"It's going to take Charizard hours to get here…" Ash realized, pacing the laboratory. He had made the call to Charicific Valley, and he was anxiously awaiting the dragon's arrival.
"And who knows what horrible deeds Butch and Cassidy are up to even as we speak?" asked Jessie, in such a melodramatic tone that even James raised his eyebrows.
"Ash, something's up with those two," said May, in an undertone. "I don't like it."
"I know, but we can't risk losing anymore trainers…" he said. "We'll just have to go to Viridian City now." He turned to Professor Oak. "If Charizard shows up, can you tell him to meet me at Viridian City?"
"Of course," the professor replied.
Ash nodded a thanks and turn back to Jessie and James.
"Can you guys take us to Team Rocket's headquarters?" he asked them.
"Just follow us!" Jessie replied, with an uncharacteristically sweet smile, prompting May and Max to exchange suspicious glances.
"Brock!" Vulpix exclaimed, as she emerged from the Pokéball and leaped into his arms.
"Vulpix!? How've you been?" Brock asked, pleased to see his old friend.
"Oh, I'm fine," she assured him. "It's Suzie who could use a bit of help."
"What happened to her?" the young man asked, concerned. He still held a place in his heart for Suzie, a place more hallowed than any of the other girls who had ever caught his eye could hope to have. Even though Suzie considered him as just a good friend, and nothing more, Brock knew that his feelings for her would probably never go away.
"Nothing, for the moment," said Vulpix. "Champion Lance's Dragonite showed up, with Lance unconscious; he had been attacked."
"What!?" Brock asked, stunned. "Lance, the most powerful trainer of the Elite Four?"
"You're telling me! And while Suzie and I were trying to help them, someone attacked the shop! It was a green-haired kid with a Roselia…"
"That sounds familiar…" said Brock. "It sounds like someone my friends and I crossed paths with in Hoenn…" He trailed off. Could Drew have been one of the missing trainers?
"Well, anyway, Suzie told me to give you this note…" said Vulpix, handing him the piece of paper.
"I hope you're alright, Brock," the note read. "I wish I could say that I am, but I don't know what will have happened to me by the time you get this note. Something terrible is about to happen; the attack on Lance proves that much, and somehow I've been pulled into it. That's why I had to send Vulpix to safety; I couldn't stand the thought of something happening to her, and you're the only person I can trust Vulpix to. She thinks she's delivering information. Please don't tell her the real reason why I've sent her to you; she'd be crushed. I know you'll look after her… perhaps better than I ever could. Sincerely, Suzie."
"What'd she say?" asked Vulpix.
Brock struggled to keep a straight face.
"Oh, she was just… telling me what she knew of the situation… which isn't that much," he bluffed. "Tell you what, Vulpix… You must be hungry after your trip here; how about I get you something to eat?"
"Sure!" the fox exclaimed.
She followed him happily as they headed back to Pewter Gym. Brock, in the meantime, was pondering over what to do with the situation at hand.
"Why on earth would Drew attack Suzie?" he asked himself. "He was never that kind of person. And how does he even know about her? I never even mentioned her name to May or Max, let alone Drew…" His glance fell on Vulpix, who was blissfully unaware of the seriousness of the matter. "And what am I supposed to tell Vulpix? What am I supposed to do to help!? I can't let Suzie stay alone to be attacked again!"
He shook his head, trying to banish the thought of something like that happening. Sabrina's prediction was beginning to make more and more sense. She had predicted, after all, that he would be attacked, and that he would make a dangerous mistake—the same warning she had given Misty. He wasn't sure at all of the meaning behind those words, but he knew he had to somehow prevent that prediction from coming true. But he wasn't concerned for himself; he was intrinsically selfless, and was thinking about how if something happened to him, so many people and Pokémon would be left vulnerable: his siblings, Vulpix, his other Pokémon… not to mention his honorary siblings, Ash and Misty…
He sighed, quietly, so that Vulpix couldn't hear. He was usually on top of things and always prepared. But now he was being taken by surprise, swept into some strange fiasco.
"I just hope I don't mess this up…" he thought.
Suzie was expecting to be attacked again; she had locked up her shop and was making sure that all of the winders were locked when Lance began to stir.
"Where am I?" the dragon tamer asked, upon regaining consciousness. He glanced around at the unfamiliar surroundings.
"You're safe, for now," said Suzie. "You're at my shop on Scissor Street; your Dragonite brought you here."
Dragonite nodded in agreement, and Lance thanked the creature.
"If you don't mind my asking, what on Earth happened to you?" asked Suzie.
"I assume that you've heard about the recent news of trainers going missing?" asked Lance.
Suzie nodded, afraid of finding out where this was going.
"I was following a tip," Lance said. "Apparently, one of the missing trainers had been spotted in the company of Team Rocket—a young boy from the Hoenn region. I found him, and many others (also in the company of Team Rocket) near Celadon City, and this was the same day when Erika reported the damage done to her gym." Lance shuddered. "Something has happened to those trainers; the Rockets ordered to set their Pokémon on me, and they obeyed, zombie-like, as though they had no wills of their own."
"No!" gasped Suzie, horrified, recalling the blank, emotionless expression upon the face of the boy who had attacked her shop.
"It is my fear that Team Rocket has devised some way of mind control, and that all of these disappearing trainers are being forced to join Team Rocket, whether they like it or not," Lance went on. "At any rate, there were too many of them, and they attacked unmercifully. I was certain that I would be taken captive, but instead I awoke here, thanks to Dragonite."
Lance shakily got to his feet.
"What are you doing!?" asked Suzie. "You can't go yet; you need to rest some more--"
"I'm afraid I must; I can't afford to let Team Rocket progress with their plan any further," he said. "Those trainers must be freed… and before I can free them, we must find out how they're being controlled."
"Yes, I suppose it's best if you do go…" said Suzie. "While you were unconscious, a green-haired boy attacked the shop with a Roselia. My Vulpix was able to drive him off, but--"
"That is the boy missing from Hoenn," Lance informed her. "I'm afraid that he might return; make sure that you properly barricade yourself in here."
"Yes, of course."
"Come, Dragonite," the man said, and both he and the dragon left the shop. Suzie immediately locked the door again, sighing.
"Vulpix will be safe," she said to herself. "She has a better chance with Brock than with me. I just wonder how he's going to react to that note I sent. I know I sounded very hopeless in it, but I didn't want to put on the façade that everything if fine when it really isn't…"
Her thoughts were diverted by a slow, steady striking upon the door. She froze, debating with whether she wanted to hazard a glance. In the end, she did so.
Twilight had already fallen upon Scissor Street; all she could see through the glass was a darkened silhouette. Whoever it was, it wasn't Lance; Lance was taller, and wore his trademark cape.
"Who's out there…?" she called, not daring to go anywhere near the door.
There was no answer; the figure continued to slowly pound upon the door. To Suzie, each strike sounded like a crack of thunder.
"Go away!" she ordered. And without waiting for a response, she fled into the interior of the shop, seeking shelter in a storage closet. The pounding on the door could still be heard from within it.
Jessie, James, and Meowth, in the meantime, had dutifully taken Ash, and May to Viridian City in their hot-air balloon (though Pikachu was sure to give Team Rocket a harsh glare, warning them to stay away). The duo had refused at first to get into any of their less-than-perfect contraptions, but eventually decided that the balloon would be best; Ash did not want Butch and Cassidy's plan to escalate to the point that Misty or Brock would be in danger.
"Do you think Max will be alright back at the lab?" asked May, concerned for her younger brother. "I'd hate to think that something might happen to him while we're trying to stop those guys."
"I'm sure he's going to be fine," said Ash. "They're only after trainers, remember? He doesn't even have any Pokémon."
"I know…" she replied. "But Dad's a Gym Leader; they might take Max in order to get Dad to give in to their demands." A horrified look crossed her face. "Oh, no! They'd do anything--"
Ash began to assure her that with Professor Oak and Tracey at the lab, along with imminent arrival of Charizard, Max would be fine. While he was doing so, James once again questioned Jessie.
"Do you remember what those two said about Team Rocket's membership drive?" he asked.
"So what if I do?" asked Jessie, annoyed at the memory of Cassidy's smug look.
"Well… all this talk about missing trainers has me wondering--"
"James, please," the redhead replied. "I don't want to hear about it."
"Shh!" ordered Meowth. "If they hear you, you'll ruin our whole plan!" He indicated Ash, who was still trying to convince May that everything would turn out alright.
"Just be quiet," Jessie ordered him. With that, she turned away, ignoring the unreadable expression on her teammate's face.
"One of these days, Jessie, you'll be sorry you didn't listen to me…"
"What did you say?" she asked, sarcastically.
James didn't reply. Ignoring Meowth's smirk (who was finding their constant bickering somewhat amusing), he leaned against the rim of the balloon's basket, in a semi-sulk.
"Why do I have to be the only member of Team Rocket with a shred of conscience!?" he thought to himself. He was half-listening to Ash and May's conversation. "It must be nice to have teammates who actually care about your well-being…"
James had to reflect upon how he had no human friends who actually cared for him. His parents never understood him, Jessebelle wanted to change him, and Jessie… Jessie only cared about herself. His only true friends seemed to be Pokémon; his Growlithe was forever loyal, Chimecho was forever grateful for all the time he spent doting on her, and Weezing had been his traveling companion for years (and now he was severely regretting releasing it; that two-headed creature had been his best friend on the road).
James had envied Ash and his companions before; they had good food, money, and strong Pokémon (three things that he and his teammates could've used more of). But he realized now that he had one more reason to envy them: their friendship. He had seen for years, how Ash, Misty, and Brock endlessly supported each other through many a trial and mishap; May and Max, despite only joining their group in the last year, were also treated the same way.
Jessie never showed him that kind of friendship. Sure, she saved him from being forced to marry Jessebelle, but that had only been after she found out that she wouldn't be getting any of his money.
It was true; he seemed to be the only member of Team Rocket with a conscience. And perhaps he was the only member with a heart.