Author's note: Hello, lovelies! I'd appreciate lots of reviews, as always. They're invaluable to writers, so please help me grow! I hope you enjoy my latest story - R

Chapter 1

Ash stared out of the plane window, lost in thought. It had been an unexpected couple of years for him since he first set out on his journey, so many ups and downs, wins and losses, but most of all friendships. After visiting seven regions, he had come full circle and found himself on his way back to Kanto after his adventure in Kalos.

Kalos.

He pulled his cap off his head and raked his fingers through his wild, ebony hair. He brought his hand down to his mouth and gently pinched his lips between his thumb and forefinger, the memory tattooed on his mind. Unforgettable. He sighed, looking at the seat next to him where Pikachu lay curled up asleep. He stroked his fur gently, feeling the hint of a purr rumble in the little mouse. He smiled fondly at his companion and turned to look back out of the window.

As always, he returned to Kanto to visit his mother, as promised after each adventure. Honestly, he looked forward to the prospect of home. He thrived on the challenges and experience that he gained while exploring different regions. It wasn't half as lonely as he once thought it would be. He was always surrounded by friends. He only once had that initial panic before starting his journey. It was the day before he was to choose his starter Pokémon and though the excitement and anticipation was overwhelming that he couldn't sleep, the anxiety also raced through his mind. Though Ash was an apparent extrovert and confident young lad growing up, there was always that part of him that he kept hidden. Gary, his old childhood friend, so full of confidence and boastful remarks, shot off on his journey and Ash felt left behind. And that determination motivated him to race after him, beginning his journey with a stubborn Pikachu and no experience in the Pokéworld.

He was 18 now and a highly experienced trainer. However, Ash's aspirations to be a Pokémon master was still high on his agenda and there was still a way to go. Kalos only proved that to him. He'd been on the cusp of victory on so many occasions that he knew he had a bit more to go before he could be the best. Yet, there were three particular memories of failing that stuck in his mind: when he came in the top 16 at the Indigo Plateau, the three challenges it took to defeat Brandon in the Battle Frontier and his loss against Wulfric the Snowbelle gym leader. Each of these were reminders of how hard he had to keep working and persevering. Each of these were hard reminders of the choking emotions that took a hold of him. And it took very different approaches from the people near and dear to him to get him through those moments.

His battles with Brandon were a lesson on everything he ever thought he knew about Pokémon battles. It presented a challenge for him to evaluate himself and grow. It was something he had to figure out by himself. For all that, Misty was the first to witness what failure did to Ash. Though young at the Indigo Plateau, it hurt to lose, and he had no idea how to handle that. Misty came in like a wrecking ball and sternly gave him brutal honesty that he wasn't his best self. He never forgot it. His loss against Wulfric hit him hard. He'd never felt depression like that before. He felt like he'd let down his Pokémon, despite the training, hard work and effort. He'd all but completely given up, the questions filling his head whether he was good enough. Then soft, gentle, lovely Serena hit him square in the face with a snowball. The words that followed shocked him more than the snowball in the face: 'you're not acting like the Ash I know. Stop! Give me back the real Ash because you sure aren't him!'

For all these revelations, Ash continued to grow, and he owed his friends that. He just didn't know that he made such an impact on them, too. Serena vowed to be better, especially for Ash the next time they meet, leaving him with a parting gift. This parting gift had been on his mind far more than he was willing to admit. He refocused his eyes on the view out of the plane window and smiled at the familiar sight of Kanto.

Misty scrubbed at the poolside with extra elbow grease. Her nose was wrinkled up as she attempted to clean up the messy leftovers of a battle. Her challenger had used a Muk and the remnants of its time at the pool were impossible to ignore. She heard footsteps enter the arena and she looked up.

"Phew," Tracey exclaimed, waving his hands in front of his face, his nose wrinkling up just like Misty's, "what is that awful smell?"

"A Muk," she said flatly, reaching over for a sponge and throwing it at him.

Tracey caught the sponge and frowned, raising an eyebrow. "Is this an invitation to help you?"

"No," she replied tartly, "it's an order to help me."

Tracey pouted, rolling his eyes and made his way over to get down on the floor tiles and started scrubbing.

"Hey, you haven't seen Psyduck, have you?" Misty suddenly piped up.

"No, why?"

Misty sat back on the balls of her feet, chucking the sponge in the bucket of soapy water and sighed. "He's just been… off lately. I don't know what's up with him."

Tracey stopped scrubbing and looked up at her. "What do you mean by 'off'?"

"He's been such a pain," she replied lamely.

Tracey frowned, unimpressed. "How is that any different to the usual?"

"Okay," Misty's face brightened, an example suddenly dawning on her, "get this: he'll run off if he finds I have a male challenger."

"He doesn't exactly thrive in the battle arena, though," Tracey pointed out, "particularly in water."

"No, you're right there," she sighed, her chin resting on her hand. "He's also been really quiet. He's not acting his usual self."

"Careful," Tracey chuckled. "You almost sound like you care."

Misty swotted him across the shoulder with a glare. "Of course, I care!" she emphasised. "Just because he's useless and a complete nuisance, doesn't mean I disregard him." She considered Tracey a moment. "Do you think you'd be willing to give him a look over?"

"If it gets me out of scrubbing this mess up, then yes!" he replied, immediately jumping up, then promptly slid on the Muk remnants on the greasy tiles and landed with a large splash in the pool.

Misty's hand clamped around her mouth as she attempted to stifle the resulting giggle that rose within her.

Ash rubbed his chest absentmindedly as he stood listening to Professor Oak and Delia Ketchum wittering away with each other. In her excitement, Bayleef had run at him full pelt in her haste to greet her beloved trainer and knocked him to the ground. He had laughed it off and affectionately rubbed her head. He was always so careful about upsetting her as she was so sensitive when it came to him. He didn't mind that though. He knew, now, that Pokémon became very close to their trainers and in some cases, developed great affection with them, as is the case with Bayleef.

"So, Ash," Oak started, turning to look at the teen, "what do you plan to do while you're here?"

Ash shrugged. "Catch up with old friends."

At that moment, Gary Oak turned the corner and smirked at spotting Ash with his grandfather.

"Hey, Ash," he greeted him, folding his arms over his chest.

"Speaking of old friends," Ash nodded, "Gary."

"Another journey over already?" Gary asked, eyebrows raised.

Ash pressed his lips together and nodded his head once. Taking notice of the white lab coat that Gary was wearing, he couldn't help but comment. "Still not out battling then?"

"Nah," he shook his head. "I've rather taken to research."

"It runs in your blood, my boy!" Oak encouraged him fondly.

"So, where's Tracey?" Ash asked the professor.

"I expect he's over at the Cerulean City gym," he answered. "He goes over there a lot to help Misty out. Plus, he's rather taken to Politoed and he's checking up on Azurill, of course."

Ash gulped. Misty.

Gary looked at Ash out of the corner of his eye. "So…" he hedged, "seen anything of your other travelling companions since you were in Kalos?"

Ash choked on the chuckle that rose up his throat, then he coughed. "Not really. Kalos was kind of crazy. Bonnie and Clemont went back to the Lumiose gym, and Serena is competing in the Hoenn contests now. In Unova, I met back up with Dawn who was staying with Cynthia in Undella Town."

Ash deliberately left it there, anticipating the usual awkward question that came from Gary.

"Oh?" Gary inevitably responded, "a-and what is she up to these days?"

Ash inwardly rolled his eyes at his usual stuttering when it came to Dawn.

"She's still in Hoenn last time we spoke over the phone," Ash said. "Apparently, she's got her third ribbon now."

"Ah, good for her," Gary nodded, a slight smile at the corner of his mouth.

"Are you planning to go over to see Misty and Tracey, dear?" Delia asked her son, completely oblivious to Gary's odd behaviour. "It'd be nice if we could have dinner together."

Ash looked at his mother and smiled, seeing the eagerness in her face. "Yes, mom," he answered. "I'm sure I can spare time so we can eat together."

Her face lit up like a Christmas tree decorated from top to bottom in lights.