This story is written for a (writing) bingo challenge at LiveJournal, prompt used for this particular chapter is 'without you'. Part of this is based on canon, most of it isn't. I had to change a lot of things at the end of the Diamond and Pearl series to make the story work. I also ignored the age rules in anime where characters don't seem to age. I took the liberty to create the characters' ages for the sake of the story.

Disclaimer: This is only fan fiction and written for non-profitable purpose. Pokémon and its characters are owned by its creator, Satoshi Tajiri, and the media franchise is owned by Nintendo.


Chapter 1: IN OUR FINAL CURTAIN CALL

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Paul's gone.

The same words keep spinning in his head, creating a whirlpool of thoughts that's starting to make Ash feel lightheaded. Paul can't be gone. What Ash fears most is that he'll never see his rival again.

Despite feeling like his legs are about to give out, Ash runs as fast as he could, his heart pounding wildly against his ribcage. Pikachu is sprinting beside him, matching his pace. Nurse Joy says Paul has left the Trainers' Village not too long ago. Hearing this sends a rush of panic through Ash's veins. Ash can't let Paul leave without saying goodbye.

He races down the long flight of stairs leading down to the road that winds all the way to the town pier then he sees a speck in the distance. "Paul!" he calls out, hoping that the wind will carry his voice down to the purple-haired trainer.

When Paul halts and turns around, Ash slows down, careful not to trip lest he wants to give Paul a reason to humiliate him.

Ash stops a few feet from Paul and tries to catch his breath, his chest rising and falling in his effort. The sound of his heartbeat echoes around him, filling in the silence that floats between him and Paul.

Thump-thump, thump-thump.

The sun is setting behind Paul. A veil of orange and pale yellow shrouds the purple-haired teen, creating an ethereal glow. There's something different about Paul – a noticeable change in the aura that wraps around him. Paul's face still reflect a great amount of pride but the arrogance Ash is so used to seeing seems to fade before Ash's eyes.

Paul's voice breaks through Ash's musing. "Infernape's gotten a lot stronger."

The unexpected praise makes Ash's chest swell with delight. "Yeah. Sure has, Paul." Then realization hits Ash like a brick wall. "Are you leaving?"

"I lost, Ash, didn't I? So there's no reason to stay." In the past, that may as well have sounded defensive and rude but now, it's different somehow, like Paul admits defeat. Ash wants to ask if he's not reason enough, but he's not sure how Paul feels about him so he keeps it to himself, worried that Paul might ridicule him and reject him. That will hurt more than saying farewell.

Paul says he's going back to Snowpoint City to challenge Brandon again, if he's still there. And knowing that Paul will still pursue his dream ignites a small flame of hope that this may not be the last time Ash will see him. "Good luck, Paul," Ash says with deep sincerity.

To Ash's surprise, Paul says, "Thanks. You too," then climbs up the few steps separating them, cups Ash's face in his hand then leans and brushes his lips against Ash's cheek.

Ash stands there, thunderstruck, staring into Paul's dark eyes, heart beating like the hooves of a hundred Tauros running across the field.

"Pika. Pikachu." The small squeaky sound Pikachu makes reminds Ash where he is but all he can do is blink, unable to remove his eyes from Paul's face. Ash is at a loss for words.

The ship's horn reverberates from the dock and Paul must have taken that as his cue to leave because he clears his throat and says, "So… I'll see you, Ash," then continues his way down the stairs.

Ash watches Paul fade into the sunset, the memory of Paul's lips against his cheek dancing at the forefront of his mind. Tears well up in his eyes and he blinks them away. Must not be distracted. Must focus on my next battle.

Ash decides to let his team rest so he retires to his room with Pikachu early that night, knowing that his mind and body need a breather. It's long after Brock and Dawn have both climbed onto their beds and have slipped into slumber that Ash finds himself staring at the ceiling, arms tucked behind his head.

His thoughts should be focused on his battle tomorrow. He should be formulating a strategy on how to beat Tobias' Darkrai – the black Pokémon, bringer of bad dreams and extremely powerful – but instead, he's thinking about Paul, wondering where Paul could be at that moment.

Ash sighs, Paul's name unconsciously slipping through his lips.

"You miss him," Dawn says, startling Ash. He's not expecting Dawn to be awake. "Don't you?" Her words flutter in the dimly lit room, prodding into Ash's senses. It's pointless to deny it, Ash thinks, since Dawn knows him so well now. They've been traveling together for a year that she can read Ash like an open book.

"Yeah," is all Ash offers before letting his mind drift back to his once-rival-now-hopefully-a-friend.

"I'm sure you'll cross paths again someday," she says and boy, how Ash wishes that were true.

"I hope so, Dawn." I hope so.

"Goodnight, Ash. Sleep now so you'll have an early start tomorrow." Dawn's right. Ash needs to go through another round of training so he can figure out which Pokémon to use in his next match.

It doesn't take long before Ash is finally able to sleep.

=o=

His loss doesn't come as a shock. Tobias has proven to be a formidable opponent since the league started. But Ash still feels proud that his Sceptile is the only one to beat Tobias' Darkrai out of all the Pokémon who have faced the fearsome, nightmare-inducing creature. Tobias has been using only that dark, phantom-like Pokémon since his first round and no other trainer has beaten him. Still, it means a lot to hear from Tobias that Ash has earned Tobias' respect.

After the Sinnoh League officially closes, Ash leaves Lily of the Valley Island with his friends. Normally, he looks forward to heading back home but this time, something is keeping him anchored in Sinnoh and he doesn't know what or in a more profound sense… why.

"Do you want to go to Snowpoint City?" Brock asks as soon as they disembark the ferry.

Ash wants to but he doesn't want to drag his friends around anymore. Now that the Sinnoh League and the Grand Festival is behind them, Ash feels like Dawn has no more reason to stick with them and Brock… well, he's pretty sure Brock is eager to return to Kanto.

"I don't know, Brock. I mean, I do want to check how Brandon is doing, if his Battle Pyramid is still there and…" Ash is lying and judging by the way Brock's looking at him, Brock probably knows Ash has other reasons for wanting to go to Snowpoint. Ash's shoulders sag, his head dropping. "I don't even know if he's there."

"He did say he's going to Snowpoint, didn't he?" Dawn points out with Piplup chirping after her like he's echoing her remark.

"He did but…" Ash raises his eyes to his friends. "I'm sure he won't go straight there to battle Brandon. Knowing Paul, he'll probably go through extensive training first."

"Where would you like to go now?" Brock asks.

"I guess we should go home," Ash says. "I'm sure my mom's waiting for me. We're supposed to go on a trip to Unova in the next two months so I'm planning to spend time with all of my Pokémon at Professor Oak's lab before heading out to that region."

"Whatever you say, Ash." Brock is still studying Ash's face scrupulously like Ash has the Adamant Orb etched on his forehead.

"Maybe we should stop over at Veilstone and say goodbye to Reggie," Ash suggests and that seems to put both Brock and Dawn at ease.

=o=

It takes two days to get to Veilstone City and they've been stopping by various Pokémon Centers to rest and spend the night. The trip would've taken longer if Ash wasn't so much in a hurry to see his rival's brother again. Maybe seeing Reggie will make up for not having Paul around anymore.

Ash is also hoping some of Paul's Pokémon will be at Reggie's place. Rival or not, Ash's own team seems to have formed an odd friendship with some of Paul's Pokémon. Pikachu probably wants to catch up with Electivire and Ash's Torterra probably wants to get some pointers from Paul's Torterra.

Reggie is at the front lawn with Swalot and Paul's Weavile, no doubt, when they arrive and he watches them trudge down the road. "Ash! Brock! Dawn!" he hollers while waving at them with a wide smile stretched across his face.

When they get to the gate, Reggie adds, "Hey guys. This is a nice surprise."

"We're on our way to Twinleaf Town to accompany Dawn," Brock starts to explain. "So we thought we'd drop by to say goodbye since Ash and I are heading back home to Kanto soon."

"Well, I'm glad to see you as always." Reggie leads them inside the house. "Too bad you missed Paul. He just left a couple of hours ago."

Ash feels like he's been punched in the gut, regret clawing at the back of his mind. If they hadn't stopped to help a boy find his lost Cherubi, then they may have arrived sooner and may have been able to meet up with Paul. Ash stomps out the thought, feeling guilty as soon as he realizes how selfish it is.

"So where is Paul headed?" Ash asks, trying to sound cheerful but Reggie must have sensed the disappointment in Ash's tone.

A sad smile slips into Reggie's lips. "He says he'll try to change his training method before going to Snowpoint City. I think he plans to challenge Brandon again? "

"Yeah." Ash drops on the couch, eyes sliding to the floor. "That's what he told me."

"I doubt Brandon and his Battle Pyramid is still there though. I'm pretty sure he's gone back home to your region. But… Paul just wouldn't listen, like always." Silence whirrs around them for a few seconds until Reggie adds, "How 'bout some lunch? I bet you all are hungry," then leads them inside his house.

"I'll help you," Brock says, dropping his bag next to Ash's feet before following Reggie to the kitchen.

=o=

Reggie, as expected, invites them to stay for the night. Ash spends most of the day outside with all the Pokémon who are all obviously glad for the respite.

Paul apparently brought Torterra along with him but he has left Electivire to recuperate and Ash is curious to know more about Drapion. The purple, dragon-slash-scorpion Pokémon seems aloof at first but he warms up to Ash within the first hour.

"I see you're a natural at bonding with any Pokémon," Reggie remarks when he finds Ash petting Drapion on the head.

Ash offers a shy smile. "For me, it's more rewarding to earn a Pokémon's trust than winning badges and league trophies."

"Contrary to being Paul's brother, I agree with you." Reggie reaches out to stroke Drapion's claw. "And believe it or not, Paul may be starting to believe in that too." Ash notices a glint of amusement in Reggie's eyes. "I think you finally got to him, Ash."

"I hope so."

That night, sleep seems to evade Ash like it did the previous night and the night before that. In fact, Ash has been having trouble sleeping since the Sinnoh League started and he thought everything would go back to normal as soon as the conference ended but it didn't.

Ash grabs his backpack to retrieve a book, thinking that a little light reading might help him feel drowsy, but he finds something else instead. He sits on his bed, staring at the Soothe Bells on his palm. He remembers the day he won it at the Hearthome City Tag Battle Competition along with Paul. He also remembers how Paul had tossed his share of the bell over to Ash, saying that he had no need for it. Ash wonders if things have changed between them since. Maybe… maybe he should give the other bell back to Paul.

Dismissing the idea of reading, Ash shoves the backpack to the corner of the bed, dropping the Soothe Bells inside. He glances down at Pikachu whose head is resting against Buizel's body, both Pokémon sound asleep. He creeps out of the guest room quietly, careful not to wake Dawn and Brock and their Pokémon. For some strange reason, he finds himself wandering into Paul's bedroom.

The absence of his former rival has left a vacuum in his chest and Ash has never felt so empty in his life. He misses Paul. Ash doesn't understand it, doesn't know why and he doesn't want to analyze too much on why he finds comfort just being in the room that Paul has occupied not too long ago.

The lingering scent of Paul seems to soothe Ash's anxiety. Peculiar as it is, Ash buries his face in Paul's pillow, takes a long deep breath and let the emotions rip through him until tears start to fall. Soon, sleep folds into him like a blanket.

=o=

One thing Ash has honed over the years of traveling is his instinct, especially when a threat is lurking around the corner. The moment he starts crawling out of deep slumber, he feels another presence in the room – someone is hovering above him.

Out of reflex, Ash bolts upright, pushes the person off the bed and hears a loud thud then someone says, "Ow. What did you do that for?"

The voice sounds awfully familiar and hearing it freezes Ash's blood. "Paul?"

Purple head slowly rises from the edge of the bed and, despite the room still cloaked in partial darkness with dim light from outside spilling through the window, Ash can see the scowl on Paul's face. "Why did you push me?" Paul says in a hushed tone.

"What are you doing here?" skips out of Ash's mouth.

"I live here, idiot. And this is my room. I should be the one asking you that."

"Um…" The sudden realization that Paul is with him makes Ash's heart skip. "Reggie invited us to stay for the night."

Paul crosses his arms, points out, "We have a guest room," with less vehemence than Ash expects out of him.

"Right. I couldn't sleep and… well, I thought I'd just… I'm um…" Ash is, again, at a loss for words. "I'll go back to the guest room."

Ash slides off Paul's bed and is on his way to the door when Paul says, "Stay. You don't have to leave," flatly. Ash is too tired to argue so he drags his body back to Paul's bed and is startled when Paul takes off his jacket and shoes then climbs after Ash.

"I thought you're on your way to Snowpoint City," Ash says when he realizes Paul hasn't given him a proper answer.

"I forgot to pack some things so I came back for it," Paul explains offhandedly. Ash thinks that's the end of the conversation since he knows Paul is a boy with few words but then Paul asks, "How long will you be here?"

"We leave for Twinleaf Town tomorrow," Ash says. "We'll probably spend the night at Dawn's house and take the ship back to Kanto two days from now."

A few wordless minutes float between them before Paul speaks again. "So you're gonna be home for a while?"

"A couple of months. Mom says we're going on a trip to Unova Region after."

"Is that where your next journey will be?"

Ash isn't sure why Paul is asking all these questions. It's so out of Paul's character to show any interest but then again, maybe Paul no longer considers Ash as a rival but a potential friend. "Maybe."

The bed moves when Paul shifts to lie on his side facing Ash, head propped on his hand and his elbow resting on the pillow. "How long have you been traveling anyway?"

A shiver courses through Ash's body when he feels Paul's eyes on him. "Three, almost four years. I started out in Kanto then went to Orange Islands and Johto. Then I went to Hoenn and back to Kanto to challenge the Battle Frontier before coming here to Sinnoh." Curiosity prods at him so he asks, "What about you?"

"Same as you." Paul shrugs, his gaze sliding out of Ash's face. "I've been to Kanto, Johto and Hoenn but I never got through the initial rounds of those regions' respective leagues so I thought of coming back here. I stopped traveling for a while to train harder."

Ash realizes that this is probably the longest and most civil conversation he ever had with Paul so he thinks he might as well take advantage. The desire to know more about Paul burns deep in Ash's soul. "So we're the same age I guess. Thirteen?"

"No, Ash. I'm fourteen, almost fifteen."

Ash wants to know more, wants to ask more but he fears Paul might think he's prying so instead, he says, "All your hard work paid off, Paul. You were great at the Sinnoh League."

"It wasn't enough." Paul shifts again, his back now pressed against the mattress, hands resting on his stomach, fingers laced together. "Go to sleep," he says and the stillness thrums around them, lulling Ash back to sleep.

The next time Ash wakes up, the room is flooded with the dull color of the morning sun but the first thing Ash notices is the empty spot next to him. Paul's gone and a note is resting on the pillow where Paul's head was the night before.

Ash,

Train hard. Next time we meet, we'll battle.

Paul

Ash clutches the note tightly against his chest as if it's the only tangible evidence that Paul was here, shared a bed with Ash and it wasn't just a dream.

=o=

Time seems to zoom past them and before Ash knows it, he and Brock are doing last minute shopping for souvenirs. They had little time since they left Veilstone late yesterday, leaving Reggie with a promise that they will all return for a visit then. It was almost sun down when the ferry they rode reached the harbor in Twin Leaf town.

The ship sailing to Kanto leaves at four. Ash and Brock have less than an hour to buy things for their friends and family back home. They arrive at the dock ten minutes before the ship is scheduled to sail away.

"We'll see each other again, won't we, Ash?" Dawn says and Ash can tell she's trying to hold back the tears. This is the part of the journey Ash hates the most. Saying goodbye to a friend is as painful as always.

"We will, Dawn." Ash glances down at Pikachu who sidles by his leg. Pikachu has been saying goodbye to Piplup for the past hour. His eyes snap back to Dawn. "And leave a word if you're going to visit us in Pallet Town and Pewter City, okay?"

"I will." Dawn crouches to pick up Piplup then holds the Penguin Pokémon against her chest. "Goodbye, Ash. Goodbye, Brock."

"Take care, Dawn," Brock says before turning to climb up the stairs.

Ash and Pikachu follow Brock all the way up to the deck where they both look down to the dock to wave at Dawn and Piplup. To Ash's surprise, he spies Paul standing at the end of the pier looking up at them.

"Paul," Ash mutters under his breath.

Brock must have heard him or he probably sees Paul too because he says, "So he came to bid you farewell after all," in that insinuating tone of his that Ash oftentimes doesn't get.

A brilliant idea – or maybe Paul will think it's stupid but that's not going to stop Ash – hits him like a Thunderbolt attack so Ash quickly drops his paper bags, slips his backpack off and starts rummaging inside. The ship's horn reverberates along the seaside just as Ash's fingers curl around a round object and he pulls it out quickly then releases Staraptor out of its Poké Ball.

"Staraptor, bring this over to Paul," Ash says.

The bird Pokémon seems to give him an inquisitive look before taking the Soothe Bell from his hand then swoops down with predator-like ease to where Paul is standing.

The Soothe Bell slips out of Staraptor's beak and lands straight on Paul's open palm. Ash hopes Paul will take it back. It belongs to him, after all.

Paul lifts his face up to the deck. The firm nod he gives Ash before stuffing the bell inside his pocket is the sign Ash needs that Paul accepts his friendship. Maybe. The impassive expression remains on Paul's face and Ash can only stare bleakly as Paul pivots around and leaves.

Ash's heart sinks when the ship slowly floats away and he watches Dawn and Piplup grow smaller while Paul's merely a speck of purple and blue in the distance. He's filled with sadness knowing that this might be the last of Paul he sees in a long while.

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=o==o==o=