If there was anything Grunt Robbie hated more than guard duty, it was guard duty with Grunt Victor. Apparently unsatisfied with the crushing boredom of pacing back and forth down a single hallway for eight hours, Grunt Victor felt the need to whistle. Any old tune would do, although Grunt Victor definitely showed a preference for higher-keyed songs that resulted in more wheezy breaths than actual whistling.
Grunt Robbie supposed it could be worse. He once had sentry duty with Grunt Tony, who spent the whole shift talking about his timeshare in Olivine. Of course, that was nothing compared to Grunt Joshua's legendary political rants. Stories of those were regularly circulated by whoever had worked on his maintenance shift that day. And at the end of the day, absolutely anything was better than his old job at the wiseman gifts counter at the Celadon Department Store.
All in all, whistling really was pretty tolerable. True, it was annoying; and sure, it was almost never in tune; and yes, the songs that were recognizable usually weren't even enjoyable before being whistlefied; and okay, maybe Grunt Victor's velvety, four-octave singing voice made the fact that he chose whistling even more frustrating, but it wasn't the literal worst thing to be stuck with.
However, when Grunt Victor hit a note so sour that it made Grunt Robbie physically flinch, he decided that yes, it was the worst.
"Shut up," he said abruptly.
"Your whistling. It's terrible." They both stopped walking.
"I have to practice if I want to get better," Grunt Victor said, crossing his arms. He leaned against the wall and yawned.
"Practice at home. Practice on the weekend. Practice literally anywhere other than here." Despite his annoyance, he couldn't help but yawn too. "It's bad enough I have to walk until my blisters pop." He yawned again, this time much wider and longer. "But I shouldn't… have…" His eyes drooped, and he saw the air was speckled with tiny, purple flakes. As he fumbled dully with his alert transmitter, he fell heavily to the floor, with Grunt Victor soon following after.
Once both lay sleeping on the cold metal floor, a hatch on the air vent above them swung open, and a butterfree fluttered out, followed by a broad-shouldered man who landed deftly on his feet. His perfectly coiffed hair had remained undamaged despite the close quarters, as had his pressed suit. Once the dust had settled on the ground, he pulled the bandana off of his mouth, revealing a devilish grin that suggested he could just as easily seduce an enemy as incapacitate them with a flying arm bar.
"Nice sleep powder, Wings," he said, cocking an eyebrow and returning the pokémon to its ball. "It's too bad, though." He nudged one of the grunt's cheeks with his glossy shoe, finding the poor guy totally unconscious. "They probably could have told us how to get to Giovanni."
The Pokémon League had given him the task of flushing out the Rockets as soon as possible and by any means necessary. While he was sure the organization could probably become trouble if left unchecked for too long, the fact that one kid had stopped all of their recent missions did little to heighten his sense of urgency. So it was with utter calmness that he sauntered down the hallway.
"Freeze!" It was a shout from behind him.
Reinforcements, he thought drolly, brushing his fingers across the poké balls on his belt and turning around. "Finally, some service!" he shouted as the squad of black-clad men approached. Their rattata scampered in front of them. "I need directions, but I haven't seen a soul since I got here. Other than these two gentlemen." He motioned toward the sleeping grunts. "Obviously their hospitality could use a little work."
"Directions?" one of the grunts snarled. "To where? The exit?" His crowd chuckled.
"Witty!" the trainer replied enthusiastically. "But no, I'm actually looking for an elevator pass. I'm extremely claustrophobic, and being this far underground is not ideal." He adjusted his tie. "I'd be very appreciative to anyone who could help me out."
"I'll help you out." One of the grunts walked forward, and three rattata scampered menacingly behind him. "If you stop talking right now, we might let you keep a hand."
"What a deal!" He could feel the rats sniffing at his calves, so he had no choice but to let the grunt restrain his hands with a rope. "It's very tempting, really. I have a counteroffer, though."
"Oh yeah?" The grunt yanked the knot, digging the rope into the wrists of his captive.
"Indeed." He turned his head toward the grunt behind him and smiled pleasantly. "If you promise not to struggle, I'll make sure you're out of range."
Before the grunt could question it, his right calf was being hooked by the man's foot, pushing him off balance and sending him falling to the ground. A cloud of sleep powder puffed up around him, flying into the faces of his rattata, whose aggression dulled immediately. Before the group of grunts could get any closer, the man shook loose the poké ball he had slipped down his pant leg, ramped it off the toe of his shoe, and kicked it into the crowd. Immediately upon hitting a grunt's chest, it bounced back to the trainer, leaving behind a glowing white pokémon that quickly exploded in a blast of fire.
The man turned away not only in order to keep the heat from chapping his lips, but more importantly to allow the flames to lick the rope. The loose embers reached just far enough to burn it off and set him free. Quickly enough, the fire was reduced to a gang of smoldering bodies and one elegant arcanine.
"Excellent range control, Ace." He recalled the pokémon to its ball and clipped it back onto his belt. "And I got to use my poké ball kick. Always a crowd pleaser."
"Wh-… who are you?" As promised, the fallen grunt had remained out of range, though his eyelids were currently fluttering as he fought the sleep that had taken down his rodent partners.
The man smiled and adjusted his suit jacket. "Me? I'm known as many different things by many different people. To some, I'm a shadow, too commonplace to notice but too pervasive to escape. To others, I'm an angel, goodness in human form that appears from nowhere. To you, though?" He paused. "You can call me-"
He was cut short as a raticate violently bit through his neck from behind. After sputtering blood for a few moments, he fell dead to the ground, his hair immaculately kempt even as red pooled around his face.
Sure of the kill, the raticate bounded back to its trainer. He was another Rocket grunt, although his uniform had been freely adjusted from standard issue. White gloves, no hat, and a button-up in place of a sweatshirt set him apart from the crowd of his mostly blackened teammates.
"Sorry to be so violent," he said with a grin and shrug. "But you could really learn a thing or two from me about getting straight to the point." He scratched his pokémon behind the ear. "I'm Ben, by the way." He held out his hand and shrugged when the dead man didn't respond.
He looked around at the three sleeping men, the passed out rattata, and the burned corpses and rolled his eyes.
"Dumbasses," he mumbled, flicking off a piece of sleep powder that had stuck to his sleeve. "Not sure why tying him up was a better option than killing him, but I guess I have a lot to learn about mediocre villainy. I'd better get the cleanup crew in here."
Not that he made it a secret, but Ben was far from impressed with Team Rocket. When he defected from Team Aqua and moved to Kanto, he was grateful for the chance to work with a team that was just after money instead of literally trying to flood the entire world. What he soon learned was that even if Aqua was batshit crazy, they were a well-oiled batshit crazy. They had leadership and factions and forethought, so that even when they led members off a figurative cliff and into a literal ocean, it was with a clearly articulated purpose. It really unified the whole team.
The Rockets, on the other hand, just tossed members onto random heist squads with a vague plan to steal. Which would be great if they succeeded in anything other than "causing trouble again," but they always fell apart at the last minute thanks to any one person's inability to organize the team into a collective attack. Sure, there were a few successes, mostly due to the incompetence of their targets. But stealing pokémon made enemies fast, and Team Rocket wouldn't last long if their victims ever teamed up.
Ben considered it a personal duty to change that.
Later in the break room, he recounted his run-in with the intruder, emphasizing his common sense and proactive attitude. "I heard an explosion, so naturally I released my raticate and came running. I didn't wanna be caught without my pokémon. Her fangs can snap a wartortle's shell right in half. That's a good lesson for you guys: take the offensive if you're able to surprise your opponent."
His audience, several young grunts drinking coffee and eating donuts, listened raptly. They were a batch of fresh recruits, minds fertile for learning. Ben knew he had to get to them before basic training poisoned their poor little heads with discouragements of any ambitions or aims for glory.
"The guy was in the middle of a big speech about his name or something, which is a huge mistake, oh my god." He took a drag of his banned cigarette. "You know when most people let their guard down? When they're bragging." The crowd nodded with wide eyes. "Don't monologue, don't preach, and don't you dare pontificate." He pointed the pair of fingers holding his smoke around the room.
"So anyway," he continued, "I fought the urge to surprise him with a one-liner and instead went straight for the kill." He paused. "And I do mean that literally." His wink triggered laughter and cheers. How could Giovanni turn down his admin request when he practically had a pre-existing squadron? "What do I always say, everybody?"
In unison, the grunts said, "Victory is in the kill, not the thrill," to which Ben responded with enthusiastic thumbs up. In fact, he was so wrapped up in his motivational speech that he didn't notice the silent grunt in the corner.
Leonard Nix. 18. Hometown: Cerulean City. Pokémon issued: Zubat. That was about all anyone knew about the quiet young man, and even that much would require a peek into the member database. Having joined the Rockets looking for some structure, he was quite disappointed to find it full of rough young men who refused to do the simplest of tasks, like polish their boots or make their beds. And good god, who could expect them to when radicals like Ben scampered around the base practically inciting riots?
Unable to stomach the display any longer, he stood, took a final sip of his black coffee, and poured the rest down the sink. With one last, unnoticed glare, he left the break room and walked briskly down the hallway, boots glimmering under the fluorescent lights.
Did these people even respect Team Rocket? Did they understand the art of crime at all? Leonard didn't think so, if that awful speech was any indication. Victory was not a single moment, or even a successful heist or two. It was systematic. Persistent. Victory meant that everyone knew you and everyone feared you. Constructing it required patience and panache. Some had to die, yes, but others had to live to tell the tale.
Another grunt nodded and smiled as he passed, but Leonard merely scowled.
Two weeks of shenanigans was enough. If he wanted yelling and cheering, he would have just stayed home. There was only one person he could turn to that would understand. It wasn't Ben or any of the drunk party boys Leonard was with in basic training. No, he had to talk to the man who shared his vision of a society controlled by Rockets.
Reaching the end of the hallway, he swiped his elevator pass and stepped inside. Once arriving at basement level 4, he made a beeline for Giovanni's office. Two guards stood post outside.
"I need to speak to Giovanni."
"What for?" the grunt on the right asked.
"To report absolute, chaotic insubordination," he answered tightly. "Now let me in."
The guards shared a looked and shrugged. "Okay." As the left one pulled out his access pass, Leonard cleared his throat aggressively.
"Aren't you forgetting something?"
Again, they looked at each other and shrugged.
With an exasperated sigh, Leonard yanked his ID from his pocket and showed it to the guards. "You can't just let anyone run around in here. IDs, people. We have them for a reason."
With a final shrug, the guards let him in.
It was the first time Leonard had been in Giovanni's office. As expected, it was tidy and filled with knick-knacks from various places and time periods. A pair of wooden lugia and ho-oh carvings from Johto. A miniature model of the luxurious Royal Unova . Even a glass-encased gracidea flower from Sinnoh. So refined and artistic. The man himself was seated behind his sturdy oak desk, reading from the stack of papers in front of him.
The boss looked up and smiled politely. "What can I do for you? You're a new recruit, aren't you?"
"Yes, sir," he answered. "My name is Leonard Nix, and I'm very excited to be a part of this wonderful organization. I think the team – no, the empire you've built here is one of the most impressive in the world, and knowing I get to play a-"
Giovanni raised his hand with a small laugh, and Leonard stopped. "Thank you, Leonard, but I'm assuming you came here to do more than compliment me."
Leonard couldn't help but grin. Precise, no frills, not an ounce of showmanship. Giovanni was truly everything he was said to be. "Yes, sir. I thought you would interested to know that one Benjamin Vanguard has been attempting to influence new recruits with private lessons that often conflict directly with what basic training provides us."
Giovanni's stare was friendly but distant, a frozen center wrapped in a warm blanket. It sent shivers down Leonard's spine.
"In what way?" the boss asked patiently.
As the grunt-in-training explained the situation in the break room – as well as several like it he had seen over the past two weeks – his listener nodded intermittently, letting no specific emotion bleed into his facial expressions. When the report was finished, both parties stayed silent for a moment.
"This is very serious," Giovanni said finally. "Our training is obviously designed with specific purposes in mind, as I'm sure you understand." The boy nodded eagerly. "Thank you very much, Leonard. It is admirable the way you devote yourself to Team Rocket above any one of its members. I assure you Benjamin will receive the proper reprimand. I have to ask, though: why tell me? Surely this won't make you popular with the fellow trainees."
"Well, Gio- sir, I just think it's important for there to be a network of trustworthy people in order to weed out the dissidents. I want you to know that I'm someone you can trust, someone who can handle any responsibility you throw at me." He adjusted his posture to a straighter position. "If you need anything, just know that I am your right-hand man."
Giovanni laughed out loud at this. "Ambitious young man, aren't you?" He stood from his desk and walked toward the trainee. "I'll keep that in mind." With a firm handshake, he said goodbye to Leonard and leaned back against the front of the desk. As soon as the door slid closed behind the boy, Giovanni's slight smile hardened into an expression of stony neutrality. He pressed a button on the phone next to him, and after a few speakerphone rings, the person on the other line picked up.
"Yes, sir?" the voice crackled.
"Please locate Benjamin Vanguard and have him come to my office as soon as possible. Oh, and for the next two weeks, make sure trainee Leonard Nix's rations are cut in half.
"Will do, sir." The line went silent. Returning to his seat, Giovanni began reading the reports once again.
It wasn't that he enjoyed punishing people. If he had his way, all of his grunts would live in blissful homogeneity. Unfortunately, there was always a frustrated veteran or an overly ambitious novice dying to have their voice heard, and they had to be punished. If he let them seize the reins of Team Rocket, his brainchild would no longer be his.
He stood and tucked the papers in the top drawer of a filing cabinet. Just as he was doing so, the electronic door swished open, and Ben walked in.
"You needed to see me, sir?"
"Benjamin," he said, smiling and strolling toward him. "Good to see you. How is everything?"
His rigid position of attention softened slightly. "I'm fine, sir. I stopped an intruder earlier today, so I guess the base is a little safer, huh?"
"I heard about that," Giovanni said with a nod. "Quite efficient."
"Thank you, sir." He stayed silent for a second before continuing. "You know, I don't mean to overstep my bounds, but… I was thinking I've earned a promotion, maybe to an admin level. I would really love to train a team and influence some of our younger recruits."
Giovanni smiled tersely. "It sounds like you already have." There was a sickening pause. "Listen, Benjamin. I know you're talented. I know you're smart. But this isn't the first report I've gotten of you trying to exert your influence. What you need to understand is that we have a very specific way of doing things in Team Rocket. Everyone is expected to pull their own weight. No heroes. No eccentrics. Just a group of people following orders. My orders."
Ben was breathing shallowly. "Understood, sir. I'll make sure to keep in line in the future. My apologies."
"That's very mature. Unfortunately, it's too late for that." He gently tossed a poké ball in front of him, releasing his gargantuan kangaskhan. It stood imposingly in between the trainers.
"Gi-Giovanni," Ben sputtered, stepping back. Thinking fast, he ripped his raticate's ball off the belt clip but was stopped when the kangaskhan grabbed hold of his fist with a sickening grip. Then, with a squeeze, bones and thermoset plastic crunched in the pokémon's palm, and Ben crumpled to the floor screaming, held up only by the monster still clutching his disfigured hand.
"I'm sorry to see you go, Benjamin," Giovanni said, not bothering to raise his voice over the labored whimpering of the grunt. "You're a good battler, and I think you deserve much better than this. Unfortunately, protocol is protocol, and disobedience is not tolerated." In response to her trainer's nod, the kangaskhan seized Ben's head.
It wasn't that Giovanni liked the violence. He would much prefer if nobody stepped out of line and his floors could remain clean. Still, he knew that zero tolerance was the only feasible policy. Nobody knew Team Rocket like he did. Nobody understood the delicate balance between criminal and murderous. If he wanted trained killers, he would train them. If he wanted terrifying maniacs, he would torture them. He didn't see crime as a way to scare people or enslave a region. He didn't even care about building a reputation, although that was certainly a bonus. No, as long as he was leader of the Rockets, there was only thing he focused on: profit. Anything else was just a distraction.
His phone began ringing, and returning his kangaskhan to her ball, he walked over and pulled the receiver to his ear.
Someone on the other line began speaking frantically, and Giovanni turned his attention to the security screens lining the wall to his right. After a few moments of scanning, he saw it. A boy had just come downstairs and was looking curiously around.
"Don't worry," he assured the other speaker. "You did what you could. We don't need any mavericks in this organization. I'll send an alert to the base and we'll take him out."
After hanging up, he dialed a few buttons on the phone, sending a notice to every grunt's transmitter. He then called the cleanup crew and sat back at his desk to wait for them. Looking at the monitor, he saw the boy wandering around. He was on the basement level 2, tapping his foot on an arrow-marked tile and yanking it away as it began to pull him forward. Just one pathetic child thinking he can be a hero. No matter. He would be flushed out soon.
On cue, a guard came on screen, and the boy tossed out his wartortle in self-defense. After a quick skirmish, the grunt's koffing was taken down and the boy continued onward.
"Don't get too excited, boy," Giovanni muttered. "There's more where that came from."