Serena woke up to the sound of a baby crying.
It took her a moment to remember where she was. Even after all these years, it was still hard to believe. She was married—married—to her first love, the love of her life, Ash Ketchum, and they had a small house of their own in Pallet Town, and they had just given birth to their first child, a daughter they had named Leaf. So why did something feel wrong?
Little Leaf usually never cried for long enough to wake Serena. Usually, Ash and Pikachu would wake up first, and either lull her back to sleep or play with her until she was laughing. Ash had been more than glad to do this for the past month – he'd been getting up even at midnight to put Leaf back to sleep – because as he'd put it, Serena had done the hardest part of the job.
She flipped over. Ash wasn't there. Neither was Pikachu.
Their side of the bed was, in fact, cold.
Serena got up and walked to the crib, and held Leaf until she started cooing.
Well, it wasn't going to be too much of a problem. Serena got dressed, putting on a simple pink dress, keeping an eye on Leaf the whole time—you never could be too careful around babies, or even small children for that matter—and went about her morning. There was more than enough food in the fridge, and Leaf wasn't old enough to eat solid food yet, so that fell to her. She spent the morning fussing over her child, without worrying too much about Ash. After all, he was the man she had married.
It was early afternoon before she really started to wonder where Ash was. Leaf had, graciously, settled down into a nap, so Serena had a few quiet moments to herself. Braixen was kindly watching Leaf to make sure she didn't get into too much trouble, and Serena found herself wandering over to the modest his-and-hers trophy case they'd tucked away in a corner of the house. For anyone else, it might have seemed like a monument to vanity, but to her and Ash of them it was simply a record of memories.
On her side, there were the three Princess Keys she'd won in Pokemon Performances, back when her journey was just beginning and the future had seemed so unclear. Then, from after she'd gone to Hoenn, a full set ribbons and a trophy proving that for at least one year, she'd won the title of Top Coordinator. And of course, photos from those journeys. Photos from her first challenge to Aria, photos with all of the other friends and rivals she'd made along the way, some of the more noteworthy of which were Shauna, Miette, and Nini in Kalos, and May and Dawn in Johto and Hoenn.
On Ash's side of the trophy case, there were badges from countless leagues, a championship trophy from the first Alola League, seven Frontier symbols, and the spoils of countless other smaller tournaments. He'd traveled a lot, and sometimes she still marveled that she was lucky to have ever run into him again at all. Though he seemed to have a certain talent for picking up friends who later attained great successes, though all of their pictures were of a time from before they became successful– Brock and Misty (Serena had long since resolved any feelings of jealous towards Misty, of all people), May and Max (and also Brock), Dawn and Brock (again), Iris and Cilan, Professor Kukui and his classmates at the Pokemon School, and Goh and his other friends at the Cerise lab.
And of course, right in the middle of the trophy case, there was that photo from their first journey together, back with Clemont and Bonnie and Korrina and Lucario. Back when she was first starting out, back before she'd known her dreams, back when love was but a distant dream.
But something was missing, now that she looked closer. Ash's side was missing two badge cases. One of them was his Kalos League badges. The other was… well, she wasn't completely sure, but it was probably Ash's Indigo League badges.
Leaf started crying again. Serena wondered whether she should start crying too, but really that was out of the question. In the past few years, she'd only truly cried of happiness, but even before then, from back when she was ten, she'd lived life in the public eye. She still remembered fondly that time when Aria, in disguise, had told her that it was important for Performers to smile. And from then on, through thick and through thin, when times were hard and when things were going well, she smiled. Because the world was watching her and her Pokemon, and her performances, and her contest battles, and everything else she did had brought them joy.
Her tears were hers alone, and they would never destroy her. Before, when the whole world's eyes were on her, letting her fans down would have been unforgivable. But now, their daughter was all that mattered.
So where was Ash?
Braixen gave her a significant look, stroking Leaf's head.
Serena nodded. "We're going to Delia's."
Even in the late afternoon, Pallet Town was bright and cheerful. Serena pushed a stroller along, with Leaf snoozing inside. Braixen was walking next to her. Pancham was sitting next to Leaf, making sure that she was comfortable. And Sylveon had her feelers wrapped snugly around Serena's arm.
Serena had either butterflies or a sense of dread in her stomach. She wasn't sure which, but Sylveon's aura made it a little better.
Although the walk to Delia's house – Ash's childhood home—was short, by the time she'd arrived Serena had tied herself in knots with worry. It was possible that it was all for nothing, of course – maybe he'd be here, or maybe he'd be back by dinner – but she was concerned anyways.
She knocked on the door. Delia opened it.
"Serena! What a pleasant surprise. Is Ash here?"
"I was hoping that he would be here with you," Serena said. "I haven't seen him all day."
Was it Serena's imagination, or did Delia's face darken for a second? "I think you'd better come in for some tea," Delia said.
Serena took off her shoes and sat at the kitchen table as Delia prepared a kettle. The butterflies in her stomach had definitely turned to a thick and heavy sense of dread now.
Delia set a cup of tea before her. "Ash never knew his father."
Serena's blood ran cold, even as Sylveon gripped her tighter. "What do you mean?"
"I met Ash's father when I was eighteen, helping out at the family restaurant," Delia said. "I was taking a break from school. And he had such sweet words and such a wonderful way of putting things and such great dreams. He was going to be a Pokemon master, and win the Pokemon League, and give me a better life than anything Pallet Town could offer."
Serena gripped her cup so tightly that she was afraid she would shatter it.
Delia said, "He never called me again after he passed Viridian City."
"Ash would never do that!" Serena shouted, more angrily than she'd intended. "Besides, I have his cell number."
"My own father also vanished on his own journey," Delia said. "But Ash has always been kinder than that. He always called home when he could, and he always came back."
"Has he called you?" Serena said.
"No," said Delia, after a pause. "But Serena, I want you to know—even if he never comes back, you will always be welcome in my home."
Delia had said it, the thing that Serena had been most afraid of – that Ash had truly left without any warning at all.
No. She couldn't believe it, refused to believe it. Ash had done some reckless, stupid things before, but she'd be damned if she didn't do her best to figure out why. She wanted answers, and would get them one way or another.
"Delia, can I ask a favor of you?" Serena said cautiously.
"Can you watch Leaf for a little while? Starting tomorrow?"
Delia frowned. "How long? Serena, are you going to go after him?"
Serena nodded. "He inspired me to leave home once. I can do it again. I know it's a lot to ask, Delia, but—"
"It's all fine," Delia said with a smile. That was the thing about Delia. She was always smiling as well. It seemed gentle and truly genuine, most of the time, but Serena knew Delia hadn't had the easiest life. Sometimes she wondered if she would turn out the same way, smiling for everyone around her but not always for herself.
"Really? Because I was going to say that if I'm not back in a month you should call my mother and ask her to raise Leaf. She'll love another chance to raise a Rhyhorn racer."
Delia chuckled at that. "Don't worry. I'm sure a girl will be easier to raise than Ash was!"
Serena smiled sadly. "I know you must think that I'm a terrible mother, Delia. I'm sorry."
Delia was still smiling. "Don't be. If I could have gone after Ash's father myself, I would have, but I had the family restaurant to take care of. But promise me this, Serena. Don't let Leaf grow up only knowing her grandmothers."
Serena woke up at dawn the next day. It might have already been too late to track Ash, but she wasn't going to travel through Viridian City at night.
It had been a very long time since she'd put on her old outfit – pink skirt, red vest, and black leggings – and she was surprised that they still fit, given her recent pregnancy. Surprisingly, it still looked good on her, even though she'd been basically a child the last time she'd worn it.
Usually, people didn't recognize her in casual wear. They were so used to the fancy dress she adopted for Performances or Contests that they simply didn't connect that gracious persona to the rather casually dressed woman before them. Still, it didn't hurt to be careful. She and Ash were both minor celebrities, after all, even if usually no one pointed it out.
A straw hat caught her eye. She grabbed it and put it on. A pang shot through her heart. Her hair was shorter, and she was much older, and there was no Poliwag, but she'd worn a similar straw hat when she'd first met Ash.
She smiled, as hard as it was, and the mirror smiled back at her. She looked fine. Absolutely fine. She could do this.
There was still one thing missing. The blue ribbon that Ash had given her so long ago. She wouldn't give up on him as long as there was still a chance. She tied the ribbon in front of her chest.
She checked her Pokeballs. "Braixen, Pancham, Sylveon—let's go."
Then, she remembered Diantha, and how she'd worn sunglasses to avoid recognition. Serena knew she wasn't quite at Diantha's level of celebrity, but it certainly didn't hurt. She had an extra pair, so she put them on.
She was now certain that she was unrecognizable. Now all she had to do was drop Leaf off at Delia's, and her journey could begin.
So once again, Serena set out on a journey because of Ash.
The night before:
With some melancholy, Ash looked at his badges as he sat in the Viridian City Pokemon Center.
He'd only taken two sets with him. He figured that if Serena was going to tell Leaf stories about him one day, it'd be better the more she had to work from. But now he was starting to regret taking the Kalos badges, because that was where they'd met again. Where he'd first started to fall in love.
Thinking about that hurt. It felt like he was betraying all that, but what choice did he have?
It had taken him a bit more than a day to reach Viridian City this time. It was a lot easier to take breaks and walk slower when you weren't trying to save a Pikachu from a flock of angry Spearow. Speaking of whom…
Pikachu wasn't talking to him again.
"Come on, buddy," Ash said. "Don't you remember the first time we were here? The Spearow, Ho-Oh, and Team Rocket?"
It failed, just like all of Ash's other attempts to get Pikachu to talk to him again. Pikachu had been giving him the silent treatment the instant he'd left Pallet Town. Ash didn't blame him.
"If you think I'm being a bad father, I'd like to see you try," Ash said, lightheartedly. Pikachu gave him a disbelieving look, before turning his back on him.
Ash sighed, and looked at his badges again. He wasn't even sure why he'd left. He loved Serena, and he loved their daughter. His life was good. Pallet Town wasn't the best place to raise a child, but even so, he couldn't put his finger on why he'd left.
He pulled the Boulder Badge out of the badge case. "I don't deserve this," he said, holding it up to the light. "Brock just gave it to me out of pity."
"Pikapi," Pikachu said, before bursting into an angry rant.
"Yes, I know that Brock got to realize what his dreams were because he went on a journey with us, but what does that have to do with anything?" Ash said, relieved that Pikachu was finally talking to him again.
Pikachu started gesturing with his front paws, as if talking to a particularly dense object.
"Oh," Ash said. "Right."
How could he have forgotten? The only reason Brock had been able to leave the Pewter City Gym was because his father had finally decided to stop being a deadbeat.
He looked at the Boulder Badge again, holding it up to the light. Brock had always been wise, a powerful force in his life. He'd given Ash a bit of a skewed perspective on romance, but he was a reliable guy who usually knew what he was talking about.
"Pewter City it is."
Pikachu scratched his head in consternation.
The fate of Ash's father is adapted from "Pocket Monsters: The Animation" by Takeshi Shudo, original head writer of the Pokemon anime.