"Welcome back!" Will sang from behind him - Ash's only warning came in the form of a teeth-rattling boom and blinding flash of light as the psychic teleported behind him. He still nearly jumped out of his skin, and couldn't help but scowl at the cheery man. "Oh dear, I seem to have overdone the teleportation again…"

Ash's glare softened. "Was that really necessary?"

The Psychic Master stared at him innocently behind his mask, absentmindedly balancing his cane upon his finger. "Whatever do you mean?"

He sighed and turned back to face Indigo Plateau - he'd only just recalled Plume when Will decided to greet him. "Nothing."

"It's wonderful to have you back with us!" Will chirped. His Exeggutor (when had that appeared?) teetered behind him, two heads watching Ash lazily. "How was your trip to Lavender?"

Well, that was a loaded question if he'd ever heard one.

Ash finally settled on an answer.

"Eventful."

The psychic chuckled, eyes burning violet as his cane began to dance around him in smooth, elegant circles. "With Lady Agatha there, I'm not surprised. Did you meet her?" Will perked up. "Did she ask about me?"

"No," Ash winced at the crushing disappointment flowing from Will and brushing against his mind. His stomach sank, though he couldn't tell whether it was secondary from Will or a result of his own guilt. "There wasn't really time. It wasn't a casual discussion."

Will didn't look particularly surprised by that - he knew Agatha better than Ash ever would, even though the thought left his stomach tied in knots and an ugly emptiness in his chest - but it did seem to assuage him somewhat. "Ah, I see!" He peered closely at Ash, then winced. "Lavender must have been quite exciting! You're not quite the same as when we last met."

He barely blinked. "Seems to be a habit of mine."

The man looked distinctly uncomfortable. "So it is."

One of Exeggutor's heads yawned, and the lumbering creature began to teeter back into the Plateau. Ash and Will followed, abandoning the heavy direction the conversation was going and happily taking the reprieve.

"Ah!" Will exclaimed as they passed right by the hard-faced ACE trainers guarding the entrance to the Plateau. Both dipped their heads to Will and Ash, though it made Ash more than a little uncomfortable at the respect. "I did receive the most wonderful news for you!"

He raised an eyebrow, and Will was all too happy to continue.

"After much deliberation, Lance has finally conceded that it's your right to have first pick of the next movie night!" Will's grin stretched widely across his face and Ash found himself sharing it. This time he was even pretty sure it was born of his own emotions instead of Will's. The psychic leaned in close to whisper as they stepped through the Plateau's enormous atrium, making sure the nearby guards couldn't hear. "Karen chose to remind him of all your noble service to the League, you see!"

Ash snorted. At least he'd earned a few perks. "I don't know many movies," he admitted. One of the only movies he could name off the top of his head was Dragon Trainer, and he was pretty sure the rest of the Elite Four (minus Lance, of course) would throttle him if he made them watch that again. Still, he'd actually liked it.

Will's eyes glimmered and his glowing cane lightly tapped against Ash's forehead. "My friend, that won't be a problem! We have several suggestions that might be of interest to you…"

As Will began to rattle off several movies and their summaries, Ash had to wonder how much of this had been planned to avoid another night stuck watching Dragon Trainer with Lance. Still, it didn't bother him, and he even listened as Will grew more and more enthusiastic.

He'd missed the Plateau.

XX

Oz rushed Infernus with a mighty roar, fangs bared and tails whipping behind her as the two powerhouses met in a clash of thunder and roaring flame. Ash could barely stand to look at his friends as they traded blows - Oz was already at a disadvantage at close range, but she compensated with a selectively timed Flash and happily tossed a haymaker Infernus' way when he flinched back. Each shone brilliantly: Oz with the electricity sparking in her coat, and Infernus with the heat blazing white from his skin.

"Isn't she amazing?"

Lance nodded, sharp eyes shining. "She is. Her evolution's been a long time coming. I can't wait to see what she can do to Dragonite now!" He elbowed Ash, who grunted. "He's always hated fighting electric-types," the Champion admitted. "Any strong, focused electric techniques like Surge's Lightning Bolt can peel a scale or two off. Takes ages to regrow them without special treatment. It doesn't hurt him," Lance explained, "but it doesn't look too good."

All Ash had to say was that was, "We have plans."

The Indigo Champion snorted. "Are you going to tell me about it, or are you going to be all mysterious and Steven-like?"

He smiled, debating over it for a moment before deciding not to dance around the topic. "It's called Storm Surge. Using the latent charge built up from Rain Dance or Infernus' flames to direct actual lightning."

"It's nice of you to name it after Surge," Lance said agreeably, laughing when Ash rolled his eyes. "It sounds complicated, but I'm sure you'll master it. You're a smart kid," he reached out to tousle Ash's hair, then remembered he was wearing a hat. "It'll be a masterwork when you pull it off."

"I hope so," Ash said quietly, still fighting a grin as Infernus launched a Fire Punch straight into Oz's gut and threw her back - she leapt right back up, having blunted the strike with a fragile psychic barrier, and used a Quick Attack to blur straight into the Magmortar with enough force to splinter a tree. "It won't be easy."

Lance snatched up Gabite as the small dragon-type tried to rush in to join Oz and Infernus' battle, scratching at his rough plates until Gabite practically purred with satisfaction, leaning into the Dragon Master's touch. "Nothing worth it ever is, is it?"

He shrugged. "I guess not."

Silence.

"There's times I regret being a specialist, you know," Lance sighed as he watched Infernus and Oz duke it out - Oz was flagging now, sapped as much by the awful heat emanating from her opponent as by Infernus' actual attacks - with a faraway look on his pointed face. "Watching you grow and begin plotting these incredible techniques - well, sometimes I think about branching out."

Ash snorted. "You've done pretty well for yourself."

Lance grinned, still stroking Gabite. "I have, haven't I?" He laughed. "Still, I have a lot to work on. I draw the strengths from my dragons," the Champion said fondly. "Elemental storms, power, speed and maneuverability… I can train those better than anyone in the world. But I feel like I've done my team a disservice not focusing on the power intrinsic to dragons."

He couldn't help but blink at that. "How could you have done better?"

"Oh, so many things," Lance shut his eyes with a grimace. "Still, even with Clair. She's dug into the deepest part of our dragons' nature. Learned to pluck their strings like nobody else has. Nobody in Indigo, at any rate," he corrected. "There are stories in my clan of those powers, and Clair is the one who pulled it off. I still beat her, though," Lance said without pleasure.

Ash shrugged, still watching the violent clash between his friends. They were really going at it. He'd probably have to step in soon. "It's not like you haven't made anything new."

Lance shrugged his shoulders beneath the Champion's mantle.

"Earth Wrecker is new," he admitted. "I doubt anyone else has been able to blend those techniques like Dragonite has," Lance said. "But it's a little… simple, you know? Not in the execution!" He said hurriedly as Gabite peered up at him. "Dragonite's a genius to pull it off. But the theory! I can do better, you know?"

"With Obliterator," Ash noted, recalling their brief discussion about the technique.

The Champion's eyes brightened. So did Gabite's, Ash noted. "Exactly! It's a work in progress," Lance wrung his hands and stared off dreamily even as Gabite's sandpaper scales shifted in his hands while the dragon squirmed, "Focusing the fires of creation into a point where they can be wielded… Chinatsu would be proud."

Ash smirked. Lance hadn't met much success yet, but the theory was sound (not to mention usable by every member of his team). He hoped Lance would perfect it by the time he challenged the Indigo Champion for his title.

"Ah, but I'm getting ahead of myself," Lance laughed as Infernus finally managed to land a Flamethrower into Oz's chest, blasting her to the ground and overwhelming the psychic defenses she'd incorporated. He looked to Ash with uncharacteristic seriousness. "You should visit her soon, by the way. She'll know you're here."

"I plan to," Ash confirmed. He winced. "Just… just not my first day,"

Lance snorted. "Don't worry, I get it," he winked. "It's not really a casual visit. She's terrifying, isn't she?" He whispered, staring as if the walls had ears. They probably did, Ash thought. "Don't worry, though. She'll be waiting. She's had a thousand years, hasn't she?"

Ash nodded. Infernus finally struck Oz down, and bellowed out his challenge to any who would hear it - he was lucky Lance hadn't released any of his team besides Gabite, otherwise they would take him up on it.

"Just visit her soon," Lance said firmly, then shaking his head. "She never wants to see me. Can't imagine why!"

"Yeah," Ash thought back to the Wataru's tumultuous history with Chinatsu and her team. "Can't imagine why."

Lance clapped Ash on the shoulder and waved a goodbye. "I've got to get back to my job," he said regretfully. Ash thought he looked genuinely pained. "We'll get a battle in soon," Lance promised. "I would say to keep up with your training - but I don't have to worry about that, do I?"

Ash grinned, allowing his fingers to trail over his team's pokeballs. "I don't think so."

The Champion laughed, then swept away with his cape twisting with the motion. "Didn't think so," he looked back at Ash before perking up. "Oh, but how irresponsible of me! I almost left without giving you your gifts."

He frowned, but comprehension immediately settled in as Lance withdrew a thin case of shiny discs from his pocket and held it aloft like a sacred, lost treasure he'd only recently reclaimed at great personal cost. "Behold! A generous donation on behalf of the Indigo Plateau TM Library."

Ash's smile grew wider. Perhaps too wide. Dazed probably would've said something if she was listening in. He snatched it from Lance's grip and quickly glanced over the discs - it was everything he'd asked for before he'd left for Lavender, then some.

Protect (a giddy surge went through him when he saw that), Dark Pulse for Sneasel and eventually Aron, Toxic, Double Team, Substitute, and Flash to open up all sorts of wonderful tactical options. He had ordered one for Detect for a few of his team as a more practical, efficient alternative to Protect.

As an aside, he'd picked up Weather Ball. That could prove useful for training Oz and giving her an alternative to her electric-type techniques. There were a few others he'd added, but these were the primary techniques he wanted to implement. With any luck they'd offer him a variety of defensive options for his team going forward.

Lance belted out a booming laugh (Ash just kept scanning the beautiful, beautiful technique discs) and turned away with a flutter of his cape.

"Make sure you're up for dinner. Karen's been dying to see you!"

He nodded in a daze, and the Champion swept away in a flourish, taking the wiggling Gabite far, far away from the rage of the clashing pokemon. Soon enough the Champion was gone entirely and Ash was left staring blankly at a ruined battlefield. To be honest, he felt a little bad for the psychics and ground-types responsible for cleaning up the battlefields - they'd worked so hard after his battle with Karen only for Infernus to Oz to rip up the exact same battlefield just a few days later.

"Good job," he nodded to Infernus, who smirked at the praise. "We'll train later to focus on your traps."

Infernus grinned, then freely accepted his recall. Ash approached the downed Oz and came to crouch down at her side. Her chest rose quick and deep, pumping oxygen in and out of her lungs as she fought her exhaustion with every scrap of effort she could bring to bear.

"He beat you."

Oz glared at him, snarling uselessly as she laid limp against the hard earth. It was blackened and marked with countless scorch marks from Infernus' fires and Oz's bolts of electricity.

"He can do better," Ash said quietly, then looked pointedly at Oz. "You can do better."

She snarled, then smashed her fist into the earth - it crumpled beneath the force, leaving threaded cracks around where she'd struck. Oz's raw strength had increased by quite a bit, he noted, remaining as dispassionate as he could. The Electivire needed this.

"It was Air Lens, wasn't it? You couldn't even touch him with your electricity."

Oz growled, still glowering into the earth. That was all the confirmation he needed.

"Get up."

The Electivire rose, limbs trembling with bursts of electricity sparked out from her coat, sometimes striking the flat planes of dirt and sometimes branching near his skin. Ash regarded her, satisfied with the effort. She really did hate losing, particularly to Infernus.

She spat blood onto the plain brown of the dirt.

He grinned. "Frustrated?"

Oz glowered at him, twin tails flailing - it only fed his amusement.

"Let's talk," he folded his arms. Despite herself, Oz listened. "Air Lens isn't impenetrable, you know," Ash said. The Electivire squinted cautiously, not willing to get her hopes up. "You know how it's performed, right?"

She nodded.

"Manipulating heat in a specific way to block electric conduction," he explained regardless, and she patiently listened. Ash leaned closer, relishing the sensation of electricity crackling to brush against his skin. It left him energized and alert, abuzz with the power it lent him. He'd spent hours coming up with a counter to Air Lens; Ash didn't want to be caught off guard when his opponents figured it out first. "And if you change the weather up, change fluctuations of heat…"

Oz listened.

Oz bared her fangs with unconcealed anticipation.

XX

Dinner was a long, relaxing affair. They didn't have it in the dining area this time - Bruno had arrived back to the Plateau just a day before Ash returned and apparently invited the others to visit his room for the occasion.

The meal itself was good, but not too fancy... not that Ash was bothered. It was better than his usual fare, and anything was better than the broth. He'd be lying if he said he hadn't been a little horrified at the prospect of Bruno force feeding them all the black broth, but at least he could be sure that Karen would never let that happen.

Bruno's room was actually a fraction smaller than Ash's, and far simpler. There was hardly any furniture to speak of aside from the table they ate at: several sleeping mats for Bruno's team, a bedroll for Bruno himself, and a small basin of water that stood serenely near the mats. He wasn't surprised that Bruno didn't have a TV or other amenities, but even Ash would have a hard time finding this spartan room cozy.

Most of the room was taken up by exercise equipment such as dumbbells, bars with enough weight stacked on the ends that Ash feared the steel bar would bend, two treadmills, and a section of the room roped off to presumably be used for spars.

It was very...practical, and Ash thought it suited Bruno perfectly.

Despite making the invitation, Bruno barely participated in the dinner conversation. He chipped in on occasion, often with insightful remarks at key points that would steer the entire discussion in a new direction, but seemed content to bask in the company of his fellow Elite Four. Bruno took on the role of an observer, but his presence still held a weight and presence that betrayed the giant man's confidence.

Only once did anything seem to jerk the Black Belt from his placid demeanor.

"Watch out," Karen's lips twisted into a savage smile as she tossed her silvery sheet of hair at Lance. "I've been working on a few new tricks. This time next year I'll have the cape."

The Indigo Champion outright laughed at that, though managed not to offend anyone at the table. Somehow everything Lance did was taken in good humor - he was as quick to build them up as he was to playfully tear them down. That made all the difference, Ash thought.

"The only one I'm worried about is Bruno," Lance grinned widely, running long fingers through his reddish hair. The Black Belt blinked and just barely inclined his head to the Champion. "I don't see anyone else packing a giant Onix that could eat a whole mountain. Where do you even train the King?" He directed at Bruno. "I know the training grounds here aren't big enough…"

Bruno grunted. "There are many hidden places in the Ore Mountains."

Karen rolled her eyes, muttering something about never getting a straight answer out of Bruno, while Will nodded eagerly along. Ash wondered if the psychic was able to glean the location out of Bruno's mind.

"Your position is safe, Champion," Bruno declared with the utmost seriousness. Every word was chosen with utmost care, and the Black Belt spoke slowly and softly, every syllable deliberate and measured. "The King Under the Mountain is simply a companion, and I would never dishonor him by using him for my own gain. We have learnt much from one another, though this time has been but the blink of an eye for him."

Silence then as everyone digested his words. Ash noted that when Bruno spoke, everyone listened. Quality of words over quantity, Ash supposed…

Things moved on once Will made a strange joke that left Ash's head spinning, but Ash sat in silence for the rest of the meal unless someone spoke to him specifically. He couldn't help but trace over each word in his mind, though admittedly quite a bit of that time was spent figuring out how on earth his team could face the King in battle.

He would never forget its onyx black shape rearing up in Greenfield, rising taller than the Hale Mansion as the King did battle with the avatar of the Unown. A part of him panged at the loss of the Crystal Entei and Not-Ash, even if they were just simulacrums shaped by the Unown.

Despite it all, they deserved better.

His hand went to the tablet around his neck, and before he knew it dinner had ended.

"A moment, Ash," Bruno spoke before he could leave with the rest of the Elite Four. Karen heard and tossed a suspicious gaze back, though she was pushed along by Will as the psychic chattered into her ear about something or another. Ash looked to the Black Belt and nodded, suddenly feeling very small in comparison.

"Yes?" Ash looked up as he released Bruiser. The Machoke's presence comforted him, especially as Bruno released his mighty Machamp. It was only then that Ash realized how short the cornerstone of Bruno's team was, even for a Machamp. It was taller than most newly evolved Machamp, but probably a half foot shorter than most experienced Machamp.

That didn't mean it wouldn't manhandle half of Ash's team at once in a serious fight. He felt an itch under his skin at the thought - maybe not so easily anymore, at least. He wouldn't mind putting it to the test, though.

Bruno smiled at him. Machamp just leered and cracked its knuckles. "It's been too long since we've had a chance to talk. You've grown."

Ash met Bruno's eyes with a smile. As giant as he was, Ash didn't feel overwhelmed with awe like he had the first time they'd met. In that time, he'd learned at the feet of Champion Lance, fought his way to the heights of the Indigo Conference, and faced more Legends than he'd cared to count.

Judging by the look on Bruno's face, he approved of the new attitude.

"Thank you," Ash said quietly. "It's been a long road."

Bruno nodded. "That it has," he uttered as he took a seat and picked at the scant remains of his second (or was it third?) helping. The Black Belt smiled at Bruiser as well, and the Machoke dipped his head in respect. "You've come a long way as well, my friend."

Bruiser practically shook at the compliment, though Ash thought it was a bit of an understatement.

"Come to me each day you are here," Bruno said after a moment. "You are strong, perhaps the strongest of your kind I have ever seen, but strength requires tempering. Without a steady hand, it might shatter. This Rampage… it's unique. Machoke are encouraged to temper their strength. To balance it with their control. No one has ever encouraged them to grow their strength. It is something to fear, to balance and restrain and reign in."

Well, that sounded about right. Ash just thought to Bruiser smashing Princess' leg, or crumpling Steelix's shell against his fist back when he'd last fought Brock. A Machoke's strength was uncontrollable without extreme practice.

To be honest, Ash's stomach turned. Most Machoke strove to control their strength, to hone their control over constant practice and training, while he'd pushed Bruiser to grow and grow and grow...even Bruno had never seen a Machoke with the raw power of Bruiser, and to be honest that terrified him.

What had their hard work turned Bruiser into?

It unsettled his friend as well, if the miniscule hitch in his breath said anything.

"So what do we do?" Ash asked. Bruiser paid rapt attention. "Should we slow down?"

That wasn't something Ash was eager to do, not with how far Bruiser had come in the recent months. Even without an evolution he'd proven himself a mighty member of the team, and there was nothing suggesting that his progress would slow. But if it was between slowing down the rapid growth or Bruiser's own peace of mind… well, Ash knew what he would pick.

"No," Bruno said absolutely. "This is the path you've chosen, and it's the one you should follow. Do not stray," his dark eyes met Ash's, then strayed to the belt looped around Bruiser's neck. "Master yourselves. Great strength demands greater control, as you well know."

Bruiser shared a guilty look with Ash as they thought back to the errant punch that shattered Princess' leg with a wet crunch. The noise came to mind too easily. "Will you show us?"

The Black Belt smiled at that, and even Machamp snorted. "Of course."

A beat as Ash thought over the consequences of learning to control himself as well, or at least take the first steps down that road with Bruno's guidance. Why, why, why? That led his mind down familiar, well-worn roads.

"Can I ask you about Aura?"

Bruno blinked. His lips thinned. "Curiosity should be rewarded."

Ash took that as permission, eyeing the hulking man. "Cynthia taught me that Aura is self-expression. Taking what's inside and making it into something real," and in that moment knew Bruno's internal divide. He peered up at the Master. "What is it to you?"

"Aura," Bruno began with something like distaste. "I find the word insufficient. Shallow. Words rarely capture the full scope of a thing - does 'sea' illuminate its many mysteries, the scope and scale of the ocean's beauty?" He shook his head. "As I told you long ago, I'm barely a novice," the man admitted without shame. "What I know I've gleaned through long hours of meditation and self-fashioning. I know what I am, and I may share that with the world."

"She told me how to start," he said thoughtfully. "To question and think until I know everything there is to know about myself."

The Black Belt shook his head. "Impossible," he said with certainty. Ash's eyes sharpened. "Is perfection attainable?"

He didn't respond immediately. If Bruno asked him a question, he would answer it fully. "No," Ash said, then grinned as a wild urge filled his chest. "But we're going to get closer than anyone else."

That actually earned a chuckle from Bruno. Machamp grudgingly smiled, even if he still looked like he wanted to squeeze their heads off. "Perhaps," the Black Belt acknowledged. "A worthy goal, certainly. Yes, you must learn yourself to wield the power inside. The power that connects us all. Unity," Bruno's eyes closed, a smile playing at his lips. "We're all fibers of the same cloth. Facets of the same gem. When you learn that for yourself, perhaps you'll explore the power."

Ash nodded along, even if he had a hard time grasping the full extent of the man's words. It was something to remember for later, though, and Ash hoped it would come in handy later. "Can you teach me?" He hid his desperation, then shook his head and rephrased. "Can you guide me? Point me in the right direction?"

The Master seemed to approve of Ash's new request, and nodded. Bruno shut his eyes, and for a moment Ash felt something brushing over him. It was vague and indistinct, something he'd have never taken notice of at the beginning of his journey, and left Ash feeling exposed and bare in Bruno's presence.

"There's a tempest in you," Bruno exhaled, opening a single eye to peer at Ash. "You're being pulled in too many directions. Someone like you, so young, in flux… I'm not sure you'll be able to know yourself without looking too deep. But perhaps that's just what you need," the man said to himself more than Ash. With that, he came to a decision. "Join us for a brief time each day so long as you're in Indigo Plateau. There's nothing I can teach you about yourself that you don't know already, but perhaps I can assist you in methods that may help."

Ash nodded gratefully and rose from his seat. Something in the room changed, and Ash knew it was time for him to leave. Bruno had dismissed him without saying so much as a word, and he didn't mind at all.

He had what he came here for.

Bruiser would have his guidance, as would Ash.

Before he left, Ash turned to look at Bruno and his newly released team in the spartan room.

"Good night," he said to the Fighting Master and his arrayed team. Most regarded Ash (and more importantly, Bruiser) with some kind of warmth, though Lucario seemed particularly glad to see them after their shared experience in Greenfield.

Bruno's lips twitched, though he appeared deep in thought.

"Good night."

Ash began to head back to his room… then stopped in his tracks. He felt Bruno's eyes on his back.

"I want to fight the King."

"One day."

His hopes came crumbling down.

With that, Ash left for his room, disappointed but not remotely surprised.

He was pretty sure Karen had mentioned something about her and Will wanting to help prepare him for the press conference (and that left an ugly knot in his stomach), though he was pretty sure their main reason was to show him some of their favorite movies.

In Karen's words after hearing about his lack of experience with movies: "I am not letting you get ruined by Lance's 'taste'."

It wasn't the best use of his time (he'd rather pick their brains on a few different techniques he was formulating), but it was one that left a flickering warmth in his chest nonetheless.

"Let's go," Ash said to Bruiser with a grin. His friend was in high spirits and barely seemed to notice, though happily beat a meaty fist against his chest as he was wont to do. "Bruno will get us right where we need to be."

Bruiser grunted and looked down at him warmly, and the two strode side by side through the halls of Indigo Plateau.

XX

As the golden hues of dawn bathed the Ore Mountains in radiant light, Ash met Lance in his office just as he'd asked before.

Chinatsu had business with him.

This time, Ash could see the mahogany door that led into the deepest depths of Mt. Silver plainly. He remembered how it had shimmered into existence when Lance had brought him here during the Conference, and exhaled to still the anxiety roiling in his gut.

"I'll be waiting here for you," Lance said tightly, looking about as comfortable with the situation as Ash felt. Dragonite's antennae twitched as the giant golden dragon solemnly waved at him - it felt too much like a farewell for Ash's liking. Vibrava just crawled past on the polished floor, not really paying much attention as its mandibles clicked. "I'll see you soon, alright?"

Ash nodded, desperately wishing Lance could brave the ancient Ninetales with him. Chinatsu had asked for him specifically, though, and he knew Lance was too leery of the First's companion to risk her ire. If Lance weren't the current Champion and heir to Taimu's legacy, Ash knew Chinatsu would be all too happy to take her displeasure out on him - Ninetales were well known for holding grudges across the centuries.

They had long lives and longer memories.

"I'll see you soon," he dipped his head then vanished down the hidden passageway to seek out the Ninetales. The winding stone corridor was just as he remembered. Etchings on the walls illuminated by braziers filled with Distorted fire reminded him of Mamoru's sanctum, and he couldn't help but shake his head at the realization he'd been to both these sacred places in the span of just a few days.

His life wasn't easy, but he couldn't deny that it had its perks.

He stepped deep into the heart of Mt. Silver. Eventually he reached the last archway, the entrance to Chinatsu's hidden home, and peered at that strange symbol of an indigo plant. It was luminescent in the pale fire, and seemed to pulse with an inner life. This whole place felt ancient and alive, like the heart of the mountain would start beating the moment he took the last step.

The Feather burst to life, more gold than rainbow now. He nearly shivered at the flush of heat that filled his veins, heating his blood to the point he thought steam would burst from his skin. All the chill of the stone tunnel vanished in an instant, and he couldn't help but brighten.

It was different than the last time he was here.

Then, he'd been lost. He'd had the Feather bonded to him and barely understood what it meant. Not that he knew that much more now, but there was an...awareness, something deep inside that had started to adapt and grow and mold to the Feather.

He had held Fire in his hand, and remained unburnt.

Something in his chest told him this place was truly familiar as he entered the grotto. Nothing here would harm him - he felt a tug as he peered around the great pool of crystal clear water, taking in the thin stone bridge that arched to the tiny island with the great slab of marble that the enormous visages of Taimu and mighty Shinobu rested upon.

Ash paused to admire the sight, marveling at their inhuman heights and the unerring precision with which they'd been captured in stone. Taimu stood tall and proud with the crown of blue fire settled on his brow, the spitting image of the conquering hero who united two regions under his banner, while Shinobu looked like he would snort and leap into action at a moment's notice. His imagination summoned up images of them stepping off the marble plinth to fight off a conquering army with Chinatsu and Mamoru at their side. Reunited one last time.

Then the Feather pulsed, and he turned to face the golden form of Chinatsu as the blue flames coalesced and pooled into a solid shape. She was smaller than he remembered, though her eyes burned like rubies and her magnificent tails splayed out to give her a bulkier look.

"I'm here," Ash said. Unlike last time they met, he met her eyes. They widened - Ash felt her indignation - but she didn't strike him down or even engulf him in a supercharged Flamethrower, which he thought was kind of her.

Her voice echoed both within his mind and from the stone walls, but there was something deeper too. Something hot and searing within his chest that filled him with an uncomfortable warmth. Ash was nearly tempted to call upon Ice to quench the burning, but he thought better of it.

"And so you are."

Chinatsu's voice spoke to him from within and without, laced with an undercurrent of surprise. Trepidation, uncertainty...things he'd never expected from the regal Ninetales.

Silence.

"You are not what you were, Ash Ketchum."

His fingers brushed the Feather, and he reached for Fire and the Sacred Flame and all the other Concepts stirring inside his spirit. "I'm not," Ash agreed.

The golden Ninetales assessed him critically, all her thousand and more years evident as she circled him. One of the fluffy golden tails strayed too close to him, and Ash was nearly overcome with a self-destructive urge to reach out and touch it.

"You no longer serve the Golden Flame, not as the Indigo Champion does. You've taken it for yourself," Chinatsu's voice rang with something akin to wonder… and a bit of horror.

Ash shifted, distinctly uncomfortable. He covered the Feather with his hand, as though hoping to hide it from Chinatsu's bright eyes. "I brought a present," he said in hopes of distracting her. "Three, actually."

She stared, and Ash had to imagine this wasn't how her meetings normally ran. When was the last time she'd been put on the back foot?

It didn't take long to materialize the arrangements. Chinatsu was uncomfortably still as Ash laid her bouquet at her feet, several of her tails swishing errantly. She peered at it silently, and a stark tension hung over them.

Just as he had with Mamoru, Ash made to assuage her doubts. "It's not my gift," he said, shaking his head. "It's from an old friend."

Then, just as he thought Chinatsu would take offense, her entire being sagged. Her Feather dulled until it appeared a simple, mundane orange instead of the vibrant, molten gold it had once been. "Oh, little sister…"

Ash stared, and for the first time he thought he saw the faintest thread of humanity - no, mortality - in the long-lived Ninetales. She appeared awfully weary all of a sudden, and cradled the arrangement between her dainty paws. It reminded Ash more than a bit of her stone figure holding the Fire Stone in Mamoru's sacred chamber.

After what felt like an eternity of the ancient creature's sullen silence, Ash gestured to the other two arrangements in his arms and cleared his throat. He felt like a man walking to his death as he silently nodded to the giant statue of Taimu and Shinobu, asking for her permission.

Chinatsu's eyes sharpened instantaneously. Her long fangs bared, and the Feather burst to life on her back, coating her with a cloak of flame.

"May I?"

Her ruby eyes were wet and feral and tired, and for a moment he thought she would attack him. When was the last time anyone had even dared to make a request of her? Ash could remember Lance's uncharacteristic hesitance all too well when the Dragon Master had dealt with Chinatsu last time… then again, Lance had good reason to be worried. Chinatsu would probably kill him without a moment's hesitation considering the history between her and Lance's clan.

"Go," Chinatsu whispered from all around. "Bring them peace."

Ash did as she asked. He crossed the slick stone bridge, knelt at the base of the statues, and offered Akemi's arrangement to them both. It wasn't as if he knew them by anything but reputation, yet Ash thought he could feel a specter (and not one born of Distortion) gazing down at him, and he even imagined the old grotto felt lighter with the flowers at the statues' feet.

Taimu's bones weren't here, but Shinobu's were.

"Akemi misses you," he murmured, and rose to his feet. Ash didn't offer anything else. Somehow he knew it wasn't necessary, though he paused to pay his respects. It was funny to think that without Taimu and his companions, Ash literally wouldn't exist. They'd played their part in history, and as a result of that and countless other tiny coincidences he stood here now.

It made him feel rather small.

Chinatsu was there waiting when he turned, tails held just above the cool stone of the grotto's floor. She held one dainty paw against Akemi's gift to her, touching it so carefully as if she were afraid it would vanish if she prodded with anything less than the utmost of caution.

"Meet my eyes, if you would."

He did so, but couldn't help but think she never would have shaped that as a request the last time Ash was here. Then again, it was just as she'd said - Ash wasn't the same as he was then. His brown eyes met Chinatsu's scarlet slits, and an exchange took place.

Why, why, why?

Those were the words that filled his mind as they melded together, merging thoughts and little figments of emotion and fragments of what had been. Ash nearly lost himself in her thoughts, but wasn't cast entirely adrift as he'd been during their first meeting. Rather than being doused and crushed under her waterfall of memories and the enormity of her cunning mind, he felt as though he could finally stand beneath the weight and understand the deluge of Chinatsu.

He sensed her ancient melancholy, the darkness and age-old weariness pressing in at her from every angle. Isolation, depression, and the sensation of being stretched too thin for too long only held back by the blazing fires of a sacred duty and responsibility to her dearest.

What she saw in him, Ash didn't know. Might never know. All he knew was that the Feather blazed in his chest and they both looked away from one another, the connection severed in an instant. When it was done, he felt a little empty inside. It gnawed at him, and all of a sudden Ash regarded the grotto differently. Not quite a prison, but claustrophobic. Grating and small and confining.

Part of Ash yearned to reach out and offer some kind of comfort. What a miserable existence she lived. It was a fleeting urge, though. The only ones who would bring a moment's relief had left Chinatsu's life long ago. This was her identity now, and to take her from her vigil would be to destroy her entirely.

He couldn't imagine living here for nearly a thousand years…

Chinatsu cocked her head, studying him anew.

"I did not anticipate such a generous gift when I summoned you here," her voice echoed both within and without. "Perhaps I was remiss. My dear sister trusted you with a momentous task. You carried it out with no expectations of reward. I... thank you."

Ash wasn't sure what to say to that, but he nodded. Chinatsu seemed as uncomfortable giving thanks as he was receiving it, and wheeled around after picking up the arrangement gently with her white teeth. Her tails splayed as she stepped away, voice still ringing. To be honest, he wasn't sure how much was audible and how much was just her deepest intentions pouring into him from the Fire that linked them.

"My intention was to offer a warning."

It didn't take much thought to imagine what the warning might regard. Even in this place he could feel the bone-deep chill of Ice from where it roosted on Mt. Silver's peak. The pulse of Fire only stayed it to a certain degree. "About what?" He asked, though Ash knew Chinatsu was perfectly aware of his conclusion.

"Ice in its slumber," her cool voice whispered. "Or, rather, its Champion."

His mood soured as his mind leapt to the Jynx in the Ice Path. "Haukea."

Several of Chinatsu's tails flicked. "Haukea, Daughter of Winter," she said with more familiarity than Ash would have expected. "Her bond with Ice runs deep. She is of Ice as I am of Fire. A remarkable human, perhaps the only to inspire warmth in Winter's cold heart."

"You know her."

Chinatsu peered at him. "Yes."

Ash frowned, but waited patiently for Chinatsu to continue as her tails twitched. The temperature dropped with every word, and soon he feared he'd have to rely on the Feather itself to keep him comfortable.

"Haukea is of the old world, born before the first stones of Indigo were laid."

He blinked. "The Indigo League?"

"No. The city."

Despite himself, his curiosity stirred. "I didn't know there was an Indigo City."

The golden Ninetales didn't seem amused. "Few do," she sighed. "It was the birthplace of my brother."

Champion Taimu, he thought, and soaked up every word. "Is it still around somewhere?"

"No," she said shortly, and offered no explanation. With the vehemence in her voice it made it easy to guess what happened. Still, now he could only wonder how old Haukea was. How long had she been skulking and spawning Jynx out in the world? How many lives had she changed?

"So how did you meet Haukea?" He asked instead, sensing that Indigo City was a touchy subject. Ash wondered if she'd been there to witness its fall, or if it was secondhand sorrow from Taimu that left her unwilling to discuss it.

He thought Chinatsu seemed almost amused as she looked up at him, the Feather blazing on her back.

"During my brother's sacred quest, we were forced to flee the Ryujin, Champion of Cerulean," she recounted fondly. "A mighty foe and a stalwart ally, in the end. He chased us across the sea as we rushed to Cinnabar, and ran us aground. We evaded him, yet landed upon the Seafoam Islands. It was a wild place, and as it came into sight we saw a pale figure upon its shores, waiting. She raised her arms, and spoke to us through the winter winds and words borne on snowflakes."

Chinatsu sounded ancient as she recalled the meeting, her Feather bright like molten gold against her skin and fur. "With every word, the waves stilled. By the time she was done, the sea froze solid and lay buried under thick sheets of ice."

To be honest, that didn't inspire confidence. It was one thing to know she held a link to Articuno, that she could create Jynx through some awful rite. It was quite another to hear that she possessed power enough to bring the ocean around Seafoam to a standstill. What was her limit? He couldn't even imagine Lorelei's team able to pull off a feat like that, and he prayed it wasn't something she could do easily.

It didn't help that even Chinatsu seemed awed at the feat, or at least grudgingly respectful. She was another Champion of the Birds, and he couldn't help but wonder what the true limits of a Legendary Champion might be.

"And then what?" He couldn't help but ask. Taimu had survived after that, obviously, so she clearly didn't kill them. There weren't too many good outcomes after a feat of power like that, however. Especially back in those days…

Chinatsu's eyes glimmered. "The Champion of Champions earned her respect, and her fealty."

He blinked. "How?" Ash thought back to the memories the Jynx had shared. As much as the Jynx in the Ice Path had adored her 'mother', Ash couldn't help but remember the callous devotion and blind zealotry in her every movement. He wished he could burn those memories out of his mind…

The Ninetales actually seemed amused then. "It was my brother's gift. They spoke at length, and when they returned she offered her support. Perhaps an edict of her master, as was mine. She did not kneel," Chinatsu said with distaste, "But she proved invaluable. She was one of his hands."

Ash didn't miss the veiled meaning. The Daughter of Winter had been one of Taimu's Elites - all of a sudden he remembered the origin of the four stadiums the Preliminaries were fought in. They'd been created in honor of the first Elite Four, and so Haukea was the one who had inspired the ice arena…

He was soon lost in thought, feeling a tad uneasy with the sudden revelation. "What can you tell me about her?" He asked. "If she's active…"

"She is of Ice," Chinatsu stated simply, and Ash thought that perhaps that was enough.

Still, he couldn't help but frown. "Should I be worried about her? Do you think she wants to destroy the League?"

Chinatsu's tail twitched, and he flushed at the stupid question. "Do you think a blizzard wants to bury a village?"

"My brother's old ally is patient," Chinatsu continued slowly. "She counts years as a blink of an eye, a decade as a breath… she exists solely to serve her Lord. Her actions now are to prepare for a human lifetime from now, or perhaps several. The Daughter will watch and wait, and will not invite action from one greater than her. She will act when necessary, and disappear when her duty is done."

The Ninetales' eyes glittered and her voice uttered low and urgent. "Haukea was old when my mother and my mother's mother were born. She is frozen in time as she is in spirit, lost in the abyss. Ignore her face - she is no human, not any longer, and you should not treat her as such."

Well, that was both relieving and not at the same time. It sounded like he had nothing to worry about for now, but he couldn't help but fear what she might be doing in the background… not to mention what she might do if the right opportunity came up. Or worse, what Haukea might do in the meantime, and what consequences it might have long after he was dead and gone.

His grim thoughts were only scattered when Chinatsu spoke again. If he didn't know better, he'd think she was eager to move the conversation far, far away from Articuno's favorite. He couldn't help but wonder how she would act if Ash met her - would she sense his bond with Ice as Chinatsu did, or would she be too far gone?

"By doing dear Akemi a service, you have served us all. Kindness ought beget kindness, and I offer another warning."

Ash arched an eyebrow, and waited. He had to catch himself before he blurted something out - lenient as Chinatsu had been this time around, she was still the same prideful Ninetales he'd met the first time around. It wouldn't do to get too familiar with her.

She stared, the Feather smoldering brightly. The air stilled, and Ash found it almost suffocating as the heat surged.

"Every Fire requires fuel," her eyes glittered in the pale light. "Remind the Indigo Champion of that before he has nothing left to burn."

He nodded as his stomach sank, mind abuzz with all sorts of different thoughts and ideas, and after a moment he dipped his head. "Thank you for your warning," Ash said uneasily, "and for your words."

Chinatsu's tails waved, and a moment later she dissolved into countless orbs of flickering golden flame that hovered all about the grotto, dancing as they would to bring new parts of Taimu and Shinobu's statues into focus. Ash imagined the Ninetales was still peering over them for any flaw or imperfection, or perhaps even trying to puzzle out a new detail that remained elusive even after a thousand years.

Ash dipped his head one last time in respect, then left the lonely place behind.

The Feather pulsed once more, awash in tongues of golden flame, and a deep, lingering warmth filled his chest as he ascended to meet Lance.

They had a lot to discuss…

XX

Just a few hours after his discussion with Lance found Ash about to lose his breakfast all over the nicely polished floor of the Plateau. He wrung his hand together, only Dazed and Nidoking at his sides keeping him together. Ash normally would've drawn on Ice for comfort, but he didn't feel comfortable with Articuno roosting right above. Part of him recoiled at the idea of inviting more of Articuno inside than necessary.

Nidoking lightly touched his arm, and Ash sent a grateful, brittle smile his way.

"Relax!" Will appeared at his side with a crack. He was already playing with his cane, grinning down at him cheerfully. "It won't be so bad. You'll barely have to say a word," he reassured Ash. "Just think back to all the guidance Karen and I gave you!"

To be fair, they had tried preparing him as they could. Unfortunately, none of that really settled Ash's nerves. In hindsight, they'd probably spent too much of the night watching Karen's rom-coms and a few magician shows that Will enjoyed.

Ash wouldn't have traded it for anything, though. Not even his upcoming humiliation.

A door behind them opened. Ash felt Lance, Koga, Bruno, and Karen as they entered the room. The Fire bound to Lance's wrist resonated with the Fire in Ash's heart, and deep beneath their feet he felt Chinatsu's own Feather blaze.

It stilled his trembling hands, at least, even if his taut mind couldn't help but worry at Chinatsu's words and Lance's pale, drawn features. The Champion was almost inscrutable when Ash passed on the warning, but a certain spark of insight came to life in the tall man's eyes. That worried him more than anything, particularly when he sent Ash off to train with Oz right after.

How much of himself had Lance burned away?

Lance still appeared distracted, but an easy grin hung across his pointed face. "How's it going, Ash? Excited?"

He grunted and squeezed his fists shut. "That's one word for it."

The Champion barked out a laugh. "Yeah, that's what I thought," his features smoothed over to be a little more serious. "Don't worry, Ash. I won't let them get the better of you, and neither will your two bodyguards," Lance nodded to Nidoking and Dazed. His family was the one thing Ash would never doubt.

"It'll be over before you know it. You've just got to stick around and look marketable," he grinned and poked at Ash's frayed hat. "Those hats are in high demand all of a sudden."

Ash scowled - he'd had to send about a million postcards in to get this hat, and now people could just buy one? Lance's eyes gleamed and Ash couldn't help but feel like this was some convoluted revenge for Steven's prank with adding capes to the ACE uniforms (even if he'd had nothing to do with it).

Koga and Bruno stayed silent, content to remain observers, but Karen stepped forward (carefully maneuvering around Dazed and especially Nidoking) to kneel in front him. She was at eye level with him now and he hesitantly smiled back when she bared her white teeth. "It's just like a battle," she whispered too low for the others to hear. "You're great at those, right?"

He nodded, still feeling as if he would be sick.

The Dark Master released Houndoom, who panted happily as he looked around at everyone. He was glad he hadn't brought Infernus out for this. Ash noted that the other members of the Elite Four followed her lead - Lance released Dragonite (of course), Bruno released Machamp, Koga released Weezing, and Will released Gardevoir.

"We're looking out for you," Karen promised. She flicked him on the nose, laughing at Nidoking's snarl and Ash's indignant glare. "Just say the bare minimum and let us take the lead, okay?"

"Okay," Ash mumbled. Karen met his eyes for a moment and finally nodded, as if she found the answer she was looking for.

Lance and Dragonite strode forth with his cape billowing with every movement. The others fell behind him, fanning out like an honor guard… which, technically speaking, they were. Ash and his teammates stepped up just behind Lance on his right, and both the man and Dragonite offered him a sign of encouragement: Lance sent Ash a thumbs up and Dragonite gave a lazy wave.

They stopped behind a few curtains. Ash knew that they'd be drawn back the moment Lance gave the signal. On the other side was the League's ball room that he'd been in once before back during the Conference. It also happened to double as a press room for when the League deigned to invite reporters into the Plateau.

According to Karen, that wasn't a frequent occasion. Too much risk, but this was important.

Every swallow felt as if he was choking as a massive knot formed in his throat. Ash dimly realized his hands were shaking and his legs felt like jelly. His stomach did flips and Ash wasn't sure if he looked completely pale (his face had that funny tingling feeling that he got when he was anxious) or green from the nausea.

Nidoking grunted softly at his side, and Dazed's pendulum trembled.

We are with you, Friend-trainer. Peace.

A brittle smile made its way onto Ash's face even as he recited the countless questions and answers that Karen and Will had coached him on last night in his head. With any luck he wouldn't have to say much of anything - he'd been told several times to follow Lance's lead.

"Party time!" Lance whispered to the rest, looking casual as Ash had ever seen him, and the curtains were pulled back.

People. Dozens - hundreds - of people and pokemon. Ash's mouth went dry as he felt an entire room full of eyes land upon him. They weren't watching his teammates, they weren't staring in awe at a battle. They were watching Ash.

Somehow that struck a cord facing down a living cataclysm didn't.

Ash froze, and hated himself for it.

Then a dull claw nudged him forward. The spell broke, and Ash could breathe again. He barely missed a step as he walked up to Lance's side, just as he'd been coached. Despite his caution, Ash just barely touched on Ice to settle his nerves, and instantly straightened as he coolly assessed the room.

There weren't so many as he'd suspected. Maybe a hundred to a hundred and fifty reporters? More than he'd have liked, but nothing Ash couldn't handle. Now that he could watch them without sending his anxiety spiralling out of control, he saw that most had only sent Ash a cursory glance. There were plenty that whispered to their neighbors and pointed to him, though, and the mutters only grew louder as time went on.

The chatter faded the moment Lance settled in at the podium and motioned for silence. He didn't even have to raise his voice for the reporters to quiet down immediately. Ash couldn't help but look at the Champoin with admiration. It was one thing to work with your family and give orders in battle. It was quite another to command the respect of an entire room without a smidge of effort.

Lance allowed a pregnant pause to take hold. Reporters practically squirmed in the uncomfortable silence, and once the tension built to the point that Ash expected someone to blurt out a question, the Champion spoke. He knew Lance well enough to see the utter satisfaction in the man's whole demeanor as the crowds held onto every word.

Ash knew Champion Lance had been born for this.

"It has been a month since the Greenfield Disaster. We have held off on giving direct statements during our investigation and questioning of all pertinent witnesses and persons of interest," Lance began. The microphone on the podium cast his words to all corners of the massive ballroom, though Ash suspected Lance would have been perfectly fine without it. "Today, I will address all possible questions regarding the incident."

However!" His thunderous voice cut off all the sudden murmurs. "Before we proceed, I have a second announcement to make!"

That was his cue. Ash stepped forward, pausing next to Lance. Compared to the Indigo Champion he appeared tiny and insignificant, something that both relieved and frustrated him. What would they do if he pulled the Feather off and sent it up in flames?

Haukea had been awfully casual showing hers off, after all.

"It is my pleasure to announce the newest addition to the League!" The Champion's voice boomed like thunder, a tiny smile tugging at the curve of his mouth. He turned to Ash and beamed. "Ash Ketchum!" He gave just one moment for the crowd to roar before silencing them with a wave of his hand. "After witnessing his extraordinary performance in the Indigo Conference, it was my decision to offer him a position in the Indigo Elite Four as a trainee."

Ash fought the urge to cover his ears as a roar emerged from the crowd - every eye was on him now, reporters shouted over one another in a scramble to get him to hear their questions, and part of him felt like crawling into a ball and hiding under the podium. He turned to glimpse Dazed, worried how she handling the sudden stimulus, but before he could do so her voice echoed in his mind.

I am fine. Do not worry for me.

He didn't believe her, but only caught a brief glimpse of his stunned friend before Lance pulled him back to attention. Even Lance struggled to quiet this crowd down, and Ash was able to hear the last few chatters as the cacophony came to a halt.

"What do your parents think of your decision to join the League at such a young age?"

"Do you have a girlfriend?"

"Did you suffer any injuries at Greenfield?"

"Reports state you were in Ecruteak when the bells rang! Is that true?"

"What are your thoughts on supplementing pokemon with Rare Candies? A trusted source claims you regularly give them to your pokemon."

"There were several reported sightings of you in Hoenn after the Indigo Conference. Will you be returning, or will you continue training in Indigo Plateau?"

"My daughter is a huge fan! Can you autograph this hat for her?"

Ash barely managed to stay where he was, mind spinning at the deluge of questions and prying words and overwhelming influx of information, and it took everything he had not to turn tail and sprint right back to his room to hide. Doubt wormed into his mind. What was he thinking being up here? This wasn't him.

When the voices began to pick back up and Ash feared it would never end, Lance's expression turned stormy and Dragonite roared. The deep, guttural sound didn't belong in a gentle giant like Dragonite, and Ash's whole body shook as the terrible roar seemed to work its way deep into his body - it didn't spark fear, not in Ash, but it managed to surprise him.

More importantly, the crowd was silent. He caught a few cameramen fumbling to compensate for the sudden burst of sound in their broadcasts.

Lance pointed to a reporter near the front, a sharp-eyed woman with long brown hair, and nodded. Her eyes lit up, but she was too much of a professional to show her excitement beyond that.

She cleared her throat. "Elite Four Ash," the reporter began, and Ash barely hid his grimace at the title. "Reports indicate that you were in Ecruteak last month when the bells rang. Did you hear them?"

Well, it wasn't what he would have picked for the first question, but Ash supposed that might have been the point. Give him something he wasn't expecting. Something he wouldn't have rehearsed.

And to her credit, it worked.

He opened his mouth and nothing came out.

He tried again and croaked.

A cold bolt of lightning rushed through him, white-hot shame, and his cheeks colored. Ash's chest rose and fell faster and faster and faster and he swore there were a million people out there now and they were watching him and the silence was awful and everything he'd learned from his interviews in the Conference was useless and -

Dazed's cool assurance touched his mind. Nidoking grunted behind him. The Elite Four waited patiently, and Ash felt one of them (probably Lance) gently prod him with his foot.

It sparked him to action. Despite everything he didn't draw on Ice, and a part of him was proud of that. "I saw it," his voice was thicker than it should have been, and he thought it vaguely sounded like he was trying to cough something up. "The bells. Heard it, I mean."

Something like sympathy flashed in the reporter's eyes. Before she could follow up, Lance moved on to the next. Ash appreciated it, not that he was surprised; neither Lance nor Ash wanted to get into a discussion about the Legends with a random reporter.

They barely wanted to talk about the Legends with each other.

"You!"

The reporter that Lance picked, who Ash noted bore a vague resemblance to Lorelei, beamed. Ash noted a Glaceon perched by her feet. "Elite Four Ash!"

He nodded.

She cleared her throat. "I'm Anita Holly with Pewter News Network. After your unprecedented performance in the Indigo Conference you became an icon to young trainers worldwide practically overnight. Is there anything you would like to say to hopeful young trainers following in your footsteps? Were you inspired by anyone else?"

Ash blinked. He almost croaked again, but pulled himself together. This was one he'd been able to prepare for with Will and Karen. "I, uh, just want to say they should keep working hard," he fell into his rhythm at last, thinking back to all the challenges in his way. "Don't be afraid of strong opponents. Find them. They'll make you stronger too."

Warmth poured into him from Dazed, and he fought a surge of manic laughter that threatened to bubble up. He was getting it, just like back in the Conference.

Stopping to consider the second part of the question was one of the most terrifying things he'd ever done. His momentum died, he felt hundred of eyes staring, and some of the terror came rushing back in to fill the void. This was one he had to give thought to, though, and he wouldn't feel right rambling off.

"Elite Four Ash...?"

He hurried to answer. "I have a lot. Everyone should. My mom," he raised one finger, flushing at the 'awws' he heard from the audience...and Will behind him, "Professor Oak," he raised another, then felt his cheeks burn from embarrassment. "...Lance and Steven Stone and Cynthia," Ash babbled off, sure that Lance was wearing a smug grin. Why did he think that was a good idea? Then he realized he probably sounded too familiar. "Uh, Champion Lance and Steven and Champion Cynthia."

Some more noise from the audience that he couldn't quite decipher on account of wanting Nidoking to open up a hole for him to fall into.

The red-haired reporter kept beaming. "Thank you very much for your words, Elite Four Ash! We can't wait to see what heights you reach in the future!"

Ash said something that came out more as a mumble, and the reporter took her seat.

"Next!" Lance pointed at a third reporter. He was a tall man with otherwise unremarkable features, but visibly perked up at Lance's direction. "Ask your question."

"What are your plans for the future now that you have joined the League? Do you plan on challenging another Conference?" The blank-faced man asked calmly into his microphone. After a moment he frowned. "Can you challenge another Conference?"

He shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable. Ash didn't really want to reveal his plans, so he stayed vague. "I'll be at the Plateau for a while," he said as Lance nodded. "I want to travel around after that. See the world and train."

"Next!" The Champion bellowed before the reporter could follow up on that.

After that, it turned into a bit of a blur. Questions about if Ash had a girlfriend (which earned a scathing look from Karen), asking if he'd selected any additional pokemon he'd like to add to his team ("Analysts have noted your lack of a ghost!"), and a few about his childhood that he didn't feel comfortable answering. He managed to choke something out all the same, though, and relaxed a little more.

There were only a few that genuinely caught his attention.

A short, stocky man squinted up at Ash. "There are several notable trainers that left Pallet Town with you last year. Amelia Franklin, Jonathan Lindon, and even Gary Oak, grandson of the famous Professor Oak," the reporter added. All Ash could think about was how much Gary would hate being described like that. "Why do you think so many talented rookies emerged from such a small town? Do you have anything you would like to your fellow Pallet trainers?"

His eyes lit up. He knew this one! "Lots of reasons. Professor Oak is a big part," he elaborated. "We grew up around pokemon. Professor Oak introduced us to the Corral pokemon during school. Everyone in Pallet loves them," he grinned. "My mom made sure I was ready," Ash trailed off, hiding a wince. "For my friends...good luck in the Silver Conference," he finished quickly. There was no way he was revealing that he planned on being there for it.

The reporter nodded and seemed satisfied, and soon after Ash was buried in more questions. He answered almost subconsciously as it dragged on. Most questions were inane and left Dazed channeling nothing but frustration (or earned a huff from Nidoking) and when he was asked a reasonable one he was left stunned.

It was the red-haired reporter again. Ash began to suspect that Lance had ulterior motives for choosing her again. "Although many members of the press have expressed interest in interviewing you, it's been impossible to find you," the reporter still beamed. She flicked a strand of hair out of her eyes and adjusted her glasses.

"The most pressing question for many of us is this: how did you progress so quickly? You bettered Conference veterans with over a decade on you. Even Champion Lance only made it to the Top 8 as a rookie. Do you attribute your swift rise to your own skill and determination, or did you have teachers pushing you along?"

That took a moment for Ash to absorb, but when he had it down he was happy to answer. "My team's earned every bit of strength they have," he stated. Nidoking grunted softly behind him, inching just a little closer to the podium. "They deserve the credit," Ash glowed with pride as he looked back at them.

He ran a hand across the pokeballs on his waist. He wished they could all be out right now.

"I played my part, and I learned from a lot of different people who took me farther than I'd ever get on my own, but my team are the ones who put in the work. They fought for it, and they're the ones who took me so far in the Conference."

The reporter smiled at him. Ash was beginning to wonder if she was even capable of frowning. Despite it all, he thought it was genuine. "As a follow up question, I would like to ask your team why they fight so hard for you. Many analysts noted that your team fought with debilitating injuries several times in the Conference. Why did your team not admit defeat?"

His opinion of the reporter redoubled and he patiently allowed Dazed and Nidoking a moment to confer. It only took a moment, and he felt his cheeks grow hot as Dazed's eyes flashed blue and she transmitted the information directly into his mind to relay to the reporter.

"Dazed and Nidoking say it's because I'd do the same for them," Ash found himself off-balance again. "They, uh, they said that they know I'd give my life for them and they want to return the respect," he finished quickly.

The reporter's eyes lit up. She dipped her head, and the press conference moved on.

Just a few minutes later and his answers grew shorter and terser than ever. More and more of Ash wanted to just crawl into a ball and hide. He wasn't too uncomfortable anymore - Ash found it helped to focus only on one person instead of the entire room - but he was drained. Who knew talking could be so exhausting?

Ash did, but that was beside the point.

At long last, Lance pulled him back and took his place on the podium with Dragonite towering at his side. "That will be all of the questions for Elite Four Ash today!" Lance thundered. Part of Ash experienced utter disbelief at the title. A few reporters looked like they wanted to protest, but Dragonite's glare put an end to that. "We will take requests for a private interview after the press conference. Now I will begin answering all questions regarding the events at Greenfield."

He winced as Lance forced that last bit out. Someone who didn't know the Champion would never be able to tell, but past the forced enthusiasm Ash sensed all the cheer of a man walking to his grave.

"Don't worry!" Will half-whispered half-shouted into his ear as the media went into a frenzy - cameras flashed, reporters howled into their mics, and overall the situation just degenerated. Ash flinched back at the cacophony, but Will helpfully distracted him with a flip of his cane. "The most esteemed Champion Lance is only saying that! He's already picked out which reporter will have the honor of interviewing the beloved addition to the Elite Four!"

Ash found the red-haired reporter in the crowd and rolled his eyes. If he was a betting man - which he would end up as if he wasn't careful, given how many bets seemed to be floating around the Plateau - he knew who he would pick for his interview.

Still, he was just grateful that the attention was finally off him and settled into a comfortable cocoon surrounded by Will and Karen on each side and his team behind him.

Koga and Bruno briefly nodded at him, though Karen leaned down close to him. "Good job," she whispered into his ear. "Not so bad, huh?"

Ash half-heartedly nodded, finally smiling.

Not so bad after all.

XX

The Ore peaks drifted on endlessly, jutting across the landscape like a row of Nidoking's spines. For a moment Ash imagined what kind of great beast could produce such heights and shook his head with a smile. Instead he focused on admiring the slate and pale cliff faces piled up like a great heap of cooling slag, the snow and ice crusting their peaks shining like pale halos in the afternoon sun.

All but one.

Uneasiness stirred as he looked at the great blanket of clouds layered thickly over the lesser peaks. Mt. Silver stood indomitable amongst them, the center of power in Indigo for a millennium and now the roost of something far, far greater. Ash shivered as he gazed past the clouds, imagining he could see the sleeping form of Ice towering atop the rest.

Something warned him to look away before Articuno could peer back, and so he did.

He had enough Ice in him already.

"Do you like it?" Lance peered down at him from a few feet away. Both sat on the edges of a stark cliff, gazing down at the tiny world beneath them. From here the stress of the press conference (as okay as it had turned out) seemed about as important as a Rattata chomping on the King. It actually reminded Ash of the time he and Hasta had spent in the cliffs looming over the Wataru compound.

He smiled.

"Yeah," he said, reaching out to absentmindedly rub Aron's shiny head. The little steel-type eased into the touch. His baby blue eyes were locked on the majesty of Mt. Silver with a certain glint in his eye that Ash had only seen a few times before.

Was Aron imagining a day where he stood atop a newly built mountain that dwarfed the legendary Silver?

Ash warmed at the thought and made a mental note to take Aron walking through the mountains before they left for Hoenn in a few days. That thought left him feeling uncharacteristically… disappointed? He didn't linger on the confusing feeling, and just basked in the presence of his team, Lance, and Dov instead.

He pulled his hand away from Aron as his friend plopped to the ground, still staring off at the mountains. Oz, the only other member he'd released aside from Plume soaring above, carefully held her strong fist above Aron. There was no way she'd let him fall.

"...I come up here to think sometimes," he realized Lance had started speaking, and guiltily pretended as if he'd been listening the whole time. The Champion tossed a little pebble off the cliff and watched listlessly as it sailed to the ground. "Compared to that," he waved at the gorgeous mountain range running across to the horizon, "our problems don't seem too significant."

Well, that was something Ash might have to disagree on. Knowing the Legends, a puny mountain range might not pose too much of a threat. A darkly amused flame whispered its agreement from the back of his head, though Ash didn't so much as flinch.

"Even with that?"

Lance didn't have much trouble following along. His face sank at the howling blizzards drenching Mt. Silver's peak - Ash winced. Maybe he could have made a better choice of words. "Even so," the Champion said after a moment, a bit of warmth back in his expression. The Champion tossed another pebble off the cliff. "Those mountains have survived this long, haven't they? Maybe we can as well."

He nodded along. Ash was still a little perturbed, but the notion cheered him a little. Some of his somber thoughts slipped away and the ever present knot in his stomach loosened just a tad. After a moment he turned back to grin at Oz as she hovered over Aron. If he so much as twitched towards the edge she would be there to catch him. She caught his gaze and bared her flat teeth, and Ash took a moment to marvel at his friend's evolution.

She really was magnificent.

It was a shame to break the easy silence they'd entered - it reminded him of their all too short month together on Knot Island - but after a time Ash couldn't hold back the questions building up inside.

"Are you okay?" He choked out, stumbling over every word like it was a poison. Lance looked to him, obviously taken off guard, and stared. It just made Ash squirm even more. "On the inside, I mean," he said uselessly, gesturing at nothing in particular. "The Feather."

Lance's eyes sparked. "Ah. That."

"That."

Dov leaned closer. He wasn't even trying to be subtle about listening in… not that anyone minded. Their teams were a part of them, and Ash knew Lance hid about as much from his family as Ash did his own.

"Chinatsu really worried you," Lance chuckled. It was a hollow sound that highlighted his pale face and the dark rings under his eyes. "I'll be fine, Ash. I can't believe you're worrying about me," he scrubbed his knuckles against Ash's hat even as he squirmed away to glare at the Champion. "Ha! No, I just need some time."

Ash felt Lance's reticence, but pushed on anyways. His own Feather flared, touched with rainbow edges as the Song echoed in his ears and a fierce gale howled in from the north. "How much do you use the Feather?"

That caught Lance off guard. "What - ha!" he rolled his eyes with a smile. "Of course you of all people would know." Lance rolled up his sleeve to reveal the obsidian frame of the Feather hooked into his wrist. It flared to life, bathing them all in its warm golden glow, but Ash frowned. It burned, but it was too low. Too dull. Too close to a sputter of sparks for Ash's liking.

"It's all that's kept me going for the last month," the Champion admitted lowly, a dark cast to his features. He reached up with his other hand to tousle his red hair. "There's just...so much to do. Every second wasted is a second Indigo is falling apart. People are afraid. The Champion is meant to embody the best of the League. I have to set an example."

The sobering words, delivered with a plain rawness that was a far cry from Lance's normal bravado, humbled him. Still, Ash couldn't help but think his teacher might be missing the point.

"You've burnt out - literally," he added. Oz whirred in agreement, and even Dov grumbled along with them. Ash let the Feather pulse, grimacing at the magnitude of the response in Lance. He imagined Lance's own Feather threading his entire core with Fire, lacing every cell and consuming it to sustain the Champion's will. "People can tell."

Lance actually snorted at that. His gaunt face curved up into something resembling a smirk. "So can I," he gazed down at his callused palm, opening and closing his fingers until they reminded Ash of claws. "Not a very inspiring sight, am I?" He said shortly. "Sometimes I wish I could throw the Feather off the cliff. It hasn't been much help so far, has it?"

He had nothing to say to that. Ash just rested back against Oz, who had curled up on the cold stone behind him. The little bits of electricity jolting him from her fur didn't trouble him in the least.

"It's nearly killed me twice now. Crippled me when the people need me the most," Lance grimaced and listed off a few examples. "New Island, Shamouti...and it left you to pick up the pieces. Left a kid to fix my messes," the Champion sounded disgusted at that, and Ash knew it was aimed inward. After a moment Lance looked away from Ash, away from Indigo Plateau, and laid his eyes off to the northern mountains that ran all the way past Blackthorn.

"I'll say it again: I owe you the world for what you've been through, and I'm sorry for it

," the man said. Lance twisted his head to look back at Ash. "Your mom was right. You shouldn't be caught up in all this, and I'm at fault for roping you into the League in the first place." Despite the heavy air, Lance seemed to find some kind of amusement in the memory. "It's been a long time since anyone's dressed me down like that."

Ash shifted on the hard stone. His throat tightened and he had to fight hard not to numb the feelings with Ice. It had been cutting it close to use it once to take the edge off during the interview. Treating it so casually was a slippery slope.

He kicked his feet off the cliff, barely cognizant of how high they were anymore. Ash thought back to the events of the last year and shook his head, ignoring that last comment.

"Was there any other choice?" His mind leapt to the brushes with Legends he had and how close each had come to disaster. What if he hadn't been there? Someone (or something) probably would've stepped in to clear up the nightmares, but who really knew? At last his lips curled into a half-grin. "I probably would've gotten dragged in anyway. At least this way I have the League at my back, right?"

His heart soared when Lance snorted. "You have the worst luck," the man sighed.

Ash couldn't help but think of Lance's last year: the St. - the Rockets, Mewtwo, Giovanni, Zapdos and the storm that swallowed half of Kanto, Shamouti, Greenfield, and all that piled up on the responsibilities of the Indigo Champion. He didn't think Lance could say much about bad luck.

The Champion looked down at the cinders laced into his wrist and touched the flames with his other hand. It invigorated him, though there was still a shadow cast over him. "It sure is beautiful, though. Keeps me going when nothing else will," Lance shook his head with a smile. "If only it wasn't burning me up from the inside out."

"You didn't notice?"

Lance shrugged, though lightened a little as he held out his hand to Aron. The little steel-type seemed utterly captivated by the flickering gold, though Ash offered a warning before Aron could try to lick the Feather with his harsh tongue. "I knew it wasn't making things better," he admitted. "New Island and Shamouti showed me that. When Moltres goes down, so do I. After Greenfield -" he hesitated. "Well, Moltres wasn't involved. I thought it was the stress and long hours. Not literally burning myself away."

For a time they just sat there as the sun deepened. In just another hour or two it would be sunset. Ash shuffled a few thoughts, cycling Fire, Ice, and Lightning to balance one another, when an idea came to mind.

"In Greenfield I figured out how to balance them," he said, though didn't think it necessary to tell Lance the idea came from Mewtwo of all people. "If you just pull on Fire, it burns you from the inside out. Lightning does the same. Ice numbs you - makes you less human," Ash said slowly. Lance turned to him, fascinated. "They all work against each other. It's a cycle."

He felt for the Concepts as he and Lance shared a look.

Fire filled his chest, coursing through his blood. The cold vanished instantly, banished by the power, and steam rose from his bare skin. Ash sensed the resonance in Lance's own Feather, and grinned madly as it burst into flame with renewed strength.

As it burned too hot and wild, Ash let Lightning arc through him. The world slowed and a sudden awareness of everything struck him: the rise and fall of Lance's chest, the crackling of Oz's fur, Aron's little snores, and the little flakes of snow cascading downward from Mt. Silver. His hands trembled like he'd just chugged his morning coffee, but after the wild passions and power of Fire, the focus of Lightning was a nice change.

Last, he numbed himself with Ice. Ash was cautious, unwilling to draw on it for long with Articuno practically staring down at them, but the focus faded away to cold rationality. There was a comfort in it.

"Let me see your wrist," Ash instructed. Even through the haze of Ice's influence he felt a distinct wrongness at the realization he was giving Lance - Lance! - an order. The Indigo Champion didn't seem to see anything strange and offered up the wrist with the Feather on it. If anything, the man appeared endlessly fascinated with the situation.

Part of him rankled at actually touching Lance (it was different when the Champion threw an arm over his shoulder or messed with him, a part of Ash argued) but steadfastly laid his hand over the heatless flame of Lance's Feather. Or it was supposed to be heatless, at any rate. Ash nearly flinched at the agonizing heat pouring off of it right now, though he supposed that was just from channeling Ice.

Ash hesitated. "I don't know if this will work," he warned, glancing at the shrouded peak of Mt. Silver. "It's different. It's not a part of you."

"It's worth a shot!" Lance managed to grin, even if he didn't look totally comfortable. He nodded and Ash decided he might as well go through with it. It felt as if his hands were scalded through his gloves as he grasped the area around the Feather, then focused on sharing Ice.

It turned out to be harder than he expected.

Even though he could feel Ice permeating his entire body, it was entirely different to share it with someone else. Ash honestly had no idea what to do. He just tried to focus it into his hands, but sensed that just froze Lance's skin. The Champion bore it stoically, but Ash knew he was in pain.

Lance's heat scalded him, yet he held on. The pain was nothing. Insignificant. Still, he noted that Lance seemed just as uncomfortable. His jaw clenched and frost burns blistered his skin. Despite the bad reaction, Ash was still satisfied that he'd chosen Ice.

He trusted his control over slow, steady Ice a thousand times more than his control over nebulous Lightning. Lightning would have done a fantastic job of interrupting Lance's Fire, but it could have knocked him out just as easily.

Ash still remembered Oz's reaction when she received it.

At last, he pulled away. "Did that do anything at all?" He asked.

Lance hid a grimace as he rubbed at his wrist with his free hand - Ash caught him try to draw on his Feather before he realized the mistake. Instead, Lance contented himself with warming himself normally. "I don't know," he confessed, staring down at the Feather. "It feels different, but I can't place how."

He allowed Ice to flow away and sagged. "I hope it does something," Ash said, wishing for nothing else than a good nap with his team. Between the press conference and now this he felt terribly weary.

"I do too," Lance said simply. Dov laid down next to him, laying his great head by his trainer's side. Oz cast him a quick glance, but didn't seem irritated by his presence. The pokemon were content to rest peacefully as their trainers talked the day away. "Thank you, Ash."

"Don't draw on it for a while," Ash mumbled, suddenly uncomfortable. "Give your body some time."

Lance just nodded.

"I feel like I could do better," he scowled after a moment, looking down at his hands as the cold fled. The frigid mountain stone and the wind whipping across his face was kind and gentle compared to the touch of Ice. "I don't really know what I'm doing with it. I'm just trying to push harder. Someone better - Haukea," Ash mumbled, and Lance froze. "She would probably know."

"Yes, she might do the trick," Lance laughed. It was a cautious sound, as if the man wasn't quite sure what he should say to that. Ash didn't miss the sharpening of Lance's gaze. The Champion had already known Haukea's name from the old histories, but at least he seemed just as paranoid of her reappearance as Ash was. "I do feel better," he said, still rubbing at his wrist. "A little less...worn," Lance frowned, staring off at the mountains again.

Even if Ash didn't entirely trust Lance to not just try and make him feel better, he did note that Lance seemed a little more sure of himself. Less jittery and far steadier, like he'd regained confidence or taken a long rest.

"I was afraid I'd burn until I was all hollow, nothing but skin and bones," Lance admitted. His eyes were on Articuno's roost. After a moment he laughed, finally looking like his old self again. "Death hangs over us all, doesn't it? It'll find us one way or another. Compared to that, burning out doesn't seem too bad."

He shook his head. "I've seen death," Ash said, thinking back to his visit to Agatha. "That is something else."

The Champion nodded slowly, a pang of something etched into his face. "Lavender?"

Ash couldn't help his jerk. "Yes," he said slowly, drawing out the word. "You know…?"

Lance chuckled with a rueful shake of his head. "I know what lives in Lavender," he said. "It's my job to know all the monsters hiding under our bed. It's too bad I'm just finding out about the ones in the closet."

Well, that was a disturbing thought. How many other entities like Lavender still haunted the world? Ash couldn't help but frown at the thought that Lavender wasn't unique, a one-in-a-million aberration. Maybe he could find some information on that in the archives later.

That train of thought led Ash down a grim road. He still owed Gary that promise.

He meant to ask a question to distract himself, but his dark mood twisted it. "Have you heard anything from Agatha?" Ash asked. His throat clenched and the words were barely comprehensible, and he would've had to pull on Ice again to numb himself if Oz hadn't laid a heavy hand on his shoulder and Aron hadn't licked at his hand.

Ash fought a pang of regret at the flicker of pain that crossed his teacher's face. It was hidden quickly, but even after it was forced down Ash saw that any improvement in Lance's bearing had vanished.

"Just one last message for us all," Lance said listlessly, tapping at the stone. "Personal," he explained at Ash's curious look, then smiled. "She did mention a visit from 'a little brat who asks too many questions'," the Champion grinned broadly. "Her words, not mine."

He couldn't help but snort. It left his spirits a little lighter. "That does sound like her."

Lance peered at him until Ash felt like the man was staring into his very soul, then looked away with a half-smile. "Agatha had - has a way with words," he chuckled, then slapped a hand against Ash's back. "Did I ever tell you about the first time we met? I was a cocky little thirteen year old, thought I was the best thing since Dragonite, and she…"

Ash quickly found himself enraptured with Lance's stories. Before he knew it, the hours had passed by in the blink of an eye.

XX

"It's wonderful to see you again," Steven greeted as warmly as ever from the communications room in the Plateau. It looked like he was writing up some report in the privacy of his apartment. Papers were neatly organized all around his, although some laid on top of Metagross' cold grey carapace as they rested near Steven. He heard several of Steven's teammates shuffling around in the background and couldn't fight the sudden surge of longing for the weeks he'd spent training with the Steel Master.

That felt like a lifetime ago.

Steven assessed him with his calm gaze. "You look well," the man seemed relieved at the news. "I trust your vacation has treated you well?"

Ash nodded stiffly. "Yes," he thought back to all that had happened in the month since Greenfield. "Busy, but good."

The former Champion chuckled. "I've heard a few stories from Lance. You'll have to fill me in once you're back in Rustboro."

He'd already packed most of his things to leave at a moment's notice, although it might not come to that depending on this conversation. Bob would be taking him through a few jumps to Rustboro tomorrow. Only a handful of psychics could make that journey with a single teleport; even with an experienced psychic it was safer and more practical to make a few shorter jumps. Ash ignored the dark surge of amusement from Mewtwo at that.

"I'm prepared to leave as scheduled. Same time as planned?"

Even the terse words left his lips, Ash felt something shift in Steven's bearing. The man leaned forward ever so subtly and Metagross sparked to life, though didn't move enough to unsettle the papers balanced on their head. "Is everything alright? It sounds like there's something on your mind."

Ash shifted, easing Seeker into a more comfortable position as she huddled beneath his jacket. It was frigid in the barren metal room, even if it didn't actually bother Ash. It was more an awareness of the sensation than any actual discomfort, as though it were muted and colorless.

She squeaked up at him and crawled a little higher with her hooks until she poked her head out of his jacket to look at the screen. Ash knew she was just following the familiar sounds of Steven's voice, but it left him smiling nonetheless.

"It's wonderful to see you as well, Seeker," Steven dipped his head to the Zubat. "Your fur is looking particularly well-groomed today."

He snorted as Seeker ducked back into his jacket at the compliment. Ash laid a hand on her soft head and took a moment to enjoy the simple pleasure of having her there with him. She'd adjusted well to the Plateau (not to mention the dark clouds dimming the sun's light for miles around).

Ash tapped his fingers against Nidoking's pokeball as he shifted again. That knot was there in his gut again and he had a hard time looking directly at Steven. He kept his eyes locked on a few reports stacked neatly on Steven's granite desk instead. "I - I'd like to stay here a little longer. Not too long! A week or two? Two," Ash rambled. "I think there's a lot I can do for my training here, and I know Lance and Karen wanted to get another interview or two. I also want to see my mom before I leave, and maybe Gary and Professor Oak - I just need more time!"

In spite of Ash's expectations, Steven looked as happy as Ash had ever seen him. "Of course, take all the time you need," the man said. "It's your vacation, after all. You're supposed to enjoy yourself. Besides," Steven said more quietly, "you've earned your rest."

He nodded stiffly. The tension in his shoulders immediately fled and he relaxed his hand where he'd desperately clutched to Seeker. "Thank you."

"Of course. We'll plan for another two weeks. I'll need to shuffle a few things, but nothing of importance," Steven reassured Ash. "If you believe you need additional time, just let me know."

Ash looked gratefully to Steven.

"That said, I was looking forward to hearing about your vacation firsthand in a few days," Steven said, then smiled. "I understand if you're busy, but why don't we catch up for a while?"

"Yeah," a smile slowly crept onto his face. "That sounds good."

He adjusted a bit, made sure Seeker was nice and cozy against his chest, and settled in for a long, pleasant talk.

It had only been a month, but he'd missed Steven.

XX

The next morning found him pacing near Will's quarters. Ash hadn't spent a lot of time with the psychic, so he'd wanted to visit him a bit before he was teleported to Goldenrod. He could've just flown on Plume's back, but he had some other plans for her while they were out in Goldenrod. It was right by Greenfield, after all, and he could be there in barely an hour.

So now he sat waiting. Ash clenched his fists as he stared at the Xatu clock in Will's room (the stylized Xatu's wings acted as the clock's two hands) and watched the minutes tick down. Most of Will's team had isolated themselves into little cubes dotted on the walls and ceilings. They were only accessible through teleportation, and apparently made excellent spots for meditation.

Still, Ash had to say he preferred the little spot high in the mountains that Bruno had taken him to the past few mornings. The proud evergreens and claw-rent boulders made for nice scenery than the sterile environment of the cubicles.

He paused, and so did Will. The man seemed infected with the same nervous energy that affected Ash, always flipping his cane and wringing his hands and pacing right alongside Ash. It was strange, certainly, but somehow comforting.

"Why wait for dear Robert?" Will chirped as he elegantly twirled the cane in an impossible motion. Ash was pretty sure he was just showing off at this point. "You have a perfectly skilled psychic right here and now, if I may be so arrogant! We can hop right over to Goldenrod! It would be my honor to meet the woman who raised Ash Ketchum."

His stomach turned at his memories of the last few times Will had teleported him. Interesting as it might be to have Will meet his mom, he didn't think losing his lunch at the sight of her would make for the best first impression. It had been months since they were really able to talk.

Ash didn't count the choking conversations after Greenfield, and quickly turned his mind from the thought altogether.

"Thanks, but I already asked Rob - Bob," Ash corrected himself with a grimace. "I wouldn't want to waste his time, right? That would be rude."

Will lit up. "Of course not! His time is valuable, and I'm certain he's most honored to assist you! He's an invaluable member of our League."

"Of course," Ash snorted, and he almost thought the corner of Will's mouth twitched upwards into a sly grin. Before they could say anything else, Bob appeared in a blinding flash and crack. Knowing his skill with teleportation, that was most likely intentional.

Greetings, honored Elite Four Will. Greetings, cargo.

Ash was pretty sure that second part was hidden from Will, but he couldn't find it in him to care. He just smiled pleasantly. "Greetings, 'Whole of Creation'."

The bad-tempered Alakazam's mustache twitched, but he didn't say anything else. A little flicker of psychic power flared in Bob's narrowed eyes but he gave little other evidence of his displeasure.

"What a grand title for a grander Alakazam!" Will clapped his hands and bounced on his heels. He bowed deeply to Bob. "Thank you for your service, Sir Robert. It would be my honor to hear how you earned such recognition from Elite Four Ash when you return!"

Bob inched away from Will's positivity. Ash felt how flustered he was. He'd be lying if he said he wasn't relishing it.

I - no, that won't be necessary. Thank you for the invitation, Elite Four Will, but it would be remiss of me to waste any of your valuable time.

Will brightened. "Ah, of course! You're most thoughtful. But don't worry! My schedule is clear for the day. It would be my pleasure to act as your host!"

The Alakazam looked between Will and Ash in defeat, and the next thing Ash knew he'd been whisked away to Goldenrod. Bob didn't know exactly where his destination was, so instead he just dropped Ash off at the Goldenrod Gym. Not that Ash would have expected him to be considerate enough to whisk him to his mom's apartment directly.

He considered running in to visit Whitney (he wouldn't mind another battle with her monster of a Miltank) but reluctantly turned away. It was going to take him long enough to find his mom's apartment, and he still had a lot planned for the day. The flight to Greenfield alone would take another hour.

Besides, he needed some practice getting around cities. He had already memorized his mother's address, and it wasn't too far from the Gym. Maybe thirty to forty-five minutes walking. For a trainer, that was nothing. Everything important was clustered in the heart of the city near the water, and Goldenrod's core was dense. It wasn't as intimidating as Saffron, to be honest, yet Ash felt a little claustrophobic as he pulled up the PokeNav's map of Goldenrod and walked amid the high, clustered buildings.

Ash went ahead and released Sneasel, who blinked suddenly at the sun stinging his eyes, then perked up immediately at all the sights and sounds around them. The dark-type hissed at an oblivious man passing by who nearly clocked him with his massive briefcase and quickly scrambled up Ash's legs to perch on his shoulder for a better view.

He grinned and scratched at Sneasel's feather. This was already much better.

XX

The apartment building was just a short distance from the university, and Ash found himself dodging groups of students on the sidewalk. Every step closer to the university meant countless more people congregating and laughing and jostling around, which were all things Ash was eager to avoid.

He stepped around another group (they ignored Sneasel's hiss) and pulled his beaten up cap low. Ash grimaced as a few wandering eyes took in his appearance and brightened. A few passersby nudged their friends or pokemon and whispered, and he felt more and more eyes on him the longer they were out in the open.

They knew.

Ash quickened his pace and doublechecked his PokeNav to make sure he had the right building. After a quick confirmation, he entered the front office. Its appearance was nothing special - just an average place, clean and tidy with little wasted space, and he only took a moment to scan it before walking up to the front desk.

"I need to find my mom's apartment," he said quickly, eager to get this over with. The receptionist looked up at him blankly from his book and motioned for him to offer more information. Ash showed her the PokeNav screen with the message. "Apartment 151."

The receptionist nodded, though didn't seem especially enthused to have their reading time interrupted. Good. That meant he'd be just as eager to get this over with as Ash. "We have a note confirming it. There've been a few visitors today," the young man (probably a student) yawned stiffly. His eyes traced over a piece of paper he unfolded. "Apartment #201, Delia Ketchum..." the receptionist did a double take. "Oh!"

"The directions?" Ash insisted.

It didn't take much attention to see how the receptionist immediately straightened and sent a nervous look at Sneasel (who helpfully unsheathed his claws) and then down to the long strand of pokeballs attached to Ash's belt.

"Of course!" The receptionist cleared his throat and pointed his finger to a sealed door, which he quickly unlocked. He had to admit all the security relieved him. "Right down that hall, take a left, and it's going to be the third on your right. Uh, sorry about all the trouble Mr. Ketchum."

Ash hid a grimace at the title, offered a stiff nod, and strode off to follow the receptionist's direction. It only took him a minute to reach his mom's apartment. He froze just as he was about to knock on the door, a hundred frenzied thoughts flying through his mind, and would have taken much longer to work up his courage with Sneasel's rough tongue poking out to lick at his cheek.

It felt strange going over the long scar Articuno had left him with in Shamouti, but he reached up to scratch Sneasel's chin in return.

"Thanks," he whispered, and knocked on the door -

He barely had a moment to take in the door being thrown open before he was wrapped in a suffocating grip. Ash wheezed as the air was forced from his lungs and blinked. Sneasel had already abandoned him, clambering from his shoulder to his attacker's to avoid getting the life squeezed out of him.

"Ash! You're here!"

Normally he would've responded, but normally he wasn't afraid his ribs were going to crack.

At long last she let him go and he quickly sucked in a few greedy breaths to clear his vision. His mother pulled back but held his shoulders as she looked at him like a starving man looked at food. A flush of warmth rose in his chest that had nothing to do with the Feather.

"I missed you."

His mom's eyes were already a little shimmery, but he felt how his words nearly left her bawling. She'd always worn her heart on her sleeve, even before -

He shut that line of thought down quickly.

"I missed you too, sweetie," she stepped close and wrapped her arms around him in another warm, iron hug. He didn't even consider resisting. "But come in! Come in, please! I'm so excited you're here. I've wanted to have you come by for months now!"

She was like a whirlwind as she ushered him in and sat him down on a small, cozy couch piled high with pillows and cushions. He barely had time to look around as she whisked off to the kitchen to grab him some water and a snack.

His first impression was that it was small. Ash felt a little guilty at the thought. He'd been spoiled a bit by the grand Elite Four rooms in Indigo Plateau. They'd been designed to comfortably support a small army of pokemon (plus their trainer) so it was hardly fair to compare the two. Still, he soon found himself appreciating the space his mom had created.

It was similar to his own room in Indigo Plateau in that the kitchen, living room, and dining space were all in a single main room. The walls were painted a warm yellow that reminded Ash of sunflowers and the cream furniture was carefully selected to complement that. He found himself a little jarred at how different it was from the house in Pallet Town. For whatever reason he'd expected his mother to have perfectly recreated the space there.

But she hadn't. No, she'd made something new.

Everything was designed to be inviting: the way she'd arranged the couches and recliner to be easily accessible, the soft floral fragrance permeating the air, even the little paintings of Goldenrod's harbor, Pallet Town, and what he recognized as an old picture of her and Uncle Spencer at the Hale Mansion when they'd both been Professor Oak's students.

That one left a sour taste in his mouth, but he fought it down.

Still, this was her space. Everywhere he looked there were marks of his mother's identity: Pictures of her first day opening the deli in Pallet Town with Professor Oak beaming beside her, countless pictures of Ash (including one of him and his family that he stared at), and even a few that Ash hadn't seen before.

His favorite must have been taken before Ash had returned home from the Sevii Islands. It was of her in her gardening clothes with a peaceful Bruiser assisting her with a particularly stubborn stone buried deep in the earth. Plume and Seeker were both hidden up in a shady tree to avoid the bright sun.

Ash stared at it and the guilt at ever leaving a member of his team behind ate at him again. He owed Lance more than he could ever know just for removing the carry limit.

There was one more that attracted his attention: a tiny little photograph in a black frame nearly hidden behind a handful of others standing on a small coffee table. He could tell it was before he'd been born - his mom looked about as young as she had in that picture she loved of her, Professor Oak, and Uncle Spencer together at the Corral.

He reached out to angle it a little better and grimaced.

His mom wore practical pants and a flannel shirt meant for rough work - she must've been helping at the Corral. For once, she wasn't the focus. Ash looked instead at the people laughing near her. Professor Oak snagged his attention, of course, and Ash couldn't help but hope the Professor had found Agatha. He looked happy in this picture, laughing and relaxed and light like Ash had only rarely seen him.

The others were faces he'd only seen a handful of times: a striking middle-aged woman with kind eyes and a bright smile who looked up at Professor Oak with what he could only call adoration, the brown-haired woman to her right (maybe a few years older than his mom) and a short man with long black hair who held a tiny, grumpy baby with a shock of brown hair between them.

Cold shot through his veins and he gently put the picture back.

Ash knew who they were.

His promise to Gary weighed heavier than ever.

Before he could fall into too pensive of a mood, he was interrupted by a black blur that smashed into his chest and slammed him back into the couch cushions. Ash hid a smile as Sneasel reclined into his lap and stretched to his full length, his lanky arms hanging over the cushions into open space. He almost reached out to pet Sneasel's soft belly, but thought better of it.

"He's getting so big!" His mother exclaimed as she swept back in from the kitchen. Ash had a glass of water and sandwich pressed into his hands before he could blink. She stood back practically glowing with her hands on her hips. "You too, Ashy. You're shooting up like bamboo!"

He didn't bother hiding his smile for any longer, and for a moment managed to forget the unspoken tension that hovered between them.

Ash cleared his throat and skimmed over the surroundings again. "It's a nice place."

His mom blinked, then a slow smile crept over her face. "I'm glad you like it!" She glanced at a handful of books scattered around, although for the most part the apartment was spotless. "Don't mind the mess. I've gotten into awful habits lately," she confessed. "There's just so much to do!"

"How's it coming?" He grinned as his mom thoughtfully tossed a shiny silver spoon to Sneasel. The dark-type's lightning reflexes ensured he snagged it out of the air with minimal effort and squirmed up so he could turn it between his velvet paws.

Naturally, Sneasel decided to spend the next few minutes of them catching up admiring his distorted reflection in the curved bend of the utensil.

Plume really had rubbed off on him.

"...and I've become particularly interested in the rising numbers of psychics worldwide over the past year or so!" His mom finally had to pause for breath. "It's unprecedented, and I've seen all sorts of theories from experts trying to pinpoint the exact cause - it's a global phenomenon, but seems to be localized in Indigo for some reason. I've tried speaking to Professor Oak about it, but he somehow always changes the subject!"

Ash shifted uneasily in his chair even as he felt Mewtwo's smirk. Hopefully his mom wouldn't hold him not explaining that particular mystery against him…

His mom bit her lip and tapped thoughtfully against the armrest of her large, cozy recliner. Judging from the small stack of thick books piled up on the nearby side table it was her normal reading spot. "Oh!" She said with a keen glint in her eyes and the beginnings of a small frown. "There have been reports of rising cases of human psychics around Goldenrod recently…"

Knowing his mom, she'd already seen the pattern there. Ash squeezed his eyes shut and felt her overpowering curiosity, the vague and undefined fears drifting in her mind, and the utter satisfaction of a missing piece of a puzzle sliding perfectly into place.

He opened his eyes, and she was talking again.

"I'm going to have to compare the charts from Goldenrod and Vermillion, cross reference them with... oh! I'm sorry," she squeezed her eyes shut and forced a smile. "I was rambling there for a moment!"

For a moment he threw out his manners and interrupted her before she move on. "You don't need to apologize," he said pointedly. "I like hearing about it."

She put a hand to her heart and practically glowed. His mom barely addressed it, but quickly moved on. "You're so sweet. But how has your journey been? You told me a little during our call, but I'd love to hear more. I saw your press conference!" She clapped her hands together. "You did so well out there! I'm proud of how well you handled it."

Ash brightened. "Thanks. They coached me through it beforehand," Ash admitted and idly tugged at the spoon Sneasel was still entranced with, though it soon turned into a tug-of-war. "But traveling through Johto was been great! I already told you about the Lake of Rage and Blackthorn," he envisioned them perfectly in that moment, recalling the spray of the Lake of Rage's fierce waves against his face, the long night time talks with his friends… the indescribable sensation of guiding the North Wind in battle.

Not long after came thoughts of the Wataru compound and Hasta and sitting above the great mesa. Not to mention Gary and Clair. He'd have to check his PokeNav to see if any messages came in; Gary should have challenged the Blackthorn Gym Leader by now. Some felt too private to share with his mom, but others he relayed freely until he finally arrived at the heaviest topic of his travels.

"Lavender was different," he continued. Ash bit down the melancholy that settled around him at the mere thought of the city. Between the Ghost of Lavender, Akemi's task, and his last words with Agatha… "Beautiful, but in a sad way. It's a lonely place," Ash muttered as his mother hung onto every word. "It doesn't belong. Lavender is its own little world."

She nodded. "I've never been, but Samuel used to mention it every now and then," she sighed. "He always needed some time to himself afterwards."

Ash's face twisted into a grimace. Sneasel whined when Ash stopped tugging at the spoon and batted at Ash's fingers until he resumed.

Unfortunately, his mom was much too sharp to miss that. "What is it?" She asked with concern written all over her soft features.

He hesitated, unsure if he should say, but Ash had never been good at hiding things from his mom. "Agatha."

Recognition flickered and his mother's mouth settled into a deep frown. "Elite Four Agatha?" She asked, puzzled. "What about her? I know -"

Just as the pieces fit together, Ash hurriedly explained. "She's sick and she's off helping Michael in Orre and Professor Oak left to go find her -"

"That man!" His mom bit her lip. "That desert is no place for him! I don't even know the last time he trained…" she wrung her hands, then threw them up in the air. "He's going to be the death of me! Now I'm going to be worried sick until I know he's back safe and sound."

Ash blinked. His mind flashed back to the fiery former Champion he'd seen take off on his Dragonite. "I think he'll be fine," he hedged, even if his mother was still frustrated. "He has his whole team with him."

His mother just shook her head, muttering to herself the whole time. "Just wait until I tell your father about this!" She scowled, and Ash's blood froze in his veins. The world seemed far and distant now as she continued her whispered scorn, though Ash couldn't keep track of a word of it. He just kept stroking Sneasel as he stared off into space. "At least he has Alakazam there to keep an eye on him…"

"Yeah," he said lamely. Ash thought it was lucky he managed to form any words at all.

She cocked her head at him, puzzled. "What is it - oh," his mom whispered. Her fists clenched so tight they went white and her eyes squeezed shut.

He almost reached out to touch her shoulder, but stopped himself after the harsh reminder of what Molly - of what the Unown had done to her.

Sneasel yawned in his arms, oblivious to the whole affair.

"I'm sorry, Ashy," she whispered. "Maybe I wasn't ready - I knew that visit was a bad idea," his mom finished miserably. A leaden weight settled in his stomach.

He shook his head and reached out to grasp her forearm. Ash felt Fire pulse through him almost unconsciously, and his mother's pain eased just a tad. "I'd rather be here than not see you at all," Ash frowned, then the rest of her words caught up with him. "What visit?"

She squeezed her eyes shut again. "Specialist Rin thought I was ready to see you all again," his mom said miserably. "She thought my memories were ready to be tested, and I just failed," she turned away from him. "Spencer and Molly visited earlier. It's too much, like everything I've worked for is slipping away."

Ash frowned as that same sour taste filled his mouth and let his mom sit in silence as he stewed. It was wrong seeing her like this. She wasn't supposed to be broken up, wasn't supposed to be anything but his mom. Even when she'd told him about Giovanni she hadn't felt so fractured - her identity itself was splitting apart like a pane of glass when a rock smashed through it, and his heart ached.

Silence. Not the comfortable kind. His mom was on the verge of tears, and the dark shadow in the back of his mind's constant presence wasn't helping. Much to his surprise Mewtwo actually withdrew, though it didn't vanish.

He gripped her tighter. Still confused, still unsure, but something inside him knew he had to say something.

It was clumsy, but Ash interjected. "Let me tell you about Indigo Plateau," he tried moving onto something happier. "Lance set up my room for me…"

His mother finally turned to face him. The tears were still there, but she smiled.

Ash didn't stop until her tears were gone.

XX

Vast wild tangles of forest blurred beneath them as Plume blasted her way through the air. She maintained her course effortlessly, only slowing to occasionally terrorize the odd Fearow or Noctowl. Once they even spotted a rival Pidgeot soaring thousands of feet above the green canopies, though it fled off into the distance the moment it spotted Plume's magnificent splendor.

She had seemed quite pleased by that, and only shrieked after it once or twice to taunt the other Pidgeot.

Every now and then she had to angle or adjust their course, but she seemed to remember their flight from a month ago effortlessly. He had to marvel at her incredible sense of direction and astounding ability to tailor her flight to every minute shift in the wind.

For his part, Ash just read some of the notes he'd made for his team. His PokeNav's strap was safely wrapped around his wrist. Ash was pretty sure Plume would be able to snatch his PokeNav out of the sky with minimal effort if he dropped it, but with the strap he wouldn't have to worry about that.

Over the last month of making his way all across northern Johto and flying around Kanto, he'd added countless little additions and inquiries and modifications to the techniques for his team, along with updates on their reports. Ash was careful to keep track of everything - Lance had mentioned that he wished he'd kept better notes as a young trainer. Apparently it was a nightmare trying to teach others how to do a technique when you barely remembered the experience yourself.

Besides, having it all laid out for him made it so much easier to keep track of and see what good adjustments and alterations to the schedule might be. Ash was already in the habit of keeping track of training times, what his friends had eaten, and general progress so it wasn't difficult to add that into the mix.

It was so much harder to see where they might be going wrong while he was on the inside, so to speak. As soon as he removed himself from the frustration and anticipation and nerves and could look at the raw data and cold facts on paper, some things became perfectly clear.

For example, Sneasel was actually progressing extremely well, especially after his conversation with Karen illuminated him to the actual difficulty of implementing something like Mind Breaker. Sneasel could still only hold it for short bursts (it was essentially the equivalent of maintaining a sprint for him), but by charting the durations and intensity, Ash was able to see the massive leaps forward he'd taken recently.

There was still a long way to go before he could use it as Ash dreamed, but it mollified Sneasel and eased some of the frustration they faced during the exhausting training.

He'd encountered similar results for most of his team.

Nidoking had continued progressing with his psychic powers, and Ash had teamed him and Infernus up with Dazed for support. It was harder to measure outside of fights, but Nidoking's precision and the force he could generate had improved a bit. Now he just needed to incorporate the Protect technique into Nidoking's repertoire (along with a few other tactical options) and his friend would be exactly where Ash wanted him.

Thanks to Torrent's brief time with Suicune, his technique had progressed steadily. They hadn't experienced those same massive leaps since they'd left the Lake of Rage, but he'd worked day and night until the water manipulation was viable in all situations. Ash planned on drilling that over and over again for the next two weeks they had before the return to Hoenn.

Ash frowned and looked up from his notes, settling on the back of Plume's skull. She seemed to sense his attention and tossed her head back to look at him, cooing softly before turning back to her flight. If he was right, Greenfield was just a few minutes away. They'd see the Hale Mansion in the distance soon.

Seeing Uncle Spencer and Molly again left his heart pounding and his fists clenched (especially after what happened with his mom's memory earlier), but it wasn't productive. Ash forced the feelings away and focused on Plume's progress instead.

Or lack thereof.

Not in combat or flight - he couldn't be prouder of her advancements there. She'd begun the process of perfecting the tools she already had. No, what frustrated him was his own failing with reverse engineering Lugia's technique. It wasn't like he'd expected it to be easy. It was a Legendary's technique, after all…

No, Plume worked as hard as any pokemon feasibly could. She wanted this. They'd made some minute progress in figuring out possible mechanics, but Ash would have to consult Lance on that. The majority of his team were flying-types, so the Indigo Champion had plenty of experience there.

What stung was that Ash wasn't good enough. He was failing his partner, and that left him with an ugly scowl and an especially irritating itch under his skin. It wasn't good enough to just try for his friend; Ash had to succeed for her. She deserved better than his best. Lance's words from a few days ago echoed in his mind, and Ash would make sure he never had those regrets about where he took his team.

Those cloudy thoughts finally fled as Plume began her descent. Ash peaked over her massive wings to spot Greenfield sitting off in the distance. It was barely visible, but getting closer by the second.

Ash had quickly learned during their flights that if it was in sight, they were basically already on the ground. Once Plume was in motion she wasn't too far behind teleportation… well, that might be a slight exaggeration, but she certainly made things easier than hiking across the whole region.

Not that he wouldn't mind traveling across Johto like he had Kanto. Visiting the northern roads from Ecruteak to Mahogany to Blackthorn had stirred something inside him that he'd almost forgotten, brought to life an old part of himself that had just been waiting for the chance to rear its head. It was a beautiful region, and he'd love to experience every inch for himself eventually.

He shook himself out of his musings as Plume circled above Greenfield. Ash had to take a second to blink and reorient himself. The swiftness of their arrival never failed to surprise him.

Though once he did get himself situated, Ash grimaced.

There were easily hundreds of people milling around Greenfield. Not League members like last time (although he did see a few Rangers keeping people away from the Hale Mansion), but mostly curious onlookers and the odd reporter. Most reporters had already visited and extracted any useful information long ago while the League was still here, but he supposed plenty of people wanted to see the site of so much devastation.

And if they were interested enough to visit Greenfield, they would probably be up-to-date enough to recognize him.

Instead of landing where they had during their last visit, Ash angled Plume directly towards the Hale Mansion. She only took a moment to adjust, and soon enough they were soaring over the onlookers. Ash risked only a single glance down.

Most of the visitors spread out over the rolling hills of Greenfield were too preoccupied with their activities to do much more than offer a quick look, but he thought a few held their eyes on Ash and Plume for longer than he'd like.

Yes, skipping past the town was for the best.

A lone Ranger greeted him as Plume swept down. The short woman's partner was a towering Ursaring that glowered down at Ash as he woke up, then kept its dark eyes on Plume as she took off back into the sky. She deserved a chance to fly around for a while.

"Name and Trainer ID?" The Ranger looked utterly bored. She didn't even look up from her notebook. He managed to catch the glimpse of a rather nice pencil sketch of Greenfield before she tucked it under her arm. The Ursaring stared at Ash, squinted, then blinked twice. It lightly nudged the Ranger (she was nearly knocked down the steps by the power behind the touch) and scowled as she regained her footing. "What?" She looked up, then stared. "Oh - Elite Four Ash!"

"Just Ash," he grumbled. This was going to get old. "Do I still need to give you my name?"

The Ranger flushed and discretely hid her notebook behind her back. Her Ursaring shook its shaggy head as if exasperated. "That won't be necessary!"

She moved to pull the heavy main doors open, only for Ash to prepare himself as a tiny figure burst out of the mansion and wrapped his legs up in a hug. Somehow - through some strange pressure - he knew Molly was going to be there, so he wasn't surprised. Ash still had to gently push her back a tad so he wouldn't topple over.

"Hi Molly," he grinned down at the little girl. She beamed up at him. For a moment he remembered descending into the unearthly depths of her alien world with his team and Karen at his side and stiffened, but a moment later it slipped away as though waking up from a dream. "You knew I was going to be here?"

"Yeah!" She bounced around him in a blur. Her tiny hands grasped at the pokeballs on his waist, but Ash carefully kept his team away from her. Some of them wouldn't take well to seeing her. "I felt you and then you were here!"

Ash blinked at that, but shook his head. Somehow he knew exactly what she meant. They'd shared parts of themselves when they merged to fix Greenfield from its ruined state, and Ash guessed some of it had stuck.

What was one more mental tagalong?

A quick pressure in his skull that reminded him of thick fingers grasping and squeezing his brain dissuaded him of that notion.

"Can I see Binder again? I like him. He likes to play just like me!"

Binder?

Oh.

"Yeah," Ash nodded and raised Tangrowth's pokeball. He cast a quick glance to the Ranger and her burly Ursaring, who looked on curiously. His thoughts were still abuzz at the unsettling comment - it reminded him of Tate and Liza's cutting insights - and he motioned for Molly to head in. "I'll release him once we go inside. I know he missed you too."

Molly cheered and charged into the mansion as fast as her little legs would carry her. Soon enough she had reached the end of the hall and turned around with her hands on her hips. "What're you waiting for? Come on!"

He offered the ranger a quick nod and strode in. A shiver ran up his spine as he walked through the same halls he'd had to fight his way through just a month ago, but that didn't last long. To be honest, the alien nature of the Unown's twisted reflection of the Hale Mansion was almost unrecognizable from the real thing. It made it easier to separate them in his head.

Ash glanced around with a frown as he followed Molly into the vast entrance hall. It was just as he remembered, and this particularly room was still eerily similar to what he and Karen had encountered while they were breaking in - all it was missing was a shifting crystal monster and those thick plates of living, breathing crystal encrusting everything.

"Where's Uncle Spencer?" He asked. It was awfully still in the mansion, like the air was thick and heavy despite its arched halls and high ceilings. At least Teddiursa was here - the normal-type waddled up next to Molly from another room and waved shyly at Ash, which he happily returned. "Is he -"

"Binder! Tangrowth!" Molly chanted up at him. He snorted and quickly released his friend. Tangrowth gurgled sleepily as his big eyes took in everything, though they almost immediately locked on Molly and lit up. A few vines rushed around her to squeeze the girl in a tight hug as Tangrowth did a little dance, though Teddiursa dodged the rubbery vines sent to wrap it up and glared at the grass-type. "You're back! We missed you."

Teddiursa grumbled and wrung its paws together. It clearly didn't agree with that sentiment.

A warm smile crossed his face, though it was tempered with real concern. "So where's Uncle Spencer?" Ash asked as Tangrowth swung the shrieking girl up and down with his vines. His tone was intentionally light.

"More, more! Higher!" Molly giggled as Tangrowth tossed her up in the air, though he finally set her back on the firm floor when Ash gently tapped his shell of vines. The grass-type gurgled happily again, though Molly looked a little disappointed as Ash asked his question. "Oh, daddy? He's gone," Molly kicked at the floor, her emotions dropping from high to low in an instant...then she switched back to cheerful just as quickly.

"He's coming back! We went to see mommy earlier and then we came back here and he had to go do some really important stuff but he said he'd be back tonight, so I get to play games with Teddiursa until he gets home!"

Teddiursa puffed out its chest. Initially he stiffened at what Molly called his mom, but the news let Ash relax a little bit - at least Uncle Spencer was just gone for the day. He wondered if he'd taken the assistant that Ash vaguely remembered with him, though Ash also had to ponder where the man might have gone. The Ruins of Alph like where he'd discovered the Unown?

Ash unconsciously grasped the Unown tablet. It grabbed Molly's attention and she quickly rushed up to see him with wide blue eyes. She rocked back and forth on her feet as she stared at it, though Teddiursa shuddered at the sight. "Can I see them?"

He had to think on that for a moment, but eventually nodded, albeit with some reluctance. Ash knelt so Molly could get a good look at the tablet and gingerly tugged it up on its gossamer string.

Molly bit her lip and ran a finger over the Unown's solidified form. It remained dull and lifeless. "I miss them," she admitted and wrapped a tiny hand around the coarse stone. Ash kept a careful eye on things, but he wasn't going to deny her that. He knew exactly how important the Unown had been to Molly. "They made pretty music."

The unearthly chorus of the Unown filled his ears - just a particularly vivid memory, or so he hoped - and Ash nodded along. There was a beauty in it, a sense of alien elegance and discordance that somehow flooded together to create a haunting symphony.

Beautiful as it could be, Ash wasn't in any rush to hear their song again.

Molly pulled closer until she was just an inch away from Ash. She giggled as Tangrowth wrapped a comforting arm around her arm. "They were so much fun. I miss playing with them! I missed you too," Molly mumbled. "And mommy and daddy and Nid...Nidoking! And Plume and Torrent and..."

"Yeah," Ash muttered when Molly finished listing off his entire team and wrapped her little arms around him. He took a moment to return it, not especially comfortable with the situation even if he was perfectly fine being around Molly.

Even after they'd been one and the same during their merge it was easy for him to forget she was just a tiny little girl - did she even really understand he wasn't the same person as Not-Ash? Did she really understand that Not-Ash and the Crystal Entei had been stitched together from her imagination by the cosmic powers of the Unown?

That thought left him unsettled. It was easy enough to get lost in imagination on a normal day, let alone when it was made reality.

Of course, thinking of Not-Ash and the Crystal Entei at all left him uneasy and wanting to hit something, not to mention a sensation that reminded him far too much of guilt. They weren't real, he knew, just psychic constructs… but he couldn't forget the pain in Not-Ash's eyes, the quiet acceptance of returning to nonexistence.

There was too much of himself in Not-Ash for comfort, but he supposed that was rather the point.

Molly finally released him and rocked back and forth again. She looked uncertain, like she'd finally received a toy she'd wanted forever and just now realized she didn't know how to play with it.

Ash could sympathize.

He cleared his throat. "Why don't I let some of the team out?"

"Yes! Please!" The little girl added as she bounced - Tangrowth mirrored her excitement, and soon Molly's shrieking laughter filled the vast space of the hall as the grass-type swung her around again. While she was distracted, Ash decided on which of his teammates to show her. "Did they miss me?"

Tangrowth had, but Ash didn't want to burst her bubble. He didn't answer that, trusting Tangrowth to keep her busy.

Nidoking… well, with how he held grudges that probably wasn't the best idea.

After a moment's thought, Ash released Torrent, Dazed, Seeker, Bruiser, Oz, and Aron. Sneasel was likely to act cute and inviting and then hiss and swipe at Molly just to mess with her, while Infernus wouldn't want to be bothered by something like this.

"They're so big!" Molly's eyes shimmered. She reached out to Bruiser, who considerately knelt so Molly could curiously poke and prod at his bony crest, though she quickly grew enamored with Seeker. A surge of pride rushed through him as Seeker squeaked and allowed Molly to pet her after a moment's thought. Ash just had to offer a quick warning not to pet too hard.

He smiled when she quickly followed his words and eased up the pressure so that Seeker could enjoy it. Ash got up and squatted next to Molly as she investigated the calmer members of his team - Torrent allowed her to touch his armored plates, though he seemed to scare the girl - and sent grateful looks to each of them in turn.

Their patience was appreciated. Teddiursa seemed to agree - judging by the determined set of the caretaker's jaw, Teddiursa was ready to brawl with his team if any of them so much scratched at Molly. Ash could respect the commitment.

"You got bigger!" The girl gasped when she got to Aron and Oz. Her cord-like tails whipped happily, and the Electivire seemed happy to bask in Molly's attention. "Where's Nid - Nidoking," Molly stumbled over his friend's name for a moment, though had a pleased look on her face when she got it right. "And 'Fernus and Sneeze and -"

"They're tired," Ash interjected quickly. "I didn't want to wake them up."

Thankfully, Molly accepted that. "I like naps too," she agreed and ran up to Dazed, eyes locked on the pendulum. "Pretty!" She declared, and ran away before Dazed felt the need to teleport out of the mansion.

Ash smiled, and the rest of the afternoon passed by in the blur.

XX

"Ready for this?" Karen poked her head into his room. She was in her favorite outfit - Ash rarely saw her without her yellow shirt (or halter top, as she'd made a point of telling him) and white pants. The Dark Master rolled her eyes as she saw him in his standard outfit. "Ugh, do you really have to wear that?"

He clutched at his hat when Karen pointed at it. "It's fine," Ash scowled at her.

"It's fine?" Karen arched a silvery eyebrow. Honchkrow nodded vigorously from where it sat on one of the perches in Ash's room. It seemed more interested in a few pieces of shiny silverware strewn about where Sneasel had left them, but still offered a mocking caw. "That ratty old thing is falling apart. Not the best look for an Elite Four - not with how much we get paid," she scoffed.

Karen reached out to snatch his cap from him, but Ash held it tight. The Master rolled her eyes. "Whatever. You'll have to retire it soon, you know. It's falling apart."

Ash decided to pointedly ignore her logic. Sure, it had seen better days but it would last a while longer. It was practically part of him now. He wasn't about to throw it away. "So who's the reporter?" Ash said to distract Karen. "Someone I would know?"

The Master sniggered. "Yeah. Anita Holly, if you remember her. Lance is such a sap."

If anything, his frown just made her smirk widen. "How?"

She looked particularly sadistic as she mentioned the name. Ash thought it fit Karen's face a little too well… not that it surprised him. "Anita Holly. Kind of tall. Glasses. Red hair. Ring a bell?"

Ash brightened. He knew that description. "The one that looks like Lorelei?"

In that moment, Karen looked as smug as he'd ever seen her. "Yes! He's so predictable. Poor little Dragon Master."

Well, Ash didn't know about that. He just nodded along and let Karen lead him off to the interview room. Apparently Indigo Plateau had an entire section devoted to it. It was one of those things that wasn't really a surprise, but still made him blink.

After a short frenzy (Karen made a few pointed remarks about his hat and tugged on his plain clothing to straighten it out) Ash found himself planted in a plain, albeit comfortable, chair. He squirmed up until the point he finally decided to release Nidoking, who settled down closely to him once he realized there wasn't a fight.

He looked a little disappointed - Ash would have to set him up with Koga later. They'd been popping into the Poison Master's training sessions pretty frequently as of late.

Soon enough, the reporter entered. She looked utterly at ease, as if she'd run interviews a thousand times before. Then again, she probably had. This was probably just a normal day for her.

It definitely wasn't for Ash.

Still, Karen's presence on his right helped. She lounged back in her chair like a queen, like she didn't care whatsoever for Anita Holly's presence. Absol laid next to her. Ash couldn't help but notice the dark-type was awfully tense… it also kept sending him sideways glances every few seconds and shuddered a little too often for Ash's liking. The reporter offered it a speculative glance.

He wasn't even drawing on the Concepts this time.

"Good afternoon!" The reporter opened once Karen gave her the all clear. It wasn't televised, which Ash was grateful for. Apparently Lance had been adamant about him getting his feet wet first. No need to dive right in. "My name is Anita Holly. It's wonderful to meet you face-to-face, Elite Four Ash."

Ash grimaced. "Just Ash."

She sent a blindingly white smile his way. "Of course, Ash."

He sat back in his chair. Ash always rested one hand on Nidoking's leathery head, though he knew to avoid the spikes and Nidoking's massive horn like it was second nature by now. Ash would have been stuck with a short career as a trainer if he didn't.

The reporter eyed Nidoking uneasily, though she seemed more comfortable with Absol. It was a stark reminder that most people didn't deal with monstrously powerful fighters every hour of the day.

"Your interview at the recent Indigo League press conference caused quite the commotion. Commentators from all over the world have chipped in, and it's become both a historic occasion and quite the controversy. What would you like to say to those that believe you're too young for this level of responsibility?"

Anita flinched as Nidoking opened one eye to glower at her, though largely kept her cool. He scratched behind his friend's ears and managed to settle his mood just a little. "Easy," he whispered, then looked at the reporter.

"I'm in good hands," Ash replied, though pointedly did not mention the Rocket raids. Steven was enough of a guilty mess already. "I'm still being trained, and Lance is a good teacher. He won't let anything happen."

Anita nodded along as she shuffled through the notes she'd brought. "Your record in the recent Indigo Conference shows an abundance of preparation and strategic thinking. Many have claimed it's too exceptional for someone of your age to accomplish on their own. Did you receive any help in the Indigo Conference?"

Karen scowled at that and made to cut the reporter off, but Ash shook his head. "All the planning was done by me," he said. Nidoking nodded steadfastly. "I did the research. I weighed the odds. The only ones in those battles were my team and I. If anyone deserves the credit, it was them."

The reporter brightened, and that quickly led into a (less loaded) question. Ash answered, which led into another question, and so on. It passed by quickly, to be honest, and he quickly found him responding automatically.

The lessons Karen and Lance had run him through were always in the back of his head, but thankfully Karen only had to step in once or twice when he floundered. Whenever Anita pressed too hard she was soon faced with a dark glare from Karen or Nidoking that sent the reporter rushing to change the subject.

It didn't take long for him to decide that Karen was a good friend to have.

By the time it was over and he bid Anita Holly goodbye a good hour later, he decided his brain was completely fried. It took him a few moments to react to Karen's prodding, and when he did she just laughed. "Go take a nap, Ash. Don't worry about our training today, alright? Your head won't be in it."

He stared blankly at her, but shook his head. That might be true for him, but it wasn't true for Sneasel. Ash was quick to release his friend, who quickly averted eye contact once he realized Karen was with them. Sneasel had learnt a healthy sense of fear for the ferocious woman.

"Go with her," Ash prodded. The dark-type whined pitifully, but Ash shook his head. "You need more training."

When Sneasel whined some more, Ash rolled his eyes. Sneasel was just trying to pull one over on him; Ash knew Sneasel was no stranger to hard work. He'd trained with Bruiser. He wasn't falling for the pitiful act. Still, it never hurt to keep Sneasel's morale up. He'd earned it.

"What do you want?"

Sneasel mimed digging into a berry and Ash laughed. "Yeah, I think that can be arranged," he said, then more sternly with, "Tonight, though. You have to do your training first."

The dark-type nodded eagerly at that, and quickly rushed up to Karen who looked at him with disdain (although Ash suspected she secretly adored him) and ignored his pleas to pick him up. It was a wise choice. Knowing Sneasel, he would've dug in his claws in just roughly enough to make the Dark Master uncomfortable.

Karen would've picked up on that, of course, and knowing her she already had a training plan that would leave Sneasel face down in the dirt.

A small price to pay for Mind Breaker.

"C'mon squirt," Karen glowered at Sneasel. Absol seemed to share her opinion of Ash's friend if the dirty look the twitching dark-type sent him was anything to go by. Nothing that surprised Ash, of course. "I'm so happy you're sticking me on babysitting duty."

He couldn't help the smile. "Glad to hear it. Think you can handle him?"

Karen's fingers traced over Weavile's pokeball as an evil grin split her face. "Kid, your little brat has nothing on mine. Weavile can eat him for breakfast."

Sneasel yowled at that, but still regarded Weavile's pokeball with a mix of trepidation and fury. Weavile had taken it as his personal responsibility to get Sneasel up to snuff over the past few days that they'd been in Indigo Plateau.

After a moment the Dark Master snorted. "Just go take a nap," she said pointedly. "You look like death warmed over."

He was pretty tired. It would be easy to just run Lightning through his system to send his fatigue away, but that wasn't a habit Ash wanted to get into. He'd still be tired, just forced to stay awake much, much longer than he would naturally.

A nap sounded pretty good right about now.

"I'll see you tonight," Ash said to both Karen and Sneasel. He nodded at the woman. "Thanks for your help."

She offered a real smile. "Someone's got to scare the reporters for you. They can get vicious," Karen shook her head and sent her long silvery hair bouncing. Her expression darkened and she pointed imperiously at the door back to the residential quarters. "Now go! No training for you, Ash."

It rankled him, but the sentiment behind her words softened the blow as Karen swept out of the room with Sneasel and Absol at her heels. Ash sent a long, considerate look at the reporter's empty chair, shook his head, and decided to follow Karen's advice.

As he headed back to his room to rest with his friends (except for Infernus, who had bunkered down in a special fire-type area except for when they trained) Ash flipped open his PokeNav as a message notification sounded.

I caught the Tyranitar.

At that first sentence, Ash grinned. This would be good.

She was way up in the mountains. Was in the middle of smashing up a little village when I tracked her down. It took Alakazam, Arcanine, and Blastoise to corner her and weaken her enough to where I could catch her - she's freaking mean. She's stubborn as hell, picks a fight with anything that looks at her funny, and has an ego bigger than your reputation after that stupid press conference.

Alakazam told me that she reminds him of me. I told him he's a jackass.

Her name is Diamond, by the way. Figured you'd care about that sort of thing. Only name she'd take without trying to rip my freaking head off… and she still tries that, by the way. I think it's a game to her. Not so much to me.

We just left the Blackthorn Gym.

We lost.

Turns out Diamond isn't a team player. Still would've won if that dragon fetishist hadn't busted out a Salamence early on. Remember that Shelgon your beast of a Machoke punted around like a Rattata?

Yeah, that doesn't exist anymore. It's a big freaking dragon now.

If you think I sound surprisingly calm in this letter, you'd be right. I'm pretty sure my rage broke, Ash. I got so pissed I rolled right around to calm. Maybe I'm taking after you. It's kind of satisfying thinking of Blastoise cracking that Salamence's skull without all the red-hot rage behind it. The mental image is way clearer.

The longer I write, the more it's wearing off. Just you freaking wait, Ash. That dirtbag sore loser Wataru cousin fu -

Well, after that it degenerated pretty quickly. If Ash ever needed to get back at Gary, all he had to do was show this to Professor Oak. Or worse, Daisy.

Or worse, his mom.

He hid a smirk. Yeah, he'd be saving this message for sure.

All the same, he began typing up a reply on his way to his room. Gary sounded like he needed some support. Just because their rivalry was (mostly) settled didn't mean Gary had lost his competitive streak.

He'd just pointed it in a different direction.

In this case, he'd pointed it at Clair.

Ash had the sneaking suspicion that Gary wouldn't rest until he'd trained up enough to beat Clair at her best. To be honest, he was all for it. Maybe it would be good for Clair too - he'd have to let Lance know about the whole situation. He could use a good laugh.

Still, a part of him wondered if Gary would be willing to make a quick detour to the Plateau while Ash was still here…

XX

As always, the Celadon Department Store was noisy, crowded, and a massive headache for Ash. What made it worse was that they weren't even in the interesting sections where he could browse training materials, TMs, and other things actually worth visiting for.

No, they had all that in the Plateau.

Instead, Karen had brought him here for clothes.

It didn't really bother him. No, Ash had much bigger problems than clothes shopping. He'd rather not spend a whole afternoon on it, but he wasn't going to mope and whine. The logical part of him knew Karen was doing it as a favor to him. Nothing was forcing her to do this. Karen probably had much better things to spend her time on as well.

Scratch that. Karen definitely had much better things to spend her time on.

No, what bothered him was that she'd decided to devote their training time for the day to shopping.

Ash needed that.

He looked up from the bench where she'd plopped him. Ash did his best to ignore the countless people pressing in on them - more than a few had taken longer looks at Ash than he'd liked. That left him shifting in his seat and also wondering why she couldn't have just ordered some of these; there was no way the Elite Four had to do something as mundane as clothes shopping. There had to have been some options at the Plateau, so part of him suspected that Karen brought him out in public for exposure as well.

She took pleasure in pushing him out of his comfort zone.

"Here," Karen held up a few simple outfits. He paused in stroking Sneasel's soft black fur (he had his other hand clenched around Sneasel's scruff to hold him back if he tried to scamper off) to assess them. "Go try these on. You're growing pretty fast, so I grabbed a few sizes up. You won't be a little squirt for long," she laughed.

Despite himself, Ash was pretty pleased. Nothing fancy, nothing frilly, and nothing impractical. It was pretty much identical to what he wore now: dark pants, plain T-shirts, a handful of simple, unadorned jackets, and shorts made of a rough, lightweight material that was sturdy enough to survive hard traveling.

"No masks?" He thought back to one of Will's suggestions for his new wardrobe.

"No masks," Karen confirmed with a grimace. She cut a striking figure as she took out something from behind her back and moved from a grimace to the beginnings of a real smile. "I was able to find something else you might like."

He outright laughed when she flourished a replica of Lance's cape. It was the same that Steven had bought for the ACE trainers a while back: pure white, woven from a fine fabric, and certain to look either very, very impressive or very, very dumb.

Ash knew which category he would fall under.

"Will it fit me?"

The Dark Master had an uncharacteristically bright smile as she pressed the outfits into his hands (ignoring Sneasel's disgruntled hiss) along with the cape. He blinked at the weight - it was heavier than he'd expected. "Only one way to find out!"

Shopping wasn't too bad, he decided.

XX

The Indigo Archives were buried in some of the deepest reaches of Mt. Silver… the League's portion of the mountain, anyways. It was one of the more recent excavations, dating back only a century or so, and Will had cheerfully told him about the recent digitization efforts the League had undertaken in order to preserve the last thousand years of their history.

They were contained in a great hollowed chamber lined with steel reinforcement and guarded by no less than three checkpoints manned by an ACE trainer and separate ghost or psychic. The psychics had to excuse themselves once Ash walked in, but he shared familiar nods with the ACE trainers on duty. He'd seen them stationed elsewhere in the Plateau. By now, Ash was enough of a regular fixture that they'd eased up enough to offer him casual greetings or waves.

Dazed and Nidoking followed him in. Their familiar presence eased him as he looked about the cold depths. The air here was chilly and sharp and silent, though the servers lined up all around the archives did their fair share of pumping heat out into the vast expanse of the deep room. He could only imagine how many Porygon were devoted to keeping the Indigo League's history and secrets safe from any prying eyes - Will had told them this was closed off from any other networks, so it necessitated a direct visit in most cases.

Of course, alongside Dazed and Nidoking strode a confident League member who oversaw the maintenance, security, and expansion of the Indigo Archives. She was a sharp-dressed woman wrapped in a heavy shawl that draped around her sweater. It wasn't acceptable according to the protocol Karen had seen fit to educate him on, but the League member didn't seem to care.

"Now, what information are you looking for? As an Elite Four trainee you are guaranteed access to all but the most sensitive of information. For that, you must receive Champion Lance's permission directly," the archivist said as she walked briskly alongside him. Her Porygon2 hovered a few feet above the ground as it drifted lazily alongside her, and Ash noted that she wasn't the least bit intimidated by Nidoking or Dazed. Visits from the strongest trainers in Indigo were a casual affair for her.

He found himself developing a quick respect for her - Ash had a feeling even Lance showed the archivist all the courtesy her position demanded. It only took a moment to skim her ID tag: Isako. She must be from one of the old families of Kanto.

She pinned him with a pointed glare and he quickly focused on her question. "The Oak family," Ash said hastily, and his heart sank as he elaborated. "Whatever led to Samantha and Scott Oak's deaths," he recalled their names with a grimace.

Isako didn't so much as blink. "That information is within your purview," she said as she led them over to a central terminal. She quickly typed in a series of identification codes - her fingers were blurring with the speed that Isako typed - and in just a matter of moments had a series of documents pulled up. "Will you require this information to be downloaded onto a personal device?"

Ash grimaced. Whatever happened, Gary was the type to demand to see the evidence for himself. "Yes."

"Very well," she said primly. "Wait here, Elite Four Ash."

She hurried away without any explanation. Her heels clacked on the cold tile, though her Porygon2 remained to watch over them. Ash met its curious stare with one of its own, though he had no idea how to respond to the garbled stream of nonsense it uttered. In a way, the artificial pokemon's speech reminded him of the jumbled mess of the Jynx in the Ice Path. Occasionally he recognized a word that almost sounded human, but quickly descended into beeps, whistles, and ringing.

It was actually a relief when the archivist returned. She pressed a pen and small packet of dizzyingly dense legal papers into his hands. "You will need to fill out these sections here," Isako pointed to the relevant areas and primly leafed through the papers, "as well as initial here, here, and here. When you have completed the necessary forms, I will retrieve the information for you and download it to your personal device. Due to your clearance level, sharing this information will be up to your discretion. Any additional information you request will require its own authorization forms."

"Thank you," he dipped his head as Isako stuck a drive into a relevant port on the glowing terminal, then offered it to him. Ash already had his PokeNav out and was quick to plug the drive in so he could download the information. Isako was already back to her post with her Porygon2, so Ash found a corner to settle down in.

He waited for the information to be accessible on his end, but glanced up to his friends with a frown. NIdoking peered back at him, tail swishing from side to side on the smooth white tile, and Dazed polished her pendulum as they waited. The faint pressure from her mind bespoke of many things: fascination, wariness, and an endless thirst for knowledge.

"I'm afraid of what I'll find in here," Ash confessed as he slid down the wall to sit. The download completed, but he didn't access it. "What if it's something horrible? I know it will be," he admitted. Nidoking laid down and rested his head near Ash's feet, though he kept his horn pointed away towards the archives and the servers contained within. He rumbled commiseratingly and rested his eyes. "Gary's parents were young. Something happened to them."

Dazed's eyes flashed.

All things worth knowing have their toll. The truth is the truth, no matter how unpleasant.

Ash steeled himself. She was right, just as he'd known she would be.

Nidoking and Dazed were here with him.

There was nothing to worry about.

He opened the download and was immediately overwhelmed by the sheer volume contained within. The archivist must have given him every relevant scrap of information. Ash inwardly groaned - this would take hours to work through fully, though he began skimming the short, clinical descriptions of each file, article, and report.

After a few minutes of searching - and despairing every moment of digging through all this - Ash finally found a likely lead. It was a quick, concise article penned by a League Ranger and sent directly to Champion Marcus. He remembered hearing about Lance's predecessor from his mom back when she'd told him about Giovanni, though it had only been a short glimpse into the man's character.

Unease settled in his gut as he clicked on it, but Nidoking's gentle touch against his leg gave him the strength to press onward. He began to read the report. Dazed would be able to pick it up from his thoughts, but Nidoking wouldn't be so lucky. His psychic skills weren't that advanced.

"Indigo Ranger Captain Lee's report to Champion Marcus on the 8/4/988 Rocket raid on Pallet Town.

League members responding to event: Ranger Squad 1 (Ranger Captain Lee, Ranger Minato, Ranger Gregory, Ranger Ito, Ranger Izumi). Identification numbers and service records attached to document for perusal by Champion Marcus, along with individual recount of event.

Location: Pallet Town, Viridian Territory.

Date: August 4, 988

Event description: Responded to distress call from Ranger Izumi, our current liaison to Pallet Town and Professor Oak's laboratory. Ranger Izumi signaled for support from other members of Ranger Squad 1 at approximately 2:38 pm. Due to an unexpected Rocket assault on Ranger Squad 1's outpost, Ranger Squad 1 was unable to provide immediate support to Ranger Izumi and Pallet Town (see attached casualty reports). Ranger Squad 1 arrived at Pallet Town at approximately 3:43 pm. By the time Ranger Squad 1 arrived, all Rockets were neutralized or had fled the scene. Rangers Minato and Ito pursued, but were unable to capture any additional Rockets.

According to eyewitness accounts from Samuel Oak, Delia Ketchum, Terrence Brush, and Daisy Oak, Team Rocket made an unexpected attack just before Ranger Izumi requested backup. Reports corroborated that roughly forty Team Rocket grunts, led by Rocket Admins Sage and Loom, arrived via teleportation near the Oak family home.

Admin Sage led an assault on the Oak family home with the support of twenty-five Rocket trainers. After examining their bodies, evidence suggests that they were elite agents of Team Rocket, largely recruited from former Conference entrants, hardened gangs in the National League and beyond, and several of Indigo's most wanted. They were armed with a wide range of pokemon, and approximately 84 pokemon took part in the assault.

Samuel Oak's Alakazam provided some warning. She provided psychic recollections of the events with us to allow Ranger Squad 1 more thorough details on the nature of the attack, and has agreed to share them with additional League personnel due to the high-profile nature of this raid.

Although Samuel Oak's team were largely spread out throughout the nearby area, the Alakazam, Exeggutor, and Venusaur were able to provide immediate assistance. Samuel Oak's Arcanine and Tauros were occupied with a squad of Rockets sent to capture pokemon residing in the Oak Corral, and his Dragonite, Blastoise, and Charizard were some miles away and did not arrive until the end of the raid. His Gyarados assisted in defending against Rocket Admin Loom's forces that raided Pallet Town itself.

Samuel Oak, the Alakazam, and the Exeggutor suffered minor injuries during the raid. The Venusaur was killed. All Rockets, including Admin Sage, were killed or captured. Their surviving pokemon have been collected and transferred to a holding facility for evaluation. My recommendation is termination. Most pokemon involved were not broken like the normal Rocket teams.

During the raid on the Oak residence, a detachment led by Admin Loom targeted nearby homes. Several employees of Pallet Town's laboratory were killed along with their families. Samuel Oak's Alakazam's memories point to them searching for other members of the Oak family, who were attending a picnic near Pallet Town with a family friend (Delia Ketchum, see attachment).

Sarah and Samantha Oak were killed in the attack, along with Sarah Oak's Clefable and Samantha Oak's Arbok, Nidoqueen, Gengar, Golem, and Slowking. Samuel Oak's Charizard and Dragonite arrived before the remaining members of Samuel Oak's family (Daisy Oak, 7, and Gary Oak, 6 months), Delia Ketchum, and her infant (Ash Ketchum, 3 months) could be killed.

Ranger Izumi died in the line of duty protecting the civilians. As her commanding officer, I request she be given all possible commendations for her valiant actions.

Ranger Squad 1 arrived shortly after Samuel Oak's team had fought off the Rockets and secured the scene. We captured two Rockets still fighting and prevented Samuel Oak's Charizard, Exeggutor, and Alakazam from terminating the captives.

Additional Ranger squads (2, Gamma, and Echo) have been assigned to Pallet Town in order to ensure the town's continued safety and continue their investigation. Surviving Rocket captives have been sent via teleportation to the Roost to await psychic examination and their trials.

Complete interviews of all witnesses have been attached in File 1C.

Due to the high-nature profile of the attack, along with the organized nature and overwhelming force involved, I recommend further investigation. ACE Trainer Scott Oak was ambushed and killed today while investigating a pyrobomb detonation twenty-six miles southeast of Pallet Town. Evidence suggests it was a trap laid by the same group of Rockets that attacked Pallet Town shortly thereafter.

After examining the available evidence and accounts, I am forced to suspect that this operation was an attack aimed specifically at the Oak family. All additional objectives (capturing pokemon from the Oak Corral, raiding Samuel Oak's laboratory for data, and damaging Pallet Town) appeared secondary. Only small skeleton crews were assigned to these objectives, and it appears that their primary goal was to harass and pin down Samuel Oak's isolated team.

I suspect long-term observation of Pallet Town and Samuel Oak's security protocols were involved. Each team had a specific objective, and assaulting Samuel Oak and his family appeared to have been of paramount importance. It is impossible to know the motivations behind the attack, though the most likely explanation is to instill terror and fear at the elimination of such a powerful, high-profile target.

Samuel Oak has drawn similar conclusions, and has requested that I attach a proposal (designated O1) to this report."

Ash's hands trembled as he set the PokeNav down. Nidoking grunted and nudged closer, tapping with one of his blunt claws at Tangrowth's pokeball, then Aron. He managed to send a smile at his friend's urgent suggestion, but shook his head.

Later.

Dazed's eyes flashed again. She had paused polishing her pendulum as Ash read through the report, instead clutching it tightly in her large fingers.

Friend-Trainer…

"I know," he wheezed, and allowed Ice to flood him. The chill in the archives intensified, cutting deep until it struck his bone, but it didn't bother him one whit. It was just pain, after all, and it was nothing compared to the relief he felt at going numb.

With the cataclysmic storm of turbulent emotions tearing him apart from the inside wiped clean and replaced with a pointed calmness, Ash could focus. The power of Articuno seeping through the mountain's heart only provided additional clarity. It was something he could appreciate in this moment.

To feel was to be destroyed. That point was only enhanced by the curious attention of Mewtwo, who lurked in the back of his head like a formless black cloud that was all too happy to eavesdrop.

The Rockets had attacked Pallet Town just after he was born. They had killed a member of Professor Oak's team along with his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and came dangerously close to killing Daisy and Gary as well. There was no clear motive beyond terror.

Ash wasn't stupid.

Normally he might have been overcome with emotion. Blinded by grief, overcome with wrath, burdened by guilt until he couldn't think clearly and couldn't allow himself to make those connections without ripping his heart out.

Ice's clarity removed such weaknesses.

The pieces were all laid out, and without the attached emotion it was simple to piece them together.

His mother had fled Giovanni while she was pregnant with him.

She had taken shelter in Pallet Town, shielded from Giovanni's influence by Professor Oak's strength and long reach.

A large force of Rockets had attacked Pallet Town months later with no clear objective.

Nobody - not the League, not his mother, not Professor Oak - had known Giovanni held a position of power in Team Rocket. Whatever grudge he might have held against Professor Oak would never have even been questioned - why would it have anything to do with the Rocket attack on Pallet Town?

He hadn't known Giovanni, not beyond his fearsome reputation as a Gym Leader and the single battle they'd shared, but Ash never got the impression that he was a man that liked to lose… or the type to suffer insults lightly.

Giovanni would burn the world if he could rule the ashes.

Mewtwo's commentary was unexpected, but Ash's icy rationality couldn't dispute it. The Legendary had been in Team Rocket's service, and he knew Giovanni wouldn't let such a powerful force exist without some kind of personal oversight.

The dark fire receded, though it was always there, waiting and watching.

Professor Oak and his family weren't the primary targets… at least, not the only ones. His mother and Ash were objectives as well, and Professor Oak and his family had paid the price for it. Giovanni must have used his pull in Team Rocket to have them sweep in to settle a grudge, send a message, and kill or recover Ash and his mom.

Something coiled in Ash's gut. It was an unpleasant sensation, one that he could recognize all too well as potent, overpowering emotion, and he didn't hesitate to renew his connection to Ice. The ugly feelings faded, as did all the others.

It was preferable to the alternative.

He recalled their brief meeting. Giovanni hadn't seemed the type to kill needlessly. Just from that one conversation, Ash felt that Giovanni would want to control and possess and dominate Ash and his mother instead of killing them.

They belonged to Giovanni, after all, or so the man must have thought.

That thought nearly shattered his composure, but Ash drank even more deeply from Articuno's power. Perhaps too greedily and desperately, but he preferred the unending calm to the emotional avalanche that awaited him when Ash finally allowed Ice to leave him.

Dazed looked to him.

Continue, Friend-Trainer.

Yes, that was a good idea. The message of Professor Oak's that had been mentioned drew his interest, and Ash knew he wouldn't be in a state to continue reading once his calm shattered. Best to get it over with.

He held the PokeNav up in his still, even grip and read tonelessly as he opened the relevant attachment.

"My Proposal to Champion Marcus:

If you are reading this, you're aware of what has taken place. I have been content to allow the League to handle Team Rocket, but no more. They have taken everything. If the League cannot be trusted to dispose of their own garbage, then I volunteer my services.

My team has been treated and is largely intact. We are ready for battle.

Team Rocket has been a thorn in your side. Your Elite Four and Gym Leaders have been kept occupied by their attacks. The League is overstretched and appears weak. I propose a mutually beneficial arrangement: Send us all relevant information on Rocket safehouses, fortresses, and operations, and we do your job for you.

The only assistance I require is as follows: provide teleportation services for my team and I, ensure Rockets are unable to flee, and do not try to stop us.

Sincerely,

Champion Samuel Oak

He set the PokeNav down and stared up at the ceiling. Even Ice had begun to fail him now, interwoven with countless miniscule cracks that threatened to send the whole facade crashing down around him. Hot emotions - horror, fear, guilt, anger, and the bitter sting of reluctant tears - came gushing through the cracks, thawing Ice away until it melted away entirely.

Nidoking and Dazed remained with him all the while. They did not judge, they did not call out his weakness. They rested and waited as the miserable boy rode out the waves. A thick knot in his throat left him practically unable to speak, his cheeks were wet with hot tears until his sinuses were raw and red and he was stuck with a massive headache pounding in his skull.

Ash couldn't give voice to what he was feeling even when he did feel strong enough to try, though Dazed set a warm hand against him. She felt it all.

Things only really improved after an unknowable amount of time when Nidoking finally crawled closer, held his head up to Ash's, and scraped Ash's tear-stained cheeks clean with his stinging tongue. The toxins in his saliva left Ash's face tingling and Nidoking's breath wasn't the best, but he couldn't help the genuine smile that worked its way onto his face.

"Thank you," Ash cradled his friend's face in his hands and stared into his dark eyes. His heart panged as he felt the awesome depth of Nidoking's love, the well of concern and devotion that burned so bright it nearly scalded Ash. It rushed into him like a flood, soothing the sting of the truth of what happened to Gary's family

It was impossible to say how long they sat like that, huddled uncomfortably in a corner of the Indigo Archives. The hurt faded away, dulling to an aching throb instead of the wrenching hole in his chest. He turned his thoughts away from it, focusing instead on his friends close by.

They became his world… though, hadn't they always been?

He rested his eyes for a time. It wasn't a normal place to nap, but he just needed relief. Ash needed to shut his brain down for a time, even if the archivist and her Porygon2 would probably be sending him odd looks all the while.

At this point, Ash didn't care.

Dazed would watch over him.

That plan worked out for quite a while, though eventually he was woken up by a crack and a blinding flash of light. He jerked to awareness instantly, though Dazed poured calming thoughts into his mind. Ash's heart rate dropped just a tad, but he still glared up at the newcomer.

"Ash, my friend!" Will knelt down next to Nidoking, though the poison-type grumbled at him. Nidoking didn't try to attack, at least. Ash grunted at Will. He wasn't in the mood to talk.

Still, something about Will's countenance captured his attention. Will was different now. Older.

It took his weary mind far too long to realize that Will wasn't smiling.

That was just wrong.

"I felt you," Will shooed the archivist away as she hurried over with her Porygon2 to scold them. The psychic's eyes flashed violet behind his mask as he glanced at the cold stacks of servers, terminals, and monitors. "What did you find?"

Ash couldn't bring himself to say it aloud - not when his father… not, not his father, Giovanni, was somehow responsible - so he flipped his PokeNav open and showed the first report to Will. The man barely skimmed the title before he glanced away with a wince. His emotions shifted to match Ash's, and Ash had to clench his jaw not to drown it once again as Will's presence stirred the storm again.

"A tragedy. I'm sorry, Ash, I truly am," Will's eyes shimmered with tears. The psychic felt Ash's pain as keenly as if it belonged to him - he was open to the world, Ash remembered Gardevoir saying, and vulnerable to his surroundings. Too vulnerable.

He clamped down on the Concepts before any could rouse to life.

Will grasped Ash's forearm and gently pulled him to his feet. Nidoking did snarl at him this time, though Will paid little attention to the hulking poison-type. It was a strange sensation to be pulled up so lightly; Will's eyes blazed, and all of a sudden his wiry arm had tugged Ash off the floor with minimal effort.

"We must leave this cold place!" Will declared. He flourished his cane and directed Ash, Dazed, and Nidoking out of the corner and towards the exit with a quick jab. "You have much on your mind, my dear friend. Perhaps a battle would allow your thoughts time to settle?"

Despite himself, Ash smiled. It was brittle and not altogether there, but he couldn't fight the stirring in his chest as he nodded to Will's request.

A battle sounded pretty good right about now.

XX

Ash wrung his hands as Gary inspected every inch of his quarters. The other boy still looked like garbage, to be honest. The physical toll his sleepless nights and long hours spent in hunt of Diamond hadn't been kind to him. Gary wasn't much for roughing it, much less in the cold nights north of Blackthorn. Apparently Diamond's trail had taken him just a few days off of Rota's southwestern border.

"Not too bad," Gary grudgingly admitted as he stared up at the giant tangle of perches and hiding spots that dominated his room's open heights. "Pretty fancy, I guess."

He hid a snort. Gary wished he had a room like this to come back to. There weren't too many places that could reasonably accommodate a full team at their level. Now he just needed to find a closer spot for Infernus to relax in and it'd be perfect. Right now he was stuck down in the equivalent of an oven that had been installed for Blaine's team back in the day.

Not that Infernus minded - he was more concerned about training with Magnus or throwing down with Karen's team. He'd taken that defeat at Houndoom's dark fires rather personally… not that Ash was surprised.

"A little better than your tent," Ash noted. He gently nudged Aron away as the tiny steel-type tried to nibble on the metal aglets at the tip of Gary's shoelaces.

Gary snorted. "I've still got a better setup than you, Ashy-boy."

"We'll have to agree to disagree on that one."

His former rival rolled his eyes. "Or we could settle it with a battle. Isn't that how you normally do things?"

Ash grinned. "So you're admitting I'm right?"

Gary flipped him off and Ash laughed. "Bah! At least I didn't make a fool of myself in front of millions of people," the brown-haired boy seemed all too pleased. "You looked like you were gonna be sick during that press conference. I'm so glad I was able to catch a recording of that - serves you right for using my name in Ecruteak. I don't need you ruining my reputation."

"Not too much of a reputation for me to ruin, is there?" Ash countered, but still felt the blow. He hesitated. "Did I really look that bad? My mom said I did great," he said doubtfully.

"My mom said I did great," Gary mimicked with a leer. "Yeah, doesn't that just fill you with confidence?"

He scowled at the other boy. "Fine then, Lance said I did great."

"That's better," Gary leaned up against Ash's counter. "Name-dropping the Indigo Champion sounds way cooler than bringing up your mom. Maybe you should default to that."

"Like you don't trust my mom's opinion," Ash said as he leaned down to rub Aron's head. He grinned at his friend's pleased warbles even as Gary looked down at him.

"I'm not saying that!" The other boy argued with a disdainful flick of his wrist. "Just that you shouldn't jump to her. Seriously, what's gonna impress all your fangirls more? Bringing up Champion Lance, the Dragon Master, or bringing up your very nice, not that cool mom?"

Ash frowned. "My mom's cool," he argued, then shook his head. "And what do you mean by fangirls?"

Gary leered and jabbed a finger towards the calendar Lance had put up in Ash's room. "You know what I mean."

He flushed. "I don't have fangirls," Ash denied. "Where did you even get that idea?"

An awfully smug look washed over Gary's face as he listed off magazine after magazine. "...Indigo Youth, The Weekly Trainer, and what's that new show from TV Mauville?" Gary scratched his chin, then lit up. "Oh yeah! Seeking Trainers did a whole freaking segment on you. 'Ash Ketchum, the Pallet Prodigy'," he mocked. "You're famous, Ashy-boy. Bask in it."

Gary had a very punchable face, Ash mused.

"Shut up. Why have you been reading up on me in the first place?" Ash grumbled. At least he was rewarded with a particularly satisfying twitch from Gary. "How did anyone even run an article on me? I haven't talked to that many reporters."

His friend relished his discomfort as he stuffed his hands in his pockets and kept leaning up against the counter. "They're dissecting your other interviews, your Conference performance, random trainer's who claim they've battled you, trusted friends who can tell them about how you abuse Rare Candies to make your team stronger…"

His eyes narrowed. Gary wouldn't be so smug if Nidoking was out right now. "That was you?"

In retrospect, he shouldn't be surprised. Gary just waved him off. "Who knows? Maybe the losers wanted to help bring you to justice. Rare Candies are only good in small doses, you know," he said sagely. "I'd hate if your team burnt out so young. What a freakin' tragedy."

That left him scowling. "You do realize I can throw you out, right?"

"You do realize I don't care, right?" Gary shot back with a disgustingly smug grin. He did a big stretch, yawning as he did so. "Worst that happens is I get to tell the story of how I got kicked out of Indigo Plateau visiting my great friend Ash Ketchum. Best case is that I get an interview or ten out of the whole deal. I've got to get my just desserts while I can."

Ash shook his head at Gary's attitude, but before he could retort a familiar head of spiky reddish hair poked in with a cocky grin. He'd commit the look on Gary's face to memory for the rest of his life.

"Well, look who it is!" Lance swaggered into the room in his formal outfit. He must have had an interview or meeting of his own to attend to. Shelgon waddled in behind him with Vibrava following close behind, but both paled in comparison to the figure Lance cut as he towered over both Ash and Gary. Aron rushed up fondly, and Lance spared him a quick smile. "If it isn't my favorite apprentice and…" he studied Gary for a moment. "Jerry Oak, right?"

Gary went white and made a choking noise.

Ash sniggered.

The quick wink Lance sent his way while Gary was otherwise occupied sent a flush of warmth rushing through his chest. "Well, I don't want to intrude on your alone time," Lance waggled his eyebrows. "I just wanted to remind you of our training session later tonight. Mael's really been wanting a piece of Torrent lately - he had a hard time keeping up in our last bout."

He brightened as he picked up on Lance's game. "I'll see if he's ready," Ash sighed and fiddled with his cap. "We trained with Will and Karen last night and Torrent was pretty worn out. He took down Will's Grumpig, though!"

"Keep it up!" Lance gave him a thumbs up. Gary was still making that odd choking noise, which only worsened as Lance looked straight at him. "You too. Good luck in the Silver Conference this year, Jerry."

Lance vanished as quickly as he disappeared as Gary stammered out something, though Ash couldn't make heads or tails of it. Seeing Gary caught utterly off-guard was rare enough, let alone seeing him this badly off. He wished he had a camera.

"You put him up to this!"

"No," Ash admitted with a sigh. "I wish I did, though."

Gary made a disgusted noise and moved over to the sofa to crash down, though his face was still a little red. It was hard to summon up any sympathy for Gary after he'd done the whole 'tell reporters Ash was abusing performance enhancing drugs', though, so he didn't bother.

After that their visit went about as Ash expected. They mostly hung out in Ash's room, although he made sure to give Gary a brief tour of the Plateau. Karen, Will, and Koga were all busy with their various responsibilities, so Ash steered clear of their offices. He doubted they'd be too enthused to meet Gary in the first place.

Bruno was off training, likely in the barren valley about twenty miles off that he'd shown Ash to. It was utterly flattened after the training Bruno had done there with the King, and even other Onix and Steelix had long since abandoned the region in fear of the King's might. Only one particularly stubborn Tyranitar kept coming back for more, which Bruno was happy to entertain.

At long last (and after two hours of snipes, jabs, and prods from both friends) they ended up back in Ash's room. The whole time they'd visited, Ash had felt an unspoken tension between them. Both knew it was coming, but it was Gary who finally pushed it.

He was as hesitant as Ash had ever seen him. The normal bluster and arrogance was nowhere to be found.

"Did you find anything?"

Ash fought the urge to run out of the room. Instead he steeled himself, though he refused to call on Ice for this. That was a slippery slope, and he needed to be here for this.

"Yes."

"And?" Gary's eyes narrowed to slits, though he looked almost as afraid of hearing it as Ash was of saying it. "Tell me."

He opened his mouth, realized nothing was going to come out, and shook his head. Before Gary could grow too outraged, Ash quickly pulled up all the relevant files on his PokeNav and tossed it over to him. His throat tightened and an unpleasant pressure arose in his chest. He didn't trust himself to say anything, and just motioned for the boy to read.

First came confusion.

Realization.

Hurt.

Grief.

Rage.

"Fuck!" Gary swore as he finished the report and then Professor Oak's request. "Son of a bitch! Fuckin' piece of shit cocksucking Team Rocket!"

The boy tossed Ash's PokeNav to the ground without a thought, then squeezed his eyes shut. He literally trembled with rage, and Ash nearly gasped as he felt his friend's fury like it was his own. Everything in Gary wanted to lash out and tear and destroy, but more than that he hurt. It was written all over the boy's face: the taut set of his jaw, the quiver of his lower lip, the hard glint in his eyes that failed to hide the shimmer of tears.

Ash's heart clenched. "I'm sorry."

Gary sneered. "The hell are you sorry for? It's not like it's your fault. You didn't saunter on into Pallet Town and kill them all!" He spat, and Ash felt even guiltier. Nothing in him could bring Ash to explain more, and he hated himself for that failure. Aron waddled up to butt against Gary's leg, but even that didn't do much more than bring Gary's rage down to a simmer. "It's just bullshit," the Oak deflated and hid his face from Ash.

He didn't miss the wet streaks running down Gary's cheeks. Whether the tears were from grief or simple, hot anger was impossible to say.

"Daisy knew the whole time and never told me a damn thing. Gramps never told me a damn thing and he sure as hell knew - hell, apparently he went off on some big crusade against Team Rocket after it all… after it all went down," Gary faltered. He had the look of someone who just had a veil ripped off, and he rubbed at his eyes. "Shit, man. Shit, shit, shit."

He said nothing as Gary vented, and the boy went on for a few minutes like that.

Ash didn't offer advice.

Ash didn't offer commiseration.

Ash didn't offer words of comfort.

Ash offered his presence, and Gary gratefully accepted it.

And when the tears blinding him left him exhausted and miserable and a little broken inside, like a mirror struck and cracked but not yet fractured, Ash remembered what Will did for him. Like Ash, Gary was a person of action. He needed to do something or he'd drive himself crazy turning things over in his head and channeling that energy to useless what-ifs.

"Want to battle?"

For a moment he thought Gary was going to stand up and sock him in the mouth, but the offer of normalcy brought something resembling life back to Gary. A fire lit inside the boy and his eyes grew hard.

It was the same resolve he'd seen in Professor Oak before he'd left to hunt down Agatha in the sands of Orre. Gary was still just a shadow of his legendary grandfather, but in this they were equals.

"Yeah," Gary bit out. "Let's fight."

Ash couldn't help Gary, but he could distract him.

Sometimes that was all anyone needed.

XX

Gary stayed at the Plateau that night (he was all too happy to take the bed when Ash offered) but left early the next morning. He was still a red-eyed mess by the time he flew off on his gigantic Pidgeot, but Ash hoped he'd get on well enough.

He didn't always get along with Gary, but his friend was strong.

Ash couldn't help but feel a little guilty for his part in all of this, though. Professor Oak had kept all of this hidden for a reason, and now Ash knew exactly why. It might not have been the best to jump in and interfere, but he couldn't regret telling Gary the truth once he'd known. It wouldn't have been right to keep hiding it from him.

That didn't mean Ash couldn't regret digging into this nightmare to begin with.

He tugged at the Unown tablet. What he wouldn't give to go back and prevent all of this…

No, that was dangerous thinking.

Still, even the pain he'd taken on faded over time. At times he felt the furious need for answers, to delve deep into the archives and uncover everything he could about the Rockets and Giovanni. Some part of him found himself horribly fascinated by the man who'd helped create him - who was this man that would ruin an entire family out of spite? How could someone be so cruel and petty?

What was wrong with him, and how could the League have missed it?

At night, in the darkest moments when he was about to rest, sometimes Ash wondered if that might mean there was something horribly wrong with him as well. Maybe he just didn't know it yet…

Dazed had smacked him around the head with a psychic blast when those thoughts crossed his mind. It made for a rude awakening, but he loved her for it.

Gary refused to come back, which stung a little. The acerbic boy hadn't revealed much more than that he wanted some time to himself, which Ash could understand. Jon and Amelia were in the same boat, unfortunately - they weren't running from harsh truths, but they had decided to take a vacation to Altomare.

Otherwise, he regained some semblance of normalcy and slowly put those dark thoughts behind him. Instead, Ash immersed himself with the joys of the Plateau and being a part of the League's Family. Training took over his life, and he was pleased to see progress on all fronts. Steven couldn't claim he'd been slacking off during his vacation, and the time with Koga and Bruno was excellent for Nidoking and Bruiser in particular. Even Seeker paid attention during their time with Koga.

They didn't grow much from the training, but his team grew more skilled and efficient with each day that passed. More than that, Ash learned. A day in the presence of the Masters was worth a week on his own, and a casual remark from Koga, Will, Karen, or Bruno opened his eyes to insights that might have eluded him for hours otherwise.

Despite the invaluable expertise of the Elite Four and their Champion, Ash preferred their company. Speaking with them between training sessions, sitting patiently with Bruno as he coached him through looking inward and allowing questions to flow through his mind and guide him to introspection, listening to Koga's old stories of Fuchsia's history, and nights spent with Karen and Will as they guided him through his responsibilities and their own journeys as trainers.

It all passed by in a blur.

Eager as he was to get back to Hoenn and learn at Steven's feet, Ash knew he'd miss the Plateau. This vacation had been a good one, even if it had taken a little longer than he'd expected.

He felt like himself again.

And just like that, it was over.

Ash felt a little hollow on the inside as he finished packing up the last of his things. Tangrowth did his best to help by dragging up random odds and ends with his strong vines and hurling them onto the bed. He offered his friend a smile for his help as a few pots and pans landed heavily on his bed, but was too distracted to say much else.

Would Steven mind if he delayed again? Maybe he could put it off for just a little longer…

He knew he wouldn't do that as soon as the thoughts crossed his mind. Tempting as it was, the time to rest and relax was over. There was too much to do, too much to see. Staying in one place had its advantages (especially with the Elite Four literally under the same roof) but that familiar itch had started gnawing at him.

Ash was a traveler.

Being rooted to Mt. Silver wasn't for him.

A long time ago, Professor Oak had mentioned the stagnancy that came with being chained to one place. Oh, he would grow stronger if he stayed here. The Elite Four and their Champion were excellent teachers, and they knew tricks and techniques he could barely imagine at this point.

But to travel was to live, to grow, to experience new things and toss old limitations aside.

Ash would grow stronger, but he and his family wouldn't grow.

Plume shrieked and spread her wings wide as the door swung open and Karen swaggered in through the door. His friend stared piercingly at Honchkrow, although the dark-type seemed utterly at ease in her presence. She still hadn't forgotten their battle, and probably wouldn't.

At least Oz seemed happy to see Karen from where she sat next to a generator. She'd been basking in the electricity for the last hour or so, and probably wouldn't enjoy the moving process. The mighty Electivire offered a lazy wave to Karen, who returned it with a terse nod.

"Are you ready?" Karen asked as she took in the utter mess on Ash's bed. She arched an eyebrow, but Ash just looked to Tangrowth, who was all too happy to run his vines over a few utensils Sneasel had left scattered about on the counter earlier.

He nodded.

"Good," the Dark Master seemed pleased. "Return him." She pointed to Sneasel, who was lounged over sleeping on a tiny round bed dragged over to the kitchen. It was immensely fluffy and white, so Sneasel was practically drowning in it as he napped. The dark-type unsheathed his claws with a hiss, but Ash just offered him a light shrug and returned him.

It would have to be done regardless. They would be leaving soon.

"What is it?" Ash was more than a little curious. Sneasel could get on her nerves, but Karen generally had a pretty good tolerance for the dark-type. She'd raised a Sneasel herself, so she'd built up an immunity to his antics.

Karen dug around in a small pouch tied securely to her waist for a moment. It didn't take her long to remove a long, hooked length of stark-white bone. The hook stood out even against her pale skin, and the Dark Master held it gently between her fingers and regarded it with a gentle look that struck Ash as too caring and vulnerable to fit her haughty face.

"A gift," she said simply. Karen reached forward and took Ash's hand in her own, then pressed the bone into his palm. He closed his fist around it, careful to avoid cutting himself on the curved edge. "This is all that's left of my grandmother's Weavile. She entrusted it to me, and I'm entrusting it to you. Keep it safe."

He was silent as he held the Razor Claw in his hand, mind abuzz with the momentous possibilities this opened up. Sneasel wasn't ready, not yet, but when he was…

Sneasel would be all grown up. An indescribable feeling flooded him that left his lips quirked.

"I will," he met Karen's pale eyes. "Thank you, Karen. I'll keep it safe."

"You'd better," she said, deathly serious. "I'll want it back one day," Karen held his gaze for a bit longer. "You're a good kid, Ash. A bit grumpy, stupidly stubborn, and with no sense of self-preservation, but a good kid," her expression softened. "Don't lose it."

He nodded stiffly. Ash didn't know what to say (let alone how) but Ash tried to force every bit of gratitude to the front of his mind. Warmth for all her training, all her aid, for keeping him company in the cold halls of Indigo Plateau and making sure he knew it was a home. For watching out for him and taking him under her wing.

Karen's eyes widened and a silent gasp uttered from her lips. She reached up to rub at her temples, gave Ash an odd look, but seemed rather pleased. "Well, that's that," she brushed herself off, then smirked. "We should be off. The others wanted to see you. Remember our plan?"

Ash glanced to his closet and returned her smirk. "I do."

XX

The citadel of Indigo Plateau sat nestled against the great jagged mass of Mt. Silver and the lesser peaks that laid clustered around it. It blended easily into the grey stone of the mountain and the thick dark clouds and cold dust and fog billowing off Mt. Silver meant there was little to no contrast between the earth and sky.

Scarcely a single ray of sunlight pierced the veil of pregnant clouds obscuring them all. What little light did make it through scattered across the road of gold and silver leading to the Plateau, and reflected off to be scattered by the haze hovering just above the ground.

Four legendary trainers awaited him.

Champion Lance, the Dragon Master.

Bruno, the Black Belt.

Koga, the Poison Ninja.

Will, the Psychic Harlequin.

Ash and Karen strode out of the fog. The ACE trainers bid them farewell, stealing a quick glance at Ash, before the two Elites descended the stairs and walked to the Indigo Champion and his Elite Four… well, Elite Three in this case.

"Ash!" Lance thundered, stepping forward with his arms opened wide. "I can't believe you're leaving us. How can you trade this beautiful weather," he gestured at the roiling fog, flat grey skies, and the blizzard roaring at Mt. Silver's peak, "for Hoenn's clear skies and sun and pretty girls?"

Karen scoffed and looked like she was going to elbow Lance in the ribs the second an opportunity opened up. He just shook his head. After traveling in Hoenn during summer, Ash wasn't sure he wanted to trade. The heat wasn't too bad, but the humidity wasn't something he missed. It was a far cry from Kanto.

He didn't voice those thoughts. All he could offer was a half-grin and shrug. Eager as he was to get on the road, he couldn't stop the little piece of him that wanted to call Steven and beg for just one more day. Of course, then it would become two and three and four…

No, this was his path.

It was time to return to Hoenn.

Of course, then Lance actually looked at Ash and stared. His left eye twitched and fire flared into life around his wrist - Ash felt his irritation stirring through Fire, and he began to smile. "Nice cape," Lance groused, then peered closer at Ash. "Looks a little big on you, Ash."

Well, that was an understatement. The replica cape that Karen had thoughtfully bought him was tailored for an adult figure, which was something Ash absolutely didn't possess. His cape was fastened around his neck and shoulders, but a solid foot of its white length piled up in a heap at Ash's feet and trailed behind him whenever he took a step.

Its edge was already dirty and soggy from the light snowfall, and Ash had no doubt he wouldn't be keeping it after this.

He smiled at Lance. "I'll grow into it."

The Champion snorted. "Should I be worried about keeping my job? You're sounding pretty confident. Wouldn't have expected that after how our last practice match went," Lance grinned to take the sting out of his words. "How did that go? 2-6?"

Ash didn't let the reminder of his loss affect his mood. "Something like that," he agreed easily. "We'll see how it goes next time. I'll do better."

"You will! And if you don't, I'll have some words with Steven," Lance shook his head ruefully.

"With how hard you train, that's going to be a failure on the part of the teacher, not the student."

Lance belted out another laugh and rushed forward to clasp Ash's forearm with one hand and clap him on the back with the other. Fire seared at where their hands clasped and Ash called on the Concept to stoke it further - for a moment he felt Lance and enjoyed the brief sensation of contact. Part of him worried that even a slight pulse of Fire would just hollow Lance out further, but relaxed once Lance showed no negative effect.

"Enjoy your time in Hoenn," the Champion chuckled. "Remember, if Steven gets too suffocating feel free to pop over to the Plateau! It'll always be home."

Ash smiled so widely it hurt as Lance released him.

Koga inclined his head. "Goodbye, Ash. It was a pleasure to meet you again."

He offered Koga a nod and whispered word of thanks, then turned to Bruno as the massive man took a step forward.

"Ash!" The Black Belt rumbled. He was shirtless, but showed no discomfort in the whipping wind or the cold fog. Bruno displayed the same superhuman composure he always had, and now that Ash knew the secret of his mastery he only felt more respect for Bruno. "Your respite has done you well. Seek challenges, overcome your foes, and above all else you must know yourself. If you look inward, you may never be defeated."

It only took a moment to commit the words to memory. Bruno was an invaluable teacher. The Black Belt would never steer him wrong.

Will was next, casually balancing his cane on one finger as he glanced down at Ash through his mask. "It's been a pleasure!" He offered a deep bow to Ash. If he hadn't spent so much time with Will it would have left him flustered or uncertain, but long hours spent training and talking with the psychic had accustomed him to the odd mannerisms. "Please, should you ever need my insight or aid you need only ask, my dear friend!"

"Maybe I'll see you in Hoenn sometime," Ash said. Will's eyes lit up behind his mask, and it had nothing to do with psychic power this time.

Last came Karen. She skirted around Ash to go stand with the rest of the Indigo Elite Four and tower over Ash. Karen knelt in front of Ash so she was just barely below eye level.

"Keep a tight hold on that Razor Claw. Don't let Sneasel know about it until he's ready to evolve," Karen warned. "He'll steal it the second he can get his grubby little paws on it."

Ash cracked a grin. That sounded about right.

"It's not going anywhere," Ash promised. "I'll take good care of it."

The Dark Master relaxed just a tad. "I know you will," she said. Karen seemed to fight some internal struggle with herself before she cautiously leaned forward (it reminded him of someone reaching out to pet a wild Ursaring) and opened her arms. Ash stiffened, anxiety spiking through him like a knife, but didn't pull away as Karen awkwardly wrapped him into a tentative hug.

He blinked, frozen in place, and mastered his warring instincts to pull away and run, finally returning the hug.

It was awkward on both ends, tense enough that both were taut as a wire, and an altogether bizarre sensation, but he couldn't help but shut his eyes. Strange as it was, it was warm and nice and somehow familiar.

When was the last time anyone but his mom had hugged him?

He opened his eyes only to see the rest of the Elite Four watching with a variety of reactions: Lance had pulled his own next-gen PokeNav (presumably a gift from Steven) to snap a few pictures with a goofy grin on his face, Will silently cheered and hopped up and down where he stood, Koga smirked, and Bruno nodded with utter satisfaction.

Ash flushed, but didn't let go. The warmth was nice with the bitter cold drifting down from Mt. Silver, especially considering he knew exactly what the source was. Any comfort was hard to find around Ice itself.

It was only a few seconds in reality, but it stretched out for a long time. Karen finally pulled away, looking as uncomfortable as Ash felt but with a hint of a smile on her face. She steadfastly refused to look back at the rest of the Elite four and coughed. "Uh, good luck out there, kid," Karen said gruffly. She looked anywhere but Ash (or at the other Elite Four). "Stay safe."

"Thanks," Ash replied with equal shortness. He couldn't hide his grin though. "You too."

She nodded and stepped back to join the rest of the Elite Four with a bit too much haste, nearly stumbling over a slightly upraised brick of gold.

It was time.

"Bob!"

The bad-tempered Alakazam appeared in a flash. His eyes burned a fierce blue and Ash felt the beginnings of a cutting remark manifesting in his mind, only for Bob to immediately cut it off and make a choking noise just like Gary's as he realized the company he was in. Bob's eyes bulged and Ash would remember the frenzied thoughts touching his mind for a long, long time.

Greetings, Elite Four Ash.

It was stiff and awkward, but Ash relished it all the same… much like Karen's hug. This was for entirely different reasons, though. Bob looked utterly uncomfortable in front of the watchful gaze of Lance and the Elite Four - he was much, much more eager to get Ash out of there than Ash himself was.

"To Rustboro," Ash said shortly. "One jump."

Bob's eyes flashed.

Forgive me, Elite Four Ash, but this one is incapable of making such a journey in a single teleport.

The Alakazam's eyes narrowed.

Unless

Ash nodded.

A thrill touched him through the connection Bob maintained. Less than a second later he felt Bob guzzle like a man dying of thirst on the power bleeding off of him from his connection to Mewtwo. It wasn't uncomfortable in the least, but was definitely an odd sensation as he felt a tug at something rooted deep inside of him.

He had hardly a second to wave goodbye before the world spun in a flash and crack of light, and he found himself welcomed to the brown and greys of Rustboro City -

And then the hot rush of horribly humid air and the blinding light of the Hoenn sun buffeted him. It was a far cry from the chill and cutting winds whipping against Mt. Silver day and night, and Ash grinned.

He was back.

Hoenn awaited him.

A/N: Thank you so much for your patient wait! I know this one took a lot longer than expected, but I ran into a nasty case of writer's block that stalled most progress from October through most of November. There was just a lot to include this chapter and plenty of plot threads to wrap up!

I hope everyone enjoyed this chapter. It was certainly different from my normal chapters - lots of drama and emotion I feel - but I hope you enjoyed it! The next few chapters will be much more standard Traveler fare. I can't wait to be back in Hoenn and I'm so, so excited to be back after 4 years. Funny to think more than half of Traveler's lifespan has been spent in Johto (mostly thanks to the long, long waits for Chapters 42 and 43).

I also wanted to thank the mods of my Discord for their help in this chapter! Jain, Raptor, and Val helped so much in pointing out errors I'd made or letting me know where I need to polish things up a bit.

Again, I really appreciate everyone sticking with me this far! I'm so glad to be saying goodbye to 2020, and I really hope everyone has a great holiday and a happy new year!