They stood there for several more moments, locked by their gaze, unable or unwilling to say anything. Finally, it was Misty who broke the quiet, stammering a lame excuse. "Well, we, uh…we should probably-"


     The word was out of Ash's mouth before he had even considered it. Part of him-a large part, in fact- wanted nothing more than for Misty to pull another disappearing act, just like the first time. But one small part of him, a tiny corner of his soul that refused to die (no matter how much the rest of him wanted to beat it to death) wanted, needed to talk to her.

     "Wait," he said again, with less certainty. Unconsciously, he began rubbing the back of his neck, feeling his cheeks grow hot with embarrassment. "I was hoping to…uh…maybe talk to you…maybe…"

     "Well, I…"

     "Because, uh…" Ash cut her off, refusing to be stopped even though he desperately wanted to flee and never look back, "We haven't seen each other in so long, and I thought we could catch up on…stuff."

     "Stuff." There was a long pause, and then Misty sighed, as if finally giving in. "Brock," she turned to the burly, tuxedoed trainer, "Would you mind…?"

     With a glance at April, Brock nodded and smiled. "I think the little lady and I can go and see what her Pichu-"

     "Zapper!" April provided.

     "-Zapper," Brock corrected himself, "Is up to." He stuck his arm out, bending down slightly so that she could wrap her tiny little hands around it. "Shall we, dear?"

     Misty waited just long enough for April and Brock to get out of earshot before turning back to Ash. Her hands found their way to her slender hips, and pursed lips turned upward in a smile. "All right, you've got me alone." She smirked. Ash was about to respond when a sudden change in music caught their attention; it was a slow, pulsating beat that thrummed in their ears, and they both recognized it before the lyrics ever began.

     "Our song…" Ash murmured.

     Misty's smile shifted, hinting at an inner turmoil for just a moment before she caught herself. "You remembered." When he said nothing, she reached for his hand, slowly and hesitantly. For a moment, he was loathe to give it, but when her skin met his, the jolt that traveled up his arm somehow disabled his brain. "C'mon. I imagine we have a lot to talk about. You do still remember how to dance, don't you?"

     "Just call me Twinkletoes," he muttered sheepishly, allowing her to lead him out to the dance floor. Misty had to place his hands on her hips before wrapping her own arms around his neck, starting them off in a slow, steady sway that followed the beat.

     "Just make sure those toes of yours don't twinkle all over mine," she chuckled. There was another awkward silence that she allowed for exactly three seconds before she sighed, rolling her eyes. "You aren't going to make this easy, are you?"

     "So…" Ash began uneasily, "April. She's, uh…she looks like a great kid."

     "She is. Just turned ten a week ago." Misty smiled at the memory, allowing herself a brief trip into the past. "She just had to get her trainer's license the very instant she became old enough."

     "Is her father-"

     Misty's good cheer immediately evaporated. Her eyes began shifting around the room, searching for a place to rest other than Ash's face. "April's father is dead." She blurted plainly, looking over his left shoulder. "It's just us two."

     "Oh. I'm…I'm sorry." He replied lamely, feeling three inches tall and extremely stupid for bringing it up. "I just thought for a second that maybe…with her age and all…"

     "Her father's dead."

     Misty said it again a little too quickly. Ash had plenty of other questions on the subject…some of them appropriate, the bulk of them being none of his business…but he wisely chose to avoid that line of questioning. Instead, he decided to pull out the big guns; the question that had burned at him for the past decade. "Why?"

     "Why is he dead? I don't think-"

     "Why didn't you answer any of my letters?" Ash demanded, trying to force her to meet his eyes. "Look at me, damn it! Why?"

     "Letters?" Misty asked, feigning innocence.

     Exasperated, it was all Ash could do not to shout in her face. "Yes, letters! I wrote you a letter each week for nearly two years, and you never answered a single one! I called you, and all I got was your stupid machine! I even…" He reached up, taking her chin gently but powerfully, forcing her to look at him. "Get this; I even went to Cerulean, and you know what? Your sisters told me that you had moved away…And they said that you didn't want to see me again."

     Ash had been expecting some kind of cold, sarcastic front from her, exactly the same treatment he had received from her from the start. Instead, he was more than a little surprised to find tears welling up at the edges of her vision. "Does it matter anymore?" she asked, her voice quivering as badly as her hands.

     He felt a fresh surge of anger and hurt welling up from the old wounds as he asked, "So how about this; Why did you leave?"

     The tears that she had worked so hard to hold back now came spilling out, falling down her reddened cheeks one by one. "You didn't say 'I love you'."


     She sniffed, pulling away to arm's length. "That night…when we were…" Her words failed her, and she choked back a loud sob by biting down on her hand. "When we…did what we did…the whole time, you never said a word. You never said that…" And that was as far as she got before her voice fled, replaced with silent crying.

     Ash was about to respond, to try and get around the flooring that she had just laid out. He would have, in fact, but something grabbed him by the face and pulled him into a fierce kiss. He felt soft lips nipping and biting hungrily at his, and a tongue that forced its way past his lips and down his throat. In his befogged state, only one thought penetrated the thick haze surrounding his mind; that it was easily the second most passionate kiss he had ever received.

     It only took a second before reason returned to the trainer. He jerked away involuntarily, finding himself staring into impish brown eyes shadowed by emerald locks of wildly styled hair. "Hey Ashy," a pair of rose petal lips-the same lips that had kissed him-pursed in amusement. "Did you miss me?"

     Ash felt his insides becoming icy as he turned back to Misty. The tears hadn't disappeared from her eyes, which were wide with shock; rather, her crying only intensified. "You…I can't believe you!" she cried. Before he could stammer out an explanation, she drew her hand back and slapped him full across the mouth before stalking away, fuming and spitting brimstone.

     Ash turned back to his mysterious admirer, furious and befuddled at the same time. "What the…who…? Duplica?"

     Duplica Mimiqué, the mistress of disguise, smiled and set a hand suggestively on her sensuously curved hips, which were currently wrapped in a form-fitting black sequined gown. "What's wrong?" she asked throatily, raising her eyebrows as she examined him from toe to top. "Aren't you excited to see me?"

     "Given the fact that you just spoiled my once-in-a-lifetime reunion with the woman who broke my heart half a life ago," he seethed through gritted teeth, "I'm going to have to go with 'NO'. What in the hell are you-"

     Her head tilted as she heard another changeup in the music; this time, it was a faster song that started, and a tango to boot. "Oh, I love this song! Come on!"

     "Wha-wait!" he cried uselessly as she grabbed him and dragged him out onto the dance floor. She had him trapped in her embrace before he could offer up any resistance. With Misty, he had felt nervous, excited by the slightest contact between the two. Duplica, however, only brought annoyance and suspicion with her. "Duplica, will you just hold on for two seconds and-"

     "Oh Ashy," she swooned, twirling them about with laughing eyes, "It's been months. You never call, you never write,"

     He scowled, allowing himself to be caught up in the music. He could play her game, by her rules, but he had no intention of losing. "Maybe that's because I caught you in bed with Gary Oak." He countered, extending his hand and spinning her out.

     She spun back with perfect timing, allowing him to catch her and dip her. "Life is short, Ashy-Boy." She murmured with a smile, hovering mere inches above the ground. "You have to live like there's no tomorrow."

     He resisted the urge to drop her and walk after Misty. Duplica had an intoxicating presence about her, and Ash knew that resisting urges was what it all came down to with her. "I'm familiar with your philosophy. Hence our split."

     "You're not more careful, and you'll be splitting from more than just me."

     The cryptic warning caught his attention fully. He brought her back up, continuing the tango without missing a beat. "What do you mean?"

     "You need to be careful around these Elite people." Her face was all business now, with nary a hint of her trademark impishness. "There's more to this situation than you think."


     "I'm serious." She assured him, and he knew she was. She even stopped dancing, pulling him aside and off of the floor, where they could talk in relative privacy. "Ash, I've been digging into this organization-"

     "What organization?" Ash spat back. He was ready to pull out his hair at the entire business; mysterious invitations to gala balls without hosts, unexpected reunions with old girlfriends, and now cryptic warnings that didn't make any sense… "Will someone play it straight with me tonight, for once? Please?"

     She leaned in close, pretending to whisper sweet nothings in his ear. Her lips were so near to him, he could feel her sugary breath brushing gently against his skin. "I can't speak openly now. There are too many people here loyal to The Elite. Watch your back, Love. I'll be in touch."

     "Wai-mmmph!" His protests were cut short by another toe-curling kiss, and she was gone before his mind could stop reeling. Desperate for answers, he looked around, trying to figure out where she had disappeared to, but she was already lost in the crowd.

     It took him another five minutes to find where Misty had disappeared to. Finally, he found her near one of the glass pillars, carrying on an amiable conversation with Brock. The two adults were keeping a careful eye on April, who was romping nearby with Pikachu and Zapper, her Pichu.

     Misty had just finished laughing at one of Brock's funnier anecdotes when she noticed Ash stalking up, filled with a mixture of fury and confusion. "Finish your dance?" she asked icily, glaring at him over her glass of punch.

     "Brock, we're gone." Ash looked at his partner's startled face. Brock only needed to see the serious nature paned in Ash's features, and he nodded in agreement. Satisfied, Ash looked at Misty. All the hurt, all the anger, disappeared in a flash, replaced with concern. "Misty, you need to take April and go. Something isn't right."

     "Excuse me?" she said archly, coolly sipping her punch. "This is the first night out I've had in quite a while, and I don't think-"

     "Look," he growled, grabbing her shoulder so forcefully that she dropped her punch, gasping at his audacity. "Bottom line; you never want to see me again? Fine. But for your sake…For her sake…Will you just trust me, and go?" He could still see doubt in her eyes, and added, "Please."

     Sadly, Ash would never know what her answer would be; whether she trusted him or not. Fate decided to intervene, accelerating the situation in the form of a series of loud, echoing cracks. To many, it sounded as if a series of champagne bottles had been opened at once. Ash, Brock, and Pikachu knew better; that sound was all too familiar to them. And as broken glass began raining down upon the other guests, they too began to realize what was going on.

     A large group of strange men had just entered the ballroom, each carrying what appeared to be a heavy, highly advanced assault rifle slung over their shoulders. The one in the lead had his rifle brought to rest on the crowd, still smoking from the series of rounds he had just sent into the ceiling to garner attention. There were scattered screams, some male, many female, before another set of vertical shots silenced the teeming masses.

     "If I could have your attention please?" the leader spoke crisply, with an ironic tone of courtesy in his voice. Like the others, his face was completely obscured by a black ski mask, leaving only his accent to gauge his mood. "Thank you. Now, we're here on a collection; jewels, cash, watches, and whatnot. If you would all be so kind as to deposit your valuables in a pile at the center of the room, then I assure you," he added emphasis to his last point by patting his rifle, "There will be no need for violence."

     Ash exchanged knowing glances with Brock. His partner gave him a tiny nod. Risking a brief look to his left, he saw with relief that Misty had already collected April, complete with newborn Pokémon, and was in the process of seeking shelter behind the pillar. "Pikachu." He murmured, crouching low as the other guests began conglomerating in the center with valuables in hand. "Get ready." Pikachu had already ripped the bow tie and cummerbund off, tossing them gratefully aside.

     "I count six." Brock crouched next to him, cracking his knuckles in anticipation. "All male. Five-nine to six-two, largest is on the far left."

     "Those look like tee-sixteen assault rifles."

     Brock shook his head, hoping that they could go at least another few seconds before their assailants took notice of them. "No, those have to be tee-eighteens."

     "Military grade? You're kidding."

     "Take a look at the casing."

     Ash looked hard, noticing the slight bulking of the rifle's barrel as the leader brandished it arrogantly. "You're right. Laser scope, anti-jam, extended clip…brutal."

     "On three?" Brock looked at him, loosening his cuffs and rolling his sleeves back."

     Ash saw one of the hooded thugs looking over in their direction, and made a quick judgment. "No count. Pikachu, go!" He took off in a sprint, tearing his jacket from his body as his feet pounded against the gleaming glass-tiled floor. Pikachu, with lightning reflexes, was already half a dozen steps ahead, and Brock half a step behind on his left flank.

     They crossed the room in less than five seconds, just as the first of the six was noticing their charge. He was quick, though; his rifle was already swinging around to bear, his voice ringing out to warn his comrades.

     "Pikachu, Agility Flash!" Ash called out, praying that Pikachu was still faster than a speeding bullet. As usual, his fear was unfounded, as Pikachu was faster than ever. Electricity coursed across his skin, feeding new life into his step and propelling him at incredible speed. Before the thieves could react, the thundermouse was in their midst. Pikachu reflexively redirected his energy, bringing it to the surface in a blinding flash of brilliant light. The glass building only enhanced the attack, reflecting it from every angle and blinding everyone in the building.

     Only Ash and Brock, who had been expecting the sudden luminous onslaught, were able to cope effectively. Ash continued his sprint, guiding his steps by memory toward the spot where their leader stood, blind and powerless. "EVERYONE DOWN!" he screamed, plowing into the assailant at full speed and bringing him to the ground. He heard a thud and a grunt off to the side, and knew that Brock had struck his mark as well. "Pikachu, kill the lights!"

     The barrage of light ended in an instant at Ash's command, leaving him to blink the spots from his vision. With lightning fists, Ash struck his downed target once, twice, three times in the face. Then, grabbing hold of the discarded rifle, he rolled to the side and up onto one knee, bringing the weapon along. "Brock?"

     "I know!" Brock shouted. He was already on his feet and running, and had somehow acquired a pair of rifles of his own. The remaining three attackers were recovering quickly, and neither Ash nor Brock had any desire for an ensuing firefight with a room filled with innocents. "Fast and non-lethal, the Number Four Special!"

     "Right!" Ash had already taken aim. With an expert shot, he sent one round through the knee of the man on the right. Before the man ever had a chance to scream, Ash allowed the kick of the rifle to carry his aim high, and he sent a second shot through his target's shoulder. The man spun to the ground, disabled and conceivably out of the fight.

     Brock, in the meantime, had picked the man on the far left. It was a difficult task to strike in non-vital spots with one rifle, but to do it one handed-with both hands, no less-was next to impossible. Rather than mimic Ash's trick shooting, Brock simply chose to send a barrage of bullets low to the ground. A spray of red erupted from the man's legs, which were soon rendered useless.

     That left the third unattended, and he had no intention of wasting the opportunity. Fortunately for Ash and Brock, Pikachu was as alert as ever; just as the last man standing was bringing his rifle's sight to settle in on Ash, a powerful blast of electricity caught him square in the chest, knocking him off his feet and scrambling his nervous system. He was unconscious before he ever hit the ground.

     Panting, Ash wiped his brow and rose from the tile. He grimaced at the grizzly scene, approaching the would-be threats with his new rifle leveled, ready for any unpleasant surprises. "Good job, Pikachu." He praised his Pokémon as it bounded up to him, still sparking at the cheeks.

     "Hey, what about me?" Brock sidled next to him, one rifle leveled, the other raised against his shoulder. He kept one eye on the incapacitated terrorists, watching the panicked crowd as they teemed through the eit and out the door as one single, screaming entity. "So who do you think they are?"

     "I've had enough mystery for one night, Brock." Ash groused, approaching the unconscious (and battered) leader of the group. His rifle lowered, barrel resting against the man's temple. "I have half a mind to-"

     Ash had no real intention of blowing a defenseless man's brains out, but was more than a little annoyed with a flashing steel blade knocked his rifle away from its target. Looking over, he glowered at Samurai, who met his steel glare calmly and unfazed. Giselle stood at his side, appearing haughty as ever and unperturbed. Even her perfect hair had somehow managed to survive the firefight and ensuing panic.

     "You will do no such thing, Novice." Samurai assured him.

     Ash snorted, shouldering his rifle. "Relax, Ninja Boy. I was-"


     The noise stopped Ash in mid-quip, coming from high above on the second level of the ballroom. Peering upwards at the semicircle balcony, Ash's heard gave another lurch; Another dozen guns were leveled at them, wielded by men dressed exactly the same as the first group had been. Ash hadn't seen them come through the ballroom's entrance, and could only surmise that they had entered via the hotel.

     "I don't think it's over yet…" Brock muttered hoarsely.

     Ash's next comment was a bit more productive. "RUN!"

     The two pairs each split in separate directions; Giselle and Samurai both made for the stairs leading to the second level, while Ash and Brock sprinted back the way they came, with Pikachu zipping speedily past them. A hail of bullets followed in their wake, tearing ferociously into the glass floors and sending shards of shrapnel in every direction. Ash covered the last three meters of the dash with a heroic dive and roll, which would have gone perfectly had he not plowed into something warm, soft, and shrieking.

     "What are you doing, you idiot?" A familiar voice snarled at him as arms and legs became woefully tangled.

     Ash couldn't believe it. "Misty? MISTY!" He ripped his arms free, rolling to the side and taking cover behind the glass pillar. "What in blazes are you still doing here?" He spied April, who was curled up with Zapper behind the sanctuary of the pillar. "And what is SHE still doing here?"

     "There was gunfire!" Misty shouted above the deafening symphony of automatic death. "What was I supposed to do, just leave the only safe spot in this damned deathtrap?"

     A vicious string of shots tore into the opposite side of their cover, eating away slowly at the translucent barrier. "Is this really the right time to be arguing right now?" Brock hissed, checking the ammo in his rifles.

     "Stay out of this!" Ash and Misty harmonized furiously before the next round of gunfire drowned them out.

     April looked up at Brock. He was amazed at how calm she remained; her voice was even, and her eyes free of tears. "Did they always used to fight like this?" she asked.

     "Tip of the iceberg, kid." Brock muttered.

     In the meantime, Ash had grown tired of arguing. "All right, all right, never mind! We're stuck here until they chew through this damn chunk of glass anyway. Brock," he turned back to his partner, "Did you get a count?"

     Brock shook his head. "Give me a sec." With an insane burst of bravery, he popped his head out around the edge of the pillar for just an instant, pulling it back in time to avoid another hail of bullets that whizzed past and struck the wall beside them. "Fourteen of them. Seven in the forefront. They're doing most of the firing. The rest seem to be heading toward the stairs, they'll be down here in a minute or two."

     Ash looked at his single rifle, and then to Brock's half-emptied two. "We don't have enough ammo or cover to hold out…much less take them."

     Brock grinned. "Back-up?"

     "Back-up." Ash nodded, looking down at his wristwatch. He flipped the top of the watch up, revealing a small screen and a series of tiny, complex touch pads beneath. "Gear. Dial the van."

     "What the hell are you two doing?" Misty demanded. "Who do you think you are, James Bond? I thought you guys said you did Odd Jobs!"

     "We do." Ash affirmed, waiting for his call to go through.

     Brock added, "Some jobs are just odder than others, that's all."

     Ash's watch, a cleverly disguised Pokégear, suddenly beeped in confirmation. A dull, mechanical voice filtered in above the roar of the rifles. "Dexter."

     "Dex," Ash spoke shortly, "You still have a plan of the ballroom downloaded in your nav, right?"


     "Entrance pattern Alpha-Prime."

There was a brief pause before, "The front door of the facilities will not accommodate such a maneuver. Recommend-"

     "Override!" Ash snapped. "Make a door."

     "Acknowledged. Dexter out."

     As Ash snapped the Pokégear closed, he couldn't help but notice Misty's incredulous stare. Feeling the need to say something, he said, "Don't worry. We'll get you to safety."

     "Dexter?" she blurted, "As in your Pokédex? That's your back-up? Your Pokédex?"

     "We've made a few changes," Brock assured her, risking another peek around the corner.

     She snorted, sarcastic to the bitter end. "Wonderful. I suppose he's going to scan them to death."

     Ash pointedly ignored her, returning his focus to the situation at hand. "I don't think our cover will last long enough for Dexter to get here. We need to move closer to the door."

     "I know that. You know that." Brock chuckled a thumb over his shoulder in the general direction of their opposition. "I'm pretty sure they know that, too. That's probably why they're still shooting."

     Ash shushed him, listening to the sound of the gunfire for a moment. "It sounds like they haven't moved yet…" Locking eyes with Brock, he asked, "Think you can come up with some coordinates?"

     "I'll need an origin."

     Ash studied their surroundings for a moment, finally pointing to a spot a few feet away. "There."

     Brock nodded, then looked down at Pikachu. "Okay, Pika-pal. You ready?"


     Brock concentrated for a moment, closing his eyes and imagining the world beyond their safe little haven. Seven man stood high above them, waiting with eager anticipation for the smallest opening to slaughter their prey. Then he spoke slowly, as if carefully considering each word. "They're at an elevation of forty degrees…no, forty-three, just to be safe. Start from the left; one-ten degrees…ninety-three degrees…eighty-four degrees…"

     Misty watched in awe as Brock continued to rattle off coordinates from a unit circle while Pikachu listened with rapt attention. Ash kept glancing at the door, making frustrated noises of impatience. "What's he doing?" she hissed to Ash, afraid of breaking the spell that Brock and Pikachu seemed to have between them. Even April was listening closely, hypnotized by Brock's steady monotone amidst the unsteady barrage of bullets.

     "Just watch. You'll…Damn!" Ash had a sudden thought, risking his own peek out from behind the pillar. Sure enough, it was all he could do to avoid getting his cranium evacuated violently against the wall behind them. "Brock, this isn't going to work. They'll kill Pikachu before he gets off volt one."

     "Pi?" Pikachu seemed to catch its name, as well as the word death, and had suddenly stopped listening to Brock. "Pika!"

     "Hang on…" Brock reached into his vest pocket, producing a single Pokéball. He expanded it to full size with a flick of his thumb, tossing it up and catching it deftly in hand. "I have Graveler with me, but the rest of my 'Mon are still in the van, along with our equipment."

     "Same." Ash nodded. Graveler was certainly bulletproof enough, but… "Think one distraction will be enough?"

     "How about two?" Misty asked with a smirk, palming her own Pokéball. "Starmie may not be a Rock type, but he can certainly take a few hits with his Lightscreen."

     Despite the situation, Brock couldn't help himself. "I don't even want to know where you were hiding that." He quipped, and received a raspberry in return.

     "Pull 'em out." Ash broke the joviality. With their levity spent, Brock and Misty released their Pokémon, further cramping the confines of their small sanctuary. After a few brief instructions to the creatures, Ash nodded to the gathered. "On three."

     "One." Brock started the countdown off.

     Misty beat Ash to the punch. "Two."

     With only one number left, Ash bided his time, waiting for any let-up in the fire. He heard a brief pause, and shouted "Three!"

     Graveler charged from behind the pillar, barreling left in great, clomping steps that cracked the remaining glass with each footfall. Several trails of flying shrapnel tracked the plodding Pokémon, and seconds later he was covered in a hail of sparks from bullets ricocheting off of his armored hide. Starmie was next, flying in the opposite direction. The jewel set in the middle of the creature projected a wall of pure energy in front of it, absorbing the response to his exit with relative ease.

     "Pikachu!" Ash shouted above the din, "Pinpoint Thunder!"

     Pikachu leapt onto the exact spot his trainer had indicated earlier, facing straight ahead at the opposite wall of the ballroom. Without looking, the thundermouse sent seven distinct bolts of pure power lancing out at the exact coordinates Brock had provided him. Thanks to untold hours of practice, both by the trainer and the 'Mon, the targets were right in line to receive the full brunt of the attack. Where the lightning wasn't completely accurate, science took up the slack; the metal of the mercenaries' guns was more than enough to attract the homebrewed lightning, which pulsed into the seven weapons just as planned. Each and every round kept within the guns went off at once, creating an explosive force that not only destroyed the rifles, but also created a concussive blast that knocked their respective owners dizzy, unconscious, and severely cut.

     But Ash took no time to admire the handiwork. Before Pikachu had even begun to power up, he had grabbed Misty 'round the middle and was hauling for a new pillar next to the front door. He knew that behind him, Brock had already scooped up April (and Zapper, of course) and was right behind him. His feet skidded to a halt against the gritty chunks of destroyed glass just as Pikachu finished detonating the solders' rifles. Leaving plenty of room for Brock to sweep in behind him, he dumped Misty unceremoniously to the ground and raised his rifle, read y to tear into anything that came at them.

     "Come on, you worthless hunk of junk…" he muttered as Brock took position behind him. He kept glancing out the front windows, but there was still no sign of their back-up. "Come on…yes!"

     A bright light had just begun to glow against the doors, which had miraculously avoided destruction in the firefight. From beyond the clear barriers, the soft, telltale buzz of an engine could be heard growing louder by the second.

     Misty became aware of the signs just seconds after Ash. "What's that?" she asked, watching as Starmie and Graveler continued soaking up sporadic fire from the remaining seven opponents.

     "Our back-up." Brock answered happily.

     The light reached its peak, then gave way as the front doors caved inward with a deafening crash. Glass spread everywhere onto the floor as a full-sized van, white with black trim, came barreling into the main entryway of the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom. The front license plate of the van read D-E-X-T-E-R, and the side featured Ash and Brock's company logo, complete with the slogan, "They don't come odder than us!" The tires screeched as the vehicle came to an immediate halt just inside of its newly-created entryway.

     Without hesitation, Ash grabbed Misty's arm and began dragging her towards the van. He spotted a pair of assailants descending the stairs just a few meters away, and sent a wave of suppression fire to suggest they do otherwise. The van's door was open before they even reached it, and wasting no more time, Ash threw the both of them into the doors.

     The interior of the van was dark and barren, save for the two seats up front and the equipment lockers lining the sides. As soon as Brock, April, and a desperate, sprinting Pikachu made it into the van, Ash called out, "Dexter! Door!"

     "Door." The mechanical voice that had buzzed out of Ash's Pokégear repeated the command, and the van's sliding door slammed shut an instant later.

     Ash allowed himself the luxury of a few seconds that their confusion had bought them, and used the precious gems of time to catch his breath. Gulping air, he glanced over at Brock. His partner still had his arms wrapped around the little girl, and gave Ash a thumbs-up. "Okay…" Ash muttered, "Let's-"

     Metallic pinging began wailing against the sides and top of the van, electing a scream of fright from April. Brock hugged her tightly, trying to calm the girl down. "It's okay!" he assured her, "It's all right! The van's bulletproofed. We'll be safe in here."

     "Not for long." Ash contradicted him, tossing the now-useless rifle aside. With the sum total of their equipment at their disposal now, he had little need for borrowed toys. The equipment lockers opened at his keyed commands, revealing a small arsenal of handheld weaponry, both melee and ranged. In another set, some "borrowed" police riot gear awaited proper donning, which Ash began immediately. He looked at Misty even as he strapped his bulletproof vest on, hooking the metallic clasps into place with a satisfying 'click'. "As soon as Brock and I get out, the van will take you to safety."

     "The hell it will." Misty snorted. Reaching down, she tore at the hem of her dress, ripping apart the bottom half while Ash watched in amazement. When she was done, she tossed the tatters aside, revealing a new hem halfway up her well-toned thigh. "I'm going too."

     "The hell you will, Misty." Ash corrected her, catching her hand as she reached for a Kevlar suit. "You're staying here."

     "Ash," Brock fiddled with his own vest, pulling a helmet out to match before loading up one of their own rifles with rubber bullets. "I don't think we can afford to turn down any help at this point. It's seven against two."

     "Three." Misty corrected him stubbornly, glaring at Ash.

     "Four." April piped in.

The adults whirled upon her immediately. "THREE!" they affirmed loudly.

     "No fair," she whined, hugging Zapper close. "I'm a trainer, too."

     Ash was beyond his wit's end, and so conceded the point. "Fine." He growled, shoving a vest and helmet at her. "Your funeral." As soon as she had suited up, he thrust a semi-automatic pistol and a clip of rubber bullets at her. "Non-lethal, understand?" Then his eyes narrowed further. "Have you ever used one of these?" Please say no, he thought pleadingly, Please don't be able to-

     She simply stared at him with open defiance, popping the clip into the gun and chambering the first round without taking her eyes off of him.

     Shit. "Fine." He growled again, picking up his own pistol and leaving the heavy artillery to Brock. "We hit hard and we hit fast. These guys look professional, but they're using five times the ammunition that a real pro would. My guess; nothing but common thugs."

     "It's so good to see gainfully employed thugs these days…" Brock sighed with mock wistfulness. "Theirs is a dying breed."

     "Not yet, but it will be." He looked at April, considering her situation for a moment while more rounds continued to bounce off of the van. Then he pulled their last Kevlar vest out and handed it to her. "You. Put this on."

     "All right!"

     April gleefully wriggled into the vest, wondering what had changed his mind about letting her go out with them. Her joy soon shifted to disappointment as Ash pulled a riot shield from their collection, handing it to her and saying, "Hide under this. Do not move, and for the love of God, do NOT touch anything, until one of us comes to get you."

     "I thought you said this van was bulletproof." Misty countered, suddenly even more concerned.

     "It is. But why take chances?" He looked to the front of the van, where the on-board computer was silently awaiting further instruction. "Dexter: On my mark, lay out a two-seventy smokescreen forward, twenty meter radius."

     "That will exhaust the van's current arsenal of smoke grenades." Dexter informed him without inflection.

     "Can't be helped. After we're gone, get out of here. Evasive pattern Echo-Two-Niner, until you hear from one of us."


     Ash pulled the Plexiglas face shield of his helmet down over his face, setting his features with grim determination. "Pikachu," he told his little partner, "I want you to stay with April, and keep her safe. Don't let anyone in the van except me or Brock." He listened to Misty give her daughter one last bit of reassuring encouragement as he leaned in to Pikachu and said, "I'm counting on you, Pika-pal. Keep the kid safe. Okay?"

     Pikachu nodded, giving him a claws-up and a "Pika!" for support.

          Ash nodded, giving his Pokémon a thumbs-up in return. Then, taking a deep breath, he said, "Dexter: Mark."


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