Disclaimer: I don't own Pokémon. Honest.
Your true value depends entirely
on what you are compared with.
The Hero's Test
Ash could hardly hear himself as he sang, "Twinkle, twinkle little star."
The lightning came first, then the thunder, the two not a second apart. The storm was right overhead, the worst part of it slamming onto the Pokémon Center with so much force it was amazing the thing didn't crumble. There wouldn't be any sleeping for Ash Ketchum tonight, not with the wind's screaming sounding so human he had to sing to drown it out. Maybe it would help if he knew other songs than the one or two from his childhood. Maybe it would help if he would just buy a music player.
The lightning flashed again, this time making all the lights and clock and computer flick on and off to accompany the thunder. He could see the room for a moment, all of the room. From the covers his half hid his face in to the desk and computer to the left side. He could see the color of the paint and the sheets. Incredibly enough, he could see all the outside streets lit up for a moment, the earth solid city of Viridian.
In fact, he could even see the person standing by the window.
"How I wonder what you are," he sang, closing his eyes tight and holding back the whimper that hid in the back of his throat.
"Do us all a favor and stop – your voice is horrible."
His voice cut through all the stormy sounds strangely, not quite sounding as if it was in his head, not quite sounding as if it was spoken out loud. The lights were out now, but he had seen him before. He knew the hair cut short, black as black could be with pinpricks of shining white that made it look like the night sky. The skin seemed to move as well, as if it was a layer of plastic covering a swirling, milky liquid. The eyes were too close to normal with their plain green tint, but for the cat-like pupils that were slit sideways rather than vertically.
Ash tried to drown the image out of his head, focusing hard on the childhood melody. "Up above the world so high."
"Come now, you don't have to be afraid. I won't hurt you." He turned to the window, looking out at the darkness and the storm. There was another lightning flash, and he frowned at it. "Storms. Damned storms. You don't mind if I turn off the lightning and thunder, do you? It will be such a distraction when we're trying to have a conversation."
He stopped singing for that, drawing up his bravery to sit up slowly, to stare at the black form across the room. "You can't do that."
The man snapped his fingers in response, and the sounds of thunder and lightning and pouring rain halted instantly. Another snap and the lights in the room clicked on, blinding the eighteen year old trainer who grunted and groaned at it, raising an arm to shield himself. Once the effect had faded, Ash lowered his arm. He half expected the other man not to be there anymore. He was, however, leaning against the wall and smiling under the fluorescents.
"The snapping was just to prove it was me. It's all in my mind. I make a wish and off it goes, and it's hardly draining in the least. You see, I'm only messing with your head, Mr. Ketchum. Nothing's actually changed. The storm is still going and it's still plenty dark." He smiled and extended his hands to the scene. "But a mind with the power to dream is an incredible thing."
He pushed himself out of the bed, shaking his head forcefully. How did one deal with a villain? Not sitting down. Not in pajamas either, usually, but that couldn't be helped. The enemy had to be faced on as equal ground as possible. One had to show strength and courage and try to speak articulately so the villain knew exactly what one was trying to accomplish. He planted his feet solidly on the floor and stood proud. It didn't matter if the man had the power to throw him across the room, probably across the galaxy if he wanted. What mattered was he had to show he was willing to fight, in his unimpressive pajamas.
"Fantastic, you're good and awake now. Would you like to have an adventure, Mr. Ketchum? I promise you it'll be plenty exciting." He smiled an entirely friendly smile, revealing a dimple at either corner of his mouth and teeth that were pointed, locking together like a perfect zipper.
"You're the one who's been stealing people," Ash snarled bravely, clenching his hands into tight fists as he fought the swell of nausea that came from seeing those pointed teeth. "All the hikers and townspeople and my friends and my pokémon! What do you want with them?"
The smile vanished and he sighed, tongue sliding across his lips with an odd crackling sound. "I hate storms. They make me so static." Ash didn't make a response to that, so he sighed once again and explained, "I made an adventure for you, and I knew you wouldn't come unless you got a worthwhile prize from it. So I took your friends, pokémon and human, for you to find."
He spoke firmly, keeping his voice at a speaking tone. He could reason with him, maybe. Not rush into things. That's how all of this started, after all, by rushing into things. He would take his friends advice and think about what he said. "People aren't prizes. Pokémon aren't prizes. You can't just steal them for your own fun and you can't get me involved!" Which sounded well thought out in his head, honestly.
He shrugged. "It's not moral to you, perhaps. I'm practically a god, so it's no problem for me to treat people as pawns. Check any religion, you'll find a passage or two about messing with your species in every one. At least I'm nice enough to only do it because I have a reason."
"So what if you have a reason?" Ash argued. "What gives you the right to do it?"
"It's a plain and simple might makes right, and, sadly, your sword is terribly outclassed by the nuclear bomb I've got in my armory." He opened his palm and turned it faced up, instantly creating a strange, black twist of matter in his hand. He then smiled again, displaying it proudly. "This is a small black hole, which I can release at any time and make swallow up your solar system, and, given time, your galaxy. These unimaginable powers give me the right."
"You said you were better than other gods because you did it for a reason. But what about everyone else you stole? They wouldn't make as good a prize." He tried again, trying to loosen up his body, make himself persuasive. He focused on Dawn when she was trying to entice a shop owner down to a lower price or, on a good day, free of charge. "Are they for a bonus round of your stupid game?"
"A game!" he cried, horrified, pushing off the wall to stand up straight and closing his hand around the black hole he had just made. "Why do people always say I'm playing games? It's an adventure, Ash. Just because I created the situation in which is occurs doesn't change that."
"Adventures don't come with prizes," he growled, "especially with your friends as a prize."
He sniffed. "Call it what you will, but-"
Shouting now: "The townspeople, the hikers! What'd you do with them if they aren't prizes?"
"It doesn't matter, you twit. For pity's sake, I ate them if you must know," he snapped. "I'm no god with infinite powers that come at no price. Actually creating things take energy. Do you know how many people I had to eat for that one black hole? Six good sized ones, and ten large pokémon. It takes quite a lot of energy to make this game as you call it! You should thank me for the work I've done for you!"
"I don't want your damn game! I don't want dead people!" he shouted back. "Go back to wherever the hell you came from, give me back my friends and leave me alone!"
He calmed quickly, though his eyes stayed narrow and his lips were pressed thin together and his voice was snippy when he spoke. "Oh, Ash, you'll hurt my feelings. I put so much thought into this. If you really don't want it I'll end it right now."
"Great." He kept his voice steady, thought his heart had suddenly stopped beating. "Do it."
"You won't get your friends back, though. They'll die. Crushed and burned and I can almost hear their little screams now." His voice changed, sounding like a crowd of people and pokémon, each chanting in their own language and tone, "Save us, Ash, save us!"
"Don't touch them!"
He ran at the thing, hand sin fists to beat at him with, but he vanished, appearing at the other side of the room, lips pulled back in a grin none too friendly now. "I already have, silly boy. What do you say we start the adventure now? We all know you're going to. You, the infinitely caring and kind Ketchum must want to save your friends. I'd lose all respect for you if you-"
"Respect for me!" he cried. "What respect do you have for me? You steal my friends and my pokémon and want to trick me into some stupid game I'll never win! You'll cheat, and then you'll eat every last one of us!"
"Calling me a cheater when you hardly knew me at all! I take offense to that. It's hard, but it's winnable. I'm not out to make you lose. In fact, I want you to win. If I set it all up just for you to fail on the first challenge I'll feel robbed." He paused, and made the offer with a touch of pity, "I want you to win, and I'll give your friends back, and then we'll part like we never met."
He glared. "My friends are all alive, right? I'm not fighting for their bodies."
"You don't eat your own kind. What prize would a corpse be?" he snorted." Of course they're alive."
"And what…" he started, then stopped. Pursuing it meant he was caving in, meant that he had lost. Though, he supposed it didn't much matter now. He wasn't sure how to get out of this one, except to compete. "What are the challenges like?"
"Hard," he hummed merrily.
"Could you be a little more specific?" he asked as patiently as he could, which was much more patiently at eighteen than he was at ten.
"A riddle to retrieve your pokémon and a physical challenge for your friends."
"Could you tell me more?" he said, gritting his teeth.
"I already told you more than enou-"
"Then how many people did you steal?"
"You're such an interrupter, how rude," he said, lip curling. "I took six of your little humans and six of your little pokémon. Twelve of your silly friends in all. I could tell you the civilians if I bothered to keep track. Let's just say it took plenty to make this challenge, so you ought to make it worth their deaths."
"You didn't even know them. You killed them all and you didn't even know them," he whispered. "You stole my friends without knowing them. You're keeping them penned up somewhere, dying, waiting for me to come and save them and…"
He waited for Ash to continue and when he didn't, chirped, "If you're done, I'd like to inform you that Misty fears bugs, Brock loves women, Gary is your rival, May is a coordinator, Max is a know-it-all, and there are simply too many words for Dawn to narrow it down to one." He laughed and clapped his hands together once. "I do know everything about them. All it takes is a glance to find it out." His green eyes fastened on him, the slits widening as they focused in. "All it takes is one little glance."
"Stop glancing then," Ash snarled, the hair on the back of his neck bristling.
He giggled. "I'm terrified of your pubescent rage."
"What did I do to-?"
"-Deserve this?" he asked, cocking his head off to one side. "Sorry, but after being interrupted so many times I think it's perfectly fair to have my turn. Not that much else is, especially when I tip the odds so ridiculously. I'm only here because you're so damned special. You showed up time and time again on my radar. I had to make you out for a spin."
"There have been other heroes better than me."
He shrugged again, beginning to pace around the room. "Oh, we'll see about that. The last big one, Bellerophon, I believe it was." He frowned slightly, trying to think back through the ages. "How many years ago? Plenty of time for you. It was when the first gym leaders were established, at least, and just before the first pokémon were bound with humans. I would know that. I had a part in all that."
He swallowed, fear making lumps in his stomach and throat. "What are you?"
"To put it shortly, I'm powerful." He said, creating another small black hole in his hand, only to crush it a moment later.
"Again, could you be a little more specific?"
"No. But I can tell you I use that power to test people. People like you, Ketchum." He walked close and poked him gently in the chest. "I've tested pokémon, humans, flor-well, you wouldn't know about the bulk of them, but let's just say all the universes have universally decided that I'm the one to deliver aptitude tests to young heroes."
"Well, you got it wrong. I'm not perfect and I never said I was. I know that I have faults and I know I'm not the best so I don't need to prove it. You don't have to test me."
"I don't have to, but it's no bother to me." He bent down, being much taller than Ash, and let his pearly white teeth, the pointed things that locked together like a zipper, shine in front of his eyes. "I love my job not matter how hard it gets."
"I'm different," he argued. "I'm from places you can't even begin to dream of, seen beasts that would make your stomach turn and others that are much more civilized than your pathetic place. At the very least, I'm always polite, which is more than can be said for you."
"I don't eat people. I don't have to be polite all the time because I don't eat people," he argued back.
"Oh, you should always mind your manners, no matter who you're dealing with." He turned and walked back to the window, leaning against the cool glass once more. "If there's one thing I've learned from being more powerful it's to never sink to their level, Ashy."
"Don't call me-"
"Sorry to interrupt again, my boy, but I'd really like to know whether or not you'd like to go on an adventure."
He sighed, dropping his head to glare at the floor. A voice in the back of his head whispered that losing that eye contact was a sign of weakness, was a sign of submitting. Still, when facing something close to a god, it didn't seem like eye contact would be the defining factor. "If it's the only way to get my friends back, I don't have a choice."
He giggled again, tracing his finger along the window. "You always have a choice."
"Would you quit the semantics? You know what I mean, you know what I want, and you know what the answer it, so just do it! Do whatever it is you're going to do!" he shouted, glaring up at him with burning eyes. "I don't want to talk to you anymore!"
"I have to hear you say it. Tell me you want to go. Come now, Ash, yes or no? Do you want to go on an adventure?"
His throat was getting tight and his eyes were starting to water, he knew. He could feel it, and he hated all those things about being a strong, smart hero that drummed through his head the weaker he became. "If I hadn't saved her, you wouldn't be here now. You would have kept going."
"That's right, Ash. That final, flashing light of stardom drew me close. That heroic act that shined so bright because it didn't really need to be done. You'd risk your life for the smallest cause, you Hercules you." He chuckled. "Do you want to go on an adventure or not?"
"Yes," he growled through his clenched teeth.
"Yes? Yes what?"
In and out, heavy breaths, with the old jingle of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star flying through the back of his mind. Nothing to do but agree. Nothing to say but agree. No point in delaying it, of course. No point in any of it at all. He should have never–
"Yes, I want to go on an adventure."
He smirked and clapped his hands a final time. "And so it goes, so it goes."
"Of course you remember, but what detail is so crucial? It's easy to forget and wouldn't matter anywhere but here. Don't look far, your pokémon Pikachu is right inside," Ash muttered off the sheet of paper he clutched tight in his hands. "Yeah, he better be. At least it didn't rhyme."
He wished he could remember how he had ended up there, but he couldn't remember anything past telling the man, whoever the weird man was, whatever the weird man was, that he would like to go on an adventure. He was pretty sure that time had passed, and that something had happened, but it slipped through his mental fingers of exactly what it had been. He gave it one more shot, flicking through the possibilities of walking, driving, flying, teleporting, and none of them ran a bell. Leaving him to shrug it off.
He focused on where he was instead. It was Oak's lab, the scene as it always was. The stairs were big and the air was sweet, though no one else was around them. He bet there wouldn't be anyone if he went looking for them. It felt real, that was for sure, but he sincerely doubted it was more than a good fake. Not even when he swore he could smell his mother's fresh baked goods from down the way. She baked like that when she was worried, and he couldn't help but feel a pang of longing for his mother, to tell her he was fine and there was no reason to bake because he was going to make it better.
It was only a tug, however, and just a few moments later he had shook it off and continued his trek up the stairs. He knocked at the door, not expecting an answer – which he didn't get – and continued in. Through the rooms up the stairs to the lab he went, to where he met his first pokémon. Nothing tricky about the lab either, however all was as he remembered it. Swinging lights above, blue tile, humming equipment lined around the edge and only a desk and a metal pillar in the center to fill up the empty space. All three pokeballs were sitting where he remembered. Once of them had to be holding Pikachu, and he had to get him out quick. He wouldn't like being trapped in there.
The one on the left was hers – the lightning bolt mark. That was clear. The other two were plain. That was a small detail, wasn't it? He grinned to himself, realizing this would be easier than he imagined. Being Ash, the thought never crossed his mind that something could be wrong, or, at least, he didn't until the pokeball's smooth, cool metal surface was in his hand. Half tinted white, half tinted red, a small yellow lightning bolt on the front. It was Pikachu's specially made. The bolt wasn't painted on, paint would wear off quick, and it could never look as good. Only a special paint, the kind they made only the factories, could have done it.
"Come out, Pikachu!" he cried, stretching his arm out and clicking the center button.
And, as per his luck that week, absolutely nothing happened.
"Of course not," he muttered to himself bringing the ball back to him. He stared at it for a moment, then put it back in its place with a nod. "That'd be too easy. It has to be something trickier. He said it'd be hard so…so…" He returned to the pokeball, lifting it up again to weigh it in his hand. "Probably…probably…"
He trailed off and sat down, glaring at the ball in his hand with outright fury. For some reason, it seemed like picking it up again should have helped. So, he tried something else he felt would help, but knew probably wouldn't: He threw it across the room with a scream, watching it hit the wall and, miraculously, opened. And then, much to his despair, no Pikachu appeared. The ball had been empty to begin with. To make it ironic, the thing was a music box, one that now played Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. He screamed again and buried his head in his hands.
"What the hell did I do? What'd I do?" he complained. "I've been at it all week! You just keep screwing with me and all my friends and we can't take it!"
He grabbed the closet thing, a desk, but the empty thing was bolted down. He couldn't throw that, no matter how hard he tried. He fell back on the floor again, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes that still stung with the tears he wasn't willing to cry. He was sure the boy would be watching. He had said he wanted it to be fun for him, that he wanted to see him do it. He wouldn't give him the satisfaction of seeing him cry. Not even if he hated himself right now.
"Give him back. Please. I'll give anything to you if you just give him back to me." His voice cracked, and he pressed against his eyes harder.
The girl was the problem, that last act of heroism. If he hadn't saved her, he wouldn't be in the horrible situation he had gotten into. None of his friends would have been snatched, he wouldn't be without Pikachu. If he had just let her go. She wasn't pretty, anyway, not cute at all. And she was a little kid too. There weren't really a lot of ugly five year olds. They were all cute around that age. She was one of the rare ugly ones. Her eyes were small and her face was pinched and she was staring, not at him, but beyond him. How thankful to her rescuer. She didn't need him and she wasn't worth it and he should have let-
"No," he whispered, kicking the bolted down desk to try and bring himself back. "I did the right thing."
Maybe he'd done the right thing. There were a lot of firemen there, after all. A the main gasoline pipeline for the town had busted, which, as they could clean it up within a couple of days, shouldn't have been a problem. Then the storm rolled in, with lightning and thunder and the works. Most people thought it was fun to begin with, the oil and the rain making everyone slip and laugh at the weird feeling of being wet and oily. He and Brock and Dawn had stopped by for the clean up too. They were enjoying themselves.
Quite a few fires started after that, and the rain didn't do much good to put them out. The clean-up crews were hosed down and told them to go to the fireproof centers set up around the city. The trio hadn't. As long as they kept on the outskirts of town, they'd be fine. There wasn't any fire anywhere else in the rocky area. They weren't the only ones to stay out either. It was hard to keep in one place with all the excitement, especially when the bulk of them were trainers and travelers who were itching to help with their high levels of adrenaline.
Where they were standing was a bridge. It wasn't a rickety old wooden bridge either. It was a good, sturdy bridge crafted from strong metal and grounded in meters of cement. It was nice and wide, and though it hung over a pretty deep cliff and some pretty dangerous white water, there was no chance of flooding or swaying or somehow sliding through the bottom. Unless you jumped, there wasn't any way off. Nobody there was planning on jumping, but somebody was going to find a way to fall. Things were never foolproof. When they built it, they just hadn't met anyone dumb enough to test the limits.
That girl, that ugly little five year old, had climbed up on it and had leaned too far. Everyone knew, everyone saw just a moment too late. A woman had already started shrieking. There was always a woman shrieking when something bad happened, he observed. His feet had already started going for her. And his heart was already pounding. Looking back, he couldn't help but wonder why his body pumping out adrenaline was so thrilling. He had saved plenty of people before, people he knew much better than this little girl, so it wasn't new. He had saved the world before, so it wasn't a challenge. It shouldn't have sent him into hero mode. It shouldn't have been so terrifyingly exciting to run out to her, to save her. That was his excuse. His first excuse of why he shouldn't have. It didn't change that he had, though.
"Pika, pikachu, where are you?" he hummed, trying to calm himself down, getting up and pacing around the lab.
The paper had said not to go too far. At least, he hoped that's what it meant and it wasn't some weird word game. He sucked at riddles. If Misty or Brock were here they could have helped him, even May or Dawn or Max would be better than him alone. And if Pikachu were there…well, he wouldn't be solving this stupid riddle. And he wouldn't feel like someone had cut off his right arm, either, or like somebody had ripped out his heart or put a bunch of nails in his stomach, or any other bad thing he could think of.
He leaned against a machine, letting his head rest against the warm metal as he glared up at the ceiling. "Pikachu was always the one with a lightning bolt on it. That was his pokeball. I remember. I clean it every day. He has to be in here. It makes sense."
He walked back to the pillar and opened the other two thoughtlessly, having no doubt he wouldn't be in either of the others. If all he had to do was open them until he found him, that wouldn't make any sense. What kind of riddle just let you guess two or three times out of two or three options until you got it right? No, riddles were tricky. Riddles couldn't be solved when you were slow. He didn't have a chance. Pikachu was a goner. Going to die. The monster upstairs was going to eat his friends. All of it was his fault, because he was too stupid to solve the first riddle.
"You said I could do this, liar. You said you wanted me to win. How the hell am I supposed to win like this?" He gave the pillar a solid kick. "You know me. You know everything. You have to know I can't do this! You know I'm not cut out to be a hero or a master or even a trainer!" he shouted, the stopped, breathing heavy in the empty room, eyes wide as he searched around.
"No. No, don't be stupid. No, you knew I could do it. You want me to get to the last level, at least. You thought I could or else you wouldn't have done all this. You don't have any reason to lie. You're really strong. You can do what you want. It makes perfect sense that you would just…"
He stopped, then laughed. "I've got to get Pikachu and talk to someone besides myself. I'm going crazy."
Of course you remember, but what detail is so crucial?
What did he remember about the lab? About getting Pikachu? Nothing, really. Nothing at all. There was nothing that was different about him that differed from all the other kids getting their pokémon. Except that he was the only one who got a Pikachu. The others got the typical starters. He didn't. He was special. He was so special that he found himself in the stupid mess and he just couldn't take-
"You're okay," he mumbled, shoving his hands under his hat to rub at his hair. "You're alright, Ash. You just have to remember and find Pikachu. Then you'll have someone to talk to and you won't be crazy."
It's easy to forget and wouldn't matter anywhere but here.
Pikachu being his mattered. Nothing would be the same if he had gotten any of the other starters. Those were important. Everything was important, if you wanted to think of the Butterfly Effect. That was the wrong was to go, probably. What else? He was late. He smiled to himself. He didn't intend to be late, this time. He had been late for other things on purpose. But what'd being late matter? Except that it got him Pikachu and not anyone else.
He had always been told to retrace his steps when he was trying to remember things. He had never done it before, since he never needed it to. He always ripped through the house or the campsite or his backpack to find things. He always found it when he did that, never any problem with it. Wouldn't work here. He couldn't rip the lab apart. Everything was bolted down or way too heavy to move. So, retracing his steps had to be worth something.
He strode outside and down the steps, bringing up the memory as best he could and, hitting a mental fast forward button, skimmed through the scene while acting it out, albeit an abridged version.
"Hey, Professor Oak," he said to the imaginary man. His made his voice higher, and squeakier, a bad attempt at a ten year old self, and put a hug smile on his face that he couldn't really remember wearing. "Yeah, I am late and I am in my pajamas. I would like a pokémon thank you. Let's head upstairs to discuss this more thoroughly." He then proceeded to walk back the way he came, all the while muttering, "I think I've already gone crazy."
Soon he was back inside the lab and, after another quick inspection of both the place and his memory, he went back to the stand where the pokeballs were held. "I'd like a bulbasaur. Oh, you don't have one? That's alright, I'll catch one in the hidden village. Charmander then. Oh, you're out of that too? It's alright. I'll get it from an abusive prick who abandons it. I'll take squirtle. Crap, that's gone? That's alright. I'll get one that's a mob boss." He rolled his eyes. "Even if that's not in order, it's close enough."
He sighed, feeling stupid though he had done much dumber things before and there was no one around to witness the stupid thing he was doing now. "Then I whined about how I really wanted a pokémon and he…he…"
His eyes widened with more hope than he really wanted to have. This seemed like a little detail too. He tapped the little button that opened the center panel, the one where Pikachu had originally been kept. There was the pokeball. With a lightning bolt on it. His hands shook with more excitement as he reached for it, closed around it and brought it close to his face. It looked real, but so had the other one. If nothing else, he should put it down and remind himself not to be so hopeful. He should remember that this probably wasn't a game he could win, and it was probably all an illusion.
He didn't. He simply shut his eyes tight, crossed his fingers, and pressed the button. He heard the sound, at least. That was enough to make his heart stop and his legs shake. Something had to be in it, but that didn't matter much. That didn't make is Pikachu. That just made it something. He half expected to open his eyes and find a piece of paper proclaiming, "Gary was here; Ash is a loser."
If it wasn't Pikachu, the stupid thing could eat him. He didn't care anymore.
"Pikapi?" he asked, his head cocking to the side at the boy who should have been hugging him tight and making him feel better after being trapped inside the cage for so long.
Ash almost felt like crying, however, opening his eyes to see the mouse staring up at him, more lovingly than he could have imagined. He leapt forward, scooping him up in his arms, while the little one stretched up to nuzzle his face. He was crying now, and he didn't care. He had Pikachu back. His pikachu. The first challenge was done and, if nothing else, he wasn't alone anymore.
"I thought I'd lost you," he whispered, hugging him tight.
The electric type huddled closer, sighing happily, and repeated, "Pikapi."
Well, I enjoyed it. It's probably better off in the hands of a competent writer, instead of someone who's only got a sarcastic voice for mildly funny comedy. It's always hard to tell how these will turn out.I never know how much to tell the reader in the first chapter to keep them interested.
If you enjoyed, let me know. If you think it sucks and I ought to fling myself off the nearest cliff for bothering to publish this, feel free to tell me that too. I'm a big girl. I can handle the criticism.
I hope you had a happy holiday!