The Kingdom of Illusions
Time hadn't passed Dawn by. Oh, she was still roughly the same girl that had started her journey to be Top Coordinator nearly ten years previous. Her hair was a bit shorter and her skirts were a bit longer, but she hadn't so much changed as grown. When you've got a dream, you can never give up on it… but she'd found out that surprisingly that was the easy part. It was achieving your dream and then dealing with that feeling that the world's been swept out from under you that's hard; it's finding that new dream.
Which was why she'd been so excited to run into Ash at this year's Wallace Cup. They'd both been in the audience: after Dawn's triumphant assent to Top Coordinator of Sinnoh she'd been taking a break from participating in contests to bask in the glow of success… and figure out what exactly to do next. On the one hand, it should've been easy for her; her mother had gone through the same thing and got through it. But she wasn't her mom. She'd land on her feet, but she wasn't about to just copy her mother's steps.
Anyway, even if she was taking a break, she couldn't resist watching the coordinators take their bows. So she'd packed up her things and traveled to Hoenn's Mauville City where the Cup was being held this year. Apparently Ash had wound up in the audience to support a competing coordinator he and Pikachu had met the day before whose Whiscash they help to save from thieves.
Just like Ash. Always getting involved in other people's problems.
Actually, she was kind of worried about him. Like her, he was in that confused 'where do I go next?' kind of place. But she was there for happy reasons and for him… not so much. He'd been to Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, Sinnoh, Unova, Barra, Naune, and Pairaag and still a League victory eluded him. He'd literally run out of leagues.
Oh, there was always some new tournament somewhere and that was mainly what Ash was subsisting off now. He'd ended up in Mauville originally to take part in a small electric type tournament run by Wattson. He'd won too. He always did so well in smaller competitions. But in the leagues… well, it wasn't like he didn't do well. He did excellent. Top eight, top four… he'd even gotten all the way to the final two in Naune. But that wasn't enough to satisfy Ash. Nothing short of Pokemon master would do.
And even though he was still the same old Ash—almost too much the same old Ash—she could tell that it weighed on him. He was tired and he was doubting himself. But whenever he started to actually express that… the defense mechanisms would kick in.
"Oh well! We'll just have to train that much harder! Right, Pikachu?"
It was getting sort of painful to watch. He used to say those things before and that had seemed fine. But they were older now, and it just seemed that…
Well, Dawn had never given up on her dream of being Top Coordinator either. But she'd been patient. She'd traveled, she'd hung out with friends, she'd spent a lot of time with her mom, and she'd even spent a few grueling years studying in Jubilife City to earn her teaching degree. Sure, she'd practiced, sure she'd participated in contests to eventually reach her goal, but the point was: she'd made room in her life for things besides Pokemon. And she felt like a better person for it.
Ash hadn't done that. Oh sure, he had friends… friends he met battling Pokemon. And seeing them depended entirely on his Pokemon journey. He always said 'we'll see each other again', sometimes to people he'd only met once along the way. Sometimes it came true, but more often than not it didn't. He left people behind to pursue his ambitions. He could've taken a break and turned around to see them, but… it seemed like that only happened if there was a Pokemon-based reason behind it.
Case in point: They'd only renewed their arrangement of traveling together temporarily because Ash was looking for transport to get back to Kanto and Dawn had already decided to sightsee in Hoenn.
Back when she was ten, she'd said it so many times: 'Ash will definitely win,' and she'd believed it. She'd said the same thing about her own victories. But she didn't do that anymore. First of all, you never knew. There were a whole lot of tough rivals out there, and as she'd grown she'd realized how disrespectful it was to make light of their chance to win. She'd believed in her abilities, and she believed she could win, but there was no shame in acknowledging the completion. And anyway, it's better not to spit in Dame Fate's eye.
She believed in Ash and his abilities too. But she also knew that there was always a bigger fish out there. If Ash won in Kanto then maybe he could stop obsessing and make more room for people in his life. But if he lost…
"Oh well! We'll just have to train that much harder! Right, Pikachu?"
…And another crack under the surface.
How long could he really go on doing this before he found peace?
And the worst part was that she didn't know what to say to him. You couldn't just say: 'Hey Ash, why not forget about this whole Pokemon thing for awhile and take up macramé? It doesn't have to be forever and it might be good for your mental health.' This was Ash Ketchum they were talking about. He would not take that well.
And just when her head wanted to explode from all this troublesome, borrowed stress, she paused, shook her head, and calmed. I'm sure there's no need to worry, she thought to herself. Something will come up and it'll all work out.
"Hey Ash," Dawn said, in an effort hit on a light subject and with no intention of bringing up macramé, "did I tell you I ran into Kenny on the way here?"
"Oh really?" Ash asked, leaning forward. "How's he doing?"
"Pretty good," Dawn said. Then she added with a giggle, "he's way less of a twerp than he used to be."
Ash winced. "Please don't say 'twerp'."
"What? Bad Team Rocket memories?" Dawn asked. She tapped her chin with her finger. "Y'know, I never ran into them after I stopped traveling with you. Are they still stalking you? I haven't seen them."
"I… haven't seen them since Unova," Ash said with a grimace.
Dawn stared at him. "Don't tell me you actually miss them?"
"No! Of course not!" Ash spouted defensively.
But he did. They were part of the training… part of the adventure… and their attentions gave him worth. Battling Team Rocket… saving Pokemon from them… it was just part of the whole cycle. And now they'd gotten embroiled in something else somewhere too.
"I wonder what happened to them," Dawn said speculatively. "Do you think they settled down somewhere together?"
"Settled down to what?" Ash asked cluelessly.
Dawn gave him a mildly cold stare and then shrugged her shoulders. Some people never grow up.
Ash didn't know what Team Rocket had settled down to do, but it was clear that they'd given up on their vow to capture Pikachu. They'd given up. How could they just walk away after all those years?
Walking away… now that was something he could never do. …But none of this would matter once he won the Indigo Plateau Conference. Of course he'd win! …Except that he'd said that before. But he was stronger now! …But what if…
Ash was not a fan of doubt in his mind. He'd never given up all those years, and he'd gotten stronger, he knew he had… …but so did his rivals. And there were more and more of those too. New ones at least. The old ones seemed to vanish after awhile, on to… other things.
But things were starting to change. It had been a long time since he'd left home with his Pikachu. He was starting to feel like he was an old man in a young man's game, which is utterly ridiculous at twenty. And surely, there were trainers much older than him. But the fact that he was twice the age of a lot of his competitors was starting to strike him as strange. It had never mattered to him when he was on the other side of the line, challenging the more experienced trainers. But now it made him feel… old. Like he was running out of time. He had to be nearly as old as Team Rocket by now.
He stopped and shook his head. No, he thought. I'll never be that ancient.
And with that unfair and completely out of nowhere shot that made Jessie twitch violently thousands of miles away for reasons she couldn't fathom, he took a breath and tried to focus on victory.
"This mountain air is really clear," Ash said, looking up at the peaks far above them. "I feel stronger just breathing it." Then he got an idea. "Hey, Swellow, come on out!" he said, lobbing a Poke ball. The bird looped out of its Poke ball with a cry and took to the open skies.
"Hey, that's a great idea!" Dawn said, picking up two of her Poke balls. "Xatu, Togekiss! Come out and stretch your wings!"
The two flying types appeared in a flash from their Poke balls and swooped joyously through the air.
Ash lifted the cap on his hat—his seventh in a series—to see the flying spectacle more closely as Pikachu leaned forward on his shoulder and looked enchanted. "Cool! A Xatu! When'd you get that?"
"When I was traveling around Johto," Dawn said proudly.
"And I see Togekiss is just as graceful as ever," Ash commented, watching as she sailed through the sky.
"That's for sure," Dawn agreed. It was thanks to Togekiss that she'd managed to pull out a victory in the final round of the festival and attain her dream. She smiled warmly as it gave a call and pulled off a stylish dive.
Her smile dropped as it froze in the air, seemingly surrounded by a blue light.
"That's not… Safeguard, is it?" Ash said, mystified.
"No…" Dawn said, confusedly.
And then Togekiss started to move, flying away from her with blank eyes, as though it were in a trance.
"Togekiss? Togekiss! Come back!" Dawn called, running after it along the uneven ground at the base of the mountain.
But Togekiss didn't turn around.
Dawn and Ash had run after Togekiss until they couldn't run anymore. Even by taking the short-cut through the mountain tunnel, Togekiss was still way ahead of them, flying over the desert beyond the mountains, immune to Dawn's entreaties to return.
Luckily they'd found a place where you could rent off-road vehicles to cross the desert, and had snatched up a car. Dawn floored it and sent them roaring across the desert as fast as she could, with her hair streaming in the wind. Ash clung to his armrests for dear life as Pikachu and Piplup held onto their trainers. He might've complained about Dawn's panic-stricken driving, but then again, she was the one with the license. She'd been rather snappish about that, not quite able to believe that he hadn't 'even gotten a license'. Well… it had been a hassle and there'd never been a right time, what with training and all. Anyway, there was nothing wrong with walking. It was healthier than breathing in gasoline.
Anyway, Dawn had a right to be panicked. What was up with Togekiss? It had never been like this before. Oh, sure it had its own way of doing things, but to actually run away?
He couldn't shake the feeling that all this was somehow… familiar.
He only realized what it was for sure when they were closer. There was no doubt about it; Togekiss was heading with single minded determination toward a structure rising above the landscape. The desert had yielded to lush green treetops as they headed into the uplands. Nestled on a forested cliff was a castle, or… sort of a castle. It was bigger than a castle ought to be. It was like a castle with a city soldered straight onto it. The buildings all had the same style, and clustered together they looked like a bunch of different sized eggs in a nest.
Ash looked up over the strange metropolis to what Togekiss was really flying toward. It was a mirror image, an illusion of a second kingdom rising up out of the first. It couldn't be real… but yet it held something truer than the land it reflected.
"The Mirage Kingdom," Ash murmured.
"What?" Dawn asked, distracted turning to him for just long enough that she didn't see the cobblestones up ahead.
The car buckled and lurched on the uneven surface, losing control and swerving as Dawn not so delicately applied the brakes.
"Whew," she sighed in relief as the car narrowly avoided the city gate. She rose from her seat with Piplup still clinging to her, his legs turned to jelly from the crazy ride. Togekiss was just above them now. They'd managed to catch up via a flagrant disregard for safe traveling speeds. Maybe now she could…
"Togekiss, return!" she called out, holding the Poke ball above her head.
"Kiss?" Togekiss purred in befuddlement, as the blue glow left it and it traveled back into Dawn's Poke ball.
Dawn held the Poke ball close to her. "Don't scare me like that," she whispered quietly. Then she turned around and fixed Ash with a fierce expression. "Alright, what's going on here?" she demanded.
Ash froze. "What makes you think I know?" he asked defensively.
"You muttered something when you saw this place," Dawn said, gesturing expressively up at the ornate, egg-shaped buildings. "You've been here before, haven't you?"
Ash put down his hands and gave up the ghost. "Alright, I have been here once before, with Misty and May and the others. But that was a long time ago, and anyway I don't know why Togekiss would act that way."
Misty and May… well, of course Dawn had met May on more than one occasion, but somehow Misty had always remained a mystery. She was the girl Ash had traveled with when he first started on his journey and she had a sort of… legendary quality to an outsider. There was always a good story following 'I remember this one time, Misty and Brock and I…'
"Hold on," Ash said, bringing his gloved fist down into his open palm. "Yeah, that's it! It's gotta have something to do with the Togepi paradise!"
"The Togepi Paradise?" Dawn repeated, befuddled.
"Yeah," Ash said, pointing at the strange hallucination hovering above the kingdom. "Here in the Mirage Kingdom, Togepi are considered sacred, and live in the Togepi Paradise above the castle. Togekiss is Togepi's final evolved form. So that's gotta have something to do with it."
Dawn looked worriedly up at the mirror kingdom and then back at the Poke ball in her hand. "So that's what drew Togekiss here?"
"Gotta be," Ash said with a nod. "The same thing happened to Misty's Togepi before it evolved into a Togetic."
"So, that place just sucks in any Togepi or evolution of Togepi in the area?" Dawn asked, sounding panicked.
"Uh… no," Ash said, looking stumped once more. "That was only when the Togepi Paradise was in trouble because of this really bad guy called Colonel Hansen. Misty's Togetic just wanted to help."
"Do you think there's something wrong again and my Togekiss wanted to help?" Dawn posited, looking around. Everything seemed alright to her, but you never knew.
"Maybe," Ash said, looking ahead at the castle. "There's only one way to find out."
You can't just walk in on royalty without an appointment. Ash did not understand this rather fundamental fact and running up to the palace and shouting "We have to see Princess Sara right now!" at the first guard he saw could've gone badly for him. Luckily though, a plump women in a rotund purple hat, whose brown hair was just beginning to show some gray stopped by before Ash could be charged with 'disturbing a member of the police force in the execution of his duty' or some such thing.
She recognized Ash much more quickly than he recognized her. But sure enough it was Miranda, the castle caretaker whom he'd met in the Mirage Kingdom ten years ago. She'd seemed quite happy to find him back in the kingdom, even going so far as to call it a miraculous twist of fate.
When he and Dawn explained to Miranda what had happened with Togekiss, Miranda had nodded and agreed that it would be best if they saw Sara.
"Is there some trouble going on here that my Togekiss could sense?" Dawn asked, as they were led up the portrait-festooned hall of the castle.
Miranda hung her head as they walked along. "I think it's best if Her Majesty explains it to you," she said wearily.
She seemed to regain much of her energy when they reached the door of a parlor. She threw the double doors open dramatically. "Your Majesty!" she began excitedly, "Ash Ketchum has come back! His friend's Togekiss led them here!"
Ash and Dawn looked beyond Miranda into the room, waving somewhat nervously.
Sara, visible on the overstuffed couch, set down her teacup on the tray with another and got up immediately. Her light brown curls bounced as she gathered up her long skirts bearing marks similar to that of a Togepi and greeted them.
"Welcome friends," she said, sounding much more regal than Ash remembered her being. "I can only hope that your arrival here is the miracle we've been hoping for."
"Umm… gee," Ash said, scratching his cheek nervously. For whatever reason he got this 'hero' thing every so often. He'd never gotten used to it. He never would. "I don't really know what the problem is, but I'll do my best, Princess—" A thought struck him and he corrected himself, "I mean Queen Sara, right?"
"That's correct," Sara said with a bright smile. "But you're not the only miracle arrival we've had in the last few days."
There was a clink of china from the tray in the parlor as a tea cup was picked up. It was impossible to see the figure beyond the door, but the hand gripping the tea cup handle could be seen. It had its pinky extended, hoity-toity style.
"Don't tell me you've forgotten me, Ash Ketchum," a voice said.
Dawn looked curiously at Ash who stepped back and nearly fell over.
"Pika pi!" Pikachu called excitedly, jumping off of Ash's shoulder into the room.
"Misty?" Ash said in obvious astonishment.