," James said into the silence. It was the action of a madman, talking to Carnivine's corpse. But he felt that he needed to say this or it would eat at him till the end of his days.
"You were…are, my best friend. I hope you knew that. I hope you knew I loved you." His view of the world began to shimmer more and more with every word. "I don't think I ever said that to you, and if I did it wasn't nearly enough." It began to dawn on him that he hadn't just lost a pokémon or a comrade. He had lost his childhood friend; he had lost a family member.
James took a shaky breath as he knelt down and pulled off his glove. The surface of Carnivine's head was smooth and cold, though he figured it had never been all that warm before. He tried to replicate the sound of Carnivine's voice in his mind, the way he looked at him when he gave him one of those big toothy grins. As soon as the images came into view, they faded away, leaving behind dim phantoms of the original memory. James let the tears fall freely now, feeling them slide down his cheeks and hang from his chin.
"I just want to say…thanks." James suppressed a sob so he could make it through his eulogy. "For everything you did for me. I wish…I wish I could pay you back, all the pain you've gone through for my sake. Just like before, I'm going to need you to wait for me. I can't promise we'll see each other soon but Growlie and I will meet up with you wherever you are…" James let his tears fall freely as he spoke. "And when you see me, you can nibble on my head again."
A gloved fist slammed against the aircraft's communication controls. James moved his hand away, noting the lack of any dent in the material — not that it mattered. Just underneath where his fist had landed was a series of holes from his Carnivine's Bullet Seed, ruining the electronics that would have let the pilot phone in their situation to command.
Their own comlink was less than helpful; a machine answered him due to all the other lines being busy at the moment. It led him in circles, asking him if he was in one kind of situation or another. None of them really seemed applicable and even those that did apply ended up leading him into another session of pointless questions answered by the press of one or two.
James slumped into the — thankfully, clean — copilot seat. Aside from the blood and gore that blanketed half of the flight deck, most of the aircraft appeared intact. The altimeter, artificial horizon and GPS had been left undamaged. If the fuel gauge could be trusted, there was a good chance they could make it to Canalave and even a little further. A glance at the pilot's bloodied seat was a reminder that there were other, more pressing matters.
Mime Jr. and Seviper were no longer a part of that problem, having been returned to their respective pokéballs. Burying Carnivine next came to mind; the question then quickly became where to bury him? He would've liked to have done so by his family's summer home or the Great Marsh. But he wasn't sure if he had the time or fuel to do so.
"Could I bury him here? In some nameless part of the woods? Would I even find this place again? Where would I even bury him in Canalave?" Being always on the move had its downsides; this had been one of the ones that James had preferred not to think about.
His friend aside, what would be done for Jessie's teammates? As much as she complained about the Patient pokémon, she really did care about Wobbuffet. He'd been a part of the team for years and James had gotten used to hearing him chime in at the end of their motto; so much so that doing it without his contribution sounded off. His death would strike Jessie hard…if it already hadn't. Though he wasn't sure he could say the same about Yanmega. Being the newest member of the team, she had only been with them for a short period of time.
Meowth was where things started getting complicated.
Unlike most Team Rocket field agent teams that had a pokémon mascot, Meowth was not their pokémon in the sense of being his trainers. For all intents and purposes, he was another Team Rocket operative, with the attendant rights and responsibilities. He could — and often did — place orders for whatever materiel they needed to pull off their latest scheme. Nearly all the mechas they had requested were customized with controls specifically designed to fit Meowth's physique. In fact, he had even shown some aptitude in engineering as they had previously used several gadgets that were of his own original design.
"Meowth might be safer in a pokéball, but putting him into one would mean I would need to catch him with one." James wasn't sure how he felt about that. It had been years since their initial meeting that the thought had even crossed his mind, if ever so briefly. "How would Meowth feel about that? I could just release him once this is all over. Maybe I'm overthinking it."
James mentally switched the roles of trainer and pokémon. He frowned as he took the thought experiment to its logical — and distasteful — conclusion. To be captured — even if eventually released — meant that he was owned and possessed like an object. The mental experiment had opened his eyes to a whole new perspective. The way he saw their job and how their world functioned was changing before his eyes.
Meowth wasn't the brightest pokémon around but he was definitely smarter than average. Even then, the average pokémon was fairly intelligent by human standards. He had met people that were dumber than pokémon. Conversely, he was almost certain that there were pokémon smarter than he could ever hope to be.
The capacity for them to be just as smart as people was there but for whatever reason they weren't being given that chance. If that was the case, then it wasn't just the fact that they were stealing pokémon from other people that was starting to bother him. It was the fact that the rest of the world was taking intelligent creatures and—
James felt the blood drain from his face. The cold hand of dread wrapped around his spine and poured ice into his veins. The effect was brief as the dismay gave way to rage. James stormed out of the cockpit and out of the aircraft, his lips fixed into a snarl.
"It…it can't be. No, nonononono! NO! Anyone but them!" James seethed quietly until the three shadowed figures came into view. He didn't even have to peer through the darkness to know who it was.
"Of course it's them. It's always them. How could it be anything but them? Even when we're trying to leave them alone they get in the way." Some part of him found the humor in the situation because the scowl morphed into a smile.
Jessie had long since migrated over to the ship, leaning against it as she waited for James to finish whatever he was doing inside. Now she worried that she had let him take on too much on his own. A laugh started in the back of his throat, working its way past his lips despite his best efforts to hold it in. It was a frustrated and tired laugh at first before it bordered onto something hysterical.
"What did you do!?" one of the figures screamed. He recognized the voice as belonging to the twerp with the Pikachu.
The manic lilt in James's voice dissolved with the accusation. "We haven't done anything to you!" James roared back with a rage that Jessie rarely ever saw from him.
"Liar!" the twerpette screeched at them with equal amounts of loathing.
"Every time something bad happens, you guys are always involved in some way," the oldest twerp added. Despite the neutral and calm voice he spoke with, there was a barely restrained rage and utter contempt for them in his voice.
James, Jessie and Meowth had done practically everything possible to them over the years; they had stolen from them, trapped them, lied to them, even attacked their families, but yet nothing had inspired the hate that radiated from them now.
"If you must know, we were trying to get away from you. We were tired of having our plans foiled; tired of being electrocuted, and most of all we were tired of being blasted off. We were done with you and your Pikachu." James turned his nose up, returning the contemptuous tone.
The Twerp Trio was quiet for a moment, glaring at them until the oldest one finally broke the silence.
"Why should we even trust you or anything you say?"
"We don't care if you trust us. We don't care what you think we did. All we wanted was to never see you and your Pikachu again for as long as we lived. We were on our way out of here when our pokémon started attacking everything. Now three of our pokémon are dead." James's voice began to crack as he said the words; the aura of malice from the twerps was beginning to dissipate.
"Meowth's hurt." There was pain in his voice now. "We want to get him to a pokémon center and make sure he's going to be all right." Jessie watched her partner's voice peter out with the slump of his arms; years of fatigue now showed on his face. Out of the three, James was the one who was the most honest with his feelings. While she wasn't sure why he was telling the twerps so much, it seemed to have the desired effect.
Jessie watched the twerps join together with their backs to them, quick and unintelligible whispers reaching her ears. They argued for a while, throwing them cautious glances every few seconds. James made his way over to her and squatted down to her level.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
Jessie nodded and sighed. "Would you believe I almost started doing the motto when the twerps found me?"
James gave a weak smile, noting that she had taken to wearing his shirt over hers. "Old habits are hard to break."
"When you said three pokémon…" Jessie let the question hang in the air over them as James mulled over how to phrase his next words.
"Yanmega and Carnivine…there was no way to save them."
Jessie closed her eyes as she bowed her head. "I'm sorry about Carnivine. I know it must've been hard for…are you okay?"
"I'll be all okay." Jessie noticed his word choice, but didn't press any further.
"Wobbuffet?" she asked.
James exhaled through his nose. "Since none of the seeds hit his brain I figured he'd be okay but I don't know Wobbuffet's anatomy that well and I don't know if any of his vitals were hit. He lost a lot of blood. I could've tried to patch him up to try and stop the bleeding but with the amount he's lost, by the time we reached a pokémon center, I don't know if they would've been able to do anything."
Jessie drew her knees up to her chin and buried her face in the gap between them. Strangled gasps escaped as she tried to keep her composure.
He was about to touch her shoulder with his hand until someone called out his name. The bluenette looked up and found that the squinty-eyed twerp had approached them.
"I have some medical knowledge and supplies that might help some of your pokémon. If you let me take a look at them—"
"—Can you save Wobbuffet?" Jessie quickly interjected, her eyes brimming with tears and hope.
"I'll see what I can do," Brock said softly before following James as they made their way around the ship. Once they had made their way to the other side of the craft, James stopped and faced the breeder.
"Inside is really…" James looked to the ground, struggling to find an appropriate word that could fully encapsulate the carnage inside. When the grass gave him no answers, he sighed. "Bad," he lamely finished. It was an almost comedic understatement but what else could he say?
"James, level with me. Did you know that any of this was going to happen?" Brock asked.
The Rocket member shook his head. "If we had known anything like this was going to happen, we would've done things differently. The pilot who was supposed to take us to Canalave was killed when our pokémon went crazy. We might not be our boss's favorite field agents; but I'd like to think he'd have warned our pilot."
"Okay," Brock replied, the answer seeming to satisfy him for the moment. He was about to go in when James stopped him once more.
"After everything we've done to you, why would you help us?" the field agent asked.
"I'm not so much helping you as I'm helping your pokémon. If I can keep one more pokémon from dying tonight…"
"Did your pokemon...?"
Brock's head dipped ever so slightly. "Pikachu...he lost control and started shocking everything around him. We barely got away but we had to leave our pokémon behind. When we came back, the rest of our pokémon are fine, but Dawn's Ambipom...the lightning must've hit her and...this is the first time Dawn's ever lost a pokémon."
"For what it's worth, I'm sorry."
Brock faced at him for a moment and James could tell that their history and his sincere apology battled in his mind. Eventually the breeder said nothing back and made his way into the aircraft's interior.
Brock's initial reaction to the ship's interior was not unexpected. James watched him run out immediately and retch onto the grass a few meters from the aircraft. He couldn't blame him considering he had nearly done the same; the only difference was that he'd had more time to grow somewhat numb to the sight of it. Brock hadn't been given that luxury; the sight and smell had hit him all at once like blows of an enraged Primeape. Whatever they had gone through hadn't nearly been as gruesome as the two field agents' experience.
It took some time for Brock to come back to the craft and work through his nausea. James tried to help, dragging the bodies of Carnivine and the pilot out of the plane. In the end, James felt his efforts to be worse than useless as the pilot's body left a wet crimson streak wherever it was hauled. Removing Yanmega from the aircraft would have required him to literally scrape her remains off the bulkheads and floor.
Little by little, Brock was able to acclimate himself to the scene and — to James's great surprise and relief — determined that Wobbuffet was still alive. Using a super potion to seal the wounds and stabilize his condition, James was able to return him back into his pokéball to heal. There was no guarantee that Wobbuffet's blue skin would heal unmarred. Or if he'd ever be able to fight again. But James knew that Jessie wouldn't care; she would simply be relieved to know that he would live to see another day.
Several hours passed as he and Brock worked into the night. Despite the hits Meowth and Seviper had taken, Brock assured him that they would be okay. After talking it over with Jessie, they agreed to offer the twerps a ride to Hearthome City where they could all get their pokémon some medical attention.
The twerps were reluctant at first until Jessie reminded them of the times that they had worked together against a common enemy or obstacle. This — and the promise to not try stealing their pokémon — didn't suddenly remove years of accumulated bad blood between them but in the end, they ultimately accepted their offer.
It was then that James's comlink began to beep, indicating an incoming call. They had been talking as it rang faintly in the background. It wasn't until all of them stopped talking that they noticed the noise and looked around to see where it was coming from. Without a word, James ran off with the rest following him. As if by unspoken agreement, they stopped at the open hatch of the tilt-rotor aircraft.
A full minute passed as they waited for him; the slowness of his footsteps as he made his way back to them seemed to be an ill omen. They were about to ask who had contacted him. Instead of saying anything, he gestured for them to be quiet and held out the comlink, its tiny voice deafening in the early morning air.
"This is your leader, Giovanni. I am issuing a nationwide recall of all our members. Effective immediately, all Rocket agents and scientists are to suspend all current projects and return to Kanto. I repeat. This is your leader Giovanni. I am issuing a—"