A/N: Thanks so much for all the lovely feedback and reviews last chapter! I really appreciate them and I'm glad so many people enjoyed Lavender Town. It was definitely a different type of chapter, but we're back to form now! Enjoy Chapter 55!

Ash was still in a pensive mood as he entered the small shop silently, ignoring the small plate of rotten food placed outside the door and stepping over the thick line of salt. He didn't know if it actually helped keep ghosts out, but he couldn't fault the people of Lavender for trying. It wasn't like he could blame them for being superstitious when something like the Ghost of Lavender had rooted itself so deeply in the very stones of their city.

Thump, thump, thump.

He felt a chill creep up his spine at the thought of the Ghost. Not evil, not a mindless monster in need of slaying...but it was terrifying in its own way, in the way that it held to its own laws. Mortal ideas of mercy or morality were alien to it, but he'd sensed its mind, beheld a surprising awareness in the Ghost. Not gentleness, but not gratuitous cruelty either.

The Ghost of Lavender lived by its own laws. That was the only certainty it held to.

Ash's nose wrinkled as he entered the flower shop. It was a clean, simple building that wasn't particularly fancy in its presentation. Oz followed suit, stepping gingerly to avoid knocking into the large planters of wisteria arranged near the door. They didn't smell, but scents from the other flowers hanging from ceilings in their planters or arrayed in neat little rows on a few benches and tables hit him.

To be honest, he knew nothing about flowers. He could identify a few - a handful of species of orchids, roses, lilies, daisies...the basics that his mother had pointed out around Pallet Town or even tried growing herself. Ash ignored the pang those memories inspired, and thought instead to the chill outside. Not quite cold, but it felt like fall had come early. How had all the bizarre weather patterns this year affected plants? The League probably had all the Castform and Dragonair they could trying to fix things, but Ash personally doubted it would be so easy.

"Good morning!" A short woman perhaps a few years older than his mother appeared as if from nowhere. Ash blinked, taking her in quickly. She had dull brown hair that hadn't yet started to grey, an apron that went down to her knees, and a long dress with a floral pattern. The shopkeep smiled down at him even as a tiny little Oddish waddled over to blink at him and Oz. "Is there anything I can help you with, dear?"

Ash nodded silently, reaching for the memory of Akemi's request. "Yes. I'm looking for flowers."

The woman smiled widely, gesturing to the dozens of potted plants of all shapes, sizes, and colors. "You've come to the right place! Do you have any particular in mind?" She whispered conspiratorially, waggling her eyebrows. "For a girl, maybe?"

He hesitated. The shopkeep waited patiently, probably aware that this wasn't a normal event for him, and he appreciated that. "A few flowers," he admitted, scratching his chin as he thought. Oz whirred gently, looking around to inspect some of the plants as Ash listed out the flowers he would need. "Shion flowers," he said, allowing the name to flow off his tongue. It was hard to separate the name of the flower from the Shion family of Lavender. His stomach turned at the thought of Chieko, still up there in the tower. Perhaps they'd taken the name from the flower? "Lavender. Suitopi. Tsubaki. Bellflower. Wrapped in gracidea," Ash finished, feeling a little odd at mixing the traditional names with the more modern ones.

At the woman's prodding, Ash offered a few more details and outlined the rest of his order. It was difficult to recall exactly what Akemi had told him, but he did his best. He thought it was like speaking a foreign language at times, and Ash just hoped his descriptions translated well enough for Emma to make Akemi's description a reality.

'Emma' (according to the nametag finely sewn into her white apron) frowned oddly at the mention of the tsubaki flower, but nodded along at the rest, clearly familiar with such requests. "Visiting the tower, dear?" She looked at him with pity in her eyes.

To be honest, Ash didn't really want to go into detail on his task. Instead, he just nodded along. Emma quickly followed up on how many he needed, and gave him the price once he gave her the number. It was more expensive than he'd expected (and if this was for him he'd have walked out immediately) but Ash sighed and accepted it.

A small price to pay for a little peace of mind for Akemi.

"It's good to see a young man like yourself respecting the old traditions," Emma said, seeming to take comfort in the one-sided conversation. She bustled around the shop with an expert eye, looking over certain flowers critically only to hmph and hum before moving onto the next. Every now and then she would snip a few off and delicately place them atop Oddish's head. The little grass-type's prehensile leaves carefully wrapped around the flowers and ran them over to the main counter, where it hopped up on a stool and began to carefully arrange the snippings. "It's rare for someone your age to find my little shop."

"It's for a friend," Ash said. Emma hid a gasp but didn't offer empty platitudes as she plucked a few sprigs of lavender and passed the flowers to Oddish, who quickly set to adding them to the other arrangements. She found a nearby flower next and peered at it, looking for imperfections Ash couldn't even tell existed. It was hard to tell where it fell on the spectrum between pink and red, and was ruffled and frilly. "Could you tell me a little about them? I don't really know what they mean," he admitted. Oz's ears twitched as she sniffed at some lavender, letting Ash know she was interested as well.

Emma brightened, perking up immediately. "Of course, of course! The tsubaki flower here - an old name." She motioned to the ruffled red flower, "It represents love, but not in every context. In the old days, it represented a noble death as well. Warriors, pokemon - it wasn't an uncommon sight in the tower in those times," her face twisted as she looked at him. "This last year as well."

He hid a wince at that, barely even able to imagine how many pokemon might have been brought to the Lavender Tower. It left an ugly feeling in his stomach, one that didn't seem to want to go away. Ash thought over the meaning of the tsubaki as Emma chattered on about brighter topics as she pointed out new flowers.

Ash couldn't imagine a more fitting offering to Taimu, the First Champion. The Uniter. No wonder Akemi's shade had been so insistent on the tsubaki in Taimu's…

Emma drifted over, still rambling merrily, and Ash forced himself to refocus. She seemed especially animated as she eventually found herself back on his original question, though she'd happily taken a detour or ten on the way there. "...so lavender denotes faithfulness, while shion flowers represent remembrance, of course! They're all over this town," she chuckled, though seemed to feel a little guilty about it as she sent another look his way. He felt a little bad about misleading her about the reasons for this, but he really didn't want to explain that the ghost of a thousand year old woman, which was part of a city-spanning Distortional entity, had asked him to buy flowers for her.

He thought that might not go over too well. At the very least he'd be stuck here for a day or two trying to explain to the kindly woman how his life had taken him to this point.

To be honest, Ash wasn't really sure himself.

"And the suitopi?" He asked, having never really heard of it before.

The flowery woman's practiced fingers delicately brushed the thin petals of a deep purple flower. "Sweet pea," she said, appearing to dissect the plant with a surprisingly sharp gaze. It reminded him of the intensity of a Master while observing a battle, peeling back every layer and breaking it down into little bits. "Suitopi is the traditional name. It's actually been quite some time since I heard it from a customer," she added. "Where did you hear it?"

Ash shrugged. "Old book."

Emma nodded approvingly, but didn't press further. "It's another you find too often in this town," she sighed wistfully, staring off into space for a moment. "Sweet pea represents a goodbye, a parting of ways. Most people only use it for decoration now, but Lavender still remembers."

"Lavender still remembers a lot of things."

"Yes it does!" Emma sang, stepping around a few pots and planters to grab a few more snippings. Ash could barely track her clippers as she wielded them with expert precision, the glinting steel flashing far more quickly than he'd have expected. If it was him trying this he would have shredded the entire plant by now… or Sneasel would have. One of the two.

"Now, now, now. What was the last? Oh!" The cheerful woman exclaimed, perking up immediately. "Bellflower. It's beautiful," she swept her hands over a row of (even more) purple flowers. They were nice, Ash admitted, though Emma seemed much more enraptured. Oz as well, who poked her head over to look at them. This arrangement would definitely be a bit heavy on the purple.

"So many messages wrapped up in one little flower. My dear Shiro always finds ways to surprise me with them. Why, just this morning I woke up to one waiting for me with the breakfast he made!" Emma clasped her hands and sighed, staring dreamily off into space. "Oh, but you don't care about any of that!"

"I don't mind," Ash was almost surprised to find it was true, and that he didn't mind the sunny rambling. It was...relieving. Distracting enough to keep him from thinking of Ag - he forced that thought down. Later. Much, much later.

Emma beamed down at him, and Ash was starting to think he should introduce her to his mom - he wasn't sure when he'd last met someone so positive. It was strange, honestly, but he wasn't complaining. "Oh, so polite. Bellflower is a lovely plant, of course. It carries several meanings: Humility, affection, constancy, and everlasting love of course! So many beautiful symbols wrapped up in one little flower."

Ash nodded, the gears of his mind turning incessantly. Yes, he nodded to himself, he could see why Akemi might choose bellflower for those who called themselves Taimu's brother and sister even after all this time...

Warmer thoughts came then, snapping him out of his rut. Ash hid a smile at Oddish meticulously arranging some of the flowers into an ornate configuration, wrapping the first presentation with the gracidea. The pink flower seemed to brighten in contrast to the other flowers, sparking with life.

"You're lucky you arrived when you did," Emma squinted at the gracidea. "It's fading already."

"Already?" Ash asked. Oz whirred in unison, obviously paying some attention to their conversation as she took a big sniff of a bright yellow blossom. Her tail swished back and forth, cracking subtly with electricity. Maybe it was one she'd encountered out in the wild with her herd? He held back a snort. At least she didn't mind this errand.

Emma wilted. "Gracidea doesn't fare well outside of Sinnoh, I'm afraid," she trailed a finger slowly over the fragile petals. Oddish's long leaves sagged, and it whined softly as it did its best to make the flower as perfectly wrapped around the rest as possible. Its little legs stamped the counter as it grew more and more frustrated with its attempts. Emma scratched the little grass-type's leaves soothingly, and it stopped kicking, leaning into her palm instead. "It must be something about that mountain soil, I suppose. I hear it blooms in great fields around some villages."

Ash hummed. "Sounds nice."

"Oh it is," she agreed. "I'd love to visit one day, if only to see gracidea in full bloom. The samples I get here are so hard to keep alive! This bizarre weather lately doesn't help," the faint lines on her face grew deeper and more pronounced as her brow furrowed. Emma shook her head. "It's so strange, don't you think? It doesn't feel like summer, that's for sure!"

He wasn't sure it ever felt like summer in gloomy Lavender, but Ash didn't say that. Ash couldn't argue against her point, though. There had been a faint chill in the air since he arrived back in Indigo, always a hint of a breeze that promised something greater. It was enough to make him miss the incessant heat and pounding sun of Hoenn, at least until he remembered the constant humidity, at any rate.

As for the weather...he knew why, of course. The weather wasn't just going to return to normal between Lightning - Zapdos, Moltres, and Articuno flying around causing trouble -

Ash's blood chilled as a few pieces slotted together, staring idly at Oz as she sniffed at a fat white bulb, then wrinkled her nose.

The weather would be a mess anyways between Zapdos' Storm, the hurricanes summoned up by Mewtwo (Ash ignored the faint flicker in the back of his mind), and the Birds clashing in the Orange Islands. But Articuno sleeping on Mt. Silver's peak certainly wasn't doing them any favors. He'd seen firsthand how easily the Birds warped the world itself in their image.

"...half the flowers you wanted came into bloom much, much earlier than they should have!" Emma tossed her head. Oz listened intently, still lingering by those yellow flowers. Ash blearily refocused. "You have great timing, you know! It's been a real nightmare trying to keep track of them all. Hardly anything grows in Lavender as is!" She tutted, putting the finishing touches on one of the arrangements while Oddish finished the other with a few expert manipulations of its leaves. It glowed with pride as Emma complimented it, puffing out its little chest.

"And here you are!" She presented them with a flourish, both her and Oddish beaming. The four arrangements laid before him, largely a cluster of intricately arranged and manipulated blue and purple petals and bulbs that seemed to suck the color from their surroundings. Somber, though elicited different emotions with each shade. There was life in it, though - the striking red of the tsubaki flower bleeding amidst Taimu's, and the brilliant pink of the gracidea that wrapped each grouping seemed to draw out the contrast between each of the other flowers.

It looked nice to Ash, but what did he know? He just hoped it fit Akemi's vision. A part of him thought of returning to the Kiln at the peak of Lavender Tower, but something deep inside him knew he'd find nothing there but stale air, long-forgotten heaps of ashes and bits of bone. The Ghost had said its piece.

"Thank you," he said quietly, taking in the four arrangements that Akemi had requested. They were beautiful, and Ash made sure to say so, much to Emma's delight.

"Will that be all, dear?" She smiled down at him as she put the last few touches on one of the flowers, correcting some miniscule flaw that Ash wouldn't have caught in a million years.

Ash began to nod, ready to move onto his last stop in Lavender in order to purchase one final gift for the First's teammate, then glanced over to Oz who still lingered by the pots of sunny yellow flowers.

He couldn't help but think they matched her thick coat of fur perfectly.

"Actually, there's one more thing I'd like to buy…"

XX

A wild grin overtook his features as he stroked Plume's glossy head. She leaned into his touch like she always did, cooing softly at him as the people of Lavender passed. They gave him a bit of a wider berth, eying the massive avian with some trepidation. He couldn't help but roll his eyes at that - they lived in a haunted city with the Ghost of Lavender living at its heart, and a beautiful Pidgeot like Plume frightened them?

He'd never understand humans.

Ash just shook his head as he did the last touches in strapping her saddle on. Plume shifted uncomfortably, always taking a few moments to get used to the pressure, but nearly quivered with excitement at the thought of flying with him again. Going by the little twitch he'd developed in his haste to get her ready, Ash was almost as excited as she was.

"We'll be in Vermillion soon," he promised Oz. She whirred softly at him, one of her meaty fists reaching to toy with some of the flowers Ash had helped braid through the black tufts of electrified fur above her eyes and arms. The thick fingers of an Electabuzz were ill-suited for dexterity, and Ash was happy to help. It was new for him as well, but Ash enjoyed the learning experience - Oz certainly seemed to appreciate it, and had perked up since he'd gotten her the flowers.

He was beyond thankful for the bemused woman passing by who had corrected his amateur attempts and showed him the proper technique before he could turn it into an unpleasant experience for his friend.

Mostly, Ash was just grateful for Lightning. He could still feel the currents running through Oz's thick blanket of fur as his fingers tied the golden flowers into her thick locks, but he could ignore them for the most part. If anything, he fed off the minor shocks that left him wired and more alert than he could remember.

"We just have one stop to make first," Ash said softly. Oz nodded. She knew their errand. "But it shouldn't take too long, okay? Maybe an hour there, then we drop some things off, then we'll be on our way. Sound good?"

Oz nodded, baring her fangs in what he knew to be a grin. Ash smiled back, dipping his head and offering a brief warning before he returned her in a flash of light.

"Ready?" He asked Plume as he hopped onto her back, taking only a minute to put on his flight goggles and get his feet through the stirrups. Plume stretched her wings out until they took up most of the walkway, then shot into the air. "Easy! Let's take it slow until we get out of Lavender, alright?"

Plume shrieked, not taking too kindly to that, but did as he asked. She had taken them nearly a hundred feet into the air already, and nearly everyone bustling through the lonely streets and interlacing alleys of Lavender turned their eyes to the sky. They circled above the painstakingly organized labyrinth, reminding Ash of the Ghost that bore the town's name in the discordant organization to it. Methodical madness would be the best way to put it. Neat as the grid system put in place when Lavender was rebuilt, it was chock full of winding alleys and strange cut throughs only evident from above.

They circled above the city for a time, gaining altitude with every mighty beat of Plume's wings. Ash ensured she stayed far, far away from the Lavender Tower, not that she was in any hurry to go near it. Plume's senses were far, far too keen for her to be unaware that something lingered there, and she was happy to stick to the outer banks of the city.

Just as they began to rise to nearly half the height of one of the craggy mountains looming over Lavender, Ash hesitated and leaned forward as his eyes spotted a dreadfully familiar manor house nestled just outside the plaza of the old town. "Can you fly a little lower - yes, right there!"

His friend seemed a little confused at his request, but humored him anyways. Ash thanked her quietly, trusting in her sharp ears to hear him over the rush of the wind as she angled downward to swoop over the old town. They veered closer to the Lavender Tower than Ash would have liked, but there was nothing to be done for it.

Lightning sharpened his senses as Plume took them over the Hashimoto manor. His eyes strained to see the distance, but he found nothing but disappointed as he looked into the barren stone courtyard and found nothing but shadows and empty space. Agatha was nowhere to be found, and neither was her team.

Disappointment.

Then he squinted, looked past the shadows, and caught sight of a rippling orange glow hiding within the manor's windows, billowing and growing stronger by the second as the purging flame cleansed the rotten old place and wiped the sin-saturated stones clean. It was slow work, stymied by the unnatural power invested into the Hashimoto's ancestral home, but steady and growing easier by the moment.

He reached deep for Fire, and filled with righteous satisfaction as the flames exploded, burning with renewed intensity and stoked to greater and greater temperatures. They burnt deep now, searing and scorching that which the League had failed to destroy. Centuries of callous legacy ignited, dissolved, was set free…

Something like relief filled his gut and he let out a sigh he hadn't even realized he was holding back. A heavy sensation swept over him, and he averted his eyes. Plume swooped lower, shrieking her presence to all of Lavender, and hundreds of eyes - both seen and unseen - focused upon them. Ash ignored them all, his fingers leaping to Ho-Oh's ashes on his belt…

A vast, alien presence focused its attention upon him. The audience was back, a million souls stitched together, and they watched with the patience of a timeless thing. He could imagine it like a great eye peering from the dome of the Lavender Tower, nearly searing him with its terrible intensity. His breaths were deep and heavy under the sudden pressure, and Ash just gritted his teeth.

"Goodbye, Lavender," he whispered. Ash knew the Ghost heard him. Its unearthly presence probably saturated every breath he took, even up here. He turned his gaze to the near-abandoned Hashimoto manor as the flames began to climb higher and higher and acrid smoke poured from its courtyard. His thoughts went sour as he thought of all the depraved things it had been witness too. Something deep inside of him felt a flush of gratefulness that he'd helped sweep away the corruption soaked into its stones, even if it was long overdue.

More than that, he thought of the Revenant Crone he'd met within the burning manor. He hoped she found her rest when she returned to her vacation.

Agatha deserved it.

He said nothing, but he just lowered his head one last time to the Crone.

Ash squeezed his eyes shut, forcing away the sting of tears threatening to well up. Later.

He took one last look at Lavender, taking in the eerie beauty of the Tower, the unchanging stone of the old town, and the cozy collections of residences, markets, and other clusters of buildings that crowded the dark valley cradled between the rocky mountains.

For the first time, Ash saw Lavender bathed in gold. The brilliant sun shone directly overhead Lavender, washing the gloomy shadows away with its harsh, unyielding rays. It was beautiful, casting all of Lavender in a new light.

He clasped the bag of ashes in his hand, imagining that a rainbow flame stirred inside the bag as if emboldened by the light.

Then a solitary cloud drifted lazily above, blotting the sun out, and cast all of Lavender in cool shade once again.

Ash thought it fit the ancient town far better.

"Let's go, Plume," he said quietly. His throat clenched rhythmically and his heart ached. There was a hollowness in him he wasn't sure had been there before, and he fought down the urge to numb it all with Ice. Ash wouldn't disrespect Agatha like that. "We're done here. Do you remember the way?"

Plume shrieked again, then immediately propelled them higher, faster and faster until Lavender was little more than a dot behind them and the last vestiges of the Ghost's gaze faded away like smoke in the wind.

A contentedness filled him, plugging the hollow ache in his chest, and he soon found himself lost in a maze of new, strange thoughts. Questioning, wondering, hoping.

He did not look back.

XX

"There!" He shouted above the din of the wind. Plume screamed back as she made minute adjustments to their course, and their pace suddenly slowed. Ash's hands shook slightly as he clutched onto the saddle, eyes locked onto their destination.

They currently soared just a few thousand feet above the treacherous terrain of Fuchsia, Plume's incredible speed reducing a journey that had taken more than a month his first time trekking through these craggy mountains and pitted valleys to a mere hour. Part of him exulted in the speed, in the obvious growth, while the rest yearned for those old days of fighting for every inch through the Fuchsian wilds.

Things had been simpler then.

Mountains - glorified hills, really, compared to the enormity of the Ore Mountains which guarded Indigo Plateau - covered the rolling lands for as far as he could see, most absolutely covered in impenetrable layers of trees and foliage that blocked most of his view of the earth. It was chilly here, and he spotted countless trees that were just as confused by the weather as Emma in her flower shop. Most of their leaves were already changing colors to the rich red and gold of autumn. The steady light of the early afternoon sun only highlighted it, and Ash couldn't help but appreciate the vivid colors after the day he'd spent in pale Lavender.

A handful of rivers carved their way through the unspoiled wilderness below, glistening blue amidst the fall colors. One cut near their destination, and from above he could spot a thin rivulet that branched off unnaturally from the larger river, trickling lazily to meet a small row of familiar mountains. It vanished into a small cavern, and Ash immediately knew what - who - had diverted it long ago.

He glanced into the hole shaped into the greatest peak as they passed over them, peeking to see if the Rhydon were there. Ash couldn't spot many from this height, but he was able to spot a few of the hulking creatures as they peacefully rested or grazed in the verdant field that had bloomed within the hollowed out mountain. A few (relatively) tiny Rhyhorn chased each other around while a giant of a Rhyperior watched over them.

Ash hesitated as Plume circled above, clearly waiting for his command. "Don't land inside," he said. "They're awake this time, and we want to make a good impression. We should be polite."

She cooed back at him, an obvious question in her sharp eyes. He scanned the mountain as they lazily revolved around it, Plume enjoying the opportunity to coast above the peaks. Ash suspected she found more than a little satisfaction in looking down on the rest of the world. Not that he didn't enjoy it as well, especially as they flew just a few hundred feet above where he'd faced one of the greatest challenges in his time as a trainer...

After a moment, he spotted what he was looking for: a small expanse of flat stone located at the base of the mountain. Absent of any vegetation except for a few tiny saplings that fought their way from winding cracks and fissure in the stone, and surreptitiously tucked away in a blanket of thickets and impenetrable forest. It would be nearly impossible to find from the ground without knowing it was there.

As likely a spot as any.

"Down there," Ash directed. Plume nodded and dove down with no hesitation. He grit his teeth as his stomach sank, then grinned as his body quickly adjusted to the sharp dive. In just a few seconds she'd taken them down to their destination, though made a point to slow quite a bit before landing. Plume always took care of him, even though he knew it must have been difficult for her to remember he wasn't able to survive the same sharp changes in acceleration her powerful body could. "Thanks, Plume."

She cooed and butted her head against him once he'd gotten out of the saddle, nearly knocking him on his back. His legs were still wobbly after spending an hour in the saddle, but he just laughed it off and scratched the glossy feathers just above her curved beak. Those always got a little itchy, especially after a long flight.

"You can go fly if you want," Ash suggested. Plume cocked her great head at him, and he just shook his head. His fingers traced over the pokeballs on his belt. "I'll be fine. They're with me."

Plume didn't look entirely convinced, but eventually cooed, nipped at his hat, and took off into the sky to stretch her wings a bit more. The flight here was barely a warm-up, and he knew she'd appreciate the chance to really fly without having to worry about the delicate human on her back.

Not that he expected her to stray far. Plume had probably only followed his suggestion because she felt she'd be better able to protect him from the sky. He'd always have her eyes on him.

"I'll see you soon!" He called, laughing as Plume vanished into the bright sky. She was nearly invisible, and had strayed to soar in the same direction as the sun, not that he was surprised. Plume would be impossible for most pokemon to detect up there, and anything trying to watch for her approach would be blinded by the sun.

With that out of the way, Ash sat comfortably on the flat stone. It wasn't the most uncomfortable thing he'd rested on. He quickly retrieved one of the floral arrangements from its storage compartment, glad to see they were just as pristine as when he'd put them in there. Not that he'd really expected anything different, but a part of him always got nervous when he put anything important in there. It was just paranoia, but his paranoia had also served him well…

Ash shook that train of thought off. They were fine, and appeared just as beautiful as when Emma and her cheerful Oddish had finished them. He peered ahead of them - nothing but sheer rock wall that would be nearly impossible for most pokemon to climb, let alone a human. It was practically impenetrable.

If he didn't know what the First's Rhydon was capable of, he'd have thought this a dead-end.

He desperately wanted to release a few of his friends for company, but didn't want the prickly lord of these lands to take it as a sign of aggression - plenty of his team would be raring for a rematch, and Ash was too, to be honest. Ash couldn't help but remember the thrill of facing this indomitable foe and challenging one of the titans of the old world. It had been enrapturing, to say the least.

Ash couldn't help but sigh as he waited. He'd missed his friends terribly during the visit to Lavender, and he couldn't wait to relax with them again, let alone get started training. There were a few ideas to counter Karen he'd like to start drilling them on soon. They couldn't let those weaknesses remain for a moment longer.

They weren't fighting the average trainer on the road anymore. They were facing the best of the best. The Elite Four themselves. He had to improve. People were preparing specifically for his team now, and he had to be prepared for that. Had to be better.

Ash couldn't help but grin at the thought. People were creating strategies to counter his team specifically! It was flattering, and the thought left his blood pumping. Maybe he could get some more good fights in. It would be fantastic to fight at a disadvantage!

Those thoughts consumed him for a while, and he quickly fell into perusing new strategies, new tactics, new techniques. There was so much to do, so many challenges to prepare for.

He wasn't sure what he was waiting for, really. All he knew was that the master of the mountain was well-aware of his presence. Ash just found himself staring at the blank wall of rock ahead of him, sometimes toying with the Concepts within him or allowing his thoughts to drift to the words he'd shared with Agatha…

Fifteen minutes passed.

Thirty.

Forty-five.

At last, an hour ticked by. Ash wasn't in a rush, but he shifted uncomfortably. The stone had finally started to leave him sore, and it was only that and the arcing brilliance of Lightning that kept him awake. He'd never actually had a chance to sleep in Lavender, had he? Between the flight to Lavender, his conversations with Agatha, and communing with the Ghost of Lavender he'd spent over a day in the old city. After his experiences there, Ash wasn't sure he'd ever be willing to sleep in Lavender Town. Even if he didn't fear it, he doubted his thoughts would ever quiet enough for sleep to take him.

Just as he prepared to stand and stretch his legs, the world shifted. Ash gasped, awareness flooding him, and he raised his head to stare as the mountain itself rumbled and groaned at its master's behest. The wall trembled, coarse dust and pebbles falling like a waterfall, then flowed like water to be pushed away to the side.

Blackness greeted him from the heart of the mountain, the new tunnel agape like the hungry maw of a giant Onix. It was large, easily twenty feet high, and Ash had to wonder if the King Under the Mountain's jaws would be larger.

He waited.

And waited.

And waited.

At last, something moved within the darkness. It was vague at first, indistinct. Without Lightning enhancing his senses, he'd have been hard-pressed to pick it out in the void. All he knew was that it was enormous.

Stone trembled. The coarse noise of stone grinding stone reached him as the giant within the mountain finally became visible, emerging slowly from within his home.

To be honest, he'd forgotten how huge the Rhydon was. It stood nearly twice as tall as Nidoking did, and its immense bulk seemed to fill the entirety of the tunnel, nearly enough to scrape the walls. Its rocky hide had six Everstones implanted in it now, and Ash took a moment to admire the badge symbols - the ancient emblems of Indigo's territories - carved into it.

A tail thick and powerful enough to leave Ash a red smear on the ground with just a gentle swipe trailed behind it, swaying slowly, and the enormous Rhydon's horn was giant and sharp enough that it would punch through another of its kind's thick armor as easily as it would Ash's flesh.

He felt very small all of a sudden, and knew exactly how vulnerable he was in the face of this ancient creature.

Mamoru, the First's Rhydon, stared down at him. It did not appear surprised to see him - it had probably known who he was as soon as he stepped into its territory. The mighty creature's Stone Sense had probably been honed to a level unheard of in modern pokemon over the course of its long centuries of life.

That didn't mean it seemed happy to see him. Mamoru's hard slate gaze sparked with recognition, but he didn't do anything to greet Ash. He simply waited, and Ash knew it wouldn't take long for this titanic, territorial creature to grow impatient and hostile. He could only imagine how furiously Mamoru would have reacted if he'd landed in the midst of his mountain's glade like Ash and Plume had last time.

The titanic Rhydon probably would have brought the whole mountain crashing down on them.

Regardless, Ash decided to speak up. He didn't rise, deciding it would just make Mamoru liable to view him as a threat, and kept his eyes to the ground.

"I brought you something," he said, deciding Mamoru would be less likely to take offense if he was blunt about it. "A gift."

Mamoru snorted, not appearing particularly impressed. The giant shook his great head and moved as if to turn it around.

"It's not from me. It's from an old friend. I'm just delivering it," Ash offered, and Mamoru turned back to him. His eyes were narrowed, his tail thrashed from side to side, and the stone beneath Ash trembled underneath his harsh gaze. He quit wasting time and presented the flowers that Akemi had specified for Mamoru - an intricate display of shion, lavender, suitopi, and bellflower woven together with incredible skill to display a dozen different meanings layered together in ways that Ash could barely fathom.

The ancient Rhydon blinked, then snorted at the offering. Ash hid his nerves, forcing every scrap of anxiety down as Mamoru assessed the arrangement. Confusion, first, then something like surprise in his old eyes. At last, recognition - Mamoru stared, the stone shifting to carry the arrangement closer, and Ash dared a glimpse directly at him.

Mamoru had brought the arrangement into his claws with a little pillar of stone and studied it. The arrangement seemed so tiny compared to his massive frame, delicate enough for a single errant touch to crumple and tear it into a thousand pieces, but Mamoru held it between his dull claws with gentleness Ash didn't know the old conqueror possessed.

He thought Mamoru paused, millenia-old memories he'd drowned in since the death of Taimu coming to the fore, and something in the old Rhydon's bearing softened almost imperceptibly. Still hard and resolute as stone, but there were cracks. Mamoru stared at the arrangement with the air of a ravenous man discovering food, like he was peeling back a thousand layers woven together with the flowers, and it seemed to last an eternity. Ash was fairly certain that Mamoru had forgotten he was there at all…

Ash lowered his eyes and waited.

A low rumble, then a thunderous groan that led into something keening and desperate and alone. The stone rippled beneath him, surging and writhing like the ocean in a fierce storm, and Ash nearly feared that it would drag him beneath it, never to be seen again. Dust and tiny pebbles fell like rain from the mountain, pelting the lower slopes and even Mamoru himself, and eventually larger and larger stones tore themselves loose and fell to the base.

He didn't rise. He simply waited as clouds of dust filled the air, nearly hiding Mamoru's terrifying bulk entirely, and ignored the faint rain of pebbles. His hat, damaged as it was by Plume's habitual nips, protected him well. Not to say he didn't get a few rocks knocking him in the head, but it prevented any real harm.

It wasn't like he was going to get up and interrupt Mamoru. That seemed like an awful idea.

After a time, the dust was swept away as if it was never there at all. The rock-rain stopped, and the mountain stilled. Mamoru was all that remained, and he finally lifted his gaze from the arrangement. He delicately pinched it between his great claws and carried it as though it were the most precious thing in the world to him.

Perhaps it was.

Mamoru stared at him as if Ash were a ghost. Had the arrangement been that accurate that it would spark such strong memories? Ash frowned. That wouldn't make any sense at all. Styles had certainly changed in the last thousand years, and - his frown deepened.

Perhaps the Ghost of Lavender hadn't just been watching Ash and Emma in the flower shop.

He wouldn't put it past it to puppet Emma in some way, perhaps filling her ears with whispers and knowledge and memories that were not her own.

"I have another," Ash offered. Mamoru looked down at him with that far-away stare and numbly nodded after a long deliberation. It wasn't necessary for Ash to say who that was for. He turned around - the stone of the mountain groaned as it shifted to make room for Mamoru's bulk - and disappeared into the darkness.

Ash looked high up into the sky, directly into the sun. He nodded, trusting that Plume would pick the motion out, and rose. He kept one hand on his belt just to be safe. It didn't take a genius to know Mamoru could be fierce and capricious, especially where his long-dead brother was involved.

That fierce loyalty was something Ash admired. Cherished, even, though it wasn't meant for him.

Regardless, he felt Fire leap in him as his pulse quickened. Mamoru had already vanished deep into the mountain's heart, and he didn't think the legendary Rhydon would wait for long. He couldn't help but rush forward, a tingle racing across his skin, as he was torn between excitement to revisit this ancient, untouched place and the solemn nature of fulfilling a last wish.

He stepped out of the light, and into Mamoru's halls of stone.

XX

Ash followed Mamoru through the darkness. The light of the Feather provided some guidance, but most was found through the scrapes and cracking of rock that followed Mamoru - he didn't so much as stagger whenever his head smashed through a low-hanging outcrop, and more than once Ash had to dodge a chunk of rock that went flying through the darkness. He thanked his quick reflexes when he was just aware to duck something the size of a cinderblock that spun his way.

They walked several minutes. In that time, Ash spotted several antechambers hollowed out within the mountain, some of which had holes bored in their ceilings for natural light to flood in. Huge heaps of dried berries of all shapes and sizes, several appeared to be large reservoirs of rain water with surfaces as smooth as glass, some were filled with human items ranging from old, rusted weapons and armor to modern packs, medical supplies - was that a Team Rocket uniform?

He hurried along, suddenly deciding he didn't want to know where all of that came from.

Soon enough they entered the glade and the small creek that divided it. Ash greedily sucked in gulps of the fresh air, eager to be clear of the dust-filled tunnels and its musty air. He took a moment to admire the peaceful clearing - it was a brilliant design. An ecosystem created entirely by Mamoru. Bushes (including carefully cultivated rows of berries) lined the area, and there were countless old, thick trees clustered together in order to provide cover from the rain that would fall in through the giant crater at the mountain's peak...although he wouldn't be surprised if Mamoru could close it somehow.

Small ditches composed of stone (of course) were gouged into the glade. They slanted downward, vanishing into several small holes that must have acted like gutters to keep the rest of the glade safe. Ash couldn't help but stare at all the brilliant little adaptations Mamoru had added to his home - apparently the greatest of the Rhydon had done more than guard Champion Taimu's tomb in the last thousand years.

He smiled at the sight of a few Rhydon charging one another and stumbling through a flattened circle of dirt, though a watching Rhyperior (giant even for its breed, but still much smaller than Mamoru) grunted at them whenever they stumbled too close to the rocky walls surrounding what Ash assumed was a playpen.

Dozens of resting Rhyhorn, Rhydon, and the odd Rhyperior peered at him as he trailed behind Mamoru. Their rocky faces were hard to read, but Ash knew they were stunned. Felt their surprise as if it was his own, and he couldn't but smile at it. When was the last time any of these isolated rock-types had seen a human? Surely not all of them left with Mamoru to patrol the region, and Ash couldn't shake the thought that some of Mamoru's vast herd might have not left their mountain sanctuary for years.

Another thing he couldn't miss was how the herd reacted to the giant. With every step Mamoru took, the Rhyperior and Rhydon moved away, even the handful that were blessed with size almost as great as Mamoru's unwilling to come close. Many shifted uneasily, watching Mamoru like a Caterpie would watch Plume. Even the playing Rhyhorn slowed and came to a stop, putting a few feet between themselves and their… well, Ash didn't even want to try and guess how they were related.

Ash couldn't think on it for long, and his breath hitched as Mamoru led him to the massive, crisply cut hole in the mountainside that was easily large enough for a fully grown Onix to comfortably slide through. It was immense, and even Mamoru looked small within it.

It was surreal to be led through these vast halls, shaped with incredible patience and care by Mamoru's will, behind the great Rhydon. He took in the ancient symbols of Indigo etched into the wall, awash in nostalgia for the last time he'd snuck in. Ash had no doubt if he hadn't come with such a meaningful gift to Mamoru that he would never be allowed through, even after already visiting it once. This place was beyond sacred to Mamoru - if possible, sacred was too weak a term.

After what felt like an eternity (one in which Ash could never be sure Mamoru wouldn't spin around and smash him into the walls) they arrived at their destination. Ash's breath hitched as he stepped across the threshold, marked by the League's symbol: a stylized Rhydon with a line bisecting it.

The chamber was just as he remembered it: a timeless hollow, utterly silent and possessing an ethereal quality to it, like he'd just stepped into another world. Four massive pillars, perhaps five feet across, supported the chamber in the four corners. A single column of sunlight filled the room, shining down through a hole carefully shaped high above to land upon the lovingly crafted dais that held the statues of Taimu, Mamoru, Chinatsu, and Shinobu.

Ash felt like a trespasser as he followed Mamoru in. The giant paused, staring at the statues for a time. His head bowed, and Ash nearly staggered under the weight as he felt Mamoru's sorrow. It was old and heavy and pure. He grit his teeth, forcing the foreign emotion down, but was still left with a thumping ache in his heart that reminded him all too much of Agatha and Lavender…

Mamoru shifted, tossing his great head to stare at Ash for a moment. The floral arrangement was still pinched with utmost care between his claws. His gaze held something fragile, but hardened immediately upon seeing Ash - a part of him wondered if Mamoru had been so lost in his thoughts that he'd forgotten his presence entirely. Giant nostrils flared, Mamoru grumbled, and the tension passed.

He still had to step carefully, even though Mamoru had acquiesced to Ash's presence in his sanctuary. It would only take a single offense for Mamoru to strike. Ash didn't think Mamoru would kill him out of turn, not after the fight they'd shared all those months ago, but he also wasn't quite willing to gamble on that.

Better safe than sorry.

Ash walked ahead, Mamoru looming behind him with an unspoken threat, and retrieved the floral arrangement from its storage compartment. It was flawless, of course, and Ash took a moment to admire it.

Shion. Lavender. Suitopi. Bellflower. Tons of blues and purples wrapped in the Gracidea, then the striking red of the tsubaki flower in the heart.

He presented it to Mamoru, who stared at it just like he had his own arrangement. Recognition flared, and that awful keening noise bubbled from deep within his throat before nothing but a low rumble filled Ash's ears. Mamoru's eyes squeezed shut, and Ash forced himself not to offer sympathy.

All he had was Akemi's token. Nothing from Ash would soothe nearly a thousand years of loneliness.

Ash wouldn't disrespect the First's partner by trying.

Instead, he did what he came here to do.

He held his head high as he ascended the dias. The weathered statues of Taimu, Mamoru, Chinatsu, and Shinobu greeted him imperiously, sculpted with utmost skill by Mamoru himself. Despite himself, Ash felt rather insignificant in their presence, a stark reminder that the bones of the Uniter were buried beneath his feet. A man who had defined the entire world. A man whose actions eventually led to Ash's birth, the lives of everyone he knew only possible because of him.

When he'd first come here, he'd barely known who the man was. Didn't even know his name, only his title. Now Ash knew he was so much more than just one more name to honor…

Taimu was a man. A companion. A friend. A brother.

And a Champion too, of course.

Ash reached the top. He stood for a moment, staring into the tiny cut sapphires that filled Champion Taimu's eye sockets, and knelt before him. The robed statue stared off into the distance, but Ash felt the weight of this place. It pressed down on him, his fists clenched -

An arrow in the shoulder. Stumbling, his titanic brother in the distance roaring at his cry. Chinatsu fending off the ambush. A pink blur roaring. Nidorino! Pain, fire in his blood! His blade fell against the beast's hide, a glancing blow. Chinatsu's fire rushing, his friends surrounding him -

Last words shared with his family, a hand around his brother's horn and one of his sister's tails, vision darkening...please, no just a little longer. Just another minute! His mouth formed words that would never leave him.

"Your lives will be long, my friends. Please… do not forget to live them."

Blackness.

Regret.

Peace.

Ash came back to himself with wide eyes and a cold sweat. His chest rose and fell quickly, and it was several moments before his mind reoriented itself. It was unsettling, to say the least, even though the impression was already thin and nebulous to him, like grasping at a dream. He focused hard, committing it to memory as quickly as he could.

A warning grunt from Mamoru. The mountain quaked.

He decided to hurry up.

It didn't stop him from taking the proper time as he reverently lowered the arrangement made by Emma (and perhaps with some input from Akemi's shade). He thought the tsubaki more fitting than ever, now, and placed the arrangement directly before Taimu's feet, right near the plaque that identified him. Ash didn't attempt to set it directly against the statue for fear of what Mamoru would do if he laid a single finger on the representation of Taimu.

The blues and purples of the arrangement blended quite well with the pale stone that Mamoru had carved this sanctum from. It was barely visible even under the afternoon sun, though the striking tsubaki shone vividly in the center. Ash admired it for a moment, then stepped away.

He squinted at the plaque in which Taimu's identity had been carved.

"Here rests Champion Taimu, the Uniter. May his name live forever in the stars," Ash murmured, allowing the words to flow off his tongue for a second time. Had it really been so long since he'd visited this hidden place? It had been less than six months, if he remembered correctly, but it felt like years. He and his family had seen so much, grown so much. It felt like another lifetime altogether.

Fire flared of its own volition, and the dead Fire Stone cradled between the stone Chinatsu's paws flared to life. Her ruby eyes glimmered and seemed terribly aware in that moment...

Ash dipped his head one last time to the Uniter.

"Akemi misses you."

With that, his time was up. Ash rose, brushing off his pants. He took slow steps down from the dias to where Mamoru's enormous, impatient frame waited. The Rhydon didn't look irritated, but Ash could practically feel the impatience radiating off him. His nostrils flared and the greatest Rhydon huffed at Ash as he neared. It brought to mind the scent of sidewalk after a summer rain.

"Thank you. My Pidgeot is flying above. Can she land here?" Ash asked. Mamoru grunted and began to turn, enormous tail nearly hurling Ash to the ground if he hadn't dodged in time. He cleared his throat, and the grumpy Rhydon paused. He hesitated. "I - I have something else for you."

Mamoru must have considered his last few gifts worth something at least. He allowed Ash to slowly walk around his side and carefully approach his front. Ash quickly released the last of the items he'd bought in Lavender from their storage compartment, and interest broke the apathy - and the flat look Ash easily recognized as just wanting to be left alone - for a fraction of a second.

Five Everstones appeared on the ground in a flash of light. They were small, nowhere near the size of the great chunks that Mamoru had molded into his rocky hide, but they would do their job. He'd visited several stores in Lavender just to find this many. They weren't as rare as evolutionary stones, but they certainly weren't common.

The rounded grey stones hovered before Mamoru with ease. His nostrils flared again, and he narrowed his eyes at them as though inspecting them. After a time they seemed to pass his test and the Everstones fell with a dull thunk into the thick green grass beneath their feet.

The greatest Rhydon stared down at Ash.

"An...apology," he said slowly, choosing each word with great care. "My friends nearly knocked them loose in our fight. Nearly made you change."

Something terrible animated Mamoru then, and Ash saw the merciless killer that had nearly trampled all of Indigo under his giant feet. He loomed larger than ever, seeming to fill the entire sanctum, and the stone around them shook, threatening to fall apart entirely at the Rhydon's fury. His claws closed - only a moment of cognizance seemed to strike him before he could crush the arrangement.

He returned to normal. Still huge, still wild, and still terrifying, but aware. Intelligent. Motivated more by his age-old loss than the bout of fury that told him to crush and kill.

Ash carefully avoided meeting Mamoru's eyes. No point in setting the giant off again.

"The next time I'm here, I'll be the Champion," Ash promised, Fire flickering at his chest. Mamoru's eyes flitted to the golden flame and recognition sparked. His tail swayed, flattening swathes of grass. "I'll challenge you properly then."

Mamoru snorted again, seeming torn between completely unimpressed and a huff of what Ash though might, maybe, possibly, could be a tiny flicker of amusement. He stared, and the greatest Rhydon immediately hardened again. The titan turned back to the statues of Taimu and the rest of the team, and lumbered over there with the flowers held ever-so-delicately in his giant claws.

He waited, and stared, lost in thought and the depths of a thousand years of raw feeling.

Ash was quiet as he left through the vast chasm in the mountainside that would lead him back to the mountain's glade. He knew a dismissal when he saw one. Despite the edge to the situation, the uncertainty that came with Mamoru's every twitch and breath, Ash felt lighter than ever.

He'd done a good thing today. Ash hoped Akemi would rest a little easier now.

His job was half done now.

Still, that could come later. A thrill filled his chest and a wide smile stretched his face as he saw the dawning light at the end of the hall. There he would find the glade, and there he would find Plume. She was probably worried - he'd have to give her a few treats as an apology. Probably spend a few hours helping her groom in front of a mirror.

That wouldn't be so bad, though.

To the glade, then to Plume, then to the open skies of Kanto's wildest lands.

Vermillion awaited him.

XX

As always, Vermillion was sunny, vibrant, and full of cheer. Its streets were positively bustling, full of people and pokemon milling about shops, going about their day, or even just loitering about in the streets laughing. Old men sat around wooden tables at seemingly every corner playing some fast-paced dice game that Ash couldn't hope to decipher - each group seemed nearly the same, full of jeers and taunts aimed at whatever grizzled old sailor had flubbed. Children watched with jealousy, or chased each other around screaming with chittering Rattata, hissing Ekans, and gurgling Poliwag at their sides.

He smiled, though took special care to avoid the groups of kids. Ash had too much to do for him to risk being recognized. One child did stare at him with dull, unfocused eyes, and attracted Ash's attention purely for the fact that he had a gold Rattata scrambling along behind him. He squinted, surprised to see some random kid had a rare example of a 'shiny' pokemon, then blinked.

Had… had the kid spray-painted his Rattata?

Before Ash could peer closer, the two walked away, though he couldn't but think it seemed like the 'gold' Rattata seemed to be leading the black-haired, dull-eyed boy with quite a bit of patience.

Well, if he was going to see something painted gold it would probably be in Vermillion, he supposed. Ash glanced around his surroundings, enjoying the vibrancy that seemed to permeate every inch of Vermillion. Bright, flashy yellow and orange paint covered the buildings, bright blue murals of Magikarp, Tentacruel, and Gyarados were splashed onto walls and the canvases of the artists who had set up shops in the streets to paint passersby and anyone who wanted a portrait drawn (for a fee, of course).

He couldn't help but marvel at how colorful it was after Lavender. Orange pennants with Vermillion's golden starburst hung everywhere, flapping gently in the salty sea breeze. The air was fresh and was a welcome reprieve from the memory of Lavender's thick, stagnant air. Just the wind alone made a difference, filling the streets with warmth no matter where Ash walked.

Deeper than the hustle and bustle of the city, the Song filled his ears. Ash embraced it even as he tugged his hat low, doing his best to avoid any familiar glances or knowing looks as he found his way through the (almost) familiar streets and walkways of Vermillion. This was his third time in the city and Ash finally felt like he knew his way around the city fairly well now, at least in terms of navigating the different districts and finding his ways to the different Pokemon Centers, the Gym, and the port.

Well, it was technically his fourth visit, but when he'd returned with Surge after the Storm it had only been a very brief stay. Barely long enough to collect Lance's invitation from the Gym and then hop on the ferry to Knot Island.

Ash lost himself in the memories, smiling at the good times. The Storm had been stressful, of course, but he'd caught Oz and enjoyed all the weeks fighting through the blinding sheets of rain falling from black clouds that went on forever. Surge and Brock made for good company in a miserable environment.

And it had led him to his month with Lance. His smile only grew

We miss those days as well, Friend-Trainer.

Dazed's words slipped into his mind with easy familiarity. Ash felt a flush of warmth at being able to hear her again - he'd missed Dazed's presence at his side during Lavender. The disconnect from his team had been important beyond his ability to put into words - he'd needed to overcome that challenge himself, needed to climb that mountain on his own - but he was so, so, so happy to have them back now.

"We'll have them again one day," he mused, then tossed a glance to Dazed where she walked at his side. Oz whirred to his left, one massive finger playing with the flowers he'd helped tie into her fur. He smirked. "We'll be in Hoenn soon. Back with Steven. I know you miss Claydol," he teased.

He could actually feel her eyes roll through their bond and bit down a laugh.

Perhaps we should visit Champion-Guide afterwards. You would enjoy that.

Ash frowned, not recognizing the reference, then flushed. Cynthia.

Dazed's eyes quirked up, flashing with victory, and Ash quickly turned towards Oz instead. His cheeks were still warm. "How are your flowers?" He asked, clearing his throat and doing his best to ignore Dazed's amusement. Oz whirred, lifting her muscular arms so that he could get a better look, and he grinned. A few bystanders (and even another Electabuzz walking by with what might have been a Vermillion Gym trainer) stared at the odd scene, but he figured they were just jealous. "It's a good look," he said, then winced as he saw a few clumsy ties that might pull uncomfortably at her fur if they stayed in too long. "I'm sorry they're a little messy. I'll get better."

The Electabuzz whirred again, still too happy to care. Ash would just have to practice more. Maybe Karen could help him out once he returned to Indigo Plateau? He cast a side glance at Oz, hiding a smile at the bounce in her step.

She was probably even more excited to be here than he was. Oz knew what Vermillion meant for her.

He set his resolve. "We just need to make a quick stop before the Gym," Ash's voice broke just a bit, and the empty void of the open sea filled his mind. Dazed sent a pulse of encouragement his way, and he smiled appreciatively at her. "Do either of you mind?"

Oz hummed, and Dazed's pendulum quivered.

Find your peace.

Ash nodded to them, and let his memory guide him to his destination.

XX

A little under half an hour later, Ash stood before a familiar monument expertly shaped from marble. It rested in a small circular plaza within sight of the great Vermillion harbor. From here he could see hundreds of ships docked. Most of the largest ships were massive ocean liners carrying thousands of passengers from all over the world. Others were simple sailboats and other vessels meant for short ranges. Dozens of ferries were docked, offering alternatives to flight and teleportation. They likely offered journeys to Fuchsia, the seaside towns near Lavender, Seafoam, Cinnabar, and perhaps a few would even venture to Johto.

The port was a bustling hub of activity - he could hear the shouts, blaring of ship horns, and clangs of activity from here. Thousands filled the area during the day, selling tickets or hawking wares. Normally it would be enough to garner his interest, but for now he simply looked far, far away from the spot he remembered the St. Anne had been moored.

He...he just couldn't.

Instead, he read over the names. There were nearly four thousand, if he remembered correctly. The monument took the form of a wave fifteen feet long and ten feet tall, with a perfect replica of the St. Anne resting serenely atop it. Ash refused to stare at the ship. He couldn't, not without remembering the ship carved in half with an icy blue beam of psychic power, sinking into the depths of the ocean, sliding down the deck helplessly, the last memories of inky darkness and cold.

And the Creature, hanging above the sea and lighting the black waves blue for miles around like a second sun.

Cold fire smoldered in the back of his mind. Watching. Waiting.

This was where it truly began. The moment his life changed forever. The day he'd set off on his own with just a Nidorino, Pidgeotto, Seadra, and a Drowzee at his side… not to mention hate. Hate that still burned nearly as bright as the day it was born.

He sighed, then stepped away to read over more names. Ash paused, then released the others. Nidoking, Plume, and Torrent appeared in a flash of light. Seeker was released next, though he carefully bundled her under his jacket. They drew some attention from the others resting in the plaza. There were probably fifty or sixty others slowly working their way down the monument or sitting silently in the benches around the area. Ash knew he was attracting too many wandering eyes, but he couldn't bring himself to care.

It only took a moment for them to recognize where they were. Nidoking made a strange noise, something between a moan and a snarl as he stared at the representation of the St. Anne. Plume seemed less affected than the others, yet her eyes flashed and her wings twitched as if she wanted to take to the skies and leave this place behind. Torrent betrayed not a single emotion, but lowered his great head. Dazed stood by his side, opposite Nidoking. Seeker… well, she shivered under his jacket for a moment before peeking her head out to look up at the ship.

Oz gave them their space. She knew what this meant to them, but hadn't experienced it herself.

"It's been a long time," Ash said quietly, trying not to disturb the other people and pokemon here. Nidoking grunted back at him, poison dripping from his spines. Memories flooded his mind - a fist racing towards his face, a sickening crunch, horrible realization, and taking a pokeball from a dead man's belt. "Nidoking?"

His friend huffed, relaxing just a tad as he turned to look at him.

"Thank you for protecting me," he whispered, feeling rather small again. Seeker snuggled into his chest, enjoying the gentle heat of the Feather, and a traitorous smile slipped onto his face. Nidoking considered him with his black eyes for a moment, then leaned forward to lick Ash's face like he used to as a Nidorino. He grinned at the tingle, and laid a hand against the poison-type's plated shoulder. "Thank you all."

They stood there for a time, each and every one remembering that awful night and those who hadn't made it out. Ash kept his other hand resting on Seeker's soft fur, tracing over the bald spot on her chest for just a moment. She chittered at him, and he whispered quiet words back.

Mewtwo simply watched from the back of Ash's mind and did not say a word. Not a taunt, not a laugh, not a flush of satisfaction. There was nothing, and Ash found himself almost grateful for that. He wasn't sure what he would do if Mewtwo had mocked or pried, but it wouldn't have been pretty.

Finally, a giant's shadow loomed over him.

"I knew I'd find you here one day."

Ash grunted back. He recalled his team and turned to face Surge. The giant of a man - if he were turned into a Rhydon, he'd probably give Mamoru a run for his money - peered down at him. He wasn't entirely sure how tall Surge was, exactly, but he made even Bruno look tiny in comparison. Not that Ash thought Surge would be able to punch the Crystal Entei in the face like Bruno had…

If he had to guess, he'd blame Surge's disgusting fondness for the black broth.

"It's been a while," he looked up, craning his neck just so he could look Surge in the eyes. The massive man didn't quite smile back, but he didn't look upset either. That was about as happy as either of them could be next to the St. Anne memorial.

Surge nodded. "Yeah," he cast a look at the St. Anne memorial. "I come here every day. You paying your respects, runt?"

"Yeah."

They both sat in silence as Surge paid his own respects.

After a few minutes, the Gym Leader grabbed his shoulder and tugged him up. Ash moved with it - if he didn't his arm would probably be yanked from its socket. "Remember the dead, but remember to live," Surge grumbled. Ash couldn't tell if he was talking to himself or to Ash. "C'mon, runt. Let's get back to the Gym. I know what you're here for."

He hesitated, then followed Surge as the giant turned around and made his way through the streets. The crowds parted easily around their Gym Leader, many casting concerned glances towards the man. Surge was easily two or three heads taller than anyone around him, and Ash supposed he should be grateful that he wouldn't have to worry about losing Surge in the crowd.

Surge didn't wait on him, so Ash hurried after him.

The Gym Leader was right - they had business to attend to.

XX

Raichu's cheeks sparked as she dashed off Surge's arm and leapt onto a petrified Gym Trainer, who froze as the feisty electric-type perched on the dark-skinned woman's shoulder and glared at a challenger who had just entered the Gym. A few of the many, many trainers waiting in line outside the Gym scowled at Ash as Surge led him right in, but didn't dare speak a word as the towering man stepped past. A few stared at Ash, so he pulled his hat lower and kept his eyes downcast. Oz whirred at them and most trainers shied away.

"Here's an early birthday present, Visquez. Take Raichu. She needs to work off some steam," Surge grinned at the terrified Gym Trainer. Raichu wrapped her long, cord-like tail around the Gym Trainer's neck, seeming to enjoy her discomfort. Like trainer, like starter… Ash hadn't ever heard the expression before, but he felt like it fit. The giant jabbed his finger at the line outside. "Take care of those babies for me, will you?"

The Gym Trainer finally snapped into a salute, as did Raichu. "Yes sir! They won't get a single badge!"

Surge laughed and clapped Visquez on the back - the blow nearly sent her crashing to the ground. Raichu easily clambered up to stay on top, probably used to half-hearted slaps from Surge sending the average person toppling over. Visquez sent Ash a curious look but didn't say anything to him.

He appreciated that.

"C'mon to the back. The great Ash Ketchum," Surge's voice carried even more, if that was possible, and Ash had the sneaking suspicion he was doing it on purpose, "doesn't need to waste his time with these clowns!"

A young bright-eyed trainer poked their head into the Gym to look, but a tiny spark from Raichu sent them back outside with a yelp. Ash shook his head, though Oz seemed amused if the low whirr coming from her throat was anything to go by.

Regardless, he followed Surge into the back. Ash couldn't help but smile as he walked through the battlefield and left Surge's Gym Trainer and their challenger to the battle. It was hard not to remember the last battle he fought here - Ash couldn't help the little thrill that raced up his spine at the thought. That had been a great fight.

He'd come a long way.

"Did you have to do that?" Ash asked as Surge led him to a second battlefield, probably used for private training. It was pockmarked with little ruts and craters, along with a single trench that scarred the length of the field. A ground-type technique, maybe? It looked a little ragged to be Earth Power…

Surge just chuckled, tossing a pokeball up and down as he peered down at Ash. A moment later, Electivire appeared in a flash of light. The giant creature, easily four feet across from shoulder to shoulder and a few inches short of seven feet high, sparked as it recognized Oz. Its tails swished rapidly, little blue sparks dancing between its antennae, and Ash would have to be blind to miss the fire in its eyes. It wanted a fight.

And it was still shorter than Surge…

"Just doing my part to spread the legend of Ash Ketchum," Surge grinned nastily and folded his burly arms. "You're a big name in Kanto, you know."

"Unfortunately," Ash grimaced.

Surge shook his head. "It's a pain in the ass having everyone keep their eyes on you," he acknowledged, "It's got power, though. When people care who you are, they care what you have to say."

Ash grunted. He wasn't especially interested in telling people what to think.

The Gym Leader seemed to recognize that and snorted, but seemed content now that he'd said his piece. From seemingly nowhere, he produced a square box, perhaps the size of the giant's fist, and held it out in front of him. Lightning surged in Ash's chest and the hair on his arms raised. Oz groaned and stared at the box with laser-like intensity, likely able to sense the vast charge it could produce.

An Electirizer.

"Not yet," Surge mockingly yanked the box away. Oz stepped forward, sparking, only to be blocked by Electivire's bulk. "I need to see if you're ready. This is sooner than I'd planned," the big man frowned. "It's been what, four months since the Conference? Four and a half? I'd planned for at least six."

Ash grinned and Oz stepped forward until she was only inches away from the giant Electivire. "Guess we'll have to battle. Figure it out that way."

His opponent's eyes glinted. "I guess we will."

In no time at all, they'd turned and gone to opposite sides of the field. Surge spoke as quietly as he could (which wasn't saying much) to Electivire. If Ash sharpened his senses with Lightning, he'd probably be able to make the big man's words out.

He didn't bother. Took the fun out of it.

Oz leaned in close, eyes locked desperately on his. He reached out to grab her meaty fist, smiling softly at her. Ash's eyes traced over the flowers he'd sloppily tied into her fur. They looked fine, but he could do better if he had any idea what he was doing.

"We're fighting to impress," he said quietly. Oz nodded. "We have to be practical. Electivire is stronger than we are. Probably faster, too," Ash grimaced at the memories of Electivire's Light Dash. For such a bulky pokemon, it could move. It wasn't very agile, but it could close the distance well. "It's fantastic with its psychic abilities. Likes to use barriers to protect itself at range."

Which was just a minor problem, really. Most of Oz's most potent techniques - such as Lightning Bolt - would be useless against an electric-type as skilled as Electivire in the first place. Surge had literally invented the technique. His pokemon were probably fully trained in nullifying it, or at least minimizing the damage it could cause.

"Range won't be an option," Ash bit his lip thoughtfully. He'd need to work with Oz to make sure she had more options against fellow electric-types going forward. Oz waited patiently, hung on his every word. "Up close is going to be tough. Electivire's pretty much made of muscle."

While admittedly not the best start to their strategizing, it didn't take long to form a… well, Ash would just have to call it functional. Against another pokemon of Electivire's strength, Oz could probably give it a fantastic fight, or even overcome it through superior skill and experience. Electivire was just a bad opponent for her - the same strengths, and even fewer weaknesses.

This wouldn't be a long battle. They had to impress a man mad enough to eat the black broth of his own free will. Electivire would win in attrition.

"Ready, runt?"

Ash nodded. Oz hunched over, fur crackling with brilliant arcs of electricity as she glared at Electivire. The monstrous electric-type just stared back unflinchingly. It stood proud and tall, red-tipped tails whipping like snapped powerlines behind it. Electivire roared, and the sound rolled through them like thunder.

He grinned even as a Hypno shuffled over, flinching at the sight of Ash. He dipped his head to the psychic, and it watched him warily even as it prepared to maintain the psychic barriers.

Inspiration came to him just before the battle began, and Ash released Aron. The sleepy steel-type blinked and looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings. He felt a little strange when he realized Aron was one of his only teammates to have not seen the Vermillion Gym before. So much had happened here.

Oz tossed her head back at the sign of Aron's happy warble - he always got excited to see new places - and her eyes glinted as he tried to waddle into the battlefield to go see one of his favorite teammates up close. Only a quick psychic lock from Hypno kept him from charging up to her, and Ash was quick to tell him to keep close.

Still, it seemed like the extra cheerleader on the sidelines seemed to do Oz good. She stood taller and prouder than ever, lightning crackling in his fists. Electivire towered from across the battlefield, dominating the scene but appearing more than a little irritated that Oz was undaunted.

Ash's blood pounded in his ears, but was cognizant enough to toss Aron a little piece of scrap metal he kept in his jacket pockets, careful not to cut himself. The little steel-type greedily slurped it up, making a truly awful noise as his rasping tongue tore it to shreds.

Even as Aron happily munched on his treat, the standoff demanded Ash's attention. Both combatants measured each other up, preparing their opening moves. Tension filled the space between them like a physical weight.

"Begin!"

Surge's voice shattered the tense silence, and neither combatant so much as twitched.

They measured each other up. Ash's keen eyes could pick out the nervous twitch of Oz's powerful muscles beneath her thick heaps of striped fur. Her leg twitched, and Ash knew it was almost time.

Their opponents both growled, obviously impatient, and Surge gave first.

"Lightning Bolt, Mk. 2!" The giant thundered. Electivire's form blazed, consumed for just a moment in the wildly dancing swirl of electricity, and it roaredas its tails whipped madly. It was charged, and moments later it prepared to thrust a fist at Oz and fire a lance of lightning directly into her. His Feather flared, tickling him as it resonated with the sudden surge.

Ash and Oz grinned as one.

Just as they'd decided, Oz didn't waste the opportunity. His eyes squeezed shut as tightly as possible the moment Surge had declared his technique, and Oz's body flared with a brilliant white light as she smashed her fists together with a roar. The arena was consumed with the Flash, and Ash didn't bother hiding his smirk as Electivire snarled - the Lightning Bolt split off with a boom, going wide and striking the psychic barriers, which only barely held beneath its power.

The next steps of the battle all happened within the span of a few seconds.

Electivire was no fool. Even as Oz fired a flurry of projectiles at it with Swift, it had already raised a Light Screen with the same ease Ash had expected. The Swift smacked harmlessly into the psychic shield, barely testing it, He'd rarely seen anything that wasn't an actual psychic-type with such refined abilities.

Oz had already taken advantage of the momentary distraction - she shot forward in a quick attack, blurring across over a hundred feet in the blink of an eye. Electivire detected her somehow - perhaps able to sense the electricity crackling across Oz's coat? - and howled as it smashed its massive fist straight into the earth. A huge ripple of force exploded out of its fist, tearing the ground apart and blasting a crater around it, and Oz stumbled helplessly.

Unfortunately for Electivire, Oz had expected some sort of issue. She was too experienced to fall into the massive electric-type's trap - she used the stumble to build momentum, ducking beneath the blind Electivire's haymaker that would've easily taken her out of the fight, and swung her own fist -

The giant Electivire's scream as Oz's Brick Break smacked into its furry hip was music to Ash's ears. He grinned as the Electivire crumpled, tossed to the ground less by the force of the attack and more by the way its right leg crumpled underneath Oz's vicious strike.

"Watch out!"

Electivire snarled, eyes black with rage, and it was just cognizant to spit a light stream of fuming purple liquid, thick and clumped together in ugly globs, that coated Oz. She stumbled back, shaking her head trying to fling it out of her eyes -

"Lightning Bolt!" Ash shouted as Electivire's body blazed, a tinge of desperation in his words. Oz had been drenched in the Toxic, but she was still cognizant. She somehow managed to split into a Double Team, an illusory clone taking her place as she dived out of the way.

He wasn't sure how the half-blind Electivire figured it out, but the Electivire tracked Oz with ease. Its fist crackled, the aura of lightning crackling about its muscular body flickered, and a full-powered Lightning Bolt fired straight into Oz's chest. She was consumed in a flash of light, little more than a black shadow as the electricity surged into her body, and Ash grimaced.

Only to feel Lightning resonate within him, and his eyes never left Oz's body.

The Lightning Bolt raged around Oz, but her will was too strong to simply take it. Oh, Ash knew it hurt. Ash's hand went to his chest, teeth grinding as he felt Oz's pain as if it were his own and barely stayed on his feet. She didn't simply give into the agony - she flexed her will, drew on all the experience with her games of 'catch' with Raichu and any other electric-types they could find, and redirected the Lightning Bolt with all the force she could push into it.

A spear of lightning exploded from her fist with a boom, the thunderclap rolling throughout the battleground, and Electivire shuddered as it was hammered with a redoubled Lightning Bolt. It exploded against Electivire's side in a brilliant flash of light that nearly burned his eyes, and Electivire twitched madly as even its incredible system was briefly overwhelmed.

Oz laid panting in a black-and-gold heap, body overwhelmed by the quick-acting Toxic and the strain of redirecting the Lightning Bolt, then began to rise on shaking legs even as Electivire gingerly rose on its wounded side. The Electivire stomped closer with wild eyes and flailing tails -

"Alright, that's enough!" Surge's words brought an immediate end to the battle. Even the battle-mad Electivire came to a stop the moment it heard, and Oz slowly found her footing. Ash didn't hesitate to rush over, already pulling an antidote and potion from his storage compartments. She'd need to be cleaned up first, then treated to make sure the brief exposure to the Toxic hadn't done a number on her.

Ash nodded to Electivire as he hurried to Oz's side. He knelt close to her, inspecting her fur and getting as much of the Toxic off as he could. It was a little difficult trying to work quickly while also avoiding getting the foul substance on his own skin, but he managed.

It wasn't the first time.

"You did amazingly," Ash murmured to Oz, who was still a little out of it. Her eyes were bleary and a little wild, and he was pretty sure she saw two or three of him. "The way you redirected that Lightning Bolt…" Ash stole a glance at Electivire, who had fallen to its good knee. She hadn't pulled a Bruiser against the fully evolved electric-type (Ash resolved to never tell Bruiser that term) and broken its leg, but he knew it would be sore the next day. "Guess all the training paid off, huh?"

She... well, she didn't whirr. More moaned and tried to see straight. Oz attempted to rise, but he gently pressed her back down to the floor. It would have been child's play for her to push past his meager strength, but she seemed to recognize he had her best interests in mind and laid back down.

A shadow fell over them. "She's a fighter!" Ash could hear the harsh laughter in Surge's voice, then the crack of the man's knuckles. "A damn good one at that. She's got a fire in her belly."

"She is."

He heard a quiet huff, then found himself bodily knocked out of the way by a massive, round pokemon. Ash landed heavily on his side, a snarl on his face before he simply blinked.

A Blissey hung over Oz, fretting over her beaten form. The Electabuzz hissed at her, electricity crackling around her fists and she half-heartedly swung at the Blissey for pushing over Ash. Blissey easily stepped out of the way, then dashed forward with surprising speed and slapped Oz across the face.

It was a gentle blow, but it worked. Oz and Ash both couldn't help but stare. Aron just sniffed at Blissey's foot, tried to lick at it, then scurried away when the no-nonsense Blissey scowled and kicked at him.

"Don't worry, Blissey will take care of Oz," Surge chuckled, slapping Ash on the back and knocking the wind out of him. "Don't know if she'll enjoy the experience, but she'll be cleaned up."

He was more than a little hesitant to leave Oz alone after her fight, but Blissey's deathly glare sent him on his way.

"Good luck!" He called before Surge yanked him away. Oz just stared blearily at him and waved one of her giant fists in farewell as the Blissey set to work.

"C'mon, runt," the giant grinned nastily. One of his fists clenched Ash's shoulder - it easily wrapped all the way around, and Ash had to wonder how easy it would be for Surge to haul him around like a Persian with a young Meowth. "We've got a lot to catch up on."

Ash resigned himself and followed.

XX

An hour later, Oz had rejoined them. She was still a little wobbly and sparked a tad more than usual, but at least she was able to walk (mostly) straight again. He was still a little concerned though - she had flinched when he asked her about Blissey's bedside manner.

He decided to never get hospitalized in Vermillion.

Well, never again at any rate. He was a little late for that declaration.

It didn't take long for him to push those unpleasant memories away, and he couldn't help but feel a little pleased that he did it all without the help of Ice.

Unfortunately, he did need to call on Ice to keep him calm for what came next.

"You can't be serious."

Oz nodded in agreement, nostrils flaring and looking faintly green (how that was possible for an Electabuzz he wasn't sure). He just stared and matched Oz's expression.

Aron, on the other hand, seemed faintly intrigued.

"When was the last time you heard me make a joke?" Surge asked gruffly. His face was hard and deadly, much like it had been when they ventured through the Storm all those months ago. He held the tin up, though Ash and Oz recoiled away from the foul thing. "Take it. Drink. Prove you haven't gotten soft prancing around with Steven in Hoenn."

If his shaking head didn't convince Surge, he hoped the ugly scowl on his face did.

"No way," Ash snarled, stepping back. Surge matched him, hard-faced and stubborn as ever. Oz sparked warningly, moving to intercept the giant. A thought came to mind. "I thought you were supposed to eat the black broth?"

Surge finally cracked a grin. It wasn't pleasant. "Who even knows?" He turned the tin upside down. The black broth didn't even come close to sliding out. Aron licked his chops and wobbled closer to Surge, though seemed a little intimidated by the huge man. Ash tried to figure out what would be worse for Aron - eating raw, jagged metal all the time or taking a lick of the broth.

He was pretty sure he knew which one he would choose.

Then a little chunk plopped down, holding firm even when it smashed against the floor, and Aron greedily devoured it in a bite. Ash watched closely, and just shook his head when Aron eagerly looked up to the can, obviously desperate for more.

"At least someone has good taste."

"You can't hold the Electirizer over my head like this!" He argued, Fire flaring. Surge was… less than intimidated. "You can't," Ash finished lamely. It was less a statement and more a plea for mercy. To be honest, he was pretty sure his body wouldn't let him eat it again. His throat was closing up just remembering the sludge.

"You might be an Elite Four trainee, but I'm the one with the power here," Surge's grin stretched wider, reminding Ash of a Sharpedo's fang-filled maw. He shoved the tin forward insistently. "Eat."

His stomach did flips in his stomach. Saliva filled Ash's mouth and his throat tightened, but he snatched the sludge-filled tin out of Surge's fist (it wasn't much smaller than Oz's, he noted) and stared into the tin. It was black in only the faintest definition of the word. Beneath the bright light of the Vermillion Gym's kitchen it seemed to shine a toxic purple, then with a sickly green sheen, and even had little rivulets of dull orange lacing it like veins at times…

Ash did not want to put this in his body.

Surge's jeers weren't what convinced him. Instead, it was the quick glance he took at Oz. The way she glared at Surge, the way her legs still shook with the tremor left over by the hammer blow Electivire's mighty Lightning Bolt.

That didn't stop him from staring daggers at Surge as he closed his eyes, fought the rising nausea, and allowed the first thick, slimy chunks to slide down his throat. The broth quivered, fighting to stay in one piece, then a greasy black chunk finally detached and fell into his waiting mouth - it took all of his willpower to force it down, and his body seemed to fight it at every turn. Ash didn't feel guilty at all about drawing on Ice to numb the dawning horror. His breath left him thick and white and cloudy, and Surge stared, plainly unsettled.

Not to say it made the taste any better. It just numbed his absolute dread at eating the awful thing. Took the emotion out of it.

He mechanically allowed another chunk of the viscous...fluid? Gelatin, Ash decided, as it seared his tongue. Even with Ice his stomach churned, and he wasn't totally sure how much more he could take. It was even worse than usual…

Surge's obnoxious grin was so wide it swallowed up his whole face. He allowed Ash to suffer for a few more bites before his enormous hand snatched the black broth away from him, easily crumpling the mostly empty tin in his fist and tossing it into a nearby trash can. "Gotta ease yourself into it!" He chortled. "Still, I appreciate the enthusiasm. You held up your end of the bargain," his eyes fell over Oz, who glared at the man. "Not bad, not bad at all. Hal!"

The Hypno from earlier appeared seamlessly beside them, eyes red and bloodshot with exhaustion. It must not be feeding as much as it should have been, though Ash couldn't fathom why. Overwork, perhaps? Vermillion was a bustling port town, and that meant Surge and his Gym were putting out fires and hunting down enterprising criminals constantly. Even without the Rockets he knew that Vermillion, Celadon, and Saffron tended to be breeding grounds for aspiring criminals… though he couldn't imagine who would be dumb enough to make moves in Sabrina's territory.

"Take us to Memorial Hill," Surge barked. Hal nodded, his pendulum (carved of a beautiful many-hued circlet of opal) flashing with light. The next moment they were whisked away to a space that appeared to be a decent trek away from the city, full of dipping hills and groves of trees. Ash blinked at the expert jump through space - he didn't feel so much as a tug, and they must have traveled miles. Dazed still struggled with distance teleports, which he voiced. "Yeah, Hal's good at what he does," the giant smirked. Hal dipped his head in acknowledgement before vanishing into thin air. "A bit shy, though."

Ash and Oz looked around as one, taking in the pristine area they'd entered: a towering hill that stood high above the lesser hills that surrounded it, and which afforded a beautiful view of Vermillion and the glittering sea beyond. It was incredibly peaceful, painted bright by the glowing sun. A few Pidgey and Spearow rested in the trees, glaring distrustfully at one another and squawking every now and then whenever one of their number fluttered too close. Aron paid little attention, naturally, seeming more disappointed he wouldn't get to eat the black broth's tin container than anything.

"What is this place?" He stared at a tall black obelisk that jutted from the earth atop a plain stone platform - it appeared both new and old at once. Timeless. A long wall stretched below it, short but running nearly thirty feet across.

"Memorial Hill," Surge replied as he surveyed the area. He released Electivire, who stared daggers at Oz. She didn't seem intimidated in the least, and Ash placed a calming hand on her furry forearm. "Erected after the Last War. Honors our fallen. Empty, most days"

He stared at the wall, picking out the tiny names etched into it. There were so many… "St. Anne?" Ash asked through grit teeth. Surge nodded with a tight jaw. His expression was unreadable, but something in Ash knew the pain hidden behind the stern facade. The guilt. That lingering powerlessness, the gnawing feeling that he could have done more. His stomach turned.

"Yeah," Surge said, and that was that. The giant turned away from the obelisk - the local pokemon didn't seem bothered at all by his presence, and Ash had the sneaking suspicion that Surge was a regular sight for them. "It's a nice spot."

"It is."

Just a moment of silence, then Ash's stomach leapt and his morbid thoughts fell away. "So she's ready? You'll give us the Electirizer?" He chattered, excited enough for the lingering greasy film of the black broth to stop bothering him. Oz perked up as well, fangs bared and electricity crackling. Her whole body shook with barely contained energy.

Surge's frown didn't inspire confidence and tension immediately filled the air. Ash and Oz both paid Surge their fullest attention, and even Aron shifted uneasily on his stubby little legs. He rubbed up against Oz's leg, and that at least seemed to relax her just a tad.

"Personally, I'd give her two or three months if you want the best results, maybe even four," Surge suggested. He watched them warily, like he was expecting a pyrobomb to go off. The Gym Leader still held the Electirizer, however, and the box seemed to mock them where it laid in his palm. "She's progressing well - her capacity is impressive - but I think a bit more time to grow into her abilities would do her some good."

His stomach sank, and Oz visibly sagged. Her fists leapt with little dancing arcs of electricity, and Ash's face twisted into an ugly grimace. That was not what he'd hoped for. They'd worked so hard… Oz had come so far.

A low rumble emerged from deep in Oz's chest, somewhere between a keening moan and a thunderous growl. Ash laid his hand on Oz's fur, wincing at the sheer volume of the charge he could feel building up. Lightning flashed through him, and every hair stood on end. His teeth ground together and even Aron warbled softly at Oz. Worse than the fiery anger at being found wanting, worse than the disappointment, was a bitter frustration that blazed in every bit of her.

He bit his lip and looked away from Oz. "What do we need to do, then?"

"Train, grow, fight," Surge boomed. He hesitated. "She can evolve, runt. She's strong enough, but I think she can do better. Push her capacity further, for one. Her body will probably accept the evolution, but it could always fail. If she grows a bit more, the gains from evolution will be even more significant," Surge finished. "It's up to you."

Ash almost gave an answer, then shook his head. "No it's not," he said, looking to Oz. "What do you -"

Oz's hand rushed out in a blur and wrapped her powerful fingers around the Electirizer. Surge cursed and immediately hit a small button on the side then practically flung it into Oz's hands - she cradled it like she would Aron, or perhaps a little Elekid from her old herd. Her other hand squeezed it like the Electirizer was her lifeline, and Ash saw nothing but satisfaction in her eyes before the Electirizer surged - he felt the massive burst of electricity in his core even as the box flashed a brilliant white and immense heat poured from it.

The Electabuzz howled in agony, even her massive capacity overwhelmed by the insane burst of electricity blasting through her every cell. She coupled over in blissful agony, barely able to remain on her feet as her body seized helplessly. Ash nearly stepped forward to reach out, to help her -

"No!" Surge hauled him back (and somehow swept Aron up with a single hand). "It'll kill you," he snarled to the both of them. Ash wasn't entirely sure about that, but didn't say a word as he watched Oz spasm - she'd finally collapsed, but her hands were gripped around the box desperately. Whether she couldn't or wouldn't let it go was a question Ash didn't have the answer for.

He yanked his arm away, watching in helpless silence as Oz wrestled with the agonizing pulses of electricity that wracked her. It seemed to hit a critical point, and in an instant Oz was consumed by a shining white light that put the sun to shame.

Ash hesitated, then quickly released the entire team as fast as he could. They materialized immediately, coalescing into a solid form in mere moments.

They needed to be here for this.

Oz needed them.

"Stay back!" He ordered before any of them could rush to Oz's aid. Ash winced at the blistering heat pouring off Infernus, and thankfully the Magmortar had materialized atop a small outcropping of boulders to avoid damaging the hill too much. "We're here for you, Oz."

Nidoking chuffed, eyes locked on the writhing Electabuzz. Her eyes were forced open, fluttering madly, and every other muscle in her body was locked in place. Oz's teeth were bared in an awful snarl, though she was soundless at this point. Every pokemon had gone silent, although the local pokemon were cautiously peering from the grass and trees to watch the spectacle.

Somehow, Ash knew she wouldn't trade this for the whole world.

For a time she just flopped helplessly on the ground like a Magikarp yanked out of the water, consumed whole by the awful power reshaping her flesh. It went on long enough that he began to worry, a burgeoning fear that all this pain would be for nothing and that her body wasn't ready, just like Surge said -

Oz glowed, the light redoubling and the first changes occurring. Despite the agony, despite the sorry state she was in, Ash grinned just as Oz did.

It was happening.

He scanned his team's reactions for just a moment, warmth filling his chest as Seeker poked her head out from beneath Bruiser's large hands - he'd walked her over to the shade cast by the obelisk, and they both watched Oz with satisfaction, as did Dazed and Torrent by his side. Nidoking was implacable as ever, but there was something in his dark eyes that betrayed his inner thoughts.

Sneasel just clambered up onto Ash's shoulder and locked his long arms around Ash's neck. He stared with envy coloring his gaze, and Ash knew he'd have to appease him with some treats later. The last he checked (after confirming Tangrowth wasn't trying to offer a helping vine or ten to Oz) was Infernus, and the simple happiness radiating from the Magmortar was more than a tad unsettling.

Time for that later. For now, he watched and waited.

Oz's entire form was nearly impossible to look at directly, though he tried to pay as much attention as he could. Before his very eyes her body changed. Her stocky body widened and stretched as bones lengthened and grew and snapped into place and thick hide packed on faster and faster, and both her arms and legs bulged grotesquely with massive amounts of dense muscle until she was even wider and more powerfully built than Infernus or Nidoking.

The Electirizer fell out of her grip, smoking and slightly warped from the insane amount of energies it had channeled. Surge quietly had Electivire snatch it up.

With the Electirizer gone, Oz was free to writhe. Ash bit his lip and nervously played with his hat - he wasn't sure if it was the simple amount of electricity pumped into her or that she really wasn't ready, but the process looked agonizing.

Oz howled and rolled onto her stomach, still flashing and sparking, and dug her massive new fingers into the dirt to rip and tear as the evolution continued. Ash winced as her waving tail split into two, lengthening and pulling as it seemingly ripped apart, growing long and cordlike. Her shaggy fur grew rapidly, bursting from her skin to become thicker than ever, especially around her shoulders and forearms.

Her antennae grew just a tad, her chest broadened, her limbs thickened until they resembled small tree trunks, and at last the glow faded to reveal the new Electivire. Ash couldn't help but stare with a big, dumb grin - she was beautiful. Oz laid half-unconscious against the earth, still enough that he'd have been worried if he couldn't track the steady rise and fall of her chest, and for a moment they couldn't help but admire her new form.

Overall, she was largely similar aside from the huge difference in muscle mass, height, and wideness. Oz's wild stripes had flattened to symmetrical bands in most areas, and her eyes were embedded in a field of pitch black. The Electivire's twin tails laid limply against her back, the rounded red tips sparking lightly with newfound strength. Blue streaks of electricity jumped erratically between her antennae, and Ash didn't miss the way Surge's Electivire's antennae sparked in turn.

The moment passed, and most of the team huddled around Oz in the next. Ash knelt against the soft grass of Memorial Hill, ignoring Surge's bark of warning to rest his hand against Oz's thick fur. He ignored the tingling heat of the electricity, allowing it to flow harmlessly through him as he channeled Lightning. His senses sharpened, and his nostrils flared at the scent of bitter ozone in the air.

"Hey," he whispered as he stroked her coarse fur. Oz groaned, obviously wiped out by the stress of the evolution, and was helpless to resist as Aron charged into her side and began licking at her fur, ignoring the shocks. Tangrowth moved to help by wrapping her up in a flurry of vines and gurgling at her, but the rest kept a respectful distance. Torrent in particular seemed interested, staring down at her with his scarlet eyes.

Ash suspected there would be a few fights coming up to discover the new pecking order of the team…

He couldn't wait.

"Easy," he chastised Aron as the little steel-type waddled up to start licking at Oz's face with his rough tongue. Little bolts of electricity jumped harmlessly to Aron's domed head. Aron whined, then rested his head against Oz's. Ash nodded gratefully to him, a soft smile working its way onto his face. He really did love her.

Unfortunately, a new presence made itself known. Blistering heat struck his skin and he looked up to see Infernus approaching with a massive battle-crazed grin. His eyes shone with delight as he looked down at Oz, and she finally opened her eyes as he neared. A terrible noise like cracking thunder rumbled from deep inside Oz's chest and she scrambled to her feet with electricity bursting from her fur. Her fists instinctively grasped around her tails and exploded with thrumming power, blue electricity danced between her antennae even as Infernus raised a fire-filled cannon -

"No."

The simple word brought a stop to it all. Oz was still unsteady on her feet and snarled at his words, but had just enough presence of mind to come to a stop. Infernus whined, then grumbled, and motioned insistently to his newfound opponent, but Ash shook his head.

"Not here," he directed his eyes to the obelisk. That didn't seem to convince Infernus, so he changed tactics. "Oz needs to catch her breath. She's still getting used to her new shape," Ash didn't mention that he doubted Oz was in any condition to battle. That evolution had been agonizing to watch…

Infernus groaned, but didn't resist as Ash recalled him. They'd have to duke it out another time.

"Not bad," Surge didn't look especially happy as he stepped forward. It was surreal looking at how he absolutely dwarfed the two Electivire, not to mention the rest of Ash's team. "Bet that hurt like a bitch."

Oz didn't attempt to deny it. She was still wobbly, though she whirred threateningly at the giant. He wasn't even remotely threatened, of course, but didn't stop Electivire from stepping in between them.

"She's fine now."

Surge tossed him a sideways glance, then snorted. "Guess she is," he looked the new Electivire. "You need to have a check up," the giant shook his head with obvious exasperation. "I didn't think you would actually evolve today. We're lucky you aren't out of commission for the next week."

Oz didn't look particularly bothered by that. She ignored Surge entirely, allowing her prehensile tails to brush against her new body even as her long fingers stroked over her new musculature. The Electivire looked entirely too pleased with her new form, reminding Ash vaguely of Plume. He'd have to make sure their room in the Pokemon Center had a full-sized mirror for Oz to admire herself in.

"Hal!" Surge thundered. The exhausted Hypno appeared as if from nowhere, sparing Dazed a single glance. Ash quickly picked up on the hint and recalled his team with a brief apology (with the exception of Oz).

Ash barely even felt the tugging in his gut before Hal had whisked them back to the Vermillion Gym, right where they'd left earlier. The precision was incredible! He'd have to start working with Dazed on her teleportation. She was better than most Hypno already, but they could always shoot for new heights.

A new mind brushed against his, though Ash felt it recoil briefly at the contact. Soon enough a monotonous voice droned on inside his head. It was a little less distinct than Dazed's, holding a slight echoing quality that left Ash focusing on making it all out.

Thank you for the compliment, Storm-Tamer.

He nodded, smiling softly at the Hypno, then its eyes flickered purple again as its opal pendulum trembled.

You have been assigned Robert as your liaison?

"Unfortunately," his face twisted into a scowl. Hal's large nose twitched.

You have my condolences.

With that the Hypno vanished effortlessly into nothingness, going off to wherever the League teleporters spent the majority of their time. Surge stepped forward then, sparing Ash a curious look, and snorted. "Alright, let's get her," he jabbed his finger at Oz, "taken care of, then maybe we can see what she's capable of. Sound good?"

Ash grinned.

That sounded perfect.

XX

The next morning found Ash sitting in the kitchen of the Vermillion Gym. Some of Surge's trainers rushed to and fro, filing in and out of the rooms at random as they got dressed, shoveled whole heaps of food into their face, and scurried whenever Surge barked out an order. He recognized Visquez nearly sprinting with her own Pikachu at her side - she seemed to get personal attention from Surge, and Ash honestly couldn't tell if she relished in it or was absolutely terrified of him.

"She's a good kid," Surge boomed as he sat in an especially large chair at the massive kitchen table set up in the center of the room - it still creaked and shuddered under his weight. Raichu nibbled happily on a berry, tail swishing to and fro as she devoured it. The Gym Leader chuckled and passed her another berry that she greedily snagged. "I'm trying to get her trained up right now. Who knows, she might even replace me one day."

Ash snorted. He couldn't imagine Surge of all people retiring. Though he couldn't help but shift uneasily a moment later. He'd thought the same of Agatha, hadn't he?

"But enough of that," Surge sent one of his Gym Trainers a hard stare as the tall young man snagged a few muffins and squeaked an apology to the Gym Leader as he hurried away. "You said you wanted my advice on a technique?"

"Yeah," he nodded, smiling at the thought. "Oz and I have been working on it for a month or so now. I was going to ask Wattson about it, but…" Ash trailed off, his mind going to Greenfield.

Surge nodded slowly. "Good man, Wattson. You came to the right place, though! So spit it out."

"It's supposed to be an amplification technique," Ash started slowly, choosing each word with great care. "Taking advantage of her physiology. It has some flaws. It's going to rely on Infernus or Torrent to set it up - for now, anyways," he admitted. "Oz doesn't have the power for it yet. Or she didn't," Ash rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

The Gym Leader followed along, but motioned impatiently for him to get to the point.

"I'm calling it Storm Surge for now," he said. "It -"

"Naming it after me?" Surge's booming laughter rattled him, but Ash just rolled his eyes. "That's cute."

"Anyways, it's reliant on clouds and weather. I can set it up with Torrent's Rain Dance or the clouds that form when Infernus fights," Ash explained, rattling off quickly as he grew more and more excited. Understanding began to flicker in the giant's eyes, and even Raichu paused in nibbling her berries to listen. "I'm hoping that it'll prime the environment for her to take advantage of. If we work hard, I think Oz might be able to control lightning strikes!" He rapped his knuckles against the hard table as he thought. "If we can get it down, she could use it to supercharge herself, or direct actual lightning at opponents! What do you think?"

Surge scratched behind Raichu's curled ears as he nodded slowly. "Ambitious," he said, then grinned. "I like it!"

Ash felt tension drain out of his shoulders and fought down a surge of manic laughter.

"Not to say it'll be easy," Surge warned. "I haven't even heard of such a thing. The power required would be mind blowing, let along the control…" he muttered. "This could take years, runt. It's not a project to take lightly. There are Electric Masters who wouldn't take on something like this."

That was no surprise to him. He'd known it would be difficult when he and Oz had conceived the idea, but weren't all things worth doing? "Guess it's a good thing I'm starting now," Ash snorted. Surge shared a quick laugh at that. "We haven't had much luck so far," he admitted. "But now that Oz is evolved, I think we'll double down on it. We've mostly been working on capacity so far, just priming her for evolution."

"I would love to meet the Electabuzz that could pull something like this off," the Gym Leader chuckled, smashing his fist into the table hard enough for it to quake. "It's a clever idea. Appeals to an Electivire's strengths, but the execution will be the problem. I'm glad you're working in other members to set it up," Surge said approvingly. "She'll need all of her juice for this, but if it works, she'll be unstoppable."

Ash dipped his head in thanks, glad to get Surge's input. "Can you help me get started?" He asked. "I have to leave for Pallet Town in a few hours, but I'd really appreciate it if you could look at what we've done so far. There's a few other techniques I'd like to ask you about too."

Surge's grin was savage. The giant cracked his knuckles. "Glad you know when to ask for help," he rose to his full height. Ash was pretty sure the chair was close to groaning in relief. "But yeah, I can spare a few hours. Haven't heard of any decent challengers in the area anyways."

His eyes darkened. "Think we can get another battle in afterwards? Oz could use a workout."

The Gym Leader's grin only widened.

XX

Wind whistled through the hills of Pallet Town, swaying the fields of grass and breaking against the encroaching forest. Sweet floral scents filled his nostrils, and he couldn't help his easy smile. It was amazing to see little Pallet Town from Plume's viewpoint on the flight over; just a tiny collection of scattered homes and buildings tucked into the placid sea. More than the bustling port of Vermillion, the lonely Lavender Tower, or the towering citadel of Indigo Plateau, he craved Pallet.

Home.

Most people were already at work in the lab or the tiny collection of restaurants, stores, and supply shops that kept Pallet running, but a few offered him a friendly wave or stared after him as he passed. Ash ignored them in favor of scanning the street, taking in the tiny changes an outsider would never notice. New coats of paint, a few fresh faces, and a handful of League Rangers he knew weren't stationed here before. He spared them a curious glance before looking to the outskirts of the town.

Professor Oak's home rose above it all of course, standing proudly with all of Pallet Town in its shadow. A few mountains jutted in the distance, and Ash couldn't help but think fondly of the old memories of roaming them on his lonesome or with Gary, then newer flashes of traversing the heights fearlessly with his team behind him, or meeting Jon and Amelia or Gary to train in that month after the Indigo Conference…

He smiled.

"Haven't been here in a while," he commented. Nidoking grunted, though something in his black gaze was softer and kinder than normal. Everyone passing by still made sure to cross to the other side of the path, of course. "It's nice."

This time Nidoking nodded, nostrils flaring to suck in the fresh air. It was a far cry from the suffocating weight of Lavender's stagnant air, tinged with the taint of alien spirits and the old thing that dwelled in the city's heart. Warmer breezes swept in from the sea, intermixing with the cold air crawling down from the mountains.

To be honest, he wasn't entirely sure where he would go first. He needed to visit the Corral soon - and Professor Oak, of course - but part of him just wanted to lounge about and enjoy the peace for a time. He had all day to spend with the Professor.

A part of him wished he had Gary, Amelia, and Jon to spend some time with as well. The days on the Lake of Rage had been...pleasant.

His eyes followed a great black shadow that swept across the earth - a distant shriek told him Plume had come to say hello. She knew these lands well, and he hadn't seen any point in returning her to her pokeball. After putting up with the glacial (for her) pace of flying across Kanto with Ash on her back, he thought it was the least he could do for the Pidgeot.

The others would get some time to stretch their legs soon enough. Ash openly smiled at that - Tangrowth had missed all the little ones at the Corral. He knew they'd missed their happy-go-lucky, hugging, gurgling companion as well.

For now, he just had one mission to take care of.

It only took a few more minutes to take a lazy stroll through Pallet's tranquil hills and find himself at his house.

He took a moment to just stare.

Red roof. White paint. Sturdy fence.

Ash and Nidoking basked in it.

This was home, alright.

The two finally walked in after fiddling with the creaky lock for a moment. It took him a moment to remember where the key was hidden beneath a flowerpot. Pallet was a safe town. Even if someone had tried to break in, Alakazam would pick up on it in a heartbeat. She kept the whole town safe.

It felt a little strange stepping into the house knowing his mom was nowhere to be found. His throat tightened just a tad and he hurriedly glanced around. Everything looked just how he'd left it before he'd left for Hoenn. He'd tidied the place up as best he could, but now that he was back he picked up on a few tiny details that his mom would have never missed in a million years: a few stray pieces of gleaming silverware stashed beneath the couch by Sneasel's thieving claws, an old book on training he'd flipped through and left on the coffee table, blankets still wrapped up into a cozy cave for Seeker to snuggle in.

One of his mom's old employees at the deli promised to keep an eye on the place. She'd done a good job, though she'd left everything exactly as he'd left it. There was no hint of dust, and even the air smelled remarkably fresh. Still a little musty, but he thought she must have cracked a window every now and then to let some new air in.

He shifted uneasily. The house was still familiar, but its emptiness was stark now. Unnatural. Foreign.

Where was his mom whistling as she went about her day or worked through a massive textbook? Where was the energy, the hustle and bustle? The life? His mom was a small woman, but she seemed to fill the house to the brim.

At least his team had stayed with him before…

"I'll be right back," he mumbled once they'd taken a few steps deeper. Nidoking's big ears twitched, and he brushed a blunt claw against Ash's bare arm. Ash smiled wanly, patted Nidoking's plated shoulder, and left his friend waiting by the stairs. There was no way on earth Nidoking could climb them without breaking the house.

Ash moved quickly, coolly assessing the former home with every step. His door was closed, though he'd left it cracked all those months ago when he'd embarked to Hoenn. Their house sitter must have nudged it shut. He wasn't especially patient when he flung it open, glancing around his room before settling on his dresser.

It was mostly empty now - storage compartments were pretty convenient for keeping his extra clothes, although he still packed minimally. All that remained were a few old pictures (and a new one of both Ash and his entire team lazing in the Corral, plus one of him and his other friends from Pallet Town). Ash grinned at the sight of the photos, picking each up in turn to feel the glossy paper between his fingers.

He had his mom to thank for these. His face twisted into a grimace and his chest panged, and he gently laid the pictures back in their places of honor. Instead, Ash glanced to the silver medal he'd earned in the Indigo Conference that laid on the dresser. Memories of the fierce battle where his team had earned it with sweat and blood and grit rushed through his mind, and he smiled.

That was a good fight.

Ash began to move on, but found himself hesitating. He found his eyes drawn back to the gleaming medal, and after a moment picked it up. The silver was weighty in his hand, and he found quite a bit of satisfaction in lifting it. For a moment he inspected it, glancing over the words inscribed in the fine metal, and at last allowed the medal to be transferred into the storage compartment where he kept his personal belongings in a flash of light.

It didn't belong here in this empty house.

He almost left then, satisfied with the visit to his room, but paused. After a moment he turned back to his dresser and yanked one of the drawers open, sifting through a few old shirts he'd outgrown over the course of his journey to find his treasures.

Two items greeted him: a small splinter of a deep, glossy black and the ridged golden scale of a Dragonite.

His fingers trailed over the Dragon Scale first, awash in nostalgia as he recalled Lance first handing him the scale on the boat back to Kanto. That seemed so long ago now, like another life entirely…

Ash had almost brought the Moon Stone shard and the Dragon Scale along with him to Hoenn all those months ago, but ultimately decided against it. Thieves were still a thing, and even if he didn't think his team would ever let anyone questionable near him, it was still worth considering. Everything he had on him was ultimately replaceable (even the books, which were the things he valued most at the moment). Elder Yari would probably be willing to give another copy of the Drakes' journal, even if Ash would dread asking for a replacement. Even Cynthia's books were replaceable, even if he'd be heartbroken to lose the signed copy or the manuscript Lance had passed onto him.

The Dragon Scale and the Moon Stone shard? Irreplaceable by any measure. Sure, he could replace the items themselves, but he would never be able to replace what they represented. Nidoking and Torrent had evolved through these items.

Of course, the thought of evolution put a big, dumb smile on his face as he thought of Oz. He could only imagine how quickly she'd be swarmed by the resident electric-types at the Corral. She'd be more than happy to show off, of course.

To be fair, he knew they'd be safe in Pallet Town. Nobody was breaking into the house with Alakazam and Arcanine around. It was why he'd felt comfortable leaving them in the empty house at all.

Something in him itched at the thought of just leaving them here now, though. Leaving them in this lifeless place to linger in obscurity… no, that wouldn't do.

They'd be a lot safer in his room at Indigo Plateau, he calculated, and almost fooled himself into believing that was the only reason. Ash had never been a good liar, though, and least of all to himself.

He transferred the Dragon Scale into his personal storage department next, taking a moment to savor the coarse ridges of the golden scale against his fingertips. It was hard to believe that it had been part of Dragonite once, though Ash could almost imagine the dragon's warmth still imbued the scale. The idle thought was more comforting than Ash would have expected.

Next was the inky shard of the Moon Stone. It seemed to drink up every bit of light that touched it, less black and more an absence of color or hue or faint gleam most Moon Stones would capture. He could easily lose himself staring into its depths, and for a moment he did.

Ash stared, admiring the void-like splinter. He didn't pick it up quite yet, just taking in the sight. Something caught his attention, something indecipherable like a hint of smoke coiling -

Deeper and deeper he stared, certain he'd seen something and determined to catch it. After half a minute without any success, Ash sighed and reached out to grab the shard, still suspicious even as his rough fingers touched the impossible smoothness of the stone -

Power.

His breath hitched and he pulled away from the Moon Stone shard, watching it with more than a hint of wariness. Ash exhaled as the flicker left him, lingering for just a moment in his fingertip before slipping away. Rather than afraid, he found himself intrigued. He'd toyed with the shard more than once in the past and never felt more than a hum, barely more than a faint pressure, let alone this little shock.

Naturally, he touched it again. He was prepared this time and instead of jerking away held on, opening him to the latent force that clung to the Moon Stone.

He shut his eyes, recalling the brief lessons Cynthia had imparted.

Why, why, why?

Ash felt the shard, thought of its history, thought of its origin - Steven had chipped it off the true Moon Stone, hadn't he? He still had no idea how on earth Steven had convinced the Clefable of Mt. Moon to let that happen, but he couldn't help but wonder, to pick at connections and let his thoughts follow unseen paths.

Power, faint but steady. Not beating like a heart, but putting out a constant flow. A steady drip-drip-drip of unseen energy trickling from a tiny sliver of infinity.

His heart pounded at the thrill of mystery, and he refused to think too deeply lest he lose his grip on the insight - it was like trying to catch smoke, and he wasn't sure he could replicate it if he failed here. Instead he kept his eyes closed and waited as foreign connections dotted together, knit into a cohesive picture by his mind. Ash was just a rock in a stream, engulfed in the flow.

Power, different from the untamed warmth of Fire, the frigid fractals of Ice, and the blinding intensity of Lightning. Even different than beaming Sunlight or the soothing Song, too tame and organized to be the whipping North Wind. Organized was the best way to imagine it, Ash mused, though trying to name this shadow of a far greater power was an exercise in futility. All he could glean were impressions, the barest hints of its true nature.

What he knew was that it was unique in comparison to everything else he'd encountered. The other forces he knew were wild, untamed or simply adopting a guise of order that masked their true nature. They were free. This… wasn't. It ran counter to them all, almost unnatural in its rigidity and contrary to the chaotic nature of the world that he'd come to comprehend.

Ash found himself utterly fascinated with the mystery of this alien power, focused to force his way deeper, to follow the trail to whatever fueled the Moon Stone -

It slipped away, and he found himself staring at an innocuous sliver of inky stone. Ash snarled, tried making it happen again, but just gave himself a headache trying to open up the connection again. Was it even him who'd pulled the impression, or had it been the stone itself?

He couldn't be sure, but Ash stared suspiciously at the Moon Stone shard nonetheless.

At last he admitted defeat, but slipped the glossy stone into his pocket instead of dematerializing it into his storage compartment to rest with his other belongings.

Ash hadn't decided on a course of action yet, but it would probably be worth asking Professor Oak about. It usually was.

He shook it off and returned down the stairs to Nidoking, who chuffed at him. His friend looked a little concerned and stuck close to Ash, but he just shook his head and looked around at the too-quiet house, finding it rather inhospitable all of a sudden.

"Let's go," he murmured, laying a hand against Nidoking's blunt claws. Nidoking's worried gaze softened, and he grunted before looking like he'd rather be giving Ash a hug - not something that happened often on account of Nidoking's toxic spines, but Ash enjoyed it when it did. "I bet Professor Oak is waiting. He probably knew we were here before we even landed," Ash snorted. Nidoking perked up a little at the mention of Professor Oak, and straightened up quickly to follow Ash out the door.

Professor Oak's home stood proudly on its distant hill, and Ash took a moment to appreciate it.

He'd missed the old man.

Still, there was one place he needed to visit before he stopped by the Professor's house. He had a sneaking suspicion that he'd need to fill his mom's shoes for a day and make sure Professor Oak was taking care of himself...

XX

Unsurprisingly, he wasn't able to just waltz right into the Professor's personal lab where he worked on his most secret projects.

Oh, there was nothing stopping him. The door opened right up and he grinned as he saw the familiar interior of the Professor's home. It was a little dusty and unkempt - there were half-finished meals and glasses of water all over the place, and his nose wrinkled at the sight of a browning fruit molding on the floor. Three or four empty ketchup bottles were cast randomly throughout the entry room, and Ash began to feel a niggling sense of worry rise in his gut.

How did Oak let things get to this state?

A characteristic bout of scientific mania.

His lips twitched when Alakazam appeared as if from nowhere, the glow of her eyes and flaming aura wreathed around her shiny spoons fading away, diffusing into their surroundings. Nidoking grunted, but didn't react otherwise. Alakazam was one of the few pokemon he felt comfortable with.

It might have just been his imagination, but he imagined she wasn't too bothered to see him barging in. Her mustache twitched as she plucked the thought from his mind.

He is working, Storm-Tamer.

Nidoking and Ash both eyed the awful mess the house was in, not to mention the subtle odor of sickly sweet rot that wafted from the good Professor's unfinished meals.

"Maybe he needs a break?" Ash suggested, and Nidoking nodded firmly, his great tail dragging over the dusty wood. It left a noticeable smear.

Alakazam's eye twitched. For a psychic like her, it was practically broadcasting her turmoil.

Perhaps.

The allowance was about all he'd get, and Ash smiled. A few seconds later and the Drakes' journal materialized in a flash of light - Alakazam's eyes narrowed, and he knew he'd captured her interest. After spending so many nights with her and Dazed discussing Cynthia's book before he left Pallet, he felt that it would be a sure thing.

It was gratifying to know he understood the old Alakazam that much.

Context.

His confident smile stretched wider. "Firsthand accounts of all the Drakes of the Wataru," Ash said proudly, clutching the journal like a lifeline. It was worth its weight in gold. Judging by the azure flash of Alakazam's eyes, she thought the same. "Elder Yari gave it to me himself!"

Alakazam stared greedily - in fact, he could actually feel the emotion radiating outwards from the thin psychic in pounding waves. Her species were known to live in enclaves far out in the wilderness, devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and universal comprehension. For Alakazam, she'd found her avenue of learning in books and files instead. That was one advantage to living among humans, Ash supposed. In the wild, they delved into the mysteries of the cosmos with their psychic powers. Flipping the pages of a book was pretty convenient in comparison.

"I haven't gotten a ton of time to flip through it yet," Ash admitted, waving the book. Alakazam's eyes followed every motion. "Dazed and I are going to work through it tonight. The more time we have in the day, the more we can look at…" he envisioned the three of them poring over the journal together, which he knew Alakazam would pluck from his thoughts, and watched carefully as her mustache twitched.

He had her.

Indeed you do.

Alakazam didn't sound especially irritated about that fact. She sent him one last telepathic message before vanishing into nothingness.

Carry on, Storm-Tamer. He's hunched over his work, as he has been for the last thirty hours.

Well, now that he had permission…

Ash eyed the carpeted staircase skeptically, then looked to Nidoking. "Do you want to wait down here, or do you want to be returned?"

Nidoking thought for a moment, shrugging his plated shoulders, then looked pointedly at his pokeball. Ash nodded, then returned him with a click of a button. His first friend vanished in a flash of light, and he quickly clipped the pokeball back onto his belt before stepping up to meet Professor Oak.

He stepped quietly, hiding a half-smile that built with every step, and eventually turned into the Professor's study. This was where his most sensitive tasks were completed, and he could only imagine what kind of classified data was held on these servers.

His good mood lasted until he slipped into the study and saw Professor Oak staring at his monitor with red-rimmed eyes. The old man was about five minutes away from passing out by Ash's estimation… he was only saved from his fate by the fifteen drained coffee mugs scattered all over his desk, not to mention the empty pill bottle completely emptied of its caffeine tablets.

Ash suddenly found himself grateful that he just had to call on Lightning if he wanted to stay awake for an inhuman number of hours…

"Professor?" His voice shattered the silence, and Professor Oak's head snapped towards him like a hunted Rattata. The brilliant scientist's eyes were wild and heavy black bags hanging beneath, and Ash nearly called out Dazed just to force the man to get some sleep and rest for once. Had he been like this the entire time his mom was gone, or was this a recent phenomenon?

Ash suspected the latter.

"Yes?" The man blinked. Pikachu, who had been snoozing on the back of his comfy office chair, jerked awake and helpfully gave Oak a tiny shock before going back to sleep. "Ah, Ash! I thought you might be it."

He stared at the mixed up phrasing, but the Professor didn't seem to notice. "Are you okay?"

"Oh yes, yes," the Professor nodded emphatically, turning back to stare at his screen. Several massive spreadsheets full of graphs, raw data, and lines upon lines of numbers and words filled the whole screen and left Ash with a minor headache when he tried to interpret it. The cold presence in the back of his mind flickered, however, seeming to take the whole sight in.

"Splendid, actually! Currently analyzing the patterns of weather phenomena in Johto over the past month and comparing it to reported visual and psychic sightings of the Beasts!" The frazzled man somehow managed to send Ash a wry look. "Quite a few seem to follow along with your own journey."

Ash nodded. "That sounds about right," he hesitated, thinking back to his week in Ecruteak. "I met the Beasts in Ecruteak. Ho-Oh as well," Ash recalled his conversation with Wes and the way the Orrian man's eyes filled with the sun… "Kind of."

The good Professor's bloodshot eyes locked on his own, though he immediately scribbled down some notes. "Oh? I'll have to pick your brain on that later."

"Of course," Ash said, then shared a worried look with Pikachu. "Are you sure you don't want to take a nap? You kind of look…"

"Awful?" Professor Oak chuckled. "Alakazam has told me. Quite a few times, in fact," he remarked. "I'm starting to take offense."

Ash peered down at the seated man. "If you're having trouble, Dazed can help," he offered, fingers resting on her twitching pokeball. "She helps me sleep."

A measure of awareness (maybe even a little clarity) injected itself back into Oak's eyes. They flashed dangerously, but the man said nothing.

"When was the last time you ate?"

Professor Oak seemed a little confused by the question, then brightened. "A few hours ago."

Ten hours ago.

Alakazam was clearly still keeping an eye on things, and Ash shook his head. Professor Oak reminded him of himself when he got too into training - he was just glad he had his family to keep him grounded. He knew exactly where he'd be without them…

Ash pulled a cold sandwich he'd bought from his mom's old deli and raised it. Professor Oak looked blearily at it. "I brought lunch."

"Oh, thank you," the old man smiled as Ash tossed him the sandwich. He wasn't surprised when the sleep-deprived man utterly missed the mark, though at least the wrapped sandwich landed squarely in Oak's lap. "Care to join me for lunch?"

He couldn't help but grin at that and pulled out his own sandwich. "Of course."

With that, he pulled up a chair and took a happy seat next to Professor Oak.

It was just like old times.

XX

Once Professor Oak had finished the dregs of his innumerable coffee mugs (watching it had nearly made Ash wretch) he was an entirely different person. Gone were the bleary eyes and dreamy words, replaced by a terrible clarity and the emergence of his brilliance again.

It wouldn't last for long, but Ash found himself perking up with every moment he was with the real Oak instead of the sleep-maddened husk he'd first walked in on. After a few minutes they'd left the stuffy old Oak house and left to sit at a small picnic table out in the Corral. His team had appreciated the chance to go lounge about in their old stomping grounds, and Infernus had already tracked down Arcanine to chase around and duel with - Torrent and Dazed were begrudgingly pulled into guard duty even as Tangrowth was buried in a small army of familiar pokemon eager to see their old friend.

"Oz evolved yesterday!" He pointed out, pride coloring his words. "Surge gave the Electirizer."

"I thought he'd mentioned something like that," Professor Oak said, smiling at the sight of Oz flexing and sparking before a horde of Pikachu, Elekid, and other electric-types. Ash was actually pretty sure a Magneton was trying to latch onto her fur… "She seems to be adapting well."

Ash grinned. "She is!" He laughed even as another boom echoed from across the Corral where Infernus and Arcanine played. "Oz nearly beat Raichu right after her evolution - if she wasn't still figuring out her body, she would've," Ash said proudly. "She's strong."

"I can't say I'm surprised," Oak chuckled. "I'm glad her hard work has paid off."

He nodded along, stomach still fluttering at the sight of Oz as an Electivire. It felt like years since she'd joined him, and now she was finally where she should be. She had always been strong, but now was her time to ascend, to face the rest of the team on even footing. For the last few months she'd been handicapped in every match, but now she could finally access her full strength.

"She's earned it," Ash said quietly.

A comfortable silence, one learned during the days they'd spent together in Pallet before Ash had left for Hoenn, hung over them. Ash sipped at the bitter coffee he'd accepted - not something he'd usually drink so late in the day, but it seemed to be all Professor Oak had available - and mulled over the events of the last few days.

Leaving Blackthorn, Indigo Plateau, Agatha and the Ghost, Oz's evolution… it all seemed so fast.

He took a good long look at the Professor. With the caffeine in his system, he looked almost normal. Broad face, tan skin, sharp eyes. Nothing out of the ordinary, really. With the laugh lines etched into his face he even looked approachable, like Ash could talk to him about anything.

For a moment, he wanted to bring up the issue of Gary's parents, to get the answer straight from the source.

One look into the Professor's peaceful air dissolved him of that notion.

Maybe he was a coward for not asking him then and there, but Ash couldn't find it in him. Not here, not now.

His stomach turned, and Ash fought the urge to call on Ice to numb him to it.

"So I heard they're announcing your new status soon," Professor Oak took another sip of his coffee. It was loaded down with sugar, cream, and all sorts of additives - nothing like Ash's own. To be honest, Ash had just enjoyed the surprise on the Professor's face when Ash had asked for some as well. Surprising the old man wasn't easy. "How do you feel?"

Ash grimaced. His grip on the coffee mug tightened. Nidoking grumbled from where he laid at his side, though Ash asked (several times in fact) for him to go visit the herd of the Nidoran line. Without Gary's Nidoqueen around it didn't seem quite as attractive to Nidoking, though that hadn't stopped the herd from grouping around and snoozing near the picnic table.

"Awful."

Professor Oak nodded along as if he'd expected the answer. "It's a lot to deal with at such a young age," he said sagely. "I would have been lost in your shoes."

Ha! As if Ash could believe Professor Oak would be lost in any situation. He was too smart, too quick. Even as a boy he must've been brilliant beyond belief.

"You don't believe me?" the Professor looked faintly amused, arching a single eyebrow.

"How could I?" Ash snorted, waving at Professor Oak. "You're...you."

Nidoking huffed in agreement from where he lay on the soft grass.

The old man's smile was thin. "I've failed more than you could ever understand," Professor Oak chuckled humorlessly. A gnawing curiosity begged him to ask more, but he just couldn't. Too weak to muster up the courage, he snarled at himself. The old man's smile seemed a bit more genuine after that as he looked to Ash. "Don't think too much about it, Ash," his gaze peered far off across the Corral and into the forests beyond.

"A wise man once told me that I shouldn't worry so much. That the world is a big, unfathomable place, and I should only focus on things that I can control," the Professor mused, sipping his coffee again. "Do your best and give it your all. If you think of what-ifs you'll drown in them, lost in what might have been."

Ash nodded along thoughtfully even as the Professor sighed.

"I've gotten long-winded in my old age," the Professor's eyes sparkled. He lightly slapped Ash on the back. "Don't worry too much about it, son," he said absentmindedly, and Ash hoped the man couldn't detect the rush of warmth that filled his chest at the thoughtless words. "The League will take good care of you. Lance will be there," Oak promised. "He's stood in front of the press a hundred times now. He knows what to do."

He fought the pleasure down so he could actually focus, though a part of him didn't want to let it slip away. "I'm worried about him," Ash admitted, though it left him feeling like a traitor to even bring up his concern.

"Lance?" Professor Oak frowned.

"Yeah," Ash nodded. He took a moment to try to figure out how to put his feelings into words. It felt wrong to ever be worried about the great Champion Lance. "He's wrong. Not himself, like he's sick."

Something about his words struck Professor Oak. The old man frowned, betraying more emotion than normal. "He's been under a lot of stress," Professor Oak said measuredly, knuckles rapping against the wooden picnic table. "Carrying the weight of a region is hard enough, let alone two. Especially after recent events…"

Greenfield. It went unmentioned, but Ash knew exactly what the Professor meant. He glanced away, thoughts filled with his lost mom. Professor Oak winced as well, and neither of them really knew how to move on from the heavy topic. It hit them both where it hurt.

"The press conference will be just fine," Professor Oak moved the conversation back to safer topics. He smiled at Ash. "The first is always the hardest, but you're in good hands. You've already given interviews during the Conference, yes?"

Ash nodded.

"It'll be just like that," Professor Oak said soothingly, then cracked a smile. "And if it goes poorly… well, you can always introduce them to Infernus."

He smirked.

That didn't sound so bad.

Ash took a particularly vicious bite of his sandwich, staring out at the Corral. "I heard I just missed you at the Lake of Rage," he mentioned.

"So I heard!" Professor Oak laughed. It was only a little delirious. "To be frank, I'm a little in awe at how many of my discoveries in the last year can be tied to you. So many Gyarados attacking at once is unprecedented! Perhaps I should just put a camera and tracker on you..." he trailed off, then fixed Ash with a curious look. "How was it seeing your friends again?"

"It was nice."

Professor Oak didn't seem entirely satisfied with the answer. "And Gary?"

"Gary was Gary," Ash sid simply. The Professor nodded along, knowing all too well how his grandson could be. "It was good to see him again. Pretty sure Jon and Amelia were about to murder him by the end, though."

The Professor hummed and didn't seem surprised at all.

After a moment of hesitation, Ash met Professor Oak's bloodshot eyes. "I told them."

"About?"

"The Legends," Ash whispered. Professor Oak nodded, though worry was visible plain as day on his features. "Not much," he reassured the man, "just that they existed. That they couldn't be fought."

"It's about time!"

Ash blinked.

"I'm glad you told them," Professor Oak sighed, though looked especially old in that moment as he reclined in his creaking wooden chair. "I'm glad that you can trust them."

"They deserved to know."

The Professor inclined his head. "That they do," he said, relieved. "I just hope it doesn't inspire Gary…"

He couldn't help but snort at that. "I think Gary will be staying far, far away from any Legendaries."

Professor Oak looked a little troubled still, but Ash didn't offer any explanations. If Gary brought up the other Pallet trainers' battle with Suicune, he wouldn't stop them. Ash just didn't want to dive into the interrogation he'd receive if he mentioned to Professor Oak that Suicune had heeded his call - he'd offer that to Lance when he got back to Indigo Plateau, then see where things spiralled from there.

Besides, Ash had the sneaking suspicion that Professor Oak would end up dragging him into a few science experiments regardless. There was absolutely no way the Professor could resist. Ash knew him at least that well.

"So… how's the research coming?"

The Professor brightened at that, just like Ash had predicted. "Wonderful! The Beasts have been particularly active in the last month," he offered Ash a look somewhere between pointed and appreciative, "and the events in Ecruteak have offered all sorts of eyewitness accounts!"

"I'll answer any questions you have," Ash promised as Oak sent him another manic look. He really needed to take a nap…

That seemed to satisfy the Professor. "Project SCRY - the Legendary tracking project," he explained at Ash's curious expression, "is finally yielding results. Our preliminary search results have been backed up by solid proof - Articuno has been confirmed to rest at Mt. Silver, while we have finally begun to bring in more information about the Beasts. We haven't managed to pinpoint Zapdos or Mew," Oak admitted readily, despite his apparent frustration, "but we hope that the Beasts might be willing to build a relationship with the League. Perhaps even create a link between the League and Ho-Oh, an alliance, perhaps…"

Ash didn't pitch in his thoughts on that as Oak rambled on. Another thing to bring up to Lance, he supposed. He couldn't speak for Entei or Raikou, but Suicune at least seemed sympathetic. Or at least unwilling to stand aside in the face of such massive threats. An alliance might be a strong word for it, however. Suicune would appear whenever it willed - the League had nothing to offer it.

When Oak sent him another look, Ash knew he'd be spending plenty of time describing his experiences in Ecruteak.

He couldn't bring himself to mind too much.

"Now tell me," Oak finally stopped his spiel about his research. "How is my grandson doing? I'm afraid he hasn't reached out since he left Blackthorn - once that boy gets something in his mind he can't think of anything else," the Professor muttered.

Hmm, Ash stared at the sleep-deprived Professor as the man devoured the last few bites of his sandwich and chugged the last of his coffee. He couldn't imagine where Gary got it from...

XX

It only took another two hours or so before Oak's true motivation for keeping Ash around was made evident.

"Fascinating!" The Professor scribbled something down onto a notepad, though his red eyes never left Ash. Several of his team waited nearby, though most had gotten bored ages ago. Only Dazed still seemed interested, though Oz and Bruiser still paid some attention from beneath the shade of a nearby tree.

Aron hung around as well, though seemed more occupied with nibbling gingerly on a rusty old bar Plume had brought him as a gift.

"Are we done?" Ash sighed, staring down at the pile of shattered glass-like stone that heaped upon the floor in piles beneath his feet. He'd somehow avoided being cut by any of the flying splinters (or seared by the detonations) but it was a near thing.

Professor Oak scoffed. "Of course not," he looked to Alakazam's intrigued gaze and grinned in a very un-Professor Oak-like manner. "Another!"

He barely had time to react before a Thunder Stone flew at him. It bounced off his arm, the 'bolt' inside surged, and the Thunder Stone detonated in a flash of light and roll of thunder before he could blink. If Dazed didn't helpfully shield him, it might have been a serious danger.

Ash tried to think of literally anything else as the tedium built - it turned out you could only stand in explosion after explosion before it grew dull.

Alakazam's voice filled his mind, rattling off a long string of numbers and psychic observations she'd made in the split-second the Thunder Stone had survived contact with him. She'd been doing this for ages now and hadn't lost an ounce of enthusiasm.

"Curious," the Professor mumbled, scrawling madly on his notebook. "Irritation in the subject seems to stimulate the speed at which the Thunder Stone explodes."

His eye twitched. "Subject?"

Only the flicker of amusement from Dazed's mind kept him from grumbling.

Alakazam reacted to some telepathic signal from Oak and a Fire Stone was drawn from the massive pile, twisting gracefully through the air as Alakazam guided it with her expert hand. Ash glared as the expensive stone was lobbed towards him, stoked Fire with his impatience -

The Fire Stone exploded in a roar of white-hot flame, barely shielded against by Dazed and Alakazam's combined effort.

To be honest, Ash was glad that Nidoking had finally fallen asleep while Ash and the Professor ate - his friend always rested easier in the Corral. There was no way he would've been able to watch this. He still wasn't entirely sure Dazed hadn't sneakily lulled Nidoking to slumber just for that reason.

The Professor and Alakazam shared a glance filled with too much scientific curiosity for his liking.

"Call Inferno, will you?" Oak said to Alakazam. Her mustache bristled and her spoons wreathed with a fiery blue light, her eyes flashing with power. "Excellent! Now, Oz, will you come over here?"

She paused where she was showing off her crackling fists for a starstruck Elekid and a cheering Pikachu, looked to Ash, and he nodded. Oz stormed over, powerful muscles bulging with every step beneath her sleek black-and-gold fur. Her tails whipped behind her, spraying sparks easily and without restraint, and Ash found the tedium utterly shattered by her confident stride.

Evolution suited her.

Oz took her place next to Ash, kicking aside the constantly growing pile of precious evolutionary stone dust. Some of the remnants shuddered, sparking to life for just a moment as she neared.

He took a moment to appreciate the dozens of stones the Professor had tossed at him already - quite a few of the stones hadn't been destroyed and were safely reclaimed, but each and every Fire and Thunder Stone absolutely erupted the moment it came near. By his count, the Professor had already lost over a hundred thousand in the precious stones…

Ash wasn't sure what the benefit of destroying more was, but he wasn't about to disrupt the Professor. Maybe he was just working with Alakazam to finetune the readings? He'd been tinkering with a bunch of machines pointed Ash's way earlier, plus he was a little afraid that if Professor Oak stopped at this point the old man would just sleep for the next three days.

I concur, Friend-Trainer.

His lips twitched.

"Yes, yes, yes!" Professor Oak paced, toying with another machine Ash couldn't possibly decipher the purpose of. He wheeled around, lab coat whipping behind him, and rushed forward - Oz tensed, tails snapping forward to wrap around her fists and charge them with electricity, but Ash shook his head. "Now, you mentioned you can utilize the Feather and it produces energy?"

Ash nodded.

"I'd like to try something!" Oak grinned, bouncing on his heels. Ash waited patiently. "Oz, put a hand on his chest - yes, like that, wonderful. Now, Ash, show me how you activate it."

To be honest, this was something he'd considered trying a long time ago - he just wasn't able to do it with Infernus, and he was loath to experiment with it around Oz or Sneasel for fear of accidentally spurring an evolution.

But that wasn't a concern anymore, was it?

Ash met Oz's eyes, then nodded. Oz's palm on his chest was heavy and warm, clenching slightly as he squeezed his eyes shut, reached for the Feather -

Lightning flooded him. Every sense sharpened, his nerves seared, time slowed -

Oz shone. For a moment he thought she'd somehow evolved again, reaching some new, unheard of height, but soon he managed to adjust and realized she was just wreathed in electricity. It sparked wildly, nearly striking the Professor, the machines, and even the nearby pokemon only to be blocked by perfectly placed psychic barriers courtesy of Dazed and Alakazam.

She staggered away from him, howling, and for a moment Ash feared she'd broken somehow beneath the sheer power of the Feather -

Then she looked back to Ash with happily bared teeth, pausing to stare hungrily at the Feather, then beat her fists against her muscular chest and bellowed a challenge to the skies. She raised a giant fist, tails slicing through air with showers of sparks bursting from the tips, and boom - a roaring thunderclap assaulted Ash's ears, rolling through the shuddering earth, and a great spear of lightning surged from her fist and into the sky, casting the entire Corral in shade for just a brief moment.

They all stared as Oz thundered again and again, entire body flashing bright as she struggled to burn off the power flooding her - it hurt, Ash had no doubt about that. She flinched every now and then, spasming as her body failed to control the vast surge of electricity wracking every muscle, but all his worries fell away as she turned to Ash and grinned.

He grinned right back, admiring the brilliant figure towering on the hilltop.

Two blurs arrived - Arcanine came to a stop ahead of a few of the Corral's young, awestruck pokemon with blazing eyes, with a weary Infernus chasing after him, making occasional jumps with teleportation to catch up with the impossibly fast canine.

Arcanine fell back with Pikachu (who had promptly put distance between itself and Ash as soon as it sensed the Feather spark to life) as he realized the threat was just one of those silly visitors, but Infernus only stepped forward. He blazed white, grass igniting in a vast circle around him, and fires blazed within his cannons as he stared at his new challenger.

Infernus still wasn't at his best after his disastrous fight with Karen's Houndoom, but there was no chance that was going to stop him…

Ash expected nothing else.

"Wonderful!" Oak said brightly as he wrote down a new set of notes. "That was a resounding success!"

"Yes!" Ash breathed as Oz and Infernus met in battle - Infernus purposefully didn't activate Air Lens, too eager for this fight to worry with tricks like that. He could barely keep track of what was going on, to be honest. Thunder shook the earth, fires roared and crackled, Infernus grinned and Oz howled -

"Ah, there's Inferno!" Oak pointed to a tiny shadow approaching the Corral from miles away. It was barely visible in the sky, but even in the daylight Ash could spot the blazing blue sun that engulfed the mighty old Charizard's tail. Blood pounded in his ears, and he found himself hoping Infernus and Oz would find a new opponent in the grizzled Charizard. "I thought he'd never drag himself out of his lair. Lazy old thing," the Professor added fondly.

I will ensure the Corral is not destroyed. The Torrent will arrive soon.

Ash nodded his thanks to Dazed, though he couldn't bear to pull his eyes away from the battle for long. Infernus had closed the distance now, though he wasn't moving too well. His legs were still mostly useless, even if a little (or ton) of pain had never managed to stop Infernus in the past. One good Lightning Bolt from Oz would finish the deal.

"Think he'd be up for a battle?"

Professor Oak shrugged. "Who knows? It's been a long time since he's scrapped with anyone but Dragonite," he said, then his eyes glinted as Inferno took a wide circle around the dueling combatants below and began to descend. "But after we let him soak up the Feather...well, who knows? Maybe it'll spark a bit of life back into him!"

Alakazam looked less than pleased at the idea, and Ash had the sneaking suspicion she was already preparing to pick up the pieces of this particular disaster.

"What a wonderful day!" The sleep-deprived Professor chuckled. "Professor Rowan will be jealous."

Ash rolled his eyes. .

XX

Many, many hours later the sun set on Pallet.

The experiments were over, half the Corral had been destroyed, and once the crashing Oz and still injured Infernus had both pummeled each other into unconsciousness they'd passed out and promptly been returned to get some rest. Tangrowth had a great time using Ancient Power to construct his legions of fans in the Corral a new playground, however.

After Nidoking still failed to wake up, Ash decided that Dazed was definitely responsible for his impromptu nap.

He didn't wake Nidoking, though. His friend could use the rest. It was hard work worrying all the time.

Ash looked over to Professor Oak, who was obviously running on fumes. He sagged in his chair, greying hair ragged and wild, and stared numbly into yet another mug of coffee that Alakazam had carefully levitated into his shaking hand.

"Maybe it's time to take a break," Ash suggested. To channel Jon...the Professor looked like crap.

Professor Oak shook his head. "There's still work to be done," he said wearily, but still with the steel of someone who loved what they did. Ash imagined he sounded the same when any of his friends had tried to stop him training. "The world never waits, I'm afraid."

The old man reclined in his wooden chair. Memories of the days before he left Pallet for Hoenn filled his mind, of Ash and the Professor sitting together trading stories and sharing thoughts. He smiled.

"So what are your plans?" The Professor sounded almost hesitant, though it was hard to tell with how he slurred his words. "Will you stay in Pallet tonight?"

"I think so. Plume deserves a break," Ash confessed, even if he was pretty sure Plume would squawk indignantly if she'd been around to hear it. Fortunately, she was safely sequestered away with Oz, Bruiser, Seeker, Tangrowth and Aron off in the woods - apparently Aron had already built up quite the following among the younger pokemon of the Corral.

Professor Oak chuckled, sipping the last dregs of his coffee. "It'll be good to have you back, Ash, if only for a night. I've missed Delia -"

He cut himself off, grimacing.

Ash's mood dropped, but he didn't show it. Not with that guilty look the Professor thought he could hide. "I do too," he whispered. After a beat, Ash shut his eyes. He didn't want to see the look Professor Oak would inevitably send his way. "Do - do you think she's going to be okay? I talked to her a bit at the Plateau and she seemed okay but she -"

Professor Oak laid a heavy hand on Ash's shoulder. It was pleasantly warm compared to the brisk chill that had swept over Pallet from the northwestern mountains. "She will be," the old man promised, though Ash couldn't help but think the Professor was trying to convince himself as well. The Professor smiled wearily. "Delia's a strong woman. The strongest…" he trailed off, then fixed Ash with a warm look. "You had to get it from somewhere, right?"

His lips curved into a smile. "Yeah."

Before the easy silence could spring back up, Ash fixed his eyes pointedly to where Nidoking slept just a few feet away, looking uncharacteristically relaxed under Dazed's spell. It would be time to go back to his house soon, to step into the empty living room and up the stairs past the empty kitchen to his empty bedroom… his stomach turned, and he tried not to think of it.

"It's weird not having my mom here," Ash mumbled.

"It is."

"I miss her."

"I do too."

"The house isn't right. I stopped by earlier," Ash explained at the Professor's curious look. "It's like all the life got sucked out of it."

Professor Oak inclined his head, but said nothing.

"I don't want to sleep in that place," Ash admitted. His voice sounded small and pathetic even to his own ears, and he rankled at his raw, ugly weakness. "Can I -"

"Of course," Professor Oak rested a strong hand on Ash's shoulder, pulling him back towards the lab. "You'll always have a place here, Ash."

There was a great knot in his throat. His chest clenched, although Dazed's comforting presence at his side eased it. "I -" he gulped, barely able to speak past the clenching of his throat. "Thanks, Professor."

The Professor offered him a brisk nod, as though his thanks was entirely unnecessary, and reclined into his chair. Ash followed suit. A cold fire burned in the back of his mind, and he hardly even noticed.

They sat there for a long time, dark figures staring out over the vast expanse of the Corral as it was drenched in the half-cast shadows of the golden setting sun.

It was everything his old house wasn't.

"I met Agatha in Lavender Town..." Ash trailed off, looking over to see Professor Oak's reaction. He barked out a laugh when he saw the old man leaning back in his chair with his mouth hanging open and a bit of drool dripping from his lips. Pikachu had climbed up into the Professor's lap at some point and snoozed right along with him, tail twitching occasionally as the little electric-type squeaked and kicked in its dreams. "Tomorrow, then."

Alakazam appeared from nowhere, eyes glowing starkly in the dim twilight. Her gaze softened as it landed on the sleeping old man. Ash shut his eyes and felt the affection pouring from Alakazam in droves.

"We'll start reading together soon," Ash remarked to Alakazam as she stepped closer to peer at the Professor. He pulled the Wataru journal out, relishing the smooth cover against his fingers as he flipped it open to where he'd left his bookmark. Dazed hovered over his shoulder, sharp mind already connecting to his own. "Care to join us?"

Yes. I must take care of my companion.

Ash inclined his head. Alakazam easily scooped the resting Professor (and Pikachu) up off the chair in a delicate psychic grip that spoke of long familiarity with this exact task. She used another psychic brush to wipe Professor's Oak mouth, then looked to Ash.

I will return soon, Storm-Tamer.

"We'll wait," Ash promised. Alakazam's mustache twitched, then she, Professor Oak, and Pikachu vanished into nothingness.

Dazed's mental touch brushed against him as she peered down at the crisp writings of the former Drakes.

Must we wait?

Ash grinned.

XX

The next day found Ash kicking his feet into the chilly ocean water. He'd always loved Pallet's piersk, and often found himself returning to look off into the ocean whenever he returned. Ash embraced the beautiful harmony of the Song, always strengthened near the ocean where its singer dwelt, and hummed along with it.

"That's a nice tune."

Well, that was an understatement. "I'm surprised you're awake."

Professor Oak chuckled. He sounded a thousand times more intelligible than he had last night - the sleep-deprived mania had slipped away, refreshed by mundane exhaustion that struck the old man to the bone. It was better than Ash had expected, though, and he feared what Professor Oak would accomplish if he had Lightning to sustain him…

"Awake might be a strong word. I needed the rest," Professor Oak readily admitted. "There's always more to do, though. It never ends."

Ash inclined his head, still not looking back at the Professor. It was an overcast day, dreary and grey and rather pleasant in Ash's opinion. Seeker hung tightly to his chest, little claws digging right over the heat of the Feather. He'd been channeling Fire for a while now. She'd been happy to take Sneasel's place when he'd run off to terrorize the town, and Ash was keen on making it as comfortable as he could.

"I won't stay much longer. I just wanted to stay to say goodbye," Ash said to the waves. "I've been gone longer than I expected. I need to return to the Plateau."

Professor Oak was silent for a moment. "Thank you."

"It's nice there," he said more to himself than to the Professor, then turned to look back at the old man. "It reminds me of Pallet."

A strange comparison between the sleepy research town and the ancient citadel, but one Professor Oak seemed to understand. "It's something," the Professor agreed, coming to stand by Ash. Seeker snuggled more tightly into his chest, and Ash raised a hand to stroke through her fur. "Sometimes I think of what might have been."

Ash looked up. "Why'd you do it?"

"Hmm?" Professor Oak hummed, still not looking down.

"Walk away from the Championship," Ash clarified. "Agatha -" he winced, and so did Professor Oak, though for different reasons. "She told me you would've been great. One of the best."

Silence.

"I didn't want the responsibility, I suppose," Oak said after a time. "Anyone could see what was coming. Unova pushing and prodding, trade with Kalos drying up, Galar closing its borders… there was a shadow over the region, and I had no interest in leading a war. Uther was a stronger man than I," the man recalled. "More experienced, more pragmatic. He had the grit we needed. Agatha would be the first to tell you I'm no general."

He snorted. At least the Professor still knew his old friend.

Ash's mouth twisted into a grimace, wanting so desperately to tell the Professor all that had happened in Lavender. Agatha's warnings and commands to keep her secrets filled his mind, and he bit his tongue, tempted to draw on Ice just to silence the warring feelings. If only Seeker wasn't snoozing right on top of the Feather…

"But that's just a convenient excuse, I suppose," the Professor sighed, running a weathered hand through his short hair. "There are those who still hate me for turning away the Champion's mantle. For hiding from my duty. Perhaps they're right."

"It all worked out in the end, right?"

The Professor's lips twisted into a ragged smile. "I suppose it did."

A beat.

"That's not all," the Professor admitted. He looked measuredly down at Ash. "To be honest… I was bored."

Ash blinked. "Bored?"

Professor Oak took more than a little amusement at the look on Ash's face. "I'd been traveling for a long time," he mused, a tiny flicker of something racing across his face. "Training was my love. My life. Everything was a fight, a wondrous discovery, a new challenge to overcome. It was almost an addiction," the Professor barked out a laugh. "A feedback loop I could never get enough of."

Yes. Yes, he could understand that…

"But one day, I woke up and wanted more. Stability. A home. A family to come back to," Oak said tightly. "I was tired of the dusty road under my feet."

Despite himself, Ash nearly found himself shaking his head. He'd be a liar if he claimed to wrap his head around the Professor's words. To stay in one place, to leave it all behind - how?

"Maybe you'll understand one day, maybe not," Professor Oak pat Ash on the shoulder. His affectionate touch left Ash hiding a smile. "You're still young. So young. I forget that."

More silence, though it wasn't an uncomfortable one. They'd spent time by the pier before, the Professor recommending new techniques or experimental diets or tiny tweaks to his regimen, and Ash found himself lost in those not-so-old memories.

"Gary promised to come by soon."

Ash perked up. "Really?" He asked, knowing all too well all the feelings Gary concealed. "When?"

"Well, within the year," Oak admitted. It was still better than last year, Ash supposed. "He wants my help training for the Silver Conference."

"I can't wait to see it," Ash grinned. "Gary, Jon, Amelia…"

The Professor looked pleasantly surprised. "You're coming by for the Silver Conference?"

Ash fought the urge to squirm, suddenly self-aware about everything. "Yeah," he said, having barely thought about what he'd said. "I'd like to."

"Wonderful!" The Professor remarked. "That'll mean the world to Gary, you know," Professor Oak confided. "Now if only I can get Daisy to show up…"

"I'll bring it up when I see her again," Ash promised, wringing his hands. He'd exchanged a message with Daisy after getting back and she had been less than pleased. That was a conversation he wasn't looking forward to.

Professor Oak exhaled. "Thank you."

This silence was a little awkward. It was clear neither of them really wanted to talk about Daisy, so Ash decided to switch things up by moving into an equally unpleasant topic, one that had been burning at him ever since he'd talked with the Professor about her last night.

"Professor - is there anything I can do for my mom?" Ash tried to hide the desperation, but wasn't sure he did a good job of it. "Anything?"

"Nobody wants for their children to have to take care of them," Professor Oak locked his eyes on the crashing waves. "We're supposed to be the ones in control. We're supposed to protect you children from the weight of the world. Things don't always work out as we'd like them to, do they?"

Ash simply nodded as his fingers reached up to play with the rough stone of the Unown tablet.

"She's a good woman, Delia," Oak said softly, a great many unsaid things weighing behind his words. "The best. Be there for her, Ash. That's really all you can do for her right now."

He squeezed his eyes shut, ugly guilt welling up in his chest and even his stomach tied in knots. "I could have helped her," he admitted. "With the Unown - if I had focused, if I'd been smarter, better -"

"Don't," Oak whispered. "Don't go down that road, Ash. You're alive. She's alive. That's what matters. Delia would tell you the same thing. Guilt rots you from the inside."

To be honest, the words did little for Ash. It was the thought that counted, though, and he nodded after a time.

"Thanks, Professor," he said slowly, turning over all Oak's words.

Professor Oak nodded, clapped him on the back again, and turned to leave. "I have to go," he said with a note of regret. "Work calls. Goodbye, Ash - remember, my home is your home."

Ash smiled, and bade the Professor goodbye.

The old man was halfway down the pier when Ash finally made his decision - he just hoped Agatha didn't hunt him down for it. He turned back to Professor Oak and channeled Fire as he spoke, voice carrying loud and strong through the gentle wind.

"She's in Orre. Find her."

Professor Oak paused, shoulders stiff.

"I'm sorry?"

"Agatha," he clarified. "She's in Orre."

If anything, Professor Oak was even quieter.

Oak said nothing, and Ash thought he might have finally caught the old man off guard.

"The Distortion. It's killing her. She doesn't have long now," Ash ruthlessly called upon Ice to crush the emotion threatening to rise up like an angry tide. He couldn't feel. Not right now. It didn't feel right to numb himself right now, but it was all he could do. What he had to do. "Months, maybe less."

"What? How do you -" Professor Oak wheeled around, for once utterly lost. "She told you?"

Ash nodded, a part of him hating himself for betraying Agatha's request, and the rest feeling entirely certain for the first time in a while.

"She's dying."

Oak sucked in a hissing breath. "That old - is this why she went off to Orre? To die alone?!"

Ash took in the figure before him in a new light. Gone was the world-weary Professor, and in his place stood the man who could have been Champion: the One-Ringed Oak. For the first time in Ash's life he thought the faded old lab coat didn't suit the old man as Samuel Oak drew himself to his full height, eyes blazing and hand reaching instinctually for a row of pokeballs that wasn't there.

The man growled, looking like he wanted to throw his white lab coat off into the wind, and wheeled around. He looked like a lightning bolt contained in a man, all sparking energy and twitching motions. It wasn't the first time he'd seen Oak toss aside the old professor persona in favor of a deathly seriousness, but it was the first time Ash clearly saw the would-be Champion hidden beneath.

The first time he saw what could have been.

Oak breathed in deeply, and just the barest measure of calm tempered his wild eyes. He inclined his head ever so slightly, whispered a quick thank you, then turned to look at Alakazam who manifested as if from nowhere, accompanied by Oak's hulking old Tauros. Ash had only met the grizzled normal-type a handful of times since it led its herd on the outskirts of the Corral, but it had always left him with the sense of barely tamed fury waiting to be unleashed.

He glanced at Alakazam. It was difficult to pick the old psychic's emotions out, but he knew her well enough to feel the matching tempest.

Old sorrow, old regrets, and old mistakes animated by a youthful energy they hadn't captured in a long, long time.

From the mountains came two blurs riding the wind - one with a blue flame streaking behind it, the other a rich gold that gleamed even in the dull grey tones of the sky. A great flame barreled towards them, coming to a stop just before the pier began to reveal a panting canine with flames crackling within its fur. Ash could only blink at the sight of Pikachu riding Arcanine's back, all tangled up in his hot fur.

Alakazam's eyes flickered, torn between pride at capturing the vestiges of their old glory one last time and a concern Ash wasn't sure he could hope to understand. Maybe she worried that they had gathered together again.

He had to wonder if he should even be here. Ash rose, careful not to wake Seeker, and felt very much like an intruder to something dear and precious. When was the last time they'd gathered like this?

Then Dragonite soared down to land with incredible grace upon the loose, gritty sand of the beach. Its massive weight left a heavy depression in the sand, which seemed pale and lackluster compared to Dragonite's resplendence.

Even the Wataru would have to admire Oak's Dragonite.

And like that, Oak returned the rest of his team except for the beautiful golden dragon. He rushed over to Dragonite, climbing up between the dragon's massive shoulder blades as Dragonite's wings unfurled to their full size. Oak was a man on a mission, and he wouldn't be stopped.

"Find Michael!"

Oak's head snapped to look at him, just distracted enough to slip out of his inhuman intensity, and it seemed to take a few seconds for Ash's words to sink in. With that, he nodded, and Dragonite took off in a rush of wind and spray of sand.

Ash watched him go - it was always incredible to watch the shadow of a Dragonite vanishing into the horizon. They were just like Plume in that something so huge had no right moving that fast.

He sighed and swept off some stray sand that splashed against his pants. Ash offered Seeker one last pet before taking his first steps to leave the pier, snatching up his socks and shoes to put on once his feet had dried.

It was time to gather his friends. His time in Pallet had come to an end.

A/N: And here we are! Not a terrible wait, right? I know it didn't have a lot of action in it, but I hope you enjoyed! There's a lot of plot threads that need to be wrapped up (and introduced) over this and the next chapter, and then I believe it's back to Hoenn. I can't believe we're so close to being back! This turned into a much longer vacation for Ash than I expected :)

Let me know what you thought of the chapter! I've been experimenting a bit with my writing and would love to hear what interactions, plot points, and other aspects of the chapter you enjoyed! It was hard to follow up Lavender Town, but overall I'm pretty happy with this chapter! The big Vermillion surprise has been a long time coming.

As always, I'll be posting a Discord link on my P at re on once this is released! I'll leave it up for a few days in case anyone's interested in joining - after that, you'll just need to message me and I can manually link you to it.

Have a wonderful day and stay safe out there!