“Pancham, use Stone Edge!”
“Pan!” The proud panda Pokémon obediently nodded and leaped into action, slamming its paw against the dirt ground, forcing a spiral staircase of stones bathed in a blue-tinted glow to rise from the battlefield.
“Braixen, climb the staircase!”
“Braix!” With quick, yet steady footwork, the fox Pokémon did as ordered, jumping from stone to stone and moving higher and higher, and higher still into the air.
“Now, use Fire Blast, just like we practiced!”
In a flash, Braixen built a powerful inferno into its spinning branch and then, in one swift motion, fired it down the central opening in the spiral. It looked like a tornado of fire, cutting through the air on its downward path and singeing Pancham’s stone pillars.
“Now, the finish!”
“Brai-xen! ” As the Fire Blast moved down the stones, changing their blue tint to a red-hot glow, Braixen launched itself into the air, spinning its body into a corkscrew. After adding some stylish flips, the fox Pokémon finally shot a last-second Flamethrower attack to soften its landing. With a satisfied smirk, Braixen perfectly stuck the landing, and Pancham backflipped into position, just as the fiery stones exploded into a beautiful, glittery mist, wafting in the warm evening breeze.
“Ta-da!” the short-haired blonde said, spinning around to soak in the applause from her enthralled audience of three—plus Pikachu and Dedenne.
“That was awesome, Serena!” the jet-black-haired trainer with the Pikachu on his shoulder said, a wide grin on his face as he flashed a thumbs-up.
“Aww, thank you so much, Ash,” Serena replied, a slight hint of blush faintly emerging on her face. “We’ve been working on that last spot for the past week, nonstop, and I think we’ve just about perfected it!” She turned to her two faithful companion Pokémon. “Don’t you think so, you two?”
The two cheerfully nodded. It had been a lot of work, but the two were clearly pleased with the results, just as much as their trainer.
“I’m really impressed, Serena,” Clemont, her bespectacled scientist friend, said. “You were all perfectly in sync. If you do that at the Showcase, I have no doubt you’ll win for sure!”
“Yeah!” Bonnie, Clemont’s little sister, added. “Don’t you think so, Dedenne?”
“De-ne-ne!” the critter cheered from atop the girl’s head.
Serena marveled at her luck. I have the greatest friends in the world, she thought to herself.
After some laughter, Ash found himself overcome by a deep, extended yawn. “All right, guys, I think we should be heading to bed. The sooner we sleep, the sooner we can wake up for some more training tomorrow!” He pumped his fist.
“I guess you’re right, Ash,” Serena replied, smiling, before reaching into her pocket and pulling out two Poké Balls. “All right! Braixen, Pancham, great work today! Get some rest.” With that, she recalled her two Pokémon to their balls for the night—a hard-earned and well-deserved rest.
The trainers—and Bonnie—made their way back into the quiet Pokémon Center where they were staying, greeting Nurse Joy, who was busy typing away behind the counter, with waves and goodnights as they walked toward their rooms in the back.
Ash yawned again. “Well, goodnight Serena, Bonnie, see you tomorrow.”
“ ’night, Ash,” Serena replied, watching as Ash walked into the room he would be sharing with Clemont and closed the door behind him.
Her eyes stayed trained longingly on the closed door for a few moments before she sighed and made her way into her own room with Bonnie, quickly removing her hat and stripping off the red garment she wore over her pink dress. Placing her two Poké Balls on the end table beside the bed, she soon found herself lost in thought, staring at the spheres, thinking about her performance routine.
Braixen and Pancham did such a good job today, she thought to herself. It’s taken a while, but we seem to have the routine down.
There was a muffled sound. “—ey—na?”
But what if we slip up? I mean, it is a bit complex, isn’t it? What if Braixen loses her footing when climbing Pancham’s stones?
Or what if Braixen mistimes her final Flamethrower attack? A droplet of sweat started to drip down her face. And what if the stones don’t explode right? That could mean—
“Hey, Serena?” Bonnie said, pouting.
“Huh?” Serena blurted out, instantly snapping out of her thoughts, her eyes focusing on the dear little girl standing in front of her. “Oh! Oh, Bonnie, I’m sorry.” She rubbed the back of her head in mild embarrassment. “I was just thinking about the Showcase routine, trying to find even more ways I can improve it. I must’ve spaced out. What’s up?”
After a few seconds, the little girl’s pout slowly shifted into a smile. “Ah, that’s okay, Serena,” Bonnie replied. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your thinking.”
“Now, come on, don’t worry about that. It’s fine.”
“Well, I just wanted ask you if you could read me a story tonight before bed.”
Serena beamed. “Of course I will, Bonnie.”
“All right!” The little girl cheered. “I mean, I’m just so excited about the party tomorrow that I don’t think I can sleep! Thanks, Serena!”
“Party?” Serena’s face faltered slightly, struck by a sudden sense of confusion. Wait, what party is she talking about? I’d remember hearing about a party, wouldn’t I? Wait—tomorrow?!
Taken aback, Bonnie cocked an eyebrow. “Uh, Ash’s surprise birthday party?”
“Oh, right, of course!” Serena giggled. “Ash’s surprise birth—” Then she froze, her blood running ice-cold. “Ash’s surprise birthday party?! ”
Bonnie winced and waved her arms frantically. “Shhhhhhh! Serena, be quiet!” she said in a hushed voice. “What if Ash hears you?”
Serena, beet-red with embarrassment, quickly covered her mouth. “Um, uh, s-sorry. Sorry!”
No, no, no. Surely this was a mistake. This can’t be real, can it?
I’d never, ever forget Ash’s birthday! Never, never ever! Not a chance, right?
Bonnie pouted. “You didn’t forget Ash’s birthday, did you, Serena?”
Serena was frantic. “Me? Forget Ash’s birthday? No, never! Of course not!”
“Oh, really?” Bonnie said skeptically, crossing her arms and narrowing her eyes, Dedenne mimicking her movements atop her head. “Well then, you wouldn’t mind if I asked about the present you got for Ash, would you?”
“You forgot to get Ash a pres—”
“No!” Serena interrupted. “I-I’ll have you kn-know that I got Ash the best present ever!”
“Then let me see it, Serena,” Bonnie asked, a mixture of skepticism, disbelief, and disappointment clear on her face and in her voice.
“I-I can’t. It’s, um, it’s, well—” Sweat leaked down from her brow. “It’s a secret!”
There was a sudden knock at the door.
“No one’s here! ” Serena yelped, feeling like she had just leaped out of her skin. “I mean, come in!”
The door opened and Clemont stood in the doorway. “Is everything all right in here?” the young scientist asked. As his eyes scanned Serena’s face, a look a concern rose on his own. “Hey, Serena, are you okay?”
“W-What do you mean, Clemont? I-I’m f-f-fine!” Serena countered, as her body seemed to shake like a leaf in a storm. Then, her eyes widened.
To her absolute horror, she watched as the little girl walked over to her big brother, tugged on his arm and motioned for him to lower his head to her level, and started to whisper into his ear.
Within seconds, Clemont’s concerned look was replaced by one of complete shock. “You’re kidding me,” he said, taking a step back. “Serena, you forgot? After all our planning and—”
“No!” she interrupted. “I would never, ever forget about Ash’s birthday! That’d be—” She stopped, a feeling of dread building in her stomach.
No, no, no…
Her heart rate began to race—fast. She could feel more and more sweat starting to drip down her face and her fingers beginning to shake uncontrollably. She was on the verge of tears, barely holding them back.
Clemont tilted his head. “Serena?”
Suddenly, Serena turned and grabbed her hat and bag, then hastily made her way to the door.
“Serena, where are you going?” Clemont asked.
“I, uh, I just r-remembered I forgot that I had to do something in town,” she replied in a huff, unable to even look either of the two siblings in the eyes. “Be back in a flash!”
“But Serena, it’s late! You shouldn’t be—”
With the door crashing shut against its frame, she was gone, leaving Clemont and Bonnie standing alone in the now-quiet room, perplexed beyond words at what they just witnessed.
“Wait, Serena!” Bonnie finally called out. “What about my story?”
How could I be so stupid?
Serena’s chest constricted, feeling like it was being crushed in a vise. Though she had long been used to daily, early-morning runs, she had never had a run like this before, not even when prepping for Rhyhorn racing practice back home in Vaniville Town. Gasping for air and on the verge of hyperventilating, she was fighting her own body—both physical exhaustion and the overbearing emotional weight of her own guilt—desperate not to collapse, intent on moving forward.
What kind of horrible friend am I?
Forgetting such an important day…
As she continued to fight back the tears that had been trying to burst since she left the Pokémon Center, she saw the city’s commercial market district in the distance. It wasn’t busy—not at this evening hour, as denizens settled in for the night. The streets were sparsely dotted by a few night crawlers, but mostly in and around the restaurants.
I need a present…
She took a hard right, turning into a store lined with shiny trinkets. Her eyes darted around frantically, looking for something—anything. Her only criterion was that it had to be perfect.
I can’t disappoint him…make him think I don’t care.
I need a—
Just then, she saw it.
In an instant it seemed like all her exhaustion had vanished, all her breath returned, and her weakening tear ducts suddenly closed. Her field of vision returned to clear focus, centered on that one object sitting before her, seemingly glistening with a heavenly glow, as if the forces of the universe themselves were presenting it to her.
Her eyes glistened back.
Suddenly bursting with happiness, Serena practically skipped toward the counter.
“My, my, don’t you look happy, young lady,” the clerk said, smiling broadly. She was a tall woman of slender build with a warm face, dressed in a proper uniform with a name tag. “How can I help you tonight, sweetie?”
Serena pointed to the object of her focus, the perfect present for Ash. “I would like to buy that, please. It’s really important.”
The clerk glanced over and her eyes widened. “Oh my!” Then her mouth curled into a smile. “Must be really important, indeed.”
Serena chuckled. “It is! Believe you me, I can’t tell you how important that is to me right now.”
“I see.” The clerk typed away at her computer. “Well then, dear, I’m glad you found what you were looking for. So—” She paused for a moment. “—if that’s what you want, that’ll be ¥6800.”
Nodding, Serena reached into her bag, pulling out her pink wallet. “All right, sixty-eight hun—”
Then, she stopped, and her bright smile fell. She blinked a few times, shook her head, and then looked again.
It was empty.
“Huh? That can’t be right.”
Nothing? But I swear I had some money here when I last checked! I know it was…wait!
The clerk looked at the girl with sympathy, a brief glimmer of sadness in her eyes. “I’m sorry, dear, but is there a problem?”
A cold chill started to run through her bloodstream, and then a realization hit her. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the money—she knew she had had the money.
But she had spent it…
Spent it on accessories to use in the upcoming Showcase…
The earlier feeling of guilt came roaring back like a high-speed freight train. “I…I’m sorry,” Serena said weakly, before falling silent. Then, after a few moments, she started to speak again. “I don’t…I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m sorry.” Her mood darkening, she slowly turned around and sulked out, closing the door behind her, quietly muttering additional apologies.
The clerk watched wordlessly—she wanted to say something, but the moment slipped past too quickly. And before she could fully process what had just happened, her would-be customer was already gone.
Outside, Serena felt her heart in her throat—breaking. Staring into her empty wallet, she could no longer contain her tears, and they started to flow. Trembling, she buried her face in her hands.
I’m an awful friend…
I got so distracted that…
I not only forgot…but I spent that money on…
She cried and cried and cried, completely gripped by the devastating feeling in her soul.
Even as her mind drifted to potential solutions, they only deepened her sadness and made her guilt feel even worse. She recalled Ash telling her, Clemont, and Bonnie not long after she started traveling with him that they were free to use funds from his personal account whenever they needed—the one that contained the winnings he had made from his placements at past Pokémon League competitions, the very reason he said he was able to worry less about money as his journey stretched on. The temptation crept into her agonized mind, if only briefly, but even in her state she knew the idea of taking Ash’s money, even money that he said he was more than happy to let her use, in order to buy a gift for Ash, was wrong. Deeply, morally wrong, and unethical beyond words.
She wondered how the thought could’ve even crossed her mind.
I should be ashamed…
“Excuse me, little girl?”
Face drenched in tears, Serena sniffled and gazed up at the owner of the strange voice.
It was a hefty older man, bald-headed, his eyes hidden behind the dark lenses of his glasses and an unevenly trimmed, patchy beard on his face.
“What’s wrong?” the man added. His voice was strangely high-pitched.
“N-Nothing,” Serena replied.
“Those tears don’t look like nothing, so what’s wrong? Come on, maybe I can help, miss.”
She wiped the tears out of her eyes and tried to readjust her blurry vision to focus on the man.
What am I thinking? Telling a random stranger something so personal, so embarrassing? I shouldn’t…
She paused, then sighed. “Y-You see, I went to that store because I needed to get a present for my—my really good friend.” She paused again. “And I found something perfect, but I couldn’t afford it. Because I carelessly spent the money I was saving for this on myself, because I—I forgot. I need it before tomorrow, and it’s ¥6800, and I—” She sniffled. “And I don’t know what to do.”
“I see,” the man replied, a smile creeping across his face. “Well then, if that’s all, perhaps I can help you, little girl.”
Serena locked eyes with the man. “R-Really? You can?”
The man chuckled. “Of course…so long as you do something for me.”
“You’re kinda cute.”
Serena froze. “E-Excuse me?”
“Yeah, a cute girl like you could definitely make me a very happy, very lucky guy.”
Serena wanted to run, but her muscles had locked up. She couldn’t move. Her sudden terror had frozen her solid.
“W-What? No!” she finally said. “W-What are you talking about?”
The man grunted, then reached into his pocket, pulled out seven paper bills, and flashed them in her face.
Serena’s eyes widened and her hands instinctively covered her mouth in shock.
The man was hanging ¥7000 in front of her.
Her legs felt like they were trapped in quicksand—even though she knew she had to run, that this strange man was dangerous and was going to hurt her if she didn’t run, she found herself mesmerized by the notes in her face.
“Well? Is it a deal?” the man asked. “You come with me, do a little somethin’ for me, and you can have this here money and buy your little friend his little present. Everybody’s happy.” He snorted. “ ’specially me, of course.” His eyes scanned Serena’s body, head to toe, back and front, eyebrows raising at certain things. “With assets like those, I just know you’ll definitely be a fun’n.”
Serena was too terrified to even gulp. Her mind was racing.
I need to run, but I can’t move…
This isn’t worth the money…Ash wouldn’t…
If I go with him, and do what he says, he’s going to…and…
It’ll be like I’m betraying Ash…if I…
But what if I don’t do what he says? What if I try to run and he grabs me and forces me to…
And what if he…
And I don’t…
I need to get out of here.
Then, she felt a jolt in her body, snapping her out of her trance.
Wait, of course! What am I waiting for? My Pokémon! I’m not alone! I can fight!
Regaining mobility, she dug into her pocket for her Poké Balls, ready to sic Braixen and Pancham on the disgusting man and send him off crying himself.
But she couldn’t find them.
“Huh? My—my Pokémon, where are they?!”
Then in a flash, she remembered—she recalled placing them on the end table beside the bed in the Pokémon Center, and she then recalled hastily running past Clemont and Bonnie on her way out, grabbing her bag, and her hat, and…and…
No! I forgot to grab Braixen and Pancham!
Her heart sank.
She was all alone.
“Aww, don’t have any Pokémon around to protect you, little girl?” the man said mockingly. “What a shame.” His lips parted, revealing a yellowed, open-mouth smile. “Then I guess you have no choice.”
Serena spun around and readied herself to run as far as she could, as fast as she could, but before she could take even one step, she felt a cold hand grab hold of her shoulder.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhh! ” she shrieked.
It happened in a split second.
But Serena couldn’t see what had happened—in her fear, she had closed her eyes the moment she felt the man’s hand on her. However, she knew something had just happened. Aside from hearing what sounded like an explosion right next to her, she could no longer feel the hand that had grabbed hold of her shoulder…and she suddenly noticed the smell of something…wet. As she slowly opened her eyes, Serena noticed the strange man knocked to the ground, completely drenched in water.
Then, as the man began to stir and stand back up…
“Greninja, another water shuriken! ”
“Aghhhhh! ” In another split second, the man was struck by the massive liquid projectile, blasted back off his feet and across the plaza area, his body slamming back into the ground. This time, though in even greater pain, the man got the message; he scrambled briefly on all-fours, before taking off running.
Serena was shaking. It had been an incredibly close call. Had Greninja not been there at that very moment, who knows what the man would’ve done with her after grabbing her?
Hearing footsteps moving toward her, Serena turned around.
And there he was.
A deep feeling of relief began flooding into her—only for a deep feeling of guilt to follow, too. She wanted to run up to him, wrap her arms around him tightly, and thank him endlessly for saving her from that vile man.
But she also feared that he already knew the shameful reason why she was in this predicament in the first place.
Before she could move herself, she watched as Ash bolted toward her, placing his hands on her shoulders and meeting her shimmering blue eyes with his own brown ones.
“Serena, are you okay?” Ash said with a hardened face. “Did he hurt you?”
Serena blinked a few times before responding. “A-Ash…how did you know I was—”
“Clemont and Bonnie told me.”
“Told me everything.”
Oh no, no, no.
“Um…” Her face faltered, her gaze into his eyes broke, and she looked to the ground. What could she say? Was he mad? “I—I’m s-sorry, Ash.” She wanted to wrap her arms around him, but she couldn’t. Instead, she turned her back to him and started to cry again.
“Hmm? Sorry? Sorry for—”
“I’m so, so sorry, Ash! This is all my fault! I’m a rotten friend who forgot about your birthday because I’m stupid and got so focused on training for the Showcase!”
Their surroundings were dead silent.
“And then I couldn’t admit that, so I lied to Bonnie and Clemont and ran out here to buy you the perfect present that you deserve but I didn’t have the money because I’d spent it all on stuff for Showcases and…and—”
Just then, she felt a sudden hand on her shoulder—but this one didn’t make her wince or scream. It was soft and tender, caring and…and loving. She turned her gaze and met again with those brown eyes.
“Oh, Serena, I don’t care about any of that stuff,” Ash said, smiling broadly.
Serena blinked in confusion. “Huh?”
“Nah, I don’t care about presents when I’ve got friends like you.” He chuckled and rubbed under his nose. “I’m really glad you’re safe, Serena. That’s all that matters.”
“It was really nice of you, Clemont, and Bonnie to even want to throw me a surprise party. I mean, I usually don’t think too much about my birthday, to tell you the truth.”
Serena couldn’t bring herself to say another word.
“Come on, Serena. I’m not mad. Really!”
“R-Really, Ash?” she finally asked.
“Totally! And you know, Serena—if you really spent the money you wanted to spend on a present for me on Showcase stuff, well—that’s just the kind of present I would’ve wanted anyway!”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“Yeah! There’s nothing I want more from you than for you to achieve your goal, for you to become Kalos Queen! No present in the world could be more important than that! So, in a way, you did get me the perfect present!”
A smile broke through on Serena’s face. “Oh, Ash.” She chuckled. “You’re an amazing person and friend. I don’t know what I did to deserve a friend like you.”
Ash flashed a toothy smile back. “Come on, Serena. Let’s head back.”
After returning Greninja to its Poké Ball, Ash and Serena started down the pathway back to the Pokémon Center, side by side.
Just then, without warning, Serena felt a warm presence wrap around her hand, and looked down to see…
He was holding her hand.
Serena’s face swelled pink as she turned to look up. Turning his head to face hers, Ash merely smiled and giggled.
After a moment of thought, she took a deep breath and smiled back. “Happy birthday, Ash.”