Serena felt like the morning was passing in slow motion.
Her journey was coming to an end. Only today and the day after remained, and then everyone would go their separate ways. Clemont and Bonnie would return to the gym, right here in Lumiose City. Ash would return to Kanto. And then, Serena would be alone.
There was something in the air that morning which made Serena think that everyone else felt the same way she did. Maybe it was only wishful thinking, but she saw signs everywhere. Maybe it was the way Clemont swept the pieces of his latest failed invention into the trash bin, rather than attempting to repair it. Maybe it was the way Ash picked over his food at breakfast, unwilling to finish it. Maybe it was the way Bonnie took great care to neatly fold her socks when they were packing up their room at the Pokémon Center.
It felt like the end.
It was with few words and heavy hearts that they discussed the agenda for the day.
"What's the plan today, Clemont?" Ash asked.
"The gym still needs a few more minor repairs, I think," said Clemont. "I thought we could stop by our dad's shop to pick up some parts on the way."
And that was it. The last two weeks had passed in what felt like no time at all, a whirlwind of activity every day as they helped to rebuild the damaged areas of Lumiose City. The aftermath of the Team Flare attack had dominated the headlines ever since. If there was anything good to come out of it, Serena thought, it was that Clemont was getting some much-deserved recognition in the news for his role in assisting with the cleanup as Lumiose's gym leader.
Despite all the good they were doing, every day brought her closer to leaving Ash. Soon, they would be apart again, maybe forever this time, and without ever telling him her feelings. She had failed every day of their journey so far, and the right time wasn't coming now. With the media attention surrounding their group, it was impossible. Reporters confronted Ash at least once a day in an attempt to get an inside scoop on what really happened. It was yet another annoyance on their steady march to the end.
As such, it caught Serena by surprise when Nurse Joy stopped them on their way out of the Pokémon Center.
"Excuse me! You're Serena, aren't you?"
The group stopped. Serena walked up to the front desk.
"Yes, I am. Is there a problem?"
"Oh, no, not a problem," said Nurse Joy. "Actually, I have a delivery for you. It was left for you overnight."
Nurse Joy reached into one of the drawers at her desk and removed an envelope from it. She handed it to Serena.
Serena looked over the envelope. It was made of a thick, heavy sort of paper, the kind which gave it a feeling of importance. There was no return address of any kind, nor any markings at all which could identify the sender. There was only one word, Serena, written neatly in cursive on the front.
"Do you know who left it here?"
"I'm afraid I don't," said Nurse Joy. "All I can tell you is that it was a young woman. I didn't recognize her, and she didn't leave her name."
Serena stared at the envelope. Maybe whatever was inside would say something about who sent it.
"How strange. Thank you, though."
"You're quite welcome," Nurse Joy said with a bow.
Serena returned to the group and was met with curiosity.
"What's that?" said Ash.
"Is it a letter?" said Bonnie.
"It certainly looks like a letter," said Clemont. "Who is it from?"
"I wish I knew," Serena said, holding the envelope up for them all to see. "The only thing written on it is my name."
"That just means you've got to open it to find out!" said Ash.
"That's what I was thinking, too!" said Serena. "Let's see…"
Serena worked her finger under the flap of the envelope and tore it open across the top. Inside, she found a rather formal piece of stationery with a lengthy, neatly-written message on it.
Serena's eyes went wide as she read it.
It has come to my attention that you and your friends Ash, Clemont, and Bonnie not only played a significant role in stopping Team Flare's attack on Lumiose City but also have committed your time since the attack to assisting those in need and helping the city recover. It is my understanding that the four of you risked your lives and endured many hours of hard work not out of hope for some personal gain, but out of generosity and selflessness.
Your heroic deeds for the good of Kalos have not gone unappreciated, and now that the threat has passed, it is my honor to extend to you a token of gratitude. You will find enclosed four round-trip train tickets to Monego City, and a voucher for a two-week, all-expense-included stay in my personal suite at the Grand Monego Hotel and Resort. On behalf of all of Kalos, please enjoy a well-deserved vacation.
Ash peeked over Serena's shoulder.
"What does it say?"
"What does it say, what does it say?" Bonnie said, bouncing on her toes.
Serena lowered the letter and stared at everyone else, astonished.
"I can't believe it," she said.
"Could we see it, perhaps?" said Clemont.
Serena handed the letter to Clemont. Clemont adjusted his glasses, cleared his throat, and read the letter aloud.
When Clemont finished, Ash and Bonnie stared at him, stunned. All Serena could do was shake her head.
"Are you joking?" said Ash.
Clemont shook his head.
"I am quite pleased to tell you that no, I am not. See for yourself."
Clemont held up the letter for everyone to see. Diantha's signature adorned the bottom of it.
"Look at that!" said Ash, pointing to the top of the letter. "It really is from Diantha!"
If the signature wasn't official enough, the letterhead confirmed it. An ornate symbol decorated the top of the paper. It was Diantha's personal stationery.
"It's no wonder there was no return address," said Clemont. "You wouldn't want someone writing back for an offer like this if it fell into the wrong hands! Diantha must have had an assistant deliver it."
As the pieces fell into place in Serena's mind, she dug deeper into the envelope. As promised, there were four train tickets and a voucher enclosed.
Bonnie was bouncing around the lobby.
"Oh yay, oh yay, we get to go to on vacation!"
"I suppose we do," Clemont said, taking a glance at both Ash and Serena. "That is, as long as everything is in order, with your flight and your mothers expecting you and all."
The wave of exhilaration which was washing over Serena broke and crashed. It was too good to be true. Her mother would never believe this. Ash would have to cancel his flight home and find another one. Even Clemont and Bonnie's dad might not let them go. This was too much, too fast. A fun idea, but not a realistic one.
Serena looked at Ash. Her eyes met his, and he blinked a few times. Serena could see that something was going on inside his head, but she couldn't tell what.
Was he thinking the same thing she was? Was he also thrilled that their time together didn't have to end yet? She had to know.
"What do you think, Ash?"
Ash scratched the back of his head and grinned.
"Let me give my mom a call," he said.
Serena watched him walk away. It wasn't the response she wanted. She knew she would have to do the same. She sighed, then shrugged at Clemont.
"I guess I need to make a call home, too."
The call was an awkward one. It wasn't that Serena was going to be away for a few days longer - after all, after this long away from home, what difference did a few more days make? Instead, it was that her mother was suspicious of the story. No amount of holding Diantha's stationery up to the camera seemed to convince her of its legitimacy, but after a long argument, she acquiesced.
For Ash, his call was similar, although his mother's opposition was to how long he had already been away. Serena stepped in and showed his mom the letter from Diantha. Looking rather disappointed, she agreed to go to the trouble of changing Ash's flight home.
As for Clemont and Bonnie's dad, a quick call to his shop was all the convincing he needed.
When the phone calls were all completed, Serena's hopes returned. This was happening. Two weeks at a resort with Ash. There was still a chance. It wasn't over.
The direction of her day had changed so much so quickly that it felt like no time passed at all before they boarded the train.
Before she knew it, Serena was handing the train tickets to the others and stepping aboard. As she waded her way up the crowded aisle between the seats, she berated herself for not checking to make sure she and Ash had tickets for the same row.
They traveled from car to car, checking the placards above the seats. At last, she found a match.
"Here it is!" she said. "This is my seat, the one on the inside, I think."
Bonnie scowled as she checked her ticket.
"This isn't my row," she said.
"That's because we're in the row in front of this one," Clemont said, ushering Bonnie forward. "I think Ash has the other seat in this row."
"But I wanted to sit with Serena!"
Serena looked at Ash. Without a word, Ash looked at his ticket, found the number on the seat, and then met eyes with Serena. He smiled. Serena cheered internally.
Bonnie continued to grumble, and Serena saw the seats in front of her wobble as they became occupied. Next to her, Ash took a seat, and Pikachu climbed down from his shoulder into his lap. For a moment, all was quiet, but then the train began to move, and Pikachu scurried across the armrest dividing the two seats and settled into Serena's lap instead. He looked out the window.
Ash reached over, and for a moment, Serena's heart fluttered at the fleeting thought that the touch might be intended for her. Instead, Ash scratched Pikachu behind the ears and then settled comfortably into his seat.
Time passed in silence for a while. Outside the window, the urban landscape of Lumiose City gave way to farmland and patches of forest. Serena spent the idle moments lost in thought. There was something unusual happening. Something different. It was strange for Ash to have nothing to say for such a long time. He also seemed lost in thought.
After nodding off to sleep for a short while and waking up to find things the same, Serena broke the silence.
"You're quiet today," she said.
Ash turned to look at her.
"Yeah, I guess I am," he said. He smiled and rubbed the back of his neck. "So are you."
Serena, somehow, found herself unprepared for such an obvious reply. She stumbled over her own words before she spoke.
"I'm… a bit overwhelmed by all of this, you know?" she said. "Today has really taken me by surprise."
"Yeah, me too."
Serena wanted to tell him that she had been dreading the end of their journey together and couldn't believe their amazing luck to be able to spend more time with each other, but that wasn't what came out of her mouth.
"I can't believe we're actually going to this place."
"Do you mean…"
Ash trailed off as he reached into his pocket. He pulled out his ticket and searched for the name of their destination, but Serena spoke for him.
"Monego City," she said.
"Yeah, that's it!" Ash said, pointing at the name on the ticket. "I've never heard of the place."
Serena tilted her head.
"I'm surprised," she said. "It's one of the most glamorous cities in the world. It's a world-famous tourist destination."
"Maybe it's world-famous here in Kalos, but not in Kanto."
Serena snorted as she held back a laugh.
"That's not how being world-famous works! If something is world-famous in Kalos, it's world-famous in Kanto, too!"
"Okay, true," he said. "I still haven't heard of it before."
Serena pursed her lips.
"Maybe I was wrong when I said it was world-famous," she said. "It's still well-known, though! You've probably seen it on TV or in movies before and didn't even know it. Here-"
Serena reached down into her bag and pulled out her navigator tablet. She thumbed through a few menu screens.
"Take a look," she said. She passed the tablet to Ash. On the screen were several images of the skyline of a coastal city, a mountain looming over it in the background.
There were no signs of recognition on Ash's face, and he shook his head. Serena let out an exasperated sigh.
"Doesn't look familiar to me," said Ash.
"I swear it's a famous place!"
"I believe you," Ash said, passing the tablet back to her. "I probably just never paid attention before."
Serena flicked her way through a few more menu screens. There was so much Ash had never paid attention to before.
"Maybe you'll recognize it once we get there."
"Maybe. I dunno, though. I'm not very good at recognizing things."
Serena was in the middle of placing her tablet back in her bag. She paused as a nerve twitched in her neck. Ash's statement was either meant as a hint or was lacking self-awareness to the point of parody. It was the latter, no doubt.
Her heart ached. This was the daily experience of life on the road with Ash - of having her heart played with by someone who always remained blissfully unaware that he was playing a dangerous game.
Serena shut her bag. There was nothing to do but carry on.
"Who knows?" she said. "Maybe seeing the place will jog your memory. It's beautiful."
"I can't wait to see it, then. Have you ever been there before?"
"Oh, no way!" Serena said, shaking her head.
"It's way too expensive! Monego City is a famous vacation spot for rich people."
Serena woke from a dream to a flash of light, and the sound of Bonnie's voice.
"There it is!"
Serena stirred. Pikachu jumped up from her lap and pressed his face to the window. The train had emerged from a tunnel. She pushed herself upright in her seat and tried to shake the sleep from her eyes.
The first thing she saw was Ash's expression of awe as he gazed past her, out the window.
"It looks like a postcard," he said.
Outside their window lay a wondrous landscape, too picturesque to be real. Behind them, a mountain. Before them, a beach. The tunnel through which they had passed deposited them on a hill above an azure, pristine sea and a tiny but impossibly dense city. The city was like no other, rich in green, and blue, and earthen shades of red and orange. Plants grew from every imaginable place, even atop the buildings. In the harbor, there sailed an astonishing number of yachts. The landscape glowed with color.
A daydream of shopping along the waterfront with Ash teased Serena's mind.
"If you want, we can probably find a postcard with this view on it," said Serena.
Bonnie stuck her head between the two seats in her row, looking back at them.
"It's amazing!" she said.
"Yeah, it is!" said Ash.
Serena raised an expectant eyebrow at Ash.
"Do you see why I said it was famous?"
"I sure do! I can't wait to see for myself up close!" said Ash.
Ash pumped his fist. Serena couldn't help but smile. His enthusiasm was contagious.
For a brief moment, she hated it. It was yet another reason to get her hopes up about nothing.
But when they stepped off the train and onto the station platform, she knew the excitement was warranted.
Warm, golden avenues stretched before them down the mountainside, a short distance through the tiny city and to the beach. Sea salt hung in the air, along with the sumptuous scents from too many restaurants to count.
Serena checked her tablet. The Grand Monego hotel was only a few blocks away.
"The hotel is so close!" she said. "Come on!"
Her heart and her feet raced. The city was like a dream, a golden, dizzying dream. Ash kept pace with her as she scurried down the meandering alleys, with Bonnie dragging Clemont along behind.
Lights were strung between buildings, and ivy dangled from window boxes and drainpipes. People clad in airy, loose outfits enjoyed the perfect weather. What seemed like every other building was some sort of café or bistro, with vacationers leisurely dining at tables beneath umbrellas.
And on a bluff overlooking the beach, there was the most opulent hotel Serena had ever seen.
It was the type of place she had only seen in movies. A fountain bubbled in front of the building, flanked on both sides by a pristine garden. As they approached, a limousine pulled into the loop in front of the entrance, from which emerged a man in a tuxedo and a woman in a fabulous evening gown. The bellhop escorted them to the door, where the man casually slipped a banknote into the front pocket of his jacket.
"Is this the place?" said Ash.
"It is," said Serena. She saw Ash's jaw tighten. He looked unsure. It was a rare sight, for him, anyway.
"It's really fancy."
"It's called the Grand Monego Hotel for a reason."
Bonnie came up behind them, dragging an out of breath Clemont by the sleeve.
"It's so pretty!" said Bonnie. "Can we go inside? Can we?"
"We have to," Clemont said, pausing for several heavy breaths, "in order to check in."
"So what are we waiting for? Let's go!"
Bonnie left Clemont in a sweaty heap on the side of the street and ran for the door. Clemont was able to make only a feeble grunt of protest before she was out of sight.
Ash offered Clemont a hand and pulled him to his feet. Clemont patted himself off and adjusted his glasses. He gazed up at the facade of the building.
"It's no surprise that Diantha would have a personal suite here," said Clemont. "It looks like it would take movie star money to afford a room at this place."
Serena shut off her tablet. She was grinning from ear to ear.
"I can't believe our luck," she said.
"Yeah, me too," said Ash.
He wasn't smiling.
Serena looked at Ash and caught his eye. When he noticed her, his expression changed to a half-smile, a familiar reassurance. A small dose of confidence. He nodded at her.
"Let's go," said Serena.
The bellhop eyed them over as they passed through the foyer. Serena clutched at her pockets. She was grateful they had no bags for him to help carry. There was no spare cash to tip him.
Inside, red carpets led to a grand staircase, with a massive chandelier hanging from above. On one side of the foyer, a bar. On the other, signs pointing to a spa, and a casino. As they walked past, Serena caught sight of a table at which a dealer was collecting cards with a thin paddle.
Bonnie, meanwhile, was already in trouble with security.
"Bonnie, what are you doing?!" Clemont shouted as he ran off to collect her from the officer who had prevented her from entering the casino.
With Ash, Serena located the reception desk and got in line. As they waited, her eyes darted around the lobby, examining the other patrons. She shifted in place, uncomfortable. They were rather underdressed, compared to everyone else. They were the only people in sight who weren't in formal wear of some sort.
Serena fidgeted with her scarf and smoothed down the front of her dress. To her surprise, she saw Ash remove his hat and begin trying to tame his hair.
"Really fancy place, huh?" said Ash.
Serena bit her lip and looked away from him. She didn't know what to tell him. All of Monego City was going to be like this.
As she watched a pair of elderly socialite women gossip in the foyer, Serena felt a pang of doubt in the pit of her stomach. She was reminded of Palermo and all her words.
She reached into her bag and found Palermo's business card. She stared at it.
Serena looked up and saw that the line in front of them had vanished. A rather tight-faced woman was staring at them over the rims of her glasses from behind the desk.
"Oh! Yes, hello," Serena said, stepping forward. Her hands shook as she placed Palermo's business card back into her bag and pulled out Diantha's envelope.
The receptionist's gaze was withering. Her eyes flicked from Serena back to a monitor on the desk.
"Do you have a reservation?" she said.
"Well, yes, sort of?"
The receptionist's eyes moved from the screen back to Serena, peeking over the rims of her glasses again.
"Do you have a reservation?" she repeated.
Serena fumbled through the contents of the envelope and pulled out the voucher.
"I think so?" she said. "I received this from Diantha."
The receptionist's eyebrow raised ever so slightly. Serena handed the voucher to her, and she adjusted her glasses as she examined it.
Several seconds passed with no response. Serena removed Diantha's letter from the envelope and offered it to the receptionist.
"I have this letter," said Serena. "It's from Diantha, if that helps."
Serena handed Diantha's letter to the receptionist. Her eyes were magnified behind the lenses of her glasses. Her eyelids narrowed as she read.
Serena's stomach tied itself in knots. The receptionist handed the voucher and the letter back to her. They were about to be turned away. It had all been too good to be true. There was no way the staff of this hotel would believe her. She was going to be told the voucher was a fake, the letter was a forgery, and there was no reservation for them. They would be back in Lumiose City by morning, and Ash would be gone the next day. It was all over.
The receptionist was staring over the rims of her glasses again, but not at Serena. Her gaze went right through her, and directly to Ash.
Ash blinked. He pointed at himself.
"Yes, you, with the Pikachu."
Ash stepped forward, but he halted when the receptionist pointed past him with a long, bony finger.
"Is that you, my dear?"
Ash turned, as did Serena. The receptionist was pointing toward a newspaper rack near the entrance. On the front page of today's edition, there was a picture of Ash and Pikachu, knee-deep in rubble. There was no doubt it was taken during their efforts to help rebuild Lumiose City.
Ash reached for the back of his neck.
"Ha, yeah, it is," he said. He looked so bashful.
The receptionist's expression changed into a faint smile.
"Thank you, young man."
Ash opened his mouth but said nothing. He closed it again and nodded.
The receptionist pulled open a drawer and then tucked two key cards into a paper sleeve. She handed it to Ash.
"Everything is in order. Enjoy your stay."
Ash stepped away from the desk. Serena's jaw slackened. It was her name on the voucher, but Ash got through without question? It was an outrage!
Ash looked like he was about to open up the paper sleeve when Serena stalked up to him.
"Let me see that!" she said.
Ash looked at her and froze, clearly surprised by the sharpness of her voice.
"Here you go," he said, handing the sleeve over to her with a shrug.
Serena held it in her hands, and she felt her face flush red with shame. It wasn't Ash's fault. He was the hero, not her.
She kept her eyes away from him as she examined the card keys. The room and floor number on them made no sense. It just said P.
While Serena wondered if this meant they had to stay in the parking garage, Clemont came trudging up to them with Bonnie held in the clutches of his Aipom Arm.
"I'm telling you, brother, she's a keeper!"
"She was with her husband!"
"You never know what could happen!"
"That's very rude of you to suggest! We've been over this a million times! The next time you get apprehended by security anywhere in this city, I'm taking you home!"
Bonnie deflated at that. The group made their way to the elevators. An attendant waited for them.
"Going up, madame?" the attendant said to Serena.
"Um, I think?" said Serena. "I'm not sure which floor our room is on."
Serena opened up the paper sleeve and showed the attendant the key.
"Ah, you must take a special elevator to go up there, madame."
The attendant pointed to an elevator which stood all on its own at the far end of the hall.
"Oh. Thank you."
Serena led the way, and the four of them walked to the end of the hall.
There was no attendant in sight for this elevator. Serena pressed the button herself.
Several seconds later, the door opened. When they went inside, they made a strange discovery.
There was only one button inside this elevator. It said P.
Serena pressed it. The door closed, and her knees buckled as the elevator began to pull them up. The ride continued for quite some time. When Serena thought there was surely no way they could go any higher, the elevator came to a stop.
The door opened. They stepped out into a small hall, with only one door. There was a card key reader on the door handle.
"I guess this is it," said Serena.
Seeing no other option, she slid one of their keys into the reader. The light next to it turned green.
Serena opened the door and stepped into a world of glass.
It was the most lavish room she had ever seen. Diantha's personal suite was an entire floor. The exterior walls were all solid glass, creating one giant window all the way around the hotel. The décor was simple and modern, yet tasteful and elegant. There was not a single speck of dust nor misplaced object anywhere.
It felt too perfect to touch, let alone live in for two weeks. Serena wandered over to one of the many windows. Her fingertips on the glass, she looked down. It was a frightening distance to the ground.
Serena stepped back. Atop a nearby desk, there sat a pad of the very same stationery on which their letter of invitation had been written.
Stepping back again, it all began to make sense.
They were on top of the hotel.
P stood for penthouse.
"This isn't a hotel room," Serena said, turning around to face everyone else, "I think this is Diantha's penthouse."
Clemont peered out one of the windows.
"She was underselling this place when she said it was her personal suite," said Clemont.
"Diantha lives here?" said Bonnie.
"Only when she's in town, I think," said Clemont. "By the look of it, I don't think she's here often."
"It doesn't look very… lived in," said Ash.
Serena agreed. Diantha's penthouse looked more like the display room at a furniture store than anything else.
Despite the incredible view and the pristine décor, what Serena was drawn to most was a photograph in a frame atop one of the end tables.
It depicted Diantha in what looked to be her early twenties, alongside a woman who Serena was certain was Palermo. There were fewer lines on her face, but the demeanor was unmistakable.
Serena wanted to pick up the picture frame to better examine it, but she couldn't bring herself to touch anything. Something about the photo made her stomach squirm.
She could still hear Palermo's words echoing in her ears.
"You don't have it."
Serena tore her eyes away from the photo, then turned her back to it and walked away. There was so much more to see.
There were four bedrooms and just as many bathrooms. Everyone would get to have their own. There was a full kitchen, plus massive rooms for dining and entertaining. It looked like the kind of place where Diantha would host guests.
After everyone chose their room, Ash went to raid the kitchen and left disappointed.
"There's no food!" he said, a desperate look in his eye. "What are we going to do?"
"It's not likely that we can afford many of the restaurants in this city," said Clemont. "We'll have to search for the most inexpensive ones."
Serena bit the inside of her cheek. Monego City was a playground for the rich. You needed big money to stay here. They had no business being here.
Hoping for a miracle, she reached back into her bag, removing the voucher. Serena examined it and flipped it over. Her heart soared.
"If you want inexpensive, how does free sound?" she said.
"Do you mean we get free meals, too?" said Ash.
"At the places listed on the voucher, we do! Diantha wasn't lying when she said this trip was all expense included!"
Ash looked over Serena's shoulder at the voucher.
"Where should we go?" he said. "All those restaurants have such fancy names. I can't tell what's what!"
"They're probably all really good," said Serena. "I wonder which one's the best, though."
Serena pulled out her tablet and began flipping through restaurant guides. She paused when Clemont spoke.
"You know, I think I've heard that Siebold runs a restaurant in this city," he said.
"Siebold?" said Ash. "Siebold of the Elite Four?"
"And world-famous chef," said Serena.
"He's a chef?" said Ash.
"Indeed he is," said Clemont. "Siebold is quite famous for it, actually. I wonder if his restaurant is covered by our voucher."
Serena flipped through the guide on her tablet, then checked the voucher and grinned.
"It is," she said. "Café des Artistes. Take a look!"
Sure enough, the guide confirmed it was Siebold's restaurant, and the name was on the back of their voucher. The excitement in the room boiled over.
Before long, the group was out on the streets again, enjoying the salty sea air as they made the short walk to Café des Artistes. Serena examined the attire of everyone they passed and scrutinized it with her eyes. No matter how casual everyone looked, she still felt underdressed.
After an uphill climb, they found the place on the corner of a quaint street, several blocks up the mountainside from the sea. From the entrance, despite the distance, their elevation and angle gave them an unobstructed, perfect view of the harbor.
Inside, the café was lit by candles, dozens of them hanging from chandeliers and sitting in arrangements on every table. The small, intimate space was filled with people, chatting quietly beneath the easy sounds of a jazz trio playing by the bar. Paintings covered the walls, most of them nautical-themed, some of them with price tags attached to them. Out of curiosity, Serena checked the price on one of them. It was so outrageous that it made Serena want to gag.
With little trouble, Serena showed the hostess their voucher from Diantha, and they were seated at a table for four.
As soon as they were seated, Serena's head was swimming in thoughts of bringing Ash to this place alone. Just a dream, but his reactions to everything were adorable. He had no idea which fork or spoon was meant for what, how to fold the napkin so it would sit in his lap, or what the names of any of the entrees meant. She could feel herself melting inside as he stuttered his way through ordering his meal.
She longed to hold his hand under the table, but Ash's mind was focused on only one thing.
"Where's Siebold? I thought he would be here."
"He's the chef!" said Serena. "He's in the kitchen, cooking."
Ash kept moving in his seat and craning his neck to glance around.
"He's probably cooking our meals right now," said Serena. "You're not going to see him from here."
"Why are you so eager to see him, anyway?" said Clemont. "I understand that he's a member of the Elite Four, but he's probably very busy here. If you want battling advice from him, this isn't the best place to get it."
"I don't want battling advice," said Ash. "I want to battle him."
"Are you serious?" said Serena.
"Elite Four members don't usually accept field challenges, you know," said Clemont. "Even if you ask him for a battle, he's probably going to decline. He's a busy man."
Everyone at the table looked up and saw two members of the waitstaff delivering their food, a plate in each hand.
Or rather, their waitress, accompanied by Siebold.
Serena could sense Ash ready to explode next to her, and in a moment of pure instinct, placed her hand on top of his and held it down to the table. Ash hesitated, long enough for their plates to be delivered. Serena wasn't going to let him cause a scene.
Or she wasn't until Siebold opened up the floor for questions.
"Does everything seem to be in order?" he asked them.
Ash shot up from his seat, hand still trapped beneath Serena's. Pikachu went tumbling from his shoulder.
"Siebold! My name is Ash Ketchum from Pallet Town, and I challenge you to a battle!"
The band stopped playing, and the café went silent. Serena removed her hand from Ash's and tried to use her napkin to cover her face. Bonnie giggled uncontrollably.
"I told you to just let me make two trips," their waitress whispered to Siebold. "This always happens when you come out here."
Siebold gave her a grim nod.
"You know I always think it unprofessional for courses to arrive in pieces, but you have a point," he said.
Siebold crossed his hands behind his back and focused his attention on Ash.
"Ash Ketchum, is it?" he said. "I must say, I am impressed by your bravado, albeit less so by your tact. It is not every day I receive a challenge on the floor of my own establishment."
"It will be every day if you keep coming out here," their waitress hissed.
"Do you accept my challenge or not?" said Ash.
Siebold, as far as Serena could tell, had not blinked since locking eyes with Ash.
Pikachu finished shaking himself off and went scurrying back up onto Ash's shoulder. The corner of Siebold's mouth turned upward into a smile.
"Usually, when I receive a challenge here, it is made by intoxicated middle-aged men who wish to show off for their wives."
For just a fraction of a second, Serena felt Siebold's eyes shift to her, then back to Ash.
"Or their girlfriends," said Siebold. "It is rare indeed to be challenged by someone who actually possesses the pedigree to issue such a challenge. You are the runner-up from the Kalos League, are you not?"
Ash's face bore a confident smirk.
"I watched your battle with Alain. Truly, one of the closest I have ever witnessed, made all the more remarkable by what you accomplished with your Greninja. I commend your strength."
"Thank you," said Ash. He nodded, fists clenched.
"Indeed, I commend your strength, but not your tact. Alain and his Charizard are powerful, yes. I have battled him, in fact. But, it seemed to me all along that you were clearly the more powerful trainer. Had you chosen your moves more wisely in that battle, right now you would certainly have a proper writ of challenge to battle me, rather than attempting to challenge me here, in the dining room of my café."
Serena saw the tension release from Ash's jaw. His resolve faltered. Every eye in the café was staring at their table now.
"That being said, I must admit, your strength intrigues me," said Siebold. "Tell me, are you still traveling with the Greninja with which you battled against Alain?"
Ash gripped a ball on his belt.
"Yeah, I am."
"Splendid. Regretfully, I am rather busy for much of the next week, but perhaps the week after, I can find the time."
"Does that mean you accept my challenge?"
"Yes, it does," said Siebold. He extended a hand to Ash. "To be held next week. How does three-on-three sound to you?"
The two shook hands, and Pikachu added some words of encouragement.
"Very well, then," said Siebold. "I shall leave you to your meal. I hope you enjoy, and when you feel ready, I shall send for our chocolatier to show you our dessert selection."
For the rest of the meal, Ash could not sit still. Serena had never been so mortified. She wasn't sure what was worse - that her first time holding Ash's hand was to prevent him from embarrassing them all, or the glances everyone else in the café kept making at their table. They would be lucky if the incident did not make the local news.
By the time their waitress returned, Serena was quite ready to leave, but Ash wouldn't hear talk of leaving without dessert. It was free, after all.
When the chocolatier arrived at their table bearing a tray with a selection of lovely handmade chocolates, Serena assumed the worst was over.
But then, her eyes shot wide open when she realized who the chocolatier was.
"Why, hello Ash," said Miette.
Miette's saccharine smile made Serena sick to her stomach.
The way Miette nuzzled right up to Ash with the chocolate tray made her feel even worse. A nerve twitched in her forehead. Miette was dressed in the same uniform as the rest of the café staff. She was the chocolatier.
Miette leaned in toward Ash. She spoke in a low voice, hovering by his ear.
"We have such a decadent selection of the finest hand-crafted chocolates tonight. Only the very best for a true hero of Kalos."
Serena glared at Miette. The sensual inflection in her voice was unmistakable. She was going right for the throat.
Ash edged away from Miette in his seat.
"Hey, I'm not the only hero," he said, waving her off. "My friends all helped, too! So did lots of other people."
Miette crept even closer to him, and Ash ran out of chair. He was as far away as he could move in his seat.
Serena went to reach for Ash's hand again. She froze when Miette winked at her and continued her presentation.
"First up, for our hero, we have this luscious milk chocolate and caramel truffle, gently rolled in locally-sourced Monego sea salt."
Miette's eyes lingered on Serena as salt lingered in the air. It made Serena's blood boil.
"Next, a house creation," said Miette. She rotated the tray such that a pyramid-shaped chocolate sat right beneath Ash's nose. "The Pecan Pyramid, a layered confection with a rich, nutty flavor and a savory candied pecan in the center."
She had trapped Ash. He had no choice but to smell the chocolate. When he did, his unsure expression softened.
"Here, some more adventurous fare," said Miette, turning the tray again. "Our spirit-infused mousse truffles, one made with exotic spiced rum imported from Alola, and the other with aged whiskey imported from Unova, with the most gentle, subtle sweetness."
Miette turned the tray yet again, this time with a flourish.
"Now, my personal favorite, this positively sinful raspberry tart with dark chocolate mousse. Soft. Delicate. Sumptuous."
Serena saw Ash's eyes glazing over. There was a hunger in him. Something primal, something pulling him closer to the chocolates, and closer to Miette. The roles had been reversed. He was the one leaning into her now.
"And the best for last. An intimate creation - our purest, darkest chocolate, made from hand-ground cacao beans and sugar cane, blended with the finest sprinkling of chile powder, renowned for its stirring, sensual flavor."
Miette concluded her presentation by placing her tray on the table right in front of Ash. As she pulled her hands away, she grazed his bare arm with one of her fingers. Only the slightest touch, easily dismissable as an accident.
And in Serena's mind, deliberate.
Miette pulled a pad of paper and a pen from the pocket of her apron.
"Now, what may I get for you all this evening?"
Serena stood up and threw her napkin into her seat.
"I'm not hungry."
Leaving the others in stunned silence, she stormed off.