=Author's Note=
Well, here it is, sports fans: a brand new season of BadgeQuest. If you'll recall, Ash was royally screwed in the end of the last season, both losing his Indigo Championship and gaining the responsibility of the entire world on his shoulders. Now he's moving on to bigger and badder challenges: the United States!

=Legal Disclaimer=
Pokémon is a by-product of Japanese innovation and various semi-legal hallucinogenic narcotics. All characters taken from the series are a trademark of 4Kids and God only knows how many other companies. Any and all original characters portrayed in this fanfic are not to be copied without express permission from the author, under penalty of a stern talkin' to.

BadgeQuest
If At First You Don't Succeed...

A dark man sat in a dark office, shrouded in a dark cloak of mystery and poor lighting. The setting sun cast long shadows coupled with a contrast of brilliant colors across his beige carpeting, giving the sprawling room a supernatural feeling to it. Surrounding him was a comfortable office located on the fiftieth floor of Viridian City's largest corporate building, giving him a bird's eye view of the sprawling metropolis. His dark face scowled a dark frown as the bright city shone below him, filled with people who hustled and bustled through their meaningless lives without ever realizing just how pathetic and worthless they really were.

He turned away from the window at the sound of his dark intercom, buzzing at the dark man with its dark tone. "Yes?" he intoned darkly into the dark machine after pressing the dark call button.

"Sir?" His not-so-dark secretary's voice crackled over the poor connection, "Your two o'clock meeting called...sir, I'm sorry, but they cancelled."

"Blast." he muttered, slamming a dark fist onto his equally dark desk. It appeared that the representatives from Silph would refuse his buyout offer once more. They and their new puppet/mascot, the Ketchum boy, were becoming nuisances to deal with. No one wanted to by GII brand Pokéballs...the public wanted Silph. "Jeanine, get me some coffee." he muttered darkly.

"How will you take it, sir?"

"Black." He cut the conversation off with a violent slam of his hand to the intercom, venting his rage and frustration into the small machine. He had broken several of the machines before, but it was of small consequence; office equipment was cheap. Besides, this was merely his legitimate office. This was the front, the stage dressing that disguised the *real* office. It was part of the same building complex, approximately one mile below the surface. Each of the alternate office's outer walls was polybonded titanium, three-and-a-half feet thick. His scientists had reassured him that his was the only room that would survive a nuclear holocaust with only a slight elevation in the space's temperature to indicate such a disaster. The entrance to his office was a single straight shaft, booby-trapped every fifty yards with steel spikes, poison gasses, electrified chains and pulse lasers that could turn Moltres itself into a pile of damp ash.

Ash...

Ash Ketchum.

Ashlan Terrance Ketchum; his greatest nemesis and bane of his existence. How many times had the boy stopped Team Rocket's plans dead in their tracks? How many schemes, how many operations, how many millions of dollars had that miserable teenager taken straight from his hands and made them vanish, like cards in a magic show?

Alfred Giovanni stood from his plush office chair, glaring at all the trapping that surrounded him. Photos, trophies, books, charts and exquisite office furniture...they were all useless, worthless status symbols for the man he pretended to be in public. Moving swiftly to a full-length, life-size portrait of himself, he activated the hidden switch in the frame. The picture slid to the right in response, revealing a small private elevator that would lead to his real office. As an afterthought, he crossed the room back over to his desk and pressed the intercom.

"Jeanine, I don't want any interruptions. I'll be downstairs." Not bothering to wait for a response, he went back over to the elevator and entered through its armored doors. The time had come to deal with Ketchum and his friends in a more permanent fashion. He had the resources, he had the personnel, and he had absolutely no qualms with killing the boy. There was only one detail to iron out:

Where in blazes was Ash Ketchum?
* * *

"Ash, where in blazes are we?"

Ash tried to ignore Misty's high-pitched protests from behind him, looking down at the flimsy paper map as it was quickly becoming soaked with rainwater. Ash was still new to America, and equally as new to the state of Maine, and so couldn't help but wonder if storms popped up that easily all the time. He shivered, trying to make sense of the soggy chart in the poor lighting. With the exception of the occasional blinding bolt of lighting that frightened the bejesus out of Ash and company (and delighted Pikachu), the chilled, forested wilderness of this strange land was almost pitch black in the middle of the day.

He surveyed the territory, taking a little bit of comfort out in the semi-familiar feeling of the untamed thicket they were lost in. If one ignored the barrage of freezing bullets of water, or the constant roar of the ocean pounding against the tall, monstrous cliffs a few miles away, it could almost pass for Viridian Forest back home. A wave of homesickness washed across Ash, followed by a wave of sadness at the memories that thoughts of home brought back.

His championship was gone, lost to a cheater.

Richie wasn't Richie anymore, lost to a demonic relic from the past.

He, Misty, Brock and Pikachu weren't at home anymore, and lost in some forest in the middle of a godforsaken storm that made monsoon season back in Kanto feel like a spring shower.

Everything had changed so quickly...his life had become an upside-down, topsy-turvy mess. He was supposed to save the world...again? It seemed monumentally unfair, and nearly impossible; there would be no help from an ancient guardian this time. It would come down to just him and Missingno in a one-on-one battle for the planet.

A crack of thunder brought his attention back to the present: epic battles or no epic battles, they had to find their way out of this Goddess-forsaken forest first.

Misty wasn't doing anything to help the situation. "You couldn't take the 'ten' minutes to download the map to Gear, could you? No, of course not!" she spat, throwing her hands up with frustration. "You had to get out of that airport straight away and start on your merry little way, dragging us right behind you!"

Brock placed a hand on her shoulder, cutting her ranting short. "Enough, Misty...we're all miserable, but screaming at Ash isn't going to do anything but bust our ears." Pikachu had taken shelter under Brock's legs, using the bigger trainer as a none-too-effective rainblock. It nodded in agreement with the squinting Rock Master, cooing softly at Misty, trying to get her to calm down.

"Well, it sure makes me feel better." she muttered, looking up at the pouring rain with disgust. "I like water as much as the next Ceruleanite, but this is ridiculous..." she shivered, clutching her shoulders through the soggy Silph jacket that covered her smooth, sinewy shoulders. "Not to mention cold."

"Ash, I don't mean to be a wet blanket..." Brock stopped, rewording the sentence without the ironic metaphor. "Ash, I hate to nag, but what was it that was so important that Professor Oak couldn't trust the mail? What did he want us to pick up?"

Ash thought back to his brief conversation over the vidphone with the aging researcher before they had left for the new continent.

**Going to America, eh? I don't suppose you could do a small favor for me while you're over there, could you? **

**What's that, Professor? **

**Last week I received a message from an old collogue of mine, a Professor Mason of the North American Institute for Pokémon Research. He was less than forthcoming with the details, but I could discern some urgency from him. **

**What is it? **
*
*He said he had something to show me...something important. I tried to contact him days later, but I couldn't reach him. Ash, could you check up on him for me? Perhaps you can find out what happened...**

Ash shrugged, crumpling up the map and tossing it over his shoulder. "I dunno, Brock, but I just hope that it's half as important as the old man made it sound." The wet mass of paper splatted on the ground with a watery whoosh, lying in a useless heap. He didn't need it anyway...the little information he had been able to discern from the map would be more than enough for his keen sense of direction to go on. "Come on, guys! Professor Mason's lab is just a few minutes away!
* * *

Three rain-soaked hours later, Pikachu led the group up to a large, dark, gloomy building that overlooked Maine's crashing, jagged shores. It was about three stories tall, and easily dwarfed the Oak Institute back home. The tiny mouse shook the water off of its coat in the entryway, spraying the dirty cream-colored stucco with a sheen of muddy water.

"It's just a few minutes away." Misty mimicked Ash's voice, swatting Ash on the back.

"Okay, so I led us in the wrong direction for a little while, so sue me." Ash mumbled, tugging his jacket's collar tighter up around his face.

"We ended up in VERMONT!"

"Please, you can't go ten feet in this country without changing states. I mean, they have 'fifty' of them, for crying out loud!"

"Pika! Pikachu!" Pikachu tried to get its friends to stop fighting, sniffing the air as if something was wrong.

Something about the place gave the trio and their Pika-pal the creeps. Perhaps it was the plain, almost unappealing design; Oaks' compound was open and bright, topped off with a garish windmill. This building, however, was more like a scientist's lab than anything else. It had been built for function over form, and reflected that fact in every dull brick and every plain window.

Misty looked up at the gloomy building with a shiver, halting her harsh ranting. "Man, this place gives me the heebie-jeebies. Let's meet this Professor Mason guy and get out of here. Y'know, I hear Cally Fornia is a lot sunnier."

"I wonder what Cally did to get Fornia named after her, anyway." Brock wondered offhand as he thumbed the buzzer next to the door. They waited for a moment in silence, annoyed at the lack of response from within and shivering at the cold wind that invaded their tiny sanctuary from the rain. Brock pressed the buzzer a second time, then a third. "Doesn't look like anyone's home..."

Ash leaned against the door, looking down at Gear. "Hmmm...if we're going to make it back into town, we'd better get-" he cut off his sentence as the door creaked in at his touch, giving passage for the quartet of tired travelers into the dark, ominous hallways of the lab.

"Going?" the trainer squeaked.
* * *

It turned out that the inside was even creepier than the outside. It seemed that Professor Mason, like Professor Oak, liked to furnish his laboratory with his own unique style. In the case of Oak's American counterpart, it was one of gothic, ancient, creaking furniture, polished to a worn gleam that had been long ago dented and dinged too many times to count. The faded red carpet and red walls to match were little comfort to the group in the dim lighting.
Misty passed a post-Medieval Italian painting of Virgin Mary and her heavenly child, shivering as their normally peaceful eyes glared at her through the periodic flashes of lightning that was cast from a window. "Man, this place makes Lavender Town seem like a friggin' paradise."

"Chill, Aqua-Girl," Ash chided her with a roll of his eyes as he led the party down the empty halls, "You're a little jumpy, aren't you?" As he rounded the next corner, a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder set the mood as he ended up face to face with a miniature demon, which sent started him screaming like a little girl. After a moment (and a brief but effective shock from Pikachu), he calmed down enough to realize that the 'demon' was actually a miniature gargoyle sitting on a pedestal.

"You were saying, Tough-Guy?" Misty smirked. He just growled and swatted at the statue in annoyance. It began to rock and tip until the entire pedestal took a dive, smashing on the ground.

"Oops."

"Ash!" Brock cried out, horrified.

"Pika pika!" Pikachu shocked Ash again. "Chu! Pika...pika chucha."

"I do *not* always break everything." Ash argued with his Pikachu.

"Pi-KA!"

"You watch your language, buster." he warned the Pokémon, continuing on down the corridor after clumsily stepping over the shattered remains of what was no doubt a very expensive statue. Misty, Brock, and Pikachu soon followed suit, shaking their heads sadly.

"I swear, we can't take you anywhere." Brock muttered.

The trio continued down the corridor, searching for some form of life. Little did they realize, however, that a pair of eyes was watching them that very moment...watching, waiting, and plotting.
* * *

"James, I'm tired..." Jessie whined, clutching her miniscule jacket tighter around her taught, athletic shoulders and shaking violently in the thundering rain. She wedged her feet tightly against the ridges on the roof in an attempt to not slip and fall to an untimely death. "I'm cold, too. I know we need that Pikachu, but can't we do it when it isn't pouring and freezing? I think I've got Pnamnesia, or whatever you call it."

"Gee, Jessie..." James looked at her with a tilted head, pausing momentarily from his attempt to jimmy the skylight of Professor Mason's lab open, "You sound almost like me."

"You're right." she cleared her throat, brought out a paper fan, and slapped James upside the head. "Get back to work, you lazy troglodyte, before I pound you into something even uglier than you are."

"Now 'dat' sounds more like Jessie." Meowth quipped as he helped James, scratching furiously at the reinforced glass with his pitiful claws. "Doesn't matter how hard we try, though...I don't tink we're ever gonna get inta dis stupid lab."

A moment later, the poorly maintained roof that served as their foothold collapsed beneath them, sending them tumbling to the ground amidst a hail of debris and frigid pellets of rainwater. With a crash and a thud, they landed on the second-story floor of Mason's sanctuary, lying in a heap of limbs, lumps and Meowth fur.

"We're in!" James cried out triumphantly before he succumbed to unconsciousness.
* * *

Ash wearily led his friends into the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel; a large, darkened room filled with scientific equipment of every size and caliber. There were Poké-regeneration pallets, scanning devices, analysis displays, and even a treadmill in the corner. Clearly, this was Professor Mason's main research lab. The sight of all the semi-familiar machinery made Ash homesick one more, this time for old Doc Oak's lair. He ran his hand over the different machines, trying to guess the nature of their usefulness.

"Wow...this guy has all the latest stuff." Brock whistled with admiration and excitement. "Look at that! A Silph T-13 Pokémon Regen Pallet!" He ran over to the large, mysterious machine, barely able to contain his excitement. The pallet consisted of a central power unit, a control apparatus, several components that were a mystery to them all, and the regen tray itself, which consisted of six small indents for a trainer's Pokéballs. It glistened and smelled of oil metal. Clearly, it was a factory fresh model, straight off the showroom floor. "Man, this thing can handle 'any' injuries...even Paralysis!"

"Pika?" Pikachu cocked its head, looking with curiosity at the machine that had often healed himself and his friends in the past. "Chu. Pika, pikachu cha?" He looked up at Ash with inquiring eyes.

Ash smiled down on his Pika-partner. "Naw," he reassured the mouse, "I'm sure Professor Mason only keeps this here for emergencies. Scientists are always careful with their Pokémon." He let his gaze drift around, his thoughts becoming concerned despite his own words to Pikachu. Scientists were a methodical lot; they didn't just pick up and leave without warning, especially not after they had supposedly made a huge discovery. Suddenly, Ash's eye latched on to a small blinking diode in the middle of Mason's central computer, which rested on the other side of the room on a rather plain looking desk. "Hel-lo..." he muttered, crossing the room and making his way to the machine in question. Misty, Brock, and Pikachu followed, curious to see what their younger friend had found.

Ash plopped himself down in the well-worn office chair in front of the computer's screen, pulling the keyboard tray out. With a quick cracking of his knuckles, began to type and tap on the keys, bringing the sleeping cyclopean machine to consciousness. The instant he tried to access a file, it buzzed at him, flashing a warning and asking him to input a password of sorts.

"Looks like it's protected." Misty scratched her head, resting her elbows on the top of Ash's hat and leaning down over the boy to get a better look at the flashing monitor. "Guess we better not mess with any of his stuff anyhow."

Ash scoffed. "Nuts to that." He pulled out a small, flat red box from his pocket and flipped open the main panel, revealing a slew of buttons and touchpads that had been hidden beneath the casing. "Pokédex, online!"

With a beep and an artificial yawn, Ash's portable database became active. "Good morning Viridian! It's a beautiful day out today, with the highs being low and the lows being high. Make sure to put on your galoshes, 'cause it's gonna be sunny!" Before Dexter could spout off any other random, nonsensical phrases, Ash jammed the exocomputer's jack into Mason's unforthcoming terminal. "Hey now, what have we here? Hello there, you pretty young thing..."

"Cut the romance, Dex, and tell me what the heck is in this thing." Ash grumbled.

Misty, still propped up on his head, leaned in further so her upside-down face was only inches from his rightside-up face. "Why do you want to get into this guy's hard drive anyway? It isn't ours to begin with, and stealing some guy's files right after busting into his place isn't going to make him any friendlier about greeting a bunch of strange teenagers who are trouncing around his nice clean home." She pushed off, looking around Mason's desk whilst Ash and Dexter played software pirates. "We'll be lucky if he doesn't have the cops haul us away."

"We've been in jail before." Ash muttered offhand as he, too, looked around Mason's desk. It was filled with hand-scrawled notes, half-finished electronics, and various volumes and resource books that were strewn about haphazardly. It looked like a cross between Popular Mechanics and his disaster area of a room back home. "No biggie."

"These are American prisons, Ash." Brock cautioned sagely, "They're twenty times more crowded than anything you've 'ever' seen, and filled with murderers." Pikachu nodded, looking out the window as if searching for the flashing red and blue lights of a patrol car.

Ash hardly seemed worried about the prospect of prison time. He was much more interested in searching through the absent Professor's equipment; picking up strange devices, then examining them. "Now what the heck is this thing?" He picked up what looked to be a nearly-completed device. It was a small, silvery, circular techno-dish with a tiny screen mounted perpendicularly to the edge. Attached to the side of the dish was a small band of fabric that looped from one side to the other. "Hey, wait a minute!" He cried. Carefully, Ash brought the dish up to his left ear, looping the fabric over his battered league cap and around his head. Adjusting the dish to fit over his ear, he slid the small screen in front of his left eye like a lens.

"Pika..." Pikachu gazed up at its trainer, trying to not laugh at Ash's new fashion statement.
Ash stood, posing proudly with his newly found piece of hardware strapped to his face. "It's like one of those Seekers from Dragonsphere Q." Misty simply groaned, cradling her face and moaning.

"Ash, you look like a cartoon character." Brock laughed, slapping the side of the dish playfully. Then he heard Ash cry out, and was concerned. "What's the matter?"

"I-It turned on!" Ash's eye was being bombarded with random numbers and letters as the screen came to life in a jumble. He tried to get it off, but his hat blocked any hope of removing the small black band from his head. As he struggled, the random letters disappeared, replaced by a series of strange icons. Ashes reached up to try and deactivate the module, and somehow found a small embedded trackball on the side instead. "Huh?" the wild trainer calmed down for a moment, getting the hang of the trackball and the tiny cursor projected in front of his eye. With a soft beeping to signal Ash of something, the display began to point to something on Mason's desk with digital arrows, singling something out among the massive clutter. "Woah. Weird."

Before he could describe the experience to his friends, or find whatever it was the arrows were pointing to, a thick column of water blasted him off of his feet and sent him flying over the table, slamming him into the far wall. Dazed, Ash managed to hear a strange voice barking orders.

"Croconaw, that's enough. Go Typhlosion! Flamethrower, now!"
The water stopped, and in its place came a spray of red flames. Misty managed to leap out of the way of the fiery storm, only to crack her head on a large piece of machinery and fall to the ground, unconscious. Brock, Pikachu, and Ash were standing next to the computer as it was struck by the flaming attack. The computer exploded in a hail of silicon, plastic and glass, launching the trio of men away in a dazzling ball of electricity and fire. Ash was again thrown into the wall, unable to see what had happened to Brock or Pikachu. The last thing he saw before slipping into blissful silence was a dark, shadowy figure looming over him menacingly.
* * *

Giovanni sighed, leaning back in his worn chair as he closed his aching eyes. Paperwork; clearly it had been invented for the singular purpose of making his life the misery that it was today. It seemed as if every activity that his holdings performed, whether they were legal or not, required a mountain of forms, initials, signatures, and counter-signatures. Even Team Rocket, whose records were maintained largely within his own mind and nowhere else, had its own bookkeeping to attend to. He almost welcomed his secretary's interruption over the office intercom with a cheery voice.

Almost.

"I thought I said 'no interruptions', Jeanine." he growled.

"I apologize, sir." Jeanine said matter-of-factly, "But there are some updates on your Level-One projects." Her voice remained even and firm, unlike the quivering squeaks that Giovanni's anger was notorious for eliciting from those he scorned. She was the only other person who came close to knowing as much about Team Rocket and its true purpose. He should have had her eliminated years ago, but she was just too good of an assistant.

"Speak."

Clearing her throat over the static-filled connection, she started with the bad news. "Project Chronos submitted their report for the latest dig site; a few skeletons, some containment artifacts..." Jeanine hesitated for an instant, "I'm sorry, sir. They didn't find it."

Giovanni slammed his fist into the polished oak desk, rattling the various pens, pencils and papers that cluttered the surface of the fine finished wood. Feeling a bit better, he straightened everything on his desk and folded his hands in his lap. "And?"

"I have good news on the Ketchum situation, sir." her voice continued over the link as if nothing had happened. "According to our sources, Mr. Ketchum and his associates have traveled to the United States. I would assume that he intends on competing in the Star League..."

"Send Omega Red."

For the first time in a long time, Jeanine was shocked. "Sir? Omega Red? Isn't that being a bit extreme, sir? After all-" she caught herself, ceasing the contradiction in mid-sentence. "Right away, sir. I shall arrange transport for Omega Red immediately."
The link was severed, and the office became quiet. Giovanni leaned back once more, this time allowing himself the pleasure of a small smile. He was through toying with the boy and his pathetic band of miscreants. No doubt the child would have developed some new trick since their last meeting, perhaps gained a new Pokémon or a new ally, as he always did. It wouldn't save him this time. What Jessie, James, and Meowth had failed to do for the past six years would be rectified by Omega Red in six minutes...or less.

These thoughts caused him pause and concern; what had happened to his three blundering subordinates, anyway?
* * *

"Mee-owww!"

Meowth kicked the broken gargoyle that lay at his feet, painfully stubbing his toe once again on the shattered statue. He began hopping up and down on his good foot, clutching the busted appendage as he yelled in pain. "Meoooooooowwwwww-wow-wow-wow!" Jessie and James merely chuckled at his plight as he hobbled around and yowled. They trained their bright flashlights on the cat, giving him a makeshift spotlight for his dance of agony.

Finally, Jessie wiped the grin off her delicate features and grew serious. "Keep it down, you filthy beast. Do you want us to get caught?"

"What kinda monster would leave dis stupid statue in da middle of da floor?" Meowth wailed, limping around the broken gargoyle with a mixture of disgust, anger, and pain brewing in the pit of his feline stomach. "It's cruelty to animals, I tell ya."

James rolled his eyes, stepping nimbly over the obstacle as he followed Jessie and Meowth down the corridor. "Yes, we're call the Humane Society and notify them of this injustice right away, Meowth." He shook his head and snickered, letting his light drift across several objects among the décor as they continued on. Part of him wished they had enough time to give this place a decent once-over; there was quite a bit in the way of valuables and antiques lying around, and it wouldn't hurt their ailing bank account if some of them happened to end up in their gunny sack.

"James," Jessie whispered to her partner, twisting her neck around just enough so that she could see her lavender-haired counterpart, "Have you noticed anything strange about this place?"

"Yes. This scientist fellow has mixed Seventeenth Century French décor into a largely English motif..." he observed as they passed yet another ancient table filled with priceless trinkets. "It's simply dreadful, especially considering that the two countries hated each other during the period-"

"No, you idiot, I meant the fact that there aren't any people in this house!"

"Da twerps are here," Meowth butted in, and was promptly given a swift kick to the hindquarters for his observation.

"I KNOW THAT!" Jessie snarled. After huffing for a moment, she regained her cool demeanor and started again. "Where are the people that live here?"
* * *

Ash groaned as consciousness and the beginnings of a humongous migraine assaulted his senses, bringing him back to the world of the living once more. He winced as the top of his head began to throb with a large lump, hidden beneath his now-singed league cap. Aching, Ash tried to reach up and rub the injury. The trainer was a little upset to find that he couldn't move his arms. Slowly-very slowly- he opened first his left eye, then his right eye; the desk, which had been disorderly and messy before his nap, was now a breeding ground for chaos and destruction. The computer's explosion had sent nearly everything on the table flying every which way, scattering it all over the room. His gaze traveled downward, discovering the reason for his lack of ability to move. Several thick bands of rope were coiled around his waist, trapping his arms against the office chair that he now resided in. "Ohhh...feels like Graveler have been playing polo inside of my head." he moaned.

"Hmmf. At least you've got something up there, burglar." A strange tone uttered from the darkened lab, filled with venom and hate.

"Huh?" Ash's mind tried desperately to work out what was going on. He didn't know where the voice was coming from, and he certainly didn't know whom it belonged to. "Hah? Where?"

The voice spoke again, this time directly in front of him. Ash struggled to force his eyes into focus as the mysterious tone began to mock him. "Boy, the Executive Board must be getting desperate if they sent you three...You can't even pull off a simple breaking-and-entering job."

The blurred contours of the room finally came into focus. Lines ran together, colors became unmixed, and the image of a young, beautiful blonde girl with hands on hips appeared before Ash's watering, aching eyes. His jaw dropped as he followed her curving contours; from her filthy red sneakers, up her tan, muscular legs and frazzled cut-off denim shorts, past her short T-shirt and smooth midriff, traveling up her slender, shapely neck with a small golden sun pendent wrapped around it, all the way up to her cute, bubbly features, twisted into a horrible expression of rage and disgust. "Um...Hi."

Her response was to thwack him upside the head with something small, red, and painfully hard. "Watch who you're ogling, you thieving pervert. You're lucky I haven't killed you yet, so don't try my patience." Her accent wasn't quite like anything Ash had ever heard. It was reminiscent of some of the gunslingers out of the old westerns he could remember watching with his dad as a kid. What was the word? Southern; her accent was southern.

After administering punishment, she went back to what she had been doing; examining the small alien palmtop she had found among the ruins of the desk. "As soon as this storm lets up, I'm calling the police. Until then, you stay right where you are."
Despite his throbbing head, Ash managed to recognize what she was holding, and raised his voice in protest. "Hey! That's mine, give it back!" He struggled frantically, trying to squirm free so he could reclaim his lost Pokédex.

The girl's face became apologetic as she leaned in, putting her face a few inches from his. "Oh, I'm sorry. I don't know what I was thinking. Here." She clipped him upside the head with it again, taking satisfaction at the sound of plastic striking bone, hair, and hat.

"OW!"

"There you are. Would you like it back again?" She asked him sweetly, drawing it back for another blow.

"No...no, that's okay. Why don't you hang onto it for a while?" he wasn't worried about his captor getting into Dexter anyway. The obnoxious machine was more than capable of taking care of itself for the moment. Sighing and moaning at the same time, Ash swiveled his head around. "Where's Pikachu? And where are Misty and Brock?"

The girl shrugged nonchalantly, still fiddling with the Pokédex's control surface. "You're friends? I tied them up over there." She chucked her thumb over by the corner, where Ash could see the still forms of his friends bound and gagged on the floor. "As for your Pokémon, he's fine." She led his gaze over to the Pokémon regen pallet. The tied trainer could barely make out his Pika-pal in the darkness, but the Pokémon was clearly sprawled out on top of the pallet.

His head now a bit more clear, Ash began his futile struggle against the tight bindings; they were immovable, and it didn't appear that they would change in that regard anytime soon.

"Okay, so who are you? Why'd you tie us up?"

"Y'all broke in, you idiot!" she shot at him, giving him a look in incredulity.

"Well, what do you think you did? Professor Mason's not gonna look on you any more kindly on you just because you caught us, you know." Ash was very pleased with this observation. 'You've got her there, Ash ol' boy!' he thought to himself.

"I live here. Professor Mason's my granddad."

'D'oh...'

"Okay, look! Hold on a sec, woul'ja?" Ash tried desperately to re-route the conversation. "We didn't break in, I swear. The front door was wide open, and we came in, and I know that probably wasn't the smartest thing to do, but Professor Oak-"

Her eyes darted to meet his, cutting him off abruptly. "Did you say 'Professor Oak'?" she asked, a tinge of hope entering her voice. "As in 'Professor Samuel Oak', the Pokémon Island Professor Oak?"

"Yeah...yeah, that's right. Professor Oak." he said cautiously. "He said that Professor Mason was expecting us." He looked around the lab for show, trying to make a better impression than the one he had made a moment before. "It looks like we didn't catch him here...Hey!" he brightened, "You're his granddaughter, so you know where he is, right? You could take us-"

"Grampa's dead."

This caught Ash off guard, causing him pause in his excitement. He wasn't quite sure of what to say as tears started rolling down the girl's cheeks, staining her rosy face with great gobs of salty sadness. "Oh...oh, I'm...uh, I'm sorry."

"Why? Were you the one that off'd him?" she sniffled, her anger getting the better of her. "Were you the slime that killed him?"

"No! I mean, no." Ash said quickly. For a moment, they remained in silence, each looking into the other's eyes, trying to gauge the other. Ash saw something in those eyes that amazed him; it was the same spark of determination that he saw in his own eyes when he stood in front of a mirror and promised himself that he would become a Master. It was the same spark that burned in Brock's eyes every time his bulky friend spoke of being a world-class breeder, or when he cared for a Pokémon that no one else wanted but that he *knew* could be the best, if only it could have a little love and kindness. It was the spark that he saw in Misty's eyes...well, all the time. The spark that exploded inside of Pikachu whenever the Pokémon was faced with an impossible task or an unbeatable foe.

"So..." the girl wiped her eyes clear of tears, sniffling to clear her nose.

Ash simply blinked, looking back at her. "Do you have a name, or are we just going to rely on grunting and the ever-popular "Hey You" method?" he was happy to see her finally smile.

"Dixon. Dixon Mason." the girl responded, wiping the last remnants of the salty, sorrowful tears from her face. "But my friends call me Dixie."

"Well, Dixie," Ash began slowly with a smile, "I hate to be a rude guest, but...do you think you could untie me now?" He looked down at the tight, rough, binding rope that had him strapped to the scorched office chair. "Not that I'm not comfortable, or anything..."

She chuckled again as she began digging through her pockets in search of a knife. "Let's see here...umm..."

"Actually..." Ash grunted, twisting his wrist around to try and get at his belt. The maneuver came with a great deal of pain and tendon-pulling, but was successful; he gripped one of the marble-sized Pokéballs and pulled it off of the belt, expanding it to full size. "I think I got it." With a tap of his thumb and a flick of the wrist, he tossed the activated ball out away from them both. The ball split on its unseen hinge and released a wave of blinding white energy that threatened to fry their retinas in the darkened room. In an instant, the energy began to gather and solidify, shaping up into a small, green pocket monster that stood just under a foot high on its haunches.

"Bul! Bulbasaur, saur!" Bulbasaur, Ash's froggish Grass type, began barking with confusion and suspicion at its new surroundings. It took one look at Dixie, and another at the bound Ash, then began advancing menacingly on its trainer's would-be captor.

"Easy, Bulbasaur, easy!" Ash tried to calm the dog-like lizard down, doing little to convince the Pokémon as he sat helplessly in the chair. Nonetheless, Bulbasaur stopped in its tracks, but continued to growl at Dixie. "Okay pal, how about a Razor Leaf attack to get me outta this, huh?" Bulbasaur complied, sending a pair of dangerously sharp leaves shooting from its bulb. Ash didn't even flinch as the deadly organic blades slashed into the chair, slicing the rope into so much ribbon. He stood, flexing his arms and rubbing the portions where the coarse rope had nearly rubbed his forearms raw.

"Bulba."

"Great job, Bulbasaur." Ash leaned down, patting the Pokémon gently on the head. "Now see if you can't do something about Brock and Misty. They're over there, by the corner." He pointed his comatose friends out and sent the lizard on its way. When he stood back up, he found himself uncomfortably close to Dixie. "Oh! Uh...hi." he swallowed, rubbing the back of his neck.

She tilted her head, examining him for a moment. "So?"

"So what?"

She sighed with impatience. "So are you going to tell me your name, or should I guess?"

"Oh! Right, my name." He stuck out his hand, beaming broadly. "I'm Ash. Ash Ketchum."

She started to take his hand, then froze. "Wait a minute. Ash Ketchum? From Pokémon Island?" She scrutinized his face, looking for some kind of evidence of deception. "You aren't the Ash Ketchum from the Indigo League, are you?"

He smirked, tipping his hat suavely. "Why, yes. Yes I am."

She snorted, turning on her heel and walking over to the Pokémon regen pallet as she left him slack-jawed in her wake. "Boy, you really blew it in that last round against Oak, didn't you?"

"HEY! You weren't there!" he shouted indignantly. "There were circumstances!"

"Sure." she waved him off, picking up his Pikachu with tenderness that surprised Ash. Slowly, she handed the injured Pokémon to its rightful trainer. "Sorry. I'd turn on the regen machine, but I don't know how to work it." He grunted, reaching around to his pack and pulling out a Hyper Potion, which he promptly injected into the unconscious mouse. Pikachu's eyes fluttered open, and it groaned softy.

"Woah there, Partner. You've had a rough day." He rocked the Pokémon, letting it melt into his arms like a big pile of gelatinized electricity. From over in the corner, he could hear a large commotion that told him that Bulbasaur had managed to get Misty's ropes off.

"Of all the lousy, ROTTEN things to happen...I hate this country!" she groused loudly, tossing the sliced ropes off of her slender form as she stood. "I swear to God, the first thing I'm going to do when we get back to the island is convince the President to declare war on this lousy stink pot."

"Pretty brave words coming from a country that doesn't have a standing army." Dixie shot at her from her place by the regen pallet. Misty's eyes became ablaze with fire, but she was stopped in her tracks by a freshly released Brock before she could do anything they would all regret later. As the Water Mistress fumed with fury, Dixie leaned heavily on the pallet, her tears beginning again. She fingered her locket absent-mindedly, wet dollops of sadness rolling down her cheeks and plopping on the regen pallet with a wet 'thop'.

"Dixie? Dixie, what is it?" Ash went over to her, still holding the groggy Pikachu in his arms. "Are you okay?" He placed his free hand on her shoulder, trying to steady her sobbing as she silently wailed and cried. She sniffed again, shrugging him off.

"I-it's nothing." she mumbled, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. Slowly, methodically, she shuffled over to the remains of her grandfather's desk, looking at the computer debris with large, watery eyes. "His last message...the last thing he ever wanted me to hear...and I blew it up."

"Huh?" the three 'intruders' scratched their heads in unison, waiting for Dixie's forthcoming explanation.

"Before Grampa was killed, he sent me a letter telling me to come home again. He said that there would be a message stored on the computer, and that only I would be able to see it since I was the only one who knew the password."

The device that Dixie had confiscated from Ash while he had been 'indisposed' chose to speak up, cutting in on the young girl's melancholy monologue. "You mean "Southern Belle?" it intoned smugly, coming to life without warning in her hand.

"Huh?" She held up the device, giving it a look that one might give a palm pilot that had just started singing a concerto. "Um, why is your pocket calculator talking to me?" Her eyes narrowed with suspicion and anger; "And how did it know Grampa's password?" She shook Dexter violently, demanding answers from the red palmtop without mercy.

"Hey, calm down!" Ash yanked Dexter from her grasp, examining the device to make sure she hadn't damaged it. Dexter's voice seemed a bit frazzled, but it was more or less all right. "I was downloading Mason's files when you sprung that little trap of yours on us." He grinned uneasily. "Dexter has a knack for cracking codes, so I figured he could tell us what was in the Doc's files."

Misty pushed her way past Brock and stuck herself in between Ash and Dixie, sniffing disdainfully. "Enough talk." she proclaimed, brutally snatching Dexter from Ash's hands. "Let's see what this message said. Dexter:" she ordered, "Play the message."

"Hmmmm..." Dexter seemed to pause as it began searching through the pirated files, finding the right one among ordinary research data and personal diary files (it would save those juicy little tidbits for later). "Ah-ha!" At last, the device cried with triumph as his holographic projector sprang to life, shooting the image of a three-inch man into the air at the teens' face-level.
* * *

"My dearest Dixie," the message began.

The image was that of an aging scientist, perhaps not quite as old as Professor Oak, but well stocked in years compared to the young people in the room. He had dark brown hair that had gone gray at the temples, and was clad in a gleaming, sterile white lab coat that hung down all the way to his ankles. His voice was soft, but strong and full of life. "I'm sorry I could not see you in person...if you're seeing this, than I'm already gone." The image seemed to grow sad with this, as if sharing in Dixie's pain. "Rest assured, I won't die in vain. You'll see to that."

He paused, collecting his thoughts. "Dixie, I have developed something wonderful...something that, ironically, was the cause of my death. I have discovered a new type of Technique Machine, one that is far more powerful than any yet to be developed." The old scientist grew more excited as he revealed the details of his research. "They develop a Pokémon's natural potential to its fullest extremes, using their own natural attributes and enhancing them to levels the likes of which no one has ever seen!"

"However," his tone grew grim and soft, "Right after I finished my set of prototype machine chips, I became the target of several different corporations. To keep the chips safe, I've spread them all over the country with my most trusted assistants. Because of this, I have chosen to dub the new chips as "Hidden Machines". They are very important." His expression softened into one of love and kindness, and his image seemed to pick Dixie out of the ring of spectators watching the holoprojection. "Dixie, I need one last favor of you: I've asked my dear colleague, Professor Oak of Pallet Town, to safeguard and study my findings. Knowing the old coot, he's sent some incorrigible youth to collect them. Make sure they're safely delivered."

"Dixie..." he struggled to find the right words to say. "I'm sorry. I wish I could be there with you. You're all the family I had left, and I suppose I was all you had left as well. I hope your journey finds you well, my Southern Belle." The holo blew a kiss, waving. "Just know that I love you, and always keep your locket with you. That way, I'll be with you, too. It will be the light that guides you through the darkness."
* * *

Dixie was openly sobbing now, desperately reaching out to try and grasp the fading holoimage of her departed grandfather. With a final wave, the last words of Professor Mason blinked out in a flash of light, leaving only a quiet, hauntingly empty room and his hysterical granddaughter behind.

"Grampa!" she wailed, falling to her knees. "Grampa, no!"

Brock averted his eyes, not sure of what to do in a situation like this. He was more than a little surprised to see Misty crying as well. "Misty?" he asked the land-ridden mermaid quietly.

She sniffed, wiping her eyes. "It's just so sad, that's all..." Misty wailed softly.

As Misty cried in sympathy, Ash and Pikachu rushed to Dixie's side, helping her up to her feet. "C'mon, now," Ash tried to comfort her, "You don't think your grandfather would want you to be sad, do you?"

"Pika."

"Buck up." Ash gave her his best grin. She seemed to calm down for a moment. She wiped her eyes again, managing some semblance of a smile for her would-be heroes. "There now, that's better." With the fair maiden calmed down, Ash began thinking. Hidden Machines! Just the name by itself sounded cool, let alone the fact that he had another quest lying out before him. What did the machines do? He asked Dixie the question that was burning inside his head, trying to keep in mind that her last remaining family had recently died.

"What?" she blinked, trying to clear her head. "The Machines? I...I don't know Grampa always- "she stopped, looking around frantically. "Where is it? Where did I put it?" she cried out, running to the nearest table and desperately flinging things aside as she searched in vain for an unknown object. "Oh my God, how could I lose it?"

"Lose what?" Brock asked, hesitantly inching closer to Dixie as she pitched machinery and books aside haphazardly. Once or twice he very nearly took a book to the head, but somehow the Master of Rock managed to avoid any concussions. "What?"

"The Itemfinder." she sobbed, collapsing on the table, "I lost the Itemfinder." Her gaze fell over to Ash once more as she started to cry yet again, her southern accent cracking with frustration and panic. "Grampa said that once I found the Itemfinder, it would all work out. I took it off'a ya, and then..."

"Woah, woah, woah!" Ash raised his hands, a confused look spreading across his features. "You mean that thing I was wearing is called an Itemfinder?" He tilted his head, looking around the room. "What's it do?"

She stopped crying long enough to roll her eyes and snort. "What do you think it does, Greenhorn? It finds items, what else?" She thumped herself in the head, groaning. "How could I be so stupid as to lose it?" she moaned.

"Why not ask Ash?" Misty managed to crack a smile, even in the grim setting. "He loses stuff all the time, including us."

"Not helping, Misty." Ash mumbled, scanning the room with his eyes. After a minute, his gaze came to rest on the object in question, sitting on top of the regen pallet. "There it is!" he cried out, rushing over to grab the Itemfinder. Pikachu had to make a desperate leap to avoid being crushed under Ash's feet as the teen snatched the device off of the pallet, looking over at Dixie. "Catch!"

Dixie looked up just in time to see the bizarre machine flying at her skull. With a quick save, she managed to catch the Itemfinder before it dented her forehead. Her expression immediately went from dour to dazzling as she flashed Ash with a brilliant grin. "OH MY GOD!" she squealed, strapping the device excitedly to her head. "You are such a lifesaver, Ash, even if you did blow it in the Games."

"Hey, there were circumstances!"

"Right, right." she waved him off, activating the Itemfinder with a few taps from her fingertips. "Itemfinder, voice print identification: Dixon Mason." her voice was clear and crisp as she spoke without any general direction. Ash, Misty, Brock, and Pikachu all looked around, expecting someone to pop out of the woodwork. Instead, the Itemfinder emitted several high-pitched trills, coming to life and feeding visual cues into the eyepiece. "Yes! It worked." Dixie clapped her hands together joyfully, then settled down into seriousness. "Let's see...it's here somewhere." The Itemfinder seemed to be pointing her in different directions, leading her across the room. Misty and Brock had to scramble to get out of her way as she practically ran across the room, ending up in a corner piled four feet high with garbage and electronics. She began to dig through it, tossing aside useless parts and ancient manuscripts until finally reaching the prize. "I've got it!"

"Got what?" Misty was the one to voice the group's curiosity as they gathered around. Even Pikachu and Bulbasaur were silent with wonder as they stepped closer. "What is it that's so all-fired important?"

"This!" Dixie held up a small, blockish machine. It was no bigger than a handheld television, but was more like an octagonal prism in shape. There was a large black joint running down the center of it, separating it into two identical halves along the shortest side. She pulled the two octagons apart to demonstrate, revealing complex machinery beneath the casing.

"So what?" They weren't impressed. "It looks just like a TM applicator."

"It isn't, you moron!" Dixie chided him, sticking the two halves back together and placing the device in her backpack. "This is the HM Accelerator. It's the thing that makes the Hidden Machines work, dummy." She pulled her Itemfinder off, sticking that in her bag as well. "Man, I'm glad I didn't lose these. As soon as I saw that someone had broken in through the back door, I was afraid that they had stolen these."

"Back door?" Brock shook his head, frowning. "We came in through the front door."

Ash scratched his head. "But if we came in through the front, and someone else came in through the back...then who is it that 'really' busted in?" His pondering was interrupted by the unmistakable click of a semi-automatic weapon from behind, followed by the low chuckling of the weapon's owner.

"They did..." Dixie murmured, her southern accent quavering in fear.
* * *

"Jessie, are you sure you know where we're going?" James asked, peering around the hallway. He could have sworn that they had come this way before. Then again, French and English furniture during the sixteen hundreds all tended to look alike. "I think we might be walking around in circles..."

Jessie rolled her eyes, resisting the urge to swat her companion as followed Meowth down the hallway. "Don't be an idiot, James. I have a fantastic sense of direction. Besides," she added, "If my directions end up being wrong, I'll just blame Meowth."

"I heard dat!" Meowth grumbled as he turned the corner. "Keep it up and I'll plant a claw straight in your aaaaAAAAAAAA!" Jessie and James heard their feline companion screaming from around the bend, causing them to fly around the corner with Pokéball in hand, ready to defend their companion.

"What is it, Meowth?" James asked as his eyes searched the hallway for some sign of danger. Oddly enough, there were none.

Meowth, in the meantime, was clutching his foot and hopping around. "I hit my foot on dis stupid gargoyle!" he wailed, crying out in agony. "Meeee-ow-ow-ow-ow-"

Jessie and James stepped back to examine the fallen piece of sculpted masonry, rubbing their jaws in thought. "Say..." James drawled, haven't we seen this broken statue before?"

"W-what?" Jessie stammered, rubbing the back of her neck, "Don't be silly. If this were the same statue, then that would mean that we were going around in circles. That's impossible, especially with me leading the way."

James tilted his head thoughtfully, examining it harder as Meowth continued to bounce around on his good foot. "Yeah, but still...It looks just like the one Meowth hit his foot on a little while ago-"

"Stop YAMMERING and let's get moving." Jessie demanded, swatting both James and Meowth on the head. They immediately began to trot down the hall, hustled by the prima donna's snarls of encouragement.
* * *

"Turn around slowly," the voice of the man with the gun commanded, "Nice and easy."

The teens did as he said, rotating in place with their arms held high above their heads. Pikachu and Bulbasaur chose to zip out of sight, having not been noticed by the thugs before. Their attackers were two of the strangest people Ash and his friends had ever encountered on their journeys: One had long, spiky hair that jetted over his broad, massive shoulders and almost down to his feet. His body was hard and muscled, and he had a cruel, unforgiving smile on his face as he covered his victims with his semi-automatic. The other was a lean, dark-skinned man with a pair of large, black sunglasses covering half of his face. His head was shaved clean, and a small goatee covered most of his chin. Both wore dark, expensive suits with ties to match, and both had smug, nasty grins plastered to their cruel faces.

"Hey!" Ash said in a surprised and almost happy manner, "You aren't Team Rocket!"

Dixie wasn't nearly as happy to see that the pair wasn't dressed in garish red and white costuming with a feline accompaniment. "Shades. Spike. What are you two doing here? I thought my grandpa told you to stay away."

Shades grinned, waving his gun as he gave her an exaggerated shrug. "Yeah, he was very adamant about us staying away from his work."

"Right up to the moment when we aced him." Spike finished. Dixie remained stonily silent, glaring at them with a piercing gaze that threatened to burn a hole in each of their heads. "Aw, wa'samatter?"

Misty scowled, tilting her head and adopting a tone of disgust into her voice. "Who are these losers?" she snarled.

"They're from Americorp..." Dixie stated in a flat tone edged with building rage. "They've been after my grampa's research for months now, but he wouldn't sell." Her nose wrinkled with bitterness and distaste. "So they killed him."

Spike laughed, which only made Dixie angrier. "What do you think we're going to do to you, Girly-Poo?" he chuckled, taking aim square at her head. His gaze swept over Ash, Brock, and Misty. With each new target, his smile grew and grew. "You and your new little friends here." he added.

"Enough talk." Shades held up a hand, stopping his partner. He walked up to Dixie, towering over her as he placed the gun against her head. "Now, give us the Accelerator and the new Technique Machines."

"Drop dead." she spat, sending a wad of spittle spraying onto his pricey suit. He looked down disdainfully, then met her eye to eye, pushing the gun hard into her temple. For her credit, Dixie never flinched a millimeter.

"You first, little girl." But he didn't kill her. Instead, he drew back his arm and pistol-whipped the young woman across the face, drawing a cry of pain from her as she fell to her knees.

Ash watched on in horror until he felt something jab into his side. Turning his head, he answered Brock's attention-grabber with a half-hearted protest. Brock was less than interested in his complaints, though. "Ash, we've got to do something! They're going to kill us and get the Accelerator...but mostly, kill us!" he hissed.

'Think, Ketchum...' Ash's mind raced, trying to formulate a plan. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Pikachu and Bulbasaur setting up for an attack on the two gunmen's flank, moving silently in the shadows. He caught their gaze, then held up a finger, instructing them to wait. Slowly, the elements of a brilliant plan began to form inside of his head. "Don't worry, Brock," he hissed back to his friend, "I have an idea." He kept half an eye on his Pokémon, who were ready at a moment's notice to launch their assault. 'Wait for it...' he coached himself, 'wait for it....'

Shades was obviously fed up with Dixie's tight-lipped act. "Fine. Then die, just like your grandfather; on your knees, whimpering like a sickly beast." He brought his gun around, sneering with disgust as the girl looked up at him with defiance pouring out of her eyes.

'Now or never,' Ash told himself. Pointing desperately over to the far side of the room, Ash began shouting at the top of his lungs. "WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THAT?" Both Shades and Spike whirled around, their guns at the ready. Bulbasaur and Pikachu, seeing their opportunity, launched a pair of Vine Whips and a Thundershock, respectively. Bulbasaur's vines slapped the guns from the thugs' hands, giving them only a second to cry out in pain and surprise before Pikachu's thunderous attack blasted into them. The pair was lit up like dueling Christmas trees for a split-second before Pikachu cut the voltage, letting their smoking, sparking forms drop to the ground with a satisfying thud.

Ash grinned proudly at their accomplishment...that is, until Brock grabbed him by the shoulders and began shaking him violently. "That was your plan?" he demanded, a large vein bulging out on his forehead. "ARE YOU INSANE? That was the STUPIDEST plan you've ever come up with!" He sighed, releasing the dizzy, stumbling Ash with a gesture of surrender.

Misty wasn't quite as angry at Ash, seeing as how his foolish and risky plan had worked. She tried to steady him with an arm on his shoulder, but he shrugged her off and instead went over to help Dixie to her feet. "Are you all right?" he asked her. She nodded, but couldn't help leaning heavily on Ash.

"I've had a really bad day." she moaned softly, burying her face in his chest. He began to stroke her hair and whisper softly to her, trying to get her to calm down. So engrossed was he with easing Dixie's pain, that he never even noticed Misty glaring at the pair with frustration...and perhaps a hint of jealousy.
* * *

The four teens stood outside of the Mason Complex, squinting in the early morning sunlight. The entire building was surrounded with police, fire, and paramedic rescue vehicles, all of which had arrived far too late to do anything. Dixie watched on with a small modicum of satisfaction as the police led Shades and Spike away, cuffed and downtrodden.

"Those two should be going away for a nice long stay in the pokey." Brock quipped, a broad grin settling onto his face. Dixie, however, didn't share his optimism. She simply shook her head, turning away as the squad cars pulled out of the compound.

"Not likely. Americorp owns judges all throughout the system...and the money to bribe the ones they don't control." Her voice softened to a hoarse whisper as she bowed her head, staring at her shoes. "They'll be back."

"Let 'em come!" Ash said, looking down at Pikachu. He got a nod of acknowledgement from his Pika-pal, who was as charged up as he was. "We'll meet 'em, greet 'em, and thoroughly defeat 'em." The teen tugged on his cap, hiding his eyes beneath the bill and an unruly mass of hair. "I'm not afraid of them."

"Dixie?" Misty shoved Ash and Brock aside, placing a hand gently on the girl's shoulder. "Dixie, what are you going to do now?"

The younger girl looked up, her eyes filled with both sadness and determination. "I'm going to find my grandfather's prototypes. After that," she shrugged, "I guess I'll go back to the Star League."

"Star League?" Ash's voice peaked with interest.

She blinked, eyeing him warily. "Sure. You didn't think that dinky little island of yours was the only country with a league, did you? I only need four more badges, and then I qualify for the D.C. Bowl."

Ash paused for only a moment, glancing at his two closest friends. They both nodded, already knowing fully what Ash intended to say. "Okay, you talked us into it!" he said, slapping her on the back. "We'll come with you!"

Dixie started to protest, but decided against it. Instead, she just smiled and looked over at Brock and Misty. "Is he always this obnoxious?"

"This is just the tip of the iceberg." Misty warned her soberly.

Despite everything that had happened...her grandfather's death, the harrowing night she had barely escaped, and the daunting task that loomed ahead...Dixie managed to laugh. Ash, Brock, Misty, and Pikachu joined her, each of them forgetting their own troubles, if only for a moment.
* * *

"Jessieeeeeeee..." James moaned, leaning heavily against a polished oak table that he *knew* they had passed at least a dozen times before, "Can't we just forget about stealing that Pikachu and find a way out of here?"

She snarled at him, too tired to raise her hand in anger against the whiney, womanish man. "What do you think I've been TRYING to do for the past hour and a half, you nitwit? Now stop complaining and start helping!"

Meowth put his hands behind his head, closing his eyes indifferently as they rounded the next corridor. "Just goes ta show what happens when ya let a human leaAAAAAA!" a brutally painful shock leapt through his foot as he tripped over the all-too-familiar gargoyle, falling flat on his face.

"Not again!" James cradled his face in his hands, groaning loudly.

Team Rocket's cry echoed through the empty halls of the Mason Research Compound, sending out a miserable, pathetic cry for help to the deaf ears of its exquisite furniture and expensive machinery.

"WE'LL NEVER BLAST OFF AT THIS RATE!!!"
* * *

End

Quiet Hindsight
I know it was a little long, without as much action as I normally put into these thingies. However, there was a lot of exposition to get through, and I wanted to get it all out of the way right up front. So, get ready for some rip-roarin' action (or possibly just some fanficiton) in the next exciting installment of Pokémon: BadgeQuest!

Next: BadgeQuest: The Hidden Machine Saga
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