The snow was light, comparatively more pleasant than the weather of the previous winter, but he still shivered and pulled his jacket closer around him. He had traveled throughout the night, and his eyes were heavy with need for sleep. It had been years since he last visited the small town in Johto, and though he doubted anyone would recognize him, he certainly wasn't going to take any risks.
He hesitated when he reached the front door. The lights were off. Everyone inside the home was probably asleep. What if she didn't answer? What if she wasn't even there? He shook these thoughts off. No, she had to be there. It was almost Christmas again. Trainers with good families always went home for the holidays.
He raised his hand, knocked, and waited. A yellow light from upstairs—her bedroom—flickered on. Within a few minutes, the door swung open, and there she stood, tiredly rubbing her eyes in her pale, pink nightgown. Her hair fell freely on her shoulders, rather than their usual pigtails.
The shock on her face was almost immediate. She straightened up rigidly, her eyes widening. Her arm fell to her side, and they spent a long moment just staring at each other.
"I'm sorry." The words came out of his mouth in just above a whisper.
She stepped forward, out of the warmth of her home.
"I am, too."
She reached out and grabbed him, pressing him flush against her. She was shorter—or rather, he was taller—and yet, her body heat immediately warmed his chilled skin. It took a little while, but he eventually reciprocated her embrace, pressing his hand against her upper back.
Ash found himself grabbing at empty air when he woke up. Once he reoriented himself, his hands dropped back down against the bed, and he stared at the ceiling blankly. The only sounds in the room were the quiet, even breaths of his roommates—which included Pikachu—and the ticking of his Voltorb clock. The alarm was set for 6:00 a.m. sharp, since they had a flight to catch at 8:30 a.m. and driving to the Viridian City Airport would eat up a half-hour of their time, anyway.
"Hey, Ash, you OK up there?" The question came from Ritchie. "You were mumbling in your sleep."
"Yeah... I'm fine..." Ash muttered in response, trailing off. He then suddenly added, "I saw Silver. In my dream."
Ash nodded, even though Ritchie couldn't see.
"He's in Newbark Town, I think. He went to find Lyra." Remembering that Ritchie had never personally met Lyra, Ash added, "Uh... she's the girl we saw outside—what was it again?—Birch Town way back when we were tryin' to get to Olivine. She helped out Pikachu and Paul's Torterra and Iris's Axew, and she surprised us when she came up the path."
"I remember. I thought they had a fight?"
"I guess they've made up now."
"This is the first time you've been able to name an actual location," Gary's groggy voice suddenly broke into the conversation. "Are you going to go looking for him?"
Ash's bottom lip quivered. The answer "yes" rose in his throat, but he swallowed it as though it were a bitter pill. He desperately wanted to say "yes." He would have willfully changed his flight's destination that morning from Sinnoh to Johto, and no one—except Drew—would have even blinked an eye.
Nearly all of Ash's friends knew about his new set of dreams. It wasn't even that he had told a lot of people. It just got out, not that Ash minded. They began not long after the events in Opelucid City, and they had come sporadically. Ash would see Silver somewhere, usually traveling by himself, sometimes training, before being thrust back into his own reality. Ash was confident Mewtwo was somehow behind these brief visions.
"I don't know," Ash finally said.
"Don't you think if Mewtwo's showing all this to you that he wants you to go looking for him?" Gary pressed.
"I'm not getting that feeling," Ash replied. He turned over in his bed, facing Pikachu, who was staring at his trainer sympathetically. Ash sighed and flipped in the other direction, prompting an annoyed look to cross the Electric-type's face. "I don't want to talk about it. Sorry for waking you guys."
"Doesn't matter," Gary said flippantly. "It's 5:54 a.m. The alarm goes off in six minutes, so we might as well start getting ready anyway."
Ritchie agreed. It took Ash a moment, but he eventually did, too. He sat up, stretching, before awkwardly swinging his body around to climb down the ladder.
"Someone want to wake up Misty?" Ritchie suggested.
"Sounds like the shower's running. She's already up," Gary said.
"It could be Ms. Ketchum," Ritchie pointed out.
"It's Misty," Ash mumbled in response. "She didn't take a shower last night like us. She's weird 'bout sleeping with wet hair."
Gary looked at him slyly before asking, "And how would you know that, Ashy-boy? Has she spent the night before, hm?"
Ash looked at Gary strangely as he reached into his drawer and pulled out a shirt. The subtext didn't register.
"We traveled together for two years," he explained. He began unbuttoning the top to his pajamas. "May, Dawn, and Iris are the same way. They think it makes their hair look funny the next morning. Girls can be really particular about their appearance, you know?"
Gary's face fell, and he sighed.
"I should have known that would have gone straight over your head," he said.
Ritchie chuckled and added, "Did you honestly expect anything else?"
The doorbell unexpectedly rang downstairs. The three trainers exchanged confused looks, and Ritchie went to the window, peering down toward the front porch.
"See anyone?" Gary asked.
Ritchie shook his head. Ash frowned and quickly pulled his new shirt over his head before running downstairs. Pikachu bounded after him, keeping on his heels. Ash nearly tripped over his own feet in the darkness before reaching the door. He grappled for the handle, struggling to unlock it. Once he did, he was surprised to see Leaf standing on his doorstep.
"Leaf," he regarded, blinking. He ushered her inside, out of the cold. "What'cha doin' here?"
"I decided that I'm coming with you," she answered simply, turning toward him.
"I thought you were going with Lance later this morning," Ritchie joined in as he and Gary caught up.
"I was, but I changed my mind."
"Why? Oh, I see." Gary smirked. "Couldn't get enough of me, huh? Leaf, it's only been two days since we last saw each other in person, and we were talking just last night. How desperately in love with me are you?"
"Believe it or not, Mr. Boyfriend, my entire existence doesn't revolve around you," Leaf said, rolling her eyes. "No, you're not the reason."
"Harsh," Ritchie coughed before grinning.
Gary glowered at him before looking back at Leaf and asking, "What is your reason, then?"
"I'm not obligated to tell you that."
"Now you're just being difficult."
Delia meandered into the room at that particular moment, wearing her lavender bath robe. Her face brightened upon seeing the young agent.
"Oh, hello Leaf!" she greeted warmly. "Are you flying with Ash and friends instead?"
When Leaf nodded, Delia's smile widened, and she clapped her hands together.
"Wonderful," the mother continued. "In that case, I'm so glad I decide to buy a dozen eggs rather than eight. Are you hungry? I'd like to make you all breakfast before I drive you to the airport. Plane food is plain just not nutritious, nor does it taste anywhere near as good as homemade cooking."
"Thank you Ms. Ketchum, but you don't have to fuss," Leaf said politely.
"Nonsense," Delia dismissed. "I'm sure with how busy you and Lance are, you hardly ever get to eat a proper meal. Gary, too, since he started actively working with Professor Oak. It will be delicious, I promise. And it will only take me maybe ten minutes to finish."
Delia promptly headed into the kitchen, and Leaf let out an exasperated chuckle before looking toward her male companions. She changed the subject, asking, "By the way, where's Misty?"
"Upstairs, showering. She's probably finished by now," Ash replied.
"Ah, well." Leaf took a step back, moving toward the stairway. "I suppose I'll go get her for breakfast, then."
Ash and Ritchie seemed fine with this, but Gary looked at her with a raised eyebrow. He suspected Leaf had hidden motives (what else was new?) behind her visitation and that they probably had something to do with Misty. At least, it would explain why she had brushed off his question. The researcher let it go, though, figuring she would tell him about it later, when they were alone.
The agent jogged up the stairs, discovering the bathroom door open. She peered inside, noticing the mirror was foggy with steam. Thus, she moved onto the guest bedroom, the place where she and the other female trainers had stayed before setting off toward Dragon's Den nearly a year earlier.
When she knocked, Misty's voice immediately emerged from the other side.
"Yeah, I'll be with you in a few minutes—Ash, Ritchie, whoever it is," she grumbled.
Leaf smirked and, folding her arms, leaned against the frame.
"It's actually me," she said.
This was met with a brief, confused silence on Misty's end. The gym leader then inquired, "Leaf? I thought-"
"-Change of plans."
"Well, in that case, come in."
Leaf turned the knob and slid inside, shutting the door behind her. Misty was mostly dressed. She was in the process of pulling her undershirt down to her waist. Her hair was still damp, and a small hand towel hung over the top of her head. The only light turned on the room was a small table lamp near the bed.
"Did you need me for something?" Misty asked.
She was wary. She wasn't sure why Leaf was making a point to see her. They got along well, to the point where they could be considered friends, but they weren't especially close. Misty tended to associate Leaf with news—good and bad—considering the agent's involvement in the G-Men. If there was trouble, Leaf knew about it, and she was always more than willing to share.
She had told them when Giovanni was sentenced to life in prison after a hurried, hushed trial. The reason it was kept so quiet? The G-Men didn't want the public to know a former Kanto gym leader had been the leader of Team Rocket, especially since Lance and Steven had so ruthlessly pursued him in the late '90s—a search that ended in vain.
She had kept them updated on the search for other Team Rocket agents: Annie, Oakley, Jessie, and James, among others. There were no leads. A few grunts had been picked up, but it was nothing worth celebration. The location for the Team Rocket base in Unova was still unknown. Whether there were any lingering operations running out of it was still unknown.
She had shared the final report Lance and others had commissioned from the Interregional Weather Service. The weather patterns had returned to normal within three days of Ash returning to the Shamouti Isles and recollecting the elemental treasures.
"I actually brought you something," Leaf answered. She quickly turned and reached into her bag. "Last night, while lying in bed, I suddenly remembered that your gym is reopening soon. I don't know why it came to me then, it just did. It ended keeping me up, searching for it. It was so buried under a year's worth of other files and things that it took me a while to find it."
Misty furrowed her eyebrows, trying to see what Leaf was rummaging for.
"This." In one crisp motion, Leaf pulled out a photograph between her right index and middle fingers, handing it to Misty.
The redhead's breath caught the moment she saw it. The edges were burnt, and it was a bit wrinkled, but she immediately knew what it was. Her hands shook when she accepted the photo, which depicted herself, Ash, and Brock grinning in front a newly built fence outside Professor Oak's lab in Pallet Town. She flipped it over to the backside to read the date: November 7th, 1997. She was 12 when this picture was taken. Ash was still 10.
"I don't know if Lance ever told you, but I was the one who investigated the Cerulean Gym after the fire and found the remnants of a Shadow Ball outside your room," Leaf continued. "I found that picture in the rubble, and for whatever reason, I held onto it. But I forgot all about it with the chaos that followed. I'm sorry I didn't return it to you sooner."
"I thought it had been lost with the fire..." Misty said absently in just above a half-whisper, running her fingers tenderly along the edges. "I had been meaning to ask Brock for a copy, but this is..." She shook her head, gathering herself. "Thank you. This means a lot to me."
Leaf's lips twitched into a smile.
"I thought it might." Her eyes fell to the photo, noting Ash's own smile. It hadn't changed in five years. "Are you and Ash... ?"
"Yes and no," Misty answered, predicting the question. "It's a bit complicated. I'm tied down to Cerulean. Ash isn't restricted by anything. He travels, and that's what he should be doing. I don't want to hold him back. But, I'm not dating anyone else, and I know he isn't either... I mean, Ash doesn't exactly get the concept of a 'relationship' anyway, which I think is fine for where we are. I'm still not sure he knows a girlfriend is not literally a girl who is a friend. It is nice when we are together, though."
Leaf tilted her head.
"Is being a gym leader all you ever want to do?" she asked.
"Oh, don't get me wrong." Misty suddenly looked up. "I do love it. Bringing out the best in my challengers, watching them persevere—even if they do fail at first—and seeing the glow in their faces when they succeed and I hand them the Cascade Badge... It's great. I miss traveling, though. That's why I think it would be cool to be an Elite Four member. You still face challengers, but you have so much more freedom—as long as you're back and ready to face the winner of that year's league conference."
Leaf's eyebrows shot up.
"An Elite Four member?"
"It's a pipe dream," Misty chuckled, downplaying it.
"Well, don't sell yourself short. I think it's entirely possible."
"I suppose we'll see," Misty said with a doubtful smile.
"Tell you what: I'll put in a good word to Lance or whoever the next Indigo Champion is for you." She paused, swinging her arms behind her back. "Anyway, that's all I had. I'll let you finish getting ready. Ms. Ketchum is making breakfast, and if my memory serves me right, there's not a better cook in Pallet."
December 15th, 2002. Late Morning. Veilstone City.
"Harley." Solidad rapped against the door before standing back, folding her arms, and tapping her foot.
Drew could see her mouthing 'one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand,' counting the seconds, and he stifled a laugh. It didn't happen often, but seeing Solidad get irritated—especially when it was with Harley—was perhaps one of his favorite things in the world.
She rapped against the door again after a set amount of time passed, repeating the Cacturne-loving coordinator's name more intensely.
"Hold on one minute, hun," Harley's voice finally emerged from the other side. "Sheesh, Solidad, I thought you had better patience than this."
"I also have better punctuality than this," Solidad replied. "Harley, we were supposed to be there five minutes ago. I am the maid of honor, and you are a groomsman. We should be on time."
"Oh pish-posh. The world will keep spinning," Harley dismissed. "Beauty takes time for the common man, dear Solidad. We can't all be naturally put together like you."
"Flattery gets you nowhere."
Harley sighed and said, "Just wait downstairs. I'll be with you in a few."
Solidad let out a short huff before turning on her heel, heading down the hallway of the Pokémon Center. Drew smirked and followed her. Once on the first floor, he fell out of her shadow and made a quick detour to the cafeteria, heading straight for the complimentary coffee maker. He prepared a cup and went back out into the lobby. Solidad was waiting on the sofa with one leg crossed impetuously over the other. She was wearing a medium-length red dress, a design that would be matched by the other bridesmaids—Daisy, Candice, and Gardenia.
"Coffee?" Drew slid the styrofoam cup toward her on the low-rise table before sitting across from her on the opposite sofa.
The gesture appeared to relieve some of the stress in her expression, for which Drew was thankful.
"Yes. Thank you, Drew." She picked it up and took a sip, collecting herself.
"Now you understand why I don't like him," Drew continued.
She craned an eyebrow.
"Goodness, I don't dislike Harley. He's been my best friend and rival since we first began coordinating." She then added, "He can be very tiresome, though."
"That's putting it lightly."
Solidad ignored his murmuring, changing the subject.
"Now, are you and May going to be OK getting there yourselves?" she asked. "I'll keep my phone on vibrate, in case you need to call me for directions. I'd hate for you two to get lost."
"Yes, Solidad, we know where it is," Drew said, rolling his eyes. "It doesn't matter anyway. May and I are going to Paul's house first to meet up with everyone and get ready together. And yes, we know where that is, too. We were there yesterday. Thanks for worrying, though, Mom."
Solidad bit down a smile. Any lingering frustration she harbored instantly evaporated. Drew had taken to occasionally calling her 'Mom' in jest since he found out Chris had signed him over to her. He had endured the transition—if it could even be called that—beautifully. Not much had actually changed in her and Drew's relationship. She was simply his freedom from his father, until he turned 18 in two years. 'Mom' was an inside joke, a 'it's-kind-of-funny-when-you-think-about-it' type of thing. Still, Solidad sensed there was some endearment behind the term, and nothing made her happier.
Harley finally sauntered down the stairs in his suit, a package under his arm.
"You ready to go, hun?" he addressed Solidad with a grin.
"Yes, let's," Solidad answered, snapping out of her thoughts. She quickly rose to her feet before noticing the package. Her voice turned suspicious as she asked, "Harley... what's that?"
"Oh, this?" He held the package up, a sly look in his eyes. "I think you know what this is."
"Dear Arceus no."
"Aw, come on, Sol. Most couples get a set when they get married."
"It doesn't matter. Maylene was uncomfortable on Valentine's Day, so what makes you think she would be fine with it now?"
"Oh trust me, they'll have lots of fun with it. It's not red, but it does have a little lacey veil attached to the back of the thong."
"OK, I think I've heard enough of this conversation," Drew coughed, also standing up. His cheeks had tinted pink. "Solidad, I'll see you later."
He immediately headed for the stairs as Solidad and Harley continued their argument out the door. Drew was so flustered that he nearly ran into straight into May on his way back to his room.
"Hey!" May greeted brightly, causing him to mentally stumble. She then tilted her head and asked, "You OK? You don't have a fever do you? You look a little red."
"Ah..." Drew shook off his embarrassment. "Yes, I'm fine. Sorry."
He leaned forward and pecked her reassuringly on the lips, and now it was her turn to blush. Drew could be charmingly affectionate, something she wouldn't have expected from someone who was normally withdrawn. She supposed that made it more special in its own way.
"Showered?" Drew inquired when he pulled away.
"Uh-huh." May nodded, twirling a finger through her hair. It was still a little damp. "I came to find you, because I got a message from Dawn just a few minutes ago. She, Zoey, Barry, and Kenny left Twinleaf, and they'll be here in a little over two hours—if they make it at all."
"Dawn's words. Barry's driving."
"Ah. Well, if you want to pack up your dress and things, we can go sit down for some brunch at one of the little cafés around here."
May's expression brightened considerably at the prospect of food, and she giggled in agreement.
"I'll be just a few minutes!" she said before swinging her leg back to return to her room.
Drew leaned against wall, watching her go. He pressed the knuckle of his index finger to his mouth, trying to hide the smile that was forming on his lips.
"Welcome to Veilstone City, Sinnoh, where the local time is approximately 1:36 p.m. We will be taxiing for a few more minutes, so please remain in your seat with your seatbelt fastened until the captain has parked us at the gate and turned off the seatbelt sign. Use caution when retrieving your personal belongings from the overhead bins, as contents do shift during flight. On behalf of your crew, we thank you for flying with us today. We hope you have a great day in Veilstone, or wherever your final destination may be."
When the flight attendant's announcement ended, Cilan turned to Iris, who was sleeping on his shoulder, and gently shook her awake.
"Iris," he began in a low and tender voice. "Iris. We're here. It's time to get up."
Iris groaned and pressed her hands to her face, rubbing her eyes. Axew climbed out of her tresses and yawned. Cilan then turned to his other side, where Trip sat. Trip had also dozed off, but he was a much lighter sleeper, and he blinked himself awake when Cilan prodded him.
Cilan unbuckled his seatbelt and slowly rose to his feet the moment the sign above flickered off. It had been a long flight. They departed the Nuvema Town Airport at 4 a.m., and each of the three trainers had been sleeping off and on during the trip. Cilan rubbed a crick in his neck before moving into the aisle and reaching up to the higher compartments to retrieve their luggage—first Iris's, then Trip's, then his own.
As they began filing out of the plane, Trip lifted his arm and turned on his Xtransceiver. He quickly inputted a number, letting it ring. The person on the opposite end picked up almost immediately after they were inside the airport.
"Hello?" Ash's voice inquired.
"We're off. We're here in..." He paused to look around, and Cilan pointed toward a sign to help. "Terminal 2. Have you guys arrived yet? I'm assuming yes, otherwise you wouldn't have been able to get this call."
"Oh yeah," Ash answered. "We've been here waiting for about an hour. Paul's gonna pick us all up at once."
"Well, tell Gary or someone to call him now. Where are you guys? Is there somewhere we can meet?"
"How about where you're standing now?"
Trip furrowed his eyebrows, and Cilan and Iris—who had been listening to the conversation—exchanged confused glances. Then, from behind, they heard a call:
It came from Ritchie. The three Unovan trainers turned their heads to see him, Ash, Misty, Leaf, and Gary down the way. Ash smiled crookedly before snapping his Pokégear shut, ending the call. Iris grinned before hurrying ahead to greet their Kantonese friends, and Cilan quickly followed. Trip let out a tired sigh, but there were the makings of a smile in his expression as he turned off his Xtransceiver.
Gary picked his own Pokégear up and began to dial a number, presumably Paul's.
"It's really good to see you guys again," Misty greeted. "It's been several months since the Ventress Conference. How was your flight?"
"Do you want the honest answer or the polite one?" Cilan jested, which elicited several laughs. Perhaps strangely, Ash didn't. Even more strange was that he didn't reach out to embrace his arriving companions. Cilan noticed, but tried to think nothing of it as he added, "We'll just say it was a six hours one-way and leave it at that."
"Fair enough," Leaf conceded with a smirk. "Do any of you need to go to baggage claims?"
"Nope! All carry-ons," Iris answered cheerfully.
"Then let's get going," Gary said, closing his Pokégear. "Paul's on his way. He's meeting us outside the terminal, and it won't take him too long to get here."
After regathering their luggage and other things, they began moving through the airport together. Iris jogged to catch up with Ash, whose mind was elsewhere.
"Hey," she began teasingly. "I have to admit, I'm curious to see how you of all people look in a suit."
He didn't respond, and Pikachu frowned before tapping his trainer on the shoulder with his tail, trying to get his attention. Ash snapped his head up with a "huh?" and looked toward Pikachu, who then pointed toward Iris.
"What's up?" he asked her. Iris furrowed her eyebrows.
"Are you OK?" she asked, becoming concerned. Her witticism had lost its luster, so she didn't repeat it.
Cilan quickly jumped into the conversation, too.
"You seem a bit... melancholic," he added.
"That means sad," Trip immediately translated, knowing Ash wouldn't understand.
"Ahh!" Ash suddenly waved his hands, trying to reassure them. The whole group stopped to stare. "Yeah, I'm totally fine. Sorry, I guess I'm just a bit spacey. Didn't sleep too well last night, that's all."
The implications were understood by all, especially since Ash was being overly insistent. Ash was like May in that both were absolutely terrible at hiding how they were feeling, and it was easily noticeable as long as someone was paying attention.
"Anyway," Ash quickly changed the subject, "it's not a big deal. Really! No need for a hold up. Paul will be mad if he comes and we're not ready."
He then turned and hurried ahead, and the others hesitantly began moving after him. However, Misty immediately cast Ritchie and Gary an annoyed glance, asking in a low voice, "How come you didn't say Ash dreamt about Silver again last night?"
Ritchie winced before apologizing.
"Sorry," he said. "I didn't think it was still bothering him. I guess sitting on the plane must've given lots of time to stew in it, though, and that's why he's upset."
"Don't worry about it so much," Gary dismissed. "We'll put some food in him, give him some company, and he'll be fine."
"Food and friends is an awfully simple solution to a complex problem," Cilan pointed out, frowning.
"Ash is a simple guy," Gary replied coolly. "Ritchie's right. He's had too much time to think about it. The wedding will get his mind off it."
"I hope so..." Iris trailed off.
They soon caught up with Ash outside, who was waiting rigidly by the line of cars coming by to pick up or drop off other friends or loved ones. No one brought up the incident, however, and Cilan graciously initiated a new conversation.
"The grand reopening for the Cerulean Gym is soon, isn't it?" he inquired, addressing Misty.
"Mhm," Misty hummed affirmatively. "January 4th. The next league season for Kanto isn't at its peak until April, when all the new trainers get their licenses, so my sisters are planning some shows."
"Ah, I forgot. The Sensational Sisters." Cilan smiled, as if he had remembered a joke.
"Not that different from the Striaton Triplets, eh?" Iris ribbed him. She was in a particularly playful mood that morning.
"I suppose," Cilan chuckled. "Ritchie, weren't you thinking about challenging the Kanto league again?"
Ash looked at Ritchie in surprise.
"Wait, Rich, you didn't tell me that," he said.
"Yeah," Ritchie admitted, nodding. "There are just so many gyms in Kanto, so I'd like to go to the ones I never visited my first time around—and Misty's is at the top the list."
The fires of competition flickered in Misty's green eyes, and, with a confident smile, she said, "Well, I look forward to that battle."
"Same," Ritchie replied, flashing her the same grin. "Of course, I am looking for maybe a partner or someone to travel with..."
At first, Ash thought this hint was directed toward him, and he was prepared to politely decline—he had already been through Kanto twice, and he was interested in doing something different, like challenging the Sinnoh Battle Frontier or traveling to somewhere new, maybe outside Napaj—but he realized Ritchie had turned an eye to Trip, who straightened in response before looking away. Cilan appeared disappointed, which furthered Ash's confusion. Were Ritchie and Cilan purposefully trying to get Trip to go to Kanto? Was that how Cilan knew about Ritchie's traveling plans?
Ash could ask neither of these questions, as Paul suddenly pulled up in his brother's green van. Paul switched the gear to neutral so he could exit, move to the back of the vehicle, and open up the rear door.
"Come on, let's not create a traffic jam," he grunted, gesturing for the others to bring their luggage.
They were quick to follow his lead, and as Ash approached, he said, "Hey, thanks for comin' to get us."
"Uh-huh." He was in a hurry, as he took Ash's bag and placed it in the back. He was drawn out of his focus, however, when he realized Leaf was present.
"You're unexpected," he said, looking at her strangely.
"Always expect me," Leaf quipped.
"The car only seats eight, including myself."
"You know, there's this amazing trick teenagers have been doing for years now. It's truly innovative, though, and it opens up worlds of possibilities for fitting more people than there are seatbelts in any given car," Leaf replied with false elation. "It's called lapsitting."
He glowered at her, took her luggage, and stuck it in the back before slamming the door closed again.
"Just get in the car."
Leaf smirked before rounding to the right side of the vehicle, and sliding inside—straight onto Gary's lap. This caught the researcher off guard at first, but he was quick to brush off his surprise.
"Geez, Leaf, you're-"
"-If you say I'm heavy, I'll break your nose," she warned.
"I was actually going to say boney. This is slightly uncomfortable."
"I live to make your life slightly uncomfortable."
"You're very good at it."
The banter broke down as Leaf dissolved into some moderate laughter, and Gary was soon to join her. Since there was no seatbelt for her, he wrapped his arms around her waist as a makeshift protective measure.
Misty managed a smile. While they weren't sweet on each other like May and Drew, Leaf and Gary were a cute couple in their own right. He was staying in Pallet and doing research under his grandfather's direction solely because of the close proximity to the Indigo Plateau. Still, she couldn't help but wonder how long that would last. Gary was interested in Pokémon fossils and the like, which fell out of Professor Oak's area of expertise. It was an issue the two would eventually need to address.
Her gaze drifted toward Ash, who was looking out the window with a distant, placid expression. At least he didn't seem to be thinking about Silver.
As Paul managed to pull out of airport traffic and get on the main road, his PokéNav began ringing in the cupholder.
"Get that, will you?" he asked Trip.
Trip reached for the device, answering it.
"Hello? This is Trip speaking. ... Paul's driving. Yes, I'm well." He paused, listening. Then, he looked up toward Paul. "It's Dawn. She and her posse met up with May and Drew, and they're at your place."
"Tell her there's a key under the matt and to let themselves in," Paul responded. "There's one bathroom on the first floor and another on the second, connected to my room. They can use them to get changed if they want. We'll be there soon."
Ash blinked, pulling his chin off the palm of his hand. He realized Misty was watching him, and he offered her a smile—but she knew, perhaps better than anyone, that he wasn't all there.
"Hold still, May," Zoey admonished, carefully wielding a pen of eyeliner between her fingers. "It's very difficult to put on makeup if you're fidgeting."'
Dawn, who was using the mirror to add the finishing touches of her own makeup, flicked her gaze over to her friends' reflection. May was sitting down, and Zoey was bent over her, trying to help the Hoenn coordinator out. May tended to be a bit clumsy with pens, pencils, and other delicate tools, which was normally fine, because she typically went light in terms of cosmetics. There were certain times that necessitated the intricacies of the art, however, and weddings were one of those times. Another was when she disguised herself as a pretty 24-year-old woman to enter a Team Rocket base. Candice had fulfilled Zoey's role then, since she had a lot more patience than the redhead.
"Sorry," May apologized sheepishly. "It's just... tingly. I think my eyelids are ticklish."
Zoey started laughing, and even Dawn let out a chuckle. May appeared mildly bewildered.
"Oh May, you're so cute," Zoey teased after gathering herself. "Don't ever change."
May was still confused, but she eventually accepted it and closed her eyes again with a smile, waiting for Zoey to continue. Dawn snapped her eyeshadow compact closed.
"I'm finished," she declared, turning to face her companions, "so I'm heading downstairs."
"OK." Zoey didn't look up as she delicately painted a black line along May's eyelashes. "Don't break an ankle in those heels."
Dawn rolled her eyes but agreed before sliding out the door. However, rather than picking the one that led out into the main hallway, she picked the door that was connected to Paul's room. She had done so absentmindedly, with no intention of looking around, but once she was inside, a strange kind of curiosity overcame her.
She had never been in Paul's room before. It was clean, organized, minimalistic even, and she wouldn't have expected anything else. There wasn't anything particularly defining visible, and much wouldn't be gained by just looking at it. She inwardly laughed when she realized his room had the same enigmatic personality he did.
There was one thing worth noting, and it took Dawn a moment to see it. On the bedside table was a framed photograph, and though she stood a few feet away, she recognized it immediately. She couldn't escape it. She had seen copies of it splashed on the pages of every publication and all over the Internet. In a year's time, it had become an iconic image in its own right.
The photo of their reunion outside the Opelucid City Pokémon Center. They looked so relieved, so happy to be together... Dawn had to admit, it was one of her favorite photographs, too. She certainly wouldn't have expected Paul to have a copy, though.
Dawn meandered over to the frame, picking it up to examine it more closely. In her distraction, she never heard the jubilant arrival of many more friends on the first floor, nor did she hear the pounding of feet going up the stairs. It wasn't until the door swung open that she realized she had been caught. She spun around to face none other than Paul.
Guilt immediately washed over her. Paul wouldn't like that she had been snooping. He was a champion of his own privacy, and he did not like it when other people became entangled in his business.
Yet, his expression didn't change. He didn't look angry, or even surprised. He merely shut the door behind him with his foot, all while keeping his eyes on her.
"Sorry," she apologized quickly, a bit apprehensive.
"For what?" He craned an eyebrow.
"For..." She stopped, now feeling it would be silly for her to bring it up if he didn't have a problem with her being in there. Was that a good sign? Maybe. Paul was very hard to read, and he hardly ever gave direct answers when asked what was on his mind.
They had yet to discuss their relationship again since their private meeting in early March. As before, they kept putting it off every time they met up (always with friends). Dawn had hoped they would talk about it that day, though, since weddings had a certain 'atmosphere' conducive to that type of conversation. Yet, there was a part of her that feared they had waited too long, and he wasn't saying anything because he had no interest in pursuing... whatever they had.
"Paul-" she started again, but he cut her off.
"Like to talk, can't," he said, tearing his gaze off her and moving toward his bed, where his suit was laid out with a hanger. It was still in its clear protector. "I'm running late."
He grabbed his suit and was headed out the door again, without any sort of admonition for her presence. So, she called out, "Tonight, then?"
He stopped at the door, his hand on the handle. He understood what she meant.
"Tonight," he agreed before leaving.
As soon as he was gone, the door to the bathroom opened once more, and Zoey sauntered inside.
"Funny, this doesn't look like downstairs," she commented dryly.
"Funny, I didn't have you pegged as an eavesdropper," Dawn threw back, but Zoey wasn't perturbed.
"So what was that all about?" she asked, switching gears.
"I don't know," the blunette admitted. "Communication is not his strong suit."
"Apparently, neither is it yours."
"I can talk to other people fine," Dawn protested. "Just not him. I feel like I'm treading glass, because I'm so afraid I'll end up pushing one of his buttons, and he'll get upset and we'll fight and then not talk to each other for a month. Like the first time."
"And you want to be in a relationship with this person?"
Dawn bit her lip, looking down. Zoey watched her carefully, crossing her arms.
"I mean," she began hesitantly, "we'd be another tally mark to the two and a half to come out of our group."
"Are you going to make some argument about fate?" Zoey asked, raising an eyebrow. "Because I'm not sure if that's a good way to approach this."
Dawn blinked before glancing back at the framed photo she had been examining on the bedside table.
"I'd normally agree," she said, "but fate's been pretty good to us so far."
"Aah!" Barry mussed up his hair in frustration. "Stupid tie. Stupid knot. Stupid tying. I'm gonna fine whoever thought ties were necessary."
"Need some help with that?" Cilan offered with an amused smile, setting his bag down. His nimble fingers quickly crossed the wide end over and around the small end, then pulled both through the loop he had created. Barry appeared legitimately awed.
"How'dja do that?" he asked.
"If you remind me, I'll teach you how later," Cilan replied. "But I have to get changed for now."
The group from the airport had only just arrived, but they had already started getting dressed. The wedding started at 3 p.m., in just over an hour, but they wanted to arrive a little early, and the venue was a decent walk away. May had come back downstairs ready, and she had begun braiding Iris's hair, while others were switching in and out of the first floor's bathroom to change clothes.
Paul reappeared in the living room, the bag with his suit in it hanging over his arm. He snatched his car keys off the table once more.
"Sorry to leave you," he hastily apologized. "Reggie's expecting me, and I'm just going to get dressed there. Don't burn down the house while I'm gone."
"Hey, we don't leave total destruction in our wake," Kenny said with a grin, throwing up his arms.
"If anything happens, I'm blaming you," Paul decided, and Kenny glowered at him.
"Because you're an easy target," he answered before leaving, shutting the front door behind him.
"Don't mind him," Drew spoke up as soon as Paul was gone. "He and Solidad have been stressed out since yesterday, trying to pull everything together."
"At least he's honest," Zoey said, as she came down the stairs with Dawn in tow. Dawn's hand was place firmly on the rail. She had taken Zoey's warning to heart and was being extra careful walking down the steps in her shoes, which contributed several inches to her height.
"Hey~" Kenny grinned at the girls mischievously. "You two look nice. Zoey, I wouldn't have ever expected to see you in a dress."
"You'll watch your mouth if you know what's good for you, Hudson," Zoey warned, slinging her hip to the left. Her slate gray dress accentuated her curves nicely, so that she actually had hips.
Although it was more of a joke than it was an actual threat, Kenny lamented, "Man, everyone's just givin' me a rough time today."
"It's obviously because they're jealous of how good you look in a suit," Barry sympathized.
"You know what, you're right." Kenny nodded resolutely. "They are jealous. I do look good in a suit."
"This is part of why I love weddings," May commented, as she finished up with Iris's braid. "Everyone just looks their absolute best, and it's so nice to see everyone so pretty and happy."
"Good to see you still exude rainbows and sunshine." Gary shook his head. "How do you and Drew even make it work?"
"Her optimism balances out my cynicism," Drew answered for her with a smirk.
"A good match indeed," Cilan commented as he return to the hallway, now dressed for the wedding occasion.
"Oh no," Iris quickly interjected. "You are not going to do an evaluation of May and Drew's relationship. Your weirdness has to have its limits."
"Actually, I wasn't going to make an evaluation," Cilan genially corrected. "I'm only trained to evaluate the relationships between Pokémon and humans, hence Pokémon Connoisseur. I do like to think I'm a good matchmaker on my own time, though."
"Well, stop thinking that."
Iris's sass had a few of the teens laughing, and Ash's lips twitched into a smile, too. It was good to have everyone together again.
Well, almost everyone.
"How much time is left?" Reggie breathed out.
Brock flicked his wrist over to check his watch before answering, "About forty-five minutes."
"And nobody's seen Paul?"
"I can call him," Tracey offered, pulling out his Pokégear. "What's his number?"
"No need." Paul suddenly swept into the room, running his fingers through his hair. He had just changed, and he was a bit frazzled. "Sorry it took me so long. I had to go pick up some of your wedding guests last-minute. Is there anything you need me to help with?"
"Nope," Reggie answered with a relieved smile. "We were just waiting for you."
"Don't tell me you would have started late if I hadn't come on time."
"What's a wedding without its best man?"
"The only thing a wedding needs is its bride and groom," Paul said dryly.
"Let me rephrase that, then: Where would I be without my best man?"
Paul drew back, lowering his head. He hated it when Reggie said things like that. He wasn't sure why, either—because it was emotional, maybe? Or maybe Paul was simply envious of the fact Reggie could experience his own unrestricted feelings. Paul, on the other hand, struggled to define what emotion even was and which he was feeling at any given moment.
"Don't get sentimental on me now," Paul admonished.
Brandon suddenly happened upon the scene, and he genially greeted his two sons. The wariness that had weighed the three down months earlier was minimal, but they both straightened up as he approached.
"Are you nervous?" Brandon asked, addressing Reggie.
"Terrified," the breeder clarified with a chuckle.
Brandon smiled understandingly, the skin near his mouth wrinkling. His age was beginning to show through, and it struck Paul as odd. He had never thought of his father as particularly 'old' as a child. The block of eight years missing in their relationship made the change seem more dramatic.
"It'll be worth it," the Frontier Brain assured him. "It's all worth it in the end. You'll see it someday, too, Paul."
Paul appeared unsettled. It was a strange line, considering that Brandon's wife—his and Reggie's mother—had died long ago, drowning herself in another of her schizophrenic fits.
"Yeah..." Paul drew out the word slowly, doubtfully. "I'm going to check in with Solidad and the other bridesmaids."
He turned and briskly walked away. His father's words still lingered on his mind, but he pressed a hand to his forehead and shook them off. He had no time to think about that; he did't want to think about it.
"Oh Maylene," Gardenia sighed, almost dreamily. "You look so pretty! I can't wait to see Reggie's face. I hope someone records it for us, so all your cute, purple-haired children can see how much Daddy loved Mommy when you got married."
Maylene let out an awkward laugh before saying, "We'll see about that."
"Seriously, though," Daisy added, "seeing you, like, makes me wanna get married, so I can wear a great, big white dress."
"There are probably better reasons to get married," Candice said, shaking her head.
"I'll give you one reason to not: tripping in front of all your families, friends, and other important public figures because you're incapable of walking in... these." Maylene lifted her dress to reveal her pearly white heels. Maylene's Lucario stepped around his trainer to see what she meant, and he scoffed before looking away, sticking his nose up in the air.
"Are you still struggling?" Solidad asked, frowning.
"I really did try practicing." Maylened stepped forward and promptly wobbled. "I just can't get it, though. It was hard enough for my mother to so much as even get me to wear shoes as a child, and I suppose I'm paying for it now."
The ladies turned their heads when there were a couple of polite knocks at the door. It opened, and Paul stepped inside.
"I came to make sure everything was going well on this end," he said flatly.
"Oh, we're doing great!" Maylene said, intending to leave the impression that nothing was wrong. As soon as she tried to walk again, however, she lost her balance entirely, and Gardenia had to catch her.
Paul raised an eyebrow and glanced at Candice.
"Maylene's having trouble walking in her shoes," the Snowpoint Gym Leader explained in short.
"Then take them off."
The simple solution elicited a few stares, though Daisy in particular looked appalled. The thought of going without shoes on such an occasion was, apparently, a horrifying concept to the blonde. Maylene's interest was piqued, however, and she straightened herself up again, letting go of Gardenia.
"Can I do that?"
"It's your wedding," Paul answered, as though it were obvious. "You can do whatever you want."
Maylene was delighted by this freedom, and she quickly reached down, pulling off the accursed footwear. She felt like she could breathe again as she tossed them off to the side.
"The dress will be too long, though, without the couple of extra inches..." Gardenia mulled, rubbing her chin.
Lucario suddenly grunted, gathering everyone's attention. He moved toward the back of the bride and, bending down, grabbed onto the train of the dress, lifting it up.
"You'd do that for me?" Maylene asked, surprised. She loved her Lucario dearly, but he tended to be a bit arrogant and would get sullen when Maylene did things he didn't like. She knew Lucario was happy for her marriage, but he detested being at the event itself. Funnily enough, it wasn't too different from Reggie's relationship with Paul.
Lucario begrudgingly nodded, and Maylene sank to the ground so she could throw her arms around her beloved Fighting-type.
"Well, if everything's solved here," Paul began after a brief pause, stepping back toward the door, "then I'll take my leave."
He turned to go but was quickly stopped, as Solidad called out to him. He stopped, and she pulled him aside.
"I have a very important task for you," she began in a low voice. "Tonight, I need you to make sure you get ahold of the gift Harley gives your brother and Maylene. Don't look inside or even open it. Just get rid of it. I would normally do it myself, but Harley probably already suspects me."
"What's the gift?"
"You don't want to know."
"Fair enough," Paul conceded. Before Reggie picked Harley as one of the other groomsmen, Paul only knew the Johto Top Coordinator through May and Drew's stories, and they weren't flattering. "I'll take care of it."
Paul paused and checked his PokéNav.
"Twenty minutes," was all he said.
Solidad nodded, replying, "We'll be ready."
"Goodness, Cynthia, she's grown so much," Wallace cooed as he reached out, letting the Sinnoh Champion's daughter grasp his finger.
"How old is she now?" Winona, his date, inquired.
"Five months," Steven answered with a hint of pride. "She can sit on her own now."
"Ah, that takes me back," Alder reminisced. "Makes me wish my daughter would have another grandchild for 'ol me. 'Course, I do love the one I have."
"Benga, right?" Cynthia inquired. "He's 14, 15?"
"15," Alder answered.
The Champions were seated outside in the wedding-ready garden, waiting for the ceremony to begin. The venue was located near Veilstone City's famous meteorite field, and the garden was adjacent to a small, but nice ballroom, where the reception would be held. 3 p.m. was fast approaching, and the ushers (a couple of Pokémon, presumably belonging to trainers in the wedding party) were moving people to their seats. Lance was one such person.
"I was beginning to think you wouldn't come," Cynthia greeted as the Indigo Champion took up residence beside her husband.
"It's polite, since Brandon is a Frontier Brain in Kanto," Lance grunted in response. "You've always said I should be more personable with my regions' associates."
"I have," Cynthia tacitly conceded. "Where's Leaf?"
"She went with Gary and Ash this morning, as I expected she would. I imagine she'll be arriving with them soon." His gaze fixated on the child in her arms. "How's Emily?"
"She's well," Cynthia said with a gentle smile as she looked at her daughter and ran her fingers through her whispy, silvery blonde hair. "Steven was just bragging about how she can sit on her own."
"I can't help it," Steven chuckle. His eyes moved toward the entrance of the garden when he noticed a new set of arrivals. "It seems our future has come."
Cynthia turned and smiled. Ash and company were filing into the garden. She quickly excused herself, rising out of her seat with Emily still in her arms.
"Well, I'd say the whole of you make up a good portion of the party," she said lightly as she approached.
Several of the teens' expressions brightened with her greeting. Cynthia was still one of the more, if not the most, popular Champions among the youth; even more popular was her daughter. Emily's blue eyes focused on Trip, and he turned his head. May grinned at Trip then waved at the child, who subsequently began staring at her instead.
"I suppose we're all acting as guests of Paul," Cilan replied cheerfully.
"Ah yes, Paul." There was a curious flash in her eyes, and Gary exchanged a quick glance with Leaf. Of course, Cynthia seemed to have taken a shine to Paul within the past year. Iris was curious as well, but she kept to herself. If something had happened, Paul hadn't said anything about it to either her or Leaf.
"I hope you're all well," Cynthia continued after a moment, changing the subject. "I know the league season in Unova recently ended. Excellent battle, Ash and Trip. Trip, you've clearly raised your Serperior well, and Ash, seeing you and Pikachu battle together is always a treat."
Ash perked up. The compliment had temporarily lifted his mood.
"Hey, thanks Cynthia," he said, scratching Pikachu behind the ear.
"Yes, thank you." Trip was a bit more taken aback. Individualized attention from a Champion was always valued. Cynthia was popular for a reason.
"Where are you headed next?" she asked, addressing Trip specifically.
"Ah..." Ritchie and Cilan both looked at Trip pointedly. "I'm not sure. I've been at home recently."
"How's your mother?"
"Better." He didn't elaborate. The topic was still a sensitive one.
Brandon strolled outside, meeting Cynthia.
"Are we starting soon?" Cynthia inquired
"How exciting." Cynthia beamed before glancing back at the teens. "I hope to talk to more of you later."
She waved them off and left to return to her seat with Brandon in tow.
"How are you feeling?" Cynthia asked.
"A bit overwhelmed," Brandon admitted. "I've missed a lot. They're grown up fast."
"I've heard they always do." Cynthia readjusted herself, rebalancing Emily against her frame.
The Pokémon ushers suddenly began moving up the aisle, making sure everyone was sitting down again. Maylene's parents soon came out of the ballroom, and they were seated parallel to Brandon. The officiant of the ceremony moved to the front, and Reggie was following him.
"Oh, it's starting!" Dawn chirped in a whisper as the din of conversation was quelled. Reggie must have overheard, because he paused briefly to wink at them before meeting the officiant near the altar.
Then the procession began, and with it came music.
The six bridesmaids and groomsmen came out in pairs of two: Daisy and Tracey, Harley and Gardenia, and Candice and Brock. Candice stuck her tongue out at Zoey briefly as she sauntered up the aisle with the former Pewter City gym leader, and Zoey rolled her eyes.
"I'm still flabbergasted as to how Harley managed to get into the wedding lineup," Drew commented in a low voice to May.
The Petalburg coordinator shrugged in response.
"Maybe it seems like a strange friendship to us," she said, "but did anyone ever think we—and I mean all of us—would be friends? There were things that happened between December and March that no one would have expected."
Drew looked at her, eyebrows raised. She surprised him sometimes. May could be naïve and maybe even a bit airy, but she held an innocent wisdom of her own.
Paul and Solidad were next in line, and Gary let out a chuckle at Paul's sullen expression. Paul promptly shot the researcher a nasty glare as he passed, but Gary was not at all bothered.
"Well, someone's regretting their life decisions today, and it's not the groom," Gary said after Paul was out of earshot
"Yeah, you really think Paul of all people would be into the pageantry of weddings?" Misty added.
"Why's he doing it then?" Barry asked.
"Because he loves Reggie more than he hates being here," Dawn answered simply, seriously.
The comments ended there, because Maylene was the last of the procession. Her Lucario was carrying the end of her dress, and there were flashes of her bare feet underneath the folds. She was positively glowing, and Reggie was, too. Once they reached the altar, Lucario dropped the train and moved off to the side to stand next to Paul.
Reggie reached out for Maylene's hand, and she coyly accepted his, entwining their fingers.
Nearly three hours later, Reggie was still holding Maylene's hand.
They had finally reached the end of the line for guests and visitors who wanted to wish the newlyweds all the best in their life together or present them with a gift or small favor.
"I eagerly await a baby announcement," an elderly woman, a neighbor, chortled as she held the couple's grasped hands in hers, patting Reggie's knuckles. Maylene was a bit flustered, but Reggie laughed it off.
"We'll be sure to keep that in mind, Ms. Jean," he said.
As soon as she was gone, the couple let out a simultaneous sigh of relief, and Maylene fell against her new husband, exhausted.
"Don't get so comfortable yet," Candice said, trotting cheerfully toward the two with a shoebox in her hands. "I did what you asked and hurried back to the house to grab you some flat shoes for your first dance."
"Right, right..." Maylene replied, taking the two black ballet flats out of the box and slipping them onto her feet. "Just give me fifteen minutes before you let Brock start playing music, OK? I need some time to just sit down and breathe. Between posing for the wedding photographer and dinner and meet-and-greet..."
"Totally," Candice said, quickly nodding. "I'll talk to him now."
She hurried off, but her leave was marked by Harley's arrival, and he was carrying a suspicious package in his hands. Paul was standing a short distance away with Leaf and Gary when he noticed the coordinator passing by, and he excused himself.
"Hang on, my darlings," Harley greeted, sugarcoating his voice. "Sorry, I know you're tired, but I have one more gift to present to you. I wanted to be the last. I must emphasize that you need to open this tonight, as soon as you get home."
Reggie and Maylene both appeared mildly confused, but the groom reached out to accept the gift—and that was when Paul arrived.
"I'll take care of that," he said, lifting the package out of Harley's hands. "I'll place it with all the other gifts, on top."
Harley bought it, and he beamed at Paul.
"Thanks, Paul, you're a doll." He then looked toward Reggie and Maylene. "Alrighty, you two kids have fun tonight."
He pranced off, and Paul's lips tightened.
"You sure know how to pick them, Reggie," he said, shaking his head.
Reggie smiled crookedly and, wrapping an arm around Maylene's waist, said, "I sure do."
A scowl briefly fell upon Paul's expression, and he stuck the package under his arm before rigidly turning around and leaving. Reggie let out an exasperated sigh but smiled. He didn't know why Paul had intervened like that, but he supposed he never would, so he didn't let it bother him.
"What was that about?" Gary raised an eyebrow as Paul returned.
"I have to leave for a couple of minutes," Paul said, ignoring Gary's question as he held up the package with one hand, "to get rid of this."
"Solidad's instructions," Paul answered shortly. "It's from Harley, if that tells you anything."
"What are you going to do with it?" Leaf asked.
Paul shrugged before replying, "I don't know. There's probably a trash can out back."
"Well, that's not creative," Gary criticized.
"I'm not looking to be creative here."
"Let's burn it," Gary suggested anyway. "For science."
"Oh, how boyish," Leaf scoffed.
Paul seemed to agree with her, but he gave in, saying, "Look, if you bring your Arcanine, you can light it up like a Christmas tree for all I care."
"Fine." Gary smirked as he retrieved one of his Pokéballs, enlarging it. He then glanced toward Leaf. "You're free to join us."
"I'll pass, thanks," she grumbled.
The shrill ring of feedback on a microphone caused the reception's attendees to cringe. After a short delay, Brock's voice broke through all casual conversation.
"Ah, hello," he began, a little unsure at first. "My name's Brock Harrison, and I'm a groomsman and your DJ for the night. Now that our bride and groom have finished meeting everyone, we'd like to invite them to the dancefloor for their first dance as a married couple. All other couples are welcome to join, too."
He then moved to his computer, starting the playlist. A slow ballad—the couple's choice, of course—began to play.
"That definitely was not fifteen minutes," Maylene breathed out as she staggered to her feet. Reggie smiled, linking arms with hers.
"It's not so bad," he assured her as they began to move toward the middle of the floor to the applause of their friends and family. Reggie could see his father in the crowd, standing beside Maylene's parents, and they were clapping, too.
"You're lucky I love you," Maylene teased.
"Believe me, I know."
Cilan held his hand out toward Iris germanely the moment the announcement was made. She looked at him with wide eyes, but her bewilderment didn't last long. She soon let out a charmed laugh and nodded.
"Of course!" she agreed.
Iris rose out of her seat, and Cilan, grasping her hand with his thumb pressed gently against her fingers, led her out to the dancefloor. Trip watched them as they went, expressionless. Cilan and Iris were wonderful to him, but their friendship with each other ran deeper than their friendship with him, and there was not much anyone could do to amend that.
"You know, I'm going to call it now," Ritchie began sliding into the seat across from Trip, the area which Iris had previously occupied. "Those two are going to get married."
Trip blinked, straightening up.
"Iris and Cilan?"
"I'm pretty sure they're just friends," Trip said doubtfully.
"Cilan thinks very highly of her," Ritchie pointed out.
"Cilan thinks highly of everyone," Trip dismissed. "He's practically required to. Gentleman's code, or something like that."
"Well, I suppose we'll see in the future."
Trip raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah, I suppose." He sighed. "Look, you and I both know you're not here to discuss Iris and Cilan's nonexistent romance with me. Come on, Ritchie, just let it go."
Ritchie wasn't deterred by Trip's attitude, but he had to reassess his approach. He leaned back into his chair for a moment and let out a short hum, thinking.
"I would, if I didn't know you wanted to come with me," he responded.
"I never told you that. I never told you or Cilan anything about what I wanted," Trip mumbled. "You're just assuming things."
"Correctly assuming things."
"I swear to Mew, you're almost as obnoxious as Ash."
Ritchie didn't look annoyed or upset, but he inclined his head, staring Trip down. Trip frowned, and he finally broke.
"You know things are complicated at home," the blond began soberly. "I've been trying to get my mother to file for divorce for months. I get her to say she will, then she backpedals the next day. There's no winning with her."
Ritchie nodded understandingly, sympathizing.
"I mean, how could I even think about leaving her again?" he continued. "All this happened while I was gone, and straight after returning from Opelucid, I went ahead and rushed to get my last four Unova badges with Ash so we could compete in the league."
"You can't take blame for what happened."
"Then why do I feel guilty?"
"'Cause you're human," Ritchie explained shortly. "Humans sometimes feel bad about things they have no control over. You know who probably feels more guilty than you? Your mom. You're not happy, Trip. Anyone can see that. Cilan certainly does. It would be good for you to travel, and I guarantee it would make your mom happy to see you happy rather than miserably trying to fix something that you can't fix."
"I don't want to give up on her." Trip glared.
"It's not giving up on her," Ritchie corrected. "Cilan and I, we're not suggesting that. But you're fighting a losing battle here. Your mother's going to have to come around on her own. You can't force that."
Trip was silent.
"Answer me honestly," Ritchie implored. "Do you want to travel with me in Kanto?"
Trip hesitated. He clenched and unclenched his hands, casting his gaze downward. Then, at the last moment, he looked back up.
"Yeah. Yeah, I do."
"You know, I really hope it works out this time," Steven said lightly, watching as Wallace took Winona out to the dancefloor. "He's always been fond of her, and I think she reciprocates."
Lance nodded absently, but added no comment. He had learned not to speak of his colleagues' relationships. The last time he did, it cost him perhaps his most valuable friendship. He was lucky Steven was a forgiving person and was willing to patch things up after five years.
Speaking of which...
Lance moved his gaze back to Cynthia, who was sitting with Emily. The 5-month-old was fussing, and the mother was trying to calm her. Lance sighed before he strode toward her.
"Give her to me," he said, holding out his hands, "and enjoy some time with your husband."
Cynthia was briefly taken aback.
"Oh, Lance, the offer is kind, but-"
"-I insist," he cut her off.
Cynthia was wary, and she glanced toward Steven. He was mildly surprised but nodded at her with a smile, and Cynthia soon matched that expression. She rose to her feet, transferring her daughter to Lance.
"Thank you," she said simply, sincerely. Steven shared the same grateful sentiments silently through the glance he sent Lance. He and the Sinnoh Champion then joined Wallace and Winona. Lance offered half a smile, the best he could do, before sitting down with the child.
"Seeing you hold a baby is probably one of the oddest things I've ever seen in my life."
Leaf ambled toward her mentor and stopped in front of him. She smiled at Emily and petted her, curling one of her fingers through the infant's thin hair.
"Shouldn't you be dancing with your boyfriend?" Lance asked.
"Eh. Not into dancing," Leaf replied flippantly. "Not into weddings, actually. There's no one who will hate being at my own wedding more than me."
"Now that's a shame." Lance readjusted Emily on his lap. He would have detested caring for any other young child, but Emily was mellow and easily manageable. Cynthia and Steven were lucky in that regard. "I had almost hoped I'd get to do this for you someday."
Leaf paused, drawing her hand back, though she didn't look up at Lance. She briefly looked off to the side, biting back a smile.
"Anyway," she began after a moment, her sass disarmed, "Gary ran off with Paul. Solidad apparently told them to get rid of Harley's gift to Reggie and Maylene."
"What was the gift?"
"No idea, but if I were to guess, I'd say gaudy wedding lingerie."
"Ding ding ding! You are right."
Gary came up from behind, then circled her until he stood at her side. Paul was following him, sulking. Solidad had said not to open it, but Gary paid no heed to the warning Paul conveyed to him. His attention was drawn away, however, when he noticed Dawn waiting across the room, near the door that led back out to the garden.
"I hope you had fun," Leaf said.
"I did, actually. It was very cathartic," Gary replied casually. "I was able to get out all my frustrations from dealing with you on a near-daily basis."
"We'll have to compare methods," Lance said dryly.
Gary cracked a smile and nearly laughed. Of course, dating Leaf meant he interacted with Lance more often, and he was surprised to find the normally stern Indigo Champion had a salty sense of humor. Either Leaf had rubbed off on him or they were drawn together by virtue of similar personalities. Meanwhile, Leaf gave her mentor an exasperated look.
"Don't gang up on me," she grumbled. She suddenly stopped, noticing Paul's attention had been completely lost (if they had ever even had it). She followed his gaze and smirked.
"Hey, Paul, your Drew is showing through," she teased. His head snapped back toward the agent, eyebrows raised. "Go talk to her."
"Don't play stupid. You're not Ash," Gary jumped in.
A low growl emerged from the back of his throat. Now that it had been brought up, a part of him wanted to stay there, just to spite the agent and her boyfriend. The other part knew he couldn't put it off much longer, especially when he promised Dawn they would discuss it that evening.
Then, as if she could overhear the conversation (which was impossible considering the music and distance), she turned her head and looked in Paul's direction. Their gazes connected, and she sharply turned her head, slipping through the door. The implications were clear, and Paul let out a frustrated sigh. Now he had no choice.
"You two irritate me," he muttered before leaving, heading toward the door.
"We'll wear your irritation like a badge of honor!" Gary called after him.
Misty was just about at her wit's end.
She couldn't stand watching Ash mope. She was sympathetic to a point, and she was willing to give him space, but she knew he couldn't dwell in self-doubt and depression forever. It was completely anti-Ash, and she wouldn't let it go on a moment longer.
"Hey." Misty grabbed his wrists, giving a gentle tug, trying to get him out of his seat. "Come on. Let's dance."
He blinked and looked up at her. Pikachu, who was sitting on the table and nibbling on some chocolate, also glanced at the Cerulean Gym Leader.
"Dance?" he inquired.
"No, it's not a new type of Pokémon."
"I can't dance," Ash stated simply, ignoring her sarcasm.
"Then I'll teach you." She more forcefully tugged on his wrists, so that he was standing. She then stepped a tiny bit closer to him and flirtatiously added, "Come on, it'll be fun."
She took immense pleasure in the blush that rose to his cheeks, and he swallowed before crookedly smiling.
"Well... y'know I'd do anything for ya, Mist," he finally agreed.
She smiled, too, and pulled him by the arm to an open section of the dancefloor. She placed her left hand on his shoulder, then brought his right down to her lower waist. His blush deepened, and he immediately slid his hand up to her mid-back.
Misty laughed, finding his shyness endearing.
"It's OK," she assured him, gently moving his hand back down—though not quite as low as before, so he would feel more comfortable. "I'm your girlfriend. You don't have to be nervous. You're allowed to touch me here."
"Girl... friend?" He looked mildly confused.
"Right, sorry. I'm your éros."
"Oh." It immediately clicked for him, and he seemed more at ease.
From there, Misty clasped his free hand and brought herself closer to him. Then she slowly swayed him into the music. Once they found a semblance of a rhythm, she spoke again.
"By the way," she began casually, "a 'girlfriend' is the same as an éros. When I say that I am your girlfriend, and that you are my boyfriend, what I'm really saying is that we're éros. Éros is just a really fancy word Cilan uses because he's way too educated for his own good."
Ash furrowed his eyebrows.
"No, that's not right," he said, shaking his head. "Because May and Dawn and Iris are my girl friends, but they're not my éros."
"Well, yes, May and Dawn and Iris are girls who are friends, but they're not your girlfriends," Misty tried to explain.
"You're not making sense."
"Never mind." She resigned herself to the fact that she and Ash would probably never have a 'normal' relationship. She supposed she wouldn't have wanted it any other way, though.
Ash unexpectedly tightened his hold on her waist, so she was brought another centimeter or two closer to him. Now it was her turn to blush. She wasn't used to not being in control when it came to their relationship. She became similarly flustered any time he shared one of his rare, innocent kisses, too.
"I know what you're doing for me, by the way," he said in a half-whisper, near her ear. "And I just want to let ya know that I really appreciate it. I'm sorry I've been acting weird all day."
She was silent for a moment, processing. Her nails curled into the fabric of his jacket.
"Ash, I know you've been having the dreams for a while," she began slowly, "but what's different about this one? You usually don't get this way after you see him. Is it because we're all together again and he's not here?"
"I guess that's part of it," Ash admitted, "but there's more." He paused, further lowering his voice. "I know where he is."
"I know where he is," Ash repeated. "Newbark Town."
Misty looked at him surprise.
"Well, then let's go," she said earnestly. "Let's go get him. Let's find him."
"Because Drew's right."
"Oh boy," Misty sighed, shaking her head. "What did he say? And since when did his opinion carry such weight?
"It was way back when were all traveling," he explained. "Drew talked to me, and he said that I needed to wait for Silver to come to me. That was true then... and I think it's true now. Maybe he's not ready to see me. If I try to force it, he'll pull farther away. That kind of thing has to be on your own terms, you know? Making things better, healing things, that takes time, and it doesn't work if someone's not ready."
Misty nodded slowly.
"I suppose that makes sense," she conceded.
It was actually excellent advice; she would give Drew that. In fact, of their group, she could name several people who needed to hear it. Trip immediately came to mind. She was vaguely aware of his problems at home, thanks to Ritchie's equally vague explanation several weeks earlier. It was only today, though, that she figured out Ritchie was trying pull him out of his fruitless pursuits and take him to Kanto.
"But, if you're waiting for him to come, then just push it all out of your mind. Don't let it bother you and let things unfold as they may."
"It does bother me, though."
"Because I'm not entirely sure he will come back."
The song ended as Misty pulled away, looking at Ash solemnly. Her heart ached for him. She wanted to say, 'Of course he'll come back. After everything you did for him? He owes it to you,' but she knew she couldn't make that promise.
A new, more upbeat song on the playlist began. Misty smacked her lips.
"You know what," she began resolutely. "Let's get out of here. Let's all get out of here. We've been here for hours, and I'm sure everyone else is just as antsy. We'll go find Gary and May and Barry and everyone, and we'll go. The fifteen of us, we'll go out and enjoy ourselves. Does that sound good to you?"
Ash managed a smile.
"Yeah... yeah, that sounds good."
Misty smiled, too, then glanced over his shoulder.
"Hey! Barry, Kenny!" she called out. Both looked her way in confusion, and Misty gestured for them to come. Barry willfully bounded over to them, and Kenny wasn't far behind.
"Get everyone together," she told them. "We're going stargazing."
The air had a bite to it, but considering where they had been a year ago, it felt like nothing.
Dawn waited patiently in garden, sitting on a short, stony fence. The area was dimly lit by a few yellow lanterns placed alongside the path, near the flowers. The yellow light from inside the ballroom also lent itself as a source of illumination in the dark area. Her gaze, however, was fixated on the star-speckled sky. The twinkling lights were always more visible from the meteorite field, outside the urban parts of the city.
She turned her head back down when the door opened, and Paul came out. She didn't stand.
"Long day, huh?" She had predetermined the ice breaker for this conversation long ago.
"Tiring," he agreed, stopping in front of her. He paused a moment longer before beginning, "Dawn, you look..."
He trailed off. She perked up.
"Thanks," she said with a coy smile, saving him from having to finish that compliment, no matter how much she would have liked to hear it. "You don't look so bad yourself. May was saying earlier that she loves weddings because everyone looks amazing."
"Of course May would say something like that."
Silence fell. Dawn adjusted the end of her dress and pushed a piece of her hair behind her ear before offering, "Come, sit down."
He accepted her invitation. The elbow of his jacket accidentally brushed against her upper arm, and he looked at her with an expression that was just a little softer than usual. Only a little, though. Still, she breathed in sharply when their eyes connected. She didn't realize how nervous she was up until then.
"So," Dawn began, clapping her hands together and laying them on her lap. "It's been eight months since March."
She glowered at him. He wasn't really going to make her drive the whole conversation forward, was he? Still, she supposed if she let him take the wheel, they would never get anywhere. She decided to try a more direct approach.
"Well... eight months is plenty of time to figure out whether we have feelings for each other or not." Her tongue twisted as she spoke, nearly tripping her up on her own words. She didn't like being so blunt, but it was the best method for talking with Paul. Otherwise, she'd receive a string of vague responses to questions she knew he understood but wasn't willing to answer.
"This isn't a question of whether we have feelings or not."
That response surprised her.
"Excuse me?" she asked.
"You and I are clearly attracted to each other, and we knew that the moment we kissed each other in Opelucid." His gaze drifted away as he spoke, but there was no change in his expression.
She waited for him to continue, but she soon realized he had no intention of saying more.
"Yeah... yeah!" she agreed. He was right, even if she was confused as to how he of all people managed to reach that conclusion. "OK, then..."
"It's a question of whether we should be in a relationship," he interjected suddenly, and Dawn looked at him strangely.
"Why would that be question? I mean, if there's something here..."
"There are things I don't want to drag you into."
"What if I want to be dragged into it?" Dawn challenged. "Is this about your mother?"
It was a touchy topic, but since he was being (relatively) open with her, she suspected there was not a better time to bring it up.
"So, you have baggage," Dawn said, waving her hand. "Everyone does. My father left before I was born, and it still bothers me. You know that already, though."
"Exactly. I already know."
"If there's something you're not telling me, say it now."
He said nothing. She sighed and slowly moved her right hand from her lap, setting it on top of his. His gaze quickly flicked back toward hers.
"... Then at least give me the chance to find out," she said carefully, lowering her voice. "Because I want to try this. That's all I'm asking of you. I just want us to try. Can we do that?"
His lips tightened, thinking. Her pinkie and index finger curled underneath his hand, pushing up against his palm. Finally, he nodded, and that was all she needed. With her other hand, she cupped his face and kissed him. He inclined his head to match her efforts.
The ballroom door opened, and Paul and Dawn hastily pulled apart. She retracted her hand into her lap once more. Her face was burning red, but he kept his cool.
"Hey," Kenny said, saluting them with two fingers. He didn't close the door behind him and went out to meet the pair. "Gary and Leaf said you were out here. We're all heading toward the meteorite field, if ya'd like to come."
"We? As in everyone?" Dawn inquired, recovering.
"Yup!" Iris answered, trotting out the open door. "Of course, Paul, we'd all understand if you stayed."
"No. I'm coming," he said, standing. He would gladly take advantage of any opportunity to leave.
The rest of the teens soon began to gather out in the garden, in the light of the ballroom. Dawn took a moment to slink away from Paul to go see Kenny.
"Hey... how much of that did you see?" she asked tentatively. She kept her head low to hide her blush.
He paused, considering how he should respond. He decided on a wink, and Dawn's blush deepened significantly. Her face fell into her hands, and she mumbled several embarrassed incoherencies. Kenny just laughed in response.
"Aw, lighten up, Dee Dee!" he said. "Are you really that anti-PDA? If that's the case, then you and Paul are a good match."
Saying it didn't hurt as much as he would have expected.
Leaf and Gary were the last to exit the ballroom, behind Ash and Misty.
"Is everyone here?" Leaf asked. She paused to do a headcount, but she stop midway through as it dawned upon her just how long it had been since she had last tallied her fellow trainers. It had become a common practice during their travels from Kanto to Johto to Sinnoh, and she nearly laughed at the strange irony of her standing there, nearly a year later, doing the same thing.
As soon as Leaf had accounted for all fifteen trainers, including herself, a chilled breeze blew by, and she shivered.
"Ugh, it's cold out here," she complained. "Are we sure we want to do this?"
"Having second thoughts?" Gary asked.
"Maybe I am," she sassed. "It's warmer inside."
"Mmm... nope! Not an option. Come on."
She let out a girlish yelp when he picked her up, practically throwing her over his shoulder. Gary began moving toward the garden's gate, toward the meteorite field.
"Garrett Jonathon Oak, put me down," Leaf hissed menacingly. "I am in a dress."
Several disbelieving and/or amused laughs followed from the rest of the group. May was the first to head after Gary and Leaf, and everyone else soon followed her lead. Dawn exchanged a quick glance with Paul and smiled tiredly before pulling off her shoes and moving into the grass. Paul stayed by her side, keeping her silent company.
After several unsavory words and some clawing, Gary finally let his girlfriend down and presented her with his suit jacket, so she could stay warm. It disabled her anger, and she willfully continued onward with the pack rather than storming back to the ballroom.
"You know," Cilan began thoughtfully, "I just realized something."
"Realized what?" Trip craned an eyebrow.
"Today is December 15th," he said simply, but the date's significance did not register with the group's members. "December 15th, 2001, was the night Ash had his first dream."
This revelation initially came as surprise, but with some extra thought, Ash realized Cilan was right. Exactly one year ago in the evening, his then-traveling companions Iris and Cilan woke him up from a restless nightmare, the details of which were still vague to him. He had apparently become better at remembering his visions since then, clinging to every glimpse Mewtwo offered to him, memorizing every word heard during those moments.
Of course, the date also meant tomorrow would be one year since Misty's gym burned down. In ten days, a year since they entered the Viridian forest. In four weeks, a year since he first met Silver.
"The one-year anniversary, huh?" Drew mused. "Not sure that's worth celebrating."
"Well, no, you wouldn't celebrate it," Cilan agreed, "but you can appreciate it, and you can appreciate the time that's passed."
"Ha, well I appreciate we made it out alive," Zoey said.
"And I appreciate that we managed to all become friends," May added cheerfully. She fall back between Zoey and Drew, grabbing onto both of theirs arms. Drew chuckled and ran his fingers through his bangs, while Zoey cracked a smile.
"I'm gonna agree with May on that one," Ash said, grinning. His head snapped up when he saw a light streak across the sky.
"Ooh, shooting star!" Iris exclaimed giddily. "Make a wish!"
She plopped down into the grass from where she stood, making sure her dress appropriately covered herself. She closed her eyes, muttering something in her own tongue to herself, before opening her eyes back up and smiling at the sky. Cilan followed suit, taking up residence beside Iris, though he, himself didn't make any wishes.
"What did you wish for?" Trip asked coolly, sitting on the other side of her. A precedent had been set, and now everyone was sitting down, forming a semblance of a circle.
"I can't tell you," Iris answered coyly. "Otherwise it won't come true."
"Yeah, Trip, basic stuff," Barry teased. Ritchie couldn't help but laugh, and Trip glowered at him.
"So, are there a lot of shooting stars here?" Dawn asked, directing her question to Paul as they sat down. It was so dark that no one could hardly see, so she felt comfortable in linking her arm with his. He didn't try to untangle himself from her. "'Cause I missed that one."
"It's called meteorite field for a reason," Paul grunted in response. "Plenty of meteors are visible from here. Give it another two or three minutes."
It didn't take even that long, as another white dot burned across the black veil. May was enthralled, and by then, she had been gifted with some extra time to consider her wish. Like Iris, she closed her eyes, and her grip on Drew's hand, which was settled on her lower thigh, tightened.
"Peanut butter," she mumbled after a moment. Leaf, who was sitting between Ash and Gary a short distance away, burst out laughing. Even Drew had a hard time not chuckling. May's love of food could be entertaining in its own right.
"Peanut butter?!" Leaf asked after collecting herself.
"To make it stick," May innocently explained.
"Arceus, that's so stupid. I love it."
Ash cast the agent a glance, noticing that Gary's arm was wrapped around her waist. A second precedent was set. Ash then looked toward Misty, and his gaze made its way down to her hand. After a moment's hesitation, he reached for it, gently taking hold. She was mildly surprised at first, but she smiled at him shyly, appreciative of the gesture.
The affection—whether entirely platonic or perhaps something more—quickly spread around the circle. Barry threw an arm around Kenny's shoulder, but the brunet was more surprised when Dawn hooked her free arm with his. Zoey acted similarly with Paul, as did Ritchie with Misty, Drew with Gary, and Iris with Trip. With Cilan, however, Iris was a little more brave, and like many others, they ended up holding hands.
Ash was prepared to reach out toward Leaf, too, intending to close the gap between them and therefore complete the circle. At the last moment, however, he stopped, but she didn't seem to mind or even notice. Ash decided to leave it open, to save a spot for the one who wasn't among them, the one who was missing, the one whom he hoped would return one day, so the Ash connection could be whole again.
He closed his eyes and made a wish of his own.
A/N: I'm not even sure where to begin. I didn't think putting this story to bed would be such an emotional event for me. Writing "The Ash Connection" has been an exhausting though still very rewarding process, and I am thankful for all the support I have received from friends and followers on Tumblr as well as readers and reviewers here on this site. I would especially like to thank my Beta Reader, Coffee Craft (formerly known as Inkorporated), for sticking with me from start to end and having the tenacity to read and edit 15,000-word drafts. Her input was instrumental to the development of this story.
Many have expressed sadness at the prospect of this story ending, and some have even contacted me asking whether I would write a sequel. It was a question with which I spent a lot of time grappling, because I feared that a sequel would be too gimmicky or wouldn't live up to the original product. Yet, after spending a lot of time thinking it over, I realize there is still a story to be told, and that is what I love most: storytelling. I now fully intend for there to be a second installment in the future, and I hope many of you will continue to support me in that endeavor.
Lastly—as cheesy and weird as this may sound—I would like to express my endearment to Ash Ketchum as a character as well as the Pokémon series on a whole. I have watched Ash's journey unfold since 1997, and that narrative is still precious to me as I head into adulthood. "The Ash Connection" is just another piece of his journey—and I hope you've enjoyed the adventure as much as I have.