The Strength of the Soul

Summary: Five years after he becomes a Pokemon Master, Ash finds himself drowning in a sea of corruption, his dreams achieved but painfully realized. Can he survive on his own against such a powerful and shadowy adversary? Is he really as alone as he thinks?

A/N: What the hell am I doing? I, Anysia, who has set herself so firmly within the realm of semi-predictable humor/romance fics, have begun work on a drama/angst/romance piece. Okay, the fact of the matter is that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I have an innate love of drama. I don't think I'm all that great at it, but it is my first love. As such, I'm breaking free of the restrictions I have set upon myself and finally transcribing the idea that has been nagging me since I began writing "To Arms!". I hope that you enjoy it. Also, please note that the strong rating is for later chapters, which will contain violence, strong language, and adult themes.

Disclaimer: Pokemon belongs to Nintendo, Game Freak, 4Kids, and probably some other people I'm forgetting. In any case, it's not mine.

Innumerable thanks to: Rae8, for inspiring me with her incredible dramatic fics. Erina-chan, for being a terrific author and a wonderful reviewer. Cyberwraith9, for invaluable constructive criticism and support. Metal Mewtwo, for camaraderie and continuous, never wavering support. And, as always, to Karen, for everything.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the world's newest—and youngest—Pokemon Master…Ash Ketchum!"

Ash's grin grew impossibly wider as he struggled to hold back the joyous tears that threatened to spill over. He had finally done it; seven years of hard, grueling work had finally borne fruition as he achieved the coveted title of 'Pokemon Master'. His eyes scanned the cheering crowd from his place on the elevated platform, searching for his friends and family.

There was Brock, his fatherly smile beaming down proudly upon his young friend. His mother sobbed loudly, clutching at a handkerchief and holding onto Professor Oak for support. Tracey sketched frantically, trying his best to capture the momentous occasion. May waved frantically to her former traveling companion, and even Gary Oak allowed his typical condescending smirk to melt into a small smile for a moment. But where was—

Ash's smile slowly faded as he remembered. Of course she's not here, he thought sadly, trying to turn his attention back to Lance's needlessly long speech. But try as he might, he could not tamp down the depression slowly seeping into his mind as he noticed the one person absent from his personal cheering section…the one person that he had always dreamed of having by his side on the most joyous day of his life—as well as the highlight of his career as a Pokemon trainer. She had been by his side since he first set out upon his journey, foolhardy and optimistic, without the slightest clue as to the difficulties he would face. Together they had felt the rush of victory, the agony of defeat…and both the pain and ecstasy of love. They had been torn apart once, when Misty had been forced to return to the Cerulean City Gym in her sisters' absence, but Ash had assumed that once she had returned, they would stand together until the end of time.

He was a fool.

Ash's tears of joy quickly changed to tears of sorrow as he suddenly found himself feeling completely alone, despite the tens of thousands of spectators crowding the arena. Of course Misty's not here, Ash.

She's dead.

Five years later…

"Current risk factor remains at a steady eighty-five percent, although some fluctuation can be expected within the spectrum of radical terrorist attacks…"

Twenty-two-year-old Ash Ketchum leaned back in his office chair as he scanned yet another memo warning him about the potential dangers of attending this year's Pokemon League Gala—the usual fears of terrorists, lone dissenters and former Trainers who had failed to fall in line when the New Order had begun, etc. He knew that the likelihood of any upstart actually occurring was slim to none, but they had a habit of preying upon the inherent fears of mankind in order to bend their underlings to their will. It was essentially a failsafe method, one that had been proven time and time again in all the world's most successful totalitarian regimes.

Ash quickly suppressed a smirk at that train of thought, casting a wary glance at the ominous security camera across the room. No need to give them one more target on their ill-conceived witch-hunt, he thought with a heavy sigh, returning the memo to its manila envelope and swiveling around in his chair to stare out the large bay window of his spacious corner office.

Below him, the innocent citizens of Viridian City went on with their meaningless little lives—laughing, playing, working, shopping…living. They were happily oblivious to the evil and corruption that snaked through the city like a smoky phantom, drifting silently past and allowing them to believe in the relative safety of their city, yet all the while waiting for just the right moment to strike. Ash found himself despising them more every day, both cursing them for their naïveté and desperately wishing that he could regain that gentle innocence that he himself had long since lost.

Ash's eyes drifted over to the mounted plaque hung proudly on the wall—the plaque that had been presented to him on the day he had been crowned an official Pokemon Master. He found himself scowling at it, wanting to take that symbol of his endless misery and rip it apart with his bare hands. If he had only failed to achieve his dream…

"Well, can't exactly change that," he said to himself, quickly locking his desk and getting up from his seated position. Stopping briefly to cast a mournful look at the cheerful faces on the streets below, Ash slung his official Pokemon Master jacket over his shoulder and headed out of the building.

Everything was the same these days, Ash noted with a frown as he strode silently down the cracked sidewalk to the small café on the corner. Day in and day out, the same paperwork, the same staged battles to convince the public that yes, the Pokemon League did still exist, and the same feeling gnawing at the back of his mind that this whole goddamned lifestyle just wasn't worth living anymore. This wasn't quite what he had imagined when he had first dreamed of becoming the world's greatest Pokemon Master as a still-innocent, fresh-faced ten-year-old who had never even left Pallet Town.

Ash had imagined a position of esteem and respect, his training abilities unquestioned and his name inciting as much reverence as the Elite Four's. He'd be a force to be reckoned with, Pikachu always standing loyally by his side as they went bravely into battle, only to always come out victorious. His mother would be deathly proud of him, and Misty…would always be by his side.

His hand tightened dangerously on the door handle as the aspirations he had so longed for in his youth returned to him. Swinging the café door open with a sudden burst of strength, he strode angrily over to an empty booth and sat down heavily. He had managed thus far to delude himself into thinking that he had achieved all of his dreams the day he had been declared a Pokemon Master, but in reality, that was only part of what he had so long hoped for.

Ash's name did garner much respect, that much was true. But it was not he himself who was so admired as the League. He was merely an inconsequential pawn in a vicious game with no respite.

And Pikachu…Ash found himself choking back tears at the memory of his dearest non-human friend and first Pokemon. It wasn't good for his image, they had said, to have such a "common" and "clearly weak" Pokemon in his arsenal, much less as his starter. Ash didn't know what had happened to him, and after three years of desperately searching the League's online databases for any sort of clue, no matter how minor, he finally gave up, though part of his mind failed to lose hope that the small yellow electric mouse was still out there somewhere.

His mother was proud of him; she would still love him if he had committed genocide. It was the fact that she had no idea of the corruption he faced, the untouchable power choking the life from him more and more each day, that made the guilt within Ash grow and intensify until he felt as though he could no longer breathe. That she could be so proud of him without knowing a goddamn thing about him…

And then there was…Misty. The one person he had always counted on, the one person who had always been there for him, the one person he had loved more than anything on this earth…and the one person who had been viciously ripped away from him. He could still remember that day so clearly…

"I have to go home for a couple of days," she said quietly, her head bowed so as not to meet his eyes.

He regarded her curiously, failing to understand why she was avoiding his gaze. "Misty, what's wrong? I—is everything okay?"

Her lower lip began to tremble with the effort not to cry, and she quickly turned her back to him. "The tournament's in two weeks," she said in a shaky voice tinged with tears. "I—I can't…"

"Misty…you—you'll be there with me, won't you?" he asked fearfully. The thought of not having her there with him as he achieved his greatest dream was simply too much to bear.

She turned to face him, a strange mix of pain and promise displayed upon her delicate features. "I'll never leave you, Ash," she promised him, raising one shaky hand and pressing it against her heart. "No matter what. You have to remember that. Please?"

He nodded dumbly, not quite understanding why her words were so choked with emotion. "I promise, Mist."

She smiled at him—a smile that for some reason seemed to break his heart in two. "I'll be back in about three days," she said.

"I'll be waiting," he had responded. Then, suddenly overtaken by some previously unknown urge, he leaned over and gently kissed her, taking that small hand against her heart into his own. "Come back to me soon."

They had parted ways with after a long embrace, her silent tears continuing to fall. He had felt a growing sense of dread after she departed, but he brushed it aside…

until three days later, when he learned that she had been shot to death as she entered Cerulean City.

Ash stared at the turkey club before him, suddenly violently sick to his stomach. The memories were so fresh and vivid in his mind, and time had done nothing to heal the scarring wounds. The pain of his losses continued to torment him until he thought he'd go insane, and his only saving grace—his title of 'Pokemon Master'—had lost all meaning to him when he learned how corrupt the Pokemon League had become.

The public was so blissfully unaware of it all; Ash could almost understand that, as he himself had once been a part of the gullible masses. The noble façade they presented had been honed to perfection over the years, as clean and smooth as glass. It was only when he himself was able to part the shadows and see into the light that Ash discovered the truth. Within their hallowed halls lay such terrible power and evil that it was simply unimaginable; even Team Rocket, long believed to be the harbinger of evil within the Pokemon community, was simply a front constructed by the League to distract the public from their own transgressions. Greed and a lust for power drove their actions, not a love for Pokemon. And Ash had unwittingly fallen right into their hands.

But what could he possibly do? He was only one person, and even though he held what was commonly believed to be one of the most powerful and prestigious positions within the League, he was in reality a mere figurehead whose sole position was to serve as a reassurance to the people, a sugar-coated lie that they bought into all too readily. There was nothing he could do to fight against the tide.

But then…Ash found his hand unconsciously drifting to his jacket pocket, trying to remain inconspicuous as he pulled out the small piece of torn and wrinkled paper held within it. His mind drifted back to Brock, who had disappeared about two and a half years ago, as his eyes scanned the paper for what seemed like the millionth time. It would be dangerous—suicide, actually, but could it be that there was a way to…

Ash shook his head and thrust the crumpled paper back into his pocket, once again mentally cursing the fear and trepidation that kept him from trying to free himself from this figurative prison. He sighed and leaned back into the booth, casting one final glance at the paper. Maybe someday I'll be brave enough.

At the lunch counter, a lone figure watched the young Pokemon Master from the corner of his eye, taking a long sip of coffee as he made a few notes in the small notebook sitting innocently upon the stainless-steel surface before him.

"You're sure?" one of the ten shadowy, hooded figures asked the spotlighted person standing before them.

"Ketchum's a subversive, and a dangerous one at that," the man said with a shrug, squinting hard against the bright light concentrated on him. "You've known that for a while."

"Indeed," another of the figures agreed, "but to suggest that he may be considering some kind of rebellion against us is ludicrous. He knows quite well that such an attempt would be suicidal, and even Ketchum is smart enough to value his own life."

"Not if he doesn't think he has anything to live for," the man said simply, tossing his notebook onto the dark, polished wood of the long table. He smirked at them and left the hall, his footsteps echoing loudly throughout the hall.

The ten shadowed figures spoke in hushed tones amongst themselves for a few moments, then turned as one to the small woman sitting in the corner of the room, her shoulders hunched. "It looks like we'll be in need of your services after all, my dear," the first hooded figure said, a dangerous glint in his eyes. "We expect the job to be carried out thoroughly and completely—and in the next three days. You know what the price of failure is." He nodded once to his fellow shadowed men, then exited the hall, each falling into line behind him.

The young woman simply bowed her head, the tears falling freely from her cerulean-blue eyes.

To Be Continued…

Well, there you have it—the prologue to my first-ever non-humorous multichapter fic. I'm fully terrified as to what the response may be from a public so adapted to my humor fics, but I'm finding this the most artistically-satisfying project I've ever attempted. Hopefully, it's a good read.

I simply cannot emphasize how instrumental Karen—aka cultnirvana—was in the creation of this chapter. This has been sitting on my computer forever, but she convinced me that I'd be okay at drama and inspired me to post it. If it's at all good, she deserves much of the credit for helping me conquer my fear of posting. Thanks a mil, Karen.

Comments and criticism welcome.