A/N: I make no apologies for how long it took to get these up. There is no suitable apology, but, even still, I'm sorry. Thank you to everyone who wrote, waited, and read.

Summary—An agreement is reached, and Ash leaves Pallet to escape pressures of one home and find refuge in another.

Chapter 20:

Choices Already Made

"Ash!" Mrs. Ketchum yelled, enveloping him in a tight hug, afraid that she had lost him again.

"I'm all right, Mom," he murmured, hugging back because he knew she needed it. And he sure as Hell did too. Pikachu was hugging his ankle.

"I accept your challenge," Gary snapped, believing that Ash had been taken away in order to force him into making a decision.

"Excellent," Dmitri said, taking the hand. "Ash can show you the way. I'm sure he will be going along."

"I . . . didn't say I would return," Ash got out.

"No, no, you didn't," Dmitri admitted.

"We're going with Gary," Brock added, indicating Tracey and Misty.

At that, Dmitri blinked, but Ash spoke first. "No. No, you can't. Anyone who enters Constellation has to compete. No matter what."

There was a rush of protests, but Dmitri held up his hand, a smile on his face. "Maybe we can make an exception. They may come, but they may not witness the battles. How about that?"

"Agreed," Misty said stoutly.

"Will you be going with them, Ash?" Mrs. Ketchum asked. "I can start packing your stuff—"

"I'm not going," he said with finality, but forcing the words out with a crowbar. "What's done is done, and I won't be one to change it."

Dmitri's face froze, and he looked at the group. And then he smiled when he saw Miriam and Pyro, who were both glaring at him. "I'll inform Shamin of your decision, then."

Miriam's eyes lit up. "She's dead," she growled.

"Not at present. She is very much alive, for the moment." Dmitri smiled at Ash. "It is why I was hunting for Ash. It appears that she was just stunned . . . heavily. I do hope she is in a condition to see you when you arrive."

"Pi?" Pikachu got out, looking at Ash, who looked away from her.

"Then we're goin', too! When are we leavin'?" Pyro was looking at Pikachu and Ash. Something was going on, and he and Rodent were going to talk about it later on. Actually, that probably would be a waste of time, considering her curious look towards Blondie. He, Pyro decided, who be the one to question.

"As soon as possible," Gary answered. "Now, maybe."

No, no, no! "Miriam, you can't leave. You're on tour," Ash reminded her, stalling for time to think of an idea. If Miriam was going, he couldn't just . . . just kill Shamin.

Her lips moved. "Shit," she muttered. "How about in two months? Give Blondie time to help ya," she said to Gary, sounding like she was pleading, but Ash could tell that if Gary said no, the two were going to talk out the differences later. Well, Miriam would be doing most of the talking.

Gary nodded, not actually reading the body language she was sending him, but that it made sense. "Agreed."

"Wonderful," Dmitri smiled, seeing Ash totally trapped. "And, Ash, if you are not with them on the journey, I trust we can take your answer as a no?"

Ash nodded helplessly, looking away towards the direction in which the Dark Mountains were in. "It'll take them a month to get there, if they keep up a good pace. If Miriam's going along, well, maybe two." Miriam smirked at him.

"You're not going?" Tracey asked.

Dmitri smiled. "We'll have to see. Anyway, I will see you all in a few months?" And, with a gust of wind, he dissolved and floated away towards the mountains.


Ash sat in his room, packing his bag with care. This couldn't possibly get worse, he thought as he folded his pants with forced calmness and slipped them inside the backpack. He stood up and walked over to the dresser, opening it up to get a clean shirt and some socks. Carefully, he picked up the socks and pulled them apart. One dropped to the top of the dresser, and he fingered the lining of one. A thread was loose, and he pulled it, and pulled, and pulled.

A knock at the door broke him out of his reverie. "Come in," he sighed, breaking the string.

Miriam opened the door to see Ash refolding his socks and placing them in a bag. "Goin' somewhere?" she asked suspiciously.

"Yeah. I'm going to my dad's for awhile."

"Aren't ya goin' to help Gary with his trainin'?"

Ash paused, then continued to pack. He should stay and help Gary. Dammit, he should. "If he thinks he needs it. He'll have to ask, though."

Miriam sighed, then started to look around the room. "Nice décor. Looks like early childhood."


She picked up a stuffed Caterpie and started to walk around the room, poking her nose where it probably didn't belong, opening drawers, peeking over shelves, glancing in the closet, that sort of thing. Hey, if it didn't have a lock on it, it was fair game, as far as Miriam was concerned. "Hey, what's in here?" she asked, kicking a box.

Ash glanced over. "Just some trophies and badges," he sighed, pulling the cord to close the bag.

"Mind if I see?" Miriam asked, although she was already throwing off the toys and pulling the box out.

"Please, don't make a mess," he sighed as she opened the box and started to dig.

"Hey, I remember this one!" she laughed, admiring the Ratwa trophy, then setting it down to dig deeper. "I didn't know you got a trophy from the Pooka League."

Ash sighed, picking up the trophy and tracing the detailed pattern. "I think Gus decided to make one for me. It was a special delivery." And he probably put a lot of work into it, Ash added mentally. He had stopped to personally thank the League Master after Shamin had . . . died. He sighed, setting the trophy on a high shelf.

"Why don'tcha have them displayed?" Miriam asked, holding up the Indigo League trophy and admiring it (or her reflection). It was easily the largest, as the other Leagues he had gone to didn't hold winning with such high importance. Well, at least by handing out trophies. They believed a Trainer that won their League should be given a large compensation for their time. It was almost like a proportion: the smaller the trophy, the high winnings would be. And, at a loss, the greater the price . . .

He didn't answer, making it seem like it didn't matter to him. Truth was, it didn't matter that he won the Leagues. It didn't, not anymore. Damn, he loved the few moments after he won other battles, but when he lost Shamin, it had been his fault. He barely had the heart to battle Gary when we played Indigo those months back, but he couldn't just lose.

"Hey, look, the Constellation League thingies," Miriam grinned, opening the case and poking at the rather plain badges. They were, for the most part, a stick figure or similar. "Not much on cost, huh? Oww!" She sucked the end of her finger, which was now bleeding after she ran it along the edge of one.

Ash took the box away from her and looked at the badges, remembering the particular Battle and Trainer he'd had to face to get it. It had been more than the want to win that got these badges. It had also been the want to live. He scowled at the rules of the League.

"Ya don't have a trophy for Constellation?" she asked, peeking in the box again.

"They don't give out a trophy," Ash responded. Like a proportion . . .

Miriam sighed, leaning back on her legs to look at all the trophies. Then, she scooped them all up and arranged them on the dresser, right where everyone could see them. "Shamin was really proud of ya, ya know? She always wrote—well, when she was travelin' with ya—and told me with explicit details of what happened. A lot more than yar letters did." She grinned. "Ya are goin' to come with us, right?"

He shrugged, running his fingers over each of the badges. "I haven't decided."

"How can ya not go?" Miriam demanded. "Shamin probably really misses ya and stuff."

"I said I haven't decided," he said in a tight voice, struggling to control his emotions.

"Ya know, I glad she's all right," she smiled, leaning against the wall, watching Ash set the badges down. "I can't really wait to see her. Tempted to drop the tour, but I can't, ya know. Like I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place."

"Know exactly how you feel."

"Ya know, ya did lie to me," Miriam said reproachfully.

"I'm sorry." Ash closed his eyes. He had lied to her, but it was the best move he could make.

"I know why ya did, too. Ya'd think I'd blame myself."

Ash turned slightly. "I was right."

"Ya have no Pysch degree, Blondie," Miriam snapped. "I pushed her into goin', I'll admit that." Her eyes moistened. "And when ya told me that . . . that bloody lie, I did blame myself. I cursed myself for bein' such an idiot to trust her under yar care. But I got over it, Blondie. Cuz I knew ya'd probably done everythin' ya could have done. I may strike ya as irrational, but I damn as Hell have more sense than ya do! Ya should have just told me plain Truth." Her eyes narrowed. "Ya did get a lot better at lyin', I have to admit."

"Thank you."

"That was no compliment."

"I know it wasn't." Ash looked at her. "Miriam, I did what I thought was best."

"Ya're goin' to tell me what happened."

Ash closed his eyes, tears biting them. "Someday." Maybe. Maybe not.

They stood in silence, Miriam watching Ash run his hand along each trophy. He paused at the Indigo League one, then picked it up, running his hand along its profile. "It's nice—whoa!" She jumped when he arched his arm and threw it against the wall, separating the figure from the base. "What are ya doin'?"

Ash didn't answer, throwing trophy another trophy and another against the walls until all of them were broken.

"Does that make ya feel better?" Miriam demanded to his back, having stayed out of his rage for ideas of her own safety. "What'd ya do it for? Dammit, ya know Shamin liked lookin' at them, and I bet they made yar mom proud as punch!"

He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "See ya, Miriam," he croaked, walking out the door as Miriam picked up one of the figurines that had sat on the top of a trophy.

"Is everything all right, pumpkin?" Mrs. Ketchum asked, coming up the stairs. "I heard something crash."

"It's all right, Mom," Ash smiled, hanging his head so his mom couldn't see his eyes. "I'll give you a call when I get to Dad's."

"Okay." The smile Mrs. Ketchum wore was as fake as a fast Slowpoke. She didn't want her son to leave her sight, or to travel further than a five minutes' walk. Ash nodded, pecked her on the cheek, and then left.

"Hey, Blondie!" Miriam called, still holding the figure.

"He just left, Miriam," Mrs. Ketchum sniffed. "What happened up there?"

Miriam looked at the mother, and decided saying that Blondie'd had a mental breakdown was not the best thing to inform her upon. "Somethin' fell. A lot of somethin's," she smiled, holding the trophy piece behind her back. "I was just gonna beat his head in for makin' me clean it up." Which now she'd have to, now, or otherwise the mother would find out about her son's unstable condition.

"Oh, okay. Would you like something to eat?"


It was raining in Ziganka when Ash and Pikachu got off the bus, having taken a plane over the ocean. Pikachu shook herself under the rain, causing a small shower herself. "Pika," she sighed.

"Come here," Ash smiled, bending down so that she could leap into them. He slipped her under his coat and then continued to walk down the sidewalk. No one else was out in the downpour, this late at night.

"Pikapi?" Pikachu started.

"I really don't want to talk now, Pikachu," he pleaded. "I just want to get into a warm house and slip into a bath. All right?"

She tilted her ears. "Pi."

Ash walked slowly, not avoiding walking in any puddles. By the time he reached the Ketchum doorstep almost an hour later, he was soaked to the bone and looked like a drowned Rattata. He knocked, hoping someone was still up. He waited a few moments, knocked again, louder, then tried the doorbell. He sighed despondently, figuring he had placed his hopes too high and turned to leave, when a light flickered on and a sound came from the inside.

"Hel—Ash, what are you doing here?" Mr. Ketchum got out, blinking the work-related-definitely-reading-too-many-reports tiredness from his eyes. He hadn't been aware that his son was sending time here, assuming that he would stay with his mother, that she wouldn't even let him leave her sight. "Get in, get in. Hello, Pikachu," he smiled as the mouse escaped her Trainer's coat and shook herself dry.

"Kapi!" she greeted as Ash slipped off his coat, draping it over his arm. The carpeting below him was soaked through already.

"What are you doing here?" Mr. Ketchum repeated, and Ash shrugged, not looking up. The father sighed. Part of Ash was still the thirteen-year-old: idealistic, messed-up, confused, immature, and facing earth-shattering changes. "You should have called. I would have picked you up at the airport. Go change. I can't let you catch cold. Your mother would kill me if you did. And, you, little mouse, there's some biscuits in the kitchen for you."

Pikachu grinned, dashing off.

"I told you to change," Mr. Ketchum said sternly, seeing that his son was still standing there. "Toss your wet clothes down the chute so I can stick them in the dryer. I'm not going to call Carmen to come over and do that."

"Yes, Sir," Ash sniffed, wiping his nose from the said cold he wasn't supposed to get that was coming up. He kicked off his shoes and headed up stairs.

Mr. Ketchum shook his head, wondering what was going on, running a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. Pikachu came waddling in, a tower of biscuits in her paws. "Chu, Pikapi?"

He sighed, raising an eyebrow at her tower of a snack. She smiled shyly, noticing that she must seem like a real pig, and offered him one, but Mr. Ketchum decided to turn it down.


Ash sank deeply into the hot water, stopping just below his eyes and allowing the warmth to seep into his skin, bones, and tight muscles. For some the water would have been too hot, scalding, but Ash liked it that warm when he attempted to relax. He leaned back and closed his eyes, trying not to think.

There was a scratch at the door a few moments later, and then moved a bit to allow the yellow fur blob to slip in. "Pi," Pikachu chirped, leaning against the tub and offering him a biscuit. They were really tasty.

"Thanks," Ash smiled, talking in and allowing his hand to drape over the edge, not eating it. He closed his eyes again. He could almost fall asleep . . . almost. A splash brought him back to the moment. "What?"

She grinned deviously, tapping the water again.

"Go annoy my dad," Ash sighed. "I'll be out. In an hour or so."

Pikachu shook her head, sliding down to rest on the carpet, falling asleep. Ash petted her ears.


He rubbed his hair vigorously with a towel, stepping out of the bathroom. Pikachu was still sleeping in a steamy warm bathroom. Ash stretched, tightening the robe and walking down the hall towards his old room. Flipping on the light, the room looked at same as he had left it, whether it had been last month or those years before. He smiled slightly, slipped off the robe and into a pair a sweat pants, and collapsed onto bed, hand digging into his pack off-handedly.

Another knock at the door stopped him.

"It's open, Dad," he called, not getting up.

His father came in, carrying a glass of water. "Do you need someone to tuck you in?" he smiled.

Ash turned his head. "If you want," he sighed. Then he pushed himself up, talking the water his father offered. "Thank you."

"So why'd you decide to come here? Your mother over your shoulder too much—don't tell her I said that," he asked, picking up the discarded robe (everything has a place), placing it on the hook, and taking a seat.

His son shrugged, taking a sip. "No more than usual."

"I called her, you know. She thought you called me and told me you were coming here." Ash paused. "Oh, I covered for you."


Mr. Ketchum waved a hand. "So what happened?"

"Nothing," Ash said softly.

"Your mother said that a League representative had stopped by and asked if you were going to go back to the mountains, if I remember correctly. Didn't you say you didn't want to go back?"

His father had a great memory. "Yes," Ash sighed, lying back down and covering his eyes with his forearm. "I don't have much of a choice, though."


"Because the League is run by a spoiled, God-playing bastard. And 'It's rules,'" he added mockingly.

"What is?" Mr. Ketchum asked, crossing his arms over the back of the seat and leaning down to rest his chin on them.

"It's under rules that, win or lose, you stay. So they say. Not that you have much choice if you lose, anyway."

"And why is that?"

There were two answers to two questions Ash could give. Ash raised his arm and looked at his father, only seeing pure interest. Ash wasn't going to leap out and say his father didn't know what kind of trap he had put Ash in, but neither would he say he did know. He pushed himself up into a sitting position. "The Constellation League's a bitch, Dad. You either survive it or you don't. They don't like Trainers who can't take it, and they hold no qualms under their tests of murder."

His father's eyes never flickered from their interested sheen.

"If you win, they want you to stay. I decided to take the want as something to their wishes, something I didn't have to actually obey. And, as far as customs are concerned, I'm in the right. It's just that this League's Master—" Ash faltered. He couldn't continue, not here and now. "The League's a joke, a fake, a delusion. That is not Pokémon battling. That's some sick thing's idea of entertainment. And Honor."

His father nodded, then turned his head to watch a staggering Pikachu, wiping one of her eyes with her paw, enter the room. "Ka," she complained to Ash.

"I didn't want to wake you," he explained, picking her up and setting the mouse on his lap, petting her. She dozed off soon enough.

"You know, it's not rare to see a kid outside with a Pokémon these days. Not exactly welcomed, but not exactly rare either," his father said.

Ash raised his eyes, surprised. "Really?" Actually, now that he thought about it, he shouldn't have been so surprised. He had walked Pikachu when they had stopped by before, having not given a damn to the thought of the protests he would be receiving, as everyone knew he was (cue the tone of disapproval) "the Ketchum boy". He remembered several of the younger kids asking if they could pet her before their mothers came to drag them off.

In fact, come to think about it, he had had several requests for a battle as well, and, while he had stopped at a café, a boy had talked to him about Pokémon. When he had actually left the house, people had known who he was, and not as "the Ketchum boy." Someone—some girl, if Ash remembered correctly—had even called in the League winner. Ash had thought curiously that it was strange that they knew that at the time, but he really didn't give it much thought. He must have been really out of it, but Ash recalled many of the reporters he had been concerned with at the time. He hadn't actually battled though, for he hadn't brought any Pokémon along, aside from Pikachu, and she was rarely next to him when he walked. But, damn, how could he have missed all that? Hadn't being a Trainer taught him anything?

His father smiled. "Maybe if you hadn't sulked so much, you would have seen it."

Ash snapped out of his reverie. "I wasn't sulking."

Mr. Ketchum chuckled. "It's been a slow process over the last few years, ever since that group came out that used Pokémon for their acts. A couple of the teenagers and pre-teens went to the concert, and then decided they wanted one. They managed to get a Caterpie from the forest, I think. And you should have seen the riots and protests from that harmless thing. Protests and riots, might I add, that I was dragged into because of you. And then it evolved into the thing that just sits there and stares. And then a Butterfree, which enjoyed floating around gardens and visiting them at school."

"Bet Headmaster Dell loved that," Ash smiled. I'll have to tell Miriam about the profound impact Pyro's having.

"Of course he did. The students could always claim that the Butterfree—I think its name is Miriam—is something wrong?" he asked when his son snorted, and started to snigger in his hand.

"Go on," Ash got out, making a mental note to inform Miriam of that turn of events. She despised Butterfree because they got powder on her clothes and enjoyed sniffing her hair because of the hair spray she used.

Mr. Ketchum smiled. "They claimed that any time they fell asleep in class, the Butterfree had used Sleep Powder on them."

"I bet it didn't get them out of detention."

"No, it didn't." He brought his hands together and leaned back on the chair. "Do you know why I told you that?"

"To show me that there is some hope for this city?"

He raised an eyebrow. "To show you, that even if someone truly despises something, it can grow on them over time."

"Not this League," Ash spat darkly.

"You didn't let me finish," Mr. Ketchum reprimanded. This time Ash raised an eyebrow. "Do you know how much I hated going to those meetings about those kids, sticking up for them against their own parents?"

Ash looked at his father, speechless for a good minute. "You did what?"

He waved a hand, dismissing the question. "I hated going to them, but I went, because what was going on was wrong. I knew it. Of course, I did agree with the logic, but it was still wrong." He paused. "Did you know that I still feed your ParriKeets? Well, some of them are Parrette now. And they are a chore, an expensive one."

Ash was quiet, looking at his father as if he had never seen the man before. He ran his hand over Pikachu's ears absently. "You do?"

Mr. Ketchum nodded. "I was thinking about building a house up on the roof for them when Winter comes along. Bit too much?"

"N-no, I don't think so."

"I mean, I had to feed them. They never shut up when I don't, and they'd just sit on the sills of the window where I work, and you can't eat when something looks at your food like that. I mean, they just stare and tweet pitifully."


"Well, maybe it's just me," Mr. Ketchum smiled.

"You actually stood up for Pokémon?" Ash asked after a long moment. Against the rest of the city? he added mentally, because his dad did have a spot for Pokémon, but only because his mother his planted the seed all those years before.

"You sound so surprised."

"You didn't stand for them for me," Ash accused.

"You didn't need me to stand behind you, did you? You would have stuck to your guns no matter what."

"It would have been nice," he muttered.

"Nice is for kindergartners. And you never asked, in any case." Mr. Ketchum spoke calmly, daring to contradict, as he leaned forward on the chair. "You preferred to go behind my back."

"Pardon?" Ash was mentally trying to remember when he stood up for anything Pokémon-related that remained behind his father's back. Usually after whatever he had done, there had been some sort of police involvement or meeting.

Mr. Ketchum smiled, looking out the window. A Nochowl flew by, sat on one of the Parrette perches, and started to stare in with its golden brown eyes. Ash felt like it seemed like the bird had done this several times before, and he couldn't help but wonder how many other Pokémon his father took care of. "I came home from work late when it was exceedingly cold out for that time of the year, and everyone had been asleep." He rubbed his chin, remembering walking in the quiet and dark house. Ash rested his elbow on his knee, waiting for the story to continue.


"I went in to tuck you in." He grinned at the raised eyebrows Ash gave. "I did it all the time. Although that night it was the first time I did see Pikachu sleeping next to you.

"I was quite surprised, to say the least, not to mention upset. Had a damn good mind to wait you up and demand how long she had been here, but I didn't, because of the same reason. You had only been here about a month, and we didn't need another war. And I figured you'd tell me when you got around to trusting me." He sighed. "You never did."

Ash looked away. "So you knew the whole time?" he asked, scratching Pikachu's ear.

"I never did ask why we always seemed to be out of ketchup."

Maybe he should have made Pikachu go easy on the stuff, but Dad never had commented. "Yeah." Ash made a small chuckle at the irony of it. "You could have said you knew, though."

Mr. Ketchum smiled half-heartedly, standing up. "In any case, that's not the problem of today. The problem is what you're going to do about this League? I'm sure your friends don't know anything about it, and are you going to let them walk blind into it? Are you going to let it still be run?" He cocked an eyebrow at his son, knowing he had verbalized the self-same questions that ran through his son.

Ash sighed, picking up his bag and shifting through it, looking for something he found helped at times not like this. "Like I have a lot of say in it."

"Wouldn't you?"

He looked up briefly. "I don't really know," he sighed, talking his hand out of the bag, looking at the fist he had made, as if to deny that he had any problems at all, or to state that he could destroy them. He could feel his nails digging into his palm.

"Still having problems?"

Ash nodded mutely. He and his father had talked about this before, which is why Ash had come here. He could talk to his father and drop appearances. He couldn't with his mom or his friends. Ash didn't know why, but he couldn't talk to them about it. If was like he was on some carefully balanced pedestal, and he could fall to his death if he did one thing wrong under their inspection, failed to meet one standard. He couldn't even talk to Pikachu about it, although she knew perfectly well.

Mr. Ketchum sighed. "Just get some sleep. It's your decision."

"Some decisions aren't even decisions."

"Welcome to the adult world." Mr. Ketchum watched as his son downed the water like he was traveling the desert. "Just so you know, as if my opinion holds any weight, I don't think you should blame yourself for her death."

Ash's shoulder gave a twinge, and he rubbed it offhandedly. "Tell that to my guilt," he muttered, lying on the bed.

Mr. Ketchum shook his head. "Could you do me one favor, if you're staying here?"


"Please cut your hair," he pleaded, flipping off the light. Ash chuckled. "I mean it. It looks terrible."

"Right, Dad," Ash murmured, petting Pikachu. He watched the door close, then suddenly said, "Hey, Dad?"

Mr. Ketchum stuck his head back in. "Yeah?"

"I'm keeping a Pokémon hidden from you, just so ya know. Might want to stock up on ketchup." He wrapped the blanket around himself, preparing to slowly drift off into sleep. "Good night."

Mr. Ketchum shook his head, closing the door softly. "Good night."


Pokémon Characters (Ash, Misty, Brock, Tracey, Gary, Professor Oak, Mrs. Ketchum, Pikachu and Pokémon characters) © their respective owners.

My Pokémon creations, characters, and Leagues, as well as ideas © me (At least, I'm pretty sure they all are. I mean, once, and I swear!, I made up a character for a cartoon show—not saying which one—drew her up, gave her a name, said who she liked, had her dress a certain way, etc. You can even ask my friend Felicia on this if you doubt me! And then one day, while surfing, I came across a character by another person, and there were similarities that were very coincidental. Weird, huh? J And anyway, we're always influenced by the media . . . but I ramble on. What was I saying? Oh yeah . . . Any coincidences are simply that, coincidences.)

Anything I allude to © respective individuals

Songs ["You Can Do It (If You Really Try)", "We're Off to See the Wizard", parody of "Lions, and Tigers, and Bears, oh my!", "She's In Love With the Boy", "The extra Mile", "This Used to Be My Playground", "Never to Far From Home", etc ] © respective owners.

Be on the lookout (hopefully) for the sequel, the finisher. (Well, maybe, anyway.) Working Title: . . . Are Naught But Illusions.

Oh, who am I kidding?

Note: If you would like to see some artwork for this story by yours truly, you may go here