Capture the Heart
by rkOujirou

Author's note: This story is a continuation based on the Pokemon: Diamond & Pearl anime, starting from after the episode "The Battle Finale of Legend!".

Disclaimer: Pokemon is not my idea and I don't own it or any of the characters, obviously.


Chapter 4

In a rocky area near Daybreak Town, an armored, six-wheeled vehicle pulled up next to a cliff. With the job of hunting down an Electivire underway, three of Pokemon Hunter J's men exited the vehicle and lined up alongside one another, watching as their leader descended from the sky on her Salamence.

Once her Pokemon had landed, J hopped down from its back and approached her crew. "Any problems to report?" she asked.

"No, sir! Everything is going as planned!" one of the crewmen answered.

It had been two weeks since J had last spoken with Dawn. After a conversation that hadn't been much more pleasant than their previous ones, J had told the girl that she was a distraction to her work and that she wouldn't be seeing her anymore. Thus far, she had lived up to those words.

From that night onward, life was back to being strictly business for the notorious Pokemon hunter. Her body gradually recovered to the point that the damage resulting from her ship's accident at Lake Valor was no longer inhibiting her. She and her small team fulfilled a number of client requests without a great deal of trouble or interference, and with every day that passed, Dawn was less and less a part of J's thoughts. The old saying, "out of sight, out of mind," was proving to be very true.

J was definitely back in her comfort zone after putting her encounters with Dawn behind her. Yet, somehow, she couldn't help feeling that something was off. More than ever, her work felt like just that; work. The rush of excitement she used to get while performing jobs, as well as the pride she felt at being the self-proclaimed best in her business...they just weren't there recently.

However, despite her lack of enthusiasm as of late, J never let it affect her work ethic. Clients sent her job requests, and she and her team needed to fulfill them to earn their pay. That was all there was to it.

"Make sure everything is prepared and working," J ordered her men. "Once that's finished, we'll move out and search for our target."


Not far from Daybreak Town themselves, Ash, Dawn and Brock were making their second pass through the area after a brief visit to Sunyshore City.

"Man, you sure are looking at those ribbons a lot," Ash poked fun at his female traveling companion.

Next to him, Dawn's eyes sparkled as she walked with her ribbon case open, complete with her newly acquired Daybreak Town contest ribbon. "I know, but I just can't believe I'm going to compete in the Grand Festival!" she beamed happily.

Though Dawn was still pondering her last encounter with J for a few days after it happened, it was easy to get her mind off of it once the time came to make a second attempt at her fifth contest ribbon. In the Daybreak Town contest, Ursula's combination of Plusle and Minun had brought back some unpleasant memories and given Dawn all she could handle in the battle stage. In the end, though, Dawn's Pokemon duo of Mamoswine and Cyndaquil emerged victorious, earning the coordinator her fifth ribbon and a spot in the Sinnoh Grand Festival.

The group had since gone to Sunyshore City so that Ash could battle Volkner for his eighth and final badge, but a failed scheme by Team Rocket had left Volkner's gym in need of some repairs that would have to be completed before any gym battles could take place. Thus, the three of them departed Sunyshore City for the time being and began heading for Lake Valor, the site of the Grand Festival.

"That brings back memories of May when she got her fifth ribbon," Brock got a laugh out of Dawn's enthusiasm.

"Yeah, she was pretty psyched, too, wasn't she?" Ash recalled their old friend from Hoenn. "She ended up doing pretty good at the Hoenn Grand Festival."

"I bet. She was awesome when I faced her in the Wallace Cup," Dawn chimed in. "Hopefully we'll be able to do even better. Right, Piplup?"

"Piplup pip!" her Pokemon nodded its head.

"Excuse me! You there!"

Ash, Dawn and Brock came to an abrupt stop as three people, led by a woman with long, red hair, suddenly jumped out into the path in front of them.

"Whoa! Who are you guys?" a startled Ash asked them.

"Hello there!" the woman greeted them with a big smile. She was dressed in very professional looking attire, including glasses and a dark-colored jacket and skirt. "Try to contain your excitement, you three! My team and I are journalists from the greatest magazine running in the region today, 'Inside Sinnoh!' Surely you've heard of us?"

Ash looked anything but impressed as he shot a glance over at Brock. "I've...never heard of them. Have you?"

"No, never," Brock shook his head. "Have you, Dawn?"

Dawn, the only Sinnoh native amongst them, rubbed her chin as she tried to recall if she'd ever heard such a magazine mentioned. "Well, it doesn't ring a bell, to be honest."

"My goodness, you three don't pay much attention to what's happening in the world, do you?" the red-haired woman laughed at their expense. "In any case, this is a wonderful time for us! We're doing our special issue all about the Sinnoh Grand Festival, and people have absolutely been buzzing about the rookie coordinator, Dawn!"

"M-me?" Dawn stammered, clearly surprised.

"Oh, absolutely!" the woman nodded her head. "We've been doing short articles on all of the most popular coordinators entering the Grand Festival this year, and our readers would just love to see you included! Would you mind giving us a quick interview and letting us take a picture or two? It wouldn't take long."

Flattered by the journalist's sweet talk, a wide grin crossed Dawn's now blushing face. "Well...I-I guess I could, if people are that interested," she said, turning to her friends. "Is it okay, you guys?"

"Hey, it's alright with me. Go for it, Dawn," Ash urged her on.

"Yeah, don't mind us. We'll just take a little break over here," Brock said in agreement.

"Oh, no! We can't have that!" the well-dressed woman protested. "We often have trainers and coordinators pose for photos with their friends, you see. In fact, we encourage it! You two are certainly welcome to be in the pictures as well."

"Wow, really?" Dawn smiled, glad that the others could join in. "Isn't that great, guys? Let's all do this!"

"Sure, that sounds cool!" Ash replied.

Brock gave a thumbs up to show that he was on board, too. "Okay. Count me in."

"Splendid! Why don't we take the pictures first then," the woman suggested, turning her attention to her other two team members. "You two! Please prepare the scene!"

The other two, who both had cameras with them, each wore shades and were dressed in grungy, light-colored clothes. One of them had short, blue hair, while the other, a much smaller person, wore an old baseball cap. "Yes, ma'am!" they answered her together.

In a flash, the pair of cameramen set up a backdrop with a stylish "Inside Sinnoh" logo on it. Once that was finished, they then whipped up a rectangular table with a red cloth hanging over it that hung all the way down to the ground.

"Perfect!" the red-haired woman admired the props. "Now then, I think what we'll have you three do is put all of your pokeballs on the table and stand behind them for the picture. And since your Pikachu and Piplup are already out, you can just set them on the table the way they are."

"You want our pokeballs in the picture?" Ash asked, a bit unsure of the idea.

"Of course! Pokemon like to be recognized, too!" the woman explained. "It's a shame they can't all be out of their pokeballs, but I believe that would take too much of the focus away from Dawn. This way they can at least still be a part of the picture."

"Oh, I get it. Well, how 'bout it, Pikachu?" Ash glanced over at his shoulder where his Pokemon had been perched. Strangely, it was nowhere to be found. "Pikachu?"

"Looks like they're okay with it," Brock laughed, directing Ash to look toward the props.

Both standing atop the table that was just set up, Pikachu and Piplup appeared to be having a posing contest, each one trying to come up with a look that would make them stand out more than the other.

"Pika!"

"Piplup!"

"Pika pikachu!"

"Pii piplup pip!"

Ash got a chuckle out of the competition as well. "Guess that settles it," he shrugged. "C'mon, Dawn."

"I'll just be a second," Dawn told him. She seemed to be in her own world for a moment as she used her pocket mirror to fix up her hair. If she was going to have her picture taken, she wanted to look her best.

Once the featured coordinator was ready, she, Ash and Brock all set their pokeballs out on the table around Pikachu and Piplup.

"How's that?" Dawn asked the magazine representatives.

"Just perfect!" the woman said approvingly. "Now, you three go stand behind the table, please. Dawn, you'll be standing in the center."

The trainers followed the woman's instructions, each of them upbeat about the prospect of having a picture of themselves featured in a magazine. Their attitudes would change in a hurry, though. Once they were all in position, the ground beneath them suddenly gave way to a hidden trap.

A range of surprised cries rang out as everyone felt themselves falling. Ash and Brock would both drop a full 15 feet down into a pit that had opened up below, hitting hard upon impact with the bottom. Somehow, Dawn managed to hang onto the ledge of the pit with one arm, but there was no telling how long she would be able to avoid the same drop that her friends had endured.

"Wh-what is this?" Ash groaned, rubbing his backside after the fall.

Up above, Pikachu and Piplup were staring down into the pit when, without warning, the table they stood on opened up beneath their feet. Both Pokemon, as well as all of the group's pokeballs, fell right into another cleverly disguised trap.

"No! Piplup!" Dawn yelled. She shot a nasty glare at the red-haired woman. "Hey, what's going on here?"

The sound of heinous laughter echoed from above as the three journalists shed their disguises and flung the red cover off the table, unveiling a special see-through case that contained all of the Pokemon. The magazine representatives were none other than Team Rocket all along, and they'd fooled the three travelers yet again.

"What's that? Some twerps that I hear?" Jessie held her hand to her ear.

"Oh, yes! And from within our pit, I fear!" James smirked.

"Such a great success makes me wanna cheer!" Meowth exclaimed.

Jessie placed one hand against her heart and threw her other up into the air. "Digging holes truly is our bread and butter!"

Beside her, James took up a similar stance. "And this one's so deep, it makes even me shudder!"

The three Team Rocket members struck a final, symmetrical pose next to the case containing their swag.

"Jessie!"

"James!"

"Meowth, that's a name!"

"Putting the do-gooders in their place..."

"...we're Team Rocket..."

"...and we're in your face!"

Pikachu and Piplup pounded on the side of the case in an effort to break free, but to no avail. Team Rocket had learned from its failures and taken the necessary measures to make sure the Pokemon couldn't escape.

"Not you guys again," Brock grumbled.

"Team Rocket!" Ash snarled up at the criminal trio. "Give us back our Pokemon right now!"

"Right after we successfully swiped them from you? I think not!" Jessie cackled. "This plan worked out perfectly! Now you're stuck and we have every last one of your Pokemon! Too bad!"

"But Jess, look," James pointed to Dawn's hand. "The twerpette is still holding on."

Dawn hadn't fallen yet, but she was clearly struggling to hold onto the pit's ledge.

"Who cares? She ain't got no Pokemon anyway," Meowth smirked.

Jessie had to agree with their Pokemon partner in crime. "Meowth is right, just leave her. We need to get Pikachu and the others to the boss, pronto!"

"And then we'll get a handsome reward!" James joyously exclaimed.

Jessie and James each picked up one end of the case containing the Pokemon, and then they, along with Meowth, rushed away from the scene in a hurry.

"No! Get back here!" Dawn shouted at them.

Upset with himself, Ash slammed his fist against the side of the pit. "Urgh! I should have known it was them!"

"This hole is going to be tough to get out of," Brock noticed, surveying the deep trap they'd fallen victim to. "Dawn, think you can crawl out?"

"I'm...trying!" Dawn grit her teeth as she held on. With some effort, she managed to grab hold of the ledge with her other hand. "Okay, now for the tough part!"

Using every ounce of energy her muscles could muster, Dawn slowly began pulling herself up over the rim of the pit. With the first burst, she got her elbows out. Then, after catching her breath for a few seconds, she got her shoulders to the top.

"You can do it, Dawn! Keep going!" Ash encouraged her from down below.

Her willpower driving her, Dawn planted her hands and fingers firmly into the ground and pulled her entire upper body up out of the pit. After that, all that was left to complete the tiring task was to whip her legs up over the ledge and onto the grass along with the rest of her. "Whew!" she exhaled deeply once it was all over.

"Good work, Dawn!" Brock called out to her. "Now...what to do?"

"We've got to get out of here, too!" Ash said anxiously. "But how long will it take? By the time we do, Team Rocket might have gotten away."

"Yeah. This is a problem," Brock had to admit.

Up above, Dawn peeked her head over the ledge to look down at the boys. "Hey, you guys! I'm going to follow Team Rocket!"

"Huh? But Dawn-" Brock started to protest.

"They're already getting away!" Dawn interrupted him. "Someone needs to keep an eye on them and see where they go, or we might never get our Pokemon back!"

"She's right, Brock," Ash insisted.

Brock didn't like the idea of Dawn dealing with Team Rocket on her own, but their options in this situation were extremely limited. "Okay! You go find them and we'll try to get out of here on our own," he grudgingly agreed. "But be careful, Dawn! Remember, you don't have your Pokemon!"

"I know!" Dawn replied, showing she understood. "If I pass someone on the way, I'll ask them to come help you!"

With time of the essence, Dawn got to her feet and ran off in the direction she saw Team Rocket heading in, hopeful that her friends could find their own way out of the pit and join her soon. For several minutes she ran as fast as she could, looking every which way to see if she could spot Team Rocket or their Meowth-shaped balloon. So far, she wasn't having any luck.

"Come on, where are they?" she asked herself, feeling more panicked with every second that passed. "I can't lose Piplup and the others! I just can't!"

After another minute had gone by, Dawn spotted what appeared to be the edge of a cliff up ahead of her. "Oh, no! Did they go in a different direction?" she fretted, worried that she may have lost them.

Dawn came to a stop and looked down as she came upon the cliff's edge. It was a sizable drop, easily making the coordinator nervous just from thinking about it. However, there was also something that stood out down below, and it looked to be rising up into the air. "There!" she shouted, spotting the top of Team Rocket's signature balloon coming closer. "But...what do I do?"

The balloon was rising fast. If a decision was going to be made, it would need to be made very quickly, and Dawn knew it. Her heart racing all of a sudden, Dawn's wobbly legs took a couple of steps back to give her some extra room. "This is a bad idea. This is a REALLY bad idea," her voice shook with fear. "But I...I won't let them have our Pokemon no matter what!"

Summoning up all of her courage, Dawn got a running start and leaped from the cliff's edge. It was a rash decision that could have been disastrous, but luckily, she was able to land directly on top of the balloon. Unfortunately, there was also some give to the balloon when she landed, and it ended up bouncing her right back into the air. Everything would have been fine if she'd bounced straight upward, but she also veered to the side, and was now in danger of falling.

"AHHH!" Dawn shrieked. Frantic to save herself, she reached out and grabbed onto the point of the balloon's ear, which bent downward due to the extra weight applied to it. Dawn swung down and bumped into the side of the balloon, managing to keep hold of the ear portion throughout. She was safe for now, but she was still dangling off the side of the contraption with an unforgiving drop awaiting her if she let go.

"Oh gosh, this really was a bad idea! Someone help me!" Dawn cried out.

Inside the balloon's basket, Team Rocket picked up on the extra noise.

"I say, did you hear something?" James put his hand by his ear.

"I thought I did," Jessie concurred. "It sounded like the twerpette, but that can't be right."

Eager to solve the mystery, Meowth began scouring the outside of the basket for the source of the racket. Once it got a good look at the side of their balloon, the issue became clear. "Hey, guys! It is the twerpette!"

Jessie and James joined their partner at the edge of the basket and took in the sight of their freeloader. Piplup and Pikachu could see the predicament Dawn was in from within their case as well, and both looked extremely concerned for her.

"Set this thing down, now!" Dawn demanded.

James laughed at the very idea. "And why would we do that? You can't do anything to us from up there!" he reminded her. "If you let go, you'll fall to your doom!"

"Exactly! We don't have any reason to listen to you!" Jessie chimed in. "You'll just have to hold on until we decide to land. But I wonder, just how long can you last?"

Dawn was realizing more and more now just how terrible of a situation she'd gotten herself into. Not only was Team Rocket unwilling to land the balloon, but her arms were already tired from dragging herself out of their pit earlier. "I'm never letting you guys get away!" she fumed at the confident criminals, trying to ignore the burning sensation in her arms. "This is bad, but...I can't let go! I've got to hold on!"


Meanwhile, over at her team's current position, Pokemon Hunter J was growing anxious as her crew finished the final checks on their equipment.

"Preparations are complete, sir!" one of the crew members finally announced.

"It's about time," J complained after the long wait. "Let's move o-"

"W-wait just a moment!" another of the men, who was seated inside the armored vehicle, cut her off. "Sir, I think you should see this!"

Faced with yet another delay, J was finding it increasingly difficult to keep her cool. The urgency in her subordinate's voice did lead her to believe there may be a legitimate issue, though. It better have been legitimate for the man to brashly interrupt her like that, anyway. Thus, J answered the summons and stepped over to the vehicle to assess the problem.

"Look at this," the crew member directed his boss's attention to a radar screen. "There seems to be something headed this way from the west."

J could see that he was right, and she looked off toward the western sky to see if she could spot anything. Sure enough, there was something floating through the air off in the distance, but it was too far away to see what exactly it was with her own eyes. "Use our camera to zoom in on it," she ordered the man.

After setting the camera's position properly, the crewman brought its feed up on the in-vehicle screen and began zooming in on the flying object. "It looks like a balloon of some kind," he said, continuing to bring it into focus. "And it appears to be shaped like...a Meowth?"

"A Meowth balloon," J snorted, the realization of who it was putting her mind at ease. "Probably the same idiots we've run into a couple of times before. They won't be a problem."

"There's something else, too," the crewman took a closer look at the screen. "Someone seems to be hanging from the side of the balloon."

Putting her heart of ice on display, J stepped out of the vehicle, not at all interested in the unknown individual's potential danger. "That's not a concern of ours. Leave it be."

Despite his boss's disinterest, the crewman kept zooming in with the camera. "Hmm...long hair, pink skirt...it looks like it's a young girl."

Though she didn't care one bit about the situation before, J suddenly felt a lump grow in her throat. Long hair? Pink skirt? There was no way it was her, she told herself. Still, she needed to know for sure. "Move it!" she rushed back into the vehicle, nearly knocking her subordinate over as she jumped in front of the screen.

The shocked expression on J's face told the story. The camera feed was clear enough that there was no mistaking the girl's long, blue hair or her attire. It was Dawn hanging from the balloon, and she looked to be in serious trouble.

"So...what should we do, sir?" the crewman asked her.

Clenching her teeth, J slammed her right palm against the video screen and pressed down on it roughly. "This isn't my concern. I've put that naive brat behind me," she silently tried to convince herself. "I am not going to get involved with her any further! I decided that! Didn't I?"

The crew member next to J batted his eyes in confusion, unsure what to make of his commander's unusual change in demeanor. "Um...sir?"


Over on the side of Team Rocket's balloon, Dawn was reaching her physical limit. Not only was the strength in her arms about to give out, but her palms were starting to sweat, causing her to lose her grip on the balloon's ear.

"She's held on longer than I thought she would," James praised the coordinator's tenacity.

"Too long, if you ask me," Jessie retorted in annoyance. "I'm going to have Yanmega knock her off!"

"Wahh! Jess, stop! If Yanmega busts the balloon, we'll go flyin'!" Meowth tried to reason with her.

Jessie appeared as though she were just becoming aware of this fact, but she wouldn't ever admit it to her fellow Team Rocket members. "I knew that!" she barked in her defense.

Her grip on the ear now loosening to a dangerous degree, Dawn's hands slowly slid down toward the tip. "I...I can't hold on anymore! Help me!" she pleaded.

"Oh, just hurry up and fall already!" Jessie snarled at her.

Dawn inched further down, right to the very tip of the ear. She couldn't hang on any longer, and she certainly didn't have the strength to climb back up to the top of the balloon. If Team Rocket was unwilling to help her, there was simply nothing she could do. "Ash! Brock! Someone! HELP!" she cried out.

Then, despite her best efforts, the last bit of the balloon's ear slipped out of Dawn's grasp, and a horrified look came over her as she was sent on a free fall toward the ground. "AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

"Oopsie! She let go," Jessie mockingly waved down at the plummeting girl. "Bye-bye no-...huh?"

The three Team Rocket members watched in dismay as someone or something swooped in from out of nowhere and snagged Dawn right out of the air. The rescue had occurred so far below the elevation of their balloon, however, that the group couldn't get a good look at the mystery savior.

"Uh, Jess? What exactly was that?" James blinked.

Down below, Dawn could feel that her back had landed against something, but she was so shaken from the fall that she wasn't able to think clearly at first. She seemed to be alive. That was good. She didn't know how she was alive, but it was good. Maybe she'd landed on something really soft, or something like that. Now that she thought about it, though, she'd really just started falling, hadn't she? Wasn't it way too soon for her to have hit the ground?

"STUPID!" a woman's voice suddenly boomed in Dawn's ear.

Her heart nearly beating out of her chest, Dawn slowly looked over to her side, where a pair of fiery, familiar eyes were glaring down at her through a transparent headset. Not believing what she was seeing, she let out a surprised gasp. "J?"

"You're an idiot!" Pokemon Hunter J yelled at her again, holding the girl in her arms. "What were you thinking? Are you trying to get yourself killed?"

Still trying to piece things together, Dawn assessed her surroundings to try to understand what exactly had happened. There was still nothing but blue sky around her, and the wind whipping up against her seemed to indicate that she was moving. And J, of all people, was here with her. Given all of that, she had apparently been caught by J from the looks of it, and the two of them were now flying through the air aboard J's Salamence.

"You...saved me?" Dawn turned her gaze back to the woman.

J didn't know who she was more aggravated with: Dawn for getting into this predicament in the first place, or herself for giving in and coming to save her. "I can still let you drop the rest of the way if I feel like it," she was happy to point out. "What were you doing hanging onto that balloon?"

With all the panic brought about by her fall, Dawn had momentarily forgotten about the whole reason she was up there. It was because of Team Rocket, and they still had the Pokemon belonging to she and her friends.

"Oh, no!" Dawn cried out, realizing she'd lost sight of the thieves. In an effort to ascertain the position of Team Rocket's balloon again, she wrapped her arms around J's neck and pulled herself upward so that she could look over the Pokemon hunter's shoulder. Much to her relief, the Meowth-shaped balloon was still in sight. "There they are! I need to go after them!"

Dawn, intent on resuming her pursuit of Team Rocket, pulled herself away from J so that she could speak to her. That was when she noticed the woman looking...different than usual. J's often cold eyes had opened wide, and her cheeks were turning a light shade of pink. "J?" Dawn blinked.

For all the toughness she was accustomed to showing, J found herself surprisingly flustered by Dawn being so close to her. "Wh-what?" she stuttered as the girl stared at her. "I asked what you were doing up there!"

"Team Rocket stole all of our Pokemon! I was trying to get them back," Dawn anxiously explained.

"Pokemon? That's all?" J looked at her as if she didn't understand. "You could have died if I weren't here, and you put yourself at that risk just for some Pokemon?"

Dawn could see that J didn't have the same attachment to Pokemon as herself, but given J's personality, that wasn't the least bit surprising. "They're not just Pokemon, they're my friends!" Dawn corrected her. "They're irreplaceable to me, and to Ash and Brock, too! I'd do anything to save them!"

J stayed quiet as she watched the emotional girl in her arms wipe a tear from her eye.

"I don't know what I'd do if I never got to see them again," Dawn sobbed, her heart breaking just from the idea of losing her Pokemon. "I'm sorry you had to save me, but please, just put me down somewhere so I can go after them! Please!"

"You care for them that much?" J asked her.

"Of course!" Dawn emphatically answered.

J knew she had a job to get back to. For the sake of completing it in a timely manner, setting Dawn down on the ground somewhere and leaving would be beneficial to both of them. "Fine," she conceded.

Feeling jittery about their current height as J set her down on Salamence's back, Dawn quickly wrapped her arms around the base of the Pokemon's neck for stability. The last thing she wanted was to fall off and start plummeting toward the ground again.

"Hold on and try not to fall," J instructed Dawn before turning her attention to her Pokemon. "Salamence...head for that Meowth balloon!"

"Wait...what?" Dawn shrieked, not sure she was hearing J correctly. "But I thought-!"

"Quiet!" J silenced her in a hurry. "We're doing things my way now!"

Meanwhile, over in the balloon's basket, Team Rocket was swelling up with pride over how well everything had worked out for them. The "twerpette" may have been rescued, but they'd still gotten away with Pikachu and the rest of the Pokemon.

"Just us and the Pokemon. Isn't this great, James?" Jessie beamed with joy.

"Indeed! I can't remember one of our plans ever going so smoothly," James agreed. "It's true, good things do happen eventually if you work hard enough."

Meowth, currently looking out the other side of the basket, wasn't nearly as upbeat as its human brethren. "Uh, guys?" it tried to get their attention. "I hate to break the bad news, but we got incomin'!"

As Jessie and James spun around, they quickly noticed what Meowth was talking about. Coming toward them at a high rate of speed was a Salamence, and the sight of the individual standing upon its back sent chills down their spines.

"That can't be...!" James staggered backward.

"Pokemon Hunter J?" Jessie gawked in fear at the approaching woman. "Not good! This is not good! Meowth, do something!"

Meowth looked back at Jessie as if she were crazy. "Are you nuts? This thing ain't equipped to fight J!"

The Team Rocket trio cowered against the side of the basket as J and her Salamence came closer and closer. Then, once within striking distance of the balloon, Salamence pulled up and hovered nearby as it awaited orders from its master. J was quiet for the moment, but the cold leer she directed at the ones who had taken Dawn's Pokemon said plenty.

"N-now you listen here!" Jessie brashly addressed the Pokemon hunter. Her nervousness was evident in her voice as she and James clutched the case full of pokeballs. "We stole these first, you thief! They're ours!"

"That's right! These are now property of Team Rocket!" James backed up his partner. "Go steal your own Pokemon!"

Dawn, who was seated in front of where J stood, wasn't going to just keep her mouth shut and wait to see what happened here. She didn't know what was going through J's mind right now, but she wanted some assurance that the Pokemon belonging to she and her friends would be safe. "What are you going to do, J?" she asked.

At that point, Meowth would be the one to finally take notice of Dawn's presence. "Hey! What's the twerpette doin' with J?"

"What? You're right, it is the twerpette!" Jessie confirmed for herself. Putting two and two together, she realized now that J was the one who had saved Dawn from falling before. "What is this, some kind of alliance? That isn't fair!"

"Yeah! How dare you two team up against us?" James shook his fist at them.

The level of concern amongst the three Team Rocket members rose as they saw J reach into her pocket and pull out a pokeball. "Ariados! Come out!" J called upon another of her Pokemon.

Dawn jumped a bit as J's Ariados exited its pokeball and landed directly in front of her atop Salamence's head. "What's she planning?" she wondered of the woman.

Everyone would soon find out what J had in mind. Stretching her arm outward, she pointed directly at the three within the basket. "Ariados, use String Shot to take that case from them!" she commanded.

Acting as instructed, Ariados spat a string of white webbing from its mouth and out toward the balloon. With impressive accuracy, the webbing struck Team Rocket's case dead on, spreading out and sticking tightly to it upon impact. Then, yanking the webbing back with its head, Ariados pulled the case right out of Team Rocket's grasp and up into the air.

"Hey!" James reached out to grab the case again, but missed by plenty.

"No! Our loot!" Jessie whimpered.

With Pikachu, Piplup and the stash of pokeballs now flying through the air toward her, J reached up and caught the transparent case while skillfully managing to maintain her balance atop Salamence's back.

"Piplup!" Dawn immediately swiped the case out of J's hands. She was nearly weeping with relief as she got to lay eyes on her Pokemon again.

"Piplup piplup!" the small creature put its flippers against the side of the case, likewise happy to see its trainer again.

"I'm so glad you guys are okay!" Dawn smiled down at Piplup and Pikachu.

Team Rocket, on the other hand, was not okay. Not at all. Having lost the Pokemon they'd stolen, they were now facing down J again, and J wasn't looking to make friends.

"Uhh...well, you got what you wanted, so I guess we'll just leave now and you can do the same!" Jessie said with a nervous laugh.

"Y-yes! No need to do anything to us! We'll just be going quietly!" a hopeful James chimed in.

"You'll never hear from us again! We promise, lady!" Meowth swore to her.

The underhanded group huddled together closely as J stared over at them, the woman seemingly trying to decide what course of action she should take. All hope of a peaceful resolution would vanish for Team Rocket, however, when an evil smirk crossed J's face. "Salamence, Dragon Pulse!" she shouted.

With a loud growl, the winged Pokemon opened its mouth, within which a turquoise ball of energy began to form. Team Rocket's worries grew along with the energy, which expanded its mass to the size of Salamence's head. Then, with its attack fully charged, Salamence launched the energy ball straight at the balloon's basket.

Dawn had to shield her eyes from the light as Team Rocket's balloon exploded in brilliant fashion, sending all three occupants flying off into the distance.

"Oh, poo! I thought we'd finally won this time!" Jessie folded her arms across her chest.

"It was going so well, too! Why did that J have to show up?" James fumed.

Shaking its head, Meowth just threw its hands up in resignation. "It's always somethin'. We just can't win."

"And now we're blasting off again!" the three of them cried out together. And just like that, they disappeared into the distant sky.

Team Rocket was gone and the Pokemon they'd stolen were back in good hands. As for Dawn, though, she had extremely mixed feelings about her current situation. Inside the case full of Pokemon, Pikachu and Piplup were shooting J some unfriendly stares, and rightfully so. Dawn held the case close to her as she, too, gave the woman an inquiring look. "Why did you help me?" she asked.

J returned Ariados to its pokeball and put it away, but she offered no answer to Dawn's question. Frankly, she had no answer to give. Why did she help Dawn? By doing so, she'd wasted time that could have gone toward today's job. Just leaving Dawn somewhere and letting Team Rocket run off with the girl's Pokemon wouldn't have hurt her personally in any way, so why? Why?

"Daaaaawwwn!"

Hearing her name being called by someone all of a sudden, Dawn scoured the area below for the source. And there, right at the edge of the cliff she'd jumped from earlier, she spotted two figures waving their arms in the air to get her attention.

"It's Ash and Brock! Looks like they got out of that pit somehow," Dawn smiled at the sight of them. Unfortunately, there wasn't yet any reason to celebrate. Dawn was still aboard Salamence, meaning whether or not she would get back to her friends safely was entirely up to J.

Over by the cliff, Ash and Brock were well aware of just who was with Dawn at the moment, but both were absolutely clueless as to how things had ended up that way.

"This is bad. I don't know where J came from, but it looks like she was after Dawn," Brock said.

"Let her go, J!" Ash shouted at the top of his lungs. "Man, and Team Rocket's still got our Pokemon! What do we do?"

Only now did Dawn see that her friends believed she was being held captive at the moment. It didn't feel to her as if that were the case, but then again, she really had no idea what J's intentions were. "Umm..." Dawn began to speak, looking back over her shoulder at the woman, "...can y-"

"Salamence," J cut the girl off, looking to her Pokemon, "...head over to those other brats. We'll drop her off there."

Dawn's face lit up with surprise as the Pokemon she was riding took off toward the cliff where Ash and Brock were waiting. "What's going on here? First she helps get Piplup and the others back, and now she's taking us back to the guys?" she silently pondered J's unusual behavior. "This isn't like her at all. Just what is she up to?"

Ash and Brock were equally puzzled at the sight of J and Salamence coming their way.

"Hey, they're comin' over here," Ash blinked.

"Yeah, and look!" Brock pointed to the object in Dawn's lap. "Isn't that a case full of pokeballs that Dawn's carrying?"

Ash squinted his eyes to get a better look. "Hey, you're right!" he exclaimed.

With its ability to soar through the air at high speeds, Salamence reached the cliff in no time. Ash and Brock had to cover their eyes as the large creature flew right over them at a low altitude, kicking up dirt and dust from the ground around them. Salamence would bring its forward progress to a halt roughly ten feet away from the boys before descending to the grass and landing safely.

"Dawn, get away from her! Hurry!" Ash shouted as he rushed over to his friend.

"N-no, wait! It's okay!" Dawn put her free hand up to stop him.

Ash, who was ready to get physical with J if need be, skidded to a stop next to Salamence. "Huh? What do you mean?" he batted his eyes.

"Here," Dawn said, handing Ash the case with the Pokemon in it.

"Pikachu!" Ash brightened up in a hurry once he saw his best friend. "Hey, buddy! You okay?"

"Pika pi!" Pikachu greeted him. Next to it, Piplup was getting pushed up against the side of the case and wasn't too thrilled about it, but it was at least glad to be on the ground again.

Brock stepped up beside Ash, taking a long look at both his female traveling mate and J. "Dawn, what happened?" he asked.

Still seated atop Salamence, Dawn glanced back over her shoulder again at the one who'd saved her. "It was J," she replied. "She...helped me get the Pokemon back from Team Rocket."

"She...she what?" Ash nearly fell over, not believing what he was hearing.

Brock could hardly believe it himself, but he didn't know why Dawn would lie about such a thing. "I see," he said, accepting Dawn's account of what had gone down for now. "Well, I guess we owe you our thanks for once, J."

"I don't need your thanks!" J snapped back at him, startling the former gym leader.

Dawn froze up as J abruptly turned her attention back to her. The sharp stare now coming at her through the woman's headset was unnerving. "What's with that look?" Dawn wondered, feeling her heart rate start to rise again. "I don't understand, J. Why would you do all this?"

Brock, too, noticed the strange look J was giving his friend. The Pokemon hunter may have helped them out for a change, but there was no telling what she might do next. Just to play it safe, Brock figured it was probably best to get Dawn away from J as quickly as possible. "Dawn, we should probably get going," he insisted.

"Uh...yeah," Dawn uttered in reply, forcing herself to look away from J. She lifted her right leg over Salamence's back so that she could hop down, but then, suddenly, she felt something grab onto her right arm. That something was J's strong, gloved hand, and it was preventing Dawn from dismounting the winged Pokemon. "J? Wh-what is it?"

Something brewing in her mind, J glanced over at Ash and Brock, then quickly looked back to her Pokemon. "Salamence, let's go!" she commanded.

"Wha-...hey!" Dawn shrieked. Following its master's orders, Salamence flapped its wings and rose up into the air again with both J and Dawn atop its back.

"No, Dawn!" Brock shouted.

"Dawn! Come back here, J!" Ash snarled at the Pokemon hunter.

J had no intention of coming back just yet, though. Ignoring the voices of the boys below, she and Salamence whisked back up into the sky along with their unwilling passenger.

"Darn it, I knew we couldn't trust her!" Ash fumed, now frantically trying to open up the case full of Pokemon to retrieve his Staraptor's pokeball. "Urgh! How do you open this thing?"

Ironically, Brock found himself in a position similar to what Dawn had been in earlier. Ash's Staraptor would certainly be able to follow J and Salamence, but they'd lose them if they weren't able to get the case open in time.

"Ash, you keep trying to get that case open! I'll follow them from the ground so we don't lose them!" Brock instructed his friend.

Ash understood completely. "Right! Don't let them get away, Brock!" he told him.

With Ash doing all he could to pry the case open, Brock took off running to try to keep pace with Salamence from below.

Elsewhere, now high up in the sky, Dawn was holding onto Salamence for dear life as the wind whipped through her hair. She was so relieved when she'd finally reached ground again after her ordeal with Team Rocket, and yet now she found herself airborne once more thanks to the actions of J. Upset, to say the least, she spun her head around and shot the silver-haired woman a sour look. "Why wouldn't you let me off? What are you going to do with me?" Dawn questioned her.

"Relax," J calmly replied. "I'll take you back down in a minute. I just wanted to talk to you."

"What? Why didn't you just ask me, then? Now Ash and Brock think you're kidnapping me!" Dawn chided her.

J looked upon Dawn with a stoic expression, not caring at all about how the girl's friends felt. "Would you have agreed to come with me if I'd asked?" she inquired.

Dawn didn't have to answer that. She and J both knew that "no" would be the likely response.

"Never mind that," J said, facing forward to take in the sight of the sky ahead of them. "Look around us."

Dawn wasn't sure what exactly J wanted her to see, but regardless, she did as she was asked and surveyed the scenery. She hadn't noticed it earlier since she was preoccupied with hanging onto Team Rocket's balloon and getting her Pokemon back from them, but from this elevation, the vast sky was quite a sight to witness. A few stray clouds were moving about in an otherwise endless sea of blue. Maybe the only thing more impressive was just how much of the land was visible from this position. Trees looked like small dots from this far above, and all of the different patterns on the ground simply couldn't be seen without flying this high above them.

"What do you feel when you're up here?" J asked the girl.

"What do I...feel?" Dawn repeated the question, taking another quick look around as she tried to come up with an answer. "Well...it's beautiful, but...it makes me feel nervous being up so high, I guess."

"Nervous? Mmm, I suppose that's only natural."

"What do you feel then?"

Posed with that question, J slowly closed her eyes, taking in the feeling of the wind brushing against her for a moment. "I feel free."

"Free?" Dawn blinked.

"No restrictions, no limitations. I can go anywhere and do anything I please," J explained her answer. "That's just how I've always wanted to live my life. I hate rules and laws, so I choose not to obey them. Without things like that, there's nothing that can hold me back from living the way I desire."

Dawn could see where J was coming from, but that desire for freedom still didn't excuse the woman's choice of profession in her mind. "Living freely is fine, but you shouldn't do it at the expense of innocent Pokemon," Dawn gave her an accusing look.

"We've been through this before," J sighed under her breath. "My profession is my way of survival, and nothing is going to change that. I am what I am."

J's reluctance to change her ways came as no surprise to Dawn, but it did still sadden her. Normally, if someone had saved her life and helped get her Pokemon back from thieves, Dawn would have been extremely grateful and gotten along well with that person. When that someone was Sinnoh's most renowned Pokemon hunter, however, it was just too much to try to look past, plain and simple.

"Salamence, head down to the ground. We're dropping her off," J instructed her Pokemon.

The two passengers were quiet as Salamence gradually descended and then landed on the rocky terrain once more.

*zip!*

Thinking she'd heard the sound of one of her backpack's zippers, Dawn quickly spun around. "Hey! Did you take something?" she eyed J closely.

"What would I possibly want with your belongings?" J asked her. She felt like shaking her head at the girl's ridiculousness, but refrained. "One of the compartments was unzipped, so I closed it. It would be a nuisance to you if you lost something, wouldn't it?"

"Oh...yeah," Dawn replied, not giving it too much thought. She hopped down from Salamence's back, and this time no one stopped her. She was on land again, at last.

"Do you hate me?" J asked the girl all of a sudden.

Caught off guard by the unexpected question, Dawn shied away from the woman's gaze. "I...I don't hate you," she answered her. "I just wish you didn't hunt Pokemon."

J seemed to be satisfied with that as she silently watched Dawn start to walk away.

But, after a few steps, Dawn stopped and slowly turned around. "Thank you. For saving me," she said, again avoiding direct eye contact with J. "And...that little girl you saved was right. You do look kind of cool."

Dawn had said what she wanted to say. Eager to get back to her friends, she left J behind and ran off to look for Ash and Brock without another word.

Salamence was waiting for its master's next order, but J was in no hurry to go at the moment.

"Dawn," J held out her right hand, her palm facing the girl's vanishing image. "She has no monetary value. She's nothing but a hindrance to my work. I gain nothing from being around her. And yet," she slowly closed her hand in front of her, "...why is it that I don't want her to leave?"

*beep beep! beep beep!*

A beeping noise emanating from J's headset indicated that there was a transmission coming in from her crew. With Dawn now having left, J pressed a button on the left side of the device to establish contact. "What is it?"

"Sir, are you okay?" one of her subordinates asked.

"I'm fine," J told him. "The problem has been taken care of. I'm returning now, so be ready to move out."

Their work calling for them, J and Salamence finally took to the sky and departed to hunt down the Electivire they'd come to capture.

After J had left, Brock, who had gone unnoticed the entire time, stepped out from behind a boulder not far from where Dawn was dropped off just now. Having both seen and heard everything that had transpired, he folded his arms, quietly pondering to himself just what might be going on between his friend and the ruthless Pokemon hunter.

"Hmm..."


End of Chapter 4