Notes: James' "secret" past comes back to haunt him in this episode... Sound scary? It ain't. I had "Holy Matrimony" in mind as I wrote this episode, but it didn't work out that way. Most noticeably missing are Jessiebelle and Growly. I may fit those elements into another episode.. or not. :p

Disclaimer: I don't own Team Rocket or the Slayers, but wouldn't I be happy if I did...

Episode 3 - Predetermined Fate?

There was a pain inside, a vast, yawning chasm filled with an emptiness that seemed to expand on it's own power. That emptiness twisted and surged spasmodically, a hole growing larger and larger... How much longer... How much longer until... "I'm so hungry I could die!"

"Would you stop that whining, James? We're all hungry, but do you hear anyone else complaining about it?" Jessie snapped.

"Sorry... Jessie..." James mumbled, shoulders slouching down pitifully. What she had said was true, but did she have to be so mean about it? The lavender- (or was is blue?) haired swordsman sighed loudly, continuing to drag himself along behind her. Meowth was slightly farther behind, as usual muttering to itself mysteriously. The path they were on was endless and heading to nowhere, or so it seemed. And no food since yesterday... His stomach growled insistently, but he tried to put it out of his mind and think on something else.

Jessie. They had already been traveling together a month, but James felt as if he had known her for a very long time. At least, he felt he had hit on every annoyance she could possibly have. Maybe it was just how long they'd been walking, or the diminishing supply of Jigglypuff that was around for eating. Or maybe it was just him. If only he could know what...

His thoughts dwindled off when he noticed a rock jutting up out of the path ahead of him. He usually didn't notice rocks until his toes were wedged under them, but this particular rock he recognized. The top was square and the edges sloped downward into the ground. There should be another rock over there that was an interesting reddish color... And there was the rock with the sharp edge that really hurt when you fell over it, and...

"Oh no..."

Jessie stalked down the path, the same one she had been staring at all week, trying to curb her increasing irritation. If they didn't find a town to stop in before long, she was most likely going to go insane. But not without killing a certain clumsy boy and that "I'm so serious" Meowth first. Deep inside, she knew that she wasn't really being fair to them; they were at least trying to be her friends. Well, James was trying harder than Meowth. He meant well, but...

She sighed as James tripped over the next three rocks they came across in a row. He got up on his own quickly enough, dusting himself off and stuttering that he was fine. At least his awkward spells were better than listening to him whine about being hungry. To tell the truth though, she was feeling like doing a little whining herself. Going without food for even a day was leaving her feeling drained, if only they could find a town soon, then--

"Umm... I don't think... I mean... Are you sure you want to go down this road?" Jessie turned to look behind her at James, who had stopped and was looking around nervously.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean... I'm sure there's a much nicer way to get where we're going... wherever that is... and... well... I think we should try and find it." Jessie blinked a few times, then stared harder at James, now fingering his sword hilt anxiously with a sour expression on his face.

"That doesn't make much sense..." she began slowly. "We've been traveling down this road for days, we're not going to go all the way back now!"

"What's delaying us?" Meowth's voice came from below them. It was peering up at the pair questioningly, that ridiculous cape flapping in the breeze as it waited for an answer.

"James wants us to go back, for some reason," Jessie replied, folding her arms and arching an eyebrow at the man in question. "And I'm just dying to know that reason, of course."

"Most unwise to turn back now," Meowth muttered.

"Sorry... Never mind. After... you?" James offered shakily, gesturing for Jessie to go ahead.

"But aren't you going to tell us--"

I can't exactly... right now."

Jessie just shrugged, pretending to brush off the subject as she took the lead again. If he wouldn't tell, she didn't feel like pushing him now. There was always later to pry it out of him. With the use of excessive force, if necessary. But that subject was lost completely when she saw what was ahead.

A wooden sign beckoned to her from beside the road, like a pool of water shimmering in the middle of a scorching desert. "Look, look! Maybe that will tell us if there's a town ahead!" She raced toward it and skidded to a halt to gaze up at it worshipfully. Then her face fell. It was just one of those "missing" posters.

A little boy in fancy-looking clothes stared at her from the rather well-drawn picture with wide green eyes in a face framed with chin-length purplish... hair...

She slowly turned to look at James, who by this time had caught up with her. His face turned quite an interesting shade when he saw that picture.

"Isn't that you, James?" Meowth asked from below again, breaking the silence that had resulted from Jessie swiveling her head back and forth from the picture to James.

"Yes... it has to be..." she muttered to herself, giving the forelock that hung between his eyes a tug. "Same hair... same face... but younger...." She continued in a normal tone, "So James, mind telling us how it is that you're 'missing'?"

"I... That's... that's my brother. Yeah. He... got carried away by a wild Mankey one day, and--"

"Oh please. You can come up with something better than that. Now, I really do think that is--"

"James!" a voice rang out from somewhere farther up the path, cutting off Jessie's words. "Could that be you? Really you?" The voice belonged to a tall, graying man dressed in some sort of uniform, hurrying toward them with a delighted expression covering his features. He strode right into the middle of the group and directly to James to stare at him with his face only inches away.

"I'm sorry, sir, but you must have the wrong... the wrong..."

"Nonsense, you are James! There's no doubt about that!" Jessie and Meowth shared a surprised look until the cat Monster managed to compose itself again. The man continued speaking excitedly, this time to Jessie.

"Thank you! You must be the one who has brought James back to us! Not to mention my Lord's treasured sword! You can't begin know how much this will mean to my Lord and Lady, both! I'm sure there will be quite a reward for this great favor!"

"Reward, huh..." Jessie glanced at James; he had squeezed his eyes shut and looked as though he was trying not to be sick. Exactly what was going on, she didn't know, but she planned on finding out. If that meant James was going to be uncomfortable for awhile, then so be it.

"Alright... Take me to this Lord...."

Several minutes later found them all standing at the front gates of the hugest house Jessie had ever seen. She had had to support James the entire way there since he seemed incapable of walking without falling over. Now she stared at the size of the place with James still leaning against her; it appeared to be a palace in her eyes.

"Oh, look at those fountains! Those columns are huge! Great landscaping too... And you lived here, James?"

"Oh yes, the young Master did live here... before he ran away," the older man - he had only introduced himself as a servant - offered in reply for James, as he also seemed unable to talk.

"And you ran away from this?!" Jessie exclaimed incredulously. "You must be crazy!"

"This is all great," Meowth commented cynically, "but is this going to take long? My quest to discover a means of reverting to my original form waits for no--"

"Oh, shut up!" Jessie snapped at the little cat, shooting it an evil glare. "There's good money in this, and I'm not about to let it slip out of my hands." From the corner of her eye, she thought she saw James wince at those words, but dismissed it momentarily. He still owed her cooking, she remembered that quite well. What she really needed to figure out how to keep James and get the money. Which might turn out to be no simple task.

"If you are all ready now..." the servant began before walking down the path heading toward the door. Meowth pulled part of it's hood up over the lower half of his face, as if that would hide the fact that it was Monster. The servant hadn't even noticed anything odd about a talking Monster. Jessie figured he had probably been trained to ignore things that were unessential to his tasks - a good way to ensure that servants didn't meddle in their master's personal affairs.

Continuing to help James keep upright with one arm as they walked, she tried not to stare anymore at the carved marble fountains and statues, the heavily decorated iron arches, or the numerous varieties of sweet-smelling roses that bordered the path. She didn't need to appear the perfect image of a gawking country girl to anyone who might be watching; looking self-assured and confident almost always came in handy.

After several more long minutes of walking down the ridiculously long path, they finally reached the huge double doors of the house. The servant ushered them inside, then left them to wait in a large room with beautifully carved staircases running up either side. Meowth tapped it's foot impatiently while Jessie turned to James, now miraculously standing unsupported.

"You know something, James... I've been thinking. If you're the son of this Lord - am I correct in assuming that? - then wouldn't that make you the heir to whatever he's lord over?"

"I guess..." James sighed in reply, not sounding terribly thrilled about the prospect.

"Of course he is," a deep and commanding voice intoned from above their heads, "and we are so happy to see that he has finally come to his senses." The voice belonged to an elegantly dressed man standing at the top of the left-hand flight of stairs, a woman in a flowing dress holding his arm. As they descended the stairs, the man continued speaking.

"I am Lord Gabriev, and all the land for twenty miles around is under my rule. Once I am gone, my son will take my place. It is only expected, of course." By this time, the pair had reached ground level and were standing in front of the travel worn trio. Lady Gabriev spoke next, a smile on her face that didn't quite touch her eyes.

"It is so good to see you again, my son, after we had thought for so long that you had simply vanished." James just nodded, twisting his hands together nervously and mumbling something Jessie couldn't quite hear. "Speak up, James. Mumbling isn't proper," his mother continued, this time a touch more sharply.

"I'm sorry, Mother. I.. I am happy to see you, too."

Jessie very nearly laughed. She had been quite sure that had been a lie. Seeing what his parents were like, she was beginning to understand why he had run away and didn't seem to want anything to do with his last name.

"At least you had the sense to bring the sword back as well," Lord Gabriev was saying now; Jessie thought he sounded angry, yet his face was just as composed as it had been before. She could see James flinch visibly at his words from the edge of her vision, confirming her suspicion. "Perhaps it is best if you are relieved of it now," the Lord continued, a mere snap of his fingers bringing a servant scuttling forward, seemingly out of nowhere, to unfasten the sword - sword belt, sheath, and all - from around James' waist.

"And, my dear, those clothes are definitely not proper for a young lord. Why don't you change into something more suitable now. I am afraid that your father and I need to have a long talk with you." This time, the Lady snapped her fingers, and two servants appeared to take James' arms on either side, leading him up the right-hand staircase. From the look on his face, you would have thought he was being dragged off to his own execution. Lord Gabriev waited until he was out of sight before speaking to Jessie.

"And you, young lady... We understand from one of our servants that you are the one who has brought our only heir back to us. For that, we owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude."

"Well, I guess you could say that," Jessie replied smoothly, "but if you'd care to show a little of that gratitude by--"

"We will talk of gold later, after we have dealt with our son. For now, why don't you wait out in the garden? We will send James out to fetch you when we are ready to talk again."

"Oh man, I wasn't sure I could have lasted much longer in there... Too stuffy."

"Yes, but I can't believe you actually asked them for money."

"Well, I didn't get that far. But I'm sure they could just tell I'm an enterprising kind of girl."

"I'm sure."

Jessie dangled her feet off the edge of the fountain she had seated herself on, kicking them idly as she wondered exactly how much the reward would be. Meowth leaned against a tree nearby, pretending total disinterest in anything around it. But Jessie enjoyed herself looking at the flowers and statues in the garden. The air here was pleasantly cool as well, and she was starting to feel satisfied again. Gaining more gold was definitely a factor in that satisfaction, and--

"He's your friend, isn't he?"

"Say... say what?"

"He's your friend, right?"

"Who?"

"James."

"I..." Jessie replied to Meowth's sudden question slowly. "I suppose... What does that have to do with anything?"

"I believe that you humans have a certain definition of friendship. I also seem to recall that it involves making that person happy," Meowth continued, still managing to somehow sound as though it didn't care at all about what it was saying.

Jessie stared at it. It was sneaky, that was for sure. But it was right, too. It made her realize that perhaps what she was doing right now was wrong.

Angrily, she jumped down and kicked the side of the fountain, hopping up and down then on her other foot. "You just talked me out of a lot of money, cat... You're lucky, that could have been you," she added, pointing at the fountain where she had kicked it.

"I'm sure," Meowth answered casually, almost smiling before pulling it's hood up over it's mouth again and turning away slightly. Jessie shook her head.

"You know what your problem is? You're too damn dramatic."

"Thank you."

Just then, James came into view, looking every inch the young nobleman. His dark blue coat and pants were trimmed with silver thread, and he was actually wearing a piece of jewelry - a large silver and blue, oval-shaped ring, what Jessie supposed represented the family crest. He also looked to have been bathed quite completely, his hair only partly dry, the wet strands curling a bit against his face.

He also was disturbingly handsome, so much so that Jessie just stared in awe for some time before she managed to regain her composure. Like a tall, slender prince, right out of a fairy tale...

She scolded herself internally for noticing his appearance so fully, then put a broad smile on her face that she hoped would give no hint of what she had been thinking. "So, James, what's up?"

"Mother and Father are ready to see you now," he said stiffly, already turning to go.

"Hey, wait a minute! We can be out the back gate in two minutes! So what's this 'come on, we gotta listen to mommy and daddy' junk?" Jessie exclaimed cheerfully, clapping him on the back. He just stared at the ground.

"I was sent to bring you," he mumbled, starting to turn around again.

"Oh no you don't!" Jessie grabbed him by the arm and forced him to sit where she had at the edge of the fountain. "Alright James, there's nothing else for me to do... except admit that I was wrong to do this to you. I was only thinking of the reward instead of how you would... would feel. And you're my friend, and I... I want you to be happy."

She knew her cheeks were flaming red by the time she finished, not only from her words, but also from the way he was leaning forward intently, his big eyes alight on her face. "Jessie... I thought you were going to abandon me, but I guess I was wrong... You really are my friend," he concluded with huge misty eyes.

"Well... yeah. And you still owe me 11 months of cooking."

"Heh... right..."

"Guess we're outta here then!" Jessie announced, raising a fist in the air.

"Finally," Meowth grumbled, stretching out it's legs.

"Not exactly..." James sighed. "We can't just... sneak out. Not the back way, anyhow. This may sound strange, but there really are servants everywhere. They'd spot us in a minute, and then there goes our escape. For now... I guess we just have to go back and talk to my parents, and then we just... wing it."

"Wing it? How can we just 'wing it' when your parents are so dead set against you leaving?"

"Umm... just... improvise?"

Jessie sighed. "This is turning into such a long day..."

Improvise, improvise... Hell, I might as well just grab him and run, was the only thing Jessie could think when they were standing before the "illustrious" Lord and Lady once more.

"For your service to us in returning our son, we have decided to present you with this reward of 1,000 in gold. Now, if you would be so kind, you and your... pet... may leave." Lord Gabriev was doing a better job at sounding indifferent than even Meowth could. Jessie stepped forward, pushing James slightly behind her and licking her lips nervously.

"Well, umm... That's... that's not enough money! Come on, do you even know how much trouble this boy was to catch? And then to put up with afterward?" James was scowling openly behind her back at this point, but of course she didn't notice.

"I suppose you... may be right," Lord Gabriev replied, actually seeming to be a bit bewildered by Jessie's act. "We will make it 5,000 then."

"I... won't go any lower than 10,000."

"10,000 it is then."

Jessie's eyes bulged. Dammit... am I sure he's my friend? "Oh... well... heh... you see... Actually, now I don't even want to get rid of him, soooo.... Be seein' ya!" She grabbed James' arm and broke into a run, but stopped when she noticed that he had been right. There were servants everywhere, as though summoned by some unseen signal - on the stairs, in front of the door, everywhere. And closing in.

"I'm afraid that you will not be going anywhere," Lady Gabriev said shrilly, her eyes flashing angrily.

Jessie grinned, then winked at her. "Oh... My Arbok seems to think otherwise." Faster than anyone could even blink, she had the Monster Orb in her hand and was tossing it into the air. "Come forth, Arbok! Use your Glare on these idiots!"

Most people in the room shielded their eyes from the blinding flash as the snake Monster appeared. Naturally, not knowing much about Monsters in general, they then stared right at it's glowing red eyes. Which of course froze everyone in the room tightly, as though held by invisible bonds. Except for those who had the sense not to look, namely Jessie, James, and Meowth.

"Now let's get out of here!" Jessie yelled, pointing at the tall doors.

"Wait! The sword! I have to go back and get it!" James cried frantically while watching his parents like they were going to start moving any second.

"I guess... We have a few minutes before the Glare wears off. But I'm going with you, and Meowth, you stay here and watch everyone."

"And what are they supposed to do besides stand there like statues?"

"Just do it!" she called back over her should at the Monster, turning to run after James, who was already racing up the stairs two at a time. She followed him up to the first broad hallway they came to, where he stopped before a display of swords mounted on the wall. He reached up to jerk the Summon Sword down from it's place in the middle.

"Stupid place to put a sword... on the wall," Jessie could hear him mutter. Looking at his face, it was obvious that this angered him somehow. In his haste to turn toward her, he accidentally bumped against her, causing their faces to brush together for the briefest moment. The angry creases of his face smoothed out as he looked at her, wide-eyed.

Roses. That was what he smelled of. Stupid idiot girl. Thinking about things like that at a time like this. "Let's go," she snapped a little more sharply than she would have liked, tugging him by the arm. He shook his head quickly and hurried into a room nearby; he reappeared again almost immediately with a bag.

"My clothes," he explained. They wasted no more time talking while running back to collect Meowth, then at James' suggestion, they headed out the back way, Arbok stopping anyone who got in their path until they were running off down the road and not looking back.

"Where'd Meowth go off to, anyway?"

"Oh, it said something about 'practicing', then it went off somewhere."

"Practicing, huh... Practicing being obnoxiously dramatic, no doubt," Jessie said with a yawn, settling herself down a little more comfortably into the thick grass. James lay several feet away, arms behind his head and staring at the sky, now dressed in his dusty blue pants and shirt, his sword equipment, sword, and armor laying close beside him. The fancy clothes had been stuffed into the bag; Jessie had managed to convince him to keep them without seeming to really care.

She sneaked a glance at him now through half closed eyes. He was still handsome, but in a slightly different way. Stupid. Stop thinking about that.

"I can't believe I didn't notice where we were heading before..." he sighed suddenly, catching Jessie off guard. "I've tried to run away from home so many times... I tripped over all those rocks every single time. Why I didn't notice it before then... I don't know."

"I can see why you didn't want me to know about all that stuff..."

"Yeah," was all he said in reply.

"Tell me... Why do you... why did you..."

"Why don't I want to be a lord someday? Why don't I want to be rich and powerful? In other words, why am I crazy?" He laughed a little, not as though he was really amused. "It's just not what I want. I guess I'm just expected to be what my parents want... But I don't want that. I don't want someone planning out my life for me."

"So what... what do you want?"

"I just want to be a swordsman. That's something I do enjoy. Most of all, I just want someone to take care of, to kind of protect and watch over, almost like a bodyguard, but... That's kind of my life's dream. Really though, you don't want to hear about this," he laughed again, this time in an embarrassed way.

"And what's the whole thing behind the sword?" Jessie asked for a quick change of subject. It embarrassed her too, in some way.

"It's belonged to my family for years, like I said... It's just that no one has used it for a very long time. It was used before - obviously, because of the two magics already in it - but now it's just an ornament on a wall. Pointless. Swords are meant to be used, in my opinion. Not rusting on a wall..."

"I agree," Jessie nodded, hoping he would catch the hint. No more on that subject for now. But before she could stop herself, she blurted out, "And I hope you find someone to take care of someday. And I hope it's not me," she joked.

"I know. Then I'd have to have a bodyguard to protect myself from you."

"And what does that mean?"

"You're the meanest girl I ever met," he grinned widely.

"Why you little..." Yet as she chased him around with the intent of doing serious bodily harm, she found herself smiling.

Maybe someday... years from now.