Ash's feet shuffled along the worn path, the sun beating down on his red-hot skin. Bitterly, he wondered how the sun could keep shining after all of the fucked-up shit that had gone down three days prior. What had started as an amazing day had quickly turned into the worst of Ash's life. For years he'd dreamed of the day where he could finally be happy again. When that day had finally come, the world had decided that he didn't deserve it after all, and came crashing down to ruin it all.
What did I ever do to deserve this?
Ash's hands curled into fists. His mind flashed back to the hospital. To the gunfire. Him screaming. Misty and Flint acting like nothing was wrong. Flint all of a sudden scooping Ash up and starting to run.
As for what had transpired after that, Ash couldn't say anything but what Misty had told him. While trying to escape, they had encountered three men with stun guns who claimed to be from the newly-resurrected Team Rocket. Misty and Flint tried to talk them down, but they refused to back down. Apparently there was some sort of desire for Ash and Misty to be killed. When one of the grunts shot at Misty, Flint jumped in the way of the shot and took it for himself. What happened after that was a mystery even to Misty, but somehow two out of the three grunts were killed and the third managed to escape. Misty and Ash had both escaped unscathed. Flint, on the other hand, wasn't so lucky.
He died because Ash was a coward. Putting himself into a self-induced, self-controlled coma to keep himself safe from a threat that could have been stopped if he hadn't done such things. Letting his own desire to live overcome his desire to help others. What kind of man was he? What kind of man hid in the depths of unconsciousness rather than standing and fighting beside his friends?
A bad man. That's what he was. A weak, pathetic, bad man.
He didn't deserve his Aura. He couldn't control it. It controlled him. The only time when he'd had any control of it was when instinct had drove him- once to keep himself and Misty safe, and the second time to keep himself safe. If he hadn't let his Aura dominate his will, Flint would still be alive. Hell, he had every reason to believe that the Viridian City bombings wouldn't have happened, either.
He recalled the last conversation he'd had with Misty before he'd left her.
"Why are you leaving, Ash?" she demanded. "Stop running away from your problems! If you can't control your Aura, then you need to deal with it instead of fleeing from it like a scared little Pokemon!"
"I'm not running away from anything," he snarled. "I'm doing this to keep you safe."
"Keep me safe? I can take care of myself, Ash Ketchum! I think I made that pretty clear when I defended myself from those Team Rocket grunts."
"Flint was the one who saved you. You never did anything to save yourself."
"I certainly did more than you did."
"Exactly my point. You can make it on your own. By leaving, I'm protecting you from my Aura. I need to learn how to control it. Until then, I'm nothing but a menace."
"You're not a menace! You're- you're my friend!"
"A friend who will get you killed if he sticks around. We'll see each other again, Misty. In Vermilion. Someday, when I have my Aura under control, I swear to you that I'll truly come back to you. But for now, I need to leave."
Ash knew that his decision to travel alone was the right one. Yet, somehow, it felt so wrong. Why did he feel so guilty about leaving Misty to travel by herself? Like she said, she was perfectly capable of defending herself against Team Rocket, even if they had resorted to guns and brute force to succeed. By being without him, she would be safe from his uncontrollable Aura outbursts. So why did he feel so guilty?
Up ahead, the buildings of Vermilion City were beginning to appear. Ash had taken a shortcut across Route 16 to get here in ample time. He still hadn't caught any Pokemon yet. He wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. All of the Pokemon he'd seen so far were unappealing. He'd either already used them before, or he just wasn't interested. He felt hollow inside as he wondered what had happened to all of the spark he'd once had. He'd spent month after month convincing himself that things would get better. That he'd find true happiness in life, beyond green paper and battlefields.
There was a saying.
"Time heals all wounds."
For him, it seemed to be just the opposite.
Every day, the gaping hole in his heart seemed to get ever bigger, threatening to burst. The weight of his Aura, suddenly more active than it had ever been before, made that wear-and-tear even worse. What had once excited him so much now felt like more of a burden.
What is happening to me? Is this what grief really feels like?
When Ash was three, his father had left. His mother had told him for years that he was away journeying, and that he'd come back someday. Ash had always clung to that hope, until the day he learned his father had divorced his mother and pledged never to return. He hadn't felt sadness then. Just disappointment. Now that he thought about it, this was the first time he really felt true grief over anything. It wasn't like when he had left Charizard at the Charicific Valley, or Pikachu with that Electric Master. It wasn't like when he lost the Pokemon League the first time, or when he thought that he'd failed his mission to return the Jewel of Life to Arceus. Each of those times, he'd felt a stabbing pain in his heart, worse than any heart attack could have been. This time, however, he felt nothing. Only numb.
That was perhaps the worst kind of pain of all.
As Ash trudged through the wide open gates of Vermilion, he was hit by an ocean breeze that made him nauseous. Before, he'd loved the ocean. He'd always spent his free time on his island tanning on the beach or splashing in the salt water. Now, the only memories it brought back to him were ones of Misty. She had always loved the beach. He wondered if she was there. If she was thinking about him. Or if she'd forgotten him already, blown him away like a wisp of cloud on a windy afternoon.
The girl Ash had come to care for more than he realized sat lonely on a bench in the shade of a tree. Despite it being the glorious time of the year that was summer, leaves were falling from the tree, cascading around Misty like beads of rain.
It seemed fitting.
All Misty could think about was that day. The day she'd lost a part of her that she'd never get back. The day she lost a part of Ash that she'd never get back.
Her last conversation with him had been torture. She'd argued with him to stay. He'd refused, claiming he was doing it to protect her from an Aura he couldn't control. She'd tried to convince him that she'd be fine, but to no avail. He'd left with nothing more than a wave. No hug. No tearful goodbye. Just a wave.
Where was he now? Was he here, like he said he would be? Or had he gone off to some distant place, already having forgotten about his promise to see her here? No matter how hard she looked, there was no sign of him anywhere in the crowds of Vermilion.
They all looked so happy. Couples laughing as they shared ice cream cones. An old man enjoying the sun for what could be his last time. A new family pushing their newborn around in a baby carriage. Children sucking on candy apples and lollipops.
It all seemed so serene. So unreal. How could such a thing exist in a world so cruel, so unforgiving? Never before had she looked at the world in that way. She'd always had a glimmer of hope, even in the darkest times. A tiny flame to light the darkest of nights. Was it still there, somewhere? Clinging on to one last puff of smoke? One last flicker?
Could it even still exist? Or was the blood of the lives destroyed in the bombings enough to have finally washed it away for good?
Misty's hands gripped on the edge of the bench as thoughts of Team Rocket swirled through her mind. Her knuckles turned white from the pressure, her veins apparent. She didn't notice, for her eyes were focused on a single blade of grass. They began to water. Not out of sadness, but hatred and frustration.
Why did Team Rocket have to come back now? Why couldn't they have waited? This was the most important thing that had ever transpired in Misty's entire life. She'd always been the odd one out. The shadow. Her sisters had drawn all of the attention. Any guy that had ever been even remotely attracted to Misty had forgotten her in an instant upon laying eyes upon one of her sisters. Any victories she had were trampled in the wake of her sisters' many contests and pageants won. Any journey she made was cast aside by her sisters' world tours and cruises. Finally, when she'd gotten the spotlight, gotten noticed during her preliminary battle for the first time in years, it was taken from her. Stolen by a bunch of heartless, cruel, worm-infested bastards.
Fuck them. Fuck them all to outer space and back.
Misty didn't swear often. She'd been raised not to. Keep her innocent image, even in light of her tomboy persona. As she grew older, Misty found it had become a habit. Fast-forward to the present, and that habit was beginning to wear thin.
Suddenly, her eyes caught sight of something that stood out among the crowd. At first, the sight of a black suit screamed Team Rocket. She reached for her only Pokemon, her only line of defense against a Team Rocket grunt.
However, the man she saw was nothing close to that.
The black suit turned out to be not a uniform, but a true business suit. Pressed to perfection and laying over a crisp white shirt and black tie, the man looked like he meant business. His steely grey eyes were fixed firmly ahead, and his stance told Misty that whatever he was heading toward was urgent. She watched him with curious eyes, her sadness momentarily forgotten.
He walked through a pair of sliding glass doors, into a low-roofed building with no other windows. Suddenly suspicious for a reason she couldn't explain, Misty got up to investigate.
Approaching the building, she examined it. She was beginning to wonder if the man was some sort of undercover spy for Team Rocket, the business suit merely being a disguise. The building was made out of brick and seemed relatively normal. Nothing overly obvious about it.
As Misty leaned forward to peer through the sliding doors, they flew open. Surprised at how sensitive the sensors were, Misty jumped back with a yelp.
Recovering, she decided to take this opportunity to explore. Wandering in, she was greeted by a magnificent lobby. Expensive T.V.s, game systems, and couches were fashionably set up everywhere. A wet bar was actively staffed by two people, although servicing no-one.
Misty whirled around at the sound of footsteps. The hair on her neck stood up when she was presented with a woman in a flight attendant's suit. She had on one of those cheesy smiles flight attendants always had on when they asked you what you wanted to drink. Misty narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
"Hello," she tried. She hoped she hadn't accidentally walked into some sort of secret government building and had since been reported to the cops for trespassing.
The lady's smile got even wider, making her face look rather... strange. "Welcome. My name is Debby Jacobs. And you are?"
Taken aback, Misty fumbled for words. "Uh... I-I... Misty."
Debby nodded. "Hello, Misty. Welcome to the Vermilion City Battle Center."
The floor dipped under Misty's feet. This was the Vermilion City Battle Center Flint had told her about? She'd been expecting something totally different. More like a Gym than a fancy place with a wet bar. She gawked at the lady. This had to be some kind of joke. Right?
Debby laughed. "Your surprise tells me that this must be your first Battle Center."
The woman nodded in understanding. "We've had a few first-timers come through here recently. Don't worry- we don't discriminate based on how many Battle Centers you've already visited. May I ask how many Pokemon you have in your roster currently?"
"Just one." Misty pulled out her Starmie's Poke Ball as evidence.
The lady suddenly looked crestfallen. "Oh."
Misty blinked. "Is something wrong, ma'am?"
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but we only allow Trainers who have-"
"That's quite alright, Debby. Let her in."
Both Misty and Debby jerked their heads to the side. A man walked slowly down a flight of stairs Misty hadn't noticed before. He wasn't the same one as the man she'd followed, but he looked similar. The only thing noticeably different about him was his face. He had prominent cheekbones and a very square jaw. His bright blue eyes warmly fell over Misty. He looked to be in his mid-twenties.
Debby stepped aside as he approached. "Greetings," he said. He extended his hand for Misty to shake.
Hesitantly, Misty took his hand and shook it. He had a firm, confident grip. He smiled as she shook his hand in greeting.
Pulling it back, he introduced himself proper.
"My name is Benjamin Taylor, and I am the Battle Center King here at the Vermilion City Battle Center. I will accept your challenge, but if and only if you manage to defeat my assistant here in battle. What do you say?"