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Mirror Adventures: A Tragedy of False Smiles [Anime Mirrorverse AU]

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by InfiniteBakuphoon, Jan 25, 2020.

  1. InfiniteBakuphoon

    InfiniteBakuphoon Impressionist Bakuphoon

    Hello everyone, and welcome to Mirror Adventures: A Tragedy of False Smiles! This is a Pokémon fanfic based on the Kalos saga anime episode "The Cave of Mirrors", which features an alternate universe where everyone's personalities are the opposite — or "mirror image", so to speak — of their real-world ones. Mirror Adventures intends to explore this concept further by not only focusing on the mirror versions of Ash Ketchum and his companions from the Kalos saga, but also those of other characters from the anime, and possibly those of characters from other continuities of the franchise as well. Additionally, this story will also explore how everyone's mirrored personalities affect the choices they make, and how the consequences of those choices affect other characters and the wider world around them.

    There are a few things that readers should know about Mirror Adventures before diving in:

    First
    : Mirror Adventures will be a traditionally chaptered story, with its narrative being split between two main characters. With some exceptions, each chapter will be focused specifically on one of these main characters. That said, both narratives are interconnected with each other in various ways, and they're also both connected to a larger story going on behind the scenes. With that in mind, it's highly recommended that you read Mirror Adventures from the beginning and in its entirety in order to obtain a full understanding the story. However, some chapters can be read standalone if you prefer not to read through the entire fic; said chapters will be marked as such in the table of contents below.

    Second: This will not be a direct re-telling of the anime except with mirror characters. There is simply too much changed in this universe for such an approach to be realistically possible, and honestly speaking, I don't believe that it would make for a particularly good story anyway. That said, that doesn't mean that elements of certain episodes won't possibly inspire stories in Mirror Adventures, or that characters from said episodes may never appear elsewhere in different roles that are fitting for their mirrored personalities.

    Third: Although the first few chapters will have content consistent with an EVERYONE (Bulbagarden) or K+ (FF.net) rating, it should be noted that the content for individual chapters will vary wildly as the story goes on and will encompass all rating levels including EVERYONE, TEEN, and MATURE. In other words, it is very possible to have an EVERYONE-equivalent chapter be followed directly by a MATURE-equivalent chapter, and vice versa. Additionally, although the first few chapters will remain squarely in EVERYONE/K+ territory, there will be a point in the story (around chapter four) where potentially objectionable and disturbing content will start appearing with increased frequency, and things will get significantly more intense from there. Consequently, the story will have a higher number of TEEN- and MATURE-equivalent chapters as it goes on, and it's extremely likely that the majority of chapters — and the fic as a whole — will have MATURE-equivalent content by the story's end. Please keep all of this in mind should you choose to invest yourself in this story; per forum rules, detailed descriptions of potentially objectionable or disturbing content will be available for each chapter when applicable (although note that some of them may be placed in spolier tags).

    As far as content ratings go, most chapters will generally contain one or more of the following:
    • Mild-to-moderate depictions of violence, including but not limited to: slightly more intense and realistic battle sequences than the canon anime, minor depictions of blood, Pokémon-on-human violence, and the use of firearms and other realistic weapons,
    • Occasional crude or impolite language, as well as more directly insulting language that may be either partially or completely censored per forum rules,
    • Instances of character death, including deaths of main characters (basically, any character can die at any time, for any reason),
    • Low-to-medium-level depictions of mature themes, including occasional suggestive jokes or references; explorations of real-world themes such as war, crime, corruption, and sociopolitical conflict; and mild but nonetheless potentially disturbing depictions of child abuse and neglect of an emotional, psychological, and (less frequently) physical nature.
    Meanwhile, chapters with more mature content — per mod approval — may contain one or more of the following:
    • Unflinching depictions of violence, including graphic descriptions of blood, gore, and death, and full depictions of the effects of Pokémon attacks, firearms, and other weapons,
    • Strong language that will almost certainly offend at least some readers, all of which will be merely referenced and ultimately completely censored per forum rules,
    • Full depictions of mature themes, including more graphic and explicit explorations of everything mentioned previously, but not including sexual content (which will be limited to kissing, hand-holding, and suggestive references at worst).
    With all of the above said, let's begin. The first chapter can be found in the next post, while a table of contents for all currently posted chapters is available below:

    Mirror Adventures: A Tragedy of False Smiles
    [Table of Contents]

    [Chapter 1] A Burning Light in the Darkness! Mirror Ash's Great Ambitions! (01/25/2020)
    [Chapter 2] A Chance Encounter in the Forest!? Professor Oak's Summer Camp! (02/02/2020)
     
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2020
  2. InfiniteBakuphoon

    InfiniteBakuphoon Impressionist Bakuphoon

    [Chapter 1]
    A Burning Light in the Darkness! Mirror Ash's Great Ambitions!

    Ladies and gentlemen... boys and girls... we're just one battle away from watching history being made here tonight! For those of you who are just tuning in, our challenger for the title of Champion of Kanto — Ash Ketchum from Pallet Town — has just defeated the second-to-last Pokémon of our defending Champion! That leaves only one — yes, just one! — Pokémon standing in his way to becoming the new Champion... the first in over a generation! He's swept the Pokémon League Challenge... he's conquered the Elite Four... could he even overcome the strength of our legendary Champion? We're about to find out, right here and right now!

    The challenger named Ash Ketchum stood on the battlefield, his eyes filled with fire and his spirit driven by purpose. Ash was just a young boy — barely older than ten, in fact — and yet here he was, in the middle of one of the greatest trials that anyone, at any age, could face. He, like many boys and girls his age, had a dream. A dream to journey across the world with Pokémon, and to visit many fascinating places and make wonderful new friends. A dream to capture as many Pokémon as possible and train them all to surpass all others, and to overcome any and all obstacles in their way. A dream to conquer every gym before then conquering the Pokémon League, earning the right to challenge the most powerful trainers in the world: the Elite Four and the Champion. A dream to become a Pokémon Master; the best, like no one ever was.

    Ash — through a combination of courage, skill, and a little bit of luck — managed to accomplish every part of that dream... all except for one. Now the only thing that stood in his way to becoming the best was one last opponent; the opponent that he was about to face with his loyal Charizard by his side. The Pokémon — a large orange dragon with a mighty flame erupting from its long tail — gave a ferocious, earth-shaking roar in anticipation of its final challenge, and deep inside, Ash could feel the same kind of roar erupting from within his soul as well.

    There's no running away from this one, Ash told himself. Not now... not ever again.

    Looking straight ahead of him, he could see the distant figure of his opponent on the other side of the stadium. Dressed in an imposing black hooded longcoat, the defending Champion of Kanto...

    ...wait a minute; what was this guy's name again?

    Our Champion is about to release his final Pokémon; you all know what it is! This is definitely going to be a battle for the ages, ladies and gentlemen...

    That's weird, Ash thought to himself as the roar in his soul was quickly replaced by the feeling that something wasn't quite right. How could he not know who the Champion of an entire region was; the Champion that he was in the middle of battling right now!?

    But Ash had little time to think about that as the Champion of Kanto threw a Poké Ball into the air. With a pop and an audible surge of energy, a flash of light emerged from the Poké Ball and materialized itself as a Pokémon on the battlefield, revealing itself as...

    "Dragonittttteeee!!!"

    Ash froze upon hearing the mighty cry of his final opponent: a massive yellow dragon with relatively small wings... deceptively small wings. It stood on its two legs with a powerful and dominant posture, staring down at Ash with a dark, almost murderous glare.

    But as Ash shifted his eyes away from the frightening dragon, he immediately caught another glare... from his human opponent. And it was at that moment that he realized exactly who this person was...

    "P-Professor Oak!? What are you doing here!?"

    The Champion of Kanto lowered his hood in response, revealing the face of what was indeed the famous Professor Oak. Silver hair and an aged face defined the man, but nothing stood out to Ash more than the death glare that the Professor gave him; one that was practically as fierce as that of his Dragonite.

    "What am I doing here!?" Professor Oak barked, loud enough to practically reverberate across the entire stadium. "I'm the Champion; I deserve to be here! What are you doing here is the question, Ash Ketchum! Shouldn't you be with your mother right now?"

    "N-no...!" Ash blurted out, his voice small and tentative compared to that of the Professor's. "I-I deserve to be here too!"

    "Of course you do," Professor Oak replied with a smug, sarcastic smile. "Crybaby."

    He then turned his attention to Dragonite, his face serious and decisive.

    "Let's show him what a real trainer is, Dragonite. Finish it!"

    Professor Oak's Pokémon then lifted itself high above its trainer and began inhaling a seemingly impossible amount of air, before a massive white sphere of energy started to form around its mouth. Dragonite was about to perform Hyper Beam, one of its most powerful and devastating attacks. With his Pokémon League victory hanging in the balance, Ash knew that he had to make a move now...

    ...but he didn't; he couldn't. He could only stare in awe at Dragonite as its Hyper Beam grew bigger and bigger, eventually becoming nearly as large as Dragonite itself. Finally, the dragon unleashed its powerful attack, and in an instant, the beam connected not with Ash's Charizard, but rather with Ash himself. The beam exploded on impact, engulfing Ash and his aspirations of Pokémon League victory in flames.

    Well... that's it, I guess. I've failed. My dream is over...

    Those words were more correct than he knew. Because as it turned out, it was just a dream after all...
    * * * * * * *
    Ash awoke to the warmth of thick bedsheets covering his body, a far cry from the warmth and heat of the Hyper Beam that was thankfully as much of a reality as his hopes and dreams. His actual reality was made all too clear by the time displayed on the Voltorb-shaped clock next to his bed: 8:25 AM. Or in other words: just over half an hour before he was due to arrive at Professor Oak's annual summer camp.

    Ash felt a sickening sensation grow in his gut as he contemplated this reality. Were Ash an average, typical kid, that feeling would instead have likely been the raw, youthful anticipation that every child felt when something exciting was about to happen; the kind that either kept them hopelessly awake all night, or made them intensely eager to go to sleep so that the next day would come faster.

    But when it came to the idea of summer camp, Ash was neither an average kid nor a typical one. So as the light of the rising sun crept into his room and became brighter and brighter with every moment, Ash crept further and further underneath his bedsheets, basking in the warmth and safety they provided from the cold, cruel world outside. And as the hands of his Voltorb-shaped clock crept closer and closer to 9:00 AM to signal the start of a new and beautiful day, Ash could feel anticipation creeping closer and closer to the very center of his heart, an anticipation that was very different from everyone else's. Because while most kids would imagine adventure, friendship, and fun when thinking about Professor Oak's summer camp, Ash could only imagine fear, embarrassment, and failure, which seemed to be the three great constants of his life.

    The morning sun reached just the right position in the sky to send brilliant golden rays of light through the windows of Ash's room, which bathed everything in their glow. And as Ash felt the warmth of the rays even from the deepest depths of his bedsheets, it almost felt to him like the universe itself was trying to tell him what he already knew he needed to do.

    And so with a sigh, Ash kicked off his bedsheets, climbed out of bed, and walked over to his closet...
    * * * * * * *
    Roughly five minutes later, Ash was out of his room and walking downstairs. He had chosen a simple red-and-yellow T-shirt and dark blue shorts to wear for the day, a perfect fit for the warm weather that he knew he was likely to encounter on this summer's day.

    As he approached the bottom, he could hear the sound of a television in the living room nearby, blaring out its sounds loud enough to fill almost the entire first floor. As Ash approached the TV — situated on a wide table near the middle of the large, open living room — he could see a figure in a long, pink bathrobe in a deep sleep on the couch in front of said TV. The figure — a woman — appeared to be lying in a rather uncomfortable position on the couch, but it didn't appear to affect her ability to sleep at all, if her slow and gentle snores were any indication.

    Moving as quietly as he could, Ash walked over the TV and slowly turned down the volume before turning off the TV altogether. Right after the TV clicked off, however, a loud, long yawn erupted from the figure and her eyes opened ever so slightly as she started breaking out of her sleep. Before he knew it, Ash was staring straight into the woman's fiery brown eyes, which were nearly the spitting image of his own. That, of course, was because they belonged to...

    "Mom!" Ash cried out in surprise. "Um, g-good morning..."

    "Morning..." replied Delia Ketchum, the mother of Ash Ketchum, but it barely qualified as a response as a massive yawn overwhelmed her words. "Man, I need some coffee..."

    As Delia rose from the couch and began walking over to the kitchen on the other side of the room, she stopped suddenly, staring curiously at Ash's clothes.

    "Um, Ash? Are you going somewhere?"

    "Uh, s-summer camp!" Ash rather hastily replied, his heart skipping a beat. "It's today, remember?"

    He ended up saying last part a bit more forcefully than he would've liked. His mother appeared unfazed, though, instead giving him the barest amount of recognition that she had even heard what Ash had just said as she fought off the beginnings of another yawn.

    "Ah, that's right," Delia lazily replied, ultimately losing her fight against said yawn. "Almost forgot about that..."

    She then approached the kitchen counter and placed a cup into the nearby coffee maker. Hitting the "on" button, the machine filled the kitchen with a quiet hum as it performed its work. A sigh escaped from Delia as she rested herself on the kitchen counter, a pensive look forming on her face.

    "Time sure flies, doesn't it?" Delia said ostensibly to Ash, even as she stared off into the distance like she was talking to an invisible friend instead. "It feels just like yesterday when I was eight years old and everything was so innocent and carefree. I mean, when you're eight years old, you can do whatever you want and be whoever you want to be; the whole world's your oyster."

    Another sigh escaped her, one much heavier than last time. "How times have changed..."

    BEEP! The coffee maker was done. Delia took out the cup right as the last drop of coffee fell from the machine, hot steam hitting her face as she took in the aroma of the drink in front of her.

    "Technology is incredible, isn't it?" said Delia, again to no one in particular. "Thank God for one-minute coffee..."

    As Delia took her first, long sip of coffee, Ash took this as his cue to step away and leave for summer camp, which was about to start at any moment.

    "Wait a minute, Ash!"

    "Huh?" He stopped in his tracks at the surprisingly clear sound of his mother's voice; obviously, the coffee had done the trick for her.

    "Could you do me a favor while you're out there?" Delia asked him, an increasingly serious look appearing on her face. Ash nodded, a tense anticipation building up in him as he wondered what kind of request his mother was about to ask of him.

    "I want you to make at least one friend during summer camp this year," Delia ultimately said.

    "B-but--" Ash began to object, his anticipation quickly giving way to flat-out fear.

    "Please, Ash?" Delia interrupted almost instantly, almost as if she had she had been expecting such a response from the very beginning. "If not for me, then for yourself. I mean, you only have one real friend, and you definitely can't survive out in a world like this without any friends, that's for sure."

    An increasingly uncomfortable silence crept into the room as Ash struggled to produce a response for his mother.

    "Well, Ash?"

    "O-OK..." Ash surrendered, his mother nodding in recognition.

    "Thank you," Delia replied simply. "I guess you'd better get going now, huh?"

    "Yeah," Ash responded as he reached again for the door handle. "See you later, Mom."

    "See you," said Delia, shifting her attention back to her coffee as her son opened the door and left the house.
    * * * * * * *
    A gentle breeze greeted Ash as he stepped out into the outside world. From his doorstep, Ash could clearly see the expanse of mountains that flanked the north side of Pallet Town near Route 1, all covered in a seemingly endless expanse of evergreen trees. The view of the mountains juxtaposed with the plains of Pallet Town made the town look larger and grander than it really was, but in reality, the houses and pavement on the ground in front of Ash summarized almost the entirety of what the town had to offer.

    There was, however, one exception: Professor Oak's laboratory. The town's sole and defining landmark, the lab was situated on top of its own little mountain right in the middle of Pallet Town, overlooking everything. One could have mistaken the lab at first glance as simply a larger version of one of the near-identical houses on the ground if it weren't for the sheer size of the structure: a two-story monstrosity split into a smaller space about the size of Ash's house on the right, and a much larger, much taller section on the left that almost resembled a giant barn in Ash's eyes. The rounded metallic red roof of the larger part of the lab, along with the building's muted yellow facade and its large open windows, drove the difference home. Perhaps the single most distinguishing part of the lab, however, was the massive wind turbine located just behind the building, towering over it and all of Pallet Town. Its bright yellow blades spun slowly yet dutifully with the help of the gentle breeze sourced from the ocean waves in the south, providing both the lab and the entirety of Pallet Town with its sole source of energy.

    Professor Oak's laboratory, however, would not be Ash's destination for the day, as he knew all too well. Rather, he started walking towards the west side of Pallet Town, where he soon spotted a wide expanse of trees in the distance, all forming the border of a massive forest. A pair of bright yellow cones marked an entryway into said forest: a large, dark void from which not even the slightest glimmer of light could be seen.

    Ash's heartbeat grew faster and faster with every step that he took towards the trees. And with every step, he fought back the ever-growing urge to turn around and run away; away from the forest and away from summer camp altogether. Those thoughts remained with him as he eventually reached the bright yellow cones and found himself staring straight into the dark void in front of him.

    The unknown was in there, Ash knew, and he literally shuddered at the thought of it. But then, he knew that all of his hopes and dreams were in there, too. Because if he couldn't make it through this forest, he realized, then he could never make it through Viridian Forest, Mt. Moon, or even Route 1, let alone ever make it to the Pokémon League or stand on the same stage as the Champion of Kanto. And if he couldn't fulfill his dream...

    Ash shook his head. No, he decided to himself, a sudden fire rising within him. I can't run away from this... I will make it through this forest!

    He took a single step towards the void.

    And summer camp too!

    His one step become two, then three, and then four...

    I'll beat every gym, and the Elite Four, and the Champion!

    ...and then his steps became a steady walk, straight into the void.

    I will become a Pokémon Master!

    And so, not looking back, Ash disappeared into the darkness and began his journey inside...

    [chapter end]
     
  3. InfiniteBakuphoon

    InfiniteBakuphoon Impressionist Bakuphoon

    [Chapter 2]
    A Chance Encounter in the Forest!? Professor Oak's Summer Camp!

    Ash had only taken a few steps into the forest before the burning fire within him was replaced by an overwhelming sense of dread. Although the forest wasn't actually as bad as Ash had been expecting — instead being well-lit and even kind of pretty with bright beams of morning sunlight bursting through the tree leaves above — he couldn't help but fear the possibility of something horrible happening to him in these woods. He had heard stories of people getting ensnared in the labyrinth of Viridian Forest, or making a wrong turn in the deep, dark caverns of Mt. Moon, never to be seen again... or rather, never to be seen alive again. And as Ash pondered over the fates suffered by those unfortunate souls, he wondered what the chances were that he would meet one of those fates himself, in this dark and creepy forest where wild Pokémon were almost certainly—

    crunchcrunchcrunchcrunchcrunch...

    That sound — a loud, rapid crunching sound — snapped Ash out of his current train of thought, all while instantly eliminating what little solace he may have found over the past few moments. His fear became even greater instead, fueled by the realization that there was only one thing in the forest that could make a sound like that: a wild Pokémon.

    crunchcrunchcrunch... the sound continued. Ash could easily tell where the sound was coming from; it was somewhere to his left. Did he dare turn around to look? Or, Ash thought, should he just run and get away right now? But maybe then that would make it angry, Ash reasoned further; he couldn't decide what to do.

    crunchcrunchcrunch... still the sound continued, and still Ash stood there, paralyzed by indecision. After a little while, however, his curiosity got the better of him as he slowly, daringly turned his head left towards the source of the sound. There, about five feet away from him, was a tree covered with leaves, and on top of one of those leaves was a Weedle. A Bug-type Pokémon with a small, bright yellow larva-shaped body, Weedle was currently busy munching on one of the many leaves covering the base of the tree, confirming the source of the crunching sound. Ash recognized this particular species of Pokémon immediately, as it was one of the many Pokémon that he, along with every other child in Pallet Town, learned about in school. While he couldn't recall everything that he read about Weedle, he most definitely remembered its two sharp stingers — a large one on its head and a smaller one on its tail — and how they both held a potent venom that Weedle used to ward off both attackers and anyone unfortunate enough to step on it.

    That last fact in particular made Ash want to get away from Weedle as quickly as possible, and as it turned out, it apparently didn't even notice that he was there; he had an opportunity to run. But he couldn't help but keep staring at Weedle as it continued to munch on its breakfast of leaves. With each bite, Ash could hear Weedle quietly utter a high-pitched sound that vaguely resembled its name: wee... wee... wee... Even with the limited facial expressions that Weedle were capable of compared to humans or most other Pokémon — it barely even had a visible mouth, for instance — Ash could tell that it was in utter bliss at the moment. It appeared completely relaxed and carefree, with its eyes closed as if it was in the middle of a idyllic dream; each of its sounds might as well have been light snores. For a second, Ash actually thought that Weedle looked kind of adorable there...

    ...and then it noticed him.

    The Pokémon, upon spotting Ash, immediately stopped eating its leaf and stared straight at him, its expression blank and completely unreadable. Ash was struck with fear as he instantly regretted not fleeing from the scene back when he had the chance. He then began wondering if he had made Weedle angry with his presence, and if he was about to incur its wrath in the form of an assault with one of its venomous stingers. But he didn't have much time to contemplate that as Weedle suddenly leapt from its current position — a seemingly impossible feat for a creature that small — and landed near the base of the tree, a mere two feet away from Ash.

    Ash himself, who had nearly expected Weedle to impale him with one of its stingers right then and there, cried out in both surprise and panic. If there was any time to run, he knew, now was it. But he couldn't; he could only stand there completely petrified with fear as Weedle continued to stare at him with that same blank, unreadable face. Unfortunately for Ash, things became even more frightening for him as Weedle suddenly took a single, tiny inch towards him. And then another. And then another, and another, and another, each time accompanied by that same high-pitched cry:

    wee... wee... wee... wee... wee...

    "W-W-W-WWWAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!"

    That was enough for Ash. With absolutely no hesitation whatsoever, Ash made a beeline towards the end of the path of the yellow cones, not once looking back to see if Weedle was following him, or possibly flying through the air again to attack him with one of its stingers. And even as he ran many, many feet away from where Weedle last stood, Ash could practically feel the sensation of a sharp object impaling him in the back practically every other moment, although nothing like that ever actually came to be.

    Before long, Ash reached the breaking point of what his small eight-year-old body could handle, and so he stopped in his tracks with several feet of path left to go, leaning down and resting his hands on his knees in total exhaustion. His heart was beating so fast that if he had ran any faster or if Weedle had frightened him any greater, he might as well had received that stinger...

    "There you are!"

    Hearing a voice to his side, Ash turned around to see a familiar face, but not the one that he had been expecting. He assumed he would eventually run into Professor Oak somewhere, but instead he found himself in the presence of Daisy Oak: the granddaughter of Professor Oak.

    "Hey there, Ash!" Daisy greeted with a radiant smile on her face. "Long time no see! You're literally just in time. I guess all of that running back there did the trick, huh?"

    Ash didn't respond, having not entirely recovered from what he had just experienced not too long ago. His condition wasn't lost on Daisy, who looked at him worriedly.

    "Um, are you OK, Ash? You look like you just saw a ghost or something."

    "I-I'm fine..." Ash hastily replied, still panting from all the running he had done. Daisy, however, looked rather unconvinced.

    "Ash, were you running from a Pokémon back there?"

    No way... how could she know that?

    "N-no..."

    Even though he was certain that Daisy would see right through that lie, he couldn't find the strength to admit that he had in fact been running from a Pokémon... and a tiny bug one, of all things.

    "It was a Weedle, wasn't it?"

    Darn it... she even knew exactly what Pokémon it was! But how!?

    "Ash, you don't have to be afraid to tell me. I promise I won't laugh at you or tease you about it, OK? Now, was it a Weedle?"

    There was no getting out of this one, Ash knew. With some hesitation, he lightly, barely nodded.

    At first, Daisy said nothing and did nothing, appearing completely and strangely unfazed by Ash's response. But before long, Ash could see a smile forming on her face, which soon gave way to giggles, and then finally to flat-out laughter that Daisy could barely control. So much for that promise...

    "Oh, Ash! Weedle are completely harmless! They're one of those don't-bother-them-and-they-won't-bother-you type of Pokémon. You didn't try to kick one or anything, right?"

    "N-no..."

    "Great, then you didn't die!"

    "W-what!?"

    "Ha ha! Just kidding, Ash!" Daisy laughed again, apparently ignoring the wide-eyed look on Ash's increasingly distressed-looking face. "But seriously, they really won't hurt you. Now Caterpie, on the other hand; those things are vicious! They'll crawl up your leg and stare at you with their little cute-face, and just when you think you've met the most adorable Pokémon ever... faaawooosh! They'll trap you with their String Shot and make you their dinner! And don't even get me started about Butterf— oh."

    Daisy could now see Ash practically shaking where he stood, his eyes just a few seconds away from exploding in an ocean's worth of tears. She scratched the back of her head in embarrassment as she realized that she probably went a bit too far with her description there, and she couldn't help but laugh at her own over-enthusiasm.

    "Sorry about that, Ash..." said Daisy, placing a gentle hand on Ash's shoulder. "Why don't we just get out of here and meet up with the others?"

    Ash nodded in agreement, very much relieved at the idea of finally leaving the forest. And with that, the two continued walking through the forest together.
    * * * * * * *
    It wasn't long into Ash and Daisy's walk through the forest before an awkward silence began to creep in, the result of neither of the two saying a word to each other since their walk began. It also wasn't long, however, before the latter broke the silence.

    "So Ash," Daisy began, "how's life been treating you?"

    "OK," Ash replied, not in a particularly enthusiastic manner. He knew exactly where a conversation like this would go — "How's school? Have you made another friend yet? How's your mother been doing?" — and so he hastily followed through with a question of his own:

    "H-how did you know that I saw a Weedle?"

    "Well," Daisy began, "wild Pokémon don't really appear in this part of Pallet Town; not usually, anyway. Gramps and I have been doing experiments here to see how Pokémon from the wild adapt to different habitats. We had Caterpie and Rattata here a few weeks ago — and wow, you don't want to put them together — but we chose Weedle this week because we figured that they wouldn't bother anyone coming through for summer camp. You know, since they're so docile and all."

    "Oh," said Ash, not really understanding much of anything that Daisy just said, but trying his best to sound like he did anyway. He was, however, rather curious about Daisy's earlier claim about Weedle, namely:

    "Do they... r-really not bother anyone?"

    Daisy blinked at Ash's question, confused. "No, they really don't. Why do you ask?"

    "I-I think one of them tried to attack me..."

    "That's... pretty unlikely, Ash," Daisy replied simply. "You'll probably find this strange, but if I had to guess, I'd say that it was probably trying to be your friend. They can be... well, kind of over-enthusiastic about things at times."

    Daisy said that last part with a smile, but Ash — try as he might — simply couldn't share her joy in talking about a Pokémon like Weedle. He shuddered at the thought of it and was simply thankful that the conversation was most likely over at that point, even if it meant that Ash and Daisy no longer had anything to talk about, and that awkward silence would no doubt start to creep in once again.

    "Hey, you found Ash!"

    Or so he thought, before a new figure suddenly appeared in the distance and started running over to join him and Daisy.

    "There you are!"

    "G-Gary!?"

    It was indeed Gary Oak, the younger brother of Daisy and the grandson of Professor Oak. Standing right next to each other, it was clear that he and Daisy were the spitting image of each other in many ways, although in other ways they couldn't have been any more different. They shared the same dark auburn hair, although Daisy had more feminine waves of hair that were large and numerous enough to frame her entire face and run slightly down her back, versus the more upwards nature of her brother's signature and unmistakable spiky hairstyle. They also shared similar eyes — both characterized by a dark, barely visible viridian color — although Daisy's eyes were wider and more immediately friendly compared to the narrower and more piercing eyes that Ash knew Gary for.

    "You were right, sis!" Gary said to his sister. "He really was in the forest the whole time!"

    "I told you he would be," Daisy replied happily. "Now you know what that means: you owe me some Pokédollars, mister!"

    "Wait, what!?"

    "Yeah, remember you said that Ash was probably still in bed this whole time, and then I said 'wanna bet he's in the forest instead?'" Daisy replied with an increasingly wide grin on her face, seemingly ignoring the increasingly incredulous expression on her brother's. "And then you said 'you're on!'"

    "I-I... w-was just kidding with that, sis!" Gary protested.

    "Oh no, Gary!" Daisy countered as she playfully wagged a finger at Gary. "You can't back out of a bet; not with your own sister! Now, I think that ten Pokédollars sounds fair?"

    "Ten Pokédollars!?" Gary cried out. "That's crazy, sis!"

    "Winners choose the terms," Daisy shrugged. "Now show me the cash!"

    "Right now!? Sigh..."

    He then reached into his pocket, but before he could cough up any Pokédollars for Daisy, she abruptly took him by the arm and pulled him into a tight, sisterly hug, all while laughing hysterically.

    "Oh, Gary; I knew you were kidding back there! You gullible thing, you..."

    Ash, having witnessed the entire exchange in confused fascination, expected Gary to blush in embarrassment at his sister's antics, but was surprised to see a hint of sadness appear on his face instead.

    "You... wouldn't really trick me into giving you ten Pokédollars, right?" Gary asked his sister, surprising her somewhat and leading her to respond with a rather worried look her face.

    "What? Of course not," Daisy replied, squeezing her brother tighter as her smile began to return. "You know I always like to mess with you, Gary."

    "I know," said Gary, his melancholy gradually giving way to a smile of his own.

    "Don't take it so hard, okay?" said Daisy as she let go of her brother, but not before quickly and playfully rubbing her hand through his thick spiky hair, much to his chagrin. "Now, you should really be heading over to Gramps right now. You know how much he hates waiting—"

    "Huh?" Ash almost involuntarily interjected, startled by Daisy's words. "Gary, aren't you going to summer camp?"

    Unfortunately for Ash, the increasingly less-than-happy expressions on both Oaks' faces almost immediately answered that question for him.

    "Sorry, Ash," Gary answered. "I never got a chance to tell you, but... I'm not gonna be at summer camp this year. Gramps is making me do something for him and—"

    Ash's heart sank at the revelation, to the point where the whole world disappeared for him at that very moment. While he had been dreading the thought of going to summer camp from the moment he realized that he was going, he had also been holding on to the knowledge that Gary would be there, as he had been every year. Unfortunately, Ash now knew that he would not have that support to hold on to; he was alone.

    "Um, Ash? Are you alright?"

    Ash was thrust back into reality by Daisy's voice, who along with her brother stared at him with an increasingly concerned look on her face.

    "Y-yeah, I'm fine!" Ash hastily answered. "But, w-who's gonna be my partner for summer camp?"

    "Sigh... I don't know, Ash," said Gary, looking thoughtfully into the distance as he contemplated his friend's concerns. "Oh, wait a minute! You could try talking to that new girl that's here! You know, the one with the blonde hair, blue eyes, and big straw hat? You know who I'm talking about, right?"

    Ash shook his head, having absolutely no idea who Gary was talking about.

    "Well, you can't miss her!" Gary continued. "You'd better get over there; she might even have a partner already! And I'm sure she can use a friend and all, so she'd be great for you. Right, sis?"

    "Well, she's, um... let's just stay optimistic about it, right?" Daisy rather nervously replied.

    "Um, right," Gary replied to his sister, looking throughly confused at her reaction. "Now," — he turned back to Ash — "I've really gotta get going before Gramps gets mad at me."

    He then charged in the opposite direction towards the forest, waving to his friend as he ran. "Smell ya later, Ash!"

    "See you..." Ash waved back, but by the time he answered, Gary was already gone. Now alone with Ash again, Daisy turned to him with a sympathetic look on her face.

    "Hey Ash," she said to him, "I know you're disappointed that Gary isn't going to be at summer camp this year."

    "But hey," Daisy continued, her smile returning, "At least you'll get the chance to make some new friends! Just... be careful with that new girl, OK? I hear she can be a handful."

    Ash nodded, after which Daisy turned her attention to a large grassy clearing several feet in front of both of them, surrounded by trees and occupied by a large circle of children around Ash's age.

    "Now, everyone's right down there," said Daisy, pointing at the clearing for Ash to see. "They've been waiting for you, so let's not keep them waiting for too much longer, okay? I'll be right behind you in a bit."

    Ash simply nodded again as Daisy ran off towards where Gary went, leaving him alone for now. He continued forward towards the clearing and towards his fellow summer camp participants, and as he came closer, he was immediately greeted with stares; some from people that Ash knew from school, and some from people that he had never seen before.

    One person, however, didn't stare at him at all, which caught Ash's attention. Sitting relatively isolated from everyone else in the circle was a girl with golden blonde hair, a long pink dress, and... a large, pink-ribboned straw hat.

    So that's who Gary was talking about, Ash realized. She seemed rather uninterested in interacting with any of the other kids around her, even as everyone else appeared to be quite interested in her, for reasons that Ash was unaware of. He could see several of his classmates stare at the straw hat girl every once in a while and have low, whispered conversations right after, which Ash could only assume were about her. She didn't seem to have many friends here, Ash thought, which made him wonder if maybe he himself could befriend this girl and perhaps get to know a little bit more about her.

    As he started to walk over to where the straw hat girl was, he began thinking about how he would approach her without completely embarrassing himself.

    Hi! My name's Ash, and I've heard that you're new here. I don't know if anyone's talked to you yet, but I was wondering if maybe you and I can be friends?

    That sounded simple enough, Ash thought, but he could already feel his fear returning as he sat himself next to straw hat girl and opened his mouth to speak. Knowing that it was now or never before said fear overwhelmed him completely, he turned around to the straw hat girl, took a deep breath and...

    "H-hi..."

    "Huh?"

    The straw hat girl turned around to Ash, her light yet radiant blue eyes meeting his.

    "M-my name's Ash," he went on. "I-I've... heard that you're new here..."

    He could see the straw hat girl's face darken ever so slightly at his last few words. Nonetheless, Ash continued:

    "Um, I-I don't know if anyone's... t-talked to you yet, but I was wondering if... m-maybe you and I can be frien—"

    "Hmph!" the straw hat girl sharply and suddenly replied, turning away from Ash with her arms crossed tight. Ash, completely blindsided by her response, only managed to eek out a quiet "o-okay, n-never mind..." before looking down at the ground in shame. Needless to say — and to Ash's great disappointment and embarrassment — he would not be making friends with her anytime soon.

    "Don't worry about her too much," Ash suddenly heard a voice above him say. "She's been acting that way with all of us."

    Startled, he looked up to see a familiar face staring at him: a long-haired brunette girl with a signature bright white-and-red hat, its design roughly resembling the bottom half of a Poké Ball.

    "L-Leaf?" Ash exclaimed in surprise, recognizing her instantly from the many classes at school that he shared with her.

    "Yep, that's me," the young girl named Leaf replied as Ash stared curiously at the rest of her attire, a rather sporty outfit that seemed more fit for a marathon than an innocent day at summer camp. "You didn't think I wouldn't be here, did you?"

    "N-no..."

    He could hear a light sigh escape from Leaf at his response.

    "You weren't actually supposed to answer that, Ash."

    "S-sorry," Ash replied weakly, but Leaf seemed to ignore him as she sat herself down next to him. She remained silent long enough afterwards for Ash to assume that she was done speaking with him, until he turned around to see Leaf looking in his direction with a rather concerned look on her face.

    "Ash, where's Gary?" she asked Ash, locking eyes with him again as she noticed his stare.

    "H-he's, um... n-not coming to summer camp this year," Ash stuttered, caught off-guard by Leaf's sudden question.

    "What!?" Leaf cried out in shock before crossing her arms in frustration. "Phooey! I was looking forward to crushing him at whatever we're doing this year."

    Leaf didn't elaborate any further, and Ash chose not to inquire further. However, one question did come to his mind:

    "Um, Leaf?" Ash tentatively whispered to her. "W-who exactly is this girl anyway?"

    Leaf went wide-eyed almost instantly at his question, every inch of her face exploding in complete and utter incredulity.

    "You don't know who she is?" Leaf hissed back to Ash. "Seriously!?"

    He shook his head.

    "Ash, do you even watch TV at all?"

    "I-I..."

    "Helloooooo, everyoneeeeee! "

    That was Daisy's voice, which echoed from the distance sounding loud and rather distorted, almost as if it was being amplified by a megaphone. And indeed, everyone turned around to see Daisy Oak entering the circle with a giant megaphone in her hand. She appeared as enthusiastic as her greeting suggested (maybe even too much so, if the bewildered expressions on everyone's faces said anything), and a smile adorned her face as she prepared to speak again, this time — and perhaps thankfully — without the megaphone.

    "Hello again, and welcome to another year of Professor Oak's summer camp! I'm sure that all of you are excited, right?"

    All of the children cheered loudly in response. All of them, that is, except for Ash, who tried his best to act excited but failed miserably, only managing a weak attempt at a smile.

    "Great! Although I'm sure some of you are wondering where Professor Oak himself is right now. I mean, it's not called Professor Oak's summer camp for nothing, right? Well unfortunately, I've got some not-so-great news for you all. Professor Oak... won't actually be here for summer camp this year."

    That statement went considerably less well with the children, who became increasingly unruly as they complained loudly about the news.

    "OK, quiet everyone!" said Daisy, trying to take back control over the situation. "Quiet! Alright. You see, Professor Oak is working on a really big project right now. Like, really big. So he simply can't make it to summer camp this time. Sorry! But... someone's gotta take over summer camp, right? Well, that someone's gonna be me, Daisy Oak!"

    Dead silence categorized everyone's response this time; clearly, no one felt particularly enthusiastic about that.

    "Not too excited, huh?" Daisy responded to her audience, cheerful-sounding as ever, although Ash could swear that he caught a brief flash of disapproval on her face. "Well, that's OK; I understand. I'm no Professor Oak, after all. But if you can't get excited about me, then let's get excited for our first activity of the day: a treasure hunt!"

    That seemed to command everyone's full attention again, much to Daisy's immediately evident pleasure.

    "Wow, you guys sound more excited about that than spending time with me! But anyway, I'm sure you all know how a treasure hunt works, right? There's a whole bunch of stuff that I've hidden in this forest here. Your goal is to find as many items as you can and bring them all back here. The person with the most items in the end wins! Simple, right?"

    "I have a question," Leaf piped up. "How are we supposed to actually carry all of this stuff? I mean, if it's a treasure hunt, we're supposed to have a lot of things, right?"

    That actually was a pretty good question, Ash thought. Daisy, however, didn't really seem to have an answer for Leaf, if the increasingly nervous look on her face was any indication.

    "Well, I... uh... just carry as much stuff as you can, OK?"

    "But that means that we're all gonna have the same amount of items!" another girl responded from the opposite side of the circle. "How is anyone gonna win?"

    "Don't worry about it!" Daisy responded again, this time looking considerably more flustered than before. "This isn't a competition or anything; we're all just here to have fun!"

    "But winning is fun!" yet another kid squealed, this time a boy a few persons down from Ash. "What's the point of a treasure hunt if someone doesn't wi—"

    "I said don't worry about it!" Daisy suddenly shouted, this time using the megaphone. Her amplified voice crackled through the phone and cut sharply through the air, sending many of the kids' hands flying towards their ears to block the incredibly painful sound. And as Ash did the same, he could practically see the fire rising in Daisy's eyes as she said those words. But said fire ultimately faded almost as quickly, replaced by the same friendly eyes that Ash was familiar with along with a smile on her face, all as if nothing had even happened just a few seconds ago.

    "Wow, I actually surprised myself there!" said Daisy in her normal, non-amplified voice. "Sorry, guys! But seriously, don't worry about it. Anyway, you'll all have thirty minutes to explore this forest and find as many items as you can for the treasure hunt! You can go anywhere you want, so long as you don't go past the cones and yellow tape; you'll know it when you see them. And if you're one of those people who are worried about getting lost in the forest and getting eaten alive by a Rattata or something like that," — she then winked at Ash with a quick and mischievous smile, causing him to flinch in place before blushing in embarrassment — "then simply stay within the cones and yellow tape! And when there's only five minutes left, I'll let you know! Just listen for the sound on my voice on the megaphone; you won't miss it!"

    Ash was quite sure of that, given his still-fresh experience with the power of said megaphone. But his thoughts turned elsewhere as he began to wonder how he was actually going to go about doing this treasure hunt. He could already see his classmates converse amongst themselves with determined and plotting faces, almost certainly forming teams; teams that he was sure he was about to be left out of. In a burst of desperation, Ash turned over to Leaf, only to find that she had already run off with someone else. And so in another burst of desperation, he turned over to the straw hat girl...

    "So if everyone's ready," Daisy's voice called out, "let's get this treasure hunt started! On the count of three: one, two, three!"

    At "three", the circle of children exploded into chaos as everyone executed their plans to achieve treasure hunt victory. Ash, meanwhile, was left in the proverbial dust as he simply remained where he was, paralyzed by indecision and anxiety. Even the straw hat girl was gone, Ash realized, having obviously run off in some direction; with whom, if anyone, he had no idea. All he knew, and all that mattered, was that it wasn't him, and that he was alone once again.

    "Hey, Ash!"

    Ash turned around to see that Daisy was still standing there, staring at him with a perplexed look on her face.

    "What are you still doing here?" said Daisy. "You'd better get a move on if you wanna win that treasure hunt! Go on, go!"

    Having little choice, Ash turned towards a random direction into the forest and ran off. He was greeted by many extremely thick bushes and other exotic-looking flora, a far cry from the relatively simple and straightforward forest that he had traveled through earlier.

    "Don't forget about the cones and yellow tape!" the very distant voice of Daisy echoed as Ash disappeared into the new dark and intimidating part of the forest ahead of him.
    * * * * * * *
    Ash found that he didn't really have any meaningful strategy for the treasure hunt as he began the first few minutes of his search. He ended up simply randomly scanning the area to see if he could find any typical hiding places for treasure hunt items, but all he could see was trees, trees, and more trees, and not much else. And it didn't help that he was unsure of what he was supposed to be actually looking for, either.

    As Ash took his search to some bushes and found nothing there either, he felt himself becoming increasingly frustrated by his utter lack of luck. Were treasure hunts always this hard, Ash wondered as he began taking his search to the ground, or was he just that horrible at them?

    ...yeah, that was it, Ash concluded. He wasn't couldn't really do anything right, could he? He couldn't make any new friends, he couldn't go five minutes in a forest without being frightened by a Weedle of all Pokémon, and he looked like he wasn't going to be able to find even one thing for this treasure hunt, either. He could hear the laughter of his classmates already...

    Speaking of which, where was everyone? Ash thought as he realized that he hadn't seen anyone else the whole time he had been searching so far. Surely he should've run into someone by now; the forest couldn't be that big, right? Especially with the cones and yellow tape around...

    Actually, where were the cones and yellow tape, anyway? Ash realized, scanning for them before coming up empty. He shouldn't be that far into the forest if he could find them, right? But if that was the case, then where exactly was he right now?

    He did wonder why the forest was so dark, and in a moment of sudden realization, he knew why. It was because he was deeper into the forest that any child should've been allowed to go into, and there were no cones or yellow tape to stop him. He had no idea how he managed to get himself to this point, but ultimately, the reason didn't matter. What did matter was a single resultant fact, one that Ash was now keenly aware of as he stared at the seemingly endless expanse of trees and bushes surrounding him.

    He was lost.
    * * * * * * *
    Ash wandered around the forest, unsure of what to do. He considered simply waiting until Daisy's voice sounded on the megaphone, after which he could simply follow the sound back to camp. But if he was truly lost, Ash thought, then he could be so deep in the forest right now that he may not even hear it. But if it actually was loud enough for him to hear, then walking even farther could mean that—

    "...Poli?"

    Ash heard a weak, high-pitched cry just below him, one that could have easily belonged to a baby. He looked down to see a tiny blue Pokémon that barely reached past his knee, its body shaped like a circle and its stomach sporting a distinguishing swirl pattern. Like Weedle, Ash recognized this one from his studies at school; its name was Poliwag, a Water-type Pokémon. It stared straight at Ash with its large eyes, looking neither displeased nor particularly happy to see him, and in fact appearing rather confused at his presence.

    It was then, however, that Ash had an idea.

    "H-hey... I'm lost," he said to the Water-type Pokémon. "Do you know if there's a way out of here?"

    In retrospect, Ash realized that trying to talk to Poliwag was a rather foolish idea. It wouldn't have been able to say anything back to him — anything other than its name, anyway, as was the case with all Pokémon — which meant that asking it for something like directions would've been completely futile, assuming that it actually knew anything in the first place. And perhaps most relevantly to Ash at that moment, Poliwag were never exactly renowned for their friendliness, a fact that Ash was about the learn the hard way. He was caught off-guard by the Poliwag's increasingly angry face in response to his question, but it was the deep breath that it took almost immediately afterwards — as if preparing to launch an attack — that alerted Ash to the full extent of its feelings, and signaled that he was about to be in serious trouble.

    The very next second, a mighty, high-pressure jet of water launched out of Poliwag's mouth, headed directly towards Ash. He ducked, barely dodging the attack as it instantly took out a patch of the thick bushes behind him, leaving a deep hole in its wake. Panicking, Ash turned around to the closest opening he could find and ran off, once again finding himself running away from a wild Pokémon. This time, however, he didn't have to wonder whether or not he was being followed as he heard Poliwag's cry not far behind him, the small yet surprisingly agile Pokémon keeping up with Ash easily.

    Before long, Ash felt the ground beneath him decline as he found himself running down a steep slope. He could see the bottom just a few feet from where he was, but before he could think about anything else he felt something hard hit his right foot, and before he knew it he was in the air, now flying rather than running down the rest of the way down the slope. He was ultimately released into a grassy clearing bathed in rays of sunlight, and Ash yelped his pain as he landed squarely on his left knee and skidded some inches on the ground after impact, marking the end of his brief yet frightening flight.

    Barely a moment after Ash landed, Poliwag caught up with the young boy and stopped mere feet in front of him with its most agitated expression yet. Seeing Poliwag take another deep breath, Ash — being in no position to run any further — resigned himself to his fate and braced himself for Poliwag's Water Gun attack.

    But instead, he found himself being "attacked" in a quite different way:

    "Poliwag!" the Pokémon yelled at Ash, its cry ferocious even in its almost childishly high pitch. "Poli Poilwag! Poli Poli Poli!"

    "I'm sorry!" Ash cried out to the angry Poliwag. "P-please don't hurt me!"

    Poliwag, ultimately, did nothing of the sort; rather, it simply turned its nose up at Ash before strutting back into the forest, leaving him alone again.

    For what felt like an eternity to him, Ash just laid there on the ground, completely overcome with shock at what he had just experienced. His body ached all over from the fall, but nothing ached more than his left knee, which he knew probably looked horrible right now; there would almost certainly be a scar there. Tears formed in Ash's eyes as he began to process the full extent of his pain — physical and otherwise — and even though he held them back as hard as he could, he knew that it was a losing battle; he was the "crybaby", after all. Eventually he gave up trying, and before long he began to sob loudly and uncontrollably, soaking the ground beneath him with an endless stream of tears.

    Ash's crying was soon interrupted, however, by the sound of rustling in one of the bushes at the edge of clearing, causing his fear to return yet again. Had Poliwag returned, Ash wondered, or did it bring friends with it this time, too? As infinite possibilities rushed through Ash's mind, the rustling sound became ever so louder, and its source ever so closer to Ash. Not knowing what he else he could do, he closed his eyes and prepared for the worst.

    The rustling sound occurred yet again, louder than it ever was. Ash knew that whatever was in the bushes had just come out, and that it was almost certainly right in front of him at that very moment...

    "Hey."

    It was a soft voice. And most importantly, it was a girl's voice, not a Pokémon's...

    "Hey!" the voice practically shouted at him, this time in a clearly more irritated tone. It was then that Ash realized: his eyes were still closed, weren't they? With some bravery, he opened his eyes to the girl in front of him...

    ...and found a pair of piercing blue eyes staring straight at him, belonging to none other than the straw hat girl.

    The sight of her startled Ash and sent him jumping back several feet, an act accompanied by a brief but high-pitched cry that seemed more befitting of a wild Pokémon than an eight-year-old boy. He could've never imagined that he would meet this girl again under these circumstances — or at all — and he was in no way whatsoever prepared for the encounter. All that he was able to say was:

    "W-what are you doing here?"

    He instantly regretted saying those words as he watched the straw hat girl's expression change from almost fascinated confusion to flat-out annoyance.

    "Huh!? I'm explorin'! Wassit to you, anyway?"

    Her voice... it was the complete opposite of what Ash had expected. Or rather, her speech patterns were; they almost made her sound like she belonged to another region, or — if Ash had to be completely honest with himself — like she came from some backwater country region or something. Where does this girl come from!? Ash thought. But then a more immediately relevant question came to mind:

    "Exploring? But, w-what about the treasure hunt?"

    "What about it?" the straw hat girl almost immediately snapped back, startling Ash with the sheer speed at which she answered him. "It's a stupid game anyway; just runnin' around in circles lookin' for some stupid, worthless stuff. But what are you doin' here, if you're so worried about that treasure hunt? You explorin' too or somethin'?"

    "I-I fell and... h-hurt my knee..." Ash told her, his tears returning as he was reminded of his pain.

    "Lemme guess; you tripped on a rock or somethin'?" the straw hat girl replied, clearly unmoved by said tears. "Quit cryin' already; it can't be that bad. I mean, I fell from a tree as high as that one once," — she pointed at a seemingly random tree above — "and I never cried!"

    "But it really, really hurts!" Ash cried out, which merely earned him a heavy, exasperated sigh from the straw hat girl.

    "If it's really that bad," she told Ash, "why don't you just go back to camp and get it checked out or somethin'?"

    "I-I'm lost."

    "Ah," the straw hat girl lazily replied, before turning around and pointing in the direction that Ash originally came from.

    "If you go up that hill and take a left through those trees," she told Ash, "you'll see those cones that they put everywhere. Follow them and they'll lead you right back to camp."

    "T-thanks..."

    "Uh-huh. Now if you excuse me, I've got some explorin' to do..."

    And with that, she began walking towards the opposite side of the clearing to go deeper into the forest. Ash, meanwhile, was more eager than ever to get out of the forest, even with the embarrassment of knowing that he would most definitely not be bringing anything back for the treasure hunt at this point. That became the least of his worries, however, as he took his first step and felt a stinging, paralyzing pain in his knee, which, of course, was his injured knee. An involuntary cry of pain burst out of Ash, catching the attention of the straw hat girl just as she was about to disappear into the bushes.

    "Sigh... you can't even walk!?"

    Clearly, Ash had caught her ire as well. Against his better judgement but in the face of bitter reality, Ash shook his head no. He expected to earn yet another irritated look from the straw hat girl, but instead she stared off into the distance, indeed looking slightly annoyed but also rather conflicted, as if she was torn between helping Ash again or just leaving him there. Before long, however, she made her choice; with another sigh, the straw hat girl walked back over to Ash.

    "Lemme take a look at that knee..."

    It wasn't a request. Before Ash even could even think about objecting or doing anything else, the straw hat girl was already right in front of him and in the middle of crouching down to his knee.

    "Hold still," she ordered as she took an up-close look at Ash's injury. It was then that he realized that he never actually saw it up-close himself; he had been too busy crying over it to actually look. He joined the straw hat girl in observing the wound, and it was ultimately everything that he had feared it would be. His knee had been scraped well below the skin, with blood and dirt visible all over. Just looking at it was painful, and the straw hat girl — who winced noticeably at the sight — clearly would've agreed with that assessment.

    "Okay, maybe this is kinda bad," she conceded, looking at the wound with worry. "I've got an idea, though; don't move!"

    The straw hat girl looked down at the long pink dress she was wearing, and frowned at it. She then grabbed one of its edges and, with a strong, merciless tug, tore it straight across the front before going sharply and abruptly down, ultimately breaking a large piece of her dress apart. Ash, witnessing the act, stared wide-eyed at the straw hat girl with complete shock and disbelief, his eyes beginning to fill with tears yet again. The straw hat girl, meanwhile, didn't even flinch at either his reaction or what she just did as she lifted up the broken piece of dress for Ash to see.

    "Never liked that one anyway," she told him simply. "Now hold still... and please stop cryin', okay?"

    Ash sniffled in response, which the straw hat girl took as enough of an affirmative to shift her attention back towards Ash's injured knee. She then took the broken piece of dress and — with a surprisingly gentle hand, contrary to what Ash would've assumed from a girl like her — placed it on top of Ash's bleeding wound, creating a makeshift bandage out of it.

    "This'll keep it from gettin' infected," the straw hat girl explained to Ash. "Trust me, you don't want that to happen..."

    Ash took her word for it, not wanting to imagine what an infected version of his knee would look like. He watched as the straw hat girl then looped the makeshift bandage around the back of his knee and began making a knot there, and Ash had a sneaking suspicion about what she was about to do next.

    "This'll hurt a little," the straw hat girl warned Ash before she rather abruptly tightened the knot on the bandage, causing Ash to wince in pain at the pressure. So much for a gentle hand...

    "Told ya," said the straw hat girl, having obviously sensed the pain in Ash's face as she completed her amateur patch-up session. She then stoop up and began admiring her handiwork, ultimately appearing rather pleased with what she had accomplished. Ash, while not exactly feeling that much better, couldn't really find any reason to complain; on the contrary, she had done arguably one of the kindest things that anyone had done for him in quite some time.

    "Not the greatest bandage ever," the straw hat girl remarked, "but it'll have to do. Now, we're gonna wanna head back to camp and get that checked out by someone who can really fix that up."

    Ash nodded in acknowledgement, right before he realized exactly what the straw hat girl had just said.

    "Wait, w-we!?"

    Ignoring Ash's surprise, the straw hat girl turned around and — rather inexplicably — lowered her back in front of him.

    "Get on," she told Ash simply.

    "Huh?"

    "On my back."

    "On your back!?" Ash cried incredulously at the straw hat girl. "But—"

    "Just do it," she snapped, startling Ash yet again with her ferocity. "I'm a strong girl; I can handle it."

    Ash had his concerns about that claim, but he was in no position whatsoever to argue with the straw hat girl, let alone right after she agreed to do something that she clearly didn't really want to do. He lifted himself up from the ground — avoiding putting pressure on his left knee while doing so — and, with some hesitation, placed himself on the straw hat girl's back, grabbing at her shoulders for support. She grunted slightly at the weight, but after lowering herself a bit more, she managed to keep Ash steady on her back; clearly, she actually could handle it.

    "I can't carry you up that hill back there, y'know," the straw hat girl informed Ash, who did begin to wonder how she planned on carrying him up such a steep slope. "We're gonna have to find another way back."

    Ash nodded, but the straw hat girl didn't seem to actually wait for his response before turning towards where she was originally about to leave. With a deep breath, she then pushed forward with Ash in tow on her back. Just as they were about to go deep into the forest — far from the familiarity and safety of the clearing — Ash suddenly realized that the entire time, he had neglected to ask the straw hat girl something very important: what her name was. He scolded himself for not thinking to ask her back when she was working on his injured knee; she would've left without either of them even knowing each others' names. But he knew that he had the opportunity to fix it now and that he had to take it, even as he could feel his usual anxiety rising up at the thought.

    "Hey, I, um... n-never got your name..."

    The very question made Ash feel incredibly uncomfortable, and he sighed to himself in embarrassment at how such a simple question could make him feel that way. He could only imagine what the straw hat girl was feeling right now, given how much of a hostile state she was in already. He was surprised, then, when she stopped and turned around at Ash with a completely puzzled look on her face.

    "You... don't know who I am?"

    Ash shook his head no, wondering why she would ask such a strange question; they definitely hadn't met before. The straw hat girl then shifted her gaze away from Ash and stared into space as if thinking deeply about something. Eventually she looked back at Ash, and it was then that she gave him something that Ash would have never expected from her in a million years:

    A smile.

    "I'm Serena."

    Serena... what a strange name for someone who was anything but serene, Ash thought to himself. (Not that he would dare share that observation with her...)

    "And what was your name again?"

    Ash couldn't help but feel the beginnings of a smile grow on his own face as he realized that he might not actually return to camp with nothing after all. And so, with some inevitable but brief hesitation, he answered her:

    "I'm Ash."

    [chapter end]
     
    Last edited: Mar 1, 2020

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