Phantom

Act iv Stage iii

What Warm, Unspoken Secrets Will We Learn?

X

It was like something out of a nightmare.

If she'd been allowed to use Haraia, everything would be fine. If she'd chosen a sixth, almost any other Pokémon in existence, everything would have been just fine. But it wasn't, and she hadn't, and now Misty was down to Totodile—just Totodile—against a Mew-cursed Venusaur.

She was on the verge of tears.

Around her, the Stadium had fallen nearly silent. Everyone, her opponent included, had expected a Rapidash to materialize from Misty's final Pokéball, not the tiny blue Water-Type that thumped his tail down in the sand and wobbled unsteadily on a pair of comically short hind legs.

"Dile! Totodile!"

The Pokémon's gravelly voice carried easily across the distance between Misty and Master Corey, who finally tore his gaze from the reptile to give Misty a look of sympathy. He wasn't a bad man. Clearly he'd assumed Misty had some semblance of a chance against him with her infamously discolored Fire-Type; it was simply the luck of the draw that they'd ended up on opposite ends of the Grand Arena together, and that his last Pokémon happened to have well over two hundred pounds and a Type advantage over hers.

When she didn't immediately bark out a command, Totodile turned back to look at her. Misty's hand shook as she pressed the button to engage the metal strip in her palm. The empty Pokéball zipped back into it with an uncomfortably loud, echoing clack. Totodile's gaze followed hers to the enormous Seed Pokémon watching them from the far shore. It was so heavy that its four large, taloned feet were slowly sinking down into the thick sand, deep enough to form small muddy pools of water between its toes.

Misty was considering a forfeiture. The humiliation of it burned, and the very idea ground painfully against every competitive bone in her body, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't think of a strategy to overcome this. Totodile would only get massively hurt, and surely saving him from so much needless pain was the right decision? The responsible decision? But she had to win her match in order to graduate. Giving up now would mean returning to the Stadium after winter break for another semester. A year ago that would have been an option—albeit a humiliating one. Now, though...

Thoughts of Ash and Gary and the impending destruction of the tunnels hidden far, far beneath her feet swirled dizzyingly through her mind. It was difficult to focus on clipping Totodile's 'ball back to the 'Belt on her hip; the damn thing just wouldn't catch, and she was left feeling slow and clumsy as she blindly clicked them against one another in front of a thousand murmuring spectators. The tears blurring her vision were borne of frustration and self-loathing more than pity, but of course no one around her could possibly know that. She ignored the image of her face on the enormous vid-screen behind her and wiped them furiously away with the back of her hand. This was happening now, really? Years upon years of planning and Training and preparations, and it all came down to a stroke of bad luck in the most important match of her life? Such a thing wasn't entirely uncommon; many students failed in every exam period because of unlucky Type match-ups, and normally one more semester to study was a good thing, but not for Misty. Not with Ash waiting for her in Brock's room again, watching this broadcast on the television there. Not when he'd finally decided to go with her, and Gary had made it completely impossible for him to stay.

A gentle tug on her jeans broke Misty from her thoughts. She looked down to see a small blue paw there, and a pair of gigantic amber eyes staring up at her expectantly.

"Toto?"

Despite the way the crowd was beginning to shift around impatiently, Misty took the time to crouch down and hook her fingers in Totodile's little webbed claws. "We shouldn't, boy," she told him softly. "Look at that thing. Don't you remember what that Ivysaur did when I first got you? We're not ready to—"

Totodile cut her off with a sharp bark. "Dile. Toto."

"But—"

"To, toto." He patted her fingers with his paw reassuringly, then turned and scampered off to disappear with a gentle ripple beneath the surface of the small pond. In the stands, the spectators stirred, watching Misty push herself back up to her feet as her worried look melted into one of determination.

All right. Totodile wanted to do this, and so they would—she wasn't about to force the Pokémon to give up before he was ready, not after all they'd been through together. Across from her, Master Corey's eyebrows were raised, and all around her the crowd was beginning to murmur excitedly. Their confusion quickly gave way to eager anticipation. She was really going to do it. She was really going to let them Battle. Misty could hardly believe it herself, but Totodile knew what he was doing, and she trusted Totodile. They'd spent months working out complex strategies with Ash in Arena Five, new and original ones that utilized Totodile's massively powerful jaws and his duality on both dry land and in deep water; they'd learned new Moves together that could really give the tiny crocodile a fighting chance against this behemoth, if she played her cards right.

Misty's determination blossomed into real self-confidence as she recalled all of those long hours spent with Ash and Pikachu studying every Pokémon in the 'dex. A Venusaur gathered power through the flower blooming on its back; if they could just take out that flower, if they could just immobilize it somehow...

Beneath the surface of the pond, Totodile began to swim in quick, tight little circles. All around him the water started to steam, just barely enough to notice. But Misty did notice, and it brought a wide grin to her face, twisted slightly brazen. This poor frog-lizard had no idea what it was in for.

"Let's do this, Totodile. Scald, now!"

The Pokémon disappeared for an instant before bursting up out of the pond in a wave of boiling water that washed over the Venusaur's feet and sent it stumbling backwards in alarm. Above it, Totodile unleashed a powerful stream of water from his snout that struck those bright red rubbery leaves with an agonizing hiss.

The Venusaur roared. The crowd roared. Misty shared a look with Totodile before he disappeared again beneath the boiling water, followed by a pair of lashing vines that quickly recoiled from the liquid in pain. It was hard to see through all the steam billowing up from the pond, but they'd worked this out ahead of time, months and months ago when Misty had wondered when on earth she would ever need to use such a technique. While Corey tried frantically to move to a spot where he could see what was going on, Misty caught sight of a familiar swirl and immediately used this knowledge of Totodile's location to prepare another Attack. Her heart was pumping adrenaline through her system so furiously she felt like she was floating across the sand.

Type advantages be damned, if they couldn't manage to bring down that old dinosaur together, they'd sure as hell go down swinging.

X

On the television, the Venusaur's leaves were drooping and wilted. Bah. She'd probably tell everyone later that the Attack was original, something she and the reptile had come up with on their own, but Gary knew better. His poor Dodrio had still carried the burns, back before—

The memory was still a painful one. Gary glared, then pushed himself up angrily to his feet. Beside him, his grandfather looked up curiously, his wrinkled white lab coat threatening to slide off one shoulder. Gary sighed and bent to straighten it over the Mareep pajamas he wore. When it was buttoned up properly it almost looked like he was just an ordinary old man again, one who wrote and programmed entries into a Pokédex, not one who poked at random buttons just to watch the lights flash. If one could ignore the angry red Lichtenberg scar twining up both sides of his throat, that is.

"I've got to go, Gramps. You remember Cypress, right?"

The name evoked a blank stare from his grandfather, but Gary was patient. He waited several long seconds before the Pokédex spoke up from Professor Oak's lap. It had been recorded in his grandfather's voice years before he'd lost it, and the irony was not lost on Gary.

"Raichu, a Mouse Pokémon of the Electric element. Raichu is the evolved form of Pikachu. It can shock with more than 100,000 volts, and becomes aggressive if too much energy is allowed to build up in its cheeks."

"You don't say," said Gary with the hint of a wry, crooked smile. His grandfather pressed the button again, then again, his old digitized voice interrupting itself over and over again until Gary pried the device from the old man's gnarled hands and set it on the bed beside him.

"I'm going to get him, Gramps," he told his grandfather, adamant. Although he held the professor's eyes, Samuel Oak only seemed to stare right through him. Gary's resolve only grew, until the disgust and the hate and the excitement pooling together in his gut began to blend into one single, monstrous sense of vengeance. He leaned in to give his grandfather a hug, as beside him one of his hands moved.

"Raichu, a Mouse Pokémon of the Electric element."

"I know. But I've got him this time. I promise."

"Raichu, a Mouse Pokémon"

"Raichu, a Mouse Pokémon"

"Raichu, a Mouse"

Gary sighed and took it away from him again while the voice droned on to completion. The professor's eyes were fixed on the television now, blankly. Gary set the Pokédex up on a shelf, out of reach.

"You just stay here and watch that for a while, Gramps. You might see something interesting."

If Samuel Oak heard the infirmary door close behind his grandson, he didn't acknowledge it.

X

"Are you sure this is the right time to do this?"

James's voice sounded uneasy as he cast a worried glance back over his shoulder. The television mounted on the wall clearly depicted a battered little Totodile clinging desperately to a Venusaur's stomping foreleg by its jaws. "I mean, look. The Exams are still going on."

"I can see that, you idiot," Jesse snapped from his elbow. She snatched the cell phone from his hands with a huff, fingers flying over the number pad. "I swear, do I always have to do everything, myself?"

"I just think it's a bad idea!" James whined, watching her anxiously. "You heard the headMasters! Nothing's supposed to go off until all of the students are gone."

"Which is more important to you, James?" Jesse asked him matter-of-factly: "a little communicative error, or getting our hands on that Pikachu?"

"Um..."

"Wrong answer." She turned her back to him and pressed the phone to her ear, so James shared an uneasy look with Meowth. The cat shrugged.

"Hey, don't look at me, bub. I don't got no say in what you humans do with all 'dem C4 buttons. I ain't got thumbs, remember?" He held up his creamy white paws and wriggled them. James sighed uncomfortably.

"I just get a bad feeling about this..."

"Oh, quit being such a crybaby," Jesse scolded. She appeared again at his side to whack him on the back of the head in mild annoyance, then crossed her arms and glared when he rubbed it and tried to protest.

"Ow! What was that for?"

"What do you think? Master Oak knows what he's doing. Besides, the lake is nowhere near the Grand Arena. There's no way anyone would notice a little...a little..."

She trailed off as the floor beneath her boots began to shift, the smallest bit. On the table beside them the dishes began to clink, then rattle. The TV flickered on the wall. Alarmed, the trio exchanged wide-eyed glances.

"Meowth. That ain't right."

X

The makeshift earth beneath Misty's feet was trembling. She spread her shoes further apart in the sand to remain stable against the Venusaur's assault and continued to call out orders to her Totodile, who looked more like a bright blue rag than a Pokémon as the gigantic green lizard thrashed from side to side, desperate to dislodge him. Blood, tinted a deep, dark green with chlorophyll, had begun to mix with the dirt and sand as it trickled down the Venusaur's legs from a dozen small tooth marks in its pebbled skin.

"Crunch, again! Hurry!"

Totodile's jaws were powerful, but not nearly enough to break the bones of a full-grown Venusaur. Still, his teeth sank even further into that thick, rough reptilian skin, and the Grass-Type voiced its pain with a gurgled roar.

Across the Arena, Master Corey was no longer sympathetic. "Get that thing off, Bruteroot! Use your Vine Whip!" Misty gritted her teeth as a pair of dark green vines snaked out of the Rafflesia on the Pokémon's back and wrapped tightly around Totodile's middle, but she'd known this was only a matter of time. When the Venusaur tugged and tugged and finally yanked the little guy away, a good portion of its knee went with him.

The Water Pokémon Flailed, but those vines only lifted him higher into the air and squeezed him tight until he was struggling just to breathe. Without waiting for a command, the Venusaur roared angrily and slammed the poor Totodile down into the ground hard enough to make Misty and the rest of the Stadium wince. It was raising its vines to repeat the action when Corey finally regained control.

"No, boy, stop that! Use Razor Leaf instead! Finish this! Hold it still!"

Bruteroot hesitated. It obviously wanted to slam the Totodile down again—and again and again, presumably, for wilting the giant flower mounted on its back beyond use. But it was well Trained, and with an irritated grumble it obeyed its Trainer. The wrinkled Rafflesia trembled, quivered—and with a great grunt of exertion from the reptile, a handful of razor-sharp leaves shook free from its center like snow that had been bumped from the branches of a tree. They floated uselessly down to the ground in a shallow pile.

Corey stared, shocked. Synthesis and Solar Beam were out, of course, he hadn't even attempted to use either of those since Scald had all but boiled Bruteroot's flower alive, but he obviously hadn't known that Razor Leaf's leaves originated from within the Rafflesia's stalk as well. Totodile took full advantage of everyone's confusion to twist his head and Bite down on one of the vines holding him aloft, jaws clamping down hard.

Roaring, the Venusaur began to fling him from side to side, vines uncoiling in an effort to get the little 'gator off and away. It made to slam the poor Pokémon down into the ground again, but this time flung it around dangerously close to the beach. Misty's eyes flashed.

"Release it, Totodile! Quick, now!"

Several months ago, Totodile might have hesitated; today he didn't. Without so much as the briefest pause to reorient himself, he unlocked his jaws and went hurtling through the air with the momentum of the Venusaur's toss, only to splash harmlessly into the lukewarm water of the pond. He disappeared beneath the surface with an encouraging roar from the crowd, undoubtedly making for the bottom, where the metal grated floor led to piping that connected this automated lake to the cooler waters of the real one hidden far, far below.

Misty didn't realize she was panting until she took that moment to stand up straight and wipe the sweat from her brow. Poor Totodile was all bruised and scraped up, but then, so was the Venusaur; the rubbery petals of its Rafflesia were curled uselessly, its stalk leaning limply to one side and its leaves continuing to drip warm water down the Pokémon's sides and between its ears. One of its vines was bent crookedly where Totodile's teeth had recently detached, and a hesitant attempt to straighten it was quickly abandoned when Bruteroot recoiled in pain.

"Impressive, Waterflower," Master Corey congratulated her, but the smirk on his face kept Misty from feeling any sort of pride. This Battle was far from over, and he knew it; the flower might have made any Special Grass Attacks useless, but Venusaur's sheer weighty Physical bulk was nothing to sneer at. It shifted its weight in the trembling earth and glared at the pair of bright amber eyes that materialized suddenly atop the steamy water.

Misty was too busy trying to think up a fresh strategy to bother with a reply. So they'd immobilized the flower; now what? This Battle was still between a gigantic green dinosaur and a tiny, unEvolved little Water-Type, and Misty wasn't aware of any other weak spots to exploit.

Unless...

But they'd never actually managed to teach Totodile that Attack, his Level was simply too low to fully grasp it. He'd managed to blow freezing cold puffs of breath out of his mouth once, and when Misty had touched his tongue it'd been flaking ice, but that was nearly a month ago now, and they hadn't had time to try it again since. Then again, his Scald hadn't been powerful enough to superheat an entire pond of water back then, either. Misty clenched her fists at her sides and, heart beating madly, decided to go for it. What other choice did they have?

"Totodile! Remember Ash's Bayleef?"

Totodile's eyes flashed her way curiously. A moment later he slapped his tail against the surface of the water in understanding, and disappeared down again into its depths. Misty held her breath, fingers crossed. Ash's Bayleef had been considerably smaller than this Venusaur, but theoretically—theoretically—the effect of ice on their plant-like limbs should be the same.

She wished to Mew that the most important Battle of her life wasn't resting so precariously on a theory, centered around an Attack her Pokémon had never actually managed to perform. At least the crowd was entertained. Misty could barely hear Master Corey over their cheers.

"Get ready, Bruteroot. That thing has to come out of there sooner or later."

Bruteroot nodded, bracing its feet in the sandy bank with a soft growl. "Saur."

Misty gave Totodile as much time as he needed to swim circles around the bottom of the pond and prepare himself. The Venusaur stood prepared as well, its vines arched and ready as it peered down sharply at the water. Misty knew they would likely only have one good shot at this; Vine Whip could easily beat Totodile senseless in a matter of seconds, and then it would all be over. Everything. Ash had given up his entire world to be with her aboveground; he was prepared to leave behind everything he knew. And he was watching this, Misty was sure. For once she was glad she couldn't see the look on his face.

But this Battle wasn't about him. This was the culmination of ten years of sweat and blood and tears within the walls of this old Stadium, and Misty had Trained for this moment her entire life—this moment, this one exactly, a Totodile against a damned Venusaur, not some pre-planned, overly rehearsed textbook scenario like some of her colleagues had gotten. This was a match set for a Master. She was going to earn that License.

And she was going to win, damn it. Not because Ash was waiting for her to leave with him, and not just to save face in front of the hundreds of people waiting to see what she would do—no. No. She was going to win because winning is what she'd Trained all her life to do, no matter the odds and no matter the reasons. This was her fight. Totodile trusted her. Together, they could bring this behemoth down.

A sudden splash of water announced the crocodile's location, but an instant later he was gone again. The Venusaur edged closer, craning its head to see. Behind it, Master Corey's voice was cautious.

"Careful there, boy..."

But it wasn't far from the water now; the sand beneath its massive feet actually shifted to sink down into the damp earth, where muddy brown water began to pool. Without warning, Totodile erupted out of the water right in front of it, spinning like a top. Misty saw his intentions and took full advantage.

"Aqua Tail, now!"

The spin became a liquid whirlwind that twined around the Pokémon's short but thick pebbled tail. Totodile called his own name forcefully and used the momentum from his spin to whip his tail flat against the Venusaur's broad face. The water didn't cause much damage to its skin, but careful aim borne of long, exhausting hours teaching Totodile to spin at increasingly small targets finally paid off; the tip of his tail caught in one of Bruteroot's large crimson eyes, followed closely by a torrent of sharp, painful water.

Roaring, the Venusaur stumbled backwards. Its vines changed their course from Totodile's lithe little body to instead rub at its own eyes furiously. Beneath the dark green vines they'd gone all red and puffy, and it struggled to open them and see what its opponent was plotting next.

Totodile let himself fall back to the sand belly-first with a wet-sounding slap. "Hurry!" Misty encouraged, but he was already slithering beneath the stomping dinosaur in a burst of reptilian movement. Opposite them, Corey fumed.

"Earthquake, Bruteroot! Step on it! Hell, just fall on it, the stupid thing is right underneath you—"

Bruteroot did just that, the ground shuddering tremendously as it dropped its four feet out from under it and landed in the damp sand flat on its broad belly. But Totodile was no longer there; he was behind it, spinning around in the mud and opening his jaws wide as he scrambled back toward the newly exposed Venusaur's rump.

"The stalk! Ice Fang! You can do it, boy, go! Go!"

The Venusaur struggled to heft itself back up to its feet the moment it felt the light scrabble of paws on its backside, but it was too slow, and it couldn't crane its huge head around to see. Its vines struck blindly in Totodile's wake, but they weren't able to slip around him until there was a bright flash of cool blue light, and then a low, thundering roar from the crowd as a powerful set of ice-cold teeth clamped down tight around the stalk of the Venusaur's flower.

There was another flash then, one that had nothing to do with the Attack. Misty gasped; Corey stared; the crowd went suddenly quiet, then erupted with wild excitement. Within the tight grip of Bruteroot's vines, Totodile's body was expanding, forcing them to loosen and make room. The giant Pokémon groaned anxiously as Totodile's—Croconaw's—bite suddenly strengthened, his jaws growing further around the sensitive flower, clenching harder, digging deeper. The Venusaur turned in circles desperately, but it was no use; a Croconaw's teeth were barbed backwards like a fish hook, and notoriously difficult to dislodge no matter how hard one pulled. Trying only caused Bruteroot to groan in pain, its dull red Rafflesia listing heavily to one side with each tug.

Out from around Croconaw's jaws, a thin sheet of ice was quickly spreading. It climbed the stalk of the flower and flowed down to sweep over the Venusaur's back, even going so far as to begin winding up the base of its vines from the points where they connected beneath the weakened, soaking bark. Bruteroot roared and thrashed wildly, suddenly terrified; the Bulbasaur family had been known to die from too much exposure to ice within their flowers, and the freeze from Croconaw's jaws had just scaled the top of the stalk and begun seeping downwards into the center, toward its heart.

"Sleep Powder!" Corey cried desperately, but the dust only puffed weakly out of the top of the flower as if the Venusaur had coughed. Its wide feet scrabbled wildly around in the sand, desperate to turn and yank the offending Pokémon off its back with those vines, but Croconaw refused to budge. In fact, his grip only tightened, until the bark of the flower's stalk began to give way beneath it. The moment Corey's gaze caught on that threatening dip he froze, eyes wide.

"Don't let go, Croconaw!" shouted Misty desperately. Her heart was pounding in her ears and her entire body felt numb and tingly all at once; she thought perhaps that she might faint. Croconaw's jaws tightened again, but this time there was a horrendously sharp crack from between them. The Venusaur roared, then collapsed back down on its belly again, panting. The frost had stretched nearly halfway down the stems of the Pokémon's limp palm leaves, and the entirety of the Rafflesia itself was now coated—not frozen solid, Misty was sure, but uncomfortably, perhaps even dangerously blanketed. And that said nothing of the flower's interior, where the warm, pulsing patchwork of vines began melting into veins.

"Call it off, Waterflower! We're done! We're done! Get it off of him!"

At first Misty couldn't hear him, the roaring in her ears was so loud. She didn't know if it was the crowd or her own blood pulsing madly in her ears, her heart pounding so powerfully she was sure it would beat its way right out of her chest. But it was impossible not to miss the frantic look on Master Corey's face as he scrambled across the Grand Arena to his Venusaur's side, completely mindless of the rules that prohibited such a thing. Misty couldn't move. All she could do was stare blindly into the half-lidded eyes of the panting Venusaur sprawled out weakly in the sand, breath puffing from its mouth in cold little clouds.

"That's enough, Croconaw..."

At the sound of her voice, the Pokémon loosened his jaws with a dull, protesting creak from the bark still caught between them. He'd actually dented the stalk, tearing through the bark in small, rough holes where his teeth had sawed through. The Venusaur's vines were still wrapped loosely around his middle, but he was able to easily wriggle his way free of them. Without being told, he pulled his head back, drew in a deep breath, and released it in another stream of Scalding water, this one only warm enough to help melt the ice from his opponent's back. Corey barely gave him a second glance as he scrambled around the Venusaur's side to cradle its enormous head in his arms, rubbing worriedly at its broad forehead.

"Cro, croco."

Misty's knees were weak. They suddenly buckled beneath her, but she didn't even realize it until there was damp sand in her clenching hands, and Croconaw was toddling up to her unsteadily at eye-level, one of his legs dragging where it had been slammed into the ground earlier. Shaking, she held out one arm, the other braced against the sand to help steady herself, and with an exhausted grin the Croconaw collapsed against her chest, trembling.

"I—boy, I am so proud of you, I—"

Her voice cracked and broke. She couldn't finish. Toto—Croconaw didn't seem to mind. He buried his thick snout into her chest with a soft cooing sound, large golden eyes squeezed tightly shut as Misty's warm tears dripped down atop his head.

She'd won. She'd...won. Someone may as well have told her she'd inherited the moon; she'd be just as unable to grasp what to do with it.

She'd forgotten completely about her audience, until a flailing brown figure appeared from out of nowhere to slam hard into her side. All three of them went sprawling to the ground in a pile of numbed limbs and weak, shaky hugs, that somehow still managed to squeeze so tightly Misty couldn't breathe. Brock was yelling and screaming and crying all at once, and it wasn't until Misty met his eyes through her own blurred vision that she realized she was, too.

"Naw," Croconaw urged, butting his nose up against the underside of her chin. Brock was running his hands over the tips of the Pokémon's spines reverently and showering him with broken half-praises that he couldn't stop interrupting for newer, better ones.

"And you—and you just—Mew, Croconaw! Mew! You just—and the way you just—and the Scald! Scald! Ice Fang! A Venusaur! It—and you—Mew! What? How did you—Mew!"

His words were suddenly muffled as he pressed kiss after kiss to the reptile's bruised head, but Croconaw, grinning weakly, only tapped his paw against the 'ball on Misty's hip. Misty smiled weakly in return, and pressed a thank you kiss against the tip of his rounded nose before recalling him to it. Immediately the full weight of Brock's body crushed her into the ground and she laughed, wrapping her arms around him tightly. Everything around her was a bright, colorful blur through all the tears.

She'd won. She'd won.

She and Ash could go. They wouldn't have to stay.

She'd won.

X

It wasn't until Gary Oak slipped into the headMasters' private box and flashed Rudi a snide smile that the islander accepted that something really had gone terribly awry.

Like everyone else in the stands, he'd initially assumed that the gentle trembling beneath his feet was due to the feverish excitement erupting throughout the Grand Arena, as spectators stomped and cheered and shouted themselves hoarse. The Arena wasn't solid stone like the rest of the Stadium; it was a wood and steel addition that had been built into the side some century or so ago, when the building had first been converted from an empty, decrepit old historic structure to a school. While it was certainly more than stable enough for the thousand-some spectators that filled it now, it had never managed to feel quite as sturdy as its unshakable older sibling.

Just like plunging suddenly into the icy winter sea, Rudi was jolted abruptly from his victorious stupor by Gary's presence just inside the door. He was flanked on either side by his help, Jesse and James, while their talking Meowth stood oddly quiet on his hind legs at their heels, his bright amber eyes on the well-groomed Persian draped languidly across her master's feet. Rudi couldn't make out what they were trying to say over the roar of the crowd outside, but Gary seemed uninterested; he waved the pair off, then came to stand at Rudi's side like he belonged there, like he was welcome anywhere near him, let alone within the same room.

"You don't look very happy to see me, Mr. Trovita. Weren't you jumping up and down with the rest of them just a minute ago?"

Rudi had been beside himself with pride and joy when the referees had called Misty's Battle in her favor, but all of that excitement was melting away now into a heavy lump of cold anxiety at the look on Gary's face. Once waving wildly through the air, he now held his hands clenched tight at his sides, tense. He hadn't forgotten what the man had said to him yesterday, how he'd tried to rile Rudi up, then gloated when Rudi had been forced to stay his own hand. He looked smug now, confident in the knowledge that Rudi had obeyed. And he had. Rudi knew he had. He'd had no other choice; before anything, before Ash or himself or Gary's idiotic devil-may-care sense of vengeance, Misty needed to earn her License. She could do nothing more with her life until she'd done that.

And yet he'd almost gone to her late last night, and again early this morning. He'd almost gone to Ash, when he knew the Elemental would be left alone while Misty prepared for her Exam. But what could he do? What could he have said? Would Ash have even believed him if he'd tried? Where would he have escaped to? Had Gary kept an eye on him all night, just in case he did try to pull such a stunt? Rudi had convinced himself earlier that that was probably the case; that Gary had told him those things yesterday so that he would be spurred into harried, brash action, so that Ash would be flushed out right into Oak's hands. It'd kept him awake all night with uncertain worry, but in the end he hadn't gone, and now he was here, cheering Misty on from the sidelines like he was supposed to, counting down the minutes until Gary did something irrevocably stupid.

All he could have done was wait. Let Gary show his hand. Let the idiot make his move. He'd made an enemy of Rudi, and he would come to regret it. Rudi didn't care anymore if Misty preferred Ash to him—although the thought of it still pulled achingly at his heart, made him cringe with loneliness and longing. But no. He would help her—help them, if that was the only way—before he would allow Gary Oak to ruin everyone and everything just because he could.

Oak didn't seem to mind seeing himself splattered all over the television screens lining the Arena. No press was allowed inside the headMasters' private box, but that didn't stop them from aiming their cameras at the clear glass facade—Rudi was sure he would see both still and moving images of himself looking like a madman later, when he'd been so caught up in Misty's fight that he'd forgotten anyone was watching. But just then, he didn't care. He couldn't take his eyes off of Gary. There was something about him, something smug and yet attentive; like he'd just pulled his last master string and was now simply waiting to see the results unfold before him.

Gary noticed his gaze and smiled. "What's wrong? Aren't you enjoying the show?"

"What did you—"

Rudi was cut off when the floor lurched abruptly beneath his feet. His hands shot out to grab at the railing in front of the windows before he could be tossed to the ground, as outside the crowd's excited roar lulled into a sharp sound of surprise. Even Gary was caught off-guard; he grabbed at the railing too, his smug look overtaken by one of confusion and alarm. Rudi's heart was pounding somewhere up high in his throat, making it difficult to breathe. Tense, he grabbed Gary's arm and dragged the Master close.

"What did you do?"

Before Gary could answer, there was an uncomfortable gurgling sound from within the Arena. Rudi's eyes went instinctively to Misty, though she was buried now by what Rudi recognized to be Brock's extended family, a pile of brown bodies atop a speck of unmistakably orange hair. Everyone's eyes were focused on the freshwater lake that had been filled for Misty's Water Types; the center of it was bubbling upwards, water sloshing excitably against the sandy shore. Without warning, a large metal grate the size of a man burbled up suddenly from the center, bobbing with the churning water. The crowd's murmuring turned anxious, uncertain. It was plain to see this wasn't supposed to happen.

Spinning abruptly, Gary turned to level a narrow glare at his assistants. They were hovering uncomfortably in the doorway, looking nervous. Following Gary's gaze, Giovanni and Koga turned to look at them as well, their expressions demanding an explanation.

"You two!" Giovanni shoved himself to his feet, ignoring the yowl of protest his Persian made at being roused so ungraciously. Koga, too, twisted around over the arm of his leather chair to watch them with suspicion.

"You did this? What did you do?"

"You mangy coward!"

The Meowth ducked out of the way of Jesse's foot to hide behind James's leg, careful to keep it between himself and the Persian now prowling tight, uncomfortable circles around the corner of the room. He pointed up at Jesse. "Don't look at me, it was her! She pushed da buttons!"

"Buttons?"

Jesse looked aghast. She pointed quickly at Oak. "Under his orders. sir! He called, he told me to do it, I didn't just—"

"Do what?" Koga interrupted, now climbing to his feet as well. "What buttons?"

Jesse didn't get the chance to answer. She could only stare, eyes wide, as Rudi wound his fist back and released it straight into Gary's jaw.

The Master stumbled backward. The crowd outside gasped collectively; Rudi didn't even realize that the cameras were watching, he was too busy struggling to see straight through the rage and horror that narrowed everything around him into tunnel vision. Stumbling to catch himself when the box began to shake again, this time he lurched unsteadily after Gary. The pair ended up a painful pile of knees and elbows rolling angrily across the floor. Rudi was hardly mindful of his actions. It was as if every little frustration wrought upon him by Gary Oak swelled up all at once to overtake him; Misty's scorn and that Elemental's favor, his dwindling fortune and that pending lawsuit, the explosives planted beneath a Stadium too old and fragile to withstand the blasts, and all of it piled atop all—this—damned—cold—

Large hands cuffed in expensive tailored suits attempted to pry them apart, but neither Rudi nor Gary were willing to give up just yet. A knuckle caught Rudi's eye socket; his vision exploded into bursts of painful light as Gary gurgled miserably, struggling to free his fragile purpled skin from beneath the hand at his throat. From somewhere nearby, Giovanni and Koga pleaded for Mr. Trovita to get hold of himself, chastised Master Oak for acting such an uncivilized fool, but neither heard them. Rudi was furious, and absolutely determined to beat this idiot, this damned arrogant moron, into the ground. Gary, too, was growling, feral. The fists and elbows pounding into Rudi's sides were not those of a man struggling to hold himself in check.

Thumping hard into the solid wooden wall, neither immediately noticed the sharp, panicked note taken up suddenly by the crowd far below.

X

Something was wrong. Something was terribly, horribly wrong.

Above Misty, splattered in high definition across the gigantic broadcasting screen, Gary was giving Rudi a nasty black eye. Below her, lapping gently at her knees in the sand, water from the automated lake in the center of the Arena was rising as if in preparation for a sea Battle. But Zolphree's Exam was next, and he didn't use any Water Pokémon. Misty's mind wound itself tightly around that one, insignificant little fact, as if it was the most important thing in the world.

Amidst the cacophony of the crowd and the unnaturally shifting sand beneath her, she realized belatedly that it was.

A gun went off—or so everyone thought. Startled, the crowd cried out and ducked as one, while something huge and metallic came shooting up out of the lake bed close enough to shower Misty and Brock's family with cold, musty-smelling spray. She shielded as many children as she could reach with her arms, while Brock and his parents rounded up the others. No longer elated and jumping up and down in excitement, several of the youngest began to sniffle, looking up around them with wide, worried eyes. The roar that came from the stands was no longer that of a thousand people cheering for more, but had taken on the unnerved, panicked tone of several hundred people trapped in a small space while something unexpected and frightening began to unravel before them.

There was a loud, echoing gurgle sound. Something gentle and soft tugged and pushed lightly at the legs of Misty's soaking jeans. She looked down to see the sand sinking away as if pouring from a glass, only to wash up against her again with a swell of water so powerful it felt like the ocean tide.

Startled, Misty scrambled to her feet. She pulled the children with her, helped them connect their reaching arms with their mother's and father's, who were both right there beside them suddenly, gathering everyone up in a pile of limbs flailing to be caught and held. Like the winking of camera lights at a concert, Pokéballs began flashing open all around them, to reveal a sudden crowd of Flying and Water Types that struggled to stay aloft in such a closed space, or fell down with a splash into the surging water on the ground.

"Brock, you have to get them out of here!" Misty didn't know what was going on, but by the look of things in the headMasters' box, it probably had something to do with Gary Oak, and that was never good. Had he set off all of those damned explosives already? Had something happened with Ash, to cause all of this? Mew, what if he'd been waiting for this moment, for this Battle, when he knew she would be distracted and Ash would be all alone...

Panic seized her heart like a vice, pumping ice-cold blood through her veins more chilling than the musty lake water now crawling like a sea of spiders up her legs. Because that's what this was. Mew. Something must have happened to the lake; it was coming up now, straight through the ground, through the hollow that had been dug out so that the Stadium could have access to it, obviously far too quickly and too powerfully for any of the pumps to stop.

People were bottlenecking at the exits. Brock struggled to hold up a pair of his smaller siblings out of the water, while beside him his mother and father did the same. High above everyone, the dozen or so vid-screens blinked rapidly from camera to camera, a nightmare of destruction on every single one; water rushing in through the bathrooms on the ground floor, through the kitchens and Water Arenas, flooding the Stadium's halls; outside, whole streets buckling under a sudden surge of pressure, enormous chunks of asphalt crumbling away into a soupy mess of rock and water that spilled up onto the pavement; and the Stadium itself, oh, Mew, the stone statues cracking on the outer facade as the foundations trembled and groaned, whole windows exploding outward suddenly as the old wooden interior began to snap beneath the enormous shifting of its own weight...

Misty tried not to think about Ash, trapped up there on the ninth floor where the rafters were bare and the only real support came from the stone walls they'd been so delicately attached to. The Stadium had been built and rebuilt to withstand age, not earthquakes. Already the entire thing had been a precarious balance of stone walls, wooden support beams, and hollow caves that wound deeply through the rock beneath, like an anthill of old tunnels and passages. Ash had shown her crude maps of what lay beneath the school, and although she hadn't been able to completely wrap her head around such an intricate network of interconnecting lines, he had been adamant enough to sit there and patiently explain them until she'd grasped the gist of it.

It was his job to hold the lake in check, he'd told her. Old passages must be caved in and new ones dug out in order to balance the immense weight of everything that sat above. Air couldn't be allowed to build up; it had to be vented, and fresh air allowed to seep in. Some of the nastier wild Pokémon that lived in the very darkest depths of the earth had to be deterred from wandering aground, and their terrestrial brethren discouraged from ever roaming too deeply. "There's something down there," he'd told her. His eyes had been narrowed, serious, while Pikachu had poked his nose uncomfortably against the back of his neck. But when she'd asked what it was, he'd only shook his head and sighed, looking troubled. He couldn't decide if it was better off flooded by the lake or cut off completely from the stumbling advances of all the humans who would inevitably find their way down there.

The glass windows just below the ceiling shattered suddenly, some from the shifting of the walls between them, and some beneath the explosive power of a Pokémon's attack. Flying Types everywhere had begun to crash their way through in order to chauffeur their Masters outside to safety. Misty squinted up at the sunlight that came pouring in through the gaping holes, hoping to Mew that those lucky few who managed to escape came back to help the rest. If they didn't, the rest of these people...

She didn't allow herself to finish the thought. The water was up to her waist now, and it was beginning to tug her back and forth with its current. Hitched onto either side of her hips, the kids clung to her neck and cried, their weight buoyed by the water. Misty exchanged a horrified look with Brock, who was powerless to do anything but return it. Even if they made for the doors now, they would surely be knocked over and crushed by the tide of people scrambling to get out through them. Some had begun to fall over now, swept from their feet as the water carried them through the doors as effortlessly as bathwater down a drain.

Though Misty's hands went to her 'Belt, she knew that it was no use; she had no Revives left and all of her Pokémon were too bruised and battered to move, else she'd have used more than just Croconaw against Master Corey's Venusaur. Brock seemed to understand, because when she caught his eyes with her helpless gaze, he didn't give her a pleading look. Still, Misty's gut wrenched with guilt and shame.

This was all her fault. If she'd just left this place instead of sticking it out to Battle one last time, maybe she and Ash could be free from here, and Gary wouldn't have tried anything. Maybe then all of these people would be okay, and Brock's siblings wouldn't be crying, terrified...

More glass erupted suddenly from above. Misty looked up to see Rudi leap out the freshly shattered window of the headMasters' box; he fell perhaps a dozen feet before the Pokéball in his hand flared to life and something purple and enormous materialized beneath him. No sooner had he settled onto the back of his Mantine than there was another flash from his hands, one that came much closer this time. Misty struggled to stay upright as the water around her suddenly surged; she clung to the children at her breast and closed her eyes against the splash of water that sprayed over them suddenly, in the wake of the heaving head of an oh-so-familiar Lapras.

Misty thought her heart might burst apart with relief. She looked up to give Rudi a teary-eyed grateful look, but he was too busy sailing by overhead to notice, opening 'ball after 'ball to release a Blastoise here, a Dewgong there, even a Pidgeot that immediately banked in the air and swooped down to snatch up a flailing little girl from the water before she could drown. Brock's mother and father didn't immediately realize that this enormous ocean Pokémon was here for them, not just passing through, but when they saw Misty wade closer so that the Lapras could stretch out its long neck and let a child crawl safely up atop its head, they both gave Misty such heart-wrenching looks of utter relief that it brought fresh tears to her eyes. She was so choked up with relief herself that she couldn't find the words to tell them the Ice Pokémon wasn't hers.

When both children had been safely deposited atop the Lapras's back, Misty patted the base of her old friend's neck appreciatively, giving the Pokémon a look that said more than she knew how to put together with words. Lapras had no time to reply; a man appeared beside her then, panicked. He elbowed his way to Lapras's side and hauled himself atop her back desperately, mindless of the children he threatened to dislodge.

Misty felt a fury bubble to life in her chest so powerful she swore she could see red. While the man still flailed to pull himself up, Misty grabbed him around the ankle and yanked; on Lapras's other side, Flint suddenly appeared atop the Pokémon's back amidst a flurry of outrage. Heaving, he tossed the man back into the water as if he weighed no more than a child himself. Above Misty, Lapras leveled the sputtering man with a vicious glare the moment he broke the surface again, daring him to try such a selfish move again.

"No, stay there. Dad, please."

Misty turned back to see Brock holding his hands up, attempting to prevent his father from dropping back down into the heaving water. Flint was not happy. Wiping the water from his face, he reached for Brock's final sibling, but leaning so far over Lapras's back nearly capsized them. The Lapras flailed and pounded her fins into the water on either side of Misty with so much force that she was sent tumbling backward amidst the sloshing waves. But she was a Water Trainer, damn it; rather than panic, she quickly righted herself in the water—

And blanched at the sight before her. Though the water wasn't yet deep enough to cover her head, everywhere within it people kicked and struggled to remain at the quickly rising surface, or to climb aboard whatever Pokémon was nearest. Below, underwater Pokémon struggled to act as buoys for their owners, and further below them still lay a wide, gaping black hole where the Grand Arena's floor vents used to be.

Misty shuddered at the sight, quickly swimming back up to the surface before fear could seize her completely. Water Trainer or not, the sight of such an immense, immediate drop into the unknown, into sheer black nothingness, was enough to leave her shivering and unnerved. But the moment she broke the surface again, the roaring din of the terrified crowd nearly deafened her. The sound was enough to snap her out of her sudden anxiety, and unexpectedly, through the water in her ears, she thought she heard someone call her name.

"—here! Misty, look here! Look up!"

She did. Rudi was back, his PokéBelt twined tightly around one arm, nearly empty. Blood dripped from a cut on his lip to splash atop the back of his enormous Mantine, who was concentrating hard on lowering herself as closely as she could to the water without allowing any of the people nearby to swamp her. Relief flooded through Misty at the sight, so overwhelmingly powerful that she nearly slipped beneath the surface again, her limbs gone all weak and wobbly. She didn't want to go out like this, sucked down a corridor or tossed from the top of the Arena like a ragdoll. She had things to do now, she was a Trainer, a real one, well on her way to becoming a Master in her own right, and Ash was somewhere up there in the Stadium, waiting...

Rudi reached out for her. "Give me your hand." And Misty nearly did, she almost let herself snatch his hand up without a second thought, but at the last moment she hesitated. Her eyes darted back to Brock's family; he, his mother, and his oldest younger sibling were clinging to Lapras's side with fear in their eyes, while his father raised his fist threateningly at anyone who dared give the floating Pokémon topped with children so much as a considering glance.

Rudi followed her gaze. When he turned back to catch her eyes again he looked trapped, helpless; Misty suspected she looked much the same, regret already filling up that ever-gaping hole in her chest. She opened her mouth to explain herself, to argue, but rather than insist she climb up beside him, Rudi only frowned. He looked at Brock's family again. Without a word, his gaze hardened and he withdrew his hand.

Mantine glided smoothly over in their direction. Misty watched as Brock's mother gave Rudi a teary-eyed look, one that he largely ignored as he instead helped haul Brock's last little brother atop the Pokémon's back beside him. But the Pokémon, though large, was a Flyer, and couldn't hold half as many as the floating Lapras if she wished to remain aloft. This time Rudi didn't hesitate; the moment the child was settled comfortably atop Mantine's back, he slipped down her ribbony tail into the water. Misty gaped at him in surprise; she didn't know whether to hit him over the head or squeeze him in a hug so tight his eyeballs popped, so wordlessly she watched him help Brock's mother climb up the Mantine's rounded, slippery wings. Mrs. Slate immediately grabbed her son up in her arms, hugging him tight with the fierce relief only a mother could muster. Down below, Brock gave Rudi a look that had no words. Rudi just shook his head at him, treading water as easily as if he'd been born in it. Misty couldn't tell if her face was wet with lake water or unshed tears, and truthfully, she didn't care. She would never be able to repay Rudi for this, never in a million years. She didn't even know where to begin trying.

Not that she got the chance. Up on the television screen, a thumping helicopter shot of the Stadium showed whole portions of its interior and ceiling collapsing as if they were made up of nothing more stable than cardboard and crumbling limestone. Misty's stomach dropped into her feet when she saw what looked like the dormitories, only...they weren't dormitories anymore, but a twisting, mangled heap of wood and pipes and half-crushed furniture, like the wreckage in the aftermath of a bombing, without the smoke or fire.

Something groaned, loudly and ominously, from somewhere far below Misty's feet. She looked down, but could see nothing beyond her own kicking, waterlogged shoes. Above, Rudi's Mantine carried her portion of Brock's family up to the relative safety of the roof while his Lapras slowly scooped water over her flippers in an effort to keep herself from drifting near any of the other terrified-looking people around them, mindful of the way Misty and Brock both clung desperately to either side of her shell. But whatever was going on below was not good, as was evidenced by the way the water suddenly lurched with a gurgling groan so loud and deep that it vibrated through the water all around her. Terrified of that sound, Misty pulled herself up closer to the Pokémon and curled her legs protectively up underneath her, eyes struggling to focus on the large black hole in the floor through the sloshing water. She didn't like that sound. Something down there was wrenching apart, and she didn't like the thought of it being kicked up or of her being sucked down.

Unexpectedly, a large hand caught Misty around her waist and pulled her back against an equally hard chest. Misty twisted to see Rudi holding onto her, but for once she didn't mind. He'd found a patch of shell to hold onto beside her, though he shivered beneath his soaking silk shirt, as if the chill of the water pierced him all the way to his bones. Misty felt much the same, although being near her old friend helped her keep her mind, even amidst the chaos of everything around her. Nothing that had happened between them these last few months mattered at all anymore; Rudi was one of her best friends, her anchor, her calm in the storm, just as he had been when their parents had died together, and just as he'd tried to be again recently, when he'd been unable to comprehend that an Elemental might be something more morally complex than the old stories allowed. She allowed him to hold her close, taking comfort in his presence, if only for a moment. When she looked at him, wordless, he looked back. His teal eyes were filled with things Misty didn't know the words for, but above all they were filled with the same things she felt: regret, apology, concern.

And then he spoiled it all with a sad look. "You should have gotten on that Mantine."

Misty stiffened suddenly. If he thought for one minute that her life was more important than Brock's little brother's—that she would have boarded that Pokémon while a child flailed helplessly in the water—If he thought—he—

Rudi smiled tiredly and pressed his fingers to her mouth to stop her from speaking. "I know, I know. I'm sorry."

He looked so defeated that Misty felt her anger drain from her as quickly as it had welled up. She gave him an apologetic look, but he only moved his fingers from her lips to her forehead, tucking aside a stray strand of orange hair that had been dripping water into her eyes. When she shivered at his touch, he sighed softly, eyes on the hand that caught his wrist to keep him close. This time it was Misty's turn to apologize.

"Me too."

He looked at her. Misty's heart broke at the shard of hope in his eyes—but then the water began to shudder again, as if the entirety of the Grand Arena was caught up inside some vast shaking pot. Lapras flipped the tips of her flippers uncertainly, mindful of the humans clinging weakly to her sides as the water suddenly tugged and pulled at their feet, almost as if they were caught in a riptide.

Misty saw it, then; the dark black space that had been what remained of the drain was widening, its sides crumbling away beneath the overwhelming weight of the water piling up on top of it. And Misty knew how cavernous that bedrock was beneath the Stadium, how many old finished and unfinished tunnels there were, as well as simple pockets and vast open caves with entrances so small only bats and rats and an Electric mouse could squeeze their way inside. It was only a matter of time until—

Her shoe was yanked down hard, her ankle twisted painfully. Misty cried out in alarm and tried to jerk it back up, fingers scrabbling for a solid hold on one of Lapras's slick spines. Beside her Rudi latched onto her elbow and heaved her upward, though his strength was muted considerably without any solid ground beneath his feet. On the other side of Lapras's back, Brock suddenly went down as well. Misty cried out for him, but it was his father who reached over the Pokémon's back to haul him back up out of the water, coughing and sputtering with dripping water into his eyes. Misty, too, struggled to catch her breath back after such an unexpected assault, but then the building whirlpool must have made its way around the Arena, because it happened again, stronger. Misty fought to keep her grip on Lapras's shell; beside her Rudi struggled as well, long legs kicking desperately at the invisible pull of the water just beneath them.

Keening, Lapras raised her flippers suddenly and began to swim across the giant lake, away from its center. Misty spat out the water in her mouth and clung to the Pokémon beside Rudi, but she knew it was no use. Learning the physics of whirlpools and vortexes had been a part of her studies as a Water Trainer; she understood exactly how they formed over quickly rushing water as it was pulled downward into a new space, how the spiral was so powerful a Water Pokémon would have a hard time breaking free from it, how a lowly human, so ill-equipped without any land to leverage against, was virtually powerless within its grasp...

The Lapras, laden with so much weight, struggled to break free before she could be caught up in its grasp as well. Misty might have let the Pokémon go if she'd had the choice, but before she could even think of such a thing, her hands slipped from Lapras's spine as her body was ripped from Rudi's side, downwards beneath the surface, where there was no more air to breathe.

In a manner of seconds, Misty was flung up and down and sideways so rapidly that she had no idea which way was desperate, beloved air, or even what it was anymore. Strange hands grappled for a hold on her arm—not strange, she realized dizzily, they belonged to Rudi, and behind him Brock clung to his ribs like he was squeezing a stuffed animal in his sleep, eyes squeezed tightly shut and kicking at invisible foes beneath him. Misty grappled for Rudi as well, struggling to find a hold on slick skin that was pulled this way and that as the water rushed and roared all around her.

And then it was dark, and they were no longer alone. Strangers, Pokémon and people alike, whirled around them like lifeless debris caught in the fury of a raging tornado. One of them came too close; Misty's head struck something hard, her fingers loosening their grip in alarm, and then she was flung to the side and slammed furiously against something that felt suspiciously like solid, uncut stone.

Her head spun viciously; her stomach rolled with nausea. Then the blackness swallowed her whole, and she tumbled down far, far below the last vestiges of straining light.

X

Ash awoke to a gentle dripping on his face, and a not-so-gentle throbbing in his skull. His back was cold—no, he recognized dimly, it was numb, soaked through with freezing water. A shallow pool lapped delicately at the tips of his ears, threatening to creep inside. The slightest movement sent shallow waves rippling out across the surface. Where was he?

At first he wondered if he was blind. Everything around him was dark, pitch-black—and then he noticed the light bobbing unsteadily in the top corner of his vision, a pale yellow beam that soaked lazily through the deepest of the shadows. It swept over him suddenly and he winced, lifting a stiff and aching arm to shield his eyes. Someone cried out at his movement.

"Holy Ho-Oh, he's alive!"

The beam of light swept over him again, and then again, unsteadily. Ash squeezed his burning eyes shut and hid them beneath the crook of his arm, twitching his nose at the cold water that dripped from the numbed skin of his elbow down onto his face. His head throbbed so severely that he could scarcely think around the pain, and something hard was jabbing sharply into the small of his back, against his spine. At so much movement, though, the lapping water sloshed up suddenly into his ears, momentarily deafening him. He jerked his head out of the pool in alarm. What followed was a crippling tide of nausea and dizziness, alongside a quickly strengthening sense of regret. He should have stayed on the ground. He felt like he'd been trampled beneath a herd of raging Tauros. It was a struggle just to keep the contents of his stomach where they belonged.

"Hey you, guy! Can you hear me? Look up here!"

The light was dim, feeble. A dying flashlight. It wobbled at him, trying to catch his attention; Ash swallowed down the sickness in his throat and peered up in its direction cautiously. There was a boy holding it far above him—a ninth year, Ash recognized with a start, the one with the shaggy Pikachu. Panic seized him; he reached instinctively for his glasses, only to slap his palm painfully against the side of his nose. Oh, no. Oh, Mew. He swiped his hand beneath the freezing water in a futile attempt to find them, to find anything, but it came up empty. Ash twisted around to search behind himself with a low groan. Had he dropped them? Had they fallen off? When was the last time he'd worn them?

"Hey, look! Can you see me? Can you see this?"

The flashlight shook at him, forcing him to respond. So Ash looked, cautiously, from beneath his arm, swallowing down the building sense of heavy vulnerability threatening to bubble up from his gut. He honestly couldn't remember the last time he'd been forced to bare his eyes to a stranger, but at least it was dark enough, and they were far enough apart, that he was fairly certain the boy wouldn't be able to tell anything was amiss.

The boy with the flashlight aimed it up suddenly to illuminate himself. Ash knew of him already, but said nothing. He'd learned the hard way that people hated to learn that they'd been watched.

"I'm Ritchie, I was up on the tenth floor. Are you okay? We saw you fall. We didn't think you made it."

Ash swung his gaze to Ritchie's sides, startled by the Trainee's use of the collective. Sure enough, the boy wasn't alone; flanking him were a handful of shadowed figures, all peering down at him with obvious concern from over the lip of what appeared to be a dormitory bathroom. Clinging to the wall by its piping, a crumbled porcelain sink shot water out of a crack in its tap, further obscuring them in the darkness. It rained softly down atop the water that surrounded Ash, forming tiny, gentle ripples. It was then that Ash truly became aware of his surroundings. His eyes widened and he looked around himself in alarm, his heart suddenly pounding. This was…but he'd been in Brock's room. What happened? Had he been knocked out?

"Here, hold this a minute, will you?" Noticing Ash's confusion, Ritchie passed the flashlight off to a younger student, one with the shape of a fluffy Pikachu-sized shadow on his shoulder. Ash squinted at the wavering light and made out the form of an Eevee there, only by the unmistakable shape of its neck ruff. Michael, he recognized. The boy had every known Evolution of Eevee, as well as his prized unEvolved one. He held the light steady while Ritchie picked his way down an enormous mound of ceiling tiles, broken support beams, dormitory furniture, and ceramic flooring. Looking up, it seemed to Ash as if a good chunk of the entire floor had fallen in. But the room above him wasn't Brock's, nor, as far as he could tell, was the room above that. Zapdos, just how far had he fallen? Had there been an earthquake? Or had Gary…

Ice-cold fear slipped down his spine. Oh, Mew. Had he? Now? What—But how stupid—And why—

Ash had to stop and steady himself when his head began to throb with a mixture of horror and fury, and probably the remains of a sizable concussion. He struggled vainly to piece together what had happened, what order his fractured memories of deafening cracks and tumbling colors fit together in. He had obviously fallen, but how far? And how long ago? Where was everyone? Had Pikachu been with him?

He was so caught up in his thoughts and in the aching pound in his head that he didn't immediately realize he was no longer alone. The water splashed suddenly against his knees though, quickly soaking through his jeans and chilling him to the bone. A splashing sound announced Ritchie's presence at his side. The boy reached to help Ash up off the ground, but Ash flinched away, alarmed. Mew, when had he gotten so close? Had he seen…? He ducked his head and aimed his eyes low to the ground, panic flaring to life in his chest. Raikou above, he should have slipped away into the shadows when he'd had the chance. It was just so difficult to think clearly, and he had the sneaking suspicion he'd been knocked in the head hard enough to disorient himself. And he couldn't leave this area without Pikachu…

The scritch of tiny claws on wood sounded suddenly from the pile of rubble that Ritchie had just climbed down. Both looked up in surprise as a pair of floppy yellow ears were shoved through, their normally black tips colored grey with dust. Pikachu squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head furiously, wriggling back and forth with a soft scratching sound until he managed to wedge the rest of his body out from beneath the shattered bed frame there. He came to rest on the broken spine of a textbook that jutted out from beneath the shallow water, gripping it tightly in his paws and careful not to slip as he shook his fur out irritably with a soft "Chuuuuu."

"Whoa, is that—?"

Ritchie's voice startled the mouse, but there was no fear in his enormous chocolate eyes as he stopped shaking and stared up at the boy. Not a moment later, however, his gaze slipped behind Ritchie to where Ash lay half-prone in the water behind him. His ears perked up immediately, and then he disappeared in a flurry of movement.

"Pikapi!"

"Whoa, what—"

Ritchie stumbled backwards in alarm when the small yellow bundle used his shins as a springboard to launch himself directly into Ash's welcoming arms.

Ash squeezed the mouse tightly the instant he caught him, relief flooding through him. He was okay. He wasn't crushed, he wasn't drowned, he wasn't...buried somewhere, beneath all of this rubble. If the rest of the world had fallen to pieces around them, at least there was that. There was Pikachu. There always had been.

"Whoa, nice! You have a Pikachu too?"

Ash glanced up just long enough to see Ritchie grinning widely at him, before he remembered there was nothing over his eyes and quickly ducked his head again, cursing the way they tended to glow when it was dark. He pressed his lips to Pikachu's damp fur, speaking softly, hoarsely: "Do you have my sunglasses, boy? Do you know where they went?"

"Chuuuu." Pikachu rubbed his nose apologetically against the hollow of Ash's throat. Ash sighed, his stomach twisting with worry. If one of these students saw him, if one of them recognized what he really was...

Who, an irritable Misty corrected him. Ash scratched the top of Pikachu's head and tried not to smile, even as his lungs suddenly froze up with anxiety. Was Misty okay? She'd been Battling for her License, and then...and then what?

"Mine's named Sparky," Ritchie was telling him cheerfully, oblivious. "Does yours have a name?" Ash grit his teeth and shook his head, feeling simultaneously irritated and guilty. This guy was nice, Ash had watched him Train and Battle for years now. He was obviously just trying to help out, but if he saw...

If Ritchie minded Ash's silence, he didn't comment on it. Instead he reached out to try to help him up again, mindful of the Pikachu in his arms. Ash curled instinctively into himself, the water sloshing coldly against his jeans, but Ritchie ignored it and helped haul him up to his feet by his elbow, steadying him when his aching legs threatened to give way and spill him back down to the ground.

"Easy, there. You fell three floors, did you know that? You didn't move for an hour. We thought you were dead. There are some others..." Ritchie trailed off uncertainly. Rather than let him continue along that uncomfortable vein, Ash gave him a quick, careful look before returning his gaze to Pikachu's body, fingers ruffling through his fur in search of injuries.

"What happened?"

His voice came out a grating croak. Pikachu nuzzled his throat soothingly, cooing. Beneath Ash's fingers, his little body trembled. Ash stroked him in all of his favorite places, desperate to comfort his friend, to make sure he was really okay.

Gesturing for Ash to follow, Ritchie paused long enough to make sure he could walk on his own before leading the way back to the pile of rubble he'd climbed down. "We don't know. An earthquake, maybe? We were all up in our rooms, and everything just kind of...collapsed. It's really hard to get around and see what everything looks like, and every now and then something else falls in. We've been looking for more people caught up here like us, who are still okay, but...so far, this is it. I think most people were downstairs watching the Exams."

Ash pretended not to notice the grim tone to his voice. Glancing upward, he could just make out the silhouettes of two or three heads beyond the dying flashlight, watching. Four people? It was wishful thinking to hope that, out of the Stadium's massive student body, only four people had been hiding out in their rooms. Gritting his teeth firmly, Ash struggled not to think about it. Instead he tried to piece together what had happened. That was no earthquake; Ash had felt himself at the receiving end of enough of those to know. Only one other possibility came to mind.

Gary Oak.

Illuminated in the light of the beam, Ritchie's jeans looked torn and dirty. He stumbled once, when his shoe slipped on the smooth surface of a mini refrigerator, but Ash caught his wrist and helped to steady him before he could lose his balance and fall.

"Hey, thanks."

He tried to offer Ash a grateful smile, but Ash had already shied away, his eyes on the path in front of him. Pikachu clung to his shoulder, out of the way, while he climbed. "This way," he grunted simply, sensing the boy's confusion. Ritchie was intelligent and good with his Pokémon, Ash knew, but he wasn't experienced in the intricate work of climbing unstable objects—not like Ash was. He slowly led the way up a sturdier path than the one Ritchie had been taking, and gratefully seized the opportunity not to have to look in his direction, or to come too close.

These people didn't recognize him, and didn't have a clue who it was they were helping. Ash didn't want to think about what could happen if they did. Good Samaritans or not, it was Ash's experience that "goodness" only extended so far.

Despite the slow going, Ash had to pace himself so that Ritchie could keep up behind him. It wasn't a terribly great distance to climb, but even bruised and sore, Ash was used to such a workout, his body toned and well-acquainted with the upward movement. Things jutted out at awkward angles, a textbook here and a broken television there, and exposed electrical wiring seemed to twine around the lot of it. Ash didn't have to worry about touching the broken wires, but he was aware that one misstep could fry the boy behind him from the inside out. He opted to give them a wide berth, even if Ritchie couldn't immediately understand why.

"Good job! There you go, here..."

Welcoming arms reached out to help Ash heft himself up over the final ledge, a dangerous wall of sharp, broken timbers, wires, and plumbing. Ash flinched away from their touch, anxious discomfort wreaking havoc in his gut, but there was no escape; half a dozen hands gripped his shoulders, his arms, his sopping shirt, and heaved him up to safety. No one seemed to notice when Ash danced immediately away from them, Pikachu nuzzling reassurances into his ear; they were already busy hefting Ritchie up. The boy was struggling to make it, considerably out of breath.

Now that he could see clearly, Ash recognized everyone in the makeshift little group. The girl with the dyed green hair and the purple scarf wrapped tightly around her arm was Duplica, one of Misty's acquaintances; she specialized in Ditto so impressively that even Ash was fascinated by her technique. Michael—he liked to be called Mikey, Ash remembered—looked miserable beneath a head of sopping wet hair and a shallow gash through his eyebrow. And the last—Ash froze when he saw that shaggy blonde hair, looking curiously untamed without the sash he normally wore.

Master Mortimer leveled lazy lavender eyes at him the moment Ritchie was safely on the ground. Above him, only just recognizable in the gloom, loomed a pair of disembodied eyeballs, deep crimson and narrow. They caught Ash's gaze, and held it. Ash felt the blood run cold in his veins.

He knew those eyeballs well. Morty's Gengar had feasted on Ash's nightmares more than once as a child, back when he'd been just a lonely, starving Gastly, and Ash hadn't known the difference yet before Ghost-Types and the real thing.

Morty's gaze swept from Ash to the mouse perched on his shoulder, then drifted away again without saying anything. Ash exchanged a mortified look with Pikachu, panic threatening to seize him again. He hadn't spoken to Morty in years, certainly never without his sunglasses on, but surely Morty knew. He had always been eerily intelligent, eerily calm and soft-spoken. He noticed things the other Masters didn't, the in-betweens and the secret goings-on throughout the Stadium that everyone else loved to ignore. He was only a few years older than Ash, but he, too, had been here his entire life, raised under the careful tutelage of his grandmother. Ash had enjoyed his company when the both of them were young and naïve, but, at his uncle's request, had begun to avoid Morty when he'd started asking uncomfortable questions. There was no doubt in his mind that Morty knew what he was now, years later. Given all of the rumors spreading like wildfire through the Stadium lately, and even the picture of him they'd published in that damn newspaper, he would have to be an idiot not to.

Ritchie was leaning heavily on his knees, struggling to regain his breath. Besides Morty, he was the only one not eyeing Ash curiously. Pikachu scratched gently at the back of his neck before sliding liquidly into his arms with a soft coo. Ash used him as an excuse to avoid the force of their combined gazes, especially when the beam of the flashlight settled on him, casting him in stark relief while the rest of them were blanketed in unrecognizable shadow.

"Hey, don't do that. You're blinding him." Finally straightening, Ritchie reached to take the flashlight back. When it sputtered out feebly he whacked it against his wrist with a mild curse until it reluctantly flickered back to life, He waved it at the door that lead out of the remains of the bathroom they were standing in. "We should keep looking for people, this light isn't going to last forever." He nodded at Ash. "If this guy could survive a fall like that with just a lump on the head, maybe others could, too."

"There are no others."

Everyone turned to look at Morty while Ash rubbed at said offending lump tenderly, wondering what, besides the floor, had struck him. The Master's voice was soft, but decisive. Mikey looked perturbed.

"What do you mean? How can you know?"

"It's probably better not to ask, kid."

Duplica's skin was pale, even in the dying light. Ash noticed the way she was clutching at her arm, where Morty's headband, wrapped tight and topped with a lopsided bow, was beginning to soak through with dark black blood. Everyone was covered in nasty-looking bumps and bruises, a few cuts, a few rips in their clothing, but nothing terribly bad, considering. Ash didn't like thinking about how many people hadn't been so lucky. His stomach rolled over uneasily.

Mikey looked like he wanted to object, but he was distracted when his Eevee thrust its head up underneath his chin, wanting to be scratched. Ash's eyes sought out the Gengar again, suddenly uncomfortable. No, it was probably best not to ask the Ghost Master how he knew that no one around them was alive.

Everyone was silent for a long moment, as the implications of such a statement sank in. Ash had a hard time fathoming the damage that had just been done, the number of casualties lying crushed beneath all this rubble, the trapped Pokémon, all those hundreds of people in the Grand Arena...

His breath caught in his throat, suddenly ragged. Misty was there. But the Arena itself wasn't part of the Stadium; it sat atop the same stone foundations, but wasn't trapped within its walls like everything else was. Maybe it hadn't fallen? If Gary set off those charges—if he'd blown up the entire underground early just to get to him with all of these people around—

The thought made Ash sick, but he plowed on, his fingers tightening in Pikachu's fur. If they'd gone off, that meant the stone beneath the Stadium was gone. It was probably sunk deep into the lake by now, and the lake water...

The lake water...

Ash strode to the edge of the bathroom and peered down at the pool still gathering on the floor below. It had risen considerably since he'd climbed out of it; if he hadn't woken up when he did, he might have drowned. He looked up sharply at the small group watching him, but they were too clear, too bright—he quickly lifted his arm to shield his eyes again, before anyone could notice that damned telltale glow. Only barely peeking out from beneath his elbow, he asked, "Where is all that water coming from?"

Ritchie and Duplica exchanged confused looks, but Mikey only shrugged. "I woke up in it too. It's everywhere."

"Not above us," Ritchie interjected. He pointed at what remained of the ceiling. "I was up there when everything collapsed. There's no water anywhere."

"The Grand Arena is under water," Morty spoke up softly. Ash risked a glance in his direction; he was watching Ash carefully, a measured look in his eyes. Ash didn't know what he was searching for, but he seemed to sense it, because he went on. "At least, it surely is by now. The water was still rising when the power went out. I'm sure whatever isn't coming up directly from the ground here is spilling in from there."

He seemed to understand that the lake was flooding. Ash didn't know how—he'd never understood how Morty knew the things he did, and hesitated to ask. Beside him, Duplica shuddered.

"Misty's Exam was today. I hope she's okay."

"Everyone was down there watching today," Ritchie added. "It was the last day of Battles."

"Not everyone," said Mikey softly. He looked scared. "Mew. Where are all the people?"

No one wanted to answer that. There was a tense silence, one that wracked Ash with guilt. He'd done this. He'd directed the Pokémon living below to rearrange the charges in an attempt to preserve as much of the Stadium—and, in turn, the city around it—as they could. He'd thought he was being clever, moving all of those explosives to the lake; he'd thought, by flooding all of the tunnels and concentrating the destruction to a single area rather than blowing out the entire underground, that perhaps the old building might remain standing. But the Pokémon had been far from finished; moving explosives was delicate work, made even moreso by a lack of opposable thumbs and color vision. And Ash hadn't been able to supervise everything, not without going down there himself, and then he would never have been able to come back up...

Pikachu tugged at the front of his shirt worriedly, trying to catch his attention, but it was no use. Ash knew he was the one responsible for this. If he'd just planned everything out better, maybe if he'd anticipated Gary's intentions instead of assuming he really meant to wait until all of the students were gone...Ash squeezed Pikachu tightly to his chest, swearing softly. Nausea bubbled to life in his gut and in his head, making him sway on his feet unsteadily. Perhaps the Stadium might have collapsed either way—perhaps the bedrock underneath was just too frail and filled with pockmarks and old tunnels to support it anymore, and there was nothing he could have done to prevent such a disaster short of dismantling each and every one of those explosives himself. But then again, perhaps if he'd done nothing at all, if he'd just left Gary alone to plant his charges and stick to his plans, the lake would still be there instead of here, and only Raikou knew where else. Perhaps Gary would have inadvertently collapsed some of those deeper, darker caverns on his own, effectively sealing them off from any probing excavations. Because that had been the original plan, flawed as it was. Move the charges down deeper, allow the lake to spill in and flood all of the passageways that led to the areas he'd been closing off all his life, leave the home of his ancestors inaccessible, unexploitable—

Irreparably destroyed, he finished grimly, but such thoughts weren't new. It'd been a sacrifice he and Pikachu had decided, at great length, to make, rather than to risk opening the whole thing up to be plundered by the headMasters, his family's ancient possessions sold to the highest bidder at some enthusiast's auction house. It's been bad enough watching them pawn off the trinkets he kept in the upper rooms; what would he have done if they'd found the Stone underneath?

This way was more dignified, wasn't it? But no one else was supposed to be involved. Mew, Ash had never once considered that Gary might blow the charges so early. He'd warned him a dozen times that the whole building would come crashing down on his stupid head if he wasn't careful, and had he listened? No. He'd just gone and killed Mew-knew how many innocent people, kids, Pokémon...

Ash's hand shot out to catch himself on a half-crushed cabinet before he could lose his balance and fall. Startled, Pikachu called his name crawled up his chest, worry in his eyes. Ash barely noticed. Zapdos...had he done this, all of this? How could he have been so selfish, so foolish?

"Pikachu, Pikapi?"

"Hey, are you all right?" Ritchie took a step toward Ash, concern evident on his face, but Morty placed a hand on his arm to stop him. He stepped forward instead, his eyes focused sharply on Ash, voice low and even.

"You know the structure of this place better than anyone. The outer walls are solid stone, the inner were gutted decades ago for remodeling and renovations. Which do you think will give in beneath the weight of the water first, the rock or the wood?" He took a step closer, his voice taking on a sharp edge. "Was this Master Oak's plan, or yours?"

Ash felt his throat go dry, even as bile rose up thickly in the bottom of it. Ritchie swept the beam of the flashlight over him again, forcing Ash to release the cabinet and cover his eyes if he wanted them to remain unseen; without the support of the cabinet, he wobbled unsteadily. Pikachu scratched at his neck, eyes wide. Ash was struggling to breathe.

"I didn't—This wasn't—"

Things weren't supposed to happen this way!

Then again, when did they ever? His entire life had to be someone's idea of one big, sick cosmic joke. Spend two thousand years protecting this place, only to be the one to destroy it. Kill everyone you ever knew. Watch all the people under your care turn on you one by one—and with good reason, too. So Mortimer knew who he was—what he was—and he obviously grasped enough of the situation to recognize who was to blame.

"Why were you in the dormitories?" Morty's voice had taken on an accusing tone. He stepped closer—close enough to see Ash's eyes for what they really were, if he looked. "Weren't you supposed to be underneath, dismantling these things?"

Ash fumbled for words, silently agreeing. "I couldn't—I didn't know how—"

"Pika chu!" Before Ash could finish, Pikachu rose up in his arms angrily, his teeth bared at Mortimer. "Pikachu pika pi chu, pikachu! Chu pika!"

Behind the Master, Ritchie and Mikey looked uncomfortable, while Duplica watched the exchange with a frown on her face. Pikachu continued to chastise Mortimer angrily, going on about explosives and wires and the dangers of an Electric Type going anywhere near them, but Ash doubted Morty understood a word he said. He was making a moot point, anyway; Ash should have been down there destroying all those charges, not just moving them around, regardless of the danger. It was his duty. He was supposed to protect this place, not—not—

Not bury his head in the sand and pretend it would all go away if he just left it alone, he finished bitterly. He'd just wanted to be near Misty. That was all. He hadn't wanted any of this to happen. He thought he'd made a good choice, sticking around aboveground instead of getting himself blown to pieces underneath. Evidently he had been wrong. As usual.

Morty listened to Pikachu speak with a blank, but comprehending, look on his face. Ash hid his eyes in the shadow of his arm and tried to pull the mouse closer, but Pikachu would have none of that. He pointed his paw and Morty and called him a word that had no English translation, but which Ash recognized to be considerably insulting. Ash dropped his arm and pulled the mouse back at the same moment Ritchie aimed the flashlight at his face again, curious. Ash was forced to snap his eyes closed and bury his nose in the fur on top of Pikachu's head, breath coming hard through his nose. Damn it, if he just had his sunglasses...

"Why should he be underneath?" Mikey asked into the temporary silence. "Underneath what? The Stadium? Aren't there are ghosts down there?"

"And Elementals, apparently," Duplica added ominously, though her tone had a thread of sarcasm to it. "Quit shining that thing at his face, Ritchie, you're blinding him, remember?"

The light dropped. Mortimer's gaze didn't. Cast in shadow once more, Ash lifted his eyes to Mortimer's, defeated. In his arms, Pikachu squirmed irritably, but Ash didn't let him go. Morty was right. This was all his fault. There was no one else he could blame.

His eyesight was a little better than a normal person's, especially in the dark, but even so, the Master's face was cloaked in shadow. Ash wasn't sure how clearly he could see. Was there gold in his eyes? Were they dark? He had no way to tell without a mirror, and the one that had been mounted above the bathroom sink was shattered, useless. For all he knew, every one of them could see.

Duplica snatched the light suddenly from Ritchie's hand, using it to light up the floor so she could approach. "Hey, you know this guy, sir?" She flashed the beam over Ash again, albeit briefly. He could feel her gaze on him even after the light disappeared.

"I do."

"From where? I've never seen him before."

"I have," Ritchie spoke up from behind her. Ash couldn't see beyond the flashlight's blinding glow, but he could hear the boy approach. Duplica aimed the beam at him.

"Oh yeah? Where?"

Ritchie shrugged. "Around. I know his Pikachu. Sparky gets along with it real well."

Surprised, Ash cast an accusing glance down at the mouse in his arms, but Pikachu only twitched an ear innocently and pretended not to notice. He refused to look up and meet Ash's eyes.

Duplica spun the light around to Mortimer instead, who squinted irritably as a dark shadow over his shoulder fled quickly from the glow. Ash shivered. He wasn't really a fan of Ghosts.

"Where do you know him from? I mean, is he a student here? What's he study?"

Morty leveled Ash with a considering look. It lasted a moment longer than Ash was comfortable with, and he found himself shifting his weight from foot to foot anxiously, wondering if Morty was going to tell them what he was. But rather than rat him out, the Master turned, finally, and began picking his way toward the door.

"No, he's not a student."

Duplica followed, the light bouncing with every step. "Then what is he?"

Morty's voice remained even. "An old friend. Come, this way. Gengar has found us a path to the floor below."

The shadow that had disappeared from over his shoulder took shape suddenly in the darkness of the hallway beyond, crimson eyes materializing above a toothy white grin. Ash stared at the Pokémon blankly, feet rooted to the spot. He had fully expected Morty to give him away, not...implying...

Mikey and Duplica followed the Master out into the hall, but Ritchie stayed behind to accompany Ash. Morty shot them an expectant look over his shoulder before he disappeared through the doorway. Duplica stepped out with him, and Ash suddenly found himself alone with Ritchie, bathed in shaky darkness as the flashlight bobbed around on the other side of the broken wall.

"We'd better catch up, there are holes and soft spots in the floor everywhere," Ritchie offered. Ash could just make out the shape of his arm, reaching out for him blindly. Before he could force his body to move, to step away, Ritchie's hand found the sleeve of his shirt and tugged him gently along.

"Pikachu chu, Pikapi," Pikachu told him encouragingly, patting his arm. "Pika pika."

Although his feet felt like lead, Ash allowed Ritchie to lead him out into the hall, where the reflection of Duplica's flashlight in the destruction around them gave off just enough light to see by. As soon as he was sure the floor was stable, Ritchie turned and offered Ash his hand, but Ash, still stunned by Mortimer's words, could only stare at it in confusion.

Pikachu reached out instead, and happily shook Ritchie's hand with a pleased, "Chaaaaa." Ritchie laughed and shook back, which only encouraged the mouse, who pointed up at Ash cheerfully. "Pikachu pi Pikapi, chu."

Ritchie smiled at Ash—close, way too close. Ash instinctively ducked his head, alarm swelling up within him. At least the surprise helped to pull him from his stupor. But if Ritchie noticed anything odd, he chose not to comment.

"So you're the mysterious Pikapi, huh? Nice to finally meet you. Can I shake his hand, too?"

That last question was directed at Pikachu, who cocked his ears and clambered up onto Ash's shoulder to settle once more into his usual spot, the mouse's warm presence there doing wonders to comfort them both. Cautiously, Ash allowed Ritchie to shake his hand. It felt strange; he'd only done this once before, again at Pikachu's urging, with Misty, months and months ago. Despite his close proximity to Ash, Ritchie didn't seem to think there was anything off about him. He stepped away as amiably as he'd approached, and together the pair followed after the dimly bobbing light before it could wander away. When they drew closer, Duplica cast a glance back over her shoulder at Ash, eyes hard.

"So, does Pikapi over here have a human name?"

"His name is Ash," Morty answered for him, before he could respond. "Now hand him that flashlight before it goes out."

Duplica clutched the flashlight defensively to her chest. "No way. I don't like fumbling around in the dark."

"Miss Imite, please."

Without warning, the Gengar materialized scarce inches in front of Duplica's face. She squeaked in surprise and fumbled back to step away from the Ghost; Ritchie caught her before should could trip, and Gengar snatched the flashlight from her the moment he saw the chance.

It sputtered feebly in the Pokémon's claws. Gengar was careful to keep it pointing away from himself as he pressed it into Ash's hands, then vanished. Ash was left giving the dark shape that was Mortimer an incredulous look.

"You can't be serious."

"Just light it."

"I can't—I mean, it's not just—"

"Unless you would rather we wandered around blindly in the dark." Morty's voice was cool, steady. It always had been, even as a little boy giving directions to the ghosts who wandered too far up out of the tunnels below. Ash had never been able to tell what he was thinking, feeling—if he was even feeling anything at all.

Duplica pretended to regain her composure, though the forced sarcasm and the tremor in her voice gave her away. "What, does he have spare batteries or something?"

"Or something." She fell silent, obviously confused. Morty leveled his gaze at Ash once more. "Now is not the time for this. We need to find our way outside before the rest of the Stadium collapses. That water is rising. You know it is. I'm sure you don't need the light, but the rest of us are quite helpless without it."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Miss Imite, please."

Even if Ash couldn't see them, he could feel everyone's eyes on him. He frowned. He had no choice in this—wouldn't even consider one, had there been. Sure, he could take off and leave them here to find their own way, and maybe they would make it—Mortimer's Gengar was certainly helpful at sniffing out dead ends, being immaterial and all. But Ash knew his way around this Stadium better even than his father had, given how much time he'd spent poking around and snooping at the students above. He could find a way out for them the moment he was oriented, he was sure. And Mortimer must have been sure too, or else why would he ask?

There was a plastic scrape, then a sproing sound as he unscrewed the back end of the flashlight and freed the coiled spring there. He pressed his fingertips to the freshly exposed metal bottom of the batteries—

—and winced, blinded when the flashlight flared suddenly to life. Morty and the students flung up their arms and cringed away in surprise. Ash cut off the current abruptly, then tried again, carefully this time, urging and pulling on the current until the voltage felt right and the light bulb was no longer on the verge of exploding. It took a moment to get right, the light dimming and strengthening under his care, much to the confusion of the students peeking at him from under their elbows. But there; the beam leveled out and he swung it up to the Gengar, who quickly disappeared amidst a smoky, curling twist of shadow.

"We're on the sixth floor," Mortimer told him. Hidden in the shadow of the light's glare, Ash was finally free to look around at his companions without fear of them catching sight of his eyes. The three students looked surprised by the strength of the light in his hand.

"Hey, how'd you get it to do that?" Mikey wanted to know. Ash couldn't come up with a satisfactory answer, so he kept the fingers pressed to the batteries carefully out of view and pretended not to hear him,,instead aiming the beam of light up and down and around their surroundings.

All right. Sixth floor. Nevermind that he had started out on the ninth—he knew where he was now, not far from Misty's room, which meant not far from the elevators. He looked at the Gengar. "That way will get us down a floor, but then it'll wind back around to the Arenas. They're not very structurally sound." He pointed the beam at a room beside him, its door ajar. Inside, the back wall had fallen in. "This way leads closer to the outside wall, which should be better. I bet I can find us a way through there."

"Pika, pikachu," Pikachu chirped up in agreement from his shoulder. He climbed down Ash's clothes to the floor and trotted off to see for himself. To Ash's surprise, he caught Morty watching the mouse with a soft smile. The Master looked up and caught Ash's eyes before he could look away, but his expression didn't change.

"We're lucky we ran into you."

Ash remained silent. Given the state of their surroundings, he wasn't sure "lucky" was the right word.

X

Blind, aching, and confused, Misty retched up the contents of her stomach onto the mossy ground beneath her.

Her hands clutched tightly at rich, dampened earth; it smelled of lichen and musty caves, of the outside world rather than some ancient, long-forgotten cavern hidden miles beneath the Stadium's grounds. It gave her hope, where previously she'd had none. She didn't know where she was or how she'd lived through that vortex, but if there was even a remote chance that this place was somehow connected to the outside...

Her stomach heaved again, tossing her forward miserably. It felt as if she'd swallowed the entire ocean, after being trampled beneath the hooves of a herd of Tauros and tossed unceremoniously over a steep cliff. Her head ached and throbbed, pounding with every beat of her heart, and no matter how hard she coughed, no matter how raw her throat became, she just couldn't seem to dispel all of the water from her chest.

Shivering in the cold, Misty pulled her knees beneath her and leaned forward, eyes staring blankly where the ground should be. She wrapped her hands tight around her trembling arms and squeezed uncertainly. Perhaps she was blind? Or was it really that dark? No amount of blinking or straining conjured up anything more substantial than wispy grey shapes that twisted and twined around one another in intricate little dances. She shivered again, and attempted to rub some warmth into her bare arms despite the water clinging to her skin. She was soaked through and freezing cold and trapped somewhere completely unfamiliar, and she didn't know what to do.

But the heaving eventually let up, finally, though her chest still pulled tight and painful around her lungs with every breath. Misty sniffled miserably, then wiped furiously at her forehead when the water still caught in her nose was sucked up straight behind her eyes. Mew. Mew. She had a gash in her shoulder that dripped warm blood down her arm and her jeans were ripped and waterlogged, and she suspected she might be turning blue in this cold. What was she going to do?

Not sit here like an idiot and let herself freeze to death, she thought wryly, that was for sure. Her thoughts turned to Ash—was he still trapped in the Stadium, or had he gotten out? Was he dead? Was he hurt? Was he coming for her? What would he do if it were him caught down here?

Again, not sit here like an idiot and wait to freeze to death. Misty gritted her teeth and sighed. She was right. Ash wouldn't curl up into a little ball and wait to be rescued, let alone die of exposure; he would call out his Pokémon and escape this place, somehow. She'd been washed in here, hadn't she? That meant there was an exit somewhere.

Although her shoulder screamed in protest, Misty forced herself to extend her arms and reach out blindly in front of her. The earth was soft and cool to the touch; she imagined it to be the dark, rich soil farmers paid small fortunes for, though she wasn't sure how many nutrients and minerals were able to seep into it from within a sealed cave. Maybe if she could just find a wall, an opening— an exit that wasn't hidden beneath the water she'd washed in with...

Dirt caught in her fingernails and clung to her damp skin, but Misty didn't care. She swept her hands back and forth across the earth, crawling carefully away from the cold water that had been lapping at her waist when she'd awoken, tired and aching and disoriented and stiff. She wondered if perhaps she had a concussion. How long did it take to die of hypothermia? The heavy, waterlogged leather PokéBelt cinched tight around her waist offered her a little warmth, but all of the Pokémon inside of it were cold-blooded, scaled, or both; they could do nothing to warm her up, not even to help her light a fire.

Misty hoped to hit a wall eventually, but dreaded the thought of plunging her hands into more icy cold water. The thought of being trapped on a tiny rocky island in the middle of a lightless underground sea terrified her. What she did not expect was to thud the palm of her hand against something wet and furry and only very vaguely warm—

A body, Misty realized. She stiffened, horrified. Oh Mew, she was in here with a body

—One that stirred, squeaking weakly the moment she yanked her hand away. Misty scrambled backward in a blind panic, far enough to splash back into the water she'd crawled out from. She immediately lunged back to the relatively dry earth in alarm, her heart pounding furiously somewhere high up between her ears. Mew, what...

It squeaked again. Misty thought she could hear a pleading tone to it, though truthfully the voice was so soft that she was only able to pick it up because of the utter stillness of her surroundings. Was it an animal? A Pokémon? Wild or tame?

Did it matter?

Carefully, cautiously, Misty inched her way back toward it. She found it much closer than she'd originally thought. Though a violent shiver rolled through her as images of all the nasty, disgusting Bugs out there flashed through her mind, she forced herself to brush a shaking hand down along the lay of its fur, until her fingers found a small, delicate paw, complete with roughened pads and sharp little claws.

She hadn't realized she'd been holding her breath until it rushed from her in a massively relieved sigh. Not a Bug, then-nothing scary. In fact it felt...mammalian, the more she touched. She scooted closer so that she could sit and run her other hand over the entirety of its still form, judging its size, its shape...

It wasn't terribly large, though it certainly confused her. The fur was longish and smooth, but only the top coat was soaked through with water. It had four paws and...two tails? Misty felt it again to be sure. Yes, two tails, and also some rounded rubbery spines along two of its legs, and whiskers...

The creature snuffled weakly at her fingers as Misty passed them gently over its nose. Her heart melted at the soft sound it made. No animal or Pokémon she'd ever heard of looked the way this one felt—but then, new Pokémon were being discovered every day, and Ash had mentioned harboring a few he was certain she'd never studied before.

Ash...

Misty's chest tightened painfully. But there was no time to dwell on that now; she was trapped in this lightless cave with a Pokémon that, by the feel of it, was seriously injured. Misty winced when her fingers found a raw patch of skin on its scalp, and again when they pressed to the remains of a tiny tattered ear. Thick, coppery blood seeped from it, warm to the touch. Misty wiped it away on her jeans before gently, ever so gently, scooping the creature up into her arms. Its little body was light, limp; it felt broken.

"Bwee..." the creature wheezed, squirming weakly. Misty pressed it to her chest, where it could hopefully absorb some of her warmth-though admittedly she didn't have much to give. It didn't seem to mind; though initially it went stiff at the contact and squirmed to break free, once it seemed to realize that Misty was trying to help it, not harm it, its squirming transformed into more of a burrowing, small paws scrabbling for a hold in Misty's shirt as whiskers tickled her bare arms and something soft and plump and decidedly not-furry pressed to her stomach.

Misty smiled despite herself. "Hey there, little guy." Although her voice was soft, it still rasped in her throat, and the cave walls threw it around everywhere until the echoes themselves seemed to echo. The Pokémon shivered and curled up into a tight ball against her stomach, its little chin tucking into the nook between its flank and her hand. Misty cradled it tenderly, as gently as if she were holding a newborn baby. If only she had some Potions with her—if only she'd been wearing her 'Gear

A soft sound roused her from her wishful thinking. Misty looked up, alarmed, but if there was anything there she couldn't see it in such impenetrable darkness. Was it another Pokémon? Something else? A person? Uneasy, Misty squinted until her eyes hurt, but it was useless; her eyes saw as much open as they did closed.

When there was no other sound for several long, tense moments, Misty began to wonder if she'd imagined it. But then something began to glow. It was very soft, and it was obviously fairly far away, but without anything else around to distract her it was impossible to miss. At first it was dim, almost like a trick of the shadows—but for there to be shadows, there had to be light, didn't there? And it strengthened, slowly. Gradually. It was red, a deep red, dark like fresh blood. Misty shivered uncomfortably, flooded with a sudden tide of both relief and fear. She wasn't all alone. There was something out there. In here. With her. She could see it—she could see, she really wasn't blind. But what was it?

Misty struggled not to go through the list of Pokémon known to be unashamedly carnivorous, as well as those suspected of it, but never observed. Failing miserably, she still took some solace in the fact that, as far as she knew, not a single one of them glowed crimson. The light was very weak, just a dim red blur amongst the darkness, almost invisible in the shadow, but it was there. It had to be. Misty swayed from side to side experimentally to be sure; the light moved too, unfixed to her vision the way the spot from an eye injury would be. It was real. She wasn't imagining anything.

It grew larger—no, she realized with a start, it drifted closer, slowly. With it came a dull ringing clong sound, almost too soft to hear, but a pair of ears twitched against her bare arm and Misty knew she hadn't just imagined that, either. The sound rang softly throughout the cavern, until the rocks themselves seemed to hum gently all around her. It was as unnerving as it was beautiful. Misty wasn't sure if she should call out or hide.

Without any landmarks, it was impossible to judge how far away the glow floated to a gentle stop, and indeed the movement was so subtle that Misty didn't immediately realize that it had. It seemed to be watching her, waiting. Could it see her? Was it alive? Misty clutched tightly at the Pokémon in her arms until it wheezed again, whuffling weakly. Glancing down at it, seeing nothing, Misty hesitated. Should she attempt to follow this thing? What the hell was it? Where would it take her? Was it even anything more than just a negligible light?

Well, what good would come of staying here instead?

Absolutely none, that's what. She needed to get out of this place, by any means necessary if she had to. At the rate things were going, she and her little companion would both die of hypothermia in a matter of hours. She needed dry clothes and the Pokémon needed medical attention. Whatever that glow was coming from, surely approaching it was better than waiting things out here? She didn't know how deep underground she was, or even how long she'd been lying here unconscious. It could be hours, days, even weeks before someone found her here, assuming anyone ever did.

Slowly, cautiously, Misty pushed herself up to her feet. Her thighs were cramped and her knees actually creaked with the movement, but they held beneath her weight, albeit shakily. Misty gave them a moment to receive some fresh blood before swiping her foot across the loose earth in front of her—no water, no rock. She took a shuffling step forward and did it again—and again, there was nothing. She sighed, fighting off the weary exhaustion behind her eyes. But if this was the only way out of this place...

She took another cautious step, and then another. The going was slow, but she was determined not to hurt herself any further by walking blindly out into nothingness, into the lake, into a wall. The last thing she needed right now was another bump on her head.

But for a good long while, there was nothing but dampened earth to squish beneath her shoes. Misty took her time. She didn't dare hurry until the earth began to grow packed and firm; not long afterward it gave way to solid rock, though given the way she scuffed her foot against it, this surface had not been paved. A natural cavern, then. Misty's suspicions were confirmed when her caution bumped her gently into something that rose from the ground, and a moment's careful fumbling revealed it to be what felt like a stalagmite. She wiped her hand off on her pants and tried not to think about what it looked like. Bugs didn't live down here, she reminded herself firmly. There were no cave spiders, no centipedes, nothing with long, spindly legs or wide white eyes...

In front of her, the dim red glow served as something less disgusting to focus on. It didn't seem to move, although the humming sound grew very gradually louder. And it wasn't a ringing, really—more like a light metallic tapping, sporadic, random. But the louder that sound became, the more curious Misty grew. What was it? Paired together, the light and the sound seemed to draw her closer of their own volition, with promises of help and light and hands reaching to help pull her back up to the surface. Misty's footsteps grew bolder as she found herself walking on solid ground, though the random placement of stalagmites kept her from rushing too quickly. Her chest grew tight, but with hope rather than fear. Was this the right way? Was she really going to get out?

And that's when she heard it: a soft, almost rhythmic keen, like a soothing wail. Not quite a song. Misty felt her heartstrings tugged by the sound. It was so soft, so sad, like a widow in mourning, crying out for help. And the closer she came to it, the more it seemed to blend with the gentle clong, clong of metal on stone. It was a funeral sound, a somber death march, and it was leading her out of this place, out and away, back into the light...

The stalagmites and roughened rock abruptly gave way to a pile of course rubble. Tentative, Misty balanced the soggy Pokémon in the crook of one arm and carefully climbed over the pile. It was about waist-high, made of both pebbles and boulders too large for her to budge, but although her limbs ached in protest at the movement, Misty found herself stepping down the other side onto unmistakably smooth stone. She reached out and followed the pile with her fingertips until they found cleanly-cut stone, complete with four familiar grooves. A passageway. The light had led her here. It really was taking her to safety.

Tears of relief sprang to Misty's eyes as her shuffling footsteps finally gave way to an all-out jog. Ahead of her, the light bobbed and drifted further, but the wailing, the crooning, the slow, methodic ring, all of those sounds surrounded and enveloped her, pooled in her chest with a painful longing. And if she strained her ears enough, if she listened hard enough, she could swear she almost heard the sound of someone crying.

X

"Hey, Ash! Aren't you coming?"

The sunlight spilling in from outside was absolutely blinding. The students and Mortimer welcomed its glow; they'd scrambled on all fours through the final crawlspace the moment Pikachu had returned bearing news of the sight, then climbed the pile of crumbled stone and stood waving on its edge until the rescue teams down below had noticed them. The opening wasn't large; they were on the eighth floor now, treading on the remains of a stone Tyranitar statue that had evidently punched a hole through a weak patch in the Stadium's thick facade.

A rescue Pidgeot was on its way up now, Mikey had announced excitedly; it was being fitted with its harness. He and Duplica looked visibly relieved. Beside them, Morty peered out over the edge thoughtfully; only Ritchie had turned to look back at Ash, and had subsequently caught him trying to melt backwards into the shadows. Ash cringed. It was too bright here to lower his arm from above his face for even a split second if he didn't want to risk revealing his eyes to them. Ritchie, noticing, began to approach him.

"Hey, you okay? You look kind of pale..."

Morty caught his arm before he could get too close. Ash tried to keep his sigh of relief from becoming too obvious. "He's fine," the Master offered."Go, the Pidgeot should arrive any moment."

"But—"

Mortimer leveled his lavender eyes on the Trainee, who looked visibly unhappy, but recognized an unspoken command when he saw one. He peeked around Morty to give Ash an unhappy frown, but ultimately drew back to rejoin Mikey and Duplica, the latter of which was also casting a suspicious glance in Ash's direction. Luckily Morty stepped between them, close enough to block her view.

"Thank you, Ash. And here." He held out a Pokéball. Ash's eyes flashed from it up to his face in surprise; its occupant was the Gengar currently hiding in a patch of shadows somewhere behind him.

"What—This—"

"Take it. Gengar doesn't mind."

Instead of complying, Ash waved it away. That Ghost had been Morty's first Pokémon; they'd been together since they were children. Ash couldn't just take him from the Master, even if it was only just to borrow. Morty, however, refused to give in; he stepped closer and pressed the warm 'ball into Ash's reluctant hands, either oblivious or impartial to his discomfort. Ash accepted it reluctantly, lifting his arm to peer cautiously as Morty from beneath his elbow. He didn't understand this. Ash had plenty of Pokémon on hand, as was evidenced by the handful of PokéBelts strapped to his hips and thighs, though left uncomfortably vulnerable without the usual presence of his jacket to hide them.

Mortimer only smiled lazily. His eyes caught Ash's before he could avert them, and quickly sharpened with curiosity This time, however, Ash didn't back down. Clearly Morty already knew what he was, and clearly he had decided to help him out anyway. Ash didn't understand it. He didn't understand why, when he held the Master's gaze and narrowed his eyes warily, Morty still did not look the least bit perturbed.

"Why are you doing this. I don't even know if I'll be back up or not. I don't—"

Morty silenced him with a shrug. Behind the Master, the rescue Pidgeot swooped up past the opening in the wall with an enormous whoosh of air. Morty smoothed his ruffled bangs out of his eyes and smiled. "You know, this is the first time you've let me see you. You've changed."

Inwardly, Ash's thoughts went to Misty, and his heart ached. Outwardly, he frowned, suspicious and uneasy. "How long have you...known?"

Morty shrugged. "How long have you been this way?"

Was that a trick question? Ash's glare deepened from confusion to irritation, but just as he opened his mouth to say something Morty quieted him with a soft sigh.

"You'd better get going. They're restless. They know something's happened."

Ash's irritation melted quickly back into confusion. "Who?"

"Down below."

"Who down below?"

For the first time since his initial interrogation, Morty gave Ash a disconcerting look. "You mean you don't know?"

The pair mirrored one another's blank looks until a sudden flurry of beating wings startled them both. Morty had to grab at the thick scarf wound around his neck to keep it from whipping against his face in the accompanying burst of wind, a frown pulling down at the corners of his mouth. The Pidgeot disappeared with Mikey strapped securely to its side, leaving behind Ritchie and Duplica for another trip. The latter clung to one of the stone Tyranitar's tail spikes cautiously while the former sent a curious look Ash's way, pretending—poorly—not to eavesdrop.

"I was wondering why she said you'd need Gengar," Morty mused aloud, looking thoughtful. "But I always thought you went down there to talk to him."

"Talk to who?" Ash didn't like the way Morty was saying these things, as if he knew something about the underground that Ash didn't. Sensing the frustration in Ash's voice, Morty leveled him with an apologetic look, his pale eyes sad.

"Your father."

Ash's breath caught in his throat with an audible rasp. His head spun, his heart beating madly—but only for a moment, just that brief instant before rational thought took over and he remembered that of course Morty probably didn't know, how could he? Ash had met him when they were both children, years after his father had passed away. He shook his head with a mixture of embarrassment and relief, feeling silly. "My dad's dead. He died before I was born."

Morty, who had been watching him with an emotionless expression in his face, now set his mouth in a grim line, although his eyes remained soft and searching as they caught and held Ash's gaze. "I know."

X

The infirmary had not survived the collapse. Gary didn't have to land to see that.

His Pidgeot swooped low circles around what remained of the Stadum, feathers ruffled mournfully as both bird and rider took in the extent of the damage. The entire medical wing was gone—just gone, buried beneath the crumbling stone roof and what had to be ton upon metric ton of cold, musty lake water—and still, more continued to seep up from below. It was painful to watch, and yet what could he do? He'd escaped from the Arena easily enough, but even in his mad rush to get here, he'd already been too late. The infirmary must have been one of the first areas to go; it'd been on the bottom floor near the Pokémon Center, near the Grand Arena, and its recently-renovated walls had been made of plaster and drywall, not wood or stone or steel. It was gone. Buried. Flooded. Gary couldn't see into the wreckage itself, but the way the Stadium's roof sagged deeply in the center left very little to the imagination. Anything beneath that sunken pile of rubble was unsalvageable.

And his grandfather...

Fresh tears dripped down atop Pidgeot's back, and the Pokémon keened in sorrowful agreement. Gary wiped the back of his arm across his eyes. They were not the only ones in the sky; everywhere, Flying Pokémon and machines wheeled about in slow circles, some our oc curiosity, others in a desperate search for survivors. There were many; the Stadium was a school for Trainees, afterall, and nearly everyone inside of it had Pokémon to help them out. But clearly, it was impossible for everyone to survive. And among the dead...

Guilt twisted and twined into a bundled knot in Gary's stomach. How had this happened? The underground lake wasn't that large, and he'd placed those explosives to collapse the tunnels, not the foundations. Ash must have been moving them. Searing anger flashed through him at the thought. He'd attempted to trap the Elemental aboveground to prevent the idiot from tampering with all of that firepower. Clearly he had underestimated the man—the demon.

Or, Ash had done this on purpose.

Gary's eyes widened as the possibility occurred to him, but even as he considered it, he doubted the weak-hearted little brat was capable of such a thing. He loved those wild Pokémon too much to kill them off, even to get back at Gary. Unless, of course, he'd managed to evacuate them first. Gary knew the Elemental had been attempting to do just that. Had he rearranged the charges to destroy the entire building out of some sick sense of revenge? As far as Ash had been aware, Gary wasn't going to set them off until after he was gone—as if he would wait that long! As if he hadn't known Ash was planning to leave! Such a suggestion was downright insulting. And what was the point of all this if he was gone?

So had he known? Had he suspected? Had he set this up on purpose?

It made sense to Gary. First Ash's father had crippled his grandfather, and now Ash had finished the job. Like father, like son. Gary knew they were no different. He should have gotten his grandfather out of there while he had the chance, before the Elemental could get to him, before...

Gary's thoughts trailed off as he was suddenly overtaken by a fresh wave of grief. Below him, rescue teams were scrambling to pull people out of the unstable building. Some were able to walk out on their own, and some would clearly never be walking again. When would they pull his grandfather out of there? Gary's heart twisted at the thought. Would they find Ash, too?

No, of course not. Just as quickly as Gary's chest had tightened with guilt, it hardened over again in dull, throbbing rage. No. The Elemental was far too slippery to be caught up in something like this. Clearly he'd had a hand in what had just happened. He probably knew about it long beforehand—in fact, he was probably still inside right now, no doubt going after that Waterflower girl. Gary had watched her and her friends disappear beneath the water when a pocket somewhere underground had opened up and pulled them inside, but they hadn't resurfaced when the pocket had filled and the Arena was reflooded. At the time, Gary had felt a wayward pang of guilt at their plight; now, he was glad for it. It was a lead. It was a way to find Ash, before he and his precious girlfriend slipped away forever. Oh, no. That couldn't happen now—Gary wouldn't let that happen now. He would find that Elemental, and he would end this once and for all. No more games. Clearly no cage would ever be enough to contain the bastard.

The wind dried the unshed tears on his cheeks, and this time they weren't replaced by any more. His heart hurt, and his throat ached where Trovita had tried to crush it, and his chest felt like someone had poked a hole in his lung, but his stomach—his stomach was made of steel, curled thick and churning with newfound resolve. His grandfather hadn't deserved this. No one had deserved this. Gary's eyes narrowed; where before he had stared blankly at the destruction, he now scoured the remaining structure for openings, pockets, anything large enough for him to squeeze through. Beneath him, Pidgeot cooed a question when Gary's fingers tightened in her feathers.

"We need to find a way back in, girl. We need to find Ash."

Immediately she banked hard, swooping low over the Stadium to give him a better look. Together the pair combed over every inch—until the shadow of an unusually rare Pokémon glided by overhead, momentarily blanketing them in shadow. Gary looked up, distracted and annoyed, but only for an instant. Grinning widely, he leaned in close over Pidgeot's back to speak softly near her ear.

"Today must be our lucky day, girl. Look up."

Pidgeot crowed and pumped her wide wings to carry them upwards, as eager as Gary to go after the Elemental who had caused so much loss and destruction in their lives. And high above them, just close enough for the sun to glint unmistakably green off of her scales, a shiny Dragonite circled slowly overhead, searching for a stable place to land.

X

AN: ...I am not even going to attempt to explain my five-year absence. Um. Shit happens?

I really thought this was winding down, guys, I swear. And I really tried to write the end! I think that's why it took so long, and I had so many false starts. This fic just isn't ready to end yet. But it will soon! I'm not dragging it on or anything, it's just...developing. Everything is definitely drawing to a close, but there will likely be at least two more chapters before the epilogue. Right now, given my past record, I'm estimating there to probably actually be like three or four. Or five. Or...whatever. But we'll see.

This one wasn't actually supposed to end here, but at upwards of 20,000 words, I decided to wrap it up. THE NEXT CHAPTER WILL NOT TAKE NEARLY AS LONG. I promise. Really, I do. This one just didn't want to go where I tried to send it, and it wasn't until I changed direction that things finally started to flow. Also I joined the Army, learned a new language, and moved to Kuwait. So there's that.

There may be a few typos, but I refuse to make you guys wait any longer just for another few proofs. I will proof this entire thing when I'm finally finished with it, so for now you'll just have to make do with it the way it is, and ignore that rather...antiquated AN in the last chapter.

I am still thinking of writing up a prequel. More and more characters to add, whee!

I wish Sandile were real. I would totally catch one here, and we would be buds.

...Can I please be forgiven for taking so long to post this? Pretty please?

The next chapter will come soon! As in, BEFORE NEXT FALL. I promise.

-PinkFalcon, over and out

P.S. 's edit document feature sucks giant Wailord genitals.