Author - Chibi / Warlordess

Disclaimer - I don't own Pokemon; if I did, Illicit Saints would be a feature film and the anime would be a little more adult and a little more Pokeshippy. No, wait. . . A lot more Pokeshippy. Lots more; yup. But I don't, so it doesn't matter in any case.

Warning - Contains sexual references and displays, graphic violence, etc. Rated 'M' for mature themes.

Warning 2.0 - (Wow, haven't seen one of those since part two.) This is just to let all of you know that this part is over 30,000 words long. So if you need to use the bathroom, eat, sleep, [insert other habitual human functions here] then I suggest you do it now. Lol.

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Characters / Ages -

Misty / 19

Ash / 18

Brock / 22

May / 15

Jessie / 24

James / 23

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Pokemon - Illicit Saints

Part Eight (epilogue)

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The weather was damp and moist that day. Dark gray skies and sodden earth and sheltered, closed off homes. The Ketchum house was no different, windows shut and heat on. Fall had just started and Winter would come soon.

Not for the first time, Ash sat in front of the television with a blank expression on his face. He didn't really see the people on screen interacting or hear the joke that they had just made. His mind was a million miles away as always, fettered by the turn his life had taken over the past year.

He had since stopped training professionally, finding his heart was rarely in it anymore and knowing that it wasn't enough to keep going. So he gave it up, hardly believing that it could be so easy. At that time, however, he had been plagued by the ever more distant past. He kept imagining the days and weeks and years whiled away with his friends on the road, getting stronger and closer to their dreams and at the same time evading Team Rocket (the flunky Team Rocket) and their dastardly schemes. But dreams had a way of changing, he had come to realize, and his had become something else. He only wanted to return to those days.

Needless to say, that was impossible now. Jessie and James had disappeared almost immediately with Meowth hot on their trails after their rescue from the underground base in Viridian Forest. May had returned home with her parents, her brother following after her. She had been traumatized by Misty's final stand against her father and, though having recovered from any physical illness herself, had turned slightly paranoid at the outside world. He called every once in awhile to check up on her, enduring some forced light conversation with her parents. May herself refused to talk to him, even now. Or else, maybe her parents wouldn't let her, just in case such a thing only made her condition worse.

And Misty. . . She had been gone since Giovanni's escape, chasing after him as though her life depended on it. And it probably did. But Ash found it hard to forgive her, despite all of that. And even so, as time passed, he wondered about her. . . even worried about her as the seasons changed and the wind blew long and bitter.

Like now. . . ? He thought blandly with half a glance out the window. The rain poured down in sheets and torrents that threatened to send the house collapsing with it. But still he watched it blankly, nonchalantly, wishing something would happen to change this - (to change him) - but knowing deep down it would only be for the worst anyway. Nothing would do him any good, he had realized often enough over the course of the past year, and while he wanted only to go back to those innocent and golden days with his friends, he also knew that he would prefer to be left alone at this point.

People had a way of abandoning him, and he couldn't believe he hadn't noticed it before. First Gary, then Ritchie, then Brock, followed by Tracey, then Misty and Brock again (he had felt a strange sense of deja vu at the time actually). Then came his new journey with May and Max and Brock, all of which who'd left him for the last time now. And Misty, who had promised him that she wouldn't leave, wouldn't do anything rash after her father's escape, but she'd gone anyway, hadn't she? He had told himself that he was protecting her at the time, telling her to stay for her own benefit. . . but really he just couldn't bear the thought of her running off after that psycho and never coming back. The sting of that moment when he realized she had gone after all would never dull.

His mother, sickly during Giovanni's trial, had only survived on one hope - that of her son's return. But the Ash she found in the end was not the one she knew, and she suffered slowly until a second stroke ended her life some odd months later. That was half a year ago.

His Pokemon held up permanent residence at Professor Oak's preserve at the edge of Pallet Town. Every once in awhile Ash would find himself with enough energy to go there and visit with them but it was a rare thing. Professor Oak often called and requested that they catch up or go get something to eat together but Ash either screened those calls or answered simply to refuse the offer. He was tired of the disappointment but what was worse was that he was tired of seeing everyone's disappointment in him.

He could barely look Pikachu in the eyes anymore because of that expression on his face. But he knew he understood because he had taken each of those blows almost as personally as Ash had, especially when it came to Brock and Misty, since they'd known each other longest.

So he stayed home and watched television, eating nothing but instant meals and take out. And honestly that's what he was waiting for today. The Chinese place was running late no doubt because of the foul weather. . . but it didn't make him any less agitated, and that was for certain. His stomach grumbled, puncturing the whirring sound of a live audience laughing through the funnel of his stereo speakers. Truth be told, even eating had lost the exciting feel it had originally retained for him. He would do it to gain energy and sometimes (though rarely) out of sheer boredom, but it no longer entertained him.

Eating was just another tedious task he had to deal with everyday.

He heard the ringing of his front door and went to answer it. Dinner was here. He'd finish that and then sleep, just like nearly every other day that had taken place in the past year.

The blue glow encircled the man's body, plucking him up from the ground and suspending him there. He attempted to twist himself free from the unexpected cage. But it was useless, and even as he tried, he could feel the pressure building inside his skull. His brain pulsed, enlarged, squeezed at what held it still. He screamed murderously as his eyes began to pop out of their sockets. He could do nothing to stop it now.

Ash feigned sleep that night so as not to disturb the silence of his otherwise empty house. The wind had begun to howl earlier that day, the rain splattering against the windows in his bedroom. It was useless to try but he'd rather do that than waste electricity. The money his mother had left him shouldn't be used so frivolously, and he would have no excuses if it was. Suddenly in charge of his own budget, he had told himself the same thing since the beginning of his new life.

Of course, he couldn't say for sure if the next sounds he heard were from the weather. He felt his suspicions get the better of him and slowly crept out from under the blankets.

He told himself even as he bravely clambered out into the upstairs hallway that he was reacting to nothing irregular. Of course floorboards from the downstairs patio were creaking. Of course the wind sounded to him like the high-pitched wailing only humans could express from the greatest agony. He was sure he must have been imagining it, even as he approached the front door and caught sight of a silhouette bracing against the windowpane. Surely those were just rogue tree branches dancing in the glow of the street lamps.

Too stubborn to admit himself a coward when caught facing his worst possible fears alone, he flipped the bolt lock and threw open the front door, not fast enough to escape the mist that hit his face through the screen. The irony of this foreshadowing did not escape him as his eyes drunk in the sight of long, matted red hair, pale skin blemished with untreated cuts and bruises, and tattered clothes that he hadn't seen in over a year.

"Guh. . ." He yelped unintelligibly, unable to form the syllables of that name. It was enough to get her attention though. She turned and faced him and seemed just as lost for words.

And before her lips could even creep open, before she could try to apologize or explain herself, or win him over, he had automatically slammed the door in Misty's face.

The stench hit her before she'd even been able to force the door open, though it didn't stop her from doing so. Once she had caught her breath from the duress, she took in the sight of five corpses - all in Rocket garb and all in the process of decomposition. So this was what had become of the elusive team that had helped Giovanni escape from Lavander Town's penetentiary. Misty hadn't known what to expect when she went looking. A reformed army, maybe, or a small resistance. . . But these people were far beyond her help now.

She chanced another glance at them before turning the other way. She was trying to see what the cause of death was, perhaps the knowledge would help her prepare her for when she found her father again. There was blood everywhere, something she would have noticed right away if she hadn't gotten so used to it over the course of time while she was employed for Team Rocket. Not that it didn't sicken her, but the thought that she could stare at it as if it were nothing was what caused that nausea to double. It took her ten seconds of glancing around the room for her to see that all men had suffered gunshots to the back of the head. It looked a little bit like an executionary shooting. Or maybe it was a cowardly slaughter.

Still, the bodies were only a couple weeks old. This meant that she was getting close to him, right? And she knew two things for sure about Giovanni now. One was that somehow he had procured a weapon that he could use to ward off adversaries. Two was that, wherever he was and whatever he was doing, he had clearly lost his mind. She meant this from a medical standpoint, not a personal one. If he was trying to resurrect Team Rocket to their former glory, one of his first moves should not have been to end the team that had helped him escape his prison sentence.

She stumbled out the front door of the abandoned tenement, looking back long enough to take in the address and general vicinity. Nothing else was around that would lead her to suspect he was waiting for her here. She still had one thing she had to do then before moving on. She would have to call the local precinct from a pay phone and alert them to what she had just found inside that house.

The rain still fell hard the next day when Ash woke up. He smashed his eyes tightly shut again as though hoping he could ignore the splattering and rattling of rain and wind on his windows. But even so, his thoughts drifted back to the redheaded woman downstairs.

Ash had slept as peacefully as his warring mind would allow the rest of the night before which, given that he normally only got three hours and had managed to pull off five, was a good thing. He briefly wondered if it was because of the bitter satisfaction he had felt at shoving Misty out of his pathetic life or if it was because his deep, deep subconscious worries about her had been alleviated.

Was she still there on his doorstep even now? Surely not. She must have moved on by now after learning that he wanted nothing to do with her right? Because he definitely didn't. Repeating that to himself didn't stop him from wondering though. And so, to ease his curiosity, he rose from his bed and went to the window, staring as hard as he could to see through the rain. Even with the awning in the way, he could see flashes of long red hair blowing this way and that.

Ash chose to ignore his conscience and, therefore, Misty as well.

He ate an apple for breakfast, his appetite strangely silent, then went to watch some television. Unfortunately, due to the constant storming, some wires had been crossed or cut so all that he could entertain himself with was a blank blue picture that fizzled out into static every once in awhile. If ever there were a message from a higher power, this would be it. But still he feigned ignorance. He'd already been down that dark road once and he didn't dare go back, not even for her. Especially for her.

Misty remained outside his door for the rest of the morning. As far as he could tell, she hadn't budged an inch since he'd shut the door on her the night before except to turn and face the yard with her knees curled up to her chest and her head in her arms. He wanted to tell her to get lost, that he never wanted to see her again, that she had better go or he would call the cops on her. . . but he was almost positive that it wouldn't do him any good, even when it looked like a flood advisory had gone into effect. She continued to sit there like a stray cat. It was as if. . .

. . . as if she had nowhere left to go.

The moment of dawning comprehension sent a fearsome course of electricity throughout him. Why did that sound familiar, painfully similar? It reminded him of. . . his own situation after being held prisoner, after losing Misty again to that man. But not only him, considering May's paranoia and Brock's hermitage. Everyone had lost so much of themselves because of what happened a year ago. In fact, it was a marvel that he could look at Misty again without doing worse things to her. And yet, here he was once more, door open and eyes unapproachable. Could he really be all that Misty had left?

"What do you want from me?" He finally worked up the nerve to ask her, but all she afforded was a mild twitch in response.

She heaved a shudder and prepared herself for the worst. Giovanni had struck gold, a lucky shot nearly blowing Misty's entire hand off. She sat in a crumpled heap - as much as she detested the fact - trying her hardest not to whimper from the pain. She was too terrified to actually look at her hand and examine the damage for herself, nauseous at the thought that she might have to have a couple fingers amputated.

Giovanni slowly approached her with the pistol raised. He had spent three rounds which meant he had roughly three left. That was more than enough to finish her off. Still, she was right-handed and he had only mutilated her left. If she could just manipulate the pain so that she could move. . .

Her mind fell on her secret weapon and she wasted no time in removing the pocket knife from behind her and poising it at her left shoulder, striking herself fast. If Giovanni had been shocked at the sudden appearance of the blade, it was nothing compared to the moment when she had impaled her arm with it. It was useless to her for now anyway. But it was the shock to her own senses that proved the most fruitful. She clutched the knife again, this time aggressively, and dashed forward.

She lashed out and found her own luck, cutting into the wrist that was attached to the hand holding the gun. The laceration was moderately deep and continued to bleed from between his fingers as he clutched it tightly. He grimaced for a moment but cackled again soon after.

"You're quite the little monster, aren't you. . . ?" He asked her, sounding pleased at the thought.

"Well?" the snarl repeated itself. "Are you going to answer me or not?"

Giovanni had called her a monster as a way of praising her. She could only wonder if Ash felt the same way about her. It wasn't much of a venture in guessing the answer though.

Her throat was parched and her heart beat erratically. She shook from the cold but it was only noticeable if someone stared her in the face. Considering all Ash wanted to do was get her off of his property so that he'd never see her again, she doubted he'd notice. However that didn't mean he would stop looking for his answer. In truth, the words escaping his lips also escaped his control. Why should he even bother with her? He didn't trust her, he couldn't do that. . . but he also hadn't had much interaction with people since his mother's death - the final straw for him. Maybe even something as loud and angry as this would do him some good.

But it was beyond not having the right answer to give him. Misty simply couldn't form words.

There was the screeching of hinges that needed oiling and the crash as the screen door flew back and hit the frame. Finally he had the closer inspection she had been dreading. He could see her bloodshot eyes, her pale forehead and flushed cheeks, the grime underneath her fingernails, and the poor cloth she'd used to make the unimaginative bandage that wrapped around her other hand, the numerous tears to her clothes, but worse than that was the incision in her arm that she'd left alone. She'd run out of emergency supplies before she could fix it up, all of them having been used long ago to try and stitch up her hand. Eventually her shoulder had stopped bleeding after she'd applied countless days of pressure and rest. She'd given up plenty of waking hours due to the temporary anemia but it had worked out for the best in the end.

Nevertheless, Ash was the first person to take everything in, everything that she had kept hidden until now.

"You're feverish. . ." He said it as though it were obvious but he didn't dare touch her to confirm it. She looked so broken and battered that he doubted if she would survive the human contact. But now that he knew, he was sure that he couldn't just leave her be. Misty knew he was right too. All of her symptoms fit the bill, including her shallow breath. Ash couldn't really believe it himself but he felt the leftovers of who he used to be flutter from within him.

". . . I'm going back inside. The door will be unlocked." It was an unfamiliar notion, extending a hand in invitation towards someone else. He had learned a long time ago that even the most trustworthy people would let him down eventually and he'd grown wary of having to sort through the mess that was mankind.

Misty nodded silently at his choice of words but didn't wait. Slowly, unsteadily, she reached her feet. He almost offered his assistance when he noticed her limp from something mildly similar to a sprained ankle but couldn't bring himself to do it. In the end, he was already stretching himself past his capacity to care for somebody who wasn't one of his Pokemon. Slightly vindictive (and possibly a little bit curious about her reaction towards it), he let the screen door snap closed between the two of them. The Misty from their youth would have yelled at him for his rude behavior, maybe even threatened him. . . but the Misty before him now was entirely too absorbed in her current status and the fact that he'd even acknowledged her existence. He wasn't even sure she was grateful for it.

The thought floated through his head as he comprehended where they stood with each other now. Things weren't supposed to turn out this way.

She had told herself from the beginning of her pursuit of Giovanni that she would not involve anyone else. He was her burden and her destiny, her past and future. She could not move on if he continued to chain her down. And there was obviously no doubt that he would keep her under his heel forever if he could. But she had failed. And how. Undoubtedly and miserably, she couldn't believe it had come to this.

But the horror of her Pokemon's unexpected appearance had thrown her. She couldn't react until the attack on Giovanni was underway. She had waited so long to end this but her Pokemon's misguided efforts in trying to protect her had in fact done the job for her.

"No!" She shrieked, scrambling forward on her knees and her good hand despite the numbing pain. Polka dots popped in front of her eyes but she threw her arms around her partner anyway in an effort to convince him to withdraw his terrible power. "God, please stop!"

But she was sure that the damage was already done.

She could still see so clearly how the man had writhed until it was just a twitch, how his limbs were tossed in some rather odd positions from being broken and twisted in several places, how his cruel laughter had suddenly died down and a vacant expression had taken over.

Quite the monster indeed.

Ash left her to own own devices in such a way that it suggested that she should do whatever she deemed necessary to help herself. So help herself she did, right upstairs and into the shower. Her body was sore and she had to make sure that her stitched hand was kept out of the water, but even so the soap lather and the heat felt great. She had long since forgotten what a moment of comfort felt like so it was a little unsettling when she realized she was experiencing one.

Of course it ended soon after that as her good hand worked its way up to the tangles of her hair. She was able to leaf her fingers through about two inches but going further than that ignited more pain. She felt her cheeks heat up and her eyes water as if she were going to cry but no tears came. Maybe she had simply forgotten how to do it or maybe her subconscious was just trying to tell her that she didn't deserve to.

Giving up, she turned the knob of the tub faucet until nothing was flowing from the nozzle, grabbing a towel from the small closet space to her right. She remembered doing the same thing when she was younger, having stayed at the Ketchum residence a few times in between the different Leagues Ash took part in. It seemed some things hadn't changed.

Then she eyed the clothes she'd been wearing before distastefully. She hadn't thought that far ahead. Would she have to put those back on? She wondered about it and a sigh escaped her that caused her head to swell and her mind to go blank. She fingered one of the many rips in the cotton and her hand grazed one of the bloodstains. And then she spent a few minutes patting her body dry before she resolved to wear them again. It wasn't like she had any other choice.

When she wandered back downstairs a little while later, it was to find a couple pain killers and half a glass of water sitting on the coffee table. She looked around, clutching her towel tighter to her chest because she didn't know what to do with it. Mrs. Ketchum had always taken them when she'd visited at a younger age. Ash was nowhere to be found but she assumed the pills were meant for her. Unless, and the thought could have made her laugh, he was getting a headache from the stress of the situation. Just like old times.

She sat down on the couch and swallowed them in one go, almost ignoring the water but deciding that she was probably at least a little bit dehydrated, and gulped it down too in a matter of moments. Unfortunately she felt her stomach churn and her throat clench up. She thought she was going to puke but curbed the urge and leaned her head back, finding herself staring at the ceiling.

"It's all I had that said it reduces a fever. And maybe it'll do something for the pain too." A voice called from behind her. Misty jumped but pretended she hadn't, slowly twisting around to see Ash cautiously making his way downstairs. His arms were full with a couple of extra blankets and pillows, which he tossed unceremoniously onto the couch beside her. She felt a wild jolt of surprise come to her. He was strangely accommodating for someone who probably had expected (and hoped) never to see her again. "Help yourself," he told her, indicating the bedding items he'd brought downstairs.

She didn't move at first, feeling uncomfortable as he stared her down. She knew he had to be judging her next course of action. Then she realized something was out of place, leaned forward - (almost regretting it) - and withdrew a single coaster from the stack at the corner of the table, placing it under her empty glass.

"I'm going grocery shopping." Ash said suddenly as though distracting and distancing himself form the hilarity of that moment. "Do what you want while I'm gone. I would suggest that you get some sleep," he faltered here with what could have been presumed was a scowl on his face, "but we both know what you must think of my suggestions."

She ignored his biting tone and waited for him to go but he seemed to be stalling.

"Do you. . ." Ash struggled to find the words he was looking for. He had not attempted to help someone in a long time and swore to himself that he'd actually forgotten what to do and say, how to be courteous, ". . . need anything else?"

"Yes," she felt her eyes widen at the incredulous thought that she still had a voice. It seemed like it had been forever and a day since she'd found a proper use for it, "Do you have a pair of scissors I could borrow?"

She felt him train the pistol on her. Then Giovanni fired and she was sure this would be it but the bullet went just by her thigh, scraping her enough to singe the skin and make her bleed. She flinched but knew it wasn't the worst pain she'd ever felt. If she could withstand this then she'd have to.

He had been trying to egg her into conversation since the moment he laid eyes on her that day but Misty would have none of it. She remained oddly detached because she knew if Giovanni was given the chance, he would try to tear her down. The little bit of her that was left anyway. She wouldn't even do something as small as scream for him.

Instead she was silent and deadly, the knife out before her in her tight grip. She was careful not to let the blade slip lest she cut herself, especially when her hands were her only other weapons. Her Pokeballs were still clipped to her waist and her fingers itched to grab them and use them to her advantage. Looking at Giovanni, it seemed that he had not been able to find a way to control even one Pokemon of his own in the past year, and she couldn't dare unleash hers. This was her own fight.

But luck and timing just weren't on her side today. As an elderly gentleman, Giovanni's physical prowess was not its best, but it had yet to fail him entirely. In fact, considering the lack of care Misty had taken in her own health, they were probably on even ground with one another. Giovanni's advantage though, was that he had a weapon that could cut through anything (especially a great amount of space) in only a few seconds. He had several bullets made of steel that could make contact in a matter of moments. Her pocket knife, while made with similar durability, could only travel as fast as her arm was able to move, and was used for short distance.

But the training that Giovanni himself had put her through had not completely left her. While all he could do short of a couple rolling tumbles was run around, she could do so much more. She dodged behind solid objects (using the environment to her advantage), she flipped onto one hand and practically leapt to the trees for cover (evading both his gun and his eyesight). She felt slightly satisfied knowing that she could've been the haunting voice that floated to his ears for the first time in her life.

So satisfied in fact, that she didn't see one of her Pokeballs fall from its clasp, hitting the ground in its compact form and remaining there for the next few minutes as their adrenaline peaked.

Misty did not snap awake from the terror or leap from the makeshift bed Ash had let her put together on his couch. The nightmares had been around far too long for that. In fact, it was why she barely slept. Instead her eyes slowly crawled open and she sighed despondently, her good hand to her sweaty scalp in an instant. Flashes of what had happened in Viridian Forest met her hindsight, followed by a nervous glance at her Pokebelt. All of her Pokemon were still with her for now. . . but how much longer would that last?

Ash didn't make it a habit to ask her any questions about what had transpired with Giovanni over the past year, but that didn't mean he wasn't curious. Even Misty could tell that the only reason he wasn't looking for answers was because he was too stubborn to take an open interest. Well that and her battered body probably had something to do with it. She was sure that all of her cuts and bruises and lack of care towards herself told a story all its own. What was he thinking? Did he continue to give her the benefit of the doubt or would he have given up by now and assumed the worst?

Misty felt something in her chest tingle. The thought that Ash had given up on her was a little hard to bear, and it would only get harder the longer she stayed in his house with him. She chose not to think of it now and let the nearly pitch-black darkness lull her back to sleep. It would be weak and fitful but the delusional visions would still probably ease her worries about her future. Or lack thereof.

". . . Wake up," his voice called out to her sometime later. She slowly eased herself from her rest and caught sight of Ash staring at her awkwardly from behind the couch. Awkwardly and frustratingly from what she could tell, though she didn't quite know why. He didn't dare touch her to give her the wrong idea about his feelings for her. He slowly walked up beside her so that she could see he was holding something. "I bought this for you. I was going to give it to you yesterday but by the time I got back, you were already sleeping." He looked her in the face as if fighting one of his worst fears. Or maybe he was looking right above her face at her scalp. Her once-was or what-could-have-been luxurious hair had been sheared off, leaving just enough to reach the top of her neck. Interestingly, he had found no mess anywhere in his home suggesting she'd done such a thing to herself.

She took the object from him, revealing it to be a trainer's first aid kit. She hadn't seen one in a couple months. They were supposed to be handed out to new trainers who were just starting out because they contained a little bit of everything that could help them if they got in trouble. Medicine, anti-bacterial spread, band aids and gauze wrap, ice pack, information on CPR, and for worst-case scenarios, a needle and thread for sewing wounds up. In the process of training for a license, all adolescents were to take part in an emergency medical class, usually to get introduced to this very same aid kit. There was no guarantee that any of it would do her the slightest bit of good but there was some thought put into it that neither of them had known Ash was capable of anymore.

And though he didn't dare put his hand on her or offer her his condolences, little did Ash know that he had touched her anyway.

She expected him to walk away after that but it seemed he had other plans. He sat down in the armchair on her right and watched as she removed some items from the kit. The first was a one-time-use thermometer, a small paneled stick that was color-coded according to the users temperature. The second was the anti-bacterial spread, followed by the gauze and medical tape. She laid everything out on the coffee table and turned to face it, removing the blanket from her lap and revealing that she had slept without her leggings. It would have been embarrassing if not for the fact that they were covered in blood and dirt, which was obviously why she wouldn't have them on. Apparently she had more respect for his furniture than she did for him. The thought more than irritated him.

Even so, he was immediately distracted by the wounds revealed to him then. Although it hadn't been wrapped the day before when he'd first acknowledged it, her shoulder had still been mostly covered by the blood caked to it and her clothes. Now he could see it for what it was, and felt the smallest twinge of sympathy course through his consciousness despite repeating to himself internally that she definitely didn't deserve it.

Misty spent her time trying to ignore his scrutinizing gaze. She couldn't help wondering what he was thinking. Then she shook that from her head and removed the thermometer from her mouth.

"Persistent. . ." The word escaped from her lips as she saw that her fever had not vanished. Then again, it had only been one night and she'd done barely a thing to get rid of it. Even now with her new supplies, her choices for further action were still limited. It had been far too long since she'd stabbed herself so stitching it shut was out of the question. That meant she would have to endure the tortuously long and painful road to recovery. She eyed the antiseptic spread and picked it up and began her work. Ash watched as she unraveled the dirty, old bandage on her hand, grimacing as he took in the dried blood and stitching mostly located around her last two fingers. Despite the view and the logic that told him she had come very close to losing them, it seemed that her quick attention to her hand had made a notable difference. Her shoulder might have been a different story.

Indeed the wound had started healing on its own but without any medical assistance, the flesh bubbled up over the deep laceration, the skin a discolored red. A strange fluid had begun to leak from it over the past month, and it had begun to smell a little foul. It turned yellow against the violent red spatter and her pale complexion.

The words escaped him before he could put a stop to them.

"That's probably infected. . . Shouldn't you see someone about it?" He asked, distracting her from what she was finally about to do. The beginnings of irritation bit at her consciousness but she shook it off. He was asking her an obvious question, making a very good point. In truth, he was owed more than just the one answer. The least she could do was start here.

"Yeah, but I don't know of any doctor I could ask for help who wouldn't bring up a ton of questions."

Immediately Ash's ears pricked up. He knew someone (though not a doctor per say), oh yes he did. But the sadist in him wanted Misty to suffer a little longer. The anti-social resident didn't want to reach out to anymore people. The stubborn child in him feared her reasoning. After all, what was the harm in asking a few questions? Unless the answers she would have to give were frowned upon by most society. . . He told himself that it wasn't worth asking her for those answers then. Not if his last innocent connection to Misty would be lost.

The rest of the time was spent watching her re-bandage her shoulder and hand, unable to find and form any effective words.

More than anything else, she couldn't believe that her chase, her mission, had brought her back to this place. Nearly ten months ago she had led Officer Jenny of Viridian City to this exact spot, though there was no suspicious clearing of trees anymore that would lead to a large underground compound. But she knew he would be here. Giovanni would be looking for any way to salvage his organization, he had to, and he had grown so desperate that he'd returned to his roots.

She heard a click from somewhere behind her (all thanks to her slightly paranoid sense of hearing) and turned, watching as the deranged man in his soiled suit removed himself from the bushes, the silver pistol that she'd expected him to have all along in hand. It was aimed at her.

"I knew you wouldn't be able to stay away, Aurora. After all, this is what you were born to be. And I want you to know, even if we have to start completely from scratch, that I forgive you for your past rebellion. After all," he fondled the gun a little too affectionately for her taste before it was pointed at her again, "I'll do the proper thing in punishing you and you'll do the proper thing in accepting it!"

Before he could even pull the trigger, Misty had already tossed herself to the left, curling into a roll and landing neatly with one leg tucked underneath her to keep balance. She could smell the oil and residue in the air, took one look at where she'd been standing a moment ago and followed the view towards a large elm tree. A part of the trunk had been blown away, the bark and a few branches that had originally been there blasted apart.

She didn't know where he'd gotten the gun but, remembering his original position of power from what seemed so long ago, she doubted it would be difficult for him to find the right source. Luckily her reflexes were much swifter after running for so long, if a little wild at the same time. She fingered a small blade that sat in her back pocket - her last resort. And then she eyed the gun he was carrying, realizing that her life was once again in jeopardy.

But really, what had she been thinking, pursuing him without a plan?

Days passed with the two of them living awkwardly together. Ash would eat, then Misty. Ash would sleep, then Misty. Misty would shower, then Ash. Misty would clean, then Ash. The two spent a minimal amount of time in the same room with each other, and there was no going out unless it was necessary (and for Misty, no going out at all). Ash wondered if Misty would be gone whenever he returned from some nameless place while Misty wondered if he would bother to let her back into his home if she left the house for even a little while. But at the same time both of them were feeling the same, as though they were fugitives hiding from the law. And while that may have been true for one of them, or so Ash assumed, both wanted to do something to break the ice just a little.

For the first time in almost a year, Ash wanted to socialize with somebody else. It was briefly entertained that he wished for this because Misty was the only other person around and he was still unsure as to what kind of person she was anymore. He found himself frustrated or angry for no reason after simply looking at her, maybe because even though he wasn't looking for answers anyway, it would have been nice if she offered him some once in awhile. But Misty remained closed off to him and she was content to stay exactly the way she was, never moving forward. Again, he assumed.

"I'm going to see Professor Oak." He told her suddenly one day.

Misty looked up at him as though about to ask why he would bother telling her such a thing. But she held back, taking in his rigid appearance and unsure expression. She didn't know what to expect, what he was expecting, but it seemed to be important to him. She even found herself a little curious as to why.

"Alright. I'll go too."

It wasn't what Ash meant, he was sure. If nothing else, he hadn't told anybody about Misty staying with him. As far as they all knew, she was still MIA. This would be her first time leaving his house at all, and he was expected to. . . what? Lead her to her first place of judgment? A few months ago when she'd first sought him out, he would have taken quite the grand pleasure in such a spectator sport. But now he was wary, unsure. If she was ridiculed too harshly, would she run away again? Would he feel somehow obligated to stop her?

He ignored the tumble of his stomach. Surely Misty had a reason for wanting to go with him. Maybe it was the very same reason that he had assumed. Maybe she thought that she deserved what was coming to her. Maybe part of her redemption was supposed to be about hearing everyone's disappointment and disgust in her. It was a twisted way to learn to forgive oneself but then again, he was the one wishing that she would never get that chance.

Because Misty had not gone out and because she had no assets of her own, she couldn't afford to buy any new clothes. Of course she had taken a rather bold step in learning not to bother Ash unless she had no other choice in the matter, so the first time she had nonchalantly approached him wearing one of his old tee-shirts, a pair of raggedy jeans, and a worn belt to keep it all together, the only thing he could do was stare. He had nothing available to say to that that was appropriate. Words failed him and all he could do was reason with himself about it. He had given her all of the liberties of a bread crumb in his house. She existed but he was too lazy to sweep her up and throw her out, and he really couldn't care less for her movements.

So the two of them set off for the Oak lab. Misty kept her eyes on all directions seemingly at once. there were other people who walked by the odd couple but, honestly, their eyes were on the more reclusive Ash who had decided to grace them all with his presence. Apparently, after a year's time, even Misty's name and face had been forgotten by the general public despite her part in unraveling Team Rocket. It also helped that her appearance was altered by her short hair and the simple aging process.

"O - Oh, Ash! I didn't. . . Usually you call first." Tracey started sheepishly with a hand to his scalp. Ash gave him a half-hearted grin in response, Misty hiding beside him, against the wall and out of sight. Even Ash felt a little apprehensive about this. Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea to come here. "Well, if you wanted to come in. . ." Professor Oak's assistant eased the front door open a little more to let Ash enter but he didn't just yet.

"Yeah, Tracey, I know it's been awhile, but I've been feeling like I needed to get out, so why not take the opportunity to visit everyone here, you know? Is the Professor around? In fact, maybe I should just show you too. . ." And Ash turned and looked Misty right in the eyes. She admitted to herself that she was a little scared, but she did have to tell someone. She knew any decent person would feel obligated to do so, just as much as they would want to protect. . . Well, anyway, it was easy to distract herself with the passing thought that it seemed true that, in all of the times Ash left her at his place, he'd never once mentioned going to the lab. He always told her where he as going but it was usually to the market.

"M - Misty. . ." She nearly jumped when she heard her name being called and finally caught up to present happenings. She looked up and saw Tracey gaping in awe, his head poking out the front door at Ash's insistence. Then he cleared his throat and shook himself from the shock, "Ah, sorry. But my guess is that you guys came for a reason right? Professor Oak should be finishing up with a video-phone conference right about now so come on in."

It had been a long time since Misty had been in the Oak lab, far longer than when she had been in the Birch lab. And that was still a couple of years ago. But she felt like this one was more. . . personalized? It was just as large, but she didn't see any unfamiliar faces. Maybe it had to do with what a small town Pallet was, or maybe it was because Professor Oak was older than Professor Birch. He wanted a place that looked like home rather than someplace completely professional.

She and Ash sat on the couch in the lobby area while Tracey prepared some tea for them to drink. He brought them a couple glasses and sat across from them in one of the few computer chairs, twisting it around to face them as they took their first gulp.

Misty felt very uncomfortable under his scrutinization up until the time when he decided to start a conversation with her.

"So. . . how have you been Misty? I didn't expect to see you here, and Ash never mentioned. . ." For obvious reasons, of course, Ash had never planned on mentioning anything. "I wasn't able to attend the trial as much because I was helping Professor Oak out here but both of us were really shocked when we heard that you'd left from Celadon City. Ash and Brock told us that you probably went looking for your father. . . Did you find him?"

It was the moment Ash was sure he'd been waiting for. He wasn't brave enough to ask those questions for himself but he decided he would gratefully take advantage of Tracey's curiosity.

". . . I'd rather not talk about it for now. I did have something to discuss with the Professor though," she faltered and gripped her half-empty glass a little tighter. It would never be half-full, "when he gets finished with his video-phone conference."

"Oh, alright then. I'll let him know. Ash, you probably came to see your Pokemon, right? Did you want to go out back now?"

"Yeah. Let's do that." And, as much as he had been dreading whatever Misty would have to offer him, he had to admit that he was a little more disappointed in the fact that she still had nothing to say.

Ash placed his glass on the small coffee table in front of him and Misty then rose from his seat, allowing Tracey to lead him past the three or so other computer desks and beyond the narrow spiraling staircase that would have taken him to the Professor's private office. There was a glass double-door behind that that made a strange hissing sound before opening automatically. Beyond that was still a small hallway. On the wall hung posters and television screens that depicted Pokedex information on different Pokemon or videos about League rules. Towards the end of the path was a small directory that told where different types of Pokemon were being housed, whether they were inside or out, if it was recommended to wear a hazmat suit in case of status effects or elemental discharge, or if a visitor should be vaccinated for something.

Of course he ignored all of this, having seen it before. And his Pokemon trusted him thoroughly so that his Muk would refrain from poisoning him. Even his Tauros stood still in his wake rather than stampeding forward anymore.

"Pikapi!" A high-pitched voice exclaimed in a yelp, and almost as soon as he'd exited through the back door and entered the outdoor preserve, a small yellow rodent had leapt at him. "Pika pikachu pipipi!" Pikachu continued as he crawled up his shoulder.

"Oh. . . Hey Pikachu. You're looking healthy. I'm glad you're taking care of yourself." He offered his buddy a small smile in reassurance though it didn't seem to work. Pikachu then leaned forward to lick his cheek as a sign of condolence just before catching a whiff of a distant yet familiar scent on his master.

"Pikachupi!" Pikachu shouted excitedly, his expression contorting suddenly before he shook his head in all directions as though trying to tell where the scent originated from. He seemed able to tell that Misty was nearby but now that they were outside with all sorts of other smells and the laboratory sealed shut behind them, he couldn't be anymore specific. "Pikachupi pika?"

"Ah. . . yeah. She's here too. Maybe you'll get to see her before I go home." But Pikachu could tell Ash was troubled by the possibility of their reunion and didn't want to push him. He was a relatively intelligent creature; he could sense his master's distress over the situation and he could also relate. It was so hard just to get Ash to visit him anymore. At first he'd been fiercer on him, Thundershocking him when he came around as if that would remind him to visit more often, but it never worked. It had ceased amusing him a long time ago. . . And after he had heard of Mrs. Ketchum passing away, he had decided never to push him again.

Ash was too close to the edge already.

Pikachu, of course, chose to remain on his shoulder as he toured the preserve with Tracey. He met up with Meganium, not as pleasant as Pikachu had been and nailing him upside the jaw with her Headbutt technique. He apologized to her as well, petting her until she calmed down and then moving on. He didn't like to be near his former partners for very long, believe it or not. He was always reminded of that itch he'd had when he was younger. Grasping a Pokeball, holding it up and pitching it forward onto the battlefield before it balanced perfectly in place, releasing one of his friends, returning back to his hand where he would clasp it to his belt and start shouting commands. Needless to say, the fire had not been put out. . . just simply suppressed.

He shook his head to escape the memories, as if it had ever been that easy. And after about an hour of journeying through the stables and fields and saying hello to all of the Pokemon he recognized (whether they were his or not), he turned back with Tracey and started walking back to the lab building in the distance. His throat was strangely parched and he couldn't figure out how to quench it. It was late autumn now so humidity wasn't an issue.

And then the glass doors slid open and he stopped and stared forward as though held there by some invisible bonds.

"Ash, what's wrong?" Tracey asked him. All the raven-haired young man could do in response was glance down at Pikachu and then back through the doors, picturing the hallway filled with posters and television screens blaring infomercials, and then beyond that. . .

"Pika pikachu. . ." Pikachu shook his head before rubbing his cheek against Ash's, a faint sparking of electricity channeling into life between them before flickering out again almost immediately. "Pi chu pika pika." And he leapt from his perch, landing swiftly on the grass and ushering his master forward again.

"Are you sure?" Ash asked him, grateful for his emotional sacrifice.

"Chu pika, Pikapi."

"Thanks buddy. . . Maybe next time you'll have the chance to see her."

When Ash and Tracey reemerged in the office area filled with desks and computers, they both glanced automatically at the coffee table where the two glasses of tea still sat, now empty. Misty was gone from there but they heard voices and looked up towards the upstairs landing of the spiral staircase leading to the Professor's private quarters and saw the only two people left in the building holding a personal conversation. As Tracey went to clear the table, Ash tore his eyes away from the familiarity that Misty was showing Professor Oak. It was unsettling to think that she could talk to the man as if she hadn't been AWOL for the past thirteen months, but when it came to him, she could barely muster up one sentence that didn't sound calculated and distant. She was guarded against him so much that he could barely comprehend her anymore.

Ignoring the hostility seeping into his consciousness, he turned away and walked to the front door to wait for her. Two or so minutes later, Misty had handed the Professor something small that Ash couldn't distinguish from his perch, shook the old man's hand, and slowly clambered down the stairs. Ash and Professor Oak exchanged a mildly friendly wave, unsure of how much they could extend it with the sudden reappearance of the redhead. A quick goodbye to Tracey and the two of them were on their way back home.

Misty still offered Ash nothing in the form of answers or explanations. In fact, she seemed even more rigid than before their visit, though he couldn't figure out why for the life of him. It was irritating. He could at least pretend to be aloof, careless, as if there was nothing in the world that bothered him. . . Misty, on the other hand, seemed as though she were carrying all of that weight that he refused to burden himself with anymore. Well, no matter. It wasn't as if he really wanted to know, right? He hated reminding himself of that plan to not care about her or her problems. He knew what that meant, to fake it, to pretend, to act as though she couldn't effect him. He had already been reduced to his former self, the one he had grown to be disappointed in, the one that always got hurt in the end. This was why he'd chosen to live alone and exist alone. Misty deserved his compassion least of all, didn't she?

"Ah. . ." He started as they approached the white picket fence that guarded his house. But the words didn't come easy. He snorted under his breath. They never came easy, did they? Why should they start now? But he still didn't know what to say to her. He didn't dare tell her to confide in him. He didn't want to open those doors, let her in. He didn't dare tell her to shove it either. If she were to make an offer then he wouldn't refuse her. His curiosity made sure of that, didn't it? But still. . . what to say? "Pikachu. . . said to tell you 'hi'."

Misty's step slowed to a stop right before they reached the yard. She didn't look at him, though he had been hoping beyond hope to see her facial expression when he'd told her that small bit of news. The old Misty would have loved to hear from Pikachu after so long being away from him. The Misty before him now either didn't care this whole time or she had simply forgotten about Pikachu staying at the preserve at all. Neither option made Ash feel any better. And then she finally said something.

". . . Thank you for telling me," and he realized why it had taken her so long to answer him. She wasn't shocked at the realization of Pikachu greeting her, she wasn't even happy that he told her. For whatever reason. . . Misty was crying. Or, well, on the verge of tears. Her voice was cracking anyway, and he was sure that she had simply been taking the time to gather herself together before telling him anything. But again, she didn't offer answers and he didn't offer questions. And though he was growing tired of this wall between them, he continued on. It was just another argument, just another fight. He would not let her win this one by giving in to her demands.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks, Ash began to see Misty less and less. This was not due to their unspoken plan to avoid each other at all costs while living in his home together but simply because she was never around. Misty had taken liberal opportunity to visit with the Professor as much as possible. At first Ash had assumed it was to get away from the tension the two of them had created by walking on eggshells whenever the other entered the room but he pushed aside that possibility soon after. She never returned to the house looking variably relaxed or dreadful towards her fate, never stayed away too long, and always walked away from him without a word.

Still, she began to get absentminded as the days wore on, then weeks. She ate less, wittled down her command of language to five or so words, and Ash began to see the signs of stress in her features. She wasn't sleeping much, crying more, barely paying attention to herself. If he didn't know better, he'd say she was depressed. At the very least, she seemed to be a danger to herself, so lost in her thoughts that she walked into solid objects, almost cutting off a finger once or twice while dicing vegetables in the kitchen. But the two of them never faced each other long enough for him to feel too guilty or ask her any questions.

While one part of him was grateful for the escape, another part of him was frustrated. He assumed it was because she basically only came home to eat (barely) and sleep. He had probably hoped that if she left the house, she would never come back. But this was practically teasing him and he didn't like it much at all. And worse than all of that, she had to keep visiting the lab! What, she decided that his company wasn't good enough for her and had gone to frollic and join someone else? Was he boring her? If she wanted the people around her to suit her tasteful lack of personality then she'd damn well better go somewhere else and stay there!

Or at least, those were the thoughts that raged within him up until the day she didn't come home.

There had never been a set time for her to return, and though she usually came back around evening, it was never due to a sense of punctuality. But nevertheless, Ash had grown accustomed to her walking in by six at night. At first he ignored his internalized sense of panic. Let her run away if she wanted to. She had shown him quite often in the past month that she had other places to go. She didn't need him and he didn't want her.

Of course, then the rain started in as darkness fell upon Pallet Town. It was strangely reminiscent of the day when she'd finally sought him out. And, dammit, he couldn't just leave her to herself. The way she'd been the past few weeks, he would fully expect to hear of her electrocuting herself somehow in the near-storm outside. Something about that just didn't bode well with him, believe it or not. So he donned a jacket, grabbed an umbrella by the front door along with his keys, and took off outside.

He didn't have to walk very far, however. As soon as he'd turned the bolt lock and swung around and down the few front stairs, he looked up at the gray sky and harsher winds and. . . Misty. She was standing just outside of the yard, staring at his house from the fence. She looked fearful, and even more-so when she saw that he was approaching her,quickly hiding something that had been clenched in his fist by shoving it into her pocket. But still she didn't move. Her clothes - or rather, his clothes - were drenched through. He was a little embarrassed to see the outline of her cleavage though it didn't effect the harsh tone or the words leaving his mouth next.

"What are you doing just looking at my house?" He shouted at her, flinging water on her as he swung his umbrella around almost threateningly. "In case you haven't noticed, it's raining right now! Hard! Either get inside or go back to the stupid Professor! I'm sure you'll be nice and safe and happy inside that effing lab-!"

"-Don't say that!" She yelled back at him suddenly. He stopped, biting his lip and blinking. She hadn't been that loud with him in a long time. He almost smiled at the thought that good, ol' Misty might have been back. Almost. But those memories were replaced by his confusion at her words. He was rather angry obviously, but she'd returned the favor with purpose. What in particular had he said that would have upset her this much?

"Fine then. Just come inside," he twisted the lock on the fence gate so that it opened with a slight creak. Then he took a hold of her nearest hand and tugged, pulling her alongside him, "with me." The contact didn't last very long however as the two of them approached the door and Ash let go so that he could fish the house key out of his pocket again. Misty didn't seem to mind, didn't even seem to register how much it might have meant, those few seconds of holding one another.

Then the door was tossed open and they both walked inside, shaking themselves a little drier (though it didn't work properly as the rain water basically exchanged hosts). Ash put his coat on the hook again, his keys on the small table by the front door and the umbrella right beside them. He flicked the light switch and the chandelier lit up so that the two of them could see they were standing in the kitchen.

". . . Can't believe she'd just stand there. . . ! As if it's so hard to understand that she should go inside if it's raining. . . Stupid, ignorant. . . Making me wander out there. . ."

"Look, you didn't have to, okay?" She replied irritably. Muttering as if she weren't even there to listen! "I'm sorry you had to be outside in that for a whole two minutes. I'm sure it really ruined your fantastic mood!"

"You know what, Misty? I don't wanna hear it from you! At least I did what any normal person would do! Going outside to look for someone he ca-" He stopped for a moment to change tactics and then attacked her again, "-but you were just standing there! Newsflash, Misty, you don't just stand outside of wherever you happened to be boarding while a storm is going on. People don't do that! That's why the roof was created a long time ago!"

"Well maybe I had a reason to stand outside! Maybe being out there, even with all of the lightning and rain and wind, was better than being in here with you!" She bit back at him with a cold glare.

"Apparently that's not all you'll resort to in order to get away from me though, is it? I hope that being with the Professor and Tracey has filled you up with all the joy in the world, I hope you leave and decide to move in at the lab, I hope-" His next hope for her was interrupted by the sudden toss of a spatula that had formerly been sitting on the kitchen counter. It barely missed colliding with his head as it sailed from Misty's arm and through the archway leading into the living room.

"-Shut up! Just shut up, Ash! Don't talk about things you don't understand! I hate that place, I'll never be able to un-hate it! And you! You just have to go and act like I'm doing this all with the express purpose of hurting you! Don't worry, Ash, you're not that special! And maybe," here she chose to pick up something with a little more impact to throw at him, "you can bother asking why I would choose to leave you behind when I go somewhere!" And with her shrieking finished, she threw the glass at him, her aim mismatched due to her bitter tears so that it hit the wall behind him and shattered in sync with some more lightning from outside.

The lights went out and Ash swore while Misty continued breathing hard. Then she took one last deep gulp of air and he heard the patter of bare feet running across the linoleum tiles in the floor. That too was interrupted soon after. She had already forgotten about the glass she'd thrown and had stepped on some as she ran away from him. Thereafter, all of the fluent steps turned to uncomfortable hopping as she cursed under her breath and made her way through the archway into the living room and up the stairs. There were a few more awkward thumping sounds, like maybe she'd slipped or fallen here and there, but other than that it was silent again inside.

Ash, even more careful after knowing that Misty had hurt herself a few seconds ago, stepped to the far left of the arch as he made his way through, slowly feeling his way forward until his fingers came into contact with the plush material of the couch. He ignored the blankets that marked this space as Misty's "bed" and laid down, his mind working a million miles a minute in the dark. There was nothing else to do after all since they'd lost power.

He still didn't know what Misty had meant about hating Professor Oak's lab or why she had been so angry. But his heart pounded in his head and his nerves tingled and there was a little smile on his lips. God forbid. . . it had been a long time but he'd actually enjoyed the fight. He spent so much time avoiding people, he didn't want to start trouble or end trouble, he just wanted to exist. Misty had torn that new livelihood from him and he'd been upset at first but otherwise ignored her. It was the best thing he could do. And then she'd finally met him word for word just like the good old days. She'd gotten loud and angry and ferocious. She had lashed out like she used to and he had liked it.

He took a deep breath as the adrenaline rush finally began to fade away. They both needed this, he realized. They'd spent so much time working against each other and the world over the past few months that they had given up on themselves. He hadn't risen to a challenge in over a year, and she hadn't let herself lose control for just as long. He knew why, of course. The one thing that he remembered clearly from the day Misty had abandoned them all back in Celadon City was when she and Daisy had begun to fight about running after Giovanni. Misty had gotten loud then, too, wanting to go, threatening to hurt someone if only to make a point about how much it mattered to her. And then she'd stopped, withdrawn completely, as if terrified of her own meaning.

And by doing so she'd started to change herself. Leading alone, fighting alone, running alone, living alone. . . He had become the same way because he'd. . .

". . . Back then, it was so confusing to me even though it shouldn't have been. I mean, I was going to fight Giovanni and avenge my mom, right? Or was I doing it because of the EAB? Did I want to save the world, or myself, or. . . When I went looking for help afterwards, I couldn't think of anyone else in the end. I'm sorry, Ash, I didn't know you'd turn out this way. . ." The sound of his own name reached his ears and he gave the slightest twitch of acknowledgment but stopped soon after. Someone was speaking to him or about him. Either way he hadn't noticed them walk in the room. Then again, opening his eyes just a little allowed sunshine to peak through and he smashed them shut again right away. He hadn't noticed the storm ending or falling asleep either. What was going on?

"I guess I shouldn't take all of the credit though," and Misty gave a hollow laugh, "seeing as that would be a little self-centered of me." She was quiet for a few seconds as she gave a hard sigh and he became suddenly aware of some strange scrubbing sound coming from her direction. Still he feigned sleep. "But I had really hoped to spare you any of this. God, I'm sorry. . . I thought I was doing the right thing in leaving you behind. You tried to convince me not to chase him but. . . I had to, you know I did. It wasn't even about responsibility. It was about saving you. I was a little misguided, sure, but. . . I've always wanted to do that for you."

She seemed to drop her voice a little as if she didn't want to chance him waking up. So as she murmured to herself, he pretended to flop over in his sleep so that he could hear her better with both ears. She fell silent for a moment, worried that she'd woken him. Incidentally she had, even if it was awhile ago. Still, she was finally talking and he wasn't about to let this opportunity pass him by. It was strange how his curiosity had overlapped any hate or frustration he'd been feeling before now. And still the thought crept up on him. . . Had she done this before? Walking in on him while he was sleeping and talking to him when she thought he wouldn't be able to listen to her. God, he hoped not, seeing as that would have meant she'd spent countless nights sneaking into his room to do so.

Finally assuming that he'd just turned in his sleep, she kept going.

"Once I saw what you were doing and how you were living, I wanted to ask why. I mean, surely I didn't do all of this. But you never wanted to see me again. I knew you didn't but I couldn't stay away. So for weeks, I just kept wondering until you finally said you were going to see Professor Oak. And if I went with you and was able to discuss with him certain things, I'm sure I'd also have the chance to ask my questions. . . about you. . . And to think I was going to leave again as soon as I was healthy. . . What's left of you now. . . ?

"I'm sorry," she repeated for the third time and Ash felt a ridiculous pang of guilt shoot through him. She should be sorry. Why did he have to worry about her reaction when it was no fault of his? He was more anxious to hear what else she had to say. "I thought I'd be better off knowing that I would end this alone. I thought I had protected all of you and that you'd keep each other upright while I was gone. I didn't think you'd actually lose contact with everyone like this. Don't you get it, Ash? You've always thrived on people. And you already survived without me once while you journeyed the Hoenn region. How was I supposed to know this would be any different? But you decided to live alone and I couldn't stay away from you. I-" She broke off suddenly here, the scrubbing sound coming to a stop, "-Ow!"

"Ow?" He leapt up from the makeshift bed instantly, throwing off the blankets that had somehow landed on top of him sometime during the night, "What ow? What happened?" His mind faster than his body caused him to hit the ground hard as he tried and failed to stand on his feet. He crawled over to her from the three meter distance and inspected her right hand, which was bleeding just a little. However Misty was past the initial sensation of pain.

"You. . . were awake?" She seemed a little angry at this, but more scared. She hadn't even realized he was holding her hand again, the same one he'd held last night, and was inspecting the nick to her flesh.

"Ah, yeah. . . What happened?" He asked before she could respond to anything else.

"It's nothing," she started, blinking, "I just cut myself. I must have missed a piece of glass when I was sweeping up. It's fine. I'm working on the blood now."

"Huh?"

Ash hadn't noticed it at first but it was a little obvious now. The beige carpet was stained here and there with drops of scarlet. And if he squinted he could see it smeared on the first step of the stairs to his right. The two of them sat underneath the archway where the tile floor met fluffy carpet and were separated by a strip of steel nailed to the ground. The worst of the blood from last night was almost gone, in the process of being soaked up by a scrub brush Misty had found, along with a bucket of bleach water.

". . . It's fine," Misty said and tore her hand away. "You were awake. I can't believe you were awake." She turned and threw the brush into the bucket of water and got up again. This was a bad idea for her as well, seeing as she'd just removed about a dozen or so shards of glass from her foot the night before. She slipped from the pain and fell back down again. "Fuck. . ." Ash stared at her, not sure if her choice of words was in reaction to the fall or because she knew he'd been listening to her sort-of personal conversation.

"Sh - should I help. . . ?" He started asking her and held out an arm but she swatted it away. It was still hard for him to treat her like a normal person.

"No! Don't you dare, Ash! You've spent the last fifteen months hating me for what I did. I wouldn't want you to forgive me now." She bit her lip and shook her head rapidly and he felt a frown set in at her behavior. "I've been working alone for awhile now. I think I can get up on my own as long as I take my time. I really don't want your help!" She shouted a little louder as he tried to do so anyway. It was enough to get him to back away a little, ". . . I just want to fix what I broke."

"Do you mean the glass?" He asked with a furrowed eyebrow, "No offense but I don't think there's anything you can do."

"Not the glass." She hobbled over to a chair, pulling her weight up onto it. "You. I mean that I want to fix you. Obviously there's not much you can do to help me there. You don't even consider yourself broken." His eyes widened a little bit as he slowly approached her, walking cautiously on the wet floor. Still, hearing her talk about him like that caused fury to ripple up his back and throughout his limbs though he waited a moment longer before saying anything about it. "We've been beating around this bush for months, Ash. Go ahead and do or say whatever you want. I owe you time and answers. I thought you'd be better off not knowing them, but I can see now that we won't get past this until you hear everything. I've resigned myself to this and won't hold anything against you. Do your worst."

Something in him had begun to boil over as she talked. He had forgotten, for a split second, that he was supposed to be angry at her. Now rejuvenated and with her the willing victim, he had so much to say but not enough breath in his lungs to unleash it.

"Fix me. . . You want to fix me? What are you going to use, Misty? Band-aids? Tape? Words?" He started, glaring down at her. "It's a little late for that, isn't it? I thought I'd gotten through to you. You know, that day in Celadon when you were trying to run away - again - and do it all on your own. You waited and heard me out and I thought I'd broken through, that we could start again, rebuild each other. But you left me there. . . I felt so stupid!" He laughed bitterly, turned and faced the wall. "And everyone was looking at me like I needed to be consoled and cheered up. All I could do was wish you'd come back so I could hit you, hurt you, make you realize that I'm not the one you should abandon!" He threw a punch at the wall to add emphasis, probably not his smartest choice but his hand seemed to be relatively okay so. . . He stopped at that thought, his fists and shoulders shaking and an edge to his voice as he tried to catch his breath. Misty remained in her seat so that he could continue.

"Don't you remember? We were best friends! We were partners whether we were training together or fighting with each other! I thought you knew that too but I guess not. I was angry, I was upset. I was beaten. You beat me, Misty. Is it the victory you wanted? I sure as hell hope so. I did worry a little, I admit it, but then you came back and all of that was gone. I just wanted to show you the same hospitality that you'd shown me by pushing you away. But you wouldn't even let me do that. You waited and waited until I let you in. Was it worth it? To cause me to fear people because they might end up like you? Or like the other people you've hurt? As if trust wasn't hard enough to come by, I can't even give anyone a friggen chance!" And his fist met the wall again. There was a snapping sound this time, and neither were sure right away if it came from the boards underneath the paint or Ash's knuckles.

"But go on, Misty, go ahead. If you think you can clean up the mess you made then give it a shot. It's not like you could do to me anything worse than you've done already." He turned and walked towards her again, shaking his wrist around to ease the pain. Misty admitted to being afraid for a few seconds due to the hostility Ash had just threatened her with before realizing he was actually heading to the other seat across the table from her.

"I'm sorry." She said for the umpteenth time. It seemed like as good a place as any to start. Her sorrowful tone of voice helped to sell it. "This is why I didn't want to come back. . ." She muttered to herself. He would have asked her what she meant by that but she spoke up again. Oh well. If they were really going to hash everything out then he was sure he'd get another chance. "When I was - er - finished with Giovanni, I didn't really know what to do. Officer Jenny offered to call the Cerulean Gym for me but. . . I was scared of talking to my sisters again. I didn't want them to look at me. I thought about Brock, too. I even walked to Pewter City and stared at the Gym for awhile, wondering if he'd be home or if you guys were still traveling around but I chickened out when I saw the Gym up close. It looked abandoned. And May's family was out too, seeing as they were all the way out in Hoenn. And they probably hate me for what I did to her. I was just so," she faltered here as though trying to come up with the right word to describe it, "tired. Finally I decided that you might be the best choice anyway. I figured there was a fifty-fifty chance that you were at home with your mom because of her. . . health condition. As much as you wanted to train to be Pokemon Master, you always cared about your family just as much."

". . . You're right. I cared about a lot of things." He conceded after a few moments of silence. Dammit, he wasn't supposed to be giving her answers as well! "But my mom died about eight months ago." He decided not to give any details on that. He still wanted Misty to suffer at least a little bit. "I will always put my family first, and my Pokemon, and my friends. . . I love all of them more than anything. I loved you too."

Ash decided he was all in just as Misty realized she had probably known this for a long time. Why else had she chosen to seek Ash out two years ago when she had been forced to make a move for or against her father? Because she knew he'd help her, because she knew she was important to him and he'd do whatever he could for her. Hadn't she even thought to herself at the time that running away from him would be useless because he would put his dreams on hold just to find her again? But to actually be here now with him telling her what she had been yearning to know for so long. . . She felt her chest clench up and her eyes start to pepper with the burning of tears. Shit. She didn't want to cry, but then she did. And she wanted to yell and kick and throw things some more too.

"All this time. . ." But he must have felt that he was making the wrong approach because he shook it off and tried to start over, "It was always going to be said but I never thought I'd have to say it like this. I was so in love with you back then that it was hard to see straight. No wonder Brock was always laughing at me. . . And then I was excited when you said you were going to meet up with us in Hoenn and journey with me again. I had been so long without you and I thought things would feel normal for me again with you there. That maybe I could finally tell you everything. It would have been perfect. . . Of course then it turned out Team Rocket was hunting you and Giovanni was your father. I still thought it'd be okay. I could put my feelings on hold for a little while longer. I mean, I'd ignored them for three years and endured them knowingly for three more. I was sure I could make it. And in discovering all of these new things about you, I knew that we would work out. You trusted me. You told me everything I'd been curious about, everything I'd questioned at some point or another. . . You did trust me, didn't you?" His elbows were on the table as he faced her, his head in his hands. He released a long sigh. He'd gotten through the worst of it.

"But. . . no, you didn't. You chose to side with a homicidal maniac hellbent on world domination because he what? Threatened us with a needle? If only you'd known everything I would go through for you. Poison is nothing compared to that. . . Think about it, Misty. I put myself at risk time and time again for a world I was just barely starting to know back then. I was constantly hurting myself, jumping over cliffs, being lifted into the sky against my will, almost drowning, facing evil, for Pikachu because he was my best friend. Imagine what I would have done for you." Well, at least he didn't seem as angry anymore.

It was the kind of clarity she had chosen to ignore all this time. Again, she had probably known this for awhile. Ash was Ash. He didn't even have to love her to know what he would go through for her. She was a friend so he cared. It was pretty simple without love even working itself into the equation. But when it smashed itself through her emotional doors anyway, she was reminded of why she'd chosen to follow Giovanni's orders. This hadn't been a matter of finding a cure for a slowly activated poison had it? No, he would have lasted at most a few minutes. All of which she would have suffered through. So she was a coward. She had long ago understood that about herself. This had been certain death. He would have died. And she would not have only watched him go but been the cause of it all along. But still. . .

So she finally knew the reason for his behavior - for her behavior. As it turned out, she would do anything for him just the same as he would do anything for her. Jumping over cliffs, lying, drowning, deceiving, facing evil. The whole deal. Ash would fight the world to keep her safe. And now that she realized that, she could face her personal demons. She would fight the world to keep Ash safe too. It had been beyond cowardice, beyond simple human relations. . . The two of them loved each other so much they would put themselves through anything. They were the same. It wasn't about not loving. It was about loving too much.

The only problem was that they'd chosen to keep those feelings from each other. Now Ash had told her how strongly he felt and considered himself alone. Emotionally, she had turned on him long ago, at least as far as he knew. She hadn't joined Team Rocket because she loved him too much to put him in danger. She had joined Team Rocket because she couldn't trust him to take care of himself or the others. Somehow she knew she had to fix that.

"I. . . loved you too. Jeezus, Ash, I guess you were just too dense to tell." He glanced up at her with a scowl at her insult but she continued speaking before he could actually respond. "Did you think you were the only one in the entire world who would do anything for someone you loved? All of those times I protected Togepi like she was my own daughter, all of the times I'd acted like a family with you and your Pokemon. Just because you're too quick at taking action to think things through doesn't mean you're the only person to ever put others before yourself. I would have run barefoot through fields of fire for you. It just turned out that my field of fire was Giovanni. So don't think you were in this alone. I'm the same as you, doing anything I could think of to keep you alive.

"You're right though. I had dreams too, and I had prayed that they all would happen someday. . . But I wasn't meant to be happy, I guess." It seemed that her emotional weight had suddenly tripled and she rubbed at her dry eyes and sniffed as though trying to clear her head. This gave Ash a moment to comprehend everything that she'd said.

"Wh - what do you mean. . . ?"

"Hah. . ." And with the weakest laugh, she continued, ". . . I - yesterday, I was so close to running away again. I mean, you saw me, you could tell. Couldn't you? I was staring at this stupid house like it was going to sprout legs and attack me. I wanted to go, too, even if I didn't know where. But. . . Professor Oak had told me what had happened to you. How your mom had died and what you'd been doing with yourself - or not - since then. Maybe he thought I could help you, as if it were even slightly possible when I'm so messed up, myself. It tore me up inside. . . I couldn't dare put you back together. You weren't a favorite toy from my childhood, you were a person. Someone that I had even done the damage to. So I was going to leave because. . . maybe because I thought it would somehow fix you on its own. After what I had to do at the lab yesterday. . . I just couldn't. . ." But she failed miserably here in telling him what he needed to know.

Ash did understand his own curiosity and frustration. He wanted her to tell him why she'd been visiting the lab almost everyday for the past couple months. And she had been so close in divulging the answer! How could she stop now? Worse yet, how could he ask her to continue when she looked so distraught about the whole thing? Even if she had told him she would answer all of his questions. . . But it was this conclusion that allowed him permission to ask.

"What happened? What did you do?"

"Yesterday, after weeks of preparation, someone from the League finally came and. . . killed Psyduck. . . All I have left is his Pokeball," which must have been the item she'd hid from him outside the day before.

"Wh. . . What?" He asked incredulously, leaping from his seat at the defense of any Pokemon that would be harmed by a human being. As little as he thought of her already, he had never once considered that Misty would allow a Pokemon - let alone one of her own that she'd trained with for years - get taken and murdered. "Why?"

"You don't tell a ten year old these kinds of things."

"What the hell does that mean? I'm not ten years old anymore!"

"No, you're not. . . so I can tell you now. But back when you had first started training, you didn't know any better. You weren't supposed to. But all Gym Leaders and League associates are told when entered into the system that they are obligated to report any Pokemon who defies and harms a human trainer who hasn't threatened them first. Honestly," and she broke off here with a wry grin, "you have no idea how many times I was going to report Charmeleon or Charizard. But I knew that Damion had abused him, we all did, so I held myself back. Brock too.

"Pokemon trainers starting out at age ten don't know anything about this law. Most trainers never even have that kind of problem, they never come into contact with Pokemon who don't obey them unless they haven't been captured yet. The Pokeball is more than just a contraption to contain a Pokemon, it's a psychological bond that is formed between Pokemon and trainer. That's why most Pokemon you've heard or seen abusing their trainer are ones that have been traded or abandoned at some point. And that's why I never reported Charizard. I was hoping that he would learn to trust you somewhere along the way. And he did."

"B - but Psyduck didn't, not that I ever knew of-!"

"No, you wouldn't know since I haven't told you yet." She faltered here and glanced up at him, fierce expression and all, "Sit down, Ash. Acting that way isn't going to get you answers any faster than I was originally planning on giving them." And after he did indeed regain his seat, she began her story once again. "After I ran away from you guys in Celadon, I chased Giovanni around Kanto for almost a year. I figured he was going to try and restart Team Rocket so I looked in every city that had ever been attacked by a large squad, and then I moved on to sub-HQ because he was going to try and salvage what was left. Only there was nothing left. I had turned over all Team Rocket locations to Alyssa during the trial, and she had obviously turned them over to Officer Jenny, who would have passed them out to her family. So finally Giovanni decided he had no choice but to backtrack to his roots, the Viridian Gym. If he could sneak in there and get past the security team and the new Gym Leader, he could find the secret entrance to his initial headquarters. But I found him before he even reached the city, just on the edge of Viridian Forest."

Her mind flashed back to that day, her senses immediately haywire at the adrenaline spike. She could still see the new cluster of trees covering what had formerly been another entrance into the Viridian Rocket base. She could smell pine and yet the sharp scent of civilization hung somewhere in the sky. It had been a long time since she'd been around people. She knew, just knew, that he'd be here. And sure enough, when he had exited through the overgrown brush behind her and began his approach, she was almost too confident. Until she laid eyes on the gun in his hand. No, he probably knew it was over for him. . . but he still had no problem taking her down with him.

"And then what?" Ash asked her, and she snapped back to the present. At this point she wasn't even sure what she'd told him last but she'd keep going anyway.

"And then we struggled. He threatened me. . . He had a gun. I. . . I remember him shooting me in the hand. I thought for sure I'd never be able to use it again without some sort of medical assistance." Ash seemed slightly alarmed, remembering the mangled flesh he'd seen some odd few months earlier. He hadn't known what she'd done to it but having it almost blasted off seemed to earn the slightest bit of sympathy from him. "I remember slicing him in the wrist, stabbing myself in the shoulder because I was so terrified and in pain that I could barely move." Her nerves had been shot, she had probably been going into shock. She still didn't know how she'd been able to pull herself back and continue fighting.

"Because of the training he'd forced me into while I was a member of Team Rocket, I was able to use my age and the foliage to its full advantage. But when I leapt up into the trees, I. . . dropped something. I didn't notice right away, and I think Giovanni was so focused on ending me that he didn't either." Misty wasn't very confident in admitting to Ash that she barely remembered anything after that. The pain had refused to numb while she kept forcing herself to move forward. She knew that she'd thrown her pocketknife at him somewhere along the line, hoping it would make contact and impale itself somewhere vital. Giovanni would have had to stop and nurse himself for at least a minute, remove the blade or choose to leave it be in case of it causing more blood loss. . .

"But it didn't land. I wasn't able to find it after. . . Well, I know that he was able to scout my position because of that stupid move. He shot up at me and, though he didn't get me obviously, he did manage to crack the tree branch I was in. I fell and hit the ground, and I scrambled to find the knife but couldn't. I was sca - I mean. . . I was going to call on one of my Pokemon but I couldn't. I didn't want them to do something that would get them killed later," which had been a moot option at that point anyway. "Then Giovanni was going to end me, I finally screamed. . . He laughed at me and then there was a flash of red light."

Ash thought at first that she meant it mentally, as in she had snapped and done something crazy. Though what was crazier than seeking out a psychotic man in hopes of returning him to the hands of justice? But next thing, Misty had elaborated on just what she meant.

"It. . . turns out that the thing I dropped when I climbed up into the tree was a Pokeball. Psyduck's Pokeball. You know him. . . He always shows up just when it's inconvenient." And as bitter as she sounded, she gave a slight cry of despair. She had hoped and prayed to keep her Pokemon out of it. Why had she taken them with her on that journey? She still didn't have an answer to that. "B - but even then. . . Psyduck wanted to defend me." She hadn't been able to tell at the time if her Pokemon had recognized Giovanni as someone who had imposed his torturous stay at Team Rocket or if he had been as impulsive as he had years previously when overcome by his psychic power.

Still she remembered how Psyduck's eyes had glowed an electrifying blue and he had silently lifted the man off his feet. The power he was exerting wasn't even enough to stress his limits. To think that a life could be threatened so easily by a creature with his kind of strength. Giovanni had choked for air as psychic power clenched his throat shut, even twitching the neck left and right as though wanting to snap it to pieces. But Psduck admittedly relented when Misty called out for him to stop. She had never, ever wanted to put her Pokemon at risk for this mission! She would have rather died alone!

"Misty. . . you're crying." Ash's voice caused a shock wave to course through her and she almost slipped from her seat. Then she realized he was right and began to wipe at the tears with her hands but they didn't stop. She was furious with herself. She hadn't even noticed them and now she would have to see past them while Ash stared blankly at her because he was like most guys, never knowing what to do with a crying girl. "I'll get you something. Hold on." He rose from his seat and walked around her towards the kitchen sink, over which hung a paper towel dispenser. He wet it with warm water and then turned and handed it to her. "This'll do for now, I hope." And he was sitting across from her again, ready for her to talk some more.

"I didn't know what to do. By the time I realized what was happening and had called Psyduck off, Giovanni was already laying on the ground, barely moving. All I could think was that it was over, finally over. But I was still scared. Giovanni wasn't dead and I couldn't kill him anymore. He wasn't. . . himself at that point. And Psyduck was just standing there looking at me as if he couldn't see what he'd done, as if he were waiting for me to order him to do something else. . . I found his Pokeball and called him back and just sat there for the rest of the day. I cleaned myself up with the last of my supplies, trying to stitch myself back together and. . ." She took a moment to wipe away more tears from her face because they wouldn't stop falling no matter what she tried, "Shit," she muttered again furiously but had moved on soon after, ". . . And I waited for him to get back up but he didn't. He wasn't dead but Psyduck had put so much pressure on his brain that he'd caused permanent damage. I didn't sleep that night so I was wide awake when Giovanni vacated his bowels. And then I finally understood. . . he would never recover and I was just biding time trying to figure out what to do about his body."

Over the course of the next thirty minutes, Misty went on to explain how she'd put her best face on and sought out Viridian City's Officer Jenny the next day. The women recognized each other from the year before and Jenny had known to believe Misty's story when the two went back to investigate her father. Giovanni's body was taken into custody, placed in the hospital until the League and government could get together to figure out what to do with him. Misty may have been his daughter by blood but she was in no state or place to be his medical council.

Misty explained everything to her audience in Viridian about the gun, the knife which had been found during investigation of the scene, she told them all about their injuries. He had shot her, she had cut him, stabbed herself in order to keep moving. The only thing she neglected to mention was that her Psyduck had been the one to deal the final blow. Why? Because she knew what they would do to him. Admittedly, she knew what she had to do as well but. . . but she couldn't do it just yet. She was too wounded in every sense of the word. As far at they knew, it could have been caused by his own body malfunctioning (he was an elderly man after all), or by another Pokemon, one who had wandered into the area and had been hostile towards the violent intruder.

Eventually Giovanni was pronounced a vegetable and the League decided to pull the plug. She didn't have to stay long enough for the autopsy, and had been released after giving her statement and waiting around a few extra weeks for verification from the crime scene investigators. Officer Jenny had begged her to go to the hospital and be seen for her own injuries but she had declined, her mind a million miles away. Since she wasn't in life threatening danger from them anymore, the officer had no choice but to let her go in the end. And so Misty had set her sights on her next destination. . . But where was she to go?

Of course she'd already explained why she'd chosen to see Ash, and why she'd ended up regretting it time and time again. Now he knew the whole story as well, why she had to stay with him even when she was so put off by who he'd turned into. She had to see Professor Oak about Psyduck, which led back to the League. They had been disappointed in her for not disclosing the truth about Psyduck's involvement at first but she had done the right thing in the end, and she told them she'd always planned to. They knew she had been damaged psychologically by the events and let her keep the rest of her other Pokemon. It was an extraordinary case and great circumstances led to even greater solutions. She herself was not a dangerous person, she had tried to keep her Pokemon out of it, had told Psyduck to stop torturing the man as soon as she came to and saw what was happening. Reasonable doubt led to her freedom.

But truth had a price of its own, didn't it? And now Psyduck was just as gone as his Craudant, or Brock's Vulpix. . .

"It's. . . okay, Misty." Dare she believe that he was trying to comfort her? Even if she knew very well that it would never be okay. She had done so many wrong things and had ended up having to end a life because of what? Because she had been taught from a young age to believe that Pokemon should never wrong someone who had not first immediately wronged them. But Psyduck had been more like family than Giovanni, more sympathetic and familial and. . . He had not deserved the fate he'd been dealt! "It will be okay. Psyduck was doing it to save you. Cry with everything you've got. . . You're in mourning. It's okay to cry when you're mourning over the death of family."

She didn't realize it at first but her head had hit the tabletop and her arms were thrust outward and she was wailing into the tablecloth. The next thing she knew, a hand was covering hers and gripping her clasped fist in a soft and caring way. When she finally looked up again, she was able to see Ash's face just enough to notice he was crying too.

Ash had neglected tears when his mom died, something that only a few people were close enough to know. Maybe it was because he knew she would die long before it happened, because she was the last thing the world could take from him before he would turn to nothing. . . Maybe it was because he'd loved her so much that there were not enough tears in the world to shed. He hadn't been in the mood to look for answers at the time of her death or, later on, her funeral. He had just been silent and bitter throughout all of it, including when Professor Oak had pulled him into a hug afterwards and wept for the woman as well.

But he could cry now, or at least that's what his heart was telling him. He was strong enough to truly handle the grief. Someone else was grieving as well. He would not be alone in this sweet surrender. He and Misty would recover together for all that they had lost and they would relish in the fact that they had finally found something they could build back up. . . even if that something happened to be each other.

OoO

After their breakthrough, the two of them set out together to try and clean up the mess that had been made the night before. Unfortunately, the blood had set into the carpet and dried and the two of them weren't sure about using bleach, which led to them paving another path forward.

"Hey Brock, we. . . haven't talked in awhile so. . ." Ash ended here when the phone had stopped ringing and he was looking at the face of one of his oldest friends, "How are you doing? How's the Gym?" It was noted that he looked relatively well, maybe a little tired and unshaven, but still.

Brock didn't respond at first, presumably getting over the shock of Ash actually reaching out to him after so long. The two of them had remained in contact after Misty had left, though they had never resumed traveling. Ash had said that he needed to stay home with his mom at least for a little while, to make sure she was okay. Of course, she had never been able to recover, had instead gotten worse, and after her death. . . well. . . Ash had given up on people. Brock had tried to push for some socializing but he had been blocked every which way he tried to turn, even when it had to do with cooking or going out to restaurants, the same avenue that Professor Oak had attempted to use.

This in turn had caused him to break a little more as well. He hadn't realized that Ash had fallen so far after Misty failing him emotionally but then thinking of it, it made all the more sense. Ash had loved her after all, and had attempted to revive their relationship at least a few times. But then Misty was gone, crack number one. And May had returned home before they'd even been able to help her recover from her paranoia, crack number two. At this point he'd lost his outgoing persona. And finally, the coup de grace, Mrs. Ketchum had died. That had been all his psyche could handle. Since then, the two of them had not said more than five words to each other. Now Ash had called him out of the blue and said twice as much in one breath.

"Ash?"

". . . That's right. Uh, are you okay?"

"Is it really you, Ash?"

"Yeah," the smallest of comforting smiles before he continued, "How have you been? How's your. . . family?" The word had become rather hard for him to say since he'd lost his own.

"They're fine. They're gone." Then he caught his almost-slip up and tried again, "I mean, all of my siblings left on their journey. Dad had some trouble running the Gym about five months ago so I stepped back in as leader until the League could train an assistant and send them out here to help him. They should be here in a few weeks." He didn't know what else to say that wouldn't be taboo after so long, so he trailed off.

"Oh." Another small smile, flashing by so quickly that it was impossible to tell if it was real or not. "Well it's good to know that you're doing well. Um, anyway, there was a reason I called and, you know, since you were always good when it came to these kinds of things. . ."

"What things? What can I do to help? Anything." He said it desperately because all he had wanted to do all along was help. It was just hard to know how to save someone from things they couldn't accept, or rather, from themselves.

"Uh, well, I have some blood stains on my carpet and I was sort of wondering what I should use to get them up?"

Brock stared at him for a moment longer than necessary, obviously trying to figure out how Ash had lost any blood at all, let alone enough to mess up the floor. For the life of him, he just couldn't figure out what would cause something like that unless the injuries were many in number and self-inflicted. Or maybe he was attacked, as unlikely as it was for someone like him who never left home and who had barely any enemies left. But he chose to ask anyway.

"How did you get blood on the carpet?" He asked, his tone somewhere between a distraught friend and an authoritative parental figure. His words were cut off as another relatively familiar face floated on-screen, Misty finally making her reappearance.

"Hi. . . Brock." Funny how the name of someone you never expected to hear from again could sound so foreign on your lips.

"Misty. Oh gods, Misty, it's you. . ." A hand crept to his brow, sweeping through his hair as he began a deep breathing regimen. He couldn't believe this. After so long wondering what had become of her, after expecting to turn on the news and hear of a body being found matching her description, after praying that somehow, she would realize where she was needed, she would mysteriously reappear and work things out. . . Had she? Had they? But then, Ash had mentioned blood. A quick glance at his two old friends from through the monitor told him that - whatever the case was - they weren't hurt that badly. No cuts or bruises, well, except for. . .

"Ash, what happened to your hand?"

"My. . . ?" Ash seemed confused until he looked down at it. He hadn't even noticed it himself until just then, the way the knuckles had swollen purple. In truth, it didn't really hurt too much, rather giving an uncomfortable tingling sensation. "Oh, it just got. . . banged up a bit. A heat of the moment thing. I guess I'll regret it later but for now it seems to be okay. . . I think. . . Why are you asking?"

"Why? Because you were talking about blood on your carpet! And now I hear that Misty's suddenly there with you! And your hand, and the blood, and what else was I supposed to think except for you guys had started a fight to the death between the two of you but it had somehow gotten disrupted because there was enough blood to notice so you had to stop and call me to figure out what to do! Although I can't understand how you'd interrupt something as crucial as that just to deal with the clean up but I'm just happy you finally contacted me after so long and I really can't believe Misty's there with you too and how long has she been staying with you anyway? Because she's wearing your clothes from what I can tell and, dear god, Ash, tell me you didn't do something like that because that's definitely not how you want to reacquaint yourselves with one another-" He finally had to stop for a moment, if only to catch his breath after that hell of a rant.

"Jeezus, Brock, slow down!" Although Ash had enough grace to be embarrassed by what his friend was insinuating, "No, nothing like that happened. Not really. It's just that she doesn't have anything else to wear right now. And the blood is from. . ." He didn't want to broach the subject of their fight, and he didn't want to get into the details of the story that fight had led to. They would get there in time but for now, he had other things he wanted to deal with. Firstly, the blood, and secondly, well. . . it was just really nice to see a friendly face. "It's fine Brock, don't worry about it too much. It's not that bad, just a couple drops here and there. Misty cut her foot and was dense enough," here was payback for her calling him the exact same thing earlier that morning, "to walk around on it so we're just trying to clean up the mess she made." She glared at him, enough for Brock to notice.

"So. . . how are the two of. . ." But Ash cut him off again, something he was finding very irritating very fast.

"We'll talk about that some other time. Can you help me out with the blood?"

"Sure, Ash, whatever. . . There are a couple of recipes you can use for it. Do you have a pen and paper? The first one is rather simple but the second takes some scientific knowledge so. . ." Brock went on to explain the use of hydrogen peroxide, followed by a rather detailed instruction on diluted dish detergent and a timetable. Ash wrote fervently for the next few minutes while both Misty and Brock stared him down.

"There! Thanks Brock. I'm gonna go try this now so I'll talk to you in a little while. . ."

Ash was quick to jump to his feet and take off around the corner leading back into the kitchen where he and Misty had left the bucket of bleach water earlier on. He dumped it all out into the sink and started anew, leaving the other two of them to sit there and wait for the other one to say something. Truth be told, he was a bit too quick, and Misty and Brock had to wonder if he'd planned his escape so that they would have a moment alone together to catch up without him invading on it. It was a rather sweet gesture, though Misty still wasn't sure what to say or, in fact, if she really had anything to say at all.

"Ash says you two haven't talked in awhile. . . But you seem as close as always, don't you?" She practically teased with a small smile. It had always been easier to crack a joke rather than approach the topic seriously. Brock wasn't very amused at the possibility of it though so he tried to take the comment seriously.

"Yeah, well, believe it. A couple months after you left, Mrs. Ketchum died and he didn't know what to do with himself so he holed up back home and refused to contact me at all. Don't worry, Misty, neither of us suffered much by having to ignore one another." He told her bitterly with a small glare. She heaved a sharp breath. She had already faced one person so angry with her choice to run after Giovanni that she wasn't sure she'd survive the encounter. Did Brock plan on allowing her the same treatment?

"Do you realize that, even now, he's hurting so much from being around you that he's left you to me? He trusts me to hurt you because - whatever you guys did to break the ice - it's forced his hand. He doesn't think he's capable of doing all of the horrible things he'd originally wanted to do to you anymore. He didn't leave us alone to catch up. He left us alone so that I could yell at you and tell you to stop ruining him and to get away before you make it all worse. . ." He faltered here as her eyes went wide from the acknowledgment. It wasn't that she hadn't known necessarily. She'd always been able to gage Ash's responses best of all of them. . . Even now, when she wasn't sure who he was anymore, she could still figure him out better than most.

". . . But I don't know if I can do that. Because, despite what Ash may think he needs, seeing you again has forced him to change. And it's for the better. He's contacted me for the first time in almost a year just to ask about stain removal. He has a thousand other sources for that, such as the Internet, where he could avoid talking to people altogether. But seeing you again has made him realize that he can't live that way forever."

"Th - thank you for saying that-"

"-No, don't thank me, because I'm certainly not thanking you. Don't get me wrong Misty, I'm happy that you're safe and I'm glad that you and Ash are. . . trying, if nothing else. But don't think that you can fix it all just like that," and he snapped his fingers on-screen for good effect, Misty flinching at the sound, "when you couldn't even decide a year ago if you could take his words of advice about Giovanni to heart. He was trying so hard back then to make you see how much he loved you, more than almost anyone, because even the greatest fool could tell you were suffering internally. But what you did to him when you ran off after your father, well, it. . ." He sighed here, finally drawing his argument to a close, ". . . Let's just say it was the one battle he never stood a chance against winning."

Misty stared at him before finally collapsing into the seat Ash had vacated about two minutes ago. She could feel her eyes start to prickle with tears again but knew it was useless. It would make her feel a little bit better, but she'd rather feel better when nobody was around to witness her spectacle. So she took a few deep breaths and calmed herself, the feeling receding back and vanishing a few seconds later.

"I can't do this to you much more. It's not really my place. I am happy that you're alive though, please understand that. Just promise me something, okay?" He asked her, waiting for her nod before he continued, "Promise me that, as hard as things are going to get for the two of you, that you won't run off and disappear on him again. I don't know what any of us will do if Ash loses that last piece of himself but it won't be pleasant for you. I can assure you that much."

Misty gave a slightly melancholy grin as she replied to his statement. She knew what she had to do after all. She had other promises to keep besides this one.

"Don't worry, Brock. I don't plan on it."

A few days later, however, she was making plans. Not to run, no, but to continue repairing Ash's damaged persona. Of course he knew nothing of this, though she did have some help from Tracey.

In fact, she would have to thank him sometime later since he'd ensured the two of them some private time with Ash's Pokemon.

"I. . . I still don't see why you have to come though. I mean, I have nothing against seeing Pikachu and Meganium and the others, but why do you need to be there? What's the point in it?" Ash asked her as they approached the front door of the lab once again after what seemed too long ago. "Besides, I thought you. . . hated this place." He had hoped to phrase it with a more subtle tone but the words had slipped out before he could think them over.

But since when had he wanted to think over his harsh mannerisms towards her anyway?

"I do," though she sounded more scared than angry, "but this is important to you, right? And it's not like I'm going to bother you. You're going to see your Pokemon. I'm just along for the ride." She rung the doorbell as soon as they'd reached the front stoop. Truthfully, it seemed like she wanted to move on as fast as possible. Then again, Psyduck's execution had taken place inside the lab and they were going out back. Maybe she was just trying to reach the place where she wouldn't be constantly reminded of what had happened. Outside staring at the pastures and Pokemon houses and interacting with friends she hadn't seen in a fair few years. . . This might've been good for her too. Or, well, better than he'd originally thought it would.

"Oh, there you two are! You ran a little late, huh? It's fine though, it gave me more time to set up." Tracey gave the two of them a friendly grin as he yanked the door wide open and let them in, pointing towards the hallway he and Ash had traveled through last time they were here. "I pulled all of your Pokemon from their ranches, Ash, and I set up a picnic table. And Professor Oak said we could put the others back in their houses. Go have fun, okay?"

"Um, sure. . ." Ash replied with a furrowed brow. He distinctly felt like he was missing out on something important.

"Pikapi. . . !" Pikachu exclaimed when he caught sight of his trainer. Of course, that was nothing compared to the overly-emphatic reaction he had to the next person he laid his eyes on. "Pikachupi!" And he took off for the two of them, changing course at the very last second and leaping into his master's arms. It was hard to act as though Misty wasn't a friend anymore, even knowing how many times she'd wronged Ash. But he was loyal first to his trainer before anyone else he'd met.

"Hey, Pikapal!" Ash hugged him close and reacted a lot more enthusiastic than last time. When he'd finally pulled away just enough to notice his facial expression, he gulped and gave his permission. "Go ahead, buddy. I mean, I don't mind if you greet Misty too. I guess that's really why she's here." And he threw a slight glare back at her for basically lying to him before. Then he loosened his grip and let Pikachu leap away, exchanging hosts.

"Pikachupi!" Pikachu yelped again after his lunge, rubbing affectionately against Misty's chin. It was a little awkward at first, especially when Misty felt a small bolt of electricity course through her (probably Pikachu's warning or punishment for what she'd done to Ash), but she accepted the pleasant feeling of an old friend who didn't want to throw her away immediately after. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been granted acceptance from someone who could also judge her unworthy.

While Pikachu and Misty got reacquainted, Ash gathered around some of his other Pokemon that he hadn't gotten the chance to see last time. Again, Meganium was at the front of the line, but he did meet up with Heracross and Bulbasaur soon after, and even his Tauros rampaged around them at some point before vanishing mysteriously into another part of the preserve. Muk slithered by and tackled him to the ground, holding him there in his version of a hug.

It felt good, though it was something he hadn't prepared for. He didn't want it to feel good. He didn't want to experience that sensation that came with evaluating his former accomplishments because it always led to more disappointment in himself that he couldn't haphazardly run around and play that character and that game anymore. But why not? What was really keeping him from doing just that? This question was answered as he stared at his own hands - one bandaged up so that the bruised knuckles could heal and the other one gripping at his thigh, his fingernails digging into his jeans. Dammit. . . Just what the hell did he still have to be scared of?

But that question didn't have an answer just yet, unlike the others that he was slowly deciphering

He and Misty sat down to lunch with all of his Pokemon, the table set for three so that Pikachu could join them. Unfortunately, most of the others were too large to sit on the benches or squat on top, so they had to eat beside them on the ground. Before the two of them had noticed it, a couple of hours had passed them by. Misty had started befriending the Pokemon she hadn't met yet who had been captured in Hoenn and survived the encounter with Team Rocket's researchers, also reintroducing herself to those she had watched Ash capture before leaving him behind in Viridian City when she was fifteen years old.

Her brow furrowed as she thought it over, taking a bite out of a sandwich Tracey had made for them earlier that day. She hadn't realized until just now how many experiences she'd had to face in Viridian. How could she have not seen it before? It was where she met Ash, where she left Ash, where she had to capture Ash and take him to her father, where she had found her father again and put an end to him. Honestly, she was beginning to hate that place. (Speaking of which, how did she not hate it already?)

"Something wrong?" Ash found time to ask her even as he continued to contentedly watch Pikachu nibble at his Poke Chow.

"No, nothing, not really. . ." And she went back to staring through him even as he sat there, watching Pikachu with a sad smile. Something, maybe a quote she'd read somewhere before, came to mind as she took in the sight.

"Some stories about humankind leave me to believe that there is hope for us while others make me think that we stand no chance against retribution and must be living on borrowed time."

Which story do I want to help write? It was the last courageous burst needed to make her move. So with nerves of steel and a stubborn mind, Misty went for it.

"Hey Ash," she said the name as if it didn't terrify her to know that she was here, now, doing this to the both of them again, "since we're here, why don't we have a Pokemon battle? It's been awhile and I bet Pikachu could use the exercise."

But at the very sound of such a challenge, Ash and Pikachu both froze, their breath stolen from them. Misty was right, then. It had been a very long time since they'd trained together. Pikachu looked torn, as confident as he'd been so long ago but also facing the mortal distress of his trainer. What would he be more loyal to? His own instincts or Ash, who looked ready to make a run for it?

A coward? Maybe. But it should have been just as hard for anybody else who was forced to travel back down the path long abandoned.

"No. . . thank you." He forced himself to say as politely as possible, but he was indeed panicking.

"Why not?" She asked in reply, taking a small sip of her drink to hide her face and concentrate on any of the possible things he could say back to her.

"Gee, I don't know," he started sarcastically, but she beat him to the punch in terms of a smart-assed comeback.

"Oh, well, I think I do. Are you scared that I might beat you? I mean, I can see why I guess. For all you know, I've been spending the past few months training here while you've been sitting at home doing nothing. I guess you should be worried, I guess you should decline my challenge. You know, since you've lost your edge."

"Wh - what the hell?" He started, leaping from his seat in frustration at her immature tactics. Pikachu was up in arms too, hardly daring to believe that Misty would do this to his trainer when he was in such a fragile state. But at the same time, he wondered. . .

"It has nothing to do with me losing my edge! I - I mean, it's not true! I'm just as good a trainer as I was a few years ago. I could take you on any day! Just. . . just not today. I don't feel like hurting your Pokemon!" Which could have translated into something along the lines of, "I only want to hurt you!" The thought frightened Misty a little, since she'd hoped the two of them would have moved on some but apparently not. Had she chosen to do this too soon for him to stand?

"Right. I'm sure you could, seeing as you haven't participated in a battle in a good two years now. Don't hold back for my sake, Ash; I think I'll manage to be okay." She gave the kind of theatrical sigh that would have amused him if she hadn't done so many bad things to him over the past couple of years, but all he could see now was red.

"Dammit, Misty, shut up before I make you! You don't know what you're talking about, you-"

"-I, I, I what? Don't stand there making threats unless you plan to actually do something. You're sort of a disappointment, Ash. I remember times when you would have put someone, anyone, else in their place by now for telling you off like I am. I guess you're okay with being a loser-"

"What the fuck?"

"-coward-"

"Shut up!"

"-second-rate, second-class-"

"I'm serious!"

"-sorry excuse for a trainer." She watched him as he stared her down, breathing fire from his nose in fury, before giving it one last go. "You know what? I don't think you quit training because of what happened with me, or because of your mom. You quit because you knew all along that you'd never stand a chance in the end when it came to professional tournament matches. Everything else that's happened was just a convenient excuse. You took the easy way out, didn't you?"

"Dammit, that's it!" He shouted, his self-control shattered by her insults. How could she. . . ? How dare she? And he thought that the two of them were beyond those things! For her to bring to light all of his fears and failures because she what? Needed someone to call temporary competition? Well, she would fucking get hers and that was for sure! "Pikachu, what do you say? One on one against Misty?" Pikachu nodded affirmatively and the two of them faced the redhead again, "You're going to regret saying all of those things!"

Misty gave the most confident smile she could afford before replying, "Bring it on."

The two of them didn't have a referee as Tracey had to deal with paperwork and neither of them had seen Professor Oak yet that day but they didn't really care. Well, Ash was too pissed off to do so and Misty knew better. They didn't have much time to spare and she was sure that Ash wouldn't abuse his Pokemon on the battlefield. Not that she would try to do so either.

The next thing they knew, both of them were facing each other, a spread of sixty square meters worth of green land acre between them.

"I choose you, Pikachu!" And Pikachu leapt forward with an indignant shout of his own name.

"Let's see. . ." Misty contemplated and removed something from a belt that had been lassoed around her waist, hidden by the too-long tee-shirt she was wearing. "Ah, this should be alright. I choose you, Gyarados!" And she threw the Pokeball forward onto the field where it popped open, releasing a red light that formed the silhouette of a large, dragon-like creature. The Pokeball snapped shut once more and flew back into Misty's hand and she clasped it to the belt again until she would have to retrieve her Pokemon later on.

Gyarados let out a ferocious roar, though he seemed more content than anything after being cooped up inside for so long. He twisted his head around to stare at his trainer, the redhead he hadn't seen in months, before turning to finally get a look at his opponent. To his shock - (dismay?) - it was the boy she was supposedly friends with. He had only faced this boy once before, but even then it hadn't been as an adversary. When you were friends with someone, weren't you supposed to get along? He looked much angrier than someone battling for the sake of friendly competition. What the hell was going on?

However he didn't have much time to gather any answers.

"Pikachu, use Iron Tail!" Ash shouted, and Pikachu nodded and started dashing forward at top speed. And considering his was a mouse-based Pokemon - yeah, that was pretty fast even without the boost of Agility. And still, the sea dragon's "enemy" was gaining in strength, his tail starting to glow the white light of something coated in silver steel.

"Gyarados, Protect yourself!" Misty called out, shocked already. Ash was battling with a type advantage. How come he hadn't started out with an electrical attack and made for a quick lead? But she couldn't dwell on it when she had a point to make. "Then use your head!" This was translated into his Headbutt technique, which he approved of. He slithered forward with another roar, and Pikachu's tail made perfect contact. However the combination of the Protect and his trainer's quick thinking on counter-offensive knowledge caused a recoil for both of them and they bounced back, propelled towards their trainers again.

"Fine then, if you want to play it rough. . . But I'm not going to give up!" Ash shouted, then blinked with wide eyes at his own resolution. He hadn't even wanted to do this in the beginning, had he? But he shook it off. Whatever. He was here now. And he had something to prove to her. "Start with Agility, then Quick Attack! Try turning it into a Volt Tackle!"

Shit. But then again, she had known all along what was coming. She hadn't ever seen Volt Tackle in action before so she wasn't sure about defensive or evasive measures she could take. If this had been all for fun, she might have let him carry out the attack just so she could gain the experience of seeing what kind of damage the particular technique carried but she couldn't afford to take the chance.

Pikachu started chanting the first two syllables of his name as he picked up speed and leapt forward nearly three steps at a time. The ground, wind, all rustled around his small body and, for a second, Misty was sure both she and Gyarados had lost sight of him. Then he reappeared, clawed his way up the water-snake's scaly hide and thrashed him upside the head half a dozen times, finally losing balance and beginning to fall back down. Unfortunately, he twisted around and gained control of the gravity that was working so hard against him, landing on his feet as Gyarados swaggered side to side to shake him off and away. The electric mouse circled around him until he found an opening at his center, the part of his body that constantly remained on the ground so that he could retain his balance.

This time his whole body, rather than just his tail, glowed a bright white as he dashed forward again, head first, sparks of electricity flitting around him as he approached his target. . .

"Gyarados, Flamethrower!"

The water-snake immediately curled up into himself, almost as a defensive maneuver, then spread out wide again, mouth gaping open as he growled, streaking flames flaring outward and burning the grass to a crispy black, also raising up into the air before evaporating into a non-toxic smog. Pikachu nearly avoided the same fate, changing trajectory at the last moment and veering to the far right and back around towards Ash again.

"Dammit," though he wasn't sure if he was more angry at the fact that his last plan hadn't worked or if it was because Misty hadn't said anything to him since the battle had started. Where had her smart-assed attitude gone? Unless. . . she'd already gotten what she wanted from him. He blinked, his frustration melting just a little bit as he considered the possibility.

"Stop wasting my time like this Ash; don't play around! I came looking for a serious match, you know!" Misty shouted, enough of a taunt in her tone of voice to get him to stop thinking on it anymore.

And then his anger returned full-force despite his own inquiries about Misty's motives. He didn't want to prove her right by looking for any excuse to end the battle early. She had no reason to egg him on anymore because, as stated before, he'd already consented to this fight. Obviously there was no deeper reason for her staying silent after they'd finally gotten this far. It was not a trick, nor was it something he should spend precious time wondering about.

"Protect again while you charge for a Hyper Beam, Gyarados!" Hah! But he had already known she'd want to use her Pokemon's best attack at some point. He wasn't going to just let her go ahead and do it.

"No chance, Myst!" Both trainers faltered for a second as the nickname long-forgotten passed his lips. But dammit, he hadn't meant to say that! It had just come naturally, like so long ago when the two of them had been best friends. Misty stared at him, not sure what to think of it (if there was anything to think at all). He wasn't going to get either of their hopes up. It hadn't meant a thing, right? "I - I mean, Pikachu, use Thunder, followed by your Double-Edge!"

"Pika!" And he braced himself, tail straight up towards the sky, long ears twitching, tiny paws clenched into fists, as he concentrated on the energy that existed around him, causing it to magnetically charge within his body, focusing on the red sacs in his cheeks. They crackled bright yellow-white and the sky grew dark for a moment as he unleashed the high voltage. Arcs of thunderous power ravaged the earth before him, a line of lightning shocking here and there every few paces as it bounced forward, trying to find its target.

But Gyarados' Protect held strong, a nearly invisible shield causing the vast amount of elemental power to reflect off of him as if he were wrapped in some rubber mesh. The giant Pokemon let out another roar as his own power began to grow. . . until it was suddenly shattered by Pikachu's Double-Edge a few seconds later. This caused Gyarados to recoil and he flew backwards, hitting the ground hard and causing the dirt to pick up into the air and form billowing clouds around him as tried to recover. He did, though it was a rather slow process as he flinched his way back up to his original height, towering over the electric mouse once again.

"Are you okay, Gyarados?" Misty called out to him. He nodded to her with a low growl of affection and she stood strong again as well. If he could go on then she would let him. She wasn't finished here either, was she? "Okay, then try your Headbutt again!"

Pikachu, who had been awaiting further orders from Ash, didn't have a chance to scurry away in time. Ash, for his part, had thought that would be it for Gyarados, so he didn't expect it when he heard his Pokemon give a high-pitched wail before sailing backwards again, landing a few meters in front of him. More "smoke" floated into the air, although not nearly as much since Pikachu was so much smaller than his opponent was.

"Hydro Pump!"

Pikachu was just barely beginning to reach his feet again when he felt himself start to drown. He gargled a little bit, gasping for breath and being pushed further back towards his trainer. This, apparently, had been Misty's plan all along, and she took full advantage in giving Gyarados his next directive while the electric mouse spent the following few seconds attempting to catch his breath once more.

"Try for your Hyper Beam again!" Gyarados' mouth gaped open, glowing white almost immediately. Apparently, Pikachu's Double-Edge hadn't been powerful enough to get rid of what he'd stored up last time, but had only cut it off before it was strong enough to unleash. And then the water-snake let loose a shriek and a huge ray of light dispersed from his mouth, aiming straight for Pikachu. The ground a meter or so below seemed to disintegrate as it traveled the distance necessary to impact with its target, rubble flying in all directions.

Pikachu was struggling to his feet but was obviously having trouble after the barrage of attacks he'd been hit with before. Ash seemed despondent, sure that he would lose here too, just like he'd lost in every other aspect of his life. But he couldn't do that! Please don't make him do that! His legs trembled just enough to notice as he took a cautious step forward and he held out an arm to his Pokemon. He should tell Misty he was forfeiting. He should withdraw now before causing his best friend anymore harm. He should just give up, shouldn't he?

But he still had one chance left.

"No! No, I can't let this. . . Argh," he started, his hands suddenly grasping his scalp in aggravation. He had to do something. "Pikachu, use Agility again!" The words left his mouth before he could think them over. He was sure it would be too late, he would lose, be humiliated. But worse than that, he'd be reminded of what he'd learned long ago. He would never be able to hold his ground here, would he?

Pikachu perked up almost immediately at the command he'd received from his trainer, lunging to the left and taking off full-speed once again so that Gyarados' aim was off. Of course, the water-snake tried to turn and face his adversary again though it was rather difficult when a cannon of energy was shooting from his mouth. But turn he did, even if most of the power had run out by the time he'd gotten a chance. Pikachu took the hit to the right half of his body mid-leap, spiraling and spinning through the air and landing on his stomach to Gyarados' left hand side. The water-snake was heaving breath after using such a tremendous amount of power on his last attack and Ash realized, yes, this could very well be his chance.

"Pikachu," his ears twitched at the sound of his name but he continued to lay there, unable to move. He was done for. He knew it. Ash knew it. But he was still intrigued with the fact that his trainer would continue to push him. As if he were trying. As if he had to win this, "Pikachu, I know it's hard. You've fought so well, so long, even though you didn't have to. You did it for me because I'm your friend. I'm thanking you for fighting this battle with me. . . but it's not over yet. Gyarados just needs one last good hit before he goes down. . . Please buddy. . . Get up, please. You can do this for me. I know you can. I've trained with you for years, even if it has been awhile, so I know what you're capable of. . . And I think you have one last Volt Tackle in you."

Nobody was quite sure where he had gathered the strength from. It was probably all due to willpower, all due to the insightful words his trainer had given him. Whatever the case, Pikachu staggered to his feet a moment later, gasping for breath and looking ready to collapse but already gritting his sharp little fangs and taking a few steps towards Gyarados, who was trying his best just to remain propped upright. Ash wasn't positive if it was the shock of seeing Pikachu recover from such a series of attacks or the same fear that he'd had to face a few seconds ago - that about how it must have been over for him and there was no use in even attempting to go on - or maybe it was even something else, but Misty didn't shout anymore commands for Gyarados to follow, not even another defensive measure like Protect. (Though her mouth did pucker open for a few seconds, as if she were trying to find one that she could give that he would also be able to follow.)

So Pikachu paced forward with the ever-present electricity crackling around his entire body, slowly picking up his pace until he'd reached a solid run, ramming his head into Gyarados' body, right below his mouth. Paralyzing, yellow-white light ricocheted up his limbs. One final roar and his vision blurred, his eyes crossing and his balance lost as he keeled over onto his side. Pikachu stood just long enough to watch this for himself, the satisfaction of victory kicking in before he let his legs give way as well and he laid there on the ground again. He wasn't unconscious, though it was probably only because he wanted to be awake long enough to see Ash's reaction.

Misty called back Gyarados without another word. She internally thanked him for his sacrifice, her eyes already on Ash and waiting for his next move.

Ash, not used to the feeling of victory, felt a strange rippling echo throughout his nerves as he took another cautious step forward. It was over. And he'd won. He wanted to smile and laugh, maybe give his classic peace sign pose for good effect, but he couldn't because it was simply too hard to believe. It wasn't about winning the battle though, no, he'd known he was going to win as soon as Pikachu had released his final Volt Tackle. . . But, Gods, it had felt so good to do that again for the first time in so long! He couldn't remember the last time his heart had raced so fast, the last time his limbs had been so shaken up, the last time his brain had been able to think a mile a minute so that his trainer instincts overrode any logic that should have coursed through him and, instead, he had shouted out anything that came to mind, somehow knowing that it was the right choice to make.

It terrified him, it excited him. . . It liberated him.

"Pi. . . Pikachu!" He called out, finally realizing that, yes, the battle was over and Gyarados was gone and his own Pokemon was just laying there, waiting for him to come retrieve him. And retrieve him he did, the gelatin mold suddenly running down his legs and into the ground so that he could dash forward, a little steadier on his feet. He dropped to his knees as soon as he'd approached him, gathering him up into his arms and holding him to his chest. He was proud of his friend. He was so proud and grateful and - dammit, that other feeling wasn't going away but he would just have to try and ignore it if he could.

"Pikapi. . ." Pikachu craned his neck upwards to stare him in the eyes and then licked at him affectionately, the whole thing reminiscent of the first day of their journey together. Their bond hadn't been this strong in a very long time, had it? Then he cuddled into his chest again and went to sleep and he rose to his feet again.

The battle was long since finished now but the rush to his adrenaline still remained. His nerves tingled, his eyes alight with fire, a slight perspiration to his brow. The itch was still there, telling him to pull out another Pokemon and commence a second match. But his self-control overpowered the urge. He hadn't felt so good, so natural in his element, for a few years. And looking at Misty, who stood a good forty meters from him even as she slowly approached, he could tell it had been the same for her.

Of course, the relation was erased the moment he realized - oh, crap. . .

"You know," Misty said awkwardly a minute later as she walked up to him, "considering we were both out of practice, I think that was pretty good."

"Y - yeah. . ." Ash replied, shaken by just how good. Or maybe it was because he'd expected her to say something about it right away. He heaved a shaky breath, starting to feel a little lightheaded especially under her fidgeting gaze. The thought of this new dilemma was enough for him to forget any fury he'd felt towards her in the beginning thanks to her taunts.

"And, uh, about that. . ." But whatever she was going to say next died in her throat when another shout rung out.

"Misty! A - Ash. . . ? Was it you two just now, battling in the middle of my preserve?" Professor Oak asked as he came out to meet them on the lawn, which they could see now had been scorched and (or) drowned thanks to the combination of elemental techniques. He surveyed the area in shock, which only doubled when he received a response to his question.

"Ah, yeah, sorry Professor. But I didn't see any stray Pokemon around so. . ." Come to think of it, where had the rest of his Pokemon gone anyway? He whirled around a few times, trying to catch sight of them, but they had long since dispersed from the battle area.

"No, of course you wouldn't see any. Tracey told me earlier that it would be safer to put them in their ranches. He said a storm was approaching." Finally catching on to the sum of everything and staring knowingly at Misty, he continued, "It looks like he was right."

"Huh? How was he right? It hasn't rained in almost a week. . ."

"No, never mind me, Ash. Maybe I'm just rambling. But thank you, Misty."

"Wait, why are you thanking her? She just helped destroy part of your land!"

"Never mind it, Ash," the Professor said for a second time as he shook Misty's hand in what appeared to be gratitude. Truth be told, he looked emotional enough to pull her close into a familial hug but was retraining himself quite well. Misty didn't say anything in return, rather just accepting what was offered to her blindly.

Or maybe he was the blind one. Either way, neither one of them were giving him any answers and he wasn't sure he could be bothered with asking again. After the rather strange occurrence, the group had gathered everything up and headed back inside the lab. Misty helped Tracey with the dishes while Ash saw to it that Gyarados and Pikachu were well-taken care of. It wasn't that he doubted Professor Oak but, well, after so much excitement, he just had to be sure. He had to be sure both that they would be okay after such an epic match and he had to be sure that that epic match had been real in the first place.

He still wondered why Misty hadn't said anything to him yet. She had egged him on so much just to get him to put up a fight. He had thought that his winning the battle would cause a reaction from her. . . Or maybe she was just too humiliated to think of anything to say? But she didn't seem to be playing the part at all. She looked. . . happy? Or content. It was like she had expected this outcome all along. But there was no way she could have known how it would make him feel, right?

Because the edge was still there, the temptation, he'd experienced for so many years when he was younger. It sat with him after he and Misty had left the lab, after they'd returned home - (since when was it home and not his house?) - and throughout dinner and his evening shower. He found it hard to sleep that night, laying there with his eyes wide open as though terrified by some sort of nightmare. He did fear an experience though it was more a pleasant dream than anything. He drifted off here and there throughout the very early morning hours but it never lasted long. And finally, as the sun crept up over the horizon and glared brilliantly through his window, he knew for sure.

Ash Ketchum was back.

However he didn't know what kind of game plan he should be making. He was still unclear about Misty's motives, though his brain was in overdrive trying to figure them (and her) out. She had returned to her place of silence, accepting the fact that he didn't want to socialize with her. Sometimes he felt the urge to yell at her, telling her that she should say whatever it was she had to say to him. Because there had to have been a reason for her pushing him into that battle after all, right? She seemed to be waiting patiently for him to understand on his own. And when he finally figured it all out for himself, he was shocked to find that she had done a pretty good job with fulfilling the responsibility she had given herself a couple weeks ago. Maybe the reason for his slip-up during their Pokemon battle had been because his subconscious had already reached the same conclusion. But he couldn't believe it. . . Could it be as simple as that?

A few more days passed after that, and Misty wasn't positive if they were without incident or just pure discomfort. Ash had become notably busy with either phone calls or appointments though she wasn't told even once who they were with. A few times she'd overheard Professor Oak on the video-phone, but Ash was never comfortable talking about anything when she was around so she was still ignorant towards the details. She wanted to ask what he was up to but still wasn't sure if it was her place to do so. Ash had slipped up only once, after all, and they hadn't yet breached discussion on it. She figured if he had wanted to say something by now, he would have already. She had already pushed him far enough. She wouldn't dare do anything more to press her luck.

Of course, this was all she could think up until the day Ash decided to wake her at six in the morning.

"Ugh. . ." A groan, "What are you doing?" She asked next, snapping awake almost immediately at the slightest shake of her shoulder. He'd never bothered to wake her up before, rather keeping his distance from her and letting her do as she pleased. Of course the two of them had begun to open up little by little over time after their initial hashing out but it was still nothing compared to when they were younger.

"C'mon, get up. We're going shopping." This was also something new. Ash had never invited her out before unless it was to the lab, and even then, the word "invite" didn't quite fit the definition. Still, he told her this simply, as if it would explain itself.

"For groceries?" She asked with a yawn. She had noticed the fridge and cupboards slowly emptying out over the past few weeks, though Ash had apparently given up on refilling them. Until now anyway.

"No, not groceries. For you."

"For. . . What are you talking about?"

"You'll see. Now c'mon, get up so we can get ready to go."

He ushered her into the shower upstairs, something she found just a little bit embarrassing though she chose to ignore it. She blow-dried her hair and threw on one of the repetitive styles of clothing she'd gotten so used to over the past few months, a long black tee-shirt and jean-colored cargo pants held up by a belt with flip-flops as an excuse for shoes even as the harsher autumn-winter weather approached them.

As it turned out, Ash had meant clothing shopping. He led Misty to one of the two department stores in Pallet and budgeted out about twenty-thousand yen. Misty felt a little awkward at first in accepting such a charitable act of kindness but he didn't really give her much of a choice in the end.

Neither of them commented on the fact that almost everything she picked out was either blue, yellow, red, or a combination of the three aforementioned colors. Ash didn't ask for thanks though she obviously offered it. He did accept, though it was rather distracted. Misty would have been more upset if she wasn't so grateful. And as she was finishing up in check-out, she noticed him buying a rather adorable backpack the same day. It was in the shape of a Pikachu, the ears looping around the wearer's shoulders; rather fitting for him since his best friend was a Pikachu. . . even if it was a little girly.

Misty wondered if the trip had been his way of thanking her for that, though he had yet to tell her that he'd even figured out what she'd meant in doing it to or for him. However, at this point, she had finally started to see that the two of them would never be able to talk about everything with each other like they did when they were kids. She was getting her hopes up just by considering the fact that Ash had finally given up his reproachful attitude towards her since he didn't look at her now the same way he did a fair few months ago. It was, again, nothing compared to before the tragic incident having to do with Team Rocket, but still. . . Dare she say that he had come to terms with the ordeal that they'd faced? Of course, she would never know one hundred percent if he refused to tell her and could only speculate the best and worst of the possibilities.

The day after that, he told her that he would be out until late evening. The way he phrased it led her to believe that she wasn't supposed to ask questions about specifics (i.e., where he was going, what he was doing that would take so long). She fell asleep before he got home, practically bored into a coma (though it was so ridiculously funny that she knew she would never be able to admit it to him). The next morning, she woke up to his expression of self-satisfaction and fulfillment, though she really had no clue where it had come from. The day after that, she saw him both send a package away (to where, she didn't know) and accept a package himself. He went upstairs to his room to open it, so she never had the chance to see what was in that large, manila-colored envelope. But when he came back downstairs and decided to make himself something to eat, she saw for the first time in forever that Ash was smiling. She prayed that, someday soon, he would finally be able to explain to her the reason why.

And just when things seemed to finally slow down again, she woke up to him running out the door for another extended period of time. Though it wasn't as long as a few days ago, he came back with the same smile - (smirk?) - he'd had then, though it was mollified by the melancholy sound of his voice when he told her he'd be upstairs for the rest of the afternoon so she could do whatever she wanted. Misty heard a lot of strange noises, stomping around and grunting, what appeared to be heavy lifting and plenty of household items being moved around. Was he redecorating his room or something? Well, whatever got his rocks off. . .

That night she showered and changed into one of the outfits he'd bought for her (though for some reason, she couldn't find the one she was originally looking for, but no matter) and went to bed. She wondered if he would ever tell her what was so important over the past week. She wondered if he'd ever figure out just what she'd meant for him by forcing him to participate in that Pokemon battle. She wondered if he was somehow making plans to have her finally removed from his residence and that was why he wasn't telling her just yet. . . Although she didn't like wondering about that particular notion so she quit on it soon after.

She fell asleep sprawled out on her makeshift bed to those thoughts and with no covers, mostly because she hadn't planned on sleeping at all, but whatever. The sleep was long and heavy and dreamless, which was just fine for her, though a little shocking since she'd grown so used to the nightmares that plagued her for months previous. Did it mean something ominous? Something fantastic? She was just fine with not knowing the answer because, as she'd told Ash awhile ago, she knew that she was never meant to be happy, which meant that only the worst thing could be approaching her.

"We gotta go, Misty, we're late because you slept in!"

Oh, wait, surely this must have been a dream after all right? But it was pleasant. . . It reminded her of when she and Ash used to travel together. . . He was always so one-track-minded. . . Why couldn't they just relax once in awhile?

"Let's go, Misty! I mean it; I told the Professor that I'd be there at nine o'clock sharp to pick Pikachu up!"

Wait a minute, why did Professor Oak have Pikachu again? She knew Ash had been late on the first day of his journey but they hadn't known each other yet so he shouldn't have been calling out to her to keep up, right? But either way, she had missed his loud (and slightly obnoxious) personality. Maybe this was her subconscious giving her what she wanted, even if it was only in her dreams. . .

"I'm serious, Myst, wake up!" And she finally felt someone make contact with her physical form, causing her to thrash around. Her eyes snapped open and she drew breath sharply as she flew into a sitting position. Ash withdrew from her enough so that he wouldn't be hit by her flailing fists and, a few seconds later, she came to terms with what he'd just called her and turned to face him.

"Wh - what was. . . that?" She asked. She didn't want to be anymore specific lest he tell her that she must have been dreaming because there was no way he would ever be able to call her that again and mean it. But he smiled softly at her as though giving her permission to accept the friendly notion.

"I thought that it would look good on you, s - so to say. . ." He told her, reminding her of the first time he'd called her by that nickname when he was thirteen years old. She had told him then that she could never agree to it, that he'd better never call her such a thing again. It wasn't that she had hated it. . . It was just hard to accept anything that related her to the fake identity she's come up with for herself after her mother's death. Back then, she had stubbornly decided that she would keep the alias for safety reasons (so that Team Rocket would never find her) but deep down she knew she couldn't give up the one thing her mother had given her. Aurora. Her name.

However, once she had realized her feelings for Ash, she had begun to absolutely love the sound of that very same alias when he spoke it. She started to believe she could be that person, the one who was a little violent, maybe loud, obviously suffering from self-esteem issues due to her older sisters' taunting her on appearance and skill. . . But she would have been relatively normal, and he would have loved her regardless. Alas, her burden has caused her to deny the joy she sought in that exchange and, though Ash had called her by his signature nickname once or twice after, he had assumed all along that she wouldn't let him get away with making it a casual thing.

"I," she tried to figure out how she wanted to phrase her next statement, "I don't mind it, I guess. But why are you calling me that?"

Ash cleared his throat as a means to prove his struggle in finding the words to say to her.

". . . It's not going to be easy, you know." She quirked an eyebrow, as if asking what he could possibly mean by that, but he continued before she could voice the inquiry. "It can't just go back to the way it was before, I mean, we can't. But I can try a little harder, I guess. Um. . . what I mean to say is that I. . . finally understand what you were doing for me. When you told me your story and let me vent my anger on you, when you decided to bait me into that Pokemon battle. I didn't even realize that you were doing exactly what you said you would. It's not complete, I'm sure we both realize that, because it's a process. I'm not completely, uh," he furrowed his brow before deciding he couldn't come up with his own word for it and using hers instead, "fixed yet. But you've repaired me enough so that I can start returning the favor."

"What are you talking about?" She asked him, an edge to her voice. Dammit, she didn't want to cry! But the tears were leaking out from her eyes anyway. More than anything else, she hadn't expected him to ever even notice that she was just as broken as he was. She was sure she could have spelled it out for him in words and actions and he would neither notice or care. But then again, she had never given him enough credit, had she?

But he didn't elaborate much just yet, still continuing to offer her the kind smile she'd woken up to a few minutes ago.

"C'mon I said. We're already late because you decided to sleep in for once."

"Late?" She sniffed a little bit and wiped her face with the discarded blanket bundled around her waist. "Late for what?"

"We've gotta go pick Pikachu up from Professor Oak. And maybe one or two of my other Pokemon."

"Why?"

"Well, because I want to reach Viridian City by the end of the day." She had just enough time to think of how she never, ever wanted to go there again and wondered how he could be so insensitive before he continued. "And the sooner we go through there, the sooner we get past the forest. And then we'll be in Pewter."

Crap. The Viridian Forest meant she'd have to put up with hordes of bug-type Pokemon. But that was actually in afterthought compared to what took her by the most surprise.

"We're going to Pewter?"

"Of course we are! We have to, you know? How else will I get my Boulder Badge?"

She had finally had enough of his half-assed answers. She was far more frustrated than upset by what he'd told her a few minutes ago about trying and fixing and returning the favor. . .

"Dammit, Ash, just tell me what the hell you're talking about."

"A week or so ago, I went to the lab to take my Pokemon training liscencing test, and I obviously passed. I'm now legally allowed to capture and train Pokemon again. So I thought I would start with my roots. I'm a participant in this year's Indigo League. . . but I have to win my badges first, you know?"

What? Did he think she was stupid? Of course she knew that. Part of her was ecstatic. Her plan had worked. Ash had always loved training Pokemon, nobody had been able to cope with him quitting because of her disappearance and Mrs. Ketchum's death. She had known all along that he had coped the least of everyone. So she had tried to revive the love he had for training and battling and. . . and it had worked! But still, another part of her was scared. He was participating in the Indigo League. That meant. . .

"We'll have to go to Cerulean City. My sisters. . ." She fumbled with the word. They were her family still, though she wondered if they considered her the same thing after all this time.

"Yeah, but that won't be for a few weeks. I mean, we have a lot to do before then. Training, walking through Mt. Moon, getting Brock to join up with us again. . . It shouldn't be too difficult - he told me earlier this week that an assistant was sent out finally so his dad is resuming leadership by the end of the month. That should give me just enough time to get there and battle him for my badge. It's been a really long time since I fought Brock. I wonder what Pokemon he has on his team now. . ." Ash contemplated this while Misty absorbed all of the information he'd just offered her.

Ash was training Pokemon again. He was inviting her - and she meant actually inviting her - to come with him on his new journey. He was going to have Brock accompany them as well. Things were. . . returning to normal, slowly but surely. And then they were going to go to Cerulean. . . Hm, so that must have been what he meant. She had voiced her fears weeks ago about avoiding her sisters for fear of their reaction to her appearance. She had long since cleaned up and gotten herself together. . . but she wasn't sure she could handle the reunion. Then again, she had done her best with Ash and knew now that she'd finally succeeded. Maybe she stood a better chance than originally presumed.

"But I'm not even packed. I can't just walk out of here wearing the clothes on my back." She noted, as if she were trying to find the flaw in his master plan. She noted that he was already dressed, from his jacket to his sneakers, from his hat to his gloves. She was still wearing her blue plaid pajamas that she'd picked out the night before.

"No, you're fine. I got your bag packed up last night." He jacked a finger over his shoulder and she finally noticed the same Pikachu bag she saw him buy a week or so ago sitting there beside the video-phone. Her new shoes were sitting next to it and just waiting for her to pull them on.

"But. . . I have more than that. I mean, you bought me at least twice as many clothes as what could fit in there. . ."

"Oh, yeah. I sent the rest to Cerulean," which explained the package he'd sent away a few days ago, "which was convenient since I received my new Pokedex the same day," which explained the package he'd accepted also.

"Wh - what? But my sisters. . . !" She shrieked again in fear and anger.

"Well, I figured it would force you to go there if you ever wanted to see them again. Er, I mean your clothes. . . though I guess I could mean your sisters too when I say that. . ."

"What about the house?"

"I talked it over with Professor Oak. He's agreed to sign for the mortgage from now on. I'll be sending him money every six months from battle winnings to pay it with." He explained, sounding more confident in his revived skills the longer she let him go on about them.

"Wh - what about May?" It was sort of off-topic, but he couldn't possibly be planning to avoid her forever. Misty would never allow it.

"Well, I figure that I never got to finish the Hoenn League thanks to. . . Well, you know what happened. So after I make it through the Indigo League, I'll journey back to Littleroot and register with Professor Birch for the Hoenn League too." His expression grew somber here, further explaining what he wanted to do, "And until then, we're going to call her family every time we reach a new town. You're going to talk to them until they give you permission to speak with May again. I don't think she's as bad as we thought all this time. She just needs proof that things are better. She just needs to see you and know that you're okay. You'll give it to her, Misty. You owe her that much, don't you? After all of the faith she put in you while you were working for Giovanni."

"And Team Ro - I mean, Jessie, James, and Meowth?" She spoke softly. Ash wanted things to return to normal - obviously - but he couldn't honestly think it would be smooth sailing when there was such a prominently missing element in their travels.

"Well," and his brow furrowed again. He had been thinking on it after all, "they always used to find us no problem, or we'd always run into them somehow. . . I think we're bound to meet up with them again without even trying.

"But what's with all of these questions, Misty?" He asked, staring her down. She didn't dare look him in the eye or voice her thoughts on the matter beyond her initial doubt. "Are you still afraid?" She flinched at the acknowledgment but that was all the response she was afforded. "Of course you are. . . That's fine. But you can't do this. You stayed here and helped me confront my demons. I'll still need your help," though it was terribly hard to admit it, "even when I'm out there, training with Pikachu and the others again. And I know you need my help too. You came to see me because you couldn't face anyone else, so I'm going to help you do that, finally. We're not going to run away anymore. Didn't you tell Brock you wouldn't abandon me again?"

She finally looked him in the eyes once more, though hers were wide with shock. She didn't think Brock would tell him about that guarantee she'd made over the phone a few weeks ago. It wasn't that it embarrassed her or that it meant anything special. To her anyway. But Ash seemed to take the words to heart, and he was counting on her staying true to them.

"No. No I won't. Nothing could ever make me do that again." She heaved a breath, still unsure about doing so much so soon. She hadn't even known they were suddenly going to leave town today. Although she probably should have suspected something more when Ash had taken her shopping for clothes. It seemed a trivial way of thanking her for giving him his life's purpose back, and she saw no reason for either of them to care if she wore his things around the house or at the lab. . . But to travel in them? No, she should probably have something more suited to her style. And her gender.

"Like I said before, it's not perfect, and it won't be easy. But Pokemon journeys never are, right?" He gave her a smile as though to boost her confidence but all it did was cause her heart to leap into her throat. "We'll have a lot to accomplish, a lot of goals to make. And who knows? Something unexpected could happen. We could meet rare Pokemon." Yeah, like he hadn't met enough of those already. "Maybe we'll save the world." Again, hadn't he done that a few times? Why did he need to do it anymore? "We could even fall in love." And where the hell had that come from!

Misty blinked in response, the shock giving way to a bright red flush. She was flattered, she was a little confused. But mostly flattered. He was talking about them, right? As in, to fall in love with each other? She didn't think it was possible that her second chance would count as far as these feelings that she should have given up on a long time ago. But perhaps it was better that she hadn't if Ash was willing to give her such hope.

Finally she nodded in agreement. It wasn't like she could stop him. And the last time she checked, he couldn't do anything without her. How many times had she saved him now? She couldn't just up and quit when the going got a little tougher for her! So she would have to accompany him again. . . Maybe this time they would reach the end of the world before having to stop. Maybe this time they would reach beyond the end of the world. She had always hoped Ash would be able to count on her for such a thing.

"Fine. . . I'm in. Let's go." She finally rose to her feet and accepted her new responsibility, "Go call Professor Oak and tell him we'll be there in half-an-hour. I just need to get dressed and brush my hair so I'll be ready to go in about fifteen minutes."

"Alright, but hurry up! Like I said, we're already late and we pushed it even further because you wouldn't just come with me!" He seemed a little too excited, a little too much like sixteen year old Ash, though it was nice to think that he really had been in there somewhere. Then, just before he was going to leave her to her own devices, he turned back again and gave her a small but precious offering of gratitude.

"Thank you, Misty."

She was too choked up to ask him right away what he was thanking her for, instead going to remove an outfit from the bag he'd packed for her, running upstairs to the bathroom so that she could change her clothes in privacy. She brushed her short hair straight so that the knots were unraveled and then stared in the mirror.

She noticed a flush on her cheeks. They were sure to get brighter.

And a small grin appearing on her lips. It was sure to grow wider.

A stirring in her heart. It was sure to get stronger.

A thought crossing her mind. They - (though she wasn't sure if she meant she and Ash, or all of them in general) - would fight for the "happy ending" that had long been evading them, and it would be a fight worth facing if she had anything to say about it.

A new silver band strapped to one of her wrists, an empty Pokeball clasped to it. It had been Psyduck's, though she found it impossible to throw away. But she'd been able to carry these weights before, remembering her mother's picture. Unfortunately, it hadn't survived her final battle against Giovanni, though it seemed to have helped her to survive. But these burdens did not hinder her, rather helping her to persevere. And she was sure she would need them, especially now if she were to keep going.

It was time to start anew.

OoOoO

Final-Super-Fantastic-End Notes - Holy shit. Well, it's been five or so years in reaching this far but. . . It's over. It's done. I'm so happy and excited. I couldn't believe it either, when I got down to the nitty-gritty, this part was actually really easy to write. But I've been thinking long and hard on what I actually wanted to happen so that's probably why. I mean, I wanted to do more with the other characters (May, Jessie, James, Meowth) but I have to admit I didn't know where I could fit them all in and resolve everything. So I just let Ash open his big mouth and start spouting virtuous things. Lol.

I spent an entire day editing this too so I hope that I got most (or all!) of the typos. If you have questions or concerns, we here at PokeshippingandMisty4Ever, Inc. (not really) will be happy to take your calls. I pray that all of my other fics will be as successful as this one, maybe even more-so. I also pray that they won't take as long to write. (Did I mention it has been five years? Lol.) Oh, and here's something for the record books! This chapter is longer than any of the others (which adds to the whole reason why I didn't pursue resolutions with the other characters)! It stands at about twenty-nine thousand words (not including notes), which is about five thousand more than the last chapter (the longest until now). I hope that it was enough reading for you all, and that you were all pleased with the final results. This was my favorite chapter to write (I loved how it was more about the aftermath and the emotions and rebuilding, rather than action and angst), and I think that I pulled it off well.

Admittedly, the final line was hard to think up. The one you see before you was not the original one written but it suited the finale much better. This story was not supposed to be a "love story" or an "adventure story", which is the same way I feel about my other huge project, SKoL. That one is supposed to be about life, while this one is supposed to be about conquering your demons. I think. Lol. Yeah, let's go with that. . . Although if you found any other morals you think suited this fic, please let me know. I love hearing what you all think of my work.

Character theme songs! (Lol, just thought it'd be cool to throw this in.) Misty's theme song is "Hear Me" by Kelly Clarkson. It was particularly useful as inspiration for writing her character while she was working under Giovanni. Ash's theme song is "The End Where I Begin" by The Script. It really suited the person he became in the epilogue. I had a couple more planned out but. . . I forgot them! Lol. If you guys know of any I could use for the plot or other characters then let me know! I'd much appreciate it!

Now it's off to work on SKoL, which was stated in my profile as my next project for continuation. Now that this fic is out of the way, I should be okay. . . Although I've been highly distracted lately by other ideas. I don't think it'll be too much of a problem. All of them are short stories (three chapters a piece, tops). Please look forward to reading them!

Thank you, everyone, for continuing to support me as I finished this. Please leave a review and tell me what you thought of it (whether it's just about the finale or about the fic as a whole). I will gladly accept all of it.