Here I Am
Disclaimers: I do not own Pokemon. If I did, Ash wouldn't be perpetually ten years old. So there.
AN:/ STOP. If you have just happened upon this fanfic, I highly recommend you read this story's prequel, The Blind Alley first. If not, a lot of the events in this story may be hard to follow. Consider yourself warned!
Chapter One: Playing The Hero
You don't have to be a part of this
I don't think I want you to be
You don't need this
You don't need me
Delia Ketchum lived her pokemon journey by three very simple rules. First, catch as many pokemon as you had pokeballs to carry. Second, always take the path least traveled. And finally, never, ever trust Johnny G.
Delia slid down a narrow embankment with her Pikachu, Joulie, close behind. The woods, lush and full in the prime of summer, were alive with music. The gargle of the fast moving stream, the bird pokemon swaying from the green canopy above their heads, and the feel of the light on her skin. It was hot, but pleasantly so. The perfect weather to hunt the local pokemon wildlife.
Joulie skipped across the river rocks first, her paws barely alighting on one before dancing to the next. As a lanky sixteen-year-old with long legs and oversized feet, Delia crossed without even a quarter of the same grace as her pokemon. Delia balanced on the middle rock when her phone let out an alarmingly loud chime. Luckily, it didn't take the feet out from under her.
She grunted, taking her next leap of faith. She landed on one foot, only just able to keep her equilibrium on the sloped stepping stone. Her sneakers had far less traction than they used to. Delia could feel herself sliding as she leaped from one stone to the next, all while the chirping ringtone kept pace.
Delia jumped the last stone, falling short of the riverbed. She landed messily into calf-deep muddy water, splashing her waiting pikachu. Oh well. It's just water. Although, Delia didn't relish the blisters she would get if she unwisely decided to keep marching in wet socks. While Joulie shook herself off, Delia plopped down on the dry riverbank and dug through her fanny pack for her oversized telephone.
She twisted the antenna up and flipped the phone open in one deft motion.
"Delia's phone! Delia Ketchum speaking~!" Delia sang into the receiver while she undid the laces on her muddy sneakers.
There was silence on the other line for two beats. She had already started to kick off her shoes when the person on the other end chose to speak.
"Delia? Is that you?" It was hard to tell through the distorted static but Delia didn't think she recognized the voice.
"Speaking?" She continued more hesitantly.
"You answer your phone just like your voicemail so I… I mean, not that I call your voicemail that—that is—well, it's just like the voicemail greeting I can remember… the last time I called your phone—like a while ago. You know… like a while a while ago."
Now Delia recognized the voice. It was deeper since they'd last spoken. But she only knew one person who stumbled over his words around her as much as he did. It might have been endearing. She might have even encouraged it, enjoyed it. But instead, having spent years with him as her fellow traveling companion, it only served to aggravate her.
Still, she listened patiently. It'd be no good to interrupt him. That only seemed to embarrass him further. Delia peeled off her sodden socks, tossing them aside. They fell in a lumpy clump not far from where Joulie was resting. She took some interest in them, sniffing and pawing at the moist tuffs of fabric.
Delia pressed her phone into her chest, waving Joulie off them. "Hey no. No, Joulie. Those aren't yours."
Joulie huffed but reluctantly obeyed, settling back down on a comfortable bit of dirt nearby. Only when Delia was certain Joulie wouldn't return for the socks did she return her attention to the phone.
"Sorry, Johnny. My pikachu…Um… wait. Why are you calling me?"
There was an uneasy pause on the line. Delia could hear him breathing, sucking in shallow breaths for courage, perhaps. He was always hopeless around her, even when they traveled together. And though she pretended like she didn't know, she did. Delia knew why.
She knew he liked her. Johnny confessed shortly after her fourteenth birthday. It was a ridiculously awkward affair. She had come home briefly, enjoying cooking in the hot kitchen with her father and letting her mother shower her with presents she didn't want or need. Dresses, perfume, jewelry—things a pokemon trainer would have no use for. But she enjoyed dressing up just for a little while, pretending that she'd grow into what her parents hoped.
It was there on the front porch as the sun set lazily in the background that Johnny spilled his guts. How he had the crush since they were children… (they were still children, Delia thought but didn't interrupt). How he had tried to fight his feelings, to think better of them. But they hadn't changed. They, stubborn things that they were, only grew stronger. Like a horrible monster that devoured sense and reason.
As he groveled before her, Delia was struck with the horror of it. She didn't feel… anything. She didn't dislike him but certainly didn't hold anything equal to the adorous emotions he was heaping upon her.
Her first instinct was towards sympathy. But she had always been pitying him. Since she had first met him, first came into the knowledge of the well-known secret of his inheritance. Johnny was born from a loveless marriage, cruelly calculated into producing a male heir of certain pedigree. He was wealthy and would want for nothing. The fact that he happened to be heir to a criminal pokemon enterprise was just icing on the (disappointing) metaphorical cake.
Delia knew all this because her family warned her against associating with him. Delia knew this because everyone she had ever known warned her about Johnny G. She had been more than willing to listen to them when she hadn't a face to attach to the name.
She hadn't meant for him to fall in love.
That's not what she had intended at all.
So Delia did what she did whenever she faced a problem she couldn't answer. She grabbed onto the porch railing to steady herself. Then, without a word, Delia vaulted over it. She jumped down, whistled for her pikachu and walked away. She left him with no answer. Because she just couldn't.
But then… she supposed that had been a sort of answer all in itself—wasn't it?
She heard his voice from far away, coming in small and timid over the receiver. His answer wasn't an answer. It was another question.
"You're near Viridian right? I heard you were in the Kanto region now."
"Uh, yes." Delia gave her head a little shake. "I am. Just outside. Why?"
"I'd like you to meet my fiancée."
The duffel bag was bigger than his old backpack. It could hold a lot more than he was used to. It was also cumbersome and not easy to carry when slung over one shoulder. But Ash had no choice. After he was kidnapped, his old backpack had been discarded and forgotten in the Viridian pokemon gym. No one had thought he'd be needing it so soon. And he wasn't about to ask for it. That question would inevitably lead to questions he didn't want to answer.
He rolled up his spare underwear and tucked it in next to his balled up socks. Two pairs of jeans, sleeping clothes, five different shirts and one sweatshirt. Everything else was pokemon health supplies, rations, and a spare sleeping bag. He was well-practiced at packing and preparing for a journey. Nearly half his life had been spent on one.
"You're not packing nearly warm enough," Ash's lips spoke of their own accord.
Ash smiled and glanced up at the small wall mirror across the way. It was the closest he'd get to meeting the eye of the pokemon that currently inhabited his body. He had gotten used to having his voice stolen away by the tiny legendary. But the change in eye color when she did it, that was something entirely new. And this time, like before, the bright shade of blue melted back into his familiar brown eye color as Mew relinquished his voice back to him.
"I have a winter coat. I'll be wearing that so there's no need to pack it."
"You'll be needing thermals. One slight breeze up there would rip right through your thin human fur."
Ash shook out an extra nightshirt and repressed the urge to roll his eyes. "Humans don't have fur, Mew."
"My point made."
"You worry too much."
"And you don't nearly enough."
Ash smiled. That wasn't entirely true, and Mew probably knew it too, sharing his body as she currently was. It wasn't exactly a secret that Mew was far more confident in their future quest than Ash was. Ash still wasn't entirely sure Mewtwo wouldn't psychically implode their brains as soon as they were within range.
"Have you thought what about you're going to say?"
"Oh, yeah." Ash abandoned his packing for the little corner desk he had been using the night before. It was littered with crumpled bits of notepaper that he brushed off in search of the one sheet he hadn't torn up yet. "I wrote up some of this last night while you were…" Ash paused, not really sure what to say. Mew didn't sleep per se. But there were moments where her consciousness slipped somewhere Ash couldn't reach. It was happening more and more frequently. Ash tried not to think about what it meant and Mew knew better than to worry him.
Ash cleared his throat and held up the paper so both he and Mew could read. His handwriting was a mess but sharing his memories, it wasn't too hard for Mew to pluck letters and sense from the jumbled scrawl.
"Hey Mewtwo," Ash read aloud. "I'm Ash, remember me? The boy whose memory you wiped? Well, funny story. But I kinda need your help to stop your pokemon grandmother from… kinda sorta destroying the world… I think."
Mew's laughter spilled from Ash's lips. It was hard to keep from laughing himself. If only he didn't so desperately need this to work.
Once Mew's hiccuped giggles had subsided, Ash offered a meek, "Do you like it?"
"Oh, very much so."
Her response was not exactly inspiring. Ash stared hopelessly down at the piece of paper shivering in his tight grip. "Maybe he'll find it funny?"
"I don't really think Mewtwo has a sense of humor."
Ash sighed, crumpling up the last sheet of paper. "Mew…"
"But what do I know? We've all done some growing these last few years. I'm not really sure what kind of pokemon Mewtwo is now."
Ash arched a throw at the nearby wastebasket, the balled up paper rimming the edge before tumbling just outside. The pokemon trainer plopped backward onto the makeshift trundle bed, staring up at the circulating ceiling fan. His duffle bag bounced lightly at the sudden movement, nearly tipping over and off the bed if not for Ash's steadying hand.
"If you don't know what kind of pokemon he is, how do you know he won't try to hurt me?"
Mew was silent for just a moment, mulling something over. At last, she wrested control from Ash to answer, "When we parted… when he wiped your memory, Mewtwo had a deep respect for you. I don't believe even lifetimes could erase that."
"Respect?" Ash snorted, flipping over onto his side so he could meet Mew's gaze in the mirror. "Just what in the world happened between us? In the memory we shared, he tried to kill me."
"I've only been in your head for a short time, but even I can tell that there's a very predictable pattern that happens whenever you meet a legendary, Ash." Mew ticked off on Ash's fingers. "They meet you, try to kill you, and then eventually they come around to helping you or vice-versa. If you haven't befriended them by the end of the encounter, you typically still earn their appreciation."
"Did you try to kill me?"
"Uh… no. I meant… generally speaking."
Ash laid still, watching the fan spinning above his head. Despite knowing what was coming, he felt calm. The future problems seemed nothing more than black clouds on the horizon. In the moment, he was free to breathe and take solace in the knowledge that he had a plan in place to stop the coming storm.
Mew let him lay in the quiet for a few minutes. He could feel her presence, almost pacing back and forth in his mind's eye. She kept teasing at the microphone, reluctant to take full control and break his reverie.
Ash sighed, "Just talk, Mew. I know you want to say something."
"It's just that… I don't think you should be going alone."
"I'm not. You and Pikachu will be with me."
"You know what I mean." Mew forced Ash to sit up. Ash begrudgingly went along with the unwanted change in position. It was her turn to stare at him in the mirror, scolding him. "There's no reason you can't accept the help of your friends; you'll almost certainly need them in the journey ahead. You'll do them no favors by keeping them in the dark."
"I'll be keeping them safe."
"Would you?" Mew's disapproving look was unrelenting. "With each passing day, my creator grows more angry, more powerful. You cannot guarantee their safety by leaving them ignorant of the danger. I don't know them as well as you do, Ash, but even I can tell that they'd be extremely displeased to have you running off on them again. What if they tried to follow you?"
"They wouldn't be able-"
"What about Misty?"
Ash flinched. It was a long moment before he said, "She's with Gary. She wouldn't miss me that much."
"Ugh, Ash. It doesn't matter who the girl is copulating with—"
"Copulating?" Even sharing the same voice, Ash only got the vaguest impression of the word. It left him with a very uneasy feeling. Though not nearly as much as Mew's definition did.
"She is your companion. She—"
"Who said anything about mating?"
"... would miss you as much as your Pikachu would—"
"Please do not ever use my mouth to say that again!"
Mew harrumphed. Even though they shared a body, they did not wholly share a mind. The social norms of humans were still an alien and absurdly over-complicated mess. Affairs of 'the heart', as humans seemed to refer to them, even more so. She did not understand why the young boy was letting his base emotions control him. Though Mews did not mate, they understood the concept well enough from interactions with other pokemon that populated the planet. Humans seemed to take the simple act of reproduction so personally. And if you ever dared to call them out on it, they'd get all upset. Ridiculous!
"Regardless," Mew continued. "My point still stands. Your friends would not take well to you leaving."
"Well, that's fine. They don't get a say in this."
"It's my quest," Ash snapped, jumping off the bed and gesticulating angrily at his own reflection."You entrusted me to carry it out. So trust me when I say it's better not to involve them."
The door cracked open, just large enough for a small electric rodent to slip in. Though from the small, low voice that Ash's ears could only just recently comprehend, Ash might have thought one of his friends had just walked in on them. It took a second for his heart to stop pounding.
It wasn't the first time Ash had been nearly caught arguing with himself. He really didn't want to explain everything that happened to him while he had been in WI's custody. And his possession by a legendary pokemon was something too big to even begin to explain.
"Arguing about this again?"
"Pikachu, shut the door."
Pikachu rolled his eyes and kicked the door closed behind him.
"Let it just be stated, I agree with Mew. You shouldn't sneak off without our friends."
"Nobody cares, Pikachu."
"Well, I care."
Ash moaned into his hands, trying to silence his betraying lips. Pikachu took the moment's reprieve to jump onto the rickety cot so as to be closer to his master's eye level.
"I know what you're doing, Pikapi. And they aren't going to be any safer if you leave them behind, you know."
Ash let his hands fall but he avoided his Pokémon's eye. "I'm not the same runaway kid I was last time. Things are… way different now. I'm different." Still avoiding the eye of everyone in the room, Ash zipped up his duffle bag. He took longer with the simple action than was necessary; trying to focus on the task. At length, he continued, "I'm not dragging the others into it."
"So you are making their choice for them?"
"Well, fancy that," Ash laughed meanly, his eyes flashing back on his reflection in the mirror. "I can't imagine how that would feel, not getting a choice. Now would I, Mew?"
Mew might have said something. He felt his lips stirring with her response, but she must have thought better of it. They both knew that Ash had been given a choice; a false one. Mew had been desperate and had taken advantage of the Chosen One, as many Legendaries had done in the past. And Ash himself had found it impossible for him to refuse. So yes, it had been a choice. But the options were poor: a mere illusion of choice. The outcome had been set as soon as Mew had asked.
Guilt and remorse were things alive, writhing inside him, Mew's emotional state unconsciously affecting her host. And Ash's own feelings, closer to the surface, turned uncomfortably in his gut. He had been over this with himself already: no feeling bad, no feeling sorry for himself and no hard feelings. But Ash was still finding it hard to let go of the unfairness of the bad hand he had been dealt, and like a child, he'd lashed out again.
"Sorry," Ash grumbled.
"Don't be. You have every right to be angry with me…"
Ash blinked and stared hard at the ceiling. "I thought I was past this."
"Why would you be? You've been given no time to process it. I have pushed you at every turn. And if not me… others have been quick at your heels." Mew sighed and pushed the shaggy bangs from Ash's forehead; a gentle, motherly gesture. "Which is why you should wait for your friends. Breathe, Ash. Let your friends carry some of your burdens."
Ash recoiled as if trying to shrug free from her grasp. As if that were possible. He violently threw his hand away from himself, accidentally knocking his knuckles against the nearby cabinet. The pain only added more forcefulness into his voice. "We cannot wait! How can you even say that? You're dying!"
"I was aware of that, thank you."
"Stop it! I'm serious! God dammit, Mew. Do you have to be so goody-goody? Acting like you don't care when I know you do! I feel everything you feel, stupid! You—You're pissing me off! If Mewtwo—"
"Pikapi!" Pikachu cried out in warning.
"...is half as infuriating as you are, I might have to—"
Ash had whirled about in mid-rant, shocked to find himself face to face with a familiar redhead. He fumbled his words, his train of thought completely derailed by her sudden appearance. She must have slipped in while Ash was busy arguing with himself.
How much did she hear?
Ash's eyes nervously flitted in Pikachu's direction.
Had Pikachu seen the moment Misty entered, or was he caught as much off-guard as Ash had been? The brief glance was an insufficient answer, and Pikachu looked far too alarmed for it to have only been a few seconds. Pikachu, himself, didn't have to worry about being eavesdropped on from the other humans in Elm's laboratory, but it seemed he had momentarily forgotten that fact. Like Ash, Pikachu could only hold his breath.
Misty was biting her tongue, unable to meet Ash's eyes. She looked awfully pale, although Ash supposed that was to be expected after having just walked in on her friend crazily arguing with himself.
When she finally dared to lift her eyes, her gaze seemed distant, troubled: unable to focus on the faces around her. "Ash," She said hesitantly. "There's something you need to see."
Misty grabbed his arm before Ash could protest. He didn't want to be dragged off by the redhead. Not without backup. Ash looked back toward his Pikachu, trying to appeal for help, but Misty was having none of it. She yanked him forward unforgivingly, pulling him unwillingly along into the open hallway. "You can argue with Pikachu later. This is important."
Head spinning and heart pounding in his throat, Ash had no choice but to comply. He stopped dragging his feet and fell into a reluctant pace alongside his captor. He still had no idea how much she overheard. He looked over at her troubled face, watched as she worried on her bottom lip. Even now her sea green eyes carefully avoided his own. Did she know he was planning to sneak away? Did she know that he planned to find Mewtwo? Was she taking him somewhere private to bully him into staying? Guilt him into being honest? Did she suspect the truth of his possession, or did she only think he was rendered insane from his torture at the hands of White Ice? Admittedly, Ash didn't know which was worse.
Misty led him into the small lobby of Elm's expansive laboratory. It seemed as if everyone else was already there, huddled beneath a small television set bolted to the ceiling. All except for Team Rocket, who must have been still caring and fretting for James. In a flash, Ash took in everyone in exacting detail, every nervous twitch, and expression. Already hotwired into expecting the worst, he read a lot of bad things through their body language.
Gary was seated, shoulder still heavily bandaged but no longer hooked to an IV, with an expression that could have mirrored Misty's own. His fingers were steepled and holding an intense staring contest with the opposite wall. Giovanni stood behind him, staring outside the window but bracing himself with the back of Gary's chair. His knuckles were white from his grip. Tracey, Professor Oak, and Professor Elm were in a huddle together, staring at the television as if transfixed. And Delia stood fretfully away from the others, pacing. She stopped when Misty returned, her face flashing from relief to anxiety to something Ash couldn't quite understand. Pity? Regret?
Delia rushed forward to meet them, taking Misty's hands away from Ash so as to comfortably hold them herself.
"I brought him," Misty said softly.
"Good, thank you, dear. Go sit down. You look like you're about to faint dead away."
Ash looked back at Misty in sudden alarm. Her pallid face seemed more pronounced at his mother's observation. He noticed she looked upset but had she been that upset?
"No, I'm fine," said Misty gently, pulling herself free from Delia's kind hands. "I—I have to call my sisters. They'll be frantic," She allowed herself a small smile. "I can rest after I make sure they don't do anything stupid."
Misty walked away, pulling out a thin Poke'dexter to make her vidcall. Ash watched her leave with a frown, whirling back around to his mother for an explanation. He didn't need to say anything. His expression was enough to elicit a deep sigh from his mother.
"Ash, dear. I'm afraid we've all been given quite a bad shock."
"What is it?" Ash looked between all the faces in the room. Just like with Misty, they all avoided his eye. "Did someone die?"
"No, no. Nothing like that." Delia seemed about to answer, but couldn't yet get her mouth around the words. She gave a helpless look to the others, a plea that Professor Oak was only all too eager to answer.
"Perhaps, rather than tell Ash... it would be better to show him."
The others nodded in eager agreement. The wizened Professor beckoned Ash over to where he could see the television screen better. The sound was muted; something quickly remedied by Gary, who snatched up the remote.
The news broadcast washed over the group and Ash listened, perplexed, to a small offhand report about local power outages due to suspected electric pokemon in the area. At Ash's questioning look, Professor Oak nodded.
"Give it a minute. They keep re-reporting it every hour."
Ash didn't have to wait long. The clean-cut newscaster eventually left the lighthearted stories behind. His jovial expression and tone deadened as he switched modes. Even his co-anchor, a pleasantly smiling brunette, dropped her smile right on cue.
"And we return again to our coverage of White Ice's ongoing manhunt for one… very troubled pokemon trainer."
An old picture flashed on the screen of a smiling ten-year-old trainer. And next to that was a digital recreation of Ash's own face as it was now. Ash blinked in surprise. Inside, he could feel Mew's own gasp trying to bubble to his lips.
"Ashton Satoshi Ketchum, last seen near the outskirts of Goldenrod city in Johto, escaped White Ice's custody. Arrested as a suspect in the string of pokemon robberies that have plagued WI since earlier this year, young Ashton, with the help of a few Team Rocket-affiliated accomplices, managed to incapacitate several WI officers in his escape. Of those accomplices, the most surprising happens to be the lovely Miss Misty Kasumi Yawa of the famed Cerulean City gym. She's the youngest of the Cerulean sisters, isn't she, Barb?"
Ash watched in quiet horror as Misty's own bright face flashed on screen. Unlike his old photo, hers was new. Possibly taken in a photo shoot meant to publicize one of Cerulean Gym's many maritime shows. She had glittering seashells in her hair and shimmering makeup that only made her dizzyingly beautiful eyes stand out more.
"You're right, Jim. Yawa had earned quite a reputation lately as a particularly fearsome gym leader, quite the opposite of most water-based gyms in the past. She was well on her way to single-handedly getting official recognition from the Indigo League as a 5-star gym. Although, I guess that's all out the window now."
Underneath both photos, came a list of pokemon they were armed with. Ash wished they had been a little less thorough in their investigation, but both pokemon teams were completely accurate. Charizard and Pikachu had both been labeled as extremely dangerous. Only one of Misty's pokemon was given the same treatment. Golduck… Ash didn't really have time to process why.
"Such a shame. Seeing such a promising youth throwing away their life for the likes of Team Rocket."
"And there can be no doubt of that, can there, Jim?"
"Unfortunately not. One of the other accomplices happens to be none other than Mr. Pokemon Mafia himself, John Giovanni. Recently thought to have amended his ways and serving out a probation in Viridian whilst maintaining his only legitimate franchise— Viridian's Pokemon Gym—Giovanni was caught engaging in battle with several officers."
Now it was Giovanni's turn to be broadcast. Ash turned from his father's grim face on the screen to the equally grim-faced man in the room. Giovanni looked on impassively. Ash supposed he must have been used to people bad mouthing him being the former leader of a mafia organization. Perhaps even more so now that he'd been rendered toothless.
The broadcast continued as more faces that Ash knew were laid out on screen, one by one, like cards in a losing hand. The latter were not photos but forensic sketches done up of Jessie and James with their names and their known carried pokemon beneath them. Not being official trainers probably made it next to impossible to find photographs of the two. The artistic renderings were probably thanks to Cassidy and Butch, who would have been able to provide every detail of their former Rocket rivals. The drawings were, unfortunately, pretty true to life. Only Gary was lucky, his sketch looking the most unlike him. There was no name with the sketch of the spikey-haired gentleman nor an accurate portrayal of his pokemon team. White Ice had not anticipated his being there nor did they seem to nail down his true identity. It was a small mercy, as the only one more famous than Misty in the room would have been Professor Oak's ambitious grandson.
The newscasters concluded the story by warning their viewing audience of how dangerous the individuals mentioned were. They weren't to be approached or reasoned with. A toll-free number scrolled across the screen while the anchors urged their audience to call if they spotted any individual matching the descriptions of those mentioned, or if they had any information on the individuals in question.
Gary hit the mute button just as the news switched topics to something less heartbreaking.
Delia wasn't mentioned. And thankfully neither was either Pokemon Professor. Both must have managed to keep from White Ice's notice. Though Ash suspected it wouldn't be long before reporters and police officers alike hunted down his relatives. His mother would have been the first on their list.
Ash met his mother's eye. "Mom…"
Delia smiled. "I'll have to go back to Pallet Town."
"No, Mom. They'll come after you."
"It's more suspicious if I don't. Besides, I can give them false leads, keep you safe," She placed her hands on her son's shoulders, leaning in to give him a soft kiss on his forehead. "I'll be okay."
"I'll go with you, Delia," said Professor Oak. "No need for you to face this alone."
Delia smiled though it didn't quite reach her eyes. "Thank you, Samuel."
"What I don't get," Gary said, standing up and breaking his reverie at last. "Why is White Ice still coming after him? We gave them what they wanted. Hell, they nearly killed Ash. For all they know, he could be dead. What could they possibly want from Ash still?"
The eyes in the room went slowly from Ash to the only other person who might have had some insight into White Ice's character. Giovanni shuffled uneasily under their gaze. He awkwardly cleared his throat and made his way over to where Ash was standing.
It was subtle. His back was to everyone else in the room, everyone but Ash. And to Ash, Giovanni pointed to his eyes, disguising the gesture with a scratch to his nose.
'Does she know?' Giovanni mouthed. About his eyes. About Mew. About his possession.
Ash frowned and gave a small shake of his head.
Only a handful of people knew about Ash's new condition, the majority of them pokemon. Meowth, Pikachu and, of course, Giovanni himself. The confession wasn't relayed out of any sort of sentimentality between estranged father and son. Ash used Mew to threaten his father. It was the only way he knew how to get Mewtwo's true location out of the stubborn man.
Seemingly satisfied, Giovanni turned back to the group. "My best guess would be that Andromeda feels the need to tie up all her loose ends. She's not certain that Ash died in the exchange. She's looking for proof. And possibly revenge against the rest of us for trying to thwart her plans."
It sounded plausible enough. But Ash knew the truth and he couldn't say it. Giovanni probably surmised it too.
Ash knew Andromeda's next move. Mewtwo. An unfathomably powerful pokemon that she could lock up inside her machine and siphon to her heart's content. With his psychic abilities at her fingertips, Andromeda would be unstoppable. And Andromeda probably suspected, if he lived, Ash'd be trying to reach the pokemon before her. To stop her. To save Mewtwo, the bleeding heart that he was.
This was why he hadn't wanted to seek Mewtwo out. They'd be bringing White Ice right to the dangerous Pokémon's doorstep, making an already terrible situation worse.
But there were extenuating circumstances. They didn't have the luxury of time or choice. Mew was living on borrowed time. They needed to reach Mewtwo before Mew slipped away into Ash's consciousness completely. If they waited until White Ice decided to stop chasing him, it might already be too late.
Mew had already given Ash a frightening understanding of what could happen if he failed; if he was unable to unite Mew and Mewtwo to confront their wrathful creator. The wild pokemon attacks were only a small nuisance compared to the tidal wave that would be coming.
Ash gripped his head, bracing the incoming headache. How had this already become such a mess? They hadn't even started yet!
While the others tried to puzzle out motive and future headings from their limited information, Ash excused himself. He ducked around his mother's concern, reassuring her that he was fine. And it was as Ash was dodging his mother, that Gary made his way past them. Ash hadn't noticed it until he was halfway down the hall, halfway back to the room he had abandoned before.
Ash stopped dead. Just a few feet ahead, Misty stood, wrapped up in Gary's embrace. She was openly sobbing in his arms. Concern for her conflicted against his burning jealousy for the man who held her. He should have said something. All the pain she was suffering, the loss, the humiliation—it was because he, Ash, had come back into her life.
She didn't deserve this. Neither of them did. And it wasn't right to be envious of something he couldn't, shouldn't have. Gary and Misty. He hadn't wanted to face it before, he didn't even want to think about it. But now, Ash could see how gentle Gary was with her. How she so willingly clung to him—with such familiarity. Maybe… Maybe they would be okay.
Face burning with shame, Ash walked past them both. When he closed the door behind himself, shutting out Misty's quiet sobs, Mew took control of his lips again.
"They'll be better off without me."
Pikachu looked up from the bed, confused, expecting to be let in on this new development. But for once, Mew didn't argue with him. She didn't say anything.
The sun was bright and hot in the sky. But there was a warm wind that kept rustling past his baggy shirt. His mom was doing her best to balance the heavy picnic basket and keep the breeze from tossing up her long skirt. Ash danced around his mother, eagerly looking forward to the feast that she had prepared for the two of them. Ash took two or three steps for every one of his mother's, only just able to keep up with her longer strides.
Soon, soon, she kept saying. She never seemed satisfied with any stretch of green, marching them ever onward for a new patch. When she finally laid down the checkered cloth, she shooed Ash away from the basket.
Go play. It's not time to eat.
Ash grumbled along with his grumbling stomach. The sandwiches she was pulling from the basket were some of his favorites, plump with sweet cream and fresh fruit. It was torture watching, unable to partake, so Ash heeded his mother.
The tall dry grass off to the side of their picnic spot was taller than he was. He slipped through, tumbling into a maze of swaying blades. The wind whistled through them; it almost sounded like a pokemon. He bounced and danced his way through them, giggling with gleeful abandon. Eventually, Ash came upon the idea that this tall grass was perfect for hiding in. He should hide from Mommy and then jump out to surprise her!
Ash crept back to where he thought the opening to the tall grass was. But when he peeked between the swaying blades, he saw not his mother, but a little girl. She was small, small like him. With funny brown fur, long and plaited from the top of her head. She was wrapped up in something brightly colorful with images on the surface that resembled flowers. It didn't look like her own skin. What a strange-looking pokemon!
Ash watched her as she picked wildflowers. The grass had opened up to what seemed like open sky but was just the side of a cliff. And though the girl had no wings, she picked the plants fearlessly, bending and stretching to reach ones that grew off the side.
She reached for one particularly stunning yellow bloom growing on an outcrop off to the side of the cliff's top, stretching out her tiny peach-colored paws, face growing pink from the effort. And Ash watched, his large, unblinking blue eyes completely enraptured with the tiny creature.
She scooped the air, once and then twice. When her fingers finally brushed the petals, she let go of the grip she had on the cliff side. She tipped dangerously forward and then completely vanished over the side.
Ash didn't hesitate. He burst from the grass and jumped off the cliff after her. She made a lot of noise, shrieking piercing sounds as he wrapped his arms around her waist. He could feel her heartbeat beneath his fingertips, fluttering like a bird.
And because Ash knew he could, he uprighted them. They twisted about in the air, slowed and then gently floated like a bubble back to the top of the cliff. Ash's toes landed first then the girl's feet followed afterward. She collapsed against him, crying but thankful. He couldn't understand her words, they were guttural and strange. She had to be one of those pokemon that liked to talk with their mouths. But he could tell. He was good at reading pokemon. She knew he saved her. She was thankful.
"Mew," Ash said, hoping the sound would comfort her. His voice was softer than hers, gentle. "Mew, mew." He continued with the nonsense word, hoping the soft sounds would calm the girl down.
She did, her sobs quieting into soft hiccups. He made silly faces at her and she began to smile. He did a backflip in the air for her and she laughed and clapped her paws…hands.
She was a human, Ash realized with a start. Not a pokemon, but a human.
And then suddenly there were others like her. But they were bigger, taller…meaner. They snatched her back with them, shielding her behind their massive bodies. As if he meant her harm! He didn't! He just saved her!
He tried to say so. But his words were just nonsense he had made up and spat out from his lips. They couldn't hear thoughts.
The biggest and meanest extracted himself from the group, standing over Ash. His eyes were like pits in his face, deep and dark. Ash kept using soft words, holding up his open palms—- paws... trying to play submissive. He scuttled backward but was running out of places to go. The human held something like a rope in his hands, but when he threw it, it expanded into a cage, a net that entangled and caught Ash.
Ash cried out—the heavy thing pulled him to the ground. The humans were towering over him. They held rocks, which they smashed into him. Over and over again they cracked the stones against his bruised skin, ignoring his cries and thoughts of pain. He felt the bones in his arm separate and crack. His leg seemed to shatter into a hundred sharp shards. They were working their way over his body, breaking everything with their rocks, moving towards his skull.
"Stop! Please stop!" Ash screamed.
In a blink, the humans melted away and twisted into something new. Now Andromeda was pinning him down, and twisting the knife in deeper; deeper and deeper into his shoulder. She leaned over him. He could smell her sweet floral perfume, the strawberry scent of her long blonde hair wafted around him. She wouldn't let go of the knife, pushing down as she leaned close to his ear. He felt more than heard her whisper.
"Such the hero."
Ash punched up and with the sudden thrust came an unmistakable surge of energy. He felt it rip through his flesh and charge through the dissipating nightmare.
And Ash was fully awake when the blast slammed into the overhead ceiling light. The light immediately shorted at the sudden collision of energy, showering everyone below with sparks. Pikachu fell off the couch, but thankfully Tracey only shuffled and continued to snore within his sleeping bag.
Ash lay on the couch, sweaty, chest heaving and arm still outstretched from the released attack. Slowly, he flexed his fingers, then lowered his arm.
"Well," Ash said breathlessly. "That was new."
Ash sat up in time with his disgruntled pokemon. Pikachu glared grumpily up at him from where he had fallen.
"I'm gonna stop sleeping with you," Pikachu snapped.
"Aw, Pikachu. Don't be that way."
"It's safer on the floor."
"Well…" Ash glanced back up at the damaged ceiling light. It still seemed a bit scorched from where his energy blast had struck it. "That might be true."
It was well into the night now. Ash could see the time blinking at him from the small digital clock across the way. He hadn't planned to sleep quite as long as he had; his dexter's alarm failed to wake him. Now half the night had expired away. Ash had maybe hours before the rest of the laboratory's occupants would stir.
It was now or never.
He nodded over at his Pikachu and climbed to his feet. Both human and pokemon were careful not to wake Tracey as they carefully gathered their things. Ash reached over the couch to pull up his duffle bag. Flattening down his mussed-up hair, Ash followed his pokemon out into the main lobby.
Everything was still. Ash could only hear his own footsteps and the soft padded footfalls of his tiny rodent pokemon. The automatic doors at the entrance were frozen. Ash had to pry and push them open himself. He stumbled out beyond them into a warm and humid evening. The sky was dark with clouds. Pidgeot would find it difficult to navigate, but it was a risk they'd have to take. Once they were far enough away, he'd switch to using Charizard.
Ash tossed out his Pidgeot's pokeball. The pokemon appeared with a croon and rustle of feathers, having just been tossed from its own slumber.
"Pidgeot. You up for a night flight?"
Pidgeot fluffed up thoughtfully, its sharp eyes eying the dark low hanging clouds above them. His feathers flattened as he responded, "The weather is poor, Master."
"What? No ill omens or superstitious numerology patterns today, Pidgeot?" Pikachu said with unmistakable snark as he jumped up onto Ash's shoulder.
If birds could blush, Ash would have sworn that's what Pidgeot would have emoted. His wings shivered in agitation and his pupils shrank in Pikachu's direction. It took Ash a moment to realize what was wrong.
"It's okay, Pidgeot. You don't have to act any differently just because I can understand you now."
"You might regret that," Pikachu joked.
Pidgeot's anxiety still kept him mute. Instead, he inclined his head, encouraging Ash to mount. Pikachu jumped on first. Ash was just about to follow when a sudden voice stopped him dead.
"So… I don't think I gave you permission to leave."
Ash slowly turned, guilt mixing with shock on his face. Misty was there, idly tossing a pokeball up and down in her hand. Though it had been Misty who had spoken, she wasn't the only one standing in the courtyard.
"Did I? Do you remember me giving him permission, Gary?" Misty asked the man casually leaning in the shadows of the wall behind her.
"Didn't think so." Misty caught her pokeball and rounded on Ash, backing him up against his feathered pokemon. "I won that pokemon battle against you, Ash. You are not allowed to run away anymore. You promised! And I intend to hold you to your promises. You got that?"
"Misty—Misty you… you don't understand!"
She stepped back, arms crossed. Ash looked helplessly back at Gary, who just threw up his arms in response. He'd find no help in that quarter.
"I… I… Look!" He grabbed her shoulders and gave her a light shake. "I'm wanted. Because of me, you are too. It would be better if I left… then you'd be safe."
Misty swat his hands away. "Nuh-uh. I'm going with you."
"Me, too," Gary chimed in.
"No! No, no you're not. You can't come!" Ash's gaze drifted from Misty to where Gary hid. "You especially!"
"Like hell, we can't. You going to stop me?" She had flashed her pokeball again. Ash stepped back uneasily.
"We outnumber you, Ashy-boy. You're going to have to let us come this time."
"It's dangerous!" Ash shouted out desperately.
"All the more reason, you aren't going alone."
"You don't understand!"
"Then explain! Explain yourself, Ash Ketchum!"
"He's gonna talk tah dat Mewtwo guy."
All three whirled about in surprise as, not for the first time, Team Rocket got the bounce on the group. James was still nursing a heavy bit of bandages about his midsection and was leaning against Jessie for support. But the two were both outside, following their small cat pokemon.
"Prepare for trouble, make it double and all that," Jessie said, arms too preoccupied holding James upright to give the motto any conscious effort. Meowth ignored them both and continued addressing the group.
"Dats why its dangerous. And why he wants to go alone. He's got tah talk tah Mewtwo."
"Shut it, Meowth," Ash hissed, directing a meaningful stomp in the mouthy Pokémon's direction. Thankfully Meowth was appropriately cowed and didn't betray one word too many.
"Mewtwo… that sounds strangely familiar. Have we tried to catch a Mewtwo before?" James asked.
"No," Jessie sniffed. "I would have remembered it."
Misty stepped between Ash and the cat pokemon, pushing Ash back gently. "Don't fuss at Meowth. We already knew you were going after Mewtwo."
"Giovanni told us."
Ash's face darkened. "Of course he did."
"And a good thing too," Misty smacked his arm hard enough to smart. Ash recoiled, rubbing where she hit. "You would have left us! What were you thinking? Giovanni said Mewtwo is probably the world's most dangerous pokemon. Why in the world do you want to find it?"
Ash was still rubbing his arm. He stared down at the ground, finding it easier to look at than the fuming redhead in front of him. "I can't tell you."
He expected a fight. He even flinched when Misty reached out and then carefully slipped the duffle bag off his shoulder.
"That's okay," She said, shouldering the bag herself. "We're still going with you."
"Me too!" Meowth piped up.
"Us too," said James with a nod to Jessie. She just rolled her eyes. It was as much affirmation they'd get from her.
Meowth turned about to look at his teammates, his eyes shiny with tears. "You guys!"
"Like we'd let you go with Team Twerps alone, knucklehead," Jessie snapped, not unkindly.
Ash couldn't help staring at James' very obvious injury. One that he had gotten while trying to protect Ash. It seemed everyone around had battle scars from trying to save him from something. "James…" Ash said gently. "You can't. You're still hurt."
"He can." Gary had been quiet through most of the discussion. Sensing his moment, he had stepped forward from where he had been watching, joining the others. "If you follow my plan, James will have time to recover. Unlike yours, where you'd likely get yourself caught by the police a few hours in." Gary playfully knocked against Ash, nearly tipping the other boy off balance. "Were you really planning on flying Pidgeot all the way to the mountain range? You're a wanted man, Ash. You'd maybe last an hour tops- flying on Pidgeot with all those people looking for you."
Ash frowned. It was true he hadn't really taken a moment to reevaluate his plan since learning how White Ice and many others in the prefecture were on the lookout for him. He hadn't had time. But he wasn't sure he liked the idea of taking more time to get there than was necessary.
"What did you have in mind?"
Gary wagged his own pokedexer at Ash smugly. "I can procure us a ride. It would make us difficult to track and be the exact opposite of what White Ice would expect from us. They expect us to be stupid," Gary smirked, poking Ash on the forehead. "Like you."
"And we can provide you with the suitable disguises!" James enthusiastically added.
Ash couldn't help bemoaning James' proposed help. "I am not dressing up like a girl again."
"Again?" Gary asked.
"We can worry about disguises once we're underway," Misty interrupted, giving Ash a meaningful look. "So long as Ash agrees to stay put for tonight."
"I think there's a story there…"
"Gary…" Misty warned.
"About the dressing up as a girl thing? I mean, I'd really like to hear it."
"I'm just saying!"
A hush fell over the courtyard as all eyes fell back upon Ash. He stood, backed against his riding pokemon. They watched to see if he would mount Pidgeot still. Would he listen to all they said and still try to run away? Ash had to admit he'd already brazenly done so in the past.
He felt Mew warmly in the center of his chest. The pleasant purr of happiness, of seeing Ash surrounded by those who cared and who wanted to help. He turned back to his Pidgeot and the collective group held their breath.
"Stay with them, Ash," Mew whispered with his voice.
"But you don't have time."
"You are more than capable of carrying on with the mission without me. Stop feeling like you owe me something. You don't. If anything, it is I who owes you… and I'm not sure I can ever pay you back," Mew pressed Ash's own hands urgently against his chest as if to hold him back. "Please, Ash. Don't be alone. Stay with your family. You need them."
The tears that burned into Ash's eyes were not Mew's. Not this time. He cupped his face, trying to hide them from the others. But Pikachu saw. He was there, leaping onto Ash's shoulder, gently petting his human friend on the head.
And through the tears, Ash began to smile. While shaking his head, he whispered to the pokemon inside, "You could have forced me to stay. You wanted to. You had enough power to do it."
"I've already forced you to do enough," Ash's lips responded. "Besides… what sort of friend would that make me?"
When Ash turned back around, his mind had been made up. Wiping the tears from his eyes, Ash faced his compatriots with a wide smile.
"Alright. You win. We'll go together."
It was awkward… because, of course, it was.
Delia had walked into the Viridian pokemon center after a two-mile hike, sticky with sweat and smelling like summer. Her long chestnut-colored hair was tied up in a high ponytail and she was wearing the casual best of a logo-emblazoned tank top and high water shorts. She didn't look any different from the other trainers that had walked through those sliding doors.
But Johnny stood out like a sore thumb. Dressed up in a button-down collared shirt and dress slacks, he looked more ready to take on a courtroom than a pokemon battle. He had taken to oiling and slicking back his hair lately. Johnny thought it made him look older. Delia thought it made his forehead look bigger.
"You look good," Delia lied pleasantly.
"Thanks, you too."
Oomph. She felt the comment like a punch to the gut. No, she didn't look good. Delia knew she didn't. Her calves were streaked with mud and she was dripping with sweat, for mew's sake. Why would he lie about that?
But Delia kept her internal struggle from appearing on her face. Instead, she allowed him to carry her through the small talk. He asked about her family and she answered. She asked about his and he responded in kind. With all the boxes of polite exchanges checked, that left only the point of their venture. Meeting the future Mrs. Giovanni.
They started off together in silence, marching side by side, close enough to touch but careful not to. Johnny swore that she, the mysterious fiancée, was staying in a hotel not far from the center. But they'd be meeting together at a small outdoor cafe just on the other side of the small city.
Why did I agree to this? Delia thought furiously for the hundredth time since she had backtracked to the nearest pokemon center. She had only herself to blame. Joulie hadn't cared one way or the other. And yet, somehow she and her pikachu had come here anyway.
Delia figured it must have been out of pity, as it had always been with Johnny. But then no, what was there to pity? He was getting married. This was hardly the occasion for pity.
Then perhaps, it was out of obligation. But why? To what did she owe Johnny? It wasn't her fault that he had decided to become her spurned lover. She wasn't family or even that close a friend. How could she have possibly been obligated to meet the woman who had decided Johnny's heart was worth having?
Closure, then. To officially end this... acquaintance, friendship, whatever it was, that she had had with Johnny all these long years. To close the door on something she had long since felt some responsibility for. It wasn't her fault, it wasn't. But maybe if she could just meet the woman who had helped turn his affections away, Delia could finally forgive herself.
Not that she had anything to apologize for!
"So…" Delia interrupted. Johnny was starting in on one of his long talks about the legality of pokemon batting in regions unsupported by the League. Politics. He always did this when he couldn't think of anything else to fill the silence. She was desperate to keep their time together from being a complete slog. "How did you meet?"
Delia raised an eyebrow. "Who? Your fiancée! Who else?"
"Oh. Well, um… We met as children, I guess."
"Is she pretty?"
"I think so."
"When did you start dating?"
"Uh… a few weeks ago now, I think."
Alarm bells were beginning to go off. Delia tried to keep her face impassive as she asked, "Wow. Whirlwind romance, was it?"
Johnny shrugged. Delia didn't think it was just her imagination that Johnny looked smaller, the further they walked. His shoulders were rounded and his face pale and despondent.
Johnny stumbled over his own feet. "W-what?" He sputtered his cheeks an unmistakable rouge in hue.
"Well, I just imagine it must be if you are rushing to get married so soon," Delia said flippantly.
"We haven't—we haven't done that," Johnny swallowed hard. "Not that it's any of your business."
"What about kissing? She a good kisser?"
"Oh come on. You invited me to meet her. Can't I play annoying big sister for a bit?"
"Delia, I think you misunderstand." They'd stopped walking. The pink was gone from his face and Johnny looked decidedly more serious. For his sake, Delia stopped smiling. "Yes, Annie is my fiancée. But I didn't come to choose her through any sort of conventional means."
"I'm not follow-"
"It's an arrangement. Between her parents and mine."
"Oh." Now Delia was free to pity him. "I'm sorry."
John waved her apology away. "It's fine. You didn't know."
They started walking again. In an attempt to salvage the situation, Delia tried her hand at filling the silence. But she didn't resort to the droll subjects Johnny was apt to reach for. Instead, she told him about her pokemon training, about the places she had gone, people she had met and things she had done. She told him about the great marsh in Sinnoh, and the glittering cave in Kalos, and how she had nearly battled to the top of Mt. Silver. The battles were what Johnny was the most interested in and Delia knew it. So she indulged him, gave him a taste of what his position and station in life could never afford him.
Before they knew it, they had arrived. The cafe was charming little place wreathed by a small rose garden. It looked exactly the sort of place Delia would have expected Johnny to pick. Pretty and expensive.
There weren't too many tables that were occupied but it was clear that none of them held Johnny's fiancée. After a quick word to the wait staff, John decided he would need to go look for her.
"She must still be at the hotel. Wait here, Delia. Just in case she comes."
And Johnny was off before Delia could think to ask what Annie looked like. Delia stood off to the side, next to some tall shrubbery. She bounced on her heels, gave Joulie a few head scratches and paced in circles. But no feasible candidate for Johnny's wayward fiancée came.
After some time waiting, Delia decided to take a short walk around the area. She was careful to keep the cafe in view, just in case someone should come. Delia enjoyed walking lazily in the sunshine, listening to the soft chirps of pidgey roosting in the nooks and crannies of the buildings above.
Then suddenly came a sound distinctly different from the rest. It was sharp and piercing, a cry unlike any pokemon Delia had heard before. The city block was an unintentional echo chamber; it was very difficult to tell where the sound had come from, bouncing as it had from building to building.
And there it was again, a slightly more strangled sound than before. Joulie's hackles rose and her cheeks sparked. If the sound alone wasn't enough to set Delia on edge, her Pikachu's reaction definitely did. Forgetting to keep the cafe in sight, Delia started searching for the source of the cries more vigorously.
It was in a small patch of woods behind one of the nearby window shops that Delia finally found it. As she was turning the bend, a small bloody bundle of feathers dropped with a sickeningly wet thud by her feet. Delia stifled her own scream with her hands. A pokemon! Or what used to be one. It was so mangled; its head twisted back, eyes bulged and beak snapped apart. t was impossible to tell what type of bird pokemon it used to be.
Delia fell to her knees before the poor dead creature. Before she could be brave enough to touch it, Joulie had leapt from her shoulder. She was hissing and spitting at a person Delia hadn't even noticed.
It was a girl, one not that much older than Delia herself. Her blond hair was cut sharp and short, bangs mostly obscuring the girl's eyes. She was wearing a decisively pretty summer dress and her hands were covered in blood that she was now trying to discreetly wipe off on the grass around her.
"Did… did you do this?"
The girl lifted her head and brushed the hair away from her eyes with the backside of her soiled hands. "What?"
Delia felt her anger rising alongside her mounting courage. She climbed back to her feet. "I said," Delia hissed, stepping forward and closing the distance between them. "Did you do this? Did you murder this pokemon?"
"It's a Spearow," came the girl's icy response.
"You didn't answer me."
"It attacked me."
"So you crushed it to death?" Delia lunged, grabbing the girl by the front of her dress. This action, like none other, gave the girl pause. She winced, threw up her blood stained-hands and cried out.
"Don't hit me!"
"Why shouldn't I?" Delia spat, only just staying her balled fist. "What kind of person would do that to a pokemon? You're a monster!"
"I was protecting myself! I don't have any pokemon! I'm not a trainer! Please!"
"And you'll never be one if I have any say in it!"
"John! John, save me!"
Delia stopped dead. In her shock, she let go of the girl's dress, allowing her to stumble unceremoniously backward into the dirt.
And then, there he was. Johnny rushed forward just as he was supposed to. But when he saw Delia, he hesitated. He meant to go to his fiancée's side, comfort her as she didn't deserve. That would have been bad enough. But the sight of his fiancée's aggressor completely derailed him.
"Delia… what?" John gasped, reaching for her instead.
Delia recoiled, arms and hands tightly tucked to her chest. She didn't want either of them touching her.
Annie was sobbing, yanking at Johnny's arm, trying to focus his attention back on her distress. But he was frozen. And in his eyes, Delia could see that she had been kidding herself. The soft expression he had while looking at her. How he'd smile and laugh at her stories of adventures he had no part in. He invited her to meet his fiancée. He invited her.
"Delia, are you alright?"
"Just…just fucking stay away from me," Delia spat out at last. Her voice was flat and dead, the same as she felt. "Both of you! Stay the fuck away!"
And with that Delia tore out of the clearing, with Joulie close behind.
To Be Continued…
Please Read and Review!
Sorry to those who were waiting for this! It took decidedly longer to write than I anticipated. May you all enjoy it now that it is finished! Please leave a review if you enjoyed it. If you didn't enjoy it, please leave a review all the same. I always appreciate the feedback.
Special thanks as always to my wonderful beta reader HarunaRei. She's the reason these chapters come out coherently at all.
You can expect the next chapter probably in September/October time frame. If not sooner.
Next time on HIA, Ash and company don disguises for their journey.