Last Time On TMOM:
Lucario has returned to aid the party again. But tensions are high. Can they possibly find Pikachu and Meowth within the Tree of Beginning without further incident?
Quote: "Don't be too quick to forgive those that hurt you, Ash," said James softly.

TRIGGER WARNING- Suicide Referenced/Discussed -TRIGGER WARNING


Chapter Seventeen: Serenity

No, I'd rather pretend I'm something better than
These broken parts
Pretend I'm something other than
This mess that I am
'Cause then I don't have to look at it
-Ben Platt

The tunnels were narrower than they looked from the outside. Crystals stuck out of the walls like thorns, threatening to catch exposed clothing or skin as the intruders passed. And that's what they were, Ash supposed, intruders. At least Regirock seemed to consider them such.

Since ducking under the tree's large roots and into the exposed caverns beneath, Ash couldn't shake the unsettling feeling that he wasn't supposed to be here. There was a pervasive sense of 'wrong' ringing in every step forward they took. It was so strong that Ash could feel the shock waves sending goosebumps up his arms. He attempted to rub them away, but it didn't seem like anyone else was sharing in his paranoia. Ash didn't want to vocalize his silly thoughts.

Of course I'm being silly, Ash thought to himself, still rubbing his arms. It's just so dark and cold in here. I'm just a bit frightened is all.

Lucario was taking point, leading their ramshackle group through the veins of this living tree. Unconsciously, Ash put as much space between himself and the pokemon as was possible. Ash took up the rear of their party, not from any sort of instinct to protect them from attacks from behind. But because he was dragging his feet and found himself there.

"Don't be too quick to forgive those that hurt you, Ash."

James' warning rang in his ears even now, much as Ash tried to ignore it. He knew he wasn't wrong for wanting to forgive Lucario. Though painful burns still wrapped his arms, he was willing to put the whole incident behind them. When Ash thought about it, he didn't know why he was so determined to put space between himself and what had happened. Was it wrong to want to move forward without picking at the scabs?

Ash couldn't come up with an answer. His indecision was an itchy, uncomfortable shroud, only made more impossible to ignore within proximity to its source. So he let the distance spread between them, hoping to sort his thoughts and come up with an answer in the meantime. Lucario didn't seem to mind, although it was still hard to read emotions off his canid features.

Aileen and Kidd stumbled, nearly causing Ash to run into them from behind. At the small commotion, Lucario halted the group.

"What's wrong?" The pokemon asked.

Before either woman could answer, Jessie spoke for them. She made a great show of giving Lucario the side-eye. "Clearly, Kidd needs to rest. She only had a rock sticking out of her leg a few minutes ago."

Lucario looked ruffled by Jessie's bluntness. However, he shook off the emotion like water and then nodded. "I'll find a place to rest. Perhaps just ahead…"

True to Lucario's word, the pokemon was quick to find a spot where the narrow tunnel emptied into a pocket space not much bigger than Ash's own bedroom. The enclosed space was rather cozy, and if they sat away from the mouth of the tunnel, they could avoid the chilled gusts that breezed past.

Aileen helped Kidd sit with James close at hand to provide any non-magical first aid. To Kidd's credit, she shooed away their concern.

"I'm just tired," she reassured them. "It really doesn't hurt."

Even Ash, easy to fool as he was, didn't buy Kidd's false bravado. He shared just as much concern for Kidd as the others, but knew he'd just be in the way if he tried to act on it. So Ash stayed back, the inside of his chest feeling like it were on fire; burning with a mix of guilt and shame.

Kidd got hurt because of him. Without Lucario, it fell on him to keep the party safe. He was the one that begged them all to keep going into the Tree, and both Aileen and Kidd's life had been threatened. Because he couldn't be careful enough. And because he couldn't protect them.

Although they had stopped for Kidd's sake, the others eagerly settled down around her. Jessie draped herself over the nearest bit of crystal she could lean up against. James sat down sandwiched between his teammate and the injured party, perched in such a way as to be close with the first aid kit in hand in case needed. And Aileen, of course, stayed dutifully at Kidd's side.

Aileen rubbed a salve that James had passed over onto Kidd's leg. Her skin was still pink with irritation, looking a darker bruised shade in the low light.

The princess hummed a soft song under her breath as she worked; the melodic beats tickling Ash's ears with pleasant familiarity. Ash thought he might have heard the song before from one of his mother's music boxes. While he tried to place it, Kidd had fallen into an uneasy slumber, propped up against the crystalline walls of the living tree. When her wispy breaths added to Aileen's gentle hum, Ash suddenly recognized the song. 'The Traveler', or was it 'The Wanderer'? Sir Aaron's ballad, supposedly written by the child who had never met him. It sounded so sickeningly sweet through Aileen, like a pinning love song- the ballad of a man who had turned against his kingdom.

Ash repressed a shiver and looked away.

Then James caught Ash's eye.

James didn't speak. Instead, his eyes moved down to stare at Ash's own bandaged arms, still in slings. Then slowly, his gaze turned; glaring at something over Ash's shoulder. Ash followed his gaze, surprised to note that James' glare fixed on Lucario. Ash stared down at his bandages and then at Lucario himself- adding the pieces up in his head.

"Oh," Ash said.

And although conducted without a word being passed between them, Lucario read their expressions perfectly. He abandoned his post as a silent sentry and approached Ash. The approach was unnecessary, being a telepathic pokemon; he could address them all at a distance. But Ash suspected Lucario was trying to put the humans more at ease. The pokemon cast a look around the group before deliberately brushing past Ash's shoulder.

"Come. Let's fix you."

He didn't hide his telepathic voice from the others; projecting it for all concerned parties to hear. Ash fell into step behind the pokemon. They didn't go that far from the others, just traveling up the neck of the tunnel where the cavern opened more. Here, Lucario nodded to an upturned crystal nestled close to the wall that Ash could sit on. Again, Ash did so.

"So compliant," Lucario commented. "Why couldn't you be this amenable while training?"

Ash said nothing. He wanted to. He opened his mouth to answer but could think of nothing to say. So, reluctantly, he closed his mouth and frowned at himself. He wanted to knit his hands in his lap and would have done so, if not for his injured arms. His disabled state left him unable to fidget. He resorted to rubbing the toes of his shoes into the gritty stone floor.

"Well… lucky you. Wave can heal as well as harm." Lucario settled down beside the human, taking the young boy's nearest arm awkwardly into his paws. Ash winced, but he didn't pull away. Lucario ran his paws up and down Ash's arm, not quite touching the bandages. The heat of wave was just on the edge of painful, like Lucario was waving a hot iron over his wounds. Ash bit the inside of his cheek and tried to clear his muddled thoughts of pain.

"Why didn't you block the attack?"

Lucario's voice came so softly at the back of his mind that Ash almost missed it. He blinked and looked over at the pokemon, who was still focused on running his healing touch over Ash's injuries.

"Why didn't you block it? Didn't I show you how?" Lucario said again, glaring down at Ash's bandages as if they had offended him.

"Which attack? You'll have to be more specific," said Ash rather playfully. Lucario did not share in Ash's smile.

"Mine."

Ash couldn't laugh at that. He let the smile slip off his face and stared down at his grubby sneakers.

"I… I don't know. I guess… I guess I didn't think," Ash muttered.

Lucario stepped back, the soft glow evaporating from his paws.

"We should practice."

"What?"

Lucario was already returning to his feet. Ash stumbled up after him, surprised to note the new range of motion his arms seemed to have. He unwound the bandages from his arms, unveiling his now unblemished flesh underneath. Ash ran his hand over his new smooth skin, marveling at the transformation. It still felt raw, like a slight sunburn, but far better than it had been just minutes before.

"You healed me."

"It's a challenging skill. Draining as well." Lucario didn't even appear winded. "Start small when you use wave to heal or you may spend all you have while healing."

"What happens then? If you heal too much?"

"You die."

Ash blinked. "Oh."

Lucario nodded, taking just a few paces away from Ash. When the boy tried to follow, Lucario waved him off.

"Shield training. Now. I want you to block my attacks."

"Wait- you're serious?" Ash half-laughed. He swept out his arms, unraveling bandages still dangling from them like tattered ribbons. "You only just healed my arms."

"If you learn to shield yourself, I won't have to heal you."

"Well, sure but- right now?"

"Yes. I don't want you hurt again if I can help it."

Before Ash could even begin to process this sudden and odd bit of attentiveness coming from the lone wolf pokemon, Lucario attacked.

Ash spun out of the way of the strike. The pokemon's aura sphere breezed by, just inches from his face. Ash stumbled back, bracing himself against the cave wall. He meant to snap at Lucario, but the pokemon didn't give him the chance. Once more, Lucario threw another aura sphere that Ash had to dodge.

"Lucario! Lucario stop!"

"Don't dodge. Block."

"Stop trying to hit me!"

Lucario advanced. And still, Ash had to resort to evading the energy blasts. One blast came dangerously close to separating Ash's nose from his face. Ash breezed back, stumbling, the skin of his face tingling from the near-miss.

Lucario was livid. His voice sounded full in Ash's head, reprimanding him. "Stand your ground, Ashton. Block! Block or I will hurt you."

"How about you just stop trying to hurt me?" Ash snapped back. "Just what are you playing at? Is this how you say sorry? Cause it's a terrible apology!"

"An apology is worthless," Lucario spat. He swung at Ash again, and again the boy danced out of the way. Lucario snarled in response. "An apology would not protect you or the princess."

"And hurling aura spheres at me somehow will?"

Lucario tossed three baseball-sized spheres, all that barely missed the dexterous human. The pokemon paused, chest heaving from the exertion. He narrowed his carmine eyes at Ash.

Ash didn't like the look. It made him feel like a target. And he himself was tiring. He choked down the frigid cavern air and tried to stay poised for another attack. Ash couldn't trust that Lucario wouldn't spring back with a second wind. He had seen lesser pokemon do as much before.

"It will fix where I failed." His telepathic voice was free from the breathiness Ash suffered from. But he looked as if he had calmed for the moment. Ash allowed some of the tension to slide from his shoulders. Only a little.

"I don't understand. What are you talking about?"

"I am a pokemon in service to the royal family. And I allowed myself to be distracted." Lucario gave his head a great shake. "Princess Aileen's safety was compromised because of me."

Ash let the hands, he had put up as a barrier between him and the pokemon, fall back to his side. He frowned, chewing on his words. "What do you mean? Are you talking about those magical flowers?"

"That was one mistake," Lucario nodded. "You were the other."

Ash's mouth formed the protest he would have given under any other circumstance. But something stilled his tongue. Although the admission surprised him, it was simultaneously expected. He had felt it. How their odd partnership had pushed aside both their original goals. Not forgotten, but not as pressing. Lucario; every confusing and frustrating thing about him was bundled in with mystery and the allure of wave. Without even meaning to, Ash had found a friend- one that was hurting just as much as he had been. The part of himself that wanted to help, to fix every problem, moved to act.

There was usually nothing wrong with wanting to help. But the cost… the time lost...

Wave was helpful, but it was also a distraction. Lucario was an excellent guide, but one with ulterior motives and dodgy allegiance. The two of them and their problems had caused every delay.

"If you're trying to say that we're bad for each other… I mean, that's no secret, Lucario. When we first met, you tried to kill me."

Lucario almost smiled. At least Ash thought he saw something like a brightening to the pokemon's eyes.

"You say we are friends, Ash Ketchum. You frequently make friends with those who nearly murder you?"

Ash couldn't help the smile from slipping across his face. It wasn't rare that Ash's friendships had such rocky beginnings.

Lucario noted the smile and sighed. "You are such an odd human."

"I don't, really. Make friends like that. It's just the way you said it… I've made a lot of friends from odd places. I mean, you're not even my first time-traveling friend."

Lucario looked surprised. He might have asked for elaboration but shook the tangent from his thoughts. "What I'm trying to say is that I have a task, a duty to protect Princess Aileen."

Ash nodded.

"It is the only reason I have to exist in this time period. And yet… I'm losing my grip. I get lost in these memories. Sir Aaron consumes my thoughts, though I know him dead and gone. And when danger inevitably struck..."

Lucario stared at Ash. It was a hard and uncomfortable look, like that of a harsh spotlight. Ash withstood the gaze, his cheeks heating with guilt.

"I saved you instead of her."

"Why?"

"I don't know."

"Because I look like Sir Aaron?"

"No, I would not have needed to save him… Nor would I have wanted to."

"Then why?"

Lucario turned his eyes away, glaring holes into the walls as if wave could work that way. Lucario stepped away, thinking. He kicked out at any loose rocks unfortunate enough to be close by. But he didn't move far enough away for his thoughts to escape Ash's reach.

"You were more important. It's the only explanation."

Ash found he was smiling again. "Is this your roundabout way of admitting you like me too?"

"I don't like humans. They are reckless and violent. They start wars and don't know how to end them. And they use us pokemon like expendable tools. I thought I found a few good humans once and bound myself to their service. That was a mistake." Lucario whirled back around to face the human in front of him. "I didn't think I'd find any other humans to care for. I threw myself into duty to try and forget. And then you brought it all back. When I say I trust you, Ash, I don't mean it lightly."

"I understand."

"Do you?" Lucario stared hard at the trainer, trying to ascertain his comprehension for himself. He let the silence hang for a moment more before continuing, "I was willing to lie down my life for Sir Aaron. I will not do the same for you."

"Ouch," Ash laughed, rubbing his arm as if the pokemon's brutal words had left a mark.

"Because I want the both of us to make it through this. I want to join your Pokemon team."

"Huh… What? Really?"

"So why aren't you willing to do the same?"

"Join my own pokemon team?"

"No… Survive. Why don't you care about surviving?"

Ash froze, the smile on his face turned painful. He let out a laugh in both an attempt to save face and force a breath. His chest felt too full and suddenly couldn't seem to suck in a breath.

"I… I don't know what… what are you talking about?" Ash wheezed.

"You're self-sacrificing to the point of negligence. You chose to take my hit. You did nothing to get out of the way when Regirock turned on you."

"That's not fair," Ash interrupted, practically gasping. His breathing had become rapid and shallow. He could hardly keep the air down anymore. "I couldn't protect myself! Against you or Regirock. I didn't want to get hurt!"

Lucario ignored him, "When it comes time to protect yourself, you give up."

"I can't form a shield!"

"Wave forms from intention. It reacts to what you want and need. If you can't form a shield, it isn't because you can't. It's because you don't want to."

They hadn't been moving. But Ash felt the ground buck and sway underfoot. He gulped down air like a fish and tried to shake off Lucario's accusation. But the words stuck to him and he couldn't rip them off. He felt them, like ants all over his skin. Ash rubbed at his bare arms.

He didn't want to be here. He didn't want to admit this, face this. This wasn't why he had come.

"We don't have time for this," Ash spat.

He tried to walk away but Lucario outmaneuvered him, blocking the tunnel that led back to the rest of their party.

"We have time enough for this. I'm pretty sure you don't want me to call you out in front of the others…"

Ash tried in vain to sidestep the pokemon. Lucario effortlessly anticipated the movement. He even predicted Ash's left-side feint and responded by meeting the boy's rush forward. He held out an open paw that connected with the center of Ash's chest. Using the boy's own momentum, he knocked Ash back and off his feet.

Ash landed hard on his back. He groaned but otherwise seemed unharmed.

As Ash climbed back to his feet, Lucario continued, "If you are going to learn to protect yourself and others, we need to address this. Is this because of the human boy, William?"

Ash was suddenly aware of his hands and how they had started to shake. He clenched them into tight fists in an effort to still them.

"I don't want to talk about this," Ash grumbled. Still, his hands trembled.

"But I do. Because I've felt the same way."

What should have offered comfort, did the opposite. A burn of anger flared white-hot in his chest. Ash could barely muscle out the words through his gritted teeth, "You don't know how I feel."

"Wave is broadcasting your emotions right now. I can see right through you."

"No, no, you can't!" Ash was shouting now, and he didn't care. His words reverberated off the cavern walls around them, surrounding them. "Wave may tell what I'm feeling, but it can't tell you why. You taught me this, Lucario! I'm not stupid!" His voice broke on the final word. Ash blinked back angry tears. They seared away at the corners of his eyes, threatening more tears. Ash fought the urge to wipe his eyes. "You can't read my mind."

Lucario observed all coolly. His lack of emotion only increased Ash's own.

"So then, tell me why. Why are you suicidal?"

Ash's hands went to his mouth. His jaw ached, and bile rose in the back of his throat.

No one had ever said it before. He had never heard it said out loud. Ash had thought he had left it behind in the smoldering crater, determined to be done with it. Done with William. Done with the shame and the pain and the dangerous sensuous thoughts that hung like deadly daggers overhead.

He felt like he was going to be sick.

"You don't want to admit it. You are afraid. Afraid of being judged."

Ash vigorously shook his head.

"But you are clearly afraid."

Lucario approached, and Ash instinctively stepped back. He didn't want the pokemon any closer to him.

"I am not," he said.

"I can see your fear. You must be afraid of dying then."

"No, I am not afraid."

Ash's back touched the cavern wall. His pulse throbbed harder, pushing its way up into his throat and head. It beat so hard that Ash was sure it would pound its way free from his body. He grabbed a fist full of his shirt, just above his heart.

Something to anchor himself because he felt himself slipping...

"Your friends will not abandon you, Ash. They will stand beside you. They'll help you."

"No! Just shut up!"

"Then I will help you. You called me friend, let me help."

He hadn't meant to. In a blind rage and panic, Ash's hands flew instinctively to his pokebelt. He ripped off the first pokeball his fingers reached.

"Stay away from me!" He screamed out, chucking the pokeball at Lucario.

It fell short, dropping lifelessly between them. They both watched it roll, emitting no pokemon.

Ash sank to his knees, violently shivering and choking on a shaky breath. He coughed and sobbed- gasped out loud when he realized the pokeball he had thrown had been Charizard's. The big red X on the button still pulsed dully, keeping the pokemon safely within.

Ash moaned and hid his face in his hands. Lucario eyed the pokeball for a moment before closing the distance between him and the young boy.

He could hear the footsteps and shouts of the other humans. They rounded the corner, startled by the sight of the weeping pokemon trainer and Lucario standing over him.

"What's going on?" James shouted. He had been the first to breach the small alcove. The others piled up behind him, each wearing a match of appropriate concern. Save for maybe the red-headed rocket.

"It's fine now," Lucario assured them. "We are only talking."

Lucario's words didn't placate James. Instead, the blue-haired man sought Ash's eye and said, "We heard shouting. Were you fighting? Is he hurt?"

"No one is hurt."

"Ash?"

"I'm fine," Ash answered in a small voice, not bothering to lift his head. "Just go, please. I want to be alone."

James looked reluctant to leave. But when Aileen tried to step around him, James held her back. He shook his head and ushered the others back the way they had come.

Only Jessie resisted. She, too, cast suspicious eyes over the scene, not sure leaving the twerp alone would be a good idea.

"Jessie, please," James pleaded.

"He said he wanted to be alone," Jessie nodded to the pokemon still at Ash's side. "Lucario should leave too."

"If Ash wishes me to."

All eyes fell upon Ash again. The young pokemon trainer looked about ready to melt into the cavern floor. He stayed where he was, face in hands. He didn't want anyone to see his blotchy, tear-stained face. His exhaustion felt bone-deep. Ash didn't think he could put any more strength in his voice.

He just wanted everything to go away.

His silence was its own sort of answer. It forced the party to accept it. Although Jessie stayed near the mouth of the alcove, out of earshot but near enough to intervene if necessary. Lucario was careful to direct his thoughts away from her direction.

He knelt beside the pokemon trainer and, though unnecessary, kept his speech low. It was only a whisper at the back of Ash's mind.

"Talk to me, Ash."

Ash thought about ignoring him. But a part of him had to acknowledge that if anyone might understand, it might be a time traveler who had also lost everything…

"I hate myself," Ash choked out at last. "I hate- I was supposed to be a pokemon master and I… I killed… I made my pokemon kill one of my friends. What kind of monster does that?"

Lucario only stared. Ash didn't need his answer.

"I feel like I'm just pretending that everything's back to normal. But everything still hurts. Will is still gone. Nothing can be normal again." The tide of his emotion nearly took him. He choked back a few more sobs almost unable to continue. He had to push the words out; force himself to say them before he could think better of it "I'm fucking terrified. Terrified of hurting everyone. Scared of Charizard. Scared of what I'm capable of. Scared of it all happening again. I can't trust myself."

"Because of the accident."

Ash nodded. He let a few more tears drip from his face before wiping their trails away. "And wave makes everything worse. It's a weapon. I don't want to hurt anyone anymore. I don't even want to be here."

"I don't either."

Ash blinked and looked up in surprise. As usual, Lucario's face was impossible to read.

"So what reasons do you have to stay?"

"Reasons?"

"Do you have any?"

Ash swallowed, the answer coming immediately to mind. "Pikachu. I have to make sure he's safe. I want to- I want to be with my best friend."

Lucario turned to meet Ash's eye, something like a smile on his face. "That's a good reason."

Ash rubbed his face on his sleeve and nodded, the thought settling comfortably in his mind. Yes. It was a good reason.

"Hold onto that reason, Ash. Hold tight," Lucario said. "Then find others. We can find them together. Reasons to stay."

Lucario rose back to his full height. He looked back down at Ash, holding out his paw to help the boy back to his feet. Ash didn't hesitate, taking Lucario's paw in his own.

"Don't be so quick to leave your loved ones behind. They are precious. Let them be your reasons. Then you will find your shield."

Once back on his feet, Ash looked reluctantly back at Charizard's fallen pokeball. Lucario reached the pokeball first, returning it to Ash's waiting hand. As Ash reattached the pokeball to his belt, the question slipped unbidden from his lips.

"What are your reasons?" Ash said before thinking better of it.

Lucario didn't answer. Instead, he led the way back up the tunnel. It was only as they were both back amongst the rest of the group that Ash realized how personal the question had been. He chastised himself for it.

But still, the question smoldered unanswered in his mind.


To Be Continued…
Please Read and Review!

Welp, Nanowrimo really set me back from being able to update my other stories in a timely manner. Good news is that I beat Nanowrimo this past year. But it also meant I had to take some time off writing for a bit- due to burnout. Here I Am got a ton of updates but my other stories ended up on the back burner while I recovered.

This chapter took a while for me to write. It was also incredibly difficult to write. Heavy subject and I didn't want to take it lightly. Despite being one of the first scenes I envisioned for the fanfic- it was a tough topic and one I found hard to write about at times.

Let me just end off the chapter by adding, if you or someone that you know are ever feeling suicidal- there are hotlines you can call and people you can reach out to. You can even contact a text-only number now in case you don't want to talk to someone on the phone. The hotline number is 800-273-8255 (in America). Please don't be afraid to call if you need someone to talk to. If you or the person you are talking to has a weapon or a means to commit suicide at hand- please call the emergency number for your country.

That being said, thanks to those of you who have reviewed so far. Yami Nova, AshKetchumForever, Yumetakato, juaniu1994 and Shaveza, I appreciate the comments from all of you!

I will try to be returning to a normal update schedule. Meaning you can expect the next chapter sometime this July... hopefully.