When Serena woke up, she was sprawled on top of Ash. Light was streaming in through the window. Somehow, during the night, her hand had found its way under his shirt.
She let herself enjoy the moment just a little bit. When she felt him put his hands on her back, she opened her eyes to meet his.
"I love you," he said.
She snuggled closer to him. "I love you, too."
They spent just a little more time like that, but the world was calling them awake. With some reluctance from both of them, they got up.
Sometime in the night, Braixen had come out of her Pokeball, and Pikachu and Sylveon had snuck back into the room. They were collapsed in a pile on one of the other beds. Pikachu's ears perked up.
"You were right, Pikachu," Ash said. "I was worrying her for nothing."
They said their goodbyes to Brock, and started heading home to Pallet Town. This time, Ash drove. Four hours total of driving had been kind of exhausting for Serena, so instead she held Pikachu on her lap.
"How on earth did you get here so fast on foot?" Serena said.
"My old Pidgeot lives in Viridian Forest," Ash said. "It gave me a lift."
"You let a lot of friends go their own way," Serena said. Pikachu nodded in agreement.
Ash was quiet for a bit. "I do," he said eventually. "I wish I could say I would never leave you, but… I kind of just did. I guess the truth is I've gotten used to friends leaving me to follow their own dreams."
"Already looking forward to the day Leaf turns ten?"
"That's terrifying to think about," Ash said. "Now that I'm an adult, sending a ten-year-old out on a journey seems… irresponsible. I almost died on my first day."
"You also ended up tied up quite a lot," Serena said. It was quite the amusing thought, the idea of Ash tied up just enough… but she pushed it from her mind. Now wasn't quite the time to think about that.
"I wouldn't expect her to want to stay at home at all," Ash said. "Not with us as parents. We both set out so early and did so well that I can't imagine that we'd be able to keep her from leaving. And I know she'll find friends of her own and do great things, but… I wish we could help her prepare."
The wind whistled past them as they drove. Serena agreed with him completely, and the first seed of an idea was starting to bloom in her mind. She glanced down at Pikachu, who gave her a thumbs-up.
"Maybe we can," Serena said. "We should."
"After school every day we can take her to the lab," Ash said. "Let her play with the Pokemon there."
"I was thinking something different," Serena said. "We're… Ash, you know we're kind of rich, right?"
Ash blinked, though he kept his eyes on the road. "We are?"
"I'm starting to see why your mother never told you about your league winnings."
"I got winnings for participating in the Pokemon League? I mean, that's good, but I guess it's a good thing that I never knew about it because I don't know what I would've done with it."
Serena smiled. Ash could be so incredibly dense whenever he wasn't thinking about Pokemon battling that it was honestly a wonder that he'd survived this long. She scratched Pikachu under the ears.
"And of course, there's what I got from Performances, and Contests, and all those magazine appearances, and that fashion line I modeled for," Serena said. And the licensed body pillows, but if Ash knew that I had a collection of body pillows with him printed on them he might leave me, she thought, more privately.
"…How rich are we?" Ash said, his brow furrowed. Pewter City was fading into the distance behind them, and the terrain was flattening out.
"We could buy half of Pallet Town if you wanted to," Serena said. "And you did notice our wedding was an international event, right?"
"I thought our wedding was an international event because Diantha decided to show up, I didn't think she actually would" Ash said. Then he chuckled. "But half of Pallet Town? That's a bit much."
Then he grew somber. "Serena, I know you talked with my mom and Gary… did they tell you why so many people from Pallet Town want to be trainers?"
"Gary said that there were only four success stories in a century, and that it was hard…" Serena said. "I got the impression that lots of people passed through Pallet Town on their journeys. But not many had a reason to stay."
"I didn't realize this when I was a kid," Ash said. "But Pallet Town's pretty poor. There aren't a lot of jobs, especially not for ten-year-olds, so nobody wants to stay, so after primary school the schools end up being pretty terrible too."
Serena nodded. She had been a good potential parent and had done this sort of research before agreeing to move to Pallet Town. There were nearby towns, of course, with better schools, if it came to that. Of course, that had all been before Ash decided to have misgivings about letting their children go on a journey, but she completely understood where he was coming from. She'd asked a Vespiquen for help on her first day and then, just months later, had to help save the world.
Journeys were unpredictable.
"But it's my home, at least in one sense," Ash said. "It's one of the few places in the whole world that's always felt like home to me."
"Pikapi…" Pikachu said. Serena scratched him under the chin. He always seemed to like that.
"We could always move to Alola," Serena said. "But I have a feeling that's not what you really want."
"No," Ash said. "I'll always love Kukui and Burnett for accepting me into their home, and I'll always love Alola, but I can't see us there."
They drove a bit further, with Mt. Moon becoming an increasingly distant shadow on the horizon, before he spoke again. "Did Gary tell you the story about Pallet Oak?"
"He wasn't making that up?" Serena said. It had sounded more and more ridiculous the more she'd thought about it.
"It's absurd, but I heard the story too as a kid," Ash said. "Every kid in Pallet Town dreams of doing better than Pallet Oak did, and having the town renamed after themselves. I stopped caring about that, but being from Pallet Town isn't something I can ever forget. Do you ever wish you were back in Vaniville?"
"Not much," Serena said. "It was my mom's home, but mine is… home is who you're with, not where you are. And my home is with you and Leaf."
Ash wiped at his eyes. "I love you, Serena."
Even now, she still blushed when he said that.
He continued. "But I need to keep being the man that you love. I want to be the husband you deserve, and the reason I ran was because I was afraid that I couldn't. I haven't really been afraid of anything in a long time, because I could always get back up and try again. But now… I almost messed up permanently."
"I would always have taken you back, no matter how long it would have been."
Ash shook his head. "Every day, I would've felt more and more guilty until one day I couldn't forgive myself at all. I'm glad you came to get me."
Serena looked out the window, watching the countryside pass by. "I don't want to have to do it again," she said after a while. "What you need, Ash, is something that reminds you of who you are at your best. Something that isn't a journey."
"I know," said Ash, "but what?"
They drove a bit further. Viridian Forest was visible in the distance.
"What about you?" Ash said. "Do you wish you could keep performing?"
Serena turned to look at him. He glanced briefly at her before turning his eyes back to the road.
"I do," she said. "But I don't want to go on a journey again, and I don't want to leave you and Leaf. You would starve in a week. At least you change her diaper."
He smiled at that. "But… if we're rich and famous, if you don't want to go to audiences, then audiences can come to you! Are we rich enough to build a stage?"
It dumbfounded her how he was so good at giving advice to others, but could never find advice for himself.
"I'm serious!" he said. "Just because you're a mom now doesn't mean anything has to change! Lillie and Gladion's mom, Lusamine, kept running the Aether Foundation even with the both of them running around!"
"Lillie and Gladion were raised by servants in a mansion," Serena said. Now, they were probably rich enough to hire nannies themselves, but Serena kind of wanted to be involved in raising her children. She was pretty sure Ash did too, but just hadn't thought these things out.
"I'm sure Mimey wouldn't mind helping out," said Ash, "and Lusamine's Clefable helped raise Lillie."
The idea did appeal to Serena. She had resigned herself to spending at least the next five years as a full-time mother. Five-year-olds were usually self-sufficient, like Bonnie had been, and even Clemont had been designing his first power plants by then. But given that both she and Ash had been ten by the time of their first real successes, she wasn't counting on Leaf being a child prodigy.
And it was true. She was missing the rhythm of rehearsals, just a little bit. It had been irresponsible to rehearse while pregnant, and while she could practice contest combinations, it wasn't the same and her Pokemon knew it.
So returning to the stage was really tempting…
"Not just a stage," she said. "It needs to be a battlefield as well."
"But you're not a battler."
"But you are."
He sat up straighter when she said that; he was listening. The distant smog of Viridian City was easier to see now, hovering over the horizon like a haze.
"The first Alola League Champion, Kalos League Runner Up… you know it's who you are. You could… start a Gym?"
Ash seemed to be mulling the words over. They drove a bit further in silence. Serena played with Pikachu a bit, but both of them kept glancing over at Ash every few seconds to see what he was thinking about.
"There's a lot of stuff that goes into being a Gym Leader," Ash said after a while. "I know Kanto and Kalos both have more than eight Gyms, but I don't know if the League would accept me, and I don't know if I'd want to be bound to League rules. They make you stick to only one type of Pokemon, at least most of the time. But…"
"That's it!" he shouted. They were near an exit to Viridian City, and Ash took it and parked the car on the side of the street. "Serena, you're the best!"
He pulled her into a kiss—he was rarely this spontaneous, oftentimes it was all her—but when he pulled back his eyes were sparkling. "Did I ever tell you about the Battle Frontier?"
"At least five times."
Pikachu scratched his head. "Pika pika."
It was always embarrassing for Pikachu to watch Ash and Serena kiss, but it was even worse when he was caught in the middle of them because they didn't give enough warning. Pikachu was well aware that they loved each other, but that didn't mean that he liked to watch.
"At the end, they offered to let me be a Frontier Brain," Ash said.
"How is that different from being a Gym Leader again?" Serena said.
"No type restrictions, no league restrictions… they're as strong as members of the Elite Four," Ash said. "Gym Leaders have to hold back, at least a little, since they're testing how strong challengers are. But Frontier Brains can battle with their full power."
"And that's how you battle best," Serena said. "When you're giving it your all."
"Yeah," Ash said. "This is how we can put Pallet Town back on the map. I can make it a place where trainers come to challenge the Battle Frontier. I can make jobs, and improve the town in a way the Oaks never did, and make it someplace worth raising a family. But for you…"
"A stage that I can call my own," Serena said thoughtfully. "A place where I can perform and draw and audience. It would be a place I could teach others how to bring joy to peoples' lives. It would be somewhere Leaf could have a place to play, and maybe, when she gets older… I'm sounding like my mom, aren't I."
"I am so not answering that," Ash said with a chuckle. He grasped her hands. "But Serena, that's a wonderful idea. Your performances are amazing. They'll come to you!"
And just like that, their future was reified. The challenges of parenthood were vast, but now there was more than just the promise of joy through raising their children together. Becoming a Pokemon Master was who Ash was, just as inspiring others to live and follow their dreams was who Serena was, and now they had a way to do it together.
His hands were on her arms, and he pulled her closer. She could feel his breath tickling her lips, and see electricity behind his eyes. Her pulse quickened, and as she leaned in she reached for the top button of his shirt—
Pikachu had puffed his cheeks up, and was sitting on top of the car dashboard. Then, he mimicked a crying baby.
"Maybe we should take better care of the baby we already have before making another one," Serena said.
"Right," Ash said, clearing his throat. He started the car, and they went home to Pallet Town.