The Master of Mirage

Chapter One: The Letters

One foot in front of the other; it wasn't that hard, was it? Just take steady steps and don't stop, and everything would be fine. At least, that's what Ash Ketchum kept telling himself as he walked towards certain doom.

Maybe he was being a little melodramatic, or a lot, if any of his friends could hear his internal thoughts. Despite how many times that he said goodbye to people, it still wasn't something that he was truly comfortable with, especially not when it came to human friends that he happened to be really close to.

"Are we there yet?" a young brunette with sapphire eyes whined. She trailed a little behind everyone else, her steps becoming even slower the more that they walked.

"Jeez May, don't be so lazy," her younger brother Max Maple quipped, his brown eyes looking back at her with both amusement and annoyance.

May Maple puffed up her cheeks and was about to yell back at him when the oldest of the group let out a laugh, distracting her.

"Yes, we're almost there," Brock Slate informed them, sounding much more giddy and excited than anyone else in their traveling party.

Ash looked over his shoulder at his friend with confusion, but beside him, a red-haired trainer let out an annoyed huff and said, "You are NOT coming to Cerulean so you can annoy and ogle my sisters, Brock."

"Ahh the Devine Daisy, Lovely Lily, and Vivacious Violet," Brock sighed dreamily, clapping his hands together as his face turned a pale shade of red. "It's been far too long."

"And he's gone," Misty Waterflower said with an annoyed sigh, the Azurill in her arms chirping happily. She hugged her baby Pokemon closer to her and mumbled under her breath, "Seriously, after all these years?"

Turning back so that he could watch where he was going, Ash let out a sigh and shifted a little bit. A small chirp of 'pika' from his shoulder drew his attention to his best friend and first Pokemon, Pikachu. The yellow Pokemon's eyes flashed with worry, but Ash just smiled at him and closed his eyes.

Instead of darkness, faint lines of glowing blue appeared in his vision. It was a little annoying at times, like when he wanted to go to sleep but he could still see stuff. Nonliving things like rocks or even benches and beds weren't bad, but he could clearly see plant life, and he'd be almost blinded by a person or a Pokemon. Fortunately, Ash figured out that he could force the glow to go away or at least force his mind to ignore it.

He sidestepped a few rocks on the road without looking, shifting the egg in his arms so that he wouldn't drop it. Normally, a Pokemon egg would be kept in an incubator of sorts, but this one was different, it was a special egg entrusted to him and him alone. It was his responsibility to take care of the tiny Pokemon that would hatch from it. It wasn't the first hatchling that he ever dealt with; he had his own Phanpy that hatched, and he took care of a baby Larvitar for a while too. Plus Togepi always seemed to prefer him in the absence of Misty, so there was that. This egg was different though. This Pokemon came with a whole new responsibility that he honestly wasn't sure he was ready for.

He wouldn't be Ash Ketchum if that thought stopped him though. He was the type to keep pushing forward towards his dreams and goals, no matter what bumps in the road he might stumble across!

Though his cramping arms just might defeat him. How Misty was able to constantly carry Togepi around like this for years baffled him. She still did it with Azurill at times too, like she was at the moment. It was ridiculous. The egg was his responsibility, but he really wanted someone else to carry it around for him.

Almost unconsciously, Ash opened his eyes and glanced over at Misty. She was arguing with Brock, though that tended to happen when he got all gooey over some girl. It was actually kind of amazing, because she seemed to argue with Brock more frequently than him now, though that didn't mean they weren't snippy with each other. They wouldn't be Ash and Misty if they didn't argue somewhat.

A frown made its way to his face as they kept walking. He didn't want to reach Cerulean City, because that would mean that Misty would need to leave. He understood why she needed to stay and run the gym, he really did, but he didn't like it at all.

Misty stopped arguing with Brock and turned away from him, pouting a bit until she caught Ash's eye. Her pout turned into a genuine smile that made him smile too, and he was reminded that things would be okay, no matter what happened or how far apart they were because, beyond anything else, she would always be his friend. As long as she was chasing her dreams too, he would be happy for her.

"Look!" Max cried out excitedly, startling Ash. The young teenager followed his gaze, seeing a familiar, massive city looming in the distance. "That's it, right Misty? Cerulean City! That's your home, right?"

"Yeah," Misty said, sounding happy to be home, but there was also a tint of something else to her voice that no one else really caught on to. "That's home all right. Well, come on. We need to make it to the gym before it gets too late. It's been getting colder at night lately."

They all followed her, Max and May marveling at the sheer size of the city. Hoenn had big places too, but that didn't mean that the two youngest of the group still weren't amazed by all of this. Ash himself had been so excited for his gym badge, Misty's mermaid show, or other things in the past that he never really took in or explored the city all that much. It was something that he'd have to do someday.

"This place is so awesome," May gushed, grabbing onto Misty's arm. "I can't believe they don't have a contest here!"

"You know, I'm a bit surprised by that too," the redhead agreed, shifting Azurill in her arms. "Most big cities do, but we don't."

"I can't wait to see the gym!" Max cheered. "Brock's was pretty cool when we went there! I know Dad's a Gym Leader, but I like seeing them all!"

Misty laughed happily at him, and then looked at Ash teasingly. "Sounds like someone else I know."

He stuck his tongue out at her. "My dad's not a Gym Leader." Well, he could be, Ash didn't know that. That was a pretty sore topic that he didn't like to talk about though. At the moment though, he was only joking.

"Smartass," Misty mumbled under her breath and playfully punched his arm, rolling her eyes when he rubbed it dramatically.

They walked until they reached a large building with a Dewgong on the top, causing the others to stare in awe. Misty just let out a sigh, hugging Azurill closer to her as she muttered, "Let's get this over with."

May and Max didn't understand why she sounded so down as they walked towards the gym, walking through the glass doors at the front into a massive lobby. Ash was a bit surprised, because there was actually a cafe in it now.

"We don't take care of that," Misty explained when she saw him staring. "But they figured with their shows and stuff, that they could make some sort of split profit or something off a snack stand." Under her breath she muttered, "The only smart thing I've ever heard them say." They, of course, being her elder sisters.

Ash snickered a little bit as they followed Misty back into the private halls where people weren't generally allowed to go. He'd been there many times himself, but even Ash, as unobservant as he could be with this type of thing, could see how everything they walked by was in so much better shape than when her sisters were alone running this place.

She really was needed here. It was a bit disheartening because he wanted her to keep traveling with them, but it was awesome to see her making her own mark on the world too.

Ash could hear her sisters before he saw them. All three were home, and they seemed to be excited about something. If the excited tittering wasn't enough to confirm the other Waterflower girls were there, the dopey look that came over Brock's face when he shot forward did.

Misty sighed with annoyance behind him and muttered something under her breath, he just laughed and said, "Better go stop him, right?"

Rolling her sea green eyes, Misty nodded her head and looked at May and Max. "Come on, let's go meet my sisters. You'll appreciate yours after this, Max."

"I doubt that. OW! MAY!" He rubbed his head where she smacked him as she walked by, but she just let out a small giggle and kept going.

Misty's sisters were in the living room that looked out through one-way glass over the main pool where the battles were held. Ash was more drawn to the fact that he could see water Pokemon happily splashing around rather than Misty's notoriously beautiful sisters and jumped when all three cried out Misty's name at the same time.

"Misty! Like, you're back!" Violet say, relief in her voice. "Dewgong has, like, been ignoring me again. She totally only listens to Daisy now."

"Yeah, what's with that?" Lily agreed. "Anyway, lots of the Pokemon have been temperamental with us lately."

The pink and blue haired women continued to prattle on while Misty just looked more and more annoyed. Brock was drooling over the women, Max and May were staring at the scene in horrid-awe, and Ash had no idea what was going on anymore because Violet was going on about a famous boyfriend or something and that really didn't hold his interest. How they got on that topic, he didn't know, and he didn't care. He was too busy staring at the Pokemon in the gym.

"Ah-hem." The two instantly stopped as Daisy Waterflower, the oldest, walked towards them and was about to say something when Brock pounced.

"Dreamy Daisy! I have spent every night since our parting dreaming of your beautiful face." He knelt down on one knee, taking his hand into hers. "It would make my dreams come true to hear that you feel the same."

Daisy blinked her sea green eyes down at him for a moment before pulling her hand back and saying, "I'm sure most people feel that way, but, like, all of the Sensational Sisters are spoken for. Except for the runt. Sorry, um, what was your name again?"

Brock looked blue with horror (almost literally), forcing Ash to have flashbacks about how he used to act when Professor Ivy was mentioned.

Misty wasn't paying attention to that though. Instead she was glowering up at her sister, her cheeks tinted pink as she glanced at Ash out of the corner of her eye before glaring again. Daisy cocked an eyebrow, before a knowing grin appeared on her face.

"Ash! It's been a while!" Daisy said, and May suddenly giggled a bit behind him. Daisy kept her eyes, the same as Misty's, locked on him though.

"Yeah, since I spoke to you on the phone," Ash replied cheerfully while shifting Riolu's egg in his arms, not the least bit intimidated by the sly smirk on her face. More often than not, when he called the Cerulean Gym while travelling, it was Daisy he got on the phone first while Misty was off actually running the gym. He was familiar with her and definitely wasn't thrown by her looks or personality. The other two were a whole different story though. He just tended to stare at them blankly and wonder how people thought he was stupid when there were people like those girls in the world. "That was a good conversation, wasn't it?"

Daisy raised an eyebrow for a moment before she laughed and swiped his hat from his head, ruffling his messy black hair. "Here I thought you were, like, stupid. You're getting to be a perceptive little bugger, aren't you?" She set his hat back on his head sideways before turning to face her sister again, all but ignoring May and Max. "Misty, you like, got this letter here and we swear we weren't, like, going to open it but Professor Oak called and kept asking if Ash was here yet because apparently he, like, got one too just after you guys left."

That caught their attention. Misty took the letter her sister offered and stared at it for a moment, flipping it over so that she could see the back that was sealed with a strange, wax symbol. "Old fashion, huh?"

"What does it say?" May asked, practically bouncing up to her side.

Misty peeled open the enveloped and started reading the letter out loud.

"Dear Misty Waterflower,

Over the past few years, my research has led to many different interesting inventions that are now in the testing phase. For this test, select Kanto trainers have been asked to participate in a special event. I have created a new battle system, and I would like to challenge you to a battle against it. Others have already participated, and the results have gone spectacularly with low-levelled trainers, but now I would like to test the more challenging aspects of this battle system. A powerful Gym Leader such as yourself is the perfect candidate for this.

Therefore, I invite you to my Pokemon laboratory in order to test this new system on the date set in the information packet that was included with this letter. You will be joined by a few others, but the groups are small for control purposes. I look forward to seeing the Tomboyish Mermaid challenge my system.

Sincerely,

Professor Young."

"Woah! You get to go test a new battle system? That's so cool!" Max gushed happily.

"Hey, wait a second, didn't Misty's sister say that Ash got one too?" May asked, her sapphire eyes looking from one to the other curiously.

"Yeah, like, your mother and Trace have been calling all day, waiting for you to get here," Daisy said, putting a finger to her cheek. "You can, like, use the phone over there." She pointed towards a video phone on the opposite side of the room.

Ash quickly muttered a thanks and hurried over to the phone. He wasn't going to lie; he was a bit excited. A new battle system sounded awesome, and if he got a letter, maybe it meant he could challenge it too. It'd be awesome if they could go the same day too.

Setting Riolu's egg on his lap, Ash decided to dial Professor Oak's lab instead of home, and grinned broadly when he saw the old man appear on the screen. "Hiya Professor!"

"Ash, my boy!" Professor Oak said cheerfully. "You finally made it, I see."

"I did," he nodded his head.

"Ash?" His mother appeared, staring at him over Professor Oak's shoulder. "Oh good, I was worried something happened to you. I suppose you're calling about the letter? I hope you don't mind I opened it. When Professor Oak got one with a similar seal, I was a bit worried."

"It's okay. Was it about that battle system?"

"Yes it was," Professor Oak answered him. "It appears that Professor Young has chosen to challenge you as well. He's invited you the same date as he did for me, so I was hoping you could get to Cerulean City before the night. It's set for tomorrow, so it would give you tonight to get rested up, and early tomorrow I could come and pick you up on my way by."

"That sounds great!" Ash said cheerfully, before shifting around and looking behind him. "When's yours for, Mist? Tomorrow?"

"Yeah," she nodded her head, frowning a bit as she looked at the map that she was given. "I don't know how I'll get there on time."

"Professor Oak and I got invited for the same time," he informed her before looking at the screen again. "I don't suppose there's room for everyone, is there?"

"Why of course, all of your friends are welcome to come. I know Professor Young, and I'm sure it won't be a problem."

"But why Ash?" Max blurted out suddenly, causing everyone to look at him. His face went red, and he said, "Well, you know, Misty's a successful Gym Leader, and Professor Oak is the most famous Pokemon professor in the world, but why Ash?"

"Well," Delia answered this time, "he mentions wanting to challenge the Orange League Champion."

"Orange League..." Max trailed off with confusion, and Ash's cheeks went a bit red.

He had been so proud of his win at the Orange League and was technically the Champion of that sub-region (it wasn't given all the same prestige, power or anything else like the main regions were), due to his age he couldn't accept the title of active Champion, so people still had to fight Drake. If they beat Drake, Ash was given the option to battle them too, but so far, no one had beat the young man since he had.

So many people didn't really count the Orange League as any sort of victory though, and he was mocked for his enthusiasm over it by many people, so he tended not to bring it up anymore. He was a bit surprised that he never thought to mention it to his new friends.

"That makes sense," Brock spoke up for the first time. "He probably picked Professor Oak, and then found some names associated with him."

"Oh." Ash felt a little stupid for not thinking of that. He looked behind him again and said, "Whatdya say, Mist? Wanna go?"

"I do want to," she admitted, "but I've been gone from the gym for a while now..."

"Just go," Daisy waved her hands. "Imagine if this thing works? We can, like, say you were there to test it!"

"My sister, the sudden marketing genius," Misty deadpanned before looking at Ash again. "Alright, I'm in."

"Great!" Practically bouncing on the seat, Ash looked back at his mother and Professor Oak and gave them the thumbs up, which Pikachu copied on his shoulder. "We're in."

"Excellent. I'll swing by at about 8:00 tomorrow morning. Get a good night's sleep!"

"And remember to change your—"

"Ah! Bye mom! Professor Oak!" Ash cried out quickly, hanging up before his mother could get out the rest of her sentence. May and Max both laughed and Brock snickered behind him, because everyone knew how that sentence ended.

"Well then," Daisy clapped her hands together. "You guys, like, get cooking supper. We have important appointments to keep. Toodles!" The three sisters were quick to leave, and Ash had to wonder how long they had been planning their escape from the gym for.

"More like they have to go and fix their hair," Misty muttered while glaring at their retreating figures.

"I can't believe they're all taken," Brock sulked and then yelped as Max jumped onto his shoulders and grabbed his ears to pull him out of his 'oh-no-girls-don't-like-me' mood.

"Come on, you can cook to get over them," the young boy insisted.

"I do like cooking," Brock admitted before looking over at Misty. "You don't mind if I use your kitchen, do you?"

"Go for it," Misty waved her hand in the direction of the kitchen, and Brock (as well as Max) went that way. She turned and looked at Ash and May. "How about you two come with me? I'd like to check on the Pokemon before it gets too late."

"Alright!" Both of them nodded their heads eagerly, following the redhead out of the room.

...

May was in awe of the gym. Sure, she had gone into many of them with Ash before, and her father was a Gym Leader, so it wasn't like she had never been in a gym before, but there was something about the absolutely massive pools with the water Pokemon swimming around that just took her breath away. The whole place was beautiful. There were comfortable seats, the ceiling could apparently retract so it was a sun roof, and apparently the pool could rise up so it was above ground. That alone blew her mind.

The Cerulean City Gym was beautiful. Even Ash seemed in awe, and he'd been there before.

"It's really different," he explained when she pointed that out. "It was always cool, but it looks way more badass now."

"Thanks," Misty beamed, quite pleased that they liked all the hard work she put into making the gym better. The renovations were her idea, and she was the one to get sponsors to pay for a part of it while going through mountains of paperwork with the league. Knowing that even someone as dense as Ash Ketchum could appreciate it let her know her work was worthwhile.

"Hey!" Ash's eyes went wide as he suddenly took off towards the edge of the pool, kneeling down next to it. "Hi there, Horsea!"

"Sea! Horsea horsea!" the small Pokemon trilled, instantly recognizing him. It leapt out of the water and into his arms, splashing him and getting his shirt wet, but Ash just laughed. He'd left the egg safely in Misty's room wrapped in a blanket, so there were no worries of it accidentally rolling into the pool or something like that. Pikachu bounded over as a few of the other Pokemon that Misty left there popped up to say hello.

May laughed at the sight, and Misty just shook her head, but was smiling all the same. The brunette looked around at the older girl, her smile changing into a light, almost curious one as she tilted her head slightly, sapphire eyes inquisitive.

"What?" Misty asked her. It was funny how May had many mannerisms the same as Ash, including that curious look when they silently wanted to know something.

"This gym is beautiful," she said, clapping her hands together happily. "You must be so proud. I know my dad is of his. You'll be the best Gym Leader in Kanto one day, I just know it!"

Misty smiled at the praise, but her smile faded, brow furrowing slightly. May blinked with surprise, not quite sure what she said wrong. "What?"

"I love this gym so much," Misty admitted, "and I am so proud of it and so honoured to be a Gym Leader but..."

Pursing her lips a bit, the brunette stared at her thoughtfully before asking, "What would you like to do when you're older?" The concept of 'when you're older' was a bit different to the kids who left home when they were ten. They tended to grow faster, tending to be the younger individuals in their select career paths. She clapped her hands together enthusiastically. "I want to be the top coordinator around, Brock wants to be a breeder, and Ash wants to be a Pokemon master, but what about you?"

Misty was surprised that a girl who was pretty oblivious in general hit the nail on the head. She looked over at Ash, smiling as he laughed and interacted with her Pokemon, having brought out his own Corphish, who was now playing in the water with the others. "My dream? The day I met Mr. Pokemon Master there, I told him that I wanted to be the world's best Water Pokemon Master. It was funny because our dreams were very similar; mine was just more specialized. Maybe I could be on the Elite Four or at least be one of the traveling Masters." Her voice was wistful, like she was talking about seeing a beautiful, mythical Pokemon.

"Oh! That's a good dream!" As she spoke, it occurred to the young girl just why Misty frowned when she mentioned her being the best Gym Leader in Kanto. "Oh, but isn't it hard to do that while staying at a gym all the time? I know my dad thought about trying to become a Normal Master, since there haven't been many, but he had me and Max to worry about so he changed his mind. He said he'd have to travel too much."

"Well, to be a master of a specific type, you have to have a lot of knowledge about the Pokemon, and you have to interact with a lot of them. Being the Gym Leader of Cerulean City for however many years gives me a bonus, because it shows that I am serious about Water Pokemon and I'm experienced with them too. Eventually, if I can train my sisters to not ruin this place, I'll travel around to different places, enter water-based tournaments and competitions, and catch all of them." She spoke in the same wistful tone, but there was also a bit of skepticism in her voice, like she didn't believe that she could do it. "For now though, this is the best thing I can do for myself." Misty suddenly blinked, like she was snapping herself out of a spell, and looked over at May. "Don't get me wrong, I love being a Gym Leader here. Sure, I wish I had the option to travel more; I wish my sisters could be more responsible, but I love this gym. I'm just so limited to the Pokemon I can catch and study here. Online information helps, but nothing's better than the real thing."

May was silent, looking around at the Pokemon. Her eyes lingered on Ash as he splashed with the Pokemon a bit before snapping her fingers and pointing at him. "Have you ever thought of asking Ash to find you some water Pokemon while he's traveling? Or maybe letting his stay with you? You'd have more to see and interact with, and they'd have more room than in the river and pond at Professor Oak's." She seemed quite pleased with herself for coming up with this plan.

"I..." Misty trailed off, glancing at Ash. "I never thought about that, honestly. Ash has always been so focused on his journey, I never—"

"Yeah, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't be willing to help. He helps me with training all the time, and when he talks about you, Brock, Tracey, and even someone named Gary, he always sounds so proud of you all. He may have his dream, but he's really supportive of everyone else's too." May giggled a little and added, "Besides, if he wants to be THE Pokemon Master, shouldn't he know a lot about all types? Including water? I know he doesn't have many of his own, so it would help him too." She could tell Misty was really thinking about it now and added one last thing. "You saw earlier how excited he was for you to get that letter. Ash is cocky about himself, but he thinks we're all pretty great too. Especially you."

Misty's cheeks turned pink, but she could feel her pride swelling a bit. May was right. Her dream didn't have to be at a roadblock just because she was here. Being a Master didn't mean she couldn't ask for help on her way to the top. Ash knew that best of all. Both of them were being recognized for their battling, and that's why they were invited to test out the new battle simulator. That had to mean something.

Suddenly, because of this perky, young girl pointing out obvious things didn't seem quite so helpless.

Sky