Hello everyone, here is the start of a story that's been in my head for a while now. I hope you all enjoy how it's starting off! This is the first story I'll have written in a long while, so I hope I'm not too rusty! This is being cross-posted to AO3 under the same username in case you would rather read it over there instead.

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

What was it that made a Pokémon Master?

It was a question that Ash had been asking himself a lot lately. Was it the close bond between the trainer and their Pokémon? The strength they had after years of careful training? Did they hold the title of Champion in every region? Or was it something as unattainable as capturing every Pokemon?

Ever since his victory in the Alolan league, Ash had been doing some thinking about his dream. The dream that he had pursued ever since he was a child. Seven years of traveling, beating gyms, capturing Pokémon, and entering Leagues in what seemed like a never-ending cycle. Getting so close to victory and taking a momentous step towards achieving his dream at last... only to have it snatched away from him in the end was frustrating. First due to his own incompetence as a trainer. Later by trainers more skilled or experienced than him. Once it had even been against a trainer who used legendaries. In that instance, he had been proud of how far he had made it and the accomplishment of being the only one to defeat two of that trainers Pokémon.

Finally, however, he had won a league. He had battled against numerous skilled trainers who could all have gone on to potentially win the tournament and come out on top. Yet after finally winning, he felt… empty.

What was he supposed to do now? Journey to another region to participate in their league? Did he really want to go through same cycle again? Wasn't there something better he could do?

Ash blinked when he felt a small, furry paw poke his cheek. "Pi?"

He smiled at the small yellow rodent on his shoulder. "I'm alright, Pikachu. Just thinking."

Pikachu tilted its head in confusion. "Pika?"

He reached up and scratched his partner behind the ears. "Just about what I want to do with my life is all. Don't worry, it's nothing you need to worry about."

Pikachu eyed him warily for a moment, then sighed in acceptance.

"What about you, Pikachu? Anything on your mind?"

Pikachu tapped his paw against his chin. Then he nodded and shot Ash a smile. "Cha! Pi pika Pikachu!"

"You want ketchup when we get back home?"

Pikachu nodded. "Pikachu!"

Ash chuckled and stroked his partner's head. Pikachu had a one-track mind whenever it came to food, just like his trainer. Unlike him, Pikachu had an unhealthy love of ketchup though. All these years and he had never once come close to learning why.

The two traveled in comfortable silence after a bit more mindless banter. Or as much as a Human and Pokémon could have anyway. He may not have able to completely understand his partner, but Ash and Pikachu had been together so long that he could understand the meaning behind Pikachu's words from his body language.

Ash looked towards the sun. It wasn't noon yet, so there was no reason to stop. Besides, he was close enough to Pallet Town that he could skip lunch for an early dinner. Though why his mom had told him to be out of the house for most of the day had been strange. More so because of the reason than her not doing it. She'd said that she was busy prepping the house for some reason and that she couldn't have him around, even when he offered to help.

His mom could be so weird sometimes.

His trainer could be so weird sometimes.

For the last few days, Ash had been trying to hide the conflict raging inside his mind. To Pikachu, it was as clear as day what was going on though. He did this every time they lost at the League. He was always doubting himself when they lost, no matter how much he tried to hide it. It usually only lasted a week or so before he bounced back to his usual, charmingly oblivious self.

This was different though.

Not just because they had won the last league. Not just because it had lasted longer. Ash seemed to be thinking more than usual and every time Pikachu looked at him, he could see these forlorn looks on his face. At night – when everyone else had gone asleep – he'd seen Ash leaving the house to go do… something. He never came back until early in the morning before everyone was awake. It showed too – his eyes were bloodshot and baggy. He moved sluggishly most of the day and missed things he normally never would. He'd nearly seen him walk into a tree multiple times today alone!

The rest of the team hadn't noticed yet, and he was determined not to tell them. He'd enlist their help if he needed them, but Pikachu was determined to help Ash himself for the time being. Now he just needed a strategy beyond giving his trainer space since that hadn't worked so far.

Now that he thought about it... the team might be the perfect way to lighten Ash's mood. Spending time with all their old friends was always fun. It always seemed to cheer Ash up when he saw everyone getting along. Perhaps Ash's mom could even help. She no doubt saw the change in Ash as well and would be doing everything she could to lighten his mood. Together, Pikachu was certain they could help his trainer.

"There it is Pikachu. Pallet Town." His best friend declared. "Beautiful, isn't it? Every time we're home, I just can't help but smile. I think we'll stay a while before we leave again."

Pikachu smiled. It was as if the legendaries who controlled the skies had decided to offer them a nice, clear day. He knew it was only going to get better after that when he went to see the other Pokémon at the ranch. He wondered what kind of surprise they'd have for Ash and him when they arrived.

When people thought of the police, the images that came to mind were rarely flattering for those that swore to serve and protect. After the numerous eras in policing of corruption and incompetence - all of which ended in the suffering of the average folk - it was understandable they weren't held in the highest regard. Even with years of trying to make up for that at this point, the police just didn't have the trusting relationship they needed with those they were supposed to serve. Of course, given that the latest string of criminal gangs in recent years had all been felled by children or Champions, it didn't help to refute the belief that the police were incompetent.

It was a hard truth to swallow.

Officer Jenny let out a tired sigh and leaned over her desk, a pitcher of steaming hot coffee on the desk to her right. Arrayed on the desk in front of her was a mountain of photos, documents, and reports from the last few weeks in and around Mauville city.

A prominent advocate for harsher sentencing for Pokemon thieves had recently been exposed accepting bribes from criminal syndicates. The head of a local crime family and all those with the potential to inherit it had been found dead at one of their front businesses. One of the local Pokemon Centers within the city had been broken into in the dead of night and stolen all the Pokemon held within it.

The list of crimes went on and their consequences were beginning to become too much for the police to handle. With strong evidence of corruption, everything the politician had advocated for was deemed just as tainted as he was regardless of how much good it could have done. After the crippling of the local crime family, the criminal underworld was left in a state of chaos, and everyone was scrambling to claim as much power or territory as they could. After the blatant theft of an entire Pokemon Center, the Pokemon League and all the trainers associated with it were up in arms.

The only people benefitting from any of these events was Team Rocket.

Officer Jenny bit back a snarl and forced coffee down her throat straight from the pitcher to keep herself focused. Even thinking of Team Rocket was enough to have her seeing red.

With their largest opponents in the city either disarmed or dead, Team Rocket had free reign to expand their influence within the city. She suspected that by the end of the month, Team Rocket would have either completely supplanted the once powerful crime family or taken over enough of the business that it would only be a matter of time.

At the moment, however, the ultimate fate of the city and who controlled the underworld wasn't on her mind. At the top of the pile of photos was a picture of a child in a hospital bed. Based on what they knew from the League and his parents, he had only just started his journey this year. Not a particularly skilled trainer by any means, his parents had claimed that the boy was on a journey to become the best baker in the world.

It was a wonderful reason to go on a journey. He should have been learning the best techniques and sampling the best food from culinary masters across the world. Instead, his ambitions were rewarded with pain and suffering that no child should have to endure.

The boy had been found just outside the gates to the city on the back of his Mightyena. The boy had been badly poisoned and suffered from numerous broken bones. His Pokemon had all been the same but to an even more severe degree. Last she had heard, they were in critical condition at one of the Pokemon Centers that hadn't been robbed yet.

Fortunately, the boy was in better shape and would be fine with enough continued treatment. Once he had woken up, officers had able to find out that he had been ambushed a few miles outside of the city by a pair of unknown men. While the boy may have thought that it was a simple case of bandits on the road, Officer Jenny knew better.

While Team Rocket had been ditching the old black uniforms their agents were known for wearing, identifying when they were involved was easy. For the last two years, that band of scum had been targeting Psychic Pokemon specifically. Whether they were in the wild or under the control of powerful trainers, there were scattered reports all over the region about their attacks.

This poor boy had been unfortunate enough to own a Kirlia and become a target. Officer Jenny thanked whatever gods were out there that they hadn't killed the kid. For all their flaws, that seemed to be the one line those criminals weren't willing to cross.

He had at least been more fortunate than the older trainers that had been in Team Rocket's sight the past few weeks. While Jenny hadn't been involved in most of the cases, from she had heard the attacks were brutal. Far too brutal for what should have been a band of incompetent fools from Kanto.

Not for the first time, she wished that Kanto had been capable of handling their criminals like the rest of them. Now because of their incompetency, Team Rocket had spread far beyond that backwater regions borders and was becoming a blight on the world.

There was nothing she could do about it though. Nothing anyone in Hoenn could do. The police were stretched thin and underfunded. The Rangers were focused more on the Pokemon and environment than the human element. And the League? They only ever seemed to step in when they could make a show of it for the public.

Officer Jenny set the pitcher down on the desk and clenched her fist. If something wasn't done soon, Team Rocket would turn the beautiful Hoenn region into a hotbed of criminal activity.

The world needed a champion against the darkness.

"Mom, I'm home!"

"I'm out back, Ash! Come here, there's something I want you to see!"

He blinked. What was so important he had to go see it right now? "I wonder what's going on. You know anything about this, Pikachu?"

"Pika." The shake of his partners head confirmed that he didn't know either. Well, it couldn't be a bad surprise, right?

When he pushed open the door, Ash expected to find his mom out back with Mr. Mime preparing lunch or gardening. Maybe even Professor Oak and Gary out back too if they were both in town.


He hadn't expected to find a crowd of nearly all his friends here in his backyard alongside nearly all the Pokémon he had ever captured. Picnic tables had been stacked full of food from all kinds of regions, streamers and various other party ornaments were decorating the trees and garden, and his friends were all holding up a large banner to congratulate him. Confetti and party blowers were even in the mouths of his Pokémon.

The only ones not there were his friends from Alola.

He waved the confetti out of his face and smiled. Pikachu hopped off his shoulder and dashed towards the other Pokémon in the back. His friends almost immediately swarmed him to offer him their congratulations and bury him with questions. He laughed. "It's great to see you guys again!"

It was honestly a little much to keep up with since they were all talking at the same time. Seeing them all again had filled him with… warmth? Joy? Excitement/ It was hard to describe. Regardless of what exactly he was feeling, seeing all of his friends again was overwhelming. He tried to answer all the questions that he could, but it all blended together. Say what you would about his friends, but they were always the kind of people who wanted to know how he was doing.

Mercifully, he felt two pairs of hands grab his arms and pull him from the crowd of people. He smiled at the sight of Dawn and May. Out of all his traveling companions, they had to be the two he was closest to… not that he would ever tell the others. He wasn't prepared to see their hurt faces.

"Thanks for that. I was getting a little overwhelmed before." Ash laughed and rubbed the back of his head. "What are you all doing here? Shouldn't you all be on your own journeys?"

Not that he didn't appreciate them coming to see him. If anything, seeing everyone here made him forget all his troubles, even if only for a moment.

"Your mom called us all after you won the league. She arranged for us to come visit you." May pulled him towards the table of food. His mouth was already watering from the smell and sight of it all.

May looked different than the last time he'd seen her. While she was still sporting her orange vest and tight black shorts as he'd last seen her, he had a green bow in her hair instead of her old bandana. Even then, she had an air of confidence about her that she hadn't had before. Like she was more confident in herself and what she was capable of.

"We all came as soon as we heard to celebrate you winning the League!" Dawn laughed and pulled him into a tight hug, disrupting his musings. "You were so great this year, Ash. I knew you'd win from the beginning."

He smiled at her confidence in him and wrapped his arms around his friend. "Thanks. It's great to see you again, Dawn. You too, May. I've missed you both. How've you been doing recently?"

Dawn for her part was different as well. Unlike the last time he'd seen her, she'd added a nice ruby red winter coat and a long, winding white scarf to her attire. It actually made a lot of sense now that he was looking at it. Sinnoh was the coldest region in the world. It was pretty strange looking back that she hadn't been wearing that stuff when they travelled together. The magic of hindsight and all that….

May smiled. "It's been going good. Me and Dawn got to have a rematch in our last contest. Now we're tied for wins after I won this time."

Dawn rolled her eyes and disentangled herself from him. "Maybe this time, but don't think I'll let it happen again. I plan on winning the next time we compete against each other."

"I'd be disappointed if you didn't, Dawn."

Ash snickered at their behavior and piled food onto his plate. The rivalry between May and Dawn had been something he hadn't expected. In a way, it was like seeing two of his students facing off to prove who was better. Not that he'd ever call them his students. All he'd taught them was the basics of being a trainer. At least their rivalry was better than his and Gary's had been – or worse, his and Paul's.

He looked up and smiled when he saw his mom and the others all approaching him. He set his plate down and pulled her into a warm hug. She'd gone through all the trouble of getting his friends to come visit. She truly was the perfect mom.

"Thanks for doing this, mom. It's so great to see everyone again."

His mom nodded and rubbed his back. "I thought you'd enjoy the chance to see all your friends again after your victory. Your friends from Alola couldn't come though. They were all busy, but they said you should call them soon. They want to make sure you're settling in back home."

"It's alright. I'll call them as soon as I get a chance." His eyes slipped past her and to the group of people behind her. At least they had decided to leave his Pokémon alone for the moment.

Almost everyone being here like this and putting their own journeys on hold to come here and celebrate with him warmed his heart. People that he hadn't seen or spoken to in years were here and now he had to chance to reconnect with them. He could even see his Pokémon all getting along and welcoming Pikachu back. It was a shame that he'd left his Alolan Pokemon back in Alola, but he was certain he'd get them all to meet one day.

All he had to do was figure out what he was going to do next.

The criminal underworld wasn't nearly as unorganized or violent as many liked to believe it to be. People liked to believe that it was chaotic and primal. That anyone involved in it was giving into their base instincts and killing over simple desire. The reality was that it was all business. Supply and demand; real estate; pest control; every service provided in normal society was provided in one way or another by the criminal underworld as well.

It was this same principle that made manipulating criminals so easy.

The sound of shuffling papers drew Domino's attention to a man - a sniveling, overweight man in a suit two sizes too small for him with a greedy look in his eyes - sitting across from her.

"It was a pleasure doing business with you, Ms. Domino." The perverse grin on the man's face made her skin crawl. "I can already tell the partnership between my family and Team Rocket will benefit us all."

Domino had never failed any task that Giovanni had given her. As one of his personal agents, she was considered the best of the best within Team Rocket. She had the best training, the best equipment, and the best assignments. In return, he expected the best results. More importantly, however, he deserved the best results.

She forced a smile onto her face. "You've made a wise decision, Mr. Algilani. Team Rocket always makes sure its friends are well taken care of." Her voice was filled with such false, saccharine kindness that she almost worried he'd call her out on it.

Luckily, he was dense enough to think it was genuine.

"Now about what you owe us..."

Mr. Algilani nodded. "Of course, Ms. Domino. We can't be partners if we aren't both fulfilling our duties." He slid a thin yellow folder across the table towards her. "Mrs. Burk will be staying in room 314 of The Bisharp and The Gardevoir for the entire weekend. She should be arriving in Viridian City within the next few hours. I don't know why you're interested in a philanthropist of all people, but I'll ask that whatever it is doesn't trace back to us."

Domino only half listened to him as her eyes scanned the contents of the folder. Everything was here. Up to date photos of what the woman looked like, her usual habits, her schedule, even the layout of the event she would be attending.

Despite being in a room with people she detested, a genuine smile spread across her face. Giovanni would be pleased to hear that their new allies were more than incompetent mobsters clinging to the past. Even if their leader was a fool, they knew how to get the job done. They'd make excellent cannon fodder for taking over Saffron.

"I take it you're pleased?"

Domino nodded and closed the folder. "Very. The Boss will be pleased to see he made the right choice. I'll be sure to contact our people and have the money transferred to your accounts."

Mr. Algilani's grin seemed to split his face in half with a set of pearly white teeth. "Wonderful. Before you go, Ms. Domino, would you like something to drink? I have a fine selection of wines straight from the vineyards of Kalos."

Domino chuckled. "Well, I guess since the Boss isn't here, I should celebrate our alliance. Alright, pour me a glass. Red wine, please."

Mr. Algilani snapped his fingers. "Get to it, boys! Let's show Ms. Domino that her boss made the best choice allying with us instead of the other fools in this city!"

Domino rolled her eyes. Truly, mob bosses were such easy people to fool. They were either overly cautious patriarchs or narcissistic fools waiting for a knife in the back. Both were so predictable and easily manipulated, if in different ways. They were fools for believing they were partners with Team Rocket.

Domino looked forward to the day they could do away with them all.

"You were so cool this last tournament, Ash! That battle with Pikachu and Tapu Koko was amazing!"

Hearing Max's excitement at his battle was enough to warm Ash's heart. It'd been too long since he'd seen Max and his enthusiasm when it came to Pokémon was infectious. His pure joy for battling and raising Pokémon was almost enough to make him forget about his troubles.

Was this what it was like to be around him when he was excited?

"I would have had Pikachu focus on dodging instead of trying to meet Tapu Koko's attack head on, but that's just me." Max boasted.

Ash couldn't help but laugh and ruffle his smaller friends' hair. Max never meant anything when he said he could do things better. It was his way of helping you improve, even if it wasn't always so obvious.

Max had grown in the years they had been apart. While he still wore the same kinds of clothes, he was much taller now, almost as tall as Ash himself. He wore a large backpack no doubt filled with all the survival supplies one could ever need and had a pair of fingerless white gloves.

"Pikachu didn't have enough energy to dodge it, Max. Its battle with Tapu Koko had tired it out and I thought the best way to end it would be with one full power attack." He laughed sheepishly. "And in the end it worked."

"Speaking of your battle, Ash, where are the other Pokemon you used?" Brock inquired.

To his credit, Ash thought he managed to hide the surge of bittersweet emotions he got when he thought about his Alolan Pokemon. "They're back in Alola with the Professor. I thought it'd be best to leave them there. They deserved a break after everything they did."

"Speaking of Alola, we heard that you spent a lot of time there helping people. Always the selfless trainer, huh?" Misty complimented.

Serena giggled. "He's always rushing off to help people. It's his first instinct. He can't help it."

"Yeah. If he weren't such a kid, he'd be a genuine superhero with how often he rushes off to help others." Iris teased.

Everyone - Ash included - laughed. "Well, it is one of his best qualities. If someone needs help, Ash will always be the first person there to help them. It's what makes him so endearing." Cilan added.

Ash blinked as an idea came to him. "Hey Max, you've started your journey now, right?"

Max nodded, bobbing his head up and down curiously. "Yeah, I have. I decided to start my journey here in the Kanto region before I tried to compete in the Hoenn League. Why?"

Ash smiled. "Well, I promised to battle you when you became a trainer, didn't I?"

Max's eyes widened. "You did! I can't believe I forgot that." Max groaned and pulled on his hair, shaking his head. Ash just smiled at the childish display of frustration. "Alright then! Can we battle now?"

Ash glanced at his mother. He didn't want to ruin any plans she had.

She just giggled and waved off his worries. "It's fine, sweetie. Just don't damage the house or the garden."

Ash moved towards his crowd of Pokemon and spread his arms out theatrically in front of him. "Who do you wanna battle against, Max?"

The answer was immediate and unsurprising. "Pikachu!"

"Alright then, let's get started!"

Ash couldn't suppress the wild grin on his face as he prepared for the battle ahead of him. Max had been a student of his - someone that he had taught just as much as Brock had. The ability to not just see Max begin his journey but be the one he had his first official battle as a Pokémon trainer with was enough to make him almost more excited than a battle with a rival would have.

"Pikachu, you ready? Let's give Max a battle to remember!"

Pikachu nodded and pumped his tiny fist in the air. "Pika!" He hopped off his shoulder and towards the battlefield. Static electricity was dancing in his round red cheeks, and the fierce determination that always lingered in his body language was shown off the everyone.

Max raised a miniature Poké ball, enlarging it in his palm. "Alright! Ralts, come on out!"

Before everyone's eyes materialized a small, white humanoid a white gown with two large red horns protruding from its green head. It looked around the battlefield for moment, exuding an aura of curiosity. When its gaze landed on Ash and Pikachu, though, that curiosity changed to fierce determination. It looked back at Max and nodded.

Well, at least Ash knew that Max had been talking about him to his Pokémon now. It was flattering to know he thought so highly of him.

"This is that same Ralts that you helped out back when we were traveling together, isn't it?"

Max nodded. "I promised her that she'd be my partner when I became a trainer."

"I hope you and Ralts are ready!" Ash tipped his hat to his beginner friend. "I'll give you the first move. Make it count."

Max flashed a smile his way. "Thanks. Ralts, use Hypnosis!"

Ralts nodded in compliance with her trainer's orders. Though her eyes were unseen, she glowed as the latent psychic energy her kind possessed engulfed her body and focused her attention squarely on Pikachu with the hopes of sending Ash's partner into a forced sleep.

Ash felt a smile stretch across his face. Most beginning trainers focused entirely on offense. To rookies, the concept of more defensive styles were dull and ineffective. They only learned to be more diverse and less direct once the learned the hard way.

He was glad that Max didn't need that lesson.

"Pikachu, Quick Attack into Iron Tail."

Not a moment passed between the end of Ash's command and Pikachu's execution. One moment Pikachu stood there while the psychic energy of Ralts closed in on him, the next he was a flurry of motion too fast for the eye to see. He zigzagged around the battlefield with such speed that the inexperienced Ralts couldn't keep track of him. He then leapt into the air and his tail glowed brightly as it took on a metallic, silver coating. With a battle cry, he spun down towards the earth with the intent of slamming into Ralts.

"Ralts, use Teleport!"

On que, Ralts dematerialized before everyone's eyes mere moments before Pikachu slammed his tail into where she used to be, kicking up a cloud of dust and debris. For most trainers, a cloud of dust like this would have left them panicking. In battle, a trainer relied on their sight to determine the best course of action. Without it, they were less than useless.

It took a truly gifted trainer to not give in to panic and think critically. Ash was willing to give Max the chance to show his skills.

Across the battlefield, Ash could see a hint of fear flash through Max's eyes. It was gone before he could say anything and replaced with fierce determination. "Ralts, try and sense where it is psychically and then use Psychic!"

It wasn't a bad plan, all things considered. While the obvious plan would have been to disperse the dust cloud, that would have given them both their sight back. By using Ralts psychic powers as a substitute, Max had turned a bad situation to his advantage. Against any normal trainer, it would have been a crippling blow.

Unfortunately for his young friend, Pikachu's hearing and sense of smell were strong enough on their own that he didn't need to see his enemy to hit them.

"Pikachu, use Quick Attack."

A white blur sped out of the dust cloud towards Ralts. Despite her best efforts, Ralts couldn't get a bead on Pikachu and suffered for it when he slammed into her headfirst. Ralts was sent flying backwards, tumbling along the ground before rolling to a stop in front of Max.

"Ralts!" Max cried out in alarm. "Are you alright? Can you keep going?"

Slowly, Ralts struggled to push herself to her feet. Once she managed to stand at her full height, she looked back towards Max and nodded reassuringly at him. Despite her reassurances, she was drenched in sweat and letting out ragged breaths.

Ash and Pikachu shared a brief glance with each other. While Ralts may have been putting on a strong face, neither of them was fooled. Even with Pikachu holding back, it was clear to them how exhausted she was.

A good trainer would know when they were fighting a losing battle and call off a pointless battle. From the looks of them though, Max and Ralts were determined to fight no matter the outcome.

He would respect their desire to compete.

"Pikachu, use Thunderbolt!"

For a brief moment, Ash saw panic shoot through Max's eyes before it was replaced by realization. "Ralts, teleport around the battlefield randomly! Don't stop until I tell you to!"

Lighting surged across Pikachu's body, and he was enveloped in an all-too-familiar golden glow. With a powerful battle cry, the Thunderbolt surged from Pikachu towards the Ralts on the opposite side of the battlefield. Before it could strike, though, Ralts teleported out of the way.

Ash frowned and crossed his arms behind his back. There was no real plan here. Max had allowed the fear of Ralts being beaten to take over and was focusing too much on avoiding the attack. If it had been to put her in position to counterattack, he wouldn't have thought anything of it. Avoidance without a plan, however, would only delay the inevitable.

"Pikachu, keep using Thunderbolt."

What followed was a battle to see who could outsmart the other. Ralts would always rematerialize in the most unexpected of places but would only have a fraction of a second to teleport away again before Pikachu would launch off another powerful Thunderbolt. There was never enough time for her or Max to even think about launching an attack of their own. Every time, dust was kicked up and new, small patches of scorched earth were left in the previously serene grassy field.

It had turned from a standard battle into a competition of endurance. Unfortunately for the Ralts, her inexperience as a battler was what led to her downfall as she rematerialized behind Pikachu - noticeably exhausted with a flushed face and gasping for breath. She couldn't teleport away anymore. Pikachu noticed her exhaustion and took pity on her, zapping her with just enough electricity to end the fight quickly.

With a cry of pain, Ralts collapsed when the Thunderbolt ended and fell backwards into unconsciousness.

"Ralts!" Max rushed towards his fainted Pokémon and scooped her off of the ground, cradling her in his arms like one would a baby.

Ash approached him with a smile plastered across his face and a purple bottle of medicine in one hand. He tossed it towards his young friend. "You did great for a first battle, Max! You're definitely better than I was when I first started out."

Granted, that wasn't exactly hard to accomplish. Pikachu wouldn't even listen to him in the beginning. To think that they'd come so far from the rookie trainer and his arrogant Pikachu that they used to be.

Max graciously accepted the bottle of medicine and sprayed his fallen partner. "You really think so, Ash?"

He nodded. "I know so. You're just inexperienced. Once you get a bit more experience, I know that you'll be a fantastic trainer. Far better than I was sat your age."

Max blushed and scratched the back of his head. "Thanks, Ash. It was really fun battling you. I learned a lot from this. Next time we battle, I'll have a strategy to help me and Ralts win!"

Despite being sore from her recent battle, Ralts let out a little cheer and raised her fist in agreement. The gesture threw Max into a fit of laughter.

Ash reached out to ruffle Max's hair. Much to his amusement, the boy recoiled and audibly complained about him messing up his hair. Ash couldn't help but roll his eyes. He'd been the same as a kid, but was it really such a big deal? How else was he supposed to show how proud he was of his friend?

Ash chuckled and turned to his own partner. "You did great, Pikachu. Why don't you go enjoy the ketchup over-"?




Sadly, the cries of two Pokémon desperate for a reunion with his starter and two blindingly fast forms tackling Pikachu to the ground interrupted Ash. The result though... that was anything but sad.

Pikachu - deathly pale and stiff as a board - was pinned to the ground beneath two Pokémon. Buneary, the small bunny Pokémon that Dawn had captured and was known to have a crush on his partner had wrapped her arms around his sides and was nuzzling his cheek with her own. Glaceon meanwhile - the Eevee that they had once travelled with and helped May raise - had pinned him beneath her and was staring down at him with a teasing glint in her eyes.

The look Pikachu sent him was pleading and had a message clear as day. A moment of silence passed as the two partners shared a silent message with only their eyes. Only partners who trusted each other completely could do that successfully, and Ash was certain he had gotten the message.

If that was what his little buddy wanted, that's what he'd do.

"Alright, Pikachu, I'll leave you three alone."

Ash had thankfully already turned around, otherwise he would have seen the look of utter betrayal on Pikachu's face as he was condemned to his fate.

He had no idea why everyone else was laughing though.

"That's him? The kid in the hat is our target?"

"Yeah. Boss says the kid can't be allowed to keep going as he is. Thinks he's a threat."

"That kid? He's barely even seventeen!"

"That kid took down all of our major competition. Don't underestimate him."

"Jessie and James were at least told to stay away, right? We can't have them screwing this up."

"Ha! Don't worry, the boss made sure they knew what would happen if they went anywhere near the kid in the next few days. Now it's all on us whether we succeed or fail."

"No pressure, then."

"Hey, he's just a kid like you said. He won't even know what's going on until it's too late."

The sun was finally setting. After hours of catching up with everyone, the party had finally started to wind down. By now, everyone had wandered off to talk with each other and either meet for the first time or catch up their adventures. Even their Pokemon had all wandered off to test themselves and play together with everyone else.

It was the perfect chance for Ash to sit back and relax.

Ash let out a sigh and collapsed backwards into his seat at the table. He grasped his hat in his hands and set it on the table beside a plate of food. He looked up to see everyone laughing and having fun each other. With everyone distracted, it gave him time to think about what the future held for him.

A chair scraped against the ground to his right as it was drawn out beside him. He glanced to the side to see May plop down and regard him with a bright smile.

She reached forward to place her hand on his shoulder. "Tired?"

A short laugh escaped his lips. "How could you tell?"

May leaned against the table, propping herself up with her elbow. "Your eyes and voice gave it away. It was obvious that something was wrong."

He clenched his eyes shut and frowned. "Oh… I'm sorry. I didn't mean to ruin anything."

His eyes blinked open as he felt May flick him on the nose and scoff in amusement. She looked at him sadly for a moment before scooching her chair closer to his own.

"You didn't ruin anything, Ash. No one else even noticed." She promised. "Not that it should be a problem if they did. We're your friends. You shouldn't feel like you have to hide stuff from us."

He shook his head and did his best to smile for her. "I'm not hiding anything. This is just something I need to figure out on my own." He promised. "How was it so obvious to you? I thought I did a good job hiding it."

May rolled her eyes and gently punched him on the shoulder. "You're my best friend, Ash." His confusion at such a simple answer must have shown because she let out an exasperated sigh. "Just because we haven't seen each other in a few years means that I've forgotten about you. I'll bet I know your tells better than anyone else."

She must have if she was able to notice his mood when no one else had. He hung his head and hunched over the table. "Can you not tell anyone? I just need some time."

She nodded and gave his shoulder a firm, friendly squeeze. "My lips are sealed." She promised. "Do you want to tell me what's on your mind? Maybe some perspective would help."

He glanced towards her blue eyes. "Perspective?"

She shrugged. "Sometimes it helps to tell other people your problems." She glanced away. "It's just an offer. I can't promise I'll have an answer to what's on your mind, but it can't hurt to trust me with this, right?"

Ash hid his hesitation behind a sip of his drink. As much as he would have liked to keep it to himself, maybe she was right. He hadn't been able to come up with an answer on his own despite how hard he tried. He trusted May to keep her word and stay quiet, so there was no harm in hearing her opinion.

"I'm lost."

May frowned. "What do you mean?"

He swirled his drink in his cup and glanced up at setting sun. It illuminated the evening sky in a beautiful shade of crimson. "Ever since I won the Alolan league, I've felt like I don't have a purpose anymore."

Her face scrunched up in concern. "I thought winning a League was your dream?"

It had been. Ever since he was a kid, all he had ever wanted to do was travel the world and become the champion. Every morning, he would wake up knowing exactly what he wanted to do and had the determination to see it through. He had a clear goal and a clear path to follow. He knew who he was: Ash Ketchum of Pallet Town – a travelling trainer and aspirant Pokemon Master.

Now he was Ash Ketchum the Champion of Alola.

"It was," He admitted. "Now that I've won, I don't know what to do. Should I go back to Alola to run the League? Do I just ignore my title and keep travelling to different regions to repeat the cycle? It all just seems so… pointless. I've reached my goal. This is as high as I can go and now there's nothing left."

May shifted in her seat uncomfortably. "Are you not happy? You should be proud of what you've done."

"I am." He didn't want her to think otherwise. No matter his doubts, he was proud of all he'd accomplished. "It's just the uncertainty of the future. I don't know what to do."

May let out a sigh of relief once she understood what he meant. "I see… I think I understand then." She offered him a small, reassuring smile. "It's normal to feel like this, Ash. I felt the same way when I won the Grand Festival."

She had? He hadn't realized at the time. May must have been good at hiding it. "How did you handle it?"

A sad smile split her face. "I asked myself what I wanted." She looked out towards the setting sun and leaned forward, cupping her hands under her chin. "I could have stopped competing altogether and done something else. With my fame and skill, I could have had my pick of paths to follow. But I love coordinating. It's not just a job or a hobby for me, it's part of who I am. In the end, I decided to keep being a coordinator and I can't imagine doing anything else."

He couldn't either. May was always in her element in contests. He envied having that much certainty and joy about her life.

"You think I should stick to being a trainer then?"

May narrowed her eyes and poked him in the cheek. "Oh no! You're not outsourcing this decision to me!" She growled playfully. "If you want to travel, then travel. If you want to be the Champion or do something else with your life, then do it. All I'm saying is that you need to decide what you want to do, not what you think you have to or what others expect you to."

He let out a quiet laugh. Just do what he wanted? It seemed like such an obvious answer. The problem was he didn't have a clue what it was he wanted to do. Battling was fun but… battling just for the sake of competition? The thought of doing that for the rest of his life filled him with a sense of unease.

He'd need to think about this. What was it that made him happy – truly happy?

He sighed. "Thanks for the advice. I'll think on it. Maybe all I need is time."

She smiled and gripped his arm, pulling him up for his chair. "Glad to be of service. Now come on!" She began to drag him off towards the clearing where their Pokemon had all gathered, a mischievous glint in her eyes. "You owe me a battle! I've been itching to show you the new strategies I've developed for my contests!"

Despite the heavy thoughts on his mind, Ash felt himself smile. Even if he had doubts about continuing his path as a trainer, a battle with a close friend was always something he could enjoy.

If nothing else, it would help distract him from his thoughts.

Viridian City was the great green gem of the Kanto region. While Saffron may have been the capital and connection between Kanto and Johto, and Celadon was the economic heart of the entire region, Viridian City simply had a natural charm to it. Its streets were filled with people from all over the world who had come to visit the lush green forests of Kanto.

It was also the nerve center of a multi-regional threat that had grown exponentially in a period of only a few years. While the average citizen or tourist went about their day with smiles and Pokémon battles, Team Rocket grew in strength in the shadows.

No one noticed. No one cared so long as the world kept spinning.

Well... except for the International Police anyway.

For Anabel, it was an honor to be selected to accompany a veteran agent on an important operation. While she had gone on a few missions before, they were typically the low-risk kind. Nothing to truly test herself or employ the skills the International Police had taught her. With how dangerous Team Rocket was, however, this was all but guaranteed to put her to the test. If she proved herself here, she had a chance to get even better assignments in the future.

She would not fail.

"Uhm... sir? Could you remind me where we're going?"

Looker hadn't been what she'd expected when she heard she'd be getting on the job training with one of the agency's most infamous members. She'd expected a dark, brooding man with a past shrouded in black ink. Or a woman who could beguile anyone with her charm and had the resourcefulness to take out any enemy. When she'd met Looker, he'd completely defied every expectation she had.

To think that she'd spent sleepless nights worrying about making a fool of herself.

When Looker glanced at her, it was with the patience of a teacher. "The Bisharp and The Gardevoir hotel. You remember why we're here, Anabel?"

Anabel nodded sharply. "To investigate the rumors of corruption within Viridian city, root out Team Rockets agents, and establish a foothold within the city. To do that, we're meeting one of our largest supporters in the city, sir."

She'd stayed up reviewing the parameters of their mission for the past few nights. Any agent worth their salt knew that the better you understood what it was you had to do, the better you could prepare. Only a fool went into battle with nothing more than a hope and a prayer.

"Good. Just remember to act naturally so you don't alert Team Rocket to our presence in the city. Don't forget your training and everything should go smoothly." Looker gave her a mock glare. "And I told you not to call me sir! Looker will do just fine. 'Sir' makes me feel old."

She'd never understand his aversion to being called sir. It was a sign of respect that he had earned the right to lead others. "Of course, sir."

Calling him Looker just didn't feel right to her, but she wasn't going to argue. Maybe once they were more comfortable around each other she'd be better at being less formal.

She shifted anxiously in her seat and stared out the window of the cab. For all the strangeness of Kanto, no one could deny that it had a natural beauty that you just couldn't find anywhere else in the world. "Sir… are you sure we can trust our contact in the city?"

Looker gave her a reassuring smile. "I'm positive. Our contact is someone we've worked with before. He's helped us apprehend dozens of criminals and corrupt officials before. Not too long ago he helped us catch an entire Team Rocket cell here in the city."

Anabel gained a hesitant look on her face. "If you say so, sir. If he's supported us and disrupted Team Rockets operations before though, doesn't that mean he's a target?"

Team Rocket never had tolerated those who interfered in their business. While each instance of retaliation was different, the reality was that they always retaliated. If you made the mistake of crossing them, they would strike back twice as hard. Within reason, of course. If you only caused minor disruptions to their operations or arrested simple Grunts, they wouldn't be too brutal. If you made yourself into an actual problem though?

Even as a rookie, she had access to files and reports of their crimes. She'd read far too many about young trainers thinking they could be heroes and ending up dead or broken for their troubles. It was what made their smoke and mirrors routine so infuriating. All the public ever thought of when it came to them was morons dressed in black who flew around in balloons and shouted horrible mottos.

If only the truth about them was more widespread… maybe then the methods the International Police used wouldn't be necessary.

Looker's laughter broke Anabel from her thoughts. "Most likely, but he's more than capable of defending himself against whoever they send against him."

She tilted her head to the side. "You seem to have a high opinion of him. Have you met him before?"

"I have. We may not agree on some things, but he's a skilled trainer. He's taught many young, inexperienced trainers important lessons. When we meet him, I'm sure you'll understand right away why I do." He eyed her for a moment. "You're asking a lot of questions."

Anabel blushed and attempted to hide her face in her shoulder. This was so embarrassing! She couldn't afford to make him think she was second-guessing him. "I-I'm sorry, sir!"

Looker held up a hand. "No need to apologize." He assured her with a kind smile. "It's good that you're asking questions. The more you ask and talk to people, the more you'll learn. In our line of work, knowing even the most inconsequential of details could end up saving your life."

Feeling much less embarrassed now that she hadn't made herself look like a fool in front of her superior, Anabel nodded. "Of course, sir. I'll be sure to remember that." She leaned back to rest her head against the seat. "Then if it's alright, can I ask what the plan is? How are we supposed to even start our investigation?"

"That's what our contact is going to help us with. The general plan though is to start from the most likely to have been turned and work our way up. Without him giving us a list of suspects to start with, we wouldn't be able to establish a safe-house here at the same time."

The cab came to a stop. "Alright you two, we're here. Enjoy your stay in Viridian City."

Looker nodded and pushed open the door. "Thank you. Anabel, pay the man and grab our bags."

Anabel sent him the most confused look she could. "What?"

"Rookies always carry the bags and pay the bills. Don't worry, you'll get to do it to when you mentor a rookie. No complaining."

Lazy bastard. "Of course, sir. Right away, sir."

With a resigned sigh, she grabbed the bags from the trunk. Despite their deceptively large size, they were actually fairly light. With a frown, she walked towards the cab driver and handed him a roll of cash. Far more than the drive to the hotel should have cost.

"We were never in your car."

The driver grinned. "I'm sorry, who are you?"

With an accepting nod, she walked onto the sidewalk next to Looker and took her first look at 'The Bisharp and The Gardevoir' and it… was a sight to behold. A statue out front of a Bisharp and Gardevoir crossing arms above the entrance with stylish gardens tended to constantly by gardeners and their Pokémon.

"This place looks nice." Anabel had only the barest traces of awe in her voice. For a strange region like Kanto, it sure did know how to build some impressive buildings. "When will we be meeting our contact?"

Looker glanced towards the lobby doors and saw them slide open. "Right now. Here he comes."

Out stepped a tall, older man in a stylish black suit and tie that must have been one of a kind and worth more than all the money she'd earn in a lifetime. Despite his age, he had a soft facial expression and a confident, commanding aura around himself that made him seem far younger than he really was. Perhaps most impressively, a regal looking Persian walked at his side.

"Giovanni. So good to see you again." Looker plastered a smile on his face and stuck his hand out towards him. Seeing Looker smile was nothing new, but this one was genuine. Not like all of the other half-hearted ones he gave out on a daily basis.

Giovanni returned the smile and his handshake. "You as well, Looker. I see the agency decided to finally give you a protege after all these years. Tell me, what's your name, young lady?"

"Anabel, sir." She curtly responded. She could feel Looker rolling his eyes behind her back, but she didn't look. That would be disrespectful.

"Charmed. Come then, let me and Persian show you inside. I've set up your temporary headquarters on the 20th floor. Once we're there, I'll fill you in on everything you need to know about the city."

"Thank you, Giovanni. If it wasn't for you, we wouldn't even have any information to go off of." Looker told him.

Giovanni's grin turned oddly predatory. It was… unsettling. "Believe me. It's my pleasure to help you."

The next day, Ash found himself in Viridian City with the others. Despite wanting to stay home, they had insisted that he come to the city for a big celebration. His friends had planned an elaborate number of celebrations for the whole week.

What followed was a hectic trip to the city. His friends took him to see rare Pokemon from far off regions. They'd entered him in a local tournament – which he'd won, much to his joy. Clemont had even shown some of his new inventions and allowed Ash to test them out for him. All of it had been fun. He'd been able to spend more time with friends he hadn't seen in so long.

Unfortunately, it also left him drained. Staring up at the night sky, he frowned. The day had been good, but with nothing left to occupy him until tomorrow, his mind wandered back to thoughts of the future.

Maybe a late night stroll would help clear his head and give him some clue about what to do. He told his group that he'd be going for a walk for a few minutes before returning.

The walk… didn't help. All it did was make him more uncertain about what he was supposed to do now. To continue on the path laid out before him was one that promised an adventure to exotic places, meetings with new people, and battles with exotic Pokemon. To choose a different one, though… he'd need to give some thought to what he would even do instead of continuing his journey.

"Sir? Sir, can you help me?"

Ash was distracted from his thoughts by a blonde girl. Something about her seemed familiar, but he couldn't figure out why. She looked distressed. "Is something wrong?"

The girl nodded quickly. "My Pokemon was hurt from a battle recently. Please, can you help? It's too heavy for me to move on its own and it hates going in its Poke ball."

His nodded, eyes filling with determination. "Of course! Lead the way!" As it turned out, it wasn't far at all. She led him to a small alley near a large hotel. He glanced around the alley. "Where's your Pokemon?"

The sound of a Poke ball opening drew his attention behind him. "Right here."

Before he could say or do anything, his eyes were drawn to the small pendulum the Pokemon was carrying. His eyes glazed over, and his posture went slack. The last thing he heard was the mysterious girl giving orders to her Pokemon.

"Nice work, Hypno. Now, let's have Ash here pay a visit to poor Mrs. Burk."

And there we go. I hope you've all enjoyed the first chapter. Let me know what you think and about any speculation you have! My plan for this story is to keep it light with a few serious elements thrown in to keep the adventure exciting. I'll see you all in chapter 2!