Phantom (dripping_candle) wrote,
Phantom
dripping_candle

chapter fourteen



Act III Stage III And now, how you've / repaid me, / denied me / and betrayed me...


Totodile nudged Misty awake much earlier than she would have liked.

She cracked sticky eyes open and stared at him, her mind still stuck in the throes of her last dream. Something about a...what was it again? It had been nice.

“Dile, totodile, dile.” He patted her awkwardly on the forehead and pointed to her alarm clock. It took a moment for Misty’s eyes to focus on the numbers. Only eight? She groaned.

“Oh, boy, no. It’s way too early. Can’t you wait another couple hours for breakfast? I’m too tired to—”

She was interrupted by a knock on her door. Totodile watched her expectantly; by the sound of the knock, it hadn’t been the first. But who—

She was out of bed immediately, wincing as she shocked herself on the sheets, then the doorknob. She didn’t bother throwing on a robe over her pajamas; Master Drake was, after all, one of the last people she expected to see beaming at her from the hall. He’d traded his Master’s robes for a dark maroon leather jacket over a plain black shirt and dark jeans. Misty stared. Without the thick, draping fabric to hide his frame his resemblance to Ash was uncanny.

“Hello,” he said cheerfully. “Did I wake you up? I’m sorry; I was trying to catch you before you disappeared for breakfast. Care to join me?”

Misty stared. She’d had the occasional meal with her Masters before, but never—one had never shown up at her door unexpectedly and asked her out to breakfast! Mew, he must have been what, twenty years older than her? More? Why would he...

“I know you have a lot of homework,” Drake said when she didn’t respond. “I was actually hoping to talk to you about that. How are you doing? Handling it okay?”

“Um...” Misty was struggling to kick her brain back into gear. “Yeah, I’m doing okay. And breakfast...sure. Can I get dressed first?”

Drake smiled. “Of course. Meet me downstairs in half an hour?”

“Okay.”

He ended up taking her to a busy restaurant a few blocks from the Stadium. Misty was surprised; she hadn’t expected to actually leave. But Drake had led her through the doors as if it were the most normal thing in the world, apparently unaware that students and teachers did not meet outside Stadium walls. Misty wondered why he wanted to see her. Was she failing his class? She’d been under the impression that she was doing fairly well. Dragons were interesting, after all. It wasn’t hard to attend class and pay attention to his lessons.

“Not hungry?” Drake asked from over his thick plastic menu. Misty had only ordered a coffee. “You don’t have to worry about the prices; everything’s on me.”

Misty hated that phrase. “Um, thank you. I’m really not, though. Too early.” Actually, memories of the night before were still fresh in her mind, and she thought food might make her sick.

“Ah. One of those people, eh? My mother was like you. Too much flavor too early made her sick. We’ll wait for the coffee, then; it’ll wake you up, and I have a few important things to discuss.”

Misty was highly uncomfortable. “Um, Master Drake, what exactly did you—”

“Please, just Drake for now,” he interrupted quickly, crinkled blue eyes darting quickly around the thick breakfast crowd. Misty frowned.

“But sir—”

“Not sir,” said Drake hurriedly. He leaned forward and spoke in a voice just above a whisper. “Not ‘master’, not ‘sir’, not anything. No titles, all right? Not out in the open. It makes people listen. Just think of me as uh...your uncle. Uncle-in-law. Whichever.” He smiled at that, as if amused by some unspoken joke, and Misty frowned. He had such an odd sense of humor sometimes; she didn’t get this ‘no titles’ thing at all.

She met his eyes as their coffee arrived. “But aren’t we here to discuss my classes?” she protested. “I don’t see why it should make any difference if someone heard—”

“Actually, I had a few other things in mind.” He leaned back in his seat and signaled the waitress for some sweetener. Misty watched him in confusion. What the hell was he talking about?

“Well...like what? Because I don’t know—”

Drake flashed her a confident grin. “I’ve wanted to talk to you for so long, Misty. You have no idea. But we agreed that secrecy was for the best, at least for a little while. Only instead of getting bored after a while like he usually does, Ash started spending more and more time aboveground and less maintaining the lake below. He seems to have taken an unusual liking to you.”

Misty nearly dropped her coffee in shock. “You know Ash?” she sputtered, coughing. Drake smiled and offered her his napkin.

“A little. He’s my nephew.”

X


Misty didn’t get back to the Stadium until well after ten, and when she did she made a beeline for Brock’s room, her heart racing as her mind buzzed over her conversation with Master Drake. Upon boarding the crowded elevator, however, she suddenly found herself standing beside the one person in the world she would have given anything not to be near.

She tried to ignore him, to pretend he wasn’t there and that she couldn’t feel the clash of butterflies and guilt welling up in her stomach, but it was impossible, and he would have none of it. The doors were still closing behind her when he began shuffling nearer. When his arm brushed hers he leaned over and said softly, “I need to talk to you.”

The entire elevator was silent, its occupants obviously curious to find out what Rudi Trovita had to say to the girl everyone knew he’d broken up with. Misty suppressed a cry of frustration when it slowed to a stop on the second floor and a young trio reluctantly took their leave. Hadn’t these people heard of stairs?

“Well I don’t need to talk to you,” she replied evenly, her eyes on the closing doors. Though they were both trying desperately, it was impossible to keep their voices down in an elevator. It stopped again on the third floor to admit more people, and Rudi stepped even closer to make room. Misty’s heart was pounding. She didn’t need this right now. Not after last night, and not after this morning. Mew, of all times, she didn’t need this now!

“Please, Misty, I’ve been looking for you all morning.” He glanced at the cocked heads and curious eyes of the Trainers all around them and added softly, “Please don’t make me beg...”

She could feel half a dozen eyes on her, but it was Rudi’s pained gaze that made her nervous. The elevator slid to a stop on her floor and she bumbled her way off of it, unwilling to try for another three. Her uneasiness heightened when she felt Rudi take hold of her arm and follow, but she couldn’t bring herself to shake him off. As soon as the elevator doors closed again, however, she broke his grip and whirled on him, eyes flashing.

What. What do you want.”

Rudi was startled. He took a small step back and said, “Nothing. I just want to talk. Please, can’t we just—”

“We don’t have anything to talk about.”

That said, Misty turned and strode down the hallway to her door. Rudi’s lying, conniving backstabber insult was still fresh in her mind, and she was desperately keeping it there in an attempt to stave off the guilt she felt for lying to him.

And...for kissing Ash.

Mew, she hoped he went away. She hadn’t worked out what to say to him about that Ash part yet, and she wasn’t eager to try and wing it. She still wasn’t sure what she wanted from him anyway. Forgiveness? An apology? A real break-up? Or a make-up?

She didn’t dare glance behind her to see if he was following. She reached her door and fumbled for her keys, careful to keep her eyes down as she fought to control her breathing, and nearly cried when a shadow fell over her. A moment later Rudi’s warm hands wrapped around her elbows as he stepped up close behind her.

“Please, Misty,” he breathed in her ear. “I just want to talk. It’s been over two days now.”

“What about Ash?” she blurted, and jammed her key into the lock. It took her a moment to realize it was upside-down. She flipped it and tried again, her heart rate quickening as she felt Rudi’s grip tighten.

“What about Ash?” he repeated. Misty realized that talking to Rudi about Ash would not be beneficial to anyone right now, and hastily switched topics.

“Look, Rudi, I have a lot of homework to catch up on, and I really don’t want to have this conversation right now—”

“I miss you,” he said softly, and sighed. Misty paused in the act of opening her door and slumped a little. This time she was unable to block the wave of guilt and longing that washed through her, and Rudi felt it.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I was going to wait awhile before I came to see you again, but I just...I can’t, you know? I can’t even stay mad at you.” He laughed shortly, painfully, and Misty’s chest ached. “D’you know, I actually feel guilty about what happened? I thought about it all day Friday and yesterday, about you and me, and by the time I went to bed all I could think about was apologizing to you. I don’t even know what for: For yelling at you? For saying the things I did?” He sighed and pulled her closer, and Misty didn’t have the heart to stop him. “All I know,” he breathed in her ear, “is that I love you, and I can’t stand that I hurt you. Please, can you forgive me?”

Misty’s couldn’t respond. Of course she forgave him; she loved him. And yet she’d lied to him, and used him, and...and cheated on him...And here he was, poor Rudi who was only trying to help, who went out of his way to keep her safe—and was it really his fault he couldn’t understand?—and he still loved her even after all that, and now he...he wanted her forgiveness...

Misty’s gaze dropped to the floor. Her arm fell away from the doorknob, her key abandoned in the lock, and she knew Rudi could feel her start to shake.

“Misty?” His hands moved to her shoulders and he gently tugged her around to face him. “Are you all right? Lugia, I didn’t mean to—”

I’m sorry!” she blurted suddenly, and collapsed against his chest, shaking as the guilt she’d been struggling to suppress for days now finally boiled over and swamped her.

Rudi’s arms were pressing her tightly against him in an instant. She allowed herself to sink into his warmth as he wrapped her up in a fierce hug, his heart beating madly through his shirt. She felt ready to burst, and she couldn’t stop the tears that began pouring out.

“I’m so sorry, Rudi,” she managed to murmur between sobs. “Mew, I’m so sorry. I never should have—have—"

“Oh, Misty, hush,” he shushed her, and pulled away far enough to look into her eyes. He brushed away her hair and drew his face down level with hers. “You don’t have to apologize to me,” he told her softly, gently wiping the tears from her cheeks. He drew her close again when they were replaced by a fresh wave, and kissed her head fervently, then the spot just in front of her ear, then her cheek, then, before Misty knew what was happening, he was holding her tightly and kissing her fiercely, and her mind was a whirlwind of feelings and sensations that she couldn’t even begin to identify.

“I love you so much,” he told her breathlessly, his fingers trembling, tumbling through her hair. “Tell me we’ll never fight like that again. Lugia, tell me—” He never finished, because suddenly he was kissing her again, and Misty was pressed tightly between him and her hard wooden door, and she realized suddenly that she couldn’t kiss him back.

Rudi realized this too, and he drew away after a moment to ask her what was wrong. Misty couldn’t answer him. She leaned heavily against the door and ducked her head in an attempt to hide her tears from him, but he lifted her chin with his thumb and studied her face in confusion. It didn’t take him long to realize they weren’t the same tears as before.

“What is it?” he asked her softly. He frowned, suddenly uneasy, and tried to wipe them away, but they wouldn’t stop. He dipped his head to kiss her again, gently, but Misty didn’t let him. She couldn’t let him. Rudi pulled back and looked at her.

“Misty, what’s wrong?” he asked worriedly. “Please, if you don’t tell me I can’t—”

“Don’t,” she told him softly, and he froze, looking down in confusion at the hand pushing back on his chest.

“What—”

“Don’t,” she repeated weakly, and wiped at her face with her free hand. Her chest ached and it was difficult to breathe. Rudi made to hold her again, but she pushed him away. She wanted to let him—felt the longing for his touch pooling deep in her gut—but she couldn’t. She just couldn’t.

Rudi was breathing heavily, but he didn’t try to approach again. Instead he wrapped the hand on his chest with both of his own and raised it to kiss, but Misty pulled it out of his grasp. His frown deepened.

“Misty, what’s wrong with you? Why won’t you let me—”

“I can’t,” she said unsteadily, and fumbled for the doorknob. Rudi caught her hand as it brushed the keys hanging from the lock and held it tightly.

“Wait a second, Misty, what are you—”

“I have to go.” She didn’t know what else to do. She wanted to let Rudi hold her, let him kiss her and love her, but she just...she couldn’t. It wasn’t right—he wasn’t right. His lips were too smooth, his hands too soft. He didn’t smell right, didn’t taste right, didn’t feel right.

“Now wait a second.” He refused to release her hand when she tugged for it back, and instead forced her to meet his stern gaze. “Just wait a second, Misty, please. What’s going on? What’s wrong? You were fine just a minute ago—”

“Let me go,” she said desperately, trying to pull her hand free. His grip tightened and his eyes flashed.

“Why? What are you running from? Is it something I said? Did I do something to frighten you—”

“No, I just—I can’t—Let me go...”

He drew her closer instead. “Why won’t you let me kiss you?” he asked her heatedly. He tried to cup her cheek with his hand, but she pulled her head away. “Why won’t you let me touch you? Misty...can’t you see how much I love you?”

Her eyes welled with a fresh surge of tears. She couldn’t face him anymore and lowered her gaze to stare furiously at the floor. Her entire body felt heated and painfully tight; her heart barely had room to beat, or her lungs to draw air. She felt suffocated.

Rudi drew a shuddering breath and slammed his palm suddenly against the door beside Misty’s head, startling her. She met his eyes again and was surprised to find him glaring at her.

“What—”

“It’s that Elemental, isn’t it?” He didn’t wait for a confirmation. “I should have known. Dammit, I should have known! What is it about him, Misty? What do you see in him that you can’t find in me? I’ve loved you since I was a child, and he—Lugia! He’s not even human!”

Misty stared, stunned. How did he know she had feelings for Ash? She’d never told him; hadn’t even figured it out herself until last night—

“You can’t possibly love him, Misty,” he told her firmly. “He’s a freak of nature. Dammit, you know the stories! They possess people! He’s only taking advantage of you, making you think you have feelings for him so he can...Look, I don’t know what he’s planning, but what you’re feeling, Misty, it’s not real!”

Misty felt her temper spark somewhere deep inside her. She repressed it, told herself how much doing this to him was hurting him, and forced herself not to back down.

“I’m sorry, Rudi, but I just can’t—”

“Can’t what?” he demanded, his hand curling into a fist on the door. “Can’t love me? Since when? You told me there was no one else, remember? Or was that a lie too?”

A pang of guilt sliced through Misty. Rudi saw it and pounced.

“So it was, was it? What about our evenings together? Our conversations? Were those lies too?”

No,” Misty told him forcefully. “I didn’t lie to you, Rudi, I swear. I meant everything I said—”

He laughed, a harsh, bark-like one that made Misty pause. “You swear, huh? And since when has your word meant anything between us? You were prepared to use me to lie to the headMasters; why should I believe you weren’t just using me all along?”

“Because I wasn’t,” Misty snapped, stung that he believed her capable of that.

“Then what were you doing? Why would you lead me to believe you...” His voice broke, and Misty barely resisted the urge to reach out to him. She hated this, hated what she was doing to him, but she couldn’t back down. Her chest was hollow now, though her heart still felt constricted. She embraced the hollowness, used it to force back the guilt and heartache threatening to overwhelm her at the knowledge of what she was doing. And was it really for the best? What was she doing? If she shoved Rudi away now, there was no guarantee that Ash would take his place later. There was no guarantee that she would ever see him again, really. She could be ruining any chance she had at happiness.

But to let Rudi love her when his lips felt like that...Wasn’t lying to him worse than hurting him?

“Misty,” he said wearily, “what are you doing? Why are you shoving me away? I know we can be happy together. I don’t feel for anyone else what I’ve always felt for you—and believe me, that’s not for lack of trying.” He tried to smile at her, but it was weak and didn’t last long. Instead he took a deep breath and lowered his eyes. “I can make you happy. Please, just give me a chance to make you happy. Don’t end this before it starts. That Elemental, he—” He stopped and frowned, then met her eyes. “There’s nothing there for you, Misty. Even if—if you do love him, what are you going to do? He’s not human. He can’t work; can’t even leave the Stadium. Are you going to stay here your whole life? You’d be miserable. Please, see the reason here. You know I’d do anything for you. Please.”

Misty did see reason. Rudi was everything she’d ever wanted, and she knew he really meant what he said. She knew she could be happy with him, but...

She didn’t want to be. She wanted to be happy with Ash, or not at all. And that thought scared her more than a little.

“I’m sorry,” she began, and felt tears spring to her eyes at the look that crossed his face. “I’m sorry, Rudi, I just, I can’t...”

“Then it was all a lie,” he spit out bitterly, removing his hand from the door and taking a step back. Misty wanted to close the increasing distance between them, to hug him and apologize to him and take it all back, but he was backing away from her, a hand raised to stop her from approaching, and she knew if she stayed in his presence much longer that that was exactly what she would do.

“I’m sorry,” she told him again, jerking her keys out of the lock as she pushed her door open. She forced herself not to look at him as she slipped inside and closed it behind her, and when she looked through the peephole a few minutes later he was gone.

She was oddly empty. She felt like she should collapse, scream, cry, do something, but the best she could muster was a burning throat severe enough to keep her from swallowing. She laughed harshly, her voice as hollow as her chest, and wondered if she’d simply used all her tears up in the last week. It felt like it. Even her eyes felt dry and vacant.

So she’d permanently broken up with Rudi. So she’d frightened away the only other guy she’d ever loved as much as Rudi. So she’d managed to do both in a matter of hours. So what? She would live, right? She’d never heard of people actually dying from heartache, and anyway, if they could Misty would have killed herself a dozen times over in the last twenty-four hours alone.

When Totodile materialized on the floor at her feet, the only one of her Pokémon that could survive in her room without water and that wouldn’t burn the Stadium to the ground, Misty looked down at him and forced a crooked smile.

“I’m going to die alone with you and a hundred cats.”

X


She expected Brock to come get her for lunch like he usually did, but two o’clock came and went without him, and Misty was able to pick her mountain of homework apart into a few manageable molehills. She found it very easy to concentrate for some reason; it was as if all the emotions that had kept her from focusing had evaporated. In fact, nearly everything inside of her had vanished. She didn’t feel tired, despite her lack of sleep, nor did she feel hungry, despite her lack of food. A Red Bull from her mini-fridge around noon kept her going until well after six, when she was interrupted by a knock on her door.

“It’s open,” she called out without looking up. She could see from the corner of her eye that it was Brock who slipped inside. He whistled when he caught sight of all the open books and notebooks spread around her.

“Been busy, huh? How much did you get done?”

“Most of it.”

“Seriously?” Brock’s voice was incredulous. “I thought you had like, tons.”

“I did.” Misty finished the paragraph she’d been working on and leaned back on her bed to stretch, her bones popping and creaking loudly in the quiet room. “I just...understood it today, I guess. The readings didn’t seem as hard as they normally are, and I knew all the questions.” She shrugged. “I just knew it today. I still have a few hours’ worth, but I think I can get it done before it’s due.”

Brock whistled again, and cleared a spot on her bed to sit down on. Her computer chair was piled three feet high with neglected clothes. “Jeez. Haven’t you done anything else today?”

Misty reached under her pillow, where Totodile had been sleeping for the last hour, and gently pulled him out. “Broke up with Rudi.”

What?

Totodile woke up enough to arrange himself in her lap, then promptly fell asleep again. Misty became very interested in the texture of his frills. Small bumps were forming on the back of his head where new ones would grow when he Evolved, and Misty wondered just how close he was.

“Misty, are you serious? I mean, are you okay?”

“Don’t I look okay?” she asked him flatly. Brock studied her for a moment, brows creased.

“You look tired. I take it Ash didn’t stop by today?”

Misty expected to feel some sort of sadness at that statement, but she didn’t. “No, but he came yesterday. Last night, after you and Suzie left.”

Brock grunted and leaned back against the wall. “Oh yeah? What’d he say?”

Misty shrugged again. “He wanted to stop seeing me. Said it was too dangerous. For me,” she added for clarity.

Another grunt. “Did you tell him to hell with that?”

“Yeah.”

“And what’d he say?”

“He...left. I haven’t seen him since.”

“Oh. Mind if I grab a soda?”

“Go ahead.”

“It’s the last one.”

“I don’t care.”

Brock shrugged and collapsed back on her bed again, slurping loudly at his drink. “Anything else happen?”

“I found out Drake Pumello is Ash’s uncle on his father’s side.”

Soda went everywhere. This time Misty did feel something. “Aww, Brock! Come on, I have to turn that in! Hurry, help me get it off before it sets in...”

“Wait a minute,” he protested, though he was already wiping the liquid off of a random notebook with the bottom of his shirt. “You found out what?”

The majority of the offending liquid gone, Misty settled back against the head of her bed and sighed. “He took me out for breakfast this morning. He said he couldn’t tell me before because he didn’t see the need to; I was just one of a hundred other people Ash helped for a while, then left. But then he said...” There it was. Finally; a sort of heart-wrenching pang as she thought of what she’d screwed up.

“Then he said what?” Brock asked curiously, watching her.

“He said that I was...different.”

“Oh yeah? Different how?”

Something about Brock’s nonchalant attitude seemed off to Misty, but she was too preoccupied with wiping up the last of his soda without ripping the paper it’d settled on to care.

“He just said that Ash’s interest in me was ‘unusual’. He said he doesn’t get to talk with him much, though, so he wasn’t sure I still kept in contact with him until I told him that thing about Gary and the Tentacool when we ran into him on Wednesday. I swear, Brock, if I get points deducted for this...”

“Oh, bah. That’s what, something for Master Erika? She doesn’t care. So tell me, what else did Drake say about you and Ash?” Misty looked up at him, frowning, and he fixed her with an innocent stare. “What?”

“You’re just...weird. Did something happen to you today?”

Brock glared at her for a second before he seemed to suddenly remember something and his expression melted into one of love-struck bliss. “Suzie had lunch with me today, and we talked about Breeding strategies all afternoon,” he said wistfully. “It was glorious.”

Misty smirked. She felt happy for her friend, but she couldn’t suppress the light ache that crept into her chest. Brock didn’t seem to notice. He was holding his soda can to his heart and reciting the things he and Suzie had talked about in an exaggerated lovesick voice.

“And then last night, you know, I was taking her back to her room, and you know what she did? Guess what she did. You’ll never guess.”

“Um...she slapped you when you tried to kiss her?” Again, that pang. Misty resisted the urge to rub her chest.

“No! She kissed me! Right here!” He was poking frantically at a spot on his cheek. Misty was actually surprised.

“Really? How was it?”

Wonderful! I’m gonna marry her one day. I don’t care what she says; I’m gonna set up a Breeding Center with her and I’m gonna marry her, and we’re gonna be the best damn Breeders in Kanto—or Johto, I haven’t decided yet—or maybe I should ask her where she wants to live? Hmm. I know she has family in Celadon, but there’s so much competition there...”

Misty had stopped listening. The ache in her chest was restricting her breathing again, and her throat burned. She was happy for Brock and Suzie, she really was, but...jealous as well. He had at least some idea of what he wanted to do after graduation, of how he wanted to live and who he wanted to live with. Misty didn’t. Even if Ash were to miraculously forget that stupid kiss, it wasn’t like he would want to leave with her next month. And even if he did, for some reason completely foreign to Misty, what would they do? How would they live? Rudi was right; he couldn’t leave and she couldn’t stay. Either way, one of them would be miserable.

Misty sighed. She felt like the entire world was against her. She’d been happy before Rudi had shown up, and before she’d met Ash. If she could go back and do it all again without them, would she?

Well, she’d be dead if she did; either that or her Totodile would be. But if she had the choice of never meeting Ash or the Ariados, would she? To save herself the heartache and the constant worry? The stress and the frustration?

Probably not, she realized with a small start. She’d learned so much in the time she’d spent with Ash—had changed so much. She’d really grown up. And she—she didn’t dislike all those things. Okay, so she could do without the heartache, but she’d brought that on herself. And as for the others, well...he was worth it. Ash was worth all that. She’d rather have gone through it all a hundred times than give him up for a single stress-free semester. Ash was just...worth it.

“What are you thinking about?”

Misty jerked her head up, startled. Brock was watching her with a curious expression on his face. “Nothing, really,” she said automatically. She considered telling him about her and Ash, but the memory was still too raw and she wasn’t sure what to say.

She’d expected Brock to shrug it off and move on like he normally did, but he frowned instead. “You sure you’re okay? Maybe you should quit for the night and go to bed. You look really tired.”

“I feel tired,” she told him, rubbing her eyes. “Ugh. I hope tomorrow is better than today was.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure Ash will show up tomorrow, if he didn’t today.”

Misty looked at him. “What makes you think that?”

He shrugged. “Why wouldn’t he? I have to go; I have another chapter to read in my Ditto book tonight, and I’m not letting Duplica make an idiot of me in class again tomorrow. Catch you for lunch?”

Misty forced a smile. If only he knew. “Sure.”

“Suzie might be joining us.”

“Even better. ‘Night, Brock.”

“Later.”

He left his empty soda can, the lazy bum. Sighing, Misty forced herself to her feet and threw it away, then picked up her room as best she could, even going so far as to separate the clean clothes from the dirty ones piled onto her chair and hanging them up or throwing them in the vague direction of the laundry basket. The action left her exhausted and she collapsed on her bed fully dressed, moving only far enough to reach beneath her and pull out the pen stabbing her in the back. Totodile crawled up and settled on her chest, his entire body rising and falling with each breath she took, and Misty smiled sadly. At least she had Totodile.

She was still watching him when she slipped into a light sleep, then a deeper one, heavy enough that she didn’t awaken when a soft scrabbling sound floated down from somewhere in the ceiling. A square panel lifted out of it above the door and a Pikachu poked its ruffled head out, looked around, then disappeared and replaced it. A moment later the door creaked open and a dark two-headed figure slipped in. There was a pause, then a soft whisper, too weak for even the lightly dozing Totodile to pick up.

“You and Brock had better be right, boy, or I’m gonna get hell for this.”

X


“So...”

“So.”

Gary’s throat was still purplish and swollen, but his red-rimmed eyes revealed no hint of pain as he fixed them heatedly on Rudi. “You made it sound like you had a plan,” he rasped. “One that didn’t involve that wench of yours—”

“Call her that again and I’ll make sure that neck brace becomes a permanent fixture,” Rudi snapped. Gary rolled his eyes.

“Right. So what is it? What brilliant plan have you come up with in a day that no one here has thought of in the last millennia?”

Rudi resisted the urge to take advantage of the bed-ridden man and crossed his arms instead. “You said you couldn’t flush him out, didn’t you?”

Gary sighed. “They tried it once over a hundred years ago, but there was a Water Elemental then who just curbed the water. Hence the presence of that marvelous lake. Next idea.”

“That wasn’t my idea. You people think too small.”

“You think too big. You have no idea how deep underground those tunnels go, or how many there are.”

“And I don’t have to. Do they serve any purpose?”

“What, other than getting everyone lost?” Gary snorted, then winced as the action pulled painfully at his throat. He glared at Rudi. “Of course not. They’re a gigantic pain in the ass.”

“Then get rid of them.”

Gary stared. Then, in an annoyed tone, “Do you not listen to anything I tell you? Don’t you have any idea how expensive that would be?”

“Just to collapse them? It can’t be too much.”

“You don’t just collapse stuff like that, you idiot. Those tunnels make up the entire groundwork for the Stadium, as well as everything around it. Cave the wrong section and a quarter of the city is gone.”

“Then map it.”

You try mapping it. That bastard’s got an arsenal of Pokémon alone, not to mention half-breeds and traps out his goddam hairy ass—”

“Then get him out of there while you do it. The Pokémon won’t Attack unless he tells them to, will they?”

Yes. Moron’s got them Trained. They’re Pokémon, you idiot, not stupid beasts.”

Rudi shrugged off the insult, determined to get his plan across. The sooner the Elemental was gone, the sooner Misty would come to her senses. “So map it when he’s down there. Or don’t, I don’t care. Just collapse a few sections, ones you know won’t do any harm elsewhere, and go from there.”

“I don’t think you understand what you’re dealing with, Trovita. This Elemental has planned for that. Hell, his ancestors have planned for that. Collapsing the underground is the one thing we can’t do.”

“You’re wrong, Oak; it’s the one thing we can. He’s only one man—creature, whatever. The point is, no matter what he’s got set up down there, there’s only one of him to keep it up.”

Gary’s sharp blue eyes narrowed. “What are you saying?”

“You say he’s got traps? Set them off. You say he’s got Trained Pokémon? Defeat and capture them. Map as you go. Send out teams constantly. If you do it right, we can get what we need done by Christmas, and then collapse it when the students are out on break.” With a bit of luck they could do it over the pre-exam break instead, and then Rudi would have another two weeks to bring Misty around before her graduation.

Gary didn’t look convinced. “Constant teams throughout November and December? Do you have any idea how much the men alone will cost? Not to mention that they have to be trained to map and Battle or we’ll have to send out one of each, and that’ll cost twice as much. I told you before, Trovita, and I’ll tell you again now: The headMasters don’t have enough incentive to spend that much just to—”

“They won’t need to,” Rudi cut in. “I’m here, and they’ll have the Haruka’s support as well.”

Gary’s eyes narrowed. “The Harukas? What are you talking about?”

Rudi smirked. “Turns out your obsessive stories have actually turned a few heads. I had a small chat with May Haruka and her family earlier—her rich family, which owns most of the Pokémon research laboratories in Johto. Young May claims to have met the Phantom some years ago, and she believes you in that he had something to do with her brother’s death. Her parents are on her side. They’re appalled that such a creature is allowed to walk freely about the Stadium, and are willing to pay what they have to in order to fix such a problem.”

“Really.” He paused thoughtfully. “How much?”

“Whatever’s needed. Between them, myself, and the Stadium, I’m sure we can come up with something.”

Gary eyed him for a moment, then relaxed and closed his eyes, rolling his head back on the pillow so that his neck wasn’t twisted. “All right then,” he agreed. “You get the money, I’ll get the men. By Christmas break, you said?”

Rudi’s eyes flashed. “Earlier, if we can.”

“How much earlier?”

“The break before exams.”

Gary shook his head. “Impossible. But Christmas...I’ll see what I can do.”

“If we can get the Elemental out of there when we do it he’ll be trapped aboveground, and the Stadium could make some money off of him,” Rudi suggested. “I understand he’s the last of his kind.”

Gary looked at him. “One of the last. They can find some other freak for morons to ogle at; when we catch him, Ash is mine.”

Rudi shrugged. He really didn’t care what happened to the Elemental after they had him, just as long as his hold over Misty would be lifted. “Fair enough,” he consented. “I have an appointment scheduled with Mr. Haruka for Thursday afternoon. Can you get me an estimate by then?”

“Probably.”

“Good.” Rudi made to leave, but Gary’s raspy voice made him pause. He turned back. “What did you say?”

Gary cleared his throat and tried again. “What’s with the change of heart, Trovita? Yesterday you were all hush-hush in case your precious girlfriend caught the blame—which she totally deserves, by the way—and today you want to blow up an entire underground city. Bad day at the office?”

Rudi was amazed that a pained, bed-ridden man could just lie there like that, breathing irregularly through a tube in his nose, and still look so damn smug. He managed to work up a crooked smile. “Let’s just say the issue has become a bit more...personal.” Gary smirked and turned his head back to stare unseeingly at the paneled ceiling.

“Yeah? Welcome to the club.”

X

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Tags: 14, act 3, act iii, act three, chapter, fourteen
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