"Okay, Blaze," I said as I adjusted my Arcanine's collar. "How's that?"
Meowth looked from the fire-dog to me. "He says it feels A-okay ta him!"
I took a step back and scrutinized the collar. "I'm not sure... Maybe I should loosen it up a bit..."
Meowth chuckled. "Blaze says ta quit frettin'!"
I smiled down at the cat. "I can't help it." I ran my hand between the collar and Blaze's fur to make sure it wasn't too tight. "I don't want Blaze to be uncomfortable or stressed." Once I was satisfied with the fit of the collar, I reached up to scratch Blaze beneath the chin.
"Arc," he barked softly, then licked my hand.
I knew what he was saying: he was thanking me. I ran my hand through the thick ruff of fur at his throat. "You're welcome."
After arriving in Exeter, we'd checked into the small lodge where we were renting two adjoining rooms. When I'd been back in Pallet Town I'd registered for the race online -- and I'd also made reservations in town so we'd have a place to stay. It was a good thing I had, because all the motels, hotels and inns in town were full! After we'd left our things in our rooms, we'd gone into town to get something to eat and buy a new, larger collar for Blaze.
I took the leash and reel and hooked it to Blaze's collar. "The guy at the race equipment shop said they've been holding this event every year for almost one hundred years."
"Wow," said Meowth. "Dat's a long time."
I tested the leash and collar to make sure the fastenings were secure. "In 1900 a huge blizzard hit the Exeter Valley. The snow was over five feet deep in some places. And at the same time, a lot of people on the northern end of the valley got sick. A shipment of medicine came in by train, but there was a big problem. The train station was on the southern end of the valley. There didn't seem to be a way to get the medicine through to the north end."
I scratched Blaze behind the ears. "But a man with a dogsled pulled by a Growlithe and two Arcanines managed to make it through. He saved a lot of people."
"So the event is held to commemorate that life-saving run," James commented.
I nodded. "Yeah. Luckily for the people in Exeter there's never been another blizzard like that. In fact, when the event is held there's hardly any snow at all! So instead of dogsleds, the racers use racing boards. They hold smaller races for a few days, then the big race is on December 1st."
Meowth unfolded the map of the course for the big race that the man at the equipment shop had given me. "Da big race is from the southern end of da valley ta da northern end and back again."
I winked at him. "Dat's right!"
Meowth laughed. "Dat's my line!" He looked at the map. "Whoa. Dis race looks pretty tricky. Parts of da course look like somethin' from a Road Runner cartoon!"
Jessie took the map from him and looked at it. "He's right. This race route does look tough. You'll need to be very careful, Gary."
"Don't worry," I assured her. "Blaze and I can handle it." I got up on my racing board and slid my boot under the leather strap to steady myself. I took the leash and reel in my right hand. "Ready for a trial run, Blaze?"
Blaze wagged his fluffy tail. "Arc!" he barked loudly. "Arc, Arc!"
"Be careful," Jessie cautioned.
"Yeah!" Meowth agreed. "No showin' off till ya get da hang of it!"
James put his arm around Jessie's shoulders and looked down at Meowth. "Don't worry, you two. He'll be fine."
I gave them the thumbs-up with my left hand. Then, to my Arcanine, "Okay, Blaze! Let's go!"
"Wow!" Meowth exclaimed. "Dere's a lot of people plannin' ta enter da races!"
He was right. As I looked below us, I could see the rolling hills and winding roads of Exeter were dotted with trainers and pokemon -- and all of them seemed to be practicing for the races!
It was Thursday. We'd arrived in Exeter the previous day and I'd spent nearly all afternoon practicing. It had taken me a while to get the hang of using the racing board again. I'd come close to falling off a couple of times, but I had good balance and riding the board was a bit like surfing on my Gyarados.We'd watched a couple of the smaller races (I didn't feel quite confident enough to enter one yet), then we'd had dinner in Exeter and had gone back to the lodge. I hadn't had any more unusual dreams during the night. I'd been so exhausted from practicing that I'd fallen asleep as soon as I'd laid down -- I'd probably been too tired to dream!
We'd promised Meowth we'd devote Thursday morning to hot-air ballooning -- and that's just what we were doing!
I watched the pokemon and their trainers below us. "There's gonna be a lot of competition. Blaze is really fast, but I don't know if we'll win. I talked to some of the other racers yesterday and some of them have been training for months."
"Well, irregardless, you'll have fun," James offered.
"That's right," I said. "Blaze has been having a blast." I looked at the landscape passing beneath the Meowth balloon: the small town nestled in its sheltering valley, the mountains in the distance. Even if I didn't win any of the races I was glad I had come here.
Meowth's thoughts soon turned to lunch, so we landed the balloon and disassembled it. After lunch at a buffet-style restaurant in town, we went to one of Exeter's many parks. Jessie and James spread a blanket for us to sit on. I let Blaze out of his poke ball to get some exercise on his own, leaping and running over the grass.
At length, I noticed a man with brown hair and a mustache. When he saw that I was looking at him, he smiled. "Is that your Arcanine?"
I nodded. "Yes, sir."
"I assume you're here for the races."
"Yes, I am."
"The name's Carl Shelby," the man said, and I stood to shake the hand he extended.
"I'm Gary Oak," I said. "And these are my friends, James Woodson, Jessie Parker and Meowth." Blaze noticed we had company and trotted up to us. I scratched behind his ears. "And this is Blaze."
"Pleased to meet you all," Mr. Shelby said. "You said your last name's Oak. Are you related to Professor Samuel Oak of Pallet Town?"
I smiled. "He's my grandfather."
"Small world," Mr. Shelby said. "Though I haven't seen Sam for years."
Meowth was studying the map again. "Yer place marks da northern end of da route for Saturday's big race, right?"
Mr. Shelby looked down at the cat. "Correct. My wife and I run a pokemon incubation center up there."
"A pokemon incubation center?" Meowth asked.
Mr. Shelby explained. "Sometimes baby pokemon are orphaned, or their mothers can't take care of them for some reason or other. My wife and I take care of them until they're old enough and strong enough to be given to trainers or fend for themselves."
"Now I remember Grandpa telling me about your work," I said. "You even have a larger sort of modified poke ball you keep the baby pokemon in."
Mr. Shelby nodded. "They look a bit like eggs."
"And dontcha give all da racers some sort of egg when dey get ta yer place?" Meowth asked.
"Correct again," Mr. Shelby said. "It's sort of a relay race so we give them an egg -- an empty one, of course -- to take back to the southern end of the valley to prove they've completed the course."
We visited with Mr. Shelby a while longer, then he had to be on his way. After he was gone, Meowth snickered.
"What's so funny?" Jessie asked.
Meowth's eyes sparkled with merriment. "I was just thinkin' dat if Ash saw dem egg poke ball thingies he'd probably think they really were eggs!"
I laughed. "You've got a point. He saw Misty's Togepi hatch from an egg, so no doubt he now thinks all pokemon hatch from eggs!"
Jessie smirked. "Right. Ponyta and Rhyhorn and Phanpy come from eggs. I can picture Ash thinking that."
James sighed. "Sadly, his stupidity knows no bounds."
"Hey!" Meowth began. "I seen an elephant hatch from an egg. Didn't youse guys ever see dat Horton Hatches the Egg cartoon?"
We all laughed. James shook his head. "Very funny, Meowth."
I put down my pen and closed my journal. I leaned back, stretching the kinks out of my back and legs. I glanced over at James, who was drawing something in his sketchbook. Looks like he's busy being creative, too.
After meeting Mr. Shelby, I'd spent most of the rest of the day practicing. Jessie, James, Meowth and I had then had dinner at a Japanese restaurant then had watched a few more of the smaller evening races. After that, we'd returned to the lodge. The larger of the two rooms (where Jessie and James slept) had a small, cozy living area with a couch, two chairs and a TV, so that was where we spent most of our time in the evenings until we went to bed.
Now Jessie was taking a shower and Meowth was taking a nap in the smaller bedroom he and I shared. I'd done some writing while James sketched.
He noticed me looking at him. "Looks like you enjoy drawing as much as I enjoy writing," I said.
James smiled. "I was just thinking the same thing." He set down his pencil, closed the book and handed it to me. "Care to take a look?"
"Really?" I asked.
"Of course. I'd love to get your opinion."
I took the sketchbook from him and opened it. As I turned the pages, I was amazed at what I saw. Some of the pictures were done in pen and ink, some in pencil, some in colored pencil.
"I've been drawing some of the places Jessie, Meowth and I have been during the last few months, some of the things we've seen," James explained.
I continued to turn pages. There was a picture of Jessie riding a Rapidash. James had completely captured her passionate intensity, making her look like a warrior goddess. There was a picture of Meowth sitting by the campfire. James had perfectly conveyed the sparkle in the cat's eyes and the way the shadows from the flames played across his fur. There was a picture of me commanding Umbreon during my gym battle with Salina in the Whirl Islands. Umbreon was depicted in mid-leap, about to unleash his Zap Cannon attack. Somehow James had rendered the barely-contained electricity rippling through Umbreon's ebon-black fur.
"Your artwork is beautiful, James," I said with awe. "You're a true artist."
James looked pleased. "Thank you, Gary."
"I mean it," I said. "When a lot of people draw pictures they're just that...pictures. But your work looks somehow...alive." I turned back to the picture of Jessie riding the Rapidash. "Like this one of Jessie. You can tell what kind of person she is by looking at the picture. You can tell by the way she's sitting and the look in her eyes that she's confident. But look at the way she's holding the reins -- relaxed, not yanking on them. You can tell from that she's gentle, too." I turned to a picture of Meowth looking up at the moon. "And this one of Meowth. You get a sense of the loneliness he feels sometimes...and the way he longs for something better."
Now James's smile had grown even wider. "Thank you for those keen observations. I'm flattered you noticed so much detail about my work."
I closed the sketchbook and returned it to him. "You're a fantastic artist." I sighed. "I just thought about Grandpa's assistant. He's always going on and on about how he's a great artist. But his stuff is total crap compared to yours."
James chuckled. "Ah, yes. The infamous Tracey Sketchit."
I snorted. "More like Tracey Can't-Sketch-Worth-A-Shit."
James laughed heartily at that.
"Meowth told me about how he sicced his Scyther on you three in the Orange Islands," I said. "That was horrid." I shook my head sadly. "I didn't like him before, but after that..."
"And Jessie and Meowth and I wanted to kick his ass when we heard how he hid in his room and wouldn't help your grandpa when Bayleef went on her rampage," James said.
I clenched my right hand into a fist at the memory. "As soon as that fatass Tracey finally came out of his room, I grabbed him and slammed him against the wall and gave him hell. He was ready to piss his pants by the time I got through with him."
"Good for you," James said.
I scowled. "I didn't like Tracey the first time I met him. I tried to be civil to him since he was gonna stay with Grandpa -- but it was a losing battle. One of the first things he ever said to me was, You're the one with all those cheerleaders, right? So how many of them did you, you know...do?"
James buried his face in his hands. "Holy shit."
"My thoughts exactly," I said. "And he was pretty damned snotty with me from the start. I got the impression Ash had told him I was an asshole. Though that didn't stop him from showing me some of his...artwork."
"I shudder to think," said James.
"Yeah. He talks about being a pokemon watcher and drawing pokemon -- but most of his drawings I've seen were of scantily clad women." I laughed. "Don't get me wrong. I like beautiful women as much as the next guy and I don't have a problem with tastefully done nudity in art -- but Tracey's stuff is anything but tasteful!"
James laughed again, too. "I can imagine."
I became serious again. "But my real problem with him isn't his snotty attitude or the dirty pictures. It's the way he takes advantage of Grandpa. Grandpa was nice enough to let Tracey stay with him after he went on and on about wanting to be a pokemon researcher and study pokemon. But all Tracey does is goof off, eat junk food and watch TV. Grandpa has a hell of a time getting him to do any real work. Plus, Tracey is always bothering May. She tells him to piss off and I've given him hell about it more than once, but he just ignores us." I furrowed my brow. "But after I move back home next spring I'm gonna have a long talk with Grandpa about Tracey. I want him out of there. Besides, I don't want him hassling you and Jessie and Meowth when you come to visit me."
I rubbed my hands together. "Hey. I don't wanna spend any more time talking about stupid Tracey." I looked once again at James's sketchbook. "I just had an idea. When I'm older and doing my pokemon research and writing books and articles for the scientific journals, I'm gonna need someone to illustrate my work. Maybe you could do that...if you're interested, that is."
"Sure," I told James. "You draw pokemon better than anyone I know!"
"Thank you for the offer, Gary," James said. "I'll keep that in mind."
"Hey, guys. How's it going?"
I turned to see Jessie had finished her shower. She was dressed in a green sweatshirt and jeans and was drying her long, crimson hair with a towel.
"I was showing Gary some of my artwork, angel," James said.
"It's wonderful!" I praised.
Jessie sat down beside James on the couch and cuddled against him. "I agree!"
The door to the other bedroom opened and Meowth appeared. He rubbed his eyes with his paws. "Got hungry and woke up."
"The lodge has room service," James suggested.
That sounded good to all of us (especially Meowth), so we ordered a sampling of various appetizers and snacks the lodge's kitchen offered. After our snack, we watched TV for a bit, then went to bed. I planned to enter a couple of the smaller races the next day, so I wanted to get plenty of rest.
My eyes snapped open. What the hell was that?
My eyesight adjusted to the darkness as the last, faint echoes of the sound I'd heard died away. I looked around the darkened room, letting my pounding heart slow to a normal rate. Something's different, I thought. Though I was lying in bed, I was certain I wasn't in my room in Exeter.
I think...I think I'm dreaming again.
The crashing sound came again, and this time I knew what it was: thunder. Now I know I'm dreaming. The weather in Exeter was clear -- and it's supposed to be clear all through this weekend.
I rolled over onto my right side. I could see an open doorway and a hall beyond it; I could hear footsteps. Jessie appeared in the doorway, a lit candle and candleholder in her left hand.
"Jessie?" I asked softly.
Jessie entered the room. She was wearing the same black tunic and pants from the other dream. She looked down at me. Was it my imagination, or was there concern in her eyes?
"How do you feel?" she asked.
"I feel okay."
Jessie set the candle down on a small table by the bed. She sat down on the bed beside me and reached to brush back my hair. "You're very brave, Gary, but if you're in pain, it's okay to say so."
I gave her a confused look. Why would she think I was in pain? I lifted my right hand to rub my brow...and stopped.
My right hand was bandaged from the palm to about three inches past my wrist. I lifted my left hand. It, too, was bandaged, from the palm nearly to my elbow. "W-what happened to me?" I gasped.
Jessie furrowed her brow. "You don't remember?"
I shook my head. "No." I continued to stare at my hands. No wonder she asked if I was in pain! The dream might have been realistic, but at least the pain wasn't! The thunder rolled again and I flinched in spite of myself.
"It's just a storm," Jessie soothed. "It's a bad one, but don't worry. We're on high ground here."
I heard Meowth's voice. "Gary's awake?" Jessie nodded and the cat hopped from the floor to the bed. He sat down near my feet.
I heard more footsteps and James joined us. He came to the side of the bed and put a hand on Jessie's shoulder. "How's he doing?"
Jessie turned and covered James's hand with her own. "He says he's not in any pain...but he doesn't remember how he got hurt."
"I suppose that isn't surprising, all things considered," James said.
"What happened to me?" I asked again. "Please tell me."
James took a breath. "A few days ago, Ash and some of the other people at the castle confronted you about your involvement with us. They wanted you to tell them where we could be found. You refused, of course." His emerald eyes were sad. "They decided to torture you to see if that would make you talk. They..." He paused, his voice hoarse. "They burned you with hot brands."
I felt myself go cold. I looked down at my hands. Once again, I was glad the dream wasn't real enough for me to feel any actual pain. If I really was burned like that, I'd probably be in agony! "Oh my god," I whispered.
Jessie took up the story. "You still wouldn't talk, so the bastards finally left you alone. You wandered off to find us, but got disoriented from the pain. James and I found you by the stream and brought you here. You managed to tell us what happened, but then you became delerious and I guess that made you forget."
"We've been taking care of you ever since," James said. "I've been performing healing spells, so don't worry. You're going to be fine. You're healing very well."
It was a lot to absorb. I was tortured? The dream was getting too dark. I wished I'd wake up.
I heard sobbing and looked up. Meowth was crying, tears streaming from his midnight blue eyes.
"Aw, hey, Meowth -- don't worry," I said. "I'm gonna be okay!"
"I...I know," the cat managed. "But..."
"C'mere," I said and Meowth came to me. I pulled him into my lap and hugged him. "Please don't cry."
"I'm sorry ya got hurt, Gary," Meowth said. "Dey hurt ya 'cause you're friends with us."
I stroked Meowth's fur. "It's not your fault. It's the fault of Ash and those assholes at the castle. And I don't care what they do -- I'd never betray you guys."
"We know you wouldn't," Jessie said gently. "But what they did to you makes us sick."
We sat in silence for a while, then James spoke. "I need to prepare some more medicine for Gary. I don't want the pain getting worse."
I started to protest that I wasn't in any pain, but decided to keep silent. As James left the room, I turned to Jessie. "Why do those people in the castle care whether or not I'm friends with you and James and Meowth?"
"Because they think we're evil," Jessie explained. She noticed Meowth had fallen asleep in my arms and softened the tone of her voice. "They'd like nothing better than to find us and hurt us...or worse." She fixed me with her sapphire eyes. "They don't see us like you do, Gary."
James returned to the room carrying a tin cup. Jessie took the sleeping Meowth from my arms and James handed the cup to me. I took a sip. It tasted like bittersweet chocolate.
This dream is getting weirder by the second, I thought as I finished the cup's contents. I get tortured 'cause I'm friends with Jessie, James and Meowth, the medicine tastes like chocolate... I feel a bit like Alice when she fell down the rabbit hole.
Jessie stood so James could take her place seated beside me. "I'm going to perform another healing spell," he said. "And you need to get some more sleep." I lay back. James touched first my right hand, then the left, then he started chanting. It wasn't any language I'd ever heard before, but it soothed me.
James can perform magic in real life. And in this dream, he's some kind of mage, I think...
James touched my forehead and everything faded into blackness...
I opened my eyes. It was daylight. But I wasn't in my room in Exeter.
I'm still dreaming.
I wondered how much time had gone by since the last dream. My hands were still bandaged, but that really didn't give me a clue.
I drew aside the blue-gray blanket that covered me and got out of bed. The room and its furnishings were quite primitive, and I could see the cottage was made of rough-hewn stone.
I left the bedroom and went to the cottage's main room. I wondered where Jessie, James and Meowth were. I noticed an open doorway that led outside. I could see the sun out there was bright and a gentle breeze was blowing. My black cloak was hanging on a hook by the door -- I put it on and stepped outside.
The colors -- the bright blue sky, the green grass -- were so bright they nearly hurt my eyes. But the scene was so beautiful I didn't mind. I noticed the stone cottage was surrounded by an interlacing of small creeks and streams, many of them the result of the storm, no doubt. The water sparkled and gleamed as it flowed through the grass and over the rocks. I had a sudden, childlike urge to run and splash in those creeks.
I saw Jessie and James and Meowth sitting by one of the larger streams. They turned and saw me, too. They stood and crossed the ground to me.
Meowth jumped up onto my shoulder. "Feelin' better?"
"I feel fine," I said. I looked around at the scenery again. I couldn't take my eyes off it. "It's so beautiful here."
Jessie smiled. "We're glad you feel well enough to enjoy it with us."
"I can take your bandages off today," James said.
I nodded. "Okay," I said, though in truth I was hesitant. Would I be scarred?
I followed Jessie and James to the stream they'd been sitting by when I'd found them. Meowth hopped off my shoulder. We sat down on the grass and James began to undo the bandages on my right hand.
Jessie gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Everything's going to be okay. Don't worry."
I wanted to believe her, but as I felt the bandages fall away, I turned my head and closed my eyes.
"Go ahead and look, Gary," Jessie encouraged. "I think you'll like what you see."
"Open yer eyes!" said Meowth.
I did. I looked at my hand.
It looked...the same as it always had. There were no scars...nothing. The skin was unmarked, no trace whatsoever that I'd been burned.
I looked at James with wonder. "Did...your magic do this?"
James began to take the bandages off my left hand. "They wanted to hurt you because of your friendship with us," he explained. "In a sense, they wanted to punish you for being our friend. And I couldn't let them get away with that."
He removed the final bandages from my left hand. I lifted my hand. Like the right, it was unmarked.
"If you'd been scarred, you would have always been reminded of the price you had to pay for our friendship," Jessie said. "But our friendship doesn't come at a price. It's freely given, out of love."
I rubbed my hands.
"Our friendship is yours," James said. "No strings attatched, no price to pay. It's always been yours."
"And it always will be, right?" I asked.
Jessie, James and Meowth nodded in unison.
I put my pen down and looked at what I'd just written.
Another freaky dream. I wish I knew what it meant.
As soon as I'd awakened at daylight, I'd grabbed my journal and had begun writing. Meowth had been asleep, but now I noticed him stirring. "Awake already?" he asked when he opened his eyes.
"Yeah. Just writing some stuff in my journal."
Meowth yawned and stretched and sat up. "Looks like we chose a good birthday present for ya! You've really been gettin' a lotta use out of it!"
"I sure have," I told the cat. "I'd forgotten how much I missed writing till I took it up again."
Meowth hopped out of bed. "I'm lookin' forward to seein' you and Blaze race today."
I picked up my backpack and put away my journal. "Yeah. Those small races should be fun -- and good practice for Saturday's big race."
I took a shower and dressed. When I'd finished, Meowth and I could hear Jessie and James moving around in their room. Meowth rapped on the door that divided the rooms. "Youse two decent in dere?"
Jessie opened the door. "Yes, Meowth, we're decent." She smiled at me. "Good morning, Gary."
"Good morning, Jess and Jim!" Meowth chimed in. Jessie and James both said good morning to him.
After I'd greeted James as well, I spoke again. "I had another odd dream last night. Sort of a continuation of the last one."
"Want to tell us about it?" James asked.
I did. I told my friends about the dream.
"Parts of it were so dark," Jessie said once I'd finished (she'd begun to frown when I'd told about the part where I was hurt). "That part about you being tortured..." She shuddered. "That frightens me."
"Yeah," Meowth agreed. "At least James could heal ya, but still..."
James rubbed his chin. "I have to admit some of the images are disturbing."
I tried to lighten the mood a bit. "Maybe I've just been reading too many fantasy novels."
"Don't take this too lightly," James said. "You know dreams can contain important messages. Messages we need to pay close attention to. It was a dream that prompted Jessie and Meowth and me to avoid Ash in the Whirl Islands and stop following him."
"And a dream guided us ta help dose old folks and dere families in Transit Town," Meowth added.
I knew that was true. "Like the dreams I have about my grandma Oak. Those are always important." I considered this. "But with those dreams I can immediately find out what's going on because she's really with me. But in these dreams everything is cloaked in symbols."
I rubbed my temple. "The dreams have already made me decide to confide in Mom and Dad about your situation with Team Rocket. But it seems like there's something else they're trying to tell me, too."
Meowth had an idea. "Ash seems ta be da one instigatin' da trouble in Gary's dreams." He looked up at me. "Maybe da dreams are a warnin' about Ash."
"That could be," Jessie said. "We know how dangerous Ash is. I nearly died in the Arbor Forest because of him. And he's never hesitated to try to use lethal force against us."
"And he let his stupid Bayleef attack Grandpa," I said. I gritted my teeth at the memory. "And he claims to like Grandpa."
Meowth turned his eyes to Jessie and James. "And he might hurt Gary if he knew he was friends with us. Just like in da dream."
Jessie's expression became concerned. "You should be careful the next time you encounter Ash," she told me.
"I agree," said James. "We all know he's becoming more unstable lately." He put his hand on my shoulder. "One of the reasons I've wanted to avoid Ash is so he can't hurt the people I care about. And that most definitely includes you."
"I'll be careful," I assured my friends. "But I doubt I'll see Ash till the Johto finals."
Jessie bit her lip. "I hope you're right."
Meowth agreed. "Yeah. Dat little shit turns up at da damnedest times."
"That's true," I said. "But I will be careful. I promise."
After a quick breakfast of tea and scones at a small cafe, I'd entered a couple of the morning races. I'd even won one of them!
The prizes for the smaller races were provided by local and nearby businesses. My prize was a gift certificate for dinner for four at the Lakeside Grill, a restaurant in a town called Lake Woodruff.
"Lake Woodruff's a resort town about twenty miles from Exeter," James explained after checking the guidebook. "The lake's popular for swimming and boating and fishing in the summer."
"Cool," I said. "We can spend a day or two there after the big race and I can take you three out to dinner!"
Meowth rubbed his paws together. "Dat sounds good ta Me-owth!"
I wanted to get some more practice in in anticipation of Saturday's big race. I didn't expect Jessie, James and Meowth to sit around and watch me the whole time, so I sent them shopping while Blaze and I practiced. They agreed to meet me in Exeter's central park around 1:30 with some food so we could have a late lunch together.
I had to admit Blaze and I were really getting the hang of racing. I'd had Blaze since I was ten, so we were very "in tune" with each other. I barely had to give him specific commands as we raced, and with just the slightest movement of my wrist to the left or right, I could guide him in the direction we needed to go.
As we sped over the rolling hills, I noticed a group of kids ahead of us. As we passed them, I recognized them immediately.
Brock and Misty...and Ash! What the hell are THEY doing here?!
I nearly kept going at the sound of Ash's grating voice, but instead I brought Blaze to a halt.
"Hey, Gary!" Ash called again as he and his two friends ran up to me. He was smiling and I had no idea why he was acting so friendly. The last confrontation I'd had with him about how his Bayleef had attacked Grandpa had obviously slipped out of his seive-like brain. James's warning to be careful the next time I encountered Ash flashed through my mind. Hopefully I could get this little run-in over with and send Ash on his way.
"How have you been?" Misty asked.
"Fine, thanks," I told her.
"Your Arcanine looks great!" Brock said.
I'd never had any problems with Brock, so I knew the compliment was sincere. "Thanks, Brock."
Ash snapped a poke ball off his belt and struck a dorky pose. "Let's have a battle!"
I glared at him. Like I'd deign to battle you after all the shit you've been pulling lately! I felt like saying that aloud, but decided against it. If I didn't get confrontational, maybe Ash would get a clue and leave me alone.
"I'm sorry, Ash," I said. "I can't. I can't risk my Arcanine getting hurt before the race."
Ash gave me a blank look. "What race?"
I realized I'd probably already said too much. Knowing Ash's super-competitive nature, if he found out about my involvement in the race, he'd want to race, too.
"I can't talk right now," I said quickly. "I'm really busy." I turned to Brock and Misty. "I'll see you guys around." Then, to Blaze: "Okay, Blaze! Let's go!"
I didn't look back, but as Blaze and I made our exit, I could hear Ash calling after me.
With Blaze secured, I snapped the poke ball back onto my belt. I sighed. We'd had a good practice, though I'd felt a little "off." I hated to admit it, but the encounter with Ash had unnerved me.
I put my hands in my pockets as I walked to the park where I planned to meet Jessie, James and Meowth. Of all the stupid luck. What's Ash doing in Exeter anyway? Why'd he have to show up here? I thought about the dreams I'd been having. What if they really were warnings? Maybe Jessie, James, Meowth and I should forget about the big race and leave Exeter. I certainly didn't want to run the risk of Ash seeing my friends, spazzing out and trying to blast them off.
"Hey, Gary! Over here!"
I turned at the sound of Meowth's voice. I'd been so preoccupied I hadn't realized I'd already made it to the park. Jessie, James and Meowth were sitting on a blanket; Meowth waved to me.
I sat down with them. "Hey, guys."
"How was practice?" Jessie asked.
"It went well," I said. "Blaze and I should be ready for the big race tomorrow."
"Cool!" cheered Meowth. Then, he eyed the paper bags sitting beside James. "Okay, Jimmy-boy! Let's break out da food!"
James laughed softly as he opened the paper bags. "We've got soup and ham and cheese sandwiches. And there are apples for dessert." He smiled at Jessie. "Now, if you'll assist me, my dear Jessie, we'll get this food distributed and feed this poor, starving Meowth."
"I'd be delighted to help," Jessie said.
Meowth rubbed his paws together in anticipation. "Dis is gonna be good!"
James handed Jessie paper napkins and plastic soup spoons which Jessie gave to each of us. He then handed each of us a sandwich.
I unwrapped my sandwich from the paper wrapping. "Sourdough bread," I observed. "This looks great."
"Yeah!" Meowth enthusiastically agreed.
"Glad you approve," said James as he began passing out the cups of soup. "There's chicken vegetable for our favorite cat..."
"And tomato, for Pallet Town's top trainer..."
I took the cup from him. "Thanks, James."
"And miso for the most beautiful woman in the world..."
Jessie's eyes sparkled as she leaned forward to kiss James on the cheek. "Thank you, sweetie. For the compliment and the soup."
James's smiled. "And minestrone for me..."
"The most handsome man in the world," Jessie finished for him.
Meowth giggled. "Youse two are just too much!"
I took the lid off my cup of soup. I needed to tell Jessie, James and Meowth that I'd seen Ash and Brock and Misty...
"Gary?" Jessie said. "Here's your soda."
"Sorry," I said as I took the can of Dr. Pepper from her. "I was a little lost in thought there."
I sighed. "There's something I need to tell you. I saw Ash and Brock and Misty here in Exeter earlier."
Jessie, James and Meowth exchanged looks. "So did we," James said.
"Oh, no," I muttered. I scowled. "Ash didn't hassle you guys, did he?"
Jessie shook her head. "We saw him and his friends but they didn't see us."
James explained. "After we'd ordered this take-out food in the restaurant, we sat at one of the booths to wait till it was ready. Ash and his friends came in and sat at the counter."
I snorted. "And I bet Ash started stuffing his face like a pig."
"Actually, he said he couldn't eat," Jessie said.
"That's a switch," I commented. "What was his problem?"
Meowth blew on his soup to cool it. "He kept talkin' about you."
I knew where this was going. "When I saw him earlier I wouldn't battle him like he wanted and I wouldn't tell him about the race. I guess he's got his underwear in a knot about that."
"Dat wasn't it," said Meowth.
"Now, Meowth," James said mildly. "Gary probably doesn't want to hear about Ash's bullshit during lunch."
"Go ahead and tell me," I said. "I'd like to know what the little dumbass had to say." I took a bite of my sandwich.
Jessie frowned. "He mentioned seeing you and Blaze racing. He kept going on and on about the collar you had on Blaze. He thinks you're abusing him."
I nearly choked on my sandwich. "What?!"
Jessie's frown deepened. "He thought the collar was hurting Blaze. Brock and Misty tried to explain to him that Blaze looked fine to them, but he didn't pay any attention to them." Jessie took a sip of her soup, then went on. "I swear, it was all I could do to keep from getting up out of the booth, going over to the counter, dragging Ash off his stool and ramming my foot up his ass."
Meowth roared with laughter. "Now dat woulda got his attention!"
"Dammit!" I swore. "I can't fucking believe this." I scowled. "It's one thing for Ash to get all pissy when I dis him about being a shitty trainer, but to accuse me of abusing Blaze... That little asshole is completely out of line this time." I looked at my friends. "I'm sorry to get so nasty, but..."
"You have every right to be angry," James said. "You'd never abuse your pokemon, and anyone who would accuse you of such things needs a serious ass-kicking."
"It's always been that way with Ash," I said. "Ever since we were kids he's thought I was a jerk -- and that he needed to beat me at everything. I never really knew what set him off in the first place -- I always tried to avoid him. He seems to resent my very existence."
"Ya know he's jealous of ya," Meowth added as he finished his sandwich. "Yer smarter, a better trainer, better lookin', ya smell better..."
Despite my anger at Ash, I laughed. "I guess you have a point." I finished my sandwich. "After I saw Ash I was hoping he'd leave. I'm sorry you guys had to see him, too."
"Well, brace yerself," Meowth said, "cause dat ain't all. He's enterin' da big race tomorrow, too."
I held up my hand. "Whoa. Wait a minute. I thought he thought racing was some sort of abuse."
Meowth took a sip of his soda. "See, Mr. Shelby was in da restaurant, too. After he heard Ash talkin' about da collar and all he tried ta explain it ta him. And as soon as dat slow-ass brain of Ash's finally processed da information he decided ta enter da race, too."
"What a hypocrite," I said. "When I'm racing, it's abuse. But when Ash decides to race, too, suddenly it's okay." I shook my head in disgust. "It's just like when you guys try to catch wild pokemon, it's stealing. But when Ash or his friends do it, it's fine."
"Too true," James said.
I wiped my apple with my napkin. "I dunno, guys. Maybe we should forget about the big race and leave. I don't want Ash hassling you or accusing you of something."
Jessie turned to James. "What do you think?"
"I say we should stay for da race!" Meowth interjected. "I don't wanna run inta da little shit weasel either, but if we let him control where we go and what we do, he wins!"
"Meowth does have a point," James said.
"I'm not concerned about myself," I said. "Ash is always competing against me. But I don't want him seeing you in the stands and thinking you're here to disrupt the race or steal pokemon."
"Den we fix it so he don't see us!" Meowth said.
"What do you mean?" Jessie asked.
Meowth explained. "Da solution is simple. We'll watch da race from da balloon. Dat way dere's no chance he'll spot us in da stands or da crowds before da race!"
James looked thoughtful. "That's not a bad idea."
"And we'll get an even better view of da race!" Meowth continued. "All da people in da stands have ta watch da race on jumbo-tron. But we'll get a bird's eye view and be able ta follow da route and see da whole race first-hand!"
Meowth's idea sounded pretty good to me, though I still had reservations. "I'll do whatever you three think is best."
"I say we go with Meowth's idea," James said at length. "I'm all for avoiding Ash, but Meowth is right. We can't let him dictate where we can go and what we can do."
So we decided to stay for the race. As I watched my friends finish their lunches, I hoped we'd made the right decision and that Ash wouldn't somehow screw things up yet again.
The wind whipped back my spiky hair. "How are you doing, Blaze?" I called to my Arcanine.
"Arc!" he barked sharply, the sound echoing off the canyon walls.
Blaze was doing great. He'd been running at close to top speed for most of the race, yet he showed no signs of fatigue. There was a sizeable distance between us and nearly all of the rest of the racers.
I glanced briefly over my shoulder. Except for the one racer I want to leave far behind.
Ash and his Bayleef were just a few lengths behind us. I was surprised. Bayleef wasn't a pokemon known for its speed. Ash must be pushing her pretty hard, I thought. Yet I'm the one who abuses his pokemon. Right.
When I'd first seen Ash and Bayleef before the race, I was dubious about their chances. I'd assumed he'd send for one of his faster pokemon, Tauros perhaps. But there he was with Bayleef. Probably forgotten he even has a Tauros by now, I'd told myself. Ash had also been sporting a bandage on his forehead. When I'd had a chance to ask Brock and Misty about it they had explained Ash had fallen while practicing the night before. They were rather surprised Ash hadn't seriously hurt himself, but I wasn't. I doubted there were many things that could crack Ash's thick skull.
I turned my thoughts away from Ash and glanced up, just in time to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Meowth balloon. Throughout the race, Meowth had been keeping the balloon out of sight above the canyons where he and Jessie and James could see the racers -- but it was nearly impossible to see them. Wise move. If Ash sees that balloon, he'll go apeshit.
"Gary! You're not gonna win, so just give up now!"
I winced at the sound of Ash's voice. I yelled back at him. "I don't lose to losers!"
I shouldn't bait him, I told myself. I shouldn't stoop to his level. I needed to heed James's warning about being careful in my encounters with Ash. Goading him into a rage couldn't be a wise move.
Besides, I needed to focus on the race. I scanned the terrain ahead. The road narrowed as it wound through the canyon, becoming more treacherous.
"Look sharp, Blaze!" I called. "Watch for loose rocks and drop-offs!"
I tried not to think about Ash. Focus, I told myself. Win this race and send that brat on his way!
And then, suddenly, everything went wrong.
A violent gust of wind blew through the canyon. I saw Blaze flatten his ears against his head, then I had to throw up my left hand to shield my eyes from the wind and the stinging sand and debris it carried. I bent at the knees and crouched low on the racing board -- it was the only way to keep from falling off.
The wind died down and I looked at Blaze. He had weathered through just fine and hadn't even lost a stride. I glanced up at the sky...
And my heart leapt into my throat.
The powerful down-draft had blown the Meowth balloon into plain sight just above the canyon. I could see Meowth struggling to gain altitude. Oh, god! Don't let Ash see them! Don't...
Bayleef sped up and Ash pulled alongside me. He pointed at the sky. "It's Team Rocket! They're here to steal all the pokemon!"
"Just leave them alone, Ash!" I yelled. "They're not here to cause trouble!"
Ash glared at me. "You don't know them like I do, Gary! Those losers always cause trouble!"
I gritted my teeth. "Just ignore them!"
"No!" Ash cried. "I have to stop them!"
I had to stop Ash before he did something irrational. He was too stupid to reason with, so...
"If you stop and fight them you'll lose this race!" I yelled. "You'll lose to me!"
That gave him pause, and for a few moments I thought maybe I'd successfully distracted him from my friends. Then, he shook his head. "It doesn't matter! I've gotta stop Team Rocket! I've gotta!"
What the hell could I do? I tried to think of a way to get close enough to kick him off his board...but I had to do it without risking Blaze getting hurt.
I never got a chance to form a plan. Ash called out a command: "Bayleef! Go! Head for that ledge!"
I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Bayleef picked up speed. She seemed to know what Ash was thinking, because she suddenly stopped and pivoted, swinging her hindquarters around -- along with Ash and his racing board. Ash let go of the leash and he and his board sailed toward the ledge.
I brought Blaze to a halt and watched. Ash aimed for a wedge of rock near the cliff edge, and, using it as a ramp, launched himself into the air -- heading straight for the Meowth balloon! I looked on in horror as Ash hit the balloon dead-center. The board drove into the balloon, tearing a hole in it. It began to fall.
Fear raged through my mind. I felt frozen in place as I watched the balloon carrying Jessie, James and Meowth continue to fall and disappear below the treeline. Oh god, oh god, don't let them get hurt... Please!
I had to get to them. "Blaze! We have to get to where the balloon went down!"
Blaze barked and we were off.
Tears stung my eyes as we raced toward the crash site. But my fear and anguish were soon joined by complete and utter rage.
You'd better pray, Ash, I thought. You'd better pray to everything that's good and holy that you haven't hurt my friends. Because if you have, I'll make you wish you were never born!
I knew the crash site as soon as I saw it: the Shelby Ranch, the northern-most point in the race route. The Meowth balloon was almost completely deflated and draped across the ranch's main house. I didn't see any signs of movement.
I drew Blaze to a stop. I wiped at the tears that were streaming from my eyes. Please be okay, Jessie and James and Meowth. I can't lose you guys like this -- I can't! I saw someone crawl from beneath the collapsed balloon, but much to my dismay it was Ash.
Ash got to his feet and looked around, confused as usual. I clenched my teeth as I looked at him. The rage I'd felt before came roaring back. If you've hurt my friends I'm gonna come down on you like grim death, you fucking maniac!
I saw more movement from beneath the balloon. I felt relief flooding through me as I saw Jessie climb from under the wreckage, followed by James and Meowth. Without a moment's hesitation, I ran toward them. "Are you all okay?"
Jessie helped James and Meowth to their feet. "We're fine."
Ash whirled on me. "What are you doing, Gary? I told you, they're Team Rocket!"
I was elated my friends were okay -- and now I wanted a piece of Ash. I grabbed him by the vest collar. "You could have killed them, you moron!"
Ash jerked free of my grasp. "You don't understand! I know they're not wearing their uniforms, but they're Team Rocket! You've gotta believe me!"
I could barely believe what I was hearing. He thinks I'm defending Jessie and James and Meowth because I don't realize who they are. He assumes I'm as stupid as he is and that I don't recognize them out of uniform!
I didn't get a chance to respond to Ash's stupidity. Meowth leapt onto Ash, grabbing him by the vest collar with one paw and Fury-Swiping him across the face with the other. Ash staggered back, then lost his footing and fell on his butt. Meowth bounded away from him and pointed an accusing claw. "What da hell did ya think ya were doin, ya son of a bitch?!"
"Meowth," James said evenly. "We need to fix the balloon and get out of here...now."
James glanced at me and I caught the look in his emerald eyes. I knew exactly what he was thinking. They wanted to get away before Ash figured out I was defending them even though I was well aware they were Team Rocket. And before that made Ash turn on me next.
Meowth looked up at James. "I'm on it." He scrambled up the side of the fallen balloon. I knew my friends were used to making lightning-fast repairs and getaways. I only hoped they'd have enough time before Ash did something we'd all regret.
As I was trying to figure out a way to buy them some time, Mr. and Mrs. Shelby emerged from one of the ranch's outbuildings. "What's going on here?" Mr. Shelby demanded. He looked to Ash. "What happened?"
"We heard the crash," Mrs. Shelby said. "The young pokemon were all panicked and we just now got them settled down!"
Ash pointed at the balloon. "Team Rocket crashed their balloon into your ranch! I think they're here to steal all your pokemon!"
"You crashed the balloon!" I shouted at Ash.
"I had to stop Team Rocket!" Ash countered. "They were gonna steal all the pokemon from the race!"
I threw my hands up in frustration. "Make up your mind! Were they stealing the pokemon from the race or from the ranch?!"
Ash's gaze grew blank. Maybe confusing him like this would keep him distracted. "They...uh..." He turned and noticed Jessie, James and Meowth nearly had the balloon inflated. "They're gonna get away!!"
I knew what was coming next. He was going to try and blast off Jessie, James and Meowth. Although I was thankful Ash didn't have Pikachu with him (he was back at the stands with Brock and Misty), I knew he wouldn't hesitate to do major damage with his other pokemon. Especially...
Ash and I both turned. Bayleef was finally making her way from where Ash had left her in the canyon.
Ash smiled. "All right, Bayleef!" Jessie, James and Meowth were still trying to get the balloon aloft. Ash would never let that happen now that Bayleef had arrived. I had to help them.
"Stop Team Rocket, Bayleef!" Ash commanded.
But my friends were capable of defending themselves. Jessie tossed a poke ball. "Go, Arbok!"
Beside me, Blaze's fur bristled. He snarled. Just as Jessie, James, Meowth and I were friends, so our pokemon were friends, too. He didn't want Arbok to get hurt. I placed my hand on his back. "Easy, Blaze. Arbok can take her."
"Use Razor Leaf!" Ash ordered.
"Dodge it, Arbok!"
The leaf on Bayleef's head spun, launching a wall of sharp, spinning leaves. Arbok dodged them easily. Jessie grinned. "Now, Arbok! Use Glare!"
Arbok's eyes glowed. Bayleef froze.
I couldn't help but smile. Nice move, Jessie! That'll paralize Ash's stupid Bayleef!
Ash's mouth dropped open, the way it always did when the tide of battle turned against him. "Bayleef! Shake it off! Do something!"
Jessie raised her fist. "Arbok! Finish it with Poison Sting!"
"Charboka!" Arbok called as she released her attack. Bayleef was completely overwhelmed and collapsed onto her side.
I winked at Blaze. "Told you Arbok can hold her own!"
But Ash wasn't about to give up. He threw another poke ball. "Totodile, go! Use Hydro Pump!"
Arbok was still focused on the fallen Bayleef and the sneak attack hit her before she could react. But she recovered quickly enough, rearing back with her hood flared. She hissed angrily.
Ash turned to me. "C'mon, Gary! Help me defeat Team Rocket!"
My gaze fell on Jessie and James and Meowth. Suddenly, I remembered something James had told me, when I'd first become friends with him and Jessie and Meowth: If you ever have to pretend you don't know us, we'll understand.
Could I do that? Could I pretend I didn't know my friends, or even battle them, just to keep myself out of trouble?
I couldn't. The very thought of it made me feel like I needed to throw up.
I snapped a poke ball off my belt. "Umbreon, go! Tackle Totodile!"
The look on Ash's face when Umbreon slammed into Totodile and sent him sprawling was priceless. "What are you doing?!" Ash demanded.
I smirked. "I'm battling you, loser!" I think I may have hit on the perfect way to buy my friends all the time they need. I folded my arms across my chest. "Think you can take me on?" I glanced up at Jessie and caught her eyes. She nodded; she knew exactly what I was up to. She called Arbok back into her poke ball.
Ash gritted his teeth. "I know what you're doing! You think if you beat me you can battle Team Rocket by yourself and get all the glory! Well, it isn't gonna work!"
Jeezus -- can Ash really be this dense? I asked myself.
Obviously, he could, since he continued the battle. "Totodile! Use your Water Gun on Umbreon!"
"Dodge it, Umbreon!"
I had to admit Ash's Totodile was fast. He spun quickly and fired. His Water Gun was pretty tough, too, powerful enough to cut a groove through the dirt where Umbreon had stood, spraying mud and water everywhere.
Totodile fired his Water Gun several times, but Umbreon dodged each time. The final time, he leapt high, executing a midair somersault before landing on his feet.
He braced himself. "Breon!"
"Umbreon! Hit Totodile with Confuse Ray!"
Before Totodile could react, Umbreon's attack hit. Totodile staggered back, nearly losing his footing. His eyes became blank and glazed.
"Stay focused!" Ash commanded. "Try Hydro Pump!"
Totodile ignored Ash's command. He shook his head as if trying to clear it.
I smiled at Umbreon. "You're doing great, Umby! Now finish him with a Faint Attack!"
Umbreon's red eyes glowed. "Breeee-on!" he called. Faint Attack always hit without fail. The wave of dark energy hit Totodile and he slumped to the ground. I spared a glance at my friends -- the balloon was flying! I saw the three of them give me the thumbs-up.
"You're not gonna beat me!" Ash yelled as he drew Totodile back into his poke ball. "Try this!" He released another pokemon. "Cyndaquil, go!"
I returned Umbreon and released a fire pokemon of my own. "Go, Houndoom!"
"Cyndaquil! Use Flamethrower!"
"Counter it with your Flamethrower, Houndoom!"
The two fire attacks met in midair. They were both intense and I could feel the heat of them from where I stood. But Houndoom was at a higher level and had more endurance -- he could continue the attack when Cyndaquil had to stop. Cyndaquil flattened himself down as Houndoom's flames raged over him, and, luckily for Ash, he managed to escape with nothing more than some singed fur.
"Try a Tackle attack now, Cyndaquil!" Ash shouted.
"Houndoom! Hold your ground!"
When Cyndaquil had nearly reached Houndoom, I issued another command. "Now! Use Smog!" Unable to change course, Cyndaquil ran straight through the cloud of noxious smog Houndoom exhaled. Houndoom easily dodged the Tackle attack as Cyndaquil passsed him and slid to a halt.
Now poisoned, Cyndaquil was on the ropes, so Ash tried to buy himself some time. "Cyndaquil! Use Smokescreen!"
I laughed. "Trying to lower Houndoom's accuracy and hide behind Smokescreen while you recover, eh? Well, it's not gonna work!" Houndoom braced himself as the smoke began to obscure his view of his opponent.
"Herug!" he barked.
"Get ready to use Shadow Ball," I told him.
Houndoom opened his mouth. A sphere of purple-black energy began to form between his jaws. "Stay focused," I encouraged. "Try to spot the flames on Cyndaquil's back through the smoke!"
I held my breath. I saw a glint of orange...
"Three feet to the right, Houndoom! Hit him now!"
Houndoom launched his attack. The sphere of ghostly energy passed through the smoke. I heard Cyndaquil squeel and Ash yelp in surprise. The smoke cleared and I saw Houndoom had hit his target dead-on. Cyndaquil had fainted.
Ash returned Cyndaquil to his poke ball. I waited to see what his next move would be.
"Stop the battle! Stop it right this instant!"
I looked up. It was Mr. Shelby who had spoken. He didn't look amused.
"You boys should be ashamed of yourselves," he chastised Ash and me. "Having a pokemon battle in the middle of the race like this!"
I returned Houndoom to his poke ball. "I'm sorry, sir," I said softly. "I don't know what came over me." Frankly, I was relieved Mr. Shelby had interrupted. Jessie, James and Meowth had gotten away, so there was no need to continue.
Mr. Shelby wasn't finished with Ash. "And what did you think you were doing, crashing that balloon into the ranch? You endangered the lives of my wife and me, the people in the balloon, and all the pokemon here!"
"But Team Rocket crashed the balloon!" Ash whined.
"You're the one who busted the balloon," I reminded him. "Or have you forgotten already?"
"Shut up, Gary!" Ash shouted.
"I don't have time to argue this further," Mr. Shelby said firmly. "The rest of the racers are almost here." He pointed and I could see the other racers off in the distance, heading fast for the ranch.
Ash's eyes went wide. "Augh! I've gotta go! I don't wanna lose!" Bayleef had recovered from her battle with Arbok. She bounced up and down, ready to go.
I was strongly tempted to ditch the race and go look for my friends. But I knew they were okay and they'd given me the thumbs-up as they'd left. I had no doubt they'd want me to finish. And Blaze was still anxious to race. I gave him a pat on the head, took the egg Mr. Shelby offered and got back on my racing board. I'd be glad when this day was over.
I stroked the thick ruff of fur at Blaze's throat. "Sorry we didn't win the race," I said. "But we tried our best."
I sighed. Blaze had tried his best. I wasn't so sure about myself. During the second half of the race, my heart hadn't been in it. All I'd been able to think about had been the way Ash had crashed the Meowth balloon -- and how close my best friends had come to being seriously injured, or worse. Every time I thought about how I could have lost them I felt like crying. And I was starting to feel guilty about finishing the race. If I'd left after the mess with Ash, I'd be with Jessie, James and Meowth right now!
Ash had been the winner of the race. I thought about how he'd had the idea I was abusing Blaze by making him race. Yet Ash had pushed Bayleef to her limits. I knew she must have been worn down after her battle with Arbok, yet during the last half of the race Ash had never let her slacken her pace. He'd even let her whip herself with her own Vine Whip to give herself an extra burst of speed at the end!
"He pulls shit like that, yet he accuses me of abusing my pokemon," I muttered. "What a hypocrite."
Blaze licked my face. "Arc," he barked softly.
I scratched behind his ears. "I'm okay," I told him. "But I'll be glad when I get to see Jessie and James and Meowth."
After the race, it had taken me a while to get away from the crowds at the finish line. I'd known I wouldn't see Jessie, James and Meowth there. Before the race, we'd planned for when we'd meet afterwards. Jessie, James and Meowth wanted to steer clear of the finish line (where the chances of a twerp encounter were high). Instead, once they'd seen the end of the race, they'd go to the lodge, pack our stuff and meet me at the western edge of the Exeter Forest, the woods that bordered the valley. I knew they'd be there to meet me -- after the race, I'd seen the Meowth balloon off in the distance. I knew they were okay, but I wanted to see them in person -- and soon!
I returned Blaze to his poke ball and continued my way across the forest. It was afternoon, and when the wind picked up, I felt a bit of a chill. I looked down at the ground as I walked. I'll be glad when Jessie, James, Meowth and I are on our way. I'll...
"...and Bayleef won by a nose! It rocked!"
I looked up. Not watching where I was going, I had walked into a clearing where Brock and Misty and Ash stood. I clenched my teeth. Not him again! Why do I keep running into him?
Misty sighed. "We know, Ash. We know."
Brock rubbed his brow. He looked like he was getting a headache. "Please, Ash. We saw the race, so we know all about it. And you've already told this story ten times."
"Yeah, but I was so great!" Ash exclaimed. "Stupid Gary didn't have a chance!"
I started to back away, hoping Ash and his friends wouldn't spot me. But a twig snapped beneath my boot and Ash turned...
"Gary!! What are you doing here?"
"Just passing through," I informed him.
Ash pointed at me. "I won the race and you lost!"
"I know," I said. "I was there."
"Who's the loser now, Gary?"
Brock put his hand on Ash's shoulder. "Gary didn't lose -- he came in second. Don't be such a lousy winner."
Ash shrugged off Brock's touch. "Gary always thinks he's hot stuff. It's about time he lost at something!"
Misty frowned and held Togepi tighter. "You're being really obnoxious, Ash!"
Ash wasn't about to stop. "I'd have won that pokemon battle, too, if Mr. Shelby hadn't stopped it!"
I laughed bitterly. "Right."
"And I'd have beaten those losers from Team Rocket, too, if they hadn't gotten away!"
I felt my anger rising. How dare he call my friends losers?
Ash wouldn't stop. "I know they wanted to steal all the pokemon from the race. And the Shelby ranch, too. But they didn't count on Ash Ketchum being on the job! I stopped them and I'd have had kicked their pathetic butts if I hadn't had to battle Gary, and--"
"Why don't you shut the hell up?" I growled.
Ash stared at me. "You shut up! It's your fault Team Rocket got away! If it hadn't been for you they'd probably be in jail right now! James and Meowth and that bitch, Jessie--"
I didn't think; I acted. I balled my right hand into a fist and drove it into Ash's stomach.
I heard Brock and Misty gasp. Ash bent double and staggered back, wheezing for breath. I stood over him. "Don't you ever, EVER insult Jessie again!" I shouted.
"W-w-what do you care?" Ash managed at last.
I felt like hitting him again, but I restrained myself. "Jeezus, Ketchum, are you truly that stupid? Can't you figure it out?"
Ash continued to look blankly at me.
I thought once more of James's warning to be careful when I encountered Ash, since he was dangerous. I knew I would run a risk if I told him of my ties to Jessie, James and Meowth. But I was tired of hiding the truth. Very, very tired. "Jessie and James and Meowth are my friends," I said.
"Really?" Misty asked.
"You're friends with Team Rocket?!" Ash cried. He stood up straight again. The pain on his face from my punch was replaced by anger.
"You heard me the first time," I said. "They're my best friends. And if you try to hurt them or insult them while I'm around, I swear I'll knock you into next week."
"But Gary..." Misty began.
"I don't wanna hear it," I said, cutting her off. "If you three have any problems with my friendship with Jessie, James and Meowth, you can all kiss my ass."
"We had no idea you were friends with them," Brock began. "It's okay--"
"It's NOT okay!" Ash screamed. "Team Rocket are evil!"
"You wouldn't know evil if it walked up and bit you on the ass!" I shouted back. "You don't know anything about Jessie and James and Meowth! You see their uniforms, but you never see them. You always assume they're causing trouble, no matter what. You never try to understand them or try to work things out with them. All you can do is attack them!"
Brock and Misty looked visibly uncomfortable. I knew they'd recently made peace with Jessie, James and Meowth and no doubt my words were making them remember their past behavior.
I pointed at Ash. "If you would take your head out of your ass for five minutes and open your eyes, I think you might be damned surprised at what you'd see. Jessie and James and Meowth aren't evil. If you wanna see evil, look in a mirror!"
Misty tried to calm things down. "We didn't know you were friends with Jessie and James and Meowth. We didn't know you knew them that well."
"They saved my life in June," I told her, then I turned my wrath on Ash again. "I don't forget when someone does something for me. Unlike you. I know for a fact they've pulled your sorry ass out of the fire lots of times. But a minute later you forget all about it and go back to brutalizing them!"
Ash's face was livid with rage now. I knew I was goading him, but I couldn't stop. All the anger and frustration I'd been feeling toward him since becoming friends with Jessie, James and Meowth was coming out. I smirked. "Then again, you don't know the first thing about friendship."
"Yes I do!" Ash protested.
"The hell you do," I countered. "You're a piss-poor friend. You're spoiled and self-centered and you'd stomp your so-called friends into the dirt if you thought it'd get you what you wanted."
"It's not true!" Ash wailed. He was so angry he seemed to be turning purple.
"Liar!" I shouted. I turned to Brock and Misty. "You guys have been traveling with Ash for almost three years. Has he ever let either of you compete for a badge in any of the gyms you've visited?"
Brock and Misty were silent.
"Does he ever compromise with you about where you're going next or where you're going to eat or stay? Or does he whine like a baby till he gets his way?"
"Um..." Brock said.
"I know you've gotten some new pokemon since you've been traveling with Ash," I said to Brock and Misty. "But I bet Ketchum gets his nuts in a knot every time it happens, right?"
"I hate you, Gary," Ash hissed.
"I know you do," I said. "You always have. And just like you've never tried to understand Jessie, James and Meowth, you've never tried to understand me."
"You think you're better than me!"
I gave Ash a nasty smile. "Ya know what, Ketchum? I am better than you. I'm a better person, a better friend, a better trainer. You're nothing and nobody and I wouldn't piss on you to put you out if you were on fire."
Ash's jaw dropped.
I threw up my hands. "I've had enough of this. I'm leaving. But I'm warning you, Ketchum. From now on, if you try to hurt Jessie and James and Meowth you're gonna have to deal with me, too." I turned my back on Ash and started walking away...
...and made a dangerous mistake.
James's warning about Ash rose in my mind, but I didn't heed it. I'd seen Pikachu sitting beside Ash while I was giving him hell. I hadn't thought about it, though I knew Ash never hesitated to have his electric rat attack people...and this time I was no exception.
"Pikachu! Hit him with Thundershock!"
The attack hit me before I could react.
I'd worked with pokemon since I was a little boy, so I had been attacked by them before. I'd been tackled and pecked and knocked down; I'd been stung by Beedrills a couple of times. I'd been hit with Vine Whip and had endured Stun Spore a time or two. But I'd never once been shocked by an electric pokemon.
I wasn't prepared for what it would be like. My back arched as the onslaught of electricity passed though my body. I felt like every nerve-ending I had was firing at once, and the pain was worse than anything I'd ever felt before. I heard someone screaming and realized it was me. When the attack was over, I fell to my hands and knees on the forest floor.
I could still hear screaming, but it wasn't me. It was Misty. "Oh my god, oh my god!" she cried.
"Ash!" Brock shouted. "What do you think you're doing?!"
Ash had lost all rationality. "Gary's friends with Team Rocket! They're evil and he's evil and he's gonna pay!"
I struggled to stand, but pain still wracked my body. I couldn't seem to get my legs to work the way I wanted them to.
"Pikachu!" Ash commanded. "Hit him again!"
I panicked. I heard Pikachu crying "Chuuuuuu" as he powered up. Oh shit! If he hits me again, I don't think I can take it! I--
I heard another poke ball open. I heard Brock's voice. "Onix! Block Pikachu's attack!" I managed to turn in time to see a wall of living rock pass between Ash and me. Pikachu's attack hit the side of the massive rock snake. I shuddered as I watched sparks spill over Onix's hide like rainwater.
Ash wailed with unspent rage. "What'd you do that for, Brock?!"
Brock ignored him. He drew Onix back into his poke ball and ran to my side. He knelt in front of me. "Are you all right, Gary?"
"I...I don't know," I answered.
I heard a sharp crack and Ash yelped in pain. When I looked up I saw his left cheek was bright red. Misty had slapped him. Tears were streaming down her face. "How dare you attack Gary like that?!"
Brock left my side and seized Ash by the collar. "Have you lost your fucking mind?! You could have seriously hurt him!"
"But he's friends with Team Rocket!" Ash insisted.
"I don't care who he's friends with," Brock shouted. "You had no right to attack him!"
"WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?"
Everyone froze and all eyes turned at the sound of James's voice. Jessie, James and Meowth had entered the clearing -- and they looked more angry than I'd ever seen them.
James was the first to reach us. He grabbed Ash away from Brock and lifted him off his feet. "What did you do to Gary, you piece of shit?!" he demanded.
Ash writhed in James's grasp. "Lemme go!"
Jessie and Meowth knelt in front of me. Jessie reached up and brushed the hair out of my eyes. "Oh, Gary, what happened?"
Misty was still crying and she wiped at the tears running from her aquamarine eyes. "Gary told us he's your friend -- and Ash got Pikachu to Thundershock him."
James released Ash, who landed on his feet with a thud. But before Ash could move away, James drove his knee into Ash's stomach. Ash fell to his knees. "I warned you about hurting my friends, you bastard!" James hissed.
Ash struggled to his feet. "So what if I hurt him? He's friends with you losers, so he deserved it!"
At that, Jessie stood and charged Ash. I winced at the sound of her fist connecting with his face in a sharp right hook. Ash toppled backward onto his ass. He glared up at Jessie, wiping the blood now running from his nose.
"You monster!!" Jessie screamed in fury as she stood over him. "You heartless, fucking monster!"
Ash tried to get back on his feet yet again. "Pikachu! Thundershock!"
Pikachu hestiated a split second (obviously confused as to why Ash was having him shock so many people) and in that time Meowth leapt. I heard a high-pitched, keening cry. At first I didn't know what it was, but quickly realized it was Meowth. He sounded like a wildcat.
Meowth landed in front of Pikachu and brutally Fury-Swiped the electric rodent across the face. Pikachu's eyes rolled back in his head and he fell over.
"Augh!" Ash wailed. "Meowth beat Pikachu!"
Meowth pointed a claw at Ash. "Yer damn right I beat him! And yer next! For what ya did ta Gary I'm gonna fuck ya up so bad yer own momma won't recognize ya!"
Ash moved to reach for a poke ball, but before he could, Meowth leapt again. He sank his teeth into Ash's forearm and wouldn't let go. Ash screamed in pain.
Jessie knelt beside me once more. She put her arms around me and I rested my head against her shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Gary," she whispered. "I'm so sorry."
"It's not your fault," I told her.
"You'll be okay," she soothed. "Don't worry."
I looked up into her sapphire eyes. The worst of the pain had passed, but I felt weak and cold.
Ash continued to scream and try to dislodge Meowth from his arm, but the cat held on.
"This has gone on long enough," James said evenly. "Let him go, Meowth." Meowth dropped off Ash's arm and bounded once more to my side.
James removed a poke ball from his belt. "Victreebel, go!"
When Ash looked up and saw Victreebel, he began to laugh. "This should be good! Every time you use that thing, it bites your head!"
But Viccie did no such thing. The large plant pokemon sat in front of Ash, his Vine Whip lashing back and forth like the tail of an angry cat.
"Viccie, take him down," James said. There was a crack like thunder as Victreebel's Vine Whip lashed out and knocked Ash's legs out from under him. He landed on the ground yet again.
This time he didn't try to rise and he looked like he was in pretty rough shape. His forearm was bleeding from a nasty cat bite and there was dried blood on his face from Jessie's punch. There was fear in his eyes now, too. He'd realized at last he'd crossed one too many lines today. "W-w-what are you gonna do?" he stammered.
James's voice was full of cold menace. "I'm tempted to have Victreebel use his Vine Whip to thrash you within an inch of your life. But we don't have the time. Victreebel! Sleep Powder!"
Ash knew he was beaten and he didn't struggle as the powder wafted over him. He slumped to the ground and was soon unconscious. He twitched slightly in his sleep.
Meowth was crying now, and he wiped his eyes with a paw. "Dat's more mercy den dat asshole deserves."
"I know," James said. He looked at Jessie and me. "I'm going to get the jeep. We need to get Gary out of here."
James returned with the jeep a few moments later. "Is there something we can do?" Brock asked.
"I think you've all done quite enough," Jessie said coldly.
"It's okay," I told her. "Brock got Onix to block Pikachu's second attack, and--"
Meowth gasped. "He tried ta shock ya twice?!"
I nodded, then turned back to Brock. "Thank you. I don't know what would have happened if that second attack had hit me."
"Don't mention it, Gary," Brock said. "I'm so sorry about what happened. Ash's behavior was inexcusable."
Misty was no longer crying, but her eyes were red and puffy. "We're really sorry, Gary."
James fixed Brock and Misty with his gaze. "I hope you both saw today how dangerous Ash is. And he's becoming more unstable by the day. You need to give serious consideration to getting away from him. He may very well turn on one of you next."
Jessie tried to help me to my feet so I could get in the jeep. But I was weak, and my knees buckled. "Gary?" Jessie gasped in concern as I slumped back to the ground.
"I've got him, Jess," James said. He put an arm behind my back and the other beneath my knees and lifted me like a child. He set me on the back seat. Jessie and Meowth got into the back seat with me; James got into the driver seat and started the jeep.
"Think maybe we could 'accidentally' back over Ash while we're pullin' out?" Meowth suggested. I wasn't so sure he was joking.
James's face still looked grim. "Don't tempt me."
I shivered. Jessie put an arm around me. "Meowth, get one of the blankets out of the back, okay?"
"Got it," said the cat. After finding the blanket, he handed it to Jessie. "What's wrong?"
Jessie wrapped the blanket around me. "He's suffering from a little bit of shock." She stroked my cheek. "Just stay calm, Gary. You're going to be fine."
"I...I guess you guys would know, right?" I asked quietly. "I don't know how you've withstood all those shocks. It really hurts..."
Jessie blinked, tears starting to well up in her eyes. "I know."
"There's a clinic in Lake Woodruff," James said. "We'll stop there and have a doctor look at Gary."
"I don't need a doctor," I protested.
"I don't like going to the doctor, either," Jessie said. "But I think it's for the best if you see one."
I didn't protest further. I leaned against Jessie and closed my eyes.
"You're a very lucky young man," the doctor said. "Attacks by electrical pokemon can sometimes be very serious."
"B-but I'm okay?" I asked tenatively.
"You'll be fine," the doctor said, and I let out the breath I'd been holding. "There are some minor burns on your back from the electrical discharge," he continued. "So I'll send the nurse in and she'll spray some healing potion on them."
I took a couple more deep breaths to steady myself. I'm okay. I'm okay. I'm okay.
After arriving in the clinic, I'd explained what had happened to me. I'd lied a bit and said the pokemon that had attacked me had been wild. I didn't want the hassle of answering a bunch of questions about why another trainer had sicced his pokemon on me (though the idea of getting Ash in trouble had strong appeal). I'd been taken to an examination room while Jessie, James and Meowth had to wait in the waiting room. I knew they were worried about me -- Jessie and Meowth were both crying softly as the nurse had led me away and James had looked pale. I'd been really scared while the doctor had examined me, worried Ash's damned Pikachu might have been able to inflict some sort of serious damage.
"I'll go get your paperwork ready while the nurse sees to your burns," the doctor said. "Then you can get dressed and see your friends."
"Can you let them know now that I'm okay?" I asked.
The doctor nodded. "I'll do that," he said as he left the room.
The nurse arrived a moment later. "Your friends were very worried about you," she said as she sprayed the healing potion on my back. "The doctor's with them now and as soon as you're ready, I'll send them in."
"Thanks," I said. After she left, I took off the hospital gown I was wearing and started putting on my clothes. My shirt and jeans had scorch marks from the Thundershock. "Looks like I'm gonna need some new traveling clothes," I muttered to myself. As I looped the cord of my pendant around my neck once more and sat back down on the examination table, Jessie, James and Meowth entered.
Meowth hopped up on the table with me. His eyes showed he'd been crying, but he was smiling happily now. "Da doctor says yer all right!"
I patted the top of his head and winked at him. "That's right!"
Jessie hugged me tightly. "I'm so relieved."
James put a hand on my shoulder. "How do you feel?"
"I feel okay," I said. "But I'm really tired."
Jessie brushed the hair out of my eyes. "No wonder, after the day you've had." She shook her head. "It's been a nightmare."
The doctor returned with some papers for me to sign. "You can be on your way now," he said. "But I want you to take it easy for a day or two."
"We'll take good care of him, doc!" Meowth promised.
"You'll need to keep using healing potion on those burns on your back till they're completely healed," the doctor added.
"You've got burns?" Jessie asked, after the doctor left the room.
I got off the examination table. Meowth hopped up onto my shoulder. "Yeah."
"We get burned sometimes, too," Meowth said sadly. "When Ash really lets us have it."
Jessie put her hands on her hips. "If Ash were here now, he'd be the one who'd need a doctor."
Meowth snorted. "If Ash were here now, he'd need a mortician!"
"I took Blaze, Umbreon and Houndoom to the pokemon center across the street while you were being examined," James said. "We can go pick them up now."
"Thanks, James," I said. "I know Blaze was tired from the race, and Umby and Houndoom had to battle Ash's pokemon."
After we'd picked up my pokemon, we all got into the jeep. "I called and rented one of the cabins by the lake," James informed me. "And we'll pick up some food on the way."
"That sounds great," I said.
After we arrived at the cabin, James took the bags of food into the kitchen. "I'll keep the food warm in the oven for a bit," he told me. "In case you want to get cleaned up first."
"O-okay," I said. I shivered. On the way to the cabin, I'd begun to think back on the day: Ash crashing the balloon, fearing for my friends' lives, getting Thundershocked. Jessie was right: it had been a nightmare. I blinked as tears began to blur my vision.
Meowth noticed my distress. "Hey. Hey, Gary, what's wrong?"
I was afraid if I spoke I'd start sobbing. My shoulders started to shake.
Jessie was at my side. "Oh, shit," she whispered. "Everything that happened to you today is catching up with you, isn't it?"
"C'mon," Jessie said. She led me into the cabin's family room and sat down on the couch with me. Meowth hopped up at my other side and James joined us.
"You went through hell today, didn't you?" Jessie asked softly.
"Yes," I whispered, wiping my eyes.
Jessie put her arms around me. "Don't try to hold your emotions inside. You'll make yourself sick. If you need to cry, it's okay."
"You were very brave today," James said. "But you're with your friends now, so you don't need to hold anything back."
I did cry then, releasing all the fear and anger within me. When it was over, I wiped my eyes again. "I was so scared," I said at last.
Meowth took my left hand in his paw. "Everything's gonna be okay now, Gary."
I squeezed his paw in return. "When Ash crashed the balloon today and I didn't know what had happened to you three I...I thought I might have...lost you all." I closed my eyes and shuddered. "I felt like I was going to die. And when Ash got Pikachu to Thundershock me I was scared he wouldn't stop until he seriously hurt me...or worse."
"We were scared, too," Jessie said. "When we didn't see you at the edge of the Exeter Forest we decided to go look for you. And when we saw you on the ground hurt and Ash ranting and raving like a fucking maniac..." Her voice broke.
"We'd been trying to avoid situations where Ash could hurt someone we care about," James said. "And now Ash had hurt one of our dearest friends."
"I'm sorry I suggested we stay for da race," Meowth said quietly. "We shoulda left and --"
"I'm the one who decided it was okay for us to stay," James interrupted. "If anyone should apologize, it's me."
"Neither of you apologize!" I said quickly. I rubbed my temple. "I was the one who was stupid today. I know how dangerous Ash is and how he doesn't hesitate to attack people, but when I met him in the forest I goaded him and--"
"Oh, for crap's sake!" Jessie said in exasperation. "All of you stop blaming yourselves! It isn't Meowth's fault or James's fault or Gary's fault. It's Ash's fault. And he didn't hurt Gary because of anything any of us did wrong. He hurt Gary because he's a psycho who can't control himself!"
We all knew that was true. James gave Jessie a quick kiss and some of the frustration left her face. "Thank you, angel," he said. "You're exactly right."
"She is," I agreed. "Ash was such a freak today. I was so pissed after he crashed the balloon and put you guys in danger. When I ran into him in the forest he started insulting you and he called Jessie a bitch and...I punched him in the stomach."
"Good for you," said James.
"I told him about our friendship after that," I continued. "And I gave him hell about the way he acts and the way he treats you all."
"Yeah?" Meowth asked, intrigued.
I told them what I'd said to Ash when I'd confronted him. Afterward, Meowth smiled. "Way ta tell off Ash! Dat kicked ass!"
I was smiling now, too.
"I wouldn't have wanted you to get hurt for anything," Jessie said. "But we're very proud of the way you stood up for us."
James nodded approvingly. "It took a lot of courage and integrity."
I blushed. "I was tired of hiding the truth. And I'm damned glad I laid it on the line with Ketchum. I told you before -- my loyalties lie with you three, not with Ash."
James sighed. "We've made some changes to try to keep Ash from hurting us and the people we love. But I'm afraid we're going to have to make even more changes."
I felt a brief spike of fear. "Y-you don't want me to stop hanging around with you guys, do you? To keep me away from Ash, I mean."
"Of course not!" Jessie said.
"That's not what I meant," James said quickly. "I'm sorry if I made you think that."
I sighed with relief.
Jessie gave me a hug. "Our friendship with you is one of the best things that ever happened to us. There's no way in hell we'd let Ash compromise that or try to take it away from us."
"Becoming friends with you three is one of the best things that ever happened to me, too," I said.
James spoke. "Your grandparents and great-grandparents were friends with my grandparents. And your grandparents met Jessie's parents..."
"And you and I met when we were little," I added.
"Exactly," James concurred. "Our families have a lot of history together. Our friendship with you is, as Jessie so often and so wisely says, meant to be." He smiled. "We have the right to see each other anytime we like -- and Ash Ketchum be damned!"
I sniffled. "I don't ever want to lose you guys."
"You won't," Meowth assured me.
I smiled at my friends. "I want to be there when you're able to leave Team Rocket and get married and have kids and get all the good things you deserve."
Jessie squeezed my right hand. "And we want to watch you grow up and fall in love and get married and have kids of your own."
Meowth grinned. "Dat's right! And all da kids will be friends and get ta grow up taggeda!"
"That sounds really nice," I said.
"It will be," Jessie promised."
"Jessie and Meowth and I have set our feet on the path to take us away from negative influences like Ash and toward a brighter future," James said. He looked at me. "Like Jessie, I wouldn't have wanted you to get hurt for any reason, but it's further proof of how important it is for us to make sure something like this doesn't happen again. We're headng in the right direction, but I know now we've still got some steps to take. The path might not always be easy--"
"But it's the right one," Jessie finished for him.
"And I'll be here to support you every step of the way," I said. "You won't have to walk that path alone."
"Thank you, Gary," James said. "That means a lot."
We sat together in silence for a few minutes, then I stood. "I need to take a bath and get cleaned up -- then we can have dinner." I winked at Meowth. "I know a certain cat who's probably getting hungry."
Meowth rubbed his stomach. "Now dat ya mention it..."
"We'll feed your pokemon while you take a bath," James offered.
Jessie stood. "And I'll let Wobbu out so he can have dinner with us, too."
James and Meowth brought in the rest of our things from the jeep. Meowth handed my backpack to me. James opened his own backpack and looked inside. "I've something for you, Gary." He handed me what looked like a teabag.
I lifted an eyebrow. "What's this?"
"Some herbs -- mostly comfrey -- wrapped in cheesecloth," James explained. "Let the bath water run over it -- it'll help you heal." He closed the flap on his backpack. "I always have healing herbs and such on hand. When we were following Ash around we needed them more often than not."
I held the little bag of herbs in my hand. "Thanks, James." As always, I was impressed with James's wisdom -- and how he knew the best ways to help his friends.
I took my backpack into the bathroom and began drawing the bath, letting the water run over the little bag of herbs as James had instructed. I stripped off my clothes and got into the tub. The warm water soothed me. I closed my eyes and finally began to relax. I leaned back and let the tension ease from my body.
I probably could have stayed in the bath for half the night, but eventually the water began to cool (and as the stress had left it had been replaced by hunger!) and I got out. After I dried off I dug into my backpack for some comfortable clothes -- a gray South Park sweatshirt and a pair of faded jeans. I hung my pendant around my neck once more.
I joined Jessie, James, Meowth and Wobbuffet in the kitchen (where Meowth and Wobbu informed me loudly that they really liked my sweatshirt!). The room was warm and cozy and filled with the wonderful smell of the food James had bought earlier. The table was set and James began getting the food from the oven where it was warming. There was baked chicken, au gratin potatoes and a broccoli and rice pilaf...and apple turnovers for dessert.
"Now, I have one rule for dinner this evening," James said, as he set the last dish of food on the table. "No one mentions Ash!"
"Here, here!" Meowth cheered as he got sodas from the refrigerator for everyone.
"An excellent idea, honey," Jessie said as we took our seats.
"Sounds good to me," I said.
And so we spent the evening enjoying the food (which was excellent) and each other's company. We talked about the fun we'd had in the Whirl Islands the previous month, our plans for the holidays, and the upcoming Lord of the Rings movie we were looking forward to.
After dinner, we went outside. Each cabin had a dock that jutted out into the lake, complete with deck chairs. The December night was a little cool, but the sound of the lake lapping against the shore was soothing. Jessie and James cuddled together on one of the deck chairs, while Meowth, Wobbu and I took the other three chairs.
"It's so peaceful here," Jessie whispered as she stroked James's hair. Far off, beyond the pines that bordered the lake, we could hear a Hoothoot calling.
I looked up at the vault of the night sky. Lake Woodruff wasn't near any major cities, so the sky was awash with bright stars. "It's beautiful," I agreed. I looked at my friends. "Some of the most beautiful things I've ever seen and some of the best times I've ever had have been with you guys." I sighed. "I was thinking about those dreams I had -- about the part where we saw the winged horses. I think that was a symbol for the wonderful, magical things that happen when I'm with all of you."
"I think you're right," James said.
Jessie smiled. "And it's only going to get better from here!"
"Damn straight!" Meowth cheered.
Wobbu saluted. "Wobb!"
The night grew colder and we went back into the cabin. James touched me on the shoulder. "I wanted to thank you for everything you did for us today. The way you fought for us and took up for us."
"It was nothing," I said.
James shook his head. "No. It was something." His expression grew determined. "And I promise you Jessie and Meowth and I will never let Ash hurt you like that again."
"Thank you," I said.
I went into the bedroom I'd be sharing with Meowth and changed into my pajamas. I needed to put some more healing potion on my back, but it was awkward reaching around, so when Meowth arrived he sprayed on the potion for me.
I got into bed and wrote in my journal. Meowth was in his own bed, curled up in the blankets. "Ya feelin' okay?" he asked.
I looked up from my journal. "Yeah. I feel a lot better than I did earlier, that's for sure."
"I'm glad," Meowth said. "Yer one of da best friends Meowth ever had. And...and..." His voice broke.
I set down my journal. "Meowth?"
He was crying again and he wiped his eyes with his paws. "It's just...I was real scared when ya got hurt, Gary."
"I'm fine," I assured him.
"I hate Ash," he said. "I hate him for what he did ta you!"
Damn you, Ketchum, I thought. Damn you for upsetting Meowth like this.
"C'mere, Meowth," I said and the cat got out of his bed and climbed into mine. This is almost exactly like that dream I had! "You're one of my best friends, too," I told him. "And I'll always be here to be your friend."
At length, Meowth curled up in a ball and went to sleep. I feared waking him if I moved him too much, so instead of putting him back in his own bed, I laid him gently at my side. I wrapped one of the blankets around him. I touched the golden charm on his head.
"Sleep well, little cat," I whispered.
To Be Continued....
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