Notes: This takes place in the future of my "Dragon Master" universe, sometime after the ending of "Loss of a Leader." It contains some slight spoilers. All original characters and concepts are the intellectual property of me, SilvorMoon. The stuff I didn't make up belongs to Nintendo and company.

Tough Customers

By: SilvorMoon

The shop was always quiet on Friday afternoons - too quiet for Davey's taste, especially today. He frowned at the PokeGear he'd been tinkering with, wishing he had something more challenging to do. All this particular machine needed was a quick tune-up, and then he'd ben done for the day. That wasn't what he wanted; he needed something to occupy him while he waited. With a sigh, he set the Gear on the work desk and resigned himself to his task.

"Hey, Gizmo," he called. "Could you get me my screwdriver?"

"Magnemite?"

"No, the Phillips head. The one with the orange handle."

A Magnemite hovered over to a toolchest. With a clang, a screwdriver jumped out of the box and affixed itself to one of the Pokemon's magnets. The Magnemite then glided back across the room to deposit its burden next to its owner. Davey gave the creature a grateful smile. His parents had given Gizmo to him a few years ago on his eleventh birthday, anticipating that he, like his sister before him, would want to take up training. However, he'd shown no inclination toward the battle circuit. As far as he was concerned, all that could be left in the capable hands of his older sister and others like her; he was perfectly content to mind his parents' shop and do repair work.

"Thanks, Gizmo," he said. "Now, go back to the window and wait, okay?"

Gizmo buzzed his agreement and hovered out of the repair room and into the shop out front, spinning gently next to the front door, keeping his single eye fixed firmly on the sky outside. Shaking his head, Davey resolutely geared himself for his own task. The trainer who had left this Gear had not been gentle with it; the case was dented and battered, the screen scratched, and the inside held a coating of dust and grime that made Davey wince to think anyone would mistreat a fine piece of machinery like this. Well, he would make it right again - there was very little he couldn't do with mechanical things once he put his mind to it. Carefully, he lifted the tiny screwdriver and began undoing the first of many minuscule screws, letting his world narrow to the device lying in front of him...

He didn't know how long he'd been working when Gizmo returned. At first, he didn't even realize the Pokemon was there, silently as it moved. When the Magnemite had hovered around its partner's head for a few seconds without attracting his attention, it made a buzz like an alarm clock going off.

"Yow!" Davey yelped, scattering screws with a jerk of his hand. "Don't do that!"

"Magnemite!" said Gizmo urgently.

"She is?" asked Dave, annoyance forgotten. "All right!"

Eagerly, he bounded away from his desk, heading for front of the shop. He reached the door just in time to see a dark shadow glide by. As he rushed out the door, a Fearow dropped lightly out of the sky and landed in the middle of the street, gently depositing a human at the doorstep. She brushed herself off, settling her hair after the long journey. She and her partner made an impressive pair. The Fearow was a fine specimen of his kind, large and glossy, with neatly trimmed talons and a spear-like beak. A scar angled across one eye, reminding the world that this was a fighting bird who had already won a number of difficult and dangerous battles. His partner was a match for him in elegance and grace. She was tall and slender, dressed in graceful blue and aqua garments. Her most striking feature was her hair, which was jewel-white, glittering prismatically in the strong afternoon sunlight. Though she was not yet twenty, she carried herself with the assurance of one who has accomplished more in her few years than most people would do in their entire lifetimes. It was easy to believe she was a highly respected Gym Leader. More important to Davey, however, was the fact that she was also his sister, come home for a weekend with her family.

"Aurora!" he greeted, rushing up to hug her.

"Hi, Davey!" she replied. "Hey, it's good to see you again, too!"

He released her, grinning. "Well, it has been a couple years."

"It's hard to believe. Seems like just yesterday, I was here thinking I'd never get out of her, much less join the League!"

"Well, don't just stand there! Come in! I want to hear everything you've been doing!"

"You know it all already, don't you?" she asked.

"Yeah, but I haven't heard it from you in person!"

Laughing, Aurora allowed herself to be ushered into the shop, followed by her loyal Fearow. Gizmo sized up this strange intruder, chattering and buzzing in confusion.

"It's okay," Davey assured it. "That's just Scar. He won't hurt anything."

At that, Scar shrieked and clacked his beak, making it clear that he could hurt something if he felt like it.

With a bit of envy, Davey watched as his sister took a seat on a nearby chair, normally occupied by waiting customers. Despite the fact that he had very little interest in the training circuit, it was still hard not to feel some admiration for his sister. When she and Scar had first left Goldenrod City, he had been a ragged and bad-tempered Spearow with no trust for any human, and Aurora had been a rebellious teenaged girl whose dream had been to become a Dragon Master. Now, just as Scar had evolved to a sleek and graceful Fearow, Aurora's goals had changed as well. Now she was the Leader of the Violet City Gym, and it was generally accepted that she had the potential to rise even higher.

*Almost makes me wish I had a few ambitions of my own,* Davey thought, as he listened to his sister tell about her latest battles and the doings of other Gym Leaders. *She was always the dreamer in the family... Me, I guess I'm the practical one. Adventures are interesting to hear about, but I don't think I'd be much good at them.*

If one had given the two of them a casual inspection, they might have found it difficult to believe that the two of them were so closely related. People tended to be dazzled by Aurora's grace and her dramatic hair, and miss some of her more subtle features. Davey seemed depressingly ordinary next to her, with his square featured-face and his brown-blonde hair. However, a close look would have revealed some similarities: the same slender build, the same soft green eyes, and a similar innocence of expression and temperament.

"Funny you should wind up specializing in birds," he commented, listening as she described a new addition to her aviary.

"Not just birds," she replied. "Flying-types. I've got an affinity for them, so it was almost inevitable. I just wouldn't be happy training anything else. Besides, Flying-types are very adaptable - you can get one in almost every other type there is."

"What's an affinity?"

"Well, it means I have a special bond with a particular type of Pokemon - in my case, Flying-types, but you can have an affinity with any type, or even more than one. I can talk to any Flying Pokemon I meet, even if it's wild or it belongs to another trainer, and I'll be able to understand them just like they were human," she explained. "Not just anyone can do it. I think the odds are something like one in a hundred, but it's more common among trainers. People with affinities seem to be drawn to training."

"Glad I don't have one," said Davey. "I like where I am just fine."

Aurora laughed. "Well, nobody says you have to start training just because you have an affinity. My best friend has a Fighting affinity, and she doesn't even like fighting! You're probably safe... though I can't understand why you'd want to stay here fixing what other people break for the rest of your life!"

"And I can't understand why you want to spend the rest of your life letting other people's Pokemon try to beat up yours," Davey retorted.

Scar squawked loudly; he wanted it clear that nobody beat him.

"Fair answer," said Aurora, grinning playfully. "But don't forget, I get to run around being chased by badguys, sometimes, too. The job of a Gym Leader is to preserve law and order, you know."

"I know, I know," said Davey. "And then you come home and tell me all about it, right?"

"Right," she agreed. "That reminds me, did I ever get to tell you about how my friend Laine and I met a Mew?"

"Tell me!" Davey urged.

A half-hour later, a customer walked into the shop, and was surprised to see the Cummings boy deep in conversation with a striking silver-haired girl with a Fearow. He listened in a moment, and then decided that from the sound of things, he probably wasn't going to be waited on today. He turned around the sign on the door, making it read CLOSED, and slipped quietly back outside.

~*~

Someone was walking through the darkness. That was not strange or unusual; Goldenrod was a big city, and there were people on its streets at every hour of the day and night. This one was unusual only in his youth, being only a teenaged boy, but he looked competent enough in his camouflage clothing and heavy boots. He was also walking an alert-looking Houndour on a leash. He didn't look likely to be in danger from any lawbreakers that might be prowling the streets, nor was he acting shady and furtive or doing anything to indicate he might be up to no good. Whatever he was doing, he had the air of one who had important business to take care of and was well-equipped to get it done without interference.

That was, of course, exactly what he wanted.

A lone car rumbled by, startling the Houndour. It gave a yip and leaped, jerking its leash out of its owner's hands. It dove into an alley and took shelter behind a large trash can, where it cowered, whimpering and trembling. The boy rolled his eyes.

"Brimstone!" he scolded. "What in Entei's name are you doing back there?"

"Hound, hound," Brimstone whimpered.

"Humph. Some guard dog you turned out to be. Could you at least pretend to be protecting me?"

"Hound."

The boy made a face. "I mean it, this time I really am trading you in for a Slowpoke! Seriously, as soon as I get back to Celedon! At least Slowpokes don't hide from cars like some Pokemon I know! At least they don't jump at every noise! Only a baby Houndour would hide from a stupid car."

Brimstone whined and trotted meekly out from behind the trash cans, carrying his leash in his mouth. The boy took it wordlessly, and they pressed on. There was no one to witness the exchange; it was past two in the morning, and most sane people were sound asleep in their beds. Those that weren't were intent on their business and had no time to waste on a stray boy. He paused beneath the glow of a streetlight, glancing down at the PokeGear strapped to his wrist.

"Slowpoke tails!" he swore. "This stupid town is a festering maze! Who's the bleeding idiot who designed this tourist trap?"

Brimstone didn't comment; he had found interesting scents on the lamp post and was intent on sniffing them. When the boy began to move on again, the dog stayed right where it was until the leash was taut, and the boy, who had not been paying attention, dropped the leash again. He turned to stare in consternation at his Pokemon, who was unconcernedly lifting his leg against the post. The boy swore again.

"Oozing Grimers! Can't you keep your mind on anything for more than five seconds? Festering dog."

He grabbed the leash and gave it a stern jerk. The dog yelped and scrambled to comply as its owner dragged it determinedly up the street. However, it was only a very young Houndour, and it had been walking a long time already. Its paws were tired. After it had followed its owner across several blocks worth of city streets, it finally gave up and flopped onto the sidewalk. The boy, determined, kept walking anyway, dragging the Houndour behind him. This worked until they had to cross a street, and the dog snagged on the curb. With a growl of frustration, the boy turned around, retrieved his dog from the gutter, and carried it.

"Stupid Houndour," he muttered.

Brimstone wagged his tail and tried to lick the boy's face.

At last, the two of them reached their destination: a small house nestled among the shops and offices. He double-checked his map, trying to read it clearly in the glaring city lights.

"I think this is it," he muttered. "Only one way to find out. Okay, Brimstone. Sit. Stay. And I mean stay, not 'run off and hide under a shrub', got it?"

Brimstone yawned. He was very tired, and it was past his bedtime. He curled up in a glossy black mound of fur and went to sleep. The boy stared at him a moment.

"Well, that wasn't exactly what I had in mind," he said, "but I guess he is going to stay... Oh, well. Let's get this done."

He surveyed the house, trying to decide what the best way of getting into it was. Lock- picking was not his strong suit - well, if it was, he probably wouldn't be doing this at all. Then again, he was still what he was, and that left him with at least a few skills and crumbs of knowledge at his disposal. On an impulse, he walked around the building, taking in the locations of doors and windows. In the back of the house, he spotted just what he'd hoped for - a window opened just a crack to catch a few cool night breezes. Silly law-abiding people, thinking they were safe in opening windows just because they were on the second floor!

The boy turned on his Gear again, this time going for the item storage system, and took out his climbing tools, a pair of tough leather gloves with sharp hooks affixed to the knuckles, and matching attachments for his boots. He called these the Persian's Claws, a handy multi-purpose tool. Not only were they good climbing gear, but they could double as weapons in a pinch. On a house like this, made of rough brick, he could shinny up and down the walls without leaving a trace of his passing. Carefully, he picked his way up the wall, hooking the claws in tiny crevices to haul himself upwards until he reached the window. A small push made it slide open just wide enough to admit a skinny boy, and he slithered through the window and onto the floor. From there, he surveyed his situation.

He was in a girl's room; that much was clear from a glance. Only a girl would want all those frills and stuffed animals. He could see her out of the corner of his eye; she was peacefully asleep, of course, unaware that there was someone in her room. More interesting to him was the Fearow that was perched on the foot of her bed, head tucked under his wing. He was sleeping now, but how long would that last? Fearows were renowned for their ferocity, and this one was probably no exception to the rule. He would peck a thief's eyes out, or worse, if he caught one lurking in his trainer's room. Best to go as silently as possible. The burglar crawled across the room like a snake, sliding soundlessly across the wood floor. The door was ajar, and he nudged it open and slipped out into the hall.

Now, which room did he want? Not the room with snoring coming from it; that would probably be the parents' domain, and he didn't want them. He crouched in the shadows and evaluated his other choices. That door near the end of the hall looked like it belonged to a closet. Another, with its door partially opened, appeared to lead to a bathroom. That left one other possibility.

Meanwhile, Davey was sleeping peacefully in his room, unaware that anything out of the ordinary... unaware, that is, until he was jolted out of his sleep by the feeling of a gloved hand slapping down over his mouth.

"Don't make a sound," hissed a voice in his ear, "or I'll rip your throat out."

Davey felt the sharp tips of the bladed glove pricking at his skin and realized instantly the wisdom of doing what he was told. He started wildly into the darkness, but could see nothing but shadows.

"I'll tell you what we're going to do," the voice continued. "We're going to go for a little walk. Now, you're going to follow me real quiet-like, and everything's going to be real cool, okay?"

Davey gave a tiny nod.

"Good," said the voice. "Now, get up, and get dressed. Don't make any sudden moves, or you'll regret it. I ain't gonna hurt you if you behave, get it?"

Davey nodded again. His captor withdrew the claws, and Davey sat up slowly, trying to wake up and take stock of the situation. He wished that he could shout for his parents or Aurora, but how could he do that when someone he couldn't even see was promising to make him expire messily if he did? There was no choice but to do what he was told and hope the intruder was being honest when he said he wouldn't hurt him if he was cooperative enough. He got up, taking care to move slowly and smoothly, not doing anything that might upset his captor. From what little he could make out in the shadows, whoever-it-was appeared to be extremely jumpy, twitching at every small noise. Quickly, Davey reached for the clothes he'd been wearing earlier that day, a purple t-shirt and a pair of overalls with lots of pockets for his tools. The movement disturbed Gizmo, who rose into the air, pinging his confusion.

"Shh!" Davey hissed in his quietest whisper. "Stay quiet!"

Gizmo bobbed in baffled agreement.

"What is that?" said the shadow in disgusted tones.

"Gizmo. My Pokemon."

"If you leave it here, it'll make a commotion. Better bring it along."

Davey nodded compliance as he tugged on his sneakers. Indicating silently to his captor that he was ready to go, he got to his feet and pulled the Magnemite out of the air, tucking it under his arm.

"Come," said the dark figure.

He grabbed hold of Davey's wrist, leaving him no choice but to obey. After all, the person was still wearing those clawed gloves, and Davey wanted to keep both his hands firmly attached. He allowed himself to be led downstairs, taking care not to make a sound, even alerting the stranger to the presence of a creaking step. Anything to keep this jumpy character from doing something drastic! Finally, they were slipping silently out of the back door and into the tiny yard. There appeared to be something round and black lying there, and for one crazy moment, the idea of bombs crossed Davey's mind. Then the black hump got up and started yipping in delight, prancing around the kidnapper's ankles, trying to jump up and lick his face.

"Quiet!" the kidnapper ordered, but the dog continued barking. With a growl of frustration, he dove at the dog, attempting to grab it, but he missed and landed nose-down on the turf. The dog became quiet as it began licking its master's imagined wounds.

"Idiot dog!" the kidnapper snarled.

Meanwhile, Davey stared, momentarily overwhelmed by the absurdity of a dangerous criminal being thwarted by a yapping puppy. While he was standing and staring, his captor dragged himself to his feet, trying to brush the grass off of his clothing. As he did so, he glanced up at the house. The upstairs window, which had previously been opened just a crack, was now wide open. His jaw dropped.

"I left the window open!" he exclaimed, slapping his forehead. "Stupid, stupid, stupid! First thing they teach you - never leave clues to how you got in, and you go and do it anyway! Idiot!"

He stared around crazily, making swift mental calculations. If he went back into the house alone, his captive would get away. Going back in dragging an unwilling prisoner just to shut a window was ridiculous. Leaving the window open was ignominious at best and dangerous at best... but there was no other choice.

"Damn it!" he snarled, kicking furiously at a lawn ornament. "I - can't - do - any - thing - right! Damn it, damn it, damn it!"

"Um, maybe you shouldn't be doing that," Davey suggested tentatively. "Not that I'm one to tell you what to do, but if someone hears you..."

The kidnapper snapped to his senses. "Right! We've got to get out of here. Come on, Brimstone!"

Grabbing the dog's leash in one hand, and Davey's arm in the other, he led a clumsy charge up the sidewalk, zigzagging down side streets and back alleys, always avoiding anywhere that might have bright lights or human beings. Unused to such strenuous activity, Davey was panting heavily by the time his captor called a halt.

"All right, take a breather," he said. "I've got to think."

Davey nodded his understanding and pressed a hand to his side, trying vainly to stifle a stitch. Realizing he was too exhausted to try much of anything, his captor finally released his uncomfortable grip on him, instead turning his attention back to his PokeGear. Free for the moment, Davey took the opportunity to size up who had captured him.

In better light, he could now see that the kidnapper was no older than he was, fourteen at the very most, with the awkward look that meant he hadn't finished growing yet, with gangling limbs that couldn't quite be concealed by his baggy clothes. His hair was long and shaggy, a cinnamon brown color. His eyes, when they glinted in the lamplight, were the same color as his camouflage clothes: green flecked with gold and brown.

"You're just a kid," Davey managed to say.

The boy glowered. "No, I'm not. For your information, I am a valued member of Team Rocket!"

"Oh," said Davey. Unlike many people, he did not live in abject fear of Rockets - he respected the fact that they were criminals, and dangerous, but his sister had told him enough about the Team and who ran it to think they weren't as frightening as all that.

"Don't just go 'oh' at me like that," the Rocket-boy snapped. "I could sliver your liver if I felt like it. You are in no position to act unimpressed." He held up his claws menacingly.

"I'm impressed, I'm impressed," said Davey, holding up his hands in a placating gesture. "I just... I just wasn't that surprised. I mean, of course you're a Rocket, kidnaping me from my bed and all. Why did you kidnap me, anyway? Because if it's got anything to do with my sister..."

"Sister?" the boy repeated, clearly perplexed. "What would I want to do with your sister? I don't need any festering girls getting in my way."

"Oh, well, she's just a trainer," answered Davey quickly, thinking that if this Rocket didn't know his sister was a Gym Leader, he didn't need to tell him. The less he knew, the better. "I figured Team Rocket would have more use for her than someone like me. I've only got this one little Pokemon, and I don't have much money..."

"No, but you've got some talent," answered the Rocket. "You're gonna help me out of a little difficulty, buddy-boy. Understand?"

"Yeah," answered Davey. Then, after a pause, "Can I ask another question?"

"No."

"What's your name?"

"Huh?"

"Your name," Davey repeated. "I can't go around calling you 'hey, you' all night, can I?"

The Rocket's eyes narrowed. "You're just trying to trick me. You want my name so you can report me to the cops."

"Well, if you don't want to give me your real name, make up something."

"Hm," said the boy, considering. At last, he said, "The others call me Slant."

"Slant," Davey repeated. "Cool name. I'm David Cummings, but most of my friends call me Davey or Dave."

"Davey's a stupid name," Slant replied. "Anyway, no point in names. We're just gonna do this one job, and then I'm gone, understand?"

Davey nodded, mostly because Slant was showing off his claws again. Satisfied that Davey wasn't going to give him any trouble, he went back to scowling at his PokeGear.

"Whoever designed this city was an idiot," he said. "And probably drunk, and having all his ideas being recorded by an Aipom on a caffeine buzz. How do you find your way around without getting lost?"

"Where are you trying to go?" asked Davey helpfully.

Slant glared at him. "None of your business."

"Well, you're taking me there eventually, right?"

"Yes, but if I ask you to guide me, you'll lead me straight to the police station."

"No, I won't! I promise. Look, I said I'd cooperate, didn't I? I'm not looking for trouble. The sooner you finish whatever you're doing, the sooner I can go home."

"You'll guide me?" asked Slant skeptically.

Davey nodded.

"And you swear - swear by Entei's flame - you won't try anything funny?"

"By Entei's flame," answered Davey solemnly. "No tricks."

"Right," said Slant. "I need to get to the Goldenrod City Department Store."

"Okay," said Davey. "It's over there."

He pointed. Slant looked. Up the street, sitting prominently on a corner, was a large, many-storeyed building, with a few flyers plastered in its windows. Slant scowled.

"I knew that," he said. "I was just... testing you. You know, to make sure I can trust you. Because if you had tried to lead me somewhere, I would have skewered you!"

"I know, I know," said Davey.

"Come on," said Slant. "We've got work to do."

They hurried up the street as fast as they could without looking suspicious. Instead of heading for the front door of the building, they slipped around to the side, where a large locked door stood facing a loading bay.

"Okay, here's what's going to happen," said Slant. "You're going to use your fancy talents to unlock this door, and then we're going inside together, all right? I'm gonna be right by you the whole time, making sure you don't pull any funny stuff."

"Why don't you unlock it yourself?" asked Davey. "You're a Rocket. That stuff's supposed to be second nature to you, right?"

Slant scowled. "None of your business. Just do as you're told, okay?"

Davey nodded and moved toward the door. "Do you at least have some tools? I left mine at home, and I can't pick a lock with my bare hands."

"Tools," said Slant. "Um."

"It doesn't have to be anything fancy. Just get me a piece of wire or a pocketknife or something."

"Um," said Slant again.

He began going through his PokeGear in search of tools, while, Davey watched in puzzlement. This had to be the weirdest Rocket he'd ever heard of. What kind of Rocket couldn't even pick a lock? What kind of Rocket couldn't even get a kidnaping right even with a cooperative victim? How could he not even know the location of the place he was supposed to be robbing?

"You know," he said, finding himself feeling sorry for his inept kidnapper, "those things you're wearing might do the job well enough."

Slant stopped what he was doing. "Huh?"

"Those claws, or whatever you call them. They've got points and edges on them; they might work as tools."

"You're not taking apart my Persian Claws!"

"Do you want in or don't you?"

Slant paused to consider the logic of this. Then, with a long-suffering sigh, he slipped off one of his gloves and handed it to Davey. The boy took it and began picking it apart, working one of the sharp claws loose so he could manipulate it properly, slicing off a strip of leather to wrap around its base for a makeshift handle. With this instrument in hand, he went about tinkering with the locks and latches that held the door shut.

"This is going to take a while," he said. "Hey, Gizmo, check around and see if you can spot any security cameras or anything like that. The last thing we need right now is to be seen."

Gizmo hummed in agreement and floated off. There were a few electrical snaps as Gizmo located and disposed of assorted security devices. Slant watched with envy written across his face.

"I wish I had a Pokemon like that," he said. "A smart Pokemon that could do me some good. All I've got is Brimstone."

"Brimstone?" said Davey vaguely. All his attention was taken up with lock-picking. The claw was not the best shape for the job, and he had his hands full with trying to find a way to open the door without cutting off his fingers in the process.

"My Houndour," Slant replied. "A stupid level five baby Houndour with all the brains of a Slowpoke and the courage of an Igglybuff."

Hearing himself spoken of, Brimstone sat up a little straighter and wagged his tail happily.

"How did you get him?" asked Davey. "Did you catch him, or-"

"Didn't catch him," said Slant. "I'm no good at catching Pokemon. They gave him to me when I joined the Rockets. Gave me a choice of all kinds of Pokemon, and of course I had to pick this one. I bet I wouldn't be in this mess if I'd picked something decent."

"So, why did you choose Brimstone if you think he's such a rotten Pokemon?"

Slant shrugged. "He said he liked me. Nobody'd ever said that before, so I kept him."

"Hm," said Davey. That statement was tickling at the back of his brain, but he was too wrapped up in what he was doing to give it proper consideration. Any thoughts on the matter were set aside as the lock finally relinquished its grip on the door. Davey gave it a push, and it slid open.

"There," he said. "Now you can get in. It's been nice meeting you. Goodnight."

He tried to hurry away, but Slant was too quick for him.

"Not so fast," said Slant. "I'm not done with you yet."

Grabbing Davey by the collar, he began hauling him through the door. It proved to lead to a stockroom, piled high with boxes and crates. As soon as both boys and their Pokemon were inside, Slant carefully slid the door closed, blotting out all the light. There was a short pause. Then, swearing quietly, Slant opened the door again, just wide enough that he could find a flashlight and withdraw it from his PokeGear.

"How long have you been at this Rocket stuff?" Davey inquired.

"A couple of months," was the grudging reply.

"Guess you're still getting the hang of it."

"Something like that."

Slant was busy sweeping the beam of his flashlight across the stacks of boxes. Davey could read labels for crates of PokeBalls, assorted Potions and power-ups, even a wide selection of TM's. Certainly there was something here to tempt any trainer with larceny in his heart, but Slant didn't appear to be impressed by any of it.

"They're not here," he said. "Raticates! They must have unpacked it already. We'll have to go upstairs."

"I don't think I like that idea," said Davey.

"Don't be a coward. It's not your skin that's on the line. If we get caught, you can just tell everyone I forced you at knifepoint, and you'll be a hero for standing up to the big bad Rocket. I'll be the one eating penalties."

There was no answer to that, so Davey kept silent as he followed Slant through the heaps of crates toward a door. They found themselves standing in an elevator, and Slant made a swift inspection of the buttons.

"Okay, expert," he said at last, "which floor is the Wiseman Gift Shop on?"

"I don't know," Davey answered. "My mom does the shopping in this family; I never come here if I can help it."

"Some help you turned out to be," Slant muttered. "Okay, let's think. The lobby is on the first floor... and the top floor is where they keep the drink machines..."

"The first couple of floors are where they sell training tools, I think," Davey offered.

"Okay, we'll try one of the upper floors, then," said Slant.

He punched an elevator button, and they began to rise slowly upwards. Davey fidgeted; he had always hated elevators, the way they made him feel so confined, and the peculiar lurch he got in his stomach when they moved. He was relieved when it stopped and opened its door with a quiet ping, but Slant jumped, with a suddenly fearful look on his face.

"Do you think anyone heard that?" he whispered.

"I don't know! Don't talk about it!" Davey hissed back.

They got off the elevator as silently as they could, darting through the shadows to take refuge behind a shelf full of bottles and vials. There they crouched, panting from the adrenaline rush, ears straining for any noise.

"Do they have night watchmen patrolling here?" Slant whispered.

"They must. They wouldn't leave a place like this unguarded."

"Do you think they know we're here?"

"I don't know. Gizmo, go take a look around - and if you find any cameras, get rid of them."

"Mite mite magnemite," Gizmo agreed, and floated away. The boys leaned back against the shelf to wait.

"Not like this is going to do much good," Slant muttered. "I'm going to get caught no matter what I do. Why bother trying?"

"What kind of attitude is that?" Davey asked. "You've already made it halfway without getting caught; you might make it."

"You don't get it," said Slant. "This is my beach vacation. I'm expected to fail. That's why they sent me."

"Beach vacation?" Davey repeated, puzzled. "This doesn't look much like a day at the beach to me."

Slant shook his head. "Beach vacation. That's Rocket parlance. When there's a Rocket who can't do anything right, the boss doesn't just kick them out of the team, where they might get in trouble and maybe try to get back at him. He just sends them on a mission he knows they'll fail and let the authorities take care of it. We call it a Charmander's beach vacation - they pretty it up so it'll sound like a good thing, but deep down, we know it's just a way of getting rid of us without making it look like the boss's idea."

"You mean they sent you out here just to get caught?" asked Davey incredulously.

Slant nodded. "Of course. Why else do you think they'd have sent one clumsy Rocket who can't even pick a festering lock right to rob the biggest bleeding department store in Johto? Does that sound like something you'd do if you wanted the scheme to work?"

"No, not really," Davey admitted, "but what if you do it right, after all?"

"Depends," said Slant. "Sometimes, if you do a good enough job, you get back in the boss's good graces. But if it looks like you squeaked by just on dumb luck, they just think of something else for you to do. The boss doesn't let just anyone on Team Rocket these days." Slant pounded his hand into his fist. "But I am not getting thrown out! Team Rocket's all I've got. If they don't want me, nobody will."

He looked so distraught that Davey felt sorry for him. He had seen for himself that Slant wasn't the most talented thief in the world, but to be so useless that even Team Rocket didn't want you... that was bound to be hard. To take both their minds off that unhappy subject, Davey said, "So where do I fit in?"

"Where do you think you fit in?" asked Slant with a must-you-be-such-an-idiot look. "It wasn't for moral support, if that's what you think."

"Well, I know you needed help getting the door open," answered Davey, "but I mean, why me? Of all the people in Goldenrod, why did you drag me out of bed to help you? I'm not even that good at picking locks."

"Well, I needed somebody to give me a hand. I couldn't bring another Rocket, because I was supposed to do this on my own. I couldn't use a grownup, 'cause a grownup wouldn't listen to me. It had to be a kid like me, and when I heard there was a kid working at the PokeGear shop who could fix anything, I knew that was who I needed. So here you are. Happy?"

"I guess," answered Davey.

It was at that moment that Gizmo came back, pinging and chattering. Davey listened a moment, then translated for Slant's benefit.

"He says there are security guards walking around, but none of them have realized we're here yet. He also says he's taken care of the cameras he could see, but someone's going to notice soon."

"Guess we'd better get moving," answered Slant. "Come on, up the stairs."

They hurried for the staircase and began climbing as quietly as they could. Slant was clearly not happy; no matter how he tried to be silent, his boots clopped unnervingly in the hollow stairwell, making it echo with dull thuds. Davey was glad that his sneakers, at least, were silent. After what felt like an eternity, they reached the next floor and darted hurriedly for its safety.

"This is it!" Slant hissed excitedly. "This is the place! Come on, help me look!"

"For what?" asked Davey.

Slant stared at him. "You mean I didn't tell you?"

Davey shook his head.

"Brilliant," Slant muttered. "I am so bleeding brilliant it is not even funny. Okay, we're looking for Stones."

"Stones?"

"You're even smarter than I am," said Slant. "You know, stones. Fire Stone, Water Stone, Leaf Stone..."

"Oh, Stones," said Davey, "why didn't you say so?"

Slant just rolled his eyes and set about his methodical search. Davey and the Pokemon pitched in, peering inside display cases and on top of shelves.

*This is crazy,* thought Davey. *It's three o'clock in the morning, and here I am helping a Rocket rob a department store. I ought to be feeling guilty about it, but...*

He glanced over at Slant. If this went wrong, what would happen to him? He didn't really seem to be such a bad guy, really - actually, Davey got the feeling half his bad attitude came from a desperate attempt to be tougher than he really was. What was it he had said? Team Rocket was all he had left. He had to be really desperate to say things like that...

*I don't think I mind helping him. Actually, this is kind of fun.*

"Aha!" said Slant. "This is it!"

Davey hurried over to Slant's side and looked. Hidden beneath a counter, behind a sliding door, were boxes and boxes of Stones, each in its own separate package. Davey saw not only elemental stones, but Everstones and even a handful of Sunstones. He was looking at what must have been a fortune in the rare minerals.

"We've gotta get these out of here," said Slant. "Come on - help me..."

Davey hesitated. Somehow, it was one thing to be told to open a lock so someone else could go in and do the robbing, and another thing altogether to be told to make off with thousands of dollars worth of rare gemstones.

"Come on," Slant urged, as he produced a pair of sacks and began hurriedly filling one with Stones. "They told me I've got to get them all or else, and I can't carry them all."

"If you can't carry them all alone, then why - never mind, stupid question," said Davey. "Here, gimme that."

He took the other sack and began shoveling boxes into it. A place in the back of his mind was yammering that he was really doing it - he was really robbing a store, breaking the law, making off with a fortune in things that didn't belong to him - but he wasn't quite up to being able to process all the ramifications of that fact. Maybe it was the fact that it was the middle of the night that made all this feel so unreal, or maybe just because the situation really was so incomprehensibly strange. Whatever it was, he couldn't quite manage a feeling of guilt. There was only the adrenaline rush of knowing he was doing something dangerous, and the solid knowledge that he had to finish it as fast as possible and then get far away. If there was any guilt to be felt, he'd have to get around to it later.

"I think that's the lot," he said, dumping a final Water Stone into the bulging sack. "See any more?"

Slant reached into the cabinet, feeling around to the darkest corners. "Nope, that's it. C'mon, let's blow this popsicle stand."

They hurried for the stairs again, moving as fast as they could burdened by their heavy baggage. It was difficult to manage the narrow stairwell in the dark, especially as their hands were too full to grip the handrails. Davey concentrated on moving as quickly as possible without falling down the stairs. It was not easy work, and he was panting from the run and the weight he was carrying. He tried not to breathe too loudly.

It was a wasted effort. Slant, in his clumsy boots, had missed his footing. He fell down a half a flight of steps to land with a crash at the bottom. The bag slipped from his hands, spilling its contents across the floor. Instinctively, the entire group froze, listening. Distantly, they could hear voices.

"What was that?"

"Sounded like a display case collapsed."

"Better take a look."

Davey's nervousness gave way to gibbering panic. They were going to get caught! There was no way they could escape without getting found, but he couldn't fight an overwhelming urge to start running as fast as he could anyway.

"We've got to get out of here!" he squeaked.

Slant shook his head. "If we run, they'll just chase us. We've got to find a place to hide. Here, help me..."

He began scooping the boxes he'd dropped back into his bag. As soon as the last one had been retrieved, Slant made a dash for the nearest door, beckoning for Davey to follow. They stepped out into one of the store's many shops; a sign on the wall read "Second Floor - Trainer's Market." How could they have fouled up so close to the exit? If they had only made it down one more flight of stairs... No time to worry about that now. Slant made a dive for a door marked "Employees Only", which proved to be full of mops and brooms, but there was just enough room in it for two young men, provided they were small. With some difficulty, the two boys and their Pokemon squeezed inside. It was very dark inside and rather stuffy, smelling faintly of cleaning chemicals, but it was the best hiding place available on short notice.

"Okay, expert, now what do we do?" asked Davey, made irritable by fright.

"Let me think," said Slant.

There was a moment of silence while Slant thought, and Davey waited, fidgeting nervously as best he could in the enclosed space. It was quickly growing warm in the tiny closet, particularly with Brimstone's natural warmth heating things up. It wasn't long before the dog was panting furiously, and both humans were sweating from warmth and lack of air.

"We're going to have to open the door soon," Davey whispered. "I'm suffocating in here."

"All right, all right," said Slant, sounding a trifle breathless - no doubt, he too was feeling the effects of sitting in an airless closet for too long. "But just a crack!"

Very carefully, Davey reached up for the doorknob and opened the door a hairline crack, just enough to let some air in.

It also allowed them a clear view of the large Houndoom that was pointing at them.

"Oh, no," said Davey weakly.

"Raticates," Slant hissed. "Now we're in for it."

The Houndoom began to growl softly. Davey felt himself going pale. There were few things more vicious than a Houndoom when it was angry; they were often trained by law enforcers as attack dogs, and if they caught someone they didn't know in a place they didn't belong... Suddenly, Davey found himself wishing the guards had caught them; at least they would listen to explanations. A Houndoom was likely to attack first and let someone worry about asking questions later, if there was anything left to ask.

Slant was speaking, so softly that it had taken Davey a moment to realize the words had meanings and weren't just terrified babble. He was saying, "Nice Houndoom. Good Houndoom. We aren't doing anything wrong, so just go away and leave us alone. Everything's okay, Houndoom. Please don't bite us..."

Surprisingly, the Houndoom tilted its horned head, its fearsome face suddenly creasing in confusion. As Slant continued speaking to it softly, it began to wag its tail. It sat down and panted, looking as if it wouldn't want to hurt a fly. Slant stared.

"You aren't going to hurt us?" he asked, as if hardly daring to believe what he was seeing.

"Doom, doom, houndoom."

"Hound, houndour," Brimstone agreed.

"Incredible," said Slant.

"What's he saying?" asked Davey.

"He says, of course he's not going to hurt us - I asked him not to, and it wouldn't be polite."

"Polite?" Davey repeated. "Since when do attack dogs worry about being polite?"

"Hound houndoom doom."

"Since I asked him nicely. I guess most people don't worry about manners when there's a big dog after them," said Slant. He turned back to the Houndoom. "Listen, could you do me a really big favor? I need to get out of this building, and if the guards see me, they won't let me out. Could you please go back and tell whoever sent you that you didn't find anyone? Please? It would mean a lot to me if you would."

The Houndoom wagged his tail vigorously, an obvious affirmative. Slant heaved a sigh of relief.

"Thanks!" he said, gratefully exiting the closet. "Thank you very, very much!" He patted the Houndoom on the head, making it wag its tail even harder until its whole back end shook. Davey just stared in amazement. He never thought he'd see a Pokemon famed for its dangerous nature prancing like an overgrown puppy! It accompanied them both to the ground floor, trotting at Slant's heels as if they had been friends all their lives.

"Bye, Houndoom!" Slant called, as he hurried for the front door and freedom. "Thanks again! If I'm ever back here, I'll see if I can bring you a treat or something."

The Houndoom gave a small yip of a goodbye. It looked a bit forlorn, and Davey got the feeling it was sorry to see its new friend leave.

Finally, the boys and their Pokemon reached the safety of the outdoors. They scampered up the street, trying to avoid lights, finally slipping down a dark alley.

"Whew," said Davey. "We made it."

"Guess we did," Slant replied. "You do pretty good work, kid. Too bad you're not a Rocket. Bet you'd be good at it."

"Are you kidding? I probably would have been eaten by that Houndoom if you hadn't been there," answered Davey. "Of course, I'm not crazy enough to go robbing the department store in the first place..."

"No? Then why'd you do it?"

Davey shrugged. "Nothing better to do?"

"Oh, and I suppose me telling you I was going to kill you had nothing to do with it?"

"Right," said Davey.

"Come off it," Slant retorted.

"Really," Davey insisted. "I knew you weren't going to kill me. It's against the rules."

Slant looked stunned. "What?"

"My sister - she's a trainer, and she's had dealings with Rockets. She told me your leader has rules against you killing anyone."

"Then why did you come with me? Why didn't you just yell for help and get me captured?"

Davey shrugged. "Oh, well... I didn't actually remember that until after we were here. By then, I figured I might as well go through with it. So, what happens next?"

"Well, I've gotta get this load of rocks back to Saffron City."

"In Kanto?"

"No, on the moon," Slant said. "That means we need transportation. Do you have a rail pass?"

"Um... technically."

"What do you mean, technically?"

"Well, you didn't say I was going to need it, so I didn't check to see if I had it or not," answered Davey. "Wait a minute, let me check..."

Under Slant's impatient eye, he began going through his pockets. Luck was with him. After staying up long past his bedtime talking to his sister, he had been too tired to empty out his pockets, or even bother with putting his clothes in the hamper, but had slung the whole lot over the back of a chair. Digging through the pockets of his overalls produced a handful of money, a student ID card, his movie rental card, and... a rail pass.

"Great!" said Slant. "Something finally goes my way. Just give me that, and you can go on home."

"No."

"No?" Slant repeated, staring. "What do you mean, no?"

"I mean, I'm not giving you my rail pass, and I'm not going home," said Davey. "We started this thing together; we'll finish it together. Besides, you need someone to help you carry all this stuff."

Slant stared at him as if he'd turned into a Slowpoke. "You actually want to help me? Are you out of your Apricorn?"

"I guess so," said Davey. "You've got to admit, you couldn't have gotten this far without me."

"Humph," said Slant. "Well... let's go, then."

They picked their way to the train station. It wasn't completely deserted; even at that hour, early commuters with long journeys ahead of them were getting on and off the train. Davey and Slant lurked in the shadows, watching everyone. It was one thing carrying their booty through the streets of the city, and another thing altogether to try to smuggle it through a crowded train station. Davey turned to Slant.

"All right," he said. "How do you propose we do this?"

"I'm thinking, I'm thinking," said Slant. "Just gimme a minute..."

Davey frowned, mulling over the possibilities. "Maybe if we stored the Stones in your PokeGear...?"

"Not possible," said Slant. "There are hundreds of the things; they won't all fit. Not with all the other stuff I'm carrying."

"What are you carrying?"

"That's classified information."

"Sorry. So, what are we going to do?"

Slant frowned a moment. Then his face lit up. "I think I might have an idea."

A few moments later, the conductor saw two boys carrying large sacks walking up to the turnstile. Somewhat suspicious, he walked over to them.

"You there!" he called. "What are you two carrying in those bags?"

"Pokemon," answered Slant promptly.

"Pokemon?" the conductor repeated. "In sacks?"

"Right," said Davey. He poked his sack, and it wiggled. "Pokemon. They're presents for my sisters back home."

The conductor frowned. "Let's see them."

"All right," said Slant. He opened the sack wide enough that Brimstone could peer out. He tried to slurp the conductor's face, making him back away hastily, and Slant stuffed the puppy back into the sack. He turned his attention to Davey, who opened his bag as well, letting the conductor get a good look at Gizmo's staring eye.

"Hm," said the conductor. "I suppose that's all right, then... Strange way to carry Pokemon, but..."

"We'll let them out as soon as we're on the train," said Davey reassuringly. "This was just to get them through town."

"Well.... all right, then," said the conductor. "Have you got passes?"

"Right here," answered Slant, taking out the pass and showing it to the conductor.

When the man nodded his reluctant agreement that it was indeed a valid pass, he pretended to slip it into his pocket - but in reality, the casual movement passed the slip of paper into Davey's hand instead. He was then able to show the same pass to the conductor again, and since all passes looked the same, there was no way of telling that it was the same pass he'd seen a moment ago. Trying to hide his relief, Davey hurried onto the train.

"Don't rush so much," Slant said. "It'll make you look guilty."

"I can't believe we got away with that," Davey replied.

"People are trusting," said Slant. "Tell 'em the right story, and they listen. Specially honest people. Dishonest people are more careful."

Gratefully, they boarded the relative safety of the train. Due to the late hour, they were able to get a car to themselves, but even so, they took the precaution of tucking themselves away in the darkest corner of the train. Once they were sure there was no one watching them, they tucked the sacks away under a pair of seats and let the Pokemon.

"Right, we can relax a little now," said Slant, suiting action to words and propping his feet on the chair in front of him. "Fast as this train goes, it'll still take a little while to get to Kanto."

"Good. I could use a rest," said Davey gratefully. "I'm not used to all this running around."

Slant grinned. "You're weak. You need to exercise, like me."

He rolled up the sleeve of his jacket and flexed his arm. For someone who looked so small in his baggy clothing, he looked surprisingly strong; his arms were all wiry muscle. Seeing Davey's reaction, the Rocket laughed.

"What? You spend a couple years learning to climb walls, and you'd have a little muscle on you, too."

"That's right, you climbed through the window," said Davey, remembering.

"Yeah. Little skinny types like me make good wall climbers," Slant replied. "They wanted to make a burglar of me, but I was no good at it. Kept dropping things or tripping on things or doing stupid stuff like leaving doors open. I was never any good at anything."

"Is that why you joined Team Rocket?"

Slant frowned a little. "Kind of. I didn't exactly join so much as they adopted me. Before that, I lived on the streets."

"All alone?"

"Yeah," said Slant. "I dunno. I guess I must have had parents once, but I don't remember what happened to 'em. Long as I can remember, I've pretty much been on my own. You know, begging, raiding trash cans, all that happy stuff. The ususal sob story. That's how the Rockets found me - one of them spotted me trying to pick pockets near the Celedon Department Store, and he thought I might make it as one of them. Fat chance of that. I'm no better at that than I am at anything else."

"You've got to be good at something," said Davey. Years of school had pounded that into his head - teachers always said that everyone was good at something, and it was just a matter of finding out what it was. Then again, he doubted that Slant had ever been to school in his life. He wondered briefly if the Rockets had taught him anything besides how to steal and climb walls.

Slant shook his head. "Not really. I can do some things, but never good enough. Like, I climb walls like a Caterpie, but I can't do anything right once I'm inside. I stink at Pokemon battling - I get along with them just fine, but I forget all my strategies and type advantages. See what I mean?" He sighed. "If I can't get the hang of the Rocket business soon, they'll kick me out. If the police don't get me, I'll be back on the streets again. I don't want that."

Slant looked bitter, and Brimstone licked his hand in what he apparently thought was a comforting manner. His trainer reached down and idly scratched behind his ears. Davey remained quiet. He wasn't sure what he should say under these kinds of circumstances. Knowing Slant's temper, he wasn't even sure he should try. It was a quiet ride to Kanto. Slant stared moodily out the window, no doubt thinking about what might happen to him when he returned to his team, Davey mulling over the strange situation he'd found his way into. It was very strange; he should feel worried or guilty or something about what he was doing, but...

The next thing he knew, someone was shaking his shoulder.

"C'mon, lazy! Wake up!" Slant was barking. "Or don't you want to look at Kanto?"

"Wha's goin' on?" Davey mumbled sleepily. He had been having a very odd dream about being kidnaped by a Rocket and being forced to rob a department store...

"We're here, stupid! Kanto! Saffron City! Golden City of Commerce! Biggest bleedin' city this side of Johto Falls! Now, are you going to get up and look at it or am I going to have to send you home?"

"I'm up, I'm up!" said Davey, sitting up hurriedly. He looked around. It still appeared to be night outside; the only light he could see was an artificial orange glare from the flourescent lights. Still feeling stiff and sleepy, he nevertheless shouldered his sack and followed Slant off of the train.

Getting out of the train station was easier than getting in; apparently, whoever was minding the turnstile assumed that if they were up to no good, they wouldn't have been let onto the train in the first place. His unconcern could have been due to the fact that he seemed to be the only attendant around; apparently the management didn't feel the need for many employees to be present in the quiet hours of the night. Slant actually tossed off a jaunty salute as he passed the man, leading Davey out into the street.

"Okay, now where do we go?" Davey wanted to know.

"That, I can tell you," said Slant. "I do know my way around Saffron. Come on, it's this way."

He led Davey through what appeared in the darkness to be a bewildering array of streets that all looked the same to him. However, he had lived in big cities all his life, and he knew how to read their scenery. He could tell as they passed first through the uptown shops, places that would surely be dazzling by full daylight and were enticing even in the sparse light of streetlamps. Gradually, though, they came to a section of town that looked rougher - not what he would have considered somewhere dangerous to be at night, but simply a scruffier part of the city with more down-to-earth stores that lacked the cosmopolitan veneer of the ones they had passed. One of them, a shop claiming to be a general store by the sign on its door, appeared to be Slant's destination. He walked up to the darkened building and gave a complicated rap on the front door. There was a faint sound of footsteps from within the shadows.

"The shop is closed," said a gruff voice.

"I'm not buying, I'm selling," Slant replied.

The exchange must have been a code of some sort, because the door opened without hesitation, and a black-garbed man with the distinctive red "R" on his front ushered them both inside. He sized up the loaded sacks with an air of approval.

"Looks like you did good," he said. "Boss'll be pleased to see that."

"All in a night's work," said Slant, with a debonair shrug that said it had been nothing, really.

The other Rocket led Slant and Davey past shelves of assorted merchandise, boring things that could have been found in any other corner store in the world. Davey felt a little disappointed; he had expected something a little more impressive in a Rocket hideout. However, even as he was thinking that, the Rocket who had admitted them leaned on a shelf and shoved it. The shelf swung outwards, baring a narrow stairway leading down. There were lights and voices down there, both of them so faint that they could barely be discerned. As soon as Slant and Davey were well on their way down the staircase, the shelf swung back into place again.

"Welcome to my home," said Slant. "Lifestyles of the rich and famous, that's us."

The irony was thick in his voice, and Davey couldn't really blame him. He found himself standing in a narrow hallway, just barely wide enough for a grown man to walk comfortably, its ceiling low enough that a tall person might have to duck to avoid walking into a light fixture. There was no decoration of any sort, not even carpet or linoleum on the floor, and a faint odor of stale cigarette smoke hung in the air. A few other hallways intersected the one they were traveling, leading off into indeterminate shadows. A Gloom, half-dozing in the shadows, looked up suspiciously as they passed.

"Barracks," said Slant, pointing down one hallway, and "training rooms," as he pointed at another. "Mess hall down there, rec room over that way."

"Is all of it this... cheerful?" asked Davey.

"Yep," said Slant. "Just about."

As they were walking, they met another Rocket coming from the other direction. He squinted into the shadows for a moment, then sighted Slant and grinned.

"Hiya, Slant," he greeted. "Still on the level?"

"Sure am," answered Slant. "Just got back from a mission."

"Good, 'cause the boss is here, and he's gonna want to hear about it."

Slant suddenly looked nervous. "Uh-oh."

"Uh-oh is right. Come on."

"What?" Slant suddenly looked nervous again. "Right - right now?"

"Yeah, now. You think the boss is going to wait until next week?" asked the Rocket. "Come on. You too," he added, pointing at Davey. "Who is this, anyway? Slant, you know better than to bring strangers here!"

"He's not a stranger," said Slant staunchly. "He's one of us."

The Rocket didn't look convinced, but he obviously didn't feel like arguing the case, either.

"Let the boss deal with it," he said - whether to himself or to Slant, it was hard to tell. "Come on, move."

They began walking again, following a twisting path through the underground tunnels. Davey found himself getting claustrophobic in the dark, cramped spaces and tried to fight down panic.

"What do you mean, telling him I'm one of you?" he hissed to Slant. "I'm no Rocket!"

"Hey, I had to tell him something, or you'd have been in trouble," Slant retorted. "What was I supposed to say? 'Oh, this is Davey, I just decided to bring him along for the ride, hope nobody minds.' Huh, that really would get me thrown out of the gang."

"So, what are you going to tell your boss about me, then?"

"Um," said Slant. "Uh..."

"An enlightening explanation," said a dark voice.

Davey froze in his tracks. They had come to a large, dimly lit room, an office of some sort, though it was hard to tell in the uncertain light. Davey couldn't even see who had spoken, but there was an intonation of power that was enough to make him want to turn around and get away from the speaker before they found a reason to be annoyed with him. A quick glance at Slant made him think the young Rocket felt the same way; his expression was more frightened than he'd seen him all night, and that was saying something. Brimstone was cowering behind his master's legs and trembling. Only Gizmo seemed unaffected, but then, Gizmo didn't have much in the way of expressions.

"Um..." said Slant again. He seemed to be having trouble collecting his words enough to say something coherent.

"You are very polite in the presence of your leader," said the dark voice. "Then again, you were never much for good manners, were you? It's Slant, isn't it?"

"Y-yessir," Slant stammered.

"And is this person with you a captive, hostage, or spy?"

"Well, not really... that is, I kidnaped him, but..."

"You mission, as I recall, was to rob the Goldenrod Department Store. There was to be no kidnaping involved. You had better have an explanation, and it had better be a good one."

Slant opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Davey felt moved to defend him.

"He needed my help," said Davey. "He's no good at picking locks, and I am. He knew he couldn't do the job alone, so he brought me along to help him. It was the best thing he could have done; you can't punish him for doing something that helped him do what you told him to."

There was a thoughtful pause. Slant stared at Davey in horror, as if he expected his boss to blast Davey for his impudence, but the invisible personage was remarkably calm.

"There is something familiar about you," he said. "I dislike this uncertainty; let's have a little light on the subject."

There was a click, and the lights came on. Davey suddenly found himself staring into the face of one of the most powerful and dangerous men on the planet: the ultimate leader of Team Rocket. He was a young man, perhaps in his early to mid twenties by Davey's best guess, but he had an intensity of expression that made him seem older. He was dressed completely in form-fitting black garments designed to show off a man at the peak of his physical condition, and the uninterrupted darkness of his clothing made his flaming red hair and vivid blue eyes stand out all the more. He was leaning back in a leather wingback chair, looking like the very picture of sophisticated villainy. The one jarring note in the picture was a small Dratini that was curled on his lap, watching the proceedings with innocent shoe-button eyes.

"You're Ember!" Davey blurted.

Ember's face creased slightly in puzzlement. "You know me?"

"You know him?" Slant blurted. "You know the most powerful Rocket on the whole festering continent and you don't even tell me?"

"Just by reputation," said Davey apologetically.

"I would like more explanation than that, if you don't mind," Ember said.

"My sister told me all about you," said Davey. "You know her - she's Aurora Cummings, the Violet City Gym Leader."

Ember stared a moment.

"You're her brother?" he said. "Raticates. That is going to make difficulties."

"Your sister is a Gym Leader?" asked Slant, still in shock. "Oozing Grimers, why don't you tell me these things?"

"You will be quiet," said Ember evenly. "I want to talk to... what is your name?"

"David Cummings." Somehow, he didn't feel right telling someone as important as Ember that his name was Davey.

"David. Having you here is going to make problems... which Slant should have known early on."

"It's not my fault!" Slant blurted. "The boss sent me on a mission knowing I wouldn't be able to do it myself! I hadda do something, or the cops would have gotten me! This kid can pick locks, so I snitched him and brought him along. He's a good guy, boss! He coulda turned me in a dozen times over, and he never tried! He's been helping me, and I trust him."

"So, you completed the mission?" asked Ember, showing a flicker of interest.

Slant nodded eagerly. "Just look. Show 'im, Davey."

The boys handed over the sacks they were carrying. Ember opened one, taking out a box containing a gleaming golden Sunstone. Even in the dark room, it flashed and sparkled with a light of its own.

"Excellent," said Ember, looking pleased. "Well, Slant, while I cannot say you haven't been careless, I can't fault you for doing a job right. I think Lance will be quite pleased when he hears how well this has gone."

"Lance?" It was Davey's turn to squeak incredulously. "He's in on this?"

Ember's smile was wry. "Lance is involved in considerably more than you might ever imagine. However, before you get any ideas about our illustrious Champion's morals, I think I owe you an explanation. You see, under ordinary circumstances, Stones like these are very rare and difficult to come by, so as a result, the prices for them are proportionately high, when they're available for sale at all. However, these Stones were mined in a cave not far from Goldenrod itself, and the price of procuring them was nowhere near what it normally is, yet the stores were intending on charging the same price as ever, netting them a phenomenally ridiculous markup in the process. Lance thought it would be amusing if someone were to beat the cheaters at their own game." He smiled faintly in admiration. "He doesn't miss a trick. It's a shame he's got no interest in joining the Rockets, but he does give me a few hints, from time to time."

"So you're playing Robin Hood," said Davey, catching on.

"You could put it that way, yes," Ember replied. "These Stones will be sold to the public for a fair price - I'm thinking about five hundred coins, compared to the usual three thousand. I expect they'll sell like the proverbial hotcakes at that price. We'll get a bit of money, the trainers will get their Stones at a price they can afford, and the store gets a lesson in being greedy. I think it works out well all around, don't you?"

Davey nodded; put that way, it made sense. Ember smiled.

"I'm glad you agree with me. Lance has been very tolerant with me since I took over the team; it behooves me to do him a favor every once in a while - particularly when it's a profitable favor. I like to keep my men well-paid; they make much less trouble that way."

"So I did it right this time?" asked Slant. "I'm not going to get kicked out?"

"You accomplished your mission," Ember answered slowly. "However, I am not entirely sure... You did have to bring in outside help on a mission you were supposed to accomplish alone, and you got that help from a civilian, who is now a security hazard. I cannot ignore that. Furthermore, the reports from your superiors have been less than positive. I am not sure Team Rocket can afford to keep you."

"No!" Slant begged. "You can't put me out - I don't have anywhere to go!"

"You'll have to take up some honest work somewhere," said Ember. "Since you did manage to evade capture, you will at least leave with a clean criminal record..."

"I'd rather go to prison. At least there I'll have food and a roof over my head."

"Don't throw him out," said Davey. "You really shouldn't. He can be useful here."

Ember gave him a calculating look. "You sound awfully sure of yourself. What do you propose that your friend here can do that would be so useful."

"He's got an affinity," answered Davey positively.

"No, I don't!" Slant protested.

"He's right, you know," Ember agreed. "He was tested on admission. He has no affinity for anything."

"Did you test him with Houndours or Houndooms?" Davey persisted.

"No, not them specifically," said Ember, "but he was tested for Dark and Fire affinities..."

"But only Houndours and Houndooms are both Dark and Fire," said Davey. "I'll bet if you check again, you'll find he has a combination affinity. He talks to Dark/Fires and only Dark/Fires. I saw him do it - he persuaded a Houndoom not to attack us, and you know that shouldn't be possible with a trained attack dog."

Ember frowned. "I have heard of combination affinities... they are rare, though, extremely rare... I never imagined someone would have an affinity so limited. Bother. Now I'll have to retest everyone. I don't want another case slipping through the cracks."

"But what good does it do me to have an affinity that only lets me talk to one breed of Pokemon?" Slant asked.

"Enough good to maybe save your life, if what your friend says is true," Ember replied. "It could be extremely valuable to have someone who could persuade attack dogs to lay quiet while we do our work. Certainly it would make life safer and simpler. I must give this matter some serious thought."

Slant appeared stunned. Brimstone pranced around his feet, yipping for joy. Ember turned his attention back to Davey.

"As for you..." he said. "You present a difficulty."

"What do you mean?" Davey asked.

"You have witnessed a Rocket heist. You know the location of one of our hideouts. Now, I trust you not to tell, but my men won't. They'll want you taken care of." Catching Davey's horrified look, he hurriedly said, "It is not my policy to go killing people out of hand. Ordinarily, we simply relocate troublesome witnesses to places where they can't cause us any trouble for as long as it takes to cover our tracks. Unfortunately for me, if I tried that kind of thing on you, I'm sure your redoubtable sister would find ways to make my life very unpleasant. I will have to be creative for you."

"I know what we can do with him," said Slant.

"Really?" asked Ember, raising an eyebrow. "Do tell."

"We'll induct him into the Rockets."

Ember stared at him. "You're out of your senses."

"No, I'm not. Davey's a good kid - he helped me out tonight. I told you that. He can do the work. Nobody'd suspect him of telling if he was one of us."

"True," said Ember thoughtfully. "If he was sealed to the gang, he would have no choice but to keep quiet - otherwise he'd be incriminated along with the rest of us. However, I doubt that he'd be willing to do the joining."

"Well, actually," said Davey slowly, "it might not actually be such a bad idea... I mean, what if I joined and never actually did anything after that?"

"Hmm," said Ember. "Well, that could work. Technically, being a Rocket isn't a crime, so you could technically join the gang and still be an honest citizen..."

"Except for stealing a fortune in elemental stones," Slant chimed in.

"That's different," said Davey. "That was a good thing. Lance himself approved of it, right? I got to help out my friend and a bunch of trainers tonight. I don't mind that."

"So you're willing to go along with the means if they are justified with the ends? Better and better," said Ember, smiling. "I like this. I like this a lot. You're just the kind I need on Team Rocket. So, what do you say? Will you join?"

"What does it involve?"

"Generally, you swear to obey me, the leader, and to keep our laws and our secrets," Ember replied. "It's very simple, really."

"All right," said Davey decisively. "I'll do it."

Ember smiled again. "Excellent."

From within the desk, he produced a form and a pen, handing them both to Davey. He skimmed the paper, making sure he knew what he was getting into, and found the agreement to be exactly what Ember had said it was - a statement that the undersigned would obey the laws of the Rockets and remain loyal to his fellow members. He signed his name at the bottom of the paper and handed it back to Ember, who signed it as well.

"It is official," he said. "Welcome to the team, my friend."

Davey and Ember shook hands. Slant beamed.

"Too cool," he said. "Hey, um, boss, would you mind if Davey worked with me again sometime? We do make a pretty good team, and maybe he can teach me how to pick locks."

"Well, I have heard of Rockets traveling in pairs," said Ember thoughtfully. "I remember one pair, a young man and a woman, from about the time that Ketchum boy was current... Why not? I'll see if it can be arranged, if our friend here doesn't mind."

"I think it would be fun," Davey replied. "Just... not too often, okay?"

"Well enough," said Ember. "Well, I think we have done a good night's work... and if I'm not mistaken, it will be morning soon, and someone will be wondering where this young man is."

"My family will be pretty upset if they wake up and I'm not home," Davey admitted.

Ember winced. "And your sister would have my hide. I suppose I'll have to give you a lift home. My Charizard will get you back to Kanto even faster than the Magnet Train, anyway, and it will take you straight to your doorstep."

"Thanks!" said Davey gratefully.

A few moments later, he, Ember, and Slant were stepping out into the chill of an early morning. As Ember readied his Charizard, Slant and Davey said their goodbyes.

"Guess I'll see you around," Davey said.

"Yeah," Slant agreed. "Hey, it's been fun, you know? Hope we get to do it again real soon."

Davey grinned. "So do I, I think. It was great meeting you, Slant."

"You too," said Slant, grinning. "Listen, I... I really owe you. If you ever need anything, anything I can do for you..."

"Forget it," said Davey. "We're teammates now, remember? We watch each other's back."

"Right," answered Slant, grinning.

"Ready," said Ember. "Come on, Cummings. Time for you to go."

Within a few minutes, Davey was settled on the neck of a Charizard, clinging tightly to the beast's horns with Gizmo tucked firmly under his arm, while Ember rode more casually just in front of its wings. They rose slowly up into the air, the Charizard pumping frantically to gain altitude. Below them, they could just barely see Slant looking up at them and waving, while Brimstone pranced around the yard and barked a goodbye. Davey freed a hand long enough to wave at them before the Charizard put on a burst of acceleration, carrying them over the city, toward the ocean and Johto.

Davey hardly noticed the flight home; his mind was filled with too many other things to waste time looking at scenery. Somehow, he was sure he'd never again have a night to compare with this one.

*Me, a Rocket,* he mused. *Aurora will flip out if I tell her. Then again, it doesn't seem that bad. I don't think Ember will steer me wrong... neither will Slant. He was a lot nicer than he acted...*

He laughed. Imagine - just a few hours, Slant had been threatening to kill him. Now he was a sworn friend. Yes, it had been a weird night.

Finally, they arrived back in the city of Goldenrod, touching down gently in the street, just where Aurora had landed the previous afternoon. Davey slid to the ground, grateful to have solid earth under his feet again.

"Thanks for the ride!" he called to Ember. "Thanks for everything! Keep an eye on Slant for me!"

"I will," said Ember. "I'll see you again, David Cummings... probably next time Lance has another errand for us to run."

"I'll be looking forward to it," Davey replied.

He waved a goodbye as Ember and his steed flew off into the gray dawn. Then, completely exhausted, Davey shuffled into his house, dragging himself up to his room. Now that the excitement was over, he could barely keep his eyes open. He was too tired to do anything but throw his clothes over the back of his chair and crawl back into bed. He was asleep before he hit the pillow.

~*~

Sunlight beamed, warm and bright, to shine across Davey's face. He yawned and stretched, enjoying the comfort of his soft bed and the knowledge that he didn't really have to get out of it if he didn't want to. Still, there was a tingly feeling deep inside him, the dim knowledge that something good had happened, or was going to happen, that he would probably want to wake up and remember.

*What's going on today?* he wondered. *Oh, that's right, Aurora's here.*

That was what he was so excited about - his famous sister had come to spend the weekend with him, to regale him with the tales of the adventures she had on her Pokemon journeys. That was enough reason for anyone to be excited...

Adventures... The idea triggered memories. Hadn't he been having a weird dream that he had robbed a store and joined Team Rocket? He opened his eyes and looked around, as if half expecting that Slant would be lurking around his room, or perhaps that Ember and his Charizard would still be visible in the sky... but no. Everything was just as he'd left it last night when he'd gone to sleep. Gizmo was still snoozing peacefully at the foot of his bed; his tools were still strewn across his desk; yesterday's clothes were still hanging over the back of his chair. He had been so tired when he'd gone to bed last night, he hadn't even thought to empty his pockets. He had best do that now; visitors or no visitors, Saturday was laundry day, and it wouldn't be good if he ran his rail pass through the wash. He got up and began going through his pockets, taking out the crumpled pass, some pocket change, assorted identification cards...

Then his hand came up against something angular, unyielding, and unfamiliar. He took it out. It was a claw, roughly wrapped with a strip of leather. Davey stared a moment, and then laughed. Dreams were well enough, but it looked like his waking life was about to get a lot more interesting.