(casts resurrection spell on fic)
Sorry for taking an inordinately long time to post this. I wish I could say the next chapter is at all likely to be completed within the next six months, but alas, t'will not. Acceptance is the first step towards... I dunno, not posting longfics before they're finished, I suppose. (cough) Anyway, roll on ch. 6!
Guys and Dolls
Ash drummed his fingers on his arms, gritting his teeth. Whoever was using the bathroom had been in there for the last twenty minutes. Surely it was impossible to get away with that kind of thing in a family as large as Brock's?
"C'mon, pleeeease open up?" he whined.
A muffled female voice called out. Ash couldn't identify its owner under the noise of the shower. He dropped to the ground and sat cross-legged, fuming. After the train-ride from Viridian to Pewter City, he had gone straight to his room and crashed on the bed until morning. Now he was awake, grumpy and in desperate need of a wash. He didn't even have Pikachu around to complain to - the Pokémon was off somewhere exploring.
"Say, you'd better get out of there, quick!" he tried. "The inn's burning down! Wouldn't want the firemen to have to break down the door, would you?"
This time, the person on the other side didn't even reply. Ash rested his elbows on his hands, cursing under his breath.
Brock's head poked up from the stairwell. "Morning, Ash. Feel any better?"
"A little, I guess. You don't know who's in the bathroom, do you?"
For some reason, Brock looked guilty. "Uh, yeah. That's something I was going to tell you. The thing is - while you were asleep -"
Before he could get any further, the bathroom door opened and its occupant emerged, clad in a blue dressing gown, a towel wrapped around her vivid hair.
Ash's jaw dropped. "Misty? What are you doing here?"
Misty sniffed. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't know people had to get your approval before they were allowed to stay here."
Ash turned to Brock, still open-mouthed. Brock made a helpless gesture.
"She arrived last night," he explained. "Said she was fed up with her sisters and needed a break."
"That's right," said Misty briskly. "Now, if you'll excuse me." She walked past Ash with her nose in the air.
"Hey! Hold on!" Ash spluttered. "I have to talk to you!"
The only answer was the sound of Misty's bedroom door slamming, followed by the click of the latch.
There was a stunned pause. Then, Ash rounded on Brock.
"Why would she come here if she knew I was here and we'd just had a fight?"
"This is Misty, Ash," Brock said, shrugging. "You know how she is."
"What, you mean how she loves to wind me up and then blame me for getting mad?" Ash shot a dirty look at Misty's closed door.
"Mmmm… pretty much, yeah." Brock clapped Ash on the shoulder. "Hey, you do it to her too, you know. You guys are very immature. It amazes me how much, sometimes, but there you go."
"Thanks," Ash grunted.
"Any time. So, what's the plan?"
Ash stared blankly at him. "Plan? There's got to be a plan?"
"Well, sure. In case you've forgotten, you still have the You-Know-What to organise."
In all the drama with Misty, Ash had almost forgotten about the tournament. He wasn't sure he could face spending the day chasing up trainers. Right now, the only plan he felt like making was to sit in his room and sulk - either that or camp outside Misty's bedroom singing 'Stand By Your Man' until she got annoyed enough to come outside and yell at him. A nice, long fight was just what they needed to clear the air.
"Ash," Brock said as though reading his mind, "you'll never get Misty to forgive you until she's had a chance to cool down. Just leave her be for a while. She'll come around."
The irony of taking advice from someone who'd never had a long-term relationship was not lost on Ash. Since he lacked any better, however, he decided he might as well take it.
"OK," he sighed. "What now?"
"Now, we send the word out to everyone. They're to meet here, in the inn. Then we wait a few minutes for Drew's money, and take the train up to Pallet Town. Problem solved."
"I hope it really is that easy," said Ash. He didn't think he could take any more setbacks.
"It'll be fine," said Brock. "Come on, let's get to work."
So far, it had been a difficult day.
May chanced one more glance behind her as she came to a halt outside the Pokémon Centre. Her parents were still toiling up the hill. May squinted up the road for a glimpse of green hair. She had managed to shake Drew off yesterday by running into the gym and locking the door, but he had only taken up his position again when she and her parents re-emerged the following morning. He seemed to think that if he annoyed her enough, she'd give in and accept the date in Vermillion to get rid of him. At this rate, it was going to work.
But there was no sight of him now. May relaxed. It looked like she'd finally got rid of him.
"I feel better now!" she chirruped as her parents finally caught up, both breathing heavily. "Shall we do a couple more blocks?"
Norman and Caroline shot her looks of disbelief. "If you're going to walk that quickly again? No thank you," her mother panted.
May took in their red faces, and blushed. "Sorry. I guess I was caught up in trying to ditch that guy."
"The co-ordinator?" her father asked. "What have you got against him, anyway?"
May's face darkened. "It's a long story."
She had opted not to tell her parents about her encounter with Drew, especially the proposition he'd made. Something told her it would cause more trouble than it was worth.
"I thought he seemed a very nice young man," said Caroline. "He attended every street meeting we held yesterday! He must be very interested in our work."
May scowled. "Mom, please. Just believe me. He's bad news."
"Well, I still don't think we should be turning away challengers," said Caroline with a frown.
"I'm sure May has her reasons," said Norman. "Let's go home and try again tomorrow."
As they crossed the road to the gym, May noticed somebody standing outside - a Nurse Joy wearing a fawn-coloured coat. Her posture was ramrod straight and she had a bundle of files under her arm.
"Norman!" Joy called out as they approached.
Norman looked nonplussed. They hadn't yet met the Viridian Joy, so why she wanted to see them was unclear.
"Hello?" he answered.
Joy strode forward and shook his hand. There was a stern air about her that distinguished her immediately from the other Joys May had met. For the first time, she noticed the insignia of the Pokémon League on the badge pinned to her lapel.
"I'm General Joy," she said. "Head executive of the East Kanto branch of the Pokémon League. We met a couple of months ago when discussing your settlement in Viridian."
"Oh! Of course!" Norman looked embarrassed. "I'm terribly sorry, it's just that – er…"
Joy smiled. "It's alright, I know it's hard to tell us apart. I'm only here for a quick visit, anyway. May I come in?"
"Er… of course…"
Norman reached for his key. May caught her mother's eye. Caroline was smiling as usual, but her eyes were a little worried. Although Joy's air was casual, May couldn't help suspecting that something was up. The League didn't send out its high-ranking officials to chat with employees over tea and biscuits.
Once they were inside Norman's office, Joy sat in the battered swivel chair, May perched on the edge of the desk, Caroline took the wooden stool, and Norman paced alongside them all.
"You'll want to know why I've come down to speak to you, so I'll get right to the point," Joy said. "You may remember, when we last met, that I told you the League was finalising its decision with regards to this gym. Two nights ago – that is to say, my superiors have made their minds up earlier than expected, and –" Joy broke off. "Well… you can see for yourselves."
She drew out a rolled-up document and handed it to Norman. He took and unrolled it without a word. His lips moved as his eyes skimmed the paper – then the colour drained from his face.
"They're closing down the gym?"
For one instant for which she would never forgive herself, May's heart leapt. No more gym - finally, a chance to do something different with her life…
Then she caught sight of her parents' faces, and the shame struck her like a punch. She dropped her eyes to the floor.
"I'm terribly sorry," Joy was saying. "I know you've only just moved in. But for the past six months, no challenger has set foot in this gym. It would have been closed a long time ago, but the previous gym leader paid the League to keep it open. When the building was passed on to you, the intention was to give you a year or so to get it back on its feet, but… well, let's say the financial climate –"
"So this is about money?" Caroline exclaimed.
"This decision was not up to me," said Joy. "As a matter of fact, I tried my hardest to convince them –"
"We left our home!" Caroline's voice grew more and more shrill. "Petalburg City – we'd lived there for over twenty years – all our friends and family were in that area – our reputations as gym leaders – everything, gone!"
"Try to understand –"
"And now, after two days in Viridian, you're trying to evict us!"
By now, Caroline was so high-pitched that it was painful to listen to her. Norman stood behind her and rubbed her shoulders.
"General, the League can't do this," he said. The quiet desperation in his voice was as bad as his wife's shrieking.
"If this is about money, then why can't we raise some?" May spoke up. "There's that trainer's festival on Monday, right? Don't people make donations?"
Joy didn't even need to answer. Norman gave a grim laugh.
"Hoping for the trainers in this town to fund our gym might be expecting a lot," he said.
"But there must be something… some law…"
Caroline fell silent mid-sentence. Everybody in the room knew why there was no point continuing: the League was the law.
May's heart sank. It looked as though they had no hope.
"Excuse me. I couldn't help overhearing."
Joy, Norman and Caroline turned to the door. May remained frozen to the spot. That voice… it couldn't be…
"Hello, there," said Joy, taken-aback. "And you are -?"
May forced herself to look up, and immediately wished she hadn't. There, in the doorway, stood Drew. He had taken off his hat, his eyes were lowered and his head bowed, in all aspects a picture of humility. Despite this, May knew without doubt that his appearance boded no good.
"My name's Drew, ma'am," he said to Joy. "Maybe you've heard of me – I'm a co-ordinator."
"How do you do?" said Joy.
"What are you doing in here?" May hissed.
"I was waiting for you to come home, Miss." Drew walked up to Norman and clasped him on the shoulder. "I wanted to ask your father if he might let me hand out the fliers when we go out again tomorrow."
May made a series of apoplectic spluttering noises.
Drew turned to Joy once more. "General, I must protest the closing of this gym," he said. "I feel Mr. Norman and his family could be a huge success here."
Joy smiled. "It's good of you to show your support, but the League headquarters will require more solid proof than just a feeling –"
"A dollar will get you ten."
"I beg your pardon?"
Drew flashed her a smile. "General, can I interest you in a proposition?"
The power of speech returned to May with a rush. "Mr. Drew, the General is very busy!" she exploded. "She won't be able to go to dinner with you tonight!"
Joy, Norman and Caroline stared at her oddly. Drew looked as though he were trying to hold in laughter.
"General," he said. "I believe, with total certainty, that this gym can be saved by Monday." He looked up at the wall, where another of Norman's proverbs hung. "That card is different. Where's the one from yesterday?"
"Top drawer on the left," May said through gritted teeth.
Drew strolled to the desk, opened the drawer and retrieved the previous card. His eyes lingered on the word 'Hadaka', which had been ruled through and replaced with 'Itako', and a smirk played upon his lips. Holding the card to his chest so that nobody could see the message on the reverse side, he walked slowly towards May.
"May," he said, his voice the purr of a cat that knows its prey is cornered, "don't you agree that this gym could be filled with challengers in as soon as two days' time?"
As he spoke, he turned the card over, angled so that only May could see it. Her eyes flickered over the writing: 'I.O.U. one dozen challengers', followed by his signature.
She could still say no. In fact, her every selfish urge was screaming at her to refuse - or, better yet, leave another handprint on his face to match the one from yesterday.
Her gaze flickered towards her parents. They looked utterly bemused, but she could see a glimmer of hope coming to life in their eyes. The gym was everything to them, and control of its fate had been surrendered to her. They needed this – the gym needed Drew.
The rat. He'd got her.
May swallowed. Forcing a smile, she looked General Joy straight in the eye.
"General, I can promise you at least twelve challengers for Monday morning."
"You can?" her parents chorused.
May sighed. "I can."
Joy still didn't look convinced. "I… well… that's all very well, but there's still the matter of funds to consider…"
"Will you at least agree to wait until Monday and see if any donations come in?" Drew gave her the full blast of the smile again. "You never know when people are going to surprise you, right?"
Joy turned slightly pink. "That – that is true –"
May wasn't sure whether she wanted to murder Drew or simply marvel at his nerve. She had to admit, he was good at getting what he wanted.
Joy looked at Norman and Caroline once more, and sighed. "Oh… all right," she said. "I'll ask the League to suspend their decision for two more days."
Caroline's eyes welled up with tears of relief. Norman turned a deep crimson. "I don't know what to say – this is better than I could have hoped for – thank you – I –"
"But I hope," Joy interrupted, her voice growing stern, "that your daughter will keep her word, considering the League's generosity in giving you a second chance."
Norman's smile ebbed away somewhat. "Yes… about that…"
May took a sudden interest in an old coffee stain on the floor. She could feel her father's suspicious gaze on the top of her head.
"Well!" Joy rose with a business-like clap of the hands. "I'd better return to Headquarters. They'll want to hear my report – thank you for seeing me – excuse me –"
"I'll show you out," said Caroline, rising.
Joy followed Caroline out of the room. May sidled after them. "I'll… help mom…"
"May," said Norman.
His tone left no question of her ignoring him. May stopped, hoping she didn't look too guilty. "Yes, Daddy?"
Norman folded his arms and subjected first May, then Drew to a penetrating stare. May forced herself to meet his eyes, though she chanced a peek at Drew all the same. If she hadn't known better, she would have thought him completely innocent by the expression of blank politeness on his face.
"May," Norman said at last. "How do you know you can find these challengers?"
May tried to arrange her face into a winning smile. "I… have a hunch?"
Norman's face was grave. "You're not going to do anything… rash, are you?"
May couldn't stop herself from glancing once more at Drew. Just as quickly, she wrenched her gaze away. "Wouldn't dream of it!"
Norman still didn't look happy. "Well, if you say so. But I hope you know what you're doing."
May drew a breath and prepared to tell the biggest lie of her life. "Don't worry, Daddy!" she said, giving him a thumbs-up. "I have everything under control!"
From out of the corner of her eye, she saw Drew smiling.
Harrison's Family Inn had never been so full. To an outsider, it must have looked as though every would-be trainer in the district had had a sudden urge to sample Brock's cooking. Even stranger was that all of them were wearing red carnations in their buttonholes.
Brock lurked by the doorway, handing out the flowers to each trainer as they drew near. "It's for the matches, can't get in without one," he muttered, glancing around for a sight of Giselle or Officer Jenny. Admittedly, Brock often kept an eye out for them whether he feared arrest or not, but that was beside the point.
"You working for Ketchum?" came a low, rasping voice from behind him.
Brock turned around. A man and a woman in their thirties stood on the pavement, dressed in leather coats and dark glasses. Brock had a vague feeling he'd seen them before, but he couldn't remember where from. They were also regarding him with somewhat threatening expressions, which Brock might have found alarming had the female of the pair not been tall, blonde and attractive. As it was, it didn't take long for his hormones to override his brain.
"Why, yes I am, although it might be more accurate to say working with. Ahaha. In fact, I pretty much run the entire operation – and I would be delighted to allow this lovely young lady a chance to observe first-hand –"
"We've heard about your friend's tournaments," the woman interrupted. "The reports were… intriguing, shall we say. Mr. Ketchum is quite the entrepreneur."
The thought of Ash as an entrepreneur was momentarily too much for Brock. After his eye had stopped twitching, he managed a weak, "You think so?"
"We'd like to attend one of his infamous, ah, informal matches," the woman said.
"Then you've come to the right place!" Brock said, beaming. "Please take these carnations and join the other trainers in the lobby."
Before the pair could leave, Brock whipped out a third blossom and pressed it into the blonde's hands, trying to look sensitive yet manly. "And please accept this gift, miss, as a token of my appreciation."
"Right," she mumbled, eyeing him as though he'd just tried to give her one of his father's rocks. She and the man headed into the inn, pinning the flowers to their coats.
Brock turned away, smiling to himself at the successful seduction. Behind him, the woman dropped the extra carnation on the ground.
Another duo sidled up to Brock, looking shifty. They were both dressed rather strangely, in bowler hats, greatcoats and, unless he was much mistaken, false moustaches. The man also had a large, oddly shaped lump on his stomach. They were both strikingly familiar, although Brock couldn't quite place them.
"Do you know who those two are?" asked the woman, whose magenta hair fell past her back. She pointed at the two people that Brock had just sent inside.
Brock's eyes glazed over. "I don't know who he is, but she's the woman who stole my heart," he said dreamily.
"That's nice. We want to get in too, please."
Brock snapped out of his daze and tried to size the newcomers up. Ash usually had a policy of only letting in people he knew, for obvious safety reasons. It belatedly occurred to him that letting the pretty blonde and her surly friend waltz right in was somewhat in defiance of this rule, but he dismissed his momentary discomfort on the basis that anyone with such a beautiful face couldn't possibly be bad news.
"Well, I think I'd have to check with my superiors first," he said cautiously.
"Why? You let dem uddah crooks in," said the man's stomach. "Ow!"
Brock's eyebrows knotted. "Uh… why is your stomach talking, and why did you just punch it?"
The man straightened up with a bright smile. "Oh… I have this… condition…"
"You've got that right," his friend muttered, glaring at him.
"Ah, I see," said Brock sympathetically. He'd met quite a few people – mostly girls, but occasionally their boyfriends - with a similar disorder. Only in their cases, he tended to be the one they hit. It was clearly a distressing illness. "Well, I'm sure it won't matter if I just let you go on in." After all, it wouldn't do to show prejudice, especially towards the disabled.
The pair thanked him, took the proffered carnations and scurried inside. Brock checked his watch, and saw that it was now half an hour past the time everyone had been instructed to arrive. He did a quick sweep of the area. There were a few people still milling about, but he recognised none of them. It was probably safe to assume that nobody else was coming. Brock gathered up his remaining carnations and strode inside, shutting the door behind him and turning the sign around so that it read 'closed'.
Quite a sight greeted him when he stepped into the lobby. Never before had so many trainers turned up for a tournament. Some had come all the way from the likes of Saffron and Fuchsia City. Brock hoped that they really weren't all there to see Drew. He'd have to have a few words with Benny when he got back from Viridian.
At that moment, Flint appeared on the stairs, looking put out. "I hope all these people are going to buy something, or I'll have to ask them to leave," he said to Brock.
There was an instant rush towards the bar. Brock pressed himself up against the wall so as not to be trampled.
"Have you seen Ash?" he called to his dad.
"Not since he went out an hour ago."
Brock winced at the remembrance. Ash had heeded his advice to leave Misty alone for all of fifteen minutes, before hammering on her door and yelling how unreasonable she was being. It had led to one of the biggest screaming matches in a long and glorious career, culminating in both parties storming out of the inn and marching off in opposite directions. Neither had been seen since.
"Maybe having a girlfriend is more trouble than it's worth," Brock mused aloud. Then he realised what he'd just said, and blanched. He'd have to purge the thought from his brain later on with a selection of well-chosen Meg Ryan movies. For now, though, he had a tournament to take charge of.
He hurried into the bar, where the trainers were throwing back their drinks. "Uh, hey, everybody!" he said, cupping both hands around his mouth. "Thanks for coming. Ash is just on his way back now, and when he arrives, I can guarantee you the greatest tournament of the last eight years!"
There was a round of cheers. Several people waved their mugs in the air. Brock gave the room a thumbs-up, and darted back into the lobby. To his relief, he found Ash standing by the desk, taking his coat off. Pikachu was sticking a paw into the little dish of free sweets.
"Has Benny showed up with the money from Drew yet?" Brock said, taking Ash's coat.
Ash shook his head. "Not yet. I hope he's not much longer. We'll have to keep everyone hanging around here for a while."
After letting Pikachu jump back onto its trainer's shoulder, nibbling on a mint humbug, they headed back into the bar. Another cheer went up at the sight of Ash, who smiled widely.
"Uh, hey everyone," he called. "I'm just waiting for this guy to deliver something for me, and then we can get going."
"Where's the place?" somebody yelled out.
"Well… we think we can use this lab up in Pallet Town."
A round of murmurs went up.
"Not the lab? Professor Samuel Oak's lab?"
"Close – his grandson's."
There was another outbreak of impressed whispers. Noticeably, though, the four trainers that Brock had let in last remained silent. The blonde and her friend were scrutinising Ash through narrowed eyes, whereas the other two were staring openly at Pikachu.
"Yeah, it's a pretty cushy spot," Ash went on. "You won't want to miss this one. So you guys just hang out here for a few minutes, and as soon as my money shows up, we're good to go."
"Don't mention money," Brock hissed.
It was too late. "Why do you need money?" someone asked.
"It's just to pay Gary Oak with," Ash explained. "I'm collecting on a bet."
Brock closed his eyes. Now they were in for it. Why couldn't Ash learn when to stop talking?
"A bet?" asked a woman with her hair in pigtails, her brow furrowing. "This is a bet you've already won, right?"
Ash squirmed. "Well… uh… not exactly… but I'm sure to win, I swear!"
Brock pushed him out of the way with a hearty, false laugh. "Ash is only joking. Right, Ash?"
"Huh? Uh, yeah! Sure I am!"
Several people were now glaring suspiciously at them. "Nice going, Ash," Brock growled out of the corner of his mouth.
Ash was still clueless. "What? What'd I do?"
"If they know you can't pay Gary yet, and might not even be able to pay him at all, they'll get mad! It's that simple."
"But I know I'm going to win!"
"You know that and I know that, but that doesn't mean they'll believe us."
Ash had just opened his mouth to argue back, when his gaze fell upon the four unfamiliar trainers standing nearby. "Who are they?"
It was Brock's turn to be put on the spot. "Uh… don't you recognise them, Ash?"
Ash gave him a look. "No."
"Ah. OK, don't get mad. I kinda…"
"Don't tell me." Ash rolled his eyes. "You've got to stop turning into a zombie whenever a pretty girl is around."
"Yeah, I'll work on that," Brock mumbled.
Ash put a hand on his friend's back and steered him into a corner. "So, who are they?"
Brock shuffled his feet. "I… don't exactly know… but that guy with the blue hair has a talking stomach."
Ash peered around at the crowd again. "OK, I'll check it out."
He began to pick his way through the milling trainers until he had reached the four strangers. Hoisting a friendly smile onto his face, he tapped the blonde woman on the shoulder.
"Hi, there!" he said brightly. "Good to see you here. First time at the tournament?"
The woman jumped slightly. "Er… yes, that's right."
"I don't think I've seen you around before," Ash went on. "What are your names?"
"My name's… Kelly," the woman said in guarded tones. "And this is… Ned." She waved in the vague direction of her companion.
"Sorry, doesn't ring a bell," said Ash. "But hey, no sweat. You're probably just from out of town, right?"
The woman exchanged a quick glance with her companion. "We're from Lavender Town," she said. "We came here visiting family, heard about your… business enterprise and thought it'd be a good way to spend an evening."
Ash nodded, still smiling. "Uh-huh… what family would that be?"
"Um… my grandparents. They're getting on now, you know how it is… they like it when we visit."
From a few feet away, the red-haired woman gave a snort and hurriedly turned it into a cough.
"Well, let me know if I can help you with anything," said Ash.
He patted Ned on the chest as he turned to leave - then he stopped dead. His face turned the colour of porridge. He remained unmoving for several seconds; at last he snapped out of it, gave Ned and Kelly one last grin that looked more like a grimace, and scuttled away at top speed.
"What was that about?" asked Brock as Ash hurried up to him.
Ash didn't answer at first. He reached out, relieved the nearest trainer of her drink, and downed it in one. Once he'd shaken off the aftershock, he looked straight into Brock's eyes and mumbled something.
Ash was doing something very strange with his mouth. It looked as though he were trying to grit his teeth and mouth something at the same time.
"'E 'as a 'ug," he muttered.
Brock stared blankly back.
"Gun," Ash hissed aloud, abandoning caution. "That guy has a gun!"
Brock blanched. "As in a gun gun?"
"No, as in a puppy gun," Ash snapped.
Brock grabbed a drink off a passing trainer, drained it of its contents and handed the empty glass back to him. "What are we going to do?" he whispered.
"It'll be OK," Ash said, in total disregard of the evidence. "So long as I've a chance to think, without any distractions –"
At that moment, the door banged open. The temperature instantly dropped. Brock looked over to see Misty framed in the entrance.
"Aw, for crying out loud," Ash snapped.
Brock could almost see icicles forming in the air. Misty breezed right past Ash without looking at him. She took up a seat at the bar, legs primly crossed with her bag in her lap. It was a pose carefully calculated to express maximum indifference. Only a small sneeze spoiled the effect. Brock also noted that she was wearing a very short skirt, and that several of the men sitting nearby were eyeing her up. For the thousandth time in his two best friends' relationship, he reflected how devious Misty could be when she was out for revenge.
"Perfect." Ash, by the look of him, had forgotten all about the gun in favour of glaring daggers at his fiancée. "Now all I need is for her sisters and that lousy Giselle to show up, and every woman in the world who hates me will be right here in this room."
"Um. Ash." Brock tapped him on the shoulder.
"What?" Ash turned around. "Oh. Uh-oh."
"'Uh-oh' indeed," said Giselle coldly.
A hush rippled through the room as more and more people realised that the Pokémon League's head law-enforcement officer was standing in their midst. Soon, the only noise was the squeaking of the pencil belonging to Giselle's assistant. He was standing behind her, scribbling down notes.
Once sure of the crowd's attention, Giselle straightened her shoulders, shook back her chestnut curls and subjected Ash to a wintry stare. He wilted under the blast.
"Hi there," he at last said, weakly. "Uh, I hope you didn't think I was talking about you just now. There are other lousy Giselles -"
"Mr. Ketchum," Giselle interrupted. "Let's skip past the small talk, hmm? I'm sure you know why I'm here."
"For a granite-'n'-gin cocktail?"
Giselle acted as though she hadn't heard him. Her eye roved over the room, taking in every face. "Huh. The cream of society," she said, her lip curling.
Fifty mutinous stares greeted those words. Giselle began to pace through the crowd.
"Let me see… I'm terrible with names, but your face looks familiar. Care to tell me where you're from?"
She had stopped in front of the man with the talking stomach. Judging by the sweat beading on his brow, he would have preferred his abdomen to field the question.
"I'm, uh, from Cerulean City," he said.
"Mm-hmm. And what do you do in Cerulean City?"
Brock could practically see the stream of professions flashing behind the man's eyes. "I'm a scout master," he blurted at last. The woman next to him slapped a hand over her eyes.
"A scout master? Don't ever help my mother across the street." Giselle turned away. "Such lovely red carnations!" she exclaimed. "Is this a funeral party?" Her tone grew menacing. "Did somebody die unexpectedly that I wasn't aware of?"
"Er, Miss –" Ash began.
Giselle swung around. "Mr. Ketchum, I seem to remember telling your friend Mr. Harrison I would personally see to it that your floating Pokémon tournament was sunk, permanently. Is that in fact true, or did I dream it?"
From the bar, Misty let out a loud snort. The noise seemed to sting Ash to defiance. He straightened up and returned Giselle's gaze, jutting out his chin.
"Yeah, I'd say it's true," he said. "Which is why your assistant over there now has to spend his free time with his family."
The sandy-haired man's pencil broke in half. He held his notebook up higher; Brock could see his forehead reddening over the top.
Giselle's eyes narrowed. "Why are so many unlicensed trainers gathered in this inn?"
"They got lonely. How should I know?"
"Why are they all wearing red carnations?"
"They're also all wearing shoes!"
"Mr. Ketchum, I was informed by an anonymous tip-off that you plan to hold an illegal Pokémon tournament tonight!"
An outbreak of murmurs swept the room. A red flush crept up Ash's neck.
"Who told you that?"
"I said it was anonymous," Giselle replied sweetly.
"Well, it's not true!" Ash took a step forwards. "No-one I know would ever – I mean –"
Ash stopped dead. He opened his mouth a few times, but no sound came out. The only person not looking at him was Misty, who was reading a cocktail menu with exaggerated nonchalance. Brock couldn't help noticing, however, that she was holding it upside-down.
All of a sudden, it hit him. He knew how to get them out of this. But – no, he couldn't – it was much too cruel – then again, the alternative wasn't any better…
Brock looked from Giselle to Ash, and debated which one he'd rather have after his blood. Definitely Ash. But friendship had to count for something…
"Mr. Ketchum," said Giselle in doom-laden tones. "If you cannot explain what these people are doing here in the next three seconds, I am placing all of you under arrest. Three… two…"
The words slipped out before Brock could stop them. "I can explain!"
Every pair of eyes shifted to him. He loosened his collar, feeling as though a spotlight had suddenly singled him out. "I, uh, that is –" He paused in hope that an alternate plan would leap to mind. None did. Then there was nothing for it.
Brock gave a sigh. "Ash… it's no use. We're going to have to tell her the truth."
Ash stepped on his foot. "Shut up, Brock!"
Giselle leapt forward, a manic glint in her eye. "Out with it, Harrison!" she barked.
Brock mentally apologised to Ash and took a breath. "The truth is… we're here for a bachelor party."
Giselle and Ash both blinked.
Brock strode forward and flung an arm around Ash's shoulder. "That's right!" he said. "This is a bachelor dinner for my good pal Ash here. He's getting married!"
Ash stared up at him as though expecting the words he'd just heard to turn into different ones entirely. Brock let go of him and turned to the crowd.
"For he's a jolly good fellow, for he's a jolly good fellow…" he sang. The others all joined in, most of them behind the beat and off-key.
"For he's a jolly good fellow…"
"Which nobody can deny!" the blue-haired man and the blue-haired man's stomach belted out with enthusiasm.
It looked like the reality of what had just happened was dawning on Ash. He slowly revolved on the spot until he was face to face with Misty. She had slipped off her barstool with the shock. Hands clasped to her mouth, she and Ash stared into each other's eyes – then, with a squeal, she flung herself into his arms, nearly knocking him flat.
"Oh, Ash!" she shrieked.
Ash made a choking noise in reply. This might have been because he had forgotten how to talk, or possibly it was because the force of Misty's embrace had closed off his windpipe.
Brock shook his head. He knew this would be rough, but Ash was a tough kid. Sooner or later, he'd bounce back.
"Ash, Ash, Ash!" Misty let go of him to wipe her eyes. Ash gasped for breath and clutched his throat. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"It was a surprise," Ash wheezed.
Misty burst into tears again and clutched him tightly.
Giselle looked almost as displeased with this turn of events as Ash did. "Well, this is nice," she said, unsmiling. "When is the happy occasion?"
"Yes, when is it, Ash?" said Misty, releasing Ash once more.
Ash massaged his neck. "I don't know," he said hoarsely. "It'll take a while for the license and the blood-test to come through." He brightened slightly at these words.
"Oh." Misty's smile ebbed slightly. "Gosh, I've wanted this for so long… for a moment I was thinking that we could just go and get married tomorrow."
"Yeah, but that's impossible," Ash said quickly.
"No it's not. You could elope."
Misty turned towards Giselle, luckily missing the expression on Ash's face. "Could we? Isn't that illegal?"
"It isn't illegal in Pallet Town," Giselle said. Her lips were quirking slightly. Brock wondered if she suspected Ash wasn't one hundred percent happy about his engagement coming to an end. "That's where you're from, Mr. Ketchum, isn't it?"
Misty swung back around. Ash contorted his face into what he must have thought was a smile. "That would be wonderful!" she cried. "Can we do that? Elope?"
"I can't think of any reason not to," Ash said in a miserable voice.
"Then that's settled!" Giselle shook Ash's hand, then Misty's. "And I hope for your sake that there's a nice grandparent in the family for the kids to take after," she called over her shoulder as she left the bar.
"Ash, this is the happiest I've ever been." Misty dabbed at her eyes, still beaming. "Wait until I tell my sisters!" Suddenly, she frowned. "But what will you say to your mom?"
Ash shrugged. "I guess I could send a letter and date it back six years."
Misty tapped her finger against her chin. "Mmm… I don't know… I think we'd better wait 'til we have five kids." She smiled brightly. "It shouldn't take us long!"
She checked her watch while Ash looked down as though hoping for a trapdoor to open under his feet. "Rats, I'm due back at the gym – oh, I can't wait to see the looks on my sisters' faces!" She pecked Ash on the lips. "Sweetie, I've got to go tell everyone the news. You don't mind, do you?"
"Huh? No – it's fine."
"You are so sweet."
Misty ruffled his hair. Ash reached up automatically to flatten it, and his hand touched hers. For a fleeting instant, Brock thought he saw the sense of impending doom lift from Ash's face. He was suddenly reminded of the way Ash and Misty had looked at each other for the few days after Ash proposed.
Then Misty drew her hand back, and the moment passed. "I'd better be going, then," she said. She kissed Ash one more time. "Bye! See you soon! And we'll get married! I can't believe this is finally happening!"
Ash sighed. "Me neither."
"Remember to pick me up tomorrow!" Misty called as she disappeared through the door. "After the show at the gym! And book the train tickets to Pallet in advance!"
In the distance, Brock heard the bell over the front door tinkle. Misty had left the inn.
Calm reined once more. A few trainers came over to clap Ash on the back, but drew away when Brock gave them warning glances.
Ash walked to the bar with the air of a man who had just received a death sentence, and slumped onto a stool. He sat with his chin in his hands, staring at a beer stain. Brock debated whether to risk going over, and eventually decided to be brave.
"Ash?" he said cautiously, sitting down next to his friend.
Ash looked up. His expression was stony.
"I'm really sorry," Brock sighed. "I couldn't think what else to do."
Ash turned away. Brock sighed again. He was going to have to endure the silent treatment from now until next Christmas.
However, unexpectedly, Ash spoke. "You wanna know something, Brock?"
Ash reached for Misty's abandoned drink and took a large gulp. "If I'm going to forgive you before we're both dead, this had better be the best marriage ever," he growled.
Brock laughed. "You know what? I think it really might be."
By small degrees, the tension lifted. Brock looked around at the trainers. They were all hanging back, staring into their drinks. At least this had led to one good thing – everybody had forgotten to ask them about Gary Oak and the thousand dollars.
Right on cue, for the third time that afternoon, a figure darted into the room. Brock looked around, and nudged Ash.
"Ash! It's Benny!"
"Benny!" Ash leapt down off the stool. "Have you got the cash?"
Benny hurried over. He looked frazzled, but then again, this wasn't unusual for him.
"Hi, fellas!" he cried in suspiciously jovial tones. "How's it going?"
"Benny, did Drew give you the money? Where is he?" Ash peered past Benny's shoulder, and smirked. "Guess he didn't want to hang around after I won the bet, huh? These rich guys are always such sore losers –"
"Ash." Brock looked intently at Benny. The younger boy was shifting from one foot to the other; his face had scrunched up as though he was about to have a sneezing fit to rival Misty's.
Ash's smile faded. "Benny, what happened? Where's the money?"
Benny looked wretched. "Well, guys, that's the thing," he said. "Um, I don't have it."
"What?" Ash and Brock chorused.
"Why not?" Ash demanded.
"Where's Drew?" said Brock.
"Yeah, where is he? Didn't you find him? Wasn't he at the Pokémon Centre?"
Benny cringed. "That's it, guys, that's exactly it! He wasn't at the Pokémon Centre."
"That no-good, rotten cheater!" Ash yelled. "You mean he's run off without paying me? Why, I ought to hunt him down and –"
"That'll be hard." Benny gave a nervous laugh. "I forgot to check where he was going when I saw him at the station."
Ash and Brock froze. "WHAT?"
"That's what I've been trying to tell you!" Benny spread his hands. "I hung around at the Pokémon Centre, but he didn't come out, so I talked to Miss Nurse Joy and she said he hadn't been in all day, but he was meant to be checking out at eleven, and then it got to eleven and he hadn't got back, so I went out looking for him, and I couldn't find him anywhere in town, so I went to the station to catch the train to Pewter so I could find you, and that's where I saw him!" By the end of this speech, Benny looked as though he had expelled all the breath in his body. He gasped in a lungful of air, wiping his eyes.
Ash pounded a fist into his palm. "So he is trying to run away! Well, if he thinks he's going to get away with it, he can forget it! I won't rest 'til I find him and get my money!"
"You'll have to do it quickly, Ash," Brock put in. "We're supposed to be holding the tournament in five hours' time!"
"Gosh, if only I'd recognised that girl he was with," said Benny mournfully. "We could ask her folks where they went."
There was a deadly pause.
"Benny," said Brock, slowly. "What girl?"
"Hmm? Oh, I don't know. I haven't seen her around before. She was short and pretty with brown hair – oh, and she was dressed up all fancy, like they were going to a party. I think I heard him say her name… Mary or Maisie, something like that." Benny's brow furrowed. "You know what's funny, though, she didn't look all that happy to be there. Maybe she doesn't like parties." He looked from Ash to Brock. "Whoa, is something wrong?"
Ash gripped Brock's shoulder. His face was pale. "Brock," he croaked.
Brock swallowed. "I know."
Ash put a hand to his ear.
"Cider," he whispered.
Please R&R! The next chapter (assuming it comes out before we're all dead) will be Contestshippy galore. Stay tuned!