With a yell of frustration, Meowth threw down the broken charm from their latest busted Robo-Meowth. It joined the crumpled pile of armor and mechanical parts on the floor of their malasada truck. "It's hopeless! There's no way we're gonna repair this without more spare parts!"
Disgusted, James dropped a coil of robotic tentacle to the ground as well. "This is what we get for making it look like a Meowth fused with an Octillery. Now we don't have enough parts to rebuild a normal body."
"We made it out of tentacles because we didn't have enough parts to rebuild a normal body." Jessie flicked a bent antenna at James's head.
The trio couldn't even stand on the truck's floor for the broken mecha parts crowding the limited space. Instead, they sat on the counters, Jessie and James with their legs crossed, Meowth irritably kicking his heels against a drawer inches above the junk pile. They'd been hoping to fix bits of broken 'bot in between customers, but after loading the truck full of the parts in need of repairs, they hadn't been able to open the truck for the day. Being trapped alone in a truck full of broken parts, unable to escape, did nothing to make repairs easier. They'd been fiddling with busted machinery for over an hour now; they were cramped, hungry, and hot; and they knew all too well that this was a fraction of the parts left back at their base.
"You're right, Meowth, this is hopeless," Jessie snapped. "We've rebuilt this same robot by reusing the same parts how many times now?"
"Four times," James said morosely.
"Three," Meowth corrected. "The one we used in the school play doesn't count, it was made out of the trash we couldn't recycle from the mark 2 into the mark 3."
"Oh, whatever!" James flung his hands up in despair. "It's true. At this point, we've got weld lines crossing weld lines. Robo-Meowth's hull looks like somebody glued together a jigsaw puzzle. Even if we can rebuild Robo-Meowth, a stiff a breeze will be enough to knock it out. We've got to get new materials to make the repairs."
"Which means calling Boss for more money," Jessie muttered. James and Meowth cringed.
Things went in cycles with the boss. First everything would be hunky-dory, and HQ would happily wire over funds or send machines for Jessie, James, and Meowth's latest important Poké-poaching project. And then they wouldn't catch anything, and the costs would start mounting, and Boss would start demanding either results or reimbursement for the wasted funds Team Rocket had spent on the trio. Eventually they'd catch something neat, transfer to a promising new post, or just grovel really convincingly; their debts would be forgiven (if not forgotten); and they'd start with a relatively clean slate.
They were not at the "clean slate" stage of the cycle. Boss's patience was at low tide, and the trio were fish floundering on the hot sand under the withering sunlight of his fury. If they called him to request more funding before they caught something they could send home, he'd go off like a volcano—especially if they asked for the full cost it would take to rebuild a fine mecha like the Robo-Meowth.
"Can we raise the funds ourselves?" James suggested.
Meowth threw in, "Can you call your granny and gramps for some dough?"
James picked up the antenna Jessie had thrown at him in order to throw it at Meowth, then went on without acknowledging the question. "We've got the food truck and the freelance emcee gigs at the Battle Royal Dome. How long would it take us to save up enough for the repairs?"
Jessie looked up at the ceiling while she did the mental math. "Approximately... forever."
James groaned. "Great."
"Look on the bright side," Meowth said. "Bet it'll be a lot easier to steal Pikachu when the twerp's a hundred years old."
Jessie was about to point out that would make her and James about a hundred and fifteen, when someone knocked on the shut order window. The trio started—and then groaned, in unified despair, "Customers." Jessie twisted around to half-raise the window and snapped, "Truck's closed."
The kid outside started. "You're actually here?!"
"Yeah? Truck's still closed. The fryer's broken." She bent down and held up part of a broken radiator that definitely hadn't come from a fryer. "See?"
"Aww." He stooped over to peer into the crack Jessie had opened up. "Why are you sitting on the counters...?"
"Because we've got hot fryer oil spilled all over the floor," Meowth snapped, at the same time that James said, "Because we forgot our chairs."
Jessie shot them both a murderous glare. "We forgot our chairs and spilled oil—look, if you want a malasada you're not getting it from this food truck."
He looked disappointed for a split second, but then said, "Oh! No, I've actually got a message from my grandpa."
"From your grandpa," James repeated dubiously.
"Hala. The Hakuna on Melemele Island?"
Their eyes widened in panic. "Oh! The really strong old guy?" "He doesn't have a problem with us, does he?" "We're just humble malasada cooks!"
"That's not your only job, right?" (They tensed at the accusation, already mentally making plans to burn their truck, fake their own deaths, and flee into the wilderness.) "You're the emcees at the Battle Royal Dome too, aren't you? That's what the people at the dome said when grandpa called."
They sagged in relief. "Oh," Jessie said. "Yeah, that's us. Why? Do they need us for another event?"
"Not them," the kid said, "but grandpa is hosting a tournament on Melemele Island and we need commentators. Can you come?" He slid a flier through the half-open window. James took it and held it up where the trio could see: it depicted an imposing-looking Hariyama, printed in dark blue ink on pale orange paper, with information underneath. "It's for fighting-type Pokémon."
"Oh, we've done one of those," James said. He didn't mean they'd emceed a fighting-type tournament. He meant they'd participated in one. With a stolen Hitmonlee. What a star it had been.
The kid's eyes lit up. "Great! So you can emcee this one?"
"Maybe." Jessie snatched the flier from James's hand in order to read the information. A thirty-two Pokémon bracket, first fight at ten a.m. sharp, all-day event, under a tent on the west end of Hau'oli City's beach... She held out the flier for Meowth to examine next as she asked, "How much are you paying?"
"Ah, well," the kid looked sheepish, "Not much. We'll cover hotel and other expenses, though."
Jessie and James exchanged a look. Well, "not much" was not much, but it might be nice to spend a night in a beachside hotel...
The kid continued, "Most of our funding is going to the prize money."
Jessie's and James whipped around to face Meowth, and Meowth buried his face in the flier. He gasped, and they could practically see golden coins glimmering in his eyes. (Maybe it was a reflection from the orange paper.)
"Sorry!" Meowth hopped onto the counter in front of the window. "Looks like we're gonna be busy the day of the competition." They had just enough time to see the kid's face fall before Meowth grabbed the window and slammed it shut.
He turned to face the flier toward Jessie and James, pointing to the prize money listed near the bottom. They grabbed each other for balance. "We," he said, "have got to enter this tournament."
In their base, Jessie and James surveyed their Pokémon.
Wobbuffet, Mimikyu, Mareanie, and Meowth stood in a line, Wobbuffet and Mareanie at attention, Mimikyu on the verge of getting bored and wandering off, and Meowth stiff with nervousness.
Jessie frowned thoughtfully, arms crossed. James crouched down in front of the pack, stroking his chin. Mareanie reached for his face, and he held up a hand to ward her off before she could latch on. Mimikyu finally skulked off, muttering something that made Meowth shudder in fear.
Finally, Jessie and James sighed. "It's hopeless," James groused, head drooping somewhere between his knees. (Mareanie hopefully reached one poison-barbed tentacle toward the crown of his head.) "There's no way we could pass off any of our Pokémon as fighting types."
Meowth gushed a sigh of relief and flopped onto his back. "Thank goodness." His partners gave him a dirty look. "What?! You guys know I don't mind taking one for the team, but I don't wanna take a hundred for the team, to the face, in a boxing ring."
"You'd probably get knocked out after the first punch," Jessie said, shrugging.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Jess." He stuck his tongue out at her. She stuck hers out back.
James straightened up just before Mareanie's tentacle could brush him. "What about Bewear?" he asked. "What if we talk her into fighting for us?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Jessie said dismissively. "She's fuzzy and pink. Nobody would buy her as a fighting type. She's obviously a fairy type."
"Obviously," Meowth agreed, still talking toward the ceiling. "Besides, if we tried to haul her along, she'd probably haul us back out here before we got a chance to steal the prize money."
"Oh yeah." With another sigh, James drooped his head again. Mareanie inched toward him again.
"This is ridiculous." Jessie started pacing. "This isn't the first time we've tried to enter a fighting-type competition. What did we do last time?"
James raised his head, and Mareanie skittered back again. "We stole a Pokémon, didn't we? That Hitmonlee," he said. "It was game for anything."
Jessie nodded in agreement. "It didn't even care that we'd stolen it from its owner, it did everything we asked. I'd love to fight with it again."
"I don't even know how we'd find it again," James said. "It feels like that competition was over twenty years ago."
"It was." Jessie dragged her hands down her face—carefully. In deference to their dire financial situation, Jessie had once again been forced to give up on wearing a full face of makeup, but she still had lipstick and eyeliner and did not want to mess them up. "That episode is old enough to drink now, can you believe it? I feel ancient."
Meowth sat up and snapped, "Stop leanin' on the fourth wall so hard, you're gonna knock it over."
Jessie rolled her eyes, muttering about how at least the episode couldn't rent a car yet.
"Forget the Hitmonlee. All we have to do is steal another fighting type, right?" James said hopefully. "That doesn't seem too hard."
Meowth said, "Yeah, 'cept that we're on an island. Probably everyone here with a fighting Pokémon came for the competition. If we show up to the competition with a stolen Pokémon, its real trainer will recognize it and get us kicked out before we can steal the moolah."
"Oh yeah, that's right." And once more, James slumped over in despair.
Jessie, on the other hand, punched their table in rage. James and Meowth started upright. There was a deep dent in the metal tabletop. "This is ridiculous! We're Team Rocket! We should be able to just waltz in there with some kind of—of—of ridiculous heist movie technology and take the money! But first we need the money to afford that kind of technology. Rrrgh!" She kicked a massive chair with a solid metal base. It went flying across the room.
Meowth and James slowly made eye contact. And then looked back at Jessie. Meowth cleared his throat. "Say, Jessie. You know, you're pretty strong."
"Yeah?" she said, with an expression that strongly suggested she found this remark not only completely obvious but also suspicious because of its obviousness, as though Meowth had pointedly observed that her boots are quite black.
"Stronger than some Pokémon, I bet," Meowth said. "Maybe not strong enough to win a fightin' tournament, no..."
"Buuut," James jumped in, "probably strong enough to enter a fighting tournament and lose in the first round while your partners steal a hefty cash prize."
Jessie gave them a horrified look. They gave her a pair of winning smiles. Wobbuffet, who wasn't quite sure what the group activity of the day was but wanted to be involved, joined in the smiling.
"Are you two crazy?! A human in a Pokémon tournament?! I'll be killed!"
"No way! Fights always stop before anyone dies," Meowth said.
James winced and gave Meowth an uncertain grimace. "Well, then again... what about that fight we saw the other day between that Carbink and Sableye...?"
"Sht-sht-sht!" Meowth waved his paws at James. "Doesn't count. They were wild Pokémon and that Sableye obviously hadn't had a good meal in a while. I'm talkin' about professional fights! Between Pokémon with trainers."
"Those stop without deaths because the losing trainers can call their injured Pokémon back into their balls," Jessie snapped. "I don't have a Pokéball, Meowth! How are you going to retrieve me if I'm getting beaten into a fabulously beautiful pulp?"
"I don't have a Pokéball, but I ain't dead, am I?!"
"If it gets too bad, just pretend you got knocked out," James said. "The fight will stop then, right?"
Jessie grumbled about more likely ending up in a hospital, but her outrage was gradually fading into a vague irritation. Meowth opened his mouth, but James gestured for him to keep quiet.
After a moment, Jessie held out a hand. "Show me that flier."
James took it out, unfolded it, and handed it over. She read it, still frowning. "... It says it's open to anybody." She offered the flier back to James. "So half of the competitors are probably going to be a bunch of kids doing this for fun, right? I'll probably get paired off with some twerp and a Crabrawler they found in their backyard."
"That's the spirit!" Meowth said.
James frowned nervously. "Those Crabrawler claws, though..."
Meowth huffed. "We're barely on the verge of talking Jessie into this, are you gonna back out now?"
"They can only do damage up to the knees," Jessie said. There was a fire in her eyes now. "All right. I'm in. I'll do it if it's for the good of the team." She paused. "The team and our wallets."
Meowth and James cheered. Wobbuffet, who'd briefly attempted to pay attention to the conversation but lost track of what was going on again, cheered as well, waving his arms and yelling, "Waaaa..."
"Okay. We got a plan," Meowth said. "On to the best part of every villainous scheme."
Jessie and James pumped their fists into the air. "Making costumes!"
After half an hour of going through every fighting-type Pokémon they could remember, or thought they could remember—"Is Geodude a fighting type?" "It is, isn't it?" "I think it is, I'll put it down"—they settled on Hitmonchan as the one that would be easiest to recreate as Jessie's disguise. It was human-shaped, human-colored, thin, wore clothes... and was under five feet tall, which was a problem, but they could pretend Jessie was an unusually tall Hitmonchan. Anyway, James would be disguised as Jessie's trainer, and if he put on a skirt and tried to look dainty, that would make him look smaller, and so Jessie would look even smaller in comparison, right? Right. They'd pulled off less convincing disguises before.
To be fair, they were usually trying to trick ten-year-olds.
"Ha! Perfect!" Jessie emerged from one of the suitcases she and James had hauled to Alola with a nurse's uniform: a dress with short puffy sleeves and a skirt that went to mid-thigh. "If we can dye this from pink to purple, it should work for the base of Hitmonchan's outfit. Then all I'll need is a belt."
"What region is that uniform from?" James asked. "Not Alola, right? The Alolan nurse uniforms are two toned."
"No, it's from Hoenn." Jessie held it up.
James inspected it, then nodded approval. "Pass it over, I'll take off the collar and sleeves."
Meowth, who'd been studiously building up a toy crown with papier-mâché into Hitmonchan's spiked head, frowned as the dress was passed over. "You've been holding onto that dress since we were in Hoenn?"
"You never know when you'll need to impersonate a nurse," Jessie said sagely.
James nodded in agreement. "I've still got my nurse dress from Kalos."
"We did a great tailoring job on that one. Especially considering all we had to work with was a stapler and a pocket knife."
Meowth rolled his eyes and returned his attention to sculpting Hitmonchan's head. "Hoarders."
Jessie sat with Meowth to share the papier-mâché and got to work sculpting the shoulder pads, and for a while the trio worked in silence.
Wobbuffet, who was a poor costume crafter himself but nevertheless an old hand at assisting with their creations, had been put in charge of Mareanie and Mimikyu and sent to scout for supplies. On their last couple of costumes, Jessie and James had supervised while Wobbuffet directed Mareanie and Mimikyu, to make sure they would listen to him and to help train them in stealthy shoplifting and burglary. Mareanie had a fine talent for charming salespeople so thoroughly that they didn't notice as her accomplices swiped clothes and paint, whereas Mimikyu had an alarming fondness for the more traditional smash-and-grab technique. This was the three Pokémon's first time hunting for materials unsupervised.
Mimikyu's tendency toward reckless damage and its aptitude toward cosplaying as Pikachu had led the trio to conclude that it would be best to get it involved in costume fabrication rather than supply acquisition, and sooner rather than later. With the tournament coming up so soon, though, they didn't have time to train it on sewing techniques, so out it went with the robbery squad. They'd just have to hope that Mimikyu didn't get arrested right before the tournament.
But as James finished hemming the new arm holes and Jessie and Meowth set out their papier-mâché to dry, Mimikyu slunk into the base: one damaged ear hanging from its false head, covered in broken glass, croaking curses to itself, and dragging a pair of lilac flats. The trio silently sighed in relief, more at seeing Mimikyu back than at the prize it had hauled home. Jessie immediately jumped up to gush praise. "Look at you! Exactly what we asked for. Great work! I'll take those." Jessie scooped the flats from Mimikyu's ghostly hand to make sure they were the right size.
"Where are Mareanie and Wobbuffet?" James asked. It rasped out a reply, and James looked to Meowth for a translation.
Meowth, eyes wide in horror, swallowed hard. "It says that they're in... uh... I can't repeat that kinda language, we're a kid friendly franchise, here."
Tugging off her boots to try on the flats, Jessie muttered, "Tell Ryan Reynolds that."
"Hey," James said, "he kept it to a PG."
Meowth looked at Mimikyu fearfully, and whispered, "Did you kill them?"
Meowth's fur stood up on end as Mimikyu's cold, hateful presence focused on him through the dark eyeholes in its ragged costume. It muttered an explanation.
"Oh! Oh, that's—that's fine. Yeesh, you made it sound so dramatic." Meowth turned to James. "It left them rummaging through an accessory bin at a thrift shop, looking for a belt."
"You shouldn't have split up from the team," James said reproachfully.
Mimikyu flicked its damaged ear at James with a noise that sounded like "Ffpt."
"I'm definitely not translating that."
Jessie let out a sharp shriek. James and Meowth started. "Jessie?!" "What is it?"
Jaw dropped, she held out the flats, pointing at the price sticker on the heel. James shrieked as well. Meowth shouted something that was absolutely not kid friendly.
They spent the next fifteen minutes heaping lavish praise on Mimikyu.
James went through their combined makeup bag, frowning. Then he went through it again. Finally, he poured it out on the floor. The costume makeup, a palette of cakes in every color of the rainbow—because you never know when the only way to access a location is by impersonating circus performers and/or actual Pokémon—was easy to identify and set aside, along with the large jar of Togepi powder to set it. Brushes, sponges—here was that dish soap Meowth used to clean his charm that he'd been missing for the past week, James set it aside to put with the shampoo where it belonged—mascara, eyeliner, two shades of lipstick—James checked to make sure both were bright red—and finally, frustrated, got up and ducked outside the base. "Jessie?"
"Huh?" She was training against Bewear, who was serving as the most serenely patient punching bag in Alola. Jessie had on all of her costume except the dress in order to test how their hasty papier-mâché project held on when she was moving around. (They had little hope of the costume staying together during an actual fight. They'd already agreed that if her shoulder pads or helmet were damaged, they'd pretend it was a debilitating injury, haul her out of the fight, wait for the fuss to die down, and then sneak off to find and swipe the cash prize.) Her shiny new red boxing gloves, helpfully swiped by Wobbuffet, let out rubbery squeaks each time they smacked Bewear.
"Do you know where my lipstick is?"
"Which?" After a series of jabs that Bewear completely ignored, she broke off her assault to look up at James, panting. "You mean the sparkly pink stuff?"
"No, that's the lip gloss, I found that," James said impatiently. "I meant my lipstick. The peachy one that matches my undertones."
"Oh! It melted a few weeks ago, didn't it? You had it with you when we got thunderbolted?"
"Oh, that's right." James sagged in despair. That color was discontinued.
Meowth snapped, "Enough yapping, more training. I wanna see mach punches! Hustle!"
Jessie groaned. "I'm too tired for mach punches!"
"You think any Pokémon ever told its trainer that it was too tired for mach punches? Not a chance! Boxing gloves up!"
With another, louder groan, Jessie resumed pummeling Bewear. Bewear continued watching her with sweet, unbothered serenity.
Once Meowth was sure Jessie was doing her level best to punch Bewear, if not effectively, then at least quickly, he looked up at James. "Why don't you just go with the pink stuff?" he asked. "You've used the peach one too much anyway, it's no good as a disguise if everyone's seen you in it a hundred times."
"The pink stuff is too limiting," James griped. "It only looks good on me if I wear pink."
"So? Wear pink."
"I've already picked an outfit, and it's lavender!"
"So steal a new outfit! Or steal a new lipstick, I don't care! This ain't rocket science!"
James huffed a sigh, and turned to Mimikyu and Mareanie. They were huddled around a bucket that Mareanie had filled with purple venom and were carefully dipping Jessie's old nurse disguise in to dye it. "Mareanie, come on. We need to find a new top. You and Mimikyu can finish with the dye when we get back." Mimikyu—who, despite its care, was already stained purple halfway up to its eye holes—sighed in relief. Mareanie followed after James cheerily as they left the base.
As James took the path past their impromptu training field, where Jessie was wheezing with exhaustion and struggling to hold up her boxing gloves, Bewear raised an arm to wave goodbye. At Bewear's sudden movement, Jessie barked a startled shout and socked Bewear in the snout. Bewear flinched mildly in surprise.
Meowth cheered. "A reaction! Look at that, Jess!" He climbed her back and sat on her shoulders in order to straighten out her helmet. "We'll make a contender out of you yet!"
James ultimately came back with a close-fitting bubblegum pink crop top. He'd tried to replicate Mareanie's earlier shoplifting success by sending her to grab makeup "that flatters my complexion," but all she'd come back with was lipsticks and eyeshadows in various shades of purple. But she'd also stolen some nice perfume—roseli berry scented—so all was forgiven. The top didn't match his lavender skirt as well as he'd hoped, but he supposed he didn't always have to disguise himself as an impeccably-dressed fashionista.
Although he thought he should.
It was getting late, and in the forest it had grown dark fast. To Jessie's immense relief, Meowth had called off their training when they'd lost light. Now, inside their base, Jessie was learning how to counter from Wobbuffet, in the hopes that it would help her retaliate effectively when the far stronger actual fighting Pokémon with actual fighting moves inevitably landed some serious blows. She listened diligently as Wobbuffet lectured—"Wooobbuffet! Wob wob! Wob wob wubb? Wob wob wob. Wob! Wob wob wobb!"—and took notes on his every word, nodding along enthusiastically.
James was brainstorming his new trainer persona with Meowth. They'd deliberately chosen a disguise that didn't look anything like a stereotypical fighting-type trainer. After all, if they'd chosen something obvious—say, a black belt costume—what if they, say, ran into somebody who kept meticulous records of every recorded black belt in the world, and would be suspicious when they didn't recognize James? This was the kind of thing that professional, highly talented Pokémon thieves thought about when planning their disguises.
So they'd decided that their star Hitmonchan trainer was a florist who ran a small shop in Goldenrod City—there probably wouldn't be anyone else from Goldenrod here, and if there were, they could say they didn't recognize each other because Goldenrod was so big. Their florist ran the shop all by herself, and it was so small that surely nobody had ever heard of it. She wasn't typically into the battling scene, but she'd found her dear partner Hitmonchan as an egg, and had raised it since it had hatched into a—"Say Meowth, what's Hitmonchan's pre-evolved form, anyway?" "I uh, I don't remember."—she'd found her dear partner Hitmonchan beat up and abandoned in an alley behind her florist shop and nursed it back to health—"That's way more emotionally gripping than the egg thing anyway"—and now, even though she wasn't a serious trainer, she wanted to help her Hitmonchan be all it could be, and that was why she was taking it to a fighting Pokémon competition. "Hey Jessie, how does that backstory sound?" "Shhh! Can't you hear that Wobbuffet is talking?!" "Waaahb!"
Oh, well. Jessie wouldn't be able to talk anyway. She didn't need the backstory.
They got stuck on the name. It didn't help that Meowth kept getting distracted by what he was sure was Mimikyu lurking in the shadows at the edge of his vision, only to turn and find that nothing was there. Eventually they named their florist Mimi Q. and called it a night.
"You've got our code memorized, right?" Jessie asked, meticulously pinning her hair up.
"Of course I have," James said, not breaking eye contact with the mirror as he carefully applied mascara (generously loaned to him by Jessie, since Mareanie had proven useless at shoplifting makeup). "'Hit' means 'yes,' like 'yes, you hit on the right answer,' and 'chan' means 'no,' like 'no, and I chan't believe you'd say something so ridiculous.'"
"Right." Jessie carefully tugged her Hitmonchan helmet on over her hair, and then put on her boxing gloves. "Okay. I think I'm almost ready. James?"
"All I need is to clip in my pigtail extensions. How about you, Meowth?"
Meowth, eyes and mouth squeezed shut, tail held high and tense, groaned in distress. On either side of the bucket he was crouched in, Mimikyu and Mareanie scrubbed venomous dye into his fur.
Jessie and James surveyed the progress of his dye job. James nodded. "Oh, that's coming along nicely."
"I forgot this was on the beach," Jessie muttered, grimacing. "The sand is going to be hell on my new flats. Plus I'm going to have sand in my shoes all day..."
"Hey," James muttered back, "I'm wearing flats too, you don't hear me complaining."
"Your flats are cheaper than mine. Besides, you can take them off any time you want to dump out the sand—I've got boxing gloves on."
Meowth growled, "Both of you shut up. I've got congealed poison in my fur."
Registration for the tournament had gone smoothly. The competition was going to be held in a temporary boxing ring set up beneath a colorful tent, although for now there were very few people under the tent—just a few early arrivals who'd staked out their spots early to watch the coming competition. Wobbuffet, Mimikyu, and Mareanie were mingling with the audience, scouting for the location of the prize. But everyone else, hundreds of people and Pokémon, were sprawled along the length of the beach as they waited for the first fights of the day. Many of the visible Pokémon were fighting types.
Jessie was nervously eyeing the competition and wondering whether they could scrub some of the poison out of Meowth's fur into the contestants' water supply to help tilt the odds in her favor. Not that she had any plans on winning—why go to that much effort when they could steal the prize for free?—but she wanted to minimize her chances of being mutilated by a mountain of Machop muscle.
Her schemes were interrupted by the blaring of a loudspeaker turning on and a young voice shouting, "Aaalola, Melemele Island!"
Team Rocket looked at each other in horror. "Oh no." "Say it ain't so." "Say he wouldn't go." And then, slowly, turned their horrified gazes toward the tent. Sitting behind a folding table and sharing a microphone between them were three commentators: the boy who'd given them the flier yesterday, a floating red Rotom Dex, and the twerp himself.
"What's he doing here?!" James hissed.
Grimacing, Jessie glanced at Meowth and said, "James and I should have entered the competition while you took the emcee job."
Meowth grimaced back. "Hindsight's 20/20, huh?"
They listened morosely as the commentators introduced themselves—Ash from Pallet Town (ugggh), Hau from Iki Town, and Rotom Dex from Poni Island and Lumiose City—thanked Hakuna Hala for organizing the event, explained where to find snacks and schedules, and announced the first round starting in fifteen minutes. Finally, Jessie looked between her partners. "You know what this means, right?"
They both nodded. James answered, "We've got to work ten times harder to trick everyone."
"I was going to say 'we need to find Mimikyu before it picks a fight with the twerp's Pikachu,' but that too."
"Eep! On it." Meowth took off.
"On all four," James half-shouted half-whispered. "You're an Alolan Meowth!" Meowth dropped down on his front paws as he ran; he was so out of practice behaving like a quadruped that he almost looked more like a human trying to run on his hands than like an average Meowth.
Jessie held up a hand. "All right. Working ten times harder." James fist-bumped her through her boxing glove.
They never found Mimikyu.
This terrified Meowth.
According to the schedule, "Hitmonchan and its trainer Mimi" were the tenth fight of the competition. After watching the first nine, Jessie was ready to bail and run back to base. James and Meowth had to physically shove her in the ring.
James gave the alarmed-looking trainer next to him a tittering laugh and a fake smile. "Oh, it's so shy," he said. "It's never fought in front of a crowd this big before. It's probably nervous about the fact that everyone is watching it."
At the reminder, Jessie stopped trying to surreptitiously climb out of the ring, hopped to a ready position, raised her gloves, and barked, "Monchan!" But she gave James a murderous glare.
Her first opponent was a Pancham, a two-foot-tall black-and-white ball of fur and fury. While James called out the names of all the fighting-type moves he could think of—"Use mach punch!" "Uh—focus punch!" "Uh... sky punch?" ("That's not a move." "Shhh, normal Meowths don't talk.")—Jessie tried and failed to punch down at the Pancham. It easily dodged her fists and rained vicious blows on her knees.
Until it accidentally flipped up her skirt.
Now, Team Rocket had predicted that was a possibility. Jessie was going to be up in a boxing ring, and the average Hitmonchan's skirt showed off spindly legs for days. She'd worn a bikini bottom instead of underwear just in case of this very circumstance.
It didn't stop her from reflexively kicking the Pacham in the face so hard that it flew out of the boxing ring.
James gaped at her. The audience gaped at her. The twerp, the twerp's new buddy, and the twerp's floating Pokédex gaped at her. Meowth hid his face behind his hands, muttering, "I can't believe this, Hitmonchan don't kick, they're the punchin' Pokémon, we just blew our cover, I can't believe—"
And then the Rotom Dex leaned into the microphone, mechanically gushing, "Amazing! I had no idea that Hitmonchan could learn low kick!"
Ash was on his feet, grabbing the microphone from Rotom Dex to yell, "That was sooo cooool!"
"Pancham is unable to fight!" Hau shouted. "Fight 10 goes to Mimi Q. and her amazing kicking Hitmonchan!"
James and Meowth stood there, stunned silent as the audience started to applaud. Jessie, meanwhile, waved at the crowd, basking in the adoration.
The nearby trainer who'd given James a concerned look now gave him a wondering one. "How did you teach a Hitmonchan to use low kick?"
"Oh, well, I'm not actually much of a trainer, so I didn't know it couldn't. It must have learned because I believed that it could." James laughed modestly. "I guess that's what the power of the friendship between a trainer and a Pokémon can achieve."
"Meoww," Meowth added cheekily; and Jessie, hobbling slightly and brushing a few escaping strands of red hair aside, smugly agreed, "Hit-hit."
They waited to snicker until the trainer had turned away.
Their second fight was against a Crabrawler. Jessie caught it by one big meaty claw, hefted it up in the air, and slammed it to the ground hard enough that the cheap temporary boxing ring shook. Hau praised the masterful seismic toss, Ash cheered, and James and Meowth began to wonder why they were wasting time sending Pokémon into battle instead of sending Jessie.
Between the second and third fight, they had some time to sneak into a porta-potty, where they took off Jessie's helmet to pin her hair back into place. Meowth pulled off her right glove, clawed a small hole in it, handed Jessie a small water gun—"Hold this,"—and started tugging her glove back on.
"Meowth, what in the world do you think you're doing?"
He gave Jessie a cheshire-worthy smile as he laced up her glove. "You'll see."
Her third opponent was a Blaziken. Even though it was nearly a foot taller than her—and occasionally on fire—she sneered at it as she climbed into the ring. She'd taken down two Pokémon today, what was a third? From just outside the ring, James called, quite at odds with the demure florist he'd been playing, "You can take that overgrown chicken dinner, Hitmonchan! Let's go!"
Jessie growled, "Hitmon," and flexed for the crowd.
When the bell rang, Blaziken's trainer cried, "Start with blaze kick!" and, after a quick whisper from Meowth, James retorted, "Water punch!"
Jessie gave him a baffled look, which gave the Blaziken a chance to drive its flaming-and-taloned foot into her gut. She doubled over, wheezing, and with a strangled screech started beating out the embers singeing her dress.
"Another blaze kick while it's stunned!"
This time Jessie dodged the kick, and while Blaziken was regaining its balance, socked it across the face with her water gun-wielding fist. A spray of water landed in its face. It stumbled back, shaking its head, rubbing its eyes, and bawking in distress as the water sizzled on its feathers.
The crowd went wild. From the commentators' table, the Rotom Dex yelled in delirious data-acquisition delight, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have just witnessed the genesis of a brand new move! I can't believe my optics! This match is making history!" The two children next to it were yelling in unadulterated excitement.
Before the Blaziken could recover, Jessie socked it again—a third time—kneed it—and it was down. She left the ring with her gloves raised to uproarious applause. James gave the audience a faux timid wave while Meowth fought back laughter.
Hau snatched up the microphone, asked, "Mimi, how did you and Hitmonchan invent an entirely new move?!" and held it out toward James, even though he was much too far to reach it.
But James gamely leaned toward the microphone and shouted back, "Oh, it was really nothing! One day I thought it might like to help me water my flowers, and the rest is history!"
They stuck around long enough to watch the next fight—the winner of this one would be Jessie's next opponent. It turned out to be an alarmingly short round.
The winning Machamp was a massive concrete-gray slab of muscles. It had more raw musculature in one bicep than most humans had in their whole bodies—and it had four biceps. As it forcefully separated a Primeape from consciousness, Jessie whispered, "I wish I had muscles like that."
James whispered back, "I wish you had muscles like that too."
"Get your minds off the meat and keep your eyes on the prize," Meowth hissed. "We ain't heard from the beta team in too long—I'm getting worried. You think they ran into trouble?"
"Oh right, I forgot about them," James said.
Jessie added, "I was so focused on winning the tournament I forgot we were going to steal the money so we didn't have to win it."
Meowth rolled his eyes. "Oy. I'm gonna go looking for them. We'll rendezvous by the porta-potty, all right?"
They both nodded. "Right."
Meowth disappeared into the crowd. Jessie and James turned back to the Machamp, who had two arms planted on its hips while it raised the other two triumphantly.
Jessie watched its muscles ripple as it pumped its fists. Then turned to James. "That thing's going to kill me in one hit."
He nodded somberly. "I promise that Meowth and I will remember you only for your virtues and not your flaws."
Jessie huffed. "Well, that'll be easy. I don't have any flaws."
Meowth hadn't returned by the time of Jessie's fight with Machamp. Which was just as well, because if he'd seen the way her knees shook as she waited to get in the ring, he would have said something snarky and Team Rocket would have been disqualified for fighting in the audience. James, however, liked his nose in the shape it was in, and said nothing.
"Remember you can bow out at any time," James whispered, just before she got in the ring. "We're here for the money, not the fight. Just make it look natural if you quit."
Jessie nodded. She pounded her gloves together, with false bravado snapped, "Hitmonchan!" and climbed into the ring.
"All right, Hitmonchan!" James pointed at the Machamp. "Use—"
Jessie smacked the floor. The audience gasped. The commentators groaned in sympathy. Rotom Dex chirped about never having seen a Machamp that could use that move before. James cringed. "Come on, back on your feet! You've still got this. Use..."
The audience had started chanting: "Water punch! Water punch! Water punch!" When James said, "Hitmonchan, water punch!" the audience burst into cheers.
Jessie back rolled away from Machamp's next assault, getting fluidly back on her feet, and launched a punch toward Machamp.
Machamp caught her entire glove in one hand. Jessie gasped. Machamp squeezed the glove and something underneath audibly cracked—Jessie's vision swam before she realized it was just the plastic water gun. The relief was short-lived, as Machamp's trainer called, "Seismic toss!" Without letting go of her glove, it leaped into the air, dragging her along, and whirled her over its head to slam her down on the floor.
"J—Hitmonchan!" James leaned against the boxing ring. The Machamp respectfully stepped back, acknowledging the informal time-out for a trainer/Pokémon meeting. "Are you okay? Hey! Can you still hear me?"
Jessie lifted her head up enough to give James a dazed look.
"Oh, thank goodness." James sighed in relief, as Jessie unsteadily got to her hands and knees. "You've done a great job, Hitmonchan. No one could ask you to do more. Do you want to quit fighting?"
Gratefully, Jessie said, "Hit."
James nodded. "I understand." And turned to the commentators, smiled, and cheerily said, "It's ready to keep fighting!"
Jessie gaped at James. Before she could tear him apart for this betrayal, Machamp's trainer said, "Another seismic toss!" and it seized her leg. It whirled her around as she screamed—
—and then she slipped loose and crashed against one of the posts. Her helmet was knocked a little loose, exposing her hairline.
Machamp stared in bafflement at the flat that had come off in its hands. The twerp, spare twerp, and twerpedex were craning to try to see what had happened. Machamp lifted up the flat, holding it from heel to toe between a forefinger and thumb, squeezing it to see how it bent. And then snapped it in half.
Jessie let out a shriek like it had snapped her arm.
It dropped the flat and stepped back, still confused but now contrite. Jessie stared down at the broken, very expensive, shoe.
And a fire lit behind her eyes.
She hobbled back to her feet, trudged like something possessed to the center of the ring, and snatched up the broken flat in one glove. Did Machamp think that a couple of seismic tosses were going to stop her? Being tossed to the ground from ten feet up? She'd been blasted so high in the air she couldn't breath and crashed back to the ground hundreds of times. A little toss like that was nothing.
She lifted her foot and jammed it back into her broken flat, and whispered, "You're in for it now." She punctuated the sentence by stamping her re-shod foot to the floor.
Machamp, staring at her in baffled fear, slowly backed up toward the edge of the ring.
She charged at it.
"U-use... Uh..." James wasn't able to get an attack name out before she was pummeling the Machamp. "... Whatever that is!" It lifted its four arms up, trying to shield itself. The audience roared approval for Jessie, always happy to see an underdog get back up. She kicked it in the knee to knock it off-balance; hammered blows on its head when it flailed for balance; and then, when it teetered back, she crouched down and launched a fierce uppercut into its chin.
The Machamp's feet lifted into the air. It fell backwards, tumbling through the ropes around the boxing ring. It was unconscious before it hit the floor.
"Yeah!" Jessie crowed, the fist that had knocked out Machamp still raised up. "See how you like blasting off!"
The audience was so silent, she could hear the waves gently lapping at the beach outside the tent. James facepalmed.
Jessie looked around, wondering where her applause was, when she realized what she'd done. "... Oh."
The audience murmured in shock. Rotom Dex said, in candid amazement, "I've never seen a talking Hitmonchan before!" Hau said, "I don't think Hitmonchan can talk. It's impossible..." Jessie exchanged a glance with James and slowly lowered her gloved hand.
From the entrance to the tent, a voice called, "What kinda blatant anti-Pokémon prejudice am I seein' here?!"
They both whipped around to face the voice, along with the audience.
Meowth's fur was matted and sticky from the venomous dye, sandy, and in a few places the poison had washed out completely. He looked the absolute picture of disheveled righteous indignation. "'Impossible.' Hah! Just like it's impossible for a Meowth to talk?" He looked around challengingly at the nearest audience members. "Or impossible for—for—for the move water punch to exist? Or for Machamp to use sucker punch? Look at yourselves! You're all trainers, ain't you? Isn't it your job to help your Pokémon surpass their limits, to be better than what you or they or anyone else ever thought was 'possible' for them?" He started walking toward the ring. The audience parted for him to pass. "And yet here you all are, trying to tell this brave, talented Hitmonchan what is and isn't possible for it, when the evidence of your own senses tell you that it's just done something you never believed it could. And you're doubting it—when you should be celebrating it! You all oughta be ashamed!"
Meowth hopped into the ring with Jessie. "I stand in solidarity with this brilliant Hitmonchan, as a fellow Pokémon who did what most said could not be done and learned to speak like a human. And I invite all you humans here to look into your hearts, remember what it means to be a trainer, and do the same."
The audience was silent as the collected trainers pondered the sagacity of Meowth's words.
Then the twerp slapped his hands down on the commentator's table and jumped to his feet. "Hey! That's a talking Meowth!" he said. "It's Team Rocket!"
Meowth looked at Jessie and shrugged. "It was worth a shot. Sand attack!"
James kicked up a spray of sand to repel the nearby audience members, and the trio fled down the path that had parted for Meowth.
They were halfway down the beach before Ash made it outside the tent.
"So tell me," Jessie said coldly, glaring imperiously down at James, like a furious queen on her throne rather than a thief on a dented metal chair. "What, exactly, do you think 'hit' means?"
James was kneeling on the ground washing off Jessie's ankles, which during the run back to their base had been rubbed raw by the very expensive—but apparently not very comfortable—flats. He hadn't asked yet why he'd been issued this punishment. Already knowing that his answer was wrong but not yet sure why, he said, "It means 'no'?"
Jessie's glower deepened. "Does it?"
"That's what we agreed on, right?" James asked pitifully. "'Hit' means 'no' as in 'no, and I ought to hit you for such a stupid question'?"
Jessie kicked James in the nose. He yelped in pain and sat back to check whether it was broken.
"What a waste of a day," Meowth groaned. He'd already been soaking in a bucket for half an hour, and mainly succeeded in turning the water as purple as he was. He was going to steal Jessie's shampoo when she was distracted. "We woulda been better off just taking that emceeing gig. At least we'd have gotten paid."
"And we would have gotten free food." James leaned forward to resume tending to Jessie's ankles.
Jessie flopped her head back, letting the end of her tangled hair drag on the floor. "And we could have spent the night in a beautiful hotel by the beach."
The trio sighed miserably.
For a moment, they languished in their disappointment. Then Meowth lifted his head. "I feel like we're forgetting something."
Something crashed down from the ladder into their base. They leaped to their feet to face it. Jessie automatically got into a boxing pose.
What had fallen down their ladder was a tangled Poké-pile: Wobbuffet, Mareanie, and Mimikyu. Wobbuffet and Mareanie were covered in bruises and scratches and looked exhausted. Mimikyu, on the other hand, was ripped up, crackling with static electricity, and hissing and spitting.
"Mimikyu!" Jessie shoved past Wobbuffet to get to Mimikyu. Wobbuffet swayed back and forth like an upside-down punching bag. "Look at you! What did you do? Did you get into a fight with the twerp's Pikachu again?"
It hissed viciously. Meowth translated, "That's an affirmative, Jess."
"I don't believe it!" She looked at the other two Pokémon. "And you just let it, didn't you?"
"We're very disappointed in you," James said severely. Mareanie pouted. Wobbuffet smiled vapidly at Jessie.
"I can't believe it!" Jessie stomped angrily. It wasn't very effective barefoot. "We give you one simple heist job, and you can't even handle that. Do we have to supervise you all the time, or—?"
"Wooobbuffet!" Wobbuffet raised an arm. Mareanie fussed at the hem of Mimikyu's disguise, as Mimikyu straightened up to look at Jessie.
"What?" Jessie snapped. "What is it? Do you have something to say for yourselves? Hm?"
"Waaahb." Mareanie scooted out of the way as Wobbuffet picked up Mimikyu by its false head and shook it.
Coins started raining out from underneath Mimikyu's ragged cloak. Jessie gasped in shock and stepped back. James and Meowth rushed up beside her to gape. And still the coins rained down, steadily growing into a pile taller than Mimikyu.
"Is this the prize money?" Jessie asked, dumbfounded. Looking toward Mareanie, James asked, "Did the three of you steal all of this?"
Mareanie chirped a confirmation, beaming up at him.
"Oh, how wonderful!" James scooped her up, cradling her to his cheek. She leaped on the opportunity to wrap her tentacles around his head, stinging him with venom. He hollered in pain.
Ignoring him, Jessie crouched down to smile greedily at their haul, which was still growing. "This is more than enough to buy everything we need for repairs," she said. "You know what that means."
Meowth tossed himself on the coin pile. "Robo-Meowth Giga, mark three point two!"
Woozily, James added, "Anti-electric boogaloo."
"And after that," Jessie crowed, "on to Pikachu!"
Team Rocket cheered triumphantly.