October 1st, 2009. Indigo Plateau. Morning.
The air was cool. It was a refreshing transition from the sweltering temperatures of the past several months; summer was gone, dissipating in the autumn breeze, and the deadly living nightmare of 2009 was gone with it. The changes in the season, in the trees, were an invitation—a permission—to move on, to heal, to begin again. And begin again they did.
"Are you ready to take the Oath of Champions, Mr. Ketchum?" Misty asked, facing the soon-to-be first Kanto Champion on an outdoor stage before a massive crowd. The pair was joined by their current Champion colleagues—Leaf, Paul, Iris, and Wallace—lined up in a row behind them. Pikachu stood proudly on Iris's shoulder, waiting in suspension. Ash sucked in his breath, grinning, yet feeling so lightheaded that he might pass out.
"Yes." He nodded.
"Then please raise your right hand and repeat after me," Misty instructed, and Ash did so. "I, Ash Ketchum, do solemnly affirm—"
"I, Ash Ketchum, do solemnly affirm—" His voice had a trill of excitement in it. Leaf could hear it, and she took in a cleansing, gratified breath before raising her eyes toward the crowd. The sea of people was dizzying, and there were so many young, animated faces, exhilarated by the rise of a new Champion who had earned his title. It was comforting, thrilling even, but she remained alert.
"—that I will carry out the responsibilities of the Kanto Champion faithfully—"
"—that I will carry out the responsibilities of the Kanto Champion faithfully—"
Paul inclined his head slightly, also looking at the crowd. He briefly exchanged a look with Leaf, and they both realized that they had the same thought on their minds.
"—and will strive to preserve, protect, and promote—"
"—and will strive to preserve, protect, and promote—"
Iris noticed the direction of her companions' focused gazes, and a flicker of serious trepidation briefly darkened her expression. She tightened her face, though, and managed a weak smile again.
"—the welfare of the people and Pokémon of Kanto—"
"—the welfare of the people and Pokémon of Kanto—"
They blinked in the sunlight, still watching the crowd. Nothing was changing, and yet, everything was.
"—and the Napajian nation."
"—and the Napajian nation."
A genuine, unrestrained smile bloomed on Misty's face at the end, breaking the decorum she had kept.
"Congratulations," she said warmly, reaching for Ash's hand. The crowd exploded into cheers; Iris, Leaf, and Paul let out a collective sigh of relief and exchanged half-amused glances before redirecting their attention toward Ash. He was evidently oblivious to the mutual though ultimately unfounded apprehensions they shared, and they were glad. This was his moment, and he could enjoy it unadulterated.
Ash was positively beaming, and he had a powerful desire to kiss Misty then in celebration. He restrained himself though as Misty lightly tapped his upper arm, indicating he should turn to his fellow Champions. He did so, and Wallace smiled, uttering a polite "Congratulations" before also extending a hand to shake his. Iris followed, loosely embracing him instead with another "Congratulations"; Pikachu nuzzled his trainer while she leaned in. Paul was silent, but he nodded approvingly to Ash as they, too, shook hands. Leaf was last in line, and she grasped his shoulder before leaning in and saying, "Knock 'em dead, Ashy-boy."
Ash resisted a laugh; Gary was rubbing off on her. Misty and the Champions returned to their seats while Ash stepped up to the podium, unfolding a slightly crumpled speech from the inside of his pocket.
"It's really an honor to be here," Ash started. His voice was strong, but there was a slight tremor in his hands; he was nervous. "It's been my dream to become the Champion since I was a kid, and I know there are thousands of kids out there who also have that dream. I want those kids to know: That dream is alive, and I never want them to stop growing stronger and getting closer with their Pokémon if they feel discouraged."
Leaf folded her hands together. Her chest was swelling.
"I do know being a Champion is much more than being a good trainer, though," Ash continued. "A Champion is a leader, and there's a lot of responsibility that rests on their shoulders. I won't let Kanto down, and I won't let the other great Champions before me down either. Wallace Reyes, Paul Rebolledo, Iris Ajagara, and Leaf Greene have all been examples to me of great leaders who stand for what's right, and I can't wait to join them."
A burning sensation rose in Leaf's eyes. Paul noticed and leaned toward her.
"Now don't you cry, Leaf," he murmured. He was teasing her, she knew, but anyone else wouldn't have been able to tell from his flat delivery. Leaf scoffed and lifted a pair of sunglasses to her face.
"I'm not crying," she said.
Ash pulled uneasily at the edge of his collar. The bright, glittering lights of the grand hall made him feel a little too warm in his suit, and his general restlessness in being at such a ritzy event—one intended for him, no less—did little to help. It was evening, and the reception celebrating his inauguration had begun. This was not his first Champion reception—he'd been to two, one for Leaf and one for Paul—but this was the first in which he was the center of attention, and it was a little overwhelming.
"What are you doing here all by yourself?"
Ash perked up and turned around to see Leaf accompanied by Gary. They, like all their company, were dressed to the nines.
"Huh?" Ash blinked, and Leaf's lips—a vivid red—curved into a frown.
"This is your reception," she half-chastised him. "Mingle. These people are here for you. Here, I'll take Pikachu, and you go ask someone to dance." She extended her hands toward the Electric-type on Ash's shoulder, and Pikachu happily leapt into her arms. Ash stared incredulously for a moment, and Gary let out a short, derisive chuckle.
"She's not gonna let you slide on this one, Ashy-boy," he said. "Trust me: Getting Paul to socialize at his reception was like pulling teeth, but she did it anyway."
Now that Gary had mentioned it, Ash could distinctly remember seeing Paul at his reception looking utterly miserable. Ash's mouth writhed into an amused smile at the memory.
"I'll be fine," Ash confidently promised. "I'm a total people person!"
Leaf hummed in response before saying, "Prove it then."
Now having been issued a challenge, Ash found it much easier to move out into the formal throng of partygoers. He recognized just about every face: gym leaders from every region, Elite Four members, former Champions, famous Top Coordinators, Frontier Brains, Pokémon professors, and of course, his own friends.
Ash recognized the voice and immediately grew excited. He spun on his heel and saw Bonnie waving at him with Clemont and Serena.
"Hey!" Ash grinned as he jogged over the trio. "Boy, am I glad to see you guys."
"We're glad we're getting the opportunity to actually talk to you," Clemont half-laughed. "We figured you'd be occupied all evening."
"Aw, you know I'd always make time for you guys," Ash said. Something about his own words struck Ash then, and he paused, falling quiet. His sudden thoughtful reticience was almost alarming, and his companions exchanged concerned glances.
"Is... everything okay?" Serena asked worriedly.
"Hm? Oh, yeah!" Ash quickly snapped back into the present. "I just had a thought is all." He reached his hands out toward Serena and Clemont's shoulders, then moved one down to Bonnie's "Thanks. I really, really appreciate you guys coming."
"Of... course..." Clemont said, a little unsettled by his behavior. Ash tensed up, feeling a sharp gaze burrow into his back, and he didn't have to turn around to know whose eyes they were. Right. He needed to ask someone to dance. He was ready to extend an invitation to either Bonnie or Serena when his eyes caught a flash of red over the latter's shoulder.
"Ah... I'll have to catch up with you guys later," he said, waving them off.
Ash approached a conglomeration of mainly Elite Four members of all regions with little hesitation. He personally knew a handful of them—Flint, Volkner, Georgia—but the one he wanted to see stood aside Phoebe in a blue dress, and extended a hand to her.
"Could I interrupt?" he said, and the party's conversation halted. "How'd you like to dance, Misty?"
Misty appeared surprised; Georgia raised her brow and brought her wineglass to her lips before casting Trip a suggestive glance.
"Sure," Misty eventually agreed, taking his hand. He grinned and led her away from the group, out onto the dancefloor. There, her hand rose to his shoulder while his fell to her waist, and they began to sway to the music.
"This is unexpected," Misty said. "I thought if I was going to get a dance, I'd have to ask you for one."
"Leaf told me to," Ash confessed, and Misty immediately frowned.
"You know, you should've just taken credit," she grumbled. "You'd seem more romantic that way."
Ash chuckled sheepishly, saying, "Sorry..."
She smiled and hummed, seemingly forgiving him. Ash's foot nearly stumbled, but he managed to catch himself; Misty was a far better dance partner than he, and it was good news for him. The last thing he wanted was to embarrass himself at his own Champion reception.
"So are you having fun?" Misty asked. Ash grinned and moved his hand from her waist to the small of her back, and he pulled her in closer.
"I am now," he said playfully, and Misty's face flushed red. It was an amusing and gratifying sight for Ash: It wasn't often he could make her genuinely flustered. She quickly shook it off though.
"Nice recovery," she commended.
"I try," Ash said coolly. His eyes then rose toward the chandelier above them as he continued, "To be honest, I'm just kind of in awe. Leaf said all these people are here for me, and that's kind of humbling in a way, you know?"
"You've touched a lot of people," Misty said.
He nodded, acknowledging he heard her, but it was evident he was getting caught up in his own thoughts again. As the song was ending, however, he looked directly at Misty again and asked, "Do you think you could do me a favor?"
She couldn't immediately answer as another person called out, "Ash!" They both turned to see Reggie approaching.
"Hey!" Ash greeted, pleasantly surprised. "What's up?"
"I've been looking you all evening," Reggie said, reaching into his pocket. "I've got something for you." Ash blinked, initially confused, then he sucked in his breath as Reggie pulled out a Pokéball and pressed it into Ash's hand.
Zoey jolted when her phone went off, and she quickly fumbled for the device, silencing it without ever answering the call. She was seated beside Candice at one of the many white-clothed tables, picking at their individual plates of cocktail foods, and they were in good company. Candice watched Zoey with a curious expression as she deposited the phone back into her purse, letting out a long breath as she did, and returned her attention to the conversation at hand.
"So I heard construction for the first specially-designated contest hall in Unova will begin in early 2010," Wallace said, leaning into the group. "Congratulations. Your hard work has paid off."
"Thank you," Drew graciously replied. "The hope is that Unova will be ready to host a full season with a Grand Festival by 2013."
"What will you do until then?" Winona asked.
"Well, we do having a wedding to plan," Drew said, his arm reaching for May's waist in the seat beside him. She let out a breathy, inaudible laugh at his touch. "But I'm still going to be employed for the APC as an event coordinator, and I'm taking a lot of my team from the CIU with me, which will be great."
"Yeah," Kenny added with a grin, nudging Barry in the side. "The dream team is still alive."
"Does that include you, May?" Winona asked, raising a brow at the young woman.
"Yes!" May answered, straightening up. "But I'm also going to finish school this year with DIL, and then I'll be certified to teach."
"It'll be a good fit for you," Wallace said with a nod, and May's hand curled into her lap; she glanced away but managed a weak smile. Wallace looked toward her brother next, asking, "What about you Max? Are you returning to the gym, or will you be working at the APC, too?"
"Me?" Max pointed to himself, surprised he'd been addressed. "Uh, well—" He fumbled with his words and glasses for a moment. "—neither, actually. I'm taking a break and entering the Hoenn Pokémon League Challenge."
May's brow shot up, and there were others who appeared equally surprised.
"What?!" May's voice pitched higher. "Max, you didn't tell me about this."
"Well, I'm telling you now," Max said, sounding a little indignant.
"What inspired this?" Zoey asked, folding her arms.
"I guess watching Ash battle Leaf made me think a bit," Max admitted. "And I realized I wasn't quite ready to stop competing."
It took an extra moment for the shock to wear off the others, but Candice couldn't help but grin and let out a laugh.
"I think that's awesome," she said. "I know some gym leaders from Hoenn. They're really tough, so good luck. You'll need it."
Wallace hummed and let on an interesting smile, adding, "I agree. Perhaps we'll meet again soon then."
Zoey felt her phone vibrate in her purse again. She pressed her lips together in annoyance and dug inside to retrieve it. She pulled it out to look at the caller ID.
"Hey, who keeps calling you?" Barry asked curiously from across the table.
"I don't know," Zoey mumbled. "It's an unknown number from Hearthome."
"Well, maybe you ought to answer it," Drew suggested, and Zoey gave him an odd look. Drew ignored her gaze, however, as he rose to his feet and extended a hand to his fiancée. "May, let's dance."
May appeared delighted and nodded eagerly before rising with him, too. They left, and Zoey exchanged a look with Candice before resigning. She stood up, excused herself, and took her phone away from the table.
"Hello," she started. "This is Zoey Williams speaking."
Ash's eyes scanned the crowd as he hurried through the hall, stopping only occasionally—and unwillfully—whenever someone wanted to congratulate him on his new title. He was appreciative, and the attention might have been better enjoyed under different circumstances, but he had a one-track mind, and he was on a mission.
As he weaved through people in his rush, however, he ended up accidentally bumping into the shoulder of a small woman. Realizing his error, Ash quickly and apologetically whipped around.
"Sorry! Oh... Wow, Iris, you look great!" he complimented, seeing he had in fact run into Iris and Cilan. Iris blinked but smiled, immediately forgiving his carelessness as she pulled lightly on the pink sash around her waist.
"Thank you," she said cheerfully, almost looking ready to twirl. "This is actually what I was supposed to wear at my inauguration reception."
"Ooh," Ash said, sucking in his breath and wincing. "Touchy subject, huh?"
"Don't worry about it," Iris assured him. "Maybe the one good thing that came out of that day was that I didn't have to have one. Dressing up is fun, but I'm not really into these fancy parties."
Ash chuckled and rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, saying, "Me neither."
"Well, I like them," Cilan interjected, and Iris rolled her eyes.
"Anyway, what's got you in such a hurry?" she asked.
"I'm actually looking for Paul," Ash admitted. "Have either of you seen him?"
"I can't say I have," Cilan said with a frown before turning an eye to his wife. "Iris?" She shook her head though.
"What do you need him for?" Iris asked.
"Just wanted to talk to him real quick," Ash answered vaguely.
"Oh, is this about... ?" Cilan began, but he trailed off, leaving the question unfinished.
"To be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if he's left," Iris said. "I can promise he hates these kind of things more than you or I combined."
"What?" Ash blanched, sounding genuinely disappointed. "No, he couldn't have left yet. I've gotta see everyone—just after I talk to him first, though."
"See everyone?" Cilan inquired with a perplexed expression. Then he snapped a finger in remembrance, saying, "That's right. Misty came by earlier to say—" This sentence was also left hanging as Ash perked up, looking over the couple's shoulders.
"—I think I saw him, see you guys soon!" He ran off again, and Cilan tripped on his own words. Iris appeared amused at first, but she soon let out an exasperated sigh.
"He might be a Champion now, but he's still a kid," she said.
"When are you due?" Cynthia asked politely, leaning toward Dawn with sincere interest. Dawn straightened up, though she expected this turn in conversation—they had confirmed via several media outlets that she and Paul were expecting only days earlier—and she ran her hands over the deep blue fabric of her dress, revealing the definite curve in her lower abdomen.
"April 2nd," she answered with a weak smile. Paul was silent, but he kept a careful eye on her before looking back at Cynthia.
"It'll go by fast," Cynthia said, her hand lightly touching her daughter's shoulder. Emily glanced up but said nothing. "I promise that."
"It's already going fast," Dawn half-laughed. "I'm getting into some accelerated courses on DIL so I can get my degree before the baby comes."
"What are you studying?" Steven asked.
"Fashion design," Dawn answered. "I'm looking to get into PokéStyling."
"Well, I wish you the best of luck," Cynthia said. "If there's anything either you or Paul need, please let us know."
"Thank you very much," Dawn said.
"Maybe we'll be friends," Emily suddenly interjected to the surprise of her company. The child tended to be quiet at adult-oriented functions like this one.
Dawn, however, smiled again and chuckled, "Maybe."
"Hey Paul!" Paul's expression withered; he immediately recognized the voice, but he nevertheless turned as Ash jogged toward him. The new Champion grinned and continued, "Oh man, I'm glad you haven't left yet."
"I don't think I could get away," Paul said dryly, and Dawn gave him a slight elbow in the side.
Ash seemed unfazed, however, as he said, "Could you come with me for a moment? ... I wanna show you something."
Dawn perked up and looked at Ash pointedly. He only smiled at her, and then, she knew. Paul cast a suspicious glance between the two, getting the sense they were working in collusion with each other.
"... Okay," Paul eventually agreed, though still clearly skeptical of their intentions. Dawn reached for his hand, briefly squeezing it, before letting Ash drag him away. Paul cautiously followed Ash as they made their way further into the reception hall, toward the grand staircase. Ash paused at the bottom only long enough to check whether Paul was still with him before pressing onward and upward.
Upstairs, Ash found an empty, unlocked room and waited for Paul, who was lagging behind out of his growing impassivity. Ash ushered him inside before closing the door, and Paul was starting to grow annoyed with all the fussiness.
"What's this about?" Paul half-demanded once they were alone. The dim lighting combined with their sudden seclusion suddenly and strangely made Ash anxious.
"W-Well, I, uh..." Ash fumbled for a moment, now unsure of what to say to his former rival. Paul watched him impatiently, and Ash reached for a Pokéball. "Let me just show you instead." He released the Pokémon within, and Paul's breath caught.
"Where..." Paul was practically speechless, and though Ash knew him as a man of few words, the incredulous response still seemed so out of character. Paul slowly sank to a single knee. "Where did you get it?"
It was a baby Turtwig.
"Reggie," Ash answered. "After what happened to your Torterra, I talked to him and asked him to breed my Torterra for an egg. She just hatched a couple days ago, and he brought her to me tonight."
The Turtwig yawned and glanced at Paul wonderingly. Paul's hand, which had unraveled from a fist upon the Pokémon's appearance, suddenly tightened again, and Ash looked nervous.
"I didn't know how you were gonna feel about it," Ash quickly went on. "I totally understand if you don't want her. I don't want you to feel like she's... replacing your Torterra. I asked Dawn and Reggie what they thought, and they weren't 100 percent sure how you'd react, but they both thought I ought to do it anyway. Don't worry, though! If you don't want to raise her, I already talked to Cilan, and he said he'd be happy to—"
"—It's fine," Paul hastily cut him off. "I'll raise her." He extended a hand toward the Turtwig, and she warily examined it before tottering forward and letting him pet her. Ash stared in surprise, blinking, before his mouth spread into a grin. He tapped Paul on the shoulder and held out her Pokéball to him. He accepted it before standing again and holding the Pokéball out.
"Return," he said, recalling the Turtwig into its ball.
Once the seal clicked, Ash let out a short chuckle before saying, "Hey, you know, raising a baby Pokémon might even be good practice for an actual baby!"
"Don't get cute," Paul grumbled, putting the Pokéball away. He looked at the door over his shoulder. "We should get going. There are people expecting us."
"Right," Ash agreed, nodding. Paul opened the door again, but just as he was about to step out, he caught himself on the door frame.
"Ash... This was really..." Paul started, but he never finished the sentiment, and he didn't have to. "Thank you."
Ash could only smile.
"Don't mention it," he said.
"You are far too cute," Leaf cooed as she rubbed Pikachu's belly, much to the contentment of the Pokémon. She sat alone at a table, waiting for Gary to return, but in the meantime, she was amusing herself with Electric-type laying in her lap. Pikachu hummed appreciatively all the while, but the noises cut out when a shadow cast itself over the pair. Pikachu sat up, and Leaf's hand fell to her side. Yet, her lips curled into a smirk.
"I was wondering when I would see you," she said.
Lance rounded the back of her chair and sat beside her. He said nothing for a while as they both looked ahead at the scene before them: famous trainers gathering at the Indigo Plateau to celebrate the inauguration of a fifth Napajian Champion. And Leaf could appreciate the view with a title still under her belt.
"Are you proud?" Lance asked.
"Very," Leaf said curtly. Lance grunted, then paused, thinking.
"You knew, didn't you?" he asked.
"Knew what?" Leaf said lightly.
"Don't be coy," Lance said. "I find it interesting you were angling to have Ritchie as your referee for so long. You're too clever and not nearly selfless enough to let these titles rest purely on happenstance."
Pikachu blinked and glanced wonderingly up at Leaf, who was suddenly looking a little annoyed.
"Why are you bringing this up now?" she grumbled.
"I think you foresaw this outcome." He didn't say it accusingly; it almost came out as a matter of fact. "I think you knew Ritchie would call a draw."
Leaf hummed away her ire and flicked a piece of her hair out of her face.
"The match was a draw, Lance," she said firmly. "I never told Ritchie to call it one way or another. The guy doesn't have a bad bone in his body anyway, and he would've refused if I asked."
"Leaf." The conversation temporarily halted as Gary approached. "It's almost time."
"I'll be there in a moment," she told him, gesturing for him to leave. He craned an eyebrow but turned away. Leaf rose to her feet with Pikachu in her arms. Her eyes were locked forward, settled upon the partygoers, as she said, "Everything ultimately worked out in my favor, but it wasn't all under my control. I could only set up my pieces on the board; I couldn't determine how the other players would act, and I was actually surprised it ended this way. I half-expected it wouldn't."
Lance furrowed his brow.
"Your pieces?" he repeated.
"I did wonder if Ritchie could call a draw," Leaf admitted. Her gaze met his then, and she winked. "Checkmate. I win."
The air outside had a bite to it now that night had fallen. Yet, the breeze carried the pungent scent of the harbor, and it served as a powerful draw to the balcony overlooking the Indigo waters. May carefully drew up her long dress as she ascended several steps leading up to the railing with Drew in tow. She sat on the edge, taking in the blue-hued view, tinted only by the bright yellow lights from within the reception hall. Then, she lifted her head toward the sky.
"It's beautiful tonight," she sighed. "I think the last time the stars looked this amazing was... well... Reggie and Maylene's wedding." She unconsciously touched her own engagement ring at the thought.
"That was a long time ago," Drew remarked, coming up beside her. "I'm surprised you remember how it looked."
"It was a memorable night," May said, moving her right hand up to the clutch the other end of her wineglass again. She hadn't partaken much, but she already felt a little lightheaded.
"It really was." May breathed in sharply at the voice and, with a widening smile, jerked her head back to see Ritchie and Trip ascending up the stairs. Ritchie had been the one to speak.
"Oh good, you guys are here!" she said cheerfully, quickly rising to her feet as they met. "I was getting worried we'd be the only ones."
"Well, Misty said 9 p.m., and it's..." Trip flicked over his wrist to check his watch. "8:56."
"Where's your girlfriend?" Drew asked a little wryly, addressing Trip.
"I think she's having a grand old time getting Burgundy drunk," Iris answered for him; she and Cilan came up shortly behind them.
"Oh!" May exclaimed upon their appearance before she hurried over to greet the Unova Champion. "Iris, you look so pretty..."
Their group started to arrive in droves. Barry tripped excitedly up the stairs and loudly proclaimed he was going to fine the architect, much to Kenny's amusement. Dawn arrived in the company of Serena and the Liscio siblings amid a thrilled conversation about the new baby. Leaf extended a hand to Gary, offering him a touch of extra help on his ascension; his limp was barely noticeable now, but they were cautious.
Drew leaned back against the railing and folded his arms, appreciating the scene. He didn't feel as chatty as his fiancée, who was also now cooing over Dawn, but he felt very content in his company.
He cast a sideways glance as Zoey slid next to him on the railing. His lips curved into a smirk.
"How did that phone call go?" he asked wryly.
"So it was you, then," Zoey said. She almost sounded wary, but her small, restrained smile prevented her from looking suspicious.
"I hold to my promises," Drew said with a flick of his hair; it wasn't a move he'd played in a while, but its return was well-placed. "I wouldn't have let Candice cancel your flight if I wasn't sure I could make it worth your while." Zoey inhaled, her chest expanding, but she said nothing. "I'll ask again: How did that phone call go?"
Zoey briefly averted her gaze as her smile widened.
"I have an interview with The Hearthome Chronicle next week," she said. "They need a new reporter working the contest beat."
Drew broke character, and his expression and voice revealed something far more genuine.
"I'm glad," he said. He pushed himself off the railing, preparing to integrate himself with the party—Max had just arrived—but Zoey stopped him.
"Drew." He glanced over his shoulder, and when she had his eyes, she smiled again and said, sincerely, "Thank you." He nodded to her then perked up when the group buzzed at their newest arrivals.
"There she is," Kenny said as Misty came up the steps with Brock in tow. "So what's this all about?"
"I don't know," Misty said with a shrug that suggested she definitely knew. "You'll have to ask Ash when he gets here."
"Here! Sorry," Ash's voice cut through the conversation, and he jogged into view. Paul was lingering behind, but he eventually made his way to Dawn's side.
"Running late as usual," Leaf teased, and Ash let out an abashed laugh. Pikachu leapt from her shoulders and rejoined his trainer, much to his delight. He grinned, petting his partner on the head, before facing the group again and turning more serious.
"Thanks for coming up here to meet with me," he started. "I just... wanted to take a moment to thank you guys. We've been through a lot together—all of us—and I know this night wouldn't be possible without any of you." His party was quiet, listening intently, and Ash rubbed the back of his head, almost embarrassed. He wasn't as eloquent as he would have liked to be. "I know this is actually something that's so much bigger than just me, but I'm... I'm glad you were all here for it."
A beat of silence followed. Then, with a smile, Serena warmly said, "We were glad to be here."
Leaf hummed in agreement and raised her glass.
"A toast?" she proposed. "To the future—Dawn, that better have cider in it." A chorus of laughs followed, and Dawn glowered at her.
"It does, thank you," she said curtly, and several more laughs followed.
"Then, a toast." Cilan seconded the motion, and a melody of crystal chimes followed. The group fell into a warm haze of conversation afterward with no one quite ready to leave and rejoin the reception. Ash interjected a comment that garnered a few laughs, and then he paused, his eyes passing over the happy faces of the group once again. Everything almost felt right, and everyone almost felt complete.
There's so much I could say with the close of this story, but I'll try to keep it short. Thank you so much for all the support I've received in writing this series - it's been nothing short of surreal to receive the kind of positive response I have - and I hope you'll still support me as I press forward in it. This will be a trilogy. Before I write the third installment, though, I hope you'll look for the upcoming short spinoff "Everything Else Is," which will prominently feature Zoey and connect the end of this story to the third.
There are some people whom I want to thank. First, my friend and editor, Coffee Craft, who's been with me since the very beginning of the series and was hugely important in developing this story. I also want to thank my friends kasuria and toasty-coconut on Tumblr (Down-the-Line on FFN) for their input and for helping to motivate me even when it was difficult. Lastly, I want to thank all of you again for your reviews and messages. This story wouldn't be what it is without you.