Illustration by Shigeru1313.

A Fair Fight

by Cori Falls


"Victims of the same disease have much to talk about."

-- Japanese proverb


Part 1 -- A Bratty Twerp, and a Brilliant Scheme

Jessie clutched her throbbing head in her hands and groaned. Her entire body was bruised and burnt, but thankfully, nothing was broken. Looking over her shoulder, she saw James and Meowth lying a few feet away from her. Meowth was picking himself up and muttering a string of curses that would've made a sailor blush as he dusted the burn marks from his cream-colored fur, but James was out cold.

Mustering what little of her energy remained, Jessie crawled to James's side and took him in her arms. "James? Sweetie, wake up," she pleaded softly.

After a moment, James's emerald eyes fluttered open, and he looked up at her. "Jess...."

Jessie smoothed back his blue-violet hair and planted a kiss on his forehead. "Are you okay, James? Can you move?" she asked.

James's brow furrowed as he pulled himself into a sitting position and stretched the aching muscles in his arms, legs, and back. "Just the usual bumps, burns, and bruises we always get when we're blasted off. I should be fine," came his reply.

"Glad to hear it," Jessie sighed, resting her forehead against his.

"What about you?" James inquired. "Are you okay, Jess?"

"Just more of the usual with me, too," she told him. "I think my pride is injured worse than anything else."

"I'm fine, too. Thanks for askin'," Meowth said sarcastically as he joined them.

Jessie smirked. "I knew you were okay the second you started swearing, Meowth," she countered.

"Yeah! We'd be more worried about you if you weren't cussing up a storm!" James chuckled.

"Well, what else CAN I do?!" the cat demanded. "I am SO fuckin' sick and tired of dat goddamned fuckin' twerp, it ain't even funny!"

Jessie and James exchanged looks and sighed. And as they reflected on their day and thought about how they'd gotten into this latest predicament, they knew that Meowth was right....


After three days of struggling and more than a few close encounters with their own mortality, Jessie, James, and Meowth had finally succeeded in making it off of Snowtop Mountain the previous night. They'd rescued the Articuno who lived on the mountain and helped keep her nest from being raided by Domino, and together they'd brought the renegade Rocket to justice. During the scuffle, one of Articuno's eggs had hatched, and since James had been holding the egg at the time, the baby bird had imprinted on him. Articuno had been reluctant to part with one of her chicks, but she'd allowed James to keep him since he was the baby's best chance for survival. And once the safety of the other two babies had been ensured, Articuno had given Jessie, James, and Meowth a ride back to civilization and promised never to forget their heroic deeds. The three of them...along with their pokemon and their new baby Articuno had then spent the night at a trainer inn in Snowtop Point, a village in the foothills near the mountain's northern slope.

When they went to the motel restaurant for breakfast that morning, they saw a news report that an annual fire pokemon tournament was being held in a town called Laurel Valley, about fifteen miles away. The top twelve trainers in the tournament were to receive Fire Stones as their prize. However, the competition had been postponed for a day because the tournament officials were waiting for the delivery service they'd contracted to arrive with the Fire Stones.

As they listened to the report, Jessie and James started thinking about their own fire pokemon, Vulpix and Growly...and how they were going to need Fire Stones to evolve them someday.

Jessie arched an eyebrow. "James, are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

James smiled slyly at her. "If you're thinking that we should call Annie and Oakley to send for our fire pokemon and enter that tournament, then the answer is yes!" came his reply.

"Well, what do you know? Great minds really do think alike!" Jessie chuckled.

"Hold it!" Meowth interjected.

Jessie and James turned to face the cat. "What's the matter, Meowth?" they asked in unison.

Meowth frowned. "What makes ya think you'll even be allowed ta enter dis competition?!"

"James and I both have fire pokemon! Why wouldn't we be allowed to compete?!" Jessie retorted.

"I suppose you've forgotten all about what a disaster the last tournament we entered tagedda turned out ta be," he sighed.

Jessie and James exchanged looks. They knew exactly what Meowth was referring to.

The previous month, they'd competed in a grass pokemon tournament to try and win a set of Leaf Stones. James had entered with Victreebel, and since Jessie hadn't had a grass pokemon at the time, she'd dressed Meowth up as a Sunflora and entered with him. Unfortunately, Ash had also been in the tournament, and when he'd discovered that Team Rocket was there, he'd blasted them off.

"If dat twerp is anywhere near here, chances are, he's heard about dis tournament...and if he's heard about it, you can bet yer bottom dollar he's gonna be dere!" Meowth continued. "If he sees us enterin' the competition, ya just know he's gonna go apeshit again! He'll prolly accuse us of tryin' ta steal the Fire Stones and pokemon, or he'll accuse youse guys of stealin' Vulpix and Growly, or he'll find some other lame-ass reason ta get us disqualified and kicked out...and den we'll just get blasted off again...."

"I hate to admit it, but you're absolutely right," Jessie grumbled.

"Yeah. That twerp never gives us a chance," James added. "In fact, he seems to be even more brutal with us when we play fair!"

"Dat's why I say screw playin' fair! Why should we, if all we're gonna get for our efforts is a buncha grief?!" said Meowth. "I say we just intercept the delivery service, take the Fire Stones, keep a couple for ourselves, and either send the others to the boss or sell 'em for profit!"

Jessie's grim expression became a smile again. " just might be onto something, Meowth!"

James, however, remained less than enthusiastic. "I still think we should've at least tried to do this legitimately. It would've been fun to compete in a fire pokemon tournament...and I wanted to see Growly again," he sighed.

"I know, sweetie," Jessie said, placing a hand on his cheek. "But Meowth is right -- if we play by the rules, we'll probably just get screwed-over...and Growly might get hurt if we show up and get attacked by Ash. I know you don't want that."

James shuddered. "You're right. I don't."

"Den let's put my plan inta action!" Meowth exclaimed.

And that's exactly what they did. After discussing Meowth's strategy for awhile, the three of them found the couriers who were delivering the Fire Stones to Laurel Valley. Unfortunately, the twerps happened to be with them at the time (thus confirming Meowth's fear that Ash had heard about the tournament and would've given them grief if they'd entered legitimately), but they'd prepared for such an eventuality and proceeded with their plan nevertheless.

After blasting in on a big rocket, they grabbed the stones (and Pikachu, since Ash had commanded him to attack them), distracted everybody with a little display of pyrotechnics, and made their escape on a bicycle. When Ash, Misty, Brock, Keegan, and Ramona gave chase on their Arcanines, Jessie, James, and Meowth led them into the forest and split up so that the twerps and their friends would be forced to go their separate ways in order to find them. Before splitting up, however, Jessie and James gave the Fire Stones to Meowth and made him wait in a safe place while they remained in the forest and led the twerps on a wild goose chase. Once the twerps had all been caught in the traps they'd set up beforehand, Jessie and James rejoined Meowth, and the three of them left the forest and enjoyed a well-earned victory feast. Unfortunately, the twerps managed to escape from the traps and tracked them down while they were digesting their dinner. Jessie, James, Meowth, and Wobbuffet tried to escape in their balloon, but the Arcanines brought it down, and the twerps retrieved Pikachu and the Fire Stones. And when they tried to escape after their defeat, Ash chased them down on one of the Arcanines, got Pikachu to electrocute them, and sent them blasting off again.


"Fuckin' twerp!" Meowth cursed again. "He got the stones and his goddamned rat back! Why the hell couldn't he just let us retreat in peace?!"

"Because he's a sadistic shit-weasel, that's why!" Jessie said through clenched teeth. "God, I HATE that kid!"

James placed his hands to his throbbing temples and sighed. "And the sad thing is, Meowth is still right -- if we'd entered the tournament and tried to play by the rules, it wouldn't have made any difference to him. He just gets off on attacking us."

"It's probably the only way the little fucker can get off," Jessie remarked.

"Sure seems dat way," Meowth grumbled. "Dat kid is one sick bastard."

"That's putting it mildly," said James. "He's dangerous...unstable. We really should consider finding a different line of work...."

"I wish it were that simple, James," Jessie replied. "But it's not."

"Yeah. We can't exactly stroll inta the boss's office, tell him dat we can't even catch one lousy Pikachu, and ask him if we can have a better job. It don't work dat way," Meowth concurred.

James sighed again. "I know. But we'll have to do something before too much longer -- we can't keep going on like this...we just can't...."

The three of them hung their heads.

As they sat there and contemplated their situation, however, Jessie suddenly tensed.

"What's the matter, honey?" James whispered.

"I hear something," she whispered back. She looked over her shoulder, towards the road.

James and Meowth followed her gaze. After a moment, the hedges rustled, and an Umbreon emerged. Then, they heard a familiar voice:

"Umbreon? Hey, Umby, where are you going?"

Meowth's eyes widened. "Hey! It's...."

The Umbreon looked back in the direction the voice had come from. "Bree! Breon!" he called.

Presently, the Umbreon's trainer found his way through the hedges and rejoined his pokemon.

"Gary!" Jessie, James, and Meowth exclaimed.

Gary Oak grinned when he saw his three friends. "Hey, guys! Long time no see! How have you....?" His voice trailed off, and his expression quickly darkened when he noticed that their uniforms were tattered and that they were covered with bruises and burn marks. "Oh, my god! What happened to you?!"

"Don't worry -- it was just another blast-off," Jessie replied when she saw the look of horror in Gary's indigo-blue eyes.

"Happens to us all the time. It's routine," James added.

"Yeah. We'll be okay," Meowth chimed in.

But their words did little to comfort Gary. "How did this happen?" he asked as he knealt next to them and brought some healing potions and a bottle of Tylenol from his backpack.

Jessie held up her hands and smiled sheepishly when she saw him bringing out his medical supplies. "You don't have to do this, Gary. We...."

"Of course I do," Gary said, cutting her off. "The last time we met, you healed me when I was hurt. Now it's time for me to return the favor." He handed a bottle of healing potion to each of them and smiled. "So, no more protests -- let me help you. And don't hold out on me -- I want to know who attacked you, so I'll know who to give holy hell to!"

Jessie, James, and Meowth exchanged looks as they took the bottles that Gary offered them. And as they sprayed potion on all of their sore spots and healed their pokemon, they related the events of the day to him.

Gary's expression became increasingly grim while he listened to them. "Well, I guess it's a good thing the couriers got the Fire Stones back...otherwise, the tournament would've been cancelled, and I'd have come all this way for nothing. But Jeezus Christ, there's just no excuse for the way Ash treated you...."

The three of them hung their heads again when he said this.

"Hey, I didn't mean to make you feel bad," Gary told them, taking note of their forlorn expressions. "All things considered, I can understand why you felt like you had no choice about taking the stones. And you even said that you did want to try and win them fair and square." He smiled again. "I know you guys well enough to know that you're not common thieves...that you only steal as a matter of survival, or as a last resort."

"I know," James sighed. "But we still can't help but feel like we've let you down."

Gary raised an eyebrow. "Let me down? How so?"

"When you were staying with us while we tracked down Clay and Allison, you became like a younger brother to us," Jessie explained. "And seeing you again makes me realize we still feel that way."

"We feel like we should be settin' a better example for ya," Meowth added.

"Don't you worry about me," Gary chuckled. "I'm a big boy now -- I can make my own decisions...and I respect you, no matter what choices you make." He winked at them. "I do appreciate that you feel so strongly about it, though."

This made them smile again.

Gary shook six tablets from the Tylenol bottle and handed two apiece to Jessie, James, and Meowth. Then, he poured some water from his canteen into three plastic cups and handed those to them as well. "If you don't mind me asking, why do you guys follow Ash around, anyway?" he inquired. "I've always wondered what was up with that...even more so now that I know you. Seems to me like you have better things to do with your time than try to catch his Pikachu. What's the deal?"

"Once again, I'm afraid we don't really have a choice in the matter," Jessie replied sadly.

"Yeah. We're just followin' the boss's orders," said Meowth.

"You see, when our boss got word that Ash and Pikachu blew up the Viridian City Pokemon Center, he figured that Pikachu must have some kind of exceptional powers, so now he wants it for himself," James explained. "And since...."

"So, Ash is the one who was responsible for the pokemon center blowing up?" Gary interjected.

Jessie, James, and Meowth nodded.

Gary closed his eyes and recalled the incident. "I remember when I got to Pewter City, I read in the newspaper that there'd been a big explosion that destroyed the Viridian Pokemon Center. But according to Officer Jenny, the explosion had been the result of an attack by Team Rocket, and Ash and Pikachu had saved the day. I always thought that sounded kinda fishy."

Meowth rolled his eyes. "Ugh. Can you say biased reporting, boys and girls?"

Gary smirked. "I knew it. So, what really happened?"

"We'd gone to the pokemon center to steal pokemon -- that much was true," Jessie told him. "But we didn't blow anything up, and we certainly didn't hurt anybody!"

"That was the first time we'd ever encountered Ash and Misty," James continued. "After we made our entrance, they gave us a hard time, so we challenged them to a pokemon battle. During the battle, Ash got Pikachu to electrocute us and our pokemon -- the shock was so prolonged and so intense that it ignited the vapors in Koffing's body and made him explode. And since Koffing had already used a Smokescreen attack, all of those vapors ignited as well and blew the place sky-high."

Gary buried his face in his hands. "Holy freakin' crap! Even the most novice trainer should know that it's dangerous to use fire and electric attacks against poison gas pokemon in a confined area! I'm surprised Ash didn't get his trainer's license revoked right then and there for pulling a numbnuts stunt like that!"

"Yeah. Call me crazy, but I hardly think blowing up an entire pokemon center, just to keep a trio of thieves from stealing a few Pidgeys, Rattatas, and empty poke balls counts as an act of heroism," Jessie agreed. "He could've gotten us, Nurse Joy, Misty, any pokemon that were still inside the pokemon center, and his own stupid self killed with what he did!"

"Not to mention the fact that it took almost a year to get the pokemon center rebuilt," James chimed in. "How many sick and injured pokemon were delayed or denied treatment during that year because of him?"

"Yet he's the big hero, and we took all the blame," Meowth sneered.

"That is such bullshit," Gary grumbled. "I always knew there was something wrong with the story we got from the media. I'm glad I know your side of it now. Thanks for telling me."

"No prob," Meowth replied.

"And I know that your version is the truth -- you wouldn't lie to me...especially about something like this," Gary added. "Besides, I know firsthand that making a big mess and putting the blame on somebody else is exactly the kinda thing Ash would do! When we were kids, he was always riding his bike through peoples' flower beds, pulling up lawn ornaments, stealing stuff from garages and tool-sheds, tipping over garbage cans, and such. One time, when he was eight, he even took a whiz in Mr. Harris's bird bath because he thought it was a urinal! And whenever he got caught, he'd always say that it was me or another kid from the neighborhood who'd done it!"

"Oh, my god! Are you serious?!" Jessie gasped.

Gary nodded. "Perfectly serious."

"Jeez, Ash is even more of a delinquent than I thought," James grumbled. "Yet we're the villains of the piece?"

"What's wrong with dis picture?" Meowth snorted.

"Really," Gary sighed.

"Anyway," James said, getting back to the original subject, "after the pokemon center was blown up, we reported back to our boss and explained why our mission had ended in failure. But instead of being angry with us, he seemed intrigued and gave us the specific assignment of capturing Pikachu."

"We don't know what the boss's exact motives are," Jessie added. "All we know is that he wants Pikachu...and he wants us to be the ones who catch it."

"That's pretty whacked," Gary remarked. "Can't you guys ask for another assignment?"

"We was just talkin' about dat before ya showed up," Meowth told him.

"And....?" Gary prompted.

Jessie shook her head and sighed. "We basically reached the conclusion that we're stuck. You can't just walk into Giovanni's office, tell him that you can't do what he asks of you, and request a new job."

"Yeah. I could tell he was an intimidating guy when I battled him at the Viridian Gym and again in the Seafoam Islands," Gary agreed.

"He'd never understand if we tried to explain why we can't catch Pikachu," James muttered. "He'd never believe us if we told him how brutal those twerps can be. And if we did try, all we'd get for our efforts is yelled and screamed at...maybe even another pay-cut, or even fired."

"So, we just gotta keep smilin', pickin' up the broken pieces, and tryin' again," Meowth groaned. "It's all we can do cuz we ain't got no other choice."

Gary frowned. "That's really horrible."

"Tell us about it," James sighed.

"Story of our lives," Jessie grumbled.

"Well, judging from how shitty your job is now, it may not be such a bad thing if you lose it," Gary told them. "And if finding a new job is a problem, I could probably talk to my parents and grandpa and see if they could help you out."

Jessie, James, and Meowth's eyes widened.

"Y-you'd do that for us?" Jessie stammered.

Gary nodded. "My parents really like you -- they were so happy when I told them that I'd finally made some friends close to my own age. I know they'd be glad to help you find work if you ever left Team Rocket. Same deal with my grandpa -- he's never really had a problem with you to begin with, so I'm sure he'd be glad to help out if you left, too."

Meowth sniffled. "Dat's awfully nice of you and yer family! Thanks!"

James smiled at him. "We'll definitely keep that in mind. Thank you for offering."

"No problem," Gary replied. He returned their smile and brought out one of his poke balls. "And I just got a great idea!"

Jessie, James, and Meowth gave him a quizzical look.

Gary winked at them again and tossed the poke ball to the ground, releasing Blaze.

Blaze wagged his fluffy tail and barked happily.

Gary gestured towards his Arcanine. "Hop aboard, guys. You're coming with me to Laurel Valley and entering that fire pokemon tournament! If it's Fire Stones you want, it's Fire Stones you'll get...or at the very least, a fair shake at competing for them!"

"No! We couldn't possibly!" Jessie protested. "We blew any remote chance we might've had at entering the tournament when we tried to steal the Fire Stones this afternoon!"

"But the tournament wouldn't even be taking place if you'd succeeded in stealing the Fire Stones," Gary argued. "You didn't blow anything!"

"But what about Ash?" Meowth asked. "If he sees us dere, he's gonna raise hell...again!"

"No, he won't," Gary assured them. "If you enter the tournament under pseudonyms and wear civilian clothes, he'll never figure out it's you. And if he or anybody else does figure it out or give you a hard time, they'll have to answer to me!"

James frowned when he said this. "No, Gary. We've said it before, and we'll say it again -- we don't want you to jeopardize your career as a trainer for our sake. We'd never forgive ourselves if you got in trouble because of us."

"And I'd never be able to forgive myself if I stood idly by or pretended that I didn't know my friends if there were something I could do to help them," Gary countered. "If I have to choose between friendship and Pokemon League, then I'll choose friendship any day!"

Jessie, James, and Meowth's eyes filled with tears as they listened to him.

"Thank you, Gary. This means a lot to us," said Jessie.

"Yeah. I remember when Misty wanted to be our friend awhile back, she went the pretend to hate us while we're in public route," James added. "I can understand not wanting to get in trouble for being friends with us, but it just seemed like she was trying a little too hard to keep up the appearance of being our enemy."

"She wasn't really bein' nicer to us or doin' anything ta help the other twerps make peace with us either," Meowth sighed. "If anything, she just seemed ta be treatin' us shittier den ever and thinkin' dat a little apology when nobody was lookin' would make it all okay. I know she didn't wanna get in trouble or upset Ash and Brock, but the way she acted towards us hurt. It really did."

"All the more reason why I don't want to go that route!" Gary told them. "I can't bear the thought of doing anything to hurt or betray anybody that I care about, or doing nothing when somebody that I care about needs help. You're my friends -- I'm not ashamed of it, I'm not making any apologies for it, and anybody who has a problem with it can quite simply kiss my ass!" He winked at them again. "Now come on. It's getting late, and we need to get to town before all the vacancies at the pokemon center and trainer inns are filled."

Knowing that their young friend was adamant, Jessie, James, and Meowth offered no more protests and climbed onto Blaze's back. Once they were all seated, Gary began leading his Arcanine up the road, and Umbreon trotted at his heels.

As they made their way to town, the four of them swapped stories about the adventures they'd had since the last time they met. They'd been exchanging e-mails ever since they became friends, but getting to see each other again and tell their stories in person was especially gratifying. Jessie, James, and Meowth enjoyed hearing detailed accounts of the battles Gary had fought with Jasmine and Chuck to win the Mineral and Storm Badges, his travels in Johto, and how he'd gone home to Pallet to visit his family for awhile. He also told them that he was now on his way to Mahogany Town to win the Glacier Badge and wanted to enter the fire pokemon tournament so that Blaze, Smaug, and Houndoom could get in some extra training before facing Pryce and his ice pokemon. And Gary got a real kick out of hearing how Jessie, James, Meowth, and Wobbuffet had saved the Wobbuffet Festival (though he wanted more than ever to smack Ash upside the head for falsely accusing them of attacking Wobbuffets and blasting them off after they'd saved the day), how they'd met Mewtwo in Purity Canyon and helped rescue him from their boss and a back-stabbing Elite agent, how Wobbuffet had seen the legendary pokemon Ho-oh when they'd spent the night in Ecruteak City's Tin Tower, about their new friends Sofia and Marcello and how they'd given Jessie a Sunflora, and most of all, how they'd helped the Articuno of Snowtop Mountain and James had ended up with an Articuno chick of his own.

Gary grinned when Jessie and James finished telling him about their new Sunflora and Articuno. "Didn't I tell you that you'd catch some new pokemon someday soon?"

"Indeed you did," James replied.

"And you were right!" Jessie chimed in.

It was almost ten at night by the time Jessie, James, Meowth, and Gary arrived in Laurel Valley. The town was still bustling with activity despite the late hour, and surprisingly enough, one of the inns still had vacancies and was offering free room and board and a free continental breakfast to all participants in the fire pokemon competition.

"Looks like our first order of business is registering for the tournament," Gary remarked when he saw the sign at the inn.

"Yeah! Ya can't beat the price when it's free!" Meowth agreed.

Jessie and James looked down at their tattered Team Rocket uniforms and blushed.

"But we should probably change clothes before we go anywhere," said Jessie.

James nodded. "Can't register for the tournament looking like this, you know!"

"Good point," said Gary.

Jessie and James grabbed their backpacks and ducked into a nearby alley. When they returned a few minutes later, they were dressed in less conspicuous attire. They were still wearing their black undershirts, but they'd removed their jackets and gloves and changed into blue jeans and sneakers. They'd also brushed their hair and cleaned the burn-marks from their faces.

"How do we look?" Jessie asked.

"Like a couple of ordinary teenagers," came Gary's reply. "Nobody will be able to tell you're Team Rocket agents dressed like that."

"That's because we're not Team Rocket," James told him. "We're Eric and Rachael Morgan -- a nondescript married couple entering the fire pokemon tournament!"

"Clever aliases," Meowth commented.

"Rachael and Eric are our middle names," Jessie explained when she saw the quizzical expression on Gary's face.

"And Morgan is my mother's maiden name," James added.

Gary nodded approvingly. "Very clever!" he concurred.


When the four friends reached the pokemon center, Gary and "Eric and Rachael Morgan" wasted no time signing up for the tournament. And once they received their registration tags, Jessie and James went to the nearest phone to call Annie and Oakley.

"Hey, guys! What's up?" Annie asked when she answered the phone.

"Hey, Annie," Jessie replied. "We were wondering if you could send Vulpix and Growly to us for a couple of days."

Annie nodded. "Sure thing. Where are you?"

"The Laurel Valley Pokemon Center in Johto," James told her. "We're competing in a fire pokemon tournament!"

Annie and Oakley grinned.

"That's great!" Annie exclaimed.

"Good luck, guys!" said Oakley. "Be sure to let us know how it goes!"

As Annie placed Vulpix and Growly's poke balls in the transporter, she paused for a moment. "Hey, Jess? Since you're not gonna be following the twerp for a couple of days, you want me to send Lickitung, too? She really misses you...."

"And I really miss Lickitung," Jessie sighed. "I'd love if you sent her -- she can help us get Vulpix and Growly in shape for the competition...and it'll be nice to see her again...."

Annie nodded again and left the room. When she returned a moment later, she placed a third poke ball in the transporter.

"Oh, this reminds me, I need to give Mondo a call and let him know where you are," Oakley remarked as Annie activated the transporter. "Since yesterday was pay day, he was in the area to deliver your checks, but he couldn't find you anywhere."

"Dat's cuz we spent the last three days stranded on Snowtop Mountain," Meowth told them.

"Well, I'm glad you're okay -- we were beginning to worry about you," Oakley replied.

A couple seconds later, three poke balls appeared in the transporter next to the vid-phone. Jessie picked up the poke balls and released Vulpix, Growly, and Lickitung.

"I see the pokemon got there safely," Annie remarked.

"And Mondo should be there in a couple of hours with your paychecks," Oakley added.

"Thanks, guys. We owe you one!" said James.

"No, ya don't! Just kick some ass and take some names at that tourney...and have fun!" Oakley told them.

"Will do!" Jessie and James replied in unison.

"Catch ya later!" they said.

Once Jessie and James disconnected, Gary returned to their side. "So, those are the friends that have been watching your other pokemon for you?"

Jessie nodded and picked up her Vulpix. "That was Annie and Oakley. They run the Rocket Game Corner in Celadon City."

"They're some of the few people in Team Rocket that we can actually consider our friends," James chimed in as he knealt down and stroked Growly's soft, orange fur.

"Ya know, I'd always heard that Rockets were bad news...." Gary remarked.

"The stories ain't exaggerated, kiddo -- most Rockets are bad news!" Meowth interjected. "But Annie and Oakley are nice. And so's Mondo...and Emanuela and Simone...and Cairdea before she retired. But dat's about it. We're the team's resident misfits."

"Well, it's good to know that you three aren't the only exceptions," Gary told them. He then turned his attention to the pokemon. "And this must be the Growlithe, Vulpix, and Lickitung you've told me about!"

James laughed as Growly placed his paws on his shoulders and began to lick his face. "Yes. This is my Growly. I found him when I was five, and my grand-mama and grand-papa convinced my parents to let me keep him. He was the only real friend I had when I was a tot." His expression darkened for a moment. "I left him behind when I ran away from home because I didn't want him to have to live a life on the road for my sake...and I wanted him to take care of my parents for me. But last September, my ex-fiance kidnapped him and tried to use him as bait to get me back. Jessie and Meowth helped me rescue him, and Jessiebelle was sent to jail for what she'd done. Once Growly was safe, I decided not to send him back to my parents, but I left him with Annie and Oakley before we set out for Johto because I wanted to protect him from the twerps. It's bad enough that they're always hurting Arbok, Weezing, Wobbuffet, and Victreebel -- I couldn't bear it if they hurt Growly, too...."

Growly whimpered and licked away the tears that were now rolling down James's cheeks.

James smiled again and scratched behind Growly's ears. "I know. I missed you, too."

"This sure does bring back memories," said Gary. "I got Blaze when I was a kid, too."

James looked up at him.

"Most of the kids in Pallet Town leave on their pokemon journies when they turn ten, but I was one of the few who didn't," Gary explained. "I wanted to make sure I was absolutely ready before taking a big step like that, so I waited til I was twelve. It was definitely the right decision, but I still couldn't help but feel a little left out at the time. My parents and my sister knew that I was going to be feeling a little down after all the other kids my age left, so they gave me Blaze as a present for my tenth birthday. And it worked -- when all the other ten-year-olds left the next spring, I didn't feel lonely or left out because I had a wonderful new Growlithe!"

James petted Growly again and rubbed the thick ruff of fur at his throat. "Yes. Growlithes make wonderful companions. There's just something about them...."

"Ya know, I think you were right about why Blaze likes you so much," Gary remarked. "He could probably tell how much you love your own Growlithe."

James nodded and planted a kiss atop Growly's head. In response, Growly wagged his fluffy tail and barked.

"And what about you?" Gary asked, turning his attention to Jessie. "How did you get your Vulpix?"

"I found her last August when the boss sent me, James, and Meowth to shut down a counterfeit breeding center that a couple of other Rockets were running," came Jessie's reply. "They were torturing all of the pokemon that people left with them, and the boss wanted us to put a stop to it. We rescued all of the pokemon from Bonnie and Clyde and healed them before sending them to the boss, but I decided to keep Vulpix for myself -- she was so cute, I just couldn't resist!"

"Vuuulll!" Vulpix said proudly as Jessie stroked her mane of curly red hair.

"I left her with Annie and Oakley when James left Growly," Jessie continued. "We knew Growly was going to be lonely, so I decided that Vulpix should stay and keep him company."

Gary nodded. "And what about Lickitung? I saw her with you once before we all set out for Johto. Any reason you left her with your friends?"

"Remember the story we told you about how we got Wobbuffet?" Jessie asked.

At the mention of his name, Wobbuffet popped out of his poke ball and saluted everybody. "Wob-buf-fet!" he exclaimed.

"How could I forget?" Gary chuckled. "You got him from Benny the dumbass at the pokemon swap-meet in Palmpona."

"While we were at the swap-meet, a con-man snatched James's wallet. When James chased after him, he accidentally knocked me into a poke ball exchange machine," Jessie explained. "Lickitung's poke ball fell into the machine when I crashed into it, and when I got back to my feet and grabbed my poke ball again, I didn't even know that she'd accidentally been swapped for Wobbuffet."

"Poor Jess was devastated when she thought she'd lost Lickitung," James continued. "I promised her that we'd return to Palmpona to get Licki back, but she was worried that we wouldn't be able to find her, or that Benny wouldn't go back on the trade...or that Lickitung would think Jessie didn't love her anymore and that she'd abandoned her. Fortunately, there was nothing to worry about -- after the exchange, Lickitung figured out what had happened, escaped from Benny, and came back to us. She ran afoul of the con-man who'd robbed me while she was looking for us, and she managed to get my wallet back from him as well."

"So, we didn't lose Lickitung or our money, after all! And as an added bonus, we also got a wonderful new Wobbuffet!" Jessie concluded. "Unfortunately, the twerps had also been at the swap-meet, and they'd befriended Benny while they were there. They knew about the trade, so we were afraid that if they saw Lickitung with us again, they'd think we stole her. I didn't want the twerps to get us in trouble, and I didn't want Lickitung to be taken away from me again, so I sent her to stay with Annie and Oakley to keep her safe."

Gary reached down and placed a hand atop Lickitung's head. "Well, I can see why she wanted to come back -- she has a wonderful trainer!"

Jessie smiled sheepishly and blushed.

"All of your pokemon are wonderful!" Gary went on. "Your Lickitung is really cute and friendly! And Growly is so loyal, and Vulpix is beautiful!"

"You really think so?" James asked.

Gary nodded. "I can tell that Vulpix and Growly are really strong and healthy. I think they're gonna do well in the tournament tomorrow!"

Now Jessie and James were both beaming proudly.

"Speakin' of the tournament, now dat yer all registered, shouldn't we get back to the inn and get dose free rooms?" Meowth reminded them.

"Yes, we should," Gary replied.

Jessie called back Vulpix, Lickitung, and Wobbuffet, and James called back Growly. "Then let's go!" they said in unison.


When Jessie, James, Meowth, and Gary returned to the inn, the three humans showed their registration tags to the clerk. Once he took down their names, he handed keys to James and Gary.

"Your rooms are on the third floor. Enjoy your stay, and good luck in the tournament tomorrow," he told them.

"Thank you, sir," they replied.

As they began heading for the elevator, however, Jessie, James, and Meowth heard a pair of familiar voices....

"Yes, I registered for the tournament and booked a room here two months ago. The name's Underhill," a woman with a light Irish accent said.

"And I registered as well. My name is D'Andrea," said the second woman, who had an Italian accent.

Jessie, James, and Meowth paused for a moment and saw the two women speaking to another clerk at the front desk. The first woman had a mane of auburn hair that was as long as Jessie's. The second woman had long, brown hair that was pulled back in a ponytail. Even though their backs were turned to them, the three Rockets knew immediately who they were.

"Speak a the devil...." Meowth muttered.

"You know them?" Gary whispered.

Jessie and James nodded.

The clerk brought out another notebook and flipped through it for a moment. "Ah, here you are -- Cairdea Underhill and Emanuela D'Andrea." He smiled and handed them a key. "Enjoy your stay, and good luck in the tournament tomorrow."

The auburn-haired woman, Cairdea, took the key and nodded.

"Thank you," said Emanuela.

When the two women picked up their luggage and turned around, they saw Jessie, James, and Meowth standing in front of the elevator.

"Oh, my! Look who's here!" Emanuela exclaimed.

Cairdea dropped her backpack. "Blessed be!" she gasped.

"Hello ta you, too!" Meowth replied.

Cairdea grinned from ear to ear as she ran to Jessie, James, and Meowth's side and swept the three of them into a tight embrace. "I missed you so much!" she said.

"We missed you, too," Jessie told her.

"Yeah. Our visits back to headquarters just weren't the same after you retired," James agreed.

"Aw, don't cry, Cair," Meowth said when he saw the tears that were welling up in her eyes. "It ain't like we haven't seen ya at all -- we've talked on the phone and exchanged e-mails plenty a times!"

"Yes, but this is the first time in two years that she's actually seen you in person," Emanuela replied. "And that makes all the difference."

"Has it been two years already?" Jessie asked.

"Where does the time go?" James wondered.

"Hey, aren't you going to introduce me?" Gary broke in.

Jessie smiled at him. "Oh, of course! Gary, these are our friends, Cairdea Underhill and Emanuela D'Andrea. They're some of the nice Team Rocket agents that Meowth mentioned earlier. Cair, Manu, this is Gary Oak. We rescued him from Clay and Allison back in June, and we've been friends with him ever since."

Emanuela shuddered. "I always knew Clay and Allison were going to be trouble -- I'm so glad the boss fired them," she remarked. "And I'm glad you were able to bring them to justice."

"So am I," Gary agreed. He smiled and shook hands with Cairdea and Emanuela. "And I'm happy to meet the two of you."

"Likewise," Cairdea replied. "Any friends of Jessie, James, and Meowth are friends of mine!"

"Cairdea and Emanuela were two of the trainees that Jessie and I supervised before we began our work as field-agents," James explained to Gary. "Our friends, Mondo and Simone, were in that group as well."

"So, what brings the four of you to Laurel Valley?" Cairdea inquired.

"Jessie, James, and Gary are here for the fire pokemon tournament," Meowth told her. "Jess and Jim wanna win Fire Stones for dere Vulpix and Growlithe, and Gary wants ta give his fire pokemon a good workout cuz he's on his way ta Mahogany Town ta win the Glacier Badge!"

"Small world! We're here for the fire tournament, too!" said Emanuela. "My Simone is on assignment in Italy right now, so I took a week off from work. And since I was already in Johto, I decided to pay a visit to Cair. When I called her, she told me that she was on her way to Laurel Valley to compete in the tournament, so I met her here and signed up, too."

Gary smiled. "That's great! What kind of pokemon do you have?"

"I'm entering with my Flareon, Fiamma," came Emanuela's reply.

"And I'm using my Vulpix, Sionna, and my Rapidash, Windfola," Cairdea told him. "I'm hoping to win a Fire Stone, too -- Sionna is ready to evolve into a Ninetales!"

"This should be a really interesting tournament!" Gary commented. "I'm using my Arcanine, Blaze, and my Charizard, Smaug."

Cairdea's brown eyes sparkled when she heard the Charizard's name. "I see you like Tolkien as well!"

"He's only one of my favorite authors!" Gary replied. "It's cool that you named your Rapidash after Eowyn's horse from Lord of the Rings!"

She grinned. "Glad you caught the reference -- not many people do."

"I really must read those books sometime -- I'm starting to feel left out again," Emanuela sighed.

"I've always loved authors like Tolkien and Lewis, and I've been getting into Harry Potter recently, too," Cairdea went on. "That was one of the reasons I became such good friends with Jessie and James when I met them -- we could talk for hours on end about a favorite fantasy novel!"

"I thought it was cool when Jessie and James told me that they love sci-fi and fantasy, too," Gary agreed. "When I was growing up, I never really had anything in common with kids my own age, so it was nice to finally meet people who like the same stuff that I do."

Cairdea shook her head and laughed again. "Boy, does that sound familiar!"

Meowth looked at the clock and frowned. "Well, I hate ta break up the little reunion here, but we can't stand around the lobby, talkin' all night."

"You're right," Jessie said. "But we can't call it a night just yet -- we still have to wait for Mondo to get here with our paychecks."

"Besides," James added, spinning Growly's poke ball on the end of his finger, "if we want a shot at winning that tournament tomorrow, Jessie and I have some serious training to do!"

"I know! Why don't we go to our rooms, put our stuff away, and get freshened up? Then we can all go back to the pokemon center, have some practice battles, and catch up on old times while we wait for Mondo," Cairdea suggested.

Jessie smiled. "That sounds like a great idea!"

Gary nodded. "Yeah! And when we get back to the pokemon center, you can show us your new Sunflora and Articuno, too!" he said to Jessie and James.

Cairdea and Emanuela gasped. "You caught an Articuno?!" they said in unison.

James smiled sheepishly and blushed. "I didn't technically catch him. I was just holding his egg when he hatched."

Cairdea became starry-eyed again. "Awww! I've always loved Articuno -- I bet their chicks are adorable!" she sighed.

"He is," James affirmed.

Emanuela grinned. "Then that settles it! This night has only just begun!"


Once Jessie, James, Meowth, Gary, Cairdea, and Emanuela got settled in, they regrouped in the lobby. Now, fast friends all, the six of them were on their way back to the pokemon center to get in a bit of practice before the tournament.

As they made their way up the street, they heard another familiar voice:

"Well, what do you know? It looks like we've got a Team Rocket reunion going on here!"

They turned and saw a fifteen-year-old boy standing behind them. He was dressed in a pair of blue jeans and a white t-shirt with a small red "R" embroidered on it. And even though his dark brown hair was a couple inches shorter and lacked the rogue wisp, it was styled similarly to James's.

"Mondo!" Jessie, James, Meowth, Cairdea, and Emanuela exclaimed in unison.

The boy's dark blue eyes twinkled with good humor. "I hope you weren't planning on starting the party without me!" he said.

"Wouldn't dream of it!" Meowth told him.

"Got a call from Annie and Oakley," Mondo continued. With that, he produced three envelopes from his pocket and handed them to Jessie, James, and Meowth. "I believe these are yours."

"Thanks, Mondo," the three of them replied as they took their paychecks.

"They also told me that you guys were here for the fire tournament," he added. "Mind if I stay to cheer you on?"

Jessie smiled. "We wouldn't have it any other way!"

Mondo smiled back. Then, he turned his attention to their three companions. "Cair, Manu, it's nice to see you again."

"Nice to see you too, Mondo," said Emanuela.

He smiled again and looked at Gary. "But I don't believe we've been introduced...."

"Then it's time to change all of that," James replied. "Mondo, this is Gary Oak...."

Recognition sparked in Mondo's eyes when he said this. "Oh, yeah! Jessie, James, and Meowth told me all about you!" he exclaimed. "I was so happy when I heard that they'd made a new friend!" His smile became a grin as he extended his hand. "Mondo Cole, at your service."

Gary shook his hand and nodded. "Pleased to meet you."


As the party continued on its way, along with its newest member, Gary smiled at Jessie, James, and Meowth again and nudged them with his elbow. "And you were afraid that coming here would be a bad idea," he playfully reproached them.

"Alright, we admit it -- we were wrong!" James chuckled.

"And this is one time I'm glad that we were!" Jessie added.


When the seven friends arrived at the pokemon center, Nurse Joy directed them to the excersise yard behind the center. Normally the excersise yard was reserved for convalescent pokemon that were getting back into shape, but with the tournament just one day away, several trainers were there, holding practice battles in the arena.

At the moment, three matches were taking place -- two young boys were battling their Quilava and Charmeleon, a girl with a Ponyta was battling another girl with a Houndour, and a boy with a Slugma and a girl with a Torchic were battling each other. While they were waiting for one of the battles to finish, Jessie and James led their friends to the bleachers that surrounded the arena. As they all seated themselves, however, Cairdea suddenly tensed.

"Oh, for the love of shit! Don't tell me he's here!" she growled.

Her six companions looked and saw that Ash, Misty, and Brock were sitting further down the bleachers with their new friends, Keegan and Ramona.

"Thanks again for helping us get the Fire Stones back from that horrible Team Rocket," Keegan said to Ash.

"It was my pleasure! Those losers didn't stand a chance!" Ash replied smugly.

Jessie, James, and Meowth bristled when they heard this. Gary, Cairdea, Emanuela, and Mondo clenched their fists.

"We'll be sure to tell the tournament officials how you helped us when we deliver the stones tomorrow," Ramona said, changing the subject. "We really appreciate it."

Ash smirked. "I've dealt with Team Rocket before," he told them. "They're pretty pathetic once you get to know them...."

As Ash continued to insult Jessie, James, and Meowth and brag about how much better he was than they were, Cairdea gritted her teeth and began to tremble with rage. "If that twerp doesn't shut the fuck up, I swear I'm gonna send Windfola over there and get her to give him a horn where the sun doesn't shine!"

Meowth grinned. "I'll give ya a dollar if ya do!" he said, bringing out his paycheck and waving it at her.

"I don't need an incentive," she told him. "Hell, I'd PAY to see something like that!"

Gary snickered. "I take it you don't like Ketchum, either."

"Heh. That's putting it mildly, and no mistake -- I HATE him!" Cairdea replied. "It's bad enough that he almost killed me, but the way he keeps treating my friends is just too much!"

"So, you've got an Ash horror-story, too?" Gary ventured.

Cairdea nodded. "Indeed, I do...if you want to hear it."

"Fire away," he said.

Cairdea closed her eyes and sighed. "It happened two years ago -- in August of 1999, to be precise," she began. "Emanuela and I had been in Team Rocket for about eight months, and we'd recently been promoted from trainees to Dan'in. The two of us were partners, but Manu had become romantically involved with another Dan'in by the name of Simone Prata...."

Emanuela's cheeks turned bright red. "Thanks to a little match-making on your part!" she giggled, giving Cairdea a nudge with her elbow. "I was too shy to speak to him, so you had to break the ice for me!"

This made her smile again. "Anyway, Manu and Sim were starting to get serious, so they took a few weeks off from work that summer in order to spend some time alone together," she continued. "While they were away on vacation, I was working by myself, doing a recon job in Vermillion City. It was about that time the St. Anne came to port. Since the ship was famous for hosting lavish pokemon conventions, the boss wanted some of his agents to infiltrate one of these cons and rob all of the wealthy trainers in attendance. Jessie, James, and Meowth had trailed the twerps to Vermillion City the day before, so Giovanni chose them to lead the mission because they were the highest-ranking Rockets in the area. He also called every Dan'in who was nearby -- myself included -- and got us in on it as well. Once we'd assembled and handed out tickets to every trainer we could find, we disguised ourselves as waiters and boarded the ship. And once the St. Anne had set out to sea, we had all of those pokemon trainers right where we wanted them!

"Things went well for awhile. It was fun to watch the trainers mingle, see what kind of pokemon they had, and such. It was also nice to be working with Jessie, James, and Meowth again," Cairdea went on. Her brow furrowed. "Unfortunately, Ash and his friends were among the trainers that had received free tickets to the convention, and the mission turned out to be a total pooch-screw thanks to them."

Jessie, James, and Meowth frowned when she said this.

"I guess that was partially our fault," James muttered.

"Yeah. We're the ones who gave the tickets to the twerps," Jessie sighed.

"We wanted 'em on the ship so we could catch Pikachu, too," Meowth added.

"No. Don't blame yourselves," Cairdea told them. "You were only doing what you had to do...and this was before you knew the full extent of Ash Ketchum's violent nature. You had no way of knowing what was going to happen...."

Gary raised an eyebrow. "I know the St. Anne capsized and sank to the bottom of the sea during a hurricane in August '99, and that Ash, Misty, Brock, Jessie, James, and Meowth had been aboard the ship at the time and presumed dead -- I saw the story on the news while I was in Porta Vista. But I thought the ship sank because of the hurricane. How was that Ash's fault?"

"Well, he may not have been the entire cause, but he contributed to it," Cairdea clarified. "You see, once Team Rocket's plan was put into action, Ash decided that he could stop us by getting every trainer aboard the ship to attack us en masse. And that's exactly what they did -- the other Dan'in and I were Flamethrowered, Vine Whipped, Water Gunned, Body Slammed, Stun Spored, Whirlwinded, and Thundershocked by at least a hundred Charmanders, Bulbasaurs, Squirtles, Geodudes, Butterfree, Pidgeottos, and Pikachus! All of us ended up getting blasted out the roof of the ship...right into the middle of the hurricane!"

Gary shuddered.

"The fierceness of the assault compromised the structural integrity of the ship," Jessie continued. "A lot of the rock pokemon knocked holes in the floor and walls, and several fires broke out because of all the flame and electric attacks that were unleashed. And this all happened when the storm surge from the hurricane was starting to get bad. That's one of the reasons the ship capsized so easily when the really big waves hit it."

"I remember seeing the ship go down," Cairdea said. She got a far-off look in her eyes as she continued her narrative. "My whole body was paralyzed from the Stun Spore, and I later found out that I had four broken ribs and a gash on my left leg. I was trying desperately to stay afloat as the waves pummeled me, but all I could think about as I watched the St. Anne capsize and disappear beneath the roiling surface of the water was Jessie, James, and Meowth...all I could do was hope that they weren't aboard the ship...that they'd made it to one of the life boats in time."

She laughed bitterly. "The only good thing that came of the ordeal was that I got a new pokemon. You see, before we were blasted off, I was able to nab one of the trainers' poke balls. I'd seen the guy while I was handing out hors d'oeuvres and casing the place -- he looked like one of those nineteenth century riverboat gamblers, and he had a bunch of fairly common pokemon like Pidgeotto and Raticate in his arsenal. He was going around, challenging trainers with rarer and stronger pokemon to battles, but he'd always call off the battle right before he was about to lose. Then, he'd launch into this big, corny speech about how trading pokemon helps people become friends and talk the other trainer into trading with him. Ash is one of the doofuses who fell for the speech and traded away his Butterfree for a Raticate. But the guy had also managed to convince another stupid kid to trade his Vaporeon for a Pidgeotto...and I managed to swipe the Vaporeon from him before our heist went bad!

"Once the Stun Spore had washed away and I regained a little movement, I got the vaccuum pack off my back and fished out the poke ball," she continued. "Then, I released Vaporeon and got her to swim me to shore. After we made it to safety, I told Vaporeon how I'd ended up with her. It made her sad that her old trainer had just traded her away on a whim, but I was grateful to her for saving my life and promised never to abandon her if she stayed with me. This made her happy again, and she's been with me ever since!"

Her expression darkened once again. "But having a new pokemon was small consolation for everything that happened. While I was in the hospital, I received word that Jessie, James, and Meowth hadn't survived the shipwreck since they were still aboard when it sank. The news absolutely crushed me -- they'd been some of the few people that I'd actually befriended in my life...I couldn't bear to think that they were gone. The boss gave me a couple weeks off from work once I was released from the hospital, so I decided to go back to my hometown for awhile to see my family again and get my life back in order.

"When I got home and saw how much my parents had missed me, I didn't feel like I could ever leave them again. And I couldn't bear the thought of returning to Team Rocket after what had just become of my three friends," she went on. "I hadn't joined Team Rocket out of a desire to become rich or be a criminal, anyway -- I'd sort of been forced into it by circumstance...."

"How so?" Gary inquired.

"I wasn't born into it like Jessie or Manu," Cairdea told him. "I joined because I had to make a living for myself and help support my family. You see, I'd just graduated from college in the winter of '98, and it had been a bad year on my parents' farm. I needed a job so that I could help them make ends meet, and out of all the places I searched, Team Rocket was the only one that gave me a chance. Fortunately, 1999 had been a good year for the farm, and when I returned home that summer, my parents were doing well again. They didn't want me to go back after seeing the way I'd been hurt, so the first thing I did was call the boss and hand in my resignation. I've been living on my parents' farm, helping them and working as a freelance writer ever since." The smile returned to her lips. "After Manu and Sim got back from their vacation, they came to see me. They were more than a little dismayed that I'd decided to take an early retirement, but the boss partnered them with each other after I left, so they were happy that they had a chance to spend more time together, and I was happy for them. They also gave me the wonderful news that Jessie, James, and Meowth had survived the shipwreck! I was so relieved to know that they were still alive -- I called them at their hotel room in Saffron City that evening, and we must've talked all night! They were sad that I'd retired too, but they knew that I needed to be with my family. We've kept in touch ever since then, but this is the first time I've seen them in person since the shipwreck!"

Gary nodded. "Well, I can certainly see why you hate Ash so much -- he really put you through hell!"

"And I was the lucky one!" Cairdea snorted. "My ordeal was nothing compared to what Jessie, James, and Meowth went through...and what they continue to go through. If anything, I hate the twerp more for how he treats them than for what happened to me."

James wrapped his arms around himself and shivered. "That shipwreck was no day at the beach -- those twerps almost got us killed twice while we were trying to make it to safety!"

Gary's eyes widened.

"While we were trying to get to the hull of the ship, we had to cross a big room that had been turned into a raging inferno by the battle," Jessie explained. "The only way to get across the flames was by tightrope walking on Bulbasaur's vines, but James became paralyzed with fear and didn't think he could make it -- he wanted me and Meowth to save ourselves and go on without him, but I wouldn't have any part of that! Unfortunately, while I was trying to calm the poor sweetheart down, the twerps crossed the pit and got Bulbasaur to withdraw his vines...and then Ash yelled at us in this taunting voice -- he was just going to leave us there!"

"Jeez, what an asshole!" Gary grumbled.

"And dat ain't the half of it!" Meowth snapped.

James nodded. "Yeah! Once we did make it to the hull of the ship, Ash got his Charmander to burn a hole through it so that he and the other twerps could use their water pokemon to swim out. They knew that the only pokemon Jessie and I had were Ekans and Koffing, and we even asked them to loan us a water pokemon so that we could escape too, but they just gave us the big brush-off and left us there to drown when the ship started flooding!"

"Oh, my god!" Gary gasped.

Jessie placed a hand on James's shoulder. "Fortunately, James remembered that he'd bought a Magikarp before the ship sank, and we were able to use it to get back to the surface. Unfortunately, the damn thing could barely swim, and we almost drowned anyway."

"It's all my fault," James muttered as he buried his face in his hands. "If I hadn't bought that Magikarp in the first place, then I wouldn't have wasted all that time trying to get our money back, and we could've escaped before the shipwreck...."

"Don't worry about it, sweetie," Jessie soothed. "I don't blame you for anything that happened -- I blame the twerps. It was their violence that contributed to the shipwreck in the first place, and it was their cruelty that almost got us killed during the escape. I'll admit I was angry with you for buying the Magikarp, but when I almost lost you while we were crossing that inferno, it all went away -- James, compared to you, the money just didn't matter anymore!"

James looked back at her and smiled. "Thanks, Jess."

"I mean every word of that," she said, putting her arms around him and touching her lips to his. "I love you, James."

"I love you too, Jessie," he echoed.

As James melted into Jessie's embrace and hugged back, Cairdea grinned. "Oh, that reminds me! I have something for you!"

Jessie and James gave her a quizzical look.

"While I was working in Vermillion City, I saw a news report about a con-man named Diego 'Dirty' Sanchez who'd been spotted in the area," she told them. "He was wanted for scamming trainers out of their money by involving them in a Magikarp-breeding pyramid scheme...."

James frowned. "This wouldn't happen to be....?"

Cairdea nodded. "One and the same," she replied. "He was aboard the St. Anne, hoping to scam the trainers at the pokemon convention. When I went to the kitchen to refill my serving tray with cocktail shrimp, I heard Jessie and Meowth yelling at James for buying a Magikarp, and I got suspicious. And sure enough, when I was on my way back to the main hall, I saw Dirty Sanchez in his booth, counting a big stack of money. As I passed by, he pulled me to the side and delivered his sales-pitch, saying that if I bought a Magikarp, I could sell its eggs and make billions."

James rolled his eyes. "This is the same guy who stole my wallet in Palmpona when I didn't fall for his con a second time...the one who almost made us lose Lickitung!"

Jessie folded her arms across her chest and scowled. "Hmmph! I wish that asshole would've drowned in the damn shipwreck!"

"Stupid Dirty Sanchez," Meowth growled. "At least Licki kicked his ass good and proper!"

"Heh. You haven't heard the best part of my story yet!" Cairdea snickered. "I already hated Dirty for bilking James out of hundreds, and I knew that if security was busy with him, then they wouldn't be paying any attention to the, I figured it was time for a little Rocket revenge!" A wicked grin made its way across her lips. "I stood there and pretended to go along with Dirty's spiel, and once he was done, I dumped my tray over his head, kicked him square in the nads, and screamed thief! While he was writhing on the floor, I gave him another kick in the ribs and snatched his money, and when security showed up a moment later, I told them that he'd tried to rob me...which was partially true. When they recognized him as Dirty Sanchez the wanted con-man, they hauled him away!"

Jessie and James applauded. "Thank you!" they said in unison.

Cairdea smiled at them and brought out her checkbook. After writing a couple of things down, she handed a check for five hundred dollars to James. "I believe this is yours -- the three hundred that Dirty stole, and two years' interest."

James's emerald eyes widened as he took the check from her.

"After I got your money back from Dirty Sanchez...along with a couple hundred for myself, I went to find you, but by the time I did, we'd gotten our signal from the boss and had to put our plan into action. And as you know, Ash screwed things up after that," she explained. "Sorry I didn't get it to you sooner, but...."

"That's quite alright," James said, cutting her off. "I wasn't expecting to see this money ever again!"

"What a pleasant surprise!" Jessie exclaimed.

When she said this, James smiled sheepishly and placed the check in her hands. "Actually, this money belongs to you since I used the advance on your salary to buy the Magikarp. I'm sorry, honey."

Jessie gave him another kiss. "Don't worry about it, sweetie. There's not really any such thing as your money and my money at this point...though I appreciate the gesture."

James blushed.

"Heh. Just goes ta show dat when James borrows somethin', he'll pay ya back for it...unlike a certain twerp we all know!" Meowth remarked. "Dat little shitter must owe us at least a million bucks for all the balloons and mechas and stuff he's stolen or destroyed over the years, but ya know he's never gonna reimburse us for any of it!"

"No kidding! And I bet Misty's still waiting for him to pay her back for the bike he trashed," Gary chimed in. "I can't think of any other reason why she'd still be hanging out with him."

Emanuela shook her head and sighed. "This boy sounds simply horrible!"

"That's the understatement of the century," Jessie grumbled.

The seven of them glared at Ash again. He was now leaving the arena with Misty, Brock, Keegan, and Ramona, but they could still hear him boasting about his skills as a trainer and how much better he was than Team Rocket.

"Gosh, I hate him already!" said Emanuela. "What a shitty attitude he has...."

"He sure does," Mondo agreed. "I've been hearing horror-stories about him from Jessie, James, and Meowth for ages."

"I've got more than a few horror-stories about Ash, too," Gary added. "Don't even get me started."

"Yeah, the twerp's touched all of our lives in some way," Meowth said sarcastically. "Except for Manu and Mondo, of course...."

"And for that, we're truly thankful!" Emanuela laughed.

Jessie dismissively waved her hand as Ash and his friends went back inside the pokemon center. "Oh, let's forget him. I, for one, am not going to let that twerp ruin the rest of our night!"

"Jessie is right -- we've got more important things to do," James concurred. He brought out Growly's poke ball again and smiled when he saw that one of the battles had ended and a space had cleared in the arena.

Jessie returned his smile and brought out Vulpix's poke ball.

"Care to battle, m'lady?" James asked.

"I'd be delighted!" Jessie replied as he took her free hand in his own and raised it to his lips.


For the next couple of hours, Jessie and James battled Vulpix and Growly against their other pokemon. And once the two fire-types had faced Arbok, Weezing, Wobbuffet, Victreebel, Lickitung, and Sunflora, Cairdea let them battle Sionna, Windfola, and her Vaporeon, Emanuela battled them with Fiamma and her Mareep, Mondo used his Ditto and Tauros, and Gary let them battle Blaze, Smaug, Houndoom, and Umbreon.

By the time they finished battling, it was almost one in the morning. All of the pokemon had several victories under their belts, and everybody was psyched for the tournament the next day.

"Your Vulpix kicks ass, Jessie!" Cairdea exclaimed as they all left the arena and went back inside the pokemon center. "And so does Growly! I hope I don't have to battle either one of you tomorrow!"

James knealt down and scratched behind Growly's ears. "Yes. I'm very proud of them -- they've gotten much stronger."

"They must've gone up at least five levels!" Jessie chimed in as she stroked Vulpix's silky fur.

"That was so cool to see their new Fire Spin and Flame Wheel attacks in action...especially when they battled my Ditto!" said Mondo.

"It's a shame you don't have any fire pokemon of your own," Gary told him. "It would've been great if you could compete in the tournament, too."

"That's okay," Mondo replied. "I'll just be happy if one of you guys wins a Fire Stone. Besides, somebody's gotta help Meowth cheer you guys on!"

The cat smiled up at his young friend.

Once Nurse Joy had revitalized all of their pokemon, the seven friends got some snacks and sodas from the vending machines in the cafeteria and seated themselves at a table.

"So, James, when are you gonna show us your new Articuno?" Gary inquired as he cracked open his can of cola.

Emanuela opened her bag of pizza-flavored pretzels and grinned. "Yeah! Let's see the little cutie!"

James smiled back at them and brought out another poke ball. When he activated it, a tiny bird with downy, crystal-blue feathers and a long, flowing tail emerged.

Articuno flapped his wings and cheeped happily when he saw James.

"Yes, I love you too," James said, reaching down and stroking the little crest atop the baby bird's head.

Articuno cheeped again and jumped into James's arms.

"He's beautiful!" Cairdea gasped.

"Did you get him on Snowtop Mountain?" Mondo asked.

James nodded. He then proceeded to tell Mondo, Cairdea, and Emanuela the story of how he, Jessie, and Meowth had rescued the mother Articuno from Domino and how one of the babies had ended up imprinting on him.

"Grrr! I've always hated that shitty Domino!" Emanuela growled. "My Simone was on assignment with her once, and he said she wouldn't stop flirting with him. He ignored her, of course...but when he did, she tried to get him in trouble with the authorities and almost ruined the whole mission. Luckily, Sim was able to get out of that mess."

Cairdea winced. "Ugh. She sounds worse than Butch and Cassidy. I hope that bitch rots in jail."

"I'm sure she will," said Mondo. "When the boss finds out she could've killed that Articuno and her chicks, he's definitely not going to bail her out."

Gary nodded. "Yeah. Jessie and James told me that your boss would never condone his agents killing pokemon."

"That's for sure," Emanuela remarked.

Growly wagged his tail and barked happily as he watched the baby Articuno cuddling into James.

James smiled at the dog. "Would you like to see him?" he asked.

Growly barked again and nodded.

James's smile grew even wider than it already was as he held Articuno in front of Growly and watched the two pokemon nuzzle each other.

Jessie's sapphire eyes sparkled. "Awww! How adorable! They love each other already!"

"Of course!" James replied as he placed the baby bird atop Growly's head. "Growly knows that any friend of mine is a friend of his...and I'm sure the baby knows that, too!"

"My grandpa always says that pokemon take on the personality traits of their trainers," Gary commented. "All of your pokemon are friendly, brave, loyal, and strong. That says a lot to me...much more than the Team Rocket uniforms you sometimes wear ever could."

"Thanks, Gary. That means a lot to us," Jessie said softly.

Gary grinned. "Well, it's the truth! You guys have some of the most impressive pokemon I've ever seen...and believe me, I've seen a lot of pokemon in my time!"

"We could say the same about you," James told him.

"I know you're all going to do really well tomorrow," Gary continued. "You deserve to!"

Emanuela nudged Jessie and James with her elbow. "Did Cair and I mention that we really like your new friend?"

"Well, why wouldn't ya?" Meowth laughed. "Jess and Jim have the best taste in everything...includin' friends!"

"They sure do!" Cairdea agreed. She held her can of citrus soda aloft. "Here's to friendships, both old and new!"

"I'll drink to that!" said James.

"Hear, hear!" Jessie chimed in.

With that, the seven of them clinked their soda cans together, toasted their friendship, and wished each other luck in the upcoming tournament.


After returning to the trainer inn, everybody had a good night's sleep in their free rooms. (Since Mondo wasn't participating in the tournament, Gary had offered to share his room with him, and Meowth had stayed with them as well so that Jessie and James could have a room to themselves.) In the morning, they all met at the inn's restaurant and enjoyed a delicious breakfast of apple danish and coffee.

Now, they were at the Laurel Valley sports arena, where the fire pokemon tournament was taking place. As Jessie, James, Gary, Cairdea, and Emanuela joined the other trainers and filed into the arena, Meowth and Mondo found seats where they'd be sure to have a good view. Once all of the trainers were gathered on the field, the tournament officials joined them.

The first official switched on his microphone. "Welcome, ladies and gentleman, to the Thirteenth Annual Fire Pokemon Showdown!" he announced. "Each summer, we honor the best and brightest fire pokemon and their trainers...and this year, the twelve flames that burn the brightest will be awarded with Fire Stones!"

When he said this, the second official held up a tray with a dozen Fire Stones arranged on it. The trainers and audience applauded as she placed the tray on a display stand at the side of the arena.

Jessie gave James a nudge with her elbow. "The flame that burns the brightest...they must be talking about you!"

James blushed.

"Good luck, Mighty Moltres Man!" she whispered, planting a kiss on his cheek.

"Good luck, Jess," James echoed, returning her kiss.

Before the first official could continue his introductory speech, however, he was interrupted by the sound of a grating voice....


Jessie, James, Gary, Cairdea, and Emanuela cringed. Their fears were confirmed when they looked and saw Ash racing onto the field.

"Can you, young man?" the first official asked.

"Sorry I'm late!" Ash apologized as he jostled his way past the line of trainers that had already assembled.

The official nodded and continued his introductory speech.

When Ash spotted Keegan and Ramona, who were standing further down the field, he took his place next to them.

"Ash, what are you doing here?" Keegan asked.

"Yeah! I thought you, Misty, and Brock were heading to Olivine City," said Ramona.

Ash grinned sheepishly. "Well, we were," he told them. "But after we left town, Brock and Misty kept talking about how great the fire pokemon tournament was gonna be and how great you and your Arcanines were gonna do if you entered. Then, I remembered that I have a Cyndaquil, so I talked them into coming back to town so I could enter, too! I just signed up five minutes ago! Nurse Joy was about to close the registration and wasn't gonna let me in, but I told her about how I wanna be the world's greatest pokemon master and how much this would mean to me, so she said I could!"

"Translation -- he threw a temper-tantraum, and Nurse Joy let him enter, just to get him to shut the hell up," Jessie muttered.

"That sounds like Ash alright," James agreed.

Cairdea and Emanuela rolled their eyes.

"Yeah. And the tournament was so important to him, he didn't even think to enter until the last minute, or get in any training beforehand," Gary remarked. "Some aspiring pokemon master."

"He probably didn't even remember he has a Cyndaquil til he was at least five miles up the road," James added.

Jessie smirked. "Wouldn't surprise me."

"I'm so glad you showed up, Ash!" Keegan exclaimed.

Ramona smiled and nodded. "Good luck, Ash."

"You, too," Ash replied.

"I think I'll be sick if he wins," Emanuela grumbled.

Cairdea clenched her fist. "I agree! That little shit doesn't deserve to win!"

"Don't worry about it, guys," Gary told them. "Even with dumb luck on his side, I doubt his Cyndaquil will be a match for any of our pokemon."

Jessie and James looked again at Vulpix and Growly's poke balls. "I hope you're right," they said in unison.

"....Trainers will be randomly matched. Those who make it through two rounds of battle will be declared this year's winners!" the official said as he brought the introduction to a close. "Good luck to you all!"

As he and the second official left the field, torches mounted at the four corners of the wall that surrounded the arena burst into flames of red, orange, yellow, and blue. "Let the games begin!" they cried.


For the rest of the morning, the forty-eight trainers who'd registered for the tournament battled each other. Round one had started at eight o'clock, and by noon, the competition had been narrowed down to twenty-four trainers.

Jessie, James, Gary, Cairdea, and Emanuela had all won their battles in the first round, and now they were on their way to the pokemon center with Meowth and Mondo to revitalize their pokemon and have lunch before the second round began.

"Youse guys kicked so much ass!" Meowth exclaimed as they walked up the street. "I'll be a Mankey's uncle if at least one of ya doesn't go all the way!"

"Yeah! I knew you guys were gonna do well when we all battled last night, but I was really impressed!" Mondo agreed.

"I must admit, I was a little worried when I saw that Growly had to battle a Houndoom, but he really came through for me!" James remarked.

Jessie placed a hand on his shoulder. "Of course Growly came through -- he's strong, and brave, and smart, just like his master!"

James wrapped his arm around her waist and blushed.

Gary nodded approvingly. "Houndoom may have been physically stronger, but Growly had the speed advantage. Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses as well as your opponent's is an important part of battling. Judging from the way you and Growly handled yourselves, I'd say that's a lesson you've mastered."

"Pitting him against Weezing last night really paid off as well," Jessie added. "When Houndoom used its Smog attack, Growly wasn't fazed for a second!"

Now James was blushing more brightly than ever.

"Okay, I think we're embarrassin' him," Meowth chuckled. "Let's give Jimmy a break and lavish praise on somebody else now!"

"Yeah! Like Jessie!" said Mondo. "The way her Vulpix dodged all of that Charmeleon's attacks and took it out with those Quick Attack and Fire Spin combos was like poetry in motion!"

Jessie smiled sheepishly. "It was another case of using smaller size and greater speed to our advantage."

"Vulpix is very well-trained," Gary told her. "I have a feeling that the two of you are going to do really well in round two!"

Cairdea smiled. "I think you will too, Gary. When Smaug took all of the Fire Punches your opponent's Magmar dealt out like they were nothing and then drove him into the ground with a Submission attack, it was one of the most spectacular things I'd ever seen!"

"Well, I'm not gonna be using Smaug in round two -- I figured I'd give Blaze a turn," he replied.

"Yes, but we know your pokemon, Gary -- whoever has to face Blaze this afternoon is really going to have to work if they want to beat him," Jessie said.

As the seven friends continued their conversation, they suddenly heard the sound of Ash's whiny voice again.

"Oh, shit," they all grumbled.

When they looked, they saw Ash on the sidewalk across the street. Misty and Brock were with him, and the three of them were following Ramona, who had an extremely annoyed expression on her face.

"Why was Keegan yelling at me?" Ash whined.

"I don't know. Maybe because he got a dislocated elbow and had to go to the hospital because of you!" Ramona snapped.

"I didn't do that!" Ash protested. "Team Rocket broke Keegan's arm yesterday!"

"No, Keegan sprained his arm when he fell into their pit-trap!" Ramona corrected him. "And he was feeling better today...until your Cyndaquil tackled his Arcanine and knocked it into him!"

Ash frowned. "It's not my fault Cyndaquil beat his Arcanine! I was just happy about how great Cyndaquil did, and he told me to shut up! He didn't have to be such a sore loser...."

"Did you ever think it was because you wouldn't shut up about how great Cyndaquil did?!" Misty shouted.

"Yeah! There is such a thing as being a sore winner, Ash," Brock reproached him. "Keegan didn't need to hear you gloating about your victory after you hurt his arm all over again...."

"It wasn't me who hurt his arm! Team Rocket did it!" Ash insisted.

"Yeesh. This is as bad as when he pissed in Mr. Harris's bird bath," Gary snorted. "He literally got caught with his pants down, but he kept trying to blame it on the kid who lived across the street...who happened to be spending the weekend with his grandparents in Cerulean City at the time."

Meowth buried his face in his paws. "Jeezus tap-dancin' Christ!"

"We're really sorry about what happened to your brother, Ramona," Brock said, taking her hands in his.

"Yeah. We hope Keegan feels better soon," Misty chimed in.

"I'm sure he will...and I appreciate your concern," Ramona replied. She scowled as she looked back at Ash, who was still ranting about how Team Rocket was to blame for everything. "I just wish he had the decency to stop gloating about his victory for a few minutes and apologize to my brother. Not that I'm taking their side or anything, but I'm starting to see why those three Team Rocket agents think he's such an annoying twerp!"

Misty facefaulted. "Sometimes they're not the only ones."

"Hey! Why are you taking up for stupid Team Rocket?!" Ash demanded.

Ramona rolled her eyes. "I need to take our Arcanines to the pokemon center and get back to the hospital. Brock, Misty, it was nice meeting you. I wish I could still say the same for Ash...."

"Ah, you're just angry because you got beaten in round one, too!" Ash called after her as she took her leave.

His remark was met with venomous glares from Brock and Misty. Ramona scowled again and continued on her way.

"I can't believe the audacity of that twerp! Talking to his own friends like that!" James remarked as he watched the exchange.

"What a pukey little shit!" Jessie grumbled. "I actually feel sorry for that girl...and her brother."

"I think we all do," said Emanuela.

The seven friends exchanged looks as they recalled Ash's battle with Keegan earlier that morning....

Even though Keegan's Arcanine had both strength and speed advantages, Ash, in his usual fashion, had dumb luck on his side. When Arcanine had used his Extreme Speed, Cyndaquil had managed to knock him off balance. And while Arcanine had been reeling and trying to regain his balance for another attack, Ash had commanded Cyndaquil to hit him with a Tackle. Arcanine had been sent flying and crashed right into Keegan...and the impact had hurt his arm all over again. After the match, Ramona, Brock, and Misty had helped Keegan off the field so that they could get him to the hospital to have his dislocated elbow treated. Meanwhile, all Ash could do was celebrate his Cyndaquil's victory over Arcanine, completely oblivious to and unconcerned with the fact that he'd hurt his friend.

"He should've been disqualified for that," Cairdea growled. "Doesn't hurting an opposing trainer so badly that they end up in the hospital count as unsportsmanlike conduct?"

"Yeah...but that's never stopped Ash before," Gary replied.

They all shook their heads and sighed.

When they arrived at the pokemon center a few minutes later, they saw Ramona at the front desk, handing two poke balls to Nurse Joy. "I'll be back to pick them up later. Thanks," she said.

Nurse Joy nodded.

As Ramona turned around and prepared to leave, she saw Jessie, James, Meowth, and their four friends standing behind her. Recognition flashed in her eyes.

"Oh, shit," Jessie and James muttered.

"Don't worry -- I'm not going to blow your cover. I saw you battling in the tournament earlier, and I know you're not here to cause trouble this time," she told them.

"Damn right, they're not," Gary said, stepping protectively in front of his three friends.

"I suppose we owe you an apology for yesterday," James said to Ramona. "For what it's worth, we didn't really want to steal the stones -- we only did it because we didn't think we had a chance at competing in the tournament."

"We're also sorry about your brother," Jessie added. "The way Ash behaved was sickening."

Ramona nodded. "Thanks. I appreciate it." She sighed. "It's kind of ironic -- I thought he was a nice kid and that you were a bunch of jerks. Guess first impressions can be misleading."

"That's for sure! You'd be hard-pressed to find nicer people than Jessie, James, and Meowth...or a bigger jerk than Ash," Gary told her.

"I guess I shouldn't be so surprised," Ramona muttered. "Truth be told, I was kinda disgusted last night when he attacked you after you'd already surrendered and were trying to retreat. Though I really wasn't expecting him to act like that with us."

"Heh. Welcome ta our world," Meowth snorted. "We've tried ta make peace with dose twerps before, but dey always end up stabbin' us in the back."

"On a brighter subject, you battled well today," Cairdea told her. She extended her hand. "Your Arcanine is very strong -- you really gave me and Windfola a run for our money!"

This made Ramona smile again. "Thanks," she replied as she shook Cairdea's hand. "I was really impressed with your Rapidash, too. Good luck in the next round!"

Cairdea smiled back and nodded. "Thank you."

Ramona turned her attention back to Jessie and James. "I hope you do well in the next round, too...Eric and Rachael Morgan," she said. "I'm glad you're trying to get the stones the right way, and after seeing the way you battled with your Vulpix and Growlithe earlier...I think you deserve to win."

"Thank you," they replied in unison.

After saying good bye to Ramona, Jessie, James, Gary, Cairdea, and Emanuela left their pokemon with Nurse Joy and went to the electronic bulletin board at the other end of the lobby to see who their opponents were going to be in round two.

"Oh...Cair, it looks like you and I will be facing each other this afternoon," Emanuela remarked as she perused the schedule of matches.

Cairdea smiled. "Then Sionna and I have a tough battle ahead of us -- Fiamma is strong."

Emanuela nodded. "This should be an interesting match for sure! I do hope you win, though -- you need a Fire Stone, and I'm just here for fun...."

"No!" Cairdea interjected. "Manu, I want you and Fiamma to do your best out there. If I win a Fire Stone today, then I want it to be because I've earned it." She winked. "Though if you're the one who wins the Fire Stone, I have a pretty good idea what you can give me for my birthday this year!"

"We're winners either way, then!" Emanuela chuckled.


Jessie and James smiled as they watched the exchange between their two friends. As they looked back at the bulletin board, however, Jessie's expression darkened. "Looks like I was right when I said that whoever has to battle Gary in round two is really going to have their work cut out for them...."

Gary raised an eyebrow. "Jessie?"

"'s me," she replied. "I'm your opponent, Gary."

"Then I have my work cut out for me, too," Gary told her. He extended his hand. "Vulpix is tough. I know she'll give Blaze a good fight."

"Gary?" Jessie asked as she shook his hand.


"I feel the same way that Cair does about battling Manu," she told him. "I don't want you to throw the match for my sake."

"That's not gonna happen," Gary assured her. "Blaze and I are gonna bring it on. Believe me, if you win, it'll definitely be because you earned it...and if I win, I know what to give you for your birthday!"

"So, it's a win-win situation for us, too!" Jessie concluded.

"Yeah!" Gary agreed.

Suddenly, the sound of grating laughter echoed through the lobby.

Cairdea placed a hand to her forehead. "Oh, fuck! Not him again!"

Sure enough, when she and her six friends looked, they saw Ash, Misty, and Brock standing a few feet away. They were looking at the bulletin board, too.

"What's so funny, Ash?" Misty asked.

"I've gotta face some guy named Eric Morgan in round two...and all he's got is a Growlithe!" Ash jeered. "After the way Cyndaquil beat that Arcanine this morning, a Growlithe should be a piece of cake! I'm gonna win!!!"

"Don't get too cocky, Ash," Brock warned him. "A pokemon's evolutionary level isn't always the best measure of its strength."

"I know that!" Ash retorted. "But I'm Ash Ketchum from the town of Pallet! I'm gonna be the world's greatest pokemon master! What kind of pokemon master would be beaten by one little Growlithe?"

"The kind who only thinks he's a pokemon master, but in reality is nothin' more den a lazy, piss-arrogant, shitty excuse for a trainer?" Meowth offered.

There was a collective snicker from his friends.

"Yeah! Mop the floor with that twerp, James!" Jessie said, snaking her arms around her lover's waist.

When Jessie touched him, James's sour expression faded, and his emerald eyes began to glitter. "It'd be my pleasure, honey!" he replied.

Cairdea scowled again as she watched Ash get his Cyndaquil back from Nurse Joy and leave the pokemon center, continuing to gloat about his impending victory all the while. "Did I mention that I hate that twerp?"

"We all do," Emanuela replied.

"And the scary part is, seeing Ash in person makes me realize that all of the horror-stories Jessie, James, and Meowth have told me about him over the years weren't exaggerations -- if anything, they were downright understated!" Mondo added.

Gary shuddered. "That is pretty damned scary," he agreed.

Suddenly, Cairdea's scowl gave way to a wicked grin.

"Uh, oh. That evil look in your eyes tells me you're up to something," Emanuela remarked, taking note of the mischievous expression on her friend's face.

"I just got a great idea!" Cairdea chuckled. "I know how we can use Ash Ketchum's ultra-competitive streak and raging stupidity to our advantage...."

James sweatdropped. "Cair, you're not planning on doing anything to rig the match so that I win, are you?"

"Of course not! I have every confidence you can beat him on your own, James," she quickly replied.

"Then, what....?"

She smiled again. "It's a bit complicated, and I'm going to need help from all of you. I'll explain over lunch...."


When Nurse Joy finished revitalizing their pokemon, the seven of them left the pokemon center and went to lunch at a little cafe in downtown Laurel Valley. It was another hour until the second round of the Fire Pokemon Showdown began, so they had plenty of time to enjoy their grilled chicken sandwiches and hear about Cairdea's plan.

"So, quit holding out on us, Cair! What do you have in mind?" Emanuela exclaimed.

"A healthy dose of humiliation for the twerp," came her reply. "I know Jessie and James will be on board for this one, but I need to ask the rest of you -- are you familiar with...."

Before she could finish her question, she was interrupted by the sound of a cellular phone ringing.

Emanuela grinned sheepishly. "That's mine! Hang on a sec!" Her cheeks turned even redder than they already were as she brought the phone from her purse and answered it.

"Bet ya ten bucks dat's Simone callin'!" Meowth muttered to Jessie and James when he saw how brightly Emanuela was blushing.

"You'd win that bet," Emanuela whispered to him. Then, turning her attention back to the phone call, "Hello, Sim?....Yes, I'm doing fine. Cair and I made it to Laurel Valley last night....Yes, we both entered the tournament -- we did great in the first round! Cair's Rapidash beat an Arcanine, and my Fiamma defeated a Magcargo. We have to face each other in the second round later this afternoon, but we'll be happy no matter which one of us wins....Thanks for your well-wishes, Sim. We'll both do our best for sure!" Her smile grew even wider than it already was. "Oh, and you'll never guess who Cair and I ran into -- Jessie, James, Meowth, and Mondo...and they have a new friend named Gary with them, too. He's about Mondo's age...a very nice person. Gary is in the tournament too, and so are Jessie and James....Yes, I'll tell them so!" She paused for a moment and looked back at her six friends. "Simone says hello to you all, and he wishes us luck in the tournament."

"Tell Simone that we said hello, too," Jessie replied.

"And give him our thanks," James added.

Emanuela nodded. "Everybody says hello to you too, Sim, and they thank you as well. Do you want me to call after the tournament and let you know how everything goes?....Oh, yes, I forgot that Italy is seven hours ahead of Johto and that you'll probably be asleep by the time the tournament ends. Dratty time zones. Well, I'll call you tomorrow, then -- I'm sure we'll have plenty to discuss....Yes, I love you too, Simone. Buona notte, amore."

After Emanuela turned off her phone and put it back in her purse, her six friends grinned. Her cheeks flushed again. "Sorry about the interruption, Cair. Please continue," she said hoping to divert the attention away from herself.

"Quite alright," Cairdea replied. "Now, as I was saying, are any of you, besides Jessie and James, familiar with a game called Dungeons & Dragons?"

Meowth nodded. "I've never played it myself, but I've heard Jess and Jim talk about it."

"Yeah. And I've played it a few times with Annie and Oakley," Mondo replied. "It's really fun!"

Gary grinned. "Are you kidding?! D & D is only one of my favorite games! I played it with my sister, May, and her friends all the time when I was a kid!"

Cairdea nodded approvingly. "Excellent."

"I'm afraid I don't know anything about it, though," Emanuela sighed. "I've never really read much fantasy or played games like that before."

"Don't worry about it, Manu -- four experienced gamers, a dabbler, and two newbies is pretty good for a party," Cairdea assured her. "The rest of us will help you and Meowth along while you learn to play."

"Playing D & D is all well and good, but what does it have to do with Ash?" Mondo queried.

"And here's where the twerp figures in," Cairdea continued. "We invite him to join our D & D session. You just know an unimaginative dim-wit like him wouldn't have the slightest inkling how to play a game like this...but as competitive as he is, he won't be able to resist -- he'll be eager to prove that he's the best!"

Jessie and James grinned as they realized what Cairdea had in mind.

"But D & D isn't about being the best or beating the other players -- it's about working together with them over the course of a campaign!" James said.

"And if Ash is too busy trying to be the best, it's only going to set him up for a massive failure!" Jessie added. "This is one game where all of Ash's traits work to his disadvantage!"

"Which puts us in the perfect position to deal him the humiliating defeat that he so richly deserves!" Cairdea concluded. "I'm not counting on Ash gaining any insight from the experience or learning that it doesn't pay to be a brat, but at the very least, we can have some fun at his expense!"

"Now that sounds like a great idea!" Gary exclaimed.

"All we gotta do is find the twerp and invite him ta play!" said Meowth.

As if on cue, Ash, Misty, and Brock entered the restaurant and seated themselves at a nearby table.

"This can't be a coincidence!" James snickered.

"It has to be a sign that this little plan is meant to be!" Jessie remarked.

Cairdea grinned again. "Leave this to me," she said. With that, she got up from her seat and headed for the table where Ash, Misty, and Brock were sitting.

"I'm gonna order ten bacon double cheeseburgers!!!" Ash cried as he bounced up and down in his seat like an overgrown toddler.

"And then you're gonna get a stomachache," Misty reproached him.

Ash frowned at her. "Hey, this is part of my training!" he said defensively.

Misty smirked. "Like that time you stuffed your face with comfort food in preparation for a battle with Gary that never happened?"

Ash jumped out of his seat and shook his fist. "Oooh, that GARY!!! I'LL SHOW HIM!!!!!"

Cairdea rolled her eyes as she listened to the exchange. What a moron! she said to herself. Then aloud, "Excuse me?"

At the sound of her voice, the two children brought their argument to a halt and held up their menus. "I'm ready to order now! Gimmie ten bacon double cheeseburgers, a side of fries, and a jumbo chocolate milkshake!" Ash said.

"I'm not a waitress!" Cairdea replied through clenched teeth.

Before she could bring her temper back in check, however, Brock leapt up and took her hands in his own. "Of course you're not! Please forgive my friend's rudeness! My name is Brock, and if you're not busy, perhaps you'd like to join me for lunch...."

"Can it, Casonova!" Misty snapped, grabbing him by the ear and dragging him back to his seat.

Cairdea wiped away the sweatdrop that had formed on her temple and cleared her throat. "Um, you wouldn't happen to be Ash Ketchum, the expert pokemon trainer from Pallet Town, would you?" she inquired.

Ash smiled proudly. "Well, I don't like to say I'm an expert...but that's what everybody calls me!"

Yeah -- the voices in his head, Cairdea thought. She paused for a moment and steeled herself for what she had to say next. "I saw the way you battled in round one of the tournament today, and I was really impressed!"

"Thanks!" Ash replied. "It's always nice to meet a fan! Somebody who appreciates my superior training skills!" He gave Misty a smug look.

Misty responded by sticking her tongue out at him.

"Anyway," Cairdea continued, "my friends and I think you have a brilliant strategic mind, and we were wondering if you could help us!" Each word she spoke in praise of Ash made the bile rise up from the back of her throat, but it was working -- his ego was even more inflated than usual, and she had his full attention now.

"What do you need?" he asked.

"Well, you see, my friends and I are on our way to a sci-fi/fantasy convention in Olivine City, and there's going to be a big Dungeons & Dragons tournament," she explained. "My friends and I are going to have a practice session tonight so that we can be ready when we get to Olivine, but we need one more for our party. Do you think you could join us? Please?"

"Sure! Anything for a fan!" he replied without hesitation. "I just have one question -- what's Dungeons & Dragons?"

"It's a game of strategy and skill!" Cairdea told him. "Don't worry if you don't know how to play -- it's easy to learn!"

"I've heard of that game," Misty muttered to Brock. "All of the nerds and geeks at my school used to play it."

Brock nodded. "Mine, too," he muttered back.

Cairdea clenched her fists and supressed the urge to clobber Misty and Brock for their rude remark.

"Well, if it's a game of strategy and skill, then count me in!" Ash cried triumphantly. "I'm gonna win!!!"

"Cool! I'll go tell my friends the good news right now!" Cairdea cheered. "Meet us at the pokemon center's lounge after the tournament this afternoon! We'll play some D & D, order some'll be fun!"

Ash grinned and began bouncing in his seat again. "Pizzas?! Now you're talking! I'm there!"

"And we'll be looking forward to it," Cairdea replied. Another wicked grin made its way across her lips as she turned away from the three children. We'll definitely be looking forward to it, Ketchum. You have no idea what you're in for!

"We heard the twerp cheerin' all the way over here," Meowth said as Cairdea returned to the table and took her seat again. "I assume dat means he agreed?"

"You assume correctly, Meowth," she told him. "It's just as I predicted -- he couldn't resist the opportunity to compete with us and show off how great he thinks he is! He promised to meet us at the pokemon center after the tournament."

"Then it's all set!" Emanuela exclaimed.

"Not quite," Jessie corrected her. "We still need Player's Handbooks, a Dungeon Master's Guide...."

"....Polyhedral dice, a Monster Manual...." James added.

Emanuela's brown eyes widened. "Wow! There's a lot of stuff involved in this game!"

"Don't worry -- I can take care of that," Mondo piped up. "I'm sure Annie and Oakley would be happy to loan us some of their D & D supplies. All I have to do is give 'em a call, and they can send everything to us in a matter of minutes."

"We're also going to have to decide which one of us is going to be the DM," James remarked.

"DM?" Emanuela queried.

"Dungeon Master," Gary clarified. "That's the player who comes up with the adventure that all of the other players go on -- they basically guide the course of the action. The key to your character's survival in D & D is how well you listen to the DM and pick up on all of the clues they give you...and how well you cooperate with all the other players' characters, of course."

"Well, it's definitely gotta be one of the experienced gamers who does it since it sounds like the role with the most responsibility," said Emanuela.

"Yeah!" Meowth agreed. "And I nominate Cair since she's the one who came up with dis brilliant idea!"

"I second the motion!" Mondo chimed in.

Cairdea fidgeted in her seat. " tell you the truth, I've never DMed before -- I've always just been a regular player."

"No time like the present to learn, then!" Jessie told her.

James nodded. "Go for it, Cair -- I'm sure you'll do fine!"

"Yeah! This'll be a great first campaign for you to organize!" said Gary.

"Okay, I'll give it a shot," Cairdea relented. The smile returned to her lips. "We've got our team, we've got our supplies, we've got a DM, and we've got our unsuspecting victim! Now we're all set...."

To be Continued....

Special thanks to Shigeru1313 for the adorable illustration of Growly and baby Arti! And another special thanks to Christine for the wonderful illustration of Jessie & James riding on Arcanine! ^_^


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