Artificial Sweetener

"Isn't there anything on?" Iris complained, laying back on the plush couch of Cynthia's villa with Axew industriously nesting himself in her hair.

"I'm afraid it's mostly just soap operas in the middle of the day like this," Cilan said in an apologetic tone as he flicked through various images on the plasma screen television in front of them—here an Audino languishing over a Trubbish in a fictional coma, there a commercial featuring a tuxedo-clad Elesa enjoying the newest faux-vitamin drink the Roggenrola-cola company.

"You could always go to PokeStar OnDemand if nothing catches your interest," Cynthia suggested from her seat at the wet-bar a few paces back from the sofa. Cupped in her manicured fingers was a slim glass garnished with lime and a sprig of mint. It was the kind of drink that it seemed far too early in the morning to partake in.

"A movie marathon sounds like just the thing to do on a rainy day like this," Dawn enthused, leaning forward from her seat on the couch, Piplup in her arms. Only one thought seemed to dull her good mood. "…If only Ash would watch with us."

Iris rolled her eyes. "Let him play in the mud—just like the little kid he is."

"Now, now," Cynthia said with a gentle smile. "You know Ash just wants to get as much training in as he possibly can—weather permitting or not."

"We'd all be out there training right alongside him if it wasn't pouring," Dawn commented, looking wistfully over her shoulder down the hall to the glass sliding door, beyond which Ash was battling with his Pokemon and the elements. She could hear the rain hurling itself diligently against the roof. Thankfully, there was no thunder and lightning yet, but who could say how the storm would turn.

"Oh!" Cilan cried out, snapping Dawn's attention back to the rest of the group.

"Did you find something for us to watch?" Iris asked, sitting up so abruptly that Axew crashed down onto the floor.

"I sure did!" Cilan beamed, gesturing to the television. On the screen there was a woman who looked like she was on her way to a particularly flamboyant aerobics class. She wore a polka dot leotard over hot pink tights. Electric blue arm and leg-warmers jostled as she moved. She brushed aside her voluminous hair as some new wave music played in the background. The voice of a commentator talked over the track. "Poke-Hits 1 is doing an 'I Love the 80s marathon!" Cilan exclaimed.

Iris slumped, reaching down to pick up the fallen Axew. "And I thought you actually found something good," she groaned.

He turned to her, blinking his light green eyes at her in surprise. "You mean you don't like it?"

Iris waved a hand. "What's to like?"

For a moment, Cilan looked stumped as to where to start, but then it all came out as a flood: "Oh, the fashion, the music, the sitcoms, the cartoons, the dramas, the movies, the… the nostalgia!"

Cynthia gave a little giggle. "Nostalgia?" she repeated. "I think we're all too young to be having nostalgia about the 80s." She turned to the suited figure cleaning a glass behind the bar. "Except for Jervis, of course."

"Indeed," he said in a measured tone that made the image of him with a mullet and parachute pants all the more uncomfortable as it formed in the mind.

"Well, no… I don't remember it firsthand of course," Cilan explained. "But I remember seeing reruns when I was a younger and it always seemed interesting."

"I'm with Cilan on this," Dawn put in. "The fashion's a lot of fun."

"What? Really?" Iris asked, raising an eye at Dawn, who'd she'd somehow hoped would be her ally on this. "I always thought people looked silly… you know, with the shoulder pads and the weird haircuts and stuff."

"Well, yeah," Dawn admitted. "I mean, it is a little silly when we look back at it now… but that's kind of what makes it fun too. Plus, we can build off of it and mix the old styles with the new."

"Huh," Iris said, giving it some thought. "Well, I guess you'd know more about that stuff than me," she admitted, though she didn't seem entirely convinced of the value of retro.

"It's the thirty years rule," Cynthia observed. "Each generation tends to get obsessed with the style and culture from the not-too-distant past."

"There are so many excellent songs too," Cilan enthused. "So bold and flavorful! Strange and unexpected! 'Tainted Lovely Kiss,' 'The Safeguard Dance,' 'We Didn't Start the Fire Spin,'" he said, ticking off the songs on his fingers, "And, of course, my favorite, 'Come On Goldeen.'"

Cynthia smiled. "With all this talk of songs, it's a shame that Meloetta isn't here."

"Yeah!" Dawn agreed. "I'm sure Meloetta would love an 80s marathon. All those musical montages and love songs!" She sighed and looked around. "Where is Meloetta anyway?"

"Probably with Ash," Iris said while Piplup pricked up his non-ears at the subject of Meloetta. She rolled her eyes. "Who knows why she follows him?"

"Well," Cilan cut in, "we follow him too, you know."

"…True," Iris admitted reluctantly, as though not totally able to explain this.

"That's just kind of happens with Ash," Dawn said with a weak little smile. "People who meet him just naturally want to follow him. He has this…" she trailed off, unable to quite find the word.

"Thrall?" Cynthia suggested, sounding slightly amused.

"Maybe," Dawn said, careful not to let a little sigh escape. It was funny how she really only fully understood that desire to follow him after they'd parted. Even when there were things to do, the world just seemed so… aimless without Ash around. It wasn't an adventure anymore. There wasn't that connection anymore.

Maybe she was looking back on her time traveling with Ash with rose-colored glasses on, but she couldn't help it. She'd often retreated, in her downtime, to that past when they'd traveled together—battling alongside one another, thwarting the will of evil-doers, and in general looking to one another for inspiration.

And she realized she'd somewhat… well, set herself up for what wound up happening, but the real blame fell on her crazy schedule. Training in the afternoon, late photo shoots at night… all her downtime seemed to reside in the morning, where she parked herself in front of the TV and watched the only thing that seemed to be on—soap operas. Dramatic plays of life and love and the twists and turns that shape the lives of selfish people—high school dramas were especially attractive. It was enough to make Dawn want to put her coordinator goals on a temporary hiatus once she reached the right age, if only to attend. Oh, not for the classes, no, but for the… just the life these characters led. The enthralling spectacle of who liked who, who would get their heart's desire and who would get their heart broken, and, to cap it all off, who would ask who to the prom.

And just like that there'd been a subtle… change. Her thoughts of Ash had shifted from the past to the future. To prom-dresses, dates and fairy-tale settings. She'd tried to write it off as silliness at first—just a way to pass the time. But she indulged in it. She let herself dream.

…Except now that she was finally back traveling with Ash again, she couldn't do that anymore. It was just impossible. Part of that was simply out of embarrassment and part of it was… she didn't know. It was as if when Ash was actually around he sort of… got in the way of it.

"So, if we're going to do an 80s marathon, what type of movie or show should we watch first?" Cilan asked, flipping through the queue of streamable titles.

"Romance," Dawn murmured. It was out of her mouth before she'd even properly gotten a chance to think about what she was going to say.

"Sounds good to me," Cilan nodded. "Oooh. Maybe we could watch Flash Cannon Dance!" he cheered, clicking downward to the title.

"Flash Cannon Dance?" Iris repeated, uncertain. "What's that about?"

"It's about a Magnemite that's trying to break into musicals despite having no arms to hold props," he explained. "She's just a steel-type girl on a Saturday night looking for the fight of her life!" he sang.

"…I thought Magnemite were genderless," put in Dawn.

"…Artistic license," Cilan answered lamely by way of justification.

"It's not that good a movie," Cynthia cut in. "And, the truth be told, you're probably all too young for the unedited version."

"Hmm…" Cilan hummed, flipping through the list. "I suppose there's Sixteen Litwick. I've never seen that, but it's supposed to be good."

"That might be nice," Dawn said, her interest piqued.

"Or we could go for one of the TV series. Those tend to at least have romantic subplots," Cilan added to allow for some options. "The Kids of De Grass-Type Street, Saved by the Beldum, Palm Hills 90210…"

"Do we… do we have to?" Iris finally managed to ask, her forehead creased.

Cilan looked up at her. "I suppose we don't have to, but is there a problem, Iris?"

Iris clutched the fabric of the couch and looked vaguely tortured as though unsure how to convey her disagreement.

"Could it be that you don't like romances, Iris?" Cynthia asked, uncrossing and recrossing her legs from her seat on the stool.

"It's not that…"

"Ooh!" Cilan concluded, snapping his fingers. He pointed at her knowingly. "You're afraid that you're going to start eating too much if we watch something about love!"

"What? No!" Iris answered. After a moment she reached for an apple in a bowl of fruit on the table. "…Alright, maybe a little," she relented, biting into the apple with a wet crunch.

Dawn cocked her head to the side. "Why would watching something about love make you eat too much?"

"Love makes Iris hungry for… reasons I can't fathom," Cilan explained with a helpless shrug.

Dawn gave a little giggle. "Then maybe you should marry a chef, Iris!"

"That's not the only reason I don't want to watch one of these things," Iris cut in, her face reddening slightly as she pointedly avoided looking in Cilan's direction. She gulped hastily. The apple that had been whole only minutes ago had been reduced to a thin core. "I just can't stand these old high school romances!" she insisted.

"Plup?" Piplup asked, sounding disappointed. Perhaps he'd been hoping to pick up some tips for courting Meloetta.

"Why not?" Dawn asked, mystified.

"They're just so… I don't know—they're too sweet," Iris decided, tossing aside the apple core and peeling a banana.

"What's wrong with sweet?" Dawn asked.

"Nothing it just… doesn't seem right," Iris said, chewing a bite of the mushy banana in one cheek as she searched her mind for clarity.

"Perhaps Iris is concerned about the corniness of some teen romances," Cynthia observed, lifting the lime out of her drink and squeezing its juices into the remainder of her beverage. "The overblown sentimentality can get to some people."

Cilan tapped his index finger against his chin, giving the matter some thought. "I always thought of their cheesiness as a one of the fun things about them, but I suppose if you're going to take them seriously then they could seem a little…"

"Cloying," Cynthia supplied.

"Right—and because of that it just doesn't feel real to me. When you're talking about something like love, it should be genuine," Iris explained, tossing out her banana peel and reaching for an orange. She picked at the skin irritably. "But in these types of things it's always superficial stuff. Y'know, like looks and clothes and passing notes and prom king and queen and a bunch of stereotypes." She gave up on the orange and passed it to Cilan who had better fingernails than her.

"I do sometimes think these shows give kids an unrealistic idea of what prom is like," Cynthia said with a small smile as Dawn tried to keep her features neutral. "Sometimes these shows act like it's this magical, be-all, end-all, whole point of going to high school when really it's just an expensive, perfunctory dance." She sighed to herself. "I know mine didn't work out very well." She shook her head as though at her own foolishness. "I was so in love back then."

"Then why didn't it work out?" Dawn asked in a small voice. "If you were really in love and everything?"

"Oh, I wasn't in love with my date," Cynthia explained with a grin. "I was in love with the idea of being in love. And that's a problem. Because then, you see, it's not about the person you're trying to start a relationship with. They're just a place holder. And you find out they're really not what you wanted them to be and it's…"—she searched for a word—"unsatisfying," she finally decided. She took a generous swig of her drink and added quietly, "in more ways than one."

"I just think love stories should have more than that kind of stuff," Iris said, ravenously accepting the peeled orange back from Cilan. "I mean, when real people are in love it can't always be pretty and romantic. But when you dress it up with stuff like clichés and laugh tracks and freeze-frame high-fives it just seems so… fake."

"…High-fives?" Dawn repeated in a voice so quiet that no one heard her.

"It is a little calculated," Cynthia admitted. "All the immature, half-hearted romantic overtures that marketers use to take advantage of an inexperienced youth pining for some kind of perfect, nonexistent love. But Iris," she added with a smile, "isn't that meant to appeal to your age group?"

Iris shrugged, taking out a section of the orange and picking off some of the pith. "In my village there's this old woman who's been married to her husband for more than five times as long as I've been alive. She told me that 'growing old together' isn't as romantic as people like to pretend it is. She says nobody talks about stuff like having to carry your spouse to the bathroom when their legs can't carry them anymore when they talk about love lasting forever." She popped another piece of orange into her mouth. "It made me think that maybe love isn't as pretty as it is on TV," she went on, through her mouthful of orange. "Maybe it's better that it isn't."

"Well, anything that's worth having should have a cost, should it not?" Cynthia summed up, downing the rest of her drink.

"Speaking of things that are worth having," Jervis said, breaking his silence as he reached over to take Cynthia's empty glass, "do you require another drink?"

Cynthia tapped her chin with a manicured fingernail. "No, I do believe that will be sufficient, Jervis," she informed him. She gestured toward the rest of the group. "But if we're going to have a movie marathon, perhaps our young friends would be interested in refreshments?"

Jervis turned to the rest of the group assembled on the sofa and gave them a half bow. "Could I get you all anything?"

Cilan shook his head. "I'm fine."

"You uh…" Iris began, looking guiltily at the empty bowl on the table, "you might want to get some more fruit."

"Certainly," Jervis said. He turned to Dawn. "And you, young miss?"

"Umm… I suppose a drink would be nice," Dawn said, a little flustered and glad that the topic had changed to something safe and neutral like food and beverages. "Do you have any diet soda?"

"I'm certain I can find you something satisfactory," Jervis assured her, giving a nod and heading off to the kitchen.

"Diet, Dawn?" Cynthia asked playfully. "I hope you're not trying to slim down any more than you already are." She ruefully put her hand on her flat stomach. "Fashion week is a killer."

"Oh, it's not that," Dawn said, waving the comment away. "I'm just… you know, trying to cut out the junk a little—be healthy to set a good example for my Pokemon."

Piplup slumped on the couch. He'd objected to this little plan of Dawn's but had been sadly overruled.

"You know, I actually understand that that sort of thing can backfire with diet drinks," Cilan put in. "One study found that they actually make you crave more sugary foods, so you wind up eating more when you're trying to cut down."

"Why would that happen?" Iris asked, blinking her copper-flecked eyes curiously.

"Well, I suppose you could look at it kind of like this," Cilan said, holding up his lecture-mode finger, "the fake sweetener is enough to tempt you into wanting something sweet, but not enough to satisfy your sweet tooth. So it becomes necessary to go elsewhere for your fix."

Dawn balked. "That's not fair!" she cried. "How am I supposed to cut down on sugar when sugar-free things are just going to make me want more sugar?"

Cilan shrugged. "Well, I am, and always will be, a proponent of real food. Low fat and sugar-free options may seem attractive, but they're just not going to leave much of a lasting impression. It's better to have something that's bad for you in moderation than to have chemically processed nothings that your body can't recognize."

"It's rather like Iris's concept of love when you think about it," Cynthia mused, her chin cupped in one hand.

Cilan laughed. "I suppose so," he agreed. "Both love and food should have calories."

Dawn nearly jumped out of her seat as a glass bottle of Diet Roggenrola-cola appeared next to her. "Here you are," Jervis said, handing the bottle to her.

"Uhh… thanks," Dawn said, accepting it numbly. She labored to twist off the cap as Jervis replaced the empty bowl on the table with one overflowing with grapes.

"Hmmm…" Cilan said thoughtfully, clicking a sub-genre back on the screen. "I guess if Iris doesn't want to watch a romance, then we'll have to find something else to watch."

"It's okay, really," Iris said, waving her hands as though not wanting it to come down to her. "I mean, they're not my kind of thing or anything, but if Dawn—"

"Oh, no, I'm fine," Dawn said, still feeling a little shaken as she brought the bottle to her lips. "It wasn't important anyway."

She sipped the artificially sweetened cola as Iris and Cilan chatted about what to watch and Cynthia threw in the occasional mild comment. Dawn gulped, dreading the aspartame aftertaste. A faux-sweet, bubbly little nothing… something that only seems sweet, but has an emptiness that makes you crave the real thing…

She stood up. "Umm… I'll be right back," she said, throwing an everything's-normal smile particularly at Piplup so he wouldn't worry.

She crossed out of the room and to the hall until she could no longer see the rest of the group. She could still hear murmured conversation, but the rain was louder. She reached out a hand to the shade that hung across the glass door that led out onto the patio. She gripped it and carefully moved it an inch inward so that she could look outside yet not be seen.

There was Ash. He'd shed his signature hat which Meloetta seemed to be holding over herself like a makeshift umbrella. His hair was soaked and in its usual Rattata's nest state. He called something out that she could not hear as Oshawott let out a stream of water at Snivy who neatly dodged it. Pikachu sat on the sidelines, looking somewhat uneasy. Dawn was relieved that Ash wasn't having him battle. In this rain, an electric attack so close to the villa could easily cause a fire.

And it was clear, painfully clear, as Dawn looked at the soaked-to-the-bone boy stomping in puddles, his pants streaked with mud, that he was never the one she'd imagined in her prom-based daydreams. Oh, sure, it was someone who looked approximately like him, but with neater hair, cleaner clothes, a seemingly endless supply of flowers, and a propensity to recite poetry that Ash hadn't even heard of, let alone memorized.

The boy outside wasn't one for proms. If he was forced to come, forced into a tuxedo, you couldn't part him from his usual hat. He'd spend his time there, not in romantic gestures, but parked at the buffet. He'd sooner ask someone to battle than ask someone to dance.

And yet she'd placed him there—put him in the midst of something that wasn't real—asked things of him that he couldn't deliver. All for the sweetness—the artificial sweetness.

Back in the living room, Dawn numbly heard an indication that Cilan and Iris had finally found an 80s film that they could both agree on. At least, that's what their chanting seemed to be about.

"You remind me of the Gallade," Cilan's voice half-sang from a muffled distance.

"What Gallade?" Iris dutifully answered.

"Gallade with the power."

"What power?"

Ash didn't want dances, no, nor dates nor sweet serenades from below a balcony. It wasn't his role. If it was what she wanted, then it wasn't something that he could fulfill.

"Power, voodoo."

"Who do?"

"You do!"

"Do what?"

"Remind me of the Gallade!"

But thinking of anything even approaching romance with someone like Ash was more problematic than realizing he wasn't one for dating. He loved, yes. But what kind of love? He could love her, but that was nothing special—nothing more than the love he lavished on all his friends. She couldn't have it all, couldn't have more than the rest. His compassion was not preferential.

…Except… except in one way that was perhaps the biggest problem of all. He loved a dream. It wasn't hers. That was why they'd parted in the first place. That's why they would've always had to part eventually. That's why their reunion was only a temporary state.

She could ask him to give it all up. She could try. She could say, come with me. Choose me over your goals. But, of course, she wouldn't. And even if she had, he wouldn't say yes.

And the galling thing, the really galling thing, was that she felt like she was being asked every moment to do the same for him—to abandon top coordinator splendor to follow wherever his new adventures would take him. Oh, he wasn't asking it, but still she was being asked. Perhaps she was asking herself.

Was that the price? The cost that anything worth having demanded? But that wasn't… right. It wasn't. It had never seemed like a problem in the fiction she'd come across. The princesses never seemed to have anything going for themselves before they got rescued and the prom queen's only ambition had been the jock. It wasn't a problem for those romantic heroines, but it was a problem for her.

She had goals. She didn't want to lose them. Not when she didn't even know what this was yet… the beginning of a love that would last into the pathetic imperfections of Iris's "growing old together" or was this just… a first crush—a love for the sake of love. Were these first awakenings into the world of romance just a dream too? Something that had seemed so strong and so real in her ten-year-old heart suddenly felt perilously ephemeral.

But yet… there was a sweetness there.

She slid open the sliding door, bracing herself against the wind that sent the pattering rain diagonally toward her.

"—And then if you follow it up with a—" Ash stopped, mid instruction to Snivy and turned at the sound of the door. "Oh, hey Dawn," he said, noticing her.

"Hey Ash," she said a little uncertainly.

There was a silence as Ash good-naturedly waited for whatever she'd come out to say—and as Dawn tried to figure out just that.

"We're… gonna be watching movies inside," she began lamely. "You could come in and watch them… with me." She tried to emphasize the last part as much as she could.

"Nah, you guys go ahead," he said, shaking the moisture out of his hair like a wet dog. "I wanna take every chance I can get to practice before the Junior Cup." He grinned. "We don't mind the weather, right guys?"

His Pokemon answered in shades between reluctant affirmation and downright grumbles. Only Meloetta seemed upbeat.

Dawn looked at her shoes, already wet from the torrent of rain. It wasn't just that Ash hadn't chosen her, but the fact that he didn't even recognize what kind of choice this was.

She stepped out onto the deck, sending a splash of water upward that seemed to soak through directly to her socks with toe-numbing cold. She closed the door behind her.

Ash turned to her—he'd already been half turned around back to his Pokemon when he saw she was still there. "Dawn?"

She could not, she would not, leave behind her dreams for his—no matter how great the temptation was—but she could stand out in the rain with him—for now, until she knew more—until she figured out where this was going. Maybe someday these feelings which seemed so overpowering would leave. Maybe they'd meet some ten, twenty years from now with different significant others or with no significant others at all. Maybe the memory of her crush would be nothing more than a shadow of her childhood folly hanging across a lasting friendship—because she could at least be certain that they'd always be friends.

Or maybe this would grow into something—at its own pace and as the equal compromise that it should be. She couldn't know—not yet—but she could care enough to try while she could and in the ways she could.

"I just thought maybe I'd train some too," she said, trying to keep her teeth from chattering.

He looked unsure for a moment, as though he'd never considered the rain the least bit troublesome until he found himself subjecting someone else to it. That melted away into a smile after just a moment. "Sure! The more the merrier, right guys?"

There will be calories, Dawn found herself thinking as Ash's Pokemon chimed in with their answers. There will be calories… and it could turn out that there were too many—that they would be bad for each other in the long run—that they couldn't be what each other needed.

But maybe those calories would be worth it after all. Maybe there was nutritional value here. Maybe they could enrich, sustain, and enliven each other. Because there was sweetness there. Even in the pouring rain she could feel that at his side as he energetically began to devise a training regime for the two of them.

There was sweetness. She knew it.