=Author's Note=
I'm trying to crank this one out in time for Valentine's Day, so if it's a little late, or a little short, just know that I gave it the ol' college try...and I mean literally! Whew! Now, on to more important matters. You've seen Ash and Misty in the future, when the two teens have already experienced heartbreak at each other's hand. But where did it all begin? Well, for that, we'll have to go slightly less into the future (future's past? That's a great title, I'll have to remember it!) and glimpse into the beginnings of one of destiny's greatest romances. Enjoy!

=Legal Disclaimer=
I don't own Pokémon. I don't own Ash, or Misty. I'm currently timesharing Brock with a hair gel corporation based outside of Portland, Oregon
(I jest, of course). In addition, I don't own the concept of true love or romance, nor do I experience either with nearly enough frequency.

Chronological Note: This story takes place approximately two to three years before The Journey's Just Begun. Ignore any and all incongruities with the show's continuity, as I started this series back in the first season, and things have changed dramatically. It's a fanfiction. Eh.

BadgeQuest: Reflections
"I'm Not Your Cinderella!"

* * *
"All right, Ash." Brock's brow furrowed, squinting furiously over at his opponent. He felt beads of sweat running down the back of his neck. For just a moment, he felt as though he was in a Wild West showdown, with high noon only moments away. "This is it. One wrong move and you're toasted. No pressure."

Ash stared down at the situation; Brock had just taken out his Pidgeot with a supercharged Onix. Both were down to only one Pokémon, and the stakes of the match were too high to lose now. The problem was, he only had his Pikachu left, and scant few items on hand to help him win this one.

"What do you think, partner?" Ash looked down at Pikachu, gauging the mouse's reaction to the situation. Facing down Brock's Onix was a serious matter, especially when it had an enormous resistance to Pikachu's powers.
"Think we should?"

"Pika!" Pikachu threw a few jabs in the air, then turned to Brock and taunted the Rock trainer with a long, wet raspberry. "Pika pika piiii-kaaaa!" it razzed, waving its tail mocking at the spiky-haired teen.

Ash nodded, blowing out a breath of air. "All right. Let's do it." With a calm, steady hand, he reached down and pulled the last of his cards, his Pikachu card, up to the forefront of the battle.

A small crowd had gathered in the lobby of Viridian City's Pokécenter, watching the heated card match between the two talented trainers escalate to titanic proportions. They gasped in unison as Ash put his Pikachu into play, murmuring between each other at the insane move. It was about as exciting as a card game could possibly be, which meant that at least half of the onlookers were giving the match most of their attention.

Brock grinned like mad when Ash flipped the card over, leaning back with folded arms. "So, you decided to throw the match, huh? I can't say I blame you, Ketchum. You never stood a chance against Brock, the Champion of All Games."

"Uh huh." Ash's eyes narrowed as he clutched his hand of cards to his chest. Things may have looked grim as they were, but he wasn't out of tricks yet. "Just keep talking, Brock-O. I still have a card to draw." Ash felt a small sliver of excitement as he reached for his draw pile. 'I've got to believe in the heart of the cards...' With shaking hand, he drew the top card.
Without looking, he laid it next to his Pikachu card.

Brock leaned forward, examining the card. "Hmm. The special tournament edition. I'm impressed. its attack does quite a bit of damage, and Onix only has about twenty hit points left." He sighed, pretending to be disappointed.
"But, with the elemental resistance, that rat of yours can only do ten damage, which means that Onix'll wipe him out next turn, and the match'll be mine."

A series of gasps and murmurings erupted from the crowd. It seemed as though the match was over, and several of the people behind Brock congratulated him, and clapped him on the shoulder. However, many of them caught the gleam in
Ash's eye, and weren't ready to call the match just yet.

"Well, you'd be right," Ash acknowledged his opponent, trading a knowing glance with Pikachu. His thundermouse gave him a nod, and so Ash flipped the face-down card over. "But, this Rare Candy card adds another ten points to my attack's damage value." Sure enough, there was a tiny piece of pink candy staring back at Brock from the face of the card, mocking him in its own tiny pink way. "That's twenty damage, and that means that Onix is history."

"WHAT?" Brock leapt forward, knocking his chair back. "How could you possibly have known? It's impossible!!!"

Ash shrugged, taking the liberty of flipping Brock's Onix over. "I dunno.
Saw it on TV once, I think." It was his turn to lean back, folding his arms and a grin far too wide for his youthful, elfish face. His amber eyes glowed with amusement as he motioned to Brock. "I believe you know what to do."

Brock eyed the crowd, which had also stuck around to see Ash's winnings. "C'mon, Ash. This was just for fun, right?" His voice was pleading. "Right?"

"Pikachu?"

"Pikaaaaaa..." Pikachu shook its head, smirking toothily. "Pi."

With a deep, soul-searing sigh, Brock pushed his chair back and rose.
Like a condemned man taking his last steps to the electric chair, he parted the crowd and stood before them, his head hung low.

"Well?" Ash intoned.

Grumbling and promising revenge in the future, Brock placed his right hand on his hip and held his left aloft, with his hand tilted downward. "I'm a little teapot, short and stout..."

"You call that singing?" Ash laughed. "Come on, put some heart into it!"

"This is my handle, this is my spout!" he put more volume into it, muttering and cursing in between verses. The entire crowd burst out laughing, egging him on and clapping. Somehow, through it all, Brock managed to keep the red out of his cheeks, trying to maintain whatever dignity he had left for later when he would beat Ash with a metal pipe.

Misty walked in with her usual sense of timing, catching the last half of Brock's humiliation. This was about the third time in the past week she had seen it, so her only reaction was a raised eyebrow as she approached her friends, clutching her freshly-energized Pokéballs. "Hey guys. More hip action, Brock."

"I'll get you too, Misty." Brock assured her before his grand finale, which involved somersaults and a note higher than Brock should ever have been able to hit.

"Here you go, Ash." She tossed his Charizard's ball, which he fumbled to catch. Glancing down at the table full of cards, her eyebrow shot up once more.
"Shouldn't you be training instead of playing games? After all, the Indigo
League kicks off in just two months."

"Yeah yeah." He gathered his cards with a roll of his eyes. "Jeez, you're worse than a second mother."

Misty clipped him upside the head, knocking his hat off-kilter and into his eyes. "You should be so lucky to have a mom this hot." She quipped, tossing her sidesaddle ponytail over her shoulder as she sat backwards in Brock's vacated chair.

They sat in silence for a few seconds, which was rare for the duo whenever they were in the midst of a verbal sparring match. Not for the first time, Ash looked-really looked-at Misty. It had been happening more often lately, despite his best efforts on the contrary.

Her figure had begun to fill out the sleeveless yellow shirt she had worn nearly every day he had known her. Her gangly legs had become shapely and long.
She still remained taller than him, even though he had gained a good five inches in the past two years alone, but he had never been the type of guy to worry about little things like height. Misty and Brock had always told him that he was secure in his self-confidence (but rarely put it that delicately).

What was even stranger was how close they had grown. He had spent nearly every night for the longest time with Misty, staying up 'til the wee hours of the morning talking, or watching late-night television, or playing stupid games.
He couldn't imagine his life without her, and didn't really want to try.

The really strange thing, though, was the dreams he had been having.
Every so often he would have dreams, and she would be there. It was nothing dirty...he wasn't that type of guy, either...but it was always strange. He would see her, hovering there in the bottommost recesses of his mind, and all he could think about was her. The problem wasn't limited to his dreams, though. The way she smelled, the way her skin felt, the electricity that jumped between them when they chanced to touch...

It was annoying, really.

"I'll be ready, don't you worry." Ash assured her, pretending that his head didn't spin with confusion whenever she entered the room. "Just make sure your windpipes are all warmed up for cheering when I take the championship, Carrot Top."

"Careful, Ash." She smirked, "You're ego is showing." Then she frowned, glancing down at the table where Brock's scattered cards remained. "Something's wrong. Usually Brock collects his cards by now..."

"Yeah," Ash drawled, scanning the lobby for a sign of their wayward friend. "Then he swears he'll never play me again." After a moment, he spotted
Brock in a nook across the room, and led Misty and Pikachu over to where the young man stood, insensate.

"Brock?" Misty snapped her fingers in front of his face, trying to elicit any kind of response, but it was no use. He simply stared ahead, his jaw hung open and his eyes glazed over. "Whoa. Weird. What do you suppose-"

"Oh, you have friends!" came a musical voice from behind. Turning about,
Ash, Misty and Pikachu caught sight of Viridian City's own Nurse Joy, clicking towards them in her high heels with a serene smile on her delicate features.
Joy held a stack of leaflets clutched to her chest as she approached the quartet, holding out one for each of the teenagers. "Here you go."

"G-guh..." Brock quivered. Ash and Misty took several steps away from him, just in case he exploded at the sight of his favorite person(s) in the entire world. "Nuh...nuh...Nurse Joy!" he cried, falling to one knee and snagging her free hand in his. He kissed it clumsily, looking up at her with stars in his eyes. "Nurse Joy, will you go to the dance with me?"

Before the startled physician could answer, Misty's fist of steel negated any reason for reply. She bonked Brock on the head, knocking him to the floor and away from Joy. "What are you talking about, you dippy Romeo?" She sighed, folding her arms to hide the sting in her knuckles. "Looks like he's hallucinating again..."


"Actually," Ash held the leaflet for Misty to see, "I think he wasn't this time."

Misty glanced over the paper, reading the large, bold letters at the top out loud. "Viridian City is proud to host this year's Indigo Master's Ball.
Gym leaders and trainers with eight or more badges are invited to attend Indigo League's most prestigious event. To RSVP, contact..." She looked over at Brock, who was just now collecting himself from the floor. "Oh. Whoops."

"Your friend was asking me out on a date," Joy explained with a voice sweeter than honey, "So I told him about the dance. Of course, this year it's a singles dance, so couples aren't allowed-"

"Hey!" Ash exclaimed, already further down the page, "It's a costume ball too! This kind of sounds like fun."

"When I told your friend that I'd be there, he froze up..." Joy frowned at Brock, who had once again gone into Joyshock at her very image. "I figured he might want to go to the ball. Of course, I'll be there-"

"Of course we're going!" Brock exploded, leaping to his feet. "We'd love to go! Aren't we delighted to go, guys?"

"Well-"

"Uh-"

"See?" he insisted to Joy.

She merely smiled, taking several cautionary steps back. "Lovely. Well,
I have work to do. Now, if you three wouldn't mind not blowing up the Center again-"

"Yes, Nurse Joy," The three harmonized, and Brock with hearts aglow in his eyes as Nurse Joy left them to return to her duties.

Ash scanned the leaflet. It appeared that the dance would be held the night after tomorrow night, which left them just enough time to send a reply to the dance's organizers, and pick up a costume of sorts. "Well," he thought it over, "Who knows? It might be kind of fun."

Misty had none of Ash's doubts. She clutched the paper to her chest as a lover would her one and only. With a sigh and a swoon, she began floating across the polished tile of the Pokécenter, carried gracefully by her toes. "Fun? Gosh, I haven't been to a dance since I was a little girl. Oh, they're so romantic!"

Her friend snorted, nudging Brock out of his Joyshock. "Romantic, huh?
Don't you have to have someone to romanticize with?" He and Pikachu laughed, trading a high five/four at Misty's expense. Misty fumed, punching him in the stomach as she stormed past towards the stairs.

* * *
Misty walked into the Center's waiting lounge, which was lit only by a few remaining florescent lights during quiet hours. She was clad only in her pajamas; an ancient T-shirt full of holes, with ratty sweatpants to match. She had let her hair from its ponytail, allowing the gorgeous red locks to swing freely about her shoulder blades.

Just as she had thought, Ash was sitting in the lounge, flipping through channels faster than the human eye could follow. For nearly every night over the past year, they had sat up together with bouts of "insomnia", whiling away the hours of the night until morning came, and fatigue finally claimed them. She wasn't sure if it had really started with an inability to sleep, but they hadn't needed any excuse in a long time.

"Hey." Ash greeted her without tearing his eyes away from the television.
Like her, he was clad in sleepwear; boxers, an extra-large black T, and those ridiculous Pikachu slippers that she had gotten him for his birthday last year. "Nothin' good on television tonight."

"I know." Misty replied, moving over to sit at the small square table provided. She pulled a dog-eared deck of cards from her pocket, tossing them onto the table. A large wad of half-shredded, tiny papers was rubber-banded to the deck. "You bring your wagers?"

He picked up an identical wad of papers sitting next to him on the couch. "Blackjack?"

"Done." He stood to join her, plopping down opposite her in the hard wooden chairs as she began shuffling the cards. Her hands flipped and mixed the cards with practiced ease. "Where's Pikachu?"

"Fell asleep pretty quick." Ash began organizing his wagers, putting them into small piles in front of him. "He's conked out on my pillow right now.
Besides, he gets bored when we play Blackjack."

She dealed out the cards, then selected one of her wagers and placed it in the center. "Ante up. One night of doing the dishes."

Ash put his own slip of paper into the middle. "Laundry, one load."

They began playing in silence, moving through hands fairly quickly, trading wagers on both sides as one beat the other, and vice versa.

After a few hours of unimportant chitchat, Ash managed to worm "So, what do you think of this dance thing?" into the conversation. He flipped over a ten, adding to his eight already to beat Misty's seventeen and take the pot.
"You really gonna go, or something?"

She glanced up from the cards, stopping for just a second in mid-shuffle.
"I dunno." She replied, "You asking me?"

"Sh'ya, right." Ash scoffed, kicking himself mentally. "Besides, Joy said it was a single's dance."

"Oh yeah." Misty pretended to remember, trying to sound nonchalant. "I dunno," she said again. "I mean, I'd only have a day to get a costume, and it'd be a really big hassle."

"Yeah."

Misty kicked herself mentally, cursing Ash. The one time he didn't disagree with her, even on principle, and she had desperately wanted him to go against her. She decided to pour on the manipulation. "On the other hand," she added almost as a second thought, "Anyone who's everyone in Indigo is going to be there. It'd be a shame to pass up an inside look at the competition coming up."

Ash looked up, dropping the sorted wagers. "You think?"

She hid the tiny smile threatening her lips. "Maybe." She shrugged, "I dunno."

His brow furrowed in concentration that was rare for him outside of a match. "Huh. Maybe I will go." He looked up at her, smiling. "I hear there's a great costume shop on Third Avenue. Wanna check it out tomorrow?"

"Kay. Ante up." She looked down at her cards. She was showing an Ace of Hearts. Lifting up the bottom card, she spied the Queen of Hearts lurking underneath. Keeping her reaction carefully neutral, she looked over at Ash. "One hour sitting through your favorite show." She tossed the paper into the pot.

"Oh, you're going to regret that one." Ash tossed his own bet, a foot massage, into the pot with a grin. "Cosby Mysteries, here you come."

"Gag." She looked down at her wagers, which had gotten slightly smaller after the last few hands. With the bets in the pot right now, it would more than make up for the chores and token humiliations that Ash would have her do until their next match. "Okay. Let's make this interesting." Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out her trump wager and flicked it onto the table. "The Oak Institute's Tauros pen cleaning."

Ash whistled, pulling back from the table. "Wow. I didn't even know you had something like that." He looked down at his own hand; a ten of Hearts showing, with a King of Hearts waiting in the wings. It was a sure bet, but what was he going to come back with to counter Tauros crap? Laundry, dishes, and singing in public weren't going to cover something like that. "I don't think I can cover that kind of a bet." He sifted through his papers, showing a few of them to prove the point.

A wicked idea burrowed its way into Misty's brain. She took a blank scrap of paper and scribbled a new wager out with a stray pen. "I think this might cover it." She handed it to him so he could look it over. "Well?"

He read it, then did a double-take. "A kiss?" His eyes nearly bugged out of his head as he stared at her. "Are you serious? Are you insane?"

"What?" she winked slyly. "Wha'sa matter? You never kiss a girl before?"

"Oh, and I suppose you're a lip-locking expert?"

She blushed, folding her arms and leaning back. "Look, you can always fold."

With the hand he had? Not a bloody chance.

"I'm in."

"Show 'em."

"Heh. Read 'em and weep, Red-Head. Twenty!" He flipped his King over, grinning like a madman. "Looks like someone really likes their Tauros droppings."

"Not so fast, Hat Boy." Misty flipped her Ace over, revealing her own Heart combo. She enjoyed the look on Ash's face as his jaw dropped in shock.
Sweeping up her winnings, she couldn't help but add, "Hope you've been using chap stick."

Ash groaned, letting his head drop to the table. "Augh!" he groaned, thumping his forehead again and again. "You knew."

"Yep."

"You knew!"

"I believe we've been through that part already." She grinned, banding up the cards. "And I believe you've had enough for the night."

"What, I don't get a chance to win it back?" he whined. "That's not fair!
C'mon, one more hand."

"No, I think I like my winnings just the way they are." Her eyebrows waggled.

Sighing, he got up from his chair. His feet remained planted, and his hands shifted uncomfortably in front of him. "So...what, do you want it now?"
He could feel nervous beads of sweat running down the back of his neck.

"What?" It was Misty's turn to be surprised. She hadn't expected him to give in so easily. "Uh, I mean..." Swallowing, she tried to recover quickly.
"Slow down there, Tiger. I haven't redeemed the magic ticket yet. Besides," she added as an afterthought, "I didn't say who you had to kiss. For all you know, you could be giving Charizard a big wet one tomorrow."

Ash grumbled, but it was clear to see that he was relieved that she wasn't collecting tonight. "In that case, maybe I should head for bed before I lose any more." He gathered up his wagers. "Are you coming?"

"In a minute. You go ahead." She watched him exit the room, then allowed herself to collapse in relief. That was far too close for comfort. Why had she allowed herself to do something so stupid? What was to stop him from guessing the truth?

Truth...that was a funny way of putting it. Just how was she supposed to explain how she felt to Ash when she didn't know herself. It was true, she had been thinking about him a lot lately...a lot more than usual. But she didn't want him to know that yet...maybe not ever. Ash was her best friend. She didn't know what she would do without him to talk to and to hang out with. Why would she throw that all away for a single kiss.

"'Cause it would be worth it."

She clapped a hand over her own mouth, cursing her voice. What was she thinking? Sure, Ash was cute...handsome even. He was a cool guy, and kinder than anyone she knew (save for Brock, who had the kindness and caring of a fleet of smothering mothers). Weren't those the perfect qualifications for a boyfriend?

Come to think of it, why shouldn't she tell Ash how she felt? She picked up their respective hands, holding up the King and Queen of Hearts. He deserved to know, and she deserved to tell him-

-And afterwards, after he would undoubtedly reject her, she could go dig herself a deep, deep hole and rot there until the hurt of rejection ceased.

"Consarn it." She muttered, tossing the King and Queen back onto the table. Somehow, life never made things easy.

* * *
"What do you think of this one, Brock?"

Brock nodded as Misty spun in place, squeezed into a cat costume so tight that he feared she would burst out at any moment. The leopard spot print hugged her like a second skin. It would undoubtedly turn quite a few heads at the dance, but possibly not in the way she would want them to turn. "You want my honest opinion?" he asked with a warning tone.

"Of course," she insisted, tugging on her own tail. Her ears slipped down before she slipped them back up and over her sidesaddle ponytail. With her hair done up the way it was, she only looked more ridiculous.

"You look like some cosplaying animé freak."

Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "You don't have to be that honest." She growled, taking on some of the costume's qualities with her low, rumbling voice.

He grinned in response, continuing his search through the racks of costumes. He passed up pirate suits, went around a walrus rig, searching for something, anything, that might be even remotely acceptable. So far, success was nowhere in sight. The place had clearly been cleaned out by dozens upon dozens of trainers that had come before them. "Good lord, isn't there anything left?"

"'Fraid not." Ash stepped out of the woodwork, tugging his cap low over his face. His features were half-hidden behind the bill of the league hat and his tufts of hair as he scanned Misty's current choice. "Wow. Looking good there, Tabby."

"What?" Misty ran a hand over her curves, looking down at the costume in question. "I think it looks really cute. Don't you think so, Brock?"

"Can't here you," Brock informed her from inside one of the costume racks,
"I'm rummaging."

Ash chuckled, shaking his head. "You may be the cat's meow, but I don't think it's a look that works for you. Besides," he added, "The rules of the Master's Ball state that your costume must hide your identity. Otherwise it's no-go."

"And where did you come up with all this information all of a sudden?"
Misty huffed indignantly. Her hands flew to her hips as she leaned over, glaring right down into Ash's face. "And since when are you the master of costumes?"

"Oh, I don't know..." Ash grinned, and Misty knew instantly that something was wrong. 'Ash' had a scent about him that was all wrong, a delicate musk of flowers and woodland meadows that had no business being on a boy. His features were more angular and elfish than usual, and his eyes were an off-color of brown. "I know a thing or two about disguises, if I do say so myself."

Misty leapt back, hissing and baring the blunted claws that the costume came with. "Who are you? What have you done with Ash?"

"Who did what with me now?" Ash...that is, another Ash, walked onto the scene, holding up a black bag with a receipt attached. The young trainer had apparrantly just returned from renting his costume, which now hung on a cheap plastic hanger and was protected by the garbage bag draped over his shoulder. He glanced over at his doppelganger and raised an eyebrow, appraising the figure. "Well," he rubbed his chin, "This certainly doesn't happen every day."

"So," the other Ash smirked, "Are you the real Ash, or am I?" They began circling each other, sizing the other up. "Are you a reflection of me? Or am a phantasm of you?" he taunted, waggling his finger to and fro as they continued their waltz. A surreal cackle escaped his lips, a sound most unnatural for Ash to be making.

Ash examined his other self for a moment more, then nodded to himself.
Reaching over, he opened the other's jacket. "Well, considering that you're the
Ash with breasts, I'm going to have to guess that I'm the original."

"Ash" grinned, tossing her head back with a laugh. "Caught me, Ashy-Boy.
You're getting sharper...or maybe just less dumb." She pulled off her hat, revealing the black locks to be nothing more than charcoaled tips put onto dark green hair pulled back in a pair of long pigtails. Her lithe form slipped from the blue and white jacket, revealing a wiry, curvy figure beneath the black T.
"Of course, it's hard to be anything but sexy and feminine with a body like this."

"Good to see you again, Duplica." Ash greeted her warmly, slinging his black plastic bag over his shoulder. "Modest as ever, eh? What the heck are you doing in town? Performing?"

"As a matter of fact, I am." Duplica entered one of the clothes racks, and emerged a scant few seconds later dressed in solid black leather, wearing a studded, spiked coat that looked more appropriate for a post-apocalyptic battleground than a costume ball. "I'll be the entertainment tomorrow night at that dance Catgirl there is so excited about." She stepped in and out again, suddenly wearing bell bottoms and a psychedelic shirt that was provocatively unbuttoned halfway down the front. "It's going to be my new quick changing music review, Morphotunes."

"I think I'm going to go change." Misty pouted, heading back for the changing rooms.

The three teens watched her go, then turned to Ash and his mysterious bag.
"So, Ashy-Boy," Duplica elbowed him in the ribs with a wink, "What did you think of Misty's cat-suit?"

"What?" Ash blushed furiously, throwing up his hands as if to ward off her question. "I don't know what you're...I mean, I don't think...I..."

She laughed, turning back to Brock. "He hasn't told her yet, has he?"

"Nope." Brock's muffled voice came from within the clothes rack. "Not yet." He seemed almost lost in the search, sounding more and more distant with each new rejected costume.

"Shut up!" Ash blushed even worse.

Duplica grinned. "Why don't we all go grab a shake and talk about Ash's relative cowardice?" She looked to Brock as Ash stood there, sputtering
impotently in defiance.

"Love to," Brock replied, pulling out the togs of a court jester and examining them, "But Misty and I still haven't found our costumes yet." He pulled a face at the jester costume, tossing it onto his growing pile of rejects.

Duplica shrugged, snagging Ash's hand. "Well then, Ash can just treat me to a malt while you guys keep looking. Catch up with you later?"

"Sure."

"Bu-wait a minute!" Ash cried out as Duplica dragged him from the store.
It was useless to struggle, even though he tried desperately. "Wait!"

"See you guys later." Brock muttered, never stopping his search for a suitable costume. A few moments later, he heard Misty stalking up behind him, just as huffy as when she had left. "Hey."

"Hey." Misty groused, tossing the skimpy cat outfit back onto the racks.
Her temples throbbed as she pulled up a cold metal folding chair, tossing her backside onto the freezing stool. "I guess deciding to go to the dance last-minute wasn't such a good idea. There isn't anything left."

"Yeah," Brock's head was once more stuck between costumes within the hundreds left in the store. "I'll probably end up tossing something together from what we have back at the Center."

Misty allowed her eyes a moment's rest as she tried to come up with an idea. If she didn't find a costume soon, then Ash might end up as the only one able to go to the dance. Speaking of whom...Misty became suddenly aware of how quiet it had been since her return. Looking about, she asked Brock, "Where did Ash go? And where's Duplica?"

"Duplica's mooching a malt off of him. They'll meet up with us later."

Ash? And Duplica? Together? "Oh?" She intoned icily as her eyebrow arched. Her body language shifted, exuding extreme anger without her even knowing it. Several other customers in the store caught one look at her and decided that searching in a different isle might be a better idea. "I see."

Brock paused a moment, pulling out of the rack. "What?"

"Nothing. What do you mean?" Her eyes flashed. Even Brock, who had known her for years now, took a step back to safeguard him. I don't know what you're talking about."

"Okay." Brock assured her. He didn't want to start anything-

"It's not like I like him or anything."

-To late. Better to get it over with as quickly as possible. "You haven't told him yet?"

"Told him what?!" she cried indignantly, knowing full well what he meant.
His pointed look told her that denying it wouldn't kill the issue. With a sigh, she backed off from her offensive stance. "No. No, I haven't. Is that what you wanted to hear?"

"God no." He stood, examining an aviator's costume. It wasn't half-bad, but unfortunately, it wasn't in his size. "If you just tell him, then we can all get on with our lives."

"Or end them." She muttered, averting her eyes.

"Oh please. He's just as crazy about you as you are about him."

Her lips extended into a pout. "I'm not crazy about him..." she muttered again, wishing beyond hope that it was true.

Brock ignored her, as he always did when she went off on one of her Ash rantings. Then, without even trying, he came across a miraculous discovery hiding between a clown suit and a matador costume. "Hey, look what I found!"
He pulled the shift of frilled blue fabric off of the rack, presenting it to Misty with a flourish. "Ta-dah!"

She examined the dress, which had a long blonde wig attached to it. "I don't think so..."

"Why not?" Brock held it aloft, looking it over. "I mean, Jeez...it's gorgeous, and it's just your size."

She shook her head. "I'm not the Cinderella type." However, her attitude changed as she held the costume up to her chest, examining herself in the mirror. She placed the wig atop her flaming locks with her free hand, completing the ensemble. "And then again..."

* * *
"You mean you haven't told her yet?"

Ash rolled his eyes as Duplica took a long slug of malt, sounding like a faltering drain as half of the drink disappeared in seconds. Where did this quick-change interloper get off...interloping? "No, I haven't told her yet." He whined, mocking her voice. "Why would I? Misty and I have a great working relationship."

"Yeah," Duplica threw in, "You two are the Mayor and Treasurer of Platonic City."

"Look, politics has nothing to do with this!" Ash pounded his fist on the table, completely missing her joke. "The point is, why would I mess things up when they're great as they are?"

"Hmm..." Duplica considered for a moment, rubbing her jaw. "Maybe...and this is just a theory, mind you, but maybe...because the last time I saw you guys, you were one hundred percent, head-over-heels, incurably, irrevocably in love with Misty Waterflower?"

"Yeah, there's that." He admitted. "But I'm over it now."

"Really." Duplica was unconvinced. "All right, Ash. We'll put this to the test. I'm going to ask you a series of questions. Your answers will determine whether or not you are in love with Misty." She cleared her throat, straightening in her seat and laying out a series of napkins as if they were files and papers. "Let's begin, shall we?"

"Uh-"

"Question one: What is Misty's favorite movie?"

"That's easy." Ash waved her off. "Titanic. She saw it, like, twenty times...and dragged me along for at least half of those." He shuddered at the memory of so many wasted hours.

Duplica's eyebrow raised. "That was awful fast..."

"Please, everyone knew that."

"Favorite food?"

"Chocolate."

"Animal?"

"Togepi.

"Hates-"

He ticked them off on his fingers. "Peppers, carrots, and bugs."

"Wants to be-"

"She's not sure..." he considered it. "Her dream's always been to be a
Water Master, but she's always had other stuff too."

His companion face faulted, letting her head drop to the table. "Holy mother of crap, Ash." She looked up, picking the napkins off of her face, and shot Ash a furious glare. "You are so in love with her it's not even funny."

"Am not. Everyone knows that kind of stuff about their best friend."

"Really."

"Yes!"

"Most embarrassing secret?"

He scratched his head, considering it for a moment. "Huhn. 'Most' embarrassing..." Then he brightened. "Oh, I have it!" He leaned in close, motioning for her to do the same. "She has a little birthmark in the shape of a
Staryu on her-"

"Whoa!" Duplica reared back. "That's far enough, cowboy. I think you've got it bad. The fact that she hasn't seen it means that she must be as dense as you are."

Ash rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, groaning. As Duplica drank the remainder of her malt, he massaged his temples. "What is this sudden, morbid interest in my love life?"

"So, are you going to tell her at the dance?" she asked, completely ignoring his question. "It's a huge opportunity. You can't pass something like that up, right?"

"How?" He frowned. "I thought that we weren't supposed to know who everyone was."

"You're not big on reading, are you?" she smirked. "Even if you aren't bright enough to recognize someone you've known for the past three years when they wear different clothing-"

"Do you enjoy calling me stupid?"

"They'll be a big unmasking at the end of the Ball." She pulled the dance pamphlet out of her pocket and showed it to him, pointing out the last bulleted item. "See? That way, whatever dance partner you hook up with doesn't know you until the end."

"I dunno...maybe." he pondered the problem, thinking. It 'did' seem like a romantic thing to do...And God knows Misty appreciated romantic crap like that. If there was a better time, Ash hadn't found it yet. "I guess we'll have to see..."

* * *
"Hey."

"Hey." Ash had been sitting on the couch of the Center's waiting area, flipping through late-night television. He had only been giving it half his attention, though. What he had really been waiting for had just arrived.

Misty, clad in her same pajamas as last night, walked into the lounge and vaulted over the couch. "What're we watching?" she asked, landing with a bounce that nearly tossed Ash out of his seat entirely. "Anything good?"

"There's an old episode of Star Truck on."

"Gag. Change it."

He held out a small slip of paper to her. "One hour of my favorite show.
I'm redeeming it right now." He smiled as she took the paper, cursing the wager she had lost the night before. Getting it back meant sitting through an episode of idiotic sixties' sci fi, and that was almost too high a price to pay.

"Of course," he added, "I'd be willing to trade you this one for that other wager."

She knew exactly which one she meant. "I'll stick with Captain Quirk, if that's all right with you."

He cursed beneath his breath, wondering why they had started the stupid game all those months ago anyway. It was maddening, having Misty hold all this power over him. The worst part was, if it really was 'her' she wanted him to kiss, she wouldn't get any sort of argument whatsoever. It was nothing he hadn't thought about a thousand times.

'Yeah, right,' he scoffed to himself, 'Like she would want to lock lips with you.'

"So..." He flipped the television over to the Sci Fi channel, watching the familiar opening of Star Truck. He worked up the courage as the space going vehicle roared by on the Center's ancient set. "Did you find a costume for the dance?"

"Yeah. It only took, like, forever." Her eyes were carefully glued to the television, her tone kept neutral through months of practice.

"Me too." There were a few moments of comfortable silence between the two before he spoke again. "What'd you get?"

She looked over at him. "Why?" she asked him. "You wanna dance with me, or something?"

"What? No!" he said quickly, flustered and surprised at her question. "I mean, maybe. I dunno." He hesitated. "Why. You wanna dance with me...or something?"

"I dunno." She shrugged. Her face was completely unreadable to Ash, which annoyed him to no end. If only he knew how she felt about him! "Besides, we're not supposed to know what anyone else is wearing, remember?"

"Oh yeah," he said, having never really forgotten. It would have been much easier to find her if he knew what she was wearing to the Ball. Now, it seemed as though he would have to do it the hard way. Seeing as how he possessed the deductive reasoning skills of Sherlock Holmes's violin, it might prove to be quite the challenge.

* * *
"Welcome, welcome, one and all!" Alfred Giovanni threw his arms wide, welcoming his guests from his place on the upper balcony of the Viridian City Gym's battle arena. As the host of this year's Master's Ball, he had gone all-out on the entire affair. There was an enormous buffet table set up to the side, with drinks for all and food of the highest quality in massive quantities.

His alter ego was unbeknownst to anyone in the crowd, a secret carefully kept by any and all that worked for him in the shadows, so the league had been more than happy to let him host the Ball that year. However, despite the enormous opportunity presenting itself, what with some of the top trainers gathered in one place and caught unawares, he had no sinister plot in mind that night. He was a host, after all, and it was a host's sacred duty to ensure the comfort and wishes of his guests. He was many things, but Giovanni was most certainly not a rude host.

"I would like to welcome you to the two hundredth and twenty-first Master's Ball of the Indigo League of Kanto." He continued. "As you are no doubt aware, everyone is to be in costume this year, with identities kept carefully beneath a veil of mystery." He gestured to his own costume, which was the uniform of a black Rocket. The irony, of course, was lost on the rest of the crowd, but sometimes a joke was best when only the one playing it understood the punch line. "So, if you have a dear one in the crowd, it is up to you to find them. Until you do, please, let the festivities commence!" With upraised hand, he signaled the band situated in the corner to begin.

Duplica caught the signal, and then raised the microphone to her lips.
She stood on the stage constructed especially for her and her band. Standing with her were two nondescript men, wearing fairly nondescript clothing. One sat behind a drum set, while the other let his bass guitar hang comfortably from his neck. A large, circular curtain was set up next to Duplica's spot on the forefront of the stage, with long black sheafs of cloth draped from the metal ring.

"All right, everybody," she called out, still clad in her ordinary street clothes, "Are you ready to rock?" There was a shout from the large crowd before her, as well as several whistles and cat calls. "I said, ARE YOU READY TO ROCK?" A louder shout came, rattling her bones. She stepped into her curtains, drawing them closed. "Well then, I'm going to have to disappoint you." Her voice continued over the loudspeaker as the curtains rustled. Seconds later, she stepped out, clad in a full tuxedo and holding a cocktail between her delicate fingers. "-'Cause we're going to start out with a little lounge music first."

The crowd laughed as she took the stage once more, downing the cocktail for courage as the music began to play over the loudspeaker. Her own band picked up the necessary parts as she began to croon an oldie by Sinatra. Her voice was surprisingly melodious, even picking up on Frankie's unique tempo. It was apparent that the mistress of change was adept at more than mimicking physical appearance.

Ash allowed himself a moment of listening to the music before he began to scan the crowd. His own costume was rather clever in its simplicity, if he said so himself. Of course, simple cleverness was all Ash could ever hope for. He wore a tuxedo similar to Duplica's (at the moment, anyway. Who knew what she would be wearing at the drop of a hat?), with a simple mask of black and white, split down the middle. All in all, the effect was very classy, and very mysterious. To add to the disguise, his hair was combed neatly and parted to one side, which was something Ash never did under any circumstances.

He had left the Center nearly an hour before Misty had, coming to the dance with Brock. She had been in the middle of preparations when they had started out, so he hadn't been able to even sneak a peek at her costume. Consequently, his search at the moment was rather like looking for a needle in a haystack. Brock, of course, hadn't been of any help...

"See her yet?" Brock asked him, giving him a wink. He looked absolutely ridiculous with his face painted solid white, save for a single black ring around one of his squinted eyes. The black leotard he wore was rather flattering on his figure, which was filling out quite well with rock-hard muscle, but the black beret atop his stiff, spiked hair looked positively laughable. Brock knew exactly what Misty was wearing, naturally, since he had helped her pick it out. However, as in accordance to the dance's rules, his lips were sealed tight.

"Mimes aren't supposed to talk, Brock." He muttered, still looking through the pair of tiny holes in his mask. His peripheral vision was pathetic thanks to his disguise, but that didn't stop him from trying. "I'm going to go try and find her, okay?"

"Cool. I'll chill out here." Ash watched as Brock began to wander the crowd, approaching several attractive girls as if he was caught in a strong wind. From the looks of the women, Ash imagined that they were wishing the wind was stronger.

For nearly an hour, Ash combed the floor of the dance unsuccessfully, trying to find his wayward redheaded friend. Of course, he had no idea what he was looking for, seeing as how she could be anything or anyone. Occasionally he would skim the food table, half in hopes of finding her snacking, and half in search of snacks of his own.

Finally, he collapsed in a heap onto a bench in the corner. For a moment, he was tempted to take off the mask covering the better part of his face, but then thought better of it. He wanted to surprise Misty.

"Excuse me."

A delicate, feminine voice lilted, interrupting his moment of wallowing in frustration. He looked up, spying a beautiful young girl wearing a shimmering cerulean dress only slightly less stunning than she. Her aqua eyes peered out from beneath golden locks of shimmering blonde hair that hung down over her brow, swinging coyly from side to side whenever her smiling face would move.

"I'm sorry to bother you," she smiled warmly, bowing in apology, "But I was wondering if this seat was taken." Ash graciously moved aside, allowing her to lower herself carefully to the bench, ever mindful of the folds of her billowy dress. "Thanks. I'm kind of beat."

Ash examined her from behind his mask. She was absolutely gorgeous, and seemed very friendly. If he wasn't madly in love with Misty, he might have considered chasing after her...if he had possessed Brock's courage. "That's all right. You look pretty bushed." He swung his legs uncomfortably, looking down at his feet. "Been dancing a lot, huh?"

She sighed, leaning back against the wall. "Not really. I've been looking for someone all night, but I can't seem to find him."

"Really?" It was quite a coincidence. "Me too, actually."

She extended a hand to him. He took it gladly, feeling the smooth silk of her white glove. "I'm Cinderella." She introduced herself.

"I'm a guy in a tuxedo...wearing a mask." It suddenly occurred to Ash that he had no idea who he was supposed to be. He kicked himself for sounding so stupid, but Cinderella merely giggled.

"Tuxedo Mask, huh?" she smirked, "That sounds rather familiar." For a moment, neither of them spoke, unsure of what to say without ruining the moment.
Finally, she asked him, "What's she like?"

"Hmm?"

"Well," she said, "I can only assume that someone as charming as Tuxedo
Mask would have a certain special girl in mind." Her eyebrow raised questioningly. It was hard to gauge his response when she couldn't see his face. "Well?"

"I suppose there is..." Ash lamented. "She's...hard to describe."

"Tell me about it." Cinderella nodded, crossing her arms with a huff. "I know exactly what you mean." Her eyes wavered as she entered a world all of her own. "He's not like anyone I've ever met."

Ash looked over, suddenly struck with an idea. If he couldn't find Misty by wandering aimlessly, then maybe she would find him if he stuck to one spot.
He turned to Cinderella. "Would you like some punch?"

She smiled again, and Ash was struck by the glow that surrounded her whenever she did so. "I'd love some."

* * *
Brock moved off to the side, ready to catch his breath after a few hours of dancing. He found that women seemed to like it better when he played the part of the mime perfectly and refrained from speaking. Since Duplica had started, she had switched costumes and genres nearly four times, moving from metal to punk to classical to jazz. Now, during her latest costume change, it seemed as though she would switch to a slower, more mellow beat. The dance had only a little longer to go, so those who had paired together would most likely want to be able to enjoy the rest of it with each other.

He went over to the buffet table, which had been all but decimated in the previous hours. Luckily, there was plenty of punch left, and Brock had a terrible thirst to quench. He picked up a filled glass and began sipping on it when a familiar figure squeezed through the mingling crowd. "Misty!"

"Hey Brock!" she greeted him. She snagged two more glasses of punch, then turned around before he could even get two words in.

"Hey, wait a minute!"

"Sorry," she called back, "I met a guy!"

He scratched his head. "A guy, huh?" Shrugging helplessly, he reached down for his punch, only to find that his was one of the ones Misty had taken.
"What the..."

In the meantime, Misty had returned to Tuxedo Mask, managing to make her way through the crowd without spilling a drop. She gave one of the glasses to
Mask, then sat down.

"Thanks." Mask said gratefully. He turned away, sipping the punch briefly without revealing his identity. "So, where was I?"

She sipped delicately, savoring the flavor and bouquet of the beverage.
"Where else?" she grinned.

He smacked himself on the forehead, succeeding in only striking the mask.
Where else indeed? They had been on but one subject for the entire evening.
"She's just...I don't even know if she likes me."

"Now why wouldn't she?" Misty wondered aloud, more to herself than to Tuxedo Mask.

Mask's head lowered. "We've been friends for quite a while now...I think she's my best friend. The thing is, I can't get her out of my head. It's like, when I wake up, there she is, hanging right on the edge of my dreams. When I sleep, she's the one running through my mind."

"Don't I know it." Misty nodded, re-adjusting her wig. She absently applauded Brock on an excellent costume choice. She looked good as a blonde, though she doubted that it would become a running trend. It was a shame that the whole show was wasted, now that Ash wasn't here to see it. "My friend? He sometimes acts like I'm not even a girl."

Mask gave her another once over. "Anyone who doesn't know what a blossom of a woman you are," he assured her, "Has tossed away his membership to the human race."

She thwapped him on the shoulder. "Flatterer." She sighed, thinking once more of Ash. As always, the thoughts brought mixed feelings, just as the real thing evoked. "I guess I just...I haven't said anything because...well, he's 'my' best friend, kind of like you and your girl. He was the first person to really reach out to me, to connect with me on any level. How do you tell someone you love them without losing that connection?"

"Wish I knew..." Mask lamented.

The remainder of the night wore on, until the clock bore the time of five lonely minutes until midnight. Duplica, now dressed in a shimmering evening gown, took the stage for the last time and addressed the guests on the floor.
"All right, everyone. This is going to be the last dance, so try to find someone special to share it with, all right?"

The music started up, and Duplica closed her eyes. From the bottommost regions of her heart she tore up every last ounce of burning passion, channeled it through her soul, and began to sing a slow, sensual tone of true love. Soft tones flowed from her being, ensnaring the human senses and giving them leave for a moment as she wove her trance over them. So moving was the song that many were moved to tears after only the first few notes, though the more stout of heart managed to keep their reaction better hidden.

Misty, a Cinderella for only a handful of minutes more, looked over at her companion with a half-hearted grin. "Well," she said, keeping the disappointment out of her voice, "It seems that we're both out of luck for the night. Would you care to...?" She let the question trail off, hoping to not pressure Tuxedo Mask into something he was loathe to do.

She needn't have worried. He stood straight and proud, tugging at the edges of his suit coat to chase the wrinkles away. "I'd be delighted," he assured her with a formal tone, "To share a dance with a bonafied princess."

Her hand found its way to his as they took to the floor. For a moment, it seemed as though he wasn't sure what to do, which struck Cinderella as odd. Perhaps he was younger than he appeared. Of course, it wasn't all that odd to find maturity in a younger man. Ash, after all, displayed thoughts and mannerisms far beyond his own years...when one overlooked his eating habits, personal grooming, and taste in humor (the "Week of the Whoopee Cushion" still haunted her memories every so often). Smiling at his refreshing naiveté, she took his hands and placed them around her waist before wrapping her own around his shoulders.

They swayed to Duplica's song, oblivious to the rest of the world. From the outside, they must have looked quite odd, for thanks to Cinderella's slippers, she easily topped Tuxedo Mask by a good three inches. Still, neither one cared, for each was astonished at the instant connection they seemed to
share with one another. Looking into each other's eyes, it felt as though they had known each other for much longer than a single night. Something just felt right about it all...

A spattering of applause rang out for Duplica as her song came to an end.
She wiped her own tears away, having never sang the song once without crying, then put on her best performer's face. "All right!" her voice rang out merrily,
"I hope everyone had a great time!" She tossed her hand into the air, throwing confetti high above the crowd. As the festive paper bits rained down, she added, "Now's the time you've been waiting for. Get ready for the de-masking!"

Cinderella and Tuxedo Mask stood, their hands linked to one another.
Cinderella...Misty...gave her dance partner a soft smile. "Well..." she started, suddenly coming down with a case of shyness, "Thanks for a great evening."

"Good luck with your friend." Mask offered her, equally as shy on the spot.

"You too."

"Three!" Duplica called out.

"Two!" The crowd supplied.

"One!" The crowd moved in unison, peeling back masks and hastily wiping away make-up in the great unveiling.

Tuxedo Mask became no more as Ash pulled away his mask, grinning at the girl he had grown to know in only a few short hours. His smile soon fell, however, to find his Cinderella holding a blonde wig in the crook of her elbow, wiping away beads of sweat that had formed at the rim of the wig's brow. She pulled a small handkerchief from her hair, letting a shock of red locks tumble down to her shoulders.

"Misty..."

"Cinderella" stared back at her partner unveiled. A slow look of realization began to spread over her features, followed closely by a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. The pieces slowly began to fall into place, and very quickly she began to feel the part of the fool. For a moment, she was frozen in horror, staring agape at Ash, who's own jaw had fallen along with her own. Then, coming to her senses, she moved as lightning, bolting for the door and shoving aside any who stood in her way.

"Misty, wait!" Ash called out too late at her receding back. Several people shot the curious pair a look, but most simply ignored them and continued on their conversations. Ash started after her with faltering steps, but was cut short as he stumbled over something. He looked down, spying a single glass slipper obstructing his path. With shaking hand, he reached down and picked the stray footwear from the ground, turning it over as he examined it.

"Misty..." he murmured, feeling his stomach lurch. He had told her everything...every last detail of how he felt...and now she knew. She knew everything. "What have I done...?" he moaned, clutching the shoe to his breast.
He made for the exit as quickly as his feet would carry him, resolute in what he must do.

...if only he could find the courage.

* * *
Misty sat outside the gym, sobbing quietly on the steps. She could recall crying quite a bit as a little girl, when her parents had set out to globetrot after winning the lottery. They had left her sisters in charge of the gym, which they had never really approved of anyhow. That left Misty all alone, even if she did have three sisters to watch out for her...Step all over her, more like it. She had worked so hard to shake that loneliness, but now...

"Hey."

She heard the voice and knew immediately who it was. "Go away," she managed to choke out, hiding her face from him in the folds of her frilly dress.
She couldn't bear to look him in the eye anymore.

Ash sat down next to her with an uncharacteristic silence about him. He seemed genuinely confused about the situation, and was unsure of what to do or say. The best he could come up with at the moment was to hand her the glass slipper. "You forgot your shoe." She snatched the slipper from his grasp none-too-gently, throwing it over the hedges next to the stairs. "Well, see, now you'll never get your deposit back on the costume-"

"Shut up!" she shouted at him. "How can you act like everything's okay?"
She glared at him, suddenly struck with a thought. "Did you set this whole thing up?"

"What? What are you-"

"You did, didn't you?" She was on a roll, and wouldn't hear anything of it. "You and Brock, you both did. He told you what I was wearing so you could come along and trick me into saying...saying...all those things I said!"

"What?" It was Ash's turn to become indignant. "Are you crazy? I had no freakin' clue it was you!"

"Oh please!" Misty shouted, ignoring his own rising voice. "Are you telling me that you couldn't recognize me with a stupid wig and a stupid dress?
Are you honestly that stupid?" She leapt to her feet at the last sentence, growing more and more angry by the moment. "Do you think that I'm that stupid?"

He followed suit, jumping up and raising his voice to match. "How the heck was I supposed to recognize you? I've never even SEEN you in a dress, much less make-up! Besides, how did you not recognize me? Huh?"

"You wore a full face mask!" Misty threw her hands in the air. "And you
COMBED your HAIR! The Ash Ketchum I know would NEVER comb his HAIR!"

"Well ex-cuuuuuuse me, Cinderella." Ash roared.

"AND STOP SHOUTING AT ME!"

"I'M NOT SHOUTING AT YOU!!! YOU'RE SHOUTING AT ME!!!"

They both stopped for a moment, catching their breath to chase away the sting in their throats at the last bout of screaming. For a moment there was pointed silence between the two as they watched each other, red-faced and short of breath. Then, for no apparrant reason, Ash chose to speak again, this time in a softer tone.

"How was I supposed to recognize you?" he groused. Without realizing it, he felt himself sitting down once more. His eyes were glued to his feet, suddenly incapable of meeting her accusatory glare. "You looked even more beautiful than usual."

Misty was taken aback, suddenly wondering if it had been a prank after all. "You...You think I'm pretty?" she asked in a quiet voice.

"Yes...No...I dunno." He clutched at his head, suddenly deluged with a thousand thoughts at once. "I mean, we just talked about it for three hours,
Misty. You're my best friend." he looked up at her with watering eyes. "But I can't get you out of my head...and I'm beginning to think that this dance thing has changed everything."

She shook her head. "No. It hasn't, Ash." She sat down next to him, mimicking his pose as she fixed her gaze on her feet. "I have some strong feelings for you...we have them for each other...but...I..."

"Come on, Misty." He insisted. Rising once more, he circled the hedge row and retreived her lost shoe, offering it to her with a tiny grin. "I mean, I brought you your glass slipper. I found the girl it fits on, too."

He reached down to place it back on her foot, but she kicked his hand aside. Her cheeks reddened as the anger she had felt earler returned with a vengeance. "I'm NOT your Cinderella, Ashlan Ketchum!" she practically snarled. "Is that how you see me? Some stupid princess, waiting for her stupid prince to stupidly save her from her own stupid life?"

"No, I-"

"'Cause that's what you did." Try though she did, she could no longer keep the tears from staining her face. "Before you came along, I didn't have anyone. Do you know how close I was to giving up on my own journey before I fished you and that stupid rat out of the river?"

"Hey..." he reached over, brushing away her tears. "Hey, take it easy-"

"No!" she whipped her head around, refusing his gentle hand. "No, I'm not going to be like that. I won't let it be like that." Placing her hand on his chest, she tried to shove him away, but her strength had fled. "I'm not going to be your stupid Cinderella. I won't be some helpless little girl you come along and save."

"Misty," he clutched her hand, placing it in his own. "I've never thought of you like that. I've never wanted a princess."

She sniffled again. "Of course you do. Every guy wants some helpless little girl waiting for him at the top of some stupid lonely tower."

He shook his head, insisting, "I'm not into helpless. I'm in to you." He reached out, grabbing hold of her shoulders and forcing her to look at him. "Don't you see? You saved me." She looked at him questioningly, staring back at him through her wavering tears as he tried to clarify. "If it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't have gotten a tenth as far as I have." It was his turn to shed tears, and he did so unabashedly. "You're my inspiration. My partner."

"No..." she tried to resist, but couldn't help herself. "No, it can't be that easy. It's never been that easy..." she sniffled, struggling helplessly as
Ash pulled her into an embrace. "I never...I never dared to hope for a happy ending."

"Happy endings aren't just for princessess." Ash murmured in her ear, pressing her tight to his chest. He could feel the heat from her body radiate into his own, feel her warm, salty tears roll off of her cheek and onto his neck. He had wanted to hold her for the longest time, had wanted so much to-

"Ash."

"Yeah?"

She pulled away, still crying. The edges of her lips pulled upwards, creating a very confusing expression. "If you don't kiss me right now," she informed him, "I'm going to clobber you."

"As you wish." He grinned, quoting a line from their favorite movie.
Then, slowly, their lips came together, locked in a passionate embrace that neither had experienced before. Stars exploded behind Ash's eyes as her hands snaked around his back, clutching him tight. He found his own hands doing the same without instruction, which was good because any and all cognitive thought had left him, replaced with a feeling he had never even dreamed of before.

After what seemed an eternity, they parted. Misty still had the same confusing expression on her features as she gazed back at Ash, still crying the same tears. "You realize that I'm never going to be your princess." She sniffed, wiping her nose with the back of her hand as if to prove the point.

He couldn't help but chuckle. "Well, that's a relief." He assured her, wiping his brow with mock-relief. "I mean, let's face it: I'm no Prince Charming."

"Yeah." She snorted. "You made a pretty terrible Tuxedo Mask, too."

"Hey!"

"The mask wasn't even right."

"Look, I was just a guy in a tuxedo who wore a mask. I never said I was
'THE' Tuxedo Mask, now did I?"

The couple sat there for the rest of the night, bantering back and forth beneath the stars long after the last of the dance's guests had gone for the night. Those who recognized them chose wisely not to interrupt, and instead settled for nodding in approval. Though a more unlikely pair was all but impossible to find, those who knew them knew beyond a doubt that what had happened that night couldn't have been anything but right.

* * *
"Hey."

Misty strode into the Center's lounge the next night, once again dressed to kill in a ratty T-shirt and pajama bottoms featuring little pink Togepi dotting a sky-blue background. As always, Ash sat on the couch, waiting diligantly for her to arrive in his black boxers and black shirt he had worn the day before. His raven hair fell at odd angles in irregular intervals, unused to being devoid of the hat he loved so dear.

"Hey." She responded, plopping down next to him on the couch. "What've we
got tonight?"

"Abbot and Costello Meet the Chiropractor, or The Surreal World." They shared a single glance.

"Abbot and Costello."
"Abbot and Costello."

That having been decided, Ash upped the volume, allowing Bud Abbot's terrified howls of pain to ring clear as a nondescript man in a white coat rearranged his spinal cord. Without looking away from the show, Misty asked, "Pikachu?"

"Sleeping. Lazy bum's been a slug all week."

"Mmm."

It seemed strange to Misty. They had shared such a strange, powerful moment together not more than twenty-four hours ago, and here things were; nothing had changed. She couldn't help but wonder what happened next. What was going to happen between the two of them?

Then, something wonderful happened. Without even asking, without any prior warning, Ash reached over and clasped her hand. His grip was as gentle as a lover's, but strong and reassuring. The entire motion had been smooth and natural. It felt natural, as if her hand simply belonged in his. She looked over at him in astonishment, but his eyes remained steadfast on the television.
Then, ever so slowly, a smile began to blossom on his lips. He glanced over in her direction, asking her with his eyes.

Misty chuckled, squeezing back as the movie continued. Things between her and Ash had gotten irrevocably strange. They were downright weird. Where were they going? She didn't have a clue.

But it sure would be fun to find out.

End

-Quiet Hindsight-
...but of course, we know it didn't turn out all roses and chocolates.
What? You, my new readers (all 0.8 of you) don't know what I'm talking about?
Then start on BadgeQuest #1, The Journey's Just Begun.

Enough shameless plugs! Let's talk about the story. I was actually
pleased about this one, even though I wrote it faster than I've ever written any
other published story o'mine. It's a little unpolished, but hey, that's what
rewrites are for, right? Right. As for Ash and Misty not recognizing each
other, I'd like to point out one of the animes that I referred to, none other
than Sailor Moon. The guy...wears...a tiny...iddy-biddy mask...and no one...NO
ONE...recognizes him. If you can suspend your credibility for that, then my
story is a piece of All-American apple pie, baby. Until next time, keep
reading!

PS- If you liked the story, go ahead and write a review/e-mail me at
cyberwraith9@yahoo.com. I love hearing from people, even if it is to tell me I
suck.

PPS- I know I suck, so you really don't have to tell me that. But if you want
to, write in anyway.