BadgeQuest

The Big Goodbye

=Part 10=

Dénouement

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Ash fidgeted nervously as he walked into the Oak Institute's off-kilter front door. The damages from the previous day's battle were enormous, but luckily nothing Oak couldn't fix or afford. Several orange trucks bearing the words 'Oak Family Construction' and the Oak family crest were already parked outside, with a few men milling about. The rain had mercifully slowed to a light drizzle, allowing the construction workers to get tarps over the parts of the roof that hadn't made it through the melee.

But Ash wasn't here to survey the damage he and Missingno had done. This was a social call, one that he wasn't looking forward to one bit. They had all visited the hospital after the battle for their minor cuts and scrapes. It had been nothing serious (though the hospital attendants were now on a first name basis with most of them, which was a little funny in a sick sort of way). But Richie…

The living room was deserted when he pushed through the door, shutting it behind him as best as he could. It hung a bit crookedly on its hinges, but with a little effort he managed to keep the elements sealed outside. "Hello?" he called out, hanging his dripping poncho on a hook. Part of him was glad that Pikachu had decided to stay behind, despite his buddy's poignant absence at his side. The little fellow was still exhausted after the mega-Flash he had pulled off to save the day…something that Ash still couldn't figure out how they had done it.

A noise at the staircase finally answered his loud calls. "Okay, okay," a feminine voice sighed, "We hear you already. Knock it off." Ash watched as Giselle descended the stairs, dressed in a long black rain slicker. Her shoulders shrugged against a large, heavy backpack she wore on top of the slicker as she reached the first floor, giving a small look of surprise at the sight of the other trainer. "Oh, it's you. Good."

"Good?" Ash asked warily as she approached. He couldn't help but be suspicious; Giselle had never been glad to see him. Maybe Missingno's presence wasn't completely gone… "Why good?"

"Well, I was going to catch you before I left." she shrugged, tugging at the backpack's heavy straps. Once the bag was secure, she situated her long, chestnut locks to one side, producing a binder with which to secure them. "I…I wanted to say thanks."

"Thanks? For what?"

She glared at him as she bunched her hair into a ponytail, letting it fall over her shoulder. "Stop being modest. It's really annoying." Blowing an impatient sigh, she seemed to draw deep on some inner reserve, as if facing a great task. "Look…the fact of the matter is, you pulled my bacon out of the fire. Everyone's, as a matter of fact. Plus, you bagged Missingno to boot, something that I couldn't do after a whole year of trying." Her eyes dropped to the floor for a moment, and Ash could have sworn he saw tears welling up in her eyes. "It's not easy to admit, but…the Goddess chose right with you."

"Giselle…" he started, but she quickly put a finger to his lips.

"Look, let's not ruin the moment, shall we?" Glancing around warily, she darted in and placed a brief kiss on Ash's cheek. Pulling back, she watched the boy's face turn cherry-red as he lifted a hand to the spot. "See you around, Ketchum." She began heading for the door, but stopped and turned at a thought. "Oh, and don't think this whole 'Goddess' crap makes you Number One. That's still 'my' spot. Clear?"

"Crystal." he said with a smirk.

He watched her nod with satisfaction as she heaved the door open, exiting into the pouring rain and disappearing into the monsoon. Then he headed up the stairs, following the path Giselle had come down, making his way down the twists and turns of Oak's lair until he came across Oak's small lounge. There, sitting next to the door leading in, was a small ball of a girl with her knees drawn up to her chest, face hidden by a large shock of blonde hair spilling down her legs as her shoulders silently shook.

Ash cringed, biting his lower lip. He and Dixie hadn't spoken since the day before, since Richie's 'accident'. He had tried at the hospital, but she had remained stonily silent, gracing him only with eyes filled with daggers. At the sound of his shuffling feet, those bladed eyes now looked up, locking on to Ash with uncanny precision. "Hey Dix…" he murmured softly.

She sniffed, drawing her arm across her face to clear away the hanging tears. Her eyes were red and puffy after nearly a day of crying, but no less spiteful as she stood. Silently, she walked over to Ash, her mouth drawn tight. Ash remained still, expecting the worst. He wasn't disappointed; Dixie's hand flashed across his face, slapping him hard enough to rock him back on his feet.

"How could you?" her voice trembled as she drew her hand down. She looked as though she wanted to do more, much more, but somehow she restrained herself. "He was your friend."

Ash rubbed his cheek for the second time that day, this time much less pleased at the cause. "Dixie…" he looked back at her, a thousand explanations coming to his lips. He hadn't meant for things to come out like that in the end. He hadn't asked Richie to take the blow for him. He had tried his best. Each excuse was hollower than the last. "I…I'm sorry," he said at last.

"Sorry." she spat. "Well, that's wonderful. You're sorry. That makes everything better." She pointed furiously to the door, behind which Ash surmised was where Richie rested. "He trusted you, Ash Ketchum. We all did. And now look. Look at what happened."

"I…" Ash felt a little indignant at the attack, but he knew he deserved every piece of it. "There was nothing-"

"LOOK!" she shrieked, jabbing her finger again. Realizing her own volume, she forced herself to calm down, running a hand through her tussled blonde hair. "Because of you, Richie will never…never…" She felt her resolve slipping as tears fell from her eyes. She began to stumble back, catching herself against the wall to keep from falling as her tears began to fall once more.

Ash wanted to wrap Dixie in his arms, to somehow promise her that everything was going to be all right. But when he reached for her, and she pulled back, he realized that he had lost that right…probably forever. "Dix…" he pleaded, pulling away slowly from her.

"Just go." she whispered, choking back a sob. "He's waiting for you."

Realizing that no more good would come from his presence, Ash slid around the sobbing wreck of his former girlfriend and slipped into the lounge. It was a simple enough room, but one of the more intact ones in the facility, as it had been on the opposite side of the building during the attack. Oak had decorated it with a few pieces of furniture, mostly easy chairs and couches. A fainting couch stood in the middle, with a large window past that overlooking the compound's free-range area. Normally teeming with Pokémon, the area beneath the window now only held puddles, debris, and darkness. As lightning flashed through the portal, Ash saw Richie's silhouette in the middle of the opening, black against the field of pure white.

Richie twisted in his chair at the sound of the door, spotting Ash as he entered the room. "Hey!" he said brightly. Quickly, his arms found their way to the wheels at either side of his seat, working them with a grunt in opposite directions until his chair was facing the door. "I was wondering when you'd show up."

"Richie…" Ash murmured. "Hey." He stumbled in, suddenly feeling as though his body were made of pudding as he somehow found his way to a seat near the other boy. "How…how are you doing?"

Richie shrugged, and then winced, grasping his shoulder. "A little sore still, I guess. The doctors say the regen treatments took care of anything major, so thankfully there was no reason to keep me in that sick box."

Ash frowned, clasping his hands together as he leaned forward. "That's…not what I meant." He gestured to the wheelchair, hoping to avoid dancing around the topic. "What's the final verdict?"

His good humor vanished instantly in a deep sigh. "The doctors say I have a five percent chance of walking again." Richie admitted. "And that factors in medical advancements, as the current trend goes…or something." He saw Ash's face drop even further, and managed a weak smile. "Hey…so how do you like my new wheels?"

Now it was Ash's turn to feel tears well up in the edges of his vision. "Oh man…Richie…I'm so sorr-"

"Stop." Richie grew deadly serious as he leaned forward, planting his elbows on his now-useless legs and propping his chin on his hands. "Don't you dare pity me, or I swear to God I'll get out of this chair and kick the living crap out of you myself."

Ash sniffed, managing a smile at Richie's candor. "Heh. It'd be worth it if you could." Suddenly, he felt stupid for saying such a thing, and slapped a hand over his forehead. "I'm sorry, Richie, I didn't mean…I mean…oh, God, I'm an idiot." He looked back at Richie, who wore an unreadable expression, waiting for Ash to say something. "This…this is all my fault." he said at last, sagging in his chair. "I don't know what to say, except sorry, and you don't want to hear that, so…"

Richie studied Ash intently for a moment as the chosen of the Goddess fidgeted for a moment, tears silently sliding down his z-marred cheeks. Finally, Richie leaned back with his poker face still in place. "Look," he said, "I'll forgive you if you do me one favor."

Ash looked up, wiping the tears from his face. "Anything." he said somberly.

"For the love of God," Richie moaned, "Stop calling me Richie. It makes me sound like I'm ten or something. I'm fifteen…no, wait. Sixteen years old now." For a moment, Richie seemed angry. Then the façade broke, revealing a broad smile.

Stuttering laughter escaped Ash, despite his best efforts to lock it down. He couldn't believe it, but there was no denying; Richie was back to his old self. Ash didn't know anyone else who could take such a loss as Richie had suffered in stride so well. He knew that he couldn't. "What should we call you, then?"

The boy pondered it for a moment. "Rick." he decided at last with a nod. "I think Dixie's on to something with that 'Ricky' thing." Suddenly his face fell as his eyes were drawn to the door. "She's…not taking this well."

"She blames me." Ash stated in a monotone. "So do I, frankly." He stared Richie's…Rick's demeanor for a moment, hesitating on his next question. "Why'd you do it?"

"Do what?" He watched Ash stare at him for a moment longer before it clicked. "Ohhhh. That." It was his turn to look uncomfortable for a moment as he searched for the words to say. "Ash, I…I have to be honest. I didn't do it for you."

"You didn't? Then…why?" Ash was confused.

Rick frowned, leaning forward and casting his eyes down at his feet. "I escaped Missingno before Giselle hit me with the…well, you know." he blew out a breath, driving the memories further back until he was ready to deal with them. "I was whole…and I had learned quite a bit swimming around inside of the demon." He managed to look up at Ash for a moment, becoming deathly quiet. "He's still out there, you know."

"Missingno?" Ash's jaw dropped as Rick nodded. "That's impossible."

"No. It's not." Rick's head shook as his gaze returned to the floor. "After all that time inside of him, I think…I think a part of him is still in me, and a part of me is still in him. Not a lot, I don't think. I still feel like me. But…I can feel him." His eyes shone with fear and hatred as his voice grew bitter. "He's still alive somehow, and still whole…"

"But…" Ash couldn't believe it. He thought they were rid of at least one of the demons, but this…It was almost too much for him to bear. "But that doesn't explain why-"

"Ash, you're the Chosen One." Rick cut him off, looking up sharply into Ash's eyes with all the seriousness he had lacked before. "You're the one who has to save the world. Not Giselle, not me…It's you. I didn't save you for you, Ash. I saved you so you could save the world."

Ash was silent, staring at Rick with wide-eyed fear. Richie had sacrificed almost everything for the world. What if Ash was ever asked to do the same? He hadn't been willing to let Misty go in exchange for the planet. What if a harder situation came up? What if…The possibilities scared him to death.

Rick saw it in his eyes. "You finally get it." he said softly, nodding with approval. "Good. Oh, which reminds me…" Some of his natural excitement returned as he reached into his jacket, pulling out a couple of small, marble-sized Pokéballs. Without any preamble, he handed the pair to Ash with a small smile. "Here."

"What's this?" Ash rolled the balls around on his palm, frowning at them curiously.

Rick leaned back, folding his arms as he smiled with self-satisfaction. "Now you have the complete set. One Bird of Thunder, One of Ice, and…" he hesitated on the last one, "One Bird of Fire."

His jaw dropped again. "Moltres? Zapdos?"

"Giselle and I talked about it, and we both agreed that you could use them a lot more than we could."

"I couldn't…I can't…!"

"It's going to be a long fight, Ash." Rick told him, his seriousness returning. "The rest of us can help, but in the end, it'll be up to you. You can use any advantage you can get your hands on, so don't turn them away. They're yours."

Ash was silent once more as he stared intently at the balls. Finally, he slipped them in his pocket, murmuring his gratitude. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." Rick's smile grew. "There. Was that so hard, accepting help?" Ash shook his head and chuckled, prompting Rick's response. "Good. You'll be getting more than you want from the rest of us. We'll beat this together, as much as we can." His wristwatch suddenly beeped, bringing with it a frown to his face. "Huh. You'd better get going." At Ash's questioning look, he elaborated, "In about two minutes, Dixie's going to come through that door to whisk me away to the hospital for some follow-up treatments, and other hoo-hah like that. My guess is, you aren't going to want to be in the same room with her for the next three thousand years or so."

Ash couldn't help but chuckle. "Yeah. Do me a favor? Take good care of her."

"I think it'll be the other way around for a while." Rick assured him.

"Thanks. For everything." Ash meant it, shaking Rick's hand as he stood to leave. "You know, for what it's worth," he said truthfully, "I think the Goddess should have picked you at Mount Moon. You would have been a better choice all the way."

Rick shook his head. "There was never any choice."

"Of course there was. You're twice the-"

"No, Ash, you…" Rick trailed off, staring curiously at Ash. After a moment, his eyes went wide with realization. "Oh man, you don't know, do you? I'm surprised you didn't figure it out on your own."

"What?"

"Ash," Rick said slowly, "Everything that Giselle told you when she was all-Missingno was true."

Puzzled and lost, Ash scratched his head. "So?"

"So?" Rick sighed, tapping his own cheek just below the eye. "Ash, that's no silly birthmark under your eye. That's the real deal; the Mark of Ashura. And for as long as I've known you," he added, "It's been sitting there on your ugly mug."

"My…" Ash paled visibly as the pieces began to fall into place. Rick, Giselle…they had never been a part of it until the Goddess had brought them into it. But why? Why would the Goddess do such a horrible, cruel thing to someone completely innocent in the entire equation.

There was no time to ponder on it as the door flew open, revealing a huffy blonde and an older man framing the doorway behind her. Dixie didn't even spare Ash a look as she walked in, informing Rick that they were going to be late if they didn't hurry. With one last look to bid Ash farewell, Rick allowed Dixie to wheel him out of the room without a fuss. Oak, in the meantime, approached the blanched boy still in the lounge questioningly.

"Are you quite all right, Ash?" Oak asked.

Ash's voice was little more than a whisper. "No." he breathed, staring off into space.

Oak walked past him and leaned against the wall, looking out at his compound. The once-beautiful facility was in pieces now, and soggy from the constant downpour, but he knew it could not last. Soon enough, time and effort would mend the physical. The emotional, he reminded himself with a glance back at Ash, would take a bit longer. "Quite the time we've had, eh?"

The boy swallowed hard, trying to find his voice. "I…I guess."

A thought surfaced back to the top of Oak's mind after a moment of uncomfortable silence. He patted his lab jacket, feeling a reassuring lump at the pocket as he turned back to his young protégé. "Do you know what day it is, Ash?" he asked. Ash shook his head numbly. "If memory serves, you only have one day left to transfer your Pokémon to a licensed trainer."

Hollowly, Ash looked up at Oak, feeling the very life drain out of him. He had forgotten all about the Indigo League's ridiculous ruling and his lost license in the midst of all the chaos. Now that it was back, and very real once again, he didn't know if he could deal with it. "You…you can take them, right?" he asked weakly. He felt his body fall into one of the armchairs, no longer listening to any of his commands. "Until I figure something out…Could you, Professor Oak?"

"I could," he agreed with a nod. He sat down next to Ash, clearing his throat to get the boy's attention. Once he had that, he continued, "I want you to remember that I wholly advocate the rules and regulations of any and all leagues. They are there for the benefit of the Pokémon as well as the trainers, and I will never stand to see either human or Pokémon harmed because of anyone's inability to follow rules."

"Professor," Ash frowned feebly, "What are you-"

Oak pressed ahead, barreling through Ash's objections. "So you understand that, had I not been one hundred percent certain that you could pass the test on your own, I would have never done this." He began digging through his jacket pocket, seeking something elusive at the bottom.

"Wha-?"

"What I'm getting at, Ash," Oak growled, trying to get hold of something in his lab coat, "Is that, rather than transferring your Pokémon to me, you should transfer them to 'you'." With a flourish, he pulled a small wad of folded papers from his jacket, handing them to Ash with a small smile.

Ash took the stack, seeing a glint of light reflected off of the top. He stared down at the laminated object with a mixture of awe and delight as he saw his picture on a small, rectangular card, along with a series of tiny text in three or four different languages. "Professor, is this for real?" he asked, feeling a small well of hope spring up within him.

Oak nodded. "An international Trainer's License, fresh from the printings. I filled out the test for you myself, though you wouldn't have had any trouble with it. It is recognized all over the world, including," he added, "Pokémon Island. The license is completely valid, so Indigo League can't touch you."

"Th-thank you." Ash stuttered, grateful beyond words. He felt himself lurch forward, capturing Oak in a hug that caught the old scientist off-guard for once. He patted Ash on the back as the boy found new tears, this time of happiness. Regardless of what the Indigo League thought, his little family was to remain intact, provided he didn't do anything to lose 'this' license. "Thank you." he said again.

Their embrace ended as Ash pocketed the new license, a small smile finding its way through all the misery that Ash still felt. "So, Ash," Oak said awkwardly, "What will you do now?"

Ash recalled Rick's ominous words with a heavy heart. The boy was right. In the end, it would come down to him and him alone. Missingno was still out there, somewhere, if Rick was to be believed. Add that to the other three demons yet to be discovered, and it painted an ugly mess waiting to be cleaned up. But Ash disagreed with Rick on one matter; No matter what, he wasn't going to let anyone else get caught in the crossfire of his next battle.

A plan began to formulate in Ash's mind as he heard himself speaking to the Professor. "I don't know," he admitted. "But I can't stay here."

* * *

The second night after the battle was a restless one for Misty, just as the first had been. She suspected that the next would be just as bad, if not worse, for every time she closed her eyes and tried to drift off, the haunting, hellish visage of Missingno in his final moments screamed behind her eyelids. She had tried counting Mareep, drinking warm Miltank's milk…even asking Brock for a remedy. Brock, unfortunately, had his own demons to deal with; he and Delia had been unnaturally quiet since their rescue from the belly of the beast.

She had tried to talk to Ash about her problems, hoping that he would know what to do. Ash always knew how to make her feel better. Back in their days on the island, before his insane badge-questing had begun, he had always been there for her. When her date to the junior Prom had stood her up, it was Ash that had traversed the distance between Pallet and Cerulean (on foot, no less) to show up on her arm, his tuxedo covered in twigs and leaves, but beaming nonetheless. She had shouted at him at the time, worried that he was going to embarrass her, but deep down she was truly thankful, and she was sure he knew it.

But Ash had been even more distant than Brock or the elder Ketchum in recent times. Whereas the two victims would give her an encouraging smile, Ash would simply brood in the dark, as if he hadn't heard her at all. He had disappeared earlier that day, gone off to Professor Oak's to visit Richie, she supposed. When he had gotten back, he had simply gone up to his room, and could not be coaxed to even open his door for anyone. He hadn't said a word when Dixie had come to collect her things...but then again, neither had Dixie. Misty, who had been staying in Ash's room, had been forced to sleep in the guest room. Brock had offered to take the couch downstairs, claiming indifference, but she was grateful anyways.

She desperately wished she could talk to Ash…comfort him, and be comforted in turn. The cold, hard truth was, she needed him. It wasn't a case of puppy love, nor was it the want of a friendly shoulder to cry on. She wasn't sure what it was; All she was certain of was that she needed Ash to be with her. Only then could things start to be all right.

A sudden wave of sadness hit her, causing her to roll over. The numbers on the clock glared at her, depicting an hour not fit for any human being as she blinked numbly, half awake and half not. She didn't know why she suddenly felt sadder…It wasn't as if something new had occurred to her, some new way life had found to twist the screw even tighter into them. It was almost as if… Again, there was no explaining it, but she felt something…a person?....down on the floor below. Curiosity got the better of her as she armed herself with her Psyduck slippers, throwing a robe over her pajamas as she stalked out of the guest room.

Her feet padded softly down the hard wooden steps as she tugged her robe more tightly about her taut shoulders, fighting off the monsoon's nightly chill that seeped into the house. The downstairs was murky, save for the flashes of lightning that blinked on and off in no discernable pattern. Brock's gentle snoring droned from the couch as his still form slept unseen. However, there was a different noise; a gentle creaking of floorboards, as if someone was treading softly amidst the darkness.

Through the gloom, Misty thought she saw a brief flash of movement, and zeroed in quickly. She heard the footsteps freeze at the sound of her slippers slapping on the floor, and her suspicion grew. "Who's there?" she demanded in a hissing voice, feeling adrenaline pumping through her veins as she curled her fists.

Lightning chanced to flash, giving Misty a brief moment of illumination. She saw a white face reflected in the blinding light, milky save for a pair of sharp zigzags beneath his luminous eyes. In that split instant, Misty saw the face go from worry to abject fear before winking back into the icy black void that had claimed the house in the night. Wasting no time, Misty stomped over to the nearest light switch, throwing it and bathing the front entryway in a soft, golden glow.

"Misty…" Ash looked the proverbial child with his hand in the cookie jar as he stood there, helpless and discovered. Pikachu sat on his shoulder, quiet as a mouse until the lights were thrown. The Pokémon squeaked and blinked the spots in its eyes away as Ash backed up, fumbling with his backpack and poncho that were only half-donned.

Misty frowned, confused. "Ash? What's going on?" She looked him up and down, eyeing his clothes. "Why are you dressed?" She watched his eyes flicker over to the table resting near the door. There, sitting in plain sight, was a small brown package that hadn't been there when she had gone to bed. He must have just placed it there. "What's that?" she demanded loudly, stalking over to the package.

"Misty!" he shushed desperately, a pleading look in his features and mirrored in Pikachu's. But she would have none of it as she picked up the package and waved it in his face.

"What is this? You're going out in the middle of the night?" she asked. Already, the three of them could hear Brock stirring on the couch, and thumping footsteps were coming from upstairs. In a moment, Brock's head poked up over the couch, mussed with sleep, as Delia came down the stairs in her robe.

Immediately, Delia's concern overrode every other thought in her mind. "Honey, is everything okay? I heard shouting." she said, approaching her son uncertainly.

Brock was slightly less coherent. "Muh?" he groaned, blinking one eye at a time against the relatively-bright light. "Wha'hoppen?"

Misty's eyes switched back and forth between Ash's guilty face and the mysterious package he had left on the table. A single look into his deep, brooding eyes was all it took for the reality of the situation to finally dawn on her. "You were leaving…" Misty murmured. She felt the package slip between her numb fingers as the shock traveled to every part of her body, immobilizing her. "You were…you're…"

"Ash…is this true?" Delia asked quietly. Her tone wasn't accusing, or angry; merely worried. "Honey, why would you leave in the middle of the night."

"I…" He seemed lost for an answer, unable to fight against the interrogation in his own home. "I didn't…"

Slowly, Delia bent down and retrieved the package from Misty's feet, turning it around in her hands. She discovered a small white envelope underneath, taped hastily to the bottom out of sight. "Ash," she looked at her son solemnly, "Is everything all right?"

Misty was completely oblivious to everything. She didn't register as Brock found his way to his feet, stumbling over to join the circle. Delia's voice washed over her ears, unheard and unmissed as a thousand emotions welled up inside her, assaulting her soul from every side. "You…you were just going to leave…" she heard herself say from a great distance, as if someone else was in control of her body, and she was a mere observer.

"Misty," Ash raised his hands pleadingly.

She didn't hear him. "You were going to leave." she said again, this time more forcefully. As the torrent of emotions continued to beat against the shores of her inner self, the usual winner of the battle came forward, painting her vision a disturbing shade of red. "You were just going to leave," she said with a mixture of anger and disbelief, "In the middle of the night!"

"I…I left a note." Ash pointed at the package as Brock and Delia stood back, a bit intimidated at the anger growing in Misty's features. "I-"

"A note?" The disbelief in her voice vanished, replaced with a double-helping of rage that raised her voice to near-shrieking level. "A note?! Oh, well!" she threw her hands up in the air, nostrils flaring in disgust. "That just makes everything okay, doesn't it?"

"Misty, I-"

"You know what?" she whirled on him, shaking with anger. "Just go. I don't care anymore." She reached out before Delia could stop her, snatching the package and ripping the letter right off of it. She tossed aside the former, and ripped the latter clean in half, throwing the pieces at Ash. "After all we've been through together," she yelled as he flinched away from the paper projectiles, "After seven years of being together, side-by-side…After all we just WENT through, and you want to slip away without so much as a 'goodbye'? Fine. LEAVE!" she jabbed a finger at the door.

Ash's own shock and shame quickly gave way to anger as Misty's words heated up his blood. "You're making this about you," he growled, feeling his fists clench at his side. "Not everything is about you, you know."

The two began circling each other as the heated exchange escalated. Brock and Delia backed away, and even little Pikachu leapt from Ash's shoulder to stay clear of the fight. Ash and Misty hadn't had a full-blown argument in months, and the pent-up emotions were really starting to show. "Of course not!" Misty retorted sarcastically, rolling her eyes. "How can it be about any of us, when it's always about YOU? You little, no-talent hack of a drama queen!"

"You think you know everything!" Ash shot, his face dropping in a heavy scowl. "You must see a lot from always being on the sidelines. Makes it easier to criticize others. I guess you need a hobby when you don't DO anything with your life!"

"Ash Ketchum!" Delia gasped in horror.

Brock tried to get in between the two, but they wouldn't have any of it. "Uh, guys…"

Their admonishments fell on deaf ears as Misty's eyes grew wide at the blow. "How DARE you!" she bellowed. "You wouldn't have gotten twelve steps outside of this crummy little village without me!"

"I don't know how I've gotten so far WITH you!" Ash shouted just as loudly. "You little tagalong, redheaded reject of a trainer! The only reason you kept biting at my heels is because your family couldn't stand the sight of yo-"

Misty's hand flashed like the lightning in the background as Ash crossed that proverbial line, striking him full on the mouth just as hard as she could. His head snapped around as she followed through, letting her hand drop to her side. "Don't you DARE talk to me li-"

It was Misty's turn to be surprised as Ash's palm returned the favor, shutting her mouth with an open-handed blow that reeled her silent. She stopped, shocked, as she clutched her face, watching him heave and tremble before her. They had stopped their ridiculous circling, squaring off against one another with Ash's back to the door and Misty's to the stairs.

Without even thinking about it, Misty's hand lashed out again in a vicious backhand, striking his cheekbone and knocking him back a few paces. He took the blow in stride, his hand not even rising to his face to rub the wound. Instead, he wasted no time in striking back, once again matching her blow for blow. Misty felt his knuckle belt her in the cheek, drawing a coppery taste to her mouth that drew her lips into a bitter sneer.

A quiet rumble began deep within Misty as Brock, Delia and Pikachu watched the proceedings in horror. That low growl soon grew into a full-fledged roar as Misty leapt forward, catching Ash at the waist in a full tackle that knocked the both of them through the door and out onto the porch. Together, the two tumbled out into the rain, wrestling and struggling against each other, ignoring the shouts of their elders.

Fists flashed and kicks flew as the two teens fought, using the sporadic lightning as their guide. There were no words exchanged or mercies offered, only the sound of flesh and bone striking, grunts of pain, and roars of anger. Neither one was sure how it had come to this, or why. They had never fought like this before. They both knew, though, that it was the other's fault that they felt such pain, and that they would pay for it.

Misty managed to tag Ash good across the face, catching him right in the eye. He stumbled back as she pressed her attack, but was too hasty and careless. One of Ash's flailing arms knocked her in the cheek, deflecting her charge long enough for Ash to regain his balance. His foot caught her square in the ribs, knocking the wind out of her and shoving her back onto the muddy grass on the front lawn. She saw a dark shape sail through the air as she struggled to breath, and brought her own feet up just in time to push Ash away from her. He fell to the ground as well, landing in a gigantic puddle of mud and water.

Furious, Misty crawled forward and tried to pin Ash to the ground, raining blows down on his face and chest. Her voice screamed with each blow, ancient instincts flaring to life in the primal struggle. She heard voices shout distantly, but ignored them. None of it mattered anymore. None of it.

Ash's hands shot up from the muck, grabbing hold of her shoulders and pinning her arms to her side with uncanny strength. She struggled, but was helpless as he rolled the both of them across the mud and slurry, covering the both of them with indescribable filth. Dizzy and helpless, Misty could only watch as Ash finally halted, straddling her waist and pinning her hands painfully with his knees as he knelt above her.

His shoulders heaved with raspy breath as he leaned over her, bracing the ground with one hand as his other drew back to pummel her unprotected face. As he loomed above her, shielding her from the rain, he finally noticed the stream of tears leaking from her eyes. Waves of pain washed over his soul, and Ash couldn't be certain if they were his, or hers. Large, fat droplets began raining down on Misty's face, and for the first time since the fight had started, Ash realized that he was crying too.

He almost didn't register it when a pair of large hands grabbed him roughly by the scruff of his neck, dragging him forcefully off of Misty. Brock held him by his collar, looking at the pair of them with disgust as he bent down and hauled the other to her feet as well. "That's enough!" he roared. Though it was hardly necessary, as neither was putting up any fight, his powerful arms dragged them both back into the house. There, Delia waited, horror painted on her face as she held the squirming, squawking Pikachu protectively in her arms.

"Brock, what-" Delia tried to interject, but Brock stalked right past her, leaving a trail of mud and water as he dragged them through the house. She followed quickly, watching him kick open the door to her study and toss both of the shivering, filthy teens into the room.

"I don't know what's gotten into both of you," he told them darkly, "And I don't give a crap. You're not coming out until you've worked this out." He watched them start to protest, then slammed the door in their faces. His long reach snagged a rogue chair, and he propped it beneath the knob, effectively trapping the pair.

Delia quickly reached the young man, looking with concern at the door to her quiet reading room. "Brock…" she said softly, touching the burly trainer on the shoulder.

He seemed to snap out of his anger in an instant at her touch. "Sorry about the mess," he said sadly. "I'll clean it up later." He looked back at the room, shaking his head sadly. "I don't know where that came from…" he sighed. "They haven't fought like that since…well, ever!"

"Brock," Delia tried again, but there seemed no reaching him.

"I mean, I know they've been kinda touchy around each other," he remarked, "But I never would have guessed…"

"Brock!"

"What?" he asked, tilting his head at her sudden urgency. The situation was under control as far as he was concerned. "What is it?"

She seemed slightly chagrined as she said, "There's a window in that room."

Brock considered the new information for a moment. Then he tore the chair away from the door and threw it open. Inside the room, Misty was curled up in a little ball, leaning up against a chair as she sobbed uncontrollably into her hands. At the far end of the room, a pair of curtains flapped as droplets of rain flew in through the open window, splattering against the wooden floor.

"Oh…" was all he could think to say.

* * *

Ash stumbled blindly through the rain, not sure of where he was going and not caring anymore. His entire body was one big ache, and his left eye was slowly swelling shut, effectively blinding him on one side. He couldn't recall ever being this miserable before in his life, but he was certain that he deserved it.

He had hit Misty. He couldn't believe it.

Oh sure, there had been plenty of fights between the two that had dissolved into blows over the years. He had taken his lumps, and given Misty her own share in return. But a full-out knock-down brawl? Never. He had never wanted to hurt Misty…just like he had never wanted to hurt Dixie…or Richie…or any of them.

'That's why it's for the best,' he told himself silently, slogging aimlessly. He wasn't sure how long he had been walking; his head hurt too much to experience the passage of time. It felt like he had been hurting forever. He had somehow come across the forests on the edge of town, and was tripping and traipsing over stray roots and puddles on a path that seemed uncannily familiar.

Lightning flashed all around him as the scream of thunder echoed, roaring at him, laughing at him, from every direction. The trees loomed all about him, casting long shadows in the dark night, making it hard to see. Furious, he screamed back at the heavens, but they simply drowned him out. Looking up at the sky, he missed his footing and snagged a downed branch, stumbling face-first into a patch of mud.

The grit seeped into his teeth as he pulled himself up, exhausted and aching, but fueled with an inner fury. "What do you want from me?" he screamed at the skies, peeling the mud from his face and flinging it aside. He threw his arms open to the pouring, thunderous heavens. "WHAT?"

Their only response was to throw more lightning and thunder, drowning out his furious roar. He staggered to his feet, stepping blindly ahead as he continued to shout obscenities at the gods themselves. He cursed their names, he cursed his fate, and everything else he could think of that was unjust in the world. Eventually, he came to a small clearing with a rolling hill before him. Beyond that, he could hear the sound of roaring waters. The spot seemed to jog something in his memory, but he couldn't place what.

"You've taken everything from me!" Ash screamed. He tore his hat and jacket from his body, flinging them aside as he lurched up the sloping hill. His muddy black T-shirt clung weightily to his body, soaked and caked beyond all recognition much like Ash himself. Before he knew it, he had reached the crest of the hill, and stopped just before tumbling over the edge. Below him was a babbling brook, obviously gorged on the unseasonable monsoon. It was now a roaring river, gushing with lethal force in its murky waters.

Suddenly, it came to Ash. This was where it had all started. It was the exact spot where he had met…

"Misty." the word escaped his grimy lips as he fell to his knees, collapsing in a heap. Wrist-deep in mud, sobbing with despair, Ash was lost to the storm and the raging river. A cold, black mist seeped in from the forest as he wept, rolling in ominously beneath the boy's notice.

* * *

Brock approached Misty cautiously, wielding the most potent weapon he could think to carry to help combat her dark mood; a cup of hot chocolate. She had cleaned up a little, which made her appear slightly better on the outside. Inside, he knew she was still a mess. She sat on the couch, eyes glazed over as she stared off into space with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. "Hey," he said softly as he approached.

"Hey." She accepted the drink from him, taking a long drag of the cocoa. A tiny, almost invisible smile haunted her lips for a moment as he sat down next to her. "Thanks."

"You okay?"

She clutched the drink as her eyes drifted off into space once more. "I'm so far from 'okay', I can't even see it anymore." She sighed, closing her eyes. "Sorry I flipped out."

"I know." he placed a comforting hand on her shoulder, rubbing it gently. "You wanna talk?"

She was silent for a moment as she considered his offer. "Why did he leave like that?" she asked at last. "He knew we would have gone with him, no matter where it was."

"Maybe he thought it was for the best." Brock offered.

At last, she turned to look at him. There was no mistaking the hurt in her eyes. "But why?"

Brock pondered the question carefully, seemingly torn. Finally, he admitted, "I put the letter back together." He saw her features fall as she returned to staring at nothing. "He didn't want us getting hurt." The comment garnered no response from her, so he decided to press further. "There…there was a lot about you."

"What was in the package?" she asked.

That brought a smile to the burly trainer's lips. He reached into his pocket, pulling out a long chain. Hanging on the end of the line was a tiny, shining bauble in the shape of a teardrop. Misty recognized it instantly, and let out a small gasp as he handed it to her. She looked at him questioningly, letting the hanging trinket dangle in front of her eyes. He reached into his shirt in response, pulling out a chain of his own, with its own bauble on the end. This one was octagonal and brown, with a dull sheen about it.

"These are…"

Misty was at a loss for words, so Brock finished the thought for her. "They're our badges. The ones he won from us, anyway."

To Misty, the gesture was of incredible importance: Ash's badges meant more to him than anything, especially his original eight, the ones he had won to compete in the Indigo League. For him to simply give them back… "I don't understand."

"Sure you do." Brock assured her. "Oh. I almost forgot. He said he also left something for you in the garage."

She struggled to find her voice. "Wha…What is it?"

"He said you'll know it when you see it." Brock smiled to himself, putting the badge back into his shirt.

"Brock…" Misty turned, leaning towards her lifelong friend as she clutched his hands. "Brock, what did Ash say in his letter?"

His answer was patently Brock; enigmatic, but clear. "You should go ask him yourself."

Wordlessly, Misty rose from her seat, walking towards the garage door. Her steps were slow and clumsy at first, but she quickly gained momentum until she was almost at a full run. The door barely opened in time for her to slip through unharmed, and she scrabbled desperately for the light switch. As soon as she found it, her breath was stolen once more.

There, in the barren garage, stood a shimmering vision in crystal blue paint. It possessed sturdy mountain tires, with fenders of pure crimson. A plastic Staryu graced the front, mounted on the handlebars to complete the motif. The kickstand kept it in place as Misty reached forward, running her hand over it as if to confirm that it actually existed. She had nearly forgotten…But apparently, Ash never had.

"A bike." she whispered, eyes gleaming with fresh tears. It was an even more powerful gesture than the badge had been. Ash had finally made good on his promise, a promise that had originally spurred Misty into following the shaggy, unkempt trainer across the island for half a decade.

However, the message was not a happy one to her. "He…he's not coming back." she heard herself say. With the last loose ends tied between them, what would bring Ash back to her? It was stupid to feel that way, but they were her feelings, and she couldn't ignore them. "He's not coming back!"

Brock smiled once more as he heard the garage door opening. He reached for Misty's cocoa, barely touched, and proceeded to down most of it. Delia approached from behind, cradling a sleepy Pikachu in her arms as she cocked her head. "Brock," she asked, "What on Earth was that? It sounded like-"

"I wouldn't worry about it." Brock assured her, finishing off the mug. "Sounds about right to me."

* * *

Misty's legs pumped furiously on the pedals, her feet slipping every so often against the hard plastic that bit into her skin. Rain pelted against her face, but she ignored the pain and cold as she huffed up hill after hill, traveling along a series of muddy paths. The gears transitioned smoothly, and her tires had no trouble even in the slickest of spots. Despite herself, she couldn't help but notice that Ash had gotten her a really great bike.

'This is insane.' she told herself silently. 'Ash could have gone anywhere, and it's been almost an hour since he left. You'll never find him.' Then she thought of him out there, alone in the rain, with nowhere to go and probably still hurting as much as she was, and she summarily told the voice in her head to go to hell. The despair she had felt now fueled her onward, keeping her warm as her flimsy pajamas soaked and her hair matted down into her eyes.

She had to find Ash.

She pressed on into the night, not sure of where she was going. And yet, something pulled her in the direction of the forest to the north. The area felt a little familiar to her, but she wasn't too surprised. After all, she had spent some time near the Viridian Forests when she had been just a child. That was where she had met…

"Ash!" she called out. Without knowing how, she knew where he would be.

* * *

Ash felt lost as he cried himself out. His last choked sobs racked from his throat as he pushed himself onto his hands and knees, coughing up water. "It wasn't supposed to be like this." he said quietly. "I left to keep them safe. Just like you wanted…" He wasn't sure if the Goddess could hear him. He doubted it, though. There was no one left…not even Pikachu. And it was his fault. "I did like you wanted…" he insisted again to his silent companion. "It's just me, just like destiny said.

Thunder was his only answer.

"I've accepted my place." he said again. The cold mist that had seeped in from the forest now permeated the area, hanging like a low cloud of despair as he looked up into the sky. Ash's voice was stronger now, but still eerily calm. "You win. I'll fight evil. Just…just tell me what I have to do."

Again, there was no answer, save for the tremulous roar of the storm.

Somehow, it was the last straw. "WHAT?" he screamed, struggling to his feet. "Is that not GOOD enough for you? I gave it all UP!" He faced the sky, throwing his arms about as his voice carried off into the night. "I don't have anything left! Nothing except these!" he ripped his jacket open, pointing to his treasured Indigo badges pinned to the inside. There were two noticeable absences that made his heart ache even worse.

Enraged, he tore the jacket from his shoulders and threw it onto the ground in a heap. "THERE! THAT'S THE LAST OF IT!" he told the sky. "You have it all now! Tell me what to do!" The storm roared, answerless, heedless to the boy who would be a savior. "TELL ME!" he demanded, "ANSWER ME! SMITE ME! ANYTHING! JUST…" he trailed off, feeling drained. He fell to his knees, splattering even more mud onto himself as he hugged his arms to his chest. "Just tell me what I should do." His voice was barely a whisper now as he felt despair winning the battle inside of him. "Give me a sign."

"ASH!"

The sudden cry caused him to whirl as he saw a dark shape streak into the clearing from the forest behind him. It parted the mist as it sped towards him, chasing away the murky cloud with its spinning wheels.

"Misty?" Ash whispered, confused at first. Then he leapt up, rushing towards the shape. "Misty!" he cried.

The shape skidded to a halt, tossing aside its wheels as it morphed into a distinctly feminine form that rushed into Ash's open arms, knocking him to the ground. "Ash!" Misty sobbed with relief, burying her face into the nape of his neck as they sat up together, wrapping her arms around him tightly. "Oh, thank God I found you."

"How did you…" Ash trailed off as he heard her sniffling into his chest. He felt a wave of relief and pure, unconditional love overpowering him, wiping away all the gloom as he stroked her limp black hair. The Goddess' ominous warnings about saving Misty's life suddenly made sense to him. He wasn't connected to her soul any more than she was connected to his. They no longer 'had' individual spirits anymore… They were one, heart and soul. And with a sinking feeling, Ash now realized that whatever happened to him, Misty would forever be a part of it: a blessing for him, but a curse for her.

"Ash," Misty looked into Ash's eyes, ignoring the pounding rain that masked her tears. She took his face in her hands, wiping away the mud that obscured his features. "Ash, I was so worried that you were gone…There's so much I have…want to tell you."

Looking into Misty's soul…his soul…Ash felt lost. His heart ached at the thought of causing her any pain, but that was exactly what he had brought her, and it would be the only thing he would continue to bring. Had he saved her…or merely cursed her. "Like…like what?" he murmured, afraid of the answer.

"It can wait." she smiled, renewing the embrace they shared. "Not now. Just…just don't go yet."

Ash obliged acceptingly, and held the woman he loved without question or word.

* * *

"You're sure about this."

Misty smiled at the question, looking at Ash with devilish eyes. It had been a full day since she had found him in the rain, but he still looked terrible. His eye wasn't quite as swollen anymore, but he did have a beautiful shiner that was already shifting through every color she could imagine. Of course, with a split lip and an enormous bruise on her cheek, Misty knew she looked little better. "Stop asking that." she laughed lightly. "Of course I'm sure."

They stood once again on the hilltop where they had first met. Pikachu stood some distance away at Misty's request as the pair overlooked the swollen brook. The gorgeous (and expensive) bike that Ash had gotten Misty rested between them, kept right by a hand from each of the teens. And miraculously, for the first time the entire week, the rain had mercifully ceased. Dark clouds hung above them, but remained silent for the moment. They were both very grateful for it, for both had a long day ahead of them.

"Okay…if you're sure." Ash stared down into the murky, muddy water that moved beneath them. His heart still ached slightly from the morning's goodbyes, but it wasn't so bad; he knew he would see his mother and Brock again. The big lug had given Ash a huge hug, and whispered some advice in his ear before starting on the long road back to Pewter City; 'Don't disappoint her,' he had warned with a smile, 'Or you'll end up answering to me.'

"I'm more worried about you." Misty suddenly sounded concerned. She ran a hand through her short, still-black hair as she glanced back at Ash. "Are 'you' sure?"

He knew what she was asking about, and he nodded glumly. "Yeah. Don't ask me why, but…yeah. I…I have to go solo on this one, at least for a while."

She sighed. "You know I'd come with you, if you wanted me to. All you have to do is say the word."

"There's nothing I'd like more." He turned, leaning against the bike. It was like he was seeing her for the first time again. There had been distractions and detours along the way, a few pitfalls and some setbacks, but in the end he knew without a doubt that he had more than one destiny, and one of them was standing right next to him. It was criminal that the other was forcing him away from her. "There's a lot I'd like to say…" he admitted.

"But?"

He took her words from the other day, knowing that, no matter how much he wanted to explore 'that', it just couldn't be…yet. "Not now," he said sadly. "It isn't the right time."

She nodded. "Well then, we'd better get on with it." She pointed back down to the water, grinning suddenly. "On the count of three. One…"

"Two…"

"Three." They said the last number together, and both pushed. Misty's beautiful new bike tumbled down the embankment, crashing against a number of large, nasty rocks before falling into the muddy water, disappearing beneath the quick current.

"There." Misty folded her arms, nodding with satisfaction at the ruins as they sunk out of sight. She turned back to her friend, jabbing him in the chest with a finger. "You owe me a bike, Ash Ketchum."

He smiled, taking hold of her hand. His fingers intertwined with hers as they both stared at each other, smiling and suddenly giddy. "I'll make good on it someday." he promised her.

Misty's fingers gently squeezed his hand as the humor left her face. Her expression became one of longing as she drew in close, pressing their hands to her chest. "I won't wait forever, you know." she told him, taking his hand and pressing it to her cheek.

"You won't?"

"No." she shook her head, closing her eyes as she felt his skin against hers. "But I will give you until a day before that."

He couldn't help but smile as he caressed her cheek. He could feel himself drawing in closer to her, and felt powerless to stop it, even if he had wanted to. "Then expect a call one day shy of forever." he joked softly.

Her face loomed in his vision as she reached up, pulling him closer. "You'd better be sooner than that." she murmured. After that, there were no words as their lips pressed together lightly. It was a short, gentle kiss, but it conveyed everything they couldn't say; passion, friendship, trust, and love without condition.

They broke apart, whispering farewell as Misty backed away slowly. She gave him one last smile and a wave as she turned and headed up the trail, toting a small bag with enough supplies to see her back to Cerulean City. There was no long, tearful goodbye, simply because they knew it wasn't goodbye. It was just going to be a matter of time.

Ash sighed wistfully as Misty's sauntering form vanished into the dark woods. He felt Pikachu tugging at his pant leg, and hefted the Pokémon up to his shoulder. "So, Pikachu," he asked his partner, "Where should we go now?"

A sudden applause caught his attention. Swinging around, Ash wasn't entirely surprised to see a familiar dark shape sitting idly on a tree branch at the edge of the clearing. "Not bad," the figure called as he hopped down, landing gracefully without effort. "Not bad at all."

"Solo." Ash greeted the man humorlessly, folding his arms. "Somehow I figured you'd show up."

"What can I say?" Solo asked, smiling beneath his featureless mask. "You put on a good show. Oh, nice work with the Demon there. I didn't think you had that kind of control over your power yet."

Ash frowned, exchanging glances with Pikachu. "What are you talking about?"

Solo leaned in, his voice growing low. "During the battle, did you feel anything strange? Either of you?" he asked Pikachu as well, looking between the two. "A bond. A connection. Something?"

"Yeah." Ash and Pikachu both nodded, remembering the strange feeling that had overcome them both during Pikachu's ultimate Flash. "How'd you…?"

"That," Solo said pointedly, "Is your power. That's the power of all Disciples. Don't you get it?"

"No. Sorry." Ash said dryly.

"Do I have to spell it out for you?" Solo asked with a touch of exasperation. "Look; you're the bridge between human and Pokémon. When you need to, when you need them and they need you, your spirit becomes theirs. Your power, your strength, is given to them."

"You mean…When Pikachu…" Ash was having trouble believing it, but there was no other explanation for his partner's sudden power-boost readily at hand. "And earlier…"

"All the way back at Bluster. You could feel what they feel, but you hadn't quite gotten the hang of it. You still don't, from the sounds of it." Solo sounded bemused at Ash's shortcomings, but the mask made it hard to be sure.

"I'll be sure to practice." Ash shot back, but there was a small smirk on his lips.

"So…What are you going to do now?"

"Dunno." Ash admitted with a shrug that nearly threw Pikachu. "I guess I'll go work on this 'Goddess-Power' thing of yours. Maybe see if I can find the other three demons." 'And Missingno,' he added silently, 'Or whatever's left of him.' Though he was loathe to believe it, Richie…'Rick', he had to remind himself…Was the one person who probably knew Missingno better than he did.

Despite all the surprise that had hit Ash over the last couple days, Solo's next words truly floored him. "Why don't you hang with me?" he asked nonchalantly.

"What?" Ash looked him up and down, as if the man had suddenly grown Stantler horns. "Me? With you? You're joking."

"If I were joking," Solo assured him, "I would have made fun of the way you dress."

Ash tugged indignantly on the bill of his hat, bristling at the dig. "Why should I?"

"Frankly, you could use the help." Solo told him.

"I don't need your help." Ash told him sharply.

"Your father said the same thing."

Ash seemed to study the man. He recalled Solo dropping his father's name before. "You really knew my father?"

"I have a lot of stories, kid…ones you'd probably love to hear." All of the conceit dropped from Solo's voice as he extended his hand, waiting expectantly. "I can help. Please."

It was a big chance to take…but Ash was nothing if not a risk-taker. He took Solo's hand without regret, pumping it once. "Done. On one condition…" he added, looking at Solo with deadly seriousness. "You tell me everything you know about this Disciple business."

"Deal." Solo smiled beneath the fabric of his face, throwing an arm around Ash's empty shoulder. "You won't regret it, Kid. I mean, it's no good to be alone, especially with a job like yours."

Ash cast one last look back in the direction Misty had gone. Despite her absence, he could still feel her, just as he knew she could feel him. 'But I'm not alone…' he said silently. Smiling, he allowed Solo to lead him off along the road as the older mercenary began to prattle on about training and history, and a thousand other things. Though much was uncertain, Ash knew two things; His friends would always be there for him, through thick and thin. And life, ever-changing though it was, had just taken a major twist. Things would never be the same again.

* * *

"Ready?" Jessie stalked behind a pile of pylons stacked near Oak's injured facility, leading her companions in a silent stalking as they neared the entrance. There were a few construction workers milling about, but nothing that would interfere with their latest operation.

James nodded behind her, careful not to get mud on his pristine Team Rocket uniform. He and Meowth knelt next to her, concealed by the supplies that would help repair the enormous lab compound. "Just say the word, Jessie."

Footsteps accompanied a whistling voice as both grew louder, drawing closer to their position. "Okay, someone's coming." she said. She tilted her head, listening as a craggy voice began half-humming, half-singing an old tune. "It sounds like the old man."

"Da twerps are sure to be wit' 'im!" Meowth exclaimed gleefully, rubbing his paws together.

"All right…" Jessie held them back with a raised hand, waiting for the right moment. She heard Oak's musical voice grow closer and closer. "Okay…GO!"

Together, the three Rockets burst from their hiding spot, startling the aging scientist as they skidded out in front of him. Meowth tossed a couple of smoke bombs in front of them, creating a haze of red and black mist that masked their entrance a few seconds too late.

"To protect the world from devastation!" Jessie called out.

James joined in, though he barely kept his balance on the slick mud underfoot. "To unite all peoples within our nation!"

"To denounce…" Jessie trailed off as she noticed Oak standing by himself, waving the air in front of his face with a large clipboard as he coughed lightly. "Hey!"

James' voice ground to a halt as well as he noticed the absence of the terrible trio and their power-packed Pikachu. "Wait a minute…" he drawled slowly, looking about. "Where're the twerps?"

"I'm afraid you three are a little late…" Oak hacked a few more times as the smoke dissipated. Once his lungs were clear, he managed a look of slight amusement. "Ash, Brock, and Misty have all left…and just in time to duck out of helping around here, as usual." he added ruefully, looking down at his clipboard.

"Aw, man!" Meowth kicked a clump of mud as Jessie and James slumped onto a large cement pipe awaiting placement. "Dis is just great!"

"I can't believe we missed them." James sighed, cradling his chin in his hands as he leaned forward. "We haven't had a good battle in weeks!"

"Just our luck," Jessie agreed.

Oak eyed the three depressed desperadoes with a gleam in his eye as he checked over his work schedule on the clipboard again. "Well," he told them, "If you three don't have anything better to do, we 'are' a little shorthanded around here."

"Work?" Jessie spat the word with disgust.

"For you?" James added incredulously.

Meowth shook his enormous head, folding his paws across his tiny chest. "Dat's insane!"

"There'd be free lunches in it for all of you."

The three of them exchanged surprised, curious looks. "Huddle!" Jessie cried, drawing her cohorts into a brief discussion that ended with a unified nod. As they pulled away and lined up, Jessie graced Oak with a charming smile. "We've decided to reluctantly accept." she told him happily.

"Provided there's coffee included with lunch." James added hastily, mouth watering.

The aging professor nodded, smiling at their enthusiasm. "Hard hats are over there." he pointed. "Check in with the foreman. Lunch is in two hours."

Jessie and James clapped hands gleefully as Oak strode off to inspect another part of the lab's reconstruction. "Did you hear that?" Jessie squealed.

"Free food!" Meowth danced about, pirouetting joyfully.

"And coffee!" James joined in, swinging Meowth about by the arms as the two danced in the mud.

Oak's voice soon brought a halt to the scene. "I don't hear working…" he called back over his shoulder.

"Right! Sorry!" Hurriedly, the three took off for the work shed. Sure, they had failed to capture Pikachu…but at least they'd get a meal out of it for once! Plus, no demons had tried to eat them this time around. Could life get any better?

"Looks like Team Rocket's cleaning up again!"

=The End=

-Author's Hindsight-

That was a long one, huh? Woo! It was fun writing, though I doubt I'll ever do that 'updating in bits' thing again. That was a little choppy, and encouraged me to take even longer on the project. In the end, though, I'm satisfied with the way things turned out, and I hope you are, too. After all, this is the last episode of BadgeQuest ever. I've had a blast writing it, and I hope you've had just as much fun reading it. So, from NetGhost Studios, this is Cyberwraith Nine saying farewell to all the BadgeQuest fans out there. Sayonara!

Psyche!

You thought I was done? I'm NEVER gonna be done. Hold on to your hats, folks, because we have a lot more on the way. Coming this summer to a fanfiction site near you…

BADGEQUEST: THE MOVIE

If you think I'm kidding, just keep your eyes peeled. The best is yet to come!