Don't come after
Don't come after
Please don't follow me along
When you read this I'll be gone
Ask the mountains
Springs and fountains
Why couldn't this go on?
Couldn't our happiness go on?
Ask the Mountains
"I need to … get it together."
Ash Ketchum stared at his hands. They were cracked, bleeding, knuckles raw at the edge of fabric. The frigid temperatures these past few nights had taken their toll. Not a great time for fingerless gloves.
Kapi, Pikapi. Chu pichu Pi-Pika? Pi-kaa-chu, kachu pi. *
Pikachu. He would have been chittering in his ear about this, for sure.
Ash pushed the thought from his mind. Guilt wouldn't help him get out of this mess. Hell, guilt was what had driven him out here in the first place.
He looked up, past the canopy of bare branches, staring at the cloudless sky.
He sat here, alone. Somewhere along Route 20, on a fallen tree in the middle of the Winding Woods. Which, by the way, had definitely lived up to their nickname. Breaching the trees here was like walking into another world: the forest seemed to go on forever, boundless, still thick after so many twists and turns. After a while, it all started to blend together. Nothing but snow-draped branches, icy peaks, and fading footprints. Even for a resident of Snowbelle City, navigating back to the Pokemon Center would have been a challenge.
Not that his actions had helped matters. As it turned out, wandering off into the wilderness in the middle of the night without telling anyone where exactly it was that you were going (scratch that: what exactly it was that you were thinking) wasn't the brightest idea in the world. The sun had risen a few hours ago, but his sense of direction was as skewed as ever. Where he was now was anyone's guess.
Lost again, huh. No surprise there.
Training. Traveling. Battling. It was all the same. What was the point?
… Was there a point?
Ash hated to admit it – but for the first time in his life, he didn't know.
(And he hated not knowing. Hated how he felt after those battles, this uncertainty inside him, gnawing and clawing and chewing his insides like a Houndoom sinking its jaws into a kill, ripping and tearing and—)
Look at me, okay? Relax. Breathe.
Beads of sweat dripped from his brow. His stomach lurched, and he gripped his knees, shivering, gasping for air.
What was happening to him?
(He didn't know.)
And he needed to know. That was why he was out here, right? To find answers. Find out what was wrong. Where he had gone wrong.
Something was missing. What was missing?
Wulfric had said that she—
No. That wasn't right.
Wulfric had said that some people were like water: they reacted to life's challenges as they came, always moving and turning with the flow. But him? He was too rigid, too fragile. His blind ambition made him obstinate. An iceberg hellbent on its path toward warmer shores. Was that really true? Did chasing your goals relentlessly, pursuing them above all else, actually push you toward failure?
Right now, he thought so.
"I … I've gotta figure this out. I don't have a choice," said Ash, curling his hands into balls. He let out a ragged sigh, his breath fogging in the wintry morning air. "But …"
"What the hell's gotten into you?"
Ash's head shot up.
A splash of orange stood out against the treeline, a color unnatural in the snow. Orange and yellow – like a photograph, straight from memories. Sure enough, it was her. She stood there, shivering slightly, in an all-too-familiar outfit she had no business wearing in the winter.
She tilted her head at him, expression caught in a tug o' war between annoyance and concern. "What are you doing out here, Ash?"
"Me?" he said in disbelief. "What d'you mean? You're not supposed to be—"
"Oh, don't give me that. You know why I'm here."
Misty gave him a half-hearted eye roll, pulling the hood up on her blue (blue?) fur-lined jacket as she trudged into the clearing. "Isn't it obvious? We all saw how upset you were over Greninja getting hurt. Everyone's worried about you, so I—"
She stopped cold, staring at him with wide eyes. Ash blinked in confusion.
"Mew, Ash. What happened to you?" Misty slung her pack off her shoulder in a hurry, rifling through its contents to find … something. A snowmobile? "I'm taking you back to the center. If you stay out here any longer, you're going to freeze to death."
"I'm not going back."
Now it was Misty's turn to be shocked. "What?"
"I … I can't. Not yet."
"Wha- … Why?"
"… I need to figure out why I lost."
In the branches above, a group of Pineco stirred from slumber, opening their eyes to a new day. A small snowdrift began to yield in the sunlight, at the foot of a tree, collapsing softly. The faint calls of bird Pokemon sounded in the distance, flowing down from the mountains, lilting on the breeze. The entire scene was peaceful. Serene.
"Are You Serious?!"
The Pineco shut their eyes.
Ash shifted back on the log, throwing on a nervous smile. He put his hands up defensively. "Hey. Hold on a minute—"
"You listen here, Ash Ketchum! The only thing you've lost is your mind! How the heck is staying out here going to help you come up with a strategy? Which one are you going for, Brain Freeze?"
"Wha—No!" He turned his head, turned away from her. "Just leave me alone! It's none of your business, anyway!"
"Of course it's my business! It's about you!"
An odd feeling of warmth washed over Ash, taking him by surprise. Huh?
Misty didn't let up. "After everything that we've been through together, you really think I'm going to let you sit out here and mope? After a gym battle?" She stomped over to him through the ankle-high snow. "What about all the gyms in Kanto, huh? How many times did you lose then?"
Ash scoffed. "Rub it in, why don't ya."
"Sure, okay. Pewter, Saffron, Vermillion, Cinnabun—"
"Hey, I don't need you to remind me!" shouted Ash. Then, he blinked. "Wait. Cinnabun?"
Misty made a face. "I didn't say—"
Her stomach growled. She looked down, blushing profusely. Slowly, her eyes inched upwards, reluctant to meet his gaze. Sea green stared bashfully into chocolate brown.
Ash burst out laughing.
"Wha—This isn't funny!" cried Misty. She shrunk down into her jacket. "I came out here on an empty stomach to find you! So what if Snowbelle City is famous for breakfast treats! I wanted to get one before the rescue! They're supposed to be really good, okay!"
"And I thought May was bad!" said Ash, howling. "Good thing I didn't get lost in the dessert!"
Misty fumed, ready to fire off a snappy retort – but then, she relented, looking at him softly. "Well, I guess if you can make food puns, then you're still okay. My work here is done."
Ash held up his hands. "Okay, okay. Sorry," he said, sheepishly.
"Oh, shut the hell up."
Ash let out a loud snicker as Misty, who was obviously too aggravated to deal with him for another minute, hiked up her kimono and headed for the trees.
"Wait. Come back," he whined. She wouldn't really leave, would she? "You're the only one who knows the way back to the Center …"
Misty paused, and glanced over her shoulder. "You'll stop with the puns?"
"I'll stop with the puns."
Misty let out a little huff, and looked up and off to the side, pretending to mull it over. Then she smiled, and sighed. She made her way back to him, snow boots crunching through the soft powder as she buried her gloves beneath crossed arms.
Her jacket didn't look very warm, up close. Green … Where was the fur?
"Good, because if you ask me if I like mudkips, I'm leaving you here," said Misty. She motioned to the log, and sat down beside him once he had scooted over to make room.
"Hey, uh …"
She looked over at him. "What's up?"
Should I move closer? She's probably cold, right?
"N-never mind. It's nothing." Ash rubbed his nose, self-conscious. "I don't get why we fight like that. Seems like a pretty stupid thing to argue about."
"Oh Ash. I'm not trying to argue with you. Sometimes it's just the only way to get through to that thick head of yours."
Well, one more. "Tepigheaded."
"That's what Iris always used to call me. She said I was stubborn. Among other things," he whispered at the last second, with a grumble. Misty blinked. "I traveled with her in Unova. You'd like her. She kinda reminds me of you."
"Is that so?"
"Uh-huh." Ash thought for a while, and then added: "She sleeps in trees, though."
Misty chuckled. "Oh, so that's why you're out here. It all makes sense now."
"Yup. One with nature."
A flock of Staravia passed by overhead, their shrill calls echoing through the quiet serenity of the forest. Ash and Misty gazed upward, watching as scattered clouds drifted past a Spinarak's web of snow-covered branches. It was almost like they were blending together, bridging earth and sky.
Ash sighed. "What am I gonna do, Mist?"
"Complain that you're hungry as I drag you back?"
"… About the battle."
Misty stuck her tongue out at him, at his sidelong pout. She turned away with a grin, gazing off into the trees. "You'll think of something, Ash. You always do."
It was true: he usually did. Somehow. Only this time, he wasn't so sure. "I gave that last one everything I had. I'm out of ideas."
"Well … maybe you just need time. A new way of looking at things. A fresh perspective, you know?" She offered up a smile. "It'll come to you eventually."
"Maybe," said Ash, sounding entirely unconvinced. "I dunno. Wulfric's just so strong …"
Misty's temper flared. "Ugh. So what? That's never stopped you before!"
"Well … maybe I just got lucky before. I mean, it's not like I won all those badges fair and square."
"I don't believe this." Misty stood up, spreading her arms. "You learned Battle Bond, Ash! You're the strongest you've ever been!"
"I know that, all right!" His eyes flew up to meet hers. "It's different this time! I'm not just a little kid anymore! I'm supposed to—"
He stopped short. A roller coaster of emotions hovered on his tongue, each waiting to be chosen. In those days, it might have been arrogance, or an unshakable confidence that nearly bordered on it. But time had worn away those traits: he was simpler, now, like a pebble buffeted by a rushing current, smoothed from its many years at the bottom of a stream. What came instead surprised both of them.
It was resignation.
"It's been six years. I'm supposed to … to know this by now. What I'm doing. What to do. And the more I think about it … the more I realize, I don't." Ash sighed, looking down. "I always thought that, by this time, I'd have won a real league. Or at least had a shot at it. I mean, every year, I put everything I have into training, and learning new moves, just to qualify—and when I finally get there, I'm always so excited, because I think, 'This'll be the one'. But each time, it's the same thing. When it comes down to it, I just can't—"
"You won the Orange League."
Ash glanced up at her, raising an eyebrow. "A real league, Mist. Not some island trial that no one's ever heard of."
"I've heard of it. So have most people in Kanto. That counts for something, right?" She motioned to the log, and sat down beside him once he had scooted over to make room.
"I think you're being too hard on yourself," said Misty, swishing her mermaid's tail. "People stumble, sometimes. It's natural."
Ash let out a sullen chuckle. "Come on. I'm going nowhere. I wanted to be a Pokemon Master. And now I can't even win a badge?"
He hesitated. The words played back through his mind, like a battle replay on a stadium screen. Had he really said that? Out loud, in front of her?
"I, uh …" He fiddled with his gloves. "I just … I've been thinking."
"… Go on."
"It's my seventh league. I've been at this for so long, and, uh …"
Ash breathed in, deep.
"Maybe I'm … not cut out for this."
Ash waited. He could feel her gaze on him, piercing, inscrutable. Why wasn't she saying anything? What, was she really going to let him hang out to dry, here? After admitting that? Frustrated, he tugged his hat down over his eyes.
Misty stared at him, at the bill of his snow-dusted cap. "So you're just going to give up. Is that it?"
Ash tried to shrug, but his shoulders slumped. He couldn't even manage that.
"Is that a yes?"
"… I don't know. Maybe. Yeah."
Why couldn't she just tell him that he was pathetic? That he would never amount to anything? Why draw this out? Why, for once, couldn't she just be hon—
"No way. I'm not letting you."
A hand grabbed the collar of his jacket, tugging him to his feet. Ash yelped in surprise.
"Hey, wha—Stop! Let go!"
"No. You need someone to snap you out of this, and I don't see anyone else around."
"What are you—"
She pulled him into a hug.
Ash froze. His mind had gone blank. Her arms clutched tighter, drew him closer; hands moving softly, fingers tracing past his coat. Her breath came in wisps, warming his ear. All of him.
She pulled back slightly, looking him in the eye. His whole world turned sea green.
"Look at me, okay? Relax. Breathe." Misty held him by both shoulders, firm. "You can do this. You're the best trainer I know, and believe me, I know a hell of a lot of them. They come into my gym every day. Not one has ever had the kind of bond you have with your Pokemon. With Pikachu, Greninja, or any of the others. It's something special. You're something special. That's one of the reasons why I followed you, back then." She blinked, then blushed, as if she hadn't meant to admit that. "So … you can do this. If anyone can, it's you, Ash."
"Misty …" He stared at her in awe.
She let go of his shoulders, turning a slight shade of pink. "Right. So, uh …"
"Well … you can let go of me, now."
Ash looked down. His hands were around her waist.
A quick step backwards, to make some—
Ash slipped on a patch of ice. He stumbled, flailed, reached out – and took her with him. Misty shrieked, and he squeaked, and they landed in a heap. Of course, Ash landed face first in the snow, so his squeak was a bit muffled.
Misty sat up, removing a Pokemon League hat from her face. Snowflakes fell from her shoulders, her hair. She looked over at his prone figure – and burst into giggles.
"Okay. So maybe you still need a little work with Ice-types."
"I miss you, y'know."
Her eyes darted over to him, as wide as the oceans. "What?"
"I mean, I—" Ash stammered. His cheeks couldn't pick a temperature: hot or cold. "I miss when it was us. The three of us. You, me, and Brock. Traveling together. Y'know, like the old days."
Misty paused, looking wistful. "I do, too."
They walked together, through the forest, trudging across the wintry landscape. Ash in his winter jacket, Misty in her patented short shorts, her bare calves swishing through the snow. How she wasn't cold like that was beyond him. Maybe she trained in arctic waters, now?
Ash couldn't picture that, at the moment. He shivered, and blew onto his hands, trying to warm them. His skin was reddish, swollen. Fingers numb. Definitely not good.
He glanced up, unnerved by the look of concern on Misty's face.
"Fine, yeah," he said with a grin, though he certainly didn't feel it. Better not to worry her, though. "I'll feel a lot better once we get something to eat."
"Hmph. Ash Ketchum, Pokemon Master, Abominable Glutton." Misty gave him a teasing glare, holding her chin up as she went marching forward. "I think I'll pick up dinner when we get back. The only thing you need is a hot bowl of soup."
"Save me a cinnabun?"
"Oh, you're lucky you're freezing. I'd have Staryu on Water Gun duty right now."
Ash chuckled, making way to catch up to her.
"Hey, I'm just glad you found me. I don't recognize any of this stuff." He looked over his surroundings: gazing up at a distant chain of azure mountaintops, then far past nearby tree trunks, into the wilderness. "I guess coming out here alone wasn't all that smart, huh."
Misty smiled. "You're never alone, Ash. I'll always be there for you. You know that."
An odd warmth swept over him, again. Unbidden, but definitely not unwelcome. He turned to Misty, staring at the snowflakes that dusted her pink jacket, at the redness that dusted her cheeks.
Suddenly, an old urge inside him was too loud to ignore.
"Um … Misty?"
She stopped, looking his way. "Hm?"
"I … er. Uh." Ash shoved his hands into his coat pockets. His brain felt like a lump of pudding. Why was this so much harder than he thought it was going to be? "Well … I wanted to, um …"
Just then, a branch overhead shifted under its own weight, dumping snow on top of both of them.
Misty stood there, blinking, incredulous. "How does this keep happening?!"
"M-Mist! You look like a Vanillite!"
"What?! I do not!"
"Do Not!" She knocked the powder off her pink yukata, hurling some his way. "And if I'm a Vanillite, then you're an Abomasnow!"
"What?! Am not!"
"Am …" Ash paused, blinking. "This is silly, huh?"
"Yeah," said Misty, laughing. And then, to his bewilderment, she got strangely quiet. "But you're right. I do miss it."
Ash quirked an eyebrow. What was with that tone? She almost sounded … embarrassed. Like she was talking to some celebrity, or something. But why would …
A clump of snow was still stuck in orange, just above her side ponytail. Ash reached out to brush it away. Then his eyes met hers, and his heart stopped. Along with his fingers.
In her hair.
"You have a little … uh."
Misty blushed, and batted his arm away. "Such a dork," she grumbled, brushing it away herself. A hint of a smile crossed her lips. "Save it for when we see each other again. Okay?"
Misty grinned at him – then blinked, pointing over his shoulder. "Oh! I remember this!"
Ash turned, peering. His eyes widened in surprise.
Just ahead of them was a large rock formation: a giant outcropping of jagged stones that divided the forest in two. It rose above the treetops, jutting up from the earth like a sinking battleship, its many crags covered by layers of snow. Familiar. Distinct.
"Hey, yeah!" said Ash. He rushed over to it, to the western face. "The Pokemon Center's only a little bit from here! We'll be there before you know it!"
"Um, Ash?" said Misty.
She pointed in the opposite direction. "It's that way."
"… Oh. Right. I knew that."
Ash adjusted his hat, and did a one-eighty, leading the way. Misty trailed behind him, laughing.
"Still terrible with directions. Honestly, I don't know what would you do without—"
The sound of a footfall.
Ash blinked. The woods blurred, swirled into one. He stumbled, caught himself, gripped his knees for balance. His breath came in quick rasps; his boots came back into focus. He lifted his eyes, startled by the sudden appearance of pink and honey blond.
"What happened? It's been three days! We've been looking everywhere for you!" She was frantic. She wrapped her arms around him; tears welled in her eyes. Why? "Are you okay? What have you been doing out here? There was a snowstorm, and you just left without telling anyone, a-and … Officer Jenny told us not to worry, to stay put because they would be looking for you, that you couldn't have gone far. But when Bonnie said that you wandered off like that, I just—"
She stared up at him. Her lips were still quivering.
"I'm okay now. Really." He held her shoulders. "I'm fine."
Serena faltered. She buried her face into his jacket, sniffling. "Thank goodness."
Ash rubbed her arms, comforting her. But inside, his mind was scrambled. This didn't make any sense. What was that just now? What in the hell had happened? A moment ago, he had been walking with Misty, and—
Misty. Where did …
"The Pokemon Center! We have to get you warm!" Her eyes went wide. "Your hands! You'll – it's okay. You'll be okay. It's not that bad. Just, please, come on! We have to go now!"
"Wait, wait. Where … Mist. Where's Mist?"
"Mist?" Serena glanced behind him, to the woods he had emerged from. Tree trunks; snow; more tree trunks. No mist. "What mist? You're not making any sense, Ash!"
"She … I don't understand. How did you find me?"
"… I heard shouting," said Serena. She looked at him in confusion. "Who were you talking to out here?"
Ash blinked at her. He turned back to the woods, looking down at his footprints in the snow.
A single set of footprints. Hers were …
Brown eyes moved past Serena, wandering off into the trees. A slight breeze swept through the snow-covered branches, rustling them, sending snowflakes to the ground. Ash watched them fall.
And for a moment, he was there. On the precipice of the stadium, overlooking the battleground. The Indigo Plateau. Winter. Midnight, on the eve of the first round. Snowflakes fell against Moltres's flame, caking the stadium seats, pouring from the sky.
She was beside him, then. Shoulder to shoulder. Fingers brushing his. Awake.
'You can do this. You're the best trainer I know.' Misty met his eyes, blushing faintly. She smiled. 'If anyone can, it's you, Ash.'
A/N: I wanted to write Ash in a slightly more damaged frame of mind for this one. His character's always so upbeat and positive, and this scene is one of the few where cracks start to show up on the surface. Mix that with a mild case of hypothermia, and you get … this. As for the backstory, that's open to interpretation. Yes, I did miss the Goldeen outfit – but I think that's the worst one for snow. =)
Theme 1: Misty in Kalos(?). Episode References: XY121, EP074.
* Roughly translates to: ["Geez, Ash. Were you born on Mt. Silver? I'm cold, and I have fur."]