Pokemon Pallet Town Music Extended Essay

A thoroughly exhausted Ash walked through the doors of the Pokémon Center, with Dawn at his heels, their shadows long from the setting sun behind them. The cool of the air conditioning was salvation to their sweaty skin, as their clothing clung to their bodies. With legs that seemed to be made of lead, they dragged themselves to the counter, where Nurse Joy was eyeing them worryingly. “Are you two alright?”

“Yeah, we’re fine.” The boy looked to the nurse, straining to show a weary smile. “We were just training our Pokémon.”

“I’m so tired…” Dawn chimed in weakly, leaning against the desk for much-needed support.

“Well, if your Pokémon need rest, feel free to leave them with me. I’ll have them as good as new in no time.” The kind nurse’s words were rewarded with grateful nods from the pair as they handed their Pokéballs over to her. Using each other for support, Ash and Dawn bid Nurse Joy good night before heading down the hall.

“Hey, Ash?” Dawn murmured quietly as the pair inched towards the bathroom.

“Mm?” Ash hummed in response.

“Could I use the shower first? I really don’t like being all sweaty like this.” Dawn pulled her sticky shirt off her body, frowning disgustingly.

Ash chuckled amusedly. “Sure, I don’t mind.”

The girl nodded gratefully, leaning against him as her legs wobbled tenderly. It was awkward, but eventually the two managed to reach the bathroom. Dawn grasped the knob, but felt her legs buckle. It seemed more likely that she would need to take a bath rather than a shower. She sighed to herself, musing over her choices.

“If you want, I could help.”

A furious blush shot to Dawn’s cheeks, her sapphire eyes quickly sliding to meet Ash’s gaze. He was smiling innocently, oblivious to what he was implying. Or maybe it was just her thinking that way…the thought only fueled her blush, but she pushed the thought away. “What do you mean?”

“Well, if you’re tired, I could turn on the shower for you.” Ash grabbed at the knob, his hand over hers.

Inwardly, Dawn sighed. Of course, it was Ash. He was incapable of thinking anything even remotely dirty. Grateful for his aid, she nodded, and they opened the door. The lights flickered on automatically, giving way to a white tile bathroom. The sink and toilet were to their left, with a small mirror hanging on the wall above the faucet. Across from them was the shower, which doubled as a bathtub. A few towels hung on a bar next to it, and a sheet hung around the tub.

Ash led Dawn to the toilet, allowing her to sit down. He moved to the shower, reaching inside and turning the knob. In moments, the shower was nice and warm. Ash took that as his cue to exit, when Dawn’s voice chirped up. “Um, Ash?” The raven-haired boy turned his head, coming to a halt as he glanced at her curiously. “Um, I think I’m actually gonna take a bath instead. Could you…” Dawn started, but Ash already knew her question.

“Sure, I don’t mind.” His warm grin tugged at her heartstrings, as she hid her bashful smile behind her clenched fist. Ash turned around and moved to the shower. Plugging the drain, the tub slowly began filling with water. At this point, Dawn had already removed her pink boots and socks, allowing her feet to breathe fresh air once more. Her toes lightly grazed the floor, feeling the cool tile ease her feet.

In minutes, a steamy collection of water sat in the tub. Cutting off the water, Ash opened the sheet, making it easier for Dawn to enter the tub. He looked over at her, and she could make out a worried smile. “Will you be alright?”

“I’ll be fine, Ash, don’t worry.” Dawn assured him, removing her hat and scarf. The worry left Ash’s face as he headed to the exit. With one last sheepish grin, Ash opened the door, closing it behind him as he left.

Feeling safer with Ash out of the bathroom, Dawn tenderly removed her clothing, placing it all in a stinky, sweaty pile. Taking off her underwear, she sighed, hoping someone would bring her some clothing. She decided she’d rather not walk around a Pokémon Center wearing only a towel. Then again, it was still fairly early in the evening. She doubted that everyone would be asleep by the time she was out. Fully unclothed, she dipped a gentle foot in the bath, thankful that it was just the right heat. Slowly, she sunk her body in the tub, releasing a blissful sigh as the healing waters tenderly consumed her. To her aching body, this was heaven.

Taking a moment to allow the water to work its wonderful way over her body, she leaned her head against the back of the tub, thinking of the day’s events. She and Ash had agreed that their Pokémon could use a bit of training. At first, it seemed like a simple idea, but she soon discovered exactly what Ash’s training consisted of. According to the older trainer, if the person wanted to really be in tune with his or her Pokémon, they had to train right alongside them. And so throughout the day, if their Pokémon ran, they ran. If their Pokémon climbed, they, too, climbed. And if their Pokémon flew…well, it was safe to say that Ash was VERY dedicated to his Pokémon. All in all, everyone in the group had grown weary from the day’s workout, but it was satisfying, in a way.

With an accomplished smile, she took the bar of soap in hand, proceeding to cleanse her body. It felt so soothing; hot water soaking into her, bubbling soap refreshing her body…in her idyllic state, she failed to notice the sedating effects of the bath was having on her. Unconsciously, her eyes drooped, as the fatigue of everything got to her, and she slipped into a quiet slumber…

- - - - -

Sleepily, Dawn’s eyes fluttered open, quickly realizing her body felt strange. It was an eerie sensation, but she cleared her head to realize that she was still in the tub. Her eyes widened. “Oh, no, did I fall asleep?” Unfortunately, she had no clue as to what time it was. However, looking under the crack of the door, she could only see darkness. “It must be pretty late. I bet everyone’s sleeping by now.” Dawn sighed, feeling stupid. Of all the times to fall asleep…there was no way the situation could get worse.

Sadly, it could.

Moving her hand, she found that she couldn’t feel the water. Mystified, she looked at her submerged fingers, wiggling them. Nothing. Now that she thought about it, her whole body, excluding her neck and head, felt the same way. She attempted to grab the edge of the tub, but was shocked when she couldn’t feel her grip. Her eyes shook. “No way. Did I…?” More out of reflex than anything else, she moved her head into the water, before retracting it with a small scream.

It was freezing.

“I can’t believe my whole body’s numb.” Sorrowful tears spilled down her cheeks, feeling utterly helpless. Then, as if someone had decided to answer her prayers, a small knock rapped against the door. Her face lit up like a star. “Who’s there?!”

Before Dawn could react to it, the door slowly glided open, and in walked Ash wearing only a white shirt and some boxer shorts. “Dawn, are you-” He froze, his eyes widening. Dawn, too, wore a shocked expression, realizing the predicament the two were in. She opened her mouth to scream, but quickly shut it; the last thing she wanted was for someone to walk in on them. She merely moved her arms to cover her chest, which was blurry anyway, considering she was still in the water.

“W-what are you doing in here?” Dawn grumbled in a panicked whisper.

“Er, um…you never got out, so I had to take a shower in the other bathroom.” He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, turning his head and closing his eyes.

At this, Dawn’s heartbeat slowed to a normal rate. Well, at least Ash wasn’t willing to spy on her naked. She didn’t even feel like she was a grown woman yet; she held no desire to have any guy see her nude. “Well, what time is it?”

“About 11.” Ash replied, his hands in his pockets sheepishly.

Dawn’s jaw dropped. She’d been asleep for THAT long? She sighed, but then glanced at her body in the water. With her legs numb, it would be difficult to get out without some help…even if her face was numb as well, she’d have still felt the blush that burned her cheeks. “I can’t do that!...but if I don’t, I’ll be stuck in here…” Taking a huge gulp, she sighed, hoping to calm her nerves. “Ash, can you help me get out of the tub? I’m kinda numb from being in here so long.”

The girl noticed a blush grow in his cheeks, though he still kept his eyes closed. “Um…sure, I don’t mind.”

She sighed once more, realizing that it would be a little hard for him to help with his eyes closed. So with a heavier blush, she used one arm to cover her chest, and the other covered her southern region. “Ash, could you grab a towel? You can open your eyes, but no peeking!” She hissed quietly.

“O-okay!” Ash exclaimed. He opened his eyes, but turned the opposite direction so Dawn was completely out of his sight. He looked to his side, seeing the towels hanging on the bar. He grabbed one, then cocked his head the other direction as he held it towards Dawn.

The girl took it in her hand, wondering how she was going to do this. She attempted to stand up, but it was horribly awkward, and she slipped back down into the tub again, her arm gently pounding the edge of the tub as water splashed onto the tile floor. Reflexively, she winced, despite not being able to register the pain. She found herself getting irritated at the water, even if she couldn’t feel it. Plus, the longer she stayed in, the longer it would be before she could get any feeling back in her. So, she reached her hand over and unblocked the drain. It took about a minute, but eventually the water was all gone. Well, at least it was one problem solved. Her only option was…she blushed heavily, hating the situation completely. “A-Ash?”

“Yeah?” The boy replied, suddenly worried about the anxiety in her voice.

“Um…could you maybe lift me out of the tub? I can’t stand.” Her meek voice was matched only by her insanely shy face, although, with his eyes closed, Ash was unable to see it.

Speaking of Ash, the boy’s blush doubled over, taking a deep breath. “Um…sure.”

“O-okay, just…gimme a sec…” As best as she could, Dawn unfolded the towel and covered the front of her body. He’d have to open his eyes to pick her up, and she’d be mortified to have him see her with no clothing. “You can open your eyes. Just…don’t stare.”

With a shuddering breath, Ash nodded, slowly opening his eyes. Before him lay a naked Dawn, covered only by a towel. Her shy expression shot a pang through his heart, as she was blushing a deep shade of ruby. Making sure to not slip or drop her, Ash carefully picked her up bridal style. Even if Ash was innocent, he couldn’t deny that he loved the feeling of her bare skin, especially since it was still slick and wet. “So…where to?” He asked, his gaze to the ceiling.

Dawn thought for a moment. She couldn’t ask him to return to her room; she was sharing a room with Zoey, and if the girl found Ash and her naked, she’d have a fit. Then the rest of the center would wake up, and she’d never live it down. “Um…could we go to your room? I don’t have any spare clothes.”

Ash’s face flushed, though not as red as before. “S-sure, I don’t mind.”

Dawn nodded appreciatively, absentmindedly leaning into Ash’s grip further. Truth be told, she loved being held by Ash like this. And with her numbness removing the feeling of his hold, it was as if she was floating. Although, she’d prefer to be wearing more than just a towel. Quietly, Ash made his way to his room, making sure that his hold on Dawn was secure. In minutes, the two arrived. Thankfully, Ash had kept his door slightly ajar, so he simply nudged it open. He used his foot to gingerly shut it, before standing there awkwardly. “So…what now?”

“Um…can you put me on your bed?” Dawn cheeped.

“Sure.” Ash smiled lightly. Gently, he laid the girl down. Fortunately, on the walk to the room, Dawn had slowly begun to get feeling back in her body. Every fiber of her being was tingling, but at least she could feel. She took the opportunity to completely wrap the towel around her body. Unfortunately, she couldn’t sleep in it, and needed clothes. “So…could I borrow some of your clothes? Just for tonight?”

“Okay.” Ash moved to his backpack, unzipping it and searching through. Eventually, his hands landed on a spare black shirt and some boxer shorts. He handed them to Dawn, who commanded him to turn around. Quickly, she tossed the clothes on, grateful to finally have something covering her besides a towel. She lay back down on the bed, allowing her body to become relaxed as she waited for the tingle to go away. Above Ash’s bed was a window, where the moon was clearly visible in the sky. It looked gorgeous that night, as she sighed quietly.

“Are you cold?”

The girl opened her eyes, turning to look at Ash. He sat at the edge of the bed, shooting her a concerned glance. She smiled softly, shaking her head from side to side. “No, I’m fine. I just gotta wait for this tingling feeling to go away.” She rolled on her side, sitting up so her legs hung over the side, allowing Ash to lie down in his bed. She eyed the blanket he laid under enviously, her hand gingerly grasping it. She jumped slightly, as she suddenly felt a hand on her arm. Ash delicately held her arm, a worried look plastered on his face.

“Dawn, you’re still pretty cold.” Despite her outer chill, a warmth filled her heart. She found herself touched by Ash’s concern.

“I guess I am…” Her eyes drifted to the bed. She knew Ash was a sweet guy, and knew he wouldn’t do anything. She WAS fairly cold still, so…“Um…do you think I could sleep with you tonight?”

Ash blinked, absorbing her request into his mind. Then, he smiled softly. “Sure, I don’t mind.” He scooted over under the sheets, making room for her. Eagerly, she slid under the covers. Her heart was beating rapidly, as she watched Ash with his eyes closed. He looked so adorable when he slept; she wondered why she’d never noticed before. Heat radiated through her, as the blanket slowly warmed her body to a comfortable level. It was now that she could feel the tiny droplets of sweat behind her neck. It was sudden, but she became aware of just how nervous she really was. She gulped, gripping the bed to control her shivering. Was it the cold, or was it Ash? She didn’t know, but she needed to relax. True, she was nervous, but she was very chilly still.

“A-Ash?” She whispered. Responding to her voice, the boy’s eyes opened, questioning in his eyes.

“Yeah?” He whispered.

“Do you think…I could scoot closer? I’m still pretty cold.” Dawn felt her face flush, which she hoped was concealed by the dark.

Ash also blushed, but was hidden by the veil of night as well. “Uh, sure, I don’t mind.”

Dawn nodded, shyly moving closer as she held her arms to her chest. She felt her forearms touch Ash’s chest, and she was started at just how close she’d gotten to him. Warmth exuded from Ash’s body, but she still found herself desiring to be warmer. To be closer. It was a sudden yearning that mysteriously came out of nowhere. She couldn’t find herself to resist it, either. In response to all these emotions that flooded her, she shivered, catching Ash’s attention. “Are you still cold, Dawn?”

She nodded. “Sorry, but it was a really cold bath.” She lied, choosing not to reveal the real reason.

Ash smiled. “It’s alright.”

Dawn shuffled on the spot, feeling anxious. “Ash?” Her voice was meek and quiet. “Can you…hold me? Until I warm up?” She looked at him, and realized that a heavy blush had overtaken his face.

“S-sure…I don’t mind.” With a silent nod, Dawn lifted her body up, allowing Ash to slide his arm under her. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close.

Dawn was assured that Ash could feel her pounding heart, and her head was dazed at how much she was blushing. She gulped, taking a small breath to calm her nerves. She looked up, and found herself gazing deeply into his eyes. The moonlight spilled over him, revealing the dark undertones of his chocolate eyes, leaving her speechless. She found that breathing was becoming a challenge, as she somehow felt Ash’s hold on her grow firmer, as if he wanted her to be closer. Her lips shook, her lungs only being filled with a tiny amount of air at a time.

“A-Ash?” Dawn asked, feeling the urge to say his name.

“Um…you feel kinda cold. Maybe if you’re closer…you’ll warm up faster.” Ash replied, his voice a whisper.

“Oh…” Dawn replied sheepishly, feeling shy but never leaving his gaze. It was intoxicating, keeping hers in a lock that she couldn’t escape. She tried to speak, but her voice left her. All she could focus on was his eyes. They pierced into her, almost like they were looking into her soul. The moment was overpowering; his eyes, the heat, the closeness. And yet, she wanted more. Her heart pounded in her throat as she attempted to speak. “Um…A-A-Ash?”

“Yeah?” His voice wavered just the slightest.

“Um…if I asked you to…kiss me…would you?” Dawn could swear her cheeks were on fire, as the thumping in her body was massive. She was so close to him, and feeling so secure, and yet so nervous, and the emotions were almost too much for her to handle.

His lips were pulled upwards into a smile, as one of his arms pulled her chest closer to his, while the other wrapped itself around her waist. “S-sure…I don’t mind.” And slowly, his eyes closed, his face moving towards hers. Dawn’s eyes shook with anxiety, her eyes closing as her mouth parted gently. The closer she got, the faster her blood raced, until she felt his lips hit hers.

She inhaled deeply through her nose, her senses screaming in uninhibited pandemonium. A soft, sensual fire blazed a trail though her, the source being Ash’s lips. With her arms pinned between their chests, Ash’s hold on her was the only thing keeping her from flying, as she took solace in his grip. She allowed herself to be held, feeling small in his arms. He kissed her passionately, but sweetly, and she was overtaken by the feelings. Attempting to gain some control of her crazed emotions, she kissed him back, and with her eyes closed, all she could feel was him. The kiss was loving, caring, and hid a drug she would forever be addicted to.

With air leaving their bodies faster than it entered, it wasn’t long before the two had to end the passionate touch. With one last lingering kiss, their lips were parted, as they stared into each other’s eyes. A cute blush caressed Ash’s cheeks, earning a small grin on Dawn’s face. She gently leaned her head onto his chest, just below his chin. “Ash?”

“Yeah, Dawn?” A touch of glee emanated in his voice.

“Can we sleep like this tonight? I don’t want to move.” A confidence filled her voice, no longer afraid of the intimacy the two shared.

Ash chuckled lightly, rubbing her back as he nuzzled his face in her hair. Dawn giggled at the action, snuggling deeper into his hold. In her ear, he whispered only three words.

“I don’t mind.”

- - - - -

“Are you ready?” Ash turned to Dawn.

“You bet!” Dawn replied cheerily.

The two then smiled joyfully, cupping their hands around their mouths to amplify their voices. “HAPPY TWO YEAR ANNIVERSARY, RUBY!”

By, Kim Hoppy

"Excuse me, miss."

Misty barely glanced up from the bag she had re-rearranging for the twelfth time. "I'm sorry, Sir, but I can't battle at the moment. If you could wait, one of my sisters'll be here in a moment," she said in vague, polite voice, other things on her mind. Of course, she could battle, but Misty didn't want to.

"I don't want to battle."

She looked up through her longish bangs. "Do you need any help, then?" she asked as she hefted up her bag and swung it over her shoulder in a wide arch. Luckily, this time the contents didn't spill out over the hall. "Some directions or something?"

He shook his head slightly, pale-blond bangs hanging low on his head. "No. I know where I am. I was just wondering if I could have the use of your pool for a moment. My water Pokémon need some time out of their Pokéballs, just to lounge. It's been a while for them." He looked ready to take either answer she could give, uncaring both ways.

Misty nodded slightly, looking at the face. It seemed familiar to her, like she had seen it recently. "Well, I don't see why not, as long as no one needs to battle. Follow me."

"Thank you." The man waited until she started moving before he even budged, and Misty tried to keep up a conversation.

"Are you a water Pokémon expert?" she asked politely, trying to look at him from over her shoulder.

"No." It was said very simply, not conceded nor insulted in any way.

"Just traveling through Cerulean?"

"Yes."

Not much for conversation,

Misty thought as they stepped into the stadium ring. "Here we are. Do you need anything else?"

He had already slung off his pack and was opening it. "No. I'm fine. Thank you." Within a few moments he had withdrawn almost twenty Pokéballs.

"How come you carry around so many?" Misty asked. His lifted his head to look at her with piercing blue eyes.

"Why shouldn't I?"

Misty blinked at the tone. "Most trainers only carry around six, that's all I'm saying."

He nodded in apparent understanding, removing his intense gaze from her and turning it on the water. With a quiet and graceful ease, he released each Pokémon, one-by-one, filling the pool. Misty looked on, eyes wide, as one reared up.

"A Gyarados," she murmured in awe. The Pokémon's violet eyes looked down critically at her, then dived beneath the surface.

Misty thought she'd never live to see such beautiful Pokémon as in one place, swimming gracefully. She didn't even know what they all were, except that they were water Pokémon. They were all so sleek and healthy-looking, twirling under the water. Under such beautiful sights, Misty felt herself walking towards the edge to the pool to kneel closer to them, eyes shining.

She could have looked at them all day, but they paid her no mind. Once, just once, Misty pulled her eyes away from the Pokémon to look at their trainer, her smile flashing, but when she saw him, her smile dimmed. His shoulder-length blond hair was tied in a loose ponytail, and he wore black jeans and a long-sleeved blue shirt that did little to hide his lean, but muscular torso. Even while watching such spectacular displays, his profile looked vague and detached, although Misty thought she saw his eyes lighten. After that, even the Pokémon couldn't draw her gaze back. There was something about this trainer, his aura, which interested her in an unknown way.

He must have sensed her eyes on him, for he suddenly looked up, and they locked eyes. Under any other circumstances, Misty would have felt terribly embarrassed, but, then again, the eyes she would be looking at would have some kind of emotion behind them. These eyes had nothing that her own eyes could read. It was like the trainer was used to being the oddity.

In the end, Misty did look away. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the trainer turn back to look at his Pokémon, and then he recalled them back to their Pokéballs a few moments later.

"Thank you, miss," he said graciously. "I hope you have a good-day."

"Umm, you too, Sir."

He nodded as he shifted the pack on his shoulders, and then turned without another word.

Misty shook her head slightly as she shifted her own backpack, preparing for her own journey. Her sisters weren't here yet, and Misty knew she couldn't leave until they arrived to take care of the gym. Daisy had promised that they'd be back by five, and they had at least thirty minutes left. Part of Misty was thinking that it was very mean of them to actually be gone the full time. They knew she wanted to leave as soon as possible.

Misty strolled quickly to the garage and dragged out her bike, a very nice metallic blue in color. It wasn't cheap either. The bike had arrived at her last birthday from a friend of hers, the very one she had hopes on visiting. Rolling back and forth on it, Misty dimly recalled that this would actually be the first time she had seen him in a bit over five years. She could almost recall the exact second . . .

A voice broke through her reverie. "Hey, Misty!"

Her head shot up and her foot slammed down, sending the bike speeding off. "Bye, Daisy! Violet! Lily! See you in a few days!"

"Say hi to Ash for us!" Violet called.

"I will!" She pedaled faster for the mere speed of it, the wind wiping back her bangs and trying to untwine her braid. She kept up the good pace until she was well out of Cerulean City. Her feet moved against the pedals on automatic, her mind wandering. Misty didn't want to think, and biking always managed to clear her head.

So out of it, it took Misty a full five minutes to comprehend what was almost a mile in front of her. She could she the flickering flames of the fire Pokémon, and there was a rider on it. With a spark of interest, Misty renewed her energy and pedaled faster to catch up with the pair.

"Hey!" she called when the rider was only a few yards ahead.

The Rapidash was slowed down, and the rider turned in his seat.

Misty brought herself level, laughing at fate. "You, again," she said to the blond man she had met earlier.

He nodded to her finding, no humor or interest in their meeting again. "Hello."

Coasting, Misty looked at him. He didn't care, looking ahead and keeping the Rapidash at a steady trot. "Nice Rapidash."

"Thank you." The fiery mane wiped the side of his face, and Misty noticed that his eyes were scanning the horizon for something.

"What are you looking for?"

"A Pokémon," he said levelly, uninterested in conversation. "And there she is. Right on time. YAH!" The Rapidash need no encouragement other than that, sprinting forward, leaving Misty in a cloud of dust. By the time the cloud had dispensed enough for her to see clearly, the blond rider was already halting the Rapidash under a tree a distance down the way.

Misty pedaled quickly to catch up. Now that she had a traveling companion, Misty wasn't going to let him go so easily, especially one that seemed to be an engaging enigma. Her eyes looked at the Pokémon in his arms. "A Pikachu?"

"Yes. Mine. Did you do it?" he asked the tiny Pokémon.

"Pi!" Pikachu said happily, looking at Misty curiously with its brown eyes. "Pika chu pi?"

The blue eyes shifted towards Misty. "Pikachu, this is—" Suddenly he stopped, blue eyes resting on her.

"Misty," she supplied.

The Pikachu leaped from her trainer's arms and onto the head of the Rapidash, looking happily at Misty. "Piiiii! Pikapi chu, pikachu pi!" It bared her a large smile.

"Nice to meet you too, Pikachu," she smiled at the friendly creature. Her eyes drifted over to her trainer's, and she was slightly surprised to see him almost smiling. "And who are you, sir?"

He looked at her. "I'm Shan." He bowed his head slightly. "Come on, Pikachu. Let's get going." He nudged Rapidash gently to get it to walk on.

"Where are you going?"

Shan shrugged. "We're just following the road."

"I'm going to Pallet Town," she informed him, even though he didn't ask. "Seeing an old friend."

He nodded slightly, seemingly thinking about something. "Yes, you'd get there on this road." Again he paused. "Professor Oak lives there, correct?"

"Yes. I know him."

Again Shan nodded. "Maybe we will go there. I need my Pokédex updated." He paused. "So, you're visiting Professor Oak?"

Misty chuckled, raising an eyebrow at him. So he does do conversation. "No, not actually him. A friend is supposed to be coming back. He's been gone a long time."

"What's his name?"

"Ash, Ash Ketchum."

"Can't say that I know him." Shan looked at the horizon. "Where'd he go?"

Misty shrugged, looking at her handlebar. "No one knows. He ran away."

"One of them, then."

Misty's eyes flashed. "What does that mean?" she demanded hotly. Shan gave her no response. "He's coming back. He said so."

"He told you?" Shan asked quietly.

"No. He promised his mom."

Shan turned his head slightly looked at her. "Strange." He blew a wisp of hair out of his eyes.

Misty found herself nodding without thinking about it. "Ash always wanted to be a Pokémon Master," she said.

"Poor reason to run away," Shan said stiffly.

"I used to follow him around on his journeys and stuff. He was like a little brother. An annoying little brother."

Pikachu looked down at her from Shan's shoulder. "Pika?"

Misty smiled up at it. "He had a Pikachu, too, but it ran away."

"Bad trainer, I suppose."

"No," Misty said sharply. She was surprised to see that the Pikachu was also glaring down at its trainer, as if scolding him for saying such a thing, true or not. "Ash was a good trainer, if a little dense and stubborn," Misty said quietly. "Pikachu ran away soon after we came back to Pallet. Ash was almost twelve, maybe a few months shy, I was fifteen, and Brock, a friend of ours, well, he was seventeen . . ."

Ash stood triumphantly at the crest of the hill, looking at Pallet, his hometown, with a mixture of pride and love. "HEY PALLET! I'M BACK!" he yelled happily, hands around his mouth in a makeshift megaphone.

"PIKA PIKACHU!"

"AND PIKACHU TOO!"

"Ash, shut up!" Misty ordered, smacking him on the back of his head. "Like anyone's happy you're back."

Ash made a face as he rubbed the back of his head. "You didn't have to hit me," he complained.

"If you wouldn't act so stupid—" she started, raising a fist.

"Guys, guys!" Brock yelled, jumping between them. "Come on, don't fight. I'm out of aspirin." They ignored him, as usual.

"I bet my mom's happy to see me, and Professor Oak," Ash stated.

"Ohh, wow!" she said sarcastically, rolling her eyes. "Come on. Let's get going."

The argument quickly left Ash's mind as he ran past Misty down the hill and onto the path. "Come on, Pikachu!"

The Ketchum house was right on the edge of the town, and they could already see it. Ash ran in, calling, "Mom! Mom!" as he ran through the house stupidly.

"I don't think anyone's home," Misty told him smugly as he slumped down the stairs, a tad downhearted at his lack of a welcome-home.

Ash nodded his agreement. "Maybe she went shopping or something with Mr. Mime."

Brock joined them after checking the ground floor, shaking his head. "Not with Mr. Mime. He's sweeping the kitchen floor. And he doesn't look too happy."

With a curious look, Ash and Misty stuck their heads in the kitchen. There, Mr. Mime was savagely swishing the dirt around the floor, the look of murder on its normally happy face.

"Ahh, I think I'll talk to Mr. Mime later," Ash sighed. "I know! Let's go visit Professor Oak. Maybe Mom went to visit him to look at my Pokémon."

"Your mom does have other things to do, Ash," Misty said in bored voice.

Brock held his head in his hand, waiting for a fresh fight, as was Pikachu. Ash, for his part, simply stuck out his tongue immaturely.

"Let's go, guys!" he urged, leaving the building almost as quickly as he had entered.

"Do you think we could put him on a leash?" Misty asked Brock in a tired voice.

"It'd have to be a chain."

"Pi," Pikachu agreed wearily, then started to follow its trainer.

Ash was impatiently waiting at Professor Oak's gates by the time they caught up, but he made no remark about their slowness. Instead he ran up the steps and knocked happily on the door.

"Hi, Professor!" he smiled broadly the second the door opened.

Professor Oak looked at him startled, but smiled cheerfully. "Hello Ash, Misty, Brock. And how's Pikachu? Come in, come in. I suppose you'll be wanting your Pokémon, Ash."

"Huh, Professor? What are you taking about?" Ash asked confused as they followed the older man to the lab. Professor Oak literally stopped in his tracks.

"You don't know, Ash?" he asked in a concerned voice, turning to face them.

"Know what?" Ash responded.

"We just got back," Misty explained.

"Is something going, Professor?" Brock asked.

Oak looked down at them, a grim expression on his face. "Ash, I think you should go home and talk to your mother."

Ash was genuinely curious. "Why, Professor? What's happening?"

He looked like he was seriously debating whether or not he would explain everything. "Your mother'll explain it all to you," he said, ushering the dark-haired boy and his friends back towards the door, his voice no happier.

"Why can't you tell me?"

"It's not my place, Ash. I'll see you later."

"Okay, Professor," Ash agreed, still uncertain. The door was shut.

"What was that all about, Ash?" Misty asked, concerned. Something had to be seriously wrong if Professor Oak wouldn't tell them.

"I . . . I don't know," he admitted. "But I'm going to find out. Right, Pikachu?"

"Pi, Pikapi!" Pikachu agreed, leaping onto Ash's shoulder.

Misty noticed that Ash was less quick in returning back to his home, his mind clearing occupied with this current puzzle.

"What do you think's going on?" she asked Brock while they walked in front of Ash. He shrugged.

"We'll know in a minute though."

Ash pushed open the door they had been at less than an hour ago, and timidly—Misty couldn't believe it—called out, "Mom? Mom!"

Misty saw Mrs. Ketchum sitting on the couch, her eyes red. The second her eyes fell on Ash, she leaped up and wrapped him into the tightest hug, crying fully. "Oh, Ash, you're back!"

"Mom! Mom, my friends!"

Mrs. Ketchum, of course, didn't care, and part of Misty realized that Ash didn't mind as much as he usually did. "My little man, I'm so sorry!" she sobbed.

"Mom, what's wrong?" Ash demanded, worried.

She pulled away, drying her eyes with the back of her hand. "Nothing's wrong dear," she said both quickly and quietly.

"Then why—"

"Ash, you're going . . ." she choked, tears brimming with tears again.

"What?" he demanded. Misty would have loved to join in, but she couldn't get involved it this family matter.

"Hello, Ash," said a deep voice.

Misty, Brock, Pikachu, and Ash all turned to see a tall, imposing man, over six-feet tall and broad shouldered standing in the door frame to the kitchen. He had neat black and brilliant blue eyes, a long face and pointed nose. He was wearing a casual business suit and watching all of them critically. Well, Misty reasoned he was actually watching Ash and Mrs. Ketchum. He didn't even appear to notice her and Brock.

"D-d-d-dad," Ash stuttered, backing up against his mother, terribly surprised.

Misty could see it, the resemblance, if her mind stepped back. The pert nose and dark hair was there, but Ash had his mother's eyes and facial features. Ash would never be that broad-shouldered either, unless he worked out a lot.

"Get pack, Ash," his father ordered.

"Li," Mrs. Ketchum pleaded. "He doesn't even know what's going on."

"What is going on?" Ash demanded, his eyes wide with fear. "Mom?"

Mr. Ketchum, Li, looked at Ash. "I thought I made myself clear with my last statement. You're moving in with me."

"B-but why?" Ash questioned.

Mr. Ketchum narrowed his eyes. "You shouldn't question your parents."

"But why do I have to move in with you?" Ash implored.

The father's eyes, narrower that Ash's or Mrs. Ketchum's, studied his son, who hadn't budged from his mother's side. "Because I want you to."

"Why?"

Misty could see that Ash had asked the wrong question. Mr. Ketchum's eyes flashed and his face reddened. "I can't see my own son?"

"You never did before!"

"Ash," Mrs. Ketchum said softly, touching his arm. "Listen to your father."

"Mom," he pleaded.

"Go get packed, Ash," she said quietly, looking at Mr. Ketchum.

"What about my Pokémon training?" he demanded to his mother.

"There won't be any more of that," Mr. Ketchum stated, even though the question wasn't directed towards him. Mrs. Ketchum couldn't look at her son.

"What?" Ash, Brock, and Misty both said at same time.

"Pi?"

"I can't stop training!" Ash yelled. "I'm gonna be a Pokémon Master!"

"No, you're not," Mr. Ketchum said levelly. "I'm not putting up with any of that."

Ash set his jaw. "Then I'm not going!"

"You, fortunately, have no power to back up that statement," Mr. Ketchum said calmly, but Misty could tell his patience was beginning to tried. "You are a spoiled brat how needs to learn about the real world. That is, of course, what I get for leaving you in your mother's care."

"Take that back!" Ash ordered, face almost as red as Mrs. Ketchum's.

"Chu!" Pikachu agreed, cheeks flashing.

"See what I mean. Impetuous, spoiled, used to getting your way." Mr. Ketchum looked at Ash critically. "Get your stuff."

"I told you I'm not going," Ash stated coldly. "And you can't make me." Misty could see him reaching behind his back for another Pokéball.

"ASH SATOSHI KETCHUM, don't you dare!" Mrs. Ketchum's voice sounded clear and ringing. Ash turned around wildly to look at him mother. "Get up stairs, and get your stuff." Misty was surprised at the amount of control Mrs. Ketchum had managed, her voice not once cracking.

"Mom!"

"Go!"

"But, Mom!"

"GO!"

Ash looked at his mom in disbelief, but ran up the stairs at her glare, Pikachu at his heels. Misty heard a door slammed shut.

Mr. Ketchum nodded at Mrs. Ketchum. "Thank you, Hanako."

Mrs. Ketchum didn't respond, turning around to bite her knuckle.

Shan slid off the Rapidash, letting it wander off to feed in the low light. "So he had to go live his father." Shan didn't appear to be much on asking questions if he didn't have to, or talking for that matter. This was the first time he had spoken since Misty had started. Misty would have guessed he wasn't even listening to her rambled on, but something told her each time she had looked over at him that he was listening raptly.

Misty nodded as she shrugged off her pack to get her sleeping bag. "His parents were separated years earlier when he was like three, I think. His dad's a really successful businessman."

"But not a father."

"No, not a father," Misty agreed. "Mr. Ketchum sent money to Mrs. Ketchum to live on. Since Mrs. Ketchum didn't have a job, Mr. Ketchum had the right to take Ash under his sole custody."

"Feel sorry for his mom," Shan said as he lit a fire. Pikachu sat in front of it, sitting on its sleeping bag, still awake and ready to listen to more of the story.

"His mom really did take it hard," Misty agreed, hugging her knees under her chin.

"So what happened? He run away now?"

Misty shook her head, toying with her braid. "No, he didn't run away until almost a year later. Mr. Ketchum decided to leave the next morning, so Ash had all night to plead . . ."

He banged his hand against the table. "NO!"

"But why?" Ash demanded, not backing down. "Why can't I at least continue training?"

"You want to make your way into the world as a trainer?" Mr. Ketchum snapped. "How are you going to be able to support yourself on that? Support a family, should you ever get one?" Misty cringed into a tighter ball on the couch, listening from the living room, at the underlying meaning that she gathered from the words. She gripped the book she had been trying to read.

"It's what I want to do! And Pokémon Masters live well-enough!"

She figured Ash was probably guessing on that area, but it was true. The better you were, the more you made. Her sisters lived well enough as gym leaders. The tips of her fingers played against the tips of the pages.

"Only the best do! There's no life it that! It's a fool's fancy!"

"Then let me make that choice!"

"And ruin your life!"

"It's what I want to do! Damn it, why don't you understand that?"

"Don't you dare use that tone of voice with me, young man!"

"Then let me train and battle!"

"You won't! I don't want anything remotely related to Pokémon in my house!" Mr. Ketchum's voice turned low and dark. "You are going to return your—what is it called?—Pokédex to that crackpot—"

"Professor Oak isn't a crackpot! He's a world famous Pokémon researcher!" Ash screeched, angry at the reference to what Misty thought he must have seen as a substitute father figure in his life.

"You're going to return it. And all of your Pokémon, as well. None of them are stepping into my house."

"I'm not abandoning my Pokémon!" Ash swore. "Not like you left me!"

Misty shot her head up, almost dropping her book, and she could hear Mr. Ketchum hiss as he drew in a breath. He said something in a low voice, so low even Misty couldn't hear it. She jumped when there was a sudden strike of hand against flesh, and Ash yelping more from surprise than pain.

"Understand?" The voice was so cold Misty shivered.

Ash suddenly ran out of the kitchen and out the door, and Misty could see that he was crying. "Ash!" she called, setting the book aside. He didn't even stop to look at her.

She was just about to follow Ash when Mr. Ketchum's voice reached her ears. "Don't. Leave him be."

Misty narrowed her eyes, then ran out the door, more to get away from Mr. Ketchum than to go after Ash. Mrs. Ketchum was standing, clutching her trowel tightly, looking in the direction Misty figured Ash had ran off in. His mother's eyes were red, and Misty noticed that the flowers that were going to be planted weren't even out of their pots. Mrs. Ketchum looked imploringly at Misty, and Misty made up her mind. It was just before dusk, with enough light out to see the shadows that could soon be free. "Ash!"

Nothing answered her, but Misty kept on searching until it was late, sun set and completely dark. It was then that she found Ash, curled up in the fetal position and crying. She touched his shoulder gently, and he jumped to look at her with his face drenched with his own tears, hair messed up, and face touched with dirt. His League hat was also missing.

"She's gone," he whispered, bottom lip trembling. His brown eyes were so wide, like a lost puppy's.

"Who's gone?" Misty whispered back, kneeling next to him.

He sniffed. "Pikachu. She's gone." He was suddenly unable to breathe. "I—I told her she couldn't come along! And—and she r-r-ran away. I can't find her, Misty! I can't!" He buried his head in his arms. "I looked, and looked, but s-she's gone! And it's all my fault! My fault."

"She'll come back, Ash," Misty promised.

He shook his head wildly. "No she won't. She w-won't. And it's my fault. I hurt my best friend!" Sobs raked his body, and he started to hiccup.

"Sh, shh Ash," Misty reassured. "She just needs time to think. She'll be back. Don't worry, okay."

"I—I can't t-train anymore, M-misty," he whispered. "I c-c-can't." He dug his fingers in his hair.

Misty bit her lip, knowing how much that fact would hurt him, almost as much as Pikachu's departure. "Come on, Ash. Let's get back to the house." She tried to pull him up, but he wouldn't budge. "Come on!" she urged, again trying to heft him up, but he remained stubborn.

He shook his head. "No, I'm st-staying here. Just g-go away." He turned away from her, curling up against the tree.

"Ash," she started, not unkindly. "You can't—"

"Misty," interrupted a gentle voice. Misty turned her head to Mrs. Ketchum standing there with a lamp in one hand and a blanket draped over her other arm. "Go to back to the house. We'll be okay." She knelt down by her son, who hadn't even acknowledged her presence. "Come on, honey," she murmured, wrapping the blanket around him.

Misty backed away and watched as Ash turned towards his mom, as she wrapped an arm around him, and as she petted his hair he cried freely. Mrs. Ketchum murmured small, wordless reassurances like a mother would do to console a child who had just witnessed a sighting of the bogeyman. The way the light and shadows danced over the display, it played with the proportions. Ash looked like a young boy, maybe three, so small and fragile, it made the statement seem all the more true.

It was a sight. Ash cried, Misty knew it, when his Pokémon did such things as show their loyalties to him, but the 11-year-old was more withdrawn when it came to his own feelings. On some level it was disturbing to see such a strong person broken to this extent. Mrs. Ketchum slowly started to rock him back and forth, heedless of his age, trickles of tears also from her own eyes. They were all each other had known, and they were being ripped apart. Misty turned her head away from the scene and walked away.

Later, after Misty found she couldn't sleep, she walked over to the window, and over by a tree she could see a light flickering, two figures next to it.

And Misty cried.

By the time breakfast came the next morning, Misty had managed to get some sleep. Ash and Mrs. Ketchum were already at the table, sitting side-by-side. Mr. Ketchum sat across from them. Misty saw that Mrs. Ketchum was holding Ash's hand tightly under the table and neither of them were looking up. Brock was cooking in the kitchen, and it was deadly quiet.

Mr. Ketchum set down his chopsticks. "Are you ready?"

"He still has to return his Pokédex and Pokéballs to Professor Oak," Mrs. Ketchum said quietly. Ash winced at the words like they were a whip.

"Is that all?" Mr. Ketchum asked, glaring at Mrs. Ketchum for speaking on behalf of her son. Ash nodded mutely, still not looking up.

"P-prof-fessor O-oak said he was going to c-c-ome over," Ash whispered. "I c-c-called."

Mr. Ketchum nodded with a passing breeze of respect. "Good. After that's done, we're leaving. I've already put your stuff in the car." Again Ash nodded mutely.

"Does anyone want seconds?" Brock asked.

"What time is this Oak fellow coming?" Mr. Ketchum asked, holding his plate up to Brock.

Ash shrugged, looking at his untouched food. Brock had purposely made his favorite—chocolate chip pancakes—and Ash hadn't even gave them the usual drool.

"Where do you live, Mr. Ketchum?" Misty asked, unable to put up with Ash's sadness. "Maybe Brock and I could visit Ash." Ash raised his eyes to look at his friends, and both of them gave him a smile. The corners of his mouth quirked up momentarily.

"I doubt it," Mr. Ketchum said smoothly. "I live over in Ziganka, on pretty much the opposite side of the world."

"Oh." Misty's eyes went over to Ash, who looked even more pitiful. She wished she had never asked.

There was a knock at the door. Mr. Ketchum wiped his mouth. "That must be Oak. Get up, Ash and get it over with."

"'es, sir," Ash muttered, standing up from the table, eyes still downcast as he walked towards the living room. He opened the door soundlessly. "Hi, Professor Oak. Oh, hi, Gary."

"Hello, Ash."

"Hey, Ash." It was definitely Gary's voice, but it seemed nicer.

Mr. Ketchum stood up and made his way to the kitchen, everyone following. Misty watched as he gave a wide smile and extended his hand. "Ah, you must be the famous Professor Oak I've heard about." It was so fake it made her sick.

"Why, hello," Professor Oak smiled, shaking the hand. "You must be Mr. Ketchum. I'm sorry to say I don't know much about you. This is my grandson Gary, a fellow Pokémon trainer like Ash." Oak smiled at the two boys, but his eyes lingered on Ash, worried about the change in character.

"That's the reason my son called you over here. He has something to give you." He set his hands on Ash's narrow shoulders.

Oak smiled at Ash. "What is it, Ash?" He was probably expecting a good-bye or something.

Misty watched as Ash froze. Mr. Ketchum nudged his son, and slowly Ash dug into his pocket. "Here, Professor," he whispered, barely audible. He held out his Pokédex and Pokéballs.

Both Professor Oak and Gary looked at Ash, shocked. "What are you doing, Ketchum?" Gary demanded.

"I'm giving back my Pokédex," Ash whispered, not meeting their gazes. "I won't need it. I'm not going to be Pokémon Master. Here, Professor."

Oak took them slowly, waiting for Ash to laugh and say, "Kidding." He was even more shocked when Ash didn't.

"Are you crazy, Ketchum!" Gary charged, stepping forward. "How can you just give up!" Ash didn't answer. Oak set his hand on Gary's shoulder, as he was infuriated by Ash's silence.

"Come on now, Ash," Mr. Ketchum said, pleased. "It's time to leave." He pushed his shocked son forward, towards the door.

"Grandpa, what's going on!" Gary demanded.

"I don't know," Oak said quietly. "I don't know."

Outside, Mrs. Ketchum was standing at the door, and she hugged her son so tightly Misty was surprised he could still breathe. Ash was crying again, quietly.

"If you see Pikachu, or if she comes back, you'll take care of her?" he whispered hopefully. Mrs. Ketchum nodded.

"Ash, if you ever want, you can have you're Pokémon back," Oak stated. Ash nodded dumbly, although he must have known it would never happen, just judging by the look his father gave him.

Gary smirked suddenly. "But, if you're not taking them back, I'd be happy to train them for you."

"Gary!" Oak snapped quietly. Now was not the time for that.

Misty and Brock both looked at Ash, waiting for his reaction. Gary was smirking when Ash finally took a step forward. Gary closed his eyes, like he was waiting for Ash to punch him. "You do that, Gary," Ash said hoarsely. Gary's eyes snapped open in surprise, as did everyone else's except Mrs. Ketchum's. "They've gotta get trained, and . . . and I know you'll be a great Pokémon Master. Good luck." Ash held out his hand.

Gary took it, still in shock. The smirk was gone, and disbelief was written on his face.

"Come on, Ash," Mr. Ketchum said impatiently from inside the car.

"Bye Misty, bye Brock," he whispered, but he stepped back when Misty made to hug him. "Good bye."

"Bye, Ash," Brock said, nodding.

She looked at him puzzled for not accepting her hug. "Bye."

Ash turned around slowly and started to walk towards the car. His eyes slowly started to scan the fields, and Misty knew he was looking for Pikachu. Ash probably figured he could maybe beg his father into it at the last minute with all the witnesses, or maybe hide the mouse until them. "Good bye, Pikachu," he whispered, then climbed in the open door.

They all watched the car go off. Ash didn't even look out of the window, but sat looking down at his feet.

Mrs. Ketchum stood there crying.

Misty looked up from the fire, which had transfixed her attention as she told the story. Shan was also looking off in the distance, holding Pikachu, who had started crying during the story.

"I saw him just once after that," she finished quietly.

Shan nodded, looking at her with his blue eyes, "Was hard."

"For everyone."

Again Shan nodded, petting Pikachu, who was looking up at her trainer with wide, wet, brown eyes. "It still isn't my place, but I don't think that's much of an excuse for running away."

"Pikapi?" Pikachu looked up at her trainer, then over at Misty, waiting for her response.

Misty yawned. "I told you he didn't run away until he was with his father for over a year, about a year and a half."

"My mistake," Shan said quietly. "You might want to get some sleep. It's late enough as it is."

She nodded, crawling into her sleeping bag without an argument. Her eyes watched as Shan carefully set Pikachu over to the tiny sleeping bag.

"Sleep well, old friend," he murmured, petting her head.

"Chu, Pikapi."

He smiled slightly, shadows dancing across his face. Shan made his way towards his own sleeping bag.

"Shan?"

"Hmm?" he replied, opening his own bag.

She propped her head against her hand. "Where are you from?"

"I don't have much of a home life," he said calmly. "I was originally from around here though, a long time ago. But my parents decided to transfer me to a better district."

She nodded, looking at his profile. "You know, you look familiar."

Shan stiffened. "You might have seen me on TV," he replied quietly. "The last three League games."

Suddenly she remembered. "You're the one who won for the past three years! And you turned down the offer to join the Elite!" Shan nodded slightly, as if unhappy that she had remembered him. "Are you a Master, then?" He seemed old enough to be, and his current standing with the League was a pretty good indication.

"Trainer. I'll always be a trainer, always something to learn." He laid down under the fabric, then looked up into the night sky. "I used to dream of being the greatest, but then I found out there's always someone better. You can only hope to be the best you can be. No, I'll never be a Master, as least not to myself, Miss Gym Leader." He spoke his words smoothly, believing every word of it.

"Why did you turn down joining the Elite? Everyone wants to join them."

"What's the point?" Shan asked quietly. "I don't have to be a gym leader or part of a group to be good. I know I'm good, but I'm not going to be comfy sitting on the top. People are always getting better, and the best way to keep my skills up is to keep traveling."

"Ash wouldn't say that," Misty sighed.

He didn't roll to face her, still looking up at the stars. "You think so?"

She nodded. "He'd say you can be better, I suppose, but he'd consider himself a Master if everyone else did. He was always so sure of his skills. It was kind of annoying after awhile. He always seemed to win by a stroke of Luck, if you ask me, and the wins went right to his head most of the time. If he had the chance to join the Elite, he'd have join in three seconds flat."

"Sounds like a pretty confident kid. You got to be confident in this line of work." Misty blinked in surprise for a moment, for the first time hearing Shan stick up for Ash.

"This year I'm not going to the League," he continued. "At least I don't plan to. I think it'd be best to give the honor to someone else."

Misty turned her head at the trainer. "That's sweet of you." Shan shrugged. "Do you think Mr. Ketchum was right, about Pokémon training being a fool's folly?"

"Everything's foolish, even not attempting," Shan said quietly. "He was probably just protecting his son from a very harsh reality. This is not the easiest thing to do. That's why you start so young."

She snorted. "I never could figure out Mr. Ketchum. Why wouldn't he even let Ash have Pokémon, and sending him to that school?"

"Hmm." Shan closed his eyes.

"I can't wait to see him again though," Misty smiled. "You'd like Ash, provided he doesn't annoy you too much."

"Maybe I'll say hi," Shan said vaguely.

Misty smiled. "Good night, Shan."

"Good night, Misty."

She rolled in her bag, closing her eyes.

It seemed that no sooner had she closed them a noise made her open them. A sweet, enchanting tone tickled her ears, and she rolled over, pushing herself up.

Eyes closed, his side towards the rising sun, Shan sat playing a flute, his fingers dancing nimbly over the keys. Misty sat up, hugging her knees, and closed her eyes to let the music course her veins. Pikachu was at Shan's side on a rolled up sleeping bag, rocking to the music. In the meadow, Rapidash perked its ear to listen as well. All of the birds were quiet, and it seemed like the notes the flute made controlled the very light from the sunrise.

When the music suddenly stopped, Misty's eyes snapped open. She watched as Shan set the instrument back into a tiny case, then closed it carefully. It took her a while to find her voice.

"That was beautiful," she whispered.

He made no motion. "It helps me think," Shan finally replied, sounding slightly embarrassed at something, whether it be her comment or listening to him play. "It's the only thing I can really play on the thing, took me how many lessons to learn. And the Pokémon like it. It has a very soothing effect on them."

"On everyone," she corrected. "Where'd you learn?"

"At school. It was the only instrument they had left." His blue eyes looked at her, and there was a flash of a smile. "Sorry to have woken you, but I prefer to play at dawn."

"It's all right," Misty smiled. "How long have you been up?"

"Almost an hour. Breakfast?" He tossed her a packet from his bag.

"Thank you." She opened it carefully, watching trainer. She must have been talking since eleven, and the sun rose at five, maybe, so he'd had about six hours of sleep.

"Pi chu pika?" Pikachu asked her. Misty looked at the yellow mouse unsure.

"She wants to know if you're going to continue your tale of woe," Shan translated quietly. "She likes a good story." His eyes also looked up at her briefly, as if wondering the same thing but too withdrawn or polite to ask as well.

Misty looked at the tiny Pokémon, its eyes eager as it sat next to its trainer. It seemed nice to get it all out in the open, the whole story, to remember the incidents that led up to Ash's departure. And Shan listened like a quiet well, drawing in all of her words and echoing them in his head.

She twirled the breakfast nugget through her fingers. "Me and Brock visited him a little bit over a month before he ran away, or when we think he did. I knew Ash wasn't that happy there, but he wasn't that sad either," she shrugged. "It took us a long time to save up—all off the past year—and even then Mrs. Ketchum chipped in. We invited her along, but she said she wouldn't be welcomed. Anyway, we came on a Saturday . . ."

"Wow," Misty whispered, looking at the massive and ornament building. "Are you sure this is the right address, Brock?"

He nodded, although he too was double-checking the numbers Mrs. Ketchum had given them. "This is it. Ready?"

Misty smiled deviously, hefting her bag. "He's gonna love this, I know it!"

They walked up the path, which was trimmed with some of the most flowers Misty had ever seen. The duo was still getting used to the large, but seemingly hidden city of Ziganka. Skyscrapers didn't destroy the horizon so much as enhance it, and there wasn't a trace of smog anywhere. The air was fresh, and, although a seemingly large city, there weren't a lot of people crowding the streets. The countryside was spacious and well groomed, for a lack of a better word.

"You knock," Misty said hesitantly when they reached the large door. Brock rolled his eyes, but obliged.

The door was opened promptly, a friendly, plump middle-aged woman in a black dress standing there. "Yes. May I help you?" she inquired, looking at them skeptically.

"We were wondering if we could see Ash?" Brock said politely.

Her suspicious nature suddenly melted. "You must be Misty and Brock," she smiled warmly. "Ash has told me so much about you."

Misty smiled back at her. "That's us. We were just in the area—" the maid looked at her skeptically, and she blushed, "—we decided to boot the fare over here and say hi."

"I thought so." The maid sighed. "Well, I'm sorry, but Ash isn't here right now. He's at school."

"On a Saturday?" Brock question incredulously. The maid smiled at them hopelessly.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I'm Ms. Roads, but you can call me Carmen. Just the cook and maid of the place. Come in, come in. I just made a light lunch."

Brock and Misty walked in, and Carmen shut the door soundlessly behind them. The room they had entered was enormous, lit by a crystal chandelier overhead. The decor wasn't overdone, but it plainly said that the master of this house was in the money.

"Follow me, please. I know Ash was surprised at the home too."

"Umm," Misty started as they followed the woman. "What time does he get home?"

"Five o'clock, just in time for supper." Carmen set them down on two stools and quickly cut them a sandwich. "How long will you be staying?"

"Our plane leaves tomorrow. It was all we could afford," Brock answered as he took the plate. "Thank you."

"Thanks."

Carmen looked at them. "So you came all the way just to see Ash?" They nodded mutely. "He's a good kid, a little quiet."

Misty choked on her sandwich. "Ash? Quiet?"

"He keeps to himself mostly, very introvert," Carmen nodded. "But he'll be so happy to see you. In fact," her eyes strolled over to basket. "Why don't you go see him now?"

"Pardon?" Brock questioned, leaning forward.

Carmen picked up the basket. "I usually deliver him lunch, but today my chores just seem to be piling up," she stated in mock remorse. "Would it be too much to ask you to deliver his lunch?"

"We'd love to," Misty smiled broadly.

"Good," Carmen sighed, shoving the basket against Brock. "I'll send Ken around to drop you off. Just go wait outside by the front door, same way you came in." With that, she bustled out of the kitchen and out of sight.

"Ash has to go to school on a Saturday?" Misty repeated, making a face.

Brock looked at her as they tried to find their way back to the door. "What about him being quiet, huh?" He smiled weakly.

By the time they stepped out onto the front stepped, the car—limo was waiting for them, door opened. A kind-faced man smiled down at them. "You must be Ash's friends, correct?" He rolled his R's, making it sound like he purred.

"That's us," Brock nodded, carefully sitting down and scooting so Misty could follow. Ken closed the door behind them politely.

"Off to Z.P.S.," Ken smiled, looking in his mirror at them as they started off.

"Z.P.S.?" Brock repeated.

"Ziganka Private School," Ken replied. "One of the best schools in the world."

"Does Ash like it?" Misty asked, pulling her eyes of the passing scenery.

Ken shrugged. "No kid likes school, ma'am. He'd rather be home instead of at school from eight to five six days a week, I'll bet." He looked up at them. "We're almost there."

The passengers nodded. "Where would Ash be?" Misty asked suddenly, looking at the basket on Brock's lap.

"Usually he's by the fence, next to the tree doing his homework, ma'am." Ken pulled up into a driveway. "In fact, there he is, if I'm not mistaken."

Both Misty and Brock pressed their faces against the glass, trying to find their old friend. "Where?"

"Right there, in the back," Ken said, opening their door and helping them out. "See?" He pointed over in the distance at a solitary figure that was working out of a book. "Would you like me to take you back, or would you like to stay with Ash?"

"We'll stay," Brock said. "That's for the ride over though."

"Just doing my job," he smiled, sitting back into the driver's seat. "Hope you have fun." Ken then drove off.

"Brock, open the basket," Misty ordered as she took her bag off her shoulder.

"What are you doing?"

She smiled wickedly. "Just think what he'd do if he saw his Pokémon in here!" Brock grinned back. "Come on," she urged, closing the lid carefully.

They walked along the edge of the green, avoiding the games of the students, but unfortunately not their stares. As they drew closer to the figure, Misty could see that it was Ash, except his hair was neater, cut short, and was wearing a uniform like everyone else at the school, a suit. He still hadn't looked up from his book, except when he occasionally wrote something down on a notebook at his side.

"Hey, stranger," Brock smiled.

Ash literally jumped, his head snapping over towards them. "Guys?" His voice sounded a tad different, deeper.

"Hi!" Misty chirped. "Bet you didn't think you'd see us again, huh? Well you're wrong! You still haven't paid me back for that bike, Ash Ketchum!" She laughed.

"What are you doing here?" he laughed, jumping up, eyes shining.

"Delivering your lunch. Here, take a look. We added something." Brock winked at Misty as he handed the basket over.

Ash took it suspiciously. "What'd you do to it?" he asked as he turned the basket over.

"We didn't do—"

"Hey, Ketchum, who are your friends?" demanded a voice. Misty and Brock both turned to see a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy standing there, surrounded by a little mob. Ash frowned at the boy, not answering. "Where are your manners? Introduce us."

"This is Misty Waterflower, from Cerulean City, and this is Brock Harris, from Pewter City. They're my friends," Ash said lowly. "Brock, Misty, this is Tom."

Tom looked the over critically. He was younger than Misty and Brock, probably Ash's age, but that didn't stop his cockiness. "Don't look like much."

"You wanna say that to me, now?" Misty demanded, raising a clenched fist.

"Easy, Misty," Brock sighed, shaking his head. "We didn't come to fight."

"I could beat you," Tom challenged Misty.

Misty narrowed her eyes at the upstart. "You just go on believing that." She then turned to Ash, purposely ignoring the brat. "So, Ash, how have you been? You're mom's pretty well. Mr. Mime and her have planted this beautiful garden."

Ash was going to answer, but several students had erupted into fits of laughter. "His mom's got a Pokémon!" Ash's face reddened with anger.

"And what's so bad about Pokémon?" Brock demanded.

Tom looked at them critically. "Nothing. It's just that they're so . . . childish. But then again, you would know about that, wouldn't you?"

"Misty and Brock were gym leaders," Ash snapped. "Where are you're manners?" This even caused more laughter to spew from everyone's lips, and Misty and Brock narrowed their eyes at them. Ash was trembling with barely controlled anger.

"How quaint," Tom smiled at them.

"Listen," Ash gritted. "You'd better—"

"Ash! Don't!" Brock and Misty yelled at the same time, but it was too late. Ash had already thrown the basket, and it hit the ground hard.

"Oh, no," Brock groaned.

The Z.P.S. students were cowering back as the Pokémon were released. Charizard let out an especially angry roar, fire raging from its jaws. Squirtle was rubbing its head, and Bulbasaur was looking less that thrilled. Snorlax was, well, snoring; Muk was bobbing up and down. Ash, however, was standing there, eyes wide and mouth open.

"Charizard! Bulbasaur! Squirtle! Muk! Snorlax!" he yelled. They all turned their heads to look at him, then rushed to offer their welcomes. They smashed into him as one, and Ash tumbled down, laughing. "I've missed you too!"

"We thought you would," Brock laughed, helping him up, Muk still hugging the younger boy's legs.

"It was your mom's and Professor Oak's idea!" Misty added.

"We couldn't bring all of them, of course. Professor Oak is having them do a few studies for him, and he's having a conference at him house with important discussions on Pokémon, and then supper later on."

Misty laughed. "He insisted we bring Muk! And Snorlax."

"Look at them." Ash's eyes were shining. "Are they being trained?"

"No. Professor Oak wouldn't let Gary. Of course, Gary wasn't going to do it anyway. Something about Charizard." Misty winked at the lizard.

The fire lizard roared quietly, sending a small gust of smoke out of his nostrils.

"So, Mister Trainer, care to battle?" Brock smiled.

Ash looked over at Brock, startled. "I don't battle anymore," he said quietly.

"SAUR!" Bulbasaur yelled, vine whips ready.

The trio looked at the grass Pokémon, who had gone defensive towards the Z.P.S. Apparently one had thrown a rock on it, for it was nursing a bump on its head.

"Hey, Bulbasaur, easy," Ash commanded gently. "You're tougher than that."

"Doesn't look like much," Tom said. "It's just a little—AHH!" He screamed as Muk prepared to say hi in its own mucky way. "Get this disgusting thing away from me, Ketchum!"

Ash couldn't give any such command, too busy laughing. "Muk still likes people, and still not too choosy. Come on, Muk, get off!"

"Muk, muk!"

"You know the rules, Ketchum! You aren't allowed to bring Pokémon on the property!" Tom sneered. Brock and Misty suddenly looked at each other, immediately aware of the trouble they had gotten Ash into.

"Ash didn't. We did," Misty retorted.

Tom grew enraged at her saying he was wrong. "They're his, then. Lil' Ketchem's in big trouble for this one."

Brock and Misty both looked at Ash, who didn't deny the fact, his face paler.

Charizard growled deeply, eyes narrowing on Tom. The other Pokémon followed the lizard's suit.

"Actually, Ash doesn't have any Pokémon," Brock stated after a moment. Misty waved her hand behind her back at the Pokémon, telling them to keep it up. Professor Oak had explained, or tried to, the situation to them, but they were all still very loyal to Ash. "These are actually Professor Oak's."

"Look like his," snapped a student.

"I'm not allowed to own Pokémon," Ash said lowly, eyes narrowed. "These were mine, but I gave them to Professor Oak."

Tom's face reddened. "Pokémon are stupid, and only those who can't make it in the real world train or study them!"

"Or breed them," Brock added darkly.

"Or raise them," Misty said just as dark.

The Pokémon were also now staring angrily at the troupe, even Muk. Ash's arms were crossed, eyes narrow. "This is from someone who has never battled in a competition."

"Doesn't look hard," some piped up. "You send that dragon thing out to whip its butt."

Misty smiled evilly. "And I take a little star and tell it to Water Gun it. Fire types are weak against water, and Charizard is no exception. Sure, he could beat Starmie, maybe."

"Or I could use Onix," Brock mussed. "It wouldn't be that hard of a battle."

The lizard growled at the two trainers who were betting its defeat, who laughed nervously.

"Of course, Charizard is at a very high level," Brock added quickly.

Tom looked unimpressed. "Still for losers. Right, Ketchum?"

Ash narrowed his eyes. "Battle against me and we'll see who the loser would be," he said lowly.

"I don't plan to stoop to that level," Tom sneered. "But if you like," he smiled, rolling up with sleeves, "we can fight."

"WHAT ARE THOSE CREATURES DOING ON SCHOOL PROPERTY?" demanded an authoritative voice. The group whirled around to see a man in a suit storming down on them.

"They're Ash Ketchum's, Headmaster Dell," Tom smiled innocently.

The mustached man turned on Ash, who paled under the glare. "Really?"

"We brought them," Misty explained quickly. "And they're not really his."

Headmaster Dell looked them up and down. "Who are you?"

"We're Ash's friends, visiting," Brock said. "I'm Brock, and this is Misty. We weren't aware of the no Pokémon policy on school grounds, and we brought them here. Ash didn't even know."

"They're lying, Headmaster," Tom smiled. "And Ash challenged me to battle him."

Ash said nothing to his defense, and Misty, thinking about it later, was really surprised.

Dell looked at the accused trio, at Ash especially. "You three, come with me. And put those creatures in their little rooms."

They nodded and quickly gathered up the Pokéballs and returned them, while Headmaster Dell disassembled the crowd. "Ash, why didn't you say anything?" Misty hissed. "That jerk is getting you in trouble."

Ash shrugged as he recalled Snorlax, who had been munching on the meal in the basket. "It wouldn't have mattered. But thanks for bringing them." He paused for a moment. "Did you ever find . . .?"

Misty and Brock looked at each other hopelessly. "I'm sorry, Ash, but no one's seen Pikachu at all."

He nodded, turning away quickly.

"Come on, you three," Dell ordered. They all followed him into the school, the schoolyard snickering at their punishment. Dell led them to a room, his office, and had them sit in the chairs in front of his desk, Ash sitting in the middle. Sitting across the desk, Dell looked at them all intently.

"Look, we're sorry," Misty started. "We didn't know."

"Ignorance is no excuse," Dell stated firmly. "You should have asked before you did some an action. Do you know how many students could have been hurt with those creatures around?"

"They wouldn't have hurt anyone," Brock said. "They were just scaring the kids for talking trash about them. Even Charizard wouldn't attack, and that's saying something." Dell looked at him blankly.

"Look, what we're trying to say is that it's not Ash's fault," Misty said. "He didn't even know we were coming. That Tom kid is just a liar."

Dell sat back to look at all three of them. Misty and Brock were both staring back defiantly at him, but Ash was tracing a finger on his pants. "Even still, a very important rule of the school was broken."

"We're sorry!" Misty said. "We'll leave, but understand Ash didn't do anything."

The headmaster nodded. "You're right, you will leave school grounds. I can send a car around to take you back to the Ketchum residence." His eyes lingered on Ash. "Ash won't have it so easy, thanks to your thoughtless actions." Dell shook his head, almost sadly. "What is this, the eighth time?"

"Twelfth," Ash corrected quietly, still not looking up.

"Yes, the twelfth," Dell agreed dutifully, seemingly unhappy that Ash had corrected him. Ash never was a good liar, though. "I told you last time what would happen."

"Yes, Sir."

Brock and Misty were shocked. "Ash didn't do anything!" Brock roared. "Whatever you're going to do, do it to us. We'll wash and clean or whatever."

"Brock will even repair the roof!" Misty added.

Dell ignored them, picking up a phone. "Ms. Barlo, please send a car around the front. Thank you." He pressed another key, looking at the two upset friends. "Please leave. This no longer concerns you."

"But—"

"Guys, just go," Ash said quietly, eyes closed.

They looked at him. "Ash, we're sorry," Misty whispered. "We didn't know."

"I know. Thank you, anyway." He turned his head and gave them a small, forced smile. "It's just a meeting with my father. No biggie." His eyes told a different story. "I'll see you at supper. Okay?"

They couldn't do anything else. "You bet, man," Brock promised.

"I felt so guilty," Misty admitted as she coasted on her bike. "I still do."

Shan shrugged. "You didn't know. There's nothing you can do about it. And Ash didn't seem that mad at you. A little trouble was probably worth seeing his friends and Pokémon again."

"Pi."

Misty sighed. "Even still, we got him into a lot of trouble. Man, I wasn't at the meeting, but I saw Mr. Ketchum when he got home, and he was not pleased." Shaking her head, Misty elaborated. "I mean, it was crazy. He just . . ."

The door was slammed shut, followed by a bout of enraged yelling. "I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU! I WAS RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF A VERY IMPORTANT MEETING AND I GET A CALL FROM YOUR HEADMESTER!"

Carmen looked up from her tray of tea at the two guilty guests, who were eating their soup as quietly as possible. Mr. Ketchum and Ash were over an hour late, coming in at six. "The masters are home," she said lightly. "You'd better wait in here until it blows over."

"'orry." Ash's voice was barely audible.

"'SORRY'?! IS THAT ALL YOU CAN SAY? SORRY! I PROBABLY LOST AN CRUCIAL CONTRACT THANKS TO YOU!"

"'orry."

"When the hell are you gonna grow up?" Mr. Ketchum demanded, less loud but still as angry. "Is that an I-Don't-Know shrug? Well?"

"'es."

"Poor kid," Carmen murmured, pouring another ladle into Brock's plate.

"We shouldn't have come," Misty whispered, cringing as Mr. Ketchum attacked Ash's response.

"I'll tell you when you're gonna grow up—RIGHT NOW! It's time for you to get your damn head out of the bloody clouds! You're gonna be out in the real world soon enough, and blasted Pokémon aren't going to help you!" The voice suddenly stopped, as if gauging how much the words had affected his son. It seemed that it wasn't enough. "Damn it, what should I have expected?" he huffed spitefully. "Leaving you in your mother's care for so long. You're just as flaky as she is. Like mother, like son."

Maybe Mr. Ketchum went a step to far, for Ash suddenly yelled back, "Better than being 'like father, like son!'"

"Really?" Mr. Ketchum said icily.

"Yes! I'd rather be like mom than you!"

"In the real world your mother wouldn't have lasted a second without my help, and neither would you, young man!"

Ash barked a cruel laugh. "I don't recall asking for your help, or asking to come here, or going to that damn school, or to stop training! So why don't you send me back to Mom and get back to your precious contracts and meetings. It's all you ever loved anyway!"

"I don't care for your attitude, young man," Mr. Ketchum growled.

"And I don't care for you!" Ash responded. "In fact, I hate you! You ruined by life!"

"I gave you a life!"

"You took my life away!"

Carmen picked up her tray. "That's my cue," she murmured, then walked out of their sight. Her cheerful voice filled the room. "Tea, anyone?"

"Ms. Roads, did anyone call for me?" Mr. Ketchum asked.

"Yes. The Board was wondering—"

"See! Work comes first for you!" Ash screeched highly. "Why'd you even have me come here? To help your reputation, because family men get more business than loners! That's it, isn't it! You just wanted to improve your standings!"

"We will discuss this later. Anything—"

"I'm not something you can fit into your schedule for an appointment! I'm your damn son! If you're not gonna treat me like it, ship me back to Mom!" Ash raged, ignoring his father's yelling of not to interrupt.

"I'll be in my office," Mr. Ketchum said lowly.

"HELLO!" Ash shrilled, then waited for a response that never came. "Damn you! I hate it here!"

"Hush, dear," Carmen murmured. "Come on, let's get you something to eat."

"I'm not hungry!" he yelled.

"I know, but you're friends are here. Why don't you go get cleaned up, and I'll send them upstairs. Get up, now, and don't give me any of your lip."

"Yes, Carmen."

"And don't roll your eyes at me, young man!" she said, in what sounded like mock-anger.

"Right."

"I'm sorry you had to hear that," Carmen sighed as she reentered the room. "At least you don't have to see it, though." She smiled at their pale faces as she took their full bowls. "Ash'll see you up in his room. He just needs a few minutes to get presentable."

"Do they fight like that often?" Misty asked after a moment.

Carmen allowed herself a rolling of the eyes. "Not really, only after Mr. Ketchum gets a call from school about Ash. He doesn't understand the hard time his son has adjusting to here. And they both are terribly stubborn and have pride, although in different things. Usually they get along very well, but on very certain issues—grades, Pokémon, calls from school—they tend to have a brawl or two. It'll pass over, though. Don't you worry." The maid chuckled. "Would you like me to lead you to Ash's room?"

"You don't have to," Misty smiled. "I think we can find it with directions."

Carmen smiled. "Up the stairs, down the hall to the left, third door."

"Thanks," Brock smiled as they up.

"Oh, and no Pokémon, please. Mr. Ketchum's temper has been tried enough for one day."

"Right," he agreed while Misty smiled.

"Off with you now."

They walked out of the kitchen and into the main room. The carpeted stairs were in the center, then separated when it reached the wall. They went towards the left and counted the doors. Misty knocked.

The door was opened after a moment. Ash smiled at them weakly, in a pair of sweats, white shirt, and socks, and his hair was tousled a bit more. The only evidence of his recent fight was the slightly flushed cheeks.

"Hey, come in," he smiled warmly, eyes welcoming. "Sorry for the mess."

Misty smiled as she looked in, seeing a large pile of clothes that had tried to be shoved, unsuccessfully, under the bed and in the closet. The desk was hidden under books and papers, presumably his homework, and the bookshelves had piles of books stacked unceremoniously.

"Don't clean it, Brock," Ash sighed, seeing the familiar twitch in his friend's eye. He scratched his head nervously. "Look, I'm sorry for what happened today."

"No, we're sorry," Misty responded forcefully.

He plopped onto his bed, crossing his legs in front of him. "It doesn't matter. So I get a few extra marks and a punishment. Got me out of class." His smile widened, and he ran a hand through his hair. "So how's everything at home?"

"Pretty boring, actually," Brock smiled. "Don't have your big mouth to liven it up. Oh, and I love the letters. 'Hey, doing fine. Hope you're well. Bye. Ash'. Very informative."

"I write them during class," Ash responded feebly, smiling sheepishly.

"Better than mine," Misty laughed, leaning against the wall. "'Working on paying for bike. Am fine. Hope you are too. Ash.' How does he find the time?"

"Between calculus, accounting, and chemistry, I don't know." Ash leaned placed his chin on the palm of his hand. "I have to finish the last twenty questions on page 361, the last five pages in the Accounting assignment, and type a five page resultant paper. Another late nighter."

"Ehh," Misty said, making a face. "I forgive you for the notes."

"That all you have to do?" Brock asked.

Ash chuckled weakly. "No. I still have to prepare a presentation and write the notes for a debate for Tuesday, review marketing and retailing, write my foreign language essay on my life—" he snorted bitterly—"read the last one-hundred fifty pages of some book—that's by Thursday—psychology paper, history notes, practice my challenge, and repeat." He closed his eyes momentarily. "I don't think I've forgotten anything."

"You're talking Chemistry and Calculus? Aren't you a little young?" Brock wondered after he had thought about the whole list that Ash had given them. Misty was staring at Ash in a sort of dumb shock, surprised that the workload Ash put up with, and the fact that he was putting up with it. She seemingly couldn't see him as someone who would take those kind of classes, at least at twelve.

"I get a bit of help," Ash admitted. "But my grades are okay. I think so anyway." He rolled his eyes. "How's Mom?"

"She eagerly awaits your letters, which are a lot longer than ours," Misty smiled. "She has them all in a box and reads them constantly. Gary's off traveling again, and he's going back into the Indigo League to see if he does better. And then the Johto League."

"He will." Ash's tone had the slightest tones of envy.

"Maybe you can come with us," Misty suggested.

Ash looked at her sadly. "Can't. I already asked. See, Mom told me Professor Oak was going and was wondering if I'd like to go along with them."

"Well, we can watch it on TV," Brock suggested.

"Blocked."

"Blocked? You're kidding," he replied. Ash shook his head. "Well, we'll send you a tape, then, and we'll watch it with you."

Ash looked even sadder. "You know something?" he muttered.

"What?"

He jumped from the bed, walked over to his desk, and looked up at them with savage eyes. "I hate it here!" With those words, he cleared the desk with a swipe of his arm, sending all of the books to the floor in a jumbled heaped.

"I HATE IT!"

"After that, he took off," Shan finished.

Misty nodded. "He wrote to his mother telling her not to worry, that he was going to be all right and stuff, before he left. Mrs. Ketchum was over there in a flash, maxed out her credit cards, but Mr. Ketchum paid for it. He didn't even notice Ash was gone. Cops looked everywhere, contacted us all, thought maybe we knew. We didn't know anything."

"He had the courtesy to tell someone," Shan mused.

"Pikachu," the mouse agreed.

"We haven't seen him since, but he writes to Mrs. Ketchum."

"So they should know where he is," Shan concluded.

Misty chuckled. "Actually, Ash was a lot smarter than they figured. He had those letters forwards to so many cities it was nearly impossible to figure out where they came from. He really didn't want to be taken back to his dad's."

"I don't have to ask how Mrs. Ketchum took it, but what about his dad?"

"I told you, he didn't even notice. Sure, he was worried, but he still kept on working."

"Maybe it was his way of coping," Shan supplied. He was quiet for a moment. "Why do you suppose he ran away?"

She shrugged. "Sometimes I think it was so he could be a Master, but no one's heard of him in any competitions. Now I think it was just to get away from his dad. But five years, almost six, jeez, Ash." Misty shook her head sadly.

"Long time." Shan patted Rapidash when a jumped, startled, as a Rattata ran across the path. "Easy, boy. You know, do you think maybe he was afraid to come back?"

"What do you mean?"

"Ashamed. Runaways have a hard life, always hiding. Sometimes they stoop to low levels. Just travel down a few dark alleys," he explained darkly.

"Not Ash."

"You don't know, Misty. He probably had a very hard life after he left his father. He couldn't use his name, he had no Pokémon, by what you said, probably little money and food." Shan sighed. "Things can change in a person. I'll bet you anything your Ash isn't the same you remember, at least totally."

Misty looked over at Shan. He had a point. After all these years, she had always seemed to remember Ash as the ten-year-old she had traveled with. Even when he was with his father during her visit, Ash had acted pretty much the same. Now she realized he would have grown and changed, maybe looking more like his father. He was, after all, going to be 18.

"He might even be dead."

Her bike wobbled. "He just wrote Mrs. Ketchum! He even writes to Mr. Ketchum now, don't ask me why. He's not dead."

Shan looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "My mistake, then. But I am just saying Ash couldn't go to the hospital, centers, the public eye. He wouldn't have battled if everyone were looking for him. No, if he ran away, he had to have this planned right, or did it by sheer Luck and Chance."

"That's Ash."

He paused again, changing the direction of the conversation. "What are you going to say when you see him?"

"I'm going to say he's an idiot for running away for so long, and then give him the biggest hug," Misty smiled.

She saw that Shan smiled as well, although it looked like he did it out of pity. His hand stroked Pikachu's head.

"Pikapi . . ." it cooed, eyes closed in happiness.

Misty knocked while Shan recalled Rapidash. Mrs. Ketchum opened it almost instantly, like she had been standing there, just waiting for it to have someone behind it. "Hi, Misty," she smiled, eyes bright and ready, although she looked a tad disappointed that it was just Misty.

Deep down, Misty knew Ash had done the right thing to write to his mom. It had made the years easier on her, making it seem like he was just traveling again. Mrs. Ketchum didn't look any older, although she really was just several years shy of forty.

"Guess what?" she said gleefully, hands clasped together. "Ash sent me a bouquet of roses today, and a letter, saying he'll be here at five tomorrow! Scout's honor." She was almost jumping up in down with the excitement. "The last address was from Cerulean too!"

"Really?" Misty asked gleefully. Mrs. Ketchum nodded, then looked at Shan curiously. "Oh, sorry Mrs. Ketchum. This is Shan. I met him on the way down. He's the Indigo League winner."

He smiled warmly at her, a lot warmer than he had smiled at Misty. "Hello," he greeted, bowing his head.

"Pikachu!"

Mrs. Ketchum's eyes watered at the sight of Pikachu, but she smiled bravely. "Come in, come in. Make yourself comfortable."

"Mime, mime!" Mr. Mime said, offering them a plateful of cookies. Shan took one respectfully, then settled on a chair at the corner.

"So how are you doing, Mrs. Ketchum?" Misty asked as they sat down on a couch.

She smiled broadly. "Counting down the minutes before my little man returns." Her hands were twirling on her lap nervously.

"I'm sure he'll be happy to be back," Shan spoke. "If anything, for the cooking."

Mrs. Ketchum looked at Shan. "Thank you." Her eyes went over the face of the blond trainer. "You do look familiar . . ."

"He was the one that beat Gary last year," Misty smiled. "Remember the oaths Gary swore, and the pictures he ripped to shreds." Shan raised an interested eyebrow.

Mrs. Ketchum nodded her head while Shan looked at her intently, as if asking her if she had seen him somewhere else, an interested glimmer on his face. "Yes, probably."

"Pikachu?" The tiny mouse had been sitting on the table, looking between the two, then leaped onto her owner's lap. "Pi chu, Pikapi?"

"Not now, Pikachu," Shan said offhandedly in a quiet tone.

Pikachu looked at her owner slightly upset, but conceded to his wishes, curling down onto his lap. "Chu, pikachu," she sighed.

"What did she want?" Mrs. Ketchum asked.

Shan looked at Mrs. Ketchum like he was debating whether he should answer the question. "She just wanted to know if she could leave, no offense to you. She likes to tour towns."

"So that's why she wasn't with you when you went to the gym?" Misty asked.

"Yes. Normally I pick her up just outside, as you saw."

"Aren't you afraid someone would capture her?" Mrs. Ketchum asked, eyes falling towards nostalgia.

Shan shook his head. "No."

"Pi!" She looked like she was laughing. Shan smiled at her slightly.

"You must have traveled a lot, Shan?" Mrs. Ketchum murmured.

He looked up at her, knowing were the conversation was headed. "I've met a lot of people Mrs. Ketchum, but I rarely learned who they were. We all have something we want only to ourselves."

Misty was relieved that he didn't tell about how Ash might have become some junkie or murderer. At least he was tactful.

"You shouldn't worry though. Your son will come back," Shan promised solemnly.

Of that, Mrs. Ketchum seemingly had no doubt. "I know he will."

"Good morning, Misty," Mrs. Ketchum chirped as she prepared breakfast.

Misty rubbed her eyes with the heel of her palm as she sat down. "Morning." She looked at the woman, who seemed to be bustling with even more energy, a nervous energy. "The big day, huh?"

"Oh, yes, yes," she replied, eyes watering. "Finally. Would you like some scrambled eggs?"

Misty nodded, then looked around. "Where's Shan?" He had claimed the couch, even though Mrs. Ketchum had a perfectly fine room available.

"He's wandering Pallet, I believe. He is a polite young gentleman, isn't he?"

"Yes. Did you know he plays the flute?"

Mrs. Ketchum stopped moving around the small kitchen. "Really?" she asked in a faraway voice. "I thought I heard something like that this morning, but I couldn't figure out where. It was very beautiful, but sad. I knew I heard it before . . ." She drifted off, eyes dreamy.

"They had music at the League last year, but I never looked at the musicians," Misty added. "Wish I had."

"Hmm? Oh, yes, of course." Mrs. Ketchum went back to breakfast, a faraway look on her face. "You know, this morning he wandered into Ash's old room. We had a delightful chat. He is a terribly early riser, you know."

"I know," Misty nodded, toying with her eggs. "What did you talk about?"

Mrs. Ketchum tilted her head slightly. "Ash, mostly. When I found him in Ash's room, he started to apologize . . ."

Mrs. Ketchum was walking down the hall, unable to sleep anymore. First, from the excitement in the prospect that Ash was coming home, and then because of that melody she had heard, or thought she heard, or dreamed. It had sounded so familiar.

She walked down the hall when she came across a room whose door, which was usually shut, was open, and light beamed out into the hallway. It was hard to keep her hopes down as she peered in.

"Hello?" she whispered. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw someone turn. "Shan?"

"Good morning," he greeted quietly, replacing a plush Venonat that he had been holding back on the shelf.

"What are you doing in here?" Her voice must have sounded terribly accusing.

Shan looked at her with those piercing blue eyes. "I'm sorry. I wasn't aware that this room was off-limits," he apologized. "I was just curious as to what was behind the door. Misty had told me that this had been Ash's room."

She flushed. "I'm sorry. It's okay that you're in here." She walked in and picked up a small glass Pikachu. "This was Ash's room, yes. I had just been . . ." Mrs. Ketchum trailed off, not able to say her wish out-loud.

"You saw the light on and thought maybe your son had returned early," Shan finished knowingly. She nodded dutifully. "That maybe you could catch him so he could never escape again."

Again Mrs. Ketchum blushed. "You are very observant," she smiled, looking at him. Shan leaned against the wall, arms crossed. "How old are you?"

"18, as of late. That's why I'm leaving the Indigo League. I think I'm too old."

"It must have been hard to make that decision."

He shook his head. "No, it wasn't. I've made a lot harder ones in my life."

Mrs. Ketchum sat down on the bed, then patted the space next to her. Shan moved over carefully. "Tell me," she murmured as she studied his young face. "What do you think happened to my son? And be honest."

Shan ran his hand through his hair as he thought. "What I'd like to have happened, or what most likely happened, like in other runaway cases?"

Her eyes closed. "The second," she whispered.

He sighed. "Most runaways, if they aren't found or return, usually have a hard time. Some resort to stealing and other less preferred occupations. Others meet up with the wrong people, and get into such a tangled web that there's no chance of escape. Some become druggies, murderers." He shook his head sadly. "I've ran into a few in the bigger cities. Some have even tried to do me in, but I'm pretty wary." Mrs. Ketchum nodded her head, listening. "Some of them I buy lunch, and listen to them talk, if they want to. I don't pressure them, though."

"What do they talk about?"

"Lies. Why they're where they are, their lives, their problems. I never correct them, even though I know they're lying."

"What do you do, then? I mean, how can you stand it?" Mrs. Ketchum's eyes were shut, like she had dreamed of such things.

Shan looked at her face, tears coming from under her closed eyelids. "I can't help them if they don't want to be helped. But I'm not heartless." He made a small smile. "Some of them turn me down in the offer, but a few accept it."

"What do you offer?" Mrs. Ketchum whispered.

"A phone call."

Mrs. Ketchum opened her eyes to look at the trainer. "That's all?"

"Yes. They don't have to talk; I'd do it for them. They can ask any question they want, and I'll forward it to whoever is on the other end. It's like testing the waters, I suppose."

She eyes widened. "Are you doing that now?" Fear was in her voice.

Shan locked eyes with her. "If I were, would it matter?"

"N-no. But are you?"

"No," he answered honestly—she could hear the ring of truth. "Ash Ketchum never asked me to do this, and I never made the offer. I'm only here because Misty invited me."

"So you have seen my son?" Mrs. Ketchum asked, eyes hopeful.

"Yes, I have." Shan paused, then continued. "Recently."

Her eyes sparkled. "How is he?"

It seemed that Shan was questioning whether or not he should tell her. "He's okay, I suppose," he said at last.

"He hasn't done anything terrible, has he?"

"Aside from running away? Not especially." Shan looked at Mrs. Ketchum. "I know he misses you though." Again he paused. "Tell me, why do you think he ran away?"

Mrs. Ketchum bit her bottom lip. "Did he ever tell you?"

"I think as the years go by, runaways forget the real reason they ran away. I don't ask."

She nodded. "Sometimes I think he did run away to be a Pokémon Master. He really wanted to."

"Sometimes?"

Mrs. Ketchum winced. Somehow she knew Shan would catch the word choice. "I embarrassed him so much as a child. I didn't mean to, but I did," she sniffed. "Some nights I blame myself that he ran away. He ran away to get away from us, me and Li." She gripped her trembling shoulders. "I was a terribly mother."

Shan was quiet, watching the scene. He moved his lips soundlessly for a moment. "Do you really think so?" he asked at length.

"I must have been."

With his elbows on his knees, Shan brought his hands up to his face like he was praying and took a deep breath. "You think so? You really think so? Do you really think a boy who hated his mother would bother to write and say he was all right on a very regular bases? That on more than one of the worst occasions he faced he never wanted anything more than to come back home to his mother's loving and protective arms? Is that what you really believe?"

Mrs. Ketchum looked at him with wet eyes. "You really think so?"

Shan turned his head and looked at her with his penetrating blue eyes. "If I was him, yes, I would have." He gave her an honest smile. "He didn't run away because you were a lousy mother."

She took confidence in his words. "Thank you," she smiled weakly. Then her eyes distanced. "But what about Li?"

Again Shan looked away and thought about it again. "At some level, every boy loves his father," he said slowly. "The restrictions placed upon him, maybe. Lack of attention, possibly. One too many fights. Some kind of challenge." Shan shrugged. "I don't know your husband. How did he take it, by the way?" He looked at Mrs. Ketchum again.

"As well as Li can take anything, I suppose," Mrs. Ketchum sighed. "We separated years ago, when Ash was a toddler. Li didn't want . . . couldn't raise Ash, he was always so busy. When we got the wake-up call that Ash was growing up, I guess he didn't understand what he was getting into. Li was so used to having everything under complete control, but having Ash around doesn't guarantee that." Mrs. Ketchum gave Shan a brief smile. "They're both stubborn and hard-headed, both expecting the other to fix their ways to meet the other's."

"Doomed from the start," Shan murmured, eyes closed.

"No. I do blame Li," she said firmly. "Ash needed attention, what Li couldn't give. I firmly believe Ash would have accepted his new home there if Li had made time for him."

Shan nodded in silent agreement. "Is he going to be here?"

"Li said he would." She looked at Shan. "Li really isn't as bad as Misty probably led you to believe. He just didn't know who to handle a family, a son. You had head blooming business and can't even work out problems with your own family. Ash really did have a nice time there." She dared him to contradict the truth

Shan nodded. "How could you have survived over these past five years?"

Mrs. Ketchum shrugged. "I really don't know. Ash's letters really helped, and Misty and Brock always come around, and so does Gary. He used to be a rival of Ash's, but I know they respected each other very much. Did you know that one time they almost found him?"

"Really?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

She nodded. "The police say the Growlithe found his scent, and they trailed it to a storage closest, where they store the soaps, fabric softeners, bleach, and stuff, I think. And he was there—he must have been scared away, but they found a half-written letter to me. They think he must have jumped into the river to escape, because they couldn't find another scent."

"Wow," Shan muttered. He stroked his chin. "Tell me, what do you think would have happened to Ash had he returned?"

Mrs. Ketchum closed her eyes. "The police were talking about taking family therapy," she murmured. "And foster homes." Her voice was terribly quiet.

"Do you think he knew that?"

"I don't know." She sighed. "You know what's really depressing, though?"

"What?"

"Well, I always figured Ash would love to see his Pokémon when he came back. I've been planning his welcome-back party since Ash said he was coming back," she admitted. Shan smiled. "But some years again, when there were those computer hackers around, they were stolen from Professor Oak's lab, along with a lot other trainers'."

"Really?" Shan turned his head quickly.

She nodded. "The other trainers' Pokémon came back to Pallet, back to Professor Oak's lab, but not Ash's. I always thought maybe they went to go find him, but he never mentioned it in his letters."

Again he nodded. "What are you going to do when Ash comes through that door?" he asked after silence surrounded them.

"I dream about that moment, but I really don't know," Mrs. Ketchum admitted. "I still she him as my little boy. I can't see him as a full-grown man."

Shan smiled at her. "I like that response," he said quietly. "It's truly honest."

Mrs. Ketchum turned her brown eyes towards the trainer. "Pardon?"

He turned away from her gaze. "You acknowledge that Ash will be different when he returns. He could have a completely different persona from what you remember. Not many are ready for that. I hope you are, though. He might be afraid of that."

"He's still my son." Mrs. Ketchum was surprised at the conviction in her voice.

"Yes." Shan nodded, eyes closed.

"Is something wrong?" she asked after a moment, watching the trainer.

Shan looked a deep breath. "No. Just thinking," he murmured.

Mrs. Ketchum narrowed her eyes critically "You don't look too well. Are you ill?"

"In mind or in body?" he replied lightly, turning his head to smile half-heartedly at her. "I'm fine. Just extremely preoccupied. I think I have to get some air, if you don't mind."

"Yes, that might help," she agreed as he stood up. "You will be back later?"

"I believe so." His eyes look one last look over the room, smiling. "I like the room."

"I knew he knew something," Misty muttered. She snapped her fingers. "I bet I he knows where Ash is, and he's going to meet him!"

Mrs. Ketchum looked at her, eyes bright. "I bet he does, and I want him to tell Ash I want him back. I don't care what he did; I miss my little boy." Her bottom lip trembled.

Misty kept her eyes on Mrs. Ketchum. "Well, I'm going to find Shan and force him to bring Ash out of hiding," she muttered to herself. "Mrs. Ketchum, I'm going to go to Professor Oak's, okay?"

"All right," Mrs. Ketchum said off-handedly, mind somewhere else.

She stood up and quietly left. As she was about to leave by the front door, Misty paused to look at the pictures that graced the wall. There was the happy Ketchum family, all three of them. Next to it was what looked like a four-year-old Ash at a Pokémon Petting Zoo covered in the Pokémon and laughing. The pictures progressed year by year, either Ash or Ash and Mrs. Ketchum in them. One picture Misty smiled at, having her and Ash dancing in their kimonos. There were three pictures that seemed to have been taken while Ash was at his father's. The first looked like a typical portrait. The second seemed Ash waving while he balanced on a balcony (Misty figured his mom might have had a heart attack when she saw that one) at a very crappy angle. The third she had to squint to find Ash—it seemed like it was a school function or something. After much straining of the eyes, she spotted Ash in the middle a few rows back.

"I wonder what this is a picture of?" she muttered, fingering the frame.

"Pi?"

Misty looked down at the mouse, which was looking up at her interested. "Hey, there? Do you know where Shan is?"

She smiled happily. "Pika."

"I want to talk to him." Misty forced a pleasant smile. "Can you take me to him?"

The Pokémon nodded and scurried out the door towards the forest, Misty following quickly. As they went deeper, Misty started to have doubts that Pikachu was even taking her to Shan. This was in the middle of nowhere.

Finally she opened her mouth. "Pikachu, are you sure Shan's out here?"

The Pokémon stopped running to look at her. "Pi!" She pointed deeper into the forest. "Chu pika pikachu!"

Misty shook her head. "Look, I know Shan knows something about Ash."

"Pikapi?" Pikachu backed away slowly.

"And you know it too," Misty accused, seeing the obvious motion.

Pikachu looked wildly around, still backing away. Then, within a second, it twirled and ran back deeper in the forest.

"Come back here!" Misty ordered futile, picking up her speed.

It was easy to see the bright yellow rodent as it ran, but as she ran, Misty heard other noises, like yelling. The yells caused her curiosity to pique than her interest in Pikachu. She slowed her running and started to follow the sounds.

"DUCK! WEAVE!" a voice ordered.

"Hit mon!"

"Almost. Just a bit faster."

"Mon, mon!" It sounded like it was laughing.

The voice laughed as well. "I know, I know! Just some more. We've got to practice, and Hitmonlee's leg muscle is strained, so you have to deal with me."

"Chan hitmon!"

"What, can't beat me?"

Misty suddenly found herself in a makeshift clearing, one that had been burned away. Somehow she wasn't surprised when she saw Shan stripped to the waist and boxing with a Hitmonchan. Actually, it was more like he was trying to stay away from the fists, which were moving faster than she could see.

Suddenly Pikachu came raging in. "PIKAPI!"

Bad timing.

"Wha—" With his attention diverted, Hitmonchan's fist had a perfect aim for Shan's cheek. "AH!"

"PIKAPI!"

"HITMONCHAN!"

Shan pushed himself off the ground, hand against his cheek. "I'm all right," he muttered. "Nice punch." He smiled up at the nervous and worried Hitmonchan. "Now what, Pikachu?"

"Pika pikachu chu—" She was interrupted by Misty clapping.

"Nice, very nice," she smiled, coming closer.

Shan stood up. "Hitmonchan, return," he murmured. The Pokémon disappeared.

"Fighting with a Hitmonchan? Not exactly the brightest thing to do. They can throw punches faster than the speed of light, don'tcha know?"

"I know," Shan said quietly as he picked up his shirt that had been hanging on a tree branch. "What do you want?"

Misty watched as he put the shirt on. "You know where Ash is, don't you?"

"I assume you mean Ash Ketchum?" Shan replied casually, running a hand over his cheek. "I hope this doesn't bruise."

"You know I mean Ash Ketchum!" she snapped, not caring about his profile. "Where is he?"

He shrugged. "How should I know?"

"You know, don't deny it," Misty said, gripping him by the color. It would have been better if he had been shorter and she had been stronger. Shan merely looked down at her, half amused, half-annoyed.

"Let go of me, please." He waited until she removed her hands before he continued to speak. "Misty, I admit I have seen Ash recently, but I will not tell you where he is." He held up a hand when she prepared to interrupt. "You know why?"

"Why?"

"Because, Misty, you should know."

He turned on his heel and started to walk away, Pikachu following.

"And what's that mean?"

"Are you his friend, or aren't you?" He stopped to grab his bag.

"Of course I am!"

"Then either figure out where he'd be, or wait until five. Your choice."

"Why did you lie to me?" Misty demanded, catching up to him.

"I never said I never met him," Shan said gravely.

"You implied!"

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