“You owe somebody a favor.”
The conspicuously shady-looking man slapped something down on the table, hand obscuring it. The woman at the counter blinked blearily at it, as if it snapped her out of some sleepy, early morning lull. The hand lifted to reveal a business card with an all too familiar red ‘R’ . the clerk looked particularly unimpressed.
“Sir, this is a center; it’s illegal to solicit here.” She replied in a flat, bored tone, and pushed the card back towards him.
The man watched incredulously as she turned away from him.
“You racked up a lot of debt, Char. You should be lucky he just sent a reminder.”
“Yeah, well, your boss knows I work for minimum wage now.” Char reached for a cane close at hand before leaving her post at the counter. It was a slow day for an already barren League Center, so playing the part of a Joy wasn’t always necessary.
“Did you really think it was a good idea to take out another loan, then?”
She pulled back her jacket over one shoulder. A fresh-looking outline for a tattoo coiled around her forearm in the unmistakable form of a Gyarados. “I had to bury another of my old team a a few weeks back, can’t a girl mourn in peace?”
The man looked genuinely surprised for a moment, breaking the character of a shifty thug. “Damn, Big C? Really?”
Char nodded grimly. “It was prions, apparently. Ate right into her brain. So, that’s where the money went. Since you had to go and press the issue.”
There was a quiet moment of understanding between the two. The man frowned, and ran a thumb over a ball at his belt, almost protectively. “Fuck, man. I remember watching you two on TV. My condolences.”
“Yeah. I get that a lot.” The mourning trainer smiled bittersweetly, sighed, and collected herself.
Looking her visitor over, she could see the unsubtle markers for the sort of people he ran with. They really just couldn’t bear to wear something without an R emblazoned on it; those proud and insufferable Rocket types. They hadn’t left her alone for years, and he was right; she was lucky his boss would just send her the occasional, cryptic reminder of a debt to be repaid.
Char leaned on her cane, shifting some weight off a knee that was starting to protest after a long day. “Alright, no need to act the intimidating debt collector or anything. I can make another payment at the end of the month, but I’m spread pretty thin. Cremation costs, and all. Turns out its fuckin’ expensive to give a forty-foot sea monster a proper funeral.”
“Again, uh, sorry about Big C; I know she was one of your best,” The Rocket grunt sounded sheepish from having to face the somber news. “This time it’s not money, though.”
He flipped the business card over to reveal a phone number. Char recognized the region code well enough. Her expression turned grim.
“Call him as soon as you can. He’s calling in the ‘big favor’ .”
Char took the card from him at last. A sour feeling was pooling in her gut at the prospect of what uncomfortable exchange was to come.
“So I finally get to find out what that favor is , huh?”
The video call screen flickered from the shoddy reception, but the squared-off, clean cut features of the man were unmistakable. He put on his best fake, slimy smile on for her as she popped up on his feed.
“Charlotte! It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
Giovanni’s smile turned thin and sly, looking into the tired eyes on the other side of the screen. “I heard about your Gyarados; that’s a shame. That’s... how many of your old team so far?”
“...Four,” Char mumbled. She didn’t want to admit it to herself, let alone to him.
“My condolences ,” Giovanni said, with no indication of the sympathy Char saw from other trainers plenty of times. She wasn’t surprised; He wasn’t a man she expected to feel things like sympathy, or love. He was still smiling. “I hope this doesn’t mean I’m catching you at a bad time.”
On Char’s side of the country, she was in the center’s empty hostel area, using the archaic vidphone meant for trainers calling home. The battery was giving out, so she had to employ the old trainer resourcefulness; which was, of course, a handy electric pokemon. The Manectric that lounged next to the console gave it a small jolt whenever she woke him up from his nap. The electricity-conducting canid yawned, and the video got a little clearer for it.
Char opened up a water bottle picked up from the rations closet. “I thought I might as well nip this one in the bud before you start sending your guys in with bats. I thought the Kadabra was your big ‘favor’ , actually.”
Giovanni waved her off. “No, no, the Kadabra was more of a… test, of sorts. Not that you haven’t trained a fine assistant for me, of course. No, this one is much… bigger. It’s a psychic, yes, but these circumstances are quite different.”
Char shrugged. “Well, send it over then. I got the code for the transfer line ready-”
“It’s not going to be that simple.” Giovanni clapped his hands together. The fake pleasantness of his smile was spreading increasingly thin. “The asset is out of our hands at the moment. There was a… well, let’s just call it an incident and leave it at that. You’re going to have to collect it for us.”
As vague as that was, Char could understand the gist of what he wasn’t admitting over a old public line.
“Ah. One of those, huh?”
Giovanni gave her another cold and predatory smirk. The only kind of smile in his arsenal that was genuine.
“Oh, you have no idea .”
Hours later and miles away, dawn was breaking over Cerulean City. A League-sanctioned regional bus was slightly late to arrive at its stop outside the local center. A small group of young League trainers on the benches groaned in relief, and began to sleepily gather their belongings as similarly ragged passengers filed out. Char was among the last of them, being more careful with navigating the few steps off the bus. She grunted as her bad leg made that last, low step onto the pavement, sending a shock of pain running from her knee and up her thigh.
She vaguely heard someone call her name as she hobbled over to the benches. They’d have to wait. Another obvious Rocket agent, with their black uniform and low-tilted hat, approached her.
Char grunted in response, unslung the duffle bag from her shoulder, and popped her leg off. A shin-length prosthetic, shoe and all, was pulled out of her limp pant leg. She rubbed the knot of scar tissue below her knee soothingly. It was little relief, but it was better than nothing.
“Gimmie a sec,” she mumbled, breathlessly, and began searching the depths of her bag. The grunt crossed their arms impatiently.
“We have the rest of the extraction team at the site, waiting for you. Are you going to be long? The asset could esc-”
“I said , gimmie a second ,” Char spat back at them, her digging hand becoming more frantic before reaching the familiar shape and sound of a pill bottle. She made sure to deliberately draw out her moment of respite; taking out one of her pills and swallowing it dry, stretching and groaning from all the parts of her that ached. The grunt standing over her made a pointedly annoyed sigh.
The breeze picked up over the city’s canals. More and more people were walking down the street; going about with the own lives, barely paying so much as a confused glance towards the leg on the bench. Char continued to take her sweet time, whether her Rocket chaperone liked it or not.
“Alright,” she said, finally, “what the hell’s going on over here?”
The grunt fumbled with a small tablet. “We’ve got the asset cornered in the cave system not far outside the city. It tried to slow us down by causing a collapse, so we’ve got people outside ready to handle it once it emerges.”
They showed her a simple map of a cave system on the screen. A large chunk of it was crudely circled in red. “Its trapped in there otherwise, and it knows it.”
Char shimmied her pant leg up her thigh in order to slip her leg back on. “Sounds like you’ve got this under control, actually. What do you need me for?”
“Nico,” the grunt admitted hesitantly, and reached to a pokeball at their belt uncertainly. Char perked up immediately.
“Boss transferred him over to me. He wants you two to teleport into the uncollapsed part of the cave and launch an ambush.”
Char leaned over and snatched the ball out of their hand before they could even maximize it. The grunt laughed nervously, and took a small step backwards. “Better you handle him than any of us. He kinda gives us the creeps, y’know?”
The grunt flinched as Char wordlessly opened the ball, and the air pressure around them immediately changed.
A humanoid pokemon slowly rose to their full height as their body reconstituted, standing a full foot taller than the Rocket grunt that didn’t hide their unease. They were an enormous example of an Alakazam; impressive and rare enough that a passer-bys on the street rubbernecked to get a glimpse of the released pokemon.
The Alakazam began to smooth down his long, mustache-like whiskers and flip them over his shoulders. The stern expression of his vaguely vulpine face softened when he recognized the trainer tucking the empty ball away.
“Long time no see, Charlotte.” The psychic voice of the pokemon was deep and resonating in her head. It filled a void, in a way. It felt like something that was missing was at least, temporarily, given back within her.
“Hope they’re treating you all right, Nicodemus.” Char smiled up at him. His long ears flicked forward in quiet acknowledgment.
The grunt squared their shoulders before the pokemon, and tried to put on a brave face. “Ah, sorry we had to put you in a ball again, Nico. No hard feelings, right?”
Nico casually flicked his fingers at the air in front of him. An unseen force knocked the hat off the grunt’s head, and provided a nice distraction for them.
“It would have been nice if any of them cared to release me when they said they would,” He sounded halfheartedly offended, but there was an undercurrent of genuine discomfort Char could pick up as well. It was sobering, as a trainer, to hear the opinions some pokemon had about being in pokeballs. But, they couldn’t deal with that for now.
Char got up on slightly more certain legs, bag over her shoulder and cane in hand. “Alright, let’s get this over with.”
An unmarked van took them the rest of the way, turning off of the main road at a billboard advertising cave tours a few miles away on their left. In the back of the vehicle, the Alakazam hunched over in his seat uncomfortably, and ignored the occasional nervous glances of other Rocket members joining them. Char was comfortable with leaning against him, appreciating a familiar warmth and comfort that went beyond the bodyheat of another person.
“I hope you haven’t been terrorizing these poor mooks.”
“I haven’t done anything on purpose… recently ,” Nico’s voice rumbled pleasantly in her mind, “they’re more scared that I outrank them, than anything. I would be the leader of this operation, if I was a human.”
“Oh, is that why you suggested me for this? And here I thought you missed me.”
Nico’s shaggy, gangly arm draped over her shoulders in response. “I did miss you, you know.”
At the 2-mile marker of an even more enthusiastic billboard about Cerulean Cave, a noticeably high-end black car was very poorly hidden behind it. Several bodyguards surrounded a tall and broad-shouldered man, who personally flagged the van down with the desperate energy of someone who just missed their bus. Ah… Char recognized that underlying whine to the tone of his commanding voice.
Giovanni was decidedly out of his element in the northern Kanto boonies, still in his expensive Kalosian suit and getting mud over his polished loafers. The back doors to the van were flung open for him to properly complain.
“Finally! The damn thing took out the radio signals. This is the closest we could get and still get reception. Nico! Can you still get in from here?”
The Alakazam quickly slipped his arm away from Char, returning to a more professional posture. “Of course, but there’s a lot of risk involved in teleporting to a place I’ve never been to. And with a human in tow, no less.”
“Do we look like we have time to argue the semantics?” Giovanni pinched his brow in frustration. Sweat on his forehead was starting cause a noticeable sheen in the sun.
Feebly, Char held up a finger. “Would it be a bad time to ask what the hell I’m supposed to be doing?”
“ You, ” Giovanni focused his glare on the trainer, and she could feel the holes it bore into her. “Are going to slip in with Nico and take the fucker out. You’ve got experience with this class of psychic, surely you know how to handle it.”
“I hardly know what they are,”
“Nothing much weirder than me,” Nico’s thoughts were laced with contempt just barely felt in Char’s mind.
Char just gritted her teeth, and went along with it. Nothing like being a pawn in someone else’s game. At least the pay would be good, but that’s about all a man like Giovanni could offer his subordinates.
Paper maps were unfolded on the hood of the black car. Location was pinpointed to the slightest degree; leading to some incomprehensible math formula scribbled down by Nico, trying painstakingly to ensure a safe teleportation. Such a power was usually by his species to find home again, calling back to familiarity and knowing the safest place to pop in. Giovanni was getting increasingly short with everyone as the process took up precious time; he didn’t know nor care exactly how easily this could backfire. Char, for one, just wanted the rest of her limbs to stay outside of any solid objects. She didn’t care to be teleported, flown, or be subject to any other act of physical psychic manipulation. It came with too much risk.
“We have a 80% chance of an unobstructed entry point here,” Nico pointed to a wide section of cave, “barring any unexpected issues. It’s not perfect, but I’m sure we don’t have a few years for me to go over every possible outcome.”
“Great.” Giovanni gestured to one of his men to open up the trunk of his car. A black suitcase was handed over. There was an air of carefulness in how he handled it, as though the contents were fragile. Or expensive.
“Either you’re going to be chasing it out, or you’re going to be capturing it. We have no idea how well it can resist ultra balls, so I’ve arranged a special acquisition for this very sort of scenario.”
The locks on the case were popped off, and a single, large pokeball was revealed, nestled in a protective bed of velvet. It was almost twice the size of a regular ball, with a glossy finish and an ‘M’ labeled above the release button. He nudged the case towards Char, prompting her to take it.
“Silph Co. has had this in the works for a few years. They call it the Master Ball; and they say it’s powerful enough to import and hold legendary monsters. I don’t want to take any chances; you’re going to be using it on our friend in there, one way or another.”
The ball felt heavier in Char’s hand than she was used to. The minimized mode was like a weighty ball bearing in her palm. “You really think that thing in there is a legendary? ”
Giovanni smiled confidently. Coldly. “I can say with confidence, that this is the first legendary pokemon made by man. Made by me .”
The nauseating feeling that came from being psychically lifted never really went away for Char, after so many years. Teleportation was even worse; she only experienced it a couple times in her life, and for good reason.
The temperature around her changed so dramatically, it made her feel like she was breaking a fever. It didn’t help the sudden, intense feeling of vertigo that overcame her. It seemed being blinked in and out of existence wasn’t something humans were meant to do. All she could do was hold on tightly to Nico, and hope she’ll have all her bits in their intended places by the time she could open her eyes again. Nico was sympathetic; you had to be, when you could feel someone’s discomfort intimately through a shared bond. After gently floating down from a few feet in the air, He allowed her a moment’s rest more than Giovanni would have given her.
Carefully, Char was walked over to a sloping boulder she could limply drape herself over. Her head was beyond spinning at this point; her entire concept of direction temporarily blacking out as her brain struggled to process what had happened. The sounds of bats and dripping water slowly began to replace the static in her ears. Nico’s face was the first thing she could barely make out in the low light, his dark and intelligent eyes trained on her with some sense of concern.
“Sorry,” His mental voice was but a whisper. With an unsteady hand, Char reached out to pet the length of his muzzle.
“When we get out of here, lets just dig our way through, alright?”
Flashlights were turned on. Nico began to mentally scan their surroundings, ears drawn back from the mounting tension in the air. Char could feel it too; something hummed with energy, deep in the back of the caverns. The slightest notion of a presence hit that sweet spot in the back of her mind; someone knew they were here already. They were just biding their time.
“Do you think they’re going to bolt, or fight?” Char wondered aloud as they delved deeper, keeping her voice to a nearly inaudible whisper. Practically mouthing the words. Nico could glean what she said from her head well enough.
“It didn’t put up much of a fight before,” Nico’s disappointment sunk into his companion’s mind, “even when I tried to stop it directly. Coward. I could have taken it on.”
“By yourself? You’re a mad science experiment yourself, Nico, but you’re not as great solo as you think you are.”
“From what I’ve seen, this asset is hardly the specimen they were hoping to gain.” Nico snarled quietly to himself, contempt seething through his telepathy. Char cracked a grin left unseen in the dark.
“Of course I am; I’m being replaced.”
“In that case,” Char ventured, “maybe we can get Giovanni to transfer you over to me. You’ll be better off for it.”
For a moment, Nico was silent. Contemplating, as Char could divulge from the ear flicking and whisker grooming he idly indulged in.
“...I would, if you were still a trainer. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life volunteering in backwater centers. Or whatever it is you do these days.”
“Well, a trainer never stops being a trainer. I’ve just had enough excitement in my life, thanks.”
Nico smoothed out and rearranged his proud mustache once again. “This is where Team Rocket appeals to me. I can be certain that I’ll never have to retire in obscurity or soul-crushing boredom under them. No red tape from the League telling me what I am or am not.”
Char sighed; the most noise she made in a while. “Honey… you’re still just a pokemon to them. They’ll never treat you like an equal.”
“The pet to a king is still above everyone below his master. Giovanni is crime royalty, and I reap the benefits. Even when I’m confined to a ball.”
The pressure of whatever force lay ahead was a subtle note of unease that compounded with the tension that rose between the two. Char still felt ill from the teleportation. Nico wasn’t helping. A knot of anxiety was beginning to pulse coldly in her gut.
“I thought you wanted to be with me?” She barely whispered that; but it was loud enough that the sound of her voice echoed softly off the cavern walls and made her flinch. Nico froze, though his attention was more focused on the darkness in front of them.
“Quiet. Its moving deeper into the caves.”
Char regained her composure at a moment’s notice, trainer’s instincts kicking back in. this was a hunt, after all. “How far away?”
Nico squinted with concentration. “It’s trying to misdirect me. Keeps trying to kick me out of its head. It’s just making it easier for me, really; its fear means we must be getting close.”
The two good fingers on Char’s dominant hand twitched with the urge to grab a ball. The idea of setting her team on this thing wasn’t ideal, though. Not when she lost Clover so recently….
Ahead of them, a piece of stalactite was knocked to the ground. A few Zubat were roused from their slumber, and flew off in the opposite direction. Nico perked up in its direction, and like a hunting hound, gave chase.
There was little else Char could do except try to keep her flashlight trained on the Alakazam and follow him. He took to the air effortlessly; whiskers streaming behind him as he fluidly weaved between calcium formations and dodged angry bats. His comfort with flight was matched only by his quarry.
Char glimpsed it in the corners of the flashlight’s beam; some white blur that hugged the ceiling and wall, occasionally breaking off pieces of the stalactites to fling in their pursuer’s direction. They half-flew, half-scrambled to get away from him, desperate and frightened like an animal, and led them deeper into the caverns.
Between the sounds of scuffling and rocks breaking, Char could hear running water in the background become louder as they approached. The near-blackness of the cave gave way to meager light from luminescent, cave dwelling fungi, slowly giving everything an eerie, bluish hue. The outline of their quarry could be seen with more clarity; some slinky, long-tailed thing. Smaller than Nico but bigger than Char. the fungi around them grew more numerous, as the sound of water grew louder in turn.
The source was a spring, its gentle flow of water into a small underground lake echoing off the cave walls. The bioluminescence of the common fungus bathed the room in a false moonlight, enough to better define the two pokemon that disturbed the relative peace. Nico, able to see his mark, went in for an attack.
The other pokemon made no sound as a psychic force smashed them against the wall closest to them, sending them rolling across it as they scrabbled against the rock. A few of the stalactites closest to Nico fell, and only missed him by inches. All they were accomplishing was making the ceiling more unstable.
Char missed the parts of her team no longer with her the most, in situations like this. But, what good was a trainer who didn’t show resourcefulness with who they had on hand? More bits of the ceiling became ammo in the battle raging above her, splashing into the lake below. A possible solution formed in her head.
She readied a worn, familiar pokeball, and concentrated on reaching Nico’s mind. Digging into that familiar spot. Hoping it was him that was listening. Her message was simple enough to be sent easily.
“Get it into the water.”
Nico paused in mid air, grabbed the air above him, and pulled. A large chunk of the cavern ceiling collapsed, taking the fleeing pokemon with it. A heavy splash following further thrashing in the once-still waters. Char acted fast.
“Jup’!” She tossed the ball towards the edge of the water, and a four-legged flash of light began to blink back into existence. The old and bristly Manectric shook its stiff mane sleepily, before Char’s command caught its attention.
Their response was immediate, the reaction time impeccable from years of working with her. They arched their back, and sent a white arc of crackling lightning into the lake. The pokemon stunned into the water wasn’t fast enough to take flight before the current reached them.
The light emanating from the attack briefly lit the cave up, vibrant enough that the mushrooms momentarily dimmed in reflex. The white creature thrashed, mouth open in a silent scream, and a wail of psychic presence hammered pain into Char’s head.
Then silence. Stillness. The pokemon floated face down in the water.
“Dammit, Charlotte!” Nico growled into her head. He lifted their mark telekinetically with ease; their limp form dangled in the air like a wet rag, to be draped onto the shore. The Manectric whined, understanding what it did, and briefly gave Char a forlorn look before she had to return them.
“Well, it got the job done, didn’t it?” She snapped back. Nico sat on his haunches to observe the unconscious pokemon, a hand on its neck to look for a pulse. Char squinted in the dim light, and found nothing about it remotely recognizable.
“...What the everlivin’ fuck is that thing?”
It was mammalian, bipedal, vaguely feline. Or perhaps canine? It was unclear, and Char could tell that getting a closer look would only confuse her on that more. Its scrawny chest heaved for a few painful-sounding coughs and wheezes, and water was spat up, dribbling down its front. The creature stirred; physically and mentally. The weak signal of its mind etched a pathetic note of fear and encroaching despair into Char’s head. Its eyes opened, and the first thing their vision focused on was Char’s mangled hand on the Master Ball.
“Please,” they begged. “Don’t make me go back. Please -”
Char averted her eyes, as to not make eye contact with the creature. “Sorry hon, but we all got our masters to serve.”
She pressed the release button for the first time. The resulting flash dimmed the natural light around them.