A big thanks to Zarrelion for his part on this chapter. I bounced a lot of ideas off of him as to what to do with this chapter and a good chunk of this is all thanks to his help.
There had been plenty of times in the past where a situation had forced him, Jessie, and Meowth to join forces with the twerps. Or at least exist in same room together and not be at each other's throats. James would've called the last few hours an extended awkward silence.
Save for the fact that the wind whistled loudly through the holes in the fuselage and the high pitched whine of the rotor blades from outside.
Thankfully, the rush of wind had forced most of gory air out from the craft. Toilet paper from Giovanni's personal bathroom had been used to wipe and clean off most of the blood and viscera scattered throughout the ship and make it at least temporarily habitable. Due to the damage the craft had taken, they kept their altitude at just under a kilometer.
A few hours had passed without anyone uttering a single word. Jessie sat by herself in the copilot's chair as she monitored the autopilot. James figured his partner needed the time alone to collect her thoughts and regain some of her composure.
There wasn't much privacy for the twerps on their end of the craft. Not that it looked like they needed it. Each of them seemed to be caught up in their own little world. The twerpette lay along the left side of the aircraft atop an inflatable yellow dinghy they had found and inflated as an impromptu bed. She would sniffle and whimper occasionally but beyond that, she was inert. Whether she had gotten any sleep was anyone's guess.
No one had bothered to ask if she had or urge her to try.
The older twerp sat at the center on one of the few chairs that hadn't been eviscerated by claws or riddled with holes. His elbows rested on his knees, fingers intertwined and pressed against his forehead. Meowth and Pikachu rested on the seats next to him. The two pokémon breathed softly as they lay in blissful slumber.
Last was the twerp they had chased for several years. He occupied the right of the ship, staring through a blown-out window. One hand was on his prized cap, lest the wind blow it off his head. His eyes held a somber stare that sparked with hope whenever his gaze flitted over to the chair that held his starter.
James watched the hope in the twerp's eyes die a dozen times over. He knew the twerp wanted to be there the moment his starter awoke. While James considered the boy's efforts childish, he couldn't help but fall into the same cycle himself as he checked on Meowth.
For everyone aboard the tilt-rotor aircraft, there was no choice but to wait until they reached their destination. James had entered the coordinates for Twinleaf town and let the autopilot handle the rest. The system told him he would need to refuel at Sinnoh's coast if they were to make the flight to Kanto safely. If everything went according to plan, they would be able to make the entire trip in half a day. But James's gut instincts, honed by his years as a Team Rocket operative, told him that things never went as smoothly as hoped.
Jessie had often told people to prepare for trouble but there were some things that no amount of preparation or contingency plans could prepare someone for. Their earlier plan had been to drop off the twerps at Hearthome City as thanks for checking on their pokémon and saving Wobbuffet. He and Jessie doubted they could ever have left the twerps on good terms, but this time, they left on, if not entirely good, then at least neutral terms.
Hearthome was only a slight detour from their route towards the Coronet mountain range. Yet the twerps were still with them. As bad as he and Jessie tried to make themselves out to be, there was no way they could've lived with themselves if they had left the twerps at Hearthome in the state it was in.
A few hours earlier…
The city had looked fine from a distance, but it wasn't until they flew closer that they found their concerns of where to land the aircraft rapidly became moot. People ran through the city streets with purple waves hot on their heels. Those that couldn't run fast enough drowned beneath the lavender tide. Glass from some of the taller buildings next to them shattered as people smashed windows and leapt out in a desperate attempt to evade the slimy purple hands that scrabbled at the empty air in hopes of seizing a victim.
Jessie and James watched on in horror as bodies rained down from the buildings, spattering the sidewalk with a crimson spray amidst sickening thuds. Towering wisps of steam rose from the bubbling purple puddles scattered across the city. Each mound was another body that had been caught by the purple waves. Screams quickly filled the air and fought for dominance over the drone of their ship's rotor blades.
Brock tore his gaze from the window only to notice too late that Dawn had been watching the same thing. He grabbed her by the shoulders and tried to pull her away from the windows. She resisted at first until her strength gave away completely and she stumbled into Brock's hold. The trainer was deathly pale at first, but then a slight greenish tinge took over her face. Brock watched her cheeks swell before she clamped a hand over her mouth bolted for the bathroom at the back of the plane.
He followed her and found her doubled over the toilet, gripping the rim of the bowl like it was her only anchor to stability. He pulled her hair back and braced himself for the smell as she retched violently into the bowl. James was suddenly grateful they'd been given one of Giovanni's personal escort ships. Had it been built for anyone lower than admin level, a bathroom or the autopilot would not have been installed.
Jessie suppressed a wave of nausea that rose up her throat, something she imagined everyone else had been doing at the sound of Dawn's heaves. Ash remained rooted to his spot by the window. One hand was clutched into a shaking fist while another hand aimed his pokédex at the scene below.
"Muk, the Sludge pokémon. A single drop from their body can contaminate an entire pool. Toxins seeping from their bodies can instantly kill plants and trees," Dexter recited neutrally.
"It…It can't be," Ash mumbled as he backed away from the window.
"Uh, James," Jessie said, shaking his arm and pointing out the window ahead of them. The bluenette turned his head and found what his partner was staring at. Atop the building ahead of them was one of the aforementioned Muk, opening its slimy maw until it rivaled the size of a Golbat's own cavernous mouth. A nauseating gargling sound emanated from the back of its throat for a few seconds before an enormous blob of sludge was vomited at them.
Jessie's instincts kicked in before her partner's did. She grabbed the controls to the aircraft. The Sludge Bomb missed them by a few inches as the aircraft swerved out of the way at the last second. James's hand met Jessie's own as he took the controls and shifted them forward, narrowly missing a nearby building they would've smashed into if they had kept moving in the same direction.
"James, we need to get out of here now!" Jessie shouted.
"No need to tell me twice," James replied stiffly as he opened the throttle on the engines to full and made for the fastest route out of the city.
In less than a minute the outer fringes of the forest came back into view and the city slipped into the horizon behind them. James throttled back the engines, hoping the desperate sprint hadn't cost them too much fuel.
"Wait!" Ash's voice rang through the cockpit. Standing in the doorway was the young trainer, his face set in a resolute mask. "Where are you going? We need to go back."
The look Jessie gave him was fierce enough to melt the hide off a Steelix.
"Are you blind, twerp!? Didn't you see what was happening back there!? How do you expect us to stay there!?" Jessie barked. Whatever vestige of patience she had left for the boy disintegrated at his petulant cry.
"They need our help." Ash's stance was defiant beneath her fiery scrutiny.
"And how were you planning to help those people? Were you going to fight those Muk with your pokémon? Oh, wait. Your pokémon are out cold! Just like ours. How would we be any different from the people back there!?"
"We could've found a way to help them," Ash insisted. Despite his resolute tone, Jessie could tell that her logic hammered away at his resolve like the surf against the dunes. Soon, the young trainer was grasping at straws. "We could've brought them onto the ship. We could've—" Ash rambled on, glancing at different spots on the floor as if they held more suggestions.
"We can't fit that entire city on this ship." Jessie's voice lost its razor-edged fury but still kept that cold, keen edge of reality. "Even going down puts us and our ship in danger of getting attacked and grounded. Then we'd be stuck in that city like all of those people. We'd be dead; the people we tried to save would've still died. In the end, no one gets saved."
"That's…" Ash gritted his teeth, doing his best to keep himself from deflating.
"She's right, Ash." Another — familiar, male voice — joined Jessie in dissuading Ash from his foolish rescue plan.
The raven-haired trainer whirled around to find Brock standing behind him.
"Wha…Brock, she…" Ash trailed off.
"Ash, much as I never thought I'd say this, Team Rocket is right. In our state, we can't help anyone. We need to let someone like Officer Jenny, the police or heck even the army handle something this bad. I know you want to help but this is way out of our leagues. All we can do is let the right people know what's happening and where so they can deal with it."
"I want to go home." Dawn spoke up from behind them, catching everyone off guard.
Ash and Brock turned to face her, surprised that she could look any more haggard than she already had before.
"I want to go home." She uttered each word carefully with a sense of finality as she looked into their eyes.
Brock turned around and faced Jessie. "Do you think you could drop us off there instead?" Jessie eyed each of them for a few seconds until James's voice sounded from the cockpit.
"It's on the way to Canalave so it's okay."
"…You heard him," Jessie said as she reentered the cockpit and manually slid the door shut behind her.
"Thank you," Dawn whispered back softly as she collapsed into one of the few intact chairs. Brock rummaged through his backpack for a bottle of water and handed it to her, telling her she needed to replenish her fluids. Dawn took it after he uncapped it for her. She winced with each swallow.
"It tastes weird," she muttered as she handed the bottle back with half its contents remaining. Brock checked the bottle for a few seconds before he handed it back.
"The water's normal, it's just the taste in your mouth that makes it weird. Let me see if I can find some ju—"
"—its fine, Brock. I'm just…tired," Dawn replied, her voice barely above a whisper.
"You guys didn't get much sleep last night so I'm not surprised. Let me see if I can throw something together for you."
"What about you?"
Brock raised an eyebrow. "Hmm?"
"Aren't you tired?"
Brock tried chuckling without trying to make it sound too forced. "When you have as many siblings as I do, you learn to power through some nights. I'll catch up on my sleep later; I've had some practice at it. You haven't."
Dawn said nothing in response and kept her gaze fixed to the floor at her feet. Brock was about to ask Ash for some help until he saw the look on his face. Years of traveling with him had taught him to recognize when Ash was beating himself up on the inside. He wanted to tell him that what was happening to those people wasn't his fault.
But in his state, he might as well be deaf.
Ash was a boy of action and the fact that he could do nothing for those people was eating at him. Brock could try and reason it out with him, but if the logic came from an outside source some part of Ash would reject it. Ash would need to come to the same conclusion on his own. It would be hard for him as it went entirely against who he was as a person. Town after town, day after day, Ash would always stop to help anyone he came across that was in need. He would do his best to fix their problems, usually asking nothing in return.
Ash's optimism and selfless nature were just some of the things that Brock admired about him. Admittedly, Brock had expected the years to weather away the boy's good nature, darken his outlook on the world. In general, Brock expected Ash to suffer the same fate that befell his own father and so many others. Yet somehow Ash managed to surprise him by never letting the rougher patches of his journey bring him down. His resolve to help people had yet to waver. But now the downsides of being so virtuous had appeared.
Brock could only hope that it didn't become a curse.
The world beyond the window seemed pristine and calm despite the horrors they had witnessed earlier. It made James wonder what other nightmares were in store for them.
"Hey?" Jessie's voice was faint in the rush of the wind through the glass, but loud enough to pierce through his train of thought and grab his attention.
James turned to face her, the goggles and oxygen mask on his face giving him a rather Beedrill-esque appearance. Even though the air was perfectly breathable, the goggles and mask kept the fierce wind from ramming into his eyes and down his throat. At some point while he'd been flying the ship, Jessie had tied her hair back into a ponytail.
"How are you holding up?" She had to shout to make herself heard over the roaring wind.
"I'm holding up, but…that city." James's voice, staticky and slightly distorted, came through the mask's mic.
"I know," she quickly added, as if not mentioning the event made it less real.
"It's just. What we just saw…"
"Jess, are we…absolutely sure Team Rocket doesn't have anything to do with this?" James asked.
It wasn't an entirely dumb statement considering how long they had been part of the organization. The duo was rather low on the Team Rocket hierarchy and there were a lot of things within the organization that were need-to-know basis. And they were often lumped with those who didn't need to know. James understood the practicality of the entire protocol as it meant that a captured operative could only reveal so much, even under duress. But it still irked him to be left so in the dark that they might as well have been blind.
There were plenty of times where no one had given them a heads-up as to the activities of other field agents in the area. A simple briefing would have allowed them to stay out of the way and not interfere with the results or even assist with the scheme. No one had given them a heads-up about Dr. Namba's Rage Crowns in the Orange Islands. No one had told them that Butch and Cassidy were planning on using a Drowzee to mind control all nearby pokémon to do their bidding. Had they known they would've steered clear of the area and avoided having Meowth succumb to the mind control.
"This isn't the boss's style," Jessie finally answered, breaking the silence. "He's always stressing about how we have to keep a low profile whenever we're working in the field or on a project. That way we can move under the radar. Having an entire city and its people offed would bring too much attention to the organization."
"What about the Lake of Rage?"
"That's one incident."
"That we know of!" James snapped back. "Team Rocket is all over Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, and who knows where else! There could be tons of things like this going on and we'd never know about it!" James struggled to keep his voice just under a yell and not alert the twerps.
"James, we can argue about maybes and what-ifs for hours, but we aren't going to get us any closer to the truth until we get back to the base."
"Jess, just humor me then. What would you do if Team Rocket was actually responsible for what we just saw?"
Jessie was quiet for a long moment, staring out at the landscape that rolled beneath them. "I don't know, James. I don't know what I'd do. I want to think that my mom didn't join an organization that would do something like this. We steal pokémon, sure, but not something like this. Just…let me think about it, 'kay?"
James said nothing, turning to face the same terrain his partner stared at and seeing the crest of Mount Coronet peek out from the edge of the horizon.
Brock jolted back into consciousness and felt immediately estranged by his surroundings, or at least he did until the memories started rushing back into his mind. Each image that flitted through his mind weighed more and more on him until they crushed whatever vestige of relief his rest had brought him.
"I really watched people die…I actually watched pokémon kill people," he muttered.
What he had seen was real, no matter how much he wished it wasn't. The proof was all around him. It was in the tufts of fluff that bled out of the seat cushions. In the dents in the steel. And most tellingly, in the pink stains on the floor.
The wind screaming through the holes in the walls was another sharp reminder of what he had just seen. The ignorance of the world's events that came with his dreamless sleep had now made him wonder why he even bothered to wake up in the first place.
"You know why. They need you." The parenting part of his mind was quick to remind him.
Brock looked about the room, wondering how long he'd been out. From the looks of it, Dawn was still resting on her side and curled into a ball atop the inflatable dinghy. Brock couldn't blame her for wanting to go home.
Though he hoped Ambipom's death and the gruesome scenes of the Muk attack wouldn't leave lasting scars, he knew that was unlikely. The coordinator simply lay still atop her impromptu bed. Whether she was actually asleep, feigning sleep or even alive was hard to tell in her state. Only the gentle rise and fall of her chest from her even breathing hinted that she was alive.
"When I woke up…everything that we saw…when she wakes up…every second I can keep her from going through what I just did is another second she doesn't have to suffer," Brock muttered as he watched the sleeping girl.
Ash had left his spot by the window and now sat on the floor between the rows of seats so that his gaze would be level with the seat that held Pikachu. His forehead rested on the edge of the seat, tiny snores brushed over his hat which now lay atop his lap.
"I guess we must have all been really tired if we were able to sleep in these conditions," Brock thought as he carefully lifted himself off the chair. He moved quietly through the ship and eventually found himself standing before the door to the cockpit. Brock eyed the holes in the metal; James had told him that they had been made by Carnivine's Bullet Seed.
"If even the weak moves are like this…" Brock shook his head and debated whether or not to open the door himself or knock. After a few seconds he settled for the former and slid the door open a crack. A blast of air immediately rushed through the gap. He widened the opening more, just enough to slip in and closed the door behind him. It didn't take long for Brock to learn that their half of the ship was actually quieter than James and Jessie's half.
Jessie had pulled her legs in beneath her and was asleep in the cramped hallway, using an inflated life vest as an ad hoc pillow. James's face was hidden behind a pair of goggles and an oxygen mask but he was still sitting upright. A simple tap to his shoulder made him flinch until he turned and faced Brock. Brock stepped back to let James get up, noticing the pink hue on the back of his white pants from where he'd sat.
"Everything okay?" James asked as he removed the oxygen mask and goggles from his face.
"In a way. I managed to doze off and I wanted to know how long I'd been out," Brock replied.
"Well, we just passed Mount Coronet if that says anything."
"How'd you manage that? I thought we had to stay below one kilometer."
"I took control of the ship and was able to find a gap between the mountains. Believe it or not, the path I took is actually the same place where we tried to take that Probopass from one of the twerps you were with."
Alan and his Probopass immediately came to Brock's mind, evoking a small smile.
"Funny how some things work out," the breeder thought to himself and felt himself smile, only to have it disappear when he wondered where the boy was now and whether he was dealing with the same things that they were.
"How long until we get to Twinleaf?" Brock asked, watching James sit back into the pilot's seat, and look at the screens around him as he began to put his oxygen mask on.
"Not too much longer," he replied. "GPS says we're coming up on Oreburgh in a min—" the end to his statement never came as his eyes widened and he slammed his hands onto the controls, sending the aircraft swerving to the right. The sudden change in direction flung Brock into Jessie who had already started to awaken. Jessie was about to scream at her partner until a golden column of energy eclipsed their view of the earth and sky to the left of the ship.
The Hyper Beam dissipated into motes of light only for another one to take its place as James sent the ship into a dive. Brock's heart was in his throat, threatening to explode as his hands frantically scrabbled for something stable to hold onto until he eventually settled for the edge of the chair. Unfortunately, that meant the only other available handhold was his back, which Jessie clung onto for dear life. James muttered profanities as he tried to pilot the craft with one hand and don his goggles and oxygen mask with the other. A screeching roar filled the air. One that each of them recognized on some primal level.
"You've got to be kidding me!" was James's staticky yell behind his oxygen mask. The dread of what they were facing stole the warmth from their blood and chilled them right to the bone.
"Of all the pokémon we had to come across," Jessie growled. She made her way towards the door and wrenched it open. Ash was holding Pikachu in one arm while another gripped the arm of a seat for dear life. Dawn was next to him and doing the same, holding Meowth in her free arm.
"What's going on!?" Dawn screamed. Her eyes widened when the world beyond the windows disappeared beneath a river of golden energy.
"It's an Aerodactyl," Ash shakily replied without an ounce of doubt in his voice, his close encounters with that particular pokémon had made it impossible to forget the sound of its cry.
"Hold on!" Brock yelled from the cockpit's doorway before ducking back inside. Jessie was almost afraid of asking why they would need to when she felt the g-forces pulling at her body as the ship began to accelerate. The fuselage rattled and groaned; the combined noise of the thrusters and the rotor blades reached an earsplitting pitch, drowning out Dawn and Jessie's screams.
Brock appeared once more in the doorway, his expression dark before he spoke again.
"Brace yourselves, we're going down."