I don't own any copyrighted characters, ideas, plots or Pokmon used in this fanfiction.

The Johto League

Chapter 22

Flying Duo

The next few days were spent travelling westwards towards Olivine City. The weather was warming up, giving us long, bright, sunny days, perfect for training, and with summer in mind we'd decided to make for Olivine and its beach by the ocean. Our route took us through fields and small forests. Gary made sure to use all the light hours for more training, while Meowth preferred to lounge on my shoulders and have a cat-nap in the sun as we walked. When he wasn't sleeping, we chatted, and I asked how he came to be able to speak human and walk upright. It wasn't a strange innate talent like mine; he'd had to work and practice for over a year to do it. He loved to talk about the struggle of learning, as if showing off his tenacity, but avoided questions as to what the effort had been for.

During the travelling I had it in mind to catch another pokémon for my team. I didn't have the most balanced set of types in the world. However the area we worked our way across was craggy and jagged, home to quite rough pokémon. We'd seen herds of Tauros grazing and I certainly wasn't experienced enough to handle raising an unpredictable Tauros, not to mention the inevitable stampede if we tried to disrupt them. We saw the usual common Rattata and a few wild Meowth, who now seemed odd to me, running on all four legs. Magnemite also inhabited the area, but I couldn't see myself catching one of the floating expressionless doohickeys.

Gary and I decided that it was time to try out a practice battle on more fair terms. We both had acquired reasonably new team members. Standing apart on the dusty road, Gary sent his baby Elekid out to battle, and I responded in kind with my Growlithe, who burst from his black-and-red Luxury Ball in a burst of sparks.

The two inexperienced pokémon eyed each other, not sure what stance to oppose their enemy with, both unsure, being somewhere around the same young age.

'Elekid, use your thundershock!' Gary started off, and Elekid began rotating its arms to generate electricity.

'Go get 'em, Charlie!' I encouraged the hesitant puppy pokémon, using his new nickname. 'Go use bite attack!'

Growlithe bravely launched himself and tried to get his teeth into the charging Elekid, but received an electric shock on contact. Gary sniggered.

'Give it a low kick while the Growlithe's stunned!'

This resulted in more of a scuffle, the two rolling around in the dirt, trying to injure the other. Neither could manage to get the advantage or free themselves, so Gary and I actually started laughing. But we stopped, noticing a disturbance in some bushes to the side of the path. The fight was forgotten as we watched a Vulpix emerge onto the path. It trotted across our battleground, oblivious.

I grabbed for a spare pokéball. 'Maybe I can catch a Vulpix this time!' I said, running after it and tossing the pokéball once I was close enough. It bonked the Vulpix on the head and rolled off harmlessly. The little fox pokémon stared around anxiously, then fled.

'Huh, that was weird.'

Gary and I called back the pokémon we'd been fighting with and he tried to locate the escaping Vulpix.

'If you failed to catch it like that, must mean the pokémon already has an owner somewhere.' That made sense, but I couldn't see any people nearby.

'Stay here guys, I'll see where it went,' I said, already dashing after the fleeing pokémon. It hadn't gone far, and I spotted it trotting alongside a hedgerow. I wouldn't have thought I could out-run a Vulpix, but I closed in. It was glancing back anxiously as I ran up, breathlessly trying to talk it into calming down. I stretched out my hand as we ran, hoping it wouldn't attack, and brushed one of its tails. The Vulpix squeaked and put on a burst of speed.

Worried it would get away from me, I jumped, getting more worn out by the second. I nearly threw myself into the hedgerow, but in the process caught hold of the frightened fire pokémon. It didn't attack or respond to my words, but didn't object to being picked up. Tiredly, I trudged back to my team-mates with the runaway pokémon in my arms.

'Whoa, you caught it,' Gary blinked, 'in the non-pokéball sense.'

While the Vulpix wouldn't respond to me at all, she did murmur a few words to Meowth when he conversed in poke-language. She seemed to be lost and was able to tell us that her owner lived in the only house nearby, further down the road we'd been on. Quite cheerfully, we carried her there.

The house was easy to find. It was quaint, and the door was answered by an equally quaint gentleman. His face lit up when he saw us with the Vulpix.

'Oh, there's my girl!' he exclaimed, plucking her from my arms and petting her. She mewled happily. 'Do come in,' he welcomed us.

We ended up seated around a table in his living room as he explained that the Vulpix was his special companion, but happened to wander away from the house when a door was left open.

'Poor old girl, she's always after an adventure,' he chuckled, stroking the content Vulpix on his lap. 'She can't find her way back, you see, she's quite blind.'

'Blind?!' all three of us echoed. Having spoken at the same time, he thankfully didn't realise Meowth had joined in.

'Yes, nearly completely blind, but you don't need to shout, I'm not deaf,' he smiled. 'I'll need to thank all you kids properly for bringing her home to me.'

We followed him around to the back of his house, where surprisingly, there stood an aircraft hangar.

He pulled a switch and pearly industrial lights flickered on. The enormous building was filled with crates, boxes and unrecognisable pieces of metal, but our attention was caught by huge deflated balloon canvases, spread around and ready to be repacked and stored. He clearly had a great passion for these balloons.

'As you might be aware,' he explained, 'our town hosts the great hot air balloon race, and the competition is going to take place tomorrow. People here love flying in their balloons, and you get to use your own pokémon to try and reach the finish the fastest. If you kids are entering, it would be my pleasure to loan you one of my super-aerodynamic hyper-fast balloons for the duration of the race.'

As he spoke he handed us photos of his balloons in action. The huge balloons were shaped like pokémon, from hovering, bloated Hoppip to a big rounded Electrode. Meowth slightly broke his normal pokémon façade to grab these photos and stare at them avidly.

'I think we'd love to, sir, but we only just arrived and we haven't signed up for it,' I said.

'I should think they're still taking entrants now, but you'll have to hurry to the Pokémon Center!' he smiled.

We thanked him profusely and assured him that if we could sign up in time, we'd be back the next day to rent a balloon, and as soon as we were done, Meowth dragged us from the house. He'd become twitchy since seeing the photographs and couldn't speak if there were others around.

He pointed towards the town ahead and urged us forward. 'We're gonna enter that balloon competition if it's the last t'ing I do!'

I attempted to calm him down. 'How do we win exactly? I don't know anything about balloons, and I really doubt Gary does. We'd probably just be putting ourselves in danger.'

'We're going to win,' Meowth jumped up to my shoulder, bubbling with excitement, 'because I'm going to drive.'

We managed to sign up, all right, Meowth wouldn't let anything stand in the way of this competition.

'We'll have to be quick,' Gary commented, 'they'll be starting in a couple of hours, and everyone's already inflating their balloons.'

Walking along a dirt path with wild flowers and small houses, watching multicoloured balloons bounce into life on every side was not something I'd ever expected to experience, but I wasn't complaining.

When we reached the house the blind Vulpix was trying to comfort her owner, who greeted us very distraught.

'I'm sorry, they've all gone!' he said. 'This morning half the town turned up, wanting new balloons! The only ones I have left don't even fly...'

I worriedly asked him for an explanation, keeping Meowth quiet, as he was clearly itching to pepper the poor man with questions.

'It's odd that I didn't notice before, but all of my balloons aren't fit to fly. The fabric is torn, the baskets are flimsy, some of the support straps are completely gone… how could I not have noticed before?'

We tried to reassure him a little. Once we were outside the house I stopped my companions to think about this. Meowth seemed too upset to say anything.

'He's an expert balloon maker, he would have noticed if those balloons had something wrong with them before now…'

Gary caught onto my line of thinking. 'Somebody tried to influence the competition by sabotaging the balloons…'

'James?! What are you doing? You can't put that near the burner! And you can't tie it like that…'

'I'm sorry Jessie… all this balloon business is a lot harder without Meowth around…'

The two Rockets were frantically trying to prepare their balloon for flight as it inflated. The Meowth shaped balloon hovered above their heads, filling out as they argued.

'Jessie, I don't think we're going to have this ready in time… they're going to start without us…' James whined.

'Stop worrying so much. Even if they go, we made sure most of those balloons won't make it off the ground,' Jessie laughed.

They continued, unaware that Meowth and I had crept under the bushes next to them, out of sight but hearing every word. Gary had gone to the main lift-off area to warn as many people as possible about the danger of their balloons being sabotaged.

'So they did it, they're cheating,' I whispered angrily.

'Dose guys have crossed a line,' Meowth replied, nearly shaking with rage.

'What do you say we disqualify them. You cut the tether, I'll do the rest… on three.'

Meowth nodded.

Jessie was crowing about the amazing criminal feats they could perform when they won this contest. James couldn't fasten basket burner. Distracted and engrossed in their spat, they were taken by complete surprise when Meowth and I streaked towards them.

I threw my weight against the basket and Meowth made an elegant leap and slash at the rope holding the basket to the ground. It tore apart under his claws. I gripped the basket tightly and pulled myself in as it began to rise. Meowth jumped up James' body, confusing the already befuddled man, and sprung from his head up towards the basket, where I caught him.

James stared in disbelief and Jessie began yelling at us, but both were helpless and could only watch their Meowth-shaped balloon rise without them in it.

I heard the distant sound of a gong, signalling the start of the race. Far away a voice sounded over some loudspeakers.

Meowth was already in action, climbing around the basket to check the equipment. He seemed engrossed. I looked out over the landscape as we rose. I could already see for miles, and just ahead the balloons of the other participants were rising. Several of them popped or broke apart just after leaving the ground.

'So you really can fly this?' I questioned.

'I been flying this baby for years!' he assured, then his face fell. 'Darnit, Jimmy-boy didn't fix the burner up right… we got no fuel for it!'

'We need fire for it? No problem!' I unclipped a pokéball and opened it. 'C'mon Spike, help us keep this balloon up!'

My Quilava shook himself energetically, and took a moment to process the altitude. But he seemed to enjoy it, and took his place on the framework under the balloon. I watched him and Meowth set up a little system, where Quilava set alight his flame collar to heat the air, and Meowth would poke him on the butt to turn him off.

We rose ever higher and caught up to the remaining competition balloons. Our Meowth-shaped flier blended right in with the Magnemite, Fearow, and Chansey balloons flying around us. Meowth even seemed more alive than ever before, doing something he knew he was good at, a smile plastered on his face. He was enjoying it immensely, so were Quilava and I, but he was still completely determined to win. He guided the balloon safely around a mountain peak and we slowly advanced on the others as we approached the finish line.

As we passed the mountain I heard thunder. A storm could be disastrous, but the black clouds overhead weren't in the way of the course. A little shower of rain caught us as we sped on, but it was nothing that Spike couldn't handle. Just after that I glimpsed the finish line – a circle with an X inside shaved into the grass which needed to be hit by a marker, thrown from the balloon.

I looked at the two remaining balloons we had to pass. One of them was the image of a Pikachu. They seemed to have brushed closer to the storm, but were still powering ahead.

'Meowth, I think we could do this! There's only two balloons left.'

Meowth didn't share my optimism. 'The twoips are in dat Pikachu one.'

Well, he was right. I could just make out the people in the Pikachu balloon; it was Ash and his friends. Gary wouldn't be happy to find that they'd caught up to us, but for now, our balloon just had to catch up to theirs.

The occupants of the Pikachu balloon looked back. As we gained speed for the final push it was easier to make them out, and they didn't look at all happy to see our balloon. But their expressions changed to confusion when they saw me, not the Team Rocket members, in the basket. Their balloon was aided by a Noctowl, strapped to the balloon with a harness and guiding it. Ash's Noctowl, the one with shiny colouration, left a trail of sparkles as it flew. The other balloon we were tied with was designed in the likeness of a Fearow and pulled by one to match.

The finish was coming up below us. I held up the marker ball with its streamers, determined not to let Meowth down after coming this far. Meowth steered us expertly into an air current for a burst of speed, and Quilava was letting the balloon descend slightly, watching the finish of the race eagerly.

The Fearow balloon was piloted by the Vulpix owner, I realised, and a boy who must be his son. He was such a nice man, and doing it with his boy, he really deserved to win… but then so did Meowth, I'd never seen him so inspired and ambitious before.

I saw Ash lift his marker ball up, preparing to throw as the cross came closer and closer. The boy in the Fearow balloon did the same. I raised ours, carefully watching the target. We were all neck-and-neck.

'Now!' Meowth yelled, so I threw. So did the other two.

Ash's and the boy's balls hit the cross target together, both nestled slightly away from the exact middle. My ball came down a fraction of a second later, hit a perfect bulls-eye on top of the previous markers, and rolled away.

Ash and the Vulpix man's boy won in a tie.

Meowth set the balloon down in the finish area. I stared at the basket, feeling that I'd let him down. I returned Spike and Meowth and I packed the deflated balloon away into the basket, and just left it in the field. Team Rocket would probably reclaim it later.

'Meowth… I'm sorry,' I finally found the voice to say.

'Hey, it ain't your fault,' he replied, giving me an encouraging look. He wasn't elated, but he was happy. 'I loved gettin' to do dis. I felt so alive!'

I petted him and we realised we needed to find Gary again, but as we went to rejoin the competition group I found we were face to face with Ash and his friends.

'Oh, hi Ash,' I said automatically.

He blinked. 'You know my name?'

'Well, Gary talks about you guys,' I smiled, putting my hands in my pockets.

'We, er, haven't really known Gary to be the most tactful talker,' spoke up the older boy. 'By the way, hi. I'm Brock.'

He held out his hand, so I shook it. 'I'm Holly, it's interesting to finally meet you guys.'

'Yeah, you too. I'm Misty,' the red-headed girl with them joined in the introductions.

'Pikachu pika!' chipped in the electric pokémon from Ash's shoulder.

'Meowth dat's right!' my loudmouthed cat completed. This drew stares.

'So it was you!' Ash growled, recognising Meowth's identity from his speech.. 'We wanted to know how come you're using Team Rocket's balloon.'

'Well, we borrowed it from them,' I tried to explain as innocently as possible, 'because they broke other people's balloons on purpose, and Meowth really wanted to fly.'

'But you know that Meowth was part of Team Rocket too?' said Brock. 'I wouldn't trust him if I were you.'

'T'anks a lot, pal,' Meowth frowned, jumping up to my shoulder, 'no worries, dis cat's got himself a bona fide ownership collar.'

Ash scratched his face, looking curious. 'But… is it really okay going around with a Team Rocket pokémon and Gary?'

'It's just fine. Gary's good, he teaches me loads about being a trainer.'

Just at that point Gary found us. The conversation stopped and he gave Ash a cold look.

'Let's get going,' he said sharply.

I left with him, but turned back and waved to Ash's group to be friendly and polite. They didn't seem half bad. Gary actually seemed to be trying to be antisocial. He wasn't going to argue about going back to the Pokémon Center though, even if Ash's group was here too, it was the end of the day. And a tiring day at that.

'I still wish I'd won for you, Meowth,' I sighed, 'you tried so hard, and Spike too, but I should've thrown the marker earlier instead of aiming so much. Maybe if we'd had a fast balloon like we thought we'd get, you could've won.'

Meowth shook his head. 'It's only right that I got to use my old balloon. Nothin' coulda beat dat,' he grinned.