Phantom (dripping_candle) wrote,
Phantom
dripping_candle

chapter eighteen (part 1)



Act IV Stage II The Final Threshold


For a moment after Rudi’s departure, there was only a tense silence.

Then a shuffle from Misty’s side made her turn. Ash was kicking his jeans off again so that he could turn them over and pull them on correctly, making it up to his knees before remembering the boxers currently residing on the floor. He paused again, his cheeks lightly pink as he glared at them. Misty would have found his embarrassment cute if she wasn’t currently feeling the same. Her anger at Rudi was quickly fading in light of her current predicament. It wasn’t that she regretted sleeping with Ash, it was that the entire thing had happened so quickly that neither of them had really had a chance to think about it, and now they were both left with the aftermath. Which wasn’t so bad either, really, except for the fact that she wasn’t sure what to say to him when he was so obviously embarrassed about it.

“I should go.”

Misty watched as he snatched his boxers up from the floor and slipped into them before pulling on his jeans. This was the first time she’d seen him without a shirt on in the light, and she winced at the sight. He was pale, that much she’d already known, and toned, hard and wiry, but what drew her attention were the numerous wounds mottling his skin over old scars. There was a bad burn on his shoulder, what looked like a Houndoom’s bitemark on his side, and numerous scrapes and bruises marring the rest of his back. She sat back against the headboard with her comforter pulled tight to her chest and frowned. “Where?”

Ash shrugged, his eyes scouring the floor for his shirt. “I don’t know. But I can’t be caught here.”

“Rudi won’t send anyone. He wouldn’t.”

“Still.”

It was in the bed beside Misty. Ash’s blush deepened as he leaned over the bed for it, and refused to looked at Misty when she caught his arm.

“Stay.”

He didn’t reply for a moment, or even try to move. It was obvious to Misty that he wanted to stay, but she was also well aware of his paranoia, and she didn’t want to instigate it by trapping him aboveground, if he wasn’t already. Ash glanced at her.

“If I stay, I might get caught here. You only have two weeks left, Misty, you shouldn’t risk it by—”

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Ash,” Misty interrupted tersely, her grip tightening on his arm. “You’re worth the risk. Now stay; you’re hurt.”

Ash sighed heavily. He looked tired; his eyes were black, which meant he was drained of electricity, and that left his body exhausted as well, not to mention the dark circles under his eyes and the slight sluggishness to his normally quick movements. “I shouldn’t,” he finally told her. Misty started a little when she realized he was shaking. “I really shouldn’t, but...Mew, Misty, I don’t know where else to go.”

Misty’s stomach turned over at how scared he must have been, to be on the run like that with nowhere to turn in a building full of people and Pokémon hunting him down like an animal. She tugged on his arm, and he let her pull him back up onto the bed, where he curled up next to her on top of the blankets, an arm sliding around her waist. Misty scootched down in the bed until she could hug him, and after a moment he hugged her back, his arms just as tight around her as hers were around him. Misty didn’t say anything when he buried his head in her shoulder and clung. She couldn’t imagine what the last week had been like for him, and had to stop every time she tried when her chest constricted painfully. Instead she just clung back, a hand stroking gently through his hair in an attempt to soothe them both. It felt like all of the adrenaline from before was back in her system again, as she remembered just how close she’d come to losing him.

“I don’t want to put you in any danger,” Ash said softly after a few moments of silence, “but I didn’t know where else to go. They’re blocking off all the routes underground, and they’ve got so many people down there now that it’s not worth sneaking anyway. They’re setting up explosives, Misty. They’re going to try and collapse it all while the students and faculty are gone for Christmas break.”

Misty’s heart thudded in her chest as she thought of all the casualties that would result in. “And the Pokémon?”

“Most of them are gone,” Ash told her dully. “The ones that didn’t want to escape are staying to fight. They know what’s going to happen. Some of them came with me, just in case, but I don’t want to send them out to fight. Gary’s not fighting fair. He’s been using guns.”

Misty felt her fury rise at that, her grip tightening around Ash. “And Pikachu?”

“Hiding somewhere else,” Ash explained. “This way if one of us gets caught, the other’s still free to help.”

“But wouldn’t you stand a better chance together?”

Ash snorted wryly. “Right now, neither of us would stand much of a chance at all.”

Misty squeezed him tightly before she remembered his wounds and loosened her arms again, though her chest still hurt as much as before. “You need someone to look at you, Ash.” Without Delia around, though, she wasn’t sure who. Ash only sighed and shifted against her.

“It’s too dangerous. I just need to rest, Misty, I’ll be fine after that.”

Misty wasn’t convinced. “You need more than just sleep, you need—”

“And where am I going to get it?” Ash interrupted. “It’s fine. Nothing’s permanent. I was careful. I just...I need sleep, that’s all.”

Misty stopped pressing when she caught the slightly pleading note to his tone. He wanted to rest and he was trying to ask for her permission in typical Ash fashion, which was to say he didn’t really want to ask for it at all. Misty sighed and resumed stroking his hair again, the only part she was sure she could touch without making him wince. “Sleep here, then. I’m not leaving.”

Ash sighed in relief, and rearranged his head on her shoulder as he let his eyes close. “I know. I don’t want to either.”

He was out within minutes, and exhausted enough not to wake at the soft knock on Misty’s door, or Misty shuffling about as she slipped back into her clothes and opened it. Brock sighed in very audible relief on the other side.

“Mew, we couldn’t find you anywhere, we thought maybe you—”

Misty shushed him and pointed at the bed, where Ash was curled up with his back to them. Brock’s eyes widened and he nodded, but said nothing. Beside him Suzie stretched to peer over his shoulder, her eyes widening as well. “Is that—”

Misty shushed her too, and she clapped a hand over her mouth and nodded quickly. Sighing, Misty dragged the suitcases they’d brought back into her room. She was beginning to feel tired as well, and it was only supper time. She hadn’t really thought about how little she’d been sleeping lately, or eating, for that matter. All she’d thought about for the last few days was Ash, and now that he was here with her again, her body was struggling to catch back up. Brock was watching, and gestured for her to join him outside when she’d sufficiently gathered all of her things again. Misty closed the door behind her. She hadn’t forgotten Ash’s fear of sleeping aboveground, and now that he actually was she wanted to be careful not to wake him.

“Is he all right?”

The question actually came from Suzie, not Brock, and Misty looked at her as she set her palms against the door and leaned back against them with a sigh. She nodded. “Yeah.”

Brock ran a hand through his hair, his eyes rolling up to the ceiling with relief. “Oh, thank Mew. They’ve implemented all these new security measures, Mist, you need an ID card to get anywhere, and no Pokémon’s allowed to be treated unless it’s registered. They’ve made it damn near impossible for him or Pikachu to find anywhere to go.”

Misty nodded again. Rudi’s words from before had led her to believe something like that had happened, or Ash wouldn’t have been reduced to hiding in her room in the first place. Brock looked at her nervously. “Mew, Misty. What are we going to do?”

Misty didn’t know how to answer that. She wasn’t sure herself. The extent of her plan had been to find Ash and make sure he was all right; beyond that she was lost, and she’d made no contingencies for nearly all right, but still subject to injury.

“I’ll stay with him tonight,” she told Brock, meeting his eyes. He raised an eyebrow, but didn’t protest. “Tomorrow we can figure out what to do. But I don’t want to wake him up, and he knows more about what happened while we were gone than we do.”

Brock nodded and shared a glance with Suzie. “Is he hurt really bad?”

“It looks like he was attacked by Pokémon.” The Breeders winced. Misty didn’t, but her mouth was set in a grim line. People weren’t equipped to deal with that kind of physical damage like Pokémon were, though she suspected that, with Pokémon blood in him, Ash was at least a little more resilient than most.

“We’ll bring him some things,” Suzie suggested. “Whatever we can spare.”

“Yeah, they’ve been stocking us up for exams,” Brock agreed. “And you know Gary’ll have his eye on your supplies. Save them. We can do this much, at least.”

Misty thanked them, and the trio split up before one of the roaming guards could catch them talking together. Mew, it felt like they were in some enemy war camp all of a sudden, and Misty was harboring the rebel. She sighed as she carefully locked the door and changed into a pair of freezing pajamas, all of her bags cold from sitting outside with Brock and Suzie for over an hour. Ash woke up a little when she slid into the bed next to him, but only enough to crawl under the covers with her, asleep again as soon as his head hit the pillow. Misty was worried about him. She hadn’t seen him immediately after Gary had drained him with those handcuffs, but she imagined if he was anything as exhausted then as he was now, he must have been on the verge of collapse. She’d never seen him asleep before, save that one time beneath the Stadium. He wasn’t the type to let himself fall unconscious with people around, no matter how much he trusted them.

Misty had never really hated anyone before, but if Gary Oak were here right now she knew she wouldn’t hesitate to punch the man in the face. Repeatedly. Ash was one of the sweetest men she knew, and had done nothing to deserve this rabid animal treatment Gary was giving him.

She was tired of ducking her head and feigning awe and respect to the licensed Trainers who were trying to kill Ash. Tomorrow she was determined to say something to them, and her License be damned if she lost it.

X


Ash awoke before Misty did the next morning. Without the myriad of variously nocturnal Pokémon around him he wasn’t sure what time it was, until he remembered Misty had a clock and lifted his head to peer at it from over her sleeping form. Five in the morning. Much too early for normal people to be up, but after the first full night’s rest he’d received in days, his body was ready to go again. He lifted a hand in front of his face and flexed his fingers, then carefully allowed the ever-present electricity in them to spark loose. He made a light fist. Not nearly fully charged yet, after the last week’s constant struggle, but getting there. This wasn’t like the last time he’d been drained almost completely, no matter what it felt like. He’d be all right.

Careful not to disturb the girl beside him, he slipped from her bed and forced himself to his aching feet beside it before allowing a small glance back at her again. Zapdos, he’d been so scared he wouldn’t be here for her when she came back. If Gary let her come back. He wasn’t a fool; he knew his mother had struggled to raise him without his father around, had missed the man every time she met Ash’s eyes and saw him in them. He hadn’t wanted to do that to Misty. Kid or not, he hadn’t wanted to put her through the loneliness his mother had experienced in his father’s careless absence.

Though it seemed he had a little of his father in him after all, he realized with a blush. He hadn’t been thinking last night. He’d been impulsive, brash, desperate, scared, and relieved all at the same time, and...well. Now more than ever wasn’t the time for that kind of thing. It had probably been the best experience of his odd attempt at a life thus far, but...he wasn’t his father. He didn’t want to be his father. He had patience. He had intelligence. He could wait.

Living life at the barrel of Gary‘s gun, however, had not exactly developed any kind of patience as far as his own life was concerned, and he was finding it very hard not to take Misty up in his arms again while he still had the chance, and kiss her until she gasped in that same way she had last night. The thought made something pleasantly heavy form again in his gut. He knew there was no guarantee he would still be around to do it tomorrow. He knew that, and it ate at his nerves more than anything ever had before, but he was determined to live through this.

He wanted a real life. With her. Outside of here. His ancestors were dead and gone and their legacies were currently being sold by those damned Trainers for mere fractions of what the books were probably worth, but to hell with it. He’d done what he was supposed to for nearly twenty-three years now. He’d kept the lake in line, he’d cared for the Pokémon, he’d watched over the Trainees. And he’d nearly given his life for it, just like every one of them had, save Drake who had never wanted the responsibility anyway. He was done with it. His blood could find a legacy somewhere else, because it was sure to stop with him if he tried to stay.

His shirt was ripped and stained and dirty, to the point where even Ash frowned at the thought of pulling it on. He eyed Misty’s bags on the floor and dimly recalled hearing voices just before she’d joined him in bed, and thanked Mew they hadn’t been anyone malicious. He’d been so exhausted last night he hadn’t even been bothered by his usual aboveground nightmares, and wasn’t sure if it was due to his actual fatigue or to Misty’s presence. He hoped it was Misty’s presence, because he was fairly certain he’d be spending a hell of a lot more nights with her above the surface in the near future.

Assuming there was a near future, of course. Misty had somehow become the one constant in his life, instead of the one uncertainty; he’d realized that while he was hurt and running in that dark maze of tunnels. He’d convinced himself that if he could just get out, she’d be there. If he couldn’t get out, he’d let her down.

And he’d gotten out. And she’d been there. And even if he had shown his relief in a bit of an...unconventional way, he was sure she’d be there for him later too.

He just didn’t want her to wreck her life for him in the process.

Leaving Misty to wake up alone was a bad idea, he knew, so he found her Pokébelt and quietly called out Totodile so that she wouldn’t panic. He would be right back, but there was someone he needed to talk to, whether the man wanted to or not. He gently set the young Pokémon down on the bed beside her with instructions before scrunching up his nose and pulling on his shirt anyway, then his jacket and shoes. He winced when he reached up to crawl through the trick panel in her ceiling, his muscles strained and sore in places he hadn’t known they could be.

Gary had never known about any of his entrances into private bedrooms, but he was still relieved to find the majority of them unblocked; the man had been figuring out a lot of things lately that he’d never known before, and there was no guarantee that anyplace was still safe. This particular door was hidden behind the miniature statue of a charging Tauros in one of the Stadium’s most luxurious suites. Ash climbed into the dark room silently, replaced the panel in the wall behind him quietly, and turned just in time to be blinded by a brilliant flash of red light. An instant later something large tackled him to the floor with a feline yowl.

Ash scrambled to protect himself from the Persian’s sharp claws as the room lights suddenly flared to life. “Call her off, Rudi!” he demanded loudly, his arms stinging. He could Paralyze the cat easily, he knew, but he didn’t want to; he hadn’t come here looking for a fight.

“You sneak into my rooms and then make demands when you’re caught?” Rudi scoffed from somewhere at the end of the room. “Maybe Persian will be able to knock some sense into that empty head of yours! Slash, now!”

The Pokémon raised her paw, and Ash didn’t bother catching it. Instead he went for her whiskers; the three largest ones jutting out from either side of her head. As soon as he had a firm grip the large cat stilled. Ash was left panting heavily, her weight pressing on all of his bruises and his cheek stinging where a claw had caught it. He glared at Rudi from around her flank. “She won’t Attack me again like this. Call her off.”

Rudi must have been aware of the docile nature of Persians gripped by their whiskers, because he quickly held up a Pokéball and let her disappear back inside of it with a frown. Ash sat up and wiped the blood from his cheek with the back of his hand, then looked at it. Dammit. He knew Misty would want to know where he got it later.

“Wipe that on the carpet and I’ll clean it with your face,” Rudi spoke up coldly. Ash glared at him, but wiped his hand on his shirt instead, careful to keep it where Rudi could see. He didn’t want a fight, and he definitely didn’t want another Gary.

“I came here to talk to you.”

“Did you.” To Ash’s surprise, Rudi turned his back on him and headed into the kitchen. Ash had no choice but to push himself to his feet and follow, wary of Rudi’s actions. Gary would have never shown his back with Ash around..

“Yes, I did,” he said clearly from the doorway. Rudi didn’t so much as glance at him from over his shoulder. He was hunched over the counter measuring out what smelled like coffee grounds.

“About what.”

Ash crossed his aching arms over his chest. He hadn’t been sure how Rudi would react to his sudden appearance, but this wasn’t it. “About Gary,” he finally told him.

That made Rudi pause, and he turned enough so that he could look at Ash with a frown. “Oak?”

“Oak.”

“Not Misty?”

This time Ash paused. “...Misty?”

Rudi’s frown deepened, and he turned back to his task. “Nevermind. What do you want with Oak. You should know I have no control over him, or he’d have backed off of Misty when I first ordered it months ago.”

“Misty can take care of herself,” Ash reminded him with a frown. The man always seemed to be going out of his way to help her when she didn’t need it, and Ash was growing more and more to understand Misty’s tantrums whenever his good deeds ended up as much a hindrance as a help. “I’m here about your plans for those tunnels belowground,” he continued. “I know you’re funding the whole thing—”

“Ah,” Rudi interrupted, in a tone which suggested he understood where Ash was going. He moved to put some water on the stove before leaning against the counter beside it and crossing his arms over his robed chest. “So you’re here about my plans to collapse them.”

Ready to launch into an argument about Pokémon safety and the Stadium‘s unstable foundations, instead Ash hesitated at Rudi’s words. “Your plans?”

Rudi cocked an eyebrow. “Gary Oak is after you. He thinks in the short-term. Useless for anything but brute force, which I can see he’s actually rather skilled at.” His eyes roved quickly up and down Ash’s battle-worn clothing and Ash glared.

“Call them off, Rudi,” he said through gritted teeth. “This isn’t about me or you or Gary or Misty. This is about the dozens of Pokémon you’re hurting and killing and orphaning. Call them off.”

Rudi frowned. “I’m not a monster, you know. I’m just trying to clear the area out before we collapse the tunnels. Or would you rather I fired all of Oak’s men and let the walls cave in on the Pokémon left behind?”

“Don’t be stupid,” Ash fumed, his hands curling into fists against his arms. “I know you’re only doing it to catch me. Well I’m here, and there’s no more reason for all those Trainers to be there. You know it. Call them off.”

Rudi snorted softly, shifting so that he could rearrange his weight against the countertop. “Are you asking me to let Oak know where you’re staying?”

No, I—”

“Because I can, you know,” Rudi continued in a drawl. “I considered it when he showed up to our meeting last night. I considered it when I saw you crawl out of that hole in the wall just now. You do know how to use a real door, don’t you? There’s a small brass knob you can turn that will, nine times out of ten, open it for you.”

Ash tried very hard to keep a handle on his temper. He knew Rudi could turn him in at any moment, but he also knew a lot of other things about Rudi, courtesy of Misty, who probably knew him better than anyone else. It was obvious Rudi hated him, but for reasons that simultaneously stayed his hand against Ash. He was a good man. Ash was actually guilty he was keeping Misty away from him, but...selfish or not, she was the first person he’d ever really wanted just to himself.

“I thought you’d be asleep,” he replied after a moment. “I wasn’t trying to sneak in and scare you.”

Again, that snort. “I had a hard time sleeping last night, actually, courtesy of yours truly.”

Ash frowned. He hadn’t meant for Rudi to see them like that. He hadn’t meant to be like that. It was the biggest mistake his father had made, and here he was repeating it. “I wasn’t thinking,” he finally admitted.

“Ah,” Rudi said as he shifted again, “I see. So you unthinkingly happened to stumble your way into her bed, and unthinkingly happened to lose all of your clothes in the process, and unthinkingly happened to find your way between her legs—”

“It wasn’t like that!” Ash interrupted furiously. He was making it sound like this was some brief sordid love affair between them, instead of the complicated reality it really was. Like Ash would have done that with anyone else. Like he’d ever even been tempted to.

“Oh really,” Rudi replied sharply, his own temper rising. “And how was it, then, Elemental? How was she? Satisfying enough? How did she like you? Did the two of you—”

In a flash Ash was across the room with his hand in the collar of Rudi’s robe, and instead of freezing in fright Rudi had his forearm against Ash’s neck and was shoving at him painfully. Ash’s free hand closed around it, sparks flying of their own accord, and Rudi’s free hand caught in the hair above Ash’s forehead as he gripped a handful and tried to shove him backwards.

“Don’t make me call out my Ursaring, Elemental,” he gasped, Ash’s hand tight beneath his throat. “He’s not nearly so easily tamed.”

“I have a childless Charizard who wouldn’t mind trying,” Ash growled back, all the tension that had risen up between them hitting him full-force now. “Stop trying to sabotage me and Misty.”

“You sabotaged us first.”

“I didn’t do anything. She chose me.”

“Over me. Don’t you find that odd?”

Ash‘s grip tightened, and he shoved aside the uneasiness that always threatened to swell up in him on this subject. He knew better now; it was useless to feel that way. “Misty can make her own decisions. Let her.”

“They’re obviously a bit flawed if she’s chosen a half-human sparkplug over a childhood friend,” Rudi replied tersely, his arm pressing harder against Ash’s throat. “Let me go, Elemental.”

Ash complied slowly, every loosening muscle a forced, conscious effort. Rudi released him as well, his eyes never leaving Ash’s, both of them tense as they attempted to stare the other down. The pot on the stove began to whistle suddenly, the sound growing louder as they each hesitated in their own silence. But then Rudi turned to fetch it, and Ash took a few steps backwards to give them both some room, and nothing more was said until the water was soaking through the grounds into his cup.

“I really didn’t come here to fight,” Ash told him stubbornly. He was quickly discovering that Rudi had a knack for the kind of conversation that sounded genial enough, but really got under your skin.

Rudi sighed heavily, his shoulders slouching a little as he leaned over his hands on the counter. “And I didn’t mean to instigate one,” he said tonelessly.

“Then why won’t you stop your men?” Ash asked as evenly as he could. “You’re killing innocent Pokémon. You’ll kill more if you collapse those tunnels, and you may bring the Stadium and a good portion of the city down with them.”

Rudi set his filter in the sink and turned to regard Ash tiredly, his eyes without any hint of the fury that had occupied them moments before. Ash watched him warily. He looked exhausted, despite their struggle, and it was unexpected. The only other movement from him, however, was another shrug. “It’s out of my hands now, Ash. My struggle with you ended a long time ago, even if I tried to pretend it didn’t. Oak’s got control of things now.”

His words made a knot of worry curl in Ash’s gut. “What do you mean, he’s in control?” he asked tightly, his voice belying some of his growing fear. “You’re backing everything. You’re the patron. Without your money he can’t—”

“It’s all been bought and paid for,” Rudi replied through a sigh, his eyes on the table to Ash’s right. “There’s nothing more I can do.”

“But it’s your money,” Ash protested. This was his last resort; if Rudi couldn’t get rid of those Trainers, Ash didn’t know who else to ask. His uncle was gone and his mother was gone and even Lance was gone, and even swamped in Misty’s comfort as he was, he’d never felt so alone.

“Not anymore, it isn’t,” Rudi replied with a frown. “Perhaps Oak is smarter than I gave him credit for. I don’t simply pay his bills; he insisted on creating a joint account with the funds, and that account is now empty.”

“You’ve checked?”

“Last night.” Rudi picked up his coffee cup and took a small, cautious sip. “I would have pulled out then; I’ve wasted more than enough of my inheritance on this money pit. But he’s already in full legal possession of the entire budget set aside for the project.”

Ash’s heart raced. “Then what do you suggest I do?” he asked, at a loss and frightened now that he knew Gary had the money to send out even more men if he wanted to. His friends were dying while he tucked his tail between his legs and hid up here with Pikachu. The majority of him wanted to find another way back down there, to help the Pokémon who’d raised him as one of their own, but a small part also knew that there was a good chance he wouldn’t return from a venture like that alive, and he couldn’t leave Misty. Wouldn’t leave Misty. Didn’t want to leave Misty. This wasn’t the first losing battle he’d insisted on fighting, but it was the first he’d been forced to rethink for fear of his own life. That had never mattered before; the Stadium had been his family’s home for centuries, and when it fell then so would he, but now...now he wasn’t so sure.

Rudi looked up at him from over his steaming mug, then snorted, amused, and chuckled wryly as he shook his head. He set his cup aside again with a tired grin. “I would suggest, Ash, that you get out while you can, before you can’t. You, Misty, and Brock are only three people, against Oak’s personal army. Now I’m sure you know I don’t like you, yet here I am giving you honest advice: Leave. You don’t even want to know what Oak has in store for you if you don’t.”

X


Misty was furious when Ash climbed back into her room through her ceiling a full hour after she’d woken up, and had to resist the urge to throttle him the moment his feet touched the floor. He only sighed tiredly as she sputtered to come up with a suitable insult. “Totodile was supposed to—”

“I don’t speak Totodile, Ash!” she snapped.

“Then I’ll have to teach you, Misty,” he snapped back, and she paused, surprised. Ash ran a hand through his hair and cursed softly to himself. “I’m sorry, I’m still tired. And a little stressed. I only stepped out for like a minute—”

“An hour—” Misty corrected furiously.

“—and now I’m back, and I hurt, and I just want to lie down again, okay?”

Misty nodded her consent, but eyed him warily as he shrugged off his jacket and shoes and collapsed on top of the comforter. She hadn’t missed the fresh cut on his cheek. “I swear to Mew, Ash, if you went out to track down Gary I’ll give Totodile orders to bite your head off myself.”

Said Pokémon had crawled up to take Pikachu’s usual position on his chest, and the detail wasn’t lost to either of them. Ash sighed as he smoothed his hand over the reptile’s rough skin. “I didn’t. I went to see if I could stop them from collapsing the underground.”

That caught Misty’s attention, and helped to dissipate some of the anger and fear she’d felt at waking up without knowing where he’d gone. She sank down onto the bed beside him, alternating between watching his hands and meeting his eyes. “And?”

He sighed again. “I can’t. Misty, I can’t let Gary do that. It’s just—I can‘t—” He huffed in exasperation. “He thinks he’s doing it to get back at me. He thinks by doing it’ll he’ll have won, since it’s been where my family’s lived since the War. But those tunnels are connected to the entire city, and the Stadium’s foundation is rotting away as it is. He’s going to end up destroying the entire building, and probably everything on this block.”

Misty frowned, her expression a mixture of worry and concern. “Why won’t he listen to reason?”

“Because he doesn’t have any,” Ash said disgustedly. “I’ll find Pikachu later and then send someone down to make sure the Pokémon know to clear out. Can you spread a rumor to the students and Masters, in case any of them were planning to stay here over break?”

Misty nodded, her head light at the realistic prospect that Gary Oak was actually willing to bring down the entire Stadium just to prove something to Ash, who he had to know wouldn’t allow himself to be caught in it. “What else can we do in the meantime?”

Ash peeked out at her from under the arm he’d draped over his eyes. “We? You should study.”

Misty frowned. “There’s only one week of classes left—”

“Yeah, your final week.”

“—and most of them are practical anyway—”

“Then care for your Pokémon.”

“—and I don’t care if I fail,” Misty finished in a huff, glaring at Ash now. Ash met her gaze for a moment before sitting up and, to her surprise, leaning in to press a light kiss to her lips.

“I do.” He blushed and pulled away just far enough to meet her eyes, his own filled with concern, mostly black but with small sparks of gold and swirls of brown fading in and out of it. “You spent the last ten years of your life here, Misty. Training is all you know. Get your License, make that your top priority, and then we can figure out the rest.”

Misty frowned, but not in irritation this time. “You know I don’t care about that nearly as much anymore, Ash.”

“Well you should. Even I know we won’t be able to do anything after you graduate without it.”

It surprised her to learn that Ash was thinking long-term, and she was sure her expression showed it because Ash’s cheeks darkened as he looked at her. “...Well it is.”

He yelped when she unexpectedly tackled him to the bed, her lips finding his even amongst the chaotic flailing limbs and snarling Totodile trapped between them.

“Misty—ouch—that hurts!”

“Brock’s bringing Potions by later.” She gave Totodile enough room to squirm out from between them, but otherwise didn’t let Ash up from the bed, instead nuzzling his jaw and making him shiver. He stopped struggling to get up.

“...But,” he protested feebly, “it still hurts right now.”

“Good,” Misty murmured against his neck, her lips moving over it in search of the soft spots she’d found last night. She grinned when she found one and heard Ash’s sharp intake of breath. “Consider it punishment for scaring me like that when I woke up.”

“I won’t...um...do it again?” Misty might have thought he was actually uncomfortable if his hands hadn’t chosen that time to wrap themselves around her back, holding her to him. As it was, she just grinned, then chuckled as Totodile made a bored noise from Ash‘s side.

“Good, because I’ll wrap all your Pokébelts around your neck if you do.” She sat up with a grin, though a blush stained her own cheeks when she caught sight of the heated look in Ash’s eyes. She shoved down the sudden flare of heat in her own gut and picked up Totodile, setting him on Ash’s chest to distract them. For now. She still fully intended to take advantage of this newly physical streak in Ash later, but after her Pokémon were otherwise occupied, at least.

“Now.” She set her chin on top of his small blue head. “Teach me to speak Totodile.”

X


Brock and Suzie came later that morning, as they’d promised they would. Luckily Misty remembered to tell Ash of the third addition to their group beforehand, so he wasn’t startled; just shy, which amused her because it was so much like how he used to act outside of Battles when they’d first met. The three of them ignored his blushes and stutters and protests and assurances that he was fine and finally managed to get his shirt off so they could treat the wounds there, and Brock made a quick trip back to his room so that he could get some fresh clothes for Ash to borrow, since his were, Suzie declared, “Gross.”

After that it was decided that Ash should stay with Misty until it was safe to go underground again. If it wasn’t in a few days, Brock let him know he was welcome in his room for some male-bonding time, which really amounted to a request for Ash to teach him Zubat, since he and Suzie had walked in on Misty’s Totodile session. Ash said he would be glad to. Misty could tell he was still tense around Brock, or maybe it was Suzie, but she also recognized that he was trying very hard not to be, and made a mental note to thank him for it later. He’d really changed so much over the last month that Misty was a little startled whenever she thought about it.

And so, on Monday, the waiting game began.

Misty, Brock, and Suzie each attended their classes regularly, terrified that someone would notice even the slightest absence and check for them in their rooms. Drake had, thankfully, thought to write out a syllabus in case he couldn’t make the final week, so Misty wasn’t forced to put up with some bumbling TA in his and Lance’s absence. The entire day went smoothly. Each of them were able to sneak enough away from the cafeteria at lunch and dinner to create a viable feast for Ash, who blushed and swore he didn’t need to be taken care of, then revealed to them a pile of food covered in small bitemarks that looked suspiciously like Rattata. Apparently he’d already set up his own network. Misty was a little surprised by the ease in which he procured all of the small thing for himself that she worried about, though in retrospect she knew she was just being fussy; Ash had lived his entire life out of sight in this building, it only made sense that he knew how to fend for himself in it.

Still. She was glad to be able to help now, even if only a little.

By the time they went to bed Monday night it had grown increasingly evident that he was restless. Misty didn’t blame him; she’d felt the same after holing herself up in her room for a few hours’ study, let alone a couple days’ hiding. The next day she brought him books from the library to read, but she knew they could only help so much. His friends were fighting for their lives, he’d explained while they were trying to fall asleep, some of them so old they’d helped take care of him when he was young, and now he couldn’t help in turn or Gary would get him. He knew the man’s brutal tactics were only a ploy to draw him out. Misty was actually present when a Spinarak delivered some bad news to him the next morning, and even though she’d kept as far as humanly possible away from the Bug, she hadn’t missed the way Ash’s mouth had set into a grim line, or the way all the color that had reappeared back in his eyes faded again to black.

Pokémon were dying, and anything he did to stop it would only result in his capture along with even more of theirs. It was driving him mad.

Tuesday afternoon Misty was finishing up her day’s studies beside one of the larger pools so that she could help distract Ash from his confinement later when she heard a familiar scrabbling sound in the wall beside her. She stood abruptly, and Gyarados, noticing, surfaced from where he’d been stretching his tail beneath the deep water, eager to make sure everything was all right. A small yellow Pikachu appeared suddenly from out of nowhere in a corner, and Misty dropped her books to dash over to the mouse with a cry of relief; no one had known where he’d gone, not even Ash, and even if he hadn’t explicitly said anything, she knew it’d been fraying his remaining nerves.

The mouse was ruffled, dirty, and hurt, but not badly. He cooed when Misty swept him up in a tight hug, a purr erupting from his throat when she attacked all his favorite spots at once, and kissed his little head to boot. His fur was dull in color and his ears drooped at the tips, but she recognized by now that it was fatigue and nothing more; a good rest with Ash and she was sure he’d be fine.

Her Gyarados groaned suddenly from behind her, and Misty turned to see his large slitted eyes focused intently on Pikachu. The mouse stretched out an arm for him, and Misty leaned over the side of the water so that he could pat Gyarados’s nose with his tiny paw. The sea monster groaned again in reply, his body arching up out of the water a bit in an unmistakable nuzzle, then slipped beneath the water to run laps along the bottom. Misty smiled. All of her Pokémon had become good friends with Pikachu during their Battles together, and while Gyarados had always been a bit wary of the mouse and his Element, she was pleased to see he’d finally gotten over his own stubbornness to acknowledge his relief at Pikachu’s return.

Ash was, of course, relieved as well. The Pokémon fell asleep curled in Ash’s shirt, his tail twined around Misty’s wrist, and for the first time since Ash had all but collapsed on her, he slept soundly and didn’t stir restlessly at odd times of the night.

Though Misty wasn’t sure she’d ever get used to how ungodly early he seemed to like getting up.

Gary never showed up to interrogate her. She saw Rudi once or twice, but he was usually busy with other things, talking to some Master or other with an open cell phone in his hand. She was sure he was busy with the end-of-term rush, and glad he couldn’t find the time to harass her anymore, but a bit sad, too, that their friendship seemed to have dissolved so thoroughly. She knew Ash had been to see him; he hadn’t even tried to hide it from her when she’d pressed. The fact that he’d let Ash go again afterwards was all the proof Misty needed that he was still the same rusty-haired island-boy she’d known from her youth. He’d never had the heart for grudges and revenge. Or so, as the year finally wound down to a close, she desperately hoped.

Friday came and went without incident, and now it was the real crunch time. Exams began Saturday, beginning with the first few letters of the alphabet. Brock’s was late Monday, and Misty’s mid-Tuesday. Suzie’s were already complete, as was the Breeder-portion of Brock’s; they’d been written in-class exams, and both of them had done as well as Misty suspected they would. The practical ones would be all the graduating students could think about over the course of the next few days, and Misty was no exception. Ash helped as much as he could, which seemed to give him something to do to take his mind off his growing unease, so Misty didn’t stop him even when his explanations began to go above and beyond what she needed to know for her Battles and demonstrations.

Save the stress and Ash’s restlessness, both over his struggling Pokémon and his mother’s continued absence, it was actually a fairly easy week, and nothing out of the ordinary happened until Brock’s exam Monday evening.

His Graveler, Geodude, and Onix were, of course, polished and chiseled to perfection; Brock had always been good at that kind of thing. His Bonsly, the youngest of his charges and one of the reasons he‘d aced most of his Breeding exams, was declared to be in top condition, and the fluid leaking from its eyes gathered and tested to prove that it was, in fact, in perfect health. Zubat did perfectly on his echolocation exam, thanks to a little last-minute help from Ash. Having raised each of his Pokémon from birth, Brock hadn’t had a chance to choose a sixth, so they then went on to the more practical portion of his exam: Battling.

Pikachu cooed as his Onix unleashed a devastating Attack on the opponent Nidoking, who with all its armor and weight was no match for the giant rock snake. Misty leaned her chin on the top of the mouse’s head and grinned as Suzie let out a whoop beside her. She knew sneaking the Pokémon in was probably a bad idea, with all the security around, but this was Brock’s Battle and there were snacks everywhere and he’d been cooped up in Misty’s room with Ash for days, so she couldn’t blame the mouse for biting Ash’s arms and then scrambling out of them when he’d tried to forbid him from going. Misty knew Ash was just testy from being cooped up himself. She’d considered staying there with him and keeping him company, but he wouldn’t let her. Honestly, though, it hadn’t taken much coaxing. She was excited for Brock, and wasn’t exactly enthused at the idea of missing the culmination of skills from his last ten years here.

He was awarded borderline top marks, with only a few deductions for stupid little things like unconventional Training methods and altered Attacks. His entire family had been watching from the seats set aside for relatives, and by the time Misty and Suzie were able to muscle their way down to the Grand Arena’s floor, Flint had his son in a headlock and all ten of his siblings were trying to attach themselves to various parts of his anatomy as his mother stood with Suzie’s parents and laughed. Beside Misty, Suzie herself was blushing, and they shared a bit of a giggle together before Flint gestured them over and they moved to join the throng. Pikachu was nabbed from Misty’s shoulder be a gaggle of curious little people, and he sparked in surprise at being handled by the children, until Brock grabbed him out of his little brother’s hands and rubbed the mouse’s belly over his own head like a balloon, laughing when his hair stood on end. Pikachu giggled too, and then all of the children wanted to try, no one suspicious, for once, of the sudden appearance of the Electric-Type.

That was when Misty caught sight of Gary. He’d been suspiciously absent from his usual seat among the two headMasters for every Battle exam this year, and Brock’s had been no different. This worried her, because she knew it had something to do with his mad hunt for Ash, but she wasn’t sure what, right now, she could do about it. Ash was currently cooped up alone in Brock’s room, where he assured them all there was a secret escape just in case, playing a portable game without batteries because watching his ancestors’ possessions from centuries ago be pawned off to rich collectors on the news had begun to upset him. He had books, Misty knew. He had a television to watch the broadcast of the Exam. He had lookouts stationed up and down the halls, and he had more food than any of them knew what to do with, but still, as excited as Misty was for Brock, she hadn’t been able to shake an uneasy feeling at leaving him alone like this for their exams. If Gary was going to strike, now would be the time to do it.

And yet there he was, in front of the cameras, giving what looked like an arrogant speech to a curious anchorman as Rudi stood looking professionally bored beside him. His teal eyes caught Misty’s suddenly and he started a little, then offered a small smile. Misty was hesitant to return it, unsure if Gary’s presence meant that something had just happened or not, until he nodded at Brock and she realized that he was only being congratulatory. Then she grinned, and from across the crowd Rudi grinned back, and for a few short moments it felt like they were friends again, grinning secretly at the shared knowledge that they’d dumped a bucket of island sand in Daisy or Lily or Violet’s bed.

Then a sharp hand gripped her arm suddenly, and a nearly frantic voice hissed in her ear:

Where is my son?


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Tags: 18, act 4, act four, act iv, chapter, eighteen, part 1
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