Um, this chapter has some big-ish spoilers...

Honestly, I didn't ever think we'd have this problem, but, there it is. If you haven't seen episode 79 of Best Wishes, you might want to go check that out. And once the English version airs, I'll come back and change "Suwama's" name.

But, last episode in Unova, guys! I don't usually get emotional while writing, but, well, Ash is conscious, walking, getting more verbal...

I'm just so glad he's back.


Chapter 10: From the earth, the land, the sea and sky, they can never win (but they sure can try!)


A long time ago, I was presented with a choice. I had the opportunity to return to the wild, back to my own kind, or stay with a human trainer I'd been forced into a relationship with. Not knowing anything about the trainer in question, I would have always chosen to go, without fail.

The trainer, however, made all the difference.

I lay on my back, staring up at the clouds drifting by. I'd been outside contemplating my feelings for days, growing unusually existential as I tried to make sense of them. But for all my thoughts, I wasn't reaching any conclusions.

I had another choice to make.

I'd considered, all those years ago, what it would be like if I could leave Ash. I fantasized about what sort of circumstances would lead to us parting, what I'd do afterwords, and how I'd feel about it. Every day since leaving Pallet Town, the thought would enter my mind. It wasn't that I wanted to leave, necessarily, just that I wondered. As our journey wore on, it became more of a curiosity than anything, but I'd still think about it.

What I didn't know until that night, that instance that I saw Ash running away, was that "Pikachu" were no longer "my own kind". I loved nature, was wild at heart, still considered myself a Pokemon, but somehow, I'd become something else over time. That's what training did to you, it turned you into something new. And that night, I learned that I was more like Ash than I was like the other Pikachu, and the place where I belonged, the place where I could be with my own kind was right by his side.

Several years later, Ash and I were more alike than ever, but now, my place by his side was threatened.

That feeling of partnership in a pokemon battle is something you can't really understand until it happens to you, and part of why I fought Ash for so long. You can try to explain it, but there's so much that can't be told in words, some magical and incomprehensible unity that you have to feel for yourself. Ash and I are friends and equals, but there's a level to our relationship that exists outside of the friendship. I know that Ash gets it, understands what Pokemon training is supposed to be, and the more I grow to understand it, the stronger our friendship gets. Or, got, as our relationship was now moving into the past tense.

If I left Ash, and I forced my self to remember that this was still a hypothetical situation, I had nowhere to go. I couldn't return to the wild, find a group of Pikachu and live out life as I had previously done. My life had changed, I had bigger dreams, higher expectations and I needed people. I needed humans.

I might have special attacks in battle, but to me, Ash has always been stronger. His arms can pick me up off the ground and carry me away from anything, shield me from everything, warm me from the cold and heal my broken heart. Because a true Pokemon Master does more than just capture Pokemon, and Ash has always known that.

I had been given a choice, but Ash never had one. All of us under Ash's care were free, because he, even at ten years old, understood what his role of "Master" was supposed to be. He knew, better than the strong, experienced trainers, just what he was supposed to be mastering. He was our trainer, teacher, coach, and friend, sometimes a parent and occasionally, a psychiatrist. Protector, defender, and avenger, charged with a responsibility to us that went higher than our friendship, much as I often denied it. As our trainer, he could never give us anything less than everything, and our best interests always had to come before his own. I could choose to come back and prove him wrong, but he could never ask me to stay just because he wanted me to.

Or, maybe, Pokemon Mastery had nothing to do with it. Maybe Ash had never broken the mentality that I would want to leave. Maybe he always feared that he wasn't good enough? I'd told him as much, then promptly retracted it, but I wasn't the last one to do so.

Who could deny Butterfree flying across the sea to be with his mate? And yet, it was a huge blow to Ash, just the same, to know that there were things he couldn't do, things he couldn't be. Butterfree loved Ash purely and completely, but without true love, that life just wasn't good enough. Squirtle found a higher calling, and suddenly, training with Ash wasn't enough. Charizard left a nice flaming hole when he left, one that took years to fill up, and we lost Pidgeotto, Lapras, Larvatar, Ambipom and so many others. Ash was so much to us, but he couldn't be everything.

Maybe he'd always feared that if he wasn't perfect, he wouldn't be good enough for me? Because I knew within seconds that I couldn't leave Ash, not for all the peaceful pikachu forests in the world, but he had really never expected to see me again. I don't think he thought I would ever look back.

And now, as I stared at that sky that ran on forever, I had to choose my path. Ash had told me to go, just like before, but for the first time, he had acted completely according to his own interests. He had asked something for himself, after all these years of selflessly standing before spearow, legendaries, nature, me, and personal heartache, and I felt I owed it to him to honor that request.

At the same time... I didn't want to leave.

I no longer had a place with Ash. I didn't have a place among my own kind. I refused to bond with another trainer. Where, then, was I expected to go?

"Pikachu? Pikachu?" My ears twitched when I heard my name, and I turned my head to see Iris and Axew leaping over to me. "The boat leaves this evening. Don't fall asleep and miss it!"

Ash was going back to Pallet Town, checking out of the hospital today. It was a joyous day, for some, but for me, it was a day of judgment. I was out of time to decide: Where did I belong?

Iris sat down next to me, her long hair waving slightly in the breeze. "It's too early to give up the fight, you know," she declared, and I almost groaned. I'd been trying to avoid this conversation, but people kept finding me and shoving their opinions on me. Well-meaning as my friends were, Ash wasn't terrified by the sight of them, he didn't ask any of them to leave, and they weren't as close to him as I was. This was my choice, and I didn't need their uninformed opinions.

As if that ever stopped Iris. "I challenged Excadrill every single day until I got through to him," she continued proudly. "We had some rough patches, but it got smoothed out in time." I narrowed my eyes at her, and her face dropped. "I guess it's not exactly the same thing..." She scratched Axew's head and flopped onto her back, joining my pursuit of answers amongst the clouds.

She sighed aloud. "Actually, I was thinking maybe I should take a break from traveling. Just find a nice spot near some forests or mountains, and train there by myself..."

"Pika?" This didn't sound like Iris, but she didn't seem quite like herself today.

"I think I need a break," she said, in a voice that might have sounded carefree to those who didn't know her. I was skeptical, but I couldn't think of anything to say. "Cilan's going to go to Pallet Town, to help out while Ash recovers, so Axew and I will be on our own. Traveling with a bunch of other people, it's fun, but... " she sighed again, "It's childish, and I need to get serious. If I'm going to be a Dragon Master, I should find a quiet spot without distractions."

She was going to get lonely. But, maybe she already was. Either way, there was still plenty of time for disaster to find us, and we both turned our heads towards the crashing of brush that heralded Bianca's arrival.

"Pikachu!" she shrieked, running wild zigzags across the terrain. "Pikachu, where are you? Stuff is happening!"

I sat up before she could destroy any more foliage. "Pika?" Bianca heard me and about-faced to dash towards me and Iris.

"Ash is missing!" She cried, and with that, she had our full attention.

"What? How long?"

"PiKAchu?"

Bianca took off her hat and began wringing it in her hands. "I dunno, we just turned around one minute and he wasn't there! We haven't seen him for hours!" Didn't he just get out of the hospital? How could he have disappeared so quickly? "Pikachu, do you have any idea where he might have gone?"

"Pi..." I didn't know where to start. I hadn't seen Ash for days, not since he'd asked me to leave, and who was I to claim I knew what went on in his head? Luckily, Iris had some sensible questions.

"Did he say anything before he left?" she tried. "Was he acting weird before disappearing?"

"Well, he was really upset when he woke up this morning..." Not unusual. Some mornings, Ash didn't take the whole "your body won't obey, you can't talk and you've also lost a decade of your life" thing so well. In turn, people sometimes got sick of having to explain it to him every other day. "Maybe he ran off because he was scared?"

"Of course! I'll check the woods and parks!" Iris declared, bounding off with Axew. "Nature is soothing; it's the perfect place to calm down!"

For her, maybe, but I wasn't so sure. If Ash was scared, he'd never just run off on his own. My trainer didn't often seek solitude, and one of his greater fears was of being left alone. Faced with this situation, he'd want to stay close to the people he recognized, like his mother, or Professor Oak.

So, not scared, but maybe upset? Or did he have a goal in mind? I couldn't be sure where or why he went, but I had a pretty good idea of where he'd end up.

"Pi, pikachu!" I called out to Bianca, who blinked stupidly for a second until she realized that I wanted her to follow me. I was a little apprehensive that I only had Bianca to help me if we were to find Ash and an emergency arose, but I didn't think I had time to run off looking for our more responsible friends. The important thing was that we find Ash, I reasoned, and worry about the rest later. We dashed through the city streets, finally coming to rest in the lobby of the Pokemon Center, and I was relieved to see that I was correct. There was my trainer, sitting by the fountain with sheets of paper strewn around him.

Nothing seemed amiss, though his leg was bouncing up and down with a tremor. To an outsider, he simply looked restless, but Bianca and I knew it was an action far beyond his control. I couldn't wait until they got him to the specialist in Viridian, and finally know if the surgery procedure we'd heard about would be of any use. Curable, or manageable, either one was fine, as long as the downward spiral stopped there. Back in Hoenn, they'd predicted Ash had about five to ten years before his symptoms would prevent him from continuing his journey, but this latest catastrophe had cut that number by at least half.

I couldn't blame the accident, though. Amnesia or no amnesia, I was the reason he couldn't always control his own body, and that was something I was going to have to live with.

"Ash!" I stepped behind a potted plant before Bianca called too much attention to me, then winced when her overly enthused greeting managed to knock him backwards into the fountain. He was quickly fished out, but several of his papers were drenched in the process. "Oh! I'm so sorry!"

Ash just grumbled and gathered up the rest of his papers, which appeared to be drawings, or attempts at them. "Who?" He tapped his foot while Bianca stared. "Who?"

"Oh! I'm Bianca!" She smiled brightly despite Ash's less than warm response. "We're friends, I travel with you sometimes. You know, I'm kind of your rival," she winked, but Ash wasn't impressed.

He shuffled through his drawings. "Don't 'member..." he said, and Bianca started.

"Well... well, it doesn't matter!" she replied, far too cheerfully, and sat down beside Ash on the fountain's edge. "Soon you'll be home, and everything will be normal again!" She looked down at her feet, and I saw that her smile wasn't quite reaching her eyes anymore. "It'll only be things you're used to..." Ash frowned, clutching his drawings to his chest.

"Want...no, gone..." His leg jumped around like it was attached to a spring. "Can't see... forget, then disappears, it disappears..."

"I know," Bianca whispered, "Like it was never there..." They sat in silence for a moment, until Ash thrust his drawings at Bianca with urgency.

"R'mind me," he pleaded. "Every... this, every day... can't disappear, not disappear, see..." Bianca gingerly took the papers, some of which were still wet, and picked through them. "See... see every day... doesn't disappear..." His eyes were so wide and pleading that I wanted to grant all his requests.

But this wish, it seems, was Bianca's responsibility. "I have an idea. We," she declared, with a triumphant smile that worried me just a little, "Are going shopping!"


I was faced with a small dilemma, watching the two marching out of the Pokemon Center. On the one hand, I felt Bianca was in no way capable of handling any emergencies that might arise. Not that I expected one to, but Ash had been gone for hours and might be close to needing medication, on top of the fact that Bianca was an airhead. I'd feel much more at ease if I could chaperone them.

On the other hand, Ash had been gone for hours, and we owed it to the poor boy's mother to let her know Ash was all right. In the end, I pulled Bianca aside and managed to wrangle a rendezvous point out of her, and then ran off to let everyone else know they could call off the search.

When at last I was able to lead Delia and the rest of our company to the park Bianca had promised to meet us, she and Ash were laying on their stomachs, shoulder to shoulder while scribbling in a book. Scattered around them were pens, markers and crayons, as well as tape and plenty of paper. Even a stapler, which was currently being used to attach some of Ash's previous drawings to the pages. There were some sticker sheets as well, several of which had made it onto their faces.

Bianca looked up, a pokeball sticker covering her nose, and nudged Ash, who had a smiley face on his forehead. "Are you five?" Iris exhaled, disgusted and amused by the pair of them, but Ash was not slighted.

"Iris!" he called, and Iris froze, because Ash never remembered her name. She was still as a rock while Ash shakily got to his feet. "I-Iris..." He walked stiffly over to her, and the two locked eyes, both of them a bit nervous. "You...Axew... thank you..." At the sound of his name, Axew climbed out of Iris' hair with glee. Iris tried to shrug casually.

"For what?" she said nonchalantly, but Ash kept smiling.

"Here..." he said gratefully, "Always here... won't forget..." While Iris was busy pretending not to get emotional, Ash turned back towards Bianca, who gave him the book they had been working on.

"Write," Ash said, opening it and thrusting it at Iris, "Here, go, paper, write..." Bianca had to fish up a marker, but when she handed it to Iris, the purple-haired girl was confused.

"Write what?" she asked, looking back and forth between Bianca and Ash's intense eyes. "He can't read, anyway."

"Later," Ash muttered, a bit embarrassed, and Iris looked properly chagrined. Bianca just kept grinning.

"Write whatever you want," she instructed. "Your name, or a message, or anything, as long as it's from you." She called Iris' attention to the book in Ash's hands. "These are Ash's memories. If he can't remember in his head, I thought, maybe he can keep them somewhere else..."

"Every day," Ash nodded, "Read, every day... more, bigger, not disappear, disappear..." I couldn't see what was written on those pages, but Iris was touched and when Ash petitioned her one more time, "help...help r'member..." she snatched the pen from Bianca and began scribbling with a vigor.

"You," she muttered through misty eyes, "You're just... such a..."

"Kid?" Ash finished, sticking an Axew sticker on her chin. "Know..." The real Axew giggled and stole the pen from Iris to make some squiggly loops of his own. When they finished, they were accosted by the rest of the present company, who all wanted to see this book and perhaps make some additions of their own. Ash jumped in with the rest of them, and our crowd of friends began passing the book around, laughing and pointing and occasionally grabbing a marker and writing their own little edits.

"This is so fun!" Dawn shrieked with laughter, relishing in all the memories that Ash and Bianca had assembled, tiny and abridged as they might have been. I climbed a tree to peer over the crowd, though it didn't help me see the contents all that well. But I agreed with Dawn, with all the stickers, colors and doodles, it did look fun and engaging. "There's even some of the pokemon in here!"

"Snivy looks so bored!" The real Snivy looked over with her usual expression of haughty detachment, and smirked a little at the contents of her page.

"'Not-May May'," May frowned when she found her page. "What's up with that?" Gary was peering over her shoulder and immediately doubled over with laughter.

"I have a sister named May," he explained through wheezes, while Ash waved his arms wildly. "Ashy-boy used to have this huge crush on her..."

"Ash? Acknowledging a girl?" But Ash's face had flushed deep red, prompting more shrieks and howls. "I don't believe it!"

"Believe it or not, I'm fixing this," May declared, grabbing a pink marker. "You need better memories of me than 'not Gary Oak's sister'."

"Food," Ash suggested instantly, and everyone but May giggled some more.

But the happiness of the moment could only last for so long. "Hey, Pikachu's not in here!" Brock turned to Ash without thinking. "Why didn't you write anything about Pikachu?"

"Who?" Ash asked in a disinterested tone, and silence reigned.

I almost fell out of my tree. Nothing ever hurt as much as that one word.

I didn't exist in his world. He hadn't seen me for days, and so, I disappeared. If I wasn't constantly in front of his face, he'd forget all about me...

...and not care in the slightest.

But before anyone could destroy the moment and remind the poor boy that he had a best friend who terrified the living daylights out of him, we had a visitor. "Bianca! I've been looking all over for you!"

"Daddy?" We all turned to see Bianca's father running towards us, his face red and his belly shaking with each step. Bianca smiled broadly while he caught his breath. "What are you doing here?"

"I've come to take you home." And just like that, her smile faded.

"Again? Didn't we already talk about this?"

"Things have changed." Air back in his lungs, her father stood up proudly. "You need to come home with me, now." However, Bianca was not willing to cooperate.

"No, I don't understand!" she cried out in distress. "Why are you doing this again?"

"Bianca has gotten a lot stronger," Iris offered, to which Cilan nodded his support.

"Her flavor ripens and matures every day."

"You already agreed to let me keep traveling after you battled Ash, so why-"

"That's exactly the problem!" her father interrupted, looking a bit embarrassed when he made eye contact with Ash. "I heard about what happened," he continued gently, "And so, I'm sure it's not difficult for you all to understand why I want to keep my little girl safe." Bianca folded her arms petulantly. "I was afraid something like might happen. Can you imagine how I'd feel if this had been you?"

"Yes, actually," Bianca shot back with an acid we didn't know she possessed. "Do you think I've been sleeping the past few weeks?"

"I knew you were too young to begin a Pokemon Journey," her father accused, "You don't know anything about the real world. Come home, and try again in a few years." But Bianca just clenched her fists. "I just want to protect you, sweetie."

"You can't protect me from everything, Daddy." Her gaze was fixed on the ground, body as clenched as her hands. "You think this wouldn't have happened if Ash had just stayed in Kanto with his mother, and maybe you're right, but that tornado still happened and Ash wasn't the only person who got hurt that day." She was trembling with emotion, visibly shaking. "No could protect all of them."

"But if you were home with us, I'd worry about you less," her dad countered, but Bianca's sullen face didn't rise.

"I know you worry," she said after a pause, tears forming in her eyes, "But if I stay home, I won't change. It won't matter how many years I wait, I'll always be exactly the same as I am now. A stupid," she hiccuped, clenching her eyes shut to prevent any more tears from falling, "Air-headed, little girl who can't do anything for herself. I'll never be anything else!"

Her father moved forward as if to embrace her. "Bianca, you know I love you just the way you are." But Bianca stepped away, eyes flashing angrily.

"I love all of my Pokemon, but even they have to give something back," she declared. "Even Pokemon can't be completely dependent on their trainers, they have to try..." Bianca wiped her tears away, even though more were gushing out with every second. "I love them, and I'll give them everything in the world, anything they want. It doesn't matter how many times they fail, even if they never win a battle, I don't care, but all of them have to try..."

"Bianca..."

"You say you love me, but you never push me!" she shrieked, balling up her fists again. The dam had broken on her emotions, and the rest of us could do nothing but watch. It might have been polite to leave, but the shock of so much rage in our usually cheerful friend compelled us to stay. "I know I'm dumb and useless, you don't have to tell me that, but why don't you want me to change?" Her father seemed at a loss for words. "You want me to be stupid and dependent for the rest of my life!"

"That's not true! I just want to keep you safe!"

"Even Pokemon have to give something back!" Bianca repeated. "Otherwise, they might as well be plush dolls. It doesn't matter if they win or lose, but they know they have to try to match your expectations!" Her gaze moved back to the floor, most of her rage gone. "But you don't have any expectations. You don't have any faith in me, or any hope. So, how can you say you love me?"

"All parents love their children," her father replied tersely, to which Delia nodded, but Bianca wasn't swayed.

"You love me, but you don't do anything about it. Even beginning trainers know that doesn't do your Pokemon any good."

"You can't compare Pokemon training to this!"

"Can't I?" Bianca cried. "That's what this journey is about, isn't it?" And her father stopped, because she was exactly right. "It's never been about winning all the badges or filling up the Pokedex, it's about people and life..." she trailed off for a moment, "It's about me being a better person, and my Pokemon being better because they met me." I suddenly flashed back to a dark sky over Route 1, and felt a conflicting sense of awe and sympathy for all the ten year-old children thrust out to make their way in the world. If I could go back and re-visit that day with the power of hindsight, I would have done a lot of things differently.

Ash probably felt the same way, but in all honesty, that disaster was the best thing that ever happened to us. "You can still train at home for a few years," her dad tried again. "Grow stronger with your Pokemon, and then we'll see about going farther."

"You don't want me to end up like Ash, right?" Bianca said, looking over at our friend. "But parents can't protect their kids from everything, and if Ash's mom hadn't let him go on his Pokemon Journey, he would have never met me." Bianca bit her lip, frowning to herself. "I didn't get to play with a lot of the other kids, because you kept me so sheltered. And when I turned ten, all the kids my age left on their Pokemon Journeys."

No wonder she was so immature, the girl had no peer group to relate to. "Everybody grew and changed and left, but I stayed the same. When I met all of you, I made friends for the first time. You guys don't think much of me," everyone was quick to give a protest, however hypocritical it might have been, "But you're always cheering for me and expecting me to be better, and I've changed because I've met you. Especially Ash, and he doesn't remember me anymore, but, I want to believe that something changed for him because he met me, too. I want to believe that it mattered."

She sniffled again, a new wave of tears coming. "Right now, I'm not smart, and I'm kind of useless, but there's at least one person out there I might matter to some day. And like Ash, if I never leave home, I'll never meet them, and I'll never have anything worthwhile to pass on when I do." Bianca straightened up, blinking away her tears. "And so I can't go home yet. I'll work hard to meet everyone's expectations, and then I'll come home and show you what I'm really worth."

Her father tried one last plea, "But Bianca..."

"Even if Ash forgets everything about me, it was worth it," Bianca interrupted. "I'm sorry, Mrs Ketchum, but I wouldn't give up meeting Ash for anything, not even if it meant he never got hurt. I guess I'm selfish that way," she said ruefully, "But if the same thing happens to me tomorrow, I still think it would be better than living a hundred years at home all alone." With that, she was done, and wiped her face hurriedly. "I'll see you all back at the harbor," she abruptly said, running off to be alone with her thoughts and tears.

We all watched her go, even her father too stunned to follow. "She forgot her bag," Gary finally pointed out, and we all shrugged.

"She wouldn't be the same without her unique spice," Cilan said kindly, picking up her bag. "I'll give it to her before we board." Iris was still staring in shock.

"Has she always been that deep?"

"That's what we get for making broad assumptions." Cilan frowned suddenly, dropping Bianca's bag in the dirt. "Ash?"

We hadn't noticed with all the family drama, but Ash's restless movements were becoming quite severe, and he had sat down in the dirt to try and hold himself down. "Why didn't you say anything?" his mother chided, which may have been a little unfair. Ash was clearly frightened by his own body's betrayal, but articulating his condition wasn't his forte at the moment, and I was sure he wasn't fully aware of all his condition entailed.

Sometimes, we forgot that he was just a little boy. Delia knelt down beside her son and put her arm around him. "Stand up, Ash, it'll hurt less if you walk around." Ash looked dubious, but Delia insisted. "Come on, I'll help you up." Getting him to his feet was a bit of a hassle, but the voluntary movement did seem to ease the involuntary, somewhat.

"Didn't he take that medicine this morning?" May asked, but Delia shook her head.

"He ran off before breakfast," she sighed. "There's nothing to do but wait until dinner..." Was this life, now?

"You understand, don't you?" Bianca's father petitioned Delia as we began to walk back. "Bianca's so young and innocent, I couldn't handle it if this happened to her." Delia's response was quiet.

"I don't think it matters if we can handle it or not."

We walked slowly back to the harbor, Ash shuffling most of the way, but his gait improved over the course of the walk. His demeanor, however, was still shaken. "Why?" he kept asking.

"You had an accident, Ash," his mother said wearily, "Don't you remember?"

"Yeah, but..." he trailed off and finally let the subject go to move on to another one. "Bi...Bianca... thinks... wrong, she's wrong," he said earnestly, looking around at us. "Not stupid, not her, wrong... mattered...to me..."

"She'd be happy to hear it," Cilan said quietly. "I don't think anyone tells her that."

When we reached the harbor, Bianca had not yet arrived, but there was something else interesting to grab Ash's attention. "What?"

"Is that a Salamance?" Iris gushed, running forward and Ash followed to pet the large creature. Sitting atop the dragon beast was the gray-haired man from a few weeks ago, and-

"Ritchie!" Brock greeted, and our friend waved excitedly.

"Hey, guys!" He hopped off Salamence and ran up to Ash. "I came as soon as I heard! You look... good..." Comparatively speaking, Ash did look good, finally in his own clothes again. He wasn't the same without his long, disheveled hair, but he looked more like the Ash we knew than the foreign being we'd been exposed to the past few weeks. "You got out this morning, right?"

"Yeah," Ash said uncomfortably, shifting restlessly. "Who?"

Ritchie looked like he'd been hit on the head, and I had an unkind feeling of self-righteousness that it wasn't happening only to me. "I, uh... I'm Ritchie, remember?"

"No," Ash apologized, and in Ritchie's favor, he did look sorry about it. Brock stepped forward before any more feelings got hurt.

"Ritchie is an old friend of yours, Ash. You battled him at the Pokemon League." Yeah, because I'm sure Ash loved remembering that battle. Ash looked incredulous, however, and even a little excited, and his smile relaxed Ritchie.

"I'm sorry I couldn't be here earlier," he offered, and Ash shook his head with a grin.

"Yours?" he pointed to Salamance, but before Ritchie could answer, Silver jumped off and landed in front of them.

"The big guy's with me," he said proudly, ruffling Ritchie's hair and causing the boy to cry out indignantly. "Thought I'd give the two half-pints a ride back to Pallet in style."

"Hold on, Silver!" Delia stomped forward, "If you think you're taking my son a couple thousand feet into the air over an ocean, you've got another thing coming!"

"Aw, the boy's been in the hospital for weeks, let him live a little..."

"That's exactly my point!" Delia argued, and Professor Oak sighed.

"This could take a few hours," he said with a rueful grin. "Shall we leave them to it?" We joined Ash and Ritchie, the former still enraptured by Salamance, and started catching up.

And in all that distraction, no one remembered Sparky... "Pikachu!" the familiar voice called, stretching after a long nap and jumping onto Ritchie's shoulder.

"Finally awake, huh?" Ritchie grinned, turning to Ash. "So, where's Pikachu? Sparky's been excited to see him again." When no one answered, he assumed the worst. "Oh, no! He's not-"

"No, Pikachu's fine," Brock reassured. "He's probably hiding in the bushes somewhere..." He looked around a bit, as did Ash, curiously. "There's kind of something weird going on right now..."

"What?" Ash asked, which only made Ritchie more confused.

"What do you mean, 'what'? Your best friend!" He gestured to Sparky, who had hopped off his shoulder to go poking around for me. "Remember? Pikachu?"

The rest of the group tried to shut him up, but the damage had already been done. "Pikachu..." Ash murmured, thinking it over in his mind while he stared at Sparky, and suddenly, it clicked into place. "AH! Where, WHERE?"

"Everything's fine, Ash, just calm down," May soothed, and Dawn came up on his other side.

"Pikachu's off playing somewhere else right now, no need to worry!" At that, Ash relaxed a little, but he still eyed the bushes suspiciously.

Meanwhile, Sparky had found me. "What the...?"

"I know," I sighed, relieved when my trainer finally looked away. "He got hit on the head, and now this is my life, stalking my best friend from the bushes." Sparky looked at me sympathetically.

"That sucks." Somehow, those two words were enough to break me.

"I know," I whispered again, hiding my face so that Sparky couldn't see my tears. He gently pushed through the leaves and crouched beside me, rubbing his red cheeks against mine. The little flow of electricity was warm and calming.

"Anything I can do?"

I shook my head. "I don't think so, but thanks." I was grateful for his presence, and he stayed with me while the rest of our friends chatted, and while Delia and Silver continued their argument. Pokemon were popping out of Pokeballs, either to greet friends they hadn't seen in ages, or to introduce each other to new ones. With so many Pokemon around, Ash was in his element, and it always astounded me that playing with Pokemon could reduce his symptoms so easily. As long as he stayed moving, when he was with Pokemon, he was almost normal. He'd also gotten over that initial awkwardness, and before long, he and Ritchie were arm in arm like a pair of brothers, grinning from ear to ear. I wasn't surprised, as they'd always been close, but it made me a little sad.

I wanted him to smile like that with me.

"Are you Ash Ketchum?" A foreign voice was heard, and we all turned to face the new arrival. "Is he here?" The kid didn't look like anyone I'd ever met, nor did any of our human friends seem to recognize him. Tepig, however, gasped and stared.

"Who are you?" Brock asked, speaking for Ash, who just hummed in a questioning tone. Our new arrival smirked broadly.

"My name's Shamus," he announced proudly, running up to point dramatically in Brock's face. "I've heard stories about you, but you can't beat me! I challenge you to a Pokemon Battle!"

"What stories are these?" May asked, intrigued, and Shamus grinned.

"Only that you haven't seen anything until you've seen Ash Ketchum battle."

"Ha!" Gary laughed. "You should hear the stories we tell back home!"

"So how about it? Let's fight!"

Brock smiled awkwardly. "Well, actually, Ash is this guy here," he nodded his head in Ash's direction. "And I don't know if your grapevine told you, but he's been in the hospital for a while, so..."

"But you're out now, right?" Shamus interrupted, focusing his attentions on my trainer. "Come on! Let's have a battle! I won't take no for an answer!"

Ash was at a loss. "N-not, wait... huh?" Brock decided to rescue the poor boy.

"Look, can I explain something to you in private?" But Shamus ignored him completely, as well as Tepig, who had run up to the new arrival with excitement.

"Listen, kid, if two trainers lock eyes, they have to battle! You can't chicken out!"

"Yeah, but Ash really can't battle now!" Dawn defended, while Ash looked more and more confused. "You'll have to battle someone else!"

"Yeah, don't be so childish!"

"But I came to challenge him!" Shamus whined, glaring at Ash. "Aren't these your Pokemon?" He pointed to the present party, Snivy, Tranquill, Oshawott and Scraggy, then finally noticed Tepig. Tepig squealed with joy and latched onto Shamus' leg, nuzzling it happily. "Hey, what gives?"

Ash had no clue, but Cilan grew thoughtful. "I wonder... Could it be that this Tepig used to belong to you?" Iris started, head whipping back to look at Shamus, who seemed just as surprised.

As for myself, I was floored, and nearly darted from the bushes to run to Tepig. But finally, a smile tugged at our stranger's features. "So, you were able to get yourself a new trainer. How about that?"

"I can't believe you!" Iris shouted, actively raging, while Cilan's anger was more subdued. "Abandoning a Pokemon like that! You should apologize right now!"

"Chuuuu," I agreed, my own cheeks sparking, and it was lucky that Ash couldn't see me and Sparky right now, because we'd have given a perfectly good reason for people to be scared of us.

"It's my right as a trainer," Shamus said easily, nudging poor Tepig away with his foot. "I can't be taking care of useless Pokemon." He ignored Tepig's mournful cries and focused his attention back on Ash. "So? Are we battling or not?" Ash looked torn between concern for Tepig and general confusion.

"Umm..." He kept looking to the rest of the group for help. "Um, not... don't..." Brock sighed and stepped up.

"We told you already, Ash can't battle right now. Maybe some other time."

"Or you could battle me," Iris offered, clearly having an axe to grind.

"No thanks," Shamus sniffed. "I came to battle Ketchum, I'm not gonna waste my time with the loser's rejects." He smirked down at my trainer. "You look like a weakling, anyway."

If the old Ash had been present, that line would have been a death sentence. The Ash I knew could never stand to be slighted in such a way, and I would have been right on his shoulder, sounding the battle cry.

But the Ash I knew was buried somewhere under that old building. My new trainer just shrugged with a sheepish smile and picked up Tepig in his arms. "...sorry..." he said in a voice that was only mildly disappointed. He gently stroked the poor Pokemon's ears, not caring about Shamus' taunts. Luckily, the rest of our friends were indignant on his behalf.

"Take that back!"

"You jerk!"

"You want a battle? I'll give you one!"

Shamus just waved them off. "I've got better things to do with my time," he drawled, and turned to leave, but didn't make it far before Tepig jumped out of Ash's arms and chased after him. "What do you want?"

"You don't think," Cilan began, a bit of worry in his voice, "Even after everything, Tepig still misses his old trainer?" Iris looked scandalized.

"No way..."

"Um," Ritchie leaned in with a confused look. "Who is this creep?"

"He used to be Tepig's trainer," Cilan explained with a glare. "But he abandoned Tepig and threw him away."

"When we found Tepig, he'd been tied up to a post," Iris added with a glower of her own. "He was so starved and dirty that we thought he was an Umbreon."

"What?" That his a nerve with Brock, and I fully expected him to have Shamus by the collar within seconds, except, Ash somehow managed to get there and do it first.

"What?" he repeated in a voice that channeled thunder. His memories might not be all there, but his righteous fury was still alive, and his variation on Mean Look had never been more threatening. That look that said "I trained a Charizard and face down legendaries, so there is nothing you can do that will scare me!" There was no version of Ash that could stand to see Pokemon hurt.

"Ash!"

"Battle!" Ash demanded, though Shamus just pushed him backwards. "Battle, p-p-pol'gize! A-Apol'gize!"

Shamus wrinkled his nose. "Something wrong with you? Why are you talking all retarded?"

Pokemon match? No...

This was war.

"I've never seen Ash so angry," Iris breathed, to which May, Dawn and Brock all shrugged.

"Hunter J."

"Team Magma."

"Lucario."

"Paul." It was true; before that damned tornado, Unova had been a refreshingly slow region.

Ash looked ready to tear that boy's head off, and as he was backed in that desire by the majority of the crowd, Shamus decided to go along with the Pokemon Battle.

"Fine!" He declared with a grin. "We'll show you the power of the Fire Warriors!" He called his Emboar and Heatmor out of their pokeballs. "And then you'll see how useless that Tepig really is." Ash just snorted his disdain. "A double battle! Tepig and whatever Pokemon you want to watch lose!" Ash's mouth was set in a hard line as Shamus jogged off to a nearby field, his Pokemon stomping behind him. He passed Bianca as he did so, causing her to lose control of her own running while she stared after his Emboar, and she consequently smashed into Ash and knocked him off the dock.

After we fished him out, and Bianca had apologized several times, she finally asked what was going on. "Ash is going to battle that guy," Ritchie summarized, "He used to be Tepig's trainer, but the sleazeball abandoned him."

"That's so mean!" Bianca shrieked. "You teach him a lesson, Ash!"

"Excuse me," a voice broke in, and we were all reminded that Bianca's father was still following us. "Is that really a good idea?"

"I don't see why not," Delia reasoned, and Silver nodded.

"Guys like that don't deserve to call themselves trainers. Show him what a real battle is, half-pint." Bianca's father cringed.

"But he's..." he gestured at Ash in a way that was probably meant to be discreet, but failed. "Well, he can't do this!"

"All boys grow up someday," Delia said resolutely, "It doesn't matter if they're a person or a Pokemon, they all need a chance to prove themselves." She smiled down at Ash. "If not, they never learn how to be men." She dug Ash's pokedex out of his backpack and handed it to him, and though he accepted it gratefully, the anger had long since been dropped from his face. "You can do it, Ash."

"R-Right... T-tepig," he said, but Tepig just looked morose, and Ash bit his lip. "Gary!" he begged, practically launching himself at the other boy. "H-help! Don't... not... how..." Gary snorted.

"Actually, I think you're doing a bang up job on your own, there, Ashy-boy..."

"Gary..." Ash whined, "L-li...linoone... don't..." It was Brock who clapped a hand on Ash's shoulder, startling him.

"We don't understand you," he said firmly. "Calm down and use full sentences." Ash clenched his teeth, and in his mind, I'm sure he was swearing at him.

"...Linoone... don't..."

"Verbs, Ash."

"Have!" Ash snapped. "Don't... don't have...linoone..." Blank looks were shared among the group.

"No, I don't think you do," Dawn said, nonplussed. May tapped her chin, thoughtfully, but didn't seem to be coming up with any insight.

"Need... linoone," Ash insisted again, "Can't, can't battle, how? Can't...rules..." Gary frowned.

"Do you mean a license?" he finally asked, and that was clearly what Ash was looking for. "You already have one, remember? You're a Pokemon trainer now, you've been in lots of battles."

Shamus' distasteful voice was heard in the distance. "Are you guys gonna be all day?" Ash looked uneasily down at his Pokemon, who were all waiting eagerly at his feet, minus Tepig. I would have been with them, except, I didn't think it likely that Ash would choose me.

He looked over each of his Pokemon carefully, with the seriousness I usually associated with league matches.

"Girl," he said finally, and after a few seconds, Snivy and Tranquil realized which one he meant.

"About time he figured it out," was all Snivy said as she stepped forward, but I could see she was pleased. Lucky her.

May leaned in to Brock. "Do you think Ash actually has a chance?" Brock just shrugged.

"I'm a little worried about Tepig," the pig pokemon didn't look like he had any inclinations to battle at all, "But if Ash can call his attacks properly, he should do all right."

"That's the problem, isn't it?" his mother sighed.

"But Ash has been battling for years, even if he doesn't remember," Brock pointed out. "Those neural pathways might still be strong." May blinked.

"Neural what, now?"

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Ever since he started studying to be a doctor, I can't understand a thing he says."

Meanwhile, Ash was trying to plan a strategy, despite Tepig's present apathy. When shown moves or stats in the pokedex, it just moaned, and eventually, Ash gave up and focused his attention on Snivy.

He smiled weakly at her. "Um... not...don't... stupid," he laughed ruefully and pointed to his head, seeming more nervous than he needed to be. "Mess... you... you... clever... clever girl..." Snivy nodded as if this made absolute sense. "Can... can you...? mess?"

"Snivy." She seemed so confident. I wasn't even sure what Ash was getting at, but he brightened at her response and whipped open the Pokedex, scanning Snivy and looking at her attacks.

"Words, not, can't," Ash was saying, scrolling through the data, "See? See? This..."

"Snivy."

"This...?"

"Snivy! Snivy!"

"What on earth are they talking about?" Brock muttered, and Cilan shrugged.

"I don't ask questions when it comes to Ash's battle strategies," he laughed. "I just sit back and watch the show."

"Speaking of the show, I think we should probably get this one on the road," Gary offered. Luckily, Ash and Snivy had finished their huddle, and quickly ran out to face their opponent. Both of them looked far more serious than they needed to for a simple field battle. If I hadn't known, I would have thought they were facing Cynthia for the championship title. Tepig, however, still appeared to be facing the gallows.

"Come on," I said to Sparky with a sigh, "It looks like the party's moving." We scampered along the sidelines and took refuge in a nearby tree, well over Ash's head but able to see and hear the proceedings clearly.

"Ready?" Shamus called, standing at the ready with Emboar and Heatmor. Snivy and Tepig stood across from them, but Ash didn't stand behind his team. Instead, he walked over to the sidelines so he was facing Brock, the referee.

"Hn," Ash nodded, and everyone just stared.

"You're supposed to stand behind your Pokemon, moron," Shamus said, but Ash stood his ground.

"Here." At his determination, Brock chuckled.

"Well, I don't see a problem with it, do you?" As unusual as it was, Shamus couldn't come up with a reason to contest it. In a few minutes, they'd be running all over that field, anyway.

"Fine! Let's battle! Heatmor, Ar-" Before he'd even finished talking, Ash threw up his hand and Snivy was charging in for a quick attack. "What? Dodge!" It was too late, however, and Snivy managed to get in a hit, followed up by a vine whip.

"Blow!" Ash shouted to Snivy, who set loose a Leaf Storm without even pausing for breath, then turned to Tepig. He flung his hand in the direction of Emboar, and I suddenly clued into Ash's strategy. By standing on the side, instead of the trainer's box, he could use visual cues when his words failed him.

"He's brilliant..." I whispered, and Sparky just laughed at me. "What? He is!"

"I'm not arguing."
"T'pig, Charge!"

Tepig, however, just hung his head. "Ha! Told you it was useless!" Shamus cried. "Emboar, Flare Blitz!"

"Move!" Ash yelled, and Snivy did her best to escape, but still was hit by the attack. Tepig didn't even try, and was hit full on. "Pull, pull!" Somehow, Snivy interpreted that and used Vine Whip to wrap around Heatmor's leg, pulling herself out of the line of fire before sustaining too much damage. Even so, the attack had taken it's toll, and she whipped around to shout at Tepig.

"Are you going to just stand there?" she scolded. "We're in the middle of a battle, here!" Tepig kicked at the ground, embarrassed and torn.

"I can't," he pleaded, "I can't battle him, he raised me!"

"Raised you?" Snivy sneered. "He left you. How can you stand there and defend him?"

"You don't know, okay!" Tepig cried, whimpering slightly. "He didn't want to leave me, he just couldn't keep me... We were friends!"

Snivy clearly wanted to retort, but there was still a double battle going on, and she had to hold it down as best she could. "Sni-!" Ash threw his hand out in front of him and Snivy shot forwards for another Quick Attack, moving fast enough to avoid Heatmor's Fury Swipes and Emboar's Hammer Arm. "Flamethrower!"

No one was sure if that order was meant for Snivy or Tepig, and it didn't really matter, because Snivy wasn't able to react quickly enough and was hit by Fire Spin. Even so, she still managed to use her Vine Whip to knock Tepig away from Emboar's Arm Hammer, as the little guy wasn't making any attempts to dodge.

"No!" Oshawott squealed from the sidelines. "Don't let them hit you! Fire is super-effective!"

"Oh, shut up, this is harder than it looks," Snivy shot back. I could only imagine. Between the Fire-Types and Ash's inability to articulate commands, this was a gargantuan feat for her. "You going to help out anytime today?" she called over to Tepig, who once again hung his little head in shame. "You think this guy's your friend, but Ash, here," she waved at our trainer, who was scanning his pokedex hurriedly, "He really cares about you."

"He doesn't even remember me!" Tepig shouted, and little tears were threatening to fall. "Pikachu was his best friend, and he abandoned him! How is that any different!"

"He wouldn't do that to you," I said, mostly to myself, not sure where all the confidence was coming from. Sparky moved just a little closer to me, the presence slight, but enough to be reassuring.

"Listen to me," Snivy said darkly, "Ash never abandoned Pikachu, and you know that. It's Pikachu that abandoned us."

"What?" My shock and surprise gave away my position, and Snivy's head whipped around to smirk in my general direction.

"You heard me, you little coward," she taunted. "Wanna get out of that tree and say something about it?" I didn't, because I was worried Ash would see me and react, and so, the battle continued without me.

"You have a whole family here, Tepig," she said between clashing Vine Whips and Fury Swipes. "And we're willing to fight for you, no matter what the circumstances!" She charged forward with Leaf Blade, causing Heatmor to flinch and landing an attack on Emboar before it knocked her away. "What do you care about some jerks that left?"

"Hearts!" Ash called, and Snivy sprung into action, using Attract on the two giants she was facing. It worked just long enough for her to land a Leaf Storm attack.

"Don't you get it! Ash is willing to fight for you, despite everything that's happened, and the rest of us are right here beside you! What has that guy ever done for you, huh?"

"But you abandoned your trainer," Tepig said uncertainly, causing Snivy to stop dead in her tracks. "And then Ash abandoned Pikachu..."

Tepig was slapped across the face by a Vine Whip. "You don't understand anything!" she hissed. "My trainer abandoned me, got it?" Her face was hard and cold. "And we both deserved for that to happen. But Pikachu didn't leave because of Ash, he left because of Piakchu, and if you want to call that abandonment, then you just remember that he brought it on himself." Somehow, I didn't think she was talking to Tepig anymore.

Ash was engrossed in the Pokedex, trying to come up with new moves and strategies while his opponent's pokemon were lovestruck, so I risked shouting back to the competitors. "You don't know what you're talking about!"

"Don't I?" she called back, while Tepig ignored another order from Ash to attack. "Talking to you, it's like Ash is the only person that matters, like you didn't have this whole family of people who loved and cared about you..."

"Tepig, run! Snivy, Flamethrower!" Ash cried again, and Snivy rolled her eyes and released the Leaf Storm to end all Leaf Storms.

"We're going to have to work on this..." she glared at Ash, but in more of a playful way than a malicious one. For Ash's part, he didn't seem aware that he'd just asked his grass-type to use a fire move, and seemed pleased with the results. However, Emboar and Heatmor had both risen from their stupor, and responded with attacks of their own.

Snivy used Vine Whip to block Heatmor from hitting Tepig, but was left defenseless against Emboar's Arm Hammer. "Get up!" Oshawott cried, waving his scallop shell like a flag. Tranquill and Scraggy shouted out cheers of their own. "Come on, Snivy, get up!"

"Of course," Snivy panted, more confident than her physical state justified. "The boy asked for a Flamethrower, after all..." And with that, the look in her eyes was positively murderous. "Haaaaa!" She released a Leaf Storm, but instead of the bright, green leaves I was used to seeing, these leaves were more of a duller color, and they flew straight up in the air to form a massive leaf ball.

"What on earth is she doing?" Sparky wondered, and I didn't have a clue.

"You're supposed to aim for the target!" I shouted at her, but she paid me no mind.

More and more leaves poured from her body into the hurricane of leaves pulsing in the air, but not one of them left the mess to go hit an opponent. "You're attacks don't mean anything if they can't hit!" Shamus taunted, laughing as Snivy's leaves rubbed and grated furiously against each other, never exiting the swirling monstrosity.

And then, the miracle happened. One tiny spark, but with that many dry leaves, one spark was all it took, and suddenly, Snivy had a massive fireball on her hands.

"HA, HA! YES!" She fed the flame with a constant stream of Leaf Storm, and her mass of burning flame engulfed her opponents completely. I didn't think it would be all that super effective, but the sheer shock value alone did some damage, and certainly, Emboar and Heatmor were too busy staring to even consider dodging.

"Wow," Sparky said flatly, "You guys sure upped a level since Indigo."

"Wait until I show you Thunder Armor," I said, still dazed by the glory of Snivy's Flamethrower. Even Ash looked stunned. "..."

"I'm so glad I got out of the rivalry business," Gary deadpanned, and May nodded.

"If Ash can't take the League this year, I'm giving up on him." But Snivy's accomplishment was not enough to turn the tide against two Fire-Types, and Shamus collected himself quickly.

"Don't let them humiliate you!" he cried, "Fire Blitz! Fire Spin! Show them our true power!" Both his pokemon charged into action, combining their attacks into one blue and white flame surrounding Emboar. "Attack!" Emboar charged straight for Tepig, who could only stare in horror as the ball of energy headed his way.

"Not today!" Snivy zipped back and tackled Tepig, knocking him out of the way and taking the full force of the attack.

"Snivy!" Ash screamed, running over, and Oshawott hid his eyes beneath his scalchop.

"Oh, no..." I whispered, craning my neck to get a closer look. Brock had a resigned look in his eyes, and declared that Snivy had fainted and was unable to battle.

Ash picked her up in his arms. "S-sorry..." he murmured, holding her close. "Good... did good, clever, clever girl... sorry..."

"Silly boy," Snivy sighed, blinking with exhausted eyes. "Would I have let you catch me if I didn't think you could do this much?"

Ash pulled out her Pokeball. "Rest..." But Snivy refused.

"No, I'm watching this thing until the end." She faced Tepig, but he wasn't able to meet her eyes. "Are you going to give up, after all that?"

"I can't fight him..." Tepig argued, sniffling. "What's the point, anyway?"

"The point?" I found myself on my feet, running down the tree trunk and towards the battlefield before I could even think. Ash yelped and stumbled back a few steps, but I ignored him. "The point is that Snivy just learned Flamethrower, just for you! That's the point!" I pointed at Shamus with a sneer. "Ever since you agreed to come with us, you've been a member of this family, and we support each other. We never abandon each other, or leave them alone, no matter what!" Tepig was startled by my sudden appearance, but not convinced.

"You say we're a family, but Ash doesn't even remember us!" he wailed. "And you just left all of us!"

Now I understood what Snivy had been getting at. "I'm sorry," I said sincerely. "I'm really sorry. But I'm not leaving you, and neither is Ash. Even if he can't remember everything he used to, he still loves you, and he's still here, ready to support you in anything. Would that guy do the same?" Tepig looked dubiously across the field, then back to me.

"But, if he could forget about you..."

"Ash isn't the only one who matters to me," I said defiantly, realizing something I'd forgotten over the past few weeks. "You're my friend, too, and believe me, there isn't anybody who could make me stop caring about you." I turned to my trainer, fire in my eyes. "Even Ash can't kick me out of my own family." I expected to see fear on Ash's face, and I wasn't mistaken, but there was another strange emotion buried in his apprehensive eyes.

"...back..." he whispered to me, and I smirked back at him.

"You'd better believe it." I turned back to Tepig, completely serious. "Snivy fought so hard to defend you. Are you going to let all that go to waste?"

"You can talk all you want, but it won't do any good," Shamus called from his side of the field. "That little guy's useless. Why do you think I went out looking for stronger Pokemon?" Tepig cringed, shocked and ashamed, and Ash snapped.

"Wrong!" he shouted, Snivy echoing his wrath. "So... wrong! Tepig!" he called, stepping back off the field, "CHARGE!"

It was like a switch was flipped inside Tepig's mind, and he raced forward with all the power of Ash's fighting spirit behind him. "PAH!" He collided with Emboar and knocked the giant pokemon off it's feet, and suddenly, a flash of light erupted on the field.

"Could it be...?"

"An evolution!"

Gary rolled his eyes. "Ketchum, you have the best timing on earth." When the light show died down, Tepig was nowhere to be found, and Pignite was standing in it's place. It roared gleefully, and looked back at Ash, who was both awed and joyous.

"...go."

One Fire Pledge later, and the battle was over. Shamus was stunned, and the rest of us were jumping and shrieking with joy.

"I can't believe it, I just can't believe it!" Bianca was crying jubilantly, and Dawn was hugging May and giggling loudly.

"This is why I travel with him," Cilan laughed. "Nobody else battles like this!" Brock grinned back at him.

"Yeah, I forgot how much I missed this." Ash and Snivy ran to Pignite and embraced happily but awkwardly, laughing so hard that they didn't notice Shamus walking up behind them.

"Good job, Pignite," he said, looking so gentle and kind that I could hardly believe it was the same person. "You've gotten a lot stronger, huh? Why don't you come back with me? Rejoin the team?" I was astounded by the audacity of such a request, even more so when Pignite looked pleased to be asked.

But Pignite let loose a Flamethrower right in Shamus' face. "This is my team, now. I wouldn't leave them for anything."

I smiled as Shamus ran off, but froze when Ash turned back to look at me. Our eyes locked, and I wanted to say something, but I didn't know what would get through to him. In the end, Ritchie called his name, and Ash left without saying another word to me.

It would be a lie to say I wasn't hurt. Snivy sidled up to me, "You know, today was the only day he didn't ask about you."

"Huh?" I turned to look at her in surprise, and she tossed her head haughtily.

"All week, he's been asking where you were. Today was the only day he didn't say anything about you." We watched Ash celebrating with our friends, everyone cheering at his and Pignite's victory. "I don't know what he might have wanted, but he clearly expected you to come back." I chuckled bitterly.

"And if he forgot all about me, then it would have been my own fault?" Snivy nodded.

"No relationship is ever one-sided. It takes both of you to fix mistakes," she said. "Just ask my old trainer." And with that, she walked off to congratulate Pignite, who hugged her enthusiastically and lifted her into the air. I watched her squirming, and thought that maybe she was right.

Sparky zapped me out of my thoughts, and we both raced to join our friends. I stayed on the sidelines, but I didn't bother to hide myself, and I could see Ash watching me nervously.

Even so, he didn't run away.

Would he have the same opinion tomorrow? Would he even remember any of this? I didn't know, and suspected there were going to be many more terrible days ahead if I decided to go home with him. But Snivy was right, and whatever happened between us, I couldn't place all of the responsibility on Ash. Nor was he the only person the ones at home were waiting to see.

"So, you're really coming home, then?" Pignite asked me, and I jumped up on his head and pulled on his ears.

"Definitely!" I laughed as Pignite tried to swat me off, and caught a stray glimpse of Ash watching us.

I couldn't be sure, but he might have been smiling.

"It's getting about that time," Professor Oak cleared his throat. "We should probably get down to the boat."

"I have to be going as well..." Bianca's father faced his daughter awkwardly, and Bianca bit her lip.

"Daddy..."

"Be careful out there, sweetie." He hugged Bianca tightly, and I saw her blink back some tears. "Just make sure you call home sometimes."

"I'll remember," she promised, and they broke apart.

"No you won't," her father laughed. "But you work hard. I look forward to seeing... I look forward to seeing the woman you'll become..." Bianca began crying openly and hugged her father again, and around them, the farewell rituals were beginning among the rest of our group.

"Well, girls," Brock hugged May and Dawn close, "I know the circumstances weren't so great, but it was really good to see you again."

"We'll miss you, Brock."

"Study hard, okay?" Cilan and Iris were also trying to share a hug, but it ended badly when Cilan began choking on Iris' hair.

"Good grief," he sputtered, while Iris smoothed out her mane indignantly. Still, their parting was genuine and sweet. "I really enjoyed traveling with you."

"Me too," Iris confessed, looking down at the ground. "Are your brothers really okay with you leaving?"

"Chili took it pretty hard, but he'll come around," Cilan waved it off. "They both know how important this is to me, after all." Iris nodded, then extended her hand.

"When you come back, let me know," she offered shyly. "We can travel together again. Maybe... maybe Ash can join us, too..."

"I'd love that." He shook her hand with a smile. "Best Wishes, Iris." Axew burst into tears, and Cilan opened his arms for a quick hug. "I wouldn't forget about you, Axew, not ever!"

I made my way around the crowd, saying goodbye to all the pokemon I'd come to know so well, and all the people who'd become my best friends during our time together. When I reached May, she knelt down and patted my head.

"You know, I was thinking about that thing with Lucario," she said kindly, rubbing me behind my ears, "He accused Ash of a lot of things, and said you might have abandoned him. I think Ash was really scared that Lucario might have been right." He never told me... "But Ash never stopped believing in you. He trusted you, and followed you all the way to the tree of beginning."

Great, another moment where Ash nearly died and it was my fault.

"I guess what I'm saying is," May continued, "Ash doesn't really have it in him to give up on things. So try to hang in there, okay?" I nodded, resolving to do my best, and she squeezed me close.

"'When every life meets another life, something will be born'," Dawn quoted when her turn came. "You know all those Sinnoh ledgends where humans and Pokemon came from the same species? When I saw you and Ash, I really believed them." She nuzzled my cheek affectionatly. "I still do, so, don't give up on him." Don't give up, don't lose faith, keep beliveing... some days, that was harder to do than others.

But it didn't matter how many times we failed, as long as we were trying.

"I'll miss you, Pikachu."

"Pi, Pikaka..."

My next target was Bianca, but Ash beat me to her. "B-bi... mat-tered. Mattered." Bianca's eyes teared up instantly. "You... y-you made... mattered... diff-diff'rence. Always mattered."

"I'll never forget you, Ash!" she sobbed, embracing him before he had a chance to react. "I'll be waiting for you at the Pokemon League!" Ash blinked, still staring after he'd been released.

But he clenched his fists slowly, and nodded. "Yeah..."

We all knew we were supposed to be heading off, but no one really wanted to leave, and we delayed our departure as much as possible. No one said it, but they all were afraid that once they left Ash's sight, so much about them would be forgotten, even with Bianca's ingenious solution.

"So much has happened here," Iris said wistfully, "I just wish there was a way to make sure you don't forget Unova..."

"What, none of you hicks have heard of cameras?" Turning our heads, we were shocked to see Trip running towards us, dragging Luke and his camera behind him. Zoura bounded beside her trainer, grinning excitedly.

"What are you guys doing here?" Once they screeched to a halt, Trip shoved a packet into Ash's hands.

"Photos," he explained. "I was documenting my journey, but you guys kept showing up, so..." he shrugged casually, "I thought, whatever, a hick like you might find them interesting-" Ash hugged him before he could form a protest, and though Trip stood there with wooden horror the whole time, I think he was secretly touched.

"I finally finished my movie, too" Luke said, handing over a tape. "When Trip told me what happened, he said you might like a copy. I've got the whole battle documentary on there, even the scenes we couldn't use." He winked at Bianca. "But I think they add character."

"You're brilliant," May declared to Trip, who was still out of sorts after Ash's display of affection, and waved off everybody's praise.

"Hey, let's take one last picture before you go!" Dawn suggested, and the entire group of us squished together for one last photo op. Afterwords, there was nothing left to delay the inevitable, and all those Pallet-bound reluctantly moved towards the dock. "Wait!" Dawn cried, pointing dramatically to Gary. "Future professor, do you have anything to say?"

Gary's eyes widened at being put on the spot, but he took a deep breath. "Though the sun, it fades away, friends grow closer, everyday." He looked around for approval, and Dawn clapped happily.

Professor Oak winked at his grandson. "Needs more practice," he teased, and Gary flushed with embarrassment.

With that, the final hugs were made and we all boarded, save Ash and Ritchie. "Hey, I think I forgot something over there. Ash, will you help me?" Ash grinned devilishly, and the two ran off towards Salamance.

"What are they doing?" Professor Oak asked, and Delia's eyes widened.

"Silver, don't you dare!" But it was too late, and Salamence rose into the air, Ritchie, Ash and Silver riding triumphantly atop it.

"You were out-voted, Delia!" He called back with laughter, and Ash waved at his mother with a cheeky grin. "Don't worry, I'll hang on to him!"

"You'd better stay in sight of the boat!" she chastised, watching them fly off, then groaned to herself. "That boy is going to give me an ulcer." Professor Oak chuckled and picked up her luggage.

"I'd say he takes after his mother."

"No, I blame his father," she muttered, but followed us all onto the boat. Waving goodbye, we cast off from shore and set our sights on the horizon.

We were going home.