Run of the Gauntlet--Chapter Nine
Rating: PG-13
Disclaimer: Nintendo owns Pokemon.



"I dream of rain
I dream of gardens in the desert sand
I wake in pain
I dream of love as time runs through my hand.

Sweet desert rose
This memory of Eden haunts us all
The desert flower, this rare perfume
Is the sweet intoxication of the fall."
--Sting, "Desert Rose"



Ash stared at Lance for a good five minutes before he burst out laughing. This startled Lance, for that was not the reaction he had expected.Ash had tears forming in the corner of his chestnut eyes from his sudden bout of hysterics, but managed to calm himself down enough to gasp out,

"Way to go, Lance. You had me there for minute. Good joke."

He was too busy wiping his eyes with the back of his hand to notice the hurt expression flash across Lance's face.

"Why is that so hard to believe?" he asked defensivily. Ash suddenly sobered, his eyes darkening in all out seriousness.

"Because I don't hate you," he responded. He stared at Lance again as though he was trying to read the older man's thoughts. Lance was surprised by the intensity of Ash's gaze and he wished he knew what he was thinking.

"I'm going to go to bed," Ash suddenly announced and stood up and turned to walk to his sleeping bag. He had no sooner turned his back when Lance spoke up again.

"Well what if, Ash, I said it wasn't a joke?"

Ash froze in his tracks. Lance continued, standing up and slowly walked towards Ash, who was visibly tensing.

"What if," Lance began, laying a hand on Ash's shoulder and making the unresisting boy face him. Lance looked straight into his son's eyes and tried to ignore the flurry of emotions that existed there.

"What if I said I had finally found my son?"

Ash didn't dare to blink as he cautiously backed away. He maintained direct eye contact with Lance, looking every bit like he was a few inches away from a wild Tauros that was ready to charge.

Lance's heart shattered at each step away Ash took.

"You're lying to me," Ash whispered, all the color draining from his face. Lance took a step forward, holding his hand out slightly. This drove Ash back even faster, so Lance stopped. Ash regarded his offered hand as though it was a venemous Arbok, coiled and ready to strike.

"I'm not lying, Ash. Why would I?" Lance asked, trying desperately to keep his tone nuetral. He was walking an extremely thin line as it was. If it was too threatening, it would frighten Ash away. But on the other hand, if it was too soft, vulnerable...well, Ash wasn't stupid. He was a pokemon trainer. He had the knowledge running in his very veins that softness in situations like these meant weakness, and weakness was to be despised, cast out with the smell of a Muk being held in higher esteem. Lance was nervous beyond all description, but his experience was stronger, forcing him to keep his poker face. He had played his cards. Now he had to wait for Ash. Waiting was never something Lance was good at...

"God dammit, Ash, why would I lie!?" Lance yelled as Ash remained unresponsive. Ash flinched, but stayed his ground. Lance immediately regretted what had just flown out of his mouth.

"I'm sorry," he said in a quieter tone. Ash narrowed his eyes.

"For what?" Ash asked, his tone dropping quite a few degrees. The words were forced, as though he would rather be drinking poison than talking to this man. Lance's shoulders sagged.

"I don't know," he replied softly.

"That's not good enough, Lance."

Lance snapped his head up, infamous temper ignited.

"Well what do you want me to say, Ash!! Huh? What can I do!?"

"You lied to me!" Ash screamed.

"So did you!" Lance countered. "Just now! You said you would love your father no matter what, and here you are, looking at me as if I were the lowest thing alive! You said you would love your father!"

"That was when I didn't think he was you!" Ash countered visciously. Lance fell silent, dropping his gaze to the ground.

"Touché," he whispered. He could feel Ash's eyes boring into him, as though Ash believed that if he glared hard enough, Lance would burst into flames.

'Maybe that's what he wants,' Lance thought.

"Here you are," Ash began, his voice barely above a whisper, "The world at your fingertips after it was handed to you on a silver platter and you can't even find the time to even want to talk to me. Neither me nor my mom is good enough for the great Pokemon Master. Do you have any idea how hard it's been?"

"Ash, once I stopped talking to your mother, I was afraid to start again, because I didn't know what would happen. And, as more time passed, I found it harder and harder to try and call her. Or you."

"You made it worse."

"I know."

"Do you?" Ash questioned harshly.

"Sometimes, late at night, I wake up and I find mom crying. She wouldn't tell me what it was about, but I knew. And I think you do to."

"Ash, please don't-"

"No. You need to hear this. Mom loved you with all of her heart. And sometimes, I think she still does, though I don't know why. And me, I never even knew it what it was like to have a father. You have no idea what it was like, going to school and having them have those stupid projects that ask what your father does. What he's like. And go up there in front of everyone and say 'I don't have one.' To have to always wonder and feel inferior while all of the other kids went on and one about their fathers. And you think I can forget that? What you did to mom?" Ash asked, biting back desperate sobs.

Lance tightly shut his eyes, as he too tried to stop from crying, but it was futile.

"Well, you're free, Lance. To go back to being on top of the world. I'm going back home," Ash said as he picked up his backpack.

"Come on, Pikachu," he called and walked away. Lance fell to the ground, on hands and knees as he wept. He had lost his son again. And it was all his fault.

****

Ash sighed as he stood atop the hill that overlooked Pallet Town. He could see his house easily, so well that he could see his mother moving about the house in an effort to keep it spotless. Ash smiled slightly. His mother was such a good person, and she deserved much better than what Lance had done to her.

"What do you think, Pikachu? Should we tell who we met?" Ash asked, looking down at his best friend in the entire world. Pikachu merely looked at him. Ash sighed and sat down, Pikachu hopping into his lap.

"I don't know what to do, Pikachu. How can I just go back? I can't pretend that nothing happened?" Ash said, stroking Pikachu's back. "What do I do?"

When Pikachu did not respond, Ash sighed again. He had wave after wave of the emotion betrayal flowing through him. Lance had done the unthinkable. True to his name, Lance had stabbed, gored, pierced through everything that Ash had dreamed of. And without pity.

"I guess we had just better go home," he stated bitterly. "I don't think we'll be doing any pokemon training for a while," he said with quiet resolve and made to get up when he felt a hand closed over his mouth and he was drawn into a sudden capture. He struggled, but it was useless as he felt a needle puncture his skin. He quickly tired from the drug and eventually fell into the embrace of oblivion.

****

Giovanni laughed with absolute delight as Amanda appeared before him once again, this time with a new victim at her side. Ash glared at Giovanni, eyes flaring with such hatred that any other person would have wilted under such a stare.

And here, Giovanni laughed.

"Here I was, wondering how I was going to get Lance back and here the bait delivers himself to me!" Giovanni said, clapping his hands together.

"I did not deliver myself to you. I was kidnapped!" Ash snapped. He was a little dizzy, having just recovered.

"My, my, how you are just like your father," Giovanni commented with a smile.

"I have no father," Ash expressed firmly. At this, Giovanni fell silent.

"Well, now isn't this interesting? Lance defies me at every turn to protect his son, to the point of threatening me with death if I so much as looked at you, and here his son is declaring he has no father. Interesting. Very interesting," he said, drumming his finger tips on the desk. Ash studied his feet as though they held all the secrets in the universe.

"What are you going to do? Make me join Team Rocket?" Ash questioned with disgust. Giovanni laughed again.

"You join Team Rocket? Why in the world would I want you, you pathetic excuse for a pokemon trainer?"

Ash flinched.

"Why have second rate when I can have the best?"

"Lance won't come for me, if that's what you are planning. He hates me now."

"Oh, he'll come for you, Mr. Ketchum. He'll come. He'll ride in on a white horse to prove once and for all that he'd sell his soul for you and I'll have you right at my side, with you loudly claiming that you have no father. You'll be in 'danger' and he'll try to save you. I know him far better than you ever will. Once I have him again you'll be free to go. Free to go back to your normal life that you've always had and be free of him. You won't have to worry yourself about him anymore," Giovanni said in an almost reassuring tone. He stood up and moved in front of Ash, who kept his gaze to the ground.

Giovanni reached up and grabbed Ash's lower jaw and pulled up, forcing the boy to look at him. Tears were forming in Ash's eyes, but a look of pure and unrestrained hatred flashed there as well.

"You can punish him, Ash. You can inflict a deeper wound on him that no one else in the world can. You can hurt him. Just as he hurt you," Giovanni whispered, speaking as though he was offering Ash a room full of gold. He smiled and let go of Ash, hand dropping to his side.

"Take him away, Amanda. Put him in holding room eighteen. He should be fine for the time being," he ordered. Amanda nodded and grabbed Ash by the arm. She moved him down a labyrinth of halls before guiding him into a small room. Ash walked in calmly, unsure of what would happen if he tried to escape.

"I really hope that you're not going to do what he says," Amanda said, speaking up for the first time as Ash sat down on the cot in the corner. Ash glared at her.

"Why?" he demanded.

"I worked with your father. He really does love you. More than you can imagine," Amanda replied, her voice soft.

"He sure has a funny way of showing it," Ash spat.

"He made a mistake, Ash. He knows that. But it's time to let it go. Don't hurt him."

"An eye for an eye," Ash said simply.

"An eye for an eye, Ash, leads only to more blindness," Amanda said and shut the door, leaving Ash alone.

****

Lance violently poked at the fire with a stick, wondering briefly what would happen if he jumped in and just sat there. Would anyone mourn him? Would anyone really care?

Certainly not Ash.

Not anymore.

Lance knew he did not need to jump into the fire. He was already being killed by one on the inside. Flames of self hatred and a sense of inferiority. Lance had always hated the kinds of people that deserted their kids, realizing only too late that he was one as well. Lance felt more tears. They frightened him, for he had never cried before he had gotten into this mess.

A mess that he had created for himself, Lance corrected.

Only Ash could reduce him to such a state. Only hope for Ash's approval, forgiveness could keep him from leaping over a cliff.

He was so caught up in this spiral of dispair that he did not notice the Pidgeot land next to him. Only when it poked at him with its beak did Lance acknowledge it.

The bird dropped a piece of paper and took off again before Lance could do anything.

Brow furrowed in puzzlement, Lance picked up the paper. It was an unmarked envelope. He opened it and pulled out a piece of paper and unfolded it.

The handwriting was a neat scrawl that was both elegant and easy to read.

Lance,

That was a very foolish thing to do, defying me at every turn. And now you will pay for it. Ash is here, next to me, glaring at me with such intensity I have to make him close his eyes. It really is amazing how much he looks like you. I really see none of his mother in him. His eyes, his looks, and his personality is all you. He'll make a fine addition to Team Rocket. After all, if I can't have the best, his son will do. Thank you for your time. Giovanni.

Lance began to shake with rage as he read the letter. How dare that son of a--

He had Ash and if that was not enough, he had to mock him as well, acting as though it were nothing.

The paper crumbled in Lance's death grip as Lance's dark side took over. The fire reflected in Lance's dark eyes, making it appear as though they themselves were flame. Anger was not strong enough for Lance.

It was full out rage.

A violent destructivness that could not be calmed.

Lance threw the paper into the fire were it promptly burned into nothingness.

****

Lorelei yawned as she shuffled into the kitchen of the mansion, mumbling about it being four thirty in the morning and having the thunder storm wake her up. As well as a chant about a need for caffeine. She was reaching for the coffee maker when a loud bang made her jump. She turned to see, in the doorway, the distinct figure of Lance leaning against the frame. He was soaking wet, his naturally messy hair matted and flat against his skull. He was bent at the waist and panting heavily, as though he had just sprinted a marathon. He was cut in several places and looked like a survivor of a concentration camp. He was thin and deathly pale and had dark creases around his eyes.

"Lance?" Lorelei breathed, frozen in place. Lance barely lifted his head. He hadn't the energy.

"Running for two days straight...Ash is...Lorelei....help," Lance managed to gasp out before passing out.

****

"What do you think happened?" Bruno asked as he stood behind the couch where Lance lied, unconscious.

"I don't know," Lorelei admitted as she wiped Lance's brow with a cool cloth. "He's burning up," she added, putting the back of her hand on Lance's cheek.

"What should we do? I mean, remember what happened last time? Should we call Officer Jenny?" Bruno wondered aloud.

"No, Bruno. Not until we figure out what is going on. I know he has a lot of explaining to do, but just look at him. Something has happened to him, and I am willing to bet it's the same thing that made him steal our pokemon."

"In other words, Team Rocket happened to him," Agatha said, speaking up for the first time.

"Exactly," a strained voice answered. Everyone jumped as they turned to Lance, who now had his eyes open.

"Lance!" Lorelei exclaimed. "What happened?" she asked. Lance grimaced as he tried to sit up.

"Like I said, Team Rocket."

"You're going to have to go into more detail than that, I'm afraid," Bruno said. Lance fell back onto his pillow.

"I know."

"Listen, you don't have to say anything right now. Just rest. I'll get you some water. Are you hungry?" Lorelei asked. Lance shook his head.

"Too bad. You're going to eat anyway," she responded and went to go to the kitchen. Lance closed his eyes, wondering how he was going to explain this to all of his friends.

Lorelei came back with a sandwich and a glass of water in her hands. She handed the water to Lance, who took a cautious sip.

"I know you guys all hate me, and I do not deny my actions. However, if you'll just listen to the story..."

"It better be good," Bruno said. Lorelei glared back at the Rock Pokemon master.

"Oh it is. The leader of Team Rocket kidnapped me and forced me to obey him."

"How?"

"By using Ash against me," Lance whispered. Lorelei pulled back, stunned. She knew how devoted to Ash Lance was.

"He told me that if I did not do as he said, he would kill Ash," Lance said, the tears forming again as he remembered each encounter with Giovanni. The other Three Elite members looked astonished that a person could do such a thing.

"I tried to resist him, guys, really I did. But now he has Ash and all of our pokemon, mine included. He gave me fake ones," Lance said as he fingered the pokeballs that hung from his belt.

"I've been running constantly for the past two days to get here. I'm not asking forgiveness. I don't deserve it. In fact, I deserve to be jailed like all of the other criminals. But right now I am asking for help. I want my son back," Lance said.

"Well of course we'll help, Lance," Lorelei said, putting a hand on Lance's shoulder. "Of course we'll help," she whispered. Lance smiled weakly as she stood up and summoned the others to follow her into the next room.

Lance could not help but notice that she did not say that they forgave him.

****

"So who exactly is the leader of Team Rocket?" Bruno asked, crossing his arms over his chest. The Elite were all sitting in the living room, deciding about how they were going to go about this. Lance looked at him, a little hesitant to answer.

"Giovanni," he replied quietly. Lorelei's jaw dropped, and Agatha and Bruno gasped.

"Giovanni!? But...he..."

"I know. That was pretty much my reaction."

"There always was something weird about him," Bruno said thoughtfully, looking as though a sudden things made sense.

"One of our own gym leaders," Agatha commented, shaking her head.

"And I picked him," Lance said angrily, his hands clenching into fists.

"Now, Lance, we all picked him," Lorelei said, trying to calm Lance down.

"I trusted him," Lance said through clenched teeth. Lorelei did not know how to respond to that one.

"So, how are we going to go about this?" Bruno asked, changing the subject. Lorelei cast him a grateful look.

"I don't know," Lance answered.

"I say we just grab all of the Officer Jenny's we can get and storm the place," Bruno commented. Lorelei sighed.

"No, Team Rocket HQ is too well protected against something like that. To Officer Jenny it would seem like and ordinary gym. And why would she believe what I say, anyway? They're all covinced I'm part of Team Rocket. Too many sightings."

"Do you have a plan?" Lorelei asked hopefully.

"Hang on, I'm thinking......how about this: you three go in and talk to Giovanni. Um...say that you are still looking for me, I don't care why, either to kill me or rescue me and you are asking all of the gym leaders for help, while I search the rest of HQ for Ash," Lance suggested. Lorelei nodded thoughtfully.

"That would work, but what are we supposed to do afterword, Lance? Make a citizen's arrest?" Bruno asked. Lance fell silent and chewed on his lower lip thoughtfully. Lorelei could practically see the wheels turning in his head.

"Officer Jenny may not believe my testimony, but she would believe Ash's. If I can get him to testify against Giovanni..."

"Sounds good enough to me," Bruno said, standing up. Lance smiled.

"Tomorrow, we do it," Bruno added and walked away. Agatha also departed, but Lorelei remained.

"Lance, there's something else bothering you, isn't there?" she asked. Lance bowed his head.

"I talked with Ash. He...he..."

"You told him, didn't you?"

Lance nodded.

"How did he take it?"

Silence.

"Lance, I'm sorry."

"It's okay, Lorelei. I deserved worse, actually. I just want to be left alone, right now," he said. Lorelei nodded and left Lance to his thoughts.

****

"I'll have him out in about ten minutes," Lance assured as his three friends gave him skeptical looks. They were all in the forest, ready to take

"Are you guys ready?" Bruno asked. Lorelei and Agatha nodded.

"Okay then, let's go," he said, clapping his hands together and walking towards the gym, Agatha right behind him. Lorelei paused for a moment.

"Be careful, okay Lance?"

"Just keep Giovanni talking," Lance said. Lorelei nodded and followed the other two. Lance waited until they were inside to quietly slip inside, unnoticed.

Lorelei, Bruno, and Agatha walked up to Giovanni's office and knocked on the door.

"Come in," Giovanni called out. The trio entered, putting their acting skills to the test.

"My! What a surprise I have here!" Giovanni exclaimed as he saw them. "To what do I owe this pleasant visit?"

"I'm afraid we aren't here for pleasure," Bruno said. Lorelei tried her best to look devastated.

"Giovanni, we still haven't been able to locate Lance and we're awfully worried. I mean, something has happened to him. I'm sure that you were made aware that he stole our pokemon a little while back?" Lorelei said. Giovanni nodded.

"We don't know what to do. We have no choice but to turn him in. But we don't know where he is. We're asking for all of the gym leaders' help," Agatha said. Giovanni regarded the trio thoughtfully.

"Perhaps he doesn't want to be found."

"Well--"

"Or perhaps," Giovanni cut in. "Other people don't want you to find him," he said. Lorelei took a moment to process the statement before her eyes widened in realization.

He knows what we're doing...

Lorelei turned to run when she was stopped by several Team Rocket members. They had gray uniforms on.

"Do you all think that I am stupid?" Giovanni laughed as the TR members pointed their weapons at the Elite.

"How'd you know what we were doing?" Bruno asked calmly.

"You'd be surprised at where I have my eyes and ears," Giovanni responded, petting his Persian's head. He looked straight at Lorelei. "Where is Lance?"

***

Lance carefully made his way through the underground maze, keeping to the shadows and avoiding every Team Rocket member that he saw. He darted behind a corner and waited for two white Rockets to pass. He was about to keep going when he heard a voice.

"I knew you'd come for him."

Lance jumped and turned to see a figure, hiding in the shadows with him. The figure stepped forwards and Lance sighed in relief.

"Amanda..."

"Holding cell eighteen," she said. Lance nodded and continued on.

He eventually made it to the cell and looked in.

There was no one there.

"What-"

Lance was cut off as he was suddenly attacked from all sides by several Team Rocket members. They gagged him and forced him down onto the ground where they mercilessly pounded into him.

Only when he was too weak to fight back did they stop and drag him back up to a standing position.

"You're late. Giovanni was expecting you a lot sooner," one of the Rockets said, whispering into Lance's ear. Lance let out a small cry and they dragged him back up to the stadium.

****

Lance grunted as he was thrown to the ground, blood flying out of his mouth. He climbed to his hands and knees, coughing all the way.

"Well, well, well. The natural order of things. Lance on his hands and knees in front of me," Giovanni called out with a little laugh. Lance snapped his head up to see Giovanni on the other side of the stadium, along with Lorelei, Bruno, and Agatha. All of them were being held at gunpoint.

Lance growled and jumped up to attack him when the Rockets behind him aimed their guns at him. He froze. Giovanni turned around, back to Lance.

"You can come out now. Come and see your father," he said. This caught Lance's attention. He watched as Ash stepped out of the shadows and walked up next to Giovanni.

"Ash..." Lance breathed.

"I once heard you say, Lance, that you would do anything that Ash asked you to do. It was quite a while back but I'm sure it still stands. Here you go, Ash," Giovanni said, handing Ash a piece of paper and a pen.

"Just sign here and your father becomes part of Team Rocket. Sign and you will be free of him forever. I promise. Free to go back to a normal life," Giovanni said. Lance's mouth dropped open, his heart breaking into a million pieces. His son hated him. Ash looked at the pen in his hands.

Giovanni continued.

"All you have to do is sign, Ash. What do you say?"