One of the great things about this town is that no one's ever too old for the Haunted Harvest Festival. Even the people who don't go all-out for it still give it a nod, in the way of a hairbow holding a tiny pointed hat, or a porch full of plush Pumpkaboos, or that one incredibly odd fellow with the lapel pin shaped like Mismagius that when you lean in turns out to be an actual Mismagius -
Alright, that guy's a f'n freak. But everyone else is having a good time, including you, though you'd probably be having an even better one if you hadn't gotten stuck taking your little brother around for tricks and treats. Your dad was supposed to do it this year, but -
"He went out for candy cigarettes three hours ago and hasn't come back," your mom said, staring out the window with the most worried expression she could possibly contrieve, and you'd just groaned, dropping your head into your hand. (He really will be back, though. Your mom just thinks that joke is a lot funnier than it is - but your brother's not old enough to understand it yet, so it's probably okay.)
(And to be honest, you wouldn't put it past your dad to have gone out the front door, snuck around the back, and been hiding in the basement choking on his own laughter. The whole family's like this, but at least you know where you got it from. And whose fault it will be when you finally get your sweet, sweet revenge.)
So you're stuck with the kid instead of meeting up with your own crew, but at least it's a nice night for it. Last year, it rained until the garlands of paper Ghost-types turned to purple mush, and the year before that, it was so cold that nearly everyone had ended up in a universal costume of parkas and overfluffed earmuffs. But right now it's warm enough to slip off the light jacket and go bare-armed, and once the temperature does start to fall, you'll have been running around for so long you'll welcome the kind of breeze that scratches leafless branches across a midnight sky.
Your neighbours are nice - and certainly festive (Gentleman Edward and Madame Vivianne do the absolute best amateur spookyard, hands down) - but for the real haul, most people head downtown, where all the local businesses and even a few of the larger chains are stocked with full-size chocolate bars, gift bags so heavy the bottoms are threatening to fall out, and in one case, a berry-bobbing tub deep enough to drown in. It's all about drumming up customers, of course, but it's hard to mind when every window is filled with a living display and the only way you can tell the employees from the guests is by their nametags because all the costumes are that damn good. There's no half-assing it with just a googly-eyed, wiggly-eared headband here.
But what's better yet (or much, much worse, or absolutely hysterical, depending on who you talk to)? Is that Team Rocket gets super-into it, too. No one had been happy when the infamous criminal organization had set up shop here - and it's not like they'd been open about it at first, they hadn't put the Big Red R on their roof or anything; but once the rumours started to spread, they'd spread fast, and once someone actually managed to prove it - by then, they'd become firmly enough entrenched that no one knew how to run them out to begin with, or if it would have been the right thing to do even if they'd found a way. Weirdly enough, Team Rocket puts a lot back into the local economy. So sort of an uneasy truce had formed, with most of the residents looking the other way as long as Team Rocket didn't do anything really publically illegal, and Team Rocket pretending their business wasn't doing things that were...well, really illegal.
But then they'd started up their Happy Harvest, Family Fun! campaign, handing out candy and trinkets and colourful little cards right outside HQ, and the PTA Brigade had lost their minds. "Criminals? Luring our children into their creepy black van? Not in my backyard!" If ever there was a lost cause, though, trying to keep kids away from an increasingly-shiny combination of candy and danger was probably it. Eventually, Moms Against Team Rocket (MoTeR, pronounced exactly like it wasn't actually spelled) had given up on attacking the event directly and settled for grumbling behind the closed doors of what their husbands assumed were meetings full of wine and those lemon bars their hands had been smacked away from.
Your mom hadn't been part of it (though you're not sure if that's because she isn't particularly concerned about Team Rocket or because of the Noodle Casserole Incident that had gotten her politely but firmly invited not to feel as if she needed to continue attending the PTA), and so you don't feel much guilt about taking your brother that way once the frenzy at the shops starts to die down. He's still as wound up as he'd been when you left the house and probably doesn't need any more sugar, but he's easier to manage when he thinks he's getting his way and once you get back, he's going to be your parents' problem, not yours. (Ha. There's your revenge.) He's run into one of his little cronies and they're shrieking about who's collected the most, and by the time you rock up to the Rocketyard, the stories being passed back and forth about all the people they know who know someone who's been to Lavender Town (and occasionally, someone who didn't come back from Lavender Town) are actually a relief, because every time they manage to scare each other silent, it lasts a whole three seconds or so.
Whatever's beyond those heavy red doors is off-limits to anyone not a member of the organization, so the party takes place outside, and outside is packed. Most years, it's been the grunts handling the handouts, but tonight - Seriously? The big boss himself? Those are the murmurs at the back of the line, anyway. You've never seen Giovanni in person before - just his portrait staring into your soul from the posters put up now-and-then - and you bounce up on your toes, trying to get a glimpse over the top of the crowd. You can't - too many taller heads prevail - but a pair of girls you remember vaguely from your senior year are passing by on their way out, and you can hear them giggling and gasping - "Oh! I know Team Rocket's terrible, but Mr Giovanni's really quite dashing, isn't he?" "...did you really just call him dashing? Did Celebi transport me back in time and I missed it?"
So it is him? That adds a further touch of mystery and excitement to a night that's already got no shortage of either. Why here? Why now? It's no secret that Team Rocket hosts these events to boost their image, but they're doing well enough right now (for a given value of 'well enough', anyway) - so is it that he feels safer making an appearance when public opinion is high, or could it be a ploy to push it even higher? Because, face it, ninety percent of these kids would vote the man into office right now. (The other ten percent are too firmly on the Pikachu is Pikafection platform, and by tomorrow, they'll all be throwing their support to Mr Mime's Wall O'Wonder Show. The candy bribes giveth, and the candy bribes taketh away.)
As you get closer, the image you've seen in those pictures begins to resolve. Giovanni isn't costumed (though he is very definitely dressed up - like, to the nines up), but he's made a concession to the festival by pinning a spray of purple blossoms to his lapel. He's seated in a chair padded with the sort of leather that probably shouldn't ever actually be brought outdoors, and though he's generally accompanied in promotional material by the most smug Persian the world has ever known, the Classy Cat is currently nowhere to be found. It seems, too, that the grunts are still the ones running the show, because Giovanni nods and smiles - kind of smirks, really - at the visitors who've made it to the front, but it's his henchmen who are filling bags and making jokes and pulling punches at the teenagers who think they're too cool for fun and just want to say they went toe to toe with Team Rocket.
And while the Persian may be strangely absent, there are an assortment of the other Pokémon people have come to associate with the most poisonous team in town - an Arbok dancing amidst fan-blown ribbons, the full Zubat evolutionary line flapping about overhead, and more Koffing than you can shake a swab stick at.
Seriously, there are so. Many. Koffing. They're bobbing around like balloons, and they're dressed up, too - with hats and body paint and fluttering capes, and one even has a little papier-maché head stuck to its side, so that it can know what it's like to be a Weezing even though it's not quite ready to evolve.
You've reached the end of the queue, and while your little brother is hopping up and down, jabbing the air next to a grunt who's clearly weary as hell but still doing his best to make sure all the kids get to have a good time, Giovanni steeples his fingers and dips his head in such a way that his eyes flash before going darker still, and alright, you can absolutely see why the airheads called him 'dashing'. You only get to hold the thought for a moment before the two of you are ushered away, though, and you don't have time to snatch it back before your brother's shoved his head into the sack and started reeling off a list of his ill-given gains. It's a smorgasboard of crackerjacks and actual jacks, little plastic toys that won't last for more than a day but it doesn't matter because little boys can't stay interested in most things that long anyway, and the reason you know they're going to break immediately is because your brother's managed to snap one in half before you've even made it halfway home.
Unfortunately, 'halfway home' is well before the limits of even the shortest attention span, and delight turns to dismay with a wail that could make a Haunter shudder and turn pale. You do what you can to, if not distract him, convince him that it's not the end of the world and he probably didn't care that much about the trinket anyway, but he's already convinced himself of the exact opposite, and in the end, the only thing you can get him to agree to is to stay right here while you run back to see if they'll give you a replacement. It's a goodwill gesture, right? And they'd all seemed fairly good-natured about it. Maybe they won't mind.
By the time you get there, though, things are winding down; the Rocketyard's mostly cleared out and the remaining grunts are either sweeping up the hundred thousand wrappers dropped by hands that are surprisingly incapable of holding on to anything for being so sticky, or trying to recapture the overly-excited Koffing that are now chasing each other around with all the grace of drunken bumper cars. "Oi! Peety! Come get your freakin' plague puffs!" one shouts, and if this Peety, whoever that is, answers, it's lost beneath the cacophany of cleanup. Your chances of finding (or buying, or begging) a new toy seem to be dwindling as rapidly as the chance anyone's getting those Koffing back in order, but from the corner of your eye, you catch a flash of dapper black vanishing around the building's far side, and screw it, you are going for the gold.
"Mr Giovanni! I'm sorry to bother you, but do you have a minute? My brother -" you call, and then you stop short, because as you come up on the man you're chasing, he starts to strip - no, wait, he's wearing something else beneath that fabulous suit, and you wouldn't have thought that to even be possible, it fit so well. Did he not hear you? He must not have, because he's dropped his face into his palms and raked his fingers through his hair, and when he turns toward you at last -
It's not Giovanni. It's a tall man in the black and white uniform of a Rocket executive, with purple hair swept up atop his head, and if you hadn't seen the transformation yourself, you never would have believed it. He's as surprised as you, now - but for a different reason - and the elegance he'd displayed in Giovanni's suit is gone as he stumbles back. "&#%$!" he yelps, and you can hear every symbol rolling off his tongue. "You, ah, didn't see that, did you?"
You stammer an answer as you edge away yourself, because as fun as it may be to play 'Take On Team Rocket!' when you're eight and loaded up on Vanillish Wafers, this seems a lot more like it's going to result in real trouble, and though your hands have found the wall and you're trying to use it to guide yourself back the way you came without taking your eyes off the executive, it's no use - his long legs outstride yours and he's caught up to you well before you have any real hope of getting away. His own hand plants to the wall, just beside your head, and he leans in, smirking that same smirk that had you so convinced he could really be the Fearless Leader. "'cause if you did, I'm gonna have to make sure you won't talk."
Oh, &#%$, you think, legs shaking, you are going to die here; you are going to disappear and at your empty-coffined funeral, your little brother is just going to scream that you hadn't gotten him another toy before you were tossed off the mortal coil, but before you can manage to pass out so that you at least won't see it coming, the man ducks the rest of the way in and smashes his lips to yours. And then he's gone, darting around that corner you were so desperate to reach yourself, and based on the sound that's rapidly fading as he puts ever-more distance between the two of you, you're pretty sure that he
"G'damnit, Peety!" you hear as you're creeping out, apparently from the same grunt who'd been yelling for the mysterious Peety before. "The hell have you been?" You don't stick around for the reply, because no one's looking your way - including the lanky executive, who not only has his back to you once more but has suddenly been flocked to by every last one of the runaway Koffing, cloaking him in a cloud of poisonous purple love - and this seems like the perfect time to make your escape.
"Where is it where is it where is it!" your brother demands as you run back up, grabbing his hand to pull him along whether he's ready to go or not, and you mumble a reply you can barely understand yourself; They didn't have any more or They were already closed or something else that doesn't have a damn thing to do with what actually happened but at least takes the blame off you because what are you supposed to do in that situation? Your face is on fire, but as long as he's trying to find the perfect balance between crying over his broken knick-knacks and stuffing his mouth full of candy, he's not paying enough attention to notice, and by the time you've made it back to your house and pawned him off on your parents (Dad was indeed in the basement, and you are not surprised at all), that chill evening wind has mostly washed away what you haven't managed to yourself. The sooner you're in your own room, the better, though, and you spend a few minutes flattened to the closed door, trying to catch the breath that should never have left you in the first place.
...Team Rocket throws a Christmas party, too, don't they?