Ash didn’t sleep at all that night. He knew that once he closed his eyes, there would be nightmares. Nightmares of what Alessa would do – not just to him and his Pokemon, but to everyone else.
He was such an idiot. If he hadn’t gone to Alessa, she wouldn’t have learned that the Order was still alive. She wouldn’t have any reason to keep killing…she would’ve done whatever it was she was intending to do to make sure ‘she wouldn’t be any trouble’. They would’ve fought – or maybe not – and that would be the end of it.
She could’ve found out about it another way…Pyramid Head was still loose, and he no doubt knew about the Order. He’d have to…it’d make sense. He’d know about the Butcher…hell, he probably tutored him or something. He’d let Alessa know if Ash hadn’t. He was just…incidental.
But that didn’t make him feel any better. Why would it? Just went to show how inconsequential anything he did really was.
It wasn’t just that he’d triggered Alessa’s latest murderous mission. He knew what she was going to do. She was going to hunt down the surviving members of the Order and kill them. Horribly. With their worst fears, no doubt. She would destroy them, completely and absolutely.
And he wasn’t sure if he should feel bad about that.
Murder was evil. Vengeance…was something of a gray area, but somehow he doubted that revenge on this scale was excusable. Torture was awful. What she was going to do was horrible.
But the Order was just as horrible.
The Order had given Dakos what he needed to resurrect Alessa and started this mess. The orphanage had abducted children and forced them to convert to their twisted religion or die. And from what he’d learned in the water tower, that wasn’t all they had done.
If it wasn’t for them, none of this would’ve happened. They had done so much to recreate Alessa…how fitting would it be if their ‘goddess’ was the one to punish them?
But did that excuse what Alessa was going to do?
Then again, it really didn’t matter what he thought about it. Alessa wasn’t going to be stopped. She wouldn’t give up until the Order was completely wiped out. There was nothing he could do to stop her. She’d just move around him, or crush him in her path, or banish him to the otherworld…
Ash tensed at that. Nothing he could do. He couldn’t move against her, he couldn’t face her, he couldn’t defeat her…she was too powerful, too determined, and he was too burdened…too impotent…worthless…childish…weak…
”I AM NOT WEAK!” he cried out before remembering himself. Luckily, it seemed like no-one had heard him cry out. Ash took a deep breath and tried to compose himself.
No. He wasn’t weak. He could face her. He HAD to face her. There was no way he’d back out of their fight…he was going to face Alessa on his terms. As an equal…of a sort. Tell her that he couldn’t be pushed around or ignored. Show her that he wasn’t WEAK.
But his Pokemon…was he really going to endanger them? It was hard enough after Brandon had creamed his fighters…could he live with himself if they got hurt or killed just because he had to prove himself to Alessa? Or was there…
There was another way.
Ash lay in bed for the rest of the night, thinking.
Jessie groaned as she hunched over the makeshift badges. “Uuuuugh.”
“Chin up, Jess.” James smiled, gesturing to the apartment around them. “At least we’re in a better room now.”
“Yeah, sure.” Jessie groaned. “But we can’t sleep because of that stupid last-minute order. Seriously, who makes a massive order for their son’s birthday party the day before his birthday?! Why would you even need all these badges for a birthday party?”
“Probably somethin’ like a grab bag or a pretend gym tournament.” Meowth shrugged before pricking his ears up. He thought he’d heard growling a second ago…he shook his head when silence greeted him. “Whatevah. It’s good money.”
“Fine, but…this…every night. Every single night, and NO word from the boss.” Jessie gestured to the communications laptop sitting nearby. “I’m going stir crazy! Why are we even in town? And all this work is giving me a headache…”
James rubbed his forehead. “Me too, Jess. I’m getting a splitting headache that’s making me see triple, but you don’t hear me complaining!”
“Your complaining right n – Owwwwwww…” Jessie groaned, clutching her head in her hands.
Meowth winced as well. “Jeez, listenin’ to you touse bellyaching is making MY head hurt! Maybe we should…turn…augh…”
The apartment door opened, letting two people and a dog into the room. They glanced down at the two unconscious residents and their sleeping cat. The large man had to pull the leash tighter to keep his dog from ripping the cat apart.
He glanced down at the girl with him. “You’re certain about this?”
“Of course I am. These idiots will do perfectly.” The girl nodded, a dark smile on her face…
There were no fights scheduled for Ash today, and his battle with Paul wasn’t until the day after tomorrow. Ash told his mother that he wanted to take it easy today, try to enjoy himself after his stressful day yesterday. He needed it now, more than ever. Delia agreed, and wished him well.
After telling his Pokemon to practice on their own for the day and going over a few strategies he had in mind for Paul, Ash hit the town. After eating out at one of his absolute favorite restaurants and taking in a movie he had been meaning to see for a long time, Ash did some shopping at the town’s biggest malls.
He came out of the mall several hours later, pushing a overburdened cart that would rival the town’s best shopaholics. Many of the packages were gift-wrapped, with cards attached. A few things were hidden in his backpack, buried under his usual stuff.
He looked over everything he had bought and nodded. He had everything he needed now. There were just a few more things he needed to take care of.
“I’m surprised someone as young as you is here by yourself.”
“I’m older than I look, actually.”
“Well…ok, I see. Still, I should ask…what exactly convinced you to come here?”
“Well…it’s the tournament. I’ve…been getting death threats, a- and while most of them might be…well, cranks, I don’t want to take any chances. If something happens to me…”
“And could you not tell my mother? I…don’t want her to worry.”
“No worries. Just sign here, please…”
It was almost dusk by the time Ash had finished his errands. There was just one thing left to do. Ash walked into the Pokemon Center with a big smile on his face, and picked up his Pokemon from Nurse Joy. Pikachu thought he smelled something funny about Ash, but his master assured him that everything was just fine.
They didn’t go to the Training Facility. When Ash released his Pokemon team, it was at one of the parks in the outskirts of town, a place he had reserved at the beginning of the day. Infernape, Gabite, Buizel, Gliscor, and Torterra all came out to see a buffet table of deluxe Pokemon food, a playground to hang around in and a field to run around in.
“Alright guys, have fun!” Ash sang. “It’s a free night tonight, you guys have more than earned it!”
His team was more than happy to oblige. Torterra parked himself at the table and sampled himself to every dish. Gliscor tried to take Buizel into the sky with him, and while the results were mixed, they were both laughing too hard to care. Infernape and Gabite decided to play an impromptu game of tag on and around the playground, leaping and digging all over the place in the process.
Ash sat back and watched his Pokemon eat and play, a satisfied smile on his face while Pikachu purred on his lap. His smile faded when he saw someone come up to him.
“I had…REALLY…hoped you’d seen sense.” Paul growled at him. “That you’d figured out how things work. But no.”
Pikachu hissed at the intruder, while Ash just took a deep breath. “Paul, please. Not right now…”
“Is THIS how you’re preparing for our fight?! Lazing around, letting your Pokemon get fat and soft? You haven’t spent a single moment of today training! I’m insulted!”
Ash’s expression became harsh. “How did you…were you following me?”
Infernape was walking back from his latest game of tag when he saw Paul approaching Ash. He immediately leapt between the two of them, glaring at Paul with enough ferocity to make the boy step back.
“Paul, go away.” Ash groaned. Infernape agreed, snarling.
“Is this a joke? Do you really think that you’re going to prove anything? By letting them slack off like this? Refusing to discipline them right?”
“I don’t have to prove anything to you.” Ash retorted, patting Infernape on the shoulder. “And neither does Infernape. He’s proven himself yesterday against Brandon.”
Paul just growled in response. “That was a FLUKE. I’ll prove it was a fluke. I’ll prove that you’re nothing compared to me, that I’M the archetypical trainer-“
“Again with this? ‘Archetypical trainer’ this, ‘prove’ that, it’s just a tournament, Paul. It’s not that big a deal – “
“No ambition, no sense of the stakes, no thought as to how others will perceive your actions…how does someone like YOU defeat Brandon?!”
“With my friends.” Ash retorted. “I bring out my Pokemon’s strength by trusting them, being their friend, and…oh, forget it. Like I said, I don’t need to prove anything to you. If you still don’t get it after yesterday, there’s no point talking to you.”
Paul cringed, but any retort he could come up with died when he saw the fire in Infernape’s eyes. No matter how he could phrase it, Ash had accomplished more with Chimchar than he had thought possible. Evolving him, taming his Blaze, and defeating Brandon. Releasing him and letting Ash keep him was the biggest mistake of his career…his very presence here was a spit in the face of his methods, his accomplishments, his beliefs…
“Ergh…Fine. How about a wager?” Paul offered.
Ash raised his eyebrow. “A deal?”
“Yes. If you beat me in our fight, I’ll admit I was wrong - and I’ll let you pick a Pokemon from my team as a bonus. Prove your way is better than mine. But if I win, you admit you were wrong and I get to choose one of your team for my own.” Paul glanced at Pikachu with a smile on his face. “Do we have a deal?”
Pikachu and Infernape gave a worried look to their master. But Ash had an answer ready for Paul’s bet.
Paul blinked. “What? But – “
“For the third time, Paul – I DON’T have to prove ANYTHING to you. And I’m not going to risk having my friends get stuck with you as a master. I’d rather die than let you put them through what you put Chimchar through. We’re done here. Now GO. AWAY.”
Paul couldn’t believe his ears. “You…you…little…”
Infernape let out a snarl, causing the flame on his head to flare out. Paul finally got the hint and started walking away, trying to keep as much dignity as he could.
Infernape was still breathing heavily when Ash came up and patted him on the back. “It’s okay, Infernape. Don’t worry about him. He’s not worth it.”
Not worth it? NOT WORTH IT?! I defeated you once, CRUSHED you again, and now I’m NOT WORTH IT?! Who do you think I am?! I’ll break you, Ash! I’ll break every one of your Pokemon! I’ll send you to your knees, I’ll MAKE you admit that your victory was a fluke, and then I’ll show everyone what a true trainer looks like! I’LL be the one who wins the tournament! I’LL be the one that everyone looks up to! I’LL be the archetypical trainer! NOT! YOU!
This is gonna be the fight of your life, Ash. You’d better bring it!