A Salamence, surrounded in a cloud of darkness, descended upon Team Instinct HQ, seeming to suck in all of the light behind it as the great dragon approached the unassuming complex. The dragon landed and Arlo gave it a scratch behind its head frills.
"Thanks, Tia! I promise I'll get you some good food after this."
Spark exited and approached the Salamence and its Trainer. "Hey...don't y'all only consider Pokemon tools and can't Shadow Pokemon feel nothing other than pain and rage? What's all this affection stuff I see you doing? Should I tell Giovanni you've gone soft?"
"Uh...no. Actually, all of the 'only feel pain and rage' stuff is just marketing. They made me give the treatment to my Pokemon, too, why the fuck would I hurt them? They don't hold back as much as trainers' Pokemon do so sometimes end up hurting themselves because of that, but as long as you space things out between battles and provide proper care in between, they can live healthy and happy lives!"
"Huh. You really do care about your Pokemon. So...why'd you join Team Rocket? You know what they do. Anyway, where are we going? I assume that Tia here's our ride." Spark reached out a hand to pet the Dragon Pokemon.
"Uh, I wouldn't do that! She's...kinda antsy around people she doesn't know well."
The Salamence started growling and narrowed its crimson eyes and Spark retracted his hand. "Hmm. Do I need to dress up more? Didn't realize we'd be going anywhere fancy." The Instinct leader looked over Arlo's black suit jacket and slacks, the jacket still embroidered with the Team Rocket logo, but more subtly than his usual garb. A simple silver bracelet with a red crystal inlay tied the ensemble together via coordinating with his glasses. "Must say, you clean up pretty nicely."
"No, you're fine as you are." Arlo blushed, again, getting quite flustered with his lack of control over his blood vessels. "It's just that all of my other clothes were in the wash and the outfit I wear for Team Rocket galas and stuff was the only clean outfit I had. Plus I...wanted to make a good first impression."
"All right, then. Whatever you say. So, where are we going?"
"Oh, it's this taco place downtown. I saw you mention on your Instagram that you liked Mexican, so."
"Aww, that's actually really thoughtful of you. I must say, when I first met you, I thought you were-"
"A total asshole who regards anyone other than himself as only a pawn in his evil machinations?"
"Yeah, pretty much. But you actually act like...a person! Wow! Didn't realize you'd stoop so low!"
"So, as I was saying earlier, why would someone like you join Team Rocket? You seem like an actually nice person and decent trainer and they're...not."
"I guess I could say that I did it for love or...something adjacent to it. I wasn't thinking straight. After Candela broke up with me, all I wanted was to hurt her and show that we were nothing alike. Then they offered me the leader position and, well, things escalated from there. I mostly stay now because I like my colleagues. We may not show it as much as you do, but Cliff, Sierra, and I have bonded just as much as you have. We stick together!"
Just then, Arlo's phone buzzed. "Hey, Spark, I can't really look at that while I'm driving a dragon; can you look at my texts and tell me if that's life and death?"
"What, you're letting me see that? Doesn't it contain secret Team Go Rocket plans or something?"
"Hey, you found out about the radars and Apex Shadow Lugia; it's not like we do anything else that matters."
"Well, I'm not sure if this actually counts as 'life and death', but Sierra is threatening to kill you for not taking your leftovers out of the communal fridge before they developed their own ecosystems. What was that about y'all sticking together?"
"Oh, that's just how she is. She really does care about me. I think."
"She also says that she saw you flying towards Instinct HQ and she hopes that either I electrocute you or you at least took some eggs while you were there."
Arlo didn't have to turn around to know that Spark was side-eyeing him about the concept of Sierra legitimately caring for him. Sometimes he didn't know himself. But hey, they worked together. That had to count for something.
"Hey, look, we're here. Tia, down!" The Salamence dropped into the parking lot, to the startled mumblings of those in attendance, and Arlo offered Spark a hand to get down, his face flushing when the Instinct leader took it.
"Hey, you want to know the nice part about arriving on a Pokemon?" The Go Rocket leader smirked.
"You don't have to park!" He withdrew Tia into her Pokeball and the duo entered the restaurant. This was it. The second part of his challenge.
Arlo scanned the room for anyone who might possibly recognize him before settling on a table in the corner, obscured from view from outside by an awkwardly placed wall that obscured the hall to the restrooms and surrounded by curtains in some attempt at producing atmosphere. Couldn't risk anyone noticing his engagement with the Team Instinct leader and forwarding it to Giovanni, after all. "We're sitting here." He grabbed Spark's forearm and half-led, half-dragged him to the chosen table.
"Oh, the table where no one can see us? Don't try anything funny, mister. At least buy me dinner first."
"I am buying you dinner."
"Oh. Right. Anyway, have you been here before?"
"Nah, I don't really go into town much, both because I tend to stick to myself and my research and because of the whole...criminal underworld thing. Plus going here any more often than once a year would be way outside my price point. I'll be living on ramen for weeks. Admittedly, I was doing that anyway, when I remembered to eat at all."
"Heh, save the criminal thing, you kinda remind me of Blanche. Except that they can actually back up their claims." Spark lightly punched Arlo in the arm to punctuate his statement. This was it. They were bantering. Like guys did when they were being dudes. Guys platonically being dudes and faking being on a date to get back at someone. That's all it was. To break the growing awkwardness, a waiter approached.
"Ah, hello! Welcome to Plaza Favorita, what can I get for you?"
"Uh...I've never been here before. What do you recommend?" Arlo fidgeted in his seat, carefully looking everywhere but into the waiter's eyes in order to avoid judgment or having to contemplate what he was actually doing there.
"Well, our queso burritos are some of our most famous items..."
"Great. I'm getting one of those!"
"All right. And you with the spiky hair? Say, don't I know you from somewhere?"
"Yeah, I'm kinda well known among the Pokemon trainer community. Leader of Team Instinct. It's no big deal, though."
"Hey, cool! I'm Team Mystic myself, but I still respect y'all. My best friend's actually Instinct. Do you know a Rukia? That's xem."
"I don't recognize the name, but I'll keep an eye out at the next local meetup! Anyway, I'm not sure what I want, so why don't you start us off with some guac? Make it as spicy as you want; I can take it."
He puffed out his chest before laughing at his display of parodic machismo, which Arlo couldn't help smiling at. He was impressed with the Team Instinct leader's ease at functioning socially. They could just...go up and make themself liked and known wherever they went, something Arlo had never figured out. Maybe that was why he didn’t get the Valor leadership.
"Well, you've got connections, don't you?"
"Eh, not really. I just carry through on what I think people think the Leader of Team Instinct would do, you know? I barely know the names of all my admins!"
"Yeah, I totally get that. I didn't know Cliff's name and just addressed him with 'hey you' for, like, 3 weeks after I got the job with Go Rocket. Only finally remembered who he was because of his Pokeball beard. What is with that?"
"I was just about to ask that. Like, you and Sierra seem to sort of know what you're doing, but Cliff is just...trying so hard, bless his heart."
"Yeah, I've theorized that he's really only on with us because he wants to fuck Giovanni. Can't complain, though."
"I mean, you're only there because Candela wouldn't fuck you, right?"
They both laughed at that. It was strange to Arlo to willingly acknowledge his shortcomings like that and have them be responded to with understanding. In order to be respected on Team Rocket, he had to emphasize how he was the best thing since GPS satellites. Anything but absolute confidence to the point of arrogance was treated as a sign of weakness. But, of course, if he ended up getting too invested in expressing confidence, that was taken as a sign of weakness, too. So he continually had to compensate by being as strong as possible, or recently, focusing on his research. They could say he was a scrawny, emo nerd all they wanted, but they couldn't deny his results! Or at least that was the intention.
"Hey, the guac's here!" Spark again nodded at the waiter before immediately going for the chips and digging into the bright green dip. "Man, this is good guac. It's got just the right balance of chunky and smooth and the spice level is enough to clear my sinuses, but not enough to hurt. Do you like spicy food?"
"Eh, it's okay when it's balanced with other stuff, like with the avocado in the guac, but I was never into spiciness for its own sake. Back when Candela and I were dating, she always tried to get me into these hot chips, but I never got why people enjoy the taste of pain."
"Honestly, whenever I think about it evolutionarily speaking, it's kinda hilarious and goes against my whole 'trusting your instincts' thing. I mean, the whole reason spicy food hurts is that it's literally poisonous to mammals, but we decided that we liked that. Humans are freaks, really. Pokemon may be able to shoot fire out of their butts and all, but they make way more sense when you think about it."
"Yeah, we're really a species of masochists, aren't we?"
"Eh. Some might say it's human nature, but it's always more complicated than that. Like, even in the case of Pokemon, what kind of trainer they're with means more in reference to what moves they learn and other things than what's in the egg, really. Trusting intuitions is a fun slogan, but it doesn't really check out biologically speaking. With humans, it's probably more people subjecting themselves to pain to try to prove how tough they are so they fit some masculine ideal. I don't suppose you're familiar with that concept, huh?"
Arlo darkly chuckled a couple of times at that. "Yeah, you've got me there. But hey, Go Rocket's a living and at this point, it's not like I could get a legit job with that on my resume."
"I can't really argue with you sticking around for room and board. That's, like, a good 80% of the reason why I kept the team leader job even after I got absolutely massacred in the memesphere."
"I've never heard the word 'memesphere' before, but I love it; it's so...80s sci-fi. So, what did you decide to order?"
"Oh, I'm going with something a little different from my usual: the bacon-wrapped stuffed shrimp. They were my ex's favorite before they went vegetarian. You kinda remind me of them, come to think of it; you've got that same dark and edgy vibe. It's a cute look, but I could never pull it off."
Arlo smiled at that. Something about Spark complimenting his appearance almost compensated for all of the times Sierra had called him "emo" derogatorily. "I don't know. You're, like, halfway there with all of those buckles that don't connect to anything on your jacket. What's with those, anyway?"
"I just think they're neat, man, what do you want from me? I used to hook my Pokeballs to them until I got a real belt."
"I mean, if you bleached your hair, you'd pretty much look like the standard anime villain guy. Of course, you'd need to deal with...that." He made a sweeping gesture across Spark's entire body with his hand in the air, intending to represent an overarching summary of his vibe.
"Yeah, I can't argue with that. Hey, look, there's the waiter with our food!"
Things were going...great. Better than Arlo thought they would. To be honest, he hadn't planned for Spark actually being willing to go along with him and listen to what he was saying, but both leaders appeared to be enjoying themselves. This made the possibility of fulfilling Sierra's assignment substantially more complicated for a variety of reasons. After all, wouldn't it be better if he established an emotional bond first? Which he probably couldn't do within the next hour or so? He continued to watch Spark while they both ate, and as much fun as he was having in conversation, appreciated the brief interlude of silence to gather his thoughts. What was he doing? Nothing could ever seriously happen. They had opposite alignments and if either set of coworkers and higher-ups found out, they'd probably get themselves fired at best. Things couldn't work out. It would be a fun, brief summer fling, but nothing beyond that. And not even that because they were just guys platonically being dudes! It was a fake relationship solely for the purpose of his winning back Candela. The more times Arlo said that to himself, the less he believed it.
At some point while he was lost in thought, the waiter reappeared and cleared the plates. Spark tapped Arlo's shoulder before looking at him expectantly, suggesting that it was about time for the duo to take their leave. Arlo continued to hope the Team Instinct leader didn't notice his face flushing every time they made contact. The ride back failed to break the tension and the first half passed in silence until Spark chimed in from the back.
"I had a wonderful time tonight. I must say, whatever I expected from you, this wasn't it."
"I don't suppose I want to know what you expected from me."
"Eh, you just didn't seem like the type to go all out like this, you know? But I had fun. When we land, I'll give you my phone number in case you want to plan something for after Go Fest, maybe? I'm kinda tied up with work, and I'm sure you are too, but my schedule's pretty clear after then."
"Oh. Yeah, that would be...great. Hey, it looks like we're coming up on your HQ. I'll drop you off in the back so no one asks any questions you might not want to answer."
Tia landed in the rear loading dock of Team Instinct HQ. Arlo considered walking with Spark to the door, but concluded that it would probably be questionable etiquette-wise. Of course, he didn't have much experience with this kind of thing. He expected Spark to unceremoniously get off of the Salamence and be on his way after they exchanged phone numbers. Instead, after inputting their number into his phone, the Team Instinct leader turned back towards Arlo, planted a peck on his cheek, and winked at him almost before he realized what was going on.
Processing what had just happened, Arlo waited in the parking lot for about 2 minutes. This whole "pretending to date Candela's coworker to get her back" thing had just become substantially more...complicated. The strange feeling in his stomach returned. He was fairly confident it wasn't from what he had just eaten.