Phantom (dripping_candle) wrote,
Phantom
dripping_candle

chapter seventeen (part 1)



Act IV Stage I Past the Point of No Return


November flew by.

Misty wanted to complain about her lack of time, but found herself enjoying the activities that filled it too much to try. Her lessons were difficult during this final stretch of her schooling; more difficult than they ever had been before, and while a few of them remained strictly book readings and lectures on topics like Pokémon history and budgeting concerns, the vast majority of them had finally become practical. At least one of her Pokémon was able to join her for nearly ever class period, which not only helped to increase her good mood during the day, but shaved off a lot of exercise time she had normally set aside for them over the weekend.

The only real setback to her abundantly good humor was Rudi. Well, not him exactly, but the things he insisted on continuing to do for her, the least of which was explaining her Rapidash’s unexpectedly early Evolution to the two confused, suspicious headMasters. He’d been a random observer in class the day Fire Master Blaine had unexpectedly asked Misty to call out her Ponyta to demonstrate to the class how well-Trained she was in contrast to her obviously mixed blood, and had stepped smoothly in to whisper something into the Master’s ear while the older man stood in shock at the towering Rapidash shaking her flaming head before him. Misty had bit her lip and watched, her stomach in knots over what he could be saying, but when Blaine closed his mouth and shook his head numbly, Rudi clasped his hands behind his back and stepped aside, giving Misty a brief, unreadable glance before sliding out of the Arena entirely. She couldn’t find him afterwards, nor would he answer his cell phone, and upon calling his room she was told by his secretary that he had left her a short message, which she hastily made her way to his office for. On it was a flowy, “You’re welcome. I would appreciate it if you didn’t attempt to sabotage your hard-earned graduation any further, as I cannot guarantee I will be permitted to attend every one of your lessons this semester, nor explain how I was able to prevent your expulsion in them afterward.”

The comment was so blatantly trying to guilt her into sullying any time she spent with Ash that Misty immediately crumpled it into a tight, furious ball and lobbed it unceremoniously at the door to his suite. She had been about to thank him for going out of his way to help her out of the trouble she’d clearly gotten herself into, but if he was going to arrogantly assume that she wanted his help in every aspect of her student life—and make glaringly obvious insinuations about her recent decisions to boot—then Misty wanted none of him. She would not let him make her into the bad guy in all of this, even if the vast majority of everything that had happened between them had been her fault. He was twenty-three years old, for Mew’s sake; it was time he sucked it up and dealt with it instead of making these sly, underhand attempts to force sympathy on her and ultimately win her back. The whole thing was ridiculous.

He did, however, manage to avoid her for the most part, and she him, and that did produce a little guilty lump in her gut. She liked him. A lot, really. She didn’t want to date him—knew his naturally controlling nature would drive her crazy to the point of homicide—but she did love him, even if she’d had to break his heart before she could realize it was platonic. His feelings, on the other hand, were clearly not. She only hoped he could realize that she wasn’t coming back—that this thing with Ash was not some fling born of curiosity and typical senior-class experimentation—before his good intentions went too far and one of them was hurt more than both of them were now. She wished they could be friends. She just wasn’t sure how to go about that without giving him the wrong idea.

Misty didn’t consider herself a coward in most things, but the possibility of giving Rudi another false hope and then shattering it again left her terrified. She knew she was hiding behind Ash—following him down underground and letting him show her around for no other reason than to avoid having to deal with Rudi above—and she was fairly sure Ash knew it too, but neither of them mentioned it, and for that she was grateful. Brock brought it up once, only to hurriedly backtrack and change the topic to his budding success with Suzie at the half-angry glare, half-terrified plea she’d managed to level at him. She didn’t want to talk about it. She knew that was cowardly as well, and hated herself for her weakness, but she was happy with Ash—really, truly happy—and she didn’t want to muck that up with guilt for Rudi in the limited time she knew she had with him.

That was guilty lump number two, really. Leaving Ash. She didn’t want to at all, but unless she found a job at the Stadium—which was the last thing she wanted, if she was going to be honest with herself—she had no idea how to stay. She considered asking Ash to leave, but hesitated when she thought of how terrifying that would be for him. He had very obviously never left the Stadium before, with the exception of several small excursions into the forest lining the east side of the city, where he told her the underground lake drained out to, and she wasn’t sure it was within her rights to upend his entire world here and drag him out by his ears. She wanted to—oh, Mew, how she wanted to take him with her—but she was sure that was selfish of her, and couldn’t bring herself to ask lest Ash thought the same. She would bring it up with Brock, she decided, and together she knew they would come up with something. Eventually. Only he seemed so happy hanging out with Suzie that she couldn’t bring herself to soil his good mood with her own problems. The next time they had a serious talk about things, she promised herself she would mention it.

In the meantime, though, she was more than content to sit back and relax with Ash as he gradually opened up to her. It took some patience on her part and some determination on his, but he made it very clear early on that he wanted to, even if he didn’t have a clue how to go about it, so they started out with simple things and worked their way up until eventually he was as comfortable around her as she had seen him with his Pokémon. Usually. Every now and then she would surprise him with something unexpected and he would instinctively clam up again, but she found that if she gave him a little time, he was able to work up the courage to overcome whatever mental hurdle he’d constructed and confide in her.

Their first major hurdle was sleeping arrangements.

Misty honestly hadn’t thought this would come up very early on. They usually met after classes and Ash would stay late, but when it was time for her to sleep he had no objection to retiring back to his own rooms below the Stadium. Misty knew he kept long days, between seeing her and dealing with Gary’s recent flood of people trying to map the underground, but he never complained about it—actually told her with an abashed, goofy grin that he liked what he did with his time—and the feeble arguments about rest and adequate sleep that Misty attempted to make went unheeded as Ash consistently found something to distract her with. Sometimes it was a new Pokémon; other times it was an interesting story about himself that he had neglected to share before. Misty felt the beginnings of the frustration she had felt before rise up again, back when they had first started meeting and he’d expertly dodged every attempt she made to learn something about him, but only the beginnings; he was actually divulging quite a lot, anything she wanted to know, really, though some things took a little effort for him to share. As long as he found ample time to sleep, Misty certainly wasn’t about to complain about his company.

But no matter how late it got, or how interesting their conversations grew, he flat-out refused to sleep aboveground with her. Not with words, of course, but he may as well have just told her. After much poking and prodding she was finally able to deduce that it had something to do with sleeping outside of the sanctity of his maze of rooms as a child, but that was all he would say. Misty didn’t press anymore. Everyone had a fear, she figured, and if his was being trapped aboveground while he slept, she certainly wasn’t going to begrudge him for it, especially after what had happened last time, when he was awake.

Still, he looked tired. Content and happy, yes, but he never looked like he’d gotten quite enough sleep the night before, and he was always showing up with new cuts, scrapes, and bruises from his neverending battle with the swarms of Trainers Gary had summoned from Mew knew where. Every now and then he would come back with a painful-looking burn wrapped clumsily in ripped clothing. Misty worried about him and he knew it, and they’d had more than one argument about the differences between being cautious and taking chances for the sake of every Pokémon hidden beneath the Stadium, but neither ever really won, and Ash usually settled for letting Misty treat him with Potions and medical supplies smuggled out to them by his mother, while Misty had to make do with lecturing him for his goddamned Superman complex while she worked. She wanted to help, but between homework and classwork and training she just had no time anymore, save helping him come up with plans of attack by pouring over crude maps he’d either found or sketched for her on the spot. She felt like she was at war, and the feeling was made all the more intimidating by the fact that no one around her seemed to notice. Construction signs went up. Bright orange notifications dotted the majority of the rooms on the ground floor. Everyone assumed the Stadium was simply getting a jump start on its winter break renovations, and though they found it mildly annoying, she and Brock were the only ones to sidestep the areas like the war zones they were.

Gary rarely said anything to her, and instead seemed content to simply grin maniacally from across whichever room or hall she’d stumbled across him in. It was all Misty could do during most of these encounters to restrain herself from hitting him. He was overseeing the little underground invasion in order to wear out Ash, she knew, and his audacity to gloat about it set her teeth on edge. Usually, though, he was too busy to be found wandering the halls, and instead had turned over most security issues to his head subordinates, Jesse and James, who did a decent enough job with their talking Meowth. Drake kept the Master especially busy by burying him in as much legal work as he could find, and together with access to the older records Ash could dredge up from those rooms of books beneath the Stadium, Gary Oak was barely allowed enough free time to eat and sleep. Kept busy with the charges leveled against him, though, Drake was in a tight spot as well, and with his tenure now nonexistent he was forced to come up with an adequate legal defense in the paper battle he was now waging against Oak. All of the technical documents made Misty’s head spin, and while she’d offered to help Drake if he ever needed her, they both knew her strength lay with more practical matters.

The pre-exam break sidling ever closer looked to be a much-needed break for everyone. Drake’s court date was set for the last day of November, which happened to lie in the middle of the week, and plans were laid out with Brock’s family for both Misty and Suzie to come visit. Misty had briefly considered trying to opt out of them this year—with no family of her own to go to, she’d spent every pre-exam break with Brock and his family since they’d been friends here—but it was such a longstanding tradition of theirs and Brock’s siblings were looking forward to it so much that she couldn’t bring herself to mention her fears to Brock. She couldn’t take Ash with her. She knew instinctively that that was out of the question. But she didn’t want to leave him alone, either; she was afraid either Gary or Rudi or the headMasters or even all three would take advantage of the student body’s absence in order to make some sort of grand attack on him.

As it turned out, Ash had been worrying about the same thing.

“We’ve taken every precaution we could think of,” he explained to her when she brought it up. “We’ve been collapsing those tunnels I worked out with you for the last couple weeks. I’m not coming out. I’ve set up scouts and message routes and everything so that I know what’s going on and I can find out what Gary’s doing, so it shouldn’t be too bad.”

Misty was still skeptical. “He’ll plan for that, Ash. You know what he’s like. He’ll probably try to invade those rooms down there himself.”

Ash only shrugged. “A lot of Pokémon hope he tries. I’m keeping the heavy hitters back there with me, and some of them have already suffered losses from those bastard Trainers. If any of them show up, Charizard, for one, won’t be holding back.”

The capture of that mother Charizard’s young Charmander had been the pride of the Trainer who’d caught—and subsequently sold—the prize Fire Pokémon, but Misty could tell by the attitudes her own Pokémon had about the incident that such feelings were only shared by the humans. The Charmander had been too young to raise on its own and severely injured during its capture; Misty herself felt sick at the obscene amount of money the Trainer had made from its bruised and battered body. It was then that Ash had actually begun to let loose the more advanced Pokémon, and it was also then that all of the construction signs had moved as Gary was forced to rethink his strategy.

There really was a war going on just a few hundred feet below, and all the students around Misty could talk about was Christmas, the end of the schoolyear, and the upcoming graduation ceremony.

“You can’t blame them,” Ash told her. He was watching her clean her room so that she could pack for Brock’s at the end of the week. “They came here for school, not for...this.”

“They could still open their eyes a little,” Misty huffed back, balling up a wad of dirty clothes and chucking it into the overflowing hamper peeking out of her closet. “I mean, really. More and more Pokémon are being hauled up from down there every day, and none of them are in good condition, if they’re even alive.”

“You know a lot of them would rather die than let themselves be taken—”

“Exactly! And what does that say about the people using guns and Masterballs and Mew knows that else? Honestly, sometimes I think the Licensing process should be a hell of a lot harder. Giving people like that permission to raise Pokémon...They’re just greedy, selfish bastards who would rather break a Pokémon than take the time to tame it...”

Ash watched her accentuate her words with periodic kicks to the pile of shoes that had begun tumbling over themselves into the path she’d cleared to the door, his arms crossed as he sat on her bed and leaned against the headboard. “You know I agree,” he told her quietly, “but they’re not all bad. You’re not bad. Gary just picked the worst he could find because he likes to piss me off, but there are worthy Trainers out there too. You shouldn’t forget that.”

“I can count all of them in my graduating class on one hand!” Misty fumed. She knew she was exaggerating a little—of her two hundred or so graduating peers, at least thirty of them would probably go on to be good, successful Trainers, Breeders, and Gym Leaders—but in her current state of angry irritation she didn’t particularly care. Ash gave her a withered look.

“So help make more. In a few years all of your Pokémon will be fully grown and you can apply for a League. Trainees listen to powerful Trainers; you’d be perfect.”

Misty didn’t reply to that for a moment, shuffling the books, papers, and Pokémon feed around on her desk as an excuse not to look at him. She had no desire to participate in a League. Maybe she had, not long ago, but now she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, and she wasn’t sure how she could do it without Ash. Hadn’t he thought about this at all? She could never bring herself to ask him about it just in case he hadn’t. She wasn’t sure how she should feel yet if he said he’d rather stay, or if he said he wanted to go with her. And...she owed it to him to at least figure out how she felt about it either way before she started asking the same of him. She figured she could mull it over during the course of the week and ask him before she left on Saturday, so that he would be able to mull it over himself while she was gone.

Then again, a schoolweek had never zipped by so quickly.

If Ash wanted to stay, she finally decided, he would stay. She would still go. She’d briefly considered staying on as someone like Drake, but she’d already spent ten long years in the Stadium, and she had no desire to stay any longer. Rudi and Gary aside, she just couldn’t bring herself to remain somewhere she knew she would be miserable, even for Ash. She’d probably eventually get irritable enough that he’d rather she was gone anyway.

Which meant if Ash wanted to go...well. She honestly couldn’t imagine him going, but if he did...they could figure things out from there. Probably. No one outside the Stadium knew who or what he was; she couldn’t imagine anyone actually tracking him down. If worse came to worse they could always crash at her sisters’ for a little while and get their feet under them doing...something. She wasn’t sure what yet, and if leaving was actually Ash’s decision, she’d rather make further plans with him instead of alone.

With these thoughts lodged firmly in her mind, she found it very frustrating not to be able to put them to use right away. Ash wasn’t waiting for her in her room after her last class Friday afternoon. Not a completely uncommon occurrence, but a slightly worrying one nonetheless, and with a bus ticket to Pewter in her pocket for early the next morning, incredibly untimely.

She went to see Brock, but he was too busy discussing an exam on egg care with Suzie to figure out a way to reach Ash with her. With all the Trainers prowling the underground halls there were no wandering Pokémon to find her, and she’d be severely questioned if she was caught down there alone. Normally it wasn’t a big deal to wait for him, but Misty was tired of putting this off. She wanted to know where they were going with this, and she wanted to know now.

“Check Delia’s,” Brock suggested in a whisper, when the frustration and anxiety on her face had finally become apparent. “I bet if she doesn’t know where he is, she knows how to reach him.”

He had a point there, Misty knew, but the woman had been so busy treating victims of the wild Pokémon’s attacks that she hadn’t wanted to bother her. As head human nurse in the Stadium, sabotaging the men attacking her son would very quickly become obvious, especially with Gary keeping an eye out for anything even remotely suggesting such a thing. Delia had to be under enough stress as it was, bandaging up the men that were attacking her son so that they could continue the assault.

But...maybe she could talk to the woman for a little while before going to find Ash. Maybe she had some idea of what he wanted for his future, instead of this impression she kept getting over and over that he intended to just take up after the however many other Elementals had lived in secret beneath the Stadium, caring for the Pokémon and helping out the Trainees who needed it. The difference, she’d gathered, between him taking up after his father and his father taking up after he and Drake’s mother, was that Ash was truly the last one down there, and the last thing Misty wanted was for him to have to go back to living alone—if such a thing was even possible after Gary and Rudi were finished with him.

The light in her room was on, but the room itself was empty. Pausing to make sure Delia wasn’t simply busy with something in the back, Misty cursed on her way back to the door. With those trick floorboards hidden beneath the bed in Delia’s room, she’d taken to treating most of her patients in the Stadium’s standard infirmary rooms, but the last thing Misty wanted was to be seen talking to her for no reason, and with Jesse and James’s beefed security, it would be nearly impossible to pull her aside in secret while she was busy treating Gary’s lackeys. Dammit. Luck was not on her side today.

“Pikachupi!”

Misty started and spun back around. Pikachu was crawling out from beneath the bed with the hidden panel, and behind the mouse Misty heard a soft thump. Her eyes widened when Ash’s scuffed hand appeared, closely followed by a pair of swirling chocolate eyes as he peered up at her from over the top of his sunglasses. A crooked smile appeared on his face. “Hey. We thought you might’ve been someone looking for my mom.”

Misty was forced to bend over and pick up Pikachu before she could respond, kicking the door closed behind her. The Pokémon curled up in her arms comfortably and cooed while she scratched the top of his head, mindful of the remains of teeth marks now dotting one ear. “I was,” she told him simply, “but only because I was looking for you.” She felt her nervousness rise up again as he crawled out from under the bed and looked at her curiously.

“For me? What for?” He pushed himself up from the floor and sat on the edge of the bed instead. Misty did her usual once-over before coming over to sit beside him, setting Pikachu gently in her lap. He didn’t seem to be sporting anything serious, just a scratch or two on his cheek that hadn’t been there the day before. He glanced briefly at her once before flushing slightly and quickly removing his sunglasses, folding them in his hands. “Sorry, I keep forgetting.”

That hadn’t actually been why Misty was looking at him sideways this time, but she was grateful they were off. She hated talking to her own reflection. “I was just wondering,” she forced herself to say, “what you were planning to do after this thing with Gary is over.”

Ash stiffened almost imperceptibly, and Misty knew he knew what she was talking about.

“Uh...”

And now he was stalling. She frowned as anger began to replace her anxiety.

“Well, see—”

“You’ve thought about this before, haven’t you.”

He didn’t even bother trying to lie, instead giving her a wincing look as Pikachu peered up at her curiously. This only irritated Misty further. “You have been thinking about it. And you didn’t tell me.”

“Well so have you!” Ash blurted in his own defense. “And you didn’t tell me.”

“What am I supposed to tell you?” Misty demanded, confused. “You’re the one who’s supposed to decide!”

“The decision’s not all mine! I can’t decide anything until I know stuff!”

Stuff?” Pikachu had stood in Misty’s lap now, and was tugging at her shirt insistently. Misty scratched his head absently as she glared at Ash. “What stuff?”

Ash’s eyes fell to his fingers, tugging at the remains of some linen wound around his wrist in place of his gloves. Misty frowned at him, her confusion growing but able now to curb her frustration. Whatever Ash had been thinking about, it was obviously difficult for him.

“What stuff, Ash?” she repeated, and though her tone was still a little on the demanding side, it had lost its sharp edge. “It’s your decision whether you want to stay here or leave; I can’t choose for you.” Her stomach was twisting anxiously at actually saying the words to him aloud, but she did her best to ignore it. She had to hear him out on this. And the sooner she did, the better.

At first Ash only shrugged, but before Misty could press further he scowled at his fingers and sighed. “I can’t decide if I want to leave if I don’t know...” He paused and glanced at her, his eyes a swirling mixture of chocolate and gold. “Do you really not mind if I come with you?”

Misty’s stomach clenched. She forced herself to ignore it. “Are you really considering it?”

Ash shrugged again, his arm brushing against hers as he moved it over to accept Pikachu, who was pawing for him. Settling the mouse in his own lap now, he seemed a little less unsteady as he ran his hands over the bright yellow fur. “I dunno. It’s a possibility, right? If I can get all the Pokémon out, keep Gary from collapsing the whole damn Stadium on accident...He’s made it clear he’s not going to let me just live down there anymore. Did you know he tells the younger Trainees he got those purple scars around his neck from fighting me? Even if he uses up all his funds trying to run me aground, he’s trying to bring back all the old stories his grandfather and people used against the other Elementals. I dunno, he might even attract real attention with it. The last thing I want to have to do is dodge people trying to find and capture me.”

Ah, Misty got it now. Leaving was still a last resort to him, but one preferable to a lifetime of hiding—real hiding, not just flitting about out of sight. Misty wondered if that was how he’d think of things. She wanted to be frustrated at him, for his lack of adventure or whatever you called it, for the way he’d rather duck down and slink along in things he found familiar instead of taking a chance on something knew. But she knew she couldn’t be. She would never have left the care of her sisters if she hadn’t been forced to, uncomfortable as it had been there, and she wasn’t the one widely considered to be some…anomaly to the human race. Leaving the one place he could find sanctuary in had to be a daunting task. She’d thought about that. She knew. She just didn’t like it.

“You know, Ash,” she reminded him quietly, gently bumping shoulders, “it might not be that bad. At least out there no one really knows about you, you know?”

“I know,” Ash sighed, letting himself lean slightly against her. It was something they’d both become comfortable doing lately. “It’s just...” He hesitated.

“I know,” Misty finished for him. She scuffed her feet on the floor as they sat in semi-comfortable silence for a moment, the soft whish of Pikachu’s tongue as he cleaned himself the only real sound in the room. A sudden burst of motion from the hallway made Ash stiffen momentarily, then sigh and slowly relax again as the laughter of two male students carried through the door.

“You should go,” Misty told him. She didn’t want him getting caught up here, or even being seen, and now that she’d told him what she wanted him to know, she wanted to go think about it on her own some more.

Ash scrubbed his fingers behind the Pokémon’s ears. “I know. Tell my mom to send her Rattata down for me later? I had something I wanted to talk to her about, but there was a big Battle by the lake earlier; she might be busy for a while.”

“All right.” Misty wanted to ask what he needed, but before she could form the words there was a loud knock on the door. Ash and Pikachu were crouched down between the beds and quickly sliding under one when Rudi’s voice sounded from the other side.

“Delia? Are you in here?”

Ash paused and looked up at her in alarm, and Misty returned the look almost fearfully. Oh Mew, this was awful timing.

“Do you want me to—”

“No, are you crazy? Go!”

“But—”

The door clicked open and Rudi poked his head through. When his eyes fell on Misty, half-bent over the side of the bed as Ash disappeared from view, the genial smile on his face vanished and he leaned against the doorframe as he regarded her for a moment with a frown. “You shouldn’t be here,” he remarked tonelessly.

Misty finished pushing herself up into a proper sitting position and returned his disappointed expression. “Why not?” She had just as much right to see Delia as any other student here.

“It makes you look bad.” His expression was very carefully blank, and even though his statement echoed Misty’s thoughts, it made her fume.

“I don’t care how it makes me look, Rudi. Mew, I can do what I want.”

He crossed his arms carefully against his chest, still halfway between the room and the hall outside. “As I’m sure you will,” he replied dryly. “Anyway, I did not, for a change, come here to see you. When you next see Delia, tell her Oak wanted a word, will you?”

Misty was surprised. “What—” she began, but Rudi only gave her a pointed look, somehow managing to mix it with boredom, and pulled the door closed behind him as he slipped from the room entirely. Misty was left staring in worry and confusion for a moment as a soft scuffle from beneath her announced Ash’s return.

“He’s not talking to my mother,” he announced through gritted teeth, then reached up for Misty’s hand, his eyes a swirling mix of black and yellow now. “Come on, we’ll find her before they do.”

X


Gary Oak had always acted rather hostile towards Delia. While physical actions would have certainly gotten him fired, he’d never been very kind to her, and had always gone out of his way to keep watch of her actions. Together, she and Ash had managed to find ways around them, of course, but he’d made himself a constant nuisance to her nonetheless.

And now no one seemed to know where she was.

Drake was alarmed to hear that Ash was looking for her—apparently he kept as close tabs on his mother as she did on him. Instead of feeling embarrassed at this small revelation, Ash growled an order to notify him if Drake happened to find her and dragged Misty back up into the rafters again. She’d become vaguely used to them over the course of the last month, but she didn’t think she’d ever grow fully accustomed to the stench of the dust as it threatened to clog her mouth and nose, or the grit and grim coating her fingertips as she ran them over the walls.

Pikachu was gone. He’d scrambled off to conduct his own search for Ash’s mother, able to squeeze into some of the smaller passages far easier than either of the two humans. Their next stop was, Misty was shocked to note, the office of Drake’s teaching assistant, a grad student by the name of Lance. He was actually older than Drake himself, but kept on at the Stadium in order to use its more advanced Water enclosures to study his one-of-a-kind Red Gyarados. Misty was only familiar with him through his sporadic displays of the prize Pokémon; otherwise he was a bit of a recluse, and only spoke to the undergrad students when he absolutely needed their help in something concerning his research, or Drake needed his assistance teaching a particularly difficult lesson in his Dragon class.

“My uncle introduced us,” Ash told her by way of explanation, callused fingers working open a panel in the floor. “His Gyarados was ill, and he would only thrash at the healers who tried to examine him, so he called me.” He grunted as the panel finally popped free and concentrated on not dropping it as he shifted the wood to the side.

“What was wrong with it?” Misty asked curiously, kneeling across from him to help. He nodded his thanks.

“Nothing. He just wanted out for a while. I took him to the lake underground for a few days, and when I brought him back he was fine. I take him down there once every couple months now. New waters, new Pokémon, that was all he needed. Stay here.”

Before Misty could protest, Ash slipped deftly through the hole and into what was very obviously another office. Misty had no idea where they were; she was prone to getting turned around between the walls.

There was a sound of surprise from somewhere Misty couldn’t see. She poked her head out to look around, and ignored the glare she got from Ash at the gesture, instead turning to see Lance’s eyes widen even further as they caught on her. The Dragon trainer was sitting behind his desk, red pen poised above what looked like a stack of essay exams.

“Waterflower,” he murmured, and Misty was surprised he knew her by name. Then a smile crept over his face, and his gaze flicked back to Ash. “So that’s who you’ve been—”

“Not now, Lance,” Ash cut in, and though Misty was curious to see what the man had been prepared to say about her, she was anxious to find Delia as well. “I’m looking for my mom. Have you seen her?”

“Well, now.” Lance reclined in his seat a little, not really relaxing, just leaning back to regard Ash with a sharper eye. “What makes you think—”

Don’t,” Ash practically snapped, and Misty was sure she saw his gaze flicker to her. It took a moment to realize he was speaking to this man without his glasses on. So Lance knew what he was. That was...interesting, especially considering no one had ever mentioned him before, nor alluded to that fact that anyone but Drake and Delia knew of Ash’s continued existence beneath the Stadium.

Lance’s amber eyes flashed in a bit of a grin before he leaned back over the pile of papers on his desk and began taking the pen to them once more, a shrug rolling across his shoulders. “I’m afraid I haven’t seen her.”

“Tauros’ tail, you—”

“She did leave me a note, though.”

Ash paused as if waiting for him to continue, but he never did. Eventually his hands tightened in frustration. “Well? What did it—”

“Are you sure you really want to know?” Misty could swear the man was teasing, a hint of a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth, head still bent but eyes lifted to regard Ash thoughtfully. Ash glared.

“Just tell me the...the gist of it,” he finally ground out. Lance sighed in acquiescence.

“The gist. Hmm, the gist.” The man began tapping the pen to his lips thoughtfully. “Hmm. The gist would probably be that she was called in for questioning regarding Master Drake’s case, and probably wouldn’t be back until later tonight, at the earliest.”

Ash looked visibly relieved.

“And that she would appreciate it if she could spend the night in my—”

“Stop! That‘s all I needed!”

“—company,” Lance finished, and this time smirked openly at Ash, chin rested in the palm of his hand as he leaned his elbow comfortably on the desktop. “She’s avoiding Gary Oak, if I understand correctly,” he continued. “Though Oak seems to have disappeared as well, so I’m not sure her efforts are worth the exertion. How are you, Miss Waterflower? I happened to catch your Gyarados demonstration earlier this week. Very nice, his scales are impressively smooth.”

Misty started, those intelligent amber eyes suddenly focused on her. Ash mumbled something to the man and began climbing back up through the hole beside her.

“Er. Thank you. I’m all right.” She didn’t think she’d ever spoken with Lance in person before, only through lectures. He let the students see his gigantic Pokémon so rarely that the hall was always filled when he did.

“Delia’s told me a lot about you, though she always refrained from dropping a name. I’m glad it’s you, though. Everything fits so perfectly.”

“Er...”

“Come on...”

Ash took that moment to tug on her upper arm. Misty was reluctant to trade the light of Lance’s office for the dusty darkness of the ceiling again, but she didn‘t refuse. Ash only gave her a brief look, eyes glowing faintly in the sudden absence of light, and quickly worked to replace the panel. Lance’s dry chuckle managed to creep through before it closed.

“What was that about?” Misty asked as soon as they were alone again. She got the distinct impression Ash was rolling his eyes at her.

“Nothing. It was about nothing. Come on, if Mom’s okay we should find Pikachu.”

Misty wondered if she should comment on Gary’s supposed absence, ask if it had anything to do with Delia’s, since the two coincided, but she figured Ash was already thinking about it, and followed him in near silence as he led her back through the maze of passages to Mew knew where.

Delia had never mentioned Lance to her before, and she wondered why. He seemed like a very interesting man. While Misty had certainly seen Ash flustered before, she’d never seen him quite like that, and it intrigued her. She’d have to ask his mother about it later.

“Here. Hang on, there are people around.”

Misty paused at Ash’s voice, and together the two of them listened for a moment to the shuffles and murmurs of students passing by just below them. “Where are we?”

“The hall outside your room. You should get ready for your break, and I should go find Pikachu and finish barricading some stuff.”

“Come with me first?”

Ash looked up at her; she could tell because there was a flicker of gold from his direction. She met his eyes for a moment before he bent to unlatch the hidden panel. It was in the corner this time, just above one of the sconces, and Misty blinked as the two of them were suddenly flooded with light.

“Okay,” he finally agreed, and hooked a hand around the sconce to swing himself down to the hall floor. Misty paused to glance at the missing panel, still sitting beside the gaping hole, then followed him, albeit at a much slower, careful pace. Looking up from the floor, she saw that the light cast the entire ceiling in shadow, and the missing panel was lost in the rest of the dark gloom.

“Come on,” Ash urged her, and she remembered that more students could come along at any moment. Quickly digging her keys from the depths of her pocket, she unlocked the door to her room and let Ash slip inside ahead of her.

It looked a little like a Snorlax had tumbled through. Ash stopped in the middle and grinned at all the school debris coating the bed, the desk, and even the floor.

“Shut up,” Misty mumbled, using his shoulder as an anchor so that she could carefully step over the large piles. “I started digging through all my old stuff so I could get rid of the papers I didn’t need and take the ones I did with me to Brock’s to study. I just...never finished.”

“Obviously,” Ash murmured, crouching down in the little clearing he’d found to glance over the stack set aside for Seadra. “Need any help?”

“I thought you said you had to finish some barricades or something,” Misty said with a frown. She recognized this procrastination tactic of his, and while she usually let him stay upstairs with her to give him a break from all that wearying Battle stuff, she didn’t want anything to be left undone while he was vulnerable during the students’ absence. Ash shrugged.

“There’s only a few things, we can probably finish them overnight.”

“And Pikachu?” Misty pressed. Ash set his mouth. He knew the mouse was still looking for Delia. Finally, he sighed and pushed himself back up to his feet.

“All right, fine, I’ll go.”

“Wait, Ash.”

Before he could turn to leave Misty had picked her way back over to him and half-urged, half-forced him to fall backwards onto her bed. She came with him, and though a few dozen papers crumpled and folded and creaked their protest, Misty didn’t pay them any mind. This was her trash pile, and she didn’t care what happened to them.

Ash seemed confused when she prevented him from getting up again, but only for a moment. Then she leaned in to kiss him, and she knew from the initial moment of hesitation, then fervent reciprocation that he was as anxious about spending a week alone as she was. His arm snaked around her back and Misty shifted so that she wasn’t crushing him so much, now leaning half of her weight on his hip and the other half on the edge of the bed. When they finally broke apart neither made any move to put any distance between them.

“Be careful down there, all right?” Misty cautioned, meeting his eyes. They were mostly brown with hints of gold now as he looked at her.

“I will.” His voice was slightly rougher than usual, and it made Misty smile. His hand slid up to stroke the back of her neck as he added a soft, “And you make sure you come back.”

Misty rolled her eyes and pressed another kiss to his lips, then took a moment to lie her head on his shoulder, sighing. “Of course I will, Ash. Don’t be stupid.” She could feel him snort beneath her cheek.

“I’m not being stupid, I’m just saying. Gary might try something.”

“He can’t keep me from graduating.”

“He might try.”

“I’m more concerned that he’ll be focusing all of his attentions on you.”

Ash didn’t reply for a moment, his heartbeat pounding rhythmically near her jaw. “Yeah,” he finally replied, “well. I’ll be careful.”

“Good.” She was trying her best to believe him.

X


As expected, it took Misty much longer than planned to finish cleaning her room out and packing for Brock’s, and the end result was that she nearly overslept the next morning. Luckily Brock had thought ahead, and came down to start pounding on her door a good half an hour before she actually needed to be ready to leave. He only laughed when she tried to kick him in the kneecap, and missed because of the sleep dust marring her vision.

Misty hoped she would be able to steal a few moments with Ash before their bus left, but the halls were much to crowded with the bustling student population for him to come out, or for her to try and find him. Pikachu managed a quick goodbye though, licking her cheek once while she stroked his favorite spots and let Brock ruffle the fur on top of his head. He chattered angrily with them for a moment about that, then leaped onto Brock’s head, ruffled his hair, adding a good bit of static electricity to keep it from returning to normal, and scampered into the forest of students’ legs and feet before the Breeder-in-training could respond. Suzie laughed when they went to pick her up at her room and she saw Brock’s grumpy face as he repeatedly ran his hand through his puffy hair, trying to get rid of the static. Misty laughed every time he tried to touch something metal and ended up shocking herself. This phenomenon was not so funny, however, when she was stuck next to him on the bus, and he took full advantage of his newfound ability before it finally fizzled out a couple hours into the ride.

Pewter was a fairly small town, but busy, thanks to Brock‘s father, and the bus dropped them off where most of its occupants always needed to go: the Pewter Rock Gym itself. A herd of children were tumbling over the lawn when they arrived, only to wash over Brock in a multi-armed, multi-legged wave as the trio stepped away from the bus stop and onto Slate land, pelting him with newly fallen November snow. Brock’s father grinned at the spectacle and sidestepped the rolling mass in order to give Misty a familiar hug, then introduce himself to Suzie, who seemed more amused than concerned when Brock cried out for her to help lest his lungs cave in and she be forced to administer CPR.

Really, Misty had barely any time to think to herself again until they went to bed that night, and then she was so worn out from the day’s events that she could only manage a few moments of guilty anxiety at leaving Ash behind before she was asleep, half-buried under a few of Brock‘s little sisters.

Sunday was spent preparing that evening’s big dinner, in which Misty spent the majority of it either learning from Brock’s parents how to cook, or practicing her new lessons with Suzie and some of the siblings. Brock was the babysitter. Again, she had hardly any time for herself, and she fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.

Monday through Wednesday were spent relaxing with Brock and his family, and trying not to tease too much at the way Suzie seemed to fit right in. Misty wanted to follow the results of Drake’s trial, but she was pretty sure it was too minor for any radio station to actually broadcast, and went with Brock’s mother, Suzie, and the girls to the mall instead. Random things reminded her of Ash, but there was nothing she could do about his situation right now, and tried not to dwell too much on how he must be faring alone beneath the Stadium. He’d managed to survive for years down there without her around, she rationalized, and would certainly be able to take care of himself for one stupid week.

Thursday she was awakened long before she would have liked by the two-year-old twins, who curled up under her blankets on either side and began whispering in toddler-speech over her back. When she’d finally managed to wake up enough to turn over and tickle them, they screeched and tried to burrow somewhere down near her feet. Laughing, Misty followed them. She liked how comfortable Brock’s home was, and how much fun all of his little brothers and sisters were, even if they did wake her up at ungodly hours of the morning on her last break of the year.

Flint was the only other one up in the house, already sipping from a steaming cup of coffee at the kitchen table when Misty made her way down there with a child latched securely to each of her shins, squealing as they sat on her feet and she trumped like a monster down the hall. He looked up and laughed at the sight, then whispered that they should go see if their big brother actually stayed in his own room last night. Squealing with delight this time, the kids scattered and scrambled off down the hall.

“Thanks,” Misty told him breathlessly, practically collapsing into the chair across from him. “They’re getting heavy.”

“Try carrying them to bed every night,” Brock’s father snorted, raising his mug to his lips again. “Coffee?”

“Please.”

Being served like this was nice, and Misty was grateful for it as the man stood and busied himself getting her a glass, leaving the morning paper open on the table half-dissembled. Misty glanced over the black and white columns upside-down from her seat, resting her chin in her palm tiredly. “Anything going on today?” she asked pleasantly, and reached to turn it right-side up for herself. Flint chuckled.

“Oh, plenty. Seems your school is under fire for a few things this morning.”

That made Misty’s eyes open a little more, and she began flipping through the pages in the hopes of catching a random story. “Oh really? What for?” Her voice was calm, but her mind had immediately fixed on Ash, and on all the possible things that could have happened to him.

“Oh, a bunch of nonsense, really,” Flint told her with a sigh. He set her mug down beside her before returning to his own seat. “Their Dragon Master may be canned for some illegal Pokémon peddling operations they uncovered, but the real story’s on some of the behind-the-scenes information a few people are swearing is true.”

Not in this section. Misty did her best to look nonchalant as she reached for another. “Behind-the-scenes information?”

Flint snorted around his mug. “They’re saying an Elemental is responsible for providing him with Pokémon. Bunch of junk, if you ask me. They’re just looking for attention so people will fund all those construction prices they need for renovations. I swear, if Brock wasn’t graduating this year, we may have had to pull him out; their rates have grown ridiculously high lately.”

“Yeah,” Misty agreed in a murmur, heart thumping almost painfully. Oh God, oh Mew, this couldn’t be good. And where was the damn story? “So um, who’s saying all this stuff?”

“Some security guy named Gary Oak. He’s apparently the grandson of the old professor who invented the Pokédex. Do you know him?”

“Oh, well, kind of. He’s head of security. Everyone sees him around.” Misty was now praying to every Legendary she could think of that no one would believe Gary any more than they had in the past. “What else is he saying?”

Flint shifted in his seat. “Well it’s not so much what he’s saying, but who’s supporting him. Your headMasters seem to believe him. I’m not sure what to make of it all, I suppose we’ll just wait and see.”

It was under Flint’s arm! Misty tried to look as calm as possible as she gently tugged on the corner, trying to let him know she wanted to see. He gave it up to her easily. “Oh, I’m sorry. Were you interested?”

“A little,” Misty admitted, flipping it open. She froze in shock at the cover page.

“I guess it is a little interesting,” Flint murmured thoughtfully, “especially that picture. And they say they’ve got the thing trapped somewhere, though why they haven’t dragged it out and shown everyone by now is beyond me, if that’s really the case. I don’t like the thought of you and my son living so close to such a thing, but you’ve both been living there going on ten years now, and neither of you has ever mentioned anything weird there before…Well. Ancient places like that have been known for their secrets and their hoaxes, eh, Misty? Misty?”

Misty didn’t respond. On the front page of the Pewter Post there was a color image of a pair of swirling yellow eyes, and the silhouette of a human body outlined in electricity. Behind it was the faint outline of the red room Misty recognized from Ash’s home.

They’d found their way in. They’d cornered him.

X

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Tags: 17, act 4, act four, act iv, chapter, part 1, seventeen
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