Disclaimer - I love to play with things that aren't mine! I'm a regular klepto!

Author - Chibi / Warlordess

Notes - At the end.

OoOoO

Title - "The Popularity Period"

Summary - Because, depending on the PoV, some things mean absolutely nothing and some things mean just about everything. AaML.

OoOoO

Ages - Misty and Ash are sixteen. The Sensational Sisters are between eighteen and twenty. It's not too important, I don't think. As long as we all know that Ash IS NOT TEN YEARS OLD.

Setting - Takes place after Sinnoh, I guess, though I haven't watched much of that season so I don't know about the new characters or the League (though I have played a bit of Pokemon White). Luckily none of that matters for the sake of this fic.

OoOoO

If Misty had any amount of the ego her sisters had carried with them over the years, she would've allowed herself to be swept up in the drama that had been stirred up within the Cerulean Gym the past month or so.

As it was, she had been trying her best to find a solution to the problem she had recently begun to experience. It was unfathomable, unbelievable, unheard of. No matter how much time she sat back and thought on it, she couldn't figure out how it had come to be this bad.

Whenever she woke up and unlocked the Gym's front entrance for trainers. . .

Whenever she closed up shop (so to speak) for the night and began to feed the Pokemon. . .

Whenever she had some down-time and took advantage of it in order to train up. . .

Even when she happened to want to cool down her head and take a private swim. . .

They were there.

Fanboys.

Months ago, when she had battled Georgio up at the Cerulean Cape and won, she thought that would be the end of all of this. As much as she may have liked that guy, and just as much as she had hated to admit it to anybody (and this included her own dopey duck Pokemon), she rather liked keeping such things quiet, and she wanted that to be the only flattery she either gave or received for a long, long time coming.

Unfortunately, none of the fates seemed to be on her side and so it seemed that with her growing reputation, she would also have to endure the drooling, jeering, and lack of privacy altogether.

And to be honest, it wasn't so bad in the beginning. A few compliments here, some unintentional flirting there; a couple of invitations to the only relatively classy beachside restaurant in town, aptly named Cerulean Scene (which she rejected, thank you so very much). . . But it only got worse from that point on.

Misty, however, was nothing if not stubborn so, at the moment, she chose to ignore it. She figured that, much like most teeny-boppers and models seen in the current magazines, she was a fad and that everything would blow over if she simply gave it time. Heck, if her travels with her old friend, Ash Ketchum, were any indication she was known to be capable of ignoring what was right in front of her for years when she was dedicated enough!

At the same time, though, Misty was also quite impatient. Anyone who knew her would probably have been rather impressed that she lasted so long without snapping and yet, that pride would not have prevented her from stomping the next guy who happened to call out to her via her best quality into the ground.

"Jeezus, did you see those legs?"

"Screw that; check her butt out!"

"She's training her Pokemon in that red bikini again!"

"Ack! She's trying to lock the door on us! Let's take a few more photos!"

She was certainly built like a swimmer, she noted affirmatively, striking a pose and inspecting her own reflection in the full-length mirror beside her closet. Even a slight clenching of her arms proved developed muscle in both of her biceps, she was thin yet lean, her chest was still - eh hem - scrawny (to draw a random memory). But she had to say that even she saw what the guys continued to point out to her when they assumed she'd shut her own hearing off. Her legs were just as strong as her arms and her hips and butt were taut from years of training in the water and traveling on the road.

Misty had never really thought little of herself. Sure, she had always told herself somewhere in the far recesses of her own mind that she was somehow nothing in comparison to her own sisters when it came to appearance. However, she also knew that she didn't put nearly as much effort into it as they did, which probably had a major impact on the response she happened to receive. And yet she still managed to find a few guys who showed interest, a surprise if ever there was one. And though those guys claimed to find her quite attractive, she was pretty sure that they cared more for her substance.

Not that she was complaining or anything, of course.

A small part of her was flattered, she had to admit, but even that part of her was squashed out at some point as their staring and jeering and general productivity continued to stall in her direction. A few months into it, she knew she had to find some way to stop it cold. However, it was hard to stop something you didn't understand.

Thankfully, her sisters were there for her.

"Oh, it's totally that time of her youth, isn't it?" Daisy giggled as she craned her head in the direction of the two middle sisters of the Waterflower family.

"I think you're - like - right, Daisy. I thought it would never come but I suppose even the runt has to have her popularity period at some time or another!" Violet continued vaguely with a wave of her arm.

"What are you talking about?" Misty interrupted, her brow furrowed and twitching.

"Your popularity period; duh," Lily started, a finger poised towards the sky and a look of all-knowing on her face, "There comes a time in, well, nearly every girl's life when she gets to be popular with the guys."

"Of course, our popularity periods have lasted for the last fifteen or so years," Daisy went on but faltered long enough for one of her sisters to take the reigns up after her.

"But you don't have to - like - worry about that, do ya, Misty?" Violet finished with a slightly sharper laugh than she may have intended.

"Oh, gee, however will I survive?" the redhead asked skeptically, and wondered at the brief flashes of concern on her three older sisters' faces if they had in fact taken her seriously. "Really, though, I just wanna know how to stop it!"

Daisy turned a curious stare on Lily, who then continued the cycle in Violet's direction. All of them seemed to be talking silently amongst each other using the secret art of telepathy but then, finally, a minute and a half later, they faced their youngest sibling and bravely asked the oh-so important question.

"Why?" they begged in unison.

"Because I can hardly get anything done without being interrupted! I try to get up and I hear them standing outside my window, hoping to find a good angle for a new photo! I go open the gym and a handful of them jam their way through the door just to watch me even though none of them are sanctioned trainers! I have to search through everyone just to find those who are actually willing to challenge me, and even then, since the gym is open to the public, I'm stuck with the rest of them staring at me and drooling from the mouth! Your silly Sensational Sister charter is supposed to help us take care of our home and our Pokemon but instead it's like I have to babysit them all the time!"

"But Misty, you might never get another chance at this!" Violet warned her, quite certain that they could somehow change her mind.

"Yeah. Like, you're only maybe half as attractive as we are. You're lucky you get one of these at all. Are you seriously trying to cut it off early just because you don't know how to - like - accept the positive feedback?" Lily concluded.

"Besides," and finally, Daisy was able to push the crux of their conversation forward. . . if only to give Misty the one answer she didn't want to hear, "there's really no way to stop it. You just have to - like - let it run its course. You should sit back and enjoy it. I'm sure they'll get over you soon enough. You're totally too scrawny for them to be interested in you for long!"

"Thanks, Daisy, that's helpful," Misty replied with a sarcastic twist to her words.

And so the days wore on into the next week, and so on into the next month or two. And finally, on a random Tuesday morning some odd fifty-two days later, a change ocurred in the monotony.

"Yeesh, Misty, it took me almost twenty minutes just to get through the front doors! What's going on? Are your sisters doing another water ballet?" an old familiar voice asked far too casually to be comfortable, and Misty felt a jolt course through her veins as she turned away from Georgio, cutting her half of the conversation off mid-sentence.

"A - Ash?" she blinked at him as if willing him away, so very sure that he was merely a figment of her imagination. "Y - you're. . . What are you doing here?"

"Wow, that's a great way to greet your best friend, don't you think so, Pikachu?" the raven-haired trainer asked, looking at his starter Pokemon out of the corner of his eye.

"Pika," the electric mouse agreed though he was unable to hide a snigger and then the excitement at seeing the redhead for the first time in a good year. "Pikachupi!" And he hopped away from his trainer and the entire ten foot distance between the two old friends, climbing his way up to the redhead's shoulder and nuzzling her face with a contented chaa.

"Oh, hi, Pikachu! I'm happy to see you too!" Misty grabbed the electric Pokemon from around her neck and cuddled him close to her chest before realizing that she'd forgotten something. "Ah, where are my manners?"

"Manners?" Ash immediately mocked her, scrunching up his nose.

"Yes, those things you should have used to call me and let me know you'd be stopping by, rather than just randomingly showing up like you did," the redhead sniped back just as quickly, "Anyway, Georgio, these are my old friends, Ash and Pikachu. We all traveled together for a few years before I came back to Cerulean to help run the gym. Ash, Pikachu; this is Georgio. He's been helping me out here for the past few months, especially when my sisters go on leave for their modeling jobs."

"Oh," Ash noted with an unreadable expression, but he blinked it away a moment later and offered a friendly smile instead, holding out a hand to shake, "nice to meet you."

"Uh, yeah," Georgio responded in kind, a somewhat bashful crinkle to his brow as he took in the sight of the two old friends, perhaps seeing something he hadn't been meant to know.

"So is that why you didn't come to see me off, Misty?" the raven-haired trainer asked after clearing his throat and staring down the bridge of his nose at the redhead before him, "Because your sisters aren't around right now so you had to watch the gym?"

Perhaps simply to avoid looking at him, she allowed a brisk nod and a flash of a melancholy smile before wiping it away and replacing it with something distant and professional.

"Yeah, well anyway, I guess it's time to open up, huh?"

"Where did you want me, Misty?" Georgio asked curiously as the three of them (or four, counting Pikachu) wandered out of the gym area and back towards the lobby.

"Can you man the front desk today?" she asked with a sigh, glancing at the cluster of tinted sillhouettes outside the sliding double-doors to her left and knowing that only a fraction of them had any real purpose visiting her. "I know it's annoying but just make sure to log any battle appointments and, if someone gets too rowdy, threaten to call Officer Jenny. That usually calms them down."

"Yeah, sure," the relatively softspoken boy replied with a sympathetic grin before walking around the desk ahead of him and taking a seat at the computer behind it, turning it on, and typing in the security code that would turn the rest of the functional lighting on, allowing the trainers standing outside to know that the gym was indeed open for business.

Misty immediately turned on her heel and walked back towards the pool, stretching almost too casually as she went. Ash followed after her, Pikachu at his heels.

"Wait, what's going on? Why would you have to threaten to call the police?" he asked, perplexed. "Isn't that a bit harsh?"

"Ash, I'm kind of busy if you couldn't tell," the redhead remarked absentmindedly as she picked up her current shoulder bag (shaped like a Squirtle's shell) and held it to her. "Care to tell me why you bothered stopping by so suddenly? It's only been almost a year since we last saw each other."

"Uh," the raven-haired trainer blinked away the chill he felt crawling down his spine at the unapproachable tone she was using, "I - I'm leaving for the Unova region tomorrow and, since I'm supposed to catch my ferry here in Cerulean. . . I just thought. . . I mean, like you said, it's been awhile. . . I thought you wouldn't mind a visit."

"Pika!" the electric mouse exclaimed as he hopped back up on his trainer's shoulder. "Pikachupi, kachu chu pika?" And he stared between two of his favorite people and waited for the ice to break.

Finally Misty unclenched her jaw and unveiled a smile.

"You're right. Sorry, guys, I'm just a little stressed out." She sighed again and ruffled a hand through her bangs as if to ease the tension before going on. "You asked why I would have to call the police but. . . it's a bit hard to explain." Her face tinted pink as she imagined doing just that.

"Well, should I wait and see for myself then?" Ash asked, pointing to one of the benches on the other side of the arena.

The redhead stifled another scoff and her grin tightened into a grimace instead.

"I doubt there will be enough room," she then stated flatly.

"Wah, are you serious?" Ash stiffly asked, "What do you think I'm supposed to do?"

The two of them stood there, listening as the front doors about twenty-five feet away from them in the next room finally slid open and a chorus of mismatched shouting and struggling began.

"Well, I guess you could referee. If you wanted to, I mean. I was just going to do without until my sisters got home. Georgio could play witness to the win and loss ratio between taking appointments but. . . an extra hand would probably do me some good."

"Sure, I think I can handle that."

"Misty, your first appointment is ready. Anthony is requesting a two-on-two single trainer battle. Is that alright?" Georgio asked, approaching the two of them again with a clipboard in his hands and a young man following behind.

Ash noticed that he had a digital camera hanging from his neck and wondered if he was a photographer. Unfortunately, Misty noticed it as well and immediately scowled.

"You'll have to hand over your camera before I accept your challenge," she told him sourly and automatically held out her hand to retrieve it.

"Awe, but why?" he wailed in such despair that the Pallet Town trainer couldn't help but wonder such things himself. "I was going to upload the pics I took onto my website later!"

"I thought you were here to battle me?" Misty asked him bluntly, "Taking pictures would be a distraction towards your goal of earning your Cascade Badge, wouldn't it? Besides, I don't allow pictures to be taken of me while I battle except for when it comes to League protocol. Personal photography is banned."

The teenage boy immediately moaned to himself, muttered something unintelligable that neither Misty nor Georgio cared to ask him to repeat, and removed the camera from around his neck.

After the redhead had handed it to her makeshift secretary for safe keeping, she said, "Alright, your challenge is accepted. Trainers command their Pokemon from the blue mat on the right side of the pool. Anywhere within or above the length of the pool is considered part of the arena so please refrain from breaking the rules and attempting to battle from the sidelines or around the bleachers, especially since the gym is," and she paused as if the next few words were a rather dark curse, "public access." And then she renewed her stride and went on, "There are other mats placed in the water if you plan on using land-based Pokemon that aren't agile swimmers. Are those conditions alright with you?"

She held out her hand once more, this time to shake on it, and Anthony accepted with a weary sigh of agreement.

"Okay then, please take your place over there," and she nodded towards the blue mat set up on everyone's righthand side, "And we'll begin in a couple of minutes.

"Georgio, thanks. You can show everyone inside now," the redhead told him gratefully as Anthony walked away, clearly still disgruntled, and her apparent friend gave her a bright smile of encouragement.

"You can do it, Misty; you'll be great so knock them dead!" he told her as he mustered up every ounce of will he could to make such a strong statement before walking back out into the lobby and letting everyone inside, though not before removing all cell-phones and cameras from their custody.

Because he'd left them so fast, he missed the redhead's rueful mutter but Ash and Pikachu caught it.

"Don't tempt me."

The raven-haired trainer turned an inquisitive eye on his Pokemon, who returned it and shrugged, before they too took their place on the white mat directly in front of them, centered between the two challenger mats on the edge of the pool. He took off his shoes and socks and left them on the floor, as well as his backpack, rolling up his pant legs a couple of inches just in case things got a little too damp.

As soon as the bleachers had been filled to the brim with spectators, Misty gave Ash a nod of ascent and he held up one arm to enact the start of the battle. Somehow, immediately the room was silenced. . . but that may have been because Misty had shrugged off the white fitted swimmers hoodie she'd been wearing before, revealing a striped green bikini top and the jean shorts he remembered from oh-so long ago.

It happened immediately. Catcalling and whistling from everywhere, echoing off the walls of the arena and nearly deafening Ash's own shock. And the expression on Misty's face seemed to say that she was rather familiar with the reaction she was currently receiving.

Nevertheless, she continued to stare him down despite her renewed flush, as if to urge him forward, so he went along with it.

"Uh, this is a battle between challenger Anthony and gym leader Misty for the Cascade Badge! Both trainers will use two Pokemon simultaneously and victory goes to the trainer with the last Pokemon standing!" he stated as officially as he could, ignoring the buzzing flutter in his chest and refusing to look his old friend specifically in the eyes for now.

"Go, Staryu; go, Seaking!" the redhead shouted aggressively, eyed boring across the water at Anthony as she withdrew her chosen two Pokemon from her bag and tossed them out into battle. There were a couple of flashes of red light and they appeared in-pose, the starfish Pokemon hyaa-ing while the dancing fish flipped confidently.

"Octillery! Noctowl! I choose you!" Anthony called out in response after what everyone assumed to be some quick thinking.

And then the game was on.

OoO

Things had only escalated from there, it seemed. At some point, Misty had jumped into the pool with one of those breathing devices Ash remembered using during the mermaid play a few years ago. At least that would explain why she'd removed her hoodie before the start of the match but it had still been quite something to see her command her Pokemon from underwater.

And yet his reaction had been a mere fraction of a fraction of what those in the audience had given. More whistling and clapping than ever and a few standing ovations for good measure.

Something settled flatly in the pit of Ash's stomach. It was an epidemic. He'd never seen anything like it before. What was going on?

Wait, that was wrong. If he thought further back into the deepest places of an insignificant fractured memory, he did recognize these symptoms. This was just like when Misty's sisters had performed that water show when he'd first met them, and also like the mermaid play he'd been an unplanned participant of that other time.

But. . . but still. . . All Misty was doing was. . . She was only being herself!

If there was any consolation, it was the look of loathing his redheaded friend constantly wore throughout the next couple of hours. She had indeed thrashed her first challenger - offering him a lamenting smile in apology, and had gone on to win the next two consecutive battles as well. After the fourth one (her first loss of the day), she decided it was time to close the gym down so she could take lunch.

This intervention period could not come soon enough for Ash, who was starving, though just as much for answers as he was for food. Well, as long as Misty wasn't cooking anyway.

Luckily Georgio was handling the nutritional affairs at the Cerulean Gym on top of his other responsibilities. It wasn't much, but he had gone ahead and prepared sandwiches and salads for the three of them, also pulling an extra portion of PokeChow for Pikachu, who sat poolside with Misty's Pokemon (particularly keeping an eye on Psyduck in case he slipped, fell in the water, and accidentally drowned himself).

"Well, there you have it," Misty grumbled between frustrated bites of her greens, "That's why I'd have to call the police."

Ash swallowed half of his sandwich in one bite and immediately went to gulp down some of his iced tea to assist in his recovery. He was trying to find the words to say, maybe hoping to come up with the best joke he could muster, but it was quite the struggle to do so.

"So. . . they're your fans?" he asked, prodding an index finger in her direction disbelievingly. Then he smirked and went on. "Gee, Myst, I don't know. I think you should take the attention while you can get it. Once your sisters come back home, everyone will probably stop projecting and go back to worshipping them instead, won't they?"

Ah, there was the insult he'd been looking for.

To his surprise, it wasn't Misty who retorted.

"Actually, this has been going on for a good six months now. Misty's sisters only went away a few weeks ago," Georgio noted in what could have been a defensive tone of voice.

Ash hmed to himself and went back to munching on his sandwich.

Misty tried her best to not notice her old friend's ignorance. What had she been expecting from him anyway? Ash had never really paid much attention to when any guy attempted to charm her. Rudi had been proof enough of that. His one-track-mind was set only for Pokemon training, becoming a Master.

There was no way she could compare.

She told herself it didn't hurt as much as she thought, hoping the white lie would be bright enough to blind her from the truth.

"Still don't see why Officer Jenny would have to get involved though," the raven-haired trainer murmured, seemingly to himself.

To his consternation, Misty slammed both palms on the dining table the three teenagers were sitting at as she pushed herself to her feet and immedaitely walked over to the window next to the refridgerator. She flipped the sliding lock unlatched and prepared to open the window.

Then she gripped the frame and thrust it upward and Ash heard the sudden onslaught of blaring cocophony from just outside. A couple of distant bushes shook and the sound of cameras snapping shots and calls of, "We love you, Misty!" as well as other, erm, less appropriate things swallowed up Ash's senses.

"Wow," he stated blankly, "Yeah, that might actually be a bit worse than Team Rocket. It's not like that all the time though, is it?"

"Most of it, at least," Misty sighed exasperatedly, slamming the window shut again and making sure to drop and close the blinds as well. "I keep telling them to leave me alone, I try to be as strict and professional as I can but they don't seem to stop. I don't know what to do anymore. Daisy says I just have to wait it out and that they'll eventually abandon me."

Abandon. Such a choice of words.

Ash thought of asking her about it but he was almost positive that he already had his answer. Misty didn't like the attention. She had said so herself that she was constantly looking for a way to stop it, hadn't she?

"Pikapi!" Pikachu shouted, having finished his meal and dashing into the dining room to join his trainer once again.

"Hey buddy, how was lunch?" the raven-haired trainer asked, deciding to remove himself from the situation. Everything was fine then as far as he was concerned. Besides, it was a lot easier talking to his Poke-friend about their adventures in refereeing gym matches than it was talking to Misty about her boy problems.

So he rose from his seat and excused himself to use the bathroom, leaving his two human companions to each other and hoping Misty's friend Georgio would offer the redhead whatever silly words of comfort she seemed to need.

"It's okay, Misty," the young man did indeed say as if to relieve her once they were alone.

"No it's not," she replied bluntly, though her inflection seemed rather deflated, eyes downcast and hands wringing in the fabric of her hoodie for just a moment.

It felt good to release that counterfeit confidence she'd been playing off for so long. But a minute later she shook herself free of even that and brightened up.

"Lunch is over, I guess; especially if Ash is finished eating," she joked, "Let's clean up and get back to work."

The afternoon assault of trainers and admirers was just as bad, if not worse, than those who'd come in the morning. Most of them had only returned for a second viewing of the redheaded water-type trainer in action (much to her chagrin), but there were definitely some new faces as well. Not that Ash could tell, but the sheer number had increased so that a fair few had to stand along the archway leading into the arena.

"She doesn't pull any punches, does she?" one young man was saying with a flirty smirk on his face as he took in the sight of her mid-dive into the pool.

"No, she doesn't. . . But she's amazing! I wonder if she's taking on students?" another guy replied in question.

Ash felt something ripple through him. Students? He hadn't even thought about it. He remembered that Koga had had an assistant, hadn't he? And Erika had so many women working alongside her in Celadon City too. But it was different when it was Misty, his old friend, his best friend. He had never known that anyone would consider her teacher material.

Plus she already had Georgio to keep her company when her sisters weren't around. Did she really need anyone else?

Besides, he considered as realistically as he could, even if she did take on a student or two, I doubt she'd accept anyone from here.

Well, thinking that did make him feel a little bit better. Even if he had no idea why he'd been so shaken to begin with.

He continued playing referee for the next few hours while Georgio sat outside in the lobby for the most part with the other contenders for the Cascade Badge. Misty continued taking challenges until almost six o'clock, long enough for some of the herd to thin out, though mostly only because they were hungry and food was another thing she refused to let anyone bring inside the gym.

Hey, it's not like she was their maid or anything!

"Misty, did you want to accept anymore matches today?" Georgio asked kindly as she handed him her Squirtle shell bag filled with all of her Pokeballs.

"No way! I don't even know how I kept going this long!" she told him soundly with a deep intake of air, "We did really well today though. I hope that tomorrow won't be so busy. My Pokemon need a good rest after such a workout," and she drew a hand across her sopping brow, still rather damp from spending most of her day in the stadium pool.

"So I guess I'll take them to the Center for you and then head home for the night," her friend said before she could even ask the question, offering her a cordial smile.

"Ugh, thanks, Georgio! I knew I could count on you!" She hugged him and released him quickly, Ash blinking at the rather stiff exchange of affection, before murmuring, "Sometimes I wonder if you're the only one, actually."

Georgio went and shut down most of the main lighting, including everything in the arena, ushering Ash and Misty back towards the lobby where Pikachu had already collapsed on one of the chairs for a nap. The three of them said their goodbyes, making sure the like-secretary would come back the next morning to help out again. He offered to pick her Pokemon back up for her in the morning as well, which she gratefully accepted, and then he was on his way.

"He seems like a really nice guy," Ash articulated neutrally, still finding it hard to look at her, just as he had the entire day. Even with her hoodie back on, there was simply too much. . . exposure, he admitted internally to himself.

"He is," Misty affirmed in response as she began to lock down the front doors but then thought better of it. She didn't know what Ash's plans for the night were, after all. It was rather forward to offer him a place to sleep in her home when it was just the two of them. He'd probably reserved a room at the local Center anyway.

She stretched again, clearly beat after all of the excitement of that day, both physical and emotional.

"Sometimes I think I take too much advantage of him," she noted, trying to ignore the small puncture to her own good will. "Though there are other times when I have no idea how I'd get on without him. My sisters have their own careers and they can't seem to focus on those and the gym at the same time."

Ash felt a strange crinkling in his chest, like a paper bag being mashed up into a ball, but he decidedly ignored it.

"Well, he's a friend, right? Friends help each other out. Besides, it's gotta be a pretty good experience, working with one of the Sensational Sisters of Cerulean City." The raven-haired trainer persevered through the look Misty was giving him after his strange compliment. He'd never once associated her with her sisters before. When she was younger, it had always been quite the insult to her ego. Now she had no idea what to do with this acceptance.

"I'm sure he's learning a lot from you."

The redhead quirked a brow at her friend, clearly waiting for the punchline.

"Ash, are you okay?"

"Uh, yeah," but his high pitch seemed to be a cover up for something he still couldn't find it in himself to reveal. "Just opening my eyes, seeing something for the. . . Well, I guess it's not the first time," he rambled in a mutter but didn't unveil anymore details before choosing a new course of discussion.

"You got plans for dinner?"

Misty blinked, taken rather aback by the sudden almost-offer. If she were anymore flighty, she would almost think Ash was asking her out. . . but then again, she knew better, especially after all this time.

"Um, no, I don't. I was just going to sit in and eat something light."

"Awe, Myst, I'm only in town for one night! C'mon, let's go out! We've barely had anytime at all to talk anyway, ya know?" he guffawed in exuberant response.

"B - but what about Pikachu?" the redhead inquired in place of a positive response, nodding her head towards the still-napping Pokemon.

"Mm, I guess you're right. I have a room reserved at a motel near the pier and I have a couple of apples in my bag that I was going to give him for dinner anyway."

The raven-haired trainer strode over to the electric mouse, knelt down, and softly eased him awake with a comforting pat on the back. Misty stepped a little closer as well, unsure of what he'd meant by his previous statement and listening to his next choice of words in preparation.

"Pikaa," Pikachu yawned before craning his neck and staring eagerly up at his trainer. "Chu chu, Pikapi?"

"Hey buddy," Ash started affectionately, "how do ya feel about heading back to our room? I've got dinner for you if you get hungry but, ah. . . are you alright with Misty and I going out to eat? You seem pretty tired."

Pikachu stretched along the seat he'd been sleeping on and immediately turned and nodded at his trainer, giving him the okay. He understood that it was a rare treat that the two humans before him got to see each other - (who knew how long it would be after Ash left for the Unova region the next day?) - and it was fair that they take as much advantage of their time together as they could.

"Pikachu!" he exclaimed, managing to climb into a bipedal position and attempting a peace sign with one of his front paws.

"Thanks, buddy," Ash responded in kind, sighing in what may have been relief. It was almost strange for him to be going anywhere without his starter Pokemon, even when he'd been given express permission.

The two of them waited while Misty put on a shirt, brushed her hair, locked down the main entrance, and grabbed the keys for the maintenance door that exited out behind the arena and into the backyard. It was a bit of a detour but she hardly had a choice when a few excess admirers always managed to stick around in case they were treated to an extra opportunity to harass her that day.

Ash coddled Pikachu in his arms all the way to the Seaside Breeze Motel, walking through the gate and finagling one hand cautiously into his vest pocket to remove the room key. Misty took it and slid it along the card lock beside the door, waiting for the light to blink green so he could get inside.

After depositing Pikachu on his bed and removing the two apples he'd bought earlier that day, Ash turned on his heel and headed back outside where Misty was waiting for him. . . He didn't quite understand it but she'd rejected entering the room herself.

"Alright; where to?" he asked her in an undertone as he stealthily dimmed the lights and closed the room door with a soft snap, returning the key she had continued to hold for him once more to his pocket.

"Uh, well. . ." The redhead bit her bottom lip, hardly daring to believe she would risk such a thing, "I do know of one place that's nearby. I've heard it's nice though I've never been there myself. It's right on the water too. It's called Cerulean Scene."

"Alright, you go ahead and lead the way then," he told her and they began to walk.

Misty felt her heartbeat pick up with every step. She hadn't known she had it in her to be so courageous. Inviting Ash to the one place in town that was reputed as a dating locale. . . Of course, it was without his knowledge. She couldn't help but wonder if he would realize it when they got there and he saw all of the couples and fancy china and soft music and candles. . .

She shook herself from the reverie and instead prayed that he wouldn't. Ash would never knowingly walk into a place like that. He'd probably fight her tooth and nail once he got a good look at it all. This was a bad idea. She should change her mind, come up with a new plan, or else maybe give up altogether.

"Are you still worried about your silly fans?" he asked her, misinterpreting the reason behind her obvious anxiety.

"Oh, no. . . I try not to let them get to me as much as I can. The end can't come soon enough, if you know what I mean," she retorted scathingly, still refusing to look him in the eyes before propping her mouth open again, but she was interrupted.

"Then is it Georgio? I'm tellin' ya, Myst, he cares about you so he doesn't feel like you're taking advantage of him. You shouldn't feel so guilty about something like that for no reason. I mean, I'd do the same for ya if you really needed it and I had the time."

"No, I know, it's not about that, necessarily. It's just, well, all of this silly flattery and flirting and. . . and stalking. . . It wasn't so bad at first. Way back when, when it was just Georgio."

Since she was leading (as she'd been directed to do), she didn't happen to notice Ash's step faltering at this confession.

"Wait, wait. . . What did you say just now?" he asked, eyes a little wider and shock conveyed more than he'd intended it to be.

Misty too finally turned and faced her old friend once more with a soft smile on her face, arms behind her back.

"Um, I was. . . I mean, before it got to this point, about eight months ago. . . I received a love letter from Georgio. It said to meet someone up at the Cerulean Cape and, when I got there, he asked me to attend a baseball game with him. It was supposed to be a date," the redhead finished lamely, cheeks glowing scarlet even in the dark.

"Y - you. . . you went on a date with your friend?" the raven-haired trainer asked, scrutinizing gaze staring Misty up and down. He'd never thought of it before. Friends. Dating. They were supposed to be two completely separate things. How could someone date a friend? Didn't that change things?

"No! I told him I wasn't interested because. . ." Unfortunately she sputtered in failure at pulling the words she'd hoped to finally say together but he was on a whole nother subject already.

"Then what happened? How come he's allowed in the gym so easily? I'm confused, Myst."

More than confused, he was curious. He was. . . Was he scared? It seemed rather unreasonable to be so just because Misty had almost gone out on a date with a potential friend. He knew that it wasn't like nobody had ever come on to her before - (he could still remember even now the seething frustration that had gnawed away at his consciousness at all of the attention and fawning Misty had offered Danny so long ago, all because he'd complimented her name) - but that had been a stranger with no previous relationship with her. That was safer. That was easier to handle. After all, Ash knew that Misty would never really accept a long-term commitment with someone she'd just met, even if they were the suavest guy in the world.

But a friend. . . Someone who'd earned her trust, someone she cared about. . .

"We battled. If I lost, I'd go with him to the game. If I won, he'd give up on me," Misty told him with a furrowed brow. This was not the reaction she'd expected of him. "And he's allowed in the gym because we've gotten to know each other pretty well since then and I like him. He's a nice guy, Ash."

"You. . . like him?" the raven-haired trainer repeated skeptically. "But not enough to date him?"

The gears in his head were spiraling counter-and-clockwise, out of order, undergoing maintenance, on a crash course towards an internal error. He couldn't compute this. His doubts were culminating in rapid succession.

"He's. . . It wasn't like that. But I liked that he genuinely found me attractive. He thought I was cool, that I was smart and strong, but still normal enough. You know, unlike my sisters," she went on, still waiting for Ash to spill exactly what his problem was. "He sounded like he'd done his research; he liked me for who I was."

"But I like you for who you are!" Ash exclaimed before he could put the breaks on his instincts.

The two of them stood there in the dark, passersby walking around them and pretending not to listen to the snippets of conversation they happened to overhear.

"I - I mean, I've, uh. . ." The words, oh, the words were so easy to come by but hard to wrap his heart around. Still, he decided that he'd better finish what he'd started. "I've known you longer. I've known you better. I find you, um. . . I - you - we're friends too, aren't we?" he asked, and it hurt Misty a bit to know that he was asking because he wasn't entirely sure anymore.

"Yes, we are."

Something flustered and fluttered from within him and he felt a burgeoning resolve take over. Clenching his jaw, Ash strode forward and grabbed the redhead by her hand, yanking her as softly as his willpower would allow him to.

"It's this way, isn't it?" he inquired, refusing to stare at her lest she notice just how red his face had gotten. "The restaurant?"

Misty blinked, the irritation she'd felt at his overpowering her melting away as the panic renewed itself.

"Y - yeah, but Ash, I think we should go somewhere else instead! I forgot, Cerulean Scene is kinda pricey, we should grab something at a fast food place o - or a diner. . . or-"

"-It's fine," he told her as if brushing off her discomfort. "It'll be my treat."

The alarm she'd felt before finally softened as dawning comprehension overwhelmed her instead. But it couldn't be true, could it? Ash would never be willing to. . . Surely he didn't understand such concepts, even though their previous conversation had pertained to those things.

"Y - you're paying. . . ?" she questioned, cautioning herself against the probable letdown, "But that's not how tonight's supposed to. . ." Her breath hitched and the words died in her throat.

Luckily, Ash yielded the exact confirmation Misty needed to hear the most.

"Wrong. This is exactly how a date is supposed to go."

OoOoO

Notes - Oh, thank goodness that's over. I've been trying to build on this one for months and it just kept hitting all sorts of walls. Well, at least it's finally done. I dragged the ending on longer than I meant to but I felt that things truly needed to come to a head before Ash would buckle and make any sort of move on his own. I love jealous!aggresive!Ash. Lol.

Off topic but I've recently become severely, overly obsessed with Marianas Trench (the band). I've come up with two more AaML stories (one novel and one one-shot) based on two of their songs. . . Though I'm not sure if I'll ever get around to writing them. But at least I'm admitting that they exist. I've even started writing chapter titles and notations for the novel. Ooh, I'm terrible at this. . .

When will I ever learn to stop coming up with new projects long enough to finish the ones that have been sitting there lacking progress for years? ((sigh))

One last thing, I think; if there are any readers of Our Best (my Ash and Misty canon-based one-shot series) out there, I wanted to extend an invitation for chapter ideas. Because I've decided to stick to following up on moments between them that actually take place in the anime/movies, I thought I'd ask if there was anything you guys wanted expanded upon? I can't promise I'll write it but I'm always looking for ideas. There are only so many episodic scenarios I can remember off the top of my head. Lol.

Thanks for reading! And remember, reviews are love!