Flannery woke up the next morning, exhausted after tossing and turning for half the night.
She had promised Winona to help out Steven, but it hadn't occurred to her until much later that she had no idea how to go about helping him at all. He had been willing to spend time with her before in Rustboro because she had done him a favor. However, this time he had no such obligation.
Still. Flannery wasn't sure what she would do if Steven acted distantly like he had yesterday. She could still remember the sting of disappointment when his eyes didn't meet hers. Even if she wanted to help him, she might be a nuisance to him instead.
…That would suck.
Winona fed her a healthy breakfast which did wonders for Flannery's dark circles. They chatted pleasantly about the Pokémon news and who the latest up and coming trainers were. The conversation soon turned to Winona's protégé. Winona sounded fondly exasperated.
"I saw Sapphire last week after she defeated some hotshot gym leader from another region. You wouldn't believe the gossip that girl packs. She's not as bad as Ruby, but you know she can climb anything and anywhere to get her information."
The redhead chuckled. "Where is she? Is she still in Hoenn?"
"I believe so. She said she was going to a beauty contest. Probably her boyfriend's."
"Wait. They're dating?"
Winona looked surprised. "Well, they certainly act like it. I hear Ruby's traveling with her the next time she hops the continent. But that could just be Wallace's hunch."
"…It sounds like they're getting serious."
"It's as close to 'serious' as Sapphire can get," the older woman laughed.
Flannery was thoughtful, and a little bit sad. She was exceedingly fond of Sapphire and her spunky attitude, and she was glad that the two childhood friends were together. But she couldn't help noticing that most of her friends, all of them in similar professions, were coupling off and leaving her behind in lonely singledom.
As if hearing her thoughts, Winona gave her a look.
"I hear from Roxanne that you went on a date with Steven."
Flannery swallowed a berry whole. That nosy, meddling teacher. After gulping her water, she spoke, "It wasn't a date. He took me out for dinner as a thank you but that was it." Her voice was steady but her cheeks grew warm despite herself.
"I've known Steven for a long time," the lavender-haired woman said slowly. "He's polite, responsible, and takes his duties very seriously. A little too seriously."
Flannery agreed, but was not sure where her friend was going with this.
"If he's got a weakness, it's probably his inability to refuse a request for help. A hero's syndrome," she smiled. Her eyes caught Flannery's. "But I don't really know him. I don't think anybody does, except maybe his father and Wallace."
"I know," the redhead said without thinking. "He… puts up walls and doesn't tell anybody about his problems. He's too busy dealing with other people's problems."
It had occurred to her suddenly that Steven Stone was a lonely person indeed. Flannery didn't pity him, but just like her only family was her grandfather, Steven's only family was his father.
We have one thing in common…
"I wouldn't be surprised," Winona propped her chin on a palm and gazed somewhere over Flannery's shoulder. "I would not be surprised… if he marries a girl that will help his father's company. He's that kind of person. You know?"
…but I'm not special to him.
Flannery smiled at nothing in particular.
Despite justifying her meaningless feelings and repeating the same excuses over and over again, Flannery still found herself changing her hairstyle a dozen times, before she angrily let it all down. It was only lunch with the four of them. She wouldn't waste her time and energy into making herself look nice. She would concentrate on eating good food, making good conversation, and being a good friend.
As a precaution, she put on her fake glasses that she bought in Rustboro. Eyes were the windows to the soul, and Flannery didn't feel like making her crush on Steven Stone known to the world.
To her chagrin, she was seated directly in front of the very object of her stupid affections.
Steven was wearing casual clothes again, probably borrowed from his friend, and his normally styled hair fell naturally in his eyes. It wasn't fair how handsome he was, even when he did nothing to improve himself. He was leaning back in his chair, but when Flannery sat down, he gave her a familiar smile. It was tired, but nonetheless, he smiled at her.
Wallace paid a great deal of attention to her, more than he ever did in the past. She thought it was because he was close to dating Winona again, and he knew the two females were good friends. He asked about her grandfather, about her gym, and seemed interested in hearing about her travels.
While she spoke, she felt Steven's eyes rest on her several times, but dismissed it as being self-conscious. After all, she was recounting their meeting in Rustboro. Naturally, he would be listening to her with undivided interest. There was no deeper meaning.
Most of the lunch conversation, however, was between the three older friends. Flannery was glad for this, actually, because she had nothing to say and their stories were really funny. It was interesting to observe, for example, how Steven could easily engage in their lighthearted bantering. It showed how comfortable and deep their friendship was.
Maybe Flannery was a little jealous of their close friendship.
But it didn't matter in the end, because after her vacation trip was over, she would be safely ensconced in Lavaridge and would be far, far away from Steven Stone and his handsome smiles and beautiful eyes.
...Somehow, that thought did not comfort her at all.
She blinked and looked up. Steven was standing by her chair, his jacket on. She realized that it was only them two at the table. Winona and Wallace had already gotten up, and she was too immersed in her thoughts to realize they were leaving.
"I'm sorry," she said confusedly.
"You're fine." He smiled and waited as she hurriedly threw on her coat, and then followed her out of the restaurant where the other two were waiting. "Don't worry, it's been paid for," he said as she took out her wallet.
Flannery was embarrassed. "I didn't get much sleep last night so I spaced out."
"Are you tired?" he asked concernedly.
She shook her head quickly, "No, no, I'm fine. Just…slight insomnia, you know?" His fingers brushed against her lower back as they exited the restaurant. Flannery tried to ignore the butterflies that sprang in her stomach. His gesture didn't mean anything. He was only being a gentleman.
When they joined the others, Winona gave her friend a look that Flannery also chose to ignore. They set off for the Pokémon Center, where the two men had stayed for the night. "I just need to pick up a few documents," Wallace explained. Nobody seemed to mind, so off they went.
Somehow, during the short walk to the Center, Flannery ended up next to Steven. She didn't expect him to speak at all. Her expectations turned out wrong.
"When are you leaving Fortree?" Steven asked.
She thought for a moment. "Well, I was planning on staying for three days, but I might leave earlier."
"You miss home?"
"Not really. Of course, I want to see Grandpa. But I wasn't planning on going home until next week, after I visit Lilycove. I want to go shopping and check out the beach."
He fell a couple paces behind to let a couple of ladies pass them bridge. Flannery didn't fail to notice the ladies stare at him, admiring his face. When he returned to her side, Steven remarked lightly, "It's too bad I never got to show you around Rustboro."
"Well, it was raining."
"Not when we saw the moon," he said.
Flannery blinked, surprised that he remembered even that much from their date. It seemed so long ago, and yet…and yet it didn't matter, she firmly reminded herself. Steven was only trying to make conversation. He was being polite and that was it.
It still didn't stop her from enjoying her light conversation with Steven, shamelessly indulging in this pocket of time they could share together. He would never know how much she liked him, but that was okay, because this moment alone was enough for her. His presence, his voice, and his words made her the happiest girl alive.
This is enough.
They reached the Pokémon Center all too soon, and Steven and Flannery were told to wait in the lobby while Wallace showed Winona some data he received from the Association. Flannery didn't mind at all.
"So when are you going to leave Fortree?" she asked him as they took a seat in front of a large television screen.
"Whenever Wallace gives me permission to leave."
She turned to look at him. He was smiling, but he didn't look like he was joking.
"And why is that?"
"He took my Pokémon."
"Oh." When she didn't get any more explanation, Flannery pressed, "And you just… let him?"
This time he turned to face her, his clear eyes amused. "Do you think I'm the kind of guy who would willingly hand over his Pokémon, even to his friend?"
"You're nice enough," Flannery teased. "But that's probably not the case, right?"
Steven smiled again, but it seemed different. "Am I nice?" he inquired, and it almost sounded like he was talking to himself. She wasn't sure what he was thinking, and it was hard to gauge his mood, so she decided to reassure him.
"Well, I'm sure Wallace is doing it for you. You were so tired yesterday and he'll probably return your Pokémon soon enough. You need to rest so that you can—"
"Are you worried about me?"
His tone caught her off guard. Steven was looking at her again, but she couldn't bring herself to meet his eye. He was waiting for her answer.
"Well, I mean, you're my friend," she managed to say.
There was a pause and she didn't know what to do. His eyes on her were heavy, and it flustered her because he wasn't supposed to be asking her these questions, and she wasn't supposed to be letting her emotions get the better of her.
She didn't hear the rest of his words because he was cut off by the loud gasps of a few people nearby. She saw a man and a couple of older ladies staring at the television in surprise. Both she and Steven immediately looked at the screen.
The news was featuring a live broadcast of a familiar skyscraper engulfed in angry flames. The camera was filming from the air, and there was thick black smoke billowing from the fire into the sky. The flames had already covered the top few floors of the building and was spreading fast. Flannery didn't need to read the caption to know it was Devon Corporation.
A few long seconds passed like an eternity in which she could only stare dumbly at the screen.
Steven surged to his feet and ran out of the Pokémon Center before she could blink. Flannery sprang up and followed. She called his name but he didn't stop. People jumped out of his way. He didn't even pause. They had to scoot aside again when she pounded after him on the wooden planks.
He didn't respond.
By the time she caught up with him, Steven was standing at the flight platform, breathing hard.
"Steven, wait," she panted out. "How are you going to get there without your Pokémon?"
To her bewilderment, he reached into one of his pockets and—lo and behold—extracted a Pokéball.
"Let's go, Metagross."
With an audible clang, the impressive Steel Pokémon appeared on the platform, hovering above the ground with its ability. So he lied to her, she thought vaguely. He had been saving this option and for some reason, it only annoyed her. She should have known Steven Stone would have something up his sleeve.
But she had no time to consider this, because Steven was currently lifting himself up onto his Pokémon and Flannery was running out of time.
"Don't go," she burst out. "Let's wait for Wallace and Winona. We'll go together—"
"But you don't have a plan—"
"I'll think of one."
"Take me with you!"
Trembling with either frustration or adrenaline, Flannery stomped over to Metagross. Before she could reach the Pokémon, Steven dropped down onto the platform and blocked her path. She glared at him, not caring if he was angry with her. She was getting in his way, she knew, but her concern for him was getting in her way.
"Stay here," he ordered, eyes hard.
"No." She tried to step around him but he moved too quickly. "Steven!"
"Why?" he demanded.
Flannery was at the end of her rope.
"Because I'm your friend!"
He stared at her. She stared right back at him, determined not to back down. If she held out long enough, Wallace and Winona would arrive here and hopefully they would talk some sense into Steven. She knew what it was like to rush blindly into an emergency without a solid plan, and that never turned out well.
The thought that Steven's father, the President, was stuck up on the executive floor, unable to get out because of the smoke and flames, hammered dully against her senses. But she knew nothing good would come out of Steven flying over to Rustboro and trying to do something reckless that might put him into danger. If anything happened, his father would never forgive himself.
And Flannery would never forgive herself either.
Steven released a short breath.
"Hold out your hand."
She blinked, registering his words. Then relief flooded into her body, realizing he was taking her with him. Her words had finally awakened his common sense.
Flannery gave him her hand, expecting him to pull her up onto the large Pokémon. His larger hand grasped hers. It tightened, and then yanked her with enough force to stumble forward. She collided straight into his hard chest with a surprised squeak.
"What are—" she stammered, but her words died when his arms came up around her, and Flannery all but froze when he gathered her into a flush embrace. Her cheek pushed into his collar and when she automatically breathed in, she could smell soap, coffee, and something unfamiliar. The arms pressing into her shoulders and waist were wiry and much stronger than they appeared. Her heart was beating so loudly that she was sure Steven could hear every pounding beat.
As if this didn't stun her, he lowered his head to murmur into her ear.
His voice, though quiet, was an entreaty which sounded almost weary. It was because of this, as well as his physical proximity, that made Flannery agree without thinking.
He held her for a brief moment before releasing her gently, and then stepped away completely. His warmth suddenly gone, she stared as Steven climbed back onto Metagross. He looked at her and said something, but she didn't really hear him. Nor did she bother to respond. With a command, Metagross levitated quickly over the treetops and sped towards the west: Rustboro City.
Flannery watched until they disappeared, before turning back to the Pokémon Center. She had lost her adrenaline and vaguely recalled what she was supposed to do. Wallace and Winona had to be informed of the situation. They needed to come up with a plan to help douse the fire at Devon Corp. They had to make sure everybody was safe. They had to keep Steven from doing something heroic.
She paused in the middle of the wooden bridge and her eyes widened.
Steven could have left Fortree City earlier. Much earlier.
But he didn't.