Act ii Stage i


Convincing Brock she'd been stood up wasn't easy, but she kept her word.

She waited an extra day to reveal Totodile’s reappearance, hoping not to make it too obvious where he'd actually come from. Brock was happy for her, of course, but suspicious as well. Misty didn’t blame him; she hated lying, but feared what he would do if he discovered Ash even more.

As for Ash, he now joined Pikachu in their evening Battles. He only watched from the back wall at first; it was a full week before Pikachu did something that spurred him into action.

“No, Pikachu, don’t electrocute her yet,” he called out suddenly as he leapt from the low wall and hurried over. Pikachu stopped his Attack and looked up at him curiously. Misty’s Poliwrath watched them warily, fists clenched. Ash knelt beside the mouse and pointed as he talked. “See her spiral? The center’s not tipped; she may have Evolved a while ago, but she's still not fully grown. If you shock her she’ll only Faint. She hasn’t built up an immunity yet.” Misty was watching them curiously, a light frown creasing her eyebrows, when he looked up at her suddenly and addressed her directly for the first time. “She’s never been shocked, has she?”

“Well I usually reserve Starmie for Electric opponents.” Misty thought it was a good strategy; Starmie could store the electricity in his gem and shoot it back later.

“Good idea in theory, but you would do better to slowly build up immunities in your other Pokémon, maybe even teach them to use the electricity to help fuel their own Attacks. They’ll still be injured, of course, but they’ll be able to bite back in the process.”

Misty’s expression deepened into a full frown. “I don’t understand what you mean.”

Ash showed her. He carefully explained how her Poliwrath could channel the raw power of an Electric Attack into a Counterattack of her own in terms Misty could understand. She was amazed; she’d never heard of doing anything like that in her classes. Ash wasn’t surprised.

“It’s a really old technique; this Stadium likes to teach newer methods in place of the ancient ones.”

“But everything they’ve taught me has been centuries old,” Misty protested. Ash’s words invoked in her a strange urge to defend her home.

“I’m talking older.” He refused to say more.

His knowledge of Pokémon astounded Misty; he could even recite detailed descriptions of the legendary ones thought not to exist anymore. Through his stories she quickly came to realize he had a strange affinity for anything Electric; he revered Zapdos and Raikou nearly as much as gods. Pikachu did the same.

He was fine when Pokémon were involved—talking about them, Battling with them, letting them explore his person—but in anything else he fell oddly quiet. He seemed almost scared of Misty—no, scared wasn’t the right word. Anxious. Nervous. Tentative. Misty couldn’t figure out why, and she didn’t know enough of Pikachu’s language to understand what the mouse was trying to tell her. She didn’t know if she should ask Ash or not. She didn't want to offend him.

It became obvious fairly quickly that he was human, not some Elemental monster or bloodthirsty ghost. Misty couldn’t bring herself to fear him. She also couldn’t figure out where he lived or why she'd never seen him before, and he wouldn’t tell her. He wasn’t a student, he wasn’t a Master, and he wasn’t very old, as far as she could tell. She actually asked him once and he blushed when he told her the answer. She was surprised.

“I’m older than I look,” he admitted with a shy smile, obviously embarrassed. Before then, Misty would have sworn he wasn’t a day over twenty.

His ways were as mysterious as Pikachu’s when it came to appearing and disappearing at will. Occasionally, if a Battle or particularly engrossing conversation stretched into the later hours of the night, he would accompany her on a short walk down the hall, though he always managed to dematerialize in a patch of shadow if anyone came near. She never saw him with anyone else, and she never managed to glimpse him in full light. His features were constantly blurred by shadow.

His extra Training sessions, in addition to her classes and homework, made it hard to set time aside for Rudi. Misty felt torn over this; Rudi continued to see her after her public Trainee Battles, but their conversations together grew shorter as the weeks went on. Every Friday night Misty would go out with him to some fancy restaurant, and every Saturday morning Ash was waiting for her in Arena Five to keep her company while she worked and groomed her Pokémon. Misty’s untappable well of energy seemed to leak out of her ears; she was breathless and tired by the time she tumbled into bed each night.

Brock grew concerned for her. Ash listened to her requests to include Brock in their nightly spars with interest, but he always hesitated when she asked him straight-out. He looked like he wanted to be able to confide in Brock, but something was holding him back. Finally, he tried to tell Misty what it was.

“It’s not that I don’t trust him,” he said quickly when Misty grew impatient with his infinite nods and shufflings while she pleaded with him. “It’s just that, well, he won’t trust me.”

This irritated Misty. “I’ll make him, Ash. We’re best friends; he’ll listen to me.”

Ash only looked at her, eyes pleading behind the sunglasses that never seemed to leave his face, and said softly, “I don’t doubt his loyalty or his friendship with you, Misty. Brock’s a good guy, I know. I just can’t jeopardize what little safety we have. Please understand.” He wouldn’t tell her why he'd jeopardized it by revealing himself to her, or even why he was in any danger.

Despite the Brock dilemma, Misty was enjoying herself more thoroughly than she ever had in the past. Between Ash, Rudi, and her classes she scarcely had any time to herself. What little she could procure she tried to spend with Brock; she missed his company.

She was amazed by the variation of Pokémon Ash seemed to have. Every time she thought she'd finally memorized which Pokéball went where he would summon something completely new. It was soon obvious that the twelve Pokéballs he wore were not all he possessed. When she brought herself to ask about them one Saturday afternoon he hesitated before answering.

“Well...” His voice drifted to nothing and he shifted his weight on the arena wall. “Well you know what they say about the Phantom, right? How he uh, how he takes pleasure in torturing and killing Pokémon? People too, if he can?” Misty nodded uneasily, not sure if she liked where this was going. Ash shifted his weight again. “Well, he doesn’t, obviously, since he’s me and I uh, and I don’t, but those stories, see, they uh, they don’t come from nowhere.”

Misty’s gaze sharpened. She settled beside him and met his eyes through his glasses—or thought she did. She could never tell for sure. “What do you mean?”

“Well, um.” Ash swallowed and looked to Pikachu for help. The mouse stared back, obviously interested in his response. Ash’s fingers fiddled with the folds of his gloves. “Well, uh, that’s where we get all of them.” It took a moment for Misty to realize he was done. She blinked.

“Wait, what do you mean that’s where you get them?” she demanded, twisting around to see him better in the dim light. “Are you saying there’s someone here who actually does that?”

“Well no, not exactly.” He seemed confused as to what to say next. Pikachu murmured something softly that made him swing his gaze to the mouse. “But don’t you think she’ll—” He stopped, glanced at Misty sharply, and switched to Pikachu’s language. “Pika pikachu kachu ka pi? Chu pika chu ka pika.”

Misty stared at him, startled. She had never seen a human speak a Pokémon’s language before; they seemed to understand people just fine, so there was no need. The mouse’s naturally high tongue sounded odd in Ash’s low, gravely voice, but strangely natural as well. Then Misty realized that he'd switched to purposefully keep her from understanding something, and her suspicions grew.

The pair had a small debate. It ended when Ash sighed, ran a hand through his hair, and turned back to regard her apprehensively. “It’s the Stadium itself, Misty, it’s not us," he told her warily. "They take the Pokémon they don’t think will make it and they sell them to researchers, or they perform experiments on them here with their own staff. Some are just culled for delicacies and sold.”

He watched her face carefully as her expression went from disbelief to disgust, then back to disbelief. “You’re kidding,” she said flatly. “I’ve lived her for nearly ten years, Ash, and I’ve never heard something wrong.”

“Sure you have. Every story you’ve heard about the Phantom is based—albeit loosely sometimes—on something real. It’s disgusting, I know, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Trust me on this one, Misty.”

“And why should I?” she wanted to know. She felt wronged somehow, betrayed that he could accuse the Stadium—her home—of something so cruel. Sure, the Stadium wasn’t huge on Pokémon rights, but they didn’t take advantage of them. The research lab here was fully certified and one of the most prestigious in the country. Those horror stories...Even if they did experiment on Pokémon here, Ash had to be exaggerating. That stuff wasn't legal.

“You don’t believe me,” said Ash grimly. He glanced at Pikachu, then pushed himself to his feet. “Come on, then.” Misty looked up at him in surprise.

“What? Where?” He'd never taken her anywhere before. She was under the impression he didn’t like to be seen.

“To show you what I mean,” he replied evenly. “You’ll never believe me otherwise. You’ve been here too long.”

Misty flashed him a look while she stood. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded. He’d said it with a dark connotation. He shrugged in response.

“Just that this place is home to you.” He hefted himself up so that he was standing on the arena wall, then reached up, took hold of a wooden rafter, and disappeared into the shadows. His arm reappeared an instant later, fingers curled toward her. “Climb up on the wall and give me your hand,” he instructed. Misty was a little hesitant. She was thrilled to be able to finally see where it was he vanished to each night, but nervous as well. It was dark up there, and the rafters were old.

Pikachu chattered at her to go, so she recalled her Pokémon and forced herself to do so. As soon as Ash’s rough fingers wrapped around her own she was hauled up with a grunt. She instinctively grabbed hold of the first beam that came into view. Ash hovered over her while she clung to it frantically and struggled to heft herself up. She finally managed with a bit of exertion, and looked up to see Ash step hurriedly away from her. She frowned while she caught her breath and let her eyes adjust. That was the first time he'd since that night, and it seemed to have shaken him up a little. Or was he just jittery? What was making him nervous?

There were no cobwebs, thank Mew, though Misty had expected them. No dust either. She was surprised enough to comment. Ash forced a grin.

“No, of course they don’t clean up here. We do that so no one can follow us. Footprints leave an obvious trail,” he added when Misty watched him curiously. "Come on." He pushed himself effortlessly to his feet and gestured for Misty to do the same, which she did with some difficulty and much clinging to vertical beams for support. Ash led her to a spot almost directly above the entrance to the arena. He went slowly and kept an arm extended behind him in case Misty needed to grab hold of it suddenly, but the one time she did he steadied her quickly and snatched his hand away again. It was sweaty. By the time they reached the rough wooden wall above the door Misty was sweating too, and breathing heavily; she’d been terrified the entire time that the beam would break beneath her, and the ominous creaks in the old wood around her hadn't helped.

She paused when Ash did and watched as he carefully prodded something in the wall. A panel slid out of place. Ash took hold of the edges and pulled it out of the wall, then backed along a side beam and gestured for Misty to pass him. She was amazed by both his balance and the way the panel blended smoothly into the woodwork; she’d never have been able to tell it was there.

She wobbled her way inside a few feet to leave room for him, but she didn’t dare go any further. It was pitch black and she was terrified of bumping into something or falling unexpectedly. Just where was he taking her?

The feeble light creeping in from behind her wavered as Ash slipped inside, then disappeared completely as he slid the panel back into place. For a moment Misty was frightened; she was in the dark, alone, with the Phantom himself, and no one knew where she was. Goosebumps flared to life up and down her arms and she wondered if everything he did had been an elaborate ruse to lure her up here.

Then Ash shuffled almost soundlessly past her and the spell was broken. Misty was left wondering how he had moved; she was standing on a wooden rafter about a foot wide, and she didn’t think there were any more around her. She could sense the beams lining the ceiling just above her head, and her hands were pressed to the walls on either side of her; Ash had ducked under them somehow.

“Just keep your hands on the walls like you’re doing,” he said softly, “and um, sort of shuffle your feet along. There are cross sections every now and then, but I’ll warn you before you trip over them.” His voice resonated from out of the darkness just in front of her, but she couldn’t see him. She felt like a pair of floating eyeballs.

Misty tried this. Her shoes made a scratching sound as they scraped along the old wood, but she was unwilling to lift them in case she fell; she didn’t think it was audible to anyone a floor above or below anyway. She kept her eyes on her feet out of reflex, though she couldn’t seem them. Her hands slid through layers of dust and grime and Mew knew what else; she was terrified one would brush something nasty but unwilling to reveal her girlish fear to Ash, who seemed to fit in so naturally here.

Speaking of Ash, she couldn’t hear him at all. She was about to ask him if he was still there, panic gripping her at the thought of being trapped in such a small dark space alone, but was stopped by a touch on her shoulder. Misty jumped, then forced her nerves to settle down. It was only Ash, she told herself firmly, frowning when the hand was jerked roughly away.

“Sorry,” he apologized softly. “There’s a crossbeam about a foot away from your shoe. Careful.”

He released her and Misty scuffed her foot along the wood in front of her experimentally. Sure enough, her toe hit something hard about a foot away. It was only a foot wide and about six inches tall though, and Misty managed to step carefully over it.

"How did you know it was there?" she asked when she was safely on the other side.

"I spaced them. It's not hard to do."

“Well why can’t I hear you?”

“I’ve been doing this longer than you have. I’m better at it.” Misty could envision the noncommittal shrug that probably accompanied his answer.

“Why can’t we just go the usual way?” Misty asked breathlessly after another twenty minutes of stifling darkness, of rounding corners she couldn’t see and stepping daintily over beams spread out almost randomly. Holding her feet in a line like this was tiring and made her ankles ache.

“I don’t want to be seen, especially where we’re going.” Once again he was totally silent until his voice floated back at her from the darkness. Misty was becoming unnerved.

“Well couldn’t I have met you there or something? No offense, Ash, I’m glad you let me up here, but I can’t take this much longer. My neck hurts, my calves hurt, my arms hurt, and I can’t see a damn thing.”

Ash snorted in a sort of half-laugh. “Sorry, but your interest would have been noted. This is the fastest and safest way, believe me. We’re almost there.” There was another moment of scraping silence. Then, “You uh, you kinda get used to it after a while, to be honest. And these crawlspaces will take you anywhere you want to go, if you know how to use them.”

Misty disagreed. She thought she’d known the Stadium inside and out, but she was completely turned around and lost after only the first few turns. “Do you always travel around like this?” she wanted to know. It would explain how he seemed to disappear into the shadows if there were hidden panels like the one they had entered through spread out around the hallways. Or were they only in rooms? Or only in arenas? She couldn’t imagine traveling in eternal darkness though; how did he know where he was? He couldn't have memorized everything.

“Mostly,” he answered, “but crawlspaces and main floors aren’t all there is to this place. It’s ancient, Misty. More than you know.”

Again, Misty disagreed. “I’ve heard it dates back to the War. That’s what, eight hundred years?”

“Pre-War,” Ash answered. Misty was shocked.

“You’re kidding. Nothing’s that old.”

“This place belonged to the Elementals and the Pokémon, back before they were defeated. They don’t teach you this stuff anymore, especially here, so don’t feel bad for not knowing. I don’t think many people do—at least, not ones without PhDs.”

“Then how do you?” Misty was skeptical, but fascinated. He didn’t sound like he was lying—why would he bother?—but where could he have gotten his information from?

Ash didn’t answer for a moment. When he finally did, it wasn’t to her question. “This way.”

He led her by voice to another panel in the wall—they’d had to pass through several on their way so far— which he slid aside for her via some unseen hole or mechanism, then followed her through. They ended up in an even smaller crawlspace about three feet high, though Misty was glad to switch muscles for a while. She found herself blinking in the dull light that crept in from a metal grate in the floor—ceiling? She noticed the end of a metal rectangle opening directly over it. Whatever room they were over must have been the last in its air conditioning network.

Ash crawled over to the grate—again, soundlessly; Misty was amazed his jeans didn’t at least make a protesting scrape—and peered cautiously into the room below, then beckoned her over. She was surprised to see Pikachu perched on his shoulder. Had he been there the entire time? She joined him with some difficulty, then immediately wished she hadn’t. She could only see a small portion of the obviously large room from her vantage point, but it was enough.

They were over one of the research facilities. Misty's specialty was in the Training and Battling of Pokémon instead of the scientific aspect, so she wasn't familiar with the labs beyond what she'd seen of them in her courses. The one was new to her. It was devoid of any people, but obviously well-used.

"This is one of the milder ones."

The hair on Misty's neck prickled as Ash's hushed voice brushed her ear. He seemed to realize how close he was and shrank back a bit. Pikachu eyed her warily; she studied the lab more closely at the mouse's gesture, and what she saw made her cover her mouth in shock.

A Farfetch'd was tied by its foot to a loop in a metal pole jutting out of a clean, well-polished table. Dried blood flaked from its wings where the feathers had been hastily clipped and a broken talon lay beside a small dent in the table where it had tried to claw its way free. On either side of it were plastic containers, a few with clear sides; Misty gasped when she recognized severed Farfetch'd heads in one, bloody feathers in another. She tore her eyes away from the shivering creature when she felt Ash's presence return to her side.

"Why would people...What are they..." She couldn't force anything past the lump in her throat. Ash looked at her.

"Nothing. They're not doing anything. They're just plucking and selling them for profit. They took a break for dinner, I think; look, there's a few more in a cage against that wall, where they store the leeks."

"But why do they...I mean, is it legal do that in front of other Farfetch'd?"

Ash's face was set. "There's no law against it."

"But still. I understand that some people eat certain Pokémon, but that doesn't mean they can't at least, I don't know...Is it so hard for them to at least cull them in a separate room? I mean, look at them! They're terrified!"

"They know what's coming," said Ash grimly, his eyes on the cowering birds.

"Do they know that? The people who..." She broke off as a long list of Masters flooded her mind. Who was doing this?

"Of course they know that. But if they killed them in a separate room that would mean moving them around and cleaning up extra messes."

"Well they could at least do something, couldn't they? Look at them! This is horrible!"

Ash watched Misty carefully for a moment, then said in a low voice, "They're murdering sentient creatures to sell as food to countries that aren't in need of it. Isn't that horrible enough?"

Misty was breathing heavily. "Where...where do they get the Pokémon?"


Misty snapped her gaze to him, her eyes sharp. "What?"

Ash met her gaze evenly through his sunglasses. "What did you think they did with the losers? Free them?"

Misty paled. She thought of Totodile—her Totodile!—and imagined where he might be if she hadn't gone to get him that night. The thought made her sick. She turned her head to the side and heaved, grateful that she hadn’t eaten since before noon. Nothing came up, but she tried again anyway, unable to stop herself. This was sick, wrong in the grossest, most disgusting way, and she hadn’t even known about it. They'd been subjecting Pokémon to this right under her nose and she hadn’t even known...

Her eyes rolled. She didn’t know Ash had moved until he caught her before her head could strike the grate.


She awoke in Delia Ketchum’s room. Her immediate reaction was to throw up, but she forced herself not to; dry heaves were almost as bad as the real thing.

She was startled to see a ruffled, dusty Ash there with her. He was perched on one of the dressers, one leg curled up Indian-style and the other draped over it, watching Pikachu riffle through a flower vase with a bored expression on his face. Ash noticed her sit up from the corner of his eye—though she really didn’t know how, since he was still wearing those damned sunglasses—and turned, smiling in obvious relief. Misty studied him thoughtfully. His features appeared so much sharper now that he was bathed in actual light. His skin was also a bit rougher, a bit older than she'd originally thought. Pale, too. She wondered if he ever went out in the sun.

“You’re awake," he said good-naturedly. "Good. Don’t worry, you’ve only been out for an hour or so.”

Misty closed her mouth and decided to ask another question instead. “Where was that—that thing? Where are they doing that? Where in the Stadium?”

Ash’s expression turned grave. “It doesn’t matter, Misty; you’ll never see it again. I’m sorry I had to show you like that, but I didn’t know how else to convince you.”

“Convince me of what, Ash?” Misty demanded. She curled her knees up in front of her and glared at him, her anger stemming from the horror she had just seen. “That the Stadium I’ve been living in is cruel and heartless? That everything I’ve been told in the last ten years has been a hypocritical lie? That something like that can go on right next to me and I won’t even know about it?”

Ash looked truly apologetic. Pikachu had lifted his head from the ruffled vase to watch her.

“I really am sorry, Misty, but I didn’t know what else to do,” he said pleadingly. “Maybe I should have shown you more gently somehow—maybe I shouldn’t have shown you at all—but I thought you should know. I think everyone should know. Maybe then they can stop it.”

“Is that why the headMasters don’t like you?” Misty asked as realization dawned on her. She'd been trying to figure out why he avoided them. “Because you’ve been trying to stop that—” She couldn’t bring herself to say it. “Because you’ve been trying to stop what they’re doing?”

“Sort of. Mostly, yeah.” Ash gave her a crooked smile before going on. “That's just a tiny, almost unaffiliated portion of this place, Misty. This is still just a regular stadium here to make Masters out of Trainees. Most of the people here don’t even know about the stuff that goes on behind the walls. Don’t blame everyone.”

Misty thought that comment appropriate, since Ash seemed to have made his home out of the small spaces between walls. Curiosity struck her suddenly and she wondered where he actually lived. Surely not in a dorm, like the Trainers. Before she could ask, however, the door swung open and Delia stepped inside, carrying a tiny tray with a single steaming cup on it. Misty’s eyes widened and darted to Ash; if he was discovered he would be caught! Misty didn't doubt why the headMasters hated him now; they wouldn't hesitate to lock up anyone who might stand in the way of their profits.

Before Misty could form a coherent warning Delia had moved into Ash’s line of sight. He swung his head around to see her and she swatted his leg with a frown. “Get down from there before you scuff something.”

Ash rolled his eyes, much to Pikachu’s amusement, while Delia sidled over to an aghast Misty. “Have some hot tea, dear, it’ll warm you up, and I’ve taken the liberty of adding some Potion to it to clear your head. Thank goodness you didn’t bump it on anything.”

Misty took the small tray numbly, her gaze darting back and forth between Delia and Ash as the older woman swept around the room, putting things back in place and shooing Pikachu from the flower vase. The Pokémon clambered onto Ash’s shoulder as he squeezed himself up against the dresser to keep out of her way.

“But—you—” Misty didn’t know what to say. It was all she could do to keep from tipping her tray over in shock.

Delia noticed Misty’s stuttering and began feeling her head for injuries. “What is it, dear? Did you hit your head after all? I thought you said she didn’t.” She was staring at Ash, who looked surprised.

“You know each other?” Misty blurted, saving Ash an answer. Delia gave her a funny look.

“Of course, dear, didn’t he tell you?” Misty shook her head, her mind whirling. Delia rounded on Ash angrily. “You didn’t tell her? I thought I told you to tell her!”

Ash looked startled. “Well I was going to,” he started to say, “but I just didn’t get the chance—”

“You were supposed to make one!” Delia fumed. Misty had never seen her angry before. “What would she have done if something happened to you in Training, hmm?” she demanded. “She wouldn’t have known who to turn to!”

Ash rolled his eyes and leaned against a dresser. “Don’t be stupid, Mom, nothing’s going to happen to me while I Train—” He was cut off by Misty’s startled gasp.

“She’s your mother?”

Delia slapped Ash's head lightly, then turned back to Misty while he glared at her back. “Of course I am, dear,” she said gently. “I keep an eye on him from here while he runs around playing Superman—”

“Mom!” Ash exclaimed irritably. Delia paid him no heed.

“—nearly breaking his neck up in those damned rafters, sustaining burns and frostbite and bullet wounds and Mew knows what else...”

Ash grumbled and crossed his arms, turning his head to glare at the door. Misty thought he looked uncomfortable, like he was embarrassed, but Pikachu looked amused.

Misty looked down at her tea dubiously. She remembered what happened the last time she drank one of Delia’s concoctions. Delia noticed her gaze and smiled warmly. “Don’t worry, dear, it’s only tea. Drink it before it gets cold.”

There was a sudden knock on the door. Pikachu scampered to the floor and in a flash he and Ash had darted past Misty’s bed and dove under the one beside it. There was a creak and a thump and a skitter of something plastic. Misty looked down to see his sunglasses peeking out from under the thick comforter.

Delia tsked and made her way over to the door. Misty heard her muttering as she passed: “Going to break his neck one day, diving headlong into holes in the floor. Don't know why I let him build that there...Come in, dear, the door is open!”

Rudi stepped inside. He smiled at Delia and hid the large bouquet of flowers he was holding behind his back. “Good evening, Delia. I came to see if Misty was all right. I heard she fainted?”

Delia fixed him with a warm smile. “My, word certainly travels fast around here. I only mentioned her once while I was in the kitchen making tea. Oh, don’t worry,” she added when Rudi’s smile faded at the news that it was true. “She’s perfectly all right now. Here, dear, I’ll go ahead and fetch you some more tea.”

She snatched the nearly full cup from Misty’s hands and hurried from the room, giving Misty a strange look as she closed the door behind her. Rudi wasted no time; he quickly approached Misty’s bed and handed her the bunch of soft blue flowers. Misty took them, surprised. They were her favorite, Spring Squills—he remembered her favorite flower after all this time! She was flattered.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked her worriedly, sinking down on the bed near her knees. His eyes flickered to the half-hidden sunglasses lying at his feet, but he didn’t comment on them.

“I’m fine,” Misty assured him. “And thank you for the flowers. They’re beautiful. Where did you get them? Aren’t they really rare around here?”

“And expensive,” Rudi replied with a smile, “but I’m more interested in what could have happened to cause a careful Trainer like you to faint dead like that. And why are you so dirty? Where have you been recently?”

Misty had forgotten about the layer of dust that coated her skin from that god-awful trek though the pitch- black crawlspace. Her mind scrambled to come up with a creditable answer.

“Well, I was Training in one of the more primitive arenas, and things got a little...tense,” she said vaguely, hoping it was enough to satisfy him. Rudi’s brows furrowed and she fought to hide her nervousness.

“Which one?”

“Um...Arena Five.” Misty couldn’t be sure any of the others had been empty that day; the weekends were busy days for Training.

“The haunted one? What were you doing in there?”

“It was the only empty one,” said Misty nervously, hiding her anxiety behind the bouquet. “And besides, I like Training in the lesser arenas sometimes; it helps my Pokémon adjust to new environments, since we aren’t allowed to leave the city.”

“Hmm. I think you may be Training too much.”

Misty stared at him in surprise. He fixed her with an even gaze, his expression serious. “What do you mean?” she asked. He wasn’t going to go all “girls should stay out of the Training business,” was he? She didn't think he was the type.

Rudi sighed. “Nothing. Just that you seem to be extremely busy lately, and I’m worried that it’s taking a strain on you. I care about you, Misty.” He tucked a stray strand of dusty orange hair behind her ear. Misty blushed and lowered her eyes. She felt strangely awkward. She hadn’t felt this embarrassed around him since he’d first talked to her over Haraia’s fate, and that was a couple months ago.

She felt the urge to fill the awkward silence. “I um, I should probably rest.”

Rudi looked at her in concern. “Are you sure you haven’t been working yourself too hard lately? Why don’t you take the night off?” Misty hesitated and Rudi took her hand in his own. “Have dinner with me tonight? Please? I hate to eat alone.”

Misty would rather spend the night interrogating Ash about what had happened today, but she couldn’t refuse. Rudi promised to pick her up at eight, patted her knee, and told her to rest in the mean time. Since it was some time before Delia returned, Misty took the opportunity to do so.