"I thought Wobbuffet kind of liked me."
~James, "Fear Factor Phony" (Advanced Generation Ep. 146)
That's the Way It Is!
Wobbuffet's pecking on the window had been been grating, as was the strumming of the blinds, but its current pawing at the door really set James's teeth on edge. Tonight's storm had gone the extra length to remind him lightning still existed (as if any of their trio could forget). And yet, the crashing rain didn't hold half a candle to a certain nocturnal someone's restless noises. The box on the table had to be snuffled, every soap bar licked, the lamp chain tugged on and off and on… and now that door. Wobbuffet didn't have claws to scratch with, but the tiny suction cups down its arms peeled from the wood like snaps of bubble wrap.
"Wobba wah! … Wobba waaah!"
The aforementioned trio—two humans in a too-big bed and a pale feline curled near Jessie's feet—ignored it. For the last twenty minutes, they'd borne witness to Wobbuffet's ability to scream above the thunder. When they'd first collapsed in their room, it had also screamed at the king-sized bed, the dangling ribbons of pink lights, and the TV (James grabbed the remote and switched the channel to something less adult-oriented after that).
"You may as well pipe down," Jessie had scolded the first time she'd dragged the blue blob from the door. "It doesn't unlock until morning. Is this our little darling's first time in a love hotel?"
Wobbuffet had glanced at Meowth for translation, and James smacked the snickering cat clean off the bed with a pillow before he could spout ideas.
"Don't worry," was all Meowth choked out, crawling back up again. "Stick with us, kid, and you'll learn all da ropes!"
Despite the obvious connotation of the place, both James and Jessie preferred love hotels over other accommodations whenever possible. Though both had carried fake IDs since their teenage years, privacy was crucial in their line of work… public onsens were all but off limits, so the private jacuzzis here were proof that at least one legendary up there really was looking out for the humans. The raised bed was so massive it could have fit all their on-hand Pokémon combined (and the pillows). Best of all, no advance reservation required. A love hotel's full anonymity satisfied James's anxiety in the time it took to throw a poké ball, while overly cutesy decorations played right into Jessie's dreams of basking in garish luxury. For his part, Meowth delighted in roaming outside at night, yowling and knocking over cans for the sheer joy of irritating as many couples as he possibly could. Not to mention the hotels were everywhere, urban and rural areas, if you knew what you were looking for.
Expensive? Sometimes more than a Pokémon Center charged, sometimes less. But human comfort was always lowest on Nurse Joy's agenda, and you risked stepping on some little twerp or their Pokémon every passing second. Too many children. Too many eyes. Though, since love hotels charged by the hour, rarely did the trio stay until morning… Simply put, tonight was a luxury they couldn't afford.
Which was exactly the headache with the schlup schlup of suction cups at the door. If their neighbors in the next room could hear, James didn't want to know. For obvious reasons, Pokémon weren't exactly welcome in these sorts of places (leaving Meowth to smuggle himself and their poké balls up to the balcony on days they were lucky enough to have one).
They'd arrived in their room later than all of them would have liked, still picking pine needles from their hair and nursing purple bruises. The door had hardly clicked shut when Meowth heaved himself over the balcony rail, fussing about the indignity of the whole situation. James tossed him a roll of string he kept in his own pack, and that placated their friend enormously.
Of course Jessie claimed the jacuzzi bath first, leaving James and Meowth to browse one of the usual brochures of rental cosplay. But after ten minutes of squinting at tiny pictures, James tossed it aside. He'd spent today skulking through bushes, slogging through mud, getting smacked upside the head by branch after branch, and risking Pikachu's jarring joltage if the twerps so much as turned around on the trail. Tonight was not a night for measurements and thread.
While Jessie dried her hair, James took his turn washing up, massaging the soft parts of his hands beneath his gloves. He always wore his full Team Rocket uniform when sleeping outside, grateful for extra layers preventing random scratches and stings. It seemed strange to bed down without it. The boss had demanded they switch to more insulated clothing considering how many times they ran into Pikachu, but they'd only pretended to agree. Obviously fashion had not been a question on the designer's final exam. Not them, not likely, no thanks.
Jessie had already claimed his favorite spot on the left when he finished with the blow dryer, which was… fine. But, she had laid out his cleanest pants and undershirt, so he couldn't fault her for that. James had dressed, then crawled past her and burrowed beneath the covers like a diglett. Pink lights glowed in weeping willow strings above the bed, and James stretched up to prod one with a fingertip. That was when he noticed the TV was on ("Oh my," he blurted without thinking). Jessie mumbled something he didn't catch.
With imperfect timing and a cheerful shriek, Wobbuffet had released itself from its poké ball right after that. Bright-eyed maybe and bushy-tailed for sure, but most unfortunately… wide awake. "What?" Jessie deadpanned.
"'Good night,'" Meowth translated, curling at the foot of the bed. "It's leaving."
"It can try. The door's locked."
"Dere ain't no word for 'locked' in da Pokémon language."
"Really?" James had asked, perking up. "What do they say instead?"
"'Hey guys, I found a try-harder door.'"
Thus began Wobbuffet's crusade of sniffing at and pawing things around the room. At Jessie's request, James turned the TV to this year's Grand Festival performances. Even a love hotel was guaranteed to play that one. The coordinators had started the battle round. Onscreen, a confused monferno initiated Double Team while its trainer shouted protests. Dozens of them ran about the stage, leaping everywhere except the opposing coordinator's umbreon. Go copies, James thought, snuggling into his pillow.
Of course, thanks to Wobbuffet chewing on (and subsequently losing) the remote, the channel had since flipped to a rather steamy movie playing in Kalonese without any subtitles. Jessie had chucked Wobbuffet's poké ball halfheartedly, but neither of them had rolled from the blankets to snatch it back. They were Team Rocket and they made do.
And they had. For hours.
Lightning lit behind the blinds, tensing every muscle in the room. It flickered down again. Wobbuffet's tiny suction cups kept their unhappy plucking at the door, but it always waited for the boom of thunder before it unleashed its cry. Its body glowed with silver and pastel rainbows, black tail thumping against the ground.
"Shhh," Jessie breathed, expelling it in a long hiss. "Don't rat us out if you want to be here in the morning."
Four large feet shuffled back and forth, shimmying across a thin carpet that sounded so strange, so impersonal compared with familiar grass and stone. Back and forth. Back and forth. A love hotel didn't unlock an overnight room until the next morning, but Wobbuffet tugged on the door handle anyway.
James, Jessie, and Meowth didn't… exactly have the best track record with keeping money around, so tonight's room was a comfort almost as rare as a day without bruising. Actually, payday was a luxury even rarer. Soon it would be back to bus station benches and playground equipment for pretended naps, but with new cash on hand and in weather this unpleasant, the decision to splurge had been unanimous. Today's bitter hike uphill had smacked with snarling rain, so sleep in a padded bed should have come so easily. If it weren't for–
Schluuuurp. Schluuuuuurrrp. "Wobbuffeeeetttt!"
"Please, Wobbuffet," James whisper-called through the dark, lifting his head to see past Jessie's shoulder. "Go to bed. Please. You can push all the buttons you want in the morning, all right? Spend all breakfast playing around if you want to."
"Don't lie to it, James."
"Wobba…" The pawing at the door softened, but the low drag of rubbery hand on wood poisoned the ears nonetheless. Just when James lay his head back on his pillow, one hand smacked and yanked away with snapping pops. Wobbuffet grabbed the door handle and rattled it back and forth. Meowth, curled in a fluffy heap, finally unsheathed his Fury Swipes with a zwish!
"We ain't in the mood to humor you, so pipe down, will ya? Accommodations like dese are a real special treat, so don't blow it for your longsuffering teammates, capiche?"
"Mmnng…" Jessie shifted so she could catch James's eye through a drooping curtain of magenta hair. "Its old trainer must have slept with the door open."
"Or tossed it in an open barn," James growled, half wishing he could do exactly that. He scowled again at the movie, which hadn't gotten any less Hmmm since the last time he'd looked. Honestly, where was the remote?
Lightning flared and thunder crackled across the sky. Thumpa thumpa thumpa thump, went the door again. "Wobba wah?!"
"Wobbuffet," Jessie groaned. "Return to your poké ball… wherever it rolled off to."
Rattle thud rattle thud.
"Maybe it's still hungry," Meowth offered, sounding a hint more entertained by their annoyance than James would have preferred. That was the biggest hurdle to keeping a talking Pokémon around… He was only interested in translating when he saw a direct benefit in doing so. Even his longing for sleep was rivaled by his delight in pulling strings.
"It can't still be hungry when we were out foraging from passing trainers all day… Hun, don't make me come over there!"
"Den I guess it's bored."
"Wobbuffet wobba waaah!"
"Mmf!" James slammed his fist against the headboard. "Pipe down, you overgrown airbag. Do you want to get us thrown out and left groveling in the rain?"
"Disheartened and disillusioned all our dismal days," Meowth put in.
Wobbuffet squeaked, flooding James's face with simmering guilt. Oh. He'd never heard it make such an offended sound before, and he wondered if even the patient Pokémon had its limits. Wobbuffet had traveled alongside them for a few short weeks now (Two? Three? They blended together), and normally it limited its outbursts to affirmations and contact calls. Tonight's whining was new, and James cursed the Meowth of six hours ago that had talked him out of shoplifting a lax incense three buildings down. The scent would be stronger than roadkill, he knew, but it soothed scavengers like nothing else. According to his Johto Poképedia, the stuff worked especially well on wobbuffet with incredible consistency. But with the shop owner's typhlosion curled distrustfully in the corner the whole time, ahahaha… Anyway, if an officer's Pokémon caught whiff of stolen scent, the incense sticks wouldn't be the only things getting toasted tonight.
Another wave of thunder swept across the city. Every splash of rain erupted like an egg. With a shower of blue sparks, a certain purple cloud leapt from its ball on the nightstand and materialized in solid form. James jolted up to catch it.
"Weezing! Shh, shh, it's only thunder…"
"That thing will blacken your lungs one day," Jessie grunted. "And mine."
"Weezing doesn't like storms," he defended, snuggling down again (this time with arms wrapped around the whimpering puffball). "They sound like the vacuum cleaner and it's made of dust. Besides… So what if my lungs turn dark? I'll still be beautiful where it counts."
"It'll count when you're dead."
Lightning leaked again through the blinds, prompting Weezing to nuzzle even closer. Wobbuffet waited for the crack of thunder before yelling its name. Jessie hushed it once again. Sulking, Wobbuffet fell quiet. As James stroked Weezing's head, he tried to ignore the hot stare burning against his neck. But if that was jealousy, Wobbuffet kept the feeling private. For now.
Padding footsteps signaled Wobbuffet pacing in a circle, dragging its hand against the closet door each time it passed. The door rattled, but soft enough that James could tune it out this time, and he smothered his face in his pillow again. Weezing nestled down beside him. James pulled the covers over its back and was just painting a garden filled with lazy Grass-Types in his mind when Jessie grunted and twitched her leg. She snapped upright.
"No. There's not enough room to fit you up here too, so get down and stay down."
"Wah?" Wobbuffet dropped its foot back to the floor with a slap, though James could still feel its tense arms clutching Jessie's knee. She wiggled with a grunt, but didn't try to kick it off.
"James, give it one of your bracelets. That should keep it entertained for a while."
"What? Why mine?"
"Because all of mine have beads and yours aren't a choking hazard."
Too drained to point out that anything capable of swallowing a psyduck whole could easily swallow a thousand bracelets, James felt around the nightstand and tossed two of them over his shoulder. Jessie caught both without looking and offered them to her unhappy guest.
"Here, you big lug. It's no doorknob or elevator button, but if you want to play with circles, play with these."
"Jessie!" James cried, drowned in thunder.
"Wah! Wobba wobbuffet wobba wah!" Wobbuffet shook the entire bed then, shoving with a surprising amount of strength for such a squishy Pokémon. The old moroseness in its voice had flashed to hope once more, much the way Growlie had whenever a younger James suggested they take a walk. Weezing groaned. Meowth hissed and flattened his ears.
"Now you've done it, Jess!"
Jessie rolled over to blink at James. "What did I say?"
"Of course," she muttered above Wobbuffet's pleas. Addressing it, eyes fluttering shut again, she said, "As heart-wrenching as it is, sweetie-pie, elevators don't work at this time of night."
"Not even a little. It's worthless trying to break out of here. So settle down, and good night."
Wobbuffet lapsed into silence once more, mulling over this new information like a stubborn piece of pokéblock. Pattering rain and the drivel of the movie echoed through the room. Faint pink lights gleamed against its shiny head. It lowered its chin to the mattress, but didn't back away. James tightened his fingers in Weezing's hide. Then finally, "Wob, wobbuffet…"
"It don't believe ya," Meowth warned, curling his tail with sudden interest.
Jessie pretended to be asleep. Every snore rolled from her lips with extreme exaggeration. Wobbuffet whined its name, but Jessie still didn't answer.
"She's sleepin' like an ursaring, big guy," Meowth said. "And you should be too. I tell ya, before long you'll be begging us to book a place like this."
When a few more pushes and pats didn't coax a reaction out of its trainer, Wobbuffet rotated its attention on James.
"Hmph." He curled more tightly beneath the blankets. "Go away. Can't you see Weezing and I are busy grieving the loss of our beauty sleep?"
The large Pokémon could certainly move fast when it wanted to. With a scrabble of kicking legs, Wobbuffet hauled itself onto the bed and over Jessie. Tentacle-like hands thumped down an inch from James's elbow. Warm, huffing breath trickled over his face. Although no stranger to Victreebel's gaping maw, when caught beneath a Pokémon that wasn't his own, even his resolve to feign sleep faltered. James risked a peek to size up exactly what was leering at him. Wobbuffet stared down, flicking its tail. And its tongue. Those white eyespots glowed as they lashed one way, then the other. Blankets had never felt so constricting before, and the twinkling lights that backlit the unblinking Pokémon didn't help matters at all.
"Eee!" James scrambled his arms loose. "Your trainer already told you, off the bed! … Your trainer, all right?"
"Weezing," Weezing sighed, wiggling beneath the crook of James's arm. A thin coil of steam slithered from its jaws. Wobbuffet's skin turned shiny, responding to Weezing's threat of an attack with the threat of a counter.
That, James didn't need. He grabbed the nearest poké ball on his nightstand, and Wobbuffet ducked. Its tail waved like a branch in the storm outside, the black spines flaring up and flattening out in cold warning. Low levels of psychic energy sent every goosebump prickling down his skin. James clicked Weezing's poké ball back down.
She stayed quiet. Rolling its tongue in something like a purr, Wobbuffet stretched its arms forward, sliding them into the space between him and Jessie. One wide hand pushed beneath James's shoulder like a spatula about to flip. Weezing growled, puffing itself larger. James touched its head in warning. Meowth didn't try to hide his snicker.
But before Wobbuffet could finish stretching, Jessie reached back to place a hand on its face. She pressed its head to the blankets with a firm "No."
Wobbuffet didn't resist, but lay quietly where she'd pinned it until Jessie slid her hand away. James had watched her treat her lickitung a similar way whenever it had tried to nuzzle up at night (though she never seemed to mind Arbok… Arbok was special and James had never dared protest).
Wobbuffet waited a long moment as rain plinked down outside (and the movie went on), then stretched its arms forward once more. "No," Jessie said, again pushing back. This time, she drew a little closer to James, cutting most of the available space. Weezing cleared its throat again, releasing another belch of steam. Wobbuffet sat on its heels, pausing to evaluate this. Waiting. The staring tail quivered in an upright position. Fluffy spines bristled.
James inhaled. Uncurling from his tight package of limbs, he sat up to place a hand between him and Jessie. There, he stared hard at Wobbuffet's narrow eyes.
Wobbuffet studied him in disinterest. Maybe disdain. It brought its hand forward to rest on James's knuckles.
James didn't speak Pokémon, and even he knew what that meant.
"Weezing," Weezing hissed, lifting into the air. James shrank back against the headboard and Wobbuffet tilted up its chin. Its tail flicked again, more purposefully this time.
James placed one hand on Weezing's face, pushing the steaming puffball back before it leaked any more smoke into the room. "Let's not say anything we might regret–"
Wobbuffet's hand slapped in the slice of space between him and Jessie again. James didn't move, clutching Weezing close, so Wobbuffet plopped its head down. James glanced at his nightstand, suddenly aware of how little space on the bed he'd been left with, large as it was. So much for fitting all their Pokémon on at once…
"Wobbuffet," Wobbuffet murmured, stretching on its belly. Weezing tilted back its head, pressing its nose to James's shirt. He bit his lip.
"I suppose… There's no harm if it's just one night, right?"
Jessie opened one eye. "A trainer must be firm in establishing boundaries, James. You and your Victreebel could learn from this. Wobbuffet, down."
Wobbuffet said nothing. It brought its hands below its chin, staring at them both. "I suppose," James murmured, "its previous trainer let it sleep on the bed."
"Unfortunately for it, I'm not its old trainer." Jessie finally sat up, blinking heavy blinks. Her hair fell in tangles down her shoulders, and at this rate she'd have baggy eyes by morning. James cringed at the thought, but not as much as he did when Jessie slid her hands beneath the pits of Wobbuffet's awkward arms. The blobby blue Pokémon wasn't small by any means, but she hauled him up and over her lap, then pushed him to the floor. Thump. Wobbuffet squealed in protest.
"It's off," she said, and lay down again. Near her feet, Meowth groaned.
"And just when it was startin' ta be quiet."
Weezing bumped its snout against James's cheek. He pulled one knee to his chest, staring over Jessie's side of the bed. Wobbuffet had dragged itself into a sitting position. Silent for now, but its tail bristles had spiked.
James pushed his fingers through his hair. His heart beat in whimpers, flushing blood roaring in his cheeks. Wobbuffet was hardly more than a child, and underneath that defensive outer layer, it was just a little kid seeking comfort on a stormy night…
Lightning and thunder tore through the sky just after he thought that, sending Weezing into panicked squirms. Wobbuffet called out, getting to its feet. "No," Jessie said without opening her eyes, but this time James suspected her warning was directed at him.
"Just one night, Jessie…"
"That's what you said about Weezing."
James glanced down at the purple puff. Weezing blinked, pushing out its lower lip. Despite its anxiety at every crash of thunder, innocence twinkled in its eyes. James rubbed its head. "I suppose you're right." Even when it wasn't storming, Weezing always was a cuddler. So was Victreebel, though he'd let it out to roam in the city park tonight. Victreebel never had liked buildings, much more comfortable in the fresh air. Especially in the rain, sweet creature…
Wobbuffet had given up sulking for Jessie's attention. After another few minutes spent shuffling about, it waddled into the bathroom. The heavy glass door fell shut behind it and James threw it a glance as he lay down, wondering if Wobbuffet was capable of getting out again on its own. Either way, it wasn't in there long before breaking into startled noises. Two shampoo bottles hit the ground. James opened one eye to a glare.
"Jessie, you forgot to lock the door."
"Me? You were the last one in there."
"Putting away your blow dryer and your hairspray and your nail polish, yes. You're really going to blame your scattered brains on me?"
Meowth snorted. "Hey, she's got more a' dose den you got in spades. Anyways, you wouldn't know scattered if ya kicked a stack a' jigsaw puzzles up your nose, Captain Tidypants. The way I see it, youse both got some blame to share."
"Why didn't you shut it, Meowth?" Jessie retorted.
"Heh. 'Cuz when I bedded down for da night, I was the only Pokémon out and about around here, and I ain't rude enough to keep youse guys up like dat. I'm housetrained."
Even James scoffed at that, crushing his eyelids tighter than a jammed jar lid. "Since when did you ever live inside a house anyway?"
"Wobbuffet!" called the anxious Pokémon from the bathroom, followed by a toilet flush and another yelp. "Where is that thing's ball?" James growled into his arm.
"Does it matter?" Jessie asked, flopping over. "Its lock-picking skills are unparalleled."
"Maybe so, but it's never this noisy when we sleep outside."
The squeak of twisting bath handles trickled from the bathroom, followed by a pounding spurt of rushing water. Wobbuffet chittered to itself, shifting around. Something heavy crashed to the floor in a burst of plastic. James knew the sound well, and clenched his nose between two knuckles.
"Wobbuffet, put that back where you found it!"
"Blow dryer," Jessie mumbled.
"Mmng… How much would you bet it trips and falls in the tub holding that?"
"It's fine," Jessie said. A scrape of plastic suggested Wobbuffet had picked the blow dryer up. Tile squeaked. At that, Jessie faltered. She shifted in the bed, rolling far to reach her nightstand. James heard the unmistakable buzz of a poké ball growing from pebble size to full. Jessie tossed her arm towards the bathroom with a whisper-called, "Arbok, go!"
A peacock blue glow swept over the room. The massive snake shimmered into the waking world a second later. Wobbuffet squeaked. The blow dryer thunked across tile once again.
"And what's Arbok going to do with no hands?" James asked, sighing hard.
"I don't know… It's too early for this." Jessie nudged her foot against his leg. "Your turn."
James's eyes snapped open. "What do you mean, 'my turn?' It's your Pokémon."
In response, Jessie rolled away, dragging a heap of covers with her. Meowth pressed his paws over his ears.
"Wobbuffet," the blobby creature whined, louder than before. Suction cups smacked against the door. James didn't bother checking the clock since it had been two in the morning the last time he'd looked. He pushed himself up on his hands, blinking. Arbok sat coiled on the floor, looking back at Jessie for an order. Its tongue danced. Wobbuffet leaned against the inside of the door, its face pressed to glass, hunkered in shadow. Meowth snarled into the blankets.
"If I hear one more word outta that t'ing, I'm gonna be sick 'til da miltanks leave home."
Jessie tightened into a ball. "If that ham keeps it up much longer, it won't get to see the miltanks leave home. Wobbuffet, turn off the water! It's the middle of the night!"
"Buffet?" Wobbuffet requested, schlurping its suction cups on and off. Its voice betrayed no shame or apology, only politeness. "Patient Pokémon indeed," James muttered, and flicked off the last of the blankets. He swung his legs over the bedside. "For a night predator, he isn't too quiet, is he?"
"Dey's scavengers, Jimmy. Stealth on land ain't their style." Meowth yawned, then added more softly and with a purr, "Dat position on the team's already been filled by a master."
Yeah right, James thought, scowling at the lazy feline. Meowth had walked along a fallen log just yesterday and slipped right off, rolling back down the hill in a shower of mud. Grace wasn't precisely his forte either.
"I owe you one," murmured Jessie, sinking back into the dark. James rubbed his hands around his face, then stood. Wobbuffet perked up immediately. It rattled the door with shoves, bouncing its tail. James could make out the blow dryer cord wrapped around its arm. How? No one knew. He picked Arbok's poké ball off the floor and held it behind the snake's hooded head. A coil of red light spiraled out and retracted it inside as cleanly as an envelope.
"Let me see," James said once he'd stepped inside the dark bathroom, crouching beside Wobbuffet. The blow dryer cord wasn't wrapped tight, but Wobbuffet didn't seem to have much experience untangling itself from things like that. It was young, he thought. He'd read the other day that wobbuffet could easily live two hundred years, and between Jessie's medical background and Meowth's linguistics, they'd estimated this one at maybe thirty. James, hopelessly lost between his teammates' expertise in this sort of thing, wasn't sure what that translated to in human terms, but somewhere in that awkward teen stage between juvenile and adult seemed to cover it. Not exactly a child, but not exactly experienced in the ways of the world either.
As evidenced, of course, by that knot it had tied like a tourniquet around its arm. James tugged it free and rubbed the spot the cord had clenched for good measure. "It's always one late-night surprise after another with you, isn't it? See, this is why Mummy told me not to raise nocturnals… There. Is that better?"
"Wob," the wobbuffet confirmed, bringing one arm up in a salute. James stood again, dusting his hands.
"That takes care of that. But where's your poké ball?" Now that he was up, he may as well look for it. Not that Wobbuffet would stay in there long. The model was outdated and the security mechanism didn't seem to work that well. James had suggested they transfer it to a newer ball, but Jessie had shot him down with a reminder of the obvious: Wobbuffet's ball was legal, and using a machine to switch to an off-the-grid one would send up alerts in every city. As far as the government knew, he and Jessie were Joan and Jerry, a young married couple native to Sinnoh who traveled with a meowth registered as a companion, not a battling Pokémon. Those false identities were all that held them to the legal world, and James for one guarded his intently. He looked horrendous in his ID, having dyed his lavender hair black for the photo shoot—a long day at HQ posing with Jessie and Meowth backdrop after backdrop to establish a paper trail should the legitimacy of their cover story ever be questioned—but a disguise was a disguise…
And now Jessie legally kept a wobbuffet. Or rather, Joan legally kept a wobbuffet. The PC system might have overlooked a traveling couple with a meowth in tow, but a meowth and a wobbuffet? Sooner or later someone up there would put the pieces together. Probably a border guard. Picky Unovans, maybe.
"Wah?" Wobbuffet rubbed behind its head, smiling sheepishly this time. It shuffled its four feet-pods, but didn't look around. Either it didn't understand the word "poké ball" or it had forgotten where it went, neither option surprising James in the least. He exhaled. After a minute of searching bathroom cabinets, Jessie's backpack, and the closet (while she and Meowth tried to tune him out and Wobbuffet merely watched), James finally found the red and white capsule in the bathtub, rolling back and forth in the water swirling down the drain.
"Look what you've done with it," he scolded. He shut the water off and turned back, but didn't stand up. It would do more harm than good to yell at Wobbuffet. Some trainers still believed Pokémon respected an 'alpha' who intimidated them into respecting a leader, but in James's experience, Pokémon responded best to gentle reprimands, not shouts. He held out the dripping poké ball for Wobbuffet to see. "It's absolutely soaked. Now your little private cave or whatever world you have in there will be all wet. Is this the way you've envisioned your life going so far?"
But Wobbuffet wasn't listening. It leaned over the bathtub's edge, drawing swirls in the droplets with a hand and murmuring words that sounded like a song.
"Are you hungry?" James tried. "Food? Dinner?" Nothing he said prompted much reaction from the quiet creature, and James reluctantly admired how well it had been trained. Most Pokémon were taught not to eat what wasn't theirs, and he wasn't its trainer. Did it even register that he was addressing it? Was his voice little more than white noise in its ears? And would he need to pull Jessie out of bed…
Whether Wobbuffet was hungry or not, James was already up and about now. Filling a dish wouldn't hurt. While Jessie had searched the city for this hotel, James and Meowth had loaded his backpack with food at the Pokémart. Most of their supply stayed with the balloon, tightly wrapped in the box affixed to the side. Weezing didn't eat much, Victreebel preferred to hunt, and Meowth was too proud for anything lower than berries on most occasions, but Arbok and Lickitung went gaga for it.
Well… Arbok did, anyway. Lickitung was…
Maybe he'd overbought.
James unpacked an empty tupperware and a new bag of Pokémon food (a more focused brand than the generic three flavors in one this time, at Meowth's recommendation; see also, "Reasons not to shoplift a Lax Incense"). The vanity counter outside the bathroom was accented with no fewer pink lights than those dangling in a curtain above the bed. They added curves of baby fat to his perfect face. Sigh.
Pattering pellets rang against the tuperware, filling the air with stinging scents of meat and rice. Even his stomach started to rumble. James had only poured the first cup when Arbok released itself from its ball in a spiral of sparks. The snake's coils wound all the way from the bed to the table, glinting in the pale gleam of the ribbon-like lights. If it had eyelids, it would have batted them. Wobbuffet peered out from the shadows of the bathroom, watchful but not intimidated. "Uh," James said, tipping the food package upright again. "Jess?"
Jessie mumbled slightly if she said anything at all. Arbok flicked its tongue a second time, and James tried to glare it down.
"Shoo. None of this is for you."
"Jessie," James whispered again, a little louder this time. He held the tupperware over his head, but for how long? Wobbuffet leaping from its poké ball had become familiar routine over the last two weeks, but Arbok knew better. They… had remembered to feed it this week, hadn't they?
"It eats from the hand," Jessie said from the bed.
So asking for help was pointless, then. Well, uh. Hm. James had watched Jessie feed her beloved snake a hundred times before, but he'd always left that responsibility on her and tended to his victreebel instead. Tugging his shirt collar, he swallowed. Arbok's stare deepened, its hood rippling, and it certainly didn't seem inclined to pull away. Even Weezing had bobbed over to examine the food with tentative interest despite the shuddering thunder overhead.
A soft pink glow danced across Arbok's face, which did absolutely nothing except emphasize the tall shadow behind it. James curled his hand against the desk, all too aware his gloves had been tossed somewhere else when he first stumbled in and he couldn't remember where. Arbok may be a Poison-Type, but it suffocated its prey through constriction. Sure, a sting projectile could cause an upset stomach, but it wasn't technically venomous in the way, say, a seviper might be, and lacked the fangs to prove it (Thank whichever legendary or non-Poké deity you cared to… Jessie didn't have a seviper).
"Um," James said anyway, biting his lip. He scooped some of the soft pellets from the tupperware and held them out in the flat of his palm. Gently, not even scratching skin, Arbok closed its mouth around his hand (right up to the wrist) and eased the food off. His fingers tingled when it let go. Maybe Jessie found the behavior cute, but it only made his skin crawl like a newborn ekans. And Arbok stayed coiled there, waiting for more.
Oh perfect, it wanted more. Biting his tongue, James held out his hand again. Again, Arbok took the offering. It would take an hour to wash off the stink of food and digestive juices…
"Weeze?" Weezing asked, floating lower.
"You know I can't resist that face, so lucky for you, there's plenty more." James shook the bag towards the bed. "What say you, Meowth? Hungry?"
Meowth immediately looked away. Jessie said nothing, but her half-closed eyes and dangling arm told it all: You started this. You get to tuck them in.
James jumped, banging his elbow on the counter. With Arbok and Weezing clustered close, he'd completely forgotten why he'd poured the food in the first place. "Here, Wobbuffet," he said, deliberately passing the entire tupperware over. He scratched Weezing beneath the larger of its two chins. Weezing would never steal from another Pokémon, and Arbok… Actually, James wasn't sure about that one. It watched Wobbuffet, and Wobbuffet watched it, skin glittering. Another puff of psychic energy washed down James's arms. For a moment there, lightning and thunder met both indoors and out.
"Wah, wobba wob."
Arbok flexed its hood. Wobbuffet held the tupperware without eating.
"Um, I do have more," James said, watching their silent wrestle drag on. He couldn't imagine Arbok ever attacking Wobbuffet over a dish of food—after all, the snake had been bred for taking orders—but it was the uncertainty of the pecking order that left him uneasy. Lickitung had been a pushover, quick to fall in behind Arbok and never out front. James hadn't noticed which of Jessie's current Pokémon usually won their game of rolling down hills or scaling rocks. He shook the bag of food, but neither of the pair acknowledged it.
Lightning knifed the sky again.
And again. Arbok straightened higher, hood flared in full, and Wobbuffet tilted its head. Its hands wrapped more tightly around the tupperware. James reached into his backpack for another tupperware. Immediately, both Pokémon fixed him with bemused but scolding stares. A wrinkle flowed across Arbok's coils.
And still Wobbuffet waited, daring him to make the first move. Its tail stayed lifted in the air, drifting back and forth in poisoned patience.
When the stare down drew on another minute, Weezing floated shyly forward, lowering its mouth to the dish in Wobbuffet's hands. Wobbuffet made no attempt to shove it away, gave no sign it even noticed the puffball flicking out its tongue. Seeing this, Arbok drew closer. Upright, they were nose to nose.
"There's more," James offered again.
Wobbuffet placed the tupperware on the floor and slid it over to Arbok. Arbok curled the tip of its tail around the dish. Weezing expelled a low moan. James took Wobbuffet's capsule from the counter.
"Well, if you aren't hungry, you can go back in your poké ball."
Wobbuffet said nothing, tail scraping the floor. Arbok lay its head beside the tupperware, and Weezing floated down to sneak another lick. James recalled Wobbuffet and turned back to the bed. That was one issue taken care of, then. But no sooner had he taken two steps from the counter then the ball in his hand glowed scarlet. Shwoom! A sudden weight on his back knocked him against the bathroom door with a bang, then dropped him to the floor. A weight that was soft, heavy, and now completely soaked thanks to the flooded insides of its ball.
"James," Jessie whisper-sneered from the bed. "Don't you think it's a bit late to practice your dancing?"
Wobbuffet's tentacle-like grip clenched his shoulders, suction cups snagging on a thread. James clapped both hands to his face, then slammed them on the ground.
"All right, change of plans. Wobbuffet, we're going for an elevator ride."
Wobbuffet yipped like a growlithe and scrambled off without being asked. "Wobb-a! Wobb-a!"
James watched him go, then picked up the TV remote tucked between Jessie's backpack and the wall. "Elevator ride?" Meowth asked, for once not hiding his confusion. "Where at? T'ain't like you can waltz right down to the desk, Jimmy."
He pointed the remote at the TV and flipped the channel back to the Grand Festival. "Watch and learn."
"Don't do this," Jessie said with zero conviction.
That was Wobbuffet, of course, nudging its head against James's elbow as he stood. Its skin glittered with rainbow traces of Mirror Coat, teeth bright and tail waving. It had brought him a yukata wrapped in plastic from the stack near the door. James took it away before Wobbuffet could splatter it with drool, grabbing instead the long-sleeved white shirt that lay flopped on the floor.
"Okay! Ready for a trip?"
Wobbuffet saluted, tongue dangling like a growlithe's.
"I have to walk there. You'll have to be in your poké ball for a little while. Can you be patient?"
Nodding, James tapped Wobbuffet's poké ball to its head. Jessie watched with narrow eyes.
"What are you doing?"
"What am I ever doing?" he asked, dragging the spare blanket from the foot of the bed. "Hmm… Weezing, come here." Weezing bobbed over, blinking curious blinks. James offered it one end of the blanket. "Would you hold this and float up right about here for a few minutes?"
Weezing closed its mouth around the corner, and James made a mental note to find it a treat at the Pokémart in the morning (Jessie would scold him for delaying reinforcement and wax on about a Pokémon's ability to draw conclusions about their behavior after all that time, but… it was treats). Taking the opposite corner of the blanket, he joined Weezing against the balcony door. With him standing, arm high, and Weezing floating with the other end, they formed a curtain with just enough space for he and Wobbuffet to stand.
"James? You aren't seriously going out there, are you?"
"I'll be all right. We won't stay long. Since I can't sleep, I may as well be useful. Maybe I'll find just the strike of inspiration I need to think up a plan for catching the twerp's Pikachu!"
"Don't hold your breath," she muttered.
"Ha… Now, Wobbuffet, come on out." James pointed the poké ball's release point towards the floor. In a cloud of sparks, Wobbuffet appeared between him and Weezing. The amount of floor it could stand on wasn't exactly as wide as an elevator, but maybe as long as it got a little attention, it wouldn't really care.
James shrank the poké ball to pebble size and clipped its back to the hem of his pants. That freed up his hand to take the TV remote from his pocket, and he held that against the wall like a panel in an elevator. Wobbuffet studied this set-up for three seconds, then smacked its hand against a button. Well, several buttons.
"Floor 1 it is. Beep… beep… beep…"
On the fourth "Beep," James twisted the handle for the balcony door, trying not to drop the remote as Wobbuffet pressed it again. Wind snapped against his face and raindrops splattered at his feet despite the overhang. The balcony wasn't large since appearing outside a love hotel rather ruined the point of an anonymous stay, but a thin strip existed nonetheless. James squinted as he lowered the blanket around his shoulders, his resolve quivering. Which was the legendary Pokémon associated with rain, again? One of Hoenn's ancient guardians… Kyogre, wasn't it? Perhaps the beast had an upset stomach tonight. Lightning and thunder wrestled in the sky mere seconds apart.
"Wobbuffet," Wobbuffet breathed. It slipped through the door before he even had it fully open. James and Weezing joined it, the blanket forgotten. They were only on the second floor, still dwarfed by hulking buildings all around them. In this weather, more cars were out than you usually saw in the city. Blurry yellow eyes trundled through the narrow street. Stoplights melted from green to red. Half the road shimmered gold where streetlights reflected off the puddles. A single lone figure walked down the sidewalk, carrying a pink umbrella while a vaporeon and a wartortle splashed at their heels.
"Weezing," agreed the puffball, landing gently on the railing.
"Yes," James murmured too. Cold raindrops stung his skin, and the wind did its utmost to ruin his hair, but neither could tear his wandering eyes from the scene below. Nothing summed up the moment quite like a single appreciative word. Growing up, his house had overlooked gardens, trees, and Growlie's doghouse. Even after all his months of travel… city lights were something new.
Wobbuffet peered out over the balcony rail, wriggling its tail and reaching out a hand. It clearly preferred the rain to the scorching summer sun they'd felt a few days before. James ran his fingers over its head. Officially it was Jessie's Pokémon and seemed to know that well, padding close behind her when she walked and showing James little if any interest. Even when they rested, Wobbuffet gravitated towards Jessie's team, not his own; it playfully butted heads with Arbok while avoiding over-curious Weezing with snobbish flair. If it came down to the wire, James had no doubt Wobbuffet would wander away from any battle where he tried to command it, simply because it didn't see him as Jessie's equal. In the earliest days, it hadn't even let him touch it without a wrestling match. Now, at least, he could pet the smooth head without facing a growl or angry flare of crimson light.
Lightning skimmed across the city. On impulse, Wobbuffet called on Mirror Coat. Weezing whimpered, ducking under James's arm. The three of them waited, counting seconds before the boom. For just an instant, James blinked and thought he saw a streak of yellow and purple bouncing across a row of distant rooftops. Then it was gone. Raindrops shattered down like shards of glass, peeling skin and ricocheting off the rail.
"Had enough?" James asked when the cold had left Weezing shivering in his arms. Wobbuffet glanced up at him, still leaning its cheek on one hand.
"Is that a no?"
James unclipped Wobbuffet's poké ball from his pants, only for Wobbuffet to shuffle backwards, muttering little whines. "What's wrong? Don't you like it in there?" He didn't lower his arm. "Your last trainer obviously took good care of you, and I know you can swim. You're so well trained in every other way. What's wrong with staying in your poké ball?"
Wobbuffet was captive-born. It wasn't like it knew any other way to live…
The night after Wobbuffet had fallen into Jessie's possession, Meowth had spent hours trying to pick its brain. They'd settled in an empty campsite between the edge of Palmpona and the river that spilled through the woods into Sandwalk Bay. A playground lay just up the street, consisting of a plastic slide, a set of mankey bars, and an undersized jungle gym. One or maybe two of them would most likely end up sleeping on the equipment over there, but for now, they dropped their backpacks beside an available fire pit near a picnic bench. A few tents and RVs perched in rows, clustered closer to the town (and campground restrooms). One family roasted marshmallows over a fire some ways away, and glowing golden rings suggested an umbreon perched on a bench, ears erect. James let Victreebel loose to roam for insects. Meowth picked a crumpled leaf from Jessie's hair. And just like that, they were on familiar turf again.
James brought out the soup pot and chipped dishes, and Jessie minced a sitrus to sprinkle over Meowth's plate of protein-laden pellets. The feline and Wobbuffet prowled at the edges of their awareness, Meowth in the lead and on all fours one of the only times James had ever seen him. "What's the occasion?" he asked, tossing Jessie an oran berry he'd found in the pot.
"Don'tya know?" Meowth sprang up on a decorative boulder, tail batting behind him. "Wobbuffet got the Shadow Tag ability for snaring prey. Normally dey wait around underwater for fish, but with their psychic senses, dey can identify prey on land even from real far off. Dey ain't hunters 'emselves, but dey's invaluable companions to night predators like us meowth."
"You?" Jessie scoffed, sliding the cover back on the chopping knife. "Hunt? You can hardly find your way out of a storm drain."
"You'll see. I eat dat packaged stuff when I choose to, not because I have ta." With that, Meowth leapt from his rock to the crest of Wobbuffet's head. "Righty-o, my mighty steed. Lead da way!"
"Wobbuffet!" The blobby creature saluted and slipped off among the shadows, vanishing like a thread. So James shrugged at Jessie and started in the other direction to forage for something humans could eat. A nest of pidgey eggs, maybe a few strong roots–he wasn't picky. His search turned up plenty of acorns and even two mushrooms while Jessie got a fire going to boil soup. Though when he returned with his handfuls, her head was bent, hair dangling awfully close to the flames. She clenched a lump of pebbles and weeds. They spilled from her fingers to the ground.
She lifted her eyes, though stayed hunched over the dented pot. "Just a rough day," she murmured.
James knelt beside her, offering an acorn. "It's Lickitung, isn't it? I know you didn't have it long, but it's normal to feel upset that you didn't get to say good-bye."
Her shoulders tensed, fingers tightening in the dirt. Without saying anything else, she walked off towards the playground, climbed the ladder to the slide, and sat there at the top. Her swishing magenta hair could practically be a slide itself. James just shook his head.
Even when sweetened with a cracker, the soup wasn't particularly tasty. But it did fill their growling bellies, and that was enough. Normally Jessie jabbered between bites, complimenting this and insulting that, and always ending up sidetracked in a rant about a twerp or patch of sore Thunderbolt'd skin. Not tonight. Tonight she sipped her soup in silence, one leg up on the picnic bench beside her. James eyed her between sips of his own. She was coping with the unexpected loss of Lickitung in her own way, and it would do no good to break her mental barriers. Cracking layer after layer of Jessie's shell was a bit like coaxing a shy Pokémon to step into the light. Rushing never helped anyone. He would wait. Wobbuffet wasn't the only patient one around here.
"All in all," he said, "I thought today went rather well, actually. Swapping those poké balls for empty capsules was one of our best schemes yet."
"It worked well," Jessie agreed, staring into her bowl. "And wherever it is, I'm sure Lickitung is happy out there too."
No sign of Meowth by the time they'd finished their soup. Arbok was released to stretch, disconnecting its massive jaw when it yawned, and James mused over the good fortune of keeping so many Pokémon who required very little food provided by their handlers. That was one thing that had attracted him to Grass-Types from such a young age in the first place–the fascinating ability so many of them had to sustain themselves through sunlight. Sure, here and there you'd find exceptions. Victreebel was still a carnivore, but it always went hunting on its own (wholly uninterested in the new addition of Jessie's wobbuffet, despite Meowth's praises). Weezing sustained itself quite well on dust and germs. Such a pity to be born human with a pathetic human stomach…
After the family roasting marshmallows had retired to their tent, he and Jessie took turns washing in the river, scrubbing shoplifted strawberry shampoo into their hair ("Next time we're stealing coconut," James grumbled when she'd tossed his second set of clothes on the rocks nearby, and she called back, "Grab apple–it pairs well with whine").
Dressed again (minus boots), James joined Jessie to finish off the chunks of meat they'd set aside. Meowth hadn't come for them yet, and their team code declared all leftovers fair game if left alone twenty minutes after the other two had finished.
"Are you hurt?" Jessie asked. James nearly spat the bite of goldeen he'd just dropped on his tongue. Jessie plucked another from Meowth's plate, definitely avoiding his gaze but doing an excellent job of acting natural.
What are you playing at now, Jess?
"I'm as well as I can be," he told her carefully. "Are you?"
Two, three hours had passed since their blast-off had landed them on that spindly tree branch jutting from the cliffside. Wasn't it a bit late to check for injuries now? Jessie wasn't usually one for asking that if both her traveling companions could still walk and talk following a crash.
"Same here," she said. "Pikachu was just so…"
"Shocking," James finished. He studied the pat of her dancing fingertips, the slump of her shoulders. Perhaps she was remembering Lickitung again. He said nothing to push her and took another bite of fish, nodding every now and again along with whatever Jessie said.
It was late when Meowth and Wobbuffet reappeared in camp, both with heads held high and looking immensely pleased with themselves. As much as Pokémon ever could, anyway. It wasn't the first time Meowth had wandered back to them with a feather or rattata tail between his teeth—he was a wild-born obligate carnivore, after all, and didn't always prefer pellets on a plate to the scrumptious song of fresh-caught meat—but the splatters across the cheerful wobbuffet's lips were bright and somehow more… disturbing. The rustling bushes stirred James awake even before his partner's shouting did.
"Where have you morons been?" Jessie demanded. She flashed to her feet, arms crossed and foot tapping as she loomed in the dark. "It's well after midnight. We've been frazzled with worry!"
"Terribly frazzled," James agreed through a yawn, rolling over in the dirt. Smirking, Meowth licked around his mouth and slid from Wobbuffet's head to the ground.
"T'anks for waiting up, but Wobba here and I already ate. Youse both woulda been proud wit' how we worked as a team!"
"Waaahbuffet," Wobbuffet agreed, holding several brown feathers out to Jessie. She recoiled.
"Keep your filthy souveniers to yourself! Ugh. Why would you even bring that back here?"
"Heheh…" Meowth bared his teeth. "Wobbuffet said it was good luck to bring a little something back for a special someone in da pack. T'ink of it as a blue ribbon for a job well done doin' nuttin."
"Wah, wobba!" Wobbuffet confirmed, and Meowth chuckled again.
"It says you can use 'em to line your nest."
Jessie pressed her hands to Wobbuffet's forehead and wrestled him several steps backward. "In case you haven't noticed, I don't own so much as a sleeping bag. And if I did, there is no way I'd touch anything that was ripped from a half-eaten body, no matter how much good luck it brings. Get rid of it!"
Meowth turned his head. "Sorry, big guy. Her Highness ain't biting. Try passing over da skull."
"Get back in your poké ball before you cause a plague," Jessie snapped. She checked her pockets, then groaned when she realized she'd left them all by the rocks with her damp set of clothes. While she stalked back to the river, James reached for a feather. Wobbuffet resisted at first, then let go of one so James could rotate it between his fingertips.
"A hoothoot? I'm impressed. Those are hard to catch."
"Wah!" Wobbuffet saluted as if to announce the bird (or birds) hadn't been a problem. It had been bred for resistance, James mused, dancing the feather across his palm. Wobbuffet could certainly take a hit… You could tame wild mischief from a Pokémon, but even those who were captive-born would keep their natural instincts for the first few generations of eggs. One look at the blood around its lips was proof enough of that.
"Shoulda seen the shiny zubat we almost caught," Meowth prattled on. "Dem shinies always stick out like sore paws in da wild, chased off by their mothers and left to fend for 'emselves. Easy pickin's for guys like us, only we already had our mouths full when we saw it."
"Shiny?" Jessie sputtered, marching back to them. "Meowth, you fur-brain! We could have caught that and made tens of thousands!"
"Fat chance," Meowth retorted. His tail bushed like a pineco, and he took half a step back. "I toldya Jess, it was gone as quick as it came. Didn't stick around dere long when it sensed a wobbuffet nearby."
"I can't believe you'd even think of eating something so valuable!" Jessie stalked even closer, one hand raised to plunge on Meowth's head and shove him down, or maybe toss him into the river. James slid between them, palms facing out.
"Now, now… I for one think it's impressive those two can feed themselves out here. More berries for us, isn't it, Jess?" Then a pause. "Where is Wobbuffet anyway?"
Silence fluttered around them as three heads twisted back and forth. "It can't have gone far," Jessie said, before Wobbuffet burst from the bushes with an enthusiastic shout. James grabbed Jessie's arm out of instinct, and she grabbed his. Even Arbok hissed in disapproval from its coil by the picnic table. Meowth tapped his foot.
"All right, all right, playtime's over, ya lug. Clean yourself up and let's get a little shut-eye."
Wobbuffet slipped past him, hopping on a rock instead. It lifted its tail. The unblinking eyespots on the little black puff stared intensely into the surrounding woods. The rock wasn't that big, and looked terribly awkward and pointy. Nonetheless, Wobbuffet's four feet-pods kept it as balanced as a flower petal. "What's it up to?" James asked Meowth, not letting go of Jessie and now clenching the front of his uniform in a fist. "It isn't… still hunting, is it?" Raising meat-eaters from egghood was one thing. Trading for one completely by accident without any idea where its loyalties lay was quite another. Perhaps someone would need to keep watch on the watchman.
Meowth tilted his head. "Sorta… I know it's putting out some chemical signals in the air. I ain't too familiar with the reason why, but I'll ask for ya. Youse just lie down."
Like either of them were getting any sleep now. James sat on one side of the thin fire, legs butterfree-folded, while Jessie pulled hers to her chest. Meowth perched at the base of the rock and spoke to Wobbuffet a moment. Ordinarily, James enjoyed listening one-sidedly to Meowth's conversations with other Pokémon, and sometimes ran side-bets with Jessie over whose interpretation of the situation would turn out to be the best in all the nation. Kneading his feet with clenching hands, James stared at Jessie. Jessie, gripping a poké ball like the only signal flare on a floundering sailboat, stared at Wobbuffet.
"Lickitung ate Bug-Types," was all she said.
James tilted his head to one side in sympathy. Jessie never worried her arbok might turn one day, and sometimes she even slept with its body wrapped around her own. He'd seen her tickle its stomach, cooing over and rubbing it while it hissed in apparent pleasure and wriggled beneath her like a child scribbling with crayons. Even so, she'd never been fond of his victreebel with its stomach pouch simmering with acid, and even his affectionate cottonball of a weezing couldn't soften her heart. Interesting how the Pokémon who'd currently set her on edge was the one incapable of initiating combat…
"Wild wobbuffet are nocturnal," he offered. "This startling swap could work in our favor after all. Imagine a nightly guard to watch our backs while we snooze serenely in the starlight."
"Meowth was nocturnal," Jessie pointed out. "Then he met us."
"Actually, I believe the proper word is 'crepuscular.'"
"… Point taken."
Meowth and Wobbuffet were still conversing, the former responding to each vocalization with, well… increasingly nervous questions about the time of season and the number of members in their little team. James didn't particularly like the bristles agitating his friend's pale fur.
"Wob. Wobbuffet, wah-fet."
Meowth flung out his arm. "But we ain't got no nests 'round here. And in case you hadn't noticed, the playground ain't no cave!"
"Hrrr… Take a bath, ya filthy scavenger, before ya kill us all."
"What is it?" James asked when the scratch cat stalked over to he and Jessie by the fire.
"Nuttin' good," seethed Meowth, brushing his shoulder as though wiping away his disdain. He exhaled. "See, wobbuffet act different when dey go out hunting den dey do when dey're at home. Wobbuffet ain't got no breeding season, so dey lay their eggs any time a' year. The males do most the hunting, drifting t'rough da water with mouths wide open for fish. Da goirls mostly stay back in their caves guarding da nests 'til da babies hatch." Meowth paused, then waved a flapping hand. "I'll draw it out for ya. It's easier that way."
Not wanting to dirty his paws, he grabbed a stick that had rolled from the campfire and started marking the dirt. "Wobbuffet live in packs like dis," he said, drawing several Xs. "Dey ain't built for pursuit and you'll never find enough carcasses to scavenge from all year long to feed a population, so de only way they eatin' anything is catching it with their Shadow Tag special ability."
Jessie came around to see James's side of the drawing. "Right… They don't attack, only counter. So what?"
"Dis one here's a male," Meowth said, marking another X away from the others. He added squiggle lines to suggest the loner was swimming in a river. "Drifting around like dat, dey eat their prey whole, 'cept for anything dey cough up at home for da kids. Dey like da water, so even if dey do get blood on their faces, it washes off quick. When dey hunt on land, they'll groom demselves so dey don't smell like blood, or it'd alert all da prey around dem. But da goirls…" Here, Meowth drifted the stick back to the other Xs, drawing a circle around them as though they lived inside a cave. "Wobbuffet are da patient Pokémon, and once dey breed, dey don't like leaving their nests. Da goirls don't groom 'emselves clean or wash like da males do, and sooner or later dat smell attracts somethin' that thinks all dose wobbuffet are hurt and worth healing, like chansey… or thinks dey're worth eatin'. When that happens…"
Jessie dropped one fist into her open palm. "Shadow Tag. Bada-boom."
"Huh." James leaned his head to one side. "So wobbuffet invented doorstep food delivery way before we did."
"Guess so. Remember when I said da mothers live in packs 'til their babies hatch? Well…" Meowth shrugged. "Wobbuffet can go longer dan most Pokémon without needing a drink. Once all dose moms got somethin' trapped in their cave, all dey gotta do is stall it out. Den their babies hatch and–"
"–chow time," Jessie finished. Meowth nodded, dropping his gaze. James rubbed his chin.
"And with the smell of that blood in the air, new predators come investigating and the cycle starts all over."
"Chansey if dey can," Meowth muttered, folding his arms. "Prey's better picking's dan predators, and chansey's got da best nutrients of all. Ever wonder why ya don't see more a' those runnin' loose in da wild? So don't let dat oaf loose inside a Pokécenter if ya know what's good for us, nya."
"So…" James glanced at the unwobbling sentry keeping its post nearby, tail lifted and head rotating one way, then the other. Though he couldn't smell much himself, Meowth's twitching suggested the scent of blood would carry far. "Jessie's wobbuffet is female?"
Meowth hesitated. "I… Well, I ain't sure 'bout that. Da voices ain't exactly a cue when it comes to Pokémon. I ain't familiar with how a wobbuffet is built down dere, and I don't really wanna be. Dat Wobbuffet's de only one of its kind its ever seen, so it ain't got nuttin' to compare itself to neither."
Jessie arched a brow. "As long as it behaves and it can battle, does it matter?"
Meowth scratched behind his head. "I'm sayin' dat wobbuffets who feel like dey're safe with da group don't clean up after eating. Usually dat's da goirls with eggs since da males are solo hunters, though I t'ink this sorta behavior's been observed in captives of eit'er sex… Dis one could go eit'er way, but dat ain't my point."
"I don't get it," Jessie said. She shifted her weight from one leg to the other, fingers drilling audibly against her elbows. One foot tapped an inch from James's fingers. "So by tromping back here with blood all over its face, Wobbuffet's sending out chemical signals to attract more prey and catch it with Shadow Tag? That's a good thing, isn't it? We can catch whatever wimpy Pokémon it lures over here way before it can eat."
"Hmm…" James leaned back on his hands. "Smells like a mine of pure gold to me!"
"It's a pet," Meowth spat, bringing down his foot. James snapped his attention back to the sneering cat. Whatever affectionate hope Meowth had held for his and Wobbuffet's partnership evaporated in an instant. "I said wobbuffet who feel safe at home don't clean 'emselves when dey eat, and dis one was born feelin' safe with humans. It don't really get we ain't got four walls around us. It ain't afraid of dat blood smell attracting predators this way, so if we don't take precautions, we could be the next t'ing on some gigantic Pokémon's menu. 'Safe' inside da campground or not."
"Oh," Jessie mumbled.
"No gold mine?" James asked, deflating as his dreams for a future filled with ice cream and a little Team Rocket cottage dissipated into curls of smoke.
"Maybe yes, maybe no," Meowth said, picking up his stick again. He threw it in Wobbuffet's general direction, though the patient Pokémon didn't turn around. "Dose chemicals on its mouth are sendin' out signals that chase da weaker prey species away, so de only kind we can meet is predators. Maybe we can catch 'em, but you wanna risk waking up with your head in a big ol' ursaring's belly? Or getting swallowed alive by a dunsparce? Or a skarmory? Or tyranitar? Or–"
"All right, all right," James interjected. "Keep your pretty pale pelt on, Meowth. We'll clean up Wobbuffet just like any other Pokémon. It's one of the gang now, after all."
"Filthy scavenger," Meowth seethed, stomping a short ways off with his tail lashing. "Ain't never catchin' dis cat reeking like a carcass, no sir, no ma'am." Pause, still facing away with arms folded tight. Branches crackled around them in the breeze. His whiskers quivered. "Do I still smell like da hunt, Jimmy?"
"I can't tell a difference," James assured him, getting up.
Jessie drummed her fingers on her knee. "You said it feels safe with us, Meowth? And so soon after trading trainers? That's pretty unusual…"
Meowth shrugged listlessly. Taking a stone, he weighed it in his paw to throw. "It's just a kid. Wobbuffet ain't too bright in da foirst place."
She thought a minute, then turned to the jagged rock, hands on her hips. "Wobbuffet, come down here at once."
"Drag your big blue butt over this way so I can dunk you, chump!"
Wobbuffet rotated its head, studying the river through the trees, then lost interest and resumed its scanning of the perimeter. "It's a pet," Meowth snapped again, twisting on his heel to glare. "It ain't never had to live in da wild before. With its foirst trainer, it got baths every night after dinner, with soap and bubbles and a whole lotta fluffy towels. A river like dis one just don't appeal to its idea of home sweet home. Good luck calling it over. It's da patient Pokémon. It can out-wait anybody." He flung the rock at some invisible target and still missed horribly. His tail drooped. Next thing James knew, he'd plopped on his rear in the dirt, hanging his head in his paws.
"Meowth?" he asked, lowering his voice.
"Sweet mercy, Jimmy. It's a pet." He curled his tail around his feet. "Da boss'll have our pink slips flown in by pidgey foirst t'ting in da morning. How're we s'posed ta fight for de honor of Team Rocket wit' a squeaky pet tagging along after us? Dey're goody-goody brats with fine tastes and upturned noses, spoiled pansies who get everythin' handed to 'em and grow up too lazy ta fight…" Meowth stared at his upturned paws. "Dose snobs t'ink dey're so much better dan guys like us."
James crouched beside him, knowing better than to stroke his friend's soft head without asking first. For a moment, he didn't say anything, only listened to the one-sided argument behind him. He traced a finger through the dirt, writing his name. "I suppose it won't be easy… but Wobbuffet does show promise. It even took out the twerp's chikorita all on its own. It'll be an uphill fight, but we'll make it work."
"Wit' a dirty scavenger who oughta be curled up in a sunbeam tomorrow afternoon instead a' trippin' over his big feet out here wit' us?" Meowth rubbed his temples with his paws. "Useless… pampered…"
"It isn't ideal… But chin up, old chum. When the stars don't align, Team Rocket steps in to make it all fine."
"I wish dat was me," Meowth breathed. His eyes and fists clenched at the same time, and James blinked and lowered the hand he'd thrust in the air.
"Heh… heh. How come even when I attack da guy with just words, dat still hurts me more dan I hurt it?"
Without waiting for an answer, Meowth pushed himself back to his feet. He stalked a short walk away again, tail lashing like a ribbon in the wind. This time, James didn't follow. He turned back to Jessie, who stood toying with a poké ball in her hand. But it went back in her pocket. She'd probably decided Wobbuffet would need a bath sooner or later, and she did take pride in each of her Pokémon always looking its best. At the tromp of his footsteps, she turned her head.
"Meowth was right. The closer you get, the worse it stinks. Like pussy scabs that grew infected and were left to ooze. Or a half-eaten torchic left to rot in Hoenn sun. Or you when you spill the propane tank on your shirt."
James rubbed behind his neck. "I'll pull, you push? We'll have that blob's mouth cleaner than it can whistle in no time flat."
What followed had been half an hour of trying to shove Wobbuffet off its rock and into the river—no dice—before Jessie finally had the bright idea to soak a sleeve and just wipe its bloody lips clean. She refused to dirty her own clothes, of course, so James took one for the team there, with a stain his gloves didn't quite cover to prove it…
A nudge from Wobbuffet and a strong rattle of thunder guided James back to the present. "You're a pet," he murmured, staring at the poké ball in his palm. "That's why you don't like it in there, isn't it? It doesn't matter how nicely its kept or how well the simulation matches your natural environment. Arbok and Weezing were bred for battle, so they know the drill. Victreebel doesn't stick around people more than it has to. But you aren't like them. You crave companionship, not comfort. Is that it?"
The amount of human language Wobbuffet understood was still up for debate. Nonetheless, it did offer a statement that was possibly a confirmation. James rubbed its big round head. Wobbuffet's hands traced along his forearm, suction cups sticking to his hairs. It didn't exactly nuzzle, but it did sort of purr.
"You had dinner, didn't you? And you're a pet, spoiled rotten. Well, here we are, surrounded by luxury on every side. Come on." James pulled open the balcony door. "Compared to your old life in Palmpona, I suppose we don't look like much. But one thing's certain, we do clean up nice. Pick your favorite soap, Wobbuffet, and let's give you a bath you can't believe."
Though visibly reluctant to return inside, Wobbuffet followed nonetheless. The Grand Festival was still playing despite Wobbuffet's best attempts to button mash, though the performances were winding down to the semi-finals. Jessie was sleeping, maybe, but Meowth twitched his ears as the wind blew in. Arbok lay in a spiral under the vanity counter (or more specifically, around the sealed food bag under the vanity counter). It raised its head, and James placed Weezing in its coils. Wobbuffet perked up at once when he opened the bathroom door. The lights scrolled through a range of bright and dim, and James set them low to better suit a cave-dweller's eyesight. There were even candles. While the jacuzzi bath filled with warm water, he lit two. They danced low and patient, and Wobbuffet watched from its place in the tub.
James tied his damp hair in a ponytail. Rubbing his eyes with one hand, he flicked his fingers beneath the faucet every thirty seconds, testing the temperature. When the level had risen halfway, he went to get the food bag from under the counter. According to Meowth, wobbuffet weren't obligate scavengers. Their dim blue color helped camouflage them in the water, and they drifted in rivers with mouths gaping wide for fish. If Wobbuffet hadn't wanted to eat with Arbok watching, maybe it would eat in the tub.
When he opened the door, he nearly bumped Weezing, who hovered outside with hopeful eyes. Steam hissed between its teeth.
"Weezing? You want a bath too?"
Weezing never was much for soap and water, but it did prefer following the crowd. Since it could float, dirt wasn't normally a problem, but the ooze that gathered around its pores was certainly overdue for a wash. James motioned the puff forward, though Wobbuffet paid it no interest and simply spun the tub drain in its hand. Weezing bobbed in the water, shaking its body every few seconds and sneezing cute puffs of steam like a baby. James scrubbed its hide with care, sliding the soap around its open pores and checking each one to be sure no suds spilled inside. He poured a few cups of Pokémon food in another tupperware, and this time, at least, Wobbuffet seemed more interested in nibbling at it.
Clearly, that glass door wasn't nearly as heavy as James had thought it was. He slid his gaze from Arbok to the bath and back again. "Wouldn't you all rather wait for morning?"
Arbok tucked its chin on James's shoulder, tickling its tongue against his ear. James rolled his eyes.
"All right… Get in."
The enormous snake slid into the water, shedding dirt from its scales like gold from a fairy tale. It rested its head on the faucet. Its body bent back on itself several times, tail dangling over the edge. This left Wobbuffet mostly squished against the wall, holding Weezing in its hands. James hoped it wouldn't notice the button for the jacuzzi jets immediately to its right. Was soap good for reptiles? Probably not most of them, but with an immune system like Arbok's, a small squirt should be okay. Jessie would have warned him otherwise a dozen times. He soaked the cloth and rubbed it up and down Arbok's neck. Arbok flicked its tongue again, sighing its name. Grunting protests, Wobbuffet pushed Weezing to the floor, then climbed after it. Weezing rolled to a stop at James's knee, surprise flickering across its face. It was still soaked in soap. Keeping one hand on Arbok, James lifted Weezing back in the tub.
"I know, I haven't forgotten. You'll all get your turn." James scrubbed Arbok's head again, then stood to get a fluffy towel. "Sit there and soak. I'll brush your scales next."
"And your teeth."
Wobbuffet wiggled before he even wrapped the towel around it. Its tail swished across the tile, and every time he scrubbed the towel hard against its head, it pushed back. Bright patterns flickered across its skin, shedding the water almost faster than he could wipe it away. Even so, James took his time (especially with the flecks of food smeared around its mouth). Wobbuffet was captive-born. After two weeks on the road, it was slowly adjusting to its new nomadic life, but baths after dinner were still its imagined norm.
"Maybe now you'll finally go to bed…"
"I was afraid you'd say that." With Wobbuffet dry (and perfectly content to sit on its haunches bundled in a bathrobe way too big for it), James popped the plastic wrapping around the brush he intended to use on Arbok's scales. That's what he was doing when a small throat cleared behind him. He looked back.
"Oh, don't tell me you want a bath too."
Meowth shook his head, too tired to snark (or fight off his yawn). He pushed the door farther open to reveal Jessie, eyes circled with dark puffs. James could tell that much even with the lights dim. Wobbuffet butted against her elbow with a purr. She pulled her yukata tighter, grazing her fingers across its head.
"My turn to play beautician, blockhead. Get some rest before you keel over."
"You shouldn't have gotten up," James scolded, rinsing the suds on Arbok's chest. "You need sleep."
"Ha," she said, stepping forward. Somehow, even without her boots, her heels seemed to click against tile. "I can handle one bad night."
"And I can't?"
Jessie turned to stare at him, her lips twitching in a smile. Something in his expression must have been stupid, because she even let slip a snorting laugh.
"You always push yourself like this. More and more since we came to Johto, actually. Now I'm up and planning to stay up for a while, and one of us should at least get some use out of that expensive bed."
"I'm all right," James said, scratching Arbok below the chin. "You take it."
Jessie pulled the washcloth away. "You're a glutton for punishment. With your energy levels, it's no wonder the twerps are always beating you at your own game."
"Me? I hardly think that's a valid argument here."
"Tired and delusional, Meowth." Shaking her head, Jessie knelt beside the tub and brought her hand to Arbok's cheek. She kissed its snout and, as an afterthought, "What a pathetic life you live."
Arguing was pointless, he supposed… It so often was. James massaged his face with his hands. He stood. Stretched. Then he left the bathroom. Meowth tagged after him, crikking the soreness from his wrists. And to James's surprise, Wobbuffet followed too. It wasn't until he'd already bundled himself in the covers and switched off his lamp that he realized Wobbuffet had claimed Jessie's spot beside him. James shot up, nearly smacking Meowth with his fumbling hand.
"No. Off the bed."
"Down, Wobbuffet. Uh. Remember Jessie? Your trainer? She said we were establishing boundaries."
Wobbuffet tilted its head. Then it rolled over, fluttering its hands towards the ceiling like an innocent bellsprout. It even flicked its tongue. Its legs stretched, tail quirked in content with all the spines smoothed flat. Said tail brushed against Meowth's haunch. Meowth didn't acknowledge it, tucked in a spiral with one paw resting on a poké ball. Flipped on its back like that, James could have sworn Wobbuffet was goading him for belly rubs.
He closed his eyes. Though Wobbuffet and Meowth weighed down the blankets, he managed to pull enough of them up to cover his shoulder. "All right," he mumbled. "I suppose the bed is big enough for everyone… But just this once, understand? From here on out, you're sleeping in your ball."
"Waaahbuffet," Wobbuffet purred. Meowth curled between them, but James didn't need to ask to guess what that translated to: "Yeah, right!"
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