Disclaimer - I do not own the things. No surprise there, I guess. :-P

Notes - I found a few more things from Tumblr that I decided needed sharing here on FFN (and potentially other writing sites). Still not sure I'm going to continue writing seeing as how reader response has dried up over the past year or two. On top of that, I haven't been feeling all that inspired to write anyway... Well, anyway, here ya go!

Title - "challenges"

Summary - All of the times Misty had watched awful things happen to him because of his own stubbornness? Let alone the times she'd gotten personally involved, either by helping him out or simply stopping him from making anymore rash moves… Well, maybe it's finally time to pay back some of those dues. Pokeshippy/friendship.

OoOoO

He's home for the first time in almost a year when he receives the phone-call.

"Ketchum residence, Ash speaking. How can I–"

"–Oh, I'm - like - sorry, I think I have the wrong number."

The person hangs up and Ash pulls the handheld away from his ear and stares at it with a quirked brow for five or so seconds before hanging it up and walking back into the kitchen to get the drink he'd previously been pouring before running to pick up the ringing living room phone in the first place.

Only, as soon as he opens the fridge door, there goes the phone again so he sighs, mumbles to himself that someone clearly doesn't want him to quench his thirst, and backtracks once more.

By the time he's gotten there, Pikachu has beaten him to the punch and has just grabbed the receiver in his paws and tipped it towards one of his big ears.

"Pikaaachaaa!" he croons in greeting to the person on the other line.

From the one meter or so distance between him and the headset, Ash can hear the person trying to make sense of his best buddy's ramblings of his own name. So, smiling and sighing all at once, he pats the electric mouse on the head and takes the receiver back into his own hands.

"Sorry buddy, let me get this, okay? Thanks for your help though…" followed by, "Ketchum residence, Ash speaking. Is this the person who called me a minute ago?"

"I swear, I've totally got the right number!" the airy-fairy female tone states confidently and confusedly from their end of the line, "Look, I'm sorry, I'm - like - trying to reach Delia."

"Oh, yeah, Delia, that's my mom!"

"That's your… then this must be…" The young woman on the other end falters and dissolves into a fit of giggles before doing her best to pretend she was clearing her throat all along and doing her best to reinitialize the conversation, "… Is this that Ash kid? You might remember me. This is Daisy, one of Misty's sisters. You traveled with her a couple of years ago–"

"–Yeah, I remember… And I remember Misty too… You don't have to make it sound like it's been that long, Daisy."

"Well, anyway," she blows off his skeptical tone with her jubilation and continues, "I needed to - like - speak to your mom. Is she around? It's important!"

"Ah, no, sorry… She left town a few days ago to join Professor Oak and his assistant Tracey on a survey expedition. I'm house-sitting for her."

"Oooh," Daisy groans in negativity, the first time she's lost her charm since the conversation started, "she was our last chance though!"

"Uuh, sorry…?"

"The Sensational Sisters have a photoshoot in Goldenrod City a few days from now. We're taking - like - all of the local members from our charter with us as part of the crew so our little sister - Misty; you said you remember her, right? - is going to be running the gym all on her own."

"I… don't see the problem. Didn't she do that when you guys went on your trip around the world?"

"A handful of members from the charter stayed behind to greet and help her that time! Plus, well, she totally refuses to admit it but she's come down with a really bad cold or something and–"

"I have…" a hoarse-toned person screeches from the background before being overtaken by a coughing fit, "… not! Who are you even talking to, Daisy…?"

"Um, could you - like - hold on for just a sec?" the blonde-haired young woman begs sweetly before stepping away and, with a far more stifled tone, says from a distance, "Look, little sis, you are in no condition to run a whole Pokemon gym by yourself, okay? This is for your own good! I'm just trying to find you a decent assistant so Lily, Violet, and I can go to our photoshoot next week! So go back to bed and try and sweat the rest of this bug out! We especially can't catch something because of you being too hardheaded to accept that you need to relax when you're sick!"

There's some distant scuffling, muffled whining, and Ash swears he hears something akin to glass shattering but decides to ignore it all in favor of blindly awaiting Daisy's return.

"So, anyway, where were we? Ah, right," she pauses and clears her throat again, "so first we were going to ask Tracey to come help but - like you said - he's out with Professor Oak. Still, that Gary kid who answered the phone didn't bother telling us that Delia was gone too!"

"Um, he might not have known… Anyway, I'm not sure I get it… Why would my mom come out to Cerulean…? Can't one of you just skip this photoshoot and…?" There was more muffled sounds coming from Daisy's end that sounded oddly like laughter, "Wait, what's so funny?"

"Kid, this is our career. We're under contract to show up as the Sensational Sister trio. We can't just show up as two-thirds of what we're supposed to be. Plus Delia's come up here a few times already just to help out while we journeyed out of Kanto."

"She has?" he asks, bewildered by this information, "That's news to me!"

"Like, it's not that big a deal… But this time around, well, Misty can be stubborn and we just don't wanna come home to our little sister floating face-down in the pool if you know what I mean."

"Trust me, I don't. I agree about the stubborn part though."

"We just don't want her… getting hurt. We love her. Plus we really need someone to run the gym and she's the only other person - like - qualified who doesn't have anything better to do since she has no social life."

"Oh, that's…"

"Anyway, since it's like this, I guess I'll just have to ask; can you come over? Would you be willing to help our sister for a week or two?"

"Uh…"

His lack of an answer fades into silence. He hadn't run it by his mom about what he should do if a situation arose and he had to leave the house for an extended period of time. But he has to admit, helping run a Pokemon gym (let alone seeing one of his oldest friends) does sound a lot better than sitting at home and watching battles on television for the next couple of weeks.

We just don't want her getting hurt.

And he can definitely relate to that sentiment as well. All of the times Misty had watched awful things happen to him because of his own stubbornness? Let alone the times she'd gotten personally involved, either by helping him out or simply stopping him from making anymore rash moves…

Well, maybe it's finally time to pay back some of those dues.

"Sure, Daisy. I'll be there in a few days."

OoOoO

"I told them this wouldn't be neces - nec - neechoo!" Misty begins scathingly at the sight of him and explanation of his presence before sneezing out the rest of her statement, "Necessary… Gah, no wonder they left in such a hurry!"

"Haha, yeah, sorry… Anyway, Myst, it's been awhile right? Aren't'cha happy to see me?" he guffaws at her while she scratches Pikachu behind the ears and takes in his crooning with a satisfied grin.

"Happy to see you in one piece anyway. Other than that, I have no idea why you're here, Ash. Do you really think that, if I needed looking a - aft," she falters due to the coming of another sneeze but is able to force it back down, though it instead manifests itself with a hacking cough that lasts the next ten seconds, "after, that you'd be my first choice?" she asks in the end, brow quirked and voice a lot more raw than when she'd started.

"I mean, no offense, but you're not exactly the number one contender for caregiver, ya know?" she goes on, and Ash feels both annoyed and distraught by her strange insult.

"C'mon, Misty, I'm just here to help! And I only came since Daisy practically begged me, and 'cause my mom and Tracey weren't available. Seriously though, when did you even get that close with my mom?"

"It really doesn't take much, Ash. After you went on your journey, we would sometimes chat on the phone and… Wait a sec," she pauses in expectation of another sneeze, grabbing a tissue and placing it over her nose, then blowing miserably into it and coughing at the same time afterwards, "… Gross… Anyway, we just started chatting while you were gone. It doesn't take much to get close to Delia Ketchum. We both know you for starters, have spent excessive time with you, so there's a good conversation starter. We just… get along. Am I not allowed to be friends with your mom, Ash?"

"I didn't mean it like that," he tells her, exasperatedly falling back onto her bed, "I just… didn't know. It woulda been nice to know… She didn't tell you anything embarrassing, right?"

"Nothing more embarrassing than the stuff I already knew after spending three years sleeping and walking at your side. Don't worry. Your obsession with that Nidorina face-mask and body make-up from when you were seven years old will be carried with me to my grave," she reveals almost innocently with a smirk, though it looks pretty half-hearted through the continued misery of her sicky-face.

"Misty!" he wails miserably, wrenching around and grabbing her by the shoulders, holding her there securely and mentally begging for mercy, laughing all the while with her.

Their laughter dies down a fair amount though once they realize the intimacy of the situation, after which Ash clears his throat uncomfortably and Misty immediately releases Pikachu, who's wedged between them, back into Ash's custody so that she can get out of bed.

"Well, the gym is scheduled to open in an hour or so. I guess I should shower so I can look at least somewhat professional."

"O… kay…? What should I do?"

"Oh, I don't know. I thought maybe you could join me, right? Wouldn't want me fainting in the tub."

"Uh, I don't think…"

"Ash Ketchum, if you're even sort of taking me seriously right now, I'll smack you."

"Nope, not at all, haha, funny joke, Misty!" he responds, backing away with an appreciative new red flush to his features.

"Just go and… I don't know… make some toast or something? That'll save me time while I'm getting ready," she tells him absently as she walks gingerly towards her vanity and combs through her hair.

"Toast, right, gotcha," His nonchalance, however, is enough to make her stop what she is doing in lieu of staring evenly down the bridge of her nose to make sure they are on the same page.

"Ash, repeat after me; I will not burn the Cerulean Gym to the ground."

"I'm not gonna, uh…" he rebuffs in defense of his own capabilities in the kitchen, but her skeptical gaze is enough to make him draw back in fear again, "Ugh, fine. I will not burn the Cerulean Gym to the ground!"

"Now promise."

"Fine, I promise that I will not burn the Cerulean Gym to the ground."

"Great, now swear on your life so I know that you mean it."

"I swear on my…" but he pauses in contemplation before shaking his head emphatically and taking it back, "No, wait, I'm not doing that!"

"Good man. Now get out of my bedroom. This situation is weird," she says as if she's only just noticed

Huh. For once, he may be a step ahead of her.

OoOoO

Things don't really go as he expects them to in every way he can think of.

"Ash Ketchum, you had one job," she states thickly, mouth gaping open in disbelief and tone both raspy and fierce. He hadn't thought she'd be capable of such ferocity when she could barely talk at all.

"I know, I just, uh… " He stares helplessly at the almost entire loaf of black toast on the plate before him, "Look, Misty, I hate to say it but I just think your toaster is broken or something."

"Sure, Ash, blame the appliance. Agh," she sighs, stomping forward and pretending to roll her sleeves up, "Get out of the way. I've got this."

"Uuh, Myst, need I remind you of what happened the last time you tried to cook for us?"

"This isn't cooking, Ash, it's toasting bread. It's literally sitting two slices of bread in the conventional oven and twisting the dial to the level of toasting you prefer. Here; watch."

He does as told, stifling the odd sense of frustration that overtakes him; not because she's just insulted him or because she outperforms him at the very task she'd asked him to take care of only a few minutes ago, but because he really had been trying to help her and he currently has a plateful of failure sitting just under his nose.

Misty's toast comes out fine (somehow, magically) and the two eat a light breakfast with Pikachu before the redhead goes to check the computer for appointments and unlocks the security code to the front door so that challengers may start filtering in.

And what's more, while he had thought that Misty needed an assistant, or even a partner, she hardly needs him at all.

Oh, sure, he shakes hands with challengers on her behalf so that she won't spread her sick to them - though it's her that rasps an explanation as to why he's doing so, and she does take slightly longer breaks between battles in order to rehydrate, and rather than doing so herself, she does get him to run her Pokemon to the local Center because she's just not feeling up to it… but it's not what he expected at all when he had told Daisy he'd be willing to help.

Because what is he really doing here? He isn't sure what he was expecting, but apparently it had been more than what he got.

He watches Misty tank her way through two challengers before suffering her first loss of the day - and, boy, she certainly went down kicking and screaming all the while, and then another three victorious matches before her second loss.

He's a little in awe, at the very least as proud as it's possible to be.

Sure, he'd totally expected her to have improved since becoming an official gym leader, but still… when he thinks about all of the times merely being hungry has put him out of commission (in relations to Pokemon battles), it's… inspiring to watch his old friend battle a flu bug and continue on to the next contender.

Of course he doesn't tell her any of these thoughts. It's always been harder to be honest with Misty for some reason… She just makes everything harder on him and, as much as he relishes the challenge, he wishes that she'd toss him a Cubone every once in awhile… Especially today.

He's heating up a couple of cans of chicken soup for them later on during their first day together - seriously, that's all they're having - when Misty joins him in the kitchen after mopping up around the side of the pool. It's to keep the mold at bay, she says, and he internally scoffs at her stubborn persona. He'd offered to take care of it for her and she'd shut him down immediately, claiming that she refused to just hand over one of her main responsibilities as a gym leader.

"Oh, well, at least you can read the directions on how to microwave soup right," she jokes with a slight clearing of her throat, poking him in the shoulder for fun and passing by to grab a cup and fill it with filtered water from the pitcher in her fridge.

He grunts in response, worried that opening his mouth to say anything more will result in a snide comment she simply won't be willing to accept with a smile because she's… you know… her.

Unfortunately, grunting non-committedly also applies to snide comment she simply won't be willing to accept. Oh, good.

"Seriously Ash, I was just kidding around. If you must know, I do appreciate your help today. I already feel marginally better than I did this morning, and it's probably because you took some of the weight off of my shoulders by being here… even if my sisters basically went behind my back to get you here."

"Yeah, sure, you're welcome," he replies shortly instead, hoping that's the end of it and doing his best to focus his attention on the microwave's cooking timer.

Her brows furrow as she gulps down some of her water, retreating to the island and sitting on one of the stools, continuing to watch him from a distance with that same troubled expression. If she wasn't feeling so extra wiped out from everything, she'd probably just launch herself into a tirade about how annoying he's being, and after she went to the effort to thank him too!

"Really, Ash Ketchum, what's your problem anyway?" she finally asks despite her hopes that she'd be able to bite her tongue. Alas, some things just aren't meant to be.

"Nothing, Misty, don't worry about it. Dinner will be ready in a couple of minutes."

"Don't try to change the subject or dodge the question! I want to know why you're acting like this! Especially after I just told you how much I appreciate you being here, and that's saying something since I had told my sisters that I didn't want anyone here to help me in the first place!" And she slams the cup into the countertop to emphasize her point in place of her tone, which was on par with her regular indoor voice thanks to her sore throat.

"Well maybe I shouldn't have come at all, right? I mean, if that's how you feel!" he shouts at her with abandon, whirling around with an agitated scowl overtaking his formerly forced-neutral expression.

"I don't… Ash, what the heck? I just said I'd… changed my mind…"

"Yeah, you did, or I guess you think you did, but what am I even doing here?" he asks her now, eyeing her intensely and looking far more hurt than she'd thought was possible based on his previous tongue-lashing.

"… I don't know what you mean. You came to help me manage the gym, didn't you? And you have been."

"Have I? I don't really remember a lot of that. I remember screwing up breakfast - which you fixed, and watching you unlock and open the gym officially, as well as play secretary for everyone with appointments. I mean, the only trainers I really got to speak to were the ones that came by while you were in the middle of a battle - for obvious reasons, and then when you were speaking face-to-face to them to avoid getting anyone sick. But you did everything else, didn't you?"

"I don't know what you thought your duties would be. I mean, it's not like you could have battled them in my place, you know?" she asked him in scrutiny.

"No, maybe not… but what about the cleaning and stuff? You didn't even ask me to referee the matches for you! I just kind of sat there and watched you like everyone else in the crowd! And that's really annoying when I only came here to help!"

"Ash, are you actually upset that I didn't force you to clean the entire gym arena after I was finished with my battles? You're angry that I didn't give you a giant list of chores and responsibilities to complete in my place? A - are you kidding?"

"Well how else am I supposed to pay you back?!" he shouts almost venomously at her, and she shrinks back both in distaste and something similar to fear at his intensive tempo.

However that reaction only lasts a moment before she's on her feet and marching around the island to face him close-up after his brash statement.

"Pay me back?" she asks in a hoarse whisper filled with the utmost mutiny, "That's why you came to Cerulean City, Mr. Pokemon Master?"

"U - uh, well… I - I mean…"

"What, you think you're indebted to me for some reason? So you came here to settle your ledger? I'm not under contract with you, Ash Ketchum. I'm supposed to be your friend. At least that's what I thought I was."

"Y - you are! You're one of my best friends! You're mo… w - well, more important than… a lot of people I've met! I was just… What I meant to say was that… I just don't want you thinking that I'm ungrateful; like I wouldn't do for you like you've done for me all these years! I just wanted to… show you that… I guess…" His tone grows softer with each passing attempt at explaining himself. By the end of it, he's barely whispering and unable to look at her at all, instead choosing to stare avidly at the ground beneath their feet.

Misty's glare fades slowly over the next ten or so seconds as she takes in his words, his expression, his slumped shoulders and clenched fists, and she listens. And she accepts his explanation.

"Ash, you're kinda dense, huh?"

"I - wha…? Misty, why would you say something like that now?"

"Well, I'm just saying… I've been with you since basically the first day of your Pokemon journey. Don't you realize that all of the stuff I did to help you out, all of the time I stuck by you… Not only did I do it because, hey, we're best friends and friends do those things for each other, but also because… I watched you put yourself at risk repeatedly and selflessly for others too. Believe me, I wouldn't have even bothered if I thought you really weren't worth it… But you were. You are. You always do your best to lend a helping hand no matter the risk to your own health, no matter the distraction to your journey. I'm proud of you for being someone who can do that and not be so concerned or put out by the pressure it adds."

"You're… proud of me?" he asks her quizzically, staring her in the eyes for the first time since they'd started speaking to each other. He immediately feels some of the frustration that's spent all day building up and up evaporate, and his heart beats slightly erratically thanks to her confession and compliment. "Well, haha, of course you are, Myst! I mean, I'm great! It took you long enough to noti–" he stops short at the brief note of annoyance on her face before laughing lightly to himself and sobering up.

"Well, you're great too, Misty. I mean, I watched you battle all day without more than ten minutes between to rest. And you kept up appearances with everyone so they didn't even realize something was wrong until you told them. But anyway, I'm proud too… of you."

"Thanks," she offers him again, now standing at his side and taking the opportunity to nudge him in his shoulder with her own. "Yeah, we're both really strong trainers now, huh? But… I guess I do become sort of a control freak when it comes to taking care of the gym. I just… I take it so seriously, and, I mean, I have to. This is my family's reputation, and even our livelihood to a point. But I suppose it wouldn't kill me to ask you for a little more help tomorrow. If you think you're up to the challenge anyway," she finishes with a smile before pulling away from the counter and erasing the physical contact between them.

She smiles at him and he's finally filled with that feeling he's waited all day for. The feeling of peace, of acceptance, of reminiscence and nostalgia. This is Ash and Misty. This is their bond. But, slowly overtaking that original welling up of emotion is something new - well, renewed - after a fair few years of him successfully ignoring it while they'd been separated.

He looks her in the face, notes her blemished and blotchy skin, flushed red in the cheeks and nose from her cold, pale around the forehead and her chapped, dry lips, not to mentioned her rumpled and practically ratty hair after sweating and swimming alongside her Pokemon in the gym for the past six hours or so.. She looks rather haggard overall… but to him she's still somehow, you know…

His heart nearly explodes as the word dawns on him.

Cute.

Still, he shakes his head free of such odd thoughts and smirks confidently back at her, praying that there's nothing playing the dead giveaway to whatever traitorous thought his heart had decided to come up with.

"Aah, I can take whatever you dish out, Myst!"

Bring it on.

OoOoO

Notes - I wanted to put Misty in a more natural place with Ash here so that's why she behaved so normal. Instead, Ash was the one in what was originally her position, pushing the symbolic envelope, feeling things that weren't quite friendly - and yet remaining entirely too confident about the fact that they're best friends first.

This was fun. I hope everyone liked it! I'll probably edit it in full sometime within the next two days. I hope there aren't too many typos in the meantime!