"Gary, it's finished."
I looked up at the sound of my great-aunt Rowena's voice. I was sitting on the floor by the fire, my Growlithe puppy, Blaze, asleep beside me. "Really?"
Aunt Rowena's amethyst eyes sparkled. She set the needle and embroidery thread on the little oak table beside her. "See for yourself."
I got to my feet, careful not to wake Blaze. Aunt Rowena's white Noctowl, Nightwise, who'd been asleep on his perch behind her, opened one red eye at the sound of me moving around. He quickly lost interest, tucked his head beneath a wing, and went back to sleep.
I was ten years old, and was spending the weekend with my great-aunt, Rowena Devon. Aunt Rowena was my grandmother's younger sister. My grandma had died before I was born, so in many ways, Aunt Rowena had stepped in to fill that role for my older sister, May, and me.
Aunt Rowena lived in a stone cottage near Turquoise Springs, which wasn't far from Cerulean City. Nestled in a sheltering forest, at the end of a winding lane, the cottage looked like something out of a fairy tale. Aunt Rowena would tell May and me stories and sing to us and cook our favorite foods.
In the spring, she'd take us on long walks in the woods and meadows, where she'd teach us the names of the herbs and wildflowers that grew there. In summer, we'd play in the pond and the spring-fed stream and gather wild berries. In autumn, the trees would be ablaze with the colors of flame, and we'd explore beneath them for wild mushrooms. In winter, the pond would freeze over and we'd go ice-skating. The cottage itself offered its own attractions. Aunt Rowena had hundreds of old books we could read and the house and attic were filled with wonderful things my great-grandparents had collected in their travels. Sometimes May and I would spend all day in the attic, looking through the boxes of vintage clothing and toys, fossils, old coins, postcards and other fascinating things.
I took the items of black clothing that Aunt Rowena offered. There was a tunic and pants and a cloak. The cloth felt soft in my hands. Aunt Rowena had even embroidered black dragons on the front of the tunic.
"What do you think of it?" she asked.
I grinned at her. "It's perfect!"
While many kids my age had left on their pokemon journeys, I'd stayed in Pallet and had remained in school. It was often lonely (there were so few kids in my class now), but sometimes I got to do things with the older kids who'd stayed in Pallet Town, too -- things like being in school plays.
One of the teachers at my school had written a play about King Arthur. Not enough of the older kids had gone out for the play to fill all the roles -- so they'd offered some of the roles to the younger kids, like me.
I'd been able to get my role easily, because no one else had wanted it. Mordred. King Arthur's treacherous son. As soon as Aunt Rowena had heard about the play, she'd volunteered to make a costume for me.
I ran my fingers once again over the black dragons on the tunic's front. Aunt Rowena had used silver thread to outline the bat-like wings and horns and spikes and scales of each dragon. And their eyes... Somehow she'd used ruby-red thread, thread the color of blood and sunsets, to give each dragon eyes that seemed to glow with an inner fire. I leaned forward and put my arm around her. "I love it, Aunt Rowena. Thank you so much."
Aunt Rowena smiled. "You're welcome, sunshine." She tilted her head and looked at me closely. "Is something wrong?"
I sighed. "I was just thinking...about the play. Some of the kids kinda pick on me about being the bad guy, and wearing black and all. But I feel sorry for Mordred. His father, King Arthur, doesn't want him, and his mother, Morgan Le Fey, manipulates him."
Aunt Rowena reached up and touched my cheek. "I wish that teacher who wrote the play had a bit more...perspective on things."
"What do you mean?"
Aunt Rowena continued. "It's just that those stories about King Arthur have been told and retold -- and changed -- over the years. In the earlier Welsh versions, Mordred is called Medraut -- and he isn't the villain. It was only later versions of the story that made him so." Aunt Rowena touched the black cloak I held. "And as for black being associated with evil...well, to the ancient Egyptians, black was the color of good, since it represented the dark, fertile soil the river Nile deposited every year."
I was beginning to understand.
"So you see," Aunt Rowena said, "a lot of people's ideas about 'good' and 'bad' simply depend on one's perspective." She looked at me with affection. "Now, why don't you go upstairs and try on this costume?"
My smile had returned. "Okay!"
May and I each had our own rooms at Aunt Rowena's house. My great-grandparents, Gary and Epona Devon, had collected all sorts of things in their travels, so all the rooms in the house were decorated in a hodge-podge of styles. My room had the incongruous mixture of Art Deco furniture and Medieval and Renaissance tapestries on the walls. My favorite was the tapestry on the north wall, which depicted a Charizard perched high on a rocky cliff. There was a watchful expression in its blue eyes and I loved falling asleep under its protective gaze.
I changed into my costume. I had brought a pair of black boots with me, and I put those on, too. I fastened the black cloak at my throat. The mirror on the oak dresser showed my reflection to me. I ran a hand through my hair, liking the way I looked in the costume. I especially loved those black dragons with their ruby-fire eyes.
There was a knock on the door. "Gary?"
"C'mon in, Aunt Rowena," I said.
Aunt Rowena nodded approvingly when she saw me. "It suits you," she said. "You look very handsome." She tousled my spiky hair. "And I know you'll be great in the play."
"You were brilliant, mon petit," Mom said.
I smiled up at her. "I was?"
"You sure were," Dad concurred. "You were the highlight of the play, champ."
I had to admit I'd liked being in the play. I'd liked it a lot. And now that it was over, my family was with me in the school auditorium, congratulating me on my performance.
I looked up at Aunt Rowena. "Did you like the play?"
She smoothed my hair. "I certainly did. And your dad is right -- you were the best part."
"You did a very nice job, Gary."
We all turned to see Delia Ketchum, who had spoken. Her son, Ash, stood at her side. The Ketchums were our neighbors. I didn't have a problem with Mrs. Ketchum, but at age eight, Ash was already adept at making a nuisance of himself.
Ash tugged at the sleeve of his mom's pink dress. "I wanna go home."
"In a minute, Ash," Mrs. Ketchum said. "I just wanted to say hello to the Oaks."
Ash made a rude face at me. It wasn't an unusual event; he didn't like me. I figured the reasons why were a combination of jealousy and the fact I didn't put up with his bratty attitude. Ash constantly whined, threw fits, and made an ass of himself to get his way with the other kids at school. It had never worked with me.
Ash frowned. "Gary was bad."
Mrs. Ketchum glanced down at him. "Don't say that. Gary was very good in the play."
Ash shook his head. "He was bad. The people in the play said he was a trader...I mean a trailer...I mean..."
I narrowed my eyes at him. "I think you mean traitor."
Aunt Rowena frowned. "I think Ash should learn what words mean before he attempts to use them in a hurtful way."
"It was just a play, Ash," I tried to explain.
Ash's mud-brown eyes looked blank. He hadn't understood what I'd said.
Mrs. Ketchum smiled down at her son again. "My little poopie-kins has a very strong sense of what's right and what's wrong, that's all."
May and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.
Ash tugged at his mom's sleeve again. "I wanna go home NOW!!"
Sensing a temper-tantrum in the making, Mrs. Ketchum took her leave.
Dad sighed once she was gone. "That kid of Delia's doesn't have much sense period, let alone a sense of right and wrong."
"Stupide polisson," Mom said evenly.
May and I snickered. As protective as Mom was of me, we figured Ash was getting off easy being called a "stupid brat" in French.
May leaned close to me and whispered in my ear. "Don't pay any attention to Ash. He's full of shit."
"I know," I said.
I did. I thought about Ash thinking I was "bad"...and about Aunt Rowena telling me good and bad were sometimes a matter of perspective.
It was something I already knew...but it was something I was sure Ash Ketchum would never learn.
"So da box we're lookin' for is in here?"
I smiled at Meowth as I looked down at him. "I sure hope so!" I had to admit the clutter in my parents' hall closet looked rather daunting, but I really didn't mind the prospect of an extensive search. And the sparkle of curiosity in Meowth's midnight blue eyes told me he didn't mind, either. I watched Meowth move aside a box marked "Halloween Decorations" and I felt my smile grow wider at the rush of affection I felt for the small, cream-colored cat.
I'd met Jessie and James and Meowth in June when I'd had a nasty run-in with a pair of pokemon poachers. Jessie, James and Meowth had saved me from the poachers and had protected me until they were no longer a threat. During that time we'd become fast friends. Becoming such close friends with them wasn't something I would have expected, but, as Jessie so often pointed out, sometimes things had a way of working out exactly as they were supposed to. And now, even though I'd only known Jessie, James and Meowth for about six months, I felt like I'd known them forever -- and I couldn't imagine my life without them.
Jessie always said my friendship with them was meant to be, and I agreed. Although I was still on my pokemon journey and they were working for Team Rocket, fate had a way of bringing us all back together. In August, we'd attended a fire pokemon tournament (where I'd been proud to watch Jessie and James win Fire Stones for themselves) and afterwards I'd helped them humiliate Ash in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. In early September, I'd helped them defeat Ayesha, the undead queen of the ancient city of Yew -- and though the memories of that experience still had the power to frighten me, the way the four of us (and our pokemon) had pulled together to battle an evil force served as further proof of how strong and special our friendship was. Later in September, I'd attended what was first planned to be a "fake" wedding for Jessie and James (masterminded by Meowth) until it turned out to be more real than any of us could have anticipated! And in October and November, we'd spent time traveling together in the Whirl Islands.
Now it was late November -- the day after my birthday, to be exact. I always took time off from my pokemon journey to go home for my birthday. Being home with my family made it special, and this year Jessie, James and Meowth had been here, too -- which made it even more of an event! I'd been having such a great time with them that I didn't want it to end. Jessie, James and Meowth still had some time off from work, so we decided to head back to Johto for a week or so. There was a pokemon race in a town called Exeter, and I wanted to enter.
Actually, it had been my Arcanine, Blaze, who'd been the most adamant about the race. The type of racing involved (the trainer riding on a racing board while being pulled by a pokemon) was something Blaze and I had done a bit of when I was at summer camp when I was ten. The event featured some smaller races throughout the week and a big race on December 1st. After I'd mentioned the event to Jessie, James and Meowth (in Blaze's presence), the fire-dog had gotten very excited.
"He thinks racin' would be a lot of fun," Meowth had explained, translating Blaze's barks.
I'd chuckled as I'd scratched Blaze beneath the chin. "I'm afraid I'm about five years out of practice for racing, so I doubt we'd win."
Blaze had barked again.
"He says he don't mind," Meowth had continued. "He's just in it for da fun." Meowth had then grinned at us. "I'd like ta go, too."
James had lifted an eyebrow. "Oh?"
Meowth had nodded. "Yeah. See, Exeter's in a valley. And dat valley is a popular place in Johto for hot-air balloonin'."
Jessie had winked at Meowth. "Our little pilot strikes again!"
I'd smiled at Blaze and Meowth. "I can't disappoint two of my favorite pokemon, now can I? So it looks like we're going to Exeter."
I'd hoped to be able to find my old racing equipment to use in the races. We'd found the racing board in the attic, but there had also been a collar and a retractable leash. I wasn't sure where those had ended up. The most likely place was the downstairs hall closet, where a lot of the stuff May and I had used as kids was stored. The closet was the current focus of Meowth's and my search.
"So ya raced one time at summer camp?" Meowth inquired.
"Yeah," I said. "It was a camp for kids who were planning to start their pokemon journeys soon. Blaze was still a Growlithe then, and not even a year old, so we weren't able to do much racing. But Blaze was always strong for his size and he really enjoyed pulling me around on the board for some reason."
"Probably 'cause it was somethin' youse two could do taggeda as a team," Meowth suggested.
"You know, I bet you're right."
Meowth pulled out another box. "What about dis one?"
I looked at it. It was labeled "School Stuff." "I guess there's a chance it could be in there," I said. "Better check it."
Meowth lifted off the lid. "Looks like clothes," he said, as he rummaged inside.
"Costumes," I clarified. "Mostly from plays."
Meowth pulled out several items of black cloth. "What's dis?"
I knelt down beside him. "I remember that. It's a costume I wore in a school play when I was ten."
"Who were ya?" the cat wanted to know.
"It was a play about King Arthur," I said. I gave Meowth a wink. "I was Mordred."
"I thought so, too," I told him. I chuckled. "Though I remember Ash didn't. He had a little...trouble...seperating the play from real life."
Meowth rolled his eyes. "Dat figures."
I sighed. "It was yet another thing to convince him I was some sort of dastardly villain."
Meowth shook his head, understanding the situation all too well. "Dat kid's always been a few fries short of a Happy Meal." He rubbed a paw across the tunic. "Dis is some real nice work," he said, pointing to the embroidered black dragons with their ruby-fire eyes.
I got back to my feet. "Aunt Rowena made it for me."
Meowth looked up at me. "Can I show it ta Jessie? She loves makin' costumes and stuff and I know she'd like ta see dis."
"Sure," I said. I spotted another box, this one marked "Summer." "I think we may have hit the jackpot." I opened the lid. Inside were things May and I had used during trips to the beach...or camp. Near the bottom of the box was the rest of my racing equipment.
"Looks kinda like a fishin' reel," Meowth remarked when he saw the leash.
"It functions a little like one, too," I explained. "You use this reel to control the slack in the leash. And the two ends of the leash attatch to the collar the pokemon wears." I lifted the collar. "I'm gonna have to get a bigger collar for Blaze, though -- this one certainly won't fit him anymore." I ran my fingers along the leather. "I want to get a well-padded one, too. I don't want to put any excess strain on Blaze's neck and shoulders."
Meowth smiled up at me. "Yer always lookin' out fer your pokemon. Just like Jess and Jim."
"I love them all," I said. "And Blaze and I have been through a lot together." I thought for a moment about how Mom and Dad and May had given Blaze to me for my tenth bithday, about the way Blaze always seemed to be able to sense my moods. "I remember after I lost at the fourth round at Indigo. I was in my room at the inn and Blaze was out of his poke ball." I rubbed the collar as I told Meowth the story. "I was really disappointed in myself and I was sitting on the edge of the bed 'cause I couldn't sleep. Blaze came over and put his head on my lap and looked up at me with those bright golden eyes..."
I sighed. "Mom and Dad and May and Grandpa had already told me how proud they were of me and that they loved me no matter how many battles I won or lost -- and Blaze helped me understand that my pokemon felt the same way. That was when I truly started to understand my pokemon. I'd always loved them, but Blaze helped me learn just how deep my bond is with them."
Meowth wiped his eyes with a paw. "Dat's beautiful."
I held up the collar. "So if Blaze wants to race, Blaze gets to race."
"Yeah!" Meowth cheered.
I put all the boxes back in the closet and Meowth (who was still carrying the folded costume in his paws) and I headed to the room at the back of the house that my dad used as a workshop. After I'd found my racing board in the attic, Dad had offered to make sure it was in sound shape for racing.
Dad turned and smiled when Meowth and I entered. "Did you find the rest of your equipment?"
I held up the collar and leash and reel. "We sure did."
"Want me to check that reel and make sure it works okay?" Dad asked.
"That'd be great," I said as I handed the reel and leash to him. I noticed the racing board leaning against the work bench. A little longer than a standard skateboard, it was royal blue with a white stripe down the middle. It had been really dusty when I'd found it, but now the paint shone brightly. "Wow!" I gasped as I knelt down beside it. "It looks awesome!"
"I cleaned it up," Dad explained. "And I made sure all the wheels are balanced and free-rolling."
I ran my hand over the board's sleek surface. "You're the best, Dad! Thanks!"
"You're very welcome, Gary."
I noticed Meowth's attention had been captured by the glass cases along the wall, which held the model ships my dad built as a hobby. Dad walked over to Meowth. "Do you like those?"
Meowth pressed his paw against the glass. "Yeah! I saw da ones in da family room and da library, but I didn't realize dere were more!"
I got to my feet. Earlier, Jessie, James and Meowth had admired some of the other models -- the Egyptian trading ship, Roman war galley, Phonecian bireme and Viking drakkar -- in the family room and the English galleon in the library. But Dad had been building the little ships for a long time, so there were a lot of them. He kept the bulk of them in the glass cases in his workshop.
I joined Dad and Meowth in front of the glass cases. "Dad's been building those since he was little. And not from kits, either. He carves all the little wooden parts himself."
Dad put his hand on my shoulder. "I had help with many of them, though."
"From Gary, right?" asked Meowth.
Dad nodded and I thought back about helping him with some of the ships when I was a little boy. Sometimes my small hands would glue a piece a little crooked or paint a line that wasn't quite steady, but Dad didn't mind. He never scolded me or criticized my work. Instead, he'd teach me how to do a better job the next time.
Meowth and I admired the ships a while longer, then headed for the family room. "Yer parents are so nice," Meowth said.
"I know," I agreed. "I never forget how lucky I am."
Mom, May, Jessie and James had been sitting in the family room talking while Meowth and I looked for the racing equipment. Blaze, Umbreon and Houndoom were out of their poke balls and lounging by the fireplace.
"Did you find what you were looking for, sweetheart?" Mom asked when she saw me.
"Yeah," I said as I took a seat beside her on the couch. I looked over at Blaze. "I'll need to get a bigger collar for Blaze, but other than that we're all set."
"Arr-arc!" Blaze barked happily, wagging his fluffy tail.
"So what have ya all been talkin' about while Gary and I were snoopin' around in da closet?" Meowth asked.
Mom smiled at Meowth, then at me. "Jessie and James were telling May and me what a good friend Gary is to them." She reached over and touched my cheek. "They're very, very fond of you."
"Yeah!" Meowth agreed. "Gary's da best!"
I blushed. "I'm very fond of them, too."
"What do you have there, Meowth?" Jessie asked, noticing the costume the cat still carried.
"It's a costume Gary wore in a school play when he was ten," Meowth explained as he handed the items of black clothing to Jessie. "His great aunt Rowena made it."
"I remember that costume," May said. "I always liked it."
"Me, too," I agreed.
"I figured Jess would wanna see it since she likes makin' costumes," Meowth said.
"Aunt Rowena taught me to sew, too," May commented. "Though I don't quite have her skill level yet."
"May's being modest," I pointed out. "She makes some really great things."
"True," James said. "We all saw the Arcanine Halloween costume May made for Gary."
Meowth flashed a grin. "Yeah! Dat kicked ass!"
Jessie frowned. "Meowth, please. Watch your mouth."
May laughed. "Don't worry, Jessie. It certainly isn't anything we all haven't heard -- or said -- before. I appreciate his enthusiasm."
Jessie turned her attention back to the costume. "This is beautiful. Look at the embroidery work, James."
James leaned closer and brushed his fingertips against the black dragons. "Extraordinary." He turned to me. "What was the play about?"
"It was an Arthurian play," May told him.
"Care to guess who I was?" I asked.
James thought for a second. "Mordred."
I blinked in surprise. "How could you guess so easily?"
James leaned back a bit. "Because I knew you would have picked an unconventional role. A role the other kids might not have wanted. A role you could make into something remarkable."
I laughed softly. "Well, you're right about the other kids not wanting the role of the bad guy. But I don't know how remarkable I was."
"Now Gary's the one being modest," May said.
"I was okay," I insisted.
"You can judge for yourself," Dad said as he walked into the room. "We have the play on video if you'd like to see it."
Meowth's blue eyes sparkled. "Can we?"
"I'd like to see it," Jessie added.
"I'm intrigued, too," James said.
"Would you mind, Gary?" Mom asked.
I looked at my friends' expectant faces, then back to my mother. "It's okay with me," I said. "But keep in mind this is a school play," I continued with a smile as I watched Dad searching the cabinet under the TV for the tape. "The sets are kinda shaky and the kid playing Merlin trips over his robes a couple of times."
"And at one point you can hear Ash in the audience telling his mom that he wants to go home now," May added.
Meowth buried his face in his paws. "Dat kid pops up at da damnedest moments."
We all had to admit that was true.
I lifted my backpack from the floor and set it at the foot of my bed. I rubbed a hand across my eyes. I was starting to get a little tired, but there were things I needed to do before going to bed, including packing for the trip to Exeter.
Jessie, James and Meowth had enjoyed watching the video of the play (I had to admit it was neat to see it again -- I hadn't watched it for years). Playing the tape had gotten Dad in the mood to show videos, so we'd ended up watching a few more tapes of May and me when we were younger. Jessie, James and Meowth had enjoyed those, too, and had commented that they liked getting to see what I was like when I was little.
As I opened the flap of my backpack, I brushed my fingers against the little crescent moon pinned there. After I'd helped Jessie and James and Meowth defeat Queen Ayesha of Yew, James had bought us each something of moonstone to symbolize what we'd accomplished together -- and the insights we'd gained from the experience. I'd chosen a pin shaped like a crescent moon. I thought of my friends every time I looked at it.
I touched the smooth surface of the moonstone again. I thought about how I'd been able to travel with my friends the last couple of months. I always wanted close friends I could travel with and hang out with and talk to. Now I have them. And I don't ever want to lose them.
I took some clothes from the closet, then from the dresser, and put them in my backpack. I made sure to pack some warmer clothes. The nights were starting to get cold, especially in Johto.
I moved to my desk and picked up the journal Jessie, James and Meowth had given me for my birthday, enjoying the feel of the indigo suede cover. I'd already filled several pages with observations and such. I definitely wanted to take it with me.
There was one more thing I needed to take: Jessie's birthday present. Her birthday was December 13th, and since I wouldn't be able to spend the day with her (she and James and Meowth would be going to visit her grandma and grandpa Parker in Opal Ridge while I'd be back home in Pallet by then), I planned to give the gift to her a bit early.
It had taken me a while to decide on a present. I didn't want to get something meaningless or frivolous. Jessie was too special for that.
I thought back to when Jessie, James and Meowth had saved me from Clay and Allison. I'd been hurt and Jessie had been so kind and gentle taking care of me. I'd developed a bit of a crush on her at first, though I'd quickly figured out she and James were lovers. I wasn't jealous; they were so perfect together. But Jessie would always occupy a special place in my heart.
Jessie had recently been able to learn more about her mom and dad. She'd given me the details about them when we were all traveling together in the Whirl Islands -- and what she'd told me had given me the idea for a birthday present.
Jessie's mom, Miyamoto, had been a great pokemon trainer. She'd even gotten a pokemon, a Charmander, from my grandpa. Grandpa took great interest in all the trainers who received pokemon from him. He often took pictures of them when they were in Pallet Town and monitored their progress as long as he could. It stood to reason he'd probably taken a picture of Miyamoto.
Grandpa had dozens of photo albums full of photos of trainers he'd given pokemon. When my grandma Oak was still alive she'd kept them organized by year, so I was able to locate the album that would contain the pic of Jessie's mom -- if it existed! I'd started to worry as I'd turned the pages that maybe Miyamoto hadn't had her picture taken. But about halfway through the album, I'd found it.
Even if I hadn't known what Miyamoto looked like, I still would have recognized her as Jessie's mom. Like Jessie, she was strikingly beautiful, and there was a look in her blue-green eyes that seemed to say she could take on anything the world threw at her -- just like Jessie. And to make the picture even more special, Jessie's dad, Dorian, was in the photo, too. I'd had the photo copied. Then I'd found a small silver Victorian style frame at an antique store in Pallet Town that had been just the right size.
I opened my desk drawer and took out the framed photo. I knew Jessie would love getting a picture of her parents. I went to my closet and got out the small box and some bubble-wrap I'd been saving. I wrapped the photo in the bubble-wrap (so there'd be no chance it would break on the way back to Johto) and placed it in the box. Now all I needed was some wrapping paper.
I went downstairs to the closet under the stairs where Mom kept all the wrapping paper. I looked through the different colors and styles, finally selecting paper with an abstract pattern in shades of swirling purple and blue.
"Couldn't sleep, mon petit?"
I turned to my mom. "I had to pack and wrap Jessie's birthday present."
"And I had to look up a few things in the library," she said, lifting up the book she was holding.
There was a wistful look on her face. "Are you okay, Mom?" I asked.
She nodded. "Oui, Gary. I'm fine. I just get a little nostalgic on your birthday. Sometimes it's hard for me to believe how fast you're growing up."
I knew she was also probably thinking about me leaving in the morning. "I'll be back in a week or so," I assured her. "And I'll be here through the holidays, so--"
"It's okay." She smiled gently. "I want you to go and have fun with your friends as long as you like."
"I will," I said. Then I added, "I miss you and Dad a lot when I'm on the road."
She took a step forward and put her arms around me, wrapping me in her embrace. "We miss you, too."
Mom and I had always been particularly close. I had many fond childhood memories of talking to her for hours while she worked in the kitchen or her flower garden, of her singing me to sleep and telling me stories.
One of my favorite things to do was spend time with her while she did her research. Mom was an expert on ancient languages -- in fact, she'd come to Kanto from France when she was sixteen to study languages at a private school in Viridian City (she'd met my dad, who was attending high school at Viridian City High School, the same year). From the time I was a little boy, I'd loved to sit with her while she translated. Her specialty was Egyptian hieroglyphics and other scholars would often send her photos or rubbings from tombs and temples to be translated. As a little boy, I was fascinated that the pictures of jackals and scarabs and eyes and hawks could form words for her. It had seemed like magic to me.
"I guess I should get to bed," I said at length. "We're hoping to get an early start in the morning."
Mom kissed me on the cheek. "Good night, Gary."
"Good night, Mom."
Upstairs, I wrapped Jessie's present and tucked it into my backpack. As I got ready for bed, I looked at the costume lying folded on the other side of my desk. After watching the video, I'd brought it upstais. I lifted it up, the cloth soft as a shadow in my hands.
For a moment my thoughts turned to Ash and the way he'd thought I was some sort of villain because of the costume. Wonder what he'd think of me now, if he knew I was best friends with Jessie and James and Meowth? What would he think of my loyalties to them?
I set the costume back down on the desk. Who the hell cared what Ash Ketchum thought, anyway?
"Thanks for everything, Mr. and Mrs. Oak -- especially breakfast dis mornin'. It was great!"
Mom and Dad looked down at the cat. "You're welcome, Meowth," said Mom.
"It was our pleasure," Dad added.
"You've all been so wonderful, letting us stay here," Jessie said.
"Yes," agreed James. "We can't thank you enough for your hospitality."
"We enjoy having you here," Dad said. He put his hand on my shoulder. "You three are such good friends to Gary."
"And you're always welcome here," Mom added. "So come visit us any time."
Meowth grinned up at us. "We'll take good care of Gary and keep him outta trouble."
Mom knelt in front of Meowth and stroked the top of his head. "I know you will, Meowth."
I said goodbye to Mom and Dad and May and hugged each of them. "I'll be back by the 6th," I told them as Jessie, James and I got into the jeep.
Then we were on our way.
We planned to pass through the Cobalt Mountains on our way into Johto. It was the long way into Johto, but I hadn't been there since the summer after Indigo, and I wanted to return. I sat in the backseat of the jeep with Meowth and talked to my three friends and wrote a bit in my journal. When lunchtime came, we stopped at a little roadside diner, then continued on our way.
"So dat's where ya went after da Indigo finals?" Meowth asked somewhat later, as we watched the mountains grow ever closer through the jeep windows.
I nodded. "Yeah." I was silent for a moment as I collected my thoughts. "After I lost at Indigo, I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me to become the kind of trainer I wanted to be. I wanted to go somewhere isolated so I could do some soul-searching."
"And dat's where ya found Eevee, right?"
"Not far from a town called Azure Falls," I explained. "I'd been training in the forest when a big storm came up. Storms can get really fierce in those mountains, so I knew I had to get to shelter fast."
I continued my story. "I was making my way along a bluff above Silver Creek." I shook my head. "I don't know what made me look over the side of the bluff just then, but I'm glad I did. Because at the bottom, lying beside the creek, was Eevee."
"Oh, the poor thing," Jessie said.
"I thought maybe he was dead," I said. "But I had to go down and make sure. I knew the creek flooded every time there was a heavy rain. So if he wasn't already dead, he would be when the flood waters hit him."
I could tell Meowth was getting very wrapped up in the narrative, though he knew the outcome. "I had a rope in my backpack," I explained. "Nidoqueen and Nidoking held the rope for me while I climbed down. When I got to Eevee and touched him he sort of squeeked a little, so I knew he was alive."
"Den what happened?"
"As soon as I picked him up, the creek started flooding over its banks," I went on. "The next thing I knew, the water was up to my ankles. I could already feel the current pulling at me. I knew if I didn't get back up the bluff fast, Eevee and I were gonna be in serious trouble."
Meowth nodded, encouraging me to continue.
"I also knew I couldn't carry Eevee and climb up the rope," I said. "So I put him in my backpack. I had to dump out a couple of shirts and all the food I was carrying so he'd fit, but it was an easy sacrifice to make!"
"That was a daring rescue," James commented.
"Eevee wasn't out of the woods yet," I told my friends. "After we got to the top of the bluff, I took him out of my backpack and carried him as fast as I could to the pokemon center in Azure Falls. He was really sick and weak and Nurse Joy wasn't sure..." I had to pause, the memory still holding a lot of emotion for me.
"She wasn't sure he'd make it," I managed at last. "I spent the night on the couch in the waiting room at the pokemon center. I told Nurse Joy to wake me up as soon as she had any news about Eevee." I closed my eyes, recalling how upset I'd been. I remembered crying as I fell asleep, worried I'd messed up again. I'd lost at Indigo, I had no idea where I wanted to go next with my trainer career, I might not have been able to save Eevee...
"And Eevee made it," Meowth prompted, breaking me from my reverie.
"He sure did," I said. "When Nurse Joy woke me up the next morning, I was afraid she had bad news. But as soon as I noticed she was smiling, I knew Eevee had pulled through."
Meowth grinned. "Yeah!"
"I stayed at the pokemon center all week," I said. "I needed to see if Eevee's trainer would come to claim him. I hoped Eevee had gotten lost by accident, but if Eevee's trainer showed up, and I found out he'd gotten lost and hurt because of neglect--"
"Ya were gonna give him a piece of yer mind, right?" asked Meowth.
"That's right," I replied.
"And maybe a punch in the face, too," added Jessie.
I chuckled. "I have to admit the thought did cross my mind. I became very attatched to Eevee while I was staying at the pokemon center. I played with him and helped Nurse Joy feed him and take care of him. Sometimes I'd watch TV in the waiting room before I went to bed and Eevee would sit on my shoulder. But I knew I couldn't stay in Azure Falls forever. When I got ready to leave, I asked Nurse Joy to please find a good trainer for Eevee. She told me she already had. I realized she meant me."
Meowth cheered. "Dat's a great story, Gary!"
"Nurse Joy certainly knew what she was doing when she gave Eevee to you," James said.
"She couldn't have found a better trainer for Eevee than you," Jessie added.
"Nurse Joy's the main reason I want to visit Azure Falls again." I said. "After I left for Johto, I wrote her a letter to thank her again for giving Eevee to me. But I'd like to thank her again in person. And I know she'd like to see Eevee now that he's evolved into Umbreon." We were now well into the Cobalt Mountains and I knew Azure Falls was just ahead. "I got an added bonus while I was staying in Azure Falls," I explained. "A lot of trainers passed through and many challenged me to battles. I used my Charmeleon in most of them and was able to evolve him into Charizard."
I pointed out the window to the right. "See those cliffs? After Smaug evolved, I took him up there to practice flying. I let him fly around the mountains on his own for a while to get sure of himself. Then I got him to return, climbed up on his back, and took a ride myself."
"Cool," said Meowth.
"I was nervous at first," I said. "I'd flown on Pidgeot before, but I knew flying on a Charizard would be different." I could remember the way my heart had been in my throat as Smaug had launched himself into the sky, then the feel of the wind in my hair and the rush of exhilaration and freedom. "But it was amazing!"
We reached the town of Azure Falls and I could see the pokemon center ahead. It was built in a rustic style and resembled a large log cabin. There was a wooden deck on the back where you could sit in the evenings and watch the waters of Silver Creek cascade over the waterfall that gave the town its name. "I know Nurse Joy will let us stay in the pokemon center tonight," I told Jessie and James and Meowth.
"Sounds good," James said as he parked the jeep in front of the pokemon center.
Nurse Joy looked up from her paperwork when we came through the door. She smiled when she saw me. "Gary," she said.
"You remember me?" I asked.
"Of course," Nurse Joy said. "I'll never forget you bringing Eevee in here during that awful storm. How have you been?"
"I'm doing great," I answered. Then I made introductions. "Nurse Joy, these are my friends James Woodson, Jessie Parker, and Meowth."
"It's nice to meet you all," Nurse Joy said.
"It's nice to meet you, too," James said.
"Gary told us the story about finding Eevee," Jessie added.
"Yeah!" Meowth said. "I love dat story!"
Nurse Joy came from behind the desk. "A talking Meowth! How exceptional!"
"Dat's Meowth!" the cat replied.
Nurse Joy looked to me. "And how is Eevee?"
I'd been looking forward to this. I snapped a poke ball off my belt. "See for yourself. Umbreon, go!"
Umbreon appeared in a flash of light. "Oh!" Nurse Joy gasped, kneeling in front of him. "You did a friendship evolution! How wonderful!" She scratched behind Umbreon's ears. "I think he's the most beautiful Umbreon I've ever seen."
"Bree!" Umbreon said happily, enjoying the attention. I knelt beside Umbreon, too, and he bumped his head against my hand. "Breon," he said.
"I came here to thank you again for giving Eevee to me," I said to Nurse Joy. "Working with him and doing a friendship evolution with him taught me a lot about pokemon. And I don't think I'd have gotten through the Johto League without him. I know I'd never have been able to win my Fog Badge without his help." I stroked Umbreon's ebon-black fur. "And more importantly, he's one of my best friends. I can't imagine my life without him!"
"Breon! Breon!" Umbreon put his paws on my chest and nuzzled against me.
"It was my pleasure to give Eevee to you," Nurse Joy said. "After the way you rescued him and took care of him while he was here in the pokemon center, I knew you were the best trainer for him."
"And it worked out perfectly," Meowth pointed out. "Gary and Umby make a great team!"
We visited with Nurse Joy for a while (we let her meet the rest of our pokemon, too), then James had a suggestion. "Maybe Nurse Joy would like to go have dinner with us."
Jessie smiled. "That's a great idea."
Nurse Joy agreed. "Things are fairly slow today, so I think it would be okay to let Chansey watch over things for a couple of hours. And I know the perfect place for dinner: a restaurant in town that features home-cooking -- and some of the best pies you'll ever taste."
Meowth rubbed his paws together. "Pies? Now yer talkin'!"
I leaned back a bit in my chair as I watched the first stars come out above the mountains. I could hear the sound of Silver Creek rushing over the falls, and Hoothoots and Noctowls calling somewhere far off in the distance. The evening air was a little cool, and I pulled my jacket tighter around me.
"When's James gonna have dat tea ready?" Meowth asked, peeking into the paper bag he was holding for the third time in as many minutes.
Jessie sighed. "Have patience, you two. It won't be much longer."
After a delicious dinner, we'd returned to the pokemon center, where Nurse Joy had happily offered us rooms for the night. A bit later, Meowth and Wobbuffet had walked down to the little bakery a few blocks from the pokemon center and had returned with a bag of freshly baked cookies. James had decided we needed tea to go with them. Nurse Joy had offered him the use of the pokemon center's kitchen any time he wanted it, so he'd gone to brew tea while Jessie, Meowth, Wobbuffet and I had gone out to the deck. Meowth and Wobbu were getting a bit impatient.
We all turned at the sound of the sliding door to the deck opening to reveal James. He was carrying a tray with a teapot, five cups and a stack of napkins.
"All right, Jimmy!" Meowth cheered.
"What took ya so long?" Meowth wanted to know.
James set the tray down on a small wooden table and passed out the napkins. "Brewing tea takes time. And I had to offer a cup to Nurse Joy." He handed a napkin to Meowth. "You should see if she'd like a cookie, too."
"Will do!" Meowth said. He took two cookies from the bag, placed them on the napkin and took them into the pokemon center. James passed around the cups and poured the tea. When Meowth returned, James passed out the napkins and Meowth offered the bag of cookies to everyone, starting with me. "We've got oatmeal and chocolate chip," the cat said.
I took one of the oatmeal cookies. Meowth finished passing out cookies, took a cup of tea from James and hopped up onto the chair he'd vacated earlier.
As I ate the cookie and sipped the tea, I looked at the stars and thought about the last time I'd been in Azure Falls. I'd felt lost and adrift, wondering where I should go next in my career as a trainer. I'd spent many evenings just like this, looking up at the same sky, thinking about how I still had a lot to learn and a lot of growing up to do.
"This place holds a lot of memories for you, doesn't it?" I heard James say.
I turned to him. "Yeah. Yeah, it does." I finished the cookie. "I was just thinking about the first time I was here. I wasn't sure what to do next."
I sighed. "After I lost at Indigo, I was really disappointed in myself. I knew I hadn't trained as hard as I should have, that I hadn't been as focused as I should have been. And I'd been a little too cocky."
"Oh, I'm sure you weren't that bad," Jessie assured me.
"I guess not," I said. "But I could get pretty arrogant sometimes -- like when I was showing off in front of the girls or yanking Ash's chain."
"Aw, ya know ya weren't as bad as Ash," Meowth said as he offered me the bag of cookies again. I took a chocolate chip one this time. "I betcha didn't screech about bein' the world's greatest pokemon master every five seconds."
I laughed softly. "No, I wasn't that bad. But after Indigo I wasn't sure what to do next. I wasn't sure if I should compete in another league or go back to school. Then I remembered Grandpa telling me about his grandfather training in the Cobalt Mountains and that was where I decided to go."
"So your great-great-grandpa was a pokemon trainer, too?" Jessie asked.
I nodded. "Darren Oak was one of the best. He won the Indigo League in 1900 and the Johto League in 1902. But before any of that, he spent a lot of time training here in the mountains. I hoped coming here would be a way to follow in his footsteps. And I hoped the solitude and being able to work solely on my training without worrying about gyms and badges would help me to focus."
I finished the last of my tea. "More?" James asked, noticing my empty cup.
"Yeah, that'd be great, thanks. But I'll get it myself." Jessie and James were snuggled together on a bench, and I didn't want to disturb them. I got up and poured myself more tea.
I carried my cup to the deck railing. "Being in the mountains was a lot different than traveling through Kanto with my cheerleaders. I'd gotten a little spoiled, I think, being able to ride from town to town in the car. And since there were eight of us, we always stayed at pokemon centers or hotels and inns and we always ate in restaurants. So when I came here and had to fend for myself it took some adjusting. But I liked it because it was more like being on the type of pokemon journey I'd imagined since I was little."
I took another sip of my tea and looked toward the falls. In the starlight, the water of Silver Creek did take on a metallic sheen. "It was lonely, though," I said softly. "I was used to being with the girls, always having someone to talk to. The cheerleaders were ditzy sometimes, but they were nice and I'd liked them."
I thought about some of my specific memories of the girls. "I remember that Cally was really quiet and shy -- except when a song she liked came on the radio. Then she'd sing along. Loudly." I chuckled. "I remember that wherever we went Alicia would buy plush pokemon and send them to her little sister at home. Hope was crazy about Blaze and would always help me groom and feed him. Dayna was the one who came up with most of the cheers." I shook my head. "They were really corny, but the girls had fun performing them. And any time we arrived in a new town, Michelle would buy a bunch of postcards and mail them to all her friends at home. And Kristen was addicted to horror movies. Every time we got to a town where one was showing at the local theater, we all had to go see it. The other cheerleaders would scream like banshees the whole time, but Kristen never did. And Sela..." I paused and looked down at my teacup.
"She was da one who drove da car, right?" Meowth prompted.
I finished the last of my tea and set the empty cup on the table. "Yeah." I hadn't thought about this for a while, let alone talked about it. "She was different than the other girls. She was older and more mature and she was easy for me to talk to. And she was beautiful and...and I had a pretty big crush on her."
I looked up at my friends to gauge their reactions. There was understanding in their eyes and they seemed interested in what I had to say, so I continued. "I kept my feelings to myself, but the night before I left to head off for the mountains, I told her how I felt. I even kissed her." I ran a hand through my hair. "I don't know what I thought I was doing. Deep inside I knew she didn't feel the same way. I was just a thirteen year old kid, for godsake."
"I'm sure she understood," James offered.
"She did," I said. "She was really kind about the whole thing. She didn't feel the same way I did and it never would have worked out." I lowered my eyes. "It still hurt like hell, though. She was the first girl I ever really had a crush on, the first girl I ever kissed..."
"It must have been hard to feel that way about someone and not have those feelings returned," Jessie said sympathetically.
"Yeah. Dat sucks," Meowth said. I remembered the story about him and Meowsie. I knew Meowth had first-hand experience with rejection.
"It turned out for the best," I said, bringing my chin up. "Although between losing at Indigo and getting rejected by Sela, I was pretty down in the dumps for a while after I came to the mountains." I offered my friends a smile. "But after I got Eevee and evolved Smaug, I felt a lot better. I liked traveling. Before I left, Grandpa had told me about some of the places great-great-grandpa Darren had gone when he trained here and I was able to visit some of those places. Although it had been a hundred years since he'd been here so things had changed a lot..."
I stopped myself, realizing I could go on all night about my time in the Cobalt Mountains if I got going. "After I got myself focused while I was here, I was able to decide what I wanted to do next. I decided I wanted to compete in one more league before I went back to school. I knew the Johto League would be tougher and more of a challenge, so that was the one I picked."
"I know I made the right descision," I continued as I looked at my friends. "I've become a better trainer than I ever thought I'd be. And best of all, because I went to Johto, I met you guys!"
"That's true," Jessie said. "I don't like the idea of us never getting to meet you and become your friends."
Meowth nodded eagerly. "Dat's right! Meetin' you was one of da best things that ever happened ta us!"
Wobbuffet saluted. "Wobba-wobb!"
"I agree," said James. "Though I have a feeling even if you hadn't gone to Johto we still would have met you...somehow."
Jessie smiled at him. "You know, I have that feeling, too."
"Because it's one of those meant-to-be things, right?" I asked.
Jessie's sapphire eyes sparkled. "Exactly!"
It was getting late, so we started to clear our things from the deck. Jessie collected the empty teacups and James took the cups, teapot and tray back into the kitchen. Meowth, Wobbuffet and I gathered up the used napkins and now empty cookie bag and tossed those into the trash.
"Thanks for listening to me tonight," I told everyone once we were all in the kitchen. "I like having all of you to talk to. It helps a lot."
James put his hand on my shoulder. "We're here to listen any time, Gary. Always remember that."
"I will," I said.
We said our goodnights and Jessie and James retired to the room they'd be sharing. I took a shower, then went to the room I was sharing with Meowth and Wobbuffet. The room had two sets of bunk beds and it took a while for Meowth and Wobbuffet to decide who wanted which bunk. Meowth ended up taking one of the upper bunks and Wobbuffet one of the lower. I took the other lower bunk. I let Umbreon out of his poke ball so he could curl up at the foot of my bed. I reached down to stroke his midnight-black fur.
I looked over at Meowth and Wobbuffet in their bunks. "Is it okay if I leave the light on for about fifteen minutes?"
"No problem-o!" Meowth said as he snuggled into the blankets.
"Thanks, guys," I said. I brought my journal out of my backpack and wrote down some observations about being back in the Cobalt Mountains. But I soon became tired, so I finished up what I was writing and put away the journal. Umbreon had already fallen asleep, as had Meowth and Wobbuffet. I switched off the light on the bedside table.
I closed my eyes and lay back, pulling the blanket up around me. I thought once more about the nights I'd spent in the Cobalt Mountains and how I'd so often felt alone and adrift. Now I was here with my friends -- the best friends I'd ever had.
"Ah," Meowth sighed. "Now dat was a treat!"
Jessie, James and I smiled at the cat as we watched him finish up his chocolate malted milkshake. Jessie chuckled. "Glad you liked it."
That morning after we'd said goodbye to Nurse Joy we'd had breakfast in Azure Falls. We'd then left the Cobalt Mountains behind and were soon in Johto.
Normally, it would have taken less than a day to drive to Exeter, but since the main race wasn't until the weekend, we'd decided to take our time.
We took the scenic route and stopped at all the little bookstores and boutiques and antique shops that caught our eye. We'd had lunch in a small town called Dandelion Vale, where we'd even done some early Christmas shopping (Christmas was only a month away, after all!). Jessie and James had picked up a few items for their grandparents and I'd bought some small things for my family. I'd bought a paperweight with a tiny ship inside for Dad and a scarf decorated with orange and gold oak leaves for May. I thought about how much Mom missed me when I was gone and wanted to get something special for her. She often liked to pull her hair back in a braid or ponytail, so I bought her a fancy hairclip decorated with beadwork of gold and blue.
In the afternoon we stopped in another town -- Hawthorne. There was a Team Rocket safe-house near there where we'd be able to spend the night. James wanted to cook dinner for us that evening, so we needed to pick up some groceries. But before grocery shopping, Meowth's attention had been drawn to an old-fashioned drugstore on Hawthorne's main street -- a drugstore that featured a soda fountain. Jessie and James and I weren't that hungry so we'd simply ordered Cherry Cokes. But we'd treated Meowth to a milkshake.
"Want another one?" James asked.
Meowth considered this for a moment. "Nah. I'd better save room for dinner."
I watched as several groups of kids my age entered the drugstore and took seats at the other tables. They were all wearing school uniforms and carrying bookbags and backpacks. This was obviously one of Hawthorne's main after-school hangouts.
I thought about how I planned to move back to Pallet Town after the Johto finals next spring. I'd take my equivalency tests in the summer and start attending Viridian City High School in the fall. I turned back to Jessie and James and Meowth. "I guess that'll be me next fall."
I'd already told them about my plans. "I think it's great you're going back to school," Jessie said.
"I agree," said James. "Finishing your education is very important."
"I think so, too," I said.
"Ya nervous about goin' back?" Meowth asked.
"Sort of," I admitted. "I mean, I got along okay with the other kids when I was in school, but I was definitely a loner." I swirled the straw around in my drink. "And I know it'll be a big adjustment since I've been out of school since I was twelve."
Jessie put her hand on my shoulder. "You'll be fine. I know you will."
"He'll be better than fine," James said. "After all you've seen and done on your journey you should be well-prepared to tackle any obstacle, Gary."
"Dat's right!" said Meowth. "After travelin' around on yer own and battling and stuff ya ain't gonna be intimidated by any a dat high school bullshit!"
I laughed. "I hope you're right. I need to finish school so I can go to Celadon University in a few years."
"Yer grandpa taught at da university, right?" Meowth wanted to know.
"He sure did," I answered. "And I was born in Celadon City."
Jessie set down her empty soda glass. "You were?"
I nodded. "Yep. Mom and Dad were in college there when they got married and when they had May. And they were still living and working in Celadon City when Mom got pregnant with me."
I continued. "They had a little townhouse, but they wanted a bigger place now that there was another baby on the way. And they wanted to move out of the city and to a smaller town." I looked down at my empty glass. "Grandpa was living in Pallet Town and had lost my grandma two years before. Her loss had been really hard on him. Mom and Dad took May to visit him every weekend, but they knew it would help him a lot to have his grandchildren nearby. They bought a big house in Pallet that summer -- but the house was almost one hundred years old and needed some work before they could move in. We all moved to Pallet when I was two months old."
"It's cool ta hear about when you were born," Meowth said.
"Indeed," said James. "It seems there are still things we can learn about each other's lives and backgrounds."
I agreed. I looked over at the school kids, laughing and having a good time with their friends. I turned my attention back to Jessie and James and Meowth. "You guys'll come visit me when I move back to Pallet and go back to school, won't you?"
"Of course we will!" Jessie said.
"We'll visit you every chance we get," James concurred.
Meowth grinned. "Just try and stop us! Yer stuck with us now, kiddo!"
I returned his smile. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
I looked up from my journal and glanced at Jessie and James, who sat on the couch across from me. Jessie ran her fingers through James's hair and brushed her lips against his. He gave her a loving smile and kissed her in return.
Meowth snickered and nudged me. "Dere dey go again."
After buying groceries and reaching the safe-house, we'd taken care of our pokemon and James had cooked dinner for us -- a chicken and vegetable stir-fry with a delicious lemon and ginger sauce. And there'd been a cheesecake from the bakery in Hawthorne for dessert. There was a supply of firewood at the cabin, and after dinner James had built a fire in the hearth.
"It's dat cozy fire," Meowth whispered. "Makes 'em feel all warm and snuggly and horn--"
"Meowth," James warned. "Behave yourself."
Meowth looked innocently at the couple. "I didn't know youse guys was payin' any attention to Me-owth."
Jessie stood. She took James's hand as he joined her. "We're heading off to bed. Good night, Gary. Good night, Meowth."
"Good night, you two," James echoed.
"Good night, guys," I told them.
"Yeah, g'night," Meowth remarked. "Just try ta keep things in da bedroom to a dull roar. Me and Gary don't wanna be kept awake by a buncha screamin' and moanin'."
Jessie clenched her right hand into a fist. "Meowth!"
James chuckled and steered Jessie toward the bedroom, sparing Meowth from her wrath. "We'll keep it discrete."
"I tease 'em a lot," Meowth said once Jessie and James were gone, "but I'm damned glad dey're a couple. Dey're great taggeda."
"They sure are," I agreed. "They're perfect together. They're really lucky." I thought about how nice it would be to have someone to be with.
Meowth must have read my mind. "Ya get lonely sometimes?"
I reached for my backpack and put away my journal. "Yeah, I do."
"I do, too...sometimes," Meowth admitted, then quickly changed the subject. "Hey -- don't worry. Dere's a girl out dere somewhere who'll be just perfect for you."
"I hope you're right."
"Ya know I'm right!" He winked at me. "You're a real catch! And speakin' of catchin', remember when we were fishin' on da pier in Ogi City? I saw a couple of girls dere checkin' you out!"
I blushed slightly. "I noticed that, too." I stood. "I'm gonna head off to bed."
Meowth yawned. "I'm gonna head ta bed pretty soon, too."
Halfway to the bedroom, I turned back to the cat. "Thanks for everything, Meowth. I might get lonely sometimes, but having friends like you helps -- a lot."
Meowth gave me the thumbs-up. "Dat's right!"
I rolled over onto my back and opened my eyes. My first thought was, I'm dreaming.
For one thing, it was daylight. And I wasn't in my bed at the Team Rocket safe-house. I was lying on the ground...in a forest. It must have been spring or summer. The branches of the trees that arched above me were heavy with vibrant green leaves.
The sun was bright, but it was cool beneath the those trees. I sat up, pushing aside the slightly tattered blue blanket that covered me. I looked down at what I was wearing.
Whoa. It's the costume...the one from the play where I was Mordred. I brushed my fingertips over the black dragons on the tunic. Must be a larger version of it, though. I outgrew that costume ages ago...
The sound of quiet laughter drew my attention. Deeper beneath the shelter of the trees I saw Jessie and James. They were sitting on the ground; James was running his fingers through Jessie's hair. Meowth sat a few feet away from them, and when he turned and noticed me his eyes lit up. He bounded over to me. "Gary! You're awake!"
Jessie and James joined us. I noticed they were dressed all in black, too, and even Meowth wore a little black cloak. Jessie knelt in front of me. "Did you have a good nap?"
I had no idea what the hell was going on, but an affirmative answer seemed safe. "Yeah," I said. "I did."
There was concern on Jessie's face...and some sadness, too. "I know it's hard on you living in the castle and having to sneak away to see us in secret."
Castle? Sneaking away to see Jessie and James and Meowth? Now I was really confused.
"At least you could sleep for a few hours here," James said.
"Dat's right," said Meowth. "I bet you slept a lot better out here in da woods den in dat dank, noisy old castle."
I started to ask Meowth for details about this castle everyone kept referring to, but before I could, the cat looked up at James and spoke. "Now dat Gary's awake, can ya show us da surprise ya was talkin' about earlier?"
James reached down and scratched Meowth behind the ears. "I certainly can. But you'll have to be very quiet."
Meowth made an indignant face. "I can be quiet!"
Jessie smirked. "Of course you can."
Meowth stuck out his tongue at her.
I couldn't help but smile. A lot of things might have been odd about this dream, but at least some things remained comfortably the same!
Jessie folded the blanket I'd slept under and left it beneath a tree, then we all followed James through the forest. As we walked, the forest became more dense, the trees closer together and the brush more tangled. Several times I had to lift up Meowth and carry him to keep him from getting caught in the undergrowth.
Gradually, the forest thinned out, though we were now walking up a slope. "Is it much farther?" Meowth panted.
"Only a little further," James promised.
The ground leveled off and we reached a deep thicket. James knelt down and the rest of us followed suit. "Be very still," he said, as he parted the tangle of vines and branches so we could see what lay beyond.
Beyond the thicket was a narrow meadow that ended in a cliff. "Over there," James said, pointing. Jessie and I both gasped. Meowth's blue eyes went wide.
Standing at the far left of the meadow was a winged horse.
Her forequarters were blue roan, her hindquarters covered with a stark white blanket splashed with black spots. Her blue roan hide darkened nearly to black at her knees; she had four white stockings. Her mane and tail were glossy black, peppered with a few white hairs.
"A Pegasus," Meowth whispered in wonder.
The Pegasus twitched her tapered, delicate ears. She bobbed her head and flared her nostrils, trying to catch the scent of any intruders. Her wings were folded at her sides, and when she sensed she wasn't in any danger, she unfurled them. The feathers were white as alabaster and banded with blue-gray.
Jessie pressed closer to James and spoke in hushed tones. "Oh, James, she's beautiful."
James's emerald eyes sparkled. "I first discovered her up here about a week ago. The first time I saw her I must have made too much noise and she flew off straight away. I was more silent the next time." He put a finger to his lips. "Now, if you'll be totally still, my friends, you'll see something even more special."
The Pegasus whickered softly. For moments there was no sound save the wind in the trees. Then, a high-pitched neigh came in answer. The tall grass at the edge of the meadow parted and a Pegasus foal stepped out.
The foal was darker in color than the mare, an almost charcoal-gray roan. He was an appaloosa, too, but his blanket was smaller. He had a slightly crooked white blaze down his face. His wings were gray-blue, darkening to indigo at the tips. The foal trotted to his mother, his long legs carrying him swiftly over the ground. The mare nuzzled against the foal and brushed her wingtips against his.
"She's been teaching him to fly," James whispered. "He's getting very good at it."
I could feel my heart pounding as I watched the two Pegasi. This is fantastic! Like something from a fantasy novel!
The wind picked up. The foal reared and spread his wings, letting the air currents lift him a few feet off the ground. The mare tossed her head and took off at a gallop toward the cliff edge. The pounding of her hooves against the ground sounded like distant thunder. Before she reached the edge, she caught the wind and vaulted into the air. She glided in wide circles, gaining altitude.
The foal copied her actions exactly. He was a little less sure than she, but he, too, was soon in flight. The two winged horses flew over the meadow and forest for a while, then banked to the right, heading off toward the mountains in the distance. We watched them until they were out of sight.
"That was amazing!" Jessie said as we made our way back down the slope. She brushed her fingers through James's hair and kissed him. "Thank you for sharing that with us, honey."
"Yeah!" I agreed. "That was one of the most magical things I've ever seen!"
"It ruled!" Meowth added. "Thanks, Jimmy!"
I stayed with Jessie and James and Meowth in the forest for a while longer. But, as in most dreams, time seemed to flow strangely and soon the shadows beneath the trees began to lengthen.
Jessie touched my shoulder. "You should probably be getting back to the castle."
I scowled. Who cared about going back to the castle? "Can't I stay here with you guys?"
James shook his head. "You know that isn't wise. You already run enough risks meeting us here in the forest."
Again with the implication I was putting myself in danger being with Jessie and James and Meowth. What the hell was going on?
James led me to another clearing, where three Rapidashes were grazing. James pushed aside some fallen leaves and branches beneath a tree to reveal several saddles and bridles. He put a saddle and bridle on one Rapidash and led the pokemon to me.
"Travel safely," he said as he handed me the reins.
"Take care, Gary," said Jessie.
Meowth hugged my legs. "Stay safe, okay?"
I said goodbye to my friends and swung up onto the saddle. I rode out of the forest.
In waking life, I didn't have a Rapidash of my own, but I'd often helped Grandpa exercise the Ponytas and Rapidashes at the lab, so I knew how to ride. However, I had no idea where this castle was, so I relaxed the reins and let the Rapidash go wherever he chose. Maybe he knew the way!
My plan worked, and I soon found myself on an old road. I followed the road a bit and as the trees parted I could, indeed, see the towers and parapets of a castle in the distance.
The castle seemed less impressive when I reached it. It was huge, but there was a definite air of neglect and decay about it. Many of the stones were cracked and moldy and one of the towers had partially fallen down. I had no idea what to do next, so I decided to treat the whole thing like a video game and simply move from one task to the next and see what happened.
No one spoke to me as I rode through the castle gate. As I rode through the courtyard, however, I got quite a few suspiscious looks -- and some people turned to whisper to their companions as I passed.
What's the deal with these people? I wondered. Why do they keep looking at me like I did something wrong? I started to confront someone about it (it was just a dream, so what did it matter?), but decided against it.
I dismounted and led the Rapidash beneath a stone archway. I wasn't sure what to do with him. There was a metal ring embedded in the mortar along one of the walls and I used that as a makeshift hitching post, looping the reins through it and tying them. I patted the Rapidash's neck. "I want to keep you close by in case I need to take off again. I have no idea what's going on, but I've got a funny feeling I'm not too popular around here."
It was growing dark and torches were being lit and placed along the castle walls. A boy and a girl came toward me from the shadows. I recognized them immediately: Brock and Misty.
Brock wore a brown tunic and pants and Misty a gown of aquamarine. I arched an eyebrow as they approached me. They'd never been a bother to me in waking life. And though I deeply resented the way they blindly followed Ash and had hassled and abused Jessie, James and Meowth in the past, I knew they had recently made a sort of peace with my three friends. I decided to be civil and see what happened.
"Gary," Brock greeted me.
"Where have you been?" Misty wanted to know.
I was intentionally vague. "In the forest." I glanced over my shoulder at the people milling about the courtyard, then back to Brock and Misty. "Do either of you have any idea why everyone here keeps looking at me like I'm some sort of criminal?"
Misty frowned. "You know why, Gary. It's because of all the rumors that you've been fraternizing with Team Rocket."
I raised an eyebrow. "You're kidding me, right? Why would these people care if I hang around with Team Rocket?"
Misty put a finger to her lips. "Keep your voice down! You risk your life talking that way!"
I was dumbfounded. How could hanging around with Jessie, James and Meowth endanger my life?
"I know these months have been hard on you," Brock said sympathetically. "It can't have been easy being seperated from your family. But if they are able to return, they'll look for you here in the castle. That's why you should stay here."
His words shook me. I was seperated from my family? They might look for me here in the castle? At least that explained the castle's importance. But I didn't like the implications that Jessie, James and Meowth put my life or my ability to be with my family in danger. I didn't like it one bit.
I suddenly decided the best thing to do would be to hop back on Rapidash and get out of the castle. I could go back to Jessie and James and Meowth, and maybe go look for my family. It was only a dream, so what did it matter anyw--
"Gary!! What are you doing here?!"
I flinched at the unwelcome voice. I turned. "Ash," I said. "So you're here, too. I guess this isn't a dream -- it's a nightmare."
Ash was wearing a filthy tunic of an indeterminate color. He looked like he'd been rolling in mud. Or maybe shit, I thought, as I caught a whiff of him. He scowled. "What are you talking about?"
There was no point in trying to explain it to him. "Nothing," I said. "I was just leaving."
But Ash wasn't about to let me get away without hassling me further. "You've been hanging around with Team Rocket!" he accused.
Brock sighed. "Calm down, Ash."
Ash ignored Brock and glared at me. "Team Rocket are evil and stupid. And you are, too!"
I'd had enough. "Ash, could you possibly be a bigger asshole?"
Ash's jaw dropped. I heard Misty gasp. "You can't talk to me like that!" Ash whined.
"I just did."
Ash wagged his finger at me. "I know you're involved with Team Rocket! I'm gonna find out about it and I'm gonna make you pay!"
I rolled my eyes. I could have cared less about his threats. I shoved him away from me and he staggered back a few steps. "Get out of my way, loser," I growled. I untied Rapidash's reins and began to lead him away.
"Get back here, Gary!!" Ash called after me.
I woke up.
I sat up and ran a hand through my hair. What a weird dream! I need to write this one down!
Careful not to wake Meowth, who was sleeping in the other bed, I got up. I fumbled in the dark for a bit until I found my backpack, then made my way to the safe-house's main room. I switched on the light and took out my journal. I got comfortable on the couch and started jotting down the details of the dream. Ever since I was a child, I'd had vivid dreams -- though recently they'd become even more vivid.
I paused and reread what I'd written. What did it mean? I knew some dreams meant nothing -- they were just random images. But other dreams meant something. Some dreams were loaded with symbols and messages. Some dreams were important.
I guess the fantasy elements came from my interests, I considered. And I supposed the parts with Ash came from the fact I did on occasion wonder what Ash would do if he found out about my friendship with Jessie and James and Meowth.
"He'd throw a shit-fit, that's what he'd do," I muttered to myself.
And the part about being seperated from my family?
I hadn't yet told my parents about Jessie, James and Meowth being Rockets. May knew all about it, but not Mom and Dad. I hated keeping things from them, but I didn't want to worry them unnecessarily.
Mom and Dad liked Jessie and James and Meowth and I knew they'd accept everything about them if they knew the truth.
Maybe the dream meant it was time for me to tell my parents the whole story.
"Gary? Can you hand me that backpack beside you?"
I glanced up at James. "Sure," I said as I lifted the backpack by the strap and handed it to him. It was the next morning, and we were getting ready to leave the safe-house and head to Exeter. James and I were packing the jeep -- though I was still a bit distracted by the previous night's dream. My mind kept wandering.
James looked up from rearranging things in the back of the jeep. "Everything okay, Gary? You seem a little preoccupied."
I ran a hand through my spiky hair. "I am. I had a really unusual dream last night and I keep thinking about it."
"Want to tell me about it?"
I did. As I told James about the dream, Jessie and Meowth joined us. "I think the dream was trying to tell me something," I said as I finished my story. "I've been trying to figure out what it means."
"That's very wise," James said. "Especially since the dream has lingered so in your mind. I've had many dreams lately that have offered me important guidance."
I knew that was true. I leaned back against the jeep. "The dream did make me come to one decision." I paused for a moment. "I think it's time I told my parents about you guys being in Team Rocket."
I watched my friends' faces to see their reaction. "I...I don't like keeping things from them, so I want them to know the whole story. If it's okay with you three, that is."
James put his hand on my shoulder. "It's fine with us if that's what you want to do. We'll support whatever decision you make."
"Mom and Dad have already met you and like you," I reassured my friends. "And they know how you're always watching out for me. I know they'll feel the same way after I tell them everything."
James smiled. "You've always wanted to be as open as you could about your friendship with us. I remember when we told you that you could pretend you didn't know us if the situation warranted. You didn't like the idea at all."
"I'm proud to be friends with you guys," I said. I looked down at my boots. "I kinda wish I'd told Mom and Dad everything from the start. I...I hope they're not disappointed in me for keeping this from them."
Jessie lifted my chin. "Now, you know better than that, Gary." She smiled. "I'll bet your mom and dad have never once been disappointed in you in your whole life."
I smiled, too. "You're right," I said softly.
Jessie continued. "I like your parents. They're kind and understanding and tolerant and I'm happy they raised their son to be the same way."
I felt tears stinging the corners of my eyes. "Thanks, Jessie."
Jessie looked a little misty-eyed, too. "Hey," she said, switching to a less serious subject. "How about those winged horses in your dream? Were they cool or what?"
I wiped my eyes. "Yeah! I wish you all could have really seen them. They were beautiful."
"I'd love to see a real Pegasus," Jessie said.
"They reminded me of the winged horse in The Magician's Nephew," James added.
I turned to him. "Me, too! That's one of my favorite scenes in The Chronicles of Narnia: when Aslan turns the cabby's horse, Strawberry, into the winged horse, Fledge." My smile grew. "When Aslan tells him, Be winged. Be the father of all flying horses, it always gives me chills 'cause it's such a stirring moment."
"It certainly is!" said James.
"Too bad Ash had ta show up in da dream," Meowth observed. "Looks like he's as big a nuisance in dreams as in real life."
I sighed. "He sure is. I guess that part of my dream came from the knowledge he would blow a fuse if he knew we were all friends."
"Hopefully he'll never have to know," James said.
"Probably not," I said. "I don't run into him nearly as much as I used to." I shrugged. "And if he does find out and has a problem with it, he can kiss my ass." I looked to my three friends. "My loyalties lie with you guys -- not with Ash."
To Be Continued...
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