rake's office was in the middle of a string of offices on the fourth floor, so he was surprised when he glanced up from his paperwork and saw that the shadow falling across his desk belonged to none other than his nephew.
“Ash!” Drake froze and dropped his voice, his gaze darting to the door. It was closed, but still; the kid should know better! “What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded in a harsh whisper. “When you want to meet me you send Pikachu, you know that! It’s too dangerous for you up here! Or don’t you remember that whole ‘being caught’ thing last week?”
Ash met the Master’s eyes through his sunglasses and glared. “You’re the one who told Misty you knew me. Or don’t you remember that whole ‘promise’ thing you made with my mom not to?”
Drake returned the glare and leaned back in his chair to cross his arms. “That’s different. We discussed that first. And besides, Misty’s more than proven her trustworthiness. You might not have made it if she hadn’t—”
“Yeah,” Ash bit back, “Thanks.”
Drake held his gaze for a moment, then growled, “Is that what you’re here about? To yell at me for not helping you? Because you should know better, Ash. You should know I was doing everything in my power—”
“How is it that everything in the Head Dragon Master’s power isn’t enough to do what a couple of students can?”
Drake’s eyes flashed in understanding. He couldn’t repress a smirk as he leaned forward with a creak and unfolded his arms. “Ah, so that’s what this is about—”
“Don’t give me that look! Misty and Brock could have been expelled for what they did—worse, if Gary got to them before the headMasters—and all you could do was run around—”
“Covering for your mother’s absence and making deals with the guards who saw you. Or did you think those problems went away on their own? Do you have any idea how much their silence cost? One of them wants his pick of Kade’s next batch of Dratini—wouldn’t settle for anything less! Mew, she’s not going to like it when I tell her...”
Ash was still glaring at him, but it was a little more forced now. He seemed desperate to be mad at Drake for something. Drake wanted to know why.
“Have you even talked to either of them since?” he asked casually, grabbing a pen off his desk and leaning back again to fiddle with it. He watched it roll through his fingers as if it were the most interesting thing in the world. “Misty missed my class yesterday. Didn’t say why when she came to see me though, so I wondered if maybe you two had—”
“Why do you always mention Misty?” Ash demanded suddenly. “You and Mom and Pikachu. All any of you can talk about lately is ‘Misty this’ and ‘Misty that’ and ‘Oh Ash, have you talked to Misty today?’ and ‘Pi Pikapi, pikachu pika Pikachupi kachu ka?’ Mew! What were you trying to do, set us up?”
Drake grinned. “Is it working?”
Ash blushed, and Drake’s grin widened. “It’s not funny,” he said angrily, struggling to keep his glare strong. “She could be expelled just for knowing me, and still you encourage her to—”
“Ash, I didn’t even speak to her about you until Sunday,” Drake reminded him, “and even then I didn’t say much. I had a meeting with some Water Breeders that afternoon—you remember them, don’t you? I meant to tell you; they’re interested in taking that old Lapras off your hands.”
“But they haven’t seen her yet,” Ash said with a frown, his mind preoccupied.
“That description you gave me was enough. They were impressed; apparently elder Lapras are better at caring for newborns than most young parents are, and they don’t mind crossing species.”
“You didn’t know that?”
Drake looked at him. “Should I have?”
“Lapras have Dragon blood in them,” Ash shrugged. “You tell me.”
Something was off about him, Drake noticed. He was too short and clipped, but at the same time...vague. He studied Ash thoughtfully for a moment, then said quietly, “Ash, why are you really here?”
Ash looked away quickly. “What do you mean?”
“Well, let’s see,” Drake sighed. He raised a hand and began ticking off the reasons with his fingers. “You’ve never come to see me in my office before; you’ve never talked to me without Pikachu at least present, if not an active participant in the conversation; you’re shifting from foot to foot like you want to bolt—yes, Ash, it’s that obvious—and you keep getting off-topic, if yelling at me is indeed your sole purpose here. So sit down and relax a minute; my next appointment isn’t for another two hours.”
Ash glanced at the proffered chair, but he didn’t sit. Drake expected him to dance around the topic a little more like he usually did, and raised an eyebrow when he ran a hand through his tousled hair and took a deep, shaky breath.
“I want to know how Dad made it work between him and Mom.”
Drake froze. He had to repress a shudder at the mention of his brother—the memory was still painful for him, and it’d been well over twenty years now—and instead thunked all four feet of his chair on the floor and stared. Ash watched him carefully, obviously as uneasy as Drake was. It took a moment for the Master to reply.
“Ash, we don’t—” His throat was dry. He stopped to clear it. “I mean, we’ve never really talked about this kind of thing before—”
“I’ve never needed to know before.” Ash’s voice was as quiet as his own.
“But your mother,” he protested weakly. “Can’t she...”
Ash cleared his throat carefully. “Mom is like...She’s like Misty. And besides, I know she didn’t know Dad very well. I know it was short and fast, and that they didn’t...Dad just doesn’t seem like a heart-to-heart kind of guy, you know? At least not with her. They didn’t have the chance. But you knew him for years, see, so I thought maybe...”
Drake studied him carefully. They’d never really discussed Cypress before, aside from the occasional questions Ash had asked him as a boy, back before he’d recognized Drake’s reaction to the topic as a pained one. Hell, they hardly ever talked at all; only when Ash needed something special for a wounded Pokémon, or needed a home for one. It wasn’t that Ash didn’t trust him, Drake knew. It was just...what was there to say?
His throat was dry again. He cleared it and met Ash’s eyes carefully. The kid was a hell of a lot younger than Cypress had been—was younger even than Drake had been—and the circumstances now were completely different. Misty was no Delia, for one thing, and Ash was definitely no Cypress.
Drake had to look away again. Cypress hadn’t bothered hiding what he was, and though it had been years since Drake had seen Ash without his glasses he knew without a doubt that their eyes were identical. And they looked so similar...it didn’t take much imagination for Drake to see Cypress there in his office with him, looking at him like that, just like he had when Delia had finally gotten to him, when Sam Oak brought the world crashing down on his thick head, when he was lost and confused and Drake had tried to help him...
He sighed. Cypress had been the brash one, the confident one; Drake was always the little brother. Cypress had been the one to give out advice—horrible though it was, Drake realized now—yet here Ash was, and he was more like Drake than he was his real father; was more controlled, cautious, nervous. More confused by everything. More...vulnerable.
Drake hesitated a moment, then forced himself to fold his arms on his desk and take a deep, calming breath.
“What exactly do you want to know?”
Gary Oak felt like he was being hunted in his sleep. He awoke with a start, breath catching in his sore, swollen throat as he coughed, then stiffened and coughed again when he saw Ash standing at the foot of his bed, watching him with a stern expression on his face, arms crossed. His Pikachu was on his shoulder, looking tense and alert. Gary had to stop himself from calling in a nurse; he had a few things to say to this bastard before he disappeared into the shadows, and felt his frustration rise when all he could choke out was a hoarse, garbled, “You.”
Ash glared at him through his sunglasses. “Me,” he said simply. Gary struggled to force at least one of the half-dozen obscenities clouding his mind out through his dry throat, but all he could manage was a strangled growl. Ash shifted his weight.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Gary’s voice was more a choked rasp than a coherent sound, but Ash seemed to pick it up just fine.
“I came to call a truce,” he said evenly. Gary’s mouth opened of its own accord.
“A truce,” he repeated. “You got me last week, Gary. Just because I can walk doesn’t mean I’m in any better condition than you are. Those Tentacool could have finished the job and you know it. You could have let me die down there, and I know it. We’re even.”
“I would have let you die down there,” Gary snarled. “Next time you will.”
Ash sighed. “I know you argued with the headMasters to move me, Gary, you’re not fooling anyone. I know it was only so you could...prolong things, but still. We’re even.”
“We are not even, Elemental,” Gary said furiously. “If you think for a second that drowning in that cell would have been worse than what I planned, then you’re even stupider than I thought.”
This angered Ash. Gary smirked in self-satisfaction as he watched the half-breed’s frown deepen, his fingers gripping his upper arms more tightly. When he spoke again his voice was edged in carefully contained irritation.
“This is ridiculous, Gary. I want it stopped. There’s no point in us fighting anymore; you’re just mad because of something I had no damn control over, and believe me, if I could fix it I would have years ago—”
“Your freak of a father destroyed my grandfather!” Gary interrupted furiously. Ash fisted his hands at his sides.
“And your obsessive grandfather killed my dad!” he shot back. “We’re even, you vindictive moron! Leave me alone!”
“Ha! You’re just scared because you know you don’t stand a chance anymore.” Ash hesitated at that, and Gary pounced. “Admit it, freak. You’re outnumbered this time, and you know it. Your mom’s tenure is useless without the old patrons, your uncle’s being served papers for peddling wild Pokémon as we speak, and you’ve just pissed off two conveniently loaded families, both with enough money to buy out the entire city twice over. I don’t care how many fail-safes those Elementals down there set up; you’re nothing against enough men and enough money, and you know it.”
Ash was silent for his small speech, but his fisted hands tightened angrily, and Gary grinned as best he could at the short rivulets of electricity darting around them. “You haven’t changed a bit,” he growled, his voice tight. One of Pikachu’s paws tightened in his jacket collar and the electricity disappeared, but not the tension. “I thought after the Tentacool that you’d have at least learned something, but dammit, Gary, you still underestimate them!”
“I’m not underestimating anything,” Gary drawled, feigning laziness. “Face it, Ash, we’ve got you cornered—”
“Don’t make me use them,” Ash broke in, breath quickened by what Gary took to be fear. “This is our fight, Gary, not theirs. If you send men down there, they’ll run them out whether I tell them to or not.”
“You think I’m worried about the Pokémon?” Gary asked incredulously, then laughed. “Ash, you stupid son of a—”
“I’m not kidding, Gary,” Ash interrupted, his voice taking on a warning tone. “I called them off last time, but they’re as sick of it as I am. The Stadium doesn’t own those grounds; they have just as much right to live down there as anywhere else, and they—”
“Then they have every right to be hunted there as well,” Gary said smoothly, ignoring the burn in his throat. He grinned at the look on Ash’s face.
“Dammit, Gary, don’t you dare—”
“Pika pikachu, pika pi chu—”
Gary interrupted the pair’s angry protests by hovering his hand over the button that would signal the nurse. Ash glared while Pikachu sparked angrily. Gary smirked. “It’s over, Ash. Even if you kill me here, Trovita and the Harukas will still hunt you down—”
“I was never going to kill you, Gary,” Ash spat, lifting his arms to cross them over his chest again. “I hate you, but if you die, it won’t be by my hands. But,” he added harshly, “I refuse to stop the Pokémon this time. If you invade their home, you’ll have to deal with the consequences on your own. They’re not weak and they’re not stupid; they’ll kill you if you threaten them, and they’ll drive your men back on their own. So for Mew’s sake, Gary, leave them alone before there’s a death toll—”
“There’s already a death toll!” Gary rasped, and Ash paused. “You got a ten-year-old killed just last week, or can’t you remember that far?”
Ash was seething. “You knocked that cage over, you stupid bastard! It got out because of you!”
“It was alive because of you!” Gary retorted angrily.
“It hates people because you hurt it and used it as bait!”
“For you!” Gary reminded him. “I wouldn’t have even needed the damn thing if you hadn’t pissed off the headMasters and stolen that Ponyta!”
“You were going to cull her to sell as overpriced Growlithe chow!” Ash fumed. “What the hell did you think I was going to do with her?”
Gary grinned, which confused Ash and made him pause. “I knew you’d take her,” he confided honestly. “I didn’t know you’d give her to the Waterflower girl, but I can hardly complain. She can be expelled for withholding her Evolutionary date, you know.” He watched Ash struggle to control himself for a minute, pleased that he’d finally allowed himself a weak spot before ruthlessly continuing. “You know,” he drawled, “I really must thank her sometime. I know why you’re really here, Ash. You have this notion in your head that you can be happy with her, that I’ll back off and Trovita will back off and you can live happily ever after with the one stupid little girl who sees the man behind the monster, or some other bullshit fairytale—”
“I swear on Raikou’s tail, Gary, if you lay one finger on her, I’ll make it so that you envy that stupid crazy grandfather of yours.”
Gary met Ash’s eyes through the dark plastic and grinned. “Is that a threat, Ash?”
“I damn well hope so,” Ash growled.
“So hostile. Should I consider this a failed peace negotiation?”
Ash sighed a frustrated, irritated sigh. “If you’re so determined to fight me, Gary, then go ahead. I’m just asking you to leave everyone else out of it.”
Gary lifted an eyebrow only somewhat painfully. “Asking?”
“Telling,” Ash corrected himself, glaring. Gary was amused.
“We’re not going to stop this time, Ash. Trovita’s more determined than I am to get rid of you, and he for one has the means to do it. Coupled with the Harukas, this little shadow dance you insist on playing is practically over already. If you were smart, you’d leave now.” His eyes flashed, and Ash shifted. “Good thing I know you’re not smart.”
“I won’t abandon the Pokémon,” Ash corrected him.
This time it was Ash’s eyes that flashed, and much more literally. “Swear to leave Misty, her friend, and my family out of this,” he demanded.
“Or?” Gary wanted to know. He actually paused when Ash’s eyes roved over him dangerously.
“I don’t have to move to kill you, you know.”
“You just said you wouldn’t.”
“You’re being difficult.”
“I’m not going to get any easier.”
Ash looked like he just might do it for a moment, but that moment quickly passed, and Gary found himself breathing a sigh of relief as the electricity coiling around his hands fizzled out with a crackling pop. He sighed and looked away. “I really am tired of this, Gary,” he said wearily. “It’s not just you and me anymore, and that’s not fair. To them. This stupid thing has gone on long enough.”
“Then we’ll end it quickly,” Gary offered, pleased that Ash was finally biting back. “I won’t touch your girl; I have no need to. Your mom’s as useless as she always was, and Pumello will be too preoccupied with the law to drag me through the dirt anymore. It’s me and you, and Trovita as well.”
“This isn’t about Misty,” Ash protested, glaring at him again. “Don’t let him make it about her.”
Gary shrugged. “You’ll have to take that up with Trovita, I’m afraid. Or the girl.” By the look on Ash’s face, he already had. Gary resisted a smirk. “Trouble in paradise already?”
Ash rolled his eyes. “It’s not like that.”
“Looks like that.”
“You’ve always seen what you wanted to see when you looked at me.”
“Those sunglasses only cover up your eyes, not your nature.”
Ash sighed. “I’m leaving now. Pikachu—” The mouse’s ears twitched at Ash’s voice, though they remained almost flattened to his skull. He bared his teeth at Gary and stopped the electricity gathering in his cheeks from releasing into the air. Ash nodded at him, and although the mouse was clearly not happy about it, he scrambled up his head and leapt up into the hole made by the panel they’d slid aside in the low ceiling. Ash regarded Gary carefully for a moment.
“You really won’t stop this?” he asked again. “People have tried to storm those chambers before. No one’s managed it.”
“You’re the last one down there,” Gary pointed out smugly, Trovita‘s detailed plans running through his mind. “You can’t keep everyone out alone.”
“That’s my point,” said Ash patiently. “I won’t be alone.”
“Pokémon aren’t invincible, Ash.”
“They’re not defenseless, either.”
“You’re force-feeding a dead Snorlax,” Gary quipped, rolling his eyes at the Tentacool burns curling around his arms.
“I’m just saying.”
“So am I.”
Ash sighed. “Are we done, then?”
“I think so.”
“Did you level those charges against my uncle?”
“To be honest with you, no. Funny how you Elementals and your relatives manage to indict yourselves with or without my help, isn‘t it?”
Ash looked annoyed at that, but wisely chose to let it go. Gary watched as he nodded and pulled himself up into the ceiling after Pikachu, then blinked in surprise when said rat poked his head down and bared his teeth at him angrily. Ash’s hand came down and pulled him back, and the ceiling panel slid quietly back into place again. Gary used the few minutes before a nurse passed through on her rounds to contemplate the Elemental’s visit.
He’d hit it on the nose, he acknowledged with a wry grin. Ash wanted him to stop his manhunt so that he could be with the Waterflower girl in peace. Gary snorted. He had no doubt the girl would leave him soon enough, either when she was forced to move out after her graduation next month or when Trovita finally managed to remind her that she’d be better off with the rich, egocentric bastard than with a half-breed Elemental on the run. He smiled to himself. He hoped he’d be there for that little fall-out.
In the meantime, though, he had an army to muster up, and he had a feeling that the more brutal the Trainers he found, the better.
The Stadium was alive with gossip that evening. It wasn’t completely unheard of for a Master there to have an issue or two with the law, but it was rare, and the fact that it was the Dragon Master, and one of the four Stadium Elite at that, meant that word of Drake’s subpoena spread like wildfire. Misty heard it from Brock as she was sitting down for her last class of the day, and as much as she wanted to sniff Ash out of wherever she was sure he was hiding in his underground maze, she found herself perusing the fourth floor offices in search of Drake’s instead, while Brock reluctantly left her for a Breeding exam cram session he’d signed up for.
A gruff, harassed-sounding voice barked out at her when she knocked. Misty, relieved that he was actually in his office so late in the afternoon, hoped he wouldn‘t be too angry with her and opened the door to peek her head in anyway. Drake glared up at her from under his ruffled hair until he recognized who he was, and then his eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“Misty. What are you doing here?” He pushed himself up so that he was sitting straight in his chair as Misty slipped into the room, closing the door softly behind her. She gave him a half-smile and leaned back against it.
“I heard what happened. Did it have anything to do with...?”
Drake stared at her in confusion for a moment before her words clicked and he started a little. “With Oak? You’re talking about the subpoena? Oh, no, of course not.”
Misty was surprised. “It doesn’t?”
Drake looked confused. “Why would you think it did?”
Misty was confused as well. “Isn’t that...well...isn’t this kind of thing just what Gary does?”
Drake studied her for a moment, fingers linked as he set his elbows on the desk before him. “Gary Oak has been in the infirmary for nearly a week now, Misty. He’s had no time to pull a court summons together.”
“Well yeah, but...” Misty felt herself flush. “I’m sorry, I guess I just assumed...” She frowned suddenly, and Drake lifted his eyebrows in question as he voice trailed off.
“But if Gary didn’t do this, then doesn’t that mean...”
“That I’m guilty of the charges?” Misty couldn’t find it in herself to nod, but Drake continued anyway. He sighed. “Yes, I’m guilty. The subpoena is only a summons for a court date regarding the illegal peddling of feral Pokémon, though, not anything to do with the wild rumors that have been running rampant around here.” He waved his hand dismissively at the wall, looking mildly annoyed. “It’s nothing serious, just a large fine and an extended probation. Maybe a little jail time; depends on what they know.”
Misty wasn’t sure what to say. Drake was involved in the Pokémon black market? Since when? Was he a part of the Stadium that Ash had shown her recently, the part that sold Battle-weakened Pokémon for personal profit? The part that sold them to research groups? The part that culled them for food?
“You look like you’re going to be sick,” Drake remarked suddenly, breaking her trail of thought. “Are you all right?”
Misty scrambled to come up with an answer. “I’m fine, just...um...surprised?” He couldn’t be affiliated with them. He was Ash’s uncle, for Mew’s sake; Ash would never stand for it. She wasn’t sure what Ash would actually do about it, no, but she knew he wouldn’t allow it. Probably.
Drake smiled wearily. “Sorry, it’s not something that comes up in everyday conversation or I’d have mentioned it before. Now that you know, though, fell free to contact me after you leave the Stadium. I know you can’t have more than six before you graduate, but afterwards you’re welcome to whatever I can find. Unless you’d rather hunt them on your own, of course; I understand the work in that is half the fun for a lot of people.”
Misty’s mouth fell open. “You’re going to do it again?” she blurted, astonished that Drake could be so callous of the law.
“Of course,” he replied evenly, raising his eyebrows at her obvious surprise. “Is there something wrong with that?”
“But they—The Pokémon...”
“They need somewhere to go regardless of the legality of the transaction,” Drake explained slowly, watching her. “I’m normally a little more careful about my clientele, but I admit, I’ve been a little distracted lately.” He managed to flash a small smile at her before leaning back in his chair and running a hand through his hair tiredly. “Turns out the elderly couple looking for ‘a peaceful Lapras to help look after the young ones’ were really under the temporary employ of the K-RBI. Good thing they slapped me with the paperwork before Ash had a chance to lead her out from the lake.”
Misty gaped at him. “Ash?” He was involved in this too?
Drake frowned. “Yes, of course. Have you seen him today, by the way? If you do, tell him not to take her up. He said he was going to early tomorrow.”
“Take her where?” Misty demanded, completely confused now. “What exactly are you talking about? Are you saying that you peddle Pokémon off to people with Ash?”
Drake’s frown deepened. “He didn’t tell you?” he asked evenly, then rolled his eyes. “Oh, who am I kidding, that boy keeps more secrets than a paranoid Unown.” He paused to regard Misty for a moment, his expression unreadable, then shifted his weight in his seat and nodded at the chair across from him. “Sit down, Misty, you don’t have to stand.”
“Sorry, I’m just...a little confused,” Misty admitted, taking the seat. Drake flashed her a grin.
“I help find homes for the Pokémon Ash takes in who want them,” he explained, waving an inviting hand at the pitcher of water resting on the desk beside Misty’s elbow. Misty shook her head, so Drake shrugged and leaned back in his chair, hooking an ankle over his knee comfortably. “It’s a little illegal,” he continued in a flippant tone, “but what’s a little illegal activity for a struggling Pokémon, eh?” He grinned, and Misty felt a wave of relief wash through her as she slowly returned it. So he wasn’t one of those people who took advantage of Pokémon. Thank Mew.
“But that’s not so bad,” she admitted, reaching for the water after all. She was about as comfortable in Drake’s presence as she could be with a Master, when they were properly situated in his office, anyway, and she wasn‘t being whisked off for breakfast somewhere outside the Stadium. “Can’t you tell them that, and they’d reduce your sentence?”
“I could,” Drake said slowly, “but it might lead to unwanted questions, and I’d rather not give them any reason to start an investigation here. Some Pokémon simply prefer captivity to freedom. It’s hard to prove which is which unless you speak their language, and I very obviously don’t. I may be able to get away with the Lapras case, since, as Ash reminded me earlier, they do have a little Dragon blood in them, but if the investigation goes any further, well...” He shrugged. “It won’t be so bad. May keep me busy for a few weeks, but that’s hardly worth avoiding if it puts Ash in danger.”
Misty smiled, a genuine one this time, and nodded her gratitude at Drake. “Thank you, sir. I mean, I never thought you’d turn him in or anything, but...thanks. I’ll tell him what happened with the Lapras as soon as I find him.”
“You were looking?” Drake asked, his eyebrows raised. There was a hint of a smirk on his lips that Misty readily ignored.
“Yes, I was about to. Do you know where I can find him, or would it be easier to just wander around in the passages until he finds me?”
“Mmm,” Drake grunted noncommittally, running his index finger over his upper lip while he took a moment to think. “Might be best to just wait up here for him, actually. I think he wanted to talk to you.”
Misty was startled to hear that; after he’d finally managed to slip away from her the day before, obviously overwhelmed enough by what had happened to require some time to himself, Misty had fully expected to have to hunt him down again. She found the prospect a little overwhelming herself, to be perfectly honest, but she’d spent the better portion of her classes that day convincing herself that someone had to take the first step, and since she doubted Ash was the type, well...
She still doubted Ash was the type. Which made her curious to see what he had to talk to her about.
She took her leave from Drake as quickly as she could, though not before Drake managed to sneak in a number of sly remarks about her relationship with his nephew. Some of the things he said convinced her that he really had met with Ash earlier that day instead of sometime prior, which made her wonder what he’d been up to since she’d seen him last. She’d fully expected him to scamper below the Stadium and hide himself in his Pokémon, not...well, not come up to speak to Drake, and especially not to find him waiting for her in her room, shuffling uncomfortably from foot to foot in the darkest corner there. He looked up when she entered, a small, nervous-looking smile flicking briefly over his face. “Hey.”
Misty closed and locked the door behind her, more to keep unwanted company out than to trap Ash in. Judging by the look on his face, though, he’d assumed the latter. She returned his smile as best she could. “Hey. You’re here.” She half-expected him to make a mad dash for the door at any moment. He didn’t look like he wanted to be here, and Misty wondered if it would always be like this; a constant game of cat and mouse, where Ash ran and she chased after blindly. While she did love him—enough to continue chasing him, in fact—would he ever loosen up enough around her to return her feelings, or would he try to remain as distant from her as he’d always been? Was there any way to find out without scaring him off in the process?
Ash stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets suddenly, his eyes skimming everything in the room but her. “Yeah. I was waiting for you after your last class. Did you go somewhere else first, or...?”
Misty leaned back against the door, not sure where else to go without making him—or her, she acknowledged ruefully—more nervous. “I went to see Master Drake. I was worried about the rumors that’ve been going around.”
Ash looked at her sharply, clearly startled. “You went to see Drake? What’d he say to you?”
“That the charges were nothing to worry about,” said Misty slowly, watching his reaction with some confusion. “He said to tell you not to bring a Lapras up, since the people who were going to take her were...some sort of undercover agents or something, I think. He’s been served a subpoena to go to court next month for selling wild Pokémon, and he wasn’t sure it you’d heard yet.”
“Oh.” Ash looked relieved. He ran a hand through his hair and sighed, relaxing a little. “Okay, yeah, I heard about it. You said the charges weren’t serious? Pikachu went to find out exactly what they were, but he hasn’t come back yet.”
That caught Misty’s attention. “He has? Will you tell me what he tells you? Drake’s not worried about them, but talk elsewhere suggests it’s pretty serious, and I don’t want him to...”
She trailed off as she noticed Ash shaking his head, his arms crossed now. “It’s not serious, no. He’s been accused of this before, he’s just gotten good at hiding his tracks. But recently...” He let his words trail off with a sigh, a grim look on his face. “It’s my fault. He’s normally way more careful, but between Rudi Trovita’s poking around and Gary’s stunt last week, he couldn’t—”
“This isn’t your fault, Ash,” Misty interrupted, leaving the solid sanctuary of the door to approach him. He noticed her movement and started to back away, then checked himself and stiffened instead. He shifted his weight and fixed his eyes on the floor.
“I know it’s not really, but I did contribute,” he insisted. “You shouldn’t be seen talking to him, though. Gary may notice and tell Rudi, and Rudi may push the headMasters to fire him despite his past tenure—”
“Rudi would never do that,” Misty argued, frowning. “Does he even know he’s connected to you? I didn’t until recently, and Gary’s—”
“This has nothing to do with Gary,” Ash told her firmly, meeting her eyes through his sunglasses. “He’s a rotten, backstabbing sneak, but his issue is with me, not my uncle—or you or Mom, for that matter. They used to be protected by tenure, but now that they’re not, I think he knows better than to go after them. He knows all bets are off if he does.”
“Bets?” Misty asked, frowning. She’d been debating whether or not she should touch him—Mew knew she wanted to, just to try to calm him down, to rub some of the tension out of his arms—but she was worried it would do the opposite instead, and forced herself away in lieu of taking a seat on her bed. She patted the spot beside her, but Ash only gave it a brief glance before shifting feet again and continuing.
“Bets,” Ash repeated, obviously scouring his mind for a better word. “Rules. Limits. I dunno.”
“You two have rules?” Misty asked incredulously. Gary’s methods, especially of late, had seemed anything but humane.
Ash sighed and gave her a half-shrug, his shoulders remaining somewhat slumped afterwards. “I guess so, sort of. He knows my mom’s the only daughter of the former headMaster, so to touch her would be career suicide, which would force him to end his stupid manhunt. My uncle’s got tenure, and he’s powerful enough to take care of himself—his Dragonite alone could wipe out Gary’s entire arsenal—so Gary’s wisely chosen not to get involved with him, although he likes to be a prick and tattle on him whenever he can.”
“Do the headMasters not know who he and your mother are?” Misty asked curiously. “Or can’t they do anything about them because of their tenure?”
“They don’t know,” Ash sighed, working a hand behind his glasses to rub his eyes tiredly. “It would have been useless for Gary to tell them before. But the old patrons were the only ones to enforce the tenure, and now that they’re gone...”
“Gary can get rid of them with a few words,” Misty reasoned, her mind reeling. Mew. The headMasters were practically clambering for Ash’s head; what would they do if they discovered his mother and uncle were a part of their own staff? “But wait,” she said suddenly, frowning. “Rudi’s been here a few months now. Why hasn’t Gary said anything yet?”
“Three-month probational period,” Ash said grimly. “It takes a while for something as big as the Stadium to really change hands. But now that it officially has...” He sighed. “Gary’s holding it over me like he’s doing me some Mew-cursed favor. He knows getting them fired will do nothing but piss me off, and since I’m already pissed off, he considers it some funny, twisted irony that he has no reason to turn them in anymore.”
“But...he could,” said Misty slowly, watching him.
“He could,” Ash agreed, looking annoyed. “They’re both prepared for the eventuality, but it’ll still be a pain in the ass when it happens. And I—” He stopped suddenly—caught himself, more like, his eyes breezing over her as he remembered who he was talking to. Misty pulled her legs up under her and watched him.
“And?” she prompted softly.
His eyes flicked over her again and he sighed, looking away. “And I don’t want them to go,” he finished quietly. “My mom’s overprotective and annoying and my uncle’s uncomfortable around me, but...I like having them here, you know?”
“I know,” Misty told him, patting the space beside her again. Ash crossed the room and sat gingerly beside her, one leg curled so he could wrap an arm around it and lean his chin on his knee. Misty looked at the hands she’d pooled in her lap. She really could be expelled, she realized. Right now the headMasters were under the impression that Ash had tricked her somehow, but if Gary or Rudi were to convince them otherwise...she would be forced to leave too.
“He won’t touch you,” said Ash suddenly, and Misty was startled to look up and find him watching her. “He might try and use you to get to me again, but he won’t hurt you. I think he’s well aware of what will happen if he tries.”
As flattered as Misty was that Ash had just insinuated that he’d fight for her, she really didn’t want it. “I can take care of myself, you know,” she reminded him. “He can’t hurt me and he’ll never use me again, so relax. The worst he can do is expel me.”
Ash sighed. “He’ll probably try,” he told her with a glance, “but not right now. Later, when you least expect it. That’s how he is.”
Misty watched him quietly for a moment, until his ears tipped pink with embarrassment and he tightened his arm around his leg uncertainly. “What?” he asked hesitantly. Misty looked back down at her hands.
“Why does he hate you so much?” she wanted to know. “I know whatever happened to his grandfather probably had something to do with your dad, but why does he hate you? Didn’t that happen before you were born?”
Ash took a moment to reply, long enough that Misty was about to tell him he didn’t have to. She wanted to know—desperately wanted to know—but not if it was painful for him, which, by the way he was frowning, it probably was. He pushed his glasses up further on the bridge of his nose and stared heatedly at the top of the canvas covering his toes.
“I don’t know,” he said finally, shaking his head slowly. “I really don’t know. His grandfather had a falling out with my dad before I was born, and he’s vowed to get rid of me ever since. I don’t understand it.”
Misty reached up to stroke his arm, daring to scoot a little closer when Ash didn’t immediately pull away. “Maybe he’s just crazy then, Ash,” she suggested softly. “You’re his scapegoat for everything he’s had to put up with. Is it true that his family’s finances were drained trying to take care of his grandfather?”
“Yes. He’s still employed here because he’s actually good at what he does, when he’s not spending his time trying to corner me, but whatever he doesn’t need goes straight to his grandfather’s hospital bills. But that’s not my fault!” he added angrily, squeezing his knee tighter. “If I earned money, I’d give it to him. I hate what my dad did to his grandfather, though Mew knows I can understand it if he was as ruthless as Gary’s always been, but Raikou. I don’t really care. I just want him to leave me alone, and leave the Pokémon living below the Stadium alone, and leave you and your friend and my family alone, but he won’t. The bastard just won’t.” He looked away from Misty suddenly, his eyes lowering with his voice as he added a soft, “And call me selfish, Misty, but I can’t get myself to either.”
Misty gave him a small smile. Ash looked confused when he saw it, then startled as Misty reached up and slid the glasses from his face. He automatically averted his gaze, but Misty didn’t press him; just folded the glasses and set them on her other side, well out of his reach. “Then I’m selfish too,” she told him, “because I can’t get myself to stay away from you either, even though I know I’m a distraction from the things you have to do down below.”
“You’re not a distraction,” Ash mumbled, clearly made uncomfortable without his glasses on.
“No? You are for me.” Misty grinned at the confused look on his face and scooted close enough to lean lightly against him, ignoring the way he stiffened. “You distracted me all day today,” she continued leisurely. “I was actually reprimanded once or twice for falling behind in group discussions.”
“I’m sorry,” Ash apologized hastily, “I didn’t mean to—”
“It was nice,” Misty broke in with a grin, tilting her head up to meet his eyes. “Having something other than Pokémon to think about for a change, I mean. You know?”
Ash stared at her for a moment, a mixture between surprise and confusion written all over his face, before he remembered he didn’t have his glasses on and quickly looked away again, evidence of a faint blush creeping over his cheeks. “I know,” he agreed softly, embarrassed. “I like being up here more than down by that lake. It’s...different.”
“Just different?” Misty teased, wondering how far he’d let her go this time before shying away again. She slipped an arm around his back loosely, fingers drifting over the taut muscles there. A moment later she was trying to message the tension out of his shoulders while they tensed further under her hands. She didn’t stop and slowly, ever so slowly, he began to relax again.
“A little more than different, I guess,” he admitted softly, eyes on his foot again. “It’s...nice.”
“Just nice?” she teased again, and laughed when he gave her a lost look. “I’m not searching for anything specific, Ash. I’m just glad that you’re not running away from me again.”
“I never ran from you—” he protested vehemently, but stopped cold when Misty pressed a light kiss to his lips. His shoulders tightened under her hands again, but he didn’t make to get up from the bed. Misty smiled in relief, watching him closely in case he changed his mind.
“No?” she asked softly, slowly starting to message his shoulders again. They refused to relax.
“No,” he said tersely, his eyes somewhere on the floor. “And I’m not going to run again.”
That gave Misty pause. She pulled away a little, noting how uncomfortable he was, and sighed as a small guilty ache started up in her stomach. “I’m sorry, Ash. I don’t want to push you into anything, or make you feel like you can’t go if you want to—”
“That’s not it,” Ash interrupted fiercely, the blush completely overtaking his face now. “I don’t want to leave—I don’t, or I would—I just...” He accidentally met her eyes before quickly looking away again, his entire body tense. “I’m just not used to it.”
“No one’s used to it at first, Ash,” Misty told him softly. She wasn’t a very physical person either, normally, she just liked being with him. “It takes time to—”
“I don’t have time,” Ash interrupted again, and this time he met her gaze. “Did you know that my mom and dad were only together for a couple weeks before he was killed?”
Misty stared, unsure of what to say to that. “Well I never asked your mom about it, if that’s what you—”
“Two weeks,” he said again. “My uncle didn’t even know what was going on until my dad was dead and my mom went to him for help with me. What if that happens to us?”
This time Misty was shocked enough to attempt a stammered reply. “That’s not—I mean, that kind of thing could never—”
“I’m just saying.” Ash lowered his eyes to stare unfocused at the ground. “Gary’s not gonna hold back anymore, Misty. Rudi and the Harukas are pooling their money to wipe out the entire underground, and while I know the Pokémon will put up a good fight, I just...”
His voice softened as he let it trail off, and Misty realized suddenly that he was scared. She wrapped her arms around him tightly and squeezed, ignoring the way he stiffened again, then leaned her chin against his shoulder and kissed his cheek gently. “That won’t ever happen to us, Ash,” she told him softly, “ever, so don’t even think it. Do you want to try this with me?”
Ash turned his head to look at her, confused that she would ask such a thing. “Of course I do, I—”
“Then let’s try it,” she said firmly. “I love you, remember? I’m not going anywhere, no matter what happens.”
Ash smiled a little at the look of conviction on her face. “I know you’re as worried as I am,” he told her, and she blinked in surprise. “The way your face is set gives it away. I know you have your graduation to worry about, and what you’re going to do after it, and all the stuff you have to do to prepare for it--not to mention all of this stuff with me, because I know no matter how much I try, you’ll never let me keep it to myself. Then there’s Rudi and Gary, and I know my mom and Drake are probably giving you hell, so I just...”
He looked at her for a moment, another blush creeping over his cheeks, then leaned forward and kissed her lightly, looking embarrassed at the surprised look she gave him. “I just don’t want you to think you have to worry about me too,” he explained quickly. “You don’t have to treat me like a cornered Rattata, and I don’t want you to. I’m not going anywhere either.”
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