Chapter Twenty-Four: Harsh Words

Ash sighed. He should've been used to being in hospitals by now, but he couldn't help but be impatient as the doctor scribbled something unintelligible on his notepad. He was tired and a migraine was brewing. With a sigh, he shuffled in his bed so that the pillows cushioned his back comfortably.

"Most of your injuries are superficial," said the doctor, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Apart from your broken arm, nothing too serious. However…"

He grimaced. "There are traces of poison still lingering in your bloodstream. The antidote did its work, but we'll have to keep you here for a few days. Don't worry, you'll be fine. Eventually.

Ash sighed. The cast on his arm was heavy and uncomfortable, but he didn't complain. "And my pokémon?"

"They're fine as well. For a full report you'll have to contact the pokécenter, but I can assure you that they are recovering," assuaged the doctor.

That made him feel a whole lot better. At least his team was okay. He couldn't bear to think of what he would do if anything happened to them - the image of Atlas, laying bloody and beaten, was still fresh in his mind. They'd been pushed past their limits in the battle against the Rockets' pokémon and he couldn't imagine how much they'd suffered. It made his heart twist.

"Thank you," he muttered, his fingers interlocking.

"It's my job," replied the doctor. "I'd suggest you get some rest."

Ash didn't bother arguing - he was beginning to feel tired. Besides, he didn't think there was going to be much to do other than sleep and watch TV, anyway.

XxXxX

He wasn't wrong. Recovery was dreadful.

The first two days were utter boredom. The only thing keeping his time occupied was the background noise of the television blaring in his room. Ash tried to desperately strike up conversation with the nurse that came in regularly to give him his painkillers, but she was unobliging. Thankfully, they were kind enough to lend him a few books to skim through, but even that failed to keep him entertained after a few hours.

Sabrina and a few League personnel had come by his ward to ask questions. She had been all business and had no warmth in her eyes as his statement had been taken, which made him quite uncomfortable throughout the entire ordeal. Truth be told, he didn't understand why she'd been so angry at him. He'd done so much that night to keep Team Rocket from getting away with the masterball, and he hadn't gotten even a sliver of thanks.

He wished his team would be allowed to visit him. Unfortunately, human hospitals didn't allow pokémon outside their balls, which Ash found to be infuriating. At least he could catch up with them and see for himself how they were faring, rather than rely on the words of his doctor.

On day three, however, he was greeted by a pleasant surprise - Misty had come to visit him. Ash was overjoyed at her presence - finally, he had someone to talk to apart from his doctor. His face broke into a big grin, but it faltered when he noticed the tightness on Misty's face.

"Thank the Legendaries you came to visit - recovery's been boring," Ash complained, rolling his eyes. Misty nodded, smiling faintly.

"Glad to see you're doing okay," she said, but something in her voice seemed off . Then she noticed his cast. "How's the arm?"

"It still hurts," he admitted, eyeing the plaster around his left forearm. "Not too bad, but it's distracting."

There was an awkward silence. Misty rocked in her chair, and after a few more moments, she spoke.

"When are they releasing you?"

"Hopefully, by the end of the week," Ash said, chuckling. "That way, we can hit the road without wasting more time…"

Suddenly, Misty sighed. "I'm leaving today, Ash. I just came by to let you know."

He blinked. "What? I thought we were going to be travelling together-"

"I don't want to travel with you anymore. At least not for a while."

That was something he never expected her to say. Her words hit him like a ton of bricks, and to say he was taken aback was an understatement. "Wait, what?" Ash stuttered, completely at a loss for words. "Like…Why?"

"You're reckless, Ash," Misty told him, her jaw tightening as she spoke. "You've been that way for a while now, but you've never done something like this! What did you think was going to happen by holding off the Rockets on your own? That you'd miraculously win? You almost died. If Sabrina hadn't arrived in time, you would've been a goner!"

She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. "Ash, you're practically my closest friend. We've known each other for so long and I care for you so much, but I can't be there for you while you endanger yourself and and everyone around you. And what if something happens to me when you inevitably cross Team Rocket's path again? Do you think I need that keeping me up at night?"

Ash scowled. "At least I tried to help!" he yelled back, bolting upright. "You chose to run away like a- a coward! I knew what I was going up against, I've defeated Team Rocket so many times-"

"You never have!" Misty snapped, laughing. "You've always had help! If it wasn't for me and everyone else at Mt Moon, you'd have been done for! You only survived the St Anne because Surge was there to protect you! Proton would've blown your brains out in Celadon if League forces hadn't arrived right then. And from what Sabrina told me, you lost to Team Rocket more than twice in the Silph Tower. So don't you dare try and confuse your bravery with strength, because no way in hell are you strong!"

"Shut up!"

Just then, the door whooshed open. The nurse walked in, worried and cautious. "Is everything okay?" she asked, giving the two of them a look of warning. "I heard yelling."

"Don't worry, she was just leaving," Ash hissed, glaring at Misty.

Misty gritted her teeth. She swung her backpack around her shoulders and pushed past the nurse, but she didn't leave without a few parting words. "You need to check yourself before there's a bad injury that you won't be able to heal from."

She slammed the door shut and the nurse flinched. Ash seethed at her cutting words; he hated to admit it, but she was right. He wasn't going to say it out loud, though - a lump rose in his throat and he blinked back silent tears. The nurse approached him, eyes narrowed with concern.

"Is something wrong, dear?" she asked, her tone comforting.

Ash shook his head. He didn't want to talk to anyone right now. All he wanted to do was go to sleep and bottle up his emotions as his conversation with Misty began replaying in his mind like a bad dream.

XxXxX

For the next few days, Ash was on autopilot. Misty's words kept ringing in his ears, and the more he thought them over, the more he wondered if she was right. Was he too reckless for his own good? Was he not strong enough to fight Team Rocket?

That's not true, he thought, picking at his lips. I've held my own against Team Rocket. Proton just got the better of me, that's all. Yeah…

Ash scowled. There was no way he was weak - he had six gym badges to his name and most of his team were fully evolved. The next time he met Misty, he'd prove her wrong. He'd make her eat her own words.

Day five of his stay in the hospital came with some good news, however. When the nurse informed him of some 'important people' wanting to see him, Ash immediately assumed that it was League personnel returning for most statements. Ash sighed, wondering what they wanted to ask of him now. He'd told them everything, and he really was in no mood to relive his night in the Silph Tower.

But the people who entered his ward looked nothing like League officials. They weren't wearing the standard League uniform, with the Indigo badge embroidered on the left breast pocket. The two men who entered looked like bodyguards wearing the most expensive tuxedos Ash had ever seen in his life. They glanced at him for a brief second, then pretended he didn't exist as they flanked the doors to his ward. Ash felt scared - had Team Rocket put out a hit on him? And then, a wiry old man hobbled through the door, a corporate smile on his wrinkled face. It was Cadmus Silph, president of the Silph Corporation.

"Good to see you, son," he said, holding out a hand. "Ash Ketchum, was it?"

Ash sat up straighter. "Y-Yes, sir," he replied. What was Cadmus Silph doing here?

"I'd say I hope you're doing well, but it doesn't quite look like it," he quipped, eyeing the white cast on Ash's arm.

Ash smiled sheepishly. Cadmus chuckled, wringing the cane in his hand.

"So," Cadmus started, straightening in his seat. "I'll get straight to the point. What you did back at the Silph Tower was nothing short of brave. You were a bit ambitious, and might I say, stupidly reckless, but heroic. Son, you put your life on the line to help save me - and Silph Tower's most valuable product, the masterball. Sure, Team Rocket got away with it," he added bitterly, and Ash hung his head, "but your efforts were valiant, and your actions did not go unnoticed."

Cadmus coughed. "I cannot thank you enough for saving my life."

"It was nothing, sir," Ash said quickly.

The man chuckled. "You're as humble as you are brave," he muttered. "Words cannot express how truly grateful I am, but I hope this small token of appreciation makes up for it."

He clicked his tongue and snapped his fingers, and the bodyguards by the door were released from their statuesque stance. One of them fished out a long envelope in one smooth motion, and Cadmus plucked it from his grasp and handed it over to Ash. "Here," he said, offering the envelope with a big smile.

"What's this?" Ash asked, eyeing it as he took it nervously.

"See for yourself," said Cadmus, his pleased grin never fading.

Frowning, Ash ripped open the cover. It wasn't what he'd been accepting - it was a blue slip of paper, with his name on it as well as the Silph corporation. Ash blinked at the sight of the cheque, but that wasn't what stunned him. His eyes were stuck on the amount in the dead center.

That was a very long number.

Ash swallowed. "Huh- Wha…?" He couldn't find the right words. "That's a large amount of money."

Cadmus laughed. "Yes, yes it is, young Ash," he said in an avuncular tone. "Good enough to rid you off your financial worries for quite some time."

Ash licked his lips. "Mr Silph, I can't-"

"Nonsense, boy," Cadmus scoffed. "You saved this old fool's life. This is the least I could do for you. Besides, this is from the Silph Corporation, not me. It would be incredibly impolite to refuse such a gift."

Ash gulped. He looked at the cheque again - this was practically a fortune. He could probably empty out half of the Celadon departmental store with the amount he was given. Such a gift left him with mixed feelings, but he was incredibly grateful for the reward.

"Thank you, sir." That was all he could manage to say - he was still in shock.

Cadmus' smile returned. "That isn't all. I've got another gift for you - this one from me personally, and not just the Silph Corporation."

Ash blinked. "There- There's more?"

Cadmus didn't reply; he just smirked. "John, if you could?"

One of his bodyguard held out the small, black box in his hand. It was wrapped in the most elaborate, golden ribbon, although they did not hide the words Silph Co printed on the top in a bold, thick white.

"Open it," Cadmus said, and he appeared more excited than Ash himself. Shrugging, Ash indulged him with a big grin, but he'd be lying if he wasn't excited to find out what the Silph Corporation was gifting him now.

The contents nearly took his breath away - sitting in the box, cushioned by a velvet pillow, was shiny, bright ultra-ball. It was polished enough to reflect his widening eyes and he couldn't help but be shocked. They were giving him a pokémon?

"What is it?" he whispered, cradling the sphere like it was the biggest diamond on Earth.

"This, my dear boy, is one of the rarest, and most protected pokémon in all of Kanto. It is a Lapras," he said, nodding at Ash's gaping mouth. "Generally they are impossible to find, what with being driven to near-extinction, but I managed to pull a few strings." He winked. "They're incredibly intelligent creatures, capable of developing psychic abilities such as telepathy. They're strong swimmers, too, so I won't doubt how invaluable it would be in helping you traverse dangerous waters. I must warn you that breeding Lapras without League approval is criminal and any mistreatment towards these creatures will result in a heavy fine, more so than regular pokémon abuse. Although I don't see that being a problem with you," he added with a laugh.

Ash shook his head. Even the though of mistreating his pokémon - or anyone - made him recoil. "I take good care of my pokémon," he said, with a hint of steel in his voice.

"Good." Cadmus smiled. "Well, then, if that is all, I must take my leave. Board meetings, and all that. The Rocket invasion was terrible business and there's a big mess we need to clean up."

Ash nodded.

"Goodbye, Ash. I wish you well on the rest of your pokémon journey," Cadmus told him, shaking his free hand. "And if you ever pass through Saffron City, the Silph Tower's doors will be open to you always."

"Thank you, sir," Ash said, still not believing that he'd gotten significantly richer and acquired one of the most exclusive pokémon in the region. "For everything."

"No, thank you, Ash," said Cadmus. Then, with a cheery wave, the man was out of his ward, with his two bodyguards following him wordlessly.

Ash looked at the door, then to the ultra-ball with wonderment. He'd just been visited by the founder of Silph Corp and been gifted a Lapras. He entertained the thought of him dreaming, but the ultra-ball in his hand felt very real.

He couldn't wait to shove it in Gary's face.

XxXxX

Unfortunately, Ash wasn't allowed the meet his newest pokémon. The second the nurse saw the pokéball he was subjected to an almost-interrogation by the doctors until his answers satisfied him. Regardless, the Lapras' pokéball was transferred back to Pallet Town in Professor Oak's possession until his release from the hospital.

Which meant that there were two more days until he could get out of here and see his pokémon. Pouting, Ash sagged into his bed, a frown on his face as he listened to the game commentary on his room's TV. He was about to close his eyes and take a short nap, but the doors to his ward swung open, and his designated nurse peeked in.

Ash sat up straight. "Medicine?" he muttered, grumbling - he hated the taste of it.

The nurse snorted, shaking her head. "You've got visitors."

He blinked. Who could it be this time? He wondered if it could be Sabrina, or Cadmus Silph back again with more gifts, but he couldn't be more wrong. A tall, skinny boy, wearing blood-red trainer gear stepped in, his grey eyes covered under tufts of brown hair. Behind him was another gangly trainer - he looked like an older version of Gary, but with orange hair rather than auburn.

"Red!" He couldn't believe his brother had come to meet him. Then, he looked to the other trainer - he hadn't seem him in a long time. "Hello, Blue!"

Blue quirked his eyebrows in acknowledgement, wearing his signature cocky smile. "Hiya, Ash."

Red flashed a soft smile, slipping into the armchair by Ash's bed. Blue, however, decided to stay standing and lean against the walls. "Hello, Ash."

"I thought you'd come see me earlier," Ash chided playfully.

Red leaned into his chair. "I was busy."

"I'm just the tag-along," Blue quipped. Red snorted.

Ash grinned. "Where's Mom?" he asked, suddenly confused. "Why couldn't she come?"

"She's back in Pallet. Sabrina put Saffron in a lockdown. I only managed to get in because she owed me a favour."

"Oh," Ash mumbled, nodding in understanding. "So…How is everything back home? How's Mom doing?"

Suddenly, Red's jaw tightened. "She'd be doing far better if you weren't trying to get yourself on your journey."

The warmth in the room disappeared. Ash blinked, suddenly taken aback by Red's words, feeling confused panic and fear twist in his chest. "What?"

"Sabrina told me everything," Red muttered, now wearing his scowl openly. "What the hell were you thinking, going after Team Rocket like that? Are you insane?"

Ash frowned. "Wha- Team Rocket attacked us!" he retorted, finding his voice. "I- I had to do something!"

"And you thought fighting three Rocket executives was the right thing to do?"

Ash scowled. "If you knew what they were up to, you'd understand!" he yelled, getting angrier by the second.

"Do you realise how stupid what you did is?" Red hissed, baring his teeth. "Did you really think a ten-year-old kid could stand up against the most dangerous criminal organisation in Kanto? I don't know if you're delusional, Ash, but you need to snap out of it. Sabrina told me you almost died!"

"But I didn't!" Ash yelled back. "Yeah, things got ugly-"

"'Ugly'?! Legendaries, Ash, forget about the Rockets. You were almost poisoned to death! The only thing that saved you was pure, dumb luck!" Red pinched the bridge of his nose. "Why couldn't you have just stood back? Why did you have to do something so incredibly stupid?

"Do you know how terrified Mom was when we got the news?" Red told him, his voice dangerously soft. "She was inconsolable. She wouldn't stop crying, because if something ever happened to you - if you died - she'd feel like it was all her fault."

His words made Ash flinch. He couldn't bear to think of his mother crying - and that made him feel guilty. Despite that, he was seething.

"This isn't a game, Ash. You need to get that through that thick skull of yours. Team Rocket is an evil, criminal group that will stop at nothing to get what they want. You think they'll leave you alone if they beat you in a fight? That they'll send you running back to the pokécenter to heal your pokémon and try again? We could've been burying you right now - or you could be burying your pokémon!"

"My pokémon and I are fine, so shut up," Ash mumbled, looking away.

Red laughed angrily. "Is that what you think?" he snapped. "Let me tell you the condition your team really is in.

"Saur just got out the ICU. He's one of the lucky ones, same as your Ampharos, Eevee and Mismagius. Your Monferno only suffered a concussion, but the rest are paying the price for your mistakes. The injuries your Xatu sustained resulted in perforated lungs. She's undergoing intense medical treatment - Nurse Joy is performing surgery to repair the lung tissue, and it will take six to eight weeks to heal. Your Scyther's carapace is damaged so badly that he has to regrow a new one with Ditto cells. Your Snorlax is suffering from multiple cracked ribs. Your Golduck had the fumes of a Gastly trapped in his lungs, and he's still in stasis. Your Vibrava, however…"

Red clicked his teeth, looking away in disgust. Ash looked at him, begging for an answer. "What?" Ash asked, his dread growing with every second Red spent in silence. What happened to Atlas? Tell me he's okay!" he cried.

"Atlas is suffering from complications from his evolution. His body was damaged severely following his evolution, and that has resulted in internal bleeding and the underdevelopment of his wings. He might never be able to battle again."

Ash froze. "W- What?"

"That's right. And it's all your fault," he spat coldly.

Blue blinked. "Hey, calm down," he said, resting a hand on Red's shoulder.

He shrugged it off. "Stay out of this."

"Look, there's no need to make him feel any worse than he already is," Blue said, eyebrows furrowed in concern. "Take it easy. He made a mistake-"

"Mistakes can be forgiven," Red said, scowling as he turned his focus to Ash again. "Do you think Atlas would ever be able to forgive you if he never recovers?"

Ash felt like a black hole had opened up in his stomach. Atlas was hurt…and it was all his fault. Atlas was in the pokécenter because of him. Atlas was fighting for his life because of him. Atlas was paying the price for his arrogance and recklessness.

It should've been me, he screamed in his head, his lips trembling.

And then he began to cry.

Red was unfazed, his ugly glare a constant on his face. "You think you can fight Team Rocket? Think again. What if the next time you pull some shit like this, another team member suffers a similar fate? Are you going to feed your hero complex until every one of your pokémon are crippled?"

He clicked his teeth, shaking his head in disgust. "You're not worthy of being a trainer, Ash. You've repeatedly put your pokémon in harm's way, and for what? Because you need to prove your strength? Do you really think your pokémon deserve a trainer who will-"

"That's enough," Blue repeated, this time firmly. "There's no need to kick a dead horse."

Red seethed. "Listen to me carefully, Ash," he hissed, ignoring the tears running down Ash's cheeks like waterfalls. "You need to learn that there will be consequences for your actions. You can't just jeopardise the lives of other people because your sense of justice needs proving. It'll only lead you to something that you'll never be able to run away from."

He sighed. "I need to make a call," he muttered, pushing past Blue. The door slammed shut, and then the silence was only broken by Ash's hacking sobs.

Ash couldn't breathe. If only he hadn't been so foolhardy, his friends would be okay. Red was right - he didn't deserve to be their trainer. Vivid, haunting memories of Atlas, twisted and mangled and bloody, raced his mind, doubled with Red's thundering words, and Team Rocket's evil faces. "I'm s-sorry," he stammered, snot trickling down his lip.

Ash felt a hand squeeze his shoulder. "Hey, it's gonna be okay," Blue said.

"It's not!" he yelled, tears clouding his vision. "A- Atlas is h-hurt because of m-m-me. Delphi, Saur, everyone's hurt, because of me! I did this, I could've just- just not been an idiot-"

"You didn't do this. Team Rocket did. Yes, you were stupid in thinking you could go after them, but you never hurt them. You did put them in harm's way, but you never hurt them of your own volition, Ash."

"Red called m-me a b-b-bad t-trainer-"

Blue sighed. "Red…Red's just emotional. Stuff like this brings up bad memories. He might be harsh on you, but he just doesn't want you to end up like him."

The boy scowled, wiping away the snot from his face. "I- I just want my friends to be okay," he whispered, and tears welled up in his eyes at the mere thought of them. How could he have done this to them? He wanted to break down his door and run to see them…But did they even want to see him now?

"They will be. Nurse Joy and her team are doing their best to make sure that your team gets through this."

But Blue's words sounded hollow to him. Ash had never had anything like this happen to him. He'd never expected it. His team had been badly injured a few times, and so had he - but nothing so terrifyingly serious such as this.

For the first time in his journey, Ash truly wondered if he really was as strong as he thought. Did his gym badges really mean anything? Was his journey worth it if he wasn't able to defeat anything that came his way? He thought back to his friends, how they'd grown with him every step of the way. Maybe everyone was right, and he'd just been delusional. He was weak.

His molten heart hardened. His fists tightened, nails biting into his skin, but he didn't care. He was never going to put his team in danger. He was going to become strong enough so that such a thing would never happen. Never again.

XxXxX

Delia Ketchum ended the call with her son, gaze distant and a slight furrow in her brow. After a moment, she couldn't hold it any longer; her eyes misted over, silent tears trickling down her cheeks as she thought back to her conversation with Red. Ash was fine, but the news of his hospitalisation had struck her like lightning.

It had taken everything for her to be encouraging and happy when Ash had applied for a trainer license. She never could've stopped him either way, nor would she have kept him away from something that made him so happy. She remembered his every call during his journey, the inexplicable joy as he spoke of his pokémon and gym challenges and adventures on the road. His happiness overpowered any fears she had about him being on the road. But now she was wondering if she should've listened to her gut after all, just so she didn't have to imagine her son bed-ridden with a broken arm.

This was Ash's third encounter with Team Rocket. She recalled how exhausted and battle-scarred he'd been after the Celadon Raid. How traumatised, yet oddly accustomed he'd been to their presence. He'd fought the Rockets thrice, but something told her that he'd crossed paths with them more than she liked. And every time he faced them, he came out of it worse and wearier than before. This time it was worse than she could've ever imagined. If Red words were anything to go by, one of Ash's pokémon was in critical conditions. The others weren't far off, either.

Did she really want him being a trainer when Team Rocket was out there? Delia was willing to endure anything for Ash to find his own calling at life, but what would happen the next time he would inevitably meet Team Rocket? What if their next encounter had far worse consequences? What if Ash's arrogance and stupid sense of righteousness got him killed?

Her cries turned into sobs, gasping convulsively as she shed hot, briny tears. Eventually they were loud enough for the sound of footsteps to emerge from the hallway to her right, and Delia wiped at her face just as Daisy Oak stepped into the room, eyebrows knitted in concern. "Is everything alright, Aunt Delia?"

She blinked the last remaining tears from her eyes, forcing a wavering smile. "Y-Yes Daisy, everything's fine!" she exclaimed, rather unconvincingly. Daisy's frown deepened, and she tiptoed closer.

"Is it about Ash?" Daisy whispered.

She tried to fight the impulse to cry, but it was simply too much. In a split-second she'd burst into tears, her legs turning to jelly as she wept openly on Daisy's shoulders.

"What happened to him?" Daisy asked, frightened.

Delia shook her head. "It's just that…He's gone through so much already, Daisy. I spend every waking moment worrying about him, wondering if everything's alright. Then I hear he's gotten into another some mess with Team Rocket, and he's suffering from broken bones, and concussions, and- and- then every time I wonder if things are going to go just as bad as they did with Red-"

"But everything's fine," Daisy soothed. "Everything turned out okay."

"But what if they don't the next time?" Delia argued. "What if- if the next time they go after him, something terrible happens again? Or something worse? What if my son dies, and then there's nothing I can do about it-"

Delia's cries were close to a haunting wail, but Daisy held her tight, rubbing her back. "Ash is going to be fine," she stressed. "Red's given him a stern talking to. If that doesn't work…Grandpa can keep him on probation…"

But even he comforting words did little. She hated the idea of controlling Ash, but…It would be for his own good.

"Let's get back to dinner," Daisy proposed, flashing her a nervous grin.

A watery smile tugged at Delia's lips. It was nice having Daisy around - it was great to have Samuel keeping her company, no doubt, but Daisy gave her someone else to talk to while the professor ran his errands and whatnot. Together they walked back to the Oaks' dining room, and Delia made sure there were no tears streaming down her face when they returned.

"Ah, there you are!" said the Professor, smiling from the table. His eyes narrowed in concern, but Daisy shook her head and he let it go. "Ash doing okay?"

Delia's lips tightened. "Mhm."

Daisy sent her grandfather a glare, and he sheepishly began spooning rice onto his plate. "So, Daisy," he said, passing the bowl. "Mr Sukizo tells me you'll be presiding as a judge for the upcoming Wisteria Contest."

Daisy gaped. "I told him not to tell you!"

"Is that true?" Delia asked, smiling at the change of conversation. "Daisy, that's wonderful!"

She hmph'd at her grandfather, but looked pleased nonetheless. "It's supposed to be a one-off thing, but if the viewers like me enough I could be a regular!" she exclaimed, grinning.

Oak rolled his eyes. "Now, Daisy, let's not forget that you were supposed to help out at the lab-"

"Yeah, yeah," Daisy drawled. "How's the restaurant holding up?"

Delia put on a smile, taking a long sip of her drink. "Not bad. Martha's doing a fine job handling the restaurant, but I'm thinking of going back to work this week."

"That's great!" Daisy's eyes perked up. "Maybe we could come by sometime and have those Cinnabar burgers of yours. Grandpa, can we?"

Oak scraped the last bit of food off his plate. "I've been meaning to get some fresh air, anyway. Say, Delia, has-"

Suddenly there were a dozen cracks outside, like a herd of Rhydon trampling an ocean of bones. Everyone went quiet. Oak frowned, grabbing the edge of the table. Maybe there was a thunderstorm brewing-

Without warning, the side of the house exploded. It happened so fast that Delia couldn't even scream; the destructive shockwave threw her off her feet and she smashed into the walls at the far end. A sharp bolt of pain spiked up her spine as wooden splinters, debris, and scorching heat blew through the air. A high, overwhelming ringing circled in her ears and made her head spin.

Fires burned from the wrecked side of the Oak's residence, but even in her disoriented state Delia saw a single, large ball rolling in the rubble - a Voltorb, a pokémon known for their volatile temperament and destructive abilities. They were incredibly dangerous, and their ownership was restricted to trainers with three or more badges. Even still, they were dangerous and trainers in ownership of them were subjected to strict scrutiny by the League.

Before she could lift herself off the ground with trembling arms, there were footsteps. Through the veil of dancing fires, she saw a swarm of black-clad men and women, their feet crunching through wooden splinters, blood-red 'R's painted across their torsos. Rockets.

Delia didn't move. Her eyes flickered to her sides, and she saw Oak unconscious, blood gleaming down the side of his head. Daisy was groaning and crawling to a corner - there was a thick shank of wood stuck in her calf. Delia was prepared to throw herself into action, but a heavy paw pinned her to the floor like a paperweight.

Almost instantly, her eyes turned fearful. There was a massive Houndoom towered above, plumes of fire flitting from its nostrils with every breath. The heat from the creature was beginning to singe the tips of her hair, but before it could bite her face off there was a click of tongue. It listened and stepped back, but Delia could feel its rumble of annoyance thrum in her bones.

The Houndoom's owner stepped closer. Through her blurry vision, she made out his appearance - tall, green hair, bulging muscles, but the side of his face was scarred with blemishes, like the tendrils of ferns. It was a disgusting sight that ruined his otherwise chiselled features. "So," he muttered, voice hoarse. "You're Delia Ketchum?"

She couldn't speak. "I'll take your silence as a yes," he said, sighing. "Your son, Ash Ketchum…He's been a thorn in our side for quite some time. Screwing up our operations - you know how these punks are, how annoyingly righteous they can get. Normally we'd kill him, but your brat is one slippery bugger. Escaped us too many times."

Right then, there was a thunderous crack. The air crackled with the electric might of psychic energy, and Delia looked to Oak's Alakazam with an expression of hope. Brilliant energy, like white-hot fire, sprung from its claws in a single twitch and the air pulsed with its hatred-

Suddenly a pack of howling, wolf-like creatures appeared seemingly out of nowhere, their dark energy filling the room with its repugnant smell. At once the Mightyena snarled, burying Oak's Alakazam under rivers of purple energy rings. Its psychic energy was nullified by the dark presence and, at once, it fell to the ground, writhing in pain as it passed out.

"Don't think we didn't come prepared," the head Rocket said, grinning evilly. The Mightyena circled the psychic, and Delia couldn't help but feel her fear grow tenfold.

"Why are you doing this?" she asked him, gasping for breath.

He brandished a piece of metal - something cold and black and heavy that clicked as he palmed it and pointed at her.

"To teach your son a lesson." There was an ugly scowl on his face. "It's time he faces the consequences of pissing us off, and that there's no way in hell he can mess with Team Rocket!"

The muzzle flared, and Delia knew that at such point-blank range, the bullet would never miss.

The pain was a hundred times worse than a punch to the gut - her very soul felt like it was on fire. And then the shock came, and with it the pain numbed, stopping to only a constant, muted prick in her back.

In desperation, she tried to move. Her arms responded, but for some odd reason, her legs were like dead weight. She couldn't feel them. Like a cripple she tried to drag her body away from the man, but he only laughed at her attempts. Her vision began to colour with a soft blackness.

"What do we do with the other two?" a weedy voice said from behind. Even in her tears, Delia struggled to pick at any piece of information, anything she could use to warn Ash if she made it…

"Take the old man," the Rocket executive said without a hint of emotion. "Be careful. If anything happens to him, I'll personally feed you to my Houndoom."

"And the girl?"

"Leave her. We need a witness in case dear old mummy doesn't make it." He laughed, and the sound made her skin crawl. She wanted to get away from him, to get away from here, why wasn't anyone helping

Then he looked at her with a wide smile that betrayed the cold anger in his eyes. "Tell your son Team Rocket sends their regards."

XxXxX

I'm pumping out these chapters at record speed! It's my birthday tomorrow, so I decided to put this one out before then. Although this one was rather short compared to the others, I hope you enjoyed it. Personally, I'm glad to be writing again, even if it doesn't turn out quite as well as I expect it to - I've decided I don't have to hold myself to the highest of standards as long as I'm happy about writing.

Also, I'm doing public review responses for this chapter! I haven't done one in so long. Sorry about that. Anyway, here goes:

Guest: Yikes, intense chapter. Not sure if this trend will continue but perhaps it's inevitable as Ash and his pokemon grow stronger and clash against Team Rocket. I hope Ash's pokemon will be alright (especially Atlas and Kratos) after this but what's going on with Screecher? Ghost instincts or something? I predict a rift between her and the rest of the team after this. Atlas is going to have a lot to catch up on. And poor Monferno. I like that you're making him work on his trauma and overcoming it won't be easy or simple.

Ash should definitely learn to be more cautious after this. He definitely has skill but not so much restraint. Good intentions are good and all but boy can he be foolhardy. He's a young and reckless kid, and it shows. Although trauma is definitely going to come out of this, I know his family and friends will support him.

I hope things are getting better with your personal situation.

-Firstly, thank you for the kind words! I'm glad to be doing well and writing is most definitely helping me in leaps and bounds.

Now, onto the review. I really wanted Ash to realise that, although he and his pokemon are growing in strength, he's still outclassed by people like the Rocket executives. He's mainly only gotten through other Rocket incidents with someone at his side and doing this alone is insanely reckless. It's the harsh truth that Ash has gotten so comfortable with his superiority in his own age group that he needs to remember that there will be threats that he won't be able to overcome unless he gets stronger. And yeah, Ash isn't going to forgive Screecher easily. What she did was insane, even if she had her reasons. As for Monferno, he's got quite a while to go before he can overcome his own hurdles. It'll be difficult, but totally worth it.

Immortal Fafnir: Awesome chapter. I was waiting for a chapter like this. Finally got to see some Ash's ass getting whipped...I am not speaking out of sadism. Ash was getting more and more op compared to his age in the middle...which to be honest was a bit frustrating for me. He is strong in his own age group, but established trainers should clean his team easily. One thing I didn't get is... If Silph Corp was working on something important and confidential like masterball...then ACE trainers should be flooding the area for its security, especially when there had been Rocket activities recently like Celadon attack.. Breaking into the building wouldn't had been that easy because of it. But anyways...fully enjoyed the chapter.
Regards and Stay Safe and Healthy.

-Yeah, Ash definitely needed a reality-check. He's powerful for his age, but the Rocket executives are no joke - which I hoped to portray in the previous chapter. He's been on a reckless path for a long time, allowing his strength to go to his head, and he needs to realise that he's not the strongest there is. As Qui-Gon once said, there's always a bigger fish.

Now as for Silph Co not having better protection…Silph really didn't know that there was a leak about the masterball. It's supposed to be a confidential project that's still in R&D. The blueprints and such that Proton took were for a prototype, not exactly the masterball that you see in the game that provides a 100% catch-rate. Plus it's a private project with no relation to the League, so they wouldn't really have the government involved by sending ACE trainers. I hope I make sense, lol.

InsanityInTheDesert: I seriously hope something actually good happens with Ash and his team next chapter. The last couple have felt like a rollercoaster of seeing how high he can get before he's knocked back down. Win against Sabrina? She betrays his trust and nearly gets him killed for the sake of her curiosity. Atlas evolved? He's forced to watch as he's beaten to a broken and bleeding wreck while Screecher refuses to help. I'm honestly expecting some PTSD here, and possibly trading away of Screecher at this point. Looking forward to what happens next, and finding out what's got Sabrina pissed at Ash.

-Hahaha, if you didn't like seeing Ash get knocked down a few pegs these last couple chapters, you probably didn't like this one XD Yeah, Ash definitely isn't going to come out of this squeaky-clean - possible PTSD is the last of his worries. And you'll find out why Screecher refused to help Ash and Atlas at the Silph Tower in the future. As for Sabrina, she's not one to rage at people. She let Red do the dirty work for her.

Guest: This was the dumbest chapter put of everything so far... how the hell did this story suddenly make a 180 from this? We had a cool new serious Ash and suddenly in this chapter he becomes canon Ash and he's also a dumbass and pathetic. what the hell happened.

-Ash may be a whole lot stronger than most of his peers, but he's naturally going to be outclassed by trainers that have decades of experience over him. He's a 10-year-old. He may have gone through different experiences than canon Ash, but he's still based off canon Ash. He's a kid with a strong sense of justice and incredible selflessness. That's bound to make him make stupid decisions here and there. Besides, my intent is not to write a smart-Ash, or a strong-Ash - he's not going to be a prodigy in a year like Traveler, and I completely understand if it isn't t your liking. I want to write an Ash that is the optimistic and naive trainer who has to work hard to become a pokemon master. I write this with no malice, but I just wanted to let you guys know. I hope that makes sense.

That's it for review responses this chapter. Until next time, have a good one! I'm about to go and gorge on some cake.