I was supposed to finish this whole story before April 1st! I had some mad pacing issues with this chapter and the next and I had to rewrite and rearrange them several times, which is why it's so late. The 20th movie isn't out yet, so I'm going to take that to mean that I'm not too late to finish this. There are three pop culture references in this chapter, so kudos to anyone who can spot all three of them!
Please note that I've changed the rating of this story from a K+ to a T because of some mild to moderate sexual references in the next chapter. Also I was told that references to alcohol would come under a 'T' as well. (thanks N-I-N-T!)
Shippings in this chapter is mainly just Wishfulshipping.
Ash held his hand up to the sun, squinting at the light that filtered through his fingers. It was late morning and it was the perfect temperature – warm enough that he didn't need a jacket, but not unbearably hot either.
"You ready for this, Pikachu?"
Ash laughed. "Why am I asking you anyway? You're just going to sit on my shoulder the whole time like a dead weight."
"Complaining again?" Iris teased. She was carrying no backpack, but she had changed into something more practical than the gowns she had taken to wearing in her public appearances. "You're not having second thoughts, are you?"
"No way." Ash shook his head. "I haven't travelled anywhere on foot in years. Me and Pikachu missed this."
"It's silly that the Kalos League doesn't let you travel anywhere. Outside League business and family time, I mean. I'm glad the Unova region does."
Ash grinned, "Remember how many times we ran into Alder when we were traveling? I don't think he ever went back to Vertress except for the conference."
Iris giggled. "Remember when he kept calling you Ashton?"
Ash laughed heartily, as did Pikachu, both losing themselves in the memory.
"He called you Ashton in a recent interview, actually," Cilan commented, finally stepping outdoors with them. He was carrying a large rucksack, no doubt packed with all of Iris' things. "Everyone was really confused."
Ash rubbed the back of his neck. "I'll bet. I have no idea why he still thinks that's my name."
"He's a little odd, so no one took him seriously."
"He might be odd," Iris said, stretching out her arms, "But I'm grateful to him. He set a precedent for Champions doing their own thing around here. I still want to be more involved with the League than he was, but Haxorus would be bored to bits if we were stuck in the same training room all day."
Ash's stomach twisted uncomfortably. He gave a very sorry glance to Pikachu, who cooed and nuzzled his cheek.
"Well!" Cilan breathed deeply, raising his hands to the air as if he was about to lift off. "The three of us on the road! I didn't think we'd get another opportunity to do this."
"It'll be awesome," Ash agreed, a twinkle in his eye. "Although I know not having me around has been great for the two of you."
Cilan flushed immediately, and Iris sighed. "Look, Cilan. He's learning."
"I almost wish he didn't," Cilan muttered.
Ash chuckled, Pikachu and Iris joining in. It wasn't quite exactly like old times; Ash still wasn't used to almost being as tall as Cilan, and being nearly a foot taller than Iris. Cilan had rolled up his sleeves, possibly in anticipation for the heat, and swapped his old grey waistcoat for a brown one. Instead of a forest of hair, Iris sported two long braids, which she pinned to her head like that actress in that space movie. (Ash decided not to bring it up because he was sure Cilan had seen it, and he didn't want to get him started.) She hadn't kept Axew in her hair for years now, considering he was a haxorus and far too large to be travelling outside of his ball, but it was still disconcerting to see her hair so tidy.
But even being around them was comforting, and all of the friends he visited during his short stay in the region. It was familiar; it took him back to a time when he was really, truly enjoying himself.
"Well, we better get going, right?" Ash placed his hands on his hips. Pikachu mirrored his actions on his shoulder. "Or else we won't make it to Opelucid City in time for my flight."
Iris reached over and flicked Ash's nose, causing him to gasp in pain. "You think you're in charge? Cilan, isn't that adorable?"
"I wish I'd never introduced you to Misty," Ash grumbled, "Cilan, tell your girlfriend to stop bullying me."
"Sorry, partner." Ash scoffed and looked behind him, only to find no one standing where Cilan had been before. "Cilan?"
"There he goes," Iris groaned, slapping a palm to her head. Ash looked the other way to see the green-haired man running down the road.
"I forgot!" Cilan yelled back at them, "Check-in for our hotel closes at six and we simply must get to our room before the connoisseur convention! I won't be walking in covered in sweat!"
"I'm going to pretend I don't know him."
"Good luck trying to convince the media of that," Ash pointed out.
"Then I'll just pretend I don't exist at all."
When Cilan began to climb a tree in order to sleep next to Iris, Ash decided that it wasn't quite just like old times after all.
They'd only travelled for a total of a day, but he was already starting to feel like the third wheel. Even though he'd always lead the way, much like he used to when they were younger, he was vaguely aware of Iris and Cilan behind him being…a couple. They weren't even doing anything explicitly romantic, he could just feel the romance emanating from them. He couldn't possible miss the gooey-eyed looks they'd share, or the brushing of their hands as they walked next to each other. It was all stuff that Serena had tried time and time again on him. He barely understood it in his own relationship, and now he had to play hanger-on to whatever they were doing.
At least he still had Pikachu.
"How'd you guys get together anyway?" Ash asked at the tree, knowing they were in earshot. "You weren't together the last time I met you."
There was no answer at first. Ash heard the rustling of leaves and hoped that only meant they were just adjusting themselves, and not doing anything uncalled for.
Cilan finally cleared his throat. "At your engagement party?"
"We, ah…we actually were."
Ash blinked, and Pikachu perked his nose. This was news to the both of them.
"We've been on and off for several years," Iris explained. "The long distance made it hard."
"I decided to travel on my own, and Iris was still in Blackthorn City…"
"And sometimes I'd go through intensive training where I couldn't talk to anyone outside of the Dragon Holy Land for weeks."
"And when I got back to Unova, it was all research papers and academic work to become an S-Class connoisseur."
"We tried dating for a while, but we were just too busy I guess."
"We called it off…officially."
Iris giggled, and Ash narrowed his eyes. He decided not to dwell on the implications, and scratched the top of Pikachu's head, getting appreciative noises from the mouse. "So what made you two get back together?"
Iris poked her head through a patch of leaves. "Why do you want to know?"
Ash stumbled. "Just – you guys are my friends, and this is –"
"Weird? Awkward?" Iris snorted, "Yeah, I felt the same way at your engagement party."
"Iris," Cilan hissed.
Ash sat up in his seat, immediately stopping his ministrations. He didn't notice Pikachu looking up at him in confusion. "What about my engagement party?"
He didn't get a direct answer. There was some inaudible mumbling coming from the tree. "What was wrong with my engagement party?"
"Nothing was wrong, Ash," Cilan called down, and then grunted as the leaves started to rustle again and the branches started to creak, and Iris jumped down from her perch.
"Yeah, nothing was wrong, it was just weird," Iris leaned back against the trunk as Cilan's foot could be seen searching around for a branch to rest on. "Seeing you almost married, of all people. And before us!"
Ash frowned. "I think I'm a little more mature than I used to be when we were travelling together."
"Maybe I just have a hard time accepting that you're not a little kid anymore, but I don't know." Iris huffed, "And especially with someone like Serena!"
"Wha– what's wrong with Serena?"
"Nothing! Like I said, it's not wrong, it's just weird. I'd never have guessed she was your type."
"Iris," Cilan warned, finally making his way onto the ground. "I never thought I'd fall in love with someone like you either. We're very different too."
"Well, sure," Iris said, although a little disgruntled. "I'm not saying it's wrong."
"Ash." Cilan dusted himself off. "It's weird for both of us because it feels like it happened so fast. We didn't get to watch you grow. But," he placed a hand on his shoulder and smiled warmly at him, "We're really happy that you've found someone to spend the rest of your life with."
Ash sucked on his teeth. "Um, thanks."
"And we're really proud of how far you've come. And what you've achieved."
"We always knew you could do it," Iris grinned.
Ash grinned back, but he was aware that it didn't quite reach his eyes. Instead of putting his mind to rest, their statements only raised a lot more questions that he wasn't sure how to address.
"Are you guys happy?" was what he finally settled on, and he earned puzzled looks from the both of them.
"What do you mean?" Cilan asked.
"With life. Where you are, and all that."
"Hell yeah!" iris laughed, "I'm the Champion of Unova, what more could I want?"
"I've wanted to be an S-class connoisseur all my life, Ash. You know that."
Ash bit his lip. He felt Pikachu place a paw on his ears, and looked into his eyes to find something like sadness? Pity? Whatever it was, Ash didn't want to see it anymore. He rubbed the critter's ears for a moment to comfort him.
Cilan crouched down so he was in Ash's line of view. "Why do you ask?"
"No reason." Ash gave them another smile, making sure it was a little wider this time. And for extra measure he added, "I'm proud of you guys too."
The truth part must cancel out the lie.
"Clearly this is more complicated than just Serena," Misty mused.
Ash rolled his eyes. Because of course, when he talked to her he had to tell her everything. It's a good think his drunk self was sensible enough not to spill in front of Gary, because Gary wouldn't given him hell for it. He felt bad enough dumping things on Misty; he would stop if she didn't keep insisting.
"Pikachupi!" A flash of yellow appeared on the table and jumped into the giggling redhead's arms. Ash watched, heart soaring, as both Misty and Pikachu clung to each other. The little guy probably missed Misty just as much as he did – he hadn't looked this happy to see anyone so far.
Misty placed a soft kiss near Pikachu's ear. "I missed you too, Pika-pal." She quirked an eyebrow at Ash, "Where have you been hiding him all this time?"
"All Pikachu's done for the past two days is sleep," Ash complained, "He's let himself go."
"He let himself go?"
"Okay, okay! I let him slack off."
Pikachu harrumphed, and scurried his way onto Misty's shoulder. She nuzzled his cheek and turned her attention back to Ash.
"Why didn't you tell them anything?"
Ash could tell she was trying hard to look nonchalant – her forehead was creased in a way it shouldn't have been, and her lips were puckered in that way they were when she grit her teeth too hard.
"I didn't want to seem ungrateful," Ash replied quietly. Pikachu made his way off of Misty's shoulder and sat down in front of Ash, putting a paw on his hand. Ash smiled at the pokémon thankfully and scratched him under the chin.
"You're allowed to not enjoy your job, no matter how good it is. And Ash," she called, forcing him to look up and meet her eyes, "If I can be honest? You seem really unhappy with where you're at right now."
"Hm." She was right, as usual. But he still felt sick to the stomach for other reasons he wasn't sure how to bring up yet.
"And you seem like you have a pretty good reason to be unhappy, too."
"I couldn't tell them anyway." Ash shifted underneath Misty's questioning gaze. "Especially to Iris. I didn't want to dishearten her from her role."
Misty frowned. "That's…a valid argument, I suppose."
Ash had noticed for a while that at that part of the morning, the sun shining through the window was positioned right behind Misty and made her look like she was glowing. He could have stared at her forever if she hadn't opened her mouth again. "Disheartened, that's a big word."
Ash sighed. "Very funny."
Misty giggled cheerily, and a disgruntled Ash noted Pikachu happily skipping back to his spot on her shoulder. "Okay, so what next?"
"And Randall is down to his last pokémon! It looks like this might be it for the challenger, folks!"
League battles were normally exciting, but now that Randall had made it to the Elite Four, he had a lot to look forward to. He remembered the boy from way back during his first journey in Kalos, and Randall had come a far since then. Ash thought he might actually meet him in a championship battle.
But a couple of key mistakes were costing Randall his match against Wikstrom. The steel-type Elite Four still had four pokémon remaining to Randall's one. And knowing that the last member of the challenger's team was a sylveon, it would be near impossible for him to turn things around.
"Elite Four Wikstrom has chosen to withdraw his scizor and send out Klekfi! The challenger has sent out his last pokémon, a sylveon!"
Ash could see the uncertainty in Randall's demeanour. And so could the rest of his elite four.
"Tough," Malva commented, and Siebold nodded in agreement.
It was, and it showed – Randall was defeated quickly. Sylveon tried to hold its own for a while, but it just wasn't working out for either of them.
"I was really rooting for this one too," Drasna sighed, "He seems like such a sweetheart."
Ash clenched his fist and rose from his seat, letting Pikachu jump onto his arm.
"Ash?" Siebold asked.
"I'm just heading out for a while," he explained.
"Everyone will notice," Malva pointed out.
"Then let them," he grunted, leaving the League box.
He nodded at the guards stationed outside the doorway and made his way through the various passageways of the stadium. Unlike other leagues, the Kalos League was held in a different place every year. He never got the opportunity to learn his way around every time, but luckily this year he had access to a map of all the hidden passageways that the security used to get around the place.
Because he was oh so good at reading a map.
His holo caster beeped in his jeans pocket, and he checked it out to find a text message from Bonnie.
'They showed you running out on the big screen,' it said, along with an assortment of confused emojis. He winced.
"Pikapi?" Pikachu asked, tugging at his collar.
"I'm alright, buddy. I just needed to stretch my legs. Wanna go visit Randall?"
Pikachu nodded, and together they began the search for the challenger's waiting room. Ash had enough sense to know it would be opposite to the league side of the stadium, so he made his way straight to the other side. It didn't take long to find the place, and he snuck inside before anyone could notice him. Randall had just finished his interview and walked in right as Ash did.
"Randall, hey!" he waved, brushing off the boy's shocked expression, and gave Pikachu the opportunity to greet him too. "Just wanted to see how you were holding up.
The teen took a dejected seat next to Ash. "I sucked."
"I wouldn't really say sucked…"
"I screwed up big time. I made some serious mistakes." He sighed. "I thought since I won the conference, it'd be easy pickings until I had to battle you."
Ash grinned wryly. "Yeah, it's easy to get cocky."
That didn't seem to reassure Randall. He only slumped dejectedly, his lower lip sticking out as he glared at the floor. "I guess I have a lot of improving to do, huh?"
"We all do," Ash murmured. "Even me. And definitely Pikachu." The mouse glared at him, and Ash passed him an affectionate smile. "It doesn't matter if you lose, or if you've already made it to the top, you still can't…stop there…"
Sure, Ash had started pulling his spiel right out of his ass, but he realised he might be onto something. It wasn't that he'd stopped training his pokémon – he owed it to them to continue – but they hadn't been presented with a challenge in years. Sometimes there would be a good exhibition match, but none of the conference winners had made it far enough for Ash to have a battle he could really sink his teeth into.
"Hey, Ash?" Randall said, waving his hand in front of Ash's eyes, "You zoned out."
"Sorry," he breathed. He clecked his hands resting on his knees and turned to the boy with a new zeal. "Say, did you ever go any place during your journey that you'll never forget?"
Randall furrowed his brow. "Everywhere, I guess."
"Yeah, but anywhere in particular? Got a recommendation?"
"Uh…well I was just at the Sinnoh Battle Zone. I didn't win anything, but it was pretty cool."
"Of course." Ash rose from his seat. Pikachu, who had been sitting next to him, jumped back onto his arm. The pokémon couldn't possibly know what Ash was thinking, but he could always sense it because he looked excited too. "Remember it, okay? Never forget how much fun it was. Your journey will always be the best part of being a trainer. I gotta go now, Professor Sycamore will kill me! Good luck with everything!"
"Ash, wait –"
Ash was already down the corridor before Randall could finish his sentence. He felt a little bad for leaving the young trainer confused, and without real answers, but when Ash was feeling an impulse he couldn't deny. Pikachu was clinging onto his shoulder for deal life, protesting at Ash's speed.
"I know you're confused, pal, but I just thought of something! Do you remember how much fun we had travelling around with Iris and Cilan?"
Ash wasn't sure if that was Pikachu agreeing with him or squealing at how fast Ash was running, but he decided it didn't matter. "That's what we've been missing, Pikachu. A journey. You want to travel again, don't you?"
That was definitely an approval. Ash grinned. He slowed to a stroll when he noticed that he was nearing the champion's box, and that a crowd had gathered around. Professor Sycamore, who was now the League's key organiser, looked stressed and confused, and Ash's manager Trevor was red in the face. Even Serena, Clemont and Bonnie had showed up, but thankfully no press. His fiancée spotted him turn the corner before anyone else did and she opened her mouth to speak, but Ash raised a finger to his lips, beckoning her to come closer. She frowned, tugging at Bonnie's sleeve and pulling the siblings along with her.
"Where did you go?" she whispered, "Trevor's been losing his mind."
"And you didn't respond to my texts," Bonnie pouted.
"I went to see how Randall was doing."
"You could've just said –"
"That's not important. I just figured out something big." He turned to his partner, eyes shining. "Serena, you know how I haven't been sleeping, right?"
Clemont, who previously looked interested at the prospect of Ash having 'figured out something big', now looked concerned. "You haven't been sleeping?"
"Yeah, but I think I know why!"
"You haven't been sleeping?" Bonnie repeated.
"So why is it?" Serena asked, not bothering to elaborate on Ash's latest nightly habits.
"I'm bored!" Ash announced, as if this made all the sense in the world. When he noticed their confused expressions, he continued, "I haven't been out of Kalos in ages, except for a few days here and there. When I was in Unova in Iris and Cilan, we got to travel for a bit – by foot, just like we used to – and I remembered how much fun it was. I forgot all about that!"
Apparently this wasn't the explanation they were expecting, because they all looked a little shocked. In Serena's case, she even looked a little hurt.
"So you're saying…you're bored here?"
Ash's eyes widened. "What? No! I love it here!" Some small part of his brain reminded him that he wasn't being all too honest, but Ash ignored it. "I've just…I've been doing the same thing over and over for years. I think I just need some time off, and not just for a week. I want to see a new place, battle new people! You guys remember how it is, right?"
They exchanged glances for long enough that Ash was almost convinced they thought he was crazy. Everything made much more sense in his head! Pikachu looked just as determined as he felt on his shoulder, so at least he understood.
But then Clemont broke out into a smile. "Those were great times we had."
"The best," Bonnie sighed.
They turned to Serena, who had bit her lip. "Yeah, you're right." Again, that small part of his brain told him Serena didn't seem as enthusiastic as the others, but he didn't let that get him down. "But how long were you planning on being gone?"
"A few months, tops. It's nothing! I kept in touch with you guys after I left Kalos too, remember?"
Bonnie snorted. "Barely."
"So you're used to it." Ash smirked. "It's only temporary. I'll be back before you know it."
Clemont adjusted his glasses. "Well it's not up to us, but I think it's a good idea." They all turned to Serena, who was tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
"You have to call me every time you get to a pokémon centre, or a new place."
Ash let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. "Of course."
"And take your holo caster with you."
"Wasn't planning on leaving it behind. And Pikachu will make sure I'm safe, right?"
"Pikachu's just as reckless as you are," Serena muttered.
He squeezed her shoulder and pushed past the three of them. "Thanks guys, now I gotta go tell Professor Sycamore!"
Ash had barely arrived in the resort area of Sinnoh's Battle Zone when the ground shook beneath his feet. From the looks of the people gathered around, it couldn't have been the first tremor they'd experienced.
"What do you think that's about, Pikachu?"
Pikachu pointed to the great wall of smoke rising from what he could only assume to be Stark Mountain looming over the town. Ash was under the impression that it was a dormant volcano, so it couldn't cause tremors…right?
"Clemont would know what's going on," Ash muttered under his breath.
"Or ye could just ask a local," a voice said behind him, causing Ash and Pikachu to jump and spin right around. "These tremors 'ere would be caused by Stark Mountain up there, yer Pikachu's right."
It was a tall bearded man, wearing a trench coat too thick for early spring. His accent seemed very contrived – unable to place and too thick to be true. There was something about him that screamed trouble, and Ash was unable to ignore it – even if he wasn't sure just what kind of trouble it was.
"Er, thanks," Ash nodded and turned to be on his way, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him.
"Y'know, if I was you, I'd be headin' up that-a-way before the fight area."
Ash raised an eyebrow. "How did you know I was going to the fight area?"
"Well, aren't you the Champion of Kalos?"
Ash shared an embarrassed look with Pikachu. "Yeah…"
"So I assume ye won't be takin' part in any o' the contests around here." The man scratched his chin. "But just because yer a Chapmion don't mean Palmer'll be that easy to beat. Even Cynthia has trouble with 'im once in a while. Stark Mountain happens to be a great place ta train up."
Ash swore he saw a few crumbs fall out of the man's beard as he scratched it. His instincts were telling him not to trust this man, but he did have a point. Ash had battled Palmer himself when he was in Sinnoh, and he knew it wouldn't be easy.
But he still had his reservations. "Are you sure Stark Mountain's even safe right now? What about that –"
"Giant tower o' smoke?" The man shook his head, "Y'always see that comin' outta Stark Mountain. The tremors are a little weird, but it ain't erupted yet. I wouldn't worry about it if I was you, kiddo."
It didn't sound very reassuring.
"What do you think, Pikachu?" he asked. Pikachu looked just as uncertain as he felt, but he nodded slowly.
"I'll let you to decide for yerselves," the stranger nodded, pulling his coat tighter over his shoulders, "But you'll see I'm right."
Ash and Pikachu watched through narrowed eyes as he walked away, disappearing into an alleyway between two nearby buildings.
"Strange," he murmured. He turned to look back at Stark Mountain, the plumes looking a lot blacker than you would expect from your regular cloud of ash. "But maybe it'll be worth a shot."
When Ash saw the Team Rocket grunts hanging around the pokémon centre in the survival area, he started to feel like he'd been set up.
"I know there was something weird about that guy," he grumbled under his breath.
"Chu," Pikachu agreed.
"You could tell, couldn't you? It wasn't just me."
"I bet he was part of Team Rocket too. Probably sending us straight into a trap."
He was curious though – what was Team Rocket doing in Sinnoh? Apart from Jessie, James and Meowth, and one stint in Unova, he hadn't seen them anywhere. They tended to stick to Kanto and Johto as far as he was aware.
He wasn't even sure the aforementioned trio were still a part of Team Rocket. They hadn't followed him around in years. It probably got too boring for them when he started staying in the one city.
Which he could understand. He only hoped they were happy doing whatever they were.
Deciding he should scope the area out, he strode towards the door of the pokémon centre and headed in. He noticed many Rocket eyes on him, and he suddenly wished he had a hat that he could hide under. As expected, inside the pokémon centre, an additional two grunts were threatening Nurse Joy. So Ash acted without thinking.
"Hey!" he barked, "Leave Nurse Joy alone!"
Pikachu jumped off of his shoulder, cheeks sparking and ready to go. The grunts turned to face them, their eyes flicking between Ash, his partner and each other.
"Kenan," one of the grunts hissed in a very loud whisper, "That guy's the Kalos Champion!"
"I can see that," Kenan the grunt muttered back.
The grunt's eyes flit between his partner and Ash. Ash almost felt sorry for the guy when he straightened up – he was clearly nervous. "Uh, we're not up to anything weird. We're just getting potions and stuff."
"Kel!" Kenan groaned.
"Shut up!" He pulled a poké ball off of his belt. "Let's take him out ourselves before one of the other grunts does! Then maybe we'll get promoted!"
Finally, Ash thought, breathing a sigh of relief. Their exchange was all too familiar, so Ash felt a little odd interrupting them before they were finished. But now they were aggravating a battle, so he didn't have to hold back.
"Alright Pikachu, use –"
Ash turned to see the same man he'd run into in the resort area walking towards him. "What? How are you –"
The man strolled over casually, wearing a wide smile as if he hadn't interrupted anything serious, and threw an arm over Ash's shoulder. "It's so nice of you to come all the way out 'ere to see yer poor uncle!"
"Just go with it," he hissed in Ash's ear in a very different voice and a very different accent. Ash's eyes widened, and darted towards Pikachu. The mouse had lost his fighting stance and looked just as unsure as he was.
"D-don't mention it," Ash finally managed, eyes darting between Pikachu, the two grunts, and the old man. "It's good to see you again, Uncle…Grey-Beard."
If Ash hadn't been watching him at the moment, he would've missed the man's eye twitch slightly. "Let's head on over ta my jeep so I can drive ya to my cabin that's very far away from 'ere!"
"Righto!" Ash laughed nervously. He held his arm out for his pokémon to jump on. Their captive pulled them out of the centre and into the passenger seat of a jeep, and Ash chose not to struggle – something about the urgency in the man's face told him to avoid making a fuss.
Besides, he looked pretty frail and Ash could probably fight his way out of trouble if he needed to.
It wasn't until they were well on the road that Ash decided to speak up again. "What was that all about?"
"You're smart, Ash," the man replied, in that normal voice of his that Ash now realised was somewhat familiar. He'd definitely met this guy before, and more than once. "I'm sure you can figure something out."
"You're in disguise," Ash stated, and the man nodded.
"Chu-pikachu," Pikachu pointed out, reaching over and tuggling gently at the man's beard, enough to reveal that it was fake.
"Wonderful!" Looker grinned, "You remember me! I was wondering if you would. You have met a lot of people on your travels after all."
"Why'd you pull me away from Team Rocket? They were threatening Nurse Joy!"
"Hardly," Looker snorted. "The Joys in these parts are tougher than they look. She could handle herself if things went sour, and those two were hardly a threat. Besides, she's in on my mission – which you nearly interrupted."
"International Police, remember?"
"I know that, but what kind of mission?"
Ash couldn't tell Looker's expression under all of that hair, but the silence was enough to know that the agent wasn't going to give him any immediate answers. "I'm not sure it's my jurisdiction to tell you."
Ash rolled his eyes. "How is it you could trust me with classified information when I was fourteen but not now?"
"Because this particular mission isn't just an International Police matter."
"Who else is in on it then?" The G-Men?"
"The Sinnoh League."
Ash blinked. How could a league be involved in espionage. Or at least he assumed it was espionage. Either way, it was reasonable to assume that they were trying to take down Team Rocket since he ran into those grunts, and he never knew a pokémon league could be involved in that sort of thing.
"Ah yes," Looker mused, "They don't do that in the Kalos League, do they? You don't generally get involved in regional crime and justice and such."
"It used to be like that ages ago." Pikachu crawled into Ash's lap, and he began to pet the mouse absentmindedly. "And Diantha helped out with Team Flare."
"But now that Greninja of yours has everything covered."
Ash pursed his lips. "We don't have a lot of major crime in Kalos. It's very peaceful."
"Funny, I thought you being a Champion there would change that."
Ash glanced at Looker from the corner of his eye, which the officer apparently noticed because he added, "Not because of how you do you job! It's just that trouble has a knack for following you around. I don't remember many other trainers I've run into more than once, let alone worked with."
Ash didn't have much to say to that. He always attributed the peace to Team Rocket having stopped following him around. He didn't think too much on it either – his journey was over, so he didn't have a lot of opportunities to get into trouble after settling down.
The fact that he managed to get involved in something new almost the minute he started another journey confirmed this much.
"Where are you taking me?"
"To our base."
Ash's eyes widened. He thought Looker would just drop him elsewhere, away from whatever they were doing. He wanted to get involved, of course, but Looker hadn't been forthcoming enough to justify any hope.
The agent chuckled. "C'mon Ash, I practically led you here! I knew this was something you'd want to get involved with, and frankly, we need the extra help."
"So you tricked me?!"
"Of course not! I'm only introducing you to a new possibility. I have a feeling Team Rocket was going to spread out to the rest of the Battle Zone soon enough, so you would have known about it anyway. And you'd more than likely do something reckless. It'll be safer for both of us if we just brought you on the mission."
"You can't just assume –"
"Here we are!" The jeep had arrived before what looked like the slope of a mountain, but as they drove closer, a section of the slope opened to reveal a cave.
Which, admittedly, looked pretty cool.
Looker, Ash and Pikachu got out of the vehicle and made their way through a complicated series of tunnels, all artificially lit and well equipped just like a secret base from the movies would be. Looker kept speaking into a small device until they arrived in a large room, with large screens and people bustling around.
"Am I supposed to be in here?" Ash whispered to Looker.
"Hey, Cynthia!" Looker called, and Ash finally noticed the presence of the Sinnoh Champion at the head of a table in the middle of the room. And she didn't look pleased.
"Ash Ketchum? What are you doing here?" She turned to Looker. "What is he doing here?"
Looker rubbed the back of his neck. "I told you I'd bring you a great trainer, didn't I?"
"Yes, but I assumed you'd find someone heading towards the fight area!"
"I was heading to the fight area." Cynthia turned her glare at Ash, and he flinched. "Uh, I took a sabbatical from the Kalos League."
Cynthia's face relaxed, and she looked much more like the person Ash was used to dealing with. "Well in that case, we could use some help."
Ash crossed his arms. "I don't know how much I can help if I don't know what this mission is about."
Looker and Cynthia swapped a look before the woman nodded to the table, bringing them over. "Team Rocket has set up a base in Stark Mountain, and we think they're responsible for the increased volcanic activity there. They don't know we're watching. They also don't think anyone knows they're there."
"They do now," Looker snorted.
Ash let out a singular, almost hysterical laugh, and immediately regretted it. "Sorry."
"Chu," Pikachu agreed.
Cynthia narrowed her eyes. "But you didn't blow our cover?"
"Nope, took care of that!" Looker snapped his fingers. "They still don't know we've been monitoring them."
"Good." She tapped at her chin. "But this might mean we need to move things forward a little faster."
"If you already know about Team Rocket's base then why don't you just stop them?" Ash asked.
"We think it's a lot bigger than just a base. We think they're mining for something – or searching. We don't have the details."
"If they're searching, it could be for a Magma Stone," Looker added, "But whatever it is, they're not intent on being found. So they won't be pleased to know you've seen them. You would have had to keep a low profile until we shut them down."
Cynthia nodded. "And we don't know how long this will take."
Looker was right. Ash might've been tricked, but he'd been tricked into the right hands – he had already been ready to take on those grunts by himself, as well as any backup around the pokémon centre, and that would've put a giant target on his back. He was too famous to just leave the Battle Zone; he'd have to go into hiding.
But he still did have to get back to Kalos in time.
Finally it came down to Pikachu, but one look told him they were both already on the same page. "My hiatus lasts two months," Ash finally said.
Cynthia smiled gratefully. "We'll see what we can do."