Symbiosis

In a different life Ash Ketchum looks upon his world from an unique perspective.

https://www.fanfiction.net/s/7917071/1/Symbiosis

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There were no words spoken around the body of Maki and the maids. The Umagoya's faces were either unreadable, or, in the case of Chiyo, Jean, and Hikaru, twisted in a combination of fear and grief. Brock and Misty silently observed the body from a distance. Ash waited out in the hallway, hugging Pikachu to his chest.

Maki hadn't been the kindest person to the pokeraised child, but Ash still didn't take his death well. It left him feeling nauseous and anxious; a quesy stomach being churned by the unfocused nervous energy bouncing around his insides. And somehow a heavy pain simultaneously occupied him, a sense of pity and loss for an already grieving family.

Pikachu picked up on his trainer's silent distress and nuzzled Ash.

Misty felt like she should have been expecting this. There was a blizzard, possible sabotage, a wealthy family, lots of tension, and there had already been a dead body in the house. And they were traveling with Aaron. Of course something was going to happen. Now they were trapped by the weather, stuck in the house with a killer, until help arrived.

Brock stepped forward. He felt no need to reflect, only to deal with what had happened. He turned to Elle, who was leaning against the wall and looking down at her feet.

"Do you know the most likely spot that an intruder could have gotten in?" He asked the woman.

"No, not really," Elle responded automatically. "Points of entry have never been something we've concerned ourselves with, what with the security system and all."

"But since that's down, there's no way of telling," Brock said. "And if it was sabotage, then they were in here before the security system was shut down. Alright, I'll need to ask the others some questions-"

"Wait, what?" Elle interrupted. "No, that's something I'll handle, thank you very much."

Brock paused. He hadn't anticipated that. He probably should have, it was her family after all.

On the other hand...

"You've had experience with crimes?" Brock inquired.

"I've stopped a couple," Elle answered without hesitation.

"Ever had to investigate any?" Brock continued.

"No and I get where you're headed," Elle glared at him. "And just how much experience do you have with criminal investigations, oh great gym leader?"

"I've had some training and helped the police in Pewter City," Brock responded, crossing his arms.

"So what? You got some lessons from the police and helped track down a couple of robbers," Elle used the inches she had on him to look down on him. "That's not very much experience. Certainly not enough to let you go and try and handle both my family and track down a killer."

"It's more than you've got," Brock shot back.

"I've had to spend years living with these people," came Elle's reply. "I'm the local expert on the Umagoya's. You can back me up."

"I note that you're not exactly impartial here," Brock said. "As you've said this is your family, and you have stated that you have had issues with them."

"And you're not entirely impartial here either," Elle stepped away from the wall, "not after the reception you received from Maki and Chiyo."

"Yes because a single evening in which they were rude to me is enough to make me compromised," Brock rolled his eyes. "Look, all I'm really interested in is making sure that no one else dies. Asking your family questions will help me know what's safe to do-"

"And who seems the most suspicious," the red head interrupted. "But you're forgetting, to them you and your friends are the most suspicious people here."

"True," Brock admitted. "Why don't we just do this together if you're so worried?"

"That is acceptable." Elle answered. "Why didn't you just suggest that in the first place?"

"Uh," Brock thought for a moment. Why hadn't he suggested that they work together from the beginning? "I guess it's just not the first thing I consider."

"That might get you into trouble one day," the red haired woman commented. "But that's not something we should be discussing right now. Who do you want to start with?"

Brock cleared his throat after he and Elle walked over to by the rest of her family and the surviving Umagoyas turned to face the source of the noise as a group.

"Excuse me," Brock began. "Could we please talk with Chiyo in another room?"

"Why? What's this all about?" The graying blonde shot the pair a dirty look. "Anything that you've," she practically hissed the word as she spoke it and pointed one finger at Brock, "got to say to me can be said in front of everyone else too."

"It's just a couple of questions that we think would be helpful to ensuring the safety of everyone here," Brock began, keeping his tone nice and diplomatic.

"You mean you think I killed Maki," Chiyo's eyes narrowed and her voice began soft, low, and dangerous, like the quiet hiss of a hidden snake. "You little-"

"No," Elle shook her head, "but you might know something about what happened?"

"What's that supposed to mean," Chiyo began to stride over, fearsome glare turning to Elle.

"Well, hopefully we were thinking you might have information about possible ways into the house," Brock answered.

"Or are you hoping to hear about what he might have been involved in?" Chiyo turned back to Brock. "Don't think I don't have my eye on you! In fact I think you might know the most about Maki and his death!"

"Yeah," came Hikaru's hesitant voice. He fidgeted and looked at the floor, but continued speaking. "I agree. You're the most suspicious one here."

"My husband is right," Jean's quiet voice spoke up next. "I mean you showed up here unannounced and you are, well, I don't need to say it."

"Out of all the people here, you and your friends most likely had the most resources to kill Maki," Chiyo's glare intensified.

"You would know how to deal with his guard pokémon," Jean added.

"And how to stop him for reaching for his pokeball," Hikaru added as well.

"He was with me just before the generators failed," Elle interjected, coming to Brock's defense. "Misty was in her room and Aaron's a bit young to be under suspicion."

"So?" said Chiyo. "The girl could have snuck out."

Misty, who had walked over to the conversation when she heard the commotion, shot here a glare.

"We don't know when Maki was killed-" Chiyo continued, only to be interrupted.

"But all the servants were in the basement," Elle pointed out. "Including Juliet and Margret!"

"Then one of you went back to the scene of the crime to clean up the evidence, stumbled upon Juliet and Margret and silenced them!" Chiyo was nearly yelling now. "And even then, we only have your word about Brock's whereabouts and given your proclivities I doubt we can trust that!"

"That is enough!" Everyone fell silent and turned to Chiyoko. "I will not have this family turn on itself! I trust Elle and each and every other member of this family without reservation!" She shot a dark look at Chiyo while she talked. The other woman held her gaze for a brief moment and then looked down. Quiet continued to reign over those assembled. "If she can account for her guests, I believe her. I also know something of her guests and if they wanted Maki dead they would have used more obvious methods."

She turned to Brock.

"If you feel that you must make inquiries, then you may do so right here, in this room, with all of us in attendance. I will not have you randomly hounding this family. Am I clear?"

"Yes ma'am," Brock replied, not wishing to challenge her after her previous display of authority. He turned back to Chiyo. "Do you know if there are any little known ways into the house?"

"I used to, but they were all eventually covered up," Chiyo replied, coldly. "I don't know if Maki knew of any others."

"Do you know of anyone who might have a motive to see your relative dead?"

"Plenty of people," came another cold response, "but mainly on general principle, rather than out of any personal malice."

"Chiyo," Chiyoko's tone was one of warning.

"Fine," Chiyo rolled her eyes. "I wasn't aware of anyone who might have hated him. And I don't know about anyone who stood to benefit from his death."

"He didn't have a will or anything?" Brock raised an eyebrow.

"He didn't have anything other than a trust fund," Chiyo answered. "Nobody here, except Aunt Chiyoko, does."

"And in my will a set percentage of my own personal assets is given to each of my surviving relatives," Chiyoko spoke up, "and anything remaining after that is given to either to charity or to the family trust. Nobody in the family has reason to benefit from the passing of another."

"Yes, because everything you touch must be twisted, crafted, tuned to the utmost precision, even after your death," Chiyo muttered darkly. "We don't even get the heirlooms-"

"And you shouldn't need to cling onto such tokens of the past," Chiyoko's reply was calm, cool, collected. "If you really wish for such items back, you could purchase them from the family trust-"

"I shouldn't need to purchase back my mother's, your sister's, hairbrush!" Chiyo shouted. "I don't-"

"Give it up," Elle interrupted, eyes going flat and cold, looking at Chiyoko, "she never budges."

"Uh," Brock spoke up, trying to think of something to say to stop the situation from devolving into explosive family drama.

"What?" Chiyo snapped turning to the gym leader. "Why are you even asking all these questions? Do you think you can catch the murderer? Or is it just a cover-"

"I had hoped to get a clue whether or not the killer might still be a threat," Brock answered calmly. "But since nobody has any idea about the killer, then we have to assume that they're still a threat to everyone else here."

"Oh?" Chiyoko raised an eyebrow. "And what do you suggest that we do?"

"We need to find a defensible position," Brock answered. "Some place with only one entrance where we can hole up."

"We can use the bedrooms in the east hallway," Chiyoko said, tapping her chin. "We'll have to route power to them first, so that they're heated."

Misty, who had been silently listening, almost protested that. Since they didn't know anything about the killer, about how they operated, who they were, or what their motive was, they couldn't be sure that a set up like that was going to work, at least not without more preparation. Instead of heating that wing up, Misty would have rather had it so that it was left without power and simply had everyone bundle up. Then they could seal all the vents, windows, and other openings with ice. And then she would have liked to put a very thin layer of ice around the edges of each door, so that they couldn't be opened silently.

But she didn't say anything. Brock, Elle, and Chiyoko would have the situation in hand, there was no reason to embarrass herself by speaking up.

...Runt

A perfect gym trainer like yourself...

Yeah, they had it covered.

"You know, I could have handled this myself," Elle said dryly from her spot by the breaker panel, Growlie watching her actions curiously by her side.

"Nobody should go anywhere alone until help arrives," Brock replied, leaning against a wall.

They had already herded everyone else into the hallway and the rooms that they would be staying in for the rest of their time there. Aaron and Misty stood guard over the entryway, both of their teams out of their pokéballs and ready for trouble.

Elle rolled her eyes.

"While I agree with the sentiment, I still think you would be of more use back with the others," she said. "There's nothing for you to do here except stand and worry."

"And you couldn't have configured the power if someone had ambushed you and killed you on the way here," Brock retorted.

"It would be pretty hard to ambush me and Growlie in this house," the woman replied, twisting something. "Finished." She closed the panel and stood up. "Now let's hurry back."

They passed through the dark and empty mansion quickly, hurrying for the relative safety of the rest of the group. Once bright halls became panes of shadow splintered by their flashlights. Formerly familiar objects became warped and menacing in the scant light, strange dark shapes on the edge of vision, silently lurking. Heavy silence had been draped over the building, broken only by the soft sounds of their footfalls, too loud to Brock's ears, loud enough to distract from any small but important noises that could be around them. Winter's icy fingers had begun to reach through the walls, chilling the air and frosting windows briefly illuminated by the pair's flashlights.

The two of them came to a set of stairs that lead to a pair of closed doors, against which Misty leaned, watching her team and the stairwell. Misty and her team tensed when the two of them came into view.

"Where's Aaron?" Brock inquired as the sentries relaxed. "It was supposed to be both of you-"

"He's on the other side of the door," Misty answered. "Second line of defense in case anything slipped past me."

"That's a good idea," Brock said, nodding. "I'll need you to stay out here and support me, I can't use Onix in a space like this. Elle, could you go back and relieve Aaron?"

"Not going to happen," Elle crossed her arms. "I want a whack at whoever killed Maki. I'm not going to cower behind those doors while you two get them first."

"If the killer's going to make another attempt you are a likely target," Brock pointed out. "You should-"

"The only way I'm going is if you use force," Elle glared at the gym leader.

Misty shrugged.

"I'll go support relieve Aaron," she said to the other two. "That way we won't have to worry about him. You can keep an eye on Elle."

Brock grunted and nodded, unhappy with the compromise, but still accepted it. Misty departed through the two doors and Brock deployed his team, minus Onix.

They stood in awkward silence for a few minutes, before Elle decided to speak up.

"Why rock types?"

Brock turned to her and tilted his head in silent questioning.

"I mean why rock instead of something else?" Elle elaborated.

Brock shrugged.

"It fits me," he answered simply.

"Then let me put it another way," Elle continued. "How did you find out that that rock type was the specialization that fit you?"

Brock looked down at the floor for a moment.

"I never really gave it much thought," he replied eventually. "I grew up in a gym full of rock types. My father used rock type pokémon."

Elle smirked.

"I guess we're all warped by our family, one way or another."

"Some more than others," Brock commented dryly. "You never did finish telling me about that boy and how he's related to you hating your grandmother."

Elle sighed. "I guess I didn't, did-"

Before she had a chance to finish the sentence there was a scream. Brock and Elle shared an alarmed look and then rushed through the doors.

Aaron and Misty were three steps ahead of them, already rushing towards the source of the scream. A door was ajar and more were opening as the others rushed towards the source of the scream.

Brock and Elle dashed through the door after Aaron and Misty, coming across the scene. Jean stood by the side of the doorway, face devoid of color, mouth frozen in a scream, eyes wide and staring at Chiyo's unmoving body.

"Move," Elle shoved Brock out of her way and rushed to the body. She worked quickly, checking for a pulse or for breathing.

"There's no-nothing," Elle's voice hitched. "I can't find any vital signs."

Brock crouched next to the body, double checking. He spoke aloud the words that Elle could not bring herself to say.

"She's dead."

Once more the group- though now they could be called the survivors- gathered, breaking off into smaller groups of immediate family and friends. Unlike last time they were not still. There was an agitated energy in the air, almost everyone had some tic, some nervous motion, all except Chiyoko. She simply solemnly stared at the body of her niece.

Aaron, Misty, and Brock stood off to the side, whispering harshly among themselves. Aaron held Pikachu close to his chest, answering inquiries when they were sent his way. Misty stared at her feet and occasionally scuffed the floor, shoulders slumped and chin on collarbone. She seemed somehow smaller than usual, deflated, defeated, and seemingly limp.

"How did this happen?" Brock's face was set in a stony glare directed towards Misty. "Weren't you watching the hallway?"

"No, I was watching the door," Misty shot back, looking up and giving him a brief glare of her own before her eyes fell once more. "You know, the only entrance to this hallway."

Brock bit back an angry reply. He knew it wouldn't have been fair to get mad at her; they never thought to talk about making sure that the Umagoyas weren't doing any suspicious themselves.

Misty bit her lip and shifted her weight.

This could have been avoided. She knew it.

Noise, noise could have saved Chiyo. Or at least left a clue about as to the identity of her killer. Ice, ice being broken could have made that noise. If she had only spoken up!

Hindsight was perfect, and perfection was inhuman and cruel. There was no mercy in truth, no comfort, no consideration for motivations, aims, or cautions.

The truth was that someone was dead and there was a chance that it could have been prevented if Misty had spoken up. Such knowledge made her feel as if she had been dangling over an abyss, holding onto to a branch with one hand, and that the branch had just slipped out of her fingers, leaving her without an anchor, adrift in seas of dark misery.

Unaware of Misty's turmoil, Brock struggled with his own frustrations. A bitter tightness, a sour pain welled up within him as he contemplated the past, present, and future. Another death, the trust that would be lost, and the difficulties that would come with moving forward.

Aaron just held Pikachu closer.

"We can't just stand around here," Brock's voice eventually broke the silence. "We need a new plan."

"Like your last one worked so well," the group turned to look at Jean, glaring and trembling and pointing one shaking finger at them. "We listened to you and Chiyo still ended up-"

"It was a sensible enough plan," Chiyoko interrupted. "Though in hindsight, it underestimated the abilities of the murderer."

"We're going to need to keep everyone together, in the same room, from now on," Brock told her. "Pick one in this hallway-"

The old woman shook her head.

"There is no room large enough to fit everyone," Chiyoko informed the gym leader. "I think it would be more prudent to divide us into two groups. Hikaru, Jean, Thomas, and I will stay together in one room. Ayoko and Krieg will take another."

The trainers exchanged glances.

"Two trainers to a group?" Elle suggested. Brock nodded.

"Misty, you and Aaron watch over Chiyoko's group," Brock ordered. "Elle, tell Ayoko to have her pokémon out."

"On it," Misty replied, grabbing Aaron's arm and turning to Chiyoko. "Ma'am, if you would..."

There was no protest when Chiyoko told the others of the new plan. Two rooms were chosen, on opposite ends of the hallway, and the group split up. Once more Elle and Brock found themselves standing guard in front of a door.

For a couple minutes they stood guard quietly. Elle had Growlie out and had slumped against the wall, hands tangled in the fire type's mane, pressing the side of her face against her companion's fur and her forehead against her forearm. Brock thought that he caught her shaking once or twice out of the corner of his eye.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Brock eventually asked.

"No thanks." The woman didn't look up.

"You sure?"

"There's nothing to talk about." Elle clutched her pokémon a bit tighter. "Just another stupid death."

There was another moment of silence.

"Then why don't you finish telling me about that boy?" Brock suggested.

There was a short sharp burst of helpless laughter from the other trainer.

"And discover another body?" Elle shifted as she spoke, not quite looking up, but turning a little in Brock's direction.

"Or maybe catch the murderer in the act," Brock said, adding a lightness he didn't really feel to his voice. "It's not like the universe is conspiring to stop you from telling your story."

"Just the murderer." Elle sounded like she was grinning, but her face was still hidden in her pokémon's fur. "Fine, why not?"

"Well, as I said earlier, he was the original owner of Growlie here, and I had a bit of a crush on him," Elle began. "Well, maybe more than a bit. Enough to persuade my parents to talk to his parents about arranging a marriage."

"Precocious weren't you," Brock commented, one eyebrow raised. There was a broken, muffled giggle from Elle.

"I guess so." Elle admitted. "I was a little terror back then. I was cute and ruthless beyond measure. Poor kid didn't have a chance. I tricked him into expressing interest in the marriage and then, boom, our families arranged it. And then my evil started. I monopolized his time, hounded him relentlessly, constantly bossed him around and was, in general, an unholy terror to him. I even wanted him to get rid of poor Growlie here because I thought that he wouldn't go well with the delcatty I wanted."

"That does sound awful," Brock agreed.

"Well I was only seven at the time," the woman admitted, earning a chortle from Brock. "Children can be right little monsters at times."

"I know," Brock said, reflecting on the time he had spent raising his siblings.

"He was a quiet child back then. Although that might have been because I never gave him a chance to talk." Elle said wistfully.

"Thankfully," she continued, "I matured a little as we grew up. I was still spoiled and self-absorbed and I was still was a fool about Growlie, but I was less far less demanding, and more appreciative of his company. For his part, he quit being quite so quiet and could actually be flamboyant when he put his mind to it. Surprisingly he became really good with electronics. He was always fiddling with some gadget or other. I swear he once broke half of the things in the house trying to upgrade them because he was bored.

"He also showed an interest in training pokémon, not just keeping them as pets like he did Growlie, but as a proper pokémon trainer. He occasionally mentioned that he wanted to travel when he came of age, to see the world.

"I spent nearly all my free time with him. He became my best friend instead of a crush. It's my regret that I don't know if I was his."

"If he spent all that time with you-" Brock began, but was cut off.

"I know his family exerted some pressure on him to do so," Elle's grip on Growlie tightened. "And remember I was a terror back then. There were times I think he just came along because it was easier then fighting with me."

"Why would his family get involved?"

"To strengthen ties with my family," Elle shrugged. "I never found out for certain and it's not like I can ask them anymore."

"I'm guessing we're getting to the important bit," Brock commented.

Elle looked up. Her eyes were wet and red rimmed, her cheeks were splotchy, but her glare was agate hard and expression stony as the surrounding mountains.

"All of it was important," her voice low and stern. "All the relationships back then were important, between me and him, between me and my family, between him and his family, between Growlie and me, and between those like my family, like his family, and the rest of the world. Relationships form the bedrock of joy and tragedy. Even seemingly insignificant relationships can save or damn entire nations."

Brock slowly nodded in both agreement and silent apology.

Elle glared at him for a few seconds more before her gazed softened.

"Some people might find it sort of funny; back then I got along with my family, but there was tension between him and his family."

"Why?"

The woman sighed.

"I don't know for sure. He didn't agree with some of the things they wanted him to do. He didn't agree take up whichever profession they wanted him to take up. But, the thing is, there were others in that family who had similar reservations and there was nowhere as much tension involved in those relationships. As to what was the cause of the deeper tension, I have my suspicions, but that's all they are. I don't find any of possibilities scandalous or insulting anymore and I doubt you would either, but I'll respect his memory and not give voice to baseless rumors.

"It doesn't matter in the end. The only thing that mattered was that his family made him 'disappear'." Elle snorted. "Even though everyone who moved in our circles knew where he was. You know some of the residences owned by my family have actual dungeons? It's not an uncommon thing for old money to do in this region. And nobody ever thinks twice about it because everyone assumes that it's because the house used to be part of a castle, or it's an old mansion, or that it's meant to make the house seem older and grander.

"But that's because every last fucker keeps quiet when they do decide to use them," Elle voice was low, raspy, harsh, and hateful. "It's 'tough love', 'taking care of a scandal', or saving the family face, but they'll use those dungeons and their equipment. Families who don't like how their children are turning out, don't like their personalities, don't like that they're too masculine or too feminine, don't like their beliefs or their orientation. It's really nothing new. People like them have always done this sort of thing. I researched it a bit and it's been going on since before the Great War. The only difference is that back then they outsourced their cruelty. "

"Are you sure about that," Brock's voice was distant. "Family can be pretty messed up, but to go that far-"

"I fucking saw him one last time," Elle snapped. "Grandmother started visiting them frequently after he was taken away. She brought me with several times, but never let me sit in on any discussions. Once I waited outside and looked up, at the window to what used to be his room. There were bars over it and the curtains were drawn at first, but then they twitched open and I saw him one last time. It must have been between 'sessions' or whatever those pricks were calling them, but he was there.

"He- He- I never had seen him looked so scared, or lost, or hurt, and by hurt I don't mean the bruises that I saw, but just his eye- I can't even describe it." Elle pulled Growlie closer. "I couldn't do anything- we just looked at each other and then someone grabbed him and the curtains closed.

"I ran inside and found his father. It's a bit hazy, but I remember screaming until my throat hurt. I might have attacked someone, I vaguely recall some blood and people grabbing me. The only thing I really remember is his mother, standing on top of a grand velvet staircase. She was looking down at me, on me.

"I asked her why they were doing this to him. She told me 'It's for the good of the family. You'll understand when you're older.'"

Elle looked down again, her voice growing quiet.

"I don't remember anything else from that day. A few weeks later there was a fire and they all died. Most of the bodies couldn't even be identified, his included."

"I know you've probably already thought about this, but maybe he didn't die there," Brock suggested.

Elle shook her head.

"Both his room and the dungeon had been completed destroyed in the fire," she explained. "There were absolutely no survivors found."

"So what does this have to do with your grandmother?"

"My grandmother never really much cared for him." Elle's gaze dropped and grew dark. "She only supported the engagement because it would bring his family closer. The thing is that Chiyoko is clever, devious, controlling, and she always knows what's going on. She would've known what they were planning."

"So you hate her for not saving him?"

"No." The woman's voice was a growl. "I hate her because she probably suggested what they did to him. I hate her because of the control she has over the family. I hate her because of how she uses her control over my family. I hate her because she's the epitome of everything wrong with what I grew up around. "

"You see, I came to a realization after the fire. I visited the ruins of the mansion, confused and grieving. There I wandered in a daze until I came across Growlie.

"He was an absolute mess, covered in soot and dirt, and his fur was tangled. He was just tearing through the rubble, whining and moaning. And then he saw me. We just looked at each other.

"Neither of us had ever liked the other. But then and there, at that place... I just started crying and grabbed him. Just the two of us in the ashes, mourning what was lost in our own way. I left and I took Growlie with me. We went back to my family and I looked at them, at my life, at everything for the first time. I didn't like what I saw.

"We might have never gone as far as my former fiancee's family, but we shared unpleasant characteristics with them. We were just as controlling, just as judgmental, just as arrogant, and just as xenophobic. My uncles and aunts had encouraged me to shun anyone who had left the beaten path. They refused to speak the names of those who had joined the League. They were cruel to my cousins when they didn't fit into their predetermined roles. They treated people who didn't move in their social circles as less than human.

"And then there was my grandmother, the matriarch, controlling and manipulating all of that. I watched her closely and I saw how she was always one step ahead of everyone else, inside our family and out. I saw how no one could keep a secret from her.

"And I saw how she used that power; she had those that she didn't like and weren't part of the family disgraced, she ruthlessly expanded the families assets, and while she allowed us some measure of freedom, she always made sure that none of us escaped her gaze. Nothing we were involved in escaped her gaze. And everyone was either fine with this or they just wanted to take her place.

"And I was just like them. I was partaking in the attitudes that were responsible for having my fiancee locked up and tortured, like they were. I was under grandmother's control like they were. And I treated others as shamefully as they did.

"So I decided to leave. I took Growlie and Oddish and left to become a pokémon trainer."

"And your family objected?" Brock asked.

"My uncles, my aunts, my cousins, they tried to stop me," Elle replied. "They shouted and blustered and threatened me. I almost caved in, but they would've made me abandon Growlie. I couldn't do that to his pokémon. So I left them. Most of them quit talking with me, well, outside of veiled insults and threats when I had to come back from time to time."

"What made you come back?" Brock said, stretching a bit.

"My grandmother," Elle almost spat out the word. "Even when I was hiding under a false name she always managed to have someone hand me an 'invitation' . I got the real message each time. So I attended whatever event that she wanted me to attend and then left. And it's a good thing too. Had I stayed with them I might have ended up like most of them. Bitter, angry, and then stuck in an early grave."

"And that's why I look murderous when dealing with my grandmother."

"Well..." Brock tried to think of something to say. "I guess I can get where you're coming from and I don't know enough about the situation to really say anything."

"You're the one who inquired in the first place."

"Curiosity killed the meowth," Brock shrugged. "At least we killed some time."

"It's nice to know that the significant events from my life are at least able to pass a few minutes," Elle said, rolling her eyes.

"I already said that I don't know enough to comment on it." Brock replied, defensive.

"Yeah, sorry," Elle looked down. "I guess there really isn't much one can say. And before you suggest trying to go to the authorities, all the proof is gone and she would have them in the palm of her hand after the first round of questioning."

"I figured as much," Brock said.

They both were quiet for a moment, like they had been earlier. Only this time Elle was sitting up, and though she still held her arcanine close, there wasn't any sign that she was crying.

Brock eventually broke the silence.

"Thanks for telling me."

"Thanks for listening."

Hours passed by in the only lit hallway in the house. Those gathered inside could hear the wind pressing against the exterior of the house and could feel the creeping cold of winter seep under the door. They drew their jackets or sweaters or blankets closer to themselves and settle back against their chairs or beds or walls.

The trainers began to tire and a watch schedule was set up. Misty was the first one to get a chance to sleep. Elle found and threw her a blanket and a pillow and then Misty went into the room with Chiyoko, Jean, Hikaru, and Thomas. She had initially tried to go into the room with Ayoko and Krieg, but they gently requested privacy.

"Are those two... uh, together?" Misty asked.

"No," Elle had answered. "They both like a drink now and then, but Krieg likes to pretend that he doesn't. Most of us help him pretend. Ayoko prefers to help him drink instead."

Those still awake rearranged themselves so that Brock stood guard in front of one door, leaving Elle and Aaron to guard the other. Pikachu was up against the wall snoring, while the other two stood.

At first they stood in silence, but Ash, being the human that he was, started conversing with the other trainer.

"So why did you wear your-" Ash tried to think of the word, but had to settle for a slightly less accurate bit of language, "-fancy clothes on the way here?"

"What? This?" Elle pinched at her clothes. "These look nice, but there's no way I'd travel in actual formal wear. The material for these cloths is far too rough, coarse, and tough to be an actual tuxedo. But it looks nice, most people don't notice that's it's not an actual tuxedo, and it irritates my people like my grandmother."

"Irritated?"

"Bothered," Elle explained.

"Why are they irr-it-ated by your clothes?" Ash asked.

"Their type is either annoyed at the fact that I'm wearing a quality imitation of a tuxedo, namely because of some rather extreme beliefs in propriety, or that I'm a woman wearing a tuxedo which is usually considered men's formal wear."

"Why is it considered men's formal wear?" Ash decided to focus on the second part of her statement so that he wouldn't have to ask for another definition right away. He'd bring up the word propriety with Misty or Brock and get the definition from them later.

Elle shrugged.

"I don't know. You'd have to ask a historian."

"Oh." Ash glanced down. He had to put his thoughts in order; his next question was a bit closer to his heart.

"Um... why do you not like your grandmother? I mean, she didn't seem bad, like you described your family." The orphan asked the woman.

Elle let out a sound that was halfway between a laugh and a sigh.

"What is it with your group and that question?" She said, shaking her head.

"Huh?"

"Your friend Brock asked me a very similar question," Elle explained. "It's a long story that I do not feel like repeating. Suffice to say there were some unpleasant things that occurred."

"Oh," Ash looked down again. "What could..." The boy couldn't find the words to fit the thought he wanted to express.

"What could what?"

"What could she do that was so horrible?"

"She was probably responsible for the... fate of a boy that I was close to," Elle said, staring off into space.

"Probably?" Ash's voice rose a little. "Only probably?"

"I would say surely, but she'd never leave any actual evidence behind. She's far too good for that." Elle almost spat.

"Well if there's no evidence, then how can you know?" Ash asked.

"Because I know her," Elle growled. "I know how awful she can be."

"But she's your grandmother," Ash protested. "If you don't have any actual evidence-"

"What does her being my grandmother have to do with anything," Elle glared at the boy called Aaron.

"It means she's family," the orphan answered.

"Family," Elle almost spat the word. "Kid, maybe family means something different to you, but to me the only two things family means is the root of pain and memories of shared suffering," Elle's voice shook a little and she looked away from the boy. "Bonds of blood? Chains are a form of bonds and very few people are willing to knowingly accept any sort of chain, no matter how benign it may be."

"It's not just a bond," Ash protested, floundering a bit. "I mean, not just a bond of blood. There's the stuff you did together and what you've done for each other."

"And to each other," Elle spat.

"Well yeah," Ash's thoughts briefly drifted to his best friend, who liked to occasionally electrocute him. "But that stuff's small-"

"Not always."

"But you can't know that she-"

"I know her well enough to know that there was no way she wasn't involved."

"But if you don't know for sure, if there's any chance that she wasn't, shouldn't you try and find it before hating her?" Ash's voice began to rise.

"I told you, all the evidence has been destroyed."

"Then give her, uh," Ash tried to remember the phrase, but failed, "if you can't know for certain, then just don't think it was her!"

Elle turned her head.

"I'm done talking to you."

"But-" Aaron protested.

"I'm done," Elle repeated.

"But what's going on is wrong!" Ash protested.

Elle didn't respond.

Ash tried to get her to open up a couple more times before quitting. He sat over by Pikachu, thinking.

Ash knew that what was going on with Elle and her grandmother was wrong. It would've been one thing if there had been evidence proving that she was involved in whatever had made Elle so mad. But there wasn't and Elle was hating a family member whom, from Ash's brief period of observation, she could actually get along with.

Ash was aware that there were certain things that you didn't jump into. Ash was aware that people were complicated. But Ash also knew what it was like to lose a family. Ash knew that family that you could get along, family without any irreconcilable ideological differences, geographical differences, or differences in vitality, was not something that should be thrown away.

Besides, the situation reminded in of Brock's dad in an oblique way. Things had worked out fine there. He'd make sure that they'd work out fine here as well.

He'd need to talk to Chiyoko first. He would need her side of the story- scratch that, he'd need the actual story before he could begin trying to help.

Would he need a plan to get the story out of the old woman? Elle hadn't wanted to talk about it after all.

No, Ash thought to himself. He wasn't good enough with people to do that. He'd just have to ask her.

Soon it was Aaron's turn to rest while the others stood guard. Of course, him being himself, he had no intention of actually doing that. He sat for a few moments, gathering his thoughts.

He noted to himself that he probably shouldn't let the others catch him doing this. They'd be on his case for not resting, for not preparing. Honestly, Brock and Misty could be overprotective at times. Luckily they were on the other side of the door. Here it was just his gently snoring Pikachu, Thomas and his parents curled together in a large bed, and Chiyoko sitting in a chair, looking down at a hairbrush.

Ash got up and went over to her as quietly as he could. She never looked up, not even when he was right in front of her.

"Excuse me," Ash whispered. The old woman's gaze finally left the hairbrush.

"What is it young man?"

"Um..." Ash took a moment to organize his thoughts. "I was talking to Elle earlier-"

"Please don't call her that," Chiyoko shook her head. "She might be insistent on people calling her by that childish nickname when she is around, but in private you should call her by her proper name, Jessiebelle."

"That's her name?"

"Yes it is," Chiyoko replied. "She started making everyone address her by the moniker of Elle after she started travelling. No doubt she thought that she had 'reinvented' herself, or some such nonsense. Such are the delusions of youth."

"Oh," Ash said noncommittally. "Uh, I was talking to Jessiebelle earlier, about why she- she doesn't get along with you. I wanted to hear your side of the story."

"You're an inquisitive young man," Chiyoko said after a moment of silence. "While that can be a virtue in some situations, this is not one of them. Haven't your parents taught you basic etiquette?"

"They were busy." Being dead.

"Hmmph. I suppose I can humor you." Chiyoko said. "She dislikes me simply because we are similar. It's something that I noticed after her parents died and I took her in. It is only natural that we do not get along as we constantly get in each other's ways."

"I thought there was something that happened?" Ash scratched the back of his head. Their stories weren't matching -

"What?" Chiyoko's voice turned flat and serious.

"She said something about a boy," Ash said, suddenly unsure of himself. This wasn't what he had been expecting.

"No," Chiyoko looked down. Ash thought that the old woman looked suddenly lost. "Don't tell me... She never said anything about... Of course she wouldn't. Not if she had the idea- I thought she was just lashing out, but if she thought that I- Why would she think that in the first place? What cause have I given her-"

Her head snapped back to Ash.

"What did she say to you?" Chiyoko shot up out of her chair and grabbed Ash by the lapels and gave him a shake.

"Nothing! Just that that was a boy involved and you did something bad to him," Ash's voice quickly replied.

"Did she say why she thought this! What makes her think I did that to James!" Chiyoko was shouting now.

"I don't know!"

The door slammed open and the three trainers outside ran in.

"Is everything alright?" Brock asked, looking at Chiyoko and Ash. The old woman had released the boy and returned to her normal posture the instant the door had begun opening.

"Nothing," Chiyoko answered. "Aaron here merely gave me some information I was not previously aware of." Behind her Thomas and his parents were sitting up, having been woken up by the commotion.

Elle and Brock eyed her suspiciously.

"She just seemed surprised and asked me questions," Aaron added, taking a step back.

"Want to enlighten us as to what you were talking about?" Misty inquired, tapping her foot.

"I would actually prefer to be enlightened as to who is standing guard outside the other room," Chiyoko responded, her hand tightening around her wrist and her complexion paler than usual.

The trainers looked at each other, eyes going wide. There was a scramble for the doorway and narrow avoidance of a collision before they spilled into the hallway. Dashing across the carpeted floor the group reached the other room, Brock in the lead. He threw open the door.

There was a bottle of alcohol on its side, by a puddle of its spilled amber contents. Next to that lay Ayoko, staring up at a ceiling with eyes that would never see again. Her persian lay beside her, lifeless, with green foam around its mouth.

"Where's Krieg?" Elle's head swiveled as she spoke, scanning the room in a frenzy.

"He's right there," Misty pointed to the wall on the side of the door, where Krieg lay in a similar position.

Another failure.

There was shouting between Brock, Elle, Hikaru, and Jean. Ash was curled up in a corner with Pikachu.

Misty leaned against a wall, behind the open door, in the room where Krieg and Ayoko had died. She felt-

Well, actually she didn't feel. Too much had happened recently. There was only a tired numbness.

She let herself slide down the wall, feeling the small imperfections of the polished wood as her bare arms passed over the surface of the wall. The red head sat, staring at nothing. Not thinking about anything. Not paying attention to anything.

That was why she almost missed the sound that came from above her.

More friends to hug!

Her world went dark as something wet and slimy dropped on her. She didn't even have time to take a breath.

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