Bits of melting snow littered the game trail that wound its way up the mountain like jewelry, decorating its length with spots of sparking white beneath the spring sun. Flowers had sprouted throughout the undergrowth in swathes and swirls of color making the forest floor an abstract painting. The green leaves were out in their full glory after being gone for so long, a promise of life renewed and life expanding. It was a serene sight, the prize of many a hiker's trek from the nearby Cerulean City.

And it was completely wasted on the three humans making their way up said trail.

"Ugh," Violet said, shaking some mud off of her foot. "These boots were brand new too!"

"Better your boots then your hair," Lily whined, shaking her head and flinging bits of slush all around her for the umpteenth time.

"Quit complaining you two," Daisy ordered, leading the way. "The sooner we're done scouting the sooner we can go back to the gym."

"Why couldn't we just ask the police to do the scouting again?" Lily continued to whine.

"'Cause they said this was outside of their jurisdiction and because all the League Rangers were too busy," Daisy sighed.

"Stupid sneaks," Violet grumbled. "They should've done a better job so that no one knew they were here! If we find out that they were doing something illegal I'm going to freeze their feet in ice until they all catch a cold."

"I'm just going to have Waver Dancer waterboard them," Lily grumbled.

"Like, we have to find the place the informant was talking about first," Daisy said, rolling her eyes.

"Agh, I hate tips from 'confidential informants'," Lily said, complete with air quotes. "It's always a wild goose chase or one group of smugglers using us to harass another group."

"Please," Violet snorted, "it's the wrong season for smugglers in these mountains. You know they have trouble with the meltwater and the mud."

"We have trouble with the meltwater and mud," Lily grumbled.

"Oh, don't be such a drama queen," Daisy said. "Like, we get dirty, the smugglers drown."

"Though, since it's probably not smugglers, I wonder who it could be?" Violet wondered aloud.

"Maybe it's a good looking brother and sister who need rescuing-" Lily began, her eyes lighting up.

"- And they'll be so grateful to be rescued that they'll jump right into our arms," Violet continued, her eyes also lighting up.

"And the brother will jump into your arms, Violet, and the sister will jump into yours, Lily," Daisy said, rolling her eyes.

"Well, maybe we'll get lucky for once and they won't do that!" Lily huffed, crossing her arms.

"With our luck it'll be because they'll both jump into Daisy's arms," Violet sighed.

"Like, please don't tempt fate," Daisy said with a shudder. "Let's just find what we came here for."

The three sisters continued to trek up the mountain, arguing and whining the whole while. Finally, they came across a clearing by a ridge and stopped. There didn't seem to be anything special about the clearing, just a patch of unmarked brown soil and grey rocks untouched by any greenery except small patches of moss on exposed rocks. However, a discerning eye could pick out small marks, extremely shallow grooves, and imprints in the soil.

"Well, we're on Clefairy Ridge and here's a clearing that has a view of the city," Lily said, shading her eyes while looking down. "Is this it?"

"I think so," Violet said, kneeling down to look at the ground in the clearing. "Yeah, here are the marks."

"Everyone always thinks that the ground here is firmer than it actually is," Lily smirked, crouching next to Violet, eyes scanning the small imprints and divots.

"Yeah, everyone misses that just because it's not muddy doesn't mean it's not soft," Daisy remarked, her gaze tracing a groove. "It looks like it's from heavy equipment, right?"

"Yep," Violet nodded.

"And here, I'm seeing what should be marks from a tent," Daisy said, turning to look at another part of the clearing. "Like, they remembered to clean up everything else, even their footprints, but they missed this stuff. So sad."

"So bad for them," Lily smirked, standing back up.

"I don't think these are from smugglers," Violet said. "These don't look like the vehicles or crates or pallets smugglers use."

"Who else would bring heavy equipment up here?" Lily asked. "And I'm pretty sure it's illegal to bring heavy equipment out here without a permit anyway."

"That's the question," Daisy said. "And given what happened to Saffron, I think I know who it might be."

"Team Rocket," Lily said, her eyes narrowing.

"Exactly," Daisy nodded.

"You think they're going to try something here next?" Violet asked. "And soon?"

"Yeah, I thought they'd want to lick their wounds after Saffron," Lily added.

"Like, Saffron was costly for them, but I think they got what they wanted from it," Daisy said. "Or at least some of it. I mean, they took stuff from Silph and destroyed the inventory records so we don't know all of what's missing."

"I guess it doesn't hurt to prepare," Violet shrugged. "And, you're right, it's not smugglers, so even if it's not Team Rocket it's still probably very not good for us."

"We'll have to increase patrols in the mountains, review the city's security, maybe convince the city council to run some emergency drills," Lily said, counting the points with her fingers.

"Where are we going to find the time for that?" Violet moaned. "We've still got to practice for the new show we're going to do."

"I think we're going to need to postpone the show," Daisy said.

Her two sisters went absolutely still.

"Postpone the show?" Lily said slowly, her mouth gaping open.

"We'll have to redo all the logistics," Violet's voice trembled.

"I know," Daisy whined. "But we don't have time to practice and do everything else we need to do."

"I guess you're right," Violet said slowly and then growled. "When I catch whoever is behind this, I swear I'll freeze them to death by centimeters."

"If we have to postpone, we have to postpone," Lily said, closing her eyes and swallowing. "Right, let's get back to town so we can get started."

"Yes," Daisy nodded.

"And we need to warn Misty to stay away until this blows up or over," Lily said.

"Like, of course," Daisy replied. "She'll listen to us, this is important."

A week after earning the Volcano Badge, Ash was sitting in the pokémon center, hoping not to see Brock.

The former gym leader had been pestering Ash with questions about his past and it was driving Ash up the wall. He didn't want to make up the details Brock kept asking about and he didn't want to accidently contradict himself either. So, whenever Brock started to talk to him, Ash quickly found an excuse to remove himself from the situation. He had taken to roping Pikachu and some of his other pokémon into his efforts at evasion, which they had done with mixed enthusiasm.

Learn to lie better, Bulbasaur grumbled after his turn as the excuse. He'd been forced to practically drag Ash away from Brock when he cornered him in the cafeteria.

It's better if he doesn't have to, Pikachu shot back.

Shouldn't you just tell them the truth? Butterfree asked, fluttering nearby. You've known them long enough; don't you trust them?

Tell them which truth? Ash asked as they walked through the fluorescent lit hallway. That I can speak properly, that I'm an orphan raised by formerly trained pokémon, that I'm an orphan because someone tried to kidnap me when I was really young and we don't know why, or that a different group of people tried to kidnap me later and we don't know why they tried either?

Well, all of that, Butterfree said with his species' equivalent of a shrug, a complicated motion involving bobbing up and throwing his wings back.

We don't know what exactly we need to keep secret, Pikachu said. We don't know what will alert the people after Ash-

His hunters, Ash reflexively corrected within the confines his head.

-and what won't, Pikachu went on. And that's before we get into the believability of it and whether or not Brock and Misty would accidently let anything leak.

But I think Brock's starting to wonder about stuff, Butterfree said, his antenna drooping.

He's just being nosy, Ash insisted.

I don't know what's up with Brock. We can't for sure assume that he's suspicious, but we can't take the chance that he's not, Pikachu said.

Then you'll need to think of another way of dealing with him. Something better than having me pretend to need Ash for something, Bulbasaur said. It's not going to work forever.

It'll work until Brock gets bored, Ash said.

What if he doesn't? Pikachu asked.

Then, I don't know, Ash massaged his temples. I guess I'll start making up the details. Pikachu, if I have to do that, can you help me keep them straight?

I can try.

You wouldn't have to worry about keeping your lies in order if you just told the truth, Butterfree huffed.

We already explained why the truth might not be a good idea, Ash said.

You can ask them not to talk about it, even if they don't believe you, Butterfree suggested.

Yeah, but then they might go digging to try and see what's actually up, Bulbasaur pointed out. Or even if they believe you, they might go digging to try and 'help', Bulbasaur continued, making quote gestures with his vines.

It's easier to keep a secret if less people know about it, Pikachu agreed.

Yeah, but Brock might figure something out no matter how hard you try to keep him away, Butterfree said. I mean, what if he manages to catch you speaking properly to us.

We'll just have to be extra vigilant in that case, Pikachu said, crossing his forelimbs. Besides, if it's only him, then nobody's gonna believe him. Ash can just deny everything and make people think Brock is crazy.

That's not a very nice way to go about things, Butterfree said.

Well, neither is risking Ash's life by letting the secret get out! Pikachu snapped.

And you don't think that the secret might be making Brock worried for Aaron and everyone else? Butterfree said, his voice carrying a force that Ash had rarely heard from his second pokémon. Think about it from his perspective. Something's up with Ash, something that Ash may be hiding from the world, the same Ash that he's traveling with because our trainer keeps getting into trouble! He's always worried about you Ash, and if he knows you're hiding something that's just going to make him more worried!

He already thinks Team Rocket might come after you, Butterfree continued, and he knows that you don't always ask for help-

I ask for help all the time! Ash protested.

From us! Butterfree replied. But we're your team, that's different! You don't always ask for help from other humans and their teams, even when you really need it! How's Brock to know if your secret is something you need help with or not? How's he to know if it's something that's going to put him and Misty in danger too?

Ash frowned and looked at the ground, his pace slowing. Pikachu was silent as the four of them trudged on.

I don't know what to do about him then, Ash said finally.

It ain't like you've gotta decide now, Bulbasaur said. You've got time to think of something or to wait until things change. Who knows, maybe after you get all your badges Brock and Misty wouldn't feel the need to protect you anymore and they might go their own ways.

But- but then I'd miss them, Ash said, his voice miserable.

Something would have to change, Ash knew, the status quo was too unstable to last. Ash grit his teeth. Why couldn't Brock have just not noticed whatever it was that he noticed? Or, if he hadn't noticed anything, then why couldn't he be less nosy? It wasn't that hard, Ash thought, he didn't go butting into other people's business….

Well. People's private business, Ash admitted to himself. He didn't get involved in their private business. Except just after meeting Melanie, but her business had been mostly public and only a little private.

Ash continued pacing through the pokémon center with plodding, slow steps, lost in thought, Pikachu on his shoulder. At one point he recalled Bulbasaur and Butterfree, but the event didn't really register in his mind. Eventually he came to a corner by the video booths and leaned against it, sighing.

What am I going to do? Ash whispered to no one. Pikachu had no answer.

The boy stayed there, losing track of time, until his shoulder started to tingle with pins and needles. Then he slumped down against the wall, sat on the floor, his head slumping forward, his face resting in his hands.

He stayed like that for a while longer, until there was a loud shout from the video booths.

"Say that again! I dare you! Say that again!" Misty's voice bellowed from the nearby room.

There was a brief silence as he climbed to his feet, followed by more shouting from Misty.

"Sister, if you think-"

Ash rushed over as the noise cut off again. He slid to a stop, Pikachu's paws digging into his shoulder as the pokémon held on for dear life, managing not to collide with Brock who had run in from the other direction.

"Who do you think you are?" Misty snarled to whomever she was speaking to as Ash and Brock rushed over to the booth she was occupying.

"-like, just trust us," Daisy's voice came through the speakers as he followed Brock into the call booth. Misty was standing up, her chair overturned, fists clenched, chest and shoulders heaving as she glared at the screen.

"I don't trust you three even as far as I could throw you," Misty growled.

"Well, we're still your guardians and your bosses," Lily growled back. "So, when we tell you to stay away from Cerulean City, you better listen. We've got nothing more to say."

"Wait-" Violet began, but Lily shut off the call before she or Daisy could say anything else.

"Those three little-" Misty growled and then began to sputter curses.

"Uh…" Ash said, as Misty swore up a storm.

"What happened now?" Brock asked. Ash glanced over and thought he saw the corner of the young man's lips twitch upward.

"Those three self-important wannabe coordinator divas told me to stay away from Cerulean City," Misty seethed.

"That's… huh," Brock scratched his head. "That doesn't really make any sense."

"They're doing something stupid to the gym and they don't want me stopping it!" Misty raised a clenched fist. "I just know it! Well, we'll see about that!"

"How long did they tell you to stay away?" Ash asked, glancing behind him to make sure he had a path of retreat.

"It doesn't matter," Misty said through clenched teeth. "Because our next stop is Cerulean City."

AN: I'd like to thank Amationary for beta reading.

October wasn't fun and I've got a busy couple of months ahead of me. For that reason it'll be a while until the next update. The next chapter of Symbiotic will be released on March 1st 2023

Don't forget to review! Concrit is welcome!