Misty turned to see a pale-faced Delia beside her, her hair a little unkempt and her clothes slightly rumpled. From over the woman’s shoulder she could see Brock’s mother in particular watching them curiously, but she gave her a small grin and a wave and tucked her arm into Delia’s to tug them surreptitiously off to the side, heart thudding quickly at the scare Delia had given her.
“He’s fine,” she hissed, glancing around to make sure no one was watching. Delia was well-known throughout the Stadium, as was her unmarried, childless status. “Come on, I’ll take you to him.”
“He’s here?” Delia demanded shrilly. Her voice was loud enough to make Misty glance around herself in worry. Brock was watching them, a grin on his face as Pikachu burrowed into his shirt, tail hanging out the bottom like a pendulum for his siblings to try and catch. Misty was filled with such a relief herself at seeing Delia all right and knowing that, no matter what, Brock had been graded and would now graduate that she grinned back, and took Delia’s hand as she nodded to show her friend that she was leaving. Brock looked a little disappointed, but nodded as well. Misty promised herself she would make it up to him later; right now the memory of her frantic worry for Ash from the week before was still fresh in her mind, and she wanted to help alleviate Delia from it as quickly as possible.
“Where is he?” Delia wanted to know. Her hand was clutching Misty’s tightly as she tugged her over to the door, careful not to lose each other in the thick crowd. Misty glanced up to make sure Gary wasn’t in sight before turning back to her.
“Brock’s room. He’s fine, I promise. He’s been staying with me all week.”
“With you?” Delia asked incredulously, in a voice that stung Misty a little and made it sound like all those little hints she’d dropped to convince her that Ash really trusted her were to make her feel better, and not because she actually believed them. Misty tried to brush the feeling aside. She’d come to seek Delia’s approval as much as Ash’s in the last few months, she knew—and Drake’s too, for that matter. They were his only family and it was obvious—especially lately, in their absence—that he cared for them. She didn’t want to let his mother down.
“Yes, with me,” she clarified, and then added stubbornly, “I’ve been taking good care of him. He’s got Gary thinking he’s still pinned on the other side of the lake, where he can’t get to.”
“He’s been with you this whole time?”
Again that stab of mixed hurt and pride. Misty hoped Delia hadn’t been lying when she’d said all those things before. “Yes, the whole time,” she sighed as they finally broke through the barrier at the door and were able to move down the crowded lobby a little more freely. “Except for today. We put him in Brock’s room just in case.”
Delia was silent for a moment as she let Misty tug her along. Misty wasn’t sure what to make of it, and tried her hardest to remind herself that the woman was under a lot of stress at the moment, that she herself had been in much the same kind of frenzy when she hadn’t known for sure if Ash was safe, and that she hadn’t been placed under criminal charges to boot. She had to give Delia a break, even if she was finding it difficult. She’d hoped that Delia would trust her with Ash’s safety while she was gone, even if it was a backwards sort of outdated chivalric notion to think that Ash needed to be protected.
It took several minutes longer than it should have to break free of the throng and finally make their way down a hallway leading to the dorms. There was another match scheduled after Brock’s, so most of the people remained in the Grand Arena, leaving the rest of the Stadium far from empty, but much less packed than where the action was. Delia was silent behind Misty until they made it to the first floor of the dorms themselves, and Misty slapped her palm against the up button for the elevator.
“Are you sure he hasn’t just been pretending to stay with you, and sneaking off when you don’t notice?”
It was such an unexpectedly faithless question to hear that Misty turned and stared at the woman with a frown. Delia still looked worried, but confused too, in a slightly thoughtful way. Without knowing the logic behind her inquiry, if there was any in the state Delia was in, Misty forced herself not to snap at her.
“Of course he’s not. We—I’d notice,” she quickly corrected with a blush. Ash’s own mother didn’t need to know that she and Ash had been sleeping together, if not in the sexual sense, than at least in the literal one. Ash hadn’t let them repeat their first night together, and while it frustrated her a little, especially when it was obvious, even as Ash stayed her hands and fixed her clothes, that he felt much the same way she did, she didn’t want to push. That first night had been...well. There was nothing bad about it, and she’d made very certain that Ash didn’t regret it either—he’d sworn when she finally lost her temper enough to actually ask him, and he’d never outright lied to her before—but even she couldn’t deny that it was an act born of relief and desperation. She got the feeling Ash had been too anxious the first couple nights to open himself up like that again, and Pikachu had been around for the rest.
But Delia, being Delia, of course, noticed anyway. She tilted her head and peered at Misty with the first hint of something other than worry since she’d suddenly appeared.
“Are you two sleeping together?”
The elevator door dinged its arrival, and Misty used the distraction of stepping into it and pressing the nine for Brock’s floor as an excuse not to look at her as she stammered an embarrassed response. “Well we’re not—you know, sleeping or anything like—I mean! We are sleeping, because that’s all we’re doing—all we’re doing, just—together, but not in the sense of sleeping together, because that’s just—well, it’s just—it’s wrong. Because Pikachu’s there too.”
The moment it left her mouth Misty knew she’d made it sound worse than it was, like Pikachu was the only reason they weren’t sleeping together, and yet she couldn’t think of anything to say right now to fix it. She was confused on the subject herself, and had been too preoccupied with keeping Ash safe and unnoticed and preparing for her own exams and helping Brock and Suzie prepare for theirs that she hadn’t had time to sort out exactly how she felt about it. Ash was worried about his mother and his uncle and his Pokémon, and she was sure it had nothing to do with her—not really. But a tiny, nasty part of her couldn’t help but wonder if Ash had only done it the first night because he’d been too scared out of his mind to think properly, despite what he’d said about it afterwards.
Confused and embarrassed as she was to have just blurted that out to his mother, it took Misty a moment to realize that Delia was watching her with a tiny smile.
“He’s really sleeping with you? In your bed?”
That question was straightforward enough that Misty nodded, a little confused as to why Delia was asking it. Until she continued with a widening grin:
“Misty, that’s incredible! Really! I mean, as long as you’re sure he’s all right; he hasn’t slept up here for ages, he doesn’t even like anything that will put him out aboveground while he’s hurt.”
“Really?” Misty felt her spirits lift a little. It was sounding again like Delia was pleasantly surprised that Ash felt comfortable enough with her to fall asleep instead of incredulous that he ever could.
“Oh, I’m so happy for you,” the woman continued, looking much better than she had since she’d arrived. “Maybe he’ll do all right after all. I was so worried he wouldn’t make himself adjust, but if he already is...”
Misty wasn’t sure what to make of that, and they were near enough to the end of the hall now that she wasn’t sure she could ask without Ash overhearing from inside Brock’s room. And sure enough, as they drew closer, Brock’s door cracked open and a single, mostly chocolate eye peeked through.
“Ash, sweetie, I was so worried...”
Delia launched herself on her son who, to Misty’s surprised amusement, returned her fervent hug instead of attempting to squirm away. She glanced behind herself to make sure that no one was watching before following the pair into Brock’s room, closing the door softly behind her. She felt a little out of place, watching Delia comb her fingers through Ash’s hair like he was twelve instead of twenty-two and glimpsing the goofy, relieved grin on Ash’s face as he let her. A little out of place, but happy, and incredibly relieved herself.
“And look at you!” Delia was exclaiming, stepping back only long enough to give him a quick once-over before crushing him to her chest again. He was a good few inches taller than her, and the scene was comical enough that Misty had to hide a grin behind her hand. “No wraps, no gloves, no coat, clothes hanging off of you like a beggar’s...”
“They’re Brock’s, Mom,” Ash told her dryly. He met Misty’s eyes briefly, and though he looked as ruffled and annoyed as he usually did when his mother fussed over him, it was obvious that, for once, he really didn’t mind it.
“Brock’s? And where are yours?”
“Stuck down there.”
Ash sighed, his tone turning serious. “I can’t go down there anymore right now. Gary’s got everything blocked off. If I try, someone will see me, and then I won’t be able to come back up again.”
He met Delia’s eyes as he said this, and Delia gave him an unreadable expression, and Misty was sure there was something to this conversation that she was missing when Delia suddenly smiled and pulled him down to kiss his forehead.
“Well, I’m glad you’ve finally made that choice. It was the right one. And I hear you’re sleeping up here! See? I told you you could do it!”
Any seriousness in Ash’s face drained very suddenly, along with the color. “Mom, it’s not like—”
“And after all those nightmares and everything! And with someone! And—”
“Well,” Delia conceded, calming down, “I’m just glad you’re all right. I figured you would be when I never heard anything solid, but you know I can’t help worrying.”
Ash sighed heavily, avoiding her eyes. “I know.”
“Well I’m back for good, at least, so we won’t ever have to do that again. I didn’t like not having the Pokémon around to tell me how you were.”
Ash’s head shot up at that, hopeful surprise flickering across his features as Misty felt a surge of relief wash through her.
“Really?” she asked before Ash could gather himself enough to. “They dropped the charges?”
Delia sighed, and moved away from Ash to start gathering up the things he’d scattered around Brock’s room, mostly a few books and game cartridges he’d obviously just been using. “No,” she sighed, “not dropped entirely, but Drake’s been throwing a bunch of papers at them all week, and I suppose one of them finally stuck. They’re not allowed to hold me anymore, as long as I appear for my court date after the holidays.”
“You have a court date?” Ash asked, looking suddenly as nervous as he had since before his mother had returned. Misty stepped over to him and tucked an arm into his reassuringly, though she didn’t like the sound of that either. Ash glanced at her briefly in surprise, but it was the reaction she always got when she touched him unexpectedly, and as always, he settled again after a moment and even stepped a little closer.
“For what?” Misty wanted to know. She hadn’t expected Ash to react so well with her in front of his mother, and her chest felt warm and tingly now that he was.
“Nothing serious,” Delia reassured them, stooping to pick up what looked like a broken Pokéball. “Whose is this?”
“Heracross,” Ash answered, then blushed a little as Delia glanced back at them and smiled. She quickly bent to pick up the other half.
“Why is it broken?”
“They’re all broken,” Ash explained. “All except the ones who want to stay with me. They can’t be caught if they’re already registered in a ‘Ball, and they can’t be recalled if it doesn’t work.”
“Good thinking,” Delia said proudly. It looked like there was something else she wanted to say as well, but thought better of, and instead turned to pick up the last of Ash’s things, adding it to the teetering pile in her arms. “Well then, let’s go.”
Both Ash and Misty started. “Go?” he asked as Misty frowned.
“Lance is anxious to see you,” Delia nodded at her son, then turned to Misty with a smile. “He told me in the courthouse that he finally met you. I’m so glad. Ash has been insisting that he be kept in the dark for months now—”
“Because he doesn’t shut up!” Ash hissed. He slipped his arm out of Misty’s in order to move and take back his things from his mother. “All he does is tease and insinuate, and it was bad enough when he didn’t know who she was.”
Delia grinned and shared a glance with Misty, who wasn’t sure what it meant, but was eager to see Lance again all the same. He seemed like a nice man, despite Ash’s frustrations with him, and he was one of the few Masters in the Stadium who Misty respected enough to actually feel speechless and reverent around.
“Nonsense,” Delia bustled, “you’ve been harboring this ridiculous grudge against him ever since he threw you in the lake that one time—”
“In my clothes!” Ash sputtered. “In February!”
“—and found out he was too heavy to reciprocate against. Now. He missed you. No shocking—”
“But he deserves it!”
“—no shuffling around rubbing static into the carpet—”
“That wasn’t on purpose, and I apologized already.”
“—and no language. Are we clear?”
Ash mumbled something incoherent and pressed the small stack of books to his chest, crossing his arms over them moodily. Delia seemed to find this an acceptable answer, though, because she nodded and said, “Good. You can still find your way up to his office, can’t you?”
“Then you have ten minutes. No dawdling. Come on, Misty.”
She brushed by Misty on her way to the door, and Misty turned to give Ash a confused look before following, but he only rolled his eyes and grumbled, “Bet he’s not too heavy for Feraligatr,” as she passed.
“What was that about?” Misty asked as she joined Delia in the hall. The pair found their way back to the elevator and waited for it to reach them again.
Delia looked at her with an uncomprehending expression. “About?”
“Yeah, with—” Misty had to stop and reword what she’d been about to say in her head, a little uncomfortable talking to Delia about both her son and the man she was seeing at the same time. “With...those two,” she finally finished.
“You mean Lance and Ash?” Delia clarified. Misty nodded as the elevator arrived and they stepped inside together, then waited patiently for it to lower to the fourth floor. To her confusion, Delia was smiling. “Oh, Ash is just being a big baby about things. He’s glued himself to his uncle ever since he was old enough to latch onto his shins, and he doesn’t want Lance taking his place.”
“His place?” Misty asked, frowning. She knew now that Delia was dating Lance, in a sense, but she had no idea she was trying to make him family. She couldn’t blame Ash for being hesitant. His family wasn’t exactly a normal one, and without a father, it made sense that he’d look up to his father’s only brother instead. But she didn’t understand why including Lance had to push Drake aside. “Can’t he and Master Drake just...share?”
Delia sighed. “It’s all very complicated,” she began, but smiled reassuringly when Misty gave her a disappointed look, expecting to be given some half-explanation again. To her surprise, Delia continued. “Drake and Cypress’s mother was a—well. You know.” She paused a moment to lower her voice. “Cypress got it from their father, and passed it down to Ash. But their mother was Water, not Electricity. Drake got a little of it, but not nearly enough—mostly just Dragon from his grandmother. He couldn’t quite control anything, so they didn’t need him. He grew up aboveground.”
“What, alone?” Misty asked, startled. She’d never thought that, as feared and persecuted as Elementals were today, they would turn around and do the same to someone who didn’t fit in with them. Ash’s mother nodded with a small sigh.
“He found foster parents, the Pumellos from the Orange Islands, but you know that’s not the same. His real family never treated him as one of their own, and even though he and Cypress stayed as close as they could for as long as they could, he never considered himself one of them. Ash only reminds him of all that.”
She sighed suddenly, heavily, and for a moment some of her energy was lost and she really looked her age. The change was so similar to the ones Ash went through sometimes that Misty found herself wanting to hug the woman, and might have if the doors hadn’t chosen that moment to open with a small, lighthearted ding.
“Drake is not a very good father figure,” Delia told Misty softly as they turned toward the string of offices a ways down the hall, well outside of the dormitories. “Ash wanted him to be, but he looks too much like his father for Drake’s comfort, and Drake’s...” She sighed and looked at Misty. “Drake’s a good man. We’re very close, and he’s done worlds for Ash, especially when he was younger and he needed the help. But I know it’s hard for him. He looks at Ash and sees Cypress there, no matter how little like him Ash acts. Honestly, Ash takes more after his uncle, but both of them are too estranged now to even notice. Drake’s made it clear to Ash on more than one occasion that he only wants to speak to him if there’s some business to discuss, and Ash, well. He’s always been a fast learner. He idolized Drake when he was a boy, but Drake was still too upset by his brother’s death to notice.”
“But that’s awful,” Misty interjected, reeling from this sudden slew of information. She’d never known there was anything tense between Ash and his uncle; she’d never really spoken to Ash about him at all, and Drake had always seemed in good enough spirits when talking about his nephew.
“Yes, well,” Delia nodded, sighing again, “they get on. I think Drake may be realizing what he’s done to their relationship lately. He’s been trying to fix it.”
“But?” The word was evident in Delia’s tone, even if she never voiced it aloud. Delia glanced at her.
“But you know Ash. He’s stubborn and wary and very proud, even if he doesn’t admit it. That much he gets from his father. Drake will have to work at him harder than you’ve done, and I don’t know if he shares your sense of resolve.”
“But what about Master Lance, then?” Misty questioned. “If Drake’s not around like that, then why—?”
To her surprise, Delia smiled, and some of the laughter that had returned during her visit with Ash reappeared in her eyes now. “Ash doesn’t like Lance because Lance treats him like a human being, like my son, and he refuses to do any differently no matter how vehemently Ash protests. Lance is a good man. I think Ash is just frustrated because no matter how much he tries to hate him, he knows that, too.”
“And Lance doesn’t—”
“Did someone mention my name?”
They’d just rounded a corner, and suddenly there Lance was, face splitting into a grin as Delia suddenly beamed up at him. He threw a wink in Misty’s direction before bending to give Delia a quick kiss, a hand sliding around her waist in what was clearly a familiar gesture.
“Well?” he asked expectantly, glancing from Delia back to Misty again. “You’re not hyperventilating anymore, so I take it he’s all right. Where’s he hidden himself this time?”
“With Misty,” Delia told him, smile suddenly turning a bit mischievous. Misty felt her cheeks heat as Lance regarded her with raised eyebrows, then another grin, this one twisting a bit into a smirk.
“Really? And Oak hasn’t thought to look there?”
“There’s a hidden panel in my room,” Misty explained, trying very hard to keep this conversation neutral. “I think he’s tried, but it’s my bedroom; he can’t always be hanging around there, and Ash gets out through the ceiling.”
“Speaking of,” Delia interrupted, “he’s supposed to meet us in your office. We were on our way there now. Where were you off to?”
“To find you,” Lance told her genially, turning to lead them back where he’d come from. To Misty’s surprise, he held his free arm back for her to join them, and she found herself catching up in a mixture of confusion and awkwardness as he settled it lightly on her back, in what she knew was more of a parental gesture than an intimate one, but which she was unused to all the same.
“How is he?” Lance was asking Delia softly, clearly thinking nothing of Misty’s presence on his other side. “Not bad, I hope?”
“A little beat up,” Delia answered, “but much better than I expected. The kids took good care of him. He looks more restless than hurt.”
“And his team?” Lance continued quietly. Misty could barely hear their conversation and wasn’t sure if she should be able to at all, so she kept silent and counted the remaining doors before Lance’s grad student office instead, though she couldn't keep herself from straining her ears to catch more.
Delia sighed. “I didn’t ask, but from the look on his face, they’re not doing very well. He wants to be down there.”
“And he isn’t?” Lance asked, clearly surprised.
Delia didn’t respond, and it took Misty a moment to realize she’d turned to look at him. This made her feel even more out of place, and she struggled harder to pretend she wasn’t there.
“Ah,” Lance finally replied at length. “Well. That’s encouraging, isn’t it?”
“Not if he can’t bring himself to get over it.”
“He will,” Lance told her, his voice suddenly strong. He turned and gave Misty a confident grin. “Right?”
“Of course he will,” Lance replied for her, and patted her on the back. “He’s never stayed aboveground when he didn’t want to before, the sneaky little brat. Always scampering off to avoid everyone. If he’s staying now, it’s because he thinks it’s worth something.”
The trio stopped outside his office and he pulled a key from his pocket, glancing quickly up and down the hall before pushing the door open. He waited until Misty and Delia had a chance to slip inside under his outstretched arm, then pushed it closed again and grinned across the room.
“There’s the boy. Still able to move around pretty easily up here, I take it?”
Ash was sitting on top of his desk with one leg curled and both arms wrapped around it, his stack of things nowhere to be seen. He glared up at Lance from under his ruffled bangs and then rolled his eyes, which had been bare ever since he’d gotten himself stuck with Misty. Neither she nor Brock nor Suzie had any sunglasses to loan him, and probably wouldn’t if they had.
“They think I’m still stuck down there, not up here. They’re just guarding the ground floor in case I try to get through either way. They think—”
He squeaked suddenly as Lance crossed the small room in one big stride, then gathered him up in a tight hug, knee and all. Ash immediately began squirming to get away, and Lance laughed at his tactics and finally released him, only to grab him again in a headlock and ruffle his hair with his knuckles.
“Lance!” Ash protested. Misty started from her half-amused sense of surprise when she saw sparks suddenly zip in a lopsided electric circle around his arm, but Lance only laughed it off and slapped a hand against Ash’s back before releasing him, hard enough that he nearly toppled forward off the desk.
“That’s for sitting on all my paperwork, you little beast,” he said with a grin. Ash glowered up at him, but it was obvious that the mess of papers spread out beneath him had once belonged to what remained of a few small stacks sitting at the corner. Delia tsked suddenly as she approached.
“Oh Ash, did you really mess all this up? Put it back, Lance has better things to do than clean up after you.”
“Like?” Ash demanded, but his face switched from sarcastic to disbelieving when he realized his mother was serious. “I don’t know where they all go!”
“It’s fine, Delia,” Lance chuckled. “I still need to sort through them for grading anyway.”
“It’s not like I did it on purpose,” Ash muttered in his own defense.
“Because there are clearly no chairs in this room,” Lance agreed with a smirk, sidling around his desk and sinking back into his own. Ash just scowled.
“I shouldn’t even be here,” he said irritably. “Can I go now?”
“Of course,” Lance shrugged. “I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“Couldn’t you have just gotten that from my mom?”
“And miss the pleasure of your genial company? I would never.”
Ash glared at him briefly, then evidently decided to pretend he didn’t exist, because he turned to Misty instead. “How did Brock do?”
Watching Ash interact with his family had been a little strange at first, but at the mention of her best friend again, Misty’s shyness vanished and she grinned. “Top marks, almost. His entire family’s celebrating with him, but he’ll probably come find me in my room when they’re done.”
“Shouldn’t you be with them?”
Any awkwardness that had dissipated at the topic change came flooding back as she suddenly realized that all three of them were watching her. At first it felt like Ash was trying to get rid of her, but she knew that was silly, and only reminiscent of her own discomfort at the moment. Ash didn’t want her to go, that fact became more and more obvious the longer she looked at him and considered his question, until finally she smiled and told them the truth.
“No. I’d rather be here.”
Brock’s entire family went out to dinner that night with Suzie’s, and while Misty had meant what she’d said and had argued against it, together Ash and Delia and even Lance finally managed to usher her out of the Stadium doors with them. It wasn’t that she’d have rather stayed behind, exactly, but that she’d finally begun to feel comfortable with Ash and his mother and Lance, like she was actually one of them instead of just an observer. In truth, she didn’t want to miss Brock’s celebration for the world, she simply didn’t want to disrupt that familial feeling she’d just begun to sink into. It was the same kind she’d always felt with Brock’s family. She hadn’t expected to feel it anywhere else.
But they’d insisted, and when she’d finally gone back to her room to change, Brock and Suzie and Pikachu had arrived, grinning and laughing and shocking everything in sight, and then there’d been no question about it. Ash disappeared into the ceiling again with Pikachu in tow, and Misty had a feeling he was going back to see Lance again, however much he’d protested to being forced into his company before. He’d asked about his uncle before he and Misty left, and the answer he’d gotten hadn’t been enough to satisfy Misty, either. She was worried for him, but if going out with her friends would give him the alone time he needed to find out what was going on with his uncle in private, she was glad to give it. Besides, she thought stubbornly as she quickly slipped into a nicer pair of jeans and some good shoes, she was already forming plans to ask him about it later.
Going out to nice restaurants was rare, but for once Brock’s family managed. The children took up an entire party table themselves, but Suzie’s parents didn’t seem to mind the noise, and were in fact just as ecstatic that their only daughter was finally done with school as Brock’s parents were for him. And neither of them minded Misty’s company, despite her obvious lack of family. Instead they seemed glad that Suzie had made such good friends at the Stadium, and with a Gym Leader’s son, too! When talk finally turned to news of their Breeding Center in Celadon, the adults were distracted enough that Misty was able to tell Brock and Suzie that Delia was all right.
“That’s a relief,” Brock said with a sigh. Suzie had never known the woman very well, so she kept quiet, watching Brock’s reaction instead. “But what’s her court date for?”
“She didn’t say,” Misty said with a frown. “I’ll ask Ash later if he can find out. I think he went to talk to Lance again. Something’s not right with Drake.”
This time it was Suzie who frowned. “What do you mean?”
Misty shrugged. “I don’t know, Lance wouldn’t say. Ash won’t let that go, though. I think they both wanted to wait until Delia was out of the room.”
“Why?” Brock asked, clearly confused.
Misty frowned again as she recalled what Delia had told her earlier about Ash’s uncle, and about the pair’s relationship together. It’d sounded to her like Delia didn’t approve of the things Drake had done, and Misty wondered if that had something to do with it. Even if Ash wasn’t as close to him as he’d once tried to be, Drake was still his uncle, and still his father’s only living relative. Misty got the feeling, both from that conversation and a myriad of other little things Ash had let drop over their months together before, that there was something there that both she and Delia were missing.
“I’m not sure,” she finally replied, “but I’ll find out.”
Talk turned to Misty’s upcoming Battle then, and included all three of them for the rest of the night. It was nice, getting away from the constant worry and fear for a while, and it was fun helping to carry the half of Brock’s siblings who had fallen asleep in the van up into their hotel room for the night, and it was exhausting walking the block or so back to the Stadium and making their way back up to their rooms.
Nice, fun, exhausting, and a little nerve-wracking. Every passing hour brought Misty closer to her final exam set for the following afternoon, and every time she remembered that she felt anxious and a little nauseous.
Ash wasn’t in her room when she got back, but she forced herself to push aside the automatic sense of worry that rose up in her. There was no reason he shouldn’t be okay, if Gary and his men really believed he was still below the Stadium somewhere, as he and the random Pokémon who had come to visit him and bring him news constantly assured her. She couldn’t imagine Ash sitting in Lance's office to speak to the man for so long, but then, a lot had happened in a very short amount of time, and he may very well have been.
After showering and changing for bed, though, she began to worry. Ash’s things were on her bed where he’d left them before, untouched. She’d just begun to worry if she should pull some jeans on over her pajama bottoms and find her way back to Lance's again when a panel in the center of her ceiling suddenly disappeared and a pair of jeans dropped through.
“Where have you been?” Misty demanded as the rest of Ash slowly appeared, her anger at his absence gripping her before anything else could. Then she realized that he’d changed clothes, and that they weren’t Brock’s. They fit him much better, and when he looked at her his face was clean and his hair was damp, and it was obvious that he’d found some shower to use somewhere without having to slip into the boys’ one before most of them woke up for classes.
Ash glanced at her, but he was familiar enough with her quick tantrums by now that he didn’t back down from it. Instead he dragged her desk chair over so that he could stand on it and put the ceiling back in place, answering her while he moved. “Lance's suite. I kept a change of clothes there just in case, so he let me clean up. Tomorrow he’s going to get me some more so that Brock can have all of his back.”
That was nice of him, Misty acknowledged silently, her anger already fading. She couldn’t help but remember what Delia had told her before. “I thought you didn’t like him,” she prodded cautiously, curious.
Ash glanced at her again as he climbed back down and moved the chair back into place. “I don’t dislike him,” he grumbled unhappily. “He’s just annoying.”
“He seems to make your mom pretty happy,” Misty pointed out. Ash sighed and ran a hand through his hair. It was still wet enough that it stuck up in his wake.
“Yeah, he does. And she is. And that’s good.”
“You were really worried about her,” Misty acknowledged softly. Ash met her eyes briefly, but didn’t argue. It’d grown more and more obvious over the last few days, but she’d never mentioned it before, namely because she was worried too, and she knew that bringing it up wouldn’t do any good. But now she was back, and Ash looked tired instead of nervous, but the kind of tired that you got after a weight had finally been lifted, not the kind of tired he’d gotten while struggling to act normal while he carried it around.
“Yeah,” he said after a moment. “I thought Gary might have done something to keep her from coming back. But Lance said it was all legal jargon. It just took Drake a few days to work through it.”
Misty sat on the edge of her bed as he spoke, and when Ash noticed he came over to join her. She turned so that she could see him better. “And how is he?”
“Not good,” Ash replied heavily. “Lance has got a bunch of people from here petitioning on his behalf, but it’ll be a while. I mean.” He paused and shifted a little, pooling his hands in his lap for something to do with them. “Not good in that it’ll take a while. He’s appealing on the notion that what he’s doing is a help, not a hindrance. Lance says he has enough evidence to back up his claim, but it’ll take forever to go through, and he won’t be allowed to work here again until it does.”
“You miss him?” Misty asked softly. Ash looked up at her in surprise.
“I, uh...Well yeah, he’s my uncle. He’s always been here. Even when he didn’t want to be.”
Misty frowned. “What does that mean?”
Shrugging, it was obvious as soon as Ash spoke that he was engaging in his usual topical diversionary tactics again. “Nothing. I didn’t mean anything by it.” He pushed himself up off the bed, but after everything she’d heard today, Misty was too curious to let this one go. She tugged on his wrist to keep him there.
“No really, Ash. I want to know.”
Ash regarded her carefully for a moment, but he eventually sank back down onto the bed beside her, and Misty didn’t let go of his wrist. After a moment he turned his hand upside down so that she was holding that instead, and then took hold of hers and turned it over so that he could trace light patterns on her palm. She tried to concentrate on how much it tingled instead of tickled.
“I just meant,” he began after a moment, eyes down, “that he’s always had a lot of stuff going on, and sometimes he doesn’t want to do things I need him to, even though he’s the only one who can.”
“Like?” Misty urged gently.
“Like telling me things, mostly,” Ash said through a sigh, like it was a big deal. “You know, things. About my dad. About their dad. About how things are supposed to go. He doesn’t like talking about it all.”
“Because he’s not like you?” Misty guessed. Ash’s finger stopped moving for a moment and he looked at her again in surprise, but didn’t comment on it, and instead looked down again and resumed what he’d been doing before.
“Yeah. Kinda. Him and my dad were close, but only because my dad wanted to be. I think Drake did too, for a little while, but then he didn’t, and all Dad did was annoy him every time he came and told him about all the stuff he was missing. That’s what it sounds like, anyway. And every time I bring it up, I remind him again.”
“But that sounds a little selfish,” Misty pointed out with a frown. “You have a right to know about your dad.”
“I know enough about him,” Ash muttered darkly. “Believe me. I wish I didn’t. He deserved what Sam Oak did to him, even if Oak deserved what Dad did too.”
“What?” Misty demanded surprised. “He deserved being killed?”
“He was a jerk!” Ash suddenly exploded, turning to face her instead of their hands. “A stupid, careless, selfish idiot. He provoked Oak, not the other way around. He kidnapped my mom, and then he wanted Drake to tell him what to do with her. He started this whole thing with me and Gary, and then he got killed and left me to deal with it. But I don’t even care about that, I know he didn’t mean to. But that’s the thing. He never meant to do anything, and all this stuff happened because of it. My mom’s been stuck here her whole life taking care of me, and now Gary’s got so many people that I can’t go down there at all anymore. Not if I wanna come back.”
Misty thought about that for a moment, startled by this sudden outburst by Ash against his father, but for the moment more concerned with what he’d said afterwards. “And you do want to come back,” she realized aloud. Suddenly a lot of the day’s seemingly random bits of conversation made a lot more sense.
Ash sighed and picked up her hand again, this time dragging his finger over the back of it. “Of course I want to come back,” he mumbled, his ears tinting red. “I told you I don’t ever want to do last week again.”
For a moment Misty just watched him, until what he was saying had had a chance to really sink in, and then she reached over with her free hand to tilt Ash’s chin up and kiss him. He wanted to be here, and that’s why he was. He wanted to help his Pokémon, too, but he wasn’t on the fence about it anymore. He wasn’t weighing anything anymore. He’d made his decision and he was carrying it through, and Misty didn’t know how else to react to that knowledge than to thank him.
So she did.
Ash looked confused, and still startled by the sudden kiss. “For what?” he wanted to know, cheeks coloring when she didn’t let him drop his gaze. “What did I do?”
“For meaning it,” Misty said with a grin. Then she moved to crawl into his lap, straddling his thighs on the edge of the bed, and before he could protest she leaned in to kiss him again, until he made a small sound at the intimacy of it, and she felt his hands come up to press against the small of her back.
“What was that for?” he asked breathlessly. His eyes were gold and chocolate, and they were still focused on her mouth. Misty smiled mischievously.
“He’s with—oh. Uh. Um.” He swallowed when he caught on, suddenly nervous, and Misty grinned as she pushed back on his chest.
“Mom said one of the Joys in the Center promised to treat him when it was closed and no one was paying attention. Misty, uh, I don’t think—”
Misty ignored him, and kept pressing until he was forced to lie on his back on the bed. He wasn’t distracted by the absence of his mother tonight, and she had a bad feeling about her exam tomorrow, and she fully intended to take advantage of this situation before then while she still could. She scooted up his thighs a little and kissed him again, and he seemed to only debate with himself for a moment before she could feel him kissing back.
Ash’s hair was deliciously damp as she tangled her fingers through it, and found that spot just behind his ear that made him moan. The sound slipped out before he could stop it, just like it had last week, making her grin. Then she squeaked in surprise as Ash’s arms suddenly tightened around her waist and he rolled them over.
“Wait,” he panted against her lips, but Misty was having none of that tonight. She managed to slip a hand under his shirt and trailed her fingers along his stomach, smiling when it twitched and his breathing hitched.
“I don’t want to, Ash,” she argued softly. Her free hand brushed along the back of his neck, making him shiver and look up at her. “Why should we?” she asked when he met her eyes.
“Because,” he murmured, looking distracted again. He leaned forward and kissed her briefly, but then he seemed to gain control of himself again and moved away. “No, because!” he sputtered. “Because!”
Misty frowned as he rolled off her. She pushed herself up beside him, ready to keep him from leaving completely, but he didn’t try. Instead he busied himself grabbing up his books and setting them on the floor.
“Because?” she finally prompted.
“Because,” he answered, as if that was all the explanation she needed. Misty’s frown deepened as she felt her temper catch.
“That’s not a reason,” she pointed out. Then, because he was being an ass and because she was sick of wondering about it all the time, she blurted, “Do you regret the other night, or not?”
“What?” Ash stopped moving and turned to stare at her with a deepening frown of his own. “No, I told you that.”
“You’re not acting like it.”
“How am I supposed to act like it, then?”
“By not always shoving me away,” Misty replied evenly. He paused, and she continued: “By acting like you want to, for a change. By not always coming up with excuses not to, even when you don’t have any.”
“That’s not—I’m not coming up with excuses.”
“No,” Misty snapped bitterly, “because you’re not even bothering with that anymore, are you.”
Ash stared at her. Misty stared back. Somewhere in her she knew this wasn’t Ash’s fault. She knew she was being selfish and probably pushing him too hard, and that if he didn’t want to it had something to do with himself and not her. She knew all that, and she believed it. She trusted him.
But she’d gotten her hopes up again despite herself, and for a moment there Ash had reacted exactly the way she’d wanted him to, the way he always had, really, since that first night together, but in the end he’d ended up pushing her away again, and no matter how firmly she knew and believed that it wasn’t anything about her that made him stop, it was still incredibly difficult not to feel like it was.
“Are you trying to tell me you think I don’t want to?” Ash finally asked. Misty glared in lieu of a reply. She knew Ash could be dense sometimes, but she also knew he wasn’t that dense.
For a moment he just stared at her incredulously, until Misty began to wish she could take it all back and pretend not to let it bother her anymore. It still would, but she felt selfish demanding so much of Ash when he had so many other things on his plate. Just because his mother was back didn’t mean all of his troubles were over.
But then Ash moved, and Misty couldn’t keep up with it. An instant later he was pressing her back against the bed again and kissing her hungrily, the same way he had when she’d been trapped between him and her door last Saturday, and she didn’t have any time to react to it. His hand slid up to cup her jaw and angle her head the way he wanted, and they both moaned at the sudden surge of intensity, and Misty at the way he was suddenly, unexpectedly, taking the initiative.
She had no breath left in her when he finally pulled away a little, but not nearly far enough to let her up. “I want you,” he rasped, his voice a throaty gurgle that left little imagination as to how much. “I do.” He shifted his weight over top of her so that she could at least try to breathe again, even though she’d forgotten how, and tilted her head back to begin pressing kisses all along the curve of her jaw, his free hand tumbling through her hair. “All the time,” he murmured against it. “But Misty...”
He paused then, nuzzling instead of kissing, and sighed. Misty ran a hand down his back and tried to remember how to think again. “But?” she finally echoed. He pulled himself up to meet her eyes, and his were filled with that heat she’d glimpsed once or twice before, the brown in them mixing with the gold so quickly it looked like the two colors should blend.
“We don’t have to,” he finally said, softly. Misty’s eyebrows drew together in confusion and he sighed again. “Tomorrow’s your last day. After that...after that I don’t know, but we won’t have to stay here anymore. We can go wherever we want. And we won’t have to hide anymore, and we can take our time, and we won’t have to rush...”
“I’m not rushing, Ash,” Misty reassured him, finally gathering herself enough to catch onto what he was saying. She lifted her hand from his back and ran it gently through his hair again. “I just...like you. We can take our time.”
“We didn’t the other night,” Ash argued, looking at her again. “We rushed.” He stopped, confused by Misty’s sudden grin.
“To be honest, Ash, I kind of liked it.”
He flushed, from his cheeks to the tips of his ears, which of course only made Misty’s grin wider. “Not like that,” he insisted, even if it was obvious by the way his heart had suddenly quickened against Misty’s chest that the memory still excited him too. “I don’t mean like that. I mean...we have time. For later. Right?”
The way he looked at her then made Misty’s stomach lurch, and any playful thoughts she’d been entertaining quickly vanished. He was scared. Of what, she didn’t know, but it rekindled the lump of anxiety in her own gut, and she wrapped her arms around him tightly.
“Oh, Ash. Of course we have time. I just don’t think we’re rushing anything, since we’ve already...”
Ash blushed again, and dropped his gaze. He kept his gaze down as he admittedly quietly, “I just don’t want to make the same mistakes my dad did.”
Misty’s chest tightened, but in sympathy and sudden understanding, not anxiety. She gently tugged on his hair until he looked up at her again, then kissed him softly, reassuringly, not trying to ignite anything this time. He sighed as he returned it.
“For what?” Misty wanted to know.
“For...I dunno. For making you think it was you. I didn’t mean to.”
“You didn’t,” Misty promised, sighing herself. “I was just being stupid. But you’re not your dad, Ash.”
“I know,” he mumbled sulkily.
“Good.” She kissed his forehead.
He didn’t reply for a moment, just tucked his head under her chin and snuggled, which was unusual enough that Misty didn’t want to risk shattering the sudden relaxed atmosphere surrounding them by saying anything else. But then Ash’s lips moved against her collarbone, and he murmured, “Do you really think we’re not rushing anything?”
“No,” Misty told him honestly. She felt herself blush, though, the more she thought about it, and was glad he couldn’t see. “Well. Maybe a little. But not in the way you’re thinking.”
“In what way, then?”
Misty shrugged gently, careful not to upset him, and combed some of his unruly hair behind his ears thoughtfully as he shivered. “I don’t know. Maybe not at all.”
He shifted to look at her again, his chocolate eyes curious with a tinge of something else. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Misty smiled. She felt better, now that they’d cleared that up between them.
Ash grinned back. Misty only had a second or two to contemplate it before he was suddenly rolling them over again, and she found herself resting against his chest. “I guess, then,” he said casually, lifting his head to brush his lips along her temple, “if you really don’t think I’m rushing you or anything...”
Misty stared at him in surprise. She’d always thought that she was the one rushing him, but his eyes held that heated look again, quick little sparks of gold dashing sporadically across the constant swirl. He flushed under her gaze, his own drifting subconsciously down to her mouth.
“You’ll be able to see me this time.” His cheeks darkened as he said it. Misty felt a growing heat beginning to pool in her own gut. Ash wanted her, really wanted her, past his unending physical barriers and everything. The knowledge made her feel warm and comfortable, and not like she was urging a frightened Ponyta to accept a bit.
“Yeah,” she breathed, brushing noses. “And we don’t have to rush.”
Ash brushed his lips against hers, his face a deep, constant shade of red. “But what if I want to?”
His hesitant honesty in something he was still so shy about made Misty kiss him again, hard, and press him back down against the bed. She knew his startled gasp was borne of surprise and not discomfort when his arms came up to circle around her waist, brushing tentatively against the skin there as he pulled her against him. She broke away and grinned down at him, lips twisted into a small smirk as plans to tease him began to form in her mind.
“Then you’re just going to have to wait.”
“Then it’s settled!”
It was much later Monday night than Rudi would have liked to be out of his rooms, but business was business, and business liked to keep long hours. Giovanni was grinning at him from across the conference table, obviously awaiting some type of pleasant reply, but Rudi couldn’t find it in himself to form one. All he could think about was his electric blanket and bed.
“Yes,” he intoned dully, “all settled.”
The headMaster didn’t seem to notice. He clapped his hands together and looked around at the rest of the table. “Good! I’ll have the paperwork drawn up, and you can sign it after the final exams tomorrow. The students will be gone by Wednesday night, and we can get to work with the reconstruction Thursday morning. Until then, everyone.”
Rudi pushed himself to his feet slowly. He knew he was wasting his money here, and that by signing on to fund anything past the initial reconstruction of the actual portion of the Stadium that actually needed it, Giovanni and Koga were going to slowly run him dry. But it wasn’t a public appearance tonight save May Haruka’s family, and he couldn’t bring himself to act like anything but what he felt at the moment, and that was tired and cold. Freezing, really. It had never gotten this cold on his islands.
May tried to catch his attention again, but that was nothing new. Rudi brushed her aside the same way he’d been doing for weeks now, and sighed as he finally managed to slip from the over-bright room and down the darkened hall to his own. He’d been scheduled to attend so many meetings and public appearances lately that he was beginning to wonder what time to himself really felt like again.
Two more days, he had to remind himself. Just two more days, and he could retire back to his archipelago for a few weeks and let Gary destroy everything he’d just paid for in peace.
Or relative peace.
“You look tired, Trovita. Elementals keeping you up at night?”
Rudi turned to see Gary approaching, a grin on his face despite the way it pulled at the marred purplish skin at the corners of his jaw. The doctors had said the toxins would eventually fade on their own, but as of now the markings had barely gotten more than a shade or two lighter than they’d been originally. A vindictive part of Rudi hoped they stayed forever, and kudos to the man who’d put them there.
“Not now, Oak,” he warned, his tone brisk. “I’m tired and I want to go to bed.”
“Tomorrow’s Waterflower’s exam,” Gary continued as he caught up, as if Rudi wasn’t well aware of that already. “Still gonna cheer for her?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Well she’s got that Elemental of hers locked away in her room,” Gary told him innocently. “Surely that’s got to be a little...grating.”
Rudi wasn’t in the mood for this right now. He quickened his pace, folding his arms tighter against his chest in an attempt to keep the warmth in. “You know this,” he sighed, “and yet you do nothing about it. Stop badgering me like I should.”
“You know this,” Gary repeated stubbornly, “and yet you do nothing about it. Are you waiting for them to spawn another one before you’ve had enough?”
A growl slipped from Rudi’s throat, and he turned and pinned Gary against the wall in a single, somewhat jerky movement. Gary winced as Rudi’s arm and elbow rubbed against his bruised neck, but otherwise only grinned. They’d had this conversation before, and it had ended this way before, and still Gary was egging him on about it. He was quickly losing what frayed patience he had left.
Gary shrugged. “I’m just saying.”
Rudi let him go, half because they both knew he wouldn’t actually do anything, and half because Koga’s voice was echoing around the corner just behind them. He straightened his collar over the top of the thick woolen sweater he’d been donning after business hours and strode quickly down the hall again, trying to ignore the way Gary was keeping pace.
“Listen,” he was urging, “we’ve got him right where we want him. He’s stuck aboveground, and he actually thinks we’re still trying to chase him around down below. I’ve been waiting because I promised not to get your girlfriend involved, and she’s always in there with him, and when she’s not it’s because he’s gone too. You could return the favor by at least listening to me.”
“You have yet to say anything new,” Rudi drawled. “What are you waiting for, my approval?”
“No,” Gary said excitedly, eyes flashing. “No, we want your silence.”
At first Rudi thought he’d heard wrong. He actually glanced at Gary as they rounded a corner together, and continued down the final hallway to his room. “My silence?”
Gary nodded. “In a signature.”
“For?” Rudi asked, frowning. “You’ve been quoting me left and right in your damned Elemental news articles, I don’t see what shutting me up now will do to help your—”
“You know about him,” Gary interrupted, clearly too worked up to wait Rudi’s sentence out. “We all do, but we’ve finally agreed on everything tonight. You’re the only variable. We want you to sit down and shut up, no matter what anyone asks.”
Rudi stopped outside the door to his suite and turned to regard Gary fully. This didn’t feel right. They’d been milking his credibility to boost their own for two weeks now, so that people would actually believe the stories written about the legendary demon hidden in the depths of the building, and now they wanted him to take it all back?
“You want a retraction?”
“No,” Gary clarified. “Everything you’ve said so far is fine. No one thinks you know him, and that’s good. Knowing of him is fine, everyone here knows of him by now. But we’re going to flush him out tomorrow, make him reveal himself where no one can retract anything, and if you talk like you know him personally, people are going to start to ask around.”
Rudi’s frown deepened the more Gary spoke. “Tomorrow is Misty’s exam,” he reminded him slowly.
“Second-last of the year,” Gary nodded. “After hers and Zolphree’s, we’ll chase him out. Your girl gets her grades, and we get our Elemental. Everyone’s happy. We’ve got it all set up.”
Rudi felt a little guilty hearing this. Gary was finally leaving Misty alone like he’d asked—repeatedly—but it looked like Ash really might be caught this time, and that wasn’t going to make her very happy at all. He frowned at his own niggling desire to warn her. Then he realized that if he did, she would skip her own exams just to smuggle Ash out beforehand, and his eyes flew open as he stared in dismay at Oak.
“You’re telling me this now so I won’t tell her later.”
Gary grinned. “Going to risk the last ten years of her education and do it anyway?”
Rudi was speechless for a moment, his own growing anxiety temporarily overtaking him, so Gary continued, his grin turning ruthless. “You’re a soft man, Trovita. That much has always been obvious. I know Ash went to see you last week, and I know you’ve been purposely keeping it a secret from me. I know your feelings for that stupid girl are bigger than your hatred for that demon, but you know what? Mine aren’t, and I’m not going to have you and your fits of heart ruin what I’ve been trying to do for years. You’ll keep silent about this plan or your girl won’t graduate and it’ll be your fault, and you’ll keep silent about everything that’s happened between these walls over the last few months, or you’ll shoot your own credibility to hell. They want a monster and we’ll give them one. If you’re lucky, maybe you and Waterflower can finally pick up where you left off.”
Rudi’s frustrations with the man slowly returned as he spoke, along with an anger that had been building in him ever since he’d learned that Gary had made off with the money from their joint-account. “You’re taking a very large risk telling me this at all,” he said through clenched teeth. “You know I don’t like you, Oak. I think Ash is right about what you’re doing. I think you’re getting in over your head with this demolition. You’re doing it too quickly, and you’re letting your own damned hatred cloud your judgment. And now you’re trying to rile me up out of spite.”
“No,” Gary corrected with a grin, “not spite. Gratitude. I’m telling you because I think you have a right to know. Stay in the stands after Waterflower’s Battle tomorrow. Keep her there, so that she can’t possibly get in the way. Hell, pretend to help for all I care, try, there won’t be anything you can do. It’ll get you on her good side again, and give you front row seats when we finally take Ash down. Or you can tell her beforehand,” he added with a shrug, “and she’ll miss her own graduation and be caught trying to help the Elemental escape. How is that decision even difficult for you?”
“Because some of us,” Rudi growled, “have a conscience.”
“And some of us don’t care,” Gary sneered. “This isn’t your fight anyway, it was a stupid mistake on my part to think you’d understand. Ash is mine. All I’m offering you is the girl. I didn’t have to, you know, I could have let her keep thinking you were helping me get to her boyfriend. Consider it my thanks for your funds and your plans.”
“And if I withdraw?” Rudi snarled. He didn’t like being backed into a corner like this, and now that it seemed a definite possibility, he didn’t like knowing he’d had a hand in Misty’s ultimate unhappiness.
Gary just shrugged, his eyes unsympathetic as Rudi struggled not to hit him. “Go ahead, I have what I need, and I’m getting what I came for. I’m afraid all bets are in, and you’re stuck with the boobie prize.”
Rudi couldn’t take it anymore. He’d been stretched to his limits knowing Misty and Ash were together all day long, in addition to May’s badgering and pressure from the headMasters to sign on with them for another term, on top of all of his regularly scheduled promotions and public appearances, and mixed up with all this damn cold. He launched himself at Gary, fully prepared to wring his backstabbing purple neck.
“Misty is not some dull-witted boobie prize, you little—”
Something clicked, and Rudi stopped short as he felt the cool barrel of a gun grind almost painfully against his side. Gary was breathing heavily, his adrenaline up in light of Rudi’s attempted assault. His eyes flashed as he grinned.
“I don’t care what she is to you, Trovita. This is my final offer. Take it or leave it.”
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