Happy holidays to you all and I hope everyone is doing well. Seeing as it's the holiday season, I felt it only right that I send you all a gift. I've had this chapter stowed away for a special day and this seems appropriate considering a regular update would be kinda lame. Mind you, this arc won't be continued until I finish the others that I am currently working on but consider it a sneak peak into the future of the third Kanto arc. It seems like Ash's group is a fan favorite. Anywho, I enjoyed working on this one quite a bit and I hope you will to. A big hand of applause for Zarrelion for his help in overlooking his chapter.

September 27

Black pools darted feverishly along the darkened interior of what appeared to be a broom closet. The wood was alive, breathing with a life of its own. Every intake of air, every quivering throb from the walls matched the frantic beat of his heart. He knew it was all in his head – the walls weren't closing in on him. In his panicked state his imagination was inventing unspoken terrors from the formless darkness around him. He wasn't claustrophobic but he imagined this was what it was like.

Silently gulping down air to calm his frenzied heart proved difficult, especially when he was doing his best to remain perfectly still. The tireless and traitorous organ in his chest would pump no slower no matter how much he tried to make it obey through sheer force of will. Pleading with it proved futile, and every passing shadow that eclipsed the light, filtering in from the creases in the door, made him flinch, as if a vice of fear had clamped onto his heart.

"They must be looking for me," Ash mused bitterly, wondering how long it would be before his hiding spot became compromised.

It had all started when they came back from their search for survivors in the ruins of Celadon. They found none; then again he had tried not to get his hopes up so the disappointment wouldn't hit him so hard.

After a few days of backtracking they made their way back to their first base of operations: The Yas-Kas gym of Dark City. Samurai and Surge, the fastest and strongest among their group, were the first to fall. Jessie and James were quick to betray them at that point, with AJ soon following suit. Even his own pokémon had effectively turned against him in their choice to remain apathetic and unresponsive.

I've stayed here too long; I've got to keep moving. Ash thought, waiting until the sound of passing footfalls beyond the door died and gave way to ominous silence. His arm reached out through the blackness, the tips of his fingers brushing gently against the cool hard surface of the doorknob.

Ash gripped it firmly and turned it at a glacial pace. He prayed that the door wouldn't creak when he opened it. Luckily, his prayers were answered and the door held its voice. He peered through the widening crack, scanning for any hint of life or movement and finding none.

The hallway of the house was delightfully barren as he squeezed himself from the narrow crack he'd made. Ash made his way down the hall, making sure not to walk too quickly lest he give himself away. Beads of sweat had collected at the bridge of his nose and hung precariously from it before being scattered to the wind when he shook his head.

The cool AC felt good on his damp arms and palms. His arm felt lighter, reminding him of the absence of his Pokéglov. He had discarded it, as well as his hat, seeing as they could track him through the former and spot him easily from the latter. As a result, he felt almost naked in his brisk stroll down the hallway.

He had only worn the Pokéglov for only a short time, but as the days went on he had grown to depend on the device.

Several times he had to remind himself to slow down, his jackhammer heartbeat urging him to run. Just before he reached the corner he pressed himself against the wall, feeling a chill run up his spine. Goosebumps ran up his arm when the combination of cold walls and sweat-soaked cotton met skin. He inched towards the corner, cautiously peering out to find that the coast was clear.

"But where do I go from here? I can't live out in the wild; the Pokémon could pick up my scent. I doubt I could outrun them. It won't be long before they realize I'm gone. I need to find a stream, throw off my scent. But where to find one? If only the map for my Pokeglov still worked!"

Ash could see the exit to the house now; his heartbeat had mysteriously traveled up to his ears and beat so loud he could swear it could be heard in Sinnoh. Just before his first step outside, a Crobat's shadow passed across the porch as Ash instinctively ducked back into cover.

They've even got the skies. Ash thought bitterly, waiting until the bat pokémon doubled back to the Yas-Kas Gym before bounding out the door. It had been over the course of an hour that Ash had started darting from house to house, steadily coming closer to the outer fringes of the forest.

"They're not going to get me! They're not going to get me!" the trainer recited under his breath, just a few more steps between him and sylvan salvation.

Ash had yet to take three steps into the woods when a small flash of orange from the corner of his eye caught his attention.

"ASH!" was the only thing the trainer deciphered from the feral screech before he broke into a mad dash.

Lightning coursed through his veins and with newfound determination he pressed on harder than ever before. Ash's arm lashed out in a flurry of movement, batting away a nearly endless green sea of overhanging fronds. His heart threatened to burst from equal parts excitement and fear. The lactic acid build up in his muscles began to burn; every meter he advanced became harder to conquer than the last.

Fatigue and fear slowly stole his sight until there was nothing more than a world of cascading green and brown blurs. A traitorous root caught his foot and reacquainting him with the soil. With a whumph the air was knocked out of Ash's lungs, his entire body slamming into the floor and tearing the offending root out of the ground with him. The young trainer sputtered and spat the dirt out of his mouth, frantically struggling to get to his feet.

"End of the line Ash," Misty panted between ragged gasps, her chest heaving with the yellow fabric speckled with the sweat that poured from her face. Ash's attempts at crawling were met with a mind-numbing white lash of pain from his ankle, obviously sprained from his fall.

The young trainer's wince did not go unnoticed by the last of the Waterflower sisters, but her sympathy for the boy she'd known for years had died with her last dregs of strength used to catch up with him. Ash's pupils shrunk to the size of pinpricks when he looked upon his captor, his reaper.

A wild look had taken residence in Misty's green eyes; her smile was now a frightening mix of satisfaction and maliciousness. Twigs and leaves were caught in her hair; her once yellow and immaculate outfit was marred by streaks of green and brown from her run-in with the forest.

A tired and maniacal laugh left her lips, her fingers tickling the air between them. The crunch of dirt beneath her sneakers grew louder with each step, a crazed smile creeping across her face.

"I'm gonna make sure what you put us through was worth it!" She giggled sinisterly before a yellow blur bounded over her shoulder and stood between her and her prey.

"Pikachu!" Ash said breathlessly. He was amazed to see one of his oldest friends there for him in the knick of time. Misty appeared unfazed by the electric-type's sudden appearance. In fact, her shoulders noticeably relaxed at the sight of him. Pikachu slowly turned to face Ash, and that's when he knew something was wrong.

Pikachu refused to even look in his general direction, instead casting his sights to the dirt between them. Despite mouthing his name, Ash could hear the words, "I'm sorry," spoken softly before his yellow fur body hummed and glowed. The smell of ozone reached Ash's nose while the crackle of electricity met his ears.

Misty traced the arcs of lightning that bounded from hair to hair before looking into Ash's face, watching his hopeful expression gradually transform into one of utter horror. With a single paw, Pikachu passed the current into Ash's body, invoking a sudden and rigid stillness.

Lt. Surge sidestepped into view from behind a tree as if on command, walking over to the boy now paralyzed for a number of reasons. Pikachu had resumed his staring contest with the soil, sparing himself the look of hurt and betrayal that took up Ash's expression.

Ash's wide-eyed stare screamed "Why?" until his features were darkened by the shade of Surge's shadow. With a monstrous hand the size of a baseball catcher's glove, Surge bent down and grabbed Ash by his forearm, easily wrapping his entire hand around it and hoisting the youth into the air as if he were no heavier than a pillow.

"Where d'ya wan'em?" Surge rumbled.

"Take him…to the room," Misty replied. A wicked smile adorned her face as Surge threw Ash over his shoulder and let him hang.

Ash glared at Pikachu; his eyes still downcast.

"TRAITOR! TRAITOOOOR!" Ash mustered the last of his strength to yell through his paralysis and continued on until his former friends were no longer in sight.

Ash's body was thrown none too kindly into a wooden chair in the center of the room. His body forced the chair onto its back legs, threatening to topple over until Surge brought his hand down on the back and dipped his wrist. The two front pegs of his seat slammed into the floor with an audible clack! A long and narrow mirror on the wall opposite to him reflected Misty's devious smile.

"Need me for anything?" Surge asked, waiting by the door.

"No, that won't be necessary. Pikachu's Thunder Wave will wear off soon, but by then I'll be done with him," Misty replied, picking the leaves and twigs out of her hair before irritably licking her thumb and rubbing it against a particular stain on her blouse.

Surge nodded, "Then, if you'll excuse me, I gotta go deal with little miss sharpshooter."

Ash found himself unable to turn his head, the door behind him clicking into place. Silence invaded the room, leaving only the sound of Ash's own heartbeat, now unpleasantly loud.

"Dawn too?" the raven-haired trainer asked in utter revulsion.

Misty seemed too busy to face him, fiddling with a particular twig that had managed to embed itself into her side ponytail. She eventually yanked the hair band that held it together with a single pull, her orange hair cascading down to her shoulders, now free of debris.

"No, I think he's got something different in mind for her," she eventually answered once she felt satisfied with her reflection in the mirror. She gave herself a wink and spun on her heel, walking towards Ash with purpose.

"How'd you do it?" Ash replied.

"Do what?" Misty smiled with false innocence, the question succeeding in stopping her in place.

"How'd you get Pikachu to turn on me?"

"You make it sound like it was hard." Misty's smile now a tad too predatory for Ash's liking.


"Oh no, nothing like that," Misty laughed sadistically and resumed walking, only to pass by him and head for the end of the room behind him.

Ash strained his neck to see what she was doing, being able only to make out the wall to his immediate right. A single shaded bulb dangled from the ceiling, casting a perfect circle of light on the ground beneath him. The walls themselves were tinged amber, revealing the cracked and peeling paint.

He turned back to the mirror in front of him, finding that he couldn't see past his own head of hair.

"He didn't put up much of a fight, but then again he's never wanted to go against me. Remember when we first battled at the Cerulean Gym?"

A white towel swung around his throat, blotted with crimson stains whose origins left little to Ash's imagination. He could feel Misty's delicate fingers brush against the baby hair at the crook of his neck, the towel around his throat tightening. The sickening smell of antiseptic filled Ash's nose, invoking memories of visits to the doctor from ages long gone.

"Sorry about the towel, it's actually one of the cleaner ones that I found," Misty replied, hearing only silence as her answer.

"If this is clean, I'd hate to see a dirty one," Ash muttered under his breath.

"What was that?"


"It's not too tight is it?" the redhead asked.

"Why do you care?" Ash demanded.

"I still want you to be comfortable, even though you put us through a lot of trouble." Misty sighed, the tips of her fingers grazing his along his scalp as she ran her fingers through his hair. "You knew we'd get you eventually, but I guess I should congratulate you for managing to avoid us for so long."

With what little rebellious strength he had left, Ash tilted his head and bit at her hand only to find empty air. Misty had already retracted her hand by the time Ash's teeth clicked together, tsking at his actions.

"I saw what they did to Samurai," Ash growled.

The sound of Misty's footfalls grew slightly more distant as she retreated to the other end of the room for something she had possibly forgotten. Ash's statement was left in the air where it would stay unanswered for the better part of eternity.

"There aren't that many supplies in the gym, so you'll just to deal with what we found," Misty replied.

The hair on Ash's nape curled as he heard the unmistakable shink of a steel blade sliding over steel mixed in with Misty's dementedly lighthearted voice. A gentle tap soon followed when she laid down the instrument next to the others atop the tin ashtray. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"

Misty shrugged. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't having a bit of fun with this."

Ash gave his tormenter an incredulous look. "A 'bit'?"

"Okay, more like 'a lot'. I think I deserve it after the work out you gave me."

A pregnant silence filled the room once more until Misty made her way back to the spot behind Ash's seat. Black briefly met green through the mirror's reflective surface before Ash took up Pikachu's tactic and aimed his gaze at his legs. His face was stern and unreadable, but Misty could already read Ash like a book.

After all the years she'd spent with him she knew the look in his eyes fairly well. It was the look of a boy that had bitterly accepted his fate.

"What? No more fighting?" she asked.

"No point." Ash sighed dejectedly.

"That's no fun."

"Exactly, so just get over with already. Don't patronize me."

"I'm only patronizing you 'cause you're acting like a baby. Seriously, what's with you and haircuts?"

"Sweetie, are you there? Do you read me? Over?"

"Mom, I'm here," Brock chuckled, doing his best to steady the arm that held his Pokéglov.

"Brock! How are you? Over," came Lola's voice.

"Mom, you don't have to say over at the end of every sentence."

"You sure? It makes this sound more official and exciting, like you're a spy… over," she replied cheerily.

A digitized sigh was all she heard over her end through the Pokéglov.

"Okay, okay. Your mom just wants to have a little fun. It's been so long since we've last talked. How are you? How are the others?"

"Thankfully we're fine mom. Everyone's in one piece."

"Oh thank goodness. You haven't been getting into more danger have you?"

"…No…of course not," Brock lied, glad that she couldn't see his face.

Despite the hundreds of miles between them Brock swore he could feel his mother's eyes narrow at him.

"Tell me the good things then," she compromised.

"Well, we found a bunch of survivors in a place called Dark City. It's really well defended and supplied."

"That's wonderful sweetie!"

"That's not even the best part! There's a nurse Joy here!" Brock gushed, holding himself as he writhed in place.

A frigid silence came over the speakers that threatened to give Brock's arm frostbite.

"Sweetie…I know you're a big boy now and over time boys tend to develop these feelings towards the opposite sex and-"

"Mooooom, it's not like that!" Brock groaned. He scanned the area in hopes that no living soul was around.

"I would hope so. I know I wasn't there to give you the talk about the birds and the Beedrill but-"

"Mom! Stop! Please, just stop! Me and dad already had that kind of talk," Brock replied while frantically searching for a button or switch that controlled the volume.

"If by The Talk you mean the both of you snickering and gushing over a swimsuit magazine and building off each other's comments-"

Ouch. Right on the money.

"O-Of course not! He sat me down and we had a serious conversation about it!" Brock countered. It was another bald lie. He made a mental note to later thank Tracy for not installing a video screen function to the Pokéglov. And he hoped that feature wasn't planned for the next build.

"If you say so. Just promise me you'll use protection. You're in no position to be bringing in another mouth to feed. Me and your father are one thing but-"

"Got it! Protection! Can we move on now?"

"Just making sure my baby doesn't get himself into something he might not be able to handle," Lola replied.

"Mom, you don't have to worry about that. Toxicroak likes to make sure I don't get too…serious." The young adult sighed and peered over the glossy crimson surface of his Pokéglov, finding the aforementioned pokémon sitting atop a rock in the distance. Toxicroak, who'd been absently staring at the sky, suddenly took notice of the sudden attention and waved at him with a sinister smile before Brock's gaze retreated back to his Pokéglov.

"You could at least introduce me to her before you go any further," Lola chimed in, redirecting Brock's focus back to his Pokéglov.

"How are dad and the others?" Brock replied, desperate to change the subject.

"Your father's fine, and so are your brothers and sisters. They miss you terribly."

"I know. I miss them too."

"The oddest thing happened a few days ago. I probably imagined it but I could've sworn it was real."

"What is it?"

"I was in the kitchen making everyone's lunch when I heard a pair of voices I didn't recognize. They were deep, deeper than your father's voice. I put down the plates I was rinsing and saw your father's Golem walking down the hall, next to your brother's Rhyperior and no one else. Isn't that odd?"

"Yeah that's…weird," Brock replied, feigning ignorance.

"I don't need a haircut."

"Yes you do. It's gotten really long and you look ridiculous whenever you wake up. I'm surprised you can even see with those bangs over your eyes."

"You're not cutting the bangs," Ash said sternly.

"Look, we're still in summer and your hair's just gonna make you uncomfortable when it gets hot. I won't give you a buzz cut like Samurai and Surge, promise," Misty tried assuring him.

"Do you even know how to cut hair?" Ash inquired.

"Me and my sisters would always braid each other's hair when we were younger," Misty offered.

"Not helping."

"I've been watching Jessie and James do everyone else's haircuts."

"Less helpful," he grunted.

"Look, its just hair. If I mess up you can hide it under your hat and wait until it grows back."

"Fine. Do your worst," Ash sighed, "but promise me something."


"Try not to cut off my ears," Ash pleaded softly.

"I make no promises," Misty grinned, to which Ash deadpanned and relinquished himself fully to his fate. A sage green tarp momentarily floated over his body and hung off his form. Misty tucked it beneath the towelette around his throat before linking one of the many holes along the edge together behind his neck.

"Is this a?"

"A shower curtain, yeah. Told you we didn't have much to work with," Misty replied. Ash could hear her experimentally open and close the safety scissors in her hand, running the flat of her palm across his head.

She was quiet for a long time, twisting a particular tuft of hair between her fingers as if to get a feel for the texture. Her eyes darted back and forth, the look of uncertainty for where to start evident on her face.

She bit her lip, gently gathering a clump of it in her hand and moving the scissors in for the kill. Ash held his breath, watching the twin blades separate and slowly close over the black strands. A crisp snip filled the air, marking the fall of a dozen black hairs onto the shower curtain draped over his lap. A confident smirk stretched across the gym leader's face. Ash released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.

She turned his head to the sides, judging her first cut. Once she was satisfied, she picked up the scissors again and began cutting away with gusto. The sound of snipping was all that penetrated the veil of silence and tension that hung over them. Tufts of hair began raining onto the floor as Misty's confidence grew. Ash's paralysis gradually disappeared, allowing Misty to give him commands without having to move his body herself.

Ash eventually closed his eyes, leaving Misty to her work. He'd never openly admit it, but he enjoyed the way she tugged at his hair, the feel of her warm palm smoothing over the surface of his head.

At some point she had left the spot behind him, only to come back and spray his hair with a thick mist of water from a rinsed and repurposed container for window cleaning solution. For some reason he found the entire experience starting to become comforting. It was a world of sound behind the darkness of his lids. His focus shifted to every new noise, soothing him in ways he never thought possible.

The slosh of the water, the sound of the spray hitting his hair, the gentle pitter-patter or excess water dripping onto the shower curtain. The elongated snip that came whenever she cut something slowly by his ear, the feel of the comb's teeth dragging through his hair and scalp. All of these things coalesced and lulled him into an inviting state of drowsiness.

The words tedious and boredom had always come up whenever he thought back to the haircuts he'd received in his childhood. Misty's technique, although clumsy and amateurish, somehow found a way of making the entire situation something of a guilty pleasure.

Maybe it's because it's her? A small voice in the back of his mind put forth. After exhausting every possible reason as to why he was enjoying this, he eventually relented with, "Maybe."

For a long while she didn't touch him, backing away from him and scanning for another area in need of her attention.


The boy in question shook himself awake, suddenly tense and alert.

"What?" he replied when she simply stared into his eyes through the mirror's reflection and said nothing.

"Aren't you gonna tell me to stop?" Misty asked.

Ash took the moment to study himself in the mirror, afraid that she'd given him a buzz cut in his moment of weakness. To his surprise she hadn't done a bad job, considering this was her first time. It was shorter than he was used to having it, but it didn't necessarily look bad. Surprisingly, she had taken his feelings into consideration and kept the bangs over his eyes intact.

"It's…Good!" he exclaimed.

"You sound surprised."

"Well actually…" He trailed off.


"Could you…make it look cooler?"

Misty's finger tapped gently on her bottom lip, the safety scissors hanging from her pinky finger. "I can try."

"I guess that's all I can ask."

"Is the length okay?"

Ash studied himself in the mirror once more. "The length's fine."

"How about the style?"

"The style's fine, just make it a little cooler."

Misty rolled her eyes and sighed, repositioning her hands to her hips. "Just telling me 'cooler' isn't helpful. Give me something to work with. How much is a little?"

"It needs to be like fifteen or twenty percent cooler?" Ash offered sheepishly.

"You're impossible sometimes," the red head grunted.

"Center in on the target and pull the trigger," Dawn muttered, flexing her finger and bracing herself for the gun's recoil.

"I'm back," Surge announced, studying the target circles the Ex-rockets had cut from cardboard and placed at varying distances. The blunette's reply came as evenly spaced staccato bursts from the black handgun in her hand. She kept her back to him, keeping her focus trained on her stationary cardboard enemies. Surge patiently waited, watching her pump round after another into her targets.

If she acknowledged his presence she didn't show it, unloading lead until her gun clicked empty. Surge thought she might've turned to greet him at that point but found her standing silently and waiting with her back to him. He heard the distinct click of a fresh magazine being popped in, despite never seeing her reload.

"Center in on the target and pull the trigger," Dawn continued to chant her mantra, eventually running empty once more.

Surge stared at the target circles, counting six of them in total. The longer he studied them, the more he realized something about them was off. It wasn't until Dawn's third magazine that he noticed what bothered him.

Each target sported a single hole at the very center and nowhere else. Surge watched the blunette aim and fire before looking back at the target circle and found the exact same hole, only now slightly wider than before.

"Shit," the veteran marveled silently, "she's firing into her own bullet holes."

Dawn's recent changes concerned the old soldier. As time passed, her demeanor and personality began to resemble that of one of his old friends – a former sniper. The juxtaposition of a young girl's innocent appearance and the hardened personality of a long distance killer made him profoundly uncomfortable. He had interrogated Ash several times during their stay at gym, and each time was met with the same story.

With little to no formal firearms training, he found it hard to believe she could do what Ash described. Ash admitted that he found it hard to believe himself, but insisted he knew what he saw. When Ash, Jessie, and Meowth left to find survivors in Celadon, Surge insisted that Dawn go with them. Upon their return he drilled Jessie and Meowth with the same questions, shocked to find their answers along the same lines as Ash's.

"Sorry fer havin ta leave. Misty needed some help with Ash." Surge allowed himself a small smile, finding that the mere mention of the boy's name had the desired affect on her concentration. Dawn's aim faltered slightly before she lowered her gun, clicked the safety on, placed her finger alongside the trigger guard and turned to him, keeping the pistol pointed at the ground. Although brief, Surge caught a glimpse of her eyes: cold and dead like navy blue glass. The warmth of life returned to them by the time she faced him. But the brief glimpse of her dead stare still left echoes in his thoughts.

"How is he?" she chirped happily.

"He's fine. Jus' bein' a big baby." The veteran chuckled, his last word sounding almost foreign from the lack of use.

Dawn holstered her pistol and covered her mouth with both hands as she giggled. The display of childishness reminded the grizzled veteran that the supernaturally accurate sharpshooter was just a child.

"How's target practice goin'?" he asked.

"Good. Duplica lent me Minidit since we thought it would be better to save the real ammo for any violent pokémon we might meet when we leave. Minidit can turn pieces of itself into bullets, but needs few seconds to regenerate whenever I run empty," Dawn replied. She unholstered her pistol and handed it to him, being careful not to point the muzzle at herself or the lieutenant.

A pair of beady black eyes sprouted out the sides of the barrel. The handgun, now gelatinous and hot pink, blinked back innocently at the retired lieutenant. Surge's disgust was evident on his face as he carefully handed the gun back to the blunette.

"Girly gun for a girly soldier. I can't even fit my pinkie finger inta the loop!" Surge teased.

"Well not everyone can be a ginormous lug like you," Dawn shot back playfully. Surge gave a hearty laugh, easing himself down onto the grass before leaning back and holding himself up with his arms. He found a small form of amusement in the fact that he was now finally at eye level with Dawn as she stood.

The former coordinator joined him on the ground, letting Minidit revert back into its original form. They sat there and relished in the cool breeze that washed over them in the silence.

"Somethin' on your mind?" Surge asked, staring off into the sky above them.

Dawn had joined him in skygazing, saying nothing for a while before relenting to her need to talk to someone about it. "I know Ash wants to go save people here in Kanto, but…"

"You wanna go find yer mom," Surge replied. Dawn replied with a reluctant nod as she hugged her knees to her chest.

"It feels selfish," she said softly, trading her view of the sky for the grass at their feet.

"It ain't selfish. Ya got every right ta wanna go see yer mom," Surge replied.

"I…I guess I just don't wanna go alone. I wanna go now, but Ash-"

"What about Ash? I heard he promised he was gonna get you back to yer mom. That was before he got here, before he decided to go out and save people here. If he won't go witcha, then I will. 'Sides, I hear the pokémon in the Sinnoh region are ridiculously tough." A sinister smile adorned his face as he gazed skyward.

Dawn stared at him for a moment, studying his crazed smile for a few seconds before turning her gaze away. "Why do you like fighting so much?"

Surge's smile shrunk slightly, the question having caught him off guard. He gave a long sigh and dipped his head, carefully choosing his next words. For a moment, Dawn wondered if she had asked for too much and was about to apologize until he started talking.

"A lot of my old war buddies asked me that very the same thing when I was in the war. Everyone thought I was crazy, bloodthirsty, or just eager to go out there and die. That wasn't it at all," Surge said. Dawn had turned her entire body towards him, still hugging her legs but leaning forward in rapt attention.

"Ya see, the way I look at it, the moment yer born inta this world, yer dyin. It's slow and subtle, but it's happenin'. I watched people avoid all the risks in life, just so they could make it safely ta death. I watched people waste their lives day-by-day, year-by-year, an' not enjoy a single moment of it. When I made it through my first days of battle, I was so hopped up on adrenaline that nothin' compared after it. I was pumped. I was happy. But most of all, I felt alive." Surge sighed wistfully, unaware that Minidit had joined the audience for his story.

"On the battlefield, I learned a lot more than any job, teacher, book, or anythin' my old man said to me," the veteran continued. "I watched lotsa people die; I learned ta 'preciate every second that I was still breathin'."

Dawn periodically nodded to let him know she was still listening.

"Thing was, whenever I thought I was gonna die, every time I got hurt on the frontlines, the pain just reminded me that I was still livin', cause dead guys don't feel nothin'. It's when I'm on that brink, when I'm balancing on that string, and the slightest thing can make me tip onto either side, that I feel the most alive. Every drop of blood, every tear, and every bead of sweat means somethin' to me. I don't go out there ta fight and die…" Surge trailed off, pointing a large finger into the distance. "I fight out there ta feel alive."

Dawn retracted her gaze from the direction he had been pointing to, realizing he wasn't pointing to anything in particular. There was nothing she could say to him at that moment. She found his philosophy on life fascinating, and although she couldn't wholeheartedly agree on everything he believed in, it didn't mean that she didn't respect him for believing in it.

Several silent minutes passed as the two reflected on the former soldier's philosophy. "I don't think I've ever told that to anyone. Even if I did, they're probably dead now," Surge said, breaking the silence. Strangely, Dawn couldn't seem to find any hint of sadness as he said it.

"I'm honored," she replied softly, hoping he could tell she meant it.

"That's nothin' to be honored about. Now that shootin' of yours…" Surge began until he saw the blunette's smile disappear behind her knees.

"You…don't like shooting, do you?" he asked, placing a massive hand on her shoulder.

Dawn held her silence for a long time. After a solid minute had passed she was surprised Surge hadn't pressed her for it.

"I honestly don't get it," Dawn replied.

"What's it like?" Surge asked.

Dawn chewed the inside of her cheek, mulling over how to describe it before realizing there was no simple way to do it.

Noticing her difficulty Surge decided to attack from another angle. "What was it like when you first held a gun?"

Her attention snapped to him at first, the question had surprised her. After giving it a bit of thought she found this one easier to answer.

"Before we met up with you…everyone seemed to be able to do something for the group, except for me. I had my pokémon, but I only knew how to do coordinator things, and I wasn't even really all that good at it. My pokémon don't even really need me anymore. They can fight for themselves. I don't even have to tell them how to do it. So if I can't order them, then what good am I? A cheerleader on the sidelines is fine during a contest but not when it's life or death. I didn't want to be a burden, so I tried helping cook, but I'm still not as good as Brock. When Sabrina separated us, when it was just Ash, Meowth, and me, we found this place where this crazy guy started shooting at us," she began.

Surge turned his gaze to Dawn, now shuddering with tears collecting at the corners of her eyes. Her nails were digging into the arms, seemingly straining to hold in an emotional bomb that threatened to explode. "He was gonna kill Ash. He had him cornered. I found a gun on the floor…and…and I…"

"Killed him?" Surge said.

Dawn shook her head. "No…no Ash did that. I…I shot the gun out of his hands. I know that's not very impressive, but when I shot him…I felt so powerful. I finally thought I had something that I could do for the group."

A weak smile stretched itself across her face before it disappeared and her expression darkened once more. "Ash and me didn't really do that much target practice; a few shots at some trees and that was it. We didn't wanna waste too much ammo. We thought we'd hold onto them and give them to you, since you'd know how to use them better than we could," she continued, her eyes now like wet glass.

Dammit, she's just a fuckin' kid. Ten-year-olds shouldn't have to deal with this shit. Surge mentally growled, but held his tongue as she continued.

"Before, I couldn't really help anyone. I started eating less so that the others could keep up their strength up. It was the least I could do for the ones actually contributing; I just wanted to feel useful. But now, whenever I hold a gun, I don't have to watch anymore. Whenever I start trying to aim, it's like my hand moves on its own. Everything starts moving slower and looks like it's closer than it actually is. Somehow I know where I need to aim, it's like something clicks in my head whenever my arms stops at the right spot and everything feels so right."

It was as she spoke that her whimpering sobs hardened into something colder and more sinister. Her teary eyes dried and hardened into chips of navy blue glass. "I've always lived under my mom's shadow. Every one of my failures stained her name. To think I believed I could ever live up to her successes?" She glared into the distance as she gave a humorless laugh. "I was always 'Johanna's little girl' or 'the daughter of the great coordinator Johanna'. I was never Dawn." She caressed the holster and magazine pouch fastened around her waist. "Pokémon contests are gone now. Dead. Probably just like my mo-"


"Huh, what? Sorry, what was I saying?" The blunette shook her head and blinked back innocently at the lieutenant who was staring wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the former coordinator.

Duplica's forehead glistened in the sunlight as she took another stance, her breaths remarkably synchronized with the figure beside her. Samurai nodded approvingly, impressed by her now perfect duplication of his movements, even down to his earlier nod of approval. Practicing with her was like training before a mirror, especially since she'd made her Ditto take the form of his armor but with a few color changes of her own.

It started out as a sort of game between the two of them at first. She would watch him attentively throughout his entire morning workouts, and it wasn't long before she began imitating certain stances. Despite her astounding skill in mimicry, Samurai could see tiny novice mistakes in her form. Unaccustomed to criticism, her face would redden with her cheeks puffing up like a miffed Jigglypuff before begrudgingly accepting his advice.

Every day she would come to sit and watch, going through the movements until she eventually learned his entire routine. In the days that followed only few words were traded between them. He never bothered to ask her why she had taken such an interest in him, not that he was complaining. For years he had practiced his stances without a partner, having only muscle memory and recollections of his childhood teachings. On rare occasions, Pinsir and Metapod had been his only audience through the years, but something about her watching him made things different.

Admittedly, an audience with her made him work harder, robbing the monotony from his routine and giving it purpose. Having her learn the techniques of his father and his father before him was an indescribable joy. She was no longer just another teammate; she was the hope and chance that his ancestor's techniques survive if he could not.

Her reaction times were perfect, allowing her to move seamlessly into each stance just as he did, almost to the point where if anyone saw them, it would seem that she had been living the way of the sword with him for years.

Yet despite her incredible ability to imitate him, there was a catch.

Samurai had earned his speed and stamina through years of practice and experience. Duplica could match the speed of his movements, but her muscles were not accustomed to the strain. Practice sessions to keep his technique sharp were not enough to make him break a sweat, but left Duplica completely drained of strength and unable to move at the end of it all. She was getting the hang of it these last few days, her body slowly adapting to the abuse of techniques that required her to exert ten times more energy than she was used to.

In the midst of his reminiscing Duplica's legs quivered and buckled. Despite his speed Ditto reacted faster still, melting off her form and becoming a pink beanbag chair beneath her. With a light whumph Duplica's fall was cushioned, leaving her to gaze up sheepishly at her teacher and stance partner. Samurai glanced down at her and smiled, sheathing his sword and extending an armored hand down to her.

"I don't think I have the strength to get up, sorry," Duplica panted, managing a shrug.

Without a word, Samurai quickly slid his hands beneath her body and lifted her into his arms as if she weighed nothing. Her shocked squeak was music to his ears, turning towards the gym as Ditto morphed back to normal.

"You really don't have to do this you know," Duplica added; her cheeks tinged a rosy pink. "I was actually planning on having Ditto take me to my room anyway."

"Don't worry about it," Samurai replied.

"But my room's on the fifth floor!"

"Then let's just call it Bushido training."

Ditto slid slowly behind them as they made their way through the front doors of the gym. Duplica was silent for the most part, silently praying no one found Samurai carrying her up the stairs bridal style.

"From the moment I started practicing stances with you I've heard you say that a lot," Duplica said

"What?" Samurai replied.

"I think you called it bushy dough training?"

"Bushido training."

"Yeah that! Sorry. What's it mean?"

Samurai was silent for a moment as he took the first of many steps up several flights of stairs.

"My father… he would always say that phrase whenever he was doing something difficult. He believed that every hardship you went through in life, every discomfort, every moment of sadness, was there to make you a stronger and a better person in the end. Over time, I started to say it as well, especially whenever I was going through a tough moment. It made whatever I was going through easier to deal with, thinking of it as training."

She hadn't the strength to mimic him, but Duplica quickly felt herself smile as Samurai indulged in the rare action of having the corners of his lips stretch across his face.

"Woah!" Duplica gasped.

"What?" Samurai calmly asked as he reached the floor of her room, his smile still intact.

"Your canines–" Duplica began, instantly feeling Samurai's hand beneath the small of her back suddenly shift as if to pull out from under before stopping just short of actually doing so, "–Are really long."

Samurai's smile vanished instantly, his trademark unreadable and stern expression resurfacing once more. An aura of tension rolled off his body in waves as he approached the door to her room. Ditto had taken the form of one of the survivors at the gym, already holding the door open for them.

The armored warrior's once calm stroll quickened into a brisk half walk, half run. He stopped just before her bed, laying her down with a startling degree of tenderness that belied his eagerness to leave. Before she could even thank him he was already out the door and flying down the stairs.

Ditto's concerned gaze landed on at its master before staring worriedly at the barren entrance to her room.

"Did I…say something wrong?"

The clatter of silverware and voices served as the soundtrack to Ash's meal in the makeshift lunchroom of the Yas-Kas gym. Brock had joined the cooks, tasting what they served, giving constructive feedback and tips while receiving some in return when he tried his hand at it. Despite having always enjoyed Brock's food, Ash found himself poking at the last bits of his morsel for several minutes.

Sabrina had yet show up at their location since they had arrived almost two weeks ago. At first he didn't let it bother him, seeing as she had already teleported AJ, Tracy, and Surge here in the first place, and at any moment she would materialize into their midst. But as the number of days grew, Ash started running out of reasons to excuse her absence.

"Maybe she's saving others and they're holding her up…no, she'd at least have time to pop in here and let us know she's okay. She can't be…"

"Well lookie here, our fearless leader finally got caught and cut," AJ chuckled, setting his tray down across from Ash's as he sat.

"Hey AJ," the raven haired youth replied quietly.

"Aww shucks, don't tell me yer all bent outta shape cause they cut yer hair. Looks fine ta me, heck ya look more lika badass with it shorter. Now if only yer eyes glowed red…"

"It's not about the hair, it's…Sabrina," Ash replied, feeling no need to say anymore to get his point across.

"Oh," was all AJ replied with, lowering his gaze before proceeding to dig into his meal. After a few spoonfuls he raised his gaze and sighed. "Ah know it's hard ta lose someone, but she probably died painlessly." He was unsure if his words would provide much solace.

"Died?" Ash repeated as if the word were suddenly foreign to him.

"Well of course. She woulda been back here if she'd been alive. There's no other reason that she'd be away this long. All we can do is make sure her sacrifi-"

"SHE'S NOT DEAD!" Ash roared, slamming his fists against the table and making the nearby forks and spoons jitter. The lunchroom grew quiet for a moment, all eyes converging on Ash, who now stood over AJ and his tray. Gradually sound began to trickle back in the form of hushed whispers as the boy from Pallet Town lowered himself back to his seat.

"Okay, sore subject, Ah get it. Let's talk bout somethin' else then. I hear yer heading out for more survivors. Who ya taken with ya?" AJ asked; doing his best to ignore the stares and unwanted attention Ash had brought them.

"Misty, Dawn, Surge, Samurai, and Duplica," Ash recited sullenly.

"Well ain't you the ladies man? Ya gonna take all the chicks and leave us poor single guys behind," AJ jeered.

"It's not like that. I didn't make the teams, Surge did. Duplica's Ditto can transform into a Chansey, so she's our medic, I guess or something. In case we get over the water, Misty's pokémon will come in handy. Dawn's our long-range fighter and Samurai's for melee combat," Ash explained.

"Why're you goin?"

"'Cause I've got the most amount of pokémon in the group."

"What about the rockets?" AJ asked.

"Jessie and James are staying, but Meowth's coming with as a translator," Ash replied.

"That's odd. Those three seemed tighter than a Magneton. Shame ta see'em split. D'ya know why they're stayin?"

"I didn't ask, but Surge said it's better to go as a small group anyway, less people to feed, smaller of a target."

"Well, good luck to ya then," AJ said, extending a hand over the table while his other hand held his empty plate and tray with the other.

Ash took the hand and shook, finding himself mirroring the other trainer's smile.

"If I hear you died out there, I'll come find ya, an kill ya again. So you better come back, ya here me. Ah ain't given ya permission ta die." AJ laughed.

"It's promise then," Ash replied, grabbing his tray to leave before releasing his hand.

"Ah, probably won't need to though. From what the girls told me, you're a tough sonnovabitch. Ya probably wouldn't die even if they killed ya."

Ash laughed, dropping his tray off as he made his way out of the room. It didn't take long for whatever mirth he'd gained through talking to AJ to dwindle and eventually fade away now that he was left to his own devices. For a long time he stared at the sky, gripping the railing of the balcony until his knuckles were white.

"She can't be…" he whispered, "She can't be."