Intro: This is actually a reposting of a story I put up on Valentine's Day earlier this year. I had taken it down the same day, because after rereading it, I was sorely unhappy with the finished product. It was a cautionary tale about hurreidly finishing and posting something at 3 in the morning just to "get it out in time". So I've been slowly working on it and tweaking several problem parts; updating the word choice, clarifying some vague points, and overhauling some of the less savory plot points. I much prefer this version of the story, and I hope you do too.

This story takes place shortly before Ash recieved his eighth badge for the Indigo league. I do not own Pokemon or it's characters.


"Ash Ketchum!" Misty's loud voice rose above the din of slashes and tackles and ascended to the canopy of treetops above her. "You have done a lot of dense and altogether insensitive things, but this has to take the cake!" Her hands were firmly pressed on her hips and she glared at the boy who was sitting in the grass in front of her. He didn't so much as turn his head to indicate he was listening to her. His eyes were focused on the Pokemon battle happening right in front of him. Currently, his Bulbasaur was squaring off against his Squirtle. Pikachu sat on the grass next to them, panting wildly from exhaustion. The two fighting Pokemon weren't doing so well either; they were both sluggish and tired. "Are you even listening to me?"

"C'mon Bulbasaur." Ash said, ignoring the redhead's nagging. "Use razor leaf!" The green plant Pokemon nodded dully and, after a moment's concentration, fired out a hail of sharp leaves. "Now, Squirtle! Move out of the way!" The turtle Pokemon just wheezed and tried to move, but it was too tired and the leaves hit it straight on. It fell to the ground with a little noise of defeat. "Dang it, Squirtle! You were supposed to move!"

"Squirt." It said weakly. Bulbasaur collapsed onto its stomach next to Squirtle, tongue hanging out the side of his mouth.

"You guys call that fighting?" Ash asked in annoyance. Misty glowered at the headstrong trainer and slapped him upside the head. "Ow!" Ash said, recoiling from the hit. He rubbed the side of his head gingerly. "What was that for?"

"That was for acting like a complete jerk!" Misty said angrily. "You've been pushing your poor Pokemon too hard! You've been training them mercilessly for three days, fifteen hours a day! We haven't gone anywhere in this forest since you've been spending all the time mock fighting! I mean, just look at them!" Misty pointed at what used to be a battle stage. Ash looked at his pooped party. He did feel guilty for being such a rough taskmaster, but it was necessary.

"But, Misty…Tomorrow's the day I-"

"I know who you're fighting against tomorrow!" Misty said, hands on her hips. "And it makes it that much worse! You're so concerned with beating Gary that you're neglecting your Pokemon's health! You're letting your rivalry and need to be superior interfere with your care for your friends and that is just sick!" The words stung, because they held a lot of truth to them.

"This is important, Misty!" Ash yelled back. "I need to beat him this time!"

"I don't want to hear it!" Misty said angrily. "I don't know what Gary said to you three days ago, but you've been a real self-centered dictator ever since. Brock's not happy with your attitude, I'm sure as Ho-oh not happy with it and I doubt your Pokemon will stand for it much longer either." Ash felt the back of his ears get red.

"What do you know?" He hissed. "If Gary wins…"

"So what if Gary wins? He always wins against you." Misty's callous voice felt like a Twinneedle attack to his ego and self-esteem. Misty knew she hit a sore spot, but she pushed the guilt away easily. He deserved this for they way he's been acting. "Do you really need to prove anything? We all know he's the better trainer."

"He is not!" Ash yelled. "He's just an egocentric loser with a God complex!"

"And you're not?" Misty shouted hotly. "Can't you just be satisfied with being a good Pokemon Trainer? Do you really always need to be the best?" Her face was getting red from all the shouting. "I mean, come on! Winning isn't everything, you know!"

"Sometimes it is!" Ash yelled back, a little too loudly. When he saw the shock and disgust on Misty's face, Ash lowered his voice. That came out wrong. Really wrong. Regardless, Ash continued. "Sometimes winning is everything."

"That has got to be the worst thing that has ever come out of your mouth, Ash." She said seriously. "You just lost so much of my respect." Ash winced. One thing he wanted most of all was respect, especially from his peers. Especially from his friends. Especially from Misty.

"Who said I even wanted your respect?" He taunted back, but his heart wasn't into it. Her words had sliced his confidence to ribbons.

"Whatever." Misty sighed. "I'm going back to the campsite to help Brock. I don't even want to talk to you right now. Go ahead and train your Pokemon to exhaustion. I don't care. If they leave, I won't shed a tear for you." With that, she turned and stormed off back to camp. Ash watched her retreating figure, then turned and punched the ground angrily.

"Well, that couldn't have gone any worse." Ash grumbled. That was a lot more serious than any previous fight they had and Ash groaned at Misty's cutting words. This wasn't just them having jabs at each other. She was really upset with him. He sighed, cupping his face in his hands. He peeked through the fingers at his Pokemon, who were watching him intently. They all turned and tried to look innocent. Bulbasaur did his best to whistle in a nonchalant manner.

"Pika pikachu pika. Chu chu pika." Pikachu stated after a short while. Ash shook his head.

"I know Misty will be less angry with me if I tell her you're willingly pushing yourselves, but she can't know. If she starts to get suspicious…" Ash shuddered. "You guys understand why I'm doing this, right?" Ash asked. "You know how much this one battle means to me, don't you?"

"Squirtle." The water Pokemon responded, too tired to act enthusiastic.

"Pika pika!" The yellow rat nodded in assent.

"Thanks guys." Ash sighed. "After this battle with Gary, you'll get a long break, I promise. I just really need to beat him. I don't even want to think about what he'll do if I lose." The bet they made was fresh in his mind and Ash bit his lip and stifled another groan. One more day. Which meant one more sleepless night.

Brock smiled to himself as he tasted the shrimp gumbo he had prepared in a large pot over an open campfire. Delicious, as always. Perfect for both humans and Pokemon alike. "Another fine masterpiece, Brock." He said as he patted himself on the back. "No one could make it better." He set the ladle down and took of his frilly apron. Cooking always managed to calm his nerves.

His nerves didn't get much of a break when he heard a loud stomping coming from the bushes to his left. He sighed as once again, reality managed to pop a huge hole in his happiness bubble. His little moment of piece had ended and it was back to war zone.

"What a pompous little rock-head!" Misty was shouting as she entered the campsite. Her blue eyes were less like a cool ocean and more like a sea of fire. Her glare could burn a hole through a tree trunk. "What an inconsiderate tool!"

"Is he still training?" Brock asked, fully knowing the answer.

"Of course he is!" Misty growled at him. "What else has he been doing this week?" She stormed over and sat down on her sleeping bag. Brock poured some gumbo from the large steel pot into a bowl and handed it and a spoon to her. She sighed and started to eat.

"It's getting dark." Brock said, his voice slightly tinged with worry. "Is he going to train all night again? He does need sleep if he wants to even wake up in time to duel Gary."

"I don't really care." Misty grumbled through a mouthful of food. "He doesn't care about us, so I don't care about him." She pouted and shoveled more food into her mouth. Yeah…you really don't care. Brock thought to himself. That's why you're stewing like a pot of boiling water.

"Whatever happened between him and Gary the other day must have really set him off."

"He probably just made some dumb remark about how much better his Pokemon were and now Ash just has to beat him." Misty sighed. "Do you know what he said to me today? He said, and I quote, 'Sometimes winning is everything'. Can you believe that?"

"Well, Ash is kinda headstrong…"

"Yeah, but he's usually kinder to his Pokemon. He usually doesn't push them like he's doing right now." She huffed. "I can't wait to leave this stupid forest. Maybe when Gary's far enough away, Ash will start acting normal again." She finished off her bowl before adding: "well, as normal as Ash can be, anyway."

"He really wants to show Gary up." Brock said. "Maybe he's over compensating for something." Misty went bright red and spat a mouthful of gumbo off to the side of her sleeping bag.


"Kidding!" Brock said, holding his hands up. "You know Ash. He probably just made some dumb bet with Gary." He shook his head. "I bet this will all blow over after tomorrow."

"Unless he loses, like he always does. Then we'll hear about it for weeks." She groaned and leaned back on her pillow. "What a pain in the neck."

"You know, you haven't exactly been pleasant yourself, Misty." Brock said earnestly. Misty whipped her head around to stare at the older boy. "You've been complaining about Ash non-stop since he started his train-a-thon. That's been tough to deal with in itself." He went back to pouring out more gumbo for Ash and his Pokemon. It would be cold by the time they got back, but it was their decision. "If you're that upset at Ash, you should leave him be."

"W-what?" Misty asked incredulously, and then caught herself. "My bike! I can't leave! Ash still owes me a bike!"

"Geez! I didn't mean permanently, Misty!" Brock shook his head. "I just meant go ahead to Viridian City or something. We'd catch up with you there."

"Oh." Misty said, her cheeks turning crimson. She tried to hide her embarrassed blush. Brock rolled his eyes. Sure you don't care about him, Misty. Sure.

Ash returned to camp later that night. It was already dark and Brock and Misty were fast asleep in their sleeping bags. Ash sighed, wishing he could get some peaceful sleep too. But he hasn't been able to get forty winks since he met up with Gary by that small lake three days ago. Their heated argument was nothing compared to the argument he had with his friends when he returned to camp and told them they wouldn't be leaving until he had a match with Gary in four days. But the things Gary said to him still burned into his mind and Ash gritted his teeth. He had to win. He had to.

He picked up a few bowls of cold dinner and marched out into the woods silently, planning to eat and feed his Pokemon away from camp so as not to wake his friends. He blushed when he remembered Misty's angry words. He hoped his friends would forgive him after it's all over.

He sat down and released his Pokemon from their Pokeballs and handed out food. The Pokemon chirped happily and began to snack on the needed dinner. "You guys did good today." Ash said quietly. "Now eat up. We have a big day tomorrow." He took a bite of the cold gumbo. A really big day. His mind echoed.

Misty stared at her feet glumly as she followed Ash and Brock to the lake where Ash had run into his rival. It was midmorning and she had been surprised that Ash was up before everyone else. He looked horrible though; he had bags under his eyes and his face was pale. She realized that as much of a toll as Ash's training must have taken on his Pokemon, it was hitting him just as hard. She knew she shouldn't feel sorry for him, as it was his own doing, but she couldn't help but feel bad that he needed to prove himself so badly. Deep down, she could relate. The need to show up her perfect sisters had a death grip on her own ego, especially when it came to their beauty. Being called runt so many times didn't help her self-esteem any and she could assume that Gary had put Ash through a similar kind of thing.

Still, he was acting like a jerk about it and Misty tried to focus on that fact. She was angry at the kid and she wasn't going to let anything get in the way of showing that. Ash didn't deserve her pity and as bad as she wanted to show him support, her mind told her it would only encourage him to act out in the future.

Ash finally arrived at the meeting spot. It was empty, but Ash hadn't expected otherwise. Gary loved to make him wait. He was probably planning some elaborate entrance. Oh, how I hate him. Hate, hate, hate. Ash took a deep breath. "You ready for this, Pika-pal?" He asked.

"Pikachu!" The electric rodent said happily, patting the back of Ash's head. "Chu! Pika pikachu!"

"Thanks for the vote of confidence. I'm sure not getting it from anyone else." He said miserably. Brock had given him a half-hearted good luck that lacked any real emotion. Misty didn't even say so much as a good morning. He was doing this one by himself, it would seem.

What seemed like half an hour later, Gary finally walked out of the woods, appearing in view. He was wearing a smug grin and he cocked his head slightly. "Hey there, Ashley!" Gary grinned. "Have you been waiting long?"

"You were late on purpose." Ash hissed. "I guess good sportsmanship is dead, huh?"

"Oh, don't become a sore loser already. I haven't even beaten you yet." He looked over at Misty and Brock. "And I see you brought some spectators. That's good; I was afraid no one was going to get to watch me beat you back to Pallet Town." He made a 'shooing' motion with his hand. "You'll have to back up. Wouldn't want you to be too close to the battle. As short as it may be."

"Oh, will you shut up?!" Ash yelled as Misty and Brock moved back to the top of small hill next to the designated 'arena'. "You're so full of hot air, I'm surprised you haven't taken off yet!"

"Were you up late thinking of that one?" Gary asked, grin still plastered on his face. "The bags under your eyes seem to indicate so."

"I don't know how much more of this ego tug-of-war I can take." Misty groaned. "Wake me when they start the actual fight."

"C'mon!" Ash growled. "Let's just do this battle!"

"Sounds good." Gary smiled. "This is a dual battle. Two of my Pokemon against two of yours. First trainer to have both Pokemon expire, that would be you, loses."

"Fine." Ash said. "I'm going to choose…"

"Hold up." Gary said. His smirk had evolved into a full evil grin. "Shouldn't we go over the bet?"

"NO!" Ash yelled suddenly. He winced at his outburst and glanced over at his friends. Misty and Brock were now watching him like a Spearow, eyebrows arched in interest.

"I think the crowd should know what the stakes are, hmm?" Gary laughed. He reached into his pocket. "Here is my wager." He said, pulling out a folded up piece of blue paper. He showed it off. "On this sheet, I wrote down everything I said three days ago. Word for word." He paused and looked Ash in the eyes. "Should I read it out loud?" The look on the other boy's face told Gary that he definitely should not. "Yeah, didn't think so. If you win Ash, I will take it all back."

"And apologize." Ash added.

"And apologize." Gary conceded.

"And promise never to say anything like it again."

"And promise never to say anything like it again." Gary said in a monotone voice, tired of Ash's insistence. He rolled his eyes. "Can we go on to your bet now?"

"Do I have to?" Ash said weakly. Then he straightened, as if wanting to shrug away his cowardly comment. "My wager is going to be…my wager is going to be…" The words were dying in his throat. He reached into his jacket slowly, not wanting to continue.

"C'mon. You can do it Ashley." Gary taunted. Ash gulped. His voice was strained when he spoke again.

"My wager is going to be my Boulder and Cascade Badges."

Misty and Brock both sat straight up in surprise. They stared at each other for a second before turning back to Ash, who was pulling the small pins from his jacket and placing them on the ground.

"Did he just say…" Brock started to say before Misty cut him off with a loud yell.

"What in the world is wrong with you?" She screamed at Ash. "You insensitive jerk! We gave you those badges! They aren't something you can just give away! How dare you use them as collateral for a stupid bet!" Ash did his best not to pay attention to her, but it was killing him inside. He knew that he had to do this, but it didn't make Ash feel like any less of a scumbag. It had been Gary's idea all along, but Ash did decide to go along with it.

"Ooo…doesn't sound like much help from the crowd, Ash. I think you really messed up here." Gary smiled. Ash lowered his head.

"I can't believe him!" Misty was fuming. "What is going through that thick head of his? Putting up our badges for a dumb fight? OUR badges!"

"I don't know…" Brock said and meant it. This was completely unlike Ash. Ash cherished his badges; they were like medals of honor to him. He would never do this without a good reason, wouldn't he?

"Well, you know what? If that's they way he's going to be, then he isn't going to get my support!" Misty stood up, cupped her hands over her mouth like a megaphone and shouted: "Go Gary!" Ash turned to her, his face completely ashen, as if someone just told him he would have to give up being a trainer. The look of horrified disbelief only egged Misty on. "This is what you get for being such a jerk, Ketchum! You can do it Gary! Kick Ash's butt!"

Gary couldn't help himself and he started to laugh out loud. "Oh man! That is too much! She's rooting for me. Misty! This couldn't get any better!" He had to wipe his eyes. He looked over at Ash's bright red face. "I see the irony isn't lost on you either."

"Shut up and flip the coin!" Ash growled. Gary shrugged, finishing up his chuckling. He pulled a coin from his pocket. One side had a Dotrio picture on it, the other had a Vulpix. "Heads or tails?"

"Tails." Ash growled. Gary flipped the coin. It flew though the air, flipping wildly, until it hit the soft grass. Ash looked over. He breathed a sigh of relief. The picture of Vulpix was showing. That was a good omen.

"Lucky guess." Gary said. "Let's see if that luck holds out. Guess that means I'm going to be choosing first." He reached to his side and pulled out two small Pokeballs. The expanded to full size and he tossed them to the ground. The burst open and a ray of red light shot out, forming into two large Pokemon. One looked like a tree, the other like a rock snake. "My picks are Onix and Exeggutor." Gary flashed his smug grin back at Ash. "Let's see your precious Pikachu do anything in this fight."

"Gary has a good point." Brock commented from the top of the knoll. "Pikachu is obviously Ash's best Pokemon, but he wouldn't be much of a help here. Gary really thought this out." Misty just grunted in response. As furiously as she had endorsed Ash's rival, she didn't seem too happy at this turn of events.

"Sorry, buddy." Ash said to the Pokemon on his shoulder. "Gary's right. You're going to have to sit this one out." Pikachu nodded in reluctant agreement. Well, now what? Ash thought. Squirtle and Bulbasaur are both still too drained from yesterday. Dang it all, I was too hard on them!

He suddenly seemed to get an idea as he reached for his belt. He grabbed two Pokeballs from their holster and followed Gary's lead by tossing them into the arena. They split open, revealing the Pokemon just as Gary's did. "My choices are Krabby and Muk!" Ash announced. The two Pokemon cried out happily.

"What is Ash thinking?" Brock wondered out loud. Misty looked over at the young breeder. He was staring at the arena in shock.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, Krabby is a water Pokemon, so it's a fine match for Onix. But Muk is a poison type! Exeggutor is both Grass and Psychic! He'll be able to turn both of Ash's Pokemon into mincemeat in no time!"

"What?! That idiot!" Misty groaned. "He's so wrapped up in beating Gary he's not even thinking straight!" She crossed her arms miserably. "If he thinks I'm just going to give him another badge, he is sorely mistaken."

"Let's get this underway!" Ash said. "Krabby! Bubble attack on Onix!"

"Krabby!" The Pokemon shouted happily before unleashing a wave of bubbles at Onix. The rock Pokemon cried out as the water attack hit him hard.

"Not so fast!" Gary shouted. "Exeggutor! Use Bullet Seed!" The grass Pokemon stepped forward and unleashed a barrage of seeds at the small crab.

"Muk! Get in the way!" Ash yelled.

Muuuuuuk." The pile of sludge said, getting in front of Krabby. The seeds hit Muk instead, barely doing any damage.

"Now use Poison Gas! Focus all your attacks on Onix!" Ash yelled. The poison Pokemon dutifully hit Onix was a cloud of poison smoke. It successfully became poisoned from the attack.

"I have had enough of this!" Gary shouted. "Onix, wrap that dumb Muk up!"

"ONIX!" The Pokemon roared before coiling around the slimy creature. It held Muk fast in place, squeezing it hard.

"It's busy!" Ash yelled to Krabby. "Bubble again!" The crab nodded and hit Onix with another stream of bubbles. The giant Pokemon, now wrapped around Muk, couldn't dodge this attack and it hit full force again. The Onix cried out, then let go of it's death grip on Muk, fainting on the spot. Gary was forced to recall the rock Pokemon. "All right! Two on one!" Ash yelled happily. Misty sat up out of her funk. Maybe Ash actually had a chance here…

"Not for long!" Gary sneered. "Exeggutor! Giga Drain!"

"Egg egg!" It shouted before striking the small water Pokemon with a vicious hit. Krabby flew backwards, landing on its back. It curled up in defeat, passing out from the hit.

"Hah! One-hit knockout!" Gary smiled. Misty sat back glumly. Brock exhaled sharply, wringing his hands.

"This is it. Muk and Exeggutor are the only remaining Pokemon and Muk is already damaged from Onix." He sighed. "I guess we wait for the big finish."

"Good job, Krabby." Ash pulled the Pokemon back into its ball.

"Let's finish this." Gary said. "Exeggutor! Bullet seed!" The grass pokemon cried out before unleashing a hail of seeds at Muk. They all hit dead-on, but did little damage the large Pokemon.

"Muk! Pound!" Ash yelled. Muk swung his fist back and punched Exeggutor hard. The tree-like creature stumbled back from the power of the hit.

"Dang it, Exeggutor! Use egg bomb!" Again, Exeggutor attacked Muk, but the exploding eggs didn't even phase it.

"I don't understand." Brock said, rubbing his temples. "Gary's a smart trainer! Why isn't he going for the psychic attacks? He's barely touching Muk at all!"

"You think he'd be prepared for this." Misty commented. Suddenly, it all made sense to Brock and he threw his head back with a laugh. Misty looked at him like he had suddenly grown another head and asked to be called Dodrio. "What?"

"That's it! He's not having Exeggutor use any Psychic moves because it doesn't know any!" Brock broke out into a grin. "He trained these two specifically as an anti-Pikachu force so Ash would be forced to use his weaker Pokemon! All Exeggutor knows are normal and grass moves. Since Muk is the stronger of the two, it'll hold out longer." Brock turned to Misty. "I think Ash knew that all along. That's why he chose Muk; he wanted to beat Gary at his own game."

Ash smiled at Gary, giving him the same smug grin his rival had given him earlier. "Muk! Pound again!"

"Muk!" The Pokemon agreed and slammed into Exeggutor. This time, it fell over onto its back. It struggled a few times to get up, then eventually just gave up, lying dormant.

"C'mon!" Gary yelled at his Pokemon. "Get up! Exeggutor! Get up!" The Pokemon didn't respond. "No! Dang it!" Gary held a Pokeball out and recalled Exeggutor. Ash grinned wildly and punched the air.

"YES!" He shouted. "Good going, Muk!"

"Pikachu!" The yellow rat cheered him on.

"Way to go, Ash!" Brock yelled from the top of the knoll. Misty didn't say anything, but she smiled at him, and that was enough for Ash. With a nod to his friends, he turned back to Gary.

"Well, looks like I win." He bent over, picking up the two pins on the ground. "I guess the badges stay with me then."

"Yeah, yeah." Gary said, unhappy at how the battle turned out. "You got lucky. Best two out of three?"

"I don't think so, Gary." Ash shook his head. "You know what you have to do."

"Yeah, yeah." Gary groaned and rolled his eyes. "I take back what I said. None of it was true." His voice was like that of a kid in trouble being forced to admit what he did wrong.

"And…?" Ash prompted him. Gary scowled at his rival.

"And I'm sorry."


"And I promise I'll never say anything like it again." Gary sighed. Ash smiled.

"Good. You better not." Ash said. He rubbed Pikachu's head. "A promise is a promise."

"Whatever." Gary rolled his eyes, he turned to leave in anger when he seemed to get an idea. A devious grin spread across his face. He pulled out the piece of paper he had written on from his pocket and immediately began to fold it up.

"What are you doing now?" Ash asked, recalling Muk to its Pokeball. Gary just flashed Ash a smile. Ash's eyebrows knotted up in worry. Whenever Gary started smiling, it meant something bad was going to happen soon.

"Hey Red!" Gary called out to the girl on the hill. Misty looked up in confusion. He lifted up the blue paper in his left hand. He had folded into the shape of a paper airplane. He tossed it at her with all his might. "Catch!"
"NO!" Ash yelled, watching the plane catch and air drift and float toward Misty. Ash started to run after it in hopes of intercepting the message, but in his sudden start, he managed to trip on a rock and fall flat on the ground. He looked up in horror as a grinning Misty caught the flying message. "No! Misty!" Ash called out. "Please don't read it! Please!"

"Sorry, Ash!" Misty said with a grin. She started to unfold the paper. "I just have to know what it is exactly that Gary said to you that got you so riled up. Maybe I can use it against you later." Her taunting grin inspired Ash to get up in a hurry, but he fell back down when he realized he couldn't stand on his ankle without it hurting. He must have twisted it when he tripped. Gary laughed at the scene and started to walk away into the forest. Ash looked on worriedly as Misty finished opening it up. Brock peered over her shoulder in interest. "Maybe he called you dense or a bad trainer or…" Her voice died off as her eyes scanned the page. Her smile dropped off her face completely. Her hands started shaking and her skin paled a bit. Ash groaned to himself and managed to get to his feet so he could hobble over to her.

Misty couldn't believe what she was reading. She lifted one hand up to her mouth in disbelief. The paper was now trembling like her hand as she reread the words, hoping they'd change if she stared long enough. Regardless, they didn't and she was stuck with the ones in front of her.

You know what Ash? I think I finally have it all figured out. I was always wondering why you were traveling with that red-headed reject. She's annoying, bratty, and not much to look at either. No wonder her sisters call her the runt. But I understand now. It must be because she's just as easy and loose as her sisters. I mean why else would you travel with such an ugly duckling if she didn't put out?

The harsh words were suddenly wrenched from her as Ash grabbed the paper from her shaking hand. She gave it away with no resistance, still unable to come to grips with what she just read. Ash crumpled the paper up and stuffed it in his pocket. "I told you not to read it." Ash grumbled weakly.

"Gary said that?" Misty finally asked, her voice quiet. She looked over to where he once stood, but all that was left were some footprints in the soft grass. The other trainer and long since disappeared into the woods.

"Yeah." Ash mumbled, not wanting to talk about it all. But he knew he couldn't escape it now. This is why he didn't want Misty to know the purpose behind the battle.

"Oh." Misty sat down on the ground slowly, needing to get off her feet. She was feeling light-headed. She had the sudden urge to cry, but held it back. "So you challenged him to a Pokemon match?"

"Well…that was actually his idea." Ash rubbed the back of his head. "I kinda just wanted to punch him in the face. But he has always been stronger than me." He looked down at the grass at his feet. "I took a few unsuccessful swings at him, then agreed to settle it in a Pokemon match."

"You put your badges on the line so Gary would take back what he said about me?" Misty asked him. Ash blushed and pulled his hat brim down over his eyes. She wasn't really looking at him, more staring off into space. "You were willing to give them up…for me?"

"Uhh…yeah, kinda." Ash said, his voice starting to crack. "Look, let's get back to the campsite and pack up." He tried hard to change the subject. "We can head off to Viridian as soon as possible."

Misty was unwilling to let go of the subject so quickly. 'That's why you've training so hard the last few days? That's what you've been pushing your Pokemon…and yourself…so hard for?"

"Wasn't just me." Ash mumbled. "My Pokemon wanted to train hard. They wanted to help me defend you as well."

Misty's eyes went wide as if something finally clicked in her mind. "Is that what you were talking about when you told me that sometimes winning was everything?"

"Ugh…can we just drop this?" Ash asked, his face a deep shade of scarlet. He couldn't bring himself to look Misty in the eyes and he didn't dare see what Brock was doing. "We have a lot of traveling to do and I want to get going. Come on." He turned and started to limp to the forest, hoping his friends would get the hint and follow him. Preferably in silence.

"Why?" Misty's voice pierced his mind and Ash stopped walking. Slowly he turned around. Misty was standing now and staring right at him. Her face was bright red too and she was rubbing her right arm subconsciously. He recognized this as her usual nervous habit. Brock was just looking back and forth at his two friends with arched eyebrows, as if he had been watching a predictable movie that had suddenly revealed a huge twist ending.

"Why?" Misty asked again, her voice cracking like his had. "I'm not going to lie…his words hurt. And I appreciate you standing up for me, Ash. I really do." Her voice seemed to drop in volume and she gulped before continuing. "But it was just words. Stupid, horrible words, but words nonetheless. He probably only said it to get to you. You didn't have to do all this. You shouldn't have had to." She looked into his eyes earnestly as if searching for something. "Why, Ash?"

"Aw, jeez…" Ash groaned and rubbed the back of his head. "Because…because…" Ash stumbled through his explanation, before deciding to just blurt out what he could. "Because he shouldn't be allowed to say those things about you! Everything he said was a lie and he had no right to talk about you like that!" He was clenching his fists together, finally able to get the secret he had been hiding from his companions out in the open. "And I didn't want him to ever talk about you like that again!"

"Ash…" Misty said softly. She held her hands up against her chest, as if she was afraid her heart would give out. "Do you mean that?"

"Would I have said it otherwise?" Ash mumbled. He felt like dying of embarrassment. He revealed too much already. "Are you happy? Can we leave now?" He looked back up at her and much to his shock and fear, she was walking closer to him.

"Are you saying you don't think I'm a runt or an ugly duckling?" She asked. Ash didn't respond positively or negatively. He tried to find something very interesting in the sky to pretend to look at. "But you're always calling me scrawny."

"I…" Ash started, not knowing if he could continue. He certainly didn't want to, but Misty's eyes were like magnetic beacons and he knew he wasn't getting away without an answer. "I…I like scrawny."

"What?" Misty asked in surprise. Brock almost ruined the moment by breaking into a fit of laughter, but somehow managed to hold it in.

"I said I like scrawny, okay?" Ash said almost angrily. "Or at least I have ever since I met you." He closed his eyes and wished he got get Muk to pound him before he said anything else stupid. "Ah…look, could you please stop making me say embarrassing things?" When she didn't respond, he took a look at her face. Her eyes were wet and she was shaking, but her mouth was turned up into a smile. "Ummm…Misty?" Ash asked, unsure of the situation. Instead of responding, Misty closed the small gap that still remained between them and hugged Ash tightly. Ash almost recoiled in surprise, but Misty held him tight. Ash slowly moved his arms around her uneasily. Misty was sniffling and crying lightly, but also letting out little relieved laughs. Ash looked over at Brock with questioning eyes. The Pokemon breeder just flashed Ash an annoying grin and shrugged happily. Ash sighed and tried to ease into the hug.

"Thank you." Misty said softly, almost making Ash jump.

"For what?" Ash asked.

"For everything." She responded vaguely.

"You're…you're welcome." Ash said, not fully sure of how to answer.

"C'mon guys." Brock spoke up eventually, deciding to spare Ash from his awkward situation. "Ash was right before. We should get going back to camp."

Misty finally broke the hug and Ash realized how much he was leaning on her when he stumbled forward. "Ow!" He said, landing on his bad ankle.

"Are you okay?" Misty asked, helping to hold him up.

"I think I hurt my ankle." Ash said.

"Here." Misty put an arm around him and helped him to stand up straight. "You can lean on me. I'll help you get back to the campsite."

"Okay." Ash said, blushing from close contact with the girl. Misty put her mouth near his ear. "For what it's worth, Ash, ever since I met you, I've learned to like dense." Ash felt a shiver go down his spine. He looked back over at her face, and she was the one blushing this time. Ash could feel a smirk tugging at the edges of his lips.

"Good." Was all he said. It was all he needed to say. Misty couldn't keep the huge smile off her face. Ash was wrong about one thing; winning wasn't everything. It was enough just to know that he was willing to fight.

The End