=Author's Note=
First off, I'd like to thank someone for taking enough pity on me to read my material; thank you. Now, what I'm writing here is a series of stories called "BadgeQuest. I would love it if someone would like to send me his or her two cents on the story; the more you people complain, the better my writing will get (hopefully). Send any flames or compliments to Cyberwraith9@yahoo.com.

=Legal Disclaimer=
Pokémon, its characters, locations and all other associated literary and fictitious holdings are not owned by me. Any legal action taken against me will probably cost more than it would result in, so I wouldn't waste my time or my money if I were you.

BadgeQuest #1
The Journey's Just Begun

The sun shone bright on the warm, beautiful June day. Vermilion City Bay's waters sparkled, gleaming in the bright, blinding brilliance. The monsoon season had just past, and people everywhere were ready for the sun to shine again. All over the open seaport, signs of summer were in full blossom as the Butterfree trilled, the Sea Pidgeys sang their songs of love, and the Magikarp played tag with the Goldeen.

It was rated as one of the best (and also most romantic) bays on the entire island. Couples traveled hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles, and from every walk of life, just to spend an evening walking on the starlit beach with one another. There was no opportunity for moonlit beach walks now, however; just fun in the sun. It was the perfect day for a swim, a run on the beach, or even a leisurely boat ride. Schooners raced one another as the bay became crowded with private yachts and their pleasure-seeking owners. Many such boats were out on the water that day...but not all the sailors had fun and sun on their minds.

A pair of silhouetted figures rode atop a massive yacht's wheelhouse, feeling very proud of themselves. After years of failure, setback, and just plain screwing-up, they had finally succeeded in doing what they did worst. Though despicable to the rest of the world, their jobs, their 'lives', were all they knew and all they aspired to...it was a shame they were rotten at what they did.

"Prepare for trouble..." one started. The woman who had spoken folded her arms defiantly across the blazing red 'R' emblem embroidered into her pristine, cream colored jacket. Though bulky and cumbersome, the jacket did far more to hide her obvious feminine attributes from the world than her black sports bra, silken white mini-skirt and knee-length black boots with stiletto heels.

"And make it double," the other added. Her partner took a similar stance, a devilish smirk finding its way onto his delicately handsome features. He, too, was dressed in a black/white ensemble. However, his clothes were (thankfully) less revealing; a similar, spotless white jacket, gleaming white trousers, black combat boots and a dark undershirt.

"To protect the world from devastation-" Her crimson shaft of hair whirled around her as she spun dramatically, arms akimbo. It was almost as if the entire world revolved around the remarkably beautiful woman, blossoming out from her radiant aura. With the way she felt just now, it very well could have been.

"To unite all peoples within our nation-" The other knelt on one knee and pulled a rose from his jacket, his blue hair swaying in the breeze. Twirling the rose between his fingers, he raised the flower triumphantly into the air.

"To denounce the evils of truth and love-"

"To extend our reach to the stars above-"

"Jessie..." the corners of her rose-petal lips rose into a smirk as she prepared for the grand finale to their rhyming anthem, taking several steps back to the rear of the wheelhouse's edge.

"James..." Tossing the rose up, he performed a flawless reverse hand-flip, landing squarely on his feet and catching the exotic flower between his teeth.

"Team Rocket blasts off at the speed of light-"

"Surrender now, or prepare to fight!" The end to the motto echoes across the peaceful bay, creating an almost oppressive atmosphere...at least until a high-pitched, grating voice interrupted their posturing. "Will you two knock it off?"

Jessie scowled and stomped on the wheelhouse. "Be quiet, Meowth! How is our motto supposed to have the desired effect when you're screeching like that?"

"What effect? Der's no one around ta hear us!!!" The talking cat stood on its hind legs within the small control cabin, keeping the boat on course as he wailed in frustration. Years of working with these two moronic humans hadn't made them any smarter, despite his best efforts to the contrary. It was enough to make a Pokémon cry, or at least put a few puncture marks into the cause of his headaches. "Just check on da stash. Knowing you two, you'd let it drop overboard!" Meowth shrieked in his thick Brooklyn accent.

The duo dropped from the roof of the wheelhouse onto the deck, landing gracefully despite the slippery surface. Together, they went over to a large metal basket secured to the deck and covered with a large tarp. Inside the wire bucket were several dozen red and white Pokémon capture/storage/retrieval spheres, more commonly known as Pokéballs. Each of the balls contained something more valuable than any amount of money could ever hope to achieve, something that meant the world to a select few among the masses; a Pokémon. These particular Pokémon had been stolen from the Water Trainers' Conference being held in the Vermilion City Pokémon Center that very day, right from under all the trainers' collective noses. The selection and variety was unparalleled; Polywhirls, Seadras, Crabbys...indeed, and water type imaginable rested in the basket, stored in their more mobile forms of pure energy.

James giggled madly, his laughter mimicking that of a gleeful schoolgirl. "The Boss will reward us handsomely for all of these!" he squealed, dreaming up hopeless possibilities. He sifted his fingers through the basket carefully, so as not to accidentally toss one overboard and lose it to the sea. "Maybe he'll make us his second in command, or-"

The drone of a motor interrupted his delusions, snapping James back to reality. Suspicious of the new sound, Jessie and James turned their heads in unison towards the source of the noise. They didn't like what they saw; A mysterious black speedboat was closing on them rapidly, cutting through the water like a demon and kicking up a huge spray behind them. The boat swept in dangerously close to their yacht, missing a collision by mere inches but tossing up a fair amount of seawater onto the deck and its occupants nonetheless.

While the pair of Rockets were sputtering and wiping the saltwater from their eyes, a lone figure appeared materialized as the wave of water dissipated from the air. He had managed to make the ridiculously dangerous leap off of the boat as it had passed the Rockets' yacht without falling to his untimely death...then again, dangerous, stupid stunts were what he did best.

Jessie's eyes narrowed at the intruder. "I don't know who you are, but you'll be sorry you messed with Team Rocket!" she growled through gritted, shaking a gloved fist at the unwanted interloper. "So you'd better prepare for trouble..."

"Jess?" James tapped her on the shoulder, pulling a piece of kelp out of his sapphire locks with a disgusted grimace, "Didn't we already do that part?" She smacked him upside the head in response, giving him a look that would fry cardboard.

The intruder chuckled at their antics, speaking in a soft voice. "Five years, and you still haven't got a clue." This comment served to confuse Jessie and James, who scratched their head as they tried to extract the newcomer's voice from their memories. Walking past the befuddled Rockets with a slow, steady gait, the stranger went over to the basket and began rooting through the Pokéballs, searching for something. "Now, where'd you put them?" he muttered to himself.

"Hey, who do you think you are?" James demanded, taking an aggressive stance.

The stranger looked back over his shoulder curiously, scanning the Rockets with his soft amber eyes. Despite the seasonably warm weather, he was wearing a dark blue League jacket with off-white sleeves. Over the left breast pocket of the coat was a large Pokéball patch, marked with a small black 'K' in the center. An official Pokémon League hat capped his head, not quite covering puffs of jet-black hair that refused to be contained within the battered, filthy cap.

"I'm Ash Ketchum." he stated with an air of confidence. "You have something of mine." He pulled a quartet of Pokéballs out of the basket. "I'll just take them back." He smiled, and slipped the balls into his jacket. "AND," he added, "I'll take back the other Pokémon you stole from the conference." He gave James a wink, then began trying to lift the basket off of the deck. It was surprisingly hefty.

"YOU!!!" James thrust his finger accusingly at Ash. "This time you won't get away, brat!" He unclipped a ball from his belt and tossed it halfway between himself and the Ketchum boy. The ball split in half, opened on an unseen hinge and spit out a stream of energy. The energy soon converged on one spot, and solidified into a gruesome creature called Weezing. The huge, dual-headed set of misshapen spheres had the ability to spew toxic fumes, poisonous acids, and corrosive sprays at a simple command from James. "Weezing, Smokescreen now!" The purple monster flew in circles filling the air with a black cloud of smoke, blacking out the entire deck.

Ash blinked back tears and pulled his own Pokéball from his belt. He gave the control button on the front a quick click, expanding the ball from the size of a large marble to that of a small softball. Then he held the control down longer, until it clicked a second time. Hurling the ball, he called out, "Bulbasaur, I choose you!"

The ball flew through the air, arcing straight towards James' Weezing. Then, without warning, it stopped in midair and spit forth energy that soon formed into a monster; Bulbasaur. Bulbasaur was a small, frog-like lizard with a huge bulb growing on its back. It was a plant type, which might have been a bad choice...for other trainers. Plant types were weak against Poison types, but Bulbasaur had proven itself to be more then meets the eye on several occasions.

"Bulbasaur, Razor Leaf!" The small lizard barked in reply, sending dozens of incredibly sharp leaves flying out of its bulb and lancing through the thick haze of smoke. It couldn't see exactly where Weezing was, so it was forced to cut an irregular path through the haze, trying to find the target.

Weezing wove through the leaves, desperately trying to avoid their sharp edges. The bag of gas may have been slow and dull-witted, but it knew very well just how painful a Razor Leaf cut could be. Weezing's luck didn't hold out, though, as one of the projectiles found its mark, and the Pokémon halted in mid-air, screeching in pain. Smoke stopped billowing out of its pores, and the black cloud dissipated moments later.

James bit back a groan of sympathy for his Pokémon. He knew firsthand how painful it was, too. The Rocket didn't pause a second, though. "Weezing, Sludge attack!" he commanded, sneering at the boy's soon-to-be-defeated Bulbasaur.

A deep rumbling came from within the gasbag's throat, followed by a gurgling. After a moment, Weezing gave a small cough, then spit up a large ball of goo. The black sludge flew through the air and landed right in Bulbasaur's eyes, blinding it. The tiny lizard rubbed at its eyes with its forepaws to no avail, completely blind and almost totally helpless.

"Weezing, Tackle attack!"

The large purple ball flew through the air, smashing into Bulbasaur with tremendous kinetic force. The plant type was knocked backwards by the bullrush, sliding across the wet deck until it bumped into Ash's feet. Ash took one look at his toxified Bulbasaur with a frown, annoyed that James had been able to incapacitate his Bulbasaur so quickly. The boy calmly bent down and wiped away the gunk with his hands, gritting his teeth as the slimy gunk got in between his fingernails. Once that was done, he helped the lizard back to its feet. "Bulbasaur," he ordered, "Solarbeam."

Bulbasaur's bulb began to glow as it took in sunlight. Thanks to months of training and sunbathing, it didn't take nearly as long as it once had to charge the deadly organic laser. Before Weezing could even get out a horrified whimper, a beam of solid blue-white energy shot out from the bulb on the lizard's back, blasting into Weezing and driving the hideous monster back. James was caught straight in his chest by the Pokémon/solarbeam combo, flying back off his feet and straight into the wheelhouse with a satisfying crunch. Bulbasaur cut the Solarbeam off, letting the smouldering pair drop to the deck.

"Bulba!" Bulbasaur barked, grinning from ear to ear. Ash chuckled, rubbing his bulb in gratitude and thanking his Pokémon. "Bulba, bulbasaur!"

Jessie took one look at her useless partner and his KO'ed Pokémon. Her vision went red with rage as she whirled on Ash, a finger pointed accusingly at the boy. "This time you're going down, twerp! Permanently!" she screeched. Jessie pulled a Pokéball out of her skimpy split jacket and tossed it out.

The ball spiraled over Ash's head and nearly landed behind him and his Bulbasaur, but stopped its descent at the last second and instead split open, releasing Arbok. Arbok was also a Poison type, but not nearly as lethargic as Weezing. The giant hooded snake was capable of doing several lightning-fast and lethal attacks, as well as poison ones.

"Arbok, go!" Jessie commanded. The giant snake hissed and charged at Bulbasaur and Ash, yowling and spitting.

"Charrrr-bok!"

"Bulbasaur, return!" Ash pointed the Pokéball at Bulbasaur, and a small red beam shot out. The beam converted the Pokémon to energy, then retracted it into the ball just before Arbok struck. The snake's fangs sunk into the spot where Bulbasaur had been an instant before, ripping the deck apart. Ash backpedaled away from the snake and reconfigured his ball to its smaller form, clipping it to his belt. He drew one of the four balls he had retrieved from the basket and expanded it. "Kingler, I choose you!"

He activated the release mechanism and tossed the ball. Within another instant, Ash's enormous crab rejoined the real world from its energy existance within the Pokéball. It was hard to imagine, but Kingler had once been the smallest Krabby ever recorded in a battle. Now, though, he was one of the largest Kinglers in the world, and (in Ash's "humble" opinion), the strongest. Its powerful claws could crush armor-rated titanium, and its cheery red and white exoskeleton could withstand a lot of punishment.

"Kingler," Ash scowled at Arbok, who scowled right back at him with its inhuman, venomous eyes, "Guillotine attack!"

Kingler sprang forward, trying to snatch the snake in its larger claw. The Guillotine was a fantastically painful attack that involved Kingler slamming Arbok's head against the deck just as hard as it could. Many people within the Indigo League had tried to ban the move from the official lists, claiming that the Guillotine had been the cause of too many accidental deaths. The League's purists always managed to block them, though; it was a traditional move, and would stay that way. None of that mattered now, though, as Arbok was simply too fast for the powerhouse crustacean to get ahold of.

"Arbok, Wrap!" Jessie commanded. The purple snake shot forward, darting out of the way of Kingler's claw, coiled itself around the grande-sized crab and began crushing the life out of it.. Jessie cackled gleefully as Kingler's exoskeleton began to groan and tremble under Arbok's fierce power. "You may be able to handle a pair of stooges, Boy, but you can't beat me!" she called.

"I've only done it about a million times!" Ash retorted angrily. Inside, though, he wasn't feeling that confident. Arbok had Kingler trapped, and could slowly drain the hit-points from the giant crab until it fainted... or worse. Blast it, how could he expect Kingler to keep up with something so fast? It wasn't fair to the Pokémon, losing simply because Ash had made a bad call. If only there was a way... and then he noticed his one opportunity; Arbok had failed to trap one of Kingler's claws. As luck had it, it was the larger of the two, his 'Bashing' claw. "Kingler, Crab Hammer, now!" Ash shouted desperately to his crunchatized crustacean.

Kingler drew back its claw and began slamming it against Arbok's body, pounding away at the snake's scaly hide. Wham! A direct blow struck the oily snake, rattling it all the way to its bones and nearly breaking it in half. Arbok cried out "Char-bokk!!" and let go as fast as it could.

"Kingler, Stomp!"

The giant crab leapt high into the air, seeming to disappear. Arbok searched vainly in the sky, but was blinded by the bright glare of the sun. Suddenly, a shadow crossed over the golden orb, growing larger and larger. "Bok?"

"Kooo-kie!" Kingler screamed, landing straight on Arbok's head. The force of the impact drove the snake straight through the deck, leaving half of it above deck, and the other half hanging limply through the splintered hole. Kingler was huffing, exhausted from the battle, but didn't seem in any danger of passing out.

"Arbok?" Jessie rushed over, hysterically crying out her Pokémon's name. She latched on to one end of the snake and tried to pull it out of the hole by its tail. Unfortunately, gravity won out on the snake, dragging it the rest of the way below deck and taking the evil prima donna screaming all the way to the bottom with it. One loud thump later, and there was only the calm waters of the ocean lapping against the hull once more.

Ash recalled Kingler and took the opportunity to grab the huge basket of stolen Pokéballs. He managed to drag it over to the edge of the deck, turning red-faced with the effort as the metal basket scraped and squealed against the slick wet deck below his feet. "C'mon..." his eyes scanned the harbor, searching for his ticket to freedom. Team Rocket may have been down for the moment, but he knew all too well how fast they could regroup and come back fighting just as strong as ever. Contrary to everything he had ever said, beating Team Rocket was never as easy as all that.

As his mind wandered back to the boat's occupants, the black motorboat that had delivered him there appeared as if from thin air, coming up from behind the yacht at full throttle. Ash's head snapped to the rear of the vessel, wondering for a moment if the speedboat would run full bore into the yacht. The other boat's pilot, though, wasn't quite that incompetent; he pulled the black craft up alongside the yacht, matching the larger boat's speed.

"Come on!" The boat's pilot shouted, waving at Ash to get on board. The pilot was a muscular, tan-skinned man in his late teens, with dark brown hair jutting out of his scalp at angles so insane it was impossible to think he could have styled it like that. His features were strong and chiseled, and his voice was deep, but friendly to a fault. Perhaps the oddest thing about the pilot was his eyes; they were long and slitted, and not quite open. It was as if he kept his eyes not-quite-closed, but somehow was still able to see perfectly. "Let's get a move on, Ash, we don't have all day!"

"In a sec, Brock," Ash struggled with the basket, trying to get it over the deck's edge. Getting a better grip on the slick handle, he tried to use his entire body to lift up on the basket, only managing to raise it a few centimeters off of the deck before his strength gave out and he had to let it drop. "This thing isn't featherlight, y'know."

"Here, let me help you." A lanky, redheaded teenage girl sitting in the back of the boat rose from her seat and crossed over to the yacht, hopping over the short railing with a grunt. Her hair was bunched up in a most bizarre manner, hanging off of the side of her head. It almost looked as though she had tried to put it in a ponytail, but had missed the back of her head. She wore cutoff shorts and an old yellow sleeveless top that exposed her midrift and did little to hide the curves of her body. "Jeez, Ash, can't you do anything on your own?" she snorted, getting a grip on the basket next to his.

"Could you maybe gripe at me later?" he asked her as they heaved the basket upward, moving it over the threshhold and onto the speedboat together. "We have a few things to take care of right now.

"It's always something with you, isn't it?" she razzed him, but gave him a wink to let him know she was kidding. He couldn't help but roll his eyes as she moved back onto the speedboat. Leave it to Misty to make fun of him at a time like this. Ash was about to follow Misty back over onto the boat when the yacht suddenly lurched to port, pulling away from Brock and Misty.

"Hey!" the Pokémon trainer exclaimed. He heard a high-pitched cackling coming from behind him as Brock and Misty grew farther and farther away. Swallowing hard, Ash turned around slowly, knowing full well what to expect.

"We stole those Pokémon fair and square, runt!" Meowth snarled, standing between Ash and the wheelhouse. He extended his claws with a vicious sneer, advancing on Ash with vindictive venom in his voice. "You don't got nowhere to run, runt. Now we've got you!" Jessie and James entered from the sidelines, aching and battered, but furious and threatening nonetheless.

Ash began sweating nervously, backing up to the edge of the boat. Things were looking bad. Then his eyes flickered to the top of the wheelhouse, where his companion stood ready to back Ash up, just as they had planned it...though 'plan' might have been too strong a word for it. "I guess you guys have me backed in a corner, huh?" This elected a chuckle from the Rocket trio, until Ash added, "So you won't mind if I tag my partner, will you?"

"Huh?" the three harmonized, looking between themselves for answers that none of them had. What was he talking about?

"Pikachu, Thundershock!"

The small yellow mouse leapt from its perch on the wheelhouse with a "Pika!", twirling and flipping through the air with expert dexterity. The thunderous mouse landed amidst the Rockets, already sparking and charged for an attack.

"Chuuuuuu!" Pikachu unleashed a furious spray of electricity, lancing all three nogoodnicks with a golden bolt of power. Jessie, James, and Meowth danced and twitched like hot grease on a griddle, yowling as if they had been lit on fire. At one point, Ash could have sworn that he actually saw through their skin and straight to their bones, but had to look away from the attack lest he be blinded. Finally, Pikachu cut off the juice, letting the smoldering Rockets fall to the deck with a sickening thump.

In the meantime, Ash pulled out another Pokéball off of his belt. This one he tossed over the edge of the deck as if he were dropping it in the sea. The ball released its Pokémon quickly, then snapped back into Ash's hand, emptied. As he clipped the empty ball back to his belt, Ash gave Team Rocket a stylish salute. "I'd love to stay and chat," he quipped as Pikachu ran up into his arms, "but I've got a flight to catch. See ya!" He sat down on the railing and pushed backward, flipping over the edge and disappearing from view.

Curious, the trio picked themselves up off the deck and made their way over the edge. "Where'd he go?" Meowth scratched his oversized head, puzzled by the boy's disappearance. He was about to peer over the railing when he was knocked back, floored by the backwash of a giant bird's wings as it flew up past the Rockets and high over the yacht.

Ash and Pikachu rode atop Pidgeot, his powerful Bird Pokémon. The bird's colorful plumage fluttered in Ash's face as they rode high above Team Rocket's boat. Ash judged the distance, doing some quick calculations in his head. After that became painful, he decided to forgo the calculations (which he had no idea how to do anyway) and decided to go with his gut instinct. "Pidgeot, Gust attack!"

Pidgeot began flapping its wings, struggling to both attack and keep its passengers aloft. It wasn't easy, but the Flying type had gotten a lot of practice over the years, ever since Ash had come back for it in the forest. Within seconds Pidgeot had created a small cyclone, which it launched at the yacht. The small spherical twister streaked out from Pidgeot's wings and struck straight and true into the heart of the yacht, blowing the boat apart with hurricane-force winds. Team Rocket was propelled into the stratosphere as the yacht expanded into a hail of splinters and metal fragments, screaming their trademark phrase before winking out of sight.

"Looks like Team Rocket's blasting off again!"

Ash nodded in satisfaction as Team Rocket became nothing more than a glimmer on the horizon. Carefully, he guided Pidgeot down to the boat Brock had "borrowed" in order to give chase to the Rocket trio and had his pilot drop him and Pikachu neatly into the back end, startling Misty as he descended from the heavens. Returning the Bird Pokémon to its ball, he sat down on the wet seat cushion and pulled out four Pokéballs from his jacket, smiling broadly. "Wartortle, Kingler, Lapras and Poliwag, all back where they belong." He sighed, tired but content. "Not bad, huh?" he cast a sidelong grin at Misty.

Misty shook her head, disgusted. No matter how old Ash got, the fiery redhead figured that her friend would never grow up. Sometimes it made her wonder exactly what kept bringing them back together. Then, of course, she remembered the key word in her own question; "friend." No matter how hard she tried, she knew that she would never be totally rid of Ash Ketchum. "You could have gotten hurt." she chided him sternly, fixing him with her no-nonsense tone and sour face. "Why'd you try and take them on alone? We could have helped you, you know."

"She's right, Ash." Brock turned, his eyes in their never-ending squint and mouth turned down disapprovingly, as it often was whenever Ash did something insanely dangerous and incredibly stupid. Brock was a good deal older than both Ash and Misty, but he had never once treated either of them as anything but friends...with the exception of the occasional condescending talk. Over the years, he had become a sort of bigger brother to the pair, offering advice when advice was wanted, and offering more advice when they didn't want to hear it, but needed it most. "You could have gotten hurt, or worse." Like Misty, he was always worried about Ash. He suspected, though, that his worry stemmed from different reasons...reasons that Misty would never, in a million years, admit to having, even to herself.

Ash rolled his eyes, scratching Pikachu on the head. The Electric type purred contently, rubbing up against Ash, trying to get his hand in the sweet spot behind its ears. "You guys worry too much," Ash scoffed, waving them off with his other hand as he laughed. "I could have handled them ten times over and still had enough to take 'em again!" He threw a few ridiculous practice jabs into the air. It was laughable, considering that Ash could barely fight his way out of a paper bag. "No one beats Ketchum!" Pikachu leapt to its feet, mimicking Ash's boxing and dancing about on the balls of its feet.

Now Misty roller her own eyes, snorting. There was no figuring about it; she *knew* he would never grow up. "One of these days," she warned him, "You're going to get into real trouble. Then where are you going to be? Screwed, that's where." she nodded decisively. "Completely screwed."

"You might not be ready for everything that's out there, li'l buddy." Brock chimed in after Misty's "screwed" speech, turning around to make sure the boat didn't run over a fisherman or three in the harbor as they sped towards the shore. "You shouldn't be so confident."

"Whatever." He pulled his hat down over his eyes and leaned back on the seat. Ash hated being lectured to, even by his oldest and closest friends. Where did they get off, anyway? They thought they were so much smarter. Someday he would show them he wasn't just a little kid anymore.

Then again, he might never get the chance to prove anything. His gaze traveled over to the horizon wistfully for the millionth time in the past month. He couldn't help but wonder what was out there, over the ocean and beyond the tiny confines of the island. Ash Ketchum loved Pokémon Island with all of his heart, and knew that it would always be his home. Lately, though, it felt as if Kanto had become a prison of sorts. He was tied here by his league duties, among other...complications. Through all of it, though, something burned inside of him. It was something he couldn't explain...as if someone was calling him from out there.

"Let's just get outta here." he harrumphed.
* * *

Ash opened the door and walked into the house. The boy sighed contently as he stood in the doorway for a moment, revelling in the feeling he always got whenever he came home. His mother's latest gardening project was spilling dirt, leaving loose leaves everywhere, and generally making a mess all over the porch as her projects usually did. He could smell one of her world-famous Stantler Sausage Surprise cassaroles baking in the oven as he stepped inside. Pikachu bounded up from behind him, leaping into the kitchen and up onto the table and raiding the fruit bowl.

As usual, his mother was nowhere in sight, probably off working on three or four of her thousands of personal projects around the house. Try as he might, he could never seem to remember a single moment he had ever seen his mother doing nothing at all. Ash suspected that if he were ever gone long enough, she would probably tear down the entire house and put it back together with her bare hands. He didn't have to worry this time, though. The place was just as he had left it...then again, it had only been one weekend, unlike some of his previous trips. He slung his backpack and jacket onto a chair, and strode into the kitchen. "Mom! I'm home!" He plopped down into a chair and looked around. "Mom?"

"Right here, honey." His mother's singsong voice echoed off of the walls from outside. A moment later she walked in the back door, fresh dirt on her boots and work gloves. Her hair was pulled back in a tight bun, and her face was full of smudges of mud, streaked by the sweat running off of her face. "You make it back home okay?" she asked, shucking her boots and gloves. She sighed with heavenly relief, wiggling her toes inside of her worn, dirty socks. "Oh, I swear, I wish they would invent a pair of boots that didn't fry your feet.

"Yeah, no problems." Ash chuckled. "It was a lot of fun, actually." He plucked an apple from the fruit bowl in the center of the table, and was about to take a big bite out of it until his mom snatched the apple right out of his hands. "Hey!" he cried indignantly, his stomach rumbling at the missed feeding.

"Dinner'll be ready in a bit, and I don't want you spoiling your appetite." His mother scolded him. Ash grumbled, but didn't complain. He knew better than to gripe at his mother (out loud). In the meantime, Ash's mother saw Pikachu finishing its second apple, and rescued a fresh peach from its claws before the mouse could engorge itself any more. "And you, buster, need to go easy on the fruit bowl." she gave him a sly smile. "They just raised the price of produce in the market yesterday, so we can't afford to go all willy-nilly, can we?"

"Piiiiii..." Pikachu moaned, its ears drooping to the tabletop. As soon as Ash's mother turned around, the thundermouse gave her one of its tiny raspberries. Ash swatted his belligerant Pokémon, but he couldn't help but snicker all the same.

After the dinner preparations had been made, the family sat down to eat. Ash had already been through the process of feeding his Pokémon, so he didn't have to feel guilty about eating his own food. As always, though, Pikachu was angling to get at a portion of his meal. "This is great, mom! Thanks." Ash said gratefully, rubbing his hands together and digging in.

"Well, I figured you would be ready for a good home-cooked meal after days of fast food." She smiled warmly. "So,tell me about the conference. Was everything okay?"

Shooing Pikachu away from his food, Ash answered, "Well, Wartortle splashed all the other Pokémon in the swimming area, Kingler tried to take out a few Goldeen, Lapras wouldn't stop crying when people tried to look at it, and Poliwag insisted on spraying Loreli with its Watergun." He grinned, recalling his rowdy Pokémon and how they had teased and hassled the other Pokémon. They were just like him; they didn't take nothing from nobody. Or was he like them? It was getting hard to tell. "So I wasn't exactly a welcome sight there."

"That's my boy, the outcast League Champion." She chuckled, taking a dainty bite of the casserole. "Mmmmm...Did you see Misty? She probably wouldn't miss a water conference."

Ash recalled his fiery redheaded friend with mixed feelings. "Yeah, she was there. Brock too, though I don't know why. I think he just likes hanging out with us...and checking out the girls." They both giggled. Time and age hadn't matured Brock, or his taste for beautiful women, in the least.

"Did anything interesting happen?" His mother asked, taking another bite.

"Well..." Ash lowered his head, mumbling, "Team Rocket sorta showed up." He braced himself, knowing full well how she would react to this bit of news. He wasn't disappointed.

"What???" his mom shouted, dropping her fork onto her plate with a noisy klank! "Team Rocket? You didn't try to stop them, did you?" she demanded of him, her eyes wide with concern. "Are you all right? Let me check your temperature." She reached over the table, placing a hand on his forehead.

"Mom, they stole my Pokémon!" Ash batted her hand away, pushing back from the table with his arms folded defiantly across his chest. "Besides, I've beaten them a hundred times! I'm not afraid of those morons."

She stood up, frowning at him in disapproval. "Ash, you know how I worry whenever you get mixed up with those...those hoodlums! You should let the police handle them."

"You don't think I can handle them?"

"I didn't say that." she put her hands on her hips. "Don't put words in my mouth. You know I have total faith in you."

He grumbled softly, turning away. "Then why won't you let me leave the island?" He knew it was the wrong time to bring it up, but it had been bugging him for weeks. The desire to leave he felt burning deep inside of him hadn't let up in the least. Sometimes it was so strong, he felt as if he were going crazy!

She didn't react as he might have hoped, though it was exactly as he had expected. "Don't you bring that up again!" she scolded him loudly, shaking her finger at him. "You know I don't want you leaving the island! It's dangerous."

He sighed. "It wouldn't be more dangerous then my last journey, just...not as localized." Ash argued hopelessly.

"No! I won't have it!" She literally put her foot down, stamping the floor out of impatience. It was time Ash learned that no means no. "You're too old to start off on some crazy adventure like a little boy. Now's the time to decide what you want to do with the rest of your life, not play around with Pokémon." Pikachu looked up at her from its place at Ash's feet, its eyes wide with confusion.

Ash's mouth hung wide in amazement. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Play around?" he exploded, "PLAY AROUND? Mom, I'm the League Champion! I've been doing this for the past five years! All my friends are into Pokémon, Mom. This is what I want to do with my life! This IS my life! Why can't you understand that?"

His mom frowned, slamming her fork down on her plate. "Pokémon is not a career, Ash! It's...it's something every young person does when they're your age It isn't a career! I...You...OH!" She stomped out into the living room, too angry and frustrated to even speak to her son any more.

Ash knew he shouldn't press it. He knew he was at the end of his rope as far as his mother was concerned. He should just let it go, let things cool off. But something inside him told him to go for it. Something told him that if he gave it one more shot, he could do it. It was that same voice he heard calling him over the ocean...the same voice, the same feeling he had listened to all of his life. Ash wasn't about to start ignoring it now. He pushed back from the table and went after his mother, stepping softly into the living room and peeking around the corner. He found her sitting on the couch, trying to avoid his prying eyes by focusing on the flashing, blaring television. By accident, she had turned on a Pokémon match. Watching the same thing that she and her son were arguing about only made her angrier, which didn't help Ash's situation at all.

"Mom, c'mon." Ash murmured softly, crossing the room. "It's not like I'll be dying or anything. I'll just leave the island, that's all." He sat down next to her, putting his hand on top of hers and giving it a slight squeeze. She didn't even twitch, which surprised him more than a little. She was beginning to scare him. "Mom, this is my dream, my destiny! I have to go! If not now, then someday... and soon. I can't stay here forever."

Her face softened, but she remained still, intent on the match. Try as she might, she wouldn't be able to hold the tears she felt welling up in her eyes back forever. 'Don't look at his eyes...don't look at his eyes...' she coached herself, keeping her gaze fixated on the match.

Ash frowned, seeing no noticable affect on his mother. He didn't give up, though Giving up was never something Ash was very good at. "Mom, why is it so awful if I leave? I've left before, and you didn't freak then!" It was time to lay the cards out on the table. "What are you so afraid of?"

"Your father."

Ash was taken aback. "What? What about dad?" They almost never spoke of Ash's father...it was too painful, for both of them.

She turned to Ash, her tears flowing freely now. If Ash could be candid with her, then she could be equally so with him. "I lost your father to Pokémon. Don't you remember?" Her voice quavered slightly, something that was totally out of character for Deliah Ketchum.

Ash had never known his mother to be anything but strong. Seeing her like this...seeing her overcome with concern and pain. It broke his heart. His face took on a sad grimace, mimicking her own. "Of course I do. He left when I was little..." They both knew the story after that. His father had left...and had never returned. His letters had stopped, his friends lost track of him, and his family...his only family...never saw him again. Sean Ketchum had simply vanished off the face of the planet without a trace.

She got up and walked over to the mantle, picking up a picture of the three of them in front of a stream. Sean's strong arms were wrapped around her and their three-year-old son's shoulders, a beaming smile peeking out from under his bushy moustasche. The picture had been taken on one of their family picnicks into Viridian Forest. Ash's mother looked back on those times as some of the happiest of her life. "He left to become a Pokémon master...just like you...and now he's gone. I don't think I could stand losing you too, Ash." She turned, tears streaming down her rosy cheeks. "I couldn't..." she choked, "I couldn't stand losing you like that...I just...I..."

I never thought of it that way, he thought. Blinking back tears of his own, he hugged his mother tightly, burying his face into her shoulder. "Mom...I know, I miss dad too...but this is something I have to do." He met her eyes with his own. "I'll be back, I promise...but I have to go. If I don't...I don't know. I'm so confused...but I know that I have to do this."

She held her breath, struggling with her inner demons. Ash held his breath too, wondering what she was about to say. Finally she nodded to him, giving him the best smile she could muster as her heart was breaking. "I understand." She hugged him so hard he could have sworn he felt a couple of his ribs break. "But I expect you to come back." She stroked the back of his head, crying softly. "I'll be waiting for you to come back, Ashlan Ketchum."

"I'll be back, mom." Ash promised her. "I'll come home someday. I promise."

* * *
Ash wandered the halls of Professor Oak's research center, wondering how the old man could hide so easily in such a building. At first glance, the Island's Institute for Pokémon Research and Development seemed to be just an average building. Ash suspected that the Oak family had converted it from an old office building decades ago when they had first come to the Island. The building had undergone serious renovation since then, but was not noticably different.

Only when someone tried to find their way through it, though, did they realize just how screwy the place really was. There were dozens of different twists and turns throughout the complex, often leading a person back to the same room they started in as they tried to find their way around. Even after all the time he had spent here with Professor Oak, Ash still couldn't navigate the corridors of the Institute without a little trouble. Several times he looked behind him, checking to make sure that Pikachu hadn't gotten lost along the way.

Finally, he found the research lab, tucked away in the corner of the complex where it was practically isolated from the rest of the world. In his five years of Pokémon training, Ash had learned that researchers valued their privacy above everything but their research itself. Just as he had predicted, there was Professor Oak, sitting at his chair and looking at some sort of data on different charts and graphs displayed on his computer. Grinning devilishly, Ash tried to sneak up behind the Professor, intent on startle him. Pikachu mimicked him, tiptoeing on its wobbly hind legs. It was a joke he tried every time he found Oak with his back to the boy. Like the other thousand times he had tried it, the trick didn't work.

"Hello, Ash. What a pleasant surprise." Oak said without turning around.

Ash smiled, shaking his head. He had never been able to get the drop on the Professor, even after all these years. The old guy was still pretty sharp, hard to impress, and even harder to surprise. "Hi Professor." he greeted the aging scientist, scooping up Pikachu and placing the Pokémon on his shoulder. "What's that you're looking at?"

"Ah, I'm glad you asked. This is a most interesting phenomenon in Pokémon, most interesting indeed." He tapped the keyboard on his computer, bringing up several different images of a Butterfree taken from different vantage points. Pikachu cocked its tiny head, 'Chu'ing with facination from its perch on Ash's arm.

The sight brought back a lot of memories for Ash, as well as some conflicting emotions. He always wondered how his Butterfree had made out after he had let it go. Now that he was going to leave the island, he might run into it After all, who knew where his old Pokémon ended up? The thought brought his good mood back. "It's a Butterfree. So? What's the big mystery?" Ash knew that Professor Oak never wasted his time with piddly research. The researcher always liked to sink his teeth into the big riddles, the ones that other scientists had given up on long ago.

Instead of answering, Oak gave Ash a question of his own. "Ash, how long does a bug live?"

"Uhhhh..." It was an answer that Ash gave Oak all too often.

Professor Oak smiled, helping Ash out with the answer. "Some insects have very short life spans. Certain species can have lives as short as a few weeks, even days!" He turned. "Now, do you know how long the average Butterfree lives?"

Again, Ash answered with his standard standby response: "Uhhhh..."

"Trick question, my young friend!" Oak gave the lad a knowing wink, typing in more information into the computer and bringing up several different charts and bar graphs. "The oldest living Butterfree is still battling at 138 years young."

"138?" Now he knew that Oak was teasing him. "Professor, I know Pokémon live long, but not that long. It's ridiculous! It's impossible!"

Oak shook his head, chuckling. "Ridiculous? Absolutely. Impossible? Not at all. I would think, Ash, that you, of all people, would know that the word has no meaning." Ash nodded reluctantly. Both he and Oak had seen things that defied every law of nature known to mankind, as well as a few laws that hadn't been discovered yet. Oak continued, "This little fellow, as well as the rest of his species, is functionally immortal. Do you know how they do it?"

"I'd be lying if I said I did, Professor."

"Mmm." Oak turned back to the screen, rubbing his jaw. "As would I...at least if you asked me for the specifics. I do have a general idea, though."

"Don't keep us in suspense, Professor."

"Pika!"

"You're aware that before a Caterpie becomes a Butterfree, it must first become a Metapod." He saw Ash and Pikachu nod, then went on. "Well, once every ten years or so, when a Butterfree starts to feel its age, it will become a Metapod again...in a sense." He tapped the keyboard a few more times.

"In a sense?"

Oak frowned. "That is where the confusing part comes in. You see, when it returns to this Metapod state, it is unable to battle."

Ash chuckled, shooting Pikachu a knowing glance. They had battled more than a few Metapod in their time without too much difficulty. "I never did think Metapods battled much anyway." he laughed, conjuring up the image of the large, immoble bug facing off against...well, anything that could move. "Unless they added 'Blink' into the League's official list of moves."

"Well, this form of Metapod cannot even Harden." Oak explained patiently, ignoring Ash's ignorant jabs and jibes at his work. "It stays this way for about five or six months, unable to move, and unable to protect itself. Then, when it's ready, it comes out, good as new and just as strong as they day it first evolved." He smiled, rubbing his hands together. "It's actually quite amazing. What looks like the end is really a new beginning." Coming off of his soapbox, Professor Oak sat back down in his chair, continuing to work as he had before Ash had interrupted him. "If we could reproduce this regenerative process, just think of the implications!"

Ash regarded the screen with an odd stare, then turned to Oak. "That's great, Professor, but...uh..."

"But that isn't the reason you came to see me." Oak finished the sentence for him, turning back to Ash with a wink. He got up and went to check on his shelves, stocked with row after row of Pokéballs. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bombard your brain with my dusty old research. So tell me Ash, what brings you to my humble little lab?" He gave the young trainer a cursory glance as he scanned the Pokéballs, checking up on his charges.

"I need Dexter upgraded, Professor." Ash pulled out a battered, worn-out old Pokédex [Pokémon Database/Experimental eXocomputer], his faithful scan/info retrieval device that had served him well for many years. Oak had improved on the design every now and again, making the outer casing a bit less blocky or upgrading its sensory equipment, but inside it was the same ol' Dexter. "I'll need a global data package, a linguistic translation program, and one of your on-the-road high school suppliments."

Oak's eyebrows raised in surprise. "A global data package? Travel school?" These were all new, and very much different from Ash's usual requests. "It sounds like you're planning on a long trip, Ash." He took the palmtop computer from Ash's hand, placing it safely in his labcoat's deep pocket. "Will Misty and Brock be needing similar equipping?" He looked behind Ash and Pikachu, as if expecting to see something. "Where are they, anyway? It isn't like you three to be apart when you're planning a new journey."

Ash's eyes went wide. How could he have missed that little detail? "Oh, man! I forgot about Brock and Misty!" He slapped his forehead, gritting his teeth and racking his brain for answers. How was he supposed to explain this to them? "I guess I'll have to tell them I'm leaving." he replied lamely, blushing with embarrassment. "I mean, that I'm going, and...and they..."

Oak nodded, understanding. "You're looking to tackle this little adventure on your own, are you?" Ash nodded in response, elicting a grunt from Oak. "I'm not sure if that's wise, Ash. After all, you've never been out on your own, have you?"

"You don't think I can handle it?" There was no challenge in Ash's voice, only pure question. He respected Professor Oak's opinion higher than anyone else's, and couldn't stand it if the old man didn't have faith in him.

"Not at all," Oak assured his young protegé. "You'll do fine. I'm simply worried about you, that's all. And I'm sure that Brock and Misty will understand."

"I hope so."
* * *

"You're what???"

Ash scratched Pikachu under the ears as the Pokémon sat contently on his lap as his trainer talked to the two indignant teenagers as they sat at one of The Quarry's tiny, filthy booths. Pikachu had somehow gotten ahold of one of the table's filthy ketchup bottles, and was slurping the red goo down noisily. Ash grinned nervously at his two friends, tugging at his collar with his free hand. He knew that Misty would make this difficult...not that predicting Misty's foul mood was reason for a medal or anything. Somehow, the redheaded teenager always made her displeasure with just about anything known as loudly as possible. Her gripes with Ash were no different, either.

"What do you guys mean? I said I'm leaving the island." he coughed, avoiding their inquisitive eyes.

Misty sighed, rolling her own eyes skyward with a snort. "You dragged me all the way from Cerulean City for this?" She slurped her Iced Mocha Slushie, one of the new items added to the menu. The owners of the diner had recently gotten a slushie machine, and were eager to try out some new flavors. The foo-foo coffee blended snow cone in a cup was one of Misty's particular favorites. "I have better things to do than to wait on-call for you, Ash." She, Brock, and Ash had always favored Pewter City's tiny truck stop, The Quarry. It was friendly, it was familiar, and most importantly, it was never crowded. That was probably why Ash had chosen the spot to break the bad news to them.

Brock took a huge bite of his club sandwich. The large collection of turkey, bread, and vegetables oozed red tomato out of the back as he sunk his teeth into it, tearing off a quarter of it in one chomp and chewing loudly. "Why would you want to leave the island?" he tried to speak around a jaw full of turkey, lettuce, and tomato, succeeding in spraying flecks of half-chewed food onto the table in front of him.

"Why else? To take the next step in training."

Misty's face screwed up in disgust at Brock's atrocious eating/talking combination. Still, she managed to give Ash one of her patented 'You're crazy and stupid' looks. "Ash, in case you hadn't noticed, Pokémon Island is the center of Pokémon!" Misty slurped on her straw and rolled her eyes. "What can you do out there that you can't do here?" Feeling the precursor for a majorly painful brain freeze, she put the Mocha Slushie down, thinking warm thoughts.

"Out there, it's pretty rough." Brock agreed. "Besides, we have everything a trainer could need right here in the Island. What are you going to do out there that you can't do here?" Brock put his sandwich down and took a big gulp of his thirty-two ounce soda, downing most of the glass into his puffed-out cheeks.

Ash opened his mouth, then snapped it shut. 'What am I going to do?' He was more than a little embarrassed when he realized that he hadn't really given any thought to it. Something was calling him out, that was for sure. But what was it that the call wanted him to do? He turned, lost in thought, and looked over at a couple of kids-a boy and a girl- sitting a few booths down. It was almost like looking into his own past; they were a couple of young Pokémon trainers, with only half a clue as to what in blazes they were doing, congratulating themselves on their conquest of a local gym. They had probably beaten Brock this morning for their Boulderbadges, and had come to The Quarry to celebrate.

"Wow, look how it shines!" one of them said excitedly as he held the silvery badge three inches in front of his face beneath the bill of a battered blue and red hat, laughing with glee. "It's so beautiful...My first badge!"

"Big deal, it's just a badge." his friend scoffed, waving his childish enthusiasm off like a foul odor. "I've got plenty." She brushed a lock of her orangish hair out of her eyes. "Keep it down, you're embarrassing us!"

"Yeah, well just you wait!" Her friend pocketed the badge and then shook his fist at her, grinning from ear to ear. "I'll get more! I'll get all the badges in the world!"

"Yeah, sure."

"You'll see. I'll get 'em all!"

The whole experience was a little unsettling for Ash. It was as if someone was showing himself half a decade ago. Some stupid kid traveling around with his friend, wanting to be the best...spouting out impossible goals. Imagine, being crazy enough to try for all...

All the badges in the world.

Something no one had ever done before.

Ever.

'Out of the mouths of babes.' Ash though. His mouth pulled up into a sly smile as he turned back towards his own friends. "I know exactly what I'm going to do guys." He sounded like the Meowth who had eaten the Pidgey. "I'm gonna get all the badges in the world!"

Brock had suffered the misfortune of having a mouthful of soda at the time Ash made his revelation. Brown, sticky soda sprayed out of his lips in a fine, bubbly mist all over the table, covering everything, including the remnants of his sandwich and Misty's plastic cup which, thank heavens, had a cover on it. The gym leader coughed up the last of the soda, trying to regain his composure. "Are you nuts?" he managed to get out between his fits of coughing and choking.

While Brock recuperated, Misty looked at Ash as if he had said he was going to capture Moltres with a Bellsprout. She reached across, shaking him like a leaf "Ash, have you gone totally out of your mind? Leaving the island was insane enough, but this is just idiocy!" He brushed her hands away, but that didn't take her out of her preachy lecture mindset in the least. "Look, I know you like doing stupid things-"

"Hey!"

She continued as if he had never spoken. "God knows you do them often enough, but...but..." she struggled for the words, still unable to believe that he could be serious about something like this. "Look, you're crazy, that's all."

Wiping his mouth, Brock finally managed to speak. "Ash, look, we all know that you're good..." This got a snort of disgust from Misty. "But there are over two hundred and fifty registered Pokémon gyms in the world! It'd take years to get them all! Maybe a lifetime." He began mopping the soda up while Misty grimaced in disgust, lifting her cup so that he could wipe away his 'accident' from the table. "Do you honestly think you could get all of them?"

Ash hesitated: two hundred fifty? Who would have guessed there were that many? But he had already pitched his spiel; he couldn't back down now. "That's right. I'm goin to get all of them. Every last one." he stated flatly, folding his arms. Pikachu stopped slurping on the ketchup and looked up at its trainer, sensing a change in the mood at the table. It could tell that something was wrong.

Misty sighed, falling back against the booth's cushion with surrender. "Well, I hadn't had any plans for the next few year anyway." she quipped. "So when do we leave?" She slurped more of her Mocha Slushie down, looking at him with inquisitive eyes.

Ash scowled, feeling the rage beginning to grow inside of him. "What do you mean, 'we'?" he shot. After that entire speech about the impossibility of it all, after all that crap about how he wasn't good enough, she had the gall to invite herself along? Of all the rotten, lousy... "There is no 'we', Misty. Just me!"

Misty frowned, puzzled. "You weren't thinking of leaving without us, were you?" She asked him, tilting her head with confusion. "I mean, come on..." Brock nodded his agreement, tossing the napkins in an open trash can nearby.

"Why not?" Ash demanded, slamming a fist into his open palm. "You don't think I can do it? You don't think I'm good enough, right?"

"Well, no," Misty admitted slowly with open palms, "But I don't think anyone in the world could-"

Ash stood up, sending Pikachu tumbling to the floor. "Y'know," he cut her off loudly, drawing the attention of the entire diner, " I've just about had it with you two always trying to take me down a notch! All of the negativity, all the the doubt..." He folded his arms. "Most people take their journeys alone, with just their Pokémon along...but I had to listen to you two the entire trip for mine...All four years of it!"

Pikachu glanced up at him, nervous and startled. "Pi?" It looked between Misty and Ash, wondering what they were shouting about. It wasn't like them to fight...All right, that was a lie, but it wasn't like them to fight like this. All of the angry words and shouting made the Pokémon worried. "Pika!"

"You said it yourself, Misty; 'Can't you ever do anything on your own?' Guess what?" he said in a low, angry voice, "I'm doing this alone!"

Misty's hand trembled in rage. She curled it into a fist, keeping it down by her hip, trying to resist the urge to knock the living crap out of Ash Ketchum. "Well then," she said with forced calm, "I guess you had better get going, hadn't you?" Brock stayed silent through the entire ordeal, afraid to open his mouth. Both of his friends were stacks of rage ready to blow at any moment, and anything he said would probably get his head taken off by either one. "Well, what are you waiting for, loser?" Misty's voice raised, dripping with sarcasm. "There's a whole world of adventure waiting for you out there! Don't waste any more time with us poor Islanders. Go. GO!"

Ash's soft, amber eyes burned at her viciously, but his lips were deathly silent. He spun on his heel, his jacket whirling around him, and stormed out of the diner. Pikachu looked back and forth between its trainer's receding form and its two best friends. After a moment of indecision, Pikachu scrambled after Ash, squeezing through the door before it slammed shut with an air of finality.

Brock turned slowly to Misty, carefully gauging his feminine friend. She seemed calm enough on the surface, but the Rock Master knew all to well that she was a ball of seething angst underneath. "Don't you think you were a little hard on him?" he asked her, ready to duck her fist at a moment's notice. Surprisingly enough, though, Misty didn't explode, or even start shouting. She just sat there, staring at the tabletop for several long, drawn out minutes. The activity in the diner had returned to normal, with only an occasional glance every now and again in their direction from the patronage.

Finally, Misty spoke. Her voice was low, so low that Brock had to struggle just to hear her from his place right next to her. "Let him leave." She tossed the remains of her Slushie into the garbage can from her seat, suddenly no longer hungry. "Who needs him, anyway?"

If anyone had been placing bets on what Misty's mood was, a stranger might have put a good sum on seething hatred, or perhaps barely-controlled fury. Brock knew better, though. Beneath Misty's cold exterior was a layer of dark, spiteful anger...and beneath the anger was a large mass of pain and hurt burning down in her stomach. She was closer to Ash than anyone (with the possible exception of Pikachu). "Misty..." he started, but she cut him off, standing up to leave.

"I don't need him if he doesn't need me."
* * *

Ash stood outside of his home, inhaling deeply. He wanted the sights, the sounds, and even the smells burned into his memory as he left his home. There was no telling how long it could be before he was back. He took it all in; the white picket fence that his mother had asked him to repaint for the past eight months, the blockish lines of his house traveling upwards into the sky...it was funny, but somehow his house had seemed a lot larger when he was little. Now...

"Now you're sure you'll be okay, honey?" his mom asked for the millionth time. She stood by the gate next to Professor Oak, a worried look planted squarely on her features. She tried her best to hide it, but Ash could see right through her. "You're sure...this is what you want?"

"I'll be fine mom, really." he assured her. Then he hugged his mom, placing a kiss on her rosy cheek. He wasn't ashamed to kiss his mother, like some boys often were. After all, it could be a while before he saw her again. "I'll be fine." he whispered in her ear, giving her one last reassurance. He couldn't help but wonder, who he was trying to convince; his mom, or himself?

Oak cleared his throat, drawing Ash out of his hug and gaining his attention. "Now Ash, try to remember: when you leave the island, it's a whole new world out there, filled with things you could never even imagine. It's very exciting, but very dangerous as well."

Ash smiled. "I get it, Professor; I won't have the home field advantage anymore. Thanks." He looked down at Pikachu, who was eager to go, as well as a little sad to leave. Ash couldn't blame his Pokémon. After all, he felt exactly the same about their departure. It was always exciting to go on a new adventure, but the hardest part was always what he left behind. "Ready, partner?" he asked the yellow rodent. It nodded with a resounding 'Pika', and jumped up onto Ash's shoulder.

His mom wiped away a tear and forced a smile on her face. Even though her heart was breaking, she was determined not to let Ash see it. "Good luck, Ash. I hope you find...whatever it is you're looking for." And she sincerely meant that.

"I will, Mom." With that, he turned and marched off, leaving his mother and Professor Oak in his wake. He didn't dare look back at them as he walked off towards his destiny. He was certain that if he turned around, it would send him into tears.
* * *

Ash Ketchum made his way down the road towards Pallet Town's tiny one-dock harbor, where a ferry would take him to Cinnabar Island's airport. From there, he'd fly to the island of Motang, north of Pokémon Island. He had begun to plan out his trip the night before, and figured Motang to be as good a place as any to start an adventure. From the little bits of research he had managed to force himself to do, he had found out that Motang was home to a Fire type gym. He had little doubt that he could beat a fire gym. All he needed were his Water Pokémon

Water...

Misty...

As he walked, his thoughts drifted to Brock and Misty back at the Quarry. Brock and Misty were his best friends...he couldn't imagine ever doing anything to hurt them, yet that was exactly what he had done back there. He had been pretty mean, and a little bit selfish...or maybe VERY selfish, and self-centered, too. All they had really done was worry about him, and he had blown up at them.

Then Ash started thinking about how this trip would seem without them; he was all alone, just like he had wanted to be. The old adage about being careful what you wished for was clearly old for a reason; it had been right all along.

There would be no more long talks with Misty into the wee hours of the morning. There would be no more training battles with Brock, which almost always ended in a round of back-slapping and snacking anyway. There would be no one to cook, or to clean, or to help him find his way...to say nothing of his laundry! His gaze traveled downward towards Pikachu as they continued to walk. Pikachu was his best friend, but...the mouse wasn't much of a conversationalist. He was all alone.

Ash was all alone.

"All alone..."

Ash's muttering was beginning to upset Pikachu. The Pokémon didn't like seeing Ash talk to himself. It wasn't healthy at all. "Cha?" it inquired, poking Ash in the leg with its clawed finger. This seemed to snap Ash out of his trance, which relieved Pikachu At least for now, the Pokémon wouldn't have to light its friend up with a few hundred watts. "Chu!"

"C'mon, Pikachu, we've got a ferry to catch." He began to run, his legs pumping hard. He told himself that he was running to the ferry, so that they wouldn't be late. It was a lie, though. He was running away from something. He was running from his doubts.
* * *

Luckily, the ferry was only about a quarter-mile from there, which they reached easily. Pallet Town's harbor was by no means natural. The hamlet's only coastline was surprisingly rocky, composed of steep, towering cliffs lined at the bottom with small, dirty beaches. It did very little for their tourism, and had made it impossible to get any sort of trade system established there in the early colonial days. Only after a sort of sloping harbor had been blasted out of the rock with dynamite had any sort of seagoing industry been established there.

Ash and Pikachu ran up the dock, still huffing from their jog, and boarded the the Seaking's Queen, the boat that made daily runs between Cinnibar and Kanto. Taking his seat on the observation deck, he quickly slipped once more into depression. Even with Pikachu, he felt...alone. It was as if something in his life had been lifted right out, leaving him incomplete. What really irked him was that his missing his friends meant that he had been wrong and Misty had been right...again. He couldn't stand it when that happened. What was worse, she wasn't even here to gloat about it. Somehow, that made it unbearable.

The boat left dock with a sudden jerk, interrupting his inner moping. Powerful motors began taking them out of the carved harbor and into the choppy waters of Pallet Bay, heading towards the natural inlet that led out to the open sea. All around him, people were getting a look at the Cinnabar Channel that would take them to the famous island. Ash, however, stayed at his seat, leaving his eyes resting on his shoes; he had been on this trip a million times, and doubted that there would be anything to capture his interest. He just sat there, feeling sorry for himself. Unfortunately, his pity party didn't last nearly as long as he would have liked it to, as it was interrupted by a large shadow in the sky that blotted out the sun.

"Good heavens, what is that?" One passenger cried out, pointing at the sillhouetted object descending towards the boat.

The passenger sitting next to the first squinted, trying to shield his eyes from the bright glare. "It looks like a gigantic Meowth head..."

Without warning, a trio of dark blurs leapt from the sillhouette, slamming into the deck with amazing agility. As Ash had suspected and feared, it was his old nemesis-in triplicate-back to cause as much trouble as they could before he left for parts unknown.

"Prepare for trouble!"

"And make it double!"

"Oh no." Ash muttered. The trainer tried to duck, hoping that Jessie, James, and Meowth would all miss him in the crowd. The move seemed to work, as the trio continued their motto unharriedly.

"To denounce the evils of truth and love,"

"To extend our reach to the stars above!"

"Jessie!"

"James!"

Ash moaned, finally unable to stand to listen to them for another moment. He got up, grabbing a pair of Pokéballs off of his belt. "Here we go again," he muttered grimly, rolling out of his seat and moving towards the Rockets, keeping low. Pikachu scampered after him, trying to keep an equally low profile as they made their way forward.

"Team Rocket blasts off at the speed of light,"

"Surrender now, or prepare to fight!" At the final line, both Jessie and James each held up a pair of bright red flares, blinding the passengers and leaving them confused, with spots swimming in their vision.

Meowth pulled a large sack out from behind his back, holding it open. "Meowth, that's right!" he cackled in his strong Brooklyn accent. He moved over to the edge of the crowd and began kicking patrons in the shins with his razor sharp toenails. "Now, I tink you buncha rich snobs should hand over your valuables, collectables, and general knick-knacks before we pulverize ya!"

"You should listen to the cat," James intoned with a smirk, folding his arms after tossing the used flares overboard. "For once, he knows what he's talking about." He took a menacing step towards the passengers, who gasped in fear.

"Now, hand over all your goods, and put them in the bag." Jessie held up Meowth, who held the sack in his grubby little paws. Both of the Rockets grinned maliciously, chuckling as the passengers began emptying their wallets and other such items into the brown bag. Their laughter ended quickly, though, as someone spoke out in the crowd.

"Can't you guys ever just leave me alone?" came an exasperated voice from the back. The people in the crowd gasped again, this time in shock; who would have the courage to stand up to three elite agents from Team Rocket? Certainly none of them had such bravery...

The Rockets were wide-eyed with shock. There shouldn't have been anyone with anything resembling a spine aboard the tourist trawler. "Who dares speak to the great Team Rocket in such an insolent manner?" Jessie demanded, anger burning in her eyes like a raging wildfire.

The crowd began to part, letting their would-be savior through to face the Rockets alone. Better him than the rest of them, right? Ash stepped forward with Pikachu at his side, glaring at Team Rocket with as much spite as he could muster. "Who else?" he said. His voice had lost some of its natural bravado, but his will to fight was still sharp as ever. He squared off against the Rockets, gritting his teeth. He was risking not only his life, but also the lives of his Pokémon, and for total strangers.

It was just another average day.

"It's the twerp!" the three cried in unison. With as many times as Ash Ketchum had screwed up their plans, it was amazing that they were still surprised every time he showed up to foil them again.

"Okay, let's get this over with." Ash said flatly. Pikachu sparked at his side, but he motioned for the mouse to hold its ground. Pikachu had already gotten a shot at them last week. It was time for another to have some fun. He activated the release on one of his Pokéballs and sent it flying. "I choose you, Wartortle! Let's mix it up!"

Just as he had ordered, the ball spit out a mass of energy, which soon formed into the monster known only as Wartortle. The Pokémon loosly resembled a large, aquamarine turtle with the ability to stand on its hind legs. Its huge white feathery ears and large, fluffy tail were almost laughable, but its ability to produce massive amounts of pressurized water wasn't. In a scrape, Wartortle could be just as tough as the competition, and twice as clever. "Tortle!" it snarled at the Rockets, glaring at them with its chestnut-brown eyes.

Jessie and James acted quickly, bringing out their secondary Pokémon, Victreebell and Lickitung. Victreebell was a horrible plant type, a giant bell-shaped monster that could slice through solid steel with its Razor Leaves or pound the life out of other Pokémon with its Vine Whips. Lickitung, on the other hand, was a comical pink lizard with a short, stubby tail and a tongue that was longer than the rest of its body put together. Looks could be deceiving, though; its tongue had the capability of paralyzing any and all Pokémon that it touched. "Go!" they both commanded. The two twisted Pokémon reacted instantly, rushing forward, trying to catch Wartortle off-guard.

Wartortle leapt up high, never giving its opponents the opportunity to attack. Taking in a deep breath, the turtle sprayed a large column of water towards Victreebell, trying to knock it clear off the boat. Unfortunately, the only affect it had on the plant type was moving it back a couple feet. While the turtle was distracted, Lickitung jumped, sailing upward at Wartortle. With a loud slurping sound, it slapped Ash's watery warrior with its tongue. Dazed and paralyzed, Wartortle fell to the deck with a sickening thud, denting the brittle wood with its hard shell.

"Okay, that wasn't the best choice." Ash muttered, recalling his old friend with the flick of a Pokéball. He grabbed another ball off of his belt, hesitating. The next move he was planning was a calculated risk, and none too safe. But Team Rocket and their Pokémon were drawing closer, leering, and he had taken enough casualties for one day. He frowned, and activated the release for his Pokéball. "Charizard, go!"

Out popped Charizard, Ash's most massive Pokémon on hand. It was a fiery dragon with large, leathery wings protruding from its back and a thick, fire-tipped tail swinging about behind it. The huge orange lizard could shoot flames hundreds of feet (and thousands of degrees) at will. It never did like taking orders, though. Over the years it had gotten somewhat better, but there were still times when it disobeyed. "Charizard, Flamethrower!"

With a grunt, the fire breather complied, spewing flames at both Victreebell and Lickitung. The pink-tongued lizard flinched and drew back, scalded badly by the attack. Victreebell, on the other hand, was utterly devastated by the attack. The bell-shaped plant Pokémon screeched and writhed as it caught flame. Desperately, it rolled on the ground, and managed to put the flames out. At that point, it simply flopped on the ground, all but drained of hit-points. Lickitung shuddered, scared beyond belief of this flaming terror.

Charizard was obviously enjoying itself, and moved in to finish off Lickitung, ready to savor the massive victory. Thankfully for Lickitung, Jessie and James had other plans; they recalled their Pokémon and jumped back into the balloon, dragging Meowth along as they went. "We'll just get out of your way." Jessie said nervously to Ash and his Charizard, sweating bullets as she pressed a control in her jacket that called out the balloon's rope ladder. It dropped to the deck with a loud clattering, allowing the Rockets a way back into their vessel.

"Sorry for the inconvenience." James assured Ash as he climbed the ladder, dragging Meowth up behind him, just as worried as Jessie was about being torched by Charizard. In the meantime, Jessie quickly lifted the balloon off of the ship's deck, desperately trying to get them away before something disasterous happened.

Ash started to let them go, then decided against it; he was in a bad mood, and he might as well take it out on them. His finger pointed out the intended target as he gave his Pokémon orders. "Charizard, blow that thing out of the sky!"

Charizard was all too happy to destroy something. It roared and blasted out a huge column of fire that hit the balloon. The gigantic bag of wind that held the three smaller bags of wind aloft exploded in an enormous ball of expanding gasses, hurling a shower of fiery debris across half the bay. Team Rocket streaked into the sky, flying out of sight with their imfamous motto ringing out.

"Looks like Team Rocket's blasting off again!"

The crowd aboard the boat was cheering and applauding their unlikely hero, but he didn't hear a bit of it. He just sat back down, trying to ignore the din as the long, uneventful ride to Cinnibar continued on. For some reason, he just couldn't shake the clinging sense of depression that had settled around his shoulders. Pikachu tried to cheer him up, occassionally poking him or chattering at him, but it did no good. For the rest of the boat ride, Ash Ketchum chose to mimic the activity aboard the vessel; he was deathly quiet.

* * *
Welcome to the Oak International Airport, Gate five-ninteen." An unenthusiastic flight attendant greeted Ash and Pikachu at the gate to their flight, which would leave without them in about five minutes if they didn't hurry. "I'd like to remind you that we would appreciate it if our guests were *on-time* for the flight."

"Sorry." he mumbled. He wasn't really sorry, but he figured that it might get the attendand off of his back.

The attendant gave him a small, completely faked smile. "That's all right." she lied, "Just try harder...next..." she trailed off. She began to look Ash over, as if she knew him from somewhere, somehow. After a moment, a smile blossomed on her face as realization set in. "Say, aren't you Ash Ketchum, the Indigo champion?"

Ash nodded dully to the airline attendant, wanting nothing more than to get on the stupid plane. He was tired after a long fight with the ticket master about taking Pikachu aboard the plane with him, instead of caging it and shoving it into the cargo hold like they wanted to. The ticket master had finally agreed when Ash had guaranteed that Pikachu would short out each and every electrical system on the plane were it caged in the hold. "Yes ma'am." he answered the attendant in an defeated voice. He had hoped that no one would recognize him before he could get away. So much for that plan...

She smiled again. This time, though, it was a schmoozing smile, and not a forced one. "It's a pleasure to have our very own League Champion flying Air Pidgeot, Mr. Ketchum. Enjoy your flight!"

Ash thanked the woman and handed her his ticket, finally brushing past her before she could ask for an autograph, or a picture...or worse. After navigating the narrow passageway, he made it to the interior of the plane, where another young stewardess directed him to his seat. The plane was thankfully small and uncrowded, which was just the way he liked his flights. Air Pidgeot may have been a smaller airline, but smaller airlines often had their advantages. Better food, while high on his list, was just one of those advantages. Ample window seats was another.

As he and Pikachu made their way over to their seats, Ash frowned. There, sitting in his row, in the window seat, was some woman. He couldn't see her face, which was buried in some brainless fashion magazine. Looking down at his ticket, he saw that, as requested, he was supposed to get the window seat. It was *his* seat. Still, Ash was feeling too low to especially care. It was only a few hours to Motang anyway. Why get angry?

He sat down in the middle seat, next to the woman, and put Pikachu in the seat next to him, strapping the mouse in for takeoff. A small rivet of pain lanced through his ribs as the woman sitting next to him rudely jabbed him with her elbow, apparrantly shifting around to get more comfortable. Ash's temper flared, but only for a moment; it was an accident, after all. He strapped in and leaned back in his seat, groaning as the tension in his back began to release.

'This won't be so bad.' Ash thought, cracking his knuckles. A familiar rumbling down in his stomach told him that it was time to eat, so he hunted around his seat for the complimentary package of peanuts. Oh, how he loved them peanuts! But strangely enough, the peanuts were nowhere to be found. Where could the peanuts be? Where were Ash's peanuts? And then his search brought him to his neighbor's leg, where several empty peanut packages rested atop her knee.

She had eaten more than one packet of peanuts.

She had eaten his peanuts.

She had eaten *his* peanuts!

"That's the last straw!" Ash ground his teeth together, tapping the woman on the shoulder without a trace of delicacy. "Excuse me, *miss*," he hissed, "But I believe you ate MY peanuts."

"Relax Ash," the woman replied from behind her magazine in a hauntingly familiar voice, not budging an inch, "You know I get nervous when I fly. I needed something to snack on."

Ash gaped, unable to believe his ears. It couldn't be. There was just no way it was...

"Misty?"

"The one and only." Misty lowered the magazine, revealing her cherubic face as it grinned at him from ear to ear. Ash couldn't help but notice that she was wearing her hair differently; instead of a large mass drawn up on the side of her head, she wore the bulk of it hanging around the nape of her neck, cut far shorter than it had been a week before. A small, braided lock twisted down from her temple, almost exactly where the sideways ponytail had once been. She had also shucked her normal yellow sleeveless and shorts for a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, something that she had sworn she would never wear in three lifetimes or longer. "What took you so long?" she asked him coyly.

"Misty, what in the world are you doing here? And how'd you get the money for the tickets?"

Pikachu, in the meantime, had managed to undo the safety strap and had leapt into Misty's lap, cooing and rubbing up against her stomach with a toothy grin on its features. Petting the Pokémon playfully, she looked at Ash and shrugged. "I paid for the tickets with your account number." Ash groaned inwardly, dreading the next League audit. He would have to consider changing the number on his League expense account before Misty bought herself that lifetime supply of chocolate she had always been angling for. "And as for why I'm here," Misty continued, "I figured that whole 'On my own' speech back at the Quarry was a huge, desperate cry for help. So, here I am, making sure you don't get yourself killed. Besides, things were awfully quiet back at Cerulean City, and-"

"Thanks, Misty." He smiled, taking her hand and giving it a squeeze.

She returned the smile, as well as the squeeze. "No problem Ash." She leaned over, her voice growing deadly serious. "But if you ever try to ditch me again, I'll kick the living crap out of you twelve times over." And he knew without a doubt that she meant it, too.

He laughed and moved Pikachu back over to the third empty seat next to him. "I wouldn't doubt it." It would almost be like old times again, which really lifted Ash's spirits. He was still a little saddened that there was something missing, but reminded himself that he didn't have anyone but himself to blame for it. His sadness quickly turned to annoyance as a flight attendant came up to them, motioning towards his Pikachu in the third seat.

"Excuse me, sir, but I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to move your Pokémon."

Ash frowned, irritated at the interruption. "Why?" he asked, "I didn't think anyone was assigned to this seat."

"One of our late standby passengers has requested this seat specifically, sir. He practically insisted. I'm terribly sorry, but you'll have to hold your Pikachu on your lap."

He complied, though Pikachu was none too happy with all this shuffling around. If there was any more irritation, the mouse might start letting out voltage all over the plane, which would not do wonders for the pilot's instrumentation. He muttered several choice words about whoever it was that preempted his Pokémon's seat...but stopped when he saw who it was.

"Brock!" he and Misty shouted joyfully together. As amazing and hard to believe as it was, there was Brock, blocking the entire aisle with his armloads of carry-on luggage and a humongous grin planted on his chiseled chin.

"The Rock himself." he answered them, stowing his gear overhead and plopping down in the aisle seat. Poor Brock could barely fit his massive frame in the tiny airline seats. As it was, his shoulder was already rubbing up against Ash's. "I couldn't very well leave you two unattended." he explained before either one could ask him. "You might kill each other. No, scratch that; you *will* kill each other, at least as long as I'm not around. So, here I am!"

"I suppose we can't have that." Misty agreed with a nod. "So how on earth did you afford the ticket? Don't tell me your dad coughed up the cash for a world tour." Her eyes narrowed with mock suspicion. "Unless you're secretly a millionaire, and never told us..." Her expression melted into a bemused grin.

Brock shrugged. "I got the money from Ash's account number, where else?"

Ash groaned loudly, but smiled as he did so. Everything was right with the world again; they were all back together again, just like they should be. Was he doomed to take every adventure with someone always there, never giving him a moment's peace or privacy? Well, if that was the case, then he couldn't think of any better partners...any better friends...to take the adventure with. It had taken him a while, but he had finally learned that adventures were only adventures if they were shared.

A phrase Professor Oak had said popped into his head, one that he hadn't fully understood until now: "What looks like the end is really a new beginning." It was a lesson he wouldn't soon forget. His life had seemed to simply halt ever since his original journey had ended over a year ago...but from the ashes rose Ash Ketchum once again, off on a new quest...that is, if the blasted plane would ever take off! He leaned back in his seat, waiting for takeoff and enjoying the unspoiled silence of bliss...at least, until Brock chimed in-

"Hey, who ate my peanuts?"
* * *

Team Rocket sat atop the edge of their reconstructed balloon's basket. The air was charged with anticipation as they watched Ash's plane take off from the airport in a rush of jet fumes. "He's going..." Jessie said, watching the plane start to disappear over the horizon.

"Going..." James was almost encouraging the plane to go faster. Despite its fantastic speed, the jet seemed to crawl through the sky. It was agonizing to watch, but it was almost over.

Finally, the huge jet vanished into the sunset. Meowth popped up from down below with three glasses of sparkling mineral water. "Gone!" the talking cat shouted with glee.

"No more twerp to spoil our plans." James proudly gushed, downing the mineral water and wiping his mouth clean. "Which means-"

"You can take our names and put them back in the winner's column." Jessie finished, hugging him with a gleeful giggle. They were practically dancing in the balloon's basket, until a loud, beeping chime caught their attention.

"It's the communicator." Meowth cried, drawing out the small, flat screen from their equipment.

"The one to the...Boss?" Jessie and James gulped.

Before either one of them could fumble with the switches on the small-screened box, it blinked on. The image of a well-groomed man in his late forties dominated the screen. The man-Giovanni-sat in front of them, his face a grim mask beneath his oily, slicked-back hair. He sat in his large chair, stroking his Persian as he spoke. "Jessie. James. Meowth." he barked angrily, more out of habit than anything else.

They answered crisply, trying to keep the quavering out of their voices; "Ready willing and able, sir!"

"My sources tell me that the Ketchum boy is leaving the island."

"He just left, Boss." Meowth informed him with a salute. "He's gone, hopefully for good!"

Giovanni smiled. "Then I have a new assignment for you. You are to track the boy and interfere with whatever plans he has." Before any of them could protest, or even whimper, the screen blinked off, leaving them in an awkward silence.

The three Rockets slumped against the walls of the basket, falling into depression. "We just got rid of him..." James whined.

"And now we have to go after him." Jessie finished the idea. "It isn't fair."

"How are we gonna trip that pipsqueak up anyhow?" Meowth mused.

They sat in silent thought, then smiled as one.

"We'll get him the only way we know how," James said slyly. He glanced at Jessie, knowing full well that she was thinking exactly the same thing he was thinking.

"By capturing Pikachu!" Jessie shouted. She grabbed James and began to dance again, looking forward to the day when they would have the electric rodent all for themselves. Oh, what a glorious day it would be!

"There ain't nothin' to it but to do it." Meowth stated, folding his ropelike arms across his rounded chest. "Now let's move out!" Slowly, the balloon began to rise, running into the air currents high above the sea and swinging gently towards the sunset, and towards the new dawn to come.

"Looks like Team Rocket's blasting off again." they sang. This time, it would be different. After all, it was a new beginning. Who knew what the future held?

End


Next- BadgeQuest #2
Psychic Psurprise