'You... You really think I could do it?'
'Honestly? I think you could do anything.'
April 27th, 2009. Late Morning. Indigo Plateau
Ash Ketchum could faintly hear the stadium's roars of excitement from inside the waiting room. He could feel them, too. The fervor with which the audience cheered gave the building its own pulse, and the wall's vibrations ran through his gloved fingers when he brushed his hand against it.
The Indigo Stadium had received some minor renovations since Ash had last participated in its conference more than eleven years earlier. Tomorrow, April 28th, would mark the 12th year of his journey as well as his 22nd birthday—and things had changed since he was 10-years-old, entering his first league. For one, the date of the Indigo Conference had switched from November to April, since a string of incidents in December 2001 forced gyms to close several months into the new year, thereby causing a delay that became permanent. The waiting room was also different from what he remembered. Framed promotional posters from every year of the famous conference hung on the wall, and Ash paced around the room, looking at all of them.
"Everyone's gonna be watching," he finally said, looking toward the Pikachu perched on his shoulder. There was not a sign of apprehension in his voice; rather, he sounded determined, excited even. "We better not let them down."
"Pika." Pikachu smiled confidently, assuring his trainer they wouldn't.
"Mr. Ketchum." Ash's head snapped up when he heard his name called. "You have fifteen minutes."
Ash blinked. Once. Twice. Then, a lazy grin spread across his face.
"Right..." Ash adjusted his hat before slowly turning to face the woman behind him. "So, do they normally send Elite Four members to see off trainers in the final round?"
Misty's lips quirked into a strange smile. Still, she hesitated before answering, "No. They normally don't issue fifteen-minute warnings, either. Just ten and five. One of the actual event managers will be here for those. You don't mind, do you?"
"'Course not," Ash replied, chuckling. Misty was satisfied with his response, but she averted her gaze before she spoke again.
"You know," she began carefully, "I'm not supposed to show any favor for one competitor over the other, but I think you know who I'm rooting for."
"If I win, I'll get to face you." The mere idea boosted Ash's conviction, and he clenched his fists. "Man, I'm pumped. I'm gonna win it. I'm gonna make sure it happens. Just you wait for it, Misty. Our battle will be one for the books."
"Sheesh, focus on the battle you have now, not on one that may or may not happen," Misty half-teased as she rolled her eyes. Ash glowered at her.
"May or may not?" he protested. "Aw, come on Mist. I thought you had more faith in me than that."
Misty smiled again before she reached for one of his balled hands. His fingers unraveled at her touch, and she held them.
"No matter the outcome, we'll all be proud of you for making it this far," she said, giving him a gentle squeeze.
"I will win," he persisted.
"I'll hold you to that promise." Misty glanced behind her. "I have to go. Remember, I wasn't here."
"Don't worry," Ash said with a wink as she broke away. "All secrets stay safe with Ash Ketchum. That's a 100 percent guarantee!"
"What will you do if he wins?" Lance asked the question carefully, though firmly.
Leaf flicked her gaze toward him, her expression unchanged. The stadium hallway where they stood was dim, but a beam of sunlight from the battlefield's entrance fell across her face and lit a blue fire in her eyes. The lounge level was nearly empty, if only because most of the audience members were seated and excitedly waiting for the final round of the Indigo Conference to begin.
"The same thing I will do if the other guy wins," she answered shortly. "Why, are you worried? Because Ash is a friend? Either way, I will make sure the winner has a fair shake with the Elite Four and, if it comes to it, myself—unlike last time."
"Still upset about that?" Lance raised an eyebrow.
"I think it's my job to be."
"Well, I suppose we'll disagree there."
"And why's that?"
"I think there are much more important things for you to worry about than pageants, and that's what these conferences are," Lance answered bluntly. "I never liked hosting them."
"I know. I was your shadow for almost a decade, and you made explicitly clear how much you hated the league," Leaf said, letting out a short laugh. "Still, wouldn't it be nice if the Championship seat was a position of honor and not politics? Like it used to be?"
"Nothing can ever be like it used to be."
"Well, I suppose we'll disagree there," Leaf parroted, and an unusual, thin smirk spread across Lance's face. The conversation was left there, as they both turned their heads when they heard footsteps coming in their direction. Misty soon came into view.
"Where've you been?" Lance asked. "Not breaking the impartiality clause, I hope."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Misty said lightly. She didn't let his intimations phase her.
"Don't give her a hard time, Lance." Leaf then cast a sly, knowing look toward Misty. "That's for me to do now."
Lance grunted a semblance of a chuckle before saying, "Then I'll leave you two to yourselves. I'm returning to the Champion Box. Don't be too long. I expect the match will begin soon."
The two young woman watched Lance sweep out of sight. Once he was gone, Leaf cleared her throat to speak.
"I'm not actually going to chastise you," she said.
"That's all right, because I didn't actually see Ash."
"How is he?" Leaf was undeterred.
"Confident," Misty answered, though she still wondered if Leaf would jump on her indirect admission that she had spoken with Ash. Leaf was difficult to read, and she was capable of manipulating answers out of people if she wanted them—like how she had just done. Luckily, Leaf didn't seem to mind.
"I hope you're ready then," she said.
Misty looked at the Indigo Champion questioningly.
"For what?" she asked.
Leaf didn't hesitate when she answered, "For when he wins."
"Careful there, professor," Tracey gently warned, pausing to help the aged Oak into his seat, between Delia and Daisy. Delia also reached out to assist, while Brock cast him a concerned look.
"Are you sure you don't want us to call Gary, professor?" Brock asked carefully. "He said Leaf was more than willing to give you access to the Champion Box. The seating in there would be much more comfortable and less dangerous for a man of, er, your condition."
"Nonsense, nonsense," Professor Oak said, waving a dismissive hand. "These bones may be old, but they've got plenty of toughness in them. Besides, the Champion Box has an impartial policy, and that's no good. We've got to be showing our support for Ash, right Delia?"
Delia smiled crookedly.
"Right," she agreed, setting her hands back into her lap. Tracey returned to his seat beside his wife, Daisy. It wasn't long, however, before Delia began nervously twiddling her thumbs, keeping her head low. Brock quickly noticed.
"Nervous?" he inquired.
Delia lifted her eyes and turned her gaze toward him.
"I'm his mother," she said simply. "I want him to succeed."
Brock nodded understandingly, but said, "Well, you can be assured whatever happens, Ash will have put up his absolute best fight."
"Oh, I know," she said, smiling once more. "I would be disappointed if he didn't—and he never lets me down."
April 27th, 2009. Late Morning. Petalburg City.
"Max?" Ken, the now-grown Petalburg Gym assistant, poked his head into the living room, where the Maple family plus Drew—who was effectively a part of the Maple family anyway—were waiting for the television broadcast of the final round of the Indigo Conference to begin. "There's a trainer who wants to battle you for the Balance Badge."
Max frowned before adjusting his glasses. Even when the gym had a closed sign, hard-headed challengers still showed up on his family's doorstep.
"Tell them they'll have to wait," Max sighed. "I'll see them today, but it's going to be a couple hours. They can go grab lunch or do some extra training beforehand. Ash's match is about to begin any minute."
"Better yet," Caroline began with a smile, "invite them inside to watch with us! We have small sandwiches and juice."
Max and Norman exchanged furtive glances, each wearing sour expressions. Norman then looked to Ken and discreetly shook his head "no." Ken understood the message and nodded.
"Okay, I'll... make the offer," he told Caroline before disappearing once again.
May rolled her eyes but stifled a laugh. Drew cracked a rare smile and reached for her hand, silently reassuring her she didn't need to be embarrassed. She reciprocated his grip and smile, a signal that she already knew.
April 27th, 2009. Late Morning. Fortree City.
"So..." Winona drawled as she sat beside her husband. "What do you predict will be the outcome of this?"
Wallace blinked, the intensity of his expression softening. He loosened the tension in his upper frame, allowing her to lean against him. The anticipation for the match had caused his body to unconsciously turn rigid.
"I'm not sure," he admitted. "I may know Ash, but I don't know him as a trainer. I haven't had the pleasure of battling him, like you."
"That's not what I meant," Winona clarified. "The victor of the match isn't that important. What do you believe Leaf will do?"
"Ah." Wallace paused, thinking. "I'm not sure about that, either. Lance said she was very upset, angry even, after the Silver Conference last year. It will be interesting to see how she conducts herself after the match is decided, especially if Ash wins. They are close."
"Mm, well, she had reason to be miffed," Winona mused. "League politics are infuriating. I hope you won't have to deal with them much longer."
Wallace smiled weakly.
"I hope so, too."
April 27th, 2009. Late Morning. Snowpoint City.
"Come on Zoe-Zoe, put down the notebook," Candice sighed, shaking her head. She was sprawled out on two-thirds of her sofa, while Zoey occupied the final third. The television was turned to the Indigo Conference, but Zoey had been ignoring most of the pre-match coverage to work.
Zoey craned an eyebrow.
"This is all the planning for the class you asked me to teach," she reminded.
"And you've got an entire summer to do it," Candice retorted. Zoey shrugged and continued writing. Candice glowered at her for a long moment before suddenly springing toward her, attempting to grab the notebook. Anticipating the move, Zoey held it out and away from her.
"Aw, did you really think that was going to work?" she teased as she pushed Candice off and fanned herself.
Candice momentarily pouted, but it wasn't long before a second idea struck her. She picked up one of her throw pillows and aimed it straight for Zoey's face. In the moment she was caught off guard, Candice snatched away the notebook.
"No, but that did," Candice said before she began laughing.
April 27th, 2009. Late Morning. Veilstone City.
"It seems Cedar has fallen asleep," Brandon said at a subdued volume as he held his 2-year-old granddaughter, who was resting her head on his shoulder. Maylene smiled as she reached out and relieved him of the sleeping child. She wore a loose shirt to tastefully conceal that she was a few months into her second pregnancy.
"Thank you," she said with a tired sigh before disappearing upstairs to put her into bed. Brandon turned to locate the remote and unmute the television set.
"You and Paul both have the magic touch," Reggie began, collapsing into a seat and massaging his temple. "Maylene and I can never put her down for a nap when it's just she and I. I don't know what we're going to do when the second one is here."
Brandon's lips twitched into a smile.
"You and your brother were fussy when you were little, too," he said. "That's something Cedar inherited from you. Parenthood is nature's way of payback."
Reggie let out a short laugh before replying, "Funny how that works out."
April 27th, 2009. Late Morning. Celestic Town.
"Emily, would you like strawberry or grape jam?" Cynthia asked kindly as she glanced up at her nearly 7-year-old daughter from behind the kitchen counter.
Emily laid flat on her belly on the rug in front of the television set, watching the Indigo Conference's pre-match coverage. She looked strikingly like her mother, with blonde hair and light-colored eyes. Steven was seated nearby, reviewing some of his geologic notes from one of his recent excursions as he, too, waited for the match to begin.
"Strawberry," Emily answered shortly. Her eyes never strayed from the screen.
"Strawberry, what?" Steven spoke up.
"Strawberry, please," Emily corrected herself.
Cynthia smiled as she pulled the chosen flavor outside of the fridge, unscrewed the cap, and began to spread a generous amount on a sandwich she was preparing for her daughter.
"One day," Emily began suddenly, breaking the brief lull in conversation, "I'm going to challenge the league and become Champion."
Although she had said it to neither of her parents in particular, both Cynthia and Steven halted what they were doing and exchanged troubled glances.
April 27th, 2009. Late Morning. Twinleaf Town.
"Ugggh," Barry moaned loudly as he flopped his upper body against the sofa. "How much time is left until it begins? I feel like we've been waiting forever, and the anticipation is killing me!"
"Er..." Kenny paused to flick his wrist over and look at his watch. "The match begins at 11 a.m. Indigo time, so just a few minutes still."
Barry glowered at Kenny before pulling his legs up into his chest and burying his face into the couch cushion. Barry had always been squirmy and unable to sit still for extended periods of time, but it had been especially bad recently. Now, if he did nothing for too long, the sadness would begin to settle back into his head.
"I'm gonna die," he mumbled into the fabric. "I swear, next time we meet up with Leaf, I'm gonna fine her for scheduling the match at such a ridiculous hour and making us wait this long. It'll be double if the match starts late."
Kenny let out a half-hearted chuckle before reaching out to pat his friend on the back.
"Hang in there, buddy," he said.
April 27th, 2009. Middle of the night. Lumiose City.
"Come on, Clemont!" Bonnie pleaded with her older brother, shaking his upper arm. "You've got to get the stream working! The match is going to begin any moment now, and we can't miss it!"
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Clemont breathed out. "Sorry, it's hard to think when it's this late."
Both Serena and Bonnie were hovering over Clemont's shoulder, watching as he went through several frustrating attempts to get the site streaming the Indigo Conference to load. Since there was a six-hour time difference between Kalos and the Indigo regions in Napaj, the Indigo and Silver conferences didn't air on Kalos television until several hours after the fact, but the three were determined to watch the battle live.
"Maybe the Wi-Fi just needs to be reset?" Serena suggested, pulling some of her loose hair behind her shoulder. She, along with her companions, were dressed down in their pajamas.
"Yeah!" Bonnie rallied with her. "Have you tried that, Clemont? Try it!"
"Er..." Clemont went to the task bar and pressed 'disconnect.' After waiting a few seconds, he tried reconnecting and pulled the stream back up. It wasn't long before the video feed suddenly began working, and the commentators' voices tuned in. The sounds were met with a collective cheer among the three Kalosian trainers, and Bonnie tightly hugged her brother.
"Serena, you're a genius," Clemont sighed, rolling his head back to smile at her.
April 27th, 2009. Late Morning. Indigo Plateau.
Several pairs of eyes turned to the door when it opened and in walked Leaf with Misty in tow. The Champion Box was quite nice, with cream carpet and twenty red, padded seats that had a view of the entire battlefield through glass. An open bar was also near the back, though no one was drinking at that hour.
Despite the capacity, there were only seven others in the room. Paul and Dawn both stood together at the front, her Piplup hanging off her shoulder. Gary was seated nearby. The three other Elite Four members of the Indigo regions—Karen, Will, and Lorelei—were sitting together in the second row. Lance had cut himself off from the others, standing behind the last row.
Misty chose to sit beside Gary rather than her fellow Elite Four members. Her relationship with them was civil, but they came from a Champion different from the one who had invited her to fill a vacancy nearly two years earlier. Leaf's rapport among them was similarly strained, because they were Lance's picks and not her own. They afforded her the respect the Championship seat commanded, but Leaf was not close with any of them, as she was with Misty.
Paul had once said it was important for new Champions to have an ally in their Elite Four. Misty knew he probably understood that better than anyone, since he had yet to gain the chance to fill a vacancy following Cynthia's leave. Leaf was lucky in that respect. Misty speculated Lance had asked Koga to retire so Leaf could become a part of the Elite Four for two years before becoming Champion. Her later ascension to the Championship seat meant an empty spot in the Elite Four, allowing Leaf to bring a friend into the fray with her.
Leaf moved toward the front, standing in the space between Gary and Paul.
"What time is it?" she asked, looking toward Gary.
"There is a clock on the wall," he dryly pointed out.
"I would rather inconvenience you than myself."
Gary scowled at her before reaching into his pocket and pulling out his PokéGear. Dawn stifled a chuckle before exchanging a pointed look with Paul.
"It's 10:54 a.m.," Gary finally answered. Leaf nodded before glancing out the window, down at the empty battlefield.
"So a few minutes still..." she trailed off.
Dawn inclined her head toward Leaf.
"Are Iris and Cilan coming?" she asked politely.
"I offered them access here, but they declined," Leaf replied.
"Why?" Paul spoke up, too. "It's not like they would be unwelcome. Iris's inauguration is in less than two weeks."
Leaf shrugged before saying, "Some would prefer to enjoy the battle without the restrictions of the impartiality policy. I'm sure the way they see it, they have two weeks left before they're bound by it. But we can't have people thinking the league is unfair, now can we?"
There was a hint of irony in her tone. Misty crossed one leg over the other, and the other Elite Four members appeared slightly uncomfortable, too. Dawn cast her gaze downward, while Paul stared at Leaf for a long time before flicking his eyes back toward the battlefield. Lance looked on warily as Gary tapped a finger against his jawline, his eyes moving around the room.
The situation, he knew, was an intriguing one.
"So are you photographing today's match?" Ritchie directed the question toward Trip as they, plus Cilan and Iris, walked down the stadium hallway, heading toward their section of seats.
"No." Trip raised an eyebrow. "If I was, I would (a) have my camera; (b) not be here right now. League photographers are in with the rest of the press photographers on the field."
"Just a question," he said. "I thought maybe you would be getting aerial shots."
"Mm..." Trip intoned, now understanding the reasoning, but he still shook his head. "I don't get contacted to photograph league-sponsored events outside of Unova much. Every league division has their own photographers on staff. If anything, more people get sent to Unova, because I'm the only one."
"Yes, and I'll be putting you to good work once I'm your boss," Iris teased, tilting her head to look at him. Her arm was linked with Cilan's.
Trip couldn't help but smirk.
"Ten days coming," he said.
The deafening screams drowned out the name of the opponent from Viridian City when he entered the stadium; the "Ash Ketchum" that followed shortly after was only discernible among the cheers because he was listening for it.
He stayed in the shadow of the entrance to the stadium seating, lest he risk being seen by someone important. He knew well what the potential consequences of being noticed were, and he did not want to be trapped. Yet, this moment now meant too much, and it meant he was willing to tread one of his enemies' territories.
Even at a long distance, Kamon could see the determination in his brother's expression as he called out his first Pokémon.