Team Rocket's Search for Articuno

Part 1 -- Stories for Supper

by Cori Falls


It was one of those days again. One of those days when we would've been better off staying in bed. One of those days when things start out okay but end up turning to shit. In other words, another typical day following the twerps.

The whole misadventure began when we trailed the brats into the mountains. They'd crossed paths with one of their old acquaintances -- that dorky camera kid, Todd -- and decided to accompany him on his quest to track down an Articuno. And unable to resist the chance to find a rare pokemon like Articuno, James, Meowth, and I decided to "accompany" them, too. Just as they were about to set out, however, the twerps found a Sunkern encased in ice, and they were forced to take a detour in order to rescue it.

We followed them to a lodge in the foothills, where a sweet old lady named Sofia thawed out the Sunkern and revived it. In return for her help, all Sofia wanted was for them to listen to her story about how the Sunflora Lodge got its name. The twerps didn't look like they wanted to listen, though -- even from our hiding place in the attic, I could tell from the looks on their faces that they were bored and didn't want to hear an old lady tell her tale.

"Those kids are so rude," I grumbled as I watched them reluctantly decide to hear the story after Sofia bribed them with sandwiches and cookies. "Whatever happened to showing respect to your elders?"

"No kiddin'!" said Meowth. "I'd be thrilled if all somebody wanted in return for doin' us a favor was ta have us listen to a story!"

James nodded. "And I'd listen anyway. My grand-mama and grand-papa used to tell me stories from their youth all the time when I was a tiny tot. Old people usually have some really interesting tales."

And so, the three of us gathered around the vent in the attic floor and listened intently as Sofia told the story of the Sunflora Lodge. And what a story it was -- when Sofia was young, she had a sweetheart named Marcello, who'd promised to marry her. But before their marriage could take place, Marcello had to go on a trip, and while he was away, he suffered an injury that put him in the hospital for several months. Sofia nearly worried herself to death when he didn't return, but she eventually received word that he was okay and that he still wanted to marry her. All he asked was that she place a Sunflora in front of the lodge if her answer was still yes. Since she didn't have a Sunflora, she asked every trainer she could find if they had one she could borrow...but to no avail. What she did find, however, was an entire field of Sunflora on one of the mountain slopes not far from the lodge. And when Marcello returned, he found her standing in the middle of that field and knew that she still wanted him. They were married soon afterwards, and they named their lodge after the Sunflora to remind them of how they became husband and wife. Unfortunately, Marcello had been greatly weakened by his injuries, and he died shortly after their marriage...but Sofia never forgot the love they'd shared or the special pokemon that had brought them together. It was the saddest love story I'd ever heard, and as James, Meowth, and I listened, we found ourselves overcome with grief. Even the brats were moved to tears and admitted that they were glad they decided to hear the story, after all!

It was a beautiful love story, but I didn't like how unhappily it had ended -- even though I never knew the man, Marcello's death really struck a raw nerve with me. I know all too well how much it hurts when somebody you love dies, and so does James, for that matter. I knew exactly how poor Sofia must have felt, and when I looked into James's tear-filled eyes, I could tell that he did, too. As we embraced and rested our heads together, however, we suddenly heard a new voice in the room below. Peering through the vent again, we saw an old man standing next to Sofia and introducing himself as Marcello. He then explained to the twerps that his wife enjoyed telling romantic stories and that she sometimes got carried away with her narratives.

"Why, dat sneaky old -- she made the whole thing up!" Meowth exclaimed.

"Well, maybe not the whole thing, but she sure did embellish!" James corrected him.

I brushed my tears away and smiled, thankful that Sofia's husband hadn't really died. "How perfectly devious!" I chuckled. "I like this lady -- she reminds me of...myself!"

James smiled slyly and gave me a playful nudge with his elbow. "Jessie, does that mean you'll be making up crazy love stories about the two of us and telling them to unsuspecting children when we get to be that age?" he queried.

"Hah! Youse two don't hafta make anythin' up!" Meowth laughed. "All yer love stories are perfectly crazy without embellishment!"

"Alright, that's enough out of you!" I said, reaching over and flicking the cat on his forehead.

Before Meowth could retaliate, James held up his hand and silenced us. "Ssshhh! Keep it down!" he whispered. "You don't want to blow our cover...and I'm trying to listen!"

Bringing our attention back to Sofia and Marcello, we overheard them tell the brats about their tradition of having their picture taken in the Sunflora field every year on their anniversary. But this year, on their golden anniversary, it looked like that tradition was going to be broken -- the weather had been unusually cold lately, and it had driven all the Sunflora away from the southern slopes. Still, Sofia and Marcello were undaunted, and they'd decided that Sunflora or no Sunflora, they were going to have their picture taken in that field anyway.

I felt myself welling up with emotion again as I watched Sofia and Marcello set out for the field so that Todd could take their picture. It was a shame that things couldn't be perfect for them on such a special occasion, but I admired their determination and how they weren't going to let this minor setback get them down. Seeing the resolve in their eyes reminded me of myself and my friends and how we try not to let the little things get us down either. It also reminded me that we had a job to do.

So, we decided to take the opportunity that Sofia and Marcello's anniversary picture was giving us -- to catch Pikachu while the brats were being sidetracked.


Moving quickly, the three of us rented a giant snowblower and gathered some of the snow that had fallen on the higher slopes of the mountain. Then, we hid near the field and waited for everybody to show up.

Fortunately, they didn't keep us waiting long, and when they arrived on the scene, James, Meowth, and I made our grand entrance. After reciting our motto, we used the snowblower to bury the twerps and incapacitate their pokemon. Once they'd been immobilized, I sent Arbok to fetch Pikachu for us. Unfortunately, we hadn't buried the Sunkern, and it used its Sunny Day attack to make the weather warm again and melt all of our snow. And when he thawed out, Ash sent his Bulbasaur after us and got him to blow up the snowblower with his Solar Beam. (And I guarantee you, Ash wouldn't pay a damn cent to help the rental company replace that snowblower. All the property damage that little brat causes, and we're the bad guys?! No irony there.)

Once he got Pikachu back, we knew that there was no way we could win. So, the three of us called off the fight and volunteered to leave. For a moment, it looked like we were finally going to escape in peace rather than in pieces, but alas, it wasn't to be. As soon as we got into our balloon and took to the sky, Ash sent the little rat after us.

And you know the rest....


When I awoke, I found myself surrounded by darkness. The last thing I remembered was being launched sky-high by the force of our exploding balloon and a rough landing in a forest near the summit of the mountain. But we weren't in a forest now -- James and I were tucked in a soft bed. Our wounds had been bandaged, and we were dressed in clean pajamas, but we were alone -- Meowth was nowhere to be seen, and all of our poke balls were gone! What was going on?!

I reached down and grabbed James by the shoulders. "James! James, wake up!" I whispered, giving him a gentle shake.

But James didn't reply -- he was still out cold.

I ran a hand through my hair and bit my lip. We have to get out of here! And we have to find Meowth and the pokemon! I said to myself. As I climbed out of bed and reached for my uniform, however, the door slowly creaked open, and a shadowy figure entered the room.

Still not sure of what was happening, I assumed that this new person was a foe. "Who are you?! What do you want with us?!" I demanded as I tensed my muscles and prepared for a fight.

"Y-you're awake?!" a familiar voice gasped. When the light switched on, I saw that it was Sofia.

I placed a hand over my pounding heart and breathed a sigh of relief.

"Oh, you poor dear -- you must be absolutely terrified! Can't say that I blame you after the ordeal you've just faced," she continued as she came to my side and helped me back into bed. "But rest assured, you have nothing to fear. We only want to help you."

At my side, James began to stir. "Jessie...Jess...." he moaned.

"James," I said softly, placing my hand on his cheek.

As his emerald eyes fluttered open, James looked up at me and closed his hand over mine. "Wh-where are we, Jess?" he muttered.

"You're at the Sunflora Lodge," Sofia replied. "My husband and I found you in the woods. We saw that you were hurt, so we brought you back here. Marcello took Meowth and your other pokemon to the pokemon center and went to get a doctor, and I've been keeping an eye on you. It's a wonder you recovered so quickly, considering how badly you got shocked...."

"Excuse me, but why are you helping us?" I interjected.

"I already told you -- because we saw that you were hurt," she said. "Do we need another reason?"

"But we were the ones causing trouble earlier. Most of Ash's friends don't care when he blasts us off. Hell! Most of them even help him do it!" I told her.

Sofia's eyes widened. "You mean he's done this to you before?!"

"On a regular basis for over two years now," James grumbled.

"My god! That's terrible!" she cried.

"We're used to it. All in a day's work for Team Rocket," I sighed.

She frowned. "I...I still can't believe what that boy did. I know it was wrong of you to try and take his Pikachu, but he got it back, and you surrendered! You were even trying to make peace, and...and...he just got that thing to electrocute you! I still don't know how you even survived...."

"I'm just surprised that we were unconscious for as long as we were," James remarked. "Usually, we can walk away from it...."

"Well, I've never seen anything like that before, and it just wasn't right," Sofia told us. "I didn't think anything of it at first because of the stealing thing, but after those kids left, I did start to think about it...and so did Marcello. We realized how vicious Ash's punishment was for your crime and how mean it was for him to attack you after the fight ended. We just couldn't get that image of you getting blown up out of our minds. The whole thing disgusted us -- not just what Ash did, but the fact that we didn't say anything about it or do anything to stop him!

"Marcello and I went for a walk to clear our minds afterwards, and that's when we found you," she continued. "We were sitting down to take a break, and we heard a strange sound coming from the woods. When we went to investigate, we found your Wobbuffet standing over the three of you -- he was crying and shaking you to try and wake you up. We were afraid that you were dead at first, but when Marcello saw that you were still alive, we decided to help you. Even if you are Team Rocket, you didn't deserve to be attacked the way you were, and you certainly didn't deserve to be left for dead out there." Sofia paused for a moment and smiled. "Besides, we owe you a debt of gratitude...."

James and I exchanged looks.

"Gratitude?" I asked.

"For what?" James queried.

"You helped make our golden anniversary picture as special as the other forty-nine!" Sofia explained. "Marcello and I know you weren't the ones causing the cold weather and driving the Sunflora away from the slopes -- you were only using the cold to your advantage. And if you hadn't shown up and tried to cause trouble, our Sunkern wouldn't have used his Sunny Day attack and made the weather warm again. Ash may have used his Sun Stone to evolve Sunkern into a Sunflora, but he couldn't have made the other Sunflora come back without your help. It's not fair that he got all the credit, and you just got hurt."

I couldn't help but smile. It was a rare occasion when somebody actually wanted to help us after one of our blast-offs...and rarer still when somebody appreciates something that we do!

"Without you, our golden anniversary picture would've been taken in a gray, barren field. You have no idea how much the role you played in bringing back the Sunflora means to me and Marcello." Sofia smiled again and cupped my chin in her hand. "Perhaps when you and your husband reach your golden anniversary and see what a special occasion it is, you'll understand why we're so thankful for what you did...."

James blushed when she said this, and I felt my cheeks growing hot, too. "Husband? But James and I aren't married...not yet, anyway!" I told her.

"Oops! My mistake," she chuckled.

"But how did you know that Jessie and I are a couple?" James asked.

"I could just tell," came Sofia's reply. "The way you act around each other -- the way you touch each other, look at each other, speak to each other -- it's a lot like how Marcello and I were when we were your age...and how we still are now! I guess that's another reason we felt so bad about Ash attacking you -- we got a real couple vibe from you, and it reminded us of ourselves!"

My smile grew even wider than it already was. Maybe I have more in common with this lady than I thought! I said to myself.

"There were other things as well," she continued. "I see you wearing his ring...and the two of you talked in your sleep."

James and I blushed again.

"Don't worry -- it wasn't anything major," she quickly added. "But you were calling each other's names a lot, and I heard you say that you love each other a few times...."

"I guess that would be a dead giveaway, huh?" I admitted.

Sofia nodded. "Well, the two of you may not be married, but you're obviously engaged. Ah, young love! It's such a beautiful thing...."

"Actually, we're engaged to be engaged," James corrected her. "I haven't officially proposed to Jessie yet, but I made her that ring as a promise that I will someday."

"You made that ring yourself?" Sofia asked, her eyes growing starry. "How romantic! Oh, I bet there's a great story behind that!"

"There is," James replied. "But it's a long story...and kind of complicated...."

"I love stories!" she said, cutting him off. "Especially romantic ones...."

Before she could continue, there was a knock at the door, and Marcello entered the room. He was carrying our four poke balls, and another elderly man with a brushy white mustache was at his side.

Sofia smiled again when she saw her husband. "That didn't take long!"

"I wasn't at the pokemon center for very long," Marcello explained. "The Wobbuffet, Arbok, Weezing, and Victreebel weren't hurt at all, and aside from being a little shaken up, the Meowth was fine, too. It only took Nurse Joy a couple of minutes to patch them up."

"That's odd," Sofia remarked. "Our two human patients seem to be okay, too." With that, she stepped aside and gestured to me and James.

Marcello's eyes widened when he saw that we were awake. "I...I don't get it!" he stammered. Then, turning to the other man, "My wife and I saw them get electrocuted! And then their hot-air balloon exploded and blasted them halfway up the mountain! I don't understand how they could've recovered so quickly!"

"It's no big deal! Really!" James piped up.

"Yeah! We were just telling your wife that this happens to us all the time," I explained to Marcello.

"Well, I still think Dr. Biondi should have a look at you," he said, turning back to us and setting our poke balls on the bed. "I've heard of people getting killed by things less serious than what you've just been through. Hell! Even the accident that put me in the hospital wasn't as bad as that!"

"Alright. If it'll put your mind at ease," I conceded. "But I'm telling you, there's nothing wrong with us!"

"Oh, well. Don't want the doctor to have wasted his time, I guess," James sighed.

Dr. Biondi nodded and came to our side. "Indeed," he said. "And I'm a little curious as to how you managed to get through this ordeal in one piece as well." With that, he proceeded to shine a little flashlight into our eyes and ears, take our temperature, check our blood pressure, listen to our hearts and breathing, check for broken bones, and test our reflexes. Then, he treated our cuts with antiseptic and rebandaged them.

James and I don't like going to the doctor, and we were more than a little uncomfortable with what was going on, but Dr. Biondi did his best to keep things pleasant. He was one of those old country doctors with a friendly bedside manner, and while he was examining us, he told us some stories of the adventures and misadventures he'd had in medical school. His tales really helped take our minds off of the exam, and having been a nursing student at one time myself, I could relate to a lot of them!

Once our examinations were finished, Dr. Biondi was pleasantly surprised (albeit somewhat baffled) by the results. "Well, if you two hadn't seen it for yourselves, there's no way you could ever convince me that this young lady and gentleman have been through what you say they have," he told Sofia and Marcello. "Everything checks out normal -- their temperature, heart-rate, blood pressure, reflexes...everything! I see no evidence of internal injuries, system shock, or any other kind of trauma associated with electrocution. They don't even have that many injuries from the explosion you described either! Other than a few superficial cuts and bruises, they're none the worse for wear!"

"Oh, thank goodness!" Sofia sighed.

Marcello placed his hands on her shoulders. "What a relief!"

"We could've told you that!" I chuckled.

"Yeah! Jess and I already said that this happens to us all the time!" James chimed in.

Dr. Biondi nodded. "That's the only explanation I can think of -- if they're exposed to this kind of trauma on a regular basis, it's possible that their bodies have built up a tolerance to it. Still, the fact that they're strong enough to withstand such severe electrocution even once and become resistant to it is amazing. These kids have the strongest constitutions I've ever seen -- they're the picture of health!"

"That could explain why their pokemon were unharmed, too," Sofia remarked.

"Yeah. If they go through everything that their trainers do, it makes sense that they'd build up a tolerance as well," Marcello agreed.

"My only concern is that these two are underweight -- they look a little malnourished," Dr. Biondi continued. "But with a little bedrest and a lot of food, they'll be just fine." Then, looking back at us, "You hear that? I want you to take it easy, and I want you to eat! Doctor's orders!"

"Don't you worry, doctor!" said Sofia. "We'll see to it that they get plenty of food and rest while they're here!"

He nodded approvingly.

Marcello smiled and shook his hand. "Thank you so much for coming out here, Dr. Biondi. How much do we owe you?"

"You don't owe me a cent," the doctor replied. "Though I certainly wouldn't object to a slice of Sofia's homemeade chocolate cheesecake and a cup of coffee!"

"I think we can afford that!" Marcello chuckled as he led the doctor out of the room.

Sofia smiled and followed them. "Do you need a ride back into town?" she asked.

"No, that won't be necessary," he told them. "I called my son before I left the office and made arrangements for him to pick me up. He's coming home from med school to visit me and my wife for the weekend, and he'll be passing by on his way into town...."

Once the three of them were gone, James and I turned to each other and smiled again.

"Nice people," James remarked.

"Yeah!" I agreed. "I don't think I've seen this many people who actually like us since Wobbuffet Village!"

James leaned back on his pillow and put his hands behind his head. "A refreshing change of pace, I'd say."

"Definitely," I said, cuddling into him and resting my head on his shoulder.

After a few minutes, the door opened again, and Meowth came into the room. He was carrying a large tray. "Hey, guys. Glad ta see ya survived," he chuckled, winking at us.

"Hey, Meowth," James replied.

"Sofia wanted me ta bring dis up," he said, placing the tray at the foot of the bed. "And ta tell ya dat the doctor's son just picked him up, and she's gettin' dinner started now. She sez it'll prolly be another hour til dinner's ready, so she wanted us ta have some appetizers."

My mouth watered as I looked at the selection of fresh fruits and the wheel of creamy-white brie cheese on the tray and smelled the sweet aroma of hot chamomile tea. I could see James's mouth watering as he eyed the food, too.

"So, whaddaya make a dese people?" Meowth asked, spreading some cheese onto a wedge of apple and shoving it into his mouth.

I took a sip of tea and grabbed a handful of grapes for myself. "I think they're nice," I told him. "I liked them before, but I really like them now."

"Yeah," James said between mouthfuls of sliced peaches and cheese. "Sofia said that she and Marcello are grateful for us getting the Sunkern to make the weather warm again, and that they feel bad about Ash attacking us. We can definitely trust them."

"I know. It's just dat, it ain't too often we run inta people dat really like us and wanna do somethin' nice for us...especially people dat's been hangin' out with dose twerps!" Meowth sighed. "In the back a my mind, I'm always worried somethin's gonna happen ta turn 'em against us."

"All three of us worry about that, Meowth, but it's not going to happen this time," James assured him. "Ash already left, so he won't be here to pick a fight with us or try to make us look bad. And even if the twerps do show up again, Sofia and Marcello won't let them cause trouble -- Sofia told us that Ash's behavior disgusted them. I think it's safe to say that they'll stick up for us...or at least hear us out if anything bad does happen."

"Kinda like Lulu?" Meowth ventured.

"Yeah. Just like Lulu," I said. "Only this time, we won't make the same mistake that we made at Wobbuffet Village. There's no law we need to break and no reason for us to steal anything, so we don't have to be Team Rocket while we're here -- we can just be ourselves."

Meowth smiled. "Good point."

"I think we just made a couple of new friends today," I continued. "And that's something truly special."

James took my hand in his own and brought it to his lips. "Almost as special as our golden anniversary is going to be?"

I smiled again and felt my cheeks turning pink as he kissed me. "Yeah."

After finishing all of the fruit and cheese and drinking all of our tea, James and I took off our pajamas, washed our hands and faces, and brushed our hair. Then, I put on my pink kimono, and James put on his blue one. Once we'd freshened up, Sofia returned.

"Dinner is ready," she said.

"All right! Chow time!" Meowth exclaimed.

"Don't be so rude, Meowth!" I reproached him.

"I'm not bein' rude!" he protested.

James grinned sheepishly. "Please excuse Meowth -- he's got a big mouth!"

"And a big appetite ta go with it!" he said proudly as he patted his stomach.

Sofia laughed. "That's good! Because I made lots of food, and we don't take kindly to leftovers here at the Sunflora Lodge!"

"Now, there's a policy you won't hear us complaining about!" I told her.

James nodded. "You're looking at the top three members of the Clean Plate Club!"

"And the Seconds and Thirds Club!" Meowth chimed in.

Sofia laughed again as we followed her downstairs. "I just hope the menu is to your liking -- I made chicken, pasta, and fresh garlic toast. Dr. Biondi said he wanted you to get plenty to eat, after all."

"Well, who are we ta argue with the good doctor?" said Meowth.

"I'm sure everything will be delicious, Sofia," I replied.

James sniffed the air for a moment. "It certainly smells delicious!"

This made her smile.


When we reached the dining room, Marcello gestured to the three places at the table that had been prepared for us, and we took our seats. Then, he and Sofia went into the kitchen and returned a few minutes later with the food.

"This is chicken marinara and penne puttanesca," Sofia informed us as she filled our plates. "It's a specialty of mine...for a very special reason."

"I'm guessin' dere's a really good story behind dis," Meowth commented as he began to eat.

"You guessed right!" came Sofia's reply. "This is the dish that brought me and Marcello together! I was making the pasta one night, and Marcello was passing through town on a journey. He was starving, and the aroma of the sauce was so strong that it lured him straight to my kitchen." Her eyes began to sparkle, and she sighed dreamily. "Oh, he was so handsome -- it was love at first sight! I was more than happy to share my supper with him, but I'd made the sauce too hot, and it burned his mouth! He desperately needed a drink of wine, but I desperately needed him...and I didn't allow him to quench the fire in his mouth until he'd quenched the fire in my...."

I felt my face getting hot as I listened to her. I hadn't expected to hear such a sexy story from such a sweet old lady! Whoa! James wasn't kidding when he said that old people can have some really interesting tales to tell! I thought. Looking to my side, I saw that James and Meowth's faces were as red as mine, and James was even fanning himself with his napkin!

Marcello laughed when he saw our reaction. "Gotcha!"

Meowth nearly choked on the piece of bread that he was eating. "Y-ya mean ya made dat one up, too?!" he sputtered.

Sofia grinned. "Well...sort of. The story is true, but not for us."

"The puttanesca story is actually a bit of local folklore," Marcello explained. "Legend has it that ladies of the night would make the dish in hopes that the strong aroma would attract men to their kitchen. And when the men burned their mouths on the spicy sauce, the ladies refused to give them a drink until they...did business with them. That's where the name of the dish comes from -- roughly translated, puttanesca means lady of the night."

"Mama mia! Now DAT'S a spicy meatball!" Meowth remarked.

James smiled slyly at me. "Brings a whole new meaning to hot food, huh, Jess?"

"Sure does!" I agreed, returning his smile. "You're going to have to get the recipie!"

"Actually, the real story of how Marcello and I met is pretty interesting, too," Sofia continued. "If you want to hear an old lady tell her tale, that is...."

"Of course we would!" I replied.

"Yeah! We love stories!" James told her.

"I guess that's one more thing we have in common," she said. "Well, it all began when the two of us were in school -- I was sixteen at the time, and I'd just been dumped by my boyfriend. My heart was broken, and I didn't want to love anybody ever again! But one day, while I was sitting alone in the quad, crying my eyes out, this boy came over and sat next to me. He didn't say a word, just got out one of his textbooks and started reading. I was curious, so I stole a glance at him -- he was handsome, but he had his finger up his nose, and I remember being absolutely disgusted that he'd do something so crude in the presence of a girl! I tried to ignore him, but for some reason, I kept getting the urge to look at him...and each time I did, he still had his finger up his nose! Then, just as I was about to tell him to stop picking his nose in front of me, he brings his finger out of his nostril and starts pulling this long piece of paper out along with it! He hadn't been picking his nose at all -- he'd just been stuffing that piece of paper in there so he could pull it out!"

"When I saw how sad that beautiful girl was, I just knew I had to do something to make her stop crying and put a smile on her face," Marcello continued, taking Sofia's hand in his own. "I didn't care if she'd think I was disgusting or not -- I just knew that when somebody does something ridiculous like pull a piece of paper out of their nose, you can't help but laugh. And that's precisely what she did -- she stopped crying and started laughing!"

"I laughed until it felt like my sides were going to split!" Sofia chuckled. "And when I finally finished laughing, I realized that I wasn't sad anymore! I realized that I didn't need my old boyfriend because here was a sweet, handsome guy who'd do anything to make me happy...even if it meant making himself look like a fool! We spent the rest of the afternoon talking, and by sundown we were in love! We've been in love ever since!"

As I listened to the tale of how they met, I felt my heart warmed. "That's such a cute story! And so sweet, too!" I sighed.

Sofia smiled. "I'm glad you enjoyed it."

"You two have been so kind to us," said James. "Taking us in, feeding us, telling us such great stories...."

"....Actually givin' a crap whether we live or die," Meowth interjected.

"How can we repay you for everything you've done?" James asked. "We don't have much, but if there's anything...."

Sofia's smile became a grin. "Actually, there is a way you can repay us."

"There is?!" James, Meowth, and I asked in unison.

Marcello nodded. "You can tell us some of your stories!"

"Our stories?" James queried.

"Well, the two of you are a couple!" said Sofia. "And you did say that you had some interesting romantic stories to tell! We want to hear some of them!"

James and I exchanged looks.

"We broke the ice and told you one of ours. Now it's your turn," Marcello told us. "Then we'll tell another one about us, and so on."

James smiled. "I think swapping stories is a great idea -- kind of like The Canterbury Tales!"

"Yeah! This'll be fun!" I agreed. "But I do have one request."

"Oh? And what's that?" Sofia asked.

"If you're going to embellish or make things up, please don't tell any love stories that involve anybody dying -- that first one you told broke my heart!" I replied. "I lost my momma when I was a little girl, so death really hits a sore spot with me...."

James put an arm around me and rested my head on his shoulder as my voice became caught in my throat. "We were following those kids, and we overheard your story about Marcello dying," he explained. "I don't like stories like that, either -- reminds me too much of when my grandparents died...."

"Oh, I'm sorry if I upset you. I didn't know you'd been listening in," she said. "But I told that story for a reason...and it wasn't intended to be romantic."

I looked up at her again. "It wasn't?"

She snickered. "I knew those kids were bored and didn't want to listen to some silly old lady telling her life story, so I told them a sad story to get their attention...and teach them a lesson about having a little respect for their elders!"

"Sofia! You really are devious!" I laughed.

Marcello grinned and planted a kiss atop her head. "That's why I married her!"

Sofia blushed.

"Well, we know that you'll listen to us," he continued. "So, we'll stick to the happy stuff."

"Good," said James.

"Hmmm...what story should we tell first?" I wondered.

"Hey, Jess, why don't ya tell the one about the time James showed ya what a cunning linguist he is?" Meowth suggested.

James's face turned red again as he spit out the soda he'd been drinking and clamped his hand over the cat's mouth. "SHUT UP, MEOWTH!!!" he shouted. "They didn't need to hear that!"

I folded my arms across my chest and frowned. "Yeah. And while I'm at it, I'll tell a story about our good buddy, Phil Latio, too!" I said sarcastically.

James facefaulted. "You're not helping, Jess."

Meowth wriggled free from James's grasp and fell to the floor, laughing hysterically.

"We're not telling any of the X-rated stuff to these sweet old people!" he cried.

"Yeah! And how did you know about...that anyway?!" I demanded.

Meowth stopped laughing and took his seat again. "I wasn't spyin' on ya, if dat's what ya think!" he said defensively. "But youse guys can get pretty noisy sometimes!"

"And I'll bet you've just been waiting for the perfect time to spring that pun on us, haven't you?" James grumbled.

Meowth grinned. "Yep!"

I buried my face in my hands and groaned. Jeezus, we haven't even told any of our stories yet, and these poor people have probably heard enough already....

Suddenly, I heard the sound of laughter. When I looked, I saw that Sofia and Marcello were cracking up!

"Y-you think it's funny?" I stammered.

"Funny?! This is hilarious!" Sofia laughed. "That cat is such a card!"

"Don't be embarrassed -- we're not offended," Marcello told us. "In fact, I'll let you in on a little secret. Sofia and I have been together for fifty-five years now, and one of the reasons we're still in love is because we're still lovers...and we still like to try new things to keep the love fresh. Trust me -- you kids don't have anything on us!"

James and I breathed a sigh of relief.

"I know! Since we told you the story of how we met, why don't you tell us the story of how you met?" Sofia said, changing the subject.

James smiled again. "Now that, we can do!"

"Do you want to tell it, or should I?" I asked.

"You can tell this one, honey," he replied.

"Okay," I said, leaning over and giving him a kiss on his cheek. "Our story began at school, too. I'd just turned ten, and I was sent to Pokemon Tech after flunking out of nurse school. I didn't really want to be there, but when I got to my first class, I saw the cutest little boy sitting in the front row! I sat a couple of rows behind him, and all I could do was stare at the back of his head. He had the nicest blue-violet hair I'd ever seen...."

James smiled shyly at me as I paused for a moment and ran my fingers through his silky hair.

"....He seemed so sweet, and he was smart, too! After he answered one of the questions, I decided to answer one to get his attention," I continued. "I got his attention, all right...but he didn't look too happy to see me. That changed after class, though -- I saw some guy picking on James, so I stuck up for him. I got ten demerits for fighting, but James kept me company and helped me scrape gum out from under the desks. We talked all day, and before long, we were inseperable. It took another seven years before our friendship turned into love, but we've been best friends ever since that day...and we're still best friends now."

"That's so cute!" said Sofia. "And a good sign that you have a love that can last. If there's one thing Marcello and I know, it's that in order to really love somebody, you have to like them, too. I can't imagine being in love with anybody but my best friend!"

"Neither can I," Marcello replied, taking her hand in his own and kissing it.

"Same here," James said as he put an arm around my shoulders. "The day we met, I felt something -- it was like the moment of destiny."

I nodded. "That's how I felt, too. I'd never made friends easily, and I'd spent my whole life losing the people and things that I loved. I just wanted to keep to myself and not have to worry about loving and losing again, but that changed the moment I saw James! Something told me that he was special, and I was right."

"And something told me that Jess was special," James continued. "You see, I was at Tech because I'd just run away from home. My parents had engaged me to a girl that I didn't love and could never learn to love -- Jessiebelle was overbearing, abusive, and only wanted me for my parents' money. I took the inheritance I got from my late grandparents and used it to escape from the life I was born into and make a better life for myself. When I met Jessie at Tech, I was afraid at first -- she had the same face as Jessiebelle, and I thought she was stalking me. But when I looked into Jessie's eyes and spoke to her, I realized that even though she looks like Jessiebelle on the outside, she couldn't be more different on the inside. I just felt this connection...this feeling of completeness when I spoke to Jessie, and I knew that she'd come into my life for a reason. I could sense that my destiny was bound with hers, and I vowed to do everything in my power to make sure that we're always together."

"James has always made good on that promise, too," I said. "We did everything together at Pokemon Tech...even flunking out after our first semester. Neither one of us had a home to go back to when that happened, so I set out on my own...and James followed me. I didn't want him to, and I tried to stop him, but nothing I could say or do would convince him to leave me...not even finding out how dangerous a life with me could be. Just like James had his ex-fiance and abusive parents that he didn't want to tell me about, I had a dark secret of my own -- my mother, who died when I was little, had been a member of the Team Rocket Elite. I'd been born into the organization, and when I tried to escape, the leader sent her agents to hunt me down. James and I spent three years on the road...on the run from them, and we took refuge with a bike gang for another two after that. But then Team Rocket found me again, and when they threatened to hurt James if I didn't surrender, I had no choice but to return with them...." I paused for a moment as tears filled my eyes. "And you know what? Even that wasn't enough to stop him -- James knew that he was in danger and that he was going to hate working for Team Rocket, but he decided to join anyway because our friendship was too important to him...."

James pulled me closer as my voice trailed off. "How could I let something like that stand in the way of destiny? How could I let my fears and the circumstances of Jessie's birth stop me from being with the only person in the world that meant anything to me?" he asked. "I was already in love with Jess at that point. Not even finding out that she'd been born into Team Rocket could change how I felt about her. If anything, seeing how she'd tried her best to resist it made me love her even more! She was like a star...a bright evening star, shining through the darkness, and she'd enchanted my heart! Nothing could keep me from my heart's desire, and nothing ever will...."

I brushed the tears from my eyes and looked up at him. "J-James! I never knew you felt that strongly...."

He smiled at me and planted a kiss on my lips. "Well, it's true!"

I smiled back and shook my head. "God, James. Just when I think I can't love you any more than I already do, you have to go and prove me wrong!"

James's smile became a grin as I leaned closer and kissed him again.

"Now that was a beautiful story!" Marcello exclaimed.

"So poetic!" Sofia sighed. "Are you sure you didn't borrow some of that from a romance novel? It seems too...fantastic to be real!"

"Nope. Every word of it is true!" James told her. Then, turning to me again and gazing lovingly into my eyes, "Especially the part about the evening star enchanting my heart."

I smirked. "James, you know that flattery will get you everywhere, don't you?"

"I'm counting on it!" he replied, brushing the tip of his nose against my own.

Meowth snickered as he watched the two of us. "See what I gotta put up with on a daily basis, here? Enough sweetness ta make a cat go inta sugar-shock!"

I frowned at him. "Yeah. And see all the smart-ass commentary we have to put up with on a daily basis?"

James grinned again and cupped my chin in his hand. "Gimmie some sugar, baby!" he chuckled.

"Ah, sweet revenge!" I quipped as the two of us went into another liplock.

When our kiss ended, Sofia and Marcello started laughing again.

"You three are real characters!" said Marcello.

"Yeah! I can't even remember the last time we had guests this entertaining!" Sofia agreed. "I'm so glad we found you and decided to help you!"

"So are we," Meowth replied as he helped himself to seconds of chicken, pasta, and garlic toast.

"The only problem is that our stories can't really compare to yours," she continued. "For such a tender age, you sure are seasoned adventurers. Marcello and I are just quiet country folk -- we haven't lived the action-packed lives that you have...."

"That's okay. It's not like our storytelling is a competition, or anything," James told her.

"Besides, with all the stuff we go through, hearing some nice, peaceful stories is a refreshing change of pace for us!" I added.

"Speakin' a which, it's yer turn ta tell us one now!" said Meowth.

Sofia and Marcello exchanged looks.

"Which one should we tell now, darling?" Marcello queried.

"Well, I'd tell them the one about how we got married and how the Sunflora Lodge got its name, but they already heard it," came Sofia's reply.

Marcello smiled at his wife and gave her a playful nudge. "Yes, but you added quite a few embellishments to that one, as I recall."

She returned his smile and blushed. "Yes, I suppose I did. Do you want to tell them what really happened to you?"

"Of course!" he said. Then, turning back to us, "This was when Sofia and I were twenty. We'd been sweethearts for four years, and we'd decided that we were finally ready to get married. The only problem was, I didn't have enough money to give her a decent ring or a nice wedding, and since the weather had been dry that year, there weren't many crops, and I'd been laid off from my job at the local vineyard. Sofia had just opened this bed and breakfast, but it wasn't very profitable at that point. I needed to get another job and earn more money, and I heard that there was employment further north, so that's where I decided to go. I promised to return as soon as I could, and Sofia promised to wait for me.

"I worked in a factory in a big northern city for several months, saving every cent that I earned," he continued. "But once I'd saved enough to buy a diamond ring and made arrangements to quit my job and return home, there was an accident...."

James, Meowth, and I tensed when we heard this.

"Don't worry -- it wasn't as serious as you think," Marcello assured us. "I was supervising another employee stacking some crates for shipping, and the stack collapsed and fell on me. I ended up in the hospital with three fractured ribs, a broken arm, and a concussion -- certainly no picnic, but it could've been worse! I had to stay in the hospital until the doctors were sure that I hadn't suffered any major head injuries, and I had to stay in the city until my broken bones healed and I was strong enough to travel again. Fortunately, the union I was in provided medical coverage for things like that, so I didn't have to worry about losing all of the money I'd saved. Unfortunately, since my arm was broken and the lodge didn't have a phone, it was several weeks before I was able to get in touch with Sofia and let her know what had happened to me and that my return would be delayed for a couple of months. When I finally could write again, I sent Sofia that infamous Sunflora letter, and when I saw her standing in that field on the day I finally returned home, I knew that she wanted me more than ever. And the rest, as they say, is history!"

"That's so wonderful!" I sighed. "I just love hearing how the two of you got to have a happy life together after all of your hard work!" I smiled at James and put my hand on his shoulder. "It reminds me of my James and how he promised to marry me! Do you want to tell them, sweetie? Sofia did say she wanted to hear this one!"

James blushed. "She did, didn't she?"

"If this is the one about how you made that beautiful ring for her, then you're darn right I want to hear it!" Sofia cheered.

He grinned sheepishly. "Alright. Like I said before, it's a pretty complicated story, so I guess I'll start at the beginning...which was about a year ago. Jess and I had been dating for a couple of months at that point, and we were traveling through the Orange Islands. When we were on Mandarin Island, we stopped in a little town that looked like something out of a Shakespearean play. It was such a romantic setting -- you could just feel the love in the air!"

Sofia became starry-eyed when he said this. Marcello put his arms around her and chuckled.

"Jessie and I went out for dinner after we arrived in town," James continued. "It seemed like things couldn't have been more perfect, but then Jessie got really cold and distant with me all of a sudden! At first I thought it was just part of the whole turbulent new relationship phase we were going through, but when she kept shutting me out and just wouldn't talk to me, I knew that something was really wrong. It even got to the point where I thought she'd fallen out of love with me!"

I hung my head as I listened to him. I hadn't meant to hurt James's feelings on that night -- I'd just been overwhelmed by painful memories...memories that had frightened me. I had no idea how profoundly I'd hurt him by pushing him away -- he'd never let on that he'd been so upset, and I'd been too busy dwelling on my own troubles to notice. Suddenly, I felt guilty for being so selfish.

"I'm sorry, James. I never knew," I interjected.

James brought his narrative to a halt and looked at me. "Jess?"

"Did you really think I didn't love you anymore, just because of the way I acted?" I asked.

"For awhile...especially after you said that you wanted to be alone and ran out on me," he replied. "But then I talked to Meowth, and he made me realize that the way you were acting wasn't about me. It's what he said that made me find you again and get you to talk about what was wrong."

Meowth smiled proudly and nodded.

I smiled back at him. "Good old Meowth. What did he tell you, James?"

"He told me that you still loved me and figured out what was really bothering you," he explained. "That's when I realized that you were still my beautiful rose."

My smile grew even wider than it already was as James produced a red rose from his pocket and caressed my burning cheek with it.

"Heh. Roses are ta dese two what the Sunflora are ta youse guys," Meowth explained to Sofia and Marcello.

"Jess, is it okay if I tell this next part?" James asked, taking my hand in his own. "I know it's a painful subject for you."

He was right -- my ex-boyfriend was a painful subject! But the story wouldn't make much sense if he skipped that part. "Yeah, it's okay," I replied after a moment of hesitation. "I trust you, James."

This made him smile. I don't say things like I love you or I trust you unless I really mean it, so it means a lot to James when I say those things to him.

He gave my hand a gentle squeeze and turned his attention back to Sofia and Marcello. "When I found Jessie and got her to talk to me, she told me about her ex-boyfriend," he told them. "It turned out that it was the two-year anniversary of their breakup, and our date triggered some bad memories for her. She wasn't upset because she missed the ex, though -- it was actually the opposite. He did some really bad things -- he hurt Jessie the same way Jessiebelle had hurt me, and he messed with her head and convinced her that she was too evil for anybody to love. He even told her that she'd be alone forever when he dumped her. That's why Jessie was so upset -- she was remembering what happened with her ex, and she was afraid that I might leave her, too." James turned back to me and smiled. "But I reminded her that I'm not anything like her ex...that I'll never leave her, and I'll never hurt her. And once Jess was feeling better, I told her that I didn't ever want the woman I was going to marry to be sad. That was the night I promised that I'd make her my wife someday. We've been saving our money as much as possible ever since then, so that we can have a nice wedding."

"And that's not easy, considering how little we get paid in the first place," I said. "After taxes, putting most of our paychecks aside, and getting food and health supplies for our pokemon, there's rarely much left over for the three of us. It's taking a lot of hard work and sacrifices, but it's worth it."

Marcello nodded approvingly. "You're doing the same thing that I did all those years ago...only you're doing it together. I know it's not easy, but I also know that when you finally do have enough money, it'll make your marriage that much sweeter. Everything is better when you have to work for it."

"Yeah, but it sucks dat goin' without sometimes means goin' hungry, too," Meowth sighed. "It's not so bad now dat our friend, Mondo, is workin' in the area again and bringin' us supplies when we need 'em, but last summer in the Orange Islands and our first few months in Johto, we was in bad shape. More often den not, we'd go for over a week at a time without so much as a crumb passin' our lips!"

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

"'Fraid so," he replied. "But even though things is a little better for us now, we still have more den our share a hard times. In fact, we're just comin' off another bad week -- the last time we ate a real meal was about two days ago! And dere's actually an interestin' story behind dat meal...if ya don't mind a little digression, dat is."

"I don't mind," James told him.

"Me either," I said.

Sofia and Marcello nodded. "Go ahead."

"Well, dis actually began four days ago," Meowth explained. "We'd been bustin' our asses bustin' rocks in a quarry ta earn some extra cash, and when we finally got burnt out, we decided dat we needed ta find another way ta make money. Dat's when we found a huge field a corn and got the idea ta take some of it for ourselves and open a roasted corn stand! And when we opened it the next day, our corn stand was a huge success! Unfortunately, the farmer who owned the corn field found out what we was doin' and took all the money we'd earned!

"Dat night, we found ourselves penniless again, and all we had ta eat was a pot a popcorn," he continued. "Den, a wild Ursaring came along and tried ta steal dat, too! But we wasn't about ta let him take our food without a fight, so Jess and Jim got dere pokemon ta battle him, and I jumped in, too. We eventually won, but the Ursaring didn't wanna leave after the fight, and dat's when we found out he was only tryin' ta take our food cuz he was hungry. We could identify with stealin' food ta survive, so Jessie patched him up, and James shared some of our popcorn with him. Ursaring told us dat while he was a Teddiursa, he'd been stealin' food from Ash and his friends, but even though dey had more den enough ta spare, dey still beat him up when dey found out what he was doin'."

"Oh, dear," Sofia muttered. "He electrocutes people who can't or won't fight back, and he beats up innocent pokemon, too? That Ash sounds simply horrible!"

"Yeah. The more I hear about that kid, the less I like him," Marcello grumbled.

"Well, you'll love dis," Meowth continued. "Ursaring was grateful dat we shared our food with him, even though we barely had enough for ourselves, so he decided ta repay us...and pay back the twerps for what dey did ta him! The next day, we tracked 'em down, and when dey sat down ta have dere lunch, Ursaring charged 'em like he was gonna attack and scared 'em away. Den, he swiped dere pic-a-nic basket, and we all helped ourselves! Dat Ursaring was smarter den the average bear!"

"Thank you, Yogi," James snickered.

Sofia and Marcello laughed again.

Meowth's expression darkened once more. "It was nice makin' friends with Ursaring and sharin' a picnic lunch with him. But like I said, dat was two days ago, and we haven't really had much ta eat since den."

"No wonder Dr. Biondi was so concerned about your weight," said Marcello.

"Well, you won't have to worry about that here!" Sofia told us as she filled our plates with third helpings of everything. "Eat up! And make sure to save plenty of room for dessert -- as you probably heard the doctor mention, I made a chocolate cheesecake!"

My mouth began to water again. "Don't worry -- there won't be anything left over when we get done!"

"Good!" she said.

James took a few bites of pasta and dabbed his mouth with his napkin. "Well, if you don't mind, I'd like to get back to my story now."

"That's right! You never got to the part about the ring!" Sofia exclaimed. "Please continue!"

James nodded. "The ring didn't come until a couple of months after we made our promise," he said. "We'd just begun our journey in Johto, and we were passing through Donphan Valley. We'd heard stories about Amberite deposits in the valley, so we caught a Donphan and got it to help us sniff some out. Unfortunately, the Donphan belonged to somebody, and while we were digging, Ash showed up and blasted us off...."

Sofia and Marcello winced when he said this.

"....It wasn't a complete loss, though," he continued. "Later that afternoon, I saw the woman who owned the Donphan getting them to smash the sides of the mountains and shake the Amberite loose. Once I knew where it was, I made a mental note and decided to go back and get some. And after we made camp for the night and Jess and Meowth fell asleep, that's exactly what I did! There wasn't much left by the time I got there, but I did manage to find a tiny chip of Amberite lying on the ground. I guess it was so small that it got overlooked, so I took it for myself. And not long after that, I managed to get my hands on a golden ring."

"We were in Katalia City," I explained. "The three of us had been emulating the Black Arachnid...."

"So you were the ones who did that?!" Sofia interjected. "Marcello and I heard all about a group of copy-cat burglars robbing rich peoples' houses, and then a big charitable donation showing up at a local orphanage soon afterwards! I thought it was so amazing -- like a modern day version of Robin Hood!"

Marcello's eyes widened. "Well, I'll be damned -- we're in the presence of celebrities!"

Celebrities! I couldn't believe what I was hearing! "I...I didn't know the news was that big!" I stammered.

Sofia nodded. "It was on every channel and in all the papers!"

James gave me a playful nudge. "Well, what do you know, Jess! That little stunt made us famous, after all!"

"Wow! The Black Arachnid II! In our lodge! This is so exciting!" Sofia cried.

"What a great story this'll make!" Marcello chimed in.

"So, James, how is the Black Arachnid connected to the ring you made?" she asked. "This just keeps getting better and better!"

"While we were pulling one of our heists, I found the golden band among some rich lady's trinkets and kept it for myself," he said. "But after our plans fell apart, Jessie and I had a big fight. You see, she wanted for us to be as much like the original Black Arachnid as possibe, which meant that Meowth needed to use Pay Day as our calling card. But since Meowth can't use Pay Day, I had to use my prized bottle cap collection instead. I didn't want to throw away my bottle caps -- I'd been collecting them since I was a boy, and most of them had been left to me by my grand-papa when he died. But I used them anyway because I wanted to make Jessie happy. I lost them all, and our plan was still ruined. I felt like I'd let her down."

My heart sank again. It still pained me to think of how I'd lost my temper with James after he'd made such a big sacrifice for my sake.

As if he could sense how I was feeling, James turned to me and smiled. "But after we cooled off, I remembered the Amberite chip that I'd found...and the gold ring that I still had. I spent hours carving that little stone into the shape of a heart, putting an inscription on the side of the band, and putting the stone in the setting. By morning, it was complete. And little did I know, but while I was doing all of that, Jessie and Meowth had gone back to the city. Jessie went to the police station and retrieved all of the bottle caps that I'd lost, and then she surprised me with them the next morning! And I surprised her by putting that ring on her finger and telling her I still planned on keeping my promise to marry her."

"Awwww! How romantic!" Sofia sighed. "Let's have a closer look!"

I held out my hand and smiled as they examined the ring.

"Together forever, and that's my oath to you! It's beautiful!" she whispered as she ran her fingers along the heart-shaped stone and read the inscription.

"I'd have never guessed that you made it yourself," Marcello said to James. "It looks like something from a jeweler!"

James smiled sheepishly.

"Well, that's the story of how James and I got engaged to be engaged, and how he made the promise ring for me," I said. "Now it's your turn to tell us one!"

The two of them closed their eyes and thought for a moment. Then, Sofia grinned. "Well, this one isn't really a love story, but I think you'll get a kick out of it. Earlier today when Marcello and I were heading up to the southern slopes with those kids, I told them a story about how Marcello saved my life shortly after we got married."

"Another fictional account dat got a rise out of 'em?" Meowth queried.

She nodded. "Oh, yeah! I told them that one time while we were on our way to the Sunflora fields, the planks gave way on the bridge we were crossing, and I fell. But Marcello caught me by the arm. He looked like he was going to lose his footing and fall too, so I begged my beloved to let go of me and save himself! He refused to let go, though -- he loved me too much to do that, and he said that if we were going to plummet to our death thousands of feet below, then we'd do it together! And then, he pulled me to safety, and we made it across the bridge!"

"Yes, that definitely sounds made up," James remarked. "There's no bridges between here and the mountains."

"You're right," she replied. "And you figured it out a lot sooner than those children did -- they were absolutely pale with fear for a few minutes before they realized that I couldn't have fallen off of a bridge because there was no bridge! As for the story? That was yet another thing that really happened, but not to us -- I saw it on one of those Caught on Camera reality-TV shows!"

"I can see how that'd make for a great suspenseful story," I told them. "Because something like that really did happen to me and James!"

"You don't say!" Sofia exclaimed.

"Well, it seems pretty obvious what your next story is going to be!" said Marcello.

I nodded. "It happened about two years ago when we were on a cruise ship called the St. Anne. While the ship was at sea, a bad storm came and caused it to capsize. James, Meowth, and I were knocked unconscious while the ship was being tossed about by the waves, and we were trapped on board when it sank. After we came to, we discovered that Ash, Misty, and Brock hadn't escaped either, so we all decided to work together. We had to make it to the engine room so that we could escape through the hull and swim to the surface, but our path was blocked -- a fire had broken out in the ballroom, and the whole place had been transformed into a gigantic pit of flame! The only way to get across was on the vines of Ash's Bulbasaur.

"When we were getting ready to cross, James got scared and told me and Meowth to go on without him and save ourselves. There was no way in hell I was going to leave him behind, so I got him to calm down. I promised that I wouldn't abandon him and that we'd cross together. But while I was trying to calm his nerves, Ash withdrew the vines -- he was just going to leave us behind! Fortunately, we managed to talk him into sending the vines back for us, but while we were tightrope walking across them, the brat started screaming at us to hurry up...and that messed up my concentration and caused James to lose his footing and fall!"

Sofia and Marcello put their arms around each other and gasped. "H-how did you ever survive?!" they asked in unison.

"James was holding onto me when he fell, and I kept my hold on him," I explained. "It was all I could do to keep from falling off myself, but I promised not to let go of him, and I helped pull him back up." I felt my blood run cold as I recalled the tale. I hadn't really thought about it while it was happening, but looking back, I realized just how miraculous it was that the two of us hadn't plummeted to our deaths on that day!

James put his hand on my shoulder and smiled tenderly at me. "I still remember that. And I'm still grateful. Thank you," he whispered.

The feeling of his touch relaxed me, and I closed my hand over his as I returned his smile. "I didn't leave him, and we made it across together, just like I promised," I continued. "When we finally got to the engine room, Ash got his Charmander to burn a hole in the hull of the ship, and Misty told everybody to grab a water pokemon and swim for the surface. It was a good plan, but it had a major flaw -- James and I didn't have any water pokemon...and she knew it! We even asked her what we were supposed to do since we didn't have any, but she didn't care -- she and her friends just left us there to drown!"

"Jeez! First they tried to abandon you at the pit, and then they left you on the sinking ship anyway?! Those kids are terrible!" Sofia cried.

"Despicable," Marcello grumbled.

"Fortunately, James remembered that he'd bought a Magikarp before the ship sank, and he got a turn to save me and Meowth!" I told them.

"Unfortunately, dat 'Karp couldn't swim worth a crap, and we almost drowned anyway," Meowth chimed in.

James hung his head when Meowth said this. Even though two years had passed since then, he still felt guilty for buying that Magikarp. He still blamed himself for us being caught in that shipwreck.

"But as scary as that ordeal was, nothing bad really happened, and a lot of good things came of it," I said, cupping James's chin in my hand and making him look at me. "It taught us that we can completely trust each other...and it made me start to realize that I'm not destined to lose everybody and everything I love. Looking back, I'm glad it happened."

Hearing this made the smile return to James's lips. Unable to resist how cute he looked, I leaned closer and gave him a kiss.

"Well, I'm certainly happy that everything turned out okay for you, but still. What an awful thing to go through!" Sofia remarked.

"Puts that reality-TV to shame!" said Marcello.

"No kiddin'! Caught on Camera would have a field-day chroniclin' some a the stuff dat we go through!" Meowth laughed. Then, giving us a sly smile, "Of course, most a what dese two do wouldn't be suitable for television!"

I felt my face turning red for the thousandth time that night. James was blushing again, too.

"But not long after dat shipwreck, we did have an adventure dat was like somethin' straight outta one a dose gothic romance novels," he continued.

A light sparked in Sofia's eyes at the mention of the word romance. "Tell me!" she exclaimed.

"It happened when the three of us came to a town called Maiden's Peak," Meowth began. "Dey was celebratin' the End a Summer Festival, but we was all outta cash. While Jess and I was thinkin' about how ta make some money, James saw dis girl standin' on the pier, and he started actin' all goofy over her! Later dat day, we attended the unveilin' of a paintin' at the art museum, and we found out dat the girl James saw was dis Maiden who died 2,000 years ago while waitin' for her lover ta return from some war. After she died, her body was turned ta stone, and it was still standin' up on the cliff overlookin' the sea. I tell ya, after hearin' dat, Jess and Jim went totally nuts! James climbed up the mountain and tried ta reach the rock, and he kept screamin' about how he was in love with dis Maiden. And I'd never seen Jess so jealous or heartbroken in my entire life!

"When we made camp dat night, James was still in La-La Land, and Jessie was startin' ta get pissed about him droolin' all over dis other girl. But when she put on a sexy nightgown and tried ta take his mind offa the Maiden, he spurned her, and she ran off. I followed Jessie cuz I didn't want her ta do somethin' crazy or get hurt, and when I found her again, she was standin' on the cliffs...and the ghost of the Maiden was dere, too! Jessie told her ta leave James alone and dat she'd do anythin' ta protect him. The ghost threatened ta kill her if she interfered, but Jess didn't back down -- she fought the ghost, even though she didn't stand a chance...."

I reached over and pulled one of Meowth's whiskers.

"Ouch! What was dat for?!" he demanded.

"Quit making things up!" I reproached him. "You know damn well, I never really fought with the ghost -- it was just a dream that I told you about the next morning!"

James nodded. "I don't remember much of anything that happened while I was under the ghost's spell, but I do remember that once we were safe, Jessie told me that she'd had a dream about fighting the ghost."

"And I'm tellin' ya it really did happen!" he insisted. "Ya told the ghost dat ya wasn't afraid ta fight her to the death cuz ya loved James, and you'd do anythin' ta protect him! And when the ghost knocked ya out, she said, Congratulations, you passed the test. Ya came to after I brought ya back ta camp, and ya didn't remember nothin' about what had just happened -- it was all just a dream ta you. But I was dere, Jess, and I saw everythin'. It was real."

I closed my eyes and thought about what Meowth had just said. I'd only shared a few sketchy details of my dream with him, and the events he was describing were far more vivid than what I'd told him. How could he have known about everything that happened and be able to describe it in perfect detail if he hadn't been there himself? Maybe it really was more than just a dream....

"Once Jess had gone back ta sleep, the ghost returned, but dis time, she led James away and took him ta her shrine," he continued. "I followed her again, and when I got to the shrine, I found her tryin' ta solidify her control over James -- she was hypnotizin' him and tellin' him ta forget about Jessie. But it didn't work. When she said dat she was his one true love, James contradicted her and said Jessie was his one true love! Dat snapped him out of it long enough for him ta realize what was goin' on and dat he had ta get back ta Jessie, but when he tried ta escape, the ghost knocked him out and told him the same thing she'd told Jessie -- Congratulations, you passed the test.

"The next mornin', Jess told me about her dream, and we went ta look for James. We found him in the shrine with dat guy, Brock. He was under the ghost's spell, too. Den, some old lady showed up and explained dat every year, the Maiden's ghost puts a spell on all the men in the area, makin' 'em fall madly in love with her. She also said dat once the Maiden has the men under her complete control, she takes 'em away and sucks the life out of 'em! Brock didn't seem ta care, but poor James was scared outta his mind! The old lady gave us some stickers dat had glyphs for wardin' off evil spirits embossed on 'em, and she told us dat the stickers would scare the ghost away. Jess and I stuck dose stickers all over James, but when the ghost showed up again, she tried ta take him and Brock away anyway. When James started screamin' dat he didn't wanna go, we knew dat he'd made his choice. So, Jessie shot the ghost with her bazooka and got her ta let go of James...."

I winced when Meowth reached this part of the story. Please don't tell them about that stupid speech I gave about how I didn't really care about James, and that I only shot the ghost because her blind devotion to her lover made me sick! I silently pleaded. I only said it because I was still too afraid to admit how much I loved myself and to him! And what was I supposed to do with those damn kids watching?! I didn't want them to find out....

James placed a hand on my shoulder, as if he could read my thoughts. "It's okay, sweetheart," he whispered. "I know you didn't mean what you said...that you were only posturing because the brats were there. I know the truth, and so does Meowth -- you saved me because you really do care!"

I smiled at him. "I'm glad you know that," I told him.

He smiled back and kissed my cheek.

"....Shootin' the ghost only pissed her off, and it started another battle," Meowth went on. "Before attackin' us, the Maiden revealed dat she was really a Gastly and explained dat sometimes he disguised himself as the mysterious old lady, and sometimes he took the form of the Maiden. Gastly was too powerful for us ta defeat, but luckily, the sun rose and rendered him powerless before anythin' could happen.

"Once Gastly was gone, I overheard Jessie and James talkin' about the weird dreams dey'd had the night before, and it made me realize what was goin' on. Gastly hadn't really been tryin' ta hurt 'em -- he could see dat dey cared about each other, so he put 'em both under a spell and tested 'em ta see just how much dey cared! Dey might not remember dat as anythin' more den a dream, but I was dere, and I saw it all -- Jessie's courage and James's love defeated a ghost and broke a magic spell! And here's the kicker -- dat happened before dey admitted dey was in love with each other! Dey was still just friends at the time!"

James and I exchanged looks.

"Jessie. You really did risk your life to battle that ghost and save me?" James whispered, caressing my cheek.

I closed my hand over his. "And you really snapped out of that spell because you were in love with me?"

"That's amazing!" Sofia sighed. "In all the books I've read, it takes a special kind of love to overcome supernatural obstacles! And so few of the stories have happy endings...but yours does!"

James and I smiled at each other again and rested our foreheads together.

"I'd never let anybody or anything come between me and James," I said.

"And I'd never let anybody or anything come between me and Jessie either," he echoed.

"I think Sofia and I could withstand a test like that, too," Marcello commented. "I can't imagine anything coming between the two of us, even though the closest we've ever come to having a supernatural romantic adventure is when Sofia made up a Wuthering Heights-style story about us."

"Yeah, Sofia. I can just picture your audience listening in wide-eyed shock as you tell them about the time you ran across the moors, screaming Marcello's name," I laughed.

"But I think they'd realize that something is up when Sofia tells them how Marcello went insane with anger and grief after she married another man, and how he tried to dig up her grave after she died," James added.

The two of them chuckled.

"Speakin' of which, it's yer turn ta tell us another story!" said Meowth.

"Okay," she replied. "We'll tell you about another one that we used to fool those kids today!"

"And then we'll tell you what really happened!" Marcello chimed in.

Meowth nodded. "Sounds good ta us!"

"We actually told this one to them about the time you started blowing all of that snow on us," Sofia explained. "I guess you inspired us! Anyway, Marcello and I told them that one time when we were climbing the slopes, we got stuck in a blizzard! I was so weak and cold that I couldn't go on, and I collapsed in the snow. But Marcello wouldn't leave me behind -- he took me in his arms and held me to him, keeping me warm with his body heat! And when the rescue party found us after the storm, our two bodies were twined together, completely encased in ice!"

"Hah! Did dose twerps fall for dat one, too?" Meowth asked.

"They did for a minute...but then they realized that we were BSing them again," Marcello admitted. "Though as out there as the story was, it actually had its basis in truth. But the real story wasn't really suitable for children."

Meowth grinned. "Ooohhh! Dis is gonna be one a the racy ones, ain't it?"

Sofia blushed. "Yeah, it is. It happened forty years ago last winter. Marcello and I were on a skiing trip, but we weren't staying in the ski-lodge at the top of the mountain. We were on our vacation to get away from lodge life for awhile, so we decided to rough it and go camping."

"Well, on about the third night, there was a hard freeze, and a snowstorm blew in," Marcello continued. "The ski-lodge was only a mile away, but we couldn't leave our camp and take shelter there because it was so dark, and the idea of getting lost in the middle of a blizzard didn't appeal to either one of us. So, we just battened down our tent, bundled up, and huddled around our fire. But it was so cold that none of those things could keep us warm...and we knew that if we fell asleep, we'd get hypothermia and freeze to death."

Meowth's eyes widened. "Wh-what happened?! How did youse guys survive?!"

I smiled slyly at James. "I think I have an idea!"

His cheeks turned pink as he smiled back at me. "I think I do, too!"

"If you two are thinking what I think you're thinking, then you're right!" Sofia told us. "We'd read in a wilderness survival guide that in order to prevent hypothermia in extreme cold, the best thing two people can do is share their body heat...without a barrier of clothing! So, that's exactly what Marcello and I did -- we took off our clothes and cuddled together in our sleeping bag...and we kept each other awake all night!"

Marcello nodded. "Love saved our lives on that night...literally!"

"How did we know?" James and I said in unison.

Sofia raised an eyebrow. "You kids sound like you're speaking from experience."

James nodded. "We are. Something very similar once happened to me and Jessie!"

"Really?" she asked. "We'd love to hear about it!"

"You don't mind, do you, Jess?" James asked.

"Not at all," I replied.

James smiled at me again and nodded. "It was a year ago last winter," he began. "The three of us were on an assignment that took us into the mountains. While we were up there, our balloon was blown away in a windstorm, and we got stranded. We had to spend all night in an igloo, using burnt-out matches and our imaginations to keep ourselves warm. Fortunately, since Jessie grew up poor, her mother taught her how to make food out of snow when she was little, and she made a batch of snow rolls for us."

"Dear me! That sounds awful!" Sofia interjected.

"That's exactly what I said," James told her. "Snow is definitely not something I'd ever care to eat again, but it kept us from starving. And, after an endless night of pinching and slapping each other to stay awake, we found out that the brats had taken our balloon when the storm blew it away, and they were using it to get off of the mountain. We chased after them and tried to get them to pick us up, but they pretended not to hear us. They just went on their merry little way and left us there to die...again!"

Marcello clenched his fist. "Did I say those kids were despicable? I'm starting to think that was too mild a term...."

"No kidding," I grumbled. "We've saved their lives on more than one occasion when they were in danger, and we've never gotten so much as a thank you in return! And they hardly ever do the same for us when the situation is reversed...but whenever they do, they're always so snotty about it! Sometimes I'm glad when they leave us for dead -- at least that way, we don't have to hear one of their self-righteous lectures about how great they are for being bothered to save our worthless, miserable lives!"

Sofia shook her head. "That's sad. It really, really is. No wonder you call those kids brats!"

"We could probably go on forever about the things they've done to us," James sighed. "But I'd rather not do that."

"Oh, of course! Your story!" said Sofia. "Please continue."

James smiled at her. "While Jessie, Meowth, and I were chasing those brats and begging them not to leave us behind, we fell into a hot spring. It warmed us up for a little while, but staying in the water wasn't going to do anything to get us off of the mountain. And then we started getting overheated and needed to get out. Unfortunately, being wet and trying to get out of the hot water only made us even colder than we'd been before. Finally, Jess bit the bullet and got out, and Meowth and I did the same. Then, we all gathered some firewood together and went back to the igloo to try and get warm again and think of a way to get back to civilization.

"When Jessie and I took off our clothes so that we could hang them up to dry, Meowth made a crack about the two of us keeping the hanky-panky to a minimum," he continued. "A remark like that wouldn't really bother us now, but this happened while we were still just friends, so at the time, it was really embarrassing! I remember Jessie getting angry and yelling at Meowth when he said that. Then, Meowth made a crack about her mom, and that only made her even angrier. After she put her wet clothes back on and stormed out of the igloo, I told Meowth he was out of line with what he said, and I went to go and get her. But when I tried to talk to Jessie, she just got defensive and told me to leave her alone. I went back inside for a few minutes, but I realized that I couldn't just leave her out there in the freezing cold, so I went back for her. But by the time I did, I was too late -- she was gone!"

Meowth frowned and turned away from us. "Jessie almost got killed cuz of me...cuz I insulted her mom. I still feel awful about dat...."

I reached over and placed a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay, Meowth -- I know you didn't mean what you said about my momma. And it's not your fault I wandered off...or James's, for that matter," I told him. Then, turning back to Sofia and Marcello, "You see, my momma died on a mission in the Andes when I was a little girl -- she was killed in an avalanche. Being stuck on a mountain...being stuck in all of that snow was bringing back some really painful memories for me. I was scared out of my mind the whole time we were up there, and I tried my best to cover it up by singing and dancing, pretending to be happy, and thinking about good snow memories, but it didn't work. I didn't lose my temper because of anything that James or Meowth said -- I just didn't want to be on that mountain anymore, and I'd reached my breaking-point. And I didn't wander off because I was mad at them. I didn't know it at the time, but I was coming down with pneumonia from being out in the cold for so long, and it was making me delerious. I started hallucinating, and I thought I saw my momma's ghost -- I wandered off because I was chasing after it...."

"Jess left a trail of footprints in the snow, so I followed them," said James. "When I caught up to her, I saw her staring up at the mountain and screaming that she hated it! The noise she made caused a giant shelf of snow above her to collapse, and she got knocked off the side of the cliff!"

Sofia and Marcello gasped.

"Fortunately, she landed on an outcropping of rock, so I was able to reach her and dig her out of the snow before it was too late. By the time she was free, another blizzard was on the way, so I got Arbok to tunnel into the side of the mountain and make a cave for us. And luckily, she burrowed right into one of the hot spring sources, so not only were we safe from the storm, we were nice and warm, too! But Jessie had gotten a bad chill, and she was really starting to get sick! I rubbed her arms and legs to get the blood flowing again and bundled her up in my jacket, but it wasn't enough!" James paused for a moment as a shy smile made its way across his lips. "I had to do everything I could to keep Jessie the two of us ended up taking off all of our clothes and warming each other with our body heat! I guess that wouldn't be such a big deal for us now, but it was back then. It took a lot of trust on Jessie's part and a lot of restraint on mine I'll admit, but we made it through the night -- Jessie survived...and nothing happened...."

Meowth blushed and gave James a playful nudge. "Jimmy! You never told me dat you and Jess got naked tagedda!"

James stuck his tongue out at the cat. "That information was on a need-to-know basis...and you didn't need to know!"

"Yeah, but ya coulda filled me in on dat juicy little tidbit after I found out about the two of ya bein' a couple!" he argued.

"I suppose...but by then, telling you all the details about what happened -- or should I say, didn't happen -- on that night kind of slipped our minds," James admitted.

Meowth gave him a sly look. "Or could it be cuz ya made dat part up just now?"

I shook my head. "He isn't making anything up, Meowth," I told him. "I may have been delerious, but one thing I remember quite clearly is how James kept me alive by sharing his body heat with me. I remember how nervous he was because he didn't want me to think he was a pervert or that he was just using it as an excuse to get me naked. And I remember how safe and warm I felt when James held me in his smooth his skin felt against my own, how beautiful his body was...."

Now James was blushing, too.

"I wouldn't have said no if he'd tried anything with me," I continued. "But the fact that he didn't spoke volumes -- it proved just how much I could trust him...and how much of a gentleman he is. The whole experience was a real excersise in bonding and trust for the both of us."

"That's wonderful!" Sofia exclaimed. "But how did you manage to get out of that predicament?"

"When Jimmy went ta go and look for Jess, he told me ta stay in the igloo and wait for him. After a few hours, he still hadn't come back, and ta make matters worse, it was startin' ta get dark, and dere was another blizzard comin'! I knew I couldn't just sit around and wait for him ta come back, so I decided ta go and look for him anyway. But just as I was leavin' the igloo, I saw our balloon! I started jumpin' around, screamin', and wavin' my arms ta get the attention of whoever was in the balloon, and dey landed. Turns out, Mondo was on his way ta find us, and he saw the twerps with our balloon. He managed ta get the balloon back from 'em, and den he came up the mountain ta look for us!" Meowth explained. "Mondo and I spent the night in the igloo and rode out the storm. I was still worried ta death about Jess and Jim, but I was glad dat I wasn't dere alone, and Mondo and I vowed ta find 'em once the blizzard blew over.

"And lucky for us, when we was gettin' ready ta set out the next mornin', Weezing came and found us first!" he continued. "He explained dat Jessie and James was in a cave further up the mountain and dat dey'd spent the night dere...and he also said dat Jessie was too sick ta travel and dat James had sent him for help since he didn't wanna leave her. Once Mondo and I got the balloon ready, Weezing led us ta where Jessie and James was, and we rescued 'em. Den we got Jessie to a hospital and got her treated before her pneumonia got worse. For awhile dere, we was afraid she wouldn't make it, but she pulled through, and she ain't none the worse for wear!"

Marcello nodded. "Indeed. You three are made of sterner stuff than I ever could've imagined."

"What a story!" Sofia remarked. "It's uncanny how so many of our tales have common threads!"

"Well, your stuck in a blizzard story was more romantic than ours," said James.

"Yours was more suspenseful," she told him.

"That may be, but I'd rather experience a romantic tale than a suspenseful one any day!" he replied.

I placed my hand on James's knee and gave it a gentle squeeze. "If it had taken place after we became a couple, it would've been romantic...very romantic," I whispered into his ear.

James exhaled in a fluttery breath when I touched him.

"In fact, I think I'm going to have a chill tonight and need you to keep me warm," I continued.

James raised an eyebrow and gave me a sly smile. "I'll keep you warm all night if I have to," he whispered back.

"That a promise?" I asked.

He nodded. "It certainly is...."

I returned his smile and rested my forehead against his. But just as our lips were about to meet, Meowth began to snicker.

"Uh, oh. Looks like dese two is gettin' frisky again!" he remarked.

"Who asked you?" I grumbled.

Sofia giggled. "Don't be embarrassed! I think it's sweet how affectionate the two of you are!"

"Yeah! It reminds us of ourselves!" Marcello agreed, wrapping an arm around his wife and planting a kiss on her lips.

"Heh. We got a regular love-fest goin' on here!" said Meowth. "Which reminds me of a rather...interestin' adventure we had a couple months ago."

This got Sofia's attention. "Ooohhh! Another story...and this one sounds like it's going to be really romantic!"

Meowth grinned. "It sure is! And it all began one mornin' when we got word dat dere was a purple Shuckle in the area...."

"A purple Shuckle?!" Marcello interjected. "I've heard tales about those things...that they have some kind of juice that makes a really potent love potion...."

"Well, ya heard right, pops!" Meowth told him. "So sit back and relax as I dazzle ya with the tale of Team Rocket and Love Potion Number Sixty-Nine...."

I felt my cheeks growing redder than ever. Oh, my god! He wouldn't dare....

"Meowth! I said we weren't going to tell them any of the X-rated stuff!" James shouted.

"Well, I wasn't gonna go inta all the lurid details!" the cat said defensively.

"You just did in the damn title!" James said through clenched teeth.

Meowth covered his mouth with his paw. "Oops."

Sofia and Marcello began to roar with laughter again.

"Oh, great. Looks like we're going to have to tell this one, after all," I muttered to James.

"I guess so," he muttered back. Then, flicking Meowth on the forehead, "But I think we should tell it instead of him! That way, we can make sure nothing about my skills as a cunning linguist or our good buddy, Phil Latio, slips."

"I wasn't gonna tell 'em dat part! I swear!" Meowth insisted.

"Yeah, right!" I said, pulling him into my lap and clamping my hand over his mouth.

James ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "Okay, now for the TASTEFUL version of our misadventure with the purple Shuckle...."

The two of them chuckled once more.

"Like Meowth said, it all happened a couple months ago when we heard about a purple Shuckle that had some kind of juice that could be used to make potions," I began. "It sounded like it was a pretty valuable pokemon, so we decided to try and catch it."

"And catch it we did...and we made a clean getaway, too!" said James. "Unfortunately, it was a hot day, and all of our running had made us thirsty. And to make matters worse, all of our canteens were dry, too! We were so desperate for a drink that we ended up drinking the juice from the purple Shuckle...."

"Uh, oh. I can see where this is leading!" Sofia giggled.

I nodded. "Yeah. We found out the hard way just how potent pure purple Shuckle juice is. We didn't know it at the time, but it was making us produce pheromones that kick the sex-drive of whoever smells them into high-gear! After we drank the juice, James and I felt all warm and fuzzy, but Meowth completely spazzed-out on us -- he got a whiff of James and fell madly in love with him! He damn near licked the poor guy to death!"

Meowth buried his face in his paws. "Aw, man! I forgot all about dat part!"

James shuddered. "You probably blocked it from your memory. I wish I could do the same...."

I smiled. "Yeah. But on the bright side, James didn't have to shave for a whole week afterwards because of Meowth and that sandpaper tongue of his!"

"Well, I'm just glad I wasn't the only pokemon affected by dat stuff," Meowth remarked. "After I went crazy, a buncha red Shuckle showed up and started tryin' ta hump Jess -- dey was hangin' on her arms and lickin' her belly button and everythin'! And lemme tell ya, James looked like he wanted ta kill dose Shuckle when he saw 'em stickin' dere tongues in Jessie's belly! She's got a real ticklish spot dere, and only he's allowed ta touch her like dat, so he was pissed! Den, when Jess called out Arbok and Wobbuffet ta get rid of the Shuckle, dey started humpin' on her, too! And den when James called out Victreebel and tried ta save her, Viccie went after him!"

"Hey! I said you don't get to tell this story!" James snapped, pulling the cat out of my lap and putting him in a headlock.

Meowth wriggled out of James's arms and climbed onto his shoulder. "Whatever ya say, Jimmy-kins!"

James frowned.

"Anyway," I said, getting back to the story, "there we were, surrounded by love-struck pokemon, when who should show up but the twerps! They got nasty with us again and accused us of stealing the Shuckle...even though I don't think it even belonged to anybody, but when Ash sent Pikachu to electrocute us, he fell in love with me! The little rat jumped right into my arms and started cuddling me!

"It looked like we were finally going to be able to escape unharmed...and catch a whole bunch of pokemon for our boss since the brats couldn't use their pokemon to fight us! But then, some old guy threw this gold powder on us that temporarily neutralized the pheromones. Since they couldn't smell us anymore, the pokemon fell out of love and stopped swarming on us...and since I was still holding Pikachu at the time, he zapped us, and we got blasted off again. We ended up stuck in a tree in the middle of the forest, and when that powder wore off, we attracted a big swarm of Beedrills and at least fifty Ursarings! And let me tell you, being surrounded by a bunch of dangerous pokemon that want to mate with you...and subsequently kill you isn't our idea of a good time!"

Marcello whistled. "That sounds like quite a predicament, too!"

"How did you get out of this one?" Sofia queried.

"Well, we figured that if we just stayed there, we were screwed, so to speak," James told them. "So, we decided to make a run for it. We jumped out of the tree and ran like hell, and all of those Beedrills and Ursarings gave chase...and we even attracted a bunch of other things. When we reached the Team Rocket base near Goldenrod City the next evening, we must've had at least a thousand pokemon on our tails! Fortunately, by then, we were able to call in reinforcements, and we got a bunch of the Dan'in who were stationed there to help us capture all of the rampaging pokemon. The boss was pretty impressed with our haul, too! We had to wait a couple of weeks for our bonus checks because it took him so long to figure out how many pokemon we sent him and how much they're worth, but at least it paid off! Even after we put most of it in savings, we still had enough left over to buy plenty of groceries!"

James smiled at me again and blushed. "But the real bonus came that night. Once we'd caught all the pokemon that had been following us and sent them to the boss, all we had the energy to do was take a shower and go to bed...or so we thought. You see, the reason the pheromones only seemed to affect pokemon is because it's easier for them to smell those kind of things than it is for humans. But with all the running we'd done and all the adrenaline that was in our systems...when Jessie and I got undressed and got ready to take our shower, we finally caught a whiff of each other. And I won't go into lurid details, but let's just say that Jess and I found a couple of new ways to spice up our sex-life!"

My heart began to race as I thought back on that night. Those pheromones had driven me and James wild, and they'd made us do things that we'd never even thought of doing before....things which Meowth had hinted at and probably would've divulged if we hadn't forbade him from telling this story.

"Heh. When I came inta the room ta watch TV, I saw some pretty wild stuff goin' down...if ya know what I mean!" Meowth said, giving Sofia and Marcello a sly wink. "I ended up stayin' in the next room, and I could still hear the two of 'em screamin' and gigglin' and thrashin' around through the walls! I swear, dey was goin' at it like dat all night, and all the next day -- dey didn't stop til dose pheromones finally wore off!"

I felt a drop of sweat forming on my temple. There he goes again....

"Meowth, you have no idea how close you are," James warned him.

"What?!" he asked innocently. "Oral history is a very important part a....Mmmph!"

"I think they get the point," James groaned as he clamped his hand over the cat's mouth once again.

I put my hand over his mouth, too. "And I think we've all had enough punishment for now!"

Sofia giggled. "That cat. I bet he really keeps the two of you on your toes!"

"That's putting it mildly," I sighed.

"Cats can definitely be a handful, but they can be a lot of fun, too," she said.

James nodded and released his hold on Meowth. "Yeah. Meowth may be a pain in the ass sometimes, but Jess and I wouldn't trade him for anything!"

Meowth smiled at us. "Not even a Snubble?" he ventured.

James made a face. "Ugh! Especially not a Snubble!"

"Meowth, don't tell me you're still mad about that!" I grumbled. "James and I were only joking...."

"I know dat now," he said. "I'm just sayin'...."

Sofia and Marcello leaned closer, anticipating another story.

The cat grinned. "Looks like I get ta tell one, after all! Well, dis particular tale began last fall when some rich dame's Snubble ran away from home. The damn thing had some weird obsession with bitin' my tail, so she was always followin' us around. And one day when Snubble caught up to us and started harassin' me again, Jess had the nerve ta say dat she wanted ta keep Snubble cuz she wanted a cute pokemon ta cuddle! I wouldn't stand for dat, so I gave her and James an ultimatum -- I told 'em dat either Snubble goes, or I would. And not only did dey choose Snubble over me, but dey didn't even notice when I ran away! I couldn't believe it!"

"And I can't believe you actually believed us!" I interjected.

"Yeah! Snubble isn't cute or cuddly!" James added. "How could you possibly think we'd really choose her over you, Meowth?!"

"We thought you knew we weren't being serious," I continued. "So, we didn't think you were serious about leaving the team."

"Well, I was," he muttered as his midnight-blue eyes filled with tears. "I hated dat stupid Snubble cuz all she ever did was hurt Me-owth...and it really hurt me dat you didn't even seem ta care. She was like a pokemon version a Jessiebelle -- I thought youse guys, of all people, woulda understood...."

I sat Meowth on my lap again and gently scratched behind his ears. "Oh, Meowth. I'm sorry."

"Jeez, we knew you didn't like her, but we had no idea you felt that strongly," James told him. "I'm sorry, too. If Jess and I had known it was that bad, we never would've even joked about it! And we would've found a way to catch her that didn't involve using you as bait the next time she showed up...."

This made Meowth smile again. "Ah, I guess it ain't no big deal -- I ended up provin' how much dis team needs me...and I got a little revenge, too! Ya see, after we all hooked up again, we decided ta put the whole thing behind us and continue on our way. But the only path we could take happened ta be a rock tunnel dat was guarded by a buncha wild Onix! Fortunately, Jigglypuff had passed through the tunnel before we did, and she'd put all the Onix ta sleep with her song. Unfortunately, when we was about halfway through the tunnel, dey all woke up and attacked us!"

"Oh, no!" Sofia cried.

"What did you do?" Marcello asked.

Meowth's smile grew even wider. "Since Jess and Jim was too panicked ta do anythin', I told Wobbuffet ta get in front of us and use his Counter attack! When the Onix used dere Rock Throw on us, all the attacks bounced offa Wobbu and went back on 'em! After dat, Jess regained her composure and commanded Wobbu ta keep usin' Counter when the Onix attacked. Dat kept us safe long enough for James ta bring out Victreebel, get him ta use Sleep Powder, and put all the Onix back ta sleep. Den, we got out our empty poke balls, captured as many of the Onix as we could, and got the hell outta dere!

"The town on the other side a the tunnel had a pokemon center, so we decided ta stay dere for the night," he continued. "While Nurse Joy was patchin' up Viccie and Wobbu, we got on the phone with the boss and sent him all the Onix we'd caught. He was pleased with the job we'd done, but he asked why all the Onix had magic marker on dere faces. When we explained dat it was a long story dat involved a pissed-off Jigglypuff, he said he didn't even wanna know and just sent us some bonus checks!" Meowth snickered. "And later dat night is when I got my revenge. After Jess and Jim went ta bed, dey was ready ta get amorous, so I picked dat moment ta walk in on 'em! Den I told Jess dat if it was a cute, cuddly pokemon she wanted, den dat's what she was gonna get, and I jumped inta bed between her and James! Dey was kinda annoyed dat dey couldn't have sex while I was dere, but I'm just so cute and cuddly dat dey didn't stay mad for long!"

"So, you did that on purpose, did you?!" I said, giving the cat a squeeze.

James smirked. "I say we get a little revenge on HIM now!"

Meowth sweatdropped. "Wh-whadda youse guys gonna do ta me?!" he asked nervously.

James and I exchanged looks. Then, we both leaned down and gave Meowth a big, wet, smacking kiss on either side of his face.

"GAH!!! NOOOOO!!!!" Meowth screamed, flailing his arms and legs in an attempt to break free.

Sofia and Marcello laughed so hard they nearly fell out of their seats.

I tightened my hold on Meowth and rocked him back and forth. "Oh, what are you complaining about?" I asked. "You said yourself that you wanted to be our cute, cuddly pokemon, so you're getting cuddled!"

"I walked right inta dat one, didn't I?" he grumbled.

"Yep!" James replied, reaching down and giving him a noogie.

Once I'd finished hugging Meowth, Sofia brought out the chocolate cheesecake that she'd made and gave each of us a big slice. And as we all ate our dessert and washed it down with amaretto-flavored coffee, we continued to swap stories. Sofia and Marcello told us about their wedding in the Sunflora field, the places they visited on their honeymoon, the births of their children, some of their adventures and misadventures as parents, their grandchildren, and even a few about the simple everyday joys they shared! And in return, James, Meowth, and I shared more of our adventures with them, like the day James chose me over his inheritance, Meowth's experience raising Togepi's egg, how James dressed himself as a doll for me at the Princess Festival, how James and I became a couple, how Meowth found out about us being in love, the day I rescued James after he fell off a cliff, how Meowth chose friendship with me and James over being a god, how Meowth's tears of love made our hair grow back after a swarm of Scythers chopped it all off, the near-parenthood experience that James and I had...and Meowth playing baby for us after I found out I wasn't pregnant, the day I fell sick and had to battle Jessiebelle while James and Meowth were out getting medicine for me, our mission to stop two renegade Rockets that almost cost James his life...and his subsequent promise that he'd never let death come between us, my reunion with my old friend Blissey, our stint as superheroes and how we brought down W. Shrubb, our adventure with pokemon fortune telling, and our adventure at the Wobbuffet Festival.

And just when we thought we'd told all of our tales, Wobbuffet came out of his poke ball and said that he had one, too! At first, I thought he was just using it as an excuse to get some cheesecake -- he certainly didn't object when Sofia offered him a piece -- but as it turned out, he really did have an interesting story to tell...a story about an adventure that James, Meowth, and I had slept through! As the three of us translated for Wobbuffet, we learned that it happened a couple of weeks ago when we were hunting for treasure in Ecruteak City. After being scared out of the store-house by the ghost pokemon, we'd taken refuge in a tower on the outskirts of the city. According to legend, the people of Ecruteak had built the tower hundreds of years ago in honor of a legendary bird called Ho-oh, and the bird had often visited the tower and given the people its blessings. Unfortunately, the original tower had been burned by raiders, and Ho-oh had been driven away. But the new tower, where we'd been hiding, had been built to replace the old one, and the people remained hopeful that someday Ho-oh would return. And apparently, he had....

After Jessie, James, and Meowth made camp for the night and went to sleep, I decided to stay awake for awhile and keep an eye out in case those ghost pokemon showed up again, Wobbuffet explained. While I was keeping watch, the room lit up with a warm golden light, and a large bird with red, green, and gold plumage appeared before me! The bird introduced himself as Ho-oh and told me that he'd finally returned to the Tin Tower because he could sense that the tower finally had inhabitants worthy of his presence. He said that even though the rest of the world may see us as villains, he could tell that there was great loyalty, devotion, friendship, and love within us...that we aren't evil -- just diamonds in the rough....

"Now whoa, whoa, whoa right dere, Inky!" Meowth interjected. "Yer sayin' dat dere was a Ho-oh in the room with us, and we slept right through it?!"

Wobbuffet nodded.

Meowth dismissively waved a paw at him. "Ah, yer makin' dis up!"

Wobbuffet smirked. Am I? With that, he produced three large feathers -- a red one, a green one, and a gold one -- and handed them to us.

James's eyes widened as he took the green feather. "Oh, my god! These are real!" he whispered.

I took the red feather and ran my fingers along it. "Th-there really was a Ho-oh in that tower with us?!"

"Just one question, Wobbu," Meowth said, taking the gold feather. "If dere was a Ho-oh, why the hell didn't ya wake us up?! We coulda captured dat thing for the boss!"

Wobbuffet facefaulted. You just answered your own question, Meowth.

A smile made its way across James's lips as he examined his feather. "You know, now that Wobbuffet mentions it, I think we did see that Ho-oh!"

"What are you talking about, James?" I asked.

"Remember the next morning when we were watching the sunrise together, Jess? And we thought was saw something?"

I closed my eyes and thought for a moment. James and I had, indeed, seen something that morning! We'd woken up before Meowth and gone to the eastern window to greet the dawn. And as we'd stood there in each other's arms, watching the rising sun turn the black sky to pink, purple, and gold, we'd seen the faint outline of a large, brilliantly colored bird in the distance...a bird that looked a lot like the paintings and carvings of Ho-oh that had adorned the tower! At first I thought I'd been hallucinating, but James had seen it, too. And watching that Ho-oh flying into the sunrise had filled the two of us with a sense of peace and hope. "Yes. I do remember," I said. "I remember how amazing it was to think that we'd seen it, but I never would've imagined that it was right there in the tower with us!"

"Maybe it's a good thing Wobbuffet didn't wake us up," James muttered. "Seeing that thing up close and personal probably would've freaked us out!"

I smiled and patted Wobbuffet on the head. "I guess, but it still would've been nice if he'd told us about this sooner!"

Ho-oh and I talked for awhile, Wobbuffet continued. He said that he knew we were working hard to make a better life for ourselves and that our goal was an honorable one. He spent the whole night keeping me company and watching over you in your sleep, and he gave me those feathers as proof of his blessings. He told me not to tell you about it until the time was right, and since we're all telling stories, I figured that was now.

I looked at the red feather again. "So, we have the blessings of a Ho-oh?"

"That's pretty cool!" James remarked.

"Heh! It sure beats Ash thinkin' he's King Shit of Turd Mountain just cuz he saw one once!" Meowth snickered.

Meowth, don't be so vulgar in front of these nice old people! Wobbuffet scolded him. "Hot shit" would've sufficed!

James rolled his eyes at the two pokemon and turned his attention back to me. "I think it's another sign, Jess! Wobbuffet said that the Ho-oh came to us because he saw the goodness in our hearts and knew that we're working for a bright future. If we have his blessings, it means that we're not evil or unworthy of love and happiness...and that we're definitely going to reach our goal someday soon!"

"I think you're right, James," I replied. "I remember having such wonderful dreams that night, and when we woke up and watched the sunrise together, I felt so we could do anything!"

James nodded. "Precisely. We're on the right track -- every day, I'm convinced of it more and more!"

I smiled at him and took his hand in my own. "So am I."

He smiled back and planted a kiss on my lips. "Did I mention that I love you?" he asked.

"Only all the time!" I said, returning his kiss.

"Funny. I can't ever seem to say it enough," he whispered as he placed a hand on my cheek.

I closed my hand over James's and gave him another kiss. "Me either. I love you, too."

"I knew it," Sofia remarked as she watched the two of us. "You're soul-mates, just like me and Marcello. I had the feeling when I first saw you, and after everything I've seen and everything you've told us, I'm sure of it."

"Sofia and I are so glad that we met you," said Marcello. "You've made our golden anniversary more special than we ever could've imagined!"

"But we didn't really do anything except tell some stories," James replied.

"And we enjoyed hearing every single one!" Sofia told us. "Seeing you young lovers brought back so many memories! And all those stories gave me a ton of ideas -- I can keep our guests entertained for years with everything you've told me...if you don't mind, that is!"

I chuckled at the thought of Sofia putting herself and Marcello in our stories and using them to entertain her guests. "Not at all!"

She nodded. "I'll be sure to mention where I really got the stories when I'm done telling them, of course!"

James blushed. "We're just flattered that you think our stories are worth telling! They all seemed pretty standard to us...."

"You kids made us feel fifty years younger tonight!" Marcello exclaimed. "That's not something we're going to forget anytime soon."

"Well, I'm glad of it," I told them. "You two were so good to us -- helping us and feeding us, even though you had no reason. That's not something we're going to forget either. I'm so happy we could repay you for that kindness."

"Actually, we did have our reasons for helping you," said Sofia. "We helped you because you were treated so unfairly...and because we saw people worth helping."

"Besides, friendship is always a good reason to lend a helping hand," Marcello added.

James and I looked up at him.

He smiled at us and extended his hand. "Sofia and I would be proud to call you our friends."

"And we'd be proud to call you ours," James replied, shaking Marcello's hand.

"You kids be sure to invite us to your wedding," Sofia told me as we shook hands, too. "That's something Marcello and I don't want to miss!"

"Don't worry. All of our friends are going to be honored guests, and you and Marcello will be no exception," I promised.

"Heh. All of our friends. Dat's gonna be one helluva short guest list," Meowth remarked.

"Oh, shut up," I grumbled.

"Well, we've just made it a little longer...." Sofia chuckled. Before she could continue, however, she yawned and looked up at the clock on the wall. "Goodness! It's half past three already?! I had no idea we'd stayed up so late!"

"I guess we had a lot of stories to exchange," said James.

Sofia nodded. "And we'd love to hear more, but we should probably get to bed now. It's been a long day."

"It's actually been a relatively easy day for the three of us, believe it or not," James told her.

"Yeah! We ain't got no complaints about any day where we meet nice people and get somethin' ta eat!" Meowth agreed.

"But you're right -- we do need to get some rest," I said.

"Heh. I think I'm gonna need my own room," Meowth remarked as he watched James snake one of his arms around my waist.

"Definitely. I don't think they want any more smart-alek commentary tonight," Marcello snickered.

Sofia reached down and patted Meowth on the head. "Come on. I'll get another room set up for where you won't have to hear your two friends being amorous!" she said, giving us a sly wink.

"Sweet!" Meowth exclaimed as he followed her back upstairs. Then, to me and James, "G'night, guys! Don't make too much noise!"

James and I pulled down our eyelids and stuck our tongues out at him.

Sofia and Marcello laughed. "Good night, you three!" they said in unison.

"Good night," I replied.

"And thanks again," James added.


"It's strange," I muttered once James and I had returned to our room.

James seated himself on the bed and gave me a quizzical look. "What is?"

"How one chance encounter can change your whole outlook on life," I replied.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

I turned and studied my reflection in the mirror for a moment. "Well...for as long as I can remember, the prospect of growing old was always one that scared me. Like, that time we disguised ourselves as old people. I didn't like my costume because it reminded me that I really was going to grow old someday. But now...."

"But now?" James prompted.

I looked back at James and smiled. "Now I don't think I mind so much."

"And why is that?"

"While we were talking with Sofia and Marcello and exchanging stories, I got to thinking," I explained. "They just don't seem like old people...and I think their love for each other has everything to do with it! They've been married for fifty years, but they still act like young us! I just thought that was so cool...."

James nodded. "That's how my grand-mama and grand-papa were -- they loved each other a lot like Sofia and Marcello do, and they always seemed so youthful." He paused for a moment and chuckled. "They made my mom and dad look like a couple of old fuddy-duddies by comparison! Mom was always so mortified by her damn hippie parents, and dad wasn't too fond of them either!

"I guess I've never worried too much about growing old because I've always pictured myself being an old person like my grandparents," he continued, his green eyes growing moist with tears. "I always admired them, and I still do. I'd be proud to be like them someday...."

"I'm sure you will, James," I said. "You're not anything like your mom and dad, and from everything you've told me about Jim and Rose Morgan, it sounds like you take after them."

James came to my side and put his arms around my waist. "I know another reason growing old doesn't worry me," he said as he rested his chin on my shoulder.

"Oh?" I asked.

He smiled and brushed my hair aside, giving me a tender kiss on the neck. "The reason my grandparents always seemed so youthful was because they were happy...and they were happy because they were in love. They were able to keep their love...and themselves fresh and new because they were soul-mates, and being together brought them peace of mind. And that's how it is with Sofia and Marcello -- they're soul-mates, too."

"And that's how it's going to be with us?" I ventured.

"Yes," he said. "Jess, I look forward to growing old because every time I think about it, I see you there with me!"

"And that's precisely why it doesn't bother me anymore," I told him. "Before today, whenever I thought about growing old, I'd think about my hair turning white, getting wrinkles, not being beautiful anymore...but that changed when I saw Sofia and Marcello! They just don't seem to notice the superficial stuff -- all that matters is that they have each other. They have so much love to share, and they're so happy. Seeing that made me realize that's what growing old is really about."

"You're right," James replied. "It's a gradual process...something that happens as you live your life. I know I'll enjoy it as long as I can do it with you. And you don't ever have to worry about not being beautiful anymore, Jess. By the time your hair is white and your skin has wrinkles, you'll have given me a wonderful marriage, children, grandchildren, and a lifetime filled with more friendship, love, and happy memories than I'll know what to do with! And Jessie, as beautiful as you are now, you'll be a million times more beautiful to me then!"

I felt tears welling up in my own eyes when he said this. "You're being a flatterer again, aren't you?" I sniffled.

He shook his head. "Nope! Just telling the truth, honey. There's nobody I'd rather grow old with than you!"

"And there's nobody I'd rather grow old with than you, James!" I echoed.

James turned me to face him and tightened his hold on me. "I love you so much, Jessie," he whispered. "I can't imagine a better person to share my life with."

I leaned closer and touched my lips to his. "I love you too, James. You make me so happy," I whispered back.

James ran his fingers through my hair and returned my kiss. "Hey, Jess?" he muttered.


"Didn't you say something about needing me to keep you warm tonight?" he asked.

I smiled slyly at him and played with the wisp of blue-violet hair hanging in his face. "So I did!"

A light twinkled in his emerald eyes as his lips curved into a smile, too. "You still want me to keep that promise?"

"What do you think?" I asked, giving his nose a gentle tweak.

His smile became a grin. "I think you do!" he said, sweeping me into his arms and carrying me to the bed.

Before I could reply and tell James that he'd guessed right, his mouth closed over mine again. My heart began to race as I parted my lips and welcomed the gentle caress of his tongue. A warm, rosy haze seemed to envelop us as he laid me down on the bed, and we began to undress each other. His bare skin felt so warm and smooth against my own, and passion consumed us when his body became one with mine.


We spent the rest of the night making love. When we finished, all James had the energy to do was fall asleep, but I remained awake, studying his handsome features as the first light of dawn peeked through the window and illuminated the room with a dim pink glow.

I couldn't help but smile as I looked at him. "You never cease to amaze me, James," I whispered, reaching over and smoothing back his hair.

James smiled in his sleep and draped one of his arms around me.

My smile grew even wider as I cuddled next to him. It still blows my mind to think of how much he's changed in all the years I've known him. He's grown from a shy and timid boy to a man whose reserve belies an inner-strength greater than even he knows! James always says that I'm the strong one...that I'm the brave one...but he's a lot stronger and braver than he gives himself credit for. His past has been every bit as rough as mine, albeit in different ways, but he never allowed that to jade him or make him lose his faith in others the way I did. That gives him a strength I don't have.

But then again...maybe I do.

Just as he's changed and started showing what a strong person he really is, I've changed, too. I've learned how to place more trust in my to open my heart and feel love again...and to accept the love of my friends. I always used to be afraid that loving and trusting would make me vulnerable, but James taught me to let go of that fear. Deep down, I still worry about losing the ones I love, but the shadow of that fear diminishes every day. All because of James...because I know what lengths he'll go to so that we can always be together.

And now I've learned to overcome another of my fears. Seeing how happy and how deeply in love Sofia and Marcello are made me realize that growing old isn't something to be afraid of. Seeing them reminded me that when I'm their age, James will still be there with me, and we'll still be as deeply in love as we are now, if not, more!

I've been able to let go of so many of my fears because of James, and overcoming those fears has set me free and made me a stronger person in a lot of ways. That's what soul-mates do -- their love for each other gives them strength, takes away their weaknesses and makes them better people. I know that's the case with me and James -- he's become more courageous and outspoken because of my encouragement, and I think his love has made me more easy-going than I used to be.

Whatever it is, I know that we've changed for the better because of each other. I know that we belong together and that come what may, we'll always stay together...and that gives me a peace of mind that I thought I'd never have.

As I laid there thinking about all of this and gazing at my James, I found myself overwhelmed by my feelings again. "I love you, sweetie," I whispered, planting a kiss on his lips.

When I did this, James slowly opened his eyes and looked at me with a sleepy smile. "I love you, too," he replied as he put his arms around me once more.

I smiled back at him and cuddled closer, accepting his invitation and joining him in peaceful repose.


We probably could've slept in all day, but later that morning, the aroma of cheese danish came wafting up from the kitchen and roused us from our slumber.

"Good morning, Jess," James said as he yawned and stretched himself out. "Sleep well?"

"I sure did," I replied. "How about you?"

"I had such a cool dream," he told me. "I dreamt that the two of us were Sofia and Marcello's age, and it was our fiftieth wedding anniversary. We were telling crazy stories from our youth to our grandchildren...."

I smiled at him. "Sounds wonderful, James!"

James smiled back and placed a hand on my cheek. "It was, Jessie."

Just as he was about to lean closer and kiss me, there was a knock at our door, and Meowth came into the room.

"Hey! Are youse guys gonna stay in here and play kissy-face all mornin', or are ya gonna come get some breakfast?!" he demanded.

"Well, good morning to you, too!" James said sarcastically.

"I'm sorry," Meowth sighed. "But I'm hungry, and I don't wanna hafta wait all day for breakfast!"

"I guess we should probably get up, then," I said.

"Yeah. It wouldn't be polite to keep everybody waiting," James agreed.

Once the two of us had gotten out of bed, freshened up, and got dressed, we followed Meowth downstairs and joined Sofia and Marcello in the kitchen.

"How are you this morning?" Sofia asked as she set a plate of cheese danish in front of us and poured each of us a mug of coffee.

"We feel great," I told her.

"Like a million bucks!" James chimed in.

"That's good," said Marcello. "Because we have a busy day ahead."

Meowth shoved a cheese danish into his mouth and gave Marcello a quizzical look. "We do?"

He nodded. "We need to find your balloon and get it repaired, don't we?"

"Well, we usually just have Mondo bring us a new balloon when it gets really damaged," James explained. "But he's pretty far away -- we'd have to wait a few days for him to get here."

"Yeah. It'd definitely be quicker if we fixed it ourselves," I agreed.

"One of the things you mentioned while talking in your sleep yesterday evening was that you're on a mission to find Articuno, just like those four kids," Sofia remarked. "We'd love if you could stay awhile longer, but...."

"We'd love to stay longer, too," said James. "But you're right -- we are on an important mission, and we're in a hurry."

"We'll always remember the kindness and hospitality you've shown us, though," I told them.

"Yeah! We may be the bad guys, but we never forget someone who does us a good turn!" Meowth chimed in.

Sofia shook her head. "You're wrong, Meowth. Marcello and I don't see bad people when we look at you -- we see good people who've been forced to make difficult choices. Everything you've told us proves it. Friendship, love, and devotion aren't things that evil people share readily, but you three have all of those in abundance! Somehow, I doubt you'd care about each other so much if you really were bad."

"And you're doing your best to make a better future for yourselves," Marcello added. "I've never seen young people work so hard or make so many sacrifices to attain such an admirable goal. Sofia and I have been down that road ourselves -- we know how tough it can be...but we also know that all of your hard work will pay off someday and that when it does, you'll appreciate the rewards so much more than if they'd just been handed to you. No matter what anybody else says about you, you've more than earned our respect!"

I couldn't help but smile as I listened to them. Maybe they're right, I said to myself.

As if he could read my thoughts, James smiled at me and took one of my hands in his own.

My smile grew even wider as he brought my hand to his lips. They're definitely right! James, Meowth, and I wouldn't love each other so much if we really were the villains that we make ourselves out to be! And every adventure brings us one step closer to leaving a life as villains behind...every experience we share will make us appreciate our white tomorrow that much more....


After breakfast, Sofia packed a picnic lunch, and the five of us headed back to the southern slopes to find the tattered remnants of our balloon. Fortunately, it was right in the middle of the Sunflora field, and it wasn't as badly damaged as we'd feared. While James located his tool kit so that he could repair the combustion unit, Meowth and Marcello started patching up the holes in the basket, and Sofia and I got out our sewing kits and began mending the balloon fabric.

"I still can't get over how many Sunflora there are!" I remarked as I looked up from my sewing and admired all of smiling sunflowers that were gathering around us. "That must've been so romantic when Marcello returned home and saw you here!"

"It was," Sofia sighed. "Ever since I got that letter from him, the Sunflora has been our special pokemon!"

"Well, youse guys have had better luck with dose things den us!" Meowth grumbled. "I've had ta dress up like a Sunflora a couple times, and believe me, it was no picnic!"

"Oh, stop complaining, Meowth! You made a cute Sunflora!" I scolded him.

"I looked stupid," he growled.

James looked up from his work and shuddered. "Well, at least you've never had a disguise as bad as that Ash costume I had to wear when Jess and I were pretending to be twerps!"

"Well, would you rather have been Duplica?" I asked sarcastically.

"In that case? Yes!" he replied in all seriousness. "That Ash outfit still creeps me out!"

"Don't worry, James. You couldn't look as dorky as that kid if you tried! In fact, you were the hottest twerp I'd ever seen!" I assured him. "Besides, I made it worth your while later that night!"

James smiled and shook his head. "The things I do for love...."

Sofia giggled. "There wouldn't happen to be an interesting story behind this, by any chance, would there?" she asked hopefully.

James nodded. "Actually, there are a couple of amusing stories...about Meowth's Sunflora disguise, anyway. Jessie rewarding me for being such a good sport about the Ash costume is another of the X-rated ones...which DIDN'T involve those twerpy disguises, thank goodness!"

Sofia and Marcello grinned at us. "We'd love to hear them...the Sunflora ones, that is!" they said in unison.

"Well, the first story happened last January," James began. "We were in a town of Sunflora trainers, and we found out that they were holding some kind of contest to see who had the best Sunflora. Since the grand prize was a year's supply of instant noodles, Meowth decided that we should enter the contest, too."

"We tried borrowin' some lady's Sunflora sos we could enter, but dat plan sorta fell through when the twerps showed up," Meowth sighed. "So, Jess and Jim ended up dressin' Me-owth like a Sunflora instead."

"Oh, how adorable!" Sofia laughed.

I nodded. "He was adorable...and we almost won the contest, too! There wasn't much we could do to hide Meowth's claws, but it worked out to our advantage -- the judges thought they were some kind of thorns and that James and I had bred a new variety of Sunflora!"

Meowth frowned. "Yeah. Too bad dat damn Snubble showed up and blew our cover. When she bit my tail, the judges found out I wasn't really a Sunflora, and we got disqualified. Den when the twerps found out who we was, dey got everybody ta blast us off."

Marcello placed a hand to his temple. "Not that again," he groaned.

"What a shame. That was such a good story until the end," said Sofia.

"Actually, it did have a happy ending," I told them. "While we were on our way out of town, the winner of the contest stopped us. She said that her best Sunflora had been really sad and that she never would've found out why if Meowth hadn't talked to it for her. Sunrisa didn't really care about winning the contest or the noodles -- she was just glad that she could take her Sunflora to visit its old friend and make it happy again. And when she found out that we'd only entered the contest and tried to take the noodles because we were hungry, she was more than happy to share some of them with us!"

Sofia smiled. "That really is a good story, then! I'm glad you got something out of it, after all."

"I still like the other story better," James chuckled. "Want to tell them that one, Jess?"

"I guess," I replied. "Just so long as we don't go into all the lurid details!"

"All right! Another romantic one!" Sofia cheered.

James folded his arms across his chest and smirked. "It didn't start out that way. This happened a couple weeks after we got that bonus check for all the love-struck pokemon we'd sent to our boss," he explained. "We'd just gone grocery shopping, and we were celebrating by having some hamburgers for lunch." He cast an annoyed look at me and Meowth when he said this. "And just as I was beginning on my second hamburger, these two hamburglars raided my plate...and so did Wobbuffet!"

"Hey! Jess and I only had one apiece, and you had five on yer plate!" Meowth interjected.

James made a face at him. "Haven't you ever heard the expression the cook gets the spoils?" he said defensively. "I went to the trouble of making them, so that means I should've gotten the biggest share!"

I reached over and tweaked his nose. "Yeah, but five was a little excessive, and Meowth and I were still hungry! We had to raid your plate so that we could all get a fair share!" I chided him. "Now, are you going to tell the story, or not?"

James smiled apologetically at me. "While I was watching Wobbuffet eat my last hamburger, the wind blew a flyer into my face," he continued. "That's how we learned about the grass pokemon tournament that was being held in a nearby town the next day. The grand prize was a championship trophy and a set of Leaf Stones, so I decided to enter the contest and compete for them. Victreebel and I started training right away, and since Jessie doesn't have a grass pokemon, she got the idea to dress Meowth up like a Sunflora again so that she could enter, too."

"Since we didn't want to risk being disqualified for being Team Rocket agents, we decided to go in disguise," I said. "But I didn't have enough time to make new disguises for both me and James because I only had one day, and I already had to make a new Sunflora disguise for Meowth. So, we went to the dry cleaners to pick up some of our old costumes instead. Unfortunately, the only costume they had that was ready was one I I thought I'd thrown away ages ago. Remember the story we told you last night about how James and I became a couple?"

Sofia and Marcello nodded.

"It was that harem disguise I wore on the day I stole the badges from James and Meowth and ran away," I told them. "I didn't ever want to wear that thing again -- every time I looked at it, it reminded me of what a horrible thing I'd done! But then James did something to make me like that costume. He told me that the disguise didn't make him think about how I'd hurt him -- it made him think of how we finally found the courage to admit our feelings for each other. Then he told me to go ahead and wear it...and how sexy it'd be if I made a matching disguise for him!"

James leaned closer and gave me a kiss on the cheek. "Once she'd finished my disguise and Meowth's, Jess had enough time left over to make a couple of alterations to hers so that it wouldn't be the exact same disguise she'd worn last time. Then, I entered the contest as Mr. Semaj, and Jessie entered as my wife, Eissej. Unfortunately, we didn't do too well in the contest -- Victreebel and I lost to some kid and his Skiploom, and Jessie had to battle Ash and his Bulbasaur...."

"On the bright side, Jess and I almost beat him!" Meowth snickered. "I swear, dat kid turned his pants into a fertilizer factory when he saw a Sunflora usin' attacks like Scratch and Fury Swipes! Too bad Bulbasaur ruined my disguise with his Razor Leaf and blew my cover again -- Ash threw an even bigger shit-fit when he found out who we really was...and he promptly blasted us outta the arena."

Sofia rolled her eyes.

"Sheesh. What's that kid's problem?" Marcello grumbled.

"I dunno. He's just a world-class ash-hole, I guess," Meowth quipped.

This made the two of them laugh again.

"But even though we didn't win the contest, the story still has a happy ending," said James. "After we got blasted off, Jess and I had some fun with our disguises...and I got a little revenge for her taking one of my hamburgers at lunch the previous day!"

"Revenge, my ass!" I said, giving him a playful shove. "You know very well I enjoyed every second of it!"

James grabbed my hand and kissed the tips of my fingers. "I rested my head in Jessie's lap and made her feed me a bunch of grapes. Then, I demanded entertainment and made her belly-dance for me!" He paused for a moment as his cheeks turned pink and a mischievous light sparkled in his emerald eyes. "And when Jess was done dancing, she even did a little strip-tease for me! Hot stuff, man! Hot stuff...."

"Yeah. It got so hot, I had ta leave!" Meowth remarked. "Dose two spent the rest a the night rockin' the casbah!"

I blushed. "I guess that story didn't really have anything to do with Sunflora, other than Meowth dressing up like one again, but...."

Marcello winked at us. "Well, since we enjoyed hearing it, we won't hold that against you!"

"Oh, that reminds me!" Sofia exclaimed. "Marcello and I have a present for the two of you!" With that, she pulled a small box from her hand-bag.

I raised an eyebrow as she handed the box to me. "A present?"

She nodded. "Open it!"

James and Meowth scooted closer and watched as I unwrapped the paper and pulled off the lid. Inside the box was a poke ball.

"Ooohhh! A poke ball!" James squealed. "I bet I know what's in it!"

I smiled at him. "I bet I do, too!" Sure enough, when I tossed the ball to the ground, a Sunflora emerged.

"Do you like her?" Sofia asked.

My smile grew even wider as I reached down and caressed the sunflower's soft, golden petals. "Like her? I love her! She's so cute!"

"Marcello and I caught her this morning," Sofia explained. "We wanted you to have something to remember us by...and since you're young lovers, just like we were once, we figured that a symbol of love would be the perfect gift to give!"

"It is," James told them. "We'll think of you and remember what great friends you are every time we look at her. Thank you."

"Yeah!" I said as I scooped the Sunflora into my arms. "We've always liked Sunflora, and now we have another reason to like them!"

"And we could always use another poke-pal!" Meowth chimed in.

James put his arms around my waist and rested his chin on my shoulder. "I want you to have Sunflora, Jessie," he said.

"Are you sure?" I asked.

He nodded. "Jessica, a long time ago, I made a promise that I'll ask you to marry me someday, and you promised that you'll say yes when I do. I still plan on asking you. So, if your answer is still yes...if you still want me, then you'll accept this Sunflora and make it your newest pokemon."

I gave him a kiss on the tip of his nose. "Well, how can I say no to something like that?"

James smiled and returned my kiss.

"Now, where have I heard dis before?" Meowth asked.

Sofia and Marcello laughed.

"Still, it doesn't seem quite fair," I continued. "I already have one more pokemon than you, and this would make two...."

"It's okay," he assured me. "I already have a grass pokemon, so if you have one, we'll match, just like with our poison-types and our fire-types! I don't mind that you have more than long as I get to catch the next one!"

"Okay," I replied, giving James another kiss. "You can have the next one."

"Besides, I know how much you love flowers," he added. "Sunflora would be a great pokemon for you, Jess -- a flower for a flower...."

"Now you're being a flatterer again!" I told him.

"And flattery will get me everywhere!" he whispered, finishing the thought for me as he touched his lips to mine.

"Heh. Looks like I'm gonna be givin' dese two love-birds some privacy again tonight," Meowth remarked. "Dis is definitely another X-rated story in the makin'!"

"Oh, knock it off, Meowth!" I snapped.

"And look at the bright side," James told him. "At least we won't be dressing you up like a Sunflora anymore!"

"Not unless we feel like it, anyway!" I added, giving him a wicked grin.

Meowth frowned. "You wouldn't dare!"

"We'll just see," I retorted.

His frown became a smirk. "Fine. While youse guys are busy havin' yer little love-fest tonight, I'll be busy teachin' Sunflora what bein' a Team Rocket pokemon is all about!"

I felt a drop of sweat forming on my temple as memories of Meowth teaching Wobbuffet how to swear and have a smart remark ready for every occasion came to mind. "You wouldn't dare!"

"We'll just see." Now Meowth was the one who was grinning.

As I clenched my fist, James placed a hand on my shoulder. "It's no big deal, Jess," he told me. "Sunflora is going to pick these things up eventually anyway -- being a smart-ass is a requirement for this team!"

"I guess you're right," I admitted.

"Cuz we're Team Rocket -- givin' innocent pokemon dirty mouths at the speed a light!" Meowth cheered.

When she heard this, Sunflora's smile became a grin, too. "Sun-flora, flora!"

James laughed. "Yeah, I'd say she's going to fit in with us just fine!"

I picked up my new pokemon again and gave her a hug. "I guess so. Welcome to the team, Sunflora!"


After playing with Sunflora for awhile and introducing her to the rest of our pokemon, we got back to work on repairing the balloon. Once it was finished, we all sat down to take another break and enjoy the picnic lunch that Sofia had made.

"Oh, I've been meaning to ask you something," James said as Sofia handed out the ham salad sandwiches and gingerbread cookies.

"Yeah?" she asked.

"I was wondering if you'd be willing to share some of your recipies with me," he replied. "The pasta you made last night was exquisite, and I've never tasted anything like that chocolate cheesecake before!"

"Oh, dear," she sighed. "I meant to write them down for you, but I never got around to it!"

"Don't worry, darling," Marcello told her. "They can always download them from our web site!"

Sofia smiled again. "That's right!" Then, bringing out a note pad and a pen, she wrote something down.

"This is the URL of our web site," Marcello explained as Sofia handed the paper to James. "It's not much -- just an information site about the Sunflora Lodge with some online photo albums and stuff. And if you use the Flavors of Love link, you can find copies of some of Sofia's recipies...including the penne puttanesca and chocolate cheesecake you liked so much!"

"We'll be sure to check it out the next time we're online!" James promised. "Do you guys have an e-mail address?"

"We sure do! There's an e-mail link on our site, too," Sofia replied.

"Then keeping in touch shouldn't be a problem," I said.

James nodded as he borrowed the pad and paper from Sofia and wrote down our e-mail address on it. "Here's ours," he told them. "Feel free to drop us a line anytime!"

"We certainly will...3Rocketeers!" came Marcello's reply.

"And you feel free to come back to the Sunflora Lodge anytime!" Sofia told us. "You'll always be welcome here."

"Count on it," I replied. "And James and I won't forget to invite you to our wedding either!"

"Well, I hate ta break dis up," Meowth interjected, "but we need ta get goin' soon."

"You're right," I sighed. "It's still a long way to Snowtop Mountain."

"Oh, yeah. Your mission," said Marcello. "We won't keep you, then."

Sofia's eyes grew starry. "Imagine. A quest to find Articuno -- one of the legendary pokemon! That's going to be quite an adventure!"

James folded his arms across his chest and smiled. "Yes, it will. I don't know if we'll catch one or not, but quite frankly, I'd be happy to just see one again. I've always loved the Legendary Birds."

"Heh. Jimmy-boy's got birds on the brain!" Meowth commented.

"That may be, but at least he's not a bird-brain!" I quickly added before Meowth could finish the joke he'd been setting up.

James draped an arm around my shoulders and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

"Well, it'd be great if you do get one," Marcello told us. "I remember last night when you told us that fortune telling story, you said that James's sign is Articuno -- that means if he catches one, he'll have good luck!"

James tightened his hold on me as Meowth jumped onto his shoulder. "I'm already the luckiest guy in the world," he said. "But you're right -- it would be nice if I could catch one."

"Besides, when it comes ta pokemon, you've got a bit a catchin' up ta do!" Meowth reminded him.

"At any rate, it sounds like it's going to make a great story!" Sofia exclaimed.

"And we'll be sure to tell you all about it!" I promised.


And so, our heroes bid farewell to their new friends and resume their journey, with pleasant memories of adventures past and a new pokemon in tow! What adventures await them in the future? Stay tuned and find out!

To be Continued....

Special thanks to Christine for the beautiful illustration of Jessie and James cuddling! *_*


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