Author Note: ^.^' I have to admit, this chapter is a little anticlimactic compared to chapter three. It's the 'Poke-corral' episode (67)


Ash Ketchum, the greatest pokémon trainer this world has known is standing, head bowed, in the middle of the stadium. The crowd is cheering wildly as he slowly lifts his head and smiles roguishly. The spotlights illuminate his face and a large television screen in the corner switches from the pokémon league logo to show a close-up of his eyes. He winks cheekily, and the pretty girls in the front row of the seats opposite him squeal and stamp their feet.

'I- I did it, I'm at the Pokémon League,' he thinks, scarcely believing it himself. 'I can finally achieve my dream, and become a pokémon Master!'

Ash Ketchum reaches inside his jacket and takes a pokéball from his belt. The people hold their breath- What pokémon will the Master decide to call out?

'Pokéball, go!'

The ball rockets forward- but then, the unthinkable happens; it flies back towards Ash like a boomerang, growing in size. It looks large enough for a person to fit. 'What? Nuuu!' Ash cries, as the pokéball pops open and begins to suck him in.

'I'm not a pokémon! No!' Ash yells, but there's nothing to grab onto, and it feels like his face is being ripped off…

'Nngh, aha… AHH! Get that off my face you crazy pokémon!'

'Mr. Mime!' the clown pokémon argued, proceeding to attack Ash's face with the vacuum cleaner again, scrubbing up and down fervently. Ash tried to protest through a mouthful of vacuum, but his cries were sucked up.

Ash finally escaped, chocking and gasping. The Mr. Mime stood over him coldly, before moving on to dusting the bookshelves. This further proved to Ash that the pokémon was trying to get rid of him. One day, Mr. Mime would achieve his goal, but how? Poisoning his food with cleaning agent? Throw him in the trash and let him be ground up into cubes then disposed of? The perfect crime. His mom wouldn't suspect Mr. Mime. Heaven forbid her 'Sweet Mimey' would do away with her only son…

Ash shuddered and shrugged on his clothing as fast as he could, mistrustfully glancing at the back of Mr. Mime's head to make sure he hadn't moved out of sight. He shuffled down the hallway and into the kitchen, smelling food.

'Oh Ash, you're awake!' his mother trilled, turning around with a sunny smile. 'I put out your plate; I thought you might be up soon,' she caught Mr. Mime's eye from the bedroom and winked. She hurried over to the table and slid some pancakes onto ash's plate, then Misty's.

'Thanks, Mrs. Ketchum, these are great,' Misty said shyly, tearing off a piece and feeding some to Togepi, who sat at the table in Ash's old baby chair. Pikachu sat opposite Togepi with a plate full of Brock's special pokémon food. Ash snuck him some pancake when Brock's back was turned. Brock had recently started giving out to Ash about his Pikachu's health and the fact that the Pokémon League was drawing ever closer.

'Did you sleep okay?'

'Sure- until Mr. Mime tried to suck my face off with the vacuum cleaner!' Ash replied vehemently, stabbing at his food. He squirted syrup until it coated his pancakes thickly and then started eating.

'You're ruining perfectly good food,' Brock said from beside the cooker. He was wearing one of Ash's mother's frilly aprons and stirring a pot of vegetable soup. 'Do you have to dump that sugary junk all over everything? What are you, a butterfree?'

'Just because you don't like sweet things doesn't mean I can't,' Ash quipped. 'Besides, I need my energy, I'm a growing boy!'

'The only thing you'll get from that is a sugar rush,' Brock sniffed. 'You'd have a better chance if you swapped breakfasts with Pikachu. Eat up quickly; we need to go see Professor Oak.'

'Oh yeah, I completely forgot!'

'Ash! That's the whole reason we came back to Pallet; to ask about the pokémon league!' Misty chided. 'You don't just share eating habits with butterfree; you have about the same memory span.'

'Ash is already getting ready for the pokémon league? I had no idea,' Mrs. Ketchum sighed. 'I do wish you called home more often Ash, how am I supposed to know whether you change your underwear or not?'

Misty and Brock sniggered. Ash blushed furiously. 'I'm sorry mom…'

'Right, if that's it then we'll go. I'll get the plates Mrs. Ketchum,' Brock said.

'Oh, that's very good of you. Thank you for making lunch, too.'

'It was no problem, I love to cook,' Brock confided, rinsing out the pot after he had poured the soup into canisters.

Ash put on his jacket and patted down his clothes. Pikachu got down from the table, small bits of pancake dotting his face. Ash slipped his fingerless gloves on and secured his belt, which held his team of pokémon. He was reminded of his dream, and wondered whether pokémon liked living in poke balls. Pikachu didn't. Maybe they should all walk beside him, always. He tried to imagine all of his pokémon chasing him around as he walked to the bathroom. He suppressed a laugh.

'Come on Ash, we're leaving!' Misty called. She already had Togepi strapped to her back and was tapping her foot impatiently. Ash jogged to the front door, waving good-bye to his mother. She stood in the doorway and waved back, giving him a thumbs up and mouthing 'I love you, Pumpkin.'

Brock and Misty were waiting outside, by the gate. Ash hurried over, wincing apologetically.

'Wow, Ash, your hometown is kind of beautiful,' Misty breathed, looking down from the hill. The sky was blushing pink and the clouds were orangey-red. The low sun was golden-orange, lighting up the patchwork of fields. Ash grinned in reply. 'Yeah,' he said, slightly embarrassed but very pleased.

They walked brusquely and arrived at Professor Oak's research lab in just over five minutes. Ash led them around the side of the building to where the house attachment was. It was virtually unchanged, Ash thought with a nostalgic sigh.

Brock rapped on the yellow door smartly and the three waited for Professor Oak to let them in. Ash scuffed his shoes on the gravel, glancing at the little crabby 'welcome' sign. It brought back memories; some good, some odd. The door swung open and they stepped inside.

'Hey Professor, remember me?' Ash asked jokingly. 'Look how tall I've grown!'

'Come in, come in, it's lovely to see' -Professor Oak skipped right over Ash- 'A togepi!'

Ash twitched.

'It just so happens that you three aren't my only visitors today,' Professor Oak went on. He took them into the sitting room, chatting about the fine weather they'd been having lately. Ash tried to listen to him, but he was instinctively wary of any surprise guests. It could mean only one person. He peered around the door cautiously.

A sullen youth with long, spiky brown hair was sitting in one of the armchairs, sipping tea. He sat forward, leaning his elbows on his knees and holding the teacup with both hands. A sliced Madeira cake was on the side table beside him. He'd taken a piece but only nibbled on it politely. He looked up when they walked in and his eyes met Ash's. His serious frown was replaced by a condescending grin, making Ash's stomach clench.

'Well now,' he leaned back in the chair and crossed his legs, 'I'm not surprised you showed up late, I'm surprised you showed up at all.' Gary Oak tucked a strand of hair behind his ear.

'Hey!' Ash glowered at Gary. He regarded the older boy with suspicion.

'Boys, please,' Professor Oak hushed, sticking his arm out to block Ash's view of Gary. He smoothed his lab coat indulgently as the tension rose. 'Can't Pallet's two top trainers get along?' he said slyly, picking up a small pokémon figurine from the mantle. He examined it for dramatic effect, waiting for his comment to sink in.

If Gary and Ash had been pokémon, they would have pricked their ears. Both boys turned to Professor Oak sharply. Ash looked startled and Gary's frown deepened. 'Top trainers?' they cried in unison, with wide eyes.

'Not him!' Ash yelped, ducking under the Professor's arm and peering at Gary despite himself. Gary caught Ash looking and winked saucily, delighting in the other's sudden unexpectedly blank expression.

Professor Oak chuckled. 'That's right. You're both such fine trainers that you'll be pokémon masters before long. You might even be able to learn from each other.'

Ash highly doubted that. The only thing someone could learn from Gary was how to be a complete and total jerk. He snuck another glance at the brunet across the table. His arms were folded over his chest and his eyes were closed. His mouth was a tight line.

The silence was interrupted by a small crabby, just under the height of the coffee table. Its legs skittered over the tiles as it scrabbled to stay upright. It had a metal tray propped on its head and balanced it with its large pincers. Tea sloshed in the clay cups, but didn't spill. It carefully lowered the tray onto the table and stood back, looking very pleased with itself.

'Recognize your crabby, Ash? It's doing very well,' Professor Oak praised. He patted the crustaceous pokémon on the head.

'Hello crabby, how're ya doing?' Ash laughed.

'That's his, huh?' Gary muttered, with some amusement, prodding the pokémon with his foot gently. It scuttled to the side, claws clicking. He snickered to himself. Ash shot him a dirty look. Gary stuck his tongue out and turned away.

'You and Gary have each collected a fine amount of badges; Gary has ten and you have eight.'

Ash grinned. 'Oh dear, Gary. Did you just stop trying after you lost in Viridian City?'

Professor Oak sipped his tea. 'Out of the four trainers that left Pallet, you two have come the farthest. It's a great achievement. You're both fine boys.'

Ash frowned. 'What happened to the other two trainers?' It had occurred to him that he hadn't seen them at all since he had left Pallet.

Professor Oak shrugged apologetically, putting his cup down. 'They got off to a good start, but they just couldn't follow through. Being a trainer gets hard sometimes and many people lose their way,' he added gently.

Ash's face was solemn. 'That's too bad,' he mumbled. There were a lot of times on his pokémon journey that he had felt it would have been easier just to go back to Pallet. If it weren't for Pikachu, Brock, Misty- where would he be now? He gripped his cup tightly, nearly spilling the warm liquid over his lap.

'Ah, they just wimped out,' Gary said. Ash took a long, hard look at his rival- seriously rethinking his previous assumptions about Gary. There had been a slight sneer in his voice. Ash's eyes flicked over him reproachfully.

Professor Oak cleared his throat. Moving swiftly on…''I'm glad you two came to see me; it's about time you entered the Pokémon League.'

'Alright! I'm on my way to becoming a Pokémon Master!' Ash stood up quickly, 'Come on Pikachu!

'Pika!'

'Oh Ah-ash,' Gary called in a sing-song voice. 'Just one question. Where's the Pokémon League?' He asked sweetly. He raised an eyebrow.

'Uhhh…' Ash was at a loss for words.

'Ash,' Misty said in a hushed tone, 'That's what we came over to find out.'

'I assume you know that the Pokémon League only meets once a year, in the exact same place,' Gary drawled. He let out a very undignified 'oomf' when Ash latched onto him, pulling their faces together.

'Where is it? When is it? You gotta tell me!' Ash blurted with all the grace of a madman, yanking on Gary's shirt plaintively. Gary's jaw went slack and his eyes were glued to Ash's nose, which was touching his own.

'The Indigo Plateau, exactly two months from today.' Professor Oak answered, tersely, peeling Ash off his grandson, 'And there will be more than two hundred trainers there. You and Gary should take this time to train hard. Two months may seem like a long time, but if you think about it more than a year has passed. It feels like only yesterday I handed you your first pokémon.'

'You don't have to worry about me, Gramps. It's little Ashy who I'm concerned about.' Gary stood up and walked lazily over to the window, regaining his composure. 'Oh, I'm not saying you're a bad trainer, Ash, but you'd never be able to beat someone like me.'

'In case you didn't remember, Gary, I have eight badges. I'm just as qualified as you.'

'True. But how many different pokémon have you caught?' Gary cocked his head. 'Or are you too embarrassed to tell me?' he bent forward with a smirk. The younger boy squirmed.

'I'm not embarrassed,' he managed, breath hitching, suddenly unable to meet Gary's probing eyes. The two seemed to be talking it in turns to make each other uncomfortable.

'Don't tell him Ash, it's none of his business,' Misty said.

Professor Oak saved the day, again. 'Very interesting!' he exclaimed loudly, to attract their attention. 'I've finished analyzing your pokédex's. The results are; Gary has seen sixty different types of pokémon, but Ash has seen over a hundred!'

Ash punched the air in triumph. 'Alright, I beat him!'

'But Gary captured many more pokémon than Ash.'

'Heh, two-hundred!' Gary bragged. 'Of course, there are only one hundred and fifty pokémon, but you can never have enough- so I have more than one of some kind. I bet all you do is use your pokédex,' he said to Ash, 'I already know loads, so I don't have to rely on my Gramps' data all the time.'

'Aha! But I bet you aren't friends with all of your pokémon,' Ash pointed out. Gary looked at him dumbly. Ash folded his arms with satisfaction. Case closed.

'Now hold on a minute,' Professor Oak stepped between them. 'You both have very different but valid ways of training your pokémon,' he insisted, running a hand through his silver-grey hair.

Ash and Gary said nothing. Surely there was only one way to train pokémon? Otherwise no one would know the best way. Although the two had different views on training, they both wanted to do what was best for their pokémon. Perhaps this was what set them apart, helping them strive for the ultimate goal; to become Masters.

Professor Oak led Misty and Brock deeper into the lab, as they still had questions for him. Ash and Gary were left alone in the living room. An awkward silence ensured. Gary was oddly quiet and seemed deep in thought. Ash exchanged a glance with Pikachu. He didn't quite know how he felt being alone with his rival.

It was Gary who broke the silence. 'Hey Ash, why don't we have a battle?' he suggested with a half-smile. 'We could both do with the extra training.' After his earlier comment (saying Ash could never beat him), Ash was taken aback.

Ash blinked and then he smiled too. 'Sure,' he agreed. 'But I don't think Professor Oak would appreciate us messing up his house.' He looked around the cramped space and began mentally rearranging the furniture.

'Not here, you idiot,' Gary sighed, rubbing his temple, 'Outside!' He swept from the room impatiently, an odd look on his face as Ash scrambled to catch up to him. They passed into the lab and went outside through one of the large glass doors. Professor Oak had created different environments especially for studying pokémon, so the grounds were split up into different terrains. Gary seemed to have a place in mind, so Ash followed him. They didn't speak.

Gary stopped walking when they reached a large field, quite far from the Centre and enclosed by trees. The grass was long, growing up to their shins. A small rectangular patch of grass in the middle had been freshly mowed, and the air smelled sweet. 'Here's good,' Gary said. Ash watched him kick off his boots and did the same. He licked his lips nervously. He planned to use Pikachu first, and show Gary what a true trainer-pokémon bond was. He knew the other thought Pikachu was a bit of a joke, and he so desperately wanted to prove Gary wrong.

Before they had a chance to take their places, there was a loud explosion. Gary wheeled around and caught sight of thick, acrid-looking smoke rising above the trees. He looked at Ash in alarm. 'It's coming from the Electric Pokémon Preserve,' he said hurriedly, picking up his boots. When Ash hesitated, he explained: 'That's where my Gramps and your friends are!'

Ash and Gary pelted towards the source of the smoke, Pikachu racing to catch up. They skidded to a halt, almost falling into a large, smoking crater. Ash pitched forward but Gary caught his hand, pulling him away from the gaping hole. Ash tightened the grip on his hand, thankfully. Professor Oak, Misty and Brock were there, but they were unharmed.

'That smoke gets in your eyes…' Jessie coughed.

'Show me the way to go home; I'm tired and I want to go to bed,' wailed her blue-haired companion, James.

'Hey, I should have known it was you!' Ash growled, recovering.

'Pi pikachuu!' Pikachu sprang to his side, lightning bolt tail raised. He crouched, ready to zap the Team Rocket goons.

'We're here for that Pikachu,' Meowth said, advancing on the electric mouse with his claws unsheathed.

'Aren't you always,' Misty huffed, planting her hands on her hips. Brock stood beside her, equally unimpressed with the sudden appearance of Team Rocket.

'It's you guys!' Gary said, in sudden realization, pointing at Meowth.

'Because you're being so rude, how about you hand over all the pokémon you have here, as well as the rat!' Jessie cackled. She dusted off her uniform and she and James sprung out of the crater, taking their poses.

'If you want them, you're going to have to go through us!' Gary took out a pokéball and he and Ash sprung forward. Jessie and James took out their own pokémon, rushing at the two boys.

Suddenly the ground began to shake. There was the sound of thundering hooves and a cloud of dust began to form. Jessie, James and Meowth paused. A herd of tauros charged through the fence of their enclosure and straight into Team Rocket, bellowing and kicking. Jessie and James clutched at each other frantically before being tossed into the air. Meowth yowled; holding onto James's left foot for dear life, and clawed his way up the man's leg.

'It looks like Team Rocket is blasting off again!' James whimpered, his eyes tearing up at the deep gashes.

'Why can't good things happen to bad people?' Jessie groaned, trying to keep her skirt from fluttering as they sailed into the sky.

'Have a nice flight!' Misty waved, making a face.

'We did it Gramps!' Gary said with satisfaction, running over to Professor Oak.

'Uh, Gary? We didn't really do anything…' Ash reminded him. 'It was the herd of tauros.'

Professor Oak climbed out of the crated with the help of Brock and Misty.

'Those were the tauros you caught in the safari zone Ash, it seems like you've saved the day.'

Ash had no problem with taking the credit. 'Really? Neat!'

'…But now there's a large hole in the fence. Since they were your pokémon you really must take responsibility.'

His face fell. ''Whaaat?'

Misty giggled. 'Yes Ash. You should clean up after your pokémon.' She winked cutely and started towards the lab.

'Hang on,' Professor Oak handed her a plank of wood. He passed a tool box to Brock. 'Friendship is about sticking together no matter what.'

'But-'

'It's okay Gramps, me and Ash have this one.' Gary walked over and took the toolbox from Brock. 'You guys go back and have lunch, don't wait up on us.'

Ash watched after Misty and Brock, sagging under the weight of the wood in his arms. He crouched down to talk to Pikachu, putting his load down. 'Why don't you go inside too, Pikachu?' he asked, 'This isn't going to be all that much fun.'

Pikachu patted Ash's cheek and scampered after the retreating figures. Ash followed him with his eyes until he was just a small yellow dot.

Gary cleared his throat. 'So, I guess we should get started,' he said, picking up a plank and dragging it over to the edge of broken fence. Ash hurried to pick up the end trailing on the ground. He cocked his head at Gary questioningly. The brunet snorted softly and fished a hammer from the box. He balanced the wood on his knee and positioned the nail. He lifted the hammer but accidentally dropped the nail, scowling.

'Let me do that.'

Gary nodded and concentrated on holding the wood straight. Ash moved in beside him and hammered the nail in place quickly. He did a second nail close to the same spot, making sure it was secure by trying to jiggle the wood up and down. It held firmly, so he bent down to put down the hammer. Gary watched him, expressionless. He couldn't keep his thoughts from straying.

They took it in turns. One held the wood and the other used the hammer to fix the planks in place. When they were nearly finished, Gary suggested that they take a break.

Ash moved away and smiled sheepishly. 'You didn't have to stay and help. Me, Brock and Misty could have done this.' He gestured to the half-finished fence, his face heating. Gary was staring at him, unblinking, with a half-lidded gaze. Ash gulped, and his stomach did another weird little flip. 'Why did you decide to help?'

Gary opened his mouth. He paused and bit his lip, as if he had been about to say something, but thought better of it. 'Just 'cause,' he said, passing Ash the hammer.

'So, I guess the next time we're going to see each other is at the Pokémon League.'

He had to listen hard to catch the words that Ash mumbled; his head was bowed and he was nibbling on his jacket collar. 'Yeah.'

'I'm not going to let my guard down 'just 'cause' you're being nice to me this one time,' Ash said, perfectly seriously.

Gary's annoyance bled into his tone. 'You just don't let anything go, do you?' he asked. 'Maybe, just this once we could pretend to be friends again.'

Now it was Ash's turn to be slightly ticked off. 'We're not friends?' he slid off of the fence and stood in front of Gary. 'I thought it was you who decided that you didn't want to be "friends". That's way we're rivals.' He took a step closer. 'You're the one that doesn't let anything go.'

Gary watched him. He watched Ash's eyebrows furrow and his nose wrinkle. He watched his brown-black eyes narrow in suspicion. 'Maybe I'm going to change from now on.' Gary picked up another plank and positioned it. 'Get the other end; I don't want to miss dinner.'