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Thread: The Kingdom of Illusions (Pokeshipping) - Complete

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    Default The Kingdom of Illusions (Pokeshipping) - Complete

    Title: The Kingdom of Illusions
    Fandom: Pokemon
    Pairing: Pokeshipping (Ash/Misty)
    Status: Complete
    Rated: PG-13 (For dialogue)

    Author's Note: I tend to do long-term planning with a lot of my projects, but this was one that ambushed me and left me with the feeling that if I didn't start on it quickly that I'd never get to it. Which doesn't mean that I don't have plans for it... just that they're rather young plans. That said, I hope that it is still enjoyable. As always, comments are very much appreciated

    I will also be posting this on my fanfiction.net account

    PM List
    -Araleon
    -johnnyd2




    The Kingdom of Illusions

    Part 1


    Time hadn’t passed Dawn by. Oh, she was still roughly the same girl that had started her journey to be Top Coordinator nearly ten years previous. Her hair was a bit shorter and her skirts were a bit longer, but she hadn’t so much changed as grown. When you’ve got a dream, you can never give up on it… but she’d found out that surprisingly that was the easy part. It was achieving your dream and then dealing with that feeling that the world’s been swept out from under you that’s hard; it’s finding that new dream.

    Which was why she’d been so excited to run into Ash at this year’s Wallace Cup. They’d both been in the audience: after Dawn’s triumphant assent to Top Coordinator of Sinnoh she’d been taking a break from participating in contests to bask in the glow of success… and figure out what exactly to do next. On the one hand, it should’ve been easy for her; her mother had gone through the same thing and got through it. But she wasn’t her mom. She’d land on her feet, but she wasn’t about to just copy her mother’s steps.

    Anyway, even if she was taking a break, she couldn’t resist watching the coordinators take their bows. So she’d packed up her things and traveled to Hoenn’s Mauville City where the Cup was being held this year. Apparently Ash had wound up in the audience to support a competing coordinator he and Pikachu had met the day before whose Whiscash they help to save from thieves.

    Just like Ash. Always getting involved in other people’s problems.

    Actually, she was kind of worried about him. Like her, he was in that confused ‘where do I go next?’ kind of place. But she was there for happy reasons and for him… not so much. He’d been to Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, Sinnoh, Unova, Barra, Naune, and Pairaag and still a League victory eluded him. He’d literally run out of leagues.

    Oh, there was always some new tournament somewhere and that was mainly what Ash was subsisting off now. He’d ended up in Mauville originally to take part in a small electric type tournament run by Wattson. He’d won too. He always did so well in smaller competitions. But in the leagues… well, it wasn’t like he didn’t do well. He did excellent. Top eight, top four… he’d even gotten all the way to the final two in Naune. But that wasn’t enough to satisfy Ash. Nothing short of Pokemon master would do.

    And even though he was still the same old Ash—almost too much the same old Ash—she could tell that it weighed on him. He was tired and he was doubting himself. But whenever he started to actually express that… the defense mechanisms would kick in.

    “Oh well! We’ll just have to train that much harder! Right, Pikachu?”

    It was getting sort of painful to watch. He used to say those things before and that had seemed fine. But they were older now, and it just seemed that…

    Well, Dawn had never given up on her dream of being Top Coordinator either. But she’d been patient. She’d traveled, she’d hung out with friends, she’d spent a lot of time with her mom, and she’d even spent a few grueling years studying in Jubilife City to earn her teaching degree. Sure, she’d practiced, sure she’d participated in contests to eventually reach her goal, but the point was: she’d made room in her life for things besides Pokemon. And she felt like a better person for it.

    Ash hadn’t done that. Oh sure, he had friends… friends he met battling Pokemon. And seeing them depended entirely on his Pokemon journey. He always said ‘we’ll see each other again’, sometimes to people he’d only met once along the way. Sometimes it came true, but more often than not it didn’t. He left people behind to pursue his ambitions. He could’ve taken a break and turned around to see them, but… it seemed like that only happened if there was a Pokemon-based reason behind it.

    Case in point: They’d only renewed their arrangement of traveling together temporarily because Ash was looking for transport to get back to Kanto and Dawn had already decided to sightsee in Hoenn.

    Back when she was ten, she’d said it so many times: ‘Ash will definitely win,’ and she’d believed it. She’d said the same thing about her own victories. But she didn’t do that anymore. First of all, you never knew. There were a whole lot of tough rivals out there, and as she’d grown she’d realized how disrespectful it was to make light of their chance to win. She’d believed in her abilities, and she believed she could win, but there was no shame in acknowledging the completion. And anyway, it’s better not to spit in Dame Fate’s eye.

    She believed in Ash and his abilities too. But she also knew that there was always a bigger fish out there. If Ash won in Kanto then maybe he could stop obsessing and make more room for people in his life. But if he lost…

    “Oh well! We’ll just have to train that much harder! Right, Pikachu?”

    …And another crack under the surface.

    How long could he really go on doing this before he found peace?

    And the worst part was that she didn’t know what to say to him. You couldn’t just say: ‘Hey Ash, why not forget about this whole Pokemon thing for awhile and take up macramé? It doesn’t have to be forever and it might be good for your mental health.’ This was Ash Ketchum they were talking about. He would not take that well.

    And just when her head wanted to explode from all this troublesome, borrowed stress, she paused, shook her head, and calmed. I’m sure there’s no need to worry, she thought to herself. Something will come up and it’ll all work out.

    “Hey Ash,” Dawn said, in an effort hit on a light subject and with no intention of bringing up macramé, “did I tell you I ran into Kenny on the way here?”

    “Oh really?” Ash asked, leaning forward. “How’s he doing?”

    “Pretty good,” Dawn said. Then she added with a giggle, “he’s way less of a twerp than he used to be.”

    Ash winced. “Please don’t say ‘twerp’.”

    “What? Bad Team Rocket memories?” Dawn asked. She tapped her chin with her finger. “Y’know, I never ran into them after I stopped traveling with you. Are they still stalking you? I haven’t seen them.”

    “I… haven’t seen them since Unova,” Ash said with a grimace.

    Dawn stared at him. “Don’t tell me you actually miss them?”

    “No! Of course not!” Ash spouted defensively.

    But he did. They were part of the training… part of the adventure… and their attentions gave him worth. Battling Team Rocket… saving Pokemon from them… it was just part of the whole cycle. And now they’d gotten embroiled in something else somewhere too.

    “I wonder what happened to them,” Dawn said speculatively. “Do you think they settled down somewhere together?”

    “Settled down to what?” Ash asked cluelessly.

    Dawn gave him a mildly cold stare and then shrugged her shoulders. Some people never grow up.

    Ash didn’t know what Team Rocket had settled down to do, but it was clear that they’d given up on their vow to capture Pikachu. They’d given up. How could they just walk away after all those years?

    Walking away… now that was something he could never do. …But none of this would matter once he won the Indigo Plateau Conference. Of course he’d win! …Except that he’d said that before. But he was stronger now! …But what if…

    Ash was not a fan of doubt in his mind. He’d never given up all those years, and he’d gotten stronger, he knew he had… …but so did his rivals. And there were more and more of those too. New ones at least. The old ones seemed to vanish after awhile, on to… other things.

    But things were starting to change. It had been a long time since he’d left home with his Pikachu. He was starting to feel like he was an old man in a young man’s game, which is utterly ridiculous at twenty. And surely, there were trainers much older than him. But the fact that he was twice the age of a lot of his competitors was starting to strike him as strange. It had never mattered to him when he was on the other side of the line, challenging the more experienced trainers. But now it made him feel… old. Like he was running out of time. He had to be nearly as old as Team Rocket by now.

    He stopped and shook his head. No, he thought. I’ll never be that ancient.

    And with that unfair and completely out of nowhere shot that made Jessie twitch violently thousands of miles away for reasons she couldn’t fathom, he took a breath and tried to focus on victory.

    “This mountain air is really clear,” Ash said, looking up at the peaks far above them. “I feel stronger just breathing it.” Then he got an idea. “Hey, Swellow, come on out!” he said, lobbing a Poke ball. The bird looped out of its Poke ball with a cry and took to the open skies.

    “Hey, that’s a great idea!” Dawn said, picking up two of her Poke balls. “Xatu, Togekiss! Come out and stretch your wings!”

    The two flying types appeared in a flash from their Poke balls and swooped joyously through the air.

    Ash lifted the cap on his hat—his seventh in a series—to see the flying spectacle more closely as Pikachu leaned forward on his shoulder and looked enchanted. “Cool! A Xatu! When’d you get that?”

    “When I was traveling around Johto,” Dawn said proudly.

    “And I see Togekiss is just as graceful as ever,” Ash commented, watching as she sailed through the sky.

    “That’s for sure,” Dawn agreed. It was thanks to Togekiss that she’d managed to pull out a victory in the final round of the festival and attain her dream. She smiled warmly as it gave a call and pulled off a stylish dive.

    Her smile dropped as it froze in the air, seemingly surrounded by a blue light.

    “That’s not… Safeguard, is it?” Ash said, mystified.

    “No…” Dawn said, confusedly.

    And then Togekiss started to move, flying away from her with blank eyes, as though it were in a trance.

    “Togekiss? Togekiss! Come back!” Dawn called, running after it along the uneven ground at the base of the mountain.

    But Togekiss didn’t turn around.

    *****

    Dawn and Ash had run after Togekiss until they couldn’t run anymore. Even by taking the short-cut through the mountain tunnel, Togekiss was still way ahead of them, flying over the desert beyond the mountains, immune to Dawn’s entreaties to return.

    Luckily they’d found a place where you could rent off-road vehicles to cross the desert, and had snatched up a car. Dawn floored it and sent them roaring across the desert as fast as she could, with her hair streaming in the wind. Ash clung to his armrests for dear life as Pikachu and Piplup held onto their trainers. He might’ve complained about Dawn’s panic-stricken driving, but then again, she was the one with the license. She’d been rather snappish about that, not quite able to believe that he hadn’t ‘even gotten a license’. Well… it had been a hassle and there’d never been a right time, what with training and all. Anyway, there was nothing wrong with walking. It was healthier than breathing in gasoline.

    Anyway, Dawn had a right to be panicked. What was up with Togekiss? It had never been like this before. Oh, sure it had its own way of doing things, but to actually run away?

    He couldn’t shake the feeling that all this was somehow… familiar.

    *****

    He only realized what it was for sure when they were closer. There was no doubt about it; Togekiss was heading with single minded determination toward a structure rising above the landscape. The desert had yielded to lush green treetops as they headed into the uplands. Nestled on a forested cliff was a castle, or… sort of a castle. It was bigger than a castle ought to be. It was like a castle with a city soldered straight onto it. The buildings all had the same style, and clustered together they looked like a bunch of different sized eggs in a nest.

    Ash looked up over the strange metropolis to what Togekiss was really flying toward. It was a mirror image, an illusion of a second kingdom rising up out of the first. It couldn’t be real… but yet it held something truer than the land it reflected.

    “The Mirage Kingdom,” Ash murmured.

    “What?” Dawn asked, distracted turning to him for just long enough that she didn’t see the cobblestones up ahead.

    The car buckled and lurched on the uneven surface, losing control and swerving as Dawn not so delicately applied the brakes.

    “Whew,” she sighed in relief as the car narrowly avoided the city gate. She rose from her seat with Piplup still clinging to her, his legs turned to jelly from the crazy ride. Togekiss was just above them now. They’d managed to catch up via a flagrant disregard for safe traveling speeds. Maybe now she could…

    “Togekiss, return!” she called out, holding the Poke ball above her head.

    “Kiss?” Togekiss purred in befuddlement, as the blue glow left it and it traveled back into Dawn’s Poke ball.

    Dawn held the Poke ball close to her. “Don’t scare me like that,” she whispered quietly. Then she turned around and fixed Ash with a fierce expression. “Alright, what’s going on here?” she demanded.

    Ash froze. “What makes you think I know?” he asked defensively.

    “You muttered something when you saw this place,” Dawn said, gesturing expressively up at the ornate, egg-shaped buildings. “You’ve been here before, haven’t you?”

    Ash put down his hands and gave up the ghost. “Alright, I have been here once before, with Misty and May and the others. But that was a long time ago, and anyway I don’t know why Togekiss would act that way.”

    Misty and May… well, of course Dawn had met May on more than one occasion, but somehow Misty had always remained a mystery. She was the girl Ash had traveled with when he first started on his journey and she had a sort of… legendary quality to an outsider. There was always a good story following ‘I remember this one time, Misty and Brock and I…’

    “Hold on,” Ash said, bringing his gloved fist down into his open palm. “Yeah, that’s it! It’s gotta have something to do with the Togepi paradise!”

    “The Togepi Paradise?” Dawn repeated, befuddled.

    “Yeah,” Ash said, pointing at the strange hallucination hovering above the kingdom. “Here in the Mirage Kingdom, Togepi are considered sacred, and live in the Togepi Paradise above the castle. Togekiss is Togepi’s final evolved form. So that’s gotta have something to do with it.”

    Dawn looked worriedly up at the mirror kingdom and then back at the Poke ball in her hand. “So that’s what drew Togekiss here?”

    “Gotta be,” Ash said with a nod. “The same thing happened to Misty’s Togepi before it evolved into a Togetic.”

    “So, that place just sucks in any Togepi or evolution of Togepi in the area?” Dawn asked, sounding panicked.

    “Uh… no,” Ash said, looking stumped once more. “That was only when the Togepi Paradise was in trouble because of this really bad guy called Colonel Hansen. Misty’s Togetic just wanted to help.”

    “Do you think there’s something wrong again and my Togekiss wanted to help?” Dawn posited, looking around. Everything seemed alright to her, but you never knew.

    “Maybe,” Ash said, looking ahead at the castle. “There’s only one way to find out.”

    *****

    You can’t just walk in on royalty without an appointment. Ash did not understand this rather fundamental fact and running up to the palace and shouting “We have to see Princess Sara right now!” at the first guard he saw could’ve gone badly for him. Luckily though, a plump women in a rotund purple hat, whose brown hair was just beginning to show some gray stopped by before Ash could be charged with ‘disturbing a member of the police force in the execution of his duty’ or some such thing.

    She recognized Ash much more quickly than he recognized her. But sure enough it was Miranda, the castle caretaker whom he’d met in the Mirage Kingdom ten years ago. She’d seemed quite happy to find him back in the kingdom, even going so far as to call it a miraculous twist of fate.

    When he and Dawn explained to Miranda what had happened with Togekiss, Miranda had nodded and agreed that it would be best if they saw Sara.

    “Is there some trouble going on here that my Togekiss could sense?” Dawn asked, as they were led up the portrait-festooned hall of the castle.

    Miranda hung her head as they walked along. “I think it’s best if Her Majesty explains it to you,” she said wearily.

    She seemed to regain much of her energy when they reached the door of a parlor. She threw the double doors open dramatically. “Your Majesty!” she began excitedly, “Ash Ketchum has come back! His friend’s Togekiss led them here!”

    Ash and Dawn looked beyond Miranda into the room, waving somewhat nervously.

    Sara, visible on the overstuffed couch, set down her teacup on the tray with another and got up immediately. Her light brown curls bounced as she gathered up her long skirts bearing marks similar to that of a Togepi and greeted them.

    “Welcome friends,” she said, sounding much more regal than Ash remembered her being. “I can only hope that your arrival here is the miracle we’ve been hoping for.”

    “Umm… gee,” Ash said, scratching his cheek nervously. For whatever reason he got this ‘hero’ thing every so often. He’d never gotten used to it. He never would. “I don’t really know what the problem is, but I’ll do my best, Princess—” A thought struck him and he corrected himself, “I mean Queen Sara, right?”

    “That’s correct,” Sara said with a bright smile. “But you’re not the only miracle arrival we’ve had in the last few days.”

    There was a clink of china from the tray in the parlor as a tea cup was picked up. It was impossible to see the figure beyond the door, but the hand gripping the tea cup handle could be seen. It had its pinky extended, hoity-toity style.

    “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten me, Ash Ketchum,” a voice said.

    Dawn looked curiously at Ash who stepped back and nearly fell over.

    “Pika pi!” Pikachu called excitedly, jumping off of Ash’s shoulder into the room.

    “Misty?!” Ash said in obvious astonishment.

  2. #2
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    Hey, this is pretty good!I'm a Pokeshipper, 100%, so it's nice to see there are still others.

    My favorite thing right now is Ash's doubt. I'vbe grown tired of following the anime. It's just boring now. Ash goes to new region, meets new people, fails at League, loses his companions. REPEAT.

    So I'm glad to see a fic address that for once, instead of having Ash constantly be sickeningly optimistic. Because doubt gets all of us, event he most optimistic people.

    I have to say, I wasn't expecting Dawn to show up as a prominent figure when I clicked the link. But I'm glad she did. She's a fun character. She would be one to worry about Ash, without it getting shippy.

    I'm excited for this fic. If there's gonna be a PM list or something, please add me.
    Current Black Team: Rivka (Stoutland), Elmo (Musharna), Scarlett (Whimsicott), Gabriel (Carracosta), Reese (Klang), Sean (Mienfoo); all are at level 47. Currently in Victory Road.

  3. #3
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    My favorite thing right now is Ash's doubt. I'vbe grown tired of following the anime. It's just boring now. Ash goes to new region, meets new people, fails at League, loses his companions. REPEAT.

    So I'm glad to see a fic address that for once, instead of having Ash constantly be sickeningly optimistic. Because doubt gets all of us, event he most optimistic people.
    I think a lot of us are fatigued with this pattern. I hate to seem traitorous, but half the time I don't even want Ash to win at a League in the end. Because he needs to learn something more important from this whole crazy exercise.

    I have to say, I wasn't expecting Dawn to show up as a prominent figure when I clicked the link. But I'm glad she did. She's a fun character. She would be one to worry about Ash, without it getting shippy.
    I was hoping no Pokeshippers would get turned off by Dawn's prominent role. She's a good friend and that's what counts.

    I'm excited for this fic. If there's gonna be a PM list or something, please add me.
    Thanks so much! Huh, I've actually never done a PM list before (probably because I mostly write for Slayers), but I've started one now and added you.

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    I've always liked the return to mirage kingdom concept in regards to fanfics. Either PM me updates or email me at NEWSGUY1988@aol.com . thanks ^_^
    Altoshipping and Aquamarineshipping, my favorite pairings. MINE MINE MINE!


    HxP FTW ^_^

    CLICK FOR GREAT JUSTICE!! http://johnnyd2.deviantart.com/journal/23765316/

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    Part 2.

    This was Dawn’s first time meeting Misty, so she didn’t realize how much she’d changed. Instead of the short ponytail she’d sported in her younger days, she had her hair out to her shoulders with a slight curl upwards at the ends. A fleecy, light-blue sweatshirt hung open over a one piece swimsuit. This wasn’t the kind of swimsuit that Dawn usually favored when she went bikini shopping. This one looked professional and… well, like it was actually designed for underwater use. Below that, she wore a pair of jeans that were folded up at the knee and sandals with yellow flowers on them.

    Dawn had only barely gotten to introduce herself to Misty, who was giving everyone’s favorite electric mouse a great big hug, when Ash recovered from his surprise and raced over to greet her.

    The change in Ash when he saw Misty was just… it was night and day. Before he’d been kinda let down looking and going through the motions, but now Dawn couldn’t even get a word in edgewise with Ash energetically talking to Misty about the new Pokemon he’d caught since he talked to her last, and how well he’d done in his league matches. He was actually bragging about the league matches! Dawn had tried to congratulate him on his second place in the Naune League when they met, and he’d thanked her in a stiff, polite, teeth-gritting kind of way. That loss when he’d been so close had knocked him down more than any loss and now he was using it to impress Misty?

    And Misty was not only suitably impressed, but she’d followed his league appearances on television. The two were about to launch into a lengthy conversation about Ash’s league battles, Misty’s gym battles, and how everyone back in Cerulean City was doing, when Sara gave a polite cough.

    They turned to look at her because, hey, when a Queen coughs, you pay attention. “I’m sorry to dampen the reunion of two such good friends,” she said, as Miranda left her side to get more tea cups, “but I think we ought to get down to business. Miranda’s told me what’s been going on, and I’m sure Dawn would like to know what inspired her Togekiss to fly off without warning.”

    “Right,” Ash said, putting a hand behind head.

    “Sorry!” Misty said.

    “It’s no problem,” Dawn said giving them a bright smile, but she couldn’t help but cast a nervous look toward the Poke ball that held Togekiss.

    Ash, Misty, Dawn, and Sara all sat down as Miranda passed full tea cups to the newcomers. Sara held her cup between her thin fingers, more for warmth then to drink and looked at a loss as to where to begin. “The Togepi Paradise which lies above our kingdom,” she finally began after some deliberation, “connects Togepi and their evolved forms Togetic and Togekiss. It is their main nesting ground and a deeply important spiritual place for them. The beauty and splendor of the Paradise is determined by the strength of the Togepi that reside there. If the hearts of the people in the kingdom are good then the Paradise blooms and the Togepi are happy. But if the hearts of the people are full of wickedness and chaos, then the Togepi weaken and so does the Paradise.”

    “And you think that’s what’s happening right now, your Majesty?” Dawn asked, leaning forward with Piplup in her arms.

    Sara gave a slight nod. It was a nod that said she would get there soon. “Ten years ago, just such an event happened. An evil man named Hansen tried to steal Misty’s Togepi in order to take the crown.” She stopped herself for some explanation for Dawn’s benefit. “In this kingdom, one may only become ruler when a Togepi finds them, and they are only fit to rule on their own when that Togepi leaves them for the Paradise.”

    “But Hansen got more than he reckoned for when he tangled with my little Togepi,” Misty said with a prideful smile.

    “He did indeed,” Sara agreed. “The Togepi that live in the Paradise fought against Hansen, as did Misty’s Togepi who evolved into a Togetic during the fight. We all banded against Hansen and came out victorious. He was thrown in jail for his crimes so that he couldn’t hurt the Togepi or the Mirage Kingdom anymore.”

    “My own little Togepi came to me after that,” Sara said, “and I was able to ascend to the throne my parents’ held. Misty’s Togetic decided to stay and protect the Paradise and the royal family.”

    A sadness crossed Misty’s eyes that Dawn knew well. It was hard to leave friends behind.

    “All was well for the longest time,” Sara said, her eyes cast down. “Togepi and I ruled together over the Mirage Kingdom. The people were happy and so were the Togepi. I’ve seen the Paradise rebuilt and it’s the most beautiful thing you could imagine. …Though I doubt it is that way now.”

    “What’s the matter?” Ash broke in, eager to get to the point. “That Hansen guy’s locked away, right? So there shouldn’t be a problem.”

    “Hansen was locked away,” Sara said sadly, “but two years ago he escaped from the dungeon—with help, I believe, and has since taken refuge in the Kingdom of Verum.”

    “Verum?” Dawn repeated.

    “They’re a neighboring kingdom,” Sara said, in a tone that implied that they weren’t very good neighbors. “While the Mirage Kingdom has been quite wealthy and successful, Verum has had trouble remaining a self-sustaining nation. They’re hungry for resources, and have been taking an increasingly antagonistic posture toward us. I have no doubt that Hansen is helping them and that he still has ambitions for the crown.”

    “So that’s what’s messing things up in the Togepi Paradise,” Ash said thoughtfully.

    “Partly,” Sara said diplomatically. “But the discord isn’t only abroad, but at home as well.”

    “Yes, what’s been going on here, Sara?” Misty said, giving the Queen a searching look. “I’ve been here many times to visit Togetic, and I know what this kingdom’s like. …Something’s just wrong. The people don’t act the same.”

    “There has been much discontent and upheaval since the death of my father,” Sara explained. “I believe that there are revolutionary groups sewing this discontent amongst the people, for very little has changed to make their attitudes so poor. They label every action of the monarchy to be one of tyranny, and have sought to impose limits on the power of the crown.”

    “The cause that’s being championed right now, in conjunction with our parliament, is a new law, one that would force me to marry a suitable person to keep the throne,” Sara finished.

    “What?” Dawn exclaimed, squeezing Piplup as she leaned forward.

    “They want to make you get married?” Misty said in much the same tone. “But it’s not like that would solve any of their problems!”

    “They are saying that no one person should hold the crown,” Sara explained calmly, but with a frown on her face. “Now that my Togepi has left the throne for me and me alone, they say I should marry, preferably a politician or a nobleman of another kingdom, in order to insure a balance of power.”

    “But you’ve never done that here before, right?” Ash asked skeptically. “I thought you’d been doing this Togepi thing forever, and there’s never been a rule about marriage before.”

    “That is true,” Sara said. “Though it’s rarely actually come up. Most monarchs do marry. Even though it’s never a law we’ve had in the past, it appeals to our parliament which is made up of priests. If it passes, then I will quash it, but they can revive it if they have enough votes.”

    “That’s awful!” Misty said, making a fist and standing up. “They can’t force you to marry someone you don’t want to!”

    “To tell the truth,” Sara said slowly, “I never intended to get married at all.”

    “What?” As a romantic, Misty was definitely on board with the idea of people not being told when they had to get married or who they had to marry, but… not marrying at all?

    “In the Mirage Kingdom, it has always been so that the King is the highest ruler,” Sara said. “No matter if the Togepi appeared to the Queen and the King merely attained his position through marriage. If I marry, then my role will diminish to that of heir-producing.” Those last two words had an edge on them that seemed all the sharper from such a refined person. “If I do not marry, then I have the power of both the Queen and the King.”

    “There are only two ways to become royalty in the Mirage Kingdom,” Miranda spoke up somewhat tentatively. “The first is to have a Togepi appear to you, which is unlikely since her Majesty’s Togepi only left her a few years ago. The second is the marry someone who is royalty. You can see why this law appeals to the people, Miss.”

    Misty sat down slowly. “I see,” she said.

    “I can’t say for sure what’s going to happen,” Sara said calmly. “But with this law threatening passage, I may have no choice about marriage, and if a King with evil in his heart is selected, then I, my Kingdom, and the Togepi Paradise are all threatened.”

    “And you don’t know when Hansen and that Verum Kingdom are gonna attack either,” Ash said, rubbing his forehead.

    “Yes,” Sara agreed. “A calamity doesn’t seem far away, but I am cheered that you two have arrived. Dawn, I’m sure your Togekiss sensed the danger and wished to be here in case it is needed. Ash, I am sure it is no coincidence that fate brought you here, and Misty as well.”

    “…That’s right,” Ash said, looking surprised. “I didn’t even ask… why are you here, Misty?”

    “Oh, one of my students gave—” she stopped, suddenly looked embarrassed. “Well, that can wait until later,” she said, interrupting herself. “I mostly just wanted to see how Togetic and Sara were doing, and then I found out that there was trouble going on and… now you’ve shown up.”

    “I don’t know how this is going to play out,” Sara said, “but I’m certain that you three are here for a reason… and Togekiss as well,” she added. “Will you not stay and see what can be done?”

    The three of them exchanged looks and nodded together. “We can’t just leave after hearing all that,” Ash said.

    “Right, Sara. We’re friends,” Misty agreed.

    “And I’m not leaving either,” Dawn said. “I’m sure Togekiss wants us to stay.”

    Sara smiled at them, took the tiara off her head and rubbed at the indentations in had left against her temples. It was a small looking crown but… surely it was solid gold, and probably heavier than it looked. “Thank you,” was all she said.

    *****

    Dawn collapsed into an extra plush armchair in the room she’d been given while Piplup wandered around the room, pecking with boundless curiosity. She’d had a brush with royal digs when she’d traded places with Princess Salvia for awhile, but it still wasn’t the kind of treatment she was used to. Her room was just… beautiful. There was a lacy canopy on her bed and all the windows had gorgeous stained glass scenes of Togepi. After spending most nights in Pokemon Centers, she had to admit that the luxury was nice.

    She took out the Poke ball that held Togekiss for what seemed like the hundredth time since talking with Queen Sara. She still remembered getting Togekiss from Princess Salvia. It hadn’t exactly been a smooth start between her and Togekiss, but they’d gotten it together soon enough and had set out to make their contest dreams come true together. She was afraid to let it out again. What if it flew off to the Paradise and she never saw it again?

    There was a quiet knock on her door. Dawn hurriedly tucked her Poke ball away with the others. “Come in,” she said.

    Misty opened the door tentatively and gave her a little wave. “I… couldn’t sleep,” she said by way of explanation.

    Dawn didn’t say that considering it was nine o’clock and they’d only parted from Sara and company about half an hour ago that she couldn’t have been trying very hard. The fact was, Dawn really wanted to see more of Misty. Not only had she been dying to meet her since Ash had told her about her, but she’d grown more and more convinced when she watched her and Ash interact… maybe she could say something to make him see the light.

    “Me neither,” Dawn said. “Come on in!”

    “Piplup?” Piplup said, looking up at Misty as she walked into the room and closed the door.

    “Hey there, cutie!” Misty said, leaning down to beam at Piplup.

    “Piiplup!” Piplup said, puffing out his chest. This girl obviously had excellent taste.

    “Ash said you wanted to become a Water Pokemon master,” Dawn observed cheerfully.

    Misty straightened up and gave a weak little grin. “That was a long time ago,” she admitted. “But Water Pokemon will always be my favorites.”

    “So, it seems like Ash was really happy to see you,” Dawn said, as Misty took a seat. And this was very true… but something had seemed a little off to Dawn. Good friends who had been separated for so long… shouldn’t they have hugged? Maybe a shoulder pat or a high five? There’d been some… distance and Dawn wasn’t quite sure what to make of that yet. “It must’ve been awhile since you guys last saw each other.”

    “Yes,” Misty said somewhat grimly. “Oh, we exchange e-mails every so often and we seem to run into each other every couple of years, but… you know Ash, he’s always gotta keep moving on.”

    “I know,” Dawn said, nodding cheerlessly.

    “He told me that he’s coming back to Kanto to try at the Indigo League again,” Misty said. “I have to wonder if he would’ve even stopped to visit me. You know how he gets when he’s got a goal in front of him.”

    “I’m sure he means well,” Dawn said, in an effort to cheer Misty up.

    “I know he does,” Misty said. “So… do you think he’ll win in the Indigo League?”

    Dawn frowned. “To… to just hear the words he says you’d think he has no end of confidence, but… I don’t know. The way he talks, I’m not sure if he believes what he’s saying anymore.”

    Misty set her hands in her lap and looked at them. “But he’ll keep trying, even if he fails and even if he doesn’t believe he can make it anymore… because he’s never even thought of having another dream.”

    “I’m worried about him,” Dawn admitted. “He’ll never be happy if he keeps doing this.”

    “He’s so thoughtless sometimes,” Misty said sharply as she clenched her fists. A second ago Dawn had thought she might cry, but now she looked more like she wanted to punch someone. “He’s ruining his own life and he can’t even see how this effects his Pokemon and his friends and—” she stopped abruptly and then put her head in her hands. “I’m such an idiot,” she said through them.

    “What?” Dawn said, getting up. She didn’t really know what Misty was going through, but she knew she was upset.

    Misty looked up at her, a little watery-eyed, but that seemed to be mostly out of frustration. Her thumb glided across her eyelid to wipe away a tear that was threatening to fall. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I should just—”

    “No, it’s okay,” Dawn said, holding up her hands before Misty could leave. “What were you going to say?”

    Misty stayed put. She shook her head and when she spoke next it was almost with a laugh, albeit a scornful one. “People are supposed to get over the crushes they had when they were ten, right? It all becomes some cute little memory from childhood that you don’t take seriously anymore.”

    Dawn said nothing. Everything seemed important when you were ten. It was amazing how age took you away from those things.

    “I don’t know why I still care about him after all this time. He certainly hasn’t given me any reason to,” Misty said forcefully. “I haven’t smartened up since I was ten either. That’s why I’m an idiot—only an idiot would still love him.”

    Dawn was quiet for a moment, then patted Misty’s hand. “I don’t think you’re an idiot to love him,” she said softly.

    Why? Do you?

    The words had come out so sharply and so suddenly that Dawn felt herself almost pushed back by the sheer force of them. “No!” she said, holding up her hands in a placatory manner. “It’s just that we’ve been friends for awhile and I know that he’s really a great guy. I don’t love him like you do, but I think I can understand why you would.”

    Misty blinked at Dawn. “Really?” she said in much more of an indoor-voice.

    “Really,” Dawn said. “He’s determined and kind and encouraging. No one tries harder than Ash.”

    Misty closed her eyes and nodded. “…And he’s stubborn and hotheaded. And he can be so dense sometimes that he hurts people without meaning to.” She stood up and had a sour look on her face. “…And I think those are the things I love and hate most about him.”

    Dawn was looking at Misty as though seeing great potential. “You should talk to him,” she said.

    Misty put a tired hand to her head. “Why bother? I mean, I’ve started so many times, but he just misses the point.”

    “He needs someone right now,” Dawn said emphatically. “Someone’s got to tell him that there are other paths available to him besides becoming a Pokemon Master—someone who he trusts to take him down a notch when he needs it. Whether it leads to love or… something else entirely, he needs someone to tell him that that’s okay.”

    Dawn took a deep breath. “I think that person is you, Misty.”

  6. #6
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    Part 3.

    Misty paused for a moment before heading down the hall that would lead to Ash’s room. She wasn’t going there because of anything that Dawn had said. If she was honest with herself, then she had always intended on going to see him. Seeing Dawn was the stall… the confidence builder. But her confidence didn’t feel built up, no matter what Dawn had said.

    She turned down the hall and heard voices spilling out from an open door.

    “—better get some rest, Pikachu. I don’t really know what’s up, but we gotta be ready so that we can help all the Togepi.”

    “Kaa!” Pikachu answered determinedly.

    Misty grinned and sidled around the doorway. “Typical Ash Ketchum,” she said. “Meandering from one place to the next helping one person after another—in between becoming the greatest Pokemon trainer in the world, of course.”

    “Hey Misty!” Ash exclaimed, looking around with a smile.

    “Pika pi!” Pikachu cried, jumping into her arms once more.

    Misty laughed and hugged Pikachu back. “I just had to see how you were doing,” she explained. “We didn’t get much chance to talk with all the worry about the kingdom and all.”

    “We’re doin’ great!” Ash declared. “Right Pikachu?”

    Pikachu shrugged as though to say 'so-so’.

    Ash’s shoulders slumped. “Come on, Pikachu. What kind of answer is that?”

    “Oh, I’m sure he’s just tired after all the traveling you’ve been doing,” Misty said, taking a seat with Pikachu on her lap. “You two hardly ever take breaks.”

    “Well, there’s a lot to do,” Ash said a little doubtfully.

    “I know what you mean,” Misty said with an understanding nod. “It’s like that at the gym too, and even when I finally feel like I’ve got everything balanced out, I can count on Daisy, Violet, or Lily taking on something else for me to do.” She laughed. “But if I never made time for myself I think I’d just get sick of the whole thing.”

    Ash’s brows knitted. “So are they still actresses?”

    “Actress-model-philanthropist-jetsetters,” Misty said, rolling her eyes.

    “And they still never invite you to come along with them?”

    “Sometimes they do,” Misty allowed with a small smile. “They’re not completely heartless, you know. Or at least a little less heartless than they used to be. But someone’s gotta do the hard labor in this family.”

    “But you’re going strong, right?” Ash asked. “You still like being a gym leader?”

    Misty glanced at the ceiling in thought. “It has its ups and downs like anything else,” she said. “But overall, yeah, I really do love it.” She looked back at him intently, then set Pikachu down on the chair and got up as if to get a better look at him.

    “New hat,” Misty commented after her intense look had Ash somewhat disconcerted.

    “Not so new now,” Ash said with a shrug. “I’ve had it since starting out in the Pairaag region.”

    “And that’s like… your seventh hat, right?” Misty said, counting them down in her head. “Strange,” she said vaguely as she walked behind him, “that first one took so much effort to get, but the rest have come and gone so easily.” She frowned.

    Ash wasn’t really sure what she meant by that. “Well, I guess—” He cut himself off. She had reached her hands forward and her fingertips were just barely touching his hair. It was like a cloud of awkward had descended onto the room, and he wasn’t sure why that should have happened over such a light action.

    “Ash…” she began in a quiet voice.

    “Misty…?” Ash replied, not at all sure what was coming next.

    There was silence awash with anticipation for a moment, then: “Do you ever wash your hair?”

    The tension in the room drained away in an instant.

    “Hey, that’s not fair!” Ash retorted, turning around to look at her. “I’ve been on the road for awhile and you can’t exactly find showers and shampoo in the woods.”

    “Funny,” she replied with a wicked smile on her face, “Dawn seems to be managing her hygiene just fine.”

    Ash didn’t like being cornered with logic. “What do you care anyway? You’re not my mom!”

    Ash was ready to instigate a bickering session, but Misty was looking serious. “Speaking of which, I went down to Pallet Town to visit your mom a few weeks ago. You know, she really misses you and it seems like you barely ever call these days.”

    Ash leaned backwards as if her words had had some physical force to them. “N— That’s not even— I talked to her just last week!”

    “Yes,” Misty said patiently, “but were you calling her or Professor Oak?”

    Ash’s mouth opened reflexively before he’d even managed to say the next thing. There was a sort of ‘how did you know?!’ quality about his expression. “Well, I talked to her anyway so why should that matter?”

    Misty sighed and took up a chair once more. “Because you weren’t calling to talk to her, you were calling Professor Oak about a Pokemon-related problem. You know she’d never say a word about it, but one of the reasons she finds excuses to spend so much time in the lab is because that’s the only way she even has a chance of talking to you these days. Don’t you think she’d appreciate it if you called just the talk to her? Don’t you think we’d all appreciate that?”

    Ash was starting to feel a little under attack and he wasn’t sure what he’d done to earn it. Not only that, but Misty’s attitude unnerved him. They’d always fought and it had gotten to the point where it was almost… comfortable, but she wasn’t arguing with the spirit that she usually had. She looked almost resigned and he didn’t know how to react to that. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked suspiciously.

    “Just that…” Misty began, “you know your friends love to hear from you, Ash, but you barely ever call, and when you do it almost seems like you didn’t call to talk to us. You called to trade Pokemon news. You never want to talk about anything else.”

    “Wh—” Ash began. “What’s wrong with that? What else am I supposed to talk about?”

    She shook her head. Of course. Of course he’d have that attitude. “So, becoming a Pokemon Master is still all you can think about, is it?” she asked in what was more a sigh than a question.

    “Absolutely!” Ash said, holding up a fist. “I’m not gonna quit until I’m champion! I just know I’m gonna win in Kanto! This time’s different!”

    “What if you don’t?” Misty said in quiet, but definite voice.

    Ash stared at her. Her almost-whisper seemed to have all the force of a wrecking ball. “That’s not gonna happen!” he rallied. “I learned a lot from my last league battles, and I’m gonna use that to claim victory.”

    Misty didn’t argue this, instead she looked at Pikachu, patting it on the head. She knew that at least Pikachu was more perceptive than Ash. It looked tired. Surely it had started its journey burning with as much passion for the championship as Ash had, but after all this time… maybe it was ready for something else too. But it would stick by Ash. It would always stick by Ash.

    “Hey Ash,” Misty said softly.

    “What?” Ash said sharply, ready for the next barb.

    “Did you ever really believe I’d become a Water Pokemon Master?”

    The change in subject caught Ash off guard. He didn’t know why Misty was bringing that up, or even how to answer that question. “Well, I guess I always thought you’d—” he began awkwardly.

    “Because I don’t anymore,” she said fiercely. “But you know what? That’s okay. I mean… it’s not like you don’t matter just because you’re not ‘the best’. I’m proud of my accomplishments and my Pokemon. I’m good enough for myself at least and I’m doing what I love to do. If I kept chasing after the same goals I chased after when I was ten then I don’t think I’d ever manage to be happy.”

    Ash just stared at her. Maybe… now that she asked it… he’d never really believed that she’d become a Water Pokemon Master. Sure, she talked about it a lot, but she’d acted like it was such a foregone conclusion sometimes that he’d had his doubts. So why did it just throw him completely off balance that she’d let that goal go? It just… wasn’t right. You can’t just quit a goal like that.

    “So you just gave up?”

    She gave him a sharp look. “No, I didn’t ‘just give up’. I still love Water Pokemon with all my heart; I just don’t need to be the best. If I kept single-mindedly pursuing that goal then I wouldn’t have room in my heart for anything else: for my sisters, for my friends, for my students, for my water rescue mission, for…” She trailed off, but then rallied. “I’ve got too many wonderful things in my life to let not being the best get me down.”

    Ash was staring ahead with a somewhat perplexed look. Misty gave him a sidelong glance and hoped that some of what she was trying to communicate was getting through. She went for broke. “You know, Ash,” she began in a would-be casual voice, “I heard that they’re looking for a new leader to take over the Vermillion City gym.”

    Ash snapped out of his reverie and gave her a surprised look. “What happened to Lt. Surge?” he asked.

    Misty gave him a look and clucked her tongue. “Don’t you pay attention to the news? He got a big important staff position in the new Kanto Administration. Military expert or something. So they need someone to take his place.”

    “Wow,” Ash said, crossing his arms. “Never thought he’d go. Remember when we fought against him, Pikachu?”

    “Pi!” Pikachu said, pumping its little fists furiously. It was the first time it had demonstrated its strength over those uppity-evolved Raichu. It had been a good day.

    “They’re going to have to get a really good trainer to take his place,” Misty said hintingly. “Someone who’s got a lot of experience with battling, and seen lots of different battle styles in different places.”

    “And someone with a Raichu,” Ash said.

    Misty sat up and clenched her fists angrily at him. “It doesn’t have to be a Raichu! This is gonna be a whole new leader with different Pokemon, not just someone standing in for Surge!”

    “I guess,” Ash said thoughtfully. “Huh,” he said. “Can’t wait to see who they pick.”

    She slapped her forehead and sat down. She forgot how difficult communicating anything to Ash was if you didn’t spell it out in giant block letters. “Me either,” she said through gritted teeth. She took a deep breath and tried once more. “Vermillion City isn’t that far away from Cerulean City, so I’m sure I’ll be able to take my students around to see the gym once it’s taken over.”

    “That’ll be convenient,” Ash said simply.

    Misty sighed. “I give up,” she muttered.

    “What was that?” Ash said, leaning forward.

    “Nothing,” Misty muttered, slumping back in her chair.

    Ash leaned forward curiously. He knew Misty was trying to say something, but also that she wasn’t doing a very good job of it. He’d just have to wait until she managed to say what was on her mind. “Hey, you mentioned students, right?” Ash said, casting around for a new conversation topic.

    “Yeah,” Misty said, still not having quite enough motivation to really get into the conversation after Ash’s failure to take note of her obvious hints. “Gym leaders have a responsibility to educate other trainers. The new gym leader of Vermillion City—whoever he may be,” she added, as though trying to etch the words on his skull, “will have to take on students too.”

    “Right,” Ash said, oblivious to Misty’s skull engraving efforts, “So how’d you get time off from teaching to come here?”

    Now it was Misty’s turn to feel like the conversation was hitting too close to home. She looked away with her face slightly flushed. “Actually, it’s because of one of my students that I’m here,” she said, putting her hands in her sweatshirt pockets.

    Ash gave her a questioning look and she decided that she couldn’t get out of sharing. She pulled something out of her pocket, looked at it for a moment, and then opened her hand to show it to Ash.

    It was a clear round gem. Well, to say it was clear wasn’t quite accurate. One moment it looked clear, but when the light changed it glimmered with, first bright green, and then fiery orange.

    “Whoa! A Shiny Stone!” Ash exclaimed, looking at the opaline gem in wonder.

    “Yes,” Misty said, pulling it back and looking at it fondly but with a rather conflicted expression. “One of my students gave it to me when I told him about my Togetic here in Mirage Kingdom. He’s very ambitious, travels a lot… in some ways he reminds me of you.” She paused in definite thought. “But in some ways not at all.” She shook that thought away. “Anyway, he found it and thought he’d pass it on to me. So I decided to come here and see if Togetic has any interest in evolving.”

    Ash frowned. Something wasn’t right about this. Sure, there was a lot to worry about when it came to evolution. Togetic might not want to evolve… point of fact, Misty might not want it to evolve since she looked rather unsure. Togetic’s personality might change if it became a Togekiss. But… that wasn’t what was wrong… “So, your students are like, little kids, right?” he asked and wasn’t entirely sure why he did.

    Misty blinked at him. “I have some junior classes, but Luke—the one who gave me the Shiny Stone—is from my older class. He’s my age.”

    This did nothing to make Ash’s unease go away. “So, what… he just gave you the Shiny Stone in class? Doesn’t seem like that should be allowed. Giving gifts to the teacher and all. Some people might see it like a bribe.”

    Misty glared at him as though not appreciating having her integrity question. “Well, he’s not the kind of person who’d ever do that and I’m not the kind of person who’d favor a student just because they gave me a gift. And anyway, he didn’t give it to me in class.”

    “Where then?”

    Misty bit her lip. This was going too far. “Cerulean Cape,” was all she said.

    It annoyed Misty that Ash was not very good at picking up the hints that he was supposed to understand, but he was excellent at picking up the ones that she’d rather he didn’t notice. “Isn’t that a dating spot?” he asked, giving her a mortified look.

    “So what if it is?!” Misty exploded, standing up with fists clenched. “I’m allowed to have a social life! I’ve earned that at least! Was I supposed to just wait around this whole time? Just because you don’t want anything to do with that kind of thing doesn’t mean the rest of us should be forced to abstain!”

    “I don’t see what that has to do with anything!” Ash shot back, standing up and unconsciously mimicking her posture. “I just don’t think it’s right to go around dating your students! Isn’t that just irresponsible?”

    “What? As irresponsible as running away from home with your Pokemon and refusing to grow up?” Misty countered, taking a step forward.

    “What are you implying?” Ash demanded, stepping forward himself.

    Their nose-to-nose rage ended with a giant “HMMPH!” from both sides.

    Misty turned on her heel and declared “I don’t know why I even bother!” before slamming the door shut behind her.

  7. #7
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    Part 4.

    Breakfast, by all accounts, should’ve been nice. The Mirage Kingdom cooks were of that divine caliber that can turn the first meal of the day into desert. Dawn and Piplup were chowing down on a waffle with strawberries tucked into every dimple and whipped cream on top. And that was her making a healthy concession; the first thing that’d caught her eye was the cheesecake stuffed blueberry pancakes. To top it all off, they were at the queen’s table eating with a bunch of other fancy people. It should’ve been great, but…

    The cold atmosphere to either side of her where Ash and Misty were both looking determinedly in opposite directions told her that last night’s conversation hadn’t gone remotely well. At this point Dawn would’ve been almost thrilled if they’d gone for the traditional “Dawn, can you ask Ash to pass the pepper?” and “Dawn, tell Misty if she wants the pepper then she can ask me for it herself!” The not-talking-to-each-other by doing a great deal of talking to each other route would at least have meant that they were still trying to prod at each other. Any communication was better than just glaring in opposite directions and pretending that the other one didn’t exist.

    She was distracted from her worries over them by the arrival of a young man in uniform. He looked like he had to be from the military, but his uniform with the tall white hat and the gold braid epaulets on each shoulder reeked of importance. He must be an officer, Dawn decided, though rather young for one.

    He bowed as he approached Queen Sara, seated in a chair somewhat higher than the others around the royal table. “Your Majesty,” he said deferentially.

    “Good morning, Jason,” Sara said with a small smile that implied that while he was free to take up any formality he liked, she’d decline. “What can I help you with?”

    He straightened up and rolled his shoulders back, extending a scroll he’d been holding in a clean, white glove. “The product of last night’s legislative session, ma’am,” he said. “They’ve agreed on the terms of the bill and they await your signature.” The last clause came out as though the man felt that they could wait and wait until they were blue in the face.

    “I see,” Sara said, taking the scroll from his gloved hand. “They don’t usually work into the night. I can see that they’re really set on this.” She opened the parchment and ran her eyes over it. “Tell me, Jason, what’s the captain of the guard doing playing messenger for Congress?”

    “They wish to exercise an old parliamentary procedure,” the captain explained with some distaste. “To put it bluntly, ma’am, they think you’re going to stall. They want you to know that you have a day to make up your mind as to whether to sign it into law or not, and if you go over time, they’ll petition for a regency hearing.”

    “They’re in a hurry, I can see,” Sara said, nervousness tinged with slight bitterness. “Do they think I’m getting less marriageable by the hour?”

    “I should hope not, ma’am,” Jason said with a slight nod of his head.

    A smile flickered for just a moment on the Queen’s face. She passed the scroll back to the captain. “No need to make them wait. Tell them straight away that I have no intention of signing this ridiculous piece of legislation into law.”

    Jason took the scroll back gingerly, their fingertips brushing as the scroll left the Queen’s hands. “They said you might say that, ma’am. And if so, I was to tell you that they will convene an emergency session this afternoon to conduct a vote to override you.”

    Queen Sara sat back with a grave expression. “I would expect nothing less of them.” She summoned a very small smile and inclined her head at the captain. “You may leave now, Jason. Thank you.”

    “They’re actually trying to pass that awful marriage law?” Misty asked, not able to believe the gall of parliament.

    “At this point it’s looking like they will pass it,” Sara said, her chin lowered to her chest.

    “But that’s terrible! They can’t do this!” Misty pounding her fist against the table and accidentally upsetting Piplup’s balance.

    “There’s gotta be something we can do,” Ash said.

    Dawn saw the two of them exchanged a look and knew that their feud, whatever it was over, hadn’t been forgotten. They were just shuffling it aside to deal with the more important matter of helping Sara and the Mirage Kingdom.

    “There may not be,” Sara said mournfully. “I think it’s time I began thinking of what to do if worse should come to worse.”

    “Your Majesty,” Miranda began in a soft, shocked voice. “You can’t mean—”

    “No,” Sara said definitively. “I will not abandon my post no matter what the circumstances. So if the law passes, I must comply with it, but…” She was looking thoughtful as she stood up and set her napkin down on the table.

    “I think I must excuse myself early. There is much to think about and I must see if I can persuade parliament to see reason. I am sorry this all happened so quickly.” She gave her guests a weak smile. “Please enjoy the rest of your breakfast.” Before gathering up her skirts and gliding away with her retinue.

    “It’s so wrong…” Dawn said, watching the troubled Queen disappear down the hall. “She’s just trying to do her best for the kingdom and they’re putting her through this…”

    “And that parliament is probably gonna want her to marry someone who’s only going to hurt the kingdom and the Togepi,” Ash said with a frown.

    “Ash, we’ve got to help Sara,” Misty said almost pleadingly.

    Misty had accused Ash of not growing up. Well, he was at least grown up enough to know that what was happening to Queen Sara and the Mirage Kingdom was more important than their stupid fight. They could be mad at each other on their own time.

    “Yeah,” he said leaning back in his chair.

    “But how?” Dawn asked. She thought of her own Togekiss who had taken them there by instinct, not even knowing if it could do anything. But it came because it had to help. It just had to. “Who knows what all this is doing to the Togepi Paradise?”

    Misty stirred. “Maybe we should go there… if we can.”

    “You think that’ll help?” Dawn asked.

    “Well,” Misty said, leaning her elbows on the table as she thought, “the last time we were here, when the Kingdom was in trouble, my Togetic and all the Togepi helped us fight against Colonel Hansen.” It sounded like a long shot the more she thought about it. “But… I don’t know how much that’d help now. I mean… it’s not like they can fight their own parliament.”

    “I say we try it,” Ash said, standing up with Pikachu clinging to his shoulders. “It can’t hurt, right? I mean, you never know.”

    Ash had apparently never heard that you can’t fight city hall. Even in the midst of her frustration with him, Misty couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah,” she said. “It might help after all.”

    “But do you even know if we can get there?” Dawn asked, looking concernedly from one to the other.

    “Nope,” Ash said boldly. “But I know where we can start.”

    *****

    The temple stretched its mauve columns into the sky. It was that kind of clear, blue sky you almost always got in the Mirage Kingdom: where every day should be picturesque. It was a very scenic town. When it didn’t appear scenic, the townsfolk would get uneasy. What didn’t make them at all uneasy was the phantom version of the temple that hung upside down in the sky above it. That was a blessing.

    “That’s where we got in before,” Misty said, looking up at the bright blue doorway in the sky.

    “But how are we supposed to get way up there?” Dawn asked. Even if they climbed to the roof of the temple they’d never make it to that height.

    “I was thinking,” Ash said, “before we got in because Misty’s Togepi brought us there. So maybe…”

    “Maybe Togekiss could get us there!” Dawn finished, anticipating where he was going. “Yeah! It’s gotta be worth a shot.”

    She took out the Poke ball containing Togekiss and held it briefly. She was still afraid that Togekiss would fly away and leave her, but now… now they were here. Where Togekiss wanted to be. And maybe they could both finally help.

    “Togekiss, come on out!” she said, lobbing the Poke ball.

    “Kiss?” Togekiss murmured in surprise as it appeared in unfamiliar surroundings.

    “Togekiss,” Dawn said, striding up to it. “I know you wanted to come here because you sensed that the Togepi were in danger and you want to help them. So please, let us help too. Can you take us all to the Togepi Paradise?”

    “Toge…” Togekiss began, staring at the glowing blue door up in the sky. Suddenly, its body seemed the glow in the same shade, as it floated—not quite flying—a few feet in the air. Then a massive white light pulsed through the air, enveloping all of them.

    “What’s happening?” Dawn asked, clutching Piplup and closing her eyes against the blinding light.

    “I—I think—” Misty managed to get out against the rapid chaos of the energy field they were in.

    And then they felt a jerking sense as the world was pulled out from under them.

    *****

    The blessed sense of ground beneath their feet soon returned. The people and Pokemon looked around at their new surroundings. They were in a large clearing around a lush forest. It was the kind of scenery that would’ve normally encouraged a person to settle down in a cabin and just… commune with nature for the rest of their lives. But… there were snags. The grass was tall, but… beginning to wilt, as were the trees. A perpetual autumn seemed to have overcome the forest, with a threat of winter in the white, empty sky.

    “It’s dying!” Ash was the first to call out in anguish.

    “Where is everyone?” Misty asked, her worry obvious. “Even before when Hansen was here there were weak Togepi around. Now…” She rushed forward. “Togetic!” she called. “Togetic, where are you?!”

    “Pika pi!” Pikachu called from Ash’s shoulder.

    As they looked wildly around for the slightest glimpse of Togetic, Ash couldn’t help but be reminded of all those times when Togepi had gotten lost. Togepi was so… curious that it always seemed to be running off and getting into trouble. It had always made Misty worry, but they’d always get him back in the end. With all the panic going on in the Kingdom below, would that be the case this time?

    Her eyes were wavering. Togetic was still her baby after all.

    Seeing her like that softened for a moment any remaining flames of a grudge he’d been holding. “Don’t worry, Misty,” he said. “We’ll find Togetic. I promise.”

    Misty sniffed. Ash’s easiness with promises was another thing that had always bothered her slightly. He didn’t know. Maybe Togetic had fled for good or maybe something terrible had happened to him. Ash couldn’t know. Yet he promised. Because he thought he could make the world right if he just tried hard enough. He tried so hard though, and wanted so much for things to be good and right, that you had to forgive him this. And right now… it was comforting. “Right,” she said. “He’s got to be here.”

    Dawn turned to Togekiss with her hands clenched in determined fists. “We’ll help too, right Togekiss?”

    “Kiss!” Togekiss agreed and took to the skies.

    They walked through the empty pocket dimension that should’ve housed Togepi from all over the world. They called out for Misty’s Togetic, or any Togepi that might’ve been hiding, but they saw no one. Misty ran ahead and they heard her gasp.

    “Guys, look at this!”

    “Did you find the Togepi?” Ash asked, running toward her with Dawn following.

    “No, but…” Misty gestured toward the clearing before them.

    There were nests. Dozens and dozens of them. With tiny, white shell fragments with faded blue and red markings on them. There were only a few fragments in each nest, but then again, Togepi wear most of their eggs.

    “So here are the nests… but where are all the Togepi?” Dawn asked, hugging Piplup tightly.

    Misty walked over to the nearest nest and leaned over, picking up one of the shell fragments and feeling its texture. She crumpled it in her hand and sprinkled the shards on the ground. “These eggs aren’t new; they’re at least a year old.”

    “You can tell?” Ash asked, impressed.

    Misty stood up. “That’s right,” she said, “you haven’t seen the new nursery we built in the gym yet. Well, I’ve been taking care of a lot of eggs lately and the newer ones have a more… it’s hard to describe, but it’s more of an organic feel.” She looked up into the sky and bit her lower lip. “Egg laying season has past. There should be new eggs here.”

    “Isn’t this supposed to be the main breeding ground for Togepi all over the world?” Dawn asked. She looked at the lonely piles of eggshells, their former inhabitants nowhere to be seen in that desolate place that should have been the start of new life. “What’ll happen to the Togepi if there are no more eggs?”

    Ash looked grim, but he was trying to search for solutions. “It’ll be okay,” he said. “Even if there’s only one Togepi evolution left then the species can still recover. All you’d need is a Ditto and—”

    “No!” Misty and Dawn cut him off at the same time.

    Ash scratched at his hair and gave them a look as though he thought they were overreacting. “But it’s a really efficient way to get eggs. A guy at the daycare center told me—”

    “Efficiency isn’t the only thing that matters in that kind of situation!” Misty snapped. She exchanged a look with Dawn and hoped she didn’t expect her to have that kind of talk with Ash too.

    Dawn knelt down and ran the dirt and eggshell mixture through her fingers. She didn’t have Misty’s frame of reference for eggs… there was always so much out there yet to learn. But Misty was right. They did feel… dead in some way.

    “There’s no future for them if this is all there is…”

    “Or for the Mirage Kingdom,” Ash said. “If things are this bad now, then imagine what it would be like if the Queen has to marry some guy with an evil heart.”

    Misty’s stance subtly changed. “Maybe… but maybe Sara can pick someone who would actually be good for the kingdom.”

    “Like Jason,” Dawn said, following that thought.

    “What?” Ash said, looking at the two of them as though their comments had come completely out of nowhere. “You heard what the Queen said: she doesn’t want to get married. Even if this Jason guy makes a good captain of the guard or whatever, it’s not like they’d actually want to get married. And if they’re not happy then the paradise will just get worse.”

    “I know Sara doesn’t want to get married because she wants to be in charge,” Misty said, brows furrowing, “but if she has to get married then she might as well pick someone that she loves. She might actually be happier then.”

    Ash gave her a befuddled look. “Since when does she love that Jason guy?”

    “I think she does too,” Dawn put in.

    Ash transferred his look to Dawn. “Am I missing something?”

    “She smiled at him,” Dawn said simply.

    “So? I smile at a lot of people I’m not in love with,” Ash answered.

    I noticed, Misty thought sullenly. “There was… this atmosphere of sexual tension between them,” she explained. “Not that you’d understand,” she added in a low, but nevertheless audible voice. “I’ve seen them interact before when I’ve visited and, to be honest, I think they’re already involved.”

    Ash appeared to accept this, but it didn’t make him any less confused. “Then what’s the problem? Why aren’t they already married?”

    Misty sighed. Explaining the intricacies of courtly love affairs to someone who didn’t have morally questionable books with titles like The Seduction of Lady Isabelle and Princess Anatallia’s Lover tucked under their mattress would be difficult. Although it struck her that giving such books a look-over might be good for some of the… less developed areas of his education. He probably wouldn’t read them though. Stupid boy.

    “Just… some people don’t want to get married, okay?” she said, and left it at that.

    “Tog-ge!” came a cry from the clouds.

    “Look!” Dawn said, pointing up.

    Up in the sky, almost blending in against its whiteness, was the feathery figure of Dawn’s Togekiss flying in after its reconnaissance over the Paradise. But it wasn’t alone. Circling around her on pixie wings, was a smaller figure, chirping in the joy of a long loneliness now broken.

    “Togetic!” Misty cried, a genuine smile filling her face with light.

    *****

    On the other side of the desert, filtered through the shimmering, super-heated air, was a tower. It wasn’t dark, it certainly wasn’t built to look malevolent. In its heyday it had probably looked quite grand and would’ve filled any countryman who saw it was a tear-welling patriotic pride. But now it was old and it was crumbling. The days when a team of highly trained individuals could’ve been afforded to maintain the castle tower and its expansive lawns were gone. Now there was only decay, and a sort of creeping, predatory feeling. It was desperation. One last chance, it said. Give me one last chance to get it all back.

    The inner chamber was candlelit. It would’ve given its occupants some dignity if that had been an atmospheric choice. Perhaps a few skulls with their eye-sockets flowing with rivers of dribbling tallow. But that was not the case. The electric bill hadn’t been paid. It hadn’t been paid in a very long time. Candles had sufficed once, they could do so again.

    A man in black clattered across the stone floor, shaking his cloak slightly as he moved to get the sand out. He bowed before the remains of a throne, half-hidden in the shadows. His moustache twitched and his lank, grey hair hung long over his shoulders.

    “Your Royal Highness,” he announced in a satisfied tone, “the law has passed.”

    The shadowed man sitting in the throne leaned forward only slightly, just his hands coming into the light, folded together and anxious.

    “Very good,” he said. “Then let us proceed with the plan, Colonel Hansen.”

  8. #8
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    Part 5.

    “Oh Togetic!” Misty cried out, as the egg-shaped, winged Pokemon flew chirping into her arms. She drew it into a tight hug. “I missed you so much.”

    “Toggggeee!” Togetic answered, as if to say that the feeling was mutual.

    “Piii-ka!” Pikachu exclaimed happily from Ash’s shoulder. He was glad to see that his friend was in one piece and seemed to have given up his habit of wandering around dangerous places.

    “You found him!” Dawn said, clasping her hands together. “Great job, Togekiss!”

    “Kiss!” Togekiss called back happily, gracefully swooping in a circle around them until she landed delicately next to Dawn. Togekiss gave the reunited Togetic one smiling glance before turning to clean her own feathers in a slightly prissier than usual way.

    “Togetic,” Misty said seriously as they broke apart from their hug, “where are the Togepi? …And the other Togetic and Togekiss? …Did something happen to them?”

    “Geettick,” Togetic responded, looking down mournfully.

    “Did something hurt them?” Misty asked, anxiety rising.

    Togetic hovered in the air, and looking longingly over the horizon. “Toggggi,” he said, by way of explanation.

    Pikachu hopped off of Ash’s shoulder and scampered across the ground so it was looking up at Togetic. “Pika pi?”

    “Toge,” Togetic answered, his arms stretched wide.

    “Pika!” Pikachu responded in surprise. “Pika pikachu pika?”

    “Tic,” Togetic said, shaking his head. “Togetic.”

    “What are they saying?” Dawn asked, brows knitting.

    Ash took a knee and looked down at Pikachu. “I think he’s saying that the other Togepi left.”

    “Left? Why?” Dawn asked, as Misty brought a hand up to her heart and looked concerned.

    Ash looked questioningly at Pikachu, who waved his arms and said: “Pi pikachu!”

    “I think it was because…” Ash looked around at the wilted landscape. “‘Cause of what’s happening here.”

    Dawn clutched Piplup a little tighter and turned her gaze toward Togetic. “But would they really abandon their nesting grounds because of this? I know it looks bad, but—”

    Misty stepped forward and patted Togetic on the back of his neck. “It’s not just this, is it, Togetic? They’re afraid. Afraid of what’s going to happen next…”

    “Toget,” Togetic agreed, arms going limp with a defeated expression on his face.

    Dawn placed her hand on the top of her Togekiss’s head. “There’s gotta be something we can do to get them to come back…” she said.

    Misty looked out at the landscape, beyond Togetic hovering before her, giving her a look like he needed her to provide a miracle. Misty was a little short on miracles at the moment. She looked at the dry land, the bare trees, the preying weeds, and the husk of a grassland.

    “We could… garden,” she suggested weakly.

    *****

    Considering that the Togepi Paradise was a pocket universe that derived its strength from the Togepi that dwelt in it, which in turn derived their strength from the purity of the hearts in the Mirage Kingdom… a few horticultural endeavors were unlikely to do much to heal the paradise. Nevertheless, the three of them tried anyway. Even though they knew it probably wouldn’t do much, it at least occupied their hands with work and made them feel less helpless.

    Misty found a creak and watered the parched ground, Dawn cleared out dead plants and sewed the precious few seeds that she found… as for Ash, he played tug of war with the weeds and managed to win… most of the time.

    But after working hard for several hours, the three of them collapsed onto the dry grass and stared up into the white sky that was either cloudless or just one big cloud. They smudged the sweat from their brows with hands dirty from working the earth.

    “Do you think that’ll help?” Dawn asked, trying to extricate the dirt from under her fingernails.

    “It can’t hurt,” Ash said.

    “…But it won’t be enough,” Misty said with a frown.

    “It’s a start,” Ash responded encouragingly.

    “Yeah…”

    They watched as Togekiss soared through the sky with both Pikachu and Piplup cheering as they hung on to her. Togetic glided along with them, sometimes leading Togekiss, sometimes following her.

    “Those two really seem to be getting along well,” Dawn observed fondly.

    “It must’ve been hard after all the Togepi evolutions left,” Misty said. “I’m sure he got lonely.”

    “I know how it feels,” Dawn said, folding her hands behind her head as she watched Togekiss pull a rather show-offy loop-de-loop. “It can be nice to travel by yourself sometimes, but nothing beats having friends along.”

    “Yeah,” Misty said with just a twitch of smile. “I might complain about my sisters, but I miss them when they’re gone. It’s nice to be able to do whatever you want… but it sucks being alone.”

    “I never travel alone,” Ash responded quickly, as though he somehow felt that last comment was meant to be a thickly veiled insult aimed at him. “As long as I’ve got Pikachu by my side, I’m all set.”

    “Oh come on,” Dawn ribbed incredulously. “You need us. I love traveling with Piplup too, but it’s not the same thing as when I’m with you guys or Zoey and everyone. I’m not saying it’s better, it’s just not the same.”

    “Just look at them,” Misty said, pointing to the acrobatic feats taking place just above them. “I think that Pokemon need other Pokemon the same way that people need other people.” She sat up and reached into her pocket, her fingers closing around the Shiny Stone. Not yet, she thought. Later. She turned just in time to see Ash quickly look in the other direction. She smiled and shook her head.

    Suddenly the merriment in the air stopped. Both Togetic and Togekiss froze mid-air.

    Ash, Misty, and Dawn stood up automatically, staring at the two figures in the sky. “What do you think spooked them?” Ash asked.

    “I don’t know, but…” Misty began, but she was cut off by a howling wind. It blew against the already wilting grassland and tore the dying plant matter into pieces, carrying it away and leaving nothing but cracked earth behind.

    “That can’t be a good sign,” Ash said.

    “They sensed it too,” Misty said, clasping at the sleeve of her fleece sweatshirt.

    “Togekiss!” Dawn called, cupping her hands around her mouth. “Come on down here!”

    “You too, Togetic!” Misty called.

    “We’ve gotta get back to the Mirage Kingdom,” Ash said determinedly, eyes narrowing. “Something’s not right.”

    *****

    “Your Majesty,” the chief priest said in a condescending tone that most people wouldn’t even use with a four-year-old, let alone a monarch, “this council is disappointed—though I must admit, not surprised—at your continued refusal to bow to the will of the people.”

    Queen Sarah looked sadly up at the rows of priests that made up the Mirage legislature. “It is not the will of the people in general that I question; it is only the will of the people in this room.”

    “Very amusing, Your Majesty,” a cleric with a permanent frown commented, staring at her over his folded hands, “but the point remains that we priests are charged with representing the interests of those ‘people in general’ whose will Your Majesty finds so unimpeachable. We have passed a law by a wide margin which we believe will… improve the course of how things are run in Mirage Kingdom. Your Majesty has chosen to fight us on this. Please explain why we should not exercise our right to out-vote Your Majesty.”

    Sarah sniffed, reflecting on how some people managed to grasp etiquette while failing entirely to understand courtesy. “Gladly,” she said. “That is what I’ve come here for.”

    She ran her eyes across the rows. They were almost all men, with a few priestesses here and there. Once they had been a sea of beards and liver spots, but more and more young men had taken to the priesthood these days, with their shaven heads and their beady eyes, shining with the light of one determined to carry out their civil service no matter who suffered. Yes… that was where the schism had started.

    “Holy Council,” Sarah addressed them, “I challenge you: these claims that this law will improve the running of the kingdom are empty. My marriage status has nothing to do with the discontent and frustration and impatience that I see amongst the people. If passed it will do nothing but put us at risk in the form of any opportunist seeking power. My choice to marry or not to marry is a private one and this council has no right to force me into a decision.”

    “No right?” a priest with a Santa Claus-esque beard, but certainly not a matching disposition, scoffed. “Ma’am, you may get to wear a crown, but you’re a servant of the people just like the rest of us. Everyone on this council has had their private life interfered with under the law.”

    “Would counsel like to propose legislation to abolish the vow of chastity all priests and priestesses must make before taking office?” Sarah asked innocently.

    “Well actually, I’ve been thinking—” one of the younger priests began awkwardly.

    “Quiet, Bertie,” rumbled the much older man next to him. The man turned to the queen as the young priest known as Bertie shrank into his seat. “Please refrain from trying parlor tricks on this council, Majesty. You know as well as I do that Kings and Queens must give up their lives for the people if necessary. That includes your private life in this… nuptial issue that you’re making such a fuss over. You must have known that when you took the position, though you were quite young and impressionable as I recall. Sacrifices are necessary for a monarch, and in this case it means—if you’ll pardon the breech of decorum—sacrificing your freedom to carry on with whomever you please.”

    Really!” Miranda nearly screeched in offense from the Queen’s left. “In all my years attending to the Kings and Queens of Mirage Kingdom I have never heard such blatant disrespect for a sitting monarch!”

    Sarah gave a sidelong look to the Captain of the Guard standing to her right. Jason face was not agitated, but she could see him clenching and unclenching his fists. “If my ‘carrying on’ is an issue, Your Reverence,” Sarah responded in the voice of one determined not to show that they’re upset, “then I’d be all too happy to take the same vow that leaves you gentleman and ladies free to concentrate your efforts entirely on kingdom improvement instead.”

    “Priests are celibate, ma’am,” the chief priest said, wagging his finger at her, “Queens marry.”

    “Gosh, if you look at it like that each of us serves the Kingdom in his own way,” a young priests with an unnaturally sweaty forehead commented in a pleased sounding voice.

    “Or her own way,” a priestess corrected irritably.

    “Enough semantics,” scolded the chief priest. The presence of the women made him vaguely uncomfortable. “Your Majesty has yet to satisfy us with her explanation. I call for another vote!”

    “Seconded,” a priest who smelt of foot powder said.

    “All in favor?” the chief priest asked.

    “Just a minute, I—” Queen Sarah began, as a sea of hands shot up.

    “All opposed?”

    The hands of a few royalists, a precious few allies rose hesitantly.

    “And the override carries,” the chief priest announced, after doing some mental arithmetic. “This council rules that Queen Sarah will marry a suitable candidate for Kingship by law.”

    “No!” a voice shouted.

    The council members stood up and craned their necks to see who their dissenter was. Misty, Ash, and Dawn raced into the room with Pikachu and Piplup scampering behind them and Togetic and Togekiss flying alongside.

    “What do you guys think you’re doing?” Misty demanded, glaring at the assemblage of priests. “You think you can just toy with someone’s life like this? Sarah’s your queen for a reason! Don’t you trust her to make the right decisions all on her own? You can’t do this!”

    “I’m afraid they already have, Misty,” Sarah said numbly, staring at her knees. “It’s all… very legal,” she said, raising her gaze slowly until it sat straight on the chief priest, “isn’t it, Your Reverence?”

    “Of course it is,” the chief priest answered, stroking his beard irritably. “Who let these people in anyway? Get them out of here!”

    “They are my guests and they will stay for the proceedings,” Sarah said firmly. It was not an order, it simply would be so.

    A chilly silence passed, finally a freckled priest asked: “Does this mean that you do not plan to rebel against the motion, ma’am?”

    “Of course not,” Sarah said, closing her eyes and looking tired. “It is law now. For me to not follow it would mean either tyranny or exile. Like you, I owe a debt to this people of the land and will continue to serve them, no matter what revolting hoops I am made to jump through. So I will marry.”

    The council members gave her a look that suggested that they didn’t think the word ‘revolting’ was called for.

    “If it is to be so, then tell me: when would you have me married by? I have already chosen the man,” Sarah said in a rushed voice.

    She didn’t look at Jason, but everyone else in the room did.

    “Nice try, Your Majesty,” the priest with the lack of decorum answered. “I was quite certain that you had some swain or toady picked out in case your gambit failed. Likely some staff member who’s used to following your orders. We did not pass this legislation so that you could worm your way around it—we passed it because the monarchy needs a more balanced voice. Choosing a husband who will just nod in agreement with whatever you say will not create the dialogue we’re searching for. The choice is out of your hands.”

    This time Sarah stood up, her calm at long last broken: “You won’t even allow me so much as the choice of who I must marry? This is going too far!”

    “On the contrary, Your Majesty,” the chief priest disagreed. “You may be Queen, but you are still young. Young women rarely choose men that are the best providers and decision-makers. They tend to be distracted by… shall we say more shallow considerations. This is fine in private cases, but the man you marry would become King. No, this requires a much more studied decision. It cannot be left to you alone.”

    “The Togepi chose me to be the Queen,” Sarah responded vehemently. “That should speak volumes about by ability to make decisions on behalf of myself and this Kingdom.”

    “Yeah? Well, that’s the point, right?” a lesser priest commented shiftily. “The Togepi got to pick their monarch, shouldn’t we get to pick one? That’s equal representation.”

    “And then we’ll finally have a ruler who’s not afraid to drag this Kingdom kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century,” a young priest said with a fervent nod.

    “No one’s being dragged kicking and screaming anywhere,” an older priest chided. “The King we choose will not be so content as our Queen is to sacrifice tradition to make a buck.”

    “Excuse me, but economic forces—” shot back the young priest.

    An eruption of raised voices overtook the room. Misty, Ash, and Dawn walked up to the royal party, their faces pained. “Why are they doing this?” Dawn asked as Piplup covered his almost non-existent ears.

    Miranda looked down sadly. “It all started when they lowered the minimum age a priest can be before applying to be on the council. See, Mirage Kingdom has gotten rich off of tourism, so that’s where most of the fights start. The younger ones want to bring in more technology to make our kingdom a more attractive spot for people to visit. But the traditionalists say that things like that interfere with our kingdom’s aesthetic and values and want everything kept pristine. Her Majesty wants to embrace innovations… but she also wants to the people to remember the old ways and keep them going.”

    “When you stand in the middle both sides are much more likely to hate you then love you,” Sarah commented, setting back down in her chair and sounding defeated.

    “Majesty,” Jason said, turning to her and giving her a short bow. “What would you have me do?”

    “Nothing rash,” Sarah warned.

    The chief priest slammed his hand down on the table for silence. “Whatever the case,” he shouted over the dying hubbub, “we will review candidates and decide who brings the most to our fair Kingdom and whose temperament is best suited for the job.”

    “I applaud your thoroughness,” a voice from the back of the room said.

    All heads craned to see the two men walking into the temple room. The first, the man who must have spoken, was tall, handsome in a rather obnoxious just-look-at-how-defined-my-facial-features-are kind of way and was dressed in an outfit that might have been extravagant at one point, but looked like it had become a buffet for hungry moths in recent years. He was followed by a man with a black cloak covering most of his face.

    “Who are you?” the chief priest demanded. He gave a worn out look to the Queen. “Your Majesty, I must protest at all these surprise guests intruding on these closed sessions.”

    “He’s no guest of mine,” Sarah said, never taking her eyes off of him.

    “I apologize for not announcing myself to you earlier, but seeing as we are neighbors I thought I might just drop in,” he said with a smile. “You’ve dealt with my father, but not with me. I am Marcus Basius, Prince of the Kingdom of Verum.”

    There was a gust of whispers from the ranged desks of the council. Finally the chief priest said: “Well, welcome Your Highness, we are sorry for our poor greeting, but if we had known it was you we could’ve responded properly. What brings you to our chambers?”

    “Why, I’m here to offer my humble services in the issue you’ve been discussing,” Prince Marcus said without much humbleness.

    “The issue we’ve…” the chief priest began, polite smile dropping from his face.

    “As a suitor to your dear Queen,” Marcus answered promptly.

    There was a snort from a red-faced priest. “You must be joking, Your Highness! With all due respect, you Verumese are broke. Everyone knows that! Why would we choose someone without a penny to his name—fancy title or not—to be our King? You bring nothing to the table!”

    “With all due respect,” Marcus answered, “you’re wrong.”

    Ash watched the proceedings grimly as Pikachu climbed up onto his shoulder to get a better view. It seemed that everyone in the room preferred saying ‘with all due respect’ to actually being respectful.

    “You Miragians have wealth, yes,” Marcus allowed, “but I can give you something you have a very limited supply of.”

    “And what is that?” the red-faced priest humored him.

    “Land,” Marcus said flatly.

    “Land?” the priest repeated.

    “Oh yes,” Marcus said, strolling around the room as though he already owned it. “Verum is, as you know, right next door. Adjoining, you might say. Marry your Queen off to any high born Lord or rich noble and you might get money… but little land. Certainly not as much as a Kingdom’s worth. And you won’t be able to put much use to your small patch of acquired land because it will be so far off. Join our kingdoms together, and Mirage Kingdom more than doubles in size.”

    “He’s got a point,” a priest admitted, stroking his beard.

    “You shouldn’t be looking so much for wealth,” Marcus went on, knowing he was getting ahead. “Mirage Kingdom is already wealthy! Its wealth is growing but… just not fast enough! There is only so much room to build… to expand. What you need is space to spread out… to give a better future to your workers… everyday people… your butchers, your bakers, your…” Marcus petered out for a moment and looked at his black cloaked assistant who mouthed something hurriedly. “Your candlestick makers,” Marcus finished.

    “It’s a lot of space,” a younger priest said thoughtfully. “Verum was really into conquering back in its heyday. For that amount of land, Verum’s debts might be a small price for us to pay. In the right hands it could be quite profitable.”

    “And more than land,” Marcus said, drawing himself into an overly sentimental tone, “you want someone close by, someone who understands the spirit of the Mirage Kingdom. Someone who knows your history and will lead you in the spirit of your great kings—Claude III, Reece II, and… yes… Yancy the X!”

    The priests took to whispering to themselves once again. They were impressed that a foreigner was so familiar with their history to pick out even an obscure historical figure like Yancy the X who had been King for all of a half an hour. It was generally agreed by historians that it was an especially good half an hour, though.

    “Well, Your Highness,” the chief priest said with a smile, “it seems that come to think of it, it might be an idea to stay… closer to home in our choice. We shall consider your proposal quite carefully.”

    “I hoped you’d say that,” Marcus grinned.

    “You can’t really be thinking about this guy, can you?” Misty asked, incensed. “After he just swooped in here like a circling vulture?!”

    Marcus let out a laugh. “Don’t be silly, girl. Vultures circle around corpses… I believe that the birds that circle around weddings would be… what, doves?” He looked at his cloaked assistant who gave a hurried nod. “Yes, doves. And everyone likes doves!” He gave an empty headed smile to the council as though he’d said something clever.

    Ash looked from Jason, gritting his teeth behind his lips, to Miranda, looking grave, and then finally to Sarah, staring at the council with an indecipherable expression.

    “Are you okay, Your Majesty?” he asked, knowing that no one in her situation really could be.

    She shook her head sadly, but Ash wasn’t sure if she had heard his question or if she was still off with her own thoughts. “I never imagined,” she murmured to herself, “that this is how the Verumese would invade us.”

  9. #9
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    are you going to post an end?
    ~Kat

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    I'm an optional author for the Fic Request Shop. I'm working on http://www.serebiiforums.com/showpos...&postcount=198 and http://www.serebiiforums.com/showpos...&postcount=293

    CURRENTLY WORKING ON: Over the Edge and The Reality Show
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    Also, to cure my writer's block, here's a two-shot: It's Better to Have Loved



    ~SNIIIIVYYY!!

  10. #10
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    Please be patient with me. I have four other fic projects going on right now so things are kinda crazy. Though I'm glad at least to know that someone's still reading here...

    Here's part 6.

    Part 6.

    The esteemed guests from Verum were given their own apartments within the palace complex while they awaited the decision of the Holy Council on the Queen’s impending nuptial arrangements. The Prince of Verum walked into his temporary room with his cowled associate following shiftily behind and closing the door before removing his hood.

    “More of this stupid egg theme, I see,” Prince Marcus said with a grimace as he noted the Togepi motif of the castle was also running through his room. “Every room in this place looks like a nursery! That’s why Verum never could take Mirage seriously.”

    “Don’t underestimate the Togepi, Highness,” Colonel Hanson warned, smoothing out the ends of his moustache now that his cloak had been pulled back. “If it weren’t for them, I would’ve brought this land under my heel ten years ago.”

    Marcus gave him an incredulous look. “But they’re just so… girly looking!”

    “Girly looking and powerful,” Colonel Hansen blustered. Getting beaten by something so adorable can really leave emotional scars. “They are the defenders of this land and they take their job very seriously.” He swept into the room and took a seat. “In any case, we have even more problems to deal with than I anticipated.”

    “Like what?” Marcus said, slightly distracted by catching his reflection in a mirror. “I thought it went just fine.”

    “Those brats,” Colonel Hansen said acidly.

    Marcus waved a hand dismissively. “The Queen’s friends? They don’t have any power.”

    Hansen’s eyes iced over. “That girl… and the boy she was with… it’s been ten years but I’d recognize them anywhere. They and their Togetic ruined my scheme. And thwarted my ambition to become king.”

    Marcus lounged against the wall looking mildly troubled. Then his face brightened. “Well, it’s not like they can do anything about me. When they beat you they were fighting against a coup and in the right. What I’m doing is totally legal.”

    “Yes,” Hansen said, his grin growing smug as stroked his chin. “Marrying into power is a clean, safe way of getting things done. I must admit it never even crossed my mind when I had my chance.”

    “Because you’re so old and ugly?” Marcus asked offhandedly.

    Hansen’s eyes narrowed. “Quite.”

    “So no problems, right?” Marcus asked, smiling a perfect if rather stupid smile.

    “Things are going according to plan,” Hansen admitted, “mostly. But that doesn’t mean we should let our guards down. If you want to be king then we need to keep an eye on anyone who could threaten our goal.”

    “Do you think the council will really go for it?” Marcus asked.

    Hansen smiled. “They’re greedy. They’ve always been so greedy. But now we’ve turned their desire away from money and turned it toward our advantage. They’re greedy for land now, just as I expected.”

    “You really think you’ve got that council figured out, don’t you?” Marcus asked. He was impressed with Hansen. The idea of worming their way into the Mirage court would have been laughable without his help. Before they’d had only their (rusted) swords to leverage against their neighbor, but suddenly with an insider… well, even if Hansen had taken some time to form his scheme, it had been worth it to bust him out of prison and deliver him over to their side.

    “Of course,” Hansen said. “I know my people well. And land isn’t the only thing we can offer. We’ll use the factions of the council itself to gain our prize. The modernists want technological expansions, so you must promise them that… privately, so that you may promise the traditionalists just the opposite. That way, we will be assured of Your Highness’s kingship.”

    Marcus’s handsome brow furrowed. “I can’t do both though.”

    “No,” Hansen allowed. “And when the time comes and they make you King and you make me your advisor, I advise that you side with the traditionalists. They have more of a footing and will be able to overcome their younger rivals. With my advice you will be a strong king.”

    Fat chance of that. Half the traditionalists would be dead within the next ten years anyway, and the modernists were gaining power at a rapid rate. Not only that, but they were being driven to such a state of frenzy that they would riot at the first sign of tyranny. And then there would be a fight and Marcus would almost certainly be struck down. And then… out of the rubble, like the survivor he was, Hansen planned to reveal himself and step into the vacuum of power. Sure, the Mirage Kingdom had reviled him these past ten years, but time changes perceptions. In dire need of a leader they would delight at a familiar, powerful figure. They would own that he had tried to make a power grab in the past, but in their relief at him taking responsibility they would tell themselves that he’d only done it because he cared so passionately about the Kingdom and was trying to save it from ruin. And look, they’d say, he’s come to save us again.

    “You’ve never steered me wrong before,” Marcus said appreciatively.

    Hansen withdrew from his reverie. “And I never will,” he said.

    Marcus rubbed his hands together with a satisfied expression. “So it’s all pretty much settled. I’ll meet privately with the council members and you’ll keep an eye on the brats and the Togepi. Then I’ll be King.”

    “The Queen’s worth watching too,” Hansen said darkly. “I can tell she’s gotten much cleverer since she was a princess. Monarchy has given her a self-possessed air, and even if our plan succeeds, she will still be your greatest obstacle to ruling this land.”

    “She doesn’t seem that smart,” commented a man with an ‘L’ and an ‘R’ markered in under each boot.

    “She will do all she can to be a thorn in your side if the marriage goes through,” Hansen insisted. “Which is why I suggest that as soon as the marriage is legal and you have her in private that you dispatch with her. We can make it look like an accident—perhaps even use it to garner sympathy for you after the loss of your new wife if we’re careful—and then you will be in direct control of the monarchy, without having to deal with her interference.”

    “Don’t be so hasty,” Marcus said, shaking his head. “Sure, she’s willful, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be made to be docile… I know just how to deal with her. And anyway, it’s not like she’s unattractive.”

    Hansen surveyed Marcus gravely. Here was a man who thought that he could woo any woman to the point where she’d fight tooth and nail to make him a sandwich and massage his feet. Perhaps the Queen would strangle him before he got it in his brain to have her offed. “I beg you to reconsider, Your Highness.”

    “You worry too much,” Marcus said with a boyish grin as he walked toward the door. “I can handle her.”

    “Where are you going?” Hansen asked, standing up abruptly as the prince put his hand on the doorknob.

    “Out to see these big bad kids that you think are gonna try to cause some trouble,” Marcus said. “I want to see for myself if they’re a threat.”

    The door closed after Marcus with a faint chuckle. Hansen moved toward the door for a minute, but thought better of it. There was really no way they could fail… all he needed to do now was keep hiding his identity… until that moment where he could finally come out into the open.

    It would be soon…

    *****

    Misty sighed and leaned back in her chair. It was a silky white chair with blue and red markings. Prince Marcus would’ve been annoyed to see that it was egg-shaped, as was the rest of the furniture that decked out the parlor she was sitting in.

    “That’s the third time you’ve sighed in the last five minutes,” Ash pointed out from a similar chair, resting his chin in his hands while Pikachu ate a cookie from his perch on the armrest.

    “Well, what else am I supposed to do?” Misty snapped. “It’s not like you’re coming up with any ideas either!”

    Moods were not pleasant in what Team Rocket would’ve described as ‘Camp Twerp.’ After the council meeting yesterday they couldn’t find much worth hoping for, but a lot worth dreading. The council was currently engaging in talks about who they’d be forcing the Queen to marry against her will (though they called in ‘Sovereign Candidate Assessment’) and Sara was… well, how else could she be but miserable?

    Misty, Ash, and Dawn had been racking their brains since the meeting trying to come up with some way around the whole thing, but it hadn’t come too much. The humans were zilch for ideas. Pikachu had made several highly expressive gestures that Ash translated as ‘hit the prince over the head with a baseball bat and put him on the next hay cart out of the kingdom.’ They were currently trying to top this.

    Dawn had had enough of their stalemate of a meeting very quickly. Hanging around waiting for an idea to hit her when it just wasn’t working out wasn’t her style. So she’d decided to take Piplup and Togekiss for a look around the kingdom. She really hadn’t gotten to see much of it since they’d arrived, and anyway, an idea would probably come to her more easily when she wasn’t looking for it.

    Misty’d declined the offer to go with her. She wasn’t feeling up to sightseeing and didn’t want to do anything else until they had a plan. Togetic had trailed after Dawn though, which Misty was trying not to feel hurt about. She knew that Togetic was just happy to have a new friend in Togekiss, and that was the reason. It was nothing personal.

    Ash had decided to stay at the castle too. After what had happened yesterday, he wanted to stay close by in case there was more news. So there were he and Misty… staring at the coffee table, not quite at peace with each other but knowing that their own issues weren’t the most important thing at the moment, as they tried to think of a plan.

    “I know,” Ash said. “I’m trying. But I’m not even sure what we c—”

    There was a click as the door to the parlor slid open to reveal the handsome, if rather shabby, Prince Marcus. He smiled at them, as though this was a rather lovely meeting of old friends.

    “Oh! This is where you’ve been hiding,” he noted, stepping into the room.

    “Pika pikachu pika!” Pikachu snapped, dropping his cookie with his arms angrily out at his sides. He either meant ‘You’ve got a lot of nerve coming here!’ or ‘Just wait until we find a baseball bat!’

    “You!” Misty exploded with a glare. “What are you doing here?!”

    “There’s no need to be so angry,” Marcus said, holding up his hands with a grin. “You’re Sara’s friends, right? I think we got off on the wrong foot.”

    Misty crossed her arms. “Only her friends can call her Sara. She’s the Queen to you!”

    “Oh?” Marcus said, dropping his arms. “But me and her are friends. I think we’re going to be the very best of friends if you know what I mean.”

    Misty did. Ash didn’t really. “You’re not her friend and you’re not ours either,” he declared clenching his fist. “Why don’t you just leave her alone? She doesn’t like you and she doesn’t want to marry you!”

    Marcus laughed. “She may not like me now, but trust me, my friend, she will.”

    “Never in a million years,” Ash answered, tensing up just as Pikachu was.

    “I think you’ll find she will… after our wedding night that is,” Marcus jibed.

    That was too much for Misty. She stood up and threw an egg shaped pillow at the prince, who just barely dodged it. “You piece of scum!” she yelled. “Get out of here right now!”

    But Marcus was still in the mood to taunt. “Commoners don’t get taught proper etiquette these days,” he complained. “That’s ‘Your Highness’, soon to be ‘Your Royal Highness’, soon to be ‘Your Majesty.’”

    “Fine,” Misty said, planting a fist on each hip. “I’ll give you a title you really deserve, Your Royal Scuminess!”

    Marcus tutted. “I don’t think I’ll allow such rude people in my court when I’m king.” He leaned against the doorframe with an offensive amount of proprietary luxury. “Anyway, I really just wanted to know where Sara is.”

    “Like we’d tell you,” Ash spat.

    Marcus shook his head in mock sadness. “Too bad,” he said. “I thought you’d want to get in good with the new monarch. Guess you’re not that smart. Doesn’t matter; I’ll get her for myself—soon enough.”

    “What a jerk!” Misty exploded, as Marcus disappeared down the hall. She could still see that greasy smile in her mind’s eye and it offended her to her very core. “We’ve got to do something about this Ash, or Sara will have to marry that— that—”

    “I know,” Ash said, getting up to check the door to see that His Royal Scuminess was indeed gone, and not listening in outside the door. Satisfied that the prince was gone, he shut the door and returned to his seat. “Where is Sara anyway?” he asked. He was a little uncomfortable using the familiar name of a monarch, but was picking up the practice from Misty.

    Misty bit her lower lip. “With Jason, I think.”

    “Trying to figure a way out of this too, right?” Ash said. “We should find them. Maybe together the four of us can think of something.”

    “No way, Ash!” Misty chided. “If this all goes through then this might be one of the last times they can be together. I’m not going to intrude on such a romantic scene! Not that you’d understand,” she felt the need to add.

    That smarted. Honestly Ash wouldn’t have cared about any kind of romantic scene if she hadn’t felt the need to be insulting about it. “I’m might,” he commented, pride wounded.

    Misty snorted.

    Anyway,” Ash cut in, “thinking up a plan is way more important than some dumb romantic scene. This isn’t a movie. I’m sure Sara knows that.”

    “It’s not dumb!” Misty snapped. She looked off into the distance with a twinkle in her eye. “I bet it’s just beautiful…” She held up a declamatory hand. “I bet he’s saying: ‘Come away with me, my dearest. Our love cannot prosper in this dark place. Let us away before the sun rises again!’ and I bet she’s saying,” she switched her pose to one with the back of her hand pressed against her forehead in a swooning gesture, “‘I cannot, my love, for I must sacrifice all in the name of my kingdom—even if we can never be together like this again!’”

    Ash stared at her open-mouthed.

    Misty appeared to notice this and calmed herself down. “Or they’re just having sex,” she admitted.

    There was a crash as Ash actually fell out of his chair.

    What?

    “Well, it’s not exactly rocket science,” Misty said, turning her face haughtily away from him. “They’re not going to have much of a chance in the future. Not without getting in trouble.”

    Ash hoisted himself back onto the chair, pulling his hat over his red face. “You shouldn’t talk about other people like that,” he managed to get out weakly.

    “Why not?” Misty asked, feeling combative in the face of what she’d categorize as ‘typical Ash behavior.’ “I don’t think it’s anything to get embarrassed about.”

    “You wouldn’t,” he said quietly. It was the wrong thing to say.

    What?” Misty demanded, standing up. It was her turn to look red-faced, but it was probably more out of anger than embarrassment.

    “Nothing,” Ash said, wishing he hadn’t spoken. “It’s just that…”

    “It’s just that what?” Misty asked, storming over to him.

    “Well, you know,” Ash shrugged lamely.

    “No, I don’t,” Misty shot back crossly. “You’ll have to tell me.”

    “It’s just that you…” Ash tried, struggling between passive aggression and the awkwardness of the situation and not quite sure how to say what was on his mind. “You’d know all about that.”

    There was a brief silence before the thunderclap. “Ash Ketchum!” she shouted. “Are you daring to call me easy?!”

    “No!” Ash said, holding up his hands against the raging woman in front of him. “It’s not that, it’s just,” he looked off to the side sullenly, “well, you have a boyfriend, don’t you? It’s not a big deal for you to talk about that kind of stuff. I’m just saying it’s not that way for… everyone.”

    The flames of Misty’s rage were not quenched. The coals sizzled and smoked, but the shock of what he was saying and not saying was enough to calm her down as the strains of pity and unease grew within her. She sank down onto the coffee table.

    “You think… Luke is my boyfriend?” she asked quietly.

    Ash didn’t respond.

    “He’s not… just for the record,” she said stiffly. “We went on a few dates but that was it. I’ve had boyfriends before, but, well, not that it’s any of your business, I don’t have any direct exp— I’m not—” She flushed angrily. “Look, the time and the person was never right, no matter what you may have assumed, so…”

    Ash was staring at her with something that might have been horror and might have been relief. She turned away from him angrily. “Not that it should matter to you if I had. I have the right.”

    It was so irritating! Here he was, concocting some imaginary scenario where she was… well, and it was his fault that she hadn’t! She’d tried to enter into relationships with others… healthy relationships! But she couldn’t let go of that first crush and just… couldn’t get past it. So because of Ash’s decisions she was dragged along into a life of perpetual chastity along with him. And he had the nerve to assume…

    “I know you do,” he said, sounding more annoyed at himself than her now. “I wasn’t saying you’d be wrong, I was just…” His face contorted in discomfort. “Can we not talk about this?”

    But now it was Misty’s turn to look his way with fascinated interest. “This isn’t even about me, is it?” she said slowly. “It’s about you.” Yes… locker room talk finds its way down to even the densest minds eventually and tells them what they should be and what’s wrong with them. He knew just enough to know that there was a world out there that he didn’t understand. He’d never cared about it before, but surely as he’d grown up he’d learned how much the world cares about it; how much pressure there is to conform. “I’m sure Gary lost his before he turned thirteen,” she mused bitterly.

    It was Ash’s turn to stand up in a rage. He did it so suddenly that Pikachu had to cling to the armrest to avoid falling off. “Why should I care about that?!” he shouted back.

    “Don’t,” Misty said calmly.

    That appeared to throw Ash a bit. He unclenched his fists and looked at her confusedly. “What?”

    “Don’t care about it,” Misty said simply. “That’s what I do.” She crossed her arms. “Who cares about what society says? I’m not going to settle just because there’s some arbitrary age that people think I should’ve done that by. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a personal thing. It’s about finding the right person and waiting until the right time—whoever that is and whatever that time may be.” She sighed. “I think Sara’s already found that person. And it’s not Prince Marcus.”

    Ash sat back down again. It was all almost too much for him to deal with and he was glad they were back at the Queen’s problem and away from any of the nagging insecurities that had grown within him over the years. It still left them without any kind of solution though. “Maybe we should just find that person for the prince,” he joked half-heartedly.

    Misty laughed. She would’ve laughed at pretty much anything to break the tense atmosphere that had been brewing between them once again. But suddenly she stopped laughing and looked thoughtful.

    “Say that again,” she said, leaning forward.

  11. #11
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    Part 7.

    There was a click and a tiny flash of light barely even visible in the bright sunlight. Dawn held the camera up to Piplup so he could see the image frozen on the LCD screen. It was of an old brass statue in the village square, well-maintained and still shiny, of a man on a Rapidash holding a sword out dramatically. There was a Togepi sitting on the man’s shoulder, looking uncharacteristically fierce for something so cute and round.

    “What do you think, Piplup?” she asked.

    “Piiiplup!” Piplup said happily, clapping his little flippers together.

    Dawn got closer to the statue so that she could take a picture of the plaque. Apparently the statue was of Jonathon Lux, the leader of the settling party that eventually became Mirage Kingdom.

    Dawn slipped the camera into her purse. “At this rate I’m going to run out of disc space before we even stop for lunch!” she said smiling.

    There was so much to see in Mirage Kingdom! It had such lovely architecture, all modeled in some way off of the Togepi design. Not to mention the museums just brimming with history, the charming gift shops and cafes, and all the historical reenactments. Every couple of yards there was a post with a flat-screen television broadcasting information for tourists about the kingdom’s history and things to do. Dawn felt that they were sort of… out of place. They just didn’t match nicely with all the cobblestones and Rapidash-drawn carriages. For a moment, Dawn couldn’t help but feel that the council members who wanted to keep the kingdom completely traditional and technology-free had a point. It seemed such a waste to wreck the rustic atmosphere. …On the other hand, she could see why people would want things like the televisions. They provided a lot of really useful information and could keep everyone on the same page. It was… complicated.

    Dawn shook her head and eased the tension in her shoulders. Better not to worry about all the politics for now, she decided. That won’t solve anything.

    She’d been driving herself to distraction worrying about all the political problems and the Togepi Paradise and poor Sara. And it all just made her feel so completely helpless that she couldn’t come up with a single thing. So she’d decided that she wasn’t helping anyone by brooding over it and that if she waited patiently that the answer would probably turn up. Sometimes the only way to find the answer is to stop looking for it, as Mom always says.

    So she felt much better being out in the sunshine and seeing all that Mirage Kingdom had to offer. It was such a beautiful kingdom that it had to be saved.

    She did feel a little bad about leaving while Ash and Misty were still trying to think of a plan. She’d asked them along, but they said they wouldn’t be able to enjoy any sight-seeing with their current situation being what it was. She just hoped that they weren’t fighting too much. Though ever since the Kingdom’s problems had started escalating, the two of them had been treating each other much more civilly. It was probably just because they had more to worry about then their personal issues, but Dawn hoped that they could work those out too. Maybe given some time alone…

    Piplup let out a little squeak that brought her out of her reverie.

    She smiled and leaned down to pat him on the head. “Are you getting hungry, Piplup?” she asked.

    “Piplup!”

    “Me too,” Dawn agreed. “I think I saw a stand down the street that was selling apple turnovers. What do you say we eat dessert first?”

    Piplup had no compunction with turning the food pyramid upside-down and eagerly agreed. Dawn scooped him up and cast her gaze up to the sky where Togekiss and Togetic were zooming around the statue.

    “Hey you two!” she called. “Enough flirting! Let’s go get something to eat!”

    The inseparable pair descended from the statue in a few well choreographed loops with Togekiss landing primly on the ground at her side and Togetic hovering by her shoulder. A few people in the square applauded. She’d been getting a lot of attention for having two Togepi evolutions as her escorts. The people of the kingdom truly loved and revered the creatures.

    As she, Piplup, Togekiss, and Togetic made their way through the bustling crowd of tourist and citizens to the line of food stands, Dawn couldn’t help but notice another one of Mirage Kingdom’s appealing features: the clothes. Dawn really appreciated the clothes. The ones the citizens wore were all gorgeously crafted and seemed like they belonged to another time. Men wore suits and women wore floor-length dresses with bustles enough to give them all the personal space they could ever want. Every so often she’d notice the characteristic red and blue markings on a woman’s dress or a man’s handkerchief that showed the world just how much they loved their favorite Pokemon. These people you could truly call gentlemen and ladies.

    As Dawn was undergoing the sweet torture of the smell of pastries and powdered sugar while standing in line at the bakery stand, she saw a particularly beautiful outfit. It was a long blue dress that cinched in tightly at the waist with a bone understructure that made the skirt poof out. The collar was high and respectable, adding to the beautiful but noticeably modest look. A brown hat with spray painted white flowers and ornamentation perched on her head at an angle, half of it shrouding her face with a thin net veil. And beyond the veil was a face that matched the beautiful attire in its angularity and its refinement.

    Dawn caught herself before she stepped out of line to approach the woman and ask where she’d gotten that fantastic dress. After all, she had a tendency to go a little… overboard when it came to shopping and, in any case, she wasn’t sure that a dress like that would even fit into a suitcase. Instead she just reminded herself that it was rude to stare.

    The woman meandered closer to get a better view of a temple spire just above them. As her heels clacked along the cobblestones Dawn couldn’t help but wonder if she was going to take out a camera to snap a photo. Somehow, she felt, that would ruin the whole classical get-up.

    The gentlewoman did not take out a camera, or at least didn’t get a chance to. The click-clack of her heels suddenly turned into a jarring crack as a loose cobblestone slid out from under one of the lady’s shoes and sent her falling forward, careening into Dawn.

    “Piiiiip!” Piplup cried as the woman fell against him, and Dawn struggled to keep them both from falling.

    “Oh, I’m so sorry!” the lady said earnestly. “You’re not hurt, are you?”

    “I’m okay,” Dawn said, helping the woman up. “But what about you? That was a nasty fall,” she asked, all concern.

    “It was my own fault, I’m afraid,” the gentlewoman said ruefully. “The streets are in such disrepair these days… I should’ve known better and watched where I was going.”

    “Oh, it’s not your fault,” Dawn said, shaking her head. “I’ve tripped nearly a dozen times today. It’s almost impossible to see which stones are loose until… well, until you find out the hard way.”

    “I intend to draft a letter out to my representative to see that these roads are better maintained,” the gentlewoman resolved seriously. “After all, this could’ve been much more serious. If you hadn’t been so coordinated then we both could’ve toppled over and become injured. This is really becoming a problem in these busy areas.”

    Dawn couldn’t help but smile faintly at this comment about her coordination. This woman didn’t even know the half of it.

    The gentlewoman took a step forward and winced. “I daresay I twisted my ankle on that fall,” she said ruefully. “I suppose I’d better get home and put an icepack on it.”

    “Do you need any help?” Dawn asked while Piplup started to worry that he wasn’t going to get his apple turnover after all.

    “No, dear, I’ll be fine,” the woman said with a brave little smile. She bowed her head slightly. “I apologize once more for my clumsiness and hope it has not caused you any trouble.”

    “No need to worry about it,” Dawn said. “I just hope your ankle heals up well.”

    “Thank you, dear,” the gentlewoman said, a kind smile visible beyond her veil. “Have a lovely day,” she said as she turned around and began limping away.

    Dawn watched after the woman and wondered if she should’ve insisted on helping her home when the proprietor of the stand called out to say she was next. She smiled and walked up to the register.

    “I’ll have three apple turnovers and a cherry turnover,” she ordered cheerfully.

    The cashier looked at her carefully and then with a smile said: “I’m pretty good at guessing, but… Sinnoh, right?”

    “Yes!” Dawn said. “How’d you know?”

    “It’s the outfit,” the man said, punching the numbers into the register that showed up on the digital display. “We accept currency from all across the world here in Mirage Kingdom, so I’ve gotten pretty good at noticing fashion from different regions so I know which monetary system to use.” He typed in a final number. “That’ll be… P 2,000.”

    “Alright,” Dawn said, reaching into her purse for her wallet. At first her hand just hit against the tip of a dried up pen that had no other purpose in its inkless existence but to stab the fingers of anyone who reached into the bottom of the purse. She felt around for a minute, then took the purse off her shoulders and opened it up and searched feverishly.

    “This can’t be,” she moaned, and starting looking around on the ground desperately. “My wallet is gone!”

    The click-clack of heels a short distance away sped up perceptively, as a farthingale skirt swept across the cobblestones much quicker than anyone with a limp should be able to move.

    *****

    To Dawn it seemed like the chase was over in just a few short breaths. Others in the crowd had noticed her looking around desperately for her wallet and seen the figure quickly retreating from the scene. Someone put two and two together and let out the cry of: “Stop, thief!”

    Two city guards who had been leaning against a wall and enjoying the shade stood up at attention immediately and looked around for signs of a thief. They took to their feet and chased after the running woman on the basis that anyone running away had to be guilty of something.

    The woman ran fast. Fast not only for a woman who should be limping but for a woman in heels. They might not have caught her if she hadn’t, ironically enough, slipped on a loose piece of cobblestone (for real this time) and face-planted into the street.

    By the time Dawn had caught up to them, the two guards were already restraining the woman, and holding her hands behind her back. She was shouting out things like, “you both should be ashamed of yourselves, hounding a poor, innocent widow!” and “I’ll have you both in front of the high court for this, and don’t think I won’t!”

    “Ma’am, is this the person that stole your wallet?” one the guards asked Dawn when she caught up.

    Dawn looked wretchedly from the woman to the guards. “I… I don’t know,” she admitted confusedly. “I didn’t see it when it happened. I mean, I don’t think so. We only met because she fell down and—”

    “Fell down and bumped into you, eh?” the older guard asked knowingly. “That old trick.” Without hesitation he reached into the lady’s purse, ignoring her squawks of indignation. He pulled out a light blue wallet with white stars on it. “Would this be yours?”

    “Yes!” Dawn said excitedly, reaching out to take the wallet back. Then the joy of reclaiming her property fled and she could only look at the gentlewoman with a sense of betrayal. “How could you pull such a dirty trick on me?” she demanded. “I really felt sorry for you!”

    “A shameless attempt to plant false evidence on me!” the woman chided the guard. She looked imploringly at Dawn. “You’re my witness, dear. You saw how that man planted that in my wallet, didn’t you? And how roughly they treated a delicate woman like me?”

    “Hey,” the younger guard said, looking at the thief reflectively. “You’re Molly Fingers, aren’t you?”

    The woman froze. Then said haughtily, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but clearly you’ve mistaken me with someone else. My name is Molly Fincher, and I have never heard of this low person to whom you refer.”

    “Molly Fingers… that sounds about right,” the older guard said, rubbing at his stubble thoughtfully and completely ignoring the woman’s protests. “A young woman, dressed like a noble lady, and picking any pocket she can reach. We’ve been looking for you for awhile, Molly.”

    “You’re mistaken,” she said, turning her nose up at him.

    The younger guard eagerly rubbed his hands together. “We’ve done good, Sarge. We’ll get a commendation for this.”

    The pursuit of justice seemed to intrigue the sergeant more than the prospect of shiny metals. “You’re going away for a long time, Molly. I hope you know that. A career criminal like yourself isn’t about to get any leniency.”

    Molly appeared to decide to change tactics. She adopted a miserable and frightened expression. “Alright, I admit it. I’m not your Molly Fingers, but I stole that girl’s wallet. But you have to understand, I was driven by desperation. When my husband died, my prospects died with him. ‘Twas the fear of poverty that drove me to it. Just this one time I weakened and stole! But surely for a first offense some mercy can be shown. Are you men or monsters?”

    “First offense?” the younger guard snorted. “You’ve got a rap sheet longer than my—”

    “Just because we never caught you before doesn’t make this your first offense,” the sergeant said, cutting his younger charge off. “Not by a long shot.”

    “Yeah, from what I hear you’ve done it all. Pickpocketing, arson, whoring—”

    Well!” Molly exclaimed, turning away huffily.

    “—breaking and entering, gambling, identity theft, highway robbery, and Rapidash theft.”

    “I returned that Rapidash!” Molly snapped.

    “Only because you couldn’t sell it without getting caught,” jeered the guard.

    “You have no proof I’m the same person who did all those things,” Molly responded coolly. “All you have is one wallet.”

    “Oh yeah?” the sergeant asked, seizing on both sides of her puffy skirt much to her distress. He shook the skirt from side to side and out of it, crashing against the stones, fell several gold pocket watches, a pearl necklace, a roll of expensive silk, and several black leather money pouches.

    Dawn stared in horror at the woman she had only recently been admiring. “What kind of person are you?” she demanded.

    “You must not misunderstand,” Molly said, back to her ‘poor, miserable widow’ card. “It was only the fear of poverty that led me to this. It’s the only way I can support myself.”

    “Yeah, well you won’t be supporting yourself that way anymore,” the sergeant chided. “Come along, Mrs. Fincher, you’ve got an appointment in the cells.”

    They began to lead the struggling woman away when suddenly both guards seem to have a thought and looked back at Dawn, smiling sheepishly.

    “I hope this bad experience won’t sour you on our lovely kingdom,” one of the commented hopefully.

    “Aberrations like this are quite rare,” the other assured her. “We don’t let our tourists be treated in this manner.”

    “So please enjoy your stay here! …And don’t forget to buy a souvenir to show the folks at home!”

    …And then they were gone.

    Dawn stared after them for a few minutes, then cast her gaze down to Piplup as Togetic and Togekiss flew over to her looking concerned.

    “I think,” she began, “we’d better go back to the castle.”

    Piplup groaned inwardly. He knew he wasn’t going to get his apple turnover.

    *****

    By the time Dawn arrived back at the castle, Ash and Misty’s argumentative brainstorming session had been joined by Sara. Jason was standing by and acting as her guard. The funny thing about Jason was… well, you couldn’t pin anything on him. There was never the slightest sign of impropriety between the two of them—no turned up collar or mussed up hair. But… he was just always there with this perpetually at-attention look like he was ready to take notes at any second.

    “Hi guys,” Dawn said, walking into their presence somewhat numbly. “So uh…” She didn’t know quite where to begin, so she didn’t. “Did you guys come up with anything?”

    “Jason and I have been talking over the matter,” Sara said smoothly. “But I haven’t come up with any plan complete enough to work.”

    Ash nudged Misty in the elbow. “I told you that’s what they were doing,” he said.

    “What about you two?” Sara asked, ignoring this comment. “Any ideas?”

    Misty thinks we should find Prince Marcus’s soul mate,” Ash said, rolling his eyes.

    Misty scowled him into silence and might have launched a comeback if it weren’t for Sara answering with: “While the idea itself may or may not be feasible, it does make clear the reality of our situation,” Sara said gravely. “I have no power in this decision. I’m all out of tricks to try on the council. The power lies with Marcus himself, and my only way out of this marriage is to persuade him out of it.”

    “How can you do that?” Dawn asked.

    Sara smiled faintly. “That’s the question.”

    A heavy silence followed, which Ash desperately tried to break with a hopeful: “What about you, Dawn? Did you think of anything while you were sightseeing?”

    Dawn rubbed her arm and looked guiltily off to the side. “Sorry. Something happened and I got kind of…”

    “What happened?” Misty asked curiously.

    “Well… someone stole my wallet,” Dawn said.

    Jason shook his head disapprovingly. “Pickpockets are a sad fact of our streets. Give me a description of the wallet and I will ensure that all the pawn shops in the area are aware it was stolen. The money, however, might be gone for good.”

    “No, it’s okay,” Dawn said, holding up her hands. “The guards found the thief and got me back my wallet.” She looked down at her knees. “Actually I guess she’s a famous thief or something. ‘Molly Fingers’ they said.”

    Sara and Jason both stared wide-eyed at her. “Molly Fingers has been caught?” Jason repeated disbelievingly. He moved toward the door. “I must check in with the guard. Excuse me, Your Majesty.”

    “No,” Sara said, reaching out and touching his arm. “I’ll go with you.” She had a sort of industrious gleam in her eye. “I think I’d like to talk to this Molly person. Yes, I’d like that very much indeed.”

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    I'm sorry for getting rude. It's just that I'm so looking forward to this fic!!! It's exciting. I always wonder why I'm the only one commenting though.
    ~Kat

    Check out my Tumblr post for different accounts: http://katspearl.tumblr.com/post/320643625...ro-2-meeeeeeeee

    I'm an optional author for the Fic Request Shop. I'm working on http://www.serebiiforums.com/showpos...&postcount=198 and http://www.serebiiforums.com/showpos...&postcount=293

    CURRENTLY WORKING ON: Over the Edge and The Reality Show
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    ~SNIIIIVYYY!!

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    I'm sorry for getting rude. It's just that I'm so looking forward to this fic!!! It's exciting. I always wonder why I'm the only one commenting though.
    S'alright I'm just glad to hear that you're enjoying the fic.

    I'm actually dying to write a new chapter, to be honest, but dead week is just around the bend and then I have to deal with final exams. Once I get into summer break I'll be able to update more regularly, I think.

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    thanks for forgiving me!!! XD *relieved* Once again im sorry! but good luck on your finals!!! Ace the test for all your fans!!!
    ~Kat

    Check out my Tumblr post for different accounts: http://katspearl.tumblr.com/post/320643625...ro-2-meeeeeeeee

    I'm an optional author for the Fic Request Shop. I'm working on http://www.serebiiforums.com/showpos...&postcount=198 and http://www.serebiiforums.com/showpos...&postcount=293

    CURRENTLY WORKING ON: Over the Edge and The Reality Show
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    Also, to cure my writer's block, here's a two-shot: It's Better to Have Loved



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    XD Thanks! I'm done with finals, so here's that new chapter I promised.

    Part 8.

    Silence always greeted the monarchs of Mirage Kingdom whenever they entered the great hall of their castle at meal times. As heads turned to see Queen Sara framed in the doorway that morning at breakfast that very protocol was taken up. The muddle of conversation from the assemblage of tables died down upon her arrival, leaving only the sound of chairs scraping back as all the men in the room rose to their feet, though some, namely Ash, had to be elbowed away from their peanut butter, banana, and chocolate chip pancakes before they remembered their etiquette. Because the custom was to be silent until the Queen took her seat and invited them all to continue with their meals, the first words she spoke were crystal clear to everyone in the hall.

    She moved not to her throne as was usual, but toward the Verum delegation—a delegation which consisted entirely of the handsome, if somewhat slow, prince seeking her hand, and his cowled associate. She dipped him a very minor curtsey and said: “Your Highness, it would give me great pleasure if you would accompany me on my rounds today. Due to your… prospects, it would seem prudent for you to become better acquainted with our kingdom.”

    “What?!” Misty squeaked, her outburst followed by the clatter of her fork falling onto her plate and the sound of Dawn shushing her.

    Marcus, however, seemed utterly unsurprised. His lips twisted into a smug little smile. “Why of course, Your Majesty, it would be my pleasure too.”

    “Then I believe I shall sit with you today so that I may inform you of our kingdom’s practices,” she said, sitting down in the chair that a servant had carried in behind her.

    “I’ll have to get used to it, I guess,” Marcus said, grinning and stroking the sparse stubble on his chin.

    “You will indeed,” Sara returned. She turned to the room at large. “You may all take your seats and continue.”

    Ash sank to his seat slowly, his eyes on the monarch. Jason stepped forward to pass Sara the schedule that she motioned for. The two of them did not share any significant looks, which seemed most significant of all to Ash. His sense of descending doom intensified as he fell to his seat and met Misty’s panicked tones.

    “Did you see that?” she demanded.

    “Yeah,” Ash said, sounding beaten.

    “It’s like… it’s like she’s—” Misty began.

    “She’s acting like they’re really going to get married,” Dawn said almost mournfully.

    “Does that mean… she’s given up?” Ash asked, sounding numb. To see another person giving up… well, in some ways it struck him personally. His can-do spirit cried out against it. It wasn’t right. Dreams should come true, problems should get solved, and everything should turn out okay if you just try hard enough. For anything else to be true was simply not just. But yet… had his can-do spirit ever earned him the things he wanted most?

    “She can’t!” Misty said, also struck personally, but for different reasons. “She can’t marry that awful prince! Who knows what’ll happen to the kingdom? And she doesn’t love him, she loves Jas—”

    “I think she’s trying to make the best of a bad situation,” Dawn said miserably. “Like… to try to make Prince Marcus a good king, so that if she marries him all the strife will go away and the kingdom can prosper again.” Dawn looked down at her hands. “She’s willing to sacrifice everything for peace.”

    Misty looked soulfully over at the Queen of the Mirage Kingdom, busy pouring over the day’s itinerary with the foreign prince, wishing that she could reach out to her. “Sara…” she half-whispered. “Don’t do this.”

    *****

    “Psst!” Misty whispered loudly in the hallway outside the dining room. She, Ash and Dawn were huddled around the corner behind the doorway. “Can I talk to you for a minute, Sara?” she asked as Sara, Marcus and their entourage passed upon leaving breakfast.

    Sara flashed Marcus an apologetic look. “I’ll just be a minute, dear. Can you go ahead without me?”

    Misty and company noted the ‘dear.’ It horrified them.

    “Sure,” Marcus said, also having noticed the ‘dear’ but being pleased as opposed to horrified. He rubbed his hands together eagerly. “So where are we off to first? A ribbon cutting ceremony? Shaking a few hands? Kissing a few babies? Maybe a speech or a cocktail party?”

    “Oh, no,” Sara said, shaking her head. “Nothing like that at all. First of all we’re going to the local shelter to serve the homeless, then a few retirement communities, and then I thought we’d cap off the morning by helping a youth initiative project to clean our village square.”

    Marcus’s smug smile took on a more lopsided, quizzical character. “What, are we royalty or are we doing community service to get out of a DUI?”

    Sara gave a false little laugh. “Oh, but in the Mirage Kingdom we do royalty somewhat differently than in Verum. You see, we come from a long line of servant kings. I’m sure you’ll understand when you’re one of them. Now please, go ahead, I’ll be along after you shortly.”

    Marcus, his smile somewhat frozen and doubtful, turned away and let her hangers-on guide him away. When he was out of earshot, Misty asked pointedly: “What do you think you’re doing?!”

    “Doing?” Sara asked innocently. “I thought it would be wise to acquaint the man that the holy council is most likely to appoint to be my husband with the kingdom he’ll soon be ruling.”

    “But… but he’s…” Misty struggled. “But you can’t stand him! You don’t want to get married!”

    “There might be other ways,” Dawn tried, hugging Piplup close to her. “Don’t rush into this.”

    “You’re…” Ash began disbelievingly. “You’re really gonna just give up?”

    Sara shook her head sadly. “I’m afraid it’s a done deal,” she said. “Someday you all will learn that you don’t always get what you want—but it’s my duty to make sure that the Kingdom gets what it needs, including the king its council members demand.”

    The three stared at her, unable to combat the philosophy of Jagger. Misty tried. “But… but what about Jason?”

    Sara closed her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I have to go. I cannot keep the prince waiting.”

    And with that she turned on her heel and stepped lightly down the hall, leaving the three of them with no more answers and nothing but grasping questions.

    *****

    It was impossible not to be in low spirits for the rest of the day. Everything that they’d been straining to keep at bay, that they’d been trying so hard to think their way out of, was really going to come to pass. Misty still harbored hopes of coming up with a plan, but for Sara to give up obviously hurt her. Ash too seemed affected by it. Dawn knew it wasn’t because he could identify with Sara’s heartbreaking decision, but because her defeat felt to him like all of his. Here they were, in a situation where their cause was just and right and yet they were unable to stop their inevitable defeat. That shouldn’t happen in Ash’s world. If it could then maybe everything he’d worked for was impossible too—if everything really doesn’t work out alright in the end. You try and try and try… but what do you do when the universe spits in your face?

    The hopeless aura was draining Dawn and it was one of the things that had driven her from their company, but it wasn’t the only thing. She was feeling again like she was an outsider in their company. Maybe they could talk—say something that the other needed to hear—better without her there. It was that, but it was also curiosity that inevitably led Dawn to the cells.

    It had been easy as a guest of the Queen and as the one who’d been involved in the original incident, to get access. The cell was quiet and isolated, at the end of a long hallway of empty rooms. Dawn walked toward it with trepidation in her heart, peaking around the bars to the figure within.

    “Well, if it isn’t my kind benefactress,” a voice walking the line between propriety and impertinence commented from within. “I have you to thank for this lovely room,” she said, gesturing to the dank cell.

    Dawn steeled herself. “It’s not my fault that you stole from me and ended up here.”

    The shabby looking lady within, her fine clothing torn and dirty from her flight from justice, moved closer to the bars. “That’s one way of looking at it,” she answered.

    “That’s the only way of looking at it,” Dawn insisted. She sat down on the chair that had been placed for her visit. “Now just answer me this: why did you steal from me? And please don’t try that ‘poor widow’ routine again.”

    Molly Fingers sat down as well with a prim, superior air. “It’s not a routine, my dear, it happens to be true. Or that’s how it started at least.”

    Dawn looked at the young woman in surprise. “You’re seriously telling me that you’re a widow.”

    “My second husband was much older than me,” Molly explained. “He fell ill and passed leaving me with very little to survive on.”

    One of Dawn’s heartstrings twanged, though she feared she was being manipulated. “Second husband?” she asked doubtfully. It was hard to believe that someone so young had not only been widowed, but married twice.

    “Oh yes,” Molly said. “My first got into some trouble with a syndicate in Goldenrod and had to flee the region. Oh, I suppose technically we’re still married, but he left me and his identity behind and told me I was free to remarry. As for my third, he’s rotting in a jailhouse that’s likely worse than this one for arson.”

    Dawn looked at her suspiciously. “You’re making this up, aren’t you?”

    Molly shrugged elegantly. “I wish I could say I was. Misfortune and I are constant companions.”

    “Are you going to marry it next?” Dawn couldn’t help but asking.

    Molly’s trimmed eyebrows ran together irritably. “Maybe, dear, if it brings the right offer to the table.”

    “That’s terrible,” Dawn tutted.

    “Don’t look down on me, girl,” Molly responded serenely. “I’ve done more than you could dream. I was born an orphan with nothing and I’ve parlayed my skills into wealth. What have you done that gives you the right to scold me?”

    “Well, I haven’t stolen to get where I am!” Dawn answered.

    “And where, pray tell, is that?” Molly asked with a thin smile. “What have you accomplished that’s so grand?”

    Dawn puffed out her chest, such as it was. “I’ll have you know that I’m top coordinator!”

    This ostentatious statement apparently did not have the desired effect on Molly Fingers. “Oh, that silly little Pokemon beauty contest thing?” she asked dismissively.

    “It’s—” Dawn began, near exploding. “It’s not a beauty contest! It’s where the best coordinators from all across the different regions of the world display the skills they and their Pokemon have learned together, and share their art in the spirit of competition!”

    Molly was silent for a moment. “Oh,” she said, “pardon me. So it’s a beauty contest and talent show. Well, I can see why you’re so proud.”

    Dawn fumed to herself as Piplup cheeped indignatly. To have a petty sneak thief so callously shrugging off her life’s dream was hard to bear. “It’s not just about that. It’s about building up relationships with your Pokemon.” She patted Piplup on his feathered head to calm him. “You can’t bring out a Pokemon’s true potential unless you learn how to do that. And contests really help.”

    “I’m sure,” Molly said. “It’s certainly a valuable thing to have that kind of relationship with a Pokemon, but only if you actually use it for something.” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “I have a Marill, you know, it’s the kind of Pokemon highborn ladies are supposed to have and I’ve always wanted to be a highborn lady. It took awhile, but I taught her how to scope out crowds to find valuables on people—jewelry, watches, wallets… that sort of thing. I had to be very close with her to teach her those skills, but we actually put our closeness to a practical use, that’s better than just wasting it in contests doing nothing at all.”

    Dawn couldn’t believe it. How could this woman honestly say that exploiting your relationship with a Pokemon to get it to steal for you was better than using it honestly in a contest? That was a Team Rocket-level sentiment! “We don’t do nothing in contests!” she shot back.

    “Fine,” Molly allowed. “It’s better than just using the relationship to show off then.”

    “No it’s not!” Dawn shot back. “It’s more than showing off. I mean, sure, you’re supposed to showcase your Pokemon and all. But it’s also about art and about entertaining the crowd. That’s worth something.”

    “Rather like a clown,” Molly observed, smiling.

    Dawn nearly fell off her chair. “It’s… it’s not like a clown at all!” she insisted, struggling to right herself.

    “So you say,” Molly said loftily. “But for all your ‘art’ and ‘entertaining’ where has this whole talent show business actually gotten you?”

    Dawn opened her mouth to respond, but nothing came out. After feeling so… so aimless it hit hard to have someone question the worth of her life’s dream. Those aspirations that she’d held up so high when she was younger… they met absolutely nothing to Molly. Was she really feeling aimless now because she’d accomplished all that she’d set out to accomplish… or was it because she’d accomplished nothing that was worthwhile at all?

    …But… but wait a second! “Your methods have gotten you in jail!” Dawn pointed out.

    “True,” Molly allowed. She crossed her legs in mild impatience. “And if that Queen were merely do me the courtesy of letting me post bail then I’d be out of here in an instant. All she seems to be interested in doing is talking about reform. …Pity.”

    “You should listen to Queen Sara,” Dawn said crossly. “She’s going through so much right now that you don’t even know about, and for her to take the time to offer you a chance to repent your crimes…” Dawn trailed off. “Well, you don’t even know the kind of gift you’re being given.”

    “Going through?” Molly repeated, raising an eyebrow. “You mean this whole Prince marrying business? She mentioned it to me—as if the incarcerated woman should care about a Queen’s matrimony woes. I mean, honestly, am I supposed to say ‘Oh, the poor thing, she has to marry a prince!’ I hope she’s aware that that’s approximately every girl’s dream.”

    “But she doesn’t love him!” Dawn shot back.

    Molly sighed. “Take it from someone who’s been married three times, dear. Love really isn’t the most important ingredient in a marriage. It’s more of… a business agreement.”

    “What a heartless way of looking at it!”

    “You can say that because you’ve never had to scrounge,” Molly answered. “Anybody who’s been through what I have wouldn’t exactly be impressed by someone’s complaints over a less than perfect marriage.”

    “You’re not impressed by much of anything,” Dawn said sourly. “Maybe if I’d been a thief you’d be impressed.”

    “Certainly,” Molly agreed. “Then at least you’d be doing something profitable.”

    “So that’s all it is?” Dawn challenged. “Enriching yourself?”

    “I do what I have to do to survive,” Molly answered. “I won’t apologize for that. However, I do like to think I provide a valuable service.”

    “By stealing from people?” Dawn asked incredulously.

    “Of course,” Molly said. “For example, I’m sure you will be a lot more careful with your possessions after this whole pick-pocketing incident.”

    Dawn stared at her, mouth agape as Molly smile serenely back. “You can thank me,” the thief went on, “by speaking up for me at my trial.”

    Dawn stood up, shaking her head in disgust. “I don’t know why I even came here,” she said. “I have more important things to be thinking about.”

    “Oh yes,” Molly said to her retreating back. “Good luck with sorting out this pesky marrying a handsome prince business—I’m sure a problem that large requires your full attention to solve. I’ll just be, you know, rotting in prison, no big deal.”

    *****

    Dawn rushed out of the cells and back toward the castle feeling angry and somewhat humiliated. She shouldn’t have even bothered, really. It’s just that… well, she’d hoped that Molly would’ve at least had the decency to apologize to her and then she could get some closure on that whole messy event. She couldn’t fix the situation with Sara, but she thought she could at least make amends there. No such luck. Instead she’d been belittled by a thief.

    She sighed to herself as she walked out of the growing dusk and into the lit castle. She knew she shouldn’t have been focusing on her own insecurities and worries about what to do next with her life. That would all be there waiting for her when this was over. Now she had other people to worry about. …And worrying seemed to be all she could do.

    The whole miserable day had gone by too slow, and she didn’t even need to wonder if Ash and Misty had hatched some brilliant plan while she was gone. There were no brilliant plans to hatch. If there had been, they would’ve already thought of them. If they did act, and they probably would, it would be in desperate half-measures that would probably make the situation worse.

    She meandered into the dining hall, site of this morning’s disappointments. It didn’t look any better by the evening. She exchanged hopeless looks with Ash and Misty and took a seat next to them. Before she could ask them a question she already knew the answer to, Queen Sara entered the room, prompting silence. She wasn’t alone, Marcus was at her side, looking somewhat haggard, but proud.

    “We have an announcement to make,” Sara said energetically to the room at large. “Just this afternoon the council has made my engagement to His Highness, Marcus Basius the Prince of Verum official. A ball has been schedule for this Saturday in order to commemorate the occasion.”

    The applause and enthusiastic sounds of gossip from across the room completely drowned out the groans of two girls and a boy who gazed sadly at each other, at a loss for words.

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    Pretty great so far, surprised to see it hasn't gotten too many replies yet. Unfortunately since you're quite a bit in it's hard to give too detailed a review simply because there's so much to cover. I personally never thought that much about the Mirage Kingdom and how much you could expand that universe, so the idea of setting it there was a nice move. Love the theme of Ash falling into a rut and being deadset against "growing up," for lack of a better word. Something I'm working on has a really similar theme so it's nice to see that people are starting to explore the potential he's got as a character. Hoping you cover some of the things that happened to him in the other regions, right now it's a little odd that he's gone so many places but is still (seemingly) exactly the same; he's done a little maturing each region, specifically Hoenn and Sinnoh, so having him be stuck at that mentality seems off.

    The only real complaints I've got are with the antagonists, and even those are pretty minimal. Marcus is kind of a flat character at present, and on the flip side Molly is bordering on over the top. They're still new, though, so I'm guessing they will be fleshed out as this keeps going.

    Side note: the three year old in me found it funny that this site censored "*** se *** se," especially considering the mascot of Pokemon said it.
    Last edited by Antithesis; 19th June 2011 at 3:58 AM.

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    Well thank you for reviewing! I'm glad people are reading!

    Pokemon's attitude toward (or I suppose you could say against) maturity honestly fascinates me, so this fic was just a good excuse for me to explore that. My own view of the series obviously colors much of this, and from my perspective Ash really hasn't matured that much in the course of the series. Oh sure, there's been some change, whether you consider it character growth, character decay, or retconning, but Pokemon is made up of cycles that seem to repeat themselves and that's my point with Ash here. He's become dissatisfied with his own patterns, but breaking out of them is difficult. So in some ways, his sameness is part of the point. But I realize how you take that depends on how you view Ash and the series.

    Heheheh. Molly. I can explain her. She's actually a giant homage to Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders which explains why she's so much larger than life. As for Marcus, the thing with him is that he's easy to steer. You called the two of them antogonists, but they're really not. Hanson is the only antagonist and, as of right now, he's advising/controlling Marcus.

    *shakes fist* You win again, censor!

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    Part 9.

    Even the normally austere Hanson was running a victory lap in his mind. The Queen, so determined to be an obstacle to them, had finally given in, as had the council. They were a hair’s (or heir’s. Ha!) breadth from the throne and were already being treated as though the marriage was inevitable. The plan was going over so well that Hanson had been surprised when Marcus, who was usually much too celebration-prone, had come back to his quarters after accompanying Sara on her official duties with a rather somber, reflective expression. Hanson only hoped that the boy was finally taking this seriously—perhaps he now understood the magnitude of the prize he was about to win.

    “I don’t like this,” the prince said sullenly, looking only at his folded hands.

    All Hanson could do was stare at him in disbelief for a moment. “Don’t like it?” he repeated incredulously. “You’re about to marry into the royalty of a great kingdom! What could you possibly have to complain about?”

    “I already am royalty of a great kingdom,” Marcus said through gritted teeth.

    Once great,” Hanson said with a barely contained sneer.

    Marcus didn’t have the guile to pull off a really good glare, but his eyebrows met in the middle of his forehead. “It’s the biggest collection of land in the entire region that’s independent from the Hoenn government. I’d say that’s pretty great.”

    “True, true,” Hanson allowed. “But it’s also the poorest. Mirage may be smaller, but it’s oh so rich. That is why we are here, Your Highness. You do remember don’t you?”

    “Well, yes,” Marcus said, straightening up his hair in irritation. “But… I got a better look today at how they run things and… the stuff these monarchs do… well, if my father found out that I, a noble prince of Verum, was spending my days spoon-feeding the elderly and picking up trash on the road like some kind of janitor, he’d… he’d roll over in his… deathbed.”

    Hanson sighed. “It is true that the Mirage Kingdom takes a different approach to the monarchy. Kings and Queens are meant to reflect the benevolence of the Togepi.”

    Marcus cringed. He had no patience for the little eggy mascots of Mirage. “‘Servant Kings’ she called it! I’ve never even heard of such a thing.”

    “Verum has always opted for a more… absolute attitude to authority,” Hanson commented.

    “Kings are supposed to have the best of everything. They’re not like… like ordinary people. If Kings don’t live in opulence then what’s the point of being one?”

    “But you will live in opulence,” Hanson soothed. “These charity events please the people—it’s a small price to pay for the wealth you will inherit.”

    “Maybe,” Marcus said uncertainly. “It’s just that… well, she took me down to a council meeting to ask for funds for our engagement ball—she had to ask for money! And they gave her quite a hard time on the amount she wanted as well, even though this whole thing was their idea in the first place!”

    Hanson winced. “The council does have approval in matters of finance, but I assure you the money is—”

    “Colonel, money is why we’re here,” Marcus said in slightly panicked tones. “There’s no money left in the vaults back home, the people are rioting daily, and our creditors are lining up for repayment. My father’s too sick to do more than drool, so it’s all up to—”

    “Yes, yes, I know, don’t worry about it,” Hanson said dismissively. “The council will surely pay off Verum’s debts.” The words he didn’t say were ‘gradually,’ or ‘with a payment plan,’ or ‘ensuring return on investment.’ “They’d be fools not to.”

    Marcus looked uncertain for a minute, then appeared slightly relieved. “Are you sure, Colonel?”

    “Yes,” Hanson said, though a bit uncomfortably. “Though they may take issue with some other expenditures that you’re more used to.”

    “Like?”

    “Like wine, women and song,” Hanson said, trying and failing to keep the ‘preachy’ out of his voice. “They’ll object to you using the treasury for such things.”

    Marcus looked doubtful. “Extravagance is what it means to be a royal. Why would the council not understand—”

    “Do not forget,” Hanson cut in, to put the prince’s mind at ease, “you will be King. The power will be yours, and should you decide to dissolve the council and take their authority over finance for your own, well, there’s nothing they can do about that.” Except rally the people, who would be shocked to the point of rage by such a tyrannical move, to depose you and most probably chop off your head, Hanson allowed to himself. It would save me a great deal of effort in the long run.

    “Yes well… it didn’t seem like Sara could do much to stop them,” Marcus said.

    “She is… weak,” Hanson tried and knew it for the direct lie that it was.

    “She didn’t seem weak,” Marcus said obstinately.

    Hanson let the silence stretch a little too far on that one as he tried to think of a response. “She made me give an old man a bath,” Marcus added with barely contained horror, as though this was his argument’s ace in the hole that he’d saved until the last.

    Hanson turned around so that Marcus wouldn’t see him rolling his eyes. “My condolences.”

    “I wouldn’t even give my father a bath,” Marcus said in a strained voice. “I’m not doing that kind of thing ever again.”

    “I should think you’d be willing to do just about anything to pay off your kingdom’s debts,” Hanson sniffed. “Isn’t that what you told me? You called Verum the biggest collection of land independent of the Hoenn government, but that won’t be true for much longer, will it? Hoenn owns your debts. As regent, do you really want to go down in history as the one who lost Verum?”

    Hanson’s words sank into Marcus. He shook his head gloomily. “But isn’t there some other way I could…”

    “Are there any other women fabulously wealthy enough to pay off an overgrown kingdom’s debts that you can think of that are willing to marry you?” Hanson asked, knowing the answer.

    “Well, no. I suppose n—”

    “And isn’t that worth giving a senior citizen a sponge bath or two?” Hanson pressed on.

    He had to think about it. He actually had to think about it. Hanson couldn’t believe this little insect. Here he was, poised to take possession of the greatest kingdom in the entire world and he treated it like an inconvenience more than a prize. For Hanson to have fought so hard only to lose it, and yet see this worm moaning with the thing nearly in his grasp was just… just maddening.

    Finally, Marcus appeared to come to a conclusion. He nodded grimly.

    *****

    In the tea room several floors below, Misty was attempting to rally her troops.

    “Alright then,” she addressed Ash and Dawn with an expression of gritty determination, “we haven’t got much time. The engagement ball is tomorrow and I don’t know how many chances we’ll get to intervene after it’s over. Sara’s given up—but we’re not going to!” She paced to the left. “We’ve got to figure out some way so that Sara doesn’t have to marry that creep, for the good of Sara, Jason, and the entire Mirage Kingdom.” She paced to the right. “And we’ve got to do it before it’s too late.” She turned back to Ash and Dawn. “So… what are our options?”

    Both of them shuffled uncomfortably, but Ash was the first to speak. “Well… that’s the thing, Misty,” he tried. “I’m not sure if we actually have any.”

    “No! There has to be a way,” Misty insisted. They were all affected by the situation before them, but it seemed to Ash that Misty took it more personally than either he or Dawn did.

    Dawn sighed. “Sara doesn’t think there is—except to try to make the best of Marcus and teach him how to be a good king. Maybe that is the best way, maybe she sees potential in him that we just don’t. I mean, it seems like she and Jason love each other and all, but if they ran off together than what would happen to the Kingdom?”

    “Sara’s wrong. We still have a chance,” Misty said, shaking her head. “Like… like…” she trailed off as she willed herself to come up with a plan. “Maybe we could dig up some really awful dirt on Marcus. He looks like the kind of guy who’s done some less-than-kingly things. If we could expose him at the dance then maybe the council will—”

    “But the council doesn’t seem to care about Marcus’s reputation; they care about his land,” Ash pointed out.

    “Well… maybe we could find out if there’s something wrong with the land,” Misty tried, grasping at straws.

    Ash shook his head. “If the entire kingdom isn’t built on top of a sinkhole or an Indian burying ground then I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere.”

    “Well, you could try to suggest something instead of just shooting everything I say down!” Misty lashed out.

    “I can’t suggest something if there’s nothing to suggest!” Ash returned. “I don’t like this anymore than you do, but since Sara’s okay with it… well, maybe we should be too.”

    “There’s a way,” Misty contended. “I know there is.”

    “Um… you keep saying that, Misty,” Dawn tried uncertainly, “but what makes you so sure?”

    “Because,” Misty began, but cut herself off. She felt Dawn should understand even if the blockhead didn’t. “Because… because… well, you know. Love conquers all!”

    There was a beat and then Ash corrected with: “in stories.”

    “In real life too!” Misty snapped. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

    “The point of what?” Ash asked, mystified.

    “Of anything!”

    Dawn was beginning to feel uncomfortable, and very much like she should escape from this conversation as soon as possible—preferably before something exploded.

    “I don’t think that’s true,” Ash countered, “and even if it was… is that even a good thing? I mean, is love really more important than a whole kingdom full of people? Is it really okay if that all falls apart as long as two people get to be in love?”

    Dawn stood up. “I’m just gonna… I think I ought to…” she began awkwardly, trying to think of a better excuse than ‘I think I left the stove on.’

    “It is,” Misty said acidly, ignoring Dawn. “Love is the most important thing in the world. You’d know that if you had a single drop of romance in your soul.”

    “A costume for Piplup!” Dawn came up with. “I… really ought to sew a costume for Piplup for the ball. I’m sure someone in this castle has some lace that they could spare.”

    “Lup!” Piplup cried indignantly.

    “Don’t worry,” Dawn assured him, “It’ll be manly lace.”

    “I do so and that doesn’t have anything to do with anything anyway,” Ash said angrily. He would’ve never claimed to have romance in his soul on his own, but the way Misty said it just made him want to insist that he did have some… you know, somewhere in there along with the Pokemon skills and the heart of gold and the oversized appetite.

    “So I’ll just… I’ll just go then,” Dawn tried again, shuffling toward the door with all speed.

    “It has everything to do with it,” Misty insisted. “You’d understand if you knew anything about this—but you don’t.”

    There was a hurried slam as Dawn fled the room.

    “Well, alright, let’s just say that love is the most important thing,” Ash went on. “Let’s pretend that cities can fall, kingdoms can collapse, and people can die as long as love is allowed to flourish.”

    “We’re not pretending,” Misty said through gritted teeth. She might have been a tiny bit more yielding if she hadn’t been so very angry at him and if Moulin Rouge hadn’t been playing on the cleverly hidden flat screen television in her guestroom the night before.

    “Even then, love can’t really ‘conquer all’ in every situation,” Ash finished.

    “It can,” Misty said, but there was a hollow of uncertainty under her words.

    “Well, what if two people are in love with the same person?” Ash put forth. “In the end, someone’s going to come out of that unhappy. How can love conquer all then?”

    Misty bit her lip. Of course, love triangles (and often love quadrilaterals and even in one case a love dodecahedron) often showed up in the kind of literature and movies that were the bread and butter of romantics. Heartbreak almost always followed. Love did seem to win the day… but only for the main characters most of the time. Love’s uncompromising strength did not seem to extend to minor characters, or villains, or the terminally unpopular.

    “It… it just…” Misty tried. “Well, the stronger love wins in the end,” she finished lamely.

    “What about that Romeo and Juliet type thing?” Ash tried again. “You’re always going on about that—but they died in the end, right? Love doesn’t exactly win there.”

    Misty felt that she was on stronger ground to argue for this one. “Of course love wins, Ash Ketchum,” she responded tersely. “They may have died, but their spirits are together forever.”

    Ash wasn’t sure how to argue with this. He thought ‘dead’ was pretty compelling evidence for a loss. But he wasn’t done yet. He had one more example.

    “What if someone loves a person, but that person doesn’t love them back?” Ash asked. “How does love conquer all there?”

    Misty could do nothing but stand there and stare at him. Her mouth was open, but there was no sound from it but one harsh intake of breath. To Ash’s shock, there was a prickle of tears in her eyes. As soon as she felt the tears coming she turned around and wiped madly at her eyes with her wrist.

    “It doesn’t,” she said thickly.

    Ash rose from his seat and peered at her with puzzled concern. “Misty? Are you o—”

    “I’m fine!” she shouted in a ‘certainly not fine’ voice. “You were right. Love doesn’t work except in stories. So just… just forget the whole thing!” she said, racing out the door and not daring to turn back to him.

    “Misty? Misty!” Ash shouted after her, following her into the hall, but Misty’s athletic power-walk was keeping her ahead of him.

    “Just leave me alone,” she said with a sob stuck in her throat as she climbed the stairs.

    “Can’t you just tell me what’s wrong?” he yelled after her. “What did I say?”

    She didn’t answer, but jumped the last couple sets of steps and launched herself into her guestroom, slamming the door behind her. There was the sound of a back sliding against the door until its owner slumped onto the carpet. By the time Ash reached the door, there was also the sound of unencumbered, frustrated tears.

    “Misty?” Ash called, pounding a fist against the door. “Why are you crying? Come on! Just come out here and tell me what’s wrong and we can work this out!”

    Misty’s crying muffled slightly as she tried to get herself under control. “There’s nothing wrong with me—just let me be for a little while.”

    “It doesn’t sound like there’s nothing wrong,” Ash countered. “Why won’t you talk to me?”

    There was a moment of silence filled only with Misty’s deep breaths and occasional hiccupping cries. Then, slowly, she opened her door—only an inch. All Ash could see was a sliver of her face, shiny with tears and sweat and another sobbing related fluid that isn’t particularly flattering, but always makes an appearance when someone is crying for more than just a camera. He could only see one of her eyes and it was already getting red and puffy.

    “Do you want me to tell you what happens?” she whispered. “When someone loves a person but that person doesn’t love them back?” she asked.

    “Misty, what are you—”

    “Maybe she thinks there’s hope in the beginning,” Misty pressed on. “Maybe she thinks she’ll grow out of her feelings or he’ll grow into his. Maybe she wastes years of her life following after him—forgetting herself to make him her priority. Maybe she tries to tell him so many times, but she knows he’ll never understand—and that her heart will certainly be broken if he does. Maybe she has to leave and maybe he acts like he cares—maybe he does care, but it’s not the same. Maybe she goes off and hopes she can forget about him, but it turns out she can’t—that something so… so stupid still has power over her and that it always will. Maybe he just sort of… goes on like she was just one of many people he meant. Like there was nothing special about her.” Fresh tears slid down her cheek. “Maybe she can’t have that life, that love, that maturity that she deserves, that she always wanted to have, because she’s stuck at age ten against her will. Because of him. And maybe because after all these years—all these years—he still doesn’t get it and she’s a fool for thinking he ever would. A maybe she’ll never have closure, and she’ll always be alone.”

    Ash gaped at her, his eyes locked on the sliver of blue from her iris. Suddenly it was like the light was switched on and illuminated things unseen, clarified things that never fit. Suddenly the big picture was there—it had always been there, but he’d never seen it, he’d only seen the edges.

    “Maybe,” Misty said again, and slid the door shut again with a click.

    Ash leaned against the closed door, not sure what to think or what to say. Finally he settled for the only thing that he could decide was true: “Misty I… I didn’t know.”

    There was no response from the other side of the door.

  19. #19
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    Part 10.

    The great hall glittered. The usual long tables had been pushed aside to allow for more optimal drinking, dancing, and mingling space, which all the countesses, lords, and royal hangers-on were making much use of. Violin music hummed gracefully from the stage that had been set aside specifically for the band. Candles dribbled and flamed in every nook—a risky move; some of the countesses had rather tall and unwieldy wigs.

    And in the midst of all of this, Ash Ketchum stood, emitting awkwardness like he was the natural source of it in the universe.

    He didn’t want to be there. Not only did he feel extremely out of place among the royal elite, but this whole celebration was… it was just a celebration of their defeat. Celebrate Sara getting engaged to Marcus? Not likely. It may be inevitable at this point, but that didn’t mean he was in the mood to lift a glass in their honor.

    But he’d been invited… well, not so much formally invited as a suit had been delivered to his room with a note that he could wear it to the ball since he’d been traveling and the Queen didn’t think he’d have anything appropriate on him. That certainly implied an invitation.

    They were uncomfortable clothes—too rich, too velvet, and too complex to look very good on him. It might have improved his appearance if there’d been a kind-hearted female around to straighten his tie and advise him against wearing his Pokemon League hat that night.

    Even without the pressure of an invitation though, he knew he had to be there. This might be his best chance to see Misty.

    And that’s where it got complicated; that’s where the warring factions of his mind ground together. Part of him was desperate to see Misty. He hadn’t been able to get her to come out of her room the day before, hadn’t seen her since she’d slammed the door behind him. He wanted so much to make things right—however that would come about. And he knew that she didn’t want to see him… perhaps this party would be the one chance to draw her out. She’d pay her respects to Sara and then he could find her and say… something…

    …Yet, he was also desperate to avoid Misty. He didn’t have the first idea of what to say to her or how to fix this whole mess. He was so far out of his depth that he could drown in uncertainty.

    He felt guilty—tremendously guilty. All those years Misty had carried around that secret… and he’d never even had the faintest idea. How many times had he hurt her unknowingly? That… outburst yesterday was not the first pain she’d suffered. It was only the most recent in a long line of insensitive and disheartening wounds that had been inflicted on her—that he’d inflicted on her without meaning to.

    Perhaps in response to the guilt, he felt angry as well. Anger is much easier to come to grips with than guilt. He hadn’t known because she hadn’t told him! What, did she think he was a Psychic-type or something? She should’ve just said something! It wasn’t his fault that she…

    …and then he’d cycle back around to guilt. But between all the guilt and the anger and the avoidance and the seeking out… he was mostly confused. What… what was all this?

    “Pika pi!” Pikachu cried excitedly, breaking Ash out of his brooding session. He was tugging on Ash’s cape and pointing at the buffet table where splendid, unpronounceable delicacies had been laid out.

    “No thanks,” Ash said, sliding a hand down to his waist and looking for a pocket that didn’t exist. “You go ahead.”

    “Kachu,” Pikachu answered as if to say ‘there’s nothing to be gained from an empty stomach,’ as he jumped off Ash’s shoulder and scampered away.

    Ash sighed and gave up on his search for pockets. He walked forward, ostensibly searching for Misty or Sara or Dawn, but possibly trying to avoid them as well.

    Misty had probably backed out of it. She was more upset than either he or Dawn was by this engagement and… and upset at him. Even for the sake of being polite to Sara she probably wouldn’t atten—

    Ash froze behind an over-tasseled Viscount. She was there—standing over by the cherub statue and looking uncharacteristically wallflower-ish. She usually had such a… self-possessed look. He’d seen it so many times that he could imagine it on her now. It was the kind of look would’ve made even slimy, self-assured Prince Marcus worry that he was going to get beat up. But she didn’t have it now. Ash could see it in her eyes—she was exhausted and her spirits were defeated.

    But she’d put on her pretty dress, steeled her broken heart and showed up. No one could beat Misty when it came to stubbornness… except maybe…

    He didn’t think the dress she was wearing was provided by Sara. It suited Misty far too well. He didn’t have the fashion knowledge to describe it—how it went in there and out there; how a crisscross silvery designs overtook the top half; how it cascaded down in waves from the waist. All he would’ve been able to verbalize about it was that it was ‘nice’ and ‘blue.’

    Not just ‘blue,’ he corrected himself, cerulean.

    And she did, admittedly, look beautiful. He’d always been aware of it in a dim sort of way. It hadn’t mattered then. In some strange way that he was sure she wouldn’t understand it didn’t even matter now. She was beautiful, but that wasn’t his concern then and it wasn’t his concern now. The world was full of beautiful people but Misty… Misty was singular.

    She was distinct, she made an impression, and she was… different. Bring any Misty look-alike you could think of Ash’s way, some long lost twin, and he was sure even the most minor differences would stand out as if they were circled in red ink. It wasn’t that she was beautiful; it was that she was Misty.

    He felt a hand collide with his shoulder, pushing him on. He stumbled forward from behind the crowd into Misty’s sight. He turned around for just a moment to see what had happened, only to see Dawn standing there with her hair drawn up in lace smiling and waving him on before disappearing back into the crowd.

    He turned back to Misty. “Um… hi,” he said lamely.

    It took her a minute to respond, and when she did it was as if it came from a great distance. “Hi,” she echoed weakly.

    There was only the hum of other people talking for a few moments as they both stared at their shoes and tried to work out where to go from ‘hi.’

    “Listen,” Ash finally tried, his tone edging on miserable. “I’m… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for all that to—”

    “No,” She interrupted. “It’s… it’s not your fault,” she said in a tone that intended to master its impending tears. “You didn’t know.”

    Despite the fact that what she was saying had vindicated every bit of anger he’d had toward her, all he felt was a renewed rush of guilt.

    “That doesn’t mean I can’t be sorry,” he answered.

    Ash stared around the room, not wanting to look into Misty’s face. He knew that even though they were talking again, even though there were apologies, that nothing had been resolved. Watching all the other party-goers celebrating and dancing didn’t exactly make him feel any better, but it was an improvement on the hopelessness in her eyes.

    “Umm…” he tried, topping his original awkwardness level for the night, “do you think… do you think we should dance?”

    Misty looked up at him in something that was closer to horror than surprise. “You… you want to dance with me?” she asked disbelievingly.

    “Well, no,” Ash said with suicidal honesty, tugging at a snarly strand of his hair. “But I kinda feel like we should.”

    Red was rising in Misty’s face. It wasn’t the sweet, blushy kind of red; it was barely contained rage.

    “If you don’t want to dance with me, Ash Ketchum, then don’t offer to!” Misty spat. “I don’t need your pity!”

    “No, it’s not like that,” Ash said, waving his hands in an attempt to dispel the failure to communicate. “It’s like…” He struggled. He couldn’t even make sense of it himself, so explaining it to Misty would be rough. “Well, I don’t really like dancing, or anything, but… I just don’t know what else to do in this situation,” he finished helplessly. “Isn’t this… what people do?”

    Misty’s expression was probing, uncertain, and suspicious. She watched him briefly, trying to figure him out. She didn’t seem to have much luck because before too long she sighed and rolled her eyes. Ash wasn’t sure if the gesture was directed and him or herself.

    She reached for his hand quickly and then immediately turned around, striding toward the dance floor as though she was determined to make a decision without hesitation.

    “Don’t step on my shoes,” she said with fierceness that much have been manufactured at a great expense of effort. “They’re new.”

    *****

    Dawn stepped away from the place where Ash and Misty had met. She smiled. Everyone needed a push every now and then.

    “That will be our good deed for the day, Piplup,” she chirped with boy-scout-like enthusiasm to the little penguin on her shoulder.

    “Piiip,” Piplup returned doubtfully. He might have been expressing concern over Ash and Misty really being able to sort out their problems with just a little push, or, more likely, he was still a bit down because the lace trimming on the little suit that Dawn had made him wasn’t nearly as manly looking as she’d assured him it would be.

    “Now,” Dawn continued, her own spirits slightly waning. “I guess we should find Sara and say—”

    “Piplup!” Piplup pointed.

    Dawn turned in the direction that Piplup had pointed. It was at one of the open bars and it wasn’t Sara that Piplup had indicated, but Marcus. He was downing a glass full of an amber liquid with steadfast devotion. It wasn’t the kind of celebratory toast drinking that you’d expect from someone engaged to marry a queen; it was more like the grimacing gulp of someone taking especially bad medicine. Marcus had won, right? What possible excuse could he have for being in a bad mood?

    He noticed her and gave her a curious look before saying: “You’re one of Sara’s—my fiance’s—” he corrected as though trying to firmly establish the word in his mind, “friends, right?”

    “Yes, Your Highness,” Dawn answered, striving to be polite and keep the edge out of her voice.

    Prince Marcus gestured around the room with his nearly empty glass. “Enjoy this while it lasts,” he said. “Sara tells me that the Mirage Kingdom doesn’t usually have parties like this.”

    Dawn couldn’t think of a good response to this, but was spared the chore when Sara showed up.

    “Oh, here you are, dear,” she said without a trace of insincerity. Dawn wondered with a sympathetic pang of her heart if Jason was watching this whole debacle from against the wall as he guarded. How was he taking this engagement? Even if he understood that Sara had to do this… it couldn’t make his heartbreak any less real.

    “Yes, here I am,” Marcus said sulkily. “Dear,” he added as an after-thought. Then his gaze shifted from her, rather blearily onto a new target.

    From Dawn’s perspective, Sara should’ve been dressed to the nines—should’ve outshone everyone in the room in terms of sparkles, frills, bows, and jewelry. After all, she was the queen and this was her engagement. The fashion guru in Dawn had really wanted to see her dress and was therefore someone disappointed when she was that Sara was dressed in no-risks caramel colored dress with only the tiniest tinge of shine to the fabric and only a thin tiara to set her apart from the crowd. It wasn’t a bad look, but the cut of the dress struck Dawn as rather… matronly. Sara was a beautiful woman, but… forget outshining everyone in the room, she wasn’t even outshining the outfit of the woman next to her who, Dawn noticed angrily, Marcus was staring at.

    And then Dawn got a good look at the woman and every instinct to yell at Marcus hissed into the background.

    The woman standing beside Sara was dressed to the nines. She dressed in attention-grabbing red with a black sash around her waist and the same black fabric lining the hem of her expansive ball gown. It seemed that the entire dress must have been lightly sprayed in gold. And gold featured as the major accessory. Gold bracelets, gold necklaces, gold earrings and many gold rings. Each article of jewelry dazzled with some kind of precious and extremely valuable stone. The woman was a walking, talking fortune. But her costume wasn’t the only elegant thing about her. If a person could draw their eyes away from the glittering articles that she wore and turn to her face then they’d see a countenance that somehow looked flawless without any traces of make-up, and smiling, open expression, and an angular bone structure that Dawn was sure…

    “Oh, hello there, Dawn,” Sara said politely, noticing Dawn’s presence. “I just wanted to introduce my fiancé to one of my dearest old friends.” She turned her attention back to Marcus who failed to break eye contact with the woman. “This is Margaret Fincher, the Duchess of Defae.”

    Dawn’s eyebrows drew together. “But that’s not…” she began.

    “A pleasure to meet you, Prince Marcus,” the duchess cut over Dawn, holding out her hand expectantly. “Her Majesty’s told me so much about you.”

    Marcus withdrew from his haze, took the Duchess hand and kissed it. “A pleasure to meet you too, Duchess Defae,” he answered, somewhat uncertainly. “I… uh… I haven’t seen you at any royal get-togethers before.”

    “Ah, well,” Margaret Fincher said, casting her eyes downward in slight melancholy. “I haven’t been able to get out very much since my husband’s death. I’m afraid a poor widow woman such as myself is a bit out of place in such a grand affair as this,” she said heavily, gesturing with her bejeweled, satin glove.

    “Oh, not at all,” Marcus said, somewhat dreamily. “You fit in really well.”

    “And that’s what I’ve been trying to tell her,” Sara commented. This sudden reminder of her presence seemed to snap Marcus out of something. He looked away from the duchess rather guiltily.

    The duchess smiled. “I thank you both for saying so.”

    “But you’re—” Dawn tried again, staring open-mouthed at the duchess.

    This time it was Sara who cut her off. “Dawn,” she said. There was slight urgency in her tone but she didn’t break from her smile. “I promised to stop by and speak with Count Archen’s daughter Elizabeth. Won’t you come with me? I’m sure she’d love to meet a top coordinator.”

    Dawn was derailed by this out of nowhere suggestion. “Umm… I guess,” she managed to get out. “But—”

    Sara had already turned back to Marcus. “I’m very sorry, my dear, but you know how social obligations can be for royalty. Would you be a dear and keep my friend company this evening? I’m afraid I won’t get the chance and I wouldn’t want her to spend her first nice party since the Duke’s death all alone.”

    “Uh… sure,” Marcus said, somewhat distractedly. “Yes.”

    “Oh I do hope I won’t be dreadfully boring company,” the duchess said with ladled-on sincerity.

    “Nonsense, I’m sure you two will get along just fine,” Sara said, smile fixed in place. She clasped Dawn’s wrist a little tighter than was comfortable. “Now Dawn, let’s take our leave.”

    “But what about—” Dawn tried again as the Queen dragged her away from the scene.

    “Let’s go,” Sara returned firmly.

    *****

    They had made it some distance away from Marcus and Margaret before Dawn wrenched her hand away from Sara. “What’s going on here?” she demanded. “Why is Molly Fingers here and why are you pretending that she’s a duchess?”

    “I’m not pretending she’s a duchess,” Sara said in a tone that suggested that she was mildly offended by this. “She is a duchess.”

    Dawn stared. Unless duchess actually meant ‘condemned thief’ she wasn’t sure how that could be so.

    Sara placed a gloved hand over her heart. “It has always been the power of a King or Queen to raise their most loyal of servants to the lofty ranks of nobility.”

    “Most loyal?” Dawn repeated disbelievingly. “From what I understand I thought she went on a massive crime spree. Isn’t she supposed to be public enemy number one? That’s the type of person you make a duchess?”

    “Not usually,” Sara said smoothly. “But there are extenuating circumstances.” She nodded to the dance floor.

    Dawn looked. Even from that distance she could make out Molly’s lavish red dress, twirling around the dance floor in the arms of a man in the slightly moth-eaten, but once grand dress uniform of Verum. The figure in red said something which must have been amazingly witty because the man laughed appreciatively.

    Dawn stared at Sara. “…You’re saying that you made a criminal a duchess just so that she could seduce your fiancé?”

    Sara smiled grimly. “Oh, I thought they’d be quite a pair. Both live the high life even when it’s beyond their means, both have gambling problems and both are scrappy enough to make nothing into something. Of course, Molly’s always been very good at marriage. There’s just something about her. Aside from that she has everything that Marcus could want when he began this scheme. She has money, and more importantly money which she is directly in control of. Her nature is much more aligned to his when it comes to spending that money than mine would be. …And I suppose it doesn’t hurt that she’s beautiful and charming.”

    “But he thinks she’s really really rich!” Dawn cried. “But she’s not really a duchess—or she was just made a duchess—so how much can she actually have?”

    “Quite a lot,” Sara said simply. “Certainly enough to manage Verum’s debts. You’re familiar with her career. Pick-pocketry and jewel-heists are just another part of her day.”

    “So it’s all ill-gotten gains!” Dawn said disapprovingly.

    Sara gave Dawn a rather weak smile. “I’m sorry to say it, but that’s the case with most wealthy families. Oh, Molly’s money sins are a little more… recent. But the ancestry of much of the aristocracy is made up of pirates, thieves and pillagers—that’s where the wealth comes from.” She gave Dawn a careful look. “I’m sorry if that upsets you.”

    Sara cupped her chin in her hands. “As a matter of fact,” she went on, “my aunt—the Duchess of Covin, you know—whenever we invite her over for a meal here we always end up with one less place setting then we had when we started. So you can’t say thievery is absent among the noble class even now.”

    “What about Molly?” Dawn asked. “Don’t you care what happens to her?”

    “Of course I do,” Sara said. “She’s getting out of her life sentence in prison, she’s become an aristocrat—which, by the way, has been a life-long dream of hers—she even has a chance of becoming a Queen if she throws in her lot with Marcus, who I think she will get along with quite well. He is not someone that I will ever allow to rule over my land, but I think he will be worthwhile to her. They’re both great appreciators or style and opulence.”

    Dawn sighed. Sara seemed to have an answer for everything but this scheme still seemed so… unseemly to her. “But…” Dawn trailed off. “…What if this doesn’t work? What if Marcus isn’t as easy to tempt as you think? What if he sticks with you because he’s your fiancé and he made you a promise?”

    Sara watched the dancing couple. “Then he is a much better man than I imagine him to be.”

  20. #20
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    sorry i havent reviewed in some time.
    Chapter 9
    i like the part where Misty said she was stuck at the age of ten!!!! but the rest was sad. sometimes, i wonder if they are still ten right now. FINALLY Ash gets it. he FINALLY got it. i feel sorry for misty though
    Chapter 10
    Nice scheme!!!!! Molly would be sooooo perfect for that lying ************************************************** *********. I think they really hit it off, seeing as he was gaping at her. I dont believe a criminal could look that good. Now I know what happened!!!! Sara is one smart queen!
    ~Kat

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    Thanks!

    I always saw Ash as kind of a late-bloomer. Even though time has passed, in a sense, he's still 10 at heart.

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    Part 11.

    Ash and Misty shuffled uncertainly across the dance floor. Ostensibly, Ash was leading, but he’d never danced much except when he couldn’t avoid it. Misty was just letting herself be swayed along, her expression guarded and skeptical.

    Finally she spoke to him in a calm, but firm voice. “Ash?” she tried.

    “Hmm? Yes?” Ash answered, looking up sheepishly from watching his feet.

    “I know you said that this isn’t a pity dance,” Misty began, “but that’s… really what it feels like. If it is then it really won’t make me feel any better, so if that’s what this is then we should just stop right now.”

    “It’s not that,” Ash said again. “It’s…” He clenched his teeth and groaned. “I just don’t know… what are you supposed to do when someone tells you that they love you?”

    “What you do when—?” Misty repeated, caught off-guard. Even when Ash was clued-in, he was clueless. She wasn’t mad, but she was tired. She sighed and looked away, toward the dancing lights of the candles that lined the room.

    “It’s… pretty simple, Ash,” she said weakly. “If you love them, then you tell them that you love them back. If you don’t love them…” Her step faltered slightly, but recovered. “...Then you tell them that too—kindly, politely, and gently—but you tell them so they won’t be mistaken about how you feel. Because it’s just not fair to lead people on.” Like by asking them to dance with you…

    “But… what do you do if you just don’t know?” Ash asked.

    A dismal, beaten look was on Misty’s face. “Ash, if you don’t know if you love me or not then you probably don’t,” she murmured.

    “But that’s the thing,” Ash said anxiously, “I do know that I love you.”

    “Then you should just,” Misty began on autopilot, but then abruptly stopped. She stared up at him. “What?

    “Of course I love you,” Ash said a little too easily for Misty’s comfort. “You were the first person I met on my journey—we were together for a long time.” He paused. “Sometimes we fought, but I always knew you had my back and were supporting me—and if I messed up, I knew you wouldn’t hesitate to set me straight.” He looked at her, straight in the eye. “You’re my best friend.”

    “But,” Ash went on in a turn that Misty had expected but nevertheless stole the wind from her sails and left her plummeting earthward, “…I don’t know if the way I love you is the way you love me.”

    Misty cast her eyes down. “I get it, you know,” she said in a shaky voice. “If you only want to be friends then you should just say it. I know the way you feel about me isn’t different from how you feel about any of your friends—it’s not special. So you don’t have to—”

    “Misty!” Ash cut across her, frustrated. “That’s not what I said at all! You are special, but…” He looked at her helplessly. “I just don’t know about these kinds of things. How are you supposed to know if you’re in love—that kind of love—or not?”

    “You just know,” Misty answered stubbornly.

    Ash’s face fell. “Really?” he asked in disbelief and disappointment. “Was that… was that how it was with you? You knew from the beginning?”

    “Umm… well, no, actually,” Misty was forced to admit. “In fact, I… kind of thought I hated you back then.”

    “What?” Ash repeated, tripping over his own feet in surprise. What had he ever done that was hateable?

    “You have to remember,” Misty went on, eyebrow twitching irritably, “that back then you were a real upstart, obnoxious kid who always barreled in without thinking things through or bothering to get the facts.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “…Actually you’re still that way a lot of the time,” she muttered.

    “I’m not!” Ash replied, almost on automatic. His expression was getting dangerously close to a pout. “If you thought all that stuff then why would you think you love me?”

    “Well, I…” Misty began, past irritations fluttering around her thoughts. “In case you hadn’t noticed I kind of picked up my entire life to follow you. That’s a little overboard for bike theft.” She shook off her annoyed tone. “Before I knew it I couldn’t imagine myself leaving. And I knew I was just… making excuses for myself by acting like I didn’t like you. You may have been immature but… I was impressed even then by how much you just… cared—how you dreamed even when people tried to cut you down—even when I tried to cut you down. I just…” She closed her eyes. “I guess when I realized that, I decided that deep down I really did love you—and by the time I was willing to admit that to myself it was no surprise.”

    “Misty…” Ash trailed off.

    “Anyway,” Misty said, somewhat embarrassed, “I guess you could say that’s when I knew.”

    “So,” Ash began, trying to come to grips with a situation he was completely unused to, “when you fall in love with someone… it starts out with hate?”

    Misty shook her head violently. “No, not really—not always at least. I guess it’s just… different for everyone.”

    Ash was silent. ‘Different for everyone’ didn’t provide him much context.

    “Look,” Misty said, her eyes somewhat dewy “it’s okay,”—it wasn’t—“If you don’t feel the same way I do about you then you can’t… you can’t make yourself. I understand.”

    “Misty…” Ash began. “When I get into Pokemon battles, sometimes I don’t have the benefit of knowing everything. I don’t know what my opponents going to do, or if my strategy is going to work. When that happens to a lot of trainers they stick to their strategy, or play by the book, or whatever, but if I have a hunch… I listen to it. It doesn’t always work out but…” He shook his head. “I’d rather trust my intuition than ignore it.”

    “Right now,” Ash went on, “I don’t know what this is or what it could be—if all I could ever feel for you is friendship or something else, but,” he reached up and adjusted his league hat, “I’ve got a feeling that if I just walked away from this without ever finding out… that would be a mistake.”

    *****

    Dawn nursed her drink with a dull expression. She’d been watching Marcus and the so-called Duchess dance before, but it had started to feel… creepy. So she’d pulled away and headed for the buffet. Piplup had lodged himself in a tray of kippers and seemed disinclined to pry himself away from it. Dawn had just picked up a champagne flute and wandered around from there. Ash and Misty were, hopefully, otherwise occupied, and Sara had a bunch of duties to perform as hostess. She didn’t know anyone else, so she was just sort of… aimless. There was always the vague hope that a handsome prince or a dashing count or even a passably attractive bureaucrat would ask her to dance, but then again, there always was.

    She walked on and had a surreal feeling as she passed her reflection. …Except of course that the reflection’s hair was in a different style from hers, in a different dress, and wearing a completely independent expression from her.

    That’s… no mirror…

    “Dawn?” the doppelganger asked, as though this were the most pleasant of surprises. “Is that really you?”

    “Princess… Salvia?” Dawn asked.

    “Oh, Dawn! It is you!” Princess Salvia gushed, taking Dawn’s hands in her gloved ones. “I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to see you in person again after all this time!”

    “You too,” Dawn answered awkwardly. It was nice to see Princess Salvia again, but all that refinement coming from a person who looked just like her always made Dawn feel rather unsophisticated.

    “I never expected to see you here,” Salvia continued. “Are you a friend of the royal family?”

    “Well, sort of,” Dawn said. “I know Sara… that is, Queen Sara, but we only met a short time ago.” She put a hand behind her head and gave a nervous smile. “It’s a long story.”

    “Oh, I’m a friend of Queen Sara’s as well,” Salvia went on. “Isn’t she just the kindest, wisest person you’ve ever met? I came here on a diplomatic trip with my father when I was seven and met her, and have since then always looked up to her.”

    “Oh wow,” Dawn said, blinking. “You’ve known her that long?”

    Salvia nodded. “Yes, I have.” She folded her gloved hands neatly behind her back. “I simply had to make time for her engagement party, because she’s such a very dear friend. …I haven’t met her fiancé yet and…” She struggled. Dawn could tell that Salvia never said an unkind word about a person if she could help it. “I admittedly hadn’t heard very good reports of him. But I’m sure if Queen Sara is marrying him then he must be someone very special indeed.”

    “He’s… he’s special alright,” Dawn answered noncommittally.

    “Oh, Dawn,” Salvia exclaimed, changing conversation tracks, “I can’t tell you what a proud thrill I felt when I saw you win the coveted Top Coordinator prize at the last Grand Festival.” She looked in awe at her. “It was a genius exhibition and I must congratulate you on it.”

    “Well, thanks,” Dawn said, blushing under the praise. “I never could’ve done it without all of Togekiss’s help, so I really owe you a lot for that.”

    “How is Togekiss?” Salvia pressed.

    “She’s doing just fine,” Dawn said with a smile. “In fact, she was the one that led us here in the first place.”

    “That doesn’t surprise me at all,” Salvia answered. “She was probably born in the paradise. Most Togepi are, before they spread out and journey across the world as they grow older.”

    A pang of sorrow stabbed at Dawn’s heart. All those empty nests in the Togepi breeding ground… what would become of all of them now? Would they come back and continue their lives if Sara could truly get the lurking figure of Marcus out of the picture? Or would they have been more likely to come back if Sara had married Marcus and stabilized the kingdom? …Then again, Marcus didn’t really seem to appreciate the Togepi at all so…

    …It was all so complicated.

    “Dawn,” Salvia said, cutting into her thoughts.

    “Yes?” Dawn asked, abruptly coming back to reality.

    “I…” Salvia began with a bit of uncertainty, “Well, it was really remarkable to see you win at the Grand Festival, as I’ve already said, but… I couldn’t help but notice that I haven’t seen you on the contest stage since then.”

    “Oh, well… you know,” Dawn trailed off, slightly embarrassed. “I guess I just… thought I’d sit back for awhile now that I’ve finally won. And maybe give some of the younger coordinators a chance to win the prize. The goal of Top Coordinator was very important to me growing up. Now that I’ve got it, I don’t want to take it away from anyone else.”

    “I suppose I can understand all that,” Salvia said. “But Dawn… was being Top Coordinator the only reason you participated in contests?”

    Dawn was struck silent at that.

    Salvia pressed her hand to her heart. “That wonderful day you gave me back then… when you and I switched places… I knew it would only be that one time that I’d get the chance to live out my coordinator dreams. So I didn’t have any hopes of going on to win as Top Coordinator.” She smiled. “But that was okay. Because I loved what I was doing. I loved being on stage and making Togekiss shine for the crowd. …Don’t you feel that way?”

    “Well, of course I do,” Dawn said, finding her voice. “I live for that feeling, but now…”

    “Now?” Salvia prompted.

    Molly’s words echoed in Dawn’s head. What did contests really count for? For her…

    “…I just don’t know if I belong there anymore,” Dawn finally concluded. “It’s like… they give you the prize and then suddenly you’re done… and even though it was a long road and you think you’re proud of what you’ve achieved… it’s all over much more quickly than you thought it would be… and maybe you liked that long road and now that you’ve reached you’re destination… well…”

    Salvia put an understanding hand on Dawn’s shoulder. “I don’t think it’s over, Dawn,” she said. “I think there’s still time for you to get back on stage.”

    *****

    Ash and Misty danced and talked. When they got tired of dancing, they simply sat and talked. Oh, they didn’t talk about that nebulous idea of love. They didn’t try to define what it meant for Ash to simply ‘not walk away.’ If they’d tried, neither of them would’ve had a very good answer. So they talked about safe things. They talked about the friends they’d traveled with—reminiscing over times past and doing some more catching up with current events; they talked about family; and of course they talked about Pokemon.

    Ash caught Misty up on some of the new Pokemon he’d caught since he’d seen her last—the progress that he’d made with them and the training challenges still ahead. Misty told him about the Pokemon back at the gym: about Psyduck’s graduation from an intertube to water-wings, about Gyarados major role in their latest underwater ballet, and about Politoed’s brief employment as the pep squad leader at the local high school. They both shared battle dirt. Ash had quite a few victories to brag about, and Misty, being a gym leader, had plenty to share as well.

    They talked so long that before they knew it, the hall was emptying, the band was packing up, and the serving people were giving anxious looks to the guests still picking at the remnants of the buffet.

    “Well,” Misty said, “I guess… I’d better be heading off to bed.”

    Ash was trying to look for cues in an unfamiliar world; he was pretty sure this was one. “I’ll walk you,” he said. “It’s on my way.”

    “Alright,” Misty said, still giving him that look of vague concern. She didn’t really know how to react to Ash’s decision because she wasn’t sure what it was and was convinced that he didn’t know either. She didn’t know whether to be angry or relieved or fearful or… happy.

    They walked along in silence, brushing past counts and dukes and princesses and heiresses, until they reached the main staircase. They didn’t look very much at one another until they arrived at Misty’s door.

    “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” Misty said, opening the door and peering at him from behind it.

    “I guess,” Ash echoed her.

    They stared at each other for a moment, trying to feel out one another’s next move.

    “Good night then,” Ash said finally, turning around and walking a few steps toward his room.

    “Hey Ash,” Misty said nervously.

    Ash stopped and turned around.

    Misty cast her eyes down, a somewhat furious blush spreading across her nose. “If… if you wanted to kiss me… that would be okay with me. …But you don’t have to if you don’t want to. I don’t want you to if you don’t want to.”

    Ash looked back at her for a moment, a similar blush crossing his face—only Ash’s default reaction to embarrassment was not annoyance. He took one step forward, stopped, and then took another.

    She’d closed her eyes. His brain screamed at him that he didn’t know what he was doing. Very slowly he leaned down—hadn’t she been taller than him way back then? Had things changed this much?—and brought his lips to hers with all the Casanova-technique of a ten-year-old whose only seen kissing done once or twice and pointedly looked away.

    He drew back about three seconds later, but not in a quick, jerky movement. He withdrew slowly and somewhat ponderously like he’d only just started to sense the solution to a problem.

    She opened her eyes and looked back at him. She smiled and he felt a tremendous sense of relief.

    “What happens now?” he breathed.

    She kept smiling, but shook her head and curled her fingers around the door. “Baby-steps, Ash,” she said gently, backing into her room. “Baby-steps.”

    *****

    The next morning Ash, Misty, and Dawn were gathered once again in the great hall for a late breakfast. There wasn’t much conversation. In fact, they all were staring into their oatmeal as if they could somehow read the uncertain future through the patterns in the crushed oats. If such a method of divination existed, then none of them were very good at it.

    Dawn noticed that Misty and Ash were looking at each other—not at the same time though. Misty would look at him out of the corner of her eye, then Ash would look up at her and she’d immediately go back to her staring contest with breakfast… which of course meant it was Ash’s turn to try to pretend he wasn’t looking at her, then Misty would look up and the entire process could begin again. Dawn sighed and ate a spoonful of her breakfast. She wished her problems were as easy to solve as the one those two had invented.

    Their Pokemon ate the food they’d be provided without sighing or giving each other goo-goo-eyed looks, but that’s because Pokemon are somewhat less angst-prone than humans.

    Everyone looked up as Queen Sara strode rapidly into the room, her mouth set in a hard line and a steely glint in her eye. She swooped over to her throne and surveyed her crowd of staff members and castle guests. “I’m afraid I have some rather upsetting news,” she informed them.

    This set off a buzz of whispering, but an explanation was put off for a moment by the crash as the door to the hall was thrown open and nearly off its hinges. A cloaked figure stormed across the tiles.

    “Where is Prince Marcus?” the cloaked advisor demanded. “What have you done with him?!”

    The Queen blinked slowly at the figure. “I’m sorry… you’re His Highnesses advisor, are you not? I’m afraid I haven’t done anything with your Prince, but someone has, as I was about to say.”

    “What are you talking about?” the advisor growled suspiciously.

    “I’ve received reports from a trusted emissary close to the Hoenn border that Prince Marcus and the Duchess of Defae, Her Grace Margaret Fincher, were seen at the Mathrage Church. I’m afraid the report goes on that they’ve eloped.”

    The buzz from before had been nothing. The crowd erupted into energetic, emotional, and panicked chatter. Dumping your fiancé and eloping with another woman on the very night of your engagement announcement is… bad form to say the least. Add to that that all involved parties were royals or nobles and well… certain gossipy types were fanning themselves furiously at the level of juiciness. Misty was especially incensed. She was already telling Ash that she just knew something like this would happen with a rotten apple like Marcus.

    Dawn watched Sara. She’d won. She’d really won. And she was playing her part so well. Could she really get away with it?

    “You lie!” the advisor shrieked furiously.

    “I wish that were the case,” Sara said calmly. “But everything I’ve said is true.” She touched her forehead with a weary expression. “And that is why I cannot dine with you all today. There’s… much to work out after this unfortunate situation.”

    There were murmurs from the crowd that she needn’t worry—that she should go lie down and take it easy after such a heartbreak—that she shouldn’t work herself so hard.

    “Just a minute!” the cloaked advisor shouted, lunging toward Sara as she turned to make her leave.

    “I’m very sorry about what your master did,” Sara said to him, “but I really must go. I’ve called an emergency meeting with the counsel to decide how best to deal with this matter and I mustn’t keep them waiting.”

    “Do you think they’ll find another candidate for you to marry?” Dawn wondered. She looked surprised. She hadn’t meant to say this out loud, but she’d just started to worry that this whole thing might be for nothing.

    “I doubt it,” Sara answered her. “After that man left our country at the altar… well, I don’t think any of us want to expose Mirage Kingdom to any more embarrassment. In fact,” she said quietly, “I think I shall have to try very hard to persuade them not to invade Verum for this.”

    “You,” the cloaked figure pointed at the queen. “You’re behind this scheme! It has your manipulative fingerprints all over it. You and those brats cooked something up—I just know it!” He turned his attention to Ash, Misty, and Dawn. “Yes! Just like ten years ago, you’ve come back to deny me my second chance at this kingdom, and Marcus was too weak to resist the trap. You will not prevail—I meant to take my prize by guile, but force will work just as well.”

    “Ten years ago?” Misty repeated, as Togetic flew in front of her protectively.

    “What’s he talking about?” Dawn asked.

    Ash stood up and gave the cloaked figure a fierce look. “Who are you?” he demanded.

    With that, the figure whipped off the hooded cloak, revealing an aging man with steel-grey hair, a pointed moustache, and a look in his eyes that was both ambitious and insane.

    Misty took a step back. “You’re…”

    The Queen gave her old enemy a hard look. “…Colonel Hanson,” she said.

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    Oh! Did NOT expect Hanson there... That was clever.

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    Umm... thanks! Though ^^; it wasn't supposed to be a surprise or anything that Hanson was there. He and Marcus had quite a few conversations earlier on in which it was established that he was there.

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    Here's the very last chapter!

    Part 12.

    “Yes, it is I, Queen!” Hansen cried, reaching into the depths of his cloak and pulling out three Poke balls before lobbing them at the ground. “Shedinja, Ninjask! Your commander calls you for battle!”

    The scabby, haloed form Shedinja floated serenely in the air, flanked by two Ninjask, beating their wings aggressively and darting about as though searching for something to stab.

    Jason rushed in front of Sara, who was already being pulled back by Miranda and her other attendants, with his sword drawn. “Men!” he called out to the guards stationed at the entrance to the hall. “Seize him!”

    “That won’t work!” Hansen roared. “Ninjask! Shadow Ball!”

    “We’re not going to let you get away with that!” Ash declared. “Pikachu!” he said, turning down to his Pokemon who had long ago left the breakfast table to take up a battle stance by his side, “Thunderbolt!”

    Pikachu gave a fierce nod and summoned up his electricity. “Piiii-kaaaa-chuuuu!” he screeched, sending the jolt directly toward the Ninjask, still building up energy for their attacks.

    …And it might have worked if Shedinja hadn’t flown in the path of the electricity and taken the attack harmlessly.

    “No way!” Dawn exclaimed.

    The Ninjask let out a cry and fired their Shadow Balls, not, as Ash had expected, at the guards making their way toward Hansen, but at the ceiling above them. The blast cut a hole through the roof and sent the overhanging architecture crashing down in front of the entrance, forming a makeshift blockade that the guards could not climb over.

    “And now you can no longer escape,” Colonel Hansen said, leveling a dangerous gaze at the queen.

    “So what will you do now?” Sara asked, leaning over Jason’s protective stance in front of her to face Hansen. “Your marionette has cut his ties from you and run off—any chance you had to claim the throne by proxy is gone; what do you have to gain by fighting?”

    “Everything,” Hansen answered. He narrowed his eyes at her. “You’ve improved much from the sixteen-year-old whelp who stole my throne away from me, but you’re still a weak ruler. How else could I have gotten this close to usurping you once again? The Mirage Kingdom needs a strong hand to guide it, but you’ve let the priests get so strong that they control you and not the other way around. You have no right to call yourself Queen, so I will take your place.”

    “You wouldn’t look as good in a tiara,” Misty shouted mean-spiritedly at him.

    Hansen gave her a fierce look, but quickly turned his attention back to the queen. “If you think these brats will help you win a second time then you’re wrong. All I have to do is take you out, and then in the chaos the people will turn to the only one who can possibly steer this great kingdom… the exiled regent whose love of this country is second to none and whose power to crush all who oppose him is undeniable; the man who ruled this kingdom in all but name during the last few years of your father’s reign. They will turn to me.”

    “You’re insane!” Misty shouted, relieving Sara of the effort of answering this claim. “You really think we’re going to let you hurt Sara?”

    “Yeah,” Ash said, pumping his fist. “If it’s a battle you want then it’s a battle you’ll get. You’re not going to hurt anyone anymore!”

    “Big talk from a couple of brats,” Hansen scoffed. “But can you three get past… my Shedinja?” he asked as the Pokemon floated in front of him.

    “No problem,” Dawn declared confidently. “A Top Coordinator, a Gym Leader, and a Champion-in-the-Making against just you? You don’t stand a chance!”

    “It’s not going to be that easy,” Ash admitted to Dawn, a bit put out that he was the only one of the three with a title that was still in progress. “His Shedinja’s got Wonder Guard. Most attacks won’t do a thing against it.”

    “That’s right, boy,” Hansen sneered. “You might as well not even bother—you’d only be wasting your energy.”

    “But,” Ash added harshly, glaring at Hansen, “we’ve gotten through that before and we’ll do it again, just like last time. Your Shedinja doesn’t stand a chance against Misty’s Gyarados!”

    For a moment Colonel Hansen looked caught off guard, though, to be fair, so did Misty.

    “Umm… Ash,” Misty tried.

    “Her Gyarados will flamethrower your Shedinja into submission just like last time,” Ash taunted. “Isn’t that right, Misty?”

    “Uh… right,” Misty said, her eyes cast downward and her fists clenched. Togetic flew around her looking vaguely concerned. “That’s what I’d like to say,” she muttered, “but Gyarados is back at the gym.”

    What?!” Ash exclaimed as Hansen grinned triumphantly.

    “I don’t know what you’re acting so surprised about!” Misty hissed at him. “I told you Daisy was working with Gyarados for the next underwater ballet! Don’t you listen to a word I say?”

    “Well… I… I did but I just forgot,” Ash replied sheepishly.

    “It doesn’t matter,” Dawn cut across them. “We’ll break through his guard anyway. I know just the attack and I know just the Pokemon.”

    “Oh, do you, little brat?” Hansen asked, turning to look at Dawn. “You and I haven’t crossed paths before, but one brat is the same as another. Let’s see what you think you can do.”

    “Togekiss!” Dawn called out, summoning the soaring Pokemon. “Let’s protect the Mirage Kingdom! Use Sky Attack on Shedinja!”

    “Kiss!” Togekiss trilled, her body glowing white as she flew toward Shedinja, leaving a trail of afterimages as she swooped.

    “That’s a flying type move,” Ash observed hopefully. “If it makes contact then it can break through the guard!”

    “‘If’ being the operative word,” Hansen snarled, pointing outward toward his Pokemon. “Ninjask, both of you, Hyper Beam!”

    “What?” Dawn said, caught by surprise.

    “Kiss?” Togekiss murmured as the two fleet-winged Pokemon fazed into view on either side of her.

    With the buzz of a thousand cicada-fueled famines the blasts fired, each hitting Togekiss dead on.

    “Togekiss!” Dawn cried out, as the Pokemon crashed to the ground in trail of smoke. She ran toward her.

    Pikachu’s fur stood on end and he was ready to wreak rodent vengeance on his friend’s attacker, but Togetic was quicker, barreling through the air like a tiny, rage-powered missile. The Ninjask it had been aiming for didn’t even have to break a sweat to send it flying back the way it came with one slash.

    “Togetic! I’ve got you!” Misty yelled, racing toward the place Togetic was falling and catching him in a move that would’ve made the Electabuzz team manager itch to recruit her. “Togetic are you alright?”

    His tiny white form was bruised and battered. But when he looked up at her his black eyes radiated determination… as well as desperation.

    Hansen laughed mockingly at Ash. “Two down and I haven’t even gotten warmed up yet. What will you do now? Your Pikachu couldn’t even hold his own against my Ninjask, let alone break through my Shedinja’s defenses. Your fight is all but lost.”

    Ash ground his teeth together. Much as he hated to admit it, Hansen had a point. His Ninjask were fast, and very powerful—and they wouldn’t even be able to touch them until they could take out Hansen’s Shedinja. But with Wonder Guard in effect, none of Pikachu’s moves could affect it at all. They might have had a chance with Togekiss, but… Ash looked over his shoulder were Dawn was crouched at the grounded Togekiss’s side. It had taken two hyper beam blasts at once… there was no way it could fly, at least not now. And Togetic, spunk or not, was pretty banged up too.

    Ash clenched his fist. “Maybe we are at a disadvantage, but quitting’s not our style, right Pikachu?”

    “Kaa!” Pikachu declared, electricity arcing from the pouches on his cheeks.

    As the two were gearing up to fight, they hadn’t notice the quiet conversation going on between Misty and her injured Togetic.

    Misty closed her eyes and reached into her pocket. “We’re in a tight spot…” she said, “I can give you an option, but…” she trailed off, gripping something in her fist, “…I can’t make the decision for you.”

    “G-getic?” Togetic murmured, trying to get himself upright.

    Misty opened her hand solemnly, revealing a gem that sparkled green and yellow and orange in the changing light. The shiny stone.

    “Dawn,” Ash called out, not taking his eyes off Hansen’s hovering Pokemon. “How’s Togekiss?”

    “I think her wing’s broken,” Dawn answered, her voice wavering as she patted Togekiss’s head. “Ash, I’m sorry, but she just can’t—”

    “I know,” Ash said heavily. He turned to Pikachu. “Come on, buddy,” he said. “Just you and me.”

    Before Ash could make his futile counter-strike against Hansen, a blinding white light drew everyone’s attention away from the battlefield. Everyone turned to the source of the glow, right in front of Misty. When the glow faded it left…

    “Togekiss!”

    The fleecy, elegant form of a Togekiss appeared from the blinding light, gliding confidently in mid-air.

    “But that’s—” Ash started, confused as he turned to Dawn’s wounded Togekiss and then back to the Togekiss in front of Misty. He remembered the stone she’d uncertainly carried with her for so long. “Oh!”

    “You can do it, Togekiss!” Misty called out to her newly evolved Pokemon.

    Hansen snorted. “Another Togekiss? They may be protectors of this land—but it won’t be any trouble for me to take out another one.”

    “Ash!” Misty called out to him.

    “Right,” Ash returned, nodding at Pikachu.

    Misty’s Togekiss swooped forward, his broader wings increasing his speed from his prior form. He dived toward Pikachu who deftly hopped on his back.

    “You can do it guys!” Dawn cheered, as her Togekiss looked hopefully on at the battle.

    “Togekiss, Sky Attack on Shedinja!” Misty commanded.

    “The result will be the same!” Hansen predicted. “Ninjask—both of you—hit the Togekiss and Pikachu with Hyper Beam!”

    The Ninjask’s wings hummed ominously as they prepared their attack.

    “Not this time!” Ash declared, stomping forward and twisting his hat around backwards. “Pikachu, Electro Ball times two!”

    “What?!” Hansen demanded.

    Pikachu jumped off Togekiss’s back as the flying Pokemon soared forward. It did a somersault in the air as it descended, lobbing one ball of pure electricity at the first Ninjask, still charging up, and then flipped again to send one toward the second.

    “No!” Hansen shouted, as the balls of energy smacked into his Ninjask, covering them in clouds of smoke. The frantic buzzing of wing-beats had stopped.

    But it wasn’t over yet. Togekiss continued his arc forward, his whole body steaming with white energy as he plowed straight into the unguarded Shedinja.

    “Kiiiiisss!” Togekiss trilled triumphantly, whipping around the falling carapace as it doubled back and caught Pikachu before he could hit the ground.

    Hansen’s Pokemon weren’t so lucky. Their impact with the ground was punctuated by the sound of painfully cracking exoskeletons.

    “No,” Hansen said, softly, disbelievingly as he stared at his fainted, still-smoking Pokemon. “No!” he yelled louder. “The Mirage Kingdom was mine—mine! I was so close to reclaiming it!”

    Sara stepped forward, past Jason’s protection. She looked down at Hansen with a hard, disappointed expression. The rubble behind Hansen stirred as the guards that had been chipping their way through from the other side began to break through.

    “It was never yours to begin with,” she told him.

    *****

    An attempted rebellion never quite ends at the battle’s close. Hansen still had to be seized, disarmed and contained by the guards before being dragged down to prison. But all that was only temporary; a tribunal had to be held to decide what was to be permanently done with the would-be usurper, the council had to be informed, and the public had to be addressed. As Queen, Sara, and as captain of the guard, Jason, both had a lot on their plates. But as for Dawn, Ash, and Misty… they stayed out of all that. They had different priorities to concern themselves with, namely, the health of their Pokemon, particularly Dawn’s Togekiss who had been injured the worst.

    They needn’t have worried too much. The Mirage Palace had its own private selection of doctors, both for humans and Pokemon, along with quite a few of those handy Nurse Joys. They took Dawn’s Togekiss into their care and worked all the wonders that occur between handing off your Pokemon to them and hearing the blessed words ‘your Pokemon have been fully healed.’

    Since Togekiss’s injuries were severe, she wasn’t one hundred percent fighting fit even several days later as the gang sat around the sitting room, but she could fly again. The wing was tender and couldn’t take heavy use yet, but it was healing and the Joys pronounced her to be on the road to recovery.

    “Togekiss looks like she’s doing a lot better,” Ash observed, as the feathery Pokemon took a seat on the floor in front of Dawn’s chair.

    “She definitely is,” Dawn said, reaching down to pat Togekiss. “It was a dirty trick of that Hansen to hit her with so much, but she’s gonna recover and be even stronger.”

    “It was a tough fight,” Ash agreed. “But he relied too much on his defenses. Once we cracked through those it was over.”

    Dawn looked at Ash and Misty sitting on the—and she had to smile at this—loveseat. “It was all thanks to you two that we won—and to Pikachu and Toget—I mean, Togekiss.”

    “Two Togekiss, huh?” Ash said, scratching his chin thoughtfully as Misty set down her cup of tea. “That could get confusing.”

    “The more the merrier, I say,” Sara said, stepping into the room with Jason at her side.

    “Sara!” Misty said, standing up and greeting her. “I thought you’d be busy all day with meetings.”

    “I’ve another one in a fifteen minutes,” Sara confided, sinking into an armchair. “But I thought I’d stop by and chat with you three.”

    “So… how’s it going?” Ash asked. “Is Hansen in jail?”

    Jason took that one. “He is,” He said firmly. “He’s our highest security prisoner.”

    “He made a fuss about that, too,” Sara commented. “He said if I were any kind of good ruler I’d have already had him executed.”

    “He can… complain about that?” Dawn asked disbelievingly.

    “Do you think this is going to be the end of it, Sara?” Misty asked. “Or are there going to be more problems?”

    “Hansen’s not getting out of jail again,” Sara said firmly. “That much is solved. I think dealing with the council will be a bit easier for the moment. For one thing, their scheme has been an embarrassment that nearly gave a fanatic the throne, for another, I now have the people on my side… at least for now.”

    “Why’s that?” Dawn asked.

    A small, but nevertheless sly smile crossed Sara’s face. “They’re feeling rather sorry for their queen, who was disgracefully left at the altar.”

    “Oh.”

    “I have some goodwill right now—it never lasts, but I intend to use it while I have it,” Sara said practically. “The Togepi nests are still empty and the only thing I can do to encourage the Togepi that left to come back is to make the Mirage Kingdom the happiest of all Kingdoms.”

    “I hope they come back,” Misty said sounding concerned. She put a hand on her Togekiss’s head. “But they’ll always have you to protect them, right?”

    “Kiss!” her Togekiss agreed.

    “You all have done such a great service to me and to the Mirage Kingdom,” Sara said fondly. “I wanted to know how I could possibly repay you… perhaps… a knighthood?”

    Ash exchanged glances with Dawn and Misty and thought that they felt the same as him. “Thanks a lot, Your Maj—I mean, Sara, but we helped you because we wanted to, so there’s no need to reward us. Anyway,” he said thoughtfully, “I think it’s about time we all got back on the road again.”

    “I thought you might say that,” Sara answered, getting up to leave once more. “But always remember that any time you come back to the Mirage Kingdom you will receive a hero’s welcome.”

    “We’ll definitely come back to visit,” Dawn promised. “Right, Togekiss?”

    “Togeee,” Togekiss answered, but she sounded somewhat uncertain.

    “I’ll look forward to that day,” Sara said, at the door. “Good-bye Misty, Ash, and Dawn. I can’t thank you enough for all that you’ve done.”

    A chorus of good-byes were said and then the door closed as the queen left—off to a busy day of meetings and speeches.

    “Hey, Ash,” Dawn chirped excitedly once Sara had left, “I know we said we were going to travel together for a little while longer, but would you mind if I split off from here? I’ve kinda had a change of plans.”

    “Sure, that’s fine,” Ash said, blinking slightly confusedly. “What kind of change of plans?

    “Oh, I’m heading over to the Pokemon Fan Club to see about some contests,” Dawn answered in a purposefully vague tone that left the door open for more questions.

    “What?” Ash asked. “But you already won Top Coordinator. Is it fair for you to compete again—at least so soon?”

    “I’m not going just to compete—I’m going to organize one!” Dawn burst out excitedly. “And it won’t be just a regular contest either! It’ll be a battle royal made up entirely of past Top Coordinator winners!”

    Ash whistled. “That’d be some fight to see. What would they be competing for? Tippy-Top Coordinator?”

    Dawn laughed. “No, this time I think it’s better if we’re not competing for a prize like that. You see,” she got up and folded her hands behind her back, walking toward the window, “I love contests. They’re a great way to show off your skills, entertain people, and I can’t deny that I thrive off the competition. But I think… I think it’s time contests did a little more worthwhile than just that.” She turned around dramatically. “So that’s why, in this competition, all the Top Coordinator competitors will be playing for charity.”

    “Wow!” exclaimed Misty. “That’s a great idea, Dawn!”

    Dawn grinned. “With all the attention contests usually get, I think we can really do some good. I just hope I can get the contest committee to go for my idea.”

    “I’m sure they’ll love it,” Ash answered. “A contest where everyone’s a top coordinator? That’s gonna make for some awesome events.”

    “Piplup!” Piplup cheered from Dawn’s shoulder.

    Dawn laughed again. “Well, I know Piplup’s looking forward to helping out.” She looked down at Togekiss. “You too, right Togekiss?”

    Togekiss said nothing and looked torn.

    “Hmm? Togekiss?” Dawn tried again.

    Togekiss stood up and took flight gently, so as not to strain her wing, and then glided over to where Misty’s Togekiss sat. “Togekiss,” she said, by way of explanation.

    “I think…” Misty said slowly, “I think she wants to stay here too.”

    “Huh?” asked Ash. “But why?”

    Misty jabbed him painfully in the side with her elbow and nodded to where the two Togekiss sat, curled up closely together.

    Ash rubbed his side ruefully for a minute and then looked at the Togekiss. “Oh,” he said after a moment. “Oh.” He pulled his hat brim down slightly so it covered his eyes. “One of those things.”

    Dawn kneeled down by Togekiss. “You really want to stay here?”

    “To, kiss,” Togekiss answered, her tone somewhat guilty.

    Dawn stared for a moment at her longtime friend and then finally smiled. “I understand,” she said, reaching out to pat her on the head. “We’re all moving on to the next thing, I guess… but we’ll always be friends.”

    “Kiss!” Togekiss agreed, sounding relieved.

    “And if both these two stay here,” Misty realized, “then the nesting grounds won’t be empty. They’ll recover, even if it’s just a bit at first.” She took a knee and poked her own Togekiss in the side playfully. “You little Casanova,” she teased, “you’re lucky you’re better at this than Ash.”

    Ash immediately colored. “Hey, I’m trying.”

    “I know, I know,” Misty said to him. “I’m just kidding around.”

    She turned her gaze back to Togekiss and wrapped her arms around him. “I’m going to miss you so much,” she said. She drew back from the hug and surveyed him. “You’ve gotten so big—but to me you’re still the same little Togepi I could hold in my arms.”

    “Gekiss!” her Togekiss answered.

    As Misty and Dawn both rose, Dawn began to ask something she’d been wondering about for awhile: “So…” she tried, “I know what I’m gonna do—and it looks like our Togekiss have made up their minds about the future. So… what are you two gonna do?” she asked in a tone that seemed to hope that the answer was ‘get married, buy a house with a picket fence, and crank out 2.5 children.’

    Misty waited for Ash, but an answer didn’t seem to be coming, so she went ahead. “Well… I guess I’d better head back to Cerulean City,” she said. “If I stay away for much longer my sisters will start handing out gym badges for free again.” She sighed. “I’m the youngest—I shouldn’t have to babysit them.”

    “And?” Dawn pried. “What about you, Ash?”

    Ash took a minute to reply. “I’ve been thinking… I’ve been thinking…” He took a deep breath. “I guess that it might be a good idea to check out that gym leader try-out in Vermillion. I’m not totally giving up on being a Pokemon Master or anything,” he added aggressively, “but I figure it’s time to try something new—at least for a little while.” He sighed. “Traveling’s fun, but it’s nice to have a place to hang your hat every once in awhile. And I’d still get to fight strong trainers—they’d just come to me instead.”

    Misty’s grin was so wide it nearly left her face. “How do you come up with these amazing ideas?” she ribbed him.

    “And,” Ash said, clearing his throat. “Vermillion’s not that far away from Cerulean.”

    “It’s not,” Misty answered, still smiling. “And we could travel back that way together.”

    “That’s what I was thinking,” Ash said a bit sheepishly.

    Pikachu was jubilant at the news and climbed up on Misty’s shoulder with a cry of “Pika!”

    “So do you like that Pikachu?” Ash asked his Pokemon companion, now looking up at him from Misty’s shoulder. “You ready to try the gym leader life?”

    “Ka pikachu!” Pikachu answered in the affirmative.

    “Well then, I guess the Vermillion City gym will have to get used to having a Pikachu around instead of a Raichu,” Ash said with a smile.

    Pikachu shrugged as if to say that it was impossible to know what the future held.

    “What? Have you let go of your rivalry with Raichu?” Ash asked, perplexed. “Where’s that Pikachu pride I know?”

    Misty laughed. “I think you’re both growing up,” she said. “Slowly—very slowly—but surely.”

    Dawn clapped her hands together excitedly. “This is so wonderful!” she said. “You’re going to make a great gym leader, Ash. I know it! And I know you’ll like being closer to home.”

    Misty breathed in a cleansing breath and then let it out. “It’s a new beginning,” she said fondly, “for all of us.”

    “I’ve had a lot of new beginnings,” Ash said reflectively. “But now that I start looking back at them they were all sort of… the same. But this…”

    “I know,” Misty said. “This is different.”

    Ash looked at Misty. It wasn’t just the prospect of being a gym leader that would change his life—it was her. He didn’t have much more than a vague notion of what he’d face on this mystery road he would have to walk if it meant staying with her. Was he ready for whatever it meant? He still wasn’t sure.

    “There’s going to be different challenges this time around,” he said doubtfully.

    “Oh come on,” Misty said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Since when does Ash Ketchum back away from a challenge?”

    He smiled that familiar smile—that one that contained more joy than a battle that had been won—it was the joy of a battle yet to be won. “Well,” he answered, “when you put it that way…”

    There’s nothing wrong with dreaming—if Ash, Misty and Dawn hadn’t dreamed then they wouldn’t have gotten as far as they’d gotten and earned and experienced all they had without their dreams. But all those that dream must know when to wake up; must know the difference between reality and mirage.

    And it took a kingdom of illusions to teach them that.

    The End.

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