Disclaimer: I do not own Pokémon.

This story contains foul language, drugs and alcohol, violence, sexual situations, and crude humor. This fic contains a large cast; both canon characters and OCs. Also, I am not accepting plot or character submissions. I update whenever I can manage to, which is rarely. I am a piss-poor editor, and I don't really need anyone to tell me so but reviews, both positive and negative, are welcome.

Chapter Summary: What became of the would-be champion, Ash Ketchum? Misty and the Pallet Town Search and Rescue Coalition still don't have an answer even after three months of rabid searching. After an all-day runaround, she finds herself spending the night at a rest-stop near Ilex Forest.


Chapter I

"Keep My Heart Alive"

"A task such as that, carves us into what we must become, to see it through. You must be ready for the journey to cut away what is no longer required."

"There's nothing left to take away, honestly." Misty shrugged. "I don't have anything left that anyone can take from me."

"I can easily see this journey has taken a lot out of you," The old man acknowledged, nodding his head slightly. Misty did not respond in kind; only lowered her shoulders and tried her best to look unphased. She did not like to think that she looked tired or worn out, for the simple fact that deep down, much like her sisters, she did have a certain pride in her appearance. Also, she did not care too much for the implications, seeing as how since the departure of the remainder of her search-party had left her a lone investigator in Ash's disappearance, she preferred to keep her recollection of events on a day-by-day basis. She found it easier to take the unknown day ahead without the context of a hundred fruitless ones before it.

"Perhaps you should offer up prayer to Arceus," The man suggested, lifting a hand from his knee and offering it up conjecturally.

"Would it help?" Misty asked, trying not to sound overly cynical. She wasn't the religious sort, though she did find a certain beauty in it; it just didn't seem very practical. She did not want to seem rude, however.

"Would it hurt?" The man countered very gently, taking no offense it seemed. "You've already decided to stay until sunrise, correct? If so, then it's no time lost. Just stop at the shrine at Ilex on your way, and offer up a small prayer for him."

She shook her head. "I don't really know how. I've never done it before."

"It doesn't matter." The man shook his head this time. "If you speak from your heart, Arceus will hear you."

Misty pulled her lips together resolutely. "If you think it will help."

He only shrugged, however. "I can't say one way or another." He swiveled to a three-point stance from his seated position. "But it cannot hurt."

He gestured to the sleeping pallet on the floor at the far end of the room, before folding up the sleeves of his long, traditional garb, and tucking off a quick bow. "Many trainers from New Bark stop here to stay the night, when the weather is bad, so we are always prepared to accommodate a guest or two. Please have a restful night's sleep. I wish you luck on your journey."

Misty nodded and said nothing, rolling her backpack off her shoulder as the old man crept away. She dug around for her Pokegear, and flipped it open. There were seven unread text-messages.

Brock 7:15- Nothing today. Sorry guys.
Gary 7:46- No leads.
May 8:11- nothing srry T_T
Mrs. K 8:30 FWD: no word from silver yet but lets keep doing our best everyone!
Paul 8:35 – Followed a lead in the Sevii islands that turned out to be someone who'd seen Richie. AGAIN. Huge waste of time for that idiot to be searching too!
Dawn 9:10 – hey
Dawn 9:15 – hey what ru doin right now?

She looked at the digital clock. It was 9:45. She rotated the 'gear in her hands and flipped it open, tapping out a check-in, as was routine, before sending Dawn a reply.

New message: All Contacts
Still nothing.

Reply: Dawn
I'm near Ilex, getting ready to call it a day. Still up?

She gathered her backpack and made her way over to the bedroll, before setting it down and digging out her nightclothes. She had only managed to stomp the heel of one sneaker off before she felt the silent ringer go off in her hand. She flipped the device open again.

Dawn 9:49 - yep. just wondering if u were okay. u usually check nb4 now.

She worked her thumbs briefly as she smashed the other shoe off with the tips of her toes.

Reply: Dawn

I'm ok. I just got caught up in a bum lead. I have a question to ask everybody though.

She tossed the phone down and climbed under the covers, going about the laborious process of changing beneath the spartan concealment offered by the bed linen as she stripped down out of her day-clothes, and into the more comfortable sleeping garments. When she was finished she flipped open her gear again, set her alarm for 6:45AM, set her ringer for 'alarm only' and prepared her last message of the night.

New Message: Picture Message: All Contacts.

I want to make a prayer at the Ilex shrine tomorrow on my way through. The man who runs the rest-stop between Ilex and Route 34 told me I should just speak from my heart. But I think it would be better if it wasn't just me. Just send me a message with what you want me to say, and I'll say it. Or send me an audio message, and I'll play it while I'm there.

Attach: pictureashxmas011

It was the best candid picture she had of Ash. She'd taken it at Christmas time. It was him opening the gift she'd given: a Friend Ball. He didn't quite have all the wrapping paper off of it yet, but it was easy to see that there was a huge grin creeping onto his face. His mother's gift, a new set of three matching pairs of underwear, was covertly placed behind him.

It was just a simple thing, really, and she guessed that if what had happened to him had not happened this picture would not have nearly the same significance. It seemed far more important now than any picture that had been taken of him during his Orange Island defense or his rise to the top in the Indigo League Finals. Just to see him look so natural. Relaxed. She knew this was the case because there were two people whom she knew would be compelled to cry at least a little bit when she send the picture out.

As she gently wiped the moisture from her own eyes and turned off the ringer on her 'gear, she wondered briefly if Deliah was struggling as much as she was, in spite of her optimistic tone. The fatigue of the day caught up with her, and put her to sleep before she could roll the thought about too much.

The sensation of her 'gear vibrating in her hand brought her to, and within just a few moments, she had worked herself into an upright position. She ran a hand over her face, that hadn't seen makeup or honestly, anything more than a handful of brisk washes in the past week. She just didn't have time. She reached up and took hold of her ponytail, jerking two separate tufts of it in opposite directions, tightening her hair down sloppily against her skull.

She looked around and made sure that her things were in order, but she refrained from checking her phone. When she'd affirmed that everything was, in fact, in its place, she set again about redressing herself, her movements uncomfortably restricted within the pallet. She slipped out when she was done, and rolled her nightclothes up and stuffed them back into her bag. Stepping into her shoes, she shouldered her pack and took one small stretch, before silently departing.

It was still twilight outside, given that it had become somewhat late in the year. It was quiet too, which she found a mixed blessing. She'd grown quite comfortable with solitude since her group had split up. Being by herself didn't bother her, at least not if it meant she was free of Paul's constant, self-righteous complaining and Gary's overtly placid demeanor, even if it was only because she found it so disruptive to her own high-strung nature. On the flip side of the coin, there was the fact that she felt, perhaps for the first time in her life, even after having spent most of her formative years in an effort to evade her sisters and gain independence, truly alone.

It was true that she'd played more than her fair part in the dissolution of her group, one of only four such like it, but she did not see any reason to rebuild those burned down bridges now. Not until they'd found him, at least. Then, slowly, she would work on making things normal again. She'd worry about apologies and confessions and all those other things, then. She'd worry about gearing up to tell Ash what she'd meant to tell him a long time ago, when she saw his face again. She'd worry about making amends with everyone whom she'd stepped on over the past eight weeks, when he was back home. She'd worry about being civil again, when she felt like she had a good enough reason to be. For right now...

She shook her head. The worst part about being alone was that it left your mind idle. She was shouldering a burden that just kept getting heavier and heavier as she discarded more and more in the pursuit of empty leads. She'd stretched her league contacts to their absolute thinnest. She'd pestered every trainer, every coordinator, and every gym leader she could get in contact with on an almost daily basis. She'd even deigned to send word to Cynthia, who'd promised her she would do everything she could, much to Misty's surprise. But there was a price to pay for forwardness. For being so direct and so uncompromisingly thorough. She'd rubbed a lot of people the wrong way and out and out clashed with some. Paul was not the largest of these, either. She doubted that a few of the Kanto gym leaders would ever speak to her again, and her direct confrontation of Lorelei, a woman whom she had long idolized, had done very little but drag her once illustrious reputation as one of the strongest Kanto gym leaders through the mud.

But Misty did not have time for guilt. Nor regret. Nor manners, it seemed, save where it had very little to do with Ash. It was a waste of effort that could be used elsewhere, as far as she was concerned. Still, when she was alone, the old her, the one beneath the serious veneer, the one who was still mourning over this hideous tragedy seemed to seep through the cracks and remind her that she was not quite so invulnerable and uncompromising as she thought.

She heaved a sigh and shoved a stick of chewing gum into her mouth. A substitute for a tooth-brush until she found a place to clean up. The forest was looming out ahead and not far past that would be the Shrine at Ilex, where she would make her prayer and hopefully the prayers of the others, as well.

She flipped out her 'gear and checked her message in-box. Five text messages and two multimedia messages. She read them as she walked.

May 10:14 – we all miss him. me & drew & solidad & everybody. just pray that he comes home soon for us k?

Gary 10:41 – Nothing that you weren't already gonna pray for. Just do it twice, for me.

Dawn 10:54 – guide everyone out looking for him in the right direction and keep them safe.

Richie 11:03 – say a prayer for his parents. I saw his dad blubbering the other day, while we were setting up camp. 0_0'

Richie 11:15 – My son doesn't need any prayers! He's tough! And I WASN'T blubbering! I had something in my eye!

She smiled a bit. It was terribly easy to see where Ash got...well, almost everything about him.

When she'd finished glancing through the messages she'd made it to the tree line of Ilex Forest, and she could see, not too far in, the humble wooden structure of the shrine. She folded her hands up, and exhaled as she approached. The trail through Ilex was well worn by the most recent migration of junior trainers, but she tried to remain respectful to the intentions of the thing.

The shrine itself she'd seen once before, it's stained wood and weathered paper charms gave it a look of age that rivaled some of the oldest structures in Kanto. The shrine itself being only about as tall as she was and not much wider, she was very thankful that she was the only one to have come to offer up prayer this morning.

She paused and thought for a moment, on how best to go about it. It was not something she was terribly used to, after all. In fact, she didn't recall at the moment whether or not she had ever actually said a prayer in her life. Now was just as good a time as any to go for it, she supposed. She felt a little silly as she clapped her hands together and bowed her head, like maybe she was being too theatrical, but she forced the thought from her mind.

Would she talk to Arceus? Would she talk to Ash? She wasn't sure what was appropriate. If just talking to Ash was what she intended, how would this be any different from what she caught herself doing on the road, in moments of weakness where she cursed Ash for dragging them all over the place?

She decided it would be best if she just spoke to no one in particular and just pretended to be speaking to the shrine itself. She cleared her throat.

"Please watch over everyone who's out looking for Ash. Keep them on the right track, and keep him safe until one of us can get to him. Keep his parents together, and look after them as well," she said, still failing to grasp at what she really wanted to say personally, deciding to get the group sentiment out of the way first. Nodding, she felt that she'd neatly summarized the thoughts they all wished to extend and so, raised her head.

She palmed her 'gear and opened the first multimedia message, which was from Ash's mother. She'd let this play through first. The display showed Delia seated plainly in the Ketchum residence. She looked tired, but comforted somewhat by the opportunity to offer up her thoughts. Like her, Ash's mother folded her hands, and Misty once more bowed her head a bit in respect, as she revolved the 'gear to face the shrine.

"Arceus, hear my prayer: See my baby home to his mother, and see that all those in search of him receive the guidance they need. I just ask that you reach out into the hearts of those who've been wounded by these recent events, Arceus, and keep them strong and brave. Watch over Paul and Tracey out past Cinnabar. Watch over Gary and Max in Sinnoh. Watch over Richie and my husband out in the Orange Islands. Watch over Brock and Dawn in Hoenn. Watch over May and Drew and Solidad here in Kanto. Watch over Misty, who's traveling alone in Johto, especially, Arceus. She's been wounded most of all, and she needs you the most. Fill her with the strength she needs to see this search through to the end. Please, most of all help them find my Ash and bring him home!" There was a brief pause, and slow exhale and then, "Amen."

Misty swallowed hard, and repeated the final word, before turning the 'gear around. She didn't exactly care for being called out but there was no sense in denying the truth. She had behaved pretty monstrously over the past three months and offered up no excuses for it. Still, it somehow bothered her more when she was identified as a victim, as opposed to an antagonist, or someone who was simply obsessed.

The next one was from Brock, who had certainly been the least of her detractors, if to say nothing else. She let it play. Brock sat huddled in a sleeping bag and looked just as tired as Ash's mother had. The fatigue of an all-day walk seemed to hang heavier than it ever had before, something she could attest to.

"Hey, uh. I'm not so good at this, and it's not really for anyone but...I guess, Ash, to hear so, uh... Could you cover your ears, Misty?" he asked his question obviously rhetorical in nature; there was an intentional pause in the recording. She stopped the video message compliantly.

She'd just set it down on the pedestal and walk away for a bit. The whole slab seemed to be pretty well covered in early morning condensation, though, and she didn't care too much for the idea of setting her pokegear in it. She glanced around briefly and found a discarded page of newspaper in the grass nearby. She folded it, laid it atop the pedestal, pushed play on the 'gear and then compliantly stepped out of earshot. She wondered what it was that Brock would be saying. She didn't dare eavesdrop, though. Something Erika had told her several months ago, before this whole mess had gotten started (something that had stuck with her, even if at the time she had told the grass-type trainer off for it) came to mind. Whatever it was, it was between them.

She gave it what she believed was an acceptable amount of time and then stepped back to retrieve her 'gear. Brock's tired, tearful voice stopped her dead in her tracks, though. At almost five minutes in, Brock was still pouring his heart out. She honestly hadn't had any intention of overhearing Brock's message, but it was too late, now.

"-just don't know what any of us are gonna do, if you don't come home soon. Everything's turned on its ear. It was bad enough when you decided to go train solo, but now," he moaned, betraying a side of himself that Misty would never have expected. "Now everyone's just falling apart. Your parents are losing their minds. Gary's just about as unbuttoned as I've ever seen him. Dawn and I are pretty much spending half the day keeping the other one from breaking down. Misty. Arceus, Misty's just grinding herself down to the bone. The last time I saw her she was just...I dunno. Barely there. She was just like, a machine. This has been really hard on her. So just, come home. Don't make this any harder. Come out all right, just like you always do, okay? Tell us all how silly we were to worry about you. But just, please: don't be dead."

Misty closed her eyes, and sealed her lips together tightly, wishing she hadn't heard that. She felt her heart tremble in her chest for a moment as it always did, and then harden over; sealing off a wave of emotion that she'd keep crushed and compacted away with a few hundred just like it. When she'd release it all, she didn't know, but now wasn't the time.

"Look, I gotta go. Misty's probably listening in by now. You know how she hates to be left out of the loop. Just remember what I said, okay? We'll see you soon!"

The image disappeared and she slapped the gear shut, and left it where it lie. She took a breath and tried to collect her own thoughts, as she took great effort to dismiss what she'd accidentally heard. The unintentional dig, everything. It took a long moment, but eventually she was able to collect herself enough to speak. She was ready to say her prayer, now.

"I won't quit," she whispered quietly.

"I don't know where to find him. I can't seem to find anyone who DOES know. I'm throwing everything I have at this and it's getting me nowhere. But I'll keep doing it." She, stopped briefly and considered the word she wanted to use, very carefully. "I just have to... succeed. No matter what. I can't let this go. I can't let it all end like this. I'll do anything. It just has to work." She let the syllables go slowly, so as not to upset herself.

"Just show me a way," she asked. "That's the only thing I have to ask for."

Minutes passed in silence, as her shadow lengthened up the side of the shrine.

"Please just show me a way," she moaned as her voice cracked. "Just show me how!"

The silence of the forest was all there was, however.

"Give me something to go on," she cried out. "I'll take anything!

"Just show me how to find him!" she bellowed. She knew it was foolish to get angry. Foolish even to have put faith at all into something like this. It wasn't honestly, that she felt betrayed. It was just that she was so frustrated, and had no idea what else to do. She stood and cried pitifully into her palms for just a few minutes, until she felt able to rein her runaway emotions in, and squash them again, with the hard flat palm of overriding purpose.

She sniffed hard and rubbed her eyes with her wrist, before gathering up her gear and turning to leave. Azalea Town was a long walk from here. No sense in wasting any more of her time.

As she picked it up, though, for whatever reason, her eyes were drawn to the newspaper beneath it. A headline read 'Two Men at Large for Half a Year, Found.'

Both her hands flew to the page, pulling it tightly between two clenched fists. 'Two men suspected to be involved with the thought-to-be collapsed Isshu crime syndicate 'Team Nebula' were arrested today on charges of illicit trafficking and sales, after having eluded Kanto authorities for nearly six months on similar but separate charges,' it said. 'An unnamed International Police official declined comment, citing ongoing internal investigations as the cause of the delay between charge and arrest, but offering no official explanation as to what exactly that meant. The two men, going by the aliases 'Doc' and 'Holiday' were not available for questioning.'

Unable to think of anything else to do, she crushed the paper in her hands and screamed as loud as she could.


16 Months Earlier

Realgam Tower was a marvel of modern architecture. Relying on stabilizing field generators to even stay upright, the obtuse spire seemed a perfect display of human ego. As if to defy all previously established restraints, it thrust upward from the desert region like a spear, testingly poised at the face of the heavens. He'd heard that they'd developed a few minor plans for expansion, just before the takeover but that they were laid to rest by various uncanny weather setbacks and unfortunate accidents; as if Orre herself had said in reply to their continued hubris: "You shall go this far and no further."

The ring-structure and floating coliseum on its upper mezzanine had struck him as impressive when he'd first seen it, of course, but if you stripped away the Cipher technology and the dramatic Team Snagem design credo, you'd see it for what it really was: A dead giant, being hollowed out from the inside by a plague wrought of its own foolhardy avarice. The contents no longer belonged to either, of course, so it seemed a matter of some small importance. His organization had crushed the syndicate presence in Orre in only a matter of a few short months, at the height of their weakness following several concurrent arrests and outside investigations made by what seemed to be agents in the service of the Pyrite Police Department.

From all they had been able to dig up, these events were ostensibly unrelated and perpetrated by an Ex-Snagem thug, supposedly bent on revenge, while the other was reportedly by a young trainer in the employ of a Professor Krane. With both Cipher and Snagem already leaderless and in shambles, it had taken only an academic measure of force to actually seize the materials and assets of both, along with requisitioning the legal authority to do so, for the sake of public appearance; something which was his specialty.

Adjusting the collar of this tightly-cut suit, Kazuo, the leader of Team Nebula and the tower's new owner, looked away from his assumed office's vista window and back to the confiscated reports on his desk. All the design specifications for this 'Snag-'Em Machine' from prototype to the most advanced working models, which had been earmarked as stolen, missing, or dismantled were present. There were also technical reports on 'Shadow Pokémon XD001' made by a researcher named Ein, whom, he was certain, would be rounded up and questioned very thoroughly on the matter, at the first possible opportunity.

However, there were other things that needed to happen first. The pet projects of Cipher were interesting indeed and would be looked into with all due fervor, certainly. Yet the interests of his organization, like all of the other Syndicates throughout the world, dictated a very specific agenda that would suffer no others to take precedent. He would have to see to them first, naturally.

A small electronic chime echoed in the recently emptied executive office. He reached past the stacked files and personal belongings, to a touch-sensitive area labeled 'intercom' in the far corner of the display panel built into his assumed desk. The electronic interface 'button' dilated under his fingertip and gave off a stylized ripple, as though it were sending out a signal. He rolled his eyes. Another example of Cipher's needless excess.

"Come in," he said evenly.

Most syndicated organizations had certain precepts of style; something he'd honestly never bought into as a matter of necessity. Team Rocket had their unhealthy obsession with slapping a giant red 'R' on everything they owned. Team Aqua and Magma had their silly head-gear. Snagem had the whole ritualistic baldness and ripped-sleeves get-up. It was something that his organization lacked. That sort of thing, he'd always argued, made you easily identifiable and thus a huge liability, as he much preferred to work outside the public eye. It was easier if brothers were only known to other brothers, so to speak. Not to mention, he found the whole thing sort of obnoxious. However, that was not to say that all in his employ were masters of the incognito.

The man, who walked through the mechanized door, dragging a comb through his greased up hair, was in his element and that much was certain. He almost wanted to slap a hand across his face in total dismay but refrained, knowing it would only further encourage such dramatics. This was the first time he'd seen the man face to face, though technically, he'd been in his employ for quite some time. He took a moment to absorb the display.

He looked rather regal in a way and in another, he was a complete mess. Everything about him was so carelessly thrown together as to suggest this young man literally cared nothing for outward appearances and even less for anyone who would look upon him; yet every stitch of clothing was expensive looking and cut from rich, gaudy materials designed to forcefully arrest the notice of any passerby. Tinted designer glasses with swept-away horned rims were folded casually and thrust without concern for damage into a tiny breast pocket of an eye-catchingly pink bolero-cut jacket that looked to be custom-made, though most likely for a woman. A black shuckle-neck sweatshirt underneath it was pushed up to his elbows and did very little to make him look sensible. His belt was slung casually on his hip, looped through only about half of the retainers on his white skinny-jeans. He strode in a dipping, overly casual gait, dragging scuffed sneakers that were probably quite expensive when they were new. White satin-gloved hands crossed neatly into the crux of his arms, as he came to a wide-legged stop.

Kazuo let his gaze wander back up to his administrator's eyes. A silvery sort of blue that suggested a sharpness entirely out of place on him, sandwiched between the outrageous dress and a slicked-back pompadour. He wondered if those eyes had been surveying him in kind, while he'd sat staring. With him, he supposed that anything was possible.

"Holiday," he acknowledged, letting the man know that he could be at ease, which would have been necessary, he supposed, if he had displayed any sort of decorum whatsoever.

"Boss," Holiday responded, whilst glancing about with alacrity, before letting his gaze fall on the table where something seemed to give him pause. Kazuo noted a rather expressive face; Holiday arched a brow almost comically high and clicked his tongue against the inside of his mouth with a grimace.

"Boss, you told me this was a syndicate outfit." The administrator uncrossed his arms and assumed a rather irritated posture, much to his surprise. "The fuck is all this?" he asked, pointing markedly at a set of items that he'd hastily arranged on the desk this morning. Kazuo looked down at them. A mug that had some personal value, filled with a few pens he'd collected over time and a small novelty toy, a Newton's Cradle, specifically. Leftovers from his old office in the Isshu HQ overseas that he'd brought just out of a force of habit.

He narrowed his eyes, as he looked back up at Holiday. "They're my old things."

The new administrator was already smirking, doubled slightly with the labor of holding down a laugh, when he came back into view. "That's pretty sentimental of you, Boss."

Kazuo blinked, his ire turning slowly to wonder. He wasn't positive he'd just been read but if he had, it was certainly his own fault. He smiled very slowly in return and unfolded his hands from where they'd been threaded together before him in the beginnings of professional anger and spread them out more comfortably. Even if Holiday wasn't everything he seemed, he was certainly interesting. "Is everything acceptable?" he asked, generalizing a great deal.

"Honestly, I'm a little worried about your image, boss," Holiday snorted, continuing to smirk derisively. "That's the type of crap you'd expect to see on some middle management type's desk. You're gonna need to toughen up some, or these new conscripts are gonna walk all over you." He said humorously, seeming to be perfectly aware that he was probably the only one to so thoroughly and thoughtlessly breech decorum.

Kazuo pushed his features flat and apathetically resigned. "I'll take it under advisement. I mean are the facilities in order? What about your partner?"

Holiday shrugged. "Everything is fine. I have everything I need. Doc is waiting in the foyer." He didn't clarify exactly what exactly he meant but instead, gestured outward.

"Good." He nodded. Holiday's work would be a matter of great benefit to their goals, certainly. The means to an end, specifically. First, though, there was an issue that had been impressed upon him as being of the utmost importance. Kazuo reached out onto the table's touch-sensitive surface and gestured across it, opening a user interface, before beginning his explanation. "I'm sending you out on field assignment. I need you to go to Sinnoh. I want you to shadow someone."

Holiday strode to the edge of the table and watched, as the surface visually loaded the requested information. There was a photograph displayed and ushered out toward him across the surfaces with a sweeping motion. Reaching out casually with a finger, he halted its trajectory, as though it were a floating toy in a shallow pool. It reoriented itself instantly, presumably by electronically sensing the orientation of his fingers. It was a picture of a boy, standing in between two other people who'd been mostly cropped out of the photograph. Comparatively, he was short, with a goofy looking trucker cap, over messy black hair and utterly average brown eyes. Ostensibly, he was little more skinny teenager with a dirty face and a stupid smile. A melee of low-opacity profile data scrolled alongside the photograph, contextually displayed only while the photo was stationary, he guessed. He struggled to find anything of any consequence amongst the information as he digested it. "Ash Ketchup, huh? "

"Ketchum," Kazuo corrected as the administrator lifted his head, giving him a slightly expectant glance. "He's a matter of some interest to our guest, it seems." Holiday gave a fast glance down at the data to confirm, and then only nodded. The 'guest' wasn't something they discussed.

"Says he's Kantonese. Why Sinnoh, then?" He raised a brow, as he angled the picture slightly, by gyrating three extended fingers, enlarging it a bit by spreading his fingers, pretending to inspect it with more scrutiny, even though he'd seen all he needed to.

Kazuo smiled. Holiday obviously hadn't had much time to devote to a Pokémon Journey with all of his schooling and so did not understand the nature of life for a teenage trainer. "From Charon, the new head of Team Galactic, we were able to levy a small amount of intelligence on this person," Kazuo explained. "He's there to compete in the Sinnoh League Conference. This intel also says that he's being followed by a small Team Rocket detachment."

"However, since our guest believes that it is necessary for this kid to return to Kanto, I've made arrangements for him to leave Sinnoh as well as to sabotage his Team Rocket detachment. I want you to loosely oversee those arrangements and then reconnoiter with the target in Kanto at the first possible opportunity."

"You said you wanted me to shadow him, not kidnap him. How can we be sure of where he'll go?" Holiday asked rather patiently, in contrast to his previous disinterest.

"The nature of the arrangements will eliminate the likelihood of him going anywhere but here." Kazuo cued up another photograph on the table and slid it across to him, similar to how he had the first. This one was of a two story ranch home: chartreuse, with white window frames. There was a white picket fence and a vegetable garden. There was a woman in the front, watering tomatoes out of one of those green plastic water-cans. Brunette. Thirty, maybe.

"Mother?" he guessed.

"Only parent we could find." The boss nodded. "It's almost a sure thing."

Holiday seemed to remember something. "What about Team Rocket? I don't suppose they're just gonna let us wander around Kanto, fangs out."

Kazuo smirked. "Team Rocket is a rival syndicate, who's territory we have just recently begun to insinuate ourselves in. Your chief concern should be following this Ash kid but it may become necessary to protect certain of our interests in this venture market. I trust that you and your partner will keep Team Nebula's best interests at heart."

"Team Nebula's interests are my interests," he said with a smile. Holiday always kept his own interests at heart.

He'd lost.

Six on six and not a single word out of his opponent's mouth. Knockout after knockout after knockout, without one single clue as to what his strategy was. He'd fumbled and guessed his way from five to three and then down to one but he just couldn't make heads or tails of what was going on. With no time, or forewarning, he was just reacting after the fact- and poorly.

After backpedaling for thirty some-odd minutes, he'd been beaten, plain and simple. Any normal trainer would have accepted the fact that he'd been out-planned from the beginning and vow to do better next time.

But this was not the time nor the place for 'next time' and Ash Ketchum was about as far from any 'normal trainer' as you could get.

To him, there was no sense in denying that he'd made a healthy contribution toward beating himself. No use convincing himself he'd been outdone by a more talented opponent who seemed to rely on flash-cards he could make neither heads nor tails of, instead of verbal commands. Even if it didn't make sense, he'd been beaten mostly by mistakes and bad tactics from beginning to end, he reminded himself. He'd allowed his opponent to take advantage of those screw ups and now he was paying for it.

No, he thought morbidly, he hadn't 'lost': He'd just as good as given up. The best had to be prepared for anything and it was obvious that he was not.

And so he stooped to clutch the nearly unconscious form of Pikachu to his chest and left the field, holding himself in contempt. There was no fanfare, no confetti, no rushing of the field. There was no great howling or cheering, or even stunned silence, from the crowd. This was mostly due to the fact that as it was the arena was only half full. This loss was of no consequence to anyone. If there were to be real gasps, real moans, those would belong to those who were watching at home. His friends and family. After all, it wasn't as though he'd just lost in the Finals. It wasn't as though the world would stop spinning over this cataclysmic upset.

This had only been his second match. One of three elimination rounds before the tournament competitors were ranked. He wasn't even penciled into a bracket yet! His championship hopes, had he ever truly had any, were over before they started.

He struggled not to feel ill. To him, he felt like the world had come screeching to a halt and left him to slingshot out into space. Or else, he was the only one standing still and in just a few moments the entire world was going to revolve out from under him, to much the same effect.

The end-of-match announcements and crush of reporters echoing through the normally quiet competitor's entrance did little to soothe the fault in his spirit. He smashed his eyelids together as much as he dared, desperate to keep tears from welling up in them, as he steered himself through the gathering on tactile sensation alone.

"What an amazing comeback! Distant underdog Professor Mahogany wins a hard-fought battle against fan-favorite Ash Ketchum! For a match so early in the preliminaries, they sure brought out all the stops," boomed the loudspeaker behind him as he pushed through the small crowd, intent on keeping the bill of his hat well over his face.

From the sounds of things his silent opponent was nearby. He could hear them all scrambling to ask him questions. Jealousy sprang up in him naturally but it was alongside a very bitter remorse. He didn't want anything to do with answering questions right now but he certainly wished it was him who'd just pulled off an upset against a ranked opponent.

"Things were looking pretty grim for you, Professor. What sort of experience did you have to rely on, to see you through a match against Ash Ketchum from Pallet? We haven't seen you at any other conferences!" A professor! He grimaced at the knowledge that his opponent was a Pokémon researcher. Big deal! Why anyone cared was beyond him.

"None," Ash heard clearly as everyone hushed to hear his answer and he felt as though the soles of his shoes were made of glue. The obvious terminus of his thoughts sprang to life. This guy was a nobody. Someone who'd never once battled in his whole entire life? Someone who'd beat him just on theories and simulations? Impossible!

"None? Surely you must have some battling experience. Your methods are quite impressive." Yeah! That absolutely couldn't be right. There was no way he'd just been shown up that badly by a novice. There was no way! He was unlucky but not THAT unlucky.

The affirmation was like a death-sentence for his ego. "None. These are all borrowed Pokémon, from a fellow researcher in Orre. This is the first time I've ever battled competitively." Ever-confident Ash Ketchum would have denied it but the declaration hit hard. So much so he felt utterly compelled to turn away from the crowd, then. Whether it was in shame or rage, he wasn't sure. He found himself biting his tongue as his ire rose but it was like there was a heavy weight in his stomach holding it down, keeping him from expelling it. It wasn't fair. He had trained so hard! Trained for the last year and half, all across Sinnoh! He'd been beaten by someone with no conventional experience, commanding Pokémon he didn't even own!

To say that he now felt quite ill would have been no understatement.

"But they all obey you so well!" He found himself mimicking the reporters disbelieving complement derisively under his breath, as he looked at the moistening image of his shoes. He was thankful that they had somehow found traction again as he hastily vacated the arena by wedging himself between two mic-wielding interlopers on his way out, being as mindful of his furry yellow companion as temperament would allow.

He could hear the Professor over his shoulder, as he muscled a path to the lobby. "Well, you see, it has to do with my resear-" He tried hard to relish the squelching of his opponents voice behind the heavy door, hoping that it would leave him feeling perhaps a little relief, but every discomfort, every self-loathing feeling he'd felt out on the field had been waiting for him on the other side of it, like an angry swarm of Beedrill waiting for its drones to flush their prey into the open. The weight of it hit him now, in full.

He did not make it far at all, before he slumped against the wall, finding it much easier to keep from crying while sitting down. It wasn't exactly comforting to curl his knees up to his shoulders and groan over Pikachu's exhausted form- and it certainly wasn't helping him feel any less sick to his stomach- but even the two bleary forms in his periphery, the approaching Brock and Dawn, did not seem to hold much promise of comfort.

What good was it all? What good did all that hard work do him if some computer jockey with no experience and no practice could beat you without breaking a sweat, just to prove his latest findings? Why had he wasted so much time? Why was he even here? What was the point? What sense did any of this make? It wasn't fair!

"Don't take it so hard, Ash," Brock's voice cut across his train of thought like sharp, broken glass, as the older boy crouched beside him and placed a hand on his shoulder. It was the last thing he wanted, right now. To have to be patted and reassured. Lied to. He grit his teeth "It's not the end of the world."

Their legs in his blurry eyes did not come as a surprise, as he mashed the ball of his palm into his eye, dragging his wrist along his nose in a messy, failed attempt to give himself composure. They would certainly have come looking for him eventually, he thought. Dawn having done well enough in the Grand Festival preliminaries at Lake Valor, as to be granted automatic entry, had come to show her support. Her and Brock were almost certain to have been watching his miserable display.

He released two dry sobs against his will, which proved too strong to hold on to. He tried desperately to choke them off. "Go away," he moaned. Ash hated for people to see him like this.

"Ash," Dawn insisted, folding her legs to the side so that she could sink down beside him on the floor. "Come on, cheer up."

They were both placing him in a semi-embrace that he desperately did not want to be in. Curving their arms over his shoulders, placing consoling hands that carried, for him, something entirely unwanted. He thrashed hard, still as mindful of Pikachu as he could allow himself to be, throwing the offending limbs off of himself. "I don't have what it takes to compete here."

They both plaintively called his name as he stood up amidst them. He didn't want to have an outburst with his friends, after all. He just wanted to get away from them. He spoke as calmly as he could. "I have to get Pikachu to the Pokémon center, now." He began toward the presidium.

"Look, Ash. We're just saying, that there's no reason to beat yourself up over this," he heard Brock begin behind him, standing up.

Dawn cut in now, her voice wavering with concern. "It was just a trick, is all, and you..." The sentence died before it formed fully, however. All present knew that the attempt had unintentionally backhanded him, as he stopped dead in his tracks, turned and locked her in a contemptuous glare.

...And he what? Fell for it? Wasn't good enough to see it coming? Even if she'd meant to say 'did your best', somehow that was even worse!

"Don't wait up for me." He stiffly revolved on his heel, pushing his way out the door. The intensity of his stride was magnified by its finality, as he blended seamlessly with the crowd of competitors making their way to the shuttling ferry that would carry them back to the mainland. Brock and Dawn could only bring themselves to sullenly watch the doors flap back and forth on their hinges, as he left the Sinnoh Coliseum.

Jessie drew in the loose dirt of Route 223, just outside Sunyshore, with a pointed stick. She had to stop for a minute and erase a bit of what she'd drawn with the toe of her boot and glare at a passerby who'd strayed too close to their conspiratorial meeting, until his path took him well away from the trio. After doing a small double-take to check for further interlopers, she wiped her nose and sniffed before resuming.

"And then we attach them here," she muttered, redrawing two long cylinders on top of a small square at the bottom of a large ovoid shape, "like so."

James gyrated his head slowly, looking up and then away. It was flashy and it had the necessary Team Rocket style to it, sure. But the possibility for death or worse, painful injury were also there, should the event of catastrophic failure arise, which, given the nature of the plan, it most certainly would. Above most things, James hated pain. However, any suggestions or criticisms he had were going to have to follow a lot of placating. Jessie was still angry.

A week ago, Jessie had icily brushed past him amid the cheering of a sold-out crowd at Lake Verity and led the trio wordlessly to Sunyshore city, before abandoning them here at the wharf for several hours and returning only to icily inform them that she had both ascertained and spent their monthly pay. He was oftentimes characteristically dense but it did not take a mental giant to figure out the cause of Jessie's renewed and self-destructive devotion to their old objective of capturing the twerp's Pikachu or her more than characteristic coldness. Jessie's own loss must have stung her, he imagined but for some reason she really hadn't liked the fact that Dawn had lost. Not at all. Jessie would no longer be competing in Contests. The whole situation had left her somehow both disillusioned and reinvigorated.

Her normal competition practice was indefinitely suspended it seemed; burning desire to return to their calling as Rockets in the pursuit of the twerps rare Pokémon had consummately replaced it.

He bit the inside of his cheek as pretended to consider her plan, whilst actively thinking of a way to diffuse it. Meowth, however, was quick to point out the flaws in the plan for what they were. "So, wat? We're just supposed ta blow ourselves up, den?" He rolled his eyes and lifted a paw, dismissive of the plan at face value. "That'll really show da little runt," he snorted sarcastically. "Whaddaya you bet Jimmie? We make it to, oh...I dunno, the second verse'a da motto before those 'tings blow up?" Meowth was guffawing at this point, rolling onto his back with casual feline jocularity.

Not wasting time to gauge Jessie's reaction, James lifted his boot and brought it down viciously on Meowth's extended tail, angling himself so that he stood between the would be murderer and her victim, purposely grinding Meowth's tail into the dirt as he did so.

"Me-OW-th!" The Scratch Cat Pokémon shrieked, preparing his razor-sharp claws for a vengeful counterstrike, when he caught sight of James' icy glare and his probationary gesture towards the concealed figure that stood behind him.

"Remember the Hmn-Mnn-nn-mn," James warned angrily, between sealed lips; a clandestine code word system they had developed for such occasions where they needed to share information without Jessie's knowledge. Translating it relied half on context and iambic pentameter, while the other half was total luck but Meowth knew that James had meant, of course, to say: "Grand Festival."

"Fine," Meowth hissed irritably. "Now, get off my hmm-nn-in' tail, you Hmn-hm-nm!" On James' part, this sentence required considerably less effort to translate.

He had only just barely taken his weight off of his right foot when Jessie's own collided viciously with the small of his back, sending him rolling head over heels, leaving him clutching tearfully at the stinging site of impact. "You're stomping all over the plans, IDIOT!"

Upside down, James watched as Meowth sneered at him. He muttered under his breath as she scratched in the details of her diagram he'd stepped on and righted himself with concern. He had to find a way to diffuse the situation before it got out of control. He felt something beginning to come to him as he looked over the diagram once more. Honestly, they had attempted crazier things but never anything so brazenly tempting of the harsh, harsh laws of physics.

"How do we even know these things will even work?" James asked testingly, of the twin set of turbine jet engines that rested just behind Jessie, hidden rather suspiciously beneath a canvas tarp and their corresponding position on the diagram: the 'cylinders' affixed to the starboard and port sides of the gondola of their hot-air balloon. "These don't seem like the sort of things you can just buy off the street. Who even sold these to you?"

Jessie fixed him with a glare that could have punched through in surgical steel. "Do I look like I don't know my head from a hole in the ground, or something?" she growled. Part of her knew that James had made a rather good point. The guy who'd sold her the turbo-jets had seemed sort of shady to begin with. And what the hell was with that goofy haircut? Still, she reminded herself; she was a Rocket! She wasn't some sissy coordinator! She could do anything she wanted! And she was going to pull it off this time, even if she had to drag these two morons to victory kicking and screaming!

"If you're not going to help me," she roared, "then just get the hell out of my way!"

The Pokémon Center back on the mainland was crowded and no one paid him much attention, which he was thankful for. They were all too busy talking about matches; mostly upcoming if they were competitors, mostly past if they were spectators. The line to see Nurse Joy was long but everyone seemed chiefly concerned with the daily recap and ongoing coverage of the Sinnoh League preliminaries being displayed on the overhead monitors, affording him the opportunity to get in line almost entirely unnoticed.

He tried not to think of anything as he watched the steady left-foot, right-foot progression of the shoes ahead of his and matched their pace across the speckled linoleum. A set of rather obnoxious voices behind him caught his attention as they filed in behind him.

"So that kid from Pallet choked pretty hard, huh?" a deep, baritone voice seemed to chide him. He looked behind himself almost reflexively. He snapped back around when he saw the gargantuan it belonged to. A tan-skinned Sinnohan in a stretched-out beater, with more hair on his chin than Ash had on his entire body. The guy hadn't been talking to him, though and his anger wavered a bit when it was overcome by the relief that he would not have to shrink away from an obviously pre-decided fight; the guy had to of been almost 90kg of raw muscle and looked like the sort who wasn't afraid to use it. He felt a drop of cold sweat slide down his temple

"Yeah, so what? Wouldn't be the first time some dumb-ass kid got his dreams stomped on," another voice answered.

Just keep your eyes on the ground. He told himself. Just ignore them.

"They say every trainer is gonna have that one loss that haunts them for the rest of their life." Ash closed his eyes and screwed his face up, as he continued the abbreviated pace of the queue He tried to shut his brain off, to ignore what was being said. He desperately did not want that to be true.

"Whatever. Kid was obviously a scrub," the other voice responded, after what seemed like a moment of contemplation, resigning itself to total abject apathy.


He jerked sharply in that direction, to stare openly at his detractor over his shoulder. A tall sort but not cut of the same stock as his friend. Not so much lanky as awkwardly built and visibly out of shape. A scorching pink jacket stole any sort of intimidating quality lent to him by his mass. A goofy, rockabilly haircut replaced it instead with something altogether opposite that.

He looked like the sort of person he'd quietly laugh about once he was out of earshot but when their eyes threatened to meet by chance, Ash quickly looked away and hunched a bit, to hide his face. He felt his cheeks light up in an angry blush.

"Says here he was an Orange Islands champ, Bro. Hey, and the Kanto Battle Frontier!" Ash heard the flapping sound of a program pamphlet. There was only one person left before him in line. He would only have to endure a few moments more. Just a little longer, he told himself, and then you can get out of here.

A sound of dismissal. "Big deal, Scrub's a scrub." The taller one's jacket crinkled annoyingly as he shrugged. "This ain't no fuckin' kiddie-league."

He could feel his back arching a little as his arms straitened and fingers stiffened involuntarily. The hairs on the back of his head felt as hard as bristles against his pushed up collar all of a sudden and he was vaguely aware that he had been biting his lip when Nurse Joy's cheerful request rocked him back to consciousness.

"Can I help whoever is next, please?" she asked, voice elevated. He didn't know it but this was the third time she had repeated herself. He opened his mouth and made a small sound but finding the words to respond jammed up in his throat, he just stepped up to her and handed over his poke balls and then, gently, Pikachu as well.

He could feel eyes coming to rest on him for just a little too long, as he walked away from the counter and took a seat in the crowded waiting area, pretending to be very interested in the texture of his jeans. His anger at being insulted was beginning to evaporate now, replaced by the anxiety caused by invading stares, which he was sure he was exaggerating, with preconceived paranoia.

He hugged his own head as close as he could to his knees and waited miserably for the feeling to pass.

"WHAT?" The water in the gym's practice pool chopped and cut violently as she slapped the arm not holding a remote against its surface, which had become almost glass-like in her apprehensive stillness.

Kanto Nightly News had taken a moment to show some of the live coverage of the Sinnoh preliminary rounds. Misty, her Pokémon could only guess from the waves and turbulence that upset their post-battle rest, found their coverage inadequate.

As the news-story extrapolated a bit, she looked out of the corner of her eye, to see that her outburst had accidentally flipped Psyduck's life-preserver, leaving his stubby little feet kicking in the air. She reached out with her free hand and righted him, pretending to be just as confused as he was on the matter when he began to quack belligerently at her.

"...and following a grueling six and five defeat, Ash Ketchum leaves the pool for tournament entry earlier than any expected. The hometown favorite was defeated by Orange Archipelago's Professor Mahogany, who claimed to have no actual battle experience. This has got to come as a huge disappointment to-" The Gym Leader let out a shriek of frustration, cutting across the sound-system with surprising effectiveness.

"Well of course it does!" she yelled at the mammoth overhead display that was normally reserved for recording battle scores and presenting replays and close-ups to anyone who might have cared to spectate during a particular battle, now being used to tune in to the local TV station. "Why say something so stupid? Who wouldn't be disappointed? What kind of dumba-"

She caught herself as the eyes of Corsola, Psyduck both bobbing silently met with her own. Gyarados, coiled half in and half out of the water, opened one eye testily. Starmie and Staryu seemed to regard her with their gemstones, coming to a dead stop in the air over the middle of the pool. Even her recently evolved Marill, so typically full of pep and verve came screeching to a halt as it hustled laps around the pool, slipping and falling in inadvertently.

She cleared her throat and blushed at them, her tone losing some of its venom. "What?" They all looked away quickly. She glanced back up at the display which now showed footage of Ash marching off the field, holding Pikachu in his arms.

Her spirit sagged heavily at the sight and she pressed the power button on the remote, blanketing the gym in an uncomfortable quiet. She resisted the urge to throw it out into the deep end. Instead, she laboriously placed it at the edge of the pool and heaved a breath before dunking her head under the water and letting out a long groan that floated up to the surface as bubbles.

Though she was sure Ash was somewhere feeling much worse than she did; she practically felt ill. It had been a long time since they'd traveled together but she knew Ash very well. A large part of her still couldn't get used to the fact that it was no longer Brock and herself alongside him, sharing his communal losses and victories, anymore. It wasn't like either of the boys were jumping for joy every time she beat a challenger (or even really bothering to look into it, for that matter) yet she couldn't help but feel a certain melancholy now.

When she came up, she wiped water and hair out of her eyes, before setting both her elbows over the edge and folding her arms, resting her chin there. After a while, she could feel her Pokémon gathering up behind her. Psyduck's frantic doggy-paddling gave them away.

"That sucks," she muttered, reaching out and enveloping as many of them as she could, as much in an effort to console them as herself, as they pressed in, resting a palm on the massive flank of Gyarados, who oddly seemed the most concerned.

Ash was thankful to leave Sunyshore proper and escape the sidelong glances of what had hours ago been his fellow competitors but now felt like his own personal defaming critics. He'd left the two obnoxious malefactors behind, much to his relief, though now he was free to stew in their words combined with his already extraordinarily low spirits as he tread down the rocky footpath that overlooked the beach, serving to culminate in an altogether fowl condition.

Pikachu, who seemed no less irascible, as if empathizing with his trainer, followed at a liberal distance, seeming to give both parties a wide margin of personal space.

Just a few meters away, unbeknownst to the two defeated competitors, Jessie was busy putting the finishing touches on welding the engines to the outboard riggers of their hot-air balloon which were normally used for ballast containers when she noticed James and Meowth started passing the single pair of binoculars rather suspiciously, out of the corner of her shielded visor. Like most things in the past day or so, this only elevated this constant state of ire that she'd been harboring to critical levels.

She'd instructed them to let her know immediately if anyone was coming, so that she could quickly throw the tarp over the highly suspect propulsion system. Had she stopped to give much consideration to this cover-up, she would have made a note of how out of place a deflated hot-air balloon must have seemed to the average passer-by and just how truly difficult it would have been to explain the presence of one, much less why she was attempting to attach jet-engines to it. These things had just never seemed necessary before.

She popped up her visor and glared large-caliber holes into the backs of their heads. What the hell was going on? Why were they muttering back and forth? If someone was coming, they were supposed to warn her! Every second that she watched them chatter nervously, she felt another blood vessel in her face swell with the inflow of boiling blood. It was so intense she could almost feel the heat. Almost smell the smoke coming from her ears. It wasn't till she looked back to her work, deciding that her two partners were too stupid to even be deserving of her anger, that she realized she had set the wicker gondola on fire.

"'Ey Jess," Meowth whispered frantically, waving his paw behind himself in a beckoning manner, "it's da twoip, and he's all by himsel-"

Had the clang of the welding gun deflecting off his skull as Jessie whipped it ferociously at the feline not cut him off, the strings of curses as she set to dousing the fire certainly would have. James could only watch helplessly as the heavy tool flipped end over end in a high arc. He felt he must have been making a hideous face as it cracked their oncoming quarry sharply across his shin, dropping him to the dirt and hitting Pikachu squarely in the midsection with nearly half and again his mass, as if to punctuate their day's misfortune.

James thought, perhaps, that now would have been the time to do something. The time to capitalize. Ash, getting up off the ground, beat him to the uptake, however. Snarling into the dusty foot path and bringing himself to bear with one fingerless glove crushing into the dirt, as the other grasped his leg. He called out in anger. Everything he'd been holding back since his visit to the Pokémon center boiled over in a split-second.

"Who threw that?" he growled toward the hedge. Pikachu, righting himself as well, matched the inquiry with the same tone of ire, arcs of static leaping off the welding gun as he shoved it off and away from himself. "Pikaaaa?"

James swallowed.

"I said: who threw that?" he demanded again in a building roar, now back to his feet and going for the gun.

Jessie, too distracted by the only recently fulfilled need to douse the flames she'd accidentally ignited to tell what had happened, whipped around and shouted at her partner, having mistaken the source of all the noise and knowing only that someone wasn't being as inconspicuous as they should have been. "James," she shrieked, "shut your big mouth! You're gonna give us away!"

This was all Ash needed to hear. He stamped his foot and ground his teeth, as he picked up the heavy tool, turning back to the hedgerow. "Team Rocket," he hollered accusingly, "come out here and take what's coming to you!" Again, Pikachu matched his master's acrimony perfectly, balling up and shaking a tiny yellow fist, as Ash brandished the welding gun threateningly. "Pika-chuuu!"

James turned and sputtered helplessly, as Meowth, just now coming to stood rather weakly and held his throbbing head between his paws. Deliriously, he looked at Jessie who was now approaching the two male Rockets, with a look of fury in her eyes that he was evidently too star-struck to notice. "Did anyone get the plate number on that truck?" he warbled.

James looked back just in time to see Ash rearing back. Alarmed, he tried to turn and warn Jessie but it proved pointless. The young trainer pitched with all the force and accuracy accrued from throwing an untold sum of poke balls. The gun whirled through the bushes and cut the air so close to his nose that he could smell the metallic fragrance of it. It bashed Jessie full in the face and sent her careening to the ground after a moment of stunned wobbling.

At a loss for words, James leaned backwards on his haunches and flopped down on his backside with a groan. Meowth, still loopy, let go of a confused laugh as though he were waiting for someone to chuckle along with him and let him know it was okay.

Seeing none of what had occurred, Ash stormed toward the bushes, matching Jessie, who after only just a second sprang to her feet and began an ominous death march, clenching her teeth and clutching her abused face.

"You're dead, whoever you are!" James and Meowth heard from two simultaneous sources, as the enraged parties grabbed for each other through the bush, neither expecting resistance and momentarily coming to a stand-still. Jessie, however, being the larger and stronger of the two, had Ash clean through the hedge after a second, struggling on the tips of his toes.

Though the young trainer thrashed and squirmed, she carried him with resolute strength, dragging him to the site of the fallen welding gun. She stooped to recollect it before trudging back to where she'd been working, pulling Ash along the whole way, kicking and swinging to no avail.

He was winded when she vaulted him up off the ground and slammed him onto his back, across the rocket-engine. The impact caused the air to explode from him and brought tears to his narrowed eyes. Coughing as he was in a desperate attempt to regain his breath, he still managed to wrestle the weight of her arm off of him, as she fumbled to reattach the welding gun to the line and bring it to bear. He wriggled from underneath her and moved to slide off the engine but in a surprising display of flexibility Jessie pinned him back down again with an authoritative boot, balancing tightly on her one remaining grounded foot.

Jessie ground her heel in a bit as she leaned in towards him, clicking at a spark-maker over the contact tip and bringing the gun to full ignition. "I'm gonna make you pay for this!" She angled her head to display the growing knot and greenish bruise that stretched from her temple to her chin.

Ash reared his arm back threateningly, seeming to be either completely unconcerned with the high-temperature device, or just too angry to realize what she was threatening to do with it. "Bring your ugly face any closer and I'm gonna slug you in it!"

An urgent realization the fell over James and Meowth, as Jessie bared down with her intended murder-weapon and Ash swung for the bleachers, knocking her welding-mask a full 180 degrees and blinding her temporarily as its head-band slumped down over her eyes, providing a reprieve from what could have been a mortal injury; neither one of the two combatants seemed to realize how out of hand the situation had gotten. The two bystanders' move to stop it however, was delayed by Pikachu, who emerged from the hedgerow between them, distracting them momentarily. The Electric Pokémon looked to his left at Meowth, then to his right at James, then finally back ahead at what was happening. Sparks flew from needles of yellow fur and that was the only warning the Rockets ever got.

Billions of volts went through them all at once, its amperage dulled to below a lethal dose as it dissipated through the ground before hitting them. The discharge of electricity was still so forceful that James and Meowth, so close to the point of initial dispersal felt only the sensation of their rigid bodies losing contact with the ground and then rushing again to meet it as they were blown many meters away.

The primary arc, the so-called 'bolt' had not even been directed at them. A white-hot stream of charged ions lit the air, causing the wind to waver with heat distortion and the leaves of the bushes to turn away as the moisture was wicked from them completely. The bolt struck the welding gun and it exploded, most of its components utterly vaporized on contact. Arms of residual current shot radially from the point of impact and into the two brawlers, propelling Ash against the engine and pinning him there, with a paralyzing magnetic cling, while it simply sent Jessie sailing in the opposite direction, with nothing to stop her, until she ran out of momentum.

The fact that she landed in the surf of Sunyshore Beach, some tens of meters away was probably a mixed blessing, considering the sudden spike of current had caused her team rocket jacket to ignite, scorching the normally bold and prominent 'R' to an unrecognizable state.

When Ash, James, Meowth and finally Jessie who floated serenely to the surface, finally came to, they were nursing very strong muscle spasms and residual static shock, though certainly surprised to find themselves in an un-"blasted off" state. Any exposed skin they had was sooted by burnt clothing and their sinuses were irritated by the scent of ozone and scorched hair.

Ash, who had slumped down the side of the oversized turbo-fan he'd been so unceremoniously mounted upon, patted a fire out on the brim of his hat, only realizing it after a moment of motionless, stunned apathy. James managed to drag himself back up into a sitting position, by grabbing large handfuls of grass. He could still feel his legs, which he assumed was generally a good sign but he couldn't get them to do much more than twitch and fill him with a sensation of pins and needles. Meowth, rolling up onto his haunches, was the first to truly come to his senses and also the first to speak. Leaping back into the fray, he faced off with their tiny attacker.

"Wot da heck was all dat about?" he growled, revealing claws that seemed otherwise unpunished by the offensive.

"Pi," Pikachu sighed and turned away, ignoring the feline, to stride slowly towards his trainer.

"Woi you!" Meowth seethed and stepped in threateningly, before the electric type lit him up like a light-bulb and left him in the dust.

Dawn wiped a little sweat from her brow. Partially because it was hot, of course but also because she was worried. They'd been looking for Ash for hours now and there was no sign of him. He'd checked into the Pokémon Center, that much they'd found out but they'd missed him there. Where he'd gone after that was a total mystery. Brock ended his block-long sprint beside her and hunched onto his knees, to catch his breath.

"See him?" she asked, even though she knew it was pointless. She scanned the street. It would have been like trying to find a needle in a haystack. The streets of Sunyshore were filled with the crush of trainers and spectators moving back and forth from the island. Goofy hats, jackets and fingerless gloves were the norm.

Brock shook his head and Dawn hung hers.

"What do we do," Dawn asked, nervously rubbing her face with both hands, "Call his mom?"

Brock sat up straight and knit his eyebrows. "Are you kidding?" he gasped, leveling a finger at her accusingly, "Maybe you're forgetting:" Brock paused and let his head sag to take in a much needed breath, before shouting, "I'm responsible for you two!"

Dawn was forced to take a step back, countering his sudden incredulousness with a scowl. "So?" she retorted, as she felt it was safe to step in again.

"So?" he waved his hand around in exasperation. "So," he repeated, with a puffed gasp. "So, she asks me," he continued helplessly, now beginning to languish under her gaze.

"Yeah, so?" Dawn drew her features into a questioning sneer and Brock sighed, taking one more breath.

"Dawn, If you ran off and me and Ash couldn't find you, and we called your mom," he paused a moment to let the point sink in. "Well, what do you think Johanna would do to us?"

Dawn's eyes went rather wide in realization. "...We've got to find him."

Everyone managed to collect themselves finally, shied up some by the violent cessation of their quarrel and placated into assisting one another by the looming threat of yet another such display of force. It had taken both James and Ash to fish Jessie out of the surf and get her back on her feet, though of course she made every effort to shrug them off as soon as she was able. When everyone had regrouped in the thicket, there was a very tense silence.

Ash was the first to break it, being naturally the most inquisitive. He nodded toward the gondola. "What are you guys doing back here, anyways?" he asked, the blast of electricity having apparently taken some of the edge off of his earlier anger, though not dissipating it, as was evidenced by his tough stance and crossed arms.

Jessie narrowed her eyes; it didn't seem to her as though he properly regretted hitting her in the face. She certainly didn't care for his tone. She clenched a fist.

"Piii," Pikachu warned softly, forcing her fingers to slowly unlock. No one responded. Pikachu marched towards the retrofitted vehicle and Ash went with him, staying wisely in the sphere of immunity granted to him by his Pokémon.

"Pika?" The rodent asked, reaching out and poking the immense booster with a tiny claw.

"They look pretty fast, whatever they are," Ash ventured a guess, kicking at a side panel on the manifold without concern. "Probably junk, though, knowing Team Rocket."

James watched Jessie's expression turn, if possible, more sour.

After he was finished looking over the aircraft, Jessie was confused when he slapped both of his hands down on it in tentative approval. He turned to face the Rocket trio, with a serious expression, as though he'd made an important decision. "I want you to take me somewhere."

Jessie snarled. "This ain't a taxi-service we're running here, you little ankle-biter!" She shoved James out of the way when he tried to shut her up. "If you need to get somewhere before your next match starts, you should have thought about that beforehand!"

Ash lifted his head to the sky and let go of a held in rebuke in the form of a long sigh. "I'll pay you." He reached in his jacket-pocket and pulled out a tightly wrapped roll of cash. Almost all of his winnings for the past two months. "Half now. Half when we get there."

On cue, there was a chorus of three growling stomachs. Jessie looked sideways at her companions, who were both giving her rather unpleasant looks. The purchase of these engines had emptied their coffers until their next paycheck. The plan had not been executed with much foresight, she admitted, but if they could manage to take the brat's Pikachu then surely things would work out fine. As she looked the little yellow dynamo over and considered what had just befallen them, though, it did not seem so likely that this would come to pass. She angrily stamped her foot and turned away from the situation. Hadn't she just vowed to return to the life of a Rocket? Not some goody-goody who brushed elbows with trainers, who should have been her marks, at the slightest convenience!

She folded one arm across her chest and put an indignant hand into James' face, as he came up beside her. She had a choice to make, at this point and she'd be damned if she was going to let hunger pangs have a role in the decision making. Hers or his. Still, she could tell by the vibes in the air if she didn't pretend to let the boys start having some input, she was going to face a mutiny, soon. No matter how sure she was that she could quell it, Rockets worked as a team.

She heaved an angry sigh and shook her head, wrapping an arm around James' neck and dragging him in close. Her other hand whipped from her chest and caught Meowth's entire head in a rubbery purple grip. She hunkered down into the huddle, after leering dangerously at Ash; a warning to keep his distance until a consensus was reached.

"What do we do?" Jessie said and immediately sucked in a breath of air for the necessary rebuke that was to follow any 'bright idea' either of the two might have offered. Silence, was of course what they produced in light of that, which was just as well, since she intended to go with her own plan from the beginning.

"I say we take the kid out over the ocean, wait till we can't see land anymore, then we blindside him, take his money and his Pokémon, throw him overboard, and make off like bandits." She proposed in earnest and she thought for a moment she could see a sparkle in her partners' eyes. A brief glimmer of the way it used to be.

Ash, only ten or so feet away, scoffed, having heard quite clearly. "What about Pikachu?"

James and Meowth seemed to come out of a dream then and rounded on her, before she could threaten the young trainer out of the conversation. "Yeah! What about Pikachu?"

"Pikachu's t'rowin' around lightnin'-bolts like nobody's business 'ere!" Meowth objected.

"Did you see what he did to poor Meowth?" James indicated the feline's blackened fur. "His beautiful summer coat, ruined!"

"Ruined," Meowth repeated disdainfully, gaining some steam from his partner's support.

She bashed both of them over the head with a balled fist. "Shaddap! Quit whining!"

Ash crossed his arms confidently and put on an ugly smirk, throwing it Jessie's way every time she looked toward him. He held the trump card here. Now, though, a small part of him was concerned for his Pokémon, given that such extreme displays of force were not in his partner's nature. He guessed, though, that it was reasonable to assume that Pikachu was every bit as angry as he was and just looking for someone to take it out on. That assumption ate away at his conscience now. Was this fair, really? He was essentially just picking on Team Rocket just because he could. Getting bashed in the shins with a power-tool wasn't super-pleasant, sure, but the attack had been a little unwarranted. Pikachu's follow-up had kept the situation from getting as out of hand as it could have with all these tempers boiling over but even this was a little past what sat well with him. He muscled down the guilty feeling, though, trying to call to mind all the nasty underhanded things Team Rocket had done to him over the years. He'd just be civil, he decided.

"I'm asking nicely. I just want you to take me home," he said simply, looking away from them and out to the ocean. He couldn't bring himself to be too apologetic at the moment. "If you can't give me a lift, then let's stop wasting each other's time."

Jessie turned around incredulously. "Home?" she snarled, "Do you know how far away Kanto is, you moron?" She slapped a hand against her face, to indicate her own exasperation but forgetting her own injury, let go of a small yelp of pain. "We don't have time to take you home and back before your next match!"

"There is no next match for me, so," he said very quietly into the surf, trying desperately to keep his tone as neutral as possible. "I don't need to come back.

Jessie, as usual, had a follow-up ready and so now was forced to swallow it. Hard. Shunted from the place in her gut it now occupied came a measure of the anger and ruth she had felt watching Dawn walk away empty-handed from the Grand Festival. She tried to smash it back down but it was already out and wreaking havoc on her sensibilities. Like then, she now struggled with an uneasy feeling of empathy for Ash, which was something that confused her. It was no phantom maternal instinct, or anything so stupid as that, she knew but instead one she'd harbored in vast amounts over her career in Team Rocket: She shared everything with James and Meowth, even when she didn't want to, and what Team Rocket had in abundance, was failure.

It was not the fact that she sympathized easily, now, that caused her undue stress. It was the fact that she'd recently began to feel this way about the twerps that bothered her. Had they really been following Ash around for so long, that it was so easy to see him as one of the team? When Dawn had lost, she'd felt anger for losing something that wasn't even hers to lose. She felt that again now for Ash.

It seemed morose to think about but she, perhaps more than most, knew what it felt like to be a loser.

She screwed her face up, to make it seem like she didn't care but she could tell that Meowth and James had cut through that facade like butter, just by the way they looked at her. She just did her best to ignore them and hold on to her irritated expression like a life-raft, as she barked out her orders.

"Stop standing around and get the balloon ready! This kid's money ain't gonna spend itself!"

A/N: Hopefully, the first bit was enough to draw attention. It'll be a while before the story makes it back to that part, but it'll get there. Bearing in mind that most of this was written, or at least conceived before Black/White, or the conclusion of the Diamond & Pearl Series, (Spoiler Ahead?) this follows the events of the show up to Dawn's loss in the Grand Festival and Ash's entry into the Sinnoh League, then changes course dramatically- and may bend canon a little bit, but I'll try and cover my own tracks.