(Normal drill: The characters aren't mine, they belong to whoever owns Pokemon. This is a fan story. Read at your own risk.)
The shelter was a simple domelike structure, set up on the barren plains south of Saffron City. It was a quickly set up, portable convenience used by Pokemon trainers who were financially better off than most beginners. It couldn't be bought in a regular Pokemart--it had to be specially ordered because of the intricacy of its construction. Still, for one who spent a lot of time on the road, like a veteran trainer or a master seeking to expand an already-impressive collection, it was an indispensable necessity.
"It all looks quiet," James murmured to his partner, adjusting the high-power binoculars to a sharper focus. "No signs of movement. I think our quarry has gone to ground for the night."
Jessi giggled softly. "Before he knows it, his Pokemon will be ours! With a rig like that, you know he's got to have some gems in his collection!"
The pair had trailed the black-clad biker most of the afternoon, staying a careful distance behind and above their target. The full-faceplate helmet made it impossible to determine the rider's identity, but what had caught the team's attention were the shiny, well-tended Pokeballs strapped to the biker's black belt.
"Well, what'reya waitin' for?" Meowth rasped in the night's stillness. "An engraved invitation? Get movin'!"
"You heard the feline, James," Jessi hissed. "Go get those Pokeballs!"
"Why does it have to be me?" he retorted, lifting his eyes from the binoculars to glare at his teammate.
He was rewarded with a stinging blow to his left ear. "Because it's your turn, you blockhead!" Jessi snapped. "Now go on before I throw you in through the window!"
James hadn't seen any windows in the dome shelter, but he decided now was not the time to point this simple factoid out. He passed the binoculars to Meowth and slipped out into the moonlit clearing.
The door wasn't locked, and he opened it soundlessly, guided only by a red-beam lantern half-shuttered in one hand. The shelter was spacious, but uncluttered, holding only a single sleeping bag with its occupant snug inside and a bright red backpack in one corner.
Jackpot, James chuckled silently, stealing across the level floor, reaching for the pack's strap with one hand.
A movement from the sleeping bag made him freeze in place. Careful not to make any sudden movement, he turned his head with painful slowness to look over his shoulder. The lantern followed his gaze, and the shuttered glow fell on the sleeper's face as he--she--turned over. The blanket slipped downward enough to reveal a softly waving spill of pale blonde hair that glittered like moonlight on snow, framing a heart-shaped face with delicate features that were unmistakably feminine.
James did an extraordinary thing then. He sat down and stared.
If he'd seen this girl walking down the street, under more or less normal circumstances, he might not have reacted so strongly. But he saw her asleep, open, vulnerable, unaware of his presence and being nothing but a girl with purely white hair and soft, slightly parted lips. He saw her without preamble, without pretense. All thought of stealing anything vanished from his mind, puffed out like a candle in a sudden gale. All he could do was sit as still as he could, hardly daring to breathe for fear of waking her, and stare at this Sleeping Beauty who could have been the product of a fairy tale. Or the inspiration for one. He suddenly longed for the paintbox and brushes he hadn't touched in years, so he could capture this vision on canvas. He lost count of his heartbeats as he continued to gaze on her, trying to burn her image into his mind.
"Where the hairy heck is he?" Meowth complained, still staring with the binoculars pressed to its oversized eyes. "He shoulda been outta there by now!"
"And if he'd run into trouble, we should have heard something. Maybe he got lost or something. Meowth, go see what's keeping him." And Jessi gave the Pokemon a sharp shove towards the shelter.
"Okay, okay, quit pushin'!" Meowth spat, tossing the binoculars aside and prowling on all fours towards the slightly open shelter door. He could see the dim red glow from James's lantern from inside. It wasn't moving. He couldn't hear anything. What the heck was going on?!
He peered inside and saw James sitting with his back to the door, the lantern held carelessly in one hand and resting on the floor beside him. James seemed to be staring at the sleeping form in front of him, though from behind Meowth couldn't tell for sure.
"James!" Meowth hissed softly. "Yo, prettyboy! Hey, Jimbo! Get your skinny rear in gear and let's get goin'!" He stole inside and saw that James' other hand was empty. "Aw, man, you ain't even got the Pokeballs yet--!"
James glanced back, put a gloved finger to his lips. "Shh."
Meowth rose to his hind feet and strode forward. "Don't shush me, ya numbnut! We got a job to do, this ain't no time to be admirin' the--" He stopped at James's side, dead in his tracks, when he saw the sleeping girl. "--s-s-scenery...."
James sighed dreamily. "Isn't she...isn't she beautiful...?"
Meowth swallowed hard. "Aw, geez..." He grabbed James's free arm with both front paws and began tugging for all he was worth, trying to urge his teammate towards the half-open door. "C'mon, kid, we gotta get outta here. Right now, before she wakes up!"
"Wuh-what?" James tried to shake off his stupor at the alarm in Meowth's rasping whisper. "What's the matter?"
"Don't ask stupid questions, just get the lead out!" Meowth threw his whole weight into pulling James towards the only available exit, which wasn't much, and wasn't nearly sufficient to get the youth moving.
That was about the time that Jessi's threadbare patience finally snapped. "That's it!" she snarled, throwing down the binoculars so hard the lenses broke. "Never send a man or a talking cat to do a woman's job! When I get those Pokeballs, I'm going to beat James and Meowth senseless with them, then present them to the Boss myself!"
She stomped across the clearing, managing to control herself enough to walk more softly as she got to the door. Inside she saw something that looked like a struggle taking place, which made her pause. In a moment, she saw that it was Meowth trying to get James moving, who for some reason refused to budge. And neither one of them had any Pokeballs. Her momentary alarm turned at once to outrage.
Jessi slipped into the shelter and stopped about a meter away from the pair, her arms folded, her expression stern. She spared not a glance for the sleeping female who seemed to be the object of James's fascination. "I thought we came here to steal Pokemon," she whispered with silken venom, "not try out for the World Wrestling League."
Meowth looked up at Jessi, and froze. His eyes grew huge, his jaw dropped open, and he began to shake violently. "Juh-Juh-Jessi..." he stammered, forgetting to whisper.
"Meowth, be quiet! You'll--" James looked around, and he too reacted with sudden, evident terror. His green eyes went wide as his face lost all its color. His mouth moved, spasmodically, but no sound emerged.
Jessi reveled in the fear her presence evidently had produced. It was about time they showed proper respect for the real brains of the outfit! "When we get out of here," she murmured softly, a wicked smile curling her ruby lips, "I'm going to tell the Boss exactly what a pair of jokers I got stuck with, and he'll find out who's really the ace on this team!"
James raised a shaking hand and pointed. "Juh-Jessi..." He swallowed hard. "Luh-look behind you...!!!"
Jessi laughed softly. "Oh, now really. You don't expect me to fall for that old gag, do you?"
At that moment she felt a chill of icy coldness on the back of her neck. She stopped, and blinked. It was a warm night, with no chill in the air. So why were her arms suddenly prickling with goosebumps? Why were there chills chasing each other down her steely spine?
Then she heard it: a guttural rasp, barely audible, yet seemingly deafening in the sudden silence:
Jessi turned, and came face-to-face with a black shadow come to life, its face a burning yellow jack-o-lantern leer, its eyes burning red coals inches from her own.
Jessi screamed and jumped backwards, falling over Meowth and landing in James's lap. The impact spurred the male Rocket into action, and he caught Jessi up in his arms and ran.
There was only one door, and James made for it. Meowth sprang to its feet, tail bristling like a bottle brush, and followed on all fours. The Haunter cackled with insane delight and gave chase.
Jessi wrapped her arms around James's neck and screamed a long, continuous wail. Staring over his shoulder, she had an excellent view of the black nightmare that pursued them. "Faster, James, it's catching up!" she screeched.
"I'm going as fast as I can!" he panted in response. "It's so dark I can barely see-EEEE!" He tripped over something in the dark, and the pair of them went tumbling headlong. Meowth got caught up in the confusion, and the three of them landed in a tangled heap of arms, legs and bristled tail at the bottom of a small slope.
Jessi disengaged herself and sat up, looking around with anxious eyes. "Is it gone?" she whispered, a thin shadow of her usual voice. She sounded more like a frightened little girl than a member of the world's premier criminal organization.
James patted her shoulder as he straightened himself. "I...I think we may have lost it," he murmured, hopefully.
Then the black shape blotted out the moon above them. "Haunterrrrrrr...."
James and Jessi screamed in chorus and wrapped their arms around each other. Meowth fainted dead away.
A sweet, bell-clear voice cut the air, and the Haunter froze in its descent. "Haunt?" it queried, glancing around.
"Harley, that's enough. I think they've got the idea. Come on, now, come back."
"Haunt haunt." Meekly, the shadowy horror glided over to his mistress' side.
James forced his eyes open and saw their rescuer--the girl who'd been sleeping in the shelter. The moonlight glistened off hair like a fresh-fallen snowbank. Her eyes, open now, looked deep blue in the gloom as they appraised him and his partner. "Team Rocket. Why am I not surprised?"
"Please don't kill us!" Jessi wailed. "We--we were lost and were looking for someone to give us directions! Honest!! Right, James?"
James couldn't respond. His attention was riveted on the girl standing on the rise, as firmly as it had been when he'd seen her sleeping.
"James!!" Jessi shook him. "James, right?!"
"Oh! Uh...yes, what she said," he demurred belatedly.
Meowth groaned. "Uhh...am I dead?"
The girl gasped. "A...a talking...Meowth?!"
The feline Pokemon sat up. "Hey, Gina, what's the idea of sickin' your Haunter on us? We weren't doin' nothin'!"
"You know this girl?" Jessi inquired sharply.
"Shut your mouth, Meowth!" the girl--Gina--snapped. "Another word out of you and I swear I'll feed you to Harley!"
"Haaaaaunt," the Haunter jeered.
"Yeah, whatever." Meowth sat down and began washing his face to restore his lost dignity.
"I...I don't understand," James looked from Meowth to Gina. "You two...know each other?"
"It's a long story," Gina said. "And it doesn't explain what the three of you were doing in my shelter. Not that I can't guess. You wanted my Pokemon, didn't you?"
"No!" Jessi denied hotly.
"Yes..." James admitted, shamefaced. Jessi whapped him.
Gina nodded. "Thought so. Well, you can forget it. Even if you stole them, you couldn't control them. I bet you don't have a badge between you, and all my babies are too high-level for you."
"We were going to take them to the Boss--ow! Jessi, stop twisting my arm!"
"Will you shut your trap, James?!"
"Aw, forget it, you two." Meowth stood up, front paws on what passed for hips on him. "This operation's a bust. We won't gain anything stealin' from this chick. Take my word for it."
"For once, the talking feline is right," Gina agreed. "Now, if you lot don't mind, I'm going back to sleep. And if you get any ideas about paying me any more unannounced visits, just remember..." Her tone lowered threateningly. "Haunters don't sleep."
"Haunter haunt," Harley concurred, grinning hugely.
James and Jessi gulped in unison.
Gina started to turn, then paused, looked back at James...and smiled. Then she winked. "Next time, handsome...call ahead." She blew him a kiss, and disappeared back over the rise.
"Humph." Jessi stood up, dusting herself off. "How embarrassing. This wouldn't have happened if you'd done the job right, James. You could have been in and out before that stupid Haunter knew what was happening." She started towards the trees, then realized she was walking alone. She stopped, looked back. "James?"
Her partner was gazing at the now-deserted rise with a positively dopey look on his flawless face. "She called me 'handsome'," he crooned. "I think she likes me."
Jessi shrieked, charged at James and cuffed him so hard he fell over. "Would you stop mooning over that--that peroxide queen and come on?!"
As they were heading back, James suitably chastised, Jessi turned her attention to Meowth. "And you."
It turned wide innocent eyes on her. "Huh? I didn't do nothin'."
"How do you know that girl? Who is she?"
"Nobody. I don't know nothin'."
"You shouldn't hold out on your partners," Jessi coaxed. "It could be hazardous to your health."
"Look, Jess, just take it from me, the farther away we stay from that chick, the better. For all our sakes. Especially Jimbo over there."
Jessi growled, but she knew if Meowth didn't want to talk, she couldn't force it--not without James's help, and at the moment James was completely useless. She shoved her annoyance down for the moment.
Sooner or later, she'd find out what Meowth knew about that girl. It wasn't just curiosity, or frustration at being held out on...she had a strong feeling that the mysterious Gina could be a powerful ally...or enemy. She was somehow certain that they'd meet again.
She was right.
Boring Legal Stuff:This site is a fan-produced, not-for-profit creation of someone severely addicted to Pokémon and is not intended as an infringement on or challenge to the copyrights of (deep breath) Game Freak, Nintendo, Creatures Inc., Bandai, Time-Warner, or anybody else or their great-grandmother. Suing me would be a waste of time--you can't get blood from an Oddish. =B