Early Saturday morning, Sierra creaked open the door to Arlo's room, substantially more quietly than she usually entered. Of course, the reason she usually yelled was because Arlo slept heavily enough that nothing else would rouse him. To her left, her fellow leader was spread out on Spark's shirtless chest, the Team Instinct leader's arms around him. In between them, they'd have a single complete outfit, if you could call it that. While she couldn't really tell seeing as Spark's hair always looked like that, Arlo's at least was both disheveled and standing on end, although that may have just been from his hoodie. She supposed she couldn't technically complain about his state of dress or lack thereof. Arlo's trademark garment was long enough that it covered everything that they'd agreed on in the residence documents. Either way, she was seeing about exactly what she wanted to see. And had also gained the possibly useful factoid that Spark snored.
Sierra pulled out her phone, took a picture, and snickered to herself. She could blackmail them both about this for years to come. Afterwards, she snuck out of the room, taking advantage of the piles of towels and laundry to obscure the sound of her footsteps, closed the door behind her, waited 5 minutes, and because it actually was about time that people needed to wake up, knocked on the door with her usual intensity. No one would ever know about her previous entrance. Or that she did have to admit that they were kind of cute together.
"If you want to eat before Go Fest, get yourselves decent and emerge! We just restocked the cereal and yogurt yesterday. And yes, that includes for you, Spark, I guess."
Spark opened his eyes and sat up relatively quickly, stretching themself out before poking Arlo several times, leading the Go Rocket leader to blearily turn in his direction.
"Didn't think Sierra was the type to feed her guests. Maybe you're right that she does really care about y'all, in her own assholish way."
"Mrgmfrl." It would be approximately 2 hours before Arlo became fully sapient. He reluctantly rolled over and approached the chest of drawers. "If you...clothes...brain not working. I will change in the bathroom. You can check Cliff's closet if you don't have enough in your backpack. Mrgf."
After Arlo returned from the bathroom across the hall, he and Spark headed towards the kitchen. Spark glanced at him and winked.
"So, are we going to tell Sierra about what we got up to last night under the cover of shitty meme songs?"
Despite his state, Arlo turned towards Spark and put his hands on their shoulders before speaking with utmost resoluteness. "We take this to our graves." He then repeated his smile that was slightly too wide to be wholly natural. "Or yours, at least!"
Spark chuckled and lightly punched him in the arm. "We really need to work on your death threats."
"What? I thought that one was pretty good!"
The duo got their respective breakfast choices and settled at the table, where Cliff and Sierra had either already finished or opted to go without, them both nursing mugs of coffee, abyss black for Sierra and with more cream for Cliff. Sierra looked over them both.
"Hmm. I honestly can't tell since Spark's hair always looks like that. You do seem happy, though. So, while I'm down with just leaving this out of our next report to Giovanni, how the hell are we going to get him to Go Fest without his coworkers killing us?" She gesticulated in Spark's general direction. "Please tell me you've worked something out."
Arlo piped up. "Well, I was thinking about it and I think the best option is that we carry him in the trunk—" He turned towards Spark. "Just, uh, brace yourself when we go over speed bumps or stop. We can drop him off a block or two down and as long as we get there early, he can walk over and no one will suspect a thing. It wouldn't be out of character since he's the egg guy."
"I'm totally changing my official job title to 'egg guy'. Cortana, remind me to get that on my business cards." The voice assistant on Spark's phone had been turned off ever since they had gotten it and it was also charging on the nightstand in Arlo's room.
Sierra sighed. "Fine. But if we're going to have someone in the trunk, I'm driving. I think if either of you boys did, you'd kill him. Also, Spark, speaking of killing you, if one word of this gets out to your professor, no one will find your remains." She made the threat in the same tone of voice as one would normally discuss the weather or when one's child got out of soccer practice.
"Huh. Didn't realize you were all so nonchalant about threatening people's lives. I thought that was just an Arlo thing."
"But I still do it best, right?"
"You totally do." Spark reached out his hand and petted Arlo's hair, to the satisfaction of both parties.
Sierra rolled her eyes. "Yeah, y'all are adorable. But let's talk about our plans for Go Fest! We've clearly got some big, nefarious operation planned...does anybody know what it is? I have gotten absolutely nothing from administration save that we're supposed to keep an eye on the grunts and just...be there in case anything interesting happens." She fidgeted in her chair a bit, as she usually did when she got annoyed with the lack of communication from her superiors or otherwise did not have clear plans.
Cliff shrugged. "I don't know anything." Arlo nodded in agreement.
Sierra sighed with frustration before turning her attention onto Spark. "Hey! Weather boy! Anything big y'all are going to be doing that we should sabotage? And before you complain about this being a violation of your contract, if you're sleeping under our roof, you're one of us. No take backs! Welcome to the dark side."
Spark shot a quick glare at her before throwing his hands apart and shrugging. "For the record, I wouldn't tell you this much if we actually had anything planned, but I don't think we do. We're just supposed to make sure the Go trainers play nice, take some pics for the social media pages, and watch the Shaymin. Maybe catch some. All Willow's ever talked about re: that is how cute it is, so I don't even think we've got any specific research planned."
Sierra physically placed her palm against her face, covering one eye and turning the other one towards the table. "I swear...if no one's going to bother to explain what we're doing, why the hell are we even going to this event? I am not in my position to babysit grunts and 'report back about any anomalous events'. I'm here to steal Pokemon and crush people's dreams!"
"That's great for you! Good job finding a career path where you can use your talents." Spark's intimidation upon seeing her for the first time back in 2019 felt like a distant memory at this point. He was dating her coworker. They were equals now regardless of their differences in Trainer experience, and he would show no mercy.
Arlo raised his hand, which was likely unnecessary, but he seemed to have something important backing it. "So, if neither of our groups' admins have any particular plans and we're both just supposed to hang out and wait for anything interesting to happen...can we just, like, hang out? With each other? Like we did at the '20 afterparty?"
"If you're asking if you and Spark can go off together and be sickeningly cute, do it. Just maybe take some flowers or mug someone or something so we at least have something to show for this. Hell, catch Pokemon legitimately if you have to. If nothing interesting does, in fact, happen, Giovanni is totally going to cut off our event funding. Also, don't fuck with Candela."
"Literally or figuratively? Because I've had my fill of that liter—"
"Either. In all seriousness, she can and will either report things to her professor or kill you, and it would be difficult to replace you in both outcomes."
"Why? Because I'm the best operative and you've never met anyone like me?"
"The second part is certainly true. Anyway, come on, losers. We're taking the windowless van. Spark, we've got some straps you might want to use in case of abrupt stops. Normally they're for restraining large Pokemon, but we don't have seatbelts in the trunk so. Arlo can get you set up."
Arlo made his murder-smile again. "Gladly."
Spark turned his head downwards and shook it, trying to stifle his laughter. As the others exited, he gave the Go Rocket leader a quick kiss on the cheek before turning to him with a mischievous smile. "To the grave, right?"
"To the grave." The couple embraced while Sierra honked at them from the garage.
When Spark had previously contemplated if he'd ever end up traveling while strapped into the trunk of a dark, windowless van, he figured that his current company would likely be to blame, but with a completely different framing device. He also figured that he'd be gagged. Well, he wasn't, and was gladly taking advantage of such while Sierra was a captive audience. He also couldn't see Arlo from his vantage point, but delighted in contemplating his reaction.
"So, anyone want to talk about their feelings?"
Sierra yelled something in Spark's direction that he didn't bother listening to before turning to Cliff and bringing up the obvious question in what she thought would be outside of Spark's earshot.
"Remind me again why we're bringing Spark? We could totally sell them for ransom and cover our event expenses for years."
"Come on, Sierra, think about what you'd do for love." Based on Cliff's tone of voice which was maybe 2 steps removed from breaking into song, he was absolutely thrilled to tweak his fellow leader about this.
"I would say I'd kill a man, but I'd probably do that anyway. I definitely wouldn't reveal confidential data and miss an opportunity like this."
"If nothing else, you know damn well that we couldn't beat the other 2 team leaders and Professor Willow and all of their goons. Heh. GO-ons."
"That's not even how it's pronounced. Also, I'm going to say it louder for the people in the back. As I've said to the grunts, emphasizing the word 'go' whenever it comes up is not a pun!" Spark could already hear her just fine, seeing as he wasn't convinced Sierra possessed volume control at all. She didn't need to yell as she had on that last sentence.
"Well, why don't you, I dunno, Pokemon GO jump in a lake if you're not going to lighten up?"
Sierra started actually laughing at that, a deeply disturbing sound. "Heh. That was actually passable. Perhaps Arlo really is a bad influence on you."
"Are you really going to do the thing where you use 'bad' in place of 'good' because you're evil? That's so cliche. What is this, a Saturday morning cartoon?"
Arlo finally chimed in, unbeknownst to those who were either strapped into the back or needed to keep their eyes on the road, smirking to himself the whole time. "As I've said before, we were way more menacing in the original Japanese!"
Sierra didn't dignify that with a response and Cliff might not have noticed. Spark wasn't quite sure if other than his devotion to Giovanni, he knew who he worked with.
"Sure you were, honey. And while I'm talking about cliche villainy, what makes you guys think that your mysterious, squat, pitch black building in the woods and your dark, windowless van are anything but conspicuous? All they do is let anyone with a brain know you're up to no good. Like, if you rented a strip mall office space and a used minivan, no one would even pay you a second glance. I feel like you'd be way more effective criminals if you weren't trying so hard to be suspicious!"
"Oh, wow, would you look at that? Spark started fucking one of our own and now he's suddenly realized he knows how to do our jobs better than we do." Spark wished he could see Sierra's face during this whole exchange. Of course, if they weren't restrained and she didn't need to focus on driving, she'd probably have turned it into a physical brawl by now.
"He does have a point." Arlo quickly stuck out a thumbs up towards the trunk before retracting his arm. "I keep suggesting that instead of conspicuously glitching out Pokestops, we should just set up legit accounts under burner Gmails. It's not like they background check the Go trainers and that way we could undermine local communities and maybe get some slightly more competent recruits."
"Plus then we could snoop on and sabotage the teams' research." Sierra started audibly growling at having Cliff, of all people, agreeing with Spark.
"Okay, let's suppose you're right that sabotaging operations through legitimate outlets would be more inconspicuous and allow us to engage in more effective criminal endeavors. But where's the panache? Team Rocket is known internationally for a certain flair which sabotaging legitimate outlets does not have!"
"I don't think our funding cares about panache, Sierra." Perhaps Spark had misjudged Cliff's awareness.
The rest of the drive passed in silence until the dark, windowless van pulled into a strip mall several blocks north of the Gracidea Park. The trunk opened, Cliff unlatched the straps that kept Spark in the trunk, and the Team Instinct leader was unceremoniously deposited in front of a podiatrist's office. Sierra rolled down the window before the windowless van continued on its way.
"Okay, your dirty work is done. If you start walking now, you should arrive fashionably late unless you fall down a manhole or something. When you've had your fill, come back here and we'll pick you up, I guess. Believe me, I've been tempted to throw you out onto the side of the road this whole time, but I guess if Arlo is really that invested there might be something worthwhile in you."
Before Sierra closed the door, Arlo waved back at Spark. "Hey, remember what we decided on! If we get our stuff done on Day 1, we can, like, have a picnic or something else cute like that tomorrow."
Spark waved toward the windowless van before briskly walking down the block, humming that horrible meme song as he went. Once Spark had disappeared from view and just before the dark, windowless van pulled out of the driveway, it was intercepted by a much less intimidating vehicle that to Arlo, remained if anything more menacing given whom it likely contained.
A light blue, somewhat rounded but otherwise practically shaped car of average size and build and a relatively recent, but not brand new model, Arlo estimated it was from around 2017, pulled into the parking lot next to the windowless van. The other vehicle bore several magnets modified from bumper stickers on its back surfaces, carefully out of range of anything that could block visibility, including a Team Mystic emblem, the Twitter URL for the Professor Willow lab, and a statement to "honk IFF you love formal logic." Despite Arlo's urgings, the Team Rocket van stopped and Sierra opened a door to have a brief conversation with one of the occupants. She then turned back in Arlo's direction and her face broadened in a sadistic smirk. Cliff chuckled under his breath.
"Have fun! You don't mind a little delay in getting to Go Fest, right?"
Candela exited the blue car and opened the door to the back seat, staring Arlo down through the open door. Arlo made his best attempt at focusing his attentions on her carefully tousled hair and her eyes lit up with the same twisted glee he'd seen on a disturbing number of grunts before the leaders moved to their own building, usually right before he discovered something unspeakable had been done, or in one case, was in progress in his quarters.
"So, how is my favorite traitor? Did you sleep okay? Did Spark keep you up all night?"
"Do you really know enough traitors that you need to designate a favorite — wait, how do you know that? How did you know we'd be here?"
The final member of Professor Willow's trio also exited the car and approached behind Candela. "We received an anonymous tip." Candela unsubtly winked in Sierra's direction after Blanche's statement, implying the tip was not, in fact, anonymous and that not only was Arlo likely going to die, Sierra sold him out. Maybe he shouldn't have played that song. "I must say, thank you for caring for Spark over the weekend while he waits for his new bed to ship. Perhaps someone is more compassionate than he outwardly lets on."
"And speaking of shipping, did he keep you up all night? Is he better in bed than me? Wait, no, cancel that, I don't want to think of Spark as a sexual being."
"Oh, right. Anyway, you're coming with us."
Blanche briefly dropped their cool appearance and looked down at Arlo with what seemed to be legitimate regret tempered by knowledge stemming from past experience. "Please do not resist. It will not stop her."
Arlo reluctantly entered the back of the blue car and was surprised to find it completely organized, its only embellishment being a stern instruction written on a notecard instructing anyone drinking non-water beverages to do so in a container with a lid and to only open it when the vehicle was stopped, appended with "Candela, this means you." The radio station was turned to inoffensive low-key synth music, at a volume low enough that all passengers could still easily hear all sounds on the road and conversation. All of this only served to disturb Arlo further. Clearly, Blanche was either a robot or hiding a body in the trunk. Those were the only possible explanations.
"So, you're going to kill me, right?"
Candela burst out laughing. "Not until we get the information we need." Blanche waited until the car reached a stop sign and then briefly aimed a look of disdain at her before speaking towards the back seat without diverting their eyes from the road.
"As Candela said, we have no plans to kill you at present. Instead, we are going to go to the mobile lab and have an earnest conversation about your relationship with your new boyfriend."
"Uh, he's not my boyfriend! We've never actually discussed the use of that word—"
"Arlo, remember when you used to take me to watch rom-coms because it made you feel like the ultimate cishet guy?"
"Ugh. Don't remind me. I dressed like a fratbro back then."
"Yeah, a larval one. I still think that we should have printed out fake middle school report cards for you so we could have gotten free popcorn!"
Blanche sighed under their breath. "As fascinating as all of this is, I think you should discuss Arlo's previous fashion proclivities at another occasion."
"Blanche, I haven't finished my thought yet. So, Arlo, I'd like you to name one of those rom-coms in which someone said someone wasn't their boyfriend and/or girlfriend and wasn't wrong."
Blanche seemed to catch on to what was being discussed and one of the corners of their mouth turned up slightly. "The only thing flimsier is claiming that you're just having dinner together as men. Of course, it is 2022. You can do that."
"Uh, we don't live in a rom-com. I think your thesis statement is built on faulty premises."
Candela again sarcastically laughed at him. "Oh, please. Everyone knows you liked him from the get-GO. Lest we forget the Go Fest 2020 afterparty."
Blanche's expression changed to abject confusion. "Wait, what happened at this afterparty? I left with Professor Willow."
"Oh, right, you're a total nerd. Well, I brought a keg —"
"Excuse me? You know quite well that bringing offsite alcohol or drugs to Pokemon League-sanctioned events is strictly forbidden."
"It was after Go Fest, Blanche. It was no longer Pokemon League-endorsed."
"It still wasn't a good idea, especially since the Team Go Rocket leaders were present. Hanging out with them was fine, but what if you had revealed any confidential —"
"Anyway, this man—" Candela extended an accusatory finger in the direction of the backseat. "Well, let's just say that while he neglected to respond to the query of Fuck/Marry/Kill with the other leader trio due to previous experience...to be honest, that didn't work too well since Arlo and I had past experience, you weren't there, and the only person Cliff was oriented towards was Spark, he did spend several hours attempting to bribe Spark into letting him ride on their shoulders and admitted to having followed him on Instagram since January 2019."
Arlo's face flushed at the admission thereof. Surely the park would be coming up any second. They were only a couple of blocks down from the park and it felt like it had been hours. Why was it taking this long? He needed to come up with a retort, and fast. Just as he opened his mouth to say something, Candela concluded her thought.
"Anyway, while he failed to get a ride, he did end up practically sitting in Spark's lap by the time we left. Wait, 86 the 'practically'. He was sitting in Spark's lap. Might I add, he'd only had 2 beers. He's always been a total lightweight. That's why I excommunicated him!"
"Well, I still got the valor_leader_official Instagram, so you can hardly say that you won."
"Ah, yes, and you're such a highly regarded Trainer hanging out in your dark building in the woods doing emo nerd research and not cleaning your room. By the way, have you washed your sheets lately? You're supposed to replace your mattress every 4 years, so it should be at least that for any bedding. Especially if you and Spark —"
"We've arrived at the park. Please hold off on continuing this discussion until we get to the mobile lab. Anyway, Arlo, to prevent you from running off to inform any other Team GO Rocket personnel, we have 3 options. Either you hold someone's hand, we attach you via chain to my belt loop, or I transport you in a Pokeball. Also, give me your phone for security's sake. We need to make sure location services are off so your boss does not get alarmed."
Arlo chuckled at the mention of the chain. He could work with that. "If you want me for a threesome, you should have just said so. I mean, save that I'd totally end up picking white hairs off my jacket for weeks, I'd be down for —"
Candela produced a chain from the car's glove compartment, fastened and locked it around Arlo's left arm, and hooked the other end to Blanche's belt loop. "Remember that we said we had no plans to kill you...at present. It's in your best interest not to change that factor."
The Team GO Rocket leader reluctantly handed over his phone, figuring that at least Blanche wouldn't go through his pictures. Blanche smirked at him. "Now, was that so hard? I am not interested in your advances anyway. Don't flatter yourself. I have a perfectly well-versed emo of my own waiting for me at home."
Either the pair of team leaders were attempting to avoid having Arlo in view of any Go trainers or grunts by avoiding Pokestops or they were trying to get him eaten alive by mosquitoes. Either seemed possible. Eventually he was led to a squat grey trailer with neon green trim. He admitted that he expected the esteemed Pokemon professor's mobile lab to be somewhat larger and better-equipped. Professor Willow glanced up from a tablet as the team leaders approached with Arlo, shrugged, and proceeded to exit. The chain around Arlo's arm was detached, exchanged for him being buckled into an actually reasonably comfortable chair in front of a presently off projector screen. As Candela continued to glare at him from a corner, Blanche made a show of donning a pair of latex-free blue sanitary gloves, making sure to have them audibly snap on each arm, like doctors did in movies before shoving something up someone's anus. Blanche paced around him muttering to themself before gesturing to Candela, who handed them a flashlight that they shone in each of his eyes. Arlo was frankly bewildered at this. This didn't seem relevant to either assessing his viability as a partner or murdering him.
"So, uh, why are you doing this?"
"I need to make sure you are, in fact, you. If you weren't, that would be...awkward to explain to both Spark and your boss. There are a number of Pokemon that are known to take human form or take over humans' bodies to cause mischief, and it is well-known that someone who is possessed or transformed will not only not blink when exposed to bright light, their eyes will appear an unusual color or not properly reflect."
"Yeah, that scans."
Candela's eyes widened. "Seriously? You're just accepting this?"
"Why shouldn't I? There are several well-documented cases and, like, it's always good to be prepared."
"Pfft! Nerds." Blanche handed the flashlight back to Candela, who disappeared back into the corner. They then furrowed their brow as they continued to look into Arlo's eyes.
"Were your eyes always red? Do I need to fire up the purification chamber? I don't see a visible aura, but you do carry an alarming cocktail of fumes and it's possible that the Shadow Pokemon formula has different effects on humans due to differences in XM field expression."
Candela laughed, again. As annoyed as he was at it being at his expense, Arlo did like hearing it. It was nice to see her off the clock. "Uh, Blanche? That's just his body spray. And I'm pretty sure the eyes are either contacts or that the fumes got to him. They weren't red when we were dating, but they've been that way since, like, 2019. I don't think he's a Shadow Pokemon. He'd be way stronger if he were." Breaking Blanche's clinical approach, she emerged from the shadows to lightly punch him in the arm, which still carried enough force for him to flinch.
"Oh." Blanche looked Arlo over with disapproval. "How much body spray are you wearing? You know that the packages themselves say that one quick squirt on the chest and perhaps under the arms is sufficient. And it's not a substitute for washing your clothes."
"I'm not sure if he understands that concept. He's had that dumb hoodie for as long as I've known him. Other than him embroidering an R on it, I don't think it's changed. Hell, he might not have washed it in the past several years. Wouldn't put it past him. And let's not even discuss the fact that they really need to hold whatever company is responsible accountable for the environmental disaster that is his hair. It's not even a flock of Wingulls anymore. Get it? Because the oil spill killed all of them?"
Arlo made his best attempt at appearing indignant without being able to gesture, on grounds of being unable to move his hands. "For your information, I just did laundry last week! Also, why am I restrained again? If I were going to attack you or make a break for it, I'd have done it by now."
"This is actually protocol in the event that we detain a Team GO Rocket member for interrogation. Believe me, I could have done without you being chained to my belt loop on our way here. I'm actually going soft on you by letting you keep your Pokeballs seeing as this isn't a Pokemon-related issue."
"Well, joke's on you. I'm super into this." He winked in Candela's direction. She responded by flipping him off before bursting into laughter.
"Please. Well, now that I am reasonably certain that you are, in fact, you as much as I can be without getting into either deep epistemological questions or brain scans, let's talk about your relationship with Spark."
"If you're going to kill me, now would be a nice time to do it." He glanced in Candela's direction, hoping that she would save him by just punching him in the face or something. Rather, she was smiling wider than he had ever previously seen on any lifeform that wasn't a Gengar. This was going to suck.