Ash Ketchum stood on a wooden porch watching a field full of dozens of pokemon, taking a deep breath in an attempt to center himself. The news he'd received earlier that day still had him rather unsettled, and he wasn't quite sure just how to react. He did have to smile though, as he felt the one thing capable of cheering him up coming up behind him.
"Penny for your thoughts?"
Ash couldn't have stopped himself from smiling if he'd wanted to. She just had that kind of effect on him.
"Not sure they're worth that much, to be perfectly honest."
She just punched his arm as she settled into position behind him, wrapping her arms around his body.
"They are to me."
Ash closed his eyes in contentment. That was just one of the things he loved about her; what he thought and felt mattered to her, was vital to her.
"I was just thinking… about what it's going to be like, you know?"
"Seeing them again?"
Not for the first time, or even the hundredth in the past 4 years, she cursed those… people… who'd done this to such a special person as Ash Ketchum. She still remembered that day… that 1 day which had changed everything….
Ash Ketchum walked out of the stadium, his shoulders telling the tale of his disappointment. For the fifth time he had tried and failed to take on a regional league championship. This time was worse as he had lost earlier than ever before, and as if that wasn't bad enough, it was to his rival, an arrogant Unovian named Trip.
Ash wasn't sure what he was doing wrong. He and his pokemon had worked so long and so hard. For it to end like this…. Ash was finding it quite a struggle to keep up his usual can-do attitude.
And of course, it had to be right in front of all of his friends who had come to see him compete. He turned around to see them all, not really knowing what to say, just hoping for one of them to be able to find something to say that would make him feel better.
"How- how are you?"
Ash gave a grim half-smile. "I'll be fine, Brock. Thanks."
For a moment there was silence. Then….
"So… what are you planning to do now?" asked Cilan.
"I'm going to take a little bit of time, then I'm going to go and try out for a new region. I'm down, but I refuse to let this mean I'm out!"
"Pika Pika!" came the affirmation from his most trusted, ever-present companion.
"Are you sure that's such a good idea?" asked Tracey.
Ash frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Well, Ash" piped in Brock, "it may not necessarily be such a great idea for you to charge off to another region straight away."
"Oh come on Ash," Misty interjected, obviously exasperated. "This is your fifth league challenge, and you've dropped way down! What do you expect is going to be different next time?"
Ash recoiled at this, stung. "I-I'll try harder next time, we'll train more-"
"You say that every time, Ash!" came the response from May. "What's going to be different about this one?"
"Your training with your Unova pokemon isn't even as good as when you were in Hoenn!" Max added. "What does that tell you?"
"You can't stay a little kid forever, Ash," came the volley from Iris. "When are you going to let up and admit that being a pokemon trainer just isn't for you?"
Ash flinched as though he'd been punched in the face. He stood there for a moment, his eyes tearing up, before he turned and fled into the wooded area outside the stadium.
Brock turned to the others, about to open his mouth, when someone beat him to it, in a rather different way.
The echo of Dawn's hand across Iris's face reverberated throughout the area.
"How could you say that to him?! He's always tried harder, done his best to correct his mistakes! One time not going as well as the last one doesn't mean he should just give up! I'd slap the rest of you, but I don't have time!" Dawn finished shouting before turning and running in the direction Ash had gone.
"Piplup PipLUP!," shouted Dawn's starter before running after her.
Dawn raced through the forest, searching desperately for Ash, the mantra of disbelief repeating in her mind the whole time.
'I can't believe they did that to him! They're supposed to be his friends, his family! How could they do this, especially now of all times?!'
Dawn slowed down as she heard the sound of crying coming from her left. Making her way through the trees, she came onto a heart wrenching sight. Ash was curled up on the ground, leaning against a tree, sobbing into his arms, Pikachu at his side trying desperately but in vain to comfort him.
Noticing the newcomers, Pikachu turned to them, his face morphing from desperate sympathy to utter fury.
"Pika!" Pikachu exclaimed a challenge, his cheeks sparking.
Dawn held out her hands in the universal gesture of 'I come in peace.'
"I don't agree with them Pikachu, I'm on your side. If you want evidence, you can go look for the handprint on Iris's face."
Pikachu studied her warily for a moment before letting out a soft "Cha…" and backing down. Dawn approached the broken trainer slowly trying to come up with something to say to comfort him.
"Ash?" she spoke softly as she slid down next to him.
Ash flinched at the sound of her voice, cracking Dawn's heart right down the middle. He looked up, his eyes wary, obviously expecting her arrival to herald more pain.
"I'm so sorry, Ash. I had no idea they were going to say that. I don't know why they would-"
"It's obvious, isn't it? I'm pathetic. I've been told it before, but I never thought it would come from them. I guess it's time to face reality."
Ash let out a yell as Pikachu's Thunderbolt crashed over him. After a few moments to recover, Ash turned angrily to the yellow mouse. "What was that for, Pikachu?!"
Pikachu just gave Ash a scolding expression while pointing one finger at Dawn.
"Okay," Ash breathed out as he turned to look at Dawn, who wore the same scolding expression as Pikachu. "What are you turning my own Pokemon against me for?"
"I don't want to ever hear you talking like that again Ash Ketchum! You are not pathetic! Okay you haven't won yet. Do you think Cynthia or Lance won their first time, even their first few times? The important part is that you're learning from each experience, from your mistakes. And yes, you do make some mistakes again, but that's the nature of the process. It'd be incredible if we could learn the instant we made a mistake to never make it again, but it's not that simple. It takes time, and sometimes it requires repeating a mistake until you really learn it fully. But you have the one thing that is most important to have consistently- the attitude to get back up and keep going when something knocks you down. And nobody can take that away from you. You taught me that when I felt like I was losing my drive, you helped me hold onto my passion and for that I'll always be so grateful. And for whatever it's worth, I believe in you, and I always will."
Ash opened his mouth to reply, but had anything occurred to him to say it would never have made its way past the lump in his throat. Instead he just stared into her cerulean eyes, full of comfort and passion, wondering if he could look hard enough or long enough into their depths that he would never have to come out again. As fate would have it, he didn't quite get the chance.
The two teens jumped, startled by the sudden voice, and turned to see a young man emerging from the bushes. He was about five and a half feet tall and had an open, friendly face, but Ash could see lines running along his face incongruous with his apparent age of early to mid-thirties. Ash recognized that pattern. He'd seen those lines in the mirror from time to time, although his age had worked to ensure the lines hadn't stayed permanently. The lines he would expect from someone who was no stranger to danger. Ash had no recollection of ever having met this man before, although there was something about him that he found familiar.
"I'm sorry for sneaking up on you like that, but I'd been looking for you since I saw what happened by the stadium."
"Who are you?" asked Dawn.
"My name is Sam Mosely."
The name sparked something in Ash, explaining why he thought he might be familiar. "Mosely? Are you related to Bill?"
Sam chuckled. "You're quick. Yeah, Bill's my brother. He told me all about the young trainer he met at the lighthouse. The two of us have been following your career. I have to say, I'm impressed. You've accomplished some amazing things working with such a handicap."
Frowns made their presence known on all of the listeners. "Handicap?" asked Ash.
Sam walked over and sat down next to Ash on the ground opposite from where Dawn was. "Ash, do you remember when you were in that accident when you were eight?"
"Wait, what accident?" came Dawn's question.
"When I was eight years old I was playing on a tree swing near the lake in Pallet town and fell off. I was in a coma for a month. Gave my mother a terrible scare. But the doctors said that in the end I was fine?"
"Yes, but that's not what I was talking about. You missed the last two years of your pre-trainer education."
"Yeah, once I finally got out of the hospital I'd missed half that year and into the next one, so my mom just homeschooled me."
Sam shook his head. "Ash, the education system is designed to prepare trainers with all they need to know for their journey. Especially in the later years, you learn a lot of vital training information in multiple classes. Even if your mother was a league champion with all the expertise needed she wouldn't have been able to teach you all you needed to know by herself. Not that quickly. You've been operating as a trainer for 5 years without only ¼ of the education trainers get, and you've still done exceptionally."
Ash turned beet red. "Not that good…."
"Ash you've made it to the top 4 in a regional tournament! You've faced and beaten legendary pokemon. You've saved the world! (yes I know about that) You've had an incredible journey. I'd like to make you an offer."
"What kind of offer?"
"I'm what's called a Pokemon Tactical Operations Officer. I'm considered an expert in Pokemon strategy. I'd like to fill in some of the gaps you're missing."
Ash gave a fish out of water impression. "Wh- Why?"
"Because what's happened to you isn't fair. Because you've proven yourself deserving. And because I could use the help."
"Ash, there are bad, terrible people in the world. People who use Pokemon for horrendous schemes. You know this. You have a knack for stumbling on them. I'm one of those people who work against them, and quite frankly, there aren't enough. I think you have the potential to do extraordinary things. I want to help you. What do you say?"
Ash stared at Sam for a long moment, thinking hard. Finally he came to a decision. He turned to Dawn for a moment, then turned back.
"Do you have room for two?"
"You guys ready to go?"
Sam's voice startled Dawn out of her recollection. She turned to see Sam coming toward them, his face expectant and understanding. She turned to see Ash looking at him as well, and awaited his answer. Ash simply turned to look into her eyes yet again, and steeled himself, his eyes taking on that spark of life she'd always loved.
"For the first time in history, they've come up with a way to actually crown someone with the title of Pokemon master, instead of it just being a fictional title of what everyone was aiming for. I've dreamed of this day for so many years. I was born ready!"