An "author's" ramblings:

An "author's" ramblings:

The long awaited—okay, probably not, but an author can dream, can't she? Well, I will. Anywho, as I was writing, the probably-not-long-awaited-for-but-certainly-long-awaited-for-finish (HA! This isn't not even that!) of my other . . .um, piece of, ahem—term used loosely—work. This is sort of the prequel/sequel of The Death of Ash Ketchum, since some people (and I thank you, THANK YOU!) asked for it. I really appreciate it. It got me off my butt and gave me some motivation and excuse to kick my sister off the computer. Isn't that right, Channy?

Boy, I do ramble, don't I? And I thought my mom just said that to get me to shut up. Never worked.

Okay, bit of warning, I made up my own Pokémon. Some people don't like that, but hey, I don't care. Umm, the names aren't very imaginative because, well, I'm not very imaginative when it comes to names, and I had to call them something. I made—and I hope they work—these little link thingies that'll take you to this Pokédex entry about it, so you have some additional information about the Pokémon I made up.

Chapter One—Basically, we meet a friend of Ash's from years ago, and Misty, Gary, Brock, and Tracey finally convince him to spill.

Illusions of Grandeur . . .

By, Kim Hoppy

Chapter 1:

The Proper Way to Tell a Story

"Coffee, regular."

"Vanilla cappuccino, please."

"Coffee, decafe."

"Tea, thank you."

The waitress smiled as she wrote down their orders. "Your orders will be here in just a few moments," the violet-haired vixen promised, then strolled away.

Tracey leaned over to Brock. "Are you sure you saw him come in here?"

"Hmm," Brock murmured, eyes looking over it the distance.

Misty unceremoniously rolled her eyes and whapped him smartly on the head. "Stop staring at Judy's rear," she ordered. "God, haven't you grown out of the testosterone phase yet?"

Brock rubbed the back of his head and looked sullenly at the younger adults. "What was the question?"

"I said—" Misty started, loud enough so that the whole café could hear what was going to come out of her mouth.

"Are you sure you saw Ash walk in here?" Tracey interrupted.

"Yeah, I saw him. You can't miss him," Brock said enviously.

"No, it's easy to miss Ash. You just can't ignore the troupe girls surrounding him," Gary corrected testily.

Misty nodded in silent agreement. With his bronze tan complexion, lean muscles, and pale bleach-blond hair (and especially when he wore the blue contacts), Ash had the ideal Sun God form. His "fan club" would easily be doubled if it wasn't for the fact that he rarely smiled now, for many girls found if very hard to be the subject of his grim stares.

Judy returned with their drinks as they sat in silence, smiling warmly. "Have you come to see Miriam Montgomery?" she asked as she set the coffee cups down in front of Tracey and Gary.

"Who?" Gary asked.

"Miriam Montgomery, an entertainer from Cornflower Strait. She's touring with this group, can't remember their name, and we're incredibly lucky sh—they decided to stop here. The Indigo League actually vouches for them, and you know how rare that is." Judy almost spilled Brock's tea as she set it down because she was so excited. Her eyes noticed their blank and less than enthused looks. "They've actually broken a few trends over there with the use of her Pokémon, too! He's so cute! They're all really great, you'll see, really talented. They do all these parodies and copies of songs . . ." Still rambling on, Judy turned around and started to walk to the counter.

"Ash probably came to watch her," Tracey suggested.

"Or he decided to bypass the girls by cutting through here," Misty countered, looking around for the blond locks but not seeing them.

Gary picked up his cup and took a gulp. "Why are we even here? Shadowing Ash is not how I planned spending my day, or week, or month." He rolled his eyes in self-pity.

"We never asked you to," Misty countered, harsher than she meant, but Gary was always complaining. Of course, Misty had wondered the same thing on more than one occasion. Why bother? Finally she settled that it was because of the change she saw in him, the change from the twelve-year-old boy to . . . to Shan. Right now, to her, Ash wasn't Ash. He was just Shan, a stranger.

Looking around the table, Misty saw that the others had similar thoughts running through their heads, even though they were just as likely to admit it aloud as she was. Until they found out what had happened to him, they would continue to try and piece it together from what they saw. After several tries, they found they couldn't subtlety talk it out of him. His lips were as tight as a Cloyster's. And he wasn't going to just open up to them if they dropped him in a tub of hot water either.

"Hallo, Pallet Town!" cooed a voice suddenly from a platform. Misty turned her head to see a wild white-haired, green-eyed, thin woman wearing black bell-bottoms and a pink mid-drift with long, puffy sleeves up on stage. "Well, I got to kill some time so the musicians can set up, the slow pokes—"

"Get over here and help, Miriam!" one of them laughed. The audience laughed at the expression the woman made.

"Ah, no. I'll break a nail or somethin', David." She smiled at the audience. "Anyway, we're glad to be here. Case ya don't know, we're—"

"Chuka!"

Miriam turned her head quickly at the Pikachu that suddenly leaped from behind the curtain, eyes wide, then smiled, as did her hair.

"There's a Ninetales on her head!" Gary exclaimed as the deep-red eyes opened and yawned down at Pikachu, complaining, "Nine!"

"A miniature Ninetales!" Brock corrected, looking at it with wide eyes. "Do you know how rare those are?"

You're going to tell us, aren't you, Tracey? Misty thought in the back of her mind, watching as Miriam removed the Ninetales, which was about the size of as it's unevolved form Vulpix. It might have even been smaller. Tracey or Brock would know.

"Out one in approximately ten million Ninetales is miniature," Tracey informed them, like they were actually interested in Brock's rhetorical question.

Ninetales leaped down from her arms to dance playfully around Pikachu. Miriam made a cute face at the pair, kneeling down to pet the electric mouse, while the other musicians chuckled to themselves. "Why if it isn't lil' Rodent!" she exclaimed with a laugh. "How ya doin'?"

Pikachu looked at her indignant for the title, but smiled evilly. "Pikachu pika, Chuka!"

It was like Miriam had totally forgotten about the audience. "And where is yar annoyin' shrimp sidekick, hmm? We could use an extra hand, ya know." Her eyes whirled over the room, but were disappointed. "Not here? Well, I'll see him later. Ya just stick around."

"Pikachu!" Pikachu disappeared from the stage, then leaped onto the table right in front of Tracey.

"You know," Gary said lazily, "I should be surprised, but I'm not."

"You know her, Pikachu?" Misty asked.

"Can you get us to know her?" Brock corrected instantly, looking at the hourglass figure Miriam had.

Pikachu rolled her eyes. "Chu pika. Chuka pikachu," she said, bringing her finger up to her lips.

Miriam looked vaguely at the audience as the musicians in the side finished organizing. A few moved to the front, and a smile played upon Miriam's face. "Well, I suppose we should get started, hmm?"

*****

The last note died on the saxophone, and the audience instantly started clapping. Smiling as her lips left the mouthpiece, Miriam bowed with the dancers on the stage. The Ninetales did a back flip and managed to, somehow or another, end in a spectacular bow.

"That Ninetales is amazing!" Tracey breathed, unsure as to whether or not they should leave. "It must be really well-trained. Did you see those flips?" He looked at the sketches he had made on his napkin. "Amazing."

"My Ninetales could do that," Gary sulked.

"I wonder if she'd be interested in breeding," Brock sighed, eyes dreamy.

Misty narrowed her eyes at her friend, unsure as on how to take the last statement. Feeling generous, she decided to let it slide. "I bet—"

"Hey! Rodent!" Miriam called, stepping down from the stage, still holding her saxophone. The tiny Ninetales sat on her shoulders like a shawl.

"Pi, Chuka!" Pikachu responded, bolts good-naturedly escaping her cheeks.

The tall woman clicked her tongue and shifted her eyebrows. "Whatever." Miriam looked at the small table. "How are ya all doin'?"

Wm-ahhh, was all Brock managed to get out.

"Your Ninetales is remarkable, Ms. Montgomery," Tracey said enthusiastically.

She rolled her eyes. "Nothin' about my performance?" She sniffed. "All comments for one fox, and none for the other . . . ones," she added hastily. "And it's always ya they talk 'bout!" She looked accusingly at the Pokémon, poking his nose. "No fair. We do use other Pokémon, too."

"Niine!" the fox Pokémon laughed, batting away the finger and hopped on the table, as if in an effort to say that he was truly splendid and beautiful—but don't touch! He snapped at Tracey, who had made an effort to pet him. Miriam didn't reprimand the fox, seemingly ignoring his behavior.

"You know Pikachu, Ms. Montgomery?" Misty asked as the woman sat down on a backward chair, legs straddling on either side.

"Call me Miriam," she pleaded lightly, then nodded. "Oh yeah. We go back a long time, don't we, Rodent?" Miriam petted Pikachu's ears lovingly.

The four locked eyes knowingly. "You'd know As—Shan then, right?" Tracey asked.

Miriam looked critically at them. "I haven't heard that name for some time, ya know?" She shook her head sadly. "Too honest to be a thief. And I tried to teach him the trade. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Terrible. My only great failure!"

"Chuka," Pikachu said lowly.

She shrugged. "I suppose maybe it was for the best." Miriam's eyes danced over the friends. "Ya know him, I suppose?" They nodded dutifully. "Well, I suppose I'm obligated to say howdy-do to the idiot since I'm in town, considerin' he did give us a spot of help. Ya know where he is?"

Gary made a feeble laugh. "We figured he was in here. Been following him all day, or been following the girls that have been following him anyway." He shrugged.

Miriam looked slightly interested at that statement. "Ah, no worries. Rodent here can lead us, hmm?" Pikachu shook her head in a no gesture. "What? Why not?"

She sighed wearily. "Pikachu chu pika pi pikachu pikach—"

"Hey, I don't understand Rodent, remember?" Miriam interrupted with a smile. "So unless Timmy actually fell down that well, we've got a problem. So, if ya can't lead us, then . . ." She snapped her fingers, thinking of a plan. "Ya just go to Blondie and we'll conveniently follow. Ya'll, of course, try to lose us, but not that hard or mucky or whatever. I'm wearin' my good boots. Pyro hadn't chewed these ones up." She looked at the fox, which seemed to be smirking. "Yet."

Pikachu thought it over for a moment, then smiled. "Pika, Chuka!"

"Then Hi-Ho, lil' mouse. Left, right, left right!" Miriam laughed, walking towards the door and grabbing a coat that was on the hook. "Yo, John! Be back later, k!"

Someone from the stage made a noise, which the group could only assume to be an affirmation. Miriam smiled, then looked at the Pokémon. "I said hi-ho! Come on, get hi-hoing! And yes, that does include you," she drawled to the fox.

Pikachu rolled her eyes, but started off in a very military-type walk. "Pi, chu, pi, chu!"

The fox followed lazily. "Nine, tale, nine, tale."

The trio started to march uniformly as they wanted out the door as the four friends stood up, each of them tossing down a few dollars to pay for the tab.

"Cra . . Z. . . . Cra . . .Z," Gary muttered

Brock shot him a hard look. "No. Beau . . . ti . . . ful!" He clicked his heels together then jogged up to catch up with Miriam.

"Some things will never change," Misty said, trying not to smile.

*****

"Shh," Miriam smiled at Misty, Tracey, and Gary caught up. Cautiously she pointed up into a near-bare tree they were next to. "Right . . . there."

Tracey saw Ash first, as he was a Watcher. (Brock could have seen him as well, had he not been staring at Miriam.) "He looks asleep," he said, although unsure. Misty tried to follow his gaze high up into the tree, almost at the top, and saw what she figured was probably Ash's leg in dark blue jeans.

"Probably exhausted from avoiding those girls," Gary smiled.

"Pikapi!" Pikachu called, scurrying up the tree.

"Yo, Shorty!" Miriam yelled, trying to jump up to a branch and climb up. "I found ya so ya got to talk to me!"

Some of the few leaves moved from above, a few even falling, and Misty saw a flash of yellow. "Hey, Miriam," Ash's tired voice called down. "How ya doing?"

Miriam let go of the branch she had grasped and looked up into the tree. "Same old, same old. How 'bout ya?"

"Been better, been worse, I suppose. I see Pyro is still as tiny as his brain."

The singer chuckled, looking at the indignant fox. "Or at least yars. Ya goin' come down? Cuz ya'd better, or Pyro'll torch the tree. And ya know I'd have him do it! And he'd be willin' too! I won't be bothered too much, either. It's cold." She shivered slightly, blowing on her hands to warm them up. "Ya know how much I hate Winter."

There was a chuckle from above. "Down in a minute."

Or less, Misty mused as he dropped down a second later, wearing a white sleeveless T instead of his typical long-sleeved black shirt. He was probably going to catch pneumonia in the chilly November air. She was actually surprised that Ash did look tired, his bangs hanging limply over his dull brown eyes.

"Ya look great," Miriam smiled as she gave him a small hug, not sounding a bit like she was lying.

He made a crooked smile raising an eyebrow, which really did surprise Misty, as he returned the hug. It seemed almost natural. "Nice to see ya again, Miriam," he said, then tossed his head at the small instrument as she backed away. "Didn't figure you'd still play, Ms. Diva."

"Shut up, Blondie," she retorted, although there was a pleased smile on her face from the title. She leaned against the tree, fingers dancing over the keys, making little poppity-pop sounds. "Ya know, I never figured ya'd actually come back. Thought it was all talk." Her green eyes softened. "I'm sorry for what happened with Shamin though."

Ash turned away slightly. "Me too, but c'est la vie."

"Bull, for whatever that means anyway. When'd it happen? Ya took off so fast after the Indigo, and we were swarmed at stage so much I never got get away so we could talk. Albeit, it probably was my fault." Ash shrugged a shoulder. "So when'd it happen?"

He seemed to be interested in looking up at the sky and was blinking his eyes rapidly, like a dust waif had gotten stuck in them. "Constellation League, just before my last round."

Miriam looked at Pikachu, who had bowed her head, not meeting any one person's gaze. "She was like my lil' sis that I never had. And it wasn't yar fault, ya know. If I know Shamin, ya couldn't have changed her mind no matter what."

Ash snapped his head down to look at her hard. "I never said it was," he said sharply in a tone that made the others almost take a step back. "And I never will, not again. We made the choice as a team. I went through that pit of despair once, and I don't plan on going back. Not now anyway." He made a tight fist. "I tried, Miriam. And had I known . . . So don't you dare place any of the blame on me. Don't you dare." His eyes flashed.

She tightened her face, showing in a small way that she did blame Ash, but was polite (or smart) enough not to say it aloud. "I still don't know how it happened," she said quietly.

Ash looked at her vehemently. "Is there a reason you came to see me, Miriam, because I'd rather get off this subject."

"Ya know, I miss the boy I hung around with," Miriam snapped. Now she knows how we all feel, Misty thought. Her eyes narrowed as she inspected Ash closer. "Ya been usin' something?"

Ash's face turned red with anger, and his voice was tight when he spoke. "No, I haven't, Miriam. Thank you for asking."

"Hey, no need to get snippy with me! I'm just concerned!"

"I didn't ask you for concern, did I?"

"Ooh, the big boy don't need no mother hen fussin' over him, huh?" she sneered. "Get off the frinkin' high horse!"

"Why don't you!"

They locked eyes, each raging with fire.

"Nine," Ninetales snarled.

"Pika."

They both looked down at the two Pokémon, whose eyes were pleading silently. Well, actually Pikachu was pleading. The Ninetales looked ready to fight on Miriam's behalf.

Miriam waved a dismissive hand, all malice gone. "In any case, I'm sorry for what happened. I know ya two were good friends, good friends," she repeated. Again Ash looked away. "Ya know that a few days would've—"

"I know," Ash said tightly. He didn't let go of the fight as easily as Miriam did.

She shook her head. "Ya said you were droppin' Indigo in yar last letter. So now what are ya goin' to do?" she asked after a moment, fingering the saxophone keys again.

"Don't know."

"Don't know, or won't say?"

"Take your pick," he snapped.

"Don't get smart with me." She frowned. "I mean, ya really like battlin' and stuff, can't see why. And don't ya dare answer that one," she said, waving her finger at Ash. "I mean, it sounded like ya were droppin' Pokémon all together. Never did get around to competing in that World Division thingy." She looked at him shrewdly. "Are ya dropping?"

The others, even Pikachu, blinked and looked at Ash in shock. He didn't say anything in his defense, and he didn't avert his gaze from Miriam's intense stare. She tilted her head.

"It's not because of Shamin, is it?"

His voice was calm. "Why should she influence my decision, especially now?"

Miriam made a small, exasperated sigh. "Do ya still play?" she asked, changing the subject again.

"Do Gyarados swim in the sea?"

"And go chompity chomp on poor, drowning sailors," Miriam finished sarcastically, tossing her hair aside, then wrapped an arm around Ash's shoulders. She looked suddenly disappointed at the lack of difference in their heights, at the greatest her only having two inches on him. Miriam was about as tall as Brock. "Damn, when did ya grow? Ya used to be so short I could use ya as a footstool. Hmm, did in fact." Ash said nothing, waiting for her to finish whatever she had started. "Anyway, we'll be in town for a few. Maybe we can jam. Ya can come up; the guys wouldn't mind, and if they do, Pyro'll take care of it. Ya know he will, and it'll be like old times."

"Maybe," he agreed quietly. "But not quite."

Miriam nodded her head in quiet agreement as she removed her arm. Misty seemed to think that Miriam planned to put Ash into a headlock and get him to do whatever she had wanted, but then realized that would have been a futile fight. "That means 'not likely', right?"

"It means if I decide to," Ash corrected. Then he held out his hand. "And my wallet, please?" His friend made a face as she slapped the leather into his hand. "Thank you."

"The signs of a great pickpocket, bein' able to sense that," Miriam stated boldly, coming from her pout and stepping away. "Do me a favor and actually consider my offer? Life has to go on, even when Shamin's gone." Her smile wavered a moment, but stayed on her face.

He nodded slightly, then tilted his head to look at her, as if noticing something different. "Is that your coat? It looks a little too frumpy for your tastes. You stole that, didn't you?" His voice was accusing, to say the least.

She smiled evilly, poking his nose. "Did I now?" Then Miriam turned before Ash could even reply and walked away with a "Cheerio," playing what Misty figured where scales on the saxophone. The Ninetales trotted behind her, after slapping Ash with his tails, doing a sort of jig to the beat.

"Pikapi?" Pikachu asked timidly, causing the four friends to look at the outsider.

"Great," Ash sighed, rubbing his nose.

"Who's that, Ketchum?" Gary drawled casually, crossing his arms.

Ash looked at the others distantly. "Haven't you met, or have you been following her all day long too?" Misty thought she saw his lips twitch into a quick smile. He leaned up against the tree, looking down at Pikachu. "I met Miriam on the alleyway of Corral Lane. Or under, I suppose." He scratched his head in thought, the sighed when he decided he wasn't very sure. "Or somewhere around there."

"Is she married?" Brock wondered, vividly remembering that he hadn't seen any rings on her fingers.

"Brock," Misty warned, not interested into getting into a conversation like that.

Ash ignored the question as well. "Why are you following me?"

"We're not following you," Tracey denied rather poorly. "What'd give you that idea?"

He chuckled humorlessly, stretching his bare arms out. Misty saw what she first noticed after seeing him swim with his Water Pokémon: the mesh of pale crisscrossing scars. One, the longest, stretched from the top of his hand and to his elbow on his right arm. There were wider scars on that one, like large dots, four on top lined right on the long scar, and one on the underside of his arm. It was similar to when you dig your nails in your forearm, except that these scars were a lot bigger. On his left shoulder, almost at his collarbone, there was also a peculiarly shaped five-pointed scar, like someone had thrust a stake into him. Misty had also seen a variety of fainter scars on his back, ones so faint that she had to squint to see them. She had finally been bold enough to ask how he got them, but Ash had merely grunted something inaudible and told her to mind her own business.

She understood why he usually wore long-sleeved shirts, especially around his mom.

When she moved her eyes, Misty saw that Ash had seen her staring at the scars again. "What gives me that idea, Tracey, is the fact that I do have eyes," he said levelly, seemingly unconsciously running a hand over his long scar. "I can see the looks you four give me. And I do know the looks." He paused momentarily, then added, "Very well, in fact. So why are you following me?"

The four looked at each other, nodding slightly.

"It's like this, Ketchum," Gary started. "We all enjoy a good mystery, especially in Pallet, since there's nothing else to amuse us since the theater is closed. It's just that you're the best we can come up with."

Ash rolled his eyes slightly. "There is no mystery about me," he said after a moment of quiet reflection.

"I can think of a few," Brock countered. "Like how do you know Miriam? And who is Shamin?"

"How'd you get those scars?" Tracey added. Ash instantly stopped running his hand over his arm.

"What about those Leagues?" Gary put in. "And are you actually dropping Pokémon?"

"And why the hell did you ever run away?" Misty fumed, almost shouting.

Everyone looked surprised at Misty. Ash even blinked.

Gary cleared his throat first. "Well, Ketchum? You can pick any of those to start with."

"And while you're at it, tell us about Miriam," Brock sighed.

"Or what happened to you during those five years?" Misty added, her anger raging—anger she wasn't even aware she had, anger from the fact that Ash had never said anything to them yet, and they were supposed to be his friends.

"Pikapi," Pikachu murmured, climbing up the tree so she could rest on his shoulder. Ash's eyes were focused on them, or at an area past of them.

"Look, Ash, if you tell us—" Tracey started, setting a hand on the eighteen-year-old's shoulder.

"Don't touch me," Ash hissed through clenched teeth. "Please, just don't, Tracey."

"Okay, Ash, okay," he said, backing away. "So what are you going to do?"

Misty was prepared for Ash to be stubborn and not say anything, to turn and walk away. She was not prepared for him to slide down the trunk and sit heavily on the ground, eyes almost closed. It was then that they could all see how incredibly tired Ash was. They had chosen well in their timing.

Eyes closed, Ash chuckled grimly. It almost seemed like he would be crying. "What the hell happened to me?" he repeated. He looked up at them, raising his eyebrows and tilting his lips up to a corner of his face in an expression of less-than-amused humor. "People change. We deal with it."

Damn! they all thought at the same time. Obviously Ash wasn't going to open up like they had figured.

"Well, most people don't do one-eighties on their personalities," Brock countered.

"Yes, they do. It's called growing up."

Misty stomped her foot childishly. "Why won't you tell us? Aren't we your friends?"

Ash's head snapped up sharply, and Pikachu cried, "PIKACHU!" The mouse started to nuzzle her master, who was trembling with a seething anger. "Chu, Pikapi, chu pikachu," she murmured. He looked at her momentarily, and she smiled up at him hopefully. It gave neither any comfort, and Pikachu could see that his past demon was returning again, one that he never actually got around to beating into submission, because he couldn't. Ash looked back towards the others and studied them intently.

"Is this a test?" Ash finally got out, jaw firm. Pikachu looked at her trainer fearfully.

Misty nodded her head. "Yeah, it is. Are we, or aren't we?"

"Well then, we'll have to find out, won't we?" Ash said coldly, standing up.

"Pikapi!" Pikachu cried, pulling on his leg.

"And how do you propose?" Misty challenged, looking up at him to meet his gaze.

Ash made a cruel smile, flexing a fist. "Do you trust me with your life?"

Her eyes looked over him briefly. "Y-yea, I do. Why?"

"PIKAPI!" Pikachu lamented.

"Let's test this faith," Ash suggested, turning on his heel to go over to a side tree. Their eyes followed to see Ash's backpack hanging on a low branch. Just as he reached in, Pikachu leaped onto the branch.

"Pi, pika chu pikachu, Pikapi!" she gasped.

"Don't worry. Nothing's gonna happen," he replied levelly, withdrawing something from his backpack. Then he turned and walked back, holding something in a blue-violet silk cloth. "I . . . won this," he started in a bitter whisper, slowly removing the silk away. Their eyes were focused like sunbeams through a magnified lens, and then they gasped seeing the silver blade reflecting their stares back at them.

Ash tossed the cloth into the air, brought the knife down, causing it to slice cleaning though the fabric. "I keep it very sharp. It's a throwing knife." His eyes looked at Misty again. "I'll repeat myself. Misty, do you trust me with your life?"

Misty found all she could do was look at the metal in his hand. Her tongue refused to move.

"You're crazy, Ash!" Brock yelled.

"You could kill her!" Tracey exclaimed.

Ash looked at them, plainly saying that that was the idea. "I know."

"You can't do that!" Gary snapped.

Again he looked at Misty, whole still couldn't make any noise. "Well, Misty? True friends trust each other. I'd trust you if you decided to throw it at me. You can do it if you want." He gripped her wrist and placed the knife in her hand.

It was strangely warm, like it was alive. Misty couldn't hear the arguments the men were making, attention focused on the metal. There were no gems embedded in it, but an intricate gold pattern of connected tiny dots. Misty twisted her wrist so the sunlight would dance on the hilt. It was perfectly balanced, but Misty doubted if she could throw it accurately.

"Well, Misty?" Ash's quiet voice echoed through her reverie. Her eyes blinked, and she saw herself looking into Ash's brown eyes, which mirrored her own. In essence, she was looking right into her own eyes. "Allow me to prove my trust to you, and you can do the same for me." Misty watched dumbly as Ash moved back against a thick tree almost thirty feet away. "Throw it."

She finally found her voice. "No! I'd kill you!" she screeched, almost dropping the knife.

He lowered his head to look at her from under his bangs and eyebrows. A hunted look danced against them. "This is an act of trust. No one will die." He sounded so sure.

"Ash, all those years alone did something to your head," Gary swore, grabbing the knife away from Misty's trembling hand. She still held her gaze and hand there, transfixed at the position the knife had been in. "You're suicidal."

Ash moved away from the tree slowly. "Am I?" He seemed actually interested in the answer. His eyes were still sparkling dangerously, as if a lamp was shining on the other side.

The look put Gary off for a moment, but the words found themselves quick enough. "And you need help!" Gary continued, holding the knife out towards Ash's chest. Then he saw what he was doing and quickly brought the knife back.

"That I won't disagree on. We all need help," Ash agreed quietly, then held out his hand. "My knife, please. I won't kill anyone with it, either." His eyes lightened at the statement for a moment.

Reluctantly, Gary handed over the knife slowly, ready to draw it back at a moment's notice. "You'd better not, Ketchum."

Ash held the knife, not looking at his friends' worried faces. "So you don't trust me," he said levelly, bringing the challenge back up. He smiled crookedly, then with a lightening quick motion turned quickly and then the knife fly. It ended up center in the tree, pinning a leaf that had been falling against the bark. The knife was still quivering when he walked up and pulled it out.

"I don't trust me either." He looked back at them. "But I certainly won't miss." With that, he picked up his bag from the branch a started to leave their sight.

Pikachu let out a small sigh. "Pikapi," she cooed, running after him.

The four watched the sliced leaf lay on the ground.

*****

"Hello," Mrs. Ketchum smiled brightly at the group, picking up a flowerpot from the ground. The garden wasn't as beautiful as it normally was, mostly because of the season, but also because Mrs. Ketchum hadn't been around to take care of it during the last few months of summer, and none of them were that great of gardeners. Around her head four of Ash's Hummers danced and twirled, their wings a blur. In the late afternoon, the sun sparkled off their feathers, making them seem like flying gems even in the bare landscape.

"Hello, Mrs. Ketchum," they all replied dutifully as more Hummers escaped the flowers and came over to inspect them. They seemed to be multiplying, for Ash had only had five when he arrived.

Mr. Mime eagerly took the flowerpot. "Thank you, Mimey. How is everything?" she asked absently, holding up a hand so a Hummer could land on it.

They lied. "Fine."

"That's good. If you're hungry, supper is almost ready."

"PIKACHU!" Pikachu yelled, jumping up onto the handrail by the steps. When she saw the four, she waved happily, then scampered back inside.

"It must be done," Mrs. Ketchum said happily as the Hummer flew off. "Come on, Mimey. You can come too," she added as an afterthought, looking at the four and pulling off her gloves.

"Is Ash here, Mrs. Ketchum?" Tracey asked as they made their way into the house, barely missing not stepping on the sleeping Ragman, for now it was too cold for it to sleep outside. (Ash actually scoffed at that excuse when he had seen it sleeping in the house that first morning, and the dirty Pokémon had avoided meeting its Trainer's gaze until . . . well, it still avoided Ash's amused gaze.) They had spent most of the last few hours trying to find him again, somewhat worried about him after the leaf incident and leaving him with any sharp objects.

Mrs. Ketchum's smile widened as she opened the oven. "Yes. He's in his room taking a nap." She said "nap" in a way that made the listener think that only little kids took them, and that her son was, in fact, a little boy. Since Ash had returned, Mrs. Ketchum had taken to mothering him a bit, having a handkerchief every time he sneezed and making sure both of his socks matched, that sort of thing. Misty was silently praying that the day never came when Ash would tell her to shut up and leave him alone.

"Do you want one of us to go wake him up?" Brock asked as he started to go towards the cupboards. Mr. Mime looked at him dangerously, just daring him to continue. The breeder took the hint and sat down, figuring that there was always breakfast.

She looked thoughtful. "He did look very tired, and he was cranky." Misty smiled at the word choice.

"How can you tell?" Gary muttered, watching as the plate was set down in front of him.

She took the question seriously as she tested the meal. "Oh, he just looked very upset about something. He wouldn't say why or about what though, and I told him he needed to take a nap." Mrs. Ketchum turned her view another way. "But he's been sleeping for the past few hours, so he's probably okay. And he needs to eat something. Would any of you mind?"

They didn't answer for a moment, wondering if Ash slept with a knife or gun under his pillow.

"Pika!" Pikachu said, scurrying out of the kitchen and up the stairs.

Misty sighed with relief, then looked around the kitchen. It was cozy and very plain, a comfortable air around it. She always loved coming to the Ketchum residence, at least Mrs. Ketchum's. It was like Mrs. Ketchum's aura melted into the house—cheery, warm, maternal, no sense of malice in it.

Her eyes drifted over to look into the living room, where pictures lines the wall, proudly displaying the child of the house. There were pictures of the boy she remembered, but then there were pictures Ash had given his mother, pictures of him while he was gone. They were of him, for the most part, although some had who Misty recognized as Miriam (she hadn't changed that much) picking on him, having him in a headlock or such. There was also another girl, green-haired and blue-eyed, and Misty figured it was—what was her name again?—Shamin by what Miriam had said. She looked thin and pale, but Misty noticed that she grew to be more popular in the pictures as Ash aged, and a lot closer to him too.

Misty was surprised at the photos. Mrs. Ketchum said Ash had kept them in a carefully labeled album, and that he knew his mom would like to see them when he came home. He must have had to develop like a hundred rolls. Forethought and consideration, something Ash had seemingly perfected over the years.

Among other things, Misty added sadly. Suspicion, neutrality, mystery, a subdued sense of fear in something, himself maybe.

"Mrs. Ketchum, don't you ever wonder what happened to Ash during those years?" she asked suddenly, causing everyone to jump. She must, Misty thought. We all do. When Mrs. Ketchum had returned from Ziganka—the Ketchum family had spent some time there the past few months for some family re-acquaintance time—it didn't look like she had any of her questions answered.

Mrs. Ketchum looked down at her food, moving it around as she thought. Then she looked up, smiling slightly. "Oh, of course I do, but I know Ash'll tell me when he's ready. Li said to just give him some time, but that's easy for him to say. He's used to waiting." Then she blushed. "I hope it's soon."

"Did you ever ask him to tell you?" Tracey asked. The other three saw where this was going. Ash would do almost anything for him mom. If she asked, maybe he would tell them. Maybe?

"No. Li said I shouldn't. Why do you ask?"

"Because they deduced that I would probably tell you if you did," Ash answered in a hard tone, entering the kitchen, now wearing his normal long-sleeved shirt. He has also perfected the art of being absolutely quiet. As he sat down, Ash looked hard at the four guilty members. Pikachu did as well, although not nearly as severe. The mouse seemed torn between her loyalty to her Trainer and her worry about him.

"Well, I don't have to ask," Mrs. Ketchum smiled happily. "You'll tell me someday, won't you sweetie." It wasn't even in the form of a question.

Ash didn't answer, focusing his stare on his "friends". "Supper looks good, Mom." This was from a guy who hadn't even looked at the food yet.

"Thanks, Pumpkin. Your Hummers really are wonderful, you know. The whole town loves them, except about the incident with the balloons." She frowned slightly, remembering the complaints she had received.

"They're not mine," Ash replied quietly, starting to eat. "Not all of them, anyway."

"Whose are they, then?" Gary asked.

Ash didn't respond for a moment, eyes closed. Pikachu bowed her head, not meeting anyone's gaze. "Shamin's." He shook his head, as if trying to remove the name from his brain.

"And who's that?" Brock asked, interested.

It was exceedingly quiet while waiting for Ash's response. Although Ash seemed willing not the answer, the silence seemed to form an oppressive shell around him that forced the response from his lips. "She was . . . just a friend," he finally answered, after almost a minute. "Haven't seen her since the . . ." He stopped, shaking his head.

"Not since the Constellation League?" Tracey inquired, remembering the conversation Miriam and Ash had had earlier in the day.

"Since then," Ash agreed quietly.

Pikachu patted her trainer's arm comfortingly. "Pikapi," she cooed.

"Was she a Trainer?" Misty asked, looking down the hall at the pictures. There was a picture with Shamin hugging Pikachu with Ash wincing over on the side and Miriam and her Ninetales on the other. Misty had to piece together the clues from the picture. It looked like the fox had bitten Ash or something.

He made a half-smile and petted Pikachu. "Sort of. The first Pokémon Shamin caught was . . ." He paused, thinking for a moment.

"Chu! Chupi ka pikachu!" Pikachu responded, a note of disapproval in her voice. "Chu pikachu pika pikachu Chupi Pikachu!"

He chuckled, nodding. "I did say caught, not stole, though," Ash corrected after he thought about it, still down Memory Lane and seemingly unaware that he had an audience. "Was Hula, wasn't it? With Trigger?" Pikachu nodded her agreement after a very long time meditating on the answer.

"She stole Pokémon?" Misty demanded.

"Stole more than that, although not many Pokémon because of my"—he chuckled quietly—"'grumblegrumbledamn-frickingmubmlegrumble morals and such. . .'" Ash trailed off distantly, shoving food up to his mouth. He continued, still unconcerned that he was divulging information. "Shamin was a pick-pocket, thanks to Miriam. Be careful around her. She could still steal anything from almost anyone." He smirked momentarily. "They were the ones who helped me get into Professor Oak's computers, and then make new Pokédexes." Ash shrugged, although Misty thought he was forcing indifference. "Shamin played, or claimed to play, the guitar. Said she'd been on the streets . . . five years, since her folks split." Again he shrugged, eating. "They were nice, I thought, when I met them after she—"

Ash suddenly stopped talking, like he had nothing more to say on the subject, and indeed like he had never brought it up in the first place.

"Pika, Pikapi?"

He took an almost too deep of a breath, so deep that Misty thought he'd pass out. Then he forced a smile. "Thanks for the meal, Mom. I'm going to go get some air, look at the stars or something. You wanna come, Pikachu?"

"Pi."

"Okay, Ash," Mrs. Ketchum smiled, although it too looked forced. Worry etched her eyes, and not because Ash had barely touched his plate. He nodded at each of them in turn, then walked out of the room. The door outside was opened and shut soon afterwards.

The table was quiet until Brock spoke with finality and certainty.

"She dumped him."

*****

"Ash?" Misty knocked on the door again, biting her bottom lip in slight worry. "Ash?"

Still no answer.

Misty looked down the hall to see if anyone was within sight, then slowly opened the door. Sorry, but during her entire stay at the Ketchum residence since Ash had returned, he had always been up at dawn, or earlier. Of course, she wasn't exactly sure about his sleeping schedule when he and his parents had gone back to Ziganka, but Misty assumed it hadn't changed. Now it was almost eleven-thirty. Normally she'd allow someone to have a Sleep-In-Late Day, but something in Ash's manner worried her, telling her that letting him sleep in would be like letting him sleep forever.

"Ash?" she whispered, looking around the dim room. The curtains were drawn, letting in only traces of light. More light would enter when the wind blew the curtains further out into the room, making it seem a bit ominous.

"Pikachu?"

"Hey, Pikachu," Misty smiled, seeing the familiar Pokémon resting on the bed next to the sprawled-out form of Ash. "Umm, you hungry?" she added, suddenly embarrassed at what she was doing.

Pikachu shook her head. "Chu." Then she petted Ash's hair.

"Okay."

Cautiously Misty took a step in and shut the door. Pikachu looked up briefly and smiled. "Chu pika Pikapi," she whispered, continuing to stroke the blond hair.

"I wish I could understand what you say," Misty sighed, leaning against the door. "You'd tell us what happened to Ash, right?"

Pikachu nodded slightly, although she did not look at Misty in the eye. Misty knew Pikachu wouldn't directly disobey Ash, but the Pokémon would try to do everything in her power to protect him from himself, if need be.

Misty looked around the room. She hadn't been in it since Ash moved it, and she found it remarkable at how much it hadn't changed. Yes, it was neater, but the Pokémon toys that had been in there for years were still there, stacked with great care, like they were the most important things in the world. She had thought Ash would have tossed out the toys, as he wasn't a little boy anymore. He had always made such a big deal about being oh-so-grown-up as a kid, especially when she made some comment that implied that he wasn't. Over in the corner—seemingly hidden—her keen eyes spied the delivery box, which Misty knew housed a number of trophies and badges. In a sense, it also surprised her to see them not displayed, but concealed in the plain box. Ash had always been a show-off as a child, but now he was a lot more withdrawn.

Her eyes went over to the man in question. Ash was sleeping on the bed that almost seemed to be too small for him. He was lying on his stomach, and Misty thought that he must have fallen asleep the second his body touched the soft material. He was still in his clothes from yesterday, even his shoes, and he wasn't under a blanket, per say. Sometime during the night, it looked like Pikachu—maybe even Mrs. Ketchum—had covered him up with a spare blanket that was now half off him. One arm was wrapped around a pillow; the other hung limply off the side.

Carefully she walked over, now suddenly curious to see how much Ash had changed physically. Lucky his face was turned towards her, and she knelt down to study it, sending back a wisp of yellow that lay in her way with a soft and gentle hand.

The blond was starting to grow out. At the roots Misty could see the signs of Ash's original black seeping out to reclaim the hair. Aside from the color and length, the hair still had the same properties it had during his youth, if free. The confining ponytail he usually wore it in hid the way it stuck out wildly, heedless of what combs and brushes ever order it to do.

His face was longer and more defined, like his father's, and still very tan. The cheeks were less full of the traces of baby fat Ash still had at twelve. The nose, also a feature of his father's Ash had received, was still there, the pert nose that would accent the bold and stubbornness he had inside him. Some people had those kinds of noses, and Ash was one of them. He had grown into his ears at least, she chuckled. His lips were like his mother's, something more at home in a smile than in a frown he usually wore. On his chin had grown some morning stubble, which he would shave once he woke up.

The eyes were hard to gage since they weren't opened, but Misty thought they were wider than most men's were, giving Ash a sort of feministic accent to his face. They were truly his mother's in color and traits, the power and peace behind them. Right now Misty could see his eyelids moving as he dreamed. Whether the dream was pleasant or otherwise Misty was unsure, for his face gave no indication.

True, he was no drop-dead gorgeous guy, but all and all, a girl would probably consider herself very lucky if she caught his eye.

"Pikachu?"

"Hmm?" Misty asked dimly, looking at the mouse. The mouse looked back, and Misty remembered her supposed reason for coming in here. "Do you think I should wake him up?"

"Pi," Pikachu said after a moment.

"All right. Ash," she called. "Come on Ash, wake up." Ash made a small murmur, wrinkling his face as he started to wake up. "Wake up." She touched his shoulder gently to shake him.

Suddenly her wrist was grabbed tightly by his right hand, Ash's brown eyes wide open and taking a deep intake of breath. Misty bit her lip to keep from crying out in pain, his grasp was so tight. He blinked in surprise, bringing her into focus as he rolled onto his side. "What are you doing?" he whispered. He actually whispered.

"Waking you up. I thought you might be hungry, and it's almost noon." Her eyes darted to her wrist. "Let go, please."

His eyes followed his arm to his hand, seeing the grip he had on her. He released it quickly, pushing himself up. Misty rubbed her wrist, not surprised to see the red marks left by his fingertips. She wouldn't be surprised if it bruised either.

"Sorry," he grunted, pushing himself off the bed.

"It's all right," Misty lied, still kneeling down. "Your hair's growing out."

Ash turned around and looked at her in surprise, running a hand through his hair self-consciously. "How long have you been in here?"

"Not long," she said quickly, getting up. "You didn't hear me when I knocked. Still a heavy sleeper." He made no comment, but yawned slightly and rubbed his eye with the heel of his palm like a five-year-old might do. "So what are you going to do today?"

"My business," Ash replied curtly, looking at her from over his shoulder.

"You know, we are still your friends," she said hotly, upset over his actions. "So why don't you just drop the damn attitude?"

"Attitude," Ash repeated quietly, turning to face her.

"Yeah, attitude. That stupid knife thing."

"I wasn't going to throw it because I knew you wouldn't let me," he snapped. "And if you had, I sure as hell wouldn't have missed. Listen, Misty, my life is my own, and I don't have to share my mistakes or whatever you think they are with you or anyone if I don't want to."

Misty looked at him angrily. "But you should! Dammit, you know how worried everyone was when you took off? You didn't even think of us, did you?" She saw his jaw tighten. "You could at least tell us what happened to you so we can figure out if our worry was in vain or not."

"I thought of you guys a lot," he replied, tone level. "And you should feel grateful that I did. Stopped me from doing a lot of stupid things."

"Didn't stop you from leaving us!" Misty shot back. "That was pretty stupid."

"Not saying it wasn't."

His voice was so calm—dammit, it always was! Couldn't he for once just yell?—that Misty's temper seemed to die down. There had to be more to that statement. "Yeah?" she said sarcastically.

"I could have done a lot of dumber things, Misty," he stated, still calm.

Even the sarcasm left her. "Like?"

Ash shrugged, closing his eyes. "Have you ever been so . . . angry, so—" he seemed to be struggling for the right word, but couldn't find it—"so utterly destroyed that you've almost done something you'd regret the rest of your life?" He voice was distant, like he was speaking from across a crowed room.

She hadn't, not that she could remember. "Uh-huh?"

"I was. Once. More that once, probably." He opened his eyes to look at her, and something about them made her step back unconsciously. "But once, had I done it, acted upon that impulse, it would have been murder. Cold-blooded murder. I could have done something that stupid, Misty. My hands were around that guy's neck and squeezing for everything that happened—damn, he wasn't breathing, I gripped his jugular so tightly. I really just wanted to kill him, everything that bastard stood for. But I didn't—couldn't—because I thought of you guys." Ash closed his eyes and brought a hand up to his forehead, covering his eyes like a visor. He was sucking his teeth, and it seemed to Misty that he was forcing the words out.

"Something broke through at the very last second and I saw that guy. I saw me, and words echoed in my head. It was happening just like that Trainer said. To me. And I saw everybody I ever knew. I knew I couldn't come back here with that, and I wanted to come back at that moment—damn, I did so much I wished I could have just teleported right then and there and just run. I wanted to go Home, Misty, however short I'd be welcomed or could manage." He shook his head. "So thank you."

Misty looked at him in a stupor. Ash, commit murder? The words wouldn't come together in her mind to form a realistic fact. "What happened?"

Again Ash shrugged, taking a deep breath and bringing his hand down. "Maybe some day I'll tell you. Maybe. Someday."

"Why can't you tell us now?" Misty pleaded. "Is what happened to you so bad that you did such terrible things that you're ashamed to tell us?"

He blinked at her in surprise. "Not entirely."

"Then why?"

He sighed. "Because, Misty, I don't want to remember all of it. I wouldn't be able to stop remembering."

"You can't just forget," Misty stated, placing her hands on her hips. "Look, the sooner you accept it, the sooner you'll start to be able to remember without being so . . . melodramatic."

Ash blew the bangs out of his eyes. "I've already accepted my life, Misty, but I don't see the point in telling you it."

"That's because you're afraid." It was a wild theory that caused Ash to look away, allowing Misty to know that she was right, in a sense. "You are, aren't you?"

"Never said I wasn't."

"Oh, can the damn smart-ass remarks," she ordered. "What are you afraid of?"

"I told you. Memories. It's hell to lay awake and remember, to sleep and remember." He held his chin. "Relive stupid mistakes, and worry about what's coming."

"What is?"

Ash looked at her. "I don't know," he sighed.

She snorted. "Ash, look, put your blasted pride on the wall. We all want to know what happened to you. Gary's dying to know about all the leagues,"—Ash's eyes darted up in quiet surprise, like he hadn't even noticed—"Brock's probably trying to ask Miriam, Heaven help her, on a date, and Tracey's interested in the Pokémon. And your mom and I are just wondering what happened to you. You've been home over three months and you haven't let any of us—not even your mom—in a crack."

"Pikachu!"

His eyes quickly looked at Pikachu, who was standing alongside Misty. "Regular Benedict Arnold," he muttered, but there was a faint smile on his face.

"Chu," Pikachu corrected. "'Pikachu Ka Kapi.'" Misty sounded like she was quoting something, and Ash, after a moment of confusion, smiled weakly, shaking his head. Misty wished she could understand Pikachu-nese.

In any case, Misty took Pikachu's support as a tip in the scale. "Even Pikachu wants you to tell someone. She's worried about you too." Ash was still quiet, unconvinced. "Look, you either tell us, or I'll never let it drop until you do!"

Ash sighed, closed his eyes, and ran his hands through his hair, thus unintentionally freeing it from the loose ponytail it was in. He was definitely too tired to put up with this crap. He was surprised he put up with it for so long. "This is some master plan, isn't it?" he murmured quietly, leaning his head back. Misty was unsure if he was talking to some unseen deity or to her. She figured it didn't matter in either case.

"Yes, it is."

He was silent, breathing deeply, and it seemed like he had fallen asleep while he stood. Pikachu timidly walked over to him and tapped his leg. "Pikapi?" Ash didn't respond or act like he had even aware of the Pokémon. "Pikapi!"

Ash opened his eyes and looked down at Pikachu, smiling at her worry. Then he looked at Misty, or past her, cocking his head sideways like he was considering something. His eyes were vacant, and Misty thought somehow different. It was just inkling she had, something she couldn't place her finger on.

"Do you believe in Destiny, Misty?" he asked as he picked up Pikachu.

She looked at him, slightly confused. "You mean do I think that some things, no matter how much one tries to avoid it or doesn't want it, will happen in any case?" Ash shrugged. She grinned. "Does this mean you'll tell the story if I say yes, because you are destined to tell us what happened to you."

He blinked slowly at her. "Thank you for your input, but just so you know, I don't believe in it."

"What do you believe in, then?"

Ash was silent, looking away from her to the stuffed animals and then to the hidden box of trophies. Pikachu looked at him in a worried manner. "It sure as hell ain't that sort of Destiny. That's just admitting defeat for everything you've done in your life, that you didn't do any of it. And I'm not doing that, no matter what."

Misty tilted her head, confused. "Why do you say that?"

Again he looked at her, and he spoke quietly. "Because if I didn't, my entire life wouldn't even be mine. Let them take everything else from me, but I want my life." He closed his eyes and sighed. Then, in a voice so quiet that Misty couldn't hear, he said something else.

"What?" she asked tentatively.

His eyes opened, and they were bright even in the dim room as he looked at his closed window. Within a moment, he was next to the window and holding back the curtain to look at the calm scene. His lips were suddenly tight, and Misty was surprised that he looked upset about something. Pikachu pressed her nose against the glass, scanning as well, but not seeing what Ash had. "Of all the bloody idiots . . . damn."

"What?" she asked, coming up to him and looking as well.

He looked at her after a moment of scanning the area. "Pardon?"

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing," he feigned with innocence. Misty looked at him sharply, and he edited his statement. "It's . . . just a feeling. Nothing that concerns you."

"If it concerns you, it concerns all of us," she stated. "Everything."

"Pika!" Pikachu stated, jumping onto the sill and looking at the yard with a dangerous look. She had a pretty good feeling as to what was out there now, and she was just waiting for something to grab her trail and swing her like a lasso.

Ash looked at them, and then made a slow smile at their loyalties. He shook his head, hanging his head, eyes hidden by his bangs as he looked back out the window. "I pray for you, then, and hope to Mew that it never comes time for you to prove your words, Misty."

*****

Gary was lounging on the Ketchum couch, Umbreon resting on his chest. Even if the Pokémon was larger than his unevolved form, it didn't bother Gary that much. "He cracked. 'Bout time too," he muttered, petting the soft fur. He had never gotten around to deciding on which way to evolve, whether it would be fire, water, or electric. Truth be told, he actually hadn't wanted to evolve his Eevee by stone. He had done research, and Pokémon change after they evolve, especially with stones. It was a well-known fact that Vaporean tended to be less attentive, Flareon was too focused, and Jolteon was a bit rebellious. In the end, Gary decided to wait on it. Of course, on the plus side, if Eevee would evolve into an Espeon or an Umbreon, as he had, well, everyone knew Psychic were some of the strongest Pokémon around . . .

This whole month of training went by, most of it wasted on tailing Ash, and the other two months before that weren't much better, sticking around and trying to figure out what was going on. Gary hadn't even gotten up the guts to demand that they do their match, because now Gary knew Ash was very good. The Trainer wasn't afraid of losing, no, not of that. One needed to lose to be a great Trainer. What worried Gary was Ash. Sure, he used the alibi that he wanted to know about the Leagues, but that wasn't it. As a kid, Gary had respected Ash, in the way bullies respect other lesser bullies. But now, after the years had taken their toll on Ash, Gary had to wonder what caused it. Ash had been strong, determined, stubborn, and hothead. If their current roles had been reversed, Ash would have demanded the match that Gary put off, no matter what the odds were against him. Something had caused Ash to become distant, and Gary was silently praying it wasn't Pokémon. Not that he'd ever say it, although by now everyone knew it, Gary was worried about Ash, his friend.

God, never thought he'd think of Ash as that again, had he ever. Gary was unsure on that point.

Gary looked up at the ceiling, dislodging the sudden bombing of memories he deemed unimportant to remember by shifting his brain to another subject. He liked to think about things, about how his opponents battle. That's one thing he always figured made him a better Trainer than Ash. Ash would have walked into a match blindfolded and felt confident for a win. Gary could have done the same thing with the same results. That didn't make a good Trainer. You had to think, to plan, to make a strategy. Apparently Ash had figured this out along the way.

Dammit, he had to be a Master—well, a better Trainer— before me! Gary thought angrily. Even being asked to join the Elite. And he turned it down! Idiot!

Believe it or not, Gary always knew Ash would be a great Trainer, but Gary had always figured he'd always be greater than Ash would. It had slightly irked Gary the way his grandpa had cheered for Ash. Okay, so Professor Oak had cheered for Gary as well, but Professor Oak had also cheered for Ash. And, of course when Ash and Gary battled, Grandpa stood by him, always confident that he would beat Ash, that his grandson was the better Trainer. Still, Grandpa did root for Ash . . .

Oh, stop being so childish, Gary chided himself. Maybe I can battle Ash today, after he tells his life story. Hard to believe I'm waiting to hear that! Wonder if he's going to go back to those Leagues. I'll have to ask him. Grandpa says they must be really hard to find, because everyone thinks they're legends. Hidden Leagues, now that sounds like a challenge.

Gary grinned.

Slowly, he pushed himself up to a sitting position, allowing Umbreon to rearrange himself on his lap. Gary looked around the room, eyes falling on Mr. Mime as it tried to sweep up Ragman. A very interesting Pokémon, Gary thought. The Ketchum family—at least Ash and Mrs. Ketchum, anyway—seemed to have a remarkable talent with Pokémon.

In the kitchen he could hear Mrs. Ketchum cooking something up. Gary smiled momentarily. He probably gained ten pounds from her cooking. Actually, to him, Mrs. Ketchum was a bit of a mystery. At times it seemed like she couldn't tell a mop from a tree, and then other times nothing would slip her gaze. It was like she was constantly trying to act a part that was set out for her, the part of a dizzy woman, but was actually very smart and capable of handling herself in any situation, if only by feeding the competition into submission. Right now she was making popcorn.

Tracey and Brock were over discussing one of Ash's Hummers. They were trying to figure out what their special talent was, something Ash had slipped on but wouldn't divulge. It was nothing terrible, he assured them, but a very interesting ability that one—or at least he—could live without. The stupid things gave Gary a headache with their buzz-buzz-buzzing, but even he admitted that they were interesting, in a tiny sort of way. Gary wasn't one to get worked up over size, but the little Pokémon seemed only good for a garden. His Pokédex had been useless for information on them, a fact that greatly upset his Grandpa, who taken to studying the "new" species of Pokémon Ash had.

Misty was over in the corner with Pikachu, going over a thick photo album she had stolen from Ash's room. Pikachu was pointing out all the pictures she thought were interesting, and the two were barely into the book because evidently Pikachu found a lot of the pictures interesting. Gary knew it had been taken without permission because of the expression that had briefly crossed Ash's face when he saw her with it. Gary had been expecting Ash to whip it from her hands when she looked up, but instead the blond Trainer merely turned smartly and walked outside. Gary didn't know where he went, not that he actually cared so long as Ash came back.

Gary let his eyes fall towards Misty again. She really had grown up to be beautiful, despite her appearance as a girl. Her orange hair had grown out longer, and if she didn't always wear it in the French braid it would make her look very pretty. Although, Gary conceded, the tendrils that couldn't stay in the woven arrangement did frame her face nicely. Her deep blue eyes were heavily lashed now, and her face had filled out with graceful arcs. True, she probably wouldn't win a Ms. Pokémon award, but Misty'd be a close runner-up. (She'd probably go as Ms. Dragonair. Ever since she'd caught one, it had been her favorite Water Pokémon.)

He closed his eyes a moment, trying to recall his childhood. He never actually got to know Misty—she was two years older than he and Ash were—but it seemed, when he saw them together, that she had a sort of exasperated affection for Ash. Why else would she follow him around for so long? (Gary wasn't 100% clear on their origins.) She'd had to like Ash a bit in some way, although now, if she did like him more than just a friend, she'd have a bit of a problem. Ash didn't even glance twice at a pretty face or body, much to his little unwanted fan club's dismay, although he was certainly gentleman-enough to help them out with problems. They usually ran something like:

"My Persian's stuck in a tree, Mr. Ketchum. Can you get it down?"

The calm and amused "No it's not."

A confused "Yes, it is."

The ever-patient, "No, it's sitting right next to the tree."

And lastly the angry, "Persian! I told you to get up that TREE!"

Gary shook his head sadly. He had always hated problems like that as a child with his own fan club. Of course, one problem Ash didn't have that Gary'd had was paying for everything, since Ash's girls followed him around without his consent. They had tried to get him to boot the bill once, as in an effect to have him talk to them, except they timed it wrong and Ash had already slipped out the door. What was worse—or delightfully funny to Gary, who had been watching the whole thing—was that none of them had money with them. Unfortunately, Brock had spoiled it by seizing the moment to bail them all out, making each and every agree to a date of some sorts.

It seemed almost staged the way Mrs. Ketchum came from the kitchen at the exact second Ash walked though the door. Both were holding something. In Mrs. Ketchum's case, it was a heaping bowl of popcorn. For Ash, it was a tiny mass of black fur that was buried in his arms. The four other young adults blinked at Ash's appearance: tiny branches and leaves embedded in his hair, dirt on his hands and face.

No one spoke for a moment.

"Anyone want some popcorn?" Mrs. Ketchum smiled.

"I'll take some, Mrs. Ketchum," Brock said.

"Whatcha got there, Ketchum?" Gary drawled, nodding his head at the fur ball as Ash sat down. He didn't bother asking about the other's appearance.

He made a small purring noise in the back of his throat before answering Gary's question, petting the ball. Suddenly a pair of emerald-green eyes appeared from the mass of black. Slowly the mass of darkness started to shift and stretch, and everyone could see that it was a tiny Pokémon, only six inches long.

"This is GipSi," Ash said in a quiet tone, still petting the exceeding furry creature, which had a mane of black fur atop her head and a stripe that went from the top of her head to the tip of her tail. A hoop earring glistened off on tiny ear. "I thought that maybe she could help."

"It's cute," Misty cooed, leaning over the book to look at it.

Brock was peering at it. "I've never actually seen one." GipSi yawned towards him, but tilted her head to allow Ash to scratch her neck. "They've just been discovered." Ash's eyes shifted up to look at Brock quizzically, but he didn't counter the statement.

"They're not native here," Tracey informed them. "It's too warm." Ash nodded off-handedly.

Pikachu leaped up into Ash's lap to sit next to the tiny creature and they started to chat.

"So what does it do?" Gary asked suspiciously, having never heard of the species himself.

"GipSies are notorious thieves," Tracey recited, sounding like he was reading from a book. "They are those who believe that they have the power to show someone the future, but there is no hard evidence to back up these claims. All of the incidents have been proven that it was a Trainer."

Ash cleared his throat, interrupting Tracey's ditty. "GipSies can allow others to see what really happened, which could make them very valuable in police investigations, except they like bright, shiny objects. And it takes a lot of constant, patient training with signals." He made a quick smile, then motioned for GipSi to get off his lap. The tiny leaped onto to the floor, and Ash held his hand over it. GipSi stood on her hind legs, nose bobbing. "They are very playful though, at least at night. You don't want to sleep under a tree full of them, or even one of them, trust me on this. And they're very curious and easily distracted no matter how well trained. Probably suicidal to use in a Pokémon battle." He snapped his fingers, and GipSi did a backward flip.

"Most say they're not worth training," he finished, although it was clear he didn't agree. He clicked his tongue, which caused GipSi to suddenly disappear. Everyone sat up straighter, looking around wildly for her.

"Gip!" she said triumphantly, emerging from Ash's hair with her cheeks full of something. In her hands she had something white, and it immediately disappeared into her mouth as well.

"They, of course, don't see a GipSi's full potential," Ash smiled, tossing a few popcorn puffs into his mouth. Nearly everyone blinked, for he was nowhere near the popcorn. "Masters"—the GipSi's head snapped up, insulted—"or Mistresses, as the case may be, of Illusion. And, this one, a thief's best friend. She's been trained in a twisted sort of way in larceny, thanks to the Miriam and Company." Ash made a sad smile, tossing up another puff. GipSi caught it before it started down. "They're quick learners in that area. A little too quick at times."

"Wow," Gary muttered, scratching Umbreon's ear.

"So what are you going to do with her?" Brock asked.

It seemed like Ash had forgotten about the reason why he brought GipSi here. It was a trait he had not lost totally from childhood, Gary thought. If he found something interesting, Ash's inhibitions usually lessened and his tongue moved much more freely. That is until he remembered what he was talking about. Ash stopped smiling and carefully removed GipSi from his head.

"Pikachu, Pikapi," Pikachu said sternly.

He took a deep breath, then let out three piercing notes. Instantly GipSi arched her tail and whipped around, sending a small orb to fly free into the middle of the room. It hovered in the air until GipSi turned and held out her small paws, causing the small marble-sized object to drift closer. Then she looked up, as if waiting for her next command.

"GipSies can allow a sort of image to project around them of whatever they want," Ash sighed, eyes closed, explaining what was going on. "I know I can't explain everything, so I won't try. This is just an illusion, like you'll be watching a movie or so. You get a nice 3rd person perspective. Try not to do anything stupid."

Gary snorted, wondering what kind of stupidity someone could do. Then again, this was Ash who was talking.

"Remarkable," Tracey breathed, quickly sketching the scene on the notepad Mrs. Ketchum kept for jotting down phone numbers or other such messages.

Ash opened his eyes to look at each of them in turn, seeing if they were ready. There wasn't a trace of a smile on his lips, and his eyes were dull. And then he let out one more piercing note.

The result was instantaneous. GipSi's eyes started to glow a shining green, the orb in front of her glowing a milky sheen. The lights that lit the room, even those that came from the window, seemed to be shut out. The milky white light started to spread, growing in size. Gary's eyes were wide as it started to envelop him. He couldn't see his hands, or Umbreon! It was like they were disappearing! He tried to talk, to tell Umbreon to stop it, but his voice had evaporated. He couldn't hear anything, except his own heart beating, and even that disappeared.

Everything was white. The Ketchum living room was nonexistent. Suddenly words could be heard.

"Stop them! THIEF! Police!"

"DIVE!"

"Get away from him, Charizard. You cannot protect him here and now."

A cheery laugh. "Welcome to the Tunnels, Blondie!"

Panic etched the next voice. "Don't let go!"

"You stole that!"

"Whatcha writin'?"

"There he is!"

"What's going on!"

"Ash, didn't you know? You don't pause or stop a battle here. It's still going on."

"It's Team Rocket."

"Get it away!"

A blubbly giggle.

And then silence again. The voices echoed in his brain. Through the whiteness, a set a green eyes could be seen— GipSi's. They were enormous, and Gary felt like they were looking right at him. A soft voice was spoken, but not spoken aloud, similar to like a Psychic Pokémon would use. It was like a very rapid chant, although not a very good one in Gary's opinion. In fact, he thought that it was really, really bad, with a lot of missing words.

Sights you I 'queath.

Soulies mingle as one

Knowledge 'n' memory shared.

Blend inta one,

Truth to, Lies to

Of Death, f Life

Together.

Then there was a pause.

I really have ta tink up new chant, don'tcha tink? Can I ave more poppy corn?

This not work? Why not?

Oh . . . yes. Me silly.

Conjoin.

The eyes shut . . .

. . .and the room fell into a Dream . . .

. . . or a Nightmare.

POKÉDEX

Hummer—the Bird Pokémon:

This tiny flying Pokémon originates from the Avian Range, and is very quick and agile. Hummer has a needle-like beak and comes in a variety of colors. They are a favorite of gardeners, for they drink the nectar and spread pollen. Although extremely tiny, this Pokémon uses attacks like Dive Bomb and Noise Level to attack its opponents. [return]

Ragman—the Hobo Pokémon:

Found usually in the alleyways of the largest cities, this nomadic Pokémon is able to blend in against any background. A hood covers its face, so no one actually knows what this Pokémon's face looks like. When afraid, this Pokémon can released a strong stench, but it usually smells fine. They pick up a variety of odd and ends that most people throw away, and will not part with their "treasures" without a fight. [return]

GipSi—the Squirrel Pokémon:

An exceedingly rare and shy Pokémon, GipSi is a creature with unusual talents. Hidden within the curl of its tail is a small round crystal that GipSi uses in its most powerful attacks. By simply wishing, GipSi can allow a trainer or another Pokémon a glimpse of their Future or Past. If frightened, the events shown can be the most dreadful. No one is actually sure if the future events shown are true, but most believe they are. They are very difficult to train, for they respond to tones and actions better than to a command and are easily distracted. Due to this fact, a GipSi's true list of attacks is greatly unknown, even to the Pokémon themselves. GipSi is common to the Pooka Valley and Forests, and is a nocturnal Pokémon by nature. [return]