[Disclaimer:  I do not own Pokémon.  It really is that simple.


Rated PG for mild swearing, death, and references to death.]



Once a Hero


“A breath away from where you are/

I’ve come home…from so far…”

Les Miserables-“A Little Fall of Rain”


Part Three of Three: Full Circle


“It was so nice of Lance to pay our hotel bills here for the next six months, especially after we made him blow his cover to the world,” Misty praised the absent master.  She, Ash, Brock, Gary, and Pikachu were lodged in a first-class suite at the Viridian Pokémon Grand Hotel, and the maroon-spotted tan walls gave a warm feeling in the pseudo-natural light provided by the lamps.  “These beds are wonderful!”

“I have a feeling you would find anything wonderful after Ash was reprieved,” Gary said with a knowing look.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Misty demanded, conveying intense anger with the raising of a single eyebrow.

“You know, Misty,” Gary replied, refusing to dig his hole any deeper.

“Let’s…let it drop, guys,” Brock advised.  Ash was looking at his friends, the entire exchange flying completely over his head.  As usual.

“I’m just glad you’re back, Ash,” Misty finally told him.  The others in the room, including Pikachu, nodded.

“So, what are we going to do today?” Ash asked.  “If Pokémon fights are out, what is there to do?”

“Good question, Ash.  I’d say just rest today.  You still need to get cleaned up, and you should probably get some new clothes,” Brock advised.

“With what money?” Ash inquired.  “I didn’t exactly have anything with me when I ran away.”

“Uh, well, we can handle that part, Ash,” Misty offered.  “I don’t have much, but Brock always has a little set aside and I’m sure the Oaks will help if we ask.”

“Well, now that you’ve asked, Misty,” Gary replied dryly, “I happen to be rather unreasonably wealthy at the moment, what with all the rewards I’ve gotten from rescuing Team Rocket test subjects…” he trailed off as he took in Ash’s suddenly flat and empty eyes.

“I think talking about Team Rocket is off-limits,” Brock whispered to him.  Gary nodded silently.

“Pikapi?” Pikachu asked, running over to his trainer and tugging Ash’s threadbare jeans.

“I’m fine, Pikachu,” Ash replied, voice almost as flat as his eyes.  He looked down at the Pokémon, or rather through him.

“Well, you don’t sound like it!” Misty yelled at him.  He lifted his face from the ground, the life returning to his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice not quite yet normal.  “I just don’t want to think about it.  I’ll go take that shower you’ve been pushing for.”  Without another word, he turned around and walked into one of the suite’s bathrooms, pulling the door closed behind him while his friends looked on with concern.

“Poor Ash,” Brock whispered.

“I’m sorry I brought it up.”  Gary looked sick.  “I really, really am…”

“Don’t worry, Gary,” Misty told him gently.  “At least we know now.”



Ash slammed his fist into the immaculately tiled wall of the bright-white hotel bathroom, his head following it more sedately.  He stood there, propped against the wall, slim shoulders shaking, lungs and heart racing, as he fought to regain control of his emotions.

All this time, that scheming bastard was driving this.  He planned everything that happened.  And I’m the one who got punished for it, from beginning to end.  I’m going to-

No, he stopped himself.  Lance was right.  If I throw myself away hunting him, he wins anyway.  I want my life back!

He was still trembling with reaction but his breathing and heartbeat had slowed to a more regular tempo.  He turned on the shower, jets of crystalline water pouring through the space he would soon occupy.  He removed his shirt and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, the first true sight of his appearance he had had since…

No, better not think about that time, he told himself.  But it’s no wonder everyone was so scared of me-I look like a want-ad for death!  Which I guess is accurate enough, he reflected wryly.  His already dark eyes looked pitch-black from the violet circles beneath them.  His skin was mottled, either pale from scars, dead-white and cracked from dryness, or darkened from exposure where his too-small, clinging shirt had torn, or even its natural shade where it had remained covered and undamaged.  Even this discoloration was barely visible under the grime that coated even what had seemed to be covered.  His ribs jutted painfully out through the thin layers of rough skin and hard muscle covering his chest, the product of five months worth of nothing but berries and grass.  His hair was long, tangled, greasy, and oily, gone from simply “untamed” to practically “untamable.”  I’m scaring myself by looking at me, I don’t want to know what it did to everyone else!

He finished his preparations and stepped into the shower, drawing the curtain and sighing with the simple pleasure of the barrage of comfortably warm water.  He tilted his head back and closed his eyes.  The hot water stung his open wounds and cracked skin but his pure delight shoved the pain aside.  And as he stood, his tears, so long unshed, streamed gemlike from the corners of his tightly-shut eyes into the mud now flowing across the alabaster tiles.  Those tears finally broke the armor of ice he had dropped around his emotions when his mother had died and he wept freely, water cleansing his spirit as it had his body.



“He’s been in there a long time,” Misty fretted.  “I hope he’s all right.”

“I wouldn’t worry, Misty,” Brock comforted.  “It’s been almost half a year since he’s been clean.  He’s probably just lost track of time in there.”

As if on cue, the door swung open and Ash stepped out, dressed once more in what remained of his clothes.  Misty’s eyes grew wide and her face creased in a smile to match the one on her friend’s features.  With the filth gone, she could have been forgiven for thinking that the last five months had never happened.  There was no mistaking the genuineness of his smile, but it was dwarfed to nothingness by the burning joy in those shadowed eyes.



“So, what are we going to do today?” Ash asked again.  “I don’t really know anything but Pokémon and travelling.”

“No way you’re heading out today, Ash,” Brock told him.  “You aren’t going anywhere looking like that.”

“What?  I washed, didn’t I?” the youth demanded.

“Not that,” Brock clarified.  “Your clothes.  You’re one step away from naked with how ragged they are!”  Misty looked away embarrassedly, even though Brock was exaggerating…slightly.

“You have a point,” Ash conceded, remembering his ragged appearance from minutes before.  “But if you don’t want me going out, then…”

“We can tell your size.  We’ll go out and pick some new clothes up for you,” Gary offered.

“Thanks.  Could you try to get the same things I’ve had?  And a new hat, if you’re doing this?”

“Sure, Ash!” Misty agreed.  “We can pick up some food for you on the way back, too-you probably haven’t had a decent meal since…” she trailed off before she said something they would all regret.

“You’ve got that right,” the black-haired boy nodded ruefully.  “All right, I’ll see you later, then?”

“You bet!” Misty and Brock chorused while Gary nodded.

“Pika!” Pikachu said as he jumped onto the bed next to Ash.

“You’re staying with me, buddy?” Ash asked the Pokémon.  Pikachu nodded.  “Thanks.  I could use the intelligent company.”

As they left the suite, Brock chuckled.  “Same old Ash.  If it wasn’t for that thing when we mentioned the Rockets, you would never have thought he had changed.”

“Well, at least with Lance and the Guardsmen protecting us our troubles with Team Rocket should be over,” Misty asserted.



“We will begin this, the fourteenth annual interregional Team Rocket conference, with the reading of the year’s financial summary,” Giovanni informed the gathered Special-Elites and Executives gathered at the oblong oaken table.

On that cue, a prerecorded voice began to recite the requested information.  “For the preceding year, Team Rocket received a total income of two hundred and five thousand Poké-yen.  Following taxes, a net income remained of two hundred and five thousand Poké-yen.”  A strained chuckle ran around the table at the last line, but any thoughts of humor evaporated as the Boss glared at each executive in turn.

Then he sighed.  “Two hundred and five thousand.  Two hundred five thousand for six regions over an entire year.  And, I might as well admit it, most of the losses were due to my own strategic blunders.  We have lost face, we have lost our control of a major city, and, most importantly, we have lost money, because I could not bring Ketchum to justice.”  Several Rockets in the boardroom who had encountered Ash in the past winced at the name, while others stifled laughs at the term “to justice.”  “Our chance to profit directly by his capture has passed after our Kantoan division failed to take him before his friends did,” he put intense hatred into the word “friends,” “but he still represents an excellent target to repair the damage to the Organization’s prestige.”

A silver-haired Executive from Team Rocket’s budding Sinnou branch raised his hand diffidently.  “Sir, as our conflicts with the already-established Team Galactic are costing us large amounts in Sinnou and we have lost so much already attempting to finish Ketchum, would it not be better to leave him be?”

“No!” Giovanni hissed.  “The people of the world must be shown that attacking Team Rocket is tantamount to committing suicide!  Zilant and his pet Guardsmen are likely invulnerable to anything short of a full mobilization, but Ketchum…now, he is an inviting target.”  The Rockets actually leaned in as they saw the ideas clicking behind their Boss’s dark brown eyes.  “It wouldn’t even have to be expensive, either.  In fact, a single handgun round from a single agent…no, but just quietly killing him wouldn’t be enough.”

“Sir?” the recently-bailed-out Domino asked, “What’re you thinking?”

“I am thinking, Domino,” Giovanni told her with a nasty smile, “that we’ll let our good friends the police put Mr. Ketchum away for us.  I will give our people in Kanto the details when I return.  Now, do any of you gentlemen have concerns of your own?”



“Wow!  How much did you three spend?” Ash cried in excitement as he took in the dozens of comestible-stuffed paper bags festooning his companions.

“Don’t get too worked up, Ash,” Brock warned.  “This stuff is for all of us to share over the next few weeks.”

“Too late,” Misty sighed in exasperation as Ash began to pull whatever he could reach towards his mouth.  “Pikachu, do something about him, will you?”  Ash flew into a crimson-sheeted bed with the force of Pikachu’s Thundershock, half of a still-wrapped deli sandwich stuffed in his furiously working jaws.  “No!” Misty berated him as she might an errant child, which wasn’t a bad analogy at all.  “Bad, Ash!  Bad!  You heard what Brock said!”

“Bu’ ‘is’y,” the youth mumbled around his impromptu meal, “I ‘ven’t eat’n real foo’ in mont’s!”

“You try another stunt like that and you won’t be eating solid food ever again!” the girl warned.

Gary smirked.  “Acting very…maternal, aren’t you, Misty?”  If looks could kill, they never would have found his body.  “After all, you insisted on picking out everything that he-”  A pointed elbow to the ribs and a tug by the ear cut him off.

“Out,” Misty told him flatly, depositing him by the door.

“Oh, did I hit a nerve?” Gary asked in the arrogantly insulting manner Ash and his friends had come to know and loathe.  A few seconds later, he found himself sprawled on the hallway carpet, staring up at a locked door.  “I guess so.”

Inside, Misty turned to her gaping friends, her cheeks flushed.  “What?”

Brock sighed, changing the subject slightly.  “Ash, you might as well finish what you’ve got your mouth on, and then you should get into your new clothes.  I picked out several sets and you’ve got some pajamas and underwear stuck in there too…what?” he asked as he took in Ash’s suddenly empty eyes.  “Oh, no…”

“What is it, Ash?” Misty said, anger gone from her voice.  “Ash?”

He didn’t answer.

“I think he’s remembering his mom,” Brock muttered in her ear.

“Yeah,” she replied sadly.  “So much for ‘same old Ash.’”

Pikachu tugged on the unfeeling boy’s arm.  “Pikapi!”

“Pikachu?” Ash asked unbelievingly, almost as if he no longer remembered what had happened recently.  His eyes brightened suddenly.  “Pikachu.”

“Looks like he’s back,” Misty murmured to Brock.

“Yeah.  Let’s hope he stays this way.  ‘Back,’ I mean.”



“So, what are we going to do today?” Ash asked for the twentieth or thirtieth time in about as many minutes.  He looked like a new man in his fresh clothes, and he was definitely behaving “new.”  If “new” meant “infantile.”

“Ash, shut up!  You’re driving us crazy!” Gary snapped.  Misty had finally let him back into the room, but both of their tempers were obviously frayed.

Not so with Ash.  “I mean it.  I can’t just sit around for the next six months!”

Brock gave up.  “All right.  All right!”  Let’s call the judge and see if Pokémon training is still in as long as you don’t battle anyone.”

“Hey, great idea, Brock,” Ash and Misty praised in unison.

Brock keyed the suite’s phone terminal to life and paged down through the listings of contact information it held.  “Ah, here it is.  Julian Benfox, J.D.  Can’t be too many people with a name like that.  Ash, you want to make the call?”

“Sure!” Ash ran across the room-actually ran-and keyed in the number listed.  Several voiced “Ring”s later, the gentleman replied.

“Yes?” he asked as he activated the visual feed.

“Hi, Your Honor,” Ash greeted him energetically.

“Ah, hello, Mr. Ketchum.”

“Call me Ash, Sir.”

“All right then, Ash.  What can I do for you?  I’d assume this isn’t just a social call.”

“Well, Your Honor,” Ash began, trying to put words together into a coherent sentence-never exactly one of his strong suits, “I was wondering, about that thing saying I can’t have any Pokémon battles.  Does that mean no training either?”

“Training?  Could you elaborate, Ash?” the judge asked, although everyone but Ash could tell he already knew.

“Like going out in the woods and exercising, or Thundershocking rocks, or things like that.”

“Ah.  Well,” the man harrumphed, “let me see.”  He tipped back in his chair, apparently thinking.  A moment later, he spoke again.  “I don’t see why not, as long as you don’t hurt any living thing or issue a challenge to a human or Pokémon.  And as long as there are, let’s see, two reliable witnesses with you.”  He crooked a bushy eyebrow at Misty and Brock, who were hovering over Ash’s shoulder, and the grey eye beneath it gleamed conspiratorially.  “I think I could name them right now, in fact, but why bother?  You should know who I mean.”

“Thank you, Sir!” Ash half-shouted in glee.  “Thanks so much!”

“No problem at all, boy.  And, in case you have to call me again, just call me ‘Julian’ or ‘Mr. Benfox.’  Too many ‘Sirs’ feel stifling, you know.”  He gave a friendly-and completely unexpected-wink at the boy.

“Thanks again!  ‘Bye!”  Ash clicked off the phone.  He turned to his friends with a triumphant grin, which was mirrored on the faces of everyone else in the room.

“He must really like you, Ash,” Brock told him.

“Yeah,” Misty added.  “He all but encouraged you to go out and train with Pikachu.”

“He almost forced us on you as ‘witnesses,’ too,” Gary pointed out.  “If he was impartial, he shouldn’t have done that.”

“Well, should we head out now?  I think the Forest should be a good spot,” Ash asked.  The other three nodded and Pikachu punched the air with a jubilant cry.



“There’s the mark,” Benito informed his partner in his lilting voice.  “It looks like his friends are with him.  Four humans and one Pokémon, not including what they’ve got in their balls.”

“Ja, dat sounds correct,” Adolf answered.  “Ve cannot make a successful strike vit vitnesses.”

“The Boss won’t be happy,” Benito warned.  “We should keep after them.  We’ll have an opening soon enough.”

“I hope so,” Adolf replied, distinctly uncertain.



“All right, Pikachu,” Ash told his old partner, “let’s get back in shape.  We’ve done nothing but walk for the last few months, and we need to be ready to fight!  After all, in six months we can get back to the Leagues!  How about it?”

“Kachu!” Pikachu replied determinedly.

“All right!  Let’s try some basic drills.  Show the world we mean it!”  Ash adopted a wide stance and began punching the air in front of him, each move over-controlled.  Pikachu mirrored the actions.

“Ash is really intense, isn’t he?” Gary asked the watching Misty.

“Not really.  He was always like this.  Almost literally every day of our travels.  When he wasn’t eating, he was fired up about his next Pokémon, or gym fight, or whatever it happened to be.”

“Seriously?” Gary asked.  “I knew he had improved, but I can’t even picture Ash being dumb enough to burn through all of his energy that way. Maybe that’s why he always ate, eh?”  He swallowed as he looked into the furious eyes of Misty Waterflower.  “What did I say this time?’

“The last thing Ash needs is talk like that, Gary,” Brock informed him before Misty could deliver her own tirade.  “Not in his condition.  We need to be gentle with him.”

“I don’t know…” Gary mused.  “I think he needs a challenge as much as he needs a mother figure.”

“Well,” the dark-skinned man went on as Ash and Pikachu dropped to the forest floor and began a set of push-ups, “at least the training will take his mind off things.



“Oh, that felt good,” Ash said with a sigh of satisfaction as he and Pikachu walked back to the group, the boy toweling sweat from his face with the slightly dirtied sleeve of his new and properly-sized jacket.  “It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this way.”

“What do you mean, Ash?” Misty asked before she could stop himself.  “I’m sorry-” she squeaked.

“No.  It’s fine, Mist,” he replied, not even noticing the name he used.  “I’m just glad to be with Pikachu again.  It’s a lot nicer than running through the forests blowing things up.  I could do without any more of that.”

“I’d prefer that too,” Misty told him honestly, uncertain if she had masked the euphoria she had felt when he had called her “Mist.”  Ash himself obviously hadn’t noticed-of course-but Gary and Brock both wore expressions too natural to be natural.

The group was passing across an abandoned parking lot on the outskirts of the city under the fading twilight when Ash stopped suddenly.  “Wait!” he hissed, voice suddenly quiet.  “There’re people following us!”

“What?” Gary demanded.  “How can you tell?”

“Keep your voice down,” Ash instructed.  He hesitated a moment.  “Whoever they were, they’re gone now.  Well done, Gary.”

“Eh?” the brown-haired researcher asked, somewhat bewildered by the sudden change in Ash.

“I could hear footsteps, farther back than our own.  It sounded like two pairs.”  Gone was Ash’s boyish charm and simple happiness.  In his place was the hunted animal who had fled from friend and foe alike for half a year.  “Team Rocket.  It has to be.”

“Ash, you’re probably overreacting,” Brock counseled.  “This is a city, there are bound to be people around.

“Maybe you’re right.  But I don’t like this.”

Misty didn’t like it either.  Now that we have him back I don’t want him falling part again.  Not after everything else.  So if whoever that was will just leave him alone…



“Gott damme, the kid vas fast!” Adolf swore from his cover behind a low concrete traffic barricade.  “It is lucky der others did not see us.”

“Indeed,” Benito conceded.  “We’ll have to wait for later, because we can’t reach him in the hotel complex.”  His radio squawked and he keyed it to life irritably.  “What?  We’re bus…who?  His tone changed abruptly.  “Yes, Sir?”  He listened for nearly a minute.  “Yes, Sir!” he agreed in a nasty voice as he deactivated the radio.  “Adolf, my friend, it seems our mission has changed.  According to the Boss, what we have to do now is…”



“All right, Ash, you can stop asking now.  Dinner is served!” Brock announced from the suite’s kitchenette.  The boy, who had most definitely swung back from his temporary paranoia, leapt from the bed he had claimed and rushed over to where the older man was ladling a soup of a not entirely identifiable blend of ingredients into small bowls.  Misty and Gary followed more sedately, while Pikachu bounded ahead of Ash and dug into the small bowl of Pokémon food Brock had prepared.

“This is amazing, Brock!” Gary praised in a short period when he wasn’t pouring soup down his gullet.  “If I had known how good a cook you were I would have travelled with you instead of the girls!”

“Couldn’t you have at least brought them with you?” Brock asked plaintively.

“I had forgotten just how good you were,” Ash said between mouthfuls, dragging Brock back to reality with practiced ease.  “I could get used to this.”

“Well, hopefully you’ll have all the time in the world to do that, Ash,” Misty told him.

“Yeah, you’re right.  And I’ll enjoy every minute of it.  Now, Brock, is there enough left for seconds?”



“Well, good night, everyone,” Gary said as he snuggled down into the deep sheets of his bed.  Brock, Misty, and finally Ash and Pikachu followed suit, the yellow Pokémon on the pillow next to his master’s head.  Misty switched off the room’s lights from the central control next to her bed, and prepared to sleep.

About an hour later, she twitched back into wakefulness at the sound of movement.  She looked around, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and blinking several times in the all-encompassing darkness.  Her eyes passed over the intact and closed windows, Gary’s still form, the bundle of sheets surrounding Brock, and then finally…

“Oh, Ash…” she whispered.

The boy was twisting this way and that, seemingly fighting something in his sleep.  Pikachu was desperately clinging to Ash’s hand, but the boy seemed utterly ignorant of this, and the Pokémon was in danger of being thrown from the bed.  Misty swung herself free of her own bed and padded on bare feet over to her friend, who was now moaning with a helpless terror that tore at her heart.  He twisted over, breaking free of Pikachu’s grasp and clenching his fists on the corners of his pillow, pulling it into his face.  He let out a half-smothered cry of torment, and then Misty was there, kneeling on the floor beside his bed.  “Ash,” she soothed as she put her arm around his slim, shaking shoulders, recoiling slightly at the sweat soaking his clothes.  “It’s all right, I’m here….”

He didn’t hear her at all.

“Pikachu, could you make some room?” Misty asked the Pokémon.  As he moved onto Ash’s heaving back, Misty walked around and eased herself onto the bed beside her friend.  She put her arm back across Ash’s shoulders as she turned face-down, and Pikachu moved up to hold her hand on his trainer.  Gradually, the boy’s struggles faded, although he continued to moan for some time after.  Misty, however, could not sleep, instead spending the night looking with compassion at her old friend, thinking only of his comfort, not of her own.

I denied this just a week or two ago, but Brock was right.  This is what I’ve wanted.  I’ll keep Ash intact because I care about him, not because of any debt I owe to his mom.  This is all for him.

As the night wore on, she progressed to stroking Ash’s lank, greasy hair or patting his arm whenever his nightmares seemed to be torturing him.  Eventually, his anguished moans stopped, although he continued to shiver despite his warmth.  Finally, the grey dawn broke through the window opposite Ash’s bed, filling Misty’s still-open eyes.  A strange euphoria filled her as the light caught the sleeping Ash, surrounding him with what seemed to her an angelic radiance.  Gary, a light sleeper by dint of his recent activities, stirred into wakefulness and looked over at her through sleep-dulled eyes.

“Don’t ask.”

Gary made no comment, simply rolling over away from the dawn and falling back asleep.



Ash came to with a start, jerking his head out of the sticky, damp morass that was his pillow.  He felt Pikachu’s warm mass slide down his back, but also recognized a human touch, both on his shoulder and beside him.  “Misty?” he asked drowsily.

“Yes, Ash,” she replied softly.

“Why are you in my bed?”

“You were moaning and sobbing into your pillow.  I needed to come over and calm you down.”

“I…oh…of course.”  Ash’s eyes emptied once again, causing Misty to edge closer to him with concern.  “You didn’t stay up all night for that, did you?” he asked in that dreadful dead voice, already knowing the answer.

“Yes,” she confirmed for him.  “I wanted to help you.”

“You can’t, Mist.  And you shouldn’t even bother.  Why would anyone want to keep a foul-up like me alive?  All I do is hurt them in return.”  He swung his legs over the side of the bed, getting to his feet and dislodging both Misty and Pikachu.  The Pokémon gave an indignant squeak as he bounced off of the sheets, but Misty was much more concerned for her human friend.

“Ash, we’ve been over this,” Misty rebuked him.  “You didn’t kill your mother.  Team Rocket did.”

“Really?  I don’t remember the person telling Pikachu to go into that cloud wearing any red ‘R.’  It was as much my fault for playing into their hands as it was their fault for setting it up in the first place.  Gary was right yesterday.  I am ‘dumb,’ and a lot of other words to that effect.  I never think things through, and that just hurts everyone around me.”  The boy was once again silhouetted by the sunlight, and Misty realized with a thrill of panic why that was.  She got to her feet and began trying to get around Ash, who seemed completely intent on the rising sun.  “And now I’m hurting you too, just by being around.  But at least that mistake I can fix.”  Misty managed to get around the boy at last, placing herself firmly between Ash and the suite window, just as he hurled himself bodily towards it.  “Not again…” he muttered as he cannoned into the smaller woman and slammed her against the glass.  Misty flung her hands out to the side, desperately trying to stop herself before she went through the window.

She breathed a sigh of relief as the glass held behind her spine.  “Ash, are you insane?” she demanded breathlessly as she shoved him away from the pane and against the wall.

“You might say that,” he acknowledged.  “You wouldn’t be the first.”

“You said you didn’t want to hurt me?  Well, what do you call that?”

“You shouldn’t have stopped me!” Ash said, fighting spirit rekindled by the argument.  Life began to return to his haunted eyes, which made a corner of Misty’s heart soar.

The rest of it was shot through with blazing fury.  “You are an idiot, Ash!” she snapped back.  “I stopped you because it would hurt all of us a lot worse to go through life with you dead than it would for me to hit the ground from a twelve-story fall.  At least that would be over quickly!”  Ash gave her a blank, uncomprehending stare.  “Think about what you felt like when you thought Pikachu was dead,” Misty told him, voice softening.  Would you make all of us, Pikachu included, go through that too?”

“No,” Ash replied finally, still clearly not understanding.  “But I don’t want to be a burden on you, and I don’t want to hurt you in the future either.  I’m more likely to get you killed by being around you than by taking myself out now.  And I won’t keep you up at night.  And I won’t have to go through all of this either.”

Misty’s temper was back in full.  “You just don’t get it, do you?  I stayed up with you because I care about you, you moron!”

“Then you’re a fool,” Ash told her bluntly.

Misty floundered for a moment, completely surprised by the accusation.  “What?” she finally asked him incredulously.

“I cared too much about Pikachu and Mom, and look what happened.  I cared about you and Brock, and then when I thought you betrayed me I didn’t have anything left.  It’s easier for me to just go than to care anymore.”

Misty stared him down, and if her eyes were welling up with tears, that was her own business.  “The Ash I knew would never back down from a challenge because it was too hard.  Why is this any different?”

“Those were challenges I could beat somehow.  This one-I can’t climb it, or cross it, or have Pikachu shock it.  It’ll be there every minute of my life, and I’ll never know how to win.”

“Well, you don’t know that until you’ve lived all of that time and tried everything.  Live with us, and we’ll give you a reason to love again.”

“But what if I can’t, Misty?” Ash asked with a pathetic edge of helplessness that twisted Misty’s heart.  “What if it hurts too much?”

“You will, Ash.  I promise,” she told him with all the sincerity she could muster.  “We’ll get you through this together.  I promise.” she crooned again.  He looked at her and slowly nodded.  And then he began to cry.

“Come on, let’s get you back to bed,” Misty prompted as she directed Ash’s unresisting body onto his bed, taking care to place his oily hair on the dry pillow.  Pikachu, who had witnessed the entire scene, curled protectively on the sobbing boy’s chest.

It was only after she was safely in her own bed, head turned so that no one could see, that Misty finally let her own tears, tears of pain and grief, flow.



“Ash, I think it’s time that we took you out into the city,” Brock told his young friend at breakfast.  “I was thinking we could get you a haircut, and then you could pick out a new hat afterwards.”

“I’d like that,” the boy replied, his tone guarded.  Brock noticed this and raised an eyebrow at Misty, who kept her face tellingly impassive.

“So, Misty,” Gary jumped in, “what was it you didn’t want me to ask about last night?  You know, when you were in Ash’s bed?”

Misty’s eyes flared while Ash’s drained.  “I said, don’t ask.  Especially now.”  Gary’s glare told her that the matter was far from over, but he wisely shut up.

“Ash?” Brock prompted, hoping for some response out of the flat-eyed youth.

“I’m here, Brock.  Don’t worry.”  Ash’s voice sounded almost natural, but the evident strain it took to project that tone ruined the effect.  “Just…thinking about what almost happened this morning.”

“I’ll explain later,” Misty whispered across the table.



“Wow, what a nice day!” Ash told the world, stretching his arms over his head as he bathed in the bright morning sun.  No one would have thought that he had tried to kill himself not four hours before.

“It really is,” Misty agreed wholeheartedly, alongside Pikachu’s pleased squeak.  The friends looked for all the world like they had as children six years ago.  Even Gary had relaxed visibly.

The effect was abruptly spoiled when an aggressive young male voice called out to them from across the plaza.  “Hey, you’re that Ash kid, right?”  A trainer, no more than twelve years old, glared at them, confrontational pose and Poké ball marking him quite clearly as the speaker.  Other people began surreptitiously easing away.  “Let’s have a match!”

“I’d love to, but…” Ash began, trailing off deliberately.

“But what?” the boy taunted.  “But you know you’re gonna lose, right?”

Ash’s hands clenched into fists and he gritted his teeth, but did nothing.  Pikachu settled for releasing small bolts of energy.  Misty was considerably less restrained.

“Have you been living under a rock?” she demanded.  “He won’t fight you because he can’t fight you!  He’s not allowed to!”

“Yeah, you’ve got your friends to cover for you and an excuse to crawl behind, but I know the truth!” the boy addressed Ash scornfully.  “You’re afraid!”

Ash dropped his head but kept his eyes fixed on his heckler.  “You’re right, I am afraid.  Afraid of what will happen to me if Pikachu sends your Pokémon into orbit because I accepted your challenge.  Come back in six months, I can hammer you then if you still have the guts for it.”

“You’re not getting away that easy!” the boy yelled.  “Go, Charmeleon!”  The humanoid lizard billowed from the confinement beam.  He tossed his trainer a sardonic salute and then turned to stare at Ash.

“Okay, this is just not on,” Gary said.  “Listen, runt, you want a battle, you come to me.  I’m at least Ash’s equal, and I don’t have to worry about going to jail for fighting you. Still interested?”

“But-I was told to fight Ash…oh, whatever.  Bring it!”

“Told to fight Ash…” Misty repeated as Gary sent his Umbreon into the plaza.  “That sounds like…”

“Team Rocket’s still after me,” Ash concluded.  “This just keeps getting better and better.”

Not ten seconds later, the boy’s Charmeleon was lying face-down on the tiles of the plaza.  “Keep training for ten or twenty years, kid, you might have a chance against me or Ash,” Gary told him.  He made to turn away, but stopped as Ash stepped forward.

“But that wasn’t the point, was it.  Not for you to win.  Just to drag me into a battle in front of witnesses.  Who made you?”  The boy looked close to tears.  “Tell me!”  Ash barked.

“I-I’m sorry,” the young trainer whined.  “I really di-didn’t know!  They w-were so big!  And the one guy-his voice was so scary…I didn’t know what to do!”  He was sobbing in earnest now.  Misty crossed over to him.

“That’s all right,” she soothed.  “They can’t hurt you now.  Just tell us what they looked like and we can get rid of them for you.”  She ruffled his hair comfortingly and he dried his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said again, his voice steadier.  “I was so scared I couldn’t tell.”

Misty bit down on an obscenity.  “Thanks.  You go home and stay away from anyone else like that.”

She turned back to her friends.  Gary voiced what they were all thinking.  “Wonderful.”



“Damme!” Adolf swore from his place of concealment on a fourth-floor balcony overlooking the plaza.

“That…did not go well,” Benito said with considerable understatement.  “Looks like it’s time for Plan B.”

“Ja.  Are you ready to take one for the team?” Adolf asked his partner with a curious mixture of anticipation and pity.

“Me?  Why me?  I thought we had discussed-”

“Ja, but that vas before der runt mentioned my voice.  Now they can put it together if I push it.  But you…”

“Argh…I can hardly believe it, but you actually make sense.  But this had better be worth it.”

“It vill be.  After all, you aren’t paying for der hospital stay.”

“Just make sure we catch the mark alone.  I don’t want him to break me in half with witnesses to say he was acting in self-defense.  I’d much rather not spend years in therapy for a busted op.”



“Well, Ash, it would seem that you’ve managed to completely alienate everyone and his uncle,” Gary mocked.  “Now they’re giving the ‘lunatic’ a wide berth.  Even if you were right about the kid, it still scared the rest of the city off.”

“Enough, Gary,” Ash sighed tiredly.  Suddenly he bounced off of the massive chest of a large man…holding an only slightly smaller news camera.

“Mr. Ketchum, what was going through what, with leniency, might be referred to as your mind?  You know you aren’t allowed to fight anyone!” snapped a slim brunette reporter.  “Don’t keep that,” she warned her compatriot.  “Well?” she prompted.

“You’ve got it wrong.  I didn’t fight anyone,” Ash began hesitantly.

“No, that was me,” Gary stepped in.  “Because we knew that Ash wasn’t supposed to, I stepped in.”

The reporter cleared her throat, desperately striving to recover her poise.  “Be that as it may, witnesses say you assaulted your challenger after the battle, Mr. Ketchum.  And that is, if anything, worse.”

“Wrong again,” Ash informed her coldly.

“No, we just asked him some questions about why he had come after Ash,” Misty said in her friend’s defense.

“And you don’t think your conclusion is a little…paranoid?” the woman asked, an edge of hostility still present.

Ash was visibly angry now.  “Not at all.  He told us that he had been told by ‘big scary men’ to drag me into a fight.”

“And who else do we know who wants Ash put away?  Oh, that’s right…Team Rocket,” Brock concluded.

“And whose fault is that, eh?  It would seem that you’ve done more to them than they ever could have to anyone else.”  All four jaws dropped wide open at that remark.

“You’re mad, woman,” Ash informed her, voice flattening, much to his friends’ dismay.  The four trainers turned and began marching determinedly away from their interrogator, only to see two more pairs of newspeople approaching from other directions.  “I’ve had about enough of this,” Ash warned, his voice angry and overly controlled but thankfully not empty.  His friends nodded.

“You get out of here, Ash, we’ll block them for you,” Brock offered.

“Thanks.  I’ll meet you at the haircut salon we were going to, all right?”

“Sure.  We’ll be with you as soon as we can.”

“Mr. Ketchum, would you care-”

The new reporter, an older man this time, stopped in midsentence as he took in the wall of young trainers separating him from his desperately fleeing mark.



Ash rounded a corner into a back alley.  He paused, planting his hands on his knees as he caught his breath, flicking a worried glance over his shoulder.  None of the newsies seemed to be following him, and the rest of the alley appeared to be clear…

Just as the thought flashed through his mind, a figure landed before him, clearing the wall in front of Ash with a stupendous vault.  The man was clearly less than friendly-the sneer on his exotic features and his black fatigues gave him away instantly.  Wonderful, Ash thought as he dropped into a fighting stance instinctively.  Ash and his assailant circled each other nervously, neither willing to throw the first punch.  Unfortunately, these maneuvers placed the man squarely between his prey and the only practical exit.  Idiot! Ash berated himself as he realized the trap into which he had steered himself, through his own unthinking tyro stupidity.

“So, Ketchum, we’re here now,” the man began, throwing Ash off by not attacking immediately.  “You’ve left yourself open, which I can’t believe after everything you’ve done.”  The curious lilting accent seemed jarringly incongruous, coming as it did from a criminal.

“Yeah, stupid of me, wasn’t it,” Ash agreed, determined not to show his fear.

“Indeed it was.  This entire affair has been stupid.  You killed your mother, nearly killed your favorite pet, and came close to killing the love of your life.”  Perhaps he could have been forgiven for not seeing Ash’s eyes drain.  “And all because of your own unforgivable stupidity.  Tell me,” he said, voice suddenly hard, “why do they keep you around?  Are you really that good, or is Mistara so desperate for anyone that she doesn’t care what her mate is like?”  The crudity completely overwhelmed the youth’s control…exactly as the man had planned.

Ash struck him.

Even as he launched the blow, he knew he had gone too far.  He had put all the strength of his intensely fit body into the punch, and he only managed to pull the lethality from the strike by a hairsbreadth.  Even so, the agent doubled over and fell sobbing to the ground, and Ash felt a grim satisfaction as he felt at least two ribs splinter.  Even so, the enormity of what he had done brought the boy to his own knees.

“You win,” he whispered, seeing nothing but the hopeless future he had brought upon himself, and hearing nothing but the wail of sirens as Viridian City police bore down on him.



“Where did Ash get off to?” Brock fretted.  “It’s been almost a quarter-hour and we’ve been waiting for ten minutes of that.

“He’s probably just lost, Brock,” Gary offered.  “You’ve told me often enough that he was almost always off the trail.”

“That’s true, but still…” Misty pursed her lips.  “With Team Rocket still after him, I don’t like him being out of sight.  Who knows what they’re up to?”

Just then, the face of Officer Jenny-one who had been extensively background-checked when she replaced the Rocket double-appeared on the many commercial screens lining Viridian’s market district.  “Citizens of Viridian, in connection with the recent and wildly popularized case, Ashura Satoshi Ketchum has broken his parole and will be tried in thirty-five minutes at the city courtroom.  Anyone who may be able to offer witness testimony should make their way to the courtroom immediately.”

“You had to say it,” Brock snapped reflexively.



“The plaintiff cannot be here in person due to hospitalization for three broken ribs and moderate internal injuries.  Ketchum, what happened?” The Honorable Justice Julian Benfox asked the youthful prisoner resignedly.

“I struck the defendant after he accosted me in an alley.  I felt fairly certain he was a Team Rocket agent, and he insulted me repeatedly before implying…” Ash’s cheekbones heated and he trailed off.  “I’d rather not say that part, Sir.”  The long words, although perfectly correct, seemed slightly wrong coming from his mouth.

“Very well.  What made you feel he was a Rocket?”

“He mentioned three things in connection with my recent…activities.  My killing my mom, and my nearly killing Pikachu and Misty during my madness.”

“Your Honor,” a newswoman-the very same one who had stopped Ash not an hour earlier-broke in, “Mr. Ketchum has developed an intense paranoia.  Earlier today, he attacked a child who he accused of being a Team Rocket assassin.”  All three of Ash’s friends erupted in angry denials-including a spectacularly obscene one from Misty-and Benfox was forced to call order several times before bowing to the inevitable and directing the bailiff to fire over the heads of the citizens in the hall.  Silence was instant and absolute.

“Ash, do you have a single scrap of hard evidence to support your allegation that the plaintiff, one Benito Pompeian, was in fact a Team Rocket member?  Any witnesses to support you?”  Benfox was almost pleading.

“No,” Ash said very slowly and sadly, eyes downcast.

“I was afraid of that, Ash.  But with no evidence, the law cannot support any position other than the one I explained last time you were in here.  I’m sorry, Ash,” and the judge seemed genuinely upset, “but you’re facing thirty years, and I doubt anyone could trust you after that.  I’m sorry,” he repeated very softly.  “Sentence will begin immediately, but the first two will be spent in a juvenile detention facility rather than actual prison.  Take him away, but leave him a few minutes to say his goodbyes.”

No one could say who looked sadder at that moment-the sympathetic but helpless judge, the heartbroken Misty, or the finally broken Ash.

When Ash’s friends crossed to him, he didn’t even glance at them.  “Take care of Pikachu,” he instructed them.

“We’ll try to get you out, Ash!” Misty swore.

“Yeah, we’ll find a way!” Gary added.

“And even if we don’t we’ll visit you as much as we can, okay?”

Ash never answered them.



“Excellent work,” Giovanni told Adolf from his headquarters as he watched the footage of the sentencing.  “And now we put phase two into action.  Eliminate the judge and Mistara Waterflower.  Tonight.”



“Damn it, watch where you’re going!” Misty swore as a large man stumbled into her.  Her temper was as frayed as the edge of her hair, where the clumsy oaf had accidentally grabbed her for balance.



The three friends sat silently in their hotel suite.  They all determinedly looked away from one another, a deathly hush over the room.  No one had turned on any lights, and with the sun well past the windows the room had never seemed darker.  Not even a sorrowful sigh broke the quiet.

That was left to a phone call.

“I’ll get it,” Misty volunteered, her voice nearly as empty as Ash’s worst.  Neither of her male friends so much as acknowledged her.  “Yes?” she asked flatly.  “Mr. Benfox?  What do you want?”

“I don’t blame you, Misty,” the old man told her.  “God knows you have every right to be bitter.”

“I’d assume you didn’t call me just to tell me that.”

“No,” the man replied, not at all annoyed by Misty’s bare hostility.  “I’d like you three to join me for dinner tonight and we can…talk this over.”

“What’s there to talk about?” the redhead demanded angrily.  “You just put my best friend away for thirty years when you knew he was innocent!”

“That’s…more or less what I wanted to talk about.  But I’d rather say it face-to-face.  You can stop in tonight at six if you decide to take me up on the offer.”

“I’ll think about it,” Misty spat before breaking the connection abruptly.  She turned back to her friends, fury radiating from every pore.  “What?” she asked with a deadly calm voice.  “Haven’t you ever seen someone invited to dinner before?”

“So you’re going?” Brock asked her in return.  “It didn’t sound like it.”

“I have some things I’d like to tell him, too,” she told him mock-sweetly.



“This is it?” Misty asked unbelievingly as the Viridian taxi deposited the trio outside a thoroughly unremarkable suburban residence.  One less piece of ammunition for the thoroughly enraged woman.

“If you meant who you said, den ja,” the large taxi driver answered her bluntly, words almost indecipherable through his accent.  He seemed almost as anxious for his passengers to leave as Gary and Brock were to remain inside.  Something about him seemed vaguely familiar to Misty.

“All right, let’s get this over with,” Gary suggested tiredly, definitely not looking forward to Misty’s meeting with Benfox.

“Ah, you’re here,” the old judge boomed as he came out of his home to greet his guests.  “I was hoping you would come.”  Even Misty seemed disarmed, unable to hate the kindly gentleman.  The cab screeched away behind them as they walked up the short garden path to the door.

“Misty, you seemed rather…upset with me over the phone,” Benfox told her as she and Pikachu sat in the chair across from him, flanked by Brock and Gary and inhaling the fragrances of a fairly expansive salad dish.

“You noticed?” she asked lightly.  Her voice hardened.  “Good.”

“I don’t blame you for being angry, and you’re far from alone.  God knows I wanted to give another verdict than the one I had to.”

“What?  I thought you were supposed to vote with your conscience!” Gary inquired hotly.

Benfox laughed gently.  “That’s the legislature.  I have to go by the evidence and the law.  And I went much easier on him both times than I really should have.”

Easier?” Misty’s earlier good feelings had evanesced into nothing, replaced by an intense urge to cross the table and throttle the self-righteous judge.  Her angry bellow overlapped Pikachu’s indignant exclamation.  “How can you sit there and call thirty years for an innocent boy easy?”

“Because he’s alive,” Benfox told her with unwonted seriousness.  “And that means that you can help me find the evidence we need to get him out.  If I had actually followed the letter of my law, Ash would be locked up until he reached adulthood and then put away.  This way we have all the time in the world to put things right.”

“Well, we wouldn’t have had to put things right if you had just let him off the hook!” Brock hollered.  He was nearly as enraged as Misty.

“Really?” the judge cocked a bushy eyebrow.  “Tell me, what do you know that we could use to put Ash’s victim behind bars, hmm?  Did you actually see Ash not strike him, or hear Benito call himself a Rocket?  No.  No evidence at all…not on the surface.”  Benfox looked at Gary, who met his gaze evenly.

“The Team Rocket records,” the boy said.

Benfox nodded.  “Their computer files should have references to this man in them.  If you have personnel files from before, there’s no way they could remove him to cover their trail.”

“No, sorry.  I don’t have any permanent copies of ‘trivial’ information,” Gary sighed.  “It’ll have to be recent.”

“Better than nothing, I suppose,” Benfox acquiesced.  All of the anger at the table had been earthed.  “And now, I think, it’s time for dinner.  He gestured at the yellow Pokémon, who had already begun gorging himself when the conversation turned to business.  “We should take Pikachu’s example and dig in.  I assure you, it’s delicious.”

The rest of the evening passed without incident, a different cab driver bringing them back to the hotel.  Unwilling to talk or even think, the three friends simply drifted off to sleep.

Blissfully unaware of the horror tomorrow would bring.



“This city has been beset by strife in recent days, from the trials of Ashura Ketchum to the uncovering of the Rocket Boss acting as our Mayor,” Officer Jenny addressed the television-viewers and radio-listeners the next morning.  “But we had not yet suffered any murders.  That changed last night.  The Honorable Julian Benfox was found dead this morning, evidently beaten to death by a large blunt object.”  Jenny looked physically ill.  “Early forensic evidence has located orange hair genetically identical to that of Mistara Waterflower, former Cerulean City Gym Leader and close personal friend of Mr. Ketchum.  As Benfox was responsible for Ketchum’s jailing and Miss Waterflower was taken to his house by the cab driver Adolf Brinkerhoff last night, she is considered a probable suspect in this case.  She will be detained for questioning at the earliest opportunity, but additional investigations will be conducted.  We must be cautious in these troubled times,” the officer concluded.  “We may not know who to trust, but we must put our faith in one another until things can return to normal.  Mr. Benfox’s memorial will be held two days from now at the Viridian Hills cemetery.  Thank you.”

Misty switched off the hotel’s television with a moue of disgust.  “This is sick.  And I think we all know who really did it.”

“We do indeed,” Brock replied grimly.  “But we’d better get out of here before the police show up.  We aren’t letting you get framed too!”

“Thanks, Brock, but I have something I need to do.”

“You’re going after him, aren’t you?” Gary asked.  Unlike normal, there was no accusation or insinuation in his voice.  Misty nodded.

“They’ve probably covered their tracks here as well as they did with Ash, so I’m as good as gone if the police ever get their hands on me.  If I’m going to be a criminal now, I might as well try to do something good with it.”

“Mist, count us in,” Brock offered.  “We aren’t letting you or Ash rot in some prison until you die of old age.”

“Thanks for the offer, Brock,” Misty answered with a small smile, “but you two can do a lot more here.  You don’t have any record, you can try to find something that’ll dig us out of this, like Benfox wanted.  Stay with your families.  We’re tough,” she told them both.  “We’ll survive.”

“Misty…” Gary breathed, seemingly awed by her actions.

“No arguments, now.  I’m getting him out of there, and I’m doing it tonight.  Just you wait and see.”



Given her new “wanted” status, Misty couldn’t just walk up to the desk and demand Ash at .  And she had never been one for subterfuge.  So instead…

“Go, Staryu!”  The five-pointed metallic star hovered just beside her, waiting for her order, while Pikachu curled within her bulging satchel.  A quick computer search of the juvenile detention facility’s layout had yielded the location of Ash’s cell, and she positioned herself outside where she hoped it was.  “Take that wall down!” she commanded.

“Hyah!” the star clacked, spinning rapidly and smashing into the concrete barrier.  Dimly, within the building, alarms began to sound, but the section of wall Misty was attacking was out of the reach of the lights.

I wonder if anyone pulled strings to get Ash put where I could break him out, she wondered offhand as Staryu finished breaking a passage through into the cell.

A familiar black-haired face was watching the opening.  “Misty, d’you think you could have been any more obvious?” Ash asked her acerbically.

“Shut up and run!” she urged, suiting the action to the word as soon as she had pulled Ash out of the hole behind her.  The boy needed no second bidding.  Amazingly, they avoided patrols and response teams alike as they dashed for the wilderness not far from the facility, making it away without even being sighted.

“That was too easy,” Misty told her companion as they rested a short distance into Viridian Forest, Ash frantically stroking Pikachu.  “Almost like they wanted you to get out.”

Ash turned and faced her squarely.  His hand froze on Pikachu’s back.  “Why did you do it?”

Misty blinked.  “What?”

“Break me out.  Now they’ll be after you, too.”

“Ash…oh, of course, you wouldn’t know.  They think I killed the judge, so I had to leave anyway.”

“So you don’t care as much as you told me, eh?”  Ash seemed determined to find fault with her.

“Of course I do!  If the judge hadn’t died, I would have still tried to get you out.  It just would have been legal, that’s all.”

“Legal.”  Ash made the word a curse.  “It’s not like the law has ever actually worked, is it?  It couldn’t keep Team Rocket from doing what they did, or me from doing it right along with them, or you from having to ruin your life just to get me away from there.”

“No, but Gary and Brock are back in the city trying to fix it.  We just need to stay free for a few months while they work their magic.”

“You really belive it, don’t you?” Ash spat.  “We’re not going back unless it’s in body bags.  Team Rocket is too smart for idiots like me to get away from or even people like Brock to break through.  We’re stuck out here until it’s over, one way or another.”

“No, we’re not,” Misty protested.  “I trust them.  They’ll pull it off.”

“Either way, we need to move,” Ash reminded her, transferring Pikachu to his shoulder as he stood.  “First rule of survival: don’t let them see you.”

“No one’s coming,” Misty told him.

“Yes they are.  It’s just a matter of time.  So move it!  We can rest when we’re clear into the mountains.  We can hide up there for the rest of our lives…which is just as well.”

“I didn’t pack enough supplies to stay in the mountains, Ash!” Misty squealed.  “We’ll starve up there, assuming we don’t freeze first!”  It was true-she was wearing her fairly warm jumpsuit, while Ash had traded his prison garb in for his new clothes, but neither of them were outfitted for mountain survival.

“We’ll find a way, Misty,” he said with a thin smile.  “Trust me.”

“You were one step away from dead after six months the last time we left you alone, and that was with just yourself to feed!” she reminded him.  “Now you have yourself, me, and Pikachu!”

“I don’t care,” he answered, and Misty knew he was talking about far more than just the food issue.

“Well, I do!” she snapped, temper gone.  “And unless you-”

“-Get moving, the police are going to catch us long before it’s a problem.  Come on!  I’m not letting you throw yourself away after me for nothing!”  Ash grabbed Misty’s arm and hurried her into the woods while she wondered how even he could have changed so much.



“Brock, I’m sorry, but I don’t think you can really help me with this,” Gary told his older companion.  “I’ve been breaking Team Rocket codes for the better part of two years now, and I don’t need an amateur getting underfoot.  It’s dangerous enough for a man with experience.”  He took pity on Brock’s crestfallen expression.  “You can find a way to help them, I’m sure.  Maybe if you try to find them you can get food or supplies to wherever they hide out.  But I have work to do, and the sooner it’s done the better it’ll be for everyone.”

Now where would they hide? Brock mused later that night.  Not the forest-too obvious, too close.  Not the cities, either.  Nowhere to go where they wouldn’t be seen.  The ocean is too far south, although the Oaks could be hiding them…no, Ash wouldn’t go anywhere near Pallet.  That just leaves the mountains, and we all know by now that those aren’t a particularly safe place to hide in midwinter!  I hope Misty talks him out of going there.  But I’d better head after them to make sure.  I’ll get on that tomorrow morning.

When Brock finally dropped off to sleep, his dreams were haunted by visions of that night in the blizzard five years ago, where Ash had spent the night in a crude snow-cave and came out into the daylight almost literally frozen solid.



“Misty’s wanted and Ash is gone,” Lance told the assembled Guardsmen agents.  “We’ve let them down.  Team Rocket should be settling in to more…traditional work now, so most of our agents will do the same.  But I want you to help me keep the two youths away from both the gang and the law.”

“Does that mean we’ll be deceiving the police?” a relatively new agent asked with a note of disbelief.

“Exactly.  Lead them in the wrong directions, hold their attention somewhere other than where it should be, ‘lose’ the data, things like that.  If you can find the pair, bring them in to our headquarters and we can shelter them.”

“Ash won’t like that,” the recruit piped up again.  “He’ll never settle for being chained down anywhere.”

“I know,” Lance said softly.  “But it’ll be better for everyone that way.”

His briefing was interrupted by a sudden tumult outside the briefing room.  A pair of figures he recognized fairly well from the Lake of Rage and Element cases stood in the now open doorway, flanked by four murderous-looking Guardsmen security personnel.

If being covered by three women and a man hefting assault rifles disconcerted the pair-no, the trio, Lance realized as he took in the Pokémon standing between them-they didn’t show it.  Instead, inexplicably, the two humans burst into song.

“You knew us as Team Rocket, and we fought for what was wrong, but we got kicked off the team so all we have left is this song.”  The short ditty was an example of the trio’s eternally creative sameness.

“What are three Rocket agents, even discharged ones, doing here?” Lance asked the security team’s sergeant ever so calmly.

“They came to us and offered to help, and…”

“You’re new here, aren’t you?” Lance asked the woman.

Her eyes widened fractionally at the non sequiter.  “Yes, Sir.  I’ve been a sergeant of the guard for two weeks now.”

“And you won’t have a base to guard if you let people in without authorization!  You’re on report, Sergeant!” Lance snapped before turning his attention back to the apprehensive trio of Rockets.  “Seeing as you’re here, what do you want?  Besides information to sell back to Giovanni, of course?”  His eyebrow crept millimetrically upward.

“We want to help you find the twe…Ash and Misty, that is,” the red-haired woman-Jessie, Lance remembered-offered.  “We wanted to help earlier but never managed to catch up with them.”

“Really?  Interesting,” Lance mused.  “And, you two being such paragons of virtue, you should just be handed the assignment like that, eh?” he inquired in a kiln-dry tone.

The blue-haired James swallowed visibly.  “Well, we think we know where they went.”

Lance stepped forward at that.  “Where?” he asked.  “And how would you know?”

“Dey got caught in the mountains in a blizzard once,” the Meowth between the Rockets told him.  Lance quickly smoothed his expression of shock into careful disinterest, remembering the Pokémon’s rare power of speech.  “Ended up stealin’ our balloon from us, but we found some hot springs on da slopes dat kept us alive until we could get out on foot.  Dat mountain was close t’ Viridian, and dere’s no way anyone would be able to find ‘em dere in winter.  If dey even tried.”

Lance nodded.  He had to admit that the Meowth’s reasoning made sense.  “It’ll be a good starting point.  And I’ll have you two go with my search team when they take off in about a day.”  He smiled humorlessly at the starry-eyed expressions of the ex-agents.  “Not only can you guide them in, but you won’t be able to spy on us here.  Solves all of our problems rather neatly, don’t you think?”



“Ash, slow down!  I can barely see you!” Misty’s voice echoed off the cliffs of the mountain trail and was scattered in all directions by the bone-chilling winds howling around them.  Her friend’s form, as well as Pikachu’s, was all but obscured by the flying snow.  Still, the snowfall was relatively light…for now.

“We’re almost there, Misty,” Ash called back, words lost in the wind.  “We can stop in about ten more minutes of this.”  She couldn’t hear him over the gale, but drew inspiration from the visible portion of the response-the first Ash had offered since they started their ascent.

“This is getting icy,” she told herself as she struggled for balance on a particularly slick patch.  “We’d better be there soon.”  She turned her gaze back to Ash, who seemed to be slowing his pace.  Pikachu threw a glance over his trainer’s shoulder.

And cried out in alarm as he saw Misty collapse.  It was not the ice but the looser snow that caused it.  Her left foot snagged on an unseen rock just beneath the surface and she fell heavily, driving the upright point of the rock into her shin.  Ash caught Pikachu’s warning, turned, and saw his old friend struggling to stand.  He didn’t hesitate, running downhill at an almost literally breakneck pace as Misty finally got unsteadily to her feet.

“Are you all right?” he asked breathlessly, and she nodded unconvincingly in reply.  “I wouldn’t call it that,’” he told her as he took in the oozing crater the rock had left.  The wound was shallow but ugly, and all too obviously painful.  Without seeming to think about it, he ripped off the hem of the right leg of his new jeans, tearing the end and tying it around Misty’s injury as a makeshift bandage.  He offered her his arm.  “Come on, Mist,” he offered warmly.  If she had had any capacity for thought beyond the need to press on, she would have been overjoyed by Ash’s actions.

Not fifteen minutes of painful uphill struggling later, Ash raised his hand, signaling an end to Misty’s exertions and granting her a chance to catch her increasingly labored breath.  “We’re here, more or less,” he told his charge as he looked around.  “If only I had all of my Pokémon like last time.  Misty, do you have anyone who can help us dig out a cave?”

“Not…really,” she said slowly through chattering teeth.  Her ruined leg felt cold, so cold.  “There’s…Staryu, and that’s all.”

“Well, have him drill into the snow,” Ash urged.  “Pikachu and I can rebuild the wall behind us.”

“What about me?” she asked.

“Misty, you can’t even stand on your own, let alone do heavy work!”

“Just try me,” she demanded, feelings of cold held at bay by a burning need to be doing something.

“Well, if you insist,” her friend acquiesced hesitantly.

The cave took the better part of three hours to complete, by which time the snowfall had stopped.  Both humans could stand up or lie down comfortably with extra room to spread out, and the walls of ice and snow did an excellent job of containing what little heat they had between them.  The space was dark but filled with a soft grayish light filtering through the snow above and around them.

There was still no description for it beyond “some sort of icy Hell,” however, so the two humans and Pikachu huddled together for warmth.  Misty’s wound caused her an almost unbearable agony, but bear it she did, letting as little as possible show through onto her face.  Even when the pain started to spread, she held it back.

“Last time we did this, the wall started to crumble and I had to block the hole all night,” Ash remembered.  “I’d rather not go through that again.”

“I’ll have Staryu Water Gun the wall,” Misty suggested.

Ash took on a comedic expression akin to panic.  “But, Misty, that’ll melt the snow!”

“Only the outer layer, or should that be ‘inner?’  Then it’ll freeze and make a hard crust over what’s left.  We won’t have anything crumbling around us then.”

“I guess you’re right.  Let’s try it.”

“Staryu, use Water Gun to dribble a sheet of water down over the cave wall,” Misty commanded her Pokémon.  The task was done not a minute later, and Ash breathed something suspiciously like a sigh of relief after Misty recalled Staryu and the cavern failed to collapse on them.  “So what happens now?” Misty asked him.

“We wait,” he told her simply.

Misty, exhausted, curled up into a tight ball and promptly fell asleep on the icy floor of their shelter.  Ash sat for some time longer, stroking Pikachu absentmindedly while he looked into the wall, alone with his thoughts.

I promised him we’d get through this together, Misty thought as she dozed.  And we will.  I promised  Her mind filled with images of the past.  Images of Ash flew by, memories of happier days years ago.  His triumphs, his sorrows, his joys, his fears, and every moment they had shared on their travels, she could see it all.  He can have that again! she knew.  He will!  He must!

Her will grew so intense that she awoke.  The sunlight of the halcyon memories vanished, replaced by the tomblike chill and inky blackness of their shelter.  She shivered in the suddenly renewed cold and tried to get to her feet almost by reflex.  But her left leg refused to respond, and she realized with a start as she fell to the floor that she couldn’t feel it at all.  A flurry of indefinable motion became apparent as she landed, as if in a nightmare.  But before she could think, or even panic, a relatively warm weight settled down over her and a warmer furry mass followed it.  Still another body, this one much colder and damper than the others, settled down beside her, and Ash’s voice spoke in her ear.

“Take my jacket, Misty.  You look like you need it.”  He seemed to be straining to speak.  Misty looked over at him, saw the tension in her friend’s shivering body through the darkness, and realized.

“No, Ash, you keep it.  You’re colder than I am.”  She lifted the jacket as best she could and draped it back over her friend.

“Misty…” he protested drowsily, and she could make out a faint choke in his voice as she listened.

“No arguing.  I’m fine.  I’m even sweating,” she realized aloud.  “I don’t want to wake up to find you frozen solid, you hear?”  Her voice was, if anything, stronger than his.

“But…” he began to protest again, the sob in his voice evident this time.

“No, Ash,” she told him once more, voice dropping to a near whisper.  “You keep it.”



“Food, food, water, food, some firewood, flint and tinder-I don’t think Ash ever learned how to use matches-food, a first aid kit, more food…” Brock rambled as he packed two oversized sacks with every survival supply he could think of.  “This ought to be good.”  He swung the packs across his back and set off for the mountains.



“Where to start, where to start?” Gary mused.  “Ash demolished so many buildings around here…but wasn’t there something about…”  He snapped his fingers.  “The Center!  That’s it!  They never wrecked that place!”  He attached a small, discrete audio/video recorder to his left index finger.  The little device had been unbelievably expensive, but it was extremely useful for getting images and voiceprints of hard-to-see or easily startled Pokémon.  And it was even more effective for recording information in Team Rocket research facilities.  If what they did there could be called anything as scientific-sounding as “research.”

“Ve may not haff, Oak, but it vill not matter,” the voice of their first cab driver from two nights before rang out over his shoulder.  Gary turned, ever so slowly, absolutely certain that the heretofore unnoticed intruder had something undeniably lethal pointed directly at him.  He was right.

“Ketchum, Benfox, Vaterflower, und now you.  Der Boss vill be thrilled,” the man rambled, confident that Gary was right where he wanted him.  The boy wasn’t about to change that notion, merely flexing his index finger to activate the camera.  “And I vill take great pleasure in doing this.”  Gary knew a goodbye when he heard one and twisted as the man fired his large machine pistol, capturing his assailant’s features on the recorder before the bullet smashed his right shoulder apart.  He didn’t even have to fake his unconsciousness.

He came to in the Viridian City Pokémon Center’s human wing, with the concerned faces of the local Joy and Jenny looking down at him.

“How?” he asked fuzzily.  Joy’s expression grew still more worried as her charge raised his head, but Jenny’s grew grim.

“I was on a regular patrol cruise when I heard the gunshot.  By the time I got there, whoever it was had already gone.  But she left these.”  She held up a few strands of orange hair.  “I’m sorry.  Her betrayal must have hurt-”

Gary shook his head, regretting it as he saw the shattered wreckage of his upper arm.  He resolutely looked away from his wound.  “It wasn’t Misty,” he told them.  “I’ve got proof.  I’ve…” his voice cut off as he fell back on the hospital bed and fell promptly asleep.

“Proof?” Joy asked.  “I’d love to see them all cleared, but he’s got a serious injury.  He could be delirious or in denial.  Or both.”

Jenny was shaking her head.  “I don’t think so.  No, he knows what he’s talking about.  Maybe he can tell us more once you’ve put him back together.”

“About that…” Joy seemed hesitant.  “I can restore his arm, and I’m going to, but it’ll take well over a year to heal even with our medical technology and his youth, and he’ll never have his old range of control.”

“Whoever did this, I want their head on a plate!” Jenny swore furiously.  She had developed a strong stomach after seeing the wreckage of Julian Benfox, but Gary’s prognosis tore her control apart, and if the attacks were all related then whoever the assailant was had far too much of a sadistic streak for anyone’s good.  “And I hope it isn’t Misty.”



Brock sat down against a rock, panting.  Although the first hunt for Ash had put him back in shape, a four-hour climb up an ice-encrusted mountain trail was certain to test anyone.  At least the warm morning sunlight and cool, gentle breezes were refreshing rather than overpowering, although the abundance of snow hinted at yesterday’s weather being considerably less welcoming.  “Ah, well, time to be moving again, Brock,” he told himself firmly as he pushed himself to his feet.  As he continued, he missed the faint patch of red just beneath the snow’s surface.

“I’m guessing…it’s that,” he said as he noticed a snowdrift far too regular to be a natural formation.  He made his way over to the suspicious bank and began digging as the noise of helicopter rotors clattered through the peaks behind him.



“You’d better be certain about this,” the Guardsman pilot warned Jessie and James tersely.  “Canyon winds can throw my bird into a wall without warning, so we need to get in and out fast.”

“Don’t worry, the twerps used this trail a few years back.  They know the area, so they’d probably choose this mountain to hide on.”

“Jessie, look!” James pointed past their armed Guardsman watchdog at a figure in green and orange hiking along beneath them.  “It’s the older twerp.  We were right!”

“All right, I see him.  Looks like he’s digging into a snowdrift.”

“Snowdrift?  No way,” Jessie told him.  “Someone built that.”

“T’ree guesses,” Meowth offered the pilot.

The man chuckled.  “No thanks.  I can tell.  We’re coming in now.”



Pikachu was the first to hear the scraping at the mouth of their cave.  “Pika, pikapi, pikachupi!” he sang as he struggled to wake Ash and Misty.

“I hear it, Pikachu,” Misty told the Pokémon as she quickly awoke, swinging her unresponsive leg awkwardly as she inched away from the blue-faced Ash and towards the side of the cave.  Ash slowly and stiffly rose, painfully stumbling to the corner across the cave mouth from his friend.  Pikachu followed his trainer, offering whatever warmth he could.  Ash’s shirt was soaked through with icy water and he seemed half-frozen himself, but Pikachu clung to him despite.  The digger, whoever it was, had reached the ice wall behind the snow, and his hand bounced off the ice.  A brief yell echoed through the barrier to the waiting fugitives, and then a familiar fist drove through the ice, followed by two large sacks.

“B-B-Brock?” Ash stuttered through chattering teeth.

“Yeah, it’s me, Ash.  Is Misty there with you?”

“I’m here, Brock,” she groaned.  Brock made a similar sound.

“Not for much longer, the way you sound.  You two are probably frozen solid in there!  Hold on while-”  He stopped as the whine and roar of the helicopter blades slowed and stopped just behind him.  He hadn’t even noticed the wind.

“Hey, twerp, you in there?” an all-too-familiar female voice demanded.

“He has to be, Jess.  Who else would the other twerp be talking to?” an equally recognizable male voice asked rhetorically.

“You two don’t get too far ahead of yourselves,” came an unfamiliar male voice.  “We’re supposed to be rescuing those two, not scaring them deeper underground.”

“Who are you?” Brock demanded furiously.

“We’re with the Guardsmen now,” the former Rocket agents informed him.  “We came up here to get the other two to safety until the heat’s off.”

“And I should trust you why?” Brock inquired, his anger not decreasing in the slightest.

“I sent them,” Lance’s voice called from the helicopter.  Even Jessie and James looked around in panic, until they realized it was actually a recording being played from a system in Meowth’s paw.  “They offered to help me take you two to the Guardsman headquarters for safekeeping until we can get you both cleared.  You can trust them for now.”

“Ya see?” the cream-furred Pokémon demanded.  “Now come wit’ us before ya die out here.”

It took only about twenty more minutes before Ash and Misty were out in the sunlight again.

“What happened to you two?” Brock demanded when he took in their beaten appearances.

“Get them into the bird,” the pilot prompted.  “We have a medic and supplies aboard, she can look them over.”  Misty limped across to the helicopter, alternately leaning on Brock and the shivering Ash for support as her leg threatened to give out underneath her.

Once aboard, the medic-yet another member of the extensive Joy clan-recoiled momentarily as she saw Misty’s wound and Ash’s condition.  Then professionalism reasserted itself.

“Gangrene,” she muttered as she looked at the grey area spreading out from Misty’s faintly green injury.  “When did this happen?  Yesterday?”  Misty nodded faintly.  “Good, that and the cold mean that it hasn’t spread as fast or as far as it could.  Even so, I’ve never seen an infection spread this quickly before.”  Joy rummaged in her medical kit, withdrawing a disinfectant cloth, a needle-less syringe, and a phial of liquid.  “This is going to sting,” she warned as she rubbed down the wound, causing Misty to hiss in pain.  Then, she flushed the hole with a small amount of the liquid.  “Antibiotics,” Joy explained.  “They should kill off whatever’s gotten into you fast enough that you can keep the leg.  No harm done.  And at least your clothes kept the rest of you warm and dry.  Unlike your friend there.”  Misty gritted her teeth against the burning pain and screwed her eyes shut.

The medic turned to Ash.  “You should have known better than to lie down in the snow with nothing but cotton and skin.  It’ll take a while for you to defrost, and then we can see how bad things are.  If you’re lucky, you won’t lose anything to frostbite or develop pneumonia, but I wouldn’t get my hopes too high on either count.  Most humans can’t even function with their body temperature this low,” she informed him.  You should keep this on for the rest of the trip,” she directed as she threw him an emergency blanket and a hot pad.  “Might help you come out of it faster and healthier.”

The Guardsman overseeing the ex-Rockets suddenly spoke into his communications headset.  “Say again?”  He nodded.  “I see…and what if I told you that I have seven witnesses here to tell you otherwise?  Thought so,” he concluded with a chuckle.  Oak’s worked with us in the past, and he usually had a small recorder mounted on his left index finger.  It’s hard to find, but if it’s on him now you have the evidence you need.  Oh?  What’s that?  Good.”  The man turned to the passengers.  Gary’s been shot, and whoever did it tried to pin it on Misty again.  Now evidence says it’s Misty, Jenny says she thought it was Misty, and all of us know that’s bullshit.”  He dropped the obscenity in front of the youths without a second thought.  “Thing is, Gary had some other evidence, and there’s a good chance it’ll clear all of you.  So things are looking up.  More or less.”

“He ‘had’ other evidence?” Ash asked.  “Does that mean he’s-”

“He’s alive.  His arm, not so much, but the rest of him is fine,” the guard hastened to assure the boy.

“For me.  Even Gary did that for me.”  Ash sounded awestruck.  “And I thought he didn’t care.”

“He would have said the same thing if he saw you worrying about him right now, Ash,” Brock said with a laugh.  “He was just hard on you to give you a challenge, especially over the last few days.  He did that because he wanted to help.”

“I never knew.”  Ash’s voice was thoughtful.  “I never knew.”



“My God.  It’s Adolf,” Jenny said as she finally matched the face on Gary’s recording to the “witness” who had called her in after Ash had assaulted Benito and testified against Misty that same night.  And here he was, on record, admitting to it all!  Was Team Rocket truly so short on functional genetic material?

No, she realized, it had been perfectly executed, except for her lucky presence.  That was the only thing that had saved Gary, and likely all that had saved the recording as well.

“Jenny to all Viridian Police,” she called on the general frequency, “arrest Adolf Brinkerhoff.  I want him jailed, and I want him sweated.  Especially about Benito.  Do it now.”

A few voices came back, asking for authorization and charges.  “Murder, conspiracy, and attempted murder.  We have video and audio evidence to make them all stick.  Take him.”

A chorus of “Yes, Ma’am”s assailed her, and she leaned back with a satisfied smile.  At last, it seemed that Viridian City could return to normal.



Giovanni watched the sickening, damning evidence replayed again and again, on every news channel and radio station.  It had all been going so well, and then this happened!  It seemed to be impossible, but Ketchum had turned his plans in on themselves again!

“You aren’t through with me yet, Ketchum,” he warned the screen as footage of the Guardsman helicopter landing cut in.  His nemesis’s young, tear-stained, pain-lined face stared up at him.  “You’ve bought yourself a reprieve, but no more.”  He keyed his computer to life and began to view all pertinent files, plotting all the while.



“So, Ash, how does it feel to be a trainer again?” Brock asked his young friend.  Ash had defied the odds in so many ways, escaping even the slightest injury from his exposure and even being pardoned for all past offenses.

“Great!  I can’t wait to get started on my new journey!” the boy replied, excitement and unsullied joy written across his face.

“Well, you can start right now, can’t you?” Gary told him.  The other boy had recovered enough to be on his feet, although his right arm would be locked in the cast for almost two years.  He had taken the news remarkably well, only shattering three windows and kicking two office plants to infinitesimal pieces before calming down.  “I mean, there are two Gym Leaders right here.”

“He’s right, Ash,” Misty decided.  “You up for a match?”  Her infection had been eradicated as swiftly and thoroughly as the Guardsman Joy had promised.

“Sure!  I’ll take you both on!” the boy boasted.

Misty and Brock glanced at each other.  “All right then,” the Pewter City leader accepted.  “Onyx!”


“Pi-ka-chu!”  Ash’s oldest friend sprang from his trainer’s shoulder and flipped high into the air, calling out his battle cry as the sun smiled down warmly on the companions.



It was good to be home.